Sunday, September 12, 2004

"I'm not bald - my head is just a solar panel for a sex machine" - Telly Savalas

(Not a proper title, I know, but I do love it.)

Anyway, sorry about that. I wasn't planning to go off on one about the Booker, but I started and couldn't stop. I get rather caught up in it all, and it's made all the worse that I really know very little about it and that I'm finding it impossible to second-guess this year's panel. (Last year I did quite well. Until the final revelation.)

Though I haven't really anything to say, news-wise, I thought a new post was probably in order, and that I'd have a little chat about my recent reading.

First: At last something of interest is happening on theUK Bestseller Lists. For almost a month, they've been full of Danielle Steele, Chick Lit and Dan Brown. Very, very little in terms of crime fiction. Minette Walters popped her head up for week or so with her paperback of Disordered Minds, but, aside from that, nothing. Ruth Rendell's The Rottweiler didn't even make it above number 15, which disappointed me. Though the Wexfords always do better.

But now Karin Slaughter's here. Indelible went straight to three for hardbacks, and the paperback of A Faint Cold Fear rocketed to position number 2, which is her highest so far, I think. With these two books, she deserves it. They've come on in leaps and bounds from the first two, in terms of plotting (mainly in getting the balance right between levels of graphicism and moving the story along) and writing as well. The first two were a tad choppy in those areas. I read Indelible about a month ago and was very impressed again. She held the two parallel plots very well, and the detour into Jeffery's past was very well done indeed. I admit, she needs a few lessons in writing hostage scenes from Jeffery Deaver, because there were a few minor problems there. Number 1, the hostage-takers were too prepared to kill people. Hostage scenes always work to their greatest potential when there's some doubt about whether the takers are prepared to kill or not. Number 2, I just don't think she researched it enough. There wasn't the level of detail that made Deaver's A Maiden's Grave such a terrific thriller, and she seemed almost to be skirting around the scenes, hoping people wouldn't notice. But as I say they were only minor problems and the book was very good.

Dan Brown has three paperbacks on the list, which annoys me. The Curious Incident... is still there, but that's a given. Jeffery's Deaver's Garden of Beasts makes number 7 for hardbacks, and Alexander McCall Smith appears on both.

Now, onto other matters. Right now, I am reading Peter Robinson's short story collection, Not Safe After Dark. It was originally published in 1998, but has now made its way over here with some new stories and an Inspector Banks novella. So far, it's a great collection. The reason I like reading short stories is the reason I (and others) like writing them: the quick payoff. Not only that, but the distillation of words, themes, and character. There's something particularly visceral about a brilliant short story. The best deliver a breathless punch to the gut. People always say they're harder to write than novels, but I can't say I agree. Well, agree is the wrong word. It's only harder if you come from a background of writing novels, I suspect. As far as I am concerned, the novel is the far more daunting prospect. The short story is all I have known, so I've not been forced to adapt, to shift down from the large canvas. The 200-page piece of trash I wrote when I was 13 was far harder, to me. The second time I tried I gave up. And the third. I simply haven't the time right now. Plus, I have too many ideas. Inspiriationn and ideas come from everywhere. From every line of every book, from every sentence a person speaks. So short stories suit me perfectly.

I digress.

Short stories are also excellent to read in a spare half-hour. Not time for a novel? Well, read a short story. The short story has the potential to be quite commercially popular (rather than William-Trevor-style critically popular) among people who "simply don't have the time to read novels". If publishers would only back them more. I've long thought that Robinson should branch out from his Banks series, as I think he is an even better writer than his Banks series allows him to be. Not that I mean to disparage the Banks series, because it is very good indeed. Especially of late. But I get the impression that, if allowed free rein, Robinson could be stunning. I don’t like saying it, but I think the genre confines him. Some writers it doesn’t and never could, because it suits their talents absolutely perfectly. But I think if Robinson moved outside the procedural, we may really see something special.

I think, in terms of the short story at least, this collection proves me right. The three Banks short stories are good, but the weakest of the collection so far. They’re nothing like the quality of Innocence or April in Paris, which I loved. Admittedly, even with Ian Rankin I always find his Rebus short stories weaker. I’m just not at all sure that police procedural mysteries “fit” into the short story. (I’d love to know anyone else’s thoughts on this matter, by the way.) I always find short stories better when they spring from the psychology of the character, rather than a puzzle that has to be presented and solved within a few pages.

So, yes, so far it’s very pleasing, with the occasional glimpse of how good Robinson could be if he tried something different. The same kind of glimpses I saw when I read his standalone Caedmon’s Song, a kind of Rendellesque mystery, which is just about be released in the US under the title “The First Cut.” It wasn’t perfect, but it was superior to the Banks mysteries he was writing at the same time. If he wrote a standalone now, maybe it would be similarly superior to his current Banks mysteries. Which really would be something.

Today, The Sunday Times reviews the latest novels of Frances Fyfield and Patricia Cornwell. I've read the Cornwell but I'll go on about that some other time; I've already outstayed my welcome.

One final note: read Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. If you’ve still got this on your pile, slap it right up to the top. It languished on my own 150+ TBR for about two years before I read it recently, and it was absolutely brilliant! Gothic and Byzantine they said it was, and they were right. I enjoyed it SO much. Utterly deserving of its Booker nomination and its winning of the Historical Dagger. Read it immediately.
As the author says: "500 pages of fraud, insanity, sex, violence, laughter and tears, for round about a tenner? You'd be a fool NOT to buy this book!"

Apologies for my verbosity. I can't do concise.