Archive for the ‘Writers’ Category

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 It’s a funny thing about series. What is original and unique can become familiar and even – dare I say it? – stale as a series goes on. They become perhaps over-thought or overworked like a piece of dough that’s had the life kneaded out of it.

I wonder whether that’s what has happened with this book.

I have thoroughly enjoyed Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series up to this point. The genii loci of the rivers of London created a mythic and original take on London; the Faceless Man was a formidably distant and shadowy nemesis; Nightingale was enigmatic; Grant himself was engaging and a pleasant narrative voice. Foxglove Summer, which bravely took Grant out of London, worked brilliantly by keeping a freshness which the return to London in The Hanging Tree seemed to lose.  

I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s a good book in that slightly niche fantasy detective genre. It was just a little familiar and tired.

In this book, Grant is called in to what appears to be a drug overdose which implicates one of Lady Tyburn’s daughters – Olivia Jane McAlliste-Thames – as the supplier of those drugs. A convoluted series of plot twists involving a lost Principia by Newton dealing with alchemy brings in the newly reconstructed Lesley May and the Faceless Man who is eventually in this book unmasked but who, as usual, escapes in the end.

As usual, there are a couple of nice set pieces; Nightingale again exudes the potential for massive power but is never seen doing it; there’s the usual credible police procedures. And it was all decent enough. But familiar. A little bit by-the-numbers.

The other thing that really irked me was that Peter Grant frequently did things with other people and always uses the “Beverley and me …” subject construction. Always. I think without exception. Maybe I’m getting old and I know it’s to create a voice but it irked.

I will still follow the series through to the end: I am that invested in the characters. But I hope there’s some more joy and life in the next one.

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Authenticity is often what we look for in a book. Is the setting authentic? Are my characters authentic? Is my voice authentic? Is my lexis authentic? It doesn’t take much sometimes to pull a reader from a novel and inauthenticity can do it. I’ve still got concerns about the use of the f-word in Hilary Mantel’s glorious Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Some writers embrace otherness and the inauthentic to create something lyrical and beautiful. Others like Jim Crace’s Harvest and Gift Of Stones are credible and authentic but we never lose track of the fact that these are novels.

Gramme Macrae Burnet goes the other way: His Bloody Project drips with authenticity to the point where it blurs the boundaries of fiction and history. Purporting to be a collection of found historical documents, found when 

“In the spring of 2014 I embarked on a project to find out a little about my grandfather, Donald ‘Trump’ Macrae, who was born in 1890 in Applecross…”

In addition to this preface, Burnet embeds his novel in reality: the villages of Applecross and Culduie are real; the criminologist James Bruce Thomson is real; the grim and ungenerous land is real; the daily trials and hard work required to eke a living from that land is utterly credible and authentic. The temptation is to accept the historical authenticity as fact, to turn to Google or Wikipedia to discover which characters are actually real!

On 12th April 1869, Roderick Macrae – inhabitant of Culduie in the far reaches of Scotland – killed Lachlan Mackenzie – known as Lachlan Broad. Murdered him and his sister and his infant son. Bludgeoned them with a croman and flaughter. Don’t worry, a glossary is provided in the novel.

No spoilers here: we learn that in the opening pages of this Man Booker shortlisted novel. Unlike most crime fiction (and that – along with other things – is what this is), there is never any doubt as to who committed the crime: Macrae is discovered covered in blood and admitting the deed. It is not so much a whodunit as a whydunit. And perhaps an exploration of how impossible a task it is to know the contents of another man’s heart or mind. Because Macrae’s only defence is his own insanity.

And I’m not sure we ever receive any answer: the witness statements and testimony and expert opinion and especially Macrae’s own purportedly personal account all testify to the impossibility of knowing. They confuse and contradict and complement each other throughout.

There is so much to admire here: the wealth of narrative voices, all of which are again authentic; it’s a compelling exploration of the deprivation of the crofters’ life; it’s an examination of the misery that an abuse of power can create. It is comical in the second half’s account of the trial, and absurd – especially when Macrae’s father visits the factor to discover and inspect the regulations under which his tenancy is governed, having been challenged for breaking them, and is told that

“a person wishing to consult the regulations could only wish to do so in order to test the limits of the misdemeanours he might commit.”

It is a fascinating, although ultimately bleak and harrowing glimpse into history and a thoughtful game between Burnet and the reader exploring that boundary between history and story. And also a cracklingly good read behind the literary mind games.

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Once again, a deliciously striking cover for Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, and the most recent entry into the Hogarth Shakespeare Project… and the first in the project that I’ve read.

