And there's this rather nifty riposte: basically, as Nicola Morgan suggests on her blog "One day between now and next Saturday (5 March), let's each of us buy a book, preferably from an actual bookshop, or direct from a publisher. Any book."
"Write inside it: 'Given in the spirit of World Book Night, March 5th 2011 and bought from [insert name of shop] – please enjoy and tell people about it.' And give it to someone. Anyone. A friend or stranger, a library or school or doctor's surgery or anything. Then go home, and enjoy whatever you're reading yourself."
World Book Night approaches. It's next Saturday, the 5th March 2011. Quite what's going on I've got no idea, but there's a fair bit of publicity starting to come through about it and there's a big jamboree in Trafalgar Square to kick it all off. The full info is here: http://www.worldbooknight.org/
The centrepiece is the giveaway of a million books selected from a range of recent bestsellers of recent years. I applied to be a giver-awayer, and was given the thumbs-up, so there'll be 48 copies of CJ Sansom's rather cracking historical thriller Dissolution coming my way in the next few days.
I'll be giving them away at Oxfam in Louth on the morning of the 5th, so slide on by some some hot free book action.
Thanks to the senior citizens' screening at our local fleapit (£3.60 gets you a movie, a coffee and a rummage in the biscuits, plus they do a raffle as well), I caught Black Swan t'other day. And it's pretty good, though not quite the movie I was expecting.
Yes, it does all the tortured artist situational cliches you might expect: overbearing mother, fanatical and driving mentor/tutor, jealous colleagues, the artist as fragile being trapped between perfection and madness, though it also chucks in a fair bit of observational detail and, thankfully, some bravura camerawork and another of Clint Mansell's mesmerising scores.
The plot's wafer-thin. Natalie Portman is getting a bit long in the tooth as a company ballet dancer and is desperate for her big break which she gets by surprising choreographer Vincent Cassell. She's cast in the lead of Swan Lake, playing both White and Black swan roles. But Vince (in full Gallic shark mode) wants her to reveal her dark side so that she can embrace the blackness of her inner pond-paddler, so torments her. The movie's unclear as to how much of what Vince does is deliberate art-fuelled provocation , or whether he just wants to bang her. However, the combined pressures (crazy mommy, bitchy dancers, Mila Kunis's alter-ego new arrival with the ballet company) start to send Natalie over the edge.
Cue hallucinations, skin rashes, stabbings, drug escapades, blood, lesbionics, masturbation and many, many scenes of Portman blubbing.
It's not a Rocky-style triumph over adversity movie (though there are elements of that in it). There's madness and some genuinely squirmy bits of body horror thrown in; this is the dance movie that David Cronenberg might once have made. If there's a comparator out there in cinema it's probably in the Brian De Palma / Dario Argento mould of dizzying camerawork, games with reflections, simultaneous fascination with the female form and an underlying misogyny, some clunky ideas on human sexuality, a bit of GCSE psychology and some neatly underplayed visual effects work.
The ending's telegraphed a mile off (there's no surprises how this one's going to go) but that's not the point. This is a movie interested in the journey rather than the destination. Some might find it all a bit distasteful (there's certainly an odd set of attitudes present), but it's not a safe movie, and more unsettling and creepy than 99% of the straight genre horror movies out there. Recommended.
Ah, SomaFM. One of the great things about t'internet. SomaFM's an internet-only radio network of something like 18 separate music stations specialising in the alternative, the low-fi, the ambient, the laid-back, the dark. And, joy of joys, as there's a Space Shuttle mission about to launch (STS-133), their Mission Control station is gearing up to play a fine selection of ambient noodling in the background, while the broadcast the capcom feed between the Shuttle and NASA in Houston. It's a stupendous thing.
Spent an hour with a former student who's (drum roll please) just agreed a two book deal with Harper Collins! Will keep an eye out for her website (not up yet, but on its way) and will follow up with publication and associated details!
Now I like a good cops-and-robbers flick as much as the next person. And we've had a couple in the last year or so that have been pretty good. Ben Affleck's The Town is a fine film, and I enjoyed the B-movie character actor-fest old-fashionedness of Nimrod Antal's Armored.
