Monday, November 23, 2009


When I was growing up, I remember taking out from the library various "Nebula Award Stories" compilations. The Nebula Awards are voted on by the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America as it was then, now Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), which seemed an impossibly august body. The Nebula Awards chose some great stories (including Jack Vance's greatly underrated "The Last Castle") and the prestige of the SFWA was surely unmatched.

I could hardly have imagined then, as I read these stories 25 or 30 years ago, that one day I myself would be a member of the SFWA. Considering that I am not American, do not live in America and have never had a professional sale in America, it's not an immediately obvious outcome. But the SFWA's lofty eligibity criteria allows a writer with a professional novel sale in English to join.

So I'm delighted to announce that I'm now a member of the SFWA. Cool.
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Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Problem with Wolf Hall

I mentioned last week that Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall had polarised opinion among my writing acquaintance. Ever the temperate figure, I can see both sides of this. In the end, my reaction was one of disappointment, not because the book was bad, but because it was so nearly good. Inevitably, this is a subjective view: many good judges--and not just the Booker Prize ones--loved it. Sadly I am not among their number.

First the good, though--and there's plenty. The prose is beautiful, capturing at once the alienness and the familiarity of the Tudor period. Every page is rich with sensory description, often illuminating some deeper theme of the novel. The opening chapter, dealing with the abused childhood of the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, is just about perfect: indeed, it raises expectations the rest of the novel can't fully realise. The decision to write the novel in the present tense, which could seem a gimmick, works well: it gives an immediacy to Cromwell's thoughts more often associated with first-person.

Mantel also excels at the political intrigues of the time. In the early chapter Cardinal Wolsey dominates, before Cromwell's own rise to power. The ascent of the blacksmith's son to be the power behind the throne is fascinating--how could it fail to be? Mantel's Cromwell sometimes seem to me too decent, insufficiently Machiavellian, but it's a welcome corrective to the standard view of him as an unredeemed opportunist.

I enjoyed too her portrayal of Sir Thomas More as a chilly fanatic, as unlikeable on the page as men of principle so often are in life. More and Wolsey for me both rang true. Less successful was Anne Boleyn: a cold and manipulative schemer we've all seen many times before, and heresy though it is to say it, Philippa Gregory nailed the type better in The Other Boleyn Girl. I was also unconvinced by King Henry: too much bonhomie and not enough of the psychotic.

By the end of the book, though, I was desperate to finish it and move on to something else (although the last couple of pages are again beautifully judged). For me there were problems wider than the odd questionable characterisation. The most obvious of these was Mantel's decision to refer to the protagonist as 'he' rather than 'Cromwell' throughout. On almost every page I'd be wondering whether 'he' referred to Cromwell or the last named character: unbelievably distracting, for no real benefit to the reader. I like to think my editor wouldn't have let me get away with it. Here's just one example of literally hundreds.

On the evening before Fisher is to die, he visits More.

But it's not Fisher who visits More, of course: it's Cromwell. It's an affectation, and one whose cumulative effect materially weakens the book.

Even that isn't the worst, though. Who am to tell a Booker Prize-winner how to structure a novel? I'm going to anyway. Wolf Hall operates in an astonishingly narrow register. The tone is unvarying, almost the entire narrative taking place either through conversation or 'his' thoughts. For me, at least, such a long book cries out for tonal variety. When we do see some 'real' action, it makes me wonder why we didn't get more of it. An early scene where the young Cromwell witness the burning of a heretic is moving and dramatic, but the book needed to give the reader this more often. You could take any page at random and see wonderful, effective prose, subtle and nuanced, but lay 650 such pages together and the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

It's not that I don't like 'quiet' books. Ann Weisgarber's recent Orange Prize nominee, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, has if anything less action: but it's played out at less indulgent length, with much greater economy and, for me, a richer connection with the reader.

