Saturday, 30 April 2011

A Dance to the Music of Time: Edward St Aubyn's final Patrick Melrose novel, At Last

Edward St Aubyn: My writing hero
Edward St Aubyn has been one of my favourite contemporary writers for years: there are very few people who can construct sentences as well as he can. He has a classically pure prose style at which I marvel (and envy). Five or so years ago, I reviewed his last novel, Mother's Milk, for The Tablet (unavailable online); it was one of those novels that ought to have won the Booker, and it was a great shame that it didn't. I've reviewed At Last for the Telegraph HERE. It's the final chapter - although, as St Aubyn said in an interview with David Sexton, he hopes he hasn't unemployed himself in so doing - in the Patrick Melrose sequence. One could compare it to Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, with recurring characters and sharp social commentary. They're beautifully constructed, savage and witty.

The Cloud Messenger by Aamer Hussein: review

I've reviewed a powerful, taut new novel by Aamer Hussein called The Cloud Messenger for the Telegraph. Click HERE.

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard: review

Anna Stothard: subtle
Anna Stothard's second novel is slinky and sensuous and surprising. A seventeen-year old teenager flees London (where her father keeps a cafe, and where she's recently been expelled from a decent school) to go in search of her glamorous but useless mother, Lily: the only trouble is, Lily has recently been killed in a car accident somewhere in the deserts of California.

The novel follows Lily's daughter - we never learn her name - as she tries to find out anything about her distant, beautiful mother. The Pink Hotel of the title belonged to Lily. We first meet her daughter at the wake (which is more of a rave than a wake) where she steals a suitcase of her mother's clothes.

The suitcase leads her to various people connected with Lily. Our heroine keeps her identity concealed, and ends up having emotional relationships with two of the men connected to Lily. One of the key images of the novel is the entanglement of quantum particles, by which two particles, though separated by thousands of miles, will experience the same effects. Our heroine wants to be a version of her mother, going through all the things that she went through in order to get closer to her. She becomes entangled, too, with a man who was rather closer to her mother than even she could guess, which provides the novel with a quietly devastating denouement.

Los Angeles, in Stothard's novel, is a place of long bus rides, sweating hotel clerks and Armenian women who cryptically comment on everything. For our heroine it's a puzzle that needs to be solved: she's a jagged piece trying to find the rest of her game.

Stothard's novel is a slick and accomplished piece of writing. It manages to show all the subtleties of a young girl's life set against the primary coloured backdrop of a world where the obvious is all.

The Return of the Doctor: Doctor Who, The Impossible Astronaut, review

At last we earthlings have a protector again, with the return of the Doctor, after a slightly disappointing Christmas special (a version of A Christmas Carol with some witty touches, but too much singing) and a slightly nonsensical Comic Relief skit, the foal-like Matt Smith is back on our television screens ready to do battle with intergalactic beasties and jump around as if he were made out of lots of other people's limbs that have been randomly sewn together.

The Doctor
The Doctor seems to die a lot these days; as if it were a habit he couldn't quite shake off (like smoking, or the Lottery), he managed to get shot by a mysterious spaceman within about three and a half minutes of this new episode. Although it wasn't actually the Doctor; or rather, it was a future version of the Doctor who had called Amy, Rory and the ever-annoying River Song together in America (using some rather smart Tardis-blue invitation cards. Smythsons? No doubt). This being Doctor Who, of course, the future Doctor had also invited his past self to the party, which is a rather handy trick, and next time I have a party I'll be sure to do the same.

The Silence
On the invitation card was a date as well as a place: 1969, America. The past Doctor and his companions head off there, to find that Nixon has been receiving nuisance calls from a young boy who claims that a Spaceman is after him. Naturally the FBI are involved; the Doctor, (appearing in the Oval office with an invisible Tardis, in one of the better scenes) joins in the hunt. It's a trap! we yell, even before the Doctor self-consciously does so.

