Posts Tagged ‘adventures in trash’

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:


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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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.


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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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.


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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Dear lovely readers,

Since I posted my article “Fifty Things That Annoy Me About Fifty Shades Of Grey”, it’s become by far my most popular blog entry. Lots of you have mentioned it in various forums, tweeted about it, shared it on Facebook and generally spread the word. Thank you all so much – you’re all fabulous, and I’m delighted everyone’s enjoyed it so much.

Anyway, I’m thrilled to announce that thanks to your fantastic response, I was commissioned to write a whole e-book on the subject. “Lighter Shades of Grey: a (very) Critical Reader’s Guide to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’” covers the whole of the magnificent folly that is “Fifty Shades of Grey”, chronicling the many, many more things that annoy me about it. If you’d like to find out how many times Ana uses the phrase “Oh my”, how often her lip is bitten, whether Christian Grey is a diagnosable psychopath and exactly how he gets away with a kidnapping, it’s available right now from e-book distributors on both sides of the Atlantic, from prices starting at £1.49 / $2.34.

Thank you again for your support, your tweets, your links and your many, many kind comments.

And if you were just wanting to read the original blog entry that started it all, below is a copy of the original post.

After weeks of dithering, it finally dawned on me that I can’t blog about genre fiction and not face up to the existence of the Genre Fiction hit of the year. On the other hand…well, frankly, I don’t want to face up to the existence of the Genre Fiction hit of the year. It annoys me. I wish it wasn’t there.

So I decided to read it until I’d found fifty things that annoyed me, and then stop. Here’s my list.

1. We meet our heroine.
“I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal…Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu.”

A bad start.

a. In the scheme of things, bad hair is not a problem. Please try to be less self-absorbed.

b. I seriously doubt that Kate got flu just to spite you.

2. Anastasia arrives at Christian Grey’s headquarters and takes the elevator.
I walk into the enormous – and frankly intimidating – glass, steel and white sandstone lobby. Behind the solid sandstone desk, a very attractive, groomed, blonde young woman smiles pleasantly at me…[after taking the lift] I’m in another large lobby – again all glass, steel and white sandstone. I’m confronted by another desk of sandstone and another young blonde woman dressed impeccably in black and white.

a. It is not possible to create the impression of luxurious yet understated opulence simply by over-using the word “sandstone”.

b. Maybe you just got in the lift and forgot to press the button.

3. Anastasia waits outside Christian’s office to start the interview
“To be honest, I prefer my own company, reading a classic British novel, curled up in a chair in the campus library.”

In literary terms, there is no such thing as a “classic British novel”. There are Romantic novels, picaresque novels, High Victorian novels, epistolary novels, Utopian novels, satirical novels, Condition-of-England novels…but not “classic British novels”.

Therefore, merely by the use of the phrase “classic British novel”, you have entirely undermined the impression you were intending to create by the use of the phrase “classic British novel”.

4. Anastasia speculates on what Christian Grey will be like.
“Judging from the building, which is too clinical and modern, I guess Grey is in his forties: fit, tanned and fair-haired to match the rest of the personnel.”

a. A more logical way to estimate his age would be to consider the likely length of time it would take to reach the position of CEO of a multinational conglomerate, make the working assumption that he attended college, then adding the likely length of career to his likely graduation age. There is little or no point trying to estimate people’s ages based on the architectural style of the building they happen to be in at the time.

b. Really successful businesspeople almost never hire people based on how much said prospective employees resemble them.

5. Further speculation on Christian Grey’s hiring practices.
“Perhaps Mr Grey insists on all his employees being blonde. I’m wondering idly if that’s legal, when the office door opens and a tall, elegantly dressed, attractive African-American man with short dreads exits. I have definitely worn the wrong clothes.”

a. Between 2% and 4% of the world’s population are naturally blonde. Even if this were legal (which we’ll get to shortly), insisting on all your employees being blonde would constitute a ridiculously restrictive limit on your available talent pool, as well as making everyone who came across you question your sanity. Since Christian Grey is apparently very successful and well-regarded, the chances of him imposing such a bizarre requirement for people working for his organisation are small.

b. Please stop speculating if this is legal or not. You have been to college.

c. Your entire theory is based on meeting a grand total of two employees. This is a ridiculously small sample and any conclusions drawn from such an inadequate range are highly likely to be wrong. For example, if I were to judge your entire novel based on the one per cent I’ve read so far, I might accidentally conclude it was written by an idiot.

d. This is the best example of tokenism I have ever seen. You may be eligible for some sort of award.

e. Your statement “I have definitely worn the wrong clothes” implies that briefly sharing physical space with a black man requires some sort of special outfit. Please elaborate.

6. Anastasia enters Christian’s office.
“I push open the door and stumble through, tripping over my own feet, and falling head first into the office.”

a. I am aware that “Fifty Shades” began life as a Twilight fan-fiction. I know that falling over with absolutely no provocation is one of Bella Swan’s most recognisable traits. However, the minute you used the Find / Replace function to convert from Bella Swan to Anastasia Steele, you instantly became free of the constraints of your original genre. Anastasia is not obliged to fall over. You may want to consider this, because…

b. I have been in a lot of meetings in my life, and I have seen a lot of people walk through a lot of doors to get into these meetings. However, I have never, ever, ever seen a grown adult (man or woman) fall over and land face-down on the floor of a meeting-room. And I’m including meetings where half the participants were drunk.

I’m not saying it never happens. I’m just saying it doesn’t sound very plausible, and therefore it sounds dumb.

7. We get to see what Christian Grey looks like
“He’s tall…with unruly dark-copper-coloured hair”

This in itself is not annoying. However, I am flagging it now because it represents the start of a disconcerting love-affair with Robert Pattinson’s Twilight hairstyle that will soon be absolutely doing my head in.

