On Judging Artistic Endeavours

A number of weeks ago I was invited to join a judging panel for a literary prize. This surprised and delighted me. It is not the Booker Prize (ha!), and it is not the Not The Booker Prize – more than that I cannot yet say. What a tease I am being. With lead times and read times the official announcements will not be made for some time, although my involvement starts immediately. I have already received the first books to be considered. All of this has got me thinking, once again, about how each reader judges a book.

When writing a review I consider the way a publication is being marketed. For example, I will compare crime thrillers alongside others in this genre – books should be of interest to their target audience. In all works the writing must be fluent and fluid. The reader needs to be engaged and in some way entertained. Genres may be crossed but there are certain expectations to be met. Romance readers are unlikely to welcome unremitting horror, literary fiction needs to challenge but not be impenetrable.

My husband often reads no more than one book a year, generally when travelling to and from a holiday destination. When he asks for my recommendations I therefore choose with special care. Sometimes I have gushed about a book but subsequently suggested it may not be for him. He has been known to mock such retraction in a manner similar to our appreciation of art, with accusations of pretention.

I know very little about art. I visited Tate Modern several months ago and pondered how people ascribe value to certain of the chosen exhibits. A pile of bricks that wouldn’t look out of place in a builders yard was on display. A urinal on its side in a glass case had an information card explaining this was not even an original installation but rather a replica, the original being elsewhere. My first thought was if either had ever been used for their intended purpose.

Even in more traditional galleries I quickly grow bored of the many portraits of rich, dead people, or the endless depictions of religious scenes. I understand that those who know more about the subject may relish texture, style and perspective. I want an artwork to be pleasing to look at, not merely an investment. Pleasing is, of course, a matter of individual taste.

Music is another art form that generates strong opinions. I have a friend who adores opera, another who raves about the minutiae of David Bowie. My husband’s musical tastes have at times made me long for silence. I once sat up late with an acquaintance while he played me examples of innovative offerings that he became quite animated educating me on. It sounded to me like hitting metal bins together. When we watched a video of the musicians this was exactly what they were doing.

My musical choices tend to be influenced by memory: Chopin’s piano concertos which my father played; rock music from the seventies and eighties, my formative years; the stadium bands popular a decade or so ago when my children were developing their musical tastes. In my view music should provide the listener with pleasure. If catchy pop songs do this they have served their purpose however shallow the purists deride them for being.

My views on books are much the same. I read The Da Vinci Code and now understand why Dan Brown’s writing style is often mocked. The samplers from the Fifty Shades of Grey series were enough to convince me to avoid. Yet so many have read these books and this has encouraged them to read more. I consider this a good thing even if not to my taste.

Literary prizes reward particular attributes so it will be on these that I will judge the books I am being sent. My reviews are a reflection of writing I am impressed by and these titles look to be a good fit. I would not, after all, have agreed to take part had I not expected to enjoy the reading. This is an adventure in which I am thrilled to participate.

Book Review: In the Absence of Absalon

This post was written for and first published on Bookmunch.

In the Absence of Absalon, by Simon Okotie, is a book unlike any other I have read. Its protagonist is an unnamed investigator who is looking into the disappearance of his colleague, Marguerite, last seen on the trail of Harold Absalon, the mayor’s transport advisor, who has also disappeared. The reader is regularly reminded of these core facts.

The story, if it can even be called that, opens with the investigator standing outside a townhouse. By the close he has negotiated the entrance gate, traversed a small area between this and the front door and entered the house. The means by which he succeeds in these feats, and the digressive thoughts that go through his mind as he does so, are described in assiduous detail.

The investigator is confident of his ‘unsurpassed experience and training’, putting to use his ‘superior knowledge and deeply felt instinct’. The task on which he is embarking – gaining access to the house – must be achieved under pressure as he believes he is being pursued.

There is a thread regarding Absalon’s wife and possible links to another colleague, Knox, who owns the townhouse where the action, such as it is, is taking place. The investigator’s relationship with these characters may be pertinent, although little is made clear. This is despite his determination that all thoughts and considerations should be fully understood. His obsessive punctiliousness takes up much of the narrative.

The investigator observes, makes a point, offers clarification, explores other potential meanings and digresses to comic effect.

“people die all the time but let it never be said that he brought anyone’s death forward significantly by not taking an extra moment to define as precisely as he possibly could, the terms he was using to express himself during his thought processes.”

These thought processes include a consideration of how one can tell that a car is facing the wrong direction: a field study is suggested to ensure full and proper understanding; advice is offered on safe and visible clothing for such an undertaking; detailed instructions are provided on driver etiquette when traversing narrow roads.

“Satisfied that the point had been made adequately clearly, even when judged against his more than exacting standards, he terminated this illuminating interlude so as to engage, once again, more directly, with his investigation.”

There are outpourings on the meaning of dead when applied to a bolt or a leg, a pondering on who can be said to cook a pizza that is prepared elsewhere, the means by which a key may be located and removed from the pocket of a pair of trousers that are tight fitting. The urgency with which the investigator approaches each of his tasks retains reader engagement despite how little is actually achieved.

Any Cop?: This is sapient, daring writing that had me laughing out loud on several occasions. It is convoluted, at times dense, and often absurd. Such inversion and introspection may not be for everyone. Those who engage will revel in the wit and perspicacity of its circumlocutory perambulations.

 

Jackie Law

Books: Northern Ireland through fiction

Last Thursday, from my safe Tory seat in rural Wiltshire, I voted with hope for a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. What the country got instead was Theresa May so desperate to cling on to power that she is trying to get into bed with Northern Ireland’s DUP. When I saw that my old homeland had returned MPs only from the two extremes of the sectarian divide my heart wept a little. That one of these parties should now have the means to influence UK decision making is a serious worry. The peace, such as it is, remains fragile and to help broker disputes Westminster is required to remain impartial.

Recent events in Manchester and London have triggered talk of a fear of terrorists amongst my English acquaintances. I remember how it was to grow up in The Troubles, with terrorist incidents an almost everyday occurrence. The British army wielded their guns on the streets of Belfast with intent. They drove around in their armoured vehicles as a warning and a threat. The local police routinely carried guns and had the power to hold suspects without explanation. Of course, the illegal organisations were well armed as well. They killed and they maimed with their bombs and their shootings, and when they took their fight to the mainland were paid attention.

In the past week that attention has returned. Questions are being asked about why Northern Ireland’s residents cannot vote for the same political parties as the rest of the UK. Questions are being asked about why they are not afforded the same choices and rights.

Much has changed since peace was agreed but religious inspired intolerance remains. There is the opposition to abortion and same sex marriage. There is also insistence on provocative marching that incites violence every year. Just as homes were set alight to drive out Catholics or Protestants back in the day, attacks are now aimed at immigrants. Although integration has improved there is still religious segregation in many areas, of housing and schools. It may no longer be necessary to subject shoppers to bag checks and body frisking before allowing access to the city centre but a few simple questions about background will still quickly reveal upbringing. Walls of all kinds remain.

Shankill Road peace wall

Fiction is a fine way to better understand cultural difference. For those interested, the following books offer windows into the lives of those living in the province. They are also excellent reads.

Children’s Children by Jan Carson (Liberties Press)
Vinny’s Wilderness by Janet Shepperson (Liberties Press)
Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell (Faber and Faber)
The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (Salt Publishing)
Eden Burning by Deirdre Quiery (Urbane Publications)
Postcard Stories by Jan Carson (The Emma Press)

I have heard that The Glass Shore (New Island Books), which is a short story anthology by various Northern Irish women writers (edited by Sinéad Gleeson), is also excellent. I cannot verify how strong its sense of place is as I have yet to source a copy to review.

For all the negative attitudes being highlighted by the past week’s politics, Northern Ireland remains an attractive place to visit. Warm welcomes are the norm for those who are passing through and recent development has provided much to see and enjoy. It would be a tragedy if Theresa May’s legacy was to break the hard fought for peace that has enabled such progress. As on the mainland, movement should be forward towards tolerance and inclusivity. Adherance to any religious lifestyle should be a personal choice.

 

Book Review: Letters From The Suitcase

Letters From The Suitcase, edited by Rosheen and Cal Finnigan, is exactly what it says on the cover. It chronicles the wartime love story of Rosheen Finnigan’s parents, David and Mary, in epistolary format. The correspondence started in 1938 soon after the couple first met in London. It continues until 1943 when David died of smallpox in India.

The letters are grouped to cover significant changes in the couple’s circumstances over the years. Each chapter is prefaced with a short introduction by Rosheen putting the letters that follow into context. Although the world was changing around them due to the Second World War, many of the letters contain details of the minutiae of their day to day lives alongside ceaseless outpourings of their love for each other.

At the beginning of the book Rosheen explains how she was first given the letters just prior to her mother’s death. She had not previously understood the intensity of her parents’ relationship which flourished despite the fact they spent much of their married life apart. An epilogue explains how reading the letters enabled Rosheen to understand how important she had been to both David and Mary. This was a moving denouement to what is a lengthy work.

Mary was a feisty young woman determined to live her own life even after marriage and motherhood. She suffered depressive periods and would call David out if she did not feel supported. David seemed more typical of the period with his concerns that she retain her slim figure, although his love for her and desire for her wider well-being are clear. They both reference a mutually satisfying sex life and there is jealousy if any unfaithfulness is suspected.

The letters are deeply personal and provide a picture of day to day life during a war. As well as the loneliness of separation there are financial hardships. These do not prevent them from enjoying a lively social life both when together and with their many friends. They reference books read, films watched and the politics of the day. Privations are mentioned although the letters are written with largely good humour.

Despite some interest in the wartime detail this was not a book for me. I found the letters repetitive and the book overly long. I had hoped for something along the lines of Chris Cleeve’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven. I can understand their value to Rosheen, but these letters did not provide enough to keep me interested for close to five hundred pages.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Book Review: The Lighterman

The Lighterman, by Simon Michael, is the third book in the author’s Charles Holborne series of crime thrillers (I review the first two here and here). Set in 1960s London, in and around the historic law courts at the Old Bailey, Holborne is once again working as a barrister from chambers where his Jewish heritage is disdained. Family background is an important backdrop to the story. The key case being dealt with involves Holborne’s cousin, Izzy, with whom he worked on the Thames during the Second World War.

Following events from the previous intalments in the series, Holborne is on the Kray twins death list. The metropolitan police are unwilling to help as they still believe Holborne was complicit in the murder of his wife and therefore deserves whatever comes his way. With blackmail and bribery rife on both sides of the law he must risk all to save Izzy and himself.

Holborne is in a relationship with Sally who is unhappy with being sidelined when work continually demands her lover’s time and attention. Despite a tentative reconciliation with his family, his harpy mother’s continuing complaints about his life choices remain a thorn in Holborne’s side.

I began to understand some of the bad feeling harboured against Jews, that it is their rejection of assimilation, a refusal to accept a different way of living for the next generation, just as is the case for many other orthodox religions. Holborne chose to break away but cannot shake the feelings of guilt this has caused, stoked by his mother’s criticism. These personal conflicts are well presented within the context of a fast moving plot.

With Ronnie Kray determined to punish Holborne and a judge eager to support the river police, one of whom Izzy is accused of murdering, Holborne is forced to take matters into his own hands. He puts his career in danger to gather his evidence and must then go to court and give the performance of his life. This representation of a barrister’s role and thought processes remains a highlight as in the previous books.

The writing throughout is slick and engaging, the plot well developed with a strong sense of time and place. The ending sets up an interesting dilemma for subsequent intalments in the series to explore.

On a personal level I struggled to warm to the protagonist. Holborne is described as strong and muscular, able to hold his own in a fight. He works out by running and boxing. He has a high sex drive. Although portrayed as a tough, east end lad made good, with a moral compass that isn’t as strong as he would like where justice, as he sees it, is involved, his exploits reminded me too much of the typical male, all action hero. I had to remind myself that this was 1960s Britain and women were even more objectified than today. Sally is no shrinking violet but Holborne’s interest in her appears largely sexual and selfish.

An enjoyable read for those who like their heroes physically strong, their justice warriors slightly flawed. It is a well written page turner strengthened by its setting within the rarefied world of the courts of law.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane.

This post is a stop on The Lighterman Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Book Review: Greatest Hits

“Larry knows what it is to lose oneself for hours – days, even – in the act of creation; and to only understand, when the mind and body are finally calm once more, what it is that has been created. What, in that act, the artist is trying to make sense of, even though no sense can ever truly be made of this dizzying, maddening, impossible, beautiful life; and, of course, of its culmination, its crescendo and its inevitable loss.”

Greatest Hits, by Laura Barnett, tells the story of fictional singer-songwriter, Cass Wheeler, from her childhood growing up the only child of a London vicar and his depressed wife, through her rise to the heady heights of international fame, and then to her retirement from the music scene following personal tragedy. Along the way are exhausting months on the road, abandoned friends, broken marriages, and the apparently requisite over-indulgence in drugs of all kinds.

The structure of the story is wrapped around a series of sixteen songs representing Wheeler’s life. The lyrics – written by the author and real life singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams – have been put to music and will be released as a studio album to coincide with the publication of the book. This is not the first time publishers have collaborated to create associated music – I am aware of singles from Fahrenheit Press and Orenda Books. It is still, however, an interesting idea.

The story is set over the course of a day as Wheeler decides on the tracks to be released from her back catalogue in a new album being planned to enable her to emerge from retirement. As each song is selected the timeline moves to describe the events that provided their inspiration. Hints are dropped in the contemporary setting and then explained in these flashbacks. With a cast of characters spanning more than six decades it took concentration to remember who was who between the time periods.

Although polished and fluid I was not fully engaged until near the end. The contemporary sections felt like interruptions in what was an otherwise compelling tale. I did question why anyone would want fame, something that Wheeler herself noted when she saw the life an old friend was leading. Much is made of how artistic creatives cannot stifle their urges, even those that carry risk of self-destruction.

There is a poignancy to any life story as, over time, family and friends will inevitably be lost to abandonment, disagreement, and death. Words will be spoken that cannot then be forgotten, resentments form that damage all involved. Wheeler makes choices, repeats mistakes, holds grudges and must live with the consequences. The depiction of her as a daughter – to both the women charged with her care – and then as a mother, made for interesting reading. There was little new in this but it was perceptively portrayed.

Wheeler’s life with its hurts and privileges is rendered to demonstrate that success happens moment by moment and can be measured in many ways. Even if not convinced by the construction, this tale is well written. I will listen out for the album when it too is released.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

The Impress Prize 2017, plus Q&A with past winner, James Calum Campbell

The Impress Prize for new writers was created to discover and publish new writing talent in fiction and non-fiction. The winner of the prize is offered a publishing contract with Impress Books, with the aim of releasing the book in the following year. Entries to the prize are assessed by the Impress team and a shortlist is produced from which a panel chooses the winner. The panel is comprised of representatives from the publishing industry. In the past the winners and shortlisted candidates have gone on to be represented by agents and received subsequent publishing contracts.

James Calum Campbell, author of The Seven Trials of Cameron-Strange, won the Impress Prize in 2014. Today I am delighted to welcome him to my blog to tell us about his transition from doctor to author, and the inspiration behind his protagonist, Dr Alastair Cameron-Strange.

Photography by Whyler Photos of Stirling

 

Tell us about your career as a doctor

I’m what the American MDs call “double-boarded”; I’m a GP and an emergency physician.  I’ve had the best possible time.  My career has taken me all over the world.  I guess its apogee has been the senior lectureship in emergency medicine at Auckland.  Wonderful – but a roller-coaster ride.  Medicine is very demanding.

How did you make the jump from doctor to author?

I was always a scribbler.  I used to write articles for various medical rags.  The profession likes to flaunt its literary credentials – Chekhov and Maugham and Conan Doyle and so on.  Actually we’re a bit smug.  There’s a style of writing on the back pages of medical journals that I call “medical baroque”, full of pus and sex.  I don’t care for it.  The worlds of medicine and letters do overlap – after all it’s all history-taking.  But most doctors who have seriously wanted to write have realised that they needed to quit practice.  Medicine is just too all-consuming.  When in Auckland I was asked to prepare the groundwork for the creation of a Chair in Emergency Medicine, I realised I might do that, and medicine would have me for ever.  I resigned and moved to a croft in Camustianavaig, Isle of Skye, and wrote a first draft of a book about Dr Alastair Cameron-Strange.  I was 47.  My colleagues thought I’d gone crazy.  Maybe they were right!

But medicine was not done with me.  My mother’s cousin was in a car crash on Skye, and I visited her in Broadford Hospital.  The Medical Director said, “You’re the doc holed up in Camustianavaig writing a book.  Do you want a job?”  Sometimes you do something simply because you are importuned.

What made you want to write?

I’ve been devoted to words, and stories, for as long as I can remember.  Then with adolescence I hit writer’s block and realised I needed to go out into the world and be something else, if only to acquire copy.  Every writer knows this fundamental truth, that you can be interested in anything and everything, but you can only be devoted to one thing.  I knew that sooner or later I’d be seduced back, to wrestle the best of three falls with words.

Was it always important to you for your novels to have a medical element?

Not initially, but, with fiction, eventually yes.  Medicine changes you.  I’ve been a doctor for such a long time now that I cannot but think as a doctor.  In emergency medicine, the most potent question you can ask your patient is, “What happened?”  Then you go into a trance, listen, don’t interrupt, and nine times out of ten, the patient will hand you the diagnosis on a plate.  It seems a passive activity, but it is not.  It comes at a cost, because what you are actually doing is stepping into the patient’s shoes.  For a moment, you become the patient.  Writing a book is a similar experience.  It requires a receptivity and a willingness to allow the book to proceed as it will.  It’s a diagnostic process.  It takes its toll.

Where did the inspiration for Cameron-Strange come from?

I wanted to write about a doctor who, though he doesn’t know it, has the full house of “knowledge, skills, and attitudes”.  There’s an old cliché that if you have knowledge, become a physician, if you have skill, become a surgeon, if you have tender loving kindness, become a GP.  (It’s nonsense.)    Most of us strive for competency on one level.  You sometimes meet doctors who combine such virtues.  For example you might meet an intensivist who combines encyclopaedic knowledge of pathophysiology with extraordinary motor abilities and nerves of steel.  But he’s also liable to lack people skills, he will have a monstrous ego, and he might even be psychopathic.  A doctor who excels in not one or two, but all three of these fields, is a very rare bird indeed.  I think Alastair Cameron-Strange might become such a doctor, but he still needs to work on his attitude.  If he survives, and isn’t struck off, I suspect when he’s a little older he might become very eminent in his field.

So believe me, ACS definitely isn’t me!  But I once received a backhanded compliment from an Edinburgh Professor of Medicine that would have befitted ACS:  “You’ll go far, Campbell, so long as you don’t go too far.”

 

Are you an unpublished writer? The ImpressPrize is now open for submissions. Deadline 30 June 2017. Follow @ImpressPrize on Twitter for updates.