Thursday 27 May 2010

'just good people'

The Good Soldier

by Ford Madox Ford

Reviewing classics that live up on a pedestal somewhere can present a problem to a lowly blogger like me. What can usefully be added to the discussion of a book so widely studied, taught and revered that hasn't already been said? Perhaps more usefully I can say more about my experience as a reader. A book can be all of the things I have mentioned above and still not necessarily be a knockout experience for the first-time reader.

I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing, between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And when one discusses an affair - a long, sad affair - one goes back, one goes forwards. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognises that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. I console myself with thinking that this is a real story and that, after all, real stories are probably best told in the way a real person telling a story would tell them. They will then seem most real.

Coming three quarters of the way into the novel, the paragraph above goes some way to explaining both its triumph and the frustration for this first time reader. The Good Soldier is a masterpiece of plotting and structure, using the non-linear narrative of memory to reveal its secrets much like a superior crime-thriller. Beyond that it has the very definition of an unreliable narrator, John Dowell flitting back and forth in his story, contradicting himself and changing sympathies. We know from the outset that two of its main characters will wind up dead; this is, as the first line tells us, 'the saddest story I have ever heard' (Ford's preferred title for the book was 'The Saddest Story') but Ford takes his time in revealing to us exactly how that comes about and I'll admit that I found the first 50 pages or so to be quite a slog.

Permanence? Stability? I can't believe it's gone. I can't believe that long, tranquil life, which was just stepping a minuet, vanished in four crashing days at the end of nine years and six weeks. Upon my word, yes, our intimacy was like a minuet, simply because on every possible occasion, and in every possible circumstance we knew where to go, where to sit, which table we unanimously should choose, and we could rise and go, all four together, without a signal from any one of us, always to the music of the Kur orchestra, always in the temperate sunshine, or, if it rained, in discreet shelters. No, indeed, it can't be gone. You can't kill a minuet de la cour.

John and his wife Florence meet English army captain Edward Ashburnam (the good soldier) and his wife Leonora at a German spa in 1904. They seem to be two perfect couples and their acquaintance for almost a decade, as the paragraph above indicates, as effortless as a dance together but for almost all that time Edward and Florence have been conducting an affair whose revelation begins a cataclysmic breakdown that ends in more than one death. Rather than focusing on the plot, structure and stylistic influence, which have been covered satisfactorily I'm sure by creative writing students the length and breadth of the country, I want to mention the characterisation which was particularly impressive, Ford rather brilliant at highlighting a singular trait to illustrate an entire character. Here for instance one of our first impressions of Edward.

I had forgotten about his eyes. They were as blue as the sides of a certain box of matches. When you looked at them carefully you saw that they were perfectly honest, perfectly straightforward, perfectly, perfectly stupid. But the brick pink of his complexion, running perfectly level to the brick pink of his inner eyelids, gave them a curious, sinister expression - like a mosaic of blue porcelain set in pink china. And that chap, coming into a room, snapped up the gaze of every woman in it, as dextrously as a conjuror pockets billiard balls.

A hint of disgust in the physical description before that final sentence that reveals the envy, perhaps even admiration, of our narrator. The physicality of characters is incredibly important; from the outset we are aware of course that two of the principal characters have 'a heart', the reason for their sojourn in a spa. But in a story where the physical expression of love is either withheld, as in the case of the Dowell's who are kept separate by the fear of what the strain might do to poor Florence, or secret, as with the various infidelities, the smallest details of physical language can become important. In one description of Leonora there is again a devastating final sentence, one that sounds cutting at first but could even be read as sympathetic, once we have had certain revelations later in the book.

Certain women's lines guide your eyes to their necks, their eyelashes, their lips, their breasts. But Leonora's seemed to conduct your gaze always to her wrist. And the wrist was at its best in a black or a dogskin glove and there was always a gold circlet with a little chain supporting a very small golden key to a dispatch box. Perhaps it was that in which she locked up her heart and her feelings.

John's seeming perceptiveness should be read in the context of confusion that pervades the novel. He is always at least one step behind, often many more, and the biggest mystery in his life is his own wife.

She became for me a rare and fragile object, something burdensome, but very frail. Why it was as if I had been given a thin-shelled pullet's egg to cary on my palm from Equatorial Africa to Hoboken. Yes, she became for me, as it were, the subject of a bet...

Treated for so many years as an object in need of care and protection, the sudden realisation that she is something else entirely is something he struggles to comprehend even with the privilege of hindsight, only managing to deduce that 'the mainspring of her nature must have been vanity.' My own struggles with the early pages of the book were more than compensated for by the time I finished it and with such a swirling narrative I'm sure that further readings would reward, surprise and satisfy. Unlike John Dowell we could all benefit from hindsight.


Tuesday 25 May 2010

'both astonishing and quite ordinary'

The Great Perhaps 
by Joe Meno

The Great Perhaps is a character-driven comedy set in Chicago in the lead up to the 2004 election that saw George Bush re-elected. The Caspar's are our focus and each chapter looks at a separate member of the family, each with their own battles to fight, and the victories few and far between. Jonathan is a palaeontologist and university lecturer whose life-long obsession is the giant squid. Unfortunately his ambitions are continuously eclipsed by the achievements of his French rival, leaving him lagging always at least one step behind the discovery that could change his life forever. Obsession with the squid causes neglect of his family and marriage and for the second time he is heading towards separation. He also demonstrates a quality of the book which may be divisive.Quirkiness. Attractive? Alright in small doses? Annoying? There is a spectrum of response to quirkiness which may have already affected how you feel about films like The Royal Tenenbaums or Juno. Quirkiness in fiction is a bit of a new one on me and this book has several variations. Some work, others don't. Jonathan for example has a unique form of epilepsy that causes him to faint whenever he sees anything that has the form of a cloud (clouds are a unifying image of the book). His wife Madeleine, whose work researching the social behaviour of pigeons has taken a violent turn, becomes obsessed with a cloud that she spots in the sky one day that seems to be in the form of a man. Whilst her marriage takes a turn for the worse she feels compelled to follow the cloud's movements. Daughter Amelia has become politicised, donning a black beret at all times to demonstrate her seriousness, latching onto elements of anti-capitalism, communism and even terrorism as she attempts to construct a home-made bomb for a school project. Finally, youngest daughter Thisbe has discovered God and aims to save the soul of a neighbourhood cat, and has the scratch marks to prove it.

