Sunday, 30 December 2012

December links round-up

Dear readers, December has been a month to erase from the records. Let us acknowledge that it happened and move on to better things.

Reviews for The Bookbag:

Something You Are by Hanna Jameson. A really stunning crime debut by a writer who is only 22 (she's amazing, I hate her a bit). This is a great book, if firmly in my boyfriend's mother's 'stabby' category.

The Flowers of War by Geling Yan (trans. Nicky Harman). Heard of the Rape of Nanking? Yeah. This is about that. This book will significantly depress you, but you should read it anyway. Extremely subtle and elegant take on an unimaginably horrible event.

Articles for Litro:

I collated Litro's 2012 Books of the Year list. My pick, of course, was Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child.

Other than that, I have mainly been choosing other people's stories for our #StorySunday feature. Therefore I feel uniquely qualified to say that there are some really cracking ones and I absolutely recommend that you read through the whole backlist of them.

Possibly because of this influence, and also because it is Christmas, I also wrote my very own short(ish) story, 'The Worser Part', a creepy ghosty thing set in Edwardian Oxford. Yes, it is on this blog already, but here is another link to it anyway.

So, onwards! To 2013. I am hoping for great things from it. See you all then.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Quick-fire reviews: my Christmas book list

I personally move to rename Christmas, Bookmas. I can hear the Christians wailing and gnashing their teeth from here, but it would be a more accurate description of my activities during the festive period. There is a bit of Christ, but there are a lot of books, and as you all know, I am all about the books.

Please note that the following reviews are not of the books I received for Christmas. Oh no. I have not even begin to make a dent in that towering pile. These are merely the books I read during my 'holiday' at home (ho ho), while the rest of my family revolved around me screaming and shouting and playing endless games of Battleship.

Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucci

I started things off with this jolly little tale of police suppression in 1930s Portugal. The Pereira of the title is a fat and aging crime reporter who's come down in the world to become the culture section of fledgeling 'non-political' paper the Lisboa. For slightly cosmic reasons, he gets into contact with a philosophy graduate named Monteiro Rossi. Rossi becomes Pereira's assistant at the paper, but he turns out to be pretty much the worst assistant ever - not only did he fake most of his dissertation, but all the articles he writes for Pereira are politically incendiary and therefore unpublishable. You see, this is Portugal under Salazar, a place where people pretend that everything is normal even though the secret police are beating stall-holders to death in the middle of the market. Culture has become dangerous, and the translations Pereira innocently makes of European stories suddenly have new and worrying political meanings.

Pereira begins the novel as pretty much the most clueless, passive person in existence - he's a journalist who has to ask his friends for the news - but he finds his friendship with Rossi changing how he sees the world. Rossi becomes the son he never had, and as Rossi gets deeper into the resistance movement, Pereira is dragged into it along with him. The whole novel is written as Pereira's testimony - of exactly what, we're not sure until the very end.

This is an apparently peaceful and dreamy little book, under which hides some serious subversive meaning. I think it's one of those novels that can be read and re-read, new themes emerging each time. It's clever without being showy, beautifully written (and with visually beautiful images, crystal seas and palm trees waving and so on) but with a really nasty undertaste to it. I think Pereira Maintains is a book that needs to be thought about. I didn't fall in love with it immediately, but it's been growing on me since I put it down, and I think it's going to stay in my brain for quite a while to come.

4.5 stars

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

I bought this for my niece for Christmas because I wanted to read it myself. It was that kind of present. Luckily, she read it in three hours flat, and then I wrenched it out of her hands and read it in two.

The number of people I recommend a book to after I've finished it is usually a good test of how much I liked it, and after I finished Maggot Moon I tweeted about it four times in quick succession and then sent three ecstatic emails to friends ordering them to JUST STOP EVERYTHING AND READ THIS BOOK.

It was that good. As I said at the time,

Set in an alternate-reality 1950s Soviet state, Maggot Moon is the story of Standish Treadwell. On the eve of a planned great moon landing by the Motherland, Standish dreams of flying away to his own perfect planet, Juniper, with his best friend Hector. On Planet Juniper the Cadillacs are the colour of ice cream, the Croca-Colas never run out and there are no secret police waiting to turn you and your family into maggot food if you disobey the Motherland.

Maggot Moon is a totally black dystopian fantasy told with incredibly effective simplicity. Standish is a wonderful, idiosyncratic narrator (he's dyslexic, so words come out of his head sounding brilliantly wrong), likeable and heartbreakingly honest. It'd have been easy to have made him one of those wide-eyed teen narrators living in a world he doesn't understand, but Gardner's smarter and more realistic than that. Standish absolutely does understand all the horrendous adult things that happen around him, even though he processes them in an utterly teenage way. He knows what happened to his parents and he knows what's likely to happen to him and his Gramps, but all the same he clings on to the wonderful world of Juniper that he's built in his head.

As the Moon Landing gets closer, it becomes clear that Standish is in possession of some pretty important information - the kind of stuff that could either destroy the Government or (more likely) himself and the people he loves. Then Hector goes missing, and Standish realises that he's got to be brave enough to use what he knows before the Government are able to make him disappear too.

This is a book about a kid making the kind of impossible decisions that most adults wouldn't be able to face. But like all the best fantasy, it feels real, totally believable and totally tragic. The ending, I warn you now, is awful, but it's one of those endings that destroys you in a hopeful sort of way, leaving you feeling slightly fire-damaged but lighter because of it.

Honestly, this snuck in from absolutely nowhere to become one of my books of 2012. I think it's one of the most perfect pieces of teen fiction I've read, maybe ever. I wish I had written it. Why didn't I write it?

5 stars.

Hand in Glove and Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh

The good thing about Agatha Christie is that, even when she's phoning it in, the result is still readable. The bad thing about Ngaio Marsh is that, when she's phoning it in, the result is... really not. Her entire back catalogue was recently re-published in fat omnibus editions, and as I work my way through them I am more and more reaching the conclusion that, although when Marsh is good she is very very good (see: A Surfeit of Lampreys, still one of my top favourite crime novels ever), when she is bad, she is horrid.

Hand in Glove and Dead Water are both thick with hackneyed stereotypes, gurning yokels and clangingly awful love-affairs, and the murders in them are both done for overwhelmingly stupid reasons, by methods that are needlessly complex and/or totally unbelievable. I mean, the whole of Hand in Glove revolves around the premise that a cigarette case is an object important enough to bother about. And then there are all the couples who conduct entire love affairs via sentences like Come here, silly darling, and let me clasp you to my bosom! And then there are the aforementioned yokels, who hawk and mumble away as though they have been endowed with the brains of rats instead of human beings. Seriously, Ngaio Marsh, going to Cambridge is not a test you have to pass to become a person.

God, these books. I just can't. I give up. It's a good thing that Marsh is dead, so she can't see me denounce her.

1.5 stars.

Broken Voices by Andrew Taylor

Broken Voices is a brand-new Kindle-only novella by Andrew Taylor - and since I have a brand-new Kindle it seemed a necessary purchase. Set one hundred years ago in a Fenland cathedral city, this a gloriously straight-up ghost story, one of those English classics of the genre in which nothing happens except a lot of chilling suspense.

The main character, a pupil at the city's King's School, has been stuck at the cathedral over the Christmas period while his parents stay in India. He's boarding at the house of a poor ex-teacher along with another pupil, an ex-choirboy who's suffering a terrible disgrace. Both boys are lonely and embittered, and when they hear a mysterious story about the Cathedral's history they decide that this is their opportunity to prove themselves.

Taylor's real strength - I've mentioned this before - is his extraordinary ability to evoke atmosphere, and that's something that's great for this tale. His historical settings feel both right and at the same time deliciously wrong. Something is always rotten in an Andrew Taylor novel, the skies are grey and the buildings lour. In Broken Voices there's a very nasty cat, an even nastier bit with some rats, chilly winter nights, cold Cathedral stones and a beautifully joyless Christmas day. Uncertainty is the name of the game - as the very first line asks,
'Was there a ghost? Was there, in a manner of speaking, a murder?'
(Taylor, like me, doesn't seem to be able to get away from murder. I can understand that.) His main character is a typically sulky and selfish teenage boy - and, in fact, all of his characters are small and basically unsympathetic. This is a cold-hearted world where there's really no one to root for, and that's perfect for the maybe-ghost story Taylor's telling.

