Thursday, 22 November 2012

For Me, Too: Raffles and the Golden Opportunity by Victoria Glendinning: a talk at Asia House

Victoria Glendinning - Raffles and the Golden Opportunity

01 Nov 2012

Raffles, the charismatic founder of Singapore and the Governor of Java, remains a controversial figure. In the first biography for over forty years, Victoria Glendinning charts his prodigious rise within the social and historical contexts of his world. As a young man with few prospects, he went on to carve what is now a world city from a 'wretchedly unpromising' island with no advantages other than talent and obsessive drive.

Award winning biographer, Victoria Glendinning is Vice-President of English PEN, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of five biographies

In 1989 my husband took early retirement from his BT sales job and I stuck a pin in the TES foreign job sections. I hadn't travelled abroad much, having married young, had children and gone into teaching.  Escorting students  down the Rhine or round Pompeii plus  camping in France when the children were small comprised my experience of 'abroad'. 

The pin could hardly miss Singapore- it was a half-page ad. But surely the salary was a misprint? No, what I took as a too-lavish use of noughts turned out to be true.  I passed the tests and interviews, was accepted; we spent three years on a tropical  island with one of the word's highest living standards. My husband played bridge  at the Raffles Club.  The generous salary meant we were able to travel to exotic places like Bali and Thailand and Australia.  

 I was so impressed by the Chinese  attitude to education that I've studied Mandarin ever since. No wonder I was keen to  attend a talk at Asia House about the founder of Singapore. His statue graces a harbour setting, next to what seems to be a theatre, going by my photo. I remember  it as an art gallery. Raffles Girls and Raffles Boys were the most prestigious secondary schools on the island; our visitors always enjoyed sitting in the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel drinking Singapore slings. Quite a change from South London pubs.

Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore in 1819 was  a controversial figure. A man whose father died in an almshouse, he was forced to take on the the support of his mother and four siblings. He was employed as a city copy-clerk for ten years until his restless nature made him sieze the chance of a posting to Java when it came up.
In 1819 he planted the Union Jack  in the small island at the foot of the Malaysian Peninsula. It seems that a  fantasy of an ancient archepelago ruled by the British never left him. Along with many travellers of the time he had a mania for collecting artefacts and shipped many back home.
He was a benign governor in Java and sought to improve the conditions for local workers, opposing slavery and promoting vaccination against small-pox. It  conflicted with profit-making aims of the East India Comany who later repudiated him and failed to pay him a pension. They also claimed  he owed them thousands of pounds.
His mischievous side was revealed in letters home, commenting on sensational topics such as cannibalism. Although a nominal Christian, he hated proselytisers.  He lost his children to tropical illnesses and suffered an early death at 45 from a brain haemmorhage, aggravated by the stressed relationship with the East India Company. He founded the Raffles Educational Institute in 1842.

 Raffles as a character  remains an enigma, reflected in the questions at the end of the talk. One in particular  caught my attention:   'Given that Raffles was not fired by religious ideals, where did his energy come from?'

'When it comes to energy,'  stated  Glendinning, author of several  previous biographies, 'my impression is that either you have it or you haven't -it's a gift of nature. Hero or scoundrel, Raffles seems to have had plenty of  what we'd  call 'mojo'.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A Timely Talk: Leigh Russell on How to Keep Readers Turning the Page

Venue: The Society of Authors, 84 Drayton Gardens, London SW10 9SB.

How to Keep Readers Turning the Page

Exploring techniques for sustaining a reader’s interest

Hosted by Leigh Russell
Dates: Tuesday 23 October or Wednesday 24 October
Time: 11am - 4.30pm

About Leigh Russell

Leigh Russell is the author of a bestselling series of crime thrillers Cut Short (2009), Road Closed (2010) Dead End (2011) and Death Bed (2012). Stop Dead will be published in 2013. Cut Short sold out six times in it first year and was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association New Blood Dagger Award for best first novel. Leigh’s subsequent books sold equally fast and all went on to become international bestsellers, in the Top 50 Bestsellers List on amazon and the Top 50 Bestsellers Chart for WH Smith’s Travel. Leigh’s work has been very well reviewed including in The Times (UK) and the New York Journal of Books (US). Leigh is an experienced teacher of creative writing.

