Sunday, March 30, 2008

To finish or not to finish?

Every time I admit to my terminal evil, I hear squeals of outrage, but I think my wicked ways probably save me a bit of time. However, I clearly feel some guilt about the issue. Here it is, my flaw. I am an end-reader. I can't help it. I pick up a book, and I start reading, determined this time not to do it, but then helplessly, inevitably, without even realising I am doing it, I flick to the back of the book and whoops... I've read the end. Without having read the middle.

Usually, it happens when I've read the first third, and I just have to settle with myself what is happening. With really good writers, this doesn't matter - the last few pages are so dependent on what has gone before that I realise I have to read the whole thing to understand the last few pages (that is called good plotting, and it is surprisingly scarce).

But with books that I am not wild about, quite often, I find myself reading the first third, the last third and then forgetting about the bit in the middle.

I am finding myself somewhat in that situation at the moment. I'm reading what has been described as a literary space opera by a feted and successful author of contemporary literary fiction who has taken time out to create an even more popular series of sci-fi novels dealing with issues of culture and the role of gods in a space-age society. It's got a name taken from TS Eliot and ideas. But I just can't do it. I've read my statutory first third, I've read the last couple of chapters, and I think I can see why people regard the books as so interesting and stimulating and important. The thing is, and I think this may be a guy-versus gal-thing, I just can't take the space place seriously. All the inhabitants of the world are genetically evolved humanoids. Some are furry, some are spiky, the lucky ones have sexual equipment that equips them for Tantric marathons on a scale never dreamt of by Trudy and Sting, and they have really funny names. Gobbledeygook names that just make me giggle. And none of the characters really have characters. They have physical characteristics and a few emotions tossed in like salad dressing. But the salad dressing is shop-bought and carries a tang of MSG about it.

The book was published in the late 80s, and has recently been reissued. The most captivating thing about it was that it reminded me of Firefly. It features a rogue spaceship piloting about the universes which is cobbled together and occupied by opportunists and misfits. But, and here's where the differences come - Firefly had jokes and people. Real people, real jokes, real fears and somehow, real appeal. As a way of passing 10-15 hours, Firefly is considerably more effective and interesting than the novel. Especially as I get to check out Nathan Fillion who is after all cute as a box of Neuhaus pralines. Maybe cuter.

So now I find myself thinking the (for me) almost unthinkable thought that I shall just put down the book and not finish it. I just can't see myself wading through another 200 pages of laser zappy guns and warp leaps and people called Grunta Bunta Ferdoodling or S'iipal Gerthlockety. (No those are not the actual names of characters from this series - I am doing my best to mask the identity of the book and the writer, because dissing them is not the point here.) But my inner Stakhanovite-meets-Plymouth Rock Puritan is shouting "Read that damned book - you bought it, you read it, you idle cow".

The last book that made me feel like this was Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl, which was long and overblown and also full of characters about as appealing as a two-day old Happy Meal but was hailed as a work of genius, certainly in the US, though not so much in the UK, where I don't remember seeing it in the 3-for-2 piles or the standard review pages of the papers.

I didn't read that one right through either, and you can see, the guilt is there. I read the beginning (in the case of STCP - oops, it sounds like an amazing new feminine hygiene product when acronymed- a labour almost equivalent to reading an entire book, since the novel was an effing doorstop), the end, and flicked through the middle until I realised that it was a horrible soup of transsexual Holden Caulfield meets the Dead Poets during the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie's Blair Witch Project with some Manson-murder hooey on the side. And then I stopped.

Still, I have a TBR pile with some really good books waiting to be read, so I think I will give the rest of Godparent of Firefly a miss and make some inroads into something else. O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Perfect Hero earns royalties!!!

This morning I received a royalty check for The Perfect Hero for the last quarter of 2007. I couldn't quite believe it - somebody had bought the book! In face several people! Whoopee! And thank you, whoever you are.

If anyone else wants to join the throng, you can go to Fictionwise and find the book at this link:

Now I have to work out how to cash the cheque without wiping out its value in bank charges;-)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Skylight Confessions, the Wall Street Journal and dissing romance

A friend sicced me onto Alice Hoffman last year, and I've read two of her novels, Blue Diary and now Skylight Confessions.

I really enjoyed Blue Diary, which I thought was clever and interesting and true to itself and its world. But I wasn't sure about Skylight Confessions. It's a family story, with layers of mysticism and interweaving of fairy tale ideas: the house which is central to the story is called The Glass Slipper, frex, and there is a haunting. There is love, but I wouldn't call this a love story. My real problem with it was that once you stripped away the rather fey allusions, the story of a family in meltdown was fairly banal and the characters also. Uptight, enclosed, emotionally repressed father, check, beautiful, neglected wife, check, tortured genius son, check, predatory tennis-playing next door neighbour, check, good little girl trying to make reparation for the family's shortcomings, check, saintly but secretive nanny, check.

The setting was what sets the book apart, but in this instance, it just wasn't enough. There were moments when the symbols and the story tied up, but then I also think that if you are reading a book the symbols shouldn't come up and slap you in the face like so many fresh on the slab fillets of plaice.

However, having read it, and wanting to find out a little more, I did the google on the book and found the Wall Street Journal review by Brooke Allen and this jumped out at me:

"Skylight Confessions is a genre story, in this case the kind of book that might best be described as a romance novel for college graduates. The book has enough intellectual trappings to flatter readers into thinking that they are getting some mental nourishment, but in essence it is pure romance novel and nothing more.

Now, that made me want to tell Brooke Allen to go and boil her head in a bag. The classic derogatory put-down...the review continues:

Skylight Confessions contains all the standard elements of Brontëan high romance, including hyperbole, predestined "true" love and a doomed, Heathcliffean character (in this case John and Arlyn's son, Sam). In the best romance-novel tradition, the ending is suffused with a sense of almost religious redemption and possibility. Those who crave a cozy read that affirms romantic fantasies about deathless love and knights to the rescue may well admire Skylight Confessions.

Here we are with several misunderstandings about the real nature of a good romance novel - first of all, WTF is 'Brontëan high romance'? If a person has actually read all of the Brontë sisters' novels, that person would know that Anne, Charlotte and Emily all wrote extremely different novels in theme, scope, style and approach. I would deeply disagree that there is such an animal as the BHR.

Second of all, books that 'affirm romantic fantasies about deathless love and knights to the rescue' are not necessarily cozy: the best romances (Jane Austen, Jenny Crusie, Eva Ibbotson, Tracy Grant and Georgette Heyer step forward) are not cozy - they challenge, they force the reader to face up to a world that is not necessarily kind to heroes, heroines or their love. The whole point is that deathless love is not cozy. It is difficult, it takes us out of comfort zone, but it wins. We may not want to love but ultimately, it forces us to confront what is really important in our lives.

Also, what's this about religious redemption? For me, the novels that are full of 'love conquers all' stuff are not the best of the romance novel tradition. For me, and I suspect for many readers of romance readers, the best of the genre display a wry understanding that while love can work miracles, it needs damn hard work and self-knowledge to achieve that. Mr Knightley only can offer for Emma when Emma herself comes to realise that love is more than simply trying to slot couples together like pieces of a jigsaw. There is not so much redemption as the understanding that forgiveness and humour are essentials in the satisfactory conclusion to any romance.

Which is where Brooke Allen has it all wrong - Skylight Confessions cannot be a romance because it fails in one essential to the genre: the one and only rule that exists in the writing of real romances, notably the HEA. The HEA or happy ever after is compulsory in the romance. It is the one element that all readers of romances agree about. And SC doesn't have one. Maybe a hint that such things are possible. But no HEA.

