Tuesday, 31 May 2011

All Fun And Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye

Christopher Brookmyre

Like with every Brookmyre I've ever read, all I could think of after finishing this was how soon I could get another Brookmyre to read. If I saw a granny reading one in the street within an hour of finishing this, I would have robbed her. These books are drugs.

I think I know why. There's a brutal humour, cleverness and charm in Brookmyre's writing, but there's something else too. A third of the way through All Fun And Games, I faced up to the truth that I was reading a thriller. There. I said it.

I don't tend to read thrillers or crime novels. And maybe it's because my system is so unused to them that when I'm tricked into reading one via a very non-genre example, they hit hard. I'm like a teetotaller who's had his water bottle switched with Vodka.

It's good news, I think. As long as I don't become an alcoholic and only read high-percentage books which get you drunk instantly and straightforwardly. It's good that I have that option, now; sometimes you need it. Brookmyre is my crime/thriller writer, and I can go there whenever I choose.

Which is why it's worrying news that I saw his latest on the New In table at Waterstones yesterday, and it was by 'Chris' not 'Christopher,' and was boasting a 'new direction.' The new direction sounded like it was focusing on the serious-crime side, and forgetting the humour and blistering originality that first got me interested.

I'm ten Brookmyre-novels away from catching up, anyway, so it's a long time before I'll have to explore the new direction. I just hope this isn't a gateway drug situation.

Changes of direction, do you follow them? Do you buy the latest from your favourite author because you like his/her writing, or because you like her/his direction? Or is it the way they dress?

Friday, 27 May 2011

The Writing's on the Window

Literary Blog Hop

Talk about one author that you love and why his or her writing is unique. Please be specific.

I'm gonna talk about David Lodge, because a) I love him and b) I never see him mentioned anywhere.

Often writing that is 'unique' -- and especially writing that is unique enough to be noticed and discussed in a blog post -- can be affected. Maybe I mean a less pejorative word than affected, because some of my favourite authors do it. What I mean is, the writing itself is openly, forwardly the point (or part of it). A Vonnegut plot written by anyone else would not a Vonnegut novel make: it's obvious from the first page that how he tells it -- and what drawings there are, and where he puts the asteriks -- are part of the experience.

David Lodge completely does this, and completely doesn't. Orwell said good prose is a window pane, and Lodge strives for that -- you don't notice it, you notice what you see through it. It's harder than it sound. But even so, there are plenty of authors who have a talent for clear prose that puts narrative and character centre stage, right? So that's not unique, even if he does it uniquely well.

The singularity enters when we realise that Lodge is a massive fan (also known as wind turbine) of writing. It's his favourite subject. And so his window pane isn't quite as simple as it looks, because he can't resist playing round with the fundamental idea of writing/writer/reader/page.

In Thinks..., the entire book is a stream of consciousness narrative recorded to dictaphone by a professor of cognitive science, in which he thinks alot about what and why he is recording (writing) it as he goes along. In Therapy, the narrator is self-consciously writing the book, he knows not why, and he openly plays around with writing from other people's perspectives, in an exercise for his therapist. In Deaf Sentence, the narrator decides to tell part of his novel-journal in the third person, because first is too embarrassing.

So Lodge manages the gymnastic paradox of completely clear writing, which doesn't get in the way, with an obsessive, occasionally academic, constantly fascinating study of WRITING at the same time. Lovely.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Burley Cross Postbox Theft

Nicola Barker

After the massive, incomprehensible, hilarious and bruising Darkmans, Nicola Barker decided to write an almost linear, almost straightforward novel. Then she found herself disappearing down 27 separate fantastic and obtuse tangents within that relatively straightforward, arced novel. Then she went nuts, got rid of the original novel, and just kept the tangents.

I have no evidence for any of that, of course, but that's the story I back-engineered from Burley Cross Postbox Theft. It is, if anything, more marvellously scattered than Darkmans; Barker plays on the esoteric, and makes the lack of connections as much a braggable feature of the novel as the rare/barely there connections.

The conceit of BCPT is that a bag of letters, stolen from the rusting postbox, is found abandoned by the criminal in a back alley. It's these letters, along with bookending missives from the two police officers trying to solve the crime, that make up the book. It's the perfect plan for Barker, who gets to flex her fearsome muscles in constructing wild and vibrant voices. Within the 27 letters, there is enough room to roam far, far away; and enough constriction to keep the book from ballooning into a four-inch spine.

The lack of exceptional length is really important. Because not only does Barker roam/tangent/scatter/explode more than ever before, but she also ties the whole thing together. That she even tried for an 'ending' completely surprised me -- I was fully expecting a non-ending to match the non-narrative before it. But end it she did, surpassing anything I originally expected from this book.

I demanded the impossible after reading Darkmans in January. I wanted Barker -- or anyone, really -- to make virtuoso explosivity of prose the heart of a novel, to completely disprove the need for an actual ending by being so spectacular -- and then to give me the ending to match the spectacular body. And here it is, the impossible, Burley Cross Postbox Theft.

