Sunday, 27 November 2011

A Twitter tenet: broken

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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.

Today I did something that I swore to myself a while ago that I would not do: I made some negative comments about someone famous on Twitter.

I think most of us have done it - I certainly have, although more recently I have tried not to.  I've put up a tweet about someone famous - say someone on X-Factor (in this particular example I use the word famous wrongly) - because I thought that I was being funny, without stopping to think whether what I was saying was hurtful.  Recently I have tried to censor myself more and not tweet something if I thought it would cause offense to the person it was about, if they discovered it.

The problem is that Twitter is deceptively impersonal.  You can put something out there into the ether; make the inner monologue outer (and anyone who has worked with someone who talks to themselves will know how annoying this can be), and forget that it can be read by anyone on Twitter - including the person that the tweet is about.  I think it is a good rule that you shouldn't tweet something about a person on Twitter if you wouldn't feel comfortable to say it to their face.

Of course, the argument is that any famous person gets used to negative comments; that it goes with the job.  But I came to the conclusion that it doesn't make it right for me to add to that barrage of criticism and personal comments.  My personal opinion is fine - that I don't think someone is right for a part, for example - but a personal comment about something over which they have less control, such as weight, is something that I would try to avoid.  I have recently felt quite uncomfortable with some of the negative tweets about competitors on "Young Apprentice."  These are, after all, people who are very young and are trying to work out who they are and who they want to be.  Yes, some of them are quite annoying, but I doubt there are many of us that aren't a) rather ashamed of some things that we said or did when a teenager and b) don't still rankle with something critical that was said about us at the time when we were younger (no? just me then). 

This morning on Twitter I had a rant about Michael Ball being cast as Sweeney Todd (sorry, Alicia).  Actually I don't think my rant was too bad as it wasn't so much disrespect for his talents - Dad told me he was great in "Hairspray" - as the fact that it is one of my favourite musicals and I really felt that he wasn't good casting for that part.  Sweeney Todd should be powerful and threatening (I still haven't found a version that beats Len Cariou on the OBC), and I didn't believe that he is capable of that menace.    

Since my rant, I picked up a spirited defence from a Michael Ball and musical theatre fan on Twitter.  I had tweeted that I had a bad experience seeing him in "Passion," which she quite fairly pointed out was now over 10 years ago (which had also occurred to me now that I have calmed down after my initial indignation).  She also told me that Sondheim has seen and enjoyed the show, and I am sure he knows a lot better than I do what makes a good Sweeney.

I've realised that maybe my crime in this instance wasn't making a personal comment on Twitter: it was passing judgement on something before I have seen it.  I know that the great Mark Kermode says that he tries to go into a film with an open mind, even if it is the latest in a franchise he dislikes, or, even worse, a film by Michael Bay (or, worse again, a Michael Bay franchise).  This is a good tenet to observe, and I am not very good at this.  I sometimes enjoy the chance to have an unreasonable rant about something in the arts about which I have a preconceived bias.  In the past I have scared someone with one of my rants, as he seemed unable to make the distinction that he was on the receiving end of an abstract rant and I wasn't angry with him.  But when you put that rant on Twitter, you put your unreasoned bias in the public domain. 

I love "Sweeney Todd," and I have nothing to gain if I am right in believing that this is a bad piece of casting.  Apparently it has already tried out in Chichester and got great reviews, and he does look completely different and more threatening in the promotional material.  My parents have asked me if I would like to see it with them (Mark is allergic to musicals, so isn't keen), and I am thinking about it.  I like Imelda Staunton a lot, and I think she will be a great Mrs Lovett.  If I do go to see it, and he turns out to be the best Sweeney I have ever seen, I will be very happy.  And hopefully, if that happens, my Twitter rant will have been forgotten by then so I don't end up looking like an idiot.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

"Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders," by Gyles Brandreth

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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 have joined Goodreads (and, as I know a paltry amount of people on there, friend requests are welcomed), but I admit that I have not yet got addicted to it to the same extent as I have with Twitter.  There is, however, one thing in particular for which I am grateful - their new releases email.  If I had not received emails about them which list new releases which might interest me, I would not have realised so quickly that there was a new Oscar Wilde mystery or a new Phil Rickman (next on my reading list).

In "Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders," Dr Arthur Conan Doyle goes to Bad Homburg to spend some time sorting through the correspondence that has been sent to his creation, Sherlock Holmes, at 221B Baker Street. By coincidence, he finds that his friend, Oscar Wilde, has been convinced by his wife to take the cure in Bad Homburg for his health.  Wilde is bored and seizes on the company, offering to help Conan Doyle work through his post.  A mysterious parcel addressed to Sherlock Holmes contains a gruesome discovery that leads them to Rome in search of answers and adventure.

In this novel, Gyles Brandreth has pared down his normal dramatis personae.  A couple of his regular sometime narrators - Robert Sherard and Bram Stoker - are absent from this novel, as is Oscar's wife and family.  In previous novels Brandreth has used an epistolary style, constructing the narrative through a collage of letters and diary entries by Sherard, Conan Doyle and Stoker.  In this, the narrative is entirely in the voice of Dr Arthur Conan Doyle, ostensibly from his unpublished memoirs.  This device effectively means that Conan Doyle is functioning as the Dr Watson to Wilde's Sherlock Holmes.

In my post on the previous novel, "Oscar Wilde and the Nest of Vipers," I wrote a little about Gyles Brandreth reverse engineering elements from the Sherlock Holmes canon.  This is very entertaining for the literary nerd in me, and this novel - supposedly taking place in Oscar's life before he has written "The Importance of Being Earnest" - contains a couple of incidental echoes of lines from the play.  This is at the heart of his reverse engineering: for us, as readers, Brandreth throws in references that recall elements of the earlier text and we can feel entertained and a little smug at getting the in-joke but, to the characters in the novel, they function as inspiration for future writing.  However, for the first time with this novel, I became aware that this is problematic because it allows a reader with a reasonable knowledge of the Holmes canon to second-guess where Brandreth is going with an idea.  I won't say what triggered this realisation - it is a curious oddity that my mentioning something written over one hundred years ago is a spoiler for something recently written - although I do have to admit as a mitigating circumstance that it was not a significant point in the solution of the mystery.  This might be less of a problem in another genre but, in a mystery which relies on twists and sleight of mind, it is a dangerous trick to play because the dividing line between homage to past writing and spoiler for writing in progress is potentially slight.

Despite that caveat, I am still enjoying the series and I will read the next one also (assuming that Gyles Brandreth continues the series).  Brandreth's books also continue to shame me into thinking that I should know more about Wilde, and should go back to read more of his writing.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

"Covenant," by Dean Crawford

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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.

This is a book that I was lucky enough to receive from Simon and Schuster as a review copy, and it is one that I was looking forward to reading.  The novelists that Dean Crawford has been compared to in the novel's book blurb and press - James Rollins and Chris Kuzneski  -  are ones that I find entertaining and enjoyable.

Dean Crawford's hero is Ethan Warner, an ex-marine turned investigative journalist who lost his reason for living when his fiancee, Joanna, was abducted while in Gaza.  Since that time, and following failed attempts to locate her, he has been reduced to a purposeless, alcohol-fuelled life.  Ethan is brought in by the Defense Intelligence Agency due to his skill at finding missing people - excepting the one he really wants to find - to help Rachel Morgan locate her scientist daughter, Lucy, who has disappeared from the site of a remote and highly secretive dig in Israel.  He is convinced to help Rachel by the promise of further investigation into his fiancee's disappearance.

The adventure that follows is part Indiana Jones, part Michael Crichton - complete with "Jurassic Park" incomprehensible (to me, anyway) science bits.  The Michael Crichton comparison is made on the book cover, and this is an apt one.  However, it also made me think of "The X-Files."  The character of Ethan Warner is comparable to Dana Scully - initially a sceptic, becoming enlightened during the course of the narrative - while Rachel Morgan takes the Fox Mulder role.  The discovery from Lucy's dig is - and I don't think this is a spoiler, as we learn this fairly early on - the skeletal remains of an alien humanoid, which also brings to mind the"X-Files" comparison.  Dean Crawford obviously intends Ethan Warner to be a recurring character (my copy of the book also contains the first few chapters of his next book, "Elixir"), and some unresolved elements of the story make me suspect that the alien discovery will be an arc that will span books, much in the same way that the alien conspiracy extended across seasons of "The X-Files."

I've written before about what I call "breakfast books."  A breakfast book is a book that you can read early in the morning, for entertainment value with a rollicking story, without your brain cells being unduly taxed.  This is a good example of a breakfast book, with a couple of caveats: the science bits did tax my brain (and I don't have the scientific knowledge to know how theoretically plausible they are); and there are some slightly gruesome bits that you don't want to be reading while eating breakfast.  This book had some interesting ideas about archeology and the foundations of civilisation - interesting in a von Daniken, "Fortean Times," to be taken with a kilo of salt kind of way - and I look forward to finding out where he takes these ideas in subsequent novels.

A digression about Sherlock Holmes

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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 in the limbo stage now where I have just finished a book and I am formulating my post about it - hopefully to follow later today or tomorrow - and, because I am chronically impatient, I have already begun reading my next book.  The only problem is that my train of thought has been sideswiped by the opening of the book I have just started.

I'm now reading Gyles Brandreth's "Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders."  It commences when Arthur Conan Doyle retreats to Bad Homburg to work through the correspondence with which he has been swamped: letters which have been addressed to Sherlock Holmes.

This has fascinated me on and off for a while now: the fact the Sherlock Holmes is a character which has so permeated our culture that people write to him as if he were a real person.  The Sherlock Holmes Museum has on display some of these letters; the Abbey National which used to have an office in the building that now encompasses what would be 221 Baker Street employed someone to deal with his correspondence.

I can understand this impulse.  Of course, I don't mean that I believe that Sherlock Holmes is real.  But, of all fictional characters I can think of, he is probably the one that I most wish was real.  I feel that the world would be a better place with a genius, violin-playing, slightly sexually ambiguous detective in it.  I would feel safer knowing that Sherlock Holmes was real and was unerringly working on the side of good.  And, if I'm honest, there is a side of me that is attracted to the intellectual and sexual challenge of seducing a man who is so often disdainful of women.  I doubt that I am the only female reader of Sherlock Holmes who wonders what it would be like to be "the woman."  

If anyone wants to leave a comment, I'd love to know which fictional character you most wish existed?