It’s Only Make Believe

So, fantasy novels. As suggested in the title, by ‘fantasy’ I mean speculative fiction that has no basis in technology, no matter how far-fetched the technology might be, and doesn’t fall firmly within another genre, such as horror. That’s still a huge range of sub-genres and I’ll barely be scratching the surface. Incidentally, I don’t know if you’re like me—some people seem to obsess about this stuff—but I try not to stress about into which sub-genre a particular novel belongs. In truth, the only time I pay much attention to these subtleties is when uploading a book to Amazon and having to choose the categories in which it’s to be published and which keywords are to be linked to the book. Otherwise, the broader genres such as fantasy and science fiction will do me, although even then there are stories which do not sit comfortably within just the one category.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I came to fantasy at an early age through the works for young children written by Enid Blyton. She was later supplanted by books like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles and Richard Adams’s Watership Down. But I want to mention others I’ve enjoyed from my teens onwards. They include two books that would comfortably make it into my top ten of all-time favourite books in any genre.

Let’s begin with the book that many readers list as their favourite: The Lord of the Rings. I’m not going to say much about this because it will already be so familiar to most, either through the book or the films. Suffice to say, I discovered it in my teens and have read it every few years since. One of my favourite books ever—a re-read is overdue.

At around the same time that I first read LOTR, I discovered another fantasy writer: David Gemmel. I read (over and over) his Legend series, although this was in the dim and distant past and I don’t clearly recall a great deal about them now except how they made me feel: thrilled about escaping to a fantastic and dangerous world, cheering on Druss (I think that was the hero’s name) and fighting his battles alongside him (as if he needed my help).

Another series I enjoyed was Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind. At least, I enjoyed them to a point. I can’t remember how many sequels I read, but think it was at least three, before I moved on to something new.

In my early twenties I read a book called Shadowland by Peter Straub. It was dark, involved magic and entranced me. It contains a line I can still recall today: Once upon a time, when we all lived in the forest… I was already one of Stephen King’s Constant Readers so when he and Peter Straub teamed up for The Talisman, I had to read it. I wasn’t so keen on the sequel that came out years later, but return to the original every five years or so. Another one that’s overdue a re-read. Sigh. Too many new books to read first…

When I was a child I hated sprouts and loved a fizzy drink called Dandelion & Burdock. Now, in my fifties, I love sprouts and one whiff of Dandelion & Burdock makes me want to projectile vomit. Our tastes change over time and that includes our reading tastes. As years have rolled by, I’ve moved away from the more traditional high fantasy of wizards and elves and the like and sought out darker or humorous tales.

They don’t come much darker than The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. Without wishing to spoil anything, the main character does something dreadful early in the first book which made me loathe him. And he never through the ensuing books endears himself. Yep, he’s a man with problems, and comes across as one of the most unlikeable people you’d never want to meet. Despite all that, I enjoyed the first three books. There is something intriguing about the land which Covenant visits, something compelling about the characters he encounters and the predicaments they find themselves in. And there’s a scene—don’t ask me in which book because I can’t remember—involving the fate of the giants which was so heart-rending it made me want to cry.

I read the second trilogy; with diminishing enjoyment, it has to be said. When I found out there was a final trilogy, I hesitated but I’m a glutton for punishment. The final three books in the series are as heavy as bricks and focus on a character who is possibly, though it hardly seems possible, even less endearing than Covenant himself. I have the ninth book in the series sitting in my bookcase taunting me to read it. I’ll have to psych myself up to do so and will get to it eventually. But I don’t care how many more instalments Stephen Donaldson might write, this will be the last I’ll endure. (Oh, bugger. Thought I’d better check there are no more books before finalising this piece. You’ve guessed it: there’s a tenth book. I know I said that I’m not interested in reading any more, but I shall have to see how much of a struggle I find the ninth book before deciding whether to get the tenth. I mean, I’ve put this much effort in already and if the tenth is really the last one…)

As for the humorous, they don’t get much better than the Discworld series. In my late twenties when I discovered them, I have since read and re-read them. They are my go-to books when I want to escape into a whacky and endearing place where if everything is not possible, it feels like it is. When Sir Terry passed on, it felt like losing an old friend. I’ll post a link to one of my many favourites in the series.

Another enjoyable, light-hearted series involves the adventures of Thursday Next, literary detective, is by Jasper Fforde and begins with The Eyre Affair. Wonderfully imaginative and a great deal of fun.

I still keep my hand in with the more traditional type of fantasy. I’m slowly working my way through Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea quartet. Read two so far and enjoyed them both, but probably won’t be embarking on the third for a while.

Another novel I feel worthy of mention is Audrey Niffenegger’s (try saying that after a few beers) The Time Traveler’s Wife. Although, as the title suggests, this is about time travel, it belongs within my definition of fantasy because there is no technology involved. I found it to be an incredibly moving tale, a love story doomed by the man’s tendency to disappear into another time period, often at the most inopportune moments.

