Friday, 27 July 2012

If great authors wrote the Olympic Opening Ceremony...

Image: London Evening Standard
Tonight's Olympic opening ceremony is supposedly based on Shakespeare's The Tempest - the title is Isle of Wonder and Kenneth Branagh is rumoured to reading Caliban's 'Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises' speech.  This is all well and good, but we were wondering what might have happened if the show had been produced by some Literary Greats from throughout history...

Shakespeare seems the obvious place to start.  The Tempest is ok, but everyone knows that the tragedies are Shakespeare's greatest work, while the histories are all about the bizarre squabbles of the Royal Family.  Of the predicted one billion global watchers, who wouldn't be thrilled in this Diamond Jubilee year to see a Hamlet/Othello/Romeo and Juliet Royal mash-up, featuring Kate and William as star-crossed lovers, with Mohammed Al-Fayed as Iago convincing William that Prince Philip killed his mother?

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The e-books of the future

When will e-books become more than turning fake pages of Shakespeare?

E-books are increasingly taken for granted as a normal part of the reading landscape.  But what will happen when publishers and authors begin to take full advantage of the technology?

One of the consistently emphasised strengths of the Kindle is that it ‘reads like paper’; the latest model even boasts ‘10% faster page turns’.  Obviously other features differentiate the newer technology (and justify its price tag), but it’s clear that a fundamental part of its appeal is that it closely replicates the reading experience of a physical book.  This makes sense from a marketing perspective – one of the most common objections to purchasing an e-reader is the loss of the ‘feel’ of a nice new paperback.

On the other hand though, this striving for similarity might just be missing the point, almost as if the only conceivable use for television was to add images to existing radio shows.  Sci-fi author David Gerrold used a very similar analogy last year, predicting “just as movies, radio, and television evolved into new forms over time, the ebook will also become something more than just a way to read books.  It will become its own specific and unique way of creating and sharing experience.”

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Review: The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Rarely has any novel made me laugh and cry as promiscuously as Kaui Hart Hemmings’s 2008 debut novel, The Descendants.

The subject matter is unlikely fuel for comedy.  Matt King is a workaholic lawyer, attempting to come to terms with the fact that his wife Joanie is in a terminal coma, leaving him with two daughters.  As if this wasn’t enough, we soon discover that Joanie was having an affair, and also that Matt is soon to determine the sale of his family’s ancestral property, making millionaires out of himself and his cousins.

In this dark territory, Hemmings creates in Matt a wonderfully human narrator, able to comprehend both the tragedy and the farce in this eminently believable narrative.  The novel is most effective when Matt is most impotent; attempting to explain to a linguistically challenged woman why it is inappropriate to sell bikini photos of his underage daughter in a hospital shop; listening in bewilderment while role-playing his comatose wife while his still younger daughter tells a tall tale about sea urchins and self-harm.  This Hawaii is subverts the stereotypes, and even younger readers will appreciate the detachment with which its narrator views its inhabitants.

Hookline: an exciting new way to get published?

(by Claire Davis)

We all know that there are hundreds of unpublished writers out there, desperately waiting for their manuscripts to be read by some top dog editor could make or break their careers (if he even gets around to reading it). We also all take for granted that when browsing in a bookshop we’re sure to find something we might want to read, and if not, we can simply choose something from the bestseller shelf. That shelf full of the lucky ones, the books that made it, the authors who managed to get noticed in the swirling sea of other fish.

But what if there is a book, a gap in the market, something new and original that you personally would love to see published, which never makes it through? Enter Hookline Books.

A small and unique publishing company, Hookline Books runs a novel competition specifically for unpublished graduates from MA writing courses. Its principles: to give debut writers a fighting chance of being read and published, and to give the readers a real choice in the process.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Review: White Noise by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo: could be more funny? (from

Don DeLillo tries hard to be funny. He is sometimes successful, I suppose. But the humour he offers is of a stodgy, academic, over-thought kind: the humour of an author or a professor's midlife crisis. Such is the tone of White Noise, so overpowered with this kind of humour that it comes across grey and brown and flat. Sometimes the novel sparkles with the absurd: an “airborne toxic event”, bizarre conversations with doctors, a surreal and ineffective shootout that recalls Humbert's assassination of Quilty in Lolita. But all are dampened, devoid of joy.

