Obsession With Words

obsession in deathWhen I accepted Obsession in Death by J. D. Robb to review for a blog tour, I had no idea that the author behind the series was actually Nora Roberts. The name J. D. Robb was vaguely familiar to me and I like crime fiction a lot, so I thought I’d give the book a try.

Nora Roberts, in case you are wondering, must be a candidate for the most prolific author of all time. Since she started writing in 1981, she has published well over 200 romance novels and just over 50 novels in the In Death series. Given that her early days were spent writing for Silhouette, it’s true that quite a few of those books are short. But even so, her annual output regularly reaches ten or more novels, which truly boggles the mind. Kind of makes you wonder what you’re doing with your life, doesn’t it? Apparently she writes eight hours a day every day, revises each manuscript three times and likes to write three romances in a row followed by three police procedurals, so as to linger a little in each fictional realm (rather than zip in and out in a fortnight, I presume). And she’s hugely successful – since 1999 every one of her novels has been on the New York Times bestseller list. Whatever you might think of such astounding output, Nora Roberts also wins the award for most philanthropic writer around, channelling a large cut of her earnings into charities for children, the arts and humanitarian aid.

I’m not sure whether it’s surprising or not that I couldn’t finish Obsession in Death. On the one hand, I love Agatha Christie and Lee Child, so I’m no stranger to the prolific author, and the premise for the book sounded intriguing enough. Robb’s police detective is NYPD superwoman, Eve Dallas, and in this outing she is called to the adroit killing of a high-profile criminal defence attorney, a woman with whom Dallas has clashed in court. The job looks neat and tidy enough to be professional, but an inked message on the wall above the body makes it personal. The killer is a self-confessed admirer of Eve Dallas, out to right the wrongs committed against her and clearly seeking her approval. Effectively it’s a serial killer who also happens to be a stalker, leaving dead bodies as love gifts. I thought this had plenty of pulpy potential, a swift easy read with a dash of sensationalism, a spritz of angst and plenty of headlong rushing towards an eleventh hour climax.

On the other hand, I had read a completely ruinous book before picking up Obsession in Death. One of those books that is so outrageously wonderful that everything else pales in comparison. It was Deborah Levy’s novella-length memoir, Things I Don’t Want To Know, written as a response to Orwell’s extended essay, Why I Write. It was devastatingly good. (And yes, I’ll review it soon, once I’ve got over it enough to write something sensible about it.) Undoubtedly that was a factor.

And whilst we’re on the other hand, I should also point out that nothing had warned me in advance that this would be a sci-fi series. Nothing on the blurb or the jacket cover, although the opening lines inform the reader that we’re in 2060. Which is a funny in-the-middle-of-nowhere time to pick, as it’s essentially a recognisable world with slightly different vocab and a few more gadgets. If I’d got further into the story, I would probably have discovered good reasons for the futuristic setting. But I didn’t so I can’t tell you what they were.

Then there’s the romance element. Apparently, Nora Roberts wanted to write in the manner of Mary Stewart, which is why she took on a pseudonym and began a crime series in the first place. It was a way of combining mystery and thriller writing with love stories. Well, by the time of this book, you may imagine that the relationship between Eve Dallas and her now husband, Roarke, is pretty well advanced. Roarke used to be a criminal, but now he simply runs his multi-billion company and helps out with Eve’s cases when she lets him for the fun of experiencing the other side. He is tall, dark and handsome, quite possibly the richest man on the planet, and utterly devoted to Eve. In the opening sections of the story when Eve returns home after a tough day, having forgotten she’s supposed to attend a social function with Roarke, he cancels for both of them and stays home so he can rub Eve’s shoulders and program her dinner into whatever command central produces meals in 2060. He is perfect. It was probably mostly due to Roarke that I gave up about 130 pages in. I just couldn’t stomach him.

It was a perplexing book. The situations were interesting, the characters okay, the dialogue felt natural, there ought to have been all sorts of enticing subplots opening up. But I struggled to get engaged with it at all, felt the crime was approached in a very superficial way and the investigation was flat and forced. I really wanted to like it – how great to enjoy a book in a series and realise you have another 49 to catch up on! But indifference and the press of other books to read meant we parted ways. Fortunately, Nora Roberts does not need my good opinion, nor the royalties from my sales. But if this novel appeals to you, do give it a try; it probably fell into my hands at the wrong moment.

