Wednesday, 28 November 2012

"Notorious Nineteen," 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.

Notorious NineteenI must be slipping.  I normally buy Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books in hardback the day that they come out, so impatient am I to read them.  This time, with a busy week at work, it had already been out for 4 days by the time I bought it.  I did make up for this, however, by starting it immediately and finishing it in a weekend.

The first thing that struck me was that the style of the cover was a bit different from usual: slightly more muted, less garish than the usual bright covers.  Just to prove that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, the contents were pretty much the same as usual.  Stephanie is still broke and struggling to pay her rent, still living with her (by now, surely, rather elderly) hamster and still driving a barely functional car (which, typically, gets blown up in the first chapter).  Stephanie, desperate to make some money, takes on trying to find a high bond skip who disappeared from a hospital following an operation to remove his appendix, as well as agreeing to be Ranger's "date" for an event at which he needs some extra security.

In this novel - and this is a spoiler, but will surely be no surprise for fans of the series - Stephanie still fails to decide between Ranger and Morelli.  I read recently that Janet Evanovich was a fan of the series "Moonlighting," but felt that the sexual tension between the two leads was lost when they got it together.  This isn't unique to that series - just think of Mulder and Scully, or Niles and Daphne in "Frasier" - but there is an equal danger in trying to stretch that unresolved sexual tension past its limits of endurance.  I can forgive the Stephanie Plum series a lot, and I do, because I love it so much but, if I am honest, the sexual tension between Stephanie, Ranger and Morelli was probably stretched to its optimum point quite a few books ago. 

I love these books because they are an enjoyable comfort read, with familiar, warm characters and a sense of humour.  However, they have been starting to feel a bit samey for a while, and I am starting to realise that the Stephanie, Ranger and Morelli sexual tension - which on the surface I still enjoy - is a part of the problem.  There is no development in the series, which seems to just continue like Stephanie's seemingly immortal hamster, and it is only when she decides between Ranger or Morelli that the series will either be able to reach a satisfying conclusion or will start to take Stephanie somewhere new and different...

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

"The Woman in Black," by Susan Hill

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I finished reading "The Woman in Black" a couple of days ago, but I hadn't yet got around to writing a post about it.  I have a case of book burnout at the moment; I feel like I have lost my blogging mojo.  However, I just remembered that it is Hallowe'en tonight and so it would be fitting to put up this post now...

I was loaned this book by a friend, having - in a reversal of the normal way of things - seen the film first.  I knew that the ending of the novel is meant to be different from the play (which I haven't seen) and different again from the film, and the framing narrative made a significant factor in this difference obvious from the outset.  However, the set up for the story is the same: Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor, is sent to an isolated old house in a marsh to sort through the disordered paperwork of a deceased client.  Spooky stuff happens.

I find Susan Hill's prose style difficult, and I find it hard to explain why.  The experience of reading a page of her writing, for me, is rather like sliding at speed down a vertical glass wall, unable to find anything to grip on to and stall my descent.  I get to the end of a page and sometimes have to re-read it, finding that nothing has stuck.  It isn't that her style is particularly complex; more that her writing is quite descriptive.  It is a salutory exercise in what a lazy reader I have become, sliding over passages of description to get to dialogue or a development in the plot.  It is entirely a problem with me as a reader rather than her as a writer, which I think has been exacerbated by a reading diet of entertaining but not particularly challenging books.  I need to rectify this.

Once I'd got over this problem and managed to get a grip on her writing style, I enjoyed this book.  There is a peculiar skill in writing about things not happening: in prolonging the tension in the expectation of an event to an almost unbearable level, or in something happening in obscurity so that its significance isn't fully understood.  Susan Hill is particularly good at this, and also at another staple of the ghost story genre; making something familiar into something strange and threatening.

In addition, I realised that the ghost story in writing can cope with one of the problems of the ghost story/horror genre better than film can, by which I mean the occasionally stupidity of characters that, when I'm watching a horror film, leaves me shouting at the screen "No, you idiot, why would you want to go in there?" (or words to that effect)*.  I felt that "The Woman in Black" excels at taking you inside the thought processes of Arthur so that, instead of wondering why he does something, you can understand his initial denial, the rationale for his actions, and his attempts to master his mounting fear.  I think that the first person narrative works particularly well in ghost stories - the stories of M.R. James are the epitome of this - because they take you into the fear that the protagonist experiences and invite you to share in it.  When Arthur is scared, Susan Hill takes you into his physical and emotional reactions as the person experiencing them and not as a distanced third person observer.

This novel - along with "Howard's End is on the Landing" - has gone some way to get me over my SusanHillophobia (which I think had its roots in having to read "Strange Meeting" at school) to the extent that I looked for her other ghost story novellas when I was last in the library.  Sadly they didn't have any on the shelves.  Maybe I should pick "Florence and Giles" by John Harding as a further Hallowe'en read?  Or you can't go wrong with an M.R. James ghost story....