Lolita is a good point of comparison. Like in Nabokov's novel, the first person narrator of White Noise dominates the text with his voice. Unlike in Lolita, however, there are few advantages to be gained. Jack Gladney's voice's overwhelming effect is 
most problematic when it is applied to the dialogue of his children. Denise (11) and Heinrich (14), we are expected to believe, speak and act with the emotional and intellectual range of middle aged college professors. I half expected the denouement of the novel to be silent Wilder's first words – a digression on the cultural importance of burger bars and supermarkets, or a conversation about death, or chemistry. Wilder is three. That he doesn't speak is a source of comfort to his parents – it marks him as young and death-proof – and it is comforting to the reader, who has already been freaked out by the other children's peculiar maturity.

Charles Dickens: Where to start?

In the first of our articles responding to reader requests, we’ve put together an introduction to classic Victorian author Charles Dickens.  Always wanted to read him, but never known where to start?  Not sure if its your thing at all?  Finished all his books, and want to check if you agree with us?  Read on to find out!

Also, if you want us to write an article or review based on what you want to read about, just let us know via our Facebook page.

The basics

Dickens’ novels tends to be enormous – not just in terms of pages but also in terms of characters and storylines.  Once you get over his slightly outdated style (it was over 150 years ago) then he’s a very easy read – his characters might be cartoonish, but they’re often still recognisable today, as (sadly) are some of the societal problems which he regularly attacked.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Review: The Thread by Victoria Hislop

A fascinating historical narrative rescues Victoria Hislop’s latest novel from its somewhat two-dimensional characters and inconsistent prose style, making it ideal beach reading.

The plot loosely focuses around the developing relationship between Dimitri, a rebellious son of a wealthy merchant, and Katerina, a talented semi-orphaned seamstress, which unfolds across the first half of the twentieth century in the Greek city of Thessaloniki.  Their eventual fate is not left in doubt as they are married in the twenty-first century prologue, which means our interest is always chiefly concerned with the history of the city itself, in a manner that might remind readers of Edward Rutherfurd.

Like (I suspect) many British readers, my knowledge of the Thessalonians is limited to the biblical letters they received.  As such, the main pleasure of Hislop’s work is fascinating story of the city’s three decades of crisis, from the Great Fire of 1917 to the civil war of the late 1940s – all topics which seem to have completely eluded the British curriculum-makers.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Where have all the poets gone?

This week, Carol Anne Duffy won the PEN/Pinter prize for poetry.  Duffy, as Poet Laureate, is probably the most famous poet operating in Britain at the moment (Seamus Heaney having of course moved to Ireland), and has an ever-increasing body of critically acclaimed poetry.  But how many people could name a single one of her poems?

This obviously isn’t limited to Duffy.  Last week we discussed the anonymity of London’s Poetry Parnassus, and indeed of Literature in general.  However, while novels are less discussed than footballers, they are still almost infinitely more successful than poems.  JK Rowling will sell millions of copies of The Casual Vacancy this autumn; Duffy, awards and all, will struggle to shift a fraction of that.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Road to successful film adaptation...

(by Claire Davis)

One of the best books I have read all year has got to be The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Stunningly written, heart-wrenchingly sad and one of the most unsettling stories I have read in my entire lifetime, its poetic language and beautifully bleak imagery left me with a very real terror at the possibilities of humanity, when the world as we know it comes to an end.

