Saturday, 31 March 2007

Stef Penney - The Tenderness of Wolves (Review)

The Tenderness of Wolves was the 2006 Costa Book of the Year, apparently a better book than William Boyd’s Restless. As I loved Restless I was really looking forward to reading this.

There’s a murder at the heart of the book and the plot revolves around the quest to find out who really killed the trapper Laurent Jammet. The story is told from the different points of view of most of the different principal characters (and there are quite a few) but the only first person narrative is that of Lucy Ross, the mother of the main suspect. Everyone in this book is a long way from home. Everyone is lost, often literally. Everyone is looking for something (and it’s often not what they think they are looking for). This is a story about love.

The Tenderness of Wolves is a tremendous first novel. The writing is assured, it’s a decent story well told, and the sense of place (which every reviewer has remarked upon) is breathtaking. The atmosphere of the isolated town of Caulfield, full of exiled Scots, is beautifully described. Although I wouldn’t describe it as a ‘gripping’ read, there’s an underlying sense of unease running throughout. Overall, given all the hype surrounding this book, I have to say I was a little disappointed. But I think that’s because my expectations were raised a little too high. This is a very good book.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

British Book Award Winners

The winners of this year’s British Book Awards, have just been announced:

Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year: The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfield
Book of the Year: The Dangerous Book for Boys
Author of the Year: Richard Dawkins for The God Delusion
Children's Book of the Year: Flanimals of the Deep by Ricky Gervais
Crime Thriller of the Year: The Naming of the Dead by Ian Rankin
Popular Fiction Award: Anybody Out There by Marian Keyes
Newcomer of the Year: The Island by Victoria Hislop
Biography of the Year: The Sound of Laughter by Peter Kay
TV & Film Book of the Year: The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
Decibel Writer of the year: Jackie Kay
Sports Book Award: Steven Gerrard - My Autobiography
Lifetime Achievement Award: John Grisham

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Reginald Hill – The Death of Dalziel (Review)

Although I’ve followed the adventures of Dalziel and Pascoe on TV, this is the first Reginald Hill book I’ve read (sorry, Reg). It’s alleged that, unlike Colin Dexter with John Thaw’s Morse, Reginald Hill does not approve of Warren Clarke playing Andy Dalziel in the TV adaptations of his novels (he isn’t fat enough to play the Fat Man for a start). Hill denies it, of course (or at least he denied it in a recent interview I read), but his latest book represents a formidable challenge to the TV adapters. For the eponymous hero spends most of the book lying in a coma in intensive care, until finally . . .

Well, the clue is in the title. Of course Dalziel won’t die, you’re thinking. Will he? I won’t give away the ending, but I have to confess I was shocked.

The story isn’t your usual police procedural type of tale. It is a story with a complex plot about an extremist plot against extremist plotters, with a multi-layered counterplot. The introduction of the Security Services adds to the mix and takes the story off in unexpected directions. It’s a book about belief (in truth, in God, in self, in right and wrong) and about identity and division (Yorkshire/Lancashire, Anglo/Asian, Christian/Muslim, cops/spooks). The novel is perfectly structured, but it’s the development of the characters (especially Peter Pascoe without the support and guidance of the comatose Dalziel) that brings the story to life.

Perhaps it’s because Dalziel plays such a small part in the book that Hill feels he has to transfer his characteristic language to Pascoe. It’s interesting watching Peter Pascoe gradually stepping into the Fat Man’s role. By the end of the book, the transfer is almost complete, with Pascoe beginning to speak like Dalziel.

Maybe Ellie was right, because the Fat Man wasn’t around, he felt it necessary to speak his lines. [p.309]

Then, a little later:

Whoops, there he went, slipping into Fat Man terminology again. [p.321]

Even Pascoe starts to struggle with his identity in the end – ‘Who is me?’ he says on page 367.

How clever is Hill being? Is he deliberately aping television here? For I couldn’t help thinking of the way Colin Dexter’s Sgt Lewis, nice-but-dim happily married sidekick, has since Morse’s death been transmogrified by television into a lonely and bitter widower with a sudden Morse-like penchant for alcohol and a previously concealed sharpness of mind. You might almost think Hill is taking the micky out of Lewis.

But this book is also, it seems to me, a direct challenge to the television people, daring the adapters to try and adapt this one. And reading novels like this reminds me why I will always prefer a good book to most of the stuff on the telly – even Dalziel and Pascoe.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Hot News from Today's Bookseller Magazine!

I saw this in today's Bookseller:

Daily Mail launches a first novel award


The Daily Mail has teamed up with Transworld Publishers to launch the Daily Mail First Novel Award. Transworld will offer the winning author a publishing contract of £30,000 and publish the winning book in April 2008.

The award will be judged by bestselling Transworld authors Joanne Harris and Lee Child; Jane Mays, the Literary Editor of the Daily Mail; Benedicte Page, the Book News Editor of The Bookseller, and Francesca Liversidge, Senior Publishing Director of Transworld.

The award will be for an original, previously unpublished début work of fiction on any subject or genre, from romance to crime, science fiction to adventure. The closing date for the competition is 2nd July 2007.

"We are delighted to be working with the Daily Mail on this exciting new venture", said Francesca Liversidge, "and we look forward to discovering an author with real bestselling potential. Securing that all-important first publishing contract can be fraught with difficulties and we hope this initiative will provide an opportunity for new talent to reach the marketplace."


The link to the details of how to enter is here.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Louis de Bernières' Advice to New Writers

Here's some good advice from Louis de , author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Birds Without Wings:

What advice would you give to new writers?
Don't be at all hesitant to exaggerate and tell lies. People get trapped by stories which usually happened to themselves or to people they know, and they feel obliged to tell the truth. To tell it as it was. But the important thing is to know how to change the truth to make it a better story.

It's taken from an interview in The Guardian. You can read the whole thing here.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Playwrighting Course

A colleague of mine sent me the following details:

Dealing with Writing is offering two weekend playwrighting residencies during the year.

Dates: Friday May 11th - Sunday May 13th and Friday September 21st - Sunday September 23rd

All writers with an interest in the craft are welcome.

There’s a lot more info on the Dealing with Writing website:

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Dependable Readers

Browsing through the latest collection of Paris Review Interviews (what a wonderful thing the Paris Review is! Shame it’s so expensive in the UK) I found this exchange from the interview dated 1977 with the great Kurt Vonnegut Jr:

. . . Since publishers aren’t putting money into first novels anymore, and since the magazines have died, and since television isn’t buying from young freelancers anymore, and since the foundations give grants only to old poops like me, young writers are going to have to support themselves as shameless hacks . . .

. . . If you were Commissar of Publishing in the United States, what would you do to alleviate the present deplorable situation?

There is no shortage of wonderful writers. What we lack is a dependable mass of readers.


I propose that every person out of work be required to submit a book report before he or she gets his or her welfare cheque.

What a good idea! I would vote for a political party that had such a proposal in its manifesto. I think every person who is IN work should also be required to provide their employer with a book review as part of their annual appraisal or pay review. I would also support:
- Travel discounts for passengers reading books
- TV licence discount on proof of purchase of at least four books per year
- A Winter Book Allowance to all pensioners
- A Summer Book Allowance for all holidaymakers
- Applicants for passports to recite from memory at least one poem

Monday, 19 March 2007

Ann Cleeves - Raven Black (Review)

This novel won the Crime Writers’ Association Duncan Lawrie Dagger for 2006. It is the first Ann Cleeves book I’ve read, and it won’t be the last. It’s a neatly constructed crime novel, perfectly paced and beautifully written – the psychological crime novel meets the old-fashioned whodunit.

The novel begins at New Year in the Shetland home of elderly Magnus Tait. A few days later an incomer to the island, Fran Hunter, discovers the body of teenager Catherine Ross in the snow not far from the old man’s house. The islanders believe Tait had murdered a young schoolgirl, Catriona Bruce, eight years before and are all certain who must have murdered Catherine. Thrown into this psychological mix is Jimmy Perez, the lonely detective assigned to the case. Jimmy is ‘emotional incontinent’, and you would think he would have trouble suspecting anyone of murder. And yet, slowly but surely, he uncovers the strained relationships and hidden secrets that lead him to the killer.

The sense of place is tremendous – the cold and the isolation are tangible. And the author has captured perfectly the sense of a community seemingly united but with tensions and divisions just below the surface. There are echoes of the cult movie The Wicker Man, with the outsider policeman coming to Shetland to solve the murder against the background of the forthcoming Up Helly Aa fire festival.

There is a fairly large cast of characters, and therefore many suspects, but Ann Cleeves draws each of them well, giving them unique voices of their own. There are clues and red herrings, and I enjoyed trying to solve the mystery before Perez finally discovers the identity of the murderer. And despite my amateur sleuthing, I was completely wrong and satisfyingly surprised when the killer was revealed. The identity of Catriona’s killer is also uncovered (I got that wrong, too!) as the novel reaches its satisfying climax.

There are three more novels promised in this series, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one hopefully later this year.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Harlan Coben - The Woods (Review)

‘The past was coming back. All of it. The dead, it seemed, were digging their way out of the ground now.’

Readers familiar with Coben’s earlier work (particularly other stand-alones such as Just One Look) will recognise the device of having something from the past, seemingly dead and buried (quite literally in this case), coming back to disrupt the present comfortable life of the protagonist.

In The Woods, the event from the past happened twenty years ago, when four teenagers at summer camp walked into the woods at night and were never seen again. Only two bodies were ever found. Now, it seems a newly-murdered man may have been one of the teenagers whose bodies were never found twenty years before, something that could have repercussions for everyone involved.

It all feels cosily familiar Coben territory. He even gives another run out to homicide investigator Lauren Muse and PI Cingle Shaker, a couple of characters from his last stand-alone (The Innocent). This means he doesn’t have to work too hard at rounding them off. Trouble is, I didn’t feel he’d done too well with rounding off his principle characters, either. Paul ‘Cope’ Copeland in particular never really comes to life for me. I don’t believe him when he does something quite early on in the book which affects everything that comes after. Only a fool would make the decision Cope makes, and yet Coben paints him as a smart cookie with a political ambition. Sorry, it just doesn’t ring true.

Cope is also a single parent, struggling to be a half-decent father to his daughter. He himself had ended up being a lone child living with only a father. Understandably, perhaps, Coben doesn’t have enough space in the plotting of this novel to fully develop Cope’s struggle to balance fatherhood with his career. Which is a shame, for as the plot unfolds the theme of fatherhood is significant.

The plot is, as usual, full of twists and turns – although this time out I saw quite a few of the twists coming some way off. Does that mean I’m just getting used to the Coben style, or is Mr Coben simply running out of steam? He has certainly flogged this plot device, of the past coming back to bite the backside of his presently comfortably-off characters, if not death then certainly to within an inch of its life.

And yet.

Despite the sketchy characters, the familiar terrain and the occasional implausibility, this novel WORKS. In the end, I couldn’t put it down. Even when I guessed most of what was going on I still couldn’t put it down – just in case I was wrong.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

June English - The Sorcerer's Ark (Review)

June English’s work has been compared to the poetry of Thomas Hardy for its range of mood and for the way she writes unflinchingly from experience. High praise indeed. But her poems are probably more accessible to the modern reader, and they have a personal directness that is all part of her unique voice. The touching humour of poems such as Make Do and Mend and Backside Up is counterpointed with the poignancy of poems such as Gathering Lilac and The Tree That Isn’t There:

Sometimes I stand at the bus stop,
near the beech tree that isn’t there,
listening to the wind that doesn’t stir,
waiting for you to arrive on a bus
that doesn’t come this way.

There’s Hardy-esque dialect (albeit Yorkshire) in poems such as Proper Peaky and Hearts and Flowers, and some vivid wartime memories – Home Front and Dover – 1940 for example. You could say there’s something for everyone – and like the poet’s Bunny Girl, you’ll keep finding bits of yourself, scattered among these pages.

The Sorcerer’s Ark is the second collection of poetry from June English (her first collection, Counting the Spots, was published by Acumen in 2000) and a fine collection it is, too. It spans a lifetime of experiences and emotions, with poems that are written with vivacity and honesty. I defy you not to be touched by them.