I believe firmly that Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a few really good scary stories (see also my own effort), and so this made my holiday season feel complete. Simple but effective, Broken Voices is an excellent marriage of author and subject which does exactly what it promises to do.

4 stars.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Fiction post: The Worser Part

Man the alarms! I am about to take this blog to places it has never been before.

By now, you're probably used to me using this URL to criticise other people's writing. You may even be one of the people I have criticised. If so, I am sorry. My heart is a lump of coal. But today, in a unique December miracle, I am turning everything on its head and posting my own short story for you to criticise at your leisure. Think of it as this blog's very own Christmas present to the internet.

Said story is a ghost story, because apparently nothing says 'Christmas' to my brain like posh Edwardian men getting haunted in Oxford. It came about because my friend Boadicea sent me an email asking for some M. R. James-style ghost story recommendations. I read this email immediately on waking up one morning, and in an intense pre-dawn, pre-coffee brain-wave I understood that what she was REALLY asking was for me to write her MY OWN M. R. James-style ghost story (she wasn't). But I sat down to write it anyway and since the whole thing came blurting out in less than 36 hours, it must have been in there somewhere already. It was obviously meant to be.

One final thing before I begin: although my characters are quite rude about Pembroke College, I do not share their distain. In fact, I grew up there, and it is one of my favourite places.



The Worser Part

“And that,” said Carmichael, “was when my haunting began.”

I believe, at first, that I thought I had misheard him. The wind was yelping and howling outside and making the catch on Carmichael’s window rattle like a train. The fire popped weakly, and I said, “Sorry, old man. I missed that. Say it again?”

“That,” repeated Carmichael, sticking out his jaw at me defiantly, “was when the hauntings began.”

Perhaps that is an unlikely beginning. But then what I have to tell is an unlikely tale!

To elucidate. It was late on a December evening, and we were sitting in Carmichael’s second-rate little rooms in front of a pale and distinctly second-rate little fire. The only consoling thing about the situation – Carmichael’s digs were jammed in halfway up a shoddy little back staircase in one of the shoddiest of the Oxford colleges – was the entirely excellent glasses of port we were both clutching in our chilly hands. That was Carmichael all over – a shoddy little back-stairs bounder, but he could still confound you by playing a trump card like that port. I believe everyone has a friend like Carmichael, by one name or another. 

That rather makes it sound as though Carmichael and I had been friends of the bosom since our Prep. school days. Not so. In fact, my friendship with this particular Carmichael was not one of a long standing, and indeed, on the evening when this account begins, we had only been acquainted for a matter of weeks.

Our first meeting came about in the following manner. After dinner in Hall I am accustomed to play a few rounds of bridge with other Christ Church men in the JCR. I am a keen bridge-player, and thus tend not to pay a great deal of attention to the goings-on around me – the atmosphere quickly becomes murky with smoke and hot with chatter – and of course, we play for stakes. That evening I remember I was doing rather well – I was up by a tidy sum, and one half of the opposing partnership, Tommy Macilhay, was cracking badly. He’d taken rather too much wine with dinner – rather too much wine altogether – and there were rumours that this was because he was in hock to a certain pub landlord in Blue Boar Street. I am not a man to listen to gossip, but at any rate, from the wine or from the landlord, his hands were shaking as he bet another guinea. We were declaring, and I won, and won again. I was just about to make the contract with a masterful bid in clubs when from behind me I felt a hand laid on my shoulder and a voice in my ear said, “No, no. Hearts, old man. You must play the hearts.”

I started. I believe I swore. At any rate, I lost the thread of the game, funked it badly and ended up throwing down some juvenile bid. Spades, I believe. Tommy Macilhay gave a sob of excitement, counter-bid wildly but unpleasantly well, and the other partnership took the rubber – and my winnings along with it. 

I spun about in a rage. The man who had done it – a man who I had never seen in our JCR before – was still behind me. He had a bounderish little moustache and beneath his gown his dinner-jacket had a nasty velvet collar to it. “What do you mean by that?” I asked the bounder furiously. “I’ve gone and lost!”

“Ah yes,” said the bounder, smiling behind his shrub of a moustache, “But I had a bet with my chum Brownrigg over there that you’d funk it, and, you see, I won.”

I was simply too angry to do anything but pant impotently. This fellow had come into my JCR and disrupted my bridge game – who did he think he was? 

“I’m a Pembroke man,” he said laconically, as if I had asked my question out loud. “Carmichael. Benjy Brownrigg introduced me to your delightful common room this evening. Oh, come now, old chap. You can’t have been hit too hard by it. I tell you what. I’ll make it up to you. What say I take you for a slap-up lunch at the Mitre tomorrow? Noon. You can’t refuse.”

I never thought Carmichael would be the sort of man who would honour his promises. But when I arrived at the Mitre the next day, there he was, a rather offensive cravat around his neck and a very large bottle of sherry on the table in front of him. He greeted me as though we had been friends for years – and thus it began!

I believe, despite all his side, that Carmichael was lonely. Certainly, after that lunch, he attached himself to me and refused to let go. On a more practical level, I suppose he wanted another ‘in’ to the Christ Church JCR – and I had my own reasons for tolerating him. That he was a bounder was certain, but he had a kind of style – a flair – for doing a thing, no matter the trouble or expense – and that, I admit, was rather fascinating to me.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Delicious Death - Devoured

Twitter is a weird thing, isn't it? You get involved in it, and suddenly you are friends with THE ENTIRE INTERNET, and then you have conversations with your real, actual friends that go like:

YOU: Oh, I know her!
THEY: How do you know her?
YOU: I know her on, um, twitter...
THEY: You don't know her. You're delusional.
YOU: No, but twitter is actually very... sort of...
THEY: Like I said. You're delusional.

Which is a very roundabout way of saying that I follow the writer D. E. Meredith on twitter, because she likes Victorian crime (like me) and she seems nice (like... no, wait), and because of this I decided I needed to give her Victorian crime novel Devoured a whirl.

So, invisible internet not-friends, I did.

Devoured, as I said, is historical crime fiction, set in London in the 1850s. A wealthy female patron of scientific discovery, specifically the shocking new research of men like Lyell and Alfred Russel Wallace, has been found dead, her head bashed in by one of her prized fossils. Dr Hatton and his Head Diener Monsieur Roumande, practitioners of the (other) new science, forensics, are called in to help, but it soon becomes clear that the murder of Lady Bessingham is just the beginning. Someone has been murdering 'Botanicals' (people who are interested in the theory of evolution), and it seems as though the crimes may have something to do with letters sent to Lady Bessingham by an explorer on a collecting expedition to Borneo. But when Hatton and Roumande make an unpleasant connection between a series of dead children and the Botanicals murders, the police don't like what they're being told. With so much against them, can Hatton and Roumande manage to expose the truth?

This is an interesting premise, especially for me. I love the story of how Darwinism came to be, and I appreciate a writer who acknowledges that Darwin wasn't the only scientist working on the evolution project. In fact, I am just totally on board with the current trend for properly researched historical fiction. Meredith both adores her subject and knows a lot about it, and as a result her settings really work. The Borneo letters (my favourite part) glow with beautifully described flowers, birds and beasts, and they're contrasted nicely with the cold, misty London winter setting of the rest of the novel.

Devoured, as you might expect, is all about people being taken over by their obsessions. Corruption is everywhere, in the heart of London as well as the heart of the jungle, and it affects every character in the novel. Sometimes this gets a bit simplistic - the Big Bad Duke of Evil, Lord Ashby, is pretty much cartoonish in his pursuit of filth for filth's sake - but there are some more interesting portrayals. The beta baddie, Madame Martineau, is not just written as the bloodsucking femme fatale she could have so easily become. She's a rounded character who does her evil because she believes it's in pursuit of a higher, truly worthy, cause, and I like that.

