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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

I feel I need to apologise to this blog for neglecting it.

It’s not that I don’t love it, I do, but I’ve been rather tied up with the new one for my Style Notes column (see link above).

Then of course there has been Christmas, not a small distraction, but the main reason was that I’ve had the most peculiar run of fails.

I was about three chapters into the marvellous Freedom by Jonathan Frantzen when my Kindle, containing it, was stolen on an Emirates flight.

When I got home I started The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas in old-style physical book form, but when I was a few pages into the second chapter I lost it, somewhere in the house. I don’t know how it happened but I just can’t find it.

Bloody annoying, as those are two very interesting books.

Next I picked up a volume so grippingly interesting I can’t read it at night. The ideas are so stimulating it keeps me awake. And during this crazy time of year, I just haven’t had any reading time in the day.

It was in the small hours of one of the sleepless nights caused by Book X (I don’t want to reveal what it is until I’ve finished it…) when I had moved to my daughter’s bedroom and put her in with dad, so I could toss and turn without keeping them awake, that I picked up The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

The idea was that reading one my daughter’s books would quickly put me to sleep. Well, I picked the wrong one. I found this tale of plucky little girls pitted against nasty grown ups, in a fictional period of English history (the reign of ‘James III’ when wild wolves roamed Yorkshire), as gripping and exciting as I had when I first read it, aged nine.

The wonderfully vivid atmosphere – be it delicious cosiness, or nail-biting tension – and intensely evocative descriptions of place, gave me exactly the same pleasure as they had on my first reading.

Now I’m going to re-read the sequel.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 8
Recommend to best girlfriend: 8
Recommend to mother: 10
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 1
Recommend to man pal: 5
Recommend to Helen Razer: 0
Read on public transport: 3
Unpleasantness: 0

Monday, December 6, 2010

Comfort and Joy by India Knight

First of all, a small disclaimer. The wonderful India Knight is not a stranger to me.

We inhabit the same milieu, have a million mutual pals and have come to be, largely over the marvel that is Twitter, friends.

We haven’t been to each other’s houses, which is my definition of a proper friend, but I’m sure we will.

Meanwhile, we would hack our way across a cocktail party to greet each other and I was invited to the glorious launch of this book.

But let’s be quite clear, none of the matey matey stuff has any impact on what I say here. I love this book quite separately from liking its author.

In fact, I have such a girl crush on India’s writing, they are pretty much divided into two people in my head, or I would be too shy to speak to her. India my hilarious Twitter pal and India the amazing writer.

So, to the book. It’s not like her first two novels at all. I loved them both – hilarious romps – this is much more measured. I’m sure India wouldn’t mind me saying it doesn’t have a gasp-making cliff hanger plot. It hardly has a plot at all, but it is an immensely satisfying read.

I’d say it is more in the style of my favourite of her books until this one, The Shops, than the novels. That was an immensely elegant book about that art of shopping, this is a novel about the complex emotional landscape of a modern family, told over three Christmases, but the tone is similar. Sophisticated, yet earthy and real.

You live every emotional moment of it with the main character, Clara, as she observes and analyses the patchwork of ex-husbands and inlaws, half sisters, immediate family, friends, waifs and strays, who make up her Christmas landscape. And at the end, you shed a poignant tear.

It is, with great humour and style, an uncompromising appraisal of the ongoing emotional cost of modern marriage – and breaks up – to all involved.

But in the end it is a glorious Christmas carol to the wonderful gift that is family, be they ever so dysfunctional.

A comfort and joy, indeed.

Reading satisfaction: 8
Un-put-downable-ness: 8
Recommend to best girlfriend: 10
Recommend to mother: 10
Recommend to niece: 10
Recommend to gay best friend: 10
Recommend to man pal: 9
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 10
Unpleasantness: 0

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

Gosh, so sorry I’ve left this blog alone for so long.

Between my book tour and all the hoo ha over the end of my column and then starting my new Style Notes blog, I just haven’t had time.

Ah yes, the new blog. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do have a look. It’s at

The idea is that I will post a Style Notes to it each week and if you subscribe (the little button is right at the bottom of the blog), it will land in your in tray each Saturday morning, just like a newspaper plopping through your letterbox.

But obviously better, because it’s free and doesn’t use paper.

Although if you do have any elderly rels or neighbours who used to enjoy my column in that magazine, whatever it was called, and who aren’t on line, do please print out the new online version and give it to them.

I’m also doing an added extra post from the archives mid-week as well, and if you subscribe, that will also just turn up. The miracles of the interweb. I love it more each day.

Especially as I already have subscribers from America, Singapore, Switzerland, Qatar, UK and other farflung spots and none of them could get my column before.

It’s all good.

Now, back to books. The other reason I haven’t blogged on here for ages was that I couldn’t write about the last two books I read because the lovely Jennifer Byrnes invited me to appear on the Christmas special of First Tuesday Book Club, while I was in Sydney last month, and I didn’t want to spoil the show by revealing my thoughts on here.

It has now aired (rather cheekily, considering the first Tuesday of its title isn’t until next week, but whatever…) so for those who didn’t see it here’s what I thought of Carey’s latest.


I love, respect and worship Peter Carey’s writing with an unhealthy fervour (except for the one set in Singapore which I just didn’t get at all). True History of the Kelly Gang is one of my top ten books of all time. Possibly top five actually.

And I can now reveal that I wrote the voice of Theo in my latest book without using any commas, as an homage to the master. There isn’t a single comma in the whole of the Kelly Gang and I wanted to see if I could do it and have it still make sense. I hope I pulled it off.

This book charts the lives of two 18th century men – Parrot, the son of an English printer and Oliver, a French artistocrat – as they career around the world (there are journeys to Australia, as well as the America of the title). The chapters alternate the two voices.

It’s fast-paced, ridiculously broad in its scope and very funny. It’s really a study of the rise of democracy, via a compare and contrast of post-revolutionary France and early independent America, but it’s also a marvellous romp. There’s also some very sexy sex in it. Beautifully done.

But what I really loved about it was its flaws. It’s incredibly flawed. The plot hinges on the most outrageous coincidences – I counted five – and the side trip to Australia, with Joseph Banks, was completely unnecessary, but all of that just made me like it more.

I felt about it, just as I did with Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow: the flaws make it all the more alive and interesting. They make you feel somehow very connected to the great artist at work. And I do believe Peter Cary is a great artist. There are sentences in this book, of such glorious perfection they made me squeal with delight.

It was also the first book I read on my tragically lost Kindle *sobs*. About which more, next time.

PS If you live in Australia I think you can watch the First Tuesday Book Club Christmas special on the ABC iPlayer thingo.

Reading satisfaction: 9.5
Un-put-downable-ness: 8.5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to mother: 8
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 9
Recommend to man pal: 10
Recommend to Helen Razer: 10
Read on public transport: on a Kindle 10, in hardback 0, in paperback 10
Unpleasantness: 0

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thank you

I’m sure there must be a quick way to reply personally to each comment that is left on this blog, but I’ve never been able to find it.

Which is a big fat bore because I would so like to thank each of you separately for the lovely, heart warming, very personal and supportive messages you left beneath my last post. (Cue bugles.)

I keep expecting the morning to dawn – or more like the 4 am high anxiety breathless wake up – when I am consumed with depression over the ending of the column, but so far the black dog has stayed in its kennel.

I’m sure it’s your warm messages that have helped me avoid it.

You hear in the news people going through personal tragedies, saying how cards and notes from strangers keep them going, and now I understand what they mean.

On the scale of what life can throw at you, this is an irritating – and hopefully temporary - career reversal, not a life crisis, and your support has helped me to keep it in that perspective. If it doesn’t sound too cheesy, I feel cocooned in a big fluffy cloud of kindness.

Thank you all so much.

And if anyone can enlighten me how to reply instantly to individual blog comments, please tell.