Which of course meant that the film The Road, directed by John Hillcoat, couldn't possibly match up to my expectations. Well, readers, I was actually surprised, and found myself to be wrong as I sat captivated in front of the movie version of the book last night. It was an extremely uncanny experience; as though somebody had climbed into my very own head, extracted the scenes from my imagination as I turned the pages of that book, and played them out on the big screen for me to watch. It could have been a projection of my very own perceptions. Powerful, upsetting, frightening and hauntingly (yet so paradoxically) beautiful, I was wholeheartedly impressed by the film.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Imagining a Literary Olympics

(English PEN campaign)
The world’s poets have come to London.  Did you notice?  You could be forgiven if you didn’t, as the week of events passed by with barely a ripple of interest from the national media.  The event formed part of the ongoing Cultural Olympiad, 'the largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Movements'.  But if this Olympian effort has not quite managed to capture the public imagination, what might a literature-based Olympics actually look like?

Essential to the appeal of sport is its immediacy - the demonstration of outstanding skill under competitive pressure.  To that end, the most obvious analogue might be spoken word poetry, particularly in the competitive format of the rap battle, exemplified in the YouTube video of rapping school teacher Mark Grist which went viral in the spring (video below, which includes strong language).  Purists might sneer at the association of such contests as 'literary', but such claims date back at least a decade now, and in terms of re-creating the atmosphere of competitive sport it has no obvious rival - the top YouTube comments even suggest international rivalry could feature, although 'LOL UK rap scene is the best in the world, simple.' might not win over those aforementioned purists.

Review: The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Psychopaths? (from top) Emmanuel Constant (via, Haitian death-squad leader; Albert John Dunlop (via Asylum), corporate downsizer; Bob Hare, creator of 'The Psychopath Test' (via Vancouver Institute); Jon Ronson (via

As with much journalism, the real interest in Jon Ronson's book is found in the eccentrics he meets, rather than the ideas that he brushes over. He admits as much himself when he begins to discuss the implications of the media's obsession with the mad. Is it exploitative? he wonders, but that's about as far as he gets.

Review: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

(translated by William Weaver)

Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of the cities he has seen on his travels.

                         Canaletto: The Grand Canal and the Church of the Salute, 1730

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan are opposite impulses: Polo explores, barters, trades, assimilates himself from West to East. The Khan leads his horde from East to West, destroying, sacking, absorbing. Yet it is mercantile Polo not conquering Kublai who most threatens the individuality of the cities he describes. The Khan is fascinated by the extent and variability of his empire, Marco Polo by the extent to which all of the world is the same.

                                         Machinarium, Amanita Designs, 2009

Books News Digest

J.K. Rowling's forthcoming novel The Casual Vacancy had its cover released this week.  Waterstones' Jon Howells' described it as 'bold', the Guardian contrastingly labelled it 'understated', and a tastefully named Comment is Free contributor commented 'Reviewing a COVER? Oh dear.'  But what else is new in the book world this week?

Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez will not be able to continue writing due to dementia, his brother has announced.  Marquez, best known for works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, is with cruel irony midway through his two-part autobiography, entitled Living to Tell the Tale.

Review: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

A few weeks ago a review in The Spectator praised books ‘books which have their own linguistic microclimate’; first person narratives where (after a period of jarring alteration) you find yourself thoroughly immersed in the world as seen by another deeply realised personality.  The Remains of the Day is a beautifully realised example of this.

The story takes place along two timelines – in July 1956 ageing butler Stevens is on a motoring holiday to visit Miss Kenton, and on his way he reflects on his life and experience.  That, however, does not come close to the heart of this novel, which is centrally concerned with Stevens himself, and his own relationships with his employer, his occupation, and (eventually) Miss Kenton herself.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Review: The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells

As always with HG Wells, what you admire first is the quality and prescience of his imagination. His vision of a fully urbanised, highly industrialised world, while in line with many late Victorian assumptions about the future, continues to impress; the specifics of his world – including aeroplanes and televisions – are perhaps more remarkable in their accuracy. Wells's literary foresight is equally to be commended, with The Sleeper Awakes providing a kind of generic bridge between the utopianism of William Morris and the dystopian satires of the more dissatisfied Huxley and Orwell. His world contains oppressed masses, totalitarian systems of control and plenty of misery: the key difference is that this misery doesn't lead to despair: Wells's masses are best characterised by their faith and hope.

