All Together Now

gill hornbyI do wonder what it must be like to be Gill Hornby. Not only does she have a famous brother to live up to, but she has now decided to write books in more or less the same generic space, thus leaving herself open to endless comparisons with him. If it had been me, I’d have changed my name, but given entertainment’s current adoration of the already-recognisable, perhaps it is considered to be a tick in the right publicity box. This is in some ways a bit of an echoey book, reminding me of the feel-good film, The Full Monty, except with choirs rather than strippers, so, more decorum, less radicalism, but definitely a book that wants to leave you with a smile on your face.

All Together Now, is about a community choir in the anonymous commuter belt town of Bridgeford, a place in other words, where community is hard pushed to flourish. When the novel opens, the choir’s beloved leader, Constance, has been seriously injured in a car crash, and those who remain are somewhat adrift without her. Responsibility falls on the shoulders of Annie, a 50-something mother-of-three tending a painfully empty nest. Even her husband, James, has become caught up in a tricky law case that necessitates him spending his weeks in London. Annie is a Salt of the Earth type, the woman who remembers all the names of the children her children were at school, with, the woman who bothers to vacuum the carpet of community areas, the woman who takes half an hour to walk down the main street because she knows everyone working in the charity shops (‘Fortunately, she was a social athlete in peak condition.’)

Annie drums up new members for the choir with a great deal of arm-twisting. She coerces single mother, Tracy, who has only scorn for communal activities but a voice the choir needs, and newly-divorced Bennett, a man who is uptight and uncool and socially a tad inept (‘he found himself wishing [his ex-wife] had left him a helpful little folder, like landladies did for holiday rentals: a starter information pack for the rest of his own life.’) However, he also has a voice trained from childhood as a choral scholar. Throw in some extras – Jazzie, the council estate child who wants to save herself for The X-Factor, Lewis and his disabled daughter, Katy, elderly codgers Pat and Lynn (think the two old men up on the balcony in The Muppets) and we are all set for social comedy.

In fact, there is a lot of rather witty and admirable writing in the novel. The multi-purpose building where the choir hold their meetings, for instance, is described rather amusingly:

The stolid, mixed-material, mongrel-architectural Coronation Hall sat back from the corner of Church Street in an apron of its own car park and stared out at the town like a plain and disapproving old aunt. It eschewed comfort – its windows were high, its floors dull and dusty, its walls a distempered cream – and offered only the basic barrier to the elements. A bit of weather, in its opinion, never hurt anybody; if it could talk, it would tell you to put on a vest.’

And its also excellent on the way that community spirit has withered and died in so many small towns. When the local Talent Show is held, Tracey observes the sparse attendance and imagines ‘the rest of the town down there, sunk into its armchairs, with its backs to them.’ Those bustling, extrovert planners and muckers-in like Annie are portrayed as both essential to community life and also somewhat ridiculous, easy to mock. But Gill Hornby is astute in the way she sows her seeds of doubt; what if all this keeping-to-ourselves business, safely barricaded as it may be, ultimately ends in loneliness? Visiting the hospital to serenade Constance with the choir, Tracey observes Annie interacting with her group of bed-ridden friends and remarks that:

they were all Annies, these women: doers of their bit, thinkers of others, busiers of bodies. They were all Annies and they were all knackered. Who was going to take over from them all, when they couldn’t do it any more?…. [But] at least they were not alone. They were ageing and they were knackered but, clearly, they still mattered. Their beds were surrounded by cards and flowers and home-made cakes. The primary school had done a frieze for the retired librarian; the Sunday school had made a little garden in a box for the church volunteer.’

Tracy, as you may be gathering, is the focal point for change; she has to let go of her teenage son, embrace community activities, give up the secret she’s keeping and stop being too cool for school. She’s a great character and well-drawn, but Gill Horby has an odd way of not quite nailing her scenes, particularly in the first half of the book, so we don’t get to witness exactly what makes the difference. We tend to catch up with Tracey as she contemplates her altered feelings, which isn’t as satisfying. Also the writing is at times too frenetically jolly, bouncing us along Tiggerishly, subsuming all events to the comedy. And of course the funniest things often come hard on the heels of what’s sad and upsetting, or too poignant, a defence against emotion and a relief from it. But there’s not much light and shade here.

However, what Gill Horby does best in this book is describe the life-affirming vitality, the sheer joy, that singing in a choir can produce, and she does this in spades. Apparently you can download the soundtrack to the novel, as it were, and I’ll bet a lot of readers won’t be able to resist. Hornby does have an eye for a catchy song. All in all this is a fun, warm-hearted novel with some laugh-out-loud lines. Steer clear if you want a bit of darkness, but hand out to anyone who needs to stop singing the blues.

 

The Global Phenomenon With The Long Title

harry quebertDo you ever feel that the nectar of hype comes in a poisoned chalice? Back in October 2012, a novel written by a 28-year-old Swiss man that had been awarded a couple of prestigious French literary prizes caused the most immense stir at Frankfurt, its one-man publisher selling the rights to over 30 different countries (with the book to be translated into anything between 32 and 37 languages, reports vary). People at the fair called it a global phenomenon but couldn’t quite remember its name, referring to it in their excitement as ‘the French novel with the long title.’

And then I imagine the publicity mill went into overdrive and comparisons with Roth, Franzen and Bellow were bandied around, and inevitably it all went downhill from there. Reviews of the English translation by Sam Taylor have been decidedly mixed, with the American ones the most caustic. ‘It’s the sort of novel you recommend to a grieving friend or coworker out on jury duty—somebody with temporarily disabled critical faculties trying to forget who or where they are’ the New Yorker said sniffily. But if they weren’t expecting Roth or Bellow, then I should think those on jury duty were pretty glad to have it.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a slick and entertaining piece of literary fun with mirrors, set in an appealling Twin Peaks landscape. And so long as we don’t get any more carried away than that, no one is going to have their expectations hurt. The narrator, Marcus Goldman, is a young writer whose first novel has been an outrageous success. Once he’s run through a ton of royalties and sucked up enough syrupy recognition to feel bilious he finds himself on deadline for a second novel without a single idea in his head. Facing humiliation and a nasty law suit, he decides to visit his much-loved college mentor, Harry Quebert, in his seaside home at Goose Cove, New Hampshire. It doesn’t do a great deal for his writing, but the reunion is good for Marcus’s soul. He was a callow and cunning youth, too hooked on achievement to understand the notion of quality, but Harry knocked some sense into him (literally, in the boxing ring). And it’s Harry’s career as a celebrated novelist that Marcus longs to emulate.

However, not long after this visit, Marcus receives the stunning news that Harry is in prison. A body has been dug up in the grounds of his house, the corpse of Nola Kellergan who went missing thirty-three years previously. Alongside her in the grave is a manuscript copy of Harry’s most successful novel, The Origin of Evil. Hop back to August 1975 when Nola disappeared and we find out that she was having a passionate love affair with Harry that provided the inspiration for his novel. Worse still, Harry was waiting for her in a hotel room further up the coast that night but she never showed; they were intending to elope to Canada, for Nora was only fifteen and they both rightly feared scandal and jail.

Steadfastly refusing to believe in Harry’s guilt, Marcus returns to Goose Cove to undertake his own investigation. He’s known to the locals and he has Harry’s memories to guide him. But he’s also at the centre of the media storm, another famous face to add to the mix, and his editor and agent are leaning hard on him to turn out a book on the murder case as fast as he can. We are of course reading the book – or some version of it – that Marcus will eventually write. Except that this book in our hands includes all manner of revisions as twists and turns develop in the investigation, theories come together and then fall apart, and characters are unexpectedly seen in a new light. If you appreciate the metatextual level, you’ll enjoy the subtleties of Dicker’s plotting, but you don’t have to look at it like that. In a straightforward way, it’s a clever piece of crime fiction that keeps you guessing throughout its 600 pages.

Given that Joel Dicker clearly likes a bit of irony, I hope he doesn’t mind that his homage to a certain kind of American noir story is probably designed to annoy a lot of American readers. There’s all that metatextual stuff, and then a 15-year-old femme fatale (though how we see Nora changes constantly across the book) and then a whole bunch of archetypal characters. There’s a gruff and aggressive detective (who mellows), a dodgy rich businessman and his maimed chauffeur/henchman (quality of life destroyed in a random attack by thugs one night), a social-climbing café owner and her hen-pecked husband and Marcus’s crazy Jewish mother, who inhabits her role to such a degree of intensity that she makes no sense whatsoever. It may be no more than coincidence, but the contemporary French novels I’ve read in the past ten years or so seem quite comfortable with archetypes. Amélie Nothomb, one time star of the French literary firmament said in interview that

when we create we’re totally in tune with this creative pole that’s full of archetypes and which is, in fact, totally ridiculous, but perhaps also at the origins of life.’

