Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Reading Rachel Joyce, Danielle Steel and Dilly Court

I own up to it. I was wrong.

The last time I blogged about the books I’ve been reading I was a third of the way through Rachel Joyce’s ‘Perfect’, and it wasn’t quite working out for me. I wasn’t liking it as much as I’d enjoyed her previous one. I found the characters too snobby and it wasn’t moving along enough.

But then… something wonderful happened. It all became very tense and grotesque. The mother of the girl who the narrator’s mother runs over in her Jaguar suddenly takes centre stage. She starts laying on the guilt and the emotional blackmail thicker and thicker – and soon she’s visiting the family’s posh house every day – having her nails painted, drinking all the Warninks and having a high old time. Then she demands presents and reparation in all kinds of ways – most incongruously in the form of a Wurlitzer organ, which she sees in the window of a department store.

Over the course of one hot summer Beverly has her revenge on the women who were snooty about her, and pushes everything too far. Everyone’s life seems to fall apart before 1972 is over, and suddenly the shadow story in the present clicks into focus and we realise what has become of the children now they’re grown up. It was terrific in the end – a really involving and scary book. I still think the first third is too slow, compared, though. And the easy demonization of the non-middle class characters is a bit problematic. Aside from that, my opinion changed around completely.

And since then I’ve been continuing with my impromptu quest to read as many as I can of the top twenty bestselling paperbacks of the moment. Over Easter weekend I tried out Danielle Steel for the first time. ‘Until the End of Time’ is a split-level romance set in 1975 and the present day – and it flirts pretty heavily with the concept of reincarnation. At first I was groaning at the clichés (especially about the NYC fashion world) and all the unfortunate repetition and hammering home of plot and character points…  but by the end I was enthralled by it all. I love the story of the Amish girl who writes a wonderful novel and falls in love with her Greenwich Village editor. It’s a surprisingly sweet, uncynical tale that springs up between the cracks in the cliché-strewn prose.

One of my favourite discoveries in the Top 20 though, is historical novelist Dilly Court. I was once told by someone who knew, that hers is the massively successful ‘clogs and cobbles’ genre. IE, popular romantic historical fiction in which the characters are working class. Something about the way, in British fiction, the class system still manifests itself – so that, for example, working class characters in literary fiction are often marginal, demonized, or criminal, and are deemed to belong only to ‘genre’ fiction - makes me seethe… It’s almost as if the popular / literary binarism only exists in order to chime with out-dated notions of class…

Anyhow – Dilly Court’s ‘A Loving Family.’ It’s a rollicking Victorian adventure – featuring orphans, happy-go-lucky detectives, raffish rakes, and satanic schemers. As in three (three!) of the bestsellers I’ve recently read, the lead female characters set up their own bakery and cake shop. There are exotic Spanish ladies sold into slavery; genial strangers with mutton chop whiskers who become guardian angels; unholy rites in underground caves, murders and missing wills and a rash trip to Bombay by the heroine in order to save the life of her soldier boyfriend. There’s more pluckiness in evidence here than you could shake a pair of clogs at. All the stock characters from every Victorian novel get to make an appearance – even the rickety-legged urchin, and the gaga, benign old lady who sits on all the secrets and gets coaxed out of her mucky house and crowned queen of the whole novel. I loved every moment of it.  Like everything else I’ve been reading recently it has a terrific momentum and pace. Everything is about that narrative drive, always moving forwards – uncovering new secrets and twists and pitching the characters into further, delicious complications.

All these bestsellers I’ve been reading have very little in common in terms of genre and setting – they’re very heterogenous. (Apart from the curious coincidence of bread-baking and cake-making. Is there something there about comfort eating as a theme in straitened times, and the value of old-fashioned wholesomeness, perhaps?) What they do have in common is the unswerving fidelity to narrative drive – and hurray for that. 

Thursday, 17 April 2014

A Word about Camp

A word about camp

Can I just say that I love camp stuff?  I love camp people – male or female, gay or straight. I love the brazenness and the self-deprecating charm of it. The outrage and the daftness of it. I love camp music and films and books and art generally. I love it when art sets out to be that way, and also it when it fails at being serious and earnest and winds up camp instead. I love it best of all when it’s an art object that’s camp despite itself, and one little element is busily flagging up that it’s in the know. The camp element is always the great deconstructor, undermining its earnest surroundings and betraying the fakery of everything that thinks it’s natural. It’s the queer outsider’s revenge on dumb complacency. It has a long, long, honourable history of poking fun, pricking pomposity and swishing about making everyone else look dowdy.

Sometimes I think these days are a bad time for camp. Everything’s so serious and everyone is so keen to trumpet their true feelings and demonstrate their usefulness and value. Everyone’s got a stupid bloody mission statement and is intent on reducing themselves to an easy-to-follow strapline. Camp is made to seem as if it’s surplus and facetious and decadent: as if it’s a bit too rococo for an age of austerity. But I’d say it’s even more necessary. It’s like irony. It’s the same kind of thing. It’s the ability to not take yourself or others too seriously.

Recently I had the unfortunate experience of hearing a fellow author and fantasy / horror film enthusiast suddenly weigh against camp in the cinema, or in fiction, or in art. Or, indeed, in people. He said that the act of anyone or anything camping it up was just annoying –  he said it was like watching a spoiled little child showing off for attention.

At the time I thought, oh – just walk away, Paul. If you say anything it’ll end up in a row. But now I think – no, what he was saying was just not very nice. They were the words of another science fiction / horror / fantasy writer and pundit getting all irate when someone says they love camp. It’s almost as if there’s an acceptable, polite way of saying queers are ok – so long as they don’t draw attention to themselves…  (And actually – this particular person did say something along these lines round about the same time – Why did gay people insist on coming out publicly? Do they think such behaviour was still necessary these days? I thought – yes, that kind of betrays what he thought about queers showing off or making any kind of fuss.)

Gay people themselves can be very down on camp. Some see it as a self-loathing thing. Others make a fetish of that godawful phrase ‘Straight-acting.’

I think camp as an aesthetic mode gets a rough ride in the fields of horror / sf / fantasy fandom. For all I know, this is true of crime as well (isn’t there some sniffiness, for example, about Cosies and comic mysteries?) It seems a shame to me that niche genres and fandoms aren’t more welcoming (not least because the charm of many forms of genre fictions is an appreciation of their datedness – which is something cherished and celebrated to a parodically huge extent by the camp sensibility.)

I’ve a feeling it’s because the people involved in those genres feel that campness is intent upon sending them up or undermining them and, because they really want to be accepted by the mainstream, they want to be seen to be taking themselves very seriously.  And I think that’s my problem with some genre fiction / cinema / fans / practitioners today. And, really, I haven’t found the worlds of genre fiction all that camp friendly at all. And, in many cases, not very gay-friendly either.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Atkinson, Galbraith, Filer, Colgan, Joyce...

I’ve been reading lots – mostly brand new books. I find that I don’t feel much like writing about them. I whizz through these bestsellers and, curiously, don’t have much to say. Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life after Life’ – yes, loved it. Boring bit in the middle, but then perks up with the Blitz and the bits in Berlin. Love the family stuff at the start. The whole reincarnation thing is well done.

What about Robert Galbraith’s ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’? Pretty good. Slick whodunnit about the kind of people you might see in Hello! Magazine. Little bit old-fashioned, little bit guessable. Excellent detective duo – the one-legged army vet and the over-keen secretary. I’ll be glad to read about them again in sequels.

‘The Shock of the New’ by Nathan Filer. Again, pretty good. Some good stuff about the psychiatric ward. A bit jumbled in places and I can do without experimental messing with fonts and all the writerly stuff… maybe a bit too self-consciously literary and MA course-ish? But I loved the stuff about the memorial for the brother in the Scout hut towards the end. It’s the quieter moments of character-filled bathos that impressed me more than anything, such as the gran going round to help him in his flat when he’s going off the rails.