This hope gives the latter half of the novel a feel that, in modern parlance, might be described as 'cinematic' or 'Hollywood'. The pace quickens as the world is redeemed; a slow, interesting exploration of Wells's vision is replaced with escalating action; the illusion is shattered. You can tell that Wells never finished the novel to his satisfaction: the narrative shift is unconvincing, and the second part of the book cluttered and marginally incoherent.

The narrative transformation also has ramifications for Wells's hero, whose initial confusion and wonder at the world in which he finds himself contrasts so effectively with the introductory chapters set in Edwardian England (in which the Sleeper falls asleep) and provides such an effective way for the reader to engage with the world. He becomes a messianic figure, and accepts this role swiftly and easily, despite failing to fully comprehend what it entails. Perhaps this is deliberate – a mark of the Sleeper's own faith and idealism – but it seems hurried and unsatisfactory nonetheless.

The Sleeper Awakes, then, finds Wells unable to fully realise his ideas across the length of a novel. He fails to add sufficient depth or breadth to his world. It needs time to breathe and grow which Wells denies it; the characters that inhabit it need space in which to seem like more than mere cogs in an allegorical clock. That said, I have no doubt that, had Wells been able to finish it, The Sleeper Awakes would not suffer from many off these problems, and the power of Wells's imagination would shine all the more brightly.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

To get one thing out of the way: I love Dickens. First and foremost, his work is highly entertaining, almost pulpy, demonstrating a mastery over form and content rarely seen anywhere. There's a wicked glee to be found in his satire, but never one that strays into cruelty; Dickens is just as capable of pathos and sentiment if he wishes to be. His style is similarly perfected: unafraid to experiment, but aware of the importance and primacy of accessibility and plot, equally comfortable with grim naturalism and merry caricature, with contorted coincidence and easy freedom. Unlike later authors, who adopt more 'low-brow' genres such as the detective story (of which one of Bleak House's many subplots is an important forerunner) and brutalising them to breaking point with conceit and intellect, Dickens fully inhabits and understands his medium: his genius comes in his ability to transcend generic constraints even as he perfects them. Never is there a sense that he is straining to show off his, presumably considerable, intelligence, never a sense that he is trying to be clever. There is great joy in reading Bleak House in the mastery of craft, a mastery that is at once unpretentious and capable of vast popular appeal.

Review: Fiesta/The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

The first thing that came to mind when reading Ernest Hemingway's début novel (called the far less evocative Fiesta in Europe) was the similarity to Fitzgerald – bored émigrés, alcohol, self-destruction and loveless, sadistic relationships – although, I suppose, this is inevitable given that Fitzgerald was my introduction to modern American literature. The congruity seems to imply that both authors were effective documenters of a certain ethos following the First World War, and a strong sense of despair, nihilism and impotence running through a whole class. The Sun Also Rises suffers in comparison to Fitzgerald's work, particularly The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, because of its locality and specificity: the sorrows of Hemingway's characters never seem to represent the sorrows of the American, or perhaps the human, condition as Fitzgerald's do. The scale seems more intimate.

The vast majority of the novel relates a group of acquaintances' experiences at a Pamplona fiesta, most of which consist of drinking to excess, brawling with one another and watching bulls get slowly killed in the ring. Hemingway is enthusiastic about all these activities – his passion for bullfighting is well documented – and this conveys itself in the astonishing vividness and vitality of his prose: the excitement of the fiesta, the dancing with locals, the early morning wine and late evening coffee, the scorching midday sun, the crowds and the bulls themselves.

