Friday, 29 April 2011

If Not Now, When?

The latest Incubus album If Not Now, When? has leaked, over two months before the release date. Fan Boys like myself are in complete meltdown. I'm planning to wait until the release date, because I'm a morally superior Luddite.

Succumbing to a leak is a bit like finding your Christmas presents early, I always think. When I was younger (so much younger than today) I used to have a sneaky peak behind my parents' bed in the run-up to Christmas, to see what they'd got me. I think they cottoned on pretty quickly and hid the bounty elsewhere, but even if they hadn't, I would have stopped. It doesn't matter what you see, you'll always feel guilty, and a little disappointed (WHERES THE HELICOPTER??); and Christmas day becomes null and void.

What's exceptional about the Incubus leak is that it's come before the album cover art has even been released. That's way early. And it underlines the key thing about leaks; they happen because the digital content precedes the physical content.

That's never been a problem with books. You need to wait for the things to be printed to read them. But, actually, wait. What's that thing everyone's talking about? Begins with an 'e'. Ends with a 'reader'...

So here's my question. Will we start to see high-anticipation titles getting leaked onto the internet weeks (even months?) before the official release dates? Don't they already send out review copes as ebooks?

Monday, 25 April 2011

I'm The King Of The Castle

Susan Hill

I'm the King of the Castle is about the deep isolation and injustice possible in a child's world. Susan Hill is clearly aiming at fear in all its incarnations, but the only fear it really captures is that of being right in an adult world that is wrong; of being misjudged by everyone around you; of having nobody who shares your particular sanity.

Being a child in the circumstances of Charles Kingshaw is to live in a system that makes no sense; a world in which you need to speak out, but has no mechanism for your voice to be heard. The real fear is here. Forget the crow, the moths, the bully and the forest; think Franz Kafka.

I was drawn in to the helpless nightmare Kingshaw lives in at Waring, in time, despite the quite horrendous comma abuse throughout the novel. Every page is littered with twice as many commas as it needs, separating every minor pause of rhetoric, or failing to splice what should be separate items sufficiently. Opening a page at random -- 82:
He wanted to go wild, with the frustration of it, everything was against him.
By referring to it, he might manage to annoy Hooper, though he doubted even that, and in any case, he would never know for sure, Hooper kept a bland face.

Maybe they're not too bothersome on their own, but the sheer cumulative mass of them is overbearing (and there were far worse examples than on that particular page).

Still, Susan Hill can do no wrong in my eyes, for one reason. She has succeeded where almost every author I have read this year has failed, and got an ending spot on. This book ends at the final event of the inevitable chain. It does not have a change of heart; it does not undermine itself, out of authorially insecurity; it does try one clever step too many, out of authorial self-confidence.

Listen: this is what is missing in most books I read. Endings are zeniths, and endings are nadirs. Nothing else.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Book Cover Series

Aren't these beautiful? There's something about book covers designed in series that sends me wild. I love it. I have frequently considered buying a copy of a book I already own just because it goes better with the other books by that author.

They don't even have to be that spectacular. The collective, bordered covers of Michal Chabon's novels are fantastic, but these fairly simple Christopher Brookmyre covers still make me sick with envy when I browse them in a bookshop.

The fact that the amazing McCarthy covers have blurb-quotes as part of their very design is no coincidence, I think. A major draw of the uniform covers is the badge of excellence they represent. This author is good enough to have his back catalogue reissued; and this author's back catalogue is expected to appeal to a more intense reader -- the sort who care that their books match. Cormac McCarthy's novels, by the way, are expected to appeal to the type of reader who runs his fingers across the embossed bumpiness of words on covers.

If I'm entirely honest, I don't just appreciate these covers; I aspire to them. They are how I concieve of writerly success. An author has made it when they have arty-designy uniform back catalogue reissues. My real ambition as a writer, then, is not to get millions of readers (it's more vain), it's not to write the Great Novel Of Our Time (much less ambitious), it's to look pretty damn fantastic oin my own shelves, if nobody elses.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

"give me plenty of that guitar"

If I knew the fate of people's souls after death, and what they could do to influence it, I would go on about it all the time. Even when it got really annoying, even when people claimed it was rude or invasive, I would still keep banging on about it. You know what I'm talking about.

I don't know the fate of people's souls after death; but I do know about George Harrison.

I've listened to nothing but Harrison for the last couple of months, and I've decided this isToo Big to keep to myself. So I've made a personal 'best of' mix, and I've burned a dozen copies. Now every time I meet someone -- new friend, old, postman, etc -- they get a copy of it. THEY HAVE TO KNOW THE TRUTH.

George Harrison is so good that this song doesn't even make it on to the CD:

Who's your favourite Beatle? Is that even a fair question?

Monday, 18 April 2011

The Sunset Limited

Cormac McCarthy

The Sunset Limited is Cormac McCarthy without the thick, trippy prose, so it's no surprise that it's both accessible and fantastic.

It's billed as faith vs. reason, but that's not what's going on here. The only point it makes about religion is that the 'debate' becomes emphatically overshadowed by personal temperament when people reach their nadir.

It's testament to McCarthy's skill that he can write a novel even loosely formed around faith against reason and neither bore me nor piss me off. His insert-superlative-here ear for dialogue and his expert balance of humour and weight make this impossible to dislike (prove me wrong....)

There's another dichotomy McCarthy flirts with here, given by the character names: White is the suicidal book-loving intellectual (cheer the fuck up); Black is the uneducated, people-loving ex-con. I don't buy it. Ot at least, I don't think there's anything invested in that distinction, and no comment made by it. It's a cultural shortcut, maybe.

The real divide is opposing temparements, not opposing ideologies, beliefs, intellects or cultures. Any opposition they have in thought is the fruit of their opposition in nature. The Sunset Limited is two boldly drawn characters, brought together for an inevitably brief visit. They are each compelling and real, and it is they who make this book pass far too quickly.

I haven't seen the TV adaption, but I intend to. I'm told that White is more sypathetic than he is originally written, and based on the casting and trailers, I already agree. Too sympathetic, I fear.

Because the real dichotomy at the heart of The Sunset Limited isn't faith and reason, or head and heart, or black and white; and definitely not Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L Jackson. It's warmth vs. cold, and hope vs. despair. You can't warm up White without changing the whole thing.

My favourite part is the end. The outcome between hope and despair. I won't spoil it, but there's certain things about the nature of hope and the nature of despair that make only one ending is logically possible.

Friday, 15 April 2011

microthought: cleverness

Cleverness is not an advantage in an aspiring writer.

People talk like it's a headstart.

It's as much of a headstart as wearing stilts is to a mountain climber.

You might be two foot closer to the summit, but you're much going to trip yourself up repeatedly.

Cleverness: good or bad?

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Sometimes People Think You're Stupid

Sometimes people think you're stupid. Why not carry around a handful of Scrabble letters in your pocket, and next time somebody thinks you're stupid, reach for your handkerchief. As you do so, accidently spill the Scrabble letters from your pocket onto the table. Casually remark: 'oh look, that spells pluvial,' as you sweep them up and return them to your pocket.

But not everyone is convinced by that. Maybe it was because you said pluvial meant 'sort of balanced looking, I think, but in a negative sense.' Don't fret: simply spend an evening picking out the Trivial Pursuit question card with the hardest set of questions, and memorise the answers.

Then, while having a drink with your friend, let him find the card under his beermat, and wow him with your knowledge: Eric Clapton, Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation, The Big Lebowski, The Parva Naturalia, 4th May 1964, and Buttons. Be sure to wait for him to ask the questions before you provide the answers.

If he still thinks you're stupid, and says they got the answer wrong on the card ( it's actually O Brother, Where Art Thou?) there's still hope. Take a couple of old Monopoly properties with you next time you meet, to let him know you're a seriously succesful businessman. Show him: you can get a £70 mortgage on a whole street, in central London; so don't get any funny ideas.

If he recognises the Monopoly card, don't fret yourself. It's not the end of the world:

Simply buy two-dozen chess sets, until you find one where the king piece looks most like you. Show your friend, and inform him that there is an entire tribe of miniature people living in your wall cavity, who worship you as their benign and hygienic God. Eighty-thousand of the famous Hoolahan Mice-Hunters can't be wrong, so he should treat you with more respect.

Monday, 11 April 2011


David Lodge

Lodge is a novelist fascinated by novel-writing. Nevermind the fictional biographies he's started writing about his heroes (Henry James and HG Wells, so far); nevermind the essays on the components of fiction that he should be more famous for; the real proof of his fascianation lies in his novels themselves.

Therapy sees a successful scriptwriter experimenting with form. Druing his journey of self-discovery, he writes a journal, a narrative memoir, and quasi-fictional accounts of himself through the eyes of his friends. He experiments with elements of voice, deconstructs the amount of truth in fiction (or the other way around), talks us through the production and revision of the text we are currently reading, and even even finds time to analyse some Kierkergaard.

This game-playing is entertaining, and paradoxically genuine. This is a trademark of Lodge; he makes the writing so much a part of the book that it can never seem contrived; it is so openly a written thing that any moments of writerly feeling work to include you rather than distance you from the subject. It's the same trick he pulls in Deaf Sentence, but here it is central to the arc of the novel (like in Thinks...)

That arc is not a new one. Tubby Passmore has Internal Derangement of the Knee (medical speak for I Don't Know) and Internal Derangement of everything else, too. He begins searching, doesn't find what he is looking for, but finds a more acceptable version of himself along the way.

So far, so what. Lodge has a huge amount of fun on the way, and it's impossible not to enjoy his comic expertise, but it's nothing out of the ordinary. What makes Therapy such a treat, especially for anybody who writes or is intrigued by writing, is the parrallel. Passmore's journey is exactly as eye-opening, accidental and self-finding as is his experiments with telling it.

It's not just the old divide of the story vs. the telling; it's the complete blurring of that division. If you take away the experiments in the telling, you change the story crucially. They're at least completely co-dependant; more likely, they're one and the same thing.

Friday, 8 April 2011

:59 Seconds

Richard Wiseman

The world of self-help is thick with urban myths and intuitively reasonable claims, and it's easy to find yourself nodding along to something that, under less emotive inspection, is fatuous.

Wiseman clearly loves that sort of inspection. In :59 Seconds he takes us on a guided tour through all the big names in folk psychology; happiness, persuasion, motivation, creativity, attraction, stress, relationships, decision making, parenting, and personality. And as he guides, he rigorously evaluates, with a big grin on his face.

Through a mixture of wide research and his own often unusual experiments, he comes up with a few surprises.

Positive thinking is a mixed bag; rewards make people work less hard; two minds are not better than one; playing hard to get is counterproductive; taking out anger on a punch-bag (for example) makes you angrier; and many more. Wiseman unmasks these fallacies with infectious zeal and smirky humour (and he is very funny: I first knew of Wiseman by seeing him perform magic/psychology/stand-up at the Edinburgh Fringe.)

It's not all debunking, though. The book came about when Wiseman was asked by a friend about happiness; when Wiseman launched into an essay-length answer, his friend interrupted him. I'm busy -- are there any tips that take less than a minute to tell me about?

These tips range from the practical (put a picture of a baby in your wallet, and it is much more likely to be returned if you lose it) to the common sense (stop procrastinating by starting the task you want to finish) to the stupid (grip a pencil between you teeth without touching it with your lips, so you smile, so you feel better) to the creepy (touch someone on the upper arm and they are more likely to say yes to whatever you ask).

There are dozen more tips in :59 Seconds to statistically improve your chances of success in various fields. There are even one or two I might use. Wiseman writes smartly enough to hide the fact that many of his offerings are a little underseasoned, though, and require at least a pinch of salt to be palatable.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Grievous Bodily Press

Grievous Bodily Press is a brand new publishing house, founded just last week by clumsy entrepeneur, Grievous Bodily. Bodily is enthusiastic about the endeavour, damning rumours he is notoriously indifferent to books as 'somewhat exaggerated.' The firm intend to launch five titles by the end of April:

The Parts Of My Body That Shake When I Brush My Teeth Vigorously In The Nude, by SF Nundy, PhD. In this book, Nundy lists the parts of his body that shake when he brushes his teeth vigorously in the nude. There will be an animated 'eBook experience' released in the summer.

Shelf Help: Organise Your Library, Organise Your Life, by failed superhero, Nixon Overthere. Overthere claims that redheads with anxiety issues should shelve Rowling under 'G' in Reference/Miscellaneous, and backs up his claims with a seriously impressive lack of scholarship.

The Outstanding Life, by Keith Swimming. This 100% unofficial biography covers the steamy affairs, failed marriages, battles with drink and inevitable descent into therapy of the person reading the book. All you have to do is write your name in the blank in the first line, and ignore the use of 'he/she' throughout the book.

Stephen King, by Mike 'THE SHINING' Jones. A no-good down-and-out gets elected King of the Stephens, and has to deal with the obvious confusion his new title brings him, like publishers wanting to pay him lots of money. Meanwhile, he must bring lasting peace to the various warring factions of Stephens, by destroying the V Alternative.

Men Are From Earth, Women are From Earth, by Evelyn Hillary. Hillary argues that cats and dogs are also both from earth, but this doesn't mean there should be six of each species whenever there are twelve or more animals in a building. Hillary is said to be working on a sequel, Children & Old People: The Forgotten Genders.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down

Tom Dardis

Buster Keaton's life follows a similar curve to that of Charlie Chaplin, though never in quite the same way. There is trauma and vaudeville in childhood, a few years of excelling in early films, until the artist is recognised and indulged.

There follows a short period of Golden Era: each is completely in charge of their own films, creating every aspect, and making films that are still regarded as masterpieces 80 years on.

This period is exceptional, in both lives. For In Our Hospitality, The Navigator and The General, Buster Keaton has complete control of every shot. He writes as he shoots, directs as he acts, and frequently risks his life. This singularity of vision, unmatched anywhere outside of an author's relationship with a novel (and even then...) is what pushes these films into greatness.

The fall happens to them both in different ways. Chaplin, having cashed in, spends the rest of his life trying to be accepted by critics. Keaton, who always had a more esoteric, less-monied appeal, cannot afford such a luxury, and is forced to become a studio man; then a bit-part man; then a gag-writer.

The fundamental difference between the two, that made Chaplin the more succesful and Keaton by far my preferred choice, is simple. Chaplin was a comedian who wanted to be an artist. Keaton was an artist who wanted to be a comedian.

Chaplin always had popular appeal, but his pretentions could never be truly fulfilled; his story ends, career wise, with him still coming down from that long-ago peak. Keaton always made a unique and timeless product, but his aspirations were harder to fill when he had to compromise on method, for reasons of economy (read: shortsighted studios).

Buster's lifegraph does turn up again at the end, as he is rediscovered and critically hailed. He cannot return to that Golden Era of film-making, but that same Era is now, looking back, eminently justified.

Friday, 1 April 2011

A little hype goes a long way

Literary Blog Hop

The question for this Literary Blog Hop is, this: Do you find yourself predisposed to like (or dislike) books that are generally accepted as great books and have been incorporated into the literary canon?

This is fascinating to think about, which is another way of saying I don't have a straight answer.

I think (hell, I know) the most important factor in picking up a book is enthusiasm. I really love to hear someone being enthusiastic about a book; nothing else will get me hungry for it asquickly. Add a declidicous cover to that book and I will have much trouble trying to put it down in a shop.

But when everyone loves a book -- eh. That can annoy me. I know it's mostly snobbery-related, but it's true. One person telling you 'you have to read this book!' is great; 100 people telling you that is not cool. I'm stubborn, and I don't like to be led, even when I know it's for my own good.

There is also a second factor at play, here; expectations. When you read a massively hyped book, you are expecting it to be great. So if it turns out to be really good, instead of great, part of you will process that book as a failure (as if 'failure to live up to expectations' has anything to do with the book itself).

I am slightly (and deliberately) confusing hyped books with classic books, here. I'm not sure if a classic is just a book where the hype reached escape velocity, or the opposite; where the hype never got so high as to provoke a backlash.