Thursday, 21 June 2012

"The Grin of the Dark," by Ramsey Campbell

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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.

A few months back, I discovered a list on the internet entitled "The 25 Best Horror Novels of the New Millennium."  It was an interesting list, some of which I have read ("Horns") and others that were new to me.  There were two that I really liked the sound of: Ramsey Campbell's "The Grin of the Dark" and "Drood" by Dan Simmons.  I went to find them at my local library.  "Drood, " I discovered, is a big book so I decided I would need to leave that for when I have more time, but I borrowed the Ramsey Campbell.

"The Grin of the Dark" is narrated by Simon Lester, a film graduate who is working in a petrol station following a disastrous association with a film magazine that got sued after a colleague wrote a scurrilous article.  Simon is visited at work by a lecturer from university who offers him the opportunity to write a book for a newly started university press.  His subject will be a reworking of his thesis about forgotten talents of the cinema.  One of these, who becomes the focus of his research, is a silent film comedian called Tubby Thackeray whose live performances and films were said to have driven people mad.  This quest becomes an obsession.

This book reminded me of an incident quite a few years back.  I had been to Buckfast Abbey with a (now ex) boyfriend, and in a book in the gift shop I discovered that the grave of Squire Richard Cabell was in a church nearby.  I have loved the myths and legends of Dartmoor since I was young, and I love literature, and Richard Cabell is the intersection of this: he is the debauched landowner of legend on whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle allegedly based the figure of Sir Hugo Baskerville.  He was thought to be so evil that his grave has bars around it, supposedly because people were afraid that he would be able to escape after death.  I wanted to see this, so we went to the church on the way home.  The grave itself is creepy - I remember that there was a pattern of three or four parallel rust marks on the wall, which, to me, looked like clawed fingermarks of someone trying to excape - but it has nothing on the church.  I hadn't realised before going there that the church was a ruin, and I discovered afterwards that it was ruined by a fire which was supposedly started by satanists.  I think of myself as being as far from psychic as it is possible to be, and I am pretty much impervious to atmosphere; I think I'm quite a realistic person and things like that pass me by, but my ex got freaked out by the place - some of which rubbed off on me - and he wanted to leave very quickly.

The experience of Ramsey Campbell's novel has made me think of this incident a couple of times in the past week.  Campbell's novel is not gory at all, but it is unsettling; it is like being with someone who gets the wiggins over something and being infected by their unease.  There are some very effective set pieces - a night-time visit to a derelict theatre in which Tubby had performed sticks in my mind - and some eldritch Lovecraftian ideas.  There are elements of this novel about which I feel very divided; his use of word-play and the disintegration of language is interesting and unsettling, but sometimes feels a bit laboured.  I did think that some of the imagery was occasionally overused, but the ending - which I read late one evening, when my husband was away overnight - still managed to unsettle me and left me feeling jumpy when I heard my neighbour moving about, or when a saucepan settled on the draining board in the kitchen.  

I normally hate open-ended books, but paradoxically one thing that I liked about this book was its ambiguity.  There is much that is left unexplained and open to interpretation, which serves to make it even more haunting.  There is a short epilogue which does make a couple of plot elements more explicit, and I would even go so far as to say that I would have preferred not to have read this: the ending of the chapter before would have made a macabre and memorable final image to finish the novel.  It isn't terrifying, but it is insidiously creepy.

I'd not read any Ramsey Campbell before, so this was an interesting discovery and I might decide to pick up another of his novels in the future.....

Saturday, 16 June 2012

"Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens

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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.

My husband has recently done a podcast on "Oliver Twist" which is on ITunes (look for Nerdology UK) or you can listen to it here.  I'm working up to joining in with one of his podcasts - in an earlier podcast I am a coughing fit in the background, in this I am a few words distantly off-mike. 

I also read "Oliver Twist."  This came about because I happened to tweet earlier this year that I had hardly read any Dickens, and I felt like I should.  I had a couple of responses from people who said that they felt the same - including Erik Stadnik of "Erik and His Pointless Blog" - and a pact was formed that we would read Oliver Twist.  My husband, who would admit to reading less prolifically than me, read it fairly quickly.  I struggled, and this post is about why I struggled.  I should warn you now, it is likely to be long on rant and short on academic substance.

I wanted to like this as well, because I love Howard Jacobson and he is a big advocate of Dickens' genius.  But I didn't quite manage it.  Not even for you, Howard.

I'm not worrying about plot spoilers, but I am also not going to give a plot synopsis here.  The plot is so convoluted and unlikely that even thinking about it makes my head ache.  If you would like a plot synopsis, Mark and Erik do that far better than I would in the podcast.

I found it very difficult to start reading Dickens because I couldn't get used to his writing style; he has digressive, convoluted, long rambling sentences, like this one, only worse.  By the time I finished a sentence, I'd forgotten what the start of it was about - but that's probably the fault of my attention span rather than Dickens.  I thought at first that it would take me a while to get used to the Victorian prose style again, but then I remembered how much I enjoy Charlotte Bronte and came to think of it more in terms of Dickens' personal style.  The problem of having to acclimatise to his style didn't just happen at the start of the novel; every time I picked the book up after having not read it for a while, I had the same experience of struggling to get back into his style.  It was a bit like having to adapt to an atmosphere with a different air pressure: the reading equivalent of your ears popping on take-off.

I can give you an example of when Dickens' style irritated me.  In chapter 31, two police officers have turned up to investigate an attempted robbery at a country house.  Dickens writes:
"Lights were then procured: and Messrs. Blathers and Duff, attended by the native constable, Brittles, Giles, and everybody else in short, went into the little room at the end of the passage..."
And that sentence goes on for a lot longer than that.  I remember being annoyed by this sentence to an unreasonable extent.  In short? If you had wanted it to be "in short," you could have just written "everybody went into the little room at the end of the passage." Why fart about unnecessarily listing names, if you wanted it to be "in short?"

Now imagine a whole book like this.

I'm being a bit harsh.  I found "Oliver Twist" to be interminably dull for about six tenths of the book, then it gained a bit of momentum when it was moving towards its close for the further three tenths, then it spent the last tenth reaching a ridiculous conclusion founded on a superfluity of coincidences.  I could maybe have bought into an unlikely coincidence at the end, but not as many of them as Dickens chucks in.  There are some set pieces of writing that I did enjoy and thought were very well written, like the chase sequence that Sarah reads in the podcast, the murder of Nancy, and Bill Sykes' subsequent guilty flight from justice in which he can't escape his own conscience.  The bits I did enjoy, however, were not enough to save the book for me.

That's not even to get started on the offensive characterisation of Fagin; however much I try to remind myself that I shouldn't judge the attitudes of Victorian society by the more enlightened (I like to think) attitudes of today, I can't ignore the strong reaction that I have to Fagin.  He is a repellent character, but probably not in the way Dickens intended: my revulsion is entirely directed to Dickens himself for writing such an offensively stereotyped character.  However much I try to intellectualise my reaction in historical context - and it was interesting to learn from Erik in the podcast that the Victorian audience also found the Jewish stereotyping of Fagin to be too strong - my emotional reaction is far stronger. 

I have problems with Dickens' characters precisely because they are so extreme and so memorably drawn: this means that I really like them, or really hate them.  I liked "Bleak House" a great deal when I read it many years ago because there were many characters that I liked - but, even then, for every chapter that I enjoyed, there was a chapter that made me think "Oh no, not them again" (I'm mainly thinking of the intensely annoying Mr Skimpole who tries to avoid any kind of adult responsibility by claiming to be a child, and the Jellybys who neglect their own children while trying to be charitable). One thing that I cannot accuse Dickens of is subtlety. Of course you are meant to dislike them, but Dickens does that so well that I found them hard to read - although I have to admit, I like the fact that I find it impossible to be indifferent to Dickens.  For Dickens, quite literally, the word "meh" does not exist.

Dickens is a writer of extremes.  Everything is heightened: sentiment reaches mawkish proportions, annoying characters are REALLY annoying.  I can believe that attitudes towards the poor were different in the Victorian era - or course they were - but I find it harder to believe that the vast majority of people were as cartoonishly evil as about 85% of the characters in "Oliver Twist" seem to be.  And actually, to be fair, I don't think that the other 15% were as piously good: there is no grey in "Oliver Twist," only extremes of black and white.  That means that, in 'Oliver Twist" at least, I don't buy into him as social commentator on Victorian society because I don't believe that real people act in ways either as unremittingly bad or perfectly good as his characters.  People aren't that black and white now, and I don't think that was any different in Victorian times.

In terms of reading practices, I was very aware that the novel was written for a periodical when I tried to read a few chapters in a row.  The start of chapters seemed to have a "previously on" element to them.  I wonder if it isn't better to read Dickens in the way it was intended to be read: a chapter at a time, at regular intervals (a bit like a regular dose of a nasty tasting medicine which is meant to be good for you).  I haven't totally been put off reading another Dickens at some point, though, and I have been told by a couple of people who like Dickens that "Oliver Twist" was not the best book to have chosen (a view that Erik seems to take in the podcast).  If you are a Dickens fan and want to suggest what I should read next, I'd like to hear from you in the comments.

Incidentally, I read "Oliver Twist" on my e-reader.  While for preference I would always prefer a paper book, there is one element of reading in this media that I found very useful: the inbuilt dictionary.  There are some words Dickens uses that have fallen out of common usage, and I found it helpful to just be able to tap the screen (mine is a touch screen) to find out what the word meant. 

*My word for today is myrmidons (followers who unquestioningly carry out orders)*

Monday, 11 June 2012

Home alone

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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. 

My husband is away overnight on work training one night this week, so I'm wondering how to spend my evening home alone? Perhaps I could finish the horror novel I'm reading? Earlier in the book someone got out of bed in the dark and stood on something jellyfish-like that slithered over the floor. He got a glimpse of a disembodied, grinning clown-like face disappearing under the bed. What could possibly go wrong with the plan to finish this book while I am spending a night alone (sleeplessness, nightmares, chronic coulrophobia)?

I am writing this at 11.45pm (ish) on the night of being home alone.  I haven't been laying comedy traps for incompetent burglars.  Instead I have just finished reading my horror novel.  My jumpiness at every noise (restless normally nocturnal neighbour, a saucepan from the washing up settling on the draining board) confirms my suspicion that finishing this book late at night while alone was not a wise thing to do.

I think I will read something funny next to dispel the heeby-jeebies.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

"Immortal," 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.

I'm still spending this year trying to catch up on my pile of review books.  I only recently received this one, but it jumped to the top of the pile because I enjoyed Dean Crawford's previous Ethan Warner novel ("Covenant").  I've not been feeling too well recently, so I decided to treat myself to a relaxing day of bed, book and coffee/tea over the bank holiday.  I haven't had the opportunity to do this for a while, so this was a luxury.  "Immortal" is the book I chose to read on my duvet day.

"Immortal" begins with Ethan Warner and Nicola Lopez - characters who were introduced in Crawford's earlier novel - working together as bail bondsmen and barely making enough money to survive.  They are approached by Doug Jenkins, of the Defense Intelligence Agency, to look into a shooting in New Mexico.  The circumstances of the shooting are very strange - the victim appears to be very old and has an injury that carbon dating reveals happened about 140 years previously - and subsequently both the body and the investigating coroner have gone missing.  Before you can say the words "global conspiracy," they are thrown into a dangerous adventure.

I felt that "Covenant" ended with a few threads left unresolved, which I expected to be picked up again as an arc between novels.  "Immortal" surprised me rather by not doing this: instead of following on from the aliens of the previous novel, Crawford's plot centres on humanity's quest for immortality (hence the title) or, at the very least, increased longevity.  I only did science to GCSE level and that was quite a while ago so, to me at least, the science bits are on the plausible edge of bonkers.  It also helps that his plot is couched in recognisable social and environmental concerns that are the fodder of our everyday news, which grounds the science in a world that is familiar. 

This is just the way my mind works, but I was unable to take it seriously when Ethan says partway through the novel "The greatest weapon we have right now is surprise" because I started thinking of one of my favourite Monty Python sketches ("NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise...surprise and fear...fear and surprise.... Our two weapons are fear and surprise...and ruthless efficiency.... Our *three* weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency...and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.... Our *four* *Amongst* our weapons.... Amongst our weaponry...are such elements as fear, surprise.... I'll come in again.").  I think that reaction might be fairly unique to me.  If anyone is interested, my other favourite Monty Python sketch is The Fish Slapping Dance.

Sorry, I might have just gone off on a bit of a tangent.  It only took me a day to read this book, and that is probably the best way to read Dean Crawford's Ethan Warner books; quickly, to keep the action at a rollicking pace.  Crawford's villain is memorably repellent in his physical decrepitude and moral turpitude, Ethan makes a rugged hero, and Lopez is a strong heroine with an interesting rebellious streak.  It's a series that I will continue to read - assuming that Crawford writes more about these Ethan and Lopez, as I think there is still a lot more to explore in their characters and relationship - and I hope that he will return to some of the ideas and themes that I felt were left open-ended in "Covenant."

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for sending me a review copy of this novel.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

"Tideline," by Penny Hancock

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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 was already in the middle of "Tideline" when I heard that it was going to be a Richard and Judy Book Club pick this year.  This will be the second of their choices that I have read - the first being "The Hypnotist" - so I will be interested to hear what they think of these novels.

Penny Hancock's novel is largely written in the first person voice of Sonia.  Sonia is a wife and mother - married to largely absent Greg, and mother to Kit - and is uncomfortable with both roles.  Sonia's largely solitary existence living in the River House is interrupted by Jez, the teenage nephew of a friend, who visits to borrow a CD.  Sonia becomes obsessed with Jez and decides to keep him captive in her beloved house.

In many ways this is a disturbing novel, not least because Sonia is essentially a likeable creation.  Penny Hancock's decision to tell the story in the first person gives an insight into Sonia's motivation and her perspective; it is clear that Sonia is a vulnerable adult who has been damaged by life.  She seems unaware of the ramifications of her actions, and means no harm even when she is manifestly causing it.  It is effective that the lesser narrative within the story - that of Helen, Sonia's friend and Jez's aunt - is in the third person so, although Helen is also sympathetic, we aren't invited into her thought processes in quite the same way that we are with Sonia.  It is an uncomfortable experience to inhabit the thought processes of someone who is doing dreadful things and to still feel sympathy for them despite their actions.
Penny Hancock gets into the story very quickly, and the novel is well paced.  I was, at first, worried that that she was releasing too much of Sonia's history, too quickly; right from the first chapter there are oblique mentions of a mysterious "Seb" who is occasionally elided with Jez in Sonia's mind.  Luckily I was wrong.  The circumstances of Sonia's life are drip-fed throughout the novel in flashbacks, with a final revelation effectively saved for the closing chapters.

Sonia is in thrall to her much loved River House - which her mother, husband and daughter want to sell - and Penny Hancock writes evocatively about the grimy yet atmospheric Thames.  The strong sense of place in "Tideline" grips the reader as surely as it has gripped Sonia herself.  There are elements in this novel - not in terms of plot, but more in tone - which reminded me of Graham Swift's novel "Waterland" (which also has an intense feeling of place in a water-logged landscape).  I haven't read "Waterland" for years, but I remember it as a truly great book so this comparison is high praise as far as I am concerned.

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for sending me a review copy of this novel.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

"The White Queen,' by Philippa Gregory

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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 - yes, this post has taken me that long to get around to - Simon and Schuster sent me review copies of Philippa Gregory's "The Lady of the Rivers" and her non-fiction collaboration "The Women of the Cousins' War".  I'm ashamed to admit that this was when "The Lady of the Rivers" came out in hardback, and by the time I am writing this it is already out in paperback.  As I am quite an obsessive person, I wanted the read the two earlier books in the series  - "The White Queen" and "The Red Queen" - before starting "The Lady of the Rivers" (so I have pinched them from my Mum, who already had copies).

"The Women of the Cousins' War" is a companion piece to this series.  This is a non-fiction work about the central female figures whose lives are the basis for "The White Queen" (Elizabeth Woodville), "The Red Queen" (Margaret Beaufort) and "The Lady of the Rivers" (Jacquetta Duchess of Bedford).  Philippa Gregory herself writes an interesting introduction about the art of the historical novel and the comparative silence of the woman's voice in historical record.  I decided that I would approach this series by reading each novel first, and then the chapter about the historical personage in "The Women of the Cousins' War".

The White Queen of Philippa Gregory's novel is Elizabeth Woodville.  The book starts in 1464 when Elizabeth, a young widow with young children, attempts to petition Edward IV for the land that her sons should inherit.  Their encounter sparks a speedy courtship and a secret marriage.  Elizabeth's subsequent prodigious childbearing takes place in an England where her husband's rule is being constantly besieged by rebellion and rival claims to the throne.  Philippa Gregory's book foregrounds Elizabeth's story, following her from widowhood, to marriage, to widowhood again and her attempts to retain the position of her family following the death of Edward IV (as this is historical record - albeit little known, to me anyway - I haven't worried too much about spoilers).

I found "The White Queen" very difficult to get into.  However, this changed when I realised that the fault was with me and with my approach to reading Gregory's book.  I found that, as I knew that this novel had a historical basis, I started reading it as if I was in a history lesson at school - trying to remember every event and every date as if my GCSE grade depended on it - instead of reading a story for pleasure.  When I changed my mindset and decided to read it as I would a normal novel, then I began to enjoy it more. 

In "The Women of the Cousins' War," David Baldwin ably recounts the historical facts of Elizabeth Woodville's life, and I found Gregory's introduction to be a fascinating account of her approach to writing.  I have long had a distrust of both docudrama on TV and the historical novel, believing both to be an uncomfortable mix of fact and fiction, but Gregory defends her genre well in pointing out that all history is an act of creation in the choosing of what to include and what to omit.  Her introduction provides an interesting insight into how the story of individual women, particularly women who were seen as controversial and problematic, gets passed over by the grand historical narrative.  Philippa Gregory's novels help to recognise these marginalised women, and Elizabeth Woodville's tempestuous story provides Gregory with a strong heroine.

I'm taking a break from this series for a few books, but I will return to it when I read "The Red Queen".