Category Archives: Features

Judging a Booker by its Cover

Bing bing bing bing bing bing bing! It’s that time of year already! The Booker list is upon us, and we can now spend the next three months rifling through Waterstones displays and gnashing our teeth about the choices on offer.

Sadly for me I have only read a grand total of ONE of the longlist thus far, so as far as insider tips for the winners go, I got nothin’. But then I thought, you know what? Rather than read them, why not just make vague and arbitrary assumptions on them based on their covers?!

The Teleportation Accident
Bring up the Bodies
The Lighthouse

The Yips – Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate)
A modern reworking of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, this time set in the contemporary world of professional golf tournaments. A down-and-out sports agent becomes obsessed with the rat’s natural proclivity for scouting out small holes, and how that might be harnessed to create a golfing champion. But all that seems like a pipe dream… until he meets a punk-rock frontman with a penchant for smashing up his guitars – and a swing to die for.

The Teleportation Accident – Ned Beauman (Sceptre)
Dr. Who slash fic in which he regenerates into a woman and becomes trapped in the 1920s. Posing as a Hall of Mirrors kiosk attendant while (s)he tries to fix the Tardis without the use of plastics, things take a distinctly erotic turn when the Louise Brooks look-a-like contest comes to town, with one particularly spunky contender.

Philida – Andre Brink (Harvill Secker)
A young girl comes to terms with her traumatic past on a plantation by learning to commune with the animals. Dr. Doolittle meets Jonathan Norrell and Mr Strange meets Wide Sargasso Sea.

The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng  (Myrmidon Books)
A lonely Japanese woman finds an outlet from her loveless marriage by corresponding with the local newspaper’s gardening advice columnist.

Skios – Michael Frayn (Faber & Faber)
If you liked Mama Miayou’ll love Skios!

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce (Doubleday)
A down on his luck but kindly tramp chances across a battered copy of The Canterbury Tales. Inspired by their spontaneity and his affinity with Middle English (which he has honed through years of listening to Tinny Tim garble through 6 cans or more of special brew), he follows in their footsteps.

Swimming Home – Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)
One salmon’s story.

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)
Cheating! I actually read this one.

The Lighthouse – Alison Moore (Salt)
Variously described as a scathing comment on Cameron’s Britain or a Pynchion satire of modernist subjectivity, this is an avant-garde piece told from the point of view of the lighthouse. It only consists of the words ‘off’ and ‘on’.

Umbrella – Will Self (Bloomsbury)
Old Bill Spokes has lost his wife, is abused by his two grown children, and now even his cat has left him. All he has left is his bespoke umbrella manufacturing business, and he hasn’t had a customer in a month. But all that changes when a man walks into his shop with a request for a very special umbrella indeed. Spokes soon finds himself caught up between two warring East end families – and making the greatest umbrella of his life.

Narcopolis – Jeet Thayll (Faber & Faber)
A chance encounter with a tourist leaves young Indian snake charmer obsessed with the works of Picasso. Soon, his reproductions are picked up by a travelling art dealer who launches him onto the Young British Artist scene. But when Damien Hirst starts to take a little too much interest in his snakes, things become rather less…charming.

Communion Town – Sam Thompson (Fourth Estate)
An insightful look at using public records to find the optimal location for your new church.

So I reckon that’s got to be at least 90% accurate, right?

YOU’RE WELCOME.

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Mid-Week Treat: Mark Twain Brain Training!

Or as I like to call it….BRAIN TWAINING. (Zing!)

Yes, apparently Mark Twain was not only content to write American classics and pithy epigrams about his own death, he also invented what was basically an old-style brain gym!

Sadly, it looks like the world’s most insanely boring item.

As far as I could tell before I stopped reading lest my eyes leap of their sockets out of sheer despair, you’re supposed to make a game of sticking pins in the holes depending on famous dates? So really the game relies on you already having memorized a load of stuff, and also having a load of pins helpfully to hand (something presumably all children did in those days, before small pointy objects became dangerous to infants).

If you would like to learn more about Mark Twain’s life-enhancing recreational products, this website contains probably more than you would ever want to know. Or remember.

(thanks to vintage Maud Newton for the excellent tip-off).

