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.

There’s no place like book group

It’s a funny thing homesickness. It can creep up on you in such an unassuming, disinterested kind of way that you aren’t aware of its stealthy pursuit until all of sudden you find yourself struck down with some kind of antipodean homesick blues. One moment you are ordering a pint of lager in a voice reminiscent of an extra in a 5th grade production of Oliver Twist and explaining how of course you miss certain people but that London is fabulous; and the next you are grumbling about it being so bloody cold all the time and asking how come it’s so hard to find a proper decent cappuccino and some sourdough toast in this overcrowded sunless city?

And then you calm down and try to re-embrace your sense of adventure and acceptance of experiences new; you remind yourself that moving to the other side of the world away from your regular life, comfort zones and loved ones is difficult at the best of time. And, really, I’m basically having the best of times; I can’t complain at all. But the homesickness has caught up with me of late and it seems a long road back, despite all the good things and wonderful people around me, to those half cockney/half crocodile hunter union jack waving pip-pip jolly good times. But I know it’s a phase that will soon pass. I’ll stop drudging about, buy myself a decent coat, and be all warm and keen and able to blog like a decent proper book blogger.

One thing that I think will help a lot is that this week I went to a meeting about joining a newly formed (well currently forming) book group. It was very exciting and my potential book group members were lovely and enthusiastic, and the organisers of the wider company of book groups (my group will be no. 18 or so that they have helped put together) were friendly and organised and encouraging. I’m very much looking forward to it kicking off. Stay tuned for a discussion of the first book selection.

On the day of that meeting I was ill, over my job, tired and lacking in any recognisable features of charm or sense. By the end of the get-together I no longer felt quite as ill, nor as world-weary, nor as overwhelmed by that wispy feeling of being a long, long way from home and I cheerfully trotted off to the tube and into a pub for the night’s next appointment.  It didn’t cure my antipodean homesick blues, but even the initial manoeuvrings of a book group get-together shone a lot more light on my little world. I felt like I might be finding some of my people – well some new ‘my people’ – and it reminded me how comforting, and also inspiring, the book world is for me, and how much I miss being a part of it; even if only as one of the many who like to meet up over a drink and talk about a novel for an hour. At the new pub, when I went to the bar to order a drink, there was definitely a little more of a Dick van Dyke chimney sweep in my voice than there had been for a while.

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 Brave by Nicholas Evans

Back in 1995 Nicholas Evans’ novel, The Horse Whisperer, was a mega-bestseller. In 1998 Robert Redford made a film based on the book and the world went horse-whispering crazy. All of a sudden—in Australia at least—morning television chat shows and weekend current affairs flagships were running stories about moustachioed silent-types in checked shirts who could make a pony dance to their bidding (which anyone who grew up in Sydney and longed for weekend visits to El Caballo Blanco can attest, is a mighty fine thing). More important than this equine-talking fad, Nicholas Evans became a successful author and went on to write some very good novels, in particular The Loop, but also The Smoke Jumper, The Divide and most recently, The Brave.

Mr Evans is a fine writer and his narratives are well-honed. I would describe them as ‘quietly told’ but I always find myself helplessly wrapped up in them and eager to continue paddling along. He is very good at communicating the private sides of his characters, and can write of slightly ‘damaged’ individuals and their soul-searching without resorting to clichés.

His stories tend to be set in natural environs, perhaps because he knows he has strong skills in describing landscapes, or perhaps because he just prefers writing about them. In any case his tales are mostly set in mountains, on farms, in small towns, on the plains. (And in America, although he is an Englishman who lives in England.) Because of these settings, sometimes his narratives include an animal-theme, for example in The Loop we learnt a lot about wolves.  But sometimes, they don’t. This doesn’t bother me, but it seemed to bother some of his publishers. Well, they at least sometimes appeared to ignore this fact, and continued to attempt to shove an animal onto any of his covers that they justifiably could. After all, this is the man who wrote The Horse Whisperer, the reading public might not be smart enough to work that out if they didn’t see a furry creature staring back at them.