*The brilliant Eddie Izzard does a brilliant routine about this problem which I just rediscovered on Youtube, which you can watch here.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

"Moranthology," by Caitlin Moran

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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 enjoyed "How to be a Woman" so much that, when I heard that Caitlin Moran had a new book coming out, I was first in the queue to borrow it from the library.  I was so keen that I had a reservation on it before their stock had even been delivered.

So, I was very concerned when I got hold of the book and discovered that it contained an essay about Aberystwyth.  I went to university in Aberystwyth, and I loved it there: even though I went away, a part of my head and an even larger part of my heart are still riding that slightly unsafe looking cliff railway.  I had to flick through this essay first, because I would have had to take the book back unread if she didn't like Aberystwyth.

Thankfully she does ("It had a gothic university like a castle, castle-ruins like a smashed cake, a cliff-top Victorian theme-park that appeared to have been commissioned by a pissed H G Wells...").

I am starting to feel about Caitlin Moran the way that she feels about Tracey Emin, with whom she has had a "close, decades-long, totally imaginary friendship."  The only other writer I've felt a similar kinship for was Antonia Quirke, whose book "Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers" made me feel that she would be a fun person with whom to talk about films and men over a glass of wine.  I'm at the start of a totally imaginary friendship with Caitlin; the stage where you first meet someone and end up having a ridiculously over-enthusiastic, gabbling conversation with them when you find that you are passionate about the same things.  In this case, I might as well be the target audience for a large proportion of this book: her subjects, as well as Aberystwyth, include Eddie Izzard, David Tennant, libraries and "Sherlock" ("There are women who cry when you say the words 'Benedict Cumberbatch' - and not simply because they are trying to spell it in their heads, and failing").  These all rate highly on my list of favourite things in the world.

In her preface to one article, she writes that when people say that they enjoy her columns she thinks that they mean her insightful articles on politics and society - then she finds out that they actually mean the column in which she tries to convince her husband to call her by the pet-name Puffin.  I'm afraid that I am guilty of this (by which I mean guilty of preferring her humorous articles, and not that I have ever tried to convince my husband to call me Puffin).  She does write some great social comment articles, but - as I admit to being slightly ashamedly shallow - my favourites are always going to be the ones which make me laugh; the ones about the actors I like and the television programmes that I enjoy (such as the review of "The Great British Bake-Off" episode which featured the infamous squirrel cameo).

Of course, I might be biased towards this book, as my loyalty towards my friends - even imaginary ones - means that I am now obligated to like her books....

Saturday, 13 October 2012

"Winter at Death's Hotel," by Kenneth Cameron

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I had a very complicated and confusing relationship with this book.  This novel is a slow burn - well, it was for me - and it took me quite a while to get into it; even as late as about page 200 I was considering giving up on the book and reading something else.  It is testament to how much I liked the central idea that I stuck with it.  It was round about that magic 200 page mark that I finally got hooked, and I read the last part of Cameron's novel pretty quickly.  I was then quite unsettled by the denouement and, although admiring of the skill with which it was written, I felt quite conflicted over whether I was glad that I read it.

I'm going to do something which I have never done before, as an experiment.  This review will be in 2 parts.  The first part will be spoiler free - in the teaser paragraph next I'll write a bit about how the plot unfolds at the start of the novel, but I'll try not to give away too much (as usual).  I'll write a spoiler free bit about the book, but in the second section - don't worry, I'll give you plenty of warning - I want to try to rationalise why the book unsettled me so much when I finished it last night.  If you think you might read this book, then please don't read the spoiler section.  I will try not to say outright who the killer was but, in explaining why I found it disturbing, I will need to give away significant plot developments at the end of the novel.

Kenneth Cameron's novel is set in New York in 1896.  Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle stays at New Britannic Hotel with his wife, Louisa, as he embarks on a lecture tour of America.  Whilst in the hotel, Louisa reads a paper which talks in oblique terms about the gruesome murder of a woman, and Louisa believes that she recognises the woman in the sketch accompanying the article - however, Arthur doesn't want her to become involved and finds her interest in the murder unseemly for a respectable woman.  Then Louisa has an accident while they are leaving the hotel and badly sprains her ankle; on her insistence, Arthur continues the tour without her, leaving her in New York and able to pursue her fascination with the murder in his absence.

Louisa's discovery of New York and of herself is particularly well done; she is respectable, happy in her marriage, misses her children, and yet finds within herself a spark of rebellion and independence.  Sometimes when I am reading a female character will resonate very strongly with me, and I felt this with her.  It isn't so much that I put myself in their place; more that I can imagine wanting to play the part if it was adapted for film or television (I can't act, but I wish I could).  I put myself in their place as someone plotting out how they would play a part.  She is the strongest and most memorable in a panoply of very strong female characters and it was primarily her character that kept me reading.  It's an excellent exercise in literary transvestism on Cameron's part - I can honestly say that I can't think of a more convincing example of a male author writing as a female protagonist.

