The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter (2010)
Russell T Davies & Benjamin Cook
BBC Books, 704pp

There are many hundreds of books about writing – some of them are very good indeed. When I taught creative writing at university, I used to wax lyrical about Stephen King’s On Writing, but also about E.M Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer. To that inestimable list I can now add The Writer’s Tale by Doctor Who head Russell T Davies.

When this book first appeared in 2008, it was hailed as a masterpiece. Included in top ten lists at the end of the year, appearing on Richard and Judy’s Book Club list and read by millions of Doctor Who fans, I was a little wary that it would be too populist, contain not nearly enough about the actual writing process. I did not buy it then. When Russell T Davies completed his final episodes for David Tennant, they updated the book, and it was declared even richer in content. Now I had to have a look.

Constructed around an email correspondence between RTD (as he’s known) and Doctor Who Monthly editor Benjamin Cook – he requested RTD to deconstruct his writing process over the course of one episode that became a two year analysis in writing, living and thinking. That this is a book about Doctor Who is almost incidental: the lessons one can learn from this invaluable tome can be applied to any form of TV writing. As someone looking to begin a career in the BBC very soon, it has been an eye-opener and primer for what I can expect.

It is also very, very funny. This was the biggest surprise – though it shouldn’t have been, for RTD’s scripts have always been funny (a small aside: I’ve followed RTD’s writing career since 1999 when Queer as Folk showed me that there was more to TV than the serial killer dramas and dull action movies my family thoroughly enjoyed. I think I enjoyed that show all the more as I had to watch it in secret, at two in the morning, and couldn’t talk to anybody about it as all my friends and family were/are homophobic and so I related to Nathan Malone and his journey, and boy did I laugh with them too) and this book is just as funny: his lift journey at the NT Awards with Liz Sladen and the rest made me buckle over with splitting sides.

If one has even the slightest interest in writing, Doctor Who, the television industry, then The Writer’s Tale is an absolute must. I’d recommend you watch the finished products of David Tennant’s final episodes as The Doctor, as it illuminates those moments wonderfully: and made me keen to sit through them all again.

Matigari (1987)
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Heinemann African Writers Series, 175pp
Translated by Wangũi wa Gori

With the Nobel Prize for Literature being awarded on 7 October 2010, I searched online for a list of possible winners, and soon learnt that a significant number of bets had been placed on the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. The last two winners – Herta Muller in 2009 and JMG Le Clezio in 2008 – were unknown to me before their win, and I decided I wanted to at least be familiar with any possible winner before their announcement. With Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o becoming front runner at the British bookies, I glanced to my bookshelf and saw one of his books waiting to be read: fate, or just coincidence? If we ignore the white South African’s who have been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the last true engagement with that continent by Nobel judges was in the 1980s, when Naguib Mahfouz (1988) and Wole Soyinka (1986) won. It is about time the prize went there again.

Matigari was published in 1987, though in his introduction, Ngũgĩ tells us it was written in a flat in Islington in 1983. That is saw the daylight is more kind of miracle: Ngũgĩ was once held without reason for a year in a Kenyan prison in the late 1970s after a performance of one of his plays with local peasants. He wrote a novel in prison, on toilet paper, which he smuggled out of the prison. Matigari, written during his residence in London, is very much engaged with Africa of the time: it is a world of corruption, where the rich live in luxury whilst the poor live in burned out cars, and scavenge for food in rubbish dumps (to which they must pay to gain access). Into this melee strides Matigari ma Njirũũngi, a man who once worked for Settler Williams and John Boy, building their home for them, believing that one day he would inhabit too. When he is rejected, he kills them both, after a hunt over the African landscape. He heads home, looking for his wife and children, and finds a country devastated by imperialist greed and ruled tyrannically by His Excellency Ole Excellence. Police beat and rape women, children go hungry, and the national radio proclaims only propaganda. Matagari stops a police beating, and seems invincible, and soon the poor are celebrating him as a hero – he is the Second Coming, he is old, he is young, he is man, he is woman. Matigari is a hero for these times.

Out of a simple premise: a man, walking the country looking for home, becomes a symbol for resistance, Ngũgĩ weaves a compelling, politically engaged tale – not afraid to use humour or satire to make his point, Matigari sings with Ngũgĩ’s delicious prose (wonderfully translated into English by Wangũi wa Gori. On the basis of this one novel, Ngũgĩ is the kind of writer beloved by the Nobel Prize committee, and I can easily see why his candidature has been raised: if he does not win the Nobel this year, he deserves to one year. The cover of the Heinemann edition of the novel calls him: “One of the giants of African Literature.” It is true. He has the power and engagement of a fellow African winner: Chinua Achebe. Matigari is a damning indictment of a political culture that is still prevalent in Africa, and his novel remains as important now as it would have when it appeared in 1987. It is the type of novel that should be read and learned from.

