Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Death of The Author. Again.

The author is a modern concept.

We read a book, particularly a literary book but it applied to all sorts of genres, and take what we know about the author as our starting point to reading. This is why people read everything by Ian McEwan. They have an Ian McEwan starting point in their heads when they pick up his new novel. They have ideas about what they're going to get, and they like that comforting feel. An Ian McEwan book says - I am an intelligent reader. I am sensitive, yet I do not shy away from hard issues.

This is why being an author is so seductive. People want the sanitised, clever written version of you. They want your brain. They'll read anything you write in an attempt to make you rub off on them. Being an author is like being a God. It is, on one very important level, a social status activity. Sorry, but there it is.

It never used to be like this. It really didn't matter who wrote something. Nobody wrote anything. Homer sang some amazing stories, and Shakespeare created some amazing poetry, but others applied their voices to them. The voice wasn't pure. It was open to translations by those that sung or spoke them, and the writer/creator didn't get the kind of adoration they get today. I think maybe the novel changed all that. As soon as you were subjected to words that came purely from the novelist, you stopped thinking about what you thought of the experience and started worrying about what the author thought of the experience.

Is this a good thing? Well, it's something that I think is in jeopardy. Because now there are more writers than readers, and more free words than bought ones. Why spend £14.99 on Ian McEwan's latest when you can download a freebie for your Kindle? Why buy at all? Besides, nobody can see the spine of your McEwan, so they don't know you're reading it. All they know is you're reading on your Kindle.

The internet is awash with excellent stories and novels, and the truth is that the people reading all these stories are writers too, generally speaking. We're all writing something, and if you want to charge for your hard work, someone else will be willing to give it away for free. And so the concept of the author has been devalued. That's why, when you go to a party and tell someone you're a writer, they ask suspiciously, 'Properly published?' And soon they won't even ask that. In ten or twenty years' time, when the big publishing houses have been put out of business, you won't write to make money at all. It won't make money. You'll do it, if you do it, because you love it. And nobody will read it because you'll be one person in a vast sea of people all doing the same thing. All producing, nobody listening.

We all want to be authors. I guess that's what killed it.

Ah, apologies. I really shouldn't be allowed to read Barthes.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Unhappy Galvanic Tale of George Forster

I might be alone in really liking Kenneth Branagh's version of Frankenstein. But then, I like all film versions of Frankenstein (that I know about). Not so much for the monster, as for Frankenstein himself: in love with science, with electricity, with the coming of a modern age in which death can be overcome by the application of knowledge.

Here's Kenneth Branagh as Victor, sweatily delivering his new-born monster:

And here's my favourite Victor, and one of my favourite actors, the brilliant Peter Cushing:

There's something about cerebral, brooding blokes who get excited about electricity, isn't there? I also find Nikola Tesla to be very interesting, and quite dashing in this photo, too:

He's a bit Ralph Fiennes-ish, isn't he? I'm so up for a film version of Tesla's life with Ralph Fiennes. Although Bowie made a cool Tesla in The Prestige.

Anyhoo, on to George Forster. The real-life Frankenstein's Monster. Hanged for the murder of his wife and child, his body was passed over to one Professor Aldini, who practised Galvanism upon him. It's a pretty horrible business, but at least he didn't come back to life, because then George Forster would have been hanged all over again, as this newspaper article from 1803 points out quite gleefully at the end. Go have a read.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Making the Reader Feel

I've been thinking a lot about how much harder it is to make a reader think than to make a reader feel.

Making our audience emote is usually considered to be a great thing, whether you're an artist or a filmmaker or a novelist, but recently I've become very aware of how much feeling I'm being asked to do when I could be taking something more from an experience. And once I started noticing this tendency in all modern entertainment to try to wring tears or laughter from me, I began to really resent it. For instance, someone recommended the American TV series Bones to me. It's quite entertaining. It has a lot of incidental music and close-ups and moments of angst-ridden meaning when we're reminded that the protagonist's parents disappeared and she NEVER SAW THEM AGAIN. Last night I watched an episode in which the protag. finally opened the Christmas parents her parents had left for her before their disappearance, fifteen years ago. I cried. And then I felt really stupid. I'd just been manipulated into crying, once again. I'd wasted emotion on that programme. By the end of the day, after all this being poked into emotion-emitting, I'm a dried-out husk of a person.

I'm not saying I want to just watch and read intellectualised art. I'm just saying that when we have been made to really consider a situation, a character, an event - that's when we are truly immersed in the experience. Then just the slightest emotion can have huge resonance. We don't need disappeared parents and rousing music.

A good example of this has to be The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison. Three students get involved in some sort of mystic rite and it has repercussions throughout their lives. Not obvious, demon-chasing repercussions. There's no pentacles and big fat devils (although I haven't quite reached the end yet). There are constructions of realities that nobody can escape. They live quiet, scared lives as a consequence.

It has been hurting my brain to read this book because I had to do some thinking about it. What's the last book that really made you think, rather than feel?

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Veggie Books: The New Goodbye

I've watched Neil Ayres' The New Goodbye go through a number of incarnations, and each time it's become a little bit stronger. Now, available from this week as an E-book, it's absolutely right. And it's wonderful.

With the sounds of cutlery and pans coming from the thin galley kitchen Vicente had disappeared into, Mila scanned a cheap CD tower of records. She found an R&B compilation and fed it into the player. The opening bars of Sam & Dave's Soul Man filled the apartment. In the kitchen, Vicente was dancing as he cooked and emulating the guitar fills as best he could with his terrible singing voice. Mila went to stand by the kitchen door.

'Ham, mushroom and onion. Hope that's okay.' He had already laid salad out on a wooden chopping block about a foot square: avocado, red lettuce, tomatoes, diamonds of cucumber and a handful of cress and some mint leaves, with lemon juice squeezed over it all. Mila hadn't eaten since breakfast and the smell of the omelette frying caused her stomach to growl. She drank a large mouthful from her glass in an effort to quieten it.

'Hungry?' Vicente said, teasing her with the fact this hunger would be satiated imminently.

'Peckish', she admitted.

'Here then.' Vicente flipped a browned omelette out onto the wooden block and picked up the neck of a bottle of olive oil and two forks wrapped in paper napkins. 'Let's go and eat.'

He carried the block into the lounge. Sam and Dave had given way to Nina Simone. Mila and Vicente sat on a soft and deep-seated sofa and Vicente set the food down between them.

'Bon apetit.'

'Looks good.'

'Thanks. So long as it tastes that way.'

They ate without speaking, each manoeuvring across the plate to meet in the middle at the heart of the omelette.

'Go ahead,' Vicente said.

Mila waved her arm to gesture for him to have it, but knocked the bottle of olive oil over. It had begun to glug over the skin of her thigh before Vicente had managed to right it. He held up one of the paper napkins.

'Here, let me.'

Mila didn't move, just let the towel soak off some of the oil from her skin and then massaged the rest in. Vicente pulled the towel away. The oil had soaked through to his palm. He put the paper down on the wood block and licked at his hand. Mila watched his tongue flick out a couple of times to caress the skin.

'If that works for you,' she said, upturning the bottle and letting the rich gold liquid pour out and run onto her lap, 'I'm sure it would work for me.'