Now I want the sort of rare steak that makes me irresistable to women, and leaves next weeks lottery numbers written in blood on the plate.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood

I like reading books in series, but they tend to be the exceptions among my library. When it happens, I am usually acutely aware of the fact that the book I am reading is one of a series; and it will be a series I follow, buy, read, sequentially.

Nothing about Atwood's The Year of the Flood screamed series at me, so none of the above was going on. If somebody had suggested to me that the book was in some way a follow on, I would have laughed, a little cruelly, perhaps, in their face. Such was my confidence.

So, obviously, it is a follow on, after all. Amazon reviewers (where were you before I read this?) make it very clear that this novel contains spoilers for Oryx and Crake -- the next of Atwood's novels, coincidentally, on my random invisible read-next list.

It doesn't really matter. The books are, as far as I can tell, free-standing. Certainly, the narratives are separate, until near the end, and any character overlap didn't stop me enjoying The Year of the Flood independently. And there's a lot to enjoy, all round: Atwood's fully realised, marvellously embellished future world; her serious playfulness; the inherent page-momentum; the messiness.

So it doesn't really matter. Only, of course, it slightly does. Because as I read, I became suspicious. Engaged as I was with the novel, a layer of my attention was taken by the Mystery of the Possible Prequel. And my attention couldn't afford the loss; the book already contains one attention-splicer -- the authorially indulgent sermons and songs, which manage to punctuate (but little else) the more interesting bits.

I accuse myself of cowardice. I lost a good few days to this novel, but it didn't quite reach the heights/hit the mark/pick the metaphor that I was hoping for. And here I am, trying to blame its failure on my own reading-order cock up. I don't think this stands up in Book Court.

How much does readerly context affect a novel's percieved quality? I mean, do I like books more when I'm on holiday? In the bath? In years Norwich City get promoted to the flipping Premier League?

Monday, 16 May 2011


Writers' stories of their public shame, edited by Robin Robertson.

I didn't believe in schadenfreude until I read this. For example: even though it's the funniest show on earth, I have to force myself to sit through an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm: I don't get any pleasure from other people's misfortune.

But most of these stories of awkwardness, disappointment and embarrassment gave me a warm feeling inside, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's jealousy? These authors have 'made it', so they somehow deserve it. Maybe it's optimism? If these idiots can make it, so can I. Or maybe it's recognition. These particular neuroticisms are mine as well! I've certainly picked the right ambition.

There's another pleasure here, besides schadenfreude: I love reading about writers. I read about writers all the time, but those accounts are usually about very successful writers, or newly practising writers, and are sometimes fictional. The writers and poets in Mortification cover the wide gamut of success, but are mostly from the obscure middle: they write, do tours and do readings, but they are not well-known.

For someone who wants to be a writer but is scared of success, it's great to know that this strangely obscure middle exists, and functions, and is even fairly well-populated. It's less great to realise how few of it's members I've ever heard of -- and I am a representative of the bookier end of the public spectrum.Maybe I do want success.

Still. It's good to know writers spend the times between writing getting fully immersed in mortification, over-analyzing the minutest moments in their lives, and honing every minor event into a perfectly sleek anecdote. Once I sell a novel, I'm there. I won't have to change at all.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop

This Hop's Question:

What books have you read that have been hyped as literary and, in your opinion, were not?

I can't think of any books that I've read where I've been sold 'literary' but haven't actually got it (though I'm sure they exist). It's not normal for a book to be marketed as literary when it isn't -- for one thing, that's a very short term strategy. The (few) people who buy because of literary hype will soon find out. Secondly, LITERARY is not a big mover. Prize-winning literary, yes, but on it's own the L-word scares off many more than it brings in.

What I can think of, though, are books not marketed or talked about as literary but which have, once innocently opened, great literary qualities. Further evidence for my brand new theory (that I already disagree with, if only out of habit) that literaryism is a turn-off, and should be smuggled in without the reader at first -- or ideally, ever -- realising.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Hunter S. Thompson

I know they made a film out of this in the 90s, but I can't get my head around that. Not because it's an unfilmable mess; I have no trouble imagining this as a film. Almost the opposite. I can picture the film exceptionally well, because I've already seen Withnail & I half a dozen times.

Two drugged and drunk friends go on a crazy roadtrip and mourn the passing of the 1960s, and all those years entailed. Yep, that's the same story. As Withnail and Fear and Loathing are both at least 'based on' true events, though, I'm not calling plagiarism (except in the way that all non-fiction is plagiarism, by stealing bits from real life.)

The fictional truth/factual nonsense angle is undiluted in Fear and Loathing. This is, after all, the textbook example of Gonzo journalism (it was only in the Post Script material in this Harper Perennial edition that I learned that Gonzo journalism wasn't Thompson's own coinage.)

