Art is a commodity not for looking at!

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

Steve Martin’s latest novel is not funny. He plays it straight in An Object of Beauty as the world chronicled within is so full of self-parody that there’s little need to add extra layers of satire to achieve a certain sort of vicious comedy.

Set in New York during the 1990s, the story is narrated by Daniel, an art critic and observer of the scene and friend of Lacey Yeager.  Lacey is determined to get to the top however she has to do it, and through a mixture of making her looks and wardrobe work wonders for her along with her willingness to do whatever it takes (including hard work and sex) she will get her own gallery. She gets into some scrapes along the way, but being a user wriggles out of them.

What becomes clear is that true art collectors are rare things.  Art and particularly contemporary art is really a commodity and once Lacey learns to look at art with dollar signs instead of an appreciative eye, she is lost – but then that’s what she wanted from the start. It’s a horrible world full of horrible people mostly. Daniel our narrator being on the edge comes out better than most, and you can feel enormous sympathy for the French dealer Patrice who falls for Lacey but gets spat out when he comes to the end of his usefulness. Lacey of course is the object of the title with Daniel worshipping her on a pedestal from afar, though her beauty (like much of the art within?) is totally superficial.

Given that I know nothing about American contemporary art really bar Warhol, natch (and he’s dead!), it was really useful to have many of the real artworks mentioned pictured in the text.  This gives the novel a more biographical feel, but was also very useful to see what they were talking about.

But all good things come to an end. The contemporary art world collapses after 9/11 and everything just fizzles out, which made a slightly damp squib of an ending to this otherwise very enjoyable story.

I felt that Martin knows what he’s talking about – I’d hope he’s a collector though! (8/10)

Book chosen from a list supplied by Amazon Vine to review.
To buy this book from Amazon.co.uk click below:
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

Reading Resolutions 2010 – How did I do?

Back in January, as always, I made some reading resolutions.  There were just four of them, so how did I do this year?

1. As always, try and reduce the TBR mountains – goes without saying really. That also means acquiring less books – but I’m not going to impose any out and out purchasing restrictions. Instead I shall try to think more about all the good reads waiting that I already have. FAILED

Out of over 100 books read in 2010, a large number, 37 to be exact were published in 2010, and a further 27 were published in 2009 and so hadn’t been in the TBR long if at all – mostly paperbacks of hardbacks released in 2009 I’d wager.  Looking through my list, I could only count around 20 that were definitely acquired further back in time (and that’s counting the Lord of the Rings as three books).  I have plans to address that this year!

2. Read the Canongate Myths series – This was one from 2009 that I failed to achieve at all, but if I make an effort to read one volume a month, it’ll be fun, and I love re-tellings of this kind. PASSED PARTLY

I started well and managed four out of the dozen or so titles in this series so far. I rather got sidetracked onto the Mabinogion later in the year – which are also retellings of myths, so think I can just about say I passed.

3. Again try to read more books published before I was born. (Between you and me that means pre-1960). I’m thinking of finally getting to grips with Wodehouse for starters, and more Thomas Hardy. PASSED

In 2009 I read just five books published pre-1960, so it couldn’t be hard to do better.  In 2010 I read 13 (again counting LOTR as three though).  That is a respectable pass as far as I’m concerned even though I still haven’t got around to Wodehouse or more Hardy!

4. Re-read a few books that I really enjoyed the first time around. Last year I revisited just one book fully and it was an excellent experience, so I should definitely do it again more often. PASSED

I joined in the LOTR readalong and loved it all over again.  Also I re-read Ella Minnow Pea and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold for book group, both books standing up well to being re-read – Spy turning out to be my Book of the Year.  I was planning to take part in DGR’s War & Peace readalong, but didn’t get started in time.  I think that’s about the right level of re-reading given my un-read TBR so that’s a pass.

I’m still musing on updating my resolutions for 2011. I’m not a great one for challenges and the like, so shall keep things simple – but that’s another post …

How did you go against your Reading Resolutions if you made them?

Bah Humbug!

I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas by Adam Roberts

Given that Yellow Blue Tibia by Roberts was both the maddest and best SF book I read this year, I had high hopes of this zombie take on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as a bit of fun this festive season.  Would it live up to the fun I had with Pride & Prejudice & Zombies ? (reviewed here last year).

