Monday, 3 December 2012

What the Dickens?

I have a feeling I've written before about missing the fucking point. Surely it must have come up, at least once in this blog, that far from being the respectable face of Literature, Shakespeare was a filthy minded bastard writing for a group of people who were considered little better than whores? That theatre, far from being an institution, was something known to contemporaries as 'The Anti-Christ's lewd hat'1?

This actually hasn't come up?

Nah, it must have done.

So, I shan't bang on about tidying up the past, about assuming things were simpler and more respectable than they were2. I shan't make a fuss about the mistaken concept that those really pretty clothes confer some kind of moral value upon a time period, I will simply say that I get it.

Honestly, I do get it, this need to romanticise the past. I get that if we don't romanticise something we might as well give up now. On a day-to-day basis, this ability to imagine is sometimes what makes it worth getting out of bed in the morning.

So, by all means – enjoy your fiction about Lords and Ladies, lusty gamekeepers, great artistic genius, the Golden Age of chivalry or whatever it is that floats your boat. But two small requests? Bear in mind it had fuck all basis in reality. And, please, please don't make my sense of irony jump down my throat and drown me in my own misspent bile.

This is particularly relevant when it comes to books, and to writers. There is a significant and important line between “dreamy eyed fan fic” and “what is actually going on in the fucking novel”. Of course, Henry Tilney is the perfect man, and life would be a much so much duller if I... *ahem*, I mean one... couldn't indulge in the odd teenage style daydream complete with anachronistic attitudes to gender and pre-marital sex. However, one really should remember that – while it is about marriage - Northanger Abbey is far more satire than romance. Have as many wet dreams as you like about Fitzwilliam Darcy but do take care to remember that Austen was an acerbic and potentially cynical woman. And don't buy this. Please, don't buy this:

However that particular travesty of literary interpretation is not the reason for this little rant. Not even slightly. No, this weekend past I found myself back in my old stomping ground of North Kent and managed, somewhat against my intentions, to wander into the centre of Rochester in the middle of its Dickensian Christmas extravaganza.

Now, Rochester is very proud of Dickens and, while he's not my personal cup of tea, I do think it's nice that a local writer gets the full treatment of adoration and civic display3. So, for one weekend only, Rochester turned out into its Victorian best. Crinolines abounded. The odd Gothic minded young women did a passable (and potentially inadvertent) impression of a demi-mondaine. Soldiers wore those terribly impractical but wonderfully smart red uniforms4, and one wanker missed the point entirely and turned up with a pair of goggles on his topper5.

Okay, there were very few rickets. There was no ostentatious penury, infant mortality or displays of brutality. There were not even the plimsolled, soot-faced waifs that frequent May's Sweeps' Festival6. And, yes, omitting all these is to downplay Dickens' role as a writer pushing for social reform but, I'll concede that good clean fun and late 19th Century conditions of deprivation are perhaps mutually exclusive. Then I saw it. Letters three feet high, blazoned across a refreshment marquee:

Miss Havisham's Tea Tent.

You... you don't mean that?


Wanker with the goggles? Come back. All is forgiven.

2Or, indeed, grimier and more miserable.
3Actually, I'd rather we did it rather more often, only with less of the attendant nationalism, but you know...
4And pith helmets, which was a little unexpected outside of the colonies (and no, it wasn't a Home Service helmet.) but maybe they were supposed to be on leave.
5Actually, I love steam-punk, but that is now the OMT for steam-punk garb at an historical event.
6Well, it was a bit chilly and certain agencies would complain if the council pushed historical accuracy to its fullest.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Review: Susan Hill, The Various Haunts of Men: Pulling Punches and Killing the Spare.

It's very rare for a book to make me cry. It's very rare for something even to come close.

Same goes for films, television, whatever. There are a few things, there are moments when I get mawkish and sentimental,1 there are the few guaranteed tearjerkers in the world, but when my contemporaries were sobbing buckets over poor old Cedric Diggory, the best I could manage was a shrug. “Kill the spare”, splat – well, quite. If you insist.

