Friday, 31 December 2010

The year's books

What have I read this year?
  • 177 read
  • 9 non-fiction
  • 10 Kindle (since late September when Quoodle-the-Kindle arrived)
  • 28 re-reads
  • and 1 graphic novel
  • 112 by women; 65 by men*
At least 94 of the above involved violent death or murder! The ratio of fiction to non-fiction looked dreadful, until I thought about it: not included here are the books I have read, often several times over, because I have been copy editing or typesetting them. In the course of the year I've worked on various books on the Middle East, on literature and, most satisfying, landscape photography. Since I have another job for four days a week, and freelance in my "spare" time, that's a lot of non-fiction reading, and it occurs to me that I don't really need to feel guilty - as I had been - for doing so little "serious" reading. So 2011 is going to be guilt-free as far as books are concerned and  if, at the end of a day spent poring over a work written by someone for whom English is not a first language and trying to reconstruct their sometimes tortured sentences into elegant prose, I can only face nefarious doings in rural settings, that's okay.  (That was a pretty tortured sentence of my own, for which I apologise - and some of my authors write very well, and just need a bit of tidying up, it's the subject matter which is grim.)

The finds of the year have been:
  • Elly Griffiths, with her series about archaeologist Ruth Galloway - I'm really looking forward to the next one;
  • Alan Bradley - I read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie at the beginning of the year and fell for Flavia de Luce, and I'm just finishing The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, which had been sitting on the TBR pile for months because I couldn't bear to read it yet;
  • and thanks to Callmemadam, O Douglas - she sent me Priorsford, which I loved, though I haven't found time to write about (perhaps on the next reading) and since then, I have added a couple more to the waiting pile, including two, I think, on Quoodle. Not new, but new-to-me.
The year's other find has been Quoodle itself. Along with everyone else I know who has bought a Kindle this year, I shall still be buying books, but in three months it has effected a small transformation and is one of the best birthday presents I've ever had. I won't go so far as to say that travel has become a pleasure, but it's wonderful to be able to carry such a choice of books with me and to suit my reading to my mood. 
    My "best of year" list is limited to five, only one of which I've managed to write about here, sadly (memo to self: must do better next year). These are ranked (!) - number 5 being my book of the year:
    1. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. I didn't like the much-vaunted The Time Traveller's Wife, and approached this book with some trepidation.
    2. Dark Angels by Katherine Langrish - this was  a delight, I ordered it from the library and liked it so much that I've bought it, and also the first in a series, Troll Fell. I promise a review when I've read both.
    3. Thursbitch by Alan Garner.
    4. The Android's Dream by John Scalzi - a birthday present, and another wonderful discovery, this book reminded me of several other authors, including Connie Willis. Scalzi's another I shall be reading more of during the year.
    5. The City and the City by China Miéville - this was wonderful. Again, it was a library book, but I bought it for younger son for Christmas (and his more recent Kraken for elder son), and I'll be reading it again soon. It  just squeaks ahead of Scalzi on the grounds of technical fireworks.

      Honourable mentions to Rosy Thornton's Tapestry of Love, for sheer pleasure, Helen Grant's young adult novel The Glass Demon and Nick Lake's The Secret Ministry of Frost. The last gets my award for best cover.

      Finally, I've also had lots of fun reading along with the Angela Thirkell group on Yahoo (mostly composed of members of the Angela Thirkell Society from both the UK and the US), where we read a book a month. The year started not with her Barsetshire novels, but with Ankle Deep, a loosely autobiographical work, then moved on to her delightful memoir Three Houses, about her childhood homes. I haven't managed to keep up completely but, along with these two and Margot Strickland's biography, Portrait of a Lady Novelist, I've read/re-read six of the Barsetshire books. The group spends quite a lot of time off-topic (we are much exercised by the weather, as befits Thirkellites!) but it's an excellent source of recommendations, since we're not only interested in reading around the subject but also tend to like a range of similar authors, old and new.

      The list of the year's books is here, for anyone who is interested. I'll try to put in links to reviews at some point. I update the list at the end of each month, so I now have a constant record of the year's reading, instead of having to go back through the monthly round-ups. Tonight I'll finish The Weed that Strings... and then it's on to a whole new year's reading.  I hope it's as good as this one has been.

      Happy New Year everyone!

      * Edited later to add this information

      Wednesday, 29 December 2010

      See Delphi and Die by Lindsay Davis

      The same weekend that I read Relics of the Dead saw me racing through a comparatively recent instalment of the Falco mysteries, Lindsay Davis's splendid evocations of life under the Emperor Vespasian. See Delphi and Die takes Falco and his wife off on the tourist trail to investigate the unexplained deaths of two young women. We know of old that Falco is an indefatigable, if complaining, traveller, and it's easy to believe in the miseries of sea voyages, the poor food, the vermin and the infuriating tour guides as described by our narrator (if he's unreliable, he'd be quick to, point out that it's endemic to informers). His journeyings would, of course, be much more wretched without the redoubtable Helena Justina to smooth the way. This time the family party consists of Falco and his wife, their adopted daughter Albia, Falco's nephews Gaius and Cornelius and Young Glaucus, aspiring Olympic athlete. Oh, not forgetting Nux, the dog. The family are travelling light, but there's a wonderful passage in which the accoutrements of a Roman touring party are described: mattress overlays, cooking utensils, even food, logistics by the unappealing Phineus and Polystratus, efficient but increasingly unpleasant. One of Helena's brothers is also in Greece - you can't help feeling just a little sorry for Helena's mother, Julia Justa, who disapproves of Falco but has to see all her children suborned by him. Falco is frequently scathing about Helena's brothers, but I rather like them.

      I think my favourite Falco novel is the one I am reading at the time, and See Delphi and Die is certainly up to Davis's usual high standard. She has certainly coloured my view of ancient Rome and its history, which is otherwise a compilation of bits of Pliny and Julius Caesar from school Latin lessons and Graves'  I, Claudius (or, as it seems to be known to all of us of a certain age, I, Clavdivs), with perhaps a less welcome addition of bits I can't erase from my mind from Satyricon (both book and film). There's slightly less poison around in Davis's version, which is restful, but there's always a diverting mix of pleasant and unpleasant people and, in the course of twenty books, some truly heart-stopping moments.

      I complained recently about the lack of a map in an otherwise excellent book. We do, here, have a map of the Pelopponese, but the author informs us, rather severely, that maps of the various cities visited - Delphi, Athens, etc - are readily available elsewhere, and difficult to reproduce at a suitable scale. That's fine, I'm a reasonable person. I can accept that. How about a portrait of the dog instead?

      Sunday, 19 December 2010

      Relics of the Dead by Ariana Franklin

      Relics of the Dead picks up fairly soon after the second in Franklin's series about Adelia Aguilar, The Death Maze, left off.* Adelia's friends are anxious to move her from the Cambridgeshire fens, where her medical practice has begun to attract unwelcome attention, and neither she nor Mansur are safe. Fortunately, her friend Emma  - Lady Wolvercote - is about to set off for Somerset, to her mother-in-law's house, and it is clearly expedient for Adelia to accompany her. As they approach their destination, though, a messenger from King Henry arrives to demand Adelia's presence - his mistress of the art of death is needed again, this time to determine whether two skeletons dug up at Glastonbury are those of King Arthur and Guinevere. Henry wants to scotch the story that Arthur is not dead but merely sleeping, in order to keep the rebellious Welsh under control. Adelia knows that it is virtually impossible for her to prove that the skeletons are Arthur and his wife Guinevere but, recognising that she has little choice in the matter, agrees to examine them.

