If you haven’t got enough to worry about…

You might think that reading romance novels is a harmless little diversion? Well, it’s not so. Apparently women who read steamy romances are putting themselves at serious risk of an unwanted pregnancy or contracting a sexually transmitted disease!

Cover of Encyclopedia ParanoiacaAccording to British “relationship psychologist”, Susan Quillaum, this is so and she cites a research survey that found that only 11.5 % of romantic novels mention condom use. The report, all scientific of course, found “a clear correlation” between the frequency of romance reading and a negative attitude towards condoms.

And where does this disturbing fact come from? It’s in a delightful book called Encyclopedia Paranoiaca which gives a vast amount of information about things we can worry about.

Reading itself is discussed, especially reading on the toilet which gets a stern absolute “No” from the interestingly named Dr David Gutman, lead physician of American Haemorrhoid Specialists. However, Doctor Gutman recognises that a lot of people like doing this so he suggests that when people have done their business they can resume reading by putting the seat cover down and sitting on that.

Let your worries accumulate by learning about the dangers of photocopiers, pine nuts, skinny jeans, prune juice, drinking from a straw, dental floss, coffee mugs…

Read the book before you see the film

How many times do you read a book and like it, then hear that it is being made into a movie? It seems that a really good book may have qualities that don’t translate to a good movie.

Cover of Gone GirlIt was said once – and I can’t remember who said it – that more bad books make good films rather than the other way round. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a good yarn, but a long way from being a great piece of literature. The film version, however, is one of the great American movies of all time with the bad bits – especially the sex scenes that even Harold Robbins might laugh at – jettisoned.

What can make a book fall over when it hits the screen? Reviews have been less than enthusiastic for the film version of S. J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep and it may be that gimmick-style revelations at the end can’t work when the many readers of the novel know them. Will this make the film version of Gone Girl, expected soon, go the same way?

Cover of Z for ZachariahThere are, however, some interesting adaptations coming up and they may work well on the screen. The film of Z for Zachariah, the classic YA novel by Robert C. O’Brien, may be the first major movie filmed on location in Port Levy and a cast that includes Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Margot Robbie sounds promising.

Further up the island, in the Marlborough Sounds, filming has begun on an adaptation of the excellent novel by M. L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans, the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife who find a boat washed ashore with a dead man and an infant on board. Their decision to raise the child as their own drives the plot of the novel which is actually set in Australia. The film has Michael Fassbender, Rachel Weisz and Swedish actress Alicia Vikander in the cast.

Cover of A Hologram for the KingOne of my favourite writers –if you like state of the nation novels – is Dave Eggers and the film version of A Hologram for the King is an interesting choice for a big American film in that it’s about a middle class man trying to hold himself and his family together as the world economy falters by trying to sell himself and his ideas to the burgeoning Arabian world. Tom Hanks is in the lead.

The dystopian world of J. G. Ballard is perfectly captured in his High Rise which is set in a luxury high rise building where things start to go wrong, leading to a major social breakdown. The novel, firmly set in the Thatcher era, has been on the cards for decades and is only now coming to film with Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans and Sienna Miller in the cast.

Cover of The Family FangNicole Kidman’s career may be faltering at the moment, but good on her for buying the rights to one of the most outrageous and funny novels, around, Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang, featuring the worst parents imaginable, a couple of performance artists and their children who live in permanent embarrassment at the idiotic performances their parents dream up. Kidman and Jason Bateman play the parents with Bateman directing. Continue reading

7 habits and other habits

Cover imageAs the buyer for the self development etc titles (something bad I did in a past life has led to this), I was alerted to the fact that we needed to buy more of that old chestnut The seven habits of highly effective people by Stephen Covey, a gentleman who has not so much laughed all the way to the bank but shrieked uncontrollably.

Coincidentally I had been reading a column in that excellent weekly, The Economist, which adopted a less than reverent attitude to the granddaddy of the business meets self development  book industry (irrelevant I know but Covey is actually a grandfather – of 51 grandchildren. Talk about self development!) According to The Economist, he was shrewd enough to mix the language of management science with the sort of moral messages that have been around from the days of Norman Vincent Peale and the 12 Steps programme of AA. He’s made the sort of money that might have made even Bernie Madoff salivate but how good is he at and is he just one more in that group of knowalls who divide everything into easily memorable lists, preferably numeric.

The Economist said Covey has three habits worth noting: presenting stale ideas as breathtaking breakthroughs (as The secret did), naming model firms (rather unfortunately some of them fell over and someone from the University of Texas found that luck had as much to do with success as anything else) and making numbered lists or “facile principles”. Following the lists or principles may help you and your business but it ain’t necessarily so: we hear so much that firms should learn from their customers but Henry Ford once pointed out that if he’d listened to his customers he’d have built a better horse and buggy!

So why do people follow them so religiously? It may be that success in business or in life itself comes from a whole lot of factors but there is still an almost primal need for a one stop shop to learn about it and that is where Mr Covey and all his imitators count in. Perhaps it’s also an addiction as those who lap up self development books rarely seem to develop out of needing them and the people who succeed most from them are the people who write them. I really wouldn’t know but I’m just a librarian and we can only watch as it all sweeps past us and seems so familiar.

Richard Russo

Isn’t it gratifying when an author you’ve followed from their very first book starts to gather momentum and eventually reaches bestseller status? This is what happened to Richard Russo whose likeable novels I’ve been following since his first, Mohawk, appeared back in 1986. He started with small town tales, often in upstate New York and usually places that had seen better days. His leading character was usually a not very reliable but basically good natured man at the bottom of the insurance risk pool (The risk pool was actually one of his earlier titles and it was announced as a movie vehicle for Tom Hanks but it has never materialised.

Two of his books have been filmed: Nobody’s fool, which became an excellent movie with Paul Newman, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith, and Empire Falls, his Pulitzer Prize winner, which became an HBO miniseries (never seen here but I was lucky enough to pick it up when foraging through bins at my favourite DVD emporium). He’s also worked as a scriptwriter: he did that odd black comedy where Rowan Atkinson was a vicar and Maggie Smith went around being helpful murdering people.

Maybe it’s something to do with a writer becoming more successful over the years but Russo seems to be leaving behind the small town dreamers and losers who filled his early novels. They’re now more likely to be academics and in the latest, That old Cape magic, the main character is a middle aged man who works as a lecturer at a New England college and as well as a fix-it scriptwriter in Hollywood. The novel moves around in time but the focus is on the wedding of his daughter and the collapse of his marriage.

The marriage collapse is realistically done but I could have done without some of the introspection which just seemed too American (in the let’s dwell on exactly how we’re feeling mode which can get a bit annoying for those of us with let’s just get on with it Anglo-Saxon natures). It’s, however, the other characters who make the novel shine and especially our hero’s awful parents, a couple of arrogant academics, the sort who look at the world around them and feel it all just so inferior. Some of this is very funny and some of it, especially as it relates the main character’s childhood, quite sad.

This is a slow novel that ambles along and takes time to observe other characters and events as it passes and yet it is an effortless read. The main character is convincingly likeable in his efforts to make the best of things despite things around him gunning up against him (there’s a wedding rehearsal which goes wrong and ends up with most of the participants at the nearest A & E department) and the satire is quite gentle. This is probably in a middle aged man ruminates genre and there’s a lot it about these days (says he, having recently read similar titles by Justin Cartwright, William Nicholson, Philip Roth, etc) but it’s very well done and it deserves its success.

Justin Cartwright’s latest novel

I can’t remember exactly but I think Joe Bennett (or was it Nicky Watson?) mentioned Justin Cartwright as one of his favourites. When you have been a fan of an author from the start. He’s always been a novelist who has a quite uncanny sense of the here and now and if people want to look back on how people behaved  and talked in our time they could go straight to his novels. Of course the people are very much London, very much middle class and often in the communications and entertainments industries.

This new novel is about a family – quite well off, liberal (of course), leftish (of course) and clever (goes without saying). The mother had died and the bereaved father isn’t behaving as a sadly bereaved parent is expected to behave: it’s not that he doesn’t miss his wife and regret her passing but he is actually quite content by himself. His family have messy muddled lives: his son, having an affair with a woman in his law office,  is married to a lovely woman who’d been a ballet dancer and is anxious to get pregnant but nothing seems to be happening; his daughter has dumped her awful boyfriend but he starts stalking her.

The father, David, had been a television correspondent of the Jonathan Dimbleby variety and he has friends, all late middle aged like himself, who meet sporadically. He had been in the film industry when young (as had Cartwright: he had once directed one of those awful 1970 soft porn comedies that the British film industry specialised in at the time: at least his one, called Rosie Dixon, Night nurse, didn’t feature Robin Askwith but it did have the wonderful comedienne Beryl Reid and this is fictionalised in one of his novels). One thing you could say about Cartwright is he is often a little over serious and his characters tend to agonise about their problems and be overly conscious of their feelings. This may, however, be par for the course in Hampstead, Highgate and the places these people play. It does mean that you miss the sort of humorous irony the English are supposedly good at (and the Americans are supposedly at sea with). There is, however, one very funny bit where Adam, a boozy onetime novelist who’s made a fortune out of television series writing, sounds off on why he doesn’t write novels:

I hate novels which describe the awful problems of being a writer and novels about a mysterious legacy of papers found in a trunk which may explain the meaning of the Gnostic gospels, and I hate novels which tell you the real story of William Shakespeare, who was secretly a Catholic priest, as you can tell from a small carving on a pew in a chapel in Stratford, and I hate novels about magic and elves and the lost arts of necromancy, and even worse – much ****ing worse – I hate novels about fairies and guardian angels and novels about sensitive people who have autistic children touched by ****ing genius and I also hate novels of suspense where the writer withholds from the reader details that he knows perfectly ****ing well in order to make it suspenseful and, even worse than having my nuts passed through the grinder, I hate reading novels about time travel and what is called – can you believe this? – fantasy, which turns out to be ****ing bollocks on a Homeric scale about people dressed in plastic armour with silly names like Snarfbucket of Zadok, Lord of the Fens and the Mountains.”

He could say that but a selector of library fiction couldn’t possibly comment (except to say we could add novels about sexy vampires, paranormal romances of any kind, crime novels that get mired on forensics, paranoia thrillers, the Left behind series…………euuuuuuuch, enough already! So read this novel instead: it has none of these.


A recent blog mentioned the latest Colm Toibin novel Brooklyn as being disappointing. I had never read any of his work before so I didn’t come with expectations. By the time I had finished this novel I could see why it is on the Booker longlist and I can put money on it that it will be on the shortlist and it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise to see it take out the big prize.

It is one of those deceptively simple novels that could easily be overlooked because they are dealing with everyday lives seemingly untouched by the big events of the time. The major character is Eilis, a young woman who lives at home with her widowed mother and her sister Rose. She works in a grocery store owned and operated by a truly awful woman who favours certain characters (the “better” people of the town), wilfully ignores others and bullies her two helpers. A priest visiting from America tells Eilis and family about the possibility of a job in a department store in Brooklyn and this is arranged for Eilis.

Her work in the store and her quite circumscribed life outside it are beautifully captured and the time (1950s) is tellingly evoked. I had no idea that at that time it was quite innovative when a counter for “coloureds” to buy clothing was introduced. The various young women in the boarding house where Eilis stays are all very real characters: in fact, there are no stock characters in the book even if some could, in lesser hands, be relegated to the part of sour spinster, bossy landlady, good time girl, Italian momma, etc.

Other bloggers have said that they found the main character passive and that put them off. Well, she just is and so is Hardy’s Tess and a lot of other literary characters and people in real life as well. She’s a girl from provincial small town Ireland and hasn’t much experience of the world and so she tends to fall in with what is arranged for her. The novel reminded me of the brilliant John McGahern novel Amongst women and also, in a strange way, of the brilliant French film The lacemaker, in which Isabelle Huppert made her name.

By the end of the novel Eilis is faced with a very tough decision and it is to the credit of the novel that it is both in character and unexpected. Will it win the Booker? I’d say the William Trevor and Hilary Mantel’s novel (which my wife is reading with great enthusiasm at the moment) are its strongest rivals and the one that will not make it to the shortlist is the pretty laboured jokey spoof of Cheetah the chimp telling all.

American adulterer

What a great title! It’s a new novel by Jed Mercurio that is a sort of biography of John F. Kennedy. The idea behind it is to look at the man and the politician and what made him tick.

As the title suggests, sex was something significant for JFK and, unlike the more devious William Jefferson Clinton, he did inhale, so to speak. The novel observes him in a rather cool clinical manner and it allows us to see a full portrait of him in terms of his politics, his health, his marriage and his sex life. It has always puzzled me why people have pointed the finger in a censorious manner: how many people would have ladies like Marilyn Monroe, Angie Dickinson, Jayne Mansfield, etc., make themselves so available and be able to say “Go away Marilyn, you wicked temptress.” Of course, looked at now, the way he used women as quick relief (attractive young interns on standby, going on the plane and not recalling if the hostess was one he’d had a quick one with previously), was sexist in the extreme. The worst part of all this is the slimy character of Sinatra who was a JFK supporter until his mob connections meant that JFK had to distance himself. Sinatra and his Rat Pack Pal, Peter Lawford, married to JFK’s sister, pimped for the President in that he’d see a young actress in a movie and angle for the Rat Packers to arrange an introduction.

JFK’s health was dreadful and a lot of mileage is given to all his ailments and he had a fair few. His marriage is interestingly handled and Jackie emerges as a cool customer who realised what she had let herself in for and lived with it. His love for his children and his absolute conviction on issues (race, equality in general) is handled well. Overall this is a riveting novel, quite touching at times and very good in its picture of a very complex man who died too young.

Christopher Fowler

Christopher Fowler started off as the author of horror and fantasy short stories and novels and his imaginative skills made for first rate fiction in a genre that is regarded rather sniffily in the literary world. He turned to mysteries and combined elements of his fantasy work in a series of delightfully zany mysteries featuring two oldish sleuths, Bryant and May, usually operating in wonderfully evoked London and South England landscapes. The books would make a first rate television series but as they don’t involve forensics they will probably never reach the screen.

His very English quality comes from his background as an only – and sometimes lonely – child growing up in a working class area of South London in the early 1960s. His parents are solid decent folk but they don’t have a lot of imagination and they have ended up with a son who has imagination by the truckload. Reading books and comics, making lists (ah, the sign of all of those who had anorak childhoods), movies at the local Odeon, games and kit sets, the ludicrous horror novels of Dennis Wheatley, it’s all here.

Even if your childhood was a New Zealand one, you will recognise a lot of what he is talking about as Kiwis still talked of “home” (i.e. Britain) then and English newspapers and magazines were the staple of every bookshop. Does anyone remember the weekly compilation editions – with the brassy yellow cover – of the Daily Mirror? I loved this book for its nostalgic evocation of the British cinema (the decade before it descended into witless sex comedies featuring Robin Askwith and two decades before it was all country house Merchant Ivory films) when most films were full of character actors who could be relied upon to be much the same in every production. It’s hard to think we will look back on Ray Winstone and co with the same warm fuzzy feeling we had for the likes of Hattie Jacques and the Carry On crew. It’s not all nostalgia, however, as he tempers the book with his adult awareness of some of the sadness of his parent’s life.

And…libraries come out of this very well as young Fowler recognises how much they’d helped him: “the printed page had not imprisoned my thoughts but had given them shape and set them free.” He speaks highly of the East Greenwich Public Library where “I caught glimpses of a world beyond my experience” and was helped by a librarian who inspired his reading. She sounds  just great and not all the dull stereotype we get so sick of. The latter appears in the next book I read, a bloated doorstop thriller, “A simple act of violence” by R.J. Ellory where “the lady at the desk looked like a librarian, sounded like one too.” She speaks in “hushed tones” (of course!) and peers at the detective “over half-rimmed spectacles.” she’s about  as believable as the plot in this ridiculous conspiracy thriller.

Disturbing the reader

With the renewed interest in the once “forgotten” American novelist Richard Yates, it’s worth noting that the library has excellent Vintage Books reprints of his novels and collections of short stories. If you have read Revolutionary Road and/or seen the film you’llknow that his take on postwar American middle class life is one of disillusion and no happy endings.

I’ve just finished reading his third novel, Disturbing the peace, (1975) and it makes Revolutionary Road seem like a Mitch Albom novel (well, not really, it’s on a different plane entirely as far as quality goes). It has strong autobiographical elements in it as it is about an alcoholic whose addiction takes him to the depths. The main character is a successful advertising salesman with a house in the country, an adoring and long suffering wife, a young son and what is on the surface a charmed life.

It’s easy with a book like this to think his feelings of failure and disenchantment with his life are pampered self indulgence in a world where millions can only dream of such an existence. It’s the success of the novel that the main protagonist (who treats his family badly, feels superior to his friends and has a young mistress who he regularly visits when he is supposed to be at A.A. meetings) is a man who the reader can understand and even sympathise with even though he is pretty appalling.

Drink is probably only a symptom of his unhappy life but it’s a powerful one and the novel has one part where he becomes delusional and is committed at one stage to a very grim psychiatric ward and a later one where madness takes over and his life spirals completely out of control. This is dark material but it’s brilliantly observed (characterisation and a sense of place are two of this author’s greatest gifts) and it may be one of the toughest novels written about alcoholism. Read it – and then take on something lighter afterwards – but not the likes of Mitch Albom or Nicholas Sparks who’ll make you go right to the drinks cabinet.

The Beano

Cor readers, here’s a book.  The history of The Beano: the story so far is a big glossy book (too big to read in bed comfortably) that is probably aimed at nostalgic adults rather than children.

I had not known that The Beano had been around so long. It came from the D.C. Thomson comic empire in the 1920s (they are the group that gave the world The Wizard, The Rover and The Hotspur. These publications were followed in 1937 by The Dandy and in 1938 by The Beano, described as “a great new fun paper” and giving its readers a free “Whoopee mask” with every copy. They started with their most enduring character, Lord Snooty, an aristocratic boy who lives in a castle but spends most of his time with a gang of rascally working class friends. He is still going strong and hasn’t aged a bit. Other strips featured such characters as Big Fat Joe (“he hasn’t been weighed since the age of three – the weighing machine always broke you see”) and other vaguely anarchic types who would be classed as ADD or in the need of an army of social workers these days!

The Beano continued during the War despite other children’s publications ceasing publication. It became something of a propaganda tool with Lord Snooty and his pals making Hitler look foolish and Pansy Potter, The Strong Man’s Daughter, capturing a German U-boat. Goering was portrayed as a fat fool and Mussolini featured in a strip defiantly titled Musso The Wop.

The 1950s brought in that delinquent, Dennis The Menace, and other mischief makers such as Minnie The Minx and The Bash Street Kids. They all continued for decades and provided an irreverent and essentially British flavour. They were all involved in practical jokes or escaping stern and put upon schoolteachers and long suffering parents. They usually didn’t get away with it so parents could rest easy that delinquent behaviour didn’t go unpunished!

The 1980s introduced favourites such as Ivy The Terrible (girls were rarely constrained by polite role models in The Beano) and in 1998 the first pregnancy in a children’s comic took place when Dennis The Menace’s mother went into labour and Dennis had a sister.

This delightful book is filled with lots of  comic strips and a number of adventure stories and it wonderfully evokes an innocent world of endless fun and excitement. Although it’s not mentioned in the book you can see how the endlessly rude adult comic Viz took much of its inspiration from comics like The Beano (their characters like Buster Gonad and his unfeasibly large testicles and Felix and his Amazing Underpants are in the same visual style but with ruder content) and Private Eye uses the Beano style in comic strips about politicians).

So if your childhood reading included a weekly fix of The Beano, this luxury book, with its journey through the comic strips of almost a century, will give you that warm nostalgic glow that comes from recalling the escapist delights of another world.