Friday, June 27, 2008

Patrick Ness - The Knife of Never Letting Go


Will Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go be one of the next mega crossover sellers, a young adult book with an adult readership?
He breaks Evelyn Waugh's golden writing rule ... never kill off your characters because you only ever get one set. But then who knows, throughout the book the arch villain kept emerging from an apparent grave.
He adheres to one of my own golden rules for success ... incorporate a major chase sequence. The whole yarn is in fact a sustained chase.
It's one of those futureworld books that is set in a world that reflects the past. This world is like pioneering midwest America of the late nineteenth century, armies of men and dust and horses. It's not necessarily Earth but any spaceships have crashed and for now are part of the past. A boy and a girl flee the boy's township, along with his talking dog (a great character), in an apparent bid not to succumb to the town's evil. The township of evil men needs the boy to complete itself. The thoughts of men are all audible as NOISE.
It's well done. The endless chase keeps you from wondering what it is actually about, and by the end you realize the chase simply needs to go on through subsequent books. I did feel somewhat cheated of a resolution ... you finish a 400+ page book and you don't really want to know you're merely part way through. It's up there with John Wyndham though (it put me in mind of THE CHRYSALIDS) and The Tales of Alvin Maker by Orson Scott Card, which I enjoyed through its fourth volume where I felt it was running out of steam, running without going anywhere. That's still my question with Todd Hewitt, the kid in The Knife of Never Letting Go (and what a tough title that has been to remember). I was caught up in the fantasy, but wonder if it will lift beyond that and give me a sense of actually getting somewhere.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Sarah Moule - soprano

One of the most impressive opera recitals I've ever encountered was given by a postal worker in the sealed postal waggo on a train trundling between Turin and Milan back in the 1970s. I was invited inside because this particular inamorato took a shine to the two young women I was travelling with. There's a special thrill to opera in confined spaces, so long as the voice is good.
Scottish Opera's Opera Go Round have given me some of my mosr memorable opera evenings, in village halls around Scotland. In London the Handel House runs a sequence of concerts that allows a small audience to gather in Handel's own front room, hearing works where they were first ever tried out before an audience.
Sunday's 'Battle of the Rival Queens' was another memorable event. It was sweetly democratic, the mezzo Lindsay Bramley and the harpsichordist Bridget Cunningham all giving their equal weight to a programme of song, harpsichord and merry tales drawn from documents of the time - so it's a break with that spirit to single out one player. But that's what I'll do.
The soprano Sarah Moule (the soprano and not the London-based jazz singer of the same name) can hardly be noted as my discovery since she already has a second date booked with Lorin Maazel, but this is a bright career that should go far. The voice is warm and delicious, a whole store of effects waiting to be push through occasional words and notes. And in the tough setting of a tiny room with no stage, she acted her rival queen with perky and irresistible relish. I ache to enjoy her Mozart.

Friday, June 20, 2008

'The Book of Other People' - ed. Zadie Smith

Where have I been so long? I sat down to edit my new short story the other morning. Some time later, still inside that cushioned feeling of satisfaction, I was heading out the foor for the day job when I saw my bowl of cereal sitting untouched on the counter. I'd forgotten to eat.
I used to write many more stories. Of late they've become a form I turn to when I'm all spent and need some creative nourishing. I carry novels around in my ead for years but stories I let spring into being in the moment. I was talking to Babs Horton on the Plymouth campus the other day who's returning to the form herself. She, like me, had begun to wonder at the economic sense of writing stories with a living to make. Unlike me, she's now being approached with good short story commissions. Fornot tjhat I mind any commissions cm myself, I sniff a return to the short story form as a refuge from more commercial ventures (not that I mind any commissions coming my way of course).
Years ago, under Alan Ross, the London Magazine used to genuinely excite me. They published some classic new stories - I remember noticing William Boyd there for the first time. I'm fresh from reading the recent new collection edited by Zadie Smith, The Book of Other People. It's very fine. Some writers were new to me, some famiiar, others that I knew of only as names. I managed to check in with my own abiding grief over my mother's death with Colm Toibin's 'Donal Webster'. Edwige Danticaat's contribution with its Haitian setting made me want to seek out her novels. And David Eggar's piece was very moving, the one short story I know in which sacred mountains are personified to such poignant effect. A number of stories made me laugh too. Well worth trying.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Writing and money

