Friday, 30 November 2012

November links round-up

Good evening, dear readers! Against all the odds, November has turned out to be a most excellent and most busy month. I have been unfaithful to this blog numerous times, and I feel I should probably do a big links roundup of my recent activities.

So here one is.

First, for Litro Magazine, I've written:

- about the present (and past) of British crime writing,

- about Russell Tovey, the Penny Dreadfuls and how writers are secretly mad scientists,

- and about Pat the Bunny, and why children's apps can be a very good thing.

And for The Bookbag, I've reviewed:

- Stranger Magic by Marina Warner (read this if you are an academic and also a geek).

- Wits and Wives by Kate Chisholm (read this if you are an academic and also a feminist).

- The Kingdom of Bones by Stephen Gallagher (read this if you like Victorian penny dreadfuls and also DEATH).

- The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf (read this if you like the eighteenth century, the Gothic and people cutting other people up).


See you in December.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

1001 Books Review - Surfacing

Margaret Atwood is a very good writer, isn't she? A very good writer. That is not in any doubt.

But oh I hated this particular book.

This is partly due to over-exposure. I've now read almost all of Atwood's books, and I feel like I know her much, much too well as a result. If this was a real relationship we would be over the honeymoon stage, way past easy fondness and at that awful place where every word that comes out of the other person's mouth sounds like a broken record. You hear them start to tell THE SAME STORY like it's still brand new information, and all you want to do is leap up and scream, "THIS IS NOT FUNNY! IT HAS NEVER BEEN FUNNY! WERE YOU ALWAYS THIS BORING?"

I mean, GOD, Margaret Atwood, is there some line in your contract that stipulates that every single one of your novels must contain a man repeating the phrase 'Beans, beans, the musical fruit, the more you eat, the more you toot!' and then laughing like it's funny? Is there? IS THERE REALLY? Because if not, why do you keep doing it? Why? And why are your main characters always you, and why do they all have the same childhoods, and why do they all hate themselves, and why are all the men in your novels hideous penis-brained idiots? WHY?

I'm overreacting, and I know I am, but I just can't take it any more. I am Atwooded out.

Surfacing is the story of Narrator X (many of Atwood's narrators don't have names, because 1. they are secretly just Margaret Atwood, and 2. they are simultaneously Everywoman and a big woman-shaped vacant space), who goes into the Canadian woods with her three friends to look for her missing father. Of course, what she discovers is that culture is terrible, humanity is terrible and she has spent her adult life as a TOOL OF MEN. So she goes crazy, rips off all of her clothes, smashes some mirrors and returns to nature. Sigh.

The sad thing is that I technically agree with a lot of what Atwood has to say. Humans are destroying the natural world. A lot of men do treat women reprehensibly. We haven't solved any of the problems that feminism was created to combat. Thinking about all of that makes me incredibly angry. And yet, Surfacing just left me wishing profoundly that Margaret Atwood would write one novel at least that didn't read like a big old cloud of unrelieved despair.

The one bright spot, for me, is that Surfacing (first published 1972) does inadvertantly prove that, for all the awful sexism that women still have to deal with on a regular basis, relationships between men and women (or at least some men and some women, or at least the men and women that I know) have improved immeasurably since it was written. I found myself really struggling to connect with the mindset of Atwood's characters. There's Anna, who can't ever take off her makeup in case her husband David hates her, and then there's the narrator's boyfriend Joe, who keeps trying to rape her while shouting "DO YOU LOVE ME YET?" I just can't imagine a group of my own friends behaving the way they do, and more importantly, I can't imagine my boyfriend or my male friends behaving the way Joe and David behave. Yes, the men in my life still sometimes insist on making pointless sexist jokes, but they do it sheepishly, like they know at a base level that they're being bad.