That last movie's got Matt Dillon in common with Takers; Dillon's getting better as he ages. He's lost the pretty-boy smoothness of the 80s and early 90s and he now does world-weary and blue collar with increasing assuredness. Here he's saddled with the obsessive cop role; a guy so dedicated/lonely he ends up taking his daughter on stakeout when he should be weekend dad queuing at the ice cream stand. On the other side of the equation we've got Idris Elba, thankfully being allowed to use his real voice, as the head of a gang of professional and well-dressed armed robbers who seem to have got their training through excessive teenage viewings of Michael Mann's Heat. We crosscut between Dillon's dogged investigation as he battles internal affairs, the ex, his daughter and so on while Elba and gang (which include an underplaying Paul Walker and an unrecognizable Hayden Christensen) work towards that big score that's going to get them clear.
There's a neat first heist getaway and there's the usual male fascination with bits of procedure and planning. Elba's got a junkie sister (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who's absconded from rehab to deal with, there are Russian gangsters in the background, and a just-released former gang member who's got the plan for that last big job but who might be playing all sides to a) get rich and b) get payback for getting caught before.
After the first 50 minutes or so, the rot starts to set in. With the movie, not the story. Director Luessenhop (no, me neither) then gets bored with rehashing Heat and scrabbles around for other movies to steal from. Cue a duff free-running foot chase that's no District 13 and a True Romance-inspired slow-mo hotel room shootout as examples. We lose the cop focus as we shift to watching the gang fall apart, with as much homoerotic bonding and defocused suicides-by-cop as you can get away with in a PG-13/12A movie. Everyone gets their just deserts by the end; no-one goes unpunished and that includes the viewer.
Takers wants to have its cake and then steal some more. It's well-cast, but there's not enough for them all to do apart from stand around in cool duds and do their character thing (Haydensen wears a hat, has tattoos and plays Hoagy Carmichael tunes on the piano, as one example). There's the whiff of actors signing up because they get to play with guns and being cool about the whole project. Ultimately the lack of focus (whose story are we telling here?) is infuriating; you'll with they stayed home and watched Heat one more time because that, ladies and gentlemen, is the way you tell this tale.
Gibson, William, Spook Country (London: Penguin, 2007), 370 pages, 978-0141016719
Second in the loose trilogy involving the splendidly-named Hubertus Bigend and his mysterious BlueAnt corporation, a contemporary thriller (Gibson’s seemingly abandoned future-set SF on the basis that the now is futuristic enough) spinning together a journalist for a possibly imaginary magazine tracking an elusive artist, a container-load of McGuffin that’s been at sea for years, missing money once destined for Iraq War payoffs, iPods full of trafficked data, geocaches, weapons loaded with radioactive bullets and omnipresent surveillance.
It’s a bit like Foucault rewrote Discipline and Punish with more jokes and an obsessive interest in contemporary design; less of an obvious thriller than its predecessor Pattern Recognition (the story sneaks in here at the midway point), and more of a meditation on how weird it is to be living in the here and now and how paranoia is one sensible coping strategy for 21st century western living. It feels at once dated and futuristic at the same time in the way tech SF often does, a tone that’s spot-on.
Odd Thomas (yes, that’s his name) is a short-order cook in a nowhere dusty desert town.And he sees ghosts.All the time.He helps out local lew enforement every now and again because his dreams, visions and intuition give him advance warning of bad things about to happen.And Thomas takes it on himself to get involved.
This is a strange one.Much of the set-up and the incidental detail is second-hand (the folksy small-town Americana that Stephen King likes to do, an academic six-fingered best friend who feels like a chummier Hannibal Lecter, a regular ghostly visitor is Elvis Presley, which would feel like too obvious a choice even if the movie True Romance hadn’t done this already), and the resolution of the story doesn’t make too much sense (though there’s a lot of set-up for the four sequels going on here, it feels).On top of that is the first-person narration, which I just didn’t buy. This wasn’t a twenty-year old cook speaking, but a middle-aged writer.There’s a huge gap between the simple-minded protagonist and the way he expresses himself in the book.
That said, on a page-by-page basis, it really works.Part of this is down to the compressed timeframe.I’m a sucker for stories that have tight ticking clocks, and the whole novel takes place inside 24 hours.Koontz’s handling of time is a thing of pleasure; part of the fun in reading the book is the enjoyment of a simple thing done well, and perhaps the fascination that mechanical objects often provoke.It’s a page-turning machine.On that basis alone, I’m sure I’ll pick up the next in the series, justto see if it’s a one-off or not.I’d never read a Koontz book before (I’d made an assumption that he was the kind or writer people read while waiting for the next book by their first-choice genre author); looks like I’ll be back for a second.
Lukeman, Noah, The Plot Thickens (London, Robert Hale, 2003), 190 pages, 978-0709072331
An industry insider’s perspective on plotting, with a focus on monomyth/Hero’s Journey fiction. Useful for the practical-minded suggestions and for insight on issues that may either provoke interest in an agent, editor or publisher, or the precise opposite.
Had a chance (at the Day Job) to run the Don Chaffey / Ray Harryhausen masterpiece Jason and the Argonauts to a theatre-full of students, along with a little Q and A/mini-lecture thing on stop-motion animation. Seemed to go down pretty well (always good when a movie gets a round of applause at the end).
It was the first time that I'd seen it on a big screen (projected from a DVD, but in some style) and it stands up just fine. The acting's pretty wooden throughout, but Harryhausen's effects still look great, plus the script is a marvel; it's so tight. The old warhorse might be showing its age in a few places, but it still packs a wallop.
Competitions and prize draws http://newsletters.penguin.co.uk/go.asp?/bPEN001/qGU0EY1F/xIE4ZY1F The Great Big Giveaway! We're giving away ten hot new titles to keep you warm this February. Penguin Classics are giving away all 50 Mini Modern Classics. Don't miss the chance to win a box set of the best short fiction of the last century.
Every now and again I send out listings of open competitions and possible markets t students and others on a couple of mailing lists. There seems no reason why I shouldn't copy the opportunities here. The usual disclaimer: all the info's provided in good faith, though I make so claims as to its accuracy, and none of these people know me, so it's not as though you'll get a leg up by mentioning my name. Tedious legal preamble aside, good luck!
Angry Robot Books are having an open submission month in March. Details will be posed on their website at the start of March: www.angryrobotbooks.com
Shortfire Press is a new online publishing house looking for good quality short fiction between 2 and 25 thousand words: www.shortfirepress.com
Neon Magazine is open to submissions of prose and poetry that's "beautiful, shocking, intense, memorable, cold, contemporary and beautifully written": www.neonmagazine.co.uk
And not before time. Bit of a kick up the arse, really from a quality chap called Lee Smallwood (he's easily googlable) who was at our place of work last week delivering a guest lecture on harnessing social media (hi Lee btw!) - the net result being that I'm back on the internets (there's more than one these days, surely?) with a bit of a revised strategy.
So there'll be writing updates from my good self on the ongoing projects, reviews of whatever I've read (I have to keep a reading diary for the PhD anyway so this is essentially re-purposing material that I'm already producing, plus writing exercises that come along that seem fun/handy, as well as regular-ish updates on writing competitions (I'm on a few mailing lists so there's no harm in spreading the writing joy).
Pullman, Philip, The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ (London: Canongate, 2010), 245 pages, 978-1847678256
A deceptively simple parable, a fast-paced Gospels recap.Except Mary had twins; the ambitious, smart, clever Christ, and the humble but charismatic Jesus.First lauded as the talented brother, Christ falls to jealousy and then temptation as a mysterious stranger asks him, quite innocently, to document his brother’s life and works, to keep tabs on him, to report back.
Pullman’s writing is effortless.He breezes through across the Gospels, both replaying key scenes and commenting on them, as Christ records and distorts what Jesus is saying.Big ideas with resonance (simple messages of peace and harmony versus the controlling power of a centralised ecclesiastical authority, quantum mechanics, the impossibility of documentary or of a truthful record).A clever and unpreachy book with lots to say.