Whereas P&P&Z keeps Austen’s prose moreorless intact, adding the ‘zombie mayhem’ into the original, I am Scrooge keeps the main characters and then riffs on the story telling of a rather different Christmas night for Scrooge as the ghosts show him how the world will become populated by zombies if he doesn’t change his ways.

Marley was dead, to begin with. Dead for about three minutes, that is: then he got up again. The clergyman, the clerk and the undertaker had all certified him dead: and these were all men experienced in the business of dealing with dead bodies. They were all astonished, then – and more than astonished – to hear his corpse groan, and to see it shake and move. If their surprise did not last long, it was only because it very quickly turned to terror as Marley reached out and sank his fingers into the soft flesh of the clerk’s and the undertaker’s throats, and, using them as leverage, pulled himself forward to bite down hard into the face of the clergyman…

So it begins – and I stopped the quote before it gets truly gory! Marley is the first zombie of many lurching out in search of brains to eat, but Marley wants Scrooge’s in particular.  The story starts promisingly, with touches of corny humour and bucketloads of gore, but goes downhill with the arrival of the second ghost of Christmas future.  This phantom is irritating to the core, talking in modern argot like Ali G – with nah, innit, bruv and amirite all over the place – this was bizarre as the future Scrooge is shown is 1899.  Sadly, this wasn’t funny at all and submerges the plot under its weight.  I did like the twist at the end though …

This one misfired for me, but it won’t stop me reading more of Roberts’ SF though. (6/10) O

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To buy these books from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas
Yellow Blue Tibia: A Novel
A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings (Penguin Classics) by Charles Dickens
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance-now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! (Quirk Classics) by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

The TBR Dare – are you brave enough to take it?

In a possibly mad moment of bravery, I’ve signed up for the TBR Dare over at Ready When You Are CB.

Deliberately posed as a dare rather than a challenge, participants are asked to commit to reading only from their TBR piles for a certain length of time or a number of books. The dare will finish on April 1, and if you’re interested click through to the sign up page above.

My TBR pile has been so out of control for so long, I don’t know how many books are in it, except that they go into four figures – my own personal library, so I’ve signed up for the full three months (with a pass for book club reads).

Simon S of Savidge Reads has not bought a book all year, and Simon T of Stuck in a book has managed his Project 24, so it’s not impossible to buy less books … will I be able to do it for just three months? As they say – Watch this space!!!

My Books of the Year

Now I’ve read 100 books and it is nearly Christmas, I thought I’d look back on my year of reading and pick out my favourites from a very varied bunch.  To celebrate that depth, I’ve chosen a bunch of categories to separate them into,  so without further ado, here are my top eleven (couldn’t manage just ten), and the links will take you to my post about them …

There are a few more bubbling under, Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal in translated, Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak in SF, White Ravens by Owen Shears in Myths, and Direct Red by Gabriel Weston in Non-fic are the runners-up.

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But which of the above is my Book of the Year? Well it’s the one I’ve registered for as a giver on World Book Night and I’m crossing my fingers that I get picked as I’d love to get people to read this book … It’s …

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré

The World of Ephemera #9 – The Cockney Alphabet & Railway Porter’s Prayer

I rediscovered these whilst sorting out a pile of cuttings and other assorted papers I’d built up the other day.  They come from articles in old editions of the Folio Society magazine.

The Cockney Alphabet

I love the this, yet apparently there are millions of variations on it – so here are two, the first traditional, the second more modern and illustrated (click on the pic to enlarge it).  Love them both.  Sometimes you’ll need to say the letter phonetically rather than it’s name (e.g. Use a hard G) and if you run it all together saying fer rather than for, it often becomes clearer more quickly!

A for ‘Orses
B for Mutton
C forth Highlanders  (A scottish regiment)
D ferential
E for Adam
F fervescence
G for Police
H for Respect
I for Novello
J for Oranges
K(ay) Francis
L for Leather
M for Sis
N fradig
O for the Wings of a Dove
P for Relief
Q for a Song
R for Mo’
S for You
T for Two
U for Me
V for La France
W for Quits
X for Breakfast
Y for Mistress
Z for Breezes

If you need any more explanations, let me know and I’ll dig out the article again.