I just wish reviewers would cease to put down books by comparing them to romances. A really good romance is so transcendent and so enriching that it is a book that stays with you for ever, like love itself. And consequently it is rare. We who love romances are perpetually looking for that book or others like it, we are prepared to read quite a bit of risible dross in search of that nugget which is why the romance sector of the publishing industry is pretty robust, but we know that a real romance, the kind of book that does offer us truths about love is something to treasure, not to trash.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Temeraire, History Boys & Ashes to Ashes

It's reading time again - also known as the Easter holidays. I have work-related reading to do - Pride & Prejudice, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Captain Corelli's' Mandolin, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Go ahead, cry for me. Reading good books for work purposes, it sucks.

Meanwhile, for leisure, I'm reading the second Temeraire book, by Naomi Novik, who I think is probably a goddess. She writes clear, straightforward prose which is very exciting when depicting battles, and moving in depicting the devotion between one man and his dragon. Although Temeraire is not really Laurence's dragon. Anyway - no spoilers, because I think people should go out and read the Temeraire books. These are sequel books, but unlike others, each is an effective stand alone, and there is major evolution in the two I've read and it looks like in the third I'll be reading sometime next week.

And today, I read The History Boys, Alan Bennett's 2004 play which was filmed in 2006 reasonably effectively. I'm debating on whether or not to teach it and if so, to which age group. I have a feeling that it might be too grown up for 14 year old and would be better suited to 16 year olds. Do two years really make that much difference? I think they do. But what I'd like to get into certain heads is the whole idea of thinking about education and what it really means. What is it to be educated, what is it to be intelligent. One of the things that I like about the play is that the boys are boisterous but also, fundamentally decent. It's a terrific play. But I read it and then re-read it to pick up on all the references that Bennett litters like confetti and there would be a lot of work in setting the context. I suppose I could show my hothoused little euro-flowers an episode or two of Ashes to Ashes to establish that early-80s vibe. But for me, Ashes to Ashes just isn't like it used to be in 1981-2-3, although the soundtrack is marvellous, and I did dress up a little as a New Romantic. Somehow, the act of setting the series in the early 1980s fossilises the time and makes it seem less plausible than the careful recreation of 1973 achieved in Life on Mars. And Keeley Hawes - or rather, Inspector Alex Drake - and her monologues are just plain irritating and seem to become more rather than less so as the series progresses.

Now time to catch the last ep of The Last Enemy, a thriller set in a futuristic England which isn't so far away if the police and the politicians have their way and get the DNA details of five year olds onto their databases, not to mention the records of who goes where and when using an Oyster Card. Surveillance levels and the blithe assumption of our leaders that we actually believe their bs that increased state supervision decreases the security threat are increasingly sinister. Reality imitating fiction, or fiction just marginally previewing what is actually occurring? Whichever, it is unsettling in an allegedly free society.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Book of Lost Things & what's wrong with the romance industry

