Wednesday, 15 September 2010

"The Vesuvius Club" by Mark Gatiss

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

People who know me will realise that I tend to be quite rant-y and opinionated about writers, actors, plays etc that I like or dislike. And those same people will find it odd that I read a book by Mark Gatiss. I don't really get "The League of Gentlemen," and he was part of a couple of the weaker Doctor Whos of the reincarnated series ("The Idiot's Lantern" as writer, and "The Lazarus Experiment" as actor). So I came to this book as someone who is not a Mark Gatiss fan.

However, though I am often vocal and opinionated, I do think that I admit when I am wrong. When my husband disagrees with me on this, I cite the example that I didn't much rate the choice of Daniel Craig as Bond - but admitted I was wrong when I saw him in "Casino Royale." In the same vein, I am willing to admit that I did enjoy the effectively creepy and gothic ghost story series on the BBC written by Mark Gatiss ("Crooked House"). I was drawn to "The Vesuvius Club" because it sounded interesting and because Stephen Fry, who is never wrong, apparently liked it (book jacket quote, "the most delicious, depraved, inventive, macabre and hilarious literary debut I can think of").

So have I been wrong to be critical of Mark Gatiss, or - God forbid, as this would undermine my whole vision of life, the universe and everything - is Stephen Fry wrong?

Well, I didn't hate it. But I didn't love it either.

Gatiss' hero is Lucifer Box, an Edwardian painter and secret-agent, who lives in 9 Downing Street. He is Bond to the M of Joshua Reynolds (a real life figure, playfully fictionalised). There are some elements to enjoy in the novel. Gatiss has fun with naming characters (Bella Pok, Midsomer Knight), and his joyfully anachronistic use of modern spy cliches seems sometimes to owe more to "Get Smart" than it does James Bond. But, ultimately, it was all somewhat unsatisfying. I'm not convinced that it is as good as it thinks it is, or as good as Stephen Fry thinks it is.

I have just realised that this might be the first slightly negative review I have written. I feel a little dirty, and slightly uncomfortable - I'm worried that Mark Gatiss might find it and feel a little hurt, and I'd hate to hurt anyone's feelings. Maybe I'm not cut out to be a critic - or maybe I'll be the world's nicest critic (that's my gimmick).

But the Stephen Fry book jacket quote has made me start thinking of great, funny literary debuts....Jasper Fforde's "The Eyre Affair," of course Douglas Adams'"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" (maybe not that funny, but kind of fits the macabre billing)....

Any other suggestions that anyone wants to run with in the comments section...?

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Booker Shortlist 2010

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I'm very happy, as I have just found out that Howard Jacobson's "The Finkler Question" is shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize.

I discovered Howard Jacobson quite a few years ago ("Peeping Tom," set in Cornwall, was my first), and he has been one of my favourite authors ever since. He has been longlisted twice, but I think that this is his first time on the shortlist. The Waterstone's web page announcing the shortlist comments that "The Finkler Question" has been hailed as a "real return to form by the critics." I wasn't aware that any of his recent books had been off form.

I do have a slightly fractious relationship with the Booker Prize. It has always seemed curious to me that the Booker has faced criticism for ignoring female writers, and then seemed to enshrine this criticism by renaming itself the Man Booker. I have to admit to naively and stupidly not realising at first that this renaming was due to corporate sponsorship. Now that I know that the Man prefix is due to sponsorship, I can't help feeling that the company name is a little too painfully apt given the criticism of male bias. Even though the last winner was a woman - Hilary Mantel for "Wolf Hall" - the accusation of a preference for male writers seems hard to shake.

Which leads me on to the issue that I have with the Orange Prize for Fiction. Just as the Man prefix seems to hint again at a preference for male writers, I have an issue with a prize that is just for female writers. My response - maybe more instinctive that intellectual - is to feel that a prize just for women seems to support the idea that a female writer would not win a prize when judged against male writers. It feels a little like "Here, have this to keep you happy since you aren't likely to win the MAN Booker."

I didn't intend this to turn into a rant about prizes for fiction - it started off purely as a blog to say how happy I am that Howard has got in there. I have decided, by the way, from now on I'm going to drop the Man as protest and as laziness. Contrary to the impression that this blog might have given, I find the Booker fascinating, and I'm in favour of anything that helps support the book industry. I even thought that if I ended up as an academic, I would have liked to try and run a course on the Booker Prize - it would have been interesting to pick a year and form our own jury (particularly for the year when there was a draw between Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient" and Barry Unsworth's "Sacred Hunger").

I believe the announcement of the winner will be on 12th October, and I will be interested to find out who wins. I'm sure the 2010 Booker will feature in my blog again over the next few weeks - I might even try to read them all in time to make my own decision (though this is our busiest time at work, so that probably won't happen).

Saturday, 4 September 2010

I am currently reading....and have been for quite a long time

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I don't know if anyone who checks my blog reads the gadget that lists the books I am reading. Come to that, I'm actually not sure if anyone checks my blog. Anyway, I have to admit to the fact that a couple of books listed are ones that I have been currently reading for quite a long time.

I feel a bit ashamed to admit this - especially since one of my long-term reading commitments was a present from a friend ("The Library of Shadows"). It feels a bit ungrateful somehow to have not yet finished it. I was reading it before we went to New York (blimey, that was April). I didn't take it to New York because I wanted to read something set in New York, and I never really returned to it. I was actually fairly near the end and was enjoying it (contrary to appearances), but it is now so long ago that I feel maybe I should re-start it. Can I still technically be said to be currently reading it, if this was nearly 5 months ago?

Another book I started but have not read much of is "The End of Mr Y." This is because I have 2 types of books - intelligent books, and breakfast books. The intelligent books - like "The End of Mr Y" - I get through a lot more slowly. This is because you need to devote all your attention to them, and I rarely seem to get time to do this.

In comparison, a breakfast book is - unsurprisingly - a book I can read while having breakfast. I like reading in the morning when having breakfast, but I can't cope with anything too intellectually stretching too early in the day. So a breakfast book is fun and undemanding - something I can also read with a little less attention when something else is on in the background (like when Mark is watching a football match in which they seem to be faffing around a lot and not actually kicking the ball into the net thing at the end of the field much).

My breakfast books fly past on the blog, but the intelligent books stay there longer because I read them less frequently and they take more time to absorb.

So that is the key to the books I am currently reading: if a book is on there for a long time, then it is more intelligent and takes time to digest. If it is only on there fleetingly, then it probably took less time to digest than my breakfast.