All I can say is thank god Mr Evans went back to the horsies so that novel, publisher, cover and reader were aligned again. Not that The Brave is really about horses, but there are storylines involving hollywood westerns, cowboys and indians, horse handlers and mountain riding. I certainly won’t quibble with the equine-flavoured cover, which is, in my opinion, quiet stunning. What the novel mostly discusses, though, is courage and what it means; when it is false, when it is true and when it falters.

Tom Bedford is our protagonist and we hear his tale from two ends: 1959 when he is a quiet English boy obsessed with westerns, who is thrust into Tinseltown when his sister marries a TV-star cowboy; and 2007 where he is an academic and writer living with a secret from his childhood that is brought to the fore when his soldier son is charged with murder.

When I was reading The Brave, I struggled somewhat to succinctly explain to others what the plot was because, like Mr Evans’ previous novels, there was a complexity to it that warranted more than a one or two lines from the likes of me. When I call the novel ‘complex’ I don’t mean that it is difficult or convoluted; I mean that it is layered, involved and considered. The experience of reading The Brave is a quiet one; but it is an intense quiet, full of emotion and raw introspection, cleverly constructed by a talented author who deftly leads you through his tale. Layered, involved, complex, and there are key plot points you don’t want to reveal to others for fear they will ‘ruin’ the story, plus a general sense that this is not a book to summarise for others; more one to suggest that they should read and experience for themselves, and hopefully enjoy.

I may not have been able to quickly outline the plot of The Brave for you while I was reading it, but I could have told you that I was absolutely taken with it. I could have told you that I felt as if I carried some of the emotions of the characters around with me during this time, and that I used any spare moment to pick up the book and read a few pages more. I could have told you that the parts of the story set in 2007 were very good, but the parts set in 1959 were excellent. I could have told you that I had always been a fan of Nicholas Evans’ books and that I was just so pleased that he’d had another book published and that it was, plain and simple, a very good book.

Edge by Jeffery Deaver

I’m not usually judgmental of others’ reading habits. As long as there is some kind of decision-making process behind what they read, I don’t really mind how they spend their reading time. I like to think I’m not a superior-reader type, and you only have to read through the titles I post on to see that I’m not a hardline highbrow-literature digester. I’ve even been known to make a general-type of statement (and making general-types of statements is a sweeping habit of mine) when discussing the topic of ‘Men’ that ‘I don’t like men who read’. This, as with most of my general statements, is not entirely accurate. For starters they at least have to be able to read, and for after-starters if they do read for pleasure I do find that attractive. I think my point is more that one does not have to be a super-keen reader, or much of a leisure-reader at all, for me to appreciate them as a person. (And to be honest—back to the Men thing for a second—if I was sitting on a park bench reading Joyce and some nice-looking chap sat down next to me and said, ‘Oh, Joyce, he’s my favourite writer, what do you think of the book?’ I’d fear I was trapped in a romantic indie movie where we were all going to end up sad but appreciatively wiser at the end. It’s just not my style of wooing.)
This all being said, when someone – and I’m now speaking of all classifications of people – likes the same book or author as me, it does create a stirring within of a need to bond with that person. Nay, a stirring that we are already bonded. When someone really likes an author or book that I like it suggests to me that we share thoughts, tastes and ideals on a number of levels. That we have both been privy to a secret that only certain people can share. That we speak the same language. It’s perhaps why I feel so attached to the members of the book group I belonged to in Sydney, and why I feel the need to join one in London (should do something about that).
Of course you always need to consider the popularity or success of a book or author before latching on to your book-soul-mates. When the two of you like Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockingbird you may need to delve deeper to see if you really do share a crazy kind of book-loving love.
As many of you know, Jeffery Deaver is one of my favourite authors. But due to the man’s popularity, I don’t necessarily get all stirred up when someones tells me they like his books—it certainly piques my interest, but there usually has to be more to it. This could be the other volunteering him early on as a favourite, or if I refer to him or one of his books (it’s very common for me to refer to books I’ve read in the most random and everyday conversations, such is my life informed by my habit) and they latch on to his name or start chattering away about quadriplegic forensic investigators I know there might be more to this potential book-friend. I found a Deaver-friend recently (and it has turned out to be more than a passing thriller-friend-phase) and was so happy to share this with them that I leant them my copy of his most recent title, Edge.
While busy keeping up with two series and penning the latest James Bond novel, Jeffery Deaver decided to bash out a standalone thriller called The Edge.
Corte is a protector of witnesses who seems to work for no organisation anyone can name. Cool, calm, stoic, professional, necessarily private, also a board-games connoisseur. He is assigned to protect a family who have been targeted by a ‘lifter’, a freelance extractor of information. Henry Loving is the elusive fiend whose method of choice for extracting information is a sheet of fine sandpaper, some rubbing alcohol and the target’s bare toes. Loving also happened to kill Corte’s mentor, so this time, it’s personal.
As ever, this Deaver novel is a consuming, fast-paced read. You feel as if you gain insight into the main character and also into his profession. Towards the climax you feel the desired fluctuations of anxiety and fright, only to remain satisfied when you close the covers. Occasionally the witnesses were a trifle irritating, but I guess that’s the reality of being in the protection game (and of a writer creating issues to overcome in a narrative).
I like that Mr Deaver doesn’t limit himself to his successful series, and that he seems to continue to tell all his stories well despite the pace at which he delivers them to the world. I’m still more than looking forward to reading the next Kathryn Dance novel (I’m assuming, seeing as the last series update was a Lincoln Rhyme book), but in the meantime, standalone stories such as Edge will keep me well fulfilled.

