Sunday, 23 October 2011

"The Good Thief's Guide to (insert foreign and interesting city location here)" series, by Chris Ewan

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I discovered this series of novels purely by chance, having noticed "The Good Thief's Guide to Venice" in my local library while on my continuing search for novels set in this beautiful city.  I borrowed it, only to then discover that it was the fourth in a series.  As I am as obsessive with my reading as I am with many other things in my life, I had to read the others in the series before I could read Venice.

Chris Ewan's novels feature a character called Charlie Howard who is an author of mystery fiction and a sometime burglar, whose fictional hero is a burglar.  In the first in the series, Charlie gets into an adventure in Amsterdam and has to move on to a different city when this is concluded; in the second in the series Charlie gets into a scrape in Paris which results in him being declared persona non grata and having to leave, then he goes to Las Vegas, and so on.  He is joined in his misadventures by Victoria, his agent, who graduates from being a voice on the phone in the first novel to being a companion in subsequent novels.

One thing that can be annoying about some "gentleman thief" tales is the apparent invulnerability of the protagonist. One of the strengths of this series is that Charlie is fallible: he often makes bad choices - occasionally for good, noble reasons, or through flawed reasons like personal gain, vanity, stubborness or curiosity - and he has to try to muddle through the consequences of his actions.  Chris Ewan has added to this by giving his anti-hero early onset arthritis in his hands. This gives Charlie an additional obstacle to overcome, making the picking of locks difficult for him, and this human frailty makes him a more vulnerable and sympathetic character.  Charlie has flaws, and this makes him an interesting (anti)hero.

This is a series that I felt got stronger and more interesting with each novel.  The growing friendship - or maybe something more - with Victoria is one of the pleasures of the series, as we gradually learn about her character and background.  I also felt that the sense of place gets stronger through the series - although admittedly I am not the best person to comment on this as I haven't been to Paris and Las Vegas to judge how well Chris Ewan evokes the atmosphere of these settings.  I have been to Amsterdam and Venice, though, and I enjoyed being reminded of them by reading the novels that he sets there.  I gather from visiting his blog, which can be found here, that he visits each setting for his novels a few times and his blog has some segments of video that he recorded while on research trips to his locations.  When we visited Venice it was autumn and we were lucky with the weather, so I have not experienced the bleak, atmospheric "Don't Look Now" Venice that is Charlie's wintery experience.

Chris Ewan is on Twitter, where he is a friendly presence who appears to have a convivial relationship with his fans.  I mentioned him before on this blog in my post "How I have been contributing to authors' cavities" and, when I decided as an experiment to tweet my post to the authors that I mentioned to see what response I would get, he was kind enough to add a comment as "Partners in Crime" (Michael Jecks and David Hewson were also supportive enough to respond, for which I am equally grateful).  In the "Good Thief" series he has postmodern, playful fun with the blurring of boundaries between himself as author and his (anti)hero as author (to the best of my knowledge, he does not have a sideline career in robbery).  I enjoyed this series so far because I felt that it was postmodern in an entertaining way - having fun with the conventions of mystery novels, as opposed to more arch and knowing examples of postmodern fiction - and Charlie and Victoria are engaging characters.  I understand from his tweets that Chris Ewan has been working on another in the series set in Berlin, as well as working on a standalone novel, and I wish him luck and good fortune with these.  I look forward to reading them...

An insight into the (dis)order of my mind, courtesy of Kate Atkinson

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

"Right up until the end Victor's mind had been as methodical as an efficient library, whereas Amelia felt that hers was more like the cupboard under the stair where ancient hockey sticks were shoved in beside broken hoovers and boxes of old Christmas decorations, and the one thing you knew was in there - a 5-amp fuse, a tin of shoe polish, a Philips screwdriver - would almost certainly be the one thing you couldn't lay your hands on."  - Kate Atkinson, "Case Histories"
Yep, I recognise that feeling.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Reading and Readability

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

This week I watched the Man Booker Prize.  I am ashamed to say that I haven't followed the debates this year or read any of the books - I have been a bit busy working - so I have come to this topic rather late.  This year's controversy apparently arose from Dame Stella Rimmington's use of the word "readability" as one of the criteria for which the judges were looking.  I think that the moment for this debate has probably passed now that winner Julian Barnes sagely concluded that quality and readability should be indistinguishable - but that isn't going to stop me blithely and belatedly weighing in on this debate.

My Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines something that is readable as being "interesting or pleasant to read."  To think that "readability" is not an essential criteria for a book is incomprehensible to me.  When did calling a book "readable" become a perjorative term, and when was it decided that the Man Booker Prize should go to a book that is boring and unpleasant?

The implications of thinking that the Man Booker judges should not be looking for readability as one of their criteria seem to me to be twofold.  This implies that a book that is deemed to have literary merit should not be pleasurable; it should be a chore to read.  This is the cough mixture side to the argument: if something is good for you, then it will probably be horrible.  The converse assumption is that if something is "readable," then it lacks quality and intellectual worth.  This is the chocolate side to the argument: if something is pleasurable then it is probably bad for you.

This notion is, of course, largely correct for food and totally spurious for literature.  Many of the books that we now think of as being "classics" were populist works of their time - Dickens as an obvious example - and are eminently readable.  When I mentioned this debate on Twitter, a couple of friends and wise tweeters (twits?), Gill and Joanne, joined in the discussion to praise George Orwell's readability.  Anyone who wants to write would do well to read his brilliant article "Politics and the English Language."  That I haven't re-read it for years is probably painfully obvious to anyone who reads this blog, as I am sure that I commit many of the stylistic sins that he decries.  Gill put it well in a tweet when she said that "literature must be accessible to communicate its ideas," and Orwell's writing is a perfect example of writing that is both "readable" and has literary merit.

I don't believe that anyone benefits from the belief that the Man Booker Prize should not be looking for readability: not the reputation of the prize itself; not its winners and nominees, and not the publishing industry as a whole.  A book is by definition intended to be read, otherwise surely it is a failure in its own terms.  The Man Booker Prize would likely become defunct if it were to gain the reputation of being awarded to books that no-one wants to read, and would be the death of sales to an author who wins it.  No author wants not to be read when they set out to write a novel.

I think that it is an act of intellectual snobbery to argue that "readability" should not be an aim of quality fiction.  This is a declaration that has very little to do with the book itself, and everything to do with the person putting forward that argument and their need to assert intellectual superiority.  A person who attempts to downplay the value of readability in a novel is essentially declaring themselves to be pure intellect and above such frivolities as reading pleasure.  When asked, they would probably say that their favourite piece of writing is "Finnegan's Wake," which I am sure is a work of genius, but is effectively unreadable (and I write those words as someone who likes "Ulysses").

I am more inclined to feel that all great books are "readable."  Only bad books are unreadable.  With the possible exception of "Finnegan's Wake."

Thursday, 13 October 2011

A quote from Howard Jacobson

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I've been listening to an audiobook of Howard Jacobson's collection of journalism, "Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It."  Except I like it very much.  So much so that I have also just bought the hardback today - as well as the new Terry Pratchett (I like variety in my reading) - and I was arrested by the following passage from Howard:

"How do you explain to somebody who doesn't understand that you don't build a library to read.  A library is a resource.  Something you go to, for reference, as and when.  But also something you simply look at, because it gives you succour, answers to some idea of who you are or, more to the point, who you would like to be, who you will be once you own every book you need to own."

I'm sorry, Howard - I hope you will forgive me first name terms, since I have sought out and read everything you have written - but I don't agree, or maybe I don't understand.  I do build a library to read.  I am an acquisitive reader - I like to own the new book by a writer I love, even if I know I won't be able to read it for a while - and my library does give give me succour.  But it also fills me with dread that I might already own more books than can be read in the limited lifetime of one human being.  Ultimately, it isn't about who I will be once I own every book I need to own: it is about who I would like to be, who I might be once I have read every book I own.

If a library is only something to look at, then I might as well have bought a bunch of flowers today, and not a new book.