This  newsletter item caught my eye just  as I thought about signing up for NaNaWriMo, 'National Novel Writing Month', starting on November 1st. (Later blogs will be about that) . I've been to one of Leigh's talks in the past, so decided to give it ago. There's always something new to learn, I think, and I wasn't disappointed.

Topics covered included:  setting; characters; plots; pace; planning and editing. This summary is a poor representation of the amount of information and I’ve left out many names of masters of the genre, although they were frequently menioned. Main points were demonstrated with examples that Leigh read from her own books. We also did two very interesting writing exercises to illustrate how to change the pace and how to create a character.

Crime fiction is an excellent example for ‘popular’ fiction because the reader needs are always foregrounded. Crime stories ask a question or questions at the start of the narrative journey and by the end the reader expects an answer, but the trick is not just to grab the readers’ attention but to keep them reading. The tropes and conventions of the crime novel –for instance, a potential victim walking down a deserted street at night - were discussed, along with skill of subverting expectations to keep readers interested.  

Authenticity is important in a crime novel because by making the setting authentic the reader is led to accept the unusual or even bizarre happenings that will occur.  Events need to be rooted in fact, and aspects such as police procedures need to be accurate. Leigh said she’d found official bodies helpful,  especially since awareness of public image is high. When approached by email, experts were always co-operative.

It’s in the nature of crime novels to require planning and various methods of structuring were touched on, such as moveable post-it notes, plotting as for a theatrical play, the ‘snowflake’ method, mind-maps, linear forms that include a time-line or calendar, and chapter lists. Planning, says Leigh, can be done away from the desk – pondering how to dispose of a dead body while standing in a check-out queue is the norm for a crime-writer. Thinking about writing, according to Leigh, is often the most creative and important part – the writing itself mere ‘secretarial’.

It’s important to vary the pace in a crime story; too much excitement becomes unbelievable. The ‘saggy middle’ must be avoided, perhaps by bringing forward the climax of a sub-plot. Agatha Christie famously claimed that when she wrote one of her novels she didn’t herself know until the end who was the killer,  but that would be the exception. Clues and false trails need to be laid down in advance.  

The theatre is a good training ground for crime writing (|I was pleased to hear) because everything is so dramatic; it mimics  crime fiction’s need to keep the reader excited .The success of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, for instance, was down not so much to the quality of the writing as to the ‘hook’ in every chapter. Writers for weekly papers, such as Dickens, recognised the important of having a ‘cliff-hanger’ at the end of every episode

Creating believable characters can be achieved in a number of ways, such as creating a ‘backstory’ or dossier for the main one. It’s practical in case of need for changes later but not necessary for minor characters. Writing a series is good because a writer can build on a detective’s existing fan base.

When planning a series, it’s important to think about a main detective with his/her strengths and flaws. How to disguise the villain can be a crucial point - the charming psychopath, for instance.   Methods of showing characters include behaviour, dialogue, appearance and interaction; they can also be introduced through police interrogation or gossip from the other characters.

