Saturday, 25 June 2011

"Smokin' Seventeen," by Janet Evanovich

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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.

When I was doing my MA I wrote a - not very good - dissertation on feminism and crime fiction. One of my lecturers recommended that I read Janet Evanovich, for which I will be forever grateful (he was also responsible for introducing me to the brilliant "The Things They Carried," by Tim O'Brien). "Smokin' Seventeen," which I bought on its release date earlier this week, is the 17th (obviously) in Janet Evanovich's long running series of Stephanie Plum novels. She has also written a few "between the numbers" novellas to intersperse with the main series, usually centred around a holiday event such as Hallowe'en and Valentine's Day.

Stephanie Plum lives in New Jersey and, after losing her job in a lingerie factory, she takes a job working for her cousin Vinnie's bail bond office as a bounty hunter. Stephanie is very entertainingly the world's most inept bounty hunter, but her meagre skills improve marginally over the course of the series thanks to the tutoring of security expert and hottie Ranger Mancuso. Her life is further complicated as her attraction to Ranger vies with her relationship with on-off boyfriend cop Joe Morelli (also a hottie). She has a pet hamster called Rex - which is about as much responsibility as she can handle - who must, by the 17th book, be in the running for the Guinness Book of Records' longest living hamster (unless, of course, Janet Evanovich goes to the pet shop and picks up identical hamsters in between books when Stephanie isn't looking). Add to this gun-happy funeral groupie Grandma Mazur, ex-prostitute Lula and Star-Trek obsessed stoner Mooner, and you have a very entertaining cast of memorable characters.

In "Smokin' Seventeen," Vinnie's bail bonds office is working out of Mooner's van, as the office was burned down in the previous book. The reconstruction of the office has been delayed by the discovery of a dead body, topless bar owner Lou Dugan. Business is slow and Stephanie only has a couple of skips to track down, including a senior citizen who is convinced that he is a vampire. In the way of all Stephanie Plum novels, the body count increases and Stephanie herself is in danger. In this novel, the standard love triangle of Stephanie, Ranger and Morelli becomes a love square as Stephanie's mother colludes to match-make her with a school contemporary, Dave, who has returned to Trenton following his divorce.

I selfishly hope they never make a Stephanie Plum film. This is because I would like to be Stephanie Plum (I feel the same way about Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next), and I don't like the idea of someone else getting to play her. I'm probably a bit shorter, a bit fatter, a bit older and I can't do a New Jersey accent, but I still think I would be a natural because, like her, I would suck at being a bounty hunter and - don't tell my husband this bit - I think I would also find it impossible to chose between Ranger and Morelli.

I would be the first to admit that Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels follow a standard formula and they do blend into each other a little; however it is a formula that I still love. She averages one Stephanie Plum book a year - this year she seems to have upped her writing speed even further and the next one is due out in November - and I always look forward to them. They are quick, fun and compulsively readable. They are all glossy surface and no hidden depths, but that surface is fun to skitter across like an excitable puppy running on a waxed floor.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

"The Observations," by Jane Harris

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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 thought about writing this review in dialect. But, you will probably be relieved to hear, I decided against it.

"The Observations" is set in Scotland in 1863. The narrator is Bessy, a teenage girl who has left Ireland with her mother, Bridget, to live in Glasgow. Bridget is a woman of ill-repute, misguidedly attached to a feckless sometime lover called Joe Dimpsey, who in her vanity persists in trying to convince people that Bessy is her sister rather than her daughter. Bessy escapes the life with her mother - a life in which she is introduced to alcohol, and is paid by men to lose her miraculously regained virginity on a regular basis - and makes her way to Edinburgh to find more reputable employment. On her way she passes a unattractive red-faced girl dragging a box, before coming to a big house. It transpires that the red-faced girl was maid at this house, but has deserted her post and left the lady of the house in desperate need of a new servant. Bessy, not entirely honestly, inveigles her way into this situation.

When Bessy first meets the lady of the house, she takes her for a "gobaloon," as she is running around waving her hands in the air (she is chasing a pig that has escaped from its pen). Bessy is "betwattled' by the increasingly eccentric behaviour of the "missus" who puts her through a regular ritual of repeatedly sitting down and standing up, and she has to keep a journal that her mistress is allowed to read. Bessy is constantly aware that the missus compares her to a previous maid, Nora, a paragon of perfection, but it becomes clear that there is a mystery surrounding Nora which haunts her mistress.

Although it took me a few weeks to read this novel, as I kept getting distracted by other books, I found it very enjoyable - and it was Jane Harris' debut novel, which makes it even more impressive. Bessy's first person narrative has a very distinctive voice, peppered with dialect words, idiosyncratic phrasing and charmingly off-kilter grammar. Most of all, Bessy's irreverence and unique turn of phrase can be very funny. My personal favourite, which I also put on Twitter at the time, is the description of a woman as being "that small if you put a pigeon on her shoulder it could have picked a pea out her arse." The supporting characters also have well-defined, distinctive voices, from the oleaginous Reverend Pollack (the old Bollix, as Bessy calls him) to the amorous Hector fwho (sic) seems to talk with ha speech himpediment.

When I began writing this blog, I had the vague and rather pretentious idea that it might help me find my "voice." Reading this novel has made me think about how it is a totally different discipline and skill, once you have found your authorial voice, to then lose it again and submerge yourself in writing as a character. Jane Harris does this especially well, and makes me realise how much I could learn from her. I am aware that I am particularly bad at dialogue, so I should listen and pay attention to people more, and that all my characters tend to sound rather alike (i.e. like me). There is an inherent paradox here which I have yet to work through: that I think of writing as essentially a solitary, even solipsistic, pursuit, but that it requires a better understanding of people than I have yet acquired and so I should spend more time with other people. I think that maybe I should pay less attention to finding my voice and more on finding voices and, even more than that, I should get out more...

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Today I have been mostly thinking about Twitter

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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.

It's been a slightly odd week. Earlier in the week I wrote a post about Public Lending Rights and, on an impulse, I sent a message about the post to the authors I mentioned who I knew were on Twitter. I mentioned 6 authors, 5 of whom were on Twitter, and 3 of whom were kind enough to respond and comment on my blog. Then, yesterday, Jennifer Ehle retweeted a message that I sent her.

This seems a little surreal to me. Twitter is quite a strange phenomenon. I make no secret of the fact that I am very star-struck and have huge admiration for writers and actors. If I physically met a writer or actor I admire, I would probably be a tongue-tied muppet. I would rather not say anything to someone I admire, Stephen Fry for instance, than say something that makes me seem like a fawning idiot. When my husband got a book signed by Paul Merton, I stood beside him silently like a lemon - I get slightly haunted by the social ineptitude of that moment. I did speak to Stephen Sondheim when I met him, but I had the benefit of a 3 hour CD signing queue to plan how not to be an idiot. So why do I feel comfortable and confident enough to send a tweet to someone, when I would never have the nerve to speak to them if I met them?

Part of this might be because I feel more confident with the written word than I am in speech. I may be 36, but I still think of myself as a girl rather than a woman because I still feel that I have the social awkwardness of a teenager. I tend to say the wrong thing on frequent occasions. But if you write the wrong thing, well, there's always the delete key. Twice I started to write a "woo-hoo, I've been re-tweeted by a famous person" tweet after being retweeted by Jennifer Ehle - and both times I deleted it because it was an uncool reaction. The second time I did leave it on for 10 minutes before thinking better of it and deleting it, but I can always hope that she wasn't online at the time.

Maybe you do unwisely pass the delete key with a stupid comment or a lame joke, but at least with the remoteness of Twitter you aren't subjected to witnessing the recipient's incredulity at your stupidity or eye-roll at your failed attempt of humour. And you might even get a re-tweet, which is beguiling evidence that someone you admire has acknowledged that you exist and that you have written something funny or interesting.

Twitter makes people who are famous seem more accessible. I'm sure that Ryan Giggs will tell you that this is not necessarily a good thing. It's another avenue for promotion if you are famous but, added to press attention, surely it can become another aspect of modern life that makes the public feel that they have the right to know everything you do. On Twitter you have at least an illusion of control: you can choose when you log on, how much you reveal, whether to react to a tweet, or ignore it; it is rather different to be physically approached by someone at an inopportune moment. I suspect that this might be the real reason that celebrities have a P.A. - so they don't get accosted by a member of the public or press buying something embarrassing like condoms or feminine hygiene products. It's another reason why I wouldn't approach someone famous: not just shyness, or fear of seeming stupid, but also the belief that they are entitled to privacy in the mundane tasks of everyday life. My father instilled that in me when he didn't want me to speak to Charles Dance when we saw him on a train, or David Suchet when he sat near us in a theatre audience, when I was younger.

I am aware that part of this post has been more introspection and tedious self-analysis. All is vanity. Maybe it isn't vain to be self-critical, but it is certainly self-obsessed and I suspect that writing a blog is, in itself, rather a vain thing to do. In my next post I will try to spend less time navel-gazing and return to writing a book review, as I am about 60 pages off finishing Jane Harris' "The Observations."

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

How I am contributing to authors' cavities...

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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.

As I was walking home from work tonight, I thought that I would start listening to my backlog of Guardian Book Podcasts. I am now quite depressed.

I thought that I would start with the oldest on my ipod and work forwards. The oldest podcast happened to focus on the release of Public Lending Rights information, and the statistics relating to the most borrowed library books. In some ways, it was quite a demoralising listen.

According to this podcast, the majority of authors struggle to earn £4000 a year. This makes my fantasy of writing a book and being able to pay off the mortgage seem ever more distant. I currently have better odds on winning the jackpot on the lottery than I do earning a living by publishing a novel. This is, admittedly, partly because I buy a lottery ticket but have not yet finished a novel (or, let's be honest, started one; I am very talented at procrastination and I currently spend rather too much time on Twitter). Also, however, those authors who can make a living solely from writing are the very, very lucky ones.

I have just googled the Public Lending Right, and have found their website. In their media centre you can access lists of the most borrowed authors, and there are also lists broken down by region (I'm pleased to discover that we seem to rate Kate Atkinson quite highly in the South West). In simplified terms, the PLR provides a pot of money from which authors are paid a yearly sum depending on the frequency with which their books are borrowed. According to the amount that I found mentioned in a document published in March 2009, an author gets 5.98p for every book borrowed (although payments of less than a pound are not made, which must be a bit of a bugger if you only had 16 copies of your book borrowed). PLR payments can help to supplement the income of an author who is not managing to garner the big awards, or the patronage of Richard and Judy. These payments aren't automatic - authors have to register - so high earning authors who have less need for this additional income might choose not to dig into this fund.

Previous to listening to this podcast I hadn't paid much thought to PLR, but I like the idea that I am making a small contribution to an author even when I decide to borrow a book rather than purchase it. I would love to have the money and the bookshelf space to support authors and buy every book that interests me, but this just isn't the case. If I did I would need a house to rival the British Library.

So I would just like to say to the authors whose books I currently have on loan from the library - David Hewson, Simon Hall, Chris Ewan, Jane Harris, Gyles Brandreth and Michael Jecks - I hope you enjoy your 5.98 pence from me (if you have registered for PLR). Perhaps you could treat yourself to a penny chew (given inflation, you might just have enough). I recommend Fruit Salads.