Thursday, November 27, 2014


Books Read in September:  
The Poisoned Crown by Maurice Druon  
The Royal Succession by Maurice Druon  
The She-Wolf by Maurice Druon  
Film Freak by Christopher Fowler  
Blue-Eyed Devil by Robert B. Parker  
Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich  
Hunting Evil by Guy Walters  

Books Read in October:
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon  
How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor
Hitler’s Furies by Wendy Lower  
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Going Off Alarming by Danny Baker
Revival by Stephen King  
Only When I Laugh by Paul Merton  
Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffman to Hodgson edited by Darryl Jones

One of the things I’ve discovered by writing down the names of the books I’ve read this year is that I’m reading more books than I might otherwise have done. I think it may be the opposite of keeping track of one’s calorie intake, which usually results in the ingestion of less food. (A doughnut can contain more than 350 calories, incidentally, and you know that they never taste as good as they look . . .) With books, though, I keep pushing myself to read more and more. Ideally I’d like to have read 100 books by the end of this year, but I don’t think I’m going to reach that. Still, I won’t be too far off, although I have noticed that the shadow of my desire to read more books is a reluctance to tackle books that are very long, as they might bring down my average.

Thus, although I have a very nice copy of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas on my shelf, and it’s a novel that I’ve meant to read for many years, I keep putting it off as it’s about 900 pages long, and might well represent a couple of weeks of reading. I wonder, too, if I’m secretly concerned about my own mortality, and figure that, even if my plane starts to go down during this current publicity tour, I might still have just enough time to sprint through another Maurice Druon book or, you know, reread The Great Gatsby. Then again, I might be too busy screaming, although it’s hard to conceive of any situation in which I wouldn’t try to get a few more pages of a book read. That, my friends, is the mark of an obsessive.

Speaking of Maurice Druon, I’m now on the sixth of his seven-novel sequence, The Accursed Kings, so I’m quite the expert on the French monarchy in the 13th and 14th centuries, and have just learned that Clémence of Hungary was the first person in history to own a fork, which is always useful to know. Druon requires a little commitment, as it can be difficult initially to keep track of various factions, princes, knights, and, indeed, dead kings, of which there are quite a number. Not surprisingly, he was a huge influence on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, but it also strikes me that historical fiction, like fantasy literature, is much more conducive to, and welcoming of, sequences of novels than my own mystery genre, which generally distrusts books — even as part of character-driven series — that require readers to have some knowledge of preceding novels. My Parker books form a sequence, but I’d suggest that they’re the exception in the mystery field, not the rule. They’re not the sole exception, though: Preston and Child do something similar with their Pendergast books, and the work of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, progenitors of the Scandinavian crime genre, is best read in sequence. Still, mystery fiction prefers its series protagonists not to have too much of a memory, I think.

October, meanwhile, contained a significant gothic element, thanks to Mary Shelley, Stephen King, and Darryl Jones, and a timely visit to the gothic exhibition at the British Library in London, which I can heartily recommend should you find yourself at a loose end in that city and fancy seeing Shelley’s manuscript of Frankenstein, or a letter from Jack the Ripper promising to mutilate the ears of his next victim, which he duly did. If nothing else, I suppose he was a man of his word . . .

Monday, September 01, 2014


Books Read in June:
The Broken Shore by Peter Temple
Amateurs by Donald Barthelme
Fire & Rain by David Browne
Selections from The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, and The World's Greatest Short Stories, edited by James Daley
The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov

Books Read in July:
Dave Gorman v. The Rest of the World by Dave Gorman
Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa
Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa
Shock Wave by John Sandford
The Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

Books Read in August:
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile by Dave Davies
Five Came Back by Mark Harris
The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham
Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth Saga by Wagner, Mills, McMahon and Bolland

Gosh, it just struck me that I'd been a bit remiss in adding to my Books Read This Year blog, mainly because, well, I've been reading a lot of books, and trying to write a couple as well. I had hoped to get at least fifty books read this year, but I seem to have exceeded that target already, even counting the selections read from two short story anthologies as the equivalent of one book. Mind you, waiting around airports and then sitting on planes for long periods of time helped . . .

I won't tarry long, as I feel the draft of the new Parker book calling me, but I did want to offer a brief word on short stories, as I found myself reading a lot of them in June.

In May of this year I gave a workshop to aspiring writers in Sydney as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival. (I don't tend to give many workshops, mainly because I don't have much idea how I manage to write my books, and therefore I worry about trying to give advice to other people on how to write theirs.) Nevertheless, an issue that came up in the course of the session concerned short stories. One of the writers in the course wanted to write only short stories, but felt pressured — I think by others in her writing group — into using them as a dry run for novels, which she had absolutely no interest in writing. So her question was: Is the art (or craft) of writing short stories a thing in and of itself, or should short story writers inevitably feel bound to broaden their ambitions and write longer fiction?