'I am simply a jobbing writer,' the novelist Patrick Gale declares in a fine interview with the Western Morning News - 'it's just as well I don't do this for the money because I would earn more as a typist.'
I wondered recently whether ghosting wasn't the trick to pump in a bit of cash. It's one of those genres I've not touched as yet. Then I learned that the going rate for ghosting a name sports personality seems to be around $20,000. Fine for a fan, maybe.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Peter Cameron - and books with teenagers in them

Frank Cottrell Boyce, in his glowing review for Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go, bewails that such fiction needs to be targeted at a narrow demographic, 'young adults', as though teenagers need their books sorting out for them in case they wander into grown-up territory. Catcher in the Rye, he points out, would be tucked away on a 13+ shelf nowadays.
I've taken his lead, and ordered Patrick Ness's new book for my own enjoyment. And I also happen to have just read another book about a teenager that any adult too should delight in. I've loved Peter Cameron's work since first reading his 1997 novel Andorra. His prose in itself is a lucid joy - see how it strikes you with this download of the book's first chapter. The narrator of Some Day this Pain will be Useful to you has little success in making friends in his own life, but I'm very pleased to have come to know him. I laughed numerous times, gently but aloud.

Cremyll to Kingsand to home - a Devon and Cornwall loop from Plymouth


Toddle along to Stonehouse and the Cremyll ferry and you chug across from Devon to Cornwall. Mount Edgcumbe offers acres of sculpted parkland but also coastal woodland walks with some sense of the ancient about them ... especially when you come across roe deer darting between he beech trees.
Then on along the South Coast Way to Kingsand, previously the bordertown between Devon and Cornwall. It's a jewel of a place. A ferry from the neighbouring bay, Cawsand, then peeped its horn so I hopped aboard and was carried back across Plymouth Sound to the Barbican. From where I walked home to my apartment on the Hoe ... four hours of wondrous awayness.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Our next, female, poet laureate

The Independent suggests women poets don't even want to be poet laureate (curiously ruling Carol Ann Duffy out of their thinking who I'd have thought was an obvious pick with her GCSE status).
Should a woman be picked? Well of course. Will it happen? Well they're less likely to jockey themselves to the front of establishment thinking, but the Queen after all is her own woman so here's a little logic to help her out.
The Union is under threat, so our poet should be Scottish (not a tough one that, since our royal family has such strong Scottish sympathies). A woman makes sense, who can give voice to that rare factor of our having a female sovereign. The planet's in a worse state than the Union, so someone with exquisite empathy with nature would be healthy. Royalty has done fairly well at rejuvenating itself, so there's no point going for anyone decrepit. A poet who can be clear in prose would be splendid. Given all those factors, the answer becomes clear.
I nominate Kathleen Jamie as our next poet laureate.

Gaia's true meaning ... I'm gone?

One of my favourite characters of the last two centuries (he lived long) was Shivapuri Baba. J.G.Bennett tells his story in The Long Pilgrimage, but my favourite among his books is Right Life, largely a collection of his teachings collected by Renu Lal Singh.
I'd like to write, or simply read (for it makes sense for me to limit writing books to those I would like to read but can't find), the story of his meetings with Queen Victoria. Myth tells that Shivapuri Baba was detained in his walk around the globe by the Queen, who met with him eighteen times. The Queen's daughter Beatrice (if I'm remembering right) copied out the Queen's diaries, expunging unpleasant elements, and burnt the originals, so perhaps the tales of these meetings went up in smoke. If anyone knows how to source those meetings, I'd be delighted to hear.
In the meantime, this blog is prompted by a piece I've just read on this saint. It concludes:
"When the hour came to meet death, the SHIVAPURI BABA rose up from his bed, took a drink of water, said "Live Right Life, Worship God. That is all. Nothing more." Then he laid down on his side with his right hand supporting his head, spoke his last words, "I'm gone", in Hindi, "Gaya", ditched the old body, then I guess, he went immediately to join God and his grandfather. What a life! What a life!!"
Now this is news to me. William Golding raided Greek mythology to hand James Lovelock the name for Gaia, the concept of a self-regulating planetary being. How poignant, as people scrabble to find ways of rooting themselves to a planet that's growing weary of human despoliation, that the same term in Hindi means 'I'm gone'.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Biographers and the marketplace