Just finished John Connolly's Book of Lost Things, which was interesting in the way it played with familiar stories and poems (Robert Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came among them, one of my favourites) and had clever moments, but didn't enthral or engage me the way other authors have with their explorations of those old tales which permeate our perspectives of stepmothers, wolves, lost children and queens. I suppose I am thinking of Angela Carter's Company of Wolves and Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me, which in their very different ways were exuberant celebrations of the tradition, along with AS Byatt's Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye.
I think Connolly's main character, David, is a little plodding - he doesn't quite come off the page - his growth is told more than shown, perhaps. And the final chapter is a gallop to the finish, as though Connolly realised that he had written too much and needed to compress everything into another 3,000 words or else. But the plot is clever and intricate and interesting and the Beast is a great invention. The dangers that David faced were effectively detailed, particularly the Beast (which is a sort of underground arachnid with millipede characteristics and a way of bursting through the earth to swallow men up) and aspects of the bleakness of reaching adulthood were very effectively depicted.
In the meantime, I have finally managed to get the internet back at home, at last at last so am surfing again. And I was led by Smart Bitches to a survey on the romance industry which asked what I really would like to change about it - well obviously I couldn't put down that they should publish me properly with a whacking big advertising campaign and staged readings up and down the countryside, but other than that, what do I really wish for the romance publishing industry?
More variety. And better writing. I can think of the really well written romances I have read on the fingers of maybe two hands - Jennifer Crusie; Jude Morgan; Nita Abrams; Tracy Grant; Eva Ibbotson from the pantheon of the living. Austen, Trollope and Georgette Heyer from the late lamented column. That's really pretty much it. Romance has been commoditised more than other genres, although I think there are some howlingly awful crime novels out there, and of course, we won't even open the Dan Brown can of worms. I am not including my favourite writer of historical fiction, Dorothy Dunnett, as a romance writer, because her books with a couple of notable exceptions are not really romantic. There is plenty of love and hatred and passion but other than Checkmate, they are not really romances.
Because romances have been turned into sausage-machine type fodder, and the demand for them continues to be high, there is this problem that the writing generally speaking is rarely polished. It can be smart and clever but it is not consistently good even within a single book.
Then there is characterisation - I believe I've posted before about my enjoyment of the bad girl in fiction. But it's as though writers and publishers are afraid to go with the really bad girl. Someone mean, or spiteful or careless or manipulative. Why why why???? It's only when a character has really significant flaws that they can truly grow and change. I suppose I am thinking of the heroine of The People's Act of Love (James Meek) which remains the book I best remember from the past few years of reading partly because the heroine has disastrous judgement when it comes to the men she chooses to entangle herself with. She's careless, she makes reckless choices, she doesn't get it right. These are the heroes and heroines I really like.
It seems to me that the publishing industry and the romance publishing industry in particular are risk averse - they go with what works and then look around in astonishment when the different thing actually sells and sells. Then they try to encourage more writers to write the different thing so that it is no longer different any more. And the whole industry has been infected by block-busteritis, so there is no room for respectable sales any more - a book has to make it onto lists and into supermarkets and sell shedloads. So it is harder and harder to find hidden treasures and those are what makes a book really exciting, the sense that it is your secret, that other people don't necessarily know about it, so you can rave to them. I've never been sufficiently into religion to be a proselytiser - perhaps my only faith is really the written word. But when I find a book that is amazing, it really is difficult to shut me up about it.
I sympathise with publishers. No really, I do. They are inundated with extraordinary volumes of paper, much of which could have been put to better use as chip wrapping, they have bottom lines and deadlines and lines in the sand over which they cannot cross, they have a daily diet of weirdness (just go check out any editor's blog for a sample of the type of bizarro-land letter they receive in a vain attempt to convince them that the next big thing has just landed on their desk). But they are also vain and silly and superficial, which is how we get so many celebrity biogs that are just testaments to the vacuity of our post-modern world - and which earned enormous advances but.... didn't sell. And in addition to all that, the office politics of the average publishing house make imperial Rome look like a calm night at an old folks' home in Bournemouth.
Still, that doesn't diminish my frustration as a reader waiting for another desert island keeper. And waiting. And waiting. Ummm, yes, the clock is ticking and I'm still waiting. That's because too many books are published too fast and the quality control is poor as a result. So my real wish for the publishing industry would be to curtail the running around like a headless flightless egg-laying avian and get on with finding really good books to publish. Like mine.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Vampire Weekend and Joe Jackson

I can't help myself - I can't stop listening to Vampire Weekend. I know they are derivative, Paul Simon did it years ago, and before him, of course there were the original African musicians who devised the original style.

But it's not just the music. The lyrics take me back to Whit Stillman's amazing films, and the closed, claustrophobic world of the east coast Preppie, where people really are called Walcott.

My favourite songs are I Stand Corrected and Campus. I particularly like the ambiguity of Campus's chorus, about, presumably, a student and teacher in the middle or towards the end of an affair which asks How am I supposed to pretend/I never want to see you again.

What is it about these Columbia kids who have just written the best earworm of 2007/8?

In the meantime, last night, I went to my first live gig in about a million years. It was Joe Jackson, who I have seen previously. Well, who I saw at the Hammersmith Palais in 198ahem hem hem.

JJ was wonderful - great set, throughout which he swigged tea, played some great old songs and of course, inflicted the new songs on us which no one knew. Except that as the DH observed on the way back home, they all started with pretty much the same intro, presumably to confuse us when we were expecting It's Different for Girls and got Steppin' Out instead. But I found the whole thing a bit disquieting since DH and I were probably in the younger half of the audience, and as we were belting along to classics like On Your Radio and One More Time, there was a gang of blokes behind me wellying along. When I turned, I noticed a group of rather staid, round, bald fellows. Sigh. They were probably just as shocked by me. Joe Jackson has scarcely changed at all in the intervening 25+ years, but then he has never claimed pretty-boy status. Which probably explains why one or two of his songs suggest he's still looking for a girlfriend and that he fully expects to be eaten by his pet Alsatians in his lonely flat. Hopefully the neighbours will notice that the amazing piano practice has ceased before things reach that particular pass. He is a genius of the keyboard. If he's coming to your neighbourhood, go get the tickets. He's worth it.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Hatred and human rights

I haven’t blogged for weeks because my reading hasn’t been the cheeriest: I’m coming to the end of a two-volume history of the Nazis and their persecution and extermination of the Jews. I came to read it because it has had outstanding reviews, which it certainly deserves but unsurprisingly it is not the sort of material that makes for light and breezy commentary. Anyway, Saul Friedlander’s two volume opus is called Nazi Germany and the Jews, and part 1 is called Years of Persecution, 1933-1939, while volume II which came out towards the end of last year, is titled Years of Extermination, 1939-1945.

While not the sort of thing that I would rush out and push into the hands of all my friends, relatives and unsuspecting students, I would certainly recommend the books to anyone interested in the field. Friedlander synthesises the experiences of the victims while charting the thought-processes of the perpetrators of the Holocaust with ample reference to contemporary documents: letters, diaries, speeches, newspaper articles, conference papers as well as more recent historical research. He examines the reactions of the world as it watched in a semi-hypnotised state and the various churches of Germany and Europe as they effectively by and large turned their backs. He puts to rest the canard that ordinary people in Germany and Poland had no idea of what was going on. There was physical evidence aplenty (German housewives buying up the furniture and jewels of dispossessed Jews, the stench around the camps) as well as letters from soldiers on the Eastern Front describing massacres and the letters of both victims and perpetrators describing the gassing process in the extermination camps.

I still can’t get my mind round the lunacy of the Nazi high command. The irrationality of their hatred of the Jews, the depth of that hatred, these remain great mysteries to me. Hatred itself is such a weirdness. There are people who make me roll my eyes or cause me a degree of revulsion (Tom Cruise, Dubya and the man who does the Jeyes cleaning products spots on ITV1, for example). Closer to home, I have encountered one or two people I profoundly hope never to meet again because they were poisonous and malevolent. But that’s as far as I can go. I can’t imagine hating anyone so much that I want to stop them from owning a bicycle, a pet, a stamp collection or a radio, prevent them from buying meat, garlic, onions, nectarines and gingerbread, still less shove them in an airless wagon and transport them to a certain death by gassing or starvation. Yet this collective insanity consumed thousands of people.

What is also chilling is that the Nazis really virtually succeeded in achieving their aim of making Europe Judenfrei – entirely free of Jews. There is the arguable point that they expended so many resources in killing Jews and destroying communities that it was a contributory factor in losing the war. I’m not convinced – according to Friedlander, the transports of Jews used a relatively small percentage of the rolling stock that was criss-crossing Europe between 1940 and 1945 and Jews were used as slave labour in armaments factories. Worse still is the acceptance of so many people of the unacceptable – the rhetoric of hatred and fear and neurosis that was adopted unthinkingly by so many people across Europe through the thirties and early forties. Demonising a people is so easy to do. Once they are demonised and dehumanised, it is a short step to destroying them. We know that, we’ve seen it in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and now, today, again in Darfur.

We have this Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which dates from 1948, in response to the barbarities committed in Europe and Asia during World War II, but we seem to be unable to live up to it. Yet all it asks is this:

“Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”

Perhaps the greatest mystery of all is why this simple act is still, after so much cruelty and suffering, so very difficult for us to accomplish.