The timelines diverge

I have a confession to make. A while ago (shortly after making my late 2014 – early 2015 reading post), I cloned this blog onto my own website. Now, since continuing both versions independently would be an insane thing to do, I’m going to stop posting here on this version. I tried to use the “jetpack” plugin to move my followers over to the new version of the blog, but I have no idea how or if that actually works. So, if you want to keep following me, maybe go here:

http://www.alexperrywriter.co.uk/blog/

Also on that website is information about the novel I just published today. It’s called The War of Undoing, but people who have read my previous posts may know it as Project Snails. I’ll talk a lot more about it soon, over on the new version of this blog. So if you want juicy, explosive, hot-off-the-press material like that, go there! Look, I’ll even give you another link in case you missed the first one!

Late 2014 – early 2015 reading

150-ThePsychopathTest The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Like Them, The Psychopath Test is the sort of addictive book I tend to blaze through in a couple of days, its unchallenging language expressing some deeply disturbing ideas. In this case, the idea that psychopaths live among us, sowing seeds of chaos throughout society, but they can be weeded out by means of a series of questions. And alongside this, the equally disturbing idea that this test can be misused in order to make almost anyone seem like a psychopath. There is a touch of the counter-narrative that inevitably seems to crop up in every book like this – “omigosh, what if I’M the psychopath, trying to find psychopaths everywhere?!” – but Ronson doesn’t dwell on it too much. Look out for: the chapter about lack of empathy in the world of reality TV, which somehow manages to be more disgusting than all the stuff about murderers. Good job, guys.

150-TheBridge The Bridge by Iain Banks

I’m not a particular fan of using metaphor in place of plot, but my main problem is when narratives turn that way only at the end. I don’t mind when novels are open about their metaphorical intentions from the outset, and when they justify it by, for example, setting the metaphorical stuff inside a character’s mind. When a skilled author (and Iain Banks most certainly was that) takes the risk of going far enough down the rabbit hole of weird interlocking symbolism, the result can be quite thrilling and rewarding – a Cloud Atlas style puzzle box to toy with at your leisure. The Bridge is a bit like a cross between Life on Mars and Brazil, a journey into a complicated and unsettling world of steam power and bureaucracy where it’s not always clear what’s a dream – and what’s a dream within a dream. Even if the way it all fits together confuzzles you, there are enough treats along the way – the cleverly confounding world of the bridge, the hilarious barbarian bits, the ever-lively descriptive style – to make this a journey worth taking.

150-GoneGirl Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

It all begins, with pleasing swiftness, when a woman goes missing and her husband gets caught up in the ensuing media circus. That’s about all I can say without spoiling Gone Girl. The story takes many twists and turns – the dynamics seem to change almost every chapter – yet it never loses sight of what it’s about: two fascinating, dark, well-drawn characters. It also delves rather intelligently into the ways we pretend, how we try to shape our behaviour to fit with other people’s expectations, and some of the destructive consequences this can have. I found it particularly interesting having just read The Psychopath Test, but it split my book club right down the middle, between those of us who found it a brilliant, addictive page-turner and those who found it so boring they could barely finish it. Never have I been so baffled by people’s reactions to a book, so … be aware that you might hate it, I guess. If you hate awesome things.

150-HowNotToSelfPublish How NOT to Self-Publish by Rosen Trevithick

As I am gearing up to self-publish my novel, I thought I’d better try to learn a bit about the self-publishing world. Despite the fact that this is not the most serious book on the subject – or the second most serious, or, I would imagine, anywhere in the top hundred most serious – I feel as though it’s given me more of a sense of what to expect than any sombre statistic-filled handbook ever could. The absurd scenarios within capture the vivid and often unhealthy emotions that come with exposing your work to the cruel world of readers, critics, obsessive fans and indifferent family members. The fact that Rosen Trevithick is willing to admit some of these emotions and laugh at them makes me breathe a sigh of relief – perhaps worrying about those things does not make me too immature to cope with the business of being a writer. Perhaps I could fit in with all the other indie authors putting a brave face on their seething jealousies and insecurities. Phew.

150-TheHauntingOfHillHouse The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The opening of Hill House is strong – we get to bask in some quite beautiful language, get to know (and in my case like) Eleanor and her flights of fancy, and are introduced to a promisingly crooked house that seems to ooze potential for horror. But I was a little disappointed from there on. It’s not that I expected modern pacing and in-your-face nightmarish horror a la The Conjuring. I expected subtlety, but not subtlety so subtle that towards the end I didn’t understand the characters’ motivations at all, or much care what happened to them. Perhaps I need to read this book again with my subtlety dial turned up, as other people’s reactions to it make me want to get more from it than I did. It’s a shame, but I guess horror is an incurably subjective genre – it scares you or it doesn’t.