The main strengths on this book are the two elements that made me want to read the book in the first place: the idea of Conan Doyle's wife as detective, and the period New York setting.  In some superficial ways - primarily the evocation of old New York - this book reminded me of Jed Rubenfeld's "The Interpretation of Murder."    Louisa at first finds New York to be exciting and vibrant, but as Cameron's plot unfolds she finds that, in many ways, the city is as hidebound by social convention as London.  In depicting New York, Cameron also brings in historical figures from the time: Louisa and Arthur themselves; Teddy Roosevelt, then Commissioner Roosevelt, plays a significant part in the narrative, as does novelist Marie Corelli, actor Henry Irving and feminist Victoria Woodhull (in a cameo).  I'd never heard of Victoria Woodhull but she sounds fascinating (she was apparently the first woman to put herself forward for the American presidency at a time when women weren't even able to vote).  I found this historical backdrop engrossing and, as I visited New York a few years ago, I am very partial to books that are set there.

Despite all the things that I like about this novel, I am confiicted over whether I would recommend this novel to another person.  And this is why.....

***************** NOW THE BIT WITH SPOILERS *******************

For a crime novel, this novel is quite unconventional in two or three significant ways.  The combination of these unexpected developments deeply unsettled me.  

Firstly and most significantly, the fate of Louisa.  I already wrote earlier in this post how strongly I felt for this characters and how much I associated myself with her.  She is the heroine of the novel: the character with whom you spend the most time; the one whose internal processes you follow and the one with whom Cameron asks you to sympathise.  It is conventional in many crime novels for the hero or heroine to leave the narrative comparatively unscathed - maybe not totally, but mostly, and with the promise of recovery.  This is really not true of Louisa.  She is brutalised by the murderer and sexually assaulted in a way that Cameron writes about uncompromisingly.  It is very shocking and disturbing precisely because Cameron has done such a good job of making you care for her fate, and even associate yourself with her.  She doesn't die, but the final image - of Arthur getting back to New York, embracing her, and her screaming and trying to fight off his touch - leaves you with the image of a woman who has been completely traumatised and broken by her ordeal.  I was left with the very real feeling that this was an experience from which she would not recover.

Secondly, it is also conventional in a crime novel for evil to be punished and order restored.  In this novel the murderer, although injured, escapes and flees across New York.  So Cameron ends the novel with a traumatised woman and no sense of - and I use this word reluctantly, as it seems a bit cliched - closure.  Related to this, thirdly, because the criminal is not caught and questioned by the police, he is never ascribed any motivation for his actions.  The open-endedness of this - no motivation besides homicidal madness with a side order of sexual gratification, no retribution - makes the violence random and somehow unrooted in specifics.  It's almost as if the ending leaves the murderer as a free-floating bogeyman, an avatar of male hatred, who might turn up if you look into a mirror and say his name three times.

This all takes place in a time period that was more socially repressive for women than today's society, and the way Cameron uses this backdrop adds to my unease.  The murders are very gruesome and the victims are mutilated, and this violence is very specifically gendered: all the victims are women.  This is largely what drives Louisa; she feels a solidarity with the victims as a woman, and is determined that their deaths will not be forgotten or ignored.  The brutalised Louisa is rescued by women and finds solace in their protection, and there is a strong feeling in this novel of men and women working against each other rather than with each other.  Victoria Woodhull argues in her cameo appearance that the "Bowery Butcher" is a hero to men; that in violently subjugating women he is doing what most men wish to do.  That is a deeply unsettling idea - which Louisa refuses to believe at the time, and I don't believe it either - but the lack of resolution or motivation, allowing the murderer to disappear anonymously in the morass of men in New York, lends itself to the idea of the violent murderer as an everyman/anyman archetype.

I hope my rationalisation of why I felt so disturbed by this novel makes some sense.  It is a very well-written book with strong characters, but the extremity of the sexual violence inflicted on Louisa in particular left me with a strong distaste.  I think that means - much in the same way as there are some actors that I dislike because they play repellent characters rather too well and, in doing so, are tainted by it - that Kenneth Cameron does what he sets out to do too well, if such a thing were possible.

I'm very aware that my response to this novel is personal and is proscribed by my gender.  I would be very interested to hear if there are any male readers who have read this, and how they responded to it.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

"The Girl on the Stairs," by Louise Welsh

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Earlier this year, I posted a picture of my pile of review books.  My intention was to catch up on these.  I have been incredibly bad at this, and my pile has grown rather than diminished.  So, when my husband was away for a couple of nights, I decided to read a book from my review pile.

In "The Girl on the Stairs," pregnant Jane moves to Berlin to live with her girlfriend, Petra.  Petra has a demanding job, and Jane is often left alone in an unfamiliar city where she barely speaks the language.  Jane, in her isolation, becomes obsessed with a teenage girl in a red coat who she meets on the stairs, believing - having heard violent arguments from the apartment next door - that the girl is being abused by her father. 

This is Louise Welsh's fifth novel, but the first of hers that I have read.  It's a compact book - about 270 pages, when most of the books I read are nudging 400 - and very economically written.  It's a novel that is driven by character and plot, and her writing style powers this along without a great deal of extraneous detail and description.