Introduced in this episode were some aliens (The Silence) who looked a bit like Matt Smith himself after a night out at Coachella; no doubt because of this, their defence mechanism was to make you forget you'd seen them after your back is turned. If only Matt had the same power. No more papparrazzi! This was a very effective trick, creating the right levels of dramatic tension, although after River Song had been down into a network of tunnels, and seen a whole load of them (including one who was wearing a suit, mysteriously; where one finds a tailor in tunnels miles underground is beyond me), came back up and said there was nothing there it just made me hate her even more. Who is she? Can't she have a better catchphrase than 'sweetie'? Anyway, never mind. Oh yes, and Amy is pregnant, and River is exhibiting signs of morning sickness: who's the father? The good Doctor? Or aliens? Or has Rory been over-active? At least if it was the aliens the children would be able to kill people with blue electricity coming from their fingers, which is better than looking like Rory.
So all in all, an okayish episode to start the new series: like a foal stumbling about it provoked both pity, protectiveness and laughter.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Pink Hotel Party for Anna Stothard, Which Was Not in A Pink Hotel, But Was Near Enough

Anna Stothard: Brimful of talent
To the Phoenix Club, again, the launch party venue of choice, which nestles in the ashes of Tottenham Court Road, in a cellar dotted with theatrical memorabilia, for the launch of the lovely Anna Stothard's (pictured right) new novel, The Pink Hotel, which concerns a seventeen year old girl's quest for truth in Los Angeles. Young and old alike flocked and caroused, including Peter Stothard. Patrick Hennessey, author of The Junior Officer's Reading Club, was also in attendance, as was ethereally beautiful actress Olivia Grant, and forthcoming biographer Claudia Renton.

Anna wrote a book (Isabel and Rocco) even before she went to university and is positively brimful of new writing talent. I urge you to go and seek her book out and read it. California, Californ-ia, Californiaaaaa... here we come, as someone sang in The OC (which of course I've never watched, ahem). If you can't make it to LA yourself this is more than a good enough substitute - and it's brought the weather here too. Hurrah and huzzah and hooray for Anna!

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Asocial Network

In an anti-social Saturday night mood (I have a lot of work on this week) I decided to watch The Social Network. As I consumed it on my laptop, I couldn't keep my Facebook page open (as many people increasingly seem to do). This was probably a good thing.

Zuckerberg, Prince of Geeks
According to the film, Facebook started out of a miasma of greed, spite, boorishness and awkwardness. Mark Zuckerberg, reeling from being dumped by a girl, sets up a site called Facemash which compares girls at Harvard in terms of hotness. It gets him into (ahem) hot water; it also receives thousands of hits in the first day it was set up. Zuckerberg was portrayed by geek idol Jesse Eisenberg as a sort of mechanical, sleep-walking droid who dreams of algorithms and of being socially accepted into one of Harvard's clubs (which seem, as far as I can see, to be far more exclusive than anything Oxford has to offer). His friend, Savarin (played with emotional heft by future Spiderman Andrew Garfield), is on his way to becoming part of those clubs, which sows the seeds for future revenge.

The Olympian Winkelvoss twins, who embody the patriarchal, moneyed system that Zuckerberg wants in on (I think I met one of the Winkelvoi [as Zuckerberg calls them], at Oxford: which one I can't remember, but it was definitely something to do with rowing and I seem to remember a vast expanse of lycra), note Zuckerberg's success with Facemash and tell him about a network that they want to set up between Harvard students. Zuckerberg plays them off, telling them he can't do it, whilst at the same time setting up exactly the same sort of thing - which will eventually become Facebook. The film is slick, dark, with a sinuous soundtrack (by Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose which loops and grinds and whirls in deep ambient beats), as gripping as a hawk's talons on a mouse.

Something that is meant to encourage us to become freer, to share, was born from the most negative human emotions: lying, cheating, oneupmanship. Zuckerberg's treatment of his friend Savarin is particularly poignant, diddling him out of his share of the business with the help of Sean Parker (a dotcom brat played as an empty, vain cokehead by Justin Timbersnake). The Facebook office moves, at Parker's advice, to California, where Zuckerberg and his pals lark around like stupid fratboys toking on bongs, diving into pools and getting 'wired in' to computers. It's not a pleasant sight, and it slightly worried me that that sort of empty hedonism might be anybody's idea of a good time.

A friend of mine with Asperger's syndrome told me once that, at his fortnightly meetings with the Asperger's group, they had decided that Facebook had been set up by someone with a similar syndrome. Watching this film has confirmed that point for me. Social interaction on Facebook is much, much easier for people who are unable to speak to each other face to face, who find the multitude of signals and ironies that people use in speech too confusing. It is not designed to be 'creative'. Zuckerberg seems to think that it is creative. In fact it is almost the opposite of 'creative', as it forces thoughts and feelings into trammelled paths. On a day that three or four friends announced their engagements, as a joke I put my status up as 'engaged'; within ten minutes I'd received congratulatory messages from people who surely must have known that I wasn't in the slightest about to get hitched. There is not much room for jokes or irony on Facebook.