The book that’s stood out in the past fortnight has been Jenny Colgan’s  ‘Little Beach Street Bakery’, which was fun and life-affirming and featured a puffin called Neil. It’s a terrific read – though living where I do forces me hesitate to accept gentrifying hipsters with their own businesses as the heroes of the piece. Nevertheless, it has a great sense of place, and some wonderfully dramatic and romantic moments. All the characters are vividly real to me – also, the sense of the sea’s dangers, the art of baking, and the whole business of putting your life back together and relearning how to enjoy things again. Plus, a ludicrous Star Wars-themed wedding near the end.

Now I’m stuck in the middle of Rachel Joyce’s ‘Perfect’ in which none of the characters are quite coming to life for me. This is strange, as I found her previous book to be teeming with characters so well-observed it made me wince with joy. I’m not getting the hang of this one yet, clearly. Does it have fans out there?

Thursday, 10 April 2014

On with Season Two: 'The Christmas Invasion'

‘Not bad for a man in his jim-jams…!’

Can the best Doctor Who stories be summed up in a question?
Is what was missing from every Christmas Day TV schedule of your childhood basically this..?

Best moment for Old School Who?
It’s a UNIT story about an alien invasion on Christmas Day, and a post-regenerative Doctor recuperating just like Jon Pertwee in 1970 – except he didn’t have to do it in Jackie Tyler’s back bedroom.

Best new thing?
There are Christmas songs on Doctor Who, and the Autonesque monsters are dressed as Santa when they attack the crowds in the Christmas markets. This is classic Doctor Who stuff with unashamed baubles and tinsel on. Doctor Who in the 70s and 80s seemed to happen in a separate dimension where no one celebrated Christmas or ever took heed of what was happening here on Earth. Now we’ve got a Doctor who comes round, all dressed up, for Christmas dinner and a Dr Who family like we haven’t had since about 1976.

They’d never have got away with that in the 20th century…
The Doctor becomes famous. There’s a turning point for the whole series here – when Harriet Jones (Prime Minister and Spokesperson for the whole Earth) addresses the nation on Christmas Day – she puts out a last desperate plea for the Doctor to come and help. This, in the context of a very public alien invasion, marks a special moment for The Show. The UNIT years happened under a veil of secrecy. Invasions were stealthy, hushed-up things. But now the invasions are on the telly and the Doctor’s name is bruited about as our only possible saviour. It’s an exciting moment. The Doctor is becoming a celebrity inside his own fiction. Where will this take us..?

Hurray for Jackie Tyler – best guest moment?
Oddly, best guest moment is David Tennant’s. He’s new amongst an already-established cast, all of whom we love and are already very familiar with. Here’s the new boy – being silly (‘I need you to shut up!’) and intent (his expression when he blasts the deadly Christmas tree!) and unnerving (‘No second chances.’) He assumes the mantle of Doctorishness effortlessly. It’s a wonderful debut – twitchy, larky, action-packed, no holds barred.

The ‘I love me Nan…’ moment
Maybe we get a bit much of Rose sobbing about having lost her Doctor. He’s still there! He’s under the bedspread in the back bedroom! Give him a chance, love! But obviously, the trauma of the past season’s climax is weighing heavily on her and naturally she sobs on Jackie’s shoulder. But shouldn’t Jackie have a few questions about stuff like the Dalek Empire and everything Rose was fussing on about, last time she saw her? And what about swallowing the Time Vortex, eh? But all those explanations get swept aside in proper Dr Who fashion, because the Christmas tree has come to life and is chewing up the sitting room. Rose wallows – but not for too long, thank goodness. There’s too much to get through in an hour.

Fifteen hours after a regeneration and he can still grow another hand. There’s almost a hint of sorcery about the way Time Lordishness is portrayed here… along with the golden breath that escapes him and draws the alien invaders to London… As the new series continues to build its mythology, there’s a bit of unabashed magic swirled into the mix.

The extra fifteen minutes rounds out this story a treat. It just makes me think that every episode needs that bit of elbow room. Even so, it would have been fun to see the Sycorax stick around a little longer. UNIT don’t do a whole hell of a lot. After their years of doing things on the quiet I wanted to see them suddenly going public. And just why have they been superceded by Torchwood, who are suddenly thrust violently to the fore here? (Another great example of the new show gradually creating its own mythos.) There are always further stories, branching off from what we get… obviously I want to see Sarah and Harry and K9 and Ace and Jo and Ian and Barbara all watching TV on Christmas Day and startled to hear their old friend being mentioned on the news… What’s the Brig up to? Why doesn’t Harriet try phoning up Rose in the first place? But never mind. The momentum of what we have is impeccable and fab. And I love the idea of Earth being attacked every Christmas Day and companions of old watching it all unfolding on the telly…

Where was I?
Christmas 2005 was our first proper Christmas in this house. Doctor Who at Christmas was just one of those perfect things that should always have happened. I adored this one from the first – a fizzy, festive rewrite of both ‘Rose’ and ‘Aliens of London’ – but funnier, sillier and more macabre than both. And with a Doctor who was both more flippant and perhaps more in tune with and comfortable with this very particular (and ultimately silly) genre. Eccleston was wonderful but the whimsy and camp at the heart of Doctor Who was not really his thing. It’s clearly Tennant’s.

Singlemost fabulous thing
Lots of moments stand out for me. But the Doctor having a dressing-up-moment in the TARDIS wardrobe, just as many earlier incarnations did, and then turning up for Christmas dinner – suddenly at home in his new form, and in the company of others – that’s the clincher. The episode ends and it’s a whole new beginning for the series.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014


Today I am editing - with the help of Pink Lemonade Tea. And some help from Laura Nyro and Nina Simone.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

My Fabulous Not-so-Secret Powers

"I am Adam. Prince of Eternia and defender of the secrets of Castle Greyskull. Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me the day I held aloft my magic sword and said... By the power of Greyskull! I have the Power! Cringer became the Mighty Battle Cat, and I became He-Man the most powerful man in the universe. Only a few others share this secret... Our friends: The Sorceress, Man-At-Arms and Orko. Together we defend Castle Greyskull from the evil forces of Skeletor."

Not really. 

I am, however, The Fiction Doctor and my services are available for those whose manuscripts need a good going over with my magic critiquing pen - have a look here! for details and rates.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

'Bad Wolf' / 'The Parting of the Ways'

‘I’m coming to get you…’

Can the best Doctor Who stories be summed up in a question?
Is it possible to gather together all the elements of this whole complex 2005 season and, taking a great long run-up, jam them into a headfirst collision with every Dalek War fan fantasy your audience has ever had?

Best moment for Old School Who?
It must be the Dalek fleet and the cohorts of golden Daleks swimming in formation through space and converging on a tiny, decrepit space station where the Doctor and his friends and allies appear to be doomed. For all those times when Star Wars and Buck Rogers and Star Trek blew Doctor Who out of the water with their whizzy effects; for every space fleet built out of washing up liquid bottles limping through the firmament and every time the Daleks didn’t quite seem as deadly as they ought. This was what we’d been waiting patiently for. And we learned that a Doctor Who season climax – something we’d never really had many examples of before – has to be something you could imagine drawing on a huge sheet of card with felt tip pens when you were nine. Those are the best ones.

Best new thing?
Rewatching the whole of the 2005 season in just over a week – I’ve realized that lots of things distinguish it and elevate it over many that went before. Yes, there’s all the fabulous effects, the wonderful actors, the tighter plotting, the shorter episodes, the story arc stuff, the shedding of overt continuity, the use of clever continuity points, the homages, the in-jokes, the stunning revelations and innovations… but the thing that stands out in all of that – for me – is quite simple. It’s fidelity to characterization. And here in the finale, everyone is spot on. Everyone gets their moment to prove themselves – and all the characters we’ve loved all season get their moments of closure.

They’d never have got away with that in the 20th century…
In many ways it’s a classic Twentieth Century Dalek adventure – the base under siege by the murderous tin gits and everything at stake. But our route into it is very strange. The Daleks have been hiding for centuries, building up their forces and going gradually crazy in the dark. They’ve also taken over Earth’s television stations and filled the minds of every human being with enervating pap. The Doctor and friends begin this two-parter by being interpolated into trashy, futuristic versions of TV shows the audience at home will know very well. While at the time, this seemed a stunning and audacious approach – it’s also a reference back to Eighties Doctor Who, which had already dabbled with satires about reality TV and stories in which insane Daleks hid in the dark, turning human compost into their next generation. The look of this double parter even echoes 1980s Who.

What 80s Who would never have pulled off is the sudden spinning off into Rose stranded on Earth and how she gets her way back into the story. Her mother enables her to save the day – by borrowing a pick-up truck. It’s dizzying and gratifying for the audience to see the whole season arriving at a crescendo like this. Throughout the thirteen episodes we’ve been asked to consider a world in which Jackie Tyler’s precinct, pizza shop, and fluffy mules exist alongside Dalek fleets and mutated emperors. Now we get to see it all in one go.

Hurray for Jackie Tyler – best guest moment?
I love the poor ‘Controller’, who’s been the Daleks’ controller of TV programming since her childhood, strung from wires and unable to speak her mind until the solar flares erupt. It’s a lovely, short performance. I also love BB contestant Lynda, with whom the Doctor flirts and Rose looks askance. She’s one of those people the Doctor can’t save – and it’s a great little story, tucked inside the bigger one. And, of course, Jackie Tyler is back, doing a wonderful Jackie turn – angered by Rose telling her she went back in time to meet her dad. And then turning up with a ten tonne truck… helping her daughter even when she knows it’s going to break her heart.

The ‘I love me Nan…’ moment
It’s tight as anything. No room for sentimentality or self-indulgence here.

The Daleks are crazy fundamentalists, worshipping the Emperor! The Doctor finds himself in a position to wipe out all the Daleks (again!) at the cost of the planet Earth. This is how the Time War ended and, from what we surmise through the season, that time he actually did it – and blew the Time Lords and Daleks out of existence. But now we see him tested and he can’t do it again. He can’t bring himself to perform such a monstrous act, even in the name of peace.

(This is all very interesting, from a 2014 point of view – now that we’ve actually been back to see what really happened at the end of the Time War…)

The only glitch I really feel in this is the sudden escape of most of the space station’s inhabitants. We’re told there’s been an evacuation, but the whole place feels as if it’s had about twenty people in it, tops, throughout the whole story. It’s a small grumble, though – especially when the fate of those left behind is handled so gruesomely.

Where was I?
Holding my breath for the whole duration of both episodes. I loved the Doctor in the Big Brother house – giving away the fact he must have watched as many episodes as I have, the way he knew its dynamics inside out. I was caught out by every twist and turn and – crucially - I believed in them. The twists grow out of characterization – not out of a writer’s desire to wrongfoot the viewer. I completely believe that the Doctor would sent Rose home by tricking her, and that she would do anything – even stare into the heart of the TARDIS – in order to go back and save him. The build-up to the regeneration is majestic – as good as Logopolis. Better. And then the bathos of this chirpy cockney sparrow grinning at us in the final frames. It restores to us that lovely old feeling Doctor Who regenerations always gave us: Who the hell is this? Where’s the real Doctor gone? Does the new bloke even remember what he put us through..?!

Singlemost fabulous thing
I think it’s the hologram of the Doctor. We realise he’s tricked Rose and is sending her home. A pre-recorded message appears and tells her what he’s arranged. She will be safe. It’s too late for him. The TARDIS will die, gathering moss on Earth. Everyone will forget both him and it. Rose must go on with her life. And here, just for a second, we glimpse a possible ending to the Show. If the season hadn’t worked, if it hadn’t taken off – if thirteen new episodes were all it was going to be – this would be the ending. The hologram turns – with strange precision – to stare straight at Rose and the audience at home. And the Doctor says what seems to be a final goodbye.

But it tuned out a success after all. The Show was nowhere near the ending. But the moment is dangerous and wonderful.