Thursday, 23 December 2010

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop

Greetings, one-legged literatti.

It's been a pretty busy time here at Learning To Read. Check out reviews of The Subject Steve, Cold Comfort Farm, and the rather good Five Boys for evidence. There's also thoughts on what age is a good age to be published by, and the lack of female writers on my shelf.

This Hop's Question:

What literary title (fiction or non-fiction) do you love that has been under-appreciated? We all know about the latest Dan Brown, and James Patterson isn't hurting for publicity. What quiet masterpiece do you want more readers to know?

We all know Richard Adams' Watership Down. But How many people have read the beautiful, sexual, frightening and dark The Girl in a Swing? Remember, Watership Down is his idea of a kid's book, so imagine how serious he gets when he writes for adults.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Where's All The White Girls At?

Yesterday I posted a list of my favourite authors, looking at when they first got published. While the list was in no way a definitive or thorough survey of my favourite writers, it was a fairly good cross-section. And it's struck me, now I see all their names written down side by side, that they're almost all menward. Two of the nineteen mentioned are women.

I don't like the idea of tailoring my reading, of meeting gender quotas, of any sort of positive descrimination. But I really don't like the idea that I'm missing out on whole swathes of great literature.

Maybe it's because I just read a novel by a female author, who I'd heard about for years but never picked up, and it turned out to be excellent. Or maybe it's because that author was Margaret Atwood, and the book in question was all about gender roles in society. Either way, I want to change the fact that only three of the nineteen books on my To Be Read pile were written without recourse to being a man.

This isn't a new manifesto or anything. I'm fairly happy with stumbling blindly through the world of books. But a shove in a new direction is always welcome. Recommend me some great books by female authors, please.

Hit me.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Time Is Runing Out

It's cards on the table time. I'm 23, and have yet to finish writing a novel. I've got to the end of the story a couple of times, but never to the end of the writing process.

Terry Pratchett had his first novel published when he was 23. Not just finished, not just sent off, not even just accepted. Published, in shops, the whole caboodle.


I might as well give up and get a job in a bookshop. I even have the job already, all I need to do is stare into a mirror and say 'I don't believe in CS Lewis' three times. I won't be a writer anymore.

Okay, maybe not. But it's become an obsession of mine recently to look up when the author I'm reading had their first novel published. Then I work out how long I've got, realistically, if I want to stand any chance of beating them.

It's not pathetic, I promise. It's motivational. Here's the league table:

The Wonder Boys:

1. Terry Pratchett, 23
=2. F Scott Fitzgerald, 24
=2. Mark Watson, 24
=4. Michael Chabon, 25
=4. David Lodge, 25
=4. Evelyn Waugh, 25
7. Tom Holt, 26
8. Christopher Brookmyre, 28
9. Toby Litt, 29

The first half of that list is already way out of my reach, once you factor in agent/editor/publisher turnarounds. And when you factor in writing quality, the second half is pretty much out of the question as well. So, ignore the spectacular young guns, they probably burned out before they were 40 anyway, am I right? Terry who? F Who Fitzgerald? Well... moving on. 

The Second Wave:

 =1. Agatha Christie, 30
=1. David Mitchell, 30
=1. Kurt Vonnegut, 30
=4. David Markson, 32
=4. Cormac McCarthy, 32
6. Andrew Crumey, 33
7. Stephen Fry, 34
8. Mick Jackson, 37
9. Lynne Truss, 39
10. Jasper Fforde, 40

I'm aiming for Markson and McCarthy, I think. Though anything before Stephen Fry would count as a lifelong brag.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Five Boys

Mick Jackson

This is the second Mick Jackson I've read, after his intriguing Booker-nominated The Underground Man. I picked it up in a charity shop in Edinburgh this summer, because a holiday isn't a holiday if you don't use it to buy books.

Five Boys is both less linear and more singular than The Underground Man. Browsing the author's website, I find it interesting and unsurprising that the book had a completely different title, The Bee King, until the last minute. It certainly doesn't read like the story of the five boys, beginning to end. It doesn't read like the story of the bee king, either.

It reads excellently, though. Eccentric and witty I expected from Jackson, but humane and a touch of sadness are happy additions. I don't want to kill the allure of the book by saying this, but it is uncompromisingly pleasant to read. That feels a bit like the Hitch Hikers Guide calling Earth 'harmless,' but I mean it as a compliment.

Five Boys is mysterious, in that it doesn't bother to explain itself on most occasions. That fits, I feel, with the children's perspective that a lot of this book is told from. The world is what it is, and most young boys take it on those terms. It's only when you're older you sometimes recognise how weird some childhood incidents were.

The mystery is never solved; the book doesn't have a loose end-tying, all together-bringing finale. It's uncohesive, but not in a bad way. The whole thing is episodic, almost like a series of interconnected short stories at times, so there is no expectation of a last chapter to make it all make sense. It's not like reading Infinite Jest, where the reader is teased with glimpses of potential but never fulfilled cohesion. Five Boys is in no way frustrating.

The lack of cohesion, of a continous line joining the beginning and the end and everything inbetween, is in reality the lack of a main character. It seems like Bobby, the young evacuee, is the subject of the book--until the second half, in which he doesn't appear.Go figure, says the book, and I went and figured.

I figured that there is a main character, in a sense. It's the Devonshire village of Dartington, and its story is told through the partial lives of the people that make it up, good and bad and weird and stupid. Their little stories make up the bigger story of the village, just like each bee buzzing contributes to the singular hum of the hive. And the bee king is not really a king at all, but the queen of the Dartington hive.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Cold Comfort Farm

Stella Gibbons

I'm going to get through this entire review without once mentioning that Stella Gibbons is just another way of saying Excellent Apes. Watch me.

I don't think I've enjoyed a novel so much--or so easily, at least--in a long while. I'm not sure why only one person has been recommending it to me. Where were the rest of you at?

The succesful heroine, Flora Poste, is something of a new favourite of mine. She is orphaned without fuss, and goes to live with a family of crazy cousins on a cursed farm. As each family member's troubles are piled up, one by one, there isn't a second when you doubt that Flora, armed with common sense and all-round aptitude, will overcome them in turn. This is in no way a 'how will it all end?' novel. You know how it's going to end, and it's going to be happy, so you might as well enjoy yourself on the way.

And it's easy to enjoy, on account of being frankly hilarious; while nobody can deny that there's still something satisfying about a problem being solved, however easy it was. Possibly my favourite laugh was at Adam Lambsbreath, the ancient farmhand type, practising clettering.

Clettering is basically washing up, but using a dry twig of thorn instead of a cloth. When Flora buys Adam a proper little mop, he recieves it with awe and sombre glee. Then he hangs it up somewhere safe in his cowshed, because it's too nice to use for clettering, and picks another dry twig off the thorn bush. Flora is more succesful in her spurning the sexual advances of the young men around her; the sexual predator and future filmstar Seth, and the enlightened, modern intellectual and unattractive Mr Mybug.

A lot of Cold Comfort Farm is parody. At least I think it is. It's hard to tell, because most of the novels it's parodying are long gone, and the ones that are still around I don't want to read. There's plenty of deliberate allusion, and there's probably tons more I missed. That's the only problem with parody--once your subject matter is gone, the book loses a dimemsion. I've thought the same thing reading Waugh before. Oddly enough, this doesn't affect old episodes of A Bit Of Fry And Laurie. That stuff is still gold.

But the over-my-head parodies didn't get in the way. Like a good builder, I hardly knew they were there. Except, that is, for the rather annoying asterixing of certain passages. These are where Gibbons goes all out attack on flamboyant purple prose, with mixed and misguided metaphors all over the shop. It wasn't these passages that annoyed me--they were funny. And truth be told, I skim-read most passages of description. I can't help myself. But the bloody asterixes everywhere, what a palaver.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Subject Steve

Sam Lipsyte

I took a gamble on this novel, having never heard of it or its author before, mostly because of the Toby Litt quote on the front. Which reminds me, I really need to get my hands on another Toby Litt novel soon.

The Subject Steve is funny. That's basically it. It's funny in a clever, lippy, attitudinal American way. And that's a good thing, of course. But this flippancy, a quality I am more than a little acquainted with, goes a little to deep for me.

It's not just in the dialogue, and it's not just in the prose; it's not just the narrator who is flippant, or the characters: It's the author as well. The plots and events and situations of the novel are played with fairly fast and not a little loose. I can understand why the quotees on the back of the book see this as a good thing, but it was a little lost on me. That's not where I want my flippancy.