Mid-Victorian London is brought to life vividly, the story rollicks along and the murders are many and interestingly varied. Overall, I definitely came down on the side of liking Devoured, both its style and its substance. Meredith's imagination and plotting ability are firmly in place and in no doubt. But there's something about the way the book is written that, at times, left me a bit ambivalent about it. Meredith's style is sharp and interestingly elliptical, but while some of her sentences hit home beautifully, some just didn't work for me. Since this is Meredith's first piece of published fiction (and, as she's said in interviews, she's a writer who hasn't done much of it before) I suspect that she still hasn't quite settled into her form. But while there are kinks and bothers, there's also talent on show: like I said, there are some sentences that are really great. I think that future Hatton and Roumande novels will just keep on getting better, and the little points that I'm raising here are definitely not going to prevent you from enjoying a very fun book.

Devoured is not perfect by any means, but it's a very engaging presentation of a scientific and historical moment that I love. Victorianists will be delighted by it, and historical crime fans will be very pleased to be introduced to the comforting medical presences of Messrs. Hatton and Roumande. And I will certainly be reading the next in the series.

3 stars.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Review: Twelve Minutes to Midnight

I don't know if I mentioned this (maybe I did, once or twice. Or ten times. Or twenty. Are you sick of it yet?) but I interviewed Philip Pullman for Litro last week. I talked to him about fairy tales and storytelling and it was one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. I am still not over it. I may never be over it.

Before he got onto fairy tales, though, Pullman used to write pastiche Victorian teen fiction (possibly my favourite thing he's done - Sally Lockheart is my hero). And, in a total coincidence, pastiche Victorian children's fiction is the topic of my review for today.

I hope you all appreciated that segue.

Now, I like children's fiction. I would say that one day I want to write it, except that I already do. So I'll go with: one day I want to publish what I've written, and be poor and happy and probably live in a garret. Ambitions, eh?

Anyway, Christopher Edge's Twelve Minutes to Midnight is swag I picked up from a past internship at the lovely Nosy Crow. I chose it because its blurb promised Victorian penny dreadful magazines, and if there is one thing I love in this world, is it Victorian pulp fiction. I cannot tell you how happy I am that this seems to be a very popular topic at the moment - I've actually just reviewed what is probably Twelve Minutes to Midnight's grown-up brother, Stephen Gallagher's The Kingdom of Bones, and very good it was too. So I came to Twelve Minutes to Midnight with high expectations and a lot of prior form. Happily, the book did not disappoint.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight's plot (or rather, the basics of its plot, I could be here all day) is as follows: it's London, 1899, and at twelve minutes to midnight each night all of the inhabitants of Bedlam madhouse get up and start scribbling frantically on whatever surface they can find. What they write seems crazy to the Victorians who read it, but to anyone from 2012 it's immediately recognisable as events from the twentieth century - our past, but their future. What can it mean? How can it be stopped? And what does the MYSTERIOUS SPIDER LADY OF SOUTH KENSINGTON (yes, really) have to do with it all?

Promising premise, right?

Although much lighter on graphic sex, murder and mutilation than The Kingdom of Bones (for reasons that should be obvious), Twelve Minutes to Midnight goes big where it matters. Christopher Edge does not stint on his sensational plot twists. In 250 short pages he gives us insanity, mysterious death, crazy science, evil women in black capes, hallucinations, toothless crones, madhouses, H. G. Wells, terrifying futures and deadly African spiders. You know a book is going to go to good places when the villain's past history is described thusly:
Sir William died on the eve of her wedding to Lord Cambridge. Some say it was the shock of his passing that sent Lady Cambridge's mother into the arms of madness. But of course, Lady Cambridge has had her own tragedy to bear since then. The death of her husband, Lord Cambridge, on expedition to Africa - poisoned by the very spiders they had both gone there to study.
Now THAT is how to have a good time with a story.

The heroine of this marvellous piece of excess, Penny Treadwell, is, of course, totally ridiculous herself. She is a twelve year old Wunderkind who is secretly the UK's foremost writer of fiction, a crack detective, and a dab hand with scientific implements. Seriously. At one point an adult character remarks on her handiness with a pipette and Penelope (aged twelve) responds, "I've always been interested in science." I love this.

Penny (although at times her over-described beauty gets a bit dull) is a great children's heroine. She's the perfect mixture of exotic wish-fulfilment and tiresome reality. Every kid knows that they could be as effective as the adults around them given half the chance, and Penny is the embodiment of this. She uses the adults in her life like convenient glove-puppets to further her own amazingly cool and ruthless agenda. But despite all that, she's still a kid, and that means that she's still continuously being brought up short by officious grown-ups who tell her she can't go in there and she can't do that.

She circumvents them, of course, in ways that are intrepid and incredibly unlikely, and the plot gets insanely and delightfully daft, with one sensational twist every two pages. I did take slight issue with the fact that so many of said twists have something to do with spiders (for about two days after I finished Twelve Minutes to Midnight I kept imagining that there were things crawling all over me, which was not pleasant), but nevertheless I read the whole book in a state of great delight, shouting "YAY!" and making my poor boyfriend listen to long and exciting extracts from it.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight may not be as slick and super-sophisticated as the Sally Lockheart books, but it nevertheless holds its end up well. It's a hammer-punch of fun, and it comes from a writer who obviously knows his late-Victorian fiction. There are some especially fab cameos from Real Victorian Writers. So many books are doing this at the moment, and I am a sucker for it EVERY TIME, but I think in this case they work particularly well.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight is a mad, silly, wild ride. I enjoyed it greatly, and that's the mark of a good children's book: that it should delight anyone who reads it, no matter how much older they are than its apparent target audience.

A very satisfactory read.

3.5 stars.

Friday, 30 November 2012

November links round-up

Good evening, dear readers! Against all the odds, November has turned out to be a most excellent and most busy month. I have been unfaithful to this blog numerous times, and I feel I should probably do a big links roundup of my recent activities.

So here one is.

First, for Litro Magazine, I've written:

- about the present (and past) of British crime writing,

- about Russell Tovey, the Penny Dreadfuls and how writers are secretly mad scientists,

- and about Pat the Bunny, and why children's apps can be a very good thing.

And for The Bookbag, I've reviewed:

- Stranger Magic by Marina Warner (read this if you are an academic and also a geek).

- Wits and Wives by Kate Chisholm (read this if you are an academic and also a feminist).

- The Kingdom of Bones by Stephen Gallagher (read this if you like Victorian penny dreadfuls and also DEATH).

- The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf (read this if you like the eighteenth century, the Gothic and people cutting other people up).


See you in December.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

1001 Books Review - Surfacing

Margaret Atwood is a very good writer, isn't she? A very good writer. That is not in any doubt.

But oh I hated this particular book.

This is partly due to over-exposure. I've now read almost all of Atwood's books, and I feel like I know her much, much too well as a result. If this was a real relationship we would be over the honeymoon stage, way past easy fondness and at that awful place where every word that comes out of the other person's mouth sounds like a broken record. You hear them start to tell THE SAME STORY like it's still brand new information, and all you want to do is leap up and scream, "THIS IS NOT FUNNY! IT HAS NEVER BEEN FUNNY! WERE YOU ALWAYS THIS BORING?"

I mean, GOD, Margaret Atwood, is there some line in your contract that stipulates that every single one of your novels must contain a man repeating the phrase 'Beans, beans, the musical fruit, the more you eat, the more you toot!' and then laughing like it's funny? Is there? IS THERE REALLY? Because if not, why do you keep doing it? Why? And why are your main characters always you, and why do they all have the same childhoods, and why do they all hate themselves, and why are all the men in your novels hideous penis-brained idiots? WHY?

I'm overreacting, and I know I am, but I just can't take it any more. I am Atwooded out.

Surfacing is the story of Narrator X (many of Atwood's narrators don't have names, because 1. they are secretly just Margaret Atwood, and 2. they are simultaneously Everywoman and a big woman-shaped vacant space), who goes into the Canadian woods with her three friends to look for her missing father. Of course, what she discovers is that culture is terrible, humanity is terrible and she has spent her adult life as a TOOL OF MEN. So she goes crazy, rips off all of her clothes, smashes some mirrors and returns to nature. Sigh.

The sad thing is that I technically agree with a lot of what Atwood has to say. Humans are destroying the natural world. A lot of men do treat women reprehensibly. We haven't solved any of the problems that feminism was created to combat. Thinking about all of that makes me incredibly angry. And yet, Surfacing just left me wishing profoundly that Margaret Atwood would write one novel at least that didn't read like a big old cloud of unrelieved despair.

The one bright spot, for me, is that Surfacing (first published 1972) does inadvertantly prove that, for all the awful sexism that women still have to deal with on a regular basis, relationships between men and women (or at least some men and some women, or at least the men and women that I know) have improved immeasurably since it was written. I found myself really struggling to connect with the mindset of Atwood's characters. There's Anna, who can't ever take off her makeup in case her husband David hates her, and then there's the narrator's boyfriend Joe, who keeps trying to rape her while shouting "DO YOU LOVE ME YET?" I just can't imagine a group of my own friends behaving the way they do, and more importantly, I can't imagine my boyfriend or my male friends behaving the way Joe and David behave. Yes, the men in my life still sometimes insist on making pointless sexist jokes, but they do it sheepishly, like they know at a base level that they're being bad.

I've suggested before that this disconnect between Atwood's lived experience and my own is because it has taken (and will still take) a long, long time to create a sensible and automatically feminist pool of potential husbands. Atwood was writing in the second-wave 70s, but the men she was surrounded with had been brought up in the 40s and 50s, when women were mostly housewives and made meatloaf and stared at the wall and cried. My own men, by contrast, were brought up in the 80s and 90s, when women mostly wore power suits and were Prime Minister. My boyfriend's mother is a GP, so it would have been pretty difficult for him not to grow up knowing that women were capable of being intelligent and effective public figures.It's a process of tiny baby steps, is what I'm saying, but all the same those baby steps seem to have led us somewhere.

I feel very lucky that the battle of the sexes in Surfacing didn't ring true for me, because of the effect that it has on its narrator. The hate X receives from the male characters has been internalised and turned in on herself. She despises herself. She sees herself as intrinsically wrong and lacking and stupid, and Atwood's pretty clear that this is because she's been surrounded by people feeding her this nonsense every day of her life. If you get hate, hate's all you know, and you can't possibly like yourself as a person if you're constantly being told how inadequate you are. In a way, Surfacing is an updated 'Yellow Wallpaper' - the woman takes what men imagine her to be and twists it into a really terrifying monster version of herself. Again, I know that this is a problem that has nowhere near been solved for all women, but I'm so glad that, for me, that updating feels in need of another update. Baby steps!

By rights, I should probably like, or at least agree with, Surfacing. But I can't. I see that it's beautifully written, I see that it's got views that I am intrinsically on board with, but all the pleasure I might have had in actually reading it fell down that tiny gap between Atwood's point of view and my own and was lost for ever.

Purely on enjoyment, I have to give this

2.5 stars.

Oh, and my 1001 books progress? 20.48%

Saturday, 17 November 2012

1001 Books Review: Shirley

Some books come along exactly when you need them, and Shirley by Charlotte Bronte turned out to be just such a one.

As many of you will know, I am currently... not gainfully employed (although not through want of trying). As any of you who have met me will also know, I am the worst unemployed person in the world. If I haven't done six impossible things before breakfast, the day has been a failure. In an ideal world I'd be editing a book with my left hand, drafting an email with my right, making up a blog post in my head and filing with my feet. I really need to be busy, is what I'm saying. My brain just will not shut up.

I always wondered what women like me did before we were allowed to apply for jobs and have actual serious careers. I sort of hoped that they didn't know what they were missing.

Alas, no.

Shirley is technically about the frame-breaking riots in the North of England during the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century. Actually, though, that's all just background to a double marriage plot, itself window dressing for the concept that Bronte really wants to get across: how damaging it is not to give smart women a purpose in life.

Shirley has two heroines, Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar, and both are (as you would expect from Bronte) clever, witty and determined. Like all of Charlotte Bronte's leading women, they're Bronte repackaged, but it's the packaging Bronte chooses this time around that's so interesting. If you're expecting mousy Miss Eyre or plain and serious Lucy Snowe, you'll be surprised. Both Shirley and Caroline are knock-down gorgeous and adorably dainty. They look like the stereotypical dumbass girly girl of Victorian fiction: the fainter, the weeper, the scream-if-she-sees-a-mouser, the lady who can't wrap her pretty little head around a complex sewing pattern let alone an expenses sheet. The reader reads their physical descriptions and expects them to be stupid, and so do most of the novel's other characters.

Owner of a beautiful brain
Bronte, of course, is just waiting for you to fall into that trap. She knows that if this were a novel by Dickens, Caroline would be presented as a living doll, an angel in human form, with nothing between her ears but fluffy clouds and the nicer bits of the Bible, and she takes that preconception and mashes it into the ground. Caroline is sweet-natured, yes. She ties herself into knots trying to be dutiful to her overbearing uncle, a man who unthinkingly expects her to be happy sewing and doing her hair and staring at the wall. But although Caroline really tries to be a good and stupid girl, her brain just won't stop working. She begs to be given responsibilities, to be allowed become a governess, to do anything, and her uncle's response is along the lines of "Oh! The silly poppet! It mustn't worry its little head! I shall buy it a pretty dress and then it shall be happy." At which point Caroline takes to her bed and literally almost dies out of sheer unadulterated boredom.

Readers, in that moment I felt for her.

Shirley herself doesn't actually appear until page 150 (this is something that Victorian novels do a lot, and I find it really bizarre), but when she does she confounds expectations even more beautifully. An orphaned heiress with control over her own fortune and a keen business sense, Shirley has to be the predecessor of characters like The Well of Loneliness's Stephen Gordon. Like Stephen, she begins a lot of sentences with 'If I were a  man...', she refers to herself as a 'gentleman' and at one point she works out which of the women in the neighbourhood she'd be willing to marry. But (and I think this is an absolutely genius move on Bronte's part) Shirley does not have one single physical characteristic that is traditionally manly. She is very slight, her fingers are small and white, her face is pretty, her figure is slender. On the contrary, she is repeatedly described as feminine - meaning that her shrewdness, her ability to manage her business, her facility with numbers and her bold opinions must all be essentially female qualities. You can almost hear Charlotte Bronte yelling GOTCHA.

Caroline and Shirley are both utterly realistic and rounded human beings. They resolutely walk through snow, rain and wind without getting sick or fainting, they go on a daring escapade in the dead of night, Shirley uses a pistol, they have reasoned opinons about life, the universe and everything and, although they are set up as love rivals for the hand of one man, mill-owner Robert Moore, they never allow that rivalry to get in the way of their friendship. And they do it all while wearing really nice dresses. I think that Bronte's arguing for women to be seen for what they are already. They don't have to be like men, or not like women, to be worthy of respect. They just have to be allowed to develop the intelligence and strength of character they naturally have inside them.

I think it's also a nice touch that Bronte shows her smart women falling in love (and being loved themselves) without having to compromise their intellect. Yes, Bronte has a thing about teacher/student relationships that looks disturbing to many twenty-first century readers' eyes, but when you consider that the teachers she knew were the only men who valued her brain, and that she was one of those people who falls fervently in love with someone's brain, it all makes sense.

There's an idea that comes up in every Charlotte Bronte novel ever: that if two people are really in love they will suit each other. Not just fancy each other, but suit. People's characters need to be compatable, not just their faces - which is why I dig Bronte's attitude to love so much. She's totally right, but in being right she's before her time, because she's acknowledging that a woman's brain can be the match of a man's.

It's probably because of this that I think Charlotte Bronte is so uniquely wonderful at generating great sexual tension. Characters glare at each other, or don't speak, or even refuse to be in the same room together, and you suddenly know that they LOVE EACH OTHER and they are MEANT TO BE, and that if they are not allowed to be together, your whole brain will die. As I said at the time,

And I meant that.

I don't know why this novel isn't more widely known and read. Yes, it's a slow starter, and yes, like all of Bronte's other books, it's drowning in Biblical references complex enough to fox even the most theologically aware reader today. But it's amazing. It's a great story that doubles as a beautifully rational polemic against treating one half of the human race like idiot children. Shirley and Caroline are both immensely intelligent, obviously the equals of any of the novel's male characters. It's wildly stupid - and Bronte points this out forcefully - that they're being made to waste the talents they have on staring at walls. The answer that Shirley gives to this problem is simple: everyone's lives would be better if women got up off their sofas and went to do the work they're capable of.

Thank goodness that, today, I at least get that chance.

4.5 stars

Friday, 16 November 2012

Bundles of Joy

Sarah Massini for Nosy Crow
First of all, I am so excited to finally be able to talk about the fact that Nosy Crow, a children's publisher I was lucky enough to do some work for a few weeks ago, is launching Stories Aloud, a new initiative that bundles digital audio content with their physical picture books.

Here is their blog post about it.

Basically, you open the book, you use your smartphone to scan the QR code and up pops an audio file that can be played alongside the book or listened to on its own. Isn't that brilliant? Isn't that simple? And doesn't it make you wonder why they're one of the only publishers actually willing to do something like this?

I know it does for me.

Bundling's actually something I've been thinking about for quite a while. There's such a disconnect between physical and digital publishing at the moment, and I can't understand why this is the case. Why don't more publishers connect the dots? Why, in short, isn't bundling standard?

As you may know, I review for The Bookbag, an excellent arrangement which means that I get a new book present in the post almost every week. Recently, I picked Marina Warner's Stranger Magic, and in due course it arrived at Bird HQ.

Now, as I said in my review, Stranger Magic is a beautiful book. Its cover is gorgeous, its illustrations are many and (most importantly of all) almost every word in it is lovely to experience. It's a reference book that I want to keep on my physical shelf, to flick through and pick from at will, free from licensing issues or battery failure or sudden cracked screen disasters. I don't just love the text, I love this physical book.

But Stranger Magic isn't just good. It's also great. How great, you may ask? See for yourself.

What you see
What you get.

It is 774g of purest processed tree. It is back-breakingly, purse-rippingly large. And with that piece of information, you may begin to perceive the problem. I love this book, I love reading this book, but I do not love carrying this book all the way up to Manchester and back in 24 hours (note: this happened).

Stop being stupid, Robin. Buy a Kindle!

Ah yes, but here's the thing. I have the physical book. Buying an entirely separate ebook edition, although it exists, seems a bit redundant now. But what if (and this is a question that will not stop plaguing me) the physical book and the ebook had arrived at my house in a single package?

Now, you can sort of do this already. Go onto Amazon and you'll see Stranger Magic: the real thing and Stranger Magic: the digital file nestling up against each other on the search page.

But what there isn't is any notion that you might want to buy both versions together, or that you might be offered a discount for doing so. And if you go into a bookstore, although some may have stands where you can buy ebook readers, there is likewise no way to buy, for a small additional fee, the companion ebook version of the new hardback you just purchased. And I CANNOT work out why not. I mean, it is driving me crazy.

An ebook and a physical book are, after all, built for different situations. Real books are for curling up with on a sofa or in bed, for looking at with the joy of successful acquisition, for storing and keeping and coming back to twenty years later. Ebooks are pared-down bits of pure function, the same words in portable form. They don't really overlap, and they're not really the same product. So why can't they be seen as complimentary rather than in conflict? One won't win. There is no winning. There is just (and I say this with my aspiring publisher's hat on) revenue that you make, and revenue that you don't.

We all know that the music industry has screwed up. At this stage, the internet is simply kicking away at what is left of its shrivelled husk. But publishing doesn't have to go that way. It still has time to jump on that digital bandwagon and ride it like the new money-making opportunity it is. More people are reading than ever before. Book crazes are bigger pheonomena than they ever were before. Yes, the 99p ebook model is pretty awful. But what if you try to establish the notion that all readers should buy ebooks in addition to their physical copies?

What I am saying is, why aren't we bundling physical and digital content as standard?

Now, there is nothing about this idea that means that it couldn't be rolled out, say, tomorrow. We have all the technology involved. We have ebooks, we have physical books, we have printers to create QR codes or individual ebook codes. I have a dream in which every physical book comes with some sort of scratch-away-to-reveal-the-code box or the equivalent (bearing in mind that putting the code in an easily readable place would probably create a whole new breed of bookshop theft), but I don't see why booksellers couldn't just ask customers at the till point if they'd like to pay £1 or £2 more to get the ebook version of their purchase as well, and then hand them a code from a box of them behind the desk. Or the code could be printed on the receipt... none of this is quite right, yet, but my point is that these are the kind of details that could be worked out as you go.

The idea is to level the playing field between traditional booksellers and Amazon and the other internet giants in terms of the content they offer, and to reach a large new bookloving demographic who don't currently use ebooks because they're being sold as an alternative to their beloved real-world copies.

If any publisher out there likes this idea, or any part of it, I hope you'll steal it. I want you to steal it. (Though of course I'd like you to steal me with it.) Because, you guys, I want a job. I want the industry I love to have a job for me, and other people like me. And I think that this'll only happen if publishers are proactive, and creative, and embrace change instead of behaving as though change has fangs and is here to kill your children.

So I say to you all: bundle up!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Review: The Forbidden

Frank Tallis tends to write crime novels, of which my boyfriend and I are huge fans. His Liebermann series, set in Freud's turn-of-the-century Vienna, is a highly comforting mixture of cake and death in which 99% of the scenes proceed in the following manner:

"We have just discovered the body of a prostitute with her stomach ripped out lying on the steps of the Opera House!" said Inspector Reinhardt in his distinctive baritone voice.

"That is terrrible!" said his friend and ally Doctor Liebermann. "In my expert opinion, you are looking for a killer with mother issues and an oral fixation."

"What deduction, my friend!" Reinhardt's stomach rumbled and he chuckled musically. "All this thinking has made me hungry. Shall we repair to Demels for some Palatschinken?"

"An excellent idea!" cried Liebermann.

Both men thought of the sweet, spicy pancake parcels, with scented vanilla cream and tender apricot jam oozing from their delicate golden folds in a way that was almost erotic. Reinhardt licked his lips eagerly. "Come along, my friend!" he cried. "That eviscerated prostitute can wait."

There is so much cake in the Liebermann novels that you can put on six pounds just by thinking about them.

Anyway, they're pretty great, but pretty silly, so it's not entirely surprising that Tallis has decided to try his hand at something a bit darker. Writing as F. R. Tallis (not a supremely cunning pseudonym as they go, I rumbled him immediately) he is now reinventing himself as a horror writer, and his first novel in his new genre is The Forbidden.

The Forbidden is a tale of supernatural possession that moves from voodoo on the island of Saint-Sebastien to the depths of nineteenth century Paris, a Paris where Charcot 'cures' hysterics in Salpetriere, doctors investigate electrical resuscitation and the possibility of life after death, dissolute prostitutes shoot up every night and Notre Dame cathedral is a portal into Hell.

Remember I mentioned Tallis's penchant for eviscerated prostitutes? Well, it's clear he's been keeping the full extent of his interest in the subject under wraps until now. The Forbidden pulsates with flayed women, oozing blood from all manner of unpleasant incisions. I had extremely uncomfortable moments while reading it, and though I assume that Tallis just enjoys horror and all its trappings conceptually, the way I love murder (Tallis is a clinical psychologist, after all, so he's probably had access to a lot of dark ramblings from which to draw his material), this is certainly not a book for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached.

I do think, oddly enough, that Tallis is displaying a more controlled and objectively better writing style in this dramatically-themed book than he ever has before. Gone are the odd over-descriptions that the Liebermann novels are so full of (tears becoming dilutions of sodium choloride and so on). What's left is vivid but simple prose that manages to evoke his highly-coloured material well. Unfortunately, though, what he's writing about, although undeniably a lot of (extremely twisted) fun, isn't as unique as the Liebermann mysteries. In fact, it's pretty much a mash-up of every supernatural horror film and book ever written. Island voodoo? Check. Fin-de-siecle French depravity, complete with crack and whores? Check. Priests battling satanic forces with bell, book and candle? Check. Youthful virgins spewing profanities and bodily fluids while their heads spin round like manic owls? Check.

There is a basic story running through it all (overreaching young doctor goes to hell and brings back an ancient evil which he must then exorcise) but the plot still feels bitty, broken up into sections that don't seem to bear much of a relation to each other. You can tell, for example, where the Huysmans bit ends and The Exorcist begins. In fact, the different parts of the book could almost be read as a series of linked short stories - but they're being presented as a single narrative, and that's the book's biggest problem. Tallis tells us in an end-note that The Forbidden is a homage to a lot of his major horror influences, which is great for fans of the genre, but at times I felt like the balance between affectionate recycling and innovation was a little off.