      In Glastonbury she meets with hostility, as well as the unwelcome news that Emma has failed to arrive at her mother-in-law's Somerset manor, although she had only a short journey remaining when Adelia left her. Enquiries meet only with denial - she and her entourage seem to have disappeared without trace.

      Although Ariana Franklin makes a reasonable case for her female doctor, you have to suspend a good deal of disbelief with these books. That said, there are plenty of rewards for doing so. You can't help but admire Adelia, for all her obstinacy, so that the loyalty of her friends, and even Henry's determination to keep her at his disposal, is convincing. All the characters, including Henry, continue to grow and develop - in the case of the king there are further insights into his ruthlessness, a necessary part of his desire to govern well. An element that caught my sympathy in this third book, already to some extent touched on in the first two, but developed and explored here, is that parallel between the fictitious Rowley, Bishop of St Albans, and the real Thomas Becket, murdered at Henry's instigation when he refused, once he became Archbishop, to defer to Henry's power. The very real dilemma of king's law versus church law makes Rowley's efforts to be a good churchman into a strong theme, although you wonder whether Henry would have been willing to risk creating another Becket. On the other hand, as depicted here, perhaps he couldn't afford not to. Incidentally, Franklin provides Henry with these strong, domestic - but fictitious - allies, without too much risk of changing the course of history. They were interesting times.

      * I reviewed the first, Mistress of the Art of Death, here.

      Tuesday, 14 December 2010

      The Woods of Windri by Violet Needham

      I meant (but forgot, and it's in Devon) to scan an image from this book to show you – I used to love the illustrations so. I managed to find the original cover on the website of the Violet Needham Society, so I’m afraid that will have to suffice for now. I was pleased, though, to see that it’s still available on Amazon.

      I first read Violet Needham while staying with my grandmother and aunt – according to my mother all the books were hers and my aunt had ruthlessly appropriated them. As a schoolgirl, my mother adapted The Changeling of Monte Lucio and the class at her  convent school performed it, with her in the starring role as the unpopular Changeling, spitting cherry stones out of the window while her “brother” lay on his death bed. You can tell that high drama was involved and as the next generation along, I adored them too.  My favourite was The Horn of Merlyns, one of my two most wanted books ever – and oh bliss! the wonderful Girls Gone By has reprinted it recently and my copy is on the shelf by my bed, waiting to be a Christmas read. I have a Boxing Day appointment with it, a box of chocolates and a warm dog.

      Back to The Woods of Windri, and more high drama. Roger, Lord of Windri has two daughters and a properly feudal attitude to their disposition. When he receives an offer for the hand of Phillippa, the elder, from the Count of Monte Lucio, he is pleased that an alliance will be politically advantageous, even though Phillippa is so unhappy about marriage to a man she has never met that she declares she will enter a nunnery. Her younger sister Magdalen is unhappy too, but it doesn’t stop her going out in the woods where she meets a runaway boy. Apparently a foundling, he has escaped from the Abbey where he was destined to be a monk, and where he was ill-treated. Fortunately Magdalen’s father takes a liking to the boy, whose name is Theodore Felix Amadeus, and decides to employ him as a page – there is no love lost between Roger and the Abbot and besides, there are some doubts about young Theo’s origins – there’s the little matter of a distinctive birthmark, for a start. With the arrival of Phillippa’s suitor, the Count - that's him you can see on the cover - events are put in train which will demand that Theo risks his life and faces his greatest enemy. With a little help from Magdalen, of course.

      Revisiting this book after some 40 years (it was a regular read until my mid-teens) , I was fascinated to see what a cavalier approach Needham had to the Catholic Church – there is scarcely a good cleric to be seen. She has a robust attitude, too, to her villains, cheerfully consigning one to be “put to the question”. I don’t mean to imply that authors in the 1940s should be mealy-mouthed about such things – these books are supposed to be set in a period when nasty things happened – but just to note that it feels rather surprising in these days of political correctness in children’s books. Heaven forbid that we should upset the little dears, or mention anything which might cause a sleepless moment. Actually, I do remember a growing impression that Needham's Stormy Petrel series was maybe just a trifle right-wing, although I can’t recall that it spoilt my enjoyment much.

      One of the fascinations about Violet Needham’s books was that they didn’t feel entirely English, and this seems to be borne out by her life – her mother was a Dutch heiress and she spent some time in Europe. Her books combine the exoticism of mid-European or Ruritanian locations with a Baden-Powell quality to her young heroes which brings them firmly back onto familiar territory, melodrama notwithstanding. Yes, it’s dated and no, I probably wouldn’t give it to a young reader, without a caveat, but oh, it was fun to explore the Woods of Windri again.

      Thursday, 9 December 2010

      Virtual Advent Tour

      Welcome to the Virtual Advent Tour, Day 9! The Virtual Advent Tour is hosted by Kailana from The Written World and Marg from Adventures of an Intrepid Reader and is a way for bloggers to share gifts and memories with each other about our holiday seasons - a sort of grown-up advent calendar.

      Other posts today:

      Gretchen @ Scarlets Letters
      Darcy @ Foxed

      With grown-up sons and no family nearby, our Christmases are pretty quiet, so I wondered what I might write about for today. Then I realised that I could share with you my major interests - books and folklore - with a Christmas extract that relates to folk customs or traditions. So, here is Kenneth Allsop on gathering the holly to decorate the house:

      "So off through the frost-crackling mud my children and their friends went to bring back the bounty, and I made for the coppice to see about the trunk section that I had ear-marked as being a likely looking Yule log when I had been picking up lighter stuff. Sloshing through the pulpy leaves I came to it. Just what was needed. That would have roasting flames roaring up the chimney. But I was lacking one minor essential: a horse team and chains. Perhaps I should have dished out the tasks differently, seen to the holly myself and left the hauling of the log to all those restless young muscles.

      I slunk back to the house and applied myself to the urgent reading of a review book at the fireside. It was considerate of me, I decided, to let the children get the holly. As they sorted it out in the crowded kitchen, plaiting a garland for the brass knocker and hanging it over the fire's cross-beam, they would be enacting fun and mystery as 'the rising of the sun and the running of the deer'.

      Those words of The Holly and the Ivy were first recorded by folklorist Cecil Sharp in Gloucestershire; other versions were found in Somerset. It was sung in English villages long before it became a carol - perhaps long before Christ's birth, although holly leaves came to represent his crown of thorns. The word holly merged with 'holegn' and then the 'holm' which occurs in so many place names.

      The original pagan symbolism was the entwining of the masculine holly with the feminine ivy, and the wreaths were hung where young men and girls danced at this pause when the sun is at its farthest point from the equator.

      When the ice-armoured earth seemed dead, this was the sacrament to life continuing and rebirth in spring.

      I heard the youthful voices returning across the field and looked out of the window. Across the lattice of bare branches in the afternoon's deepening iron light I saw our commonest evergreen shining scarlet, a lamp held up bright through the darkness of the winter solstice."

      There is another tree in England which is associated with Christmas: the Glastonbury thorn, crataegus monogyna Biflora. The original tree is said to have originated when Joseph of Arimathea visited Britain after the death of Jesus. In the isle of Avalon, at what is now Glastonbury, he rested, and stuck his staff in the ground. By morning it had rooted, and ever afterwards it flowered at Christmas. In 1752 the villagers gathered around the thorn on Christmas Eve to see if it would bloom - when it didn't, they took that as proof that the recent Act of Parliament, when Britain switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and lost 11 days in the process, was against nature - "Perliment didn't change t'seasons when they changed t'day o' the month" - and many people refused to go to church on the new Christmas Day. It took over 100 years for everyone to accept the new calendar, and although Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany, is mostly celebrated in the UK simply as the day on which we take down the Christmas decorations, "Old Christmas Day" has greater significance in Atlantic Canada, and many customs which have faded here survive more strongly there.

      Monday, 6 December 2010

      Hue and Cry by Shirley McKay

      I get an inordinate amount of pleasure from discovering a new mystery series. I’m not absolutely certain why this is: something to do with the way in which the reader is drawn quickly into the story and the knowledge that it will end with the necessary ends tied up neatly, but enough left loose to provide a way into the next one, perhaps? However, after I’d read my way through Brother Cadfael by the mid-1990s, library visits always began by returning a batch of imitations which had been found wanting.

      Until recently, the only series I’d found which came anywhere close to satisfying were Fidelis Morgan’s – which started with Unnatural Fire and recounted the riotous adventures of Anatasia Ashby de la Zouche, Baroness Penge, Countess of Clapham and her maid Alpiew – and the famous one by Lindsay Davis starring M. Didius Falco, informer to the Emperor Vespasian and harassed paterfamilias. The library shelves offered more, but most of them left me disappointed, usually because I felt that setting and characterisation were lacking. So recent riches please me enormously and Catriona McPherson, Carola Dunn, Cora Harrison and Pat McIntosh all more than meet my requirements and I can imagine few greater treats than to settle down with a new book by any of those authors. (Nicola Upson and Jacqueline Winspear should get an honourable mention here.)

      Hue and Cry, Shirley McKay’s first book about sixteenth-century St Andrews and lawyer Hew Cullan is another gem. In 1579 Hew has just returned to his home town from France, and he’s concerned to find his friend Nicholas not only ill but accused of murdering a student. In the small community that comprises town and gown Hew of course sets out to investigate, with the very necessary help of his sister Meg and physician Giles Locke, only to find that they are all at risk of bringing down the wrath of the Kirk on their heads.

      What we have here is good plotting and characterisation, with the added interest of the technicalities of Scottish law which require extra ingenuity on the part of the author. There’s a leavening of humour (generally centring around the intractable horse Duns Scottis), and some period colour in the shape of James VI, just 14 here, but later notable for his views on, amongst other things, witchcraft. Language is used beautifully – there’s no requirement to understand dialect but the use of metre captivated me: the flow of dialogue often falling apparently naturally into the rhythm of the common metre which was to become the characteristic of the Scottish Psalter 50 years later. I thought, too, that McKay handled the thorny issue of modern sensibilities in period characters with great deftness

      My only criticism? No map. I want a map. That apart, a stunning debut, and one to read again. The second book, Fate and Fortune is also out, with a third on its way.

      Friday, 3 December 2010

      Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge 2011

      Magemanda at Floor to Ceiling Books has just announced the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge 2011. Okay, so I told myself I wasn't going to sign up to any new challenges for next year, but just keep going with the ones I always do, but I don't have to change any reading habits for this one. In fact, it looks like a good way to make some dents in the TBR pile, and some of the books can be shared with other challenges, so I'm ignoring the possibility that my impulse is borne of cabin fever because I haven't been able to get out since last Friday (when actually, I got in - just), and taking my mind of the duvet of snow outside by making that old favourite, a book list.

      The challenge lasts throughout the year and all that's required is to read and post about 12 books which fit within the speculative fiction heading - surely even I can manage a post a month! There are several likely contenders for the challenge. These include Spook City by William Gibson which I've had for ages, but I love Gibson so much (I may have mentioned this before, like, ad nauseam?) that I can't quite bear to read it. When I do get to it, I'll probably read Zero History too. End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood is another that I've had for a while. Like Gibson, I tend to stockpile his books, because they're so good. Older son has just finished it and was raving about it.

      Player One by Douglas Coupland  - have a feeling I might struggle with this, but I want to read it. I like the idea of turning the Massey Lectures into a 5-hour, real-time novel, but I've read reviews that say it gets a bit bogged down. Hmm, we shall see. Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood) has been on the horizon for quite a time too. Started it once and it really is time I finished it. I feel there's an end-of-the-world kind of theme developing here.

      Changing tack a little, there's also Old Man's War by John Scalzi - I've just discovered Scalzi, as younger son bought me The Android's Dream for my birthday last month. I needed something really gripping to distract me from my cold and it was the perfect choice, I loved it. Finally, Kraken by China Miéville has been on the wishlist since I read The City and the City earlier this year (another superb book).

      Okay, that gives me seven probables, so there's plenty of room for impulse buys (memo to self: remember financial constraints i.e. impending poverty), library books and, if I'm lucky, the odd review copy. The only problem now is quelling the urge to get started this minute.

      Tuesday, 30 November 2010

      Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel

      I wish I could come to terms with my own life and lyrically and gracefully as Hilary Mantel does hers in her memoir. I am only just younger than her, and can parallel many of the events in her life with the more prosaic elements of mine – and there are some clear parallels: book-ish misfit child of a broken home with overactive imagination, early marriage with its attendant poverty…I know well the tendency to a certain mordant humour when writing about the difficult times. Mantel has a secretiveness even as she anatomises her (literally) painful medical history, and I thought I recognised in her a child whose homelife was too complicated to ever be really happy, over-sensitive and too aware of difference: the stigma of a broken home was very real in the ‘50s and children suffered and wretchedness and, usually, silence. Being unpopular brings its own troubles, and the story of Mantel’s childhood is characterised by a small, carping, critical, puzzled voice, trying to understand the incomprehensible adult world. I can hear myself in it, too.

      Reading this memoir I found many echoes of her superb novel, Beyond Black, a huge, compelling, agonising book that I read and reviewed here last year. There she transforms the pain of her own life into something specific yet universal, the ruefully amusing purchase of an “executive” home in the memoir becoming an excoriation of commuter-belt life. Similarly, her own weight gain due to chronic illness becomes something grimmer and darker in Beyond Black, while the “ghost” of the memoir materialises into a horrific familiar that dogs the footsteps of the protagonist. If Mantel’s own life left her mentally and physically scarred, I suspect she did much to write it out in Beyond Black, transmuting anger and grief into something equally durable, a book which tells of the hollowness at the centre of modern life and of the means by which we uncaringly damage those around us, or ignore the damage done by others.

      It was hard to limit myself to a single passage to share with you, but I’d been thinking about feminism recently, so this stood out (Hilary, newly married, had just transferred from London to Sheffield University part way through her law degree, in 1971):
      Some people have forgotten, or never known, why we needed the feminist movement so badly. This was why: so that some talentless prat in a nylon shirt couldn’t patronise you, while around you the spotty boys smirked and giggled, trying to worm into his favour. The birth control revolution of the late sixties had passed our elders by – educators and employers both. It was assumed that marriage was the beginning of a woman’s affective life, and the end of her mental life. It wsa assumed that she neither could nor would exercise choice over whether to breed; poor silly creature, no sooner would her degree certificate be in her hand before she’d cast all that book-learning to the winds, and start swelling and simpering and knitting bootees. When you went for a job interview, you would be asked, if you were not wearing a wedding ring, whether you were engaged; if you were engaged or married, you would be asked when you intended to ‘start your family’. Whether you were celibate, or gay, or just a sensible pre-planner, you had to smile and jump through the flaming hoops held up for you by some grizzled ringmaster, shifty and semi-embarrassed as he asked a girl half his age to tell him about her sex life and account for her next ovulation.
      Giving Up the Ghost is a brave, darkly funny and beautifully written memoir. Highly recommended.

