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Showing posts from 2017

In defence of The Dark Tower

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Warning: this contains spoilers for both the film and the books.

Many Stephen King fans watched with despair as the terrible reviews for The Dark Tower movie started coming in. Generally considered a garbled attempt at adapting the popular fantasy series, the film has received lukewarm reviews at best. Personally, I kinda liked it. It's far from perfect but, and here's the controversial point, so are the books.

It took me a couple of goes to get through The Gunslinger. For a writer whose prose is usually silky smooth, King's foray into fantasy felt stilted and derivative. As the series goes on, the writing gets a lot more confident, but it is not the strongest start. And there are other issues too. There are long sections where the progress of the story is horribly slow. The Blaine the Monorail plotline would be a fun subplot but is far too insubstantial to justify an entire book. Ditto for the backstory about Roland's tragic love life. The forward momentum of the story …

Volunteers: You're not actually helping...

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I was reading in The Guardian the other day about the increase in volunteer-run local libraries. As someone who has worked in both community and academic libraries, it's a trend that really worries me.

The obvious argument in favour of volunteers is that the council may well close down libraries entirely if they have to pay staff. However, there is a (somewhat wishy-washy) law requiring a certain amount of library provision, so this is debatable. But there's no doubt that free labour is very much appreciated by councils who are feeling the squeeze. The Economist reported earlier this year that spending on public services is expected to be 22% lower in 2017 than it was in 2010 so, with the cost of social care increasing year-on-year, the money for "non-essentials" just isn't there. If that's the case, why aren't volunteers the heroes that we need?

Well, first of all, the idea of the library as a non-essential resource only makes sense if you are wealthy e…

Less than persuasive

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It's hard not to enjoy Jane Austen, but Persuasion is definitely the weakest of her main novels. (FYI, I'm a Northanger Abbey girl.) I'm about halfway through a reread at the moment and it has been a struggle. Perhaps reading it on Kindle doesn't help, as I find myself an inattentive screen reader, but I keep getting the characters muddled up and I'm certainly finding Anne a bit of a wet blanket. With her broken heart and gentle ways, there is little of the feistiness of Austen's best characters. 

I wonder if there is a problem in rereading Austen once you're out of your twenties anyway. For most keen readers, of the female flavour anyway, Austen is a treasure you discover in your teen years. With her sparkling wit and her romantic dramas, books like Pride and Prejudice are perfect for hormonally-challenged youngsters. We might not be awaiting a proposal from a Mr Darcy, but we're certainly mooning over the cute guy in our English class or hoping to be a…

Murdering the King's English

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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 lan…

When supernatural and real-life horror collide

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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 cafĂ© that I was never able to redisco…

Well, that escalated quickly

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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.

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 actio…

A sensational start to the year

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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 t…

Aaaand it's 2017!

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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:


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, …