Friday, 29 July 2011

SlushPile Hell

Oh this is funny.

Worryingly, I also fear that this is so close to reality that if I look hard enough, I might find one of my old letters in there somewhere.

Aaargh. Who'd be a writer?

Book trade | Secret Bookshop | The last days of the bookshop

I came across this link this morning. Think of it as an elegy to the printed word. "There are better things to sell. Sell crack, its a better business..... We've lost. I just want to do it as much as I can."

This guy has a bookstore in a house. There is no shop front. No advertising. Its not a licensed store in the legal sense (not sure what the American rules are about this).

This is real, an example of a bookseller making things work for him today, but it sounds like something Ray Bradbury might have dreamed up decades ago as science fiction. A world in which readers must hide behind thick curtains in order to buy and discuss books.

It also reminded me of the bookshop in Shadow in the Wind. Somewhere people in the know go to indulge in a secret pleasure. Somewhere that is under threat.

I've written a couple of posts about bookstores. I have an ambivalent feeling, especially towards the death of second had stores, many of which I feel have rested on their laurels for too long. But there is a charm, a beauty - a seriousness - about books and the people who love and sell them that is appealing. Well, I'm a bibliophile, I wouldn't say anything different.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Patrick De Witt | Booker longlist | The Sisters Brothers

Great to hear that Patrick De Witt's The Sisters Brothers has made the Booker longlist.

I spoke to Patrick a while back: the book is terrific, an understated anc clever piece of writing that will also make you laugh.

Which is a rare thing in literary fiction. After Howard Jacobson's win last year, will the judges go for humour again?

Monday, 25 July 2011

Apple takes a bite out of Kobo's app (others to follow) | FutureBook

What do people think of this? As much as we love Apple's products, is Jobs asking for too much from publishing? Will this kill off ebook publishing, or will it help secure it a future?

Stephen King on 'Lord of the Flies' - Telegraph | Norway's island of hell

Stephen King on 'Lord of the Flies' - Telegraph

This year marks William Golding's centenary. To mark the occasion Faber & Faber are reissuing his first two novels, The Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors.

The second includes an introduction by the author's biographer, John Carey. I spoke to Carey recently for a feature on Golding, which I'll publish here in due course. Carey, an Oxford professor, mentioned the fact that the Lord Of the Flies included an introduction from Stephen King, which The Telegraph have reproduced. Read it by following the link above. He said how surprised he was that Faber had somehow picked up on the fact that King was a fan of Golding's work.

In a sense, it isn't that much of a shock to discover that the horror writer supreme is a Golding fan. King's writing orbits the same themes that lie within Golding's novel: the inherent evil that man is capable of. Carey pointed out that this pessimistic view of the human race made Golding far less popular than he might otherwise have been with both critics and the general public. His gloominess was not welcome in Britain -- though he did get far more recognition eventually in Europe. And Golding did of course win the Nobel Prize for Literature. A prize initiated by a Norwegian arms manufacturer to promote the best in art, science and, yes, peace making.

This weekend Norway suffered the single worst terrorist atrocity to visit Europe in decades. Perhaps ever. One man - a driven, calculating, deluded individual, the kind of 'unrealistic' extreme character crime writers are often criticised for dreaming up - has taken about 100 lives. Despatched as if they were avatars in a video game.

Most of them were teenagers serious and caring enough about their society to be attending a summer camp run by a political party where they indulged in those dangerous habits of discussions and debate. Their voices were silenced by extreme violence on an island that turned into hell. My thoughts are with Norway this week and with what human beings are capable of.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Top 100 Books | Harper Lee, the one book wonder

As we near the end of this search for the Top 100 books, one thing is pretty clear: To Kill A Mockingbird will definitely be on it.

In fact, as you can imagine, it is competing for the 'top spot' - book with the most mentions - with that other perennial, Lord of the Rings.

Harper Lee's first and only novel is remarkable for so many reasons. Remarkable that a writer capable of producing it never published again. Remarkable that the book has endured down the decades.

