Monday, 31 October 2011

JK Rowling admits she was thinking of killing off Ron Weasley - Telegraph

Makes you wonder. Might not have been a terrible decision, of course, but it would have changed the books considerably, and probably opened up a Harry-Hermione romance no one would have been satisfied with.

But what is the point of Ron anyway? Apart from being the slightly uncool, hopeless foil?

Could Harry have completed his horcrux mission without him?

(I love questions like this....there's never a right answer....just lots of speculation...)

Under the Skin | Michel Faber's dark story | why I'll never go hitchhiking

Beware: Plot Spoilers

There's a lot of excitement in Scotland right now related to the fact that we've seen a series of biggish Hollywood films being made here.
Movies mean well groomed A-list stars, and after Brad Pitt and the zombies in the summer, some are getting into a froth about Scarlett Johansson, who is over here filming Under the Skin, a movie based on Michel Faber's 2000 novel.

If you know Crimson Petal and the White (2002) but not this earlier book, you should read it simply for the shock value. this is a sparely written, contemporary yarn which does something a lot of publishers dream of. It transcends genre. No really, it does.
It starts off feeling like a literary thriller and turns into a sci fi. But with a sort of Hannibal Lecter element that many will find hard to stomach.
It is a hugely enjoyable read. Faber writes with economy and if the plot lacks a genuinely substantial subplot, this doesn't matter all that much. It races along for most of its just short of 300 pages. My one complaint is that I could have done with one or two fewer hitchers in the first half. But really, it isn't much of a complaint at all. The book works as it is.
Johansson plays Sisserley, the lead character in the book. It's hard to talk about this novel without committing spoilers so turn away now if you really don't know anything about the story. Sisserley, we discover fairly early on, is an alien. But the author is clever in the way he introduces this fact and the nature of her alien-ness.
She has been surgically transformed to look like an attractive female -- to lure male hitchers into her car. Scarlet is far better looking than most people assume Sisserley is in the book, but you can see Hollywood's point. Even in the novel she is meant to be sexually alluring, and as this is a film, you'd hardly cast an unattractive actress for such a role.
If the film is a success it will bring a lot of readers to the novel, deservedly so. But I wonder how many will see it as sci fi or as something else. Sci fi has a dodgy image. Many serious readers are turned off by characters from other planets called Vess or Esswiss. And yet, if the book is well executed, the genre shouldn't really matter...

Monday, 24 October 2011

Carmen Reid | The Jewels of Manhattan | Video

Carmen Reid talks about her new romantic comedy, The Jewels of Manhattan, in this video.

Not only is Carmen a brilliantly funny writer, she also happens to be my wife. I recommend that you all order Jewels of Manhattan straight away.

Carmen has written five Personal Shopper and six St Jude's novels, but this is a stand alone crime caper with a romantic twist. It's a huge amount of fun and will probably end up in the cinema one day starring Anne Hathaway. Well, we hope it will anyway.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Emma Donoghue | The Sealed Letter | A Booker bonus

I've just been speaking to the Irish author Emma Donoghue about her novel The Sealed Letter. It has just been published in the UK as a follow up to her big selling, well reviewed, much nominated Room, which came out last year.

Room made the Booker shortlist. I asked her what she thought of the Booker controversy this year and her answer was I think quite sensible.

"There is no God of the Booker," she pointed out. "You can't predict what the judges will like. there's no guarantee an academic judge will love only academic novels or that a TV personality will only like light reads."

Donoghue points out that she has been on a number of judging panels herself and that she has always been amazed by the range of opinion a single novel will inspire. So really, it isn't any surprise that in any one year a thoughtful book by Alan Hollinghurst might be overlooked in favour of something else by a writer neither Hollinghurst or his agent had at that point never heard of. She suggests judging the award over a period of a decade, not any one year, and points out that the last ten winners are an intriguing mix of the extremely literary and the extremely readable, often in the same volume.

Tintin and the Critics of Doom | You'll never please everyone

Film critics have a gilded life. I know, I used to be one - sort of. I never actually reviewed but for a few years I was on the film junket circuit doing interviews with A-listers, directors and some actors and actresses I'd not heard of at the time and not heard of since. It involved hanging out in five star hotels a lot eating far too many miniature pastries.

This gilded existence generates a sense of importance. The longer a film critic is a critic, I suppose, the greater the danger that this sense of self importance will become overbearing, out of proportion with reality. In other words, the more likely they are to start talking absolute rot about everything all the time.