To call The Forbidden good fun would be... a bit creepy of me. But I did like it (though sometimes in a disturbed sort of way). It isn't innovative, but it's exuberant and skin-crawlingly dark, and as a first foray into the genre by someone who is obviously a long-time fan, I think fellow horror buffs will find it enjoyable.

Tallis's next outing (The Sleep Room, published by Macmillan in 2013) looks like it will benefit from a tighter focus, and I'm looking forward to it a lot. There's a big part of me, though, that misses the comfort of those Viennese cakes.

3 stars.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Delicious Death: Some Quickfire Crime Reviews

First, some links to my latest reviews for The Bookbag:

Desolation Island by Adolfo Garcia Ortega (short answer: very very good)

The Story of English by Joseph Piercy (short answer: very very mixed)

Now I don't know if you've heard, but I like crime. Theoretically, of course. This blog does not endorse wrongdoing in any way, shape or form, and in fact would encourage you all to be nice to other people and not kill them.

Nonetheless, in the abstract, crime soothes me. Here is a round-up of my latest toothsome murder selections.

Sovereign by C. J. Sansom.

I've said before that I like Sansom's books a lot. Not only does he have a very good, very full-blooded line in historical recreation, he's becoming a technically better writer as he goes along. Sovereign is the third in his series of novels about a crime-solving hunchbacked lawyer struggling to stay alive among the political intrigue of Henry VIII's court. It's set in 1541 and concerns two of the aging Henry's more disastrous decisions: his marriage to hot young thing Catherine Howard (the second beheaded, according to the rhyme) and his royal Progress around a very tetchy and still rebellious North of England.

Matthew Shardlake and his sexy assistant Jack Barak are sent to York on a mission to look after the safety of a political prisoner. Of course, Shardlake gets royally mixed up in Henry's progress and ends up uncovering a plot to destabilise the entire Tudor succession. As you do. It's all a bit ridiculous (although based on real events and real intrigue, like all the best fiction) but thoroughly fun, and the story carrys you along at a breathless pace all the way to the end. It's a 650 page book that reads like a 250 page novella.

Poor old Shardlake is a good man in a bad world. He doesn't know when to leave well enough alone and who has a lot of trouble remembering that most people are a lot nastier than he is. Each book sees him sinking further into his pit of emotional despair, and each culminates with the inevitable announcement that this will be ABSOLUTELY HIS VERY LAST CASE. Since I know that Sansom has written at least two more Shardlake novels I can smell the lie and be very grateful for it. This series ticks both my crime nerd and  history nerd boxes, and long may it last.

I see I originally gave the Shardlake books 3 stars. I must have been feeling mean that day. For this outing, I'm revising upwards to

4 stars.

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink by James Anderson

Before I actually read it, I had suspicions that The Affair of the Mutilated Mink might be a silly book. Imagine my joy when I realised that it is precisely that. Its pages give off gusts of the purest, most exquisite Golden Age foolery (in case you are wondering, this rare substance smells like leather-bound books, pearls, rolling acres and gunshot wounds, and Agatha Christie used to spray herself all over with it every morning).

The second in Anderson's series of pastiche Golden Age detective novels (my library didn't have the first), its English upper class characters bray and blether delightfully, its American characters say HOWDY and chew cigars and everyone has utterly creative secret backgrounds involving JEWELS and MISTAKEN IDENTITIES and TRAGIC DEATHS. The dippy set-up (American producer wants to shoot movie on location at the film-mad Earl of Burford's scenic pile) is an excuse to drag a motley cast of movie star types, aristocracy, long-lost relatives and the obligatory troubled artist together for a country-house weekend party that ends (surprise surprise) with MURDER MOST FOUL.

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink never makes the mistake of taking itself seriously. Even the characters know they're being ridiculous, and there's an extremely meta joke-that-knows-it's-a-joke atmosphere to the whole thing that reminded me a lot of P. G. Wodehouse. Fans of Golden Age detective fiction will have their hearts melted by throwaway references to Ariadne Oliver and Inspector Alleyn (who, in this world, are real people), as well as spot-on recreations of stock characters like the officious Scotland Yard man (complete with trusty valet), the prima donna actress and the American movie producer extraordinaire. At the same time, though, Anderson's doing something quite intelligent with the familiar tropes. The man sent from Scotland Yard turns out to be too smart for his own good and the mystery is actually solved by Wilkins, one of those adorably modest country detective who are always totally snubbed in Christie and Sayers novels. The leading girl is not only suitably plucky and resourceful but also quite a rounded human being, the Earl's bluffness is all for show... and so on, and so on. It's a really witty variation on a well-known theme that feels new and old at the same time - which, coincidentally, was what all those Golden Age crime novels were trying to do in the first place.

This book is wonderful. It affectionately embraces all the flaws of its parent genre, pokes gentle fun at its worst excesses and on top of that manages to put together a fairly tidy and inventive murder mystery. The reveal may not blow your mind, although there are some great twists in the tale, but the joy of any good Golden Age murder mystery is the silly, over-the-top journey to that final denouement, and this journey is ridiculously fun.

Another 4 stars.

Image from
Scales of Justice by Ngaio Marsh

By the way, in case you're wondering, I did not mistakenly smash my fingers against my keyboard to come up with that first name. Marsh was from New Zealand, so her parents gave her a name that's the Maori word for a kind of tree. The G is silent so it's pronounced like Naio. There you go, that's your fascinating trivia for the day. You're welcome.

Before I actually discuss the content of this book, I would like to direct your attention to the FANTASTIC cover of my edition. It is purest essence of the 1970s, when publishers had just discovered photography but were not yet conversant with realism. This image has it all: fake plastic trout, puzzled dog, daub of red paint where the blood should be. It is so ugly that I can't stop staring at it.

Unfortunately, though, it turns out that the best thing about Scales of Justice is that cover. A lot of Golden Age writers (apart from Dorothy Sayers, who got bored and turned to translating Dante instead) carried on relentlessly beating the dead horse of the 1930s setting well into the 1960s, and this book, published in 1955, contains themes so stale that they're practically suppurating.

The female characters wear twinsets with their tweeds and the male characters talk about Nazis, but apart from that you'd never guess that the year was no longer 1935. Retired colonels and dusty earls still perambulate around their small English country town, huntin' and shootin' and fishin' and sleepin' with each other. The murder itself is an example of the worst excesses of the clue puzzle format, which states that if the killer does not do the deed while balanced on one leg, wearing a swimming costume and a lion mask and wielding a melon borer the writer is NOT TRYING HARD ENOUGH.

Marsh is trying hard, all right, but the effect is of insanity and extreme hideboundness rather than any kind of real invention. Add to that the tiresome upper-class honour displayed by all the characters, which pointlessly derails the investigation for 100 pages, and you have a murder mystery so idiotic that I could barely finish it. And when I did, the reveal was stupid. Nul points, Marsh. Nul points.

2 stars.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

1001 Books review: David Copperfield

My experience with David Copperfield is a pretty excellent example of my theory that there is no such thing as an objectively good book. I picked it up for the first time when I was thirteen, as part of my efforts to be a Serious, Grown-Up Reader.

Internet, I hated it. As I remember, I got about three chapters in and gave up in impotent fury.

I started David Copperfield again last week. I am absolutely certain not a single word of it has changed (I know this because I was reading the exact same copy that I had when I was thirteen), but somehow this time I wasn't offended by them at all. Just like capers and things that taste like marzipan, it turns out that the adult version of me really likes David Copperfield.

I always try to be a bit sulky hipster about Dickens. He's so famous, and so beloved, that I feel like there must be a catch somewhere. But every time I stop whining and actually read a Dickens novel, I realise why he's lasted so well. Yes, he's mawkishly sentimental, yes, he has a thing for golden-haired angels and crossing-sweepers dying tragically in debtors' prisons, but he's also an excellent plotter with a total genius for creating instantly memorable and entirely unforgettable characters.  

