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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Monday, March 14, 2011

Other People's Launches

What a busy week. On Monday, as reported, off to Broadcasting House for Nightwaves on R3 where I took part in an enjoyable discussion about Beryl Bainbridge with the ever-entertaining AN Wilson. It was nice to see  former colleague Sarah Kent talking about the forthcoming exhibition of Watteau drawings at the Royal Academy. Unfortunately Sarah had scarcely any airtime; I could listen to her talking about art for hours. The exhibition, and Watteau's milieu, sounds fascinating (On til 5 June).

Later that week I attended Justin Cartwright's launch party for his fabulous new novel Other People's Money, held at Gelupo, the modish gelateria in Soho. A tiny sliver of a shop, it was crammed with happy literati. Unusually for a book launch, there wasn't a drop of booze. Instead the smiling staff were handing out slices of cassata and dollops of sorbet and whizzing up cappuccinos and lattes. Free ice cream is my idea of heaven; I managed to confine myself to a slice of pistachio cassata and a helping of deliciously tart sorbet, washed down with a coffee, but drooled when I saw a Guardian journo eagerly tucking into a glass of hot chocolate topped with coconut ice cream, whipped cream and more chocolate.

As far as I can remember, there's no ice cream based episode in OPM, which tells the story of the fall of a private London bank, and the mega-wealthy family behind it. It's another Cartwright classic. I love all his books, but every third one or so is exceptional even by his standards. I first met Justin after Leading the Cheers won the Whitbread novel prize in 1998, when I was on the judging panel. At our first discussion of the book, fellow judge Allan Massie said, 'I think we've found our winner,' so unanimous was the praise. My other favourites include Look at it This Way, White Lightning and The Song Before it is Sung.

In his speech, publisher Michael Fishwick ran over the (rave) reviews and noted a comparison to Dickens, although Cartwright has been compared to Dickens at least since Look at it This Way (1990), a superb contemporary portrait of Loadsamoney London. His sales got a Richard and Judy boost with The Promise of Happiness, another sublimely enjoyable book, but I wonder why Cartwright still isn't mentioned in the same breath as Amis, Barnes and McEwan? Perhaps because he was born in South Africa? At least he's now gained the ultimate accolade of a spoof in this week's Private Eye.

His own speech was characteristically witty and self-deprecating. It took the form of a short story about a writer who is trying to decide what to wear to his launch party in an ice cream shop, nervously anticipating the reviews (especially from the reviewer who once compared him unfavourably to Hitler) and wondering whether any journalists will come to a booze-free launch. Fortunately for Cartwright, it seems hacks are just as fond of caffeine and sugar as alcohol.

Next day I was off to the Orion sales conference at BAFTA in Piccadilly. I'd been asked to do brief interviews with Kate Mosse and Sally Gardner about their forthcoming autumn titles. On arrival I grabbed a cup of tea and almost immediately bumped into Joanna Lumley, Neil Oliver and the jovial Hairy Bikers, all presenting their new books to the conference.

I was able to get a sneak preview of Sally's novel, The Double Shadow, but for Kate all that was available of Citadel was a nine-page prologue, admittedly beautifully written, but not much to go on. First up was Sally, who struck a glamorous note in her flamboyant coat and dark sunglasses, until she muttered that she had a migraine. As a reviewer of YA (Young Adult) novels I frequently read titles where the writing ability comes a poor second to invention and plot. Sally is both a wonderful fabulist (her two novels of the French Revolution are spectacular) and an excellent writer. The Double Shadow, set during before, during and after the Second World War, with a healthy dose of science fiction and a plot concerning memory loss and identity, is a terrific read. It's out in November.

As for Kate, Citadel is set in what she calls 'my bit of France', and concerns women in the French Resistance: 'girls with guns' as she says with relish. It was inspired by a plaque she saw commemorating a massacre of maquisards by the Nazis. The plaque inscribed all the men's names, then 'Two Unknown Women'. She had to get special permission from the MOD to fire the weapons her heroine would have used. I didn't like the gleam in her eye as she described firing a machine-gun. Now all she has to do is finish writing the darn thing. (Out September.)

After a glass of wine at Orion's after-show party, I dashed off to a small treasure trove of an art dealer's shop just off Bond Street, for the launch of Lynn Roberts' poetry pamphlets, Rosa Mundi, a poem sequence about the Virgin Mary, and Pandora's Book, a collection of witty light verse. Most impressively, Roberts draws as well as she writes: both books are illustrated by the author. Pandora's Book features clever pastiches, such as 'Ode to a Microwave by John Keats', and a rejection letter sent to John Milton by his publisher: 'The Op'ning's very rousing, but it drops off when in Eden / since nothing ever happens - neither Violence nor Breedin'...' Another poem imagines the consequence of Apollo taking up blogging: 'Oh, save us from another blog, which seven people read; / how many of us need to know your goldfish doesn't feed?'

Or that you ate too much ice cream...


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