Sorrow and anger: Books I couldn’t finish or wished I hadn’t started

I don’t usually write negative reviews of books, because (1) it’s usually not fair on a writer to pillory them in public, (2) why waste the reader’s time? But sometimes writing a reasoned critical appraisal for the record can be a public service. For those searching online to find out if anyone else hated this book as much as they did, even a negative review can be reassuring, to confirm they they’re not the only ones who gave up. Here are seven of my recent duds that you may wish to avoid.

ingsSimon Ings, Hot Wire (1995, 2014 Gollancz edition) Cyber-punk. I wish I had taken the time to look inside before I wasted £8.99 on this. After a saccharine opening scene set on a beach, this novel moves on to a revolting and lengthy description of how two addicts open up an old man’s skull to extract his hard wiring, while he’s only mildly sedated, and then rape and mutilate his grand-daughter. I can read horror if the story justifies it, but this was gratuitous, and its intention to shock was successful. Also, misogyny seems to be a recurring theme in the novel, since all the women encountered in my half hour of reading were defined as sexualised objects, associated with violence I didn’t want in my head. The cyberpunkishness is wearying, not stimulating. The cover art is gorgeous. I should have known better to judge this book solely by that.

Catherine Carswell, Lying Awake (1950, 1997 Canongate Classics) Memoir of Scottish author known mostly for her championship of D H Lawrence’s writing. I’m not sure that this should ever have been published, since it’s an hommage to a minor literary figure by her uncritical son. It’s in three parts: the first is a patchwork memoir of growing up in Victorian Glasgow, and reads pretty much like all the others I’ve read of that genre. The second part, of scraps and gnomic phrases from Carswell’s papers, carefully assembled by her son after her death, is meaningless without context. The third section, of letters from the author to a friend during the Second World War, has mild interest for ‘women writing in wartime’ historians, but, again, unless you’re interested in Carswell, there is very little here.

Vonda McIntyre, Superluminal (1983). SF space opera. When I realised that I had never actually read Superluminal, McIntyre’s third novel, since I had been confusing its plot with that of her short story ‘Aztecs’, from which she says it was developed, I bought this with huge anticipation for summer reading. I can only think that it might have been a very early novel that she published after the successes of Dreamsnake and The Exile Waiting, which are both superb. There are some very good ideas, but I cannot believe in her star-crossed lovers, nor in her space port or flight protocols, or indeed anything technical and machine-based since this is just dated in a way that her other novels soar past effortlessly. The novel’s plot matches Anne McCaffrey’s The Crystal Singer (1982) too closely, and her intra-dolphinate human subspecies is a great idea abandoned. It is SO disappointing.

woolfVirginia Woolf, The Waves (1931). Major literary landmark. I read this because it’s the second-last Woolf novel I haven’t read, and in my line of work one needs to have read them. I hated it. I could teach it as a text demonstrating significant literary innovation, as a modernist challenge to the realist novel, for close reading of the techniques of the stream of consciousness. But as a novel to enjoy, for pleasure? Nope.

China Miéville, Un Lun Dun (2007). YA fantasy adventure in alternate London. This is advertised as Miéville’s answer to / version of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and it certainly sticks very closely to the basic concept. Miéville’s trademark inventiveness is fully present, but I got annoyed by the derivative plot and decorative details. He reuses very famous bits from Tolkien, Chris Riddell, C S Lewis and J K Rowling, for instance, without much bothering to twist or recolour them, and for a YA readership, that’s lazy. The Marxist politics underlying the plot are blatant and enjoyable, but overall this novel feels predictable and flabby. Miéville can do YA fantastically well: Railsea was as hard and sharp as Perdido Street Station. Un Lun Dun is too long for its inevitable plot, which is worth reading only for the superlative inventions and the quest plot reworked.

priestleyJ B Priestley, Jenny Villiers (1947). Novel of the theatre that would rather be a play. Priestley had become a successful playwright and a radio broadcaster speaking for the common man by the time this work came out (when he was on a bit of treadmill), and this novel is an uncomfortable mash-up. Its woodcut illustrations in this edition are too good for the pedestrian storytelling, and the plot is transparently inevitable, even though it’s a ghost story. The plot is a little too clichéd, and the mechanics of narration are told us, not shown. It reads like a novel written by a tired man with one idea and no interest in letting it develop. If you feel like reading London theatre fiction read Josephine Tey or Ngaio Marsh, or even David Copperfield, because Priestley stole all his characters from there.

Amber Reeves, A Lady and her Husband (1914, 2016 Persephone Books). Feminist Edwardian melodrama. Full credit to Persephone for reprinting this as a historical landmark, and a novel exposing exploitation in tea-shops and the slippery slope to penury for a working-girl who makes one mistake. But it’s boring. Very, very dull. Full credit also for reprinting a novel in which the lead character is an ‘older’ woman (though she’s only about 40), but why couldn’t Reeves have made her interesting? I get that she’s a fragile, dominated creature who is learning how to negotiate the frightening world outside her open cage, but for a novel, more gumption would have made her a character to root for. I just wanted to slap her. The most interesting character is her sharp secretary Miss Percival, who won’t live with her own husband and strains to pull her dim and conventional employer even only a little way towards emancipation and freedom.

The loucheness of the conservative novelist: Angela Thirkell writes about camp

Here’s an extract from my next book, due out in July. This bit is about how Angela Thirkell, that most proper and dictatorial enforcer of correct social behaviour in her novels from the 1930s to the 1950s, let herself go when chortling with the girls about sex. 

