Sunday, 20 July 2014

Glow by Ned Beauman

I don't often read new novels... but, when I do, they're by authors on Granta's Best Young Authors list. In Issue 1 of Shiny New Books I reviewed and interviewed Helen Oyeyemi; in Issue 2, I have done the same with Ned Beauman.

Following on from loving his first two novels (Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident), I also really liked his third, Glow; review over at Shiny New Books. As before, you wouldn't have thought I'd enjoy the book by looking at its ingredients - sex, drugs, and clubbing, basically, but with virtual reality twists - but Beauman is such an imaginative and inventive writer that it works.

He kindly agreed to do a quick Q&A too. Do go and have a look!

Saturday, 19 July 2014


Sorry for an unannounced disappearance! I've been in London since Thursday attending The Space Between conference, which was absolutely wonderful (albeit extremely hot - I had to make a lunchtime trip to buy t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops as I couldn't face the idea of wearing conference clothes in the evenings). Such lovely, fascinating people, and easily my favourite bit of academia - and the bit I can cling onto!

I gave a paper called 'Let Other Pens Treat of Sex': Metamorphosis, Marriage, and the Middlebrow, talking about David Garnett's Lady Into Fox and Ronald Fraser's Flower Phantoms in relation to changing ideas about women's sexuality in 1920s marriage - and it was very well received, I'm pleased to say.

I also bought a fair few books... will report back on those soon!

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

One of the best books I've read this year is My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff's memoir of working in a literary agency in the 1990s. I was sold by the description when Bloomsbury emailed me (thanks for the review copy, Bloomsbury!) but it might have languished on my shelves unread if Victoria, my Shiny New Books co-editor hadn't enthused about it.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I have not one, not two, but three My Salinger Year links!

1.) I've reviewed it over at Vulpes Libris today.

2.) Victoria reviewed it at Shiny New Books.

3.) Best for last - Victoria interview Joanna Rakoff for Shiny New Books, and I think it's the best thing we've had there yet. Great questions, thoughtful answers - definitely go and read it!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Listener by Tove Jansson

It's no secret that I love Tove Jansson, and I was pleased to get the chance to read the latest collection of her work from Sort Of Books; a new translation (by Thomas Teal) of her first collection for adults, The Listener (1971).

I read it for Shiny New Books; my review is here. You can also win a copy - along with the other editors' favourites from their sections - by entering the competition on the homepage. And then have a browse!

It feels a bit lazy to be pointing to my reviews elsewhere, but then I remember that I still spent time writing them... probably more time, as I do more double-checking etc. for SNB reviews! And I hope that regular SIAB readers still have fun looking at those reviews.

Song for a Sunday

Happy Sunday, everyone. I'll be spending much of it writing a conference paper, as I've been silly and left it til late in the day... but that isn't a good reason to mope when you can be reliving your teenage years with a slice of All Saints. This song, I argue, is underratedly classy.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Charlotte Mew and Her Friends by Penelope Fitzgerald

46. Charlotte Mew and Her Friends by Penelope Fitzgerald

The first of my reviews I'm going to point towards, over at Shiny New Books, was the most unexpected treat. Indeed, it's going on my 50 Books list - which is coming towards a close now, and that makes me nervous. (What if I read something superlatively brilliant just after putting the 50th book on the list?)

I had thought Penelope Fitzgerald was already represented, as I've loved The Bookshop and At Freddie's - but apparently neither quite made the list. Charlotte Mew and Her Friends is a little more outside the box - being a biography of a turn-of-the-century poet - but has just as wide an appeal, honest. It's one of the few biographies I've read where the subject mattered less than the writer - not ostentatiously in the writing, but in my response to it.

Do head over to my Shiny New Books review for the complete picture...

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Cinderella Goes To The Morgue by Nancy Spain

Image from here.
Sadly no d/w with my copy.
In amongst all the excitement of a new issue of Shiny New Books, I've remembered about a little pile of books that have been waiting a while to be reviewed. Most of them are books I started before my reader's block, and staggeringly finished some time later - such as Nancy Spain's Cinderella Goes To The Morgue.