Wolf Hall is a hugely ambitious book. It takes one of our best-known stories, adopts some risky narrative devices and gives us, uninterrupted, one character for perhaps 200,000 words. In the end, she doesn't quite pull it off. I'm delighted to see a historical novel win the Booker Prize, but I can think of better examples.
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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Coming soon - Wolf Hall

Things have been quiet on ::Acquired Taste recently. Partly this is because I've been laid up with a heavy cold, and partly because I've been reading a Very Long Book - Hilary Mantel's Booker Prixe-winning Wolf Hall.

Rarely has a book polarised my literary acquaintance more than this tale of Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in Tudor England. Alis Hawkins, an accomplished historical novelist herself, cannot contain her enthusiasm. Other writers are less enamoured, including Aliya Whiteley and Helen Beal.

I've got under 100 pages to go, so I've got a fairly good idea of where I'm going to pitch my own response. But am I going to tell ya? Not yet...
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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Review - Acts of Violence by Ryan David Jahn

I don't keep up with all the Macmillan New Writing releases but I was determined not to miss out on this month's publication by the American writer Ryan David Jahn. Acts of Violence recounts the events of a single night in early 1960s New York. Inspired by a true story, the spare narrative unfolds as young woman is murdered outside her apartment block; her death, drawn out over several hours, is watched by her neighbours, all of whom have their own reasons for not calling the emergency services. Jahn shows us the lives of doomed Kat Marino and her neighbours, while at the same time painting a portrait of a time and place. He shows us racism, child abuse, infidelity, homosexuality; but never telling the reader what to think. His background as a screenwriter is apparent in the economy of the prose, the details freighted with significance. Nothing is spelled out; everything is implied.

An American writer of bleak, visceral crime fiction will inevitably make the reader think of James Ellroy, and the similarities are certainly there. He has more in common, though, with RJ Ellory, in that while the story is superficially a crime novel, that's simply the vehicle it chooses for a wider examination of its themes. The author has already been signed up on a longer deal by Macmillan and its easy to see why. Ryan David Jahn is a real talent and it wouldn't surprise me if he was soon a household name.
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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Also reads books

Having wearied my readers' patience with maps, maps and more maps over the past couple of weeks, it's with some relief that ::Acquired Taste returns to the business of books today. I've read a couple of crackers over the past week, and I like to share...

The first was the recent Macmillan New Writing title The Incendiary's Trail, by James McCreet. This Victorian melodrama owes much to Poe and Holmes, but also to Dickens in its depiction of the seedy underside of London life. The plot is lively and enjoyably lurid, with vividly-drawn characters. Reviews I've read of the book have not been especially favourable--many comment on the overly intrusive authorial voice with dismay. In this, though, McCreet is merely being true to 19th century sensation novels he clearly admires, and the device allows him to play some interesting games with the reader. Modern readers have become used to unobstrusive third person narratives, but done well, the engaged third person can be a treat. There is a second novel in the works and I look forward to reading it.

Even better was A Quiet Flame, the fifth in Philip Kerr's series of novels about the career of Bernie Gunther, the German private detective we first met in 1930s Berlin. Gunther now finds himself, courtesy of an unwilling spell in the SS, in post-war Argentina under an assumed name. Co-opted into the Argentine secret police, he finds his new home all too similar to the one he fled. Kerr handles the dark themes of the period with skill, and the Marloweque Gunther makes enough of a connection with the reader to avoid charges of stereotyping. Kerr has a problem in extending the series in that, for a tough guy, Gunther is now getting old (internal evidence suggests he's in his mid-50s). Much of A Quiet Flame is told in flashback to 1930s Berlin, and the sixth novel in the series seems to employ the same device. Much as I enjoy these novels, I do hope that Kerr remembers to quit while he's ahead. Regular readers will expect me to mention Patricia Cornwell here, and I like to oblige my readership...

Meanwhile, I have had an Amazon splurge and treated myself to two eagerly-anticipated works: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (always a sucker for the Tudors) and the latest Macmillan New Writing release, Ryan David Jahn's Acts of Violence. Mantel has a bestseller by virtue of winning the Booker Prize, but the buzz around Acts of Violence gives us hope that this could be the first MNW title to join it.

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