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 http://www.hauntedcomputer.com/blogtour.htm

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.)