Friday, 23 June 2017

Murdering the King's English

The King's English (Penguin Modern Classics) by [Amis, Kingsley]Kingsley Amis's The King's English is not an easy book to write about. It concerns the correct way to speak and write in English, after all. For the careful writer, suddenly every clause is suspect. The pronunciation of the simplest word is called into question. What if I've split an infinitive? So many things to worry about.

Thankfully, while Amis does have some serious pet peeves when it comes to misuse of the language ("casual. Only a wanker makes three syllables of this word."), he is generally tolerant of the variety of pronunciations and forms that make up English. To his mind, worrying about a split infinitive is more likely to result in some linguistic barbarity than just writing as it comes naturally, and many of our more pedantic rules are more to do with asserting one's intellectual superiority than protecting the language. We all know pedants like that, right?

That's not to say that Amis has a lackadaisical approach to matters of grammar and language; he just recognises that the main point of language is to communicate. As long as a sentence is understood, does it matter if it's inelegant? Well, to a point, yes. Particularly if you're looking to be paid for your writing. Journalists and broadcasters get a lot of blame for the erosion of proper English ("...an example...is the speech of Classic FM, or Clussic Aff-Am in its own manner of speaking."), with Amis rightly asserting that their influence is great enough for these errors to be noteworthy. However, amongst friends and in other less formal settings, pedantry is portrayed as a good way to guarantee fewer party invites in future. (Side note: is this why I don't go to parties anymore? Must ask my mum)

What's interesting is that this is a book only from the mid-'90s, yet for every rule or example that remains relevant, there is another that might raise an eyebrow. For instance, I was very happy to see Amis articulate the difference between alternate and alternative, but had to question his claim that fortnight is "obsolete". He reminds us frequently that language is a living thing, something that is constantly evolving and trying to keep up with the pace of change in society and technology, and some of his grievances already feel old-fashioned. I can only imagine what he would have made of English in the social media age, particularly with the increased influence of American English: "Not every Americanism deserves to have its credentials carefully examined. Some ought to be shot on sight." His views on people who have "low self steam" and are "lack toast and tolerant" would certainly have been entertaining to hear.

Perhaps one of the areas that is most frustrating for a contemporary reader is his insistence on certain pronunciations. While some discrepancies (like the ones above) are clearly just errors, many of his comments relate to regional pronunciations and dialects, and are less controversial in an age where there are far more diverse voices to be heard on TV and radio. I might say "controversy" incorrectly (I'll always be a "con-TROV-er-sy" gal) but Amis lost the battle when it comes to "kilometre" and many others. It's just the nature of language. Again, it's often only the pedants who really care anyway.

This book is worth reading even if your interest in words and grammar is purely functional. For a start, it's very funny, and it has some fascinating information about word derivations that helps to explain where certain common phrases have come from. For serious writers and readers, the book explores why some things just hit the ear wrong, and reminds us that the rules that we might view as self-evident are often anything but. I've altered a few of my writing habits because of it, and have also become more lenient about some of the common half-mistakes that plague Twitter and the like. If nothing else, it encourages more awareness of language, which can only be a good thing. Recommended.

Friday, 5 May 2017

When supernatural and real-life horror collide

At one point while I was reading Adam Nevill's No One Gets Out Alive, I tweeted that I was reading a horror so poor that even Garth Marenghi would have been ashamed of it.

For those not in the know, this is Garth Marenghi:


As a comedic creation, Marenghi is a legend; if he were a real writer, there would be... issues. And the opening chapters of NOGOA have more than a hint of Slicer to them. There is definite tension and intrigue as Stephanie takes a cheap room in this Birmingham house, only to be plagued by strange noises and the suggestion of something in her room, but by throwing the reader into the story in media res and starting with a pretty hardboiled account of scratching under the bed and a drop in temperature, it feels like the work of a hack. 

In truth, I would have given up on the book at this point if I had had anything else to read. But I was in France at the time, and the other book I had taken with me had been left on a table in a café that I was never able to rediscover. If you went to a panini place in Strasbourg last month and found a free copy of The Sellout and a tapir bookmark, you're welcome. So I kept on with it.

And that's when a strange thing happened. I was suddenly really fucking scared. Further into the story, Stephanie's isolation is broken when two young Eastern European women are hustled into the house at the same time as she is introduced to the landlord's creepy AF cousin, Fergal. After all the things-go-bump-in-the-night cliché, the introduction of real life terror hits like a jolt. Although the supernatural activity could all be in her head, the threat of physical and sexual violence here is very real. I had to reassess my reading up to this point. There must have been more going on in those opening pages. After all, I could imagine the house in every detail, could picture the people and hear their voices, and could put myself into Stephanie's place with depressing ease. When the danger became real, I could feel the terror, the claustrophobia, and was desperately trying to work out what I would do in that position. In fact, when the supernatural and real-world horrors collide, I was as scared reading this as I've ever been reading before. Quite the turnaround.