The answer would seem pretty obvious: short stories are not simply underdeveloped novels, and it's probably unwise to view the writing of them as the literary equivalent of stabilizers on a bicycle. On the other hand, it is also true that writers of short fiction may feel a certain pressure — whether from classmates, publishers, or themselves — to explore the great plains of fiction in its longer form.

Some writers, though, are just born to work in the short form. Raymond Carver was one, although when asked why he chose to work in the form, his answer cleaved closer to practicality than to questions of art. This is from an interview with Carver in The Paris Review:


In an article you did for The New York Times Book Review you mentioned a story "too tedious to talk about here" — about why you choose to write short stories over novels. Do you want to go into that story now? 


The story that was "too tedious to talk about" has to do with a number of things that aren't very pleasant to talk about. I did finally talk about some of these things in the essay "Fires," which was published in Antaeus. In it, I said that finally, a writer is judged by what he writes, and that's the way it should be. The circumstances surrounding the writing are something else, something extraliterary. Nobody ever asked me to be a writer. But it was tough to stay alive and pay bills and put food on the table and at the same time to think of myself as a writer and to learn to write. After years of working crap jobs and raising kids and trying to write, I realized I needed to write things I could finish and be done with in a hurry. There was no way I could undertake a novels, a two- or three-year stretch of work on a single project. I needed to write something I could get some kind of payoff from immediately, not next year, or three years from now. Hence, poems and stories. I was beginning to see that my life was not — let's say it was not what I wanted it to be. There was always a wagonload of frustration to deal with — wanting to write and not being able to find the time or the place for it. I used to go out and sit in the car and try to write something on a pad on my knee. This was when the kids were in their adolescence. I was in my late twenties or early thirties. We were still in a state of penury, we had one bankruptcy behind us, and years of hard work with nothing to show for it except an old car, a rented house, and new creditors on our backs. It was depressing, and I felt spiritually obliterated. Alcohol became a problem. I more or less gave up, threw in the towel, and took to full-time drinking as a serious pursuit. That's part of what I was talking about when I was talking about things "too tedious to talk about."
In other words, Carver claims to have started writing short stories because he didn't have the time to write long ones, which actually seems like a pretty good reason, all things considered. I suspect that he was also artistically suited to the short form. It was where his genius lay, and he was fortunate enough to recognize that fact, whether through enforced circumstance or actual experience. 

Donald Barthelme presents a different example, as he wrote short stories and novels — or, more correctly, novellas, as his longer fiction (Snow White, The Dead Father, The King) isn't very long at all. He was a better short story writer than he was a novelist, which is in no way to damn him with faint praise: Barthelme was so good a short story writer that his novels couldn't really compete. "Fragments are the only form I trust," he once said, but his stories are not fragments at all. They are complete entities, and reading the best of them — like "The School" in the Oates anthology, or one of my favorites, "Engineer-Private Paul Klee Misplaces an Aircraft Between Milbertshofen and Cambrai, March 1916," simply makes one want to read more, which is why I went back and read Amateurs, a collection from 1976 that includes the quite splendidly funny and upsetting "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby." Admittedly some of the tales in Amateurs are a bit too tricksy for my liking, and I have to confess to not quite understanding what Barthelme was trying to do with them, but I've never read anyone like him in the short form, and if you could see your way toward trying Forty Stories or Sixty Stories, which function as Barthelme Best Ofs, I reckon you won't be disappointed.

It was also a pleasure to read Tobias Wolff's "Hunters in the Snow," which does what only perfect short stories can do — namely, to give us the sense of wandering in at a crucial point in an ongoing narrative, a moment of epiphany, and then leave the ends to trail in our minds like the strings of jellyfish. Wolff is another example of someone who seems to me more comfortable in the short form than the long — I've admired his novels, but they haven't moved me — although I'll take his non-fiction over both. 

Finally, I suppose short stories have been on my mind because I've gradually been working toward another Nocturnes anthology, and I've written more short stories over the last couple of years than in the eight years preceding them. For me, they're neither easier nor harder to write than novels: they're just different. It's like using another muscle, and the more you train it, the more familiar its use becomes. Short stories are unforgiving of flab; unnecessary words, paragraphs or digressions stand out more in the short form than in a novel. But they also allow the writer a certain freedom from the conventions of the novel, in particular the obligation to offer the reader some kind of conclusion — an ending or an explanation, however partial — as a reward for slogging through 300 or 400 pages. A short story permits the reader a glimpse, and nothing more, but it's a glimpse in which a whole world is briefly revealed. 

And now I have a novel to write . . .

