Saturday, 29 May 2010

Lost in the supermarket

Certain regions of supermarkets are lands of horror and darkness. Food is fine. I can do food. Pick things that are tasty and not rotten, put them in basket, wave basket at the automatic scanner thing, hit the automatic scanner thing, then look sheepish while aisle attendant fixes automatic scanner thing. Easy. 

However, once you get down to hygiene or household produce, it all gets a bit more terrifying. Those aisles  make a fellow feel like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Not in the sense of being a pre-pubescent girl from the 1930s with a dog that looks like something a cat coughed up, but as a result of being adrift in a shiny, colourful, utterly inexplicable world full of strange and slightly threatening objects.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Restraint of Beasts - Magnus Mills

Quite honestly, I think I missed something here. Don't get me wrong: I didn't dislike it, but I somehow expected more.

Anyway, before getting into that, the background: Booker-nominated (among other fancy prizes) first novel by Magnus Mills, loosely (I hope) drawing on his actual experiences building high-tensile (not, as the narrator will not hesitate to point out, high-tension) fences. In the book, y'see, a deadpan Englishman is made the foreman of two inept, lazy Scottish fence-builders, Tam and Richie. After some initial work in Scotland, fixing Tam and Richie's previous piece of shoddy work, the trio are squashed into a caravan and sent to England, where they build more fences, and bump into the sinister, faintly mysterious Hall Brothers. Things, expected and unexpected, happen, an elaborate net of themes and hints are set up, and then it all ends, abruptly, with a lingering sense that there's a clever interpretation that will make it all neat, logical and beautiful, if only you could think of what it was.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Library fury

I like libraries. I really do. They are like bookshops where nobody taps you on the shoulder if you accidentally walk out without paying. You can saunter round for hours, collecting books, trying to look clever, and when wander off happily without causing irreparable damage to your wallet. Sometimes they sell their spare stock at absurd prices (I picked up Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers the other week, and it cost me 15p. Spending that elsewhere I could have bought a tomato, or possibly a banana, if I was lucky and nipped round to a supermarket that wasn't on the middle-class guilt bandwagon (organic, fair trade fruit that chose to be picked, etc)), there are as many people wearing glasses as in the optician's next door, and you can peer at what other people are looking at, and have fun judging them for it.

So on the whole, they're great. There are, however, some minor downsides, usually involving shelving. I was planning on having a good-natured grumble about the science fiction/fantasy ghetto, the bizarre amounts spent on local history books that nobody ever looks at, and the occasional bursts of madness that seem to afflict whoever does the 'quick choice' bit in Putney library, where a few weeks ago I found Finnegan's Wake, probably the least suitable 'quick choice' ever, apart from whichever Derek Raymond book it was that made his publisher throw up on the manuscript.

However, while I was thinking about this, I realised that something much worse was going on - something actually rather unpleasant. Now I'm all a-bubble with righteous anger, and this seems like the easiest place to explain things.

You see, all the libraries near me (and I'm a bit of a library hussy - I flit, entirely faithlessly, from one to another as the whim and my burgeoning collection of London library cards takes me) have sections called 'Gay and lesbian writers' and 'Black writers'.


Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Thoughts on Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space

Science fiction is a very exciting thing. Just ask the BBC after a Doctor Who Christmas special. The thing is, there's a dashed lot of it, and it comes in all sorts of hotly debated shapes and subgenres. At one end you have the grim, comparatively realist dystopian style that wins literary plaudits and tends to get a lot of librarians insisting that there's nothing sci-fi about it at all, because there aren't any aliens or spaceships. See 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, Brave New World, Farenheit 451 and so on. Typically it will be the future, but although there'll be slightly fancier televisions and doors will be complicated, the world will be recognisable. The speculative part comes from the absolute mess somebody has made of human society. You don't need to bring in galactic ghouls to make the next century look a bit manky.

Then, right at the opposite end of the scale you have big, noisy space opera, full of flashy bits of technology and creepy stuff hiding behind stars: things that go bump in the universe. Star Wars as opposed to Blade Runner. It's a bit glittery and spangly, but also kind of cool. There can be spaceships with unfeasibly big engines, beasties with more limbs than strictly necessary, and it's not unheard of for planets to explode. For a long time this side of sci-fi consisted almost exclusively of complete tosh, but recently it's been dragging itself back into the limelight. I did have a theory about how this was chiefly due to Scotland (Iain M Banks, Ken McLeod, some others I haven't read (yet)), but I've just found out that Alastair Reynolds, despite his name, is Welsh, which scuppers that plan. 

Sunday, 16 May 2010

London Bye Ta Ta

After many months of worrying, changing my mind, filling in forms, editing, re-editing, accidentally surrendering my British citizenship, and being by turns wildly, exciteably optimistic and glass-is-pretty-much-empty-really, Eeyore-is-my-role-model pessimistic, I have now received an offer from Manchester to rush off to the northern reaches to study for an MA in creative writing. This means I will get to spend a year:
  • Telling people I'm a writer.
  • Being a student again.
  • Not being in London.
  • Pretending to be a minor character in Wonder Boys.
Also being fundamentally impoverished, but let's not mention that...

Basically, huzzah.

However, this has got me pondering. You see, one difficult part of applying (apart from getting my citizenship back, which seemed to involve more forms than a Japanese civil service exam) was deciding that a creative writing MA was definitely a worthwhile thing to do.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Thoughts on Yukio Mishima's Spring Snow

Right-ho, I’ve just finished Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow, and if I'm going to begin commenting on what I read, this seems like a sensible place to start. It’s a Japanese novel written in the 1960s, bound up with conflicts between tradition and change in Japan in the 1910s. It’s slow, gentle, delicate, detailed and packed with symbolism and metaphor. Oh, and there’s loads of scenery. I mean it: don’t read this if you have a morbid fear of trees. 

Plans for the blog (aka self-absorbed tat)

Do you ever read a book, then realise about a month later that you can barely remember anything about it, or differentiate it from the last half-dozen things you’ve read? I’m bumping into this far too often, and I find it a bit depressing, since it leaves me feeling that a lot of that reading time is meaningless. Yes, it’s fun at the time, and every so often a book will really manage to jam it crampons into the rock-face of my clunky brain, but I’d really like to feel that I’m absorbing something from what I read.

That’s the background behind this little mid-week post: I’m going to attempt to make a few notes about everything I plough through. These will probably be less like reviews and more like general thoughts on what I thought worked about each book: it will be about trying to work out how good writing happens, not about assigning arbitrary numbers of stars to books, then giving away the ending.

(Mentioning star ratings, does anyone know where they came from? I want to know whose bright idea it was to judge things based on between one and five massive balls of blazing nuclear fire. Okay, stars are pretty, but I don’t think they hold strong opinions about art.)

Anyway, in a moment I'm going to plonk the first of these pseudo-reviews on here. I know it will mostly be a long, impenetrable ramble, but these are mostly for my own benefit, and a blog just seems like a sensible way to organise them.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The thousand authors of Foyles

The other day I went to see the generally rather ace Mr David Mitchell at Foyles. By David Mitchell, I don't mean the modern voice of sarcasm from Mitchell and Webb, but the modern voice of, er, voices: the scribbler of Ghostwritten, number9dream, Cloud Atlas and BlackSwanGreen

Putting the 're' in 'revival'.

I really am going to do my best to use this as a proper, roaming, rambling weblog, probably with a focus on words and the people who do cruel and unusual things with them.

And this time I mean it.

Ambitions are like poorly planned house extensions: they ruin you, and even if you do get them finished, they never look quite like you intended. Yet somehow, it still feels worthwhile.