Monday, 17 November 2014

An excellent accompaniment to Harold Fry - The love Song of Miss Queeny Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

[This book was provided to me for the price of nothing, nyet, nada monies. I was wildly happy about it. All hail the publisher, Random House, and NetGalley, who makes my dreams possible. Well, my dreams of acquiring books I don't have to pay for or leave the house to get my hands on, at least, and of not being tracked down to be shouted at even though I'm a month late with this.]

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is one of the few books which have made it onto my 5 star list. It was the bookish equivalent of a bowl of rice pudding with a dollop of really tangy jam - immensely comforting, not many surprises, but with a definite punch which made the whole thing come alive. Plus it made me cry, and any book which does that deserves a high mark.

In all honesty I was a bit apprehensive to learn of this book, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. Harold Fry was such a massive success - not only commercially: it was also longlisted for the Booker - I feared this would be a cynical tie-in, or an attempt to exploit the great affection readers have for Joyce's debut. It isn't. This book stands as a companion novel to Harold Fry and it does so marvellously.

It begins with a letter - the letter Harold Fry receives which prompts him into his pilgrimage - and its reply, the one Harold scribbles the note onto to tell Queenie to wait for him. Which she does.

Love Song is Queenie's longer letter to Harold, her confession and attempt at atonement. It is the things she needs him to know in case he doesn't get there in time. It is what happened during her time at the factory, during the car rides, and why she acted as she did back then. This story is interspersed with the day-to-day life of the hospice - the nuns, the other patients. Joyce has a rare skill for the ridiculous, and for balancing it against heart-wrenching truths. There is great sadness in this book, but it is genuinely funny too and filled with joyous moments.

Yet, it is lacking. There is a story to be told here but at the same time it's rather too dependent on Harold Fry, relegating it to a top-notch curio rather than a must-read. The premise of Harold Fry was always contrived but Joyce handled it with enough skill and compassion to make it work; Love Song doesn't work in that way. Harold's walk and Queenie's desire to wait for him don't make enough sense when this book is treated in isolation.

There is also the problem of Queenie herself. Harold Fry was never about her, she was simply a name, a memory; she was an icon through which Harold and Maureen found peace. She did nothing beyond exist, which was fine within the confines of that story but here she is a woman in love with a married man. She has spent her life loving him and I do not find that romantic, I find it hateful. I bring my own baggage to this in the form of a psycho hose-beast who declared herself in love with a man she'd never met, who caused cataclysmic damage to two vulnerable people, and who is - above and beyond all else - a pathetic coward who needs to get a grip and live in the world which is in front of her, not the fantasies of her own head. So, yeah, every time Queenie recounted how much she loved Harold and how she'd spent her life alone, I wanted to reach for my trusty slap-haddock. I like to image hitting people I don't like with fish. Judge me if you wish.

Joyce, it should be emphasised, does a sterling job with Queenie. As much as I disliked the abstract concept, and as much as I hated the emphasis on her love for Harold - Harold Fry was never a love story - I did enjoy this book. From an outside perspective I think it's tremendously faulty; while there's certainly a story to be told here I do feel it's a little hamstrung by its own set-up. Compare Queenie to Penelope (Greek lady; liked weaving) to show the missed potential. There's no getting away from the fact this is 368 pages of a woman writing about a bloke she's been secretly in love with for decades. When the great confession comes, it felt absolutely perfect for this self-obsessed character, Queenie again taking ownership of something which isn't hers, but it's disguised as a Romantic gesture and that is disappointing. It's written to be felt, but for me it was Queenie making things about Queenie. Shyness is arrogance in disguise.

It is fair to mention, especially because I have railed on plenty of books in the past for the issue, that I frown upon its narrative concept (if that's the correct term). This presents itself as a character-written text. Queenie is writing her story in shorthand, desperate to get this tale down before it's too late yet it is very writerly. I bang on about how if something is X it has to BE X; Queenie Hennessey does not read like the product of somebody writing in shorthand, worrying about whether she has enough time left. It doesn't inhibit the enjoyment of the book but it would be hypocritical of me not to mention it.

If you loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry as much as I did, I'd definitely recommend picking this one up. If you haven't read either, start with that; Love Song has significantly less to offer the uninitiated and will demand they suspend their disbelief rather too much to get into it. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy a bittersweet, hilarious and heartfelt book full of terrific characters and despite my personal baggage, I enjoyed it hugely.

4 stars.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy on AmazonUK

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Schrodinger's Author and some thoughts going foward

When I decided to join the #bloggerblackout, I did it for a lot of reasons, all of them personal. In the post I made about why I was doing it, I mentioned my concern over the fact I was late with a couple of reviews and in joining the blackout they would be made later. In the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter and it makes very little difference to those books and their success - however, it was still important to me that I try and behave in a professional way, which means getting ARC reviews done in a timely fashion.

I knew when I went into it that some people thought the blackout was designed to, or was about, hurting or punishing authors. It was never about that for me - I don't think it's about that for anybody. I didn't realise some people thought an ARC meant I owed them something beyond an honest review. I didn't realise that accepting books for review made me, in the eyes of some, obligated to the people who'd provided it.

Amateur reviews are a pretty useful thing for the publishing industry. An awful lot of the online activity I see is around the areas of Romance and YA/NA, two genres which don't have much traction in the mainstream press. Without sites like Dear Author, or Smart Bitches, or any one of the hundreds of small blogs contributing to the accumulation of reviews on Goodreads, there are an awful lot of books which wouldn't receive any publicity. I had a quick Google to see where Hale's novel would have been covered without the blogs and the answer from the first few pages of my results is: Kirkus, and Bustle. YMMV.

That's not Blogs only value - it also lies *in* being amateur. To work in publishing, the usual route is via the unpaid internship. In the US I understand some places offer remote work placements, but in the UK it means working for free, in London, which gives something of an insight into why the industry is so very, very white, and why there's an industry perception that POC characters will harm a book's chances in the market. #WeNeedDiverseBooks, not more privileged Oxbridge/Red Brick graduates out of touch with the book buying public. Even I, white, middle-class, find few people like me in the newspaper. There was an article in the Guardian some weeks ago in which a woman struggling with money tried an experiment with Supermarket own brands to see if they were worth the saving (spoiler alert - some were). It mainly illustrated to me that the good people of that newspaper aren't actually in touch with the whole "struggling with money" thing. Anybody who thinks having to stop using Ocado counts as "struggling with money" needs a sharp reality check. Some weeks I genuinely can't tell if The Sunday Times Style magazine has been secretly taken over by The Onion.

Blogs though - bloggers are people like me. They post pictures of their cats sitting in cardboard boxes, and they have terrible days at work, and they celebrate losing weight or having a haircut, and they're excited about a new TV show, or maybe they're annoyed about it, whatever - they're all people who live lives far closer to mine even though I should have far more in common with those broadsheet journalists who are so very keen to show just how ordinary they are.

And because Bloggers are people like me, I trust them. I trust that most of them are doing what I do - reading a book and writing down what they think of it.

If we become obliged to publishers, or authors, or anybody but ourselves, we lose the thing which makes us useful.

So, to you, those people saying (or thinking) that bloggers owe authors/publishers something: is that what you want? Free adverts spread across the internet? Do you want us to be good little boys and girls? Do you want us to write enthusiastically about everything you provide us with? And, do you think, in your infinite wisdoms, that this will do you any good? Or do you suppose that having these "independent" reviewers in your pockets will mean people get their reviews from people who don't accept ARCS? Because hear this: if I never get another ARC, I will still have plenty to read. And it will not be hurting authors to not accept ARCs because I will still be reviewing, just not the books freshly available this week. But then, this is so tangled it would not surprise me if you did think closing to ARCs was hurting authors, and this is so far past the point of appropriateness it's almost worth doing so to laugh at your self-important Twitter attacks. Oh noes! Am I functioning as an autonomous human being? Won't somebody please stop me?! Think of teh authors!

If you are an author, it is in your very best interests to have an independent group of people saying what they think about your book. It is in your interest to have this group of people able to say what they want about things without having to worry about you butting in, which, if there's no f***ing @reply including you, is exactly what it is. If it's not emailed to you, or tweeted at you, or facebooked at you, or whatever the hell the cool kids are doing these days, you are butting in. You are doing the internet equivalent of announcing yourself to the people having a conversation at the next table in a restaurant. Consider street harassment - even just those simple thank yous, those little harmless words which nobody in their right mind could have a problem with unless they drip, drip, all day, every day, until every time you leave the house you're braced for it. Reviewers have these small words all the time, and all the people in their community do too, and they don't know, when you say those little words, whether that's all you'll do because you are Schroedinger's Author.

The only difference between Kathleen Hale and Richard Brittain('s alleged actions) is a bottle. Until that bottle hit the head of a reviewer, their actions were the same. Do not justify Hale to me on the basis of her walking away. Do not tell me you have the right to respond to reviews, or to chat up a woman who wants nothing to do with you, because they are the same thing and neither are okay. Forcing interaction is not cool.

One of the things which has made me saddest about this whole situation are the number of stories I'm hearing about reviewer harassment, a lot of it from trade published authors. Most of it isn't a big deal, but - like street harassment - when it's this constant background noise which occasionally turns into something worse, do you really think your right as the author (or simply as a human being) to comment on a review trumps the right of the reviewer to go on through their day unimpeded?

I've thought about this a lot. I love ARCs. I love seeing a book in the best-seller list and smugly mentioning I had a review copy of it. I've never claimed to be a good person.

I don't want to stop requesting them but my independence as a reviewer is far more important to me than a few free books. I haven't done a proper breakdown, but ARCs have been roughly 10% of my reading material this year. If an ARC means I owe anybody anything, in the nicest possible way, keep it. I am not the enthusiastic promo-bot you are looking for. This one actually is about ethics in journalism.

I already had plans to cut back on ARCs for a bit so this isn't some grand move, it's more something I was kind of doing anyway, and it's not intended to be permanent. It's for as long as I feel like and it's not about anybody who isn't me.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Taglines make me gripe - Visibility by Boris Starling

I am a big fan of Boris Starling's Messiah so although I wasn't particularly struck by the blurb of this book I thought I'd give it a whirl. Either fortunately or unfortunately, my copy contained a hugely misleading blurb which spoke excitedly of a rising body count (there isn't), and the tagline "Now you see it, now you're dead" (you aren't).

This is a very claustrophobic novel and it does a decent job of evoking the thick London fog the characters move through as they go about their investigations. However, there's little feeling of threat. There's a secret the MC, Herbert Smith, is trying to find out but - and particularly because this is set in the 50s - it's not exciting enough. At the grand reveal I was waiting for a second denouement, or some tension, or anything at all to get me past the mild disappointment (particularly as if I had a better memory for names I would have had an idea where this was going within the first third).

This book reminds me very much of Robert Harris' Fatherland - it has the same cold atmosphere and gradual pacing, but where that had an emotional impact (by pulling a neat little trick with what we, the modern reader, know vs what the MC in that knows), here Starling's neat plotting is slightly too dull. The pieces are there and they all line up well enough, but ... I could easily have given up on this one. 2 stars.