All my favourite, funniest writers are deadly serious. Vonnegut jokes inbetween mourning mankind and loving them. Pratchett isn't joking when he gets excited by the power of stories or angry at the power of people. Evelyn Waugh was angrier yet. Even Wodehouse, the archetypal please-don't-take-me-seriously, plotted most rigorously, demanded the most consistent, believably-motivated characters.

That said, I did enjoy the high creativity in The Subject Steve, and it was funny everwhere it tried to be. It just wasn't quite the novel I wanted to read. If I come across another of Lipsyte's titles--there was a new one out this year, apparently--I will investigate it thoroughly. If he's still funny, that's okay, but hopefully he'll be serious as well.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Whatever Happened To Happenstance?

My personal gripe with the coming eBook revolution involves book acquisition. If I'm given unlimited and pure access to the unuverse of books, I will have no choice but to choose logically.

There will be no limits. There will be no bias. You will not be guided by geography or happenstance orthe texture of old books. All these distractions will be cast aside. Only you will have a say in the navigation across this perfect mathematical plane of possibility. Only you are responsible.

Bugger that.

I don't have a system strong enough to navigate the L-Space of all the books out there. What I like is serendipity, sale prices and forced hands. My reading is guided hugely by what books are presented to me and what mood I'm in at the time and how generous my wallet is feeling.  It's not ideal. Thank God it's not ideal.

If book-reading was evolution, and I sometimes think it is, serendipity would by the random mutations. Complete with ugly and disfunctional creatures. Complete with the only real way forward.

All this is here to justify: me buying 9 books last week.

Two bastards of serendipity, two demons of careless fate, came at me like velociraptors in a kitchen. Firstly, we got a pallet of return books in at work, from Harper. These books weren't the usual fare, lest you think they were. These were odds, ones and twos of strange, unusual titles. Literary titles, modern classics and shadowy first novels, a bunch of pre-Booker Hilary Mantel, some Patrick Gale, a hundred names you've never heard of, countless Ballard and a few Henry Miller.

The second bastard of serendipity was our annual Christmas 'bonus' of 50% off one transaction. Well, these books were £1.99 to start with, and 50% off that is incalcuably small. Literally, it will break your calculator if you try, so don't try. I bought:

mortification: writers' stories of their public shame
The Drought and Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard.
Darkmans by Nicola Barker.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.
The Subject Steve by Sam Lipsyte. 
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson.
Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin and the World it Created.
The Qi Book of Advanced Banter.

All beautiful, decent-sized paperbacks. All for £9. Google makes that $14.

Now, I have £11 in my pocket right now, and I need approximately three weeks to read all these. Can I get three weeks at a knockdown price in a bargain shop? Or is it cheaper online?

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

All The Pretty Horses

Cormac McCarthy

I'm still quite new to McCarthy. I'm completely fascinated by his polyrhythmic prose, at once crystal clear and deliberately obtuse; completely fascinated by it, I am, but I'm not completely sure I like it. And even if I did like it, I wouldn't like it, I'd love it.

I guess I must love it. It certainly compels me. All The Pretty Horses, for instance, is the first book of a trilogy. The question of whether I would get hold of the others at some point has never come up. Of course I will.

I love John Grady Cole's taciturnity, and the little gaps between that cowboy front and the young boy behind it. They're hard to spot, those gaps, because the novel is unflichingly distant from its hero. What makes Cole so intriguing is that we never see inside his head. That's not unusual, but add to that the hero's youth and inexperience and the eye-opening shitfest he rides into, and you've got something. There's a whole novel here that isn't even written. A whole tumultous storm going on under the surface that we only see second-hand, shadows and winds, in the book.

The prose is distant, but not spare. The impression I get is that his earlier stuff is fuller, and if that's the case, I might struggle with them, but All The Pretty Horses is pitched in my reach. I love the beating horse heart that makes each sentence roll into the next, and I especially love the calm intervals between it: the dialogue.

Some of that dialogue is Spanish, though. Every now and then it's made clear what the gist of those conversations were, but mostly not. Is McCarthy writing for an audience who mostly know Spanish, like a British author would use O-level French twenty years ago? Or is this the most extreme example of McCarthy happily muddying his picture?

I don't know. I'd believe either. Reading All The Pretty Horses never felt like less than reading a book from another world entirely. Maybe in that world, everyone knows Spanish. Maybe that world doesn't really exist. 

Monday, 13 December 2010

The Clicking Of Cuthbert

PG Wodehouse

I don't give a damn about golf. Not the slightest damn. And I'd put off reading The Clicking Of Cuthbert for precisely that reason. Why put up with moments of golf in my Wodehouse when I have plenty of golf-free offereings to be getting on with? Well, precisely.

But when reading Frances Donaldson's biography of the man, she claimed Cuthbert among her favourites. And as she came late in life to Wodehouse, and read the whole lot over a couple of years, she's in a much better position than anyone else I know to pick between them. Most people are like me: they've read anything from one to two dozen, mostly chosen at random, with a little unjustified balance toward the Wooster end of the canon, and they've read them at different times of their life, with different intensities, and most probably with changing tastes.

You could say my interest was captured; or that my appetite was well and truly whetted; or that I was hooked and lined, if not yet sinkered. Plum would say something funnier, obviously. So with some trepidation, I picked these golf stories off of shelf. Was I about to be disappointed by a favourite author? Was I acting rashly, blindly, no doubt leading myself into the inevitable despair that the tainting of the Wodehouse name would spin me into?

No. I was half-expecting to write a post about this book in which I would say that subject matter is not important when you're reading from the pen of Pelham Grenville. That's what I was half-expecting. I was right, it turned out, not to commit my expectation fully to this vision, because it turned out to be nonsense.

The subject matter is important. What makes The Clicking Of Cuthbert stand out from the Wodehouse crowd to the likes of Donaldson, is completely and utterly it's golfcentricism. I wish I was being insightful here, I really do, but the author points out this exact thing in the foreword ("Fore!").

As a writer of light fiction, Wodehouse often suffers from not actually straining, torturing and generally self-pitying his way through the writing of a novel. There is no pain at the heart of his prose. But when he writes about golf... he has been hurt. Clearly, he has strained, tortured and generally self-pitied his way round many a link. There is a hint of agony, never more than hinted at, that certainly sets this apart from Aunts Aren't Gentlemen or Something Fresh.

The other factor that marks the Cuthbert stories out is their narrator, the Oldest Member. Let me quote him.

Imitate the spirit of Marcus Aurelius. "Whatever may befall thee," says that great man in his Meditations, "it was preordained for thee from everlasting. Nothing happens to anybody which he is not fitted by nature to bear." I like to think that this noble thought came to him after he had sliced a couple of new balls into the woods, and that he jotted it down on the back of his score-card. For there can be no doubt that the man was a golfer, and a bad golfer at that. 

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Manhood For Amateurs

Michael Chabon

This is a collection of autobiographical essays about being a father and a husband and an ex-husband and a brief son-in-law. I don't know if it says more about me or Chabon that I read it is a stand-alone love letter to childhood.

I was particularly taken with the fact that he and his children are all massive Doctor Who geeks. Not because I like the show, though I do, but because I'm deeply attached to the idea that people need to share the same cultural environment, the same atmosphere of stories.

References are so important. They're the shortcuts and exploded diagrams of conversation. It's not always easy to communicate a particular situation, a particular relationship, or the significance of a pareticular event, from first principles. And if you can point your listener to a story that you know and that they know and that echoes what you wish to explain, you don't need to.

That's the best reason I can think of to mourn the loss of the classical education. I get sick of characters and their authors in old books always referring to Greek myths and the like, because I don't share the references. But the intended readers would undoubtedly have got them. These days, there's not many stories an author can point to and be completely sure the reader knows them. I don't even know with any certainty which stories are the wallpaper in my sister's houses. There's too many stories to choose from.

It's why it's so important to watch the same comedy programs as your friends. Even if they're crap. Making sure all my friends have seen the same comedy that I've seen has become a personal mission of the religious variety, in recent years. I want to live in the same richly textured storyworlds they do, so I can talk to them properly.

(An aside: That's also why every book or story I write is full of other books and stories. Salvage, in which a woman fantasises about the end of the world, is full of the characters from Friends. Full of them.)

