Hamlet… in an eggshell

Happy Easter! I might have had a little too much time on my hands today, so how better to spend it than making the cast of Hamlet from eggs… yeah, don’t answer that.

Hamlet eggs

Omlet, Prince of Denmark

It’s only when you make the cast out of eggs that you realise how many Easter puns you can stick into misquotes. Alas, poor Yoregg, I knew him well… Don’t worry. I’m back in work tomorrow.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

dark eden chris beckettFor 163 years the Family has patiently awaited rescue from the sunless planet they call Eden, hardly daring to stray far from the landing circle where their common ancestors Tommy and Angela landed on the planet so long ago. The 532 members of the Family, all descended from these original ancestors dream of a return to the planet they’ve heard about in the legends handed down through the generations, a planet where the whole world is made as bright as the insider of a whitelantern flower by the sun in the sky, and they will return there, if only they follow the rules and make themselves worthy to return to Earth. As the family grows larger and food grows scarcer, teenager John Redlantern tears the Family apart, questioning the meaning of the stories they’ve been told and searching for new ways for the Family to survive…

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, winner of the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year has all the ingredients of an intelligent and assured work of Science Fiction, is a clever reimagining of the Adam and Eve story on a sinister alien world which explores the nature of humanity through the figure of John Redlantern, a righteous rebel in a society which never took a bite of the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Oppressive and terrifying in its credibility, it explores a society stunted by its vague adherence to the rules written down by “our mother and father”. Genetic disorders are rife as a result of inbreeding, formal education has long been abandoned and innovation is seen as a threat to tradition.

The plot is genuinely compelling as you become caught up in the events building up to and following on from John Redlantern’s expulsion from the Family, but for me the most interesting aspects of Beckett’s new world were the cleverly imagined language shift which sees the nascent development of a new grammar system and a new vocabulary which takes account of the Family’s very different environment (especially the conflict between older and younger members of society when it comes to words relating to chronology- older members preferring concepts such as years, but younger members referring to wakings and wombtimes which are a more measurable concept in their sunless world) and the bastardization of Earth history which sees the family believing that Hitler killed Jesus, and some members of the Family looking to Hitler as a positive role model in times of conflict.

It’s an interesting read for anyone interested in dystopian fiction and narrative. John Redlatern’s habit of considering how his present actions will be interpreted by future generations and the pointed counter-analysis of his character by Tina Spiketree add an extra dimension to a genre which has often been accused of flat characterisation.

Cover design nerds will appreciate the clever effect that has been used to make rainbows play across the cover- I hadn’t seen this done before, is it a special laminate or foil?

dark eden chris beckett cover effect

 

Quote me on that…bridges and metaphors

Image adapted from original by Jeff Smallwood under the Creative Commons

Image adapted from original by Jeff Smallwood under the Creative Commons

I love everything about The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, if you haven’t read it you must. I especially love this quote about bridges- meeting places, possibilities, metaphors- even though when I’m on them I can freak out a little about the height. So here’s to bridges, especially now the trolls that used to live underneath them moved to the internet.

Boyfriend’s First Ever Cake

Victoria Sponge with a twistThis weekend, at the age of 28, my boyfriend made his first ever cake for Mothers’ Day. He used this easy Classic Victoria Sponge recipe, but switched the butter cream filling for a cream cheese icing on my recommendation as butter cream can be a little sickly and his mother doesn’t have a very sweet tooth.

To make a cream cheese icing whisk together 300g of Philadelphia with 125ml of double cream, then whisk in 150g icing sugar. Obviously it’s much easier to make this simple twist on a Victoria Sponge with an electric whisk. He made this without any physical help from me, clearly his obsessive tendencies have paid off.

Victoria Sponge

The New Face of Vanity Publishing?

Image by Doug Wheller

Image by Doug Wheller

I’ve complained once or twice on the internet (yeah, who am I kidding? Multiply by a factor of at least ten here) about self-publishers who claim that they are indie authors, when an indie author used to be someone who published with an independent press and a self-publisher was someone who published with a vanity press.

I was quite pleased to see this article by Henry Mance on the new face of vanity publishing, which he claims has been updated for the digital age. Now that any Tom, Dick or Harry can publish their own eBook, Henry Mance claims that vanity publishing has reemerged in a new form, which sees the big names like Sir John Hegarty, Charles Saatchi and Morrissey (yes, him again) publishing books to stroke their own egos. Henry’s article The Agony of Hegarty on Creativity is in the Financial Times Business Books section, so you may need to sign up for a free account to read it. It’s a stinger of a review though, so definitely worth the investment of the three minutes that it takes.

The Genre Fiction Debate

corpus christi college

Image by Klovovi under Creative Commons license

Though each speaker(Gaynor Arnold and Elizabeth Edmondson, for, and Juliet McKenna and Anita Mason, against) spoke well, their arguments did seem to repeat each other regardless of what side they were arguing for, the main crux of the issue being reduced to, genre is irrelevant, it’s really a matter of whether the book is good or bad.

Gaynor Arnold’s speech stressed that from her perspective the genre and literary fiction have so much overlap that it’s very unhelpful to put authors into these categories. As an author she was quite concerned that her books would be read as historical fiction. She stressed that a book should be judged by, “is it a good book per se, not is it a good book of it’s type?”

Anita Mason argued in favour of retaining a distinction between the two, because she sees a genre novel as being governed by limitations which allow it to meet the criteria of that genre, while literary fiction is governed by nothing and is trying to do something different.  She cited Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake as a novel which is rooted in a genre (speculative fiction) but has all the qualities of a literary work, comparing writing to a wheel with literary fiction as the hub and genres as the spokes. The hub holds the wheel together and unites the whole, but it is the spokes which give the wheel its strength.

Elizabeth Edmondson used Jane Austen as an example of a literary author who wouldn’t be published as such today- she’d be shoved into romance or comedy which are very rarely considered to be “literary”. Edmondson speculated as to whether classing certain books as being literary fiction wasn’t just a marketing strategy from the publishers to set certain titles apart, a bid to elevate them to the status of literature without the test of time. It’s an interesting idea… one which brings to mind Penguin’s inclusion of Morrissey in its Classics series. Edmondson reminded the audience that though literary fiction may be considered more profound than genre fiction, profundity has a dark twin called pretension which can result in judgemental and reductive reading. “There are only good books and bad books, which can be thrust into many genres- lit fic is just one of these.”

Juliet McKenna was by far my favourite speaker, she is what the world might term a genre fiction writer and is damn proud of it. She sees literary fiction as attempting to reflect real life while speculative fiction introduces an element of other to discuss major ideas without the restriction of a “real life” setting. She argued that the unfamiliar worlds of speculative fiction need to create a clearer picture of the world that they are set in, as the reader’s mind won’t just fill in the blanks that the author has overlooked, so in this sense it is much harder to write speculative fiction well than it is to write literary fiction. I also liked her point about the increased scrutiny that genre fiction authors receive from their reads, the sci-fi and fantasy genres have very active communities built up around them who are incredibly invested in their genres.

The most interesting part of the talk for me was a brief discussion of the influence of metadata in publishing which came up as a result of an audience member complaining that an agent had rejected her novel because it sat across a range of genres. The influence of key words and tagging means that books in future should have the opportunity to define themselves more broadly and reach out to a more specific audience type that isn’t necessarily restricted by a generic categories.

The talk hasn’t revolutionised my views on genre vs literary fiction, I still think genres are useful categorisations for readers. I was a little disappointed that the whole panel was made up of women- even if it is as a result of the Hilda’s college connection. There can only have been two men in the crowd, probably because they saw the genre debate was among a panel of women and thought it would be about chick lit and this genre wasn’t really touched upon. Call me a gender traitor, but I think that putting a man on the panel might have shaken up the debate a little bit- it was a little too collegiate with everyone ultimately agreeing with one another.

A Day at Oxford Literary Festival… complete with thunder

I love Oxford in the rain. Even a little drizzle seems to clear the streets, and if you head off into the city’s many alleyways during a decent downpour it can feel as though you have the whole place to yourself. I got caught out in a thunderstorm while walking between talks at the literary festival today, and had a great time taking touristy pictures in the moody, semi-empty streets. I was pleased to warm up in front of the open fire in Christ Church College’s Great Hall after a little too long taking pictures in the hail and the rain- I was soaked through!

radcliffe camera oxford 2

The Radcliffe Camera in a thunderstorm

oxford martin school

The Oxford Martin School which hosted “Is the planet too full?”
norrington room blackwells oxford

The Norrington Room at Blackwells Oxford- effectively the world’s best book cave

great hall fireplace

Drying off from the thunderstorm in front of the fire in Christ Church College’s Great Hall

great hall christ church college oxford harry potter hogwarts

A full shot of the Great Hall, which Potter fans might recognise as Hogwarts Hall from the films

bridge of sighs oxford

Tourists sheltering from the thunderstorm under the Bridge of Sighs

broad street oxford

Broad Street

christ church college oxford

Christ Church College Quad

christ church college quad 2

Christ Church College Quad in the thunderstorm

bodleian library oxford

The Bodleian Library luring in unsuspecting passers by…

blackwell literary festival marquee

School children enjoying a talk about the most deadly inventions in the Blackwells festival marquee

vaults cafe oxford

The Vaults Cafe looking inviting…

stairs to great hall christ church college harry potter

Entrance to the Great Hall at Christ Church with vaulted ceiling and Narnian style lamposts

sheldonian theatre oxford

The Sheldonian Theatre

Quote me on that… people without books

Adapted from original by the Found Animals Foundation under a Creative Commons license

Adapted from original by the Found Animals Foundation under a Creative Commons license

Few things annoy me more than someone who gets on the train and decides to have a loud phone call for entertainment while ignoring the glares of other people. It’s completely antisocial. Why can’t they bring a book, newspaper or magazine like everyone else? Or use the time for quiet contemplation?

In the wise words of Lemony Snickett, never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them. They might be a public phone caller.

Talking Chaucer with Patience Agbabi and Mark Watson

iconiconLast night I went to an Oxford Literary Festival talk on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and why they still resonate with people which had the poet Patience Agbabi and the comedian Mark Watson as key speakers. Oh my gosh it was amazing, and having bored my boyfriend and friends sick telling them about it, I’ve decided to bore you too.

For me, the best bit, beyond a shadow of a doubt was Patience’s live performance of some of the poems from her new book, Telling Tales, a twenty-first century remix of Chaucer which represents the diversity and dynamism of modern Britain while remaining faithful to Chaucer’s work. Sceptical? So was I until I saw Patience perform, then I was enchanted and I have now bought the book and am watching all of the videos of her performances on YouTube. She originally wrote a modern version of The Wife of Bath’s Tale in her collection Transformatrix, before becoming poet laureate for Canterbury which required her to write poems which had a connection to the city of Canterbury. Check the collection out and I’m sure you’ll agree that the results are phenomenal. If you’d like to see what has turned me into such a raving fan girl, check out this performance from Telling Tales below- I spent most of the night wondering how Agbabi would have approached The Prioress Tale given the overt antisemitism of the Chaucer text and this video shows how brilliantly she’s done this:

Mark Watson read from a modern prose of translation of Chaucer, which inevitably lacked the colour of the original, especially when compared to Patience’s blistering rhymes. Nonetheless he was brilliantly witty all the while being charmingly self-deprecating, telling us before reading “If you  like, you can imagine I’m Chaucer, but this may take substantial effort…I’ve never read this aloud, because why would you? I didn’t write it. I wasn’t at any of the publishing events.”

It was a really lovely night, the only downside being that there was one of those in the crowd… if you know what I mean. One of those is one of the reasons I decided against doing my masters in Literature because one invariably shows up in every seminar and lecture. The ones who always make a point of asking a question which implies an argument with the speaker and is intended to show off which only makes the one of those look silly and irritates the rest of the audience. The most annoying thing about this one was that they actually swapped seats with their wife to get a better eye-line with which to snidely rebuke the panel for not being as clever as they clearly thought they were… tedious, tedious man!

I’m off to more talks tomorrow and on the weekend, very exciting :-)