Lost for Words

lost for wordsA novel about warring judges on the panel of a prestigious book prize that is essentially a poorly-masked Booker? This sounded like a delightful hoot to me when I heard about it, and I fell on Lost for Words with enthusiasm. I hadn’t read any of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels but he was an author I was curious about and I figured that at the very least there’d be plenty of good writing. Well this was a masterclass in how good writing alone cannot save a doomed story, and for me it raised the question yet again as to why anyone would want to write a satire. It is the most adolescent of literary genres and I do not mean that in a good way. The book world is a complex place, rich in emotion and significance; when will anyone write a book that does justice to its reality?

Anyway, in Lost for Words, we find power-hungry MP Malcolm Craig appointed head of the judging panel for the Elysian literary prize. Elysian being a somewhat dodgy agri-chemical business whose notable creation, the ‘Giraffe carrot’ ‘had been a great help to the busy housewife, freeing her to peel a single carrot for Sunday lunch instead of a whole bunch or bag.’ He is joined by crusading journalist, Jo Cross, interested only in the ‘relevance’ of the books she reads, a good-looking young actor, Tobias Benedict, who never seems able to turn up for the meetings, an academic, Vanessa Shaw, who irritates the others with her hunt for good writing, and an ex-Foreign Office writer, Penny Feathers, who tries to be diligent but finds the judging process interferes with writing her latest thriller, Roger and Out.

I don’t need to say any more about these characters. They are exactly as you might expect them to be. In the full glory of their two dimensions.

Added into this mix are some of the writers whose books are competing for the prize. There’s a nymphomaniac but brilliant writer, Katherine Burns, whose admirable novel fails to make the longlist because of a mix-up at the publishers. Instead they send the recipe book of an elderly aristocratic Indian woman, aunt to a princeling determined that his magum opus, the enormous and unreadable The Mulberry Elephant, will be a huge hit. Alas and of course, his aunt’s cook book is hailed as a triumph of postmodernity and shoots onto the shortlist, provoking him to turn the family retainer into a hired assassin.

There are other people but I can’t be bothered to tell you about them. You can probably imagine.

Stuff happens. You can probably guess what.

Various pot shots are taken. For instance, genre writer Penny Feathers gets it in the neck because of her use of ‘some highly addictive software called Ghost’, a programme that can provide a cliché for any situation.

When you typed in a word, ‘refugee’ for instance, several useful suggestions popped up: ‘clutching a pathetic bundle’, or ‘eyes big with hunger’; for ‘assassin’ you got ‘ice water running through his veins’, and ‘his eyes were cold narrow slits’…. She could scroll and click, scroll and click all day, with the word count going up in leaps and bounds.

And of course the judging process itself is fair game.

He could hear Vanessa’s exasperation as she gradually realised that the majority of her so-called ‘literary’ novels were not going to make it onto the Short List. She kept trying to argue that the other novels lacked the qualities that characterized a work of literature: ‘depth, beauty, structural integrity, and an ability to revive our tired imaginations with the precision of its language’. The poor woman didn’t seem to realize that what counted in the adult world was working out compromises between actual members of a committee that reflected the forces at work in the wider society…

St Aubyn is capable of making clever and incisive remarks. He writes really well. Why lower himself, then, to some of the most tired and lazy cliches when it comes to character, situation and plot? Well, my own issue with this is basically about satire. Satire is fuelled by unresolved emotions – anger, spite and contempt for the most part – and in the rush to make a cheap laugh, it rarely pauses long enough to contemplate the objects of its derision. Satire is pretty much permanently doomed to using stereotypes as its foundation. St Aubyn does try to bring in some much needed compassion – Vanessa is deeply worried about her anorexic daughter and Katherine’s love life eventually calms down – but this just makes the book feel choppy and unstable. What I would love to see is a novel about the book industry that tries to be serious and real, and maybe it would be satirical inadvertently, but then again it might not. At least the result would be unpredictable.

Unfortunately, back in 2006, Edward St Aubyn’s novel Mother’s Milk, was shortlisted for the Booker and surprisingly failed to win it. At the time he is reported as saying he was relieved about this. And then in 2011 when his novel At Last wasn’t longlisted, he was quoted in interview as saying: “I’m not going to spend a lot of time thinking about a prize I can’t win. The Booker 2011 is of no more interest to me than the world heavyweight championship which I’m not going to win either. It is irrelevant. What I have to do is start writing a new novel.” You have to wonder whether it’s wise for someone with that kind of history to write this kind of novel.

 

Finally, I Can Tell You

There have been good and bad reasons why I’ve been so quiet in the blogworld lately, and finally I can tell you about the good reason.SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245I’ve been involved in getting a new online review magazine off the ground, and on Monday 7th April, Shiny New Books will be going live, ready to tell you what to read next and why.

When we first began thinking about the magazine, we thought there was an absence of a) places that brought lots of book bloggers together and b) nowhere that you could read up on all the latest releases that you see all the time in book shops and libraries, without knowing if they are any good or not.

So we decided to publish a quarterly magazine (covering new books out from January to the start of April in the first edition) and have picked only those to review that we loved, enjoyed and were entertained by. We’re based on UK publication dates, but the book world is so globalised these days that they aren’t so very different to anywhere else.

The first edition carries over 70 reviews, features, interviews, and behind-the-scenes glimpses of writing and publishing. We’re covering as wide a range of books as we can, and as wide a range of publishers too. There’s also going to be some pretty fantastic competitions (I want the prize myself for the first one). The only thing we’re not doing is supporting amazon.

The editors behind Shiny New Books are all bloggers you will probably know – Annabel, Simon, Harriet and me. But we couldn’t have done it without the fabulous bloggers who also contributed reviews – a huge thanks to them. We’ll be looking for more bloggers to write for us, because we also want to make the magazine a showcase of the best book writing on the blogosphere.

So, do sign up for our newsletter, which will alert you to each edition when it appears. We’ll have a mini-issue in May with additional reviews, and the email newsletter will be monthly-ish with competitions and discussion threads and all sorts of booky goodness. To sign up, do visit Shiny New Books, or like our facebook page, or twitter feed.

It’s been a really rocky few months chez Litlove, and I have been pretty thankful at times to have such fine distraction as looking at the nth version of a logo, deciding how to organize menu bars and figuring out possible channels for publicity. I’m here to tell you that nothing focuses the mind like a pile of seven books that need to be read and reviewed to a deadline. I must say a big thank you to the other editors, too, who have been a joy to work with, and not nagged me once for being a bit scatterbrained at times There was one big boo-boo that I made, but I’ll tell you about that next Monday when we launch.

Mr Litlove Strikes Again

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Just a quick post with a not-terribly-good photo of the new bookcase that Mr Litlove has made me. It’s in Arts & Crafts style for those of you who like to know such things. I was just very pleased indeed to have such a handsome home for my hardback books. The volumes on top were quite modest, until yesterday’s post brought me the shortlist for this year’s Booker prize. The Book People are selling all six volumes for £30, or in my case given they had an extra promotion going on the day I ordered, £27. I’d heard reports that the 2013 list was the best in a decade, and whilst that is probably marketing hype, I was happy to go along with it. It’s more usual for journalists to knock the books in whatever way they can, and this year’s head judge is Robert Macfarlane, who seems to have the Midas touch, so… Oh, who cares about justification, it was just book lust, okay? :)

Winner and Mini Reviews

And the winner of William Boyd’s Waiting for Sunrise is: Ruthiella!

I was very unscientific – I wrote all the names on slips of paper and pulled one out of a bag. I’m terribly impressed by the bloggers who know how to do that random number generator thing, but it is quite beyond me. Ruthiella, if you could email me with your address, I’ll pop the book in the post for you.

