Welcome to Suzi Feay's home on the web

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

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Greatest critical cliches of all time, from hell, on acid

A friend who read my previous blog post, How to be a Great Reviewer, thought I should do a blog on reviewing cliches. To set me off, he suggested 'He/She writes like an angel...'

I'm not sure you hear that one around much these days, but at least it has a good pedigree. It is the catchphrase of John Dyson, the hapless journalist in Michael Frayn's Towards the End of the Morning who is always 'heading for a crack-up'. Frayn's lovely novel about Fleet Street in the 1960s, written when he was in his early thirties, is a work of comic genius. (Oh dear. As well as being true, that statement is almost certainly a reviewing cliche...)

So what else? The well-known formula 'X meets Y', where the two variables are recent bestsellers or incongruous bed-partners - "Homer meets Trainspotting' - seems to have fallen out of fashion. I think it was always more of a blurb-writer's cliche than a reviewer's. I've just been sent a book which is described as 'a mash-up of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Dante' - maybe 'mashup' will be the new overdone phrase. Formerly ubiquitous, not seen so much now, are '...from hell' and '... on acid' ('Like Jane Austen on acid...'). Showing no signs of flagging yet is 'an X for the 21st century'.

I've never been very fond of 'unmissable', used of theatre and film. It always made be want to miss the show in question, just to check whether the sky fell in on me or not. Likewise, nothing should ever be described as 'essential'. Or 'unique', if it isn't. 'The phrase, 'If you only buy one book this year...'  should be completed by the words '... what are you doing reading the books pages?' I've blogged before on the cringeworthy phrase 'a great toilet book'. Regardless of whether you think it's tasteless or not, I think we can agree that it's a towering great cliche.

I've never been very fond of the author-reviewer whose highest term of praise is: 'I wish I'd written it.' It's kindly meant, but the whiff of self-love is hard to overcome. 'Hey, great news! You're almost as good as me!'

'Page-turner', although useful, might now be a suitable phrase for the dustbin, as well as 'I couldn't put it down,' together with its cynical cousin 'I couldn't pick it up.' A writer I knew used to finish nearly all his reviews with the words 'Great stuff.' Then there's 'laugh-out-loud funny', together with 'so funny I missed my stop on the Tube'. (Or train. But I don't think I've ever seen seen it with reference to a bus.) 'So funny I wet my pants' seems to be more a film critic's cliche than a book reviewer's, perhaps because we are usually sitting on our own sofas rather than 20th Century Fox's.

Can a single word be a cliche? If so, I suggest 'dystopian', 'poignant', 'elegiac', 'prophetic' and 'poetic' (when used of prose). Also 'coruscating', especially if you think it means 'scathing'. And 'forensic', especially if you think it means 'detailed'.

Tonight I'm off to the launch party for Sam Leith's novel The Coincidence Engine. It is billed on the dustjacket as: 'Philip K Dick meets Evelyn Waugh'. And who is responsible for this observation? The great Michael Moorcock! Sorry, Michael...

Friday, March 25, 2011

10 Essential Children's Books

Michael Gove has said that children should read 50 books a year to improve literacy. The Independent asked five literary experts to recommend ten books apiece:


Of course, I couldn't resist coming up with my own ten. These are pretty much off the top of my head, so no doubt for the rest of the night I'll be going 'Oh, and...' But all of these are wonderful classics. How many have you read?

1) The Owl Service by Alan Garner. Nothing, with the possible exception of Wuthering Heights, has stayed with me as tenaciously as this ingenious mapping of a supernatural story from The Mabinogion on to the love-triangle of three bored 1970s teenagers in Wales. I interviewed Garner last October, knees buckling with awe, and he gobsmacked me by saying that the key to the story is Alison's period pains. (She has a 'bellyache' in the opening lines.) And then he burst out laughing, so I don't know whether he was pulling my leg or not.

