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).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What does the FT smell like?

Perfumes: The Guide changed my life. I bought my first bottle of Mitsouko aged 17, adored Opium and Paloma Picasso, grabbed something from the duty free every time I went abroad. I never rated the idea of the 'signature perfume' - as weird to me as never changing your pants - but once tested a theory that if you wear the same perfume for your first seven dates, it will always remind him of you. There might be a guy out there who still sobs when passing the Guerlain counter.

So when I saw the book in Profile's catalogue, I instantly requested an interview with its authors, husband and wife team Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. We spent a happy hour in Profile's offices, discussing many things, most memorably the smell of 'dirty tampon'. I went out and vastly increased by perfume collection. I may be poorer, but I smell divine.

Why is the book so brilliant? Because of the superlative writing. Turin and Sanchez write perfect, poised, epigrammatic sentences, as steely and as soaringly beautiful as a suspension bridge. Who but Turin would describe a perfume in aeronautical terms? ('This thing is so huge, gleaming, overengineered, and chock-full of counterrotating planetary gears that you feel all you can do is let it tower over you while you walk around it and kick the huge tires': Ubar.)

A suspected reformulation leaves two elements of Patou's Sublime seeming 'as if the two boulders had been replaced with papier-mache rocks of the sort that stagehands push around during operatic scene changes'. The reduced and cheapened Cabochard reminds him of once seeing Peter O'Toole on the Tube: 'ravaged by years of abuse, gaunt, bleary-eyed, prematurely aged, heartbreaking'. And only Turin has ever made me fall about laughing at a perfume counter: of Clean Provence, he merely observes: 'I lived in Provence for eight years and mercifully never encountered this extraordinary accord of cheap gin-and-tonic and wet concrete.'

Sanchez is both more earthy and more practical. One perfume will enable you to 'fake hygiene when your plumbing's on the fritz'. A forgettable Guerlain resembles 'that whoosh that comes out of the dryer when I open the door'. When you're on the New York sidewalk in a heatwave and 'good and bad smells... nearly comb your hair as they rake past', what you want is 'Bulgari Pour Femme, wafting up from your cleavage'. Lush's Superworldunknown makes her feel 'giddy disbelief, as if Venus were suddenly emerging from a Manila trash heap'.

So much did I love this book that for a while it looked as though my perfume taste would be trapped in 2009, like one of those ladies who decides never to change the hairstyle that suited her at 25. There are 500 new fragrance launches a year - how to assess them without my beloved Guide to help? But then I realised that a year of haunting niche perfume shops and department stores had given me confidence in my own taste. It's not as if they always approved of my favourites anyway: Ombre Rose, according to Turin comes from a 'planet inhabited by flesh-eating Barbies'.

When I left the Financial Times book desk, knowing of my passion, my colleagues gave me a sizable gift voucher for Penhaligons. This turned out to be no easy choice: were they aware just how many perfumes Penhaligons put out? After several visits and fistfuls of smelling strips, the choice narrowed to three: Violetta, approved by the Guide (but I already had two violet perfumes); Amaranthine by Bertrand Duchaufour (similar, to my mind, to his Traversee du Bosphore for L'Artisan Parfumeur, and anyway, I preferred TdB's drydown) and his new fragrance Sartorial.

This immediately appealed to me as an 'abstract' perfume. The story goes that Duchaufour was fascinated by the secret world of Savile Row tailors, and spent a week in one, sniffing the air and ruminating on an accord of cloth, metal, wood and chalk, with a bit of beeswax (used to wax the thread, apparently). This sort of crazy-professor behaviour is quite normal for noses.

Penhaligons commissioned an amusing trailer for the perfume:


Though witty, this rather overdoes the guyishness. One of the great aims of the Guide is to break down this idea that certain fragrances are male, others female. Turin in particular wants to bring back the 'masculine floral' - brave man - and both like to end a perfume review with 'would make a great masculine'. Some of their suggestions - Rochas' Byzance? - would seem, as Turin says in another context 'solely for the very gay or the impeturbably straight'.

But mixing it up is good. I own several 'masculines' or borderlines,  and while there are times when even wearing Jicky makes you feel as though you're sporting Y-fronts and talking in a deep voice, no one else will guess your secret. Sartorial begins as a very proper cologne, which gradually, like the FT, lets slip a winning touch of individuality, even eccentricity, as you get to know it better. It features unusual-sounding ingredients such as 'ozonic effect'; 'metallic effect' and 'old wood effect'. Personally, I'm getting a hint of that door-opening whoosh and a bit of steam iron too. In other words, it's like opening a drawer and finding a perfectly laundered crisp shirt, which yet retains a whiff of the beloved's scent. A perfect memento of my happy time spent among the 'suits'.

Friday, April 15, 2011

And the winner is...

Here's a handy tip for shortlisted authors attending a prize announcement: bring an entourage. I'm not knocking the book crowd, but there were more sharp haircuts and tattoos than is usual for a literary event at the celebration for the Authors Club Best First Novel Award.

Last night at the champagne bar of Waterstone's Piccadilly, author Joanne Harris had the difficult task of picking a winner from six disparate and equally brilliant titles: Dan Smith's Brazil-set thriller, Dry Season ('I've always had a soft spot for ex-priests,' Harris said); Emma Henderson's moving, off-kilter love story Grace Williams Says it Loud; L R Fredericks' erudite, metaphysical country-house drama Farundell; Kishwar Desai's Witness the Night, with its feisty female sleuth uncovering the tragedy of female foeticide in India; London Triptych, Jonathan Kemp's evocation of three voices of gay London from the era of Oscar Wilde onwards; and The Still Point, Amy Sackville's lovely novel twining together the story of a tragic Arctic expedition and that of a modern woman adrift in her own life.

The prize has a unique selection process: books submitted by publishers for consideration are dispatched to members of the Authors Club for assessment (one of the perks of membership is a constant flow of novels from September to February). The members submit detailed and often painfully frank reports to a panel, chaired by me, which also discusses the submissions in depth, over many a glass of wine. It's a broadly democratic process whereby the books that receive the highest number of positive reports go through. 

However, a book that everyone agrees on could also be a bland, box-ticking exercise, or a perfectly executed creative writing course novel. That's where the panel, formed of agents, authors and critics, comes in. We're there to champion difficult, experimental, original work of high literary quality. Sometimes we end up shortlisting something we can't all agree on, but have had the most enjoyable and lengthy arguments about.

By the end of this protracted process we're pretty confident that our six shortlisted books have tangible literary merits and will appeal to a broad range of readers. 'They've all got plots!' Joanne Harris said approvingly. In her speech, she had kind and perceptive comments to make about all the titles and then  (drum roll) announced that the winner was... London Triptych!

And Jonathan Kemp's entourage went crazy. There were shrieks, cheers, even a few sobs, and Kemp momentarily disappeared into a whirl of hugs. It was a thrilling moment that convinced us all that the right decision had been made. Even more thrilling was the way the other shortlisted authors generously congratulated him when the hubbub died down. 

The other authors aren't 'losers' either. It's no mean feat to come in the top six of a large number of other novels, after such an intense scrutiny from judges who are all literary professionals (in an era of celebrity judges, that's another thing that makes this prize special). Read them all.

At the end of the night, the victorious Brighton contingent (he's published by Brighton-based Myriad Editions) decamped to the highly appropriate venue of Kettners in Soho, which Oscar Wilde used to frequent. Congratulations to Jonathan Kemp, who wowed us all with his charm, his whiskers - and his sexy, witty and daring first novel. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Book Bag at the Book Fair

Last year's London Book Fair was badly hit by the volcanic eruptions, which stopped many foreign publishers from attending. Judging from my visit yesterday it's business as usual, with a large Russian contingent and Europe generally well represented. It was quite hard to navigate the vast hall at Olympia as there didn't seem to be a list of exhibitors, so I just wandered about, drinking it all in.

I quickly found the Faber stand and had a chat with Lee Brackstone, who pressed two books and a July-December catalogue into my eager hands. Steve Sem-Sandberg's The Emperor of Lies is a vast saga about the leader of the Lodz ghetto during the war. Sem-Sandberg is well-known in his native Sweden, and Brackstone was passionate about his new find. It's out in July. The other book he gave me was Sebastian Barry's new novel, On Canaan's Side - I've already heard good things about this one. That's out in August.

As I wandered I bumped into a few people I knew, agents and editors, scurrying around in between meetings. I stopped by Verso's stand to chat to Rowan Wilson and to congratulate him on the publication of Intern Nation by Ross Perlin, which exposes the exploitation of young workers. It's a hot topic at the moment, so in the seminar on breaking into publishing it was a bit odd to hear several industry advisers uncritically recommending internships as the best way in. It was left to Danuta Kean, a shrewd industry-watcher and cultural commentator, to deliver a blistering denunciation of the practice. She pointed out that if you are told to come in at a certain time and given a specific task to perform, as many interns are, then the company is breaking the law on the minimum wage by expecting them to work for nothing.

Kean argued passionately that the practice, favouring London-based graduates who can be supported almost indefinitely by their parents, leads to an out-of-touch industry where the upper-middle-classes are disproportionately represented. She drew an intriguing analogy with newspapers, arguing that the recent catastrophic falls in sales are at least partly due to this class bias and the lack of reflection in staff of society at large. I personally think the prevalent shoplifter's mentality (I really want it, so I should have it for free) is more to blame for the current crisis in journalism, but it's an interesting idea.

Internships have certainly done a great deal of damage in newspapers, reducing wage bills and diluting the impact of the unions. As members of staff leave and are not replaced, more and more responsibility is placed on interns' slender shoulders. But the government has vowed to do something about it. 'It's going to get bumpy!' Kean warned. Judging by the throng of trainee publishers who surrounded her at the end, the message was a welcome one.

Danuta and I, together with agent Sarah Such, stopped off for a quick drink at the Omnibus stand, where an updated edition of Robert Shelton's No Direction Home: The life and music of Bob Dylan was being launched. It has been edited by Patrick Humphries and 'Elizabeth Thomson' - ie Liz Thomson of Bookbrunch, wearing her music expert hat. I got chatting to the fabulously funny children's author Andrew Donkin, who said my red coat made me look like 'a lady Doctor Who' (I think that was a compliment). A passing Australian publisher hunting vainly for the exit urged us to get over to the Scottish publishers' stand: 'They're handing out whisky!' but I was off to the Norwegian Ambassador's residence in Kensington for a special Book Fair dinner.

It turned out to be a wonderfully convivial affair, with some old pals in attendance: the critic, novelist and translator Paul Binding, the writer Christian House, just back from Oslo where he interviewed a 93-year-old Norwegian war hero, and the crime reviewer Barry Forshaw. The new ambassador, Kim Traavik, and Stein Iversen, the dynamic Head of Press, were on excellent form. After many toasts and cries of 'Skol!' the gathered throng wandered merrily down darkened Palace Green, giving hearty thanks for Jo Nesbo, Per Petterson and the second 'Viking invasion'.