So, how're you doing so far? Quirked out? Personally I could just about cope with Jonathan's slightly ineffectual self as he retreats into a tent/fort he has fashioned and retreated to in 'the den'. Thisbe is adorable; praying 'for her singing voice to become an instrument of God, something miraculous, something to fill the world with wonder' when in fact she 'is an awful singer, worse than awful, very, very bad.' When she strikes up a friendship with Roxie, owner of the most fantastic voice in the school, the two of them enjoy a thrilling intimacy that sends Thisbe into a spiral into the clouds and allows Meno to unleash his prose, achieving some stunning results. Less successful for me were Amelia and particularly Madeleine. I couldn't quite get going with the whole cloud-man thing and the lettered bullet point presentation of her chapters didn't add anything other than an unnecessary trick to the writing.

There are two other sections to the book I haven't mentioned yet and one of them is the saving grace. Occasionally we come across Additional Remarks Of Historical Significance, chapters which recount the demise of a few of the male Caspar ancestors. They seem at first to be a bit pointless (I'll posit what I think they might add later) but they do at least, with their historical perspective, allow Meno again to showcase some skilful writing and imagery, as when we follow the last moments on an ice-bound ship and discover two bodies, 'their necks split, blood frozen like a thousand pennies surrounding their heads.' The fifth and most fascinating member of the family however is Jonathan's father Henry. His nursing-home life has led him to the end of the road and as he approaches the end he is slowly retreating into memory, using one fewer word each day until he knows he will only be left with one. His chapters are easily the book's best, delving back to wartime America and the period when the country's German, Italian and Japanese population were interred in camps. For young Henry his father is an unknowable figure, a man he finds it hard to trust, especially having been accused of spying before the family are sent to the camp. There, a single event will determine the future of the Caspar family, forming the reason for Henry to remain in America when the rest of his family return to Germany.

All of this ancestral examination allows Meno to develop an idea Richard Aldwin called 'the heredity of cowardice'. If a tendency to either fight or flight is inheritable, then it's possible that those he elect to fly, being the more likely to reproduce, send humanity on a trajectory that makes us less likely to choose to be brave. Those Additional Remarks Of Historical Significance I mentioned above all involve something along those lines and the modern Caspar family all have aspects of cowardice about their behaviour; ways in which they are too scared to say how they feel to the people that matter, or a hesitancy to act, to see things through to their conclusion. Henry's own request in the past to his young son is perhaps the one thing that the Caspar family need to learn over and over again.

'We always have to try to forgive the people we love. I think it's the bravest thing we can do. When the time comes, I hope you will.'


Friday 21 May 2010

'waiting for a chance to return'

In Sarah's House
by Stefan Grabinski

CB Editions was begun by poet Charles Boyle in 2007 (who wrote two of the first four titles himself under pseudonyms) after receiving one rejection letter too many, and 'publishes short fiction, poetry, translations and other work which, as the Guardian noted, ‘might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers’.' One of Boyle's own titles, 24 for 3, was picked up by Bloomsbury and reviewed by me (rather briefly) here. I'm afraid to say that I picked up this second title from their initial catalogue when I found it on the reduced shelf in a bookshop. I'm glad I did pick it up though. Each of the six tales in this collection translated by Wiesiek Powaga are satisfying in the way you might expect from a man known as 'the Polish Poe.'

The opening story White Virak feels like The X-Files transported to another era with disappearing chimney sweeps leading to the discovery of something otherwordly in the soot-encrusted factory towers. The Grey Room uses a recurrent dream to chilling effect, our narrator deciding to 'wage war against [his] invisible predecessor' by systematically removing the furniture they have shared from the titular room. The title story works like a twist on Dorian Gray with our narrator watching his friend, locked in a consuming sexual passion with the succubus Sarah, waste away before his eyes. A series of portraits that hang in her house raise the suspicions of our narrator further, but also provide him with a clue, finally spurring him on to revenge.

There were ten of them, hanging in two parallel rows. The top row consisted of five images of Sarah; underneath hung five portraits of men. One was struck immediately by two significant details. In all her portraits Sarah looked the same age, as if she was painted at short intervals. Yet on each of the them the features of her face were slightly different and, what is more - bore an uncanny resemblance to the features of the man directly beneath her.

Disused railways provide the setting for two stories. The first of these, The Dead Run, sees a retired conductor get back to work restoring a stretch of track that has been decommissioned. Slowly, with pride, he returns the track and its 'station' to full working order. The incredulity of his friends in the face of this folly only serves to deepen his commitment and delusion; Wawera's connection to 'the dead run' can only lead to disaster. The second, Szatera’s Engrams, contains an illuminating theory of the world, one that reminded me of a book I read and loved recently but won't mention by name for fear of spoiling it by association.

The strange occurrences witnessed on Kniejow and at the station gave rise to the future-redeeming 'theory of engrams.' For now Szatera was convinced that nothing in the world is lost - that no event, even the most trivial, passes and dissolves into nothing. In the contrary: everything is preserved and recorded. Where, he could not say. Perhaps somewhere in a metaphysical dimension, like the Indian universe of akasha or in some astral ether, or the invisible cosmic fluid. Real events, having played themselves out on the screen of the visible world, are absorbed into the fourth dimension and their image is burnt onto the astral film. Those impressions of moments and matter past that registered somewhere in the other-worldly plane, like metaphysical photographs, Szatera chose to call engrams.
   These engrams of facts and past events are preserved in a state of suspension, like images of the physical world engraved by light on the glass of a negative or a sheet of paper covered by emulsion. They exist in potentia, waiting for a chance to return to the visible world and repeat themselves like an echo.

This theory is something of a unifying theme for this collection. Dreams, memories, history; the past is reaching out to grab the protagonists in these tales and, in much the same way as Steven Moffat kicked of his tenure at the helm of Doctor Who, the danger lurks in the corner of your eye, or, even worse, at that moment when you choose to close them. Don't blink.


Wednesday 19 May 2010

The National - High Violet

It's tough when you're eagerly awaiting a new album from a cherished band. Since seeing The National perform on Jools Holland I have been a huge fan, their albums Alligator and Boxer never getting the chance to move far from the CD player, and their performance at the Latitude Festival (where they will appear again this summer) a reminder why you should always make an effort to see live music. Another of the reasons why they're cherished is because they have always been the kind of band to attract a devoted following without threatening to break into the mainstream, the kind of band you could make a gift of to a musically discerning friend, one of those 'best-kept secrets' that it is your privilege to let slip occasionally. Some have been talking about this being the album to help them break through that barrier and see some more popular success. I'm not sure about that, this album still has the dark preoccupations of its predecessors, even with the effort to write more pop melodies, and the few nods towards a larger sound (for those larger venues) end up sounding a little hollow in places. The devil is in the detail and the joy of The National has always been the layers of detail in both the playing, from two sets of brothers, and Matt Berninger's distinctive baritone that reveal themselves with each successive listen. Their recent appearance at The Royal Albert Hall saw some of that detail lost apparently in that cavernous space and there seemed to be something of that on the album too when listening to the stream that was made available before its official release, with some fuzzy production preventing some tracks from really making their full impact. But a listen to the album proper makes things much clearer on the whole; this is an album that will satisfy the fan immediately, growing stronger with each listen, and might just have enough in there to entice some new devotees.