That's all a long and laboured way of saying how excited I was to discover that the Chabons all watch Doctor Who, and quote it and discuss it and make sense of their lives in accordance to it. Let's not mourn the classical education, but let's all start watching Jonathan Creek. Or Band of Brothers. Or anything, it doesn't matter. Wodehouse and his daughter swapped letters about trashy American soaps for years. That's fine.

But while Chabon is keen to create a shared environment for his whole family, he is also keen to protect the independent world of childhood that he fears is a dying space, a swiftly dwindling rainforest. He makes the decision to disapprove of the mildly gross Captain Underpants books, despite secretly liking them, so his children have the start of somewhere to go where he is not allowed to follow. When adults start moving in on the cultural items of childhood, the children have nowhere to grow. They need their own world, and their own language. They need a basement.

When Chabon finds himself in a house without a basement, he worries for his children. Where will the 'dark tide of magical boredom' collect, ferment and inspire? So he builds them a treehouse. That's the one practical tip I picked up from this self-help guide. Build them a treehouse, and don't skimp on the dank. And hope,  with the same pure memory and desperate awe of my own childhood places that Chabon does, that 'they lie up there on their backs for hours, feeling tragic, and happy, and terribly, terribly bored.'

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography

Being a novice writer reading about the life of a professional writer is always hard going and endlessly fascinating and slightly queer. I repeatedly switched from wanting to take notes to wanting to give up writing to wanting to tell Agatha Christie what she was doing wrong. What she did wrong, by the way, was to not write in the way she writes here when she's writing about Poirot.

Because, and maybe this shouldn't be surprising, this is a brilliantly written book. I've read a fair amount of Christie--all the Poirot short stories, and half a dozen of the novels--and she doesn't write like this in them. I loved them, of course, but not in the same way I loved this memoir.

So. I have made it a personal mission now to track down at least one of Christie's Mary Westmacott novels. These were her more 'literary' works, or at least I imagine they are. They are certainly free of detectives. They are also, more importantly, the works she was most proud of, and most personally connected with. She wrote one of them in three days, even bunking off war-work for one day, and thought it the best thing she ever did. She was basically crazy. And I basically have to read that book.

Writing came accidently to her, as a career. She reckoned she could do it, but only as a challenge to her sister. She got involved in it, but only in the way her grandmother had got involved in embroidery--an abosrbing craft to fill the evenings. Even when she'd published half a dozen novels, she didn't think of it as a job, didn't put 'writer' down on her passport forms, and didn't see the cheques from the publisher as a genuine source of income.

It's hardly fair, I thought to myself, that this author, of such natural prose yet crafted plots, this gifted storyteller who is both loved and acclaimed, took to it so easily. So casually. Without fuss. When I want to do it more than anything else, and (occasionally) work really hard for it... et cetera, et cetera. Clearly, real writers are naturals, and I'm kidding myself that I can get there just by trying.

But the flipside of that thought is, if she can be this good by accident--imagine how good I can be on purpose!

Of course, the first thing you do when reading about a successful author is to isolate the similarities between their life and your own. Me and Agatha were both youngest children, who grew up in places they loved, with a large, loving family. We were both left to our own devices, extremely happy on our own, inventing worlds to play in and people to populate them, which I hear isn't the normal way of going about things. I don't know about that.

But that's what Mrs. Christie puts down much of success in writing down to, so... you know. Quid pro quo, or quad erat demonstratum, whichever is more plausible (I have a biography of Latin sitting on my shelf, so I'll find out soon).

Childhood A led to Huge Success.

Ben also had Childhood A.

Therefore Ben will suffer from Huge Success in later life.


Friday, 10 December 2010

PG Wodehouse: A Biography

by Frances Donaldson

Two things stand out most about this man. The first is his epic output, and the love of work that allowed it. Donaldson doesn't even bother trying to catalogue his work, talk about it in a chronological way, or approach it in any way as a unit. She is quick to point out, on a number of occasions, that it would require a much longer book, without the trifling distractions of the author's life, to make any sense of it.

Wodehouse's work ethic is the great triumph of his life. Of course, he had a natural way with the rhthym and nuance of The Great Sentence, and a good if not exceptional ear for comic dialogue, but those things were not responsible for his greatness. Greatness came, with more graft than glamour, from his plots.

Every archaic or stand-in or mill-running plot he wrote around was the result of weeks of agonising over every point. Every river-dunking had strictly apportioned motives, every failed plan was meticulously storyboarded and reshaped. If it couldn't hold itself up, if it couldn't float without the buoyancy aid of funny prose (and Wodehouse prose is the most buoyant) he would scrap it--or more likely, retinker it. If it wouldn't fit in a book, it became a musical.

Comedy is the easist place to look like an idiot; Wodehouse found that out in his war years. But in his books, he certainly took great measures to make sure he was never left looking like a fool. Every novel functioned--something he could control and predict--just in case the funny didn't stick. That's why he has an ouvre of about 100 novels, which vary in hilarity, but are remarkable consistent all the same--there isn't a single failure, not a single book that cannot entertain on the basic level. Every narrative narratives.

That's why Wodehouse was never comfortable with being highly thought of in literary circles--he was more proud of his constant functioning than of his frequent excelling. As Donaldson points out, he was incurably low-brow in tastes (not in a crude way, but in a John Stuart Mill way). And as her description of his working methods makes abundantly clear, 90% of his time was spent on the basic form a book would take. Writing it was the easy 10%, during which he felt guilty because it wasn't really work.

The second thing that stands out about Wodehouse is his inability to deal with people. There are few close relationships in his life, and while those few are sweet and deep and heartfelt, they still contain something impersonal, something distant. Even to his beloved stepdaughter he writes about his work, his dog, and later his favourite soap operas. He was never a soul-barer.

His lack of understanding about people is at the heart of his naivety, and at the heart of his alleged treason. As a prisoner of war in Germany, he didn't see the problem in broadcasting a few humorous monologues on a German worldwide radio station. He was showing how well the English in trouble were coping with their situation, stiff upper lipping and silver lining finding; and on a personal level, responding to the mass of mostly American fanmail he had recieved in his internment camp. If there was any more base motive behind his talks, it was simply his lifelong desire to write, to work, and to make people laugh, shining through four years of war-frustrated output.

The funny thing is, when you get into the unique rhythm and flavour of his life, you begin to forget about real life and normal approaches, and see things in the innocent way that he did. When I first read the passages quoted from the English press in response to him broadcasting on enemy wavelengths, being light-hearted and anything but serious, I couldn't understan the backlash. I mean, it was still funny, wasn't it? That's the main concern, isn't it?

But that's not the main concern, not in wartime, and Wodehouse realised later in life what a fool he had been. But how easy it is to forgive him, when he's left 100 novels, in each of which that unique rhythm and flavour of life is present, and the reader forgets about real life and normal appraoches, and sees things in the innocent way that he did. It's funny, isn't it?

Friday, 29 October 2010


I have one real leg and one cyber leg. Before the Blog Hop and the National Pirates Union came along, I felt like a leper both on and off the internet. No longer. Thank you, Blog Hop.

Learning To Read has had a pretty busy couple of weeks, but said busy-ness hasn't really translated into blog posts. There have been posts on NaNoWriMo, what I'm going to write, what said writing might be about, and a couple of books.

These are Agatha Christie's Three-Act Tragedy and Charlie Chaplin's memoirs. I'm now reading Agatha Christie's memoirs, which is some sort of Hegelian synthesis of both of those. Neat.

A review of said memoirs will be forthcoming, right after the review of PG Wodehouse's biography, which I read last week and haven't blogulated yet.

Oceans full of damp, inelastic peace to you all.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Charles Chaplin

the autobiography.

Charlie Chaplin! The name is magic. I'm not sure why I picked this book up from my (excellent) local Oxfam B&M, being more of a Buster Keaton man, but pick it up I did.

A memoir will almost always make you like the person involved, if you didn't already. At least, that's the case with me. If people tell me they are nice, I tend to believe them. If they tell me they are not nice, I think the happy paradox, 'he's not only nice but honest as well. Hot stuff.' But I started taking a dislike to Charlie over the course of this beast of a book -- a dislike that slowly gave way to pity.

Reading an autobiography from a public figure is a very different experience when you know nothing about said figure's career, and even less about said's public trials. You end up with a lot of 'that Hearst-Davies affair, of which I have nothing to add, except to say the story as it became known was 100% false.' If you don't know the story as it became known, that sentence is high in unsaturated intrigue and low in information. Which is unhealthy.

