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

Labyrinth of Osiris | Azazeel | Egypt | Land of Mystery

Egypt: land of the ancients, the pyramids and the Nile. Where there was once A Death… on a river cruiser… the culprit for which was identified by a fictional Belgian with a penchant for moustache protectors.

Agatha Christie aside, I was struggling to think of novels I’d read that either concerned or were set in Egypt. More fool me, I thought, when I read about 2009’s winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Youssef Ziedan. His book, Azazeel, published here this year, was a sensation. For weeks it could be seen piled up on street stalls where it was sold to busy commuters. It was, without a doubt, a massive, popular hit.

And yet Ziedan is no Dan Brown, no chick-lit queen. He’s a 50-something academic who specializes in early Islamic texts and religious studies. I’ve spoken to him via Skype so I know that he is a rather unglamorous bald gentleman who smokes. He told me Azazeel sold well, but another of his books, an academic work about early Islam, sold even more. But then his broadband connection was a bit dodgy though, it’s possible I misheard.

Narrated by a fifth century Coptic monk, who writes on scrolls he then hides, Azazeel features Christian atrocities against Pagans, some rather exotic sexual adventures with a servant girl called Octavia, and a lot of discussion about alternative gospels.

I’ve been trying to imagine how you would pitch this as a concept to a London agent. You might mention Umberto Eco and Name of the Rose, but this is no murder in the monastery. You could go heavy on the sex, but while a touch fruity, Ziedan is no EL James. What I guess you wouldn’t mention is the numerous conversations about the finer points of religious belief around the time of Emperor Constantine. “Hey, yeah, we’ll get back to you… never.”

The book, I must admit, is baffling. Structurally it feels like something from another decade, not just another country. There’s a charm to this – a different pace, another culture. A novel which takes work.

Does it reflects life in Hosni Mubarak’s police-state Egypt? Ziedan told me the regime wasn’t the reason why he chose a 5th century setting rather than a contemporary one, but went on to reveal that his next book is about a contemporary terrorist. So perhaps the Arab Spring has had an effect.

Early in his career, the journalist Paul Sussman wrote for The Big Issue. He died, prematurely, earlier this summer and his last novel, The Labyrinth of Osiris, is out now. Set in Israel and Egypt, Sussman’s Middle East couldn’t be more different from Ziedan’s. Like Christie, Sussman was an archaeology enthusiast and his novel a well-paced mystery starring a do-or-die Luxor-based Inspector Yusuf Khalifa.

Fittingly, Sussman’s plot has many historical layers. His goes back decades rather than millennia – as Azazeel makes clear, in Egypt, history stretches far further than anywhere else – and his plotting is far more recognizable as a work of contemporary fiction too. You can’t compare these novels. They are as different as Poirot is to Faust. But it was good to spend so much time in such an interesting, multi-faceted part of the world.