“Bleaker House” by Nell Stevens (2017)

Leave a comment

“This is a landscape an art-therapy patient might paint to represent depression: grey sky and a sweep of featureless peat rising out of the sea.”

I seem to have an unfortunate attraction to books about loneliness. They have in the past caused my own feelings to become exacerbated, but occasionally they do the opposite and make me feel less alone. Bleaker House is definitely one that falls into the latter category.

This book – which I first picked up thinking it was fiction – follows Nell Stevens to the Falkland Islands in her quest to become a writer. Convinced that if she spends six weeks on the remote Bleaker Island (human population: two), she will have enough time and freedom from distractions to pen the novel she’s been meaning to write forever and finally become a writer. The twenty-something sets off, packing up rations for the duration and is convinced that this is the answer to her problems.

However, once there, she realises just how remote the islands are. With nothing but some penguins, sea lions and a potato for company, she begins writing. But more than that. She begins to learn who she is when no one is around. She analyses her past and explores her mistakes. And, most importantly, she learns that plans don’t always work out the way you expect them to.

The narrative is haphazard, but in the way that one’s thoughts do skitter about with snooker balls in a hurricane when you’ve no distractions or company, and it adds to the mania that pervades the premise of Nell’s situation. Chapters alternate between talking about her experiences on the Falkland Islands (particularly Bleaker, but also visiting briefly the capital Stanley), her times back in London and Boston, and her own fiction, either excerpts from the novel-in-progress or previous short stories. I saw one reviewer complain that the book seemed only to serve as a vehicle for Nell to publish stories that had otherwise been rejected, but I disagree. The stories are great, and a vital part of the narrative. After all, it would be almost cheating to send a writer all the way out to the edge of civilisation and then not see their work.

Nell is a comforting, compelling narrator who has by all accounts lived an interesting life. Before her journey, she travelled and tried to be a good person, taking up positions teaching in war-torn nations or helping – as best she was able – a boyfriend with depression. She does, however, have a knack of always being right in the middle of some of the most dramatic moments in the last ten years, including the Boston Marathon bombing, the London riots of 2011, and the shelling of Beirut by Israeli forces. It’s frankly a wonder she’s as balanced as she seems – and for a writer that’s not bad going, as none of us are that balanced – or perhaps it was all the horror she got caught up in that caused her to vanish to the remote wilderness.

As I said at the top, some books about loneliness make me feel lonely. This one did not. It was curiously comforting, honest and beautiful. Frank Turner sings in his song “Be More Kind”, “When you go out searching don’t decide what you will find” and that feels apt here. No matter how excellent your plans seem, there is never a guarantee that they’ll come to fruition. Or, at least, maybe not in the way you expect.

Advertisements

“Nabokov’s Favourite Word Is Mauve” by Ben Blatt (2017)

Leave a comment

“In literary lore, one of the best stories of all time is a mere six words.”

I am a proper nerd for statistics. I’m not very mathematically minded, but give me a good list, chart or graph and I’m a happy man. The only way I have ever been able to tolerate the Olympics or the World Cup is because of all the statistics that come along with it. Mixing up maths and literature, however, to examine the works of our best-selling authors is almost a dream come true.

Journalist Ben Blatt has allied big data with literature to explore the secrets hiding in the pages of our favourite novels. Is it possible to tell if a novel is written by Ernest Hemingway or Charles Dickens just by looking at the use of exclamation marks? Are American authors louder than British ones? Are men or women more likely to use the word “something”? Is the content of The New York Times bestseller list proof that we’re getting stupider as a species? Why do so many novels open with descriptions of the weather? And what do Suzanne Collins and I have in common in how we use cliffhangers? Blatt examines all of these topics and many more besides.

While it’s easy enough to tell if something is written by Douglas Adams or Virginia Woolf due to their vastly different content, this book actually focuses on the more general words used, right down to the smallest ones like the or not. Suddenly is an interesting one – for every 100,000 words J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, 78 of them were suddenly. Chuck Palahniuk sits at the other end of the scale, with 2 out of 100,000. The book can even prove that, if it hadn’t already been revealed to us, Robert Galbraith was more than likely going to turn out to be J. K. Rowling than anyone else, and that’s just going on the uses of what and but.

The gender splits are also very interesting. Quite famously, The Hobbit features the word he nearly 1,900 times, but she only appears once. Is there a book that skews quite this dramatically in the other direction? It doesn’t seem like it, with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie appearing as the most she-heavy novel examined (21% he / 79% she). While women are apparently more likely to use words like lace, dress or curtains, they’re also more prone to saying should, since and like. Generally we don’t take in most of this stuff, but to see it all laid out bare, it’s very fascinating. Blatt also has good fun examining whether authors follow their own advice or not. Martin Amis hates cliches and Stephen King loathes adverbs, so Blatt checks through their work to see if they abide by their own rules. There’s also a lot of time spent reading fan fiction. Can you determine whether Stephanie Meyer wrote a particular chapter, or one of her fans? Yes, you can. There’s also a huge discrepancy between the styles of American and British fan fiction based on Harry Potter.

And yes, based on frequency of use compared to others, Vladimir Nabokov’s favourite word is mauve. Some of the others listed can hardly be considered a surprise – inquest for Agatha Christie, dragons for George R. R. Martin, dinosaur for Michael Crichton – some are a little odder. Who could have guessed that Ray Bradbury favours spearmint or F. Scott Fitzgerald used facetious a lot.

For anyone interested in how their writing matches up, I recommend heading to I Write Like, where you can dump in any text and it will tell you which famous writer your style most resembles. Despite my content matching up closer to the likes of Ben Aaronovitch or Neil Gaiman, my writing style can apparently be mistaken for, who else, Agatha Christie. Apparently she is an even bigger influence on my work than I realised. That, or I’m a somewhat unorthodox reincarnation.

Oh, and the link I have with Suzanne Collins? We both frequently end our chapters with one-sentence paragraphs.

So it goes.

“The Flame Alphabet” by Ben Marcus (2012)

Leave a comment

“We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn’t see us.”

A week is far too long to spend reading a 300-page novel, no matter how small the text. My friends ask me often how I know whether I’ll like all the books I buy and I have no answer – I’m just lucky. Most of the time, that is. Oh yes, it’s one of those rare negative reviews.

Somewhere in New York state, an epidemic has sprung up that has turned children’s speech toxic to adults. All around the neighbourhood, parents fall ill as their children realise the power they have and begin to terrorise the community. Sam and his wife Claire are left with a horrible decision – do they stay with their teenage daughter, or abandon her to get to the quarantine where they can start to recover?

Sam soon finds himself lumbered with the unwanted company of Murphy, a large man who seems to know too much about what’s going on, though is almost certainly not to be trusted. He knows things that only Sam, Claire and the other Jewish members of the neighbourhood know, thanks to their secret forest synagogues. As the plague worsens, soon it isn’t just children that can cause damage. Before long, all communication becomes nigh-on impossible, and there’s a race on to find a cure, or at least a method of communication that won’t kill everyone.

On the Venn diagram of literature, this book sits somewhere between Nod, Lexicon and Lord of the Flies, all of which are better written and more engaging – and I say that having really disliked Lord of the Flies, too. The premise, that of a toxic language, is really great and I was hoping for a novel that would run with the idea, and while this one does, it feels like it’s going the wrong way. The language is dense and quite pretentious. There seems to be a big issue made of the main characters being Jewish, with an early theory being that it was only Jewish children who were causing the sickness, but there’s never a definite answer as to whether this is how it started or not. None of the characters are remotely pleasant people, especially Sam and Claire’s teenage daughter Esther, who is presumably painted in a negative light so that we don’t feel bad when they plot to leave her behind.

The reviews on the cover suggest that the book is funny, too, but that’s passed me by. It’s not that I didn’t “get” the jokes, it’s just that I couldn’t find any to get. There’s nothing remotely funny here, and if anything I would describe the book with a single altogether different word: harrowing. Ben Marcus has painted a rather shocking world, and the images are very visceral, made more so by the fact there isn’t, by the nature of the plot, much dialogue.

