Book notes: Gale, Nesbø, Wodehouse

Patrick Gale, Tree Surgery for Beginners (1999)

Okay, so it took eighteen months between my seeing Gale at Cheltenham Literature Festival and actually getting around to reading him, but I got there in the end. But the book I’ve chosen seems quite an oddity. Tree surgeon Lawrence Frost is under suspicion of murder when his wife Bonnie and daughter Lucy go missing, until Bonnie walks into a police station and identifies herself. But the Frosts had rowed with each other, and Lawrence did hit Bonnie in anger; these issues must be worked through before the family can return to normal. Lawrence goes on a personal odyssey of sorts, reluctantly joining his uncle Darius on a bridge cruise and then going even further afield, during which he learns how to relate to women,  transforming his life in the process.

I like some aspects of Tree Surgery for Beginners very much: Gale handles some major plot developments in a strikingly (and effectively) low-key fashion; and he also draws contrasts between characters very well (such as the differing ways in which Bonnie and Lawrence view the latter’s love of the outdoors). But the plot itself has one or two coincidences too many for my liking, and that’s where I think the novel falls down. I’d read Gale again, though, and have a copy of his Notes from an Exhibition on my shelves; I don’t think it’ll be another eighteen months before I get around to that.

Patrick Gale’s website

Jo Nesbø, The Redbreast (2000/6)

Nesbø is being trumpeted asthe latest Big Thing in Scandinavian crime fiction, so I thought I’d check his work out by going back to the first of his Harry Hole mysteries to be translated into English (though actually the third in the series overall; the translation, I should say, is some fine work by Don Bartlett). Detective (later Inspector) Harry Hole is on the trail of a Märklin rifle (‘the ultimate professional murder weapon’) which is reported to have been smuggled into Norway; unbeknownst to him (the reader is privy to some, though not all, of the villain’s story) an old Nazi sympathiser, dying of cancer, has some unfinished business.

The first half of this very long book kept me reading without truly taking off; the second half, however, had me gripped. Nesbø is great at creating tension, though the best part of the novel is very different in tone – a brilliantly affecting series of short chapters just after the halfway point. I’ll most certainly be reading more Harry Hole books, and I hope there are even better reads to come.

Jo Nesbø’s websiteNesbø’s UK website.

P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954)

I’ve never watched the Jeeves and Wooster TV series, but even so, it was hard not to imagine the voices of Fry and Laurie whilst reading this. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit sees Berte Wooster having to contend with a threat from one G. D’Arcy ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright to break his spine in four places (because Cheesewright’s fiancée has left him for Bertie, even though Wooster wasn’t keen), and his Aunt Dahlia’s desperation to keep her husband from finding out that she pawned her pearl necklace to raise funds, and replaced it with a string of imitation pearls.

In the end, I find myself unsure about the novel. I liked the humour – the farcical situations, and especially the limitless patience of Jeeves, the unspoken thoughts behind every ‘Yes, sir’ – but somehow the prose didn’t really gel with me. I am now curious about seeing one of the TV adaptations, though, because I suspect I might appreciate the screen versions better.

P.G. Wodehouse website

Cheltenham Literature Festival Diary: Part 3

Part 1 of this diary is available here, with part 2 here.

Friday 16th

10.00 am: Today is deliberately light on events for me; but now it gets even lighter, as the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy is unfortunately now unable to attend. I was looking forward to his talk, but now I’ll have to find something else to go to instead.

6.00 pm: Last night, I pretty much abandoned the private game of ‘Guest Director bingo’ I’d been playing. And now I walk past Anthony Horowitz, today’s Guest Director; I could have had a full scorecard!

7.00 pm: Here’s the ‘something else’ I chose to attend – ‘Castaway’s Choice’, in which a panel are asked which book they’d take to a desert island (the name of a certain radio programme is apparently not allowed to be mentioned). Apparently Geoffrey Howe chose The Good Hotel Guide in a previous year, but we get three fiction choices here. Booker nominee Adam Foulds chooses Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (a book I’d never heard of before, but it sounds interesting. Writer and Times Literary Editor Erica Wagner chooses Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. And PR agent Mark Borkowski’s choice is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve never read any of those (I know, I  know…), but it’s an entertaining and interesting session all the same. (Particularly amusing is the moment when Borkowski tries to find the last page of The Catcher in the Rye on his e-book reader, so he can read a passage, only to give up in frustration and pull out his good old paper copy – there’s life in the printed word yet!).

8.45 pm: Rich Hall is interviewed, and reads from his new story collection. I was sitting at the wrong side of the theatre to get a really good view, but it didn’t matter. Hall was excellent, by turns both funny and insightful; and his book sounds like a good read, too.

