Monday, 26 March 2012

March's E-book: The Curiosity Cabinet by Catherine Czerskawa

If you like well-written romantic fiction with a happy ending, hunky heroes, spectacular scenery and a historical backdrop, then you can’t do better than Catherine Czerkawska’s Curiosity Cabinet.  John Burnside thought so too, when he selected the novel for the Dundee Book Prize.

The cabinet in question is on display in a hotel on Garve - one of Scotland’s more remote islands where Gaelic is still spoken and the distant past still feels relatively recent.  No one knows where the cabinet and its intriguing contents have come from, but Alys - desperately looking for tranquility while her small son holidays elsewhere with her former husband and his new wife - is fascinated by it and determined to find out.  

Alys had been to the island as a child.  She and her brother had made friends with a boy called Donal who was around the same age.  Alys is surprised to find that he’s still there, and his family own the cabinet. There's an instant attraction between the two, but Alys has been badly mauled by the breakdown of her marriage and Donal is also elusive.

In a parallel story, several hundred years earlier,  the young Henrietta has been snatched from her Edinburgh home, leaving behind her baby son, and taken to the island of Garve where she is put into the custody of Manus McNeill - laird of the isle.  Initially distraught with grief for the loss of her child, she gradually begins to make sense of her situation and construct a new life for herself.  She is both attracted and repulsed by her captor.

The story of the Curiosity Cabinet and the part it plays in the lives of Henrietta and Alys is a very good read - the descriptions of the wild landscape are particularly vivid.  It’s what’s referred to as ‘a page turner’ and highly recommended in the romantic fiction category.   I wasn’t too sure about the way everything worked out so conveniently for everyone at the end - but that’s only cynical me - most people will love it!

Sunday, 11 March 2012

A Division of the Light: Christopher Burns

This novel is exquisitely written - a masterclass in understated narrative.  It's a clever book and, for the reader, a difficult book - there's already a one star review on GoodReads from someone who had expected it to be a thriller.  A Division of the Light is not about plot - more about ideas - and the characters move on wires manipulated by the necessity of developing those ideas, playing out the central premise of the novel.

Are our lives controlled - are events 'meant' - or are we at the mercy of random forces?  When Alice Fell decides to walk down a different street and is mugged, she is photographed by Gregory Pharaoh, also there by chance on his way home from an assignment.  It is the beginning of an obsession, and a collision with the elemental forces that recur like motifs throughout the book.  The patterns in the narrative echo the patterns of light Gregory plays with in his photographs.  How much of what we see is merely illusion?  How do we know what is true?

This is a difficult feat for a writer to bring off - a novel of ideas, a narrative of patterns, dependent on the interplay of three characters who are essentially unlikeable.  Alice is a manipulative ball-breaker who uses her sexual power over men and always stops short of commitment.  Her boyfriend Thomas is so lacking in self-confidence and motivation he has made Alice the whole of his world and in so doing, undermined any security he had left.  Gregory is selfish, egotistical, dispassionate, used to getting exactly what he wants, and holding the world at the other end of his camera lens.  His values are pictorial values.

The onmiscient narrator maintains a distance, wide angle, occasionally zooming in on some small detail - a triangle of light at the base of Alice's throat, the way lead melts and flows like lava from a burning building, the way shadow outlines the anonymous bones in an ossuary.  The narrator, like the photographer, controls what we see.  There are continual parrallels between photography and writing.  Is it legitimate for Gregory to photograph his dying wife?  We feel immediate revulsion, but is that any worse than writing about it?  We need some kind of record to stave off the terrible anonymity of death.

This is the question Alice faces in the ossuary where she goes to help Gregory set up a photo-shoot.  Initially disturbed by the collection of bones, she comes to view it as 'a library of the dead, an assembly of untitled books whose pages had all been ripped out and scattered.  It was both a memorial and a prophecy.  Death was an inescapable solvent that stripped away personality, history and identity.  These people, whoever they were, whichever sex they had been, had left nothing behind but their bones.  Their lives had vanished without an entry in a ledger, or name on a gravestone, and, most cruelly of all, without an image'.

At the end of the novel I was full of admiration - the technique is faultless, the narrative arc perfectly resolved, but it left me curiously unsatisfied.  I would have liked passion, to have warmed to one or other of the characters.  But that is a purely personal response. As Gregory remarks in the book 'passion is no guarantor of truth'.  I suspect that the novel fulfils its author's intentions and it isn't up me to wish it any different.

Christopher Burns has had a rough ride as an author.  Last published in 1996, his five previous novels were celebrated - Whitbread prize novels.   But, like many of us, he was a victim of the mid-list slaughter among publishers and agents.  It is terrible for an author, praised, well reviewed, writing good books and led to believe that they are on the verge of something even bigger, suddenly to find one day, without warning, that agents turn the cold shoulder and publishers no longer want to know you.  The damage this does to a creative ego can't be underestimated.   But Chris has persevered and kept on writing, through all the bad times, and has finally found a small, literary publisher, Quercus, who values what he does.   He is also a superb short story writer (About the Body) and has a chapbook Lexicon recently published by NightJar press.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Return of Captain John Emmett: Elizabeth Speller

I bought The Return of Captain John Emmett and began to read it believing it to be  literary fiction.  I was quite surprised (and pleased) to find it morph into a thriller.  Laurence Bartram's life, like thousands of others, has been dislocated by the first world war, and his mind too has been affected by personal trauma.  As the narrator remarks 'Extreme violence changes everything.'   When he's approached by a young woman who asks him to try to find the truth behind her brother's suicide, Laurence agrees partly because his life is empty and partly because the boys had been childhood friends.  Very soon he realises that there is more to John Emmett's death than has ever been acknowledged.  A series of killings, beginning with the death of a young officer on the front line, comes to light and Laurence is drawn into a complicated, dangerous investigation where nothing is quite what it seems.  As Laurence says to his friend Charles,  'I didn't know it wasn't going to be simple.  It isn't like your storybook sleuths.  Everybody isn't either good or bad, with clues and a tidy solution to be unravelled.  Everything here goes round in circles.'

I enjoyed the novel;  the period atmosphere is beautifully evoked and it's well paced and plotted.  It kept me guessing too - just when I thought I had an inkling about who the perpetrator was, the ground shifted under me.   There was only one reservation.  The prose is curiously dispassionate - though this may be intentional - echoing the emotional detachment of the narrator.  It was all very careful and elegant - something you can admire yet not be moved by.  I would have liked to be more involved.

This is Elizabeth Speller's first novel.  She wrote a memoir, which I read a couple of years ago, called The Sunlight on the Garden, about her difficult childhood.  That, too, had a certain detachment that prevented me from being emotionally involved with the characters in it. So perhaps this coolness is a characteristic of the author's prose.   Odd, because Elizabeth is a brilliant poet who has won several prizes for her poetry, which you can read online on her website.

Although this is literary crime fiction, there are several elements of the classic crime novel  in The Return of Captain John Emmett - the lonely, slightly awkward, male detective who has an upper-class sidekick who goes fact finding - in this story it's the old school chum Charles with his private income and high-powered sports car.    The open ending leads me to believe that Laurence and Charles will be problem solving again quite soon.  And I will be happily reading on, though not quite as enthusiastically as I read Kate Atkinson or Ann Zouroudi.

The novel is already a best seller, but the author has had a great deal of help to get this far.   In the acknowledgements she admits to being 'extremely grateful' to her agent and the two assistants who apparently helped to get 'the first draft of this book to a state where it could be considered a novel.'  She also thanks Lenni Goodings at Virago for 'her confidence and continued investment' which were 'hugely encouraging'.    A copy-editor and another publisher's editor are also thanked for 'pushing the book forward', not to mention the assistance of Richard Holmes.   Publishing isn't a level playing field these days.  I wonder how many other brilliant first novels are out there, being lamented by talented writers who don't have that kind of support network.   This may sound rather ungracious, but it's a fact of modern publishing.  Who you know is important and having an enthusiastic agent is essential if you want to be hyped into best-sellerdom.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Roz Morris: My Memories of a Future Life

My Monthly Indie E-book.

I'm having a lot of fun trawling through the world of independently published E-books and finding some brilliant reads.   Like hard-copy books, there's a deep morass of crap to wade through, but the cream has a habit of rising to the top. I rely on recommendations.  There are now several E-book review sites to help you choose,  including Cally Wight's new Indie E-Book Review,    and the Indie E-book Collective on the amazing Good Reads review site is fantastic.  Amazon's Kindle reviews are also useful - if a book has more than 20 five star reviews, they can't all be written by the author's family - can they? 

Roz Morris is a best-selling children's author and ghost-writer under a number of alias's.  She moonlights on her own account, writing literary fiction with a twist, and has opted to publish her adult novels herself as E-books after finding her publishers less than keen to support her change of tack.  Why they didn't want this one is beyond me! Apparently they didn't like the para-normal element.  Still, it's out-selling many of the conventionally published books on Amazon at the moment, so that must make Roz smile all the way to the bank.   

My Memories of a Future Life explores the world of professional classical musicians and the less respectable world of the mediums/spiritual healers who specialise in regressing people through their past lives.  Roz Morris' original take on this was, what if, under hypnosis, the subject wanders into a future life?   ‘I thought .....   Who would do that? Why? What would they find?'    Having read Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black, which also explores the murky lives of charlatans preying on the vulnerability of their clients, I was quite intrigued by the subject matter.    What I got was a first class page-turner.

It's a romance and thriller woven together.  Some reviewers have compared it to the The Time Traveller's Wife.   The writing is strong and original and the plot really carries you along.  As a writer who has suffered from RSI, I really could empathise with Carol, a gifted pianist whose wrists hurt too much to play and who doesn't know what else to do with her life.  Through her flatmate she comes into contact with a spiritualist healer and begins to experience the dark underworld of the paranormal.  She is thoroughly sceptical and manages to keep her common sense intact while her life suffers a number of earthquake moments.  It was an excellent read.