Unhealthy but addictive. This lack of knowledge is what kept me reading the book. Chaplin is a perfect example of an unreliable narrator, setting up a state of affairs an author would maim owls to emulate. He was my only source of information, and at first -- oh! how naive I was, back then -- I took him to be reliable.

But then, slowly, other narratives began to suggest themselves. Hidden in the background, the simple shape of events tell a different, contradictory tale. Over time, over pages, my suspicions rose -- the suggested story, what Charlie is trying to rewrite, is the truer one. And the gap between the two compels.

So I started to think Charlie was a bit full of himself, and not as smart as he thought. He's not great to the people around him, either. Not nasty, just defensive, ignorant and uninvolved. Here's a little example that made me gasp (in my head) mid-text.

CC is talking about how he works up a film idea. He starts filming lots of comedy routines around a basic subject/set/genre, until a narrative emerges. Then he casts off any of the funny stuff that doesn't fit. He stops talking about this for a short paragraph:

"During the filming of The Gold Rush I married for the second time. Because we have two grown sons of whom I am very fond, I will not go into details. For two years we were married and tried to make a go of it, but it was hopeless and ended in a great deal of bitterness.
The Gold Rush opened at the Strand Theatre..."

In 530 pages, this is the only mention of these people. Well done for not opening up old wounds, but... an aside? In a rather irrelevant anecdote about a film? Flipping heck.

But I didn't think Charlie a bad man, by the end. What comes across most, through his defensive attitude, his incomplete and ill-concealed retelling of events, his lack of understanding of others, and his fundamental incompetence in bonding with people, is how lost he was.

It's all there, in his childhood, though he doesn't tell it that way; he never got the chance to grow up. He was just a boy, gifted and lucky and greedy enough to become loved all over the world, and completely without the maturity necessary to deal with it. He was just a kid, man. The kid. I'm off to watch The Kid. 

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Three-Act Tragedy

by Agatha Christie

It's a good thing that Poirot doesn't really turn up until the third act. There's a lot of soft psychology going on before then that he is too good for.

Instead of Poirot and Hastings, we have a famous actor investigating the murders, told through the eyes of his society friend, and they speak a lot of amateur nonsense about the way people work.

The choice of an actor for the role is no coincidence. Three-Act Tragedy has fun with the structure of theatre, paralleling and parodying in equal weight. Everyone is a player, and some are more aware of it than others.

Underneath the fun, this lets Christie delve a little further into the less folky areas of psychology that Poirot is so fond of, deftly kept away from becoming a victim of the sort of fun we're having at the expense of those in the shallow end. The ever-present shadow of 'the drama' keeps the whole thing both confined and self-aware, while the fumbling attempts at insight from Satterthwaite and his actor-detective friend, Sir Charles draw all the flak. The best way to avoid being the subject of mockery is to make sure you're already doing the mocking.

There's a reason Poirot isn't playing his normal central role, and it's all about casting. Christie gets to reverse her usual narrator/detective relationship, with Satterthwaite the more knowing assistant, Sir Charles the incompetent (but still egotistic) detective. Without spoiling the whole thing, it's safe to say this book couldn't happen without the roles as they are, and the particular players cast in them. It's impossible to imagine it working with Poirot and Hastings in their stead.

Poirot does get an early mention. He's not in the very first scene, but it's safe to say he is the Chekhov's Gun of the piece. He bumps into Satterthwaite in the south of France, and from that point on we know someone is going to get outsmarted, outplayed, and out-psychologied, in the denouement.

Three-Act Tragedy might be unusual in it's 20% Less Saturated Hercule, but it might be unique in it's flat statement of who Hercule really is. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Christie wrote the whole thing as a way to make absolutely, abudantly clear, one thing. Poirot is not a romantic. That's Hastings' job.

There are three types of psychologies, he tells Satterthwaite. The showing psychology, which must always be telling the story and playing the part. The watching psychology, like Satters himself, that exists to observe, spot and enjoy the narratives as they occur. But that doesn't include Poirot, oh no. He is the prosaic mind. All he sees are facts. When he goes to the theatre, he sees painted scenery and lots of people doing a bit of old-fashioned pretending. When he sees a beautiful girl sing, he notices Hasting's pupils dilate. Nothing else.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

What Happens In Polaroid (Stays In Polaroid)

I'm almost done planning Polaroid, and it's not a good feeling. I want to keep working on it, I know I'm not ready to start writing it (and hey. It's October), but I don't know quite what's left to get on with.

For various reasons (over at the NaNo site) I've written a synopsis, a plot outline, and a one-sentence summary. And even though all of those were simply summaries of information I'd already got in bulletpoint form, writing them really helped. I'm still getting to know the novel, it turns out. And talking about something is a lot easier than thinking about something.

You know what's coming. All this means I will now talk about the thing, all over again. Rather than trying to reduce the whole mess into an intriguing and sensical blog post, I'm going to dig up that watery, curious skeleton, Michael Owen. Ask me questions, Michael, and I shall answer.

MO: Why is it called Polaroid? Are you sure you're writing a novel, not a photograph?

I'm fairly sure it's not a photograph. It's called Polaroid because... Well, it's not completely clear.

There is a Polaroid camera that plays some role in the plot, and a particular Polaroid photo that plays a bigger role. It all kicks off from there, in a way. There might also be something semi-deep about instants in time that take time to develop/show themselves, and the phrase 'a snapshot of youth' may dirty my lips when I'm feeling outrageously uncreative.

The main character, David, is a portrait artist, and he is obssessed with capturing peoples likenesses. Grab your wax crayons and colour that fact relevant.

MO: So it's all about David? He's the main character?

I think he's the main guy, but there's a cast of four who are pretty central. David has the extra edge, in that a lot of the story is told through his eyes. His is the only true instance of first person narration.

There's Fenton, who the book might be said to be more truly about. He's David's oldest friend, and is a bit of a dick. Parts of the story are told through his journal entries.

There's Charlotte, who is also, somehow, the centre of the novel. We hear from her through intermittent blog posts. The key triggering event (remember that Polaroid photo?) involves her centrally, and the climax of the novel involves her centrally. I guess I would say she is somehow central.

There's Sam, who isn't even around for the most part. We hear his thoughts through the letters he sends the others, most often to Charlotte. He gives us something of an outside perpective on things, but he is neck deep in the same issues at his end, too. And by the end, he's right back where it counts, everything intermingles, and he gets a letter that is necessary and sufficient for the final clincher.

MO: That answer was too long. If I was on a payphone... That's all I'm saying.

You're not on a payphone, Michael, I can see you sitting right in front of me. And you're on a landline.

MO: Nobody thinks you're clever, Ben. One last question: what's the releveance of all this 'dressing up as zombies' talk I hear you talking about?

I wish you hadn't asked that. Like the old Polaroid factor, this got into the novel in the early days, when I was just chucking in things I liked the sound of. And now it's too deeply caught up in events to let go. I don't want to let it go, either. It gives trhe novel a little bit of character, something to stop it sounding like EastEnders.

The gang all dress up as the undead, and spend an afternoon mime-stalking people through the city centre. It's a fun, harmless, and ill-thought-out (BLAME THE CHARACTERS, BEN) prank, before they all go separate ways after the summer. It's meant to draw them together, but the after-party gets messy. There's fallout.

These guys all have a desperate desire to belong -- they're at that age -- but not much competence in that field. It's about the lengths people will go to to feel part of a group, and how much they are willing to change themselves. David, the least belongy, is also the least comfortable with this.

The fallout from the first zombie dress-up splits the group. Rather than finding new places to belong on the back of the confidence they got from having a great base group of friends, they scatter, disperse, and generally fail to take root anywhere. (As I write, I'm wondering if I should somehow smuggle this metaphor directly into the novel, too.)

The second zombie dress-up is a desperate attempt by Fenton, who suffered most from the fallout of the first, to get the band back together. He wants to rescue that feeling of being part of the group, and he wants to fix a lot of things he has caused to break. But this time, the fallout is a lot worse.

MO: That sounds like a weirdly unarced narrative.

I was just thinking that. But it works, honestly. There's going to be more going on in the book. The problem of belonging isn't going to be fixed by dressing up, and rewinding to the point when everything went wrong isn't the same as taking responsibility for your actions. It might turn out that shared responisibility is what brings people together and makes them belong, without giving away too much. 