I posted about Nancy Spain back in April, after coming across mention of her in a re-read of Ann Thwaite's wonderful biography of A.A. Milne, and asked if anybody had read her detective novels. There was quite a lot of interest, and Scott was even reading one as he wrote. Karen later followed up with a lovely review of Poison For Teacher, but I was lagging behind. I bought a copy of one of her books which filled a gap in A Century of Books, and eventually managed to finish Cinderella Goes To The Morgue (1950), which came somewhere in the middle of her detective novel output.

It stars her 'detective' (not much detecting seems to go on), the lovely Russian Natasha DuVivien. We know Natasha is lovely because we are told so more or less every time she does anything - and she does a lot more of crossing and uncrossing her lovely legs than she does anything else. She is a rather enchanting mix of naive and worldly-wise, never nonplussed but also a little detached from the doings of lesser mortals. And, being a Russian in a 1950 novel, she is always having the most curious syntax:

"I am so sure," said Natasha, "that you are right. But what motive could anyone ever have for killing another person? It is always worrying me. Unless, of course, they are mad people," she added vaguely, looking out of her window. 
Her breath made a little fog of its own on the glass, within the world, yet not of it. 
"Oh," said Mr Atkins briskly, "jealously, ma'am. Jealousy and passion and hate. And greed. The usual things." 
"The Seven Deadly Sins," said Miriam gently. "Lust and anger. Any of them, in fact, barring sloth."

This excerpt hopefully demonstrates the archness of Spain's writing (I love that 'within the world, yet not of it' - a sort of paraphrase of John 17:16 - and how many authors would say it of foggy breath on glass?) and also serves to introduce us to Miriam. She is Natasha's slightly more worldly (and, it has to be said, slightly less lovely) friend. And it is she who gets them tangled up in the local pantomime.

The title is a bit of a red herring. Early on in the book, it is actually Prince Charming who pays an unexpected visit to the morgue - and Miriam steps into her shoes. She isn't the last body to be carted out of the theatre (the show must go on), but the murder mystery plot is really incidental to the novel. It's not an Agatha Christie situation, where whodunnit is paramount - and brilliant. In Cinderella Goes To The Morgue it is neither. The solution is cursory and unconvincing, but that really isn't the point. My favourite sections, indeed, were those which didn't deal with the murder mystery, such as:

Outside some shrill little voices were suddenly raised in screaming and breathless information about 'Good King Wenceslas'.

"How odd it is being," said Natasha inconsequently, "that this old man who is once looking out of a window and that is absolutely oll I know about him."

"He was deep and crisp and even for a start," said Timothy.

"No, no," said Natasha. "That was his page."

I loved these interludes, and only wish there had been more of them. Spain often sneaks in unexpected words or slightly silly descriptions of things, in the middle of a police questioning or a discussion about potential murderers, which are easy to miss if one isn't careful. I'm going to keep coming back to that word 'arch', but it describes Spain perfectly.  I'd have quite liked her to take it up a notch or two more, so that the novel was a step nearer farce, but she still has plenty of fun satirising the detective novel ("Look at her now! She deserves to be murdered") and the theatrical world. Although my dramatic ventures have gone no further than the village stage, I still loved her riffs on people who abuse the limelight:
"Hampton," said Tony Gresham suddenly. "Hampton has given Mic and Mac carte blanche to ad. lib. in the Baron's Kitchen. Isn't it dreadful?"

Miriam paused in the act of tucking her hair into a superb white wig with side curls.

"No!" she cried horrified. "You can't mean it. Well, we'll be lucky if this pantomime is over by one in the morning. Very lucky."
There are a whole host of characters I've not mentioned at all, from angry producers to the delightfully appalling 'Tiny Tots' (and their aggressive Stage Mothers). All the ingredients are there - I have to confess, though, that the novel didn't quite live up to the sum of its parts. I very much enjoyed it, but had hoped it would become a book to add to my 50 Books List... I don't want to add on a negative note, and I can't pinpoint any reason why this isn't an all-time favourite, but I also don't want to oversell it!  But anybody with an interest in arch detective fiction and mid-century silliness could do a lot worse than tracking down Nancy Spain. Do report back if you do!