The Fantasy Book Group

Eric over at Lonesome Reader started it, and then my friend and co-editor, Annabel, carried it on (and included George Clooney) and I found I just couldn’t resist putting together a fantasy book group myself. They were both looking for celebrities who weren’t authors but who had bookish interests. Well, my book group members probably aren’t celebrities by normal standards, but I did just about manage to avoid fiction writers (my first, immediate, mental list began Virginia Woolf, Ali Smith…). I also think it will be as much a séance as a book club…

 

alexandra pringleAlexandra Pringle – currently Editor-in-Chief at Bloomsbury, she began her career at Virago, went on to work for Hamish Hamilton and then became a literary agent for a while. Her list of authors include: Donna Tartt, Barbara Trapido, Michele Roberts, Richard Ford, Esther Freud, Jay McInerney, Margaret Atwood, William Boyd, Georgina Harding, Ann Patchett, Kate Summerscale and Elizabeth Gilbert. I bet she’d have a few pithy things to say about any book put in front of her.

 

eunice frostEunice Frost – initially secretary to the founder of Penguin Books, Allen Lane, she was at his side when he introduced the much-reviled paperback book. She became an editor in the late 30s and eventually a director of the company (the penguin mascot is named ‘Frostie’ after her). A worrier and a sufferer from bronchial complaints, she was known for her formidable hats. It was largely down to her that Penguin began producing original work, not just reprints. She would have a fine eye for a book, I feel sure.

 

roland barthesRoland Barthes – French cultural critic who was hugely influential though he never held an orthodox academic post. He wrote a great deal about his theories of reading, and it would be irresistible to have him in the group, asking: ‘So hands up who experienced jouissance when reading this text, then?’

 

f r leavisF. R. Leavis – I hesitated over including him in my line-up because he was such an opinionated old grump. However, you need a bit of grit in any book group to get traction in a discussion and I would put good money on this formidable literary critic stirring up some fine book talk.

 

miss marpleMiss Marple – Well there has to be someone there to keep any egos under control, and I felt Miss Marple, with her razor eye and her sweet old lady façade would be just the ticket. The combination of her knitting and her unassuming but devastating one-line put-downs was not to be missed. She’d have a thing or two to say about current crime fiction, I’ll bet.

 

So that’s my line-up. Who would be in your fantasy book group?

Of False Correlations

I’ve been trying to think what’s been happening around here lately to tell you all, and can only come up with events that involve unusual modal tenses.

There are things I ought to have done but haven’t. For instance, several months back I was invited to chair an author event at the local bookstore. I did that thing where you look far ahead at a blank calendar and think, oh I shall be so free and well-rested in those empty days! And agreed to do it. After all, I used to chair a great deal, back in the university era. Well, I quite liked the idea of it for a good six weeks or so, and when I had a chronic fatigue relapse I thought, I’ll doubtless be fine when the time comes. I even bought a new pair of boots (any excuse!). Then, when we got to a couple of weeks before the event, I began to feel the stirrings of horror. Did I really want to have to stand up before an audience and talk? I always did have stage fright, but there was a time when I was very stern with myself about repressing it. Plus I was practised then and knew I would do the performing stuff well. I reminded myself that this was a local event which would probably have no more than twenty or so people in the audience, half of whom would be related to the author, half of whom would have wanted to come in out of the cold. But still I trembled and the chronic fatigue was settled in for the duration; knowing your body can give out on you at any moment is a fun thought to take into a stressful situation.

Preparation is the key, I told myself, and so I went to the bookshop and asked whom I should talk to, in order to have a look at the space we’d be in and familiarise myself. I was a little surprised to find the bookseller had no knowledge of the event. And when I looked at the advertising posters in the shop, it clearly wasn’t on them. I went home and checked the internet, nope nothing on the website either. See, I told my chronic fatigued self: this will be the best event ever, because it’s going to be just you, the author and the publicist! You can all go down the pub! But I was still chronic fatigued and easily stressed and I began to think that finding someone to take my place might be the best idea. But wasn’t it unethical to hand an event over to someone else, knowing as I did that it was going to be…well, intimate?

