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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

Monday, June 7, 2010


Found this marvellous picture of my literary heart throb Martin Amis on the Telegraph site, thanks to a tweet and retweet by @neversarah and @gabyhinsliff.

Do I need an excuse to share it? No, I don't. Oh the joy of blogging. Look at the darling little crease on the top of his nose. So adorably grumpy. Sigh.

Even better is the article that goes with it, describing Amis's talk at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival last week, on the subject that literary awards only go to boring books. Here's what he said:

"There was a great fashion in the last century, and it's still with us, of the unenjoyable novel.

"And these are the novels which win prizes, because the committee thinks, 'Well it's not at all enjoyable, and it isn't funny, therefore it must be very serious.' "

The unenjoyable novel. So perfectly put. He goes on to descibe his own intentions as a writer, comparing them with the experience of reading late James Joyce:

"I want to give the reader the best glass of wine I have, the best food in my kitchen. Some writers clearly don't feel that way at all.

"When you visit the later James Joyce, you knock on the door and there's no one there.

"Eventually after you have wandered around for a bit you hear him in the other room mumbling to himself as he prepares a snack of two slabs of peat around a conger eel and some homemade cider that is absolutely undrinkable."

As I have always said that I hope one of my books is the reading equivalent of settling down on the sofa with a box of rose and violet creams, this makes me very happy. Martin and I clearly feel exactly the same way about it.

I love him. I just love him. I wouldn't want to go on a villa holiday with him - but in type, I love him.

Here's the link to the article: