TagTV Book Club

TV Book Club Best Reads 2012: Part 2

Time for a look at the next four books on this season’s TV Book Club list (my first post on this series is here); these novels are all debuts.

Elizabeth Haynes, Into the Darkest Corner (2011)

In 2003, Catherine Bailey is on a night out in Lancster when she meets the handsome and charming Lee Brightman, and quickly embarks on a relationship with him. Four years later, she is a shadow of her former self: living in London with OCD, her life ruined by Lee’s abuse; her new neighbour, Stuart Richardson, may represent a chance for Catherine to move on – but there’s a threat around the corner.

Elizabeth Haynes portrays the change in Catherine’s character particularly well, right down to a difference in name: the bright, vivacious Catherine becomes the timid Cathy; the contrast between her personality in the two time periods is striking, and great at drawing one into the tale. Perhaps the novel feels a little overlong as a whole, but Haynes shows vividly how Catherine becomes trapped by Lee even as she knows he’s dangerous, and how Lee charms his way into the affections of Catherine’s friends, turning them against her. In this, Into the Darkest Corner is a sharp examination of domestic violence.

Amor Towles, Rules of Civility (2011)

New Year’s Eve, 1937: Katey Kontent is out at a Greenwich Villagejazz bar with her roommate, Eve Ross, when in walks the dashing and wealthy Tinker Grey. They get talking, become friends – and all their lives change over the following year, but don’t necessarily stay in parallel.

I’m ambivalent about this book: there’s some lovely writing and observation (‘from this vantage point [a pier on the Hudson] Manhattanwas simply so improbable, so wonderful, so obviously full of promise – that you wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving’); but I can’t muster the same enthusiasm for the plot. As the title implies, we see various examples of characters’ doing what it takes to fit in to particular social circles, which is elegantly done; but, as a whole, Rules of Civility doesn’t quite do it for me.

Amor Towles’s website

Katie Ward, Girl Reading (2011)

I read (and really enjoyed) this last year, so I’ll reproduce here what I wrote then:

In Girl Reading, Katie Ward imagines the stories behind a number of portraits of girls and women reading; the portraits range in past time from Simone Martini’s Annunciation (1333) to a photograph on Flickr in 2008, and a concluding chapter set in 2060 provides context for the previous six. Ward has a distinctive writing style that creates a strong atmosphere for each of the time periods, and allows her to weave in details very subtly. I’ll single out her portrayal of Gwen –  a girl in love with an artist in 1916, and who sees a rival for her affections in a visiting woman – as one of my favourite moments, but there are plenty more from which I could choose.

The chapters of Girl Reading are not linked overtly (though some of the portraits do appear in later chapters, and it can be nicely disconcerting to see the gap between what later characters think of the subjects and what we’ve seen of them previously); it’s more that there are contrasts and connections in theme and content. For example, Ward shows the variety of functions which the portraits might fulfil – an expression of a political alliance, say, or a tangible reminder of what has been lost. Similarly, literacy represents different things to different characters; the act of creating each portrait has varying significance; and so on.Girl Reading is an intricate tapestry of a book, and one that leaves me with little notion of what Katie Ward may write next, though I do know that I’ll want to read it.

Jessica Francis Kane, The Report (2010)

The Report revolves around a real-life event from the Blitz: the night when 173 people died in a crush on the way into Bethnal Green tube station (which was being used as an air-raid shelter). Jessica Francis Kane imagines the inquiry into the disaster, undertaken by magistrate Laurence Dunne; and follows the lives of characters involved in the tragedy, such as Ada Barber and her surviving daughter Tilly (Ada’s younger daughter Emma having been killed in the crush). A parallel narrative concerns Dunne’s being interviewed thirty years on, by a documentary-maker with close ties to the Bethnal Green incident.

The Report is very effective at portraying the disaster itself: in the scenes set during the crush, it’s impossible to gain a full picture of what is happening – yet these scenes, and Dunne’s subsequent questioning of those involved, bring home the horror of the event. But Kane also examines issues of truth, and how lasting knowledge of events can be constructed after the fact; Dunne’s attempts to give a particular impression to the people he’s interviewing for the inquiry slide into questions of what should by reported, and how – and there are no simple answers.

TV Book Club 2012 Best Reads: Part 1

The new series of The TV Book Club is underway, which means there’s another selection of ten ‘Best Reads’. Here’s my look at the first three.

S.J. Watson, Before I Go to Sleep (2011)

The TV Book Club list begins with one of the breakout hits of last year, the debut from Steve Watson. It’s the story of Christine Lucas, who has an unusual form of amnesia which causes her to lose her memory every 24 hours. As the novel begins, Christine wakes up and, as ever, must discover that she is older than she thinks, and meet her husband Ben for the first time. Later that day – and unbeknownst to Ben – she is contacted by and goes to see a Dr Nash, who gives Christine a journal she has been keeping, which will allow her to unravel what led to her present situation.

When I started Watson’s book, I was concerned that narrative momentum might be compromised by the protagonist’s having to start from scratch each day. Well, the journal format takes care of that, as Christine can take what she’s already written into account, which smoothes out the flow. But, more than this, Watson uses the structure to create tension: even as Christine is reading her journal and discovering the truth, we’re aware that it won’t be an end to her problems (and I’m not talking about her amnesia). I also appreciate the way that Watson takes a fairly ‘high concept’ idea but grounds the action in a domestic reality. All in all, a fine thriller.

Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers (2011)

From a big seller to a Booker nominee. Patrick deWitt’s second novel is an introspective take on the Western: in 1851, hired killers Eli and Charlie are sent from Oregon City to San Francisco by the Commodore, to do away with one Hermann Kermit Warm, a prospector who has stolen something from him. Eli, our narrator, has been pondering whether he wants to carry on in this business, and the current job will bring matters to a head.

On the very first page of The Sisters Brothers, Eli describes the death of his old horse (and his subsequent visions thereof) in a cool, collected fashion; thus establishing what, for me, is the most effective aspect of the book – the contrast between the innate violence of the brothers’ world and the measured elegance of deWitt’s prose. The latter has a distancing effect, and as a result it comes as quite a jolt when brutal action irrupts into the narrative, particularly when it’s perpetrated by Eli, about whose capacity for violence it is deceptively easy to forget (because one has built up a certain amount of empathy for him). There’s also a strong sense in the novel of a world whose formation is in progress: in the lawless country through which the brothers travel, yes; but also in the mannered dialogue, and the half-sketched-in feel of the setting. It’s as though the world is being remade alongside Eli’s character.

Essie Fox, The Somnambulist (2011)

The East End of London, 1881: when her beloved aunt Cissy, a music-hall singer, dies, it becomes increasingly difficult for Pheobe Turner and her mother Maud to make ends meet. A way forward comes in the form of Nathaniel Samuels, an old acquaintance of Cissy’s, offers Phoebe a job as companion to his wife at the Samuels’ Herefordshire house – but the girl has no idea what secrets are set to be revealed.

I’m ambivalent about The Somnambulist. On the one hand, Phoebe’s narrative voice is great at bringing her character to life and driving the novel forward; and Essie Fox weaves historical detail in skilfully. On the other hand, the secondary characterisation feels a little broad-brush; the short third-person chapters from Samuels’s viewpoint slot in awkwardly; and the plot doesn’t sparkle for me in the same way as the narration.

Behind the scenes at The TV Book Club

Last week, I and several other book bloggers (Simon from Stuck in a Book; Claire from Paperback Reader; Keith from Books and Writers; and Cherry from Cherry Mischievous) were invited to watch an episode of The TV Book Club being filmed – the episode that was broadcast tonight, in fact. This is my little account of the day.

The sofas and chairs of the TV Book Club studio are directly opposite the set of Saturday Kitchen, and it was in front of that programme’s counter that we sat to watch the filming (doing so was what really brought home to me how small the space is; though the actual set of The TV Book Club seemed relatively large from where I was sitting, there really isn’t much more outside of what you see on screen). Two episodes were being filmed that day, and we saw the second – which was actually the first in order of broadcast. So, whilst I would have loved to witness the discussion of Even the Dogs in person, I shall have to wait until next week; today was the turn of Michael Robotham’s Bleed for Me.

Filming of the programme ran more or less in ‘real time’, and the broadcast result was not much different  from what we saw in the studio (apart from the editing-out of the moment where the panel gave too much away about the murderer’s identity in Bleed for Me). Nigel Havers was an excellent guest – great to see someone so enthusiastic about books; Val McDermid’s film, in which she interviewed her forensic anthropologist friend, Sue Black, was interesting; and the discussion engaged enthusiastically with Bleed for Me.

After the filming, we were taken to the gallery to see some of the production work, and then to the green room, where a celebration was held for the birthday of one of the production team. I also had the chance to speak to presenters Jo Brand, Dave Spikey and Meera Syal. All in all, a fine and interesting day; many thanks to The TV Book Club for inviting me along.

Photo courtesy of Specsavers: Our Intrepid Hero peruses Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese; Keith and Cherry are in the background.

Links

The other bloggers’ posts on the day:

Keith

Claire

Simon

Cherry


TV Book Club: Room

It would be understandable enough if anyone who saw the very first episode of The TV Book Club, this time last year, decided not to tune in again; back then, it was a superficial mess of a programme that spent more time talking about its guest’s autobiography than the actual chosen book. However, a new series began last night, and the show seems to have turned a corner – though still flawed, this latest episode was leaps and bounds ahead of what The TV Book Club used to be.

First of all, we were introduced to the new personnel: Dave Spikey and Jo Brand have been joined as regulars by Meera Syal and Adrian Edmondson (Laila Rouass didn’t feature in the studio, but her voice was heard in the compilation introducing the books for this series, so perhaps the presenting team will rotate week by week), both of whom proved very worthwhile additions who were engaged with the discussion. This week’s special guest was Cherie Lunghi, who – hurrah – didn’t have a book of her own to promote; after an interview with her that was noticeably briefer than has been the case in the past, we moved on to the next item.

Every episode of The TV Book Club has had some sort of filmed insert, but these have tended to be frivolous items of little value, which made Kirsten O’Brien’s report on A.A. Milne such a refreshing change – no gimmicks, just a straightforward, informative piece about an author. That’s the sort of thing I want to see from this programme.

After the break, attention turned straightaway to the week’s book choice, Room by Emma Donoghue (great to see the format streamlined in this way, too). Room strikes me as a good choice for a book club, with plenty to discuss; and the panel made a good job of it in the time they had, even suggesting a couple of things that hadn’t occurred to me when I read the book. Lunghi didn’t seem to contribute much to the discussion, but Edmondson and Syal were both insightful, which bodes well for the rest of the series.

In the midst of all this improvement, then, Jo Brand’s continued tendency to undercut discussions with a droll remark is becoming increasingly tiresome. Two instances stood out to me this week: after the A.A. Milne item, Brand asked drily, ‘Are we Pooh fans, then?’ – and, after some thoughtful comments from other panellists, brought the whole discussion crashing to a halt with, ‘Well, I hated him!’

Later, in the Room discussion, Brand said that, even though she thought it was well-written, she found Room hard going because she likes books to be escapist; Meera Syal responded by asking, ‘Shouldn’t books reflect the darker side of life as well, though?’ It was refreshing to see Brand being challenged in this way and made to justify her position (which she did, though not very convincingly: reading with a particular aim in mind is fine, marking a book down just because it has a different aim is a poor way to respond to that book).

Mostly, though, my impression of this episode was of a programme seeking to raise its game, and that makes me optimistic for the rest of the series. The TV Book Club is one of the few places on British television where one can find discussion of books (and possibly the only one that’s reader-focused), so it’s a great pleasure to see it stepping up to the mark.

TV Book Club: The Silver Linings Play Book

So, that was the first series of The TV Book Club, and it has been rather a mixed bag. The series was notable, partly for being a programme about books (of which there are very few on British television), but also for being a continuation of the highly influential Richard & Judy Book Club. Although it improved as it went along (certainly compared to the first episode, which, let’s be honest, was a mess), I don’t think the show ever quite lived up to what it could have been.

The format stayed essentially the same throughout the series: a short interview with the guest celebrity panellist; a filmed ‘non-fiction’ item; an interview with the author of a title chosen in previous years, examining what has happened to them since; and discussion of the week’s choice, after a short filmed interview with the writer. All these elements have had their ups and downs: the panellist interviews were better when the guest was talking about the books they liked, rather than their own book, or something else entirely (a more diverse range of guests would also have been welcome). The ‘book club stories’ always struck me as rather too much like trumpet-blowing (though some of the authors’ comments were interesting), and the non-fiction items were often just too frivolous for their own good.

The discussion of the weekly choice is the centrepiece of the programme, yet even this has been variable – indeed, for the first week or so, it seemed almost an afterthought to the interview with the guest panellist. Some, however, have been rather good (taking into account that there’s obviously a limit to what can be covered in eight or ten minutes): for example, I thought this week’s discussion of The Silver Linings Play Book was quite robust, with some lively debate.

But I think the greatest weakness of The TV Book Club – something which was carried through to the very end – is an apparent reluctance to engage seriously with its material. Whether it was generally superficial discussion, or a tendency to undercut serious points with a quip, it seemed to me that the show was uncomfortable with saying substantial things about books. And it needn’t be – discussion can be intelligent without being forbidding or abstruse, and, in my view, book programmes should assume that’s what their audience wants. The TV Book Club was at its best when it was making substantial points.

I like the idea of a reader-focused book programme, but, for all its improvements, The TV Book Club still has some way to go. I hope its creases can be ironed out in time for its return in the summer.

TV Book Club: The Rapture

This week’s TV Book Club was about The Rapture by Liz Jensen, which I reviewed last week (click here to see what I thought). The series got off to a shaky start, but has been improving week on week; so I was keen to see how it would go this time. In the end, it was better than some weeks, but not great.

One again, the panel was a member down, with Gok Wan away; once again, the format worked better with fewer people. This week’s guest celebrity was Martine McCutcheon; the interview with her contained the show’s first misstep. In previous weeks, this segment has been much better when the guest was interviewed about the books they like to read, rather than about their own book. The first question was about the former subject, but the conversation soon turned to the writing of McCutcheon’s novel — and the end result was indeed poorer than the interviews in the last few episodes.

I’ve always found the vox-pop non-fiction items unsatisfactory, but I think this week’s was the worst so far. It was about a book on regional dialects, called How to Talk Like a Local, by the Countdown lexicographer Susie Dent. This could have been such ain interesting item, particularly if the author had contributed — but, no. What we got instead was a comedian named Alun Cochrane travelling back and forth between the West and East Midlands, trying to find the point at which the local word for a bread roll changes from ‘batch’ to ‘cob’. That was it: no exploration of where those words come from, or how such differences arise — nothing. One could be forgiven for watching that item and not being able to name the book connected to it. Very disappointing.

After a weak first half, then, we headed out of the commercial break, and into the usual short filmed interview with an author who’d been chosen for the Book Club in previous years (this week it was David Mitchell, of Cloud Atlas fame — another book I should probably read, but haven’t). Then it was time to turn to The Rapture — and it wasn’t a bad discussion, actually. The panel had a lot to say about the novel (which they all liked); it was perhaps always going to be an impossible task to really get under the skin of the book in the time available, when it can be approached from so many angles — but the conversation brought across just how much there is in The Rapture. And McCutcheon, while not as insightful as some of the previous guests in the series, made a worthwhile contribution nevertheless.

Not one of the better TV Book Club episodes, I’d say, let down in particular by a poor first half — but quite a good discussion of the featured title, which is of course where it counts the most.

Liz Jensen, The Rapture (2009)

I read The Rapture in advance of this week’s TV Book Club; I had no particular expectations of it – and it turned out to be the best book I’ve read so far this year. Certainly, if I’d read it last year, it would have been on my list of favourites for 2009.

A few years in the future, the climate has changed for the worse, and the summer heat is unbearable; religious groups have sprung up, proclaiming that the end times are near. In a town on the south coast of England, psychotherapist Gabrielle Fox is treating Bethany Krall, the teenage daughter of a preacher. Bethany savagely murdered her own mother, and is now being held in a secure institution. She’s a difficult patient – Gabrielle being only the latest in a string of therapists who have tried to understand the girl – but it’s in Gabrielle’s interests to succeed in treating Bethany. A car accident left Gabrielle paralysed from the waist down; Bethany is her chance to prove that she’s still up to the job. What’s particularly unusual about Bethany is that she is apparently able to foresee natural disasters – and she has predicted that the end of the world will come in a matter of months.

The Rapture is narrated by Gabrielle in the first person; her voice is descriptive, measured, and rather cold – for example, she describes her father’s demise from Alzheimer’s in terms that betray no feeling of sadness or loss. She is not a protagonist one can warm to easily, yet Jensen makes her a compelling presence for all that. Gabrielle’s sparring with Bethany is fascinating to read; despite the girl’s violent tendencies and physical superiority over Gabrielle, one senses that Bethany’s greatest weapon is her articulacy. Gabrielle’s profession requires her to be alert to the nuances of language, but now she’s up against someone who knows how to play that game, knows what buttons to push. That’s why Gabrielle feels threatened by Bethany – because the girl can attack her in an aspect of life where she still felt secure.

Jensen’s keen observations don’t stop at the relationship between these two characters. Convinced that she’s never going to be in a relationship again, Gabrielle is unprepared for when she meets Frazer Melville, a physicist who falls for her. We see the complex tangle of emotions that Gabrielle is feeling when Frazer first acts romantically towards her: ‘I can’t handle it. It will kill me. It will kill my belief that I am no longer a woman. No, worse, it will revive the hope that I am, and then all that can happen is that it will be shredded. [p. 112]’ Even such a positive development is not without its dangers to Gabrielle’s sense of self.

Nor is Jensen’s acuity limited to relationships. When Gabrielle and Frazer discover that Bethany’s prediction of an earthquake was accurate, they have a crisis of conscience – having withheld their knowledge that this disaster would occur, doesn’t that make them complicit in the resulting deaths? But, if they had alerted someone, who’d have believed them? It’s not just that Jensen is examining here the issue of responsibility when one has privileged knowledge; there’s a sense of deep uncertainty over how to handle new kinds of knowledge – Gabrielle and Frazer now know things that others will find impossible to believe; they don’t know the right thing to do because there is, by definition, no precedent on which to draw.

So, I like very much the way that Jensen observes people in her novel; one of the most impressive things about The Rapture is the way that she highlights the personal, human responses against the background of grand catastrophe. What’s also impressive is that the novel works from so many directions, even when they might seem to be contradictory. As I’ve already described, it works well as a character study; in the second half, when the time comes for The Rapture to be a disaster thriller, it doesn’t disappoint there, either. Jensen ramps up the pace, and provides the necessary spectacle and borderline (im)plausibility, leading to an entirely apposite conclusion.

If there’s a weakness here, it’s exactly that – that the text sets itself free of plausibility in the name of storytelling. But that’s the nature of Jensen’s story: it’s what the novel needs at that point, and it’s done with enormous panache. The Rapture is a novel that appeals to the head and the heart, and doesn’t skimp on either. As I said at the start, it’s my favourite read of the year to date.

Further links
Liz Jensen’s website

TV Book Club: Sacred Hearts

Well, this was a major step up from the first two programmes. There are still some elements that don’t work — the back-and-forth presentation is awkward; describing how an author’s career was boosted by the Book Club in years past is unnecessary; and the non-fiction items (this week, one on the origins of pub names) might well be interesting in another context, but they don’t fit the format of this programme.

Elsewhere. however, things were far better. This week’s guest was the actor Emilia Fox, who didn’t have a book of her own to talk about, so instead the interview with her was about her favourite books. This was a much better idea, and Fox came across as a keen reader, as guests on The TV Book Club ought to be.

The choice this week was Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant, a novel about two nuns in a 16th-century Ferraran convent. Unlike previous weeks, the discussion was vigorous and enthustic — exactly what the programme needed. Nathaniel Parker remained the best contributor of the regular panellists, really engaging with the period here; but all were better than they were previously (though Gok Wan was absent this week), and Emilia Fox also made some of the strongest contributions. And, most importantly, they made the book sound interesting.

There’s a way to go yet, but, on this evidence, The TV Book Club is on the right path at last.

TV Book Club: The Little Stranger

Tonight, More4 broadcast the first episode of The TV Book Club, the successor to the Richard & Judy Book Club, but extended to half an hour and presented by a panel of five celebrities (Jo Brand, Nathaniel Parker, Laila Rouass, Dave Spikey and Gok Wan). I never paid much attention in the R&J days, but watched this partly out of curiosity, and partly because I already knew the book under discussion, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger (my review of that book is here). And I’m left with one main thought: is that it?

Each week, we were told at the beginning, the panel would be joined by a guest who would take part in the discussion and also talk about their own book. This week’s guest was Chris Evans, who was interviewed about his autobioraphy for most of the first half. This actually ended up being the most in-depth item on the whole programme; but,. as I’m not terribly interested in celebrity autobiographies, I couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for it.

After the Evans segment, the show blew its own trumpet with a short item on the author Cecelia Ahern, and how her career was transformed by being chosen for the Book Club back in 2004. And that was the end of part one.

Part two arrived, and were we now going to talk about the week’s choice? No, we weren’t. Instead, we had a filmed item in which the comedian Mark Watson asked people if they knew what various obscure words meant. (This was in relation to a recently-published book called The Completely Superior Person’s Book of Words by Peter Bowler.) Watson was, as ever, entertaining; and, at least, this was telling me about a book of which I was unlikely to have heard. But, still, this item was essentially a makeweight in a programme that really needed more substance.

And, finally, we made it to The Little Stranger. First, a short interview in which Waters talked about the book; then the actual discussion, which lasted less than five minutes. In a half-hour show. How disappointing.

So, the first episode of The TV Book Club was unsatisfactory on just about all counts. It didn’t succeed as a book club, because barely five minutes in total were devoted to the chosen book. It didn’t succeed as a magazine programme about books, because it didn’t cover enough new/unfamiliar books, or talk about its subjects in any real depth. We don’t have that many TV shows about books in the UK as it is — but new ones really need to be better than this.

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