Saturday, 31 December 2011

A fairy tale for today

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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.

Once upon a time, there was a young inventor who was married to a woman he despised.

He had grown to hate her over time, but he still found her attractive even though she was incredibly hairy.  He felt desperately conflicted, because he still wanted her and he hated this power that she had over him.  The one thing more than anything else that he wanted to change about her was that he wanted her to be smooth but, because he also disliked her intensely, he wanted to cause her pain in the process.

Thus the epilator was invented.

Author's note:
This fairy tale is indicative of my feelings about epilators and should not be read as a parable on the state of my marriage, which is very happy, thank you very much.  I also believe that I am a normal amount of hairy, and not a freaky gorilla woman.

This is fiction and is not intended to be representative of the life of the real inventor of the epilator.  I would also like to point out that I am not rich so it would not be worth the time and expense of suing me.  Thank you.

Friday, 30 December 2011

"The Death Relic," by Chris Kuzneski

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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.

Last year I read a series of books by Chris Kuzneski, all focusing on the exploits of his heroes Payne and Jones, and I wrote about them here.  I thought that the series was good, rollicking fun, so I was pleased to hear that he had written a new book in the series called "The Death Relic."

In his new novel, Kuzneski's ex special forces heroes are called by Maria Pelati - a character who also appeared in the earlier novel, "The Sign of the Cross," and Jones' now ex-girlfriend - because she is in danger.  Maria has gone to Mexico in answer to a job offer from renowned fellow archaeologist Terrence Hamilton, who then disappears and she finds that her hotel room has been ransacked.  The pair leave snowy Pittsburgh - Jones hates the cold - to answer her distress call, but unresolved feelings make the reunion a fractious and prickly one.  A parallel plot about the kidnap and ransom of the children of a powerful Mexican criminal converges on the central mystery of Hamilton's disappearance, leading them to mysterious and exotic Mexican locations.

This was a strong entry in a series that continues to entertain, and to hold my attention.  I know very little about Mayan civilisation - I haven't even seen the Mel Gibson film "Apocalypto" - so the exotic locations and historical background were relatively fresh and new to me.  Payne and Jones are sparky and funny, as usual, and Maria's obstreporousness adds an interesting dimension to the dynamic.  Some extra warmth and comic relief was added by the semi-regular figure of the ebullient Petr Ulster, who has become possibly my favourite character of the series: Petr seems to revel in the thrill of joining Payne and Jones on their adventures, despite his rotund figure and love of material comfort making him better suited for book-study than fieldwork. 

I think I favour the character of Petr Ulster because I, too, have a (slightly) portly figure that makes me better suited to reading than action: with that in mind I will probably continue to join Payne and Jones on their next adventure while remaining in the safety of my own chair (or, my favourite reading location, bed) with a cup of coffee.

Friday, 23 December 2011

"Soulless," by Gail Carriger

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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 would like to thank my friend Sarah for recommending this series of books.  "Soulless" is the first of "The Parasol Protectorate" series and, having borrowed this from the library, I have now had to buy the next three for my reader because I couldn't stand to wait until after Christmas to get the others on reservation. 

Gail Carriger's series of novels is set in an alternate version of Victorian England, in which humans live slightly uneasily alongside a minority of vampires, werewolves and ghosts.  Her heroine is Alexia Tarabotti - statuesque, half-Italian, and therefore not conforming with the accepted English rose standard of beauty - who also happens to be preternatural (which means that physical contact between her and a supernatural being like a werewolf or vampire can make them human for the duration of her touch).  Vampires and werewolves might be in a minority, but preternatural beings are even rarer and are registered with the Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR).  When Alexia kills a vampire who, unaware of vampire etiquette, tries to bite her without her consent, she attracts the further attention of Lord Maccon of the BUR - who just happens to be uncouth, devastatingly attractive and a werewolf.  This encounter with a rogue vampire leads Alexia and Lord Maccon into a dangerous mystery.

I already did the "Twilight" comparison with "A Discovery of Witches," but - much as I have tried to avoid the bleeding obvious - it also came to mind with this novel.  If "Twilight" was thought of as having an abstinence agenda, this has a get-your-well-built-male-hero-naked-as-often-as-possible agenda (which I personally found more enjoyable).  If Stephenie Meyer tried to gloss over the idea that, when a werewolf changes back into being a man, you are essentially left with a nude bloke, Gail Carriger positively revels in that nudity.  Lord Maccon is often naked in Alexia's presence at great length, so to speak, and in one entertaining instance is nude for pretty much a whole chapter (and they are reasonably lengthy chapters).

But far be it from me to imply that this book is mainly notable for hot werewolves.  Gail Carriger is inventive, irreverent and funny in a way that reminds me, in spirit although not in content, of authors I enjoy like Jasper Fforde and Janet Evanovich.  This novel also reminded me of "The Vesuvius Club," only I enjoyed it a lot more.  Although the fact that it made me think of other authors might make it sound derivative, there are elements to this novel that I thought were unusual.  In Gail Carriger's re-imagination of Victorian England she creates a detailed world of vampire and werewolf society and etiquette, as well as detailing a pseudo-scientific study of the nature of her supernatural and preternatural creations.  The idea of a preternatural being was new to me and, in Alexia Tarabotti, Carriger has a strong, independent and entertaining heroine.

This Christmas I seem to be going a little bit steampunk, a little bit alternative history, since, as well as Carriger's subsequent novels in the series (the fifth and supposedly last is due to be published in March), I have a couple of Kim Newman's Victorian re-imaginings to read or listen to on audiobook in my holiday.  If, like me, you feel a little bit old for the jailbait world of "Twilight," Gail Carriger's novels are a full-blooded alternative for consenting adults.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

"Already Gone," by John Rector

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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 confess, I'm a bit rubbish.  I received "Already Gone" in the post a couple of months ago as a review copy, courtesy of the publishers Simon and Schuster.  The release date was 8th December and I had hoped to read it and write a review in time but, as usual, work and life got in the way.

The hero of John Rector's second novel is Jake Reese.  Jake has been drinking in a bar with work colleagues, but leaves to go home to his beautiful wife, Diane, to whom he has not long been married.  While in the parking lot, before he has time to get into the car, he is attacked by two men who hold him down and sever his ring finger complete with wedding ring.  His finger is then mailed to him in the post, and he starts to think, with a feeling of mounting dread, that criminal connections from his past are catching up with him.

This is quite different from my usual reading.  The blurb on the book cover compares Rector to Linwood Barclay and Harlan Coben - neither of whom I have read - and also has a quote of recommendation from Simon Kernick (who I have tried reading, but couldn't get on with his prose style).  This is more a thriller than a mystery, and I did find that I rather missed the authoritarian figure of a detective who works through an intellectual puzzle. 

While this was perhaps not to my personal taste, I did find things that I liked about this book.  I found that I was drawn into the book by Rector's use of first person narrative which, in particular, made the opening attack on Jake seem visceral and traumatic.  His sparse, direct prose style - which is robust and muscular - suits his material well, and he dives quickly into the action right from the intriguing opening passages of the novel.  His characters are economically defined through their actions and dialogue, and not through swathes of description that would slow the trajectory of the plot.   If you are a thriller fan who enjoys action, pace and intrigue then you will probably find much to enjoy in this novel.

For me, though, I'm probably going to return to some Jackson Brodie.  All that action gets a bit tiring.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

"An Inspector Calls," starring Tom Mannion, at the Plymouth Theatre Royal (December 10th 2011)

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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 going to be less a review of a play, and more a review of a set.  I ended up feeling quite conflicted about this production, which was originally directed by Stephen Daldry, and the set was my main reason for feeling so.  When you read this review you might come out of it thinking that I hated the show, which is far from the case; I enjoyed it, but with some reservations.  It is a production that has engaged my thoughts and made me question my opinions, and that dialogue between the play and the audience member is surely a good thing.  I would rather have strong feelings and ideas about something than be left feeling uninvolved and ambivalent about what I have seen or read.

My misgivings are by no means the fault of the actors, all of whom were very good.  I have seen J.B. Priestley's play before, so I knew what to expect and I know that this is a play that, in my opinion, stands or falls according to the casting of the part of Inspector Goole.  When Tom Mannion first entered, I found my eye drawn to him - which is entirely as it should be.  The part needs to be played by an actor with a commanding, dominant presence and he was more than equal to that.  The rest of the cast were also extremely strong, with Karen Archer in particular excelling at the steely hauteur needed for the part of the matriarch Sybil Birling.

The opening is atmospheric, as the curtain opens onto fog and rain onstage (they really should warn people that if you sit in the front row, as we did, you might get a little damp).  The play starts with a family party being held by the Birling family to celebrate the engagement of their daughter, Sheila, to Gerald Croft.  Arthur Birling is an industrialist with pretentions to influence in society - aspiring to a seemingly imminent knighthood - and Gerald Croft is the son of a fellow businessman.  The set is difficult to describe, and it seems to me that it must be quite hard for the actors to work.  The set shows the exterior of the Birling house, raised up above stage level, and the audience watches the engagement party as an outsider looking in through the windows.  When Inspector Goole visits the house to tell them of the suicide of a young woman, the exterior walls are opened out to show the inside of the home as their lives are laid bare to scrutiny.  The Birling family speak down to the inspector at ground level, or variously descend an ironwork staircase to come down to his level but, to the best of my memory, Inspector Goole is never permitted to forget his lowly status and ascend into the inner sanctum of the house.

This is all very symbolic; the raised house is the pinnacle from which the complacent Birlings are dragged.  Inspector Goole's questioning breaks down the facade of the perfect, happy, family and, once this has been destroyed, the raised level of their house breaks, tilts, and electric lights explode.  For me, however, the most effective thing wasn't the gimmicky tilting and exploding set: it was the human stage business of the elder Birlings picking up their scattered silverware from street level and trying to clean it off as they also try to reconstruct their lives.

My problem is that I'm not sure that it isn't all too symbolic.  The entrance of Inspector Goole was accompanied by ominous, bass-laden, music that whacks you over the head with the character's significance.  The programme notes seem to be suggesting that this staging has rescued the play from its hide-bound, repertory reputation, and supplanted more traditional stagings.  I don't think that this is a good thing.  A staging that is this, well, stagey, and gimmicky seems to me to imply either a) the suspicion the Priestley's play isn't strong enough to put across its own message or b) a patronising suggestion that a modern audience might not "get it."  I would have liked to have felt this production had more faith in both the author and the audience.

Perhaps I am being too harsh and traditional in my tastes; this is a highly successful production that is well regarded, so I might be alone in my criticism of the staging.  However, when I saw Priestley's play first - probably in my early teens - in a traditional production, I was so impressed by it that I pestered my parents into buying me a copy of the script in the theatre shop after the show.  I still believe that it is a powerful, deeply moral play and this production reminded me of that - but I am not sure that the gimmicks of the production didn't, for me anyway, detract from the strength of Priestley's dialogue.  The problem with the production for me was summed up by the directorial decision to have Inspector Goole's powerful, final speech delivered direct to the audience.  I found this jarring and lacking in subtlety: I think the production should have shown more faith in its audience to understand Priestley's intent in the play without such obvious grandstanding.  Priestley's play is rather like being repeatedly prodded, but this production is more like being whacked around the back of the head with a plank of wood.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Why I got bored with "Twilight"

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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 am fully prepared for a backlash.

I tried to read the "Twilight" series, but I got bored in the middle of the 3rd book.  I didn't write about them on my blog because I intended to review the series as a whole - but I never finished them.   This isn't a "Twilight" review, but it is why "Twilight" isn't for me (although I might go back and give it another go sometime).  It's a little bit vitriolic, but I came up with some great lines that I didn't want to waste.

I started off with this train of thought because I am listening again to the audiobook of Deborah Harkness' "A Discovery of Witches."  This is my second time around listening to Harkness' novel, and it has a proper, sexy, intelligent vampire in Matthew Clairmont.  The second in her trilogy is out in July, and I am looking forward to it.  When I first listened to this, I saw Matthew Clairmont as being played by Jeremy Northam (this was when I was properly obsessed - I saw pretty much everyone as being played by Jeremy).  I now see him as Paul Rhys, which is a far more comfortable fit for the part as few men can play attractive coldness with a side order of barely concealed threat like Paul Rhys.

Edward Cullen pales in comparison to Matthew Clairmont.  My issue is partly with Stephenie Meyer's take on the vampire mythology, but mainly with Edward.  And, and here is the crux of my argument, the glittery skin thing.  What the hell is that about?  A proper vampire doesn't need bling, because he has a heart as cold and as hard as a diamond.  Edward Cullen has no substance and, if I'm honest, precious little style: he is a costume jewellery vampire to introduce young girls to the idea of the real thing.   

However, I'm a woman and I need my vampire to be a man.  Just try reading "Twilight" and then reading "Dracula," or even "The Historian" or "A Discovery of Witches" and you might see what I mean.  They are proper vampire novels about all the exciting and scary things like blood, sex and death - in short, everything you need from a good story.  I want an adult, scary, intelligent vampire, not a clammy teenager whose fangs have scarcely dropped.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I'm going to do the ironing - which is what I intended to do when I got home from work before getting distracted by thinking about vampires.

Friday, 2 December 2011

"The Secrets of Pain," by Phil Rickman

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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 so nearly attributed this book to Alan Rickman when I typed the title.

I was very happy when I discovered recently that there was a new book out by Phil Rickman, as I have read and enjoyed the others in the series by him (this is the 11th book in a series featuring Merrily Watkins).  Phil Rickman's books are strongly plotted mysteries with an infusion of the supernatural.  His protagonist, Merrily Watkins, is a young widow and single mother of a teenage daughter who, following the death of her unfaithful husband in a car crash, discovered her faith in God and became a priest.  Her experience of events that have possible paranormal explanation lead her to become a "deliverance minister" (exorcist) for the Hereford diocese.  Phil Rickman's mysteries are also great for a book geek, as he is very aware of his predecessors: for example, previous novels have had plots that refer back to M.R James and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I am conscious that I know someone who occasionally reads this blog is just discovering the series, so I want to try and introduce this book without giving away any details about ongoing developments in Merrily's life.  So, not only am I trying to make sure that I don't have any spoilers for this novel, I'm trying not to spoil previous entries in the series - which isn't easy, as Merrily's relationships with the other characters around her are part of the strengths of the series.  In "The Secrets of Pain," the demise of a character who has appeared in a previous novel (no, not going to say who, sorry) is one of the catalysts of a mystery that takes in the SAS, Roman history and beliefs, the death of a wealthy landowner, and migrant workers.

I think that this series benefits from being read in order from the start, rather than being dipped into, as the series follows developments in Merrily's life: I look forward to the next novel to find out what is happening to her, as much as I do for the mystery element.  Another continuing strand in the series is more noticeable in this novel: the commodification of the countryside.  Phil Rickman's books follow the life of Ledwardine, the village in which Merrily lives, and this book finds a Ledwardine under siege from a rich developer who is trying to promote Herefordshire as the "New Cotswolds."  It is refreshing to read a crime novel in a more rural setting, as it seems to me that a majority of novels in the genre are set in urban, city locations, and this book is interestingly steeped in rural politics (which is nowhere near as dry as I just made it sound).

This is quite a long book with detailed scene setting and multiple threads.  However, for all its length, I found it engrossing and I never felt that it flagged.  The main strength of the series, for me, is the character of Merrily - who is warm, sympathetic and vulnerable - and I feel that it is all too rare for a man to write so successfully and convincingly with a female protagonist.  As someone who has no religious faith, but who sometimes envies the strength and comfort that others find in their beliefs, her questioning and occasionally unsure relationship to her God is believably depicted.  In her, Phil Rickman has created an appealing character for whom I have developed a genuine fondness, and I badly want her to find a happy ending.  I fully intend to continue reading this series for the mystery and intrigue, but also because I want to find out what happens next for Merrily.  I hope he writes quickly.