Motivation raised questions about what kind of person became a killer – whether temporarily motivated, as in someone crazed with grief, or possessing the more entrenched traits of a psychopathic serial killer.
Other topics rising from questions were covered, such as how to find an agent, dealing with rejection, editing, deadlines and self-motivation. The current challenges for the publishing industry in the ‘post-literate’ age and the rise of e-books were keenly debated.
Part of the pleasure of attending a study day at Drayton Gardens is the chance to meet and talk to other writers, to hear their input in discussion and  to engage in conversation in the lunch break.  During lunch I discussed Hitchcock’s films with one member, South African novels with another and how to find a Director for a children’s musical with a third. (If anyone can help, please get in touch)


Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Original and Best :The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Some members of the library  crime reading group were  put off  by the length of this book. For me and others Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone  was such an enjoyable read that length wasn't a problem - except when it came to carrying it, of course.
What Hitchcock called the 'McGuffin' or catalyst  for the story - the disappearance of a precious gem and the search for it - was  the least important aspect. Modern crime stories, it's true, tend to involve serial killers rather than theft of jewellery but a writers of the past relied less on sensation and more on character and plot.  
The main strengths of this, the first 'English detective story' , published in 1868, lie in its atmosphere and structure. Starting on a remote coastal region where the turn of the tide causes the phenomenon of 'shivering sands' , in a country house inhabited by two women who are unusually spirited for the Victorian era, and a pair of suitors for the daughter's hand, makes for a sense of intrigue.  Three Indian gents and their boy assistant hovering in the vicinity add an exotic and authentic edge to this tale of a gem taken first from a temple during the last days of empire and left as a legacy to the heroine, to be presented on her 18th birthday.
The aspect that I found most enjoyable was the author's use of so many different 'voices' to tell the story of the investigation and outcome. Just as the narrators have their own agendas and points of view  they are also different enough to entertain and offer new insights as the story progresses. The romance aspect is particularly intriguing as characters change their opinions of one another in the light of new evidence.  
Wilkie Collins was a close friend of Dickens - The Moonstone first appeared as episodes in Dicken's magazine 'Household Words.'  While  weekly keep-'em-reading  nature of the publishing media accounts for the eventful narrative , the influnce of Dickens on the characterisation is also very clear.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Acting Shakespeare: Roger Rees at The Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue

This evening was memorable for the kerfuffle involved before we  even arrived at the theatre.  Nothing to do with transport delays, either.

I don't as a rule eat out before going the theatre - having offered to review a play in return for two free tickets and a  programme, it would defeat the object. However, I had two £10 Tesco vouchers exchangeable in Cafe Rouge and due to expire on  September 30th.

 For  Tuesday I'd made a successful bid to review Roger Rees's new show  on opening night so it was an good opportunity to use them. Two-course  pre-theatre meals for about £12 are widely offered in the West End.

The  nearest branch to our destination  was in  Charing Cross Road.  We allowed for an hour in the restaurant and were shoe-horned to a just-vacated  table in the huge room.  The pre-theatre menu was brought immediately, but in ten minutes no one had come to take our order.  We were swivelling in our seats, but there just weren't enough waiters. The food at nearby tables looked great and we both fancied the lobster and crab cakes. But as the time crept on we figured we'd best find somewhere nearer the theatre.

 Wong Kei to the rescue! Chinatown's most notorious restaurant was a by-word in the 60s for 'rush and rudeness' because the staff aimed for a high turnover of customers. I've eaten there recently with a thrifty friend, so knew they'd lost none of their speedy delivery and we'd even been allowed to linger - although admittedly in the late afternoon, after cheap haircuts at the Toni & Guy academy.

Sure enough, when we told the waitress we wanted to be out in half an hour she pointed to the quick dishes on the menu and we were served within five minutes - by no means gourmet fare, but the tea was free and the bill came to slightly over £9 for the two of us.

Cheap enough, and I still have  the Cafe Rouge vouchers with  ten days to go before expiry. This afternoon we're going to take our Christmas present vouchers to see if we can book for something before then.