Last summer there was a British documentary in which a fan of the book went in search of the writer. Even though he was walking up and down her street in Alabama, Nelle (her full name is Nelle Harper Lee) was never tempted to call a halt to her long held ban on interviews. We didn't even catch a glimpse of her.

I respect that. What a sweet contrast to her life long pal, Truman Capote's very different approach to the media. Capote was a brilliant writer, but his books don't last the way Lee's solitary title does. There is something timeless and simple about her approach to writing.

But what do you think?

Famous for the wrong book | Books |

Famous for the wrong book | Books |

Here's an interesting discussion point from the Guardian blog. Many authors are known for one book - but write better ones that aren't as popular or as acclaimed.

Not sure I can comment on any of the authors mentioned here, but it is a cute parlour game. The Dickens I loved the best was Dombey and Son, but it often gets overlooked on the best of lists. Similarly, Tender is the Night, hardly unknown mind you, was so much better than The Great Gatsby.

Of course there is no rule to this. Often writers become known for one book simply because that book is very good - and their other work not quite of the same level. I wouldn't complain too much. Better to write one great novel and ten not so good ones than not to write at all.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

A New Book List | More lists please | The leading titles so far | Top 100 Books

I need you to send me more of your top ten books. I need you to call your friends, email your acquaintances and post the link on Facebook. This list is on the verge of working really well - but more people need to take part.

The trouble with lists...

The search for a new book list Top 100 was always meant to be a bit of fun. Not a definitive exercise. But it is an idea that has undboutedly caught on. The response to this website has been brisk, and it has been interesting to see other organisations launch their own Top 100s.

But what is clear to me at this late stage is that the more people who send a shortlist the better the final result will be. So get thinking, and please get in touch.

To encourage you, here below is the top ten so far. Surprised? Well, send me your titles and make sure the books that matter to you get a mention. This is open until the first week of August.

1. Lord of The Rings, JRR Tolkien
2. To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
3. Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
4. Lanark, Alastair Gray
5. Dark Materials, Phillip Pullman
6. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
7. CrossStitch (US- Outlander), Diana Gabaldon
8. Ghosts, John Banville
9. Gormenghast Trilogy, Mervyn Peake
10. I, Robot – Asimov

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Dexter | Jeff Lindsay's anti hero serial killer is still truly delicious | Crime fiction

A year ago, I got the chance to speak to Jeff Lindsay, the creator of the Dexter crime series, on the hardback publication of Dexter is Delicious. The book is out in paperback in the UK next month (August). As you can imagine, it is one hell of a tasty read. Here's the interview:

Jeff Lindsay wasn’t totally up to date on recent developments in crime novels when he came up with Dexter. As a playwright married Ernest Hemingway’s niece, Hilary, he had his mind set on other, more literary pursuits.

“I just had this idea about writing a character who was a serial killer, but who you liked, without really knowing why you liked him,” the author explains. “I thought of it as a middle finger gesture, a book that a few people would read and then I’d move on to the next project. But when Darkly Dreaming Dexter came out one reviewer said I’d re-energised the serial killer genre. I thought: 'Genre?' I didn’t know there was a genre – what’s wrong with people? I’d never read any of those books.”

So why a serial killer? Lindsay says he was fascinated with the idea that mass murderers could be popular. “On the internet the more well-known serial killers have fans and get letters from young women who want to have sex with them!” he points out. “I don’t have a definitive answer but I think serial killers are attractive because we all have feelings like they have - but don’t act on them. It’s somebody outside the rules who is getting away with something we’d like to try.”

The fifth Dexter book comes out this month and looks set to follow its predecessors onto the best seller lists on both sides of the Atlantic. A blood spatter analyst for Miami police by day, Dexter is of course a cuddly Hannibal Lecter by night, a handsome young professional who methodically and carefully carving up bad guys (a lot of paedophiles). Oh yes, it’s also on TV.

“It was doing so well I started dreaming of turning it into a movie - starring Johnny Depp,” Lindsay laughs. 

“Then one or two film producers called - then Showtime called about a series on television. That is when my agent sat me down and said: ‘You know the odds. If it gets made, if it’s good and if anyone sees it - you’ve got three months and then your book is dead forever. But if the people at Showtime can do the job you’ll be selling books for five or six years. I still thought it was a terrible idea, I wanted to do a movie – with Johnny Depp. But it turns out that he was right.”

Intriguingly, the Dexter TV series has had a parallel, quite separate existence from the character in the books with barely any plot overlap at all after the first series. “I don’t recognise my own narration in it so much anymore, they do their own thing,” he says. Indeed, Lindsay’s new yarn, Dexter is Delicious, even features a character the TV guys killed off in series one.

“There were television reasons for that,” he confides with a chuckle. “Someone else who was supposed to die was dating one of the producers so they had to kill someone and the brother didn’t have a long term contract. That is the way Hollywood works.”

Bloody they might be, but Dexter is first and foremost a hilarious read, from the ghoulish wisecracks about the murder scenes to the, quite terrifying, insights into Miami’s traffic jams.

“I think sometimes I’ve exaggerated the traffic stuff and then people say to me, ‘that’s nothing, let me tell you what happened to me!’” he laughs. “The police pulled 100 cars over recently in some random check - 93 of them had guns inside, including over 30 automatics or missile launchers.”

The new book takes a timely dig at another best selling phenom, Twilight, by featuring teenage vampires. Yeah, the goth thing is big - and there are vampires out there, people who believe they are vampires and do drink real human blood. I heard an interview on the radio with a member of one group – and they really do call them covens – and he was saying, ‘Oh we are so misunderstood. We can’t turn into bats we just like to drink blood... we’re perfectly normal people who drink blood.’ I thought this is so cool, I’ve got to play with it.”

Great fun though the Dexter books are, I can’t help but wonder what his wife’s literary forebear might have thought of them. He laughs.

“I think he would have a certain amount of contempt for them,” Lindsay says. “He had high standards that amounted to ‘If you are not me or one or two other people, you’re not anything.’ But I can live with that. I am very consciously writing for people and to entertain - and that wasn’t his goal at all.”

* this interview has already appeared in Big Issue Scotland

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Harry Potter | What did they do to the end of the Deathly Hallows? | JK Rowling

I'm not going to go on an on about this. The talented and hard working individuals who made the Harry Potter movies know more than I do about turning books into film and what flies in the multiplex. But I do wish they hadn't messed with JK Rowling's ending.

It's not completely different, of course. The essential elements are there, right down to having Neville chop off the head of the snake. But the final battle did not resonate with me on screen as it did in the book. It was too focussed on Harry, Hermione and Ron. Everything was over simplified. And in the apparent rush to keep the action at breathless, breakneck speed a lot of the subtlety and even humour of Rowling's climax was sadly lost.

The films have never really done justice to Rowling's large cast of secondary characters. I can understand this -- the language of film is such that you need to concentrate on the lead. But why did they, for instance, have Snape's death scene in a hitherto unmentioned boathouse on the lake and not the far more meaningful Shrieking Shack (which Harry etc could get to via the tunnel, unseen, rather than just wander over to when all the death eaters are apparently looking the other way....)?

Why didn't Harry use his invisibility cloak in the forest and to evade the death eaters once the battle was rejoined?

In the book the battle is rejoined by the wizards and by the centaurs and the elves from the kitchen - while believing Harry is dead. It shows they are undefeated, defiant. It was far more powerful...

Why didn't Harry use the Elder wand at the end to repair his old wand?

Why not have the glorious scene in Dumbledore's office when all the portraits applaud him? Couldn't Warner Bros afford all those actors?

Why for that matter have the lame scene with Snape leading the kids into the hall, then Harry revealing himself? Rowling's version in the Ravenclaw tower was a lot better...

Oh I could go on, but you probably already think I'm a bit of an ubergeek to have said this much. Usually with Potter films I enjoy them the second time more, when I'm not too concerned about what is not there. But this one I feel got the pitch of the ending wrong. It was too grey, too joyless and you never got the sense of a great coming together of good magic to defeat the bad.

So yes, I did love it. Well done to them all. But the books are better...

Friday, 15 July 2011

Harry Potter | Why it’s OK to relax and enjoy the Deathly Hallows | JK Rowling

We’ve all had the experience: that rolling of the eyes as someone tells you they couldn’t get past chapter three of the first book.
For some, not liking Harry Potter – indeed, the fact they have never read even one of the multi-million selling books – isn’t so much a cultural omission as a badge of honour.
“It’s just for kids” they say. Then: “And the writing is so bad...” And the clincher: “Philip Pullman is so much better.”
I find it weird that with so many people around the world utterly hooked on these books, enough to go and queue and a bookshop to buy one at midnight, that avid readers aren't at least be curious to know what they are all about.
But Not Liking Harry Potter is as much a part of the JK phenomenon as Hermione’s know it all attitude and Daniel Radcliffe’s bare chest.
Well, here are a few reasons why I think it is ok to be a grown up and to love Harry Potter. I’m looking forward to the final film, too. I hope the 3D is worth it...
1.       She can write. Oh yes she can. Nobody does a big story as well as JK Rowling. Quibble about her prose if you want to – and question the quality of editing she got, especially on book #5, which to my mind rambles a bit – but her books are structured brilliantly, the stories told with great pace and her twists and reveals hard to second guess. But don’t just take my word for it, Stephen King rates her as one of the greatest storytellers ever – and he should know.
2.       It really isn’t just for kids. They might be about a bunch of kids carrying wands, but the Harry Potter books are also about life’s big themes. Harry’s fight with Voldemort is as timeless, as elemental as you can imagine: a genuinely good hearted person who is prepared to put others first versus an entirely ruthless and self seeking individual who cares little for truth or beauty but only in power. Simplistic? Hardly. Rowling is careful to make sure that Voldemort is not simply a monster: so we learn of his past, that he was an orphan, not unlike Harry, who chose his path. And what of his followers? Evil or self serving? Rowling appreciates the political world, has a sense for the human scale of evil and with characters like Umbridge shows us how small mindedness can be terrible.
3.       Nostalgia can be a good thing. In proportion, certainly. There is something deeply nostalgic about the Potter world which I am sure explains a large part of their popularity with adults. The Magical World is a place where everyone knows everyone else, where they are all pushing in roughly the same direction, where tradition and family values count. These are good values which mainstream British society has lost to a large degree. And of course it is elitist – the magicians are different, set apart, inherently special. And this appeals to us too – because don’t we all feel that somehow we are just like that too? Better than average, different to the crowd?
4.       Characters you care about. Is there a greater creation in all of literature than the Weasley family? No, I’m serious. Varied, anarchic and full of detail, Rowling’s Weasleys sum up a lot of what makes her books so addictive. You want these people to survive and when they suffer a terrible loss you feel it completely in your gut. The Weasleys don’t come across as well in the films as they do in the books – no fault of the actors, it is just that the films don’t have the time to recreate them properly.
5.       Myths and legends. She is often accused of plucking the best from old stories and presenting them as her own. Anyone who knows anything about writing should be able to tell you that this is poppycock. Rowling is incredibly well read, it’s true, and she has a magpie genius for summoning ideas into her narrative. But this is her great strength not a weakness. In part, it is the familiarity of the books that help them work so well. They speak of rings, of power, of magicians – and well, these aren’t alien ideas, these have been around for centuries – so we accept them more. But Rowling’s goblins and elves are not Tolkein’s, they are very much her own.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

George RR Martin | A Dance With Dragons sends George RR Martin flying into charts | Books |

A Dance With Dragons sends George RR Martin flying into charts | Books |

I am going to have to plead a little bit of ignorance here. I was completely unaware of George RR Martin before the HBO series cropped up on Sky Atlantic, which I promptly did not watch, as I am a Virgin subscriber and disallowed from seeing said channel.

In the weeks since that series was launched, however, and perhaps because there is a general sense that with Harry Potter coming to its conclusion in the cinema that JK Rowling has, in a sense, left the building, George RR (do the initials stand for Rolls Royce?) has been cropping up with the sort of regularity you associate with Scandinavian Crime Noire.

Now the Guardian have run this article claiming that the fifth book in his long running series has cemented his position as the American Tolkein. That it really is very good. And that despite its 1000 pages in length it is set to be one of the biggest sellers of the year. If not the biggest.

So by my reckoning I've got some catching up to do. Because I hate to think of such a successful and apparently entertaining series trundling along out there without me being involved with it.

The only thing is.... can I really read it all? Is there an abridged version? Should I get the DVD box set and skip a couple of books?

If you've read it, or at least just a bit of it, I'd love to hear what you think.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Tintin the Movie | Steven Spielberg's big budget film | Tintin trailer

I'm a huge Tintin fan but I must admit my heart sank when it was announced that Steven Spielberg was making a film. You can watch the trailer on the imdb website.
I'm not opposed to Spielberg's work. Often he is brilliant. But when it comes to Tintin, I'm a purist: Herge's work was special and I can't imagine it in any other form than his strips - flawed as they may be.
There is no doubt that this trailer looks thrilling - and at first glance the animation is a brilliant rendition of Herge's originals. But of course trailers always look thrilling, that's the point of them. I have two observations on this one: Tintin's voice grates in a way that is unexpected. It somehow manages to be both bland AND irritating.
Then there is the CGI. The characters look authentic at first but then you realise that it is as if they have all had a supertreatment of botox. There is something expressionless, you could almost say 'Nicole-Kidmanesque' about them.
In that sense, the animation doesn't look that different to the sort of thing we were seeing ten years ago. Great in stills, terrible in the cinema.
As for the plot: what's he done? I said, WHAT HAS HE DONE? Instead of doing the obvious, the thing all the fans would have loved, which is serve up the Unicorn stories on the big screen he has instead created some sort of mega mash up. Its the Unicorn, but it seems to have bits of the other books in there too - plus some scenes Herge never came up with (A bazooka?).
I'm disappointed. Alas.... one for the DVD perhaps...

Update: As the release of this film gets closer I've decided to hell with purity. Tintin is hugely fun and entertaining and if Spielberg has managed to recast it for a new generation, then great. I'm looking forward to this now...

Once upon a life: Chris Adrian | Life and style | The Observer

Hard to believe Chris Adrian was once such a scurrilous political fixer. But there you go...

Book Group | Literary Fiction | The Behaviour Of Moths by Poppy Adams | Costa shortlist 2008

First novel

Poppy Adams' first novel shows touches of brilliance

The Behaviour Of Moths - renamed The Sister for the American market - is a real head scratcher. As you read it you find yourself willing it to be brilliant. There are some great passages and clever twists. But it never quite satisfies.

Adams' debut made the Costa shortlist in 2008 and, perhaps more significantly, was featured as a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime.

(Only in Britain, in the cosy confines of Radio 4, could anyone think that 'A Book at Bedtime' was a reasonable name for a programme aimed at people over the age of eight...)

I'd not come across it when it came out, but it was nominated (twice I seem to remember) for our book group. The discussion which followed sums the book up I think. People loved it, in parts. But most of us were left frustrated by the questions that weren't answered and the oddities of the narrative.

The book is about two elderly sisters, reunited after 40 years in the crumbling mansion where the older sister, Ginny, has always lived. She is a lepidopterist - she studies moths and Adams regales us with a huge amount of detail about the history of this subject and its technicalities (sometimes too much) - and appears to have a great many deficiencies when it comes to social skills.

The latter makes her interesting, but it also makes her inconsistent. She is a classic unreliable narrator, but her prose - Adams' prose, rather - is so well composed and her insights often so sharp and clear that you are left wondering what exactly her problem is. There is a sense that the bridge is down, somehow, between Ginny and the rest of the world but we are never sure quite why. The problem is, I'm not sure Adams knows either. If I was convinced she did, then I think I'd rate this book more highly. As it is, this is a terrific first novel, but a dissatisfying one.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Fiction Books | Glasgow Herald joins World Book Night in chasing a Top 100 List

Years ago when I worked on a national newspaper I remember getting a 'ring in' - a call from the member of the public - from a woman in Stoke, or perhaps it was Hull, or Swindon, who swore blind that Chris Evans, the then Radio 1 breakfast show host, was stealing her jokes.
Not just the odd joke you understand, but all her jokes, and doing so in a systematic fashion. He had, she assured me, parked a white van outside her house which was stuffed to the gunnells with high tech listening equipment.
Of course, I knew straight away that the poor lady was deluded, behind in her medication or just plain barking - and in the way of journalists I did the only decent thing. I gave her the number of a friend of mine on a different newspaper and suggested she tell him all about it.
"It's just not my kind of story," I said, "but he'll love this."
Flash forward to this week and I have a sense of what that paranoid woman must have been feeling. I've already noted that World Book Night is holding a poll to determine a top 100 favourite books for 2012. Well I've just noticed that the Herald in Scotland - the Glasgow Herald, as I knew it growing up - is doing the same for Scottish titles.
Well good luck to them. My own list will be out at the end of July - and featured in the Big Issue some time in August. In the meantime please send me your suggestions for your top ten, to be incorporated into the final 100. The replies have been slowly mounting up, but the more responses we get the better.
Post yours in the comment below.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Booksellers fear 'stranglehold' as Amazon snaps up British rival The Book Depository | Books |

The future turns out to be now.

Booksellers fear 'stranglehold' as Amazon snaps up British rival The Book Depository | Books |

Must admit, I was only vaguely aware of The Book Depository, but the speed at which it has been sold to the big shark in the pool suggests the people behind it might always have had an eye on selling out to Amazon as part of a business plan.

A few things stand out in this piece. The first is the amount of profit these companies are making compared to turnover.

The BD made £2.3 million on sales of £69 million up to June 2010, with a doubling in turnover estimated for the year up to June 2011.

Great to see they were in profit. Not many book sellers are. But they had to shift a hell of a lot of books to get that profit.That's a lot of expense, sending out those books in the post...storing them... running a warehouse. Still, they didnt have the High Street costs/rents/staff... so they made money while retail chains have struggled....

The internet model really does favour the giant e-tailer. Amazon's profits are a healthy $1.15 billion - on sales of $34.2 billion. The bigger they are, the more profit they get as a percentage of their turnover.

But the really interesting stat in this article is saved to the last. According to Amazon -- which sees the bulk of its trade in the US, of course -- "it was now selling 115 Kindle books to every 100 paperbacks".

Kindle is only beginning in this country, but it is hard not to argue that the tipping point may already have been reached. Remember JK Rowling's Pottermore announcement the other week: she is planning on selling her ebooks direct, bypassing any publisher either in the US or the UK? Why? Because she doesn't need them and it would be a nonsense to do it any other way.

The day of the dog eared, disposable paperback may well be over. The ebook is well and truly here.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Neil Gaiman | Books | Competitive reading: it's not what novels you've read that count, but how many

It's the dark not so secret truth at the heart of ever book obsessed individual. It's why so many of us are resisting e-books - at least in part. Because it isn't what you've read that really counts, it is how many, how thick they were, and the fact you have them piled up around the house.

The book group was comparing and contrasting the other day and three members discovered to their delight that I had not yet read American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I've read four of his books, but not that one. It's on my to do list, but it is a big book and big books take time so I've not tackled it yet.

But there was a certain glee in the fact that neither I or another group member had got round to it yet. This was one-upmanship at its most raw. A notch on the bedpost we couldn't claim but they could.

Reading is a deeply personal, solitary affair. You have to lock yourself away either mentally or physically in order to consume a book and you do so at your own pace and bringing your own life experiences to it. Films and television are completely different experiences.

And yet the communal aspect of reading the same book as someone else is extremely important. We are compelled to share in what we are reading, which is why book groups, reading lists and the Top 100s are so vitally important. Humans are social animals and we like to know what each other is doing and thinking. This I think explains why some books take off: why suddenly everyone wants to share in the experience of reading a Larsson, Rowling or a Brown. And why some readers generate an extraordinary loyalty to one or more authors, without whom they can not imagine functioning.