Attwood, Margaret, The Penelopiad (London: Canongate, 2008), 224 pages, 978-1841957043
Or, what happened when I was at home waiting for Odysseus.A fun and sparky revisiting of Homer, narrated by Penelope from the afterlife.Plenty of jokes and some very neat observations along the way as the character of Penelope is given a story and a voice of her own, rather than being the dutiful figure serving to bolster aspects of Odysseus’ character she’s usually glossed over as.There’s an initially annoying chorus of Penelope’s handmaidens who interject between chapters, but this resolves itself if you stick with it – Penelope’s a ghost who’s herself haunted …
Beinhart, Larry, How To Write A Mystery (New York: Ballantine, 1996), 225 pages, 978-0345397584
Does exactly what it says on the jacket.Plenty of pacy advice and no-nonsense practical tips; more of a primer for someone who’s about to make the plunge for the first time perhaps, but it’s a straightforward and honest read.
Perhaps somewhat outdated in its details and approach, but this is fine inspirational material, focusing on the mindset of a writer rather than on nuts-and-bolts practicalities.It’s a guide that often gets namechecked by writers, and it’s worth a read, if only to see if it’s worth recommending on in turn.Not for everyone, but a useful alternative to say, Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, for those who’d get more from a less gung-ho approach to not not writing.
Gregory, Susanna, A Murder on London Bridge (London: Sphere, 2011), 450 pages, 978-0751541823
I was cautious about reading this one.A Restoration setting, London Bridge as a principal location, a thriller-esque plot; I was wincing as I opened the paperback up, wondering what similarities, if any, I might find with the project I’m working on.
Phew.There aren’t any.Thomas Chaloner works for Lord Clarendon, an intelligencer for the Crown.In this, his fifth adventure, he works against time to solve the mystery of the murder of a feared iconoclast and activist from Cromwell’s era, while simultaneously embroiled in Court machinations, rumours of a plot against Clarendon’s unpopular religious restrictions, suspicious acticity across the capital and seemingly co-ordinated acts of violence involving radicalised Catholics and a long-banished former enemy of the Crown.
It’s all breathless stuff, with planty of chases and running skirmishes, though author Gregory is less interested in the moment (fights and danger are skirted around, Chaloner picks locks with aplomb and is skilled at ducking out of sight just in time – there’s no sense of danger at any point to him) than in arranging an intricate and frankly unguessable puzzle.There’s a bewildering cast of dozens of possible suspects, some fairly hamfisted exposition, and the kind of solution that makes no sense (it involves people who would never have joined forces, er, joining forces – a 17th century version of the Agatha Christie ‘two murderers operating in tandem giving each other alibis’ ruse).It’s all jolly enough as it capers along, and Gregory works well to take little bits of 17th century history in the service of the story, but there’s the feeling of inconsequentiality about it – any questions posed are questions about the puzzle rather than about the characters.Everything gets rounded off nicely enough, the guilty are punished and an underplayed villain escapes to the continent promising revenge in part six…
Perez-Reverte, Arturo, The Dumas Club (London: Vintage, 2003), 323 pages, 978-0099448594
Dean Corso is a book detective, tracking down rare manuscripts for collectors, arranging buys, swaps and deals. He’s good at his job, but he’s in it for the money. He’s not too scrupulous and he drinks too much. He’s approached by a collector with two documents to verify; one, a handwritten chapter of The Three Musketeers, the other, one of three known copies of an ancient grimoire. Corso’s task; to verify the authenticity of the Dumas. And while he’s at it, to compare the grimoires. Legend has it that only one of them is authentic. Money, of course, is no object. After all, what collector wouldn’t pay...much… to have a book that could summmon Satan?
There’s a cultural trope about bookdealers. From Black Books to White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, they’re a scruffy, alcoholic, neo-noir bunch, forever getting into scrapes for the promise of cash and the chance to handle a rare tome. And this book doesn’t let you down. Corso’s an appealingly chain-smoking, gin-swilling antihero, criss-crossing Europe dodging (or not) femmes fatale and a one-man surveillance team he nicknames (naturally) Rochefort, as he starts to unravel the multiple mysteries. It’s huge amounts of fun, rewards the reader for genre knowledge and a little bit of literary awareness, and gallops along as a frantic pace. Recommended.
Incidentally, there’s a Roman Polanski film version from the late 90s called The Ninth Gate. It stars Johnny Depp and is pretty good, even though it has to excise huge chunks of the plot to fit a movie timeframe. That’s worth a look too, if only for comparison purposes, and also for an object lesson on how to adapt for cinema (Polanski, from Rosemary’s Baby to The Ghost, is perhaps the most sensitive adapter of books to cinema out there).
Thompson, John B, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2010), 432 pages, 978-0745647869
An in-depth examination of the state of current publishing.Thompson limits his study early on: to mainstream prose fiction in the UK and the US and is careful about the claims he makes.Based on hundreds of interviews across the industry over the last five years with a range of industry figures, the book documents how the mainstream publishing landscape has changed/is changing over the last two decades.Chapters examine (among others) the rise/fall of the big chains, supermarket incursion into book retail, the growth in importance of literary agents, the effect of online sales and distribution, ebooks/ereaders, changes in publishing corporations.
It’s fascinating and it feels persuasive throughout, and goes to some pains to understand the stresses within the publishing industry which to some extent mimic those in related entertainment/media industries (online threat, shrinking windows of opportunity, uncertainty, the need to push bulk sales of some product to keep money flowing, the squeeze on less obviously commercial material).There’s a danger that the book will become obsolete quickly without updates (hopefully the paperback edition will address what’s shifted since last summer), as there’s an underplaying of the importance/impact of ebook and ereader sales, but this is a tremendous primer into the political economy of the publishing industry.Highly recommended.
Comment seems a bit superfluous, really, but I feel daft for not having read this before.Malcolm Heath’s introduction is especially rewarding, the translation is clear and readable, and reading this serves to underline all those things I’ve picked up second- and third-hand from reading dozens of how-to books and hundreds of novels: respect and understand the shape that good stories take.
Child’s ex-military drifter anti-hero Jack Reacher is stranded in a South Dakota town, a place that exists as little more than a service facility for a new nearby prison.Reacher finds himself in the centre of a murder investigation, a witness protection scenario, a mammoth drugs operation, murder, and a central American druglord’s hitsquad
All in all, a regular week’s work for Reacher.The character’s great fun, a zen man-mountain continually one step ahead of everyone else, though mysterious enough to make the reader wonder about what made him this way.The story, not so much.A villainous biker gang vanish once their plot-work is done, the local bad-guy is eminently guessable, and the external menace (a near-midget Latin Tony Montana-alike) is overdone.It’s a shame, as some of the asides are interesting (the McGuffin is a stash of Cold War-era ex-US air force surplus methamphetamine hidden on a forgotten military property, there’s a neat reversal involving the witness being protected and some of the investigation and forensics eetail is convincing) but the whole thing just doesn’t hang together.Plus the ending is rubbish, and the countdown element (the 61 hours of the title) is a fraud.One for series fans only, ultimately.
Gaiman, Neil, The Graveyard Book (London: Bloomsbury, 2009), 312 pages, 978-0747598626
Nobody Owens lives in a graveyard, a live boy rescued and raised by ghosts when his family is murdered.They care for him and teach him their ways, preparing him, one way and another, for the day when either he leaves to go back to the world of the living forever, or the day the man who killed his family returns to kill Nobody too.
It’s okay.Maybe fine in fact.But it’s so episodic a book, with supporting characters dropping in and out as the plot demands; and the villain, as creepy as he is (and part of a larger, and rather thrown away even creepier organisation) ultimately just a baddie to exist for the story’s sake.
The book operates in that Tim Burton hinterland of gothic but safe, giving an oddly pointless feel to it.A disappointment, despite the prizes its won.