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Archive for the ‘Adventures In Trash’ Category

Exploring The World Of Robots

I first came across “Exploring The World Of Robots” when my brother got a copy of it for Christmas at some point in the early 1980s, and we both loved it very hard indeed. The reason we loved it is simple. It was crammed full of facts about our marvellous robotic utopian future that was quite definitely coming up in just a few short years.

Seriously; this book made all kinds of promises. In the very near future, it alleged, we would all have robots to do boring tasks we humans didn’t want to both with, like the housework and building toy cars and so on. Fake-people robots would replace the always-hard-to-come-by sick people that medical students traditionally learn on, which would somehow make learning medicine a more effective process. (Somehow.) Strap-on robot exo-skeletons would give us superhuman strength, allowing us to lift one-tonne weights with ease. Robots would even come to church (I swear, I am not making this up) and tell Bible stories.

And my brother and I believed all of this, because 1) we were kids and didn’t know any better and 2) that was what the book said, damn it! It was the early eighties! The printed word had value and meaning! What did we have to believe in if we couldn’t believe what we read in books?

I know I use this picture of a cat quite a lot, but I really really like the expression on its face.

I use this picture of a cat quite a lot, but I really really like the expression on its face. It’s endlessly useful.

So: we both spent a good four or five years wondering when our Housework Robot would be delivered and when we could expect to get a giant robot exo-skeleton in our Christmas stockings. After a while, we realised it wasn’t going to happen, and forgot about it. Then a few weeks ago, my brother sent me a copy of this book in the post, with a note that read, “THIS ENTIRE BOOK IS COMPOSED OF LIES AND WE BELIEVED EVERY WORD OF IT”.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Here’s the first page:

Maid Without Tears

Maid WIthout Tears Head

Let’s ignore all the strange and terrible questions raised by this strange and terrible illustration. Let’s ignore the troubling implications of the name “Maid Without Tears”, and its suggestion that most domestic workers spend their time sobbing over how awful their lives are. Let’s not pause to speculate on why this robot is unquestionably female, or why you can take its clothes off. Let’s not ask ourselves why its skin is purple and its clothes consist of moon boots, a mini-dress and a bathing-cap. Let’s even skip over the mysterious fact that its god-damn head comes off for no apparent reason. No; the really important thing to focus on here is why we’re looking at an illustration.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a place for illustrations in fact-based books for children. Some things, like intestines and childbirth and dinosaurs and so on, are just inherently better when presented as drawings. But this isn’t intestines or childbirth or dinosaurs. This – the author assures us – is an actual robot that actually exists and is going to be on the market very soon. Surely if you were a robotics expert and you’d built such a thing, you wouldn’t be shy about being photographed?

"Maid Without Tears" also available in black, for added racially objectionable overtones.

“Maid Without Tears” also available in black, for added racially objectionable overtones.

Why is there no photograph? BECAUSE THERE NEVER WAS A BLOODY MAID WITHOUT TEARS ROBOT, that’s why. A quick glance at the Maid Without Tears clearly reveals that she(?) was a recycled version of the Miss Honeywell Illusion from the late 1960s, as documented by the brilliant blog Paleofuture.

Check out the date. Miss Honeywell made her fraudulent debut in 1968, and was apparently ridiculously unconvincing even at the time. The Piccolo Book of Outrageous Robotic Lies was published in 1978. That means that, a whole decade later, a professional writer for a well-respected publisher happened across a picture of a woman dressed in a robot suit, thought, “Yeah, that sounds plausible”, did zero further research, briefed some hapless artist to draw a picture of a scientist decapitating a robot and putting his hand inside her dress, then put it in a book for children and presented it as true.

Here’s another snippet of glorious mendacity:

Man in giant robot

“Inside this robot is a man.” Well, okay, if you say so. “When he moves his arms, the robot’s arms move too.” Wait, what now? We had this technology back in 1978? Are you absolutely sure about that? Because I kind of thought this was something we were only just getting to grips with recently. “[The robot] can pour medicine into a spoon, without spilling a drop.”

Seriously? Back in the late 1970s, someone had already built a robot with the same dexterity as a person? A robot that was controlled, not by joysticks or repetitive programming, but by the individual and idiosyncratic movements of an actual human hand? So where did this marvel of technology disappear to, then? Did we just leave it behind the sofa and forget about it?

Moving on:

Exoskeleton

Yes, you’re seeing that right; that’s a robotic exoskeleton, giving a puny human the power to lift a 1000kg weight with ease. Actually, I think I remember something like that. I think it came to market some time round about 1986? Some sort of gigantic loader thing, with arms, that gave you the power to lift really heavy stuff?

Oh wait, hang on a minute –

Ripley exoskeleton

By the way, later on in the book we get another look at the exoskeleton concept. The writer is so confident that this one is, like, for reals and stuff, that he even provides a rare reference – the Hardiman 1. Confusingly, he’s overlaid his Hardiman 1 picture onto a shot of Robbie the Bible-story-reading Church Robot, but that’s okay. I think we’d all be disappointed if I didn’t feature at least a little glimpse at the robot that liberated the Sunday School teachers of the world from their bonds of servitude:

I'll admit it: if I'd heard bible stories from the mouth of a massive yellow robot, I'd probably be a bit less dismissive of the whole organised-religion thing.

I’ll admit it: if I’d heard bible stories from the mouth of a massive yellow robot, I’d probably be a bit less dismissive of the whole organised-religion thing.

This one must be real, right? I mean, it’s got a name and everything! Wrong. The Hardiman 1 was apparently a total failure, with any attempt to use the full exoskeleton causing “violent uncontrolled motion”, which was so dangerous that “the exoskeleton was never turned on with a person inside”. (Anyone else think that was a missed opportunity?) The Hardiman inventors finally managed to make a single-armed version that would lift 340kg, but as the whole thing weighed more than double that, the Hardiman was given up as a bad job.

I found that out on Wikipedia, by the way. Remember this for later.

The really sneaky thing about this book is that not everything in it is a lie. Instead it contains a seductive blend of indubitable truths (there really were cruise missiles and chess-playing computers), half-truths (“Danger, Will Robinson…my Hardiman hooks are flailing wildly”) and sheer fantasy (Maid Without feckin’ Tears? We’re only just invented the Roomba! And Roombas are really crap!). There’s no distinction made between these three wildly differing types of information. Every single robot in this book is presented as a done deal, a real piece of kit, a thing you can buy right now.

Here’s why I find this culturally interesting; this book is thirty-six years old. That means this book (like me) is officially older than the web. It’s a relic of the golden age, when we all got our facts from reputable sources. Back then, information was treated properly. We learned from real books, written by professionally-trained researchers working to highly maintained standards, who would never (to pick a random example) cheerfully recycle a ridiculously transparent marketing stunt from a previous decade and present it as an apparent scientific breakthrough in the field of robotics.

Can you tell yet how completely pissed off I am that I still have to do my own hoovering?

Can you tell yet how completely pissed off I am that I still have to do my own hoovering?

Remember this, kids. This is a book, from a traditional publisher with a reputation for quality, written by a professional writer, presented as scientific truth and sold to children. And last week my brother and I debunked it in under an hour, using this apparent snake-pit of lies we like to call the Internet. Remember this the next time someone of my generation or above starts going on about how much better it was when information was properly controlled, and gets all sniffy about Wikipedia.

Of course the internet is also full of poorly-researched lies presented as gospel truth, because it’s in the nature of human beings to present poorly-researched lies as gospel truth from time to time. But I think what I’m saying here is: I bet my kids won’t spend bloody years of their childhood waiting around those purple-skinned cleaning robots to finally turn up at all good retailers.

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By day, Calum Kerr is a mild-mannered University Lecturer and editor at Gumbo Press. By night (and possibly in his lunch-break) he is Mr Flash365, the Director of the acclaimed National Flash Fiction Day and one of the UK’s most important and influential Flash Fiction writers. To celebrate the publication of his flash anthology, Lost Property from Cinder House Publishing, he’s very kindly dropped by my blog to answer ten questions on various important subjects.

Calum Kerr Author Phoro

1.Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first…how would you describe Flash Fiction? How did you discover it? And how did you discover it was the genre for you?

For me, the ‘flash’ in flash fiction is about the suddenness and speed of writing. I try not to plan, but to work from prompts, and to write in a single sitting. They naturally emerge around the 300-500 mark because of what they are, though, which is tales which tell as little of the story as possible for the reader to still decipher the rest.

I first came across them at a workshop hosted by Vanessa Gebbie, another renowned flash writer, something which I wrote about extensively on her blog. It took about a year after that before I started writing them regularly, however, and then I started my projects – 31 and then flash365 – and the rest is history.

I think I took to them because I had spent the previous couple of years writing a novel, and wasn’t yet ready to embark on another long-form project, so getting a chance to write lots of little things was just what I needed. Also, I was still finding my feet as a writer post-PhD and a chance to try lots of different genres and styles was perfect for me.

2. If you write poetry, you’re a poet, and if you write novels you’re a novelist. So what are we when we write flash fiction?

Well, some people go with ‘flasher’ but I prefer the more 1950s-radio-adventure-serial type term, Flash Fictioneer!

The Rocketeer

3. Ooh, I like that very much. Do you think the lack of a properly accepted noun is the reason we get asked, “So, when are you going to write a proper book, then?” And when you’re King, what punishment will be put in place for impertinent subjects who still dare to ask this question?

I think it’s that people don’t really know what flash-fiction is yet. National Flash-Fiction Day has helped to spread the word a bit, but sometimes it’s just easier to say ‘short short-stories’.

Punishment? I will force them to watch the last 10 minutes of long running TV series such as The Sopranos or The Wire and force them to extrapolate all the previous seasons from that.

Tony Soprano

4. Harsh but fair, I’d say. So, can you still remember what the very first flash-fiction you wrote was, and did it ever see the light of day?

This question got me thinking. The first one that I consciously wrote as a flash-fiction was in the above-mentioned workshop, and it was called ‘Salt’. It was published first in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine (issue 4.1, along with Ian Rankin!) and has also been included in Lost Property.

However, your question prompted me to remember the first stories I ever submitted to a magazine. This was back in the 80s when I was in my teens and the magazine was called FEAR. It ran reviews and articles about horror movies and books, but also printed horror fiction submitted to them. I sent them two stories, each about 50 words long. They didn’t publish either of them. I have forgotten one of them, but can still remember the other. I might recreate it, one day. Maybe for you, if you ask nicely…

[I asked very nicely, and Calum has kindly agreed to let me publish it below, yay!]