I went biographer spotting last night. The annual summer bash of the Biographer's Club was meeting in the gardens of St Mary's Vicarage in Kensington, but I didn't have the address. Some ladies and gents in fine summer attire were clearly researching the buildings, while others wafted along with some purpose and clear sense of direction. They looked like a group of biographers to me, so I joined the flow and found my way.
It was a jovial early evening ... lots of folk to meet, bites to eat, drinks to sip while a guitarist and saxophonist (an American friend always creases with laughter when she hears this English term 'saxophonist') serenaded us from the terrace.
Meeting with my nonfiction agent on Friday I learned that biographers are an endangered species. Publishers aren't buying straight biographies (unless about celebrities) any more, literary biography being an especially stifled market. They bemoan the lack of editors apparently. Miss your deadline by a day and your contract is likely to be cancelled, or the terms renegotiated. Jane Mays of the Daily Mail, remembering the string of fine reviews for my Suffer & Survive, said how well I'd done to have such a long book accepted. Publishers now run shy of anything over 80,000 words. (In fact that was my own contractual limit, I won the right to go over by 20,000, and on submission the editor asked me for still more.)
I emerged into the sunlight of the vicarage garden from a day researching my next nonfiction project in the British Library. I find I'm noting my sources more assiduously than when I last started out, and am still comfortable making notes by pencil rather than taking in my laptop. It's a relief to win time away from the screen.
Biographers clam up when asked about their next project, as though others will steal it. It's reasonable I suppose, though highly unlikely. I was happy to be forthcoming last night - it's market research among peers, and I was buoyed by the positive response to me idea. I will wait a bit before airing it here though.
Biographers I spoke with do seem to be varying their approaches ... Jennifer Potter
writes biographies of plants, her new project being a cultural history of roses. Carola Hicks writes the biographies of paintings, her last book being about the Bayeux Tapestry. Katharine McMahon writes fictional biographies, most recently The Rose of Sebastopol. Katharine's website has an interesting page on researching the novel. I look forward to reading it as part of my own background research for my new project - and that's as much as I'm giving away for now!

