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Archive for the ‘Book waffle’ Category

Ahem. As you may or may not be aware, the next few days see the holding of Loncon 3, a major international SF convention. To tie in with this, the SF fanzine Big Sky has produced a couple of PDFs containing appreciations of the complete set of books in the noted and laudable SF Masterworks line. I have been asked to provide a plug for this, and, well, you’re reading it.

Full disclosure: I’m in the PDFs, with (lightly) edited versions of stuff from here and Good Reads, and the odd thing written specifically for Big Sky. But look on the bright side, the rest of it is bound to be good. 

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Not long ago I picked up a second-hand copy of Michel Houellebecq’s H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. I would say I’m interested in Lovecraft more than an actual fan of his work – while the so-called Great Texts are brilliant achievements (though in quite what field I’m not entirely sure), also owning the recent releases of Necronomicon and Eldritch Tales means I am aware that a lot of HPL’s output is repetitive, peculiar and arguably quite wearisome.

Anyway, the Houellebecq book is interesting, though I would just say this should you also come across a copy – it looks substantial enough, but once you take out Stephen King’s rather lovely introduction and the reprints of two classic HPL tales, you’re left with an essay rather less than a hundred pages long. If you were a complete HPL newbie then I can’t imagine this being much of an issue, given you get two of the Great Texts in the same volume: I, on the other hand, am now the owner of four different copies of The Call of Cthulhu in different collections and formats, and three of The Whisperer in Darkness (not even a particular favourite of mine, it has to be said).

Houellebecq writes cogently and interestingly about HPL’s style and preoccupations, suggesting that the lack of certain subject matter in his work (basically, there’s no sex) is not necessarily as psychologically illuminating as people often assume, but perhaps instead the result of a conscious choice. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with this, but it is at least thought-provoking.

Most interesting is a section on Lovecraft’s soujourn in New York City in 1924, which is actually quite touching as it depicts his inability to engage with the modern world and opens up the intriguing possibility of how his life might have gone differently had he managed to find a job, preserve his marriage, and so on. Never to be, I suspect, and it’s only after this traumatic period that the Great Texts were written (Houellebecq throws up the engaging notion that the blasphemous city of R’lyeh, along with all the other nightmarish metropolii which crop up in his later work, are in fact depictions of New York as HPL perceived it).

Houellebecq also touches upon the issue of HPL’s racism and does so with a commendable lack of squeamishness. Even a cursory skim through HPL reveals some very nasty stuff going on – blacks explicitly likened to chimpanzees, the demonisation of anyone who isn’t Caucasian in The Call of Cthulhu itself – but to read extracts of HPL’s own letters on this topic is to take it to another level. The delirious, hyperbolic, almost glossolalic outpouring of words which characterises HPL’s most characteristic moments is put to the service of some appalling notions, such as when he describes New York’s immigrant population:

The organic things – Italo-Semitic-Mongoloid – inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep sea unnamabilities.

Damn it, Howard, don’t mince words – tell us what you really think! Of course, here we’re touching upon one of the age-old issues, as to how much one should let the nature of the artist influence one’s opinion of the art – the same thing applies to a lesser or greater degree to everyone from Wagner to Damon Albarn, not forgetting Charlton Heston along the way. With HPL it’s possibly slightly different in that his prejudices are so clearly fundamental to his work. Houellebecq doesn’t attempt to excuse them, but instead attempts to put them in context and explain their origin (maybe this in itself constitutes an apologia of sorts).

HPL’s racism is one of things that makes reading his work a slightly awkward experience sometimes, but Houellebecq is also very clear about why it is his work has endured and thrived – it is unique in style, and in its startling effect upon the receptive reader.

I nibble around the edges of HPL’s works quite often, not often having the time and energy to tackle the longer, lesser stories, but I think about him and influence relatively frequently, quite simply because he seems to me to be the single most influential figure in the horror genre as we understand it today.