The central character of Jane is very effectively written, and the story unfolds through her experiences and perceptions.  If this were made into a film, the actress playing Jane would be in every scene.  Jane is anxious and uncomfortable in her own skin, especially now that she is sharing it with someone else.  She still smokes - continually flirting with giving up - doesn't eat properly and puts herself in danger; at one point she thinks "only a fool would put their unborn in danger," before going on to do exactly that.  Jane is an interestingly ambiguous and flawed character - a classic unreliable narrator -  and Louise Welsh raises more questions about her past than she answers.  This would normally annoy me - I normally like answers rather than unsatisfying loose ends - but Welsh does it well enough and sparingly enough for me to not find this irritating.

"The Girl on the Stairs" gathers momentum towards a great Roald Dahl-y denouement (meaning it has an unsettling "Tales of the Unexpected" feel, and not that they end up in a chocolate factory).  It is a quick read - it took me two evenings - and I enjoyed it as a good psychological thriller in a domestic setting.  I'm trying to be ruthless and, when I have finished books, I'm taking them into work for our swap shelf - however, this is one that I enjoyed so much that I am considering keeping it to reread in the future.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

"Drop Dead Healthy," by A.J. Jacobs

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A year or two ago I happened to spot A.J. Jacobs' earlier book, "The Year of Living Biblically," and I enjoyed it so much that I went on to read any other books by him that I could find.  My personal favourite was "The Know-It-All," in which he decided to read the whole "Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In his self-improvement trilogy, after working on his mind and his spiritual side, he turns his attention to working on his body.  He describes his body as "skinny fat," otherwise known as the "python-that-swallowed-a-goat type of body."  His wife is worried about his health - having told him that she doesn't want to be a widow at forty-five - but he is only spurred to action after a health scare which prompts him to re-evaluate his physical fitness.  He decides that his next project will be to look at all aspects of his health and, as with his earlier books, enlist friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) experts to help him on his quest.

I mainly read this book because I enjoyed his earlier books.  That I have been on my own mission to lose weight and fit into my old work trousers again is a happy coincidence.  I have lost about 8 pounds - which I am quite proud of, and keep boring my family and friends with - but that is slightly less than half of what I aim to lose, and I seem to have stalled.  I started by keeping an internet food diary for a few weeks, logging my food on a site that works out your calorie intake, and spending some time on my exercise bike.  The food diary seemed to help, as it made me think what proportion of my food was carbohydrate and what protein.  However, we have got into a busy period at work and I have been remiss recently at keeping my food diary.  I have stayed fairly static for the past few weeks; I don't think I have put any weight back on, but neither have I lost more.  Therefore maybe I could take a few tips from him?

"Drop Dead Healthy" is essentially a lucky dip of different health movements, in which he tries out a variety of theories and crazes for a week or two in order to see which ones stick.  His book is structured in such a way that each chapter concentrates on a different part of the body and its operation, trying to understand how he can optimise the use of his own body which is, after all, "the result of ad hoc evolution and outdated hardware." The chapter on pain made a particular impression on me, quoting a passage written in 1810 by Fanny Burney who vividly describes the experience of having a mastectomy before the invention of anaesthetic.  According to Jacobs, surgery prior to anaesthetic was such a horrendous experience that doctors wouldn't tell you what day they were going to operate on you, preferring instead just to turn up at your house.  This was to decrease instances of patients killing themselves the night before their operation was scheduled.

So, gruesome anecdotes about surgery aside, what did I learn from this book?   I'm not sure that some of the more extreme things he tries would work for me.  I'm sure that a treadmill desk - which is exactly what it sounds - works well if you are a writer working from home.  I doubt it would be well-received in my office at work.  Also, although I can just about manage to multi-task mentally, I am woefully co-ordinated physically.  If I tried to walk/jog on a treadmill whilst typing, I would probably fall off the end of the treadmill, break my ankle (again) and end up putting back on at least the eight pounds that I have lost.  I'll stick to going on the exercise bike while watching "Pointless" and shouting at the dafter contestants.  Likewise the raw food diet, with its increase in flatulence, would not be popular with my work colleagues.  By the way, did you know that it is possible to have surgery to change the timbre of your farts?

There are things that I did take away from this book, such as the impact of chemicals on our health.  This is something that I was already thinking about; I have been trying to use more natural cosmetics, and I have bought a couple of books on making my own beauty treatments.  There is apparently a book called "Slow Death by Rubber Duck," about the impact that chemicals can have on our health.  I thought at first the title was a joke.  Jacobs uses a software programme to digitally age himself, which he uses to remind himself to be healthy in respect of his older self.  Yesterday I had four pieces of chocolate in the house (I am trying to ration myself).  I ate two, and badly wanted to eat the other two.  However I didn't, as I knew that would leave the tomorrow me with no chocolate in the house.  I don't think that is exactly what he means by respecting your future self, but it stopped me eating those extra two bits of chocolate yesterday.  I ate them today.  And then wished I had more chocolate in the house. 

That said, reading this book might be unhealthy.  According to the chapter about the evil that is sugar, even just thinking about sugar elicits an unhealthy response from your body.  So, therefore, reading this chapter which will make you think about sugar will be unhealthy.  And this paragraph, if I am making you think about sugary food, is also probably bad for you.  Sorry.  I am choosing to ignore the fact that I started reading this chapter while thinking how much I fancied a bit of chocolate - I spend about 95% of my waking life wanting chocolate and the other 5% eating chocolate - so this response was probably already happening.  In addition, it is healthier to be more active in your life, so he made me unhealthy because I spent time sitting down reading this book.  Damn you, Jacobs!