No One Gets Out Alive by [Nevill, Adam]NOGOA is split into two parts, and I can't really detail the second part without giving quite a lot away. Suffice it to say, there were repeats of some of the problems I found with the first part: namely, a lot of slightly overwrought set up before you get to the good stuff. The payoff isn't as strong in Part 2 - most seasoned horror fans will have seen where it's going long before we get there - but the reader is fully engaged by this point, willing the characters onwards to the finale. Nevill does the groundwork so that the audience is ready to accept the crazier elements of the story and has invested in the characters enough to care about their fates. That's not always a guarantee in horror, but Nevill nails it here.

I can't say that I loved No One Gets Out Alive - the incredibly slow start, unconvincing character voices, and reliance on cliché, holds it back from that - but I can say that I felt proper fear whilst reading it. The same kind of heartpounding terror I had when I read Let's Go Play at the Adams' or watched Black Swan for the first time. When you expose yourself to as much of this genre as I do, it's hard to find things that genuinely scare you. You might get the odd jump scare or a wry smile at good use of a trope, but there's not much that can really get the heart thumping. Nevill manages that and then some. I can't think of higher praise for a horror writer.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Well, that escalated quickly

I won't say what makes the ending of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender particularly troubling, except to say that some readers believe it should come with a trigger warning.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
I'm not someone who thinks that authors should worry about hurting sensibilities. Some stories will demand suicide or rape or abuse as that is the truth of those characters, and it is vitally important that readers are able to approach these painful topics through the lens of fiction. Indeed, for every abuse victim who finds it impossible to pick up a book like A Little Life, there will be others who are able to make sense of their experiences by reading other accounts and exposing themselves to these narratives. As with all culture, a one-size-fits-all approach rarely works.

What we should never accept is where these experiences are used just as a McGuffin, something to shock or titillate the reader, something to ramp up the tension without tackling the wider issues that come from such actions. Much as I love Game of Thrones, I do resent the way that horrific abuse of (usually naked) women has sometimes been used as a quick way to get audiences to recognise that someone is 'a bad guy'. It's lazy shorthand, and it damages the social narrative about women, abuse, power and many other things. To pretend otherwise is to be deliberately obtuse.

I say all this because the way ...Ava Lavender finished was problematic for me. Particularly so because I adored much of the book. And I mean really loved it. I would hunt my husband down to read him passages that just sang to me. I would put the book down at the end of a chapter so I could fully absorb it before I read the next part of the story. It was love at first read.

What makes the book so captivating is that it does what all the best magical realism does: it makes the miraculous seem like it could be part of our everyday lives. As we encounter Ava and her beautiful wings for the first time, or as we hear the tales of the ghost that haunts her house and the uncle so beautiful that the whole town once chased his naked body, the reader is fully convinced, able to imagine every detail and fall for each and every one of Walton's characters. Her powers of description are remarkable. To describe these characters in such a way that they can become a true part of a real-world setting despite their marvels is a feat that deserves sincere respect.

Also like all the best magical realism, and fairytales in general, there is a dark edge throughout even the early stages of the story. The book's title doesn't talk about sorrows for nothing. Ava's family faces hardship and tragedy in many forms - and they are certainly all strange and beautiful - and the story has some decidedly macabre moments. I think what makes the climactic tragedy so painful is that it falls outside of this world of fantasy and is an act of violence very much of our own mundane world. It was sickening and painful to read - and should be - but it did feel like a deviation from the tone of what had come before. Even now, I can't decide whether or not I can 'accept' this ending, or if it's one of those shock endings that I've already railed against. Perhaps that's the response Walton wants me to have. I really don't know.

The story does end on a redemptive note, although it is one that seems to suggest that the suffering was an essential part of the process and not something that could have been avoided. (Side note: based on what happens right at the end, surely the whole event was avoidable? Did any other readers throw their hands up in despair at this point?) The strange beauty of the story does prevail, I guess, but the aftertaste was not a good one.

This is nominally a YA book and it does many of the things that I love about contemporary YA: it doesn't talk down to its readers; it doesn't pretend that everything is goodness and light; it features diversity as the norm and not just as a selling point. But, even as a 30-something-year-old, I found TSABSOAL troubling in the extreme. I'm not sure how the teenage me would have felt at the end of it at all. Is this a good thing? Is that uncertainty, that lingering pain, something we want our literature to instil? I still don't know. But few books I've read recently have stayed with me or challenged me the way this one did. And that is definitely something I can get behind.

File under: not for the faint-hearted.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

A sensational start to the year

The Luminaries by [Catton, Eleanor]I started 2017 with a proper brick of a book: Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries. It's huge - a whole 832 pages - but it's no slog to get through, full of intrigue, unique characters, and vivid description. I like it muchly.

To be fair, it's very much my type of book. Victorian sensation fiction would probably be my Mastermind topic, as I read it for pleasure and completed a Master's thesis on one of the dominant authors in the genre, Wilkie Collins. Catton's book references Collins' work in many ways, mimicking the prose style and twisting plot, but is fresh enough to avoid feeling like a direct rip-off. If anything, it's even more convoluted than the works it's inspired by, using the narratives of multiple people to tell the story of missing gold, murder and thwarted ambition.

There's no way to describe the plot briefly. Suffice it to say, when Walter Moody blunders into a private conference on his first day in New Zealand, he could never imagine the conspiracy he has stumbled upon. One of Catton's strengths is in the slow release of information, hinting at potential alliances, dark histories, and character flaws in a way that comes together very satisfyingly when the reveals come. However, you have to pay close attention to every page - not an easy feat when there are so many of them - because piecing together the puzzle is part of the fun, but it is easy to lose track of some of the plot threads. Catton recognises this potential, though, summarising what we've learnt at various points, and finishing up with a fleshing out of the early stages of the story to bring everything together. I can be an inattentive reader, but The Luminaries is structured to guide the reader without patronising them, allowing us to enjoy the style and story without getting lost in the labyrinthine plot.

Some of the more critical reviews did find the the story a little cold - more focused on the clever plot than creating an emotional effect - but I think that's a little unfair on the characterisation on show. There is a big cast of characters but they are all three-dimensional, flawed in some respects, admirable in others: proper human beings, in other words. For all the good and bad they do, the motives are clear and understandable. Only the proper baddies on show can be seen as a bit flat - unless you want to credit them for acting for love - but their charm comes from being lifted almost wholesale from a Wilkie Collins story, full of tropes and characteristics that genre fans will enjoy immensely.

It won't be for everyone, but for those who find some modern fiction a little slight when compared to the grand old style of English storytelling, this is a book to get your teeth into. A hearty literary meal to enjoy on these cold January afternoons.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Aaaand it's 2017!

Thank fudge for that, right?

I had an interesting reading year in 2016 - there were some great arbitrary reads and I caught up with some of the major literary fiction of the past couple of years - but most of the rest of it was rubbish. 

Though I can't control much around me, I can control my reading (well, now that I've scrapped my arbitrary reading challenge, that is) and my TBR pile for the next few weeks looks like this:

TBR Jan 2017

Starting from the bottom, I've got The Luminaries and The Narrow Road to the Deep North - both Man Booker Prize winners, both supposed to be fab. I'm about 100 pages into The Luminaries and I'm hooked already. It's a beast of a book but harks back to Victorian sensation fiction, which is both my passion and my academic specialism, so length isn't an issue. With my arbitrary reading challenge, I missed some of the big releases of 2015 and 2016 so I'm hoping to catch back up this year.

My top film of 2016 was The Girl With All The Gifts, based on MR Carey's wonderful novel. I bought Fellside as soon as it was released on the basis of my love for TGWATG but it kept getting pushed back under the pressure of other reads. If Carey has managed to recreate the magic of his zombie thriller, I'll get through this in hours.

A change of pace then with Richard Ayoade's weird interview-with-himself book. I bought this for my husband last year and he enjoyed it despite finding it "very weird". As an Ayoade fan, from Garth Marenghi to his current Travel Man persona, I'm surprised I haven't delved into this yet. Hopefully, it'll be as funny and sharp as his televised work.

Of course, there's some horror on the list, with Ligotti's short stories and Joe Hill's Locke & Key series. I don't know a great deal about either, but have enjoyed all of Hill's other work and have rekindled my love of short horror fiction over recent months with the likes of Lovecraft and MR James. January is a great month for cuddling up with a scary book, so hopefully these will encourage me to sleep with the lights on.

Finally, a YA novel that I was given at a blogger event: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. Another unknown for me, but I think YA writing is often the boldest and most interesting on the market. It's been the area most forward thinking in terms of diversity for a while now, and it's time people stop being sniffy about "adults reading kids' books". That kind of snobbery doesn't help anyone.

So, that's where I see 2017 starting. I struggle to keep up with current releases but I'm sure there'll be some great new publications that I'll want to sneak in too. If you've got any must reads or looking-forward-to books, let me know in the comments below. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Great Sense of Schumer

OMG - What a title! I'm super smart and funny.

