Serial killers

Face facts, life has bad patches. I’m in one right now: post Italy holiday blues; Skype meltdowns in the middle of calls to the grandies; and Pneumonia.

GormenghastTime was I would have bounced back from all of this, but now it feels more like I am seeping. Seep-back requires that you do nothing. This is so much harder to do than one might have thought.

What I really needed was a good book. And the best books for holidays and dark times are serials. The first serial I ever read was way back in my twenties – The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake – a cultish read at that time. I loved these books and I remember, in particular, that my understanding of the importance of setting and naming in a novel stems largely from these reads. Ah Steerpike, Titus Groan and Fuschia!

DissolutionForty years passed before I read another serial: The Dissolution series by C.J. Sansom. Far surpassing anything else written about the time of King Henry VIII, these books get down and dirty with England at the time of Henry’s reign and they do this through a hunchback lawyer – Shardlake – as the main protagonist. If you’ve read Hilary Mantel and have tired of Philippa Gregory, do yourself a favour and try Sansom’s clever murder mysteries set in Cromwell’s time.

My Brilliant FriendAnd that was it for me and serials. Until we went on holiday to Italy, and right at the last minute I remembered that I’d been given the first book of The Neopolitan Series by Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend. I popped it into my hand luggage, and what a wise move that turned out to be.

Written in Italian and translated into many other languages, I have become a Ferrante groupie. I now know that this is the pseudonym of an author who wanted her real identity kept secret (but who has just been outed by a nosy journalist). I’m also now aware that there are actual Ferrante tours of Naples  which visit all the main locations mentioned in the books. And I’ve learnt that a TV series on the Neopolitan Novels is currently being filmed in Italy.

But mainly I fell onto the couch, and into another world of family and friendships and fall-outs. A world that does not stop after one book. A world peopled by characters so real you want to slap them, or as said by reviewer John Freeman writing for The Australian:

Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are.

I’m saving the fourth and last book for my Christmas read, my not-so-Secret-Santa gift to myself!

Any suggestions for other very readable series?

Corduroy Mansions

Alexander McCall Smith fans around the world have been enjoying the daily chapters of his new novel Corduroy Mansions being serialised in London’s Telegraph newspaper.  You can either read the chapters online or listen to them beautifully read by Andrew Sachs (aka Manuel in Fawlty Towers).

Charles Dickens’ novels were originally published in serial form and McCall Smith has updated the idea for digital readers and the social networking era;  not only can you read or listen you can also comment and make suggestions for the plot.

I have just read the latest chapter (45) – a bit of a cliff-hanger, and caught up on the previous few.  In Chapter 42, just after Barbara Ragg has ditched the odious Oedipus, McCall Smith muses on the results of chance encounters thus

So, in less elevated circles, we might toss a coin as to whether or not to go to a party, decide to go, and there meet the person whom we are to marry and spend our lives with. And if that person came, say, from New Zealand, and wanted to return, then we might find ourselves spending our life in Christchurch. Not that spending one’s lifetime in Christchurch is anything less than very satisfactory – who among us would not be happy living in a city of well-behaved people, within reach of mountains, where the civic virtues ensure courtesy and comfort and where the major problems of the world are an ocean away?

We must have given him a good (and civilised) time when he visited here last year and it is nice to have our city so celebrated. Corduroy Mansions is similar to his 44 Scotland Street series: take a house and its varied, charming, charmless, slightly eccentric inhabitants and tell their stories.  If you are a McCall Smith fan you will definitely enjoy this.

In the Footsteps of Dickens

Alexander McCall Smith is following in the footsteps of Dickens, Thackeray and many more classic authors by serialising his novel  Corduroy Mansions on the Daily Telegraph culture pages. The serialisation began on September 15 and will appear each weekday for 20 weeks until February 13. You can get your free daily dose by email , RSS feed or podcast or just visit the website and read or listen to the novel episode by episode.

Andrew Sachs, best known as Manuel in Fawlty Towers, is the reader.

McCall Smith has had huge success with a several series of novels – the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,  44 Scotland Street, Sunday Philosophy and Von Igelfield.  Corduroy Mansions will be available in book and audiobook form in 2009.

Looking around for other authors who have ventured into serialisation I came across Wilkie Collins The Moonstone and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Stephen King wrote The Green Mile and The Dark Tower as series and also The Plant and Michael Faber allowed the Guardian to serialize The Crimson Petal and the White.