Sunday 30 October 2011

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

In an interview published in some editions of their partially Douglas-Adams-inspired novel Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman give one definition of "cult classic" as "books which [people have] read over and over and over, books they've dropped in baths and puddles and in bowls of parsnip soup, books held together with duct tape and putty and string, books that are no longer lent out because no one in their right mind would actually borrow something like that without having it clinically sterilized first." I would say that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of the cultiest of cult classics out there, one of those books that everyone knows bits of, even if they don't know the context: the Earth being destroyed to make room for a Galactic Hyperspace Bypass; always know where your towel is; the babelfish; the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe and Everything is 42... etc. etc.

That being established, it seems entirely appropriate that I left my copy of Hitchhiker's in the pub a couple of weeks ago. It's one of those books that it seems right to own several copies of in a lifetime, and I trawled the town's charity shops in the confident faith that one of them would have a copy for sale for £1 or so. In fact, two did.

Now, I'm not one for science fiction (excluding Doctor Who which to my mind is fantasy with aliens.) The fiction is all very well, but science? I'll leave that for someone else. As such, my feelings towards Hitchhiker's are a mixture of love and grudging tolerance.

Some parts make perfect sense in a very strange, surreal sort of way. Douglas Adams had a wonderful way with words, hilarious, sometimes profound, often spot-on.

"The planet has - or rather had - a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy."
"The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't." 
"It is a well-known fact, that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it[...]Anyone who is capable of getting themelves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job." - something I have cynically said of politicians for years!
"There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss."
As the story progresses, elements of the story fit together perfectly in context, just as long as you were paying close attention to what came earlier. Other parts, I find to be near-unreadable, stuffed full of ridiculous names and pseudo-scientific waffle that makes my brain sulk. My favourite parts of the story are the Earth-set scenes in Hitchhiker's Guide, the cricketty part of Life, The Universe and Everything, and the entirety of So Long and Thanks For All The Fish, in which our reluctant hero Arthur Dent finds himself, improbably, back on Earth which was now not destroyed, and falling in love.

But my main reason for reading this book is, I'll admit it, Marvin. Poor, dear old Marvin, the Paranoid Android (who is not actually paranoid, so much as depressed. Really, really, utterly miserable. Poor metal man.) My affection for him was rekindled after I knitted the film version, a knitted doll that seemed to take on Marvin's personality before he was even sewn together. Of course, this meant that I found the last chapter of So Long And Thanks For All The Fish utterly heartbreaking.

Oh, and the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything may be 42, but what is the question? On my latest reading of the book of that title, I wondered if I had found the answer... or rather, the question! (You know what I mean!) After meeting a man who had sworn to tell the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth, and was obeying this to the letter, Arthur Dent muses:

"I'd like to hear what he had to say. Presumably he would know what the Question to the Ultimate Answer is. It's always bothered me that we never found out."

The next thing anyone says, seemingly unrelated, although not technically a question, could be answered by 42, and would make as much sense as an Ultimate Question as anything else.*

When the film adaptation was released just a few years ago, when I saw the Guide itself appear onscreen, despite its being voiced by Stephen Fry, I sniffed and said to myself, "You call that a book? It's got no pages!" 

Six years later, I wonder if there is a Kindle cover out there with the words "DON'T PANIC" inscribed in large friendly letters on the front. Or if there isn't, then why not?

*Spoilers: "Think of a number," said the computer, "any number."

Sunday 23 October 2011

A Graphic Novel Novice Reads The Sandman: Vol. 1. Preludes and Nocturnes

Since becoming a Neil Gaiman fangirl last year and reading my way through his novels and short story collections, it became only a matter of time before I embarked upon a new adventure: the comic books that made his name, The Sandman, now collected in graphic novel format. Aware that I was entering a new, inner-circle of geekdom, but recommended by my friend who went before me, I trundled down to the library to check out volume one: Preludes and Nocturnes.

I soon discovered that graphic novels require a different kind of reading to prose fiction, even illustrated prose. You have to read the pictures (which, they say, are worth a thousand words) at the same time as the words. It takes some training of the eyes, or so I found. I had picked up Preludes and Nocturnes at work, and flicked through it in the stockroom, reading a few pages, but out of context, it didn't make a lot of sense. It takes some time to get really started, introducing different sets of characters, some living ordinary lives, others distinctly extraordinary, who are connected, loosely to each other, or via the main core of the story, by their dreams. When the personification of Dream is removed from the picture, a nightmare scenario results.

Something that took me by surprise reading this was how different comic books seem to be part of the same world, in ways that fiction isn't. I'm used to one author being in charge of one story-world. But even I, comic book virgin that I was, recognised some of the names that popped up here: John Constantine, Arkham Asylum, and one or two others. To a connoisseur, I'm probably stating the obvious, but this interaction of stories was a new experience for me.

It took me a while to find my feet here, and I had mixed feelings about The Sandman as a story, and the graphic novel as a medium. Neil himself admits that this volume is patchy, as he (and the artists) were themselves trying to work out what The Sandman really is. There is beauty and strangeness and ugliness, and you can tell when different artists have drawn the same characters. The art style is one I have yet to get used to, even after getting into the habit of "reading" the pictures as well as the words. It caused something of a barrier against be being completely drawn into the story, and horror scenes just came across as gruesome and zombieish rather than enhancing a creepy atmosphere.

Yet there is much that shines. The story is fascinating, and even early on, there are moments that leave me breathless with their brilliances. The battle of wits was wonderful, and in the last story of the collection, "The Sound of Her Wings" was the point where Neil felt he had found his voice. I concur. This chapter serves as a poetic, pensive epilogue to the volume, where words, character and sheer Neilishness take a firm hold of the story.

This is where it gets good.

Saturday 15 October 2011

I have neglected you, dear blog.

Logging into my blog, I realise it has been a fortnight since I last updated, and my reviews before this have been rather infrequent. So, what have I been up to lately?

In the grand tradition of British weather, it has been unpredictable. After about three months of autumn, suddenly, at the end of September and beginning of October, the sun popped its head out from behind its cloudy blankets to give us a surprise week of summer - a week that, defying all tradition, coincided with my week off! I celebrated my birthday with a barbecue in the garden, and then, two days later, hunted out my winter coat, scarf and hat.

My reading has been on the slow side, and the books seem to have been all along the same sorts of lines of British, somewhat surreal comic fantasy or science fiction. My last review was of Rivers of London. After this came a reread of Pratchett's Witches Abroad, The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar - recommended by Neil Gaiman, who wrote the introduction of my edition, with the advice not to lend it out. Oops... Judith has it now. Then came The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Unfortunately, I had not got very far into the book, before I left it behind in a pub. For some reason, it seems to be the right sort of book to do this to - a cult classic, one which will need replacing many times in a lifetime. I trawled through the town's charity shops in search of a replacement, secure in the knowledge that one of them, somewhere, must have a copy. Like I said, it's that sort of book. My faith was rewarded, and I bought it for 50p.

I also watched the film fairly recently, and was inspired by one of the scenes to knit myself a Marvin doll. His personality started to come through before I had even finished sewing him together. I'm keeping a watchful eye on my teddies. I think they are all right, and won't need therapy...

On my week off, I went to Chichester for a couple of days to watch a production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton. It was a fantastic show, hilarious, creepy and at times terrifying.

I've just recently got stuck into the second series of Downton Abbey on TV. I missed series 1 the first time around, but recorded it when it was repeated, and watched in the run-up to series 2. I am hooked! I'm loving the escapism into a world very different from my own, and engrossed in the lives of both the family Upstairs and, even more so, the servants Downstairs. Previously unsympathetic characters are becoming more rounded, the ice-cold Lady Mary is becoming nicer, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess is, without fail, brilliant. Only former footman Thomas still seems 2-dimensional, but I suspect that his hidden depths will be made known as the series goes along.

Do you remember me reviewing a book called Wight Moon: Out of the Shadows a little while back? It's a self-published book by a friend of mine, a local author, about a community of vampires on the Isle of Wight. I've spent the last few weeks editing book 2 for her, and I can reveal that this one is even better than the last, full of mystery and suspense that kept me glued to the screen long after I'd promised myself "one more chapter." There's a plotline that feels like a classic gothic novel, expansion of Elaine's version of vampire lore,  and secrets come to light about the characters we thought we knew. Excellent stuff, and I can't wait to read book 3.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovitch

I've had my eye on Rivers of London since it was published earlier this year. Having spent three years at university on the outskirts, I've left part of my heart in London. It is a city made up of so many layers that it is quite conceivable that fantasy could be just another of these layers. Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is the best example of this, and Rivers of London made me wonder if it could be another Neverwhere. It is half crime story and half wizardry, with some element that reminded me of American Gods and others that made me think of Terry Pratchett's city watch if they were relocated to London. I didn't find Rivers of London as indispensible as the aformentioned two, but like Tom Holt's comic fantasies, it was an enjoyable read-once story.

Rivers of London is full of the dry, understated sort of humour that seems (to me, a Brit) as particularly British:
"Martin, noting the good-quality coat and shoes, had just pegged the body as a drunk when he noticed that it was in fact missing its head."
"One officer stated with a suddenly sober Martin while his partner confirmed that there was a body and that, everything else being equal, it probably wasn't a case of accidental death."
The book is peppered throughout with popular-culture references: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lovecraft and possibly Doctor Who, among others. The narrator, Peter Grant, is a clever but easily-distracted policeman who is trying to avoid being assigned permanent paperwork duties. Peter ends up apprentice to a wizard, investigating a string of strange and unsettlingly familiar crimes, living in a Folly with the wizard, a dog called Toby and a creepy housemaid who wouldn't be out of place in a Japanese horror film.

Early on in the story, I had a mad-crazy realisation that I knew what was going on! (The big revelation comes about halfway through.) There are some clues in the book and even on the cover - if you know what you're looking for, and especially if you ever visited Covent Garden or the English seaside as a child. What is a nasty crime to start off with, feels even darker when the source material is identified. It certainly puts a new spin onto one of the Great British Institutions.*spoilers below. 

Although I enjoyed the humour and was impressed by the ideas of Rivers of London, I found the storytelling a bit confusing in places. The scene changes could be jumpy, not always clearly explained and I'd find myself having what I call "QI moments" after the panel show, where the loss of concentration for a split second could leave me utterly bewildered. There were a couple of significant plot advancements which made me wonder, how did we get here? How did he work this out? I had the feeling that Aaronovitch knew where he wanted to go with his story but not always how to get there. Still, it was an enjoyable read and I look forward to reading the sequel, Moon over Soho.

Rivers of London is published in the USA under the title Midnight Riot.

*The Punch and Judy Show. Out of the safe, slapstick context of the puppet theatre, this is horrible! Even in context. I saw part of a Punch and Judy show in the summer and wondered how they were still allowed!
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