by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Books”

How to Make Me Buy a Book

Posted 24 April 2008 in by Catriona

Well, essentially, it just has to be published.

But when I was looking at the upcoming releases in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, after reading the first novel, I came across Libba Brays’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, apparently the first in the Gemma Doyle Trilogy.

Normally, I wouldn’t look twice at a book called A Great and Terrible Beauty, assuming it to be a historical romance of some sort.

Then I saw the first line of the Amazon blurb:

“A Victorian boarding school story, a Gothic mansion mystery, a gossipy romp about a clique of girlfriends, and a dark other-worldly fantasy—jumble them all together and you have this complicated and unusual first novel.”

Yep—pretty much going to have to buy that.

After all, I own an entire bookcase’s worth of girls’ school stories and—while a lot of them tell me about passionate friendships, the rules of lacrosse, and how to win for your house—not one of them is set in “a girls’ academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing.”

Twilight

Posted 24 April 2008 in by Catriona

I have a feeling that I might have been a little over-eager in my rejection of vampires.

I mentioned in that post that I’d just bought Twilight, the first in Stephenie Meyer’s four-part series about, to borrow the terms used in the blurb, a high-school vampire romance.

I know—I was surprised when I bought it as well.

I bought it because it came to my attention as a book that had become something of a phenomenon, and I figured that if I continue labelling myself a bibliophile, I really should judge these things for myself.

Although I suspect that I came to this a little late—I’ve never been a trend-setter, but I do usually get onto these things a little earlier than this. I managed to come to Harry Potter before the real media frenzy built up, after all—not right at the beginning, but early enough to feel a bit smug. (You know, privately.)

(To counter that, though, I didn’t come across Green Wing until four years after it aired in the U. K., which is chastening enough to dampen the Harry Potter smugness.)

I have a vague recollection, if I’m to be totally honest, that I didn’t come across Twilight until I started seeing information about the forthcoming movie adaptation.

You see, it’s so far outside my normal realms of interest.

I read a lot of young-adult fiction—but it’s mostly fantasy. I tend to find that—with exceptions such as Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes saga—most of the innovative, fascinating writing in this genre is aimed at young adults, for some reason.

And I don’t often buy either vampire fiction of any description or horror fiction. (The exception to these two rules is sitting on a shelf behind me, however: I do own the first 30 Days of Night trade, because the concept fascinated me so much. I haven’t read it yet; Nick scared me by telling me to make sure I read it during the day.)

But I bought Twilight and, since I’ve been marking all day and Nick’s been out all night at a Belgian-beer cafe, I read it tonight in one sitting.

That should be sufficient to demonstrate that I enjoyed it much more than I was anticipating.

I wasn’t sure what I’d make of a vampire romance set in high school. The very concept sets off warring reactions.

I’m really not keen to relive high school. I enjoyed high school in terms of the friendships that I made there and the people I got to socialise with. I was also a girly swot—still am, actually—so I enjoyed the academic side of things.

But I didn’t like high school in general; in fact, when I’m very tired or under a lot of pressure, I still often have dreams that I’m back in high school, and that they won’t listen to me when I tell them that I should be able to leave since I already have two degrees.

On the other hand, I’m keen on a good romance narrative these days.

Put the two together, though, and you have a romance between teenagers—which is a bit of a tiring prospect.

But not always—I thoroughly enjoyed I Capture the Castle when I read it a couple of years ago (although the protagonists, while young, aren’t precisely high schoolers) and even got a kick out of The (now somewhat dated) Constant Nymph, with its fraught romance between a young girl and her cousin’s husband.

And I didn’t find this romance irritating, either.

Part of that might have been the prose, which was measured and deliberate without being frustrating—and nicely copy edited, which is important to me these days. With the exception of one incorrect irregular verb—“lay” where it should have been “lie”—nothing leapt out at me.

(Unlike my most recent reprints of Dorothy L. Sayers, which I think must have been prepared on character-recognition software, there are so many frustrating errors.)

But I think what intrigued me was the presentation of the vampires.

I’m not sure that vampires have ever been static characters: the mythos is too varied across the different cultures that believe in blood-suckers for them to have ever been effectually standardised, a point that this novel makes quite neatly.

But since Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire made radical shifts to the textual presentation of vampires, authors have been playing with their depiction.

Twilight doesn’t make any extraordinary alterations to the basic nature of vampires—they still need to drink blood and avoid sunlight, although they don’t sleep in coffins, thankfully—but she does tweak the characters in ways that allow interesting plot developments.

I don’t want to mention spoilers, and I’m not going into the plot, so there’s not much I can say about how the characterisation of the vampires works.

But one thing did intrigue me: the repeated emphasis on the coldness of their skin and their closer resemblance to the artificiality of statues than to humans. I think that’s where my interest in the book really lay: the construction of alienness.

Not a unique gift, perhaps—but one that always interests me when it’s done well.

I guess when it comes down to it, I’m not particularly interested in reading books about ordinary humans living their lives.

But, ultimately, this book is only the first of a four-part saga. I’m going to have to read the rest, now, before I can decide what I really think.

The Eternal Question: Vampires--Good or Bad?

Posted 18 April 2008 in by Catriona

I’m feeling a little melodramatic tonight—not exactly a rare occurrence. Tonight, I think it’s because I’m wearing a floor-length, swishy, velvet skirt, an absurd quantity of bangles—quite why I’m wearing a wristful of Indian bangles while sitting in my own living room enjoying a quiet drink is a bit of a mystery, even to me—and a long cardigan. It’s an ensemble guaranteed to make anyone feel melodramatic.

(And to those who question the inherent coolness of a good cardigan, I shall simply point to the example of Kurt Cobain.)

So, I’ve decided that the best way to harness this melodramatic frame of mind is to listen to some covers of Jimi Hendrix songs and blog about vampires, while waiting for dinner to be ready.

Because the thing is that I’m actually not a big fan of vampires.

Or, more properly, I’m not a big fan of vampire fiction, which is why I put this under “Books” instead of “Television.” (Naturally, I’m also not a big fan of actual vampires: they’re insanely powerful bloodsuckers, and I don’t place much faith in that “can’t enter unless they’re invited” caveat. But, then, to balance that there is the idea that they don’t actually exist—that must be given due weight, I suppose.)

I loved Dracula when I first read it and realised how very different it was from any adaptation I’d ever seen—and I love seeing students’ reactions to it, when they experience it for the first time.

I simultaneously enjoyed and was slightly horrified by Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula. I always did have a soft spot for poor Jack Seward, which is probably partly inspired by the fact that he was once played by Richard E. Grant. But I’ve never read the later books, although Nick owns them all.

I’ve also been reading—intermittently—the Kim Harrison series of alternate history urban fantasies, which have a strong vampire component, and The Dresden Files, which are veering more and more into vampire-focused plots at the stage I’m up to, which is currently the fourth book.

I’ve also recently bought the first book in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, purely, in this case, because I felt I was out of the loop on something that I should probably judge for myself.

But, that lengthy series of exceptions aside, I rarely buy anything from the section of shelving that bookshops are increasingly labelling “Vampire Fiction.”

And I have no patience with the Interview with a Vampire series. I’ve read the first book—I’ve even taught classes on the first book—and I can see both the impact on contemporary horror fiction of Anne Rice’s re-visioning of the vampire and the fascination of the Anne Rice cult. But I really didn’t like the first book, and didn’t fancy reading the later ones.

But to balance this, I rather like vampire films and television. Within reason, anyway.

I was a big fan of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer—until season 5. I did keep watching after that, right until the end, but in common with a lot of fans I felt it lost something of its focus at that point. I liked Spike, but then I’d liked Angel as well, and if Buffy had been willing to kill Angel, why would she so fiercely defend Spike against the people whom he had injured?

I enjoyed Angel as well, although there the disappointment rather worked in reverse: season 1 wasn’t fantastic, to my mind, but it was still finding its feet and it worked itself into an interesting concept (although I do miss Glenn Quinn; I did like him in both Roseanne and Angel.)

But even when it comes to television, I’m not a big fan of vampire-themed shows.

Except for Ultraviolet, which Nick and I are rewatching now (after a brief and ultimately futile discussion as to which of us has been stalling on re-watching it since I bought it for him some years ago: I say him, he says me.)

I suppose, it one wished to be pedantic, you could claim that Ultraviolet isn’t, technically, a vampire show, since they never say the word “vampire” at all. When they do decide, around about episode two, that they do need a general noun, they call them “leeches.” In fact, Nick swears when it first came out it was advertised in such a way that he thought it was about a fraud investigation squad, and nearly didn’t watch it.

But, sophistry aside, it is one of the cleverest vampire-focused shows I’ve ever seen, and it’s holding up now, ten years after it was released (which is scary enough as it is; I don’t like thinking that ten years can pass since a show that I watched as an adult aired on free-to-air television.)

So while I don’t want to end every blog post by wavering away from my original point—I have fears that my blog will end permanently tentative and lacking any firm opinions—I suppose I do have one final caveat.

I’m really not that interested in vampires—unless they’re key characters in sexy British programmes starring Jack Davenport.

And, let’s face it, that doesn’t happen nearly often enough.

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