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra


Orchestras are curious beings. I started 'collecting' them in a big way when I first lived in Berlin in 1975. The same orchestras I go and hear now are filled with people not even born then. Yet an orchestra is bigger than the entire cohort of players who represent it in any year.
The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was formed in 1843. They played all of Beethoven's symphonies while Beethoven was still alive. (The picture here is from 1845, the orchestra under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn.) That's like a musical baton relay over almost two centuries, the older generations of the orchestra passing on their traditions and training to the new blood coming in.
I saw the Leipzig Gewandhaus at London's Barbican last night. They're playing under their 19th musical director, the 54 year-old Italian Riccardo Chailly, and clearly have a much-loved master at the helm.
Back in Berlin in 1975, seated rather grandly in the Philharmonie as I followed an unsuspecting private party into their box, an announcer informed the audience of a programme change, but not to worry, their modern piece was still there. The audience duly laughed. It seems a German tradition (being rather shaken at the Berlin Philharmonic now under Simon Rattle with his contemporary agenda) to add one inoffensive modern piece to the preferred traditional bill. The modern piece on that occasion was by Ligeti. It was an elegant and beautiful surprise. Since then I've learned to head for concert halls because of these modern composers rather than despite them. Last night, as well as wishing to experience the orchestra, I was tempted by the chance to hear Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten live.
I followed a couple of elderly ladies out of the auditorium after the concert, one they had loved on the whole, and heard their lament about that Pärt piece ... 'It was just a series of descending scales with bells, but at least it was mercifully short.' So no change there. As someone else might say of those scales (indeed last night's programme note by David Fanning did), 'The scale curls back on itself as it descends and is supported by iterations of the tonic triad, while the eventual point of repose acquires a shade of defiance thanks to the steady crescendo that leads into it.' The composer Thomas Ades claims he cannot understand the language of music critics and the tonic triads lose me (maybe music critics should borrow from wine writers and their 'hints of melon', referencing things we know), but I do love Pärt's haunting sonic soundscapes.
What surprised me last night was how solid classics of the concert repertoire were made new. The young Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos tackled Brahms' Violin Concerto. His cadenza, played on the 'Falmouth' Stradivarius if 1692, had an edge of 21st steel to it ... as an unattributed solo I would have wondered who the modern master was. Then I came to see how this concerto will always be masterly and new. The oboe starts the slow movement with a sweet solo, for example, strings all falling silent while a woodwind band takes over the show, then the violin suddenly kicks in with a variant of that theme, a wondrous task of listening and astonishing creative response.
Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony had the whole audience thrilling and reverberating with sound. That was the official close of the programme, but the audience had started the evening by applauding all the players onto the stage, even with a special round for one late viola player, and now their applause won its rewards. Chailly pulled yet more players onto the stage to fill it as we heard Puccini's intermezzo from Manon Lescaut then the fight scene from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.
Boy, these top German orchestras know how to put on an evening!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Haldane and the truffle dream


You take up a biographical subject, and sometimes it's hard to part company with them. At least the relationship with John Scott Haldane (pictured here in the last year of his life, walking the grounds of Government House in Nicosia with his sister Elizabeth) is getting somewhat playful.
He was younger in my dream last night, swimming through underground tunnels (as was indeed his wont), but digging handfuls of white, globulous truffles out of the water and scoffing them with delight.

genre-busting teen reads

I didn't know much about sticking to genres as a kid. Aged about 9. my 'show and tell' book for a class at school was a Regency romance by Georgette Heyer. The one series of kids' books that worked for me was Anthony Buckeridge's books about Jennings - it's the case for many writers apparently. I had no time for Billy Bunter or the William books, but Jennings was wonderful. Professor Brainstorm's amazing adventures were a good laugh too.
In my teens I had a run of Gerald Durrell - who I expect would still meet great scrutiny as a fine prose stylist. Next up was A. J. Cronin before I woke up and switched to D. H. Lawrence.
SO I don't think I became a teenager and decided 'whey-hey, I can read young adult fiction at last!' Years were really ticked off more by what I could legally drink. And now I'm far from being a teenager, I find I'm enjoying 'young adult' fiction a good deal.
David Almond is one of the best expressions of shamanism in literature. They're set in the northern landscapes of Almond's own childhood. It takes me a while to accept his staccato, abbreviated sentence structure but after a while I'm hooked. Philip Pullman's Northern Lights trilogy was one of a rare sequence of books I needed the next one of. I read Allan Garner's The Owl Service recently, felt it was probably fairly impenetrable for its teenage audience, found it quite hard to follow myself, yet images from it kept streaming back to me afterwards.
I met Philip Gross here at Plymouth University recently, and told him how much I admired his most recent YAF novel The Storm Garden. It's a book that slipped between the genres, apparently - really because it's so good it needs no such age distinction. It's a great read for bright, sensitive teenagers, but grand simply about teenagers. The enigmatic lead character Max keeps conjuring you into the powerful drive of his own skewed story world. Two kids, a boy and girl, are essentially running away from society to get a chance of kicking their own true lives into shape. It reminded me of another recent read, Jim Thompson's The Getaway. Instead of teenagers the runaways in that were adults; instead of relative innocents they were criminals; sex got beyond heavy petting; it was morally dubious, the morality of the tale redeemed by a magnificently weird ending - such are the reasons that THE GETAWAY is not a book for teenagers. But I still reckon if you like the Jim Thompson, you'd enjoy the Philip Gross.