Some of my Favourite People are Books (part one)

How do you choose a favourite book? It’s almost indecent, like whispering the name of your favourite child (kids: if you’re reading this, I love all three of you the same).

All the same, the evidence is on my shelves. It’s no surprise that I like novels. Preferably as real books. While Kindle has a place, usually in my carry-on luggage, only a physical book has pages that smell, that hide things only to fall out years later: the label from a dress, a map of Sorrento, a shopping list, a few pressed petals.

bougainvillea pressed

Unlike real friends, books don’t send you jokey emails, forget to call you, or tell you you’ve gained weight. So here are five of my BFFs.

You’re expecting The Group? Well here it is, my first Best Fiction Forever. Mary McCarthy’s iconic novel shocked a lot of people when it first appeared but it also taught readers about relationships. And recipes. Margaret Drabble claims the book taught her to cook. Here’s a passage about playwright Harald.

His specialities were Italian spaghetti, which any beginner could learn, and those minced sea clams – terribly good – they had the other night, and meat balls cooked in salt in a hot skillet (no fat), and a quick and easy meat loaf his mother had taught him: one part beef, one part pork, one part veal; add sliced onions, pour over it a can of Campbell’s tomato soup and bake in the oven.

But sex and food are not enough. I need laughter too. Enter Tom Sharpe. If only he’d made Porterhouse Blue a tad more outrageous, it would have evoked my own undergraduate days. It’s still fun though sadly it now seems very old-fashioned, especially when it’s in tiny print on yellowed pages.

There was a hangdog look about the Porter that caused the Dean to wonder if it wasn’t time he was put down before recalling that Skullion was after all a human being and that he had been misled by the metaphor.

Also in my BFF list is Coming From Behind. If you think Cambridge is riotous, wait till you get to the Polytechnic, Wrottesley, as described by Howard Jacobson. Here’s what the staff are up to.

Sefton Goldberg, on all fours above her, his knees and elbows glued with the perspiration of effort and anxiety to the polytechnic linoleum, as naked as Noah but for the academic gown and hood which Mrs Shorthall insists he wears, it being degree day, hopes to God he has remembered to lock his door.

I can’t leave out master storyteller Harlan Coben. So he isn’t exactly Tolstoy, but then his protagonist isn’t Vronsky, as any fool can see. The opening of Darkest Fear is a real doozy, as Myron Bolitar might put it.

An hour before his world exploded like a ripe tomato under a stiletto heel, Myron bit into a fresh pastry that tasted suspiciously like urinal cake.

“Well?” Mom prompted.

Myron battled his throat, won a costly victory, swallowed. “Not bad.”

Brave man. But how would the Jersey Boy fare against Jackson Brodie, Kate Atkinson’s erratic empathic detective? Her books are to me an irresistible mix of crime story and emotional drama though people can’t always agree on a definition. The quote on the front of One Good Turn calls it a literary novel, while according to a review on the back, the same book is a ‘detective novel that is better than a whole shelf full of literary fiction.’

Did I mention Brodie is also hapless?

He had never been in a jail cell before. He had put people in them, and taken people out of them, but he had never actually been locked in one himself. Nor had he journeyed from a holding cell to a sheriff court in the back of a Black Maria, which was like travelling in a cross between a public convenience and what he imagined a horsebox would be like.

No, One Good Turn may not be literary fiction, but it’s pacy and witty. I love her use of multiple viewpoints, which I believe allows more plot intricacies and development of lesser characters. No great coincidence that I chose to write One Night at the Jacaranda from more than one point of view.

old books

Are these some of your best friends too? In part two, I’ll reveal a few more of my favourite companions.


The Best Sex Ever

A great sex scene in a novel is like happiness.  When you see it, you know.

But it’s not easy to nail. The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award – rightly feted at the In and Out Club in London – was launched in 1993. Infrared’s author Nancy Huston scoped the prize in 2012 with unforgettable imagery like “my sex swimming like a fish in water”. I’m guessing it gets harpooned later.

Mounting often features in sex scenes but Rowan Somerville tweaked the cliché: “like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too-blunt pin he screwed himself into her”. As Somerville said when accepting the award, there’s nothing more English than bad sex.

Just choosing the words is a challenge. Will they be biologically correct, or do you prefer words you don’t want the kids to repeat? Maybe there’ll be some common metaphors, or fancy phrases like Ben Masters’ ‘elfin grot’. Some writers shoehorn in some long words like anaconda, rissorgimento and philately. It makes readers think they’re erudite, or at least that they own a dictionary.

One of my favourite writers is Penelope Lively who does unresolved sexual tension better than anyone I know. Now and then we still get to go all the way. Bliss. Instead of using the whole thesaurus, she uses all the senses, as in The Photograph.

He spreads his coat on the grass, puts her down on it. She kicks off her trousers. It is the most urgent sex he can ever remember, a glorious immediacy, pinned forever in that place – the wind, the smell of crushed grass, some small piping bird, sheep moving about.

Lively doesn’t need to say that the grass is scratchy on the skin.  Why else would Glyn put his coat down?

Not all readers are after the same thing. Sometimes raw and raunchy fit the bill perfectly, as in Mel Sherratt’s Taunting the Dead.

She ran the tip of her tongue up and down his shaft as he held her head in place. Might as well get it over with and then she could be on her way.

Maggie O’Farrell’s After You’d Gone has this study of Alice losing her virginity.

She begins counting the punching thrusts to try to block out the consciousness of this heaving, panting body thrashing about on top of hers. At number seventy-eight, she feels his back arch and at seventy-nine, he does a kind of prolonged rigid shudder and collapses on to her, breathing hard.

That was infinitely sad. For making sex funny, you have to hand it to Howard Jacobson. Here’s a passage from Coming from Behind.

Now that his gown has ridden up his back and hangs over his face, he is as blind as a school photographer, and it is his other end anyway… which confronts the door.

For me, there’s one criterion above all that’s the hallmark of a good sex scene. It’s the one I use in my fiction, and it’s simply this: when you read about the characters having it off, does it turn you on?

I’d love to hear what you look for in a fictional sex scene and who your favourite authors are.