I'm glad to say show more than made up for the aggravation. My review is   on The Public Reviews website.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

I Should Live so Long: One Hundred Years of Solitude

I learn foreign languages with the aim of reading the literature. The drawback is it takes years. In fact,  the only language with which I feel confident with is French, which I  learned at school. I remember a  holiday in France with  no access to English books when I read 'Madam Bovary'. There must have been lots of words I didn't know, but it helped that I'd already read an English version.
I was pleased when I saw an entry  in the U3A handbook earlier this year : Argentinian Francisco  offered  to lead weekly two-hour sessions of advanced Spanish in his home. It took months to get together enough people of the right level and  agree a class  time but after a launch at the Royal Standard pub in  Blackheath it was settled. Now we get together  at 3pm to 5pm on Wednesdays at Francisco's house in Charlton - six members, including Francisco, but usually only about four or five people at each meeting.

The first half hour  is taken up with translating into Spanish a piece from the freebie Metro Then we do it the other way round with a Spanish freebie, called El Iberico
After a ten minute chat-in-English break we read and translate,  A Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien anos de Soledad) by Columbian  author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The extraordinary tale tells the story of human development through the history of a small town and its leading family. Jose Arcadio Bendia has two sons of quite different temperament and abilities -one is serious and interested like his father in new discoveries and inventions, the other is a more sensual individual of great sexual appetite. It's a pattern that's repeated over the generations. The women are subordinate but  strong individuals who  deride the hair-brained schemes of their men,   and who sometimes go AWOL.  
The style is 'magic realism', which means bizarre things happen, sometimes the result of exaggerated reactions and confusing timeshifts. Gypsies pay an annual visit to the isolated town of Macondo, appear each year with some new invention from the outide world, such as a block of ice or a flying carpet. Some events are starting and some are funny but all are recounted in a style that piles on details in  hypnotic sentences. When you read you become fully immersed and convinced by the author's vision of his world .
 We don't go very fast - on average four pages each week, because of the method of taking it in turns to read and translate a passage. It's the sort of thing that was tedious in a school classroom but which works very well with a small group of adults, especially when one is a native Latin American speaker.
Some of the group use dictionaries, and I initially downloaded the text to my Kindle, so I could use the built-in dictionary. It's easier just to position a cursor and click than to search a print dictionary, but the drawback is that the Kindle version doesn't have page numbers. I use a 'parallel text' method instead - I read a page in Spanish, putting pencil crosses over words I don't know, then I read the English version, writing the translation over the crosses.  
So far so good, excpet for a minor setback - Francisco's three sons have clubbed together to buy their father a ticket to Argentina . He'll be away for three weeks. As we 've only reached page 60  of this 500 page novel, I only hope I live long enough to finish it.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Reading Like a Writer

I don't buy many books these days - partly because like most people I know I've run out of room in the flat, and I've about twenty sackfuls in the garage. But I couldn't resist this item in the London Review newsletter - not just  a book about writing but one that recommends learning to write from 'good' authors. Just what I need right now - reassurance that reading 'difficult' books has some validity. I've been struggling recently to write stories for women's magazines. A lifetime of reading nineteenth century novels hasn't helped. I've tried hard to write short sentences with simple  words set out in a fairly straightforward manner. It's been a good exercise.

Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose is a fascinating  book for any writer who's also a keen reader.  Chapters analyse models from mainly, but not exclusively, American works  using  a method called 'close reading'. The author says this approach was one she learned at college instead of the old way. This privileged  context, so biographical and historical details assumed more importance than the text itself. While I don't think one precludes the other, the approach is one I used  when I did my Eng Lit degree.

The book opens with a description of the author's method for teaching Creative Writing by close reading. The chapters that follow are headed : 'Words', Sentences', 'Paragraphs', 'Narration', 'Character', 'Dialogue', 'Details', 'Gesture', 'Learning from Chekhov','Reading for Courage', 'Books to be Read Immediately'.

I've read about three so far and am enthralled by the easy style and use of extracts from familiar writers, from  Jane Austen to Raymond Carver and from  Gustave Flaubert to Katherine Mansfield, taking in Chehov and Shakespeare along the way.