      Wednesday, 24 November 2010

      Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart

      I must have read Airs Above the Ground when I was 13 or so, quite close still to the horse-mad stage, and I adored Mary Stewart’s adventure story of a stolen Lippizan stallion. At the time I knew about the Spanish Riding School because my friend and I had been to see the Disney film, shown here as The Flight of the White Horses, about the evacuation of the horses from their stud near the Bavarian border during the War, and as I read, I could imagine the elegant horses dancing with that air of quiet concentration they have, executing pirouettes and caprioles for a spellbound audience in the pillared arena of the Winter Riding School in Vienna. So romantic!

      Returning to the book all these years later, I found my enjoyment unimpaired. Vanessa March has been patient during the first two years of marriage about husband Lewis’s commitment to his job, but at long last they planning a holiday. So she’s furious when he cancels at the last minute because of a work trip to Stockholm, and then hurt and angry when he is spotted in a newsreel film somewhere in Austria, and apparently with another woman. She’s offered the chance to follow him to Austria, escorting her friend’s 17-year-old son Tim to meet his father, and before long Vanessa and Tim find themselves following a circus towards the Yugoslav border, intent on discovering the truth behind a suspicious death.

      The story plays out in just a few days at a fairly breathless pace, with a denouement which begins in a suitably gothic castle. It’s delightfully exciting in a terribly decorous sort of way – it won’t make your heart race, but you probably won’t want to put it down. And you’d have to be pretty hard-boiled not to be caught up in the story of the horse who isn’t what he seems.

      Friday, 19 November 2010

      Just Another Backward Book Launch: a guest post by Scott Nicholson

      Something a little different today: a guest post by author Scott Nicholson, and I have the honour of having him visit here for the launch of his latest book. And if you watch this space, I'll follow it up with a review of the new book very soon!

      Just another backward book launch
      by Scott Nicholson

      Used to be, the launch of a new book was heralded with great fanfare by the few dozen people who actually noticed—back when newspaper reviewers and Old media rolled out their publicity machines as obligatory partners for their hidebound brethren in the print industry.

      Now, so many books are getting dumped out there each day, and so few get actual ink about their release, that it’s easy to just swim on through. But not only is it now easier to launch a book, it’s also possible to “launch it backwards.” In other words, authors now are so busy releasing material that they don’t even always worry about promoting it right away. Or, at least J.R. Rain and I are doing it that way.

      The urgency—no, the panic—of the traditional print release is legendary, from the whirlwind jet-setting book tours of superstar authors to the street hustle of the midlist authors who almost certainly won’t make it past Book Two. It’s gotten even worse over my decade-long career, where industry insiders rave about “platform”—and why it makes perfect sense for a dyslexic rehabbing celebrity to get a book deal while career authors are doing something else for a career.

      But one of the unintended consequences of “Bring me an audience before you bring me a book proposal” is that authors are now not only trained in building their own networks, they are more effective at it that publishers could ever be. Because no matter how hard the publicists, editors, and salespeople beat the drum, they will never be able to create that personal connection between reader and author. Sure, they can create the illusion of it, but I see it as yet another power slipping away from New York’s control. I wouldn’t be surprised to see in 10 years that an entirely new generation of bestsellers will emerge, ones crowned by consumers and not predetermined by book-advances, marketing dollars, and high print runs, not to mention the bribery that takes place to get a bestseller stacked at the front of the bookstore.

      So J.R. and I are launching Cursed! backward. We’re both so busy we don’t have time for an outlandish promotional blitz that will leave our nerves frayed, exhaust our social capital, and flog our loving supporters into literary Amway ants. We both have people who like to read our work, and we’ve trickled out some review copies, but that’s the extent of our marketing budget.

      There’s no need to panic. We have forever. Literally. We can build the book up over time, continuing the series, writing other books, and letting it seep out there to the far corners of the Internet. Here’s the pitch, as much hype as I can muster at this point (and I will even spare you an exclamation point—the one in the title will have to do.)

      Albert Shipway is an ordinary guy, an insurance negotiator who likes booze and women and never having to say he’s sorry.

      And he thinks this is just another day, another lunch, another order of kung pao chicken. Little does he know that he’s about to meet a little old lady who knows his greatest fear. A little old lady who knows what’s hiding in his heart. A little old lady who dishes up a big stew of supernatural revenge, with ingredients as follows: First you take one psychotic ex from a family of serial killers. Next add a pinch or two of an irrational childhood fear. Now thoroughly mix in an angry sister, a life-stealing great-granddad, and a notorious mass murderer—who happens to be dead but doesn’t know it. Let it stew and froth and bubble thoroughly....

      In just a matter of minutes, Albert’s life turns upside down and he enters a world where magic and evil lurk beneath the fabric of Southern California. And all his choices have brewed a perfect storm of broken hearts, broken promises, shattered families, and a couple of tiny problems. Namely, killer mice and a baby.

      Albert Shipway is finally getting a chance to right some wrongs.

      That is, if it's not too late.
      Okay. My work here is done. Cursed!

      Scott Nicholson is bestselling author of 12 novels, including the thrillers Disintegration, As I Die Lying, Speed Dating with the Dead, Drummer Boy, Forever Never Ends, The Skull Ring, Burial to Follow, and the YA paranormal romance October Girls. His revised novels for the U.K. Kindle are Creative Spirit, Troubled, and Solom. He’s also written four comic series, six screenplays, and more than 60 short stories. His story collections include Ashes, Curtains, The First, Murdermouth: Zombie Bits, and Flowers.

      To be eligible for the Kindle DX or Kindle 3, simply post a comment below with contact info. Feel free to debate and discuss the topic, but you will only be entered once per blog. I’m also giving away a Kindle 3 through the tour newsletter and a Pandora’s Box of free e-books to a follower of “hauntedcomputer” on Twitter. Thanks for playing. Complete details at

      Thursday, 11 November 2010

      Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton

      Every once in a while you find a book which is like a cool pool of water on a long, hot summer's day, the kind in which you can immerse yourself with a blissful sigh, secure in the  knowledge that you can bask to your heart's content. Tapestry of Love is one of those books, total pleasure from start to finish.

      Catherine Parkstone has achieved that enviable age where she is no longer immediately encumbered by her family, although unfortunately that includes her husband, from whom she is
      – amicably enough - divorced. Seizing the opportunity for real change, she decides to move to the Cévennes where she will set up her own business as a needlewoman, making soft furnishings for income and needlepoint to feed the soul in the long evenings. Tentative first meetings with the neighbours turn into friendships and she is just starting to feel at home when her sister Bryony arrives to unsettle her again. I can fairly guarantee that you are going to want, very shortly, to bundle Bryony into a car and off to the airport, never to return (but a phone call at Christmas will be allowed, we want to support Catherine, not distress her). Families are a joy, aren't they? It's a good thing that Catherine's children are quite civilised and independent, although a worry to their mother at times. Her own mother is a cause for concern and some anguish, too.  (A digression: I've commented before what a relief it is to read about interesting people who are past their thirties. I don't believe for a minute that authors think life ends at thirty, but publishers certainly seem to, which is crazy because we must be making up the majority of the book-buying public.) Anyway, Catherine rapidly becomes like an old friend to the reader - she's sensible, mature, she copes with loneliness without falling apart, she makes rational decisions - in short, she's good company, and the people she mixes with in her new home are pleasant and interesting too. It's refreshing, a story about people with generosity of spirit.

      I'm fairly immune to the lures of the French idyll, but there's something in Thornton's writing that gets under the skin. There's a strong sense of place here, and of history of place: you are aware as you read of the continuity of care for the land, and of its past as hunting forest - a real evocation of the Cévennes countryside. Rosy has a website with pictures of the area, but her word paintings are so clear that you can imagine the house and surroundings and, even better, the rich harvest of delicious food made by Catherine and her neighbours (but just in case, like me, you are ready  to start googling for recipes, she very kindly provides them on the website, too).

      If I had a gripe, it would be that I wanted to know more of the detail about the work Catherine undertook. The descriptions are very satisfactory, you can certainly visualise the tapestries and other articles she produces, but I'd have enjoyed more of the everyday side of production, and more on the restoration of her house and garden, too. I quite accept that the book would have become unmanageably long were I to have my way, and that it's a wise author who knows what to leave out, but I was enjoying it so much that I could happily have spent twice as long with Catherine. As it was, I had to ration myself so as not to finish the book too quickly.  I'm often wary of giving books as presents, mistrustful of my ability to judge what friends and relations will enjoy, but here's one I shall give this Christmas with confidence.

      Monday, 8 November 2010

      Allegra Fairweather: Paranormal Investigator by Janni Nell

      I was badly in need of a lighthearted read: at the end of a week of vet's visits and upset, I twisted my back getting out of the car and had to retire to bed with tea and painkillers (and a nice box of chocolates  kindly provided by OH, who thought perhaps a small acknowledgement of our wedding anniversary might be in order). Was this the ideal opportunity to embark on Middlemarch? I thought not, a bit of froth was indicated, and there on Quoodle (the new Kindle), all downloaded and ready to go, was the perfect choice.

      Allegra Fairweather is a sassy young woman, rather as if Jilly Cooper had teamed up with Kelley Armstrong, without quite so much sex or gore - think early Jilly Cooper, when those nice young ladies fell for brusque young men and all was neatly resolved in a couple of hundred pages without too much back-stabbing or adultery. Allegra has been invited to the shores of a Scottish loch to investigate a bleeding rose, popularly supposed to presage death. Douglas, her employer, is a nice young innkeeper, not at all brusque, and distinctly predisposed to like Allegra.  Her own feelings are complicated by the presence of Casper (sic - it is a joke), her guardian angel, who's a bit of a hunk (is that word still used?) - she knows she can't have a relationship with him, because it will prejudice his chances of finally atoning for his past transgressions, but she can't quite close her mind to his charms.

      Allegra is quickly caught up in events - not only is there the bleeding rose to worry about, but an elderly villager has been having prescient dreams about drowning. Then there's the laird's wife seen dancing naked in the woods, the banshee wailing outside the pub, and the haunted cairn...the village of Furness is clearly troubled, and no one is surprised when there is a death. Our heroine, conscious that she has a slightly less-than-perfect clear-up rate (she was unlucky with the White Lady of Willingthorpe Castle, she tells us), is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, with the intermittent help of Casper.
      The first person narrative means that you can't help liking Allegra - her Australian father has clearly imparted more than just genes, because she's practical, down-to-earth, and doesn't have a fit of the vapours over fishy corpses or predatory ghosts. You can see that the villagers would respond well to her warmth and open-ness, although they don't all roll over and give up their secrets at once, so some good, old-fashioned poking of noses into corners and asking awkward questions is needed.

      The odd bit of Scottish folklore crops up, somewhat randomly - I'd have to admit that this isn't one of those books which takes mythology and transforms it magically into something breathtaking, but it's a lichtsome thing, goodhearted and fun, ideal for winter evenings in front of the fire. Thinking back to my comparison with Jilly Cooper, I should think girls in their teens will love it. The author's website tells us that Carina Press have accepted the second in the series and she has started work on the third.

      I received this book courtesy of NetGalley, a great site for book bloggers as it makes ARC's available as eBooks. I first heard of them when I reviewed a book for the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, but since then I have occasionally directly requested titles that interest me. That first book had to be read on my laptop, but now that I have a Kindle, it's going to be a wonderful source of new books!

      Friday, 5 November 2010

      Creatures of the night - RIPV round up

      Throughout October I have read obsessively for Carl's RIPV Challenge. Something about my mood this year has needed a constant flow of dark, brooding literature - murder and mayhem, ghosts and ghouls. While progressing at an (unnaturally) stately pace through Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, and apart from the books I have reviewed here, on the side I have lapped up Dorothy Sayers, Georgette Heyer, Elly Griffiths, Veronica Heley, Catriona MacPherson, Diana Wynne Jones...some of these may still be the subject of posts, because I have enjoyed them immensely, and feel very disinclined to leave off my dark reading yet. It may see me right through the winter.

      There have been some discoveries along the way. Two new authors (to me) have been a real revelation: Katherine Langrish and Helen Grant. Langrish's Dark Angels is wonderfully atmospheric and compelling, with a medieval setting and attractive characters, while Grant's The Glass Demon is set in modern Germany. I want to talk more about both of these books at more leisure, as well as reading more by both authors.

      I also read, but haven't had time to post on, the fascinating Worlds of Arthur, by Fran and Geoff Doel, in which the authors examine the evidence, historical and literary, for the real King Arthur. He was probably a war lord in what at school we were taught to call the Dark Ages, but which are increasingly being regarded as being the seat of a complex and varied culture - I am intrigued, and rather pleased, to see that even Tintagel (in Cornwall) is emerging as a probable Arthurian site, the setting for a tower and settlement much earlier than the castle ruins which caught the imagination of later generations. Some of the literature on Arthur suffers from an excess of enthusiasm on the part of its authors, but this is not the case here, and it's a worthwhile addition to the library of anyone interested in both early British history and our myths and legends. I borrowed it from the library, but I shall have to buy it now, dammit.

      Another book which I'd been meaning to read for a long time is Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I'm not going to say much about it because I haven't finished it yet, but it's clear that we are in the presence of a thoroughly unreliable narrator in Merricat and consequently, the reader is kept constantly on the edge of her seat. The discomfort is partly to blame for my reading it slowly (the other reason is that it's on my Kindle, and at the moment I get tired reading that more quickly than if I'm reading a "real" book).

      In all I reviewed nine books during the Challenge, a very satisfying start to the winter. Thanks to Carl, as ever, for the tremendous job he does hosting - 625 books were reviewed over the course of the two months it ran, and my TBR list has burgeoned. (The books I read and reviewed are listed on the sidebar.)

      Friday, 29 October 2010

      Jobs and books

      Tavistock Square, taken by C Ford March 04

      Simon at Stuck in a Book asked today whether people really like to read books about their jobs? His post and the subsequent comments reminded of one of my favourite extracts, discovered not long after I had started my present job, and treasured ever since. By one of my favourite authors, it elegantly sums up the possible pitfalls of my role. Every time I read it, I think there but for the grace of God… Pym’s elegant prose always fills me with delight, but the book this comes from, Less Than Angels, with its impoverished postgrads anxiously hoping for travel grants, meagre receptions that take place in the same room as the lecture, and academic backbiting, is especially dear to me:
      Esther Clovis had formerly been secretary of a Learned Society, which post she had recently left because of some disagreement with the President. It is often supposed that those who live and work in academic or intellectual circles are above the petty disputes that vex the rest of us, but it does sometimes seem as if the exalted nature of their work makes it necessary for them to descend occasionally and to refresh themselves, as it were, by squabbling about trivialities. The subject of Miss Clovis’s quarrel with the President was known only to a privileged few and even those knew no more than that it had something to do with the making of tea. Not that the making of tea can ever really be regarded as a petty or trivial matter and Miss Clovis did not seem to have been seriously at fault. Hot water from the tap had been used, the kettle had not been quite boiling, the teapot had not been warmed…whatever the details, there had been words, during the course of which other things had come out, things of a darker nature. Voices had been raised and in the end Miss Clovis had felt bound to hand in her resignation.

      Friday, 22 October 2010

      The Rise of the Iron Moon by Stephen Hunt

      This is the third of Hunt’s books set in the Kingdom of Jackals (I talked about the first here). It’s a while since I read the first two, and it took me a little time to get back into the convoluted politics of Hunt’s steampunk world. And now this whole world is under threat from an external foe, the terrifying Army of Shadows with its vat-grown slat soldiers, invincible as they sweep across the land draining its power and harvesting its inhabitants.

      Molly Templar and Oliver both return in this book, Molly as the successful author of celestial fiction and Oliver as the sinister Hood o’the Marsh, a sort of dark Robin Hood in thrall to his brace of pistols. They are joined by an escapee from the royal breeding house, Purity Drake in a wild and desperate plan to defeat the Army, gathering together an unlikely cohort to embark on their mission: Coppertracks the steamman, Molly’s old friend, whose theories about the mysterious comet which has recently appeared in the skies above Jackals have been ridiculed; Commodore Jared Black, who led the u-boat expedition to search for Camlantis; Lord Rooksby, an autocratic scientist with a bitter antipathy towards Molly and her friends; Keyspierre and his daughter Jeanne, envoys from the neighbouring country of Quatérshift whose harshly utilitarian politics has long been the cause of tension between it and Jackals; and Duncan Connor, rescued after the Army of Shadows' first dramatic attack on Jackals. Assistance comes from the King of the Steammen in the form of a sentient – and short-tempered – rocketship, Lord Starhome.

      As I approached the end of the 450-odd pages, I wondered how on earth Hunt was going to resolve matters in so little time, and recalled similar sensations from the two previous books. Were we going to be left with a cliff-hanger this time, I wondered, and would anyone survive? After three books I have some firm favourites among the regular characters, and would hate to lose any of them.  But I don’t want to give anything away, so I’m not even going to tell you who they are, let alone whether they survive. I will say, though, since it’s clear to anyone who looks up Hunt’s books, that there is another in the series already published, and it’s going to be high on my TBR pile, because there is something very beguiling about the world he has created. It’s frequently harsh and cruel, even in the relatively peaceable Jackals, but it’s full of people you can care about. They are best read in order, by the way: worldbuilding of this complexity needs quite a bit of explanation, but in the later books Hunt keeps it to a minimum and new readers might find themselves adrift. Tom Holt describes Hunt as Philip Pullman on benzedrine; I thought more Jules Verne on acid, myself, though I continue to detect influences. I’ve already suggested Sterling, Gibson and Miéville.  Here are elements of Dune alongside a bit of Star Wars and Michael Moorcock, all woven together to make something new and original. Such riches!

      Monday, 18 October 2010

      Thursbitch by Alan Garner

      Garner has never been the easiest of authors. Even his most accessible books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, contain a visceral energy that whirls the reader into an intoxicating world of magic and fear and then dumps then, breathless and dissatisfied with the real world, at the end. In the startlingly bleak Elidor, the power of myth to invade the prosaic everyday world brings an element of real terror, as all the electrical equipment in the Watsons’ new home switches itself on, buzzing away remorselessly throughout the night, even when unplugged. The Owl Service builds claustrophobic tension to an almost unbearable pitch, and Garner’s readers polarised into those who loved it and those who no longer wanted to know.

      Then came Red Shift, an immensely powerful intertwining of three timelines, Roman, Civil War and present, violent and angry, a bitter, desperate book ambivalently ending in a probable suicide. The abandonment of hope exemplified a modern youth, adrift and frustrated in a world which was spiralling towards the three-day week, while the interwoven timelines suggested strongly that humankind was born to grief – if there had been a possible redemption at the end of Elidor, it was looking increasingly tenuous here. However much you might admire Red Shift as a piece of literature, reading it left a sour taste. Many readers only noticed the sour taste, and there were loud complaints about its impenetrability, with some justification, since lots of its threads and meanings can only be fleetingly grasped. Through several readings I have always felt that something was eluding me, the point being, I think, that it’s eluding the characters too. They know that all is not well with their world, but even the exceedingly articulate Tom has no power to put it right. Where is magic when you need it?

      Thursbitch feels very much like a sequel to Red Shift to me, although the only connection is the intensity of its sense of place, and a setting geographically close, since Garner likes to write about the area around his home. It starts with a real story (just as Weirdstone began with a local legend): in 1755 salt-trader John Turner was found dead by the roadside after a heavy storm, and by his body was the print of a woman’s shoe. That he should have died so close to home, on a road he knew intimately, intrigued Garner, who began to tease out the reasons why his death might have occurred. His own explorations of a landscape that he had recently identified as being a possible site of the Green Chapel where Sir Gawain sought the Green Knight one legendary Christmas suggested a significance to the Christmas death of John Turner, and Garner's packman, traveller of the Cheshire drove-roads, is a shaman, one of the last initiates of the rites of the Bull god. Pagan custom and legend are inscribed across the wild areas of Britain, evident to the walker today, and it’s not impossible to believe that there were secluded valleys where Christianity had never really caught on. And the coming of the Christian faith to Thursbitch is a painful transition, borne of grief, a contrast to the natural easiness of the bull rites.

      Touching intermittently, like the firing of synapses, is the present-day story of Sal, suffering from degenerative disease (Huntingdon’s?), and Ian, her carer. Like Jan and Tom in Red Shift their conversation is a struggle, full of undercurrents and awkwardnesses – as in reality, the significance is often in what is not said, or in the misunderstandings or even wilful misinterpretations, exacerbated by the confusion symptomatic of Sal’s condition.  Sal, a geologist, is angered by their fellow “users” of the countryside (indeed, she would deny any fellowship with them) but her own relationship with it is tenuous, eroded by the rifts in her memory and only retained in geological description. Nevertheless, where the synapses fire across time, there is the possibility of redemption.

      Thursbitch is at once rooted in the earthiness of the Cheshire landscape and its language and lyrical in its evocation of a faith which is bound to the land. The language may be difficult for readers who are unfamiliar with English dialects, but it’s possible, I believe, to listen to the music of the speech and still reach enough of the meaning.* I was conscious again of the visceral response to myth and legend that I mentioned earlier and have talked about in other posts, a sensation that an author is reaching some kind of universal truth about the nature of our relationship with our surroundings, even if the detail isn’t accurate. I’d go so far as to say that the exact detail doesn’t really matter, if the feeling is there – it has much to do, I suppose, with the overall similarity of religious belief, and the predisposition we have to explain certain kinds of thing is particular ways, as Karen Armstrong discusses in A Short History of Myth. As Sal’s descriptions resonate with geological time, Turner’s verses and words resonate with prehistoric time.

      I knew, as soon as I opened my library copy, that I’d made a mistake here: like Garner’s other books, it’s one to go back to again and again, with meaning to accrue from each reading. It’s an elegiac work, part of a remarkable tradition of English writing about the land from Piers Plowman, to Victorian writers such as John Cowper Powys  and Kipling and as strong as ever in the present day.

      * While writing this I discovered a useful section on the Unofficial Alan Garner website entitled Thursbitch Tangents, which offers a glossary of links for some of the more difficult allusions, and I have tracked down a site offering Cheshire dialect words for you as well. I can’t vouch for the latter, as I didn’t use it, but the former is good, and also offers photographs of the various sites, links to interviews and blog reviews and so on.

