December 10, 2005

A Hit, A Very Palpable Hit

The Lambs Of London
by Peter Ackroyd
fiction | georgiana

I cracked. My careful attempt to read more books from the pile than I bought for it fell over with a outburst in the charity shops this weekend. Five novels, taking the pile back over 50 books. I did break into the pile and liberate The Lambs of London last month.

This is a new fiction work by Peter Ackroyd, whose arcane knowledge of London is reknown. I am a big fan of London: A Biography but had failed to really get to grips with his fiction before. I did start Hawksmoor which, with its discussion of pyschogeography and architecture (especially that of Hawksmoor, whose work is a heavy presence in the wonderful Alan Moore comic, From Hell), should have been right up my alley. Figuratively and literally. Unfortunately, it never fully grabbed me, perhaps because I had already encountered some of the ideas in From Hell and London: A Biography. I grabbed The Lambs of London in a 3 for 2 in Waterstones because the title recalled something to me, and the back blurb sounded interesting:
Mary Lamb is confined by the restrictions of domesticity: her father is losing his mind, her mother watchful and hostile. The great solace of her life is her brother Charles, an aspiring writer. It is no surprise when Mary falls for the bookseller's son, antiquarian William Ireland, from whom Charles has purchased a book. But this is no ordinary book - it once belonged to William Shakespeare himself. And William Ireland with his green eyes and his red hair, is no ordinary young man...The Lambs of London brilliantly creates an urban world of scholars and entrepreneurs, a world in which a clever son will stop at nothing to impress his showman father, and no one knows quite what to believe. Ingenious and vividly alive, The Lambs of London is a poignant, gripping novel of betrayal and deceit.

This time, I was caught up in the fiction. The year is never stated, but must be gathered from the references to famous people of the time (Pope, Sheridan etc). There are some of the many potential cliches of the London novel (commiting suicide by leaping into the Thames, fog, slums) which work within the context of the plot rather than as mere set-dressing. The Lambs - and it came back to me partway through that they were the siblings who created Tales from Shakespeare - are lambs in a Blakian sense: innocents who are willing to follow a trail towards their own potential destruction. To be gulled by fake Shakespearian work seems implausible - as modern readers we know that no-one has found the missing plays and that very very little exists in his own hand - but the novel is set in the Georgian period when the first real revival of Shakespeare began and it was believed possible that Vortigern would reappear. That Vortigern did, in fact, make it onto the stage at Drury Lane seems rather surprising now, when such works would be treated to huge amounts of cynicism and disbelief. The Lambs - eager Charles and inexperienced Mary - are easily pulled in by Ireland's deceit. But Ireland too, is unwise. Ackroyd posits that he intended only to fool his father and their friends, but his father's desire to make money from the works he thought his son was finding led to publicity and scandal. Ackroyd definitely positions the young people at the core of the story and emphasises their longing to escape their everyday lives. Mary, especially, disintegrates as the story continues.

I'm not sure about the switches in perspective throughout the novel, but there are scenes which are vividly painted and moments where you care about the protagonists and the obvious downfall ahead. This is a book with London at its heart: the city the characters walk in is still the city Shakespeare walked in, the Victorian Embankment is yet to be built, there are few bridges etc etc. This reads like a more assured work than Hawksmoor was, more confident in its ability to let the characters inhabit the city.

November 06, 2005

Crime Spree

My attempt to start digging into the mountain continues, although I did get three books from a charity shop the other day and have read 1.5 of them, thus not making a proper dent in the mountain. Winter has arrived, with the wind hugging the chinmeys and the rain splattering the glass and the cat suddenly deciding that actually, it will sleep on the bed after all due to the feline principle of stealing human's heat. And when winter suddenly drops in, I get an urge to read crime fiction.

The Fashion in Shrouds
by Margery Allingham
fiction | UK crime | C20th | Campion series
I've previously mentioned that I have read all the Campion series, so this was technically a reread. It's the one in which Albert's sister, a fashion designer, is suspected of attempting to murder her rival (an actress) for the love of a airplane designer. The rival's husband dies. Then the model he had taken up with, who looks like the actress, is murdered. And the actress's previous lover shot himself three years before. The press, naturally, are having a field day. Like a lot of jazz era novels involving celebrity, it doesn't require much to translate it into Heat-era speak: at one point a dress design by Val is replicated by a cheaper house, recalling Burberry's current embarassment over market-stall copies of their check.

Except this is also so of its era that it passes beyond pastishe. Not just the automatic exocticism of air travel - something long lost in the easyjet era - or the colonial elements (the husband was the governor of a Ivory Coast British colony snadwiched between the Belgiums and Germans). Not even the fact that women wearing trousers is terribly shocking. No, it's the language and mindset which seems shocking. The casual use of 'nigger' pulls you up before you even get to Albert's awful line to his sister: "What you need is a good cry or a nice rape, or both." Campion has been sepia'd by the television adaptations with Peter Davison as the detective, so it seems even worse that a detective thought of as pleasant, diffedent and shy would casually say these things. I've no idea if the book has been allowed to fall out of print (this was a green Penguin editon I found to add to the collection) or if it has been bowdlerised as Christie's Ten Little Niggers (1939) became Ten Little Indians became And Then There Were None. Perhaps surprisingly, given the ageless elements, or unsurprisingly, given the dubious language it was not amongst the Campion stories filmed back in the late 80s. But neither was my favourite, Traitor's Purse.

The Silver Pigs
by Lindsey Davis
fiction | UK crime | C20th | Falco series
Like many crime readers, I devour entire series about a particular detective. Discounting the Famous Five, I think the first series I read through was Lord Peter Wimsey, then Campion, then Roderick Allyn, then Cadfael and so on. I was late to Christie which may explain my dislike of Poirot. I keep meaning to read the Morse books, and I like several more contemporary series, like Christopher Brookmyre, but I wanted new historical crime so I asked for recommendations. One person whose name came up was Lindsey Davis so I picked up The Silver Pigs whilst in Waterstones (at the same time as The Palace Tiger). What struck me almost immediately - whilst reading the list of characters - was the humour of it.
Titus Caesar:
Aged 30. Vespasian's elder son; popular and brilliant.
Domitian Caesar:
Aged 20. Vespasian's younger son; not so brilliant, and not so popular.
A gardener's horse:
(disposition unknown)
Also, there are maps. I like extras with my crime. The novel itself is an entertaining mixture: Falco would like to see himself as an ancient Rome version of Philip Marlowe, but he's hampered by his large family, his mother and the fact he is too kind-hearted. Like Cadfael, he's a former soldier but unlike Cadfael, who went to the Meditterainean on the First Crusade before returning to Shrewsbury, Falco was sent from Rome to Britainnia during the Bodicea uprising and is, unsurprisingly, very unhappy to be sent back there. Davis's Rome has both the marble beauty of the Senate and the piss-tubs of the launderies in the backstreets. (As a sidenote, anyone who found the HBO Rome series to be less enjoyable than they hoped should try these books.) Her Britain is damp, cold and corrupt. Unlike now, obviously. Part of the British section is set in Isca Dumnoniorum or, as it is known today, Exeter, which was one reason I followed the recommendation to try the book. There was a bit in which a bunch of drunk soliders were described as at a crossroads in the city: that was also true in the Civil War era, and right up until 3am last night.

The central mystery is laid out in such a way that the reader suspects as Falco does, so that you neither feel superior due to working it out far in advance of the detective, nor cheated because information enabling you to solve the murders is withheld. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that, when I saw Scandal Takes a Holiday in a charity shop last week, I grabbed it and am currently halfway through.

October 20, 2005

Love and Time Travel

After a recent long look at the dreaded pile, I mentally instructed myself to not bring any more books into the house (discounting research books because, yes, I am starting to work again after the fallow summer). I even mentioned it in Annie's '7 things' meme and since I have made some headway with one thing listed there, I decided to be strict.

At which point someone lent me The Lady and the Unicorn and The Virgin Blue by Tracey Chevalier. This was my own fault for telling anyone who cared how much I enjoyed Girl With a Pearl Earring (see several previous posts). On the plus side, I did also get two books off the mountain and read them as well: Longtitude by Dava Sorbel and The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. The former was found in a charity shop but had been on my 'ought to read one day' list whilst the latter was in a 3 for 2 with Going Postal and The Lambs of London. Running through the books are themes of craftsmanship and/or time, so it seems like my recent reading has at least been compiling ideas. So...the books...

The Lady and the Unicorn
by Tracey Chevalier
fiction | C20th | historical
Multiple narrators in two worlds which run in parallel. Some characters cross from one to another, most notably the painter Nicolas des Innocents, but also the middleman Léon Le Vieux. The interweaving of the narrators and perspectives clearly mimicking the tapestries about which the novel revolves. Unfortunately, for me the voices of the different narrators were not distinct enough. Whilst the language they used varied according to their social position, gender etc, the tone seemed more constant throughout. Did it create a field of colour containing characters restricted by circumstances? Yes, but it didn't engage me with them.

by Dava Sorbel
non-fiction | C20th | historical
In contrast, the recounting of a family's attempt to master longtitude in bitter competition to the Royal Astronomer and others, captures the emotions. It's the classic underdog story, obviously, which automatically puts the reader on the side of the Harrisons, but Sorbel explains the logistics and mechanics of creating time so simply that you marvel at the story. The way in which time became delineated and contains is something which fascinates me: I love the way in which time in Britain was unified by the railways and that, until then, everyone ran on their own time according to their longtitude.

The Time Traveller's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
fiction | C21st
This is one of those books that everyone appears to be reading, so I read it. The plot is very neatly fractured and then reconstructed. The whole grandfather paradox element is given very short shrift: the protagonist tells his wife that he has tried and concluded that the multiverse theory of time travel doesn't work. All of which is fine and it is enjoyable to see a SF conceit being used well in contemporary fiction: quite why people treat SF as contemptible whilst reading and watching a lot of popular fiction (written, televisual and cinematic) based on SF premises is beyond me. However, the main problem I had with The Time Traveller's Wife is that I am not fond on contemporary American fiction. The clipped straightforward sentences with their lack of rhythm do not engage me with the story. The denoument of the novel should contain pathos, a sadness about the inevitability of the protagonists to change events, which should make me care. For me, it didn't. Technically, this is a good book but that excellence is in the narrative and the structure, not the prose itself.

October 04, 2005

Buy a Friend a Book Week

It's Buy a Friend a Book week.

But remember, it can't be their birthday, anniversary etc. It's a totally random giftee moment.

(and, should you wish it, you can take a look at my wish list - because I really need more books...)

September 25, 2005

What Should I Read Next?

What Should I Read Next? is a very nifty tool for getting book recommendations.

Way back when I started cataloguing my books online, I used all consuming, which also had a recommendations feature. Unfortunately, the old version was inclined to be tempermental, not to mention its focus on linking to Amazon. That meant out-of-print or otherwise unlisted-on-Amazon books couldn't be added. My links for this blog tend to be aimed more towards author's own websites, or the publisher's site, because I'm more interested in linking to ideas than to commerical transactions. What Should I Read Next also links to amazon, but the interface seems more simple and elegant.

Also, I was amused that when I fed in Girl With a Pearl Earring, it included Jamaica Inn in the recs. Due to the book meme the other week, I've just reread Jamaica Inn.

September 08, 2005

book meme

Annie from Going Underground has tagged me with the book virus currently doing the interweb rounds. So...

1. Number of books I own
1000+. There's about 500 Doctor Who books alone, but even if you discount them I'd still say over a thousand. If people can actually answer this with a figure then I suspect they need to read more. Or are very good users of the local library.

2. Last book I bought
bookshop: The Palace Tiger by Barbara Clevery and The Silver Pigs says over in the left 'to be read' column.
charity shop: Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers and Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Copeland.

3. Last book I completed
Busman's Honeymoon. I was in the nmood for some light crime. This book did have the unintentional side-effect of reminding me to book my chimney sweep before the month is out. Before that, it was The Palace Tiger - more light crime. I like the idea of a 'golden era' pastiche series set in Raj India and it was enjoyable so I may try another to see if the series is worth reading. And I'm about three chapters from the end of The Secrets of the Jin-Shei which is a curious one.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me
Eep. Can I nominate myself? Very well, in no particular order:
  • The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
    Light and subtle, yet heart-capturingly sensual. From the light playing on the icy canals to the brush of vermillion on her apron and the heat rising from the markets, this novel slips into the brain and stays there, hauntingly.
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
    Really, I should say "almost anything by PKD" but if there is one which captures my favourite elements of his work, it's this one. A writer in a present-day (i.e. 60s) America - where Japan occupies the West Coast and the Nazis occupy the East Coast - begins to wonder if the reality he lives in is real. Maybe there's another universe out there? One in which the Allies won the war? It combines the normal reality-shift narrative with the alt-history genre and was written when PKD was going through a more self-disciplined phase.
  • Warring States by Mags L Halliday
    I feel rather daft putting this here, but it is a book which means a lot to me. It's the first thing I've written where I struggled to let go at the end and where the narrative and characters are personal to me. There were also massive personal crisises during the years I was working on it but I just couldn't let it go. So it does mean a lot. It just looks terribly self-reflective of me to choose it.
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
    Back when I moved school, aged 13, I had a conversation with my new English teacher. He - and it was an old-fashioned type in a tweed jacket - was dismayed to learn my free time reading was filled with Raymond Chandler and SF. He gave me a copy of Persuasion and told me to read it. I got as far as the end of page 1. It was alien to me: not just the world it contained or the language but the narrative. Many years later, after studying Pride & Prejudice at college - and this was in the pre-Firth P&P era - I found I quite liked Austen after all. Many years after that, I finally dared approach Persuasion again, though old memories of that opening page made me wary. I loved it. I think books that mean something may not be the best literature, or the best work by an author, but the ones that come with personal history wreathed around them. Persuasion is about being given a second chance to love, so it seems appropriate that I gave it a second chance.
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
    Gods, I'm just picking romances...This is a book in which it is the actual copy I own which means a lot, rather than the story itself. My copy was published in 1947 on the flimsiest of post-war paper and bound with purple cloth-covered card. Over the decades, the cloth has faded with the sun and the spine is worn thin. This is my mother's copy and has travelled halfway around the world and back. When I left home, she gave it to me.
    Plus it has Cornish wreckers, a villainous vicar and a gypsy hero. What more escapist nonsense could you want?

5. Who shall I tag next?
Ladylark because she is smart, Kalima because she knows sexy prose, Badly Dubbed Boy because I'm curious, Paul From the Orient because he is clever (and because he has a book blog like mine...).

August 13, 2005

Lazin' on a Sunny Afternoon

Lazin' on a Sunny Afternoon
Originally uploaded by Mags.

Settling down in the garden, with all the key requirements for a reading session (garden chair, sunglasses, fresh hot tea).

August 09, 2005

The Rotter's Club

The Rotter's Club
Jonathan Coe
catagories: fiction | C21st

I'm never really sure how to tag a book like this. Coe uses a framing device of the story being told not by two of the protagonists reminising over shared experiences but two of their descendents, trying to imagine life in the world before they were born: the modern nostalgia not for real memories but for the idea of them. Yet the book is truly nostalgic in recalling not the rosy idealised past but the real brown and orange, mushrooms-as-exotic, 1970s. Despite the framing device, the narrative is left open but with the promise of a follow-up, The Closed Circle. I was assuming this was a little pomo joke - a promise of closure for those who require it - until I checked and it turns out the book does exist. I find that vaguely disappointing.

August 07, 2005

The Vampire Blood Trilogy!!!!

The Vampire Blood Trilogy
Darren Shan
catagory: kid.lit

I've been reading some recommended teen fiction this year. This is partially because I don't want my knowledge to become outmoded. It's easy for me to point out that Ursula Le Guin did a boy heading off to wizard school to face a shadowy evil back in the 70s with the seminal A Wizard of Earthsea with a startlingly sparse style which leaves me in awe of it. It's probably also not surprising that I grew up avidly reading Susan Cooper and Alan Garner with their heady worlds of raillings that becomes a spear, willow green witches sacrificed to the sea, patterns repeating through time and lost Welsh lands. I'm not bad on earlier stuff like E.S. Nesbit either. But, aside from a glance through the first Potter and the obligatory reading of His Dark Materials, I'm not sure what the books are now. The books which kids want to read rather than the ones they ought to read.

I started with Witchchild a few months back, which I found a very effective and engaging historical built around a voyage to the New World and religious fervour/persecution. It comes with a handy framing device and a refusal to provide a final answer to what becomes of the narrator. This is very much a book which would have appealed to me as a teenager, and I can see how it carefully sets up the historical setting to mimic twentieth century social interaction. The way the daughters of the leaders form a clique which excludes the narrator is clearly meant to resonate. One thing I've often noticed with teen fiction is that the main character will be a bookish girl i.e. one who appeals to, er, bookish girls. I'm not sure how I feel about that: at its worse it's simple manipulation to make the reader continue but then you couldn't have made me part with DragonsongDragonsinger back when I was a teenager.

The Vampire Blood Trilogy is a collection of the sort of books I hated in school. Not like Persuasion (which an English teacher unwisely suggested to my 14 year old self to stop me reading SF) but like anything by Stephen King or James Herbert. Fat books with black covers and dire promises of gore on the back. Again, not like the post-apocalpyse horror I liked such as Z for Zachariah, but junk like The Fog. In short, boys' fiction. Once I got past the deeply irritating use of exclamation marks in every paragraph I found these quite fun! I'd told boys love exclamation marks! There's good set up and follow through of events but the style means I'm unlikely to get the next three in the set.

July 24, 2005

Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys

Continuing in my quest for fiction which emerges from other fiction, I finally filled a gap in my knowledge and read Wide Sargasso Sea the other week.

This is the story of Antionette, a Creole girl who finds herself marrying a man newly arrived from England in the 1830s. Her background, rejected by an insane mother, and his fear of her culture turns the relationship sour and causes her to go mad. Eventually, he takes her back to his home in England and locks her in the attic. The man is never named, but it is obvious who it is: Mr Rochester, the hero of Jane Eyre.

Rhys admitted when working on the novel that she had become fascinated by 'Bertha' from Jane Eyre and wanted to tell the other side of the story. Rhys came from a Jamacian background but had settled in London: in short, she wanted to see what had sent 'Bertha' mad. What, then, makes a novel such as this - or such as Pemberley - acceptable yet fanfic unacceptable to so many? Rhys's motivation was to fill in a story from her own perspective, to expand a character who was just a cipher in the original work. And she didn't have permission to use all these Bronte characters. Yet, as if the act of publication is alchemical, this is considered real fiction and not fan fiction. Strange.

What of the novel? I can see why someone was surprised I'd not read it. It plays with different points of view, it gives us conflicting narrators and cultures, with the voices of Antoinette and [Rochester] clearly expressed. Those are things which always tick my boxes - or push my buttons. It is rather sexy - the seductions of [Rochester] hum with night heat - and rather disturbing - the fractured voice in the final third is so far removed from the girl at the start. It also toys with imagery from Jane Eyre - storms and trees being split apart - which add to the knowingness: there can be no happy resolution to this gothic romance because as readers we already know the happy ending will go to Jane instead.

One difficulty I have in trying to describe the novel is resisting the urge to call it "the story of the first Mrs Rochester". Why resist? It's a neat phrase which immediately gives an idea of the story etc. Yet the novel is about reclaiming "the first Mrs Rochester" as a person in her own right, and about how Rochester forces her to sublimate her own identity under that of his idea of what a wife should be. It therefore seems to go against the theme of the novel to describe it with the neat phrase.

Fianlly, I always enjoy a novel which causes Orson Welles' voice to purr in my head.

July 02, 2005


This morning, I decided to try tidying the shelves of the study/attic. So far I've managed to literally decimate them and have twenty books stacked up waiting to go to the charity shop. They're mostly:
  • UFOlogy
    A subject I lost interest in quite a while ago. I did keep the small section of 70s "gods are aliens" paperbacks. I should maybe call that "von Daniken's corner". As a child I was fascinated by his books: the text is not particularly readable, although you can argue charitably that its the translation which is at fault, but I loved the images and ideas. On the other hand, a lot of Fortean mass market books tend to have a particular style. I've been reading The Case of the Cottingley Fairies and have been stuck by its failings. I'm not going to review it here as I'm going to try for the Fortean 'classics' review slot with my opinion.
  • Cat care manuals
    I used to worry about things like "why is the cat eating grass?", "are they supposed to walk backwards as they puke?" etc. but I think my basic cat maintainence skills are now sufficient for me to ignore the manuals. Although I've kept Dr Xargles Book of Earth Tiggers, obviously.
  • The Da Vinci Code
    I was going to pass it around for others to enjoy my marginalia ("that's wrong!") but I think it's better off in the charity shop. The novel was always going to have a hard time with me: I work in internationally reknown museums, I've read a lot of articles over the years on Rosslyn and the Templars, and I've got an art history degree. But even if I allow that most readers will not know the backrooms of museums, the Temple in London or that Leonardo Da Vinci's name should be shortened to 'Leonardo' not 'Da Vinci', I still didn't find the novel enjoyable. Highly readable, of course, but my airport thriller choice will remain Robert Harris.

The main problem is that even with these books taken out, I still don't have room for the Warring States research books. I want to keep them together. I need more shelves.

Note: I have no idea if my CSS and HTML is OK under bloggers new code. If it isn't, I'm afriad I won't be fixing it straight away...

June 11, 2005

The guilty pile

I always feel vaguely guilty when I fail to finish a book, as if the fault must lie with my application, concentration or (lack of) brains and cannot possibly be the fault of the writer and/or their prose, theme etc. One thing maintaining this blog is making clear to me, though, is that I must become more ruthless. If I'm not getting anywhere with a book, if it sits in my bag or by my bed (or next to the bath) for months and the bookmark never shifts, I should acknowledge my abandonment of it. My pile is nearly at 50 books so I must accept that some times I can't read a book.

Often I buy a book, get a few pages in and promptly abandon it for something else. I just read Silverfin, for example, which languished at the bottom of my bag for the entire London/Paris holiday whilst I read a copy of The West End Horror found in a flea market. I eventually picked Silvefin back up and read it on a trip to Bournemouth. It was great fun and rather enjoyable but it just clearly wasn't right for my mood in Paris ("Silverfin is a great novel for reading in Bournemouth" isn't really a selling review, is it?). The Gabriel Garcia Marquez Collected Stories has been lurking first in my bag then on my coffee table for upwards of three months, however, so I think the time has come to admit it has been abandoned. I might pick it back up again in a few years, I might not.

Right now I'm reading Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. An Eng. Lit. friend called her "b-list" in terms of the classics of Victorian literature and I'm not sure I'd disagree. What struck me about Cranford, however, was that it was a mid-Victorian version of Desperate Housewives. Obviously, there is rather less sex with gardeners/plumbers/hookers and so far no one has murdered anyone, but it did come out serially and it does involve a group of middle-class wives and the gossipy microcosm they inhabit.
If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble.
The book may yet become abandoned, as a trawl around the local charity shops today produced another five books for the pile.

May 31, 2005

Bearing Witness

The Wars Against Saddam
John Simpson
(Pan Macmillan, 2003)

It struck me at a party this last weekend - whilst I explained that I was reading this book and why - that I have an odd non-fiction kink: I like reading journalism. Not just this book, which outlines events from the late 70s through the Iran/Iraq war and the two Gulf Wars, but a favourite read a few years back was All the Presidents' Men. Which has sprung back to mind due to Deep Throat finally revealing himself. You can also read Woodward and Bernstein's notes on Watergate online, which is a rather fabulous use of the net. And there's the strangeness that so far both my novels have contained real life journalists (Orwell in History 101, George Morrison in Warring States).

I can trace it back to reading a collection of Martha Gellhorn reports, The Face of War, which ranged from the Spanish Civil War to Nicaragura and El Salvador in the 80s. Whilst these writers all have distinctive voices - you can't mistake the careful procedure of W&B or Simpson's BBC house style - they also have a burning urge to tell you things, to draw events together and show truths and consequences. Still, it's a strange reading kink.

Simpson's book does occassionally repeat itself but primarily when his outrage at the number of independant journalists (as opposed to embedded ones) who were killed by friendly fire in the most recent war comes to the fore. He presents the case against Saddam with eye-witness accounts of the aftermath of the Halabja attack, or the brutal suppression of uprisings, but also outlines why the invasion was driven not merely by moral outrage by the West but by revenge and the new imperialism. There are unpleasant characters on all sides, and charming ones. This is the sort of journalism which wants to bear witness, so you're left with clearer concepts and understanding. And, as with all war journalism, a bile-inducing horror of war and its dehumanising effects.

I need to read more fiction and kick my non-fic jag...

May 20, 2005

Girl With a Pearl Earring

Girl With a Pearl Earring
Tracy Chevalier

Wow. Short, clear and ravishing. The descriptive style is very beautiful and the scene with the earrings made me catch my breath. This is one of those novels which make me sit afterwards, the finished novel in my hands, and wonder both why I write and if I could ever write anything as evocative and subtle as this. I love works which make me reassess what I want to achieve, make me think about how to write cleanly yet sumptuously. And this makes Vemeer paintings glow in prose - a doubly impressive feat given that a) it is very hard to describe paintings in prose and b) I'm not a fan of Dutch painting in general.

May 12, 2005


Despite no longer being required to read Victoriana, as my own venture into the genre is off to bed, I have added reading.victoriana as a genre tag. I seem to have read three in the last few weeks alone...

Victoriana is, obviously, distinct from reading.C19th which is genuine Victorian fiction.

May 10, 2005

Universally Acknowledged Truths

Pemberley: Or Pride And Prejudice Continued
by Emma Tennant

It is a truth universally acknowlegded that all Pride & Prejudice pastishes, spoofs or reviews must be in want of an opening line which mimics the opening line of P&P. Right, that's that over with.

I'm pro-fanfic. My Microcon talk a couple of years back was on the history of forms of fanfiction and the idea that, once a story is 'out there' a sign of its universality is if becomes reworked, rewritten and generally posessed by the audience. You can argue that the myth cycles (Arthur, Norse, Indian) etc are such stories: they capture your imagination to such an extent that you want more about the characters and situation. It is only in the industrial age that the notion of copyright, and the related idea of idea theft, comes into its own (I could disgress here about the commercialisation of the printed word but this isn't the review for that). There's notions of 'canon' and 'fanon' etc etc. It's a fun world of shifting ownership of ideas.

Pride and Prejudice (1813) is one of the first novels to gain a fan following, way before Dickens was packing them into the theatres or queues were forming outside the Strand magazine for the next Holmes installment[1]. P&P echoes through English culture: Gaskell's North & South (185?) suggests the Mancunian novelist was utterly smitten by Elizabeth and Darcy's sparky romance whilst Bridget Jones' Diary reworks it as a modern chicklit novel. Obviously Lizzy & Darcy are not unsimilar to earlier romances (Beatrix and Benedict spring obviously to mind[2]) but they are the ur-romance of the last two centuries. Women still fall for Darcy.

Which is where Pemberley, Or Pride & Prejudice Continued comes in. Austen herself continued to consider her heroines' lives but she had no knowledge of the intimacies of marriage. Indeed, there's an argument that we never see happily married couples in Austen (Mr & Mrs Bennett being the most extreme example but Maria and Mr Collins is clearly only a sanguine relationship due to Maria's diligence in avoiding her husband's company). Tennant picks up the story of Lizzy Bennett a year into her marriage to Mr Darcy and, as one might expect, things are not perfect in this 'happy ever after'.

Tennant, as far as I can tell from having read about half of The Bad Sister, writes about the interior lives of women and Pemberley, naturally, focuses on Elizabeth's reaction to her new life. Jane is married to Bingley and about to produce a second child. Lydia has a whole passel of brats with Wickham. Mr Bennent has been summarily despatched to the great beyond and Mrs Bennent is concerned to secure a future for her two as-yet unmarried daughters, bookish Mary and impressionable Kitty. Elizabeth has yet to have a child and Lady de Burgh is preparing to ship in a distant cousin to take over should no heir arrive. And it's going to be a family Christmas at Pemberley.

As with P&P, the differences between exterior and interior life - both mental and physical - are played with: the extended families go on a shooting party to the Yorkshire moors and Lizzy chided for wandering about the countryside. Confusions abound, causing Lizzy and Darcy to seperate. One major element is Lizzy's belief that Darcy has had a child with "the Frenchwoman" who has now died. Combined with the Yorkshire moors and Lizzy's running off to become a governess there are moments where this seems to be borrowing as heavily from Jane Eyre as from P&P (I must get around to Wide Sargasso Sea).

This could be a great sequel but for one key element: I didn't find Tennant's authorical voice convincing enough. We'll slide over the fact she gives Mrs Bennent a narrative point-of-view (unlike the almost entirely Lizzy-based narrative of P&P) because really it's the lack of a wickedly sly authorical voice which meant the novella left me cold. A Lizzy who lacks her spark is not terribly interesting, and Darcy's absence makes this into a rather lacklustre sequel. Obviously, some of the point is to show the banality and new worries and fears of an older woman who is now married into social and familial responsibilies but it doesn't put any relish into the authorial commentary on Lizzie's behaviour.

Having been searching for this book for a while, as it helps me move into a more literary discussion of the story-reclaiming urge, I was pleased to find it in a charity shop. Having read it I'm vaguely disappointed that it does not make me want to believe it is 'canon'.

[1] Although the Doctor's "I'm your biggest fan!" scene with Dickens in the new Who made me roar with delight.

[2] "I do love nothing in the world so much as you, is that not strange?" Benedict remarks - a sentiment Darcy shares with his "I have struggled against my reason..." proposal.

March 26, 2005

Fiddling About

I've just finished - I think - fiddling with the CSS code for this blog. There was something strange happening with the way the columns lined up, and some paragraph indenting was bugging me. I surfed bravely away from my normal comfort sites of W3schools and glish's CSS templates. I'd love to play with the CSS Zen garden but I do have other things to do, so I ended up at Floatutorial. I still had to fiddle to get the blogger content to sit in the right place, but at last this blog no longer looks half-cocked. At least in Firefox.

I've also changed the further readings links to a feed. Sara at storytelling is looking for links to authors who blog, so I'm going to get around to putting more into the further reading list. Suggestions always welcome.

Finally, the atom feed is running.

I don't think it has been syndicated to LJ yet, but if someone does that, could they let me know the syn URL? Ta.
The LJ syn is up (thanks, Trina!).

Updated to add:
Thanks to a smart person at the CSS forum, the thing is now behaving under the most common browsers and OSs. The one failing one is if you have a screen resolution of 800 x 600 and are running IE6 on a Windows OS. I'll try to fix it, but in the meantime, if you are being caught by that, may I suggest the joys of Firefox?
Get Firefox!

March 25, 2005

Murder in Baker Street

Murder in Baker Street
edited by Greenberg, Lellenberg & Stashower

I've been having a bit of a Sherlockian craze over the last few months and, having reread the Canon, I've moved onto the non-Canon. (Some of this I can blame of Kelly Hale, whose non-Canon Holmes novel I read a couple of years ago and which is finally getting published.)

This is a collection of short stories featuring Holmes and Watson by modern crime writers. There's nothing very wrong, just the occassional jarring Americanism or a not-quite-right Watson voice, but they do seem to lack a certain something. It's not that I am wedded to the Canon - I thoroughly enjoyed the recent Rupert Everett non-Canon adventure on the BBC - but the devilish detail doesn't work in most of these. Some suffered from what we in the Doctor Who trade would call the HGWells effect: let's get our famous fictional character to meet a famous author/person of the time and the historical one will be inspired by him! Thus Holmes is brought into a case, involving mysterious marks on someone's neck and Mittel European servants getting all superstitious, by one Abraham Stoker.

The best was, I thought, A Hansom for Holmes which put aside Watson as a narrator in favour of a cabman who gets entangled in a case. This had the lively narration you want from Holmes, without trying to mimic ACD's style.

Ah well, it passed the time until the New Annotated... arrived.

March 07, 2005

Whatja readin' for?

Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines
Bill Hicks

I went to a Waffle House. I'm not proud of it, I was hungry. And I'm alone, I'm eating and I'm reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me: "Hey, whatja readin' for?"

Isn't that the weirdest fucking question you've ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading for? Well, godammit, ya stumped me! Why do I read? Well... hmmm... I dunno... I guess I read for a lot of reasons, and one of the main ones is so I don't end up being a fucking waffle waitress like you.

I know Bill Hicks's Dangerous and Relentless albums well. Really well. I can recite The Gulf War Distraction ("it's so pretty and it takes our minds offa domestic issues") more easily than a Monty Python sketch. It was the early 90s: Cobain had been blasting through our eardrums with his particular brand of nilhisism, Hicks and Leary were on constant play because all the British comedians had run out of anger after yet another Conservative election victory[*], and I was in tattoo parlours. That I know Hicks' material well cannot be a shock. I'm not really sure what I wanted from this book. New insight into someone whose career is one of the seminal influences on modern standup? Perhaps. To revel in his style? I can do that by putting the albums on.

This transcribes many of the recordings of material. After the fourth time you've read that Hicks, like UFOs, is appearing in small rural communities all over America I realised what this primarily does is a forensic autopsy of his comedy. You can see the slight changes he makes, the comments to hecklers, and the way, like all pro comedians, he hauls himself back onto his script and keeps on going. This is the body of his work lain out on a slab to be dissected.

It may be of interest to aspiring comedians, and it did still provoke the odd smirk from me, but it is step one on the road of deification. Cobain's diaries, every element of his life, is churned out for obsessive consumption by the eager fans. We've been saved from seeing either he or Hicks degenerate or sell out to the Man by their early deaths (one from suicide, the other from pancreatic cancer). So now their legacy is being packaged up and sold to us, their images becoming safe, unchanging icons. Just as I'd rather stick some Nirvana on the mp3player than read Cobain's diaries, I'd rather whack the Hicks tapes back into the machine and play them at 10 than read this book.

[*] this, I feel, is one reason for the return of British surrealism (Izzard, Hill etc) and music hall slapstick (Reeves & Mortimore). A decade of angry young comics hadn't changed a damn thing and we wanted something new.

February 22, 2005

unwinding the threads

My plans to make a neat little intergrated system for my books got a bit waylaid by the need to write a novel (see the main grouch blog) but now I have acres of free time staring at me I have got back on it.

So, this is what I've done:
  1. Set up tags, as previously mentioned back in November

  2. Used the lovely RSS Digest feed to create feeds from the tags to the left and right sidebars here, covering the tags for current reading, waiting to be read, recently read, etc.

  3. Used and abused a nice layout from glish. My abuse of the code makes it look odd in Firefox, but nevermind...

  4. Used a pretty font called New Kinder to make new banners and badges.

From now on the blog (i.e. this bit here) will be used for reviews of what I'm reading whilst the sidebars will reveal where I am in the never-ending pile of stuff.

I just bought Labyrinths by Borges, in case no-one guessed.

update: now tweaked again