150-TheMountainAndTheFlood The Mountain and the Flood by Sheila Perry

Another novel by my mum, published under her real name this time! It’s set in a dystopian future version of Scotland which achieved independence from the UK then went a bit evil and began cracking down on citizens of English birth. (Guess which side my mum was on in the independence debate?) In the midst of this, a half-English, half-Scottish family living in Edinburgh struggles to remain together, fighting first faceless bureaucracy and later actual people with actual faces. Oh, and while all this is going on, an apocalyptic storm is brewing that could flood most of Scotland. To do the indie book pitch thing: it’s Nineteen Eighty-Four meets The Day After Tomorrow meets Cat’s Cradle! It’s also very entertaining, even the bits I disagree with politically – which, in any case, tend to be superficial things rather than core philosophical tenets.

150-WolfInWhiteVan Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Y’know, another one of those stories about a disfigured boy who runs a play-by-mail choose-your-own-adventure type game called Trace Italian. Wolf in White Van is in that very specific subgenre (if you can call it that) of books which tell their stories in a non-linear way, and which dance teasingly around a central event which took place a while ago but which we don’t really understand until quite late on. (The God of Small Things is another example that jumps to mind.) It’s the sort of book whose implied insidious hidden messages you could probably spend weeks trying to decode if the mood took you. Even skimming it a second time greatly enhanced my appreciation for its subtly poetic language and intricate thematic explorations.

Write. Publish. Repeat. Fiction Unboxed Write. Publish. Repeat. and Fiction Unboxed by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant

More insight into the self-publishing world, written by some intimidatingly prolific self-publishing authors. The first of these books gave me the kick I needed to start really taking writing seriously as a career, and think about realistic ways to make money from it, as opposed to the vanishingly faint hope that my first book will instantly catapult me to success. The second details the process of writing a 100,000 word Young Adult book in the space of a month (whaaa), in a most inspiring and instructive way.

Conscious vs. Unconscious: Rematch!

I had a doozy of a weird dream a couple of nights back, so I thought I’d bring back what is undoubtedly one of the easiest-to-write features in the history of this blog. Basically I describe two dreams, and you have to guess which one was the real dream, and which one I made up in my waking hours as a strange sort of creative writing exercise. Here goes!

Dream One – The Hobbit in the Nutri-Grain Hat

Dream where Beyond Studios were filming a version of The Hobbit starring me as Bilbo Baggins. We were about to shoot the scene with all the dwarves invading Bag End (which seemed to just be filmed at someone’s flat) when I suddenly decided Bilbo shouldn’t be bald, so I made the hasty suggestion that I should wear a hat made from a Nutri-Grain box, which for some reason everyone went along with. So we filmed the whole scene like that, and I thought it went quite well.

Later, I began to have doubts about the Nutri-Grain hat, thinking it might distract attention from what was going on in the scenes. I found a curly brown wig under my bed and considered suggesting that we should either re-film the Bad End scene with me wearing that instead, or the Nutri-Grain hat could be digitally replaced in post, or we could start the next scene with me discarding the hat so I didn’t have to wear it for too long. But I didn’t have the nerve to suggest any of these ideas, so we just went ahead and filmed the next scene with the Nutri-Grain hat still on, and me feeling increasingly guilty for possibly screwing up the whole film.

Dream Two – Rainy Day Skydiving Adventure

Dream where my podcast Rainy Day Adventure Club was on its seventy-fifth episode, and to celebrate I invited back a bunch of guests from the past. The format seemed to have changed. There was no discernible adventure – we were just sitting around chatting in a room that looked a bit like the weird restaurant at the end of IKEA. At one point I joked that this was the Quarter Quell of RDAC and all the guests would have to fight to the death like in The Hunger Games. Everyone laughed way more at this than seemed realistic, and I began feeling bad because I thought they were just humouring me, and had been all along. Angry about this, I punched several of the guests in the face.

Later, in a seemingly unrelated part of the dream, I was about to skydive out of a plane with some other people but the man who I had thought was our instructor kept making weird comments that made me think he wasn’t a real skydiving instructor. He would make some off-putting comment like this, then reassure me he definitely was a skydiving instructor, then immediately make another off-putting comment. Eventually I decided I didn’t want to skydive, and as soon as I said this the plane started plummeting towards the ground. Thankfully I woke up before it got there.

There you go! Which of those was a real dream I had recently? Oh, and the answer to last time’s is: Seasickness Tablets was the real dream. Well done to my brother James for getting that right! He knows me too well.