8. Christian Grey’s office
“His office is way too big for just one man”

That would be because his office is also his meeting room, where he holds his meetings, which involve other people coming into the room and being in it.

9. Christian Grey holds forth on the subject of success in business
“Business is all about people, Miss Steele, and I’m very good at judging people. I know how they tick, what makes them flourish, what doesn’t, what inspires them, and how to incentivise them.”

a. Nobody talks like this in real life.

b. Especially since the idiom you are actually looking for is “what makes them tick”.

10. More magnificence from Mr Grey’s Big Book Of Business
“My belief is to achieve success in any scheme one has to make oneself master of that scheme, know it inside and out, know every detail. I work hard, very hard to do that.”

Dude, you are talking about yourself in the third person. Even the Queen can’t do this without sounding weird. She is eighty-six and has never had anyone correct her on it. What’s your excuse?

11. Even more magnificence
“I make decisions based on logic and facts.”

Christ almighty, as opposed to what?

12. This is all from the same unbroken paragraph of direct speech, by the way
“I have a natural gut instinct that can spot and nurture a good solid idea and good people.”

I bet you can also design roller-coasters in under six hours and stare at the sun unblinking.

13. Christian decides it’s time to show Anastasia his human side
“Immense power is acquired by assuring yourself in your secret reveries that you were born to control things.”

a. No, I think it’s probably acquired by a whole lot of hard work.

b. This is really more of a third-date revelation.

14. Bizarre hiring policies
“I employ over forty thousand people, Miss Steele…If I were to decide I was no longer interested in the the telecommunications business and sell up, twenty thousand people would struggle to make their mortgage payments after a month or so.”

Possible explanations for this extraordinary remark:

a. Your entire empire is based on telecommunications, therefore forty thousand telecoms employees. Your business is so lamentably over-staffed that any buyer would be able to instantly lay off at least half your workforce within a month of purchase with absolutely no consequences whatsoever – something which you (despite your apparently ruthless dedication to business success) have completely overlooked. Therefore, you’re an idiot.

b. Telecommunications represents half of your business empire, and is staffed in proportion. If you were to sell it, the buyer would somehow be able to run it at a profit without needing anyone working for them at all – a point which you (despite your apparently ruthless dedication to business success) have completely overlooked. Therefore, you’re an idiot.

c. You’re indulging in a spot of dubious grandstanding to impress Anastasia. Therefore, you’re an idiot.

15. Christian in his spare time
“I’m a very wealthy man, Miss Steele, and I have expensive and absorbing hobbies.”

Soon he’ll be offering to show her his special gold-plated toilet-paper.

16. Question: “You invest in manufacturing. Why, specifically?”
Answer: “I like to build things.”

I laughed so loudly at this that the cat got up and ran out of the room in a panic.

17. More wisdom on the subject of manufacturing
“I like to know how things work: what makes things tick, how to construct and deconstruct. And I have a love of ships. What can I say?”

a. “Investing in manufacturing” is not the same as “making stuff”. Most CEOs are too busy running the company to get deeply involved in understanding the exact construction of everything the company makes. This is why the rest of us have jobs as well as them.

b. “Manufacturing” is not a synonym for “liking ships”.

18. “Are you gay, Mr Grey?”
“I cringe, mortified. Crap. Why didn’t I employ some kind of filter before I read this straight out?”

Hell if I know, Ana. Maybe you’re related to Ron Burgundy?

19. Christian’s PA is astounded by a last-minute change to his schedule
“We’re not finished here, Andrea. Please cancel my next meeting.”

Andrea hesitates, gaping at him. She appears lost.

Later that day, Christian asked for a different sort of biscuit with his coffee, and Andrea keeled over and died.

20. World’s creepiest job offer
“We run an excellent internship program here,” he says quietly. I raise my eyebrows in surprise. Is he offering me a job?

Since he doesn’t know who you are, what you’re good at or even what your major is, I sincerely hope he isn’t. That would be the act of an idiot. And I would so hate to have to think of Christian Grey as an idiot.

21. Anastasia has no self-awareness
“No man has ever affected me the way Christian Grey has, and I cannot fathom why. Is it his looks? His civility? Wealth? Power?”

Yes; finding yourself attracted to a good-looking, age-appropriate billionaire who clearly also fancies you back makes absolutely no sense at all.

22. Anastasia and the Law: Round Two
“As I hit the I-5, I realise I can drive as fast as I want.”

Um, no. No you can’t. You can drive at speeds up to and including the applicable speed limit. Same as always.

23. Sauce for the goose: Kate’s commentary on Anastasia’s love-life
“You, fascinated by a man? That’s a first,” she snorts.

Just out of interest, why does no-one ever ask Anastasia if she’s gay?

24. Obligatory piece of clunky intertextuality (1)
“I work on my essay on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Damn, but that woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong century.”

Yep, she should have been born in our time. These days, we’re totally down with stabbing your lover through the heart because he makes an ill-judged crack about your ex-husband.

25. Things that are not dreams (1)
“That night I dream of dark places, bleak cold white floors, and grey eyes.”

Really? How does that work, then? Are the bleak cold white floors in the dark places? If the places are dark, how can you see the bleak cold whiteness of the bleak cold white floors? Or do you move from one to the other – like, one minute you’re in a dark place, the next minute you’re standing on a bleak cold white floor? And how about the eyes – are they just rolling around loose on the floor, or what?

26. Fundamental misunderstanding of how home-based businesses work
“[My mother] proceeds to tell me about her latest venture into candle-making…I hope she hasn’t mortgaged the house to finance this latest scheme.”

a. Unless she’s actually built a candle-making factory in the back garden, which seems unlikely, I seriously doubt she will need to mortgage the house to pay for her starter-kit.

b. Also, I doubt that any bank would actually sign off on a mortgage where the stated purpose was “Start candle-making business. Get rich. Buy island in sunshine. etc.”

27. Obligatory piece of clunky intertextuality (2)
“Ray is a skilled carpenter and the reason I know the difference between a hawk and a handsaw.”

a. No, the reason you know the difference between a hawk and a handsaw is because they are absolutely nothing alike.

b. Clearly you think so highly of this reference that you feel compelled to make it again later.

c. Being able to quote from someone else’s masterpiece does not imply that you yourself are actually clever.

28. Anastasia the alcoholic
“Standing on our doorstep is my good friend Jose, clutching a bottle of champagne.”

At this point I would just like to flag up that – despite a later claim that she never gets drunk – Anastasia gets through a really quite astonishing quantity of alcohol in this novel.

29. A poor basis for a friendship
“Not only do we share a sense of humor, but we discovered that both Ray and Jose Senior were in the same army unit together.”

I doubt my dad could pick my friends’ dads out of a police line-up. Does this mean we should cancel our friendships and start hanging out with the children of people our parents went to war and traumatically shot foreigners with?

30. She has read too many books, and it has addled her brain
“Perhaps I’ve spent too long in the company of my literary romantic heroes, and consequently my ideals and expectations are far too high.”

a. Mr Rochester was rude, sarcastic and frequently cruel. Mr Darcy was rude and socially awkward. Alec D’Urberville was a rapist, and Angel Clare ran for the hills as soon as he found out he wasn’t marrying a virgin. Heathcliff was a psychopath.

Exactly which of your ideals and expectations would you say these men have set far too high?

b. Has anyone ever met anyone who died a virgin and a mad old cat lady solely because they never met anyone who matched up to Mr Darcy?

31. The Mark Of The Sue: Wilful blindness to another’s obvious devotion
“I watch Jose open the bottle of champagne…Jose’s pretty hot, but I think he’s finally getting the message: we’re just friends.”

Yeah, when I was a penniless student I used to take bottles of champagne round to my male friends’ houses for absolutely no reason all the time.

32. Surprise about things that are inherently not surprising (1)
“Saturday at the [DIY] store is a nightmare. We are besieged by do-it-yourselfers wanting to spruce up their homes.”

You are working at a DIY store, and have been for four years. It should not take you by surprise that Saturday is your busiest trading day.

33. Mr Grey has entered the building
“Holy crap. What the hell is he doing here…? I think my mouth has popped open, and I can’t locate my brain or my voice.”

a. Unless you have suffered an injury to your cerebellum, resulting in a disorder of proprioception, you should be perfectly capable of determining whether your mouth is, or is not, open. Please consider consulting your nearest neurologist.

b. Your vocal cords are stretched across the front of your larynx, as always.

c. Your brain is in the jar where I’m presuming you usually keep it.

34. …or something.
“His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel…or something.”

Description 101: if you need to qualify your simile with the phrase “or something”, it probably wasn’t that good of a comparison to start with.

35. Things that sound good until you picture someone actually doing them (1)
“I shake my head to gather my wits.”

While this adequately conveys the notion that the heroine is overcome by the presence of her
leading man, the unintended consequence is to force the reader to picture her in the guise of a large wet dog that has just exited a body of water.

36. Basic anatomy fail (1)
“Why is he in Portland? Why is he here at Clayton’s? And from a very tiny, under-used part of my brain – probably located at the base of my medulla oblongata where my subconscious dwells – comes the thought: He’s here to see you.”

a. Pretty much by definition, your unconscious is just that – unconscious. It is not possible to engage in dialogue with it.

b. Similarly, your Medulla Oblongata takes care of the boring-but-necessary housekeeping stuff like breathing, heartbeat, temperature regulation, etc. As such it is not capable of generating active thought such as “He’s here to see you”.

c. The word “subconscious” has no real scientific meaning and as such, does not belong in the same sentence as “located at the base of my medulla oblongata”.

37. When there are two explanations for someone’s behaviour, and one of them could pose a serious threat to your life and liberty, and the other is lame and doesn’t really fit with the available evidence, always pick the lame one. Because that’s better in a lot of ways.
“He gazes at the selection of cable ties we stock at Clayton’s. What on Earth is he going to do with those?

…”Is there anything else?”

“I’d like some masking tape…no, [I’m] not redecorating,” he says quickly then smirks….”And some rope, I think.”

Yeah, nothing remotely threatening or disturbing here. And I’m sure the guy who came in and bought seventy-five pounds of ammonium nitrate and sixteen detonators was just planning to give his garden a really, really deep feed this season.

38. Another item in Anastasia’s collection of slightly stalky Just-Good-Friends
“Paul hugs me hard, taking me by surprise…”You’re looking well, Ana, really well.” He grins as he examines me at arm’s length. Then he releases me but keeps a possessive arm draped over my shoulder. I shuffle from foot to foot, embarrassed. It’s good to see Paul, but he has always been over-familiar.”

If he is touching you in a way you don’t like, you have the right to say no. Please forget about shuffling from foot to foot in embarrassment and consider kicking him in the nuts with your foot in righteous outrage.

39. Paul gets dazzled
“Mr Grey,” Paul returns his handshake. “Wait up – not the Christian Grey? Of Grey Enterprises Holding?” Paul goes from surly to awestruck in less than a nanosecond.

a. Think back to your college days. How many CEOs of major corporations could you name? Yeah, I thought so.

b. Even allowing for the fact that Paul is studying Business Administration at Princeton, “Christian Grey” isn’t that unusual a name. It’s a pretty big leap from “You have the same name of someone who has absolutely no reason to be in my family’s hardware store” to “You are that actual person”.

c. The name “Grey Enterprises Holdings” is stupid.

