Friday, 23 November 2012

SAS man hits the high street | Theo Knell struggles to adjust

If there is ever an invasion.... I want TheoKnell on my side.

Theo served with the British Army, including the SAS, for 22 years. A Hell for Heroes is his attempt to give an honest account of army life and very importantly, life after the army.

It’s a fascinating read, warts and all – covering service in Ireland and Africa - which will leave you with deep respect for the military. Even Paras puke with fear, but they jump just the same.

People like Theo are fitter, tougher and more capable than 99% of civilians could ever be. They can load weapons under fire, run 40 miles, cure a village of dysentery and perform surgery, as and when required.  

But when they are thrown out into Civvy Street, all the structure, camaraderie and usefulness is gone, leaving a terrible vacuum.

For Theo, that was when the nightmare of post-traumatic stress disorder began. He found it hard to land even the most menial of jobs: a leader of men it took him years to find his feet. He urges the services to do more to make the transition from military life to civilian life better. They should.

CJ Sansom | Dominion | Nazis in Great Britain

He is best known for his historical detective series starring the Tudor hunchback, Shardlake – think Wolf Hall crossed with Inspector Morse. But with Dominion, CJ Sansom takes history by the neck and sends it flying. “What if,” he’s asking, “Germany hadn’t lost the war?”

We’ve been here before. The author has already highlighted two influences in Len Deighton’s SS-GB and Robert Harris’ Fatherland. But Sansom has a different approach and the result is a highly entertaining, thought-provoking page-turner.

His scenario is that when Chamberlain resigns as PM in 1940, Churchill is sidelined. Winston wasn’t really the favourite at the time, so perhaps it isn’t that big a stretch to imagine Lord Halifax, the senior Tory, squeezing him out. Sansom argues in a lengthy historical note at the back of the book, that had this happened Britain would have likely sued for peace and learned to live with the Nazis.

The consequences of this become clear as we flash forward to a fictional 1952, where Sansom weaves a story of resistance fighters, spies and Gestapo detectives. It hangs together, just about, and certainly kept me gripped. There’s a large cast, but it is handled well, with plenty of time taken to make you care about each character, just enough. Sansom manages another trick too: he is able to remind you why Nazis are so scary 
– capturing both their deranged logic, and their cruelty – while avoiding the worst stereotypes.

He’s clearly done his research: barely a page goes by without some sort of clever twist on reality. The newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook has become a Nazi-sympathising PM, Enoch Powell is in the Indian Office, the fascist leader Oswald Mosley – who in reality spent the war in prison – in the Home Office.

As a Scot, Sansom saves some of his most vitriolic contempt for the Scottish Nationalists – having one character note how they voted against conscription at the start of WW2 – which they did, in 1939. And in his lengthy historical note he brands the SNP “dangerous... shrewd political manipulators”, an outburst that has already earned him column inches north of the border.

Actually, I thought at times the author dwelt a little too much on his re-writing of history, allowing his characters to discuss events a bit too often. But the plotting is both complex and well paced. Yes, there’s a sort of ITV drama feel – perhaps because the prose comes without F or C-words, explicit sex scenes and the violence is never overwhelming. In fact, everything is somehow quite proper, like a 1950s black and white movie. But that will only help it, deservedly, find a big audience.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Tulisa Honest My Story So Far | Celebrity Biographies, two for a pound | Oh no, it's Christmas

You can tell it’s getting close to Christmas from the glossy tell-alls piling up in the shops. Out of the current top ten hardback non-fiction chart no fewer than six titles are celebrity memoirs.

Getting well groomed, expensively dressed actor and singer types to turn up at the annual staff barbecue is a nice bonus for publishers, but the real reason these books exist is that folks like Cheryl Cole have the kinds of fanbases mere fiction authors can only dream of.

Consider: 12 million people watch The X-Factor. So if just ten percent stumble into a shop and accidentally buy Tulisa’s new book... kerching!

Be warned though. Sleb books (as I shall now irritate you by calling them) come in two broad categories. There is highly rare but prized “great story involving a Sleb”. Remember Richard Hammond from Top Gear writing about the crash that nearly killed him? Corking stuff. Sold a shed-load. But the follow up in which he mused about stunt biker Eval didn’t.

Which brings us to the common or garden “Sleb in search of a story, any story”.

Take Miranda Hart for instance. If you love her BBC1 comedy series, ahem, Miranda, and many apparently do, then I guess you might well get a kick from Is It Just Me? in which said famously tall person discusses life themes with her 18 year old self. (Yup. She really does.)

Literary types might suspect the well-educated Ms Hart (she went to boarding school and played Lacrosse) is channelling not just the classic dialogues of Plato and Aristotle, but also Tristram Shandy, the celebrated 18th century meta-novel which spends most of its time worrying about how to begin. She even addresses us as My Dear Reader Chum or MDRC for short. But ol’ Shandy just wasn’t as “hilaire”, a term that crops up a lot, as ol’ Miranda.

A lot of Hart’s comedy is based on embarrassment, but the embarrassment that oozed from these pages was that of an otherwise talented performer and writer who had a highly lucrative contract to deliver a book when she had very little to put in it.

Perhaps Miranda is too young, at 37, to have a proper biography or a memoir in her. But then there’s Tulisa, who has just published Honest at the grand old age of 24. And it’s packed with... stuff. No Lacrosse jolly sticks here: Tulisa grew up in gritty North West London, lost her virginity at 14, and was a pop star about five minutes later. She likes to “get up to mischief”, a phrase she actually uses, and the detail, as you would expect, is fairly intense: “Chapter Five: After my success in Bugsy Malone at primary school, I was determined that I would become a recording artist.” Gasp.

