Friday, 28 September 2012


Vladimir Nabokov

Any novel, film or piece of art that is mired in controversy falls into one of two categories. Either the work is genuinely shocking or the controversy is ridiculously overblown. Sadly, whichever of the two a piece falls under, the story tends to become more about the controversy than whatever the work was about in the first place.

I went into Lolita knowing little about the plot rather than the obvious controversial points. It is a novel about a man in love with an underage girl. Having now read it, I must admit I feel the book falls most assuredly into the overblown category. In fact the two points on which I thought the controversy was based simply don’t seem to exist.

Yes, the main character is a paedophile but I do not feel he is ever presented as a character we are made to sympathise with. Certainly he is a witty and occasionally charming man, but I don’t feel we are ever presented with Humbert Humbert as a likable person. Even the character himself says repeatedly how deplorable his actions are.
Also, the novel is not gratuitous, in fact, even after H.H. and Lolita finally do enter into a sexual relationship, it is passed over in a sentence and Humbert instead describes in great detail the year long road trip the two embark on afterwards.

A novel with this subject matter was always going to ruffle feathers, however, the most controversial thing about the novel that I can find is that it is oddly unclear what Nabokov I trying to tell us. The book doesn’t come across as particularly pro or anti paedophile and leaves the reader to make their own choices.

Overall I simply found this book boring. The writing style is very dense and I enjoyed it at the beginning, as the novel progressed however I grew weary. Also, I understand that Nabokov is writing is his second language but a large percentage of the dialogue is in English so unbelievable that it borders on unreadable.

Overall, I simply didn’t like this book and struggled to make it to the end. A book so weighed down by that surrounds it that it is truly disappointing to discover so unimpressive a book underneath.

Batman Unauthorized

Batman Unauthorized
edited by
Dennis O’ Neil

I was given this book a few years ago by a friend I’d met through youtube. We decided we would each send the other a copy of our favourite book, so I ended up sending a copy of Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar off to America and waiting with baited breath for the arrival of my package. When it finally arrived I tore  open the package to find….a collection of essays?.....about Batman?
I had no idea what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised. This is actually a pretty awesome collection, and one I have returned to fairly regularly over the years.

As I said above, Batman Unauthorized is a collection of essays dealing with the various aspects of the Batman mythology. The book was released in the gap between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight so many of the writers are still riding the high of rekindled interest in the franchise that Nolan’s movie created. In fact a couple of the early essays could have been re-titled “Great flick Chris, good job” without much change to their subject matter. I would have preferred at least a little diversity in opinion rather than have the movie portrayed as the best thing to ever happen to the bat (or am I the only one to think it was awful?)

The book does a good job of covering a wide range of topics, from in depth character analysis of character like Batman, The Joker and Ra’s Al Ghul, the differences between the various movie incarnations and even a discussion of Batman in terms of semiotics. Of course, with all collections of this nature there’ll be parts you love and parts you hate (Alex Bledsoe’s To the Batpole, in which we are presented with three variations on a conversation between Alfred and the young Bruce Wayne on the subject of masturbation is a particularly low point).

A couple of the essays, Batman in outer space by Mike W Barr and Frank Miller’s New Batman and the grotesque by Geoff Klock read a little too much like fanboy ramblings. The Frank Miller essay especially in which Klock argues that no matter how awful Frank Miller’s recent batman outings have been, it is our fault for not understanding the genius of Miller, his argument never really extending beyond “No, no, Miller meant that bit to make no sense. He’s just great!”

When it’s good it’s great though. Michael Marano’s Ra’s Al Ghul: Father figure as terrorist, Paul Lytle’s The madness of Arkham Asylum and Alan J Porter’s The dubious origins of the Batman are all great pieces that shed a light on a lot off different topics.
A personal favourite is Darren Hudson Hick’s The cost of being Batman in which thewriter puts together a shopping list of what the reader will need if he/she plans on becoming Batman themselves and how much it will cost (Spoiler: You can’t afford it).

This is a really great book with something for everyone, if you’re already a batman fan you’ll discover a lot of new information and be given fresh perspective on a lot of topics or if you’re a newcomer looking for an in to what can seem a daunting body of work this book can help you get a basic knowledge on the caped crusader’s world.
It’s good, you should give it a shot.
All together now, na na na na na na na na na na na na….

Monday, 17 September 2012

A History Maker

A History Maker
Alasdair Gray 

"A tale of border warfare, military and erotic, set in the twenty-third century, where the women rule the kingdom and the men play war games. This is the fictional memoir of Wat Dryhope, son of Ettrick Forestis twenty-third century chieftain - edited, annotated and commented upon. History has come to an end, war is regulated as if it's all a game. But Wat, the History Maker himself, does not play entirely by the rules, and when a woman, Delilah Puddock, joins the fray, this 'utopian' history is further enlivened. Alasdair Gray cleverly plays with the notion and writing of history, as well as perennial modern debates on war, sexism and society - entertaining and thought-provoking, this is a delightful satire illustrated throughout by the author."