Are there redeeming features? Sure. The scenes where Sam is part of the team of scientists trying to invent a new alphabet or method of communication are quite fascinating, with a lot of imagination used to come up with any number of alternate patterns of speech, such as staining wood with water or constructing letters out of yarn that only form words when the right breeze is applied to them to give them shape. The rest of the time though, I can’t say I’m particularly bothered by what’s happening. I felt uncomfortable, and the endless references to the Jewishness of the main characters contrasted with images of emaciated victims is a horrifically stark reminder of the Holocaust. This seems too much, especially for a book billed as “funny”, and which seems, at it’s heart, to be a huge metaphor for the fact that parents don’t understand their children.

I found several mentions online emphasising that Marcus is experimenting with the art of novel-writing here. If that’s the case, then I conclude his experiment has failed. Time to go back to the lab.

“Dead Writers In Rehab” by Paul Bassett Davies (2017)

1 Comment

“I know why the caged bird sings. But that pigeon outside my room at four in the morning? What the fuck is his problem?”

It’s well documented that a lot of creative people seem to develop a fondness for, and perhaps a reliance on, drugs or alcohol. Indeed, I wrote an article for a spirits website about the favourite drinks of several authors. I suppose there’s no real way of knowing if the addictions caused the creativity, or the stress of creating let to the addiction. Who knows? All we do know is that Fitzgerald, Byron, Hemingway, Thompson and the rest all created great works while “under the influence”. Now imagine if you put all those people into the same building and watched the fireworks fly. That’s Dead Writers in Rehab.

Foster James is a literary star who seems to spend much of his time between writing novels in rehab. Once again, he wakes up to find himself in an institution with no memory of how he got there. The doctors are cagey and remote, and he can’t find the front door. It’s only when, during a group therapy session, he’s punched in the face by Ernest Hemingway that he realises that this isn’t a regular rehabilitation centre.

Now surrounded by literature’s greatest reprobates, James must try and come to terms with where he is. In between navigating the comedowns of William Burroughs, Colette and Hunter S. Thompson, he sleeps with Dorothy Parker, and they all learn that the centre is under threat as the two doctors assigned to their care are being torn apart by a failed love affair. Deciding that some things are bigger even than their egos, the writers pool their resources and set about bringing the doctors back together. But there’s something lurking on the edge of the grounds, seen from the corner of the eye, watching and waiting…

Despite not being massively well-versed in the classical canon, I know enough about the figures presented here to enjoy the story hugely. Foster James isn’t especially likeable, but then again very few of the characters are. Dorothy Parker is portrayed as willing to sleep with anyone who asks; Hemingway is violent and aggressive, and Hunter S. Thompson is a cheating sleazeball. They are also all shown at the age they were at the height of their prowess – Hemingway is in his fifties, representing the time he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, while Thompson is young, at his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas peak. It’s a great cast, even including Mary Seacole, who wrote some excellent memoirs about her time in the Crimea, warranting her a place among the patients. I longed for Agatha Christie to appear, of course, but she neither smoked nor drank, and would not be seen in a place like this.

The story is told via the recovery diaries of all the patients, mostly Foster himself, but with excepts from others who all write in the same style that we would expect of them. It’s Foster, though, who provided me with the lines that I particularly loved. When thinking of how his marriage went sour, he says poignantly:

It was like a relationship between pen pals in reverse: we began in the same place, knowing everything about each other, and by the end we were in different wolds with nothing in common but an imperfect grasp of the other’s language.

Or he can be funny, such as when discussing the meaning behind a famous M People song:

I’m all in favour of searching for the hero inside yourself. And if you can’t find him, try luring the bastard out with alcohol and the prospect of a fight; that usually does the trick.

There are a few great twists and surprises which I won’t mention here because the impact is better if you don’t know what’s coming, and while the novel does well for mostly leaving you wondering exactly what’s going on, the end was a little disappointing. It works, sure, but I don’t think we needed an explanation. Or if we did, we needed one different to the one we got.

A very smart, funny and unique book that anyone with even a passing interest in literature should gobble up with great haste.

“Lost For Words” by Edward St Aubyn (2014)

Leave a comment

lost-for-words“When that Cold War relic Sir David Hampshire had approached him about becoming Chair of the Elysian Prize committee, Malcolm Craig asked for twenty-four hours to consider the offer.”

I’ve always been skeptical about literary prizes. As one of the characters in this very book says;

Personally I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but it makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent.