Now, I have a confession to make before going much further: I’ve never really got Margaret Atwood. I’ve wanted to; I’ve tried to. I really have. The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Blind Assassin, The Heart Goes Last… I’ve found them all daunting and I’m not usually daunted by books. Maybe daunting isn’t the right work. I’ve just never got into them however hard I’ve tried.

But this one, I actually really loved!

A re-invention of The Tempest, Hag-Seed is set in Makeshiweg, Canada where Prospero is re-imagined as Felix, the director of a local theatre festival, usurped by the Machiavellian machinations of a deliciously corporate Tony, an act which similarly de-rails his plans for a production of The Tempest. And within that circularity is encapsulated a taste of the delightful self-referentiality of the novel: theatres and productions and prisons and revisions and re-versions of the play multiply dizzyingly. Felix seemed perpetually with one-foot in the play: even before the villainous firing, he had lost his wife and named his daughter Miranda.

And Miranda is the heart of this novel: unlike Prospero’s daughter, Felix lost his own child and conjures her up as a memory which elides into an hallucination and slips into ghostliness through the novel. Simultaneously present and absent. Desperately clung to by Felix. Student and teacher.

Despite the ridiculous over-the-top caricature which Felix can become

His Ariel, he’d decided, would be played by a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments. His Caliban would be a scabby street person – black or maybe Native – and a paraplegic as well, pushing himself around the stage on an oversized skateboard.

Atwood truly creates empathy and real pain in his oh-too-real experience of his grief as a father. At times, it feels touched by Hamlet rather than just The Tempest.

Felix slinks into a self-imposed exile following his firing and spends twelve years following the evil Tony’s rise to government and slowly plotting his revenge, a revenge which requires the Fletcher Correctional Facility to achieve via a Shakespeare Literacy Programme in which the inmates perform a Shakespeare play each year. As Tony and his cronies circulate and plan to visit Fletcher, Felix uses The Tempest as a tool with which to exact his revenge in a dark and drug-fuelled finale.

Personally, I preferred the build-up and rehearsal to the actual performance of the play and the enactment of the revenge. I loved the way that the inmates who were Felix’s cast toned down the self-indulgent theatricality of his original ideas and added rap, cynicism, kitsch and machismo to his re-invented re-invention. The actress Anne-Marie – a feisty and cool kick-ass dancer who can hold her own in the prison – becomes his Miranda; his Miranda becomes his Ariel.

At heart, the novel is an achingly painful and beautiful farewell from a father to his memories of his daughter and an ownership of grief. The final farewell genuinely brought tears to the eyes.

Other entries to the Hogarth Shakespeare Project include Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew). I look forward to picking these up and, when they’re released, Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear to come.

 

 

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Some books need more of an exercise in imagination than others. A bigger suspension of disbelief.

An unborn narrator, for example, is one such.

And not just unborn in a metaphorical sense but literally foetal.

The narrator of McEwan’s most recent book – recently serialised on Radio 4 – is a third-trimester Hamlet, set in modern London, recounting his mother’s and uncle’s attempts to usurp his father. And once you’ve created such an unconventional narrator, I suppose it makes complete sense – once your reader has abandoned that much disbelief – to make him very articulate, learned and astute. McEwan tosses in the occasional nod to Radio 4 podcasts as an explanation for the narrator’s knowledge, but – to be honest – who needs it? It’s a talking foetus; why not an articulate one?

It is a particularly intriguing notion for me at the moment. However indulgently and self-consciously artificially written, the concept of a vivid and thoughtful interiority of the foetus drives home to me: my own three-year old is smart, clever and manipulative but, for reasons so far unknown, not talking. I am, perhaps, therefore, already conditioned to see and cherish the interior life of the silent. To let the silent child speak to me in her own way.

And it is more than just a writerly frolic and unnecessarily facetious twist. It does shine a light on Hamlet’s twisted and fluid relationship with his own mother Gertrude in Shakespeare’s play – or Trudy in McEwan’s novel – and it shifts that relationship to the centre of the action, and makes her a knowing co-conspirator with the dullard Claude. And their relationship is brilliantly serpentine and mutually destructive, leaving the reader never quite sure who is taking advantage of whom.

Of course, McEwan’s Hamlet – like many of McEwan’s characters and stories and novels such as On Chesil Beach and In Between The Sheets – looks at the coarseness of sexuality in the face… quite literally in this case:

Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose. By this late stage, they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls…. Wall of Death! On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence….