A truly creative site would allow you as the user to make it what you wanted it to be. People talk a lot about Facebook's role in revolutions: I've also seen its role as a mobiliser of hate - there was a truly vile page about the woman who put a cat in a bin, for example. For every page promoting peace and love there's another promoting destruction.

I am uneasy about Facebook, I will admit. It sucks up my time. I like to pretend that it is a passing fad, that within ten years we'll all have moved on to something else. But it's been part of my life for six years now; many teenagers have grown up with it as a viable and normal form of communication. There is an image at the end of the film where Zuckerberg befriends his ex-girlfriend on the site; we see him pressing refresh, every few seconds, to see whether she has accepted him. Zuckerberg has succeeded, is my feeling, not in becoming part of those exclusive clubs; but in making the world his club, and turning us all into versions of himself.

And now I shall upload a link to this piece onto Facebook, and press refresh until somebody 'likes' it... The Social Network is a superlative piece of filmmaking - of last year's Oscar contenders, I think the best. And it is also the most worrying.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

The Champion by Tim Binding

Here's my review of The Champion by Tim Binding - a book that seems to have slipped under the net somewhat. Anyway, it's very good.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham: review

I love John Wyndham - I always have done. He was a great favourite at my prep school, where I read Chocky, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids with a sort of strange pang: one wanted these bizarre things to happen, even though they were frightening. They are very powerful commentaries, as well as being thrillers – although of course I didn't notice that at the time. Anyway, here's a link to my review of The Chrysalids in today's Observer.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Luck of the Moncrieffs by P G Womack

Some excellent books, and The Liberators by P A Womack (quite good)
A quick post: at a friend's house last night I noticed that her books had been arranged into alphabetical order: and there, glinting at me, was the spine of The Liberators, seated above P G Wodehouse, one of my literary heroes. Being a 'double-u' means that my books are, in bookshops, placed right at the bottom right hand corner, usually crowded out by the shiny, inanity of the Jacqueline Wilsons; my own copies at home sit next to Virginia Woolf. So it is a real pleasure to see my name next to Wodehouse's - and isn't that, secretly, why we all want to write books?

It's also marvellous that it's above The Luck of the Bodkins. It has always been a fantasy of mine that books communicate with each other, that characters walk in and out of each other's pages whilst we're not looking; I hope that young Ivo Moncrieff has some fun with the amiable Monty Bodkin in the Drones Club.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Untold Story by Monica Ali: review

I've reviewed Monica Ali's novel Untold Story for the Telegraph. A link is HERE. It imagines a different path for Princess Diana, in which she fakes her own death by drowning and holes up in a town called Kensington in America somewhere, where she goes on dates, works in a dog sanctuary and occasionally worries about her children.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


I was on the underground today – the Victoria line, to be precise, heading southwards at a leisurely pace. I threw my head back and emptied it. I'd been thinking about Sam Leith's novel, The Coincidence Engine, and about time travel, which has come up in discussions with friends about books for children; I remembered talking about chronological journeys with an old university friend, who recommended Daphne du Maurier's House on the Strand to me as being one of the best of its genre.

Du Maurier: Time Lady?
I tried to remember what it was about, having read it and loved it, and was picturing huge fields of corn and a rider galloping across them, when the train started to slow further as it came into the station. I sat up, glanced at the paper lying on the seat to my left, and at the three people sitting opposite me. One was a girl, who passed a newspaper to her friend; she then unzipped her rucksack and pulled out a book.

It was The House on the Strand, in the very same paperback Virago edition that I had. I couldn't help but whisper, 'god that's strange'; I hope nobody noticed. Perhaps I should have said something to her - but what? I was just thinking about that book, and you're reading it? Maybe I had gone back to a time when a girl on the tube was reading The House on the Strand. Maybe it was a message, from Daphne du Maurier, who is the last remaining Time Lord from Gallifrey and wants me to do something terribly important involving saving the world or writing a book or some such. I can but hope. (If you're listening, Daphne, and you'd like me to write an episode of Doctor Who - well, that would be marvellous.)