40. Things that sound good until you picture someone actually doing them (2)
“Would you like a bag?”

…”Please, Anastasia.” His tongue caresses my name, and my heart once again is frantic.

a. In pronouncing the name “Anastasia”, the tongue stays entirely behind the teeth and is not visible at all. In order to accept the premise that Christian is, indeed, caressing Anastasia’s name with his tongue, I am forced to conclude that he is licking her name-badge.

b. On the other hand, I quite like the idea that this is what he’s doing, so I’m quite tempted to let this one go.

41. Things that sound good until you picture someone actually doing them (3)
“My scalp prickles at the idea that maybe, just maybe, he might like me…I hug myself with quiet glee, rocking from side to side.”

Why not try this one in public and see what happens?

42. Basic anatomy fail (2)
“Ana, you’re the one with the relationship.”

“Relationship?” I squeak at her, my voice rising several octaves. “I barely know the guy.”

The average human voice has a natural span of about an octave and a half. A trained singer can generally manage between two and three. At four octaves, Freddie Mercury’s range was so exceptional that almost no-one can sing his work the way he sang it.

For your voice to rise “several octaves” (i.e. three or more), you would either have to have a natural speaking voice somewhere in the range of James Earl Jones, or be capable of producing a pitch somewhat beyond the range of normal human hearing.

43. Things that are not dreams (2)
“I am restless that night, tossing and turning. Dreaming of smoky grey eyes, coveralls, long legs, long fingers, and dark, dark unexplored places.”

I especially like the introduction of “coveralls” into this bizarre still-life collection. Sort of like a collision between “American Gothic” and an abattoir after dark.

44. Good hair, pants that hang from hips
He’s wearing a white shirt, open at the collar, and grey flannel pants that hang from his hips. His unruly hair is still damp from a shower.

a. I refer you to Item 7. From here on in, Hair References will be coming thick and fast.

b. The other thing Ana really goes for is pants that hang from men’s hips. Mentioned once, this is not annoying. Unfortunately, this is not the last we’ll be seeing of Christian Grey’s well-hung pants.

45. Social mobility fail
[Kate] shakes [Christian’s] hand firmly without batting an eyelid. I remind myself that Kate has been to the best private schools in Washington. Her family has money, and she’s grown up confident and sure of her place in the world. She doesn’t take any crap. I am in awe of her.

Welcome to America; the land of opportunity. FFS.

46. Things that sound good until you picture someone actually doing them (4)
“Christian Grey has asked me to go for coffee with him.”

Her mouth pops open. Speechless Kate! I savour the moment.

a. As an experiment, spend a day telling people mildly surprising things like “I thought I might give up sugar in my tea for a week” or “I have six tattoos” or “I met the Queen once when I was small”. Count the number of times anyone’s mouth pops open. If n > 0, I will humbly retract my objection.

b. Kate has been telling Anastasia for pages and pages and pages that Christian likes her. Therefore, speechless shock is not an appropriate reaction to them going to get coffee.

c. Unless she knows Anastasia is gay, of course.

47. Coffee shops do not only sell coffee
“I am going to have coffee with Christian Grey…and I hate coffee.”

Then you will just have to stand outside the shop like a dog waiting for its owner while he goes in on his own, won’t you.

48. In the coffee-shop, Anastasia comes over all sophisticated
“I’ll have…um – English Breakfast tea, bag out.”

“…Okay, bag out tea. Sugar?”

For a moment, I’m stunned, thinking it’s an endearment, but fortunately my subconscious kicks in with pursed lips. No, stupid – do you take sugar?

“No thanks.” I stare down at my knotted fingers.

a. Since the word “Sugar?” is modified by a high-rising terminal, and you’re in a coffee-shop, this is clearly a contextually-appropriate question rather than an endearment. Interpreting it as anything else makes you look like an idiot.

b. We’ve already covered the impossibility of engaging in meaningful dialogue with your unconscious, so I’ll just refer you back to Item 36.

c. As any mother but yours would undoubtedly tell you, staring down at your knotted fingers when someone asks you a perfectly civilised question makes you look surly and rude.

d. In a post-SATC world, any reference to “tea, bag out” or “bag out tea” is automatically funny.

49. Good hair, pants that hang from hips (2)
“He’s tall, broad-shouldered, and slim, and the way those pants hang from his hips…oh my. Once or twice he runs his long, graceful fingers through his now dry but still disorderly hair. Hmm…I’d like to do that.”

a. There is a limit to the number of times I want or need to be told how well these pants hang from his hips, and we have now exceeded it.

b. While it’s traditional for TwiHarders to venerate Robert Pattinson’s hair, as this book is not officially Not Fan Fiction any more, it’s okay to get rid of this particular trope. In fact, I insist.

50. Idle speculation about things that normal people already know
“He has a coffee which bears a wonderful leaf-pattern imprinted in the milk. How do they do that? I wonder idly.”

Oh come on.

That’s the first fifty things, and they haven’t even kissed yet – never mind got to the recreational floggings. However, I was tragically compelled to finish the entire book, getting more and more annoyed with every page. And then I was commissioned to turn it into an e-book. Which is for sale, right now! If you’d like to buy it, that would be lovely.

And if I have managed to inspire in you a raging appetite for Fifty Shades Snark that cannot wait to be satisfied, you may like to swing by my friend Heidi’s blog and enjoy her musings on the subject.

Laters, baby.*

*Just so we’re clear, I’m quoting “Fifty Shades Of Grey”. Yes, really.

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Banjos At The Ready, Folks

It goes without saying that preferring the book to the movie is the classy thing to do. Even when it’s practically compulsory to believe that the movie is a tour de force whose significance only you and your best friends truly understand (I’m looking at you, Mr York University FilmSoc Treasurer Blade Runner fan) – the hardcore compulsives will still be making the case that if you really think about it, “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” was just much better in a lot of ways.

And all those list articles proclaiming that Sometimes, The Movie Is Actually Better Than The Book? They only really work because that’s not the way round it’s supposed to be. In the cultural lexicon of life, Books beat Movies, and that’s just how it is.

