Friday, 29 July 2011

Vampire Love Songs #2: Happy Hour

"Happy Hour" is a follow up to another short story, "Rehab" - I'd recommend reading that first to get to know the characters a little.
Her dress was ruined.  It hadn't cost much, and it was hardly as if she didn't enjoy buying new clothes, but still.  Was it that hard not to get blood everywhere?  Seemed to Mallory that Seth never spilled a drop of vodka, but when it came to the red stuff he became a dribbling child.  She never could stand messy eaters.
"Calm down," she told her reflection.  She knew this was just one of those moments that transpired in a relationship, where every single thing her husband did, and the way that he did it, felt like it was done with the sole purpose of driving her crazy.
"Breathe," she said to herself.  The hot, nauseous sting of irritation, so much worse in its own way than real fury, began to abate.  Mallory tried to think of something positive, and found it when she remembered that at least they hadn't killed this one.  Knowing Seth he probably wouldn't have minded, but she'd stopped before things went that far.  Ever since the pretty redhead, going all the way had bothered Mallory.
"You alright in there, sweetheart?"  Seth's voice through the door almost sounded like it belonged to someone else.
"Fine, baby," she called back, swabbing her dress uselessly with a damp cloth.  "Out in a minute."
By the time she emerged from the en suite, Seth had expertly cleaned and patched up the neck of the tattooed, peroxide-blond young man who had offered himself up to them so willingly, and was now reclined on the king size bed.  He had a pretty face, softer than the anchors and swallows that decorated his lean torso might suggest.  Mallory could see straight through the ink and piercings; anyone with a place this nice, with a bathroom that big, wasn't an outsider.  He was a daddy's boy.  That biker jacket slung over the bottom of the bed probably contained an iPhone and the keys to an Audi.
"Ready to go?"  Seth asked.  Mallory nodded.  She wanted out of this dress.  The pale sheets on the bed were spotted red.
"Try salt water," she told the boy.
"Bye, Billy," Seth called out from the doorway.
"Bye," the boy said.  "Wait, what?  My name's..."
"Anybody who tries so hard to look like that," Mallory said, indicating his lean physique and bleached hair, "has earned the right to be called Billy."
All that got her was a blank look.  God bless him; he was probably oblivious to who Billy Idol actually was.
"Get some rest," she suggested, fishing around in her handbag.  "And take a few of these."  She tossed him the little bottle of iron supplements she bought a few weeks ago for just these occasions.
"You're so thoughtful," Seth took her hand in his as they made their way down the stairwell.  "How about we go get drunk then fuck 'til dawn?"
"Drinks are on you," was her answer.
It was going to be one of those nights.   She knew it straight away.  The awful kind, where it didn't matter how much she had to drink, she was never going to be able to relax.  Seth had no such problem, of course.  He rarely did.  He sank vodkas and caressed her thigh while she couldn't stop thinking about the red marks on her dress and the young man they'd shared like a platter of nachos.
"Honey," she whispered in his ear, then repeating in a louder voice when it became clear he couldn't hear a word: "I'm really tired.  Why don't you have a couple more drinks and I'll see you at home?"
He nodded, and kissed her goodnight. But Mallory had no intention of going home.
She retraced her steps with minimum effort, arriving back at the apartment only a few hours after she and Seth left together. After knocking on the door, she very nearly turned and left. But she didn't. She waited, feeling rather conspicuous and out of place; a woman in a soiled dress, obstructing an otherwise perfectly respectable hallway. Then Billy answered the door.
You're back,” he said, and she could imagine that for a moment he feared she'd returned to finish him off.
I'm back,” she said, and stepped forward. She could see him suppress a flinch, but he didn't move. She reached out slowly to brush his bottom lip with her thumb, something Seth had done earlier that evening, right before sinking his teeth into the youth's throat. He had drank, and drank, and the young had man just let him. Wincing, and occasionally crying out in pain, but not resisting.
What...” Billy said, in the here and now, “what do you want?”
Mallory lowered her hand and placed that same thumb just between his jeans and his belt buckle. When she leant forward to kiss him, he didn't flinch at all. He wasn't afraid of her any more. She wondered if he could taste his own blood on her as their tongues tentatively met.
She guided him to the bed, just like she and Seth had done earlier, and pushed him down. He fumbled with his belt while she unfastened her dress. His jeans barely made it past his knees before she was on top of him; the skirt of her dress rode up around her waist while the upper half slid down, revealing her pale breasts.
It only lasted a couple of minutes. While Mallory kept her eyes fixed on Billy's tattoos, he stared openly up at her. When he came, she covered his mouth with her own to halt the moans. Then she stood up.
"You're all bloody," he said after she had pulled the dress back up over her shoulders.  He was right; the stains from earlier had already faded to the colour of rust, and something milky had seeped into the hem.  Warm just a moment ago, it grew cold against her leg.
Yes,” she said quietly. “I am.”
Mallory knew she'd have to get rid of the dress now. She should have known better than to wear white.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

A Few Issues With Harry Potter 8

Now, before you read the title of this post and go all Avada Kedavra on me, let me just say: I loved Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows.  I loved the book, and I thought that the two-parter adaptation was pretty spectacular.  But as I was watching the final instalment in the cinema tonight, I couldn't help but feel that the film was a little uneven.  Below are some of my personal best and worst bits.  Please be warned, SPOILERS abound!

Best: The film was in two parts.  I'd cynically assumed it was a money-making ploy on the parts of the studio, but having watched both films back to back, there really was enough going on to carry over four hours of action.

Worst: The film did not need to be in 3D.  I've always been a little sceptical on this matter, but apart from a few specific effects (the magical shield around Hogwarts, the ripples in the Pensieve), it felt gimmicky and largely unnecessary.

Best: The scene where Harry is surrounded by the ghosts of his loved ones in the Forbidden Forest.  Yes, some of the dialogue was heavy handed, and the resurrection stone could be seen as a simple rehash of the Mirror of Erised from book one.  But as somebody who has lost a parent, I couldn't help but get a little misty-eyed at the late Lily Potter's line "we never left".  It is well documented that Harry's life as an orphan stemmed from JK Rowling's own grief following her mother's death.  It is in scenes like this that her storytelling feels most authentic.

Worst: The "limbo" scene at King's Cross.  It was fairly faithfully adapted from the book, but even on the page it seemed nowhere near as original as Rowling's other ideas.  Obviously Christian metaphors abound, and while I have no problem with allegory, the ghost of Dumbledore was far too similar to transparent Obi-Wan from the second and third Star Wars films.  It has to be said though, the vile mini-Voldemort was a gruesome success.

Best: Bellatrix Lestrange's death.  After dancing around like Morticia Addams on crystal meth for a couple of years, it was nice to see Molly Weasley take her down with that immortal line; "not my daughter, you bitch!"

Worst: Bellatrix Lestrange's death.  It should have been Neville to take her down.  Don't you think?  After Bellatrix tortured his parents until they lost their minds, I'd have quite liked to see him skewer her with that magic sword.  (Having just read the last part of that sentence back, it sounds a lot dirtier than intended.)

Best: Young love.  I always thought that the romantic relationships appeared out of nowhere in the book, but on-screen they have taken the care to develop chemistry between pairs.  Ron and Hermione's soaking-wet first kiss down in the Chamber of Secrets made a number of people in the audience cheer.  Harry and Ginny didn't get much screen time together, but I liked how they portrayed her as his equal.  And Neville's mid-battle line "Have you seen Luna? I'm mad for her!" was a little bit glorious.