That's me thinking aloud. I would love to hear anyones reactions to any  idea I've mumbled across here. I'd much rather hear a criticism now, than when I've written 80k and spent all my savings on a two-page spread in the TLS.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Story Of Polaroid

Polaroid is the novel I will write for the first time this November. I have written it once before.

It was towards the end of March, I think, that I reached The Point with my last novel-attempt, Who Ever Heard Of Applecake? The Point comes when you know you need to change more of the book than you need to keep; when you've learnt lessons that are so big, they undermine everything you've done so far; when you'd do better to stop trying to write that particular novel, and start again from scratch. So I ditched it. Over. Done with. Full period.

I didn't expect to jump straight back in with another novel, but history shows I must have. I had this rough idea... I would write a summer novel. Over the summer. It would be about summer, which for me involves guitars and treehouses and that old plaguey bird, interacting with other people.

Somehow that little fragment became a fully-grown, if underfed and shallow-framed, book idea. By the 5th April, according to this blog, I was officially planning. The next bit is fuzzy, but by the end of May I had a finished first draft.

By June 14th I had 1/3 of a second draft, and had reached The Point. Remember? -- Ditch the bitch and start again.

Only this time, I hadn't learnt anything. I'd learnt the book didn't work, but I didn't learn why. Nothing useful. After that, I sort of ducked out of thinking about anything novel-related. Oh, the misery. Oh, the universal darkness. We're retreading old ground, now, but in my lowest moment of not-really-thinking-about-novels, when I had even stopped reading them in favour of outdated biographies, I got an email from NaNo, thought something along the lines of, 'actually, in fact, maybe so,' and sat down too quickly.

I didn't want to start another novel. How many unfinished good ideas do I want on my track record, I asked myself, rhetorically, not expecting an answer?

So that's why I'm having another go at Polaroid.

It's different, this time around, and it's better, and it's a little bit surer of it's own identity. What's more, it turns out it never actually reached The Point at all. Flicking through the first attempt while planning for the second, I was struck by something. Once I got past the clunky, overly-intended first section, it stopped being bad. By the time it got to the Teen Ultimate Melodrama Moment Of Climax (yes, it had a TUMMOC), it was good. In places.

That's the first time that's ever happened. Too bad the TUMMOC will get a little sidelined in the second attempt, but still. The bad doesn't outweigh the good. I can run with this, I thought to myself, rhetorically, not expecting a response.

Monday, 18 October 2010


Well, actually, hello.

Here's the (actual) thing. I'm working full time from now till Christmas. And here's the other (actual) thing. I'm going to write a novel in that time as well.

I'm sure it doesn't need explaining, but November is National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo to its friends, acquaintances and concubines.

The idea is to write a first draft of a new novel, in the 30 days of November. 50,000 words. I like to think I have enough motivation of my own to write, so don't need to partake. I like to think I've worked out my own habits and writing schedules, so don't need to participate. That's what I'd like to think. But I got an email from the site at the exact point I was at the bottom of a writing slump, and there's nothing like a challenge to get you out of one of those bad boys.

I would urge any of the curious to check out the forums. I'm not into the cheering, or the plot bunnies, or the dares, or any of that. What I am into is thousands of people talking about writing. There's loads of beginners on the site, but a whole load of people who know far more than I do about how to write a novel, and I love reading what they have to say.

Tomorrow I'm going to blog about what I'll be writing. And hopefully this week I'll also catch up with blogs for the last couple of books I read, Agatha Christie's Three-Act Tragedy and Charlie Chaplins's autobiography. Both inspired songs, as well, so I might post those.

Don't do anything hasty.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

by Michael Chabon

It's hard to talk about this book without talking about the world it's set in. During World War II, before the state of Israel, Alaska was a serious contender for the new homeland of the Jewish refugees from Germany and across Europe. It had the support of the US secretary of the interior, but died in Congress. The point is, it could have actually happened.

In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, it did actually happen. Meyer Landsman is a detective -- complete with failed marriage and drink dependency -- in the Jewish settlement of Sitka, Alaska, and there's a dead body in the crappy hotel he lives in. Oh, and it's two months until the 50-year lease on Sitka runs out, and the whole of Jewdom is going to have to go to sea in a sieve. (Yes, Chabon references Ed Lear. Yes, that made me happy.)

While the point of the novel (in my humble O) is the gentle and thorough exploration of a world where Sitka is a Jewish settlement coming to an end, that's not the obvious focus. Sitka is outlined, coloured in and shaded through the details and framework of a clever, noirish crime novel.

The first dead body is found on page one, next to a half-finished chess game. The victim lived under a false name, hustled chess to buy smack, and may well have been the Messiah, naughty boy or otherwise. The whole thing excels as a crime novel; the dialogue is sharp and fast and beautiful, the supporting cast excellent, and the detective often hopeless.

It's this focus on the crime novel that makes the world of Sitka so convincing. Alternative worlds are never as convincing as when they exist exactly where the real world exists for us; in the background, unworthy of comment, while life happens in the foreground.

So far, so good. A compelling idea, a clever story, etc etc. But there's something even better about this book.

I usually don't pay much attention to 'fine prose'. I like prose that gets me straight into the story, and lets me forget about the fact an author once sat at a computer or typewriter and made it all up. The only time I'm drawn to clever prose is when it's funny. When it's Vonnegut or Wodehouse.

But I had a revelation with Policemen's Union. For some reason, I read out a line or two aloud... and it felt good. Very good. So I started reading more of it aloud, when I was alone. Then I started reading it aloud in my head, which I promise makes sense. The mere act of reading it like that brought much more attention to the particular shape and feel of the words, and -- crucially -- stopped me unconsciously skimming descriptive passages.

The allusions and connotations and sideways connections throughout the text opened up a whole new dimension of writing to me, which I feel a bit naive for having not spotted up to now. It was only last month I was initially put off from a very good book by overly-clever description, but Chabon is pitch-perfect. There is a deadpan, slightly sad humour throughout, and a romantic realness in everything.

Once again, I have been utterly surprised by the content of a Chabon novel -- they're never alike. And once again, I've really loved it. If I told you I wasn't jealous, would you believe me?

Sunday, 5 September 2010

A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil

by Christopher Brookmyre

I finished Brookmyre's Country of the Blind in record time, and went to choose another book to read. There's Bennett, Chabon, Christie, Holt, Jackson, Lodge, McCarthy and Wodehouse on my To Be Read shelf, all of whom are somewhere between LIKED and ABSOLUTE FAVOURITE I WOULD DEFEND IN AN ACTUAL PHYSICAL FIGHT.

But instead of any of those, I picked the other Brookmyre I had on there. It's not because he's better than the others, though I think he's there or thereabouts (as football pundits say.) It's because he's addictive. I think the pages are laced with something. Didn't they used to make paper out of hemp? Eh?

They did.

But that's probably not the point. What's addictive is the particular mixture of convoluted plots, smart and funny prose, yadda yadda yadda (as football pundits say.)

It's a unique blend, and it works, and it has a downfall. The downfall is that after reading only two of his novels, I was beginning to think Brookmyre was a one-trick pony. But when that trick is simply BEING AWESOME, it's sort of all right. But still a little disappointing. (But still all right.)

So imagine how happy I was when A Tale Etched In Blood Etc Etc turned out to be a bit different. (If you need help imagining my happy-face, just tell your nearest five-year-old that when he grows up he will be able to go into shops and buy a load of sweets, whenever he wants, and 50p will not be a huge deal at all.)

It's still got the standard Brookmyre plot, but calling one of those standard is like accusing one of Faberge's eggs of not being free range. When you're staring at one, it sounds like the least intelligent criticism this side of 'if people evolved from apes, why are there still apes around?'

The difference is all down to the other half of this book. Split between the present day unravelling mystery/police case/nasty murders is the year-by-year story of most of the main players in school together, from the first day of school to the leavers prom.

The childhood Brookmyre conjures up is excellent. It has some of the sweet detail of Roddy Doyle, though without the perspective. Instead of that, the focus is wider, and each step in the loss of innocence is examined, wistfully but never nostalgically. There's also the best explanation of Playgroud Football I have ever come across, which Brookmyre put in separate essay form.

But not only are the childhood years strong, they interweave with the current day drama like a double helix, the two narratives borrowing off each other then blending for a pair of climaxes.

It's still unquestionably Brookmyre, and the question still lingers about how far from his (admirable) comfort zone he can stretch, but this is a good sign he enjoys changing it up as much as I did.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Blog Hop

Good morning! And if you're not reading this in the morning, YOU'RE LATE. SIT DOWN, SHUT UP AND PAY ATTENTION.

