Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Diagram Prize Time Again

I'm still feeling pretty rubbish, so let's have something uplifting and fun. Every year the Bookseller magazine runs its Diagram Prize competition for the weirdest title of a published book and here's the 2008 shortlist. Remember, these are genuine publications. You can vote for your favourite at and the winner will be announced on 27th March.

Baboon Metaphysics

Curbside Consultation of the Colon

The Large Sieve and its Applications

Strip and Knit with Style

Techniques for Corrosion Monitoring

The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais

I've just cast my vote for the delightful Baboon Metaphysics and my second favourite is the enticingly domestic-sounding The Large Sieve and its Applications (is it a sequel to The Heavy Rolling-Pin and its Application as Instrument of Domestic Chastisement?) The front-runner is currently the Fromage Frais one - but it doesn't do it for me. So, get voting, and let those monkeys join last year's winner, If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs (see full list on my post 7 March 2008), 2006's winner The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification (although I preferred How Green Were the Nazis) and 2005's How People Who Don't Know They're Dead Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It (see my post 15 April 2007). Have fun, y'hear?

Friday, 20 February 2009

Report from the House of Lurg

Once again I've missed a week, partly because there's been illness here (it's half-term week, whaddya expect?), partly because I wanted to leave Lisa Ratcliffe's name up at the top of my posts for a while. It's remarkable how many other writer-bloggers posted about her - and most of them had not met her. Somehow, because her voice was so vibrant, they felt as if they had. This blogging world can feel like a hothouse of friendship (companionship like forced rhubarb?!) - it's extraordinary how supported and understood one can feel when exchanging news and views with people you've never met. There are several writers out there that I would hope to meet in person one day.

Last week I saw the second of Terry Pratchett's programmes on Alzheimer's - which my regular readers know is one of the topics I bang the drum about, especially as my aunt died from it, almost a year ago now. I missed the first Terry Pratchett programme because I was in London, but made sure I saw last week's. It was - well, you can hardly say 'enjoyable', can you, given the subject matter? Yes, you can, actually, because TP is so feisty and articulate - he's a joy to listen to. The programme itself saw him go to America in search of any hope of potential cure for the 'embuggerance' as he calls it. Lots of flashy hospitals, flashy equipment, doctors with unnervingly flashy smiles. Lots of chat. A horrible sequence where a vacant-eyed ancient Admiral was injected in the back of the neck with what I can only describe as a snake-oil remedy by a doctor I wouldn't trust to stick the stamp on an envelope for me, so oleaginous was he. The wretched Admiral was tilted back in a swing-chair for the drug to rush to what was left of his brain, then tilted back, still smiling bewilderedly. Everyone in the room nodded brightly, claiming there was a visible difference - not to me, there wasn't. The lights hadn't gone on in the Admiral's head-piece, as far as I could see. Back in Britain, in Aberdeen, Terry had a very hi-tech brain-scan done. So what? In glorious technicolour, it highlighted those parts that were damaged. One of the doctors he spoke to was brave and honest enough to admit that TP's form of dementia, which is kind enough at present to only be damaging aspects of visual perception and co-ordination, WILL, in the end, progress to full-blown Alzheimer's. TP came away from the whole experience determined to make every day count. He maintained a relentless upbeat chippiness in the face of what confronts him. His assistant expressed more devastation and pessimism than he did. TP is clearly a hero. The media is now full, thanks to him, of reports about the rise in the rate of this disease and the shocking, disgraceful lack of resources devoted to it. When will this Government stop shoring up banks and funding pointless foreign wars and get its priorities in order?

Right, rant over. Till the next time.

Let's have something cheering: one of the nominees for this year's Waterstone's Children's Book Prize is Rob Stephens. His story is uplifting because he's managed to combine being an airline pilot with writing his children's book, 'The Mapmaker's Monsters'. Good on him. Even in these days of economic attrition, now really biting the publishing industry, good writing can still make it through. My joy at his success is not unalloyed, however (can any writer honestly feel unalloyed pleasure at somebody else's success? Remember what Gore Vidal said: 'Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.') What is daunting is to hear that Rob Stevens managed to write his book 'On trains, in the back of taxis and in hotel rooms in Stockholm, Oslow, Istanbul and Paris' - wow, glamour AND commitment - how sickening is that? He wasn't 'a great reader as a child' but now says 'Reading is not just a necessary life skill: there is nothing better in the world than being lost in a good book. When I look at my son Dylan's imagination, it's so ripe. If children aren't given the encouragement to use that readiness to absorb things it's a real waste.' See more about him at

At the end of next month, the Oxford Literary Festival takes place. Once again the brochure is slow to appear but the details are up on their website. I've already booked for several events, mainly with a historical fiction bent. Top of the list is C.J. Sansom - regular Literascribees know he's one of my favourites. I'm really looking forward to this.

Now, it's nearly the end of half-term week and I have to go back to nag-mode: loads of homework/coursework needs to be confronted ...

Friday, 6 February 2009

Lisa Ratcliffe

Two posts in one day - this is because I've heard the news of the death of Lisa Ratcliffe, who had been ill for some time. I've been following her blog, HesitantScribe over the past few months as she battled her illness. She was witty, honest, remarkably ebullient and a true fighter who celebrated her life even as it was slipping inexorably away from her. Her last post on the blog was on 29th January and her last words on it were: 'Enough moans for one day I guess. Take it easy and writers ... write!' All around the blogosphere people are saying how much they admired her - and, no doubt, we're all chastened by yet another reminder that we should be getting on with fulfilling our hopes and dreams, whether they're literary hopes and dreams or not. Difficult, when, if you're like me, procrastination is built into your bone marrow. Lisa left a husband and two children - our hearts go out to them.

Forensics and Time Capsules

I'm sorry I didn't post last week but I was in the process of putting together a submission package (sounds like a depraved masochistic ritual) after making contact with a potential new agent. Emailed the material on Monday - silence so far. Yup, it's that old waiting game we love so much.

On Wednesday I went up to London. Yes, really: I managed to nip up there and back in the weather window between snow and more snow. I went to a talk on forensics held by the Society of Authors. This was very well attended; a whole roomfull of literary murderous intent! I went along not because I'm engaged in writing a crime novel (though I did write two thirds of one a few years ago, and you never know, I may return to it) but because I have a dark and gory mind. The speakers were novelist Laura Wilson and Andy Mann, a forensics officer - both were heavy on anecdote and lighter on information than I'd expected. Realised I must be more up on the subject than I'd thought - due to reading loads of Mo Hayder, Tess Gerritsen and the like. Oh yes, I know all about Luminol and insect larvae, y'know! After the talk, met up with writers Jacqui Lofthouse and Kate Harrison, whom I hadn't seen in ages. Both of them horrifically productive compared to me. It was lovely to see them.

An hour after I arrived back in Oxford, the snow sneaked back ...

Two recent reads: first Jane Urquhart's 'A Map of Glass', set in Canada. I nearly gave up on this one because after a promising introductory section the novel focussed on a middle-aged woman, Sylvia, meeting an artist and his girlfriend because the artist had discovered the frozen body of the Sylvia's lover and she needs to talk to him, confide in him about her secret romance with the dead man and find, in the facile term, 'closure'. I found it hard to engage with any of these characters and the pace was turgid. Then, all of a sudden, things picked up: the next section of the book was set in the nineteenth century. It was emotionally compelling in a way the earlier part hadn't been and the language, which all along was beautiful, with exquisite observation of the natural world, now served a clearer purpose. Quite simply, I cared. I needed to know. I turned the pages. The resolution to the book made all the cryptic distance of the early part justified: it was moving and poignant. If you read it, the description of the hotel on the coast being inexorably encroached on by sand dunes will not leave you.

The other book was Penelope Lively's 'The House in Norham Gardens'. This is a children's book written in 1974 and much admired by the likes of Philip Pullman. Quite rightly so: it too is beautifully observed and written. However, as I was reading it I had the jaundiced thought that were this book being offered to publishers nowadays, it might not see the light. The writing is detailed and descriptive, the pace very slow indeed. The background to the central character Clare's life is shown in detail before anything 'happens': the slow build-up of atmosphere and curiosity might well have an impatient modern editor rejecting the story before it has the chance to get going - and that would be such a shame, because it is a warm and wise story. It deals with the subject of time: Clare lives with two aged aunts (who are wonderful, typically North Oxford women) in a Victorian house in Oxford. The house is filled with the detritus of Empire. It's a time capsule of social, academic and imperial history. This, for me, was ironic, as you could see the novel itself as a time capsule. A lot has changed since 1974, so part of the pleasure of reading it now is nostalgia. The politeness of the speech patterns; contemporary politics ('This business in Ireland is horribly distressing'); the way the aunts can't cope with the new-fangled decimal currency; Clare's friendship with a coloured student from Africa ('I suppose he'd be well thought of, in his own country?' said Maureen); phone-calls made from red telephone boxes; the lodger, Maureen, with her hair in curlers, describing her sister's wedding dress: 'A courtelle mixture with a raised motif. Eight yards.' Ah, courtelle ... bri-nylon ... crimplene .... How many man-made fibres of the Sixties and Seventies can you name?

I hope, if the snow is at your door, that you're staying inside with a really good book. By a roaring fire. With a cup of cocoa. But not wearing courtelle: too much static electricity, m'dear.