Which brings me to the second cutting. Being from the South London/Surrey borders,  I’m pleased to note the town of my birth (Purley) included in the following.  Again there must be many different ‘prayers’ using the Lord’s Prayer as a basis, but I do like this one…

The Railway Porter’s Prayer

Our Farhham, which art in Hendon, Harrow be thy name. Thy Kingston come, thy Wimbledon, in Erith as it is in Hendon. Give us this day our Leatherhead and lead us not into Thames Ditton, but deliver us from Ealing, for thine is the Kingston, the Purley and the Crawley, for Iver and Iver, Crouch End.

Where ‘they beat him up until the teardrops start’ …

Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction edited by Maxim Jakubowski

Taking twenty key locations in crime novels and investigating what the areas mean to the authors and their detectives, this book contains a mine of useful information. From Inspector Morse’s Oxford to Wallander’s southern Sweden, from Brunetti’s Venice to Marlowe’s LA – each of the locations gets an essay by various crime cognoscenti summarising the authors’ uses of their chosen setting, together with sidebars on other detectives based there, films set there, useful websites etc, illustrated with book covers, stills and graphics. These are bookended by an introductory essay, and a survey of other world crime series. All good stuff.

Then there are the maps … At the end of each section is a map of the area or city in question, with a few key locations and street names marked, plus some small text boxes with pointers to locations specifically used in the books being analysed. This was where the book fell down for me, for the maps were so bland, so lacking in detail that they were hardly worth bothering with.

Take Laurence Block’s New York where his two most famous creations, Bernie Rhodenbarr and Matt Scudder work – A lot of Scudder’s work takes place in Brooklyn – but there’s no text box pointing to this borough, which isn’t even named on the map, and three of the eleven boxes on this map are general explaining Hells Kitchen etc. I could make similar comments about Sara Paretsky’s Chicago – no real landmarks on this map apart that aren’t associated with baseball;  around Dennis Lehane’s Boston, Harvard doesn’t exist; and neither does the Eiffel Tower in Simenon’s Paris.  Added to that some of the maps would have been better turned on their sides so there was less wasted space at the sides, and a bigger scale to fit in more detail. I just felt that putting in more real landmarks really helps to fix the location, how the districts link together etc, and just a handful of literary references per map was not enough.  There was no scale either – so no good for planning a walking tour!  The Editor missed a chance to compliment the essays, which were mostly interesting and informative, with really great maps.

That said(!), this book would make a great present for crime afficionados, and has introduced me to a couple of new authors and their detectives that I haven’t read yet, just don’t buy it for the maps. (6.5/10)
Book selected from a list to review by Amazon Vine.

BTW the quote in the title line of this post is from Elvis Costello’s song Watching the detectives.

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To buy this book from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction editor Maxim Jakubowski

What could have possessed Dr Jekyll?

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
by R L Stevenson

When I received an email from the publicist for this new series of classic novels in quality pocket hardback format from Whites books, Jekyll and Hyde was the one that leapt out of the list as I’d never read it before.

The book duly arrived – a nicely designed white hardback, the same size as a small paperback, with a great cover, and printed on thick white paper.  It was nice to read, except when I was tired;  then the whiter than white pages and their not quite matt finish made it difficult to concentrate on the text…

…But the extras made up for that.  This edition was prefaced by Ian Rankin in an interesting piece in which he wonders how shocked the novella’s original readers would have been without our foreknowledge of the story’s big twist,  sadly that surprise is lost on us the modern reader.   Better still are two other Stevenson short stories, The Body Snatcher and Markheim, more Gothic horror.

So back to Jekyll and Hyde – and if you don’t know the twist – look away now!

I liked the way that the novel is narrated in the first instance by Mr Utterson, a lawyer and friend of Jekyll, who begins to wonder why he isn’t seeing his friend these days, and why he is changing his will to favour Mr Hyde, a rather disturbing and ill-favoured gentleman who eventually murders another man.  Utterson is increasingly concerned, and becomes even more so when another friend Dr Lanyon becomes ill and dies leaving a letter for Utterson. The story then changes hands to the testimony of Lanyon, and finally to Jekyll who confesses all in his what could be construed as his suicide note.

