I hope that Susan Hill is not wrong in her HONOURS PREDICTIONS. Few could disagree that Ian McEwan is an author of great quality, even if his books are not to everyone’s taste. But I have no sympathy for the envy and snobbery that one sees expressed about J. K. Rowling. It is impossible to exaggerate what this author has done for reading. She has encouraged thousands, even millions, of children to begin and continue reading; she has stimulated the imaginations of similarly vast numbers of already literate children (just look at the school playgrounds and the "continuation of Harry Potter story" internet sites); she’s written a series of books that adults can read and which stands up in its own right — the august Economist selected Harry Potter 7, quite rightly, as one of its books of the year*; she’s kick-started a moribund part of the publishing industry; and she’s an individual, unspun and unspinnable. I admire her tremendously.
[*The Economist's view: "Books written as part of a series that start well almost invariably fall off in quality. Not so the seventh and last HP, the end of the decade's most successful morality tale, which shows J.K. Rowling at the height of her magical imaginative powers." HP7 was one of ten selections in the fiction&memoirs category, Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach being another.]
Tana French’s In The Woods will be the next title to be read by the Times book group. Alyson Rudd, editor of the group, writes: "This is a real treat for Christmas. In the Woods is a classic murder mystery with plenty of twists and macabre detail." She continues: "This is Tana French’s debut and is startlingly accomplished. Many detective stories are described as “superior” to differentiate them from the many lazy and predictable thrillers out there — but this really is. French writes beautifully and is far from lazy when it comes to sprinkling clues and red herrings and developing the characters."
You can read my review of this book over at Euro Crime. I began: "Although long, IN THE WOODS is a cracking read. I have often read the word "unputdownable" to describe a book, but in this case it is true: I was glad I started the book on a weekend and had no other commitments, so I could finish it in a day." Crime Always Pays similarly features reviews and news about this and Tana French’s next book, The Likeness, as part of a sparkling showcase for the Irish crime-fic and wider literary scene.
The Times book group seems to me to be on a roll just now. Their most recent discussion was of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — a book that I know has evoked mixed reactions in the blogosphere, from praise to dismissal. Alyson Rudd again: "Amid the stench of death, the fear and the anger, some do the right thing. They maintain morality, they believe in God or, if not God, in humanity. The son is a messiah. He is young, he has not been captured and he knows what is good and what is sinful. Above all, he wants to help others in a world where most think that they have no choice but to put themselves first."
The Times book group main page is here, with an archive of a dozen discussions of titles varying from Stef Penny’s The Tenderness of Wolves, through Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, to Tom Perotta’s Little Children. I’ve always liked this group’s discussions — although some choices are, in the event, unpopular, I think that the book concerned is always given a chance for its best shot at persuading you to go out and read it.
I’ve taken all week to read a short book, "The Scent of the Night" by Andrea Camilleri (superbly translated by Stephen Sartarelli), finally finished it this morning. As ever with this series, set in Vigata, Sicily, the theme is that of rage against "progress", as the island becomes covered by the concrete of half-finished road schemes or construction projects. In "The Scent of the Night" the protagonist, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, becomes violent in his fury about the irrevocable change being forced upon his long-established way of life. He has two places where he goes to think: a rock on the jetty by the sea and an old olive tree. He finds himself driving late one night, drunk, and thinks he is at the crossroads where the olive tree grows. But he can’t see it, and so thinks he must be mistaken as he comes across a band of asphalt. He goes to investigate, but can recognise nothing in the landscape that is familiar to him. Then, in a patch of moonlight, he sees a new house, finished but not inhabited. Montalbano stumbles to the back of the house, and cries out. "The great Saracen olive tree lay before him, moribund, having been felled and uprooted. It was dying. They had cut the branches from the trunk with an electric saw……..He reached out and placed his hand over the space of a particularly wide gash. Under his palm he could still feel a slight dampness from the sap; it was oozing out little by little, like the blood of a man slowly bleeding to death". The rage felt and vengeance wreaked by Montalbano is fierce, and it is this violent mourning for a lost way of life which both haunts and drives all the books in the series.
Right at the end of "The Scent of the Night", Montalbano goes for a walk along the jetty for a cigarette at his customary rock. "He just wanted to sit there and listen to the sea swashing between the rocks. But thoughts come even when you do all in your power to keep them away. And the thought came into his mind concerned the Saracen olive tree that had been cut down. Now he had only the rock for a refuge. All at once, though he was out in the open air, he felt strangely as though he was suffocating, as though the space allocated for his existence had suddenly shrunk. By a lot."
I couldn’t agree more with this post: A Book A Week: Blogging Without Obligation. Blogging is something I like to do, not that I have to do. There are only so many variants on the theme of "sorry I haven’t had time to write a post", and they aren’t that interesting to read (unless someone has not blogged recently because they won the Nobel prize, I wouldn’t mind reading that!) Feeling under pressure to keep up a regular posting rate, I was guilty of this practice myself, probably for far too long, until Frank Wilson pointed out to me the simple truth that I blog because I like to, not because I have to. Less is more.