Here I am, in the front stalls, awkwardly seated upside down. This is a minimal production, bleakly modern, a two-hander. The lights are full on and here comes Claude. It’s himself, not my mother, he intends to undress. He neatly folds his clothes across a chair. His nakedness is as unstartling as an accountant’s suit…. And my mother? On the bed, between the sheets, partly dressed, wholly attentive, with ready hums and sympathetic nods. Known only to me, under the bedclothes, a forefinger curls over her modest clitoral snood and rests a half-inch inside her. This finger she gently rocks as she conceded everything and offers up her soul.

Like those other novels, this coarseness is both repulsive and hilarious and poignant all at the same time. Deeply unsettling and thoroughly engaging at the same time.

The novel works on a range of levels: it is an intriguing thriller as well as an exploration of the death of love as well as a reimagining of Shakespeare.

And I enjoyed it immensely.

 

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This certainly has a distinctive and gorgeous cover on it, which has graced the window front of local bookshops for weeks!

But they do say that you shouldn’t just a book etc etc etc …

The book is narrated by Isabella, a young girl on the island of Joya, who has been brought up on her father’s stories and myths in the years following her brother and mother’s deaths. The world Hargrave creates is intriguing: there is a nineteenth century feel to the world, and perhaps a colonial setting with the almost omnipotent Governor; yet familiar names are rendered differently with passing references to Amrica, Afrik and India. References which must, perforce, be passing as the island appears to be cut off and isolated from the rest of the world; and indeed Isabella’s town of Gromera cut off and isolated from the rest of the island. This isolation makes Isabella’s father’s occupation of cartographer particularly redundant, but the idea of maps and of creating charts and of knowing our place in the world is a redolent one.

Hargraves does move the plot along at a rattling pace and I wasn’t sure that it quite worked in the first half of the book: a girl, Cata, is found dead; a curfew imposed; a public act of violence; and Isabella’s best friend, Lupe, runs into the forbidden and forgotten rest of the island to seek the killer. Isabella, inevitably, gets included in the expedition mounted to rescue her and embarks on a voyage into the interior, somewhat unnecessarily dressing as a boy to do so.

Hints are dropped that there is something dark occurring on the island: songbirds have fled it; livestock run into the sea and drown; marks beside Cata’s body are apparently huge gouges in the earth, suggesting that those responsible for her death may not be human. But these hints are dropped in and undeveloped; the world is undeveloped; the characters and their relationships felt undeveloped and I wasn’t sure whether I was truly engaged or not.

In hindsight, however, this is more of a fairy tale, myth or an allegory than a novel. And stories and myths of the family and community are told and retold throughout the novel, particularly the story of Arinta. The mythography – for wont of a better word – within it was much stronger than the characterisation or the psychology or the world building. In fact, Isabella is explicitly following in the steps of one of her father’s legends as she descends towards what may – or may not – be a fire demon at the heart of the island. And that light-touch characterisation actually helps to create the mythic and allegorical feel of the book.

The novel – or series – that I feel bears most comparison to this one is Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. In both books, the main character is thrust into a fantastical world through the discovery of an horrific death; in both books, there are monsters. But Riggs’ hollows were described and clearly depicted and lost much of their power as a result; Hargraves’ tibicenas remained clothed in shadows and smoke even after we encountered them.

Hargraves created something more by giving us less. And I feel that the books will remain with me and I’ll reflect on it for longer than Riggs’.

In short, I am not surprised by the fact that it has been longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal for 2017.

 

It’s surprising how coincidences happen sometimes.

I mean, it’s no surprise that there’s been a lot of crime and detective fiction in my reading list recently: it’s basically research! But there’s also been a lot of Shakespeare in it!

Ali Shaw’s The Trees isn’t – I don’t think – based on Shakespeare but there are resonances and echoes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream through it. The whisperers in their enigmatic and invisible presence stir memories of Puck and Robin Goodfellow, or perhaps the fairies, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mote and Mustardseed, tending on the creature on the throne as if they were an Oberon. And the trees’ own confusion of season recalled the lines

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.

And now, I’m listening to Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a modern revisiting of The Tempest for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, where Prospero has become Felix, the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival usurped by his assistant following the deaths of his wife in childbirth and then his daughter Miranda.

And alongside that, I have picked up Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, thinking from the blurb that it was more of a murder mystery – until, that is, I read the prologue and kicked myself for not recognising perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most potent quotations

“I could be bounded in a nut shell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

How could I not have recognised that?!

Here, Hamlet is indeed bounded in a nutshell: he is a (somewhat precocious) unborn foetus two weeks from birth listening to – and narrating – it requires a serious suspension of disbelief – his mother’s and uncle’s plans to murder his father. Just on a small note, what McEwan does with the names is delightful: Gertrude (a name which teenagers usually mocks) becomes quite beguiling as a Trudy; Claudius (which has classical connotation) is modernised to Claude which, phonologically, conjures up the image of a clod of earth, which fits delightfully with the scarily unimaginative and dull-witted would-be murderer.

