Monthly Archives: January 2012

Neuromancer Cover Art. Shit and shittier.

The review for this is long since past, but on updating my Goodreads account I couldn’t help noticing the staggeringly shit selection of covers for Neuromancer. Or no, let me rephrase. The staggering selection of shit covers. Observe:

a-MAZE-ing. Geddit? Like in that film that finally caught up to the book.
It’s about computers, right? So we just need to make circuits look interesting and sexy. Easy! Um…no. Despite the Matrix proving that green glowy numbers can look kind of cool, obviously everybody here went for the swamp brown. Why wouldn’t you. Everything’s rusty or mossy in cyberspace, right?

The other option is to be so embarrassed by your terrible cover art that you shrink it down and have it as an inset. Then hopefully someone might mistake it for a textbook. Here you can actually see the shame increasing as the windows get smaller. that Grace Jones?  
What’s even better is you can reuse those generic blue shapes as powerpoint backgrounds.

But if you think that’s bad, at least it’s not hilarious. Unlike the sulky man sniffing his own armpit on a hotplate.
Do you smell burning?

Then there are the covers that have absolutely nothing to do with the book.

I mean, to be fair, Molly wears sunglasses, there is a bit on the beach, and there are women in it. I don’t remember a beachball, but maybe my attention was waning. Still, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a tropical paradise where Molly gets it on with Mario the mobster pool guy, which is sort of what this collage is suggesting. Similarly, I don’t remember Jupiter featuring very highly in it – even if there is a bit of space travel, it’s hardly the main thrust of the book. Just the fact that the same book could have these two cover images is kind of magical.

But my absolute favourite is this one:

Apparently the future is full of men with widow’s peaks tipping their invisible hats. I for one can’t wait.

If you enjoyed that, I can highly recommend Good Show Sir, which will provide you with an equally terrible sci-fi cover every single day of your life, should you wish. Bliss.


Review: Michel Faber – The Fire Gospel

Flamin' NoraIf you wanted to be churlish, you might accuse Canongate of slightly cheating when it comes to this novel. Clocking in at 200ish pages of large, wide margined text in hardback, this is really more of a novella, and has much more of a short story feel than something like The Crimson Petal and the White, or even Under the Skin (his first novel, which was adapted from a short story – a fact that becomes kind of apparent with a bit of a panicky, tacked on ending, even while the whole novel is still excellent). But if you didn’t get it out of the library like a sucker, you’d still have forked £12.99 out for it. It’s not very literary to mind about ‘value for money’, and of course there’s more to it than a simple word count, but still, guys, come on. There’s a limit to the number of notes I’m going to want to write down the side. I could fit another novel in there.

Anyway, that’s a minor, tight-fisted quibble, but there’s no getting away from the fact that this book also does feel a bit like an eked out short story. That in mind, it’s still an entertaining and intelligent read. Theo Griepenkerl, an Aramaic scholar with a failing love-life and a fairly unsympathetic penchant for self-pity, discovers a perfectly-preserved scroll in an Iraqi museum during a bomb blast. Eschewing the normal channels for academic discovery, Theo smuggles it back to the US to translate it himself, only to find that he has stumbled on a fifth gospel of Christ’s life. Despite the incendiary nature of the material, Theo struggles to get it published – Malchus, the gospel’s author, has an irritating classical chronicler’s tendency to write about his bowel complaints and parental disputes alongside his more incendiary revelations about Christ’s final moments. (As a past student of Medieval History I loved this touch – medieval chroniclers are all about the digestive transit and ‘nocturnal emissions’ as well as the deifying. This is pretty much the only thing I actually retained from my studies.) But he finally manages it through a niche publisher, the book becomes a bestseller, and Theo becomes an overnight sensation, albeit a controversial one. Without giving too much away, some of the revelations about Christ are less than palatable to various religious groups, and Theo soon finds himself a target as well as a celebrity.

The view of the literary world is deliberately satirical, making fun of the author’s book-tour exhaustion, bafflement at fans, and of course, the fear of the review (these particularly tickled me!). But at the same time it satirises the pseudo-religious thriller, the Da Vinci Code style protagonist who uncovers a new truth, only to have the established institutions after him and his inevitably beautiful female new ally. Theo is neither morally upstanding nor wedded to a larger idea of the ‘Truth’ – he simply wants to get his own back on his girlfriend for leaving him, and maybe make a bit of money too. He briefly meets the Dan Brown-esque sidekick in the beautiful agent’s assistant who organises him, provides him with security and of course sleeps with him, but as the plot takes a bizarre and farcical twist away from that formula, she’s powerless to follow. So Faber both makes fun of these books, the industry that produces them (he’s advised to change his name to ‘Theo Grippin’ to make it more accessible. And ‘gripping’, I guess) and the readers who demand a certain kind of satisfaction from them.

Viewed in this way, you can forgive the kind of two-dimensional figures that appear – the shallow, bitchy girlfriend, the cynical, overworked publisher, the unhinged fans and the equally unhinged religious extremists who attack him. As a reworking of the Prometheus myth, it works well – not too didactic, not too slavish to the original. It satirises the notion that world-changing discoveries are necessarily made through noble intentions, but equally shows through the media circus how this modern Promethean fire, this ‘inflammatory discovery’ ends up being a circular, confused kind of a revelation. It makes an impact, but it doesn’t necessarily change the world. That the book ends in a kind of farce is, in a way, the only course of action open to a plot which would otherwise become another religious thriller. Like Malchus’s account of Jesus’s death, the end is entirely underwhelming, but that is, after all, the point.

In a tweet: If you find yourself the translator of a hot new Fifth Gospel, never do your own publicity.

Review: Julian Fellowes – Past Imperfect

So the most recorded TV programme EVER was the Downton Abbey Christmas Special (presumably this is only since the advent of set top boxes etc where they can keep track of these things, which makes me live in hope that ITV’s showing of Red Sonja in 1991 still may have pipped them to the post and remains languishing on VHS in homes up and down the country). Brainchild of serial cliche graverobber Julian Fellowes, it has given rise to a new UK penchant for what’s been called stately home porn. Apparently now we can all take refuge from the hardships of the recession by seeing what a tough (but also lovely!) time they had of it in Edwardian times. Difficult to run a 35-bedroom house, sure, but didn’t the women always look well turned out? But here’s the thing! It wasn’t just a tough time working beneath stairs, trying to maintain your dodgy dealings or upright, stalwart, Protestant morality while scrubbing 3 miles of grates every morning. Oh no, it was tough to be an aristocrat too, what with making sure the inheritance goes to the right chap, finding someone to marry, and keeping oneself out of the tabloids. Nauseating class sentimentality abounds throughout the series, although it makes a great soap opera, and like everybody else now I want to know whether Bates is getting off the hook.

The point! The point is, when I started to feel a little queasy on the apparently unsinkable SS Nostalgia (did I mention Fellowes’s latest project is a TV adaptation of Titanic?), I wondered whether Julian Fellowes could possibly turn his hand to anything other than the same old class stereotypes? Surely his novels couldn’t be exactly the same as his screenplays?

Heavens no! You see, Past Imperfect is set in 1968, where everybody in the upper classes is trying to pretend its the 20s, but thanks to the sepia-coloured narration we can tell that their days are numbered, and what a surprise, you can tell that they kind of know it too. The narrator, now a writer, was a peripheral part of the debutante set who introduced a charming, handsome, distinctly middle-class interloper Damien Baxter into their set. A natural social climber, Damien seems intent on penetrating the upper-class sanctum and soon has plenty of affluent debutantes falling at his feet, but which is put paid to by  *something terrible* which happens one dinner while the whole jolly set vacation in Portugal. Something so terrible that conveniently nobody can speak of it directly, so we’re forced to hang on to the bitter end to find out what it is [spoiler alert: he doesn’t go postal with a WWII service revolver OR reveal he’s slept with everyone’s parents OR take a dump on HRH Princess Dagmar of Moravia’s bed in full view of the assembled company, as much as you wish he would by that stage].

Forty years later, Damien – now a millionaire tycoon – calls our narrator to his deathbed to announce that he thinks he’s fathered a child by one of six of these women, and wants to find out whose his rightful heir is so he can find some meaning in his depressingly affluent, empty life.

And so, this writer faithfully calls up each of these women in turn to solve the mystery, and revisits his memories of their relationship with him, and Damien, in the process. Despite being confessedly unremarkable and unattractive in his youth, he is inexplicably perfectly recalled by each and so amicable that over a lunch or a cup of tea each woman is only too eager to confide certain salient details that conveniently eliminate them from his enquiries. Their husbands don’t understand them, but our narrator does, so that’s okay. Each were so beautiful, and so full of promise, but are now washed up and miserable in their own ways. In fact, he manages to patronise pretty much every single character, doling out the elegies for the lost promise of the waning aristocracy and pity for their dashed hopes and dreams that lucky for him, only his nomadic existance as a writer seems to escape.

Don’t worry though, the lower classes get their spot in the sun too – for example, when he visits a village fete after visiting Damien:

Naturally, it was very old-fashioned, and I am sure that if a New Labour minister could be offended by the Last Night of the Proms, she would be rendered suicidal by the sight of this comic, uniquely English event, but there was goodness here. These people had worked hard at what I would once have judged as such a little thing, yet their efforts were not wasted on me; in fact they almost made me cry.

Well you can fuck off from my tombola stall, Julian Fellowes, that’s for damn sure.

When he’s not making snide asides at the ‘Health and Safety Stasi’ and New Labour of the present day, there are actually some interesting digressions into upper class traditions, although the way that they are condensed into mini-essays suggests a quick shoehorning in of research. But equally, you get doozies like this:

To employ a phrase not actually in use for twenty years after this, I decided to cut to the chase.

…where a diligent proofreader seems to have questioned his choice of cliche, only for him to spectacularly miss the point. Is that more charitable than suggesting someone wrote that first time round? I don’t even know anymore.

Anyway, you’ll be forced to trudge on through this mire of condescension to the bitter end because, I’ll hand it to him, the man makes you want to know whose the bloody baby is, and what happened that night in Portugal. So maybe it is a great novel after all.

In a tweet: Upper or middle-class, rich or poor, you’ll never be as wise or as modest as me, Julian Fellowes.