In Book Town

Pile o’ Books is currently in Edinburgh, Scotland enjoying the book festival and this beautiful city in general. There really is a strong sense of literature here, even once you are out of the confines of festival square. Within the festival compound there is nothing but a feeling of love for all things book. Where else can you look up from your novel while enjoying lunch in the sun and see nearly every other punter likewise supping and reading.

And on that note, I’m taking my book back out to the sun.

Two Salingers are Better than One

There are rare but beautiful moments when you know you are experiencing something close to perfection: attending a Wilco concert, eating the butter poached coturnix quail breast at Quay, watching Steve Waugh single-handedly drag Australia through the 1999 Cricket World Cup. And recently I experienced reading perfection: JD Salinger’s Seymour—An Introduction.

It’s a big call, isn’t it? And how on earth does one write about writing perfection when they are so far from that feat themselves? Imperfectly, I suppose. Ramblingly. Perhaps with an edge of pedestrianism. All of those things which are not present in Salinger’s work. It is trickier still because I read the collected novellas Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour—An Introduction over two months ago on a holiday, and so I now have that dreadful experience of being able to tell people that I LOVED a book and that they MUST read it but not being quite as able to explain why nor recall all that much about it. It’s a terrible affliction. It is harder still because I did my usual holiday reading ritual of leaving the book for another wanderer to discover, so I now can’t even refer to it to refresh my still-vacationing mind.

So, to be crass, my qucik precis: In Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters we hear the tale of Buddy Glass trying to attend his eldest brother Seymour’s wedding, only to find once he is there that Seymour is missing. Buddy is then subjected to an interminable car ride and then visit with some of the guests of the wedding, including the matron of honour. In Seymour—An Introduction Buddy attempts to in some way memorialise Seymour after his suicide (written about in the most excellent short story A Perfect Day for Bananafish) by telling the reader about his brother. I really liked Carpenters—really and truly—but I love, love, loved Seymour.

And though I am failing to tell you much, what I can tell you is that I was so struck with Seymour in particular that I copied sentences and paragraphs out of it into my journal, and that when I surrendered my book to a hotel room in Mykonos in the Greek Islands I wrote a little note to the finder of the book wishing them the same reading experience as myself. These are not things I usually do. I do not usually bother to dog-ear multiple pages, nor copy down quotes from a book I am reading (not unless I’m expected to write an essay on it) but Seymour threw me for a loop. It meanders marvellously as Buddy thinks things through, but is actually a deftly-constructed story that is both high brow and highly sensitive (and also humourous). It only intensified my already firm love for the Glass family.