Gatz

On paper, the idea of an 8-hour play about a man reading The Great Gatsby, with a script comprised only of every word of Fitzgerald’s novel (that’s Every. Single. Word.) sounds like the sort of undergraduate train wreck you would go to see at the Edinburgh Fringe after 3 bottles of bad red wine. Even when I bought the tickets, I was doing it in a half-undergraduate-2-bottles-down-aren’t-I-so-post-semi-ironic kind of way. Luckily, I have a couple of half-undergraduate-2-bottles-down-aren’t-I-so-post-semi-ironic friends, so we all decided to take the plunge together and book tickets for some distant day in the future.

And then it turned into something of a coup, as everybody in London discovered they’ll be getting substantially more value for money for their theatre seats if you go in at matinee time and come out at last orders. Elevator Repair Service are staging only 23 shows, and I think they’re mostly sold out by now. Reviewers seem to be unanimous in their cry – it shouldn’t work, but it does.

The play is set in a run down office – Nick (Scott Shepherd) finds his computer broken and, at a loss for anything else to do, cracks open a copy of The Great Gatsby and starts reading. Stilted at first, he becomes drawn in and as he does so, the rest of the office characters become part of the novel too. It’s amazing how easily the drab office fades away – drunken, lascivious parties are evoked with a simple throwing up of the nearby paperwork, upending a couple of chairs and lounging across the office sofa. You’ll find as Nick’s narration works up to talking about a particular character, that they have been idling in the background or subtly wandering to shift some papers around. The attention to detail, and the wittiness with which the play’s creators have engaged with the novel is incredible – more so because it is worn so easily. The swaggering, vaguely intimidating security guard (Gary Wilmes) makes a particularly brilliant Tom – selfish, thoughtless, cruel, earnest.

And it’s funny! Never in all my wildest A-level coursework dreams did I think ROFLMAO @ NICK CARRAWAY’S OBSERVATIONAL ONE-LINERS but it’s true! Hearing it aloud, seeing characters react or participate in the funniness, really emphasises Fitzgerald’s eye for the sublimely ridiculous in high society. The layers of characters playing characters means that there is a knowing nod to the unreasonableness, and unreality of some of the scenes playing out in the novel. It didn’t always work – sometimes I felt like parts were played for laughs when they didn’t need to be, and there was one bit during Tom and Daisy’s climactic argument in the hotel room where Jordan Baker inexplicably made a fart joke which (rightly) went down like a lead balloon…and I am speaking as one of the Fart Joke’s staunchest advocates. But when it did work, it was brilliant! It was somebody lifting the lid on what had always been sold to me as an Important Work of Literature And A Great American Novel and said – but also, it’s FUN. You can’t have an 8-hour play without it, and it means that largely, the pacing is spot on.

By the novel’s climax, the office has receded almost completely and the novel has taken over. You’re no longer wondering why the narrator is wandering around with a book in his hand and you’re fine that people keep using office stationery as cigar boxes or whisky decanters. It’s poignant and moving, hitting the right notes in the right places. I felt like the fourth act dragged a little, thanks to Fitzgerald’s post-amble (it struck me that actually the novel is structured in a really weird way, actually, with all the action, then a long period of dissection. It works, but…isn’t it weird?), but there’s not really a lot you can do about that, plus the ending is one of the most famous and beautiful endings in the canon, so you’d be as well not to sneak out because your parking ticket’s about to run out.

I wasn’t as blown away by it as some of the reviewers, perhaps because I’d read the reviews and was primed for big things. I felt like Gatz himself was a bit of an odd fit – Gatsby’s such an elusive, mesmerising figure who’s defined by Nick’s own memory that it was incongruous to have an older, balding (sorry, Jim Fletcher) man in the role who didn’t have that same charisma. But then I guess the point is that Gatsby himself isn’t that charismatic – it’s his money.

Similarly, I initially struggled with asking ‘Why an office? Why anywhere, for that matter.’ While I totally understand the benefits of having the process of reading as part of the play – Fitzgerald’s writing is such an important part of the drama that to simply take the dialogue would be to immeasurably reduce the work as a whole – I wasn’t sure how relevant the dated office setting really was. Matt Trueman suggested that reveals the dirty truth of the American Dream, that it is built on American Workers toiling in American Offices just like that one. It is the modern(ish) day equivalent of Fitzgerald’s Ash Heaps.  I think this is probably it, but because you don’t really encounter the office workers in their own right, I didn’t feel like this was really brought out. But then I guess you didn’t come for somebody else’s polemic. These would have been minor gripes in a shorter play, and here they provide food for thought, more than anything else.

In a nutshell, this was eight hours well spent, and the smartest, sexiest show you’ll see with a filing cabinet in it.

Correction: This post originally said Tom was played by Robert Cucuzza – while he has played the role, the night I saw it it was the excellent Gary Wilmes. (Sorry, Gary!)

Mid-week Treat: Bookshelf Porn

Aw yeah.

This is exactly what you promise you’ll do every Spring Clean / House Move / Christmas, but you never will. You never will.

Brought to you by the good people of http://bookshelfporn.com/

Mid-week Treat: Ward Shelley’s History of Science Fiction

Sci-fi fans! Art fans! Infographic fans! Nice thing fans! Here is a treat for you this Friday. This has already done the rounds on the internet, and I actually came across it when doing my dissertation in genre fiction, but I submit it here for your consideration (and also as I am considering treating myself to a print, which you can buy here if you’re similarly weak-willed).

The History of Science Fiction

Click on the image for full size.

Here are some of my favourite bits:

1. James Hogg getting props – Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a brilliant, dark novel that makes great use of the doppelganger, and is in many ways an excellent 19th century Twilight Zone. I only learned about it through a Scottish Lit course and I wish more people were introduced to it – in my opinion way better than Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The creepy doppelganger section

2. Genre Holes. There’s something strangely satisfying about seeing these tentacles slithering off into another genre, without actually suggesting there’s a definitive line between them.

Holes

3. Panic! As things get more modern and the sci-fi genre gets more complex, Shelley’s obviously had his work cut out for him. Rather than leave things out to look tidy, he crams it all in there!

Panic!

Above all, the flowing lines make genre very clearly a dialogue and a nebulous concept, rather than something fixed and formulaic.

Lovely stuff!

Friday Treat: Disc-overy of the Day!

Eugh, terrible title pun, sorry. But here, here I have found an excellent guide to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, via comments on the Savidge Reads blog.

Discworld Reading Guide

I’ve kind of lost touch with the Discworld series in recent years, having once received one every Christmas and dipped in throughout the year – I think Going Postal was probably my last. Have they had their heyday? Were the old ones the best? Either way, whoever made this has done fans a great service.

Kindle surprise! Waterstones <3 amazon.

Waterstones announced today that they’ve teamed up with Amazon to provide Kindle books in store. This seems to have been met with one of two reactions:

  1. A mixture of bemusement and horror.
  2. Utter bemusement.

The reasoning behind reaction 1 is that Waterstones was somehow obliged to stick up for booksellers by either formulating their own device (which by their owm admission they’re about three years late to the party, and this was a s-l-o-w party to get started) or that they’ve taken their 30 pieces of silver from amazon and sacrificed the book industry while they’re still in a position to make a bit of money out of it (although nobody’s sure precisely how Waterstones ever will, aside from a vague suspicion that maybe there’s been some up-front investment from Amazon’s side). The reasoning behind 2, well, that seems to be a mild tendency in publishing to greet everything new with suspicion, naysaying and a quick look at the person next door’s answers.

To be sure, there is something slightly ominous, and slightly baffling, about this announcement. Where’s Waterstones’ revenue going to come from, aside from shifting Kindles at Christmas and to anyone who might have forgotten theirs at the airport? Surely nobody’s that bothered about taking advantage of the Waterstones wifi, when you’re probably right next door to an internet cafe or, I don’t know, have the 3G Kindle? But at the same time, you can’t blame them to want to get on board with the Kindle’s astronomic trajectory, and they certainly won’t do it themselves. If you can’t beat their slightly clunky but reasonably-priced device that nevertheless seems to be doing rather well, why not join it?

No, what gives me that sinking feeling, though, is the idea that Waterstones’ involvement will give the ‘pleasure of a curated bookshop’ in my digital reading. Because Waterstones certainly doesn’t give me the ‘pleasure of a curated bookshop’ in my bookshop. Although Daunt’s got rid of the ubiquitous 3 for 2 tables, the books still go through precisely the same filtering process of booksellers, top 10 deals, prize longlists and purchased positioning in the marketplace. Perhaps it was naive, but I had seen ebooks as an antidote to this, and potentially a way of finding peer recommended novels that haven’t had so much money spent on them. Rather than having books aimed at you, their covers clearly forcing an arbitrary decision as to what kind of book this is or isn’t, the nice thing about a Kindle is that all books are equally lacklustre, forcing the writing to shine through. But I expect those Kindle books that are being pushed by Waterstones will be precisely those that are laid out on the tables, positioned front-on on the shelves, and have displays in the window. What’s worse, if we’re now expected to hang around in Waterstones sipping a £3 Costa coffee while we wait for that book that we’ve seen everywhere to download, I for one would rather get down the charity shop and buy myself a well-thumbed paperback I’ve never heard of. And I’m all for e-readers.

Navigating the amazon store on the Kindle is one of the most depressing experiences I’ve ever had – I only tried it once and thought my Kindle was broken or possibly the internet was – and we definitely need some way of sorting through the reams and reams of terrible ebooks there are out there (trade published and self-published alike). I’m pretty sure Waterstones can’t hurt. But I’m equally sure it’s not going to make the e-book marketplace as exciting, as diverse, and as excellent (surely, surely it can be all 3? Diversity in ebooks doesn’t have to mean poorly edited fan fic, however much it feels like it) as it could be. So maybe this is a wake-up call for those of us who complain about Waterstones’ responsibility to the book trade, those of us who are sick of homogenous ‘genre fiction’ or of being told what we want to read, to find a better way.

I feel a manifesto coming on.

A lighter side to Sontag

Ha! After that review of Sontag’s Death Kit, the Paris Review came up with this little gem.

via Flavorwire

AMAZING. I guess she’s not all doom and gloom, then. Also…strangely fascinated by the calculator.

I shit ye not. Katniss Barbie

The Hunger Games wasn’t really part of the secondshelfdown pledge, in that I hadn’t read the books until I went to see the film, and that was only a few weeks ago. They certainly weren’t in the queue. But the second I bought them (on Kindle, no time to wait for the postman), I gobbled those books right up like a bacon sandwich on a hangover. They are brilliant.

I didn’t blog about them because a synopsis is pointless – if you haven’t already read the book or seen the movie, you will have at least seen a trailer or, failing that, have absolutely no interest in anything I’m going to say about it. Also because they’re precisely that brand of YA dystopia that I like to gorge myself on without feeling like there’s homework involved.

But I was gobsmacked to hear about Katniss Barbie. Behold:

With no hint of irony (not their strong point, I grant you), Mattel have released this doll, ‘specifically created for the adult collector’ (their actual words – could this get any creepier?).

I mean, yeah, she looks great, the outfit looks very authentic, and I guess we should be grateful that she’s got a bow instead of, I don’t know, a pair of heels and a mirror to check her makeup AND send out a distress signal, but there is still something very troubling about this to me.

Katniss is not a doll-y person. She’s a hunter and a survivor. The idea of a doll is pretty much an antithesis to her. There’s a whole bit about how happy she is when, after her initial beauty treatments in Panem, she can grow her leg hair out again. Leg hair! On a teen fiction heroine! I nearly wept for joy. Now, this photo’s only waist up, but I’m pretty sure they won’t have drawn in any three-day shaving stubble below the knee in tiny Barbie biros.

Plus, the whole point of The Hunger Games is that it sends up, rather than plays to, that ‘Bella Swan’ ideal of the girl whose only value is as a romantic interest. Katniss and Peeta pretend to be in love because the crowds want to see her as desirable. The Hunger Games is a hideous, macabre exercise in image. What’s more, she spends most of the third book desperately endangered by various people’s need to make her into a figurehead for their movements, as we realise that it’s not just in the Arena where people try to shoehorn you into roles that don’t quite fit. Or, I don’t know, hammer your identity onto a pre-formed one.

Ahem. I present, Katniss-Barbie.

I guess the one good thing to say about it is that at least they didn’t make a Bella Swan Barbie. Whether they create a Peeta-Ken, a Gale-Ken, or maybe both – they can choose their favourites, remains to be seen.