In fact, I've always had a bit of beef with J.K about that whole business. Sure, she killed Sirius Black, and she killed him totally unfairly2, but in the last book she promised us a Weasley. Go on, then, I thought – she's not going to do for Ron, but Ginny maybe? Or Arthur. Definitely Arthur.

Fred? You what?

Okay. Better Fred than George3. You whack the Weasley who's got a double? What a bloody cop out.

Now, this, I'll admit, makes it sound as though I've a vendetta against everyone's favourite red-headed clan, but I've not. I like the Weasleys. Sod it, I like Fred. I'm talking about storytelling. From book four onwards, Harry Potter is filled with a cast of likeable, entertaining supporting characters who are murdered in the gradually escalating bloodbath that culminates in the battle for Hogwarts. Not Harry though. Not Ron, or Hermione or Hagrid. Not even Ginny, or Neville or Dean. No, it's Cedric, Sirius, Dumbledore, Dobby, Tonks, Lupin, Fred - everyone outside our enchanted little circle of main characters and their immediate friends. Flat-pack tragedy. Kill the spare.

If you had asked me who my favourite, favourite writer was when I was twelve years old, my response would have been without hesitation. Robin Jarvis. No, he's not as good a writer as Garner, nor as clever as Pullman, but he taught me one very valuable thing about storytelling.

Don't kill the spare.

No, wait, scrap that. Don't just kill the spare.

For those of you who aren't acquainted with Jarvis' work and doubt the veracity of this statement, Jarvis' best known series can be summarised thus: a faintly mythic bloodbath inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.

You got a favourite character? It's dead4. A favourite place? Razed. A favourite people? Massacred. There was a kind of glee in it, murder, murder, murder, mayhem, black magic and death. No, Jarvis wasn't killing his darlings, dear, he was killing yours. Of course, it wouldn't have worked if it had just been unremitting blackness5 - he played the heartstrings, but not too much. He pulled no punches.

Sometimes, though, he pulled something else, though: a fast one.

Which brings me onto our next point. Fast ones are great. I love fast ones. The end of The Whitby Series is one hell of a fast one. In fact, it's a whole sequence of fast ones. The Alchemist's Cat is still, to my mind, one of the best fast ones ever pulled. And sometimes the fast one is the way out – don't just kill the spare, kill the darling. Then bring them back.
They're great, fast ones. Every now and then they do stop something turning into an outright rout. They bring a little bit of lightness, of joy back to your reader's world. They promise to drive the nail in, to make the incision, only to pull back at the last minute. It's okay, chaps. Everything will be just peachy.

Which is all well and good, but they undermine what I see to be the first rule of storytelling. Don't try to please your reader. You are not a little child, trying to persuade a strict caregiver to provide sweets. You do not need to pander to their little whims. You are a writer, FFS. Within the little confines of your book, your world, your script, your whatever, you are GOD, and you do not need to be a nice one. When you pull a fast one, your readers should feel nothing other than sheer, bleeding relief. “Thank fuck,” should be what they are whispering to themselves. “I care. I care. I care.” And to get that reaction, you cannot pull them all the time6.

That's the thing about fast ones. They are throwing your reader the sponge, giving them the sticking plaster. They are kissing them, making it all better. If you always do it, bring your character to the edge of jeopardy, and pull them back at the last minute, your readers won't believe harm can really come to them. Your readers will slip inside a cosy little fantasy where everything will be okay. You stop being a cruel and implacable God and become a parent – scooping your reader up before they get to where the real darkness lives.

Don't do this. Do not get sentimental, do not make the red jerseys. Simply kill! Kill! KILL!



Which brings me to Susan Hill. She knows what its like, the punches are the things that she does not pull. I was never expecting any tenderness. About five chapters into The Various Haunts of Men I said to myself, “If she does not kill Character X, I am going to be so disappointed.” Character X was charming, lovable, even. Character X was engaging, sympathetic, central. Character X was not the spare.

By the end of the novel, I was begging for her to pull a fast one. Let X off, I prayed, just this once.

But she did not.

And I nearly cried.