Which brings me to Mark Kermode. The doctor, as he styles himself on Radio Five Live. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Kermode. Never met him, but I have over the years enjoyed listening to his rants, enjoyed his insights and often appreciated his point of view.

Today I heard him give one of the worst reviews of all time to the new Spielberg Tintin film. He didn't say it was awful, you understand. What he instead did was give it a sort of audio version of a shrug of the shoulders. It was all right ish.

I'm still looking forward to seeing the Tintin film, but the number of writers and critics rushing to pour cold water on the experience is beginning to mount up. I know the media works this way, and yet I can't help but wish they'd all just shut up and let me decide on my own, for once. If I enjoy it, does that make me a ninny?

Some films don't make sense to critics, but the public get. I'm not sure there is a critic working today who really gets cinema. Many are great cineastes with a knowledge of the art form greater than mine. But show them a fun example of slapstick and they walk out of the theatre cold. Kermode was, rather amusingly, being criticised today by listeners who loved Johnny English -- and I mean LOVED Johnny English, which he'd dismissed as unfunny. Johnny English isn't unfunny, it is a laugh. But if it was your twelfth film that week I can see how you might get a bit irritated with it.

It doesn't really matter of course. Critics are over, they've been killed off by the Internet. The ones we have are merely the rump, slowly rotting on the fence post. They'll be gone soon, replaced by blog aggregators or Rotten Tomato apps.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Booker bingo winner is Julian Barnes | Readable, worthy or both?

During BBC2's Newsnight interview he responded to the debate over the quality of this year’s shortlist by saying “Jane Austen – what is she if not readable?”
The Booker isn’t just Bingo, of course, it is a cultural frontline. It is one of the few nationally recognised prizes the truly eggheaded claim to be their own and - like The Proms and Book at Bedtime - they are damn well not about to give it up.
Winterson's argument is heartfelt, if a little bizarre. She has the grump that the Booker chairman this year, Stella Rimginton, is a former head of Britain's spies. She was an odd choice -- Rimington's books are hardly literary. And there were comments by the judges: Susan Hill saying she didn't mind experimentation if it came from genius, Chris Mullin saying books should 'zip along'. For the true literati, these were ominous utterings that bordered on Richard&Judyism.
As if books were meant to be enjoyed! Tsk. You must read a book that makes your head hurt and your stomach churn, otherwise you are just wasting your time and might as well be listening to MoneyBox on Radio Four.
And then of course, so many early favourites didn't make the shortlist. Alan Hollinghurst and Smith were the most notable. Talk of a new Literary Award to rival the Booker grew out of this rebellion -- but don't hold your breath. There is more to mounting a lit award than a few agents and publishers moaning about quality. There's money for one thing.
But ultimately, what use is the Booker?
Below is a list of past winners. I'm struck by how few I've read (reflecting perhaps my chippy northerner habit of not reading what I'm told but reading something else I just fancy the look of). I wonder though how many of them will be considered worthy of consideration ten or fifteen years from now.
One issue I've long had with the Booker, which hasn't been mentioned this year, is the fact it is limited to British and Commonwealth writers. Canadians feature but not Americans. Indians but not French. It is the last bastion of Empire.
For any award that claims to be about what is best in literature this strikes me as a surprising flaw. I can understand limiting it to English language novels... but many of the best writers in the last 20 years have been from the US.

Man Booker prize, complete list of winners

1969 – Something to Answer For, P.H. Newby
1970 – The Elected Member, Bernice Rubens
1971 – In a Free State, V. S. Naipaul
1972 – G, John Berger
1973 – The Siege of Krishnapur, J.G. Farrell
1974 – The Conservationist, Nadine Gordimer
Holiday, Stanley Middleton (shared)
1975 – Heat and Dust, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
1976 – Savile, David Storey
1977 – Staying On, Paul Scott
1978 – The Sea, the Sea, Iris Murdoch
1979 – Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald
1980 – Rites of Passage, William Golding
1981 – Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
1982 – Schindler’s Ark, Thomas Keneally
1983 – Life & Times of Michael K, J. M. Coetzee
1984 – Hotel du Lac – Anita Brookner
1985 – The Bone People – Keri Hulme
1986 – The Old Devils, Kingsley Amis
1987 – Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively
1988 – Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey
1989 – The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
1990 – Possession: A Romance, A. S. Byatt
1991 – The Famished Road, Ben Okri
1992 – The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
Sacred Hunger, Barry Unsworth (shared)
1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Roddy Doyle
1994 – How late it was, how late, James Kelman
1995 – The Ghost Road, Pat Barker
1996 – Last Orders, Graham Swift
1997 – The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
1998 – Amsterdam, Ian McEwan
1999 – Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee
2000 – The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey
2002 – Life of Pi, Yann Martel
2003 – Vernon God Little, DBC Pierre
2004 – The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst
2005 – The Sea, John Banville
2006 – The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai
2007 – The Gathering, Anne Enright
2008 – The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
2009 – Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
2010 – The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson
2011 – The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes


“Lost Man Booker Prize” – 1970 – Troubles, J. G. Farrell (awarded in 2010 by public
vote to a 1970 novel, as a rules alteration that year meant books published that year were not eligible for the 1970 award)

“Booker of Bookers” awarded in 1993 to 1981 winner (Midnight’s Children, Salman
Rushdie), title of best winner in award’s first 25 years

“The Best of the Booker” awarded by public vote in 2008 to the same book, to
celebrate the award’s 40th anniversary

Peter Carey and J. G. Coetzee are the only authors to have won twice

Three winners have gone onto win the Nobel prize for literature – Nadine Gordimer in
1991, V. S. Naipaul in 2001, J. M. Coetzee in 2003

Several winning books have been made into film adaptations: Schindler’s Ark
(Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List), The Remains of the Day and The English

Schindler’s List and The English Patient both went onto win an Academy
Award for Best Picture

Man Booker International prize established in 2005, awarded bi-annually to a writer
2005 – Ismail Kadare
2007 – Chinua Achebe
2009 – Alice Munro
2011 – Philip Roth

Friday, 14 October 2011

iPhone4S | hey, what is that noise? oh, it's people talking to Siri on their iPhone

The streets around Britain, nay, the world, were today choc-a-bloc with enthusiastic Apple upgraders out to ensure they got their new iPhone4S before anyone else could.
Some stayed out overnight to book their place in the queue. Others crept from their bed in the early hours clutching a warming vacuum mug of coffee, in the hope that their local O2 shop or Apple Church, sorry, I mean Store, wouldn't be too crowded out.
Was the wait worth it?
Well, I can reveal to you now that I do not have an iPhone 4S. Nor am I likely to. And yet my life has nevertheless significantly improved over the last 24 hours.
Now, if ever I need to know the weather I simply shout out, hey what's the weather like. And, lo and behold, one of up to a dozen iPhone 4S users sitting nearby shout back a response. Sometimes, if I get my voice pitch just right, their phones shout back for them.
This has been a HUGE development.
The key thing to remember is that although on the outside my life looks just as it did a day ago, inside it has been completely overhauled.
My vision is better (possibly because I've been eating a lot of carrots).
I'm a lot faster than I was (I put this down to my new trainers, but only partly).
In terms of desirability, well we've seen this improved by 300%. Women just goggle at me now, some even walk into walls they are so distracted by the hidden improvements and extensive apps they know lie just below the surface.
I am not advocating that any of you refrain from buying an iPhone simply because my life is enhanced without it. But I will say, if you do buy an iPhone, and it is quite neat... will you please keep it to yourself? The rest of us are waiting for a lovely shiny Android Ice Cream Sandwich.
Or not.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Top100Books - 5 books to read before you die - Big Issue

Sylvia Plath

There's a weekly column in The Big Issue you check out if you can (you need to buy the mag, it's not online).
Every week a well known author is asked which five books people MUST read before they die. It's a pretty good basis by which to consider which books you think should be included in our Top100Books survey too.
Last week Jackie Kay, author of Red Dust Road, suggested these:

  1. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
  2. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
  3. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
  4. To the Island (trilogy) by Janet Frame
  5. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

The week before a very different female writer, Jodie Prenger (a judge in the Mills and Boon New Voices talent search) suggested this five:

  1. The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks
  2. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  3. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  4. A Safe Place by Lorenzo Carcaterrra
  5. Flirting With Intent by Kelly Hunter
That last is a Mills and Boon. A publisher I'm guessing who won't make everyone's top five list, or even their top 1,000.

The Scottish poet Liz Lochead was the picker from the week before. Her list is equally fascinating, equally disparate.

  1. Selected Stories by Alice Munro
  2. The Rattle Bag edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney
  3. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  4. Poor Things by Alasdair Gray
  5. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
What are your top five? And send your top ten list to The list should be ready sometime in January.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Wolf Hall | A (belated) review of Hilary Mantel's epic Booker winner | So what was all the fuss about?

Some books are like Mayflies. They are published and die in a day, their demise unnoticed by the greater world around them.
Others are more like giant tortoises, able to lumber on, chomping up the vegetation and enjoying the limelight for decades. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is one of those kinds of books.
When it won the booker in 2009 it was the bookies' favourite to do so -- and the bookies are almost never right with the Booker. It went on to become possibly the highest selling winner of all time (bone of contention: has it surpassed Life Of Pi, by Yann Martell, yet?).
Mantel wasn't a household name when Wolf Hall was released, not by a long shot. She had been nominated for the Booker once before and had built up a small but loyal following - a rare thing in modern literary publishing. Although her books didn't sell hugely, they did sell and were well received by the critics. She was known for dense but satisfying narratives.
Wolf Hall was considered a daring project. I don't think it is that daring.
It focuses on Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's 'master secretary', a blacksmith's son who rose to be the most powerful commoner England had ever known -- eventually his Lord Chancellor and elevated to the Earl of Essex.
Far from being revolutionary, this throws us into familiar territory: Henry's affair with Anne Boleyn and the consequences for England. Modern day Britain has an obsession with Tudor England which matches Henry's obsession with 'the lady Anne'. Mantel herself describes it as a great historical soap opera and this I think is apt. Her novel skews the familiar story, telling it from an unlikely perspective.
From this point of view I couldn't help but compare it with Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl (also a  film, of course). The overlap in terms of events is huge: Mary Boleyn is significant to Thomas Cromwell, Mantel has her flirting with him and even suggesting marriage. In Wolf Hall there is also a proposal that she marry Cromwell's son.

What I found surprising was that I found myself thinking more highly of Gregory's work as I read Mantel's, whose prose truly is dense. The problem is, I'm not sure how satisfying I found it. Cromwell is certainly intriguing, but there were times when I wondered if she couldn't convey his complexity a little more, er, simply. What really surprised me was that the narrative gets bogged down in the history. I thought Mantel would have avoided that. And there are times when the blizzard of names -- aristos tend to have at least two -- becomes overly confusing. Added to that is the use of 'he' to denote Cromwell... this is one of the most preposterous and frankly pretentious aspects of the book.
I finished the book admiring Cromwell, but far from loving him. He is a ruthless man in ruthless era.
The real oddity is the story arc. Someone can perhaps explain it to me: the book takes in Henry's marriage to Anne, the birth of Elizabeth, her failed next pregnancy, Mary Boleyn's decision to flee the court (where she is effectively being kept as the king's concubine) and ultimately the fall of Thomas More -- who is executed on charges Cromwell comes up with.
Yet It felt oddly like a fragment rather than a completed narrative (though at 650 pages a very big fragment).
Mantel is apparently planning at least one more book to take us up to Cromwell's own execution in 1540, six more years, but at this rate she might be writing another ten. I wonder how many Wolf Hall buyers will stick to the end of her story: I'd say a fraction.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Dr Who | The Wedding of River Song

The Wedding of River Song

Oh come on, it was fab. Dr Who fans are never happy, though, are they? They've been flocking to the internet chat rooms all weekend to gripe about the holes in the plot that brought back to life a doctor we had been assured was dead in episode one.

Actually, I was surprised how good it was. Dr Who flirts too often with the deus ex machina endings. But here everything was spelled out for us and anyone who had been paying attention, really paying attention, was likely to have guessed the body double gimmick.

For the rest, the sheer pace of Steven Moffat's second full season in charge of the Tardis kept us all guessing. He closed it with plenty of questions - including the big one, Doctor Who? But resolved all the major issues.
A good man goes to war...and a good woman too

Perhaps the most remarkable thing, when you think about it, is how he has managed to keep the River Song story not just going but interesting and intriguing. When she first appeared, in the David Tenant episode Silence in the Library, she was an exciting novelty. For a series that is essentially about time travel, Dr Who had seldom actually explored time travel. When they gave Moffat the keys to the spaceship, he made it his business to make time his main theme. The result has been storytelling of the highest order.

Looking forward to the Christmas special already. And really, are people really thinking Downton Abbey might eclipse it this year? I don't think so...