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


Books Read in April: 
Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum
The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy
Rock Stars Stole My Life by Mark Ellen

Books Read in May:
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie by Jon Ronson
Field of Prey by John Sandford
Watching War Films With My Dad by Al Murray
Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies by Donald Spoto
Creation Stories by Alan McGee
A Blink of the Screen by Terry Pratchett
Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
One Leg Too Few: The Adventures of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore by William Cook
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Okay, so the first thing you’ll notice is the disparity between the amount of reading done in April and May. In part, this is because The Ginger Man took up more time than I thought it would: I’ve tried to read it twice before but never managed to get to grips with it. This time I persevered, and now I never have to read it again. We all have books that, for some reason or another, fail to connect with us.  For me, The Ginger Man seems destined to remain one of those, but at least I’m no longer nagged by my failure to finish it.

The main reason for getting so much reading done in May, though, is that I spent a lot of the month on aeroplanes, and planes are one of the few safe havens remaining to those of us who want to read undisturbed by people on cellphones, although even that little nirvana is gradually being encroached upon.

I’m also really protective of my time alone when I’m doing publicity. I spend whole days talking to people – readers, booksellers, journalists, publishers – and I enjoy doing it. (After all, there’s nothing terribly difficult about having people spend hours telling you how wonderful you are, and those who love books are generally good company.) To continue enjoying it, though, I need to balance it with a little time to myself. It’s why I never take up friends’ offers of a bed at their home instead of staying in a hotel, and it’s also why I like to slip away for a meal or a glass of wine in the evening with only a book for company. Sometimes, I may even do some writing. I’ve also come to realize that I only have one liver, and it’s hard to be the good time had by all every evening.

And in the end, writers are, by nature, solitary. Books are created in solitude, and not always when one is at one’s desk. Even on tour, I tend to be thinking about the book on which I’m working. Free time becomes precious, and reading fuels writing. Promotion is a kind of balancing act between the public and the private, between what one needs to do to create awareness of the book (and taking pleasure from the task, as it’s an important aspect of being a writer in the modern world, and should be done with good grace) and what one needs in order to keep creating new work, which is one’s own space. When I began writing, that space was always the little office I kept at home. Now, because of the demands of travel, I’ve learned to bring that space with me. 

Anyway, I seem to have ploughed through quite a number of books in May, although I confess to only reading the Discworld stories in the Pratchett book, and I skipped the extended interviews in the biography of Cook and Moore. (And I felt guilty for doing so, as if I was somehow cheating. It was like not eating my greens.)

One thing did strike me recently about my reading, although I must credit friend and minion Clair for bringing it to my attention: so far this year, the books that I’ve read have been overwhelmingly male. This caused, to borrow a phrase from the late Douglas Adams, a long dark tea-time of the soul, especially since I was reading Al Murray’s Watching War Films With My Dad at the time, a book that couldn’t be more male if it had a penis dangling from the front of it. I mean, I’m not the kind of person who goes into a bookstore and announces that “I need a book, any book – just as long as it’s not written by a woman, because I don’t like those kinds of books, whatever kind they may be.” I didn’t consciously set out not to read books by women, but was I unconsciously doing so? Had I simply slipped into a kind of bad habit or was the relative absence of female authors on my list underpinned by a set of assumptions that I couldn’t even admit to myself?

The solution, I determined, was just to adapt my reading behavior, because I didn’t want to be “that reader.” Hence the Audrey Magee book, and the Wharton, and I’ve just finished Sarah Lotz’s The Three, although that’s something for the June list. Neither The Undertaking nor Ethan Frome was exactly cheery, although, to be fair, the former concerns a marriage of convenience during World War II, and takes in the Holocaust and the horrors of the Russian front, so an absence of hilarity is largely to be expected. The latter, meanwhile, draws conspicuous attention at an early stage to the potential danger posed by an elm tree near a sledding run, leading one to suspect that an elm tree/sled incident is on at cards at some stage. Wharton does not disappoint on this front, although she manages to add a twist to the whole business that will cause the casual reader to look askance at elm trees forever after – and, indeed, to cast a cold eye on life in general. 

So a good month of reading, then: allowing for stories and interviews skipped, I’m up to 30 books read so far this year, and I’ve also taken a step on the way to being a better person.  I’m positively glowing with self-satisfaction…

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Creole Belle by James Lee Burke  
Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen  
The Lonesome Heart is Angry by Paul Charles  
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

It was inevitable, I suppose. After making sterling progress in January and February towards my aim of an average of a book read per week for 2014, I came a bit of a cropper in March. Okay, so I’m still averaging a book a week for the month, but after eight books in January and seven books in February, a mere four for March seems rather poor, especially as two of them were pretty short. I’ll excuse it on the grounds that one of the books that tipped into April was very long indeed, with quite small print, and one of the March books was also pretty long, especially for a mystery novel.

Let’s begin with that book, since it’s kind of what I did. Occasionally I’ll meet would-be-writers (and, indeed, published writers) who try to avoid reading anything remotely resembling their own work while writing. I suppose they worry that they might be overly influenced by the style of the writer whom they’re reading, and I accept that this can be a real concern, especially when one is starting out. I can still spot the paragraph in Every Dead Thing that was written under the influence of too many Cormac McCarthy novels, mainly because it’s a paragraph long and entirely untroubled by punctuation, apart from the full stop at the end.