Now that, my fine friends, is excellent storytelling.
1Branagh's Love's Labours Lost being a case in point.
2Not so much that she killed him, more that she couldn't think of anything else to do with him first.
3 Would anyone even have noticed had it been George?
4Except in the rare instance where it is the traitor who causes everyone else's death. But there you go.
5Although I'm not saying he wasn't prepared to give that a try.
6I'm looking at you, Steven Moffat.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Review: Varney the Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood

So that's that, then. For those who have followed me on my epic, twitter sarcasm spree, I stand before you, the only person living who has read the whole of Varney, The Vampyre.

I don't say that lightly. As far as I'm aware, most versions only bother to print up to chapter 96 or so, and just leave the rest of the tome blank. Even the scholarly preface in my edition mentions nothing which occurs after Volume II. Alone. I am alone.1 The rest of you quit weeks ago.

If I'm honest, I can't say I blame you. As a novel, this does not hang together. I guess it's only human to give up when it becomes clear that not even the author had any real clue what was going to happen next, nor, indeed, what had happened previously. It's only human, after all, to want a story with a cohesive plot, a small cast of characters who each have clear goals, drives and motives. There is no place in modern literature for enormous, meandering doorstop tomes that allow themselves to indulge every little whim and silly joke that takes their fancy. Hand on heart, I can see your point entirely.

You fucking lightweights.

It rocks. Once you stop worrying about such trifling concerns as plot, character consistency, or direction it is enormous fun to read. In fact, it is 1166 pages of perfect delight. Let me reiterate. 1166 pages of AWESOME. Plus, the character arc of Sir Francis is fascinating. Okay, I will concede that, like the character arc of the Doctor in the classic series, it does need to be back engineered by a diligent fan, but still...

Actually, classic series Doctor Who is what this most resembles. Take one innovative, brilliant idea, (Time travel, for example, or Vampires) and enigma of a main character (say, The Doctor or Sir Francis) an initial problem (perhaps two schoolteachers getting kidnapped by an irascible time traveller, or an ancient family being stony broke) and GO. It will take you all kinds of places, raise all kinds of issues, have micro-stories within it (some of which have insane loose ends, others of which could do with a bit of pruning) create contradictions, paradoxes, and have the most charming, changeable, quixotic and prevaricating main character you will ever encounter.

Stick with it and you'll come to see the guiding principle, nay, the sheer bloody joy of Varney, the Vampyre has fuck all to do with a novel as we currently understand it. It's not about vampires, not really, it's about people and the silly things we do, and how easy we are to manipulate. And what it does,  in the simplest and purest form is by take every possible permeation of the vampire genre that you have ever encountered and run with it.

That's what I say; there has been nothing original since this. Not ever. Not at any point2.

So, go on, give it one more chance. We can do this together. In the next couple of weeks I'll be posting The Hitch-hiker's Guide to Varney the Vampyre, breaking it down into its distinct episodes in order to encourage and amuse the intrepid Varney reader. It may have many omissions, contain much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, but it will tell you highlights, central cast, genre and all the marvels of this much maligned novel - and all for less than thirty Alterian Dollars a day.

It'll be like Spark Notes, only sweary.

Don't forget your towel.

1If you have actually read the whole shebang, then do say so in the comments. We rule. We should have T-shirts. Actually, we do have t-shirts. See?
2Okay, I'll admit it, Sir Francis never actually sparkles, but... blah. Had to nit-pick, didn't you?

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Boneland: Alan Garner

I would be lying if I were to say this were a review.

This, I promise, is true: Last time I read The Alderley Books, I had an idea for a short story. It would be about Colin. He would have become an academic, and, tied to Alderley, he would search for his lost sister.

A month later, I get news of Boneland.

I exhaled. After all, I could never have done it justice.

In the past, I have waxed lyrical about how rare truly beautiful writing can be ( and I have iterated my cautious attitude to fangirling ( but I have answers to both of these points:

This is Alan Garner.

I have been waiting for this book for twelve years.

It's not been twelve years since I read The Moon of Gomrath, no.  It's not even been twelve years since I first read The Moon of Gomrath, I was... I don't know. In Primary school. A long time ago. It was twelve years ago, with all the hormones of the menarche screaming around me that I realised what happens at the end of that book, that I understood what Susan does, what Susan feels....

