Today by David Miller

Regular readers may recall that I sometimes steer clear of books due to preconceived notions of what I don’t like to read. Often, happily, I am proved wrong or wonder what all my fuss was about when a book breaking such rules entertains, informs and impresses me. In fact, it happens a lot. Which could highlight that I’m a flexible and adventurous reader and human being; or that I’m somewhat fickle and don’t know my own mind. Let’s not ponder that for too long.

One of these ‘rules’ is that one should avoid books that include family trees.  My theory is that anything complex enough to require a diagram outlining the rise and fall of generations in one family is going to be confusing and a drain on one’s grey matter, and also take a looooooong time to read, what with all that flicking back to the start of the book to remember who Gertrude is and why she’s important. It’s one of the reasons I’ve avoided classic Russian literature for so long, having developed an understanding as a young person that all of those thick and heavy books were part cold misery, part family saga and that I would spend an entire year trying to read them and never quite understand them.

We get ideas from strange places, and I can’t tell you where the above theory came from, just that it exists; and, as usual, it’s not as if I haven’t read, comprehended and enjoyed books that include family trees—Wuthering Heights features one for a start. And yet a dedicated page showcasing a genealogical chart will, more times than not, set my reader’s heart in a pittering of anxiety and a metaphorical pulling up of one’s britches in preparation for trying times ahead. A dramatis personae at the start of a novel causes exactly the same reaction. In fact, it may be worse. At least with a family tree you know the characters are connected by DNA and marriage…

Today by David Miller includes a dramatis personae. When I first opened the book it made me hesitant, but the novel’s general appeal kept me strong and I believed that, as had occurred in the past, the breaking of one of my rules could lead to a new discovery.

Today is a small, thin novel with a beautiful cover featuring filigree-like type. The blurb uses words such as understated, fragile and profound. Sitting on top of my flatmate’s radiator it was appealing for its elegance, brevity and its suggestion of an English country house. All these things outweighed the existence of the characters list and anyway, it was a small book—how complicated could it be? The answer to that is: not especially. Mind you, this does encourage a second question: why did the book then need a list of players? And my answer to that: it probably didn’t. If you didn’t want to include every person who turns up on a page for two sentences. Which the author clearly did want to do.

Though the presence of an unnecessary character list didn’t affect my enjoyment of Today one way or another, the novel proper, I’m afraid to say, did. This in no scientific way proves that a family tree/dramatis personae at the start of a book indicates that it should be avoided, but it does, unfortunately, help to solidify my noted presumptions about what the presence of these literary aids means about my liking of a book.

A father, husband, writer of note, friend and employer (all the same man) dies just before a planned gathering at a big English house near Canterbury. The novel follows the events in the house and the reactions of those closest to the deceased in the aftermath of his death. We see most characters through the eyes of, or their interactions with, two characters: one of the man’s sons, John, and the man’s secretary, Lilian. Lilian and John share a close friendship, despite the difference in their ages and the seeming complexity of Lilian’s role in the family.

As the blurb suggests, this novel is quiet and understated and explores the idea of bereavement in an intelligent way, but I think for me it was a little too quiet, a little too understated. While reading Today I always felt a distance between myself and the characters. I wasn’t able to get close to them or empathise with them in the way that I felt I should due to the subject matter; I was merely observing them all as some of the characters were observing each other and it was in a disinterested way, and it therefore caused me to be disinterested in what I was reading. Even though I believe this distance and emotional withdrawal was part of the author’s intended exploration of notions such as (a type of) Englishness and (some) families, the exploration didn’t seem to include me enough as a reader.

In the end it wasn’t the inclusion of a dramatis personae that caused me to feel so ‘blah’ about David Miller’s Today, but neither can I say that reading this novel was an interesting or exciting time for me. I recall feeling quite uninspired about it all as I was reading it, and having to little to say when people asked about it.  The characters seem so intent on ‘doing the right thing’ and staying calm and reserved, that it left me feeling fairly numb; and although I appreciate that this might have been the reality of the situation, and of the times, it doesn’t much make for a novel I want to be reading. I didn’t dislike Today, I just didn’t care about it. And I’m the kind of person who likes to care about things.

Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid

I’m not usually backwards in coming forwards. On reading this statement, those who know me well are probably rolling their eyes and muttering a mutter of faux disbelief. ‘You don’t say, I always saw you as a timid creature lacking confidence in your own opinion.’ But often in these book reviews I meander about a little. A bit of entertaining waffle at the start, the occasional divulging of personal information no-one needed to know, a stab at describing a plotline or a thematic penchant, before a bit more waffle, a pronouncement of judgement, and a conclusive note that doesn’t always end up how I imagined it would when I started writing.