The fuzz is noticeable immediately on opener Terrible Love, the first track showcased by the band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, although perhaps a bit of murk is well suited to this tale of descent and 'walking with spiders'. Sorrow is a good example of a track that could be depressing but is lifted by angelic choral backing to lyrics of poetic simplicity, 'Cover me in rag and bone sympathy/'Cause I don't wanna get over you'. Anyone's Ghost is driven by the drumming of Bryan Devendorf but has so far failed to really grab me. Then comes Little Faith, as if to remind you that it was just that that was required. The distorted opening gives way to gentle piano, strings and brass. This is an altogether more epic sound. Devendorf's drumming is amazing again, he really does deserve huge praise for his contribution on this album. There's something cinematic about the track, something grand like the theatrics of Pulp, entirely appropriate for this song about playing dangerous games 'All our lonely kicks are getting harder to find/We'll play nuns versus priests until somebody cries'. Afraid Of Everyone haunts with its wailing backing vocals (from Sufjan Stevens) and refrain of 'You're the voices swallowing my soul, soul, soul'. Things really begin to look up on Bloodbuzz Ohio, a standout track filled with the positivity that comes with a return to one's home, the energetic drumming and horns driving it forwards, one destined for the festivals I think. The atmosphere sours slightly on Lemonworld, about a returning soldier before Runaway provides a very close up performance from Berninger simply accompanied by acoustic guitar and horn section. If you want to hear how a voice can be subtly shaded with emotion then this is one to listen to. Then than have what I think are the album's two strongest tracks. The glorious Conversation 16 begins 'I think the kids are in trouble' before managing to make a singalong chorus of 'I was afraid I'd eat your brains/ 'Cause I'm evil.' Brilliant drumming, those angelic backing vocals and the perfect building structure all combine to create something close to the 'pop song' Michael Stipe dared them to write (reminding me ever so slightly of The Killers - in a good way). Then we have England which feels like a gift to us fans in Blighty. A truly beautiful song that builds perfectly its layers of drums, piano, guitar, brass, strings and vocal to the kind of crescendo that makes it worth downloading immediately. It would make a perfect album closer but that responsibility falls to Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, a lushly orchestrated paean to love.

The National are an important band who deserve to be huge and if this album doesn't do it for them then I won't be too upset (it means I get to keep some exclusivity for a while yet). But rest assured that one day they will be, perhaps showing the same kind of patience and consistency that saw Elbow rewarded with the Mercury Music Prize. But prizes and recognition don't seem to be what they're in it for. This tight-knit group will fight for hours over their music to make tracks that they 'all feel are compelling'. That kind of attention to detail is well worth a listen.


Monday 17 May 2010

'life turned inside out'

A Meaningful Life 
by L.J.Davis

First of all, a hearty welcome to anyone who has found their way here as a result of the Spotlight Series NYRB Classics Tour.

Designed to shine a light on small press publishers, I'm delighted to have the opportunity to review another of NYRB's impressive list (other recent reviews can be found here, here and here). John Self gave this book such uncomplicated praise on Asylum that it was a no-brainer on my recent NYRB Classics buying splurge. Brought back into print after the persistence of fellow novelist and Brooklyn neighbour Jonathan Lethem, the book contains so much humour, so many good lines that my copy was roughly 50% post-it notes marking relevant passages when I was only half-way through. I shall try to resist quoting too much but it won't be easy. With that said, here's the opening paragraph.

Lowell Lake was a tall man, rather thin, with thin sandy hair and a distant, preoccupied though amiable disposition, as though the world did not reach him as it reaches other men and all the voices around him were pleasant but very faint. His attention was liable to wander off at any time and he was always asking people to repeat things. He gave the impression that people bored him, although not in a bad way: actually, they seemed to lull him. He was frequently discovered half-asleep at his desk, gazing vacantly out the nearest window.

It's just a brilliant opening to a book. I can see the man, I already feel a bit sorry for him and, crucially, I want to know more. Lowell has made the classic move of waking up one day and realising that he is not satisfied with his life, not satisfied that it even counts as a life. His job, his marriage and his isolation within both are all reason for discontent. Since marriage his life has not only plateaued but failed to get off the ground at all.

Nine years: an endless chain of days, a rosary of months, each as smooth and round as the one before, flowing evenly through his mind. You could count on the fingers of one hand the events and pauses of all that time: two promotions; two changes of apartment (each time nearer the river); a trip to Maine, where he realised his wife's legs had gotten kind of fat - five memories in nine years, each no more than a shallow design scratched on a featureless bead.

The remedy for stagnation is movement and the Lake's make the reverse of the American journey of hope by heading east to New York. Far from being a journey that unites them in a new beginning, it is here that the married couple begin their real divergence. His wife, here against her will, dreams of life on the Upper East Side whilst Lowell sees an opportunity to make something of his life amongst the dilapidated brownstones of Brooklyn (whose streets have 'the kind of emptiness that suggested that if someone else was moving in it too, he probably didn't mean you well. It was a thief's emptiness, the emptiness of a street in a city occupied by a hostile power.'). His exploitation at the hands of a ruthless estate agent provides just one of the book's memorable set pieces, Lowell touring the property divided into separate apartments by shoddily erected partitions whilst it is still occupied by a motley crew of unfortunates. After parting with the majority of his life savings and turfing out the current occupants Lowell is the proud owner of a crumbling pile, a focus for his restless energies; for if movement is one remedy then a project is another. His wife refuses to sleep in the new house, electing to remain in the cramped safety of their Manhattan apartment rather than the spacious ruin in Brooklyn. Whilst the two work together to clear the wreckage left by the previous tenants, this venture serves to exacerbate the Lake's disconnection, something Lowell has ruminated on earlier.

Sometimes he felt that he didn't know his wife at all, or at least not much of her. Sometimes he had the feeling that the person he knew and loved in the evenings and on weekends was nothing but a cunning impersonation, speaking in his dialect, acting out a charade of mildness and happy marriage, and that the occasionally glimpsed person with the news vendor's voice was the real one...What really disturbed him more than anything was the feeling that the personality he imagined for her, though crude and devious to an incredible degree, was in a strange way more complex and plausible than the one she really seemed to have, at least most of the time. 

If he cared more about it then it's possible their marriage could be rescued but Lowell becomes obsessed instead by his project and the man who originally built the house, Darius Collingwood. If progress is one American obsession then so is the country's nostalgic attachment to its relatively short history. Lowell throws himself into research on the man who built the walls that surround him, attaching a romantic hue to someone who turns out to have been 'one of the most perfect pricks that ever lived.'

To describe the novel as a black comedy would be to underestimate how far it pushes both of those aspirations. The humour is sometimes easy but all too often it is spiced with something far more daring. Even something as simple as Lowell's father-in-law, who insists on being called by his first name and takes acquiescence to new levels, leads Lowell to 'the disturbing impression that if somebody finally came and told him it was time to go to the gas chamber, he would hop right into the truck, asking them to call him Leo.' Davis' observations on the Lake's marriage are particularly acerbic and you can only imagine how much further it is possible to push that once Lowell is effectively separated from his wife. The real surprise in a book which always feels like a comedy is how far Davis is able to push his central character. His attachment to the historical significance of his renovation and the importance of filling the void that existed in his life are enough to turn the pursuit of the American dream into a project that a man would be willing to do almost anything for, even something that might seem beyond the realms of a mild-mannered 'managing editor of a second-rate plumbing-trade weekly.'

To discover an entirely new writer is always a joy, sending one straight to the Internet and a search for other titles (all of which it seems are currently out of print). I'm tempted by Cowboys Don't Cry but has anyone else read any Davis and want to direct me in the most rewarding direction?


Friday 14 May 2010

'an illusion of memory alive'

Tony And Susan 
by Austin Wright

What an amazing week this has been. My two previous reviews glowing and I round it all off with an absolute belter. Don't say I'm not good to you. I was attracted to this novel by the promise of discovering a lost classic, an unfairly neglected book, the kind of thing I am always looking for or asking other readers and writers about. It has been one of the joys of reading other book blogs for me, to find those lost gems that I would never otherwise have come across and if that holds any water for you too then this is my gift to you. Austin Wright, professor emeritus of English at the University of Cincinnati, was 70 years old when this novel was first published in 1993 and despite positive reviews I'd be willing to bet that it's a book unknown to most readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Only ten years later Wright died, leaving behind seven novels and four works of non-fiction. The re-issue of this novel by Atlantic Books should hopefully do something to focus some critical appreciation on his work, it certainly deserves it on this evidence, but if you only ever read this book you'll be richly rewarded by a novel that combines the pace of a thriller with the intelligence of something far more philosophical - a treat for anyone who values the art of reading.

There are plenty of novels that riff on the process of writing but this is one of the first I have read that focuses on the act of reading itself (feel free to fill comments up with other famous examples). This is the kind of book that immediately sinks its teeth into you. Like Chekhov's celebrated opening to The Lady With The Dog, Wright's novel has you chomping at the bit to know more straight away. Living a comfortable life with her second husband, Susan Morrow is surprised to receive first a letter and then the manuscript of a novel written by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield, whom she has had little contact with for 20 years. This is immediately electrifying as during the 'unrealistic days of their marriage' Edward's attempts at a writing life and Susan's harsh criticism of it had been a major contribution to their breakdown. 'Damn, but this book is good' says Edward in his letter but Susan doesn't feel compelled to read it until another letter comes from Edward detailing the date when he will arrive to meet with her. Susan gives herself three days to read the manuscript of Nocturnal Animals and we will read it with her, and I really mean with her, each chapter closing allowing a moment to reflect before moving on to the next and the end of each day a longer pause for thought.

Nocturnal Animals turns out to be exactly the kind of book that Susan thought it wouldn't be - 'a story of blood and revenge'. It is a thriller and, frankly, a thriller that would stand quite happily on its own. Tony Hastings is driving his family, wife Laura and daughter Helen, down to their summer cottage in Maine. As night falls it is Helen who makes the fateful suggestion, '...let's drive all night' and so Tony continues along the Interstate, the novelty exciting for them at first before the darkness falls and Tony drives whilst the others sleep. Then he meets a couple of other cars on the road and a confrontation develops out of nothing, ending with a small accident and Tony forced to stop by the other car. That's where the first chapter ends. We want to know what happens next and Susan doesn't think too long before continuing, acknowledging first those feelings of confusion when reading something by someone you know, separating them from their creation and stopping yourself from swapping yourself and others into the roles of the book's characters, knowing that the author now has the power over you, he alone knows where this is going; and so we continue.

I'm not going to give away the plot of a thriller but Tony's actions and inaction on that night will have huge consequences for him and his family as the evening plays itself out. Wright brilliantly captures the excitement with the short punchy sentences of the genre and knows exactly where to put his chapter breaks and cliffhangers. This might be enough for some writers but the brilliance of the novel is that we get to live through the act of reading it through Susan and witness the impact that reading has on her own life. There are two main ways that this has an effect. Firstly, the experience of any reader who surrenders themselves to the grip of a novel: the compulsion to turn another page, the investment made in the characters with all that entails emotionally, the immense satisfaction that comes from trying to figure what the author may be up to.

She gropes for the possible loophole Edward might have left but finds none. Meanwhile, despite the sadness, she feels this energy and does not know if it's her own chemistry or the book, Edward in a sate of excitement, enjoying his own work? She likes to see Edward enjoying his work, it sparks her up. She awaits the horrible discovery her spirit deplores, she awaits it avidly.

Then there is the subtle shift into Susan's personal response, or more accurately how her reading of this book forces a shift in perspective on her own life. This comes first through empathy, Susan knows 'how much her pleasure depends on [Tony's] distress.' but also that that pain 'is really her own, which is alarming. Her own designated pain, old or new, past or future, she can't tell which.' But also there is the question of what Edward intended by writing this novel and sending it to Susan? She rejects the idea of 'novel as revenge' and yet one effect of it is undeniable.
All day she keeps wondering, why am I thinking about Edward? His memory reverberates out of slumber like a dream, it flashes like birds tree to tree. It comes too fast, flits away too quickly.
We come back, as Susan must whilst reading this book, to the reasons for her split with Edward. Whilst she herself had rejected not writing but dissemination, 'the chance to be part of a writing conversation...to read the consequences of her words...' she has to face up to the consequences of reading his words.

Twenty five years ago she ejected the Edward ego, clumsy and crude, from her life. How subtly it works now, soaking up her own, converting hers into his.

How subtly indeed. Wright's novel is satisfying in so many ways, he even uses its form to preempt its weaknesses and whilst some might claim that 'there are things in life the reading of no mere book can change' you may not feel the same after reading this rediscovered gem.


Wednesday 12 May 2010

'the invisible enemy'

The Cuckoo Boy
by Grant Gillespie

To Hell With Publishing featured in a post last week, which is worth a look if you haven't seen it already, an independent publisher with a genuinely interesting take on the industry. Their new list is To Hell With First Novels, an imprint designed to nurture new talent through the process of delivering their debut work. First of the firsts is this dark novel from actor Grant Gillespie. Now, I have a confession to make: I know Grant. In fact we're represented by the same agency and have regularly made fools of ourselves at various commercial castings in the quest to put food on the table. This means that receiving, reading and reviewing this book could have been problematic. Luckily I had no idea about his writing until I saw his name in an email, so had no preconceptions or investment in it. I also strive hard to maintain my integrity whilst reviewing, there doesn't seem any point to me in writing puffed-up reviews, which actually means that my only worry was what to do if I didn't like it, having said I would write a review. Worry not, there shall be no vague statements or faint praise here. The Cuckoo Boy is an amazingly assured debut that tackles some big themes, peopled by ambiguous characters and, most importantly, a distinctive creativity from first page to last.

Kenneth and Sandra Gardner have seen several years of their married life elapse and find themselves in their late twenties, any attempt to have children so far fruitless. A trip to the doctor confirms the worst and they realise that adoption will be the only way to bring a child into their life. After a frustrating period of rejections and technicalities they finally receive the call they have been waiting for and the moment that Sandra in particular has envisaged for such a long time.

Sandra had rehearsed this moment time and time again. She would smile at him, a smile burning with love, and he would smile back, a broad smile brimming with recognition. In that instant they would choose each other. For ever.
   The reality was somewhat different. She looked at this...this thing, this...someone else's child...and love was not a word that sprang to mind. Fear was closer to the sensation she was feeling, fear mixed with an unwanted wave of revulsion. Nor did he smile back at the brave upturning of her mouth. He looked through her, entirely unmoved.

Parents worry about transferring any of their anxieties onto their infant children and Sandra immediately transfers hers onto us. Thrown by the disappointment of her first meeting she overcompensates, relegating Ken to the background whilst she attempts to bond with her child, his only real contribution the child's name, James, rather inauspiciously taken from the bottle of whiskey he has been driven to. Immediately it seems that James is no ordinary child. Gillespie doesn't achieve this with any theatrics but through a series of unsettling details that play on the anxiety of any new parent who asks themselves all the time during their child's development, 'is that normal?' Their new baby seems to sleep for his entire first year, hardly ever crying, he doesn't walk until two and a half, and takes tantrums and the terrible twos to a whole new level, one incident leading to an accident that leaves him with his head split open and a scar that 'scored his side-parting like chalk'

Sandra continually tried to smooth his hair over it, but it stubbornly refused to be covered up, And a sudden, sideways jerk of James's head was all it took to reveal the skeleton finger scar, which pointed to his parents, reminding them of how they'd failed him.'

The opening section of the book will be an unsettling read for any parent, a brilliantly observed study of two inexperienced and ill-suited parents struggling to cope with the demands of a child who, despite the assurances of the adoption authorities, seems to be far from normal. This isn't so much an examination of nurture versus nature (although there are elements of that), and nor is James overtly different, but slowly Gillespie builds up the events that build a larger and larger gap between parent and child.

James's parents had unwittingly succeeded in arming him both physically and verbally. He was fearless, despite his small frame, and cunning to boot. When they scolded him he took to laughing. Only now they were reluctant to raise a hand to him for fear of him raising his to another. They had no emotional or retributive hold whatsoever. whenever they came too close he simply spat out, 'You can't touch me, you're not my parents,' and they were crushed like invertebrates.

One feature of childhood brilliantly perverted is the imaginary friend. James's first word is an attempt to say David, the boy who seems to be his constant companion as he grows older, and the one feature that Ken and Sandra truly struggle to deal with. Used as a confidante, comfort, excuse and primarily a weapon, David takes on an almost supernatural tinge when we know that James was a twin, his brother having died before birth. But this is a fine psychological study rather than a spine-chilling horror and the relationship between James and David is vividly created, David as real a character as any other and indulged as such by the Gardner's on the advice of a psychologist. It would be easy to expect an actor to be good at writing dialogue or creating a narrative voice (in fact most actors are terrible at improvising dialogue that sounds real - never underestimate the skills of the playwright!) but Gillespie deserves genuine credit for what he achieves with all his cast and particularly with James and David.

From the early stages there is a danger about James, a hint of what he might be capable of, so that when Sandra and Kenneth find themselves blessed by the gift they thought a doctor had taken away from them years before, the reader feels immediately terrified by what this might mean for the family. The impending arrival is also a chance to show the subtle psychological similarities between Sandra and James. Many women when pregnant give a name to their unborn child, sometimes totally unconnected to what they might be thinking of as a potential name for when they are born, a secret bond between the two of them before the baby comes into the world.

Amy was her secret name. It was for their private mother-daughter chats. And now, suddenly, David - the unseen - did not seem so ridiculous. Sandra had her very own concealed child and she too felt the urge to talk to her, encourage her, collude with her and cut out the rest of the world.

A lot happens in this book as we see James (and David) develop into a young boy but I don't want to spoil any of that for you. Each event leads compellingly onto the next, the pace propulsive so that however much you may not want to know what happens next you can't help but turn the page to find out. The writing is filled with neat descriptions of character and behaviour. Grandad Gordon sits 'like a hippo in his exfoliating armchair, while his oxpecker wife hopped about him, preening him, cleaning him, taking what nourishment she could from him.' Sandra under the strain of bringing up James on her own for the most part has to 'ask him to play in his room for a while, so that she could gather up her scattered thoughts like a deck of cards and try to regroup them in their proper numerical order.' We are all too familiar with the hysterical response shown by the media to children who exhibit behaviour that strays from the norm and towards violence in particular. By taking a detailed look at the slow, steady development of one particular child Gillespie has provided a cultural response that highlights both our own culpability and the difficulty of knowing how much damage may have been done to someone before there's a chance to help them. Like the cuckoo that lays its eggs in other bird's nests it's possible that James just landed in the wrong one. Gillespie on the other hand seems to have landed in just the right one at To Hell With... A cracking début novel, which for all the seriousness I have mentioned here also has a wicked vein of humour running through it, given a quality production and I hope, after a few more positive reviews appear, a wide readership.

You can hear more about the book from the author himself in this interview.


Monday 10 May 2010

'How gleefuly life shreds our well-crafted plans.'

The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet 
by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is a writer who attracts an evangelical zeal amongst his fans. He is the chosen one, a writer who manages to combine literary panache with Richard and Judy Book Club appeal. I guess that makes me an agnostic. It's not that I don't believe in him but my first experience of reading him was a paperback of Ghostwritten from a charity shop, a book that failed to light my fire as I was reading some pretty big novels at the time and felt that many connected short stories a great novel did not make. The knowledge that Cloud Atlas had a similar set-up to Ghostwritten just put me off, along with the adulation and awards that attended it's publication. So I wasn't as excited as everyone else when proofs were circulated of his new novel, although that all changed as soon as it arrived through my door. Whatever prizes may be handed out this year, the award for sexiest proof will definitely go to this baby on the right.

This picture doesn't really do justice to the gold cover and the small text which seems to appear and disappear as you turn the book in the light (and in the same way the picture above it doesn't give an indication of the beauty of the embossed and intricately foiled pictorial boards of the hardback). I have never been asked so many times what I was reading whilst I held this gold brick in my hands at work. It had been glinting at me from a high bookshelf since Christmas and it was only my apathy that kept it there until a few weeks ago when I finally decided the time had come to see whether Mitchell could convert me. I have seen the light. With an epic narrative that runs forward eighteen years from the last year of the 18th century Mitchell has provided me with one of the most unconditionally joyful reads of the year. I know this is the case because when I should have been making notes or marking passages I was too busy turning pages, passing train stations and almost missing entrances on stage. This means that whilst this might not be the most erudite review you'll read of this book it certainly contains a lot of enthusiasm for a big read that flew by effortlessly.

In 1799 Japan is effectively cut off from the rest of the world. During the era of this ruling Shogunate, Christianity in particular is held in contempt, Western civilization and trade shunned for the most part with one small exception being the small man made island of Dejima, a trading post for the Dutch East Indies Company off the coast of Nagasaki.

This tiny umbilicus is the only bridge between East and West with trade strictly regulated and the language barrier exploited by the Japanese to ensure that they are always in control. The Dutch have found their own ways of making a quick buck by cooking the books and carrying out their own private trades on the route home. In order to maintain their empire and the colony of Batavia in particular, the Dutch need Japanese copper more than ever in order to mint the coins that keep the 'native battalions' from melting 'back into the jungle'. The situation has become so rotten that the ship Shenandoah arrives laden with a new regime to clear out the dead wood, clerk Jacob de Zoet amongst its number. Jacob has travelled to the other side of the world to carve out a career and fortune and make himself a worthier match for Anna, the girl he aims to make his wife back home. But then he meets Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife whom we have already met in a stunning first chapter in which she helps to deliver a difficult birth, a child thought at first to be dead but who then whimpers from under the linen sheet that covers its face and suddenly the 'newborn boiled-pink despot howls at Life.'

After this wondrous act Orito holds a unique position as a female, allowed to study under the tutelage of Dr Marinus, a figure who acts at first as an obstacle to Jacob and his attentions but who later becomes an ally. Their antagonism is brilliantly shown in their opening exchanges culminating in a memorable scene in which Marinus tricks Jacob into volunteering himself as a medical guinea-pig, only to find himself on the receiving end of a 'smoke glister', a kind of enema which sends smoke '"through caverns measureless to man" from anus to oesophagus, whence smoke trickles through his nostrils like incense from a stone dragon, though not, alas, so sweet-scented, given its malodorous voyage...'. The leverage used in his scheme was a meeting with Orito, who has captured the heart of Jacob, taking him even further away from his original plans.

...like a struck tuning fork, Jacob reverberates with the parts and the entirety of Orito, with all the her-ness of her. The promise he gave Anna rubs his conscience like a burr, But Anna, he thinks uneasily, is so far away in miles and in years; and she gave her consent, she as good as gave her consent, and she'd never know... Creation never ceased on the sixth evening, it occurs to the young man. Creation unfolds around us, despite us and through us, at the speed of days and nights, and we like to call it 'Love'.

I don't want to go into too much of the plot; such an epic narrative means I can only spoil by saying much more, but its breadth and the apparent ease with which Mitchell moves from location to location, and idiom, and character, and atmosphere makes the book, for all its literary credentials, read like one of those supremely orchestrated films of myths and legends. There is plotting, intrigue, double-crossing, love, faith, betrayal, hope, sacrifice, imprisonment and escape; there are brilliantly drawn characters, moments of genuine peril and a compulsive need to turn the page and see where he will take us next. Mitchell's coup is to write the kind of book that feels like a guilty pleasure whilst executing the kind of stylistic flourishes that lift it far above that. There are times when the sentences shorten to describe a landscape, becoming like the simple, black brush strokes that typify both the writing and art of Japan. There are times when the effects of opium, or even of love, bend and warp the prose to create a dizzying effect on the reader. And there are times when Mitchell gets the wind beneath his wings and just soars. I am about to lay an almighty extract on you, one I wondered about including, but then I reasoned that if I can be bothered to type it all up then the least you could do is have a little read of it.

Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike topped walls and treble-bolted doors. Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule-drivers, mules and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunch-backed makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nakashima River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed form kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges. Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries' vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bath-house adulterers, heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs; woodcutters' sons sharpening axes; candle-makers, rolling waxes; flint-eyed officials milking taxes; etiolated lacquerers; mottle-skinned dyers; imprecise soothsayers; unblinking liars; weavers of mats; cutters of rushes; ink-lipped calligraphers dipping brushes; booksellers ruined by unsold books; ladies-in-waiting; tasters; dressers; filching page-boys; runny-nosed cooks; sunless attic nooks where seamstresses prick calloused fingers; limping malingerers; swineherds; swindlers; lip-chewed debtors rich in excuses; heard-it-all creditors tightening nooses; prisoners haunted by happier lives and ageing rakes by other men's wives; skeletal tutors goaded to fits; firemen-turned-looters when occasion permits; tongue-tied witnesses; purchased judges; mothers-in-law nurturing briars and grudges; apothecaries grinding powders with mortars,; palanquins carrying not-yet-wed daughters; silent nuns; nine-year-old whores; the once-were-beautiful gnawed by sores; statues of Jizo anointed with posies; syphilitics sneezing through rotted-off noses; potters; barbers; hawkers of oil; tanners; cutlers; carters of night-soil; gate-keepers; bee-keepers; blacksmiths and drapers; torturers; wet-nurses; perjurers; cut-purses; the newborn; the growing; the strong-willed and pliant; the ailing; the dying; the weak and defiant; over the roof of a painter withdrawn first from the world, then his family, and down into a masterpiece that has, in the end, withdrawn from its creator; and around again, where their flight began, over the balcony of the Room of Last Chrysanthemum, where a puddle from last night's rain is evaporating; a puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.

It's a list, but one that becomes poetic and lyrical, hopefully carrying you through it without any effort whatsoever and painting a richly detailed picture in the process. It's possible that it's exactly the kind of passage I might have used against him in the past. But I was so taken with this book, so impressed by its scope, style and heart that I'm kicking myself slightly for having left him out in the cold for so long. This is the first really big book of the year to really deliver for me and if anything else comes along to entertain, excite and move me more before the year is out then I shall consider myself a very lucky boy indeed.