It's been a good week here at Learning to Read. There's been the fun Gods Behaving Badly, the excellent Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, and the possibly-even-more-excellent Country of the Blind. Not to mention the end and round up of my personal mini-challenge, the Summer Of Strangers.

Coming up are reviews of another Brookmyre, A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil, and Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

Today's Blog Hop Question is, do you judge a book by it's cover?

And the answer is yes. Not completely, but it's one of the big factors in whether I will pick up a book and find out more, when there's hundreds on the shelf. And when I'm choosing between two books that sound equally good, a pretty cover is going to be hard to turn down. My current love of Chabon  and Brookmyre probably owes something to them both having COOL AS HECK covers.


Thursday, 2 September 2010

Country of the Blind

by Christopher Brookmyre

This is the book to read if Cloud Atlas left you despairing over the state and future of mankind. Once again, the will-to-power is under scrutiny, this time in the guise of the complacent, mid-90s Tory government. It's the big-hearted cynic versus Them, and I'm not going to spoil the ending.

Who am I kidding? Of course I'm going to spoil the ending. The good guys win.

It's not too much of a surprise though. Country of the Blind is the second of five novels to date staring Jack Parlabane, so he's not deid yet. And, like Jack, this book has a huge beating heart, barely hidden beneath the cynicism, and big hearts never lead to Tory victories. 

Though it's a Jack Parlabane book, it doesn't mean he's utterly the main character. He's definitely the key, but equal time is given to the stitched-up Tam McInnes, and the young lawyer Nicole Carrow.

There's a reason, I think. I've said it already, this book has a heart. And in the middle of the cleverness, the explosive plot, the media moguls and government conspiracies and elite SAS-style bad guys, there's a whole host of touching relationships. There's Tam and his son Paul, Tam and his friend Bob, there's Nicole and her father.

But it is a Jack book, overall, because the most touching relationship, in the background almost all the time, is Jack Parlabane and his fiance, Sarah Slaughter. She's the anaesthetist who can match him for gruesome content at the end of a working day.

As well as being touching, as well as being a giant middle finger to the tabloidisation of the country, and as well as having a happy ending, Country of the Blind is hilarious, clever and compelling. I'm starting to think that those three are par for the course avec le Brookmyre.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Summer Of Strangers

It's time for a look back over the last couple of months. I decided, some time in June, to spend my summer reading authors I've never read before. And I coined it, somewhat pointlessly, Summer Of Strangers.

The general idea of the challenge was to widen (or 'enbroadanize') my reading habits, with the possible bonus of discovering a new favourite. And the possible pitfall of reading crotch.

Here are the stats:

Books Read: 12
Ficition: 10
Non-Fiction:Can't you work it out? Jeez.
Did Not Finish: 1

Any new favourites, out of those? Well, it's hard to call someone a favourite after one book, but there's a fair few possibles. Roddy Doyle, Patrick Neate, David Mitchell and the flawless Christopher Brookmyre are all guarnateed a follow up read. (In truth, I just finished my second Brookmyre. It was the first book I dived for, salivating, as soon as I was allowed. He's definitely a new favourite.)

And then there's a few I enjoyed, without being desperate to read more. If I come across another Marie Phillips or Sean Dixon, I will certainly have a good look, and see if there's room on my To Be Read shelf. I enjoyed Malcolm Pryce also, but probably won't follow that up. Things can be good while also being not for me.

The non-fick: while both good, neither Nick Lane nor Rob Bell set light to my imagination like a Dennett or early Dawkins, so I can safely say a return to my non-fick obssession days is not on the cards.

The bottom line is that I managed to avoid reading any crotch; which is either testament to my skill in acquiring books that suit my own taste, the overall excellence of literature, or my ability to enjoy almost anything. I'm hoping it's all three. I couldn't bring myself to finish my Jeremy Dyson, but that was largely due to me, not the book.

And there was Alan Bennett, who I have read before, but not as fiction. His book snuck up on me while I was waiting for a parcel to arrive, and I finished it in one sitting.

It's that sort of thing that I liked about this summer's reading. Avoiding my favourite authors meant my reads often came from odd places. The Nick Lane book was given to my Dad by my Sister's Boss, so of course it was handed to me to read, while Neate and Bell were both book swaps.

Prize for best serendipity goes to Peter Stafford, for being one of the only English language books on the shelf of second hand books in a small shop on a campsite in Denmark. Even then, I only bought it for the front cover.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha

by Roddy Doyle

This is sort of a review of two books, not one. The first is the excellent Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

 I've enjoyed quite a few adult books written from the perspective of a child -- and I'd include The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas in that category (it was on the adult book table when I picked it up four years ago.)

This is the best, though. This is the most authentic trip inside a ten-year-old's head I have ever taken. And by ever, I mean in the last twelve years and four months.

It all comes down to what is relevant to whom. In a child's world, the narratives that are being played out are completely different. He doesn't even notice the things that would be central in the adult's view of the same story. Instead, he picks up on things we're too used to seeing to notice.

And he splices anecdotes together like the postest, modernist cat there is. Sometimes he tells us nothing, sometimes he fires information at us like a machine gun. Not only does this echo perfectly with how the inside of my head used to be, but it's also completely hilarious. It's a sad book, but the Ha Ha Ha of the title is a fairly accurate review on its own.

It's plotless, sort of. Again, that comes down to the child's perspective. The single 'plot event' in the book happens in the last dozen pages, but it's only our adult perspective that labels that as the 'plot event' in the first place. The main movement in the book is the shifting atmosphere of the child's world. Paddy Clarke is zooming out: what used to be the whole picture for him is now just one small part of it.

It's unfortunate for Jeremy Dyson that I started reading his novel What Happens Now straight after Roddy Doyle's slice of excellence.

What Happens Now starts off from a child's perspective: and it doesn't match up. Rather than being plotless, I'm overly aware of events being pointed out as 'significant'. Rather than entertaining prose, the overly serious Alastair Black is taken too seriously by the book itself.

It's not at all a bad book. If I hadn't been recently spoilt by Roddy Doyle, I probably would have enjoyed it. But as it happens, I didn't finish it. By the time it got to a critical semi-rape scene, I wasn't involved enough to see it as sad; only distasteful.

It's an interesting point, tht I've overlooked before: how much does our reading context affect our view of a book? If you read a debut novel after a Booker prize winner (like here), is that fair? What if you read a book about train crashes on a long train journey?

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Gods Behaving Badly

by Marie Phillips

A couple of times recently, I've been forcing myself to keep reading a book. They've been good books, but I've been reading them as a duty rather than a pleasure.

BANG. Not this time. BANG.

It's fun to shout BANG.

Gods Behaving Badly is a pleasant, funny and completely easy read. I think there was less than two days between the first page and the last, though I was never at more than a leisurely pace, and generally getting on with other things in my life.

It's a debut novel, as well. Just thought I'd throw that out there. I've started to associate the ability to make reading easier with old masters, but Marie Phillips cracks it aged 31.

The book itself is a sexier, less clever Tom Holt effort. Meek, nice and useless main characters have to overcome powerful, clever bastards; classic myths in ingloriously modern contexts provide the funnies; yet you don't need a classics degree to enjoy it.

More could be made of everything. That's the flipside to a light novel. The Gods are saved by rat-faced Neil, when he points out the obvious (to anybody who's ever read Pratchett) idea that their power is drawn from people's belief in them. The fact the Gods don't realise this themselves could be a really telling insight into their narcissism and cattle-like view of mortals. Instead, it passes by without comment.

There's many such moments, and they would have bothered me if I was in a nother mood. But with my hopes firmly set on a chilled out pleasure-read, I secretly hurrah'd every time Phillips glossed by them to make a joke about Aphrodite (pictured) working on a sex line.

A note on my Summer Of Strangers. There's only two books left on my TBR list that qualify (by being authors I've never read before). I will class the end of summer, and therefore SOS, as when I've read those two. Expect a full review of the process after that, and then a month or so of catching up with the excellent authors I have been holding back on for ages.

Friday, 20 August 2010

The Hop

Hello Hoppers!

It's been a busy week at Learning to Read (after a fairly chilled summer), and it's going to get busier: here's my list of books to read.