This blog, it is a-changin’

Not necessarily in a dramatic way, but it is a-changin’. For a start, I’ve finally filled in the “About” page and added a “Projects” page which provides easy access to all the creative stuff I’ve done that is currently available on the internet. This includes a few new projects which I will mention here in case you can’t be bothered tiring out your finger clicking all the way over to the new page I spent ages working on.

Rainy Day Adventure ClubFirstly, I haven’t properly talked about it here yet, but in September of 2014 I created a new podcast called Rainy Day Adventure Club, which I’d describe as a cross between a Dungeons and Dragons game, an audio version of Knightmare, a Choose Your Own Adventure book and something very silly indeed. There are nine episodes already, with more to come in the not too distant future. I’m rather proud of what my friends and I have done with it so far – it’s even family-friendly-ish, which is unlike us. If you’re interested, go and listen to some episodes in the archive to see if it’s your sort of thing.

ScarecrowSecondly, late last year I helped some of my more talented friends make a finger puppet version of the Wizard of Oz. It’s quite delightful, though decidedly NOT family-friendly. Definitely worth watching if you’re into irreverent and satirical twists on innocent subject matter. You can find the whole thing on YouTube here.

And there is more going on with my creative projects too, a lot more – an exciting whirlwind of stuff! – but I’ll save that for later posts. Hopefully there will be plenty of those in the near future, as I’m going to start using this blog as a hub for pretty much everything I’m doing. That will almost certainly still include complete garbage like this though, so don’t worry. Things won’t change too much around here.

A bit about grief

Note: I have lost family members (and pets) in the past, but the freshest grief in my mind as I write this is over the death of my cat George. If that makes what follows mean less to you, feel free to stop reading now. Obviously there are many aspects of grief over a pet which are different to grief over a human, but in this case the intensity of feeling is very much there. I hope that, even if you can’t relate to that, you can at least respect it.

I was going to write a blog post specifically about George, and I got most of the way there before deciding it felt too personal to share right now. It will most likely be a document I return to and add memories when they come to me. So, in this post, I’m mostly going to talk about grief in general – my experience of it and some of the conclusions I’ve come to about it. I’m posting this on the offchance that my thoughts could help somebody, or at least be interesting. I’m sure other people’s thoughts on grief may be very different, and that’s okay.

It’s also okay if you want to stop reading now, because I can’t talk about grief without talking about death a bit, and sometimes you just want to have a nice day and eat some chocolate pudding and not think about death at all. I understand. You may leave and perhaps even listen to my fun new podcast, Rainy Day Adventure Club, instead!!! … Did that feel inappropriate? Sorry, I’m trying to keep this light where I can.

First off, it is definitely true that a lot of the emotion you feel when grieving is natural and valid sadness. The feeling of missing someone, of empathising with what they went through towards the end, and of getting used to life without them – these are understandable things that it is healthy and positive to work through, even if it doesn’t always feel like it at the time.

I have come to the conclusion, however, that SOME of the awfulness you feel is purely destructive, illogical and self-pitying. I’ve caught myself several times getting very upset in ways which I don’t think are justifiable. Grief can start a chain reaction in your head, and not all of the emotional fireworks it sets off are constructive, or even all that relevant to the person (or animal) you’ve lost.

Six fun horrendous ways to grieve:

1. Think about what YOU went through – all the worrying you did, all the ways you tried to help, all the things you never got to do or say. Replay choice scenes over and over in your head, with an emphasis on the most minute but upsetting details. (This one is particularly sneaky because it can disguise itself as empathy for the person you’ve lost. You think you’re thinking about what THEY went through, but then you realise “Hey, wait a minute. That detail was something I fixated on, it was probably irrelevant to their experience.” And hopefully you can start separating out some of the things you’re feeling into little piles of sadness – actual grief over here, self-pity over there. It’s hard to stop feeling self-pity entirely, but I’ve found it helpful to recognise it for what it is.)

2. Bargain with higher powers you don’t believe in. (Yep, I have discovered I’m a fairweather atheist at best. Still, I usually snap out of this fairly quickly, reasoning that any higher powers worthy of the title would not need me to grovel before them in order to save an innocent life.)

3. Blame yourself, even though the intellectual side of you knows perfectly well it’s not your fault. (I’ve mentioned this before, but if anyone knows how to get the intellectual and emotional sides of your brain talking to each other, please do let me know.)

4. Snuff out any moments of joy that try to sneak into your life, worried in case the person you’ve lost is watching you from somewhere and would feel hurt that you are momentarily happy. (This one is especially insane, since if they loved you they would obviously, OBVIOUSLY want you to be happy. Also, if they ARE watching you from somewhere, guess what? That means there’s an afterlife of some sort, which is probably good enough news to make up for any temporarily hurt feelings. Seriously, worrying about this is like worrying in case you win the lottery and then stub your toe on one of your massive wads of cash.)