Friday 7 May 2010

'Kafka on wheels'

The Sunset Limited 
by Cormac McCarthy

This book is described as 'a novel in dramatic form'. I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean but if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck. By which I mean: it's a play. Now, I'm a firm believer that plays should be performed rather than just read, which is why I have only ever reviewed productions of plays rather than the texts themselves. Picador's presentation of this play as a novel invites me to do just that however and in fact the structure and content of the play mean that whilst it would certainly be nice to see it performed there's plenty to say about the text itself.

Originally performed by Steppenwolf Theatre Company back in 2006 the play is a duologue, and a dialogue in the classical sense between two men, Black and White, an African-American and a Caucasian. It seems that White has been rescued by Black from a suicide attempt in front of the train of the title and in Black's apartment the two men talk, Black attempting to extricate from White the reasons for his leap into oblivion whilst he also discusses his own life and faith in the Bible. We could accept the play at face value; Black an ex-convict with a violent past, who has made his room open to junkies in need of help, has another project in White, a man he doesn't want to let go until he's sure that he won't throw himself in front of the next train that happens along. But the character names and didactic structure invite us to see the apartment as a kind of limbo with Black fighting to save the soul of White from damnation. The two men wrestle with the big themes, Black using the Bible as his touchstone ('If it aint in here then I don't know it') and his faith in humanity, despite his own violent past, as the main force to try and help others. White, who had placed his own faith in Culture, if anything, has been left bereft - 'The things I believed in dont exist anymore. It's foolish to pretend that they do. Western Civilization finally went up in smoke in the chimneys at Dachau but I was too infatuated to see it. I see it now.'

For much of the play Black holds sway, dominating with his conviction and calmness in the face of White's rationalism. But there is a volte face near the end where White suddenly steps up to the mark and flattens all that has come before with his own conviction that 'You give up the world line by line....everything you do closes a door somewhere ahead of you. And finally there is only one door left'. This makes for pretty bleak reading of course but bleakness never stopped Beckett from being a theatrical genius. There are obvious comparisons with plays like Waiting For Godot, but you're always going to struggle when sitting alongside one of the greatest plays ever written (IMHO). Having said that the play lends itself to textual appreciation I can't help but wonder whether a live performance would be able to lift it beyond a mere recitation of arguments. There is no action to speak of - Black does get up from his chair at one point to make some food (never has soul food been so literal) but other than that it's just two men sat at a table. Again, there's no action in Godot beyond the entrance of Pozzo and Lucky, but the play's language is so rich in metaphor, symbolism and meaning - poetic and enigmatic - that it provides not just an evening's 'entertainment' but enough keep you going for a long time afterwards. The rather balder back and forth of argument in this play leaves you wishing for something a little more theatrical or dramatic, something with a little more character (perhaps this is what is meant by a novel merely in dramatic form).

There is McCarthian violence as you might expect although this is only reported rather than depicted. This play is all about what's on the page and to be fair there are some smart exchanges between the two men. The humanity of Black also has a curious effect on a play so bleak. He is gentle and warm, confident in his own faith and presumably in his ability to turn the situation around so that there is almost a smile, some humour, behind what he has to say to White. But the crushing weight of White's world view has a huge impact on the play. 'The one thing I won't give up is giving up', he says, and this because he has been left no alternative by his awakening to the real world around him.

I don't believe in God. Can you understand that? Look around you man. Can't you see? The clamor and din of those in torment has to be the sound most pleasing to his ear.

The most difficult thing he thinks for Black to hear is his view of what those with faith look to as their reward.

I yearn for the darkness. I pray for death. Real death. If I thought that in death I would meet the people I've known in life I don't know what I'd do. That would be the ultimate horror. The ultimate despair. If I had to meet my mother again and start all of that all over, only this time without the prospect of death to look forward to? Well. That would be the final nightmare. Kafka on wheels.

So I'm going to revert to my former opinion. Plays have to be seen, not just read. There is plenty to chew over in this book but it never really lifts off the page and at the end of the day, for all its dramatic form, it remains the articulation of argument rather than character and too far away from the humanity it seeks to explore.


Wednesday 5 May 2010


Three Bedrooms in Manhattan
by Georges Simenon

The prolific Simenon (and I really do mean prolific with almost 200 novels and 150 novellas just part of his output) is best known as the creator of Belgian detective Maigret, brought to life by mumble-meister Michael Gambon (amongst others) on the small screen. I was intrigued by the prospect of reading something more autobiographical and the trusty NYRB colophon gave me the confidence to pick up this slim-ish volume, a fictionalised account of his affair with Denyse Ouimet, a woman who was 17 years his junior and whom he later married after divorcing his first wife.

In this telling the author casts himself as a famous actor, François Combe, who has fled Paris for the US to escape his past, much as Simenon did himself in the wake of allegations of collaboration with the Germans during the war, although in this case it is the humiliation of his wife leaving him for a younger man. He has been leading a rootless existence in New York, allowing his career to stagnate and drifting aimlessly amongst Manhattan's alienating streets, until one night he meets Kay in a diner. They begin to talk, François' impatience at the possibilities of this encounter causing him frustration.

She began to eat her eggs so slowly that it annoyed him. She stopped to shake pepper into the glass of tomato juice she had ordered...They had sat there a whole hour and still he knew nothing about her. It irritated him that she kept drawing things out.
In his mind, they had already agreed to leave together, and her inexplicable stubbornness was cheating him of the little time they had.
This may not be the most romantic of beginnings but it signals the tone of what is to come and they do leave the diner together to begin walking the streets at five in the morning, leaning on each other for support. They go to a bar, have a drink, listen to the jukebox, go out onto the streets again and it isn't long before they get themselves a room at a seedy hotel. It is the next day, when confronting the unknowable 'what next?', that we learn from François with what desperation they have thrown themselves together.

What did he know about the future? They knew nothing about each other, even less than last night, perhaps. And yet had two beings, two human bodies, ever plunged into each other with such savagery, with such desperate fury?

They begin walking the streets again and François is immediately, absurdly jealous. Who has she walked these streets with before? This is just the first of many ways in which their accelerated relationship covers in just a few days what many lovers or couples would take months or even years to achieve. Much of this is driven by François' jealousy and in Simenon's unfettered prose he describes the motions and speech with which a couple love, hate and interrogate one another.

There were moments when he hated her and moments, like this one, when he wanted to put his head on her shoulder and cry.
He was tired but he felt relaxed. He waited, smiling a little, and she caught the smile and understood it, too, since she came over and kissed him for the first time that day, not greedily like the night before, not desperately, but very slowly bringing her lips close to his, hesitating before they touched, then pressing them tenderly together.
He closed his eyes. When he reopened them, he saw that hers were closed, too, and he was grateful.