I've suggested before that this disconnect between Atwood's lived experience and my own is because it has taken (and will still take) a long, long time to create a sensible and automatically feminist pool of potential husbands. Atwood was writing in the second-wave 70s, but the men she was surrounded with had been brought up in the 40s and 50s, when women were mostly housewives and made meatloaf and stared at the wall and cried. My own men, by contrast, were brought up in the 80s and 90s, when women mostly wore power suits and were Prime Minister. My boyfriend's mother is a GP, so it would have been pretty difficult for him not to grow up knowing that women were capable of being intelligent and effective public figures.It's a process of tiny baby steps, is what I'm saying, but all the same those baby steps seem to have led us somewhere.

I feel very lucky that the battle of the sexes in Surfacing didn't ring true for me, because of the effect that it has on its narrator. The hate X receives from the male characters has been internalised and turned in on herself. She despises herself. She sees herself as intrinsically wrong and lacking and stupid, and Atwood's pretty clear that this is because she's been surrounded by people feeding her this nonsense every day of her life. If you get hate, hate's all you know, and you can't possibly like yourself as a person if you're constantly being told how inadequate you are. In a way, Surfacing is an updated 'Yellow Wallpaper' - the woman takes what men imagine her to be and twists it into a really terrifying monster version of herself. Again, I know that this is a problem that has nowhere near been solved for all women, but I'm so glad that, for me, that updating feels in need of another update. Baby steps!

By rights, I should probably like, or at least agree with, Surfacing. But I can't. I see that it's beautifully written, I see that it's got views that I am intrinsically on board with, but all the pleasure I might have had in actually reading it fell down that tiny gap between Atwood's point of view and my own and was lost for ever.

Purely on enjoyment, I have to give this

2.5 stars.

Oh, and my 1001 books progress? 20.48%

Saturday, 17 November 2012

1001 Books Review: Shirley

Some books come along exactly when you need them, and Shirley by Charlotte Bronte turned out to be just such a one.

As many of you will know, I am currently... not gainfully employed (although not through want of trying). As any of you who have met me will also know, I am the worst unemployed person in the world. If I haven't done six impossible things before breakfast, the day has been a failure. In an ideal world I'd be editing a book with my left hand, drafting an email with my right, making up a blog post in my head and filing with my feet. I really need to be busy, is what I'm saying. My brain just will not shut up.

I always wondered what women like me did before we were allowed to apply for jobs and have actual serious careers. I sort of hoped that they didn't know what they were missing.

Alas, no.

Shirley is technically about the frame-breaking riots in the North of England during the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century. Actually, though, that's all just background to a double marriage plot, itself window dressing for the concept that Bronte really wants to get across: how damaging it is not to give smart women a purpose in life.

Shirley has two heroines, Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar, and both are (as you would expect from Bronte) clever, witty and determined. Like all of Charlotte Bronte's leading women, they're Bronte repackaged, but it's the packaging Bronte chooses this time around that's so interesting. If you're expecting mousy Miss Eyre or plain and serious Lucy Snowe, you'll be surprised. Both Shirley and Caroline are knock-down gorgeous and adorably dainty. They look like the stereotypical dumbass girly girl of Victorian fiction: the fainter, the weeper, the scream-if-she-sees-a-mouser, the lady who can't wrap her pretty little head around a complex sewing pattern let alone an expenses sheet. The reader reads their physical descriptions and expects them to be stupid, and so do most of the novel's other characters.

Owner of a beautiful brain
Bronte, of course, is just waiting for you to fall into that trap. She knows that if this were a novel by Dickens, Caroline would be presented as a living doll, an angel in human form, with nothing between her ears but fluffy clouds and the nicer bits of the Bible, and she takes that preconception and mashes it into the ground. Caroline is sweet-natured, yes. She ties herself into knots trying to be dutiful to her overbearing uncle, a man who unthinkingly expects her to be happy sewing and doing her hair and staring at the wall. But although Caroline really tries to be a good and stupid girl, her brain just won't stop working. She begs to be given responsibilities, to be allowed become a governess, to do anything, and her uncle's response is along the lines of "Oh! The silly poppet! It mustn't worry its little head! I shall buy it a pretty dress and then it shall be happy." At which point Caroline takes to her bed and literally almost dies out of sheer unadulterated boredom.

Readers, in that moment I felt for her.