High points include going to a strip club with her non-boyfriend record producer (“Of course, the press were all over it”) and how she never slept with Mark Wright from The Only Way is Essex (“Why is it that I can’t be friendly, or even a bit of a flirt with a guy without everyone presuming I banged him?”)

Saturday night TV fans will note that Tulisa is up against Strictly Come Dancing’s Bruno Tonioli, not only as judges on rival shows but on the bookstand, which brings me to one of the few genuinely good reasons to buy Sleb books: embarrassing pictures of the subject’s youth.

Bruno’s pics are particularly hilaire: as a toddler he was clearly rescued from the Italian version of The Addams Family and as a teenager from the Italian version of The Breakfast Club. You’ve never seen so much hair and teeth. Or man nipple. But the actual content? How can I break it to you darling? You write like a moose... doing a tango... wearing a swimsuit... on its head. Pass the sickbag.

Monday, 5 November 2012

JK Rowling | Lennoxlove book fest

So I'd actually booked tickets to go to Lennoxlove for the JK Rowling event. The main tent, where JK was appearing, was sold out, but they had a cheaper ticket for another marquee where the interview would be streamed live. So I bought a pair for Carmen and I.

Yes, we're Harry Potter fans, and as writers we were both extremely interested in what Rowling was up to writing a grown up book about ....

Well at the time we didn't know what it was about. This was back in September, or August, and The Casual Vacancy was still a mystery. Actually, most of us hoped it would be a mystery. What we got instead was a highly serious, literary novel with a million different characters which was funny in parts, impressive in parts, emotional in parts, but hard to like.

Anyways, we were resigned to being in the satellite tent when Carmen's sister got in touch. Would we like VIP tickets?

Turns out a business contact of hers had sponsored the book festival and had a handful of spare tickets. Two to be precise. Carmen's sister was booked to do something else that night, but the contact was happy with the idea of us going.

I really enjoyed myself. Rowling is a highly polished speaker and in person, at a literary event -- and, admittedly, with an interviewer who couldn't have fawned more (Muriel Gray, take a bow, you are in Hufflepuff) -- she comes across as far more relaxed and humane than she ever does on TV.

She has a wicked, almost boozy laugh, too, which was put to good use on discussion of the stronger launguage in the book. Telling one woman that she should "reclaim that word" -- the c-word -- because it is, after all, a reference to part of a woman's body. Also she spoke very passionately about the politics of the book. And she kept the Daily Mail jibes to a minimum, which was probably a good idea. Because by the look of the audience almost all of them were Daily Mail readers.

Actually, the audience was very sweet. Refined certainly -- a cut above that crowd who go to Edinburgh book fest -- and we did have a Duke at the next table during dinner. The Duke, it was his house, you see. But I found the people I spoke to very entertaining.

Lennoxlove is a terrific venue, actually. Small and intimate, but stunning visually. I'd definitely try to go again.

Robyn Young on Robert the Bruce and Scottish independence from England

I really enjoyed my recent interview with Robyn Young.

There's a lot to admire about an author who stuck with it, for so long, in order to get her first book published. Seven years, and as she put it, countless re-writes.

Eventually she found an agent and eventually she and that agent were able to get a small huddle of publishers interested. Her recent book, Renegade, part two in her second trilogy -- this one is about Robert the Bruce -- was a top ten hardback bestseller. Her books also sell round the world. So it makes you wonder what the problem was -- why did it take so long to get one publisher to back her with her first book, Brethren?

Well, sometimes it just does that's all. I know from personal experience how many times you can redraft a book, how you can take a manuscript that you thought was done and improve it in ways you never thought possible. Interestingly, Robyn changed the narrative point of view -- I think twice -- taking an MS that was at one point told in the first person into the third person.

These technical things make a huge difference to the reader's experience and to the kind of market you can reach. Young's books are "mainstream historical fiction". they appeal to Bernard Cornwell fans. I actually prefer her writing to Cornwell's.

Here's the interview that appeared recently in Big Issue:

The best historical fiction doesn’t just recreate the past, it speaks to the present. Robyn Young has the knack of finding subjects that resonate. Her debut trilogy – Brethren, Crusade and Requiem –told the story of a young Templar knight while offering a startlingly fresh view of Christian-Islam relations in the 13th and 14th centuries – just as 9/11 threatened our own 21st century safety.

Young is currently deep into her second trilogy – and this time her concerns are closer to home. The action is centred not on Accra and the Middle East but on Scotland and its wars for independence, just as talk builds of a referendum north of the border.

Insurrection and the just released Renegade follow the controversial career of Robert the Bruce: King, warrior, turncoat and/or murderer, depending on your point of view.

“I was in Scotland doing research for Requiem, in which I thought Bruce and William Wallace would have their part to play,” Young explains. “But the moment I started looking in-depth into Robert’s story, I realised a sub-plot in a story about the Templars and their downfall would not do it justice.”

Young has since retraced Bruce’s steps from the remotest parts of the Highlands and Islands, to battle sites like Caerlaverock Castle near Dumfries in the south.

“Wallace’s story is simpler, more black and white,” she notes. “But Bruce’s is so complex, convoluted and shifting in terms of his allegiances -- I couldn’t have conveyed all of that in the earlier book.”

So compared to the hero Wallace, lionised by Mel Gibson, does Bruce gets a bad press? “He gets really short-changed in the film Braveheart,” Young says. “It narrows his story down to a very simplistic role. But he was far more complex than a Hollywood film can portray. I don’t know how you’d even begin to fit Robert into a movie.”