So. I’ve seen the movie of “Deliverance” a few times, and, in common with a lot of people, I liked it quite a lot. I was fully prepared to like the book even more. A trip to AbeBooks and a couple of clicks later, and it landed on my doormat a few days ago.

It’s certainly different from the film. Better? Hmmm.

Before writing the twentieth century’s definitive account of Hillbilly sodomy, James Dickey was mostly known as a poet. And a successful poet, too; he won a Guggenheim fellowship and was the US Congress Poet Laureate for a while. I think it’s fair to say that – even though “Deliverance” is an action-adventure story – Dickey’s poetic roots are showing throughout the book. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The book is narrated by Ed (Jon Voight in the film), and the main difference between the book and the film is the amount of time we get to spend with Ed’s rather dreamy and lyrical thoughts about life, the universe and everything. Where the movie dives straight into the action of the trip, the novel has a fifty-page build-up, describing precisely what a weekend off being a man with other men in the face of Nature’s mighty power means to Ed. How much you’re going to like this depends on how much you like spending time inside the head of a bored middle-aged graphic designer who clearly fancies himself as a poet, and even more clearly feels he’s a little bit too good for his job, his friends, his wife and his life generally.

Sometimes, Ed’s inner monologue is sharp and punchy, like his economical description of Bobby Trippe; “smooth thin hair and a high pink complexion”. Other times, it’s really sort of hilarious. Ed shares his thoughts on his business partner (“He had a face like a hawk, but it was a special kind of hawk”), a model for a knickers advert whose left eye he gets obsessed with (“There was a peculiar spot, a kind of tan slice, in her left eye, and it hit me with, I knew right away, strong powers”), having sex with his wife before leaving for the trip (“in the centre of Martha’s heaving and expertly working back, the gold eye shone, not with the practicality of sex, so necessary to its survival, but the promise of it that promised other things…”) and his post-coital trip to the bathroom (“I went to the bathroom and stood with my eyes closed and flowed”).

“The promise of it that promised other things”? You know those poems we all write when we’re about fifteen or so, and then we go back to them about ten years later and think “Jesus Christ” and either burn them or hide them somewhere very, very secret, like the bottom of the compost heap or something? Yeah? Yeah.

So, anyway. After really quite a lot of this – plus the kind of detail about their camping equipment I’d personally only expect from a Camping Supplies Catalogue – we get to the first iconic scene of the film; Lonnie and Drew’s inpromptu duet. Unsurprisingly, the movie does this scene much better, because music doesn’t really lend itself well to verbal description. However much I like the observation that “I could not see Drew’s face, but the back of his neck was sheer joy”, it doesn’t compare to seeing that fabulous, spontaneous musical duel unfold right in front of you. There was never any way the book was going to top the film on this one; the natural advantage is all in one direction.

Similarly, the central rape scene has orders-of-magnitude more power on the screen than it does in the book:

A scream hit me, and I would have thought it was mine but for the lack of breath. It was a sound of pain and outrage, and it was followed by one of simple and wordless pain. Again it came out of him, higher and more carrying…

It doesn’t help that we’re watching Ed watch the rape, and what we get is how it feels to watch (rather than how it feels to do or to be done to). No matter how hard it is to read about Ed listening to Bobby scream, it can’t compete with the shock of seeing the savage pleasure in his rapist’s face as he slaps him on the buttock, or the horror of Bobby’s utter helplessness. Interestingly, the most memorable line of the film, “Squeal!” was an ad-lib. Score two to the movie.

One thing the book delivers that the movie doesn’t is the sensual connection Ed feels with every aspect of his experience. Ed’s journey is a sort of descent into the visceral, a documentation of how wrong / right it feels to get away from all that soap and civilisation and roll around in the mud and get cold and dirty and hungry, and then kill stuff. And as with the descriptions of Suburban Hell, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Here’s Ed looking at Lewis having a wash:

Everything he had done for himself for years paid off as he stood there in his tracks, in the water. I could tell by the way he glanced at me; the payoff was in my eyes. I had never seen such a male body in my life, even in the pictures in the weight-lifting magazines…

I can totally see why this didn’t make it into the movie. In a film where sex between men is so central anyway, it’s hard to imagine how you could show this without giving it a massive erotic charge. But in a written context, where Ed is dreamily admiring everything around him in almost exactly the same way, he can stare at Lewis’s perfect male form without it feeling like he wants to jump Lewis’s bones. His wistful admiration becomes just an extension of his overall romance with the landscape.

Thing is, human beings aren’t actually meant to fall in love with landscapes:

Time after time I lay there sweating, having no handhold or foothold, the rubber of my toes bending back against the soft rock, my hands open. Then I would begin to try to inch upwards again, moving with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman. Fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality lifted me, millimetre by millimetre.

And I thought those guys who fall in love with Volkswagens were strange.

Okay, so I’ve laughed at Dickey’s writing style quite enough now. It’s time to hold my hands up and declare that, despite the people who look like special kinds of hawk and Ed’s moon-blazing sexuality, I like this piece of wilderness-writing much more than, for example, “She”, or “Moby Dick”, or Jack London’s entire canon. It’s just that, you know, I like the movie much better. It’s tighter and neater and more economical, and it packs a far, far greater emotional punch.

But the book did make me laugh more than the movie. So I’m not writing it off as a total loss.

“Deliverance” is out of print, but Abe Books have many copies available starting from just 62p.

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At Last, Some Action!

So, yeah; Elena and the ice-blue Renaissance gown she cleaned out her college fund for. On the one hand, I have a secret (and fairly stupid) belief that the world would be much more fun for everyone if we all dressed up a little more, and wore stuff just because it makes us happy, rather than because it’s all that appropriate for the occasion. (One day, for example, I am totally doing the school run in a ball-gown.) On the other hand, in my experience, boys – even undead ones – are almost never impressed when their girlfriends turn up to a date wearing what is essentially a wedding-dress.

This can only end badly for everyone.

So please, LJ Smith, don’t let me down here. I’m asking as nicely as I possibly can. I want to see Elena make an utter fool of herself. I want to see the cleaning-out of college funds and the purchase of scary Shotgun-Wedding outfits with the money denounced for the travesty of normal behaviour it truly is. I want my OMGWTFWWJD moment of horror from Stefan when Elena opens that front door, and I want it now, damn it, now!!!!!

He was staring at her in wonder, yes. But it was not the wondering joy she’d seen in his eyes that first night in his room. This was closer to shock.

Oh, thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you!

Ahem. Getting right back on with the snarkiness here. Unsurprisingly, Elena is the only person at the Hallowe’en Ball who’s chosen to come dressed for her own wedding, so she’s now surrounded by people dressed as zombies, corpses, werewolves, witches, hunchbacks, etc. (Incidentally, when did fancy-dress costumes imitating people with serious physical disabilities get the stamp of approval? And did it happen to homeless people at the same time? Just, you know, PUTTING THAT OUT THERE.)

Fortunately, no-one has time to mock Elena’s ludicrously out-of-step appearance, because Mr Tanner the History teacher is refusing to play nice and be a co-operative blood-stained corpse for the Druidical sacrifice at Stonehenge, on the grounds of historical inaccuracy. But it’s all okay, because Stefan does some of that weird Vampire / Jedi hoodoo thing on him, and within minutes, he’s happily lying down on the altar so Bonnie can make yucky with the strawberry sauce.

You know, if I was a vampire with a complex about what a monster I was, I think I’d be redressing the Karmic balance by, oh, I don’t know, hanging out at the UN Climate Change conference or something, and quietly facilitating the latest critical negotiations on how we’re all not going to fry the world and everything in it. Or maybe I’d drop by the next round of Israel / Palestine discussions. But then, I think this kind of thing is pretty damn cool, so what the hell would I know?

Is it just me, or is that the Doctor on the right of the picture?

Then there’s a bit of Mean Girls stuff where Elena tries to make friends with Caroline (for a refresher on who Caroline is, click here). And Caroline basically tells Elena they will be enemies until the end of time. And that means Elena is a better person than Caroline. Or possibly that Caroline is a more honest person than Elena. Your pick.

And then they wander around and look at some stuff and they walk into the Stonehenge room to admire Mr Tanner who’s being an alarmingly convincing corpse, and ohnoes, Mr Tanner is dead…

At this point, Tyler – the rapist from Chapter Seven who has inexplicably been allowed back onto school premises – takes charge of the important task of identifying the killer:

“It’s not hard to guess who it is,” said Tyler. “Someone who hated Tanner and was always getting into arguments with him. Someone who was arguing with him earlier tonight…Someone who has a history of violence. Someone who, for all we know, is a psychopath who came to Fell’s Church just to kill.”

I’ve been looking at this passage for quite some time, and I can’t decide if I think this is a ridiculous leap of non-logic, or a fairly rational response to Stefan’s presence. After all, he is a vampire, and while everyone in town seems strangely blind to this, it’s possible that on some level they’re aware of it. I just think I’d like to see a little bit less pointing of the fingers and reaching for the pitchforks, and a little bit more calling of the cops and fetching of the responsible adults.

But you know what’s guaranteed to distract me from whatever point I was making, in the manner of a cat whose owner has just bought a laser-pointer? Bromance.

Please, thought Elena, gazing into those blue eyes, willing him to understand. Oh please, Matt, only you can save him. Even if you don’t believe, try to trust…please…

Since their brilliant scheme for saving Stefan consists of “Telling Stefan everyone’s looking for him because they think he murdered Mr Tanner”, I’m not quite clear why it has to be Matt who does the saving, rather than Elena. But, you know, it’s still kind of sweet, if you like that kind of thing, and I do most definitely like that kind of thing. After all, if you had the choice between a girl who come to Hallowe’en in a wedding-dress, and a nice uncomplicated guy who you can talk to about football and stuff, who would you pick?

“Matt.” The dark green eyes were dark and burning, and Matt found he could not look away from them. “Is Elena safe? Good. Then take care of her. Please.”


If you’d like to know more about homoerotic subtexts in Vampire fiction, you may enjoy “Kiss Me With Those Red Lips” by Christopher Craft. Or, if you just want to read more about Matt and Stefan, you want to head on over to FanFiction.net and have a little browse around their Vampire Diaries section. I’m blogging about reading the original, so I can assure you I’m not about to judge.

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I came across “The Stand In” via a Twitter recommendation, from someone who I’ve never met and have never spoken to in person. But thanks to the magic of Twitter feeds (I think we met on the #amwriting hashtag or something), every now and then we get to enjoy the fun of making a difference to the life of a total stranger by recommending a book they’d never otherwise have come across. Sometimes you get something that’s completely disappointing; but other times you discover a gorgeous and unexpected little gem that you absolutely adore, and want to recommend to other people. Isn’t the internet brilliant?

“The Stand In” is a lovely, tightly-plotted, perfectly-crafted sliver of Hollywood noir. Rising Hollywood superstars and former lovers Rick DeNova and Lola Chandler are locked into starring roles in Centurion Studios’ production from Hell – a prestige vanity-project to bring Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities to the big screen. Rick’s taste for beating up and violently murdering the women in his life, coupled with a burgeoning heroin habit, mean that both he and the production are gradually falling apart, threatening to take Centurion down with it. Hollywood Insider front-woman Nadine Nugent is intent on furthering her broadcasting career by getting the inside scoop on Centurion, while her college-boy minion Danny Gillis is desperate for a big story that will free him from Nadine’s clutches and transform his journalistic career. And Eddie Baines from Hicksville is desperate to exploit his eerie resemblance to Rick and begin his own stratospheric rise to stardom.