Neil has a wonderful sense of tempo to his writing. It's always about the speed at which events happen, and he can slow a moment to a stroll through tender emotions. I admire his writing enormously and I think he deserves to be read more widely. So buy it now at an absolutely bargain price, and enjoy reading a story that's about the reality of being human.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Veggie Books: We Were the Mulvaneys

Some books bulge with vegetables. Usually these books are cookbooks by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall (I love him) but sometimes these books are novels. We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates is awash with vegetables, and fruit, and growing, and life, and death, and organic emotions of love and hate and pain and more death. And forgiveness. And vegetables. The book even looks ripe. The pages don't sit flat. They curl outwards, as if they are flowers responding to sunlight.

Mainly that's because I left it out in the sunlight last Saturday, though.

It's exhausting to be inside the heads of characters in the way that Joyce Carol Oates puts you inside the heads of characters. You feel like you've been digging in fields for hours at a time, excavating personality-dirt.

The Mulvaneys were a very happy family, but the only daughter goes through a terrible experience and instead of helping her, the family falls apart. Why is that? The image was more important than the reality for them, I think. But this is open to interpretation. All good literary novels going into this amount of psychological depth allow you to add your own interpretation, right? That's what this kind of novel is for. It's not going to give you answers. It's going to make you work.

I can see why people read Mills and Boons occasionally.

It's a wonderful book, even if it does make you sweat. Here's a veg-heavy section where the daughter, Marianne, goes to visit her brother Patrick in college. He cannot forgive what has happened to her. Yet she never blamed anybody but herself. Marianne cooks a meal. She's become a wonderful cook; she likes to give freely of her food. She brought the ingredients with her specially.

They sat down to eat. Marianne's minestrone was the most delicious soup Patrick had ever tasted; steaming-hot, in stoneware bowls, a thick broth seasoned with fresh basil and oregano, containing chunks of celery, tomato, carrots, red onion, beans, chickpeas and macaroni. The nine-grain whole wheat bread was crumbly, chewy, delicious, too. And a green salad with red leaf lettuce and endive, cucumber, peper, alfalfa sprouts, a vinegar-and-oil dressing flavoured with dill. Patrick was surprised at his appetite, his hunger.

Doesn't that paragraph make you feel full up? Phew. It's a novel about the unsaid, and what living in the darkness of secrecy does to people. Well worth the effort if you want something chewy.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Veggiebooks: A Very Persistent Illusion

It's unkind of an author to make you doubt if you're actually reading their book. Maybe the book is an illusion. Maybe you're making up the holding of the book, the sitting in the favourite armchair, and you're responsible for the words on the page too. You made up that story, and all the other stories on your bookshelf. That bookshelf over there; the one that doesn't exist. It's all a figment of your imagination. Yes, you are responsible for imagining tofu and U2 and igloos. It's all you.

There are eloquent arguments, put forward by LC Tyler in A Very Persistent Illusion, as to why we are both real and imagined. I can't remember the arguments for reality. I'm left with this nagging feeling that this is all a dream. For this reason, I do not recommend reading A Very Persistent Illusion and watching Inception in the same week. It's not good for your head.

But hey, don't listen to my point of view. All you figments out there, go find your own reality. Have a good laugh while you're doing it. Read LC Tyler's books and don't get so sidetracked by the intellectual reductionist sleight of hand that you miss the excellent writing throughout:

It's not a good time of year for people who don't like blossom. The bush-packed cottage gardens and the flat, improbably green fields are full of apple blossom, pear blossom, horse chestnut blossom, May blossom. Rich cream, bridal white, baby pink, pastel blue and soft ephemeral yellow are all there somewhere. Everything says, "Rejoice! The winter is over." You have to go high up into the fells to escape the insistent colour, up into the lumpy brownness of the dead fern, where the odd purple-blue flower, peeping out shyly from the damp moss, can be trodden kindly but firmly under your size nine boots. It may be spring in the valley, but up here you know the glaciers could be back any time they choose. It's a reassuring place for pessimists to be.

LC Tyler also writes the Elsie and Ethelred mysteries that inevitably do not contain herrings (apart from red ones) even though they are advertised as such. Tyler likes to mess with your head. His head. Whatever head we're all in.

The new Elsie and Ethelred, Herring on the Nile, is out next week. But don't forget about A Very Persistent Illusion. I love it.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

We are the problem

So recently VS Naipaul said something about women not being very good writers because they're not masters of their house, and sentimentality overcomes their prose. Obviously this isn't a very wise or true thing to say. I don't find much sentimentality in Iris Murdoch, and I'd defy anyone to argue that Fay Welon and Hilary Mantel aren't in control of their own houses. Besides, who says that being either sentimental or feeling inferior in some aspects of life aren't useful traits for a novelist? It's not who you are, but how you translate your experiences on to the page, that makes you a great writer. Not all prose should be about running your own destiny and being hard as nails. I like Hemingway, but after a few of his novels I'm more than ready for Anne Tyler's take on the American experience.

As for being able to tell if a woman or a man wrote something - I'm amazed at the amount of romantic novels that are written by men. But they use pseudonyms because apparently the world of publishing thinks that we woman readers will be put off by male romance writers. So there we have identified the real problem: not women writers, but woman readers:

1. Women readers only like books about romantic stuff written by other women who are exactly like them.
2. Women readers hate it when space or cars or mechanical stuff intrudes into a novel. They'll spend the whole book club meeting moaning about it.
3. Women readers like it when front covers are pink. With dresses on.
4. Or they like covers that are black. This way they know whether they are reading a romantic novel or a crime novel. Women readers only read romantic novels or crime novels.
5. Women readers need their books to have a heroine with no undesirable character traits. It's best if they've been a bit of a victim at some point and are still feeling sentimental about it.

See? Sentimentality is the fault of the reader, not the writer. All those women writers, and even the male authors who are pretending to be women in order to get published, are writing this sentimental victimised claptrap in order to please us. We are truly the scum of the reading population.

Male readers are much better. You can write whatever you like to please a male reader as long as you put a sex scene in it.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Veggie Books: Mister Roberts

I'm a fan of Alexei Sayle. I read Barcelona Plates, his first collection of short stories, and felt it had a gleeful freedom that's often missing in modern writing. It didn't feel careful, or considered. It felt like splurges of ideas spread messily over the page. It didn't obey the unspoken laws of the written word. There wasn't a lot of character development at times, and plot would be sacrificed happily for a comic moment. It was a refreshing experience.

And then I loved his novel, The Weeping Women Hotel. That had plot and characterisation, and also the funniest reflection on martial arts I've ever read. And a ditty about soup. So Mister Roberts had a fair bit to live up to, and it didn't quite manage it. It felt a bit too contained, too structural. It stayed put in one place. It didn't feel as free.

That's not to say it wasn't still enjoyable, as any novel involving a young boy who comes across wreckage from a crashed alien craft might be. There's lot of general weirdness and that's lots of fun. And there's interesting stuff about the life of the ex-pat in Spain, too, and the guilt felt about muscling into a beautiful country and turning it into either touristic or industrial wastelands:

Huge swathes of the hills inland from the sea were ruined by a continuous canopy of plastic. It covered so much territory that it could easily be seen from space, the roofs of fifty thousand closely packed greenhouses. Just ten years ago this was largely uninhabited desert, rich in plant and animal life but arid. Now, under cover, tomatoes, lettuces, melons and peppers were grown all year round for the supermarkets of Europe.

And it's a short book, too. I know that shouldn't make a difference, but when you're reading a black comedy I think short is always better. You can certainly have too much despair cloaked in humour.

So, if you haven't read any Alexei Sayle, maybe start with the short stories first. If you're already a fan then Mister Roberts is certainly worth a read. And it won't take up too much of your time. Realistically, who's got time for Ancient Evenings? I keep saying I'm going to get round to it but there it is, on my bedside table, waiting for my attention. Hm.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Writing is Like... #3

Writing is just like having a baby for these reasons:

- gestation is definitely involved.
- to get the thing out there you need to give a really big push. or two. or six hundred. And, golly, that really hurts.
- you feel warmly towards your little WIP sometimes, and other times you wish it would just hurry up and be done with you.
- eating a lot of cake is mandatory.
- when it's over with you're left with something you want to show off to friends, family, and the entire of Facebook and Twitter.
- although it's probably not as perfect as you'd hoped, and since "publication" date you seem to be having trouble sleeping.
- public appearances are fraught with difficulty, you've definitely put on weight, and how come you suddenly have to put up with so much shit?

Writing is definitely not like having a baby because:
- you can forget about writing, have a day off, and go and sit in the garden instead.
- once you've finished your little WIP you can dispose of it if you so choose.
- and you definitely don't have to put it through university or pay for its wedding to another little WIP.
- writing hurts. it really does. but, trust me on this, it doesn't hurt as much as having a baby.
- although while having the baby you can get lots of lovely drugs for free. When you're writing a novel, you have to pay for them yourself.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

How Writers Research #2

So, back to the conversation I had with Ian Hocking about how he conducts research for his novels. We discussed how he gets started, and to what lengths he'll go to inject a sense of realism; it turns out Ian is prepared to learn to speak Russian, and also to give and get information from other novelists. Writing is not quite the solitary pursuit it's made out to be. The second and last part of the interview starts with how to find relevant sources:

A: You mentioned 'broad sweep' books and how there's a danger there in homogenising the writing, (putting in a perspective that couldn't possibly exist for the character?) - but first hand accounts are more helpful. Where would you go to track down these first hand accounts? A library, or the internet, for instance?

I: Well, I probably would have benefitted from talking to a librarian but I decided to start with Amazon. I know that they have lots of used paperbacks that I could search easily. That's how I came up with 'Five sisters: Women against the Tsar'. However, I did use the library here at Canterbury Christ Church to find books on communist theory (...which reminds, I also downloaded audiobooks from Audible.co.uk on Marxism and long-term Russian history stretching all the way back to the Russ).

A: Does most of your research get conducted at home in front of your computer, say, or do you go elsewhere?

I: Largely in front of my computer or in my office. I picked up a couple of books from the library at Christ Church, but in the main everything came to me.

A: And to go back to talking to Roger Morris about Russia - can I ask, does a conversation like that take the form of an email conversation, or did you meet him face to face first? Is it a case of him recommending sources to you, or giving you information directly? And would you find that information (from another writer directly) more or less trustworthy, do you think, than from a textbook, say, or a first-hand account?

I: This was partly an email conversation but we also chatted at the launch of hot new book from a Devonian author. Then it was mostly email. I asked Roger for some recommendations - he came up with Orlando Figes's book, 'Natasha's Dance' - and also recommended 'Five sisters' to him. He didn't give me any information directly, though he probably would have if I asked. I think Russia itself is too vast a topic to bother talking about it other email - particularly when you're not sure what will turn out to be useful.

Over to the Devonian author...

A: When do you feel satisfied that you've done enough research?

I: I don't think I've ever felt satisfied with research. There's always something that you've handled wrong. With specific regard to a novel, where you're dealing with the representation of lived experience, there's no way everything is going to ring true. A phrase might be wrong; or a train line that you thought was there in 1904 wasn't built until 1910, or some such. I'd go as far as to say that if I ever had that feeling of satisfaction, I'd be losing my grip on reality. ...Unless the novel was heavily autobiographical, of course.

A: So when might you stop researching, even though there's no moment of satisfaction?

I: Hmm, that's a good question. I would never stop volitionally. It would come when the book is published. Since the book we're talking about is not yet published, I haven't really stopped researching it even though the book has been mellowing on my hard drive for a year. There's always something rattling around my head and that I realise I can put it in. Typically, I realise it would be cool if I could include a particular fact - such as the bridges of St Petersburg rising in unison during the night, or the horse-drawn taxi drivers standing up and bowing to the road-side shrines as they clatter past - and then go back to the book and drop it in.

A: And what would you recommend to a new author as a method of conducting research?

I: Zoinks - that's a difficult one. I think research is a battle on many fronts. You need to use physical and nonphysical sources, curated and non-curated...but the most important thing is to start broadly and get narrow later. Follow your interests because these will probably be informed by an idea of where your story will go, even if you've not consciously aware of it. In terms of research in general, you must do it - because of all the things that might lead to writer's block, running out of 'road' will be the thing that inhibits the writing more than anything.

Again, many thanks to Ian for being my guinea pig, and best of luck with the new Saskia Brandt book, Flashback (available now on the Kindle).

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Veggie Books: Mirrors

Eduardo Galeano, the author of Mirrors, is one of those writers who has an overtly political agenda. I don't think there are many left (not that get published, anyway...), but the few you'll come across tend to not be from Europe or the US. There's a strong argument here about financial dissatisfaction breeding political dissent - after all, when do we pick up our banners and march? When somebody suggests there's not enough money for all the things we take for granted any more. Make more money! we cry. Or take money from somewhere else in the budget! But what if there never was any money for you in the first place? And no freedom to complain about it either? I can see how the purest application of the ability of the writer is to name and shame injustice, and I will forever admire writers such as Galeano for doing that. I'm just too well-fed and middle-class to get stoked up about politics. For me, politics is about other sheltered people making speeches and occasionally saying the wrong thing, causing unintentional hilarity. I wish it were different. Maybe one day I'll write a book about that wish instead.

Galeano may be rubbing off on me.

Okay, so, Mirrors is not a novel. It's a collection of very short essays, one paragraph or maybe two, about historical events. It covers the entire range of human experience, and pretty much every time period in our not very illustrious history. It shows how we make the same mistakes, over and over. It concentrates on war and discrimination. You'll only need to read a few pages before you start to feel bad about yourself.

Don't attempt to read more than a few in one sitting, or you'll start noticing the themes of the condemnation of America and religion and white men in general (which is fair enough, maybe) over the insights into the past. And some of them are great - I kept thinking this could be a historical novelist's dream. So many times I could have written a book about some throwaway piece of history, and it actually becomes quite frustrating to not have a longer story about them. Here's a veggie one as an example:

Doomed By Your Past

Corn, sacred plant of the Maya, was given several names in Europe. The names recast geography: they called it Turkish grain, Arab grain, grain of Egypt, or grain of India. These errors did nothing to rescue corn from mistrust and scorn. When people learned where it came from, they fed it to the pigs. Corn had a higher yield than wheat and it grew faster, resisted drought, and produced good food. But it was not proper for Christian mouths.

The potato was also a forbidden fruit in Europe. Like corn, its American origins condemned it. Worse, the potato was a root grown in the depths of the earth, where hell has its caves. Doctors knew it caused leprosy and syphilis. In Ireland, if a pregnant woman ate a potato at night, in the morning she would give birth to a monster. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the potato was fed only to prisoners, lunatics, and the dying.

Later on, this cursed root rescued Europe from hunger. But not even then did people stop wondering: if not food of the devil, then why are potatoes and corn not mentioned in the Bible?

See what I mean?

Mirrors is a fantastically interesting book, and I would like to have some of the passion that inspired such a huge undertaking. But would I like to get that passion at the expense of my soft white upbringing? No. I'm thinking not. I'm sorry for all the terrible things that happened throughout history, and I'm glad that there are novelists out there who can tackle such things so that we don't forget them. I'm also glad I'm not one of them.

Monday, 23 May 2011

How Writers Research #1

I'm currently tackling my dissertation for my MSc in Library and Information Management and I've chosen to complete a collective case study on the subject of how novelists approach the task of researching their novels. It's very interesting to chat to the writers involved about how they find and use relevant information: what sources they use, how they decide what to record, and what they think and feel about the process.

Ian Hocking has been kind enough to help me get to grips with what sort of questions to ask (well, he is a Psychology lecturer as well as a bestselling novelist...) and at the end of our chat about methods of research we thought it might make interesting reading for a wider audience, so he gave me permission to post some of our discussion on my blog.

For those of you without a Kindle or any interest in sci-fi I should point out that Ian's novel Deja Vu has been riding high in the Kindle charts for a good month or so, and the sequel, Flashback, was released yesterday. They're both jolly good reads, and very well researched, too. Of course.

It's a long interview so I'll split it into a few bits. Here's part one. When Ian talks about the book in progress, he's talking about the new Saskia Brandt book he's been working on, the one after Flashback, so you can get some idea of what that book is about into the bargain...

A: How do you approach the task of researching a new novel?

I:The research for a novel is typically quite secondary to the story - that is, what the characters are going to do to each other and have happen to them. But it is central to the feel of the book. I tend have the feel sorted out first; there might be a period in history that I'm interested in and that period creates a certain effect. The most recent novel I wrote involved a time traveller ending up in Russia towards the end of Tsarist rule. The effect of that is decline, ending, sadness, and a sense of disgust (in me) that fabulously wealthy individuals partied while other starved.

In terms of a timeline, the research took place at the same time as the writing in this case. This is something I try to avoid generally because typically leads to immature, half-baked prose full of anachronisms, and this is precisely what happened with this book! I got about a quarter of the way into it and had to stop because I didn't know what I was writing about.

The research for this novel has involved learning Russian, finding oral histories written by women at the turn of the century, and watching contemporary movies.

A: That's really interesting, that you researched and wrote at the same time and found it was a weaker book because of it - does that mean you usually like to build up a full picture of the time/place before you start - and that makes the novel more coherent in some way?

I: In the case of this book, what happened is that because it was not plotted in advance (I tend not to do this), then I found myself moving towards an area for which I had no information. I believe it was the day-to-day life of St Petersburg in the early 1900s; I also needed to have some detailed plans of the Great Catherine Palace, a huge building near St Petersburg that contains a feature called the Amber Room - that Amber Room was also something I knew I had to research because some important scenes would be set there. I didn't know which scenes at the time, though.

A: You think the reader can tell when the research has not been done thoroughly beforehand rather than as/when your information needs pop up?

I: Hmm, that's a good question! I think that any writer can probably shape the impressions of a reader so much that the lack of research probably won't be noticed. At the end of the day, the writer is like a magician - you have to distract and glitz things up so the audience doesn't twig to the fairly mundane secret behind the trick.

A: Can I ask - in the case of your last novel, where did you look to find the information you needed? So where did you go to learn a bit of Russian, read oral histories, etc? How did you decide that was what you'd need to know?

I: For the Russian, I signed up for a local evening class. I studied Russian for two years. I didn't expect to learn it very well, but I felt ridiculous writing a novel set in Russia without knowing anything about the language. The oral histories showed up on Amazon. The book was out of print - 'Women Against the Tsar', I believe it's called - and described the lives of several women anarcho-bolsheviks in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Another source of information was the writer Roger Morris, who was in the process of writing novels set in the same period of history (though a little earlier). I spoke to him about oral histories and sent him links to some websites...which reminds me, the web was a very useful sources of information. I popped into one or two forums related to Tsarist Russian military uniforms to ask the experts questions about materials, colours, etc. I also looked on memorabilia sites for clothes that had been owned by people in the time period of interest - these were very good quality pictures with lavish descriptions including the correct terminology (sometimes in Russian as well as English), which is quite important when writing prose.

A: I love the fact you learned Russian - very immersive! So that's the kind of research that doesn't necessarily make it into the WIP so much as flavours it, if you like, would you say? Or in some way makes you feel more prepared to write convincingly about it? Is it the feeling that's the important part of the process there?

I: I think you hit the nail on the head with 'immersion'. I don't really trust myself to set an interesting story in a place or a time without becoming somewhat expert in it. I'm using the term advisedly, of course - there's no such in which an English bloke in 2010 is going to become an expert on pre-revolutonary Russia overnight. But I do need to get a sense of how things work, what a person would see walking down a street...In one sense, I have an advantage because my viewpoint character is a time traveller. Her perceptions, therefore, and what she finds interesting or surprising, will somewhat overlap with mine: the constant smell of gas, the disease in the streets, etc.

That said, I do have my own theory about stories. I think they exist - and should always work - if they are completely abstracted from their setting. So I think that my book should work wherever it is placed because it's a story about a person who is lost and trying to get home.

A: And also - you mentioned using books, web sources and also Roger Morris - do you have a type of source that you prefer to use, or think of as more trustworthy? How would you decide that a source is useful to you, or what reasons would make you disregard information from a source?

I: The sources I find most trustworthy are first-hand accounts because I want the details. What kind of matches are used to light a lamp? What time of day is breakfast? A detailed, pedantic diary is perfect. Books like 'Natasha's Dance' by Orlando Figes are useful because they give a broad sweep of social trends etc., but I'm not sure I want to know too much about those. Nobody in pre-revolutionary Russia knew they were about to experience Soviet rule; some even doubted the revolution would ever come. There's also a danger that history has a homogenising effect. Just because it seems very linear and inevitable today, doesn't mean it felt that way at the time.

Thanks to Ian. Top job.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Veggie Books: Atomised

Shall we do a veggie book? Yeah, let's go for it.

Atomised by Michel Houellebecq is a very French novel. Is there such a thing as a French novel? I'm thinking there is, but my description might differ from yours. I find a lot of French novels to be clinical. There's something cold and objectifying about the gaze of a French novel. Camus and Sartre and Houellebecq make me feel detached as their characters commit suicide, fall passionately in love, or murder a few family members.

So in Atomised, half-brothers Michel and Bruno share a severely selfish mother. They grow up to be very different people, but neither of them can achieve any level of intimacy. Michel shuns human contact. He becomes a molecular biologist and an idealist. Bruno becomes a sex pest. Or he would be, given the chance, but he never quite seems to get his way.

Both Michel and Bruno have had horrible childhoods. For instance, Bruno is raised mainly by his grandmother, who feeds him up constantly, turning him into a 'fat, fearful child':

One morning in March 1967, while she was making deep-fried courgettes, the old woman knocked over a pan of boiling oil. She managed to drag herself into the hallway where her screams alerted the neighbours. When Bruno came home from school, Madame Haouzi, who lived upstairs, met him at the door. She took him to the hospital where he was allowed to see his grandmother for a few minutes. Her burns were hidden beneath the sheets. She had been given a great deal of morphine, but she recognised Bruno and took his hand in hers. Some minutes later the child was led away. Her heart gave out later that night.

For the second time, Bruno found himself face to face with death, and for a second time, he failed to grasp its significance. Years later, when he was praised for a composition or a history essay, his first thought was to tell his grandmother.

Later, Bruno finds a free-love campsite and desperately tries to get laid by attending massage groups and creative writing workshops with lots of naked women, who steer clear of him. I couldn't help but think that an English novelist would have to work really hard not to turn Bruno into a Benny Hill clone at this point, whereas Houellebecq manages to avoid it. Sex (or lack of it) is described in such stark, biological terms that Bruno's need comes across as real. This is the form of human contact he wants, possibly the only one he can deal with. He needs sex and he's not getting it. It's funny, at times, but it's not derisory.

I enjoyed the read, and the overtly philosophical questions is raises about how self-obsession infects the world, making us all flawed - how can we be fixed? Michel, the molecular biologist, can answer that question in the astonishing final pages. If you're feeling clever and alienated right now, Atomised is your book.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The hermit emerges: on Calvino and Ezra Pound

Guest post by Neil Ayres. A normal service will resume next week.

You were possibly expecting someone a tad more exciting than me when Aliya indicated a guest might drop by whilst she's on her hols. Sorry about that, but here I am.

Anyway, I'm raising a well-trodden subject that’s on my mind a bit at the minute. How well do we really want to know our authors? Perhaps slightly ironic, given I'm posting this on an author's blog. 

Agents and publishers are keen for their authors to have a public profile (as are plenty of authors themselves.) And as a recent NYT article demonstrates beautifully, this cult of self promotion isn't exactly a new phenomenon.

But what about the drawbacks of this style-over-substance approach when it comes to reading the books themselves? I've read plenty of books and manuscripts by people I know, and it'd be disingenuous to insist this knowledge of the person behind the story had no influence on how I would experience the story.

Why am I thinking about this? Two reasons. Firstly, I've just finished reading Italo Calvino's Hermit in Paris, a loose collection of autobiographical writing and interviews from the fifties through to the eighties, with much reflection on his earlier life.

As well as much of his later fiction, I've read some of Calvino's non-fiction before (and mentioned on this blog years ago that his Six Memos for the Next Millennium is my favourite book on writing), but in these his voice was always present -- a big part of the enjoyment of reading them, of course -- yet the man himself was not. The meat of Hermit in Paris (given how much of an influence it appears to have had on him in later life) is Calvino's travel diary of his time spent in America, and more importantly, in New York. This he wrote when he was around thirty seven, as a series of letters to his colleagues at the Einuadi publishing house in Turin, where he worked as both a publicist and editor, so I think it's safe to assume they give as honest representation of a writer as you're likely to come across, in that he was writing to people who knew him well personally, as well as knowing his writing.

The thing is, although I rather liked the Calvino I got to know in this diary, he was rather at odds with the author I knew before starting out on the book. I was aware that this alteration of perception was likely once I embarked on the journey of reading the book, but he's one of the few authors I really feel the urge to know well. The good news is by the time I got to the end of the book, this new Calvino (from the American Diary) and the one already established in my head had merged satisfactorily for me, thanks to the other pieces included in the book. Calvino's note for the pieces in the book (which was published posthumously) stressed the point that his opinions and beliefs were of the moment, which is a given, but it was useful to have the author's reminder there in front of me.

Calvino maintained that an author's distance was a crucial factor in the appreciation of the work, but although he went to reasonable lengths to maintain this distance himself, as a personality, for anyone with more than a passing interest in his output, even now he's no longer alive, he is by no means an anonymous factor when considering his books.

And my other reason for thinking about this at the moment? Well, it relates to a project I'm working on as part of the day job. A tie-up event between Creative Review (my employer) and Tate Britain's forthcoming exhibition of Vorticism. (Vorticism was a short-lived Futurist-inspired British avant garde art movement that born shortly before the First World War.)

The movement's key figure was Wyndham Lewis, who was much influenced (and supported) by Ezra Pound. Pound and Lewis took Pound's Imagism guidelines and applied them to visual art, with Pound coining the term Vorticism to represent the resultant work.

I knew little about Pound (and less about Wyndham Lewis) before starting work on the project, save that he was a challenging poet, and a fascist.

Interestingly it was reading Hermit in Paris (Calvino grew up in Italy under Mussolini and it is well documented that he fought for the Partisans during WWII), that gave me the impetus to learn a bit more about Pound, and for pretty much the first time in my life, attemp to understand how such a large swathe of Europe could have fallen under the sway of fascism in the lead up to WWII.

WWII, certainly up until my generation (a generation whose grandparents and older relatives have firsthand adult experience of the war) generally has a kind of in-built default position of anti-Nazism (let's be clear: this is a GOOD thing), but I would argue that this blanket education of why Hitler wasn't good news obscures the social causes of what led not only to its political rise, but to such a huge number of people tolerating fascism as part of their everyday lives.

I think most Europeans have some kind of innate understanding that WWI provided the breeding ground for WWII. But, oddly, I've only just begun to make explicit connections about how this occurred. Many people may just view this as personal ignorance on my part, but I'd lay money on there being huge numbers of reasonable, intelligent people whose knowledge is as unexamined as my own.

Pound was of course a hugely fallible man, but he was also no idiot. He helped launch the careers of TS Eliot, James Joyce and many others, before becoming disillusioned with London after WWI and moving first to Paris and then on to Italy, where he supported Mussolini's fascist regime (which Calvino by the time of WWII was of course actively opposing). Calvino meanwhile become a militant Communist following the war, and has an interesting, incredibly honest essay about how he squared his Communism and support for the USSR with Stalin's atrocities. (Calvino did not leave the Italian Communist Party--and political activism--until 1957.)

As with Calvino, Pound's life can be viewed as one of stages. Just to round out my picture, I'm going to read some of Pound's selected poetry. I'll no doubt struggle to keep at bay the idea that it's written by a deplorable fascist, but I'll give it a go. After all, it's what Calvino would have wanted.

If you didn't know, Neil has a site for social media and digital stuff now.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Veggie Book: Shadowmagic

Plants have feelings too.

At least, they do in John Lenahan's Shadowmagic, which is a magical fantasy rompette (too short to be a full romp, although maybe once you put the whole series together it'll qualify for romp status) through Tir-Na-Nog, a land of immortals, and the kind of place you wish you could get to on a short haul package deal. It sounded fabulous: alive, and fresh, and interesting. I think that's an achievement for us jaded fantasy readers who've seen it all before.

And the characters are interesting in fresh ways too: there may be leprechauns and imps, but they're quite different from what you might expect. Nobody capers or says twee things. I liked the whole bunch of them. And speaking of bunches, here's the fruity moment where Conor (our teenage hero who has been transported to Tir-Na-Nog; I won't give anything else away) arrives at Castle Muhn for the first time. It shows a pacy, straightforward style that sidesteps high language and pages of description for something a lot more engaging and relevant to a Young Adult reader:

This place was spectacularly elegant. We were no longer strictly in the castle but in the Great Vineyard, a football-pitch-sized courtyard adorned with fountains and huge black and white marble statues. The statues were like oversized chess pieces strewn about in a haphazard manner - some upright, others on their side. It was as if the gods had just dumped out a giant chess set before they set up for a game. Roofing the courtyard was a black trellis that supported grapevines with fruit as big as plums. What was left of the day's light filtered through the leaves, giving the room a majestic green hue.

Remembering the incident with the apple, the first thing I did was place my hand on a vine and ask nicely if I could have a grape. 'NO YOU MAY NOT!' The answer came back so clear it made my head hurt. These were proud plants.

The speedy adventure carried me along very nicely and didn't ask anything too difficult of me. I see there's a sequel out now, so that'll definitely be worth a look. Yeah. Very enjoyable stuff for a quick read. My metaphorical feet didn't touch the ground throughout.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Writing A Novel Longhand

People are often surprised to find there are any professional writers still working in longhand, at least at novel length. There's me and Neil Ayres - anyone else? Let me know if you're aware of any others, or if you are still a devotee to the pen and page.

For me, the words come out differently if I write them down rather than type them. It adds another stage of deliberation to the process that I just can't manage on the screen. And it also provides a first draft that has to be looked over extremely carefully, as I strain to translate my scribblings from the page to the screen. So by the time it hits the screen it's a second draft, and beginning to look like a novel (she said hopefully).

My written first draft uses only the right hand side of the page - the left side is given over to notes, scribbles, character and plot points. These might be about what needs to happen at that moment in the story, or it might be about changes I need to make to earlier moments, or where the story is going next. And there's always a lot of crossing out and doodling.

For those who are interested in the working methods of writers, I've included a picture of one page of my WIP. I already know that this page is now obsolete. The story doesn't use this section any more. Please forgive my handwriting. See the notes on the left and the actual writing on the right? There's lot of space to write cryptic messages that my future self probably won't understand, but hey, it seemed important at the time.

And, for those who can read my writing: yes, that is the word 'tomato'. There was a tomato in my WIP. But now it's been s-quashed. Heh.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Veggie Books: The Scarlet Plague

I love the idea behind Hesperus Press; forgotten works by great writers, made accessible to a new audience. Titles from literary gods such as Mikhail Bulgakov, Graham Greene, DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf have been published in these very smart books, with thick creamy pages and forewords. The Scarlet Plague is by Jack London.

I wouldn't say I'm a huge London fan to begin with. I'm not really converted by The Scarlet Plague, but I think that has to do with the amount of dystopian novels I've read. It's become a familiar genre, but I can imagine that when The Scarlet Plague was first published in 1912 it was a horrifying picture of a terrible future, where the few remaining humans in the year 2013 have regressed into ignorance and superstition, and the one survivor of the plague, 60 years earlier, can see all the advances of science being lost. He tells the savage children who ask him of tales of the past to remember that steam can be harnessed to do the work of a hundred men, but he knows nobody believes him.

The old man relates the story of his life after the plague. He describes travelling through a world that is returning to nature:

Again I crossed the San Joaquin valley, the mountains beyond, and came down into Livermore valley. The change in those three years was amazing. All the land had been splendidly tilled, and now I could scarcely recognize it, such was the sea of rank vegetation that had overrun the agricultural handiwork of man. You see, the wheat, the vegetables, and the orchard trees had always been cared for and nursed by man, so that they were soft and tender. The weeds and wild bushes and such things, on the contrary, had always been fought by man, so that they were tough and resistant. As a result, when the hand of man was removed, the wild vegetation smothered and destroyed practically all the domesticated vegetation.

I know, I'm grizzled when it comes to enormous disaster on the page. I do wish that wasn't the case, and that the ideas in The Scarlet Plague didn't feel familiar to me. But there we have it; this isn't 1912, and so many brilliant, terrible books came after this one. Still, this is a good one, and if you're a London fan I think you would enjoy this.

I am sick and tired of being so jaded, though.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Writing is Like... #2

A few days ago Maggie Dana tweeted that writing fiction is like peeling an onion, whereas editing fiction is like slicing it. Both can result in tears.

This is very true. And it appeals to me because I'm all about the veggies, as you probably already know. So let's do some more veggie similes for writing:

Writing is like...

1. ...planting potatoes. You have to wait for the basic idea to start sprouting before you can stick it underground and let it work its way up to the surface. And when it gets to the surface and starts flowering you should put more earth around the base for a better yield. So that when you finally dig it up and start writing that novel, there are so many ideas under the surface that it's potato salad all round. Metaphorically speaking.

2. ....a broad bean. You don't want to overcook that baby or it's going to end up leathery.

3. ...making coleslaw. Make sure you shred the prose cabbage so finely that by the time you add the mayonnaise of the finishing touches the whole novel slips down nice and easy. Bleurgh. I hate coleslaw.

4. ...preparing a celeriac. Face it. At first it's going to look ugly, and you're going to have to put time and effort into sawing off all the knobbly bits. There'll be dirt and you might even slice your finger a little bit, but the pain is good. It means you're getting somewhere. Then you braise that celeriac with red onion and button mushrooms and serve it with a lovely piece of fresh salmon on the top. I mean, you serve up the finished novel. Obviously.

5. ...kohlrabi. The initial idea keeps turning up in your mental veggie box and you have no idea what you're going to do with it. So you chop it and dice it and mash it and squelch it and pound it and serve it up a million different ways until eventually one of the Masterchef judges/publishers says - actually, this is okay. Yeah. I can eat this. And then you rejoice for thirty seconds before picking up your knife, reaching for a fresh kohlrabi, and trying all over again.

Now I'm sad and hungry. Bad combination.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Veggie Books: The Human Factor

Castle and Davis work in Intelligence. They deal with South Africa, which involves checking a few cables, taking a few phone calls. Occasionally top secret information comes their way, but it's not very exciting stuff and nobody takes security too seriously.

Tension slowly begins to build between them as Head Office seems certain there's a spy in their office. Castle is nearing retirement, happily married; Davis drinks too much and has passionate thoughts about one of the secretaries. They have long conversations about what Head Office might be doing, how paranoia is affecting the world nowadays. Davis tells Castle about some suspect confidential information he came into:

'Better not let them know you told me, all the same.'

'Old man, you've caught the disease of the profession, suspicion.'

'Yes. It's a bad infection. That's why I'm thinking of getting out.'

'To grow vegetables?'

'To do anything non-secret and unimportant and relatively harmless. I nearly joined an advertising agency once.'

'Be careful. They have secrets too - trade secrets.'

The telephone rang at the head of the stairs.

You just know it's not going to end well. Although, and I always find this when I'm reading Greene, you do still hope for these trapped, sweaty men, battling against the worst forms of quietly menacing bureaucracy that has no place for their emotions.

Great book. Yeah. And it contains the best depiction of a dog I think I've ever read. Complete dog-dom in a few lines.

As an aside, why are the covers for Greene novels always so grey and boring? Anyone got a good cover for one of his novels? All of mine are awful.

Later on this week I'm going to take a look back over the veggie books I've picked and choose my favourites. I've read some corkers, that's for sure.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Veggie Books: Reflections in a Golden Eye

You know how sometimes you finish a great big meal and all you want is a cup of strong black coffee and an After Eight? After Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin, Carson McCullers' Reflection in a Golden Eye was my After Eight.

It's the exact opposite of Alone in Berlin. It's slim and surreal and sensual, and metaphorically dripping in sweat. Mainly in horse sweat, but also in human sweat. Phew. I felt like I needed a mint julep whilst reading it, and I don't even really know what that is.

Leonora lives on an Army fort in the American Deep South. Her husband, Captain Penderton, doesn't ride horses, or indeed live, as well as her. She throws herself into adventures, such as the affair she's having with her neighbour. Leonora catches the eye of Private Williams, who works in the stable. He begins to let himself into her bedroom at night, where he crouches by her, and watches her sleep. He creeps through the pages of the novel, infusing it with his strangeness.

Meanwhile, Leonora continues to throw herself about on the fort. Here she is organising a huge party with the wife of her boyfriend. The shindig will include an awful lot of meat and booze and a few vegetables:

'Listen!' said Leonora, and her fresh rosy face flamed suddenly with anticipation. 'I just wish you could see my kitchen now. Here's the way it will go. I'm putting in all the leaves in the dining room table and everybody will just mill around and help themselves. I'm having a couple of Virginia hams, a huge turkey, fried chicken, sliced cold pork, plenty of barbecued spare-ribs, and all sorts of little knick-knacks like pickled onions and olives and radishes. And hot rolls and little cheese biscuits passed round. The punchbowl is in the corner, and for people who like their liquor straight I'm having on the sideboard eight quarts of Kentucky Bourbon, five of rye, and five of Scotch. And an entertainer from town is coming out to play the accordion -'

'But who on earth is going to eat all that food?' Alison asked, with a little swallow of nausea.

'The whole shebang,' said Leonora enthusiastically.

I won't tell you what happens at the end. It's too good to ruin. I thought it was the most amazing novel, with a deep sense of sexual menace underpinning a delicate story. But I do wonder if I would have enjoyed it less if I hadn't read it straight after the Hans Fallada. An After Eight can seem really unfulfilling to a hungry person, right? You have to be replete with the meat and veg first before the small dark sliver of rich chocolate does the trick.

I'm hungry now. Off to the kitchen.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Veggie Books: Alone in Berlin

If you're anything like me, you read a lot of books and most of them entertain, amuse or educate. But they don't stay with me, not in a deep, lasting way. I might think of them, or even re-read them, but they're not necessarily books that I have to talk about, to recommend, to pass on. Those sort of books are pretty sparse, really, I think.

Last week I read two of them. One after the other. I would say books are like buses but the third book I read wasn't anywhere near as good, unfortunately, so it's not as if good things do come in threes. So much for the easy aphorism approach to blogging.

I'll leave you in suspense as to what the second book was, but the first was Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. Fallada had a pretty full-on life, involving stints in psychiatric care and problems with drugs and alcohol. He didn't write a vast amount of books, and when he wrote Alone in Berlin he knew it was the best he was going to achieve. It's a true story, set during the early 1940s, of a man and his wife who lose their son in the war and try to find some way of fighting Nazi rule. They settle on writing postcards containing anti-Hitler statements and leaving them in public buildings. It's a small rebellion that has very little effect, but if they get caught they're well aware they'll be sentenced to death.

It's easy, I think, to say - I wouldn't have stood for that. I would have spoken up about the atrocities committed by my leaders. But this book shows how difficult that is, because decent people want to protect their loved ones, their children, their older relatives. Fear for them utterly erodes the will to act, to save a stranger instead. And yet people still do act, amazingly - in the novel, an old Jewish woman is taken in and hidden by a retired judge. A young couple try to start a group to sabotage machinery at work. And the postcards, too, are an act of extreme bravery. All of these small rebellions can come to nothing - we already know Hitler was not defeated by his own people. This knowledge pervades the novel. It did not work; it was not enough.

One character in the novel, Eva Kluge, decides to leave the Nazi party, and is subjected to torture and disgrace for her decision. She leaves Berlin and moves to the countryside, where, one day, a boy on the run stops next to her vegetable patch and steals her breakfast.

In the last few months in the village, Frau Kluge has got a little used to these children: the bombing raids on Berlin had intensified, and the populace was called upon to send their children out into the countryside. The provinces are inundated with these Berlin kids. It's a curious thing; some of these kids can't adjust to the quiet of rural life. Here they have peace and quiet, better food, undisturbed nights, but they can't stand it, they have to go back to the metropolis. And so they set off: barefoot, begging for scraps of food, with no money, hounded by rural constables, they make their way resolutely back into the city that almost every night is ablaze. Picked up and returned to their rural communities, they give themselves a little time to put some flesh on their bones, and then run away back home again.

This present specimen with the challenging eye who was eating Eva's breakfast had probably been on the road for quite some time. She couldn't remember ever having seen a figure quite as filthy and ragged as this. There were straws in his hair, and she felt she could have planted carrots in his ears.

Eva takes in this boy, a member of Hitler Youth who has run away from an abusive father, and tries to teach him right from wrong. Can the indoctrinated learn a different path? That seems to me to be the key question of the novel.

Published in 1947, Alone in Berlin does not obey modern sensibilities, obviously. It's a wonderful product of its time, and gave me a fresh insight into that terrible war.

Golly, that was all very serious.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Veggie Books: The Year of the Flood

In the future, when it all goes pear-shaped and we find ourselves eating our words/faeces/neighbours, I don't want to be brave. I want to be the wife in The Road - take a few pills and call the whole thing off. No walking large distances with only a pointy stick to protect myself. No scrabbling up roots to chew for energy whilst avoiding crazed cannibal rapists with bad hair.

I don't know if reading books about dystopian futures really does do a person any good. I end up thinking too much about what I would do in case of such an emergency, and yet there is no answer to that question, is there? What would you do if everyone else melted, like in Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood? It's impossible to say. And reading about other people having to cope with it invariably makes me depressed.

So, in the novel, we have a pre-melting incident tribe of organic natural type people called The Gardeners, and they are at odds with the dog-eat-any sort of meat whatsoever people living packaged existences in decaying cities.

The Gardeners used a lot of soap, because they were so worried about microbes, but some of the cut-up soaps would be set aside. They'd be rolled into leaves and have strands of twisted grass tied around them, to be sold to tourists and gawkers at the Gardeners' Tree of Life Natural Materials Exchange, along with the bags of worms and the organic turnips and zucchinis and the other vegetables the Gardeners hadn't used up themselves.

This is the reminiscence of Ren, a girl who has survived the melting (known in Gardening circles as The Waterless Flood) and is living alone in the sex club where she once worked. She grew up as a Gardener, and she is hoping to be saved by the one real friend she made during that time. Will the savvy Amanda come and rescue her? Is Amanda even alive any more? Or is she just another gooey puddle?

The Year of the Flood carried me along in its skilfully portrayed awfulness, but I did feel a bit grubby by the end. I've gone off dystopias. I know there's a lot wrong with modern life, but does it have to end in utter disaster? I suppose I like my fiction with a little more hope in it ever since I produced a Munchie.

Also, I would add this is a follow-up to Oryx and Crake, which I haven't read. And maybe I should have because a few things happened at the end that left me bemused. If you were thinking of giving it a go, maybe read Oryx and Crake first.

Top Five Novels of Futures With Utter Despair In Them (not including 1984 for some reason):

1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
2. Z for Zachariah by Robert C O'Brien.
3. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
4. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.
5. The Watchmen by Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons.

Got any other literary bleak futures for me? I used to love all these books and now I cry when I think about them. Sob.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Veggie Books: Human Traces

I was half way through Sebastian Faulks' Human Traces when I watched the first episode of Faulks on Fiction (BBC4). This was a mistake. Suddenly I kept hearing Sebastian Faulks' voice and picturing his face as I got to the more didactic sections of the novel. Because it is a novel about teaching, in lots of ways, and how information is passed on. At the beginning of psychology, just starting to understand the brain and mental illnesses without resorting to terms such as hysteria, two young men from different backgrounds become friends, and eventually set up a sanatorium/clinic together. They spend a lot of time formulating ideas and giving lectures, sometimes touching on knowledge which is common to us nowadays, and sometimes going very wide of the mark.

Yeah, they do that a lot. A bit too much, really, I'd say, particularly as I kept hearing Faulks' voice in it. Having said that, I loved the female characters and their occasional interjections into this world, filled with common sense that gets roundly ignored.

And, of course, there were vegetables, which redeemed it in places. Here the two friends and their mutual muse, (Queenie/Sonia), have dinner after a lecture by a distinguished doctor:

'Yes,' said Thomas. 'That view. Queenie, did you understand the significance of what he said?'

'It was hard enough to understand the words.'

'Omelette,' said the waiter.

'The most important part was when he made it clear that emotions and memories can lodge in a part of the mind outside the usual mental processes - as it were in a vacuum, a sort of psychic Deauville. Here, they can actually be transformed into bodily symptoms which -'

'Herring and potatoes in oil?'

'When they are ready, can be expressed as tics, or pains or partial paralysis or -'

'And this,' interrupted Jacques, 'is the kind of authority we have long been looking for.'

Sonia sat back and smiled as Thomas and Jacques waved their knives and forks at one another.

There's a deft touch of humour here that I wish had punctuated other parts of the book. Overall, I'm glad I went along for the ride, but much preferred the inner workings of Engleby to the outer explanations of how the mind ticks.

As an afterthought, how interesting it is that knowing the author's face and voice should have been so offputting to the reading experience. Isn't this the antithesis of what modern publishing would have us believe?

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Veggie Books: Good Behaviour

I'm back into reading again. Just before Christmas I was really sick of books, being in the throes of finishing one myself. But now the urge to read the pile that accumulated on my bedside table has kicked in and I'm making progress through it.

I'm not sure Jack Vance needs an antidote, but if he did it might well be Molly Keane's Good Behaviour, written in 1981 although it feels like a much older book, and reprinted under the Virago Modern Classics Imprint. The little icon on the spine for VMC is a bitten apple. Good one. Veggiebox approval there.

It's a book with no time for pleasantries. Aroon St Charles is a pretty unlikeable character. She gets accused of killing her mother in the first chapter, but by the end of the novel we can understand what's made her the way she is, and I loved the honesty of the unspoken pressures at work on her. It's such a sharp, painful book, too clear in its depiction of straitjacketed upper class family life for the moments of great humour to do more than lift it temporarily out of despair.

I think people might describe my own books the same way, perhaps, if I'm really lucky. So obviously this kind of style would appeal to me. Don't pay any attention to the awful pink dress on the cover. It's not a fluffy book. It's brilliant.

Here's a fruity bit where Aroon is spending the last days of summer with her brother Hubert and his best friend Richard (whom she is in love with) before the boys leave for University. They've just been dancing to the gramophone after dinner:

With Richard, with the music, with the pallor in the windows and the darkness in the room, my happiness was restored to me, sounder, more assured than it had been in the morning. I took it with me to bed. Next morning, when I woke, I could almost look at it, it was so real.

In those last days the boys kept me with them continually. Each day of early September was more perfect than the last. Grapes were ripe in the battered vinery - those muscatels Mummie knew how to thin and prune. Butterflies - fritillaries, peacocks - spread their wings on scabious, sedum, and buddleia, waiting heavily, happily for death to come. We sat among them, eating grapes, the sun on our backs.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Veggie Books: Lyonesse

I finished the mighty tome of Lyonesse novels, and yes, I admit it, Jack Vance is brilliant. I particularly enjoyed the female characters who weren't in the least bit keen on being saved by anybody. Madouc in particular reminded me of The Paper Bag Princess*. She's going on her own quests and is going to get her own answers. I loved her, and the final book in the trilogy in particular.

There's really no element that's weak about the books. I didn't always follow where the characters were off to, geographically speaking, but I think that's a personal fault of mine. I'm really rubbish at computing that kind of information, but it didn't stop my enjoyment of the novels. The dialogue and the descriptive writing are also excellent throughout. How unusual it is to find a fantasy trilogy that's not falling down somewherew in the writing. How terrible it is to have to say that. How come we're happy to accept lazy writing in fantasy, with all those stereotypical relationships and long-winded paragraphs? Hm. Anyhoo, that's for another discussion. What I'm really interested in is, of course, the vegetable situation.

I pleased to report there are lots of vegetables to choose from. And fruit. And bread and meat, and ale. The food is nicely covered throughout, and most of the time ended up making me hungry. Like the section below, where the innkeeper Dildahl is trying to get his guests to eat the fish on the menu because he can then charge an exorbitant price for it:

'I can offer a succulent pie of crayfish tails, or a brace of fine brown trout, at their prime, sizzling in butter and vinegar.'

Harbig scanned the board. 'They are not written on the menu. How are the prices? Fair, or so I expect, with the whole lake at your doorstep?'

'When it comes to fish, we are at our best! What of two dozen pilchard, with lemons and sorrel?'

'Toothsome, no doubt, but price, man! What of the price?'

'Oh ha ha, I am not certain; it varies with the catch.'

Harbig dubiously eyed the menu. 'Lentil soup might be tasty.'

'Soup is off,' said Dildahl. 'What of a plate of splendid salmon roe, with capers and butter, and a salad of cress and parsley?'

And so continues the negotiations, but Dildahl will find these two guests are not as innocent to his thieving ways as they seem. Enjoyably, this is only the smallest of asides and not at all important to the main plot, but it gives the whole thing colour and flavour. Get it? The vegetables add the flavour. Heh.

*Thanks Alis for introducing the Munchie and me to The Paper Bag Princess! I recommend it for the parents of all little girls who develop alarming Disney fixations.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Toy Story Sucks

I think Pixar are amazing. I can watch A Bug's Life any time, and Wall-E was awesome. Finding Nemo has begun to grate just recently due to over-exposure (it became the Munchie's obsession briefly, but now she's fixated on spooky castles, thankfully, which is making a pleasant change.) but it's still a wonderful film. I'm prepared to admit that.

I just blooming hate Toy Story.

This feeling has been exacerbated by Toy Story 3, which I thought was awful. The dialogue is witty, the animation is perfect, and the voices are brilliant. But I can't get over the fact that it doesn't represent how a child relates to their toys. Children torture their toys. That's what they do. They throw them around and put things in their eyes and draw on them. They don't fondly say goodbye to them before they go to college. Do they? Or is this just me?

I remember pulling the head off my ballerina Sindy, and giving her a haircut, and dressing her up in Action Man clothes and throwing her down the stairs. But I don't think I was particularly aggressive as a child. I also gave her cuddles and stuff, but the good went with the bad. I didn't treat her like a person. I was trying things out on her, and that included being mean.

Kids should be mean to toys. They shouldn't be concerned as to whether that toy has feelings. They shouldn't have to be nice to toys just in case they are actually somehow alive.

I've taken this too seriously, haven't I? Well, I don't like the prescriptive element of Toy Story. Nice children don't blow up their toys, huh? I think they do. In fact, I think it's healthy to do so. So there.

And Toy Story 3 had a rubbish storyline too. It just rehashed Toy Story 2 with a smelly bear thrown in. *pokes out tongue*