The bullfighting and the alcoholism provide the substance of Hemingway's thematic intention. The heights of emotion reached during a bullfight, the goading and taunting, and the aggression seem to represent one end of the characters' emotional scale; the opiate effect of alcohol, the passivity and impotence it causes, the other end. And yet alcohol catalyses some of the conflicts of the novel; to exaggerate feelings and exacerbate tensions; it empowers at the same time as it hinders. Perhaps its greater significance is the loss of control it causes, which is reflected in the characters' dependent financial situations and, for most of the male characters, dependent emotional situations: almost every man in the novel seems to be intolerably in love with the vivacious Brett.

Most interesting of these suitors is the character of Cohn, introduced at the beginning as a sort of hero. Cohn remains, however, a somewhat pathetic figure throughout, unwanted and uncared for, yet curiously arrogant; weak and cowering, yet, thanks to his boxing, the most physically capable character; curiously without influence in a narrative dominated by Brett's whims. The reader's perception of Cohn is certainly distorted by the first person narration, but this does not fully explain his often objectionable behaviour. Some readers have decided that this complexity in the novel's 'hero' can be resolved by declaring that Hemingway is an anti-Semite, or that he was trying to reflect the racism in this society.

An anti-Semitic reading avoids the true fascination of Cohn: if he is to be the hero, does that leave the other characters, so often his opponents, as villains? Is Cohn truly meant to be aspirational, or is he intended as some kind of critique? Hemingway's decision to thrust Cohn to the side of his narrative leave these questions unanswered, and his début novel tantalisingly incomplete.

Review: The Steppe by Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov is an author best known for his short stories and his plays, so the fact that he also wrote several longer prose works is often overlooked. 'The Steppe' is the earliest of these, and it describes a young boy's journey across the southern Russian landscape in which Chekhov grew up; there are clear autobiographical elements here. Chekhov's greatest influence, however, appears to be that of the Romantic movement: not the British Romantics like Keats, Wordsworth and Byron, but the more European branch: Goethe, Gogol and Pushkin. Given my usual distaste for Romanticism, I found 'The Steppe' to be surprisingly effective, particularly the description of the thunderstorm that acts as a sort of climax to the novella, which is possibly the only time I have managed to grasp the sublimity of nature that Wordsworth and chums kept discoursing about.

The fact that the climax of the work is a natural and fairly commonplace event conveys the muted tone of 'The Steppe': Chekhov seeks to accurately reflect life in the Russia of his youth. He therefore manages to resist the easy temptation to slip into allegory during the boy's journey, and allows his narrative to peter out into a flat, restrained ending. Chekhov even parodies a desire for melodrama in the campfire stories that occupy the central part of the novella: the boy wonders why one of the men he is travelling with insists on peddling fabrications, when his own life has been so interesting.

That is not to say that Chekhov is scathing or resentful. As with the best of his work, 'The Steppe' contains a blend of light and dark humour and tragedy, seeming to accurately represent the more varied tones of everyday life. Chekhov's treatment of his characters is similarly balanced: while he seems to be generally affectionate, he does not shy away from relating the flaws of his constructs. Few explicit details are given, but the implications become clear; that Chekhov manages to create such depth with so little prompting, and so few narrative events, demonstrates his mastery. 'The Steppe' somehow falls short of the great, intangible, indefinable feeling of profundity that haunts Chekhov's best work, yet its richness and vividness of character, location and life make it compelling.

Review: What Maisie Knew by Henry James

Henry James's 'What Maisie Knew' is remarkable for its subtlety. The story of a young girl caught between the opposing self-interests of her recently, and acrimoniously, divorced parents would appear to be the kind of tale that lends itself easily to farce or to tawdry melodrama, but James manages to handle it with remarkable poise. He is helped by the supple complexity of his style, filled with syntactically intricate sentences that seem to offer precision, but really tell you very little about the characters and their feelings; they perfectly reflect the superficially attractive façade of both James's creations and the privileged society they seem to inhabit.

