Monday, January 31, 2011

Book Review

His Last Duchess, by Gabrielle Kimm

For tales of passion, cruelty and intrigue, saturated in vibrant colour with malice concealed under a formal politeness, it's hard to find a better setting than Renaissance Italy.  So much has been apparent since Shakespeare's day, and I am not the only fantasy writer to have drawn inspiration from the Italy of Machiavelli.  Gabrielle Kimm's debut novel, the historical romance His Last Duchess, is fired by a similar fascination.  Inspired by an enigmatic Robert Browning poem of the same name, Kimm explores the tainted marriage of Alfonso, Duke of Ferrarra, and Lucrezia de Medici.  Lucrezia is the teenage protagonist, married off for political advantage into the noble house of d'Este to the handsome and superficially charming Alfonso.  Alfonso, however, turns out to be some way short of the ideal husband; when the marriage starts to go awry (on its first night), his plans soon turn to rape and murder his new wife.  He is not a man to court compromise or reconciliation.  Lucrezia understandably objects to Alfonso's various abuses, and when a poor but talented painter arrives at the court, it is clear where her affections will tend.

The plot is neatly executed, even if the elements are familiar, with Kimm's skill lifting the novel well above the ruck.  Lucrezia is a lively and engaging presence, Alfonso a meticulously observed and frightening psychotic.  The prose is beautiful, reflecting the sensuous Tuscan warmth of the setting; the details are rich and vivid without ever overwhelming the movement of the story.

Lovers of Shakespeare will recognise many of the motifs of Renaissance Italy: forbidden and impossible loves, apothecaries, poisons real and imagined, friars and recondite inheritance disputes.  The Renaissance drama His Last Duchess most resembles, though, is Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, with its claustrophobic intensity, warped lusts and a villain pushing the boundaries of sanity.

His Last Duchess is an accomplished and absorbing historical novel.  I look forward to more from Gabrielle Kimm.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Wicked Witch of the West End

I have never really got on with musicals.  Either sing a song or tell a story; don't try to do both.  Nonetheless, to earn some man-points I whisked my other half up to London to see Wicked, the musical history of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.  I enjoyed it rather more than I expected to, although given the same starting point I might have done something rather darker with it.

Elphaba is the classic outsider (the green skin is something of a giveaway here) as, like Harry Potter, she is packed off to sorcery school where she is not immediately popular.  Particularly antagonistic is Glinda, who grows up to be the Good Witch of the South.  Here, though, she starts out spoiled and self-obsessed.  Eventually they become friends, but Elphaba, who is not really wicked at all, uses her powers to correct injustice, before concluding "no good deed goes unpunished".  Eventually she runs off with...we'll, you'll have to see the show to find out.  The plot amusingly reinterprets some of the much-loved tropes of the film, and the songs (once you accept they aren't meant to advance the story) are enjoyable interludes.

If you can stomach paying £3 for a minuscule tub of ice-cream, Wicked is an undemanding but very entertaining thrre hours.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Changing reading habits with the Kindle

I've had a Kindle for three or four months now and, as I've mentioned previously, my experience has been highly rewarding.  I've never been one of those "love the smell of fresh paper" types, and I've found reading a small, light device more satisfying than trying to fight the spine to hold a paperback open or prop up a hardback.  There's no question that I prefer reading on a Kindle to a traditional book - philistine though this may make me.

What I didn't expect is that Kindle would change not only how I read, but what I read.  Kindle books allow the first chapter or two to be downloaded as a sample for free.  This is normally enough to decide whether a book is worth reading, and there's no barrier to downloading a slew of samples.  Some are discarded on that basis, but others make it on to my reading list where otherwise they would not have done.

This year already I've read and enjoyed three sports biographies which I would otherwise not have picked up.  In ascending order of brilliance:

In Search of Robert Millar - Richard Moore
Moore documents the life and career of the famously prickly Scottish cyclist, who became a recluse after his retirement from the sport.  Moore's "search" is not only for Millar's whereabouts (in which he is unsuccessful) but for understanding of the most idiosyncratic of men: in this latter quest he gets much closer.

Coming Back to Me - Marcus Trescothick
Trescothick's autobiography charts in agonising detail his battle with mental illness which brought a premature end to his international cricket career.  It won a string of awards for its unsparing honesty, and the courage with which Trescothick tackles the subject earns the reader's admiration and sympathy, but never pity.

Fallen Angel - William Fotheringham
The story of Fausto Coppi, the legendary Italian cyclist of the 1940s and 50s, has just about everything.  Coppi rose from poverty to become a multiple winner of cycling's greatest races, as well as conducting a very public affair with a voluptuous (and highly manipulative) brunette at a time when adultery was still illegal.  Continuing to race well beyond his prime, he died aged only 40 after contracting malaria during an exhibition trip to Africa.  The complexities and contradictions of Coppi's character make him a Shakespearean tragic hero, and Fotheringham's biography captures all the subtleties of his life.  Bravissimo!

I have been fighting a battle for many years with the space constraints of my bookshelves.  With out of copyright titles free on the Kindle, I may yet box up and ship out my paperback Dickens, Austen, Hardy, Bronte, Zola...

Friday, January 14, 2011

News from the Twitterverse

Last night was of course my first-ever Twitterview, with Emlyn Chand.  It's a lively, dynamic way of working which unites the flexibility of the internet with the intimacy of real conversation, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun the whole thing was--and how much information we could exchange within the 140-character limit of Twitter.

If you missed it, then, you missed out - but fear not, because Emlyn transcribed the Q&A session.  Here's a taster:

If you want to see the rest, check out Emlyn's blog or search Twitter itself on #emlyn (for completists who want to see all the IT glitches which Emlyn has sensibly removed from the transcript!).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Best Christmas Reading

The seasonal break is always a good chance to catch up on some reading.  The book I most enjoyed was Alastair Reynolds' Zima Blue, a collection of some of his short fiction.  All fourteen stories were worth reading, with several being excellent.  The best were:

Understanding Time and Space
Does what it says on the tin, but enlightenment is possible only with the help of Elton John.  Sure to appeal to fans of Aliya Whiteley.

Signal to Noise
A widower enters a parallel universe to say goodbye to his wife.  Low-key but surprisingly poignant.

Minla's Flowers
Old-style space opera which is also a merciless exploration of the corruption of power.

Beyond the Aquila Rift
A deep-space epic where nothing is quite what it seems.  This is one of the best SF shorts I've ever read, packed twists and ideas enough to fill a novel.  There's an amazing film waiting to made here.

Better known for his novels, this collection shows that Reynolds is also vastly talented in the shorter format.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Twitterview update

Thursday's twitterview will start at 22:00 UK time (that's 17:00 US Eastern Standard Time).  Just search on #emlyn.
What do you call an interview on Twitter?

A "Twitterview", of course, and I will be a twitterviewee on Thursday 13 January (time to be announced, but probably mid-evening GMT).  Prolific writer and web maven Emlyn Chand will be asking the questions, and I'll be responding in 140 characters or fewer (tough for a fantasy writer!).  Search #emlyn on Twitter to find the twitterview and ask questions of your own.  

I've no idea quite how this work in practice but it promises to be a lively, if necessarily terse, occasion!

Friday, January 07, 2011

How to Write a Synopsis

Advice that really works

Like most writers, I loathe writing synopses.  I'd much rather tell my story in 100,000 words than 1,000.  While I can eventually set myself to do it, it's a long, painful process.  Last week, though, I wrote a synopsis for The Last Free City in an hour and a half.  It's not brilliant, but then I don't think a synopsis can be.

I wish I could claim all the credit, but I can't.  Instead, I synthesised two pieces of online advice which worked for me.  In case they work for you too, I like to share.  The first was from the consistently excellent Help! I Need a Publisher! blog written by Nicola Morgan.  In this post, she tackles how to prepare a synopsis for a non-linear plot structure.  Nicola observes that most of the difficulty here arises from a flawed assumption: that a synopsis must relate the story in the same way it is told in your book.  Once you realise that you can summarise the story without following the structure, the problem becomes much more manageable.

Without that realisation, I don't think the second, more comprehensive, set of advice would have been much help.  That advice is contained on Glen Strathy's blog, How to Write a Book Now.  Glen tackles the specifics of the synopsis here.  The post is too long to reproduce in full, but essentially his method boils down to:
instead of trying to summarise the whole plot at once, break it down into component parts
~ plot basics (what are the high-level main events?)
~summarise the main character's arc (how and why does he change?)
~interweave the "impact character's" role (how does the antagonist/romantic interest affect the main character's story?)
~the major relationship (describe the development of the novel's main relationship)
~draw out the main themes of the novel (optional)

Strathy's method is slightly more complicated than this suggests, but that's the heart of it.  The beauty is that, for each category, you write a few sentences, without at this stage trying to put them in order.  Strathy suggests putting them on index cards to facilitate moving them around; I used a spreadsheet to much the same effect, ending up with a 4x4 grid.  I then cut and pasted each box into a Word document in an order that made sense as a narrative.  With the words already there, that was fairly easy.  The resulting text was inevitably somewhat staccato, and repetitive in places, but that was straightforward to clean up.  At the end, I had a coherent summary of the plot and the main character's development.  Job done!

The synopsis process does force the writer to make choices.  The Last Free City has, in my mind, always been a story of political intrigue explored and reinforced by a love story; but structurally it's the other way around - a developing relationship set against a backdrop of political turmoil.  Once I've made the choice that womanising poet Todarko is the main character (although there are two other viewpoints in the book), and that Linnalitha, the unhappy wife of a scheming policitician, is the impact character, the synopsis can't play out any other way.  I could have chosen other characters with different results, but there's no question on reflection that this relationship is the structural (and emotional) core of the novel.

This synopsis is being prepared for submission to a publisher who demands no more than two sides; using Strathy's economical method I've done the job in a side and a half, leaving me a couple of paragraphs to talk about my publishing history and dredge up some favourable reviews for The Dog of the North (that didn't take long...).  Strathy's approach would work for a longer synopsis too, but it's very helpful to have a method to hand which allows me to condense (however crudely) a long and complex novel into 900 words.

If you hate writing synopses, give these links a go.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Last Chance to See...

Last week I took a trip to the National Gallery to see its exhibition Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals.  If you want to do the same, be quick!  It closes on 16 January.  It's well worth a visit.  Art exhibitions are not always exciting, but this one is a must-see.

Venice has always held a fascination for me, despite (perhaps because) never having been there.  It's no secret that Mettingloom in The Dog of the North was conceived as a frozen Venice, with its mesh of canals and polished intrigues.  Canaletto's paintings were a major inspiration, even though they date from a period some 200 years later than the 'high Venetian' period which so delighted me.

From that perspective alone, a Canaletto exhibition would have been worth a couple of hours of my time, but the National Gallery show offered a great deal more.  His paintings were juxtaposed with those of his contemporaries to demonstrate how different artists had dealt with the same landscapes.  18th century Venice was popular as a 'Grand Tour' destination, and in an age before cameras, paintings of the city were much in demand as souvenirs.

At the start of his career, Canaletto's work is contrasted with that of Luca Carlevarijs.  Canaletto's pictures are clearly more precise and vibrant.  Later on we see contrasts with other artists working out of his own studio (and issuing canvasses in Canaletto's name).  The most prominent of these was Canaletto's nephew, Bernardo Bellotto.  Many of Bellotto's works are all but indistinguishable from his uncle's until they are displayed side-by-side, where Bellotto's more saturated colours and emphasised buildings become apparent.  I found myself preferring the pupil's work to the master's.

Bellotto, The Piazetta, c.1743

Later in his career, Canaletto's work is set alongside Francesco Guardi's.  Guardi is deliberately less precise than Canaletto, looking ahead towards the 19th century rather than working in the Canaletto tradition.

I can't recommend the exhibition too highly: a cluster of beautiful paintings, liberal historical context and a real sense of 18th century Venice.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Top Science-Fiction and Fantasy Films, 2001-10

Number 1

For those of you who have borne with me so far, the revelation is at hand: the film I think better than The Lord of the Rings, Inception and Batman.  The winner, of course, (there can be no debate) is Roland Emmerich's blockbusting drama, sweeping in scope yet poignant in characterisation; a great movie in this or any decade: yes, it's 2012.

Hah hah!  Regular visitors to ::Acquired Taste will know that's bollocks.  Let's move, instead, to a film worthy of our time and attention.

1. The Prestige, dir. Christopher Nolan, 2007
Yes, I know it's Christopher Nolan again, but you'll have to bear with me on this one.  Adapted--fairly loosely--from a fine Christopher Priest novel--The Prestige tells the story of two rival fin-de-siecle stage magicians.  You get Christian Bale, of course, as a chippy working-class lad, set against a polished Hugh Jackman; Scarlett Johannsen as their love interest; Michael Caine for once used properly; a bravura turn from David Bowie as Nikola Tesla; and a genuinely stunning climax. It has some of the same preoccupations as Inception--the nature of memory and identity, secrecy and obsession--but for me, executed in a more structurally satisying way.  Nolan artfully manipulates the audience's sympathy, so that the viewer is never quite sure to root for.  It's clever, pacy, always surprising and just about note-perfect.  Received on release with general critical appreciation if little rapture, in time The Prestige deserves to be recognised as a masterpiece.