I’ve said this before but I think it bears repeating – HPL was writing in the early years of the 20th century, when our whole conception of the world was shifting onto a new basis following various developments in the sciences. Influential, largely mechanistic philosophies were entering the mass consciousness for the first time, and there was a transition in process between a spiritual age and a materialistic one. And this transition, to me, is what drives HPL’s best writing.

The Great Texts, and many of the other stories, seem to me to be the products of a writer appalled by the philosophical basis of the new age and seeking to articulate this revulsion in any way he can. With the old Judaeo-Christian anthropocentric worldview looking increasingly archaic, the materialistic Darwinian one replacing it offered rather less comfort. I use the word Darwinian intentionally, because HPL clearly seems to have found the notion of evolution as repulsive as any fundamentalist Christian today. And this disgust finds its way into the stories – the central horror of Arthur Jermyn is of a man discovering he is descended from apes, while that of The Shadow Over Innsmouth is of another character discovering his ultimately marine ancestry.

HPL’s rejection of the modern scientific worldview also finds an expression in his praise of ignorance and rejection of the quest for knowledge in several stories. The famous opening sentence of The Call of Cthulhu expresses relief at human inability to make sense of the contents of our own heads, while At the Mountains of Madness features the narrator desperately hoping his account will dissuade anyone from following in his footsteps and acquiring more sanity-blasting knowledge. This is the intellectual and moral equivalent of sticking your head under the duvet and refusing to acknowledge uncomfortable truths even exist, a rejection of reason and curiosity at a fundamental level.

Perhaps this explains some of HPL’s appeal, but then there is also his unique (and that’s putting it mildly) prose style. It is customary to point out that HPL’s plotting is usually somewhat pedestrian, his characters thin and interchangeable, and his dialogue frequently rather embarrassing (his fondness for meticulously-rendered dialect speech particularly so). Was HPL even bothered about these things? How much of his style is the result of conscious decisions?

Hard to say. But show any reader savvy with SFF literature a paragraph rattling on breathlessly and stuffed with words like Cyclopean, paleogean, chromaticism and unnameable and they will instantly identify the author. Restrained and subtle HPL is not, but he is still a notable stylist, especially since all this overwrought prose at the same time manages to be usefully vague about most of what he’s writing about.

Again, this can be controversial – Michael Moorcock, in Starship Stormtroopers, describes HPL’s writing as ‘offensively awful’ with a ‘resultant inability to describe his own horrors’ (‘leaving us to do the work – the secret of his success – we’re all better writers than he is!’). Given the rather forensic descriptions occurring in several places in the HPL canon, I think this is a bit unfair – and, in any case, suggested horror is more to my personal taste than the no-holds-barred explicit kind.

Which brings me to another HPL-themed book I looked at recently, a collected edition of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Neonomicon. Now, this isn’t a book I can properly review or write about in great detail, but even the fairly cursory glance I gave it has left it lodged in my head ever since (I think I may partly be writing this piece in an attempt to exorcise it).

Some people have suggested that Neonomicon is an oblique rant by Moore against the state of the current comics industry and the style of storytelling in widespread use within it. Well, maybe, but Moore himself has said in an interview that one of the notions motivating this story was (I paraphrase) to dig into the texture of the Mythos and actually explore what it is that HPL was writing about so obscurely – to take the unnameable and unspeakable, and to name it and talk about it.

The result is a book which, to be honest, I am surprised is on sale in high street bookshops – certainly without a sealed wrapper, anyway. On one level the plot is quite straightforward, concerning FBI agents investigating what appears to be a cult of Lovecraft-influenced fetishists, but – this being Alan Moore – there is inevitably a level of metatextuality going on here. The story is set in a world where Lovecraft was a penurious writer, and the Mythos stories are cult fiction, and this allows Moore to slip in various jokes and observations along the way. But then someone notices that the fetish cult has been in existence since before HPL wrote his stories, which means they can’t be copying him – could he in fact have been writing about something he really encountered?

All this is clever enough, but really by the by: the core of the story concerns an attempt by the main characters to infiltrate the cult and what happens afterwards. All goes well to begin with, but then they are discovered: the male agent is killed and his female partner is gang raped at considerable length as part of a ceremony to summon a Deep One (which duly shows up at the end of the second issue). The rape is depicted over many pages and in great detail, and – to my mind at least – it’s utterly vile and repulsive. If the same images were shown in a movie, that film would only be on sale in specialist adult shops.

The next issue is arguably just as bad, concerning the female agent being locked in a cellar with the Deep One, who proceeds to violate her repeatedly over a period of days. Again, nothing is left to the imagination and it is really quite appalling. I can see why some are suggesting that Moore is making a point here about the mindset of a certain kind of comics reader, and the way female characters are routinely treated, but – Jesus. This stuff is really horrible, surely much more than was required to make the point and easily enough to alienate and disgust people who would agree with Moore on this issue.

The final issue is a bit more palatable and has an interesting new take on certain aspects of the Mythos, but it’s hard to escape the notion that for the writer this book is primarily about the graphic sex and sexual violence that comprise most of the middle two chapters.

Lovecraft himself would surely have execrated Neonomicon as gutter filth of the lowest kind, for all that it is clearly an intelligent piece of work, thoughtfully-produced, and written by someone very familiar with the HPL canon. Is Moore in fact challenging readers of HPL’s prose in this book, as if to say ‘This is what really powers these stories – these are the unspeakable rites you’re so used to reading about’? If so, then Neonomicon is a typically brilliant piece of work from Moore, delivering a typically incisive and plausible critique of HPL and the Mythos while simultaneously being a credible addition to the Mythos itself.

That said, HPL’s words, at their best, leave me with a nebulous sense of wonderment and an equally vague kind of existential dread. Moore and Burrows’ pictures, on the other hand, just overwhelm me with a visceral disgust. Which of these is the more honest and realistic response to HPL’s ideas is surely debateable, but I think it would be wrong to suggest that Neonomicon is what Lovecraft’s work is ‘really’ about. There may be an element of truth there, but to reduce the Great Texts to being nothing more than camouflage for such squalid and limited obsessions is to do both them and their creator a great disservice.

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I can’t seem to stop buying books at the moment. There’s no reason why I should keep buying them – I still have Jailbird, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, and Volume I of the Complete Short Stories of Philip K Dick to look at from when I moved into the garret, not to mention Collected Stories of W. Somerset Maugham and The Painted Veil which I’ve picked up since. And you would have thought that, upon (finally) finishing The Complete Father Brown Stories, I would have got stuck into one or other of these.

And thus was the plan: I packed the Collected Somerset Maugham into my knapsack ahead of my recent trip away (all right, World War Hulk was in there too, just in case I fancied a change of pace). But I popped into Waterstones to use the loo on the way to the bus station and while I was in there (Waterstones, not the toilet) I found a rather lovely imported edition of The Tale of Genji. So I bought that, even though it is a bulky beast, and not to be undertaken lightly.

Then on Tuesday I found myself in Market Harborough and passed up the various fleshy indulgences of Cafe Nero and the Edinburgh Woollen Mill in order to do a quick sweep of the charity shops. There were the usual large numbers of discarded copies of Life of Pi (one day I will go into an Oxfam or Age Concern and find the bookshelves stocked entirely with 500 copies of Life of Pi). In my defence I will point out I resisted the urge to buy Brave New World and the collected scripts of Round the Horne. Nevertheless I emerged with Canal Dreams by Banksy and Fabulous Harbours, a fascinating collection of mid-to-late-period Michael Moorcock which may yet prove vital in my quest to assimilate the works of the bearded titan. So I ended with three new books over the weekend, and it’s not even as if I’m reading that fast these days (the last book I finished in one sitting was – er – World War Hulk, and I know what that says about me).

You may be thinking that there’s not a lot of wargaming in this supposedly-wargame-related blog post. And you would be right, except that I am attempting to communicate something of the quality of my wargaming experience this week, which – likewise – did not contain a lot of wargaming.

