Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – Book Review


With so many books being published, it’s no surprise that publishers are always on the lookout  for something new – something that will make a book stand out. It’s true now, and it will have been true in 2007, when Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was first released.

Paul Torday’s debut novel has not one but two characteristics that differentiate it from most other novels. The first is the bizarre subject matter (salmon fishing in the Yemen?!) The second is that there’s no conventional narrative – the story is told through letters, emails, interviews and excerpts from Hansard. Two USPs in one novel can’t be bad. Although, at first glance, neither of these conceits sound particularly exciting. For me, one of them was more successful than the other.
The story is based around a Yemeni sheik who loves salmon fishing, and enlists the (initially rather unwilling) help of a British fisheries expert to bring salmon to a river in the Yemen.  A river that is dry for much of the year, in a desert climate. It could have been a very short story, but in fact it made for a rather engaging novel. I had empathy with the main character, even if he is a bit dense at times. I followed the story as it progressed, and I wanted to know how it would end. The story is slightly ridiculous at times, but that’s because the book is a comedy, and the story is played for comedy value (I’ll come back to that later). I’m quite sure that if Paul Torday had wanted, he could have written it as a fully credible serious piece.
What didn’t work so well for me was the conceit of telling the story from the perspective of the main characters through their letters and emails, through their responses to questions while being interviewed, and in the case of the protagonist, through his diary entries. Had this been followed faithfully it could have either made for an impossibly dry, tedious novel, or would have required a considerably higher and more sustained level of comedy than the book actually has (did I say I’ll come back to that later?)

To avoid the book being either dull, or a prolonged stand-up routine, the author had a cunning plan. He cheated. Diary entries, correspondence and answers to interview questions are all just thinly disguised narrative. Amusing, engaging, interesting narrative, but narrative all the same. I don’t know, maybe I’m too uptight, but if an author tells me they’re giving me a piece of business correspondence, I kind of expect it to read like a piece of business correspondence. If it launches into an explanation of how the writer’s marriage is going wrong, complete with real-time dialogue exchanges, then I can’t help noticing that’s just not how business correspondence works.

Likewise with interview responses. I’ve seen extracts from the kind of interviews that are portrayed in the book. I’ve seen high-profile characters being grilled by commons select committees. They often have something to hide. They’re generally guarded, cautious, nervous, indignant, untrusting. I’ve never seen them chatty. I’ve never seen them go off on a ‘by-the-way’ tangent, relate a conversation (with complete word-for-word dialogue), give away personal secrets of the people they’re being asked about, tell a story they don’t absolutely have to tell, with all the descriptive ephemera of a novel. All of this did what for me is a cardinal sin for a writer of fiction – it disturbed my willingness to suspend my disbelief.
I managed to put my difficulty with the format to the back of my mind, and I did enjoy the book, although there were a few times when it became  bit tedious (such as the extracts from the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary’s unpublished memoirs). The reading group notes emphasise the contrast portrayed in the story between the secular west, and the faith-based societies of the middle east. They ask; ‘Which world comes out with most credit, do you think?’ There is a growing strand of mysticism as the book progresses, but though the conflict between different outlooks and lifestyles is addressed, it isn’t pushed too hard – the author leaves the reader to think about it themselves.

Coming back (eventually) to the comedy value; I would say the book is rather more mildly amusing than full-on comedy. But then, I’ve read so-called ‘comedy novels’ in the past without realising what I was reading was intended to be comedy until I’d almost finished. I don’t know if that’s because my sense of comedy is lacking, or a damning indictment of the quality of comedy in so-called comedy novels. A lot of them do seem to read like the screenplay of a very weak sit-com. In my defence, I have read some genuinely funny novels (I would recommend anything by Douglas Adams or Ben Elton). Perhaps my taste in comedy is somewhat unusual.
Anyway, back to SFINTY. For me, the vehicle of the story (letters, emails, interviews, etc) doesn’t really work.  More and more I see authors shackling themselves (or are they having it forced upon them by publishers?) by attempting to write within some narrow, quirky gimmick. Like telling their story through one day – the same day – of every year in the lives of their characters (that one didn’t work for me either). I can’t see what the problem is with telling a story straight, without gimmicks. And I wonder whether authors (and readers) aren’t having this foisted upon them by publishers’ misguided craving for anything different, however ridiculous it might be.

That said, I did enjoy SFINTY, even if the author did cheat with the format. And I have to admit that wrapping up the story with a summary of the conclusions of a House of Commons Foreign Affairs select committee is rather cool. So if you haven’t already read it, I would recommend the book.

Final Note: The book is published by Phoenix, who are (and I quote) ‘An Hachette Livre UK Company’ The fact that a publisher thinks it’s correct to put ‘an’ before a word beginning with ‘H’ tells you everything there is to know about what’s wrong with the publishing industry today!

Text and photos © Graham Wright 2018

Copyright for the cover of ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’, in the absence of a credit within the book, presumably belongs to the publisher.

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Idiot’s Guide to Self-Publishing… Part Three

The range of services that self-publishing companies offer writers varies greatly. Some are straightforward printers, who will produce copies of your book from the cover image and manuscript you provide them with. Some offer everything you might need, from editing and cover design, to formatting and typesetting, to distribution and marketing. So how do you choose the right company to self-publish with?

The first thing is to know what you want. There’s no point paying for services you don’t need.


So, you need to find a company that provides the right services for you. Good places to start are the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book, and the Alliance of Independent Authors. My tips for ensuring you find the right company are: Continue reading

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Idiots Guide to Self-Publishing… Part Two

In Part One, I explained what I wanted to achieve – to self-publish my second novel – why and how I was going to go about it.  I talked about why, for most unpublished authors, paying a freelance editor to edit your manuscript is likely to be a waste of money, and how, with limited design skills, and the use of free guidance and software, you can design a passable cover yourself (again, saving money most of us can ill afford to spend).  In this post, I’ll go through the next stages and the various options that are available.

It’s been over two months since I posted Part One. I’m ashamed. Why has it taken so long? There are a number of reasons. Life, as ever, has got in the way. I said in Part One that I was going to save some money by designing the cover myself. As usual, rather than making it simple, I’ve been working on something a bit more elaborate. I’m confident it will turn out well eventually, but it’s taking some time.
A rough mood board for my cover design

I said there was a great deal of work involved in self-publishing. There are an enormous number of companies offering self-publishing services, from straight forward book printers, to those that will do pretty much everything (except write the book for you). The process (or rather, processes – there are various stages to go through) is quite complicated.
Continue reading

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An Idiot’s Guide to Self-Publishing… Part One

The idiot in question being yours truly! Having researched the subject, I’ve discovered that self-publishing takes a lot of work, time, effort, and can involve spending what to most of us is a significant amount of money. And all with no guarantee of actually selling any copies of your book, and generating some income. So am I an idiot?
Continue reading

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Royal Wedding? What bloody Royal wedding?

I’m sorry to rain on peoples’ parade (though the royals have been reigning on mine for as long as I can remember) but I’ve no interest in the royal wedding. In fact, not only am I not interested, I positively don’t want to hear about it.

Every time I switch on radio, TV, or internet and hear another royal correspondent fawning sickeningly over ‘the royal couple’, it makes me more irritated. And it reminds me just how out of tune with society I am. Sometimes I just don’t understand people. Actually, scratch that – I don’t understand people most of the time. And I’m sure people don’t understand me, so let me explain myself. If two people that I don’t know, and are not known to anyone else that I know, are getting married, I don’t see why I should be expected to show any interest in their wedding. Any more than I would be interested in any of the other weddings, between people I don’t know, that take place up and down the country every day. Oh, but this couple are special. What, because they’re privileged and wealthy? Sorry, that doesn’t endear them to me. But it’s the royal family, isn’t it!

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m not that keen on the royal family. In celebrating the monarchy we are celebrating a tradition whereby the ordinary people were subjugated and oppressed by a tiny, privileged minority. Oh, but it’s not the same now,  they don’t have the power they used to. No, but they still draw down huge quantities of our hard earned cash from the exchequer. Surfs [1.] like me are still expected to bow and to scrape, to use the prescribed sycophantic descriptors such as ‘your royal majesty’; to speak only when spoken to, and don’t whatever you do touch the royal person. And they still have some powers, even if they are only nominal ones. Above all, again I would cite the argument that we are celebrating the cruel and unjust way this country was governed.

People say ‘so you’re a republican then’, using the word as a pejorative, as if we all agree that wouldn’t do. But what does it actually mean? Would we really need a president if we lose the royal family? It’s only the queen who has any necessary parliamentary duties, and these barely take up any of her time. Give them to the character known as Black Rod (and make his job subject to equal opportunities and appointment through a standard recruitment procedure). And then we can give queenie a modest pension and a small house in the country, and let all the little royal  hangers-on support themselves.

So I won’t be watching the royal wedding today. Nothing could make me. I did get a bit interested when I heard Harry’s father might be giving the bride away. If the bride’s mother was doing it, I still wouldn’t watch. Maybe if it was a humanist wedding, with the ceremony conducted to a soundtrack of dub reggae (plus Handel’s coronation anthem, of course) with readings by Benjamin Zephaniah, I might be more interested. I do think it’s a good thing that the royal family is becoming more diverse (it’s great that they felt able to welcome a ginger person into the family).

At least you can wish them well, can’t you? No. Why should I? Any more than I should for any other couple I don’t know. I’m willing to believe they’re both very nice people, but I don’t know them. I don’t wish them ill. That’s the most I’ll concede…

 

  1. That’s ‘Surf’ not ‘Smurf’ – although thinking about the royals does make me blue.

 

Text copyright Graham Wright 2018

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Religious Intrusion in Perth

Mrs Literarylad and I have recently come back from a holiday in Australia. In Perth, we metaphorically walked our legs off exploring this city that we know well from previous visits, but which is changing rapidly.

Down by the waterfront, the walking got too much and, like a couple of toddlers that refuse to go any further, we just had to sit down for a while. It was a great place to stop, looking out across the water to South Perth, Heirisson Island and  King’s Park away to our right. But our peace was disturbed by an unwanted intrusion when two young guys turned up and made straight for us. Continue reading

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The Vegetarian – book review

Until now, the few reviews I’ve done on this blog have been of books, and films, that I’ve liked, the rationale being that if you can’t find something good to say, then don’t say anything. I don’t like to be critical, but sometimes, in the interest of balance,  perhaps I should be. This is the time, and The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, is the book.


Warning

This review gives away a lot of the plot so, as they say on the sports reports, if you don’t want to know the result, look away now… Continue reading

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