Friday, March 25, 2011

TV Drama - US or UK??

As you know I do love a bit of TV. My all time favourite TV series is The West Wing but I've recently delved back in to my previous love of SF with a Battlestar Galactica marathon. I've always loved science fiction TV, from Blakes 7 and Star Trek back in my
youth, through ST:NG and Deep Space Nine. I kind of drifted away from SF round about Star Trek: Voyager, though I have dipped in and out of that too. I picked up on Stargate Universe, because I like Robert Carlyle, though I'd never watched any of its previous incarnations. I'm currently eagerly awaiting its return from a mid-season break. (Why does US TV do that - it drives me nuts). I'd been hearing good things about the new series of BG though and succumbed to a great deal on the complete boxset. There's really not much better than a good, well structured, well-written, TV series that doesn't feel the need to talk down to its audience. Geek TV and knitting go so well together too. I did almost all my Christmas knitting on my days off while watching Starbuck fall apart on BG. This is why I prefer a DVD boxset of a series - I can watch as many as I like back-to-back without having to wait for the TV schedulers to provide my fix.

I do like American TV. I know we usually only see the best of it over here, but
they do produce some great stuff. I am already in love with Sky Atlantic. Totally the best thing on TV at the moment - Treme. A series about New Orleans, set in the area called Treme where lots of musicians lived pre-Katrina, and following a group of people trying to put their lives back together in the wake of the hurricane. I love it. It's fantastically well-scripted, but even if it wasn't, the music is wonderful. It makes my week. The boxset of this will be available soon so I can heartily recommend it, and a second season has already been commissioned.

British TV is not doing quite so well for me at the moment. I had reasonably high
hopes for Outcasts, the BBC's first foray into SF for quite a while, and I could see what they were trying to do with it. Definitely aiming for the BG audience and with Jamie Bamber in the first episode. But ultimately it was a disappointment. It had that old BBC need to pander to the audience and explain things that really we had already understood. If you're aiming an SF series at people who are already literate in that genre then it's really not necessary to state the obvious at every turn. It used a lot of the same themes that BG used - escape from a doomed planet, the sense of history repeating itself, a humanoid appearing people in conflict with humans. But the handling of these issues was very ham-fisted. Some of the acting was distinctly ropey too, which didn't help. Anyway, no-one watched it, it got swiftly shuffled off to a late slot on BBC2 and has now been cancelled.

However I can't be too hard on the Beeb because they have brought us the wonderful
The Killing - OK, so they didn't make it, and they put it on BBC4 so they haven't pushed it too hard, nor did they shout about it too much. It was people on twitter that alerted me to this series. And I was a bit dubious - it's a 20 part series, set in Copenhagen, about a murder - yes all 20 episodes, just about the one murder, and it has sub-titles because I don't speak Danish, which means I can't knit while watching. But let me tell you - it is utterly fantastic, totally gripping and if the BBC don't repeat the whole series on a more mainstream channel then they are just as much the fools I always thought they were. I have been watching this on iPlayer on my laptop (with a small screen) because I missed the first episodes and have been desperately trying to catch up, and even in that format it is fantastic. It finishes on Saturday. I can't wait.

Just one more thing to say - BBC, please do not try to make a series like The Killing. All the evidence shows that you are incapable of doing this. Here's a suggestion though. Commission more from the quality writers you already use like Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. How about something steampunk?

Picture of the lovely Avon from Blake's 7, still from outcasts and cast photo from The Killing, all courtesy of the BBC, still from Treme courtesy of HBO

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Failing the 50 Page Test

I used to try and finish every book that I started but these days I am so swamped with things that must be read, should be read, are long overdue to be read and cry out to be read, that I have developed my 50 page rule.

If the book hasn't grabbed me within 50 pages then I put it down and let it go. This is a major achievement for me. I'm the sort of person who once I've started to watch a film, can't stop. Even if I can tell where it's going and I can't stand the acting/script/direction, I will watch a film to the end just to see if I'm right about it. I used to be like that with books too. I would drag myself through the most turgid prose and ridiculous plot right to the bitter end. Of course there are books with which I can't do that. If I'm reviewing a book I will read all of it. Sometimes I will have to read all of it in a vain attempt to find something positive to say about a book. To write a review I need to have read the whole book or I'm not giving it a fair review. And sometimes it's not the fault of the book - it's just not the right book for my frame of mind at that moment. These books, while they do get put down, usually get picked up again further down the line somewhere. But in general, so many books pass through my life that I just don't have the time / energy/ will to read dull or ludicrous or badly written books. So I don't.

Here are a couple of examples of books which failed my 50 page test recently.

Too Close to Home by Linwood Barclay. I liked Linwood Barclay's first book No Time for Goodbye, the premise for which was "What if you came home from school and your family had gone?" I liked the characters of the woman who's family disappeared when she was a girl. I liked the way Barclay dealt with some of the issues this brought up for the woman. And I didn't think it was at all badly written. The premise for this one is "What if your neighbours get murdered and you find out that the killers went to the wrong house?" I just couldn't get into this one. There didn't seem to be any subtlety about the way it was constructed. Details that were obviously important to the plot were telegraphed in such a way that they seemed to just leap off the page. I just couldn't continue with it, though I did persevere for about 100 pages to give it a fair trial.

The other book that was a fail for me was Great House by Nicole Krauss. Now this book is getting great reviews all over the web and
in the papers so this is probably just me. I liked the idea - this is a multi-stand story about a woman in New York, a man in London and an antique dealer in Jerusalem. All the stories are linked by a desk which we hear about first with the woman in New York. Back in the 1970s she spends the night with a Chilean poet, who asks her to look after his desk for him. He then goes back to Chile where he is arrested by Pinochet's secret police and never heard from again. So far so good. I like the idea of the desk linking the stories. As someone who has worked with antiques on a minor scale this is an idea I've pondered from time to time - how a piece of furniture or an object has an importance in or influence on people's lives far and beyond it's importance as an object. I liked the Chilean poet though we only met him briefly, but the woman was horribly self-obssessed and I really didn't want to spend any time in her company. I'm not entirely sure that I managed 50 pages. She's supposed to be looking after the desk for the poet but when his daughter turns up to claim it all she can think about is how she can keep the desk. Now that I've savaged it this book will probably win the Booker prize - it's one of those books. Some people obviously love it. I just hated it.

Do you have a 50 page, or a 100 page rule? And what's failed your test recently?

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Long Overdue Book Update

The books I've been waiting to blog about have been sitting on the desk in the office for weeks waiting for me to get the chance to write this post. They've been taunting me - demanding my attention and I'd just been putting them off and ignoring them. Well that'll teach me because now that I finally have the time, the books seem to have walked. So you'll have to bear with me while I try and remember what it was I wanted to say about these.

I started the New Year with Telling Tales by Ann Cleeves which is one of the Vera Stanhope series. I enjoyed this very much. It's set on the coast in one of those isolated, insular communities that Cleeves does so well. The indomitable Vera is an outsider, come to look at an old case. That old case is unmistakeably mixed up in a more recent murder, but Vera is not supposed to be looking at the new murder. You can imagine that's going to remain the case, can't you? It's very good. I'm looking forward to seeing what the ITV have done with the character when the TV series finally airs. It's still billed on the ITV website as "coming soon" but there's no mention of a date yet.

I also read Findings by Kathleen Jamie, which was a recommendation from a podcast, though I can't remember which one. Anyway I was delighted as I read to realise that I recognised some of the places she was describing and that she lives in Newburgh in Fife which is where my parents used to live and where I lived for a few years before I left home. She's a fantastic writer with a way of bringing the landscape alive whether she's describing an osprey's nest in Fife or the ancient tombs of the Orkney Isles.

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill is a fantastic book which I knew I wanted to read as soon as I saw it. I waited for the paperback to come out and it was worth the wait. It's the tale of a woman, kidnapped into the slave trade in Africa as a young girl, and her subsequent life in Virginia, Canada, Africa and London. A bit like a female version of Alex Haley's Roots, though it's just the one life. Aminata is a wonderful character and her life story is gripping and real. I loved this book. It's beautifully written and a great mix of sadness and gentle humour.

A change of pace was called for so I picked up The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly. This is not a Harry Bosch book, but a return for Jack McAvoy, who we first met in The Poet. Now The Poet is one of my favourite books. It was the first thriller I picked up after I been on a female only fiction kick for quite a while and I remember being totally gripped by it and not wanting to put it down. Sadly that was not the case for this book. I couldn't really connect with Jack in this book. He's just being made redundant from the newspaper he's been working for and he has the chance to do one last big story. The story turns out to be very different from the one he thought he was writing however and it puts his life at risk. To me this book was a tad too formulaic. Early on in the book there's a description of a place (I shan't spoil the plot for you if you haven't read it) and I thought immediately "that's where the denouement takes place". After that all the pieces fell into place and I knew exactly what was going to happen. I was disappointed. On the other hand I've always thought that Connelly's standalone books (apart from The Poet) have been inferior to his Harry Bosch novels. I'm not a big fan of the Mickey Haller books either - but that's because I'm not really into legal thrillers not because I think they're bad books.

I like to try and read all kinds of different crime novels so I know what I'm talking about if called to recommend things. So I had to read a Carola Dunn, though to be honest I thought they probably wouldn't be my thing. I randomly selected Rattle His Bones. (By randomly selected, I mean "found in a charity shop!). I have to say that I was right about them not really being my cup of tea. This one features the Honorable Daisy Dalrymple stumbling over a murder in the Natural History Museum. It's light and fluffy, and the characters are amusing, and I guess if you start at the beginning and work through them then you see Daisy develop and her relationship with Alan blossom. And if you like that then you'll probably like these. They're not at all badly written, quite sweet without being too sickly, just not for me. I started off fine and was quite amused for a hundred pages or so then my attention started to drift. I began to be irritated by Daisy and I wanted something grittier. It's a matter of personal preference. I don't like cosy crime. Give me a serial killer any day. But I know what they're about now and can happily recommend the series to those who like their murders fluffy.

A proof of My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young came my way with warnings that the ending shouldn't be revealed so as not to spoil the book for anyone else. It's set just before and during the First World War and is the intertwined stories of two relationships. It's well written and I enjoyed reading it. I have a bit of a thing for WW1 writing - those who've been reading this blog may remember that the novel I am currently failing to write is partly set during WW1. Anyway the title of the book comes from the preprinted postcard that was sent to next of kin when a loved one was injured at the Front - a very unspecific and general communication that told very little. And this book is all about miscommunication, about people who can't say what they need to say, or just don't say what they need to say and the effects this has on those around them. I loved reading it, thought the characters were interesting and original, though there were some I wanted more of who got rather sidelined. The end, however, about which as instructed I will say nothing, the end was a little bit of a disappointment to me. I think I was expecting a big set-piece ending or a huge shock and it didn't come. It's not that the ending was bad, or even wrong. It was fine, but I had predicted it, then discounted my prediction because "the end is amazing". Perhaps I just read too much crime fiction. Anyway I did enjoy the book and I would recommend it, though I thought the end was not as strong as it could have been.

Back soon with a couple of books which failed my 50 page test. And some FOs. Yes, really. Finished Objects. I have actually finished some knitting. Amazing.