I find that A.J. Jacobs' books are both informative and funny.  So I'm still unhealthy, but I know more that I am unhealthy.  Jacobs despairs of the Standard  American Diet (SAD), particularly when he sees a man in the street eating directly from a bag of Doritos as if it was a horsefeed bag.  I'm not that bad, but I could be a lot better.  And he has some great advice in summary: "eat less, move more, relax."

Sunday, 23 September 2012

"Bloodline," by James Rollins

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My decision to borrow less from the library this year and catch up on my own shelves - and my review pile - has been going pathetically badly.  I'm trying to justify this to myself because my local library is due for redevelopment soon, and I'm making the most of the services before they become more restricted during building work.  My latest library temptation was the new James Rollins novel, as I have read and enjoyed other books in his SIGMA Force series.

In this novel, SIGMA are called in to rescue the pregnant daughter of the American president, who has been kidnapped from a yacht in the Seychelles.  She was travelling incognito with her husband - who was brutally killed - and Painter Crowe, the Director of SIGMA, suspects that there is more to the situation than they are being told.  Why were they travelling in secret?  Is there something nefarious going on in the elite fertility clinic in which Amanda was given the IVF treatment that resulted in her pregnancy?  And is The Guild, the secretive organisation that is the recurring enemy of SIGMA, involved in the kidnapping, as Painter suspects? 

The idea of dirty deeds in a fertility clinic exclusively casts women as its victims, and the plight of pregnant and vulnerable Amanda is effectively realised.  In my opinion, this is probably the darkest and most disturbing novel that James Rollins has written - but this feeling might be due to my gender, given the victimhood and powerlessness of some of the women in "Bloodline." However, it has to be said, that this is counterbalanced by Rollins in depicting Amanda, although physically vulnerable, as psychologically resilient and determined.  In addition to this, there are three strong women within SIGMA who resolutely refuse to become victims and are instrumental in bringing this storyline to its conclusion.  Nevertheless, I wouldn't recommend this novel to a woman contemplating fertility treatment.

James Rollins' novels never fail to be exciting, involving and achieve the goal of being effective thrillers.  In the SIGMA team he has created a well-developed collection of characters and, if he does ever decide to kill one off, every one would feel like a loss to the group.   On Goodreads I have given this 4 stars.  This might seem odd in comparison when I have given other, outwardly more literary, novels a lower star rating.  My justification for this is quite simple: within his chosen genre of writing - adventure with a semi / pseudo scientific or religious hook - James Rollins is one of the best writers around...

Saturday, 22 September 2012

"Sweeney Todd," starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, at the Adelphi Theatre (8th September 2012)

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Warning: there is a bit of rudeness in this post again.

At the end of last year I heard about the new production of "Sweeney Todd" that cast Michael Ball in the title role.  I unwisely made a couple of comments on Twitter - I can't remember exactly what now - disagreeing with the casting.  I was, quite rightly, picked up on this by a Michael Ball fan, subsequently felt guilty, and wrote this.  Despite being sceptical about the casting, as a huge Sondheim fan I took the opportunity to see the production with my parents (but without Mark, who is musicals adverse).

I think my parents were relieved that I liked it, because I did warn them that I would get very ranty if I thought that the production was badly done.  I knew it was going to be good when I wanted to leave during the opening piece of music.  I know how odd that sounds.  I love the opening of "Sweeney Todd," and I think it should be full-on and powerful - if it doesn't make me feel a bit claustrophobic and oppressed, then they aren't doing it right.  In this particular production I almost felt close to tears with its intensity but, in honesty, PMT at the time might have had some bearing on this.  If you don't know the musical, its themes take in the evils of industrialisation and the opening piece of of music has a sudden, piercing factory whistle (or, in one production that I saw years ago, a scream). On my first hearing of the production - courtesy of the OBC recording - the factory whistle scared the hell out of me, which I loved.  I used to miss the fact that the factory whistle no longer made me jump as it did that very first time.  However, because I had fallen from the path of true enlightenment and not listened to any Sondheim for a while, I forgot exactly when it came in so still had a bit of a jump.  It was nice to get that feeling back again.

I am pleased to say that I was wrong to doubt the casting of Michael Ball as Sweeney.  He looked almost unrecognisable (someone told me afterwards that when it first opened there were people who wanted a refund because they thought they had seen it on a night Michael Ball wasn't on) and sounded very different to the tone and timbre that I associate with his singing style.  Apart from the occasional slightly more lyrical parts - like his love song to his razors - his voice was rougher and harsher than I usually think of him sounding.  He has a particularly effective glower.  I think Sweeney should obviously be intense and scary - I still think of Len Cariou as my idea of Sweeney from the OBC - but this was the first time I thought of it as a problem.  Anyone in their right mind would take one look at him and decide that there was no way he would be coming near their neck with a cut-throat (the clue's in the name) razor.  It's also - and explain this to me if you can, because I don't understand it - the sexiest I have seen him.  If anything, my one issue with his performance might be that he takes it too seriously - "A Little Priest" seemed a little bit heavy, whereas I personally think it should have a lighter touch and bring out a bit more of the humour and devilish merriment in their verbal sparring.