Saturday 17th

3.00 pm: A late start, as another of my planned events has been cancelled, and my first choice of replacement was full. I go along first to the Highland Park marquee, where a number of Canongate authors are reading from their work – and free shots of whisky are being offered. The author at this session is a new novelist called Trevor Byrne, who reads from Ghosts and Lightning; I’m so impressed that I go to the book tent and buy a copy. [I’m reading it now, and if it finishes as well as it starts, you can expect a very positive write-up on this very blog before too long.]

5.00 pm: What can I say about the great Steve Redgrave? Perhaps simply that he’s an engaging interviewee with a fascinating story. But I have to leave before the end to make it to my next event…

6.10 pm: More comedy, as today’s Guest Director, Mark Watson, interviews Armando Iannucci. But it’s like no other interview I’ve seen at the Festival, as they open to questions from the audience at 6.15, and get through about three questions in the next 45 minutes, each answer leading into wonderful digressions. I saw Watson in stand-up this January; he was hilarious then, and he’s hilarious now. I’ve never really followed Iannucci’s work, and am not really into political satire, but he wins me over at this session. Definitely one of the two funniest and best comedy events I attended at the whole Festival [the other is my final event tomorrow].

8.45 pm: Now, for a change, an author known for writing literature – and, moreover, the only event where I’ve already read the book under discussion. Iain Banks is as animated and engaging as ever; but I do start to wonder if Transition is really the kind of novel that lends itself to an interview of this nature, as some of the discussion feels a bit dry. And one questioner from the audience casually gives away the ending of The Wasp Factory, which I do not appreciate.

Sunday 18th

10.00 am: The Guest Director for this final day of the Festival is Jonathan Coe, at whose first event my day begins. The brochure says, ‘[Coe] introduces a varied programme of his own writing, including [a short story] reworked as a performance piece for voice and piano’. Sounds interesting to me. But, when Coe takes the stage, he announces that there’s a change to the programme. What we get is one single reading (by a female actor) of extracts from one of Coe’s novels, with a live piano accompaniment. This is okay, but I can’t help feeling disappointed, as the original idea sounded better; and I’m not sure how much the ‘soundtrack’ really added. Still, it was enough to make me interested in reading one of Coe’s books.

11.30 am: Back to the Canongate tent for a reading by Mari Strachan, another début author. Again, I’m really intrigued by this, and end up buying a copy of The Earth Hums in B Flat [though I’ve yet to start reading it].

2.00 pm: Another of Jonathan Coe’s events, this time a discussion on the place for ‘serious’/’literary’ fiction at the present time. I’m interested to see who will attend this session – the audience is (sadly) quite small; most of them are older than me, though (happily) I’m not the youngest; and I can’t help but wonder how many of the audience are just here as readers, and have no connection with publishing or writing. Anyway, the panel consists of Pete Ayrton (from the publisher Serpent’s Tail), Suzi Feay (former Literary Editor of the Independent on Sunday); and James Heneage (founder of Ottakar’s). Coe suggests at the end that the debate has been largely ‘optimistic’, though I’m not sure I’d agree with him. I’m particularly struck by how much the survival of ‘serious’ fiction seems to be dependent on other factors; it’s not whether there will be a demand for that kind of fiction (there will but, as ever, it will be a minority interest), but whether the industry will be able to support it, given that the money for it will probably have to come from elsewhere.

4.00 pm: A talk by former ambassador Christopher Meyer on his history of British diplomacy. I booked this event at the last minute, on a whim, but I’m very glad I did. Meyer is a wonderful speaker, his passion and enthusiasm for his subject really shining through.

6.00 pm: My original choice of event for this slot (Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis) was fully booked, but this one is just fine instead. The joint interview with novelists Patrick Gale and Marina Lewycka is a joy, the best fiction event of the Festival for me. I’ve never read Gale at all, and only one book of Lewycka’s (A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, which I quite enjoyed), so I’m not quite sure what to expect. But both are highly engaging (though Lewycka sounds exactly like an old French tutor of mine, which takes a little getting used to), especially when they spark off each other. Some participants in events at the Festival have been too ‘chummy’ for the good of the discussion, but here it’s an asset (I’ve no idea whether Lewycka and Gale are friends in real life, but they have that kind of natural rapport here). And my TBR pile grows larger still…

8.00 pm: Last event of the Festival – the great Barry Cryer, someone who’s been around all my life, yet I’ve never really appreciated the sheer range of his work. He’s brilliant here, with anecdotes from a lifetime in comedy, and some very funny jokes. At the very end of the session, the interviewer realises they haven’t even mentioned Cryer’s new book – but what does it matter after such a wonderful hour?

 ***

And that was my Festival. All in all, a highly enjoyable ten days. I’m glad I went, and would certainly go back. Then again, there are all those other literary festivals out there, just waiting to be explored. As ever, so many possibilities, and not enough time to choose them all…