Monday 27 February 2012

New resolution

I've just re-read a few of my recent reviews and noticed a recurring theme. Seems I talk about "pace" a lot. Too much. I mean, it's important, but I probably shouldn't mention it every time, right? Especially as it makes me sound a bit like a jerk. Which I'm not. Mostly.

So new resolution. No talk about pace for a little while. I'll try to concentrate on other factors.

That is all.

Sunday 26 February 2012

American Gods - bloody good big book

American Gods by Neil Gaiman (Headline Books Publishing: 2001). A novel revealing a hidden world of ex-Gods who wander through America’s anonymous society, looking for people to believe in them. Shadow, an ex-con and all round good guy, gets inserted into the world after meeting and getting employed by Mr Wednesday who claims to be the king of America. The jobs Mr Wednesday sends him on have Shadow wondering what’s real, what isn’t, and which side is the right one to be on.
Yup, I’m still in the middle of that massive book I started a few weeks ago. The end is in sight though. I know I’ve said that before, but I’m honestly zeroing in on it now. Next week, I’ll tell you all about it. I know, you can’t wait, right?
Big books face a few challenges. So I thought it worth a quick look at one that faced up to them all and kicked them in the butt.
Neil Gaiman is a guy with a few talents, and imagination is at the front of the queue. Big books can’t do without it. Gaiman’s imagination is a great launching pad, but it doesn’t light a cigar and sit back after that – it keeps coming up with twirls and twists that built on the concept all the way through. Yeah, a world in which forgotten gods from folklore wander through middle America stumbling towards the battle to end all battles is a pretty good starting point. But try fill 600-odd pages with just that, and it’ll get old pretty quick. Worse, it'll get contrived and buried under bad fantasy writing. Gaiman puts his imagination to work to make sure the base story becomes something more. It becomes deep and rich and real.
Pace is huge as well. I know I’ve spoken about it before, but I’m going to assume some of you haven’t read every single one of my blog posts (shame on you) and talk about it again. Go in feet first and breathless, and it’ll be all over before you know it. It’ll never become real. Gaiman shows restraint where it’s needed and impatience where it helps. He takes a step back at just the right times. He switches place and time and character in all the right places to give you enough time with each and not too much with any. He can get wonderfully abstract and surreal, but always retains just enough structure to make sure you’re brought back to the plot before the flights of art switch from being enjoyable to being confusing.
Well played sir.
So he’s got the imagination, and he’s got enough craft about him to pace it out properly. What else? Big questions, that’s what else. For a big book, I reckon there needs to be something in it (preferably more than one thing) that makes you sit back and think. You know, make you go hmmm. And not in a hammer over the head sort of a way. It needs to be threaded through as an inseparable part of the story. There are big big issues tackled in American Gods, but they don’t drive the story and they don’t tag on behind it either. They are simply part of it, made relevant by the thrust of the plot and by the characters that you grow to know. You don’t even know it’s happening. A lot of the time, it’s only when you’ve put the book down and start thinking about it that the wider themes hit you.
Mission accomplished.
Gaiman isn’t a guy I would have read if it wasn’t for the recommendation I got. A quick google search on him, and it’s real easy to pigeon hole him into “fantasy” or “sci-fi.” And there are so many bad examples of those that I tend to steer clear unless there’s a good reason not to.
But pigeon-hole Gaiman and your life will be poorer for it. He creates reality, fantasy, suspense, poignancy, sadness, joy, grit – and he does all of this without ever crashing any of the ingredients up against each other. There’s enough in American Gods to make five books, but he blends them into one in a way that makes you love the guy.
This is a book that I think deserves to be a modern classic. It has so much in it, and it’s all packed in exactly the right way. So how can I give it anything other than
10 GBR
Only the third of GBR history (deal with it), and a very different book from the first two. Go read it. And if you do, and if you don’t like it, tell me why. But do so carefully, cos I’ll probably disagree with you, constructively of course.
Next week, the big book. Promise.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

GBR Occasional Mid-Week Show Review - The Fitzrovia Radio Hour

The Fitzrovia gang
That’s right. A year and a couple of months in and I thought it about time to rock your world with a new GBR feature. The occasional mid-week show review.

This is a result of the 2012 edition of my New Year resolutions. I decided to try and go see more shows, at least one a month. After all, I live in one of the cultural capitals of the world, so it seems a bit rude not to get out once in a while.

In January, I went to see Stewart Lee’s stand up show, Carpet Remnant World. It was brilliant. Just brilliant. Go see it if he’s touring with it anywhere near you.

Last night saw Feb’s instalment of my new show-watching quest. I went off to see the Fitzrovia Radio Hour. Two shows in to the resolution, I got to thinking “if only there was some way to tell people about these shows, encourage them to go see the ones I enjoy and warn them off the ones I don’t.” And then of course I remembered my 2011 New Year resolution, which was to start a blog.

And thus was born the GBR Occasional Mid-Week Show Review. *ta-daaa!*

I’ll keep it short - we’re all busy people and this isn’t a Sunday after all.

The Fitzrovia Radio Hour sees five performers don period evening wear and perform a series 1940s/50s short radio plays in front of a live studio audience. It’s complete with a mind-boggling array of sound effects emanating from all sorts of fruits and household objects.


I loved the idea, so I was kind of predisposed to liking this before I sat down. And I wasn’t disappointed. The performers were amazing. They built on the scripts with off-mike farce. Comical expressions, a sprinkling of slapstick, and a dollop of double-entendres had us chuckling and clapping even when they weren’t holding up the “applause sign.”

My one worry was that it may drag a little. It’s a radio show after all. But the energy on stage was relentless and left me a little out of breath by the end. There was so much going on and the performances were so tight that my eyes darted back and forth for the duration.

I thought I’d love this because it’d be so quintessentially British and period. I thought it’d create the sort of atmosphere that’d have me coming over all Agatha Christie. And it did. But that’s only half the story.

Go see this if you can.

No GBR rating for these show reviews though I’m afraid. After all, they’re not books, right?

Sunday 19 February 2012

Ex Machina - cabbage

Ex Machina – the first hundred days (DC Comics: 2005). The first instalment of a series charting the trials and tribulations of Mitchell Hundred. He’s a man with the ability to control machines with his mind, but after realising the mysterious super hero route might not work for him, he decides to run for Mayor of New York instead.

With some things, I’m like the kid that says they don’t like cabbage before trying it. We are all a bit like that, right? You kind of have to be. If I watched every TV show I saw an advert for, went to the cinema for every new film, bought every new album that came out, I’d go crazy. So you filter. You pick off a few genres you know you’ve enjoyed in the past and, for the most part, you stick by them.
I’ve never really touched a graphic novel before. The one graphic novel I did try wasn’t your classic super hero type. I’d assumed I wouldn’t really like those sort. But a lot of people have told me I’m wrong. That there’s more to graphic novels than I think.
So I tried one. I sucked it up and decided to taste the cabbage before screwing my face up and saying I don’t like it. I am a grown up after all (most of the time).
I had assumed the pictures would get on my nerves. Kind of like watching a subtitled movie. Constantly switching back between the two mediums, between the words and the images – I thought that’d be frustrating. But it wasn’t. I got used to it pretty quickly. More than that, I enjoyed it. It was done well, the words and the illustrations were matched smoothly and complimented each other.
It was the pace of this that took a little longer to get used to. It dived right in from the first page, which was exciting, but meant there wasn’t any room for build up. It skipped a lot of the getting-to-know-you phase. The bits that did try to give a bit of back-story seemed clumsy and rushed.
But that’s super hero stories I guess. High tension and dramatic emotion from the get go. It’s not about real people, it’s about big characters with dark motivations. It’s glossy and it’s big-screen. Ex Machina is all those things, which is fun, it’s just a shame that there wasn’t room for a bit of balance too – a breather every now and then to make the action more meaningful.
The story itself was OK. Not much more than that though if I’m honest. I’m no connoisseur of graphic novels (*cue gasps of disbelief*), but even I spotted quite a lot of recycled elements. The misunderstood hero. The accusations of vigilantism. The childhood traumas. The unreasonably evil bosses. The mystery villains. It all felt like it’d been done before.
It even tried to inject a little bit of political debate, but that went the same way as the character development. It was done in a bit of a superficial way. It felt shoe horned in, with no room to grow or gather any deeper meaning.
I’m probably missing the point. I’m imposing the same sort of criteria on this as I would on a normal book. Ex Machina achieves a lot. It’s exciting. It’s fast paced. It’s explosive and imaginative in parts. But it never really surprised me. I’d hoped that it would. I’d hoped that it would have the sort of intrigue and complexity and real tension that I always assumed graphic novels couldn’t achieve. But it didn’t.
It tasted pretty much as I expected it too. Like cabbage.
Maybe I just need to read more of these to get into the swing of them. Develop a taste for them. Which is probably worth doing – I know enough people that love graphic novels to believe that there must be something there that I’m missing.
Next week, back to normal books. The un-illustrated sort. A bit of Gaiman maybe. He’s a guy that does the graphic sort and the normal sort.
Or maybe I’ll have finally finished the monster of a book I’m still working my way through.

Sunday 12 February 2012


Hi guys and gals. Bit of a different one this week. Not a review, but I’m sure you’ll survive. And I needed to talk about something else today. So stop reading if you’d prefer a review. Or don’t. Either way, it’s my blog and I really need to write about motivation a little.
I just wrote a whole blog post about what motivates me to read books, but it wasn’t entirely honest. It’s not exactly what’s on my mind. So I deleted it. What I really want to speak about is motivation to write. And I don’t want to lie to the internet. That sort of thing can get you in trouble. So I better stick with what I mean.
My motivation to write has dipped a little. I won’t go into why, but it has. Mostly a confidence thing.
I’ve spent chunks of the last three years writing stuff. I finished a book that I’m not particularly proud of, and I’m half way through a second that I like more. I’ve enjoyed spending time on both. But if it started and finished there, I’m not sure that’d be enough motivation to keep me coming back.
I want to write well so that I have something worthwhile to share. It’s not enough for me to do it just for the sake of enjoyment. Of course, there’s vanity in it. I want people to think I’m good at something. Who doesn’t want that?
But it’s more too. I need it to be good. I need to be able to give over pages that can be read and built upon by the imagination of others. It hurts to think that I might give over something that will bore or be mocked or ignored. I want to create stuff that will plant you in your seat and make another world swirl around you. Stuff that you can use to make images in your heads, and voices and smells and emotions. I don’t want to write just for me. Whether you like it or not, I need for it to be a two way street.
I couldn’t do that with my first attempt. I’m proud I finished it, and I’m proud of bits of it, but I know it’s average. I have the rejection letters to prove it.
But I learnt a lot in doing it, and I went back to the well, and this time I honestly think I’m doing better. But good enough? I don’t know. And it’s a lot of time and effort for something that I’m not sure will work out.
I don’t know how to explain why I need it to be good without sounding like a jerk. Without sounding like I’m writing stuff just to be praised.
I play rugby too. And I enjoy that as well. But on a rainy day in December when we’re getting beat by 50 points (it’s happened), I do not enjoy it. And I don’t believe anyone else would either. It’s not enough simply to do it. There needs to be a point beyond your own enjoyment. There needs to be the odd victory. The odd moment of success to motivate you.
And for me to write, I need to believe that someone will read it and enjoy it. Someone I don’t know. Someone who doesn’t have to tell me it’s good because they love me and don’t want to hurt me.
Otherwise what’s the point? I can’t stand the idea that what I’m doing won’t be good enough to engage someone. I can’t stand the idea that I might not be able to share it. I can’t stand the idea, but I worry it might be true. This is important to me. But I worry that it’ll end up meaning nothing. That it’ll end up just disappearing.
I know this is all a bit woe is me. And I know it sounds like one long fishing expedition for reassurance. Which is why sometimes I find it hard to listen to reassuring words – they often sound asked for.
And I also know that I’ll probably get over myself soon enough. I’ll remember there are bigger problems in the world than the quality of my writing, and that I’m a pretty lucky boy in almost every way, and that self pity is a pretty unattractive emotion.
Maybe some marmite toast will help. It often does. I’m off to the kitchen to find out.

Monday 6 February 2012

Next World Novella - a sparrow of a book

Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (Peirene Press: 2011) - A German Novella following Hinrich who suffers the loss of his wife thanks to a stroke. On going through her papers (with her still lying dead in the room) we’re treated to his internal monologue as he starts to reassess the nature of their relationship and the promises they’d made to each other about the next world.

So time to drop another bomb. I’ve succumbed to a little tactical reading.

I had a 900-pager staring at me on my book shelf. But I knew reading it would mean not having new things to tell you lovely people about week after week. I know how you love new things. So I got down with some tactics - a few short books that I could finish quick, thus stockpiling some treats to spread over the weeks that I’m otherwise engaged with the overweight distraction.

It started last week with The Farnsworth Invention - which was aces, and short.

So this week’s little morsel is a German novella (translated of course, I can’t speak foreign). It was recommended as one of the best books of 2011 by some article I happened on in the Guardian (I like to read what the hippies are thinking sometimes).

I think the biggest indictment on this book is that I’m struggling to work out what to say about it. Yeah, it was nice enough. It had a few interesting twitches to keep you engaged. It explored a perspective and a character that was, if not unique, then certainly pretty rare. It was quirky and it created a distinct atmosphere diligently and with consistency.

The novella’s greatest attribute is Hinrich, the protagonist, and the portrayal of his shifting emotions. It is done expertly, allowing us to go through the spectrum with him without ever feeling contrived. Hinrich comes off as a bit of a ridiculous man, but believable all the same.

But it lacked a bit of explosion. And by that, I don’t mean action. I mean that moment or quality in a book that hits home, that makes it into more than just words on a page. It could be a quiet raw emotion, or a thread of effective comedy, or a stunning backdrop faithfully explored. It could be (and has been) any number of things. But I didn’t find any of them here unfortunately.

A fat sparrow. Because fat animals are funnier
 than normal sized ones, obvs
If this book was a bird, it would probably be a sparrow. (Stay with me on this one, it’ll make sense, I promise). Perfectly viable as a bird, the sparrow. It’s got all the right parts, and has a few tricks up its sleeve (wing) that the other birds don’t (I assume). You could find beauty in it if you really studied it, really put some effort into some dramatic nature photography, but it’d be hard work. It doesn’t have any of the more overt majesty of a golden eagle, or the obvious comedy of a flamingo. People don’t trudge out into the wilderness in waterproofs or safari gear to catch a glimpse of a sparrow. They want rarity and excitement and beauty - which are the same things I want when I read.

But sometimes, all you get is a sparrow.


Perfectly pleasant. But nothing more.

Next week, finally that graphic novel I’ve been promising you. And a proper one this time. I daren’t leave myself open to the criticism I got after the last graphic novel review, where I satisfied myself with the first one I found in Waterstone’s.