Monday, 28 May 2012

Blood Tide by Avril Joy

Blood Tide, featuring Private Investigator Danny Beck, is this month's E-book and, because I'd really enjoyed Avril Joy's novel  The Orchid House, I plunged into her first thriller with high expectations and wasn't disappointed.

It’s Newcastle, in the north east of England, and Danny Beck, recently widowed, has left his job in the prison service and doesn’t know what to do with the rest of his life.  A friend who runs a small private investigation agency has asked him to mind the shop while he goes to Australia to visit his family, and Danny - tired of living in an empty house with nothing to do - has agreed.

On his way to the office, Danny crosses one of the bridges over the Tyne and finds a young girl standing on the girders ready to jump off.  Trained to talk prisoners out of difficult situations, Danny tries to talk her down, but in the end she jumps, throwing him a piece of paper on which she’s written a name and a number.

Danny, who’d expected to be minding the telephone and the desk, or searching for a lost dog or two, finds himself at the heart of an investigation into a major international crime ring centred around a night club called the After Dark, where all kinds of perverted sexual tastes are catered for behind sealed doors.  It’s owned by Harry Munroe, a rich businessman who has powerful friends and the protection of violent thugs who don’t balk at murder.

One of the girls who works at the club, Gina, agrees to talk to Danny, but is too afraid to give much information away.  Then she goes missing and Danny’s search for her brings him up against Aidan, a young ex-soldier traumatised by service in Afghanistan.  He, too, is searching for Gina and has been following Danny’s every move.  Unstable and easily provoked into violence, armed with a sniper rifle, Aidan is someone Danny needs to have on his side rather than against him.  Aidan takes a lot of persuading.

There’s a rich cast of characters in this book, beginning with Danny himself - a complex, intelligent man, bruised by past events, unable to get over the death of his wife, still partly in love with the ex-girlfriend, Sarah, who is now married to his best friend.  Sarah is an artist, struggling with domesticity and her marriage to Tom, who is an ambitious prison governor, willing to turn a blind eye when necessary and without Danny’s moral scruples.  Then there’s Danny’s father, Joseph, one of a hardy breed of Northumberland moor dwellers, independent, cantankerous, but a man worth knowing.  And Sunil, owner of the Indian restaurant beneath the office who becomes Danny’s self-appointed minder.

The landscape of ‘Geordie-land’ is so beautifully drawn - the lilting rhythms of the speech, the curry houses, the old streets around the Tyne.  I could hear it, smell it, see it.  Avril says that when she set out to write the novel she was ‘exploring the themes that I am drawn to as a writer, among which are: the lives of abused and disenfranchised women, prison and the dark side, loss and the healing power of friendship and love, our deep connection with the past and with the landscape in which we live.’

I was gripped by this thriller from beginning to end.  I’d just finished a newly published Italian novel hyped as ‘the new Montalbano’, with all the resources of a big publishing house behind it,  but found the book a struggle to read and totally lacking in the kind of interest and good writing you need if crime fiction is to be anything more than just a plot-puzzle.   Blood Tide, by comparison, was in a different league, perhaps informed by the years that Avril worked in the prison education system which gives it a depth of real knowledge behind the characters and their motivations - on both sides of the legal divide. Avril is also a poet and this gives her prose another dimension.

Avril Joy’s thriller was almost picked up by two big publishing houses.  The story is a familiar one to many Kindle authors.   Avril writes:

When I first sent the novel to my agent I got an immediate and positive response – she liked it – she particularly liked the main characters and the dialogue. Things were looking good. It was picked up more or less straight away by an editor in a London publishing house who was keen to commission it. It went to the States to the co-publishers; was read there, and they declared in its favour. It looked like full steam ahead. I supplied the English publishers with photo, biography etc, etc. I foolishly, naively perhaps, thought we were home and dry.

Then suddenly everything went very quiet until finally after some months the editor said she was sorry but she was no longer in a position to commission crime fiction – not until 2012 at least. The story rolled on from there with other thwarted attempts (which I won’t go into) to sell by my agent until we finally agreed that the best way forward was Kindle!

All I can say is ‘Thank goodness for E-publishing’!  Those publishers are going to regret their decision to let Blood Tide slip, because Danny Beck has all the hall-marks of a classic detective and I can’t wait for the sequel!

Avril Joy blogs at Writing Junkie  

*This review first appeared on the Indie E-Book Review site  edited by Cally Phillips - an excellent guide to the best in E-books.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Marika Cobbold: Drowning Rose

What do you say to a man whose life you destroyed?

Marika Cobbold is good at the narrative hook - grabbing the reader by the throat on the opening page of a novel.  ‘Drowning Rose’ begins with a telephone call.   Eliza, just leaving the museum where she works as a ceramics restorer, is contacted by her godfather for the first time in 25 years.  He wants reconciliation, and in the following chapters, the novel begins to unfold the tragedy that led to their estrangement and the corrosive guilt that has subsequently destroyed Eliza’s own life.