PS I have added these images in the spirit of that most optimistic of songs 'My Favourite Things'.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The end of my Good Weekend column

What a strange day. Much of it spent feeling like George Clooney (but unfortunately not feeling George Clooney…) in Up in the Air, comparing Qantas lounges around Australia.

They really should put meat pies out.

Then it got even weirder because today was the day that it finally hit the media – via Caroline Overington’s excellent piece on The Australian blog – that my column in Good Weekend is coming to an end after 12 years.

I found out a couple of weeks ago, while I was packing for my two week book tour. My first reaction was to keep it a secret, as though that would somehow make it not true.

But it quickly became slightly surreal to stand at my book events there with audiences telling me my column is the ‘only thing’ they buy the Saturday Sydney Morning Herald/The Age for and knowing it was about to cark it. So it only seemed to right to starting warning them that November 20th is the last one.

I must say the timing is excellent. To be greeted with rooms full of the smiling faces of lovely people – sometimes two different events in a day – who are there because they really like my work is exactly what I needed to get through it.

Mind you, I have been a journalist for thirty years, so I do know how these things work. Also I’ve known since I moved back to the UK to be near my ageing mother (she’s 88) that I was probably on borrowed time and I’m proud that I managed to get 600 of them out before the axe fell.

So I’ve taken it on the chin. And I didn’t shed a tear until the beautiful tweets and blog comments started rolling in today. Here are a selection:

Dear Maggie,
I've just read on Girl With A Satchel (via your Twitter feed) that the Good Weekend column is about to come to a full stop. How sad. I love your column, it's one of the first things I read, and I read it aloud to 'my other half' in bed, either on Saturday night or Sunday morning. Regret that I couldn't get one of your book events. I look forward to reading you where and when I can.

@milijana_: nooooo :( what will I have to look forward to on Saturdays :(

@pruereid: I just read the Aust. blog, even sadder now that I realise it wasn't ending by your choice, 3 generations of my family will be too!

@batrock: I actually had one of your columns in either my HSC or trial HSC English exam - I had already read the column so I did pretty well!

@alice_elizabeth: I'm devastated to hear this Maggie. Your Style Notes opened my world to so much more than the small town I lived in as a teenager.

@stolenredbasket: No! This isn't true? I quoted your column for my high-school yearbook 'Whoever said the right pair of shoes can't change your life'

@fashion_hayley: No reason to buy the paper on Saturday's without my favourite column by
@MaggieA there to greet me

@jules_stonesoup: it’s the only reason I buy the weekend paper RT @Reemski: @MaggieA end of your column?? WTF??

@BeeDreams: I am gutted that @MaggieA Will no longer grace the pages of the GW- and who gives a shit where she lives? She's great- booooooo to you GW!

So I had a little weep when I read those, but they were such a comfort. Thank you so much. Then I put on a pair of truly fabulous high heels (see photo above) and headed off to my Canberra book event.

One lovely young woman said that she couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t read my column. Then another told me her mother has recently died, aged 93. In her last few months she couldn’t see well and each Saturday she asked for my column to be read to her.

When she died they read one out at the funeral. It was ‘If The Shoe Fits’, which I think is in one of the books. So that set me off welling up again. I think it’s one of the most touching things that has ever happened to me. Another lady brought me a beautiful bunch of roses from her own garden.

I feel very blessed to be so appreciated, but now is the time for the end to my sadness and the seizing of the opportunity. I may be absent from the pages of Good Weekend, but I have no intention of disappearing from your lives. Oh no.

There will be a much improved website (the current one is in limbo) and two more blogs, which I have been planning for some time. Please follow me on Twitter @MaggieA for news on those.

And if anyone out there needs a columnist who comes with thousands of truly gorgeous, bright, funny, stylish readers of all ages and both sexes – gun for hire.

One last thing. If my columns do end up being available only on line, I feel it is an act of apartheid against my loyal readers who aren’t internet attached, which tends to be the older ones.

I have so enjoyed the letters I’ve received from this group – men and women - over the years, so I have a request. If any of you have older rels or friends, would you please print out my column and give it to them each week?

With much love

Maggie xxx

Thursday, October 14, 2010

SHALL WE DANCE? by Maggie Alderson

Dress? Check. Shoes? Check. Several other dresses? Check. Blow dry appointment? Check. Extra shoes? Yes.

OK, I’m ready for my book launch.

My new novel Shall We Dance? is in the shops in Australia. How did that happen?

It seems only a minute ago that I was the only person on earth who knew who Loulou and Theo and Chard and Marc were and now I am getting lovely tweets from people telling me they are reading about them in the hairdressers and on the bus.

It's also great to get tweets from some Twitterers I will be meeting over the next few weeks at the various events I’m going to be doing around Australia. I love putting real human faces to Twitter tags.

Here is where I’m going to be to have a chat, answer questions and sign books. Please come along because a) being alone at a book signing is every editor's worst nightmare and b)I would love to meet you.

My new book is set in a vintage store, so one of the things I will talk about is the joy of vintage clothes and accessories – so please bring some of your favourites along to show me.

Tuesday October 26th
Ariel Books, 42 Oxford Street.

Wednesday October 27th
Readings, Hawthron

Thursday October 28th
Mary Ryan’s book shop, 40 Park Road, Milton.

Friday October 29th
Sheraton Hotel, hosted by Mary Ryan’s, Noosa
This one is ‘cocktails’ yee haw!

Wednesday November 3rd
Adelaide Library, 176 Tynte Street, North Adelaide
Hosted by Dymocks
10.30 am

Collins book shop, 2/260 Main North Road, Clare
6 pm

Thursday November 4th
Woden Library, Corinna Street, Phillip
Hosted by Dymocks
5.30 pm

Friday November 5th
Reef Restaurant, Terrigal
10.30 am for morning tea (snacks, hurrah!)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

THE KINDLE by Amazon

After months of prevaricating – Kindle? Sony? iPad? books? - I have finally ordered a Kindle.

I asked the wonderful Twitterverse for its advice and the Kindle was the overwhelmingly preferred device.

I also asked a man I saw reading one on the train yesterday if he was happy with his gadget and he was very enthusiastic about it, saying he was reading a lot more since he’d bought it.

Glancing at the huge tote bag on the seat next to me, containing the hulking great hardback (a Booker prize nominee, so not available as a paperback for a whole year…) which I have to read for work by next week, and my mind was made up.

One click this morning and I am £149 poorer – and keenly anticipating the postman.

Apart from the portability – and with three weeks work travel coming up, that is very attractive – the other thing which convinced me finally to get an electronic reader is comfort of reading.

I like to read in bed, lying on my side, and with a great big hardback, it’s just not comfortable. There are wrist issues and I need my wrists for typing. With a Kindle, all books will be rendered equally readable, no matter where they sit in the publishing hierarchy.

I will also be able to manipulate the font size, another issue that has seriously affected my reading pleasure this year.

I keenly ordered a book people had been raving about on Twitter, only to discover the type was just too small for me to read without glasses – and it’s completely impossible to read in bed lying on your side wearing specs. I tried.

So rather than being the death of books and publishing, I’m hoping my Kindle will solve all these problems and have me reading more. I’ll let you know how I get on with it.

And the Diane von Furstenberg limited edition cover that was also accidentally purchased…

Friday, October 8, 2010

Wait For Me! by Deborah Devonshire

To my very great surprise this is a fail. I’m hoping only a temporary one.

I’d like to think I will finish it one day and that my decision to put it down half way through (she’s not even Duchess yet…) has been hastened by the book I have waiting next in line.

(It’s a cracker, just too tempting, sitting there by the bed, and I’m desperate to get stuck into it.)

It’s not that Wait For Me! is boring – it’s just that so far I have known all the best bits, described so hilariously by Debo’s big sister Nancy Mitford in her novels The Pursuit of Love and Love In a Cold Climate.