Noir, as we all know, comes from cinema, and cinema is the home of heightened reality and slightly implausible occurrences. With that in mind, let me say that the plot of “The Stand-in” does rely on the existence of one huge, giant, incredibly fortunate coincidence (the arrival in Hollywood of a near-perfect visual double for a famous-but-troublesome film-star at exactly the moment the film-star starts to become more trouble than he’s worth, said double also being a brilliant actor). However, you’d have to be a very mean reader indeed not to accept this slight stretching of our collective credibility, because the way everyone responds to this astounding gift from the Gods is so horribly plausible. There’s virtually no moral hesitation from anyone; they just leap gleefully onto this fantastic opportunity like starving vultures. As far as almost everyone in Hollywood is concerned, Eddie is a commercial opportunity, not a person.

Is it believable that everyone from the Head of Studio to the Director to the Police Chief to the predatory landlord would just think “Yahoo, Rick DeNova without the hassle” and crack on with the nasty exploitative behaviour just as fast as it occurs to them? Personally I think it makes perfect sense. Actors are brands, and always have been. They’re owned and packaged by the studios, carefully positioned within the marketplace, and replaced as necessary when their shelf-life expires. Everything the head of Centurion does is shocking, but sadly, nothing he does is actually unbelievable. Geagley shows us a town without a moral centre, where the need to make money beats every other imperative, for everyone, in every institution, everywhere. Look me in the eye and tell me you think he’s called it wrong.

The one exception to this Ed-sploitation fest is Lola Chandler, Two Cities‘ beautiful leading lady. Like a lot of male-dominated genres (see also Superhero comics and Space Opera), noir tends to suck at women. It also tends to suck at them in exactly the same way each time, in that they become either 1) an impossibly beautiful and talented goddess who inexplicably goes out with some utterly average / borderline inadequate guy and then ends up dead because, because, well just because, really or 2) some impossibly beautiful and talented evil super-villainess who is inexplicably overcome by some utterly average / borderline inadequate guy and then ends up dead, just because. Noir tends to suck at women; but every now and then, you find a noir book that doesn’t. Lola Chandler is nice, sweet, flawed, occasionally dumb, human, believable, properly realised and well-written, and I loved her and was rooting for her every inch of the way. Admittedly, this success isn’t universal – Nadine is a little bit too much of a bitch-queen, and the starry-eyed red-shirt blondes who line up to be strangled by Rick have no character beyond “and they really, really fancy Rick DeNova”. But that’s okay. They’re the bit players. At least the leading lady is awesome.

My only real criticism of this book is that it doesn’t feel particularly rooted in its time. From the clues we get (James Dean is dead, Marlon Brando exists, Cleopatra is a contemporary project) I’m guessing late fifties or early sixties. But somehow it doesn’t feel like any particular time. The language, the clothes, the cars, the settings, all feel as if they could belong to Hollywood at any stage of its existence. It’s possible that this timelessness was exactly the effect Geagley was going for, but personally I found it a bit irritating. However, that’s a small niggle, and I’m going to forgive it because it’s such a beautifully-written tale.

One last thing. In the blurb, the author makes the provocative claim that “you won’t guess the ending”. So of course, I spent every second of my first reading of this book trying to guess the ending. And you know what? I honestly didn’t guess what was coming. The basic direction of travel is easy to predict – very early on, Eddie is asked why he thinks Hollywood would want another Rick DeNova when it already has one, but since Rick is clearly psychotic and unreliable, and Eddie is humble, charming and a much better actor, that part’s not too hard to figure out – but there are so many unexpected twists, turns and shimmies along the way that it doesn’t feel predictable at all. And then, just when you think it’s all over, that nice Mr Geagley goes and slaps you round the chops with a whole other surprise that was right there under your nose all along, but you didn’t spot it because you were too distracted with the tightly-written descriptions and the sharp characterisation and the perfect pacing and the excellent craftsmanship, boo-ya.

“The Stand-In” would be worth reading even without the shock of discovering the author really has been cleverer than you, because it’s very, very well-written and it’s worth it just for the journey to its inevitable and well-foreshadowed ending. But finding a book that really has lived up to the “you won’t see this one coming” hype? That’s just delightful.

“The Stand In” is available as a Kindle e-book for the pleasingly eccentric sum of £3.28

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I read “Come Closer” after seeing it recommended on a Mumsnet thread asking for people to share their favourite “scary books”. Despite this, I should begin by saying that – the odd moment of utter horror excepted – this is not, strictly speaking, a scary book. At least, it’s not a scary book in the sense that it’s highly unlikely to give you nightmares (and I say this as someone who was plagued for years with terrible cold-sweat dreams about this completely unconvincing giant snake from Doctor Who).

What it is, though, is scary in the same tradition as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, and Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (which I raved about here). It’s scary because it raises some uncomfortable questions about the consequences of power. Specifically, the consequences of giving power to a previously powerless woman.

At first sight, the plot is incredibly simple. The narrator, Amanda, describes the experience of being possessed by a female demon named Naamah. As the book unfolds and Naamah becomes more and more dominant, Amanda’s mental processes become increasingly unreliable. The story’s ending is ambiguous; on the one hand, Amanda has lost everything she ever valued, but on the other hand, Naamah – now fully in possession of Amanda’s body – is having the time of her life, living exactly how she pleases and enjoying every minute.

It has to be said that there are plenty of books about demonic possession. But what really makes the book sing is the ambiguity of its central premise. Is Amanda really being possessed by a separate entity? Or is she acting out some hidden part of her own character?