Readers of Marika Cobbold will recognise the heroine - fortyish, childless, prickly, damaged by childhood events.  This time her name is Eliza, and she narrates her life in the first person, from an appropriately skewed viewpoint.  Her antagonist, the bolshy Sandra/Cassandra relates the events of their shared past in another first person narrative, equally partisan.   There are two unreliable narrators, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle for the reader to determine.  This double stranded narrative is another of Marika Cobbold’s hallmarks and it’s expertly handled.

The revelation of character in a first person narrative is very difficult to do successfully, but Marika Cobbold accomplishes it without visible effort.  Sandra/Cassandra seems, at the beginning, to be a rebellious teenager, unlikeable but worthy of the reader’s sympathy, but she gradually reveals herself as the chilling orchestrator of catastrophe.   She has been given a scholarship to an exclusive girl’s boarding school, where she is unable to fit in - always conscious of her working-class background among the daughters of the rich.  Eliza, Rose and their friend Portia appear to her as ‘princesses’, gifted with beauty, money, and the confidence that privilege brings.  Sandra becomes their ‘hanger-on’ and the girls try to treat her kindly, but soon grow tired of her.   From admiration to jealousy and hatred is only a short step.  ‘You seem to think it’s all just out there, just sitting there, waiting for you to go and get it,’ Sandra tells them bitterly.  When she and Rose fall in love with the same boy, it soon becomes clear that there are no limits to what Sandra will do to get what she wants.

But it’s Sandra who gives us a clear picture of the 16 year old Eliza, caring, artistic, with all her life spread in front of her like a gift.   She has natural style, wearing battered hats and second-hand clothes and a tacky necklace, so successfully ‘somehow you ended up wanting one just like it’.   Eliza is the only ‘princess’ who is habitually good to Sandra and pleads her cause with the others. 
    ‘”Cassandra is a very clever girl,” Eliza said.
    I wondered if she was taking the piss but she didn’t look as if she was.  She had the kind of face that showed everything she was thinking and right now she seemed to be thinking nice things.  Her smile was friendly and her eyes were kind.’

The picture that Sandra draws provides a tragic contrast to the present day Eliza, still punishing herself for events that the reader begins to realise were not her fault at all. 

On the negative side, the novelist seems to be exploring ground already covered in some of her previous books, though lovers of Marika Cobbold will not object.  I also found this novel’s central device perhaps a little too obvious.  The fragile, damaged Eliza, is a restorer of fragile, damaged ceramics.  She loves her work because mending porcelain ‘makes me happy to think that instead of that thought and effort being thrown away and lost I can bring it back to usefulness’.   There is a parallel between the repair of the broken object and the repairing of Eliza’s self-esteem.   She believes she is a realist; others call her self-defeatist - as her godfather tells her, ‘sometimes the two are one and the same’.  But afterwards I wondered whether I was wrong and the device is psychologically right - after all, what jobs do people like Eliza take?

There are some very skilled novelists writing in the UK at the moment and Marika Cobbold is high up on the list.  She doesn’t set my hair alight, but she doesn’t disappoint in the Good Read stakes either.  Personally I like the kind of  hybrid novel that she writes - literary fiction with elements of mystery and romance.  I enjoy the undertow of a strong narrative, and an awareness of language and psychology.  You know you’re in safe hands, and she always manages that difficult trick - the ending that is neither too unbelievably happy, nor too downbeat to cheer the reader.  What she leaves you with is hope and an open door for your imagination to walk through.

*This review first appeared on Book Munch on May 15th.  Book Munch is a good site to find something different and exciting to read - it's definitely not the front window of Waterstones!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Robert Hass: The Apple Trees at Olema

Robert Hass - New and Selected Poems

The American poet Robert Hass wasn’t someone I’d taken much notice of until a Tuesday Poem friend shared Meditation at Lagunitas’ It was extraordinary - not just the way the poet used words, but the thread of reasoning that moved through the poem.  This was a poem about love, memory, longing (‘desire is full/of endless distances), and language itself:
                 .......‘the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.’

So I looked for more of Robert Hass’s work. The Apple Trees at Olema runs to 352 pages and contains a selection from five previous volumes and a generous helping of new work, so I thought it would be a good introduction and I was right.   This isn’t a book to skim through.  I’ve taken months and months reading carefully through the different sections, reading and thinking, reading and underlining, going backwards and forwards.  Now that I’ve finished the collection I’m about to start again - this time just dipping in and out to remind myself, to go swimming in poetry that is unique and exceptional. 

He has a gift for choosing images and phrases that lodge in your mind; ‘Quiver dipped the nib of his pen/into the throat of the inkwell.’   ‘The wind-chivvied water,’ ‘The sky is inventing a Web site called newest azure.’  ‘They are built like exclamation points, woodpeckers.’  ‘Where the fat green figs hung like so many scrotums/among the leaves.’  Poetry - language - is itself a kind of translation.  Robert Hass writes  ‘as if language were a kind of moral cloud chamber/through which the world passed and from which it emerged charged/with desire.’   

Hass translates Czeslaw Milosz, as well as Japanese poetry and each poem has a depth of knowledge behind it of European and eastern traditions, history, psychology and philosophy.   You’re aware of this hinterland as you read, but you don’t need to know any of it to understand the poems.   Louise Gluck described his work as ‘entirely his own: a complex hybrid of the lyric line, with an unwavering fidelity to human and non-human nature, and formal variety and surprise, and a syntax capable of thinking through difficult things in ways that are both perfectly ordinary and really unusual’.

Some of the poems are autobiographical - growing up with an alcoholic mother, the break-up of a marriage, death of a brother.   But it’s the way he tells stories that impresses me most.  Some of the longer poems seem to be short fiction (one of them is called Novella), the shorter ones could qualify as flash fiction - and it could be argued that they’re prose poetry - they cross the borderlines of genre.  Because it’s flash fiction day in the UK tomorrow, I thought I’d quote one of the poems from his collection Human Wishes.  'Museum' has a lot of resonance for me because I visited the same museum and looked at the work of Käthe Kollwitz, just at a time when eastern Europe was emerging from behind the Iron Curtain.  Robert Hass manages to get the whole experience into a very small space.


On the morning of the Käthe Kollwitz exhibit, a young man and woman come into the museum restaurant.  She is carrying a baby; he carries the air-freight edition of the Sunday New York Times.  She sits in a high-backed wicker chair, cradling the infant in her arms.  He fills a tray with fresh fruit, rolls, and coffee in white cups and brings it to the table.  His hair is tousled, her eyes are puffy.  They look like they were thrown down into sleep and then yanked out of it like divers coming up for air.  He holds the baby.  She drinks coffee, scans the front page, butters a roll, and eats it in their little corner in the sun.  After a while, she holds the baby.  He reads the Book Review and eats some fruit. Then he holds the baby while she finds the section of the paper she wants and eats fruit and smokes.  They’ve hardly exchanged a look.  Meanwhile, I have fallen in love with this equitable arrangement, and with the baby who cooperates by sleeping.   All around them are faces Käthe Kollwitz carved in wood of people with no talent or capacity for suffering who are suffering the numbest kinds of pain: hunger, helpless terror.  But this young couple is reading the Sunday paper in the sun, the baby is sleeping, the green has begun to emerge from the rind of the cantaloupe, and everything seems possible. 

Quoted under the Fair Usage Agreement for the purposes of comment and review.

The Apple Trees at Olema is published in UK by Bloodaxe Books (there's a good video clip of Hass reading) and in the USA by Ecco Press (Harper Collins)  

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Satantango - Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes

Today I'm reviewing George Szirtes' translation of Satantango - a brilliant novel by the Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai - over at Book Munch.

"Béla Tarr’s 1994 screen translation of Satantango opens with a long-shot of cattle standing indifferently in the rain, up to their hocks in mud, and then  - after an almost endless pause – closes in on the human beings who exist under the same sky, soaked by the same rain, immobilised by the same mud.  I’m a big fan of Béla Tarr (who also filmed one of Krasznahorkai’s later novels The Melancholy of Resistance) and was interested to see how the novel Satantango would relate to the film, but not being a Hungarian speaker, I’ve had to wait until now to find out. Apparently George Szirtes deliberately avoided the film while doing the translation to avoid cross-contamination. But I found that film and book carried on having a dialogue in my head as I read, and one illuminated the other in a very positive way.   In the opening sequences of both film and novel Futaki, woken by bells, listens to the rain from the warmth of Mrs Schmidt’s bed, and watches the dawn through the ‘mousehole’ of a window that provides a view of the derelict estate that is a product of the collapsing political system. And he sees himself ‘nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin’."

Read more here ...............

Satantango was published in the UK by Atlantic on May 1st

Monday, 7 May 2012

Jonathan Gottschall: ‘The Story-Telling Animal’

I'm currently reviewing for a couple of online book sites, as well as reading the occasional publisher's mss, and not finding as much time as I'd like for the books I personally want to read.   The 'wish list' is piling up!

Today I found this intriguing title.  I'm always fascinated by books about the curious human addiction to story-telling.  It seems to be in our DNA.  Jonathan Gottschall puts it like this:

'Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can't resist the gravity of alternate worlds.'

The book has a trailer on YouTube.

And this is what he has to say about the interaction between reader and writer:

'The writer is not…an all-powerful architect of our reading experience. The writer guides the way we imagine but does not determine it. A film begins with a writer producing a screenplay. But it is the director who brings the screenplay to life, filling in most of the details. So it is with any story. A writer lays down words, but they are inert. They need a catalyst to come to life. The catalyst is the reader's imagination.'

I've always believed that much creativity comes from daydreaming.  We all daydream, but maybe writers and artists can spin the dream into something bigger and more concrete.  Apparently,

'an average daydream is about fourteen seconds long and we have about two thousand of them per day. In other words, we spend about half of our waking hours – one-third of our lives on earth – spinning fantasies. We daydream about the past: things we should have said or done, working through our victories and failures. We daydream about mundane stuff such as imagining different ways of handling conflict at work. But we also daydream in a much more intense, storylike way. We screen films with happy endings in our minds, where all our wishes – vain, aggressive, dirty – come true. And we screen little horror films, too, in which our worst fears are realized.'