Or maybe it was just a coincidence. Whatever it was, it made me think about things twisting together, and making patterns in the world, and whether or not a pattern is intentional, or chaotic, it's still remarkably beautiful.

Monday, 4 April 2011

David Foster Wallace: Authority and American Usage

It's been a busy week, and I've been trying to read David Foster Wallace's essays in Consider the Lobster, in between various other books and activities. I'm reading them in preparation for eventually tackling his unfinished novel, The Pale King, later in the year. I managed to finish his long piece about Bryan A Garner's A Dictionary of Modern Usage last night and felt immediately the urge to put up a link to it: it's HERE. It's the most cogently argued (and obviously well-written) piece of writing about 'correct' usage that I've ever read. In the essay he self-deprecatingly (and charmingly) calls himself a SNOOT: ie, somebody who winces at incorrect grammar usage. Now I've always been like that: hearing someone say 'between you and I' is enough to make my jaws slather. However, I've never minded split infinitives (which are only based on Latinate grammar anyway) - sometimes a split infinitive can be rather elegant.

The main thrust is the battle between Prescriptivists and Descriptivists; he shows how Descriptivists are actually logically incoherent. Wallace's argument is that Garner manages to show what 'correct' usage is without being polemical or snooty and so on, and that is therefore why he is a genius. If you have any interest in the English language, go and read it now.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Groovin With Diamonds: Launch Party for Nicola Shulman's Book

To Chelsea, and to the First Party of the Summer (official), for the launch of Nicola Shulman's new biography of Thomas Wyatt, Graven with Diamonds. A fire gently crackled in the hearth, whilst outside in the garden it was musky and warm enough to not wear a jacket even as twilight fell. Champagne was abundant. The author thanked her family in her speech, not least for their efforts in googling 'Graven with Diamonds' to see if anyone else had ever used it as a book title: 'Grooving With Diamonds' was the nearest that they came to it. The book has been in gestation since Nicky was at Oxford (the clipping shows her modelling at the time, from an interview that appeared in the Evening Standard HERE), and the author said it was an absolute dream to see it out there and on the shelves (and beautifully produced by Short Books). Guests feasted on little steaks, mini-half burgers of exquisite taste; quails' eggs of truffled hue; the canap├ęs were of Henrician quantity and enough to satisfy the feasting habits of a whole court of early-modern quaffers. We were only short of a whole roasted hog. Several people (including me) managed to fall down the stairs, despite the fact that there were only three (and they were broad and flat, too).

Present were the extremely tall Will Self and his wife Deborah Orr; the novelist Cressida Connolly and her family, including beautiful daughters Violet and Nell; satirist Craig Brown, whose face beams from under a frizz of hair; writer Ferdinand Mount sitting on a sofa; explorer Sara Wheeler, historian Antonia Fraser, poet Edward Barker, editrix Rachel Johnson; a full complement of Phippses and Shulmans of all generations, and many bookish and non-bookish types alike, who caroused until the early morning. When Nicky came into the garden after her speech she received a standing ovation; we were later treated to a reading by the author of 'Whoso List to Hunt'. There was no actual grooving (unless you count the falling down stairs); there may have been some diamonds; but we certainly heartily grooved with diamonds in spirit. I am sure that the shade of Thomas Wyatt looks down and approves.

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Coincidence Engine by Sam Leith: Party

The literary great and good collected in Daunts Marylebone last night for the launch of Sam Leith (pictured)'s debut novel, The Continuum Transponder. I mean The Coincidence Engine. Attended by journos, hacks, a bearded Sebastian Faulks, and sundry other types wot have written books and so on (including Amanda Craig, Charles Cumming (so tall!), Louise Doughty, Lynn Barber and every literary editor the world has ever seen) the party went along rather swishingly. Sam's editor, Michael Fishwick, gave a speech in which he demonstrated how the idea for the book had come up over a lunch (those were the good old days); the book itself is about a man who invents a machine that can manipulate probability. If you had chained all the people in the room to typewriters for eternity I wonder what we would have produced? Sam's book has been chosen as a Waterstones Eleven debut, which is marvellous news. His new baby is also scheduled to be born on the same day as his book. I suggest 'Coincidenta' if a girl, 'Douglas' (after Adams / Coupland) if a boy. Congratulations to Mr Leith, his book, and his new family member.

A trailer for the book (dread practice, but now seemingly necessary) is below.