On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for reading a writer of undeniable excellence who is working in the same field as you are. At the very least, it gives you something for which to aim, and will remind you of how good the writing within your genre can be. That’s as true of mystery fiction as any other. There’s a lot of serviceable writing in the genre, but not a lot of really great prose. Some people might argue that you don’t read mystery fiction for the prose, but that’s like saying that you don’t judge your furniture by the quality of its construction. It’s enough that the table is flat, and your cup doesn’t slide off. It’s the same mindset that likes to describe mystery fiction as essentially plot-driven when, as any fule kno, it’s character-driven, or at least the best of it is.

James Lee Burke is one of the writers who made me want to be a writer. He’s one of the great prose stylists in the mystery genre, or indeed any genre, and for my money he’s the greatest living mystery writer. He’s so good that I’m always one book behind. I don’t read his next-to-last book until I have the latest one on the shelf. That way, I’ll always have one in reserve. (When I mention this at book events, it’s nice to see a lot of readers nod in understanding. I may be odd, but I’m not alone in my oddness.)

With that in mind, Creole Belle is actually 2012’s Dave Robicheaux novel, and I still have 2013’s book, Light of the World, to read. Which is nice. It was, as always, an illuminating experience to read it as I began writing the next Parker book, although, slightly worryingly, it did touch on some of the same subject matter as the novel on which I’m working. Still, that happens less often than one might expect, given that all creative endeavor draws from the same cloud of inspiration.

What’s interesting about Creole Belle – the consistency of the quality of Burke’s work apart – is the extent to which its characters are shadowed by mortality. Burke made a decision a long time ago to allow his characters to age, which has kept the books fresh. If, as I said above, all fiction is fundamentally about character, then by allowing the characters to change and develop, a writer can ensure that his or her fiction changes and develops too. I always enjoyed Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, but because Spenser never really aged, the books never really changed either. They were all basically the same, which was kind of reassuring. Sometimes it’s nice to know what you’re getting before you buy it.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Burke’s characters should have mortality on their minds. Their creator is no longer a young man, and the concerns of his characters probably reflect his own. Nevertheless, I hope Burke has many years left in him yet. For my generation of mystery writers, he remains something of a touchstone, and I personally am lost in admiration for him as both a writer and a decent, moral human being.

Oddly enough, I felt a point of contact too with Donald Fagen, whose Eminent Hipsters provided a palate cleanser between novels. I’d kind of skimmed through it before Christmas, but I wanted to return to it when I had a little time on my hands. Okay, so there’s something mildly frustrating about one half of Steely Dan writing a kind of memoir in which Steely Dan is barely mentioned, but I can only assume that he’s saving the Dan years for another book, which is fine with me.

The essays that form the first part of Eminent Hipsters are curious and amusing, but the real meat is in the tour diary that takes up most of the book. I suspect that Fagen has partly created a character called “Donald Fagen” who is marginally more curmudgeonly than he is, but not by much. He clearly doesn’t care much for traveling, yet making a living requires that he tours. He gets annoyed that the audience for his tour with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald want to hear old Dan tunes instead of the R&B and soul that is the backbone of the trio’s set, yet also recognizes that the only reason that most of them have bought tickets is because he’s half of Steely Dan. Finally, he shares with me one of my own bugbears at concerts: the apparent inability of people to simply attend a concert without holding up a cellphone and watching it on a screen as they record it. As Fagen notes, it’s as though they can’t conceive of actually being present unless they have some physical evidence to remind them.

So put your phones away, or Fagen and I will do for you.

Strangely, I read two Irish novels this month, which may be a record for me, since I have a recorded antipathy towards Irish fiction in many of its forms. The first was The Lonesome Heart is Angry by Paul Charles, published next week. I know Paul well, and am hugely fond of him: he’s a good writer, and a fine human being, but it’s always a risky business when one is asked to provide a cover quote for a book by a friend. Nevertheless, The Lonesome Heart is Angry, with its gentle but incisive examination of small-town secrets, was a pleasure to read, and almost made me reconsider my attitude to Irish fiction in general, which I find worrying.

This doubt about my own prejudices was further exacerbated by The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan, which has become something of a phenomenon in Ireland, and won the Guardian First Book Award in the UK this year. It has also been shortlisted for the 2014 Impac Award. It’s a novel constructed from a series of interlinked short stories, each concerning a different character in a small Irish town, and its success is unsurprising. Ryan can write, and although I’m still not entirely convinced that a book constructed from interlinked short stories is actually a novel rather than a collection, I came away from it very glad that I’d read it, and glad too that, for once, the hype appeared to be justified.