You know when you hope you got a book series wrong? Other people are telling you it’s great but you just don’t get it? You end up offering excuses for the writer: maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind; maybe  I was too tired; maybe I read it too quickly.

Sometimes, it is genuinely that other people are wrong.

J. K. Rowling does not write well for an adult audience.

Let’s be fair, this isn’t a car crash of a novel – note the pun; I worked hard on that one else! – it’s serviceable in a pedestrian way. It whiles away a rainy weekend. In the same way that Dan Brown does. And that’s okay.

Let’s turn to the plot. A writer goes missing and Cormoran Strike is hired to locate him; once located, he is discovered dead in a particularly gruesome way that echoes the ending of his unpublished book. The list of those who had access to the book becomes the list of suspects, and it is made up entirely of two-dimensional caricatures. The chain smoking agent, Elisabeth Tassel, who seemed to owe a huge debt to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada; the obnoxious literary rival, Michael Fancourt; the pretentious publisher, Daniel Chard; Jerry Waldegrave, the alcoholic limp editor who permitted practically anyone else to have unfettered access to the safe in which the manuscript was locked; the self-published mistress and her transgender friend, Kathryn and Pippa. 

Each one is equally unlikeable and unlikely as a suspect; each had opportunity; each has motive; no motive is any less credible than any other.

And just like in Cuckoo’s Calling, about two thirds of the way through the novel, Cormoran Strike deduces the killer and spends the rest of his time smugly not telling anyone. And, to be frank, I didn’t care. Not a jot.

Strike was a loner in the first novel and this one widens his social circle a little: in addition to Robin Ellacott, we suddenly have a socialite half-brother, a shark-diving friend and a taxi driver joining Team Cormoran. And that’s all lovely… but all terribly convenient and again those characters are two-dimensional plot devices.

And Strike is – for wont of a better word – a bastard. Yes, I know that it’s not untraditional to try to create sympathy for characters with flaws, that flaws can in fact create sympathy. But Strike is a bastard. Not just is he irritatingl smug, he is a user of women. His relationship with his ex-fiancee is toxic; his treatment of Nina in the novel is atrocious. Which makes the clumsy and blunt attempt to create sexual tension between him and Robin deeply unattractive. In fact, Robin is caught essentially between  two abusive men: her fiance Matthew Cunliffe is just as bad and controlling. 

In fact, that may be the most interesting thing about the novel – albeit one which was done on The Archers recently: the toxicity of abuse within apparently “normal” middle-class relationships.

Still trying to catch up on my reviews which have been delayed thanks to writing a whole bunch of schemes of learning for work and a delightfully full-on three year old daughter, I realised I’d missed this one.

The third installment of the Lady Trent memoirs – set in a fictional but faintly vwiled and recognisable worl, albeit one with dragons, actually did much of what makes review of the (in my opinion less satisfactory) Tropic of Serpents. The poor, abandoned son was brought back into the narrative and given a trip around the world; politics and soldiering, whilst present, were significantly less prominent; and there were dragons. Well sea-dragons, or sea serpents. And I’ve always been a sucker for stories at sea. It’s no Moby Dick, to be sure, but it’s a sea yarn and that’s cool. 

Brennan throws us quickly onto the voyage around the world on the eponymous ship, The Basilisk with only a brief prologue.

On board the ship, the local politics and cultural descriptions, which often bog down the narrative, are no longer needed and we get more dragons as well as the usual complication expected in a maritime novel: storms and excursions and shipwrecks and exotic strangers. Here, the stranger, Suhail, is well established and fleshed out. And in many ways he reflects Lady Trent: academic, eccentrlic, an outsider. His interest is, rather than dragons, the ruins of the lost and ancient Draconian civilisation.

With the shipwreck and forced stay on the island of Keonga whilst the ship is repaired, Marie Brennan gets a chance to explore another culture again. Think perhaps Hawaii? With dragons. One intriguing quirk in Brennan’s description of Keonga is that Lady Trent is classed as ke’anaka’i  – neither male nor female but dragonborn, which means that she acquired a wife to be accepted on the island.

Kidnapped princesses, well one of them anyway, a foreign army, caeligers and sky ships and hidden lost treasures intervene and brings the book to a conclusion.

There’s no real sense of danger, even though Brennan showed her willingness to kill off significant characters in the first book, but it’s a cracking and fun novel with a great pace and likeable characters.

I’m glad I was wrong in my assumption that this was a trilogy. The next book is The Labyrinth of Drakes which is already on my to-be-read list.