5. Brood about how everything ends in death. (May be true, but there is no logical reason to dwell on the endings of things – endings do not invalidate what came before. In the case of George’s life, there is so much more happy stuff to choose from than there is of the sad stuff that came along in the last few weeks. If I remember the sad stuff, which is now just as firmly and definitively in the past as the happy stuff, the mass of happy stuff ought, by rights, to pile on top of it, dwarfing it into near insignificance. He got to live a happy life. I got to know him. Those should be the headlines.)

6. Start crying, cry for a while, keep crying, cry for a bit longer, then eventually realise this has turned into a self-perpetuating cry, where you’re crying about how much you’re crying and how sad it is that you’re this sad. (And we’re back to self-pity again. That has been an unwelcome theme for me lately, but I think I’m edging slowly closer to realising that sobbing into the bathroom sink isn’t necessarily the best way to honour the memory of someone I love.)

But what IS the best way to honour the memory of someone you love? That’s a big question. At the moment I’m leaning towards two ways:

1. Be happy. If they loved you, they would want you to be happy. That’s more or less the definition of love.

2. Think about what you learned from them, the ways in which they made you a better person, and inscribe those lessons on your soul. George, for example, was an antidote to cynicism – any time I was down, and felt tempted to care a little less about the world, five minutes of cuddling him would stop those thoughts in their tracks, and convince me that love is about the only thing that matters, and that it is worth any amount of pain to experience it. It’s a lesson I think he will teach me again and again as I look back on the years we had together. His death does not erase or diminish one second of those years, years for which I will always be inexpressibly grateful.

I am sure I will continue to have good days and bad days, but writing this has definitely made me feel better. So, I guess if I have one piece of advice for anyone grieving, it is that you should find a way to process what you are feeling – whether it’s by writing it down, talking to someone, listening to music – whatever works for you. And as hard as it is, try to only feel sad about the things that are worth feeling sad about, and let all the miscellaneous crappy feelings and self-pity fall by the wayside. They have nothing to do with who you’ve lost, and you don’t need them.

Regarding not setting my brain on fire

Several months ago I sent off the opening of my novel (codenamed Project Snails) to three different literary agencies, and promptly tried to forget I had done so. Primarily I did this by pouring myself into a brand new project, an inconveniently hard-to-describe podcast called Rainy Day Adventure Club. I might write some behind-the-scenes stuff about it later, but for now you can go and listen to the first six episodes if you find yourself similarly in need of distraction.

Now I’m trying to work out why exactly I’m finding it so hard to actually read the two rejection emails that are currently sitting in my inbox. I know they are rejections because, in order to extract the vital information from them without having to read the words myself, I have cleverly used the Yahoo! mail search function to confirm that certain strings of words are in them, and that certain others are not. Short of the emails being written in some sort of topsy-turvy Doctor Seuss style, I am extremely confident in saying they are rejections.

But why don’t I just read them to make absolutely sure? I mean, isn’t the fact that they’re rejections the worst part? The actual words used to convey this information can’t hurt any more, can they?

The trouble is, I know myself, and I know the words will hurt me. Even glancing at them will set my brain on fire. I’ll glom onto some phrase or other and pick it apart endlessly, letting myself believe all the worst possible interpretations of it. However kindly the agents’ words have been chosen, they will come to me when I wake up in the night, or when I’m with friends on a sunny day, and they’ll make me pause and cringe and hate myself a bit. I’m not saying it’s rational – I know perfectly well it’s the very opposite of that. But as I said, I also know myself, and my impish brain will use any implement it’s given to torment me. So, back to distracting myself until I feel strong enough to cope with that.

Hopefully that time will come. If I want to keep going with this writing thing, which I think I still do, I’ll have to learn to be less sensitive – or at least not let my sensitivity get in the way of what I continue to think of as my (as yet unpaid) job. Ideally the intellectual side of me should be able to tell the emotional side that rejection is very much the norm for new writers. But it does sometimes seem that my emotional and intellectual sides aren’t talking to each other much these days.

That if nothing else is a reason I should post here more. 2014 has been a weird year, and my brain has a lot to talk to itself about…

July-August 2014 reading

The Picture of Dorian Gray The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Brilliant, simple, original ideas are hard to come by. Oscar Wilde had one of them, and the result is The Picture of Dorian Gray, a tragic exploration of a consequence-free life. Conspicuously absent are details about what Dorian actually DOES when he is supposedly indulging in wild excess and vice – I’m guessing these were too riskily risqué for a Victorian readership. As such, it is hard for us to tell exactly whose side we should be on as a modern audience, though Lord Henry’s cruel witticisms which sow the seeds of amorality in young Dorian’s mind can seem less seductive now than they probably did then. Also off-putting are the book’s treatment of class, and certain drawn-out descriptions of faraway things that have little bearing on the story. All in all, though, the book is still interesting for its iconic and genuinely unsettling imagery, its endless paradoxical soundbites and the sort of ending that makes you go “Now, that’s an ending!” (Also, for a bit of context it is well worth reading about Wilde’s life, particularly his trial, to which this book now seems incredibly relevant.)

Cat's Cradle Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

You never quite know what you’re getting into with Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle plays with a bafflingly diverse array of ingredients which interact in chaotic ways to bring about a most unconventional apocalypse. These ingredients include: the oddball children of the mysterious, deceased co-inventor of the atom bomb, a large quantity of new and useful philosophical terms (courtesy of Bokononism, a self-admittedly made-up religion), several fragments of ice-nine (a new kind of water that teaches any other water it touches to solidify into a stubbornly unusable block) and, last but not least, the tropical island nation of San Lorenzo. It reminds me a little of H G Wells in its mingling of dark visions of the future with musings on humanity which make such futures appear worryingly inevitable. I know this is one of Vonnegut’s best-regarded books, but for me it hasn’t yet clicked together into as satisfying a whole as, to pick an unfairly brilliant example, Slaughterhouse-Five. But there’s so much going on, thematically and philosophically, that I already have the itch to revisit it in the not-too-apocalyptically-distant future.

Telegraph Avenue Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue interweaves the stories of two families living in Oakland, California, including two men whose record shop is on the brink of going out of business, two disillusioned midwives, two teenage boys experimenting with their sexuality, and an ageing Blaxploitation star trying to escape his criminal past and revive his movie career. It’s nice to read a book that deals with interracial friendship without either glossing over the cultural differences or, worse, making them seem like a huge deal, something deep and unconquerable simmering under the surface of all human nature. Generally the main characters are more worried that they may be racist than actually racist, which feels fundamentally reassuring in a weird way. This is indicative of the book’s restrained tone – we don’t see much in the way of epic confrontations, nervous breakdowns, melodramatic monologuing and so on. Most of the book could be a soap opera if it weren’t so funnily and interestingly written, so sunny and pleasant and filled with rich, colourful language. If you can forgive a few cartoonish moments and a few more that a cynic would see as excuses for Chabon to show off his writing skills, this is a most enjoyable and worthwhile read.

How I Escaped My Certain Fate How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee

My two favourite stand-up comedians, Stewart Lee and Ross Noble, both make me feel somewhat cheated by other stand-ups. Ross Noble because the vast majority of his material is completely improvised, and Stewart Lee because he devastatingly dismantles a lot of the clichés other comedians use to get cheap laughs. This book continues that work, with accounts of his frustrating journey to get his stand-up career back without sacrificing integrity. There are also annotated transcripts of three of his shows, which really make you appreciate the level of thought that goes into his routines, and the subtle ways he manipulates his audiences. As in his shows, it is not always clear here where the real Stewart Lee ends and his stand-up character begins. He is one of those mildly intimidating people with such strong convictions about what art and culture should be that I find myself wishing I could be so sure about things, pondering whether I should start pretending not to like the things he doesn’t like in order to seem more cultured. I still like musical theatre though.

The Road The Road by Cormac McCarthy

One of the bleaker post-apocalypses I’ve visited. No bands of sassy, leather-clad, punky-haired, gun-toting survivors banding together and forging unlikely alliances here. And that’s not all McCarthy has jettisoned: there is no cautionary narrative about the events leading up to the apocalypse; even speech marks and character names are done away with, which lends the proceedings an odd, lonely, distant flavour. Conversations are stark, brief and clipped, occasionally veering towards the dark absurdity of Beckett’s Endgame. I suppose there is some of the Slaughterhouse-Five sense of there being no plots left to tell in this sort of insane situation – no heroes, no victories to be achieved, very little hope of rebuilding society. But The Road‘s protagonists at least have an iron will to survive, even if it’s not always clear why they would want to. It is the small details of their struggle which are the most powerful, and which truly make us ache for them to stumble upon the brighter world we feel they must surely have earned by now.

The Elements of Eloquence The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth

A fantastic, inspiring and entertaining glossary of rhetorical techniques to make language sing – from alliteration to zeugma (though not in that order). I wish I had read this book years ago, as I now feel I could apply at least a few of the techniques it describes to my own writing – though there are some, as Forsyth notes, that come naturally to people without them even noticing. Particularly impressive is how the author manages to construct a chain of rhetorical examples, one leading naturally to the other all the way through the book – I can only imagine this involved a maddeningly complicated flowchart of some kind. But it pays off, making the book extremely readable, and if you’re me you will set aside all worldly responsibilities to blaze through it. I will definitely go back to The Elements of Eloquence, and may even pick up a paper copy for easier reference. (Also I can’t believe I never noticed the thing about proper adjective order before! What a little curious thing!)

Neverwhere Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

In Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman invents a world under London which bears the same sort of resemblance to the actual city that the London Underground map does – twisted into different shapes, abstracted, making unexpectedly literal sense of some of the odder station names on the tube network. This is a world of rats and labyrinthine sewer tunnels and people in ragged clothes, scraping out a living in their own vaguely supernatural world, unseen by people above. The story rolls along merrily, sweeping likeably vague and vaguely likeable protagonist Richard Mayhew along with it. We rarely return to the same place twice, as Gaiman seems determined to introduce us to as many surreal sights as possible in the time he has. He is never overly concerned with explaining how things came to be or the rules that govern magic in his world, if indeed there are any rules other than “it has to be weird and cool”. I alternate between finding this enthralling and a little hard to swallow, but overall I’d have had to be quite devoted to depriving myself of fun, to avoid falling under Neverwhere‘s spell.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This connected with me more than the other Neil Gaiman books I’ve read. This may be because there are specific details (not the really dark stuff, thankfully) that matched so precisely with my own experience that they reached through the page (well, Kindle screen, to be less poetic) and put me right there in the shoes of the seven-year-old protagonist. As well as featuring a classic Gaiman world-within-our-world (or is our world within their world?), The Ocean at the End of the Lane is beautifully evocative of childhood. There is a powerful sense of adulthood as mysterious and full of secret knowledge, which is then dwarfed by a similar but much grander sense about the hidden world the main character stumbles into, which just goes to show that growing up isn’t all that children think it is. You’ll notice I’ve said very little about the actual storyline. That’s because this is one of those stories that feels almost destined to become an iconic and canonical work of fantasy, and if you have the chance to go into it without knowing anything, you probably should take it.

Conscious vs. Unconscious! Fight! Fight! Fight!

For a while now, in a rather abstract, never-bothering-to-do-any-actual-research kind of way, I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between our conscious and unconscious minds. So as a creative exercise I decided to stage a little writing competition: me vs. my unconscious mind! I’m going to describe two dreams: one is a dream I have actually had, penned by my highly imaginative unconscious; the other is a fake dream I made up in my waking hours. See if you can guess which one is the real dream! Here we go!

Dream One – Crash Drink
I was in a supermarket a bit like Corstorphine Tesco. In the dream there was this Crash Bandicoot themed tropical fruit drink which came in ridiculously tall thin cans – called “two metre cans” because that’s how tall they were. (I think this was significant because that’s how tall Crash would be in real life.) Everyone loved this drink and was going on about how amazing it was, as if it was somehow going to change the world for the better. But it had just been banned or discontinued for some reason, and there was a profound sense of injustice and oppression around this, as if some dystopian government had needed to crush the drink before it started a revolution. When I got to the checkout with a few (now normal sized) cans, I was really worried that I would be arrested for even trying to buy it, but I made it out of the store without incident. I was happy about this, but also sad that the Crash drink would no longer be manufactured, and that some sort of hope for the world seemed to have been extinguished. There may also have been helicopters flying overhead at some point, which made the whole thing seem even more dystopian.

Dream Two – Seasickness Tablets
I was going on some sort of boat trip, and was trying to acquire some seasickness tablets before we set off (presumably to avoid a repeat of what I will only refer to as the Amsterdam incident). The first shop I tried was on the boat itself, and it claimed to sell seasickness tablets, but they looked more like weird sweets, and I didn’t trust that they actually were seasickness tablets. So I got off the boat and ended up in another shop, possibly the Boots near my house. All the staff somehow knew why I was there and laughed at me. I was a bit indignant for a minute, as it seemed perfectly reasonable that I should want to buy seasickness tablets, but eventually I realised their laughter was all in good fun. In fact it turned into a strangely heartwarming moment, where I felt accepted by them and by society as a whole.

There we go! Can you guess which dream was invented by my conscious mind, and which by my unconscious? And which one displays more imagination? That was a fun exercise, so I might do it again in the future, and when I do I will also tell you which of these was the real dream. Because it’s important that you know, you know?

April-June 2014 reading

Tithe Tithe by Holly Black

A modern faerie tale, in which misfit teenager Kaye moves back to the place she grew up and rediscovers the realm of faeries she used to play with. But it all seems a lot darker now, as conflict rages between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts and the solitary fey caught in the middle. If it sounds like Among Others, I suppose it is a bit, though this is more standard Young Adult fare, complete with a love story I’m probably not qualified to comment on so I’ll just shut up. Despite my love of fantasy, when it is mixed into the real world I often find myself enjoying the real world stuff more. Tithe is no exception – I like Kaye’s world before all the weird stuff kicks off, and said weird stuff is imaginative and vividly drawn, but I was never quite sold on the tricky ground where they meet. I suppose if characters always reacted with appropriate levels of surprise and bewilderment, a lot of fantasy would just be about people quivering and wailing in corners. Somebody needs to write that book some day.

A Storm of Swords A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

Martin’s intimidatingly ambitious fantasy series only grows more intimidatingly ambitious in its third entry. If A Clash of Kings felt a little too much like several related but mostly separate narratives, A Storm of Swords weaves many of them back together in often unexpected ways. I enjoyed the first two books, but this one feels as if it’s firing on all cylinders, burning the fuel provided by the many diverse elements introduced in books one and two. Or perhaps it was me who changed, who finally realised I knew enough about Martin’s world to get by, that I didn’t need to keep track of the names and sigils of all the minor houses to appreciate the story. Either way, this is my favourite so far. Despite being big enough to justify splitting into two volumes, Swords feels tight, almost every chapter acting like a satisfying short story, beginning and ending in exactly the right places. There are too many highlights to mention; the latter half especially is a rollercoaster, crammed with an almost absurd number of twists and turns, not to mention an impressive body count.

The Hellbound Heart The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

Similar to the few Lovecraft stories I’ve read, The Hellbound Heart is content to reveal only slivers of its distinctly unsettling mythology. Sinister, leering forces beyond our understanding lurk just out of sight behind the walls of the world, waiting for any excuse to drag victims off to their realm of disfigurement and myriad kinky torments/pleasures. There are nuggets of gold in the story: the unseen realm is described with enough vagueness to give the reader’s imagination something to do; Barker makes a clever and creepy use of brackets which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before but which I am sorely tempted to steal; and the ending is quite darkly beautiful if not entirely earned. Overall, though, I don’t know that I would recommend The Hellbound Heart. From plot to character to style, it all feels rather slight, like a short story stretched out to the length of a short novel. But hey, at least it’s short, and inventive enough that perhaps you should read it anyway if you’re into oddness.

The Fault in Our Stars The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Hey look! I read something almost timely! See, I’m still down with the kids! The Fault in Our Stars is a book about love and cancer and books. Primarily it is a romance between teenagers, and it is one of the best of those I have ever read, in that at no point did it make me want to hurl myself through a window. This is probably down to the simple fact that Hazel and Augustus have interesting and intelligent thoughts, not just about their own painfully evident mortality but about the universe in general. John Green (who I’ve become mildly obsessed with/envious of after realising he’s the same John Green who does this) skillfully weaves together cynicism about the tropes of simplistically sentimental ‘cancer books’ with philosophy and a great deal of wisdom about everyday relationships. It seemed inevitable that this book would try to make me cry towards the end, and while I somehow (just) managed to resist, it still made me think more than anything I’ve read in a while, and for that reason alone I’d say it is an exemplary Young Adult novel.

Them Them by Jon Ronson

Jon Ronson is not one to let feelings of social awkwardness (or the occasional mild fear for his life) get in the way of an intriguing human story. In Them he documents his time spent with various religious extremists, gun enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists and other people generally demonised by mainstream culture. In the process, like many a good author, he demonstrates why “evil” might just be the least helpful word in the English language. We bear witness to such disarming juxtapositions as an Islamic fundamentalist watching The Lion King with his baby daughter, and a branch of the Ku Klux Klan nit-picking over how best to burn a cross. Segments are short and snappy and easy to dip into, but as the narrative progresses it builds genuine intrigue, and you might end up reading big chunks all at once just to find out what head-shakingly strange thing happened next.

Wolf Hall Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I haven’t read much historical fiction, which is both a symptom and a cause of my comprehensive ignorance of history. But this sort of vicious circle can only be broken by fumbling around in the dark for a while, and that’s just what I did throughout a lot of Wolf Hall. Much of the story deals with the technicalities of obtaining a divorce for King Henry VIII of England, but the figures involved (including cunning protagonist Thomas Cromwell, jealous femme fatale Anne Boleyn, and the fascinatingly unpleasant utopian dreamer and torture enthusiast Thomas More) make this a good deal more interesting than it sounds. If you can get over the daunting size of the book, the initially confusing use of pronouns in place of the main character’s name, and the fact that about 50% of the characters are named Thomas, Wolf Hall gets pretty intriguing, and some of the descriptions alone are worth the price of admission. It may even be a good way to begin to understand British history, for people who like their knowledge packaged in a satisfying narrative form.

Late 2013 – early 2014 reading

150-GoodOmens Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

An apocalyptic tale in which the forces of Heaven and Hell are portrayed as world-weary, vaguely incompetent bureaucrats endlessly pushed around and manipulated by those up(and down)stairs. This sets the stage for a witty play involving frequent meetings between the mythological (represented by said bureaucrats and four horsepersons of the apocalypse, among others) and the mundane (represented by the inhabitants of the almost-too-wholesome English village of Lower Tadfield). Yeah, this book is definitely very Gaiman and Verry Pratchett, though in terms of style it feels more Pratchett to me – so densely packed with humourous insight, pleasing turns of phrase and clever images that as a writer I go into a state of denial to make myself feel better, thinking “okay, but it can’t REALLY be this well written”, even though it blatantly is.

150-TheDisasterArtist The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

This book documents the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, which is up there with Troll 2 in the “best worst movie” leagues. The unglamorous portrayal of small-time show business is interesting, but it is Tommy’s combination of eccentricity, passion, anger and vulnerability that makes this account so memorable (if you’ve ever acted in a weird and emotionally manipulative way, some of his lower moments may feel uncomfortably familiar). Sometimes I think any work of this type – be it documentary or memoir-type thing – is just an excuse to talk about people for a good long while, the specific subject acting as a framing device which sheds a lot of its importance once we begin to get to know the fascinating characters involved. So even if you haven’t seen The Room, this book deserves to be read by anyone interested in people – and if you aren’t, why are you reading at all?

150-HyperboleAndAHalf Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Really, if you want to know whether you should buy this book or not, the best test is to go and read the blog it’s based on. If you find yourself charmed by Allie Brosh’s willingness to look inwards, seek out all the most unflattering elements of her personality like an emotional investigative journalist, and report back with humour, bright colours and a rare, even inspirational level of honesty – buy this book! If you don’t, don’t – but just know that I like you a little less now. You might recognise some elements of Hyperbole and a Half that have become memes (“CLEAN ALL THE THINGS!”), but even those that haven’t are wonderfully quotable. For example: “Are you going into the kitchen? Cool. Go fuck yourself” is a phrase that will stick with me, at least reminding me that I’m not alone while I beat myself up over nothing.

150-Watchmen Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I need to read Watchmen again, because for the moment I have nothing resembling insight, only superlatives to lavish upon it. Actually scratch that – I’m not a proper reviewer, I can gush if I want to. The art is stunning, even overwhelming at times, and considering its only path of entry to your brain is through your eyes, it is amazingly effective at conveying seas of noise and long-drawn-out eerie silences. The overall effect of the whole thing is exhausting. Perhaps that’s just down to my inexperience with comic books, or perhaps the world it presents is just a little too frighteningly believable: a world which hovers on the brink of nuclear war while the heroes who were once seen to protect it can only shuffle around New York City reminiscing about the good old days and mourning their lost youth and reputations. Hmm, I may have made it sound dull there, but it absolutely isn’t – it’s astonishing, even or perhaps especially to a superhero sceptic such as myself.

150-AClashOfKings A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

The story told in this volume is more complex and subtle than that in A Game of Thrones, and it feels to me that it makes more sense as a novel than as a season of TV. This time around, the viewpoint characters are kept apart to a large extent, placing more importance on an almost impossibly large supporting cast who are more easily developed on the page than on the screen. It moves slowly at first, like the creaking gears of a massive machine, but it is in this book that the sheer scale of both the world and the story become clear: new locations are revealed, all described in beautiful detail; Shakespearean characters hatch devious plots, betray each other and desperately thrash around to escape the impossible situations they end up in; bloody battles are fought; old dark powers continue their slow, spine-tingling return to Westeros. I can’t even begin to imagine how Martin mapped all this out, but presumably he’s keeping a Post-it note shop in business somewhere.

Breakfast of Champions Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

To a greater extent than the other Vonneguts I’ve read, Breakfast of Champions reads less like a novel and more like a guide to the human race written by a bemused, witty and easily distracted alien. It starts strong, with a sarcastic dismantling of the myths surrounding America, and goes on to cover such ground as free will, racism, the futility of all life, and ultimately just what the hell the Creator of the Universe is playing at. Despite, or maybe because of the fact that its actual capital-P ‘Plot’ is so deeply buried within a labyrinth of tangents that it can barely be located at all, this book made me understand certain things about Vonnegut’s style for the first time. At one particularly brilliant point, he breaks the fourth wall and explains why he writes the way he does; on several other occasions I laughed out loud at the gleeful immaturity with which he takes a sledgehammer to the sort of rules they teach you in creative writing classes.