Just as I was getting tangled up in knots over the various strands of worry involved, I received an email from the publicist telling me the event had been cancelled due to ‘poor ticket sales’. I’ll say! It’s hard to sell tickets to an event no one knows about. Through the immense relief, I felt a stirring of sharp curiosity to know what had happened. Had the event been cancelled before I went in the shop or after? Was there someone in a London office somewhere tearing at her hair and yelling ‘Christ, I knew there was something I’d forgotten to do!’ or was it more the case that no one had the heart to disappoint that poor blogger, who was probably gagging to appearing in the real world rather than the virtual one? Either way, I was just relieved, and it was a good reminder to myself that my public speaking days are over at the moment. Just because you were good at something in the past doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it.

Then there have been things I wonder whether I shouldn’t do but am still doing. The cancellation of the event meant I felt able to commit to writing another chapter of the book I am STILL working on, knowing it would be a tiring thing to do. Since I began writing this book in the early summer of last year, there has been a string of disasters, some acute, some chronic, all unpleasant, that make me wonder whether the universe is not on the side of this particular project. Despite my best efforts, I cannot help but read omens and portents into the world around me, and maybe these scare tactics of fate are a way of saying: Give up! Do something different! And still I stubbornly trudge along, churning out stuff that probably no one will want to read out of some cussed conviction that what I start I ought to finish. Of course there is a line of theory that suggests life is random, and cannot be interpreted as if it were a narrative whose end is obscured by future time. But given that every part of my life has been bound up with stories one way or another, what sense would that hold for me? Surely a refusal to interpret would go against everything I have ever held dear?

Mind you, away from these mental minefields, there has been some straightforward stuff, too. My capacity for comedy accidents continues to astound me. On the way into the funeral last week, walking in the slow, solemn procession into the crematorium, I suddenly realised my forward progress had come to an abrupt halt as the heel of my shoe got stuck in a grating. The line of mourners snarled up behind me as I struggled to hoick myself out, and I wondered for a moment if I’d have to walk in barefoot. To the kind woman behind me who said in a most sympathetic voice, ‘That sort of thing happens to me all the time,’ thank you.

And then yesterday I noticed as I headed out to my car that an industrious and quite substantial spider had constructed a large web across the garden path. Ha! I thought, and avoided it by walking over the lawn. Yes, sure spiders are great, but not on me. When I returned, I remembered the spider and carefully walked around it again. And then, mid-afternoon, I realised there was a book in the library I needed and I thought I would nip out quickly and collect it. You know what’s coming next, don’t you? I really hope my next door neighbour was not working in his garage as there was rather a lot of squealing. And I did a little raindance, too. Proof that troublesome as my brain may be when it’s working, not much good comes of switching it off entirely.

 

The Destroyer

Back in the mists of time, well, July, I was offered a book as part of a blog tour. It was billed as similar in style to Jack Reacher and I thought, hmm, wouldn’t it be interesting if I persuaded my son and Mr Litlove to read the book and comment on it? Wouldn’t that make a nice change from me giving you the same old same old? So I spoke to my son and he said, sure, sounds intriguing. And I asked Mr Litlove and he laughed and said yes, he’d read it. And we were all set.

Well the book arrived and the tour itself was ages off. When my son visited, I gave him the review copy and he took it back to London. Not many days after this, he found his job in the pub and so the book sat, unread, on his shelf. As August turned into September, it became apparent that not much reading was happening in London, nor indeed was it likely to happen, and getting the book back looked like a sensible idea. As it happened, there was going to be a family party and we arranged to transfer. The night before the party, my son put the book in his bag so he wouldn’t forget it. In the morning, just before going to get the train, he decided he didn’t need to bring his bag with him… And so no book. Now time was getting short.

Okay, so the company Mr Litlove works for has an office in London, where my son worked for a while earlier in the summer. Often people travel back and forth between London and Cambridge and we figured someone wouldn’t mind carrying a book with them. My son was going to call in, leave the book and Mr Litlove had an employee visiting the city who would bring it back. Last Monday Mr Litlove called me. ‘We’ve got a problem,’ he said. ‘The guy isn’t coming back to Cambridge tomorrow after all. They’ve told him he needs to be at a convention.’