Part of the Bruce appeal was undoubtedly the novelty. Born and educated in England Young admits she was completely unaware of his part in British history – it wasn’t on the syllabus at school when she sat her History GCSE, and she isn’t a formally “trained” historian. As she conducted her research, she quickly found herself transfixed.

“I got the sense not just of how important it was for Scotland but for Britain as a whole,” she says. “And I wanted to convey the many crossovers and similarities there were between the kingdoms – as well as the differences. There were marriages and relationships that crossed the border. On the ground, the armies weren’t Scots v English, it was more mixed up.”

So are their parallels with the current debate about Scottish nationalism? “Doing the research makes me understand why there is such a strength of feeling behind Scottish nationalism. But my own family goes back to Scotland, Ireland and Wales more than England. I’m English but I think of myself as British and I would like to see us stay together.”

The thrust of Renegade is the English King Edward I’s attempts to gather together the Scottish Stone of Scone, the English Sword Curtana, the Crown of Arthur from Wales, and from Ireland, the Staff of Malachy. This is a delightful McGuffin, which not only drives the action but is placed on sound historical evidence.

“At a point in 1307 just before Edward I’s death, there is an odd little reference in history that the Prophecies of Merlin were being re-told throughout the land so that when the covetous old king dies, Britain will live together in harmony,” Young explains.

“We know Edward definitely owned a copy of Prophecies of Merlin, and then you look at what he did – in taking the crown of Arthur from Wales and the Stone of Scone from Scotland. I read about this early on in my research and just went with it. But whether he believed in it himself or whether it was all clever propaganda I don’t know.”

The Stone of Scone of course was returned to Edinburgh in 1996, a year before a referendum gave the Scots their own parliament. But who believes in Merlin nowadays?

Patrick Leigh Fermor | A Time Of Gifts | Mr Foote's Other Leg

These days, “adventurous” is buying an airline ticket and Skyping home to mum from a Thai beach bar. For Patrick Leigh Fermor, “adventurous” was flunking school and heading off, aged 18, to walk across Europe on a pound a week. No iPhone for him, it was 1934, and the journey took him a year.

He ended up in Greece, but when WW2 began dashed back to join the Irish Guards, because he thought if he was going to die he might as well have an attractive uniform. When he missed out on a commission he grudgingly accepted a transfer to the Intelligence Corps.

But Fermor was an extraordinary individual: outgoing, widely read, good with languages. His walk across Europe, “from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople”, immortalised in the much lauded travelogue A Time Of Gifts (1977), had broadened his horizons and formed his life view and he turned out to be a brilliant wartime agent.

The SOE sent him to Nazi occupied Crete where, for almost two years, he led a group of resistance fighters. Apparently he was one of several classical scholars working there – a knowledge of ancient Greek seen as a shortcut to the modern language.

Later, he was awarded the DSO for a daring mission in which he kidnapped a Nazi general and smuggled him off the island. He even left a note in the man’s car making it clear that it had been a British operation, signing it PM Leigh Fermor, Maj, O.C. Commando. In peacetime, his activities on the island earned him a “blood vendetta” from those who blamed him for terrible Nazi reprisals. And yet he carried on living on Crete for most of his life.

When he died last year at the grand old age of 96, Fermor was fittingly described as a cross between “Indiana Jones, James Bond and Grahame Greene.” Artemis Cooper’s excellent, un-put-downable biography of lives up to this mix and offers a third person viewpoint Fermor’s own books, by definition, lack. She is lucky in her subject, not just because his life is littered with famous connections – the Sitwells, Lauren Van Der Post, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – but because even from birth Fermor’s circumstances were extraordinary, and his attitude to life formidable. He loved to party, drank like a fish and squeezed the maximum from life.

While Fermor was famous for crossing Europe on foot, Samuel Foote was famous for having just one foot – he lost one in a riding accident. I’ve been relishing Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, about this once-celebrated 18th century actor, comedian, true crime author and friend to Princes.

Like Oscar Wilde in a later era, Foote was said to be the wittiest, most famous man in London, at a time when a clever remark in a coffee house was the equivalent of appearing on Radio 4 or getting a million followers on Twitter.

He made his name with a scandalous pamphlet describing how one of his uncles killed another in an argument over a will – a long running family dispute Dickens is said to have used as the basis of the interminable legal case Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Bleak House. Then he traded on his fame by taking to the stage.

But rather like Wilde, Foote was brought low by the scandalous suggestion that he was homosexual. For a 21st century reader, the transcripts from the court case are shocking and yet also, strangely hilarious. Foote might have recovered from the scandal, but according to Kelly his bitterness and wit got the better for him. He was ruined, forgotten and died, his one remaining foot in his mouth.

This review appeared in The Big Issue

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

JK Rowling | Marian Keyes | Middle Class angst

This book review is middle class because it feels awkward and insecure. (There’s something I can’t say, but I may put it on the agenda for the parish council.)

Marian Keyes makes a fine point near the beginning of hugely entertaining and often very moving The Mystery of Mercy Close. The Walshes, she explains, didn’t trust “the outside”, “especially because the lead on the telly didn’t stretch that far”. And yet her new boyfriend Artie’s family can happily sit outside of an evening, doing a jigsaw while drinking homemade valerian tea.

Whatever valerian tea is.

Keyes’ book is beautifully judged and extremely funny. A regular number one bestseller, her popularity doesn’t rest on an ability to make you laugh but on the fact her jokes pack a huge heavyweight emotional punch. It comes here as she explores her lead character’s suicidal tendencies. Keyes has herself suffered from depression and you sense her honesty.

Set in contemporary Dublin, this is a timely reminder of the hellish reality of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy. Helen Walsh is a private investigator, yes really, who was laughing back in the day when everyone carried a thousand euro handbag and got their husband followed. But Helen’s flat has been repossessed and she’s now living with mum and dad.

Yet her mother insists the Walshes are middle class. It seems the quest for social identity exists everywhere, not least in my loo where I have installed a very funny little hardback: The Art of Being Middle Class.
The average “MC” person lives in a “constant state of insecurity” unsure of their “tastes, pre-occupations, behaviours and sensibilities”, its authors inform me while offering expert guidance on “How to behave in a gastro pub”, “The proper position of a waistband”  and “Real gravy – the dinner party weapon”.

Dinner parties are a staple of JK Rowling’s first book for grown-ups, The Casual Vacancy. Or Mugglemarch, as Britain’s fastest selling book has been unkindly, but perhaps not unjustly described.

Samantha Mollison the owner of an outsized lingerie shop in nearby Yarvil, is a terrible cook and her casserole goes uneaten by her guests, so she gulps down a bottle of wine and says horrible things to wind up Kay, the social worker who has moved to Pagford from London in order to pursue her relationship with Gavin, a solicitor, who was born with two cold feet. Kay was quite flattered by the way Gavin didn’t bother to set the table while preparing a quick spaghetti Bolognese. And so on.

While Keyes’ novel belongs to the moment, for all its social realism and much talked about satire Rowling’s exists in a strange sort of a bubble. With its snobby bourgeoisie and its desperate underclass, Pagford is a made up everytown – JK herself has likened it to Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire. And yet, no one there ever seems to watch much telly or care about the football score.

While the Potter novels are told clearly and consistently from Harry’s point of view, the Pagford pantomime is played out with a cast of what feels like dozens. Many literary novels do this. Few are any good. And The Casual Vacancy is a slow trudge for the first half. (She is clearly besotted with her characters and regularly uses parenthesis, like this one, to cram in extra detail).

And inner monologue, like this.

It does eventually pick up speed and yes of course, she draws you in before providing an emotional, and quite shocking pay off. But it is bleak. This is the world of the Durlseys, with Harry/Barry dead in the first few pages. And the reason why I’m feeling so awkward and middle class about it? I didn’t like it that much.

Monday, 1 October 2012

The Return of Captain John Emmett | Elizabeth Speller

This book was recommended to me. I'd completely missed it when it came out, even though it made the Richard and Judy list in 2011.

Richard, in the podcast for it, pithily describes it as a 'rattling good yarn'. It is. Speller's book is hugely enjoyable. Extremely evocative of the era -- the early 1920s, as Europe still struggles to recover from WW1 -- it manages a neat balance. Essentially this is a thriller, and quite a fanciful one at that. And yet it doesn't appear to be this at all, more  a lament, and a love story, for a generation lost.

There are echoes of Le Carre. Laurence Bartram is asked, by the man's attractive younger sister, to investigate the last months of the life of an old school friend, John Emmett, who has apparently killed himself. Gradually he pieces together Emmett's state of mind and in so doing Speller reveals some of the Great War's true horrors.

Speller is described as a poet and her prose is certainly of the highest calibre. As if every sentence has been pored over. And of course she is clearly highly knowledgeable about the First World War poets, those tragic young men who composed beautiful stanzas in the trenches. Those men certainly inform this novel.

I described it as fanciful: the plot grows and grows and takes twists that's more boy's own than you might expect. It's a hugely enjoyable journey. I scratched my head a fair bit over the character of Charlie -- who really did seem to be there to perform the function of a between the wars Google. If Laurie ever wanted to find out about someone in the military, he'd mention the name to Charlie and pop, up would come an address. Perhaps it worked that way. The old boys network. But it is certainly convenient for the plot.

That said, I found it extremely satisfying and I was intrigued by the portrait of the women. Contrasting portraits -- the radical former nurse and the stoic sister. A period when attitudes were changing, clearly.

The Return of Captain John Emmett on Amazon. But available elsewhere. There's a follow up too: The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Nemesis | Philip Roth, wine and free books

Nemesis proved to be one of those books we were all able to agree on. Well, almost. Before George jumps in and accuses me of re writing history again not everyone was UTTERLY BOWLED OVER BY HOW WONDERFUL IT IS. George has doubts about the mid section. Doubting George. Always picking holes. Just because NOT EVERYONE IS BARBARA KINGSOLVER.

The evening was noteworthy in a number of ways. The location was shifted to MY HOUSE, where the red wine flowed like a fast flowing river flowing in a fast flowing way. I drank a bucket load and spent the next day groaning. I stopped groaning about four o'clock in the afternoon. By this time I couldn't remember the evening before. Not clearly enough to write a summary that is.

So, I had to go back to the CCTV footage. Carmen and I installed the CCTV system years and years ago when we were refurbishing the house. It has proven extremely useful as a means of tracing bunches of keys, shoes, children and various rubber instruments.

Arabella "I brought a bag"

This image reminded me that the purpose of the Fergus Drive location was to get rid of some books. But hey, Arabella, if you also need a mini fridge, go for it.

Mark goes in search of the loo

We waded through a lot of books. Most "were rubbish" and are therefore "still on my floor". The Winnie the Pooh erotica has disappeared. I think Martin had it in his pocket as he climbed, or was that more of a stagger, into his taxi at 3am.

Personally I think you missed some real gems. Embossed covers and everything. You will regret leaving those Reginald Hills behind, you know you will.

I hadn't finished Nemesis by the time of the meeting, so wasn't able to get stuck in to WHAT IT ALL MEANT and the IMPORTANCE OF GUILT as a theme, but I've added some thoughts in a blog below, should you want to wade through them. I did finish the book and LOVED IT. Roth is a genius. He is who I want to be when I grow old.

I should add, the quality of discussion amongst the group was particularly high. From Mark's extensive quoting of Latin to Martin's re-enactment of the first act of Hamlet, in which he played the Danish Queen Gertrude, were only two of the highlights. When Cathy offered to dissect our family dog I thought at first she was kidding.

Sadly neither John or Lisa were able to make Wednesday's lushfest. John was prowling the night cityscape taking photographs of the underside of motorways, while Lisa had a prebooking to play the ukelele. There are times when I wish I could make stuff like this up, but it is in fact true.

I should report that the Group had two special guests. Carmen Reid, celebrity author, occasional mother and the TALLEST PERSON PRESENT, sat in on most of the evening, helping with the wine lake.

And Jimmy, the Jack Russell, also made his presence felt before the heat of the fire, or possibly the intellectual rigour of the conversation, finally drove him to the back sitting room. Where he lay in front of the TV clearly wishing we'd turn it on so he could watch Top Gear, as he usually does on a Wednesday night.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Philip Roth | Nemesis | Polio epidemic, guilt and nostalgia

Roth is known for writing magically precise books. Prose that is as polished as the brass railings on an old style fire truck. Nemesis is a gem.

Short, about 230 pages, you'll breeze through this in a couple of sittings. Not just because of the word length but because the narrative is so seamless.

This is one of the most assured storytellers writing today. Roth begins with a factual account of how the Polio epidemic first hit the Newark area in the summer of 1944, before zooming in on the main subject of his novel, Bucky Cantor. Athletic, pure of heart, hard working. Cantor is a physical education teacher and a playground instructor. He loves teaching sports to young boys, seeing them evolve into men. An accomplished diver with a powerful physique, Bucky is however devastated when his poor eyesight prevents him from joining the Marines to serve in WW2. His two best friends head to Europe for the D Day landings. Bucky teaches baseball. Then the illness takes grip.

Roth is writing about his childhood here, about an epidemic many will have forgotten. Polio was defeated in the 1950s, but too late for the thousands who succumbed to it in the early part of the 20th century. It spreads around Newark like a plague. People are in a panic.

Bucky stands tall. He lends support. He encourages the kids to keep playing. Not to worry. But his girlfriend is desperately afraid for him and engineers a job offer -- a chance to get out of Newark, and away from the plague. He is determined to turn it down, but his desire to see her, to have a happy life, takes over. He takes the job. He heads to the mountains.

We discussed Nemesis in our book group and the section at the camp was the only one that drew any criticism. It seemed "too perfect". I can't really agree. This is a nostalgic passage. I sense that Roth is trying to capture something of his childhood here, and in doing so speaks volumes for America of the 1940s, for its ambitions. Its innocence. I found myself wishing I could spend my summers in camps like  the one here, at Indian Hills. I'd love to swim in that lake too. I'd even eat the macaroni cheese.

Spoiler alert

What happens to Bucky is devastating but, as with all great stories that are well told, utterly inevitable. The polio follows Bucky to the camp and strikes his closest friend there. He becomes convinced he is the carrier -- and medical tests prove he has the virus. He falls ill just days later.

Roth wraps the story up cleverly. He projects forward twenty years. Bucky is now an older man and we learn that the narrator of the book is one of the kids from the playground, who caught polio himself, became crippled, but survived.

There is a stark contrast between them, however. The narrator has coped, built a life for himself, had children, a relationship and a satisfying career. Bucky shunned his fiancee, dwelled on his victim status, tore himself apart with guilt. Guilt that he was the "Typhoid Mary" who had infected all the children in his playground. That he was responsible for their deaths.

Guilt is a major theme amongst American Jewish authors. Shalom Auslander's Hope: A Tragedy is built on it. Solomon Kugel moves into a new house and discovers Anne Frank, now an old woman, living in his attic. He had always been made to feel guilty for having survived the Holocaust -- indeed, for having been born decades later, thousands of miles away -- and for not having suffered as Anne did. And now here she is in his attic, demanding Mitzoh crackers, and she won't go away.

But guilt isn't an exclusively Jewish thing. I found Nemesis extremely life affirming. Terrible things happen, but life either goes on or it doesn't. And if it does, then you should make the best of it. Not dwell on what went wrong. But build on what went right.

Poor Bucky Cantor. He might have had a real life. Instead, he became a shadow. Smothered by a sense of guilt, when in reality he was a victim.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Ian McEwan | Sweet Tooth

Love the cover of the latest Ian McEwan. The figure on the front is quite clearly intended to be the glamorous lead character, Serena Frome (rhymes with plume).

This book has one of the most delicious opening paragraphs I've read in a contemporary novel for a very long time.

After getting a third in Maths at Cambridge, Serena has an affair with a professor, a much older man, Tony, who instructs her in the politics of the Cold War. She's an easy convert and happy to agree to a job interview with MI5.

What follows never quite becomes a full blown spy story. Serena is beautifully imagined. An awkward, slightly aloof daughter of a bishop, the ultimate English middle class good girl, a compulsive reader of novels (in paperback, she can't afford hardbacks), who is sucked into the shady world of espionage by virtue of chance and her good looks.

Her former lover's history emerges -- no huge surprises perhaps but it is neatly done. It is however her mission, to fund an author, to encourage him to write anti-Soviet literature, which makes up the meat and bones of this book. She falls in love with Tom Haley in part through reading his short stories.

This, for me, is the one weakness of the novel. McEwan relates these stories in a "reported" fashion. And you can sense the pace of the novel slacken as he does it. Also, he never quite goes far enough with the spying. McEwan loves a high stakes plot, but here, it doesn't quite become that.

That said, it is highly enjoyable and the final twists of the novel are hugely satisfying. Being a McEwan, you are left wondering what it was you just read, and flipping back to see where the trick was laid. But of course, it was there all the time. From that very first paragraph.

Zadie Smith | NW

Brilliant cover

"But this isn’t White Teeth. NW is in its way a magnificent read. There are passages that really do knock you out. But the author is developing a style that is far more stripped down and raw than was the case in her first book. (And I’m happy to take her word on the current London slang.)

"NW revolves around two school friends, Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake. Leah is white and clever, but a drifter, one who was into every passing trend but now finds herself without a goal. Natalie, is mixed race, churchy, bookish and professional. She changed her name from Keisha (as Zadie herself evolved from Sadie).

"Leah and Natalie’s lives go in very different directions. Leah’s career has stalled and she and her husband Michel, a French-African hairdresser, have constant money troubles. Natalie is a successful lawyer, married to a banker, living the middle class dream existence complete with a nanny in the basement. But of course, there’s more to it than that."

--- Zadie Smith's NW, reviewed in The Big Issue, Sept 10

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

What The Family Needed | Steven Amsterdam | What's your superpower?

Given the choice, what superpower would you go for?

It's a whimsical sort of a question. The kind a kid would ask. Super strength? Mind reader? X-ray vision? So when Alek -- a young, thoughtful teen, considered a bit odd, even by those who love him -- asks it of his cousins, they don't take it that seriously.

One opts for invisibility. The other for the ability to fly.

Steven Amsterdam's new novel, What The Family Needed, is charming, light, and yet full of emotion. It keeps you guessing as to whether these special powers are real or imagined.

Each chapter focuses on a different member of an extended family at a different, crucial point in the family history. Giordana, when her mother Ruth leaves her alcoholic husband. Natalie, Ruth's sister, when her son Alek starts having trouble at school. Peter, Natalie's husband, when his wife dies suddenly.

The skips in time, the way the book manages to capture the lives of these characters in the round, using what are really quite brief vignettes, turns out to be extremely powerful. This is quite a short book, you could read it at one sitting, but it allows us to race through their lives, experiencing the characters' flaws and sharing in their joys.

The structure of the book maintains Alek's mystery until the last. Then the "reality"" of what he can do, his magical nature, is revealed. There is a chance that by including this final reveal that the book will end on a down. That the twist doesn't quite live up to the mystery. But Amsterdam's family portrait is ultimately so positive, so loving, it's impossible not to be carried away by it.

Monday, 27 August 2012

E Books | Barry Eisler and Ewan Morrison debate

This is a really entertaining debate about the whole e-book thing.

In the red corner is Barry Eisler, a big selling thriller writer who has done well out of Kindle self publishing, though he was already established with 'legacy publishing' before digital arrived.

In the blue corner is Ewan Morrison: Glasgow based author of literary fiction who has for the past year or so been railing against digital and Amazon in particular for the way it is threatening to destroy traditional publishing and destroy literary fiction.

Digital is clearly a huge change for the industry. I'm rather weary of authors bemoaning it and saying it is the work of the Devil and that the Devil's name is now Amazon.

In saying that, there are certainly challenges ahead. Not least for writers who want to make a living out of writing. Many will have to work on their writing part time. Others may be forced to give up altogether. But I'm not sure that is necessarily a bad thing.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Hilary Mantel | Wolf Hall | BBC2 adaptation announced

The publishing world reeled with shock today as the BBC announced that it was going to turn little known author Hilary Mantel's recent, rather obscure literary novel Wolf Hall, and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies, into a hugely expensive megabudgeted costume drama.

It is undoubtedly a remarkable coup for Mantel, an author who barely ever gets talked about or mentioned in the national press. Hardly ever. Not much at all. In fact, never. [Who is she again? - ed]

Wolf Hall -- the imagined ramblings of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's palace odd job man, famed for his window cleaning skills -- was released in 2009 and utterly failed to capture the public imagination despite being showered with literary awards and critical acclaim.

Readers avoided it in their droves, finding it to be "no where near as raunchy as EL James' Fifty Shades of Grey".

"Britain has moved on, we don't need to keep reexamining the past glory of Henry VIII's reign," Nobody said.

"This is a familiar tale, told with some wit but really offering nothing new to what we already know about Tudor England and the founding of the English state," Nobody added.

"This is 2012, no one is interested in monarchy anymore. We are too busy watching the Olympics. And looking at Prince Harry's bum online," Nobody pointed out.

Barbara Kingsolver | Joseph Connolly | New titles

The quality reading keeps coming.

New Connolly out on Sept 6.

Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behaviour  on Nov 1 (pictured is the press copy).

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

JK Rowling | A Casual Vacancy parodied before it is released | A Vacant Casualty

Is this a first? A book getting parodied before it even comes out. Patty O'Furniture's imagination has run riot for this one. The press release is promising ... "a potty-mouthed parody..."  "a spectacularly silly rural detective novel..." 

"Nothing ever seems to happen in the sleepy English town of Mumford– unless you count the man with the axe in his back, staggering down the street getting blood everywhere and leaving a vacancy on the Parish Council . . ."

All very silly.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

SJ Watson | Before I Go To Sleep | Interview with the author

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP has been the debut thriller of the year, racking up impressive sales critical acclaim and a raft of award nominations. I spoke to the author, SJ Watson, quite recently.

So when you started BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, is it true you didn’t actually mean to write a thriller?

Well, in a way. I wasn’t really sitting down to write a thriller. I just wanted to write a book as well as I could. But those are the books I’ve always enjoyed, the ones with a strong plot. Of course in the second draft I emphasized the thriller aspect a bit more and I decided what kind of book it was. But it happened organically though.

You wrote the novel on the Faber Writing Academy course – but the book is published by Transworld.

The course was very separate from the publishing aspect. With good reason, so that anyone who entered the course didn’t have any illusion that they would be picked up by Faber…

Do you believe writing is a craft that can be taught then, not a God given gift?
My take on this is that the only way to write is by doing it, and teaching yourself almost. If you are on a course and being exposed to some great writers and working with a tutor and so on it can shortcut the process.

It wasn’t a prescriptive course. It didn’t say this is how a book must begin. You must use the first person. Present tense. Anything like that. It was about encouraging you to try new things and to stretch yourself I suppose…

Explain the inspiration behind BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP.
I was working in the field of hearing and balance. It wasn’t directly from my day job or work though looking back on it I can see why those topics were interesting to me. The idea for the book came from an obituary I readabout a man who had an operation at the age of 27 to try and cure his epilepsy. And he died …he couldn’t form any new memories, his memory was erased every few minutes. And even at the end of his life, he died 82, the most recent memories were when he was 25.

I saw parallels in what I was doing. My first job was working in a hospital in London for patients with lots and lots of bizarre debilitating neurological problems and some of them were memory loss…

So I had kind of been exposed to amnesia and neurological conditions but it didn’t directly influence the topic I chose to write about.

What I took from your book and from other novels and films that deal with memory, is that it is our memories that really define us as individuals.

That is not something I appreciated fully – and then I realized how lost I would be without our memories. It was really interesting as well, I was writing about a character who is relatively young. Memory loss affects millions with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Members of my own family have gone through it. There is a very real sense of losing your own identity. So yes, very much so.

And the book has done...rather well. You’ve sold about a million copies, and keep getting mentioned for awards...
To say it has surpassed my wildest dreams is a huge understatement. It is my first book. I daydreamed, hoped, I had a sense that I was finding my own voice and had found a subject that was interesting – and that it would interest other people. I was reasonably optimistic that it might find a publisher but it didn’t feel in any way a foregone conclusion

And then my mission was just to get the book on the shelf. Sometimes I almost normalise it and take it for granted – and then it hits me again.

I thought what would be a success for this book? I thought if I see anyone else reading it – that I am not related to – I’ll call it a success. So that was a special moment when I saw it on the tube…

You decided to use a female narrator even though you are, unquestionably, a bloke...
At the time it didn’t feel like a brave decision. The job of a writer is to imagine themselves into the head of someone else. The fact I was writing as a woman was less of a problem the fact I was writing about someone with no memory.

By extension, the name on the jacket is SJ Watson – not Steve.
That was a conscious thing. I remember when we sent the book out to different publishers, although my agent suggested it, I would have mentioned it to her had she not done so. I felt the whole book would not work if people read it thinking this is a man pretending to be a woman. I wanted to be ambiguous. My hope was that they wouldn’t be sure whether I was male or female. I was really pleased when people emailed and said what is she like, ahs she got any more books... and Claire had to say, well he’s a man, his name is Steve...

It’s a reversal of the norm. Female authors like JK Rowling and PD James used initials to disguise the fact they were women...
I find it fascinating, there are a couple of countries where the book has been published and it is with Steve or Steven on the cover -- because people don’t buy books by a woman, or where they suspect it is by a woman. I find that hard to believe that you might pick up the book, be intrigued by the premise, the title, and then put it back on the shelf because it is a woman who has written it. It’s ridiculous. But clearly it does happen.

And what’s next?
The book I am working on at the moment is another psychological thriller. I might want to explore different things. I am drawn to those books --  I do love books that get inside people’s heads. And have an element of mystery. Books where exciting things happen. For the foreseeable future I will be writing psychological thrillers. But who knows…

Monday, 20 August 2012

Neil Gaiman | American Gods

A full year after getting my paperback copy of the tenth anniversary edition of American Gods signed by the author, at a reading in Edinburgh... he dedicated it to my then 13-year-old son, who promptly put the book down after chapter two ("not ready for that," he said)... I can now say I have finished it.

[August's book group pick,  you see. Yes, this confirms it, I am a middle aged woman who likes Chardonnay.]

In case you don't know, after writing some weird and wonderful Victoriana fairy tales, Gaiman decided to pen a monster of a contemporary novel imagining what it would be like if all the Gods people ever believed in were alive and not doing so well in modern USA. So Odin, Thor's dad, ruler of Asgard, becomes Wednesday, a con man and serial seducer of waitresses.

It's an overtly meandering hunk of a book. I loved the first part when Shadow comes out of prison, it is full of grit and mystery and the writing is taut and well paced. But, and I am sure I am not the only person to observe this, the book drifts by the time you get half way.

Some of the writing -- this is the author's cut version, but whether that has an impact I can't tell -- but it sort of lets him down a bit. Just the odd moment when it is not as precise as Gaiman is in, say, shorter works like Coraline or in his short stories. Which are wonderful.

And the scenes -- Laketown -- are beautifully done. It's just. You wonder why. Where is this going? And he takes too long to tell you where he is going. And why. And when the pay offs come.... well. I was actually a bit underwhelmed. And considering the finale, that is quite an admission.

This may be a novel to immerse yourself in and not hurry. Perhaps I was hurrying, wanting to finish it by the weekend because, well, I have other stuff to read, to do. But it struck me as overly indulgent and that surprised me.

As to the idea of American Gods, I am still puzzled. There's a lot in there. Pagan. Post religion. A man dying on a tree so others can survive. So many messages, symbols, references. But I feel I need help in understanding what it was about. (Forget Gods, humans are what humans are, better just to die. well... yeah... duh) The learnedness of it is striking -- but at times, again, sometimes it isn't.

Somehow the book hasn't left me feeling uplifted or with a sense that I've learned something. Two things I think I probably expected to feel from this much lauded work. Instead, I thought: this would make a decent tv show. If they could tighten up the plot.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

EL James | Fifty Shades of ... oh whatever... | Why it is OK to NOT finish a book

Time, as the saying goes, is of the essence.

We are busy people. We have jobs -- some of us. We have kids, commitments, clubs, activities. We need to cook dinner, exercise off the fat, and indulge in various cultural activities that stop our brains turning to soup.

So what we do not need is to waste our time doing stuff that isn't necessary.

Like finishing books that aren't... doing it for us.

You've probably heard of Fifty Shades of Grey. Its a steamy romance that has struck a chord, somewhat bafflingly, with every second person on the planet. Stacks of them are now available at your local Waterstones. Amazon ship them out by the bucket. The author who wrote them is now richer than Midas (fact).

Well, I got to chapter seven. I think. Crap! I can't remember. I was in a complete... you know. But Crap! I can remember all those Craps!

I've no problem if people want to read about extreme forms of sexual behaviour. And yes, I really do think butt plugs are a bit extreme (call me old fashioned). But just because everyone else is reading it doesn't mean I need to spend time on a novel that is so patently awful -- wooden characters, bad construction, dreary prose -- when there are so many other well written works to, er, get off on.

There are those who disagree. My own sister has read all three of the Greys. She hated them from start to finish (she says). Considers them a waste of time (she says). But wanted to read them so when she criticises them she can do so honestly without anyone coming back saying "ah yes but you never read to the end".

Well, bollocks to that. Life is too short.

If a book really isn't doing it for me... I toss it off. Yes, sisters, it gets dumped quicker than a billionaire with scabies. I see no point in staying in the red room of pain any longer than I have to. Hell, no one is buying me designer clothes and Apple Mac computers.

Young Samurai | Author Chris Bradford | "man mountain"

Man Mountain

Authors, by definition, tend to be a bookish bunch. Their idea of heavy lifting is usually a hardback copy of War and Peace. Not many Mr Universes write novels for a living, and similarly if there is an international crisis of some kind you call on James Bond, not the writer who dreamed him up at the typewriter.

But 38-year-old man-mountain Chris Bradford is a bit different. A martial arts black belt and expert swordsman, this YA author practises what he calls “method writing”: if he can’t do something himself, he won’t include it in his novels.

In the case of his eight-book Young Samurai cycle, this didn’t just involve a three-week trip to Japan to scout out settings but also a long-term commitment to furthering his knowledge of the orient’s deadliest secrets.

“I’ve been doing martial arts since I was eight-years-old – I started off with judo and then moved on to karate. I’ve done a lot of different styles as I’ve moved around the world,” he says. “I trained in Iaido, which is the art of the sword or the way of the sword, because what I wanted to do was to allow readers to feel like they were the heroine and they are wielding the sword.

“And the only way to do that I think is to do what I call method writing. I go out there and learn that skill, learn how to do it, and I recreate that passion in the books. What I find, personally, is that the truth is far more interesting and impressive than anything you can make up.”

The Young Samurai books are a pacy, thrill ride through 17th century Japan in the company of an English lad, Jack Fletcher, who trains as a Samurai.

In the 1600s, Japan was a closed society ruled by a military elite. The Samurais, loyal only to their overlord, the Shogun, policed the coastline and, in the main part, prevented westerners from securing a foothold. However, these warriors also coveted Europe’s technology and weapons, so limited trading rights were granted.

It’s great fun, escapist stuff, which boys in particular will lap up. In the opening book, The Way of the Warrior, Jack is just 13 at the start of the books when his father and crewmates on board a British trading vessel are all slaughtered by Ninja pirates. Jack survives and is taken in by a local family.

Bradford admits his books share the same source as James Clavell’s 70s bestseller Shogun – the English sailor William Adams who became an honorary Samurai and the second most powerful man in Japan. “I thought what if William Adams had had a son – and he was the one to survive? What would have happened then?” Bradford says.

“I imagined Jack going to a martial arts school. That would have been fine but I thought it would be even better if I could say that these schools actually existed. That kids actually trained as samurai – at that age. Then I found out about a guy, Miyamoto Musashi, who was a kensei – a “sword saint”. He actually had his first real duel 13 years old and he was fighting an adult with a real sword while he had wooden sword, a bokken, but he still managed to win.”

Another winning element as far as young teens are concerned is the fact that the Samurai, of course, were the template for Star Wars creator George Lucas’ Jedi Knights – who used light sabres in place of swords, and wore robes instead of trousers. Once you’ve seen The Empire Strikes Back, the world of Samurai honour, their belief in Chi – the force of life – doesn’t seem such a leap.

They even spoke of a near legendary power called Dim Mak, or Death Touch, in which the exponent can, in the style of Darth Vader, utilise “certain pressure points on the human body to destroy your enemy”.
“It is shrouded in myth but it has a strong element of truth at the core,” says Bradford. “But when I go to schools it is the thing that gets the kids really excited.”

Hey teachers, you have been warned.

* Young Samurai: Ring of Sky by Chris Bradford (Puffin, £6.99) is out now