Best holiday read?

Well, I had some great recommendations for books to take with me on honeymoon (really just to take my mind off the long-haul flights and the annoyance of fellow passengers who have zero consideration for the folks around them) but in the end, I opted pretty much for books that I’ve been itching to read for some time.

I could be pretentious and claim that the book I read on the outbound flight to Singapore, Gustaf Sobin’s ‘The Fly Truffler’, was the best read.  It is a finely written novel in that style the French do particularly well.  Here in Britain there are simply too many untalented, over-rated scribblers writing novels that are simply too long for the slight, amatuerish, mostly fumbled attempt at character development.  The blame for the crass nothing that is Sebastian Faulks, later Ian McEwan and so on lies somewhere between EM Forster and ‘The Booker’ (please, let’s not call it a prize for those are supposed to be awarded to talent).

Sobin’s novel is about a man grieving for a romance, a wedded bliss that perhaps never was – perhaps not the best book for a honeymoon read but it really is quite astonishing how the author teases the reader with small revelations that slowly reveal a more sympathetic character who, like the heroine in the short story by American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, slowly succumbs to madness.  It is not soap-opera in the style of the most recent Booker but is a taut drama that with careful plotting unfolds beautifully.

As a poolside read, you really couldn’t beat the zany, madcap and out-and-out bonkers louche adventure that is Jane Bowles’ classic, ‘Two Serious Ladies’.  Re-issued by Sort Of Books in the UK this month, the novel recounts the adventures of two women with a rather eccentric take on life at a time when women were still attempting to claim equality for themselves.  The tone of the novel is somewhere between Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited in recalling a golden era of youth that never was and the faded, seedy glamour of a novel by Nabokov or indeed Jane’s husband, the more famous Bowles, Paul, author of ‘The Sheltering Sky’.

On Twitter, I asked for suggestions for an epic, character-driven novel.  Most suggestions steered very heavily toward the literary and in the end, I opted for Wallace Stegner’s ‘Angle of Repose’.  I’ve always wanted to have a bash at this and I’m still working my way through it – it is very good – but it’s not been my favourite read…

…no, I’m afraid that in the end, it was this novel that won out by a long mile:

You’ve probably never heard of Chris Wooding but then first, his fiction tends toward the darker end of the spectrum and second, he’s also written for young adults which in the eyes of readers who talk pretentious drivel out of their arses means he can’t really be a serious author  (though anyone who’s given it a bash knows that writing for children is considerably harder than writing for adults – the lower boredom threshold of the potential audience being one major obstacle.  Think about it: how many of those novels you were made to read by some do-gooder teacher fan of Joan Lingard did you actually enjoy in school?  No offence Joan but Under Goliath really was about the lowest point in my education: it was so worthy and yet like all the current Labour leadership candidates… so f*cking dull).

Worse yet for Chris, he writes fantasy novels… and for people looking to impress other folks, that’s a big no-no.  Shame.  On them.  While thousands of morons waste thousands of pounds in Waterstones for drivel such as ‘A Week in September’ or ‘Saturday’, readers interested in pushing the proverbial envelope will already have discovered ‘The Haunting Of Alaizabel Cray’ which remains one of the most imaginative books I’ve ever read.  While not as dense as other British classics such as Gormenghast or Harrison’s Viriconium stories, after all, it’s target readership is young adults, it certainly deserves to be considered a modern classic.

‘Retribution Falls’ is an action epic from beginning to end and several times I was getting frowns from the neighbouring poolside sun-lounger as I laughed-out loud.  This book is stupidly good.  It doesn’t pretend to be literature, it isn’t trying to bring about world peace or a solution to the problems in Gaza and it certainly won’t persuade you to buy a little red knotted bit of string to put around your wrist but it will entertain.   And that surely is the point of a novel: if you want to be educated, there are some fabulously well-written and informative non-fiction books.  Too often writers – and editors – forget that novels are competing in the storytelling business with film, TV, games and as the mechanisims for information delivery become more complex, the internet.

The penny finally dropped when I was beside that pool on Nusa Dua: I have so many books on my shelf that I’ve yet to read, so many that I want to re-read and simply because I manage a bookshop, I try to wade through lots of worthy literature but you know what? F*ck your Booker-genre soap-opera.  I’m tired of being asked by publishers to read crap books that some feckless wanker from an upper middle-class background, whose writing career is subsidised by daddy when they should really have been kicked out and told to get a job and do some growing-up first, has ‘struggled’ to produce.  No sleep to Sloane Square posho… at least until you can show me a British author writing literary fiction who is actually more than ‘quite good’.  Suggestions? Anyone?  Thought not.  If I wanted soap-opera, I can turn on the telly.

Bring out the big drums and beat them real hard because one thing we are very good in these islands, whether we’re talking Garth Ennis (Ireland/ comics), Iain Banks (Scotland/ balancing general and science fiction), Alastair Reynolds (Wales/ so-called ‘space opera’) or Neil Gaiman (England/ fantasy), is creating stories that are hands-down the most richly imagined in the world today.

If this book has one failing, it is that the crew of the Ketty Jay are so clearly modelled on a very popular bunch of would-be master criminals… the crew of the Serenity.  If you loved that TV show – Firefly – before some Murdoch clone cancelled it, then this is definitely the book for you!  The good news is that the author so enjoyed writing this story, he’s written a continuation (the two novels stand-alone) which is due out called ‘The Black Lung Captain’.  Shiny!

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