La Bourse (The Purse) (1832)
Honoré de Balzac
J.M. Dent & Co, 34pp
Translated by Clara Bell

La Comédie Humaine is full of short stories, and The Purse is another. I am still in the Scènes de la vie privée (Scenes of Private Life), though in some editions it has been placed in the Scènes de la vie parisienne (Scenes of Parisian Life).

The young painter, Hippolyte Schinner, falls from his stool and is knocked unconscious. His fall is heard by his two neighbours, Adélaïde Leseigneur and her mother Madame de Rouville, who come to his rescue. Naturally, Hippolyte falls in love with Adélaïde, and during a courtship of her begins to notice the poverty that these two women are in pains to conceal. He meets two of their friends, the Comte de Kergarouet and the Chevalier du Halga, who regularly play cards with the women and seem to deliberately lose. How is it these men of title take care of two women with so little?

What Balzac does in La Bourse is quite ingenious: he takes as his subject the life of an artist, and has his artist use his skills to learn the secrets these women hold. On one visit Hippolyte loses his purse, and he cannot believe at first that Adélaïde would steal it, but eventually it becomes clear that she must have, but why? He begins to notice the sheer level of poverty these women are in, and it becomes clear: they steal because they have to. But has our painter missed one crucial detail in this picture? Through this mystery, delicately portrayed by Balzac, we slowly uncover a secret in the heart of French society: the treatment of wives of fallen soldiers: the forgotten victims of Napoleon. Madame de Rouville’s late husband was a naval captain who died at Batavia from wounds received in an engagement with an English vessel. The Comte de Kergarouet, it transpires, is a former comrade of Baron de Rouville. Meanwhile, Adélaïde presents Hippolyte with a repaired and bejewelled purse: she has done this for him, and he asks for her hand in marriage.

The Purse is seen as a rather minor tale in La Comédie Humaine: I suspect that, had it been longer, The Purse would be regarded as one of the masterpieces of this cycle. Balzac’s voice is clear and delicate, and his portrayal of these women and their friendship with Hippolyte Schinner is well drawn. Along with the previously reviewed The Unknown Masterpiece, it is clear Balzac has a great love for, and a solid understanding of, the art world. In this work, he sheds light on the life of the artist in an interesting and unique manner. It is a delight of a tale.

Freedom (2010)
Jonathan Franzen
Fourth Estate, 570pp

Was there a more anticipated novel in 2010 than Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom? It has been nine years since The Corrections made his name (or was it the furore with Oprah Winfrey that made his name?), and now Freedom is upon us, Franzen once again provokes controversy: his book had to withdrawn and pulped following mistakes in printing in the UK; his glasses were stolen and held to ransom, leading to helicopter pursuit across Hyde Park; Jodi Picoult, amongst others, has complained that the critics praise white male authors, and ignore female writers almost entirely (and she is correct) whilst Oprah Winfrey seems to have forgiven him and put his new novel on her book club lists; he has been on Time Magazine, and is said to have written “The Great American Novel.” Barack Obama even read it on holiday. It has led to one critic to coin the term Franzenfreude. So the big question has to be: is it any good? With a resounding, and almost entirely universal voice, we can scream “Hell Yes!”

The Berglund family are at the core of this novel: Walter meets Patty at university, where she is in love with both him and his best friend, the future rock star Richard Katz. On a road trip across America, Patty propositions Richard, but he tells her to go be with Walter. Over the next few decades, Walter and Patty have children, and Richard drifts in and out of their lives. Walter becomes ecologically obsessed, and uses his work to attempt to create a wildlife reserve in West Virginia, whilst his Indian assistant falls in love with him. His son, meanwhile, is engaged but trying not to cheat on his future wife, and selling dodgy vehicle parts to the US Military in Iraq. These brief apercu’s give only a small insight into events in Freedom. What Jonathan Franzen does in this masterly novel, is highlight a number of concerns to American way of life, and explore them through this one family. His format allows him to come closer to exploring what it is to be American family in the twenty-first century than any other writer.

Freedom is not without its flaws: the sections comprised of Patty’s diaries are a little too artificial, and some of the secondary characters remain a little distant, including the Berglund’s daughter, Jessica. These are but small quibbles in a book that is provocative, entertaining and extremely well crafted. I suspect, along with The Corrections, that Franzen has written two novels that will last, and be read a hundred years from now (that’s if people still read then!)

Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy Volume 1: Heir to the Empire (1991)
Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy Volume 2: Dark Force Rising (1992)
Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy Volume 3: The Last Command (1993)
Timothy Zahn
Bantam Books, 416pp, 416pp, 496pp

I’d been reading children’s stories I should have read when I was eleven: Sherlock Holmes, Jules Verne’s adventures – when I came across, in storage, the books I was reading when I was eleven. In fact, Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, appeared the year I turned eleven, and at that age I thought it excellent – so much so I kept buying Star Wars novel right through until 1996, hoping each time that they would be as good as Zahn’s original trilogy. They never were. They say you should never go back: and it is true. Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy is fun, and this, the first volume gets things off to a cracking start: it reintroduces us to the classic figures, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo et al, and some minor characters, and gives us a menacing new villain, yet the writing is never as strong as I recall, and all the nods to the classic films becomes a little tiring.

I did, however, plough through all three novels with such speed, and enjoyed them immensely while reading them, that I can see what eleven year old me enjoyed in them, and why fans of the Star Wars world still read them today. Interestingly it is not the main characters that shine in this series, but the new ones: smuggler Talon Karrde, and his secretive companion, Mara Jade, who has one subconscious command: Kill Luke Skywalker. The Grand Admiral Thrawn is an enigmatic and genius villain – he learns a species flaws by studying their art. Then there is the insane Dark Jedi, Joruus C’Boath, whose megalomania threatens to engulf the universe as a new Emperor. I kept wondering: would these adventures be better without the need to conform to George Lucas’s original vision? Perhaps Luke et al should have just been background.

Nevertheless, Timothy Zahn is a great writer for these sorts of things, and he sows seeds that he surprises us with later – the true nature of Delta Source, the secret behind Mara Jade’s desire, and he makes parents of Han Solo and Princess Leia – and that is the right ending for the love story that begun way back in 1977 with Star Wars.

The Sign of the Four (1890)
Arthur Conan Doyle
Penguin Classics, 160pp

The second Sherlock Holmes adventure sees Holmes in a deep melancholy, one that is only lifted by a visit from a troubled young woman, Mary Morstan, whose father disappeared ten years before. Four years later she began to receive a gift, once a year, and now she has been invited to meet her mysterious benefactor. She needs an escort, and Holmes is perfect… And in the ensuing investigation – which involves a wronged woman, a stolen hoard of Indian treasure, a wooden-legged ruffian, a helpful dog and a love affair – even the jaded Holmes is moved to exclaim, ‘Isn’t it gorgeous!’

The Sign of the Four introduced a number of key elements in the Holmes mythology: his cocaine addiction and Watson’s wife. It has a more romantic element than the other tales in the series, but as is typical of Doyle, he sacrifices character development for more chases. Unlike his first Holmes tale, he keeps his sleuth centre-stage for most of the action, and the story is stronger for it. There is some wonderful skulduggery here, and though much of it seems improbable, this is Sherlock Holmes’s London, not the real London, so we can forgive. It struck me reading, that it is with Sherlock Holmes that the comic book really begins: okay, there are no illustrations here, but what Doyle is create a London that isn’t London, but a world for his character to inhabit, and he stalks around it solving crime like many a comic book superhero would do forty years hence.

A Study in Scarlet (1887)
Arthur Conan Doyle
Penguin Classics, 192pp

So we come to another classic of its genre that I’d never read: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. I’d seen the films, the TV versions – including the just brilliant new BBC version, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I was once given the complete collection by my grandparents when I was ten, but the sheer size of the volume put me off. And it didn’t have spaceships on the cover. If only I’d known what they did contain.

Like Jules Verne, Sherlock Holmes really needs to be read when you’re a kid: it’s plotlines, and dramatic action are juvenile – brilliant, yes, but juvenile – and I think you respond more to them when you haven’t the critical faculties of age. Take this story: the first half is about Holmes, but the second leaves London entirely, and crosses the Atlantic to Utah, and a story about Mormons – that happens, at the end, to coincide with the Holmes tale. Of course, at the time, Conan Doyle had no idea that his character would become such a success, but it strikes us now that leaving Holmes out of most of his story is something of a mistake.

All this is not to say I didn’t enjoy A Study in Scarlet – I did, it’s fun, action packed, and has some very good detective work from Sherlock. I just don’t think it’s the great beginning some had made it out to be: but Holmes status is about to increase, and the tales are about to get bloodier, messier, and more complex, and that’s what Holmes does best.