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Slaves of New York

Monday, 9 January 2012

A series of interconnected stories of life and sex in the city, predating Bushnell by a decade.

Slaves of New York
Tama Janowitz
(Picador, 1987)

I tried to read this short story collection before, but put it down as the first one seemed to be trying too hard. All “look at me, talking about dicks!”. Whatever. On a second attempt, I realized this was a set of stories about dreams and realities in New York. The recurring characters are, for the most part, now recognizable as hipsters: urban artists, bands who never quite break through, etc.

Jewelry designer Eleanor recurs the most. She’s a small-town Pollyanna, desperate to believe she and her boyfriend are on the cusp of success. She’s just so…wet. Though the description of her work at the end made me think of this stuff by Margaux Lange (hattip to Kelly Hale). Are we meant to read her as deluded? Or does the upbeat end of her story mean she is really going somewhere?

Janowitz’s jagged, brusque prose sometimes seems like her characters: pushing so hard to be edgy that it becomes all style and no substance. It’s a style that suits short stories, but can make them disengaging. The collection’s seems laid out to reinforce that.

Midnight’s Children

Saturday, 7 January 2012

A boy born at the moment India became independent again, Saleem Sinai, acts as a symbol of his country’s character: at times magical, venal, banal and violent.

Midnight’s Children
Salman Rushdie
(Jonathan Cape, 1981 – I read the Picador paperback)

Salman Rushdie’s Booker winner got a hard time recently, as Fresh Meat‘s Vod laid into it. Clearly not a fan of magical realism. I loved the stories within stories and the fantastical elements, such as Saleem being able to telepathically link together all of the children born at the moment of independence.

I do think the novel loses its way somewhat – like the amnesiac Saleem – in the forests of the 70s. That may be a side-effect of making a single person carry the narrative symbolism of an entire country’s history. Or it may be because the earlier historical sections are granted more context whereas the sections set during the Emergency are so contemporaneous to publication that Rushdie – through Saleem – doesn’t think it necessary. Or in part it could be that my own knowledge of 1940s history is more rounded than that of the 1970s: I was previously unaware of the Bangladesh Liberation War, for example.

Overall, a book I wish I’d read sooner, when its magical tricks were fresh and new to me.


Monday, 7 November 2011

In which Scarlett O’Hara attempts to win back Rhett Butler. Because Scarlett learning her lesson at the end of Gone With the Wind by being denied her soulmate is just too gloomy.

Alexandra Ripley
(Pan Books, 1991)

Perhaps the most annoying element of this brick of a book is the “so it is” portrayal of the Irish. The romanticisation of the Deep South in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 original can be excused as nostalgia for a long-vanished age. I’m not sure even that justifies its reactionary views, but at least Mitchell packed in the action, and had a stunning set piece at its mid-point.

Scarlett lacks such a background, and crosses the Atlantic in search of an equivalent. Scarlett herself promptly forgot the lesson she learnt in the fog in Atlanta, and goes after Rhett just as she went after Ashley. The portrayal of Ireland in the 1870s is just a bundle of laughable clichés, covering every possible stereotype of the Irish. And it shows a political naivety by treating the fight for an independent Ireland – a fight that was still killing people in 1991 when she wrote this book – as equivalent to Mitchell’s romanticised Deep South.

I liked it as a bodice-ripper, but it left an uncomfortable impression.

The West End Horror

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

I am, of course, looking forward to the next series of Sherlock. Bizarrely, I’ve not seen the current big screen adaptations. I think I might be so far down the rabbit hole of non-canonical Holmes that I’ll never return.

The West End Horror
Nicholas Meyer
(Coronet, 1977 edition)

Meyer is considered one of the better non-ACD Holmes writers, in part because The Seven Percent Solution brings makes explicit Holmes’s drug addiction. And in part because he nails Watson’s voice.

The West End Horror is a check list of late Victorian theatre. George Bernard Shaw hires Holmes to solve a murder in the West End. Then a chorus girl at the D’Oyley Cart is killed, bringing in Gilbert & Sullivan. Oh, and there’s Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker and Ellen Terry as well.

The overall plot is enjoyable, with some horrifying scenes played out with just the right sense of Watson holding back whilst trying to be as honest as possible. But that checklist is the problem – whereas the use of Freud in The Seven Percent Solution is integral to the plot, this reads like name-checking. Of course, the London theatrical world was – and is – small. A murder investigation will connect to some of the most famous people of that time. But it feels more fannish than previously, as if the desire to have Holmes meet X is greater than the desire to write a good Holmes story.