Well, I struggle along here, still plagued by anxiety but practising, practising ways to live with it. I am as fastidious as a cat over my emotional life, it seems, and I do not appreciate the current state of messiness. But still, I’ve been reading Harriet Lerner’s excellent book, The Dance of Fear, which I warmly recommend to other anxiety sufferers. She suggests we bring as much patience, curiosity and good humour as possible to bear on the situation, and I liked that list of qualities. I’m also reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking and finding it almost painful in its accuracy. But I’ll review that properly another day. And finally, I’m listening to The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope, which after a slow start I’m loving. So much plotting and manipulating, so many schemes and intrigues! I think the literature of the 19th century was designed to be listened to.

a mind to murderI realised there were a few books I’d read in recent weeks that I should review in brief: First off, P. D. James’ A Mind to Murder. Adam Dalgliesh is managing to survive the publication party for his latest book of poems when he’s called away to investigate a murder at the psychiatric clinic over the road. The office manager, an overbearing spinster with a stiffly starched code of morals, has been found stabbed through the heart. This is a very classic crime novel, in which we are introduced to a selection of suspicious folk connected to the clinic as doctors, nurses and administrators, whilst Dalgleish does his thing with the usual elegance and panache (though he makes a fair few mistakes in this one). I find I read P. D. James for the excellent ordinariness of her prose. She is not a lyric writer, nor a quirky one, nor one with an eye for a felicious turn of phrase. But every sentence is neatly turned and well crafted, the events follow one another with satisfying causality, characters are evoked with precision and insight and the whole zips along on its well-oiled rails with pleasing orderliness. I was surprised to note how old this novel is – first published 1963 – as it doesn’t feel it, apart perhaps from a few rather old-fashioned treatments at the clinic. Another advantage of that resolute ordinariness may be this timeless quality.

the year after 2Martin Davies’ The Year After is a very recent publication, although it harks back in time to the end of WW1. It’s Christmas, 1919 and Tom Allen has just been demobbed. Uncertain what to do with himself in a mournful London, he accepts an invitation to visit Hannesford Court, the home of the Stansbury family with whom he was very friendly before the war broke out. The Stansbury clan were one of those starry families, rich, sociable, blessed. Tom had fancied himself in love with the oldest daughter, Margot, although he had not been in the charmed circle surrounding the eldest son, Harry. He had been a hanger-on, a marginalized member of the happy-go-lucky group, invited for his reliable good manners. Now, Harry is dead, as is his best friend, Julian, who was Margot’s husband. The eldest surviving son, Reggie, a difficult, temperamental young man, is in a convalescent home with horrific injuries. So the Hannesford Court that Tom returns to is, inevitably, not the same as before, even if making valiant attempts to resemble its former glory. This is partly a romance, and partly a mystery story, as Tom tries to find out what happened to a German guest at the Summer Ball before the start of the war. I thought this sounded just the ticket when I picked it up – country house novel, family secrets, hidden crimes – but the elements fail to cohere. It suffers from being not quite enough of anything, and the mystery in particular is a bit limp, given that Tom is returning from the horrors of the First World War against which a small domestic incident pales somewhat. It is quite a nice meditation on the difficulties of picking up life again, after the trauma of the war, and Martin Davies is a very good evocative writer. But it was all a bit meh, alas.

the high windowIf you want to write a first person narrative, then look no further than Raymond Chandler. The High Window was the first Philip Marlowe novel I read and Chandler is every bit as brilliant as people say. Marlowe is called to the home of Elizabeth Murdock, a bitter and contemptuous old woman who is still trying to call the shots in her wayward family. It turns out that an heirloom has gone missing, a very valuable coin called the Brasher Dubloon, and Mrs Murdock suspects the nightclub-singer wife of her son, a starlet who rejoices in the name of Linda Conquest. This is a very convenient suspicion, as Linda has recently separated from her husband and disappeared, and it suits Mrs Murdock to throw the blame outside the walls of the family fortress. But of course, as soon as Marlowe goes digging, the bodies pile up and the quarry comes ever closer to home. It’s not just that the prose is fantastic – and it is – it’s what Chandler does with it that’s so clever. Every sentence moves the story along, adds to the characterisation of Marlowe, and says something about the action and the time. I loved the way that this supposedly badass private eye is shown to be so tender in his human sympathies by the way he reacts to the people he comes across. There’s a fine ethical conscience at work, sifting the bad guys from the unlucky ones. Well, they’re called modern classics for a reason, and if there isn’t such a term as Golden Age Noir, there ought to be, and Chandler could wear the crown and the sash.