2) Devil-in-the-Fog by Leon Garfield. Or Smith. Or Black Jack ... anything you can find by this master of 18th-century atmosphere. Does anyone read Garfield any more? They should. Enter a world of cut-throats, highwaymen, sinister pursuers and plucky little street urchins. No one did the kids' eye view better.

3) The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. If it's good enough for J K Rowling, it's good enough for me. Orphaned Maria Merryweather goes to live with her uncle in Moonacre Manor in Devonshire and transforms the entire valley, bringing lost lovers together, unravelling a family curse and even glimpsing the visionary 'little white horse' - all the while having perfectly wonderful feasts. How I longed to be a 'Moon Merryweather' when I was young. A few years ago in Hay-on-Wye, I snapped up an early edition with the original illustrations by C Walter Hodges, the version I'd read as a child. The plate showing Maria's turret bedroom represents every little girl's dream.

4) The School at the Chalet by Elinor M Brent-Dyer. The school saga to end all school sagas, a riot of gymslips, japes, 1920s slang, alternate days spent speaking French, English and German and at least one near-fatality per term via avalanches, floods and frozen lakes. This first episode introduces a group of girls who, living through a series of 50+ titles, prove unable ever after to form adult relationships, instead remaining 'a Chalet girl for ever'. They didn't have break; they had 'Kaffee und Kuchen', and the school washrooms were called 'splasheries'. So glamorous. I was very disappointed, when I got to boarding school, to find that the beds were not all cubicled off with 'gay cretonne curtains'.

5) The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston. The mesmerising tale of a young boy, Tolly, who goes to live with his grandmother in an ancient house called Green Knowe, where time doesn't flow quite the way it should. From the dramatic flooded opening, where Tolly arrives by boat with Boggis the gardener, to the glorious Christmas scenes of the closing chapters, Boston's magic never falters. As an adult I discovered that 'Green Knowe' actually exists and that many of the unusual items described are still in situ. Also highly recommended is The Chimneys of Green Knowe, where Tolly meets a little blind ghost. Will raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

6) The Country Child by Alison Uttley. From childish fantasy to the bleak reality of life on a remote Derbyshire farm in the late 19th century. Susan Garland's walk to school is long, lonely and scary and she has few friends beyond her imagination, yet that is enough to transform her life into a thing of wonder, and Uttley describes the natural world with dew-fresh eyes. The frugal Christmas chapter would teach any spoilt modern child about the real meaning of austerity.

7) Ghost stories: hmmm, what to choose, the mournful When Marnie Was There, or The Ghosts by Antonia Barber (made into the Lionel Jeffries film, The Amazing Mr Blunden)? No, I think I'll go for Penelope Lively's chilling and stylish The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, in which a wicked spectre is disturbed, causing trouble for a young boy. It's absolutely terrifying.

8) The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. Imaginative fantasy set in England at the time of King James III, where two spirited young girls have to fight against the machinations of their wicked governess, Miss Slighcarp. The orphanage scenes are nightmarish, and the titular wolves, when they are glimpsed, are scary but beautiful, denizens of a stranger world. In later books in the series, Aiken inexplicably chooses to foreground Dido Twite, one of her most tedious characters.

9) A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Hmmm, I see a theme emerging here. I must have been drawn to harrowing tales of orphan fortitude. Sara Crewe joins Miss Minchin's Academy as a wealthy heiress, but when her father dies she is promptly relegated to the attic and a regime of punishment, starvation and scorn. Sara is is a wonderful heroine, kindly, imaginative and empathetic. And who wouldn't warm to the motto: 'Every girl is a princess - it's her right.'

10) Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. This wasn't around when I was a nipper, but even adults occasionally have to be reminded of the sheer joy of being utterly consumed by a novel. The tale of Lyra Belacqua, armoured bears, daemons and Gyptians did it for me.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

How to be a Great Reviewer

Katy Guest, the literary editor at the Independent on Sunday, has written an very interesting piece on the gender imbalance in reviewing, quoting my recent blog on the topic and kindly calling me her 'brilliant predecessor' (thanks Katy!).


Katy mentions the male critics who send lists of books they'd like to review with handy notes including the publisher, pub date, author and why they are qualified to review it. Women never do that, she says (I recognise the phenomenon well). This is a key point - everyone likes to have their life made easier, especially hard-pressed literary editors.

I know, don't all sob at once - it is the world's greatest job - but books pages are under incredible pressure. They don't tend to sell ads and are vulnerable to the essentially philistine nature of newspapers. (I have sat through many an editorial conference where about 50 per cent of the time was spent talking about football.) They are squeezed for space and budget. As Katy notes, lit eds tend to be women but the cynic in me sees this as more of a sign how low status the job is, rather than as a sign of equality. I don't think there are many female sports editors out there...

Anyway, if some helpful chap comes along and makes your job easier at a stroke, why search elsewhere? Here are my other top tips for reviewers - female and male. You will be beloved of your commissioning editor if you bear them in mind.

1) Ask for a word count and deadline. Stick to them. Do not ring up on the day and say, 'Yeah, but what's the real deadline?' Or 'When do you go to press?'

2) If you include at the top of your review the title, author, publisher, price and your byline, if you file on time and keep to the word count, you will instantly be in the top 20 per cent of the lit ed's current reviewers. (I am of course assuming the basics: that you can write...)

3) If reviewing non-fiction, do not summarise the entire contents of the book then say at the end: 'A fascinating story, well told by X'.

4) Or if you do, when rung up and asked to add critical comment, don't say, 'Well you didn't give me enough space for that.'

5) If reviewing fiction, do not give away the plot - as a rule of thumb you can talk about the first third of a novel in detail, but even then do not give away major twists. (Jacket blurb writers often don't adhere to this rule, surprisingly.)

6) Be very sparing with the word 'I'. Obviously you have to have an opinion, and state it, but more than one or two appearances in a review sounds weird. Aim for something more Olympian.

7) Entertain the reader. Do not sell the book. That's not your job.

8) Do not refer to the blurb or any cringe-making formula cooked up by the publishers, however annoying. It's probably not the author's fault that it says 'a Ulysses for the 21st century' on the jacket.

9) Never say a book is a good toilet book (unless it's called 'The Good Toilet Book'). It is not a compliment. No one spends a year writing just to conjure up the mental image of you straining on the lavvy.

10) Do not use the entire review space to bemoan the state of British publishing or of that publishing house in particular (because they turned down your own book).

Incidentally, don't even expect to get a review in a national newspaper if you've never reviewed anywhere before. That's like fancying doing a bit of acting and ringing up the National Theatre. As for how to get started... that's a subject for another blog.

Friday, March 18, 2011

To the Moon

The moon is glorious tonight. Here's one of my favourite poems. It's from Astrophel and Stella, a lovely sonnet sequence by Sir Philip Sidney.


With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies ! 
How silently, and with how wan a face ! 
What, may it be that even in heavenly place 
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries? 
Sure, if that long with love-acquainted eyes 
Can judge of love, thou feel'st a lover's case; 
I read it in thy looks;  thy languisht grace 
To me that feel the like, thy state descries. 
Then, even of fellowship, O Moon, tell me, 
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit? 
Are beauties there as proud as here they be? 
Do they above love to be loved, and yet 
      Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess? 
      Do they call virtue there, ungratefulness?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Oranges and Sunshine

If you like a good harrowing, I'd warmly recommend Jim Loach's debut film Oranges and Sunshine, the shocking true story of the forced deportation to Australia of children in care from the 1950s to the early 1970s, based on Margaret Humphreys' 1994 book Empty Cradles.

The film shows how Humphreys, perfectly played by Emily Watson, uncovers the horrifying scandal when she meets a woman who wants to track down her mother. The woman has confused memories of being sent to Australia as a little girl, and the social worker is sceptical at first. Then she meets another woman with a long-lost brother who was also sent to Australia. Humphreys digs a little more, travelling to Australia to meet the deportees, until the magnitude of the suffering she uncovers almost overwhelms her. People who always thought they were orphans turned out to have still-living mothers in the UK; British mothers who were told their children had gone to better lives, never knew that in some cases they were being used as slave labour, beaten - or worse. The sheer numbers horrify - around 130,000 child migrants suffered under the scheme.

Then things take an even darker turn when Humphreys finds out about Bindoon, an infamous Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers, who have many supporters. Public opinion begins to turn against her...

Watson's pale, expressive face, creased with worry and fear, is a joy to see and a rebuke to the Botox brigade. An almost unrecognisable Hugo Weaving is shudderingly moving as Jack, the man who finds his long-lost sister and faces his past. And David Wenham's portrait of Len, the brutalised boy turned wealthy man, who hides his hurt under humour and obnoxiousness, is superb.

After the preview screening there was a Q&A with Loach (son of Ken) and Margaret Humphreys herself. Margaret's real-life struggle continued long after the events of the book and film - the British and Australian governments only recently apologised for their cruel policies. The apology was almost Gordon Brown's last act in power, she observed, but the question of reparation to the child migrants is still unsettled. Loach is a worthy follower in his father's footsteps with this terrible tale of injustice meted out to struggling, working-class families.

'Oranges and Sunshine' by Margaret Humphreys (first published as 'Empty Cradles') is published by Corgi, £6.99. 'Oranges and Sunshine' the movie opens in early April. 

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...


Monday, March 7, 2011

Wonderful Beryl B

I'm on Nightwaves on Radio 3 tonight, talking about Beryl Bainbridge with AN Wilson, and have been happily reading her novels in preparation. What a treat! We're discussing the 'Beryl Booker', the Man Booker Best of Beryl prize. As is well known, Beryl was shortlisted five times, more than any other author, although sadly she never won. There was a touching tribute to her at last year's Man Booker dinner (she had died in July).

Her five shortlisted novels were The Dressmaker (1973), The Bottle Factory Outing (1974), An Awfully Big Adventure (1990), Every Man For Himself (1996) and Master Georgie (1998): a superb collection of brief but complex tales which can be read and re-read for their mordant style and psychological complexity. My favourite didn't even get shortlisted: According to Queeney (2000), her  study of the friendship between Dr Johnson and Mrs Thrale, as seen by Thrale's daughter. With her last ambiguous and elliptical novels, Bainbridge makes the past seem profoundly strange and historical truth a slippery concept.

I used to see Beryl occasionally at dinner parties. Hers was a captivating personality, droll, eccentric and charming, though there was a thread of mischief running through, or even malice; her books, after all, are very dark. She was lovely-looking; like WH Auden, she grew into her wrinkles so thoroughly that her young face now seems strangely naked.

It was at such a dinner party that she made one of her pronouncements. We should all, she said sternly, looking round at the assembled writerly throng, keep notes of who we met at such gatherings. No need to make lengthy transcriptions of what was said; just a list of guests would do. It would be fascinating, she said, for future generations; just imagine if we found out that Lord Byron and Jane Austen had been in a room together, she said. I never took up the suggestion, but there was something thrilling in the idea that in Hampstead in 2008, we might be playing a part in the literary history of the future.

Beryl always looked very frail, but seemed eternal, indomitable. It was a great shock to hear she had moved on to that dinner table in the sky; no doubt holding her own with Lord Byron and Jane Austen. Her final novel, left among her papers at her death, is to be published in June by Little, Brown. It's called The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. Apparently at her funeral the mourners sang her favourite song, Rolf Harris's 'Two Little Boys', around the grave. I imagine that by the time they got to 'Did you think I would leave you dy...y.. ing' there wasn't a dry eye in the cemetery.