And the less good bits – the family’s close pre-war friendship with Hitler – has always been offputting in the extreme. Although I must say that Debo is wonderfully frank and level-headed about all that.

There are some new gems to savour, such as her father – Farve, better known as Uncle Matthew in Nancy’s books – calling his last cup of cold coffee, which he liked to take off to his study, ‘my suckments’.

One morning a new maid cleared them away before he’d had a chance to take them out of the dining room. ‘Some monkey’s orphan has stolen my suckments!’ he roared.

From that day on he kept the cup in his safe until the moment of perfect drinking.

Also, to be fair to Debo, she has always maintained that she is the quiet Mitford, preferring wild flowers and poultry to the extreme politics and sparkling society (meaning mostly gay society, in Nancy’s case) that her sisters were so drawn to.

I will finish it. My devotion to Nancy Mitford borders on a cult. I have several shrines to her in my home and office and the least I can do is finish her baby sister’s memoir.

And considering I drove an hour and a half from my mother’s house to Chatsworth especially to get hold of a signed copy, it would be crazy not to.

Just not at the moment.

Debo, aged 20, in 1940. So beautiful and doing what she likes best.

Reading satisfaction: 5
Un-put-downable-ness: 5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 8
Recommend to mother: 10
Recommend to niece: 8
Recommend to gay best friend: 6
Recommend to man pal: 7
Recommend to Helen Razer: 0
Read on public transport: 7
Unpleasantness: 0

Thursday, September 23, 2010


To give the full title:

Oh. My. God. This is so wonderful I can hardly find words, so I’ll start with context. My niece Katy told me about it, after she saw it on India Knight’s blog (see list of blogs I follow, although I clearly wasn’t that day).

So what’s so amazing? Everything, not least that it is a totally new idea. It’s the entire story of a four-year relationship between two New York creative media coolsters (a food writer on the New York Times and a freelance travel photographer), told through an illustrated auction catalogue. The glossy kind that Sotheby’s and Christies do, with lots of photographs of objects and concise captions in a very flat and restrained formal style.

It starts with the invitation to the Halloween party where they met and continues on through print outs of emails, snapshots, clothes, postcards and other personal artifacts, which tell you with great subtlety absolutely everything about them and their relationship.

I love the idea of it, I love how brilliantly she’s done it – and I love the style of their romance, which is so redolent of my first marriage, it was really quite spooky.

The last book I blogged about made me uncomfortable it was so close to home at times; this one got much closer, but made me smile about it.

The Joni Mitchell lyrics, the Smythson diaries, the Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul, the beach house at Orient Point, Long Island – there are so many chimes of my own life in this book, it was insane and delicious. I had read just about every book featured in it.

I felt like it had been written just for me and I think anyone from the world’s collective creative milieu would feel the same.

It speaks to the global tribe which shops in flea markets and Prada with equal glee, considers certain books to be close personal friends, collects images and quirky objects like precious gems, travels rather than holidays, and actively prefers used things for their soul.

But while it is a beautiful object in its own right, made with exquisite taste, it’s not just an exercise in style. Towards the end, there’s a letter from the heroine’s sister which contains great wisdom about relationships:

‘I used to talk about how I pitied the boring couples who never experienced any of our highs and lows, but I decided it’s hard to get things done with the highs and lows. You spend a lot of time avoiding life…. It has nothing to do with happy.’

Amen to that.

Reading satisfaction: 9
Un-put-downable-ness: 8.5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 10
Recommend to mother: 3
Recommend to niece: 10 (one of them recommended it to me…)
Recommend to gay best friend: 9
Recommend to man pal: 9
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 0 (too big)
Unpleasantness: 0

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

ONE DAY by David Nicholls

I fell in and out of love with this book constantly while I was reading it. Almost as often as the two main characters do with each other.

I’ve been trying to analyse why I started out feeling slightly antagonistic towards it and have concluded the banner quotes from Nick Hornby ('Big, absorbing, smart...') on one edition and Tony Parsons on another (‘A totally brilliant book.’) didn’t help.

I was already nurturing an unattractive (and I hope uncharacteristic) bitterness about it being yet another work of light modern relationship fiction being taken seriously (hardback, if you don’t mind…) because it was by a man, which would be dismissed as chick lit if it were by a Davina Nicholls.

As one the great luminaries of that genre (Mr Hornby being the Imperial Wizard thereof) Tony’s blessing was the last straw. *

Twisted by such rancour, I convinced myself as I read that the author was a smug long-time contributor to GQ and other such manly mags and his hyper real description of the decadent media whirl in London in the 1990s was pretty much autobiographical.

So I felt pretty stupid when I actually took the time to Google him and find out that David Nicholls is actually a pretty serious actor, playwright and screenplay dude. He’s adapted Thomas Hardy for the telly. I gave myself a talking to and read on.

If I found some of his descriptions of that particular milieu in that particular era a little too close for comfort, that’s my problem, not his. And there were several moments in the book where I gasped, he nailed particular situations so perfectly.

Sometimes I laughed out loud, at others tears pricked my eyes. Some of the times past evoked were a little painful to revisit.

There were passages, however, when I found the forensic accuracy of the rendering of earlier decades made it read more like journalism than fiction.

But once I knew he never had been a regular contributor to the Sunday Times Style section, or a columnist on Arena, I got over that. And, I’m happy to say, over myself. Then I could just enjoy a ripping good love story.

What Nicholls has done here is to serve up in its entirety the emotional journey, from university graduation to middle age, of his generation – just five years younger than mine, and close enough to be entirely recognisable.

It’s The Glittering Prizes of Generation X, really, and I hope he writes a sequel in twenty years time. Which I promise I will approach with my prejudices on hold.

* I’ve got a bit of history with Mr Parsons. I’ll write about it in my next post.

Reading satisfaction: 6
Un-put-downable-ness: 6
Recommend to best girlfriend: 8
Recommend to mother: 3
Recommend to niece: 10
Recommend to gay best friend: 8
Recommend to man pal: 6
Recommend to Helen Razer: 5
Read on public transport: 5
Unpleasantness: 0

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

THE FAIRY CARAVAN by Beatrix Potter

I picked up this book – the first novel length Beatrix Potter I’ve ever seen – at a car boot sale.

Although it was a lovely old hardback and only £1, I nearly didn’t buy it, as I thought it would be just another book to clutter up the house and remind me of how my daughter doesn’t read.

But it just might turn out to be the breakthrough book.

It’s certainly the first time I’ve ever known her ask for the same book at bedtime night after night – admittedly with me reading, but at least it has sustained her interest – and one morning she even brought it out to the car and read it all the way to school.

So what is it about a book first published in 1929 that has captured her imagination more than any of the ‘cool’ contemporary chapter books I have tried to tempt her with?

The answer is simple: beautiful prose.

No exclamation marks, no ‘zany’ type, just elegant, measured, economical English. For example:

‘Next morning at daybreak a crowd of guinea-pigs collected on Tuppeny’s doorstep. More and more arrived until Mrs. Tuppeny came out with a scrubbing brush and a pail of water. In reply to inquiries from a respectful distance, she said that Tuppeny had had a disturbed night. Further she would not say, except that he was unable to keep on his nightcap. No more could be ascertained, until, providentially, Mrs. Tuppeny discovered that she nothing for breakfast. She went out to buy a carrot.’

At first I thought words like ‘ascertained’ and ‘providentially’ would put a 21st century eight-year old off, but far from it. She loved the book from its first sentence and I’ve hardly had to explain anything: the gold standard of good writing.

Which has me thinking that we are doing our children no favours with ‘modern’ books which feature farting jokes and other *kraziness*. Children respond to good writing just as adults do.

This idea was supported when, during bedtime chats last night, she asked me if I knew a hymn which had something in it about ancient feet and a holy lamb. It stumped me for a moment, but then I started to sing ‘Jerusalem’ and she joined in enthusiastically.

She’d heard for the first time at school that morning and declared it is now officially her ‘favourite hymn of all time’. We went over the words repeatedly until she was satisfied she knew them.

She loved the idea of her sword not sleeping in her hand and having a chariot of fire of her very own, just as much as I do.

So an eight-year old who has never read a book on her own can be profoundly moved by the words of William Blake. I find that intensely encouraging.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 4
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to mother: 9
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 0
Recommend to man pal: 4
Recommend to Helen Razer: 0
Read on public transport: 2
Unpleasantness: 0

Sunday, September 12, 2010

EUCALYPTUS by Murray Bail

What an extraordinary book. It’s been on my bookshelves for the twelve years since it came out and there was so much fuss about it, and now I can see what they were all going on about.

It’s not like anything else I’ve ever read.

The basic concept is simple: a man’s wife dies and he moves to a large property in rural Australia with their astonishingly beautiful daughter. He’s obsessed with eucalyptus trees and makes it his life’s work to have a specimen of every variety – 600 plus of them – growing on his land.

His daughter grows up and he declares that the man who can name every tree correctly can have her hand in marriage.

So it’s not what you would call social realism, but it’s not quite magical realism either. The closest thing I could think to it is 1001 Nights, as the larger narrative is broken up with an endless trail of tiny meaningful stories, which Bail delivers via several different characters.

At first it made me a bit cross. There’s no single narrator and at times Bail’s own voice seems to loom into earshot. I didn’t know where to put it all in my head. I couldn’t see the point of it. But by the end I absolutely loved it for being impossible to categorise.

I’d also decided it was one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read. But nothing sappy, a wonderfully gruff Australian version of big sweeping love. It’s the romance of flaking sun-bleached paint, curled up fence wire and corrugated iron roofs.

A taciturn romance made all the more poignant by the harshness of the environment - and the insane ludicrousness of the main storyline.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 3
Recommend to best girlfriend: 7
Recommend to mother: 5
Recommend to niece: 7
Recommend to gay best friend: 7
Recommend to man pal: 6
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 9
Unpleasantness: 0

Sunday, August 22, 2010

THE LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver

This book is the reason there was a bit of a long lull between posts recently. I was trying to see if I could finish it, but I can’t.

I should have known it was going to be a fail when I was about one third of the way through and deliberately left it at home when I went on holiday. I picked it up when I came back, but still it failed to excite me.

I’m bewildered about that.

I love Barbara Kingsolver. The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favourite ever reads and while none of the other novels I’ve read were as grand in their sweep as that, I found them all immensely enjoyable.

This one bored me from the get go. Right there on the fourth page of text is a flowery description of fishes on a coral reef which had me rolling my eyes. I’ve always loved the strong presence of nature in Kingsolver’s other books, but in this one it seemed forced and overly description-y.

I soldiered on and started to find her main character as likeable as they always are, but the narrative remained uncompelling to me. It plods along in a straight timeline, with very little entwined around it. Then he did this and then this happened so he did that…

And perhaps because I always enjoy Kingsolver’s characters so much, I found the presence of Frieda Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky in the book clunky. Rather than adding richness to the scenario they seemed to make it cartoon like.

It certainly doesn’t add tension having real people in fiction, as you already know how it ends with them. In Trotsky’s case that only requires a passing familiarity with the lyrics of The Stranglers.

I’m gutted that I could I be so unenchanted by a book by one of my favourite authors, which has garnered rapturous reviews and won awards (the Orange Prize, no less) and fear the failing is all mine.

So, any of you who have read it tell me this: I’m three quarters of the way through. If I keep on to the end, will it all become clear to me?

(No scores as I haven't finished it - yet.)

PS In a sweet moment of synchronicity, the day after I posted the above my lovely Twitter pal @randallwrites (Lee Randall - who writes brainy stuff for The Scotsman newspaper) posted a link to her new interview with Barbara Kingsolver about this book.

It explains the genesis of the book very interestingly, although I'm still not sure it's going to enable me to be gripped by it. Take a look:

Friday, August 20, 2010

THE BOOKSHOP by Penelope Fitzgerald

I can’t remember where, why or when I bought this book, but I’m awfully glad I did.

I found it recently while browsing in the piles of the great unread which teeter under my bedside table and woofed it up in a day.

I can see why it was nominated for the Booker Prize.

It’s a very slim volume – 156 pages of widely-spaced lines – but packed with insight. Maybe that’s because Ms Fitzgerald was a late arrival at the literary ball, like the last author I read, Mary Wesley.

Fitzgerald published her first novel at 60, after a career that started at Somerville College, Oxford and then spanned the BBC, editing a literary journal, teaching and running a bookshop. Presumably the inspiration for this novel.

It’s packed with satisfying characters and, unlike my most recent Elizabeth Taylor outing (A View of the Harbour), I found them all equally believable and enjoyable. One of my favourites was a 10-year old girl. Another, an old man who runs cattle on the marshes.

Several of the people are marvellously horrid. One of them actively, from vanity and self-importance, others from laziness, frustration and general weakness. One is very good, but hopelessly ineffectual. I found all that very much like my experience of real life.

It’s an oddly unredemptive story, which did make me slightly wonder what point she was making. Perhaps just that bad things happen to good people?

Or to show how one really unpleasant person can be given enormous power by lots of people not bothering to do very small things which could prevent it.

Which is, I suppose, a metaphor for the whole great wide world.

As well as the people, I very much enjoyed the setting of the book, a bleak little village in East Anglia, which is so vividly portrayed, the weather and the topography of the location become characters in themselves.

I look forward to reading more books by Penelope Fitzgerald, but for now, I really want to find something to read which isn’t about middle-aged middle-class English women.

Suggestions gratefully received.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 10
Recommend to mother: 10
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 7
Recommend to man pal: 5
Recommend to Helen Razer: 8
Read on public transport: 10
Unpleasantness: 0

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A SENSIBLE LIFE by Mary Wesley

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again: I get really cross when authors rely on coincidence to bring their plots together.

And it’s amazing how many serious literary names do it.

Edith Wharton has ridiculous chance meetings in The House of Mirth and I remember being incredulous that Jay McInerney – a writer I love – used coincidences so lazily in The Good Life.

I have put one chance meeting in my new novel, but only after a lot of agonised consideration. In the end I left it in as it is the kind of coincidence that we have all experienced – bumping into a friend unexpectedly – and it is absolutely not germane to the plot. It’s just an amusing incident that allows greater insight into one particular character.

So it was very disappointing that this novel – which starts really marvellously – relies on no fewer than three ridiculous chance meetings, one of them hilariously unlikely, and a far-fetched coincidence of place, to bring it to a ludicrous close.

I can’t understand why the author’s editor allowed her to do it to herself. Mary Wesley is better than that.

I remember so clearly when she burst onto the scene in the early 1980s. An instant literary sensation, publishing her first book at the age of 71, she was an inspiration to everyone who dreamed they might write a novel one day. Which included me at that stage.

I loved Jumping the Queue and The Camomile Lawn, so when I stumbled on this one in my mother’s study, in search of something to read, I was delighted to be dipping back into Wesley again.

I really loved the first three quarters of it, particularly the opening section, which is set in Normandy in the 1920s, where a lot of English families are gathered on holiday.

It’s a really vivid evocation of the period, combined with the universal experiences of adolescent angst and first love. There are also some wonderfully believable hateable characters, particularly the narcissistic parents of the little girl who is the main focus of the book.

Their blithe way of making sure that having a daughter impacts as little as possible on their own self-indulgent lifestyle rang true with many modern parents I have observed.

So I recommend the book for this early section alone, but with a warning that it has one of the most laughable endings I have ever read in a novel. The scores below reflect this. Had it ended properly it would have had the first number.