And so we’re into April, and I’m already looking good for at least another four books this month — but two very large research tomes are calling to me, and I know that they’re going to scupper my progress eventually…

Tuesday, March 04, 2014


Tough Without A Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart by Stefan Kanzer
Sharpe’s Rifles by Bernard Cornwell  
One for the Books by Joe Queenan  
White Fire by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
The Prince by Machiavelli  
On Machiavelli – The Search for Glory by Alan Ryan  
Vicious Circle by Wilbur Smith

And so the great push to read more than fifty books this year continues to store up literary goodwill for those months when book consumption is reduced to a trickle: seven books this month to add to last month’s eight, which isn’t too shabby. Mind you, I didn’t get to at least two books that I was supposed to have read. One arrived in the mail while I was in the middle of other stuff, and I’d already read the second, so technically that would have been a reread, although it would still have counted towards the final total even if it didn’t succeed in contributing to the fulfillment of my basic aim, which is to reduce the number of unread books on my shelves.

But we move on, for this month’s reading material provoked a number of questions, the first of which is: When should a writer stop writing? It’s an interesting question. Should writers continue until the pen is prized from their cold dead hands, a bit like Chuck Heston’s guns, or should they stop when they begin to experience doubts about the quality of their output? Is that even possible, given that most writers are so riven by doubt anyway? If concern about the quality of their work was a factor, most would have stopped writing long ago and gone off to become window cleaners.

Jim Crace announced last year that Harvest was to be his last novel. Here’s an extract from an interview with Crace about that subject in the London Independent newspaper.
"Retiring from writing is not to retire from life," he says: there's his painting, politics and tennis, as well as his first grandchild and regular trips to the US – Crace has a sinecure at the University of Texas, where his archive is held. "But," he continues, "retiring from writing is to avoid the inevitable bitterness which a writing career is bound to deliver as its end product, in almost every case."
Does a writing career always end in bitterness? I do hope not. Disappointment I can understand – a writer is never quite as successful as he might have wished, never as critically or commercially garlanded, and never quite manages to write the book that was in his head when he started – but that sense of existential dissatisfaction is true of most lives, whether creative or not. Bitterness is something very different. We can live with disappointment, but bitterness poisons the soul.

Anyway, I mention this only because Wilbur Smith, whose latest novel I read last month, turned 81 in January, and is still publishing a book every two years. I interviewed Smith a long time ago and found him to be an interesting, if peculiar, man. He was clearly a product of the nineteenth century who happened to be born in the twentieth, and was set to struggle with the twenty-first. His worldview was essentially colonial and, given what appeared to be his problematical relationship with his daughter, I was kind of glad that he wasn’t my dad.

On the other hand, his novels — the historical ones, at least — had given me enormous entertainment over the years, even as I began to recognize their sometimes outdated, and possibly offensive, sexual and racial underpinnings. He was perfectly pleasant company for the hour or two we spent talking at Dublin Airport, and had no particular airs about him. And it’s no mean achievement to reach one’s ninth decade and still be writing, although the £15 million book deal that he signed in 2012 includes a promise to produce up to two titles a year for three years with the help of “carefully selected co-authors.” As one newspaper put it, “Smith will reportedly sketch plot outlines and characters, leaving his appointed writers to flesh the skeletons out into full books.” Make of that what you will.

All of which is a preamble to discussing Vicious Circle, his latest novel and the second to feature security expert Hector Cross, when, in fact, I’d rather forget that I ever read it, and have that part of my brain excised. Smith’s novels set in the present day are always more problematical than his historical fictions, perhaps in part because it’s easier to gloss over the sexism and racism in the historicals by partially excusing them as reflections of the eras in which they’re set. Vicious Circle may just be the most unpleasant book that I’ve read in recent times, featuring a level of sexual violence inflicted on women and children unlike anything I’ve never previously encountered in a work of commercial fiction, including pedophilia, rape, anal rape, disembowelment, the removal of organs (ears, to be specific), shooting, stabbing, drowning, and the feeding of live women to hogs and crocodiles. The women who didn’t die came straight from central stock casting, and the only thing more disturbing than the content was the fact that there will apparently be a further sequel. Frankly, if I was one of his proposed ghostwriters and was handed an outline for another novel like this one, I think I’d wash my hands of the whole business and leave with my pride and dignity intact.

So the reading month ended on a sorry note, but until then it had been going reasonably well. I’ve never had a huge interest in Humphrey Bogart, to be perfectly honest, although I’ve generally liked his films, but I was in the mood for a piece of cinema biography, and Kanzer’s book had been well reviewed. The typeface and setting on my Faber edition of the book wasn’t great, though, and made reading it more difficult than it should have been, but I finished it admiring Bogart more than I had at the beginning – which is always good – and understanding him more as well, which is even better. He was generally, as P.G. Wodehouse might have put it, a good egg, and a better actor than some give him credit for. He himself admitted that he made “more lousy pictures than any actor in history,” but the mark of greatness is that you can still be good when surrounded by mediocrity, and Bogart managed that more often than not. He knew that he owed his public a good performance, and he tried to give that in every film. It’s a simple motto to live by, but a hard one to live up to: Do Your Best.