And here's what I've read this past month:

Twelve Bar Blues is a novel about jazz, hookers and stories.
Aberystwyth Mon Amour is a crime noir set in Wales.
Power, Sex, Suicide is the amazing story of the mitochondria in our cells.
Cloud Atlas is an incredible, impressive and entertaining story that spans a millenia.

And my personal recommendation of the week... Mark Watson's Eleven, a story about the spiralling consequences of all our actions. It's a great book.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Twelve Bar Blues

by Patrick Neate

This book is all about stories, and all about identity. And as I was remarking to a Man in a Pub last night, stories and identity are pretty much the same thing. Our identity is just the particular spin we put on the events of our own lives (and we should watch out for that. We're natural storytellers.)

There's not much else to say about Twelve Bar Blues. It's chock full of stories. They centre around prostitution and jazz and race, but they also include a witchdoctor and a gangster-pastor and a Louis Armstrong.

It should be a depressing read. There's violence, poverty, rape, discrimination and prostitution all over the place. But the infectious storytelling (which is the same thing as jazz, for the most part) makes this an optimistic and hugely entertaining journey.

I picked it up in my most recent bookswap session, and I'm glad I did. Not only was it addictive and excellent fun, it also came at a good time for my own writing. I'm at crisis point with my current work in progress, and I think I've just diagnosed the problem: it needs more stories.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Aberystwyth Mon Amour

by Malcolm Pryce

Aberystwyth Mon Amour is a crime noir novel set in Aberystwyth. There's ice-cream salons and 24-hour whelk stalls and a ridiculous kind of Noah's Ark thing going on.

It should, then, be a parody. But it can't seem to make up it's mind.

I'm reminded of Jasper Fforde. In Shades of Grey, he deftly mixes obvious comedy with a serious, intelligent plot. Pryce is going for the same sort of thing in Aberystwyth, but he doesn't quite make it.

The problem is, he can't make up his mind. At least I think he can't, because I'ev read the book and I can't make up my mind. Surely if he had decided one way or the other, the first thing he'd do would be to let the book know.

It's an enjoyable book, and that comes from both sides. The comedy is funny, the crime plot is competent and happily convoluted. But they don't sit so well together.

He has the same approach as Fforde, so why doesn't it work? That approach is to root the comedy in the very substance of the world, and then write about it as if it is completely serious. Fforde never sniggers when he introduces us to a world where spoons are postcodes, ID cards and black market currency all in one go. Pryce doesn't bat an eye-lid when he tells us the Welsh teacher is also the mafia don. So far, so good.

But it's not quite the same, because it's a different type of humour. Fforde builds his world out of absurdity. And when absurdity becomes normal, it not only becomes even funnier, it also becomes -- perversely -- believable. That works, both ways.

Pryce, though, with his (excellent) Chandler-prose and numerous nods to the tropes of a whole genre, often shifts from absurdity to parody. And when you make parody the normal substance of the novel, it becomes less funny.

Parody means laughing at the whole thing from the outside, and so the book itself becomes the joke. And, surprise surprise, that seriously undermines any of the jokes in the book. It becomes less believable, as well: you can't be involved in a world which you're consistently withdrawing from to acknowledge the joke of it.

All this might sound too critical. I really enjoyed Aberystwyth Mon Amour. It was funny and tricksy and different enough to keep me engaged. But I never felt completely at home with it, or even that I completely got it.

Sunday, 15 August 2010


by Mark Watson

You might know Mark Watson as a comedian. That's fine, he's a very funny guy. But he's a novelist, if not first, then foremost.

His third novel, Eleven, is funny, but only when funny can be squeezed in between small and important events, unwisely forgotten moments, consequences in chain, and good, flawed people.

I nearly added 'clever prose' to that list, because there's a lot of that around as well. But I'm not sure it that's such a good thing.

The problem with clever, make-you-smile/make-you-think similes and metaphors is that they make you smile/think. Both of which are distancing states of mind when you're getting lost in a story. It's not worth being clever if it makes the reader forget what character he was reading about.

Watson is too smart a writer to fall into that trap, usually. He doesn't show off with his prose, and he doesn't outsmart you in references and allusions. But the threshold of reader-sensitivy (a real concept, from now on) is already heightened in Eleven, and so he can't get away with his normal inventiveness without drawing attention to it.

The TOR-S (threshold of reader-sensitivy. Keep up) is heightened because Eleven is written in the present tense. So the line -- quoted by Watson in his book-launch as a personal favourite -- the air is cold to the touch like cutlery in a forgotten drawer, doesn't wash past like it normally would, leaving an aftertaste of originality and an interesting picture half-submerged in the subconcious.

Instead, it makes you (me, anyway) stop for a moment, put the book down, and try to remember if I've ever touched cutlery in a forgotten drawer. Was it any colder than the cutlery in the kitchen drawer, which I usually remember?

If I wasn't already on less familiar ground because of the present tense, I think it would have slipped past. So why the present tense? It obviously comes at some cost, so does it need to be there at all?

Those weren't rhetorical questions, by the way. You can go ahead and answer them.

I'm waiting.

Okay, I'll tell you.


The present tense/clever prose combo might make it harder to get beyond the text and sink into the story at first, but you get there in the end. And when you do, the present tense nails it. To the nearest wooden surface.

Xavier Ireland (there's a reason for the idiot name) unknowingly triggers a chain of eleven events. These are mirrored by events in his own life, which cause and document the change in Xavier as he becomes more involved in his own and others' lives. These two chains race each other -- will Xavier become responsible for his actions in time to intercede in the spiralling chain he unwittingly kicked off?

I'm not going to tell you the answers, but I will tell you this: the past tense is fatalist. In the past tense, the result of the race would have been fixed from the start. That's the problem with books. But present-tensing hasn't decided yet.

That's not to say Watson ignores the past tense. Because there's a third narrative, alongside and in-between Xavier and his responsibility. Xavier's past, which is fatalist (we know it has a sad ending already). This third strand weaves in, sometimes encouraging the others, sometimes hindering, and... Aaah, it's just clever. You'll like it, I promise.

I mentioned that, despite the distracting cutlery, I got involved in this book early enough for it to count. That's because of the two relationships that make up the foreground. There's Xavier and his sweetly incompetent, we've-all-got-a-friend-like-that wingman, Murray. And then there's Xavier and his brash, more-personality-than-you-know-what-to-do-with cleaner, Pippa.

The spiralling consequences, the past he can no longer ignore, and the present he can no longer deny responsibility for are what make this story move. But I wouldn't even have been reading it if it wasn't for the charming, flawed, uneven and awkward friendship that it begins with.

Oh, also: my first Amazon review.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Power, Sex, Suicide

by Nick Lane

Douglas Adams said the answer to life, the universe and everything was 42. Nick Lane says it's mitochondria. Apart from the fact it spoils one of the questions in the Bookshop Quiz I set some friends the other day, I prefer this new answer. 

Power, Sex, Suicide (catchy title, hey?) certainly convinced me of the importance of mitochondria, in our past (awesome!), in our present (a mixed bag) and our future (hang about....)

Lane takes us competently through the impressive role of the little chaps in the formation of multicellular life, sex, and the entirety of morphologically complex biology. The whole ruddy lot, as Alan Partridge would say. And he shows us some really excellent evolutionary explanations at the nuts/bolts level on the way.

But it gets a bit less palatable, though no less convincing, when he shows us their current and future significance. It's not a new idea that mitochondria play a significant role in ageing and even death, but we've got the details wrong, it seems, and we've completely missed out on the huge implications. Oops.

Old age and its ravages are not a build-up of individual mutations, ill-effects and late-triggering DNA bombs. It's a lot less daunting than that. The whole depressing lot of it can be laid at the feet (to clarify: mitochondria don't have feet) of a change in the environment in the cells from a build up of oxidization. That's a much smaller, singular, and solvable issue than the old model. The key word there is solvable. Say it after me: solvable.

Great, right? We can solve ageing, get rid of dozens of the worst illnesses we know about, and Not Die. Great, right?

I don't know. That scares the hell out of me.  We're already overfilling the planet with people... imagine what we'd be like if the old stock stays around. We won't stop getting new stock in, we'll just fill up, then starve. That's a messy business, all round.

Or we will adapt, and become a race of a specifically (and culturally) limited number of citizens, something like the Heaven of Jehovah's Witnesses. You know, there will only be 144,000 people at any one time. You can only have a child if there is a hole to fill -- ie. someone dies. Not old age death, not degenerative-disease death, but death death. Prospective parents would hire out assassins on their neighbours, or try and convince Granny to do the decent thing and take the damn pill, I mean she's been around for 200 years, let someone else have a go... Or the generous amongst us will give people their own suicide as a present. &c. &c. 