Reading satisfaction: 8/3
Un-put-downable-ness: 7/5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9/5
Recommend to mother: 9/8
Recommend to niece: 7/4
Recommend to gay best friend: 5/3
Recommend to man pal: 0/0
Recommend to Helen Razer: 0/0
Read on public transport: 4/4
Unpleasantness: 0

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A VIEW OF THE HARBOUR by Elizabeth Taylor

My great holiday reading treat was to allow myself another taste of my new favourite author. My third.

I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the first two and think I may have come into her oeuvre at the top by reading In A Summer Season first.

I’ve read it twice now and it has taken its place in my personal Top 100 Favourite Novels. It’s a miniature masterpiece.

This one follows her format of an omniscient point of view of a small group of people over a relatively short period of time, so that you see each moment through the eyes and feelings of each person involved in it. It makes me wish you could live like that in real life.

As usual the main focus is a middle-class English family, in the post-war period, but there were some peripheral characters in this one, which didn’t ring as true to me as I expect from this author.

I have never liked all her characters – but that’s precisely what makes her writing so vivid. You see their flaws, but also experience their feelings, which makes it impossible entirely to despise anyone. The empathy is written in.

A bonus of this volume is an introduction by another writer I admire, Sarah Waters, another massive E. Taylor fan. She says it’s her favourite - and she particularly enjoys the characters I didn’t, so there you go.

One thing she said that did really resonate with me though, is that she believes the reason Elizabeth Taylor – the novelist - isn’t better known, is because of the coincidence of her name with the other Elizabeth Taylor, the film star.

I think that’s a very good and interesting theory – and please help me to turn it round, by reading her novels and telling everyone you know how good they are.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 7
Recommend to best girlfriend: 8
Recommend to mother: 9
Recommend to niece: 8
Recommend to gay best friend: 7
Recommend to man pal: 5
Recommend to Helen Razer: 5
Read on public transport: 9
Unpleasantness: 0

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


I picked up this classic espionage thriller genre after having a dream that I wrote a book in that genre. This was inspired entirely by the thrilling recent news story of that young Russian spy Anna Chapman

I was gripped by all that, thinking she was just like a character from one of my books, who happened to become a spy. My subconscious clearly jumped aboard this notion and I dreamed a whole plot along those lines.

The next morning I wondered whether I shouldn’t perhaps write it, so thought I would take a look at the most famous work of the acknowledged master of the spy thriller. I was further encouraged by seeing that the book is one of Time magazine’s 100 Best Novels.

The cover also boasted a – characteristically economical – quote from one of my favourite authors, Graham Greene: ‘The best spy story I have ever read.’

His book The Quiet American would still be my vote for that title, but I did read this one with interest.

Le Carré’s tense, cool style is compelling and enjoyably male. I was also relieved that I found the machinations of the plot very easy to follow – which is all down to the intelligence of the author, not the reader.

But do I think it deserves to be on Time’s list? Not so sure. I found it as much of a period piece as the Edith Wharton I read just before it, and the Cold War paranoia in every sentence seems slightly hysterical with the hindsight perspective of nearly 50 years of subsequent events (the book was published in 1963).

Le Carré’s portrayal of all Communist party functionaries as brain-washed psychopaths, who are using that dogma as a way of amassing personal power, rather than because they might have believed in it as a way of creating a fairer society, made it seem rather one-dimensional.

The main baddy – the really sadistic psycho Commie – is actually a Jew-hating former Nazi, which I found quite hilarious. The underlying message being that Communists are actually just more of the same old evil fascists in different uniforms.

That hints to me that Le Carré was just as brainwashed in the other direction as his Commie characters and reminded me uncomfortably of McCarthy era paranoia.

What’s really scary to me is how deep that fear still runs in America’s psyche. It’s what made ordinary working Americans protest against having a fairer new state-subsidised health care system. That’s how frightened they still are of anything that even hints at – whisper it – socialism,

Of course, Communism didn’t work – although of course it depends how you measure it. Communist Cuba has the highest literacy rate in the world. The people don’t have much to eat, but they can all read War and Peace while they don’t eat it.

That aside, Communism didn’t work because human nature won out. I believe it comes down to the most basic survival instinct: the individual triumphs over the notion of the mass.

And although I’m a fervent fan of government-funded health care and education systems, I’m very glad I never had to live under Communism to enjoy them. At least in a Capitalist state you don’t have to pretend you’re not following your genetic prerogative.

But I do ask myself, while they might have jeans, biros and even McDonalds on tap now, are the ordinary people of Russia really better off now a new superrich elite has replaced the Communist party?

An elite very similar to the one the Communists threw out in 1916, except they’ve amassed the cash by all means necessary, rather than inheriting it.

Anyway, I'm going on a bit, but I do wonder what Mr le Carré thinks about all that. I'll have to read read one of his more recent books to find out. And perhaps he'll be inspired to write one about Anna Chapman.

Reading satisfaction: 5
Un-put-downable-ness: 5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 3
Recommend to mother: 7
Recommend to niece: 5
Recommend to gay best friend: 0
Recommend to man pal: 10
Recommend to Helen Razer: 0
Read on public transport: 5
Unpleasantness: 4
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Sunday, August 1, 2010

THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett

When I was a little girl in the early 1960s I used to watch a television programme with my granny called 'The Black and White Minstrel Show'.

It consisted of a large chorus of male dancers done up in black face make up with big painted on white lips and eye-holes, and cropped black afro-style wigs. There would be a big line of them in matching suits, bow ties, white gloves and boaters.

Even as a child of five I thought it was weird, but at the time nobody could see anything wrong with it. It was a prime time show on Saturday nights.

The blacked-up men would do their odd synchronised dances in long rows, like legions of golliwogs, doing jazz hands, then Kathy Kirby would come on and sing in a lovely sparkly gown and my granny enjoyed it all as an entertainment in the music hall tradition.

I haven’t thought of it for years – until this book reminded me.

The author is a white woman – from Mississippi – who has written two thirds of The Help in the voices of two black women, who were maids in Jackson, Mississippi, back in the early 1960s, right when I was watching that terrible television show. And when a black man would still be lynched down there, for using a lavatory reserved for white people.

The book may be her attempt to redress some of the wrongs of that terrible time in American history, when the South lived under brutal apartheid law, but as far as I’m concerned, she’s written it in black face.

How dare she?

It’s a huge bestseller – two million copies and counting – and it has had rave reviews everywhere. Am I really the only person to be outraged by her profiting from the hardships of another race? And using their voices to do it?

I must stop and say here that it’s a wonderful, riveting read. Stockett writes beautifully, her white characters are brilliant (especially the really nasty one) and it’s grippingly interesting to have insight into just how badly black maids – the ‘help’ of the title – were treated by their white employees.

I just hate her writing in their voices.

Her heart is clearly in the right place – she grew up in Mississippi, raised herself by a black maid, who it seems was more of a mother to her than her real mother – I get all that and I admire it. But she really loses me because the person who helps the black maids in this book move on from their oppression is, guess who? A white woman.

Maybe I am more alert to all this than I might have been because a couple of weeks ago I heard a very interesting programme on BBC Radio 4 discussing that most famous novel of southern US race relations, To Kill A Mockingbird, which was published fifty years ago this year.

To my surprise most of the commentators on the show – all serious academics - were quite critical of the book, saying they found the portrayal of the black character, Tom Robinson, patronising and archetypical.

I listened in disappointment – this was one of my all-time favourite books they were dissing. Then it gradually came out that the majority of the contributors to the programme were of British Afro Caribbean descent i.e. black.

They were prepared to acknowledge that the book was very much of its time and to make allowances for that – much as I did about the grotesque anti-Semitism in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth - but their consensus was that over the long view, while not the author’s fault, those outdated attitudes lessened the ongoing worth of the book.