'Prose cautions readers to slow down and pay attention to words, the raw material out of which all literature is crafted, and reminds us that good writing comes out of good reading'.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

A Novel of Two Halves: Until it's Over by Nicci French

The experience of  discussing this book with members of my local crime reading group made me realise the importance of structure.  I go to see so many plays and films where the aim is to keep the reader guessing, so it's important.

In the first half of Until it's Over the reader learns about a  group  who share a house in North London. One of the four men bought the house while he was at university and then let off rooms to fellow students. Years have gone by and they are still together, mostly established in their careers. There are a couple of newcomers.

Astrid,  her late twenties, is a bit of a drifter who began working as a bicycle courier after a gap year. She's had a few failed romances and  a couple of  casual sexual encounters with one of the  other housemates, a sleazy photographer called Owen.  Then, within a few weeks, she's linked to  three separate murders. In addition, the landlord's new fiancee says she wants all the tenants to leave before she moves in.

I'd read two quite riveting novels by Nicci French - a portmanteau name for the team efforts of married journalists Sean French and Nicci Gerrard. Maybe that's one reason why  I took a more favourable attitude than other members of the library crime reading group. I arrived five minutes into the discussion, so was surprised that the hostility was already established.

It's what usually happens - people say straightaway whether or not they like a book and then justify their opinions, which opens up a discussion about plot,  characters and style.

The first, and main, objection concerned the structure.  It's truly a book of two halves, with an unexpected  switch in the point of view at the place where most crime  novel sag : in the middle.  There's a  sudden increase in the level  of interest, as the reader sees things from the murderer's point of view.

Someone said it's a common feature of crime novels - practised, for instance, by Val McDermid, or Ruth Rendell, but in those  the change of viewpoint happens in alternating chapters, not as a sudden switch half way through. 'We're just going over the same ground all over again,' someone said.

While that's true, there was quite a bit of satisfaction, for me at least, in having questions answered. Most importantly, I found out why Astrid had been present at the crime scenes  - accidently the first time - and why, in the end, the murderer had it in for her as well.

There's a lot more to object to - not least the slightly bizarre situation of seven people all living together in the same house for no reason other than they're too apathetic to move. It's true that accommodation in London is expensive, of course, someone conceded. People often have to live with their parents until their thirties. Again, they all seem to get on so well; they don't even have locks on their  doors. Maybe that's how things are in North London, said someone else. It's true there are two many poorly described characters, so we can't even remember who they are when they're mentioned again in the second half.

I think I was so bowled over by the structure, that I was prepared to overlook a lot. But  I had to agree that the denouemement, which made most people laugh because it was so unlikely,  stretched even my credulity.

So, sadly,  not up to the standard of The Red Room and Killing me Softly.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Pretentious in Florence: Mark Mills' The Savage Garden

Personally, I like my crime to have a more literary flavour than your average Agatha Christie affords , but Mark Mills could take a few tips from the 'Queen of Crime' with regard to plot development.  Nobody  in the library crime reading group liked this, a Dan Brown-style mystery/murder set  around a villa near Florence.

The main problem is that the murders happened some years before, during wartime, so there's no sense of urgency, although it does have some bearing on who is the rightful heir to ownership of the property. It's not particularly well-written and the narrator is too immature and lacking in character for us to empathise.

An indolent  Oxbridge student's tutor offers him the chance to complete a thesis in Italian garden design through a contact in Tuscany. The  Roman statuary dotted about within it seem to have symbolic meaning. Research into the poetry of  Dante and Ovid point to a murder.

His middle-aged landlady seduces the priapic youth  as as soon as he arrives but he's  more interested in the young virginal niece of the elderly female villa owner. His pheronomes seem so string that one even suspects the old lady will be involved at some point. The graphic sex scenes are not attractive and put most readers off the book.  I suppose  all the talk of Dante is educational in its way, althouhg it just seems like showing off.  The hero's  wastrel  bohemian brother turns up around page 200 and  promises to liven things up, but he soon disappears. Even the young man's parents in Purley, whom he despises for their mediocrity, have all too short a stay.