The next bit was a little garbled. ‘He’s going to Mexico?’ I asked.

‘No, the convention is called Demexeco.’

‘So where’s he going?’

‘Germany.’

Right. My son had dropped off the book by now but we had no courrier. Mr Litlove gave another of his employees headed for the London office a stamped addressed envelope. I hadn’t seen the book for so long I wasn’t sure how big it was. We fretted over the postage costs for a while, erred on the side of caution and hoped for the best. Finally on Wednesday morning, the book arrived safely. But then Mr Litlove seemed very busy with work.

Guess who ended up reading it?

I may have had one eyebrow raised in irony as I read about a secret service organisation called CURE whose brief was to undermine all organised crime syndicates in the USA. I had a dim view of the power of organisation per se at that point.

created the destroyerSo anyhow, The Destroyer is a series of novels written by Warren Murphy from the start of the 70s onwards, the last one published in 2012 making a whopping 150 titles altogether. Apparently there’s a film adaptation on the cards, hence this recent re-issue. Created, The Destroyer is an enjoyable piece of hokum about ex-Vietnam vet and cop, Remo Williams, who is waiting on death row when the novel opens, framed for a crime he didn’t commit. The thing is, Williams was spotted during his Vietnam days, when he made something of a reputation for himself as a man able to undertake difficult and dangerous intelligence missions and complete them with success. He had a talent for subterfuge and an even more useful knack for killing people.

CURE needs to recruit a reliable killer, and has been given the curious condition that the man cannot exist. What better solution to the problem than someone who is officially dead? As the electric chair beckons, an unusual monk slips into Remo Williams’ cell and gives him a pill to bite, telling him not to do so until the last possible minute. When Williams comes to he is in a medical facility. He has his life but at the cost of his freedom. He’s to be trained as an assassin and boy does it sound fun. ‘I promise you terror for breakfast, pressure for lunch, tension for supper and aggravation for sleep,’ his new boss tells him. ‘Your vacations are the two minutes you’re not looking over your shoulder for some hood to put one in the back of your head.’ If he lasts a year, it will be a miracle. (Though we all know now that he lasted 40 years and ought, by rights, have been fighting crime long into his retirement.)

He’s then trained in the subtle yet deadly art of Sinanju karate by a wizened Asian, which is all quite good fun, and of course he masters these ancient techniques in the space of a fortnight or whatever, and then he’s on his way, sent on the trail of a baddie. You can imagine where it goes yourself. This is light reading, no need to chew, quick-fix fiction with a soupçon of brutality and love interest in the vein of James Bond – the lone female character is the only real indication we’re in the 70s here. It rattled along at a good rate, held together well and was entertaining to read, even if the prose sometimes made Lee Child look like a poet. I thought it was very similar to Reacher, only what he does in 500 pages, Remo Williams does in 200. They were less verbose in those days. It’ll be interesting to see what the film is like – now that’s a mission that I daresay my menfolk will undertake more willingly!

Why Childish Pleasures Are Best Left Alone

frank cottrell boyce Going to lectures by childrens’ authors is not something I normally do, but I have a good friend with an eagle eye for these events, who is writing children’s fiction herself, and then the speaker was Frank Cottrell Boyce (henceforth FCB) whose books Millions and Framed were favourites of my son. The lecture is an annual event held in memory of Phillipa Pearce, who wrote Tom’s Midnight Garden. At the book buying/signing shindig afterwards, I felt pretty sure I had never read that book and so – naturally in the interests of supporting the event – bought a copy. Though Mr Litlove wasn’t impressed: ‘It’s got ‘worthy’ written all over it,’ he said.

The lecture was, by contrast, all about the intense pleasure of reading and FCB made some rather good points. As well as being a prolific screenwriter and children’s book author, he is also involved in an organisation (and dammit I missed the name and can’t track it down in my internet searches) that promotes reading aloud to people in dire situations – children with extreme special needs, prisons, drug rehab centres, that sort of thing. FCB believes that being read to is a magical situation, that listening to a story, you are both highly alert and yet entirely without anxiety. If you know nothing is being asked of you other than your attention, you fall into a state of keen and agile acceptance that can have powerful consequences. Several of the anecdotes he told us concerned reports back from readers who witnessed attention deficit kids sitting still for fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes when engrossed in a story, and of prisoners experiencing an entirely different way of thinking.

tom's midnight gardenHe was also talking about another power of storytelling – that of unpredictability. He read us several excerpts from novels by Phillipa Pearce using them to demonstrate how intriguing unpredictability could be, how audacious on the part of the author, to whisk the reader off in a direction s/he never saw coming. This idea of unpredictability fed into another line he braided into the talk – that of memory. He recalled in particular the moment on Christmas day many years ago when his grandmother woke up in the middle of the Morecombe and Wise special and started telling him about his grandfather, a man who had died before FCB was born. This was, he said, quite unprecedented. His grandmother didn’t like television, she didn’t like radio and she didn’t like conversation. He had spent far too much time with her as a child in a room full of clocks whose every tick marked the plucking of a hair of time, in what he termed a depilation of death.

His grandfather had been born with a caul over his head, which was supposed to indicate good luck, and indeed, he’d been an extraordinarily lucky man. He’d spent his life as a merchant seaman and had survived the battle of Jutland and the Second World War. The one night he’d got drunk and missed his boat, it had hit an offshore mine and gone down with all 700 hands lost. And then, it seemed that his luck ran out on the day that he died. He’d been a stoker, feeding the furnaces, and in the late 50s, when his boat was in Cardigan Bay, it happened to hit a mine leftover from the war. The mine exploded against the boiler room and his grandfather was the only man to lose his life. He shouldn’t even have been there but he was covering the shift for a friend.

millionsWhat on earth provoked this memory from his grandmother, he wondered? It was a story of unpredictability that seemed itself to have sprung from nowhere. We were all entranced as he told it, feeling for ourselves that suspension of the world that happens when we listen closely. And this was what his talk was like – a series of dramatic scenes that were vivid and fascinating but there seemed to be no coherent argument, just a hopscotch between the ideas of listening to a story, memory and unpredictability.

But then he drew them all together in an intriguing image. He told us about the formation of coal, how algae soaked up billions of summers on an empty planet, sinking down into the earth until the heat of the sunshine was compressed and compacted into rock solid matter. And then a hole was opened up and the coal extracted, where it burnt with the energy retained from those billions of unseen sunny days. And he said that stories worked this way in the mind. That they took their energy and brilliance down into the mind and lay there for a long time, decades, perhaps, until suddenly, a shaft opened up and that story came back, its splintered images emerging unpredictably but just when you needed them.

FCB said he worried that the way stories are taught in schools, particularly with young children, destroyed their power. He said he often went to read in schools and he’d be introduced by the teacher and the kids would be really happy at the prospect of listening to a story. ‘And we’re going to listen out for when Mr FCB uses his ‘wow’ words,’ the teacher would go on to say, ‘and afterwards you’re going to write them down and make some sentences from them…’ At which point, FCB argued, the power of the storytelling was lost. If you turn listening to a story into a transaction, you rob it of its value. All the energy of the story is dissipated. Not least because the pleasure was spoiled, and pleasure he argued, is a profound form of attention, one with alchemical properties.

I thought that was extremely interesting. The talk also reminded me how much I missed reading to a child. I loved bedtime reading. It felt like a rare time in the day when my son and I were both doing exactly what we wanted to be doing. During questions, FCB was asked about his favourite books as a child and he said he couldn’t distinguish now between the ones he liked and the ones he’d enjoyed reading to his own kids. But he did single out the Moomins, particularly Moominland Midwinter, when Moomintroll wakes up while all his family are hibernating. It was, he said, like someone had asked Kierkegaard round on a play date. A line I have savoured ever since. If Tom’s Midnight Garden turns out to be too worthy, I might remind myself what the Moomins were all about instead.

moominland midwinter 2