Worst: The epilogue. I was never truly comfortable with the way Rowling tied up her story in a big neat bow by writing the "19 Years Later" segment.  Yes, it was comforting to know that Harry grew up and married Ginny and stayed life-long friends with his school companions, but the whole naming of the offspring after every last dead character felt a tad twee.  But that's my problem with the book.  My problem with the film's version of the epilogue is: if you want to make these young stars look older, try doing a bit more than giving them all bad hair and making them look a bit fat.

Oh, and before I forget.  Just a few more tiny annoyances...

The trio's heist at Gringott's and escape via dragon seemed like it belonged in one of the earlier, more childish books.  Perhaps this was intended as a callback, but did anyone else feel that it just didn't fit the tone of the film?

The constant slow-motion, hissing moments where Harry sees a glimpse of Voldemort's mind.  This became more and more repetitive, much like the scenes in Lord of the Rings when Frodo would become entranced by Sauran and/or the ring.

Whatever happened to Tonks and Lupin's baby?  When the Order of the Phoenix converged at Harry's House in Part 1, Tonks tried to deliver some good news, but Mad-Eye interrupted.  This is never mentioned again.  Did the film-makers decide that killing off a new mother was just too depressing?  (Even though that is exactly how the saga began...)  I expect this will be explained in some deleted scene.  On another note, who else choked on their own tears, seeing the bodies of Lupin and Tonks very nearly holding hands, like they did in the tower? Sob!

Voldemort's death.  I much preferred the book's climax, where Harry's defensive magic wins over Voldemort's aggressive curse (which I am sure is a statement on the power of pacifism or some such).  It just said more about the characters than the film's fancy magic lightshow and weak explanation of how the elder wand switched owners.  In fact, I was so expecting this scenario that when Voldemort died and began to fall apart, I thought No, this isn't it. He must have something up his sleeve...

Rant over.  These points aside, I really did love this film.  Alan Rickman steals every single scene he is in as the tragic Snape, the Battle of Hogwarts did not disappoint, and even some of the best secondary characters got a moment to shine (I'm thinking specifically of McGonagall and Neville, for both of whom I have a soft spot).

And as strange as it sounds, I felt something akin to pride by the time the credits rolled.  Having first read a book about a little boy wizard ten whole years ago, it was nice to wave him off tonight.  I reckon a lot of people feel that way, feel that Harry Potter and his story belongs to them.  And in a way he does.  As that wise man Neville Longbottom says at a crucial moment in the final film: "Harry lives on in us."

Monday, 25 July 2011

The Bright Side To Moving (5 Forgotten Masterpieces)

I moved house last week.  Anybody who has been through that particular brand of hell will be all too aware of the stress and short tempers that the situation provokes.  But there is an upside to deconstructing your life, packing it into boxes and transporting it elsewhere.  You discover things you had previously forgotten.  Things that had once meant a great deal to you, and subsequently vanished from your mind.  I found a number of items which I had not thought about for years: academic reports from my first year at grammar school, photographs from a childhood holiday with my dad that I barely remembered, aftershave I've never worn, a Nirvana t-shirt that was once the height of cool, a small mountain of condoms from a very optimistic youth...

And books.  Heaps and heaps of paperbacks that I had long thought condemned to charity shops throughout Shropshire.  Below are five of my old favourites that have been put on the "To Be Re-Read" list.

Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite
I've blogged about Brite a fair few times before, so it's not exactly accurate to say that I'd forgotten about her work.  The packing process last week was greatly slowed, however, when I came across her debut novel; I was unable to resist the urge to flick through the pages, read a passage or two.  I can only hope that when I come to revisit Missing Mile in North Carolina, Brite's tale of vampires, rock stars and bromance (an awful term unknown at the time of publication, thank goodness) reads as well today as it did when I was fifteen.

A Density Of Souls by Christopher Rice
With this slice of American Gothic, Christopher Rice stepped out of his famous mother's shadow and earned a place in my heart in his own right.  A Density Of Souls is a coming-of-age story complete with burgeoning teen sexuality, dark family secrets, natural disasters and even acts of terrorism.  I first read it shortly after my father died, when I was feeling particularly alone.  The central character Stephen resonated with me for that reason and many others.  I've read Souls a handful of times since then, and will probably continue to do so.  It perfectly encapsulates the raw, flawed wisdom that comes with being not-quite an adult.

