Friday, 30 August 2013

The Summer's Novels

It’s just about the end of August and I’m thinking about what I want to be reading in the autumn already. I’m looking back on a summer during which I read a whole load of novels – perhaps more than ever before.

This summer began on the first of June, when Bernard Socks moved in with us and I was going through a phase of Richard and Judy novels. I read one after the next and thoroughly enjoyed most of them. Three months on, though, it’s interesting just how much they’ve faded from my memory, or coalesced into one big shiny-covered blockbuster. All those long afternoons in the Beach House with Bernard Socks exploring the garden around me – I was inside some vast, page-turning miasma. Of course, some of them I completely adored and would read again – books like M.L Steadman’s ‘The Light between Oceans’, ‘Secrets of the Tides’ by Hannah Richell and Paula McLain’s ‘The Paris Wife.’ However, because they were brought to me by a very famous and popular book club they don’t feel like mine, somehow. I don’t feel invested in them in the way that I do with books I have discovered for myself…

Books that I discovered for myself this summer will stay with me longer, I’m sure. The strangeness of Sam Savage’s well-read rat, ‘Firmin’, or the warmth and wit of Sebastian Stuart’s ‘The Hour Between.’ Similarly, of all the murder mysteries I read this summer (another great recent theme) the one that perhaps stands out most is Lilian Jackson Braun’s ‘The Cat Who Could Read Backwards’ – and I had to go digging back through time to find it – a 1966 novel reprinted in 1991.

There were only about seven or eight books that I wish I hadn’t picked up this summer. For some reason I’ve forgotten how to abandon books unfinished. It’s something I need to learn to do again. I won’t go on about the things that I didn’t enjoy so much – I want to stress the stuff I loved.

And I loved Julian Clary’s ‘Briefs Encountered’ – which was a romp with real heart; I loved Jenny Colgan’s ‘The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris’, which was like having a marvelous holiday, a fabulous affair and eating as much fancy chocolate as you could manage – all on the Ille de France. And at the moment I’m loving Jo Baker’s clever revisiting of Jane Austen, ‘Longbourn’ – which I’m sure I’ll write more about here before the leaves turn.

So – the moral seems to be – FIND BOOKS FOR YOURSELF, PAUL. Yes, book clubs and promotions are all very well and make you feel like you’re part of a gang – for a bit. But the reductions make you feel queasy. You feel coerced into reading what everyone else is reading. You can see that the price-drops are ruining the very idea of choice and diversity and individuality. For every author and book raised up to dazzling heights of non-obscurity, dozens are cast into the fiery pits. After a summer’s reading and thinking about it, you’ve decided that BOOK CLUBS, PROMOTIONS AND MASSIVE DISCOUNTS are unequivocally JUST BOLLOCKS, REALLY.

You’re best off following your heart.

Every time.

So – here comes Autumn. What do you fancy reading?

I’m thinking about some Golden Age Science Fiction, actually. The type I really like has monsters and spaceships and exotic worlds. And, of course, autumn will bring ghosts and earthbound monsters and more detectives. There’s nothing coming out new that I’m particularly bothered about – save Susan Cooper’s ‘Ghost Hawk’, which is winging its way from Amazon as I write. Other than that, I’m content to slalom the stacks of novels I already own… I’m loading up my TBR shelf right now… hoping to attain the perfect mix of thrills, thoughtfulness, and getting carried away by it all.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Watching 'Skeletons', 'The Arrival of Wang' and 'The Hobbit.'

It’s been a while since I blogged about what I’ve been watching. And I haven’t really been writing about the films I’ve seen because, in the last little while, all the films I’ve watched have struck me as stupid. They’re massively overblown, expensive affairs, with thin stories and nothingy characters. But this week I feel a bit driven to go on about the two best genre movies I’ve seen in ages.

Both are pretty low-budget, thinking about it. ‘Skeletons’ happens mostly in the garden of a gloomy, old family house and in its partially-decorated rooms, or down by some railway tracks. It’s a lovely character piece that seems, at first glance, to be about a pair of quibbling, anoraky exorcists and turns out – minute-by-(bizarre-tense-touching)-minute – to be about something quite different. For something so abstract and mysterious, this wonderful British movie is concentrated on very tender and real family secrets. It’s wonderfully funny, too – but in a way that makes you gasp and laugh uneasily.

‘The Arrival of Wang’ is an Italian movie about the torture and interrogation of an alien visitor. I love the combination of fluorescently-lit scenes and overwrought, terrifying acting with the dodgy-looking CGI of that silvery octopoid alien. The heart of the story is in the anguish of the woman forced to translate the proceedings of these excruciating scenes – almost weeping as she relates the questions and demands in Mandarin (of course the alien choose the world’s most widespread language.) The whole thing cranks the tension up to an unbearable pitch and finishes with a moment and a single line so horrible I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you any more than I already have. Like many of the best genre films, it’s something clever pretending to be something that looks stupid.

Last night we also watched – at last – the first of the ‘Hobbit’ movies. I always liked this book more than ‘Lord of the Rings’ – it’s sillier, with more monsters and dafter characters and songs and midnight feasts. Here, under the sweeping, restless gaze of Peter Jackson you can feel the story groaning a little as the epic elements are heaped on by the shovelful. It’s all thoroughly enjoyable, but you can’t help but wince at the extreme lavishness of it all. Someone has a flashback and a thousand virtual extras are slain in the blink of a jaundiced eye.

Sylvester McCoy just about steals the show as a woodland wizard, heaped with tatters of lichenous moss and zooming about on a sledge dragged by bunnies. The best moments in the whole film are clearly the cheapest to achieve. Nothing has more impact than his face in close-up, on the point of tears as he realizes his hedgehog pal is about to die and something evil has come into the forest. At the same moment there are impossibly long spiders’ legs tapping at his cottage windows. In these moments we don’t see a whole giant spider. Just an effect that could be done with an old broom covered in hairy felt. Here were the film’s most touching and its most frightening few seconds and, of course, they were the simplest and cheapest and least overblown. A weathered, anxious, magical face in extreme close-up and something, outside, only half-glimpsed. The rest of this overlong adaptation is tiresomely literal – like all the most idiotic genre film and TV today.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Bring in the Trash

You know I can’t stand snobbiness. This Flavorwire list – even though it designates the books as ‘trashy’ – is actually very good. I’d prefer to call these just fantastic, bestselling examples of popular fiction.

How many of these have you read? Turns out I’ve only read seven of the forty titles – and I really need to remedy the gaps I’ve got. Why have I never read ‘Gone with the Wind’ for example?

One of the happiest summers I ever had was in Edinburgh in the late Nineties, and it was the summer that cargo pants were in. They had those deep pockets down both legs? Very practical for an addicted reader of paperbacks. I went up and down all the charity shops of South Clark Street (and there were / are a lot!) and kept myself entertained with yellowing blockbusters with gold-foil embossed titles. I had ‘Sophie’s Choice’ down one leg and ‘A Woman of Substance’ down the other – and I stopped in every other cafĂ© and tea room I came to in order to pile through some more pages.

Actually, neither of those books appear in this list of forty. Thinking about it, neither do ‘The Rats’ or ‘The Winds of War’. I was a teenager in the 1980s and lots of the big, popular novels were made into ludicrous, nine-hour long mini-series that were filmed all over the world and starred actors of dubious vintage and quality.

What else is missing from this list? What’s your favourite ‘trashy’ classics? The list from Flavorwire is a wonky, idiosyncratic one. Can we get a more representative list of brickthick popular classics?

LATER:  I've been thinking about it all day, and discussing it on Facebook with a whole load of people... and I think I've got my working definition of 'trashiness' in novels...

“For me 'trashiness' transcends quality, genre and other definitions of taste. It's about content. They are books on a grand scale - even when confined to one town. They're usually a bit saucy and feature characters whose behaviour might run the gamut from questionable to downright evil. A whole host of taboos are shattered and worlds usually hidden to the general reader are gloriously explored. I think trashy books are all about having the veil lifted on something you've never experienced and would like to, vicariously. It's about hoping to be shocked and not being able to put your book down. That's 'trashiness' to me - and long may it last.”

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Under the Dumb

'Under the Dome' was fairly enjoyable. But the characters were straight out of the Observer Book of Genre TV cliches. And why is it that tough and grim is the only way to play these things? Is it because they hope to make it seem 'serious' and dramatic? I yearn for more frivolity - or just horror / sf / fantasy that takes itself a little less seriously... or that can really tackle the macabre and the absurd and the nonsensical head-on without dressing it up as police procedure / serial killer gubbins with pretensions to 'darkness.' This applies to a lot of contemporary genre fiction, too, actually, as well as tv.

For me, it’s like when they adapt wonderful old 1960s Marvel comic characters for movies – and they make them ‘gritty and serious.’ The Fantastic Four and the Avengers and Spiderman are essentially silly and whimsical ideas from another time. The blockbustery and ‘dark’ recent film versions are just embarrassing – and, I think, all about flattering the middle aged men they’re made for into thinking they’re not really watching what are, essentially children’s stories. I can’t tell you how much I loathed the Avengers movie last Christmas. I loved all those comics when I was a kid. Every drop of charm had been wrung out of them. Ditto poor, dear Batman.

And why on earth take something as wide-eyed and wonderful as the original Star Trek and make it ‘gritty’?

Genre films and TV these days seem to be made by men of a certain age determined to prove something about their own potency. Years ago there was a comic book series called ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths.’ Science fiction on TV and film these days is all about the crises of the middle aged heterosexual male.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Bernard Socks' Book Recommendation

Bernard Socks has got fine taste - especially when it comes to books about cats. Here he is devouring Esther Averill's wonderful 'Jenny and the Cat Club' - a sweet, vintage kids' book reissued by the New York Review of Books.

It's episodic and meandering and told quite chattily. The pictures were by the author herself and they have the spareness and verve of childrens' drawings. The rest of the NYRB childrens' books reissues seem to be very worth exploring - I've heard they've republished J.P Martin's 'Uncle' books. I wonder if I might put in a plea for Kathleen Tozer's 'Mumfie' stories? (another example of fabulous illustrations by an author.)

Bernard Socks' review:  Weeeeee-oooooh!

Friday, 16 August 2013

Series and Mysteries I've Been Reading This Week

I don’t really care Whodunnit. Have I said that before? I never see mysteries as something I’m reading for the puzzle or the solution. For me, it’s all about the craic. It’s about the gossip from the secondary characters and the set-pieces and the colourful back-drops and unique atmosphere of each series. I love seeing our heroes jumping through the emotional and adventurous hoops and I love a series that’s about a world and a milieu that I want to return to again and again.

This week I returned to Florida with Gladdy Gold and her elderly friends in Rita Lakin’s ‘Getting Old is the Best Revenge.’ It’s only the second in the set, and it’s five years since I read the first – but it was still like going back and being greeted by old friends. This one is substantially about a bingo cruise that the ladies go on, and about a series of related murders that leads to a messy and quite frightening climax aboard a luxury liner. Imagine a perfect blend of ‘Murder, She Wrote’, ‘The Golden Girls’ and ‘Love Boat’ – and make it just a bit camper – and you’ve got it.

Then I read ‘Who Do, Voodoo?’ by Rochelle Staab – which has been waiting TBR for ages – since 2011 and my last trip to the US. It’s the first in a magic-based series set in Hollywood – and it’s pretty good. It suffers a little from needing to establish its world and quite a large cast of characters and by the end I didn’t feel quite at home yet with our primary cast. I’m sure by Book 2 (2 and 3 are already out!) the whole thing will have bedded in. It seemed to take itself a little more seriously than the other mysteries I read this week and, while that’s no bad thing, ‘Who Do, Voodoo?’ – for all its amusing title -  came across a little more earnest than I’d have preferred.

Midweek, I went back in time – to the Sixties and a book I’ve meant to read for ages – ‘The Cat Who Could Read Backwards’, which was the first in the famous series about Koko the clever Siamese by Lilian Jackson Braun. It’s a series that arguably sets the tone for all the Cosy Mysteries that came after – and it’s a delightful read. Slightly edgier than I expected, perhaps – with a very keen eye for satire (especially of the foibles of the art scene.) It’s quite a short, taut example of the genre – very deftly-woven, and with a host of larger than life characters (I loved the butch lady welder artist! And the prissy and vicious critic at the heart of the drama.) And the cat at the centre of the book is beautifully observed. There are twenty eight sequels to read..! I hope they’re all as good as this one.

Lastly, this week, I’ve read the first in a series that isn’t really ‘mystery’ at all – though it does have quite a bit of crimey-wimey and extremely dodgy secret stuff going down – and it finishes with a brilliantly funny adventuresome set-piece in a Bible-based Crazy Golf park in the middle of a lightning storm. Hope Ramsay’s ‘Welcome to Last Chance’ is classified as a romance (and there is, admittedly, a believably red hot romance centre stage throughout) – but it’s really about a town and an ensemble cast. It’s a town in the South as observed by the well-informed ladies who flock to the Cut n’ Curl Beauty Shop. It was the perfect way to round off my week of reading – with some country and western singing, suspected murders, and breathless moonlight flitting. It reminded me very much not just of ‘Steel Magnolias’ but also Adriana Trigiana’s (much-missed – nothing since has been as funny) series about Big Stone Gap.

And now – with the weekend looming – I’m onto a library-based mystery called ‘Books Can Be Deceiving’ and I’ve another of Miranda James’ cat mysteries lined up – and the amazing Nick sent me Gladys Mitchell, Georgette Heyer and Nancy Spain in a mysterious parcel that was the best single piece of post of the week.

I am awash with mysteriousness here in the sultry warmth of wet August in South Manchester. I hope you’re all well..?

Friday, 9 August 2013

Cosy Mystery Cravings

After a summer of reading mostly new books, then a little time spent on oldies (The Saint, Georgette Heyer and Mary Renault) I suddenly felt like indulging the craving for Cosy Mysteries that occasionally overcomes me. I didn't really, properly, discover this genre until about seven or eight years ago - just after I'd written the first Brenda and Effie novel, 'Never the Bride.' It was only then, reading my first books by Cleo Coyle, Yasmine Galenorn, Donald Bain and so on that I realised that what I'd written was actually a Cosy Mystery. (Put very simply and succinctly - small town-based, amateur sleuths, accent on the comic more than gritty realism, maybe a paranormal slant, plus a strong, catchy central conceit and a punning title.)

Yesterday I returned to Rita Lakin's series about Gladdy Gold in Florida, where she lives in sheltered housing with a whole bunch of pensioners who get together to investigate local homicides. They're like the Jewish Golden Girls and the books are hilarious - ribald (and IN LARGE PRINT, too! Which is always a bonus.) This one, 'Getting Old is the Best Revenge' is set partly on a very dangerous cruise trip the girls embark upon. It's just wonderful - one of the best of the genre I've read so far, in fact. Lakin's series might be edging up on my usual favourite, Cleo Coyle's Coffee House Mysteries (which are just a tinge darker and more dangerous, with their big-city setting and all-too believable deranged killers.)

I'm currently on with Rochelle Staab's debut, 'Who Do, Voodoo?', which is the first in a magically-tinged series set in Hollywood, and I'm enjoying it a lot. But where next? Back to the series I've left go fallow for a while? Pick up a vintage mystery or two? Of course I prefer the slightly camper, outrageous ones - those in Ngaio Marsh's idiom, perhaps more than Agatha Christie's...?

Funny thing yesterday. I was reading about an interesting manual about How-to-Write-Mysteries, in which a bunch of authors each write chapters and share experiences and hints. One of the Amazon reviewers sounded quite piqued by this. 'Yeah, there are a few instructions about how to write your own book here, but there's also a lot of irrelevant crap in which writers talk about their lives and the books they've written.'

A quote reminding me of occasions when, as a Creative Writing tutor, I idly considered whether murder might be an option.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Monday, 5 August 2013

What Have I Been Reading..?

Two of the best books I've read this summer absorbed many hours late in July. My friend Rosie brought me Jenny Colgan's 'The Loveliest Chocolate shop in Paris,' knowing that I would love it. It's ten years exactly since Jeremy and I had our first holiday on the Left Bank (and I spent the whole time reading James Baldwin's 'Another Country' and Jacqueline Susann's 'The Love Machine.') and in lieu of our returning this year Jenny Colgan's novel is a welcome substitute. It's a very heady, romantic, sweet-but-never-too-sweet concoction and I loved every moment of it. It's like when we learn about the black pepper in the most sophisticated chocolates - there's a sharpness and a darkness in the mix that makes it just right.

Then I was onto Harriet Evans's 'Happily Ever After' which I loved as a pure, unadulterated romp - but again, with some surprisingly dark twists and turns and some just wonderful characterisation. I was *gasping* to know what was going to go off next.

And since then - and because all my recent reading has consisted of very recent books - I have decided to go back, and dig deeper into my endless bookcases of To-Be-Read-at-a-Later-Date-Novels. Harriet Evans's book made me want to read Georgette Heyer (as did Julie Cohen's 'The Summer of Living Dangerously', about this time last year.) and so I dug out a (as it turns out) first edition hardback I picked up in a vintage shop in Stockport last November. 'The Grand Sophy' has kept me entertained this weekend. Which other novel has a complicated denouement with everyone pairing off and dozens of ducklings scattering around their feet? I loved all the ridiculous exchanges and set-pieces and Sophy herself - threatening loan sharks with pistols and driving her carriage like Boudicca through the fanciest streets in London, causing uproar everywhere. 'Don't be such a cake,' might well become a catchphrase round here...

And now I'm in the middle of the very earliest adventures of Leslie Charteris's the Saint. Back in 1930, during the three linked adventures that form 'Enter the Saint' Simon Templar was much camper than he'd be even in the 1960s. Back in pre-War Soho he's calling all the villains 'ducky' and 'dearie', making up rude limericks and refusing to take anyone very seriously at all. Much more like John Steed than Bond, really. I'm reading a wonderful Pan copy - though I'm tempted by the brand new re-issues I've noticed... Perhaps they'll have more comfortably-sized print..?

Here below is Monday's Book Loot. The charity shop round the corner from us is an Aladdin's cave for the mouldering and the macabre.

So... what are you reading..?

Saturday, 3 August 2013

My Wind in the Willows Theory of Casting Doctors

On the twelfth doctor casting - we need a new Toad, according to my Wind in the Willows theory of Doctors. It's the third cycle through the quartet of characters (1=badger, 2=mole, 3=ratty, 4=toad. 5=mole, 6=toad, 7=ratty. 8=badger. 9=badger, 10=ratty, 11=mole. Tomorrow's casting choice should be, for it to work, a new Toad.)