Alasdair Gray’s debut, Lanark, is one of my favourite books and I would argue that its epilogue is one of the greatest moments of any novel ever. That said, I must admit I’m not massively familiar with much else of his work so I make sure to pick up the odd book of his whenever I get the chance.

A History Maker is based on a play also written by Gray called The History Maker and tells the story of Wat Dryhope, a man out of place in a matriarchal society where women run communal tribes leaving the men to play soldiers in bloody televised battles. The utopian society is powered by household power stations which reconstitute the dead bodies of soldiers into anything the householders could wish for, As a result, there is no need for manual labour.

On the surface this could be looked at as a fairly typical story, a futuristic society peopled by uniformly minded characters with a single main character who sees a flaw in the way the society is run. It’s a story we’ve seen a dozen times, in works by Orwell and Huxley and in the films of Fritz Lang. Here however there’s something different. The world itself feels fresh, at once a Scotland that seems at home in a gleaming future-scape, the present day and the days of the Roman empire. There’s also a great sense of not knowing quite what’s going on. Having completed the novel I’m still not 100% on a lot of what I read. With most novels this would be a bad thing, but not so with Gray’s work. Here, as in Lanark, there is a sense that Gray is deliberately withholding information from the reader. Creating a world as confusing to the reader as it is to Dryhope himself.
This sense of withheld information is backed up by the large body of notes that make up almost a third of the total book. These intricate notes serve multiple purposes. They offer translations of Scots phrases for non Scots readers as well as mini lectures on the history of war and information on songs, poems and stories by the likes of Burns and Hogg. Most interesting however, are large sections that tell very important parts of the story not included in the actual text of the novel. These sections deal with what happens to the characters after the novel itself has ended and are not included until the very end of the notes. There is a feeling of Gray playfully using these to keep the true end of the story hidden from readers who have either given up on reading the historical notes or skipped over them entirely.

If that doesn’t put you off then I would  definitely recommend you read this book. Despite all the confusion the books is a brilliantly crafted piece of work, at once a bluffers history of Scotland, and allegory of the futility of war, utopian science fiction and historical epic all topped off with Gray’s wonderful illustrations. It’s just bloody good. Read it.

Kitty and the Midnight Hour

Kitty and the Midnight Hour
Carrie Vaughn

"Kitty Norville is a midnight-shift DJ for a Denver radio station - and she also happens to be a werewolf. One night, sick of the usual lame song requests, she accidentally starts 'The Midnight Hour', a late-night advice show for the supernaturally disadvantaged. Almost immediately she's deluged by calls from desperate vampires, werewolves and witches from all across the country, wanting to share their woes and ask her advice. Kitty's new show is a raging success, but it's Kitty herself who could use some help, not least because her monthly change is a deep and dark secret to all but a very special few. And when she finds one very sexy werewolf-hunter on her tail, not to mention a few homicidal undead, she realises she may just may have bitten off more than she can chew . . ."

After the incredibly enjoyable but weighty (both thematically and literally) I needed an excuse to switch off my brain and nothing could have fit the bill better than this novel. This is a book which requires no human thought process whatsoever.

I should say, in all fairness, for a book about a werewolf that hosts a radio talk show, it’s not terrible written. That’s not the same as saying it’s well written, but I’ve read worse. However, characters are two dimensional, Kitty at least has some amount of character arcing but it’s probably the minimum that it would be possible to get away with. Everyone else however is completely 2D or flips from one extreme of an arc to another in the time it takes to read a sentence. Cormac the bounty hunter is the best example, going from cold blooded killer to Kitty’s best friend in two pages.

One of my pet hates also runs rampant as not one single character bats an eyelid when they find out that Kitty is a werewolf. The sentence, “But there’s no such thing as werewolves” is said by no one in this book. Between her parents and her co-workers no human character in the novel shows any trepidation about this revelation. In fact, the police officer in the story takes about two minutes in going from, not thinking werewolves exist to realising that every unsolved murder in Denver history was the work of the supernatural beasts.
Over the whole cast the only character to have any reaction to Kitty’s lycanthropy is Kitty herself, and even then, she sees it more as a nuisance than any cause for concern.
I understand that you can’t have everybody in a novel going into shock at the mention of werewolves but is it too much to ask to have one person just stop to think it over for two minutes?

One of the odd things about the book is that half the calls Kitty takes on her shows are normal people with questions that Kitty cruelly cuts down by saying not to “believe everything you read in the stories”. This is odd because everything we’re told about werewolves and vampires is taken straight from those very stories. Wolves can only be killed by silver bullets, vampires killed by stakes, burned by crosses and the sun. Other stories dealing with these myths, like twilight or the Darren Shan saga, tend to come up with their own explanations for these myths. Here, Carrie Vaughn makes fun of these tropes but accepts every one of them without question and without offering any explanation.  

There are another couple of things, the book is told from a first person perspective in the past tense, when Kitty switches to wolf however it switches to third person in the present tense. This could have been an interesting style choice were it not for the switch to present tense. Books are rarely told in present tense and with good reason. It’s not an easy way to read and takes much of the enjoyment out of the act for me.
Also, in the course of this review I have made one reference to the term lycanthrope. Lycanthrope is a hard word to drop naturally into conversation which is why it should be used sparingly. Vaughn drops it into her novel at an alarming rate and ends up with large chunks of the text feeling out of place and jarring.

I know I’m not the target audience for this novel but I should still be able to enjoy it. Sadly, I just didn’t. The book feels like it should be a book for upper teens and would be marketed as such were it not for the terribly written sex scenes (I won’t get into those). Overall the book just feels like a quick reaction to twilight, written to buy into a trend rather than tell a decent story. There’s about ten books in this series though so I suppose that must be working, it’s just not for me. Off to the charity shop it goes and I feel sorry for whoever picks it up.

The radio station Kitty works for is called KNOB, now I know the book is American and it’s not a slang term there….but I just couldn’t take it seriously. Sorry.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Stand

The Stand
Stephen King
"First came the days of the plague. Then came the dreams.
Dark dreams that warned of the coming of the dark man. The apostate of death, his worn-down boot heels tramping the night roads. The warlord of the charnel house and Prince of Evil.
His time is at hand. His empire grows in the west and the Apocalypse looms."

Wow. Ok, there’s no way to go ahead with this review without saying this, The Stand is too damn long. I’m sorry, I know how well loved and respected it is by Stephen king’s legions of followers but it is. It’s too long. The copy I read clocking in at 1325 pages. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy it, much to the contrary, but the problem is that any novel approaching this size is bound to feel over stuffed and there are several points at which The Stand certainly does.
I should point out that the version I read was the complete version, when it was originally released King was asked to chop off some 400 pages from the finished book, not for any editorial purpose but simply to allow the publishers to release the novel for a much smaller price than they would have been forced to had it remained intact. I’m not sure what was removed from the original release so I can’t really comment on that.

I must say, despite what I said earlier The Stand feels a lot less padded than you might expect, although there are several moments that feel like obvious filler there are far less than I anticipated. The book is brilliantly written as anyone would expect from Stephen King and provides a massive cast of characters, each of whom are wonderfully written and believable. Of course there are characters I enjoyed more than others but none I actively disliked reading about as I have found in other highly populated novels.
I must admit in terms of plot I found the initial scenes of the plague slowly spreading across America much more satisfying to read than much of what came after. In these early days of the plague King is brutal, killing off characters that the reader has slyly been led to believe would survive. It is shocking and genuinely distressing. After the initial cull however, in the days of dream that follow the plague the novel slows dramatically which can feel a little jarring at times.

Speaking of the dreams, it is in these that most of the padding and filler is evident. I understand that the dreams are massively important to the novel, perhaps as big a maguffin as the plague itself, but as there are basically only two dreams (one of Mother Abigail and the other of the dark man), it seems a tad overkill to describe these dreams being had by almost every character in the novel several times. After a while I found myself skimming over them, far more interested in what Harold was building in his locked room than Frannie dreaming of the Dark Man chasing her down a corridor for the twenty seventh time. If all this weren’t excessive enough, these dreams are also responsible for the novels lowest point, when King describes both the Abigail and Dark Man dreams as experienced by Kojak…..the dog.

Despite a rocky middle section however, the closing of the book is incredibly satisfying and the best of any of King’s books that I have read and of course there are plenty of wonderful moments throughout. One thing that may bother some readers is that several pieces of action take place “off screen” as it were. In fact several major characters deaths and pivotal events aren’t experienced by the reader first hand, rather we learn of then through other characters reactions to then later on. I can see this as a bit of a marmite style but I personally loved it and thought it added a great sense of realism to such an overly fantastical work and helped to ground it.

The Stand is a great piece of work, there’s no doubt about it and any criticisms I could throw at it should not be enough to deter you from reading it yourself. It’s a weighty tome no doubt and can be hard going, but if you persevere you’ll find a genuinely great story. Perhaps not King’s best as many claim, but well worth a read.

Next: Kitty and the midnight hour