The Daydreamer by Ian McEwan
A youthful and optimistic alternative to McEwan's more adult fare, The Daydreamer is a series of stories about a boy who possesses either an incredible power, or an equally impressive imagination.  He switches bodies first with a cat, then with a baby, gaining incredible insights into their worlds.  Later, he visits his future self and learns about love.  In the hands of any other writer, The Daydreamer could have been awful.  Luckily, with McEwan, we know we're in safe hands.

Tales Of The City by Armistead Maupin
I had a few problems with Tales Of The City when I first read it in 2005.  Mainly, I felt that there wasn't a whole lot of plot and some of the characters were thinly drawn stereotypes.  However, I also felt that Maupin made up for these flaws with his iconic creation, Anna Madrigal.  Matriarchal, mischievous, secretive and seductive, everybody should have a landlady like her.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Need I say more?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Sarah Waters Effect: Literary LGBT Books That Would Make Excellent Television

Since Tipping The Velvet caused jaws to drop nation-wide and Sarah Waters became a household name (at least, in the households that contained a closeted gay or lesbian teenager), her novels have been delicious fodder for adaptation: while it would normally be enough that she is a master storyteller, the lesbian relationships portrayed in novels such as Fingersmith and The Night Watch (showing tonight on BBC2) add an altogether more salacious edge for television.  Earlier this year, Matt Smith starred in the Christopher Isherwood life story Christopher And His Kind, suggesting a new trend in literary, queer drama.  Below are five suggestions for the BBC's next saucy, brainy romp.

Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett
On the strength of this novel, I feel bold enough to say that Bartlett is the male Sarah Waters: Skin Lane's 1960s setting is an urban labyrinth where old-school repression jostles against post-war decadence on the same commuter train.  Mr F, the protagonist, is a tortured loner who develops an obsession with his young apprentice.  The backdrop of the fur industry would make this adaptation visually stunning.

A Spot Of Bother by Mark Haddon
This book isn't quite LGBT; it's a family tale that revolves around the chaos caused by a wedding.  One subplot is about son Jamie, who is dumped rather suddenly and cruelly by his boyfriend and spends the rest of the novel coming up with ways to feel better (one attempt includes an inadvertently hilarious hook-up).  This adaptation could be as raunchy or as family-friendly as the BBC like, as the source material is warm and funny enough to entertain without having to titillate.

The Spell by Alan Hollinghurst
Hollinghurst's prize-winning The Line Of Beauty was a fantastic reimagining of Brideshead Revisited in the Eighties, and the BBC miniseries perfectly captured not only the beginnings of the AIDs crisis, but also the reign of the Iron Lady and the fall of the untouchable upper classes.  The Spell is only a slightly less ambitious read, following the doomed romantic adventures of Alex, an uptight professional who visits his ex-lover Justin and his new partner Robin for a weekend, only to fall in love with Robin's twentysomething son Danny.  The clash of country living with the drug-fuelled nightlife that Danny revels in would make this a colourful show, if nothing else.

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
Part of the Canongate Myths series, Girl Meets Boy is a modern retelling of the legend of gender-swapping Iphis.  Smith's prose is on a par with that of Sarah Waters, Ian McEwan and any other modern writer you care to name.  Gender swaps have made for some dodgy TV entertainment in the past, but the story here is strong enough to carry the concept.

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
Venice.  Napoleon.  A girl with webbed feet.  The lush imagery and period setting of this magical realist novel would provide a beautiful and fantastical backdrop for an adaptation, which follows the life of Villanelle, a curious creature with a thirst for life and a craving for the love of a bad woman.  A miniseries version would perfectly compliment the numerous Dickensian films the BBC churns out each year, while adding more flamboyant touches such as a man with a glass eye and a seductress who keeps the hearts of her conquests in a jar.