I’m inclined to agree. I’ve read some phenomenal books that seem never to have been given a moment’s attention by those who worship Literature with a capital L, and also slogged my way (often only ever part-way) through novels that have been honoured with massive awards – I’m looking at you, The God of Small Things. Anyway, Lost for Words is a satire on the world of literary prizes and seems to enjoy showing how ludicrous the whole thing is.

The book leaps around to see the world through various characters including the judges for the coveted Elysian Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in the world, some of the writers, and others in their orbits. What we see is a nest of interlocking, often tense, relationships, as everyone has a goal besides ensuring the book they want is the winner. Characters include Katherine Burns, a writer who breaks hearts habitually and is always courting at least three partners; Sam Black, an author who is in love with Katherine; Vanessa, an academic who is not convinced by the literary merit of all but one of the nominees; John Elton, an agent who may just have thrown away the biggest book in history; and Indian author Sonny who is convinced that his novel The Mulberry Elephant will take the world by storm, if only he could get someone to take a look at it.

Lost for Words parodies the fact that some people seem to think that anything is art, and that if you get people to analyse anything enough, they will find all sorts of hidden meanings in it that probably reveals more about themselves than the artist. The book that wins the Prize (a decision that isn’t reached until two minutes before the announcement) is obvious from quite early on, but it’s still a good ending and you find that in this context you don’t mind, although had such a book won the Booker Prize in our world, you’d be miffed.

It’s a quick read, and quite biting towards the industry, but it makes some fair comments about the nature of art, criticism, fame, celebrity, and post-modernism. It’s not the sort of book that will spark many memories for me even a year or so down the line, but it’s not bad.

“The Murdstone Trilogy” by Mal Peet (2014)

Leave a comment

Every writer has a crack at fantasy at least once.

Every writer has a crack at fantasy at least once.

“The sun sinks, leaving tatty furbellows of crimson cloud in the Dartmoor sky.”

Tolkien has a lot to answer for. Without his huge success writing about elves, dwarves and journeys across sprawling landscapes to find or return some sort of jewellery, there wouldn’t be such a market for these sorts of books. The Fantasy genre, in name alone, implies that anything is possible in this world, and yet it seems that over and over again the same sort of story is played out. Having recently just got back into playing Skyrim,  it’s particularly on my mind right now. But, as I say, these books sell, and this is a tale about what happens when they reach the upper echelons of popularity.

Philip Murdstone has had a fairly successful career writing Young Adult books about overly sensitive boys, but recently the bottom seems to have dropped out of the market and his newest offering was barely noticed. His agent, Minerva Cinch, has a new idea for him. Seeing the change in the tide, she suggests he try and write a fantasy novel, or even better a trilogy, as readers can’t seem to get enough of that sort of thing. There’s only one slight problem – Philip hates fantasy.

Now told that he has to write a fantasy novel if he wants to reclaim his earlier success, Minerva sends him off with an outline of what such a novel should contain. All the tropes are there: a sword with a funny name, an evil overlord and his ugly minions, a hero from a shire on the very edge of the Realm, a McGuffin that needs to be acquired at all costs. Philip doesn’t know where to begin. However, while staggering home from the pub one night, he meets Pocket Wellfair, a Greme from another Tolkienesque world, who shares with him a story of such wonder and majesty that before he can blink, Philip is the internationally famous and wealthy author of Dark Entropy.

But now the world wants the sequel, Philip can’t seem to do it without Pocket’s help, and Pocket is far more interested in getting the Amulet back to his homeland, and if he can destroy Philip’s testicles at the same time, then all for the better. The Murdstone Trilogy must be completed: humanity is hungry for the sequel. Philip must make a pact with Pocket to save his own life.

This is a brilliant and darkly funny take on the fantasy novel, both playing with the concept and the very notion of the genre’s existence and predictability. The writing style is reminiscent in many ways of the fantasy novels being discussed. Set in Devon, there are few places more perfectly suited to represent the wonder of a Middle Earth like world. Philip, however, can’t see that, and laments how difficult it is to invent a fictional world, in between listing details of local folklore, describing people in the village in a way that would fit into his novel, and reeling off the unusual place names that make up his environs. It also mocks authors in general, and shows that we’re all a bit fraudulent and worried that one day the switch that powers our imaginations will turn off.

