Saturday, 25 May 2013

On Finding My Literary Counterpart: Sleuth on Skates

If I was making a list of my top books of the year so far, Sleuth on Skates by Clementine Beauvais would be extremely high up it. It was handed to me during an internship at Hodder in January, and I went from ‘What is this?’ to ‘OH MY GOD EVERYONE IN THE WORLD NEEDS TO READ THIS!’ in twenty seconds.

This is firstly because it is extraordinarily hilarious. Any fool can make a reader feel sad (imagine a three legged puppy being smacked. See?), but it takes a special talent to make them belly-laugh, and Clementine has that ability in spades.

Secondly, Clementine has created one of the most fantastic girl detectives I’ve come across in a long time. Girl detectives are one of my favourite things (I even have a couple of my own), but Sesame is exceptionally great. She’s despicably smart, slightly mad and totally delightful, and I wish I could meet her in real life so she could bamboozle me with her mind.

I do accept, though, that I might have been predisposed to love Sesame. See, Sesame is the daughter of two academics, one of whom is the head of Christ's College, Cambridge. She lives surrounded by students, porters, tourists, dons and ducks, and she solves mysterious crimes with the help of her trusty pet cat. I, by contrast, was the daughter of two academics, one of whom was the Master of Pembroke College, Oxford. I grew up surrounded by students, porters, tourists, dons and the ferocious long-horned cattle in Christ Church Meadow, and I tried (and failed) to discover mysterious crimes to solve with the help of my trusty pet dog.

I think you’ll agree that there are certain similarities here.

When I told Clementine that she had essentially written about my childhood (by leaping on Twitter and sending her a calm and well-reasoned tweet that went something like OH MY GOD YOU’VE WRITTEN ABOUT MY CHILDHOOD I LOVE YOU) she seemed pleased (or alarmed, I don’t know. She hid it well). I promised to write a blog post about being a more real, more boring Sesame – and since Sesame has finally been released into the wild this month (available in all good bookshops and online retailers, etc etc), I thought that it was, at last, time for that post.

So . . .

Nine Ways In Which My Childhood Was Like Sesame Seade's (And One In Which It Wasn't)

1) As part of the perks of my dad's job, we got to live in Pembroke itself, in the Master's Lodgings. This house was big. How big? I played catch with my dog in the top floor corridor. My mother installed a backwards baby-monitor between my room and the kitchen so she could call me down to dinner. I was convinced a pack of werewolves lived in the shadows at the end of the downstairs hall, and although I turned out to be wrong about that, there would certainly have been room for them.

2) The house was, in fact, so big that most human beings failed to register it as a private house. If you stand on the street outside it, it takes up an entire town block, and its front door looks like the entrance to Dracula's castle. One morning my mother opened up the front door and a homeless man who had been using it as a sleeping place fell into the entrance hall. He was very alarmed, and so was my mother.

Slightly to the left: my house. Not to be confused with a castle.

3) Like any good mystery-reading child, I took one look at the Master's Lodgings, with its huge dark rooms and fireplaces you could burn a whole witch in, and decided that it had to be FULL of secret passageways. I dedicated most of my childhood to working out how to get into them. I concentrated particularly on the Oak Room, which was enormous and entirely covered in nobbly wooden panelling. I spent hours carefully prodding and twisting bits of wall, sadly to no avail. I was probably just looking in the wrong places. I wish Sesame had been around to help me out.

4) Sesame and I, as children of dons, were taught early to scorn tourists. I even carried out a minor campaign of delinquency against them because I felt it was required of me. Unfortunately, because I was really shy and worried about hurting people, it was the dullest campaign ever. I spent whole minutes playing musical instruments obnoxiously out of my bedroom window to see if anyone in the street below looked up (they didn't). Also I used to sneak through the gate at the end of our garden that my mother thought was locked, climb to the top of the Oxford city wall and hang out into the perilous 40-foot void throwing very small twigs at passersby, thereby putting myself in more danger than any of the tourists.

5) I also (this is very Sesame Seade) used to spy on the students. But although Sesame is cool enough to have the entire student body eating out of the palm of her hand, to me they were terrifying, unknowable creatures with weird hair and unclean habits who I could only watch from afar. I discovered that part of our garden shared a wall with the side of the library, so I'd climb up onto the ledge and stare at the students as they worked. Looking back on this, I realise that I must have terrified the hell out of them. They were innocently working on their essays - and then they looked up and there, glaring through the window at them like a vision from a nightmade, was a small and very dirty child.

Pembroke, though not my house

6) Luckily, I got on with other members of the college much better than I did with the students. Sesame understands, as did I, that the college porters are the rulers of their universe. Cross them, and you might as well just set yourself on fire. They know all, they see all, and if you want to survive as a college kid, you must befriend them. My favourite porter was called Andy, and he, as much as Poirot, was part of the reason why one of my major childhood ambitions was to grow a magnificent walrus moustache.

7) As well as the porters, an Oxbridge college is actually run by an army of cleaners, cooks and secretaries, while the actual dons flap about uselessly and think they are being helpful. About half of my childhood was spent trailing adoringly after our housekeeper Nina. To Nina's eternal credit, she didn't tell me to go away - instead, she let me engage in some light child labour, which I absolutely loved. Nina is the reason why I understand that cleaning toilets and scrubbing floors is a noble and exciting thing to do, and why I've never been able to work out why Cinderella would give up her virtuous and useful cleaning lifestyle to marry some boring creep prince.

8) As you might have guessed from the above, I had very few friends who were younger than 50 and/or human. In fact, I had one. Sesame has at least two, which I think is extremely impressive - but her favourite person is still her pet cat Peter Mortimer. I understand this. I was convinced that my dog Heather was a very small and oddly shaped human, and I spent many satisfactory hours pretending she was a space panther and teaching her to do circus jumps out of the ground floor windows using the college's priceless silk-lined chairs for liftoff. I also draped blankets over her head and made her pretend to be the Virgin Mary, which she enjoyed less. She was my partner in crime, and I could not have wished for a better one.

9) But, of course, Heather wasn't much of a talker. If I wanted to experience a conversation, my options were: Nina or Andy, the dons, or the people in my books. Therefore, what came out of my mouth tended not to resemble things a normal child would say. This is why one of my favourite things about Sesame is how verbal she is. She never uses a word of one syllable when there's a ten syllable alternative available, and that's absolutely right for an Oxbridge college child. Other children thought I was weird because I used words like obtuse in sentences, and I thought they were weird because they didn't know what emaciated meant.

10) So that's the story of my Sesame Seade-style past. Sadly, unlike Sesame, I never actually uncovered a dastardly mystery. I did once find a kitten up the eucalyptus tree in our garden, but that turned out to be a student's illegal pet.

Of course, because Sesame is fictional, she is not constrained by normality. She gets to solve some seriously mind-bending puzzles, and she does it with vast aplomb. Mysterious logos, missing ballerinas, dubious benefactors and pregnant ducks all feature (yes, really) in the first book alone. And, of course, plenty of rollerskating. It's fantastic. You all need to read it. Although I admit, I might be a bit biased . . .

Sunday, 12 May 2013

April Reading Highlights

Reading! Reading! Reading! I think I may have overdosed on books.

Working in a publishing house is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me, but it is also quite emotionally distressing. There are books everywhere, all around me, and I want to read them all but I can NEVER read them all. It torments me.

So what I'm realising is that I am never, realistically, going to be able to post reviews of every book I read here any more. In the last few weeks I have been reading about a book a day. So I'm reducing down again, to just the pick of the bunch. These are the books I've been evangelising about in the last month.

First, I have managed to do a review for The Bookbag: of Jenni Fagan's utterly, madly, stunningly brilliant The Panopticon. I five-starred it, and would five star again.

And the best of the rest:

Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

I am ashamed to admit that it has taken me three years to read this book. I don't even know why. It's based on my favourite fairy tale, 'The Robber Bridegroom' (the English version is actually called 'Mr Fox', and it is my favourite because it contains animal people, grisly murders and a fierce girl detective who triumphs by using her brain). But somehow it never happened, until I went to the Granta Young British Novelists launch, heard Oyeyemi read and fell in instant and blazing literary love with her.

I pretty much ran to the till with Mr Fox and then fell on it like, er, Mr Fox on one of his victims - and oh my god, it's good. It's a mind-bogglingly smart collection of sharp, terrifying, stunningly well written short stories, all linking together to make up a battle of wits between a male writer and his female muse, an imaginary woman who has taken on a life of her own. Oyeyemi's writing is so bloody amazing, and what she's got to say about the way men control women is so true and (even more importantly) so effortlessly well expressed.

5 stars! 10 stars! How do I become friends with Helen Oyeyemi?

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

I love Fred Vargas. I have nothing bad to say about her. Her mind works in such unique, charming, off-the-wall ways, and the universe she's created for her crime novels is both utterly delightful and full of animals. In The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, a pigeon is as important a character as a police officer, dogs need to be fed sugar at regular times of the day and there are a loving couple of rats who help to solve a murder.

Someone has been committing murders in the town of Ordebec, and the supersitious villagers believe that the culprit is Lord Hellequin, a ghostly rider who punishes the wicked by killing them and stealing their souls. Although the supernatural is never the real answer to one of Vargas's mysteries, there's an atmosphere of misty possibility that make you feel like you're in a slightly alternate universe. Vargas's protagonist Adamsberg is adorably vague, a cloud-shovelling policeman who has trouble remembering people's names and who didn't realise he had an extra illegitimate son because he failed to read a letter properly. This book, like all the others, is softly written but with a beautiful attention to detail and a quirky sense of humour. Vargas has a knack for creating characters (both human and animal, there really is no difference) that you instantly fall in love with, and her good guys radiate real honest goodness.

I think Vargas is the best thing in crime fiction right now. This latest novel is as good as all the others - and now that I've read it I really want a dog called Fleg.

4.5 stars.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Well, we can all pack up and go home. John Green's written the perfect YA novel and there just isn't any point trying to follow his act. As I tweeted at the time:
Seriously, I am only exaggerating a little. This is just a virtuoso work of fiction, something that's beautiful and touching but also completely real in a way that most tearjerkers don't manage to be. The characters seriously read like people (real people, ones who are a bit mean and a bit small and a bit selfish, but still good), and so you can go from crying to laughing outrageously in about half a page. It's the most fearless presentation of the realities of suffering from cancer that I've ever read, as well as one of the best teenage love stories, and it has extremely light and intelligent things to say about everything from Great Literature to computer games.

One in the eye for anyone who thinks that YA is written by people who aren't good enough to write proper books.

5 stars. 

Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin

I went to the launch of this (launches, by the way, are the best things about publishing apart from everything to do with the books), and can confirm that Abigail is nice, fun and the same age as me (this is her second book. Yes, really). She is also an extremely thoughtful and imaginative author who has written a novel so compelling that I started it on Friday evening, had to be dragged away from it to go to a dinner party and then leaped out of bed at 7 on Saturday morning because I had to finish it now now now.

I really don't want to give away any of the plot, because so much of the book is about peeling away layers of secrets to reveal the even crazier secret underneath (it's a testament to how perfectly balanced and well-imagined Golden Boy is that when I tried to explain the plot to my boyfriend it sounded like something from Take a Break, like MY STALKER EX-BOYFRIEND ATE MY SISTER'S BABY WHILE HIGH ON DRUGS, but while I was actually reading it it didn't feel sensational at all). Suffice it to say, though, that Max Walker, the apparently perfect golden boy of the title... isn't. At all.

I'm seeing Golden Boy trailed in America as for fans of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which... I'm not sure I buy into. Sure, it's about a teenager coming of age, and there are some very nicely-observed moments of emotional resolution, but it's also incredibly dark and shocking - and it's got one of the most horrifying openings I've ever come across. I read the first three chapters, put the book down and said, "I can't believe she just did that".

Seriously, though, I loved it, and I think that Golden Boy's going to be huge. Quick, everyone, read it now!

4.5 stars