The News Where You Are, by Catherine O’Flynn

Copy courtesy Bond Street Books -- click cover for info

So what do you want from a good summer read? Enough plot to keep you going, but not so much that the book can’t be put down for a grilled steak or holiday conversation. A (limited) cast of central characters, ideally offbeat enough to keep attention engaged. Bits of humor. And perhaps a sardonic comment or two on the modern world.

Catherine O’Flynn’s first novel, What Was Lost, attracted substantial critical and prize attention — winner of the Costa First Novel Award and longlisted for both the Booker and Orange Prizes. While I don’t think her second novel will get quite that much jury attention (it is a bit thin on the literary side of things), it is a highly enjoyable read and I am sure it will do well on the sales front. O’Flynn hits on all of the checklist above — if you are looking for a book for the cottage or beach (or even just an entertaining break, as I was) this one succeeds.

The main character, Frank Allcroft, is a television news anchor on Heart of England Reports, one of those regional news shows that every country seems to have but which almost nobody watches. Amend that; we have all seen a version of this dreadful show. Actually, let’s deal with the show first:

Sometimes Frank would see a film, usually American, set in and around a newsroom. He struggled to find any parallels with his own work environment. The journalists were always either hard-bitten cynics or wide-eyed idealists — never the kind of shuffling unspectacular plodders that he felt himself and many of his colleagues to be. Their patter was fast and littered with one-liners, not the directionless drivel that passed between him and the others on slow afternoons as they asked each other about their sandwich fillings. Their Hollywood counterparts drank black coffee, never milky tea, ate Danish pastries, never Penguin biscuits, and they never seemed to cover stories about controversial new traffic-calming measures.

While the story meetings for Heart of England Reports are delightful set pieces, the most interesting part of Frank’s dreadful work experience is his relationship with his predecessor, Phil Smeadway: “Phil had some kind of televisual gold dust — viewers loved him; there had been something in his DNA that seemed to make him affable to everyone. He’d long ago moved on from regional to national television and from news to entertainment. He had been hosting a prime-time blockbuster show every Saturday night when he was killed in a hit-and-run accident six months previously.”

No points are awarded for spotting the dramatic foreshadowing in the last sentence of that quote and no spoilers will be forthcoming here. One thing that Phil has “bequeathed” to Frank, however, is Cyril. He is a gag writer who wrote the corny jokes that Phil made a nightly staple. (And you are going to have to read the book to get any of the jokes — there is a limit to just how much can be given away in a blog review.) Cyril is eager to perform the same service for Frank and, despite the anchor’s leaden delivery, the gags actually, kind of, work:

Shortly after he started inserting the occasional joke, Frank’s producer discovered through a friend of his son’s that Frank was developing a cult status among students in the city — the bad jokes were actually pulling in more viewers. Eventually a Web site was dedicated to him — http://www.unfunniestmanongodsearth.com — with clips of Frank delivering his more excruciating one-liners.

That’s enough of the work stuff — O’Flynn certainly has more to offer. Frank is the son of an architect who was responsible for eight of those concrete behemoths that anyone who ever visited Birmingham in the last half of the 20th century will know only too well. The good news is that seven have already been demolished (such is the fate of the carbunkles that Prince Charles loves to deride) and Frank will engage in a project to preserve the last vestige of his father’s work.

And finally there is Frank’s own family. His mother, Maureen, has been installed at Evergreen Senior Living in the Helping Hands section, as opposed to the Golden Days (“inevitably referred to by residents as Gaga Days”) section. If you happen to be of an age where your parents are living in places like this, there are some excellent riffs on this subject as well.

And Frank has a perceptive eight-year-old daughter, Mo, who gets more than a few good appearances in the book.

Given all that — plus the fact that I am avoiding the spoiler that drives the latter part of the book — you have to admit that there is a lot to recommend this novel from the entertainment point of view. Keep your expectations low (this is cottage reading after all) and you will find a most entertaining cast of pleasantly hapless characters who keep you amused from start to finish. No, it is not a prize winner, but what more can you ask from a summer read? I was impressed enough that I will be heading back to O’Flynn’s previous novel in the future — books like this deserve more attention than they generally receive.

A final note for Canadian readers: The News Where You Are is a Bond Street Book, one of Random House Canada’s imprints. The volumes that they produce (check them out here) would get my vote for the best physical volumes that are being published today in any country. It is wonderful that at least one section of the trade remains committed to producing volumes of such wonderful quality. I know I shouldn’t like a book because of its cover, let alone its production, but every Bond Street Book that I pick up has a special appeal.

For another take on this book, check out Will Rycroft at Just William’s Luck — he and I are very much on the same page with this one.

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9 Responses to “The News Where You Are, by Catherine O’Flynn”

  1. Tom C Says:

    We have a radio station just like that – they often plead with the listeners to ring in with stories. I think I’d enjoy that – if I had the time to fit it in. I have a holiday in September- perhaps then

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m pleased. I really liked What was Lost, and while I’d have been happy with a more literary effort I’m happy with this too. It sounds enjoyable, reasonably well written and not too serious. Sometimes that’s just what’s needed.

    A very cheering post Kevin. I’m rather looking forward to it now.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom, Max: I think the entertaining, well-observed, well-written book sometimes tends to get overlooked. This novel is by no means perfect but it certainly is an enjoyable read. Max’s enthusiasm for What Was Lost has registered with me before and it is tucked away in a corner for sometime when I want a bit of entertaining, but serious, escapism. Indeed, I might have picked it up had not this one come to the door. I do recommend it.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: I should also mention that about every 20 or 30 pages you will get another reminder of your radio station. As I noted, it was my favorite part of the book.

  5. kimbofo Says:

    I’ve already bumped this one to the top of my TBR after I read William’s review on the weekend. I did think of you when I heard about this book, if only because of it’s “journalistic” theme.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: Not quite up to The Imperfectionists for me, but very, very close which did make it an enjoyable read. And I will admit that the takeoffs on British regional news broadcasts are somewhat special (if perhaps specialized). Read it in the right escapist mood and I think you will quite enjoy it. Then move on to some very important translated Central European work. :-)

  7. kimbofo Says:

    By the way, not sure I like the cover of your version – it almost looks as if the book is What Was Lost and not The News Where You Are. The two titles seem to be competing with one another.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I am glad that you asked about the cover, because I have been pondering the issue. (And I do like it better than the UK cover.)

    On the one hand, the type size and placement clearly are meant to appeal to buyers of O’Flynn’s previous novel. Her name is the biggest type and the reference to What Was Lost is almost as big as to the title of this novel. Which would seem to downplay this book

    On the other hand, the images do capture the spoiler element that I have been avoiding — it is a better cover after you have read the book than before.

    And the more obvious choice of featuring a portrait of Frank in the studio would not have worked at all. The mistiness of this cover is quite appropriate.

    So, I would say the designer figured that previous reputation was supposed to be the key element — but he/she would slip in an observation on this book as well. Definitely not my favorite design of the year, but it fits very well with the highly professional production of the book. I’d give it a B.

  9. Shelley Says:

    My characters experience a number of losses, and that title “What Was Lost” immediately made me think of the poem “One Art,” which starts with the line “the art of losing,” by Elizabeth Bishop. It’s really worth reading.

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