The five novels are all republished by Abacus. You can vote in the online poll at the Man Booker website for your favourite (www.themanbookerprize.com). The winning title will be announced next month. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Flying carpets in Bath

I spent last weekend at the Bath Literature Festival - I was interviewing two of my favourite contemporary writers, Salley Vickers, who's just published a fine collection of short stories, Aphrodite's Hat, and Andrea Levy, whose novel, The Long Song, was shortlisted for the Man Booker. Andrea and I are a bit of a double act now; we've been 'in conversation' three times, but it's always different, stimulating and enjoyable. There's no particular reason why authors should be performing seals, and I get the impression it's not Andrea's absolute favourite way of passing the time. But the audience, in the splendid setting of the United Reformed church on Grove Street, were very enthusiastic and Andrea was spellbinding as ever.

Salley, an old friend of mine, is a very polished performer. I especially love what she calls her 'supra-natural' stories; it seemed appropriate to be discussing them in the grand surroundings of Bath's Masonic Hall, a fascinating building which was previously the first Theatre Royal. It was especially thrilling to have the art critic Matthew Collings in the audience; I caught up with him afterwards (I'm a big fan) and had a brief chat with him about the neoclassical painter Jacques Louis David. (Why? I'd just read Collings' book Civilisation and was especially struck with his insights on David.) What a charming fellow! (Collings, I mean; David, the ardent ally of Robespierre, was a shocker.)

The nice thing about festivals is the folk you bump into: like the wonderful Kazuo Ishiguro whom I met in the Writers' Room. We chatted about a newspaper article on best new writers, and about the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list that launched him, Amis, Barnes and Tremain in the early 1980s. 'Ish' was warm, approachable and unpretentious. I had a briefer chat with Howard Jacobson who was a bit more distant; the Man Booker effect, maybe. I couldn't get to his event but apparently it was a riot.

I nipped out on Sunday to one of my favourite small museums, the Holburne still being closed for renovations. (It looks fab - but what's happened to the tea-shack? Worthy of preservation in its own right.) The Museum of East Asian Art, 12 Bennett St, is a little gem: three floors of jade carvings, netsuke, Buddha statues, ancient bronze, lacquered bowls and dazzling ceramics, all the collection of one man and kept open as a labour of love. I recognised favourite pieces such as a tiny plate decorated with pink bats, a thimble-sized yellow and green cup for an imperial courtesan, and an elegant blanc-de-chine Ming vase with lions' heads.

Marina Warner is a strange one. She looks as if she's teleported from an Oxford college for the day; her illustrated talk on flying in The Arabian Nights was delivered earnestly from notes as though to a room full of undergraduates. No performing seal she. But what a talk! Mindful of her surroundings, she began with a reference to the legendary founder of Bath, King Bladud, King Lear's father, a magus who died while attempting to fly from the walls of New Troy (London): 'By Necromanticke Arts, to flye he sought...'

Warner herself flew on in this spectacular hour, taking in King Solomon, the djinns who bear the flying carpet (they are only supposed to carry those who know the secret name of God), the first balloon ascents, which coincided with the western popularity of the Nights, two 'flying bishops', one of whom, John Wilkins, was the brother in law of Oliver Cromwell and a serious scientist; then on to The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, Man of Cornwall (1730), a racy, Gulliver-esque narrative about the discovery of a race of flying (naked) beings. The talk was full of astonishing leaps and strange assertions; at one stage Warner noted, that while eastern stories feature flying furniture, such as sofas, 'Corsets, umbrellas and waterproofing is what flies in the west.'

Finally Warner touched down with a splendid slide showing a gleaming J-Lo reclining on a flying carpet with her husband. She was even more impressive during audience question time, effortlessly fielding queries about astral flying, pantomime and witches' broomsticks. I'm sorry she didn't take in the flying sequences in The Mighty Boosh - Naboo's flying carpet, you will recall, observes aerial one-way systems - but I expect Warner has that filed away somewhere in her giant brain.

The Bath LitFest continues until 6 March; do try and check it out if you're in the area, and if you see him around, say hello to the festival director, the ebulliently rumpled James Runcie. He's doing a great job.