Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The World Book Night Top 100 Books: now there is a familiar idea

Could Tolkien's trilogy sneak into the Top 100 (ha ha)

Seriously guys, I think you'll find this was my idea....
Ok, so a list is a list is a list. And this is an obvious way to do it. But isn't it a bit weird that while still compiling my own crowdsourced list with The Big Issue that WBN, World Book Night, should come crashing into cyberspace with their own Top 100 challenge?
Asking for personal top ten lists?
It seems that great minds sure do think alike.
Well are going to get ours out in August. The WBN version won't be ready until next year. So nah nah ne nah nah.
In the meantime you might want to check out their site. It is carrying an 'ever changing top 100'. This in itself acts as a great reminder of the books that are out there; books  that are in their own way all utterly unmissable.
A word of caution though. The Top 100, our one that is, is about being individual, distinctive.
So please, as you read down the WBN list as it stands now, don't let yourself get hemmed in by it. Think out of the box - and off the mainstream bookshelf. Don't just throw in the last Costa prize winner you happened to read. Remember all those books you've loved. Not the ones everyone said you had to read....


Speaking of which, I was chatting to a friend the other day and commiserating with him as regards Kate Mosse's multi-million selling Labyrinth.
At the time the book was published critics and other novelists hailed it as 'Dan Brown with brains'. I think that is what it was. Anyway, if you are ever tempted by it, do yourself a favour. My friend and I concurred: we've yet to meet anyone who has actually enjoyed it.
Mosse I am sure is a lovely person, a terrific advocate for good, populist novels, and I don't begrudge her the success of the book. But if ever there was an example of a novel that caught on like the proverbial wildfire without ever deserving the sales and attention it got, well then Labyrinth is that book. I remember the sensation of keeping on till the end, assuming it was all going to get incredibly clever and satisfying.
I was disappointed.
What I'm saying is this: don't believe the hype.
Read and judge books for yourself.
And send me those top tens!!! We'll be compiling the list for August, so there isn't a lot of time left.
Oh, and you may as well send them to World Book Night too. But do let them know where you read the idea first...

Friday, 24 June 2011

Pottermore, but not enough

Great to hear that JK Rowling is bringing us a wealth of new material about the Potter universe. Her Pottermore.com website is planned as a sort of encyclopaedic interactive website. Sounds interesting. Because we know that JK has long held back details about the characters that never made it to the books...

But hang on...

"Although the author made clear that she had "no plans to write another novel", the fresh Potter material – to be unveiled later this year - already stretches to 18,000 words about the novels' characters, places and objects, with more to come. From Professor McGonagall's love for a Muggle as a young woman, to how the Dursleys met (Petunia was working in an office); from new information about Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff houses, to details about wand wood..."

Say that again? (I'm quoting from the Guardian) You said, "stretches to18,000 words"? You mean, just 18,000 words, don't you? Considering that the later books swelled beyond 100,000 words each, the idea of her holding back another 18,000 words.... well it doesn't sound like much. Not so much a Potterverse as the cuttings that fell on the editing room floor.

Not that I'm not grateful, JK. It will be a delight. It's just, I don't think we should get too carried away by this. Pottermore may well be a huge amount of fun, and it makes sense from a business and a creative point of view for her to create an online hub for controlling and reselling her brand through ebooks and the like. But those of us who love the books and admire JK for her storytelling are going to be left disappointed.

You know, I'm not even bothered about getting a Harry sequel or prequel. That story feels done to me. But I would like to read more JK. So come on Jo... write us another series. Surprise us (again). Bet you can...