Cat Happy Dance

5. Flash365. I am so in awe of the scope of this project that I can’t even formulate a proper question. Can you cover for me by acting as if I had a really good question which you are now answering?

This was a stupid idea which turned out to be a really good one. I discovered that the way to write a story a day is just to write a story a day. Every single day I decided to give up, then wrote another story, then waited to give up the next day. A year passes quickly in that kind of state of anxiety.

But what I also realized that in trying to keep it fresh, and enjoyable – not just for me but for readers too – I needed to keep changing. So I tried my hand at pretty much every type of story, of character, of plot, of style, of perspective etc. and discovered a lot about my own writing.

It also turned out to be a really good promotional tool – securing me my Radio 4 interviews and broadcast, plus an approach from Salt to print my pamphlet, Braking Distance. It was a really good way to make my name, and gave me the reputation I needed to be able to make myself director of National Flash-Fiction Day.

6. How did you choose the flashes that appear in Lost Property? And (the magic question everyone always wants the answer to) how did it come to be published?

Well, it is a collection of 4 pamphlets, and each of those was compiled separately, then we looked at the ordering in the books. I selected 4 of my favourite stories which I felt each had a different tone (‘Citadel’, ‘Singalong’, ‘Lost Property’ and ‘Soaring’) and then selected stories which could build around each – sometimes in a complimentary way, sometimes antagonistic. The pamphlet called Lost Property was changed to Burning when we decided to use the title for the whole collection instead. And the ordering of them in the book was to do with which would be the opening story, which the closing one, and where in the collection the title story would come. The four pamphlets are all available individually as e-books on Kindle.

As for how I got it published, well, this is flash365 and NFFD doing their work. I decided I wanted to put together some pamphlets and maybe a collection from the work I’d done. I approached Dead Ink about it and they were immediately keen, suggesting 4 e-pamphlets and a full print collection. They were already aware of me and my writing from all the work I had posted online and done for NFFD, so it was really quite easy. It did require a huge amount of work beforehand, and the work had to be good, but then it was quite straightforward.

lostpropertyfrontsm

7. Do you have a Zombie plan? Please describe its basic elements, paying particular attention to your weapon of choice and where you plan to hide out while the Zombiepocalypse rages on.

This is already in place. We live in a bungalow in a cul-de-sac near the top of a hill, so it’s already quite defensible and we’ll probably stay here. In addition, my natural laziness combined with being very busy has led to a garden which has been allowed to run rampant with grass, weeds and brambles – many natural zombie snares.

I have recently bought a new heavy-duty strimmer for the doing of the garden, but am realising that it may be insufficient both for the garden and for zombies, so I’ve been eyeing up a chainsaw.

Zombie Chainsaw sign

8. E-books or real books or both? Why? Why not? What will the future look like?

Both, definitely. I still love real books, you can’t beat the feel of them, not the ability to move around within the text by simply turning pages. Plus, there’s the lovely look of them on the shelf, piled on the table, toppling from the sideboard, lying on the floor.

But, when you have to travel, or in my case if you have to teach many large Victorian novels, then having a single e-reader with all of the books you want on it is far too useful.

I don’t think that real books will die out, there are just too many drawbacks to the e-book – access to wi-fi or paying for 3G to download them, needing to keep them charged, not being able to feel how much you have read, not being able to easily skip back six chapters to remind yourself of something – and also, in the end, the things themselves are just too beautiful to lose.

9. What else are you working on at the moment?

Well, I’m doing a blog tour, had you heard?

I’m also stalled near the end of a novel. I’ve done about 80,000 words and have another 15-20k to do in the first draft. I’m rather terrified of messing up the end, and I’ve been busy trying to earn money to pay the mortgage, so that’s been on hold. I need to get back to it, though.

I’m also thinking about the possibility of another collection, and I have two previous novels which need editing and sending out.

So, you know, about normal.

10. What question do you wish I’d asked you, and how would you answer it?

Well, you haven’t asked about the super-villain-style cat I’m stroking while you ask me these questions. She’s a half-Persian blue, and she’s called Rosa. She thinks you’re impertinent.

“Lost Property” is available direct from the Cinder House store, or via Amazon. For more from Calum, why not drop by his website? If you don’t yet have a Zombie plan, you need to get started, because once the Zombiepocalypse comes it will be every small group of survivors for themselves.

And if you’d like to read Calum’s very first Flash Fiction (written when he was fifteen), he’s very kindly agreed to let me publish it below.

Video Nasties
by Calum Kerr

Bodies were strewn across the floor of the cabin, limbs severed and blood spattering the walls. The words ‘The End’ appeared on the screen and the credits started to roll.

Dave glanced along the sofa to Tom. “They reckon that films like this are going to make us violent, turn us into savage killers. They want to ban them all. I think it’s a load of bollocks, don’t you?”

Tom leaned across and pushed the knife deep into his friend’s side, twisting it as Dave gasped in pain.

“Utter bollocks, mate,” he said. “Yeah.”

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This is it. The uber-trash novel to beat them all.

Today is Tonight Jean Harlow

There’s a marvellous passage in “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” in which Dirk Gently goes into a shop and finds a calculator based on the I Ching. It’s a temperamental and mysterious piece of kit, which gives non-numerical answers to simple calculations and answers any questions over the value of 4 with the phrase “A suffusion of yellow”. So, of course, Dirk instantly wants it. And the experience of going from not even knowing the I Ching calculator existed, to wanting it with every particle of his being, to actually having the thing in his hand, all within the space of a few minutes, is the most blissful shopping trip imaginable.

That state of instant-fulfilment-of-stupid-desire pretty much describes my experience of “Today Is Tonight”. I can’t even remember what ridiculous chain of idle Googling events led me to discover its existence. But as soon as I realised Jean Harlow had written a weird novel that wasn’t published until she’d been dead for thirty years, I was instantly filled with a raging desire to read it. And now I have it, hee hee, ha ha, ho ho, and it’s utter, utter nonsense, and I adore it. AbeBooks, this is why I love you with every little scrap of my bookywormy heart.

Not quite as cute as I'd always imagined.

Not quite as cute as I’d always imagined.

Like all the best trashy novels, the story behind “Today Is Tonight” is almost as strange as the book itself. Back in the 1930s, Jean Harlow was the darling of Hollywood and the screen icon of her age. One night, she had a strange and compelling dream which she used as the basis for a novel. A few years later, she was tragically dead of kidney-failure.

The manuscript then passed to her mother, who did nothing with it. When her mother died, it passed to Jean’s friend Ruth Hamp, who read it and decided it was worth sharing. She passed it to a New York agent, who provided a small amount of spit and polish, then launched it onto the unsuspecting literary scene.

Well, that’s one version of events. The other version is that the entire thing was made up by either publicist Tony Beacon, or screenwriter Carey Wilson, as a publicity stunt. So, of course, people have been arguing about it ever since.

Guess which one the publishers thought was more saleable.

Guess which one the publishers thought was more saleable.

Carey Wilson

Plot summary. Let me say right now that this is quite possibly the most engagingly mad storyline it’s ever been my privilege to summarise. It’s New York in 1929, and Peter and Judy Lansdowne are rich, beautiful and desperately in love*. Also, Bill (Peter’s best friend / best man / business partner) is in love with Judy too, and they all know it, but they all keep hanging out together anyway, because that could totally happen and would in no way make life awkward or uncomfortable for anyone at all. On the morning after their wedding-anniversary party, Peter goes for a ride to shake off his hangover, falls off his horse and is blinded in a freak accident. Simultaneously the Wall Street Crash arrives, and Bill and Peter’s company (which does…something. It’s never really made clear) goes bankrupt.

Clearly, life is going to have to change for the Lansdownes. Judy decides that telling Peter that the whole economy has gone to Hell in a handcart would be far too distressing, because reasons, so she instead she tells him that Mr Best Man And Business Partner Bill has sold the company for $250,000. Well, of course she does. Believing your bestest buddy has sold you down the river and that’s why you’re now poor is clearly much better than understanding that a decade’s worth of stupid speculation has finally caught up with your national economy, and everyone else you know is poor too.

Although since Peter and Judy have enough food, several changes of clothes and live in a building containing rooms and built of bricks, maybe they ought to consider getting over themselves.

Although since Peter and Judy have enough food, several changes of clothes and live in a building containing rooms and built of bricks, maybe they ought to consider getting over themselves. JUST AN IDEA.

Judy and Peter move to a poor person’s apartment in town, and are poor, and unhappy, and poor, and lonely and poor, and struggling, and poor. Judy still finds time to do charity work, because Mary-Sue, and ends up appearing as Lady Godiva in a Charity tableau, because let’s face it, we all would, right? An unscrupulous night-club owner then offers her $250 a week to reprise her nekkid-lady act. It’s a great opportunity to earn some money. But she’ll have to be out of the house at night.

Now here’s the good bit. Literally the only way she can think of to resolve this dilemma (I mean, seriously, it really is. She doesn’t consider other options and then discard them, then come up with her winning idea. This is honestly all she’s got) is to alter her and Peter’s schedule so that day becomes night, and vice versa. Because blind people don’t have Circadian rhythms, or hearing, or the ability to sense changes in temperature, or brains, or anything at all really, and are basically just useless lumps of animated carbon sitting around eating and taking up space until they die.

helen keller

Against the odds, this actually works for a while, and only goes wrong when Bill the Best Man finds out what Judy’s up to. In a touching scene at Bill’s apartment, Judy forces Bill to confess he’s in love with her, sobs on his shoulder, tells him she thinks she should have maybe married him instead of Peter, then starts an affair, because look, I just work here, okay? Meanwhile, Peter decides to break out of leave the apartment, and almost instantly discovers (via the medium of a cheery Irish cabby) that Judy has swapped their entire schedule around.

You or I might think that was a good time to sit down and have a serious marital conversation, but not Peter. Peter thinks this is a good time to start spying on his wife (surely the occupation least suited to someone with a catastrophic visual impairment), to try and find out what she’s doing. Somehow this leads to a career as a Novelty Blind Showbiz Reporter for “one of the morning newspapers”, during the course of which he happens across Judy with her kit off, riding a horse and hiding behind her hair. Strange three-way denouement in which Judy decides to torture Bill some more by telling him she’s leaving Peter for him, then changing her mind, and somehow that’s a happy ending, because more reasons. The end. Roll credits.