That nightmare aside, getting rid of all these things is/would be amazing, and no amount of bad sci-fi should count as an ethical rebuttal. But still, when they make an apocalypse/dystopia film epic of this scenario, I want to be the person who shouts 'WHERE WILL IT ALL END?' in the first ten minutes, then dies in a way that later seems ironic... and is never mentioned again, until he is finally and unsurprisingly referenced in the final scene of the film, just after it inevitably ended in tears and a destroyed planet. Roll credits.

Monday, 2 August 2010

To Be Read

Once or twice every year, I sort through all the books I own but haven't read yet, invent some complex and worthwhile system for organizing and reading them, and then promptly forget how it works.

Not this time. (Okay, probably this time as well.)

The new system is called the Desk Shelf. Instead of having the books in some easily-forgettable, easily-ignorable corner, i've stuck them right on the middle of my desk. This has two benefits, which I shall call 'features.'

Feature One.

My desk is set up against a fat brick chimney. It's lovely, even though most of the brickwork is covered up by colourful deco adverts and the like. As well as being lovely, though, it is also not quite as wide as my desk.

That's important. Because the books lean up against the chimney, and that limits how many there can be. If I have too many books in the Desk Shelf 'zone', they will topple off and annoy me. So Feature One is a limiter: I can only add new books to the Desk Shelf when I have made space for them. In other words, I can only buy books when I've read one of equal thickness. Or given them away unread (it happens, and it hurts.)

Feature Two.

The books are right there in front of me whenever I sit at my desk. That's where I sit when I write songs, foodle around on the internet, do the blogging, and sometimes read. THe point is, I will be seeing a lot of them lined up there. This stops me forgetting about the books, and also -- theoretically -- gives me the opportunity to build up anticipation for them.

I say theoretically, but I instigated the Desk Shelf system (beta testing) yesterday, and already can't decide between three previously overlooked novels to take with me to Edinburgh next week, because I'm excited about each of them.

Here's a picture:

Currently in the Desh Shelf 'zone':

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes 
Three-Act Tragedy -- Agatha Christie
Death on the Nile -- Agatha Christie
Hickory Dickory Dock -- Agatha Christie
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha -- Roddy Doyle
What Happens Now -- Jeremy Dyson
Alexander at the World's End -- Tom Holt
Paradise News -- David Lodge
Therapy -- David Lodge
Gods Behaving Badly -- Marie Phillips
Aberystwyth Mon Amour -- Malcolm Pryce
Eleven -- Mark Watson
Piccadilly Jim -- PG Wodehouse
The Clicking of Cuthbert -- PG Wodehouse
The Inimitable Jeeves -- PG Wodehouse
Big Money -- PG Wodehouse
Jeeves in the Offing -- PG Wodehouse
Pearls, Girls and Montk Bodkin -- PG Wodehouse
Sunset at Blandings -- PG Wodehouse

My Autobiography -- Charlie Chaplin
Ronnie Barker -- Bob McCabe
PG Wodehouse -- Frances Donaldson

The Human Touch -- Michael Frayn
In Search of Schrodinger's Cat -- John Gribbin

What a pretty list! And no, I don't have a thing for Wodehouse. What are you talking about? 'Thing' indeed... Never heard of the chap. Or chapette. Could be a girl for all I know. Never heard of him. Or her.

The three I'm wrestling with taking to Edinburgh are:

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha -- Roddy Doyle
Alexander at the World's End -- Tom Holt
Aberystwyth Mon Amour -- Malcolm Pryce

(I'm already taking Eleven by Mark Watson.)

Any thoughts about those three? Any Pryce fans, Doyle haters, indifferent Holtists? Help me choose.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Cloud Atlas

by David Mitchell.

The last two months have been pretty barren, blogwise. Ten posts in two months! That's pretty minimalist. It's going to pick up again now, though. That's not a promise, it's a threat, and you can keep that in the fridge for as long as you want.

So, Cloud Atlas. This 500+ page book has about 200 pages of lengthy, worshipful quotes from esteemed literary sources (and steemless ones) before you even get to the flyleaf. And as I am the only person I've ever met who thinks qoutes from critics, reviewers and other authors are an excellent way to judge a book, I had pretty high expectations.

Long story short: it met them. Cloud Atlas is excelllent.

"It's an awe-inspiring virtuoso display of voice, world-building and scale. It's funny and exciting and clever and hugely creative." Ben Carroll, Learning To Read.

Add that to the quotes, Sceptre. Yeah.

Cloud Atlas is six different stories, covering centuries past and future, and fiction and non-fiction (sort of). The characters and stories are distant from each other, at times, but they still overlap. It's these overlaps that make the book exceptional as well as just impressive.

I might have talked before -- I should have -- about how much I like the use of multiple narrators to see differenet sides of the same story. It's such a great kick to see a character and/or event from the outside that you've already got to know and trust from the outside. It's especially great when they disagree... OOH YOU TRUSTED THE NARRATOR AND YOU GOT BURNED, or HA! LOOK HOW WRONG HE WAS ABOUT HIMSELF. It is, in some slight way, like hearing other people talking about you. Everyone likes that.

My own current novel -- Polaroid -- is an exercise in this, but in an opposite way to Cloud Atlas.  Whereas my approach is to get as close to the sources as possible, and have the sources as close to each other as possible -- to isolate where the difference comes from, or something -- Mitchell puts centuries between his sources, sometimes, and they don't necessarily all take place in the same universe. One source can read another as fiction.

I get such a kick from that.

I was going to criticise Cloud Atlas for it's last-page (okay, last two.) message, which is a moral turn-around from the world view we've been slowly construcing from the other 527 pages. What a gimmick/rip-off/joke/amateur, etc.

But actually though.

It sort of works. For a start, it makes the whole book less depressing (not that it was depressing.) It's a good message. Secondly, it's typical of the book so far to have the rug pulled from under our feet, truths turned into lies before our (very) eyes, etc etc. There is a second message in Cloud Atlas:

David Mitchell is cleverer than us.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Sex God

by Rob Bell.

This is another good example of my challenge this summer: to only read authors who I've not read before. Rob Bell is a preacher chap who I'm familiar with from his DVD'd Christian-monologue thought pieces... and clearly, this is not a book I would buy myself.

But it got a hell of a good review in a bookswap between friends, so here I am.

To save you reading right through to the end, here's the verdict: he makes two very good points, but he doesn't make enough of them.

The two points are these:

1. Humans are not angelic or apish, fundamentally. They're human. Trying to fit ourselves completely into either category is not going to end well. And so sex isn't ignored, nor is it idolised. Sex is.

Sex has a strong and wider-than-we-perhaps-realise influence over us, but it is not everything. This is not a prescription of how things should be, but a description of how things are. Accept that first, try and work with it -- sometimes around it -- rather than change it. You're not gonna change it.

2. Connection. Community. Etc. Bell actually reminded me of Vonnegut (!) once or twice with his emphasis (well... more on that word later) here. So much of human experience, but particularly what we want and need and desire and chase, come from the problem of being social beings living asocially.

Okay, those are obviously my words and not his. And yes, he talked about God more. But connecting with other people is Absolutely Exactly Everything.

I hope you'll agreee those are two good points. The problem with Sex God is that I could easily have missed them. Not because Bell doesn't emphasise them, but because he emphasises everything. Else. As. Well.

Just like that

every word of the sentence,

is it's own sentence.

Shatner, anyone?

Sometimes each clause of a sentence is it's own paragraph, too. We've seen the DVDs, we know that's how he talks. But the DVDs were 5 minutes, this is a whole book of it. Aside from being really annoying, it's really damaging as well. You can't do it every page, man. You. Just. Can't.

The thing about emphasis is it makes certain bits stand out. If you emphasise every point that you make? You're not really emphasising anything.

And this book needs some emphasising. Because everything he says comes back to those two points I mentioned -- humans being human, and connection being key. But Rob Bell doesn't seem to realise that. These points are at the heart of everything he says, but because every point, every anecdote, every sidetrack, and every minor detail is emphasised, it's hidden. I'm genuinely not sure if the author realises how coherent his arguments are.

They come across as a series of vaguely connected points about different aspects of sexuality, but it's smarter than that. If only he knew.