The final series I want to mention is Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Before I get to the negatives, I enjoyed the early part of the series, probably the first four or five books. By the sixth, I felt a little jaded. By the seventh—the original final book (there has since been another published, which I haven’t read)—I was feeling a little dark-towered-out, but girded my loins and embarked willingly enough along the home straight. So to the negatives. I’m not in any position to offer advice to Mr King as to how he writes his books, but he indulges in such an outrageous piece of author intrusion in the seventh book that it threw me completely out of the story and left me feeling reluctant to continue. I’m guessing he knew he was risking such a reaction amongst his readers and made a conscious decision to take that risk. Well, for me, it backfired. Nevertheless, I pressed on to the end. When I got there, I wish I hadn’t bothered. I’ve mentioned before that I think endings are his weakness. Well, everyone has to have at least one weakness, right? His novels are more about the journey than the arrival and I love most of them, even those where I think the ending could be stronger. But the end of the seventh Dark Tower book? Made me want to throw the bloody thing at the wall. I won’t say any more—if you haven’t read them and you enjoy fantasy, you’ll enjoy this series. You may even like the seventh book. We all have different tastes and different levels of tolerance, thank goodness. The world of books would be a dull, sanitised place otherwise.

To my final book; the second one that would, along with LOTR, comfortably make it into my all-time top ten favourite books of any genre. I read Clive Barker’s Weaveworld and enjoyed it enough to seek out another of his books, Imajica. Oh, wow! What a breathtaking work of mind-blowing imagination. I don’t want to say too much because, spoilers, so will merely say that if you haven’t read it, hurry and do so. You’re in for a treat. (Unless, of course, your tastes differ from mine…)

To end, that dangerous game (dangerous because I’ll probably forget someone) of a mention of some online friends who write fantasy. I haven’t read books by all of them, and haven’t met them in the flesh, but they come across as mighty fine people in the cyberworld. So, if you’re in the mood for some indie fantasy, check out some of the works of J.D. Hallowell, Jade Kerrion, Ch’kara SilverWolf, P.L. Blair and L.W. Browning. Keep making stuff up, guys!

Size Isn’t Everything

At the start of the twenty-first century, I had a completed novel (since published as The Village of Lost Souls) and had started writing the second (published as That Elusive Something). This was long before the e-book revolution and the only ways into publishing back then were through the traditional or vanity routes. I had neither the inclination nor the funds to pursue the latter so embarked on trying to break into the former. For those too young to know or too old to remember, this involved querying London agents in an effort to obtain representation. I must have spent a fortune in posting the first three chapters of the novel and the obligatory stamped addressed envelope large enough to hold the chapters on their inevitable return journey. They sometimes thumped back onto the doormat in such pristine condition that I doubt they’d even been read.

But this isn’t a post bemoaning the querying process. In case you’re wondering about the title, neither does it have anything to do with sex. This is about short stories.

During those endless rounds of posting a query and waiting for its return so that I could send it to the next rejector, I developed an itch. (And, no, this still isn’t about sex.) It grew and grew into an overwhelming urge to see a piece of fiction I’d written in print. More than that, I needed to know what it felt like to have complete strangers reading something I’d written.

I pressed on with the second novel. When I’d finished it, I embarked upon the by-then-familiar, but no less fruitless and demoralising, querying process. Different novel, same results. If anything, the thud of the returning envelope hitting the doormat made the itch intensify. I had to find a way to scratch it or go out of my mind. My solution was to write short stories.

I didn’t think short stories were easier to write than a novel, and still don’t, but they are undeniably quicker to complete. And I had a lot of story ideas sloshing around in my head that would not be suitable for the long treatment of a novel, but might make half-decent short tales. Any that didn’t, well, I’d only waste hours writing them instead of the couple of months or so (depending how much writing time you have) of commitment required for a novel.

There was another significant consideration: I don’t know whether it remains the case today, but back then there were a number of small press magazines which accepted unsolicited short stories for consideration. It didn’t matter to me in the slightest that these magazines didn’t appear on the shelf of my local W.H. Smith or that their readerships might only number in the hundreds—the point was to have my work appear in print and be read by people who didn’t know me from Adam.

My first published work of fiction was the short story Celesta. It appeared in the now defunct Cambrensis magazine in September 2002. I can still recall the sheer thrill of holding my copy (my author copy, no less) and seeing my words in print for the first time. It was followed by publication of another four short stories in various small press magazines—I was even paid for a couple of them.

That was that particular itch scratched. I continued, and continue, to write the occasional short. Novels are my preferred form, but I enjoy the variety, and different challenge, of penning shorter work from time to time. Those early published short stories can now be found, amongst others, in my collection Pond Life. I have another two collections: Strange Shores and the recently published Ghosts of Christmas Past. Others can be found in various anthologies.

But I’m digressing. The purpose of this piece isn’t to publicise my works—though I oughtn’t be hesitant about doing so; it’s my bloody website, after all—but to trumpet the value of short stories and to mention a few of my favourites by other authors.

It’s not very often that we hear of short story collections becoming bestsellers. There are, of course, exceptions. Stephen King’s collections, for instance, usually shoot to the top of most charts. But for the lesser-known writer, they can be a hard sell and often end up being heavily discounted or given away, considered as little more than a means of funneling readers to longer, more lucrative works.

That’s a shame. A well-crafted short story is as worthy of praise as a tightly-plotted novel—the same level of skill has gone into both. And in today’s world of, we’re told, ever-decreasing attention spans and shrinking mobile devices, you’d think that short stories would be the ideal format for today’s hectic lifestyles. You’d think. Maybe their day will come, but I shan’t hold my breath.

Anyway, enough wistful thinking. What about the short stories I’ve enjoyed over the years? There have been far too many; too many to remember, let alone discuss here. I’m just going to mention a few.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that Stephen King is one of my favourite authors. No surprise, then, that I’m going to start with one of his short stories. Survivor Type appeared in his collection Skeleton Crew and tells of a surgeon washed ashore on a tiny, deserted island after a shipwreck. How he attempts to survive—no spoilers, but the clue is in his profession—horrified me in a gleefully fascinated way.

While we’re at it, another of King’s short stories that has stuck with me many years after I first read it is Quitters, Inc, which appears in his collection Night Shift. If, like me, you’ve embarked on numerous failed attempts to quit smoking, this story will resonate.

All You Zombies by Robert Heinlein is a mind-bending tale about the paradoxes of time travel. Difficult to say too much without spoilers so I’ll only say that the number of characters who populate the story turns out to be far fewer than appears at first sight. The story was turned into a film called Predestination, starring Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook, and a cracking job they made of it, too.

Another Heinlein short that’s stuck in my mind is And He Built a Crooked House. It’s another mind-bender, not to mention space-bender, about an architect who designs a house based on an unfolded tesseract (the four-dimensional analogue of the cube). When an earthquake causes the cube to collapse, Heinlein—and the reader—has great fun with the consequences.

A quick mention of an American short-story specialist, Raymond Carver. I’ve enjoyed a few of his collections, such as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. His stories are often little slices of life, usually dark and always poetic—he is also known as a poet and it shows in his fiction writing.

Finally, I couldn’t talk about short stories without mentioning Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. It’s a collection of science fiction stories linked through the animated tattoos on the body of a vagrant. If you like science fiction and short stories, this is the perfect union—go read it.

That’s merely a small taster. There have been many, many more stories I’ve read and enjoyed over the years. There are many, many more I’ve yet to sample. The beauty of short stories is that if you come across a dud, you won’t waste much time on it, and when you come across one of the countless gems hidden amidst the rough, you’re in for a thrill and delight. Happy reading!

(The above links will take you to the Amazon.com store only. I did have a fancy piece of code installed which took clickers to their local store, but it seems to have been lost in a recent upgrade of the site. I shall remedy it shortly. In the meantime, if you’re not based in the US, sorry, but that’s where the links will take you.)

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

The title comes from an REM song that was a minor hit in the UK in the early nineties. It’s a good song by an excellent band, but that’s by the by. It’s the phrase I want to talk about: the end of the world as we know it.

To me, it succinctly sums up the attraction of post-apocalyptic fiction to both readers and writers. The world hasn’t ended in the sense that it’s been blown to smithereens and Mars has become the third rock from the sun. The world is still here, but it’s a version that we don’t recognise.

Apocalyptic events come in all shapes and sizes: meteor and asteroid strikes; deadly pandemics; nuclear war; disastrous climate change; attack by extra-terrestrials; plagues of undead. What they have in common is the wiping out of a large chunk of the planet’s population, and a struggle by the survivors in a world where the previous rules no longer apply.

In the immediate aftermath there is no law and order, no society, no culture, no international boundaries. There are no checks and balances. What morality remains has to struggle to assert itself amidst anarchy. Humankind is reduced to its basest, most bestial form.

There’s the attraction for the writer. A blank page that can be filled however he (or she, but can we take ‘she’ as read?) chooses. The writer may open the story with the apocalyptic event itself. Or he may jump forward a hundred years, or a thousand, to whenever he wants, and leap right in at a point where new rules are already established, new orders have arisen, new currencies are being traded or fought over.

The writer can develop goals and conflicts that are unlikely to arise in the world as we know it. Maybe the acquisition of uncontaminated water will be the overwhelming aim of survivors in the new world; or arable land; or sanctuary from mutant enemies; or dry ground; or a cure for disease; or shelter from deadly solar rays. The possibilities are endless.

The reader will take delight in entering a world where all bets are off. He will relish trying to identify the new rules, if indeed there are yet any, and putting himself in the place of the protagonists. How would he, the reader, cope if thrust into such a world? Might there even be, whisper it quietly, something desirable about inhabiting a world where there are no conventions?

That was how I first became attracted to the genre. I was a young boy, probably around nine or ten, and watched the film The Omega Man on television one Saturday evening. I can still recall the thrill I felt at seeing Charlton Heston enter a department store and pick out any clothes that took his fancy without having to pay for them. I imagined being in his shoes, walking down a litter-strewn, deserted high street, calling into every toy, sweet and gun shop that I passed (they were always toy, sweet or gun shops—I was nine) and simply helping myself. I was the most dangerous sweet-sucking, gun-toting, toy-laden critter in town. Of course, I was the only sweet-sucking, etc. critter in town but didn’t let that get in the way of a good fantasy. My childish self conveniently ignored the downside to finding myself in such a scenario: the loneliness, the desolation, the abject despair.

Those aspects were brought home to a slightly older version of me with the BBC television series The Survivors. I only vaguely remember the original (it was remade a good few years ago), but recall it being grey, gritty and downright miserable. It nevertheless cemented my love of the apocalyptic story.

Around four or five years later, I read Stephen King’s The Stand. This still ranks as one of my favourite post-apocalyptic books (along with Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Cormack McCarthy’s The Road—more on them in a future post). I especially enjoyed watching the apocalyptic event unfold and seeing what happened in the immediate aftermath (elements, along with a deadly virus, that I use in my own apocalyptic novel The Cleansing). Having wiped out most of the population of the United States—we never see what is happening in the rest of the world—with a manmade superflu bug, Mr King could have taken the story in any one of a multitude of directions.

There is so much conflict inherent in an apocalyptic scenario that the writer doesn’t need to invent more. The mere struggle for survival is compelling in itself: the competition with other survivors for scarce resources, threats from predators old and new (animal and human), establishment of new bonds that will determine whether the human race can continue. But that’s the beauty of stories about the end of the world as we know it: almost any new element—spiritualism, the supernatural, mysticism, the extra-terrestrial, and so on—can be introduced to add even more spice to an already tasty dish.

Mr King could have shown the surviving humans in The Stand struggling to adapt to their new world without introducing any extra conflicts, and no doubt it would have been a cracking tale. As it was, he opted to have the survivors gravitate to one of two camps (figure-headed by the ancient and pious Mother Abigail, and the charismatic and deadly Randall Flagg) and constructed a ripping yarn about good against evil, while retaining all of the basic conflicts mentioned above.

There are many more books and films in the apocalyptic genre that I have enjoyed, as well as computer games like the Fallout series, so it was inevitable when I began writing fiction that sooner or later I would turn my hand to an end of world tale of my own. Like many writers, I write the sort of stories that I enjoy reading (and watching and playing).

Apocalyptic books, films, games, they all provide the reader, the viewer, the player, with the vicarious terror of experiencing a horrifying situation and wondering what he would do next. Run for the hills? Give up? Fight back? But in contrast to being actually thrust into such a scenario, the reader will derive great pleasure from the journey without suffering the accompanying deprivations and heartaches. He will feel relieved or even smug that he will never, hopefully, have to undergo such an experience in the real world.

And that brings me back to the title of this piece. It’s not quite correct or, at any rate, complete. The full title of the REM song is It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) . Now the title sums up the attraction of the apocalyptic genre more fully. It explains it all.

The writer will pen tales that involve the deaths of millions or billions of people; he will place the survivors in yet more jeopardy (as if the poor buggers haven’t already suffered enough); he may offer them the flimsiest hopes or the thinnest opportunities to escape ever more desperate situations; he may force them to champion the cause of mankind against overwhelming odds (give them a break, for goodness’ sake).

The reader will sit on the sidelines, watching the tale unfold with increasing incredulity or awe or horror. He’ll sympathise with the survivors; gasp as they face each new challenge; root them on when there’s nobody else on their side; laugh and cry with them.

But neither writer nor reader have to die with them. And maybe, only maybe, we end up appreciating the world we know, this world, just that little bit more. Perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as it sometimes seems. The apocalyptic tale shows us that it could be a whole lot worse. It might make us feel, even if only subconsciously, a little better about our world and ourselves.

And that can only be a good thing.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

On 20th October 2017, I am releasing a new collection of short stories: Ghosts of Christmas Past and Other Dark Festive Tales. As the title suggests, each story has a Christmas theme and each is from the dark side. It will only be available in e-book format, but can be purchased from most mainstream online retailers (see links below).

Here is the cover:

Within you might encounter the occasional ghost, perhaps a vampire or two. Oh, and zombies. One tale is set in the Earth Haven universe, at the time of the start of The Cleansing. And there’s a bonus story, one which has previously been published in a Christmas anthology, also set in the Earth Haven universe.

Here’s the blurb:

‘Four festive tales of the supernatural, apocalyptic and blood-sucking variety—an antidote for anyone who occasionally finds Christmas overly sentimental or commercialised and likes to escape to somewhere darker.

In Ghosts of Christmas Past, a newly-wed couple spend every Christmas in the same remote country cottage. It’s their ‘thing’ and they’re not about to let tragedy get in the way.

In I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, a small boy creeps downstairs to see his mother in the embrace of a crimson-robed stranger. But Jake’s not convinced: since when did Santa have long teeth and red, glinting eyes?

In Rottin’ Around the Christmas Tree, Nia decorates the tree while her parents look on. But this is not just another Christmas—it is the time of The Cleansing, the time when family life and the world as we know it are ending.

In Christmas ‘Midst the Zombie Apocalypse, two survivors sit out winter on the edge of an overrun city. Their efforts to enjoy Christmas Day as normally as possible turn out to be a mistake; a potentially fatal one.’

Finally, here are the links to purchase:

Amazon

Kobo

itunes

Barnes & Noble

Ho, ho, ho!

When I Was Three, I Ate Mud

There’s a meme doing the rounds on social media that goes something like this: the average three-year-old can switch on an i-pad and stream videos; when I was three, I ate mud.

Makes me chuckle every time. Not that I can recall eating mud as a toddler, but I might have. I can certainly recall, at about that age, munching on dog biscuits. Never did me any harm. Rowf-rowf. Whatever ways I found to entertain myself when three, I was soon to discover a new form of delight that has never left me since. I refer not to eating chocolate, but to reading.

In earlier posts, I’ve touched upon some of the books I loved as a child. There are so many, I thought they deserved a post of their own. These are the books I grew up reading. There were plenty more, but these are the ones I still recall clearly all these years later and which must, therefore, have made a profound impression on me back then.

Let’s begin, as it began then, with Enid. A few years ago, I wrote an article for Mass Movement magazine, which I called Enid Bloody Blyton. In the article I called her books for younger children ‘insufferably quaint’ and wondered what she had been stirring into her tea while she wrote them. Although it might sound like I was having a dig at her, in fact it was quite the opposite—I felt then as I do now: I owe her a great deal of gratitude for opening my eyes to the unboundless possibilities of the imagination and to the delights that can be found within the pages of a book. That sense of wonder has never left me and is as strong now as it was forty-five and more years ago.

As soon as I learned to read—I’m guessing at the age of four or five—I began to devour her books. The Enchanted Wood, The Magic Faraway Tree, The Folk of the Faraway Tree and Adventures of the Wishing Chair. Read them over and over until they began to fall apart. Bought new copies for my first-born and read them to her.

I graduated to her books for older children. She wrote tons of books aimed at children between the ages of six and ten, but there were two particular series that I adored: The Famous Five books and the Adventure stories.

Five on a Treasure Island is the first of twenty-one books recounting the adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy. In case you didn’t know, George was a tom-boy whose full name was Georgina and Timmy was her dog. (One of the books involved George being captured by the baddies who made her write a note to the others whom they also wanted to capture. George alerted them to their peril by signing the note ‘Georgina’, something she’d ordinarily never do. That so struck the six-year-old me as a clever ruse, I remember it still.) At the start of each school holidays I’d nag my parents to take me to W.H. Smith, where I would spend my pocket money on the next book in the series. Some of those books cost as little as £0.30. Inflation, inflation. I’d take the book home and finish it that day. I collected the entire series and, again, read them time after time.

The Island of Adventure is the first of eight books in my other favourite Blyton series. (Yes, I can have two favourites—it’s my website.) These stories were about four children—Jack, Lucy-Ann, Philip and Dinah, the obligatory pet sidekick coming in the form of Jack’s parrot, Kiki. I had all eight books and, you’ve guessed it, read each of them umpteen times.

Looking back with the cynicism of adulthood, the plots of these books were outlandish, involving unlikely spy rings and treasure maps and, memorably, anti-gravitational wings being secretly manufactured in the depths of a hollow Welsh mountain—you know, I’ve lived in Wales for most of my life and haven’t once heard anyone add the words ‘look you’ to the end of a sentence like the Welsh characters did in The Mountain of Adventure. But never mind the ludicrousness of the storylines or the stereotypical supporting characters, I was seven and lapped it all up.

Not, I should add, that I was a boy for spending all my time indoors reading. I played outside with my friends at every opportunity. We played football, went hunting for slow-worms, scrumped apples, built dams. But this is the UK; we can have weeks of continuous rain, even in summer, so there were ample opportunities for reading. And even during sunny weather, there was always bed time. I was the sort of kid who was more than happy to go to bed half an hour earlier in order to read.

That’s enough about Enid. There are too many others to mention. Books like The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, wonderful stories about car-driving toads and talking rabbits. The works of Roald Dahl—amongst my favourites were Danny, the Champion of the World and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The heartwrenching time-travel tale Tom’s Midnight Garden and a story about two boys, a yacht and the rescue of stranded soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, The Dolphin Crossing.

I enjoyed the Twain adventures starring the eponymous heroes Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge about a boy’s adventures in preparatory school in the 1950s and 60s. I also dipped into the Just William books, but didn’t take to them as well.

Run For Your Life by David Line is a paperback I have no recollection of how I acquired, but is a book of which I have the fondest memories. It’s about an unlikely friendship between two boys. When they witness a murder, they are forced to flee across the wintry Norfolk countryside with the murderers hard at their heels. No matter how many times I read it—needless to say, rereadings occurred frequently—the tale never failed to grip. I just checked on Amazon and it appears possible to pick up second-hand copies. Whilst there, I checked out the reviews: the reviewers mostly seem to be of the same mind as me—a fantastic read for boys of around the age of ten. I wish I knew what has happened to my well-thumbed copy because writing this is making me want to read it again. Nothing like a bit of nostalgia.

When I was nine, one afternoon in school our teacher gathered the class around, took out a book and began to read it to us. It was about four children who are sent away to the countryside as evacuees in World War II to stay with an eccentric uncle in a rambling old mansion. I was instantly captivated. The book was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and so began my lifelong love affair with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I couldn’t wait for the teacher to finish the story in class; I had to get my hands on my own copy. When I discovered there were another six books in the series, I probably went into raptures. I’ll never forget the teacher who introduced me to them: thank you, Mrs Davies.

Quick aside: I often stayed with my grandparents as a boy. Their spare room contained an old wooden wardrobe. Yep, I used to step into it, remembering to leave the door ajar behind me since sensible children never shut themselves inside wardrobes. (Crikey, it must be fifteen or more years since I last read The Lion… to my younger daughter, yet that line popped into my head as though I’d read it yesterday.) I’d push through the clothes hanging there—never fur coats; my grandparents weren’t rich—and tap forlornly at the wooden back, hoping it would give way beneath my fingers and become a chilly passageway leading to fir trees and snow and fauns and white witches who handed out Turkish Delight. It happened every time in my imagination.

When I was three, I ate mud. Maybe, but when I was five and upwards, I devoured books. I only hope that despite all the modern distractions that I didn’t have, there are children today deriving as much joy from books as I did as a child.

Reach for the Stars

It is so long since I read my first science fiction novel that I can no longer recall the title or author. It was something to do with space travel to a distant planet, possibly Mars, and that’s about all I can remember. However, I do recall the way the book made me feel: it fired my ten-year-old imagination, struck me with awe not so much by the suggestion of man reaching for the stars, but of the boundless possibilities for inventing stories about such exploits. Whatever that long-forgotten book was, it made me fully realise that even if there are limits on what we as a species can achieve, there is no limit on what we can imagine and convey through fiction. I’d like to say that this was the moment of epiphany, when I realised that I had to become a writer as nothing else would ever feel as fulfilling, but I’d be lying; that wouldn’t come until years later.

Here’s a mention of some of my favourite science fiction novels; at least, of the ones I can remember.

There’s a crossover between science fiction and fantasy—sometimes the line between them is a blurred one indeed—but I’m confining myself to stories where the fantastical element is based on some form, no matter how far-fetched, of technology, as opposed to magic, or mythical creatures like elves and centaurs, or imaginary worlds reached through magical portals. Of course, aliens and imaginary worlds reached through faster-than-light space travel qualify, which just goes to show how artificial these distinctions can be.

Oh: as usual this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list— there are too many books I’ve read, let alone the thousands I haven’t, to even attempt such an ambitious undertaking. And these are my views, based on my tastes, with which you are free to agree or disagree as you wish. Just don’t take it personally if I happen to like a book you hated, or vice versa.

Oh, part 2: I’m excluding apocalyptic and dystopian novels because they’ll get their own piece at a later date, along with fantasy and a few other genres.

Oh, part 3: I don’t want to say too much about any of the books I mention in case I inadvertently spoil it for those who haven’t yet, but intend to, read them. So, of necessity I talk only superficially about the works.

To the first book, then, a perfect illustration of the marriage between science fiction and fantasy: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. How can this be science fiction, do I hear you ask? It’s about gods of eastern mythology, like Buddha, Vishnu and Krishna. And so it is, yet their powers (or ‘Attributes’) in Zelazny’s wonderful imaginings are technology based. I read this recently and wondered why I hadn’t read it years earlier. It’s the sort of book that’s so breathtakingly good, most writers will read it in awe and wish they’d written it.

Despite some rather antiquated (that’s putting it mildly) outlooks on women and their place in society, I’ve enjoyed most of the Robert Heinlein books I’ve read. (There’s a notable exception: Farnham’s Freehold; as well as his usual misogynistic touches, there are some aspects about race that make uncomfortable reading to a contemporary audience.) Here are some of the better ones: Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Door into Summer, Tunnel in the Sky.

In a previous post, I mentioned Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, probably my favourite book of his I’ve read, but another I enjoyed was The Man in the High Castle. It’s a dystopian tale presenting an alternative reality in which Germany and Japan have won the Second World War, and are competing as the world’s superpowers. I didn’t find it the easiest book to get into, but am glad that I persevered.

I haven’t read a great deal by Arthur C. Clarke (too many books, blah blah blah), but one I thoroughly enjoyed is Childhood’s End. It slightly depressed me, with its gloomy outlook for the future of the human race (I don’t always like to be reminded of man’s fallibility when reading for pleasure), but is a greatly entertaining read that also makes you ponder, and despair, a little.

Apologies to any hard science fiction fans looking in, but that branch of the genre doesn’t overly interest me. (‘Yeah, anyone who’s read your books can tell that, you techno-doofus,’ I hear someone say.) Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed works of hard science fiction, but pages of detailed exposition on how a plasma blaster or anti-gravitational device works tend to make my eyes glaze over. I’m less put off by detailed world building, however, politics and all. I’m thinking of two tremendous series I’ve dipped in and out of over the years: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Iain M. Bank’s Culture series. If you’re a fan of science fiction which involves power-struggles and cultural clashes and political machinations on an intergalactic scale yet have never read either series, you’re in for a treat. (I suppose I could include the Dune series, but didn’t enjoy that as much after the first book.)

The next book was written by an author who some readers boycott due to his controversial views. This isn’t the place to go into those views; suffice to say I strongly disagree with them, too, but that didn’t stop me greatly enjoying his novel Ender’s Game. The whole book was good, but the ending, which I completely didn’t see coming, was a real Wow! moment.

I couldn’t write a piece about science fiction without mentioning The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It became a ‘trilogy’ of five books, but it’s the first one that I am fondest of and re-read from time to time. It’s wacky, irreverent and pure genius.

Finally, a quick shout out to some fine indie authors I have met online who write science fiction: T. Jackson King, Linell Jeppsen, John Patin and Michael Brookes. (The trouble with doing this is that I’m bound to forget to mention someone. If that’s you, I apologise from the bottom of my absent-minded soul. Feel free to send me a rude e-mail.)

From Page to Screen – Part 2

In Part 1, we took a peek at adaptations of some of Stephen King’s works. Now I’d like to cast the net wider and talk a little about other books I’ve read that have been adapted for cinema or TV. As always, what follows are the highly subjective views of one person, based on his personal taste. It’s perfectly okay to hold an opposing view and for us to remain friends.

Let’s start with a couple of contemporary novels, which were made into films on the back of runaway success. I didn’t particularly like either of the books, but the adaptations were both very well done.

First up, Gone Girl. I loved the writing in this book, but hated the characters and the selfish, psychotic ways in which most of them behaved. Then I watched the film, more out of curiosity as to how far they would stick to the source material than from wanting to relive the story. In fairness to the film makers, I thought they did a good job in being faithful to the novel: I hated the onscreen characters as much as I hated their written versions.

Next, The Girl on the Train—if this is one of your favourite novels, you might want to look away. The main character irritated me to distraction. The decisions she made throughout the novel were, quite frankly, often ridiculously idiotic, even when she was sober. I guessed the ending around a third of the way before reaching it and it felt more than a little contrived. Still, I thought I’d give the film version a go because, well, Emily Blunt. (Incidentally, anyone else think that she and the Welsh actress Eve Myles could be sisters?) Again, I thought the film makers were in the main faithful to the novel, though (warning: mini-rant ahead) why they insisted on changing the setting from London to New York is beyond me. Surely American film-goers aren’t so insular as to be put off by a film set in Britain, are they? Look at the success of the Harry Potter films, for goodness’ sake. (Mini-rant over.)

So there’s a couple of novels I was lukewarm about which were made into half-decent films. What about a few novels I enjoyed, but the film-makers’ translation fell woefully short?

The first turkey that springs to mind is Life of Pi. The novel, with its hauntingly enigmatic ending, became a stunning visual feast when translated to screen but, unless I missed it amidst the splendour of the cinematic images, completely fudged the ending, making the film version a delight to the eye but a let-down to the intellect.

I enjoy Isaac Asimov’s Robot tales, though wondered how they might translate to the big screen. Not very well if the film I, Robot is anything to go by. Paying only lip service to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the film turned into a frenetic series of chases. Not even the presence of Will Smith could save it.

The last turkey I’ll mention is Dune. In short, liked the book, hated the film. Where the former was rich in detail and intrigue, the latter didn’t seem to know quite what it was trying to be and ended up simply being a mess.

What of the meh films; those where they made a good stab at translating the source material to screen, but didn’t entirely succeed? Here’s a couple:

One of my favourite post-apocalyptic novels is I Am Legend, with its deliciously dark ending. The film version of the same name is okay. Will Smith is, as usual, easy to watch, but the film lacks something, particularly as it nears its conclusion. This is the second adaptation of the novel I’ve seen (the first being The Omega Man—more on that in a future post) and they both, in my view, chickened out at the finale. Sticking with the ending of the novel would have improved them both.

Red Dragon is one of the best psychological horror novels I’ve read, and one I meant to mention in the piece about horror a couple of weeks back. The film version was nothing to write home about. A reasonable attempt, I suppose, but it failed to capture the dark menace of the book.

So to the rarities, those films which were so faithful to their source material that they provided just as pleasurable an experience to watch as reading the novels they are based upon; or—shock, horror—those that improved upon the books.

Wolf Hall, about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his rise to prominence in the court of Henry VIII, wasn’t an easy read. But it was worth persevering with and I enjoyed it so much that I bought the sequel (that sits in my TBR pile patiently awaiting its turn). I watched the BBC dramatisation not expecting to overly enjoy the novel in visual form, but I was pleased to be wrong—the series brought the novel to life with its excellent casting (Damien Lewis was surprisingly good as the regal lecher), superb acting and spot-on sets.

I’m not a fan of young adult literature. I’ve read both first books in the Divergent and Hunger Games series, and in neither case felt compelled to read any more. Nothing particularly wrong with the stories (though one of the basic premises in Divergent struck me as wholly unrealistic), but it’s the style of writing that doesn’t appeal to me. In both cases, however, I enjoyed the film adaptations much more than the books.

Philip K. Dick is regarded as one of the most influential science fiction writers to have lived. I’m a little ambivalent about his works that I’ve read: some I’ve thoroughly enjoyed; others not so much. One of the former was his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? , adapted for film as Blade Runner. I thought the film took all that was good about Dick’s novel and improved upon it; a rare thing, indeed.

To end, the book I’d name if pressed to name just one (just one? are you nuts?) novel as my favourite ever: The Lord of the Rings. I know it’s technically a trilogy, but I’ve only ever owned it in one volume and have always thought of it as one book. Anyway, I watched the first attempt at making a film version, an animated affair that stopped where The Fellowship of the Ring stops. At best, meh. I seriously doubted that a worthy film version would ever be made. Step forward, Peter Jackson. I remember going to the cinema to see the first instalment, heart in mouth, afraid I was going to hate it. Needn’t have worried; it hooked me from the opening sequence and never let go. I could see why they chose to leave out what they omitted from the novel (I always found the Tom Bombadil portion of the book a little tedious) and loved, loved, loved that Peter Jackson’s image of places like Minas Tirith and Edoras exactly matched my own. Watching those films is like seeing my own imagination brought to life.

As a final aside, my younger daughter shares my love of the LOTR films. Once a year we buy a load of unhealthy but tasty snacks and binge watch the extended DVD versions of all three films back-to-back. It takes us around thirteen hours, allowing for the occasional break, but we think it’s great fun. (My wife and older daughter don’t share our enthusiasm; in fact, they think we’re a little on the nerdy side of Geekdom, but we don’t care.) My younger daughter has recently turned twenty but is as keen for another ‘Lord of the Rings Day’ as ever. Ah, the magic of movies.

The Avid Reader’s Curse

Despite having more than half a million published words of fiction to my name, I still consider myself to be more a reader than a writer. Since I learned to read beyond ‘see the dog run’ at the age of four or five, I’ve read pretty much constantly. If I had to give up all sources of entertainment except one, books are what I’d keep. I’d miss watching films and sport, and listening to music, but I’d miss books more. Yeah, you get the point.

Like other avid readers, I probably have a more extensive vocabulary than someone who doesn’t read for pleasure. But that can bring its own problems and thus the title of this piece. (‘Curse’ is probably putting it too strongly but, you know, snappy titles.) There are words I have encountered in reading whose meaning I know, either from context or from looking them up, but that I have absolutely no clue how to pronounce.

I couldn’t have been more than six when I first encountered this problem. In school, writing a story, I wanted to say that the protagonist was so tired he collapsed from ‘exhaustion’. I knew the word, but not how to spell it. Even less, as it turned out, how to pronounce it. Try as I might, I could not make the teacher understand what word I wanted him to spell for me and in the end I gave up in embarrassment.

When I was around ten or eleven, I read a series of Westerns, passed down to me from my grandfather, in which one character frequently called another a ‘sonova bitch’. I had absolutely no idea what the term meant, mainly because I was pronouncing ‘sonova’ incorrectly in my head as ‘sonne-over’. In the end, I settled for it meaning a not-very-nice person from an even-less-nice place called Sonova, which the author had forgotten to capitalise. It took a good while for the penny to eventually drop, bless me.

Years later, when I had started working for a living, I encountered for the first time in writing the name Siobhan. In my head, and to my great discomfort on meeting the lady of that name, I pronounced it as something sounding very similar to autobahn. Thankfully, she found it amusing and corrected me with a twinkle in her eye, though I suspect she secretly wondered how I had spent all those years in college.

Then there were the Harry Potter books, which my elder daughter read as they were published and which I read after her. I’d never come across the name Hermione before. In my head, for the first three or four books, she was ‘Herm-ee-own’, that sounding marginally better to me than the alternative ‘Herm-ee-won’—my brain insisted on adding ‘Kenobe’ to that version. It wasn’t until I overheard my daughter telling her younger sister about the books that I heard the correctly pronounced name of Hermione for the first time. How they mocked when I confessed my ignorance, while I laughed outwardly and cried a little inside.

There are many place names in the States which I read about long before I heard them spoken. There are two that immediately spring to mind: Arkansas and Yosemite. I don’t remember hearing the state being spoken about much before Clinton’s rise to prominence and, yep, I used to pronounce it in my head as ‘Ar-kansas’, not the correct ‘Ar-ken-saw’. As for Yosemite, I failed to realise the link with the name of the cartoon character Yosemite Sam. So I pronounced it ‘Yosser-might’, which makes it seem more like a cousin of that vile-sounding Australian spread vegemite than a national park.

Here are some more, though this list is by no means exhaustive; I tend to come across new ones every few months or so:

Hyperbole—I mention this one because I’ve often heard others mispronouncing it, usually to make it sound like a super-duper version of the USA’s Superbowl.

Paradigm—never sure about this one: is it ‘para-dim’ or ‘para-dime’? It’s the sort of word where knowing the correct pronunciation won’t help me because it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever use it in conversation and so the next time I see it in print I’ll have forgotten the correct pronunciation and will make it sound in my head like whichever version first pops into it.

Preface—this comes at the beginning of a book so it made perfect sense, to me, to pronounce this ‘pree-face’. It came as a surprise to learn that it’s properly pronounced with a short first e, like in ‘pretzel’.

Segue—yep, this was pronounced like ‘vague’ in my book (that’s the autobiographical Sam Kates book of being an ignoramus). I knew there was also a word out there to do with transitions in music which sounded as if it was spelt something like ‘segway’, but the connection between the two, i.e. that they are the same word, didn’t occur until recently.

Victuals—an oft-read word, especially when younger when I used to read books about explorers and expeditions, and one I pronounced phonetically, enunciating the c and the ua combination as you would in the word ‘actual’. Who’d have thought (not me, certainly) that it’s pronounced like its archaic spelling ‘vittles’, to rhyme with ‘skittles’?

There is an upside to this problem: many of these words are rarely, if ever, going to be dropped into casual conversation—not unless you’re an expeditionary or a musician or you’re trying to sound pompous—and, really, nobody cares how we pronounce these things in the private space of our own head. Just as well, eh, or every time we came to have to pronounce one out loud, we’d all be in an ague.