      Later: I missed the opportunity to add that 10 October saw the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which has been continuously in print ever since. There's a lovely post about it here.

      Thursday, 7 October 2010

      Playing with Bones by Kate Ellis

      This is the second in the DI Joe Plantagenet series, set in Eborby (York). A strong element in Kate Ellis's work is the awareness of influences from a world of ghosts - it's left very much up to the reader whether to take them into account or not, but they do seem to play a part in the lives of her characters. In this one, a little girl has a friend who may or may not be imaginary, and a murderer believes that he hears the taunting voices of children.

      The body of a young woman has been found in Singmass Close, and the murder seems to imitate a spate of killings that took place in the Close in the 1950s. Could it be the same person? There were certain details not released to the public at the time of the first murders which are present here, but Joe and his boss Emily don't intially have much success following up the people involved at the time, and the killer was never caught. Meanwhile, another young woman has gone missing from home, although her mother doesn't seem to be taking her disappearance very seriously, and a convicted murderer has escaped from custody.  To add to the overwork and strain, Joe is having trouble with his love life, and Emily is worried about her small daughter.

      This series in settling in well, I think, continuing to draw on the author's evident interest in local history, and the two main characters and their working relationship are developing nicely. There is room to flesh out some of the other police officers, and I'd like to see more of Joe's friend, Canon Merriweather. These are gentle mysteries, with just a little otherworldly frisson and some mildly spooky settings in Eborby's medieval streets and closes. I might not sound quite so complacent if I were reading them alone in a medieval city at night, so I think they continue to earn their place on my RIPV reading list!

      Monday, 4 October 2010

      French Fried by Chris Dolley

      Our Northumbrian farm cottage was built by a Northumbrian farmer and modernised by his son. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust a farmer to build a dog kennel, so not surprisingly, over the years one or two features of the cottage have proved something of a challenge, particularly the stone fireplace the previous inhabitants (aforementioned son and family) were so proud of that they built another when the moved into the farmhouse. It was ugliest thing you’ve ever seen and took days to demolish (I believe the farmhouse version was equally recalcitrant). Inside this massive edifice was quite the meanest grate imaginable; it was a pig to light and smoked badly when the wind was in the wrong direction (that is, prevailing), so we were very happy when we could finally afford to replace it all with a woodburner. The prevailing wind, however, still comes from the same direction, so it’s not much easier to light than it ever was, although by the third winter we felt we were getting the hang of it.As you can imagine, then, my sympathy was readily roused when I found that Chapter 5 of French Fried by Chris Dolley dealt only with the difficulties he and his wife had experienced when they moved into their new French home with its unfamiliar fireplace. How could I not read the chapter with bated breath, as though I too was choking in the smoke which billowed into their living room? How could I not shiver empathically (you  might put it down to a draughty train, but I know it was the power of suggestion) as winter sets in with no solution found? Did I recognise the fruitless search for suitable fuel? You bet I did! although happily, ours was conducted in a familiar language. Unfortunately, it was all too grimly familiar for me to laugh at. I felt rather the same way about their trouble with the plumber, the vagaries of our own water supply having recently caused me to be exceedingly sharp with an employee of Scottish Water, although it was hardly their fault that the previous owner of the farm had, for 15 years, left two large holes in the water supply, albeit thoughtfully marked with pilfered traffic cones. As Dolley remarks of his French home, “Heath Robinson could have taken notes.”

      I did rather better with Dolley’s description of their journey to France which entailed a concerted battle with an unwilling horse and two horse boxes. Similarly with the lurcher Gypsy’s unwillingness to pass up the opportunity to attack a passing ankle, let alone a foreign dog. Mind you, after a summer of helping our neighbour with her horses, younger son would recognise the bitter experience behind this comment:
      I've often wondered how Rhiannon would have fared in the Wild West. And where cowboys found horses that could be left loosely tied outside saloons? Every horse I've ever come into contact with would have disappeared before the first foaming pint came sliding down the saloon bar. And as for riding through gunfire – none of our horses would have made it past the first oddly shaped haystack let alone ridden into danger.
      If there is a problem with this sort of “how we moved to France and how it all went wrong” book, it is that the tone of frenetic hilarity begins to feel a bit forced after a while, and you wish you could have a few pages when the author isn’t trying to make you laugh. No, honestly, you want to protest, just tell me about it, a few pages of description is fine, you must have liked to France to want to move there, but right now I haven’t a clue why you did because your relentless xenophobia is getting in the way. It’s the sort of writing which is taught by correspondence course – pile on the escapades, the deprecatory comments and long-suffering tone without pause, nice short, pithy sentences and paragraphs please, so that the pace never flags, keep up at the back there and put your kiss-me-quick hat back on, you’re not joining in the fun. It all becomes a bit exhausting.

      When, in the second half of the book, things suddenly look at bit bleak for Chris and Shelagh, because all their savings had disappeared in a case of identity theft, the style of writing ought to be markedly different, but it all sounds a little too much the same. The short, pithy paragraphs continue unabated, the tone – slightly puzzled, slightly ironic, distinctly facetious – is still there. It’s an easy one for the British writer to adopt – perhaps our besetting sin, familiar right across the board at the lighter end of literary endeavour. We court approval with it in school and many of us never lose it.

      You’ll probably have gathered from the foregoing that I have mixed feelings about this book, probably enjoying it more than I feel I ought to have done. The detective story – following up the trail of the identity thief – does lift it out of the run-of-the-mill moving-to-a-foreign-country-disaster story and contains some genuine surprises and twists. Evidently, Dolley realises that there is really is no more mileage in the awfulness of plumbers, and at least takes some responsibility for his own inability to communicate in the language of his chosen home. But I have to admit that the obligatory farcical set-piece (in this case, a football match) was skipped by this less-than-intrepid reader. Sometimes an author just goes too far. Similarly, having read the chapter in which his mother-in-law arrives, I can only imagine that either she is now deceased or Dolley divorced. As she was 80 at the time of the visit (sometime in the 1990s), though, he probably no longer has to fear a libel suit.

      French Fried came to me via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers. My world would have been no different if I  hadn’t read it, but it helped to while away a long and dreary train journey, as did writing my review.

      * Edited later to add this link to LindyLouMac's review of French Fried, which adds some interesting tidbits about its route to publication.

      Wednesday, 29 September 2010

      Neuromancer by William Gibson

      The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
      So begins one of the seminal works of the second half of the twentieth century, William Gibson’s vision of a cyberpunk  future, Neuromancer. Cyberpunk was always a grittier, clunkier vision than reality suggested, and it’s notable that by the time Pattern Recognition came along, Gibson was writing a future more recognisable from the present day, but what he wrote in Neuromancer was undoubtedly compelling and still feels like a kind of truth. His greatest “failure” of course, was to appreciate back then quite how quickly the size of information would mushroom – he was talking about millions of megabytes – which seemed a lot to those of us who’d just bought a machine with an impressive 48K, but laughable now, when a hard disk with a terabyte of memory is available for home use. (Out of curiosity I checked, and Amazon has one such for considerably less than the Speccy cost, a sleek black brick that would have made Gibson’s protagonist Case drool with desire. Um, I had trouble not pressing Buy Now With One-Click.)