Some moments are tender as above but others contain the violence and passion demanded by jealousy. Whilst in their concentrated form in this novel they can feel heightened they only come from that feature common, in some shape or form, to the beginning of any relationship: the desire to know someone, to know everything about them, the need to know everything before making that huge step of committing to them. François is relentless in his questioning of Kay, his interrogation about past lovers and relationships, his pursuit of truth which is destructive at the same time as it aims to bring them together. Simenon even allows this to grow in pitch into a moment of violence which might be honest but some readers may find distasteful.

The three bedrooms of the title, the hotel first followed by François' and then Kay's apartments, are like stages in their relationship, enclosed spaces where they can develop from desperation into comfort, companionship and trust. That then alters the exterior landscape. The cityscape that Simenon, with his European eye, has rendered so acutely is transformed into a much less forbidding place.

And everything he'd seen on his pilgrimage through this gray world, the little dark men bustling about under electric lamps, the stores, the movie theaters with their garlands of light, the butcher shops, the bakeries with their disgusting pastries, the coin-operated machines that played music or let you knock metal balls into little holes, everything the whole great city could invent to help a lonely man kill time, he could look at all that now without revulsion or panic.

I haven't even mentioned the strand involving François' friends attempts to lure him back into work or how an enforced split alters the trajectory of the two lovers and all of this occurs within the space of 150 pages. Simenon's treatment of his own tempestuous relationship is distilled into something pungent and powerful, worthy of the genre he ascribed it to - dur, meaning 'hard'.


Tuesday 4 May 2010

To Hell With...Blogging

Don't worry, I'm not throwing in the towel, I just couldn't resist the title when writing something about a relatively new independent publisher called To Hell With Publishing. Some jokes bear repetition and as you read on you'll see that each of their separate ventures uses the To Hell With... template which still raises a small smile at the corner of my mouth.

To Hell With Publishing aims to emulate the past successes of Black Sparrow and Olympia Press and current ones like McSweeney's, and was inspired by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco. Run out of their bookshop, To Hell With Books, in Bloomsbury it is an opportunity for book lovers to meet, chat with the publishers in person and of course purchase a selection of fine books. As well as producing special editions they have two lists: To Hell With Classics and the recently launched To Hell With First Novels. They have a journal, To Hell With Journals; a literary award, To Hell With Prizes; a monthly literary party night, To Hell With The Lighthouse, and you can even follow their publicist Emma Young on Twitter, @tohellwithemma.

One of the founders, Lawrence Johns explains a bit more about the ethos behind it all.

To Hell with Publishing - Laurence Johns from Emma Young on Vimeo.

I had my own first-hand experience when I attended the inaugural To Hell With Prizes ceremony. Far from the glitz and glam of the Booker it was held in a suitably derelict warehouse space (complete with single functioning toilet, which unfortunately didn't come with a functioning light). The purpose of the award is rather ingenious. Recognising the gap that exists between an author getting a literary agent and then finding the right publisher for their work, UK literary agents were asked to submit a single manuscript that they felt truly deserved the readership it had been denied so far. A panel of judges (journalist India Knight, playright Kwame Kwei-Armah, Canongate editor Francis Bickmore and Waterstone's online editor Greg Eden) whittled submissions down to a shortlist of six and were unanimous in their decision to make Bed by David Whitehouse the winner. His prize of £5000 was, he said in a hilarious acceptance speech, the exact amount he owed his mum. One hopes that after the special edition printed by To Hell With... his book will be picked up by a larger publisher and go on to great things (STOP PRESS - it has been snapped up by Canongate (World) and Scribner (US and Canada)). Before that though you can read an extract of the book here.

It'll be interesting to see what happens with the enterprise. There are certainly a lot of influential names throwing their weight behind it. Andrew O'Hagan, Hanif Kureshi and DBC Pierre all read from their new works on the prize night and David Vann has already made a reading appearance in the shop. It's that kind of support that has helped them to get where they are now; what happens next of course will depend on the quality of the work produced. India Knight took the opportunity to exhort publishers to 'try harder' in getting riskier work into print. Part of the joy in being a book blogger has been getting the kind of feedback and conversation that allows you to identify authors and work that you would never otherwise have come across, so it all seems entirely in step with what I'm trying to do more of this year. Therefore next week I'll be letting you know my thoughts on the first release on their To Hell With First Novels list: The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie.

(to hell with waiting that long to find out whether it's any good or not though - it's really good)


Sunday 2 May 2010

Audio Books

Here, in one place, is a collection of extracts from the audio books I have narrated. There's a fair old range there and you can find out more about each book underneath the player. I hope you enjoy.

Create a playlist at MixPod.com

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I reviewed this book and you can read what I thought here.A story of a group of friends that meet at Oxford University and what it takes to bring them together and break them apart. For James, the narrator, the greatest lessons learnt in life come after he's left the study room.

The Great Lover is a marvellous book which I reviewed here around this time last year. Narrating it as an audio book was daunting not only because I wanted to do justice to a book I admired but also because I was voicing a real person, the poet Rupert Brooke. After all the anxiety the book was actually a huge amount of fun to read, and I hope also to listen to.

Mr Toppit was published along with a flurry of well managed publicity last year, a little ironic given the swipes that former publisher/literary agent/producer Charles Elton aimed at the publishing industry, but inevitable after the fierce bidding war that saw Penguin come out on top after handing over a reported six-figure sum. A look at the impact and legacy left behind by the posthumous publishing success of a series of children's books, particularly on the real boy, now man, immortalised within them, Elton clearly relishes the opportunity to have some fun with his former employment. My original review of Mr Toppit can be found here.

The very first book I recorded: a teen adventure about a boy who is broken out of a young offender's institution, where he is languishing after getting a bit too clever with his computer, and welcomed into a gang of similarly talented youngsters from around the world, under the leadership of the enigmatic Coldhart. What follows is high-octane adventure utilising every one of the gang's skills that jets them around the world and pits them against some very dodgy types indeed. It was a bit of a baptism of fire for me with accents from all over the place, including a teenage Haitian girl.

This is another teen adventure series in which author Andy Briggs has hit upon a rather neat idea. In his tales about teenagers who download superpowers from the internet Briggs has written two strands of books: Hero.com and Villain.net. The reader can decide which side they want to be on, goodies or baddies, and follow the intersecting drama from that perspective (or if you're very enthusiastic you could read both). I provide the voice for the Hero books and Paul Thornley is the voice of the Villain franchise.

The Great Lover is available from Isis Publishing.

All other titles are available from Whole Story Audio and W F Howse.

Oh, and I'm available through Lynda Ronan Personal Management.


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