Bernard Cornwell was one of the first writers ever to say anything nice about me in print, and we entered into a brief correspondence – and an exchange of books – which I really should resurrect, if only to tell him how much I enjoyed Sharpe’s Rifles. I’ve dipped in and out of the Sharpe books, which details the exploits of the titular British rifleman during the period before, during, and after the Napoleonic Wars, but somehow I’d never read Sharpe’s Rifles, chronologically the first in the series but actually the sixth to be published. It’s a real gift to be able to write sustained action (in a way, it seems to go against the whole notion of “show, don’t tell,” since action requires description — “telling” — to bring it to life, and that’s harder to do than it appears) and maintain momentum over the course of an entire book without sacrificing nuances of character, but Cornwell succeeds. Neither does he overwhelm with historical and military detail, which is another rare skill: it’s obvious that he knows his stuff, and is confident in his knowledge, which allows him to leave most of it out. After all, nobody likes a show-off.

Why was I reading Machiavelli? It’s a long story. I’d tried to read him in my teenage years, but I don’t think that I wanted to be a despot badly enough back then. For various reasons I was required to attempt The Prince again last month, and while I probably fancy being a despot more than I did at the age of sixteen, I don’t really believe that I have the energy for it any more. There does seem to be rather a lot of essential, if sometimes regrettable, killing involved, and, if you live by Machiavelli’s model, you really have very little time to do much else. He doesn’t have much truck with all of that art and music nonsense. If you’re serious about ruling, then get out there and start knocking off the opposition and scouting out the landscape to defend it from all those other rulers who’ve also been reading The Prince. Like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, The Prince is one of those books sociopathic business executives read in the hope that it will give them the edge on their rivals. Unfortunately, unlike Machiavelli or Sun Tzu, they probably haven’t read very much else, and therefore their frame of reference is distinctly limited. Alan Ryan’s commentary on Machiavelli and his best-known work was more informative than the book itself, which still seems to me to combine the odd nugget of common sense (don’t hire a servant who is more interested in enriching himself than enriching you) with the bloodthirstiness of someone who has never killed and therefore finds it very easy to advise other people on how, and why, to kill. Nasty piece of work, Machiavelli — and his lessons from history are a bit dubious to boot.

As someone who has collaborated on a book (Conquest with Jennie Ridyard, Mrs. Her Indoors) I have a certain curiosity about the collaborations of others. It’s not terribly usual in fiction, when you think about it (Wilbur Smith’s future Pattersonesque experiments excepted), and, as a reader, there is always the temptation to try and spot the join. I remember reading Black House, the Stephen King/Peter Straub collaboration, and being aware of a certain disjunction in style.(Straub is, in general, a denser writer.) King, though, has claimed that the parts people think were written by him were written by Straub, and vice versa. I’m not entirely sure that I buy his argument, although he may well have fancied having a go at writing like Straub. Why, I don’t know. Not that Straub is a bad writer, but it does seem a bit pointless for King to write like him when he has a perfectly good Peter Straub metaphorically sitting in the same room as him, and Straub, in turn, has a very decent Stephen King to hand.

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have been writing together since about 1995, I think, although I seem to remember that Relic, their first collaboration, was attributed in the UK to “Preston Child,” and only later were they surgically separated, as it were. Again, there is a slight shift in style between the writers, with Preston, I’d guess, being the denser prose stylist.

White Fire is the thirteenth of their books to feature FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast, many of which have been good fun. They did hit a bit of a bump in the road with the so-called “Helen Trilogy,” comprising a series of novels that required not so much a suspension of disbelief as the racking of it, culminating in an attempt to explain how someone could appear to be eaten by a lion when, in fact, that person may not actually have been, which is a difficult trick to pull off for all concerned. I remember once being asked if I worried about my novels becoming a bit like the later seasons of The X-Files, when the show became tied up with its own mythologies to a self-defeating extent, and the Helen Trilogy veered close to that territory. (I can’t comment on my own books.)

So it may have been that I approached White Fire with a certain degree of caution. It moves along at a fair old pace, and does dispense with all of the wife/lion business to concentrate on a self-contained plot but, unfortunately for me, that plot involves a lot of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, pivoting, as it does, on a supposedly “lost” Holmes story. I’m sorry: Holmes remains a kind of blind spot for me. I enjoyed the original stories, and I’m very fond of the BBC’s modern reinvention of the character, even if — as in the latter half of Conan Doyle’s own career — the plots are less involving than the characters of Holmes and Watson themselves. But I really don’t have any patience with Sherlockiana, or people writing pastiches of Conan Doyle, however affectionately meant or well done they may be. I’m starting to feel that, when authors die, their characters should be allowed to die with them. So it’s not the fault of Preston or Child, who strike me as very decent sorts. It’s not you, guys, it’s me.

