We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo

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I first heard of this book at Hay Festival in 2013. As you might remember from my other Hay blog posts, the festival puts on regular talks called ‘Fictions’, where one or two authors are probed about the latest novels they are promoting. NoViolet Bulawayo was in front of a tiny audience (with Meike Ziervogel promoting Magda) talking about We Need New Names; the book sounded vaguely interesting at the time, but I didn’t really consider picking it up. Then, a few months later, the book – her debut novel – was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Up against the mammoth contender The Luminaries it’s not overly surprising she didn’t scrape the top spot, but to be shortlisted is a pretty respectable start to a literary career, it’s got to be said. It wasn’t until last year that I had a chance to read it – no spoilers below.

The book follows 10-year-old Darling, a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe before being taken to the USA and spending her teenage years stateside. There’s no doubt an autobiographical element to that; Bulawayo also grew up in Zimbabwe, though she didn’t move to Michigan until she was a litte bit older. The novel is told in the voice of Darling, written in a simplistic style that’s easy to read – I raced through it in a matter of days – which is something particularly characteristic of African fiction written in English. In fact, certain sections reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (and the phrase ‘things fall apart’ was often used to describe the deteriorating state of Zimbabwe in WNNN).

At their Hay talk, Bulawayo and Ziervogel talked about writing about history from a fictional standpoint. In literature, you have to forget about facts and statistics, and instead submerge yourself into the story. Bulawayo said that writing about a crumbling society through the eyes of a child is powerful, as often children are the most vulnerable due to their ignorance and lack of control over what is happening around them. A child’s eye depoliticises a situation, meaning that the writer (and reader) must suspend their disbelief and look at the scenario through innocent eyes (even if they themselves have a lot of knowledge about it). It’s an effective technique but, personally, I’m not totally in love with it. It’s all right when you’re already familiar with a situation, but as an outsider with little or no knowledge it’s tricky to follow current affairs through the perspective of a child, considering children often have a warped understanding of what is happening or are simply uninterested in it. If I had done more research, maybe I wouldn’t feel that way about We Need New Names.

But then does that take away the point? There’s a poignant part in WNNN when the children take a local tragedy and turn it into a game, re-enacting it like a play. Darling’s voice becomes very adult at that point and we are subject to an astute description of the attackers, the victim, and the stoic faces watching the violence unfold with the knowledge that they are powerless to prevent it. When a BBC crew asks the children what game they are playing, one of her friends replies with (paraphrasing): ‘a game? No, this is real life.’ Seeing innocent children accept horrific violence as part of their normality is disturbing, to say the least.

My only criticism of the book is that it feels slightly rushed. It’s not very long, and if each character, very vivid in their own right, was given their due attention, it might feel a little more fleshed out. By the time the book ends we have only seen a brief glimpse into Darling’s life in America – I would have liked to have seen more of it, more of the trials and tribulations she faced there, as well as the generally confusing experience of growing up and going through puberty. Another thing that misled me was the timescale. When Darling was 10 and living a poverty-stricken life in Zimbabwe, her friends were talking about singing Lady Gaga, indicating that at that point in time, Gaga must have been fairly famous (to reach impoverished children in Zimbabwe, at least). However, a fair few years later (maybe 4 years?) when Darling is in America, she mentions a very recent scandal – when Rihanna was beaten up by her boyfriend Chris Brown. Lady Gaga released Just Dance (and began her climb to fame) in 2008, yet Rihanna was attacked by Chris Brown in 2009. Sure, it’s pedantic of me to point out, but given that there were very limited hints as to when the book was set, I relied on these cultural references to give it a framework. It felt a little jumbled.

Bulawayo mentioned at Hay that she was working on a collection of AIDS stories, again addressing a silence and taboo with a creative voice, on another subject that is personal to her. AIDS is touched on in WNNN, with it being described as ‘the sickness’ and presented as a real epidemic. I’m looking forward to seeing her approach to building stories around it, whenever it may appear.

Goodreads, then: four stars. It was written so well but the abruptness of the ending took it down a notch. I should be on the Booker committee at this rate.

[Coming next: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel]

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Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

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Anna Karenina only really caught my attention after the recent (2012) film, starring Keira Knightley. It’s famous for its costumes, mainly, considered ‘fashion porn’ – as were Keira’s gorgeous dresses on the promo circuit (Valentino? Erdem? Chanel? Elie Saab – my particular favourite? Check). I need to read more Russian literature in general, and Lord knows Tolstoy’s not exactly unheard of. Still, for my first go at a Russian novel (translated into English, I might add), a book close to 1000 pages seemed like a bold place to start. Spoiler-free review!

Anna Karenina focuses on a multitude of characters. At the heart is Anna, a charismatic, beautiful woman married to the amiable but stiff Karenin. Fairly early on in the novel she meets the youthful Count Vronsky, and soon begins an affair that compromises her entire life. Another character who receives a fair amount of the plot’s attention is Levin, a semi-autobiographical landowner who lives and works in the country, struggling with his largely disregarded views on agriculture and romantic progression with Kitty, a family friend who is reeling herself from Vronsky’s rejection of her and her own struggles to find an identity.

I read it in a month, and I’ve got to say, it didn’t feel like 900+ pages when I was reading it. All right, so the plot moves slowly, but it seems natural, with every setting and event having time to breathe. Each character is given his or her due attention, and alongside the events that heavily influence the plot you see the mundane day-to-day action and the smaller elements of their lives. This detail gives you a very clear idea of who the characters are and what their natures are like; it makes you wonder what will happen later and if you can predict their reactions to future events, almost as if you knew them in real life. Anna Karenina is not the only focus – rather each character is given their own arc, whether that’s finding romance, spiritual revelation, or progression in a political career.

The novel opens with an extramarital affair, with particular attention paid to the characters’ emotions. Straight away we see what is to come – and, perhaps more crucially, we see what the appropriate reaction was to adultery at the time. We see Anna convince her sister-in-law that forgiving and staying with her husband is the more practical course to take, and that their relationship can heal. Anna’s sympathy for the wronged party defies her later actions, or at least divides her conscience when she later engages in her own adulterous relationship. Yet at the same time she is fairly forgiving to the guilty party (her own brother, admittedly). Clearly her – and society’s – attitude towards adultery is not quite what it is today (in 21st Century England, at least).

Speaking of reading it in modern times… before reading Anna Karenina, I had no idea what Russian society was like in the 1870s. The novel is a fascinating study of the classes and social distinctions in Tolstoy’s Russian society (although he admittedly only focuses on the aristocracy), and also the way social attitudes are split into two camps. On the one hand, you have the rigid structure of Anna’s world that emphasizes a social importance and dignity in everyday life, but on the other hand you have Vronsky’s world of passion and hedonism, with little regard for consequence. Even with that small description, you can sense how dangerous it is for these two worlds to collide.

Vronsky is fairly dislikeable as a character. He puts his own feelings first and seems downright naïve to the eventualities of his actions; we see that fairly early on from the way he woos and then rejects Kitty. There is a telling scene where Vronsky acts like a bit of an idiot and doesn’t prepare adequately for a horse race. He bluffs his way through on pure good luck but mucks up a bit during the crucial moment and ends up ruining his horse, as well as losing the race. As a reader, you can sense that it’s pretty metaphorical. Is Anna the horse in their later relationship? A mare he tames but ultimately ruins with his own lack of foresight?

Anna is pretty dislikeable too, to be fair. The only character I sympathised with in that storyline was Karenin, Anna’s husband, fully aware of his wife’s affair and fairly reasonable about it from the beginning. He refuses to pander to high society gossip and trusts his wife: a healthy attitude, yet sadly one that doesn’t really work out for him. It’s unfortunate that in any kind of novel about a wife’s affair, the husband always suffers. It’s an old-fashioned perspective, of course, but there is always something emasculating about a straying wife (although Karenin’s romantic shortcomings are perhaps not presented on the same level as someone like Lady Chatterley’s Lover‘s Clifford Chatterley). Karenin experiences his own share of social disgrace as a result of the adultery, although Anna (naturally) suffers more.

Much of the novel concerns the breaking of social boundaries and norms; the characters constantly move away from what they are traditionally expected to do and instead do what they feel passionate about. A good example is Levin – during one of the nicest scenes in the novel, he abandons his post of simply watching and supervising the peasants’ work on his farm and instead gets stuck into the work himself, feeling a great sense of gratification and community as a result. Of course, Anna’s affair is the better example of breaking the mould – she moves away from the requirement to maintain a solid, steady marriage, and instead turns to passion.

Yet Anna Karenina did not feel like much of a love story. The structure didn’t help; after the initial flirtations, cautious whispers and guilty feelings between Anna and Vronsky, the book lurches forward in time to when they are in the heart of their affair. It seemed to me that the novel is much more about consequence than romance – indeed, consequences are what occupies conversation between Anna and Vronsky, not to mention the details of the relationship described by the omniscient third-person narrator, which includes the characters’ internal reflections. We don’t learn that much about how they feel about each other, but rather, what will happen as a result of their doomed affair. At the point of writing this part of the blog post I haven’t seen the film yet, so I don’t know for sure, but I have a strong feeling the cinematic adaptation will create much more of a love story than what was present in the novel (not least because a friend promised it’s chock-full of sex).

In fact, I’ve got to say; I didn’t care very much about Anna and Vronsky’s romance at all. I was much more interested in the secondary characters, with a particular fondness for Levin – his own romance with Kitty was much more heart-warming and interesting to read than Anna and Vronsky’s repetitive, destructive cycle. The blurb on my copy of the book reads that ‘[the novel is] evoking a love strong enough to die for’, but I’m not sure which love they’re referring to there. Just my opinion, of course. Levin and Kitty’s romance is supposedly based on Tolstoy’s own romance with his wife Sophia Behrs, so that might explain why there was a much more genuine sense of affection and companionship there.

I also found the book a fascinating look at parenthood, particularly in regards to how Russian aristocracy treated their children (not unlike how the upper classes would treat their children today, I expect) – in that I mean children were there to be admired at small intervals, as long as they were behaving well and not actually acting like children. In the novel, each parent has a different attitude to their children; Anna’s sister-in-law Dolly sees her children as a projection of herself, which explains why she is so besotted with them when they are well-behaved and altogether present a family portrait of love and fun, but gets angry and upset if they behave badly, particularly in front of guests. Anna has an interesting relationship with her own children – as the book progresses she grows more and more fond of her son Sergei (with Karenin), a love fuelled by separation (Anna has no hope of custody over Sergei once she leaves Karenin), but becomes increasingly distant towards her daughter Annie (with Vronsky), who is lovely but, according to her, still at that age where she is uninteresting, being too young to engage with the world around her. If I was writing an essay I would probably study how the two children and Anna’s attitudes towards them represent her relationships between the two men… but it’s a bit boggling to think about for one blog post.

It’s been adapted numerous times, but I chose to watch the recent and well-publicised adaptation that drew me to the novel in the first place – Joe Wright’s 2012 production, adapted from the novel by Sir Tom Stoppard (of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead fame) and starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as Anna, Karenin and Vronsky respectively). The film got mixed reviews from critics and only has a 6.6 average rating on IMDb, but I thought it definitely worth a watch (er, maybe just for the outfits).

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I’ve got to admit, it wasn’t half as bad as I was expecting (and loads more romance and sex), but I recognised why the critics didn’t like it. Wright staged the majority of the plot in a theatre; it had a rather Moulin Rouge-y feel to it, but the symbolism behind it being in a performance space didn’t sit well with what the book is actually about and the set was very distracting. At times it felt very self-aware, and one reviewer on IMDb summed it up as the director and his cronies going ‘look at us? Aren’t we clever?’ instead of creatively supporting the plot.

That said, I thought it was well-cast. Knightley was perhaps a little more flighty and youthful than the charming, dignified Anna from the book, but she was generally very good, and Jude Law made an excellent Karenin (the only role I’ve seen that makes him look unsexy – what a feat). Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky did occasionally look like a teenager with a moustache stuck on his face but I didn’t think he did as badly as the critics suggested he did. That might have been because I disliked Vronsky in the book, whereas some readers seemed to be utterly seduced by him (judging from their reviews). To be honest, the best in the cast for me was Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, who was cheeky and warm and just the kind of man you’d expect in the role. Levin and Kitty were also well-cast, though I thought it a shame Levin’s internal struggles on what kind of landowner he was to be and what kind of career he would have didn’t get more attention. Still, you can’t stick everything in in the space of two hours or so.

Goodreads: four stars. Bring on War and Peace.

[Coming next: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo]

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Money – Martin Amis

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Ah, Martin Amis, the marmite man of 20th Century British literature, beloved and loathed by many. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that his books are beloved and the man himself is loathed, but that seems too black and white for Amis. Regardless; he’s a very famous author not hindered by the international acclaim that surrounds his literary father, author Kingsley Amis, but boasting plenty of talent of his own. Money (full title: Money: A Suicide Note) is considered by many to be his best work, but I confess that I hadn’t heard of it or read it before. In fact, it was merely a book I found on my dad’s shelf and decided to nick from him. Not that he knows that. Woops, sorry Tez. Anywho…

If you saw 2014’s Oscar contender The Wolf of Wall Street, you’ll get the gist of Money. Parties, alcohol, drugs, luxury locations, the best food and the best prostitutes money can buy – the two have clear parallels. John Self is the focus of Money, a man who appears to have a LOT in his pocket by working as a small-time commercial director (your guess is as good as mine) who spends his days hopping between London and New York to work on his first feature-length project, a Hollywood production with some of the USA’s biggest stars. During his jaunts back and forth across the pond, he faces a problematic love life, makes tedious but frequent visits to movie stars so he can stroke their increasingly bloated egos, and – you guessed it – spends lots of money. Every now and then he receives anonymous phone calls from someone watching him closely, taunting him and apparently trying to better him, with the sinister promise that they will meet one day. Self is a fairly selfish man (funnily enough!) and a very dislikeable character, with bad health and horrible attitudes. Still, you can’t really blame him for the latter when you see who else is in his life. Spoilers below.

Like The Wolf of Wall Street, the overall message here is that money doesn’t lead to happiness. Quite the opposite, in fact, when you put hedonism and material possessions before your own emotional health. Self has few friends, no real friends it seems, and the woman he loves – loves is a strong word, perhaps I will say the woman he’s closest to – is only with him for his wealth, a fact which he embraces. He pities her, but overall he pities himself, and there’s a telling moment when he watches some degrading porn that results in a ‘facial’ and he wonders who the real loser is – the female porn star, the male, or himself (the viewer). Even when you’re in a position of power, it’s a shallow world with little dignity. Looking at it from a modern perspective is interesting; Money was published in 1984 long before the days of social media, but today the world’s richest have the power to photograph and brag about their exploits online, quite literally putting a filter over their lifestyles to show them in the best possible lights. Are their lives as glossy and beautiful as their Instagram pages, or are they emotionally drained, too? We know from the first page how little Self enjoys his life – the clue is in the full title.

Not a lot happens in the book, but it’s saved by its fantastic style. The writing is infectious; you never want to stop reading. It’s somehow both flippant and extremely detailed at the same time, with a furious pace. Amis’s observations are original, witty, and often painfully accurate – a review on the back of my copy praises his depiction of the movie star ego, which I have to agree with. When Self meets Lorne Guyland, an established Hollywood actor he’s hoping to tie into his film project, the interaction makes you squirm, as Lorne’s inflated sense of importance wrestles with his insecurity. Yet for me, one of the most astute observations about movie stars and their occasionally inflated attitudes is as follows:

‘I replaced the receiver and stared at my lap. On it lay a cellophaned wallet of Guyland press handouts – this was where I’d scribbled his number. Running my eye down the page I saw that Lorne had, in his time, on stage or screen, interpreted the roles of Genghis Khan, Al Capone, Marco Polo, Huckleberry Finn, Charlemagne, Paul Revere, Erasmus, Wyatt Earp, Voltaire, Sky Masterson, Einstein, Jack Kennedy, Rembrandt, Babe Ruth, Oliver Cromwell, Amerigo Vespucci, Zorro, Darwin, Sitting Bull, Freud, Napoleon, Spiderman, Macbeth, Melville, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Methuselah, Mozart, Merlin, Marx, Mars, Moses and Jesus Christ. I didn’t have the lowdown on every last one of these guys but presumably they were all bigshots. Perhaps, then, it wasn’t so surprising that Lorne had one or two funny ideas about himself.’

Is John Self based on Amis at all? I doubt it, but I always wonder if writing characters like these makes for a cathartic experience. Self is sleazy and misogynistic. His views are not those of reasonable men – he feebly attempts to rape his girlfriend numerous times, and points out disgusting observations about women around him – and  whilst I suspect Amis would never be so violent or demeaning (despite the odd misogynistic sound bite), I wonder if having an artistic excuse to be as vulgar as possible (while emphasising the kind of miserable, pitiful character underneath the vulgarity) is satisfying. I suspect the same of actors, when they are required to portray someone so unlike themselves, so utterly despicable they could never comprehend behaving that way… there must be a small release in that.

Amis actually inserts himself into the book as a fictional character, and it all gets very meta from there. John Self initially hates Amis – hates writers in general – but gradually warms to him and eventually brings him in to adapt the screenplay that occupies the plot of the novel. At various points, the fictional Amis goes into monologues about authors, narrators, and story structures in general, such as the sense of moral duty authors have to protect their characters’ interests – it’s obvious here that he’s speaking through his fictional self about his own creation John Self – and also what the end of the novel feels like, conveniently placed near the end of Money. It felt very odd (and almost a little self aware?) to read – something dad Kingsley agreed with, supposedly lobbing the book across the room as a result. The fictional Martin Amis was the closest thing John Self had to a real friend throughout the entire novel. You might say he was the only sane one in it, observing the destruction from an external, impartial viewpoint – not unlike the way an author would.

Oddly, Amis seems to pop up in a fictional form in a few books – in Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, McEwan’s writer character Tom Haley performs a reading at an event that Amis is also taking part in. Given the obvious parallel between McEwan and Haley, it’s likely that that entire section is based on a real encounter between Amis and McEwan (two very prominent writers, although Haley remarks how inferior he feels in the presence of the talented and charming Amis) – however, I also wonder if it’s a tongue-in-cheek nod from McEwan, as if he knew of Amis’s tendency to insert himself into fiction and wanted to pay a little tribute. Then again, I haven’t read any of Amis’s books apart from this one so I’m not sure if it’s something he does fairly often, or if this is just a one-off (that McEwan might not have even registered). Still, it struck me as an amusing coincidence. In fact, the whole novel had a McEwan-ish air about it – particularly with a twist at the end. I’m half expecting the two of them to buddy up and write a novel about themselves (that might have already happened…)

So, the aforementioned twist. Well, I guess the first twist is the fact that the full title doesn’t quite reflect the plot: Self does try to off himself at the end, but doesn’t succeed. The main twist, however, is that the movie Self has spent all his time working on wasn’t actually a real movie; rather he was being conned by his henchmen, who fed him his own money back under the pretence that this was fresh payment from a production company. Presumably this plunged him into debt, for I have no idea how a commercial director had that kind of credit to wave around in the first place. The scam and the ending itself aren’t well-explained and I closed the novel with many questions. There is a pinnacle scene where Self confronts the man who had been taunting him down the phone, but the scene is confusingly described and didn’t make a lot of sense in the grand scheme of things. I originally expected the voice at the end of the telephone to be metaphorical – Self’s own conscience berating him for his actions – but instead it was attributed to a character who wasn’t even that closely connected to him. Very odd, indeed.

It was adapted for the BBC in 2010, with Nick Frost in the lead role – partner-in-crime to Simon Pegg (my favourite ever actor) and a talented and charismatic guy in his own right. Frost said in a Reddit AMA interview that it was his favourite role to play, and indeed Amis praised his depiction of Self, which is exciting as Frost doesn’t flex his serious acting skills that often. I’m interested to see what the BBC would do with the famous text. I haven’t yet found a version I can stream or download, but I’ll be sure to check it out when the opportunity arises

So. Not an overly exciting plot but saved by its fantastic style – four stars on Goodreads from me. Good save, Amis.

[Coming next: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy]

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Throwback Thursday! Dracula – Bram Stoker

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Welcome to my first NON-dystopian Throwback Thursday post! Don’t worry, there will be plenty more of those to come, but for now we’re focusing on a very different kind of frightening and miserable tale – a horror story, to be exact. Arguably THE greatest horror story that’s ever been told (or one of them, at least): Bram Stoker’s chilling vampire tale, Dracula.

Dracula is possibly the only book I’ve ever read that genuinely terrified me (at least, since I outgrew Goosebumps). The creepy book cover didn’t help – I took the liberty of including it in this blog post, so you can look and shudder with me. The image is not really Count Dracula – it looks closer to the cinematic image of Nosferatu, an unauthorised adaptation of Dracula, renamed in the attempt to dodge copyright laws – but it portrays the chilling nature of the novel, so I’ll go with it.

To sum up… Dracula is told through various diary excerpts from three characters: Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor; John Seward, a doctor; and Mina Harker (née Murray), Jonathan’s wife. Each character has a different perspective on the strange, supernatural events unrolling around them: Jonathan is reeling from a visit to a castle in Transylvania to help a count purchase property in England, where he experienced some very horrible events; Dr Seward is perplexed by a patient of his acting very strangely; and Mina is watching her friend suffer from a mysterious illness that seems to drain her of blood and leaves her with tiny puncture marks on her neck. I wasn’t aware of it at the time but critics imply that this shifting of perspective is a powerful feature of horror fiction – if multiple characters experience the same terrifying phenomena, the reader immediately assumes that there’s no way one of them can be lying.

The novel opens with Jonathan’s description of his time in Transylvania, before the plot switches to England (Whitby, to be exact) where a ship has washed ashore. From there, all hell breaks loose. Soon Van Helsing, a man with knowledge of and experience with vampires, spots the signs and comes to help. With his guidance, a group band together to take down Count Dracula. Of course, Dracula isn’t too happy about this, and it soon becomes a game of riddles and psychological distress as they all go head to head.

This is a cracking novel by today’s standards, but it wasn’t a bestseller when it was published. It was no doubt appreciated at the time, but not until cheeky rip-off Nosferatu made an appearance did the novel’s popularity grow, 10 years after the author’s death. Stoker was a respected figure in society during his life, mainly owing to his work with the famous actor Henry Irving and his theatre work. He’s also tied to other famous novelists of the period, flitting around with Oscar Wilde and being distantly related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame). I was unsure whether to class this as an Irish or British novel; I settled with British owing to the fact Stoker lived in London and wrote the novel during his time here – plus, nearly all of the plot takes place in Whitby and London. Dracula defined our traditional incarnation of the vampire (big cape, pointy teeth, turns into a bat, yadda yadda), although it’s safe to say the vampires of the 21st century are playing fast and loose with this stereotype. Forms of vampire had been around for hundreds of years before Stoker, but it was only in the 18th century that the V word was bandied around; John Polidori’s The Vampyre was the main predecessor to Dracula. In recent years, it seems that vampires are having a bit of a comeback – but, as I said, they’re not quite the same creatures we saw stalking a fictional Victorian England.

So how do they compare? You might remember me directing this kind of question at two authors during Hay Festival. It’s interesting that on my copy of Dracula the blurb mentions that the book probes into ‘the dark corners of Victorian sexuality and desire’. Do I agree? Actually, I’m not sure. The Count doesn’t seem to be particularly sexualised in the novel itself; he’s certainly not described as being attractive, although he does target young women, so there’s that. He also bites the neck, which could have a sexual undertone. In fact there is only one scene where I felt as if there was some kind of sexual tension building, during a close encounter with a particular young woman, but I won’t go into that for fear of spoiling. But I am reading it with a 21st century eye – to the prude Victorian audience, happy to stifle sexual desire until their wedding nights, this kind of escapism might have been the hottest thing they’d ever laid eyes on. Did this early, sexual association carry the legend of the sexy vampire all the way to 2014?

For if it was ambigious in 1897, it certainly isn’t ambiguous now. We’ve got the tedious yet popular Twilight novels, where the lead vampire’s desire to rip apart and eat the protagonist is presented as a metaphor for wanting to rip her clothes off and ravish her, and that’s probably as tame as it gets – there’s True Blood, there’s The Vampire Diaries, there are all kinds of shoddy Twilight rip-offs where mortals (normally girls) canoodle with vampiric men. Hell, even Fifty Shades of Grey, arguably THE sexiest book of the last decade, was initially written as Twilight fanfiction. The vampire is the sexiest supernatural creature of all, if pop culture is anything to go by. Admittedly, we tend to sexualise EVERYTHING these days (angels? Check. Werewolves?? Check. Zombies?!? Check…) but vampires have a certain je ne sais quoi that keeps them in the limelight, perhaps playing into the human subconscious desire for submission. Modern incarnations of the vampire evoke him (and it’s nearly always a him) being young and dashing – even the modern adaptations of Dracula are casting young, hunky male actors in the lead role, deviating far away from Stoker’s elderly Count, complete with handlebar moustache.

Dracula infamously washes up in Whitby, which I visited for the first time last year. We went at around Christmas time on what felt like the coldest, windiest, most blustery day ever, which made it absolutely perfect. Standing in the graveyard by Whitby Abbey at the top of a great hill where the wind whistles between the tombstones, all with faded, gothic letters scratched into every grave – now that’s where you set a horror novel. Stoker must have felt the same, for it was a visit to Whitby in 1890 that partly inspired his great novel. Perhaps he caught it on a similarly brilliant day – or maybe Whitby is always like that.

There are countless film and television adaptations (cough cough, Nosferatu), but the most famous is probably the 1992 version with Gary Oldman cast as the titular vampire. Oldman was only 34 at the time – a far cry from Stoker’s description of Dracula, and in fact 2 years younger than the latest revival of the Count, an NBC series starring 36-year-old Jonathan Rhys Meyers – but given Oldman’s versatility as an actor, I was sure the character wasn’t in unsafe hands. I haven’t had a chance to catch it yet (and I’ve heard they take great liberties with the plot), but I look forward to checking it out, at some point.

So, my Goodreads review: four stars. Another great classic for my shelves.

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Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

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I didn’t intend to read Bring Up the Bodies directly after finishing Wolf Hall, but I felt such a sense of withdrawal once Wolf Hall was over that I couldn’t help but turn to its fellow Booker-winning sequel. I forced myself to focus on finishing the latest draft of my own book first, with the reward of BUTB once it was done, but I got about halfway in before losing my head and trawling through various Waterstones around London to find Cromwell Part 2. Hey, it’s hard to write when you’re not reading anything. As I said on Twitter, trying to write a book when you’re not reading is like trying to run a marathon without drinking any water. Again, this review is spoiler-y but it’s a story that everyone knows, anyway, and it certainly shouldn’t stop you from reading it.

First of all – what a cool name for a book. It’s a shame the upcoming Cromwell Part 3 has the really naff title ‘The Mirror and the Light’, because there is something supremely awesome about an epic historical novel called ‘Bring Up the Bodies’. The term itself is used near the end of the book as an instruction to bring Anne Boleyn’s accused lovers from custody to be put on trial, yet the word ‘bodies’ instead of ‘men’, ‘accused’ or anything else is harsh and dehumanising. Something about the phrase seems support the bloodlust of the period; you don’t get the sense that these ‘bodies’ will have a fair trial when the gallows are waiting, nor do you feel they’ve had a particularly good run of things so far. Is Cromwell to blame? Very much so. Throughout the novel he is the man bringing up the bodies, finding those who are guilty or can at least be coerced into false confessions to support the king’s interests.

1536 was a big year for Cromwell, politically. After working and striving to rid King Henry VIII of Catherine of Aragon and bringing Anne Boleyn to the throne (seen throughout Wolf Hall), he now has to bin her, as well, while the king falls in love with Jane Seymour and Anne continually fails to produce a male heir. Catherine of Aragon dies fairly early on, but if her death was to result in the clear path Anne Boleyn was expecting, she is sorely disappointed. After she has a miscarriage, Cromwell, in service to the king, has to do all he can to justify an annulment.

Mantel’s Cromwell is still as endearing as ever but the darker edge to his personality that is popularised so often in other historical fiction begins to bleed into his calm demeanour throughout Bring Up the Bodies. His support and affection for Anne has slid away and now, as always, it’s the king he serves completely. He abandons his own gut instincts about Anne’s treatment and the actual crimes committed (if any) and knits together a reason to give Henry the legal right to divorce and execute Anne, as well as some of her spurned lovers. Although he is motivated by loyalty, there is an element of personal revenge to his actions. Still stung by Wolsey’s execution years ago, Cromwell incriminates four men who stood by and later made a mockery of the Cardinal’s demise – and that mockery is very much at the forefront of his mind as he persuades them to confess to sleeping with the queen and plotting the king’s death.

Of course, ‘persuasion’ is a light term – with one man, the musician Mark Smeaton, it’s clear he was tortured at Cromwell’s house, Austin Friars. The description is vague but it’s implied that he suffered at the hands of the Christmas decorations that Cromwell used to enjoy with his family (when they were still alive) – as torture is not permitted, Cromwell later reflects that he’ll have to burn the peacock feathers that were originally used for his daughter Grace’s angel outfit. Given that Austin Friars has always been a happy and vibrant home, it’s quite a shock to see this dark edge to it, the same way it’s shocking to see the edge to Cromwell’s personality that is so often hinted at but seldom explicitly revealed. The use of the Christmas decorations is particularly poignant – Cromwell is using elements of his personal life, ones associated with his own kindness and humanity, to inflict pain on to others. Indeed, he ponders at one point whether the memory of his daughters is slipping away from him, and that without it he’s become a completely different man.

Arguably every one of Mantel’s readers would know the fate of Anne Boleyn, but this doesn’t detract from the masterful sense of fright and tension in the run up to her execution. Even with history behind us, you still read it expecting there to be a catch, an escape, a moment when everything will halt and the queen will be let off the hook. It’s a tragic end for Anne and it unwillingly foreshadows the eventual end of Cromwell, revealing in a stark light what it’s like to be on the wrong side of Henry VIII. Yet another reason to be morbidly excited for The Mirror and the Light.

Was Bring Up the Bodies better or worse than Wolf Hall? I hate to make comparisons, but in a trilogy there can sometimes be a great difference of quality between one or two instalments. Considering Wolf Hall was such a success I’m sure critics were watching to see if Mantel could replicate it, but Bring Up the Bodies certainly stands on its own feet, giving Mantel her second Booker prize in three years. It doesn’t have the same sprawling story as Wolf Hall, which covered many years; in comparison, BUTB only covered a matter of months, with the single, encompassing plotline being one that revolves around the downfall of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s agency in it. It was an easier read – probably for that very reason. Mantel still had her trademark style but the writing was a little tighter, with some specification of the pronoun ‘he’ – you’ll remember in my review of Wolf Hall that I mentioned how carefully you had to concentrate to remember that ‘he’ generally always referred to Cromwell. It seems Mantel’s editors might have flagged that up with her – now you’ll spy the occasional ‘he said: he, Cromwell’. The style is still flawless, however. Critics have deemed Mantel one of our best working writers today, and even when I haven’t read much of her work (I’ve got a lot of reading ahead of me, including her brand new volume of short stories), it’s hard to disagree.

As I mentioned in my earlier review, BBC 2 continues to air its adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, while I expect the RSC are still strutting around Broadway with their famous plays. Those lucky New Yorkers.

First_look_at_Mark_Rylance_as_Thomas_Cromwell_in_new_pictures_for_Wolf_Hall

At the time of writing this blog post, the BBC drama hasn’t yet reached the Bring Up the Bodies plot, and is still focusing on Wolf Hall. It’s difficult to predict how it will play out. Rylance is not quite the Cromwell I expected from the book – he has a kind of timidity and warmth in his small frame and likeable face that suits the affectionate encounters with his family, but doesn’t sit right in court, somehow. But, at this point in the TV drama, he is only just edging his way in. I look forward to seeing what will happen once he begins his villainous campaign to bring down Anne, and at the end of the last episode (Episode 2; Episode 3 is on this evening), it’s made very clear that revenge is in the forefront of his mind. Can’t wait to see more.

If Parts 1 and 2 are anything to go by then Cromwell Part 3 is going to be fantastic. It looks as if it’ll chronicle the last four years of Cromwell’s life, his mistakes and his downfall, with a meaty political plot running alongside it. After two novels I’ve built up quite an attachment to Cromwell so it will be heartbreaking to see his disgraced end – although who knows how his character may change over the course of the book. Presumably it will also include details of the rise of Cromwell’s beloved son, who marries, fathers children and becomes a very respectable gent from 1537 onwards (all of which is considered to be a credit to his father). That will be a great element of sweetness to the otherwise unpleasant plot – I’ve built up an attachment to Gregory, too. Will Part 3 scoop the Booker as well? Time will tell! I feel sorry for any writers up against Mantel once again (if indeed, it makes the shortlist – although it’s hard to imagine it not doing so).

So – another five-star rating from me on Goodreads. As all good historical fiction should do, it inspired me to delve back into history – not long ago I finished Simon Jenkins’s A Short History of England, which I thoroughly recommend – so there can be no higher praise than that.

[Coming next: Money by Martin Amis]

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Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

Hilary-Mantel-Wolf-Hall

Oh crikey, I need to read more Booker winners.

I’m not an historian, nor was I ever particularly good at History at school. My memory of learning about Henry VIII et al. was when I was 12 and we learnt a bit about his reign; I also remember a little rhyme I learnt at primary school:

Henry the Eighth, he had six wives
All of them lived in fear of their lives
Two were beheaded and one of them died
Two were divorced and one survived!

That’s about it. Really intelligent stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Of course, I know who Thomas Cromwell is, as an historical figure. I have no doubt that I probably studied him in depth at some point during my school years but before reading Wolf Hall I couldn’t remember much about his life and career. I know he’s generally villainised in popular culture, and some of the reviews of Wolf Hall that I heard before reading the book praised Mantel’s portrayal of the man as someone who is a little more well-rounded and fleshed out than your average two-dimensional scoundrel. I particularly enjoyed a soundbite from Rachel Cooke from the Observer who was so unsettled by this depiction that she was led to remark: ‘I have my suspicions that Hilary Mantel actually is Thomas Cromwell’.

Wolf Hall, the first of a trilogy about Cromwell’s life, won the Man Booker prize in 2009; the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, scooped the prize in 2012 – making Mantel the first woman to win the award twice and perhaps the first sequel to win when its predecessor also won, but I’d have to fact-check that before making any bold claims. The final instalment The Mirror and the Light is due this year, and whether that will give Mantel a Booker hat-trick remains to be seen. It seems absurd to talk about winning the Booker three times in a row as if it’s comparable to potting a ball of paper in a wastepaper basket; I mean, this is the sodding BOOKER, arguably THE most prestigious literary prize in the world. It’s no easy task to win it once, let alone twice. Of course she’ll face stiff competition this year now that they’ve opened the doors to American writers, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it. Either way, I knew this book was going to be brilliant. With that reputation hovering behind it, how could it not be?

Hard to know if I’m giving you spoilers here as you probably learnt it all at school, but I’ll give you the gist. Wolf Hall follows Cromwell from around 1500 – 1530, with a brief opening chapter about his life as a teenager before it skips forward to his life at Austin Friars in 1527, married and with children, and in service to the Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Very little is known about Cromwell’s early life and this is echoed in the book; he reminisces occasionally about his past and his escape abroad from a violent father but he doesn’t know his own birth date, nor is he completely sure of his age. Fairly early on we see the downfall of the Cardinal who wouldn’t agree with annulling Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Queen Katherine, as she is referred to in the book) so he could marry Anne Boleyn – Mantel seems to be relying on her readers’ own historical knowledge here, as the reason for his downfall is never explicitly stated in the book. From then on we see the ‘rise and rise’ of Thomas Cromwell, who did indeed rise above the potentially damaging association with the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey and, using his wit and political know-how, became the king’s right hand man.

Mantel paints a vivid picture of 16th Century England – or rather, a decent picture through the eyes of someone who lives in it and hasn’t seen it any other way. That is a triumph; there is no modern hand hovering over this novel, nor is there any sense of hindsight, which helps keep the reader absorbed in the characters’ immediate stories. I’m no real judge myself but critics have praised Mantel’s dedication to historical accuracy, particularly with such a huge cast of characters – so big that it requires its own list at the beginning of the book that takes up pages and pages, which I had to refer back to continually while I read. Of course, there are certain elements that seem ridiculous to the 21st Century eye. One of the main being the sexual politics at play, and how much worth a woman’s virginity has, even to someone as high up the social ladder as the king. The entire political tension revolves around the idea that Queen Katherine MIGHT not have been a virgin when they wed, and Anne Boleyn definitely is (though you’re never sure). There is, of course, an obscene amount of pressure placed on Henry’s wife – whoever she is at the time – to produce a son, and therefore an heir, for him. Knowing as we do that Henry had no legitimate sons that lived to reach adulthood, it’s particularly wince-inducing to see him despair over and over again.

The sexual politics may seem old fashioned but, echoing the words of another Observer reviewer (‘[the book is] a dark mirror held up to our own world’), they aren’t entirely out of place to a modern reader. At one point, Mary Shelton comments to Cromwell that when a woman produces a son, the man takes the praise, but when she fails or it is evident that one of the party is infertile, it is the woman’s fault. This kind of one-sided parenthood still rings hollow in the modern age, with all kinds of pressure placed on women as mothers, whether it’s raising a child as a single parent when the parents have split or having to deal with the stigma and consequences of abortion. All of this because of the simple biological fact that the baby happens to grow inside the woman, not the man. We’ve moved on from the Tudor times but we’re not out of the woods yet.

Despite the sheer amount of characters (I counted the list – there are 96), the characterisation is strong. Obviously we get the best picture of Cromwell, who is an incredible literary protagonist simply because of the amount of depth he has. My copy of Wolf Hall included an interesting interview with Mantel at the back, in which she said she chose to focus on Cromwell because of pure curiosity as to how a blacksmith’s son could rise up to such prestige, and also from a letter he’d penned that revealed he had a strong sense of humour. She mentions that biographers don’t touch on his personal life at all, and while he can be seen as something of a wolf in court, letters from the time suggest his household was pleasant and his children had happy upbringings. One of the most poignant parts of the book is when Cromwell has his famous painting done, which you can find easily on Google but I’ve included it here:

Cromwell,Thomas(1EEssex)01

What impression do we get from the man in this image? Cold, regal, unemotive, perhaps. But Mantel’s fictional Cromwell doesn’t see himself like that – in fact, he is taken aback by the painting, as are his family and loved ones. I feel these quotes from two of the members of his household sum it up well:

‘”I don’t think you look like that,” Helen Barre says. “I see that your features are true enough. But that is not the expression on your face.”
Rafe says, “No, Helen, he saves it for men.”‘

I have to constantly remind myself that throughout the novel, this isn’t really Cromwell speaking, that this is just a fictional version – for all I know the painting might have been a faithful representation of his face and character – but it does make a fair point about how much emphasis we place on portraiture from certain periods when we have little else to go on. We make our own assumptions of character based on a person’s image, but we forget how staged the whole process is. Mantel details a little bit about the procedure: how Cromwell was asked to sit, what he should be holding, how he should place his hands, his clothes. For royalty, this is even more of an orchestrated process. How much about a person’s real personality can we glean from these images?

The other characters are similarly complex; you don’t get the sense that there is one wholly good or one wholly bad person in it. Henry VIII is particularly fascinating, portrayed as almost childlike and flaky with his own emotions and decisions – a familiar sight to historians, I’m sure, but it was far from the grand figure I expected him to be (based on, well, his portraiture). In other ways, he is exactly the kind of character you WOULD expect, what with the way he moved through wives and his own mood swings (though Mantel attributed those partly to the numerous health conditions he suffered with). Anne Boleyn is also an interesting character, portrayed as fairly cunning and unsympathetic but, by the end and particularly when her long-awaited son turns out to be a daughter, as much a victim of the oppressive monarchy as Henry is. Keep track of the characters if you can, as Mantel’s style means 9 times out of 10 when you see the word ‘he’, the pronoun is referring to Cromwell – even if it follows on directly from the mention of another male character. It takes a little getting used to but it’s another individual facet to Mantel’s style that makes it so enjoyable, and increases the overall suspicion that Cromwell is actually narrating the story, referring to himself in third person.

This was a few years post-Wolf Hall (closer to Bring Up the Bodies, I think) but it seems prudent to highlight that Mantel herself was villainised to the general public when she wrote a perceptive essay about Kate Middleton and her place in the modern monarchy. Kate is the nation’s darling, as beloved as Diana was, although seemingly having a much better time with the royal family than her would-be mother-in-law did. Mantel said that modern expectations of Kate only require her to exist and look pretty, making sure to keep any personality or quirk under the rug. This wasn’t an attack on Kate herself as it was an attack on the system and the media – it’s a fascinating essay, you can read it here – but the press turned on Mantel and even David Cameron said her comments were unjust. The problem is, I suppose, is that there’s an unspoken agreement to adore and never criticise or question our royal family. We assume from a few smiles and snatched whispers that Kate and William have simply the perfect relationship; that Kate is flawless, and that no doubt Prince George will grow up and fit right into the cookie-cutter mould he needs to be the future monarch. Things are slowly moving on from the stiff, traditional monarchy – George is the first heir who would succeed to the throne regardless of whether he was born male or female, for example – but if you dare to imply that Kate is having to hide her personality from the media (which of COURSE she is, come on now) you’re the enemy. At any rate, I saw Mantel’s comments in a new light once I’d read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies and observed the kind of measures the Boleyns would resort to in order to have access to the throne. Could that irresistible Tudor power be comparable to anything our modern royal family has? Definitely not. Although, for what it’s worth, I’m not sure I agree with Mantel entirely. She might have implied that Kate is as much a victim to her public image as Marie Antoinette was, but you can bet Antoinette didn’t have Hello magazine and the obsessive celebrity culture of the 21st century stalking her footsteps.

The Royal Shakespeare Company created two plays based on Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies which I hear they often stage back-to-back – a hefty experience for all involved, but no doubt a fantastic one. I was desperate to snag tickets, but they were just too expensive, which is a real shame. My friend Misha’s mum saw the Wolf Hall play with a hardcore theatre buddy who came out remarking that it was a perfect play: perfectly cast, perfectly staged, perfectly acted, and so on. They’ve now taken the productions to Broadway. On the small screen, the BBC created a six-part TV adaptation of the two books, with the first episode airing on Wednesday night. It’s got a pretty amazing cast – Mark Rylance takes the lead as Thomas Cromwell, with Damian Lewis as Henry VIII (yes!), Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, and Jonathan Pryce as Thomas Wolsey. I suspect they’ll carry it on once The Mirror and the Light is published, but we’ll have to wait and see. Spoilers below.

wolf hall 1

Like the early pages of the book, I thought the first episode of Wolf Hall was particularly confusing – I have no idea how those who hadn’t read the book were able to keep track of the plot and immense cast of characters, or even appreciate the finer touches in the script. For example: there’s a scene where Cromwell looks over his dead wife Liz and is told she spoke on her deathbed about a time she held a snake in Italy. As Cromwell is told about this, his eyes widen, as readers will know that that was his own anecdote to tell, not Liz’s – but beyond that brief flicker on his face, it is never mentioned again. Generally speaking, the critics adored it, with some calling it ‘close to perfect television’, and Mantel herself, who wasn’t involved in the drama (unlike the RSC play, which she oversaw), supposedly gave it the thumbs up. Good enough for me!

So, Goodreads! Five stars. I won’t say this was the best book I read in 2014 because I remember The Luminaries only too fondly, but it’s in the top three. Now to sink my teeth into Bring Up the Bodies

[Coming next: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel]

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The Road – Cormac McCarthy

the_road.large

I’d heard of The Road before I started reading it, mainly because it snagged the Pulitzer prize and also had a famous adaptation a few years ago (with Viggo Mortensen in the lead role), but I have to say, when I began, something threw me off. That something was the memory of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth – if you read my review, you’ll know that in McEwan’s book there was a character who was a writer. This writer actually wrote a book (er, in the book) called From the Somerset Levels, which was about a man and his daughter journeying across the horrible, post-apocalyptic wastelands of England and encountering all sorts of horror and cruelty on their way (it is also mentioned that we never find out their names). The Road is about a man and his son journeying across the horrible, post-apocalyptic wastelands of America and – funnily enough – we never find out their names. Coincidence? Well, probably, but a strange coincidence at that.

Because I didn’t enjoy Sweet Tooth that much (and the writer character in that book was pretty unbearable), I couldn’t help but feel as if my first impressions were tarnished somewhat. The Road is an extremely famous post-apocalyptic novel that’s considered to be a work of genius, so I did wonder why McEwan had chose to have a character write a book so similar – but who was copying who? I read that McEwan wrote a short story near the start of his career that had a similar storyline to From the Somerset Levels, and The Road wasn’t published until 2006. Hmm. I’m inclined to say that it’s a mighty coincidence – although perhaps the incredible reception The Road received inspired McEwan to revisit his own story.

But moving aside from Sweet ToothThe Road is – as I described – a dark, occasionally horrifying tale of courage and companionship in a broken world. Spoiler-free review, here. The man and the boy move across an America that’s coated in ash, with wild murderers and cannibals stalking the road they travel on. We don’t find out exactly what happened to make the world the terrifying place it’s become (I’m guessing some kind of nuclear war, or perhaps an effect of global warming), nor how long it’s been like that for, but it’s evidently a number of years – there are flashbacks that seem to indicate that the woman (the man’s wife, I assume, who is dead when the story starts) gave birth to a child during the early days who grew up to become the boy (and I’d hazard a guess that he’s around eight to ten years old, judging by his speech and mannerisms). There is some very jarring imagery that stays with you long after you close the book, and McCarthy creates a very real, very unnerving sense of horror – some of the imagery I still think back on and recoil, and I read it months ago. I’ve got to say, it doesn’t make me overly excited to watch the film…

Given that I’m working on my own post-apocalyptic novel right now, I read The Road with a slightly more critical eye than I would with many other books on this blog. At first, I’ll admit, I wasn’t overly impressed. The Road kicks off with despair, horror, and desperation, which characters only too aware of their own mortality and living in fear every minute they’re awake. My own PA book, in comparison, tries to juggle the sense of fear and horror of a dystopian world with the optimism and good humour associated with humans who spend a lot of time together. Now, I am in no way trying to pretend that my book is anywhere NEAR the same league as The Road (crikey! It really is not) but throughout writing I was so aware of what a challenge it was to balance the terrors of a broken world with the hedonism and general naivety of the youth. It’s a different angle, but I couldn’t help thinking that maybe writing about constant fear and despair would be… well, the easy route to take? But as I moved through the book and the tension built up, it’s impossible to fault the skilful way it’s crafted.

For The Road is masterfully tense. Every now and then we are shown exactly what the man and his son are up against, and it’s very grim indeed. At any moment you expect them to be attacked, and at times when the man and the boy are briefly separated (the narrative follows the man’s point of view for the most part), you’re left chewing your nails until they’re reunited. It’s remarkable how easy it is to feel attached to these characters, particularly the boy, who had the right mix of wise insight given to him by his situation and the innocence and naivety of a child. With Viggo Mortensen taking on the role as the man, I was looking forward to feeling that same sense of attachment during the 2009 film, directed by John Hillcoat.

The Road movie image

I put off watching the film for a while, mainly because I knew it would be unbearably bleak, and it takes a lot to willingly watch a film you know will depress you. But when I got round to it, overall, I was impressed. Some of the more horrifying scenes in the novel were just as horrible (if not more so) in the film, although I was glad they cut out one particular image – I won’t say what it is, as that’s for you to discover, dear reader (lucky you!). My only criticism is that the film was perhaps a little too long, particularly when you consider that it’s a very short book, but Viggo Mortensen was naturally brilliant as the man, and Kodi Smit-McPhee put in a very good performance as the boy, too, which is no easy feat for a 13-year-old, considering the harrowing material to work with. In general, it’s a good adaptation of a bleak and beautiful book.

On Goodreads, then: four stars from me. I’ve got a post-apocalyptic hangover.

[Coming next: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel]

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Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Catch-22-cover

I bought Joseph Heller’s famous novel from Waterstones in February, along with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (which I’ll review a bit later on). As I passed it through the till, the friendly shop worker nodded in satisfaction and said, ‘ah yes, two books everyone should have on their shelves.’ Now that I’ve read both, I think she was definitely on to something. (Spoiler-free review.)

Catch-22 is set during the Second World War. It was written in 1953 (published in 1961) so slightly retrospectively written, but I believe the intention was to create a satire that highlighted the ridiculousness surrounding some of the service requirements for those fighting in the war. It follows an air squadron based on the tiny island of Pianosa, although Heller mentions at the beginning that he took some creative licence with the setting; in real life the island is not nearly big enough to accommodate a military complex. The main character is Yossarian, a US army bombardier, but the plot zooms in and out on various characters throughout the novel, from the generals to the majors to the doctors to the prostitutes in nearby cities. Each chapter is titled with a different character’s name, indicating that they are the focus for that section of the book. There are a LOT of characters and without this clear structure it could be a lot more confusing than it was, particularly considering the plot doesn’t progress in chronological order, but Heller manages to balance the characterisation with the amount of story exposure each character got very nicely.

For me, it was one of those glorious instances when you’ve heard of a book and you know it’s famous but you know absolutely nothing about it, so you can read it from a fresh perspective. I didn’t expect anything from Catch-22, but one thing that took me surprise was just how side-splittingly funny it was. In fact I was often guffawing out loud while reading it on the morning commute, standing in a packed tube, which got me some strange looks. The whole thing revolves around paradoxes. Catch-22 is itself a paradox, referring to a rule in which the solution to a problem is rendered impossible by the very problem itself (there always being a ‘catch’). Describing something as a catch-22 has entered our vocabulary, which is a huge credit to Heller – certainly he must have been excited to hear it bandied around prior to his death in 1999. The main definition of Catch-22 in the novel revolves around a clause to escape military duty: a man does not have to fly dangerous missions if he is crazy, but acknowledging the danger means he is sane, therefore has to fly the missions. If he flies them anyway, he was probably crazy and didn’t have to, but he if complains that he cannot, he is deemed sane and therefore flies them. Essentially, there is no way to avoid flying the missions. Confusing yet astoundingly simple and definitely a no-win situation for those restricted by it. As the novel progresses, we discover more and more rules that fit the Catch-22 definition.

I’ve noticed that quite a lot of people – mainly young men, actually – consider it one of their favourite books. It seems to be the one iconic novel that everyone has read. It’s certainly a lot more accessible than a lot of the classics, with its rapid pace and witty dialogue, and it has a rich, interesting cast of characters (albeit mostly male). Upon its release, it became something of a cult novel for teenagers and college students, so perhaps it is a novel you read and fall in love with when you’re young – and, indeed, male. I had someone tell me recently that they consider One Hundred Years of Solitude a ‘boys’ book’ – I personally reckon this is complete bollocks, but I’ve started to feel aware of what kinds of book seem to be targeted towards men and what kinds towards women. In the 1960s this may have had an exclusively male readership, and it’s not hard to see why (it’s another spectacular failure of the Bechdel Test). There are very few female characters who are even given the virtue of a name; one of the principal female characters, for example, is known throughout as Nately’s Whore (Nately being one of the men in the squadron). That said, as a female reader, I didn’t feel alienated by the plot or characterisation (which just goes to show, yet again, that MEN AND WOMAN AREN’T ACTUALLY THAT DIFFERENT).

The story itself is fantastically wacky. Some sections are rooted in realism and others descend very quickly into absurdity, which I suspect was part of Heller’s satirical intentions. The horror of war is contrasted with the hilarity of the situation, which is just the kind of mash-up I’m rather fond of, as strange as that sounds. That said, towards the end the horror becomes more prevalent, although I won’t say too much for fear of spoiling it. There is a lot of emphasis on how the individual reacts to the war. Yossarian often ponders the point of being in the war in the first place and the effect that he is having on it. I’ve always believed that soldiers are remarkably selfless people (which explains why I blubber so much at any World War One memorial) but the message came across fairly clearly in Catch-22. Who is the real enemy? Yossarian wants to live, and if his superiors are preventing him from opting out until he dies, then in his eyes, that makes them the enemy, not the Germans. He questions the very idea of dying for your country and how much of a difference it makes overall, and despite what could be seen as quite a selfish attitude, it’s easy to sympathise with him. Again, I don’t want to go into the ending because I don’t want this to be a spoiler-laden blog post, but it has a very different outlook to the beginning.

So, on to the famous film, released in 1970 and directed by Mike Nichols.

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It took me a little while to get into the film, I must say. The sound of the planes in the background is draining, and the early scenes aren’t overly gripping. Yossarian, too, seemed badly cast and hysterical. I don’t doubt that Alan Arkin is a fantastic actor (looking a bit like Robert Downey Jr in his youth), but at 36, he just had a stoic look about him that didn’t suit the young (28), fun-loving Yossarian I had imagined from the book. That said, I warmed to him as the film progressed, and it started to feel like a fairly faithful adaptation.

It’s not a short book, so it must have been tricky to adapt, and indeed at times the film felt almost a little too short (116 minutes in total); it didn’t seem like many of the characters were given their due screentime. The film had a lot of the book’s humour, but some of the more drawn-out, surreally comedic scenes had to be cut down, which took away from that slightly. One scene in particular which had me in stitches in the book was when Yossarian is expected to pose as a dying bombardier named Harvey, who has died days before his family have travelled to visit him. As Yossarian lies in bed, the family lament how different he looks and therefore how ill he must be, and call him both Harvey and Yossarian in their conversation. The whole scene is ridiculous, but in the film, it has been stripped back so much it becomes a little tiresome and loses some of its impact. That said, visualising some of the more disturbing scenes had a much more powerful effect in the film than it had in the book.

The film, like the book, doesn’t portray women well. The nurses dressed in ridiculously provocative outfits, their cleavages bursting out of their uniforms, and the nudity seemed a little gratuitous (though it was nice to see a full 70s bush on screen, as opposed to the pre-pubescent wax look we expect to see today!). But overall, it was a good effort and a film I enjoyed much more than I expected to. Not a patch on the book, but not many movie adaptations are, of course.

[EDIT: iconic director Mike Nichols died yesterday (20/11/14), so this seems like a fitting time to honour his work. Catch-22 wasn’t his most famous work, but it’s certainly up there with the greats on his filmography.]

So, my Goodreads review: five stars. I consider it a new favourite; it was thoughtful, provocative, and downright hilarious throughout. If you haven’t read it yet, get on to it, pronto.

[Coming next: The Road by Cormac McCarthy]

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The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

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Cripes – it’s been a while! Things have been nuts over the last couple of months, and only now am I getting a chance to catch up with this blog – which is bad, because I’ve done a LOT of reading since my last post. You’ll notice that in my schedule I had Catch-22 and The Road down to blog about before this one, but I’ve shifted those back a bit. They both have famous films I’m dying to watch and analyse in their respective blog posts, but I haven’t had a chance or the means to watch either (yet) so for now, we’ll look at The Wasp Factory.

Ah, Iain Banks. Or Iain M. Banks, as you might know him, depending on your preference of fiction. Banks went by two pen-names to differentiate between his styles of fiction – mainstream literature as Iain Banks (which includes The Wasp Factory) and science-fiction as Iain M. Banks. Handy for when you spot his name on a dust jacket in a bookshop and are wondering what type of book it is. My dad in particular is a big fan of Iain M. Banks (not so much Iain Banks) and was disheartened to learn of his passing last year, at the relatively young age of 59. Let this review be written as something of a tribute, then, as we turn to the very start of Banks’ literary career.

The Wasp Factory was the first novel he wrote, published in 1984 (Banks was 30 at the time). One of the things that drew me to the book was the mention of an anti-hero – a particular love of mine, which I’ll go into later – but also the bizarre mix of reviews that featured in the paperback copy I found on my dad’s shelf. Alongside the usual glowing praise, there were reviews from critics that told readers to stay away from the book at all costs. Clever move from the marketing team: sell controversy and the novel is likely to fly off the shelves. If you bear in mind that my favourite book is A Clockwork Orange, you can see why this might have appealed to me. Spoilers ahead.

The story follows Frank, a dysfunctional teenager living on a tiny Scottish island. He’s a 16-year-old with an obsessive personality, someone who murdered for recreation in the past and has a habit of mutilating animals for what he believes are supernatural reasons. It’s a short novel and there isn’t a lot of plot, per se, but much of the story revolves around the return of Eric, Frank’s older brother who is completely mad and has escaped from a psychiatric hospital. Every now and then Eric will phone Frank, who lives with his father, to taunt him with this whereabouts and imply he is getting closer to home while Frank desperately tries to keep his father from suspecting anything. Frank kills time by killing animals, getting drunk with his friend Jamie, or catching wasps for his ‘Wasp Factory’, a strange death-trap he has set up for the insects that he believes will predict the future, depending on the wasps’ manner of death. As the book progresses, Eric draws closer, culminating in his (rather anti-climactic) arrival.

Eric is perhaps the most intriguing character in the novel. The highlights of the book are when he phones Frank, and Banks gets to demonstrate his witty dialogue and convey the overall disastrous experience of trying to talk to someone who is teasing you, is completely mad, and who you are afraid of aggravating, all at the same time. Eric’s backstory and descent into madness is explained and you get a sense that this character is quite tragic, particularly with the breakdown of the relationship between the two brothers. It’s a shame that his arrival isn’t quite the tense showdown you expect, mainly because a lot of Eric’s character revolves around his wordplay, and instead all we see of him at the end is a failed attempt to burn the house down with almost no dialogue whatsoever. There’s also another event that happens that detracts from the Eric storyline entirely – but I’ll explain that in a bit.

Why do I love an anti-hero? Part of what drew me to this book was the mention of a character who murders for fun, and I worry that makes me come across as pretty disturbed. I like to think this attraction is because I’m so far removed from that kind of character that I find them fascinating in fiction, and you get to see all sides of their personalities. Murderers and criminals are presented as classic villains in the media, men and women you expect were simply born out of the devil himself who are incapable of love, remorse, and affection for anything; in contrast, it’s interesting to see them in literature with outside interests and a level of emotion we simply don’t find elsewhere. Alex in A Clockwork Orange has his love of Beethoven. Pinkie in Brighton Rock has a confusing time with his love life. Frank here at least has some friends and some interests. It builds a slightly bigger picture of people who we expect to be completely one-dimensional, and I like that. But continuing with The Wasp Factory… it gets weird from here.

I intended for this review to be spoiler-free but there is such a big, bizarre twist at the end that I have to discuss it. Throughout the novel we learn that early in Frank’s life, he was mutilated by a dog who, er, bit off his genitals. I thought this seemed like a very odd character trait to be given, and indeed Frank seemed to live a remarkably normal life despite this rather severe setback, although he does lament how much he dislikes having to sit down to use the toilet, ‘like a woman’. Frank despises women and female traits, which makes his discovery at the end of the book all the more shocking. Right at the end, he inadvertently stumbles across male hormones, a pack of tampons, and his own minuscule genitals in his dad’s study – which end up to be made of plasticine. Frank was attacked by a dog when he was young, or rather FRANCES was – for Frank is in fact a girl, who has been tricked and secretly fed male hormones for his entire life as an ‘experiment’. Frank reflects that this might be why he murdered family members in the past and the cause of his fixation on destruction, but this isn’t delved into too much. Instead you, the reader, are left with a blank page and the overwhelming desire to shout ‘what the FU – ??’

I’m not sure how I feel about this novel on the whole. On the one hand, it feels slightly underdeveloped, almost what I think of as a Creative Writing project, which is when we (at university, myself and the fellow Creative Writing undergrads) would stumble around writing the kind of fiction that could evolve into some very good stuff, but we hadn’t yet learned how to structure a plot and create a satisfying experience for the reader. True, this was often because we’d written our class projects horribly hungover ten minutes before the seminar began (er, just me?) but you do get that kind of impression with The Wasp Factory, which seems quite self-aware, as if Banks was more focused on writing powerful description and proving himself as a talented writer than actually thinking about the emotional reactions of his readers. I think of that as an amateur quality.

On the other hand, the novel is rich with symbolism and a very good depiction of an obsessive, murderous personality. I could easily envision writing an essay about this book, going through and examining Frank’s character and how he has been nurtured to become the rather violent man (or woman?) he has become. It could even be a very good study for a feminist essay. Banks is undoubtedly a phenomenal writer and indeed, became very famous after (although not necessarily as a result of) this debut. The dialogue is sharp and the writing is witty, and some of the imagery is the most powerful I’ve ever read. On my search for a good book cover to include in this post, I stumbled across this one, and I can’t help thinking this is an inspired bit of symbolism:

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There’s no adaptation as far as I’m aware, and I cannot imagine one ever being made. The descriptions are so gruesome in places that it would not be very enjoyable on screen, and I don’t know how the camera would be able to capture Frank’s internal conflict from an external viewpoint. But then, that’s why I’m not a filmmaker. Perhaps one day someone will take it on and do a very good job of it, but I won’t put any bets on it happening.

Goodreads, then: I gave this novel three stars. I think if it was slightly longer and we had a chance really explore the mentality of each character, it might get bumped up a notch, but as a short novel it’s a solid three. Still, as a debut, it’s not bad at all – and it certainly didn’t dent the career of a great writer.

[Coming next: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller]

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Hay Festival 2014: Steven Moffat – The Showrunner

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My final talk at Hay was a discussion with Steven Moffat. If you haven’t heard of him, Moffat is best known for being at the head of two BIG BBC shows: Doctor Who, of which he is the head writer and the showrunner, and Sherlock, the brilliant, modern adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detectives stories which he co-writes and co-created with Mark Gatiss, and which kicked a previously unknown Benedict Cumberbatch into stratospheric fame. As a huge Doctor Who and Sherlock fan, I was pretty excited to hear the brain behind them both talk about his process. That said, I wasn’t sure how likeable Moffat was going to be. I’ve never seen an interview with him before but I know from his shows that he’s a tad on the misogynistic side and he’s also affectionately disliked among the fandoms for being a ‘troll’ – that is, he will happily spread lies or deny certain facts in order to keep everyone in the dark about upcoming plots for his shows. OK, that is a good thing as it ensures that the plots are as surprising as they should be, but it means you have to take EVERYTHING he says in interviews with a pinch of salt. Plus, being the head of arguably the two biggest shows on BBC right now (both of them beloved around the world, too) made me think he might have a bit of an ego. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Moffat was charming. Man, how I hate to admit it. He was remarkably cool, didn’t take himself seriously, and cracked joke after joke to keep the audience in stitches. Both Doctor Who and Sherlock have a very cheeky sense of humour so I don’t know why I found this surprising, but it’s difficult to tell with individuals in the industry and, as I said, he’s got very good reason to think of himself as a big shot. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by how down to earth he was. He talked about his career and the early shows and sitcoms he wrote as he climbed the ladder (always regretting the fact Doctor Who was off the air and he’d never have a chance to write for it – just you wait, young Moffat!). I’m also a fan of his other modern literary adaptation, Jekyll, which is low-budget and doesn’t have the same glossy feel as Sherlock but is tightly written and superbly acted by James Nesbitt, so it was nice to hear Moffat talk about his humble origins. That said, the focuses of the talk were his two big current projects. Let’s get stuck into those (and if you’re not a fan of either, you might find this blog post particularly boring, so feel free to look away now).

Doctor Who

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Doctor Who was the focus of most of this talk at Hay. Moffat spoke about his early days writing for the show under the then-showrunner Russell T Davies, his boyhood dream reawakened (a shock, considering he was never 100% sure it would come back on air), and then being asked to fill Davies’ shoes after he stepped down. Apparently he was initially reluctant, but was spurred into accepting the job by his father, who sent him a picture of Moffat as a boy playing with Doctor Who memorabilia. At that point, he knew he’d forever regret it if he didn’t step in.

Doctor Who was relaunched in 2005 and the first series, with Christopher Eccleston in the lead role and Billie Piper playing his companion, was, in Moffat’s eyes, very ‘BBC’ – a straight talking Doctor wearing a relatively normal outfit having adventures completely based on Earth (seriously, the whole of Series 1 is set on Earth – albeit at different points in time). Moffat said the joy of Doctor Who is that it’s a show about very scary, very surreal things happening in ordinary settings, with monsters that all incorporate an element of childhood fear – a great recipe for adventure if there ever was one. I was relieved to hear that he finds daleks as ridiculous as I do (I mean, come on, they’re moving dustbins!); he is particularly amused by the fact they have sink plungers for hands, as if they’ll find time for various plumbing jobs around their plots for total domination. Probably a feature that should have been left in the sixties, but I respect they wouldn’t be as iconic without them.

The modern version of Doctor Who (which has now been on air for nine years! Crikey) has raced through seven series and three Doctors – and we’re about to meet the fourth. The first, as I mentioned, was Christopher Eccleston, who only stuck around for one series. After he left, Moffat said they chose David Tennant (my personal favourite) based on his performance in other BBC series Casanova; ‘he was playing the Doctor in that role,’ said Moffat. Tennant became a bit of a sex symbol during his time as the doctor, which is amusing as he was initially criticised by the press for not being particularly attractive. Tennant stuck around for three series (with three different companions) before exiting stage left.

After Tennant left, Moff said he felt annoyed that the team were only auditioning young actors. The Doctor was never traditionally played by a young man (he is hundreds of years old, after all) and in Moffat’s mind, even David Tennant (who was 34 when he took the role) was far too young. Then, of course, Matt Smith turned up (pictured above, with recent companion Clara, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman). Smith’s audition was astounding, but Moffat was horrified to learn that he was only 26 – still, he landed the part, and I remember very clearly the reaction of the press when it was revealed that a man in his twenties was to play the Doc (hint: it wasn’t great). But Smith stole the hearts of Whovians in his first five minutes, at the very end of David Tennant’s last episode when he regenerates as the TARDIS is crashing (feeling his slightly longer hair, he exclaims: ‘I’m a girl!’). Smith starred in three official series over five years, and has only just taken  his leave in the Christmas episode of 2013.

Matt Smith had announced his leave for a while and there was a great deal of anticipation over who would be next. For seemingly the first time, there was a great public demand for it to be a woman – after all, the Doctor could be either sex and we’re in 2014 now; we don’t need to see a smart, strong man run around with a simpering female companion (or ‘assistant’) and more. I’ve got to say I was in that bandwagon – not necessarily because of the reason above but more because I thought would freshen and transform the show, which was in need of a new formula. But Moffat sucks at writing for women, it has to be said, so there was no chance of it happening this year. When asked about it Hay (the audience member who brought it up received a round of applause), Moffat was firm to point out that there was no reason it couldn’t happen and that he himself had actually written the loophole into the script that indicates the Doctor could become a woman – but that it wouldn’t happen until the right actress came along. With all the Doctors, there had to be something about them that just made them a shoe-in for the role; Moffat said he refuses to cast someone for political reasons and will wait until someone has that appeal, in his eyes.

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So instead Peter Capaldi was cast. He is apparently an actor they had always wanted (and one of an appropriate age, at last), although his decision to take the role was marred slightly by Doctor Who canon: he pops up in other small parts in Doctor Who and also had a recurring part in Torchwood (the Doctor Who spin off set in the same universe). Moffat was asked about this plothole by an audience member and he responded cryptically, saying he’d been working with Russell T Davies to write a credible explanation for that. Sounds intriguing – but this is Moffat, people, remember! Who knows if anything actually will be explained or not. Capaldi is due to make his Who debut this month – so we’ll have to wait and see what he’s like.

Sherlock

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So then on to Sherlock, Moffat’s vanity project with long-term friend and Doctor Who collaborator Mark Gatiss. Sherlock has a funny origin story which I’ve heard a couple of times – Moffat and Gatiss often caught the train to Cardiff together for Doctor Who, but had to refrain from speaking too much about the show for you could guarantee there were fans listening in, desperate to hear about what was in store for the Doctor. With that topic out of bounds, they instead took to discussing their other great obsession – the stories about the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous literary creation, written and set in Victorian London. Moffat and Gatiss (or Mofftiss, as they have now been nicknamed) lamented that one day, someone was going to do a really good modern adaptation of the Holmes stories and they would be annoyed it wasn’t them. Apparently the obvious solution to that never occurred – not until one day, Moffat repeated this woe to his producer wife Sue, who said: ‘er, so why don’t you do it?’ It was a revelation, and a project they both leapt on.

And so in 2010 Sherlock appeared on BBC and took the world by storm. Moffat credits the show’s popularity to Cumberbatch, who I mentioned earlier takes the lead role, and Martin Freeman, who plays Dr John Watson (both pictured above), as well as the brilliant supporting cast. Being huge fanboys, Moffat and Gatiss have worked very closely to the original structure of the stories while making sure they are relevant and interesting to a modern audience. I haven’t actually read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories but I completely fell in love with Sherlock – I think it has an appeal to both old and new fans of the ACD adventures and is a cut above the numerous adaptations that have appeared over the years – despite unfortunately appearing at the same time as another modern update on the other side of the Atlantic (Elementary) and a series of films about the Victorian Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. As I mentioned earlier, Cumberbatch has become hugely famous and an international sex symbol after appearing in Sherlock, yet Moffat remembered that, like Tennant, critics initially claimed he wasn’t sexy enough. Sometimes the part maketh the man, and if Doctor Who and Sherlock (and, hell, Jekyll) are anything to go by, Moffat’s found the formula.

Each season of the show consists of three 90-minute episodes (short films, as Mofftiss think of them) and so far there have been two-year gaps between them. I’ve never found this particularly problematic. Most British TV shows only have six episodes per season so three doesn’t seem so bad, especially when they’re an hour and a half long, and sure, the breaks mean that we have longer to wait and less to savour (Season 3 was over in ONE AND A HALF WEEKS) but it keeps the quality high and also makes it more likely that the show will keep running for years – until Cumberbatch and Freeman become too famous and too expensive to hire, at least. But there’s an ill feeling amongst the Sherlock fandom about it, a fandom that consists of many teenage girls – and Americans, who are used to 24-episode seasons that are churned out year after year. One American audience member asked Moffat if there ever would be more episodes and he seemed irked by the suggestion, claiming that it would simply be impossible to schedule owing to the packed calendars of everyone involved (Cumberbatch and Freeman are fully fledged Hollywood stars, now – with the hugely epic The Hobbit taking up most of their time over the last couple of years – and Moffat and Gatiss are both working hard on Doctor Who). He jokily remarked that they had made nine Sherlock Holmes films in the same time it’s taken Guy Ritchie to make two, so really we had no grounds to complain.

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So then our hour was up – and so was my time at Hay. What a cool weekend! I didn’t blog about everything I went to see but I hope these posts have given you a nice flavour of the festival (if you’re still reading). I really recommend you go if you ever have the chance. Back then on to reviews, now – see my What’s Next page to see what’s a-coming. Promise it’s good.

[Photos: hayfestival.com and bbc.co.uk]

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