I thought that was quite an interesting statement, but you’ll know where you stand on it. There’s also rather a lot of cringe-inducing aphorisms concerning the art of writing. For instance: ‘If you’re not brave enough to run in the rain, you’ll certainly never be brave enough to write a book.’ But this is a narrative designed to be read fast, and if you zip past them at the right speed, they barely register at all.

So, let’s have a last look at the credit and debit sheet. If you want finely-drawn characterisation, exquisite sentence creation and no Lolitas, then this is not the book for you. If you like clever plotting, pacy storytelling and enjoy satires, homages and parodies, then it’s well worth a try. But whatever you do, don’t let the hype guide you; no good will come of thinking Jonathan Franzen might have written this.

Crime Wave

A couple of crime fiction novels that I was sent for review.

The Death Season – Kate Ellis

the death seasonAlthough I hadn’t heard of her before, Kate Ellis is a seasoned writer with a long list of D. I. Wesley Peterson novels to her name. This is a police procedural series, set in Devon and featuring Wesley as that rare thing, a black face in a predominantly white and rural setting. The novel opens with the death of a hotel guest, stabbed in the head (beneath the wig he was wearing) by something very thin and very sharp. Not only is the victim travelling under a false name, his DNA links him to an old, cold case, the death of a 10-year-old girl at a local holiday camp back in 1979. Why might the dead man have returned to the scene of his crime, and who would still be around to remember him? At the same time this investigation is taking place, one of Wesley’s friends, archeologist Neil Watson is working on two digs in the local area, one the stately Paradise Court, the other Sandrock, a ruined village from the Second World War. Before long, evidence of foul play is found, and even though it dates from long before the era of Wesley’s current cases, we know from the teasing juxtaposition that somehow the stories will be linked.

When I first began this novel, I found the writing very plain and I wasn’t sure I would get along with it. It also employed the device of beginning each chapter with a brief excerpt taken from a diary dated back to the turn of the century. These were slowly unfolding a tale that would eventually solve the enigma of the excavations. It’s a device that remains very popular in genre fiction although I am tired of it myself. And yet, despite these uncertainties, I was drawn into the story thanks to Kate Ellis’s clever juggling of her plotlines and clear, swift exposition. Before long, it had become the book I kept hurrying back to whenever I had a moment. The ending was highly satisfying; clever, twisty, plausible for once, and it provided a moment of lovely echoing between the story in the present day and the one in the past. I finished it with a lot of admiration for the author’s plotting skills, and the certainty that I would read her novel again.

 

The Replacement – Patrick Redmond

the replacementNow this one was a psychological thriller that was all about the schadenfreude. In the opening prologue, something dreadful has happened to Caroline Randall’s family, bad enough that the press are baying at her gates and she is receiving ugly anonymous letters in the post. When we pick up the story proper, the Randalls are the envy of their local set, wealthy, handsome, and seemingly devoted. Robert and Caroline have grown-up non-identical twin sons, James and Tom, who are now working in the City but have returned to the family home to attend a charity event their mother has organised. Caroline lords it over their friends and neighbours, showing off her enviable family and pretty much tempting hubris in a way we know will incite meltdown.

As soon as we meet the family alone, it’s clear there are ugly fracture lines. James has always been the favoured son, and it’s not surprising; he’s clever, brave and kind, a good loyal boy who has worked hard to please his parents and who has always protected his twin. But far from feeling gratitude, Tom is nursing a deep and bitter resentment, the envy of the permanently overlooked and the compacted rage of the never-good-enough. Robert is a father who cannot help but compete with his sons, and Caroline is worryingly possessive.

Meanwhile in the rougher part of London, Stuart is an estate agent doing his best to get by. Stuart’s parents and his sister died in a car crash when he was only 13, and the attempt his uncle made to foster him went badly wrong. These days, Stuart doesn’t ask much from life, except that he might lose a few pounds by some miracle, keep his job and maybe one day earn a promotion. But maybe his luck is picking up – visiting his elderly grandmother in her nursing home, he becomes involved with one of the carers, and things quickly become serious. And then taking clients to view a flat, he realises that one of them is reacting to him very strangely, and before long, he’s been given a revelation that will change his life.