The novella is strongly Christian in it’s picture of good and evil.  Jekyll starts out as such a good man with not an ounce of evil in his body, but once he makes his potion and discovers the outlet for the repressed darker side of his soul, it quickly starts to take over.  From having taken his drug to let his evil side out, Hyde starts to become the dominant side of him and he has to keep taking the drug to maintain his Jekyll-ness ; in the end the drug runs out and he gets stuck into the worst kind of cold turkey.  Not being an expert in Satan’s fall from Heaven and the original allegorical allusions, it was a modern reading of the perils of drug addiction that came through to me. I can imagine though, if I were a Victorian, being totally shocked that a good man could harbour such depravity inside him! Wikipedia offers even more interpretations and fascinating background to its writing.

The accompanying two short stories in this volume were written in the years immediately preceding Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and both are suitably horrific. In The Body-snatchers, two young doctors become resurrection men themselves and a pact over not asking where the bodies come from becomes their undoing. In Markheim, an antique dealer is stabbed to death in his shop on Christmas Day by Markheim, who then has to investigate noises upstairs. Was there a witness, or is it an apparition of the devil come to take him to hell?

These short stories and novella are all the better for their brevity and the tension was nigh unbearable in Jekyll and Hyde. I enjoyed them very much and should read much more Victorian literature, sensation or otherwise. (8/10)
Book kindly supplied by the publisher

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To buy this book from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R L Stevenson

An evening with Toby Mundy

My local indie bookshop Mostly Books had an extra member of staff yesterday. Courtesy of an initiative by the Independent Alliance – a collective of ten independent UK publishers founded by Faber, Toby Mundy the CEO of Atlantic Books worked in the shop during the afternoon, and stayed on to give a talk about independent publishing in the evening.

I popped in during the afternoon to see him in action, and he did recommend a book to me for that last Christmas present I had to buy (and it was a good choice – a quick flick through Empire of the Clouds: When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World (a Faber book) suggested a good fit for the recipient I had in mind.)

Later I returned to a packed bookshop for the talk by Toby who proved to be a fascinating speaker.

He started off by discussing what does independence in publishing mean?  It implies ownership; editorially led; no pressure to make ever-increasing profits; a state of mind and spirit – some or all of these things.  Also he believes that independent publishers are able to make the journey from original to proven books in a way that the big firms can’t – he used Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger as an example here – Atlantic took a risk on this debut novel, and word of mouth grew, and then it won the Booker, hence the book and its author have become proven and will continue to have a life.

He then talked about the demise of the Net Book Agreement, (which had fixed the prices at which books could be sold in the UK), in 1997.  This changed everything. Supermarkets piled into selling best-sellers and category led books.  Hundreds of indie bookshops closed, but the independent publishing sector had something of a renaissance as niches developed in ‘non-category’ titles.  The big publishers were losing confidence in selling any ‘books they had to explain‘ – they diverted into genre books e.g. crime where productive authors churn out new titles regularly as variations on a theme, and brand-led books e.g. Jamie Oliver, which rarely move on to a paperback.

Toby then talked more about the different business models for genre and literary fiction.  Taking Jonathan Franzen’s novels The Corrections and Freedom as a model, there are ten years between them – yet lovers of literary fiction know about Franzen as he fills the gaps between books with literary festivals and appearances which gives him the time to craft his books, which because they are good will continue to have strong backlist sales.  Publishers are increasingly marketing lit fic towards the ‘neophiles’ and early adopters.  Contrast that with genre fiction, where the authors tend to produce a book every eighteen months (or in James Patterson’s case, nearly one a month from his factory).  They have a strong readership who will devour every book, so don’t need to do the festival tours to keep interest up.   Going back to lit fic, he said that literary prizes like the Man Booker are great levellers, as each publisher regardless of size can enter two books, plus subsequent titles by previously short-listed authors etc. which is really in the indie publisher’s favour.

He then answered varied questions – including telling us he reads about four books a week, how even smaller publishers can do deals with discounters like the Book People (they screw you down on price, but there are no returns – they buy quantity up front and tag on to the end of print runs or take excess stock). Finally he tackled the e-reader question ending with a statement that ‘Book is the only medium of thick description left‘, if you want depth, you need a book and we forget that at our peril.

Atlantic happened to have published one of my favourite books from last year – The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw. Afterwards I asked him if he was going to publish more from this exciting young author.  It’s delivered, he said, due out next year – but he couldn’t remember the title!   That’s the book I’ll most look out for next year.

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To order any of the books mentioned above from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Empire of the Clouds: When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
The Corrections and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw