Reading round up

With a bit more time on my hands and a newly minted library card, I’ve been getting through a handful of novels a week lately. The downside of being dependent on the library is that I’m on the long, slow-moving list for the latest Galbraith, Rankin, Pat Barker, Sarah Perry and some others. I tried to add Tana French’s The Wych Elm but it’s not even published here yet, I think the US got it first. I’m simply steering clear of bookshops because my resolve will almost certainly crack.

But the positive is that I can take a punt on novels I’m not sure about or that are quite short. Full price, but c.300 page books are those that I’m least likely to buy, regardless of reviews, because they’ll be gone in an afternoon. If I can drop them back to the library a day or so later, then it doesn’t matter. Mostly, these experiments have worked out well.

In no particular order, here’s a bit of a round up,

Books I’ve loved

So Much Life Left Over – Louis de Bernieres. It’s the sequel to The Dust that Falls from Dreams, which I have on audio and could not get through. But, L de B was on Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast and this sounded great so I grabbed it and tore through it. Now I’ve gone back to TDTFFD.

Priestdaddy – Patricia Lockwood. I remember seeing loads of reviews of this when it came out, but it never got as far as my TBR list. It’s a really entertaining narration of the year or so Patricia and her husband moved back in with her parents while they were saving money. Her father is a Catholic priest (who converted after he was already  married with kids) and an extreme character who prefers to spend his time at home in as little clothing as possible, often playing loud electric guitar.

How to be a Woman – Caitlin Moran. Because the older I get, and the more pissed off I get, the more interested I get in feminism. Particularly as we seem to be moving backwards as all the poor, under-appreciated white men start to feel threatened by absolutely anything that suggests that society might move shift in the direction of equality, thereby curtailing their god-given right to behave however the fuck they want towards women at all times. Did I mention getting more pissed off?

How to be a  Woman is a collection of essays that interposes Moran’s tales of her own growing up with the current state of play, and what she learned along the way. And it is very fair, and very reasonable and entirely full of common sense. E.g. being pressured into make up or heels or fashionable clothing is all nonsense; of course women do not have to children to validate their existence. When I have got some money again, I will buy my own copy and carry it around with me at all times. And whenever things are bad I will open it at random and reflect on the wisdom within. It can be my personal tool for bibliomancy.

Uncommon Type – Tom Hanks. Which is his collection of short stories that you will already know about unless you’ve been under a rock, because they were rave reviewed everywhere. And justifiably so. Elegiac, touching, funny, sad, deftly written gems of stories. Plus lovely pictures of old typewriters.

Books that were meh

The Roanoke Girls – Amy Engel. Very much in the ‘give it a go’ category to start with, because I am so over these pseudo-thrillers with the twist or surprise ending. There wasn’t any surprise with this one and I feel as though I had read all its different elements about a dozen times before. Family mystery, missing girl, black sheep returns to home town to figure it all out and reconnects with old boyfriend who never got over her. See what I mean?

Fatal Inheritance – Rachel Rhys. So, to start with the title, the inheritance is not fatal. But I suppose Slightly Threatening Inheritance wasn’t as dramatic. Secondly, I can’t stand unbearably naive heroines who create problems for themselves by failing to say or do something any normal person would say or do. Thirdly, the fact that characters keep arguing as evidence of thinly disguised sexual tension only works if there is the slightest reason for one of them to fancy the other in the first place. Which is something else I also struggle with in respect to unbearably naive heroines.

Anyway, woman mysteriously inherits part share in house in south of France and escapes overbearing, dull husband to visit and try to find out why. Meets fellow inheritors and faithful family retainer, continues to dress badly and be unable to hold her drink but blossoms in sunshine etc. Dull, overbearing husband arrives to take her home (because she hasn’t bothered to communicate with him, so obvs.) and also to underline difference between grim home life in suburbs and glory of independent life in southern France. Mystery resolved.

Books that I abandoned/would have thrown across the room if it was my own copy

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar. What an awesome name the author has. So this I just abandoned, can’t tell you how far in because I couldn’t be bothered to check. After Mr Hancock has got his mermaid back from the brothel, having been shocked by explicit goings on. I think he’d just sold it and decided to build houses in London with the money. Abandoned because I realised that at best I didn’t care about any of the characters, at worst I disliked them. And I’m not hugely interested in the details of the C19th whoring scene.

Honeymoon – Tina Seskis. Full on shoddy thriller territory, this one. Cuts back and forth in time, between a woman on her honeymoon on which her husband has gone missing, and her earlier dating life. What drives me nuts in this type of literature is the artificiality of the attempted suspense, created by really obviously hiding some information. In this instance, it’s the name of the husband that is dodged, which means that all the dialogue, including the internal dialogue, avoids mentioning his name. Clunk. This is in order to protect the part-way through reveal that the husband is, in fact, the brother of the guy she was dating! Gasp! Or rather, snore, because you can’t deliberately avoid a character’s name for that long without it being a massive red flag that you’re trying to fuck with the reader’s expectations.

Dunno what happened. Don’t care.


Literary collective nouns

Again with the Twitter inspiration, this time a chat with @Sophie_Gee. She is thinking about her first foray into Trollope and the discussion eventually led to ‘What is the collective noun for a shelf of Trollopes?’ (because, when I reorganised my books alphabetically, by good fortune Trollope ended up all together on the shelf at the top of the stairs.)

This seems like a good game to play on a rainy day, so here are a few literary collective nouns off the top of my head. Anyone got any others?

  1. A bordello of Trollopes
  2. A moue of Maughams
  3. A reticule of Austens
  4. A conclave of Greenes
  5. A scandal of Ravens
  6. A fleet of O’Brians. Obviously.
  7. A Widmerpool of Powells
  8. A chamber of Galsworthys
  9. An incompletion of Martins
  10. A murder of Rankins

And a few more, from various other people:

  • A quest of Tolkiens (colleague at work)
  • A dystopia of Orwells (colleague at work)
  • A confectionery of Prousts (Ms Gee)
  • A disgust of Selfs (Ms Gee)
  • A machismo of Hemingways (Ms Gee)
  • A casket of Jewells (me)
  • A cad of Frasers (colleague)

One of those who/what have you read lists

that we readerly types find almost irresistible, especially when lacking inspiration for an actual post (in my own case, not in that of Thomas At My Porch, whence I stole this.)

The Sunday Times 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945

(There are some women on the list, I presume someone at The Times was fired over that but it’s too late now.)
1. Philip Larkin – read
2. George Orwell – read
3. William Golding – read
4. Ted Hughes – read
5. Doris Lessing -read
6. J. R. R. Tolkien  – read
7. V. S. Naipaul – I will one day, though
8. Muriel Spark – read
9. Kingsley Amis – might have done, but have him permanently confused with the other Amis and don’t care enough to disambiguate them.
10. Angela Carter – read
11. C. S. Lewis – read
12. Iris Murdoch – read
13. Salman Rushdie – haven’t read and no intention either
14. Ian Fleming – read
15. Jan Morris – read
16. Roald Dahl – read
17. Anthony Burgess – read
18. Mervyn Peake – read
19. Martin Amis – see Kingsley Amis, above
20. Anthony Powell – read
21. Alan Sillitoe – nope
22. John Le Carré – read
23. Penelope Fitzgerald – read
24. Philippa Pearce – read
25. Barbara Pym – read
26. Beryl Bainbridge – don’t think I’ve even tried
27. J. G. Ballard – read
28. Alan Garner – read
29. Alasdair Gray – started
30. John Fowles – read
31. Derek Walcott – no
32. Kazuo Ishiguro – read
33. Anita Brookner – I’m pretty sure I’ve read something by her
34. A. S. Byatt – read
35. Ian McEwan – read
36. Geoffrey Hill – no
37. Hanif Kureishi – read but will never do so again
38. Iain Banks – read
39. George Mackay Brown – read
40. A. J. P. Taylor – read; but then, he was one of my History textbooks, and that was pre-GCSE.
41. Isaiah Berlin – ought to
42. J. K. Rowling – read
43. Philip Pullman – read one. As far as I know, I remain the only person in the entire world who doesn’t like His Dark Materials.
44. Julian Barnes – read
45. Colin Thubron – don’t think so
46. Bruce Chatwin – read
47. Alice Oswald – never heard of her
48. Benjamin Zephaniah – god, no
49. Rosemary Sutcliff – read
50. Michael Moorcock – read

Anyone care to join in?

New books roundup

With the inevitability of rain on a Bank Holiday, I went to Blackwells. I suppose I could have held off for a week, but that would have been deferring a pleasure and who knows what might happen in the interim? No, I can’t condone that sort of risky behaviour.

So I drifted up to the classic literature section (2nd floor, on the right), which used only to house the standard Oxfords and Penguins. It has gradually expanded to include Persephones, university press editions, NYRB and other imprints suggestive of the good stuff. Perhaps it’s worth waiting until an author’s works graduate from contemporary fiction on the first floor up to the second? It would be one way of cutting out a lot of the dross, although possibly rather a slow one. On the other hand, still no Simon Raven to be seen, which leads me to say again to Random House/Vintage: ‘Guys. WTF?’

Anyway, these are the results of my very restrained book snaffling activities:

Swan Song – Edmund Crispin – which I’ve not seen in print before, and which wasn’t one of his best. I am sad to say that once you get past Holy Disorders, The Moving Toyshop and Love Lies Bleeding, the rest always fall a little short. That fact will in no way prevent me from continuing to buy them as I come across them, though.

Nightingale Wood – Stella Gibbons – Cold Comfort Farm is another one of those books that one should buy in multiple editions and keep on hand in various locations in case of emergencies (bad day, being sick, rain, snow, unspecified feeling out of sortsness…) I’ve been looking for more Gibbons on and off for years, and I’d heard rumours that Nightingale Wood was available. See how sneakily Virago have made it look like chick lit so that it will actually sell?  Anyway, written in 1938 and a most satisfactory romantic tale against all class-based odds, with some sharp social perception and spot on writing to boot. I think Persephone missed a trick, it would sit well in their list alongside Marghanita Laski’s The Village. Gibbons is funny too. As one chapter ends with some rather dramatic news, the next opens ‘It would take Shakespeare and Proust, working in shifts, to cope with the reaction when this piece of news burst upon The Eagles.’ I love that.

The Crowded Street – Winifred Holtby. Which I have not yet read, but that distinctive grey and cream jacket is by now a hallmark for reliability.

In Praise of Older Women – Stephen Vicinczey (which in fact, came off one of the contemporary fiction tables; hoist on the petard of my own book snobbery) – So, the photo above was taken in the Grand Cafe, where I went in order to drink tea and gloat over my new purchases. Vicinczey was up first so of course I just dipped in. And then it was an hour and a half later, and the tea was long gone. I was utterly beguiled. And now I direct you to what John Self at The Asylum had to say about it, because he’s a much better reviewer than I am and his comments are what made me grab it as soon as I saw it.

Of Love and Hunger – Julian Maclaren-Ross – Ripped from the shelf before I’d had time even to finish reading the author’s name in full. I’ve been looking for something by him for ages. I was slightly afeared he would be a bit too Hamilton-esque (good but gruelling), which he was not. Much more heart to this doomed love story. Plus, evil Sukie quotes from Letters from Iceland, so Maclaren-Ross was probably a fan. It might just be me but I think it’s rare to see a contemporary reaction to Auden/MacNeice?

To Bed with Grand Music – Marghanita Laski. That Persephone stamp again, plus I’ve thoroughly enjoyed her other books. This was also very good in a different way, and it’s not surprising it got pounded at the time of publication because it doesn’t at all fit in with the prevailing stiff-upper-lip-everyone-did-their-bit-brave-wives-and-mothers- keeping-the-home-fires-burning line that one expects of WWII era writing. Deborah Robertson is young, stupid and self-interested, capable of viewing her own motives in the rosiest of lights in order to get what she wants. And pretty quickly after her husband leaves for the East, she wants to get away from her young son and have what fun there is to be had in London. Life doesn’t have to be all rationing and austerity if you’re a manipulative slut who is prepared to accommodate a string of foreign men who are all in London for the short term.

Dark Places – Gillian Flynn – which I snagged on a return trip when I needed something to read on the flight. Flynn’s debut, Sharp Objects, was a nastily compelling tale of small town Southern fucked-upness, with murder, family secrets and an amateur detective heroine who could barely stay sober enough to see what was going on in front of her. Dark Places? Not so good, trying for the same effect and just not quite getting there. If she does a third I’ll give it a go, but I’m not waiting for it in the same way as I am for Tana French.

I have just realised that there’s a lot of linking going on in this post, not to mention something of an insight into my mental literary map. Secondly, I mention gloating, and it strikes me that the lack of such possibilities with ebooks is another strike against them. Because for me, the book gloating is much to do with the cover, the paper, the design, the font, the tactility of the physical object itself, and it is one of the joys of purchasing. I throw this out as a genuine question: Can one gloat over an ebook?

Ebooks again

Another, rather important reason I won’t be switching to ebooks any time soon is because most of what I want to read isn’t available. I’ve been checking every now and again since the Kindle was first released and the pool still seems to be frighteningly shallow. It’s easy enough to paddle around in the NY Times bestsellers, but I’m not all that interested in golfing memoirs, self-help or James Patterson Inc. The ability to get instant downloads is no selling point at all when the selection isn’t there to support the functionality.

A random test, running down the top 10 titles on my current TBR list:

  1. Conceit – Mary Novik – available! Ooh, starting off strong. (And hat tip to Raych for bringing this to my attention. Novel about John Donne’s daughter? Of course!)
  2. Collected Memoirs – Julian MacLaren Ross – nope. Well, plenty left. (At a guess, this came from Slightly Foxed. Must bite the bullet and renew my subscription, but blimey, that international postage hurts. On the other hand, such joy when the little fox arrives in the postbox.)
  3. Patrick Hamilton: A Life – Sean French – no. Nor is the more recent 2008 biography by Nigel Jones available. O-kay. (Obviously I want this because I’ve been working my way through Hamilton’s work. I’ve just added Gaslight and Rope to my Netflix queue.)
  4. The Very Thought of You – Rosie Alison – no. Sigh. Hang on a minute, this was on the Orange shortlist. WTF?
  5. A Profane Wit: The Life of John Rochester, Earl of Wilmot – James William Johnson – any guesses? That’s right, unavailable. (Mr B threw this one my way and  I have a known soft spot for a rake. Although, less so for one whose nose fell off because of syphilis.)
  6. The Poison Tree – Erin Kelly. Unavailable. Really? (I’ve got a feeling this was from a crime list put together over at A Work in Progress.)
  7. Skippy Dies – Paul Murray – bugger me, there’s a Kindle edition! (The Asylum bears the blame for adding this to my list.)
  8. Hyddenworld – William Horwood – and again! Making up some ground. (This is from, erm, oh yes, Eve’s Alexandria)
  9. Black Juice – Margo Lanagan – yes, available. Is there hope? (Bookslut.)
  10. Another Self – James Lee-Milne – er, no. (Slightly Foxed again.)

So, a resounding 4 out of 10 for Kindle availability. Which is not comparing well with 10 out of 10 for print availability, is it?

E-books and e-readers: a mini-rant

Pah. So I’m going to ‘fess up and say that even though I work in digital publishing, I don’t really get e-books. I’m approaching them from a consumer perspective, and every time I look at an e-book I am awash with an ‘Is that it?’ feeling. I’m not specific about how they could be different (but off the top of my head: linking, design, colour, linking, linking, linking, for fuck’s sake there’s a web of knowledge out there), I just think that at present they are boringly flat compared to print. I know publishers are starting to talk about ‘enhanced ebooks’ but even the expression is dull, and the idea itself seems to be more about justifying enhanced prices for the publisher than adding anything of actual value to the purchaser. It gets worse when they start blithering on about author interviews, and I bet they’re adding those sodding reading group guides that are so reminiscent of GCSE English classes and basically digitizing all the crap with which many of them currently add pointless page count. Guys: if I want to know about the author, I’ll follow them on Twitter. If you tell me you can integrate a Twitter feed with your e-book, I might open one eye in your general direction.

With print I get a pleasing tactile experience, and that enticing new or old, dusty book smell, and cover design, and sometimes bookmarks that match the endpapers, and sometimes dustjackets that are so screamingly horrible I have to throw them away before my eyes start bleeding (cough, The Gone Away World, cough); I get to borrow and lend the physical thing, and I own it so that if the publisher nipped round and took it off my shelf that would be theft. And then, when the initial romance is over, I can bask in the rosy afterglow of having shelves and shelves of lovely objects to look at. So tell me again how you’re competing with that?

I might be persuaded if there was a good gadget, but there’s not an e-reader out there that I find a compelling device. You can try to prise my iPhone from my cold, dead hands (and you will fail because I am totally taking it to the afterlife with me if I have to pay an extra obol to the ferryman for the privilege; there’s an app for that), but even my darling let me down as an e-book reader. (Or maybe it was reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover that did it? Hee-larious. And then just dreadful.)

I’m in the right demographic, I have what is technically termed a bitch of a commute, I read a lot, I’m impatient and I want what I want now, if not before. I should presumably have beaten a path to Amazon to get a Kindle, but please, no one even give me one as a gift. I never hear anyone say their Kindle is a sexy bit of kit; they say ‘It’s so practical’. Which it is. And beige. And black and white. And…zzzzzzzzz… It is the Birkenstock of the gadget world as far as I can tell.

Apple were supposed to save e-books and the world as we know it with the iPad. The iPad is at least pretty. In fact, it is pretty enough that I suspect one could accidentally overlook the fact that it doesn’t have a real use. It’s big and expensive and wait, I’m supposed to have that as well as my phone and my laptop? Eh?

No. And no again. I do understand that these are necessary steps on the way to the eventual technical answer. I don’t believe that answer will be the third device, even if Apple shrink and cheapen the iPad and deliver it in as many colours as the new Daleks. Meanwhile, I really don’t believe that doing a poor job of replicating in digital ink what print delivers so, so well is any kind of answer. It’s just lazy.

Daphne by Justine Picardie

Which I got for free from Bloomsbury as an LT Early Reviewer’s copy.

There are two interleaved narratives in this book.  Narrative the first is that of Daphne du Maurier and her correspondence with John Symington about Branwell Bronte. Symington is a dodgy character, a manuscript thief who has built up a collection of Bronte materials over the years and now sits in his study, bemoaning his lost reputation. Du Maurier plans an autobiography of Branwell and turns to Symington for information, research and such books as he will sell her. The second narrative is set some 50 years later, when a young researcher who is obsessed with du Maurier, finds some of the letters. So there are fictional letters and then a fictional diary and didn’t we do this already with Possession?

I’m always chary of books that fictionalise real people, and I just couldn’t get into this one. None of the characters felt real, and the story seemed awkwardly contrived. The second narrative in particular put my teeth on edge: spineless young woman (SYW) marries older man with fascinating previous wife named Rachel, and then gets all insecure about it. Even though the narrator herself points out the irony that she, the du Maurier obsessive, is living some sort of poor man’s version of the Rebecca story, it doesn’t make it any less heavy-handed. And, it’s no wonder her husband is getting annoyed with her, because she insists on behaving with the emotional maturity of a character from Twilight. I mean, look love, if you’re that concerned about Rachel’s bedroom still being the dark red of the room in which Jane Eyre was locked up one day (gratuitous literary reference to prove serious academic credentials despite DDM crush), then nip yourself down to Homebase and Buy. Some. Paint. Also, email Rachel to tell her if she doesn’t come and get her stuff, you’re taking it to Oxfam.

And really, nothing happens and I’m really not sure what the point is. Daphne exchanges some dull letters with Symington and writes her Branwell biography; SYW mopes around, cries, obsesses, writes copiously in her extremely boring diary through which her part of the story is told, and has brief outing with Rachel during with R apparently swipes some mss from the Bronte parsonage at Haworth. Which is just what she would do because she is stock dishonest academic character 2B.

She was wearing a scarlet silk wrap dress, with smooth bare legs and high heeled strappy leather sandals that showed off her beautifully painted red toenails. All of which might sound absurd for a trip to Yorkshire, but she looked entirely at ease, somehow more herself than anyone else I’d ever met…

I don’t care if it is June, she is going to freeze in Haworth. A couple of pages later ‘she raised one of her elegantly shaped eyebrows…’ . Well, of course she did. I’m pretty sure she gestured with one of her perfectly manicured hands as well, but thank god that was off screen.

Is there supposed to be a literary mystery around the swiped Bronte stuff? Am I supposed to care about du Maurier’s collapsing marriage and own episodes of paranoia? I just can’t. And now I feel sorry for Daphne du Maurier, who may have been a cast-iron bitch at times, but was a good writer and didn’t deserve to be turned into cardboard and stuck in this novel.