Yes, you did just read all of that. No, I am not making this up. Yes, I did actually enjoy it and am seriously recommending you give it a try. Yes, I can justify that statement.

Spock illogical captian

There are lots of things I love about this fantastically odd novel, but one of my favourite things has got to be the quirky little glimpses it gives into the time it comes from. It’s in the nature of trashy novels to disappear, leaving only the good stuff behind; and by its very nature, the good stuff is rather more timeless. The Great Gatsby is the defining novel of 1920s New York, and one day if I’m lucky then I’ll maybe write something that comes within a thousand miles of being as good, and die happy. But as much as it moves me to tears of wonder, The Great Gatsby doesn’t give me details like these:

[Judy] drew her skirts above her knees. Peter had seen Judy’s knees before. As a matter of fact, the modes of the moment were such as to make it impossible for anyone looking at Judy at all not to observe a goodly portion of their loveliness. (p27)

“What were you saying to that Everett girl, Peter – you don’t think her back is nicer than mine, do you?” (p28)

One of [the showgirls] reminded Bill of Sally. It was the flat smooth area of flesh beneath her armpit. Sally was always exposing and exploiting this particular charm. (p145)

Knees, backs, the bit of skin beneath the armpit. The erogenous zones of a different age. In today’s tits-and-ass culture, it’s easy to call this “a more innocent age” – except that the heroine poses naked in a nightclub to pay the rent and has an affair with her husband’s best friend. Maybe it’s just the erogenous zones of a totally different sort of wardrobe. My grandmothers were a bit too young to wear clothes like these, but my great-aunts would have come of age and partied in them. I wonder if men used to look at their underarm areas and swoon? (I wonder if they shaved?)

sceptical cat 2

On a less anthropological note, I adore the details that clearly must have meant something to the original writer, but which make absolutely no sense at all to anyone else. Here’s a completely surreal moment just before Judy makes her paid debut:

I’ll bet anything you like that nobody knows I’m wearing pants, but they’re very important at the moment, even if they don’t show. When I get my first week’s salary out of this job, I’m going to give ten dollars to that nice drug store lady who invented me this lanolin cold cream. It’s at least a quarter of an inch thick. (p143)

So that’s a quarter inch thick of lanolin cream, covering (assuming this is American pants rather than British ones) her entire lower body? And she’s going to try and sit on a horse in that lot? I’d honestly rather be naked.

lanolin

Want yet another reason to read this magnificent piece of cultural ephemera? You got it. After her first successful night at work, Judy gets back to discover Peter has been getting all creative and tying string all over the apartment so he can start to get about the place (presumably, he’s just spent the last few months sitting in a chair and peeing into a milk-bottle). For some reason this triggers a bizarre stream-of-consciousness ramble on the subject of philosophy:

It would be very easy to write a book about philosophy. It wouldn’t be good philosophy but it would be philosophy. All you have to do is begin every eighth sentence with the words, “All men are -” or “Every woman will -” and all men or women will think you are saying something important. If I had a stenographer to take down what I was thinking, it would be an awful lesson to George Bernard Shaw. (p156)

And there’s more:

Now I’m laughing at myself because all sentences beginning with the words “all sentences” are silly. Maybe all sentences themselves are silly. But I’m not going to give up without inventing one epigram. An epigram is an amusing statement of an untruth designed to make the effect tasty if not digestible. What am I talking about? (p156)

George isn't telling.

George might know. But George isn’t telling.

I’ve read as many reviews as I can find of “Today Is Tonight” – partly to reassure myself that I wasn’t the only person who gave a damn about its existence, and partly to find out what everyone else made of this truly magnificent folly. Unsurprisingly, most of the people who’ve taken the time to review it are unabashed Jean Harlow fans – people who’ve seen her movies, toured the places she lived and worked, visited her grave. And one of the biggest themes I’ve noticed is how very, very much most readers want it to actually be the work of Jean Harlow – rather than the work of two men cashing in on Jean Harlow’s name.

I don’t know a thing about Jean Harlow other than what I’ve read on her Wikipedia page, and while it’s possible I’ve seen some of her films while off sick from school, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about any one of them. Nevertheless, I’m going to go ahead and say I’m damn sure Ms Harlow had a hand in this thing somewhere. As lots of other reviewers have pointed out, the book’s littered with an insider’s eye for theatrical detail – the exact scent and adhesive properties of spirit gum, the heat and the blinding quality of the stage lights, the back-stage bustle that accompanies the star’s big entrance. And lots of other people have noticed the “cinematic” quality of the writing – the way it often describes what the camera would see, and how the shot would be composed.

The thing that really convinces me, though, is the sheer weirdness of the finished product. Let’s be honest. If you were going to fake a novel written by a long-dead Hollywood star in order to bolster interest in a new biography, I’m pretty sure you’d include a more plausible plot, better dialogue, fewer stage horses, and almost no digressions on the possibility of out-philosophising George Bernard Shaw. But if you did that, you’d take out almost everything I like about this book. Because however ridiculous this book is, it’s also charming – in the way writing often is when it’s written in a breathless rush and without any thought for what anyone will make of it, because the Plot Bunny has you by the throat and you simply have to get your idea down on paper somehow.

No-one argues when the General comes calling. No-one.

No-one argues when the General comes calling. No-one.

Clearly, this isn’t a great work of literature. Without Jean Harlow’s name attached to it, I’m pretty certain it would never have seen the light of day. But I’d rather read “Today Is Tonight”, flaws and all, than all the polished, competent, soul-less ghost-written sleb productions in the world. Jean, you weren’t a literary genius, but I’m pretty sure your book was actually yours, at least in part. And for that, I salute you.

*This is “desperately in love” in the sense of “even on her wedding-day, Judy did wonder with a moderate degree of seriousness whether she ought to have married the best man Bill instead, and also Judy is now doing a bit of an Amelia-Sedley-Bella-Swan-dog-in-the-manger act as regards Bill’s romantic prospects. So, that’s nice.

“Today Is Tonight” is out of print, but AbeBooks regularly has copies. If you have some semblance of self-control, you’ll pay a lot less for your copy than I did.

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If Anyone Ever Gets In Your Face For Liking Fantasy Novels, This Is The Book You Clobber Them Over The Head With

A Game of Thrones cover

When I was about thirteen, my mum and dad gave me a copy of “The Lord of the Rings” for Christmas. I think it’s safe to say that I soon became completely obsessed. I read my original copy until it fell to pieces, then read three more copies to total destruction. I read the appendices. I read the introduction. I re-read “The Hobbit”, and then went back and re-considered “The Lord of the Rings” in the light of its prequel. I even tried to read “The Silmarillion”, and got a surprisingly long way into it before finally accepting that it really wasn’t going to happen.

This was in the days before the Internet, so I managed not to shame myself by writing reams of terrible gawky fan-fiction and then posting them in a public place, but just so we’re clear; the only reason it didn’t happen was because no-one told me such things were possible.

Fortunately I was also too young to get inked, or this would totally have been me.

Fortunately I was also too young to get inked, or this would totally have been me.

Oh, I loved that book so much, I did. And then when the films came out, I re-read it, and it all went sort of wrong.

Things that, I now realise, are clearly all sorts of wrong with Lord of the Rings
1. The bad guys have no real motivation. They are just evil because, um, because they’re evil. The end.
2. Generally speaking, how good-looking you are correlates perfectly with how good a person you are.
3. Generally speaking, what sort of person you are will be determined almost entirely by what sort of person your parents were.
4. If you’re a woman, you will only be important if you’re beautiful. And even if you’re beautiful, you won’t be that important.
5. “Love” is just something that happens when two people who have the right sort of noble ancestry are left alone together in a suitably poetic setting for longer than about four seconds. There will no requirement for shared experiences or direct conversation.
6. If you’re a woman, you will not be allowed to get married until your father gives you permission. This will be true even if you have been alive for thousands of years.
7. If you come from a superior, long-lived race, it will be totally acceptable for you to spend most of your life blethering on about how much better everything was in the Olden Days. This will be considered as the height of sophisticated melancholy and not at all annoying. No-one will ever tell you to shut up.
8. When engaged in the reckless slaughter of other sentient beings, said reckless slaughter will become totally justified as long as you sing in an epic manner while completing your mission of destruction.
9. When you have a long journey to undertake, the best way to complete it is on foot through enemy territory. This is true even if you have access to super-fast horses and / or gigantic eagles capable of carrying people for long distances and over difficult, waterless terrain.
10. Hereditary monarchy is the apex of societal achievement, and implementing it will instantly lead to maximum happiness, prettier babies, better beer and simply terrific weather throughout the realm.

Lord of the Rings facepalm

Wait, what – ? Who mentioned “Lord of the Rings”? Why are you making me talk about this stuff anyway? This was supposed to be a review of George RR Martin’s “A Song and Ice and Fire” – a Fantasy epic totally unlike “Lord of the Rings”, and which has restored my flagging faith in the capacity of Fantasy series to be simultaneously Fantastic, and also…fantastic.

“A Song of Ice and Fire” is a still-to-be-finished sequence of novels (“A Game of Thrones”, “A Clash of Kings”, “A Storm of Swords”, “A Feast for Crows” and “A Dance with Dragons”) set in and round the land of Westeros, where summer and winter both last for years at a time. Westeros consists of many, many fiefdoms of various sizes, currently united under the rule of the hotly-contested Iron Throne. To the North, a gigantic wall of ice hundreds of feet high keeps out the Wildlings and other bad guys.

It seems sort of insane to try and summarise the plot of a series that’s currently running at about 5,000 pages and still isn’t finished, but I’ll have a go. First, Westeros is collapsing into civil war as all the minor kings compete for the Iron Throne. Second, the sole surviving heir of the last-but-one monarch – a beautiful girl called Daenerys Targaryen – has managed to hatch out three Dragon’s eggs and is planning to reclaim her birthright. And thirdly, a terrible winter is coming, and Winter means the arrival of The Others – terrible undead Zombie type creatures who live(?) beyond the Wall and are massing for an attack.

Everything is better with zombies. Everything.

Everything is better with zombies. Everything.

I’ve probably made this series sound like a bad mash-up of every other Fantasy series you’ve ever thrown at the wall in disgust at its formulaic characters, crappy stereotypes, unrealistic fight scenes, stilted dialogue and general failure to be as good as “Lord of the Rings” (look, who keeps mentioning “Lord of the Rings” anyway? It’s getting very annoying). Trust me; it isn’t. This is the Fantasy series I recommend to people who think they don’t like Fantasy, because it’s completely brilliant, but in a completely different way to the other, more compulsory Fantasy novel written by that odd professor type who also had “RR” in his name somewhere.

Top Ten Reasons Why “A Song Of Ice And Fire” is both brilliant, and nothing like “Lord of the Rings”

1. There are no good guys and bad guys. There are just a bunch of guys.
No, really, go with me on this. The big problem with most Fantasy stories is that you know how they’re going to turn out. An assorted collection of good people go on a seemingly impossible quest to defeat some bad people – possibly because of some sort of unexpected Speshul Destiny which has been passed on to one of more of them by an inconvenient relative. They wander the land for a bit, have some cool adventures, collect a few magical objects, learn some stuff, make new friends. And eventually, they defeat the bad guys, exactly like you always knew they would, because, well, because that’s just how it works, m’kay?

I read quite a lot of Fantasy, and I like to think I’m pretty good at spotting outcomes. I have read five thousand pages of “A Song of Ice and Fire”, and I still can’t make any real prediction about how it’s going to turn out. Well, okay; I’m pretty sure it won’t end with “And then The Others ate the soul of the last surviving human, and all of Westeros was laid waste and Spring never came again”. But other than that? I got nothing. My number one pick for final control of the Iron Throne is currently not even on the right continent. My number two pick got his about two and a half books in, number three is at severe risk of dying of plague, and number four is currently in unknown condition after being possibly assassinated by his own men. Most of my rank outsiders are fighting amongst themselves, and my ridiculous long-shot appears to have died off-screen.

Also, almost everyone who is trying to come out as Top King (or Queen) is convinced they have a manifest destiny to rule, most of them have some sort of prophecy to back this up and all of them genuinely think they have the moral high ground. There are no people trying to be in charge just because they’re Officially Evil. I have given up on trying to call this one. I’m actually going to have to wait and see.

puzzled cat

2. People die, like, all the time, and it’s permanent.
Generally speaking, in traditional fantasy stories, none of the people you like will die. There might be one main character who ends up dead in the end, but his death will be clearly signalled from the start, and he was kind of an idiot anyway, so you’re okay with it.

George RR Martin is famous for regularly killing off important characters – even the really cool ones who’ve been with you from the start and who you secretly sort of fancy. Also, they won’t always die in a sensible or meaningful way. Sometimes they die in big set-piece events. Sometimes they die fighting battles you’d sort of assumed they were going to win. Sometimes they die from seemingly insignificant wounds. Sometimes they die in stupid arguments in pubs.

Also, these characters stay dead. There’s none of this long-time-I-fell, naked-I-was-sent-back, perfect-resurrection nonsense in Westeros. On the odd occasion when someone goes to the tremendous trouble of bringing back a dead person, the results are utterly terrifying.

Even being played by frickin' SEAN BEAN won't guarantee your survival

Even being played by Sean Bean won’t guarantee your survival

3. Eventually, you find yourself sympathising with almost every character in the book.
Two of the least appealing characters in the series are Jaime and Cersei Lannister – beautiful blonde twins whose first act in the book is to throw a small boy off a high tower, to prevent him from telling Cersei’s husband Robert that she’s secretly having sex with her brother and all of Robert’s kids are actually Jaime’s. That’s sort of a hard position to recover from. But even this vile couple aren’t vile all the time. As well as sleeping with his sister and pushing small children off high places, Jaime also risks his life to save his (female) captor from rape and torture. Cersei…well, being honest, there’s not much to say for Cersei’s behaviour. But then she was forced to marry a man she can hardly stand the sight of, so at least there’s an explanation.

If somebody made me get into bed with this man every night, I'm not sure how long I could answer for my behaviour either

If somebody made me get into bed with this man every night, I’m not sure how long I could answer for my behaviour either

4. No elves. Not one.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve really had about all I can stand of long-lived pointy-eared warriors telling me how much better life was when they were in charge and how they can’t wait to get off this awful continent and go live somewhere better – all the while flaunting their exceptional beauty and immaculate poetic sensibilities in my inferior human face.

I mean, okay, fair point. Humanity is flawed, okay? We’re greedy and rapacious and venal and easily distracted. I get it. The elves are right. It’s still annoying.

In “A Song of Ice and Fire”, we’re pretty much in a humans-only zone. Tyrion Lannister is routinely described as a dwarf, but in the sense of “is a person with dwarfism” rather than “is a whole separate race who are mysteriously much cooler than we are”. There are a few non-human sentient beings among the Wildlings near the Wall. But they don’t write poetry, or go on and on and on and on and on and on and on about how much they can’t wait to get on a boat and leave, so I’m prepared to put up with them.

STOP PRESS: Shorter-than-average actor finally given opportunity to play role of human.

STOP PRESS: Shorter-than-average actor finally given opportunity to play within own species.

5. Pleasingly earthy vocabulary
I’ve written before about the distressing tendency of Fantasy authors to write about sex using far too many euphemisms and capital letters – as if our ancestors spent all their time thinking up beautiful flowery phrases for one another’s genitals. Not here. A spade is a spade, a penis is a cock, a vagina is a cunt.

Also, no-one’s all that hung up on doing stuff in private. Excretion isn’t that much less public (or more rude) than ingestion, and copulation isn’t much less discreet than either of these. Which, in a world of chamber-pots and body-servants, makes total sense.

6. Realistic aftermath of battles
Remember that bit in “Lord of the Rings” where everyone looked out over the battlefield outside Minas Tirith and reeled in horror at the sheer reeking awfulness of all those dead bodies? No, neither do I, because Tolkien completely glosses over it. It’s like the Corpse Gnomes just come along in the night and clear up all the mess before it can start rotting away and giving everyone cholera.

If anything, Martin goes a little bit too far the other way in describing the yacky maggoty awfulness of trying to clean up after several thousand simultaneous violent deaths. There’s definitely a limit to the number of descriptions of unburied corpses that any novel needs to contain, and it’s possible “A Song of Ice and Fire” exceeds this total. But hey, at least we’re not trying to pretend it’s possible to clear away thousands of dead bodies without any visible effort and no need to bury anyone.

"I'm sure I left five thousand dead bodies here yesterday..."

“I’m sure I left five thousand dead bodies here yesterday…”

7. If two characters happen to be in the same rough geographical area, and it would be really, really good for them both to meet each other, it’s still more than possible they won’t actually manage to make contact
In books and films, all you have to do to find someone you want to meet up with is be on the same planet. In real life, we can manage to miss each other in a crowded bar. I really sort of love that Martin’s characters repeatedly pass each other on battlefields, gaze at each other across rivers, mistake each other for enemies, get confused by people who look a bit like other people, and generally just behave like normal human beings, living in a very big world with very poor transportation.

8. There be dragons. And the dragons be bastards
It’s a personal thing, but this is a personal review, so I’m going to say it; friendly talking dragons in adult novels do my head in. For kids, fair enough, but for grown-ups – come on. Dragons are flying fire-breathing lizards. They’re pretty much your dictionary definition of reptilian apex predator. And I refuse to acknowledge the existence of a reptilian apex predator that doesn’t want to eat people.

As of the end of book five, Daenerys’s three dragons are big, moody, badly-trained and have taken to eating people. Not out of some deep sense of injustice and a desire to put the world to rights (or not as far as we can tell, anyhow…these dragons, thank the Gods, are of the non-talking variety). It’s just that they don’t make any real distinction between meaty snacks on four legs, and meaty snacks on two legs. I like that.

Has no place in novels for grown-ups.

Has no place in novels for grown-ups.

9. I can read the books without needing to refer to the genealogies
Some writers seem to feel that, when creating gigantic casts of characters, rather than make them all distinctive and memorable, you can just provide a massive list at the back for readers to refer to. When I am King, these writers will be taken outside and shot for the good of humanity.

Because I don’t especially want a foot of High Fantasy novels on my bookshelves, I went for the Kindle versions. Then I looked again at what I’d just bought, and wondered if I’d made the right choice. Kindle books are great for space-saving, but not so good when you want to flick through to the back to check up on exactly who it was who just got slaughtered in battle and why you’re supposed to care.

I haven’t counted, but I’m pretty sure “A Song of Ice and Fire” has more characters than any other book I’ve read, including “Lord of the Rings” (shut up, Wesley!) and “Gone with the Wind”. If there was ever a series where I was going to want to refer to the genealogies at the back, this was the one. I never have to refer to the genealogies, because Martin is the kind of writer who prefers to create distinctive and memorable characters rather than writing a shopping-list.

10. George RR Martin is refusing to be hurried
The last four Harry Potter books are like an object lesson in why it’s a terrible idea to put pressure on authors to produce massive, epic blockbusters to a ludicrous deadline. Martin is now officially horribly late with “The Winds of Winter”. His explanation, magnificently, is that he wants it to actually be good. And personally, I think that’s brilliant. I’d much rather wait another year, or even another five years, and have a book the author’s pleased with, than have a badly-edited first draft riddled with adverbs. George, in the extremely unlikely event that you’re reading this, I’m really, really, really looking forward to the next instalment. But I get why you want to take your time.

Just, you know…please don’t die before you finish, you know? Because that would seriously upset me.

george rr martin

“A Song of Ice and Fire” is available from Amazon as either a shelf-load of books or a series of digital files. But personally I think the most satisfying way to buy it would be to hunt down all the editions second-hand from charity shops. In fact I sort of wish that’s what I’d done now. Damn it.

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It’s Vampire Fiction, but not as you know it…but not as you know it

I don’t know about you, but I really miss the days when Vampire stories were actually frightening. My very favourite Vampire experience of all time was seeing Coppola’s “Dracula” at the cinema with a friend who, part-way into the film, passed out cold in his seat. (It turned out we’d accidentally brought a hemaphobic to see a Vampire film. He was finally finished off by the transfusion scene, and spent the rest of the evening slumped peacefully across his girlfriend’s welcoming bosom, where we left him because we assumed they were just, you know…busy…and she was furious with us for not helping us prop him up and bring him round so she could enjoy the rest of the film, and wouldn’t speak to any of us for weeks.)

Anyway. As I remember it, that was the last time anyone I knew was properly frightened by a Vampire story. After that, it all went downhill. We got Vampires who live off rats and chickens (Interview with the Vampire), Vampire blood-banks (“Blade”), Vampire Soya protein (“True Blood”), Vampires who just drink a little bit from consenting-adult lovers in return for awesome sex (“Undead and Unwed”), Vampires who only eat free-range meat from sustainable sources (“Twilight” and “The Vampire Diaries”). We’ve had Vampires who can go out in daylight and sleep wherever they damn well please; we’ve had Vampires who never sleep, and pass the lonely night-hours in protecting frail humans from spiders and composing musical masterpieces. We’ve had Vampires who go to High School, Vampires who work in hospitals, Vampires who go to church, Vampires you can take home to meet your parents, Vampires who want to marry you and spend Eternity raising rug-rats for your werewolf boyfriend to fall in love with.

My mental picture of how it would be to go to bed with Edward Cullen

Admittedly, there have been a few moments of cinematic brilliance – like the creepy magic that was “Let The Right One In”. For the written word, however…maybe not so much. After a decade of Edward and Stefan throwing themselves artistically around the place and declaring themselves to be monsters because, um, well, just because, okay? – I was starting to wonder if there was ever, ever, ever going to be a decent Vampire book ever again. “Vampire” was becoming official shorthand for “cool good-looking Emo guy with a fast car and an expensive wardrobe”. Even Cronin’s “The Passage” – which is ace, and which I reviewed here – is still far more like a Zombie story than it is like a Vampire one.

And now, there’s “Blood Fugue”, and my faith in the literary possibilities of Vampires has been restored.

In the isolated community of Hobson’s Valley, Jimmy Kerrigan lives a reclusive outdoorsy existence growing vegetables, directing hikers and obsessively making dream-catcher things he refers to as “binders”. Although he doesn’t know it, he’s the heir to a long line of vampire hunters who can access the power of Lethe, giving them the strength they need to combat “the Fugue” – a disease of the blood native to Hobson’s Valley, which gives its victims a periodic insatiable craving for the bodily fluids of others. As the story unfolds, Jimmy discovers his destiny and undertakes a desperate battle with a huge outbreak of Fugue, threatening to overwhelm his valley and escape into the wider world.

Like all the best genre fiction, “Blood Fugue” takes what’s been done before, and mixes it up a bit. Dreamy misfit with unsuspected Speshul destiny? Check. Teenage morality play? Check. Isolated community with lax law-enforcement practices? Check. Wandering foreigners? Check. Vignettes of ordinary townies being overwhelmed by seductive Vampires? Check. Beautiful exotic females? Check.

It’s just the rules

This isn’t a criticism, by the way; I’m saying this with deep and utter admiration. The brilliance of “Blood Fugue” isn’t the new stuff it brings (although the Eco-War aspect of the story is definitely a lovely bonus). It’s the life it brings to the old stuff; the way it makes it all seem new and exciting and surprising, even though you kinda know what’s coming up next. The writing is pacey, punchy and super-tight, drawing you into a story that’s both mythic and believable.

One aspect of the story I particularly love is the whole notion that the Vampires – or Fugues – don’t actually know they’re infected. When the blood-lust comes over them, they experience a kind of mental black-out (I suppose the concept I’m reaching for here is fugue state, ho hum) that lasts for the whole of their feeding episode. When it passes, they have no memory of where they’ve been, or what it was they were doing. The Fugue state comes and goes, waxing and waning according to the mysterious rhythms of the disease – so the Fugues could be absolutely anyone, at any moment. It’s a great rendition of the Vampire legend, a whole new way to play with the horror of discovering you’re secretly a monster.

I also love the setting of Hobson’s Valley. I’m a Brit, so I believe in the existence of off-grid American small towns the way Icelanders believe in elves. I honestly don’t know if this plays equally well for US audiences, or if it’s just one of those annoying Hollywood tropes no-one seems to be able to get rid of. But – having loved the early chapters of “Dracula”, where we’re basically roaming around the Carpathians and having the locals wave things in our faces and make mysterious threats – I was thrilled to read a Vampire story that didn’t feel the need to drag everything into the bright lights of the city.

One of the paradoxes of the Vampire myth is why on earth we, as a species, find the myth of creatures who basically only want to eat us so incredibly sexy. (And there’s no getting away from it; we do. Look me in the eye and tell me you think Mina Harker was actually happy with Jonathan after she’d tried Dracula on for size. No, I thought not.) Again, the recent trend in fiction has been to take all the horror out of it, creating romances which are quite literally bloodless. If Edward and Bella’s chaste face-stroking had you wanting to clobber both of them around the head with (for example) a marble rolling-pin, this book is definitely the antidote you’ve been waiting for.

Although a part of me still sort of loves that this exists

There’s nothing dainty or romantic about D’Lacey’s Vampiric encounters; they’re hot and horrifying all at once. The Fugues are looking for every human fluid they can get their tendrils into – blood, piss, menstrual fluid, breast-milk – and they use sexual pleasure as an anaesthetic to prevent their victims realising they’re being harvested. One reviewer said they will “make you cringe and wonder what kind of twisted person wrote this tale”, which I thought was overcooking it a bit (maybe this says more about me than it does about “Blood Fugue”, I don’t know). But d’Lacey’s writing is definitely sexy, terrifying and very, very visceral.

So, was there anything I didn’t like about this book? Maybe just a couple of things. Firstly, the rendering of the Jimenez family grated at times. The Jimenezes are Spanish, so it’s perfectly fair that, when they’re speaking English, their dialogue is stilted and formal. But when they’re talking to each other (presumably in their mother tongue), surely that formality should disappear? Phrases like “How could you oversleep like this, Jose?” or “I really think that if we keep a strong pace we might be back by tomorrow night” felt a bit like that weird movie trope where characters speak English in a foreign accent to avoid the need for subtitles.

Secondly, and after loving every single page of the build-up – I was sort of bored by the big all-action climax. This isn’t a reflection on the writing, which is as tight, charged and evocative as the rest of the book. It’s just that…well, let’s be honest; when the outcome isn’t really in doubt (and generally speaking, heroes don’t fail), it’s hard to be utterly gripped by the details of exactly who chopped off which bit of whom, using what bony protrusion. End-of-level bosses are great for video games, but they don’t really work in fiction.

“The outcome of this battle has already been decided by the author. Want to skip this part and go get a pizza?”

Ah, I’m nit-picking; this book is just glorious. I read it over Hallowe’en week, and I was absolutely hooked from the first page. It’s a fantastic read for this time of year, when everything gets colder and darker, and the idea of monsters starts to feel a whole lot more likely. The cover endorsement, from Stephen King (Stephen King!!! As an author, how unbelievably excellent must that feel?) reads simply, “Joseph D’Lacey rocks”. And, based on the evidence of “Blood Fugue”, he certainly does.

You can buy “Blood Fugue” from Amazon for the extremely reasonable price of £6.74.

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“Fifty Shades Lighter”: the difficult follow-up to the surprisingly successful debut

So, first of all, THANK YOU to all the lovely people who bought “Lighter Shades of Grey” – the e-book of the blog-post that went all around the world and got me astonishing amounts of attention, and a book-deal. And especially big thanks to the lovely people who reviewed it so kindly.

Lots of readers have asked if I was going to do the next two books, so I’m really pleased to say that “Fifty Shades Lighter” is now available, for Kindle, Kobo and other e-readers, from all the usual outlets. To help you make up your mind if you’d like to buy or not, I’m giving a free sample of my favourite bits!

But before we get to the free sample, this also seems like a good moment to say that I’ll be donating half my royalties from this book to Women’s Aid. Just so we’re clear, this absolutely doesn’t mean WA are endorsing my book, approve of my book, have read my book, or are even aware of its existence. It just seems like the right thing to do.

Here’s why. In “Fifty Shades Darker”, Ana manages to make over her monster into a hero just by hanging on in there and loving him hard enough. In the real world, thousands of women stay in violent and abusive relationships because they hope that if they hang on in there and love him hard enough, he might change. And every week, two women in Britain die at the hands of their violent partners. WA provide lifesaving advice, support and escape options.

Okay. That’s the serious bit. Now here’s a random sample of fifty entries from “Fifty Shades Lighter”…

1. Ana enters the workplace
[Jack to Ana] “Excellent work, Ana. I think we’re going to make a great team.”
Somehow, I curl my lips upward in a semblance of a smile.

“I’ll be off, if that’s okay with you,” I murmur.

“Of course, it’s five thirty. See you tomorrow.” (p5)

Hi, Ana. Welcome to the workplace! Right, let’s get down to business:

a. When your new boss says something nice and encouraging on your first day, like, “I think we’re going to make a great team”, or “You’ve made a great start”, or even just “We’re pleased to have you on board” – responding with “LET ME OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW” and running for the exit is almost never the correct response.

b. On the plus side, you appear to be working at the only publishing house on the entire planet where the staff keep standard office hours and are not required to take armloads of work home with them. Good work there.

2. Ana contemplates the awfulness of her grief
I walk towards the bus stop with my head down, staring at my feet and contemplating being without my beloved Wanda, my old Beetle…or the Audi.

I shut the door on that thought immediately. No. Don’t think about him. (p5)

Well, Ana, technically you were thinking about cars.

3. Contradictory contradictions
I am numb. I feel nothing but the pain. (p6)

If I talk to Mom, I know I will break even further – and I have nothing left to break. (p7)

And so a pattern develops: wake, work, cry, sleep. Well, try to sleep. I can’t even escape him in my dreams. Gray, burning eyes, his lost look, his hair burnished and bright all haunt me. (p6)

Okay, Ana, just a few points here:

a. If you can feel pain, then you’re not numb.

b. If you have nothing left to break, then you don’t need to worry about further breakages.

c. If you’re dreaming, then you’re quite definitely able to sleep.

d. Although I must say you’re getting some very cool dreamscapes here. Eyeballs on fire, disembodied expressions and floating hair. Very Kubla Khan. Have you been taking opium by any chance?

4. Not necessarily a symptom of heartbreak
Even the jingles in commercials make me shudder. (p6)

Me too, Ana. Me too.

5. Ana looks forward to seeing Christian again
Oh my. I’m going to see Christian… (p11)

This seems like a good moment to share the observation made by Shelby, who dropped by my blog to point out that if you read the words “Oh my” in George Takei’s voice, this book automatically becomes one hundred per cent more entertaining.

6. Tokenism has a new champion
Nervously I walk through the foyer with a smile and a wave to Claire at Reception. I think she and I could become friends. (p12)

Oh yes; Claire! The un-named non-speaking extra who featured in two paragraphs on p378 of “Fifty Shades”, and with whom you’ve exchanged – let me check – yes, that’s definitely right, a total of zero words in the intervening one hundred and forty-four pages!

Yeah, Ana, you and Claire are totally going to be BFFs. After all, she’s black.

7. Christian gets back in the driving seat

“When did you last eat?” he snaps…

Crap. “Hello, Christian. Yes, it’s nice to see you too.”

“I don’t want your smart mouth now. Answer me.” His eyes blaze. (p13)

You know what? I can actually hear the sound of the Fifty Shades Handmaidens wailing that No, you just don’t get it, he’s not a monster, he’s a lovely, damaged, fucked-up man. He’s only angry because he loves her so much and he wants to care for her but he just doesn’t know how to express it…

No. No, he doesn’t. This is not love. A loving man would feel remorse, shame and tenderness. A loving man would not verbally abuse and insult a woman whose forgiveness he should be begging for on his knees.

And a man who deserved to be called a man wouldn’t even think of coming near the woman he beat with a belt except to own his actions, sincerely apologise for them, and then go away and wait to see if she ever wanted to hear from him again.

8. Ana, remind me again what your major was at college and what you do for a living?
The last time we flew to Seattle it was dark, but this evening the view is spectacular, literally out of this world. (p17)

Ana’s Alternative Dictionary:
Literally (adv.)
1. In a literal manner or sense; exactly; actually; “The motorist literally drove over the roundabout”
2. In a metaphorical manner or sense; not exactly; not actually; “The motorist did not literally drive over the roundabout”

9. The shape of things to come
A young woman dressed in black with very short brown hair, bright red lipstick, and large hooped earrings greets up. She glances briefly at me, then much longer than is strictly necessary at Christian, then turns back to me, blinking as she blushes. (p20)

I’m pointing this out because from hereon in, every single woman who lays eyes on Christian is either

a. Speechlessly besotted with his ineffable male beauty
b. A close female relative
c. Gay

10. Let’s not all jump to conclusions here
“I looked for pictures of you with dates on the Internet. There aren’t any. That’s why Kate thought you were gay.” (p22)

In a world where John Travolta can be papped giving another man a lingering kiss on the mouth and still not be officially gay, I’m struggling to see how “has never been photographed in a social situation” automatically makes you gay, rather than, for example, “shy” or “busy” or “not very keen on being photographed”.

11. Christian fails to own his actions
“You have to stop intimidating me if you want that,” I snap.

“You have to learn to communicate and tell me how you feel,” he snaps back, eyes blazing. (p24)

Of course! It’s all Ana’s fault, isn’t it?

I bet you think you hit her because she deserved it too.

12. Ana gives Christian a nickname
[José] is talking to a group of young women. I stalk off towards him and away from Fifty. (p25)

I wonder if Fifty Cent would be interested in playing Christian?

13. In a restaurant, Ana tries expressing an opinion
[Ana to Christian] “And if I don’t like steak?”

He sighs. “Don’t start, Ana.” (p28)

Don’t start what? Having opinions? Wanting to choose your own food? For the love of God, why are you still sitting at the same table as this man?

14. How to read a wine-list
“Would you like to choose the wine?” he asks, raising his eyebrows at me expectantly, arrogance personified. He knows I know nothing about wine. (p29)

See, Ana, that’s the nice thing about ordering wine in a restaurant. Someone else has done all the hard work for you. Rather than requiring you to recall and then accurately name something appropriate from memory, those lovely men and women in charge have compiled a list of nice, bland, middle-of-the-road wines that aren’t too expensive and go with most things on the menu. You just look at the list, decide how much you want to spend, and then pick that one.

If you have a preference – for example you like a particular variety of grape, or you have a huge fondness for the wines of a certain vineyard, or you’ve fallen for the Gallic propaganda machine and believe that the French are the only wine-making nation on earth who truly know what they’re doing – then feel free to express it. But no-one is going to point and laugh because you picked a Rioja when they would have preferred a Merlot.

Well, nobody sane and with a semblance of good manners, anyway. I’ll be the first to admit that definition doesn’t necessarily apply to Christian.

15. While you were sleeping
“You said you’d never leave, yet the going gets tough and you’re out the door.”

“When did I say I’d never leave?”

“In your sleep.” (p31)

I wonder if Christian ever tries this on business colleagues. “No, you definitely said you’d sell me that candle-making factory at a fraction of its actual market value. It was on that plane to Rio…yes, I know you were asleep all the way to Rio, but you said it in your sleep and that totally counts! Okay?”

16. You know that thing that happens where you say a word over and over and over and it starts to lose all semblance of meaning?
[Christian to Ana] “I have a proposition for you.”

“This started with a proposition.”

“A different proposition.”

…He has a proposition? (p33)

The only possible way out of this conversational loop is for the entire restaurant to break out into a gigantic musical number, with all the diners transforming into chorus girls and twirling around with the waiters, and everyone singing:

“He has a proposition,
He has a proposition,
A proposition that could change her l-i-i-i-i-fe…”

17. Good looks get you off the hook for everything
I allow myself a brief moment to examine his profile: straight nose, sculpted full lips, hair falling deliciously over his forehead. This divine man is surely not meant for me. (p33)

I wonder, Ana. What would happen if Christian were to become facially disfigured somehow? Would you still love him just as much as you do now?

18. Future continuity fail
[Christian to Ana] “You are exquisite, honest, warm, strong, witty, beguilingly innocent…”

My mouth goes dry. Holy shit. If that isn’t a declaration of love, I don’t know what is. (p36)

I’m just mentioning this because over the course of this book, Ana will completely forget about this and waste a really quite astonishing amount of time wondering whether Christian does, or does not, love her.

19. Things that do not need explaining
Jack has [an iPad] at the office, so I know how they work. (p40)

E L James, pre-verbal children can figure out how to work iPads. You really don’t need to waste a sentence assuring us that your heroine has been exposed to the right educational experiences to enable her to figure out the mysterious wonders of the capacitive screen.

20. Ana has a new project
…I drift slowly into sleep, marvelling how the world has righted itself in one evening and wondering idly if I should make a playlist for Christian. (p45)

Oh yes please, let’s make a playlist for Christian! Here’s mine:

10. “Bye Bye Badman” by the Stone Roses
9. “Scary Monsters” by David Bowie
8. “Mean Mistreater” by Grand Funk Railroad
7. “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon
6. “The Woman in the Wall” by The Beautiful South
5. “Black Heart” by Stooshe
4. “Me and Mr Jones” by Amy Winehouse
3. “Narcissus” by Alanis Morissette
2. “I Hate Everything About You” by Three Days Grace
1. “You’re Such A Turd” by Big Time Rush

21. Ana meets a ventriloquist
As I head out of the building, I hear my name called…an ashen young woman approaches me cautiously. She looks like a ghost – so pale and strangely blank.

“Miss Anastasia Steele?” she repeats, and her features stay static even though she’s speaking. (p52)

Now all she needs is an agent and a terrifying puppet, and she’s got an entire career lined up.

22. Who does this remind you of?
She stops, staring at me from about three feet away on the sidewalk, and I stare back, immobilised…like me, she has dark hair that starkly contrasts with her fair skin…Her beautiful face is pale, and etched with sorrow. (p52)

Ana, are you completely sure you’re not just staring madly at your own reflection in a shop window?

23. This book needs editing, she pointed out adverbially
Jack shuffles back uncomfortably.

“Jack, this is Christian,” I mumble apologetically…

…”I’m the boss,” Jack replies arrogantly. “Ana did mention an ex-boyfriend.”…

…”Well, no-longer-ex, “Christian replies calmly.

“Please, stay and join us for a drink,” Jack says smoothly. (p55)

So – many – adverbs – text – becoming – too brilliant to mock – must – worship – glorious sentence construction – and never write another word again about how much this book needs editing –

Just in case you’re unable to tell, I’m saying that sarcastically.

24. Oh, well that makes everything okay, then
“…what kind of responsible business executive makes decisions based on who he is currently fucking?”…

…“Firstly, I haven’t fucked you for a while – a long while, it feels – and second, I wanted to get into publishing. SIP is profitable, but it’s on the cusp and it’s going to stagnate – it needs to branch out.” (p58)

Okay, Christian, just a few things here:

a. If your interest in getting into publishing dated from before your interest in getting into Ana, then I would have expected you to mention this fact to her at some point. Possibly during the numerous conversations where you were trying to convince her to come and work for you.

b. If you were really looking to make the best overall business decision, I can’t think of any stupider purchase than a company that is doing really well right now, but which you have good reason to believe is about to start tanking. Why would you want to pay top whack for something that’s almost certainly going to be worth less than you paid for it this time next year?

c. Furthermore, I’m struggling to see how an expertise in ship-building, solar energy and telecommunications (that somewhat eclectic collection of industries you apparently operate in) would in any way qualify you to transform the fortunes of a reasonably successful mid-sized regional publisher.

d. And so, for all these reasons, I’m going to assume you only decided to buy it when you heard Ana was going to work there.

e. Let’s get onto the mechanics of this deal you’ve supposedly just done. If SIP is publicly listed, the chances of you concluding a takeover in the few weeks since Ana received her job offer are basically zero. You wouldn’t even have had time to get round and speak to all the shareholders, let alone get them all in the same room to discuss and agree whether or not they were going to accept your offer.

f. And if SIP is privately owned, the chances of you doing this deal are still basically zero. Any sensible business owner, receiving an offer for the purchase of his business, would at least want to consider the possibility that someone else might be willing to pay even more, and would therefore want a couple of months to think about it.

g. And while we’re at it – since a maximum of five days have elapsed since you last fucked Ana, and you’re plainly within about ten minutes of fucking her again, I don’t think the “We were on a break” defence is going to fly for you here.

25. Not sure this was quite what Baden-Powell had in mind, to be honest
Dragging his shirt over his head, he then reaches down to his discarded jeans, and like a good Boy Scout, produces a foil packet. (p69)

Suddenly, scouting Jamborees are sounding a whole lot more entertaining.

26. I could really have enough of this hey-let’s-repeat-each-other’s-words thang you two have going on
“Come and cook me some food, wench…”

“Wench?” I giggle.

“Wench.” (p71)

You know, this is really starting to piss me off.

Piss?

Yes. PISS.

See? Not even faintly amusing. Please stop it. Now.

27. This is not the sign of a healthy relationship
“Do you know who she is?”

“Yes.” He runs a hand through his hair…”It’s Leila.”

I swallow. The ex-sub! (p81)

Okay, Ana:

a. If you meet your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, and realise you look just like a non-crazy version of her, there are a couple of questions you might like to ask yourself. For example: does he love me, the inner person, or is he just slotting me into the woman-shaped hole in his life which can only be filled by girls who conform to my particular physical type? Would he still be interested if, for example, I got a suntan, or went blonde, or shaved my head? And – since very few men are keen on dating women who are demonstrably crazy to start with – what part, if any, did Christian play in sending Leila over the edge?

b. Please stop referring to Leila as “the ex-sub”. It makes her sound like an expired sandwich.

28. Things that are not okay
I lean over and tenderly kiss one of his scars…I kiss another and his eyes open.

“Hi.” I grin at him, guiltily…I run my fingers down his happy trail. He captures my hand, narrows his eyes, then smiles a brilliant Christian-at-ease smile, and I relax. My secret touching stays secret. (p86)

Ana, just to illustrate to you how wrong this is, let’s replace the notion of a touch-taboo with a phobia of spiders:

‘I lean over and tenderly place a massive spider in his navel…I add another spider and his eyes open.

“Hi.” I grin at him guiltily…I quickly whisk the spiders away and put them back in the secret compartment beneath the sheet. He smiles a brilliant Christian-at-ease smile, and I relax. My secret spider-placement stays secret.’

29. How to throw a party
[Ana to Christian] “…there’s your father’s function this evening.”

“Remember, it’s black tie…[it’s at] my parents’ house. They have a tent.” (p90)

What, like this one?

30. Ana has an exceptionally bad hair day
My scalp is trying to leave [the beauty salon]. It’s prickling with apprehension, and my subconscious is screaming at me to follow it. (p94)

This is an especially good idea because, if your scalp succeeds in its escape attempt, the chances of you needing a haircut are remote.

31. Ana the literature student strikes again
Why, oh why, have I fallen for someone who is plain crazy – beautiful, sexy as fuck, richer than Croesus, and crazy with a capital K? (p104)

This is so dumb that I don’t think I kan even be bothered to komment.

32. Ana has the memory of a goldfish
[Christian to Ana] “That’s one of the things I love about you.”

I gaze at him, shocked. Love about me? (p109)

Yep. He loves you, Ana. Like he said on p36. And p41.

33. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
“My mother had a mantra: ‘musical instrument, foreign language, martial art.’” (p114)

Oh, good thinking, Grace. Because the emotional and psychological problems faced by adoptive children – especially those who have come from abusive situations – can totally be overcome by the power of massive parental expectation.

34. An inexplicable tube of bright red lipstick
“I think I’m in need of you. Here.” He hands me a tube of lipstick.

I frown at him, perplexed. It’s harlot red, not my color at all.

“You want me to wear this?” I squeak.

He laughs. “No, Anastasia, not unless you want to…” (p116)

So, what – this is Christian’s lipstick? Does he keep a tube of it around at all times, just in case he accidentally meets and brings home someone who this shade of lipstick would suit?

Or, um –

35. Man, I’m glad I’m not Christian’s housekeeper
The lipstick marks remain on his exquisite body. I note some smears on the duvet cover, though, and wonder briefly what Mrs Jones will make of them. (p123)

[Christian] leans behind me, lifting me again, and removes his condom, dropping it unceremoniously on the floor beside the bed. (p123)

But hey, on the plus side, Ana – at least speculating on the origins and meaning of the lipstick stains will help take her mind off being forced to pick up Christian’s disgusting used condom.

36. Just because it worked for Batman…
“Mr Grey!” one of the photographers calls. Christian nods in acknowledgement…How do they know it’s him? His trademark unruly copper hair, no doubt. (p133)

Oh, my picture in the press again. Leila briefly enters my mind. This is how she found me, posing with Christian. The thought is unsettling, though it’s comforting that I am unrecognisable beneath my mask. (p133)

Ana, I think you’re over-estimating the power of a simple eye-mask to perfectly conceal your identity from the world.

Also, since Leila already knows your name, the place where you work, your relationship with Christian, and Christian’s home address, I’m not quite clear how her seeing a picture of you two in the Seattle Times is going to give her any more information than she already has.

37. “Single” is not a synonym for “gay”
[Mia to Ana] “You must come and meet my friends. None of them can believe that Christian finally has a girlfriend.” (p134)

“Of course, we all thought Christian was gay,” [Lily] says snidely, concealing her rancour with a large, fake smile. (p135)

Although if I’d just got together with a man in his late twenties, and the reaction of absolutely everyone who knew him best was, “Huh. We always thought he played for the other team, actually” – I might have to give some serious consideration to the possibility that they might have a point.

38. Ana and Christian get all frisky
Slowly and surreptitiously, so I don’t realise his game until it’s too late, he eases my hand up his leg and against his erection. I gasp, any my eyes dart in panic around the table, but all eyes are fixed on the stage. Thank heavens for my mask. (p144)

Unless your mask is on Christian’s lap, I’m not sure it’s really contributing much here. A better thought to have at this point might have been, “Thank heavens for the tablecloth.”

39. Christian likes girls who do as they’re told
“Ana, no,” he grunts, trying to still me. But I want him too much, and I grind against him, watching him thrust for thrust.

“Ana, shit,” he hisses… (p154)

Oh, if only she had.

40. A strange compliment
[Carrick to Ana]: “You certainly have had a very positive effect on hi, Anastasia. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so, so…buoyant.” (p163)

“We tested this out by throwing him in the Sound earlier. Before you started dating him he just used to sink like a stone.”

41. Put a lampshade on it
“Are you going to call the police about the car?” I ask as I turn around…

“No. I don’t want the police involved. Leila needs help, not police intervention, and I don’t want them here. We just have to double our efforts to find her.” (p174)

And clearly the best way to find the woman who’s recently bought a gun and has just vandalised your girlfriend’s car, is to not enlist the help of the dedicated and well-trained professionals with legal powers of arrest, but instead get your crack team of security guards to keep checking behind the sofa from time to time.

Of course, if I’d got extensive form for beating up women, I might not be all that keen on having the cops coming around my place, either.

42. Ana and Christian on the subject of Ana’s car
“How could [Leila] have known it was my car?”

He glances anxiously at me and sighs. “She had an Audi A3. I buy one for all of my submissives – it’s one of the safest cars in its class.” (p179)

Especially since you never actually let them drive anywhere.

43. Things that are not surprising to hotel staff
“Do…you need a hand…with your bags, Mr Taylor?” she asks, going scarlet again.

“No, Mrs Taylor and I can manage.”

Mrs Taylor! But I’m not wearing a ring. (p183)

Oh, no! Quick, steal a curtain-ring from somewhere or she’ll have you thrown out on the streets as a scarlet woman!

44. I do not think this means what you think it means
I trail my fingers down his arms, down his lower back to the waistband of his jeans, and push my intrepid, greedy hands inside, urging him on and on – forgetting everything, except us.

“You’re going to unman me, Ana,” he whispers suddenly. (p187)

What I think you mean: “Ana, you are about to bring me to a premature orgasm”

What you actually just said: “Ana, you are about to forcibly remove my penis”

45. Love is in the air
He gazes down at me, his eyes wide and panicked, and all we can hear is the steady stream of water as it flows over us in the shower.

“You love me,” I whisper.

His eyes widen further and his mouth opens. He takes a huge breath, as if winded. He looks tortured – vulnerable.

“Yes,” he whispers. “I do.” (p196)

Yes, Christian. We know. You told her. Several times.

Maybe the problem was that the previous three occasions when you told her, you weren’t looking like a deer that’s about to be run over.

46. Ana the art critic
Gazing at us both in the mirror – his beauty, his nakedness, and me with my covered hair – we look almost biblical, as if from an Old Testament Baroque painting. (p199)

Ah yes; the parable of the Naked Wife-Beater and the Woman With The Towel On Her Head, from the Book of What The Hell Are You On About. I especially enjoyed Rubens’ interpretation.

47. Thoughts on safe cars
[Ana to Christian] “A Saab?”

“Yeah. A 9-3. Come.”

“What is it with you and foreign cars?”

“The Germans and the Swedes make the safest cars in the world, Anastasia.” (p204)

In which case, Christian, you might like to consider Volvo, which is also a Swedish brand and which is generally held to make the safest cars in the world.

48. Ana and Christian take a walk
We stroll arm in arm to the waterfront, where the marina stretches out in front of us.

“So many boats,” I murmur in wonder. (p207)

A marina full of boats! What are the odds?

49. Ew
[The cabin] has a king-sized cabin bed and is all pale blue linen and pale wood…

“This is the master cabin…you’re the first girl in here, apart from family. They don’t count.” (p211)

The mental picture I am forming here horrifies even me.

50. Rewriting history
I let my fingers wander, tracing his erection through the soft denim. He flexes his hips into my palm and closes his eyes briefly, relishing my touch.

“You’re getting so bold, Ana, so brave,” he whispers. (p218)

Christian, she gave you a blow-job the first time she went to bed with you. Since then she’s let you tie her up, tie her down, spank her, actively encouraged you to put silver balls in her vagina and jerked you off at the dinner–table. Touching you through your jeans while you’re alone together with the door shut is honestly not the boldest thing she’s done.

And that’s the end of the sample! If you’d like to read the rest, here’s the link to purchase. I’ll be donating half of my royalties to Women’s Aid.

Thanks for dropping by!

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After a six-week period where my entire life seemed to be taken over by “Fifty Shades of Grey”, it feels very, very good to be writing about a book I loved. “The Passage” is the kind of book where you’re torn between galloping through it at a breakneck pace because you can’t wait to find out what happens next, and going slowly so you can savour the writing.

Oh, and which also features the Immortal Undead. Always a huge plus-point. Can you tell how much I loved this book yet? I hope so.

Plot summary. The first third of the book takes place in near-future America. A single mother struggles raise her daughter Amy alone before finally abandoning her in the care of a convent of nuns. Meanwhile, Professor Jonas Lear takes a military-sponsored field-trip to a South American jungle to find and bring back a mysterious virus which he believes will allow mankind to live for hundreds of years – possibly by turning them into vampires. Finally, Wolgast and Doyle are FBI agents charged with the extraction and smuggling of Death Row prisoners – plus Amy – to a secret Government facility where they can be infected with the jungle virus to see what happens.

Unsurprisingly, giving a Vampire virus to a bunch of Death-Row murderers doesn’t go well. They mutate into weird bloodthirsty monsters, they escape, they start infecting everyone else, the whole world goes to Hell in a handcart. But Amy – the last trial subject to be injected with the virus, and the only one who has remained reasonably close to human – is smuggled out of the facility by Wolgast, and hidden away in an old summer-camp to try and ride out the Apocalypse.

I’d actually prefer the Abandoned version to the other kind.

The second part of the book is set ninety-three years later and follows the fortunes of a small, isolated colony of humans. As the descendants of a few lucky original survivors of the Apocalypse, they’re leading a moderately satisfying existence behind a huge wall and a bank of super-bright lights that keep the vampires away at night. But after ninety-odd years of service, their equipment’s beginning to wear out and the technology needed to repair it no longer exists. When Amy’s path crosses theirs, they form a desperate plan to try and save their colony from certain collapse.

While the book is billed as a Vampire novel, it’s worth saying at once that this book is far more like a Zombie story than it is like a Vampire one. If you want a story in which pale-faced old-world aristocrats play at high politics and do terrible decadent things in a carefully-orchestrated bid for power, this is not the book for you. But if you (like me) have room in your heart for both “True Blood” and “The Walking Dead”, then you’ll probably love it, because in a sea of mediocrity, this is a Zombie story that really stands out.

After several decades of Hollywood Zombie movies, the tropes of the Zombiepocalypse story are so well-rehearsed that directors have resorted to glomming two genres together and seeing what happens (Zombiepocalypse / Gangster mash-up, and it’s French!! Zombiepocalypse / Nazi mash-up, and it’s Swedish!). For the record, I’ve seen both of these movies, and they’re both kind of fun; there’s just not much mileage in pretending they’re actually any good. In contrast, what impressed me most about “The Passage” wasn’t the new elements it brought to the story (being honest, there aren’t any) but how well the story was told.

This Zombie has now automatically lost the argument.

Telling a good Zombiepocalypse story requires you to avoid a massive number of elephant-traps. The first and most basic one, But Why Would You Do Such A Thing, is the problem of why a bunch of seemingly sensible and well-intentioned people would set out to do something so utterly, pointlessly risky and dangerous (“Hey, look, a deadly virus! Let’s store some in a glass test-tube and then smash it!”) that it rapidly leads to the destruction of all mankind. The classic answers to this are Because They’re Just Evil, M’kay, and Because They Think They Might Save Mankind – usually with the not-very-subtle subtexts of Everyone In Government Is Evil, and Everyone In Government Is Stupid.

Cronin goes for the well-intentioned-but-stupid solution, which isn’t unusual. What is unusual, though, is how well he constructs it. In most Zombie stories, everyone’s just desperate to break out the leather coats and the chainsaws and get on with the schlock. This means the initial trigger-event is often confined to one clearly insane power-crazed scientist dropping a fragile glass test-tube in a lab with hard floors and no containment facilities. In “The Passage”, Cronin carefully documents the multitude of great-sounding ideas, conflicting agendas, morally dubious decisions, ill-founded optimism, small errors and inevitable technical failures that collectively add up to disaster. Cronin’s Zombiepocalypse requires a nationwide effort to get started, and it’s much scarier, because you can see how it might happen.

“I have total confidence that repeatedly blasting my Iredeemably Evil Cell-culture with Immortal Growmatic Power-Rays will end well for the human race.”

The next big elephant-trap, The Special One, is doubly tricky to pull off because Cronin’s Special One is a little girl with superpowers. I’ve written before about how inexplicably awful most writers are at female super-powered characters. Add in the challenges of convincingly writing a child, and suddenly you’re balancing on a piece of cheesewire suspended over a fiery pit filled with fire-resistant alligators and slightly out-of-control metaphors. With bare feet.

And yet somehow, Amy isn’t excruciating. In fact, she’s rather delightful. This is achieved partly by keeping her quiet. Amy hardly ever speaks to anyone, which avoids the need for the amusing misunderstandings and naive questions that set my teeth on edge about Daniel Torrance and Carol Anne Freeling. It also helps that most of the time, the adults around her are a lot more focused on not dying than they are on understanding the intricate intricacies of this intricate child’s intricate and utterly enthralling mind (Danny Torrance again, sorry. I do love “The Shining” really).

But mainly, it’s just because she’s…likeable. Not cute. Not adorable. Not winsome. Just…likeable. If I absolutely had to take someone else’s kid to a Theme Park for the day, I can imagine Amy being sort of good company. And when she’s seemingly the last character standing from the first third of the book, I don’t hate her for making it out when so many good people have been killed off.

Would not be welcome on theoretical trip to Theme Park.

Which leads nicely into the first elephant-trap Cronin doesn’t entirely dodge: the Body-Count Conundrum. In the Apocalypse instalment of a Zombie story, there’s really only two ways to go – Everyone Dies, or Lone Survivor. Amy’s status as Lone Survivor is mentioned in the first line of the book, so it’s not a surprise that she’s the one who makes it out. What I was surprised by, though, was just how very upset I was when everyone else was killed off. After several hundred pages of heavy emotional investment, it was simply awful when, a third of the way in, I realised all the adult characters were dead, and I was going to have to get to know a whole new lot of people in order to get to the end of the book.

I was expecting some of them to die, of course. But imagine if George RR Martin killed off all the Starks, all the Lannisters, all the Targaryens and the whole of the Night Watch about a third of the way into “Game of Thrones” and then started again on another continent with a whole new set of characters. Would that be fun? Even the brilliant segue of the evacuation sequence wasn’t quite enough to console me.

Like this, only you consider every single person lying there to be a close friend.

But then we have the First Colony story, which is so great that I cheered up and fell back in love with the narrative. Lying in wait for any unwary visitor to a second-generation survival colony is the excruciating Tomorrow-morrow-land Error, where the survivors are portrayed as cheerful simpletons who have no idea of the gravity of their situation, and whose bare remnants of understanding about the outside world are more of a hindrance than a help. The first time I saw children referred to as “Littles”, I admit my toes kind of curled up just a little bit. After that, I was kind of on the fence for a while. Just because there hadn’t been an annoying camp-fire reminiscence about the magic people with their special flying machines who were coming to save them one day and fix everything so just hang tight and don’t worry, it’ll all be all right folks, so far, didn’t mean there wasn’t going to be one any minute now.

Then I got to this beautiful passage:

The day-to-day. That was the term they used. Thinking neither of a past that was too much a story of loss and death, nor of a future that might never happen. Ninety-four souls under the lights, living in the day-to-day. (p292)

This is the exact moment in the book when I decided to get over my huge upset over Wolgast’s death (sorry to spoil, but that’s what happens) and enjoy the rest of the story. Unjustified optimism as a deliberate, intelligent choice. And really, isn’t this how we all live? Until we’re forced to, do any of us ever contemplate the fact of our own mortality? That’s how you avoid the Tomorrow-morrow-land Error.

And this is how you don’t.

Cronin’s already batting way, way above the average for Elephant-Trap Dodging, so I’m not going to complain about the two remaining ones he doesn’t quite manage to avoid: the Dance With The Devil, and Here Comes The Military. On their journey through the Apocalyptic wasteland, the Colonists encounter a parallel group of survivors, who seem weirdly interested in pregnancy, and weirdly short on boys. If your first thought is “Sacrificial Breeding Programme”, you can have a large gold star, and if your next thought is “Which The Outraged Colonists Will Now Destroy”, you can have two. If I was on a mission to save some paper and make this book a bit shorter, this is the section I’d delete. Maybe it’s got a bigger role to play in the sequel and I’ll be recanting later, I don’t know. But in a huge cast of well-written, well-rounded characters, the Site B people stand out as a bit clumsy and one-dimensional.

The book ends with the traditional hook-up with some army guys, the discovery of the Big Bad Apocalyptic Super-Weapon, and the final showdown with the Vampires in which Amy’s superpowers are revealed. It’s possibly a measure of how very well-written the rest of the book is, and how absorbing the stories of its characters, that I was actually a bit bored by this part. Vampires, hive-minds, still some humanity remaining inside, blah blah blah, explosion. The good guys win. Hoorah. Now can we please get back to the people stuff.

I get why this is in here, I really do. Movie-makers have conditioned us to expect the traditional Everything-Explodes turbo-charged ending, and Cronin does the very best job any writer can at re-creating this in prose. It’s just that – you know – it’s not a surprise. The only tension comes from wondering who’s going to get maimed and how badly, and whether Amy’s superpower will be Re-awakening Humanity, Horde Control, or both. And after hundreds of pages of sustained Brilliance, I was officially too spoilt and jaded to properly enjoy scenes which were merely Pretty Good.

Meh.

So, what happens next? Well, we already know there are going to be at least two sequels. The opening line of the book is “Before she became the Girl…who lived a thousand years”, which clearly suggests a sweeping-epic sort of timeframe. I can see I may well have to bid a regretful farewell to the colonists on the grounds of either Vampires or the normal aging process, and get to know a whole bunch of new people – who may also then die of Vampires or old age. Possibly I’ll have to do this several times over. I’m also sort of thinking “Dune”, and “Star Wars”, and “Clan of the Cave Bear“, and wondering if the next two books can possibly live up to the first one.

But the honest truth is, they could probably afford to be only half as good as the first one and they’d still be brilliant. I’ve pre-ordered “The Twelve” for my Kindle and damn, I’m looking forward to it.

“The Passage” is available from Amazon at £5.19 for the paperback or £4.99 for your Kindle.

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