I don’t want to give any more away because Patrick Redmond employs a very clever twist that catalyses an intriguing and engrossing story. Again, the writing is competent, don’t expect anything more than that, but it gets out of the way and the dialogue is believable. It’s a story of goodies and baddies, but that’s okay too; Redmond uses his characters intelligently and we readers are poised on the edge of the story, waiting to see who might be corrupted and who might escape with sympathy intact. On the whole, the psychological manoevring is well done, and it’s only towards the end that one of the characters behaves in a way that might make your average psychopath think twice. It’s a story about insecurity, at basis, and how over time it can become poisonous, resulting in envy, resentment and a terrible urge to possess people in order to feel secure. I enjoyed it, and if you want a thriller to take on holiday, I would recommend this over The Girl in the Train any day.

 

Sisterhood of the World Q & A

The immensely talented and lovely Elle tagged me for this meme, which I was very happy to answer, given that I love the sisterhood. We need to stick together, my female friends.

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  1. What’s the best trait you’ve inherited from your parents?

I was going to say my work ethic, but thinking about it, my parents passed on their desire to be very supportive of family and friends and that’s probably worth more angel points.

 

  1. What fictional world would you live in if you could, and what character or position would you occupy within it.

I’d like to live in St Mary’s Mead, please, and be Miss Marple. I’m doing my best to train up for the role in later life, though at some point I’m going to have to tackle knitting. But I really want Dolly Bantry to be my best friend; she’s a hoot.

 

  1. In what situations, if at all, is it acceptable to talk through a movie?

I can think of plenty of movies I’ve been subjected to seeing by Mr Litlove that I easily could have talked through. Given a preference, I’d rather take a book along, if only someone would turn the lights up a bit.

 

  1. Do you think it is moral to have children?

I think it’s incredibly hard work to have children, and I think it’s a tougher job than one can ever imagine, childless, that parenting will be. I think it puts every part of your personality on trial, and will ultimately challenge many of the values you hold. You have to make a lot of sacrifices and do so willingly. So I don’t think I could ever say that people HAD to have them out of moral obligation. I think if you have them, you must do your very best by them, no matter what the circumstances. Once in situ, children force you to be moral, I think. (Though this does NOT mean that parents never behave badly, or that the childless are immoral. No. Only that children exert a certain pressure.)

 

  1. What is the unkindest thing you have ever done?

I wrote a post, The Lost Photo about this a while back. Read it and weep.

 

  1. What practical skill do you most wish you had?

I’d be happy to have any practical skills; I’m rather low on them. When I was younger, I would have liked to be able to draw. Now I’m older, I wish I were more green-fingered. I’d grow all my own vegetables if I had any talent for it.

 

  1. Tell us about an epiphany or “lightning bolt” moment in your life.

When I was about six months into my first ever job (marketing person for a book printers), the realisation was dawning that this was not for me. I did not like working for my bosses, I did not like keeping office hours, and I was frequently and deeply bored. And it occurred to me, that no one was forcing me to be here. It wasn’t like school or university where you have to hang on in there until the end. Now I was free to make different choices, change my mind, look for other jobs. Or indeed return to graduate studies. But what constituted the real lightning bolt was that work was a choice. So much of life you just have to put up with because you can’t do anything else. But work is not a prison; you can get up and leave. Sure you may have to take a pay cut, or move a rung down the ladder, or do some more training. I don’t think that’s a big deal, not when you consider that genuine freedom is at stake here.

 

  1. What is the first thing you do when you get home from work.

These days I work from home! When I was full time at college, it would be: feed the cat, feed the child, feed the husband. These days I only know I’m not working when I’m reading a book that doesn’t have to be read for review or research.

 

  1. How do you feel about writing in books.

I’m fine with it. I wrote in all my college books as that was how I kept track of my thoughts as I went along. I’d have been lost without those notes. Somehow, I can’t bring myself to write in books I’m reading for fun or reviewing for the blog. It doesn’t feel quite right, though I dog ear pages happily.

 

  1. Do you miss your hometown?

Colchester is a perfectly nice town, but I do prefer Cambridge.

Now at this point, I’m supposed to make up some questions and tag some bloggers. I’m going to do things a little differently by asking a few general questions about sisterhood that people can feel free to answer in the comments, or on their blog, or not at all. But they are questions whose responses I’m very interested in hearing.

1. What does the sisterhood mean to you, if anything?

2. Do you think women are still disadvantaged in the modern world? And if so, how?

3. Have you come across examples of ‘everyday sexism’ in your day to day life?

4. Which book would you most readily recommend as saying something important about women’s lives?

5. Supposing you and some female friends got together to create a publishing house that would be the new Virago. What sort of books would you publish?