This is one of those occasions where I’m asking for a little trust, dear readers. At some stage in the future we many try to ‘unpack’ (that awful sociological verb) the reasons why when I have had three months off work and plenty of time on my hands that I have barely kept up with my blogging. In the meantime, please forgive my lack of detail and discussion of these two novellas from JD Salinger and simply take my word for it that they will be a reading experience you will treasure.

A Book That is Nice Just to Have

A little-known fact about your humble blogger (though becoming more known as I seem to be publicly embracing it of late) is that I like birds. A lot. And I don’t just mean that I’m into all this bird jewellery that’s fashionable at the moment, but that I feel a particular affiliation and have a more than general interest in our feathered friends.

I have been living in London for almost three months now and have spent a fair amount of that time pointing at winged creatures and saying, ‘Well, just look at that little, erm, birdy.’ I lack the nomenclature, you see. Even the bird knowledge I do possess doesn’t necessarily transfer across the globe—a wagtail in England does not look quite as one does down in Oz.

So after announcing recently that I was going to buy myself an English bird book as a treat, my flatmate asked her dad to bring over their copy, which they suspected had never been used. Having worked on natural history books in the past I thought I knew what to expect—location maps, detailed and technically-correct drawings, some notes on breeding and habitat preferences. And all this I got. But I got it in a barely-touched 1975 edition of The Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe, and it is one of the most delightful books I have had (temporary) possession of in a long time.

There is something special about having an earlier version of a book that is still in print today—especially when it is such an attractive thing. Granted, if it had been stuffed in the pocket of a hiking jacket and carried from campsite to picnic area over the last 36 years it would now not be quite so lovely, though I suspect it would wear the added character well. It is now sitting on my bedside table for in-depth pre-sleep perusal, and on the next trip to the countryside, it will be coming along.

Speaking of the older editions of books, a month or so ago I was shown what is currently my very favourite street in the whole world. Cecil Court is lined with second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, a small street just steps away from the Leicester Square underground, it hides among the hustle and bustle of this crowded touristy area. I was there after closing, so most of the shops now wear an imprint of my nose on their front windows—especially the one that had the old copies of Winnie the Pooh and Enid Blyton’s ‘Adventure’ series on display—and I suspect that soon some of these stores will also have my cash in their tills. Perhaps one of them will have another 1970’s version of my bird-nerd book.

10,000 Thankyous

At some stage last weekend Pile o’ Books had it’s 10,000th viewing. I realise in the realm of the magical internet that such a statement lacks a little gravitas. When celebrities have millions of Twitter followers, what do 10,000 paltry little hits matter? Especially when some of them were probably accidental, many came from friends’ loyalty, and a lot of them really didn’t help those high school students write their essays about Dickens’ Hard Times?

Well, let’s (briefly) examine the significance of 10,000 as a number. Here is a list of other things I’d like 10,000 of in two and a half years:

* Little wedges of camembert on crackers

* Smiles from strangers

* Butterfly sightings

* Sips of champagne

And the things I wouldn’t like 10,000 of in two and a half years:

* stubbed toes

* mosquito bites

* flat tyres

* pizza menus shoved through the letterbox.

So this little ol’ blog may not rival Stephen Fry for global online interest but 10,000 views are still significant to me. And what I have loved most across these last two and half years is not only the reading and writing, but the discussion with like-minded folk, and the new authors, books and ideas those folk have helped me discover. So, thank you. Ten thousand times over.

Being an Editor

When you haven’t had to look for a job in over a decade, you forget quite how much time it takes up. While I stomp both the online and physical streets of London’s publishing industry, and try to make money via freelance editing, Pile o’ Books is wanting of attention.

So while I gather the brain power and time to write about Salinger, here is a small scrap of a link that might be of interest as it discusses the kinds of things I do, and the thoughts which consume my mind, when I’m not tapping out this blog. This article on editing, Stet By Me: Thoughts on Editing Fiction, by Australian book editor Mandy Brett, is one of the best pieces on ‘being an editor’ that I have read in a long time.