Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Jeffery Deaver does Shakespeare | XO and Carte Blance

Jeffery Deaver reckons William Shakespeare would understand what he is about.

“I call myself a manufacturer," he says. "I produce books. It’s an approach that applies to genre fiction, primarily, but I think you can say something similar of all types of writing. Balzac, Rembrandt and Shakespeare – they were all producers. They made products that they sold. Now, they call it art.”

Deaver is a great interview. a no nonsense author without literary pretension. A man totally at ease with what he does and why he does it.

Before writing “chapter one”, Deaver plans his books methodically, slaving away for up to eight months to produce a 150-page outline, detailing character traits, plot twists and clues.

Nobody waxes lyrical about the depth of Deaver's prose or the poetry of his language. But stand up and salute a man who knows how to keep a story twisting and turning.

I enjoyed reading Deaver's new book, XO. I also had fun with his Bond, Carte Blanche (TERRIBLE cover on the UK edition...bigger 007 branding surely?)

Deaver made the point to me that all writers should learn from his approach. His intention is to create an emotional response from the reader. To give him thrills. A literary writer might want to generate an intellectual response. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't plan.

Deaver believes wholeheartedly in the idea that you can learn how to write -- that by and large it is a craft, not a gift. OK, he concedes that there are certain things you need to have to be a writer -- a keen sense of empathy is one of them. And yet he differs in his approach from the many creative writing classes we hear about from the US. He emphasises structure over prose. Plotting over the nuances of character and expression.

* Jeffery Deaver interview is in the June 18 edition of The Big Issue

The Flame Alphabet | Ben Marcus | Review

Beautiful, retro cover

The Flame Alphabet has one of the most impressive openings I’ve read in a new work of literary fiction for quite some time. Ben Marcus’s novel begins with a father and mother fleeing their home because their teenage daughter has become toxic to them.
Specifically it is the girl’s language which makes them both sick. And it’s not just her. In this dystopian nightmare, all adults are being made sick, and fatally so, by language, written and spoken. Children are mysteriously immune. It made me shudder.
As the pages crept by, however, I had my yes, but moment. Well, several. Toxic language? What were we getting here? Is this a genuinely interesting alternative future? Or middle aged angst about teenage slang, text speak and the verbiage of Fox News pundits? Of all the problems facing humankind today, toxic language sounds a bit too first world, a bit too hypothetical.
Who is Ben Marcus anyway? As the chair of creative writing at Columbia University he has become a champion of the experimental – and a critic of the novelist Jonathan Franzen for suggesting that literature should be fun and accessible.
Marcus’ writing can be dense and occasionally difficult, but it is nevertheless interspersed with some genuinely inspired moments.

There are echoes of Orwell’s 1984. The narrator, Sam, is in the Winston Smith role, tormented by the figure of LeBov, a pseudo-scientist version of Orwell’s fascist O’Brien, eager to take advantage of the new reality. But while the elements are there for a challenging yet satisfying novel I found Marcus’s vision quickly became too deeply idiosyncratic and plain odd.
I get it that this isn’t strictly sci-fi, more a thought experiment, but felt the book is undermined by the lack of anything resembling scientific fact, or, at times, coherent logic.

* This is an abridged version of my books column, in June 18 edition of The Big Issue

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Prometheus | Ridley Scott goes supergalacticspaceoperaish

Prometheus. Seriously?

The most hyped movie of the year?

Spoiler warning... 
Well it got me off my seat to go to the cinema and pay an exorbitant ticket price, including the cost of some 3D glasses (the 2D showing was sold out, sold out would you believe? That's what happens when the director himself goes on the record saying the flat screen version is the best, I guess.).

I did like the trailer. But I wasn't in love with it. The cast seemed a bit....big. And on watching it, the film comes across as having a lack of focus.

Scott clearly likes an ensemble piece. the first Alien was one... who'd ever heard of Sigourney Weaver in 1979? You really didn't know who was going to survive. That was one of its major selling points.


But he doesn't pull this off, not entirely. Idris Elba, he's great. But his character is a mite cliched and a mite under written. Charlize Theron, well...ditto. She's a great villain. But here she wasn't the villain. And she wasn't sexy enough, either.

Prometheus has some great, great scenes. And it has one really brilliant character in David, played by Michael Fassbender. But the script is lacking.

More spoilers...

Why are there two leads -- the archaeologist couple. And why is he so darned spoiled brattish?

The faith thing, left me cold.

I don't think I was meant to sympathise with Charlize Theron and her flame thrower that much. Was I?

Also, why are there two prologues... The suicidal alien? The Isle of blinking Skye?

Neither was necessary, indeed I think the first detracted from the scene when they remove the helmet from the severed alien head... I mean. Wouldn't that have been more powerful not knowing what the alien guy looked like?

As for the They Are Humans revelation. it was so flagged up in advance -- partly by the prologue -- that it lost all impact.

The disappointing thing, and the weird thing is that a film by Ridley 'Blade Runner, Gladiator Alien' Scott is let down by its storytelling. By characters that aren't quite right. A flow of scenes that feels disjointed.

But wait a minute. I need to say sorry. I'm griping. This film is actually quite spectacular and regardless of the flaws the two hours raced by -- it felt shorter, for instance, than the marathon tedium of awfulness that is the current Spiderman trailer (what have they done there, turned it into Gossip Girl?) It's not perfect, but so what.

And didn't everybody slate Alien when it first came out? And Blade Runner....

Queen's Jubilee | The Reluctant Unionist

When is it going to stop?

These Jubilee celebrations have gone on so long, they have become an era in themselves. The Jubilee Period. The time when Britain celebrated the Jubilee. And. Did. Nothing. Else.

Banned from their workplaces for five entire days over the bank holiday weekend -- those of the Queen's subjects not involved in service industries, the emergency services or the media, that is -- Britons have had to resort to gluing themselves to the television to listen to a small army of pundits, grinning wannabes and under-informed experts say the words "spectacular" and "dignified" and "incredible" over and over and over again.

Eventually it will end. Won't it?

We've already had a casualty. Prince Philip, he of the slitty eyed foreigners quip, laid up in hospital with a bladder infection. Was that because he didn't fancy using the loo on board the good ship Flotilla? Or because he drank too much fizz during a day of the most Spectacular, Dignified and Incredible pageantry?

Someone is working on a novel in which the lead character is the man in charge of the river pageant. Someone. Somewhere.

The television coverage has been utterly terrible. Of course it has. The One Show, without the brains. But we'll forgive them that. I mean nothing else was happening for the news to cover, was it? Well. There was that Nigerian plane crash which killed 150 or so. And the soldier getting killed in Afghanistan. And the Euro crisis whatsit, but that's been going on forever. And the Syria thing.

As I say, NOTHING else to bother reporting on. Just the Flotilla. A Thousand Ships. On the Thames! Incredible. So Dignified. And yet, fun.

A million people got rained on trying to watch the thing. Meanwhile in Scotland.... zip, nada. Well, pretty close to nothing. So subdued has the Jubilee celebrations been here you'd think you might be in a different country. Though of course, it might be a different country soon. If the unionist lobby don't get their act together.

The Problem Is... 

Flying a Union Flag in Glasgow isn't the same as flying one in London. It's charged with an entirely different kind of tribalism. Sectarianism. Football fandom. A fair bit of hatred too. It isn't a neutral thing, a coming together and celebrating thing. It's divisive.

As for the rest of Scotland? Well, the thing is, Scots hate a fuss. And remember, our Church of Scotland doesn't look to the Queen. It looks to its ministers, and to its own conscience. And the Jubilee has been, to some extent, used by leading Tories -- because they are the ones in power -- to flag wave. And Scots hate the Tories. Also, Scots are, in huge numbers, socialists. Real, republican socialists. Not to mention the whole independence is us malarkey. So if you add all this together. The dislike for sectarianism. The socialism. The free thinking protestantism. The hatred of Tories, especially English Tories, from London! Well, the Jubilee didn't have a chance.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Audible Books | Story time | Let someone else read you a story

Mark Haddon’s The Red House is available via Amazon for £7.64 – in hardback. Alternatively, for £17.19 – almost a tenner more – you can download a twelve hour recording of the actor Nathanial Parker reading it out from the bookseller’s sister site, Audible.com.

Back in the days of cassettes, the concept only really made sense for the visually impaired, but audiobooks are now big business.

Favourite audiobooks
Strong narrative voices translate well to audio. Family favourites include Martin Jarvis doing Just William, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Other recent finds are Hugh Dickson reading Bleak House and Caitlin Moran on How To Be A Woman. Car journeys fly by. Kids listen to their iPods all day. The really are a decent alternative to the TV at night, or to the radio while cooking the dinner. They even work on a run.

But what happens when the text is very different? The Red House constantly changes point of view, often two or three times on the same page. There’s no hero, no central character, just eight individuals with a spectrum of hang-ups secrets and motivations. Reading or listening, Haddon’s prose demands full attention: if you don’t focus, you’ll get hopelessly lost. But the reward is there if you stick with it.

Stieg Larsson
When I came to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, I wondered if voice over expert Saul Reichlin would risk a Swedish accent. Muppet chef, anyone? Then I found myself liking Blomkvist less than I had when I’d read the novels, he was more pompous. As for Berger, did Reichlin cross his legs to read her dialogue... or what?

Pace counts. Three and a half hours in to The Girl Who Played With Fire I realised this was still the preamble. My head was awash with Swedish names that were all starting to sound very similar and it occurred to me that I could have spent the time re-watched Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring in that time. If this had been a book, I might have skim read up to this point.

Jo Nesbo
I fancied I’d get something different from the current prince of Scandi-noir, Jo Nesbo. The Phantom, his latest Harry Hole thriller, has an odd beginning which actually works better in audiobook than on the page: the first section is narrated by a female rat as it encounters the dying body of a drug addict.

That got my attention, but The Phantom proves to be just as demanding as The Red House. Nesbo skips between a pilot, a junky, Harry himself, the rat. And it’s bleak stuff too. Listen to it on the beach, somewhere sunny enough to remind you that you’re not stuck in Oslo, in the rain.

* This is an abridged version of my books column in The Big Issue, out Monday June 4