      If you don’t know Neuromancer, it’s not just a superbly dystopian vision, but also a great example of the modern gothic novel, a book of baroque descriptions where every detail counts. It’s as if he was writing in computer code, where a tiny missing element cripples the programme. It was with Gibson I developed my habit of reading three-quarters, then going back to the beginning, primarily because I wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, but also because I love his writing, the descriptions which lead you into the matrix, the terse exchanges between characters which are laden with subtext.

      One of Gibson’s strengths is in his female characters, who are memorable, but Neuromancer’s Molly is the best. Physically enhanced to hone her fighting skills, she is nonetheless human. At first she seems invincible, and by the time you discover that she’s not you are reading with your heart in your mouth. Your involvement with her is heightened by an interesting device: for much of the latter part of the book you are watching Case watching Molly’s actions through her eyes, as she virtually guides him through the Villa Straylight – Case can see what Molly can see, and can hear her voice, but is unable to communicate with her otherwise, he’s a silent passenger, unable to intervene when she encounters trouble. It lends a peculiar intensity to these chapters, as you are doubly conscious of Case’s concern for both Molly and their mission and, at the same time, you are following Molly, seeing the detail which isn’t available to Case.

      The Villa Straylight is a gloriously Gormenghastly edifice, its denizens gothic grotesques, members of the ancient and inbred dynasty, Tessier-Ashpool. Well, they are clones, but they show all the genetic weaknesses of inbreeding, despite their longevity and personal modifications. They are a microcosm of the world they inhabit, where everything is multi-layered, convoluted, deceptive. In Case’s matrix, too, things may not be what they seem, or who they seem, and mistakes may be fatal. In both matrix and the real world, motives are opaque and both AIs and humans may be untrustworthy.

      Although it can be read as a standalone novel, the events of Neuromancer continue, equally tortuously, in two sequels, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, and thematically, throughout all Gibson’s books, though his settings are getting closer and closer to our own time. If you like Neuromancer, considerable pleasure awaits, but I have to admit that there are people who simply don’t get Gibson and his idiosyncratic writing style. Neil Gaiman says that if you grew up reading comic books their characters get into your head and become real to you; it’s the same with Gibson. I was at a reading, once, where he was asked whether he would continue to resist allowing a film to be made of Neuromancer. Well, he asked rhetorically, would you allow a scriptwriter to get their hands on Molly?

      Monday, 27 September 2010

      Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay

      Ysabel was something of a surprise. I’m not really quite sure what I was expecting - perhaps more along the lines of Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, I suppose - but what  we get is good Young Adult fantasy. I'm not sure if that was the intended audience, but it's certainly suitable.

      The setting is Aix-en-Provence in southern France, a city and region steeped in Romano-Celtic history that was also a favourite with Cezanne, who liked  to paint Mont Saint-Victoire.  Sixteen-year-old Canadian Ned Marriner is visiting with his photographer father. It’s during  school termtime, so Ned is  expected to amuse himself , but also to complete school assignments including keeping up with his running. His father’s young-ish assistant Melanie keeps an eye on him alongside her other duties, and tends, Ned feels, to organise his time too thoroughly: she  not only buys him a mobile phone so that he can be kept tabs on, she programmes it with the numbers of everyone in the team, a task that Ned feels, with some justification, that he is equal to himself. So he's almost pleased when he meets a girl of about his own age in the Cathedral, since a friend no-one else knows gives him a small glow of independence.

      However both Ned and Kate, his new friend, are more than a little taken aback when a man appears in the Cathedral, someone who both feels rather threatening and out-of-place. Or perhaps out-of-time. And although he tells them to stay out of his affairs, that seems easier said than done, since Ned feels a strong connection to the mysterious stranger. It begins to look as if an ancient story  - and an ancient enmity - is being played out, as it has been several times in the past, and Ned and Kate are caught up in it, as, unwittingly, are other members of his father's team. Before long, someone disappears and will be lost forever, unless the others can find them.

      The first century BC history is handled with a gentle touch, enough detail to keep the story flowing but not to overload the reader. There's humour in the writing, as well as perceptiveness about relationships between teenagers and their families. The plot may remind some of The Owl Service, with its perhaps endless playing out of myth, but the feel is very different - Kay has none of Garner's grit. It's also lighter than Kay's own earlier work, and although a character from the Fionavar Tapestry makes an appearance, so that we know we are in a myth-cycle linked to that earlier trilogy, this is a standalone work.

      I waited for months for the library to find a copy - it was only when I queried directly that they admitted it might have been lost, and ordered a new one that it finally turned up. Was it worth the wait? On balance, I think yes. I am counting Ysabel towards the Fourth Canadian Book Challenge and RIPV.

      Saturday, 18 September 2010

      The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

      Well now, this is the real thing and no mistake. The Crossing Places is exactly what I want in a murder mystery. A quick warning before I start extolling its virtues, though – it’s written in the historical present, and I know some people hate that so much that they won’t even start reading. If you really can’t bear it, this is not for you, but you’re missing something.

      I said the other day that perhaps it was easier to create a sense of place when you’re writing about a city, that the countryside is just too varied these days. I’m delighted to be proved wrong by practically the next book that I’ve picked up, because here we are on the North Norfolk coast. And I do mean here we are: you can feel the sand in your face and eyes, the wind whipping your hair as you cross the Saltmarsh in Ruth’s wake, as she heads for the henge that she and her fellow archaeologists discovered some years ago. Yes, we’re digging things up again, wooden posts in a circle to form a henge and, ultimately, bones. The body in question turns out to have been there for some time, to the frustration of DCI Harry Nelson, who has called Ruth in to advise, because he’s looking for the body of Lucy Downey, who has been missing for ten years.

      The choice of tense gives great immediacy to both plot and people. Although the story is told in the third person the reader is privy to the thoughts and feelings of the two main characters in a way that feels natural: one of my constant gripes when I’m reading is when the point of view switches sharply between characters; relatively few authors can really pull it off, but here the tense works in Griffiths’ favour, I think. Within a few pages of the beginning I felt as though Ruth was an old friend, a strong, slightly prickly woman who could nonetheless be good company. She’s slightly frumpy, likes cats and isn’t afraid to open a bottle of wine when she’s on her own. Her behaviour as the plot develops is plausible too – she isn’t foolhardy in the face of danger as so many heroines tend to be (proponents of what I think of as the “let’s split up and search in different directions” school) but has enough imagination to make her a good archaeologist and investigator. There’s little of the suppressed but barely controlled neediness of Temperance Brennan or Kay Scarpetta, neither of whom I’d consider inviting in for a glass of something.

      Harry Nelson, too, is a policeman you feel you could trust, solid and dependable, with just enough of the maverick to make him interesting. At one point we are told he likes to drive everywhere as if he’s in pursuit, and is rather pleased if the traffic cops give chase thinking he’s a member of the public (actually, you would imagine that in King’s Lynn they would pretty quickly learn to recognise his unmarked car, but it’s a nice touch).

      The story of the missing child is tight and tense, the anguish of the parents well-drawn. I did guess who was responsible, but I rarely mind that anyway, and the twists of the plot kept me just uncertain enough until the last moments. I liked, too, that things weren’t wrapped up too abruptly – sometimes you are left wondering about the immediate aftermath of events, but Griffiths has the confidence to finish things satisfactorily, while leaving things very nicely set up for the next in the series. There’s a third already on its way, so I think we have a substantial series in view. Griffiths was shortlisted for the Theakston’s crime novel award this year: she didn’t win, but it’s a tremendous achievement for a first in a series, and she’d have had my vote.

      There is an excellent interview with Elly Griffiths at The Book Whisperer, where I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that she loves Wilkie Collins – in fact, I’d have put money on it!