David Copperfield is obviously just one novel, but it's given the world sickening snake-villain Uriah Heep, exuberant and permanently insolvent Mr Micawber, and secretly good-hearted donkey-hater Betsey Trotwood. And then there's Peggotty, who bursts all the buttons off her dresses whenever she gets emotional, and Mr Murdstone, so evil that he can kill his wives with just the power of his mind. And so on, and so on....

Dickens's heroes and heroines tend to be his weakest creations, dull and dinkily foolish respectively, but everyone else is stellar, and everyone else is the reason why Dickens is still so beloved. He is quite simply the best ever at creating his bit-parts.

Having said that thing about Dickens making up boring heroes, I actually found David Copperfield's hero quite interesting. This is largely because I can now appreciate that he is essentially just Dickens in disguise. David Copperfield is Dickens's autobiography. Consider the facts: like Dickens, David spends time as a child labourer in a London warehouse, he has a really bumptious small-time fraudster father figure in Mr Micawber, he grows up to become a famous writer and he has a very youthful marriage to a woman so helpless and daft that she is functionally a child. I'd say that was all pretty conclusive.

This woman. How I hate her.
That fictionalised portrait of his marriage, of course, interested me the most of all. I've somehow managed to get really involved in the Dickens relationship, but until now what I've read about it has been from the point of view of Mrs. I was all ready to blame Mr for everything - until I heard his views on the matter.

David's wife (the Catherine Dickens substitute) is called Dora, and on the strength of his description of her character, MAN do I now feel for Charles. I am a pathetically non-violent person. I can't even kill zombies in video games because I worry about their feelings. And yet while I was reading David Copperfield I had to struggle with vivid fantasties about taking Dora out and just SHOOTING HER IN HER STUPID CHILDISH FACE.

Lord have mercy, that idiot woman. She weeps because David points out that all their servants cheat him and he hasn't actually eaten dinner in weeks. She begs him to call her, and I quote, Child-wife, so that he will never forget how stupid and useless she is. (I am not kidding. She SERIOUSLY SAYS THIS.) I hate her. Yes, Dickens gives us an over-dramatic, highly biased version of events, but I can imagine that it would be pretty awful to be as smart and worldly as he was and married to someone with not an ounce of practicality in her fleecy little brain. Even Dickens/Copperfield has fantasies about her 'becoming an angel' (ie DYING). Beautifully, of course. So then she could be a hot fantasy object in his mind AND he could finally get the servants to bring his dinner on time. Dickens really was quite emotionally weird.

I do think Dickens has some serious issues about women and sexual relationships. I'd love to believe that the 'Child-wife' concept is presented as a bad thing and he understands the values of equal parnership in a marriage ... and yet. Quite aside from Dora, another character's beautiful emotional conclusion comes when she calls the man she married 'my husband and father'. Oh, and a lot of characters who are siblings (though admittedly not genetic ones) fall in love. We are meant to find this adorable. My brother and sister are adopted. I don't.

This kind of thing is so widespread in all Dickens novels, though, that protesting against it feels like trying to throw Boris Johnson over the Eiffel Tower. I've pretty much decided to ignore it and focus on the stuff that Dickens does do well. Like death. Dickens gives great death, doesn't he? I know all that Victorian hyper-emotionalism is a bit past its best, but you can't beat a good bit of tragedy, especially when everyone weeps and reconciles with their enemies just before they breathe their last. Without giving away the end of David Copperfield, I will say that the bodies mount up in a satisfying heap. And then everyone who doesn't die gets hitched. In fact, it all rounds up in a distinctly satisfactory (although totally not postmodern) way.

Second time round, I ended up having a great time following the ridiculous trials and tribulations of young David Copperfield. I found David Copperfield charming, silly and fun, if a bit morally dodgy in places. You know what? I've given up fighting Dickens. I've realised that if you want a big blockbuster Victorian novel with lots of charming, slightly crazy characters and a fat serendipitous plot, you just can't do better than him. I hate to admit it, but Dickens is great.

4 stars.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Delicious Death: Andrew Taylor Again

First, announcements: I've got a new gig reviewing books for The Bookbag. Isn't that nice! My first review (if you know me at all, you should not be surprised that I chose this one out of many) is of The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper. Go, read!

And now for something completely the same: I read another crime novel. After really liking The Anatomy of Ghosts a few weeks ago I've been trying to have an Andrew Taylor binge. Sadly for me (I blame the government), my local library has exactly... one more novel by him. So it wasn't much of a binge. But at least I tried.

Call the Dying is (of course it would be) not even the first, but the seventh in a series Taylor has written about the fictional Anglo-Welsh town of Lydmouth. This means that by reading it I have probably spectacularly spoilt myself for all the plot twists in the previous six books.

Luckily, though, Taylor has done a fairly nifty job of making this book operate under its own logic. Call the Dying is quite obviously part of a series, but at the same time it stands alone. It's actually a pretty good lesson in how to reintroduce longstanding characters and situations in a way that clicks with repeat readers but makes sense to the random punter who's just wandered in off the (metaphorical) street. Call the Dying would quite obviously have meant more to me had I read the previous six Lydmouth novels, but at the same time I felt like I was allowed to get to know Lydmouth's inhabitants while being shown enough of their baggage to stop me spending the whole novel wondering Who are YOU? And who is HE? And what is SHE and WHERE ARE WE AND WHAT IS THIS OH MY GOD.

The Lydmouth novels are set in the 1950s, which inevitably makes reviewers (or at least the ones quoted on Call the Dying's cover) compare them to later Agatha Christie. Well, technically, yes, but this is a very different kind of thing. Christie never quite disengaged mentally from large houses in the 1930s, so her '50s' novels are really set in the 30s but with different hair. She also believed very firmly that anyone who was not a member of the professional or landed classes was fundamentally not worth bothering about. The lower classes are sometimes in evidence, but always as bit-parts, usually called Gladys and often with more than a hint of mental deficiency and/or adenoids. No matter what her apparent theme, there's always something a bit big about Agatha Christie novels. They aspire.

Call the Dying, on the other hand, is all about littleness. It depicts a mean and menial post-war world where everyone is tired and weak and struggling to get by. Fog, both metaphoric and actual, smothers the whole novel, enclosing Lydmouth in an atmosphere of claustrophobic small-time nastiness. Taylor is very good at creating emotion in his reader - to me, the whole book felt grey - but it doesn't give off that tiresome smugger-than-thou world-weariness of a P. D. James novel. Taylor's characters don't pretentiously bewail their fate, they just get on with living their lives in a vaguely dissatisfied way.

The plot is as follows: journalist Jill Francis returns to Lydmouth to help out a sick friend and re-encounters unhappily married DCI Richard Thornhill, with whom she obviously has a lot of hot illegal history. Then a TV salesman disappears and the local doctor is found dead, nibbled by rats, and - well, you know. They solve crime.

No, I wasn't kidding about the rats. Taylor's got a creatively nasty streak to his imagination. I noticed it in The Anatomy of Ghosts, but he really lets it out here. Apart from Doctor Bayswater, who likes to feed his garden rats bread and milk and watch them as they play, there's a mysterious man who keeps weeing in letterboxes at the dead of night and someone else who desecrates graves. It's all very nearly horror, creepy in a way that most murder mysteries aren't.

Actually, the murder part of it isn't Call the Dying's strongest point. I'm not sure the final reveal is particularly well-executed. So much attention is given to B-plots about the life of Lydmouth town that the central mystery doesn't have quite time to play out. I was confused rather than enlightened by most of the explanation, and there wasn't enough trailing of the solution for most readers to be able to follow along, let alone guess the twist. But, just like The Anatomy of Ghosts, I think Taylor's charm lies in his set-up rather than his plotting. In terms both of their humanity and their time period Lydmouth's inhabitants feel believable (if slightly distorted, like lifelike caricatures), and Lydmouth itself is eerily fascinating.

I'm coming to the conclusion that I really like Andrew Taylor's novels. They're not quite like any other crime I've read - or not quite like crime novels, full stop - but they're engrossing, weird and imaginative. When I read one, I want more, and that's surely a good sign. As of today, I am haunting my local second-hand bookshops on the look-out for my next fix.

3.5 stars.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Review: The Snow Child

There are certain books that I pick up, read the first page, put down again and say "... damn."

Often, this is because the book is bad. Sometimes, though, it is because I have just read something so wonderful that I need time to come to terms with the fact that I did not write it. Reading the first page of The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey made me shrivel up with jealousy like a thwarted fairy-tale witch. It is a masterclass in the vivid, tactile transmission of a scene - from the first sentence you're right there, totally caught up in the action and a paid-up member of Ivey's marvellous and slightly magic-realist world. And it just gets better from there.

The Snow Child is the story of Mabel and Jack, an aging couple who have never been able to have children. They're both slightly weird and introverted (an understatement in the case of Mabel, who begins the book suicidal and with a total distrust of all other human beings), and they've come to Alaska to start again all on their own. Jack won't even let Mabel do any of the farming, so she spends her days baking pies and thinking about death. They're at the lowest point in their lives when they go outside one night and on a random impulse make a snow sculpture of a little girl. The next morning they wake up to discover that the statue has been destroyed - and there's a child hiding in the woods next to their house.

You can probably tell where this one is going. But the clever thing about Ivey's story is that some of her characters know it too. As the couple befriend the little girl, Mabel becomes obsessed with the idea that they've made their own snow child who, like the girl in the story, will melt in the spring: essentially, she believes that she's stepped into her own fairy tale. It's a clever idea, done delicately enough to make the reader genuinely unsure what's real and what's a myth in the universe of the novel. Even better, Ivey has split The Snow Child into three different sections in which she plays with three different versions of the basic Snow Child story, each similar to but subtly unlike Jack and Mabel's experiences with their girl from the woods. It's a nice comment on the essential differences as well as the similarities of each retelling of the same fairy tale.

Nothing truly fantastic ever happens in The Snow Child. The little girl's presence in Jack and Mabel's back yard has an explanation; she is certainly not made of frozen water. But at the same time, Ivey always leaves a little gap for conjecture. The snow child is a real person, living in the real world... but she can still summon a snow-storm with her mind. Maybe. Or maybe she can't. It's never entirely clarified, and that leaves the reader beautiful blank space to decide what they think.

Ivey's Alaska is wonderful in the literal meaning of the word: she is so good at conveying the wonder and beauty of the wilderness that surrounds her characters without turning it into a twee little snowy cottage garden. But even though it's got a gorgeous, out-of-the-ordinary backdrop and a weird central character, The Snow Child is really all about how exceptional everyday life can be. Sure, it's got a kid who might have unearthly powers, but its real magic comes from the relationships that are built up between the characters.

I know, that sounds really sugary and awful, as though the characters spend all their time crying and hugging each other and discovering their purpose in life. But while that does literally happen (the discovery, not the crying and hugging), Ivey does it in a really organic, sensible way. The snow child gives Jack and Mabel the chance to experience a version of parenthood; their nutty next-valley-over neighbours let them discover how nice it can be to have friends. It's sweet, but realistically so, a kind of wish-fulfilment that makes sense.

I'm aware that I'm raving about The Snow Child. But it's not often that I'm seized with the need to go online and find out how many awards a novel has won because I'm so convinced that it needs ALL THE PRIZES. This is an interesting story, yes, but what really makes it stand out is how gloriously good its writing is. A rational fairy tale with a spice of magic to it, it's so much more unusual and interesting than a totally mystical or completely factual retelling. I can't recommend this enough.

4.5 stars.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Delicious Death: The Detection Club

I am currently recovering from a dissertation about crime. So naturally, the only thing I want to read about is crime.

I bought Ask A Policeman as an extremely tenuous bit of dissertation 'research' (because Agatha Christie wrote the introduction and Dorothy Sayers wrote one of the chapters) but also because it is extremely relevant to my interests. I am competely and tragically obsessed with Golden Age detective fiction. My father gave me an Agatha Christie novel when I was twelve; I read one page of it and realised that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

Not that it hasn't had competition. In the extensive game of Imaginary Historical Friends that I've been playing for years, I've never been able to decide whether I'd prefer to be a Pre-Raphaelite Brother or part of the Byron/Shelley Sexual Licentiousness and Monsters tour of 1816. Or maybe a beat poet. So many choices. But I have come to realise that all this is kind of contingent on me suddenly becoming a man, because the ladies in each group tended to get a raw deal. I am now, therefore, beginning to think that what I would really like to have been is a member of the Detection Club in the 1930s.

The more I read about The Detection Club, the more I discover how awesome it was. If you're a Christie fan, you've probably read about it (in a thinly disguised form) in her book of Miss Marple stories The Thirteen Problems. Basically, it was made up by a group of crime novelists in 1930 to 'further the cause of the clue puzzle form' ie. hang out, get squiffy and talk about murder. Not only were quite a few of the principal members women (Dorothy Sayers even wrote the official oath, which is hilarious), but it's pretty clear that the club members had a totally great time together, as witnessed by the fact that one of their favourite activities was making fun of each other in the things they wrote. Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case has a spot-on send-up of Agatha Christie, and in Ask a Policemen, one of the club's collaborative efforts, the writers all swapped detectives in order to be able to take the piss out of each other with even greater ease than usual.

Now, even though I know its authors have done this (because the blurb says so), I didn't find Ask a Policeman quite the humour-fest they clearly intended it to be. This is because, apart from Lord Wimsey, most of these detectives (and their authors) mean absolutely nothing to a reader from 2012. Certain things age well, and certain things don't, and although I would like to make the case for Anthony Berkeley (if you're interested in him, he also wrote as Francis Iles for some incomprehensible reason), Helen Jackson and Gladys Mitchell ... have gone deservedly into that good night. Without any idea what was being riffed on I could sense the presence of jokes, but that was about it. I didn't know who Mrs Bradley or Sir John Saumarez were, and because of that a large part of Ask a Policeman's central premise fell flat for me.

I felt kind of bad about this - what kind of Golden Age crime novel buff am I? - but I would have felt far worse about my bewilderment if the entire novel had not been such a swirling maelstrom of well-bred confusion. The four writers were each given the same information about the murder and then told to go away and solve it without consulting each other, and the result is that none of the timings match up, people miraculously fall ill and get well from one chapter to the next and there are lots of bizarre plot threads left dangling in the breeze.

Now, to an extent this is par for the course for the genre they're writing in. The main criticism of Golden Age crime novels is that their plots are - to put it bluntly - bloody ridiculous. In the words of Raymond Chandler, they all feature 
the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poignard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests.
For me, that's one of the most charming aspects of them, but if that annoys you, you should definitely not come within one hundred feet of Ask a Policemen. Ridiculousness oozes out of its every pore. 

Consider its set-up. Evil media mogul Lord Comstock (think Murdoch before Murdoch even existed) has been shot in his study while surrounded by a motley and unlikely list of haters who include a Bishop, an upper-class twit, a mysterious lady, a Police Commissioner and the inevitable effeminate male secretary. In a twist of fate so painfully unlikely that it makes my brain ache, the Home Secretary decides to call off the police force and draft in four amateur detectives to solve the case. Because when a major public figure has been murdered, the people I want investigating his death are an old rich woman, an actor, a Lord and... some sort of wealthy jobless person (I've read a few of Berkeley's Sheringham books by now and I like them but I STILL haven't been able to work out what he does). 

Where do you go from there? How can you make the whole thing not crushingly stupid? The answer is, you can't, and none of these authors even tries. Each detective comes to a different (and totally whacky) conclusion from their version of the facts (I use the phrase 'their version' advisedly), and the result is brain-melting non-linear information stew with lashings of super-British jolliness.

Ask a Policeman is the result of a lot of people having a lot of slightly elitist fun with each other. I really wish I had been one of those people, and it was clearly hysterically funny to write, but the result is the purest silly froth that doesn't translate well out of its original moment. When you read a Golden Age crime novel, even a daft one, it's hard not to be infected by the sheer joy of it, but I cannot underestimate what an enormous pile of nonsensical nuts this particular book is. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then Ask a Policeman is a camel with five humps, zebra stripes and a tail made out of moustaches.

This is a book for the very specialised reader. I found the Sayers and Berkeley sections charming (if crazy) because I know their work, but the other two parts were absolutely lost on me. It's a period piece that's aged like Poundland cava, a glimpse of a craze that was weird at the time and seems even weirder now. I love this genre like nothing else in the world, but I still have to give this particular novel

2 (affectionate) stars.