Maybe the lure of Gonzo journalism was contextual to its time. From my perspective, though, there is little that is surprising or original in it. I'd be massively surprised if it really did only take hold in the late 60s -- it's a fundamental tool of storytelling (or truth-telling, whatever) -- just having an identity crisis.

That's not to say Hunter Thompson's own take on the mongrel approach is not frantically exciting and readable. Fear and Loathing paints a very different picture of the end-of-the-decade malaise than that found in the rain-filled English Withnail. Thompson is looking back, mourning the loss of the bigger thing; the movement, the intangible moment when everyone who was there was part of the same cresting wave. Withnail's journey is a much more personal one; looking forward, but not with positivity. He is staring down the barrel of a hopeless life, the decade after Hope reached an all time international high.

How much of that difference in perspective is genuine, and how much is some Gonzo insinuation from the weather the two stories both fight and embody, I wouldn't care to say.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Things I Don't Like

Mr Zimmerman over at The Nude Orc Review of Books posted an excellent list of his literary nemeses, and I'm not only mentioning that so I get to write the word 'nemeses'. I'm mentioning it because I read the post this morning, and spent the day at work trying to figure out who I disliked in Bookworld.

It turns out very few authors have irked me. I could only really think of Martin Amis, and I don't have a 'why' for that. So I came home with a list of literary ephemera that gets me all peeved and shit:

Harry Potter Hype Hate
It's absolutely okay to not like Harry Potter. I think I would like it less if I hadn't been 10 when the first book came out. But lots of literary smirkers in my circle hate on it, not because it's bad, but because it's popular.

It's a kids' series. It's not meant to be great prose or appealingly existential. Acknowledge it for what it is; don't call people stupid for reading it, even if they're adults; try not to sound so bitter; admit that the story is a tiny bit fantastic; be super-excited that books can occassionally reach film-levels of public love; judge less.

The Closed Cirle
This sequel to the fantastic Rotter's Club is terrible. Not only is it a bad book following up on a good book, it is a bad book deliberately out to spoil what made the first book special. Sequels in general: only go there if the second book is twice as good as the first. If you, the author, don't think it's twice as good, then the reader won't find it half as good.

As Good As FAMOUS AUTHOR Or Your Money Back
I see this on the front of books all the time. Do publishers really think they can accurately and objectively quantify GOOD? If you have that superpower, don't use it to sell a few extra copies of the last Mark Billingham, fools! Use it to conquer the moral quandary of multi-cultural relativism, or start the perfect society on a farm in Scotland.

In any decent-sized bookshop, there are hundreds of books on which a critic or fellow author has drooled this most false and demanding word. I would stake a limb that there are more 'unmissable' books than there are hours in the average lifetime, and who could read War & Jest (or whatever) in an hour? Let's be realistic, people.

And while we're on press quotes: Will the Daily Mail stop employing insomniacs? Having 'it kept me up all night/I couldn't put it down all night/I lost sleep by not putting it down all throughout the hours of darkness' on every single copy of every single thriller/crime in the UK does not help anybody discern anything.

Blessed vitriol. Does anyone else get madder at small things like this than big things like Osama, Alternative Voting or Cormac McCarthy?

Monday, 2 May 2011

Empire of the Sun

JG Ballard

You can't read everything. Trying to would be like visiting every village in Norfolk -- you'd stop hanging around for long, you'd concentrate on passing through as quickly as possible. Then someone would show you a map of England, and your heart would sink. Then you'd find an atlas of the world. Scary.

And because you can't read everything, you have to spend some brainpower deciding what to invest your time in. Certain genres are ruled out, at the probable cost of many great books; certain authors sound oddly appealing, others are intuitively ignored. Specific books are tried, and the rest of the author's canon may depend on the success or failure of that book.

So when I found myself frustrated by Ballard's The Drought, I naturally asssumed it was curtains for the rest of his ouvre, regardless of the beautiful covers and unique reviews. But another complicating factor came into play: blog comments. Ballard was ardently defended by his fans, in the face of my criticisms. And as I had Empire of the Sun sitting on my shelf, a second chance for JG didn't seem entirely out of the question.

Well. I am now a fully paid-up member of The Second Chance Club (except for the paid-up part). Empire of the Sun paints a vivid picture of the incoherent, chaotic and arcless nature of a world at war, and the fragments of order held disproportionately dear to those caught in the middle; and it shows all that by being all that. As Jim slowly adapts himself to the war world, the book follows. Its own past becomes irrelevant, its own future becomes a tool to keep heads up in the present.

The symbollism that so bothered me in Ballard's earlier novel is here a more succesful, subservient player. Jim's vain struggle for sense in the senseless world is aptly illustrated by patterns and parrallels that are not really there, that lead nowhere, or that only feedback onto themselves, endlessly.

The lesson here is not only to allow second chances; but to stick up for the authors you love, to argue and insist and enthuse enough that our friends and lovers and colleagues give them another go. I'm left wondering how many friends have left Pratchett by the wayside because they read The Colour of Magic first...