It needed a sequel - but that sequel is called adulthood, and it takes its time in coming.

And Alan Garner?

Let's go back to me at eights year old* - book crazy and myth addled. I always knew, though, the difference between reality and fiction - not for me the banging at the back of wardrobes trying to get passage to Narnia. For a start I knew the books too well: My wardrobe wasn't made from apple wood brought from the creation of Narnia now, was it? The rings were always a more reliable way of travelling between the worlds. But anyway, they were an allegory. Of course I played at Narnia, but I never expected to be whisked away there. Now, Robin Jarvis, he was a bit different. There's a nightmarish quality to his books which made them all too plausible, and sometimes I woke in a cold sweat because of them, but they were fictional. Some part of me always knew that they were fictional.

But The Weirdstone? The Owl Service? 

No. No, they weren't fiction at all.

They were landscape. They were myth.

Even that young, I could tell the difference.

As I say, I've waited twelve years for this.

To put it simply, this is what it is:
When we are children, we have an immediacy of connection with that world; we fight alongside dwarfs, we battle witches. The world is bright, fierce and inhabited. There is good and there is evil and we pick our sides and we reap the consequences.

When we reach adolescence, the older magic begins to be unbound in our bodies and our hearts. Terrifying, it defies classification or morality. We yearn, but it races, too fast, too hot, too dangerous. There are no sides, not any more.

Then there is adulthood. We cannot see, cannot even remember that it has a face. We cannot touch it so directly, but it is more powerful, latent in the landscape. The high magic becomes nothing more than futile artifice, its boundaries false, its presence merely fading injunctions. The wild hunt has flown. There is an older magic still, one without words, without personalities, and it has many meanings and no meanings at all. Everything is grey. Everything is bone. Everything is the Earth.

This is not fiction. Not fiction at all. This is landscape. This is myth.

*I'm guessing.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Female characters: What is strong?

So, another year rolls round, and there is another best-selling book, read mainly by women, that we are getting told off for enjoying1. The reasons we are given are plentiful, but familiar:  poor writing, slushy plot and a weak female lead. You know, a silly little bimbo who lets herself get pushed around, subscribes to a totally self-sacrificing ideal of love and ends up...

Actually, this is just far too boring. Go and look on any one of a million websites and you'll get some version of this diatribe in full. In fact, we heard it all last time anyway. I, for one, can't be bothered. Not getting involved, not interested. The reason I'm standing well back from it this time round can be traced to two female protagonists from books that are both acknowledged Classics2 and can therefore be safely discussed without anyone getting too vehement.3

So, two names: Jane Eyre and Fanny Price.

Let's start with the confession, but please, don't shoot:

I hate Jane Eyre. It is not only the single set text from an academic course that I have never actually finished4, I failed to finish it on two separate occasions and once even pulled a sickie to get out having to discuss it in a seminar. It's not that I can't handle 19th Century fiction (I love 19th Century fiction) it's that it's a turgid, repressive and oppressive wish fulfilment fantasy related by a main character with the pizazz and inner strength of an over-boiled turnip. I first studied it at an all girl's school, and our gushing teacher burbled incessantly about how virtuous, how committed, how inspirational a main character was dear, sweet Jane. I could just see them force feeding us this stuff, trying to get us to toe the line, behave in the acceptable way. I called b/s. I'll admit it, I ranted, and I swore  to anyone who would listen and I dissected that novel to prove my point. I did exactly the kind of thing that this blog post is complaining about, because it got right under my skin.

Then, a couple of year later, this happened:

I gave myself a holiday treat by reading all of Austen's novels, and was just about to start Mansfield Park. My mum, the consummate Austen fan5, looked at it and smirked. “Have you started reading that yet?” She asked.
No,” I responded, all innocence.
Oh, you are going to love Fanny Price.”

And I'll tell you something. I did. I liked Fanny,6 I respected Fanny, I was glad7 Fanny got her man. Okay, she wasn't so much fun as Austen's other heroines, but she was sincere, committed, and determined. No matter what might happen, she would not compromise herself, her beliefs, or her limits; even under pressure, even when there was no hope. What's more, she got what she wanted. Okay, she could have done better, but, hey, what's so great about giving up what we actually want based upon some arbitrary value system concerning life choices?

Good for Fanny Price! Three cheers! An inspiration!

Then I started reading some literary criticism.

Oh dear.

Turns out people were saying of Fanny the same things that I had been saying about Jane8. Oppressive. Wish fulfilment. Pizazz and inner strength of an over-boiled turnip (okay, not in those exact words...) These people, they had quotes too; they too had dissected the novel, pulled out bits and pieces to support themselves (“Out of context!” I cried.) Some of them even compared Fanny negatively to Jane, for Jane is liberated, has strength of mind, makes her own way in the world, does not compromise... I'll admit at times, I started to wonder if there had been some kind of bizarre mix-up in the heads of these people, and they had got the names the wrong way round.

But then I started talking to other readers, and reading articles about books and found that people I respect were saying Jane Eyre had moved them, had driven them, solaced them. People, women, were saying that Jane had been, on some level, their liberator – or at least a friend in their struggle. So I tried to read it again and could still see nothing more than a narrator incapable of either ducking or dissembling when a man is about to hurt her9. Then, reader, she marries him – you know, the repulsive, broke one who kept his last wife in an attic for years.

That was when the realisation came to me: this is literary criticism, darlings. We can all be right.

That's not to say all opinions are equally correct, some after all are patently wrong. This, though, is usually based upon a misunderstanding . An example of this might be a misapprehension regarding the word 'ejaculate' in that lovey dovey scene between Jane and Rochester in the garden. Such an interpretation of that scene would be... interesting... but not exactly worthy of serious attention. Others, while valid and interesting, take a certain perverse inspiration and a degree of stubbornness. One is reminded of the four hours I spent arguing that the events of Dracula are a collective delusion, and the essay where I stated that the thing of the Count's that Mina is sucking? It's not blood. Yes, it was enormously good fun, especially that last one, but really? No, neither of those are what happen in the novel.

Still, with an honest reading of something, when we respond naturally to the characters and get involved with the plot, there is actually no wrong response. So, something in me didn't get on with Jane Eyre and still doesn't. Other people can't stand Fanny Price. So what? We each bring to a book our own set of experiences and values, so that certain things trigger us in certain ways – certain aversions, certain sympathies. We all take away something from a book which shapes us and our future actions.

In Fanny Price, I saw a young woman who knew what she wanted, however unobtainable, and would not be swayed from that course by the glamour of something 'better'. Sometimes, when I face certain people and decisions, I look to Miss Price10 for her strength and resolution. In Jane Eyre, though, I saw a young woman who faced bullies and let them hurt her, let them break her. That will not be me.

Other people, I appreciate now, feel that should be the other way around. Fair enough - that's their response. I have not changed my mind, but I have stopped hurling the insults. A character is strong in the strength she confers and the characters from whom we draw strength are our own business. If one11 shy, lonely, unhappy teenage girl looks at Bella Swan and thinks, “It's okay. Adolescence ends. The things that scare me won't be scary forever,” then surely, for all the problems you personally see in the book, it can't be all bad.

I'm not saying don't argue about interpretations of books– for Gods' sakes, that's the fun of lit crit – what I'm saying is put down the pitchforks.
1No. I've not read it. I'm not going to. If I want erotica, I have Lost Girls and the works of Angela Carter.
2Whatever that means.
3Lights blue touch paper, retires.
4Okay, there is ONE other, but it was by the same author and had more or less the same main character and plot. (again, the bit about the blue touch paper)
5No, seriously, she's treasurer for the local branch of the Jane Austen Society.
6UK readers especially, please imagine an immature laugh at the end of each clause in this sentence.
7Double laugh .
8Nope. Can't help it. Smirk.
9At least in the first bit of the book there's an element of defiance to this, but... Jesus Christ. It doesn't get any better once she's been tamed, does it?
10Ha! Avoided it.
11Oh, god, here I go. For all the good it will do me.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

More Fun and Games with Sir Francis Varney

The vampyre and the plot device
Some thoughts on starting Chapter 105 of Varney, The Vampyre after having spent a bit too long reading Edward Lear poems to my daughters.

The Baron and the vampyre took to sea in a couple of stolen boats,
And the Baron got stopped by a fisherman,
Whom he paid with a five-pound note1
The reader looks up to the lights above
And sings, “This is too biazzare,
Oh, James Malcom Rymer
(or else, Thomas Prest)2
What a terrible plot-tease3 you are.
You are,
You are,
What a terrible plot-tease you are.

I hate to intrude on this strange interlude
(a boat chase?4 you're taking the piss!)
But Miss Bannerworth's married,
Chillingworth's plans miscarried
and Varney, the vampyre's been missed.
So, a Quaker defamed, and a Baron (in name5)
Fail to interest me a lot,
If there's no point to this stuff
Then leave off with the guff
And stop trying to string out the plot.
The plot,
The plot,
Stop trying to string out the plot.

“You've established two fiends whose tendency seems
To be biting young girls on the throat;
One's vampiric klout
Has been proved beyond doubt6
But which is still open for votes.
So, bring on a reveal
'cos I'm starting to feel
There's no longer such thing as 'too soon'.
I'll ask once again,
Is Sir Francis insane
Or was he revived by the moon?
The moon, the moon
Was he revived by the moon?"

So, anyway, those are my thoughts.

For those of you who have successfully avoided my Twitter ramblings on the subject, Sir Francis is (probably) not the Bannerworths' ancestor  - that was all a cunning ploy to freak the hell out of them. He still thinks he's a vampyre, though, and I guess Varney, the Slightly Delusional wouldn't sell so many books.

Actually, while we're on the topic, I wanted to include something about the barefaced cheek of calling a novel Varney, The Vampyre and failing to commit to there actually being a vampyre until chapter 104, but I couldn't make it scan. And, for all my bluster, this is still the most entertaining thing I've read in ages. 

Oh, and I still fancy Sir Francis like crazy, but that's a topic for another day, when you have supplied yourself with earplugs.

1No. Seriously. Chapter 105, opening paragraphs.
2Authorship being, as it is, uncertain
3The meaning of this word should be self-evident, but for the terminally slow: A plot-tease is a writer who keeps promising a revelation, explanation, or indeed, event but consistently fails to produce any of the above.
4No. Again. Not kidding. Like James Bond, but slower and more pointless.
5Probably not a Baron, all things considered.
6Well, possibly not, but I'm not even going to go in to that.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Review: The Prisoner of Heaven - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Let's start this blog post with a lie and say that it's not very often that there is a book I'm actually so excited about I will rush out to buy it the moment I hear about it.

There. I said it would be a falsehood. If I'm honest, there have been at least three instances this year where I've got all screamy-fan-girl about a recently published novel. What does surprise me, though (considering that I am the same individual who camped outside her local Waterstones to in order be the first person to buy The Prisoner of Azkaban, indeed, doing so before said business had made any provision for such pre-teen nut-cases) is that I don't spend my spare time loitering on the websites of my favourite authors, hitting refresh every 15 minutes*. Instead, these days, I'm content to let the ether (or, you know, Twitter) waft towards me the news that a long anticipated novel is about to be released.

The reason for this is probably disappointment. No matter how blindingly awesome a book might be, if you've hyped yourself up to the point of squatting in a bookshop's doorway about it, there is a good chance that the final product may not quite live up to your highest of hopes. These days I try to preserve my enjoyment of things by taking things at a slightly steadier pace. And, despite this, The Prisoner of Heaven still disappointed me.

For those of you who don't know Ruiz Zafón's work, The Prisoner of Heaven is the third in a loose cycle of novels set in Barcelona and revolving around a place called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The first two are The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game. In it's actuality, The Prisoner of Heaven is more or less a direct sequel to The Shadow of the Wind; the narrator is the same, one Daniel Sempere, and the events of the novel concern the past of his best friend, Fermín Romero de Torres, as well as revealing some of the mystery surrounding David Martín, the cursed narrator of The Angel's Game. Although the spiel is that these books can be read in 'any order', I would advise the curious to read at least one of the earlier books before attempting this one - especially as even the blurb of The Prisoner... advises the reader to 'find out what happens next'.