Such prose is common to all of James's novels (or at least, all the ones that I have read; the introductions to these assure me that he doesn't dramatically alter his style elsewhere); what appears to make 'What Maisie Knew' stand out is James's masterful deployment of his titular heroine. Maisie is an ironic construction of genius: by presenting her parent's sordid personal lives through her innocent point of view, James allows a great deal of ambiguity, and a great deal of humour, into his work. Furthermore, Maisie's almost angelic perfection provides a counterpoint to the adult characters, and is, perhaps, necessary to prevent the story from becoming some cheap morality tale: Maisie's desire to please everyone, and ability to forgive everyone, can often prove divisive, but also prevents James from making any crude moral judgements.

Maisie, as a fictional construction, has some flaws, however. Her passivity throughout the work, while it may be one of her virtues within James's conception, seems to be almost to blame for the plot's stagnation: she must choose who, from a wide assortment of unsuitable adults, she wishes to live with. That this decision is set up within the first thirty pages, but delayed until right at the end of the novel, means that the body drags and suffers from a lack of purpose. This is exacerbated by James's desire to mirror every scene, giving the novel a symmetrical feel: while this often highlights the similarities and differences between the characters, and can be frequently amusing, it engenders repetition in terms of narrative. In short, the book is over long, and lacks a certain compulsiveness which I would have appreciated. Maisie's perfection also seems to imply that no adult guardian is necessary for her, and, indeed, that one might be detrimental for her, hence invalidating, to an extent, the whole plot. Perhaps James does this intentionally; I'd certainly like to imagine that the novel attempts to critique the polemic it could well have become in less adept hands.

Review: V. by Thomas Pynchon

V. chronicles the pursuit, by various unconvincingly named characters, of the titular letter. V. seems to stand for something – Valletta, or Victoria, or Veronica, or V2 rocket, or anything else that begins with a v – but we never really know. The quest, if it may accurately be described as such, is followed through a shifting mis-en-scene of cities and time periods.

Pynchon's set dressing for these scenes is impeccable, all fragments of Italian, tourist landmarks and period references. But they are only this, only guided tours through unreal places, and, if the reader dawdles a little and stops paying attention to what the guide is saying, the stage setting can be seen.

The artifice is, of course, Pynchon's aim. An element of forgery hangs over his cityscapes, because they are deliberately set in 'Baedeker land', not real life. They are collections of objects and things, thrust together. The superficiality of the Baedeker approach to life interests Pynchon. There are depths of humanity to be glimpsed in some chapters, most notably in the callousness of the German ex-patriots in the Namibian section as they discuss the glory days of the Herero genocide. But such glimpses are true of most tourist experiences, when one sees a squatting beggar in a famous piazza in front of a famous palace, or glimpses a family cooking dinner through a window as you stumble down the wrong alley looking for some cathedral or museum.

Most of the emotive power in the novel comes from Pynchon's understanding of things. A dichotomy between the animate (humans, animals etc) and the inanimate (rocks, televisions, bombs) is introduced early in the novel, not with any great seriousness. The boundaries of the two categories fluctuate constantly: when Esther gets a nosejob, when Fausto deconstructs a priest, when Profane decides that people are things, or a barkeeper decides that her bar-taps are breasts. The things are endowed with a great deal of humanity. Pynchon knows that the detritus of people's lives can be profoundly emotive, but in a far more understated way than their hysteria and their heart-to-heart conversations.

The novel can be seen as a collection of detritus, an assemblage of flotsam from the shipwrecks of dozens of lives. It is stuffed with titbits and bits, with proper nouns and acronyms, stray nouns and lists of nouns. Pynchon has a way of creating characterful eccentricity out of very little, and manages to real off such lists almost effortlessly.

“Of their dash across the Continent in a stolen Renault; Profane's one-night sojourn in a jail near Genoa, when the police mistook him for an American gangster; the drunk they all threw which began in Liguria and lasted well past Naples; the dropped transmission at the outskirts of that city and the week they spent waiting its repair in a ruined villa on Ischia, inhabited by friends of Stencil – a monk long defrocked named Fenice who spent his time breeding giant scorpions in marble cages once used by the Roman blood to punish their young boy and girl concubines, and the poet Cinoglossa who had the misfortune to be both homosexual and epileptic”.