The book is praised on the cover for its setting, but I'd say read EM Forster's Room With a View or see the film starring Dame Judi Dench. A better mystery story is John Mortimer's Summer's Lease, which has also been made into a film.

Favourite Things : Launch of Linda Stratmann's The Daughters of Gentlemen

Some people like a good funeral. I prefer a nice book launch :
It's an excuse to visit a (usually) posh part of London
The bookshop ambience is convivial
The author gives a little talk about his/her next book
There's a chance to talk to friendly book-readers
Not least, there's free wine and nibbles

Daunt books on Holland Park Avenue is a 'really lovely bookshop', according  the person of whon I asked directions, having made the mistake of walking first to Notting Hill Waterstones. Notting Hill has more shops but Holland Park is more 'select' and foodie - it has both a Paul and a Patisserie Valerie, which some might think excessive.

Linda has written a lot of true-crime books but The Daughters of Gentlemen  is only her second work of fiction. As before, it stars female detective Frances Doughty and is set in Victorian Bayswater. Linda says her next book features that ubiquitous Victorian bugbear, the fear of being buried alive. The other ingredients sound a bit racy. I expect other readers enjoy as much I do the gradual uncovering of the dark forces underlying the respective veneer of Victorian society.

It was good to catch up with someone I'd first met at the launch of The Poisonous Seed, in which Frances worked in her father's pharmacy and was set on proving he hadn't done in one of his customers with cyanide. Or was it strychnine? Something fatal, anyway. In the current one she's called in to solve a crime in an a genteel school for girls and rather hopes it won't turn nasty. Fat chance!

After that I had a chat with a lady wasn't so old as to be Victorian, but had toughed it out as  the youngest of five children with a widowed mother who ran out of money when it came to her turn to go to university.

All this, plus wine and nibbles and a book signed by the author. Definitely one of my favourite things.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Almost Promethean: U3A London Region Creative Writing Study Day at Canada Water Library 19/4/2012

 Had Lewis Carroll and  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn been partners in building design  they might well have come up with  Canada Water Library. In fact it was designed by Piers Gough, and opened in November 2011. It's said to have solved the problem of how to build a library  on too small a site, as if the fact of a new library were not miracle enough in a time of widespread closures.  Inside,  it was warm and cosy; not at all like the set for a Murnau film.  
The U3A ‘Day for Aspiring, Self-published and Published Writers’ attracted some 40 enthusiasts, from London and other regions. I know because I was i/c of ticking off names.

National Adviser for Creative Writing, Maggie Smith, whose creative writing classes I was once lucky enough to attend,  facilitated. Gwen Wright, U3A London Regional Chair, welcomed guest speakers Ian Skillicorn, Director of  National Short Story Week, and   Catherine King, author of popular fiction novels. There was an opportunity over a buffet lunch for members to buy books and CDs as well as chat informally with speakers and fellow writers.

Ian Skillicorn's past was in non-fiction writing and translating. He returned from Italy to found Short Story in 2006, a project that attracted Arts Council funding and content development in 2009. In 2010 he conceived  the idea for National Short Story Week.  The third annual events will take place in on November 12th-18th 2012 and will be celebrated in about 25% of UK libraries. In addition to adult entries, this year 250 schools will be invited to submit entries. More about this, plus downloadable podcasts, can be found at
Ian had brought along a CD  of short stories,  Women Aloud, to be sold in aid of the Helena Kennedy Foundation (Further details at Contents  include stories by  Katie Fforde, Sue Moorcroft and our next guest speaker, Catherine King, in a two-disk compendium. 
A new Short Story Network will be launched on May 1st with links to organisations such as the National Association of Writers, the Amateur Theatre Network and Writing Magazine.
Ian’s  talk  was titled: What Makes a Good Story?  with an emphasis on writing for radio. Fascinating, but as Ian uses his material for teaching I can't say anymore.
 Catherine King's talk stressed  the need for market awareness. From a scientific background ('I was no good at English in school'), she began writing her popular sagas after retirement. They are set in Industrial Revolution Yorkshire, and feature strong heroines who survive the hardships that were the common lot of working class women in the nineteenth century. From her first novel, Women of  Iron (2006)  Catherine went on to develop the theme through six further works, the latest a story set in the fashionable Edwardian era with a heroine who is in domestic service.
 Catherine was enthusiastic about the income libraries generate for  authors in payments for lending rights especially with  adaptation to audio and  large-print versions.