WEEK 2 BLOG TOUR POSTER (2 of 2)

Writer Beware Writer

Ever since Dan Brown did his best to convince us that a Harvard professor of symbology could be an action hero, thrillers have moved into some unusual territories. Those of us crying out for the directions to the nearest library now turn out to have deeper and darker motives than you’d think possible. I was entertained lately by both Philip Kerr’s Research and Robert Galbraith’s (aka…oh you know don’t you) The Silkworm, books set fully within the world of publishing, where the authors had a great deal of fun at the cost of their profession’s integrity. Readers are more than welcome to join the party, but only if they suspend reality first.

researchPhilip Kerr’s Research opens with a shocking item on the news: it seems that multimillionaire author, John Huston, has shot his wife, Orla, and done a bunk from their luxury appartment in Monaco. Alerted to the news is struggling author, Don Irvine, who knows Huston better than most, given that he wrote a significant chunk of his novels. For Huston, ex-advertising copywriter and business mastermind, used to run what he called an ‘atelier’, a clutch of ghost writers to whom he would send out 70-page synopses, full of technical detail, to have them transformed into blockbusters. John is a man who can’t be bothered with the actual tedium of writing, and who saw from his first contract that there was serious money to be made if it were possible to produce generic fiction at a superhuman rate. Don was the first ghost he hired, and he used to do very well out of it, although he was paid a tiny fraction of the money that Houston glories in.

Then John Huston had an awkward turnaround; he decided he wanted to write something more literary and was tired of the treadmill of his empire. The atelier was disbanded and the men he employed were forced back on their own (literary) devices. When the news of Orla’s shooting reaches the papers, Don is dragged to lunch with the rest of the gang, all embittered, angry men who are delighted to witness Huston’s fall from grace. It makes a pleasant change from staring at computer screens, unable to come up with the plot that was John’s particular genius. (‘Being a published writer is a bit like what Schopenhauer says about life itself: non-existence is our natural condition.’) Don among them seems more loyal and forgiving towards their old boss. In fact, he’s expecting a call for rescue from him at any moment, and when it comes, the men team up in a race across the Riviera, trying to outwit justice. Or maybe, Don is trying to reach some unusual justice of his own.

The engine of the plot is rage and envy inspired in men by other men who earn a great deal more money. It’s structure is a two-handed narrative, as Don and John carry the story in turns, the better to twist and fool the reader. And the pleasures along the way are all about the ill-feeling that exists between genre and literary fiction. Huston’s brief to his atelier writers tells them:

If you want your novel to be a page-turner then make clichés your friends. Clichés – the kind of writing that Martin Amis makes war on – are the verbal particle accelerators to finishing books. Original writing just slows a reader down and makes him feel inadequate. Like he’s thick. Which of course he is but there’s no sense in rubbing that in. My readers actually approve of clichés.’

It’s a very funny book – you can’t help but laugh at the wall-to-wall satire – and it’s very slick. Though you get an ever clearer idea of where it’s headed the further through you get and the ending is not quite the exultant climax I was expecting. But it falls into the category of very pleasurable hokum.

 

the silkwormThe Silkworm is a strangely woven beast. Hold it up to the light one way and it’s dark, violent and grotesque; hold it up the other and it’s light, fun and entertaining. Essentially I think it’s written in Rowling’s easy, affable style, but inside her lurks the soul of a 10-year-old boy who is fascinated with everything disgusting and scatalogical (even the bit-part defunct cat is called Mr Poop).