But this time. This time. No mucking around, no babble, no gushing, no sitting on fences. I’m embracing in my blog-personality that which is more apparent in my everyday non-blogging existence. I’m going to be straight with you good people: I did not like Val McDermid’s Trick of the Dark.

Charlie Flint is a psychologist who is asked by a former college professor to find out who killed her daughter’s husband on their wedding day. The mother suspects her daughter’s new girlfriend, Jay, a wealthy and powerful businesswoman who both Charlie and her teacher know from the college. It seems people who get in Jay’s way keep ending up dead, and Charlie takes it on herself to discover if this successful and rich business celebrity is actually a serial killer.

When I say I did not like this book, I mean it fairly comprehensively. I didn’t get much enjoyment from reading it, I didn’t have enough interest in or empathy for any of the characters, I didn’t find much in it to appreciate, I wanted to read it quickly but only so I could finish it. It wasn’t terrible (if it was I could at least lampoon it) it just wasn’t, well, it didn’t do anything for me and I couldn’t see how it would do much for anyone else. I found myself running through the questions I would have asked the author if I was editing the manuscript and the suggestions I would have made for changes to the text, and believe me, it is not a good sign when I am reading for pleasure and my editorial hat takes over. The significance of these opinions, for all the significance my opinions usually have, is that in the past Ms McDermid’s books have done something for me; I have enjoyed them very much. But here is the key difference: never before have I read one of Val McDermid’s novels that wasn’t a part of the Tony Hill series.

So I’m pondering a few things: Did the author just have a bad one? Did I just not get it? Is it only that I am terribly attached to the characters in her Tony Hill books (due to both the books and the television series) and those characters rise high above all others? Or are those novels Ms McDermid’s true calling and other stories are not?

There was a new Tony Hill novel released recently, and once it is in paperback I will be getting myself a copy to read (I almost splurged on the hardback when I was in Edinburgh a couple of months ago). But I don’t think I’ll go running towards Val McDermid’s other novels for some time. Trick of the Dark left me too disappointed.

The Other Statue by Edward Gorey

Before moving digs to Britain I read The Other Statue by Edward Gorey as a welcome break to packing. I’m very good at taking breaks from the activity I should be focusing on. For example, I am writing this post when I should be editing a true crime manuscript. A friend said the other day, ‘Sometimes I feel like work gets in the way of a good break,’ and I tend to agree. I always get everything done on time but it takes a lot of ‘rests’ to get me through (and the occasional cup of coffee and late night).

The break from packing had more to do with trying to avoid thinking of what I was about to embark on. I kept getting teary every time the radio played a song with the word ‘home’ in it, which I’ve discovered is a surprisingly large number of tunes, and I needed something to distract me. I thought Gorey’s usual kooky themes and dark whimsy would cheer me up, and add a little spring to my step as I decided which socks to include in my suitcase.

Instead I found The Other Statue somewhat unrealised and rather disappointing. My understanding is that it is part one of a mystery and I haven’t read part two (in fact I’m not sure it was ever published), but part one of a story really should encourage a person to want to read the next instalment, shouldn’t it? Perhaps it was just the funny old mood I was in at the time, though previously I would have thought a funny old mood was just the spirit in which to read a Gorey story.

In the end I found it a kind of Gorey paint by numbers: take a melancholic tone, some quirky illustrations, a handful of funny names, and odd pairings of people and objects and throw it all at the page. Not that I’m a Gorey expert by any stretch but to me it seemed a somewhat random collection of sentences added to some spare illustrations he had lying around. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a book I read as an avoidance tactic, and during a big upheaval, but for me The Other Statue lacked the heart and purpose of Edward Gorey titles I have previously had the pleasure of reading. Next time I need to procrastinate I’ll just re-read The Gashlycrumb Tinies.

V is for Virtual Reality

Sometimes I finally get around to doing one of those things I’ve been meaning to do and end up disappointed. Perhaps the anticipation outweighs the pleasure of completing the task. Perhaps it was never a good idea to begin with. Being a dedicated, loyal type of person doesn’t help.  Something I agreed to months earlier, or decided was a new interest, has—as a notion—passed its natural expiry date but I am loath to let it go due to my previous commitment and/or original enthusiasm. When it turns out well I congratulate myself on going through with the activity; when it doesn’t I wish I’d kept it as merely a happy thought in my head.

Earlier in the year my book group read Neuromancer by William Gibson. Touted as the seminal cyberpunk novel, the best science fiction novel, the book that invented the internet etc. we thought we’d give it a whirl. After all, there were Dr Who fans among us, we could read science fiction and love it. Plus a few of us had been meaning to read it for, oh, a decade or so. As I traipsed off to my independent genre bookshop, I was feeling all uber-geeky and techno-cool at the thought of crossing this ‘intended task’ off my list. But in the end I felt a little deflated. The techo-cool became techno-tepid.

Don’t get me wrong, the concept—the ideas—are fantastic. Even 27 years after the book was published. They’re probably not as ‘unique’ as they were back in the early eighties, but then, as you read it you see that Neuromancer was most likely where a whole lot of writers and filmmakers got their inspiration. So I appreciated it from that point of view. I liked its dystopic, grungy, metallic feel. And, in a small way, I liked that I was getting around to reading it. But liking a concept and being able to tick it off your list are different things to making a connection with a book.

This could be one of those times when my reading and comprehension abilities let me down, but honestly, if I hadn’t seen The Matrix trilogy I would have had a hard time visualising (and somewhat following) what was going on in cyberspace. Maybe if you spent your adolescent years pulling  apart motherboards it would all make sense, but I struggled at times to have a clear idea of ‘what was going on’ when protagonist Case was in the system, and to move on in the novel I just had to continue blindly and assume my brain would pick things up again when it could. Not necessarily a bad thing if you’re after some literary leaps of faith, but potentially frustrating for a reader who is spending more time trying to comprehend, instead of engage.

And I don’t know about you, but when I’m failing to connect with a book I start finding other things wrong with it, and the current edition that I read left a little to be desired production-wise. As an editor I know more than anyone that there are always small mistakes in books but Neuromancer has been kicking around for almost three decades and yet it seems no one could be bothered on one of the trillion reprintings it must have had to fix any basic typos, dodgy line spacing, or update the internal design to something that looked less Gutenberg. The cover was pretty naff as well, in my opinion.

None of these whinges should have too much effect on a reader if they are loving what they’re reading, but this wasn’t my experience. Maybe seminal cyberpunk just isn’t my thing, and I’m happy to accept that. I’m also happy to accept that I may be a narrow-brained dunce and missed the whole point, but William Gibson’s breakthrough novel just didn’t leave me feeling particularly enlightened or entertained, just kind of fuzzy-minded and slightly disappointed. Even the satisfaction of doing something I’d been meaning to do for years wasn’t quite enough. In the end the biggest influence it had on me was that it made me want to watch The Matrix again.

U is for Unfinished

Always finishing the book they started is a badge many hard-core readers (like hard-core bikies but without so much leather) love to wear with honour. Similar to those who are anti e-book because they like the way p-books smell, the ‘always finish’ crew can get a little Salem-villagey if you dare admit you closed a book part-way through with no intention of re-opening it. They say things such as ‘I never let a book defeat me’ or ‘Once I start it I have to finish it’, as if there’s some biblio-scorecard being kept somewhere.

U is for Unfinished. Yes, you tome-tallying library lovers, I ‘gave up’ on a novel.

One of my favourite university tutors (I have two), a great man, writer and reader who had the odd job of teaching us about ‘the internet and digital media’ back in 1998 when many of the class were yet to open an email account, once mentioned that the only book he couldn’t make it through was Kangaroo by DH Lawrence. As I liked and respected this tutor so much I have always had Kangaroo on a mental ‘never-to-be-read’ list, though occasionally I am struck with a sadistic urge to attempt it. I’m not sure what it will prove if I finish it. That my boredom threshold is stronger than my tutor’s was? Seems an odd thing to give a damn about. (As an aside, Kangaroo is one of the books I sometimes imply I have read when in a high-brow conversation about ‘tough’ books, so much do I trust my tutor’s views.)

A common theme across the blog this year has been that ‘life is too short’—to focus on regrets (or, as I’ve started calling them, ‘recognisable errors in  judgement’), to beat yourself up about not managing to squeeze four thousand tasks into each day, to read a bad book, to read a book you don’t want to. And so, this year, there was one book I didn’t finish. It was Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Haymann and there were two main reasons I closed it, never to be reopened: it was too long and it wasn’t interesting enough for me to forgive its length. And when I say too long I don’t just mean it needed a few paragraphs cut. I mean it was overwritten, overblown and overfull with unnecessary plot, exposition and description. It was the kind of book where I think I could have randomly skipped 10 pages and still follow the plot. But why would you want to do that? As an editor I wondered if the author even considered any of the editorial suggestions, and then I shudder at the thought that she did, and this was still the result. It was a shame as there were some lovely little details, expressions, thoughts from the narrator, but you had to find these rare gems in the jungle of words around them, and in the end, well about half-way through, I just didn’t feel it was worth it anymore and just looking at it on the bedside table gave me a heavy heart.

As I didn’t finish the novel I’m not going to sit here and bag it for three paragraphs. Take what you will from the fact that I didn’t read the whole thing, and the fact that this was a book group selection and I have never attended a book group session where passions ran so high when discussing whether the book was a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ novel. (Seriously, people brought visual aids with them to support their argument.)

The language we hard-core booklovers sometimes use fascinates me. Books ‘defeat us’, we ‘give up’, we take a break to ‘gather strength’ to go back to it, but ‘won’t succumb’ to letting it go. Sports fans are often ridiculed for comparing their games to military battles, but surely us book geeks should also be put to task for similar appropriations.  And if we’re going to play word games, why do we so rarely blame the book? Maybe the book let us down. Maybe our greater sense, imagination, reasoning or life experiences ‘beat’ the lesser merits of the book. Maybe, just maybe, life is too short to read something we’re not enjoying or being intellectually tickled by. Maybe some books should remain unfinished.

M is for McCarthy

The last time I read a Cormac McCarthy novel I became so animated that a stranger sharing my dining space walked over and insisted I write down the name of the book I was reading because any book which caused someone to have so many emotions flash across their face was worth purchasing. Now I’ll admit there was a fair chance this was a line, but I still got the opportunity to spread the McCarthy gospel—so let’s not dwell on my gullibility, but rather the most recent book from one of my favourite authors.

The letter M was always going to be hard because I had so many books to choose from. No need to worry for now that the letters Q and V are coming up, for M I was solid. Margaret Atwood, Inspector Montalbano, Magical themes and titles, Mormons, the options fanned around me like a fan made of books. In the end the choice was easy. Sitting in the pile was The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy.

The Sunset Limited is ‘a novel in dramatic form’. Call me dense, but that’s basically a play, right? And call me denser still but I find that reading a play is very different to reading a novel, dramatically formed or otherwise. Remember that english teacher who made you read Othello out loud because ‘Shakespeare was meant to be performed’? They had a point. And even though when reading stories in this structure I tend to read aloud to myself in my head (if you follow me), it can’t replace seeing the play/novel in dramatic form and I don’t think it can affect you in the same way. I am more than happy to re-read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Hamlet, The Lady in the Van, Don’s Party or Waiting for Godot, but the reason I go back to these plays and like them so much is that as well as reading them I have also seen them. So I’m wondering: if I see The Sunset Limited performed will I like it more than I did when I read it? And would I then re-read it to different result?

I’ve spoken about the thrill we experience when we discover one of our favourite authors has a new book on the shelves; but what do you do when that new book fails to satisfy like others have? Possibly it depends how disappointed you are. I’m not overly distraught in this case, just a little underwhelmed. I am used to reading Mr McCarthy and being thrust into a thoughtful haze for a number of days, to feeling it necessary to take long full breaths just to stay somewhat upright, to uttering his name in low, reverential tones the type of which I otherwise reserve for large religious buildings, national art galleries and the British Museum. If someone asked me should I read The Road or No Country for Old Men I’d likely hold their collar and rock them about a bit in my insistence that they must. If they asked me should they read The Sunset Limited I would look up from my coffee, go to point my teaspoon at them in a half-hearted manner, then shrug and say, ‘Sure, there’re some interesting bits. It’s McCarthy after all.’

What I like best, and admire  most, about McCarthy’s writing are his artful descriptions and his ability to work with tension, suspense, conflict and basic, raw human emotions (and weave a plot through it all). His dialogue can be pretty magic too, though often spare, and it wouldn’t usually be the first thing I mentioned when discussing his work. But here we have a novel in dramatic form and thus what we have is dialogue, and almost dialogue alone. What Sunset gives us is an old-school philosophical discussion on life and religion. Two characters sitting in a bare room in a ‘black ghetto’—opposites in many ways, representative of different worlds—are brought together by a simple, desperate act. A white, educated man who believes existence in this world offers nothing tries to kill himself and is rescued by a black man, ex-con, who believes that God and the Bible are the only answer anyone needs to anything. Lock them in a room and discuss. And in the end the answer is…

I think the reasons for my lack of whelm are three-fold: I find reading a play simply to read it a slightly utilitarian experience; the thing I love most about McCarthy’s writing is his description (which scripts necessarily lack); and when you revere an author so much and the last thing he wrote was The Road, well, your expectations for the next thing from him are high—ridiculously high—and the chances of him meeting those expectations are slim no matter what he produces, but perhaps especially when what he produces is a little play and you weren’t really expecting that at all.

If you cast your eyes over the list of plays I like, you’ll see that a novel in dramatic form which deals with the notions of, and reasons for, existence should be something which appeals to me. And like I said, The Sunset Limited isn’t completely devoid of appeal, but it lacked oomph and didn’t have that McCarthy road-train effect on my being which I’ve come to expect. I’m willing to accept some of this as a deficit of skill or comprehension as a reader, but not all of it. I do believe that if I saw it performed I would appreciate it more and perhaps I would flip back into using those respectful church/Picasso/Rosetta-stone tones. Perhaps you should read it and see for yourself. It’s McCarthy after all.

D is for Dystopia

To be honest, I blame my dad. Encouraging your very young children to watch the movie version of Watership Down over and over again is only going to lead to them having weird views about how the world works, the English countryside, socio-political powers … and rabbits. I know it’s not classic dystopia, more of a fantasy novel with a heroic quest theme (Ah! The Quest! My favourite stories), but I tend to include Richard Adam’s tale with those other books where the world has gone wrong which were formative in my literary education. I also think the term ‘dystopia’ covers such a wide array of stories that we can mould, stretch and bash it to suit a number of literary purposes. Which is possibly what I’m doing now…  

Hello! We are with D and D is for Dystopia and our featured book is The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall.  When announcing this as the next book on the blog, I quoted my old high school foe WB Yeats and this book also reminds me of him because my brain likes to partner ‘Carhullan’ with ‘Cuchulain’, the legendary Irish warrior who Yeats was so fond of. But we’re not in Ireland now, we’re in England, but a different England where indeed the world has gone nightmarishly awry (thus, dystopia, got it yet?).

My feeling with stories set in a crapped-out future is that they need to be equally disturbing and compelling to be satisfying. Not disturbing in an escaped-convict-dangling-a-bleeding-head way, but in that cold-stomach, the-world-has-gone-topsy, I-don’t-know-what’s-around-the-next-corner way. And despite this disturbance you feel the need to keep reading; because the writing is so good, because the story or world is so fascinating, because you want to see the characters safe, because you hope to all hopes that if you just keep turning the pages maybe something good will happen, because viewing your world through a hellish looking-glass can give you so much perspective.

In Hall’s tale we follow one woman’s escape from the confines of an awful, authoritarian-controlled city to a fabled rural community of women warriors, where she learns how to be herself again and how to try to take the world back. Hall’s world is well-created: it’s believable, it’s awful, it’s frightening, its downfall is comprehensible and possible. And it’s close enough to our own that it’s not hard to imagine a future like it, where a first world nation has sunk into ruin, reliant on overseas aid, where people are squashed into disease-ridden tenements, where wild dogs roam the streets, where a faceless authority control everything, where women are implanted with devices to prevent them falling pregnant and where police can do random checks to make sure the device is intact.

I believe in Sister’s (our protagonist) world and in her desire to escape it and join the self-sufficient community of women living off the grid in the mountains; I believe in the community of Carhullan and their survivalist lives; I believe that this band of warrior women can’t be all they are cracked up to be; that life is still hard; and that they can’t just live for ever after safe and happy; that something else will have to be done for the good of everyone, for the long term. But there was some little thing missing in my reading of The Carhullan Army which meant that I wasn’t completely ‘on board’  – to use a terrible managerial term – with the tale. It’s just a little bit quiet. Just a tad. And I felt ever so slightly removed from the characters and the story. I didn’t care quite enough and my personal experience of these sorts of books – when I love them – is that  you care a lot, that you’re thrown into this topsy-turvy world, dragged through the centre as it shifts and quakes, that you feel you have no choice but to witness, to experience, to finish the tale, to be involved. I liked The Carhullan Army, I like the idea and I think it’s written by a very good writer, but on finishing the novel I wished I had cared more, felt more, known more about the characters.

There is much about this novel to recommend, like and admire; it gives you a lot to think about, it just didn’t give me everything I was hoping for. It seems unfair to criticise, then, when mostly I can say I think the book is well written, inventive and that the story carried through my reading attention. I guess sometimes those stories which seem to fall just short of the mark can feel more disappointing than those which failed miserably. Such is the reading life.