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.

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.

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.

Who is this guy?

A week ago I began working on a new book. It’s a collection of three short stories set in the same world as Project Snails, the massive fantasy novel I keep going on about (which is nearly finished but I’m letting it lie fallow to give myself a bit of perspective before I do my final round of edits and start trying to shove it down publishers’ throats). For the purposes of this blog I’ll call this new, smaller book Project Bitesize. The stories in it all follow the same character but are reasonably standalone – they have a bit of a noir flavour, and were conceived to be fun, light, fairly simple and relatively quick to write. What could go wrong?

I realised what could go wrong last Monday, the first day I worked on it full time. I had an outline for the first story, but as I began to write I discovered my outline was woefully inadequate. Even in writing the opening scene, which is primarily about setting up a mystery around a secondary character, it became painfully clear that the main character wasn’t pulling his weight. He was doing and saying whatever was necessary to advance the story, but had no particular agenda of his own. Halfway through the scene, I forced him to do something unexpected, in a crude attempt at turning him into a proper character, but in fact that had the opposite effect – he had subverted our expectations, yes, but in a way that made him even less understandable. There was no thread running through his words and actions to help readers, or me, to empathise with him.

At this point I started questioning everything about the project, particularly my own writing ability. How do you create an interesting and believable character? Suddenly I had no idea. I like to think there are at least a few examples in Project Snails, but I never followed any sort of formula to create them – they sort of grew in my head, over the course of many years and countless revisions of their story. When I started I didn’t know who they were – they were just (made up) names, each with a gender, age and arbitrary hair colour attached. From age 11 (I remember this because the youngest of my three main characters was slightly older than me when I began writing him) I spent years fumbling about, improvising a largely incoherent plot, and later abandoned more or less everything about the book aside from four or five characters and the fact that some of them board a ship quite near the beginning. So I was every bit as clueless then, I just didn’t know it. And doubt is certainly nothing new.

What’s thrown me is that it’s been so long since I wrote something completely new (the last major thing being the now dormant webseries Project Chippy back in 2011) that I’d kinda forgotten what to expect. After spending a couple of years writing characters I know inside out I forgot that there are such things as characters I don’t know. And the protagonist of Bitesize turned out to have no discernable personality at all. Why should he? I hadn’t given him any in my plan. I’d thought, maybe subconsciously, “Ah well, this story isn’t so much about him, it’s about the events he gets caught up in, and I’m sure I can write him to be just kind of generically charming and fun to go on a journey with”. How wrong I was.

Eventually I decided I’d have to shift the scene introducing the mystery back, and make the opening more about the main character – like how in A Study in Scarlet, the first couple of chapters are about Watson’s impressions of Holmes, before the titular case is introduced. And adding that scene has helped – I’m beginning to get a vague sense for the character of the main guy, and am enjoying building his tangled relationship with another recurring character, who was not even in the plan a week ago, but who has become absolutely central to the whole thing. I’ll probably work it all out in the end, though I’m coming to accept that the draft I’m writing now may turn out to be more an exercise in character-building than a publishable story.

If you want to take a painfully obvious lesson away from this post, try this one: if you want to write a story and you don’t know what your main character is like … um, you should probably fix that. I dunno. Despite having written a 200,000 word novel that I’m rather proud of, I sometimes feel I’m just learning for the first time what everyone else learned in their first creative writing class at primary school. Or perhaps writers simply have to relearn writing every time they start a new project?

Either way, I’m aiming to finish a draft of the first story by the end of this week, at which point I’ll reflect and decide what to do next, possibly in another blog post. It could be starting the second story, editing the first, going back to the more familiar territory of Snails, or sitting around watching Orange is the New Black and eating a whole bag of Mini Eggs. What mental state will I be in this time next week? Who can say? Never mind characters, sometimes I feel as if I’m the one I really don’t know.

August-October 2013 reading

A Study in Scarlet A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

I had read this already, but happily revisited it for the book club my friends just started. It is a good read, and a great introduction to the character of Sherlock Holmes, though if you’re used to more modern mysteries it may flummox you just because it breaks some of the rules that would later be established in the genre – for example, certain elements that would be crucial to untangling the mystery aren’t introduced until quite late in the book. But the nicely detailed and methodical description of the crime scene lets us feel as though we could work it all out if only we were as clever as Holmes, and the solution, when it comes, is elegant and satisfying. Compared to that of other books from the same period, the language is extremely accessible, and the series is definitely worth reading if you like the modern BBC adaptation of Sherlock, especially since the first episode of that kinda misses the point of the method of murder in this book.

Among Others Among Others by Jo Walton

Often I’m annoyed by fantasy stories that give us the option of believing all their impossible events take place only in one young character’s head – the sideways wink, that cheeky “oh, kids and their imaginations” thrown into children’s films as if the children watching aren’t going to notice. And even though this book is told in the form of a socially alienated 15-year-old’s diary, I didn’t really find myself suspecting that the fairies and magical events she describes were anything but real. Perhaps it’s because the way magic works is original and ingenious and beautifully integrated into the world – or perhaps it’s because the narrator is clever and likeable and odd in some very relatable ways, and I wanted to trust her. Also, along the way, she talks about a wide array of science fiction and fantasy books which, a little like the bibliography of 80s geekdom scattered throughout Ready Player One, might help people like me, who sometimes feel a bit out of the geek loop, to catch up.

The Wise Man's Fear The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Rather than starting with a bang, this book eases us back into Kvothe’s world quite slowly, but that’s okay. Aside from his wise and charismatic style and his brilliant world-building, much of Rothfuss’s skill is in wrapping us up in the day-to-day details of his protagonist’s life – stressing us out with his troubles, making us cheer whenever he wins some small victory over circumstance – until the fact that we’re not actually him seems entirely irrelevant. In that, it reminds me of nothing so much as Harry Potter. And the slow build-up more than pays off, as the latter half of the book is jam-packed with stunning imagery and moments to make you gasp out loud and prickle with goosebumps. If the third in the series lives up to the first two, The Kingkiller Chronicle will definitely join Harry Potter and His Dark Materials on the list of stories I go back to when I want to be taken on a fantastic journey away from my worldly troubles. Whatever it says about me, stories like these are among my favourite things.

Slaughterhouse Five Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut certainly does know his way around a weird sentence – I learned that much from Sirens of Titan. But in other ways, Sirens didn’t prepare me for this book. Rather than being a funny, occasionally melancholic philosophical romp, Slaughterhouse-Five is tight and sharp and crisp and deranged and brutal – merciless in its quest to hammer home the horrors of life in general and war in particular, chilling in its amused detachment from these horrors. But it wouldn’t be half as powerful without this detachment. Rather than moralising, it peppers us with short little bullets of humour and horror, and after a while it becomes disturbingly hard to tell which is which. Don’t read it unless you’re in the mood to think about death for a while. But you probably should read it at some point.

American Gods American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’m pretty sure I’m a person who should have been reading Neil Gaiman for years, but somehow I’ve only just got round to him. He’s one of those writers who crams an intimidating number of ideas into a small space, casually glancing off concepts which in other hands would be whole books of their own. American Gods is a weird one, though. I certainly enjoyed the American part – the slightly unsettling small towns, the tacky tourist attractions, the road movie flavour of it all. But I found the Gods part a bit baffling, to be honest. Almost every character speaks in riddles, and even the appropriately named shadowy protagonist doesn’t often stop to question the barrage of barely explained insanity that confronts him at every turn. The ending, especially, gets a bit metaphorical for my tastes, as physical reality fades into the background and people do all sorts of very symbolic-seeming things for no clear reason (don’t ask me why I let Murakami get away with it). Maybe I don’t know enough mythology to untangle it all, or maybe this book is just for people cleverer than me. I’m happy to confirm that Neil Gaiman is definitely one of those people.

April-July 2013 reading

More ramblings about books! A few more than usual this time, but that’s because most were quite short and a bit on the pulpy side. Sorry English degree – I’ll try to read something big and literary soon, I promise!

The Wasp Factory The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Be warned, this is the sort of book they’d make you read in high school, and if you’re me you wouldn’t get it at all because it didn’t intersect much with your naive little world – one of those books where everything is almost comically effed up and depressing, and everyone plays their part in a cycle of cruelty, weakness and appallingly bad parenting. But now, as a sort-of adult, I appreciate it more. The most impressive thing is perhaps that it makes the psychotic, misogynistic, animal-torturing protagonist more comprehensible to us than the apathetic world around him. Stick around for: a final chapter that could serve as the subject of a million essays featuring the word “problematic”, and a brilliantly unpleasant account of being drunk.

The Writer's Tale Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who more than I love myself – quite a lot more, in fact – but I still think Russell T Davies was quite underappreciated by fans. Not only was it his passion that revived the show back in 2005, he established a level of quality that was by no means assured before that point, but which people almost immediately began to take for granted. This book, through a series of informal and brutally honest letters, documents his writing process during his last couple of years as showrunner, and for aspiring writers it’s funny, familiar, terrifying and reassuring all at the same time. It certainly makes me feel better about my own procrastination, although on balance I suppose that might not be a good thing.

V For Vendetta V For Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

I’ve never read enough comics to fully adapt to them, so I tend to find them disconcerting and hard to follow. To try and fix this, I thought I’d try something I’d already seen the film of, and which also happens to be in one of my favourite genres. Like many dystopian visions, V For Vendetta shares a lot with Nineteen Eighty-Four, though being newer it is more creepily tuned in to the specifics of modern Britain. The characters are largely caricatures who play out clashes between ideologies: fascism, anarchy, justice, chaos, etc. It’s also deeply intertextual – it plays with quotations and scraps of philosophy, and is already making its own mark on the world. I really enjoyed it – it makes me want to read more comics, and just read more in general so I can appreciate its references. I did like the Faraway Tree stuff though. See, there’s something for all mental ages here!

The 5th Wave The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

I was unsure about this book from the first few chapters, as me and the main protagonist got off on the wrong foot, and sadly our relationship never fully recovered. The setting is ridiculously bleak, existing at some dark intersection between The War of the Worlds, The Walking Dead, and everyone you ever loved dying horribly. The story, meanwhile, is a cocktail of various Young Adult flavours, notably The Hunger Games (as the teenage protagonist stumbles from one gritty, back-to-basics survival situation to the next), and Twilight (as she gets all gooey over a mysterious but hot guy who may or may not want to kill her – has the whole of society just decided that that’s how love works now?). The story does have some moments of real cleverness, but they weren’t quite enough to hold my interest. Anyway, I won’t try to pass off my distaste as some sort of insight; it just didn’t really click for me.

Different Seasons Different Seasons by Stephen King

Stephen King feels like a storyteller who always knows what he’s doing, in a way that confounds and intimidates me greatly. All the stories in this collection of four are fascinating – they aren’t really classed as horror stories, but there is certainly something to horrify in each one of them. ‘The Body’ was the highlight for me: it explores the connections between childhood and adulthood, and the distinct strangeness of both worlds. The adventure the main four characters go on very much captures the odd mixture of images, both nostalgic and disturbing, that come with memories of childhood – it’s kinda like the prose equivalent of Boards of Canada’s Music Has The Right To Children. The story that was adapted into The Shawshank Redemption is another highlight, and a masterclass in character building to which I’m sure I will return frequently.

Storm Front Storm Front by Jim Butcher

One of those troubling books where the author was younger than me when he wrote it. I was constantly on the lookout for clues to this fact to make myself feel better, but sadly this is a very well structured and enjoyable urban fantasy detective noir thriller thingy. It grips you through the old technique of piling problems upon problems, never resolving one without introducing two more. Poor old yer-a-wizard-Harry Dresden is never allowed a pause for breath without being bludgeoned with a blunt object or attacked by a demon or pounced upon by one of the book’s many femme fatales, so the pace is always fast and pleasingly silly. And you can feel the author setting up a world fit for the many sequels the book already has – it’s one of those series that it’s nice to know is there in case I need something pulpy and fun to binge on.

Ready Player One Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

A book about escaping from a ruined world into a virtual easter-egg hunt created by an eccentric dead billionaire obsessed with 80s geek culture … and if that sounds like the ultimate piece of escapism for nerds, that’s because it pretty much is. But as much as that description appeals to me, it still feels like it does a disservice to the tight structure and vivid imagination of this book. There’s a real sense of adventure here, of danger, wonder and magic – a tone somewhere between Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Hunger Games, if that makes any sense at all, which it really doesn’t seem to when I put it like that. Trust me, it’s great. And it’s such a massively joyful and unapologetic celebration of geek culture that even I, as someone who often feels too weird and awkward to even be a proper part of the geek community, was practically hyperventilating at certain points. In a good way.

(Oh yeah, I also read Reunited in Death and A Reformed Character, the second and third books in the Pitkirtly series by Cecilia Peartree, but as the author’s son I don’t really feel qualified to write critically about them. But in my biased opinion, they are good and funny and you should read them.)