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Chris Adrian's irreverent, literary reboot of Shakespeare's A Midsummer' Night's Dream has fairies that rock

American author Chris Adrian had thought about retelling a Shakespeare play for years.
At different times he’d toyed with Titus Andronicus, did what he liked with As You Like It, and puzzled over A Winter’s Tale (well, haven’t we all?).
But he’d scrapped each effort after getting just a few pages in.
Then he moved to San Francisco to take up a new job – he’s a paediatric oncologist, of which more in a minute – and started commuting, by foot, through the city’s stunning, iconic and rather notorious Buena Vista Park.
This was when things began to fall into place and he realised that if Shakespeare’s fairy folk Puck, Oberon and Titania from A Midsummer’s Night Dream had ever emigrated to the US, then it was surely here, in the middle of San Francisco’s licentious melting pot, that they would end up.
“The idea of this city as a container for illicit, transgressive or unusual activities is an old one,” Adrian drawls on the phone from his part time home in Boston. “There is something of a tradition of thinking of that park in that way too – and for good reason.
“Buena Vista is a place people go to do drugs and to have sex. The San Francisco landscape is physically striking all over: but the way that park looks in particular, especially at certain times of the day, made it a short stretch of the imagination to think of it as a place where something unusual or magical going on there.”
The result is The Great Night, which melds realism with magic and fantasy in a grown up way. [It's getting some great reviews, like the Guardian's at this link here...] To put it bluntly, while Shakespeare’s fairies glitter with an ethereal, unworldly quality, Adrian’s are decidedly more down and dirty.
Laughing at the description, he explains: “In early drafts of the story I was trying to stick more to what evolved with the original plot and in terms of the characters, having them look a lot more like they did in the play.
“But as I went over it more and more I felt more liberated to change them for the story I was telling. Puck in particular is pretty different.”
The sprite, indeed, which Shakespeare portrayed as a mischievous troublemaker, is transformed here into a bloodthirsty killer.
“My earliest reaction to the play was always to be a little afraid of Puck, though he is relatively benign he always seemed like such an agent of chaos,” Adrian adds. “And I was frankly terrified of Oberon as a kid – he tortured Titania.”

Although The Great Night is his third novel – there is also a collection of short stories – the book marks Adrian’s debut in the UK.
But it is surprising that it was written at all for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact he had such a tortured experience with his second novel, The Children’s Hospital.
A massive tome, it imagines a Great Flood #2, with only a children’s hospital visible above the waves. His publisher rejected it, as did 18 others – largely because they were simply unable to make sense of it (including the bit about having sex with a horse and the zombie nurses).
Finally it was championed by Dave Eggars’ independent publishing house McSweeney’s and after some rigorous editing (the bestiality and the zombie nurses were sadly cut) it did better saleswise than Adrian’s debut novel, Gob’s Grief.
Then there is the day job. Still only 37, this is a writer who seems to live several lives at the same time, whose nine to five revolves around trying to cure children from cancer.
“If I hadn’t got into medicine early on I might have chosen a career that was less demanding and which gave me more free time,” he admits.
But Adrian is nothing if not a high achiever and he has also spent the last three years studying Divinity on the other side of the country at Harvard, “to make me a better oncologist”.
That’s two degrees to go along with the English degree he got from the University of Florida in the early 1990s (where he was taught by The Interrogative Mood author Padgett Powell). Which means that as well as having read widely, he also has a mountain of student debt to pay off.
Intriguingly, The Great Night features a character who has grown up in what we here in ‘Godless Europe’ – at one point Adrian chuckles over Republican diatribes about British atheism - would consider an extreme, Christian family.
At first glance, divinity might seem an odd choice for a liberal, gay man who writes about horse sex and who describes himself as a ‘lapsed atheist’. But religion and spirituality have long been a part of his world view and he clearly thinks very deeply about it. Indeed, his next book will be a collection of short stories based on the idea of American Puritanism.
“I grew up as the one person in the family who took being a Catholic the most seriously,” he explains. “As an adult, coincidental to spending lots of time in the medical world, I developed a sneaking feeling that strict atheism wasn’t really going to cut it anymore.”
Adrian was recently named by The New Yorker as one of America’s top authors aged under 40. You wonder what he’ll be doing by the age of 50: he’ll probably have a law degree by then and be running for president.
You can also read this interview on the Big Issue Scotland website 

McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: List: Famous Opening Lines from Novels Updated for the Modern Age.