I wound up playing a Tau army at 1000 points, which, as usual, necessitated some mental arithmetic which I cocked up. The dice suggested we play a mission entitled Vertical Envelopment. The scenario is that the two armies line up face to face no closer than 18″ apart, and the winner is the one who destroys the most units in the opposing army.

Now I don’t usually knock the Battle Missions book but this scenario just seems to invite the Tau to set up well back in their deployment zone and just go shooty-shoot-shoot: it plays entirely to their strengths (with the addition that they can bring their piranhas and hammerheads on behind the enemy army if they so choose), and they get the first turn (i.e. shooting phase) on a 2+.

And so it transpired, with the Blood Angels staggering forward through a hail of fire in a vain attempt to engage the Tau up close. When I got to initiate assaults, the Blood Angels effortlessly destroyed whatever they contacted, even though it was only two vampire-marines against a full Tau squad on both occasions. And the downside was that the assault units were left hung out to dry in the aftermath of the assault of both occasions and didn’t survive the Tau counterfire.

Well, anyway, I’m not going to attempt a full blow-by-blow partly because I can’t remember which Tau units shot up which ones of mine (I will say that the Tau do seem to get an awful lot of models at 1K though). And it wasn’t as if I was wiped out by the end of turn 6, when the game ended: I had a tactical marine with a missile launcher hanging in there. Nevertheless I had lost 5 units and only managed to kill some Kroot, some pathfinders, a piranha and some stealthsuits, so it was a 5-4 win for the Tau.

Not, you would think from looking at the score, a terrible drubbing, but still unsatisfactory. The game only lasted about thirty minutes, because the Tau were mainly just using their shooting phase and I was mostly moving and then running. And on the bus home I realised my army had actually only totalled 940 points and I could have given the Death Company their rhino transport. I can’t imagine how this game would have gone if they’d been mobile: as it was they lost 7 out of 10 troopers in the first Tau shooting phase (nearly a quarter of the points cost of the army).

Even before this game I had been thinking that my army relied too much on the Death-and-Meph combo to contest games and this performance only confirmed that (I didn’t take Mephiston; I wouldn’t at 1000 points, it’s just uncivilised). The usual issues: I need more bodies, more long-range anti-tank shooting, maybe some more transports… hrmmp.

So at least I got out of the shop early for once, anyway. After enjoying my chicken royale meal from a well-known fast food restaurant chain, I found I had a few minutes before the bus back to the garret. So I popped into Waterstone’s again for a casual look around and maybe a bit of a browse (no Moorcock on the shelves at all – and they call themselves a bookshop) and emerged, admittedly sheepish, with a crisp new copy of Yippi-Ki-Ay Moviegoer! by Vern. Vern does a good job of appearing to be a complete moron but his film reviews are subtle and extremely funny, and a definite incitement to me to raise my own game. And if I’d had a more satisfying game this week (or, alternately, checked my sums) I might never have bought it. So, you know, silver linings and all.

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It was with bemusement, shading into horrified disbelief, that I realised not long ago that the classic BBC adaptation of The Day of the Triffids is thirty years old this Autumn. Thirty years? Thirty? But I remember watching it on-broadcast so vividly. It would mean that I’m… well, anyway, how old I am is irrelevant (honest).

The BBC had another go at adapting John Wyndham’s classic novel at Christmas 2009, and the result was an ugly travesty, which did no justice to the book and can’t have inspired anyone to read it. But seeing the 1981 version was a key moment in my life, one of those things which are so influential you can’t imagine how your life would have developed otherwise.

The Day of the Triffids was the first piece of grown-up TV I was allowed to watch – probably the first piece I even wanted to watch – and I was given special dispensation, bed-time-wise, in order to do so. Even then I was reluctant to do so alone, so addictively terrifying was this programme.

It’s a story which sounds ridiculous and pulpy – and, perhaps, a little incoherent. An unexplained celestial light-show blinds the vast majority of the world’s population, with the catastrophic results you’d expect. This would be bad enough, but the survivors are also preyed upon by mobile, lethal, and borderline-sentient carnivorous plants which have been bred for their oil – these are the triffids of the title, of course. A deadly plague is also a key plot element.

Picking his way through the aftermath is Wyndham’s narrator, Bill Masen, a biochemist and triffid-expert (portrayed in the TV show by John Duttine). Masen is a very typical Wyndham protagonist in that he doesn’t start off with any particular goal worth speaking of, he just wanders around watching more than doing anything. He eventually becomes involved with a wealthy young woman (Emma Relph) and after they are separated his determination to find her propels him through a fairly large chunk of the plot.

But, on the whole, the structure of the story is… well, if Wyndham turned up to a modern creative-writing class with his first draft of The Day of the Triffids, he’d have been told in no uncertain terms to go away and have a good hard think about the idea, because in some ways it’s sort of hopeless.

Bill Masen doesn’t have a particular goal he’s looking to achieve beyond simply staying alive. Most characters drift in and out of the book for one or two chapters. Even the triffids don’t show up that often; the TV show has to write a brand new triffid sequence unconnected to the main plot in order for them to make it into every episode. There isn’t what you’d call an actual antagonist, and the ending is very low-key. Even so, it’s not as if the book doesn’t contain blatant plot devices: Wyndham spends many chapters setting up a situation out of some ghastly nightmare, with the main characters having to choose between their own survival and helping the blind survivors who constitute the overwhelming majority. It’s a terrible moral dilemma, which Wyndham eventually resolves by means of a massive cop-out: a plague of unknown origins suddenly manifests and conveniently wipes out most of the blind population, freeing Masen and the others to get on with the plot.

And yet it’s an extraordinary, haunting book, one that essentially created a new genre. It’s fashionable to dismiss the works of Wyndham as ‘cosy catastrophes’ – civilisation falls without the protagonists seeming to suffer in any real way – but this is not the impression you get upon reading the book. Masen witnesses numerous suicides in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and later assists in a mercy-killing. You don’t notice the unwieldiness of the structure: society itself has fallen to pieces, so the collapse of conventional narrative seems somehow appropriate. Wyndham even manages to pull all his elements together, near the end, suggesting that all the diverse woes he’s inflicted on his characters are ultimately the result of science gone out of control.

One of the reasons the horrible 2009 adaptation is so horrible is because it attempts to fix all of the problems, by turning The Day of the Triffids into a much more conventional story: a proper bad guy is introduced (a relatively minor character is promoted to full-scale villain status), the convenient plague is snipped out, the long tail of the book (four chapters, over a period of six years, recount Masen and his adoptive family eking out a living on a farm in southern England) is collapsed into a much shorter period. And it’s awful. Awful, awful, awful. Only one moment is genuinely surprising, and that’s because a line of dialogue from the book makes an unexpected appearance.

The 1981 version is brilliant precisely because it sticks so closely to the hopeless plot of the book. Only one section has been cut, and it’s possibly the least vivid – where Masen and his associate Coker encounter a small group of other survivors and together try to set up a community – the rest of Wyndham’s story is there, entirely intact. Wyndham himself might not have approved (his family apparently weren’t impressed) – John Duttine plays Masen as rather more Northern and lower-middle-class, and less detached and wry, than he’s written in the book, and a lot of Masen and Coker’s discussions about post-apocalyptic ethics and sociology have been excised.

But, despite that, and the fact the TV show was clearly made on a fairly low budget, it works. Duttine holds the whole thing together admirably, though the biggest impression on the acting side is probably made by Maurice Colbourne as Coker – Colbourne had an edgy charisma that made him extremely watchable in this kind of drama (the reasons why such a powerful actor ended up fronting ridiculous yachting-soap Howard’s Way remain a mystery).

John Wyndham made a career out of Omegas – the destruction of Civilisation As We Know It looms large in most of his novels, one way or another. But for me he was an Alpha: not only was The Day of the Triffids the first piece of adult TV I watched, but the book was the first piece of adult SF I read. And from then on, I was surely lost. In its own way it was probably as crucial a moment in my life as my first episode of Doctor Who or the first time I saw Star Wars.

I’ve been drawn back to the end of the world, in its various different iterations, ever since – can it be any coincidence that my other favourite stories include The Death of Grass, Survivors, Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later? (28 Days Later in particular owes a massive debt to Wyndham and Triffids, which screenwriter Alex Garland openly admits.) And the last time I sat down to write for NaNoWriMo, my goal was to produce a very Wyndhamesque tale of the collapse of civilisation. And so I did, but where Wyndham abandoned structure to produce a chilling masterpiece, I only managed to come up with an unreadable shapeless mess. Still, one would have expected no less: there’s no point in copying genius. Recognising and appreciating it when you find it is surely enough.

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Junk mail doesn’t usually tick me off, though the immense quantity I’ve started getting since making the mistake of using hotel internet in Las Vegas is somewhat wearisome. Just recently, however, I’ve found myself becoming grumblesome, mainly because of the Valentine’s themed nonsense plopping into my inbox on a regular basis.

I know the majority of people are either engaged in some kind of romantic entanglement or looking to get themselves into that sort of situation, and it’s ridiculous to expect them to send out a feeler-email just to check people aren’t currently separated, considering the possibility of fractious international divorce proceedings, and have basically given up on the whole area as essentially not for them… but talk about tenuous connections…

I mean, okay, cheap couple’s flights to Venice or wherever is fair enough, but take this email I got from Waterstones the bookstore: ‘Start a love story this Valentine’s Day.’ Well, that wouldn’t have been too bad, either, but the main book they suggest I pick up is Baking Made Easy. Am I supposed to start a love story with Lorraine Pascale, the former-supermodel-turned-Jane-Asher-de-nos-jours? Or possibly someone from the local bakery? Either way I’m not sure I’d be in my home league. (Oxfordshire bakers, interpret this as you will.)

To paraphrase Pip and Jane Baker, 'Forget the woman - it's the cake I want.'

Possibly the suggestion is simply that I just allow myself to fall in love with cake. In which case, guys, get with the programme: I beat you to that one years ago…

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It has been announced that Anthony Horowitz, creator of the popular and acclaimed Alex Rider series of novels (and also notorious piece-of-TV-SF-junk Crime Traveller), is to write a new Sherlock Holmes novel (given the historic difficulty of sustaining a novel-length story centred on the Holmes character – even Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t manage it – one wonders if Horowitz knows what he’s let himself in for. But I digress). This draws me back to a topic which I’ve touched on before here, albeit briefly: the phenomenon of the ‘zombie franchise’. This snappy piece of terminology (which, to be honest, I’ve just coined myself, and really hope catches on) is how I like to refer to the situation where the original writer of a character or series passes away, only for the publishers to farm it out for somebody else to continue.

Lest anyone be confused, I don’t consider this to be the same thing as fan fiction, which is where admirers of a particular character or setting feel inspired to write their own unofficial additions to the canon. This sort of thing has a long and occasionally distinguished history, although it’s many years since I’ve enjoyed the mixed sensations of comfort, excitement, and guilt that I always get when slipping into the warm waters of Fanfic Lagoon.

No, I refer to – well, this sort of thing: Night of the Triffids by Simon Clark, And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer, Licence Renewed (and many others) by John Gardner, The Bourne Upset (no, I kid you not) by Eric van Lustbader, Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley, The Winds of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson … what, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom? Enough examples already.

These are all professionally-published sequels to famous novels, but (and this is the crucial thing) not by the original author – normally because the author in question has had poor taste enough to die before running his creation into the ground. And they make me nuts. Not just because they’re more-often-than-not lousy (I haven’t read all of the above, but the ones I have were substandard, not just to the original but as works of fiction generally), but because of what they represent.

But first, let’s make a vague nod in the direction of balance and see how one might attempt to defend this sort of thing. (Writer thinks himself into headspace of publisher/agent.) Well, the families of the deceased author in question have all agreed to the sequel being written and are frequently closely involved in the project (to the point where Brian Herbert has now written more Dunes than his father). There’s still a demand for stories set in these worlds, and we’re just meeting that demand. Also, it’s bound to stir up some new interest in the original books when the sequels come out…

Hmm, well. Not convinced – not convinced at all, to be honest. I don’t wish to impugn any of the authors’ families, as I’m sure their motives are as varied as the individuals involved, but I can’t help but suspect that, were one to peer into the eyes of any of the individuals involved on the publishing side, one would see a $-sign looking back at you. ‘We’re just meeting a demand’ has been the defence of numerous peddlers of substandard, overpriced, ethically dubious, or downright harmful material down the centuries, from slave traders to drug dealers to the publishers of Hello! magazine. As for ‘stirring up new interest in an old book’ – for interest, read sales, and there’s your $ sign again.

Not one of these new books has done anything to enhance the reputation of the original – usually you’re damned lucky if the original isn’t slimed by association. They are cash-ins, approved cash-ins, admittedly, and not all totally lacking in merit – but still cash-ins. At the time And Another Thing… was released I was accused of over-reacting when I described it as ‘literary grave-robbing’, but I stand by that.

The thing which really annoys me about the zombie franchise phenomenon is that, on the face of it, it treats the original writer as somehow incidental to the success of his or her book. I suppose it’s a tribute to their skill and imagination in creating a world so vivid and believable that it seems to be a real place they just stumbled into, and then returned bearing stories with them. Why not pay another writer to go there and bring back what he finds? Except, of course, that isn’t how it works. The best you can hope for are shadowy imitations and self-conscious aping of the original ideas and style. A tribute this may be, but it’s also a back-handed compliment of the harshest kind.

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Time for Bookshelf Roundup! Don’t get too excited, it’s the bookshelf at my local branch of Asda, which I swung by on my way to the Ready Meals and Cake aisles. And a curious mixture of books I found there too.

Forcing its way to the centre of my attention was the debut offering from painter and decorator Matt Cardle, who for the time being is also doing a bit of singing. Am I being unnecessarily snide about this chap? Hmm. Anyway, his name and face are on the front of My Struggle – sorry, wrong painter’s autobiography – My Story. As you may be able to tell, I would more happily iron my own feet than watch too much of The X Factor, but Cardle’s memoir of his time on the show looked surprisingly chunky given this book’s obviously been rushed out. Just how big, I wondered, was the print? There was only one way to find out. After checking that nobody I knew was in sight I looked inside a copy and found out.

Well, I found out eventually, because it took me a little while to actually find any text. First I found a double-spread picture of Cardle on stage. Then I found a full-page picture of Cardle with Kylie’s sister. Then a picture of Cardle singing on another stage… you get the idea. I did eventually find some text, and it wasn’t actually that big, but the vast quantities of photos kind of took the pressure off whoever wrote the thing – oh, of course, Cardle wrote the whole thing himself, didn’t he? Sorry. Anyway, probably not likely to appear on the Booker list this year.

Further down the shelf was, pleasantly, a new paperback edition of the classic satire Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, which I am ashamed to say I have never read all the way through. You would have thought, then, that this was a beezer opportunity to snap a copy up. Unfortunately the fact it had a big portrait of Jack Black on the front really put me off. Yes indeedy, it was a film tie-in edition – of the whole text of the book, despite the fact that the book and the film are approximately 0.2% similar. One to file under ‘Opportunistic but optimistic’, I suspect.

Anyway, both Cardle’s magnum opus and Swift’s smelly old thing appeared to be being comfortably outsold by the autobiography of that meerkat off the car insurance adverts. And I am ashamed to say, reader, that I came damned close to buying it myself.

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