Angela Thirkell
Angela Thirkell

Thirkell’s great lesbian creations of Miss Hampton and Miss Bent, who first appeared in Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940), are two marvellous hard-drinking eccentrics unconnected with the aristocracy or the gentry (who are Thirkell’s usual subjects). Their lesbianism is celebrated briskly with sly innuendo, and Miss Hampton is one of Thirkell’s strongest authoritative figures. Thirkell had introduced homosexual characters in some of her earlier novels, but with less affection or admiration, and with a clearly gendered treatment.

Thirkell’s male homosexuals were defined by their petty malignancy and coded dressing. In Wild Strawberries (1934) Lionel Harvester of the BBC wears his Fair Isle sweater tucked inside his trousers, and his friend Mr Potter has hair that waves ‘quite naturally’. Mr Harvester’s aunt, Lady Dorothy Bingham, brays: ‘I’d let my girls go out with him, but I don’t know that I’d let my boys’. But when he inherits four thousand a year, this persuades Joan Stevenson to accept his proposal of a companionate marriage. Money overcomes effeminacy, and gives a girl independence. In Marling Hall (1942) Lionel continues to be associated with malice and petulance. He has written a book about the BBC after inheriting his fortune (so he no longer needs his job), but his scathing exposé hardly sells at all. The even more horrible Fritz Warbury carries his embroidery around with him in a handbag, which establishes him as being either a foreigner or camp, since no British male character since E F Benson’s Georgie Pillson has embroidered in public. Thirkell’s appreciation for the performance of male camp behaviour is revealed in an unpublished letter of 1945, in which she describes meeting Ivor Novello in a very malicious manner. Her resentful depiction of male homosexuals seems mean-spirited when contrasted with her affectionate portraits of Miss Hampton and Miss Bent.

Miss Hampton’s obvious homosexuality accentuates her social authority and the awed respect she receives for her capacity for strong drink. She is a noted author, and first appears in Cheerfulness Breaks In as ‘a rather handsome woman with short, neatly-curled grey hair, not young, in an extremely well-cut black coat and skirt, a gentlemanly white silk shirt with collar and tie, and neat legs in silk stockings and brogues, holding a cigarette in a very long black holder’. Her first words are ‘Come in and have a drink’, which she and her companion Miss Bent do with no obvious effects. She is also a direct challenge to mealy-mouthed attitudes to sex and sexuality. ‘“So you keep a boys’ school; and in London; interesting; much vice? […] We’re all men here and I’m doing a novel about a boy’s school, so I might as well know something about it. I’m thinking of calling it ‘Temptation at St Anthony’s’.”’ British obscenity laws were stringent between the wars, making an amusing joke of Miss Hampton’s award of the Banned Book of the Month. Thirkell makes quite a few stealth jokes about sexuality that have a camp insouciance, in strong contrast to her otherwise default tone of extreme social conservatism. Miss Bent mentions Rory Freemantle in passing, and the narrative voice adds a reference later to Aurora Freemantle, but only those who had read Compton Mackenzie’s roman-à-clef Extraordinary Women (1928) would have known that this was a lesbian character. Miss Hampton’s bracing though faithful lesbian lifestyle must have been eye-opening for conservative readers. Miss Bent remarks, adoringly: ‘“Hampton does plunge so in bed when she is Writing.”’


‘The Plaint of the Middlebrow Novelist’

Phoebe Fenwick Gaye sometime in the 1920s, reused with thanks to The Library Time Machine
Phoebe Fenwick Gaye photographed sometime in the 1920s after publication of her first novel, reused with thanks to The Library Time Machine

Here’s a short comic poem to brighten your day. Written by the otherwise totally forgotten actress and novelist * Phoebe Fenwick Gaye and published (first? goodness knows) in 1937 in the feminist and progressive weekly magazine Time and Tide, this poem is valuable evidence of the cultural squabble that we in the trade call The Battle of the Brows.

Here, the middlebrow corner doesn’t so much fight back as bare all. Oh, the misery of successful and lucrative middlebrow trappings in interwar British literary circles, when all they really wanted was cultural status. Much like every aspiring writer then and since. What is it about cultural accolades that overpower the practical ability to pay the bills? Pride, sinful pride …..


‘The Plaint of the Middlebrow Novelist’

Phoebe Fenwick Gaye


I’ve written my dozen of novels

I’ve signed autographs by the score

(and my portrait in oils and my photo at Foyles)

And I’ve spoken at Harrods at four;

The money is never a problem

I sell like the proverbial hot cake;

And the libraries fight for each word that I write,

Yet I have this incurable ache: –



I wanna be known as a Highbrow.

I want my prestige to go up;

I don’t want romance – I want Mr Gollancz

– And a par. in the dear old Lit. Sup.

To hell with my library public;

To hell with a cheaper edition;

A sentence or two in a weekly review

Remains my unswerving ambition.

OH! –

I wanna turn into a Classic

– I’m as good as the next on the list –

I want some indication, from the Statesman and Nation

That I – as an author – exist.

To hell with the Book of the Month club;

And my serial rights in Cathay –

I wanna be known as a Highbrow

And I don’t care what Hutchinson’s say!


Retrieved with grateful thanks from Anthony Lejeune (ed.) Time and Tide Anthology (London: Andre Deutsch, 1956), 143.

  • Reading Catherine Clay’s rather good study of the literary friendships of Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Storm Jameson, Stella Benson, Naomi Mitchison, and other professional women writers in the Time and Tide circle, I find that Phoebe Fenwick Gaye was an assistant editor for Time and Tide, working under Holtby, and probably wrote essays for it as well.