Imelda Staunton was great, but I never doubted that she would be.  While I still rate Len Cariou as my most effective Sweeney, I have issues with Angela Lansbury's accent in the OBC.  I possibly prefer Imelda Staunton's Mrs Lovett.  The character should provide the warmth and humour to counterpoint Sweeney's violence - twisted and amoral though she may be - and Imelda Staunton is perfectly cast to provide this leavening.  Yet there is also pathos, sadness and desperation in her portrayal, particularly in her performance of "By the Sea" - Mrs Lovett's fantasy of keeping a boarding house by the sea with Sweeney where "now and then [he] can do a guest in" - in which her hopes and wishes are blatantly ignored by the monomaniacal Sweeney.

This was a production that kept in Judge Turpin's song "Johanna," in which he whips himself while fantasising about his young ward.  There is an effective ambiguity to this song in whether his self-flagellation is the punishment it ostensibly is (mea culpa) or is integral to his sexual excitement.  I normally admire this song because I think it is artistically quite brave and risky, as well as saying a lot about Turpin's sexual perversion.  However, this time, sitting between my parents while watching a middle-aged man whip himself to orgasm, the social discomfort made me wish for the first time that they had cut it out (I'm being facetious - really I'm pleased that they had the nerve to include it).  I'm also glad we weren't sitting near the front, as the actor (John Bowe) really seemed to be going for it and sweat seemed to be flying.  When I go to the theatre I personally prefer not to end up covered with someone else's sweat.  He didn't get a round of applause after this number, which is understandable as somehow it seems deeply inappropriate to clap after a number with a middle-aged man self-flagellating while fantasising about - if you do the maths - a 16 year old girl.

Judge Turpin was my main issue with the production, and it would be unfair to blame the actor for this as he was presumably directed to play the role in that way that he did.  He seemed to be particularly over-the top, almost syphilitically randy.  I'm not surprised that Johanna didn't want to marry him, since he seemed to be groping himself whilst suggesting himself as a possible husband.  I personally feel that this part is more effective if played as outwardly respectable while concealing a heart of darkness.  This judge seemed to be wearing his dark heart on his sleeve a little too obviously.

I have to say that my mother liked the production less than my father and I did; I think she was a bit squeamish about the throat cutting (which wasn't too graphic except, probably for emphasis, Judge Turpin was a bit blood-spurty).  I was actually more surprised that this production is probably the most graphic I have seen in bringing out the sexual violence and madness in the story.  The dumb show of the forced seduction of Benjamin Barker's wife by Turpin was particularly unambiguous.  The beggarwoman  - Lucy - is clearly sexualised in approaching men, but so were the inmates of Fogg's asylum.  One mad woman very clearly had a hand busy under her skirts. I felt that this aspect of the production - with the possible exception of the overly-priapic judge - was very effective.

This was an excellent production which, despite my initial doubts, I am very glad that I saw (I am writing this on 22nd September which, by coincidence, I think might be the closing night of the production).  I bought the cast recording as a memento, which serves as a fine reminder of the show (although, oddly, omits the Judge's whipping song - OK, maybe not that oddly - and the shaving contest with Pirelli, which were both in the stage production).

See, you have to give me some credit, at least I admit when I am wrong: Michael Ball was great after all...

Sunday, 16 September 2012

"The Haunting of Hill House," by Shirley Jackson

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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 picked up this book from the library on a whim because it is such a classic of the horror genre.  I have big pile of books to read at the moment, and I almost decided to take this one back unread.  However, once I read this brilliant first paragraph, I was hooked and had to read it:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.  Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.  Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
 In "The Haunting of Hill House," Dr Montague invites a disparate selection of people to a supposedly haunted house.  The one thing they all have in common is that he believes that they might have some level of psychic ability.  Many of those invited don't turn up, but Eleanor does (who was connected to supposed poltergeist activity when she was 12), as does Theodora, who had showed some psychic ability in a laboratory experiment conducted by the doctor.  They are also joined by Luke, who isn't supposed to be psychic but is there as a representative of the family who owns the house. Of course, there are nefarious and dark deeds contained within Hill House's upright walls - and the experiment is darker than Dr Montague had imagined.

When I started reading this book, it occurred to me early on to check the date when it was published (1959).  It is unusual for me to do this - in the main, the books I read are comparatively recent - but I wondered when it was written in terms of the genealogy of the haunted house genre.  My awareness of this date also meant that I began to read it in terms of what I knew of McCarthyism, conformity and the repressive fifties in America.  It's an interesting way to read the book, and especially the interaction between Eleanor (conformist, quieter, always worried by how others see her and paranoid that she is being mocked) and Theodora (more a free-spirit, a new woman, self-possessed but also self-obsessed).  On the cusp of a new decade, Eleanor seemed to represent the old oppressions of society while Theodora was looking to a future of new freedoms.

This is more a horror novel of creeping dread and suggestion than gore which, as a wimpish reader of horror, is how I prefer it.  I read Jackson's novel as essentially a twofold character study.  The first character that Shirley Jackson focuses on is Eleanor, who is a study in downtrodden introversion.  Her life was given over to caring for her ailing, demanding mother and, since her mother's death, she has been living with an equally domineering sister and brother-in-law.  Her life has constantly been on hold to others, and she is a dispossessed character with no home of her own and no secure sense of self.  The other central character is that of the malevolent house itself, which seems to react to its new inhabitants and manipulate them.

Shirley Jackson's novel has been adapted for film twice under the title "The Haunting" - the most recent with Liam Neeson as the doctor - and, in the normal way of these things, the book is much, much better.  If you have seen the film and not been impressed, please don't be put off reading the book.  if you like ghost stories, it's definitely worth it.  

Monday, 10 September 2012

"The Long Earth," by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

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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.

The Long EarthI should confess my bias by confessing straight away that I really enjoy Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels.  As "The Long Earth" isn't Discworld and is based on a more sci-fi than fantasy premise, I was initially less sure about whether I would enjoy this novel. 

In "The Long Earth," our whole concept of the planet we live on is changed in a day.  The blueprint for a gadget called a stepper is released on the internet.  The stepper, which can be made by all and is available to all regardless of wealth or status, allows the user to move from our earth to a string of parallel variations that are waiting to be explored.  There are a small number of natural steppers, like our hero Joshua Valiente, who can step from world to world without a stepper box, and a small number of phobics who cannot move between earths even with a stepper.  Joshua, as a natural stepper, is recruited by Lobsang - an artificial intelligence which claims to be a reincarnation of a Tibetan monk - for a journey to explore all the variants or our planet.

This is a high concept novel.  My natural inclination is to compare it to the Discworld, but I think to do so does this novel a disservice.  This doesn't have the same level of humour and word-play as Pratchett's Discworld novels - although there are humorous moments - and you might be disappointed if that is what you expect.  It is, however, very inventive and should be judged on its own merits.

In my mind, to call something high concept can have negative connotations: it implies for me that a novel has a tricksy idea at its core, often at the expense of character.  A high concept novel can risk having a brain with no heart.  Thankfully, this is not the case with this book.  The character of Lobsang is my personal favourite, from whom much of the humour stems; a capricious artificial intelligence with an oddly big ego for a monk.  His character - oddly the most human in the novel, with all the connotations of frailty, hubris, curiosity and foolishness that the word "human" can entail - almost alone makes the novel worth reading.

When I began reading this book, I had assumed that it was a stand-alone novel.  It was only when I was part way through that I heard an interview in which this book was spoken of as the first in a series.  My first thought was dismay; it took me a while to get into the world(s) of this novel, and I already feel that I have too many series that I follow.  However, I had changed my mind by the end of "The Long Earth," as it feels like there is a lot left in the central conceit of parallel earths that can be explored in future novels.  I am looking forward to finding out where they take the idea and the characters next.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

"Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science," by Mary Roach

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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.

Warning: this post might be a bit rude, as is the book cover of the version that I read.

This is a fascinating book.  However, I almost got put off reading it when I flicked through the book - a bad habit for which my husband tells me off - by the phrase "occasional complication of childbirth" when paired with "rectovaginal fistula".  This had a similar wince-inducing, leg-crossing effect on me to that which I imagine a man has to the word "vasectomy" or to reading what Kinsey did with the bristled end of a toothbrush.  Men should be warned: male members (pun intended) of the readership will find likely find this book induces more winces in them than in the women.

Mary Roach's quest through the annals of sexuality takes her out of the library and into the unique laboratories of more recent sex researchers.  She even becomes a subject of study herself in the absence of willing volunteers for their research.  These male and female sex researchers are constantly fighting for funding, and fighting against public and academic preconceived ideas that the work they do is somehow dirty and prurient.  She spends time with some people - male and female - who specialise in artificially inseminating pigs (and apparently the natural underarm smell of the human male contains the same pheromones as a sweaty boar: one study shows that you can entice women to sit on a chair in a dentist's waiting room which they normally shun by spraying it with a can of Boarmate).

One thing that I love about Mary Roach's books is her strong sense of the absurd, which is readily shown in this book (she writes some of the funniest footnotes I have ever read).  She also hints at one thing that I felt reading this book; some of the animal experiments that she writes about seem to say more about human sadism that human sexuality.  It takes an unique mind to think of clonking a post-coital female hamster on the back of the head so that you can then cut her open and see how far the sperm has travelled.  Mary Roach includes a few animal species on which variations of this experiment have been tried, but the hamster somehow seems to be the most special.  In a non-vivisectiony animal experiment, I was particularly fond of the researcher who put underpants on rats - line drawing included - to discover if wearing polyester has an effect on male fertility (the result of this experiment can be summed up in this phrase: guys, stick to cotton).

I recognised the names of some of the sex researchers in this book because my PhD was on American drama and male homosexuality in the twentieth century.  I read quite a bit of early sexology from researchers such as Kinsey and Havelock Ellis, so I was familiar with some of their stranger ideas (Havelock Ellis thought that gay men were particularly fond of the colour green and were unable to whistle).  There were also many researchers and experiments of whom I was previously unaware.

I would recommend this informative and funny book to all but the young and impressionable, the squeamish and the prudish.  For those of you who fit into any or all of these categories and who aren't planning to read this book, I finish this review with the line drawing of a rat wearing underpants from the polyester study by Dr Ahmed Shafik.  Enjoy.  It's amazing what you can find on the internet.

Friday, 17 August 2012

"Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife," by Mary Roach

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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 recently raided my library for Mary Roach books after hearing her interviewed on "The Readers" podcast.  In her interview she came across as very intelligent, articulate and funny - all things that I like in an author.  I managed to get 2 of her books from the library: this one, also known as "Spook," and "Bonk" (she seems to favour snappy, one word titles).  On the basis of saving the best for last, I decided to read "Bonk" (about sex) second. 

Mary Roach's books cover a subject starting from her position of, I hesitate to say ignorance, so let's say general knowledge, and she inveigles her way into interviewing some of the experts in the field and asking the questions that we would probably all like to ask.  In "Six Feet Over" she investigates what we know or, more accurately, don't know about what happens to us after death.  She delves back into archives to find out about men who did experiments into weighing the body at the moment of death to find the soul leaving the body, or to find records of spiritualism and alleged ectoplasmic manifestations, and she goes to India to speak to experts in investigating alleged reincarnation cases.

It is rare that you will find me reading non-fiction, although, to be honest, I probably should read more of it.  I was drawn to Mary Roach because she came across so well and had such a great sense of humour,when she was interviewed.  Her book didn't disappoint me.  I love this subject anyway: I love a good ghost story, tales of local legends and hauntings, and occasionally buy the "Fortean Times;" when I was a teenager I bought a paranormal magazine for a few months until Dad stopped me getting it when I got totally freaked out by an account of a poltergeist haunting.  I was familiar with some of the ideas in Mary Roach's book, but also learned some things: it never occurred to me, for example, that spiritualism rose up at the same time that electricity was new, and to many people there seemed little difference between the fakery of the medium - it often was a show - and touring demonstrations of the wonders of newfangled electricity.  Both were mysterious and inexplicable to those who witnessed them as new phenomena.

It was also rare that a book makes me laugh out loud.  I often read funny books, but I am more a silent appreciator.  The bit that made me laugh so much involved - hopefully without spoiling it too much for those who might read it - a guy in a sheet and some cows and, in a variation on the experiment, a guy again wearing a sheet but this time in a cinema showing a porn film.  Her ability to investigate a subject with natural curiosity and intelligence and to find the absurd is very entertaining: if you like the sound of this experiment, then you will probably also like this book.  She also has a very funny footnote on the curiosity of cows.

I'm now about to start reading "Bonk," but with a little trepidation.  There was a bit of an "euw" factor in "Six Feet Over" - with tales of mediums concealing stretches of material in bodily orifices to then extrude (even the word has an "euw" factor all to itself) as supposed ectoplasm - which I suspect will be magnified in "Bonk." I've seen the Youtube video of a talk that she did - which should not be viewed by anyone of a nervous disposition or anyone under 18 - and I don't think that I will ever be able to look a pig breeder in the eye again.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

"Wicked Business," 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.

Last year I read the first in this series by Janet Evanovich, "Wicked Appetite," which I wrote about here.  As I love Janet Evanovich's books - although I prefer her Stephanie Plum series - I decided to treat myself to bed, book and coffee on one day of my week off.

In "Wicked Business," Lizzie's routine as a baker in Salem is once again disrupted by the arrival of Diesel and his delinquent monkey, Carl.  A man who has been thrown out of a window with a handprint burned into his neck - Wulf's trademark - indicates that Wulf might have a lead on one of the other SALIGIA Stones.  This time they are on the trail of the Luxuria Stone...

It occurred to me with this novel how similar the formula for the SALIGIA stories is to the Stephanie Plum series.  Lizzie is Stephanie, as out or her depth in the world of supernatural powers as Stephanie Plum is in her makeshift career as bounty hunter. Wulf is the equivalent of Ranger - dangerous and seductive - while Diesel, like Morelli, is the comparatively safer option but no less sexy; Lizzie's friend Glo, an erratic witch, fulfils the same quirky friend role as Lula, while the owner of the bakery in which Lizzie works is a little bit like Connie.  This is stretching the comparisons a bit, but you could even compare the social embarrassment of hanging around with a monkey who likes to give people the finger with having a crazy grandmother who breaks into closed caskets at funerals. 

I don't mind too much that Janet Evanovich's novels tends towards the formulaic, though, as I still find the formula entertaining.  In the SALIGIA stories, she adds a twist in finding a way to prolong the sexual tension between Lizzie and Diesel (if two people with supernatural powers get it on, then one of them will lose those powers).  I can't escape the thought that it might be worth it, Lizzie, even if you do lose your powers of finding enchanted objects and making great cupcakes....