BOOK REVIEW: Belinda Bauer

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The Beautiful Dead
By Belinda Bauer
Bantam Press, £12.99 hardcover
Out now

A skilled writer is a skilled picker. To plunge readers into their story, a writer first sifts through a world of possibilities to select a precisely suitable image, emotion, or event to convey with immediacy. Nowhere is that more crucial than in the taut, tense world of the mystery thriller.

Hats off to Belinda Bauer. She has the gift of accuracy. Early in The Beautiful Dead she brings readers to protagonist Eve Singer’s neighbourhood and says: “It was the kind of place where residents banded together to save their old red phone box but never went into each other’s homes.”

This sentence alerts us that all will be well. They are simple words, but as skewering as an icepick. We know that street. We know everyone living there. Bauer projects directly onto the mind’s eye with a cinematographer’s skill. Using a curated menu of images and symbols, she draws the weave of her story as tight as gabardine.

The Beautiful Dead evokes Thomas Harris, with its ruthless and inventive killer who believes himself an artist. It also tips its hat to Inspector Morse: when we meet TV crime beat reporter Eve Singer she’s throwing up. It’s an unfortunate occupational hazard — the sight of blood and gore makes her ill.

Twisting and turning from one unsettling set-up to the next, the action ranges across London, from Heathrow-adjacent suburbs to the turbine hall at Tate Modern, where the climax plays out. (It’s the only scene that feels OTT, short on the lightness of touch and the grace that Bauer evinces everywhere else. Even so, you’ll root for things to turn out well for her characters.)

Bauer’s mysterious killer is ordinary to look at but deeply deranged. From money, he now inhabits a vast, empty home, burns oil paintings to keep warm, and keeps an unusual family “heirloom” in an upstairs bedroom. He believes wholeheartedly (ahem) that murder is a gift and an art form, and that Eve Singer was sent to burnish his legend status.

When his dream goes pear-shaped, he decides she should become his next work of art.

Eve has her own issues, which include a father with Alzheimer’s, cut-throat colleagues keen to relegate her back to the bottom of the career ladder, and a hot-headed, impetuous nature that often lands her in harm’s way. She’s buffeted by guilt — about her father, and about the ease with which the killer contrives to make her feel complicit as the death toll rises. Maybe she is guilty? She’s fighting for her career and economic security. That kind of anxiety can cloud a person’s judgement.

As well as making your heart race, The Beautiful Dead will have you laughing out loud. Eve’s enormous likability stems from a GSOH that’s not without a dash of self-deprecation. Her cameraman, Joe, has an equally wry outlook, and together they’re an endearing double act. Bauer’s also written exquisite, poignant, funny exchanges between Eve and her father that will tug your heartstrings.

Accomplished, lively, thoroughly enjoyable, The Beautiful Dead is a keeper.

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Book Review: A World Gone Mad

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A World Gone Mad
The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-45
Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death
Out now from Pushkin Press, £18.99 hardcover

What was World War II like for the Swedish? The country was neutral, but it was surrounded by besieged nations: wrapped in a bear hug by Norway, to the west, perched on Denmark, just below, and to the east, partly contiguous, partly separated by water, lay Finland. Each of these countries was buffeted by the Germans and/or the Russians, and the reverberations resonated through the neighbouring country.

Lindgren’s name is familiar to anyone raised on the exuberant Pippi Longstocking children’s books, but this is a different work altogether. In the main, it recounts the progress of the war globally and domestically (emphasis on the former), recounting troop movements in one paragraph, and in the next news of food availability, clothing rationing, and the coming and going of hot water and heating. Though domestic details abound, they tend to be lists of foods and their availability, seasonal fluctuations, birthday and Christmas gifts received by her children Lars and Karin, and other practicalities. This is not the place where Lindgren bared her soul or gave up much in the way of emotional revelation. (She’s so circumspect that when Lindgren’s marriage suffered a massive crisis in 1944, we are none the wiser about the specifics of what, why, who, etc.)

This is, however, a concise and intelligent record of current events. The original even contained numerous cuttings, pictures and transcribed letters stuffed into its pages. (They are referenced but not replicated here.)

We are familiar with the histories of Britain and the United States during the war — not only the facts, but also glossier versions presented in films and novels. We have a sense of how Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia fared. The African campaigns have been well documented. But how many, hand on heart, can say we understand that war from a Scandinavian perspective?

Apart from Dunkirk, can we name the major events occurring there? What do we know of Denmark occupied by the Germans? The loss of Sweden’s submarine Ulven, as well as all on board? And Finland, under such intense pressure from Stalin’s Russia that Germany often seemed a preferable overlord?

She describes how Norway was robbed of food and blankets which were diverted to Germans. In Finland, a day’s provisions in a well-to-do home consisted of “rye-flour porridge without bread or milk, for lunch rye-flour porridge with a piece of bread and 1 dl milk, for dinner boiled frozen potatoes with grated swede, for which one has queued for hours, with possibly a little thin fruit soup to follow.”

This is a valuable amplification of the historic record, a sort of beginners guide to another perspective. It is not a view from the sidelines. During the war Lindgren worked at the Postal Control Division — as a censor. She read countless letters, even transcribing some to record in this diary.

The text is peppered with poignant questions hinting at deeper emotions she left unrecorded. In 1940, considering Germany’s view of the Poles, she wonders, “What hatred it will generate! In the end the world will be so full of hate that it chokes us.”

She marvels at the normalisation of war. “I was wondering the other day whether a time will ever come when it strikes us as unnatural to see a ‘Shelter’ sign down in our peaceful entrance halls. . . If only we could hope to hear our grandchildren ask one day: ‘Shelter — what does that mean?’”

Despite the difficulties of her daily life, she regularly counts her blessings, giving thanks to live in relative safety, and relative plenty. She can’t help wondering about her children, envisaging her son among the Ulven dead. Wisely, she knows that peace, however welcome, isn’t a tidy solution. “The hatred doesn’t end the day peace comes.”

This is a disquieting book to read in these post-Brexit, pre-Trump-presidency days. The diary feels even more relevant and portentous, especially sentiments such as: “There’s a current of despair running beneath everything gall the time, and it’s constantly fed by the accounts in the newspapers.” (1942)

Only toward the end of the diary, in 1944, do we hear of Pippi’s birth. She began circa 1941, as a series of stories Lindgren told her daughter when she was poorly, which was often. The tales were committed to paper when the author’s sprained ankle kept her housebound for several weeks. Karin gave Pippi her unforgettable name, while her physical characteristics came, in part, from people they knew. Lindgren’s low key assessment, circa 1945, was, “Pippi is a great little kid who seems to be turning into quite a success.”

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BOOK REVIEW: The Long Weekend

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The Long Weekend
Life in the English Country House Between the Wars
Adrian Tinniswood
Out since June from Jonathan Cape, £25 hardback

Fans of social history, architecture, elite lifestyles and yes, the entire Downton Abbey/Upstairs Downstairs crowd should enjoy this beautiful, illustrated book depicting life in great country houses such as Cliveden, Ditchley Park, Sissinghurst, and more.

Tinniswood divides the book not by houses or families, but thematically, with chapters addressing some of the great architects, styles of interior decoration, sporting trends (from hunting to the rising popularity of golf), the Georgian revival that swept Britain, the mechanics of a house party (when to arrive, what to wear, how much to tip, and the all important sexual mores), plus marvellous tales about the owners, inhabitants, and visitors to these magnificent dwellings, which describe a society in flux, responding to changing circumstances by adjusting its values.

His goal, stated at the outset, was to unpick the myth that all the best houses in England were “deserted and dismantled and demolished” between the wars, and their environs turned into soulless suburbs. Though that was true to a degree, he explains, it’s equally true that there is “a narrative which saw new families buying, borrowing and sometimes building themselves a country house; which introduced new aesthetics, new social structures, new meanings to an old tradition.”

This book was well reviewed in the press on its release earlier this year, and the praise is justified. Tinniswood’s authoritative, his style readable and wry, and his appreciation for these buildings resonates on every page. There’s enough detail here to help any writer embarking upon an historical novel. It feels as if we’ve entered each home and been shown round by one who knows all the secrets — structural and personal. The wealth of anecdotes about colourful inhabitants’ eccentric behaviour will satisfy any gossip addict.

Complaints? More pictures, please. Not every house is depicted, nor do we always get our fill of both interior and exterior shots. (Yes, that would have driven up the price.)

An excellent Christmas gift for anyone on your list with an Edifice Complex.

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End of Year Reading Roundup

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As ever, my reading year was partly devoted to pleasure, partly work-related — though the two often overlapped. Below is my annual round up of what I most loved in 2016, and since I posted last year’s list on 28th November, it begins with December of 2015’s titles. It’s not a list of all the books I read this year.

Some of my best reads were proofs of books due out next year. I’ll sit on my enthusiasm until they are available in  2017. In the interests of full disclosure, when the book was written by a friend, I’ll say so.

I’ll include links to my past book reviews where relevant. If you’re compiling a wish list for Santa (or whomever), you might like to scroll through all my blog reviews, because my rule is that I only review what I’ve enjoyed here and keep shtum about the rest.

I’m sure I’ve missed something/someone out of this — that’s inevitable.

I hope this inspires you to head to a bookshop or library, and that you’ll enjoy these books as much as I did.

 

Crow Mountain by Lucy Inglis. Wonderful young adult novel set in Montana, following a dual narrative in the present and the past. Romantic and atmospheric, just like her equally enjoyable book City of Halves. Crow Mountain won the 2016 Romantic Novel of the Year Award (YA category) Lucy and I are friends.

The Live and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, and the other two books in this triple header: https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/book-reviews-three-for-january/ Tracy and I became Twitter friends after my review appeared.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor. Sly, satirical, and gorgeously written, this is a fresh spin on the fairy tale by one of my favourite authors.

Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill. As good as everyone says. Like eating your way through a box of chocolates that never quite contain the filling you’re expecting.

The Semi-Detached House and The Semi-Attached Couple, by Emily Eden. Guilty pleasure, this. Light, frothy, funny as hell portrait of aristo life in the England that only ever existed for a privileged few, but which a certain strain of right wingers keeps foolishly evoking as a future possibility. Available to read here, due to its age: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/eden/house/house.html

The Burgess Boys and My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. It may be heresy to say, but I preferred the boys to Lucy, though I did like that enormously. https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/book-review-elizabeth-strout/

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift. Lovely. https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/02/15/book-review-mothering-sunday/

Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon. Informative, stirring, and pacy double biography (told in alternating chapters) of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley.

The Typewriter’s Tale by Michiel Heyns. https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/02/16/book-reviews-2/

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell. Fantastic cultural history of the existentialist movement told from the human perspective, via the stories of its wild and wacky proponents. The philosophical analysis is first rate, and the biographical details mesmerising. NB: Sarah and I are friends.

All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana Trigiani. Wonderful take on the love affair between Loretta Young and Clark Gable, by a writer who knows how to invest every paragraph with rich emotional depth. Adriana and I are friends.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. (See also, Eileen, included here) https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/book-review-isolation-x-2/

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. If you follow me on Twitter — where Sarah and I engage with one another — then you are sick of hearing me praise this marvellous novel. I loved it. https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/05/20/book-review-the-essex-serpent/

Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe. Funny, heartwarming, and written by a friend. I love Nina’s writing, both fiction and non.

The Bird’s Child by Sandra Leigh Price. I had been following Sandra on Twitter and agreed, with trepidation, to get a copy of her novel sent to me. I’m very glad I did. It’s fantastic! https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/book-review-the-birds-child/

M Train by Patti Smith. Surely I don’t need to explain why I adored this?

Some of my favourite playmates are crime writers, and I enjoyed the hell out of their books this year. They include Val McDermid (I devoured all the Karen Pirie books in a beautiful binge), Ian Rankin, Christopher Brookmyre, E.S. Thomson, and new friend, Eva Dolan, a young writer (fourth book out in January) who has the chops to go the distance.

I also mini-binged on Dorothy L Sayers. Start anywhere. Keep reading.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum. Absolutely fabulous. Easy to see why it’s a classic. https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/09/08/new-book-reviews/

Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazis, by Anne Sebba. Sweeping social history that shows how women kept Paris going throughout WWII — and at what personal cost. An absorbing read. Anne and I are friends.

Dadland by Keggie Carew. The true story of an eccentric spy and the daughter who loved him. Laughs galore, tears, and moments of wartime suspense that’ll have you catching your breath. Truly one of the best finds of my year. I “had” to read it for the Wigtown Book Festival, and loved it so much that I’ve made friends with Keggie. I’ve also been found hand-selling it in shops — stopping strangers to say: read this one!

The House of Birds by Morgan McCarthy. Enjoyed it so much it’s still resonating within me. https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/10/19/book-review-house-of-birds-2/ I did well with “bird” books this year! (Morgan and I talk on Twitter now — post review.)

The Singing Sands, The Franchise Affair, The Man in the Queue all by Josephine Tey. I’m on a tear with her and admire the hell out of her writing. What. A. Talent.

Another new friend is Shelley Day, whose The Confession of Stella Moon will pin you to your chair. And it goes without saying that Graeme Macrae Burnett’s His Bloody Project deserves your attention. I know him now, too. Both published by Sara Hunt, under Saraband’s Contraband imprint.

The Long Weekend by Adrian Tinniswood is an illustrated exploration of Life in English country houses between the wars. Yes, I DO love reading about rich British people. And buildings. This satisfies on both counts.

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BOOK REVIEW: SHIRLEY JACKSON

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Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
WW NORTON Hardcover, £25
Ruth Franklin out since October

Great writers deserve great biographies, and in Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson has a worthy champion. A Rather Haunted Life offers clear-eyed analysis of the conditions inspiring Jackson’s literary output via detailed descriptions of her daily life and private thoughts. Her research benefited from access to previously undiscovered material that amplifies our understanding of this complicated woman. Admiring, but not hagiography, this life dispels many myths — quite a few invented by the mischievous author herself. At various times Jackson lied to journalists, saying she was a practising witch, or that she was a housewife who tossed off bits of writing “during breaks from dusting.”

Especially commendable is Franklin’s emphasis on the way Jackson’s writing focuses on women’s roles — and what happens to women who cannot, or will not conform to expectations. Her body of work, writes Franklin, “is nothing less than a secret history of American women of her era.”

It’s sad, therefore, to acknowledge how contemporary Jackson’s themes feel. We have not come a long way, baby. If anything, women have lost ground in key areas. The persistence of the phrase “working mother” is a prime example of society’s refusal to shake off the notion that a woman’s rightful place is in the home.

Jackson got off to a bad start: she was not the child her mother dreamed of producing. Geraldine wanted a sleek, country club suitable daughter — Daisy Buchanan’s beautiful fool. Instead, in the words of Jackson’s daughter, “she got a lumpish redhead” — and an intellectual, to boot. From birth to death, Geraldine harped on Shirley’s looks and alleged failings, refusing to acknowledge her daughter’s talent and success unless pushed to it.

This unhappy relationship coloured everything. Though Geraldine’s approval was unobtainable, Jackson continually sought it, then repeated the pattern within her marriage. (There’s a book to be written about women who marry their mothers, psychologically speaking.)

Stanley Hyman was a Jew (perfect for upsetting her parents) and reckoned an intellectual giant. He vowed to marry Shirley after reading a story she published in the university magazine, and wrote her beautiful love letters. To his credit, he was one of Shirley’s earliest and most vocal fans — but he was hell to live with. Serially unfaithful, he insisted, “If it makes you queasy you are a fool.” Domestically he was worse than useless, expecting Shirley to handle the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing while treating him like a king. All while earning the bulk of the family’s income. It goes without saying that Hyman was profoundly self-centred. He bullied and belittled Jackson, and saw nothing contradictory about living off of her earnings.

In a way, this is as much Hyman’s story as it is Jackson’s, and much space is devoted to this aggravating man, in effect, forming a biography within the biography. The pages are warranted; it’s vital to understand Hyman if we’re to understand Jackson. Good literature stands on its own two feet, and hers does, nevertheless we cannot ignore the fact that it was shaped by her relationships, notably with her husband and four children.

Jackson had her revenge on the page, where she unleashed all the emotions and ideas she hadn’t the courage to say aloud. (She wrote many angry letters that were never sent, but which remain in her papers as a searing testament to her distress.) Franklin notes: “All the heroines of her novels are essentially motherless. . . Many of her books include acts of matricide, both unconscious and deliberate.” Jackson would do much the same when portraying men.

Throughout her life Jackson suffered from mental instability, keeping multiple, simultaneous diaries named for her multifarious moods. These emotional swings were exacerbated by a reliance on alcohol and pills — both uppers and downers. She was also a heavy smoker, and overweight, all of which contributed to her early death.

(Still, it’s hard not to be charmed by her description of getting drunk for the first time: “I felt like a package of condensed giggles.”)

Most of her married life was spent in big, ramshackle houses in Vermont, where Stanley taught at Bennington College, once considered the most radical campus in America. Though she could be reclusive, and was certainly not found drinking coffee and gossiping with other campus wives (much less the locals), the Hymans maintained strong friendships, notably with Ralph Ellison, who credits them with helping him write The Invisible Man. Their acceptance of and hospitality for Jews, blacks, and homosexuals further distanced them from the conservative community.

It’s easy, therefore, to read The Lottery (1948) as Jackson’s chance to épater la bourgeoisie. The short story appeared in The New Yorker in May, to immediate acclaim and approbation. The magazine received more letters about it than ever in its history for a work of fiction.

Jackson claimed to have written it in a “white heat” in a matter of hours, and to have submitted it without revision. This is inaccurate. Nevertheless, says Franklin, “Details aside, it’s stunning to think that this story composed in only a few hours — on this all accounts agree — has proved to be one of the most read and discussed works of twentieth-century American fiction.”

Nineteen-forty-eight was also the year the Hymans’ third child (of four) was born. “For many years, Shirley maintained a running joke that she was conducting a contest between the number of children she produced and the number of books she wrote.”

Jackson was, by all accounts, an engaged, imaginative and eccentric mother who nurtured intellectual curiosity and creativity. She was also, her daughters report, prone to Geraldine-esque criticisms. Her volatility was renowned, and the children learned to watch out for, and adapt to, sudden shifts in climate.

The magazine articles Jackson wrote about her children eventually became the hilariously funny, hugely successful collections, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. “What is most evident in the stories Shirley told about her children is her deep pleasure in them,” says Franklin — and millions of readers have shared that pleasure since.

These depictions of family life were fictionalised, or as Shirley put it, “autobiographical but not necessarily true.” Thus they do not reveal that the harried housewife at the centre spent vast amounts of time hunched over her desk instead of dusting, and consistently out-earned her husband. But she surrendered the purse strings to his tight grip: he only bought a dishwasher to free up her time, enabling her to return to writing — and earning. If he caught her penning letters or scribbling in her diary, he berated her.

Many had, and still have, trouble accepting that Jackson could write in such different voices — domestic and dangerous — with equal facility. This biography should dispel that dissonance. Even in chapters about Jackson’s childhood, Franklin threads in the way experience and emotion erupted onto the page, always reminding us that we are learning about what makes a writer. And Jackson’s sense of humour resonates throughout. On her good days, she must have been great fun to spend time with.

Anyway, home is where the horror lives. Franklin shows us that the house is a central motif in Jackson’s writing. She once told students, “Prominent in every book I had ever written was a little symbolic set that I think of as a heaven-wall-gate arrangement. I find a wall surrounding some forbidden, lovely secret, and in this wall a gate that cannot be passed.” The trick, she discovered, was to start from the inside and work her way out.

And The Washington Post has noted: “In her novels and New Yorker stories, [Jackson] crafted a sophisticated version of the female Gothic, in which houses became metaphors for women trapped in claustrophobic prisons of maternity and dependency, and prey to hysteria, madness and supernatural invasion.”

But while writing The Haunting of Hill House, and then the bestselling We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson “wrote” herself into her house. Suffering from agoraphobia and colitis, she could not leave home for a full six months, and eventually had to seek a therapist’s help. As she told her diary, “I think all my books laid end to end would be one long documentation of anxiety.”

The last quarter of A Rather Haunted Life grows progressively sadder. Jackson should have been basking in success — her work was thriving, her children were growing up gloriously, she was solvent — but her mental and physical health were in shreds. Secretly planning to escape her marriage, she was also writing a new novel when she had a heart attack in her sleep and died. She was 48.

It feels amazing that this women, who internalised and accepted so much of the criticism directed at her (blaming herself for being “fat and lazy”) should have produced work as good as any coming out of America in the second half of the 20th century — and better than some of what is considered classic. With any luck this beautifully written, thorough, and warm biography will pluck Jackson from the sidelines and restore to her the respect she’s due. Best of all, it does the most important job of any biography — it makes you eager to get back to the subject’s work. Read this, then run out and read Shirley Jackson. You won’t be disappointed.

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Book Review: House of Birds

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The House of Birds
by Morgan McCarthy
Out 3 November from Tinder Press
Hardcover, £18.99

Who’d live in a house like this? A house that’s “rather like a lovely face with a slightly broken nose and a gap in its teeth,” a house that is “queerly bewitching.”

Who’d love in a house like this? Now, that is a question. Someone, in 1915, writing a lyrical, longing letter to her lover away fighting in the war. Someone at home there in 1923, falling slowly, truly, for a man who’s not her husband, but who revels in the quickness of her intelligent mind. And someone else, in the present day, definitely male this time, who might be falling in love with the house — or one of its owners.

The House of Birds is beautifully and enthrallingly written. Every description is lush and apt, every joke lightly delivered, with the playfulness of a friendly wink from a twinkling eye. Dive in and surrender to the mysteries peeling back like layers of wallpaper, moving us through time, unveiling our changing tastes, and social conventions. Let yourself be reminded of our powerful urge to be understood; to find love with those who share our values and excite our intellects.

Present day sections, written in wry third person, focus on Oliver Mittell, newly adrift after leaving a high-flying, life-consuming job in The City, and several months into co-habitation with the girl of his dreams, Kate, whom he first met as a child, in Oxford. As kids, on a dare, they stole into the grounds of a mysterious house inhabited, as these places are, by a “mad old bat”, also known as Kate’s “evil aunt.” Climbing a vine, Oliver catches sight of wallpaper thick with birds of every description, which emblazons itself on his imagination as the epitome of exotic beauty.

Oliver’s flat, the antithesis of this rackety old house, sits high above London. Inside, sounds are softened by “mysterious trickery. . . the mechanisms that swallowed up the clunk of the loo seat dropping, the cupboard doors swinging to, even the sound of their feet crossing the floor that looked like wood but was tougher than wood, people having done a better job than the lackadaisical trees.”

It transpires that the Oxford house is now the subject of contentious legal wrangling between Kate’s family and the Calverts, a distant faction who insist they’ve a better claim to the place. Kate, a thrusting young woman whose career is on an zippy upward trajectory, has to go to New York. Despite qualms about the indistinctness of her legal position, Oliver offers to get things underway in Oxford, overseeing renovations in order that it might be sold to finance their future together. “[Kate] looks startled, but not hostile, as if the idea had flapped in as noisy and sudden as a bird. . . and perched in their flat. They both looked at it warily, wondering if it was going to shit down the back of the sofa. Nothing happened.”

The enforced absence will also give them breathing room. Kate, who likes a plan she can stick with, is impatient with Oliver’s career indecision, but at pains not to show her displeasure because she has a lot invested in being a good person. She is, as Oliver realises far too late, “the flawless archetype of a normal person, a platonic form; in the same way that a computer-generated perfect human face is absolutely average.”

Once installed in the house Oliver discovers a series of hidden documents written in the early 1920s by “Sophia”. Addressed to “Dear Reader”, written in an arch, ironic tone, they tell the increasingly worrying story of a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage to George, who was once the love of her life, but returned from war irreparably damaged.

McCarthy’s shrewd about the isolating effect of an unhappy marriage. Sophia ruminates on the friendship network that dissolved after George’s homecoming.”I had collaborated in the process myself; the careful unpicking of tightly sewn bonds. Not simply because I suspected it was either that or be the martyr of my empty hall table, a chimneypiece starkly bereft of invitations, but because I felt sorry for the hostesses who might feel a frisson of dread at the thought of George and Sophia Louis.” She remarks that he could go off at any moment, set off by something as simple as the arrival of dessert. “Like refined Pavlovian dogs we would sit in glassily tense anticipation, trying not to watch George.”

Sophia is a sassy bluestocking in a family of lightweights, most notably her sister, Boll, described as “Zuleika Dobson reborn as a narrow-hipped flapper, shaking the dreaming spires awake with her contentious hemlines and knife-edge bob.”

Despite her extensive reading, Sophia is hungry to keep learning as much as possible, especially about historical subjects. Attitudes being what they were in those days, she’s forbidden access the Bodleian Library without a man, or a letter from one, introducing her. She chances upon Christopher Konig, who comes to her assistance, offering to pretend he has a sister. Friendship blooms in the reading room — theirs is the most intellectually subtle flirtation — but Sophia is alert to propriety when she senses his effect on her. “My mind. . . wandered over to Christopher like a friendly dog, ignoring my sharp whistles.”

Back in the present day, Oliver’s confronted by Lena, whose family is the one contesting Kate’s right to the house. She’s understandably outraged by his presence and plans. It’s a classic meeting that will be familiar to fans of screwball comedy, and readers would be forgiven for anticipating a change of heart. Who wouldn’t wish Oliver the best? He’s a mensch who immediately takes Sophia’s side against the anti-feminist mores of her time (and husband), who loves the house in all its rackety splendour, who longs to step out of the fast lane, into one better matching his internal pace.

McCarthy has a striking knack for playing fair, and toying with our sympathies. Her characterisations are nuanced enough that even potential villains retain shreds of humanity and, to a degree, our empathy. In the tradition of the best golden age mystery writers, she’s adept at planting clues to themes and motifs that are common to both the historic and current sections of the novel, allowing us to think they point one way, only to realise later that the sign had been twisted round. As the book progresses, revelations come thick and fast. Tension escalates, notably in Sophia’s world, where things coming to a head feel likely to include violence.

Oliver determines that since he cannot save Sophia from whatever was her fate, history having already been written, he will save the house she’d loved. “In the short time he had spent here, he had felt a shift in its atmosphere, as if something benevolent was stirring after a long hibernation. It had warmed to him; it understood his intentions. or at least that was how it felt.”

With his life tumbling around him, Oliver undertakes one more journey, to the continent, searching for information about Sophia. What he finds is more startling than anything he could have invented — to him, at any rate. I had predicted the turn of events a good 100 pages earlier, but found them satisfying just the same.

As for the final three paragraphs concluding the novel, they are breathtakingly beautiful, stirring, and a perfect, well earned finish.

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Book Review: Edward Sorel

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Mary Astor’s Purple Diary
The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936
By Edward Sorel
WW Norton & Company
£17.99 paperback

Fans of old movies, and old scandals, will love this wee, wonderfully illustrated love letter to actress Mary Astor, who captured artist Edward Sorel’s heart when he was 36. It proved an enduring love.

Newly into his second marriage, feathering his marital nest, Sorel ripped up some lino and discovered issues of the New York Daily News and the Daily Mirror dating from 1936. In them, he read about Nancy Astor’s messy divorce and a child custody case that hinged upon her fitness as a parent. Astor had kept a diary of her marital indiscretions, rating her lovers. As you do.

The Astor scandal isn’t news if, like me, you have read and reread Hollywood Babylon. That doesn’t make it any less entertaining, nor does it diminish the delight in Sorel’s book, which is as much a potted memoir of his own life and times, as it is a look at Astor’s biography and  romantic escapades. Throughout it is peppered with his distinctive, caricaturish line drawings, which are a delicious addition to the tale.

Sorel lays out the facts of Astor’s upbringing, which tell a sad story. Like many young, beautiful girls, she was exploited mercilessly by her family. Her father, Otto, who’d emigrated from Berlin in 1889, “carried with him the Old World belief that all children are obliged to provide for their parents.” Her mother was no better. Mary wasn’t allowed friends but was allowed to be taken to New York in pursuit of movie stardom — albeit just as the industry was moving to the west coast.

Little Lucille Vasconcellos Langhanke was discovered by Jesse Lasky, transformed into Mary Astor, and the rest, as they say…was a take. Cut and print. Mary worked regularly, her parents spending her salary  as fast as she earned it. (After her mother’s death Mary found her diary and discovered how much Helen had hated her.)

Cast opposite John Barrymore, Mary fell in love and they embarked on a clandestine relationship — she was a teenager, he was 41. And married. Though they spoke of marriage, Barrymore eventually, inevitably dropped her from a great height.

As part of a difficult disengagement from her parents, Astor married aspiring director Ken Hawks, in 1928. He avoided sexual congress, she had an affair — and an abortion. Ken was killed filming aerial shots for a never released film.

The twenty-three-year-old widow married Dr Franklyn Thorpe, who was older, shorter, and less talented at his job than Mary was at hers. But he had his uses, forcing Mary to confront her parents about cutting off financial support. The better to support HIM. In 1932 the couple had a daughter, Marylyn.

Unhappily married for the second time, Mary was ripe for the, er, plucking. Ahead of a trip to NYC, a friend set Mary up with letters of introduction to Bennet Cerf and George S Kaufman, assuring her that they were both up for it, and discrete.

She had a steamy fling with Kaufman (who enjoyed an open marriage), and wrote all about it in her diary. ALL about it. Trouble ensued when, back in LA, she asked her husband for a divorce. He revealed that he’d read every saucy word, threatened to ruin her, and insisted on custody of their daughter.

The couple wound up in court while Astor was filming Dodsworth, directed by the great William Wyler.

The papers got hold of transcripts of Astor’s diary. The shit hit the fan. Kaufman was subpoenaed to testify and went into hiding, reportedly telling Moss Hart, “After this trial nobody will remember anything I’ve done — only that I screwed Mary Astor.”

Not true, though her delight in his size and stamina do have sticking power.

The cavalry rocked up, eventually, when the court heard that Astor’s diary had been partially mislaid (apart from photocopied pages), and on the basis of evidence tampering, its introduction was disallowed in court. (It was eventually destroyed.) Sorel cites Astor’s memoir when he explains that she got through the trial by pretending she really was Edith Cortright, the self-confident, self-reliant paragon she was playing so elegantly in Dodsworth. She won primary custody of Marylyn.

Sorel whizzes through the remainder of Astor’s life — a conversion to Christianity, subsequent films, including The Maltese Falcon, more marriages, alcoholism, and an old age plagued by health problems that confined her to care homes and hospitals until her death in 1987.

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Of an Age (with added books)

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(Photo by Todd Webb circa 1949)

NB: When originally posted I attributed the final quote to Colette, when it was in fact, written by Marina Benjamin. This post has been modified for accuracy!

In the autumn of 1997, I was poised to marry my ex-husband, who is ten years my junior. “Remember to be patient with Lee,” his mother cautioned. “She’ll be having the change soon.” I was a month shy of my 38th birthday, and oh, how I laughed.

I was one of those kids best described as “three going on thirty.” As an adolescent I was desperate for my first period — all my friends had theirs — then immediately wished it away. “How long before menopause?” I asked within hours of that first gush of blood. Who needed a period? I didn’t want kids. (I knew nothing, then, about hormones and their biological benefits.)

It turned out that thirty-eight was the start of perimenopause. Or so I believe. You’ve got to understand that the symptoms — similar to PMS — also describe my personality.

Irritability. Wild Mood Swings. Depression. A normal day.

Uncertain whether anything was happening, I waited and waited for hot flashes — all my friends had theirs — but came there none. They were the one symptom I’d have relished, since I’m always so fucking cold. (Hold your fire. I have seen the suffering; I know they’re awful; but so are chilblains.) I never sought medical advice about my hormonal fluctuations, nor did I contemplate hormone replacement therapy (I’d read too many medical journals to trust it), though I dabbled with herbal supplements.

Eventually my body launched into the dramatic free fall of missed periods, periods that came every second week, and torrential 8 day wonders. This kept me on my toes for a couple of years until everything screeched to a halt a few months after my 49th birthday. Naturally it took some months to realise I’d finished for good.

Like quitting a job, it’s amazing how quickly you forget the routines and how utterly they cease to identify you. Some part of my brain wiped itself clean. I’d see an advert for tampons and think, “I did that? For thirty-six years? Really?”

Getting older is a lot more complicated than bleeding or not bleeding. I have thoughts about it — many more than are recorded here. They are subjective, influenced by my surprise at how unhappily my life has evolved, and my seesawing moods.  I teeter between despair — it’s all over, I’ll never have anything I want, what’s the point of anything? — and optimism that things might still work out. After all, I’m not dead yet. When I’m up on the seesaw I love swinging my legs, but also fear the vast empty expanse beneath me. When I’m down on the ground I feel I could happily bore into the earth to disappear, without anyone noticing.

At the same time, because I don’t know how to feel, think or behave at this age — in two days I will turn 57 — I am baffled. I annoy myself by referring to my age frequently, labelling myself “old” in conversation, as if to drive the point home in my head. I want to slap my own face every time it happens.

Two books that came out earlier this year contemplate the changes that ageing brings. I’d like to draw your attention to them, but this is not, strictly speaking, a book review. Marina Benjamin, author of The Middlepause [Scribe Books, £14.99 hardcover], commissioned and edited (brilliantly) the Aeon piece I wrote about possessions as identity markers (https://aeon.co/essays/why-i-love-my-possessions-as-a-mirror-and-a-gallery-of-me). I feel it would be unethical to review her book. Let’s call this a discussion, where I engage with some of the ideas it sets out. Though I do recommend you read it, make no mistake about that.

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The other book is Miranda Sawyer’s Out of Time [4th Estate; £12.99 paperback], which covers similar territory — coming to terms with getting older — though skews a couple of years younger than the cusp of 50, which is Marina’s milestone.

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For Benjamin, the body is an archive, carrying the imprint of our physical and cultural expectations. She writes: “My body is my starting point for storytelling, for inducting younger women into the business of getting older. . . . I’d like to fill in the silences. I’d like to dig into the gaps between the visible changes that ageing inflicts on us all and investigate how the passage of time transforms our sense of ourselves.”

This is especially vital for older women, she explains, because we are relentlessly encouraged to disguise, deny, and disown our bodies — or reshape them surgically. Her own perimenopause came to an abrupt end when she had a hysterectomy, and she writes movingly about recovering from such traumatic surgery.

Major surgery — and the conditions leading to its necessity — is a game-changer forcing a major rethink. I have had many such medical events, not least an exploded appendix and ten years later, a Crohn’s bout so prolonged and so bad that I agreed to an ileostomy, which, against the odds, was reversed a couple of years later.

For Benjamin, as well, surgery altered her sense of self, tipping her, overnight, into a hormonal and emotional whirlpool. It was a time of assessment and reckoning, as she tallied her emotional, physical, and cognitive changes. She writes: “I am not just out of sync with nature’s rhythms, I’ve got no rhythms.”

We grow up learning to inhabit our bodies, internalising their health, functionality and aesthetics as IDENTITY. For women who menstruate, this involves something akin to developing sea legs — learning to ride the rising and falling waves of emotion, pain, and debilitation that accompany periods. Learning, for example, not to succumb to suicidal thoughts every third week by remembering: I’ll feel better once the blood comes and my hormones shift.

We have to do this while also learning how to weather every other change accompanying the ageing process, good and bad. That includes finding meaningful work, addressing economic reality, building — or tearing down — relationships, and for some, raising families. Who was it who said “Life is hard and then you die”?

I strongly identify with Benjamin’s sense that the world is sometimes closing in on her, and her insistence that she’s not ready to be eclipsed. But I can’t identify with her  — absolutely accurate — description of menopause as “the kind of enormous shift in bodily morphology and cell function not seen since puberty.” Perhaps it’s because mine was a slow creep rather than a sudden occurrence. Perhaps it’s because I chose not to be a parent, and no part of my identity was linked to reproduction.

One of Benjamin’s friends says hers was more of a mental menopause, prompting a rethink of every choice she ever made in life; it was as if everything was being undermined. This I relate to, and this sensation, to some extent, is the subject of Sawyer’s Out of Time.

Regular readers who’ve enjoyed my Age Inside interviews here on the blog know of my longstanding curiosity about the dissonance between the age we are and the age we feel we are — which is at the heart of Sawyer’s book. It’s confusing, she argues, to confront “early middle age when you still feel young.”

Can’t argue with that. Can report that it doesn’t get easier, when the numbers slide towards sixty, and you still feel dissatisfied, still hope for opportunities — work, romance, travel, education — that feel even more far-fetched than they did at 30 or even 40. It’s a horrific shock to the system.

Like Benjamin’s friend, Sawyer found herself waking up in the middle of the night “ripping up my life from the inside,” and thinking she’d “done everything wrong”. [Italics mine.] I blanched, seeing in print words I’d spoken to a friend six years ago. She — married, kids, living in the country, seemed to have made entirely different decisions to my own, and successfully — astounded me by snapping back: “Me too.”

Overall, Sawyer’s book struck me as hastily prepared. It falls into a genre I call “journalists’ books” — and yes, I worked in journalism. There’s a sense that she signed the contract, then got sidetracked, and had to pull the manuscript together in a hurry as her deadline loomed. Too many sections consist of: I wondered about X so I talked to A. To be fair, she accesses some great sources, including psychologist Philippa Perry, whom I count as a pal, but the book feels bolted together rather than seamlessly integrated.

I may be whinging because her fundamental questions hit home, and I’d like to have seen them more fully, or should I say, more gracefully explored. Sawyer’s coming to terms with the fact that a lot of her dreams won’t come true: “And not only that, but some of the stuff you think is achievable isn’t, because you’re overlooked by younger, perkier people. You wake one day and everything is wrong. you thought you would be somewhere else, someone else. You look at your life and it’s as unfamiliar to you as the life of an eighteenth-century Ghanian prince.”

Too true. I’d cry about it, but I seem to be out of tears for my life. In their place are insomnia-inducing anxiety, low-grade depression, and despair. They are the least charming of companions, and have turned me into an uncongenial playmate.

A bigger fear is that I’m turning into my mother, which is too upsetting and raw to go into here, because she fucked her life up royally and refused to admit her culpability. In her chapter “Guts,” Benjamin discusses her own mother and explores the evolutionary side of menopause and the idea that women had to stop creating children in order to nurture the ones they already had. She is upset by the idea that biology is destiny, and how much she resembles each of her parents. Is every step she treads in another’s footprint? “Since when, I wonder, did I begin ceasing to look like myself?”

It is scary, especially if you’ve dedicated your life (or think you have) to not replicating your parents’ mistakes and negative qualities. Maybe as youthful egocentrism fades we discern what was there all along — our resemblance to our family. For better or worse.

That gust of wind ruffling your hair was my sigh of resignation.

Both Sawyer and Benjamin are in committed, successful relationships, and have been for a long time. I know how hard they have to work to maintain those unions. But it means that neither book speaks to, or resounds, viscerally, with my situation: alone, lonely, unhappily celibate, unlikely to attract love to her life. (Put away the tiny violins, I’m trying to be honest, and basing this on 57 years’ of being me. I know my story better than you can.)

Philippa Perry tells Sawyer that “people who prioritise sex [in their lives] will change partners often. I think it’s more important to imagine who you would want around your deathbed than who you would want to jump into bed with.” I adore this quote. I said something similar a while back, when I tweeted that at my age, I’m no longer looking for a partner to build my life with, but one I could die with. People were outraged. They misunderstood what I meant.

Perry is right. I look at the hot bodies and drool, but more than athletic sex — which I wouldn’t kick out of bed, or off of a trapeze — I yearn for companionship. I want a hand to hold, a shoulder to lean against, someone to share inside jokes with, someone who cares if I get home safely, and rings to make sure. Do I want to shag that person senseless. Of course. But I currently feel that the most transgressive sex act is a joyful coupling between older people with lived-in, imperfect bodies, in a brightly lit room.

You’ll have heard me say that we have two choices in life: get older or die. I know it’s a privilege to age, because not all of my friends managed it. I know that being older has myriad compensations — and that I can’t explain them to the young folk, because they won’t be told. I wouldn’t be told, back then. It’s a pity, because this negation of experience and education is why we older people are being shoved to the side. As Benjamin writes, “I’m convinced that it is not possible to fully appreciate what it means to age without attending to what the body knows.” Try telling that to the supple, the juicy, and the flexible. Then again, don’t bother.

Rather than bang on and on, I’ll conclude with some words from Marina Benjamin, which are emotionally mature and wise, and which give me a goal to aim towards.

“We need not weep over our catalogue of hurts; rather we must work with the raw material of our suffering and integrate it into newer, more mature and more intricately sculpted selves. This, surely, is the very essence of re-birth.”

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NEW BOOK REVIEWS

Apologies for the lack of blog posts and for taking so long with these reviews (sadly not the only reviews I’m backed up on) — things have been hectic.

 

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You Were Never Really Here
By Jonathan Ames
Out now from Pushkin Vertigo, £4.99 paperback

Slick, speedy, and as bluntly traumatic as the hammer its protagonist wields, You Were Never Really Here is another entry from Pushkin’s cracking Vertigo imprint. Author Jonathan Ames (creator of telly programme Bored to Death and author of Wake Up, Sir!) is, his publicity says, “celebrated not only for his comic sensibilities and devotion to the absurd but for his lurid attraction to inner demons.”

The latter is showcased in this adrenalin-filled story that moves as swiftly as a bullet to its grisly conclusion.  Joe is an ex Marine and an ex FBI agent who’s “witnessed things that cannot be erased”. Some of them occurred at the hands of his violent father, in the home Joe’s been forced to return to, where his elderly mother joylessly ekes out her days.

By trade Joe is a fixer, working off grid on the fringes of the underworld, where he mainly rescues girls from sex traffickers. When a top politician’s daughter is kidnapped and winds up working in a Manhattan brothel, he’s sent after her. Naturally nothing goes to plan, and an impressive (graphic) body count amasses over these 92-pages.

Joe’s an alienated, nihilistic anti-hero straight out of central casting, but drawn in crisp, sharp lines. A legacy of his brutal childhood is his belief that he is the reason why bad things happen. He effaces himself to minimise his impact on the world.

The story’s set in the present day but feels like a norish 40s film, and it’s not surprising to learn that Hollywood’s already on the case, with the director of We Need to Talk About Kevin and actor Joaquin Phoenix attached.

This is an enjoyable way to spend an hour, though at times the author tells more than he shows. It clings so tightly to familiar conventions that I wondered if it wasn’t designed as a sophisticated Chandler parody. Either way it’s a taut little diversion.

 

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Grand Hotel
By Vicki Baum
Translated by Basil Creighton, and revised by Margot Bettor Dembo
Out now from NYRB Classics, £9.99 paperback

Find some free time and a comfy chair, and travel back to Berlin circa 1929. Your guide during this spot of time travelling is the accomplished Vicki Baum, and your vehicle is one of the first modern bestsellers, Grand Hotel. It was turned into a Broadway play and then into the 1932 film I’m guessing everyone’s seen, starring both Lionel and John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and Greta Garbo, as the ageing ballerina who wants to be left alone. (It won Best Picture at the Academy Awards.)

According to the new introduction by Noah Isenberg, Grand Hotel was Baum’s tenth novel, but the first translated into English. It was an immediate success which, she wrote, she “could never live down.” By her own description, Baum was a “a first-rate second-rate author” — an assessment I’m disinclined to agree with, based on this novel. I’m happier joining critics of her day who called this “brilliant”.

Baum collected half a lifetime’s worth of observations, mixed in a couple of engaging newspaper stories and healthy dashes of imagination and skill, with wonderful results.  She writes from multiple perspectives, uses authorial asides, moves a large cast of distinct characters around skilfully, and draws readers through the twisting, turning corridors of the book as if we were sitting on well-oiled luggage trolleys.

As a representation of the larger world, a hotel makes a excellent microcosm — so many varied events of life and death happen here, and so many pass through. No one, she says, leaves unchanged. Then at night, “the doors closed throughout the hotel. Everyone locked himself in behind double doors and each was left alone with himself and his secrets.”

The cast includes Dr Otternschlag, whose face and psyche were destroyed during World War I. He is alone and lonely, forgotten by a world that disgusts him, muttering, “It’s ghastly. This is no life. No life at all. Nothing goes on.” He reads of epic disasters in the papers and it doesn’t move him. That, too, is nothing. The doctor takes morphine, keeping enough extra stashed to facilitate an exit when he’s ready.

There’s ballerina Madame Grusinskaya, pushing her exhausted body to perform, but playing to smaller and smaller houses and fewer ovations. She posses valuable jewels which have caught the eye of Baron Gaigern, the handsome cat burglar, who turns both male and female heads, so striking are his appearance and gentlemanly demeanour. His tragedy is that he’s not a very good thief, and has no other profession.

Kringelein, the clerk, has escaped the provinces, fleeing a parsimonious shrew of a wife and his tyrannical employer. A terminal diagnosis from his physician inspires him to empty his bank accounts, cash in an inheritance, and borrow against his life insurance to live out his final weeks in unaccustomed style. It’s too bad, then, that he finds his boss staying at Grand Hotel as well. General Manager Preysing (of the Saxon Cotton Company) is in town to oversee a crucial deal. He’s a careful man who becomes increasingly careless as the story proceeds.

Hard as nails Miss Flamm, the typist, dreams of breaking into movies, and has few qualms about sharing her killer body — for the right price. She laughs at the notion of true love, and describes sex with Preysing as “like having a tooth filled by a singularly incompetent dentist.” Still, she holds something of herself in reserve, refusing to call him “darling” no matter how much he begs.

There are also a host of hotel employees with smaller but no less crucial roles to play.

Baum excels at revealing her characters through specific details — Preysing’s shaving ritual, Gaigern’s inappropriate navy blue trench coat — and doesn’t shy from making acerbic comments about their self deceptions, or noting the sorts of hypocritical mores that make it improper for Preysing to allow his secretary into his room to work, but entirely acceptable for him to take a room for her — which the hotel manager shrewdly ensures is accessible through an adjoining door.

Over the course of just a day or two people ricochet off one another like billiard balls and lives are irrevocably altered, some for better, many for worse.

Baum writes, “For, long or short, Life is what you put into it. Two full days may be longer than forty empty years.” And one pitch perfect novel may be more enthralling than forty lesser offerings. Grab hold of this. It’s a gem.

 

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News update: Granite Noir

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Wee announcement — I’m on board to programme the Granite Noir book festival, taking place in Aberdeen in February 2017. Early days,  yet, while we make plans and extend invitations, but here’s a brief description of what we have in mind:

Granite Noir — 24-26 February 2017

GRANITE NOIR will explore the enduring appeal of stories that plunge us into the heart of darkness — where morality is ambiguous, motives complicated, and even heroes harbour devastating secrets.

We’ll train our magnifying glass on location, delving into the ‘Northern Phenomenon’, in order to pay homage to the prodigious wealth of talent at home and abroad. We’ll ask how writers are shaped by the opposing forces of penetrating darkness and white nights, by extremes of weather and the sea’s relentless rhythms. Is there a Northern temperament? Might geography be literary destiny?

We’ll also be looking into what it is that makes Noir so compelling. The chance to play criminal without paying the consequences? The fun of puzzle solving, like the brightest PI, cop — or little old lady from St Mary Mead? Is it the reliable pleasure of surrendering to a good story, well told, with a beginning, middle, and end?

Inspiration also comes from the Silver City’s fascinating history, with events drawing on the city’s rich archives, including exhibits featuring treasures from police archives, and a chance to help “solve” an historic crime.

Our diverse, weekend-long celebration of Noir will feature bestselling authors and those just starting out. Our programme — designed for readers and writers alike — will range from workshops and panels, to exhibitions, film screenings, social events, staged readings, author conversations, even a geocaching walking tour offering an imaginative perspective for the intrepid foot traveller. It will be participative, international, and appeal across the generations.

Granite Noir partners are Aberdeen Performing Arts, The Anatomy Rooms, The Belmont Filmhouse, and Aberdeen City Council’s Library and Archive services.

 

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