These are not worth separate blog posts: same basic book written in the same basic style about the same basic themes. 

Which sounds terribly dismissive but shouldn’t: as a self-confessed language geek who’s alert to the absurdity and beauty of our mongrel mother tongue, these books were a delightful treat.and a little like talking to myself or being a student in my own class. If that is the case, they’re lucky students!

The Etymologicon – as you might expect – cherry picks words with interesting etymologies, generally as a result of English’s tendency to beg, borrow, steal words from other languages, and then invent, twist and warp original meanings through metaphor, misunderstandings and imaginative leaps.

Short bite-sized chapters link one word to the next as we explore farts, peters and petards; rolling stones and guns; salt and soldiering; Nazis and Big Bangs and little feisty dogs.

It is a coffee table book, to dip into and out of, to turn to a (possibly bemused, patient or disgruntled) friend and say “Oh, did you know…?”

The written equivalent of watching an episode of QI. In fact, I have a feeling some of the tidbits in the book were familiar, possibly because they had been covered in QI!

The Elements of Eloquence is really the same thing, applied to rhetoric and a range of rhetorical devices. In fact, very many of them are the techniques I use and teach regularly. Generally without the Greek names attached!
As a writer, I was pleased by  opening anecdote which recounted how Forsyth turned round his writer wife to ask her what would have helped her in the style guides she’d read, only to hear the reply that she’d never read any. Writers read books, not guides. Which isn’t to say that the techniques covered aren’t valid, useful or real. But, steeped in writing, you feel them rather than learn them. 

Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy learning them and seeing the examples that Forsyth has dredged from literature. I’m not sure I have the capacity to turn the perfect phrase yet, though!

Did I learn anything from these books? Yes, although not of a huge practical applicability.

Did I enjoy the witty and erudite and sometimes scatological style? Yes.

Fun, smart and witty. What’s not to love.

Wow!

This book is extraordinary.

It is strange and bizarre and wild. And has the vividness and opacity of a nightmarish dreamscape. It is literary and visceral, erudite and scatological, mythic and domestic at the same time.

Death and grief are such massive topics that you expect a weighty tome to contain them. Yet this is light and airy and brief. Barely a hundred pages. Half a day’s reading. And that itself is divided between Dad, Boys and the eponymous Crow who arrives as… what exactly? A symbol? A metaphor? A nightmare? A delusion? A nanny?

The novel – is it even a novel? – revolves around the family dragged apart by a woman, mother and wife. Her husband, a somewhat nerdy literary critic, is writing a book on the crow in Ted Hughes’ poetry entitled Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis and that is an obvious source for the crow-character who appears thus:

The bell rang again.
I climbed down the carpeted stairs into the chilly hallway and opened the front door.
There were no streetlights, bins or paving stones. No shape or light, no form at all, just a stench.
There was a crack and a whoosh and I was smacked back, winded, onto the doorstep. The hallway was pitch black and freezing cold and I thought, ‘What kind of world is it that I would be robbed in my home tonight?’ And then I thought, ‘Frankly, what does it matter?’ I thought, ‘Please don’t wake the boys, they need their sleep. I will give you every penny I own just as long as you don’t wake the boys.’
I opened my eyes and it was still dark and everything was crackling, rustling.
Feathers.
There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.
Feathers between my fingers, in my eyes, in my mouth, beneath me a feathery hammock lifting me up a foot above the tiled floor.
One shiny jet-black eye as big as my face, blinking slowly, in a leathery wrinkled socket, bulging out from a football-sized testicle.
SHHHHHHHHHHHHH.
shhhhhhhh.
And this is what he said:
I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more.
Put me down, I said.
Not until you say hello.
Put. Me. Down, I croaked, and my piss warmed the cradle of his wing.
You’re frightened. Just say hello.
Hello.
Say it properly.

The prose swings back and forward in time, and out of time, from narrative to drama to poetry to narrative again. It is as wild and untamed as the crow itself.

It was very powerful, reading this close to Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk – which is itself a beautiful and lyrical book. But it is a weightier work than this; and simultaneously more lyrical and less poetical. Porter – like a poet – consciously crafts not just the words but the architecture and structure of his page; like a poet, he eschews all those little things that I’ve spent the holidays planning to teach students: conjunctions, connectives, clarity. And like a poet, having stripped away all of that superfluous and pedantic padding, his book can perhaps reach inside the reader – the a crow’s beak delving into carrion? – more acutely than other styles.

I am in no way trying to step back from the 5 stars I gave Macdonald’s – although I am just wondering what the value is in such a crude system of comparing such strikingly different books – all the more striking because of their similarities.