The development of eBooks was  was a marvellous marketing outlet for writers at a time when publishers are economising on  paper publications.

Her inspirational attitude, as someone remarked, could be summed up as’ If I can do it, anybody can’. There are two things publishers want, she was told: a good page-turning story, and a voice, which could be summed up as the writers ‘take’ on life.  

Catherine  said writers  should network , especially on occasions when agents might be present. Find your own tribe, she said, and join events and associations that would relate to your chosen genre. She talked of ‘rubbing shoulders’ and ‘the elevator pitch’ or imaginary thirty-second slot in which to summarise your novel.
The afternoon session continued with practical writing exercises conducted by Maggie Smith. The results were first read aloud in small groups, and  the best were shared with the appreciative audience. All agreed the programme had the right balance of learning, writing and socialising –the current buzzword, ‘networking’ seeming inadequate to describe the sense  of camaraderie that characterised the day.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

World Book Night 2012 at Manor House Library

There was a good turn-out at Manor Park Library, and I spotted some reading-group members among the standing-up throng. They should have come earlier, I thought. But they'd been vulturing in the adjoining room, where the giveaway books were laid out. By the time I got in there it was almost bare. Never mind, I enjoyed the delicious home-made snack - canapes, they've been called at other minglings I've attended. Especially memorable were tiny jerk vegetable patties and spiced mini potato- cakes. Shame I was off the wine that day, because there was plenty of that.

I did pick up a YA book that a reviewer had brought to swap. She confirmed it would be suitable for my granddaughter, who is fifteen. I'll report on that later.

I took Mrs Fry's Diary, by Stephen Fry, which I blogged about earlier, Hot Kitchen Snow by Susannah Rickards, whose short story class I attended last year, and   Butterfly Tears, by Zoe S Roy, which I reviewed myself  -inspiring stories by a Chinese woman who'd emigrated alone from Hong Kong to Canada.  These books disappeared pretty quick, too.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

The title refers to an anachronism: 'Failed in London; try Hong Kong'. 'Old Filth is a nickname that the main character. Sir Edward Feathers, acquired during his distinguished career as a judge in the British outpost.

I didn't think I wanted to read a book about a 'rich as croesus' ex-colonial recently retired from Hong Kong to live in Dorset, but it was a local library reading group choice. By chapter two I was hooked, as the old man is stumbling around in the snow, having locked himself out of his remotely-located house and forced to seek help from a hated neighbour (why he hates him we are to learn).

Sympathy grows as he reminisces about his childhood in Malaya (as it was then) where his colonial administrator father leaves him in the care of local villagers when his mother dies shortly after giving birth. Aged five, he's separated from the only person with whom he's bonded - an older girl of his foster family - and sent on the long voyage to England. We learn this was the usual fate of thousands of so-called 'raj orphans' - traumatised by the separation and supported through prep and subsequent public schools by only by monthly cheques.

The narrative switches between the extremities of old age and scenes from a lifetime of interacting with a host of unusual characters, that encapsulate 'a whole period from the glory days of the British Empire, through the Seond World War to the present and beyond'. For me, it's the quality of the writing plus the exploration of a complex character and his relationships that makes the book such a compelling read.
Published in 2004, the book was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2005

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

An Unfortunate Encounter : Truman Capote's In Cold Blood

I enjoyed reading  the Lewisham Library Crime Reading Group's  choice for March. It's a shame I missed the discussion because the book raised issues worth talking about. The meetings are lively, and this is a thought-povoking book about  the random killing of a family in a remote Kansas farmhouse.