Once again we have an author gone missing, but Owen Quine operates at the far end of the scale from John Huston. He writes revolting and perverse books of dubious literary merit that hardly anyone ever reads. Only when his body is found, murdered in the most ghastly circumstances, the motive seems to lie in his most recent book. In it Quine has taken revenge for all his perceived slights by portraying in ornately disguised fashion, his agent, his editor, his wife, his lover and his great literary rival. Having just written that sentence I suddenly wonder whether Peter Greenaway was a muse for Robert Galbraith; it’s plausible. Anyway, this part-disguise is in fact all about revealing terrible secrets concerning the above cast, things that they did not want the general public to know. Although the book is only in manuscript form, it’s managed to more or less do the rounds of the literary fraternity in London and so the possible suspects for the murder are legion.

Called upon in the first instance to find the missing Quine, is private investigator Cormoran Strike, the Rubeus Hagrid of gumshoes. A giant of a man but far from gentle, Strike wears his ex-military career in the form of a prosthetic leg, victim of a bombing in Afghanistan. Before we go any further, I would like to issue a plea to get that man’s prothesis sorted out. It’s clearly not doing the job, and I lost count of the times we are invited to be moved to sympathy because of it. I began to have fantasies about creating a detective who got the job done with tact and understanding; who realised the value of good contacts and used them, whose main skills lay in disarming and charming suspects and who looked after himself really, really well. But I forgave Cormoran because I like his secretary so much, the pretty and resourceful Robin who longs to be a detective herself. They make a good pairing.

The inadvertent pleasures of the book are to be found, again, in a slicing and dicing of the literary world, its greeds and envies and duplicities. Though really, Galbraith has more interesting and unusual things to say on the paradoxes of love. This is a long book, almost 600 pages, and its characters are for the most part unlikeable and unlikely, but the plotting is strong and sure-footed and the ending is cleverly done.

Robert Galbraith and Philip Kerr agree wholeheartedly that when writing about writers, it’s the compacted mass of dangerous emotions provoked by the desire to be validated through art that causes all the trouble. Writers, beware. And in both books the expletive count was astronomical. Readers beware. In Kerr this felt like parody, in Galbraith like overcompensation. Doesn’t everybody believe that writers are rough, tough stuff, just full to the brim of murderous violence?

Issue 4 Goes Live

 

And indeed, we are live…!

SNB-logoIssue 4 of Shiny New Books is now available for your delectation. To help you get started here are a few of my favourite reviews written by people other than myself!

Fiction

Harriet’s review of Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

David Hebblethwaite’s review of Bilbao-New York-Bilboa by Kirmen Uribe

Rebecca Foster’s review of Some Luck by Jane Smiley

 

Non-Fiction

Jenny’s review of In These Times; Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars by Jenny Uglow

Rebecca Hussey’s review of Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Annabel’s review of Armchair Nation; An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV by Joe Moran

 

Reprints

Simon’s review of Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf

Lory Widmer Hess’s review of The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam

Karen Langley’s review of In The Twilight by Anton Chekhov

 

BookBuzz

Neil Ansell’s article: The Art of Memoir and Narrative Non-Fiction

Michelle Bailat-Jones’ article: On Writing Fog Island Mountains

Marilyn Dell Brady’s article: Reading Diversity

 

I could have picked so many more, but for now: Enjoy!

The Widow’s Confession

widow's confessionI’ve had a horrid cold all week and so I’m very glad that someone else is doing the heavy lifting in today’s blog post. Sophia Tobin is the author of The Widow’s Confession, a gorgeously-wrought Gothic novel set in 1851 in Broadstairs on the Kentish coast. American cousins, Delphine and Julia have settled there for the summer; they have a peripatetic life, running from a troubled past, and they believe that this charming sea-bathing resort is somewhere safe to hide. But they get drawn in to a circle of summer visitors, including a wayward artist, a staid doctor of psychology and an exquisitely beautiful young woman and her older chaperone. Then the body of a girl washes up on the beach, the catalyst for any number of secrets to be shaken loose. I’ll be reviewing this novel in more detail in the next edition of Shiny New Books, but for now I’ll say that it’s beautifully written, and the evocation of a heavy, menacing atmosphere is as close to Daphne du Maurier as I’ve read in a long time. Sophia kindly answered the following questions:

tobin_sophia_13017_2_3001. I found the two American cousins very evocative and enigmatic characters – what was your inspiration for their part of the story?