Okay, and maybe a little bit you.

Finally, we come to Joe Queenan, a writer who could snark for his country. I think I first encountered Queenan back in 1999 in the form of If You’re Talking to Me Your Career Must Be in Trouble, a collection of sharp-edged essays and interviews, which remains the best thing that he’s published, although One for the Books comes close. It is a memoir of books and reading, and part of the pleasure of it lies in finding opinions with which one wholeheartedly agrees (He likes Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier! He gets annoyed with people who force books on him, insisting that he should read them, but he gets really angry with people who lend books to him while insisting that he should read them: if they want him to read their chosen books so badly then they should just buy copies of them for him!), leading one to suspect that Queenan may be a reasonable, right-thinking individual after all, only to immediately stumble across other opinions so wrong-headed as to make one wonder if Queenan has been the victim of some unfortunate industrial accident or botched cranial intervention. (He doesn’t like P.G. Wodehouse! He quite likes Anil’s Ghost!)

I particularly liked his diatribe against blurbing, the practice of writers producing excessively admiring quotes about other writers for use on the front of books.
Blurbs in particular can no longer be trusted. Usually they are written by liars and sycophants to advance the careers of bozos and sluts. In many cases authors will call in favors from friends who praise books they know to be dismally inadequate. This is volitionally cruel, because writers know that other writers hate writing blurbs. They hate it when their editors ask for them, and they really hate it when their friends ask for them. Being asked to write a blurb for a friend is like being asked to give your friend’s gross, dysfunctional kid a summer job. . . Conversely, writers hate writing blurbs for strangers, because it forces them to read books they do not want to read, at a point when time itself is running out on them. All blurbs should be written before the age of fifty; after that, one should never read a book one does not want to read, unless there is money in it.
On that note — and I kid you not — I have to go and write a blurb...

Friday, February 07, 2014


The English Girl by Daniel Silva  
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon 
Rough Country by John Sandford
Brimstone by Robert B. Parker
Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith
Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett 
Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann 
Adventures with the Wife in Space by Neil Perryman  

So, as a kind of New Year’s resolution, I decided to start keeping a record of the books that I read during 2014. In some ways, I regret not starting this much earlier in life – somewhere around the time that I read my first book, which was a Secret Seven adventure by Enid Blyton, which I think might have been when I was five or six – but it’s a little late for that now. Still, it would have been rather lovely to have a record of all that I’ve read, an indicator of progress and accomplishment. I could even have marked particular achievements with a gold star, like finishing Don Quixote, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, and War and Peace, and little frowny faces of regret for those books started but then abandoned (A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, which I still believe talks about me behind my back in a French accent) and books that should never have been started to begin with (too many to name, I suspect, but I still want back that time spent on The Da Vinci Code).

Anyway, eight books read in January doesn’t seem like a bad start to the year, as I’m tentatively aiming for an average of a book a week, so knocking down eight in one month will make up for those inevitable periods when I either get bogged down in a book, or encounter one that takes a little more time and effort to read.  (In the Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland’s study of the birth of Islam, was one such book last year. I learned a lot from it, most of which I fear I’ve already forgotten, but the minutiae of various branches of the faith detailed in the last third proved to be heavy going, and I felt like a man slogging through thick, compacted snow.)

And what of those books? Well, I’m something of a fan of Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon books, even if, as often happens with an ongoing series, the structure of each novel is pretty standard: Allon, an art restorer and Israeli agent, is pulled reluctantly into some case of international terrorism; bad things happen; he gets his gang together; and vengeance is meted out.  Actually, leaving out the international terrorism element, that could describe most mystery novels, my own included. In Silva’s case, this is all accomplished with a considerable measure of style, and no small amount of tension. He’s very good.

Here’s the thing: I don’t believe in the concept of guilty pleasures. If you like something, and it doesn’t do anyone else any harm — or, indeed, yourself —then it’s fine to like it. If anything about the Allon books makes me slightly uneasy, it’s a general tendency to paint the Israelis entirely as a force for good, and the Arabs or Russians as pretty much uniformly bad. Now I’m no expert, but I suspect the geopolitical situation is slightly more complex than that. End of note.

That notion of guilty pleasures is one that is explored both tacitly and explicitly in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which had been on my shelf for a long time marked, metaphorically speaking, “to be read . . . sometime.” I read Chabon’s first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when I was in college and liked it a lot. It was one of a number of books given to me as a thank-you by one of my classmates in return for escorting her to the Trinity Ball, which was no chore. (She also gave me Looking for Rachel Wallace, which was my introduction to the novels of Robert B. Parker.)  