The opening chapter has Amanda’s boss hauling her over the coals for submitting a report to him which contains the memorable opening, “Leon Fields is a cocksucking faggot. Leon Fields eats shit and likes it.” Amanda is horrified. This isn’t the report she wrote, she assures Leon. Unsurprisingly, he believes her – because truly, who would write that in a report about their boss and then deliberately leave it on their desk for them to find? Amanda returns to her desk to think about what just happened:

I left his office and went back to my own desk. I hadn’t written the fake proposal, but I wished I knew who did. Because it was true; Leon Fields was a cocksucking faggot, and he did eat shit, and I had always suspected that he liked it very much.

Back in her apartment, Amanda and her husband Ed are plagued by a strange tapping noise. They hunt high and low, but are unable to find any cause. Later on, an apparent warehousing error at a publishing house means that, instead of a copy of “Design Issues Past And Present”, Amanda receives “Demon Possession Past And Present”. Reading it, she discovers that strange tapping noises can be the first sign of a demonic haunting.

On the one hand, Amanda’s secret and outrageous thoughts about her boss make it into a report she was seen leaving on his desk. On the other, both Amanda and Ed can hear the noises. Amanda’s experiences fit the profile of demonic possession, but this profile comes from a book she may very well have ordered herself. Is Naamah a separate entity or not? We’re pulled one way, then the other. In the hands of a more florid writer, this could be incredibly irritating, but Gran’s style is sparse and minimal, and the result is a pleasingly subtle undercutting of all possible interpretations of Amanda’s experience. By the end, we genuinely don’t know if we’ve read an account of demonic possession, or of mental illness.

Or is it, instead, something else altogether? Is this a story about the consequences of a woman throwing off the shackles of acceptable female behaviour? The central relationship of the book is Amanda’s marriage to Ed, which gradually unravels as the “possession” takes hold. But is this a tragedy, or a liberation?

Well, what do we think?

I was twenty-eight when I met Edward. I felt lucky to have found him. He was a man you could trust, a big-boned healthy blond. No skeletons in his closet…He didn’t like sports or late-night television…he had a good mind for details, a good memory, and a determination to follow through on his word: if he said he was going to call at three, he called at three…

…there were a few things about Ed, small things, that drove me crazy. For instance he was almost compulsively neat – a scrap of paper on the coffee table for longer than a day or two would upset him. He was given to a rigidity that could be slightly repulsive…if there was no thin-sliced white bread for toast in the morning he could be thrown into a mood for hours. And he didn’t take any deviation from a plan well…and the toothpaste cap that absolutely must be replaced immediately, and the shirts that had to be folded just so…

Ed also over-plays his allergies to stop Amanda from smoking or having pets, polices her drinking habits and turns up five hours late on Valentine’s Day, to a romantic dinner in he himself had proposed. He might have good hair and do the tax-returns on time; but that’s not really much of a trade.

Ed’s attitude to Amanda is bossy and paternalistic. Even though she’s an independent woman with her own career, he still tries to force her into the role of home-maker. When she (or Naamah) resists, it’s sometimes hard not to give a little cheer. Here’s Ed attempting to pick a huge fight with Amanda for failing to cater for a dinner-party for Ed’s friends:

“I don’t understand,” he yelled. “You didn’t make ANYTHING? We have people coming over in one hour and you don’t even have a box of fucking rice in the house? What the hell am I supposed to serve, cereal and ice cream?”

“No, Ed,” I told him, “You mean you didn’t make anything, you don’t even have a box of rice, and you have people coming over in one hour. And no, they can’t have my ice cream.”

This is the acceptable face of female resistance – standing up to domestic drudgery, refusing to be bullied by the patriarchy. Other incidents are more ambiguous. Is it liberating or destructive to sleep with strangers, to drink to excess, to smoke, to gatecrash parties wearing provocative clothing? Still other incidents are unequivocally hideous. We see Amanda committing acts of violence and intimidation against men and women, against loved ones and strangers – sometimes out of revenge, and sometimes just because it’s fun.

I really like that Amanda’s story doesn’t progress from you-go-sister to that’s-a-bit-much-actually to Jesus-you-need-locking-up. The violent, selfish, destructive acts committed by Naamah are there from the start. In this narrative, the opposite of “repressed” is not “liberated” but “dangerous”. We never get our moment of perfect balance between Amanda’s good-girl obedience and Naamah’s destructive rage.

And that’s what makes this story really interesting. By casting off the shackles of societal expectation, Amanda discovers she can do pretty much anything she pleases. She can insult her boss. She can threaten strangers. She can steal what she wants. She can hurt and even kill people who annoy her. She can have sex with any piece of pretty rough-trade that takes her fancy. She can almost drown a child in full view of her parents. She can burn her husband with cigarettes. She can do anything she likes, because she’s stopped caring what other people think. Even in the mental hospital where the novel ends (of course Amanda – quite literally a Madwoman in the Attic – ends up in a mental hospital…where else could a Feminist Horror novel possibly end?), Naamah / Amanda is still having the time of her life:

First I stabbed a girl with one of those home-made knives. I don’t know why. Then, in solitary, I grew my nails long and attacked on of the guards. Luck for her she wasn’t pretty to begin with. So I got moved to high security.

She has a grand old time here, she has all the girls following her orders, she’s sleeping with one of the guards and maybe one of the doctors. She’s like a fox in a chicken coop here in the hospital.

I’m a feminist. (I have the mug and everything.) I am absolutely committed to the concept of equal rights, and to a life lived according to individual abilities, rather than gender expectations. I believe we all have the right to live our lives in a way that makes us happy, rather than a way society says we ought to live them.

But of course, there’s always one crucial caveat, which is that we don’t harm others by doing so. Whether she’s a true demon, or just the externalisation of Amanda’s own self, Naamah is the inevitable outcome of liberation without conscience.

“Come Closer” is available from Amazon for £7.19 in paperback and for £6.83 as a Kindle edition. I’m sure these price points make sense to someone.

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