Having recently read James M. Cain's 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice the group were familiar with depression-era drifters and the notion that chance encounters could lead to mayhem. You could argue that the murder committed by that story's anti-hero was as much a crime of passion as a act perpetrated  for material gain. In the case of In Cold Blood, however, the motive, one might say, was purer : in 1959 a pair of ex jail-birds follow  a tip-off  about a wealthy landowner who keeps a safe in his house. But the safe doesn't  exist. Much of the drifting after the crime is  motivated by the wish to evade capture. Capote's detailed journalistic style is ideally suited to telling the tale, switching at first between victims and criminals and later gruesomely fascinating in its descriptions of life on Death Row

I watched the 1967 film on DVD. It depicted  the different personalities of the two young men , Perry Smith and Dick Hickok. It was also clear to me that the real reason  the family had been killed was that the men were wound up by a desire to appear 'tough' to one another - particularly the younger  Perry, whom Dick impressed by the swagger and confidence that made him such a successful conman. It's amazing that in the days before cheque guarantee cards shopkeepers were  so trusting. Passing dud cheques was called 'paper-hanging' .

It's remarkable  that Truman Capote, writer of the very different  Breakfast at Tiffany's and played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 1995 film , was capable of such a such feat of journalism. He read about the case in the newspapers in 1959 and then went to interview the men in jail, as well as reading witness statements and trial transcripts. The church-going backgound and daily routines of the respectable Clutter family contrasts with the lifestyle of the two men, and the recreated dialogue is utterly credible.  The writing style seems on the surface  curiously flat and factual -  more effective and engaging  than a more sensational approach. The meeting of the two men, their crime and the aftermath are made to seem as inevitable as the meeting of the Titanic and the iceberg.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Buried too deep: John Sandford's crime novel:  Buried Prey

All last week I was  on a demanding immersion course in Spain, so I put the  lacklustre nature of the first half of this book  down to tiredness. After page 200, though, when the killer's point-of-view was introduced,  it suddenly picked up. It was no effort to  finish it during the  return journey.   I was all ready next day, it being the  third Saturday of  the month,  to discuss it at  my local  crime readers' group.

Maybe it would have helped if it hadn't been the twelfth book in a series with a particular Minneapolis-based detective;  the author was assuming a certain amount of groundwork. But, as a newcomer, why should I be interested in Lucas Davenport, who seemed a bit of a wuss in his wool suit,  most unsuitable, ha-ha, as it happened,  for kneeling in mud. This was activity much in demand in his line of work.

To make matters worse it's a cold case - two small skeletons surface during land clearance and they turn out to belong to Lucas's first case, when he thought his colleagues had named the wrong killer but he lacked the authority to follow up his hunches. Not only has reader no stake in the case, not having known the victims, who are sisters, but  their  mother turns out to be a callous publicity-seeker, bizarrely launching a career on the back of her  TV appeals.  It's only when we get to know the killer, still at large, that the reader's attention is engaged.

It made me think about the role of the serial detective  in crime fiction, of which publishers are much in favour. In a sense these adult novels resemble  popular children's series;  the same central character or gang, whether Tracey Beaker or Harry Potter or (giving away my age) The Famous Five, is  already known to the reader. For adults, whether it's Sherlock Holmes, Ian Rankin's Rebus or Val McDermott's Tony Hill, the effect's much the same - the burden of interest falls on the plot. Granted  we want to know how our hero/heroine's  singular  abilities will help  solve the crime, but the focus must always be the nature of the events.  

This isn't  necessarly a bad thing, although style and wit are always welcome, but it means the action should take hold of the imagination early on.  Otherwise, even loyal fans begin to yawn and newcomers may not persist - unless, of course  like me they have an incentive that's quite extrinsic to the book itself.