Still, it’s an enjoyable one, and worth getting for any Holmes fan.

this book will save your life

Sunday, 17 July 2011

I actually read this back in April – I’m just really behind on things.

This book will save your life
a.m. homes
(granta, 2006)

Richard Novak has a big hole in his life, and in his LA garden. He sees no-one but his trainer, cleaner, interior designer and nutritionist – all of whom keep his body and life neatly controlled. After an inexplicable pain takes him to the ER, he stops on the way home to eat a (prohibited by the nutritionist) doughnut. Before he knows how it happened, he’s enlisting a movie star to helicopter-lift a teenager’s horse from the sinkhole in his garden and befriending a reclusive screenwriter.

This contemporary American novel is about reconnecting with people, and letting go. Novak’s pain makes no sense to him. Yes, he’s divorced, and estranged from his son. Yes, he’s trading stocks and shares from home. But he takes good care of himself. The problem is that he only cares for his physical self.

The doughnut – fatty, sugary, forbidden but so pleasurable – is an impulsive decision. The first one in around a decade. And once Novak starts he can’t stop. He starts being impulsive all the time, leading to a string of coincidences and synchronicity that leave him adrift but connected.

There’s a great use of housing as metaphor here. Novak lives in a beautiful but clinical modernist shell, being undermined by a huge hole. He’s having someone work on the interior of the house. After the mystery pain, he dismisses the interior designer and moves out. Instead he starts working on his own interior world, leaving the beautiful shell to crack.

I’m not so sure about the use of the Indian Anhil, who runs the doughnut house, as a trigger and guide for Novak’s emotional and spiritual awakening. It’s a bit too stereotypical, a bit too orientalist. Anhil is materialist, with his love of cars and the American Way, but this is presented as a child-like joy/wonder so it still sits uncomfortably for me.

Overall I enjoyed it, but it’ll go off to the charity bookshop.

I have to be ruthless now – have you any idea how many copies of The Very Hungry Caterpillar we need to shelve?

Conjugal Rites

Monday, 25 April 2011

An additional disclaimer to my normal books disclaimer for this: Paul Magrs is someone I know from the world of Doctor Who writing. He did some of the most interesting and engaging novels of the Long Hiatus (as I call 1989-2005, even though I do count the TV movie). If you like Doctor Who books, I suggest you track down The Blue Angel. Oh, and he’s edited my stuff in the past…

Conjugal Rites
Paul Magrs
(Headline Review, 2009)

Whitby is a place on the edge: the edge of Yorkshire, the edge of reason and the edge of Hell. In one of its side-streets is a B&B run by Brenda and an antiques shop run by Effie, both ladies of a certain age. In previous books in the series, they’ve investigated satanic beauty parlours and prehistoric zombies. In Conjugal Rites Frank, the man Brenda was literally made for, has come to claim his bride.

This is the third Brenda and Effie novel and it reminds me of Jasper Fforde‘s Tuesday Next series. Not in the specifics, but in the general feel that this is a series that has settled in. It’s no longer selling you a mise-en-scene, it presumes you already know it. It’s got its slippers on.

That’s no bad thing, of course, and if you’re reading a series of novels you do expect the set-up to stay consistant (even in Doctor Who where the settings vary, the set-up stays constant – apart from in The Blue Angel). The trouble with this kind of serial shorthand, for me at least, is that it makes later novels seem rather less meaty than the early ones in a series. I like the hard sell. In crime novel terms, I like Ian Rankin not Agatha Christie. I like a description of Rebus in all his haggard slovenliness, not a single line about a fussy Belgian moustache. And I’m the same with fantastical novels. I want meat on those bones.

Conjugal Rites has very short, very breathless chapters, which contribute to this sense of lightness. There’s scarce time for a scene to get going than the chapter is over. There’s chapter breaks within scenes as well. And I’m not sure why they exist where they do.

There’s no doubting Magrs’ ear for voices, especially blowsy and/or mimsy Northern ladies of a Certain Age. There are great touches, such as Brenda and Eddie’s weekly rituals of afternoon teas and fish suppers, or Effie’s distrust of Brenda’s friend. It makes them seem plausible despite the fantastical set-up. There’s also the obviously inadequate retired British Superheroes having a convention, which will raise a snicker, and the continued creepiness of the Christmas Hotel.

And there’s a simply brilliant idea of hell, taking Sartre and adding a dash of salt and vinegar. It also echoes the idea of the Lords of Misrule presiding over the Feast of Fools.

Is Conjugal Rites a fun, fast read? Undoubtedly. But it felt like it was paddling at the edge when it could have been wading.

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