Thursday, 29 December 2011

Author of the year

George R R Martin chosen Author of the year by USA Today.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Slow Week

We have family visiting Chez Szondy this week at the same time I'm facing a string of deadlines that Christmas has already kept me away from for too long.  Therefore, though I'll be posting the usual video features on Ephemeral Isle, other posts will be as and when I can find time.

Normal service will resume as soon as possible.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas
The Quill & The Keyboard

Back after Boxing Day

Friday, 23 December 2011

Review: The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle

"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)

In some households, Christmas is marked by reading Dickens's "A Christmas Carol".  Others with "The Gift of the Magi" and some by opening up a traditional ghost story.  At Chez Szondy, we celebrate the Yuletide with "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle".

I feel that this is appropriate, not only a proper Christmas story, but the season also looms large in Sherlock Holmes lore.  It was in the Beeton's Christmas Annual of 1887 that A Study in Scarlet was published and it was in the Christmas issue of The Strand in 1893 that Watson's editor, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, tried to kill off Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls.  In "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle", Christmas has Holmes and Watson by the throat.  Watson visits Holmes at their old digs at 221B Baker Street to pay the detective the compliments of the season only to find Holmes intently studying a battered old hat.  This had been lost by a man  who'd been set upon by roughs in Tottenham Court Road along with a fine Christmas goose.  The commissionaire who witnessed the scuffle and the fleeing of both the roughs and the man found himself in the possession of hat and goose and took them to Holmes because he knew that the detective found even the smallest problems of interest.  In the interest of waste not, want not, Holmes told the commissionaire to keep the goose for his family's Christmas dinner while Holmes retained the hat.

Naturally, Holmes is able to deduce all manner of things about the headgear, but what he couldn't deduce was that the commissionaire would find a fabulous jewel in the crop of the goose–a jewel that had been a sensation since its disappearance earlier in the week.  The question is, how did it come to be inside the bird and what did the owner of the hat have to do with it?  What follows is a tale of Holmes and Watson descending into the would of London poulterers as they retrace the goose's career.

"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" is one of the best written, certainly one of the most charming of the Sherlock Holmes stories.  Never mind that many over the years have delighted in picking apart Holmes's hat deductions.  They were never meant to stand up to serious examination in the fist place, since they were merely a literary device to convince the reader of his analytical powers,  They serve their purpose and serve it well and Holmes uncovering the secret of Mr Henry Baker's life from the stains and dust on his hat are a classic of the mystery genre.

Beyond that, we have what truly makes the Holmes stories unique.  In this adventure, we have on display Conan Doyle's spare, economical writing style that has held up so well after over one and a quarter centuries.  He brings Victorian London to life so well that the modern capital can't compete with it for all its wifi hot spots and bicycle lanes and glass gherkins.  It is a live, vivid city that we feel that we are truly visiting.

And, of course, there is the friendship between Holmes and Watson that is the foundation of the stories and what keeps drawing us back.  See the two in a Christmas settings is a cozy, reassuring episode that ends with a neat little dispensation of justice, Yule spirit and another mystery with a bird as the centrepiece.

Happy Christmas from The Quill & The Keyboard.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Review: A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones by George R R Martin (1996)

Winter is coming, but the Seven Kingdoms don't seem very bothered about it.  While the men of the Black Watch stare at the northern wastes and its unknown dangers from their gigantic wall of ice, the lords of the kingdoms to the south play at a game of thrones to determine who will rule over the others.  For 15 years after slayer the Mad King, King Robert has sat on the Iron Throne, but the mysterious death of his first minister, the King's Hand, as set into motion events that will through the realm into civil war.  Caught in the middle of this is Robert's old friend Lord Eddard Stark, who is selected to replace his dead predecessor.  It's an unwelcome appointment, as Eddard would rather remain in his home of Winterfell with his family and he finds that Robert is not the man he used to be.  Worse, Eddard and the entire Stark family soon find themselves caught in a web of mystery and intrigue as Eddard tries to get to the bottom of what is going on while keeping his honour and those he loves safe.

A Game of Thrones is the first volume of George R R Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series.  As such, it is the sort of book I dislike on first principles.  I'm never keen on airport doorstop novels and have little relish for ploughing through 700 pages only to discover that it ends with "To be continued"  I dislike it even more when the series is still continuing after five massive volumes.  Either Martin has an incredible plot mapped out in great detail or he's winging it and I'd hate to have to flip 30,000 pages to find a train wreck at the end.

That being said, Thrones is a definite improvement on the HBO series that it spawned.  Where the television incarnation is confusing and I often felt like I'd forgotten to bring my study guide, the novel delves far enough into back story and the characters to clue me in on the plot.  It also makes more sense because the story telling is tighter, there's no budget to restrict the action and the book is mercifully free of gratuitous naked boobies and homoerotic shaving scenes.

It's not badly written.  In fact, Martin's style is disciplined and his main characters are nicely handled, though second tier cast and below blur together in a maddening fashion.  The main problem is that there is just too much going on and much of it is needless.  There are entire plots that have nothing to do with the main action and could easily have been dropped.  Others are like over-laboured set ups that could have been achieved much more economically with a few lines of dialogue and one is merely distracting.  This is a pity because Martin's main plot lines are very good.  What he should have done is taken one of the plots, Eddard's or that of the dwarf Tyrion (the only really interesting character) and used that as the basis of a single, smaller book.  I'd have been happy to read a 200 page novel about Eddard's mystery solving or Tyrion's attempts to stay alive in hostile territory, but mashed together with a load of filler until it tips out at 750 pages?  No, thank you.

Some might council patience and point out that it's part of a larger story like The Lord of the Rings.  To this, I'd remind them that LOTR was one book broken into three by the publisher and that even in a multi-volume series it is reasonable to expect each one to be self-standing.  Cliff hangers are fine, but wondering what the deuce dragon girl has to do with anything else in the story is too much, sorry.

The best take on the whole thing, a coffee stand sign I saw that said, "Winter is coming–So, why not warm up with an egg nog latte?"  Every problem is an opportunity.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Review: Wilt

Wilt by Tom Sharpe (1976)

Henry Wilt is unhappy.  After ten years of trying to teach English literature to day-release apprentices in classes like Meat One and Plasterers Two, he's fed up.  He's a good teacher, but hasn't a chance of getting anywhere because the nitwits who run the college are desperate to get the place upgraded to a poly, so they're only interested in promoting post-modern poseurs who can't string together a coherent sentence.  Worse, Wilt is married to Eva, a large woman of even larger enthusiasms who throws herself so completely into whatever she does that she can turn a flower arranging class into a threat to life and limb.  Seeing his life sinking deeper and deeper into a grey mass of unchanging attempts at having something like a peaceful home life while trying to get gas fitters interested in Shane, Wilt tries to console himself as he walks the dog with fantasies of murdering his wife.

Then Eva meets a sophisticated American couple who seems to be everything she yearns for, but it's a meeting that results in Wilt being arrested for murder and the start of a nightmare–for the police inspector who arrests him.

Tom Sharpe is one of those