I felt sad about To Kill a Mockingbird, but by the end of the discussion I could see their point – so that made it all the more shocking that Ms Stockett has up and done exactly the same thing in the here and now. Written a patronising white woman’s view of dem down home black folk.

When there is a black president in the goddam White House.

To put it in another context, this book is the equivalent of me – a white English woman - writing about the systematic extermination of aboriginal people in Tasmania by the British invaders, using the voices of two aboriginal woman. I wouldn’t bloody dream of it.

I carry the race shame of what my forebears did – and I would not insult the victims of it further, by writing a make-it-better book in their voices (perhaps with a lovably wayward aristocratic British woman as the one who helps them…).

Stockett even knows it was wrong herself. There is a little apologia at the back of the book, entitled 'Too Little, Too Late', where she writes about the childhood experiences in Mississippi that inspired the book, and then says this:

‘I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person.’

And then: ‘What I am sure about is this: I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s.’

So she knows it’s wrong – and she did it anyway.

Read it if you want to – you will enjoy it - but ask yourself what Michelle Obama would think about this book. And then, if you want to know how a real black American woman feels about things, read some Toni Morrison.

Reading satisfaction: 8 and also 1
Un-put-downable-ness: 8
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9 (because I want to discuss it with her)
Recommend to mother: 9 (ditto)
Recommend to niece: 9 (as above)
Recommend to gay best friend: 9 (same)
Recommend to man pal: 3
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9 (as previous)
Read on public transport: 0
Unpleasantness: 2

Thursday, July 29, 2010

THE HOUSE OF MIRTH by Edith Wharton

Whew, it's been a while. I've been on hols in Corsica for two weeks and this is the first of the books I read there.

How appropriate that I should have finished it after an afternoon shamelessly goggling the enormous yachts and gin palaces moored at the nearby resort of Bonifacio. Or rather, the people on them.

We are talking vessels of P Diddy bling. Four-storey gleaming white crates with phalanxes of tanned and orthodontically perfect crew wearing crisp white polo shirts and khaki shorts.

One of the biggest boats had two launches, a speed boat, various jet skis and a racing yacht attached to its side. And a helipad, of course.

Far more chic to my eye, were the two-masted schooners, especially the one with bleached teak decks, scattered artlessly with greige linen cushions. Even its wheel was a thing of perfect beauty. I stood looking at that boat for some time, imagining the life it was part of. My, she was yar.

What made the scene particularly interesting to me though, is that Bonifacio isn’t an obvious spot for this kind of display. I’m sure Diddy has never moored there. Nor Abramovich.

An ancient citadel perched perilously on a cliff top at the very southern tip of the island, just 14 k of azure Mediterranean water from Sardinia, it has some charming bars, souvenirs shops and ice cream cafes along the harbourside, but no branches of Prada or Graaft.

It would thus be the destination of the more discerning billionaire who understands the code of discreet and degagé chic. More likely to shop at Loro Piana than Louis Vuitton.

I have no idea who any of these blingy boat people were, but my husband was very excited to spot one of his sporting heroes Fabrizio Ravinelli, formerly of Juventas, Middlesborough and the Italian national football team, strolling along the quay. I was more interested in a young woman of ridiculous beauty wearing a sportif ensemble I happen to know was by Versace.

It was all I could do not to follow her like a dog trailing after a string of sausages, just so I could gaze longer on the smooth brown skin of her ridiculously long slim legs. She was like a creature from another species. I wanted to study her.

But the most interesting group of all were the boat owners. I spotted three of them and to a man, they were short, fat, old, red and very very cross.

On the rear decks of their respective boats they were each remonstrating with a young, beautiful, tall, brown, smiling member of their staff, clearly used to dealing with the old man’s dyspeptic rages. Yessir, right away, sir.

In short, they were exactly like the super rich men in Edith Wharton’s so precisely observed New York society of 1905.

And that young woman I saw, bowling along the quay in her tree frog green silk jersey mini skirt and perfectly flat sandals, could have been Miss Lily Bart, the book’s beauteous heroine.

Like the characters of the book these are people who understand the very specific nuances of clothing, status symbols and deportment. Haute semiotics. And just like Wharton’s rich people, while having it all, the ones at Bonifacio didn’t look particularly happy, although Miss Legs did a fine line in laughing over her shoulder with advanced hair tossing.

I’m reluctant to say too much more about The House of Mirth, for fear of giving away the story – as the back cover of the Penguin Classic edition I read so infuriatingly did so if you get the same edition, don’t look at it. (It also has the most cringe-making and sometimes inaccurate footnotes: ‘Marrons Glacés – chestnut sherbert.’ Er, not.)

Yet despite these and other irritants, I loved this book. Couldn’t put it down, felt enriched by it, drove my family nuts by constantly disappearing to read it.

The heroine is maddening at times, to a Thomas Hardy level – no! don’t do that, you stupid woman! noooo! – but Wharton’s forensic dissection of the myriad forms of human moral weakness is as satisfying as the outcomes of them are tragic.

But there are some deeper flaws. Part of the storyline hinges on the most vile anti-Semitism, voiced equally by the characters and the author, to the point where for a moment I wondered if I could read on.

Again and again Wharton ascribes unappealing tendencies to a particular character – the Jew - as ‘typical of his race’. It was so offensive it was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over your head.

I mightn’t have minded so much if it were the characters that said these things, but over and over again it was Wharton herself.

I kept telling myself it was ‘the times’ she lived in, but knowing that the book was published just 34 years before the outbreak of WW2, didn’t make that much of a comfort, but I needed to know how it ended so I read on.

The annoying jacket describes it as a ‘black comedy’, but I think I must have missed the funny bits. I found it terribly sad.

And what you are left with is such an incredibly vivid insight into the constraints women lived within when they were still economically reliant on men, I think all girls should be forced to read it before their eighteenth birthdays. Freedom from all that is still so recent.

It’s also a perfectly preserved-in-amber portrait of an apparently lost world of privilege and pecking order - which my time on the quay in Bonifacio confirmed actually still exists 100 years later, just with a different set of codes to manipulate, exploit and breach.

And much shorter skirts.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 8.5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to mother: 9
Recommend to niece: 10
Recommend to gay best friend: 8
Recommend to man pal: 7
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 10
Unpleasantness: 6

Thursday, July 1, 2010


In just over a week I’m off for a Proper Holiday. Well, I hope it will be that, which for me means days and days lying on a sunlounger reading. So it’s crucial to take the right books.
My benchmark for holiday reading satisfaction is a camping trip I went on with my best friend when I was 17. I packed six classic early 20th century novels, enriching my mind more in that single fortnight than in years of education.

It was a wonderful experience, like going to an ashram of reading. Total immersion. I can still remember exactly what I read:

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
1984, George Orwell
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Scoop, Evelyn Waugh
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Quiet American, Graham Greene

What a glorious orgy. And I know exactly how I assembled the list – trawling through the family bookcases.

We have a collective fetish for Penguin books, as a result of my maternal grandfather buying them all, literally, from book one. So we grew up surrounded by orange spines, and by the time I was 17, the house was simply stuffed with paperbacks from the Penguin stable.

The association had been deepened by my sister winning a Penguin Classics competition to name the 100 most important books of all time. The prize was a copy of each of them.

Then, when I was ten, I won a Puffin Club competition and got to spend a week with fellow bookworms in a country house in the Malvern Hill, meeting famous children’s authors – and the great Kay Webbe herself. Probably the most important week of my life.

With a little diverted to Barbie clothes, I spent all my pocket money extending my own library of books, which had to be Puffins. It hated having to buy Methuen to add Winnie the Pooh to my collection.

We were brand-obsessed before marketing had been properly invented. (So imagine the collective family satisfaction when I came to be published by them… I could feel my late grandfather smiling down upon me.)

By this point in the mid-1970s when I was off to Brittany, we were particularly obsessed by the ones with the grey spines: the Modern Classics.

So that was where I went to find my holiday reading. I chose the ones with grey spines which looked most interesting and, as a system, it did not let me down. (They don't all seem to be published by Penguin now, but they were then.)

But what shall I take with me this time? And how many? There’s nothing worse than not taking enough books and being forced to spend the last precious reading days with ragged copies of left-behind Jeffrey Archers.

Also maddening when you take a big pile of books you think you ‘ought’ to read – severely restricting clothing space in suitcase – only to discover once you get there, that you hate them all.

Now I know I could prevent both these eventualities by embracing the e-book in some form, but I’m just not ready to do that yet. I can’t imagine it being comfortable to hold an electronic gadget on my knees in the heat.

Also, a holiday for me, means being away from a bright screen; that’s what I spend my whole life staring at.

But, as Joan Armatrading says – I’m open to persuasion. So I would be very interested to hear about your experiences of the various kinds of electronic books.

And in your suggestions for my holiday reading.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

TONY & SUSAN by Austin Wright and MY UNCLE IS A HUNKLE, SAYS CLARICE BEAN by Lauren Child

Please forgive the radio silence but I’ve had some reading mishaps, involving two of my previously mentioned personal stumbling blocks: unpleasantess and poor segue.

The first was in what I can tell – even though I had to stop reading it - is an extraordinary book.

It was recommended to me by my crime fiction expert friend, who said it was one of the best books she has ever read and she was thrilled to see it had been recently republished.

She read it when it first came out in 1994 and was puzzled at the time, why it didn't receive the critical recognition it deserved.

This has now been rectified - I've rarely read such deeply admiring reviews - but in a sad echo of The Girl With the Open Sandwich Tattoo, the author died before he could see them.

Tony & Susan comes with these two quotes on the cover:

Ruth Rendell: ‘Absorbing, terrifying, beautiful and appalling… This novel I know I shall never forget.’

Saul Bellow: ‘Marvellously written – the last thing you would expect in a story of blood and revenge. Beautiful.’

If I’d read the quotes properly, instead of just going Ruth Rendall, oooh, Saul Bellow, oooooh, I might not have opened the covers. Terrifying and appalling don’t go near it.

I was so terrified by the end of the first chapter I had to stop reading. My heart was pounding. Nothing awful had happened yet, but you just so knew it was about to. I couldn’t sleep for ages, worrying about the people in the book and what might be about to happen to them.

Although I thought the writing was compelling, I was too scared to read on, in case what I feared was about to happen did. So I rang the friend who recommended it to ask how horrible it actually was.

She couldn’t remember, it was more the atmosphere of the whole book which had stayed with her for over fifteen years, she said, rather than the plot. But yes, it was pretty heavy stuff.

Don’t you mind reading that kind of thing? I asked. Doesn’t it upset you?

Not if it’s not happening to me, she said. It’s just a story, it’s not real.

But that’s my problem. It’s not real in this case – but real stuff like it happens all the time. And at some kind of primitive level I’m frightened if I read about ghastliness it will come into my life. It feels like you’re opening the door a crack.

I was in quandary, to read on, or not? The writing was so interesting and in something of an American form of the spare style I loved so much in my previous read, by Elizabeth Taylor, so I wanted to. But what if it got as ghastly as I thought it might?

Then I had the idea to flick forward a bit and see if any serious unpleasantness was apparent... Holy shit. The worst kind. And now it’s in my head without even having the pleasure of a proper reading of Austin Wright’s tight prose.

So if you’re not a big wuss like me, if ghastly murders don’t send you quivering under the covers, I would say read this book. I honestly wish I could.

This experience has given me an idea: books should have Certificate Ratings, like films. Even the telly warns you now if a programme ‘Contains scenes of extreme violence.’ Why can’t books do that?

It would have saved me from years of being haunted by some of the things I read in Last Exit To Brooklyn. Just a quote from American Psycho that I read in a review of that hateful book, still floats round in my brain like a malevolent spirit.

Obviously 'Rated X' or 'Rated R', or 'Warning: reading this book can blight the rest of your life' is never going to happen, but I am going to add Unpleasantess as a rating in my own system.

Now for the segue. I mentioned in my last posting that I had spoiled my enjoyment of Barbara Kingsolver’s oeuvre by guzzling it down in one orgiastic readathon, after being blown away by The Poisonwood Bible. So it seemed amusing to make my next read her Orange Prize-winning novel The Lacuna.

But after Taylor’s marvellously cool and restrained English style and Wright’s taut American modernism, I found I was repelled by the poetic descriptions of nature in this one – exactly what I normally love in Kingsolver’s work.

This time, though, all kinds of soppy fish flitting about on a reef, being nature-y seemed way too akin to the Emily Dickinson and Henry Thoreau skipping through the meadow school of Am Lit, which has always given me the willies.

So I needed a palate cleanser - and what could be better than the shortest book in my current personal book Top Twenty?

By the acclaimed author and illustrator of Charlie and Lola, this is her slightly older – much naughtier – creation.

All the Clarice Bean pictures books are great (the chapter ones, not so much), but this is the winner.

The text weaves through Child’s wonderful illustrations, just as it does in Charlie and Lola books, but there is a whole pantheon of complex characters.

These range from Clarice’s very annoying younger brother and her teenage siblings – the male of whom never leaves his bedroom and the female never gets off the phone – to various fabulously flawed adults. The grandfather is a particular joy.

The hunkle is Clarice’s frankly gorgeous firefighter uncle (it does worry me slightly that I can have a semi-crush on a character in a children’s picture book, but I can’t help thinking Lauren Child has too, rather as I do on my own male leads when I'm writing).

Among other endearing habits, he loves watching westerns with Clarice and uses phrases like ‘Hey there, little lady…’ He gets in trouble with Clarice’s mum when he teaches Clarice to use a lasso and the table lamp gets broken.

That’s just a small part of the drama. There’s a lost guinea pig, an annoying boy next door, a grumpy lady down the street… so much action packed into this small space.

Every time I read it – whether to my daughter, or secretly to myself – I bark with laughter.

It’s the perfect antidote to high level unpleasantness and after a couple of reads of it, I moved on happily to my next novel. What is it? Aha!

These scores are for My Uncle is a Hunkle, as I didn’t finish Tony & Susan (but if I had I would have given 9 for Unpleasantness).

Reading satisfaction: 9
Un-put-downable-ness: 2
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to mother: 8
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 8
Recommend to man pal: 4
Recommend to Helen Razer: 4
Read on public transport: 0
Unpleasantness: 0

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

AT MRS LIPPINCOTE’S by Elizabeth Taylor

When I grow up, I want to be Elizabeth Taylor. Not the film star, the oddly underappreciated English novelist.

Well, maybe I don’t want to be her, she died in 1976 for one thing, but boy, would I like to write like her. Even just a little bit like her.

I say she’s underappreciated, but that’s probably the wrong word – it’s more that she is not as widely known and read as she should be. For those who have read her books, she is unanimously highly regarded.

Looking at the reviews in this edition she is lauded by several of my other favourite authors, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Anne Tyler, Jilly Cooper and – one of my all-time literary heroines – the goddess Rosamond Lehmann.

Even that famous misogynist Kingsley Amis (father of the more attractive Martin) rated her so highly he called her ‘One of the best novelists born in this [20th] century…’

This is only the second of her books that I’ve read. As I said in an earlier post, after reading In A Summer Season, I was so astonished by the luck of coming across such a distinguished author with ten more novels still to read, I decided to eek them out like a box of very special chocolates.

I made the mistake with Barbara Kingsolver of reading all her novels in one great guzzling, right after The Poisonwood Bible and I think I wasted some reading pleasure in the process.