Anyway...

2016 has been a generally terrible year, but it has also been the year of me reading books by celebrity women, so that must balance out some of the horror, right? I've enjoyed Caitlin Moran telling me how to be a woman, Lena Dunham making me feel better about my mental health problems, even Patti Smith reminding me of the romance of the creative life. I would recommend all three writers very highly.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by [Schumer, Amy]What's interesting is that I'm not a massive fan of any of those three people generally. Caitlin Moran is funny but I often have to approach her columns with a massive pinch of salt; Dunham is from a liberal America that I barely recognise; Smith makes amazing music but often comes across as a pretentious prick. The lack of personal connection didn't stop me enjoying their works and is a reminder that you can admire someone's art even if you don't agree with them on many things/anything. And it was with that caveat that I picked up Amy Schumer's The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.

I like to think that I have a GSOH (I recently told my husband a joke about Mad Cow Disease that made him cry with laughter [side note: my sense of humour is rarely tasteful]) but Schumer doesn't usually tickle my funnybone. Not her fault - we're just different creatures - and yet this book made me chuckle particularly consistently throughout. Apart from when it made me cry. More on that later.

Schumer is reluctant to call this an autobiography, but it is made up of short autobiographical essays on everything from mother issues to being a "woman in Hollywood". She doesn't pull any punches: bad sexual experiences are related in all their sticky glory, and she calls out both her parents for the mistakes they made when she was younger. The reader is treated to something painfully honest, and it's relatable exactly because of that. We might not all have had issues with well-endowed hockey players, but her tales of early sexual encounters, the rise and fall and rise again of her body confidence, and her love/hate relationship with her family will all have aspects that resonate. Personally, I was hooked as soon as she described what it means to be an introvert: not that you're shy and retiring, but that there are times in the day when you just need to be alone, times when you physically and mentally must recharge before facing the world again. An introvert can still take their clothes off on TV (although I would rather not) and be in the limelight for a living, yet their creativity is often at its height when alone. Hearing a successful woman support this, saying that you can still make it without having to plaster the fake smile on 24/7 is about the most liberating thing I've heard all year. 

But with this honesty comes some stories of real pain. Schumer details the deterioration of her father from MS, explaining how humour is about the only way to deal with some of the humiliations of physical illness. However, it's towards the end of the book that the tears flowed for me. Two young women were murdered during a showing of Schumer's 2015 film Trainwreck, and she writes about these two women and what their deaths meant to her in a touching and heartfelt tribute. Schumer now works with the gun control lobby, hoping to restrict access to weapons for those who may be a danger to themselves and others. For readers who might think the book is all vagina jokes and body shaming, such tragedy comes as a real shock. But Schumer's integrity and honesty shine through all the stories, funny and otherwise, allowing the book to feel like a cohesive whole despite its varying content. 

Schumer is never likely to be my favourite comedian but I sincerely hope she continues to write. She might despair about being thought of as a female comedian and female writer but more voices like hers are necessary for these male domains to be more gender balanced. And maybe then she can just be a writer and comedian, as she fully deserves.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Enough!

Today, I took a load of library books back without having read them. In fact, one of them I had started and I just didn't fancy carrying on with. That one was my arbitrary read, the 24th book further along on the shelf from the last one I read. The first one I've not finished since I started this challenge a while back.

Yep, I think I'm done.

It's not that I haven't enjoyed the challenge. It's actually made me read a whole host of fiction that I would never have bothered with before. Some of it was dreadful (I do not like family sagas, I can say that for sure now) and some of it was fab (thank you, Robin Black) but all of it gave me an insight into the life of the library and the tastes of the general readership that I had never fully understood.

However, it's also slowed down my reading of other books, the ones that I've been eager to read. Over time, particularly as I've got busier with other projects, it's started to feel like a bit of a chore, as if I'm forcing myself to read this stuff rather than picking it up with genuine curiosity and interest. Reading should always be pleasurable, even if it's just reading for information, and I've lost that a little.

There's also the OCD issue. My OCD can encourage me to get caught up in lists and organising my life in a way that can become restrictive and stressful. I thought giving my reading choices over to a random number would release me from some of that but it's actually become something else to obsess over. Have I read my arbitrary read for the week? When am I going to get to the library to replace it? Have I remembered to take a picture of it for the blog? Shit, have I got time to blog about it? The fun project became an obligation and, in all honesty, anything that starts to pluck at my OCD nerves is probably worth putting aside.

So, from this point on, I take back control of my reading. I still want to finish the '30 for 30' list and I'll still write about my reading, but the Arbitrary Reader is arbitrary no more. Let's see how this works out for me.