It's raining (again). Well it is here. But even if it isn't raining, everyone needs to smile and this should just about achieve it. Well it will if you are a bookish nerd who wants to spend their time trying to figure out where these original first lines came from and what they should read.

Some are obvious. "Mother died today" is Camus' The Stranger. A few are markedly improved on the original.

The top three:

“Alice was beginning to tire of sitting by her sister on the bank. She took out her iPhone and played Angry Birds for the next three hours.”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of an internet startup to call his own.”

“Call me Ishmael_65.”

Follow the link...

McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: List: Famous Opening Lines from Novels Updated for the Modern Age.

* Thanks to Mr Dubar for sending me this.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Pottermore.com: New Harry Potter project spellbinds cyberspace

Ha. Youtube is now awash with little videos like this. Breathless YAs waving wands around wondering what on earth JK Rowling is up to.
That woman: she sure can sell her brand...

New Harry Potter project spellbinds cyberspace - Gadgets & Tech, Life & Style - The Independent

So what is it going to be?
An iPad app allowing the user to kill Voldemort and snog Hermione.
No, too easy.
a gigantic Harry Potter theme park to be built inside the M25, providing ten thousand jobs and saving the British economy.
Naaah, it rains too much in Britain.
An HP sequel? The website insists it isn't a new book, but what if she has written a prose poem instead? An epic in the style of Childe Harold all about Harry's children fighting a new dark wizard?
I know, it's a boy band. Inspired by The X Factor JK has put together a great new pop act...
No, definitely not.
Oh, I don't know. I give up. Perhaps it will be a new book, after all. But just not a Harry Potter book - but set in the same world. I can't help but feel that is what JK should be doing right now.
But the smart money is on the theme park. Or the iPad app...

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Alan Gibbons, An Act of Love. Terrorism and warfare for teenagers...

I spoke to Liverpool's Alan Gibbons today. Full of energy, full of ideas, he is the author of umpteen novels for young adults, written over the last 18 plus years.
His latest is An Act of Love.
It's a cracking thriller. Breathless action. First person/third person narrative. A heart in your mouth, will they die, will they survive? kind of a read...
The book centres on two boys, grown into men. Best friends since childhood one is now a soldier who has lost his leg to an IED in Afghanistan. The other is a British Muslim with terrorist sympathies.
Gibbons is getting rave reviews for the book - and why not. He's that unusual thing, a novelist for younger people that boys will find compelling and attractive to read. He told me he considers the book literary, but that he used thriller methods. I wonder why he needed to say that: I guess he felt that he wants to be clear that while entertaining, and readable, that he had a serious intent to the book.
This irritates me. there's an assumption by some writers, even when they employ the techniques, that writing to engage and entertain their readers has to be couched somehow in a greater purpose.
They should relax. Play to the audience. This is where great art is.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Tom Cruise takes a shot at Lee Child's Jack Reacher | Film | guardian.co.uk

Tom Cruise takes a shot at Jack Reacher | Film | guardian.co.uk: "baddies with nothing but the clothes on his back and the wallet in his pocket. Who better to play Jack Reacher, the hero of Lee Child's series of bestsellers, than Tom Cruise: 5ft 7in, pushing 50, prone to emotional outbursts and regular flashes of gnashers."

Well, size isn't everything. How often have men said that? But Cruise as Reacher?

Initially I'd say it is a stretch. It's an odd one too. Cruise, for all his box office weight, feels like a star on the wane. Reacher is a character in full bloom. One that ought really have been turned into Hollywood gold years ago but somehow wasn't. It seems a strange fit now.

When I think of Reacher I actually think more Daniel Craig than Tom Cruise. Craig of course is playing another heartless killer called James Bond, so that's a non starter. Can Cruise carry the menace needed to bring Reacher to life? He has the potential, the question for the film makers is whether the audience will accept him in such a role.

Not that Lee Child should be too worried either way. With 15 books published and 40 million sales the fact that Cruise is playing Reacher is more of a boost to Cruise's career than it is to Child's. And who would bet on other film adaptations in the future with different actors assuming the lead role? I know I wouldn't.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Book lists, FR Leavis, and why he wouldn't have liked Twilight much...

A book list is meant to be a fun thing: something to talk about in the pub, or at the book group when the wine has replaced the paperback and the evening really gets going. But it isn't necessarily trivial: indeed one list more than any other single thing has had a lasting impact on the books we read and how we read them.

It occurred to me that the originator of the idea, at least in the modern literary sense, was FR Leavis. Forget that mythical BBC list all this is based on, FR Leavis was the man. A Cambridge don, he is credited with defining what has become known as the English canon: the great works of literature next to which everything else is compared.

To Leavis "great novelists show an intense moral interest in life" (I'm quoting Wikipedia, sorry it was the one that came to hand).

The authors he believed came up to his high standards included Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and DH Lawrence. Famously, or infamously, they excluded Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens: hugely popular writers but not, he felt, serious enough. Compiled for his book The Great Tradition in 1948, it didn't bother with the likes of Tolkein or CS Lewis either.

The thing is, Leavis' canon is simply a list. And it's his list, one which we are entitled to disagree with. He ended up disagreeing with himself, and 'rehabilitated' Dickens in 1970 with another book.

It's the legacy of his Great Tradition which is extraordinary. Leavis effectively started the whole literary fiction-commercial fiction dichotomy. The one that exists to this day giving us the Man Booker, snotty editions of the Culture Show and those depressing lists of the Best Young Writers Under 40.

I enjoy a great literary novel: if it is original, engaging and interesting. I can also enjoy a thriller, mystery or even (it has been known) a vampire romance.  FR Leavis would not, I think, have had much time for Twilight.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Orange prize 2011 goes to Téa Obreht | Books | guardian.co.uk

Orange prize 2011 goes to Téa Obreht | Books | guardian.co.uk
Blimey. A lot of weight on her shoulders. But just a minute, her publishers had the MS in 2008? And what, they sat on this work of genius for two years? Huh?
Anyone read it?

Ah, so Graham Linehan's Father Jack tantrum was all down to Today

Father Ted writer Graham Linehan has kept the Today debate bubbling with a blog and an article on the Guardian's website, in which he claims he was ambushed by the Radio 4 flagship show.

My first reaction to this is that he is protesting a touch too much. What's he hiding? How bad is the show?

Then again, perhaps I am being guilty of Paxmanism, the assumption that all interviewees are lying bastards who need to be exposed and quickly.

He has a point about the nature of debate on R4. The interviewers give everyone such a grilling you end up convinced they are all fools. does that help democracy, to be left with teh impression that everyone in charge is incompentent because they can't best a Humphries on the radio? Probably not. especailly as the Humphries of this world get more practise.

I'd love to see the Ladykillers show. I can't help but feel, however, that it will be a terrible disappointment compared to comedy drama of its author's publicity campaign.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Is it curtains for Jerry Seinfeld? Big Issue cover feature

Before Jerry Seinfeld played London's O2 (charging about a million pounds a ticket), before he turned up for a warm up gig at London's Comedy Store (for which he charged nothing), before he even placed a foot in this country whose Royal Family he considers a little ridiculous... he called me at home.
It was a little weird.
I've interviewed big names in the past. Often face to face. Occasionally down the line. But the strangeness of having a household global superstar chatting away to you while you are sitting in your living room/study/garden or wherever never fully goes away.
And this was Seinfeld. I mean, Seinfeld. That guy from the Really Great TV Show. OK, who cares if no one in Britain really got Seinfeld.... (oh how they all fell in love with Friends, but Seinfeld was too weird, apparently...) Seinfeld was always a superstar to me.
I introduced my kids to him about two years ago. I wasn't sure at first if they'd get it, but now my nine year old reproduces slabs of his I'm Telling You This For The Last Time stand up show while my son affects in depth knowledge of the TV programme he has only seen a few episodes of. When I told them that Jerry was calling our house they didn't quite believe me.
The interview of course didn't amount to much. It was a junket. Jerry was probably doing a dozen of these back to back. It was on the phone. It was only 16 minutes long. But I packed it in as much as I could and The Big Issue were happy with the resulting feature which you can read by clicking this link. But you really should have read it already, shouldn't you, because it was out on the streets being sold by vendors. Still the best way to read one of the best news and feature magazines in Britain today. Honestly.
Incidentally, after I filed the piece I fell to wondering about the 'relaxed' 'do nothing' Jerry of the show I referred to. One of the quirky things about his character was that while apparently a loafer he was also uptight. An uptight loafer. Very New York.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Ladykillers - was that Graham Linehan getting all Father Jack on Radio 4 this morning?

Graham Linehan, the creator of Father Ted, The IT Crowd and some of the best bits of Black Books on TV, has adapted the 1950s Ealing film comedy The Ladykillers for the stage.

It's opening in Liverpool with a cracking cast which includes The Thick of It's Peter Capaldi as the Professor, the role Alec Guinness took in the original and Tom Hanks in the Coen Brothers remake a few years ago.

I've not seen the Coen Bros version, but the original is lovely, a funny witty dark comedy that captures the despair and grimness of post war Britain.

But Linehan got into a fluster with the Today presenter because he didn't want to have to justify everything he's been doing over the past year adapting the film for the stage, for the sake of a polarised soundbite for the BBC. You can listen to the interview by following this link to the BBC website.

He had been paired with Michael Billington, the theatre critic, whose stance was that theatre should be original, not adapting ideas from movies that have already had their moment.

Billington had his point but the elephant in the room was money and neither interviewer or either of the interviewees alluded to it directly. Theatre needs the pulling power of a movie brand to bring in big audiences (and big audiences pay for productions). We have Legally Blonde, Shrek etc on the stage because of the profile these subjects have, not because they are inherently worthy. Now Ladykillers.

If Linehan didn't want to justify his work in a few minutes he shouldn't have agreed to appear on Today, which only ever gives a few minutes each to every subject. He should have insisted on a half hour documentary all to himself later in the day (and would probably have got it).

If he thinks Ladykillers is relevant to British culture of 2011, why didn't he explain why? If on the other hand he was imply offered a large amount of money to come up with a script for a new adaptation, why not be honest and say that?

One glance at a cast photo for Ladykillers and I was sold on wanting to see the show. But if all it is about is nostalgia, then fine, I can live with that. Unlike Michael Billington I can see a point in nostalgia. Theatre is itself a nostalgic medium and going to the theatre is surely a throwback to an earlier time when the only way we had of telling stories in a dramatic way was to sit and watch a group of travelling players stumble over their lines.

Perhaps the real scandal, the even bigger elephant in the room in this discussion wasn't the relevance of Ladykillers in 2011 but the fact that most theatre these days, original or otherwise, is like watching bad TV. The actors aren't quite as good looking, the sets less believable, the plots and dialogue not quite so convincing. (Also, you can't put it on pause so you can get up and go to the loo or fetch a cup of tea.) So why not get an accomplished TV writer like Linehan to help improve it a bit?

Friday, 3 June 2011

Top 100 Books: the last ten years

As you work on that list of the ten books you would most like to see included in an overall Top 100, you might like to take a glance at this December 2009 article in the Guardian which sought to define the top 50 books of the Noughties.
This isn't a collection of books the Guardian journalists think are the best. They are the books that they feel were the most significant. And it is a terrific reminder of a lot of novels and works of non-fiction that left a lasting mark. They range, therefore, from works by Christopher Hitchens and Zadie Smith to those of the glamour model, Jordan, who has admitted she never reads the books published with her name on.
Scanning the list I was struck by some of those included. Smith's White Teeth seemed revolutionary at the time, but now, I'm not so sure. Her follow ups have disappointed (come on, be honest).
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is in there, as it well should be. But I didn't spot any Roth, unless I'm mistaken.
Lists are always subjective. That's the point of trying to crowdsource our Top 100. The more lists we get sent in, the more meaningful and interesting the final list will be. And then once it is eventually compiled we can all get down to the important bit, which is arguing over what has been left out.
So get thinking, share the idea, and get those lists coming in!

Hay, Chris Evans, maybe I'm better off here...

Having just blogged about how I'd love to have been at Hay, the news bits coming out of thte festival the past couple of days have had me wondering if perhaps I might be better off here, in Glasgow, where the sun has finally come out.
Anne Robinson interviewing Chris Evans and talking about working at the BBC...
A call for more gardening programmes... on the TV...
Ralph Fiennes wittering on about Shakespearean language...
Book festivals always have their fair share of slebs and telly folk grabbing the limelight: they help sell tickets. But has Hay jumped the shark already? Going by the coverage - and OK, perhaps the Telegraph's agenda has slanted my view of this, and remember I'm not there - but right now I'm not sure where the Hay book festival ends and the Radio 4 schedule starts.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Top 100 Books: what are the best selling books of all time? Tolkein? JK Rowling? Dickens? Or Agatha Christie?

Like football fans dreaming up their first eleven of all time, avid readers love compiling lists of books.

That's why we challenged readers to help us come up with a new list of the Top 100 books that are Must Reads.

We want you to tell us what books have meant the most to you. The ones you'd pass on to your kids. The ones you revisit over and over again or which stay with you for the rest of your life.

So far we've had some stonking suggestions. Many lists reflect just how eclectic modern readers are: a bit of sci fi, a few classics, some modern lit fic. Contrary to what you might expect, few people restrict themselves to one genre or time period. It is clear that avid readers are also adventurous and seek out new writers and titles all the time.

But what if the list was restricted to the best selling books of all time? What would that look like. Actually, that's pretty easy to see because a quick Google search will throw up lists based on sales. These are from Wikipedia and are, therefore, probably pretty accurate.

Top 5 best selling single volume novels of all time:
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, 1859, over 200 million
The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkein, 1954-5, over 150 million
The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkein, 1937, over 100 million
Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, 1759-1791, over 100 million
And Then They were None, By Agatha Christie, 1939, over 100 million

No surprise to see Christie up there. Next to The Bible and Shakespeare, her books have outsold everything else by any other author, over four billion and counting - she wrote over 80 detective novels alone. Rather tragically for her and her family she signed away most if not all the rights to her work in return for a fat cheque in order to pay a large tax bill.

The others are not much of a shock either. Tolkein's bandwagon is huge and will get bigger with The Hobbit films when they are released in 2012 and 2013. Perhaps it is a surprise to see Dickens at the very top, but he was the original literary superstar and his writing was always accessible and readable enough for even a 150 years not to dent its appeal.

As to Dream of the Red Chamber... I must admit that's one I need to put on my Amazon wish list. It is one of China's four classic novels, written in the vernacular. It sounds intriguing and 100 million Cantonese speakers can't all be wrong.

Further down you find Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (80 million) and Catcher in the Rye (65 million). JK Rowling's Deathly Hallows is the top selling Harry Potter with over 44 million sales. Incredible really, for a book that's only been out four years. CS Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has sold 85 million since it was published in 1950.

Of course, our Top 100 Books list isn't about sales. It's about your judgement as to the value of a book: be that literary, entertainment, originality, the strength of the idea. Also it is meant to be personal and idiosyncratic. The resulting list will and should be a surprise to everyone. If it isn't we'll all have failed.

So what is your list? Leave it in the comment below and I'll integrate it with our master list. Over the next few weeks we'll be running the challenge in The Big Issue and hope to come up with a definitive Top 100. But all you need to do is think of five titles and authors, or ten if you can.

And please share the challenge with friends too. The more lists, the better the final result.