What do you think?  Who should be the next LGBT author to sky-rocket now that the BBc have more or less exhausted Sarah Waters's back catalogue?  Suggestions in the Comments section please.


Wednesday, 6 July 2011

5 Novels That Don't Live Up To The Hype

It's like paying for an expensive meal when you haven't really enjoyed it.  Or waking up with a hangover when you didn't even get that drunk.  Below are five novels that I looked forward to reading, only to finish with a somewhat empty, disappointed feeling.  Each entry is followed by a suggestion for a more fulfilling alternative.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Say what you like about Niffenegger's debut The Time Traveler's Wife, but there's one thing you can't deny: it got our attention.  About a gazillion book sales and a blockbuster adaptation later, Niffenegger went from sci-fi-tinged romance to ghostly, Gothic fare.  Unfortunately, she just didn't seem to take to this genre as well as some other authors.  While she started off with all the right ingredients (mirror twins, a haunted apartment overlooking Highgate Cemetery, a horde of family secrets), it was as if she couldn't quite get the recipe right.  We are meant to sympathise with submissive Valentina over domineering twin Julia, but I wasn't able to get past her sickly, indeterminable characterisation.  Similarly, the plot twists that come into effect in the latter half of the novel weren't as shocking as they were meant to be - we've seen it all before. 
If you're looking for a rich, well-written tale with a similar plot and themes, I suggest you try Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris.

The Death Of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave
I never read Cave's first novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, so I had no preconceptions about his writing style when it came to The Death Of Bunny Munro (apart from what I had gleaned from his music).  The book is sexually explicit throughout, which in itself is no problem, but Cave seems to have used graphic scenes of masturbation over any element of plot.  And while I'm used to reading novels with unsympathetic protagonists, I found myself actively hating Bunny.  When the novel reached its climax, living up to its title in the process, I felt like throwing the book down and cheering.  Perhaps it was Cave's intention to make the reader wish for Bunny's death, thus creating a more satisfactory ending (and placing the reader in collusion with the demonic serial killer) - if so, I applaud him.
Another novel about someone confronting the end of their days is Veronika Decides To Die by Paulo Coehlo.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Let me get this out of the way first: I am a huge McEwan fan.  My problem with On Chesil Beach is not the quality of the writing, or the characterisation.  It is simply that, after thriller Enduring Love and damn near flawless Atonement, On Chesil Beach feels a little flimsy and, well, plotless.  Newlyweds travel to their honeymoon.  Bride is a virgin terrified of her wedding night, groom can hardly wait.  Their courtship is beautifully revealed in McEwan's brilliant prose, but the impressive build-up only serves to emphasise that this novel goes nowhere.
If you're looking for another good, short read by McEwan, try The Comfort Of Strangers.

The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
Maybe I'm a philistine. Maybe I don't know what "art" is. Maybe I don't understand Holden Caulfield because I've never been a privileged teenager who had to "rebel" against his elite school.  There are some things that I do like about this book.  The opening passage, for instance.  And the little sister.  It's not, in itself, a necessarily bad book.  I'm just not sure how or why it has become such a much-lauded classic.
For angsty, misunderstood America, read The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The first time I read Wuthering Heights, it was during my final year at university.  And like many book-lovers, I often find myself purposely disliking a book for the simple fact that I'm being forced to read it, and would rather read something else.  So I thought I'd give Miss Bronte another chance, and re-read Wuthering Heights after graduating. Sadly, Cathy was still just as whiny and Heathcliff was even more of a bastard than I remembered.  To me, this novel is not a doomed romance, or a tragic love story.  It's an account of an incredibly destructive, co-dependent and abusive relationship.
For fans of love and pain, pick up a copy of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

A few other books which I felt let down by include: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (very interesting concept ruined by juvenile, plodding prose) and The Book of Dave by Will Self (in which a talented writer attempts, and fails, to create a believable dystopia).

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Book Review: Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett

I first saw a copy of Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett in the Hugh Owen library at Aberystwyth, in a small fiction stand by the entrance, propped up between The Kite Runnerand Small Island.  That was almost three years ago, but it was only last month that I finally bought a copy.  The cover, with its photograph of fur and steel, and blurb which gave almost nothing away, had me thinking it would be an urban thriller in the vein of Fight Club.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  Narrated in an omniscient voice familiar to anyone who has ever been read a fairy tale or bedtime story, Skin Lane is the story of Mr F - a middle aged man who works in the fur industry and lives a solitary existence.  The year is 1967, the setting is London, and Mr F's structured, quiet life is about to be thrown into chaos.  One night, he has a dream.  An unsettling, compelling dream which returns night after night

Mr F's nocturnal insecurities begin to bleed into his usually disciplined working life.  When his employer brings in his nephew and instructs Mr F to take him on as an apprentice in the cutting room, he finds somebody on which he can place all of his fear and blame for the dream.  The nephew is young, handsome, cocky and charming - everything Mr F is not.  As the narrative takes an unexpected turn, each man is cast in their respective role of Beauty and the Beast.  The apprenticeship unfolds almost like a love affair, as each piece of raw, wild skin is transformed into a thing of luxury, to be placed upon the shoulders of a wife or mistress in return for one favour or another.

For the first two hundred pages, I had no idea where this story was going, or where it possibly could go.  So little actually seems to happen, and yet at the book's end, everything has changed.  Skin Lane is not a fairy tale, nor is it a love story.  It is simply Mr F's story: one of loneliness and desire, although it is unlikely that such an insular, compulsive character would even recognise these words as pertaining to him. 

You might not think that a novel set against the fur trade of the 1960s would be the most engaging of stories, but I was rapt throughout.  Bartlett's writing had me cringing with discomfort on one page, then would bring a sting to my eyes in the next.  Its closing chapters are by far the strongest, as all of the latent passion of the last three hundred pages is finally addressed, resolving everything and nothing.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Nine Lives: A Short Story From "Sweet Tooth"

A cat and a dog sit on opposite sides of the road, regarding each other silently. The cat is sleek and black, with impossibly knowing jade eyes. The dog is a giant, kindly-looking thing. Recognition fills the silent midday air.
“This is quite a surprise,” says the cat.
“You don't say,” the dog replies. After a moment he adds; “You look... good.”
“Thank you.” Neither of them say anything for a moment. That's the thing about reincarnation, it's unpredictable; the cat had honestly not expected to see him for a few more lifetimes. If she weren't so impassive and catlike, she might be breathless.
Dog wishes he could be as nonchalant, but the truth is he can't look at her, even now, without a slight twitch in his tail. She was always beautiful, and she always knew it. This new form suits her. Which is more than can be said for him; a great baggy lummox, always wearing his own body like an oversized coat.
Cat knows that she has this effect on him, but she can't help it. She would never in a million years admit how far she has fallen; how her name is now a ludicrous moniker bestowed on her by children, how she eats from any home that will have her when once she could sit alone in a restaurant and never have to raise her hand for the bill. That was before she met him, of course – the Man who would become Dog.
Now, years after they've both forgotten how many years it's been since they first met, Cat and Dog sit and stare at each other. This is typical of them, they've both come to realise. Not so much star-crossed, just a doomed mismatch. After a while, the cat turns tail, and begins to walk away.
“You're still...” Dog blurts out, but he can't finish the sentence. Still what? The love of his life? Of all his lives?
Cat looks back, and for a moment Dog thinks he sees something in her eyes, something old and familiar, but it could be his imagination.
“When will I see you again?” He finally asks.
“Don't worry,” she says, and he knows she understands. “We've got time.”

"Nine Lives" is a story from my anthology 
available on Amazon Kindle for just $2.99