Kavalier & Clay is set in the world of comic books during and after the Second World War — the first golden age of comics, if you will. It also functions as a passionate defense of the idea of escapist fiction, and the fact that the hero of the comic book created by the title characters is called “The Escapist” is no coincidence. The final pages contain a lovely defense of escapism, taking as its starting point the myth of the golem, the defender of Prague’s Jews created from clay, which is worth quoting here:
The shaping of a golem, to him, was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something — one poor, dumb, powerful thing — exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of a vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape. To slip, like the Escapist, free of the entangling chain of reality and the straitjacket of physical laws . . . The newspaper articles that Joe had read about the upcoming Senate investigation into comic books always cited “escapism” among the litany of injurious consequences of their reading, and dwelled on the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisfying the desire to escape. As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life.
Lovely, isn’t it? If, as a reader or, indeed, a writer, you ever feel called upon to defend your choice of reading or subject matter respectively, it would be worth learning that section so you can quote it back in full in the face of your critics.  Actually, I had a meal recently with someone who, with the best possible intentions, seemed determined to force me to expose what s/he believed to be my inner demons, the monkeys on my back that drove me to write. I know that I have them, but I tend to keep them to myself. But when I tried to explain that, on one level, to leave my readers feeling contented with the time they had spent with my book was the most basic requirement I make of my work, my interrogator appeared rather disappointed, as if this was somehow insufficient.   It’s not everything, I said, but if it was all that I could offer, then it would be enough.

We move on. The John Sandford novel, a co-write with a friend of his (although his friend’s name doesn’t appear on the cover, which is a bit underhand) is one of the novels featuring the Minnesota police investigator Virgil Flowers novels as opposed to Sandford’s better-known books centering on Flowers’s boss, Lucas Davenport. Sandford, either alone or in cahoots, has a particular gift for writing action, which is harder to do than it sounds. He’s also funny in print, which again is harder to do than it sounds. 

The late Robert B. Parker had the same gifts, and while Brimstone is one of his westerns, it still reads very much like one of his Spenser PI novels, which were, in their way, westerns set in present-day Boston. Parker’s work is proof positive that we read for character, not plot. Brimstone’s plot isn’t up to much, and the same could be said for any number of the Spenser novels, but it was a pleasure to spend time in the company of the characters, and his books have passed many a happy flight for me, and kept me entertained over solo dinners when I’m away from home.  God rest his soul. 

Tatiana, meanwhile, is the latest of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, and is published in the shadow of the writer’s struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. I understand that it was dictated, and it seems to me that this process has altered the texture of his writing. MCS was always a very good prose stylist, but the writing in Tatiana is particularly graceful, with a distinctive rhythm to it.  It’s one of the best of the later Renko novels, maybe even the best.

Terry Pratchett, too, writes while dealing with a debilitating illness, in his case Alzheimer’s, which seems to me a particularly cruel affliction with which to curse a novelist, given the importance of keeping a thousand small details in play from start to finish. Raising Steam, the latest Discworld novel, bears no trace of Pratchett’s illness and, while it’s not the funniest of the series, it’s still a joy to enter that perfectly constructed world. I had the pleasure of interviewing Pratchett in Dublin some years ago, and I enjoyed his company. He’s on the board of trustees of the Orangutan Foundation, incidentally, in no small part because the Librarian of the Unseen University was transformed into an orangutan during an unfortunate magical incident and decided to stay that way, as it made it easier to get around the stacks.

I’m not really much for political books as a rule, but Halperin’s and Heilemann’s Game Change, about the 2008 US presidential election, gripped like a thriller, as well as amusing me greatly. Double Down isn’t quite as interesting, mainly because the tension between the emerging Obama and the Clintons isn’t as strong, and there is no Sarah Palin moment. The most entertaining scenes occur during the Republican Party’s nomination process, as a series of increasingly unlikely candidates (hello, Herman Cain) pop up, ignite briefly, and then fall to the ground in flames. Poor old Mitt Romney comes across as someone who has been told how regular human beings behave but has never actually met one, and so must go purely on misguided instinct when he’s forced to imitate one. I actually ended up rather liking Romney, even though I wouldn’t want to be trapped in an elevator with him and forced to try and make awkward conversation.  

And finally, a little salve for my geek soul: Neil Perryman’s Adventures with the Wife in Space deals with the author’s mission to force his wife Sue to watch every episode of classic Doctor Who — in other words, from the BBC sci-fi series’ birth with William Hartnell to its temporary demise with Sylvester McCoy.  It helps if you know what they’re talking about, or else discussions of Daleks, Yeti, Zygons, and the sartorial selections inflicted on Sixth Doctor Colin Baker may well go over your head, but it’s funny and loving as a portrait both of fandom and marriage, even if, by the end, Perryman concludes that no small number of Doctor Who episodes just aren’t very good.  It’s that plot/character thing again, and something else: no matter how bad the episodes, those of us who were, and are, devoted to the series came back because we got to spend time with the Doctor in the Tardis.

We got to escape, for a time . . .