Pynchon fills his novel with this kind of manic energy. It entails a kind of sadness: Profane and his friends are too jaded and cynical to enjoy the astounding vitality and exuberance of their adventures.

As the quotation shows, the bulk of this eccentricity is carried through naming: places, people (associated with roles: the monk and the poet), things. The total effect for 500 pages is almost overwhelming. The reader's mind becomes clogged with stuff. Pynchon's stage sets are a masterclass in effective recycling, like WALL·E in Pixar's film, who builds teetering, tottering towers out of trash. Previous styles, scraps of history, brief but compelling biographies and narratives are Pynchon's materials. He gathers them, compresses them into little bricks of his own, and creates skyscrapers.

See more on V. at the V. wiki

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Review: Home by Toni Morrison

Having reached her ninth decade, more than four of which have been spent as a novelist, it is perhaps unsurprising that Toni Morrison has been subject to accusations that she is running out of steam.  However there is still much to be enjoyed in this brief novel, which tells the story of Korean War veteran Frank, who has returned to America and now traverses the country to rescue his sister Cee from an unspecified threat.

Perhaps the most eloquent praise of Morrison’s style came from an unlikely source – a review in Cosmo described Jazz (1992) as 'Shakespeare singing the blues’.  At her best she is as talented a wordsmith as anyone alive, demonstrated perhaps most clearly in her Nobel lecture where she reflected on language itself: ‘Language can never "pin down" slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable’.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Review: Then by Julie Myerson

I suppose, for all the glamour and excitement promised by Apocalypse narratives dating back to Ragnarok and Revelations, it is probably more realistic to assume that the last days will be bewildering yet bleak, then rather boring, before finally becoming deeply depressing.  If she was working on that model, Julie Myerson’s Then is a spectacular success.

I approached the novel with high expectations – it was being promoted at Blackwell’s, and its cover is crammed with good reviews, not least ‘writing that takes your breath away’, courtesy of the Sunday Express.  At the risk of sounding simply contrary, I found almost nothing to enjoy in a novel that’s only defence against misery was opacity.

It’s hard to describe the plot, such as it is, without revealing what might be called spoilers; the first hundred or so pages leave us in post-apocalyptic London in the unhelpful hands of a narrator who has not only lost her long-term memory, but also does not seem aware of what is happening in the ‘present’.  Such mystery is presumably intended to draw us in, but instead gives us no credible character to sympathise or engage with, and the clichéd landscape of a broken city (filled, to no discernable purpose, with a litany of named chain shops) is incapable of filling this gap.

Books News Digest

The Fifty Shades trilogy are still topping the charts and breaking records, despite being dismissed by one Blackwell's Sales Assistant as 'awful...of course I haven't read them'.  But what else is happening in the book world this week?

Dan Brown (pictured) has the dubious honour of being the 'most donated' author for Oxfam, according the Guardian, beating out Ian Rankin and James Patterson.  Stieg Larsson and JK Rowling were the chain's top sellers.

Meanwhile London's Poetry Parnassus kicks off tomorrow (Tuesday) with a 'poetry bombing' - poems by 204 writers from around the globe will be dropped from the sky in a bizarre start to the week of events, intended to 'echo the poetic spirit of the ancient Olympic Games'.  Notable names such as Simon Armitage and Seamus Heaney are involved.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Review: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

What more is there to say about a novel as much-praised as The Great Gatsby, lauded by many as the supreme American novel, and by not a few as ‘one of the most perfect novels ever written’?

It is tempting, although surely blasphemous, to question what all the fuss is about.  The novel is barely long enough to earn that title, passing in barely 150 pages and with a finely pared plot.  Fitzgerald’s writing style is also elegantly minimalist, although he is very adept with dialogue, and the whole reading experience is consequently over within a few hours – eight, to be precise, in the current stage run.