And that, really, is the main weakness of The Prisoner. The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game were just too bloody good: stand alone novels that drew on each other's themes, intertwined with each other in the cleverest, most elegant of ways. They really can be read in any order, or separately, with no reference to each other at all. The Prisoner... for all it's worth, is not complete in its own right. Unlike in the two earlier novels, the story arc does not complete itself, questions - vital questions - are left unresolved and I get the worrying feeling it's just going to be springboard into the next book in the sequence. 

All that said, it's still a cracking good read. The mystery set up and explored is done well, suspense is maintained and Ruiz Zafón gives his usual display of artful storytelling and truly decent human characters without ever flinching from showing us horror, or veering into sentimentality. As far as a novel goes, it's marvellous. Written by any other writer, I would probably be gushing praise and enthusiasm for the style, the plot and the sequel.It lacks, however, the depth and scope of its two prequels, lacks something of their mystery or grandeur. Ruiz Zafón's style seems diminished too: perhaps in search of slicker, harder prose, he has abandoned some of the imagery that pervaded the first too novels, abandoned, too, the intricate, torturous subplots. Some people might consider this a bonus; I just wondered if he had found a different translator**. 

Actually, because of the 'tighter' language, the lack of lyricism, I found it difficult to believe that the Daniel Sempere of this novel was quite the same Daniel Sempere of The Shadow of the Wind. Of course, he is older here, has a wife and son, and he is less naive, also - aware of the political darkness surrounding him, aware of the immanent bankruptcy of Sempere & Sons - but his increased worldliness, in my opinion actually undermines the darkness and horror shown in other chapters, as well as his own sympathy as a character. It saddens me also that, while the dangerous and redemptive power of story was still a major theme in this book, he pulled off nothing quite so engaging as the characters of Julián Carax or David Martín.

So, in conclusion, my advice would be to read it and enjoy it because it's still probably one of the better books of 2012, but as to one of the better Ruiz Zafón books? I'm not so sure.

*okay, not that often...
** He hasn't. All three novels are translated by Lucia Graves.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Fun and games with Sir Francis Varney

Bugger, this blog's been a bit neglected, hasn't it? Well, that will change. Can't say when it will change, but it will, at some point. But in the interim, let's have a bit of badly typed silliness.

The thing is, I love my 19th Century vampire fiction so imagine my glee when I received, for my birthday, a copy of the original, the prototype, the penny-dreadful doorstop bloody mess of a vampire novel 'Varney, The Vampyre'. Adore it already! It even has a totally superfluous 'y' in the title! The problem though is the problem I always have - no matter how you dress it up, no matter how ambiguous the ending, Sir Francis is going to lose, isn't he? He will not, alas, get the girl, the house, the treasure that even I've figured out is probably concealed there, and the good guys will win the day because that is what good guys do, especially in 19th Century vampire fiction (except, maybe, in Polidori's 'The Vampyre'.) I, of course, will still be rooting for Sir Francis because championing a lost cause is what I do best.

In fact, I always seem to end up rooting for team vamp. It's not just because they are sexy beasts because tbh, most of them aren't, no. The reason is so much more simple: all too often, the good guys in vampire fiction are just painfully fucking stupid. Part of the problem seems to stem from the fact that the author has to convince us that a group of otherwise rational people have, reluctantly, accepted the existence of vampires as a fact, and have subsequently decided to turn vampire hunter. There are many ways of doing this, but all are based upon the presenting enough evidence to establish said existence beyond all reasonable doubt - the trouble comes with knowing when to stop. Von Klatka, for example, is not only blatantly a vampire from page one, but he is also desperately, sarcastically open about that very fact - when the good guys finally rumble him, I doubt even the original, non-genre savvy audience could entirely suppress a, "well, duh."

'Varney', to my delight, does not trouble itself overmuch with that accumulation of evidence - everyone knows it's a vampire, and that the vamp is Varney from the word go, yet avoiding the most obvious pratfall does not excuse our goodies from monumental levels of idiocy. Therefore, for your delight and delectation, I present a modernisation of Volume One, Chapter 13 - the confrontation between heroic numb-skull Henry Bannerworth and sarcastic vampire Francis Varney - also known as: