Thursday 30 August 2012

Robert Douglas at the Edinburgh Book Festival - not wet

Robert Douglas - brilliant
Before you point it out, I know, the Edinburgh Book Festival is over. But I didn’t think you were quite sick enough of hearing about it yet. So I thought I’d tell you about something I discovered on my last day there.
And the discovery goes something like this – Robert Douglas is brilliant.
I rocked up to this talk from two authors, neither of whom I’d heard of before and both of whom I’d already pre-judged. I thought they were both going to be a bit sentimental. A bit overly-nostalgic. A bit, well, wet.
And I wasn’t 100% wrong. They came out with one or two eye rolling moments. I was a little worried at one stage when I reacted to an “I can’t imagine writing a novel without a love story” admission with a small “harrumph.” I think I got away with it though.
So, not 100% wrong maybe, but something like 80% wrong. Both authors impressed me more than I was prepared for.
And it was Robert Douglas who shot out the traps first.

I thought I’d find him boring. I didn’t. His books (fiction and non-fiction alike) have 1970s Glasgow as their backdrop, and instead of miring it rose tinted nostalgia, he makes it fizz. He read an extract from his latest (out now in all good bookshops) and the dialogue blew me away. Which was a good job, because it was pretty much all dialogue. And therein lies his talent.
I asked him about it, about his flair for dialogue, and he said he simply imagines it on the big screen and then commits it to paper. He uses his love for film to create such a lively to and fro between his characters that it almost doesn’t matter what they’re saying. There was such rhythm and life to it that I didn’t care what was happening, it was just absorbing to listen to.
As a writer who has struggled with dialogue, I’m jealous of Robert Douglas’ gift. But I can’t begrudge him it. He’s had a hard life, and he’s come out of it with a story to tell and the talent to tell it. He clearly loves telling it as well, a feeling which was infectious.
I’m sure there’ll be a review for one of his books up on GBR when I finally work through the current pile, but in the meantime, if ever I’m asked which authors I think write particularly good dialogue (which isn’t an everyday occurrence, granted), I plan to respond “Have you heard of a guy called Robert Douglas? He’s brilliant.”

(The other author at this talk was Cynthia Rogerson, who I was also impressed with. I'll tell you all about her in another post. I bet you're looking forward to it...)

Monday 27 August 2012

Marie Howe at the Edinburgh Book Festival - poetry?!?

Marie Howe, waking us all up on
a Sunday morning
I’m not a poetry reader. Haven’t been since the days at school when we were made to read a Seamus Heaney anthology. Always seen it as a bit of an inaccessible art form, the kind you can only really get into if you permanently wear a scarf, your hair remains resolutely windswept, and your hobbies include wandering around with a far away look in your eyes.
It’s not that I’ve never enjoyed it. It’s just that I’ve never really understood it. Never quite got to grips with how to read it. With a book, I can sink into a chair somewhere and have a right good go at it. With poetry, it just doesn’t feel like I can do the same.
So I was pleasantly surprised with how far back in my seat I was forced when I heard Marie Howe read some of her poetry. She is (apparently) a household name in the US poetry scene. And it’s clear why. She only read a couple, but her poems conjured up strong images and posed intriguing questions. They also had a rhythm to them which I found energising at 10am on a Sunday morning, after a Sat night spent with a glass of wine or three too many.
She read a bit about moonlight in particular which got me a little breathless.
The premise for her latest collection is clever. It’s called The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, and is centred around the Church idea of the period between the high Holy seasons, when nothing’s really happening. It’s a concept which spawned a book’s worth of poetic thoughts from her.
And it’s a book I’d never ordinarily look twice at. But now I’ve gone and bought it (the Edinburgh Book Festival is proving an expensive visit...)
Maybe it’s because poetry works best when it’s heard out loud. Maybe that’s when it really gets power and relevance, and maybe that’s why I was so struck by Marie’s reading. Or maybe there’s more to it. Maybe I’ll actually enjoy reading these in a quiet corner by myself.
I’ll give it a crack. This could be the beginning of poetry for me. I may look back and have Marie Howe to thanks for it.
Or it may go horribly wrong. Either way, I’ll let you know how it goes.
I’m headed back to London today, GBR’s time at the Edinburgh Book Festival ended. I’ve still got a couple more talks to write up, which I’ll tell you about later this week and next, but for the time being, it’s been a successful first visit. Thanks to the powers that be in the media tent for the tickets, the press pass, and the free wifi – it’s been a blast, and see you next year!

Sunday 26 August 2012

Will Self at the Edinburgh Book Festival - a secretly nice guy

Will Self - nice guy
No book review this morning I'm afraid ("awwww"). Instead, my evening with Will Self...
It seems the Edinburgh Book Festival is the place to come out.
Wilbur Smith came out as a modern man.
And then, to a crowd full of people on a Sat evening, Will Self came out as a nice man.
I love that. When you go somewhere expecting one thing and something completely other is delivered. I (like you guys, I’m sure) had a certain image of Will Self, pieced together from his various TV appearances and a handful of attempts to wade through his fiction. The man asking Self the questions at the Edinburgh Book Festival (the impressive Stuart Kelly) put it best when he said many feel Self writes fiction “purely as part of the ongoing art experiment of being Will Self.”
In short, I thought he was pompous.
I was (again, and pleasingly) wrong. Self gave a warm performance, discussing his new book, the Man Booker Prize long listed Umbrella.
He was friendly – he signed books long after the event, thanking each audience member for coming and hoping they enjoy the book.
He was thankful – he spoke on how privileged he was to be doing a job he loved, and how he was very aware how many people aren’t as lucky.
He was modest – he freely admitted he was a London peasant, living a mile and half from where he was born and having “never really gone anywhere much.”
Will self - reading complete with
hand actions
He was passionate about his work – as he read portions of Umbrella to the audience, he did so complete with stage accents, hand gestures, a singing voice. He left his vanity by the door, and he dived into his work in a way I didn’t think he would.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an entirely different man from the one you think you know. He was fiercely uncompromising, admitting he has no idea what readers of his book will think and that he doesn’t spare a single thought about reader experience when he’s writing.
He also dismissed mainstream fiction (which, by Self’s definition, is pretty much everything) as relying far too heavily on conventional structures that don’t properly reflect the “continuous present” of real experience. He aims to more truly represent the messy nature of existence by showing how people and times and consciousnesses bleed into each other in real life (which, when he explains it, makes way more sense than when I explain it). And he admitted more than once that he is an “ideas driven novelist”, more concerned with exploring ideas than plot.
None of this is a bad thing, of course. It simply shows Self to be a man who believes strongly in what he does, and can’t bring himself to do anything different. Ask me last week, and I’d have said that was intolerant, selfish even (no pun intended). But hearing Self explain his thinking made an admiration grow in me. He can’t bring himself to do anything other than what he does because he doesn’t believe anything else is worthwhile. He’s looked at everything else, realised none of it is enough for him, that most of it simply presents false realities, and so he’s rejected them. He has belief, and he sticks rigidly to it.
The event then opened to questions from the floor. Cue an opening question that was insanely intelligent and observant. Cue a second question that brought in comparisons to Blake and questions of modernity. Then cue an embarrassed silence as no-one wanted to follow that. I wanted to ask about the Booker prize, if it was something Self cares about, why he thinks Umbrella is his first to be long listed, but after those first two questions, it all sounded a bit vacuous. So Self got up and read again instead.
I spoke with him as he signed my copy of Umbrella afterwards. He said he felt the talk was all a bit flat, clearly more sensitive to his audience reaction than he’d perhaps admit. I explained why I thought the audience had been cowed into silence by the first two questioners. It seemed to make him happier.
Then again, he may have simply been being nice.

(A review of Umbrella will be coming to GBR soon...)

Saturday 25 August 2012

Wilbur Smith at the Edinburgh Book Fest - "Don't tell anyone, but I've got a Kindle"

Me and Will (as I assume his buddies call him)
It was raining. There was a long queue. It was 10am on a Saturday morning. But the crowd was large and buzzed. I’d found myself somewhere I never expected to be – in the middle of a Wilbur Smith obsessed mob.

Wilbur Smith. You know the guy. His book sales could fill Wembley twice over. He's been called "the best historical novelist ever." He's been translated into 26 languages. He owns part of a small island in the Seychelles.

This guy has been around. But he (like me) is at the Edinburgh Book Festival for the first time. So at least we have that in common.

First time or not, he gave a good talk, hand held expertly and entertainingly by journalist Jackie McGlone (who will, apparently, never forget page number 289 of his new offering, Those in Peril).

Most impressive was the amount of surprises he sprung. I was shown up, made to feel silly for expecting a talk by a man stuck in the past, still a product of his colonial Africa upbringing, still pining for boys’ own adventures. I was wrong. 79 year-old Wilbur Smith is (stay with me here) a modern man.
For starts, there’s his energy and his interest and his clear enjoyment of life. He stuck around for over an hour after his talk to sign books, chatting to everyone up to the last man. He’s been writing for more decades than you can shake a stick at, but he’s still in his element. He talked of how he kept things fresh for himself; keeps himself interested. He has a hunger for creating new characters and trying out new writing styles. He’s been doing this forever, and he still loves it - that’s got to give the rest of us hope.
The Wilbur Smith mob
The “creating new characters” point seemed particularly pertinent. He’s been criticised in the past for being sexist. But if he ever was, it was because he lived in a sexist age. Today, he’s a different man entirely. I promise you. This is a man who has adapted and learned and continuously changed the way he sees the world. He spoke of how his female characters have moved from being mere window dressing to being central protagonists who drive the plots of his latest efforts. From pretty decoration to courageous personalities. He describes himself nowadays as a “ferocious feminist”.
He also spoke of his conversion to conservation. A big game hunter in his youth, Smith is now on the other side of the fence, heavily involved in wildlife charities.
And to top it off (and he said not to tell anyone, but what the hey,) he’s even got a Kindle. Honest to goodness a Kindle. I haven’t even got a Kindle. They scare me. But Wilbur Smith has. Modern man, I’m telling you.
He gave a few lovely details about his life as well. Like how his dad never read any of his books but always carried one around in case he got a chance to show them off to his friends. About how his mum was a talented artist whose works dominate the walls of Smith’s Swiss chalet. About how his boarding school days were made just about bearable by escaping into the world of Biggles whenever he could.
This was fun. It was a bunch of stuff I wasn’t expecting. Lively. Revealing. Interesting. I was already a luke-warm Wilbur Smith fan, but now I feel I understand him a little better as he is today, understand the adventure his writing life has taken him on.
Wilbur Smith, unwittingly endorsing GBR...
His new book, Those in Peril, is out now and due to come out as a film in 2014. There’s also a sequel planned to come out in Spring 2013.
But (most excitingly), it’ll get a review on GBR soon. Keep your eyes open for it!.
Now, back to the festival!

Ed Book Fest - GBR has arrived!

I'm here! This is the press tent. They have criossants. I'm excited. I may have had too much coffee. I'm off to see Wilbur Smith.

That is all.

Sunday 19 August 2012

The Art of Fielding - not as good as Dawson

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (Fourth Estate: 2012) Set in a small liberal arts College, a baseball phenomenon is uncovered and promises to carry his previously unknown team to its most successful season ever. On the verge of breaking all sorts of records, he makes a disastrously errant throw which has profound consequences – for the young star, for his tireless mentor, for his gay roommate, for the College President, and for the President’s daughter.
Holy Mother it's a hot day outside! Let's all cool down with a bit of GBRing, huh?
This book came with some pedigree. It was well reviewed. It was one of the Sunday Times’ books of the year. People said nice things about it.
But it had some red flags. The blurb on the back didn’t grab me. It had all the marks of a drama fertile for cliché and Dawson’s Creek like heartache (which is something only Dawson’s Creek can get away with).
There was the cover as well. I know, I’m not supposed to judge a book by that. But there’s a team of people behind it whose job it is to design something they think represents the book, something that will make it appeal to the right market. This cover looked sugary sweet, the kind of powdery cover you’d see on the book peeking outside a thirteen year-old girl’s knapsack (kid’s still use knapsacks, right)?
But no, I ignored these red flags. I decided to give it a chance. To believe the critical acclaim the book received. I couldn’t find a bad word written about it. I didn’t search too hard, granted, but there seemed to be an overwhelming swell of good feeling about this.
Bah! I should have trusted my first instinct. I should have, despite all advice to the contrary, judged this book by its cover. Those guys who put it together, spent their days coming up with the perfect front cover, the one that expressed what this book feels like, what it reads like, its shape, its niche – I should have believed them. I bet they hate that “don’t judge a book by its cover” saying. I bet they despise it. It’s their whole job. It’s their art. Distilling this whole book done into a single image. Careful choice of font. Just the right colours. They put effort into it, and I should have believed them, should have trusted what they came up with.
This is a soap opera of a book. A bunch of instantly recognisable characters, but not because you love them, rather because you’ve seen them a million times before. True, they had some interesting character quirks. There were a few original ingredients. But none of them hooked me. None of them stopped me imagining this whole thing being played out with a Mexican soap opera’s sense of over acting, over dramatisation.
It’s a story driven book, but one that fails in creating any genuine tension. The Amazon reviews will tell you it is anchored by a cast of strong characters, but I found them all paper thin. The premise relies on the power of a coming of age tale, but I simply didn’t care enough about these people to be swept up in their metamorphosis.
It does play one effective trick though. It drags the whole thing out. Which means I spent a while reading this. Turned a lot of pages. And now I’ve finished it, and I look at it on my coffee table. I do feel a sense of nostalgia. I care about it a whole lot more now I’m done with it. The setting, the people, the main events, I think back to them and can’t help but feel a little fondness for them.
It’s a dirty trick. It elicited a spark of a connection purely because of its length. But I shouldn’t dismiss that. It probably says something about the writing. About the pacing. About the plot ingredients used. That it creates this sense of nostalgia without me noticing it at the time is probably a redeeming factor that shouldn’t be thrown away entirely.
I suggest your time would be better spent digging out that Dawson’s Creek DVD box set. They did this first, and better.
Next week, I’ll be blogging live from the Edinburgh Literary Festival (because I’m a new media sort, and can do some of that real time stuff, 2.0 style). Highlights will include chats with Will Self, Wilbur Smith, and catching up with the Reids!
Stay tuned.

Friday 10 August 2012

A bad GBR poem (because I felt bad)

Me, on my holi-bobs
(which is what Mrs GBR insists on calling holidays)
I’ve seen you, on a Sunday morn,
Rise from your slumber sleepy eyed,
Sit at your computer screen, forlorn,
Shocked GBR has not yet arrived.

It’s all my fault, I take the blame,
Some Sunday’s I am late to rise,
Only playing the ole blogging game
Once the sleep has cleared from both my eyes.

I don’t apologize one jot,
I do this almost every week,
Since the end of 2010, I’ve brought
500 weekly words of critique.

But I do feel bad when I miss
A Sunday morning entirely,
I feel I should put in extra Swiss,
Just to prove I like you, (though shyly).

This weekend I’m on holiday,
And a rare blogless Sunday looms,
So I thought I’d write a poem (hooray),
For you, my friends, to swiftly consume.

The only problem that I faced,
Google’s rhyming dictionary
Seemed to have annoyingly misplaced,
Good words to rhyme with dictionary.

Sunday 5 August 2012

City of Thieves - Game of Thrones meets Leningrad

City of Thieves by David Benioff (2008: Viking) Set in a starving Leningrad during WWII, circumstances put two very different strugglers together as they are sent into the countryside to collect a dozen eggs. Or die.
Sometimes you buy a book after a recommendation. Sometimes you see a good review, recognise the author, get your eye caught by the title. And sometimes you hurriedly grab a book off the shelf at WH Smith because you’re about to get on a plane and you need one more book to put in your bag and this one looks about the right size and it’s been marked down from the original price.
And sometimes that works out, and sometimes it doesn’t.
I may have stumbled on him by accident, but David Benioff is a bigger deal than my first encounter with him suggested. If I’d looked closer, I’d have seen that “David Benioff is a Hollywood screenwriter...” (which is a pretty cool start to a bio. It’s a horrible bio. One that makes me insanely jealous. After the Hollywood screenwriter punch comes, “He lives in Los Angeles and New York City” – he’s shot to the top of my life-swapping wish list). You might also recognise his name from Game of Thrones. He’s the lead writer on many episodes of the big budget HBO success.
David Benioff - "Hollywood screenwriter"
But at the time, I knew none of this. My jealousy didn’t get in the way. I opened this book with zero expectations, a clear mind, and on holiday. That’s the best way to open any book. No distractions, no preconceptions, just a straight and un-muddled connection between Benioff’s words and my imagination. It’s what books deserve - the chance to be experienced on their own merits.
And the merits of City of Thieves are many. It read like a book written by a Hollywood screenwriter. Benioff creates big ballsy stages. Detailed, but not in a granular boring sort of way. More in a glowing, fiery way. He introduces recognisable characters, but with enough held back about each of them to be revealed slowly as the story moves on. You feel like you’re getting to know them, understand the different sides of their personality - all the while with a firm grip of their central, clear, un-shaking motivation. The plot too, the plot feels Hollywood. It’s gritty, shocking, twisting.
All of this thoroughly entertained. It kept me gripped and meant I put the book down intent on recommending it to others. It means when I look at it on my bookshelf, I want to read it again.
But then that other side of me kicked in – the side that’s always a little uncomfortable when Hollywood engages with war themes. The side that’s not sure it’s an appropriate topic to mine for entertainment. The side that feels people in war should be shown with more complexity than easily graspable film characters.
Sometimes it’s easy. The ones that glorify war. The ones that hold it out as a great adventure, with absolute good and absolute evil. They’re easier to be sure about, easier to denounce, easier to take the moral high ground against. But Benioff doesn’t do that. There’s no glory here. It has a cinematic quality, but it’s clear Benioff is making a genuine effort to present a bit of realism, put forth the horror without the gloss. It’s a story with relevance for Benioff, and he treats it with respect.
I could write another thousand words of this. It’s a whole thing that I can never make my mind up about. But it’s Sunday morning, and you don’t want to hear about it. Next time we’re around a table and there’s a drink or two coming, let’s chat it through. But not now. Now let’s stick to the book.
And in the GBR spirit, I need to focus on one thing. Not the moral ambiguity of war as entertainment. Not the thin line between lest-we-forget and war-voyeurism. Just enjoyment. Just the was-this-book-a-good-use-of-time scale.
And on that measure, I direct you back to paragraph seven of this review.
I know, I know, three 8s in a row. I was going to give this something else, but it’s a genuine 8. It deserves an 8. It’s not Benioff’s fault there’s been two 8s in the last couple of weeks.
Also, the book I’m reading at the moment is pretty dire. So I think GBR’s recent run of above-average reading may be coming to an end. Might as well stock up on 8s while we can.