Shirley herself doesn't actually appear until page 150 (this is something that Victorian novels do a lot, and I find it really bizarre), but when she does she confounds expectations even more beautifully. An orphaned heiress with control over her own fortune and a keen business sense, Shirley has to be the predecessor of characters like The Well of Loneliness's Stephen Gordon. Like Stephen, she begins a lot of sentences with 'If I were a  man...', she refers to herself as a 'gentleman' and at one point she works out which of the women in the neighbourhood she'd be willing to marry. But (and I think this is an absolutely genius move on Bronte's part) Shirley does not have one single physical characteristic that is traditionally manly. She is very slight, her fingers are small and white, her face is pretty, her figure is slender. On the contrary, she is repeatedly described as feminine - meaning that her shrewdness, her ability to manage her business, her facility with numbers and her bold opinions must all be essentially female qualities. You can almost hear Charlotte Bronte yelling GOTCHA.

Caroline and Shirley are both utterly realistic and rounded human beings. They resolutely walk through snow, rain and wind without getting sick or fainting, they go on a daring escapade in the dead of night, Shirley uses a pistol, they have reasoned opinons about life, the universe and everything and, although they are set up as love rivals for the hand of one man, mill-owner Robert Moore, they never allow that rivalry to get in the way of their friendship. And they do it all while wearing really nice dresses. I think that Bronte's arguing for women to be seen for what they are already. They don't have to be like men, or not like women, to be worthy of respect. They just have to be allowed to develop the intelligence and strength of character they naturally have inside them.

I think it's also a nice touch that Bronte shows her smart women falling in love (and being loved themselves) without having to compromise their intellect. Yes, Bronte has a thing about teacher/student relationships that looks disturbing to many twenty-first century readers' eyes, but when you consider that the teachers she knew were the only men who valued her brain, and that she was one of those people who falls fervently in love with someone's brain, it all makes sense.

There's an idea that comes up in every Charlotte Bronte novel ever: that if two people are really in love they will suit each other. Not just fancy each other, but suit. People's characters need to be compatable, not just their faces - which is why I dig Bronte's attitude to love so much. She's totally right, but in being right she's before her time, because she's acknowledging that a woman's brain can be the match of a man's.

It's probably because of this that I think Charlotte Bronte is so uniquely wonderful at generating great sexual tension. Characters glare at each other, or don't speak, or even refuse to be in the same room together, and you suddenly know that they LOVE EACH OTHER and they are MEANT TO BE, and that if they are not allowed to be together, your whole brain will die. As I said at the time,

And I meant that.

I don't know why this novel isn't more widely known and read. Yes, it's a slow starter, and yes, like all of Bronte's other books, it's drowning in Biblical references complex enough to fox even the most theologically aware reader today. But it's amazing. It's a great story that doubles as a beautifully rational polemic against treating one half of the human race like idiot children. Shirley and Caroline are both immensely intelligent, obviously the equals of any of the novel's male characters. It's wildly stupid - and Bronte points this out forcefully - that they're being made to waste the talents they have on staring at walls. The answer that Shirley gives to this problem is simple: everyone's lives would be better if women got up off their sofas and went to do the work they're capable of.

Thank goodness that, today, I at least get that chance.

4.5 stars

Friday, 16 November 2012

Bundles of Joy

Sarah Massini for Nosy Crow
First of all, I am so excited to finally be able to talk about the fact that Nosy Crow, a children's publisher I was lucky enough to do some work for a few weeks ago, is launching Stories Aloud, a new initiative that bundles digital audio content with their physical picture books.

Here is their blog post about it.

Basically, you open the book, you use your smartphone to scan the QR code and up pops an audio file that can be played alongside the book or listened to on its own. Isn't that brilliant? Isn't that simple? And doesn't it make you wonder why they're one of the only publishers actually willing to do something like this?

I know it does for me.

Bundling's actually something I've been thinking about for quite a while. There's such a disconnect between physical and digital publishing at the moment, and I can't understand why this is the case. Why don't more publishers connect the dots? Why, in short, isn't bundling standard?

As you may know, I review for The Bookbag, an excellent arrangement which means that I get a new book present in the post almost every week. Recently, I picked Marina Warner's Stranger Magic, and in due course it arrived at Bird HQ.

Now, as I said in my review, Stranger Magic is a beautiful book. Its cover is gorgeous, its illustrations are many and (most importantly of all) almost every word in it is lovely to experience. It's a reference book that I want to keep on my physical shelf, to flick through and pick from at will, free from licensing issues or battery failure or sudden cracked screen disasters. I don't just love the text, I love this physical book.

But Stranger Magic isn't just good. It's also great. How great, you may ask? See for yourself.

What you see
What you get.

It is 774g of purest processed tree. It is back-breakingly, purse-rippingly large. And with that piece of information, you may begin to perceive the problem. I love this book, I love reading this book, but I do not love carrying this book all the way up to Manchester and back in 24 hours (note: this happened).

Stop being stupid, Robin. Buy a Kindle!

Ah yes, but here's the thing. I have the physical book. Buying an entirely separate ebook edition, although it exists, seems a bit redundant now. But what if (and this is a question that will not stop plaguing me) the physical book and the ebook had arrived at my house in a single package?

Now, you can sort of do this already. Go onto Amazon and you'll see Stranger Magic: the real thing and Stranger Magic: the digital file nestling up against each other on the search page.

But what there isn't is any notion that you might want to buy both versions together, or that you might be offered a discount for doing so. And if you go into a bookstore, although some may have stands where you can buy ebook readers, there is likewise no way to buy, for a small additional fee, the companion ebook version of the new hardback you just purchased. And I CANNOT work out why not. I mean, it is driving me crazy.

An ebook and a physical book are, after all, built for different situations. Real books are for curling up with on a sofa or in bed, for looking at with the joy of successful acquisition, for storing and keeping and coming back to twenty years later. Ebooks are pared-down bits of pure function, the same words in portable form. They don't really overlap, and they're not really the same product. So why can't they be seen as complimentary rather than in conflict? One won't win. There is no winning. There is just (and I say this with my aspiring publisher's hat on) revenue that you make, and revenue that you don't.

We all know that the music industry has screwed up. At this stage, the internet is simply kicking away at what is left of its shrivelled husk. But publishing doesn't have to go that way. It still has time to jump on that digital bandwagon and ride it like the new money-making opportunity it is. More people are reading than ever before. Book crazes are bigger pheonomena than they ever were before. Yes, the 99p ebook model is pretty awful. But what if you try to establish the notion that all readers should buy ebooks in addition to their physical copies?

What I am saying is, why aren't we bundling physical and digital content as standard?

Now, there is nothing about this idea that means that it couldn't be rolled out, say, tomorrow. We have all the technology involved. We have ebooks, we have physical books, we have printers to create QR codes or individual ebook codes. I have a dream in which every physical book comes with some sort of scratch-away-to-reveal-the-code box or the equivalent (bearing in mind that putting the code in an easily readable place would probably create a whole new breed of bookshop theft), but I don't see why booksellers couldn't just ask customers at the till point if they'd like to pay £1 or £2 more to get the ebook version of their purchase as well, and then hand them a code from a box of them behind the desk. Or the code could be printed on the receipt... none of this is quite right, yet, but my point is that these are the kind of details that could be worked out as you go.

The idea is to level the playing field between traditional booksellers and Amazon and the other internet giants in terms of the content they offer, and to reach a large new bookloving demographic who don't currently use ebooks because they're being sold as an alternative to their beloved real-world copies.

If any publisher out there likes this idea, or any part of it, I hope you'll steal it. I want you to steal it. (Though of course I'd like you to steal me with it.) Because, you guys, I want a job. I want the industry I love to have a job for me, and other people like me. And I think that this'll only happen if publishers are proactive, and creative, and embrace change instead of behaving as though change has fangs and is here to kill your children.

So I say to you all: bundle up!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Review: The Forbidden

Frank Tallis tends to write crime novels, of which my boyfriend and I are huge fans. His Liebermann series, set in Freud's turn-of-the-century Vienna, is a highly comforting mixture of cake and death in which 99% of the scenes proceed in the following manner:

"We have just discovered the body of a prostitute with her stomach ripped out lying on the steps of the Opera House!" said Inspector Reinhardt in his distinctive baritone voice.

"That is terrrible!" said his friend and ally Doctor Liebermann. "In my expert opinion, you are looking for a killer with mother issues and an oral fixation."

"What deduction, my friend!" Reinhardt's stomach rumbled and he chuckled musically. "All this thinking has made me hungry. Shall we repair to Demels for some Palatschinken?"

"An excellent idea!" cried Liebermann.

Both men thought of the sweet, spicy pancake parcels, with scented vanilla cream and tender apricot jam oozing from their delicate golden folds in a way that was almost erotic. Reinhardt licked his lips eagerly. "Come along, my friend!" he cried. "That eviscerated prostitute can wait."

There is so much cake in the Liebermann novels that you can put on six pounds just by thinking about them.

Anyway, they're pretty great, but pretty silly, so it's not entirely surprising that Tallis has decided to try his hand at something a bit darker. Writing as F. R. Tallis (not a supremely cunning pseudonym as they go, I rumbled him immediately) he is now reinventing himself as a horror writer, and his first novel in his new genre is The Forbidden.

The Forbidden is a tale of supernatural possession that moves from voodoo on the island of Saint-Sebastien to the depths of nineteenth century Paris, a Paris where Charcot 'cures' hysterics in Salpetriere, doctors investigate electrical resuscitation and the possibility of life after death, dissolute prostitutes shoot up every night and Notre Dame cathedral is a portal into Hell.

Remember I mentioned Tallis's penchant for eviscerated prostitutes? Well, it's clear he's been keeping the full extent of his interest in the subject under wraps until now. The Forbidden pulsates with flayed women, oozing blood from all manner of unpleasant incisions. I had extremely uncomfortable moments while reading it, and though I assume that Tallis just enjoys horror and all its trappings conceptually, the way I love murder (Tallis is a clinical psychologist, after all, so he's probably had access to a lot of dark ramblings from which to draw his material), this is certainly not a book for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached.

I do think, oddly enough, that Tallis is displaying a more controlled and objectively better writing style in this dramatically-themed book than he ever has before. Gone are the odd over-descriptions that the Liebermann novels are so full of (tears becoming dilutions of sodium choloride and so on). What's left is vivid but simple prose that manages to evoke his highly-coloured material well. Unfortunately, though, what he's writing about, although undeniably a lot of (extremely twisted) fun, isn't as unique as the Liebermann mysteries. In fact, it's pretty much a mash-up of every supernatural horror film and book ever written. Island voodoo? Check. Fin-de-siecle French depravity, complete with crack and whores? Check. Priests battling satanic forces with bell, book and candle? Check. Youthful virgins spewing profanities and bodily fluids while their heads spin round like manic owls? Check.

There is a basic story running through it all (overreaching young doctor goes to hell and brings back an ancient evil which he must then exorcise) but the plot still feels bitty, broken up into sections that don't seem to bear much of a relation to each other. You can tell, for example, where the Huysmans bit ends and The Exorcist begins. In fact, the different parts of the book could almost be read as a series of linked short stories - but they're being presented as a single narrative, and that's the book's biggest problem. Tallis tells us in an end-note that The Forbidden is a homage to a lot of his major horror influences, which is great for fans of the genre, but at times I felt like the balance between affectionate recycling and innovation was a little off.

To call The Forbidden good fun would be... a bit creepy of me. But I did like it (though sometimes in a disturbed sort of way). It isn't innovative, but it's exuberant and skin-crawlingly dark, and as a first foray into the genre by someone who is obviously a long-time fan, I think fellow horror buffs will find it enjoyable.

Tallis's next outing (The Sleep Room, published by Macmillan in 2013) looks like it will benefit from a tighter focus, and I'm looking forward to it a lot. There's a big part of me, though, that misses the comfort of those Viennese cakes.

3 stars.