Philip is a fun character, if rather sad and pathetic. It’s hard to say how much he’s based on Mal Peet himself, who similarly made a career writing YA fiction, before switching to this adult offering. He, unfortunately, died the following year, which made me feel guilty that I’d discovered him too late. Minerva is also brilliant; a modern creature unsuited to the fantasy genre, but with a name that suggests otherwise, and the mad locals of Flemworthy, the local town, are of great comedic value. They indeed wouldn’t look out of place in a pub the heroes travel into. They even have local nicknames that suit them.

The ending left me a little disappointed, but it’s a nice twist nonetheless and allows for the genre to do something different. It’s further a reminder that I’d rather read books like this than actually have to wade through The Lord of the Rings. Good fun, and very clever.

I’ve never been into writing sword & sorcery, but my own book has more than its fair share of myth and magic. Download The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from Amazon or wherever else you get your ebooks and check it out.

“Books” by Charlie Hill (2013)

Leave a comment

Some books are fatally bad.

Some books are fatally bad.

“It was three o’clock on Saturday afternoon, the end of a typically long week, and Richard Anger – the owner of the last little bookshop in town – was waiting for a cab to take him to the airport.”

I like books. And I like books about books, as I’ve shown several times over on this blog. So a book called Books was surely going to be a winner, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? Well, it’s just a reminder that sometimes that stuff on the sale table in Waterstone’s is there for a reason. I’m being a trifle unfair, because this isn’t a terrible book. It’s just another example of a brilliant idea poorly executed.

Gary Sayles is a pompous, self-aggrandising author who has produced three bestsellers. After a break from writing, he’s coming back with his fourth “male confessional”, this time apparently bigger, better and more truthful than ever before. While the masses seem to like his work, those who claim to be in the know are less keen, particularly Richard Anger, a bookshop owner from Birmingham. He despises Sayles’s work, disparaging it whenever he can as being lowest common denominator fiction, and poorly written to boot.

On a holiday to Corfu, he witnesses a woman drop dead, while in the middle of reading a Gary Sayles novel. This piques the interest of a neurologist, Lauren Furrows, who discovers that this woman isn’t the first to die in these circumstances. A new name for the disease is coined – Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome (SNAPS) – and while scientists start to wonder what causes it, Richard is sure he has the answer. Gary Sayles’s books are so mediocre that they’re capable of killing.

In a few weeks, the newest book will be out on the shelves, and the whole country will find itself in a SNAPS epidemic, as reader after reader pitches over dead while trawling through the mess of wordplay, punnery and purple prose. Richard and Lauren must convince the world of this threat, all the while dealing with the feelings they appear to be developing for one another. And as if the challenge wasn’t hard enough already, two London hipster artists are also on Sayles’s trail, as the man himself sets about launching the book with the biggest bang he can think of.

It’s a great concept, a book that kills people, especially because it’s so terrible. It reminds me of Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, which similarly is about a lullaby that kills anyone who hears it, but while that was genuinely terrifying and smart, this just feels a bit farcical. None of the characters are particularly pleasant. Sayles is so enamoured with himself that he can’t see how trivial his work really is; Richard is an alcoholic with a similar sense of his own importance; Lauren is emotionally stunted; and Pippa and Zeke, the artists, are everything about the Shoreditch way of life that I can’t bear. Whether it’s intentionally Charlie Hill’s method to have the story mimic his actual work is beyond me, and it feels layered, but I just can’t get myself to care about any of these characters. They’re nasty to the point of caricatures. A couple of plot threads go nowhere, and the insistent use of brand names and pop culture references, which are actually a nice touch and firmly give the novel a sense of time and place, are inconsistently used. At the start there are a lot, and then they slowly dribble away.

I get that it’s a book satirising the publishing industry, about how real life sucks more than we ever care to mention, and also about how society has evolved levels of literature, declaring what is acceptable and what isn’t (the snobby division of “readers” and “people who read”, something I unfortunately buy into a little), but the only thing I’ve taken away from it is the following quote attributed to Michael Kruger by Richard Anger:

“Someone who reads too much without wetting his whistle regularly will become stupid; someone who drinks too much without diluting his drink with literature will end up in the gutter. Only the two together preserve culture; only the two together are culture.”

Mine’s a large white wine.

Older Entries