This blog contains book reviews, comments on interesting things and a smattering of self promotion. Enjoy.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Must Try Harder

It is about eleven on Christmas Eve Eve. I am in Asda buying snacks and pop to mix with the spirits we have at home. It is filled with people buying huge quantities of crisps, breaded mozzarella fingers and Advocaat. I have just had to wait in the ‘20 items or less’ self-service queue for ten minutes while a couple scan through an entire large trolley worth of alcohol and ready meals, and another man struggles with the mysteries of the barcode scanner. My arms are loaded with heavy bags; I am glad to finally be heading towards the rotating doors which lead to freedom and cool air.

But wait! As I walk past the last row of self-scan checkouts I spot something which troubles me. A skinny young woman in pink tracksuit, mouth hanging half open, is about to finalise her purchase of Santa Baby, the latest ‘novel’ by Katie Price’s ghost-writer. Filled with the charity of the season and the snobbishness of the English graduate, I think ‘I must do something to prevent this affront to everything I stand for.’ I fight back the urge to approach the woman, pick up her book, and say “ma’am, I have as much confidence in Katie Price’s ability to write a novel as I do in your ability to read it”, then watch as she puzzles of the meaning of my words. I leave the store feeling sickeningly smug.

On my way home, through the dark streets of Wolverhampton, I am smacked by a grim realization. Katie Price has four autobiographies, seven novels, and twenty six children’s books on the market. I have one book of verse which has only sold three copies, and I bought all of those. I know that quality is more important than quantity, and I feel in my self-important heart that my book must be better than any of Jordan’s, but there is one fact that I cannot ignore.

I have written a handful of paragraphs and two or three lines of verse in the past few weeks. Even with a ghost writer in tow, Katie Price clearly spends more time working on her literary career than I do. How can I call myself a writer when I apparently put less effort into writing than Britain’s most famous blow-up doll?

And so it becomes clear. I must try harder. And step one is to reinstitute this blog, and make it better than ever before. Watch this space folks, and have a Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Book Review: Stephen Fry, 'Making History'

Before I begin, I'd like to point out that I've talked before about celebrity novelists. More specifically, I've talked about Jordan, and how stamping her name on a few ghost written rags does not give her the right to call herself a writer. I know that I shouldn't judge books I've never read, but I'd still rather break that rule than discover great works of literature are floating around Waterstones with Jordan's name on them. Besides, she still hasn't chosen to defend herself by accepting my challenge to a short story competition.

Stephen Fry is a completely different case. Firstly, because he has a discernible talent other than finding new ways to whore himself to the tabloids, and secondly (and more importantly) because as far as I am aware, he does write his own books. This leaves just one more thing to note before we embark on the review proper, and that is that way back in 1996, Fry predicted the iPad, right down to the use of little symbols to represent the different apps.

Now onto the review.

If you were given the power to alter history, what would you do? Would you try to stop Hitler? This is one of the most obvious answers to that question, and it forms the central premise of the novel. The book is divided into two parts, the first of which begins with a chance encounter between Micheal 'Puppy' Young, a PhD history student at Cambridge, and physicist, Professor Leo Zuckerman, inventor of a machine which allows the user to see a moment in history, and to send simple objects back in time. The two develop a plot to stop Hitler from having ever been born, and then put this plan into action. In this half of the book, chapters following Young and Zuckerman are alternated with flashbacks detailing the relationship between Hitler's mother and her abusive husband in the early years of Hitler's life, and then showing us episodes from Hitler's time fighting in the First World War. Fry manages to make real, human characters out of both obscure historical figures and of the most hated figure of the twentieth century.

In the book's second half, Micheal finds himself on a drunken night out in Princeton with almost complete memory loss. Over the next few chapters we see him piece together the details of his life in this new version of history, while details of what brought him there return to his memory. Fry again alternates Michael's first person narrative with chapters set in the First World War, although this time in Hitler's absence we watch as one Rudolph Gloder is promoted through the ranks.

Meanwhile, back in Princeton, Michael discovers the world he has created is far from perfect. He might have eliminated Hitler, but he did not eliminate the oppressive conditions Germany was subjected to in the aftermath of the Great War, nor did he eliminate the nationalistic and antisemitic sentiments which they produced. In the world where Michael finds himself, Gloder, a far more efficient and charismatic leader than Hitler, became Fuhrer and subjugated Europe. America has been in a long cold war with Nazi Europe, creating oppressive government of its own. The civil rights movement, and those other movements it spawned, never happened.

Fry knows his form well, and is not afraid to experiment with it's conventions. While most of the chapters set in the present (both as we know it and in the alternate world) are in standard first person narrative, there are a few chapters which Fry presents as film scripts. At first this can come across as confusing, and disconnects the reader from the protagonist somewhat. On the other hand, it allows him to skip through large portions of time in a montage form, while literally sticking to the 'show, don't tell' motto popularised in many creative writing classes. It also serves to emphasis the difference between film heroes and heroes in novels, namely, that characters in films are by necessity men (or women) of action, whereas characters in books are given the opportunity to contemplate their actions.

One criticism of this novel would be Fry's decision to make his protagonist gay halfway through the books second part. In itself this would not be an issue, but there are not enough hints before hand to make the transition seem believable, and those we are given seem forced. This could have been solved by either making Michael gay from the very beginning (if this was the sexuality Fry wanted to give his protagonist), or by giving more hints from the beginning of the book that this might happen. Other than this, Fry's characterization is extremely good, and very believable. Granted, if he were less sinister, Gloder would come across as something of a pantomime villain, being one half Red Dwarf's Ace Rimmer ('What a guy!') and one half Shakespeare's Iago, but he is an enjoyable character to read.

I would recommend Making History to anyone interested in history, whether that be real or alternate. It is a fine reminder that history is often more complex than we think.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Book Review: Scarlett Thomas, 'Our Tragic Universe'

'Never judge a book by its cover,' says the old adage. While I know this is the case, I've often had a problem with this statement. If you aren't supposed to judge a book by it's cover, what do you judge it by? You can't just stand in Waterstones reading a whole book. Believe me, I've tried.

Luckily, anyone judging one of Scarlett Thomas's books by their beautiful hardback covers will not be disappointed by their content. I first came across Scarlett Thomas through The End of Mr. Y, which tells the story of a PhD student writing a thesis on late Victorian thought experiments, who finds a supposedly cursed book containing instructions on how to reach a psychic realm known as the 'troposphere'. If this all seems increasingly far fetched, be assured Thomas's prose is strong enough to carry the reader through it, and there are so many interesting philosophical ideas crammed within its pages that it makes for genuinely intelligent, thoughtful reading. I loved it, and started lending it to people almost as soon as I had put it down.

Last week I was pleasantly surprised when one of these people bought me a copy of her latest book, Our Tragic Universe, for my birthday. Especially as I needed something to read before the start of the next semester and a return to busy reading lists. Before opening it, judging the book by its cover, I saw that Cannongate's design department had once again excelled themselves.

The book's protagonist, Meg, lives with her boyfriend in Devon, ghostwriting teenage genre fiction to pay the bills while her 'proper' novel shrinks and changes shape but never seems to progress. There is a trend in fiction to centre stories around middle class bohemians, especially writers and publishers, and I sometimes worry that the whole thing could collapse into a smug, self referential black hole. In Our Tragic Universe, despite a cast made up almost exclusively of middle class bohemians, this does not seem to be a problem. The characters are human, likable, but imperfect. They move through the story getting together, breaking up, making unexpected fortunes, changing from happiness to sadness or from sadness to happiness, meeting fairies and searching for a monster on Dartmoor, but none of it feels climactic.

In most books this would be a flaw, but in a book which concerns itself so often with questions of plot, the nature of fiction and it's relationship to real life, it seems appropriate that despite all these reversals we finish the book feeling as if nothing much has happened. Indeed, one of the book's central questions is that of how to avoid simplistic expectations of a neat plot where the hero overcomes the monster and all loose ends are tied, both in fiction and in the ways we use its structures to understand our real lives.

Scarlett Thomas teaches creative writing in Kent, and it is clear that this has inspired some of the ways in which this book examines the structures of fiction, making it an interesting read for aspiring writers. While the book reflects the 'storyless stories' it discusses, it does it in such a way which to me, never felt boring, although I'm sure some readers would find it slow to start, I expect most of them would be won over by the end, which despite the feeling that nothing has been overcome, still gives a satisfying sense of conclusion.