It was important to me that they are outsiders, and I was really interested in contrasting the American character with the English; it provides a note of tension, and gives Delphine and Julia some leeway to act differently (and get away with it). Also, I’ve always loved the writing of Edith Wharton and the way she portrays New York as a kind of hothouse of wealth and luxury at the turn of the century. I wanted to give Delphine and Julia a hint of that same decadence, so I researched the New York social scene of the 1830s and 40s.

2. This is a very gothic novel, with all sorts of elements of melodrama, religious obsession and stifled passion. Do you think those elements naturally belong in historical fiction? Would you ever write a contemporary tale involving them?

I think there’s room for those elements in novels set at any time, but there is a particular atmosphere about the Victorian period that makes it the perfect setting for them. It was a time when people felt very insecure – there’d been rapid industrialisation, home was separating from work and being idealized (hence the ‘angel in the house’ idea of the perfect wife gaining credence at this time) and there was a great deal of turmoil over religion and its dialogue with science. I think people were very afraid, and it was having a stifling effect on their lives. Once you have those kind of pressures on you, there’s room for drama.

I would certainly love to write a contemporary tale featuring them, but the right idea hasn’t turned up yet. Every time I try to write something set in the present day, the words ‘it was 1851…’ or something similar come out of my pen.

3. I was really pleased that you managed to create a ‘forceful’ character in Delphine who is not an anachronism. Did you feel pressurized at all to produce strong female leads?

I’m really glad you felt that, because I felt I was walking a tightrope with Delphine. I wanted to portray someone who was strong enough to survive great difficulties, whilst also showing just how hard it was for her to be strong, not only because of societal pressures, but also because of her own vulnerabilities.

I didn’t feel any external pressure to create a strong female lead, but my last main character, Mary in The Silversmith’s Wife, was someone who was quite delicate; she had been shattered by the events of her life and had to recover from that. So, having been through the emotional wringer with her, I was ready to write someone a bit tougher.

4. Have you imagined the characters beyond the relatively happy ending of the story? Do you think their marriages will work?

I don’t want to be too specific, because I might give the ending away! Yes, I do imagine them afterwards, definitely. I think that life will throw challenges at them, but they deserve to be happy.

5. This is your second novel (after The Silversmith’s Wife). Was it easy to write or is it true what people say about second novels and the challenge they present?

I think the difficulty with a second book is mastering your own doubts and worries – all the little gremlin voices saying ‘will it be as good as the first?’ On the other hand, you do know that you can write a book – because you’ve already done it once. Also, I learnt a huge amount from writing the first book, and from being edited. That experience helped me with structuring the book and knowing what to push forward with when I was writing, and what to throw away.

I wrote the second book in a much shorter time period than the first, which was a pressure but also a motivation. Every evening, it was just me and the book: it was extremely intense, and I felt as though I was living it as I was writing it.

6. What brought you to writing fiction in the first place?

I’ve always loved stories, and I’ve always loved books. But I think a big influence was a particular incident in my childhood. I was seven years old and I wrote a poem about a play which had been put on at our school. The pivotal moment was watching my teacher’s face as she read it. There was some indefinable quality in her expression which made me realize that she liked it. That’s what I want to inspire in my readers. The poem ended up being printed (another pivotal moment!) and I still have it somewhere.

After that I always wrote, and I always wanted to be a writer, but it was a private thing; I wrote on my own, and I didn’t talk about it. Life carried on and it was over twenty years before I decided I should just go ahead and see if I could write a book or not.

7. Who are your inspirational authors?

There are so many. I’ve read and loved Hilary Mantel’s work for years. Michel Faber, who wrote The Crimson Petal and the White, is brilliant. Other favourites include: Daphne du Maurier, E.M. Forster and, of course, Jane Austen. I grew up reading nineteenth-century writers so I’m very much at home with them.

8. And what are you reading at the moment?

I have an enormous pile of books on Georgian society to read as research for my third book, but I’m also reading Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym. The writing is so full of warmth and wit, you feel as though you’re being lulled by it and then suddenly there’s a little dig, razor sharp; I love it.

widow's confession blog tour graphics (2)