So I won’t even allow myself to buy another Elizabeth Taylor for a while, lest the temptation should prove too great. In the meantime I have been trying to emulate her style.

As an exercise I wrote my last short story using the omniscient point of view, which I think Taylor does better than anyone else I’ve ever read.

This means that the story unfolds equally through the eyes of all involved, as if related by an all-knowing narrator, who describes how each person experiences a situation and what they think and feel about it.

From sentence to sentence the viewpoint can change from one character to another.

It’s a form aspiring authors are advised to steer well clear of, because it's technically hard to pull off (as I discovered when I tried it...) Omniscience can also give the book a pompous tone, which stops the reader developing the close relationship with the protagonists that the first person – which I have written all my novels in, so far – promotes.

What Taylor manages so extraordinarily well, is to be all knowing and all seeing about her characters in this way, without ever seeming like a superior being.

Rather than giving the impression of some omnipresent deity hovering over the action, as some male Victorian novelists do, she makes you feel she is inside the head of whichever character’s point of view she is conveying. And she can switch from an eight year old girl to a Wing Commander without missing a beat.

There is no sense of her judging her characters, just the keenest observation of human fraility - and virtue - exquisitely and succinctly conveyed. As a result, her characters are subtly vivid - quite a feat.

This is her first novel and while I didn’t find it quite so swooningly marvellous as In A Summer Season, I did love it. There are sentences and phrases in it which made me want to clap. They made me thrilled to be alive – and able to read.

They probably won’t work in isolation, but I marked these two, as so concisely evocative of the stuffy suburban house to which an RAF family have been billeted, just after World War I:

‘Golden privet was unremitting in its attempt to cheer.’

‘Summer rain darkened the rooms entirely; not only the sheets of rain, but all the dripping foliage as well. The house seemed glued up…’

The house seemed glued up. I was so excited by that phrase when I found it, I hugged the book to my chest.

So, to those of you who are yet to read a novel by Elizabeth Taylor, I commend her to you, but I would read In A Summer Season first.

PS I have just remembered another thing which delighted me in this book. Two of the characters discover that their share a love of Charlotte Bronte's less well-known novel Villette - one of my favourite ever books.

It's the first time I've read someone else expression this opinion, which I fervently share:
'Jane Eyre is NOTHING to Villette,' he observed.

Reading satisfaction: 9
Un-put-downable-ness: 4
Recommend to best girlfriend: 10
Recommend to mother: 10
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 8
Recommend to man pal: 8
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 10

Sunday, June 13, 2010


The back of this book tells you that 12 million people have already bought it.

Was I really the only one in that multitude to find it, at best, average?

I also wonder how my opinion can differ so much from all the eminent reviewers who are quoted inside the cover.

One of them calls the author ‘the Tolstoy’ of crime… Did he mean Leo? Or the less well known Kevin Tolstoy?

Maybe it’s because it falls into a genre I’m relatively unfamiliar with: ‘crime thrillers’. Also it contains a great deal of that thing I have previously expressed my intolerance for: unpleasantness.

There is a great deal of very detailed unpleasantness in this book, but what really irked me, was that I found it strikingly unoriginal unpleasantness.

If I’m going to subject myself to fictional ghastliness – when there is so much of the real variety around us - I do at least expect it to be interesting. Show me something I’ve never seen before.

For that reason, the book which kept popping into my mind as I read this one – particularly in the later stages – was The Silence of the Lambs.

That crime thriller was spectacularly unpleasant in places, but the scope and methodology of it were so twisted, the psychology of the psychopaths so fascinatingly complex – yet utterly believable - I would put it on a list of the best books I have ever read.

If I’m going to have nasty, I want brilliant nasty.

I couldn’t sleep for a week after reading The Silence of the Lambs. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo kept me awake reading into the night too, but not so much with suspense as irritation.

For starters: I have over my writing desk a piece of A4 paper bearing the words ‘Don’t tell it – show it’, reminding me to get the back story and essential facts over in the course of narrative action, rather than in long tedious pages of explaining.

In future, I might just prop a copy of this book there, as the first third of it is an object lesson in how not to impart a large amount of background information to the reader of fiction.

With the plot centred around a missing person in a wealthy family of Gothic complexity and – to the foreign eye – bonkers names, at times I didn’t feel I was so much reading a novel, as trying to memorise the lineage of medieval Swedish kings and queens.

Now who came first again? Gottfried or Harald?

Then there was the clunky translation. It kept using awkward words like ‘anon’, meaning later – ‘he said he would see her anon’. And in the first half the word ‘straddled’ is used in a sexual context, at least three times. ‘She straddled him…’

Couldn’t she have climbed onto his lap and sat astride him? Or pushed him back, straddling his legs with hers? Or slid onto him, pressing herself against his… anyway.

As I am currently nit combing my own 739 page manuscript to remove extraneous usages of the words ‘hysterical’ and ‘hilarious’, it annoys me that the translator of this one, Reg Keeland – or his editor – didn’t make that tiny effort. With search and replace, it’s not so hard.

There are also repeated mentions of the Scandinavian dish the ‘open sandwich’, which is one piece of rye bread with a lot of stuff (usually involving smoked fish) piled up on it.

I’m familiar with the genre because my mother got very obsessed with them in the late 1960s, around the time the duvet and the first Habitat furniture came into our lives.

I’m sure the Swedes have a snappier term for this national snack and were I translating from that language, I would have taken the liberty of simply calling it a sandwich.

‘He made himself a sandwich of pickled herrings and cucumbers and gazed out of the window into the dark night, wondering when next a woman he barely knew would straddle him…’

Now read that again inserting the word ‘open’ before sandwich. Not so snappy, huh?

Every time I came upon those wretched words ‘open sandwich’ (and they never stop snacking, these people) I felt like I was reading a pamphlet from a provincial tourism office.

‘Be our welcome guest and enjoy our smoked fish and traditional open sendwijes!’

I know that’s a very small point in a 538-page book, stuffed with perverts, Nazis, computer hackers, Swedish nymphos (all stereotypes confirmed) and rogue financiers, but it’s exactly the kind of stone-in-my-shoe that can wreck a reading experience for me.

Another thing I found peculiar was that after the main crime is solved – and at least I didn’t guess whodunit until the point where you were supposed to – the book continues for ages, going off onto a whole new tangent.

The last time I was struck by such a sense of a bolt-on extra was Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice which careers off into another adventure that happens after the fabulously dashing hero and the female lead have not only got it on (swoon swoon), but are actually married.

At least Shute had the excuse of composing on a manual typewriter. In the age of the laptop such authorial lapses are much less forgivable.

So that’s everything that hacked me off. On the plus side, there are some interesting characters – the girl in the title, in particular. I just didn’t find any of them very believable.

I did like, however – despite the Open Sandwich factor – the ongoing references to the landmarks of the Swedish year. It’s made me quite excited to celebrate midsummer and very keen to try glogg, which is drunk at Christmas. (Fancy a glogg? No thank you, I’ve just straddled an open sandwich.)

I was also interested to get some insight into computer hacking and the intricacies of off-shore and secret Swiss banking. Well, quite interested. I am more interested in glogg.

So, it’s a complex yarn, with a wide-ranging cast of damaged nutters and some very lovingly described great unpleasantness against women. Will I be reading the next two books in the trilogy? No, I will not.

And now I think of it, the last book I felt I ‘should’ read because so many other people had was The Da Vinci Code. Enough said.

(PS And yes, I do know that the author of this trilogy died suddenly before knowing it’s success, in a literary parallel to Eva Cassidy’s story. It’s very sad, but it doesn’t make me like the book.)

Reading satisfaction: 3
Un-put-downable-ness: 5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 2
Recommend to mother: 2
Recommend to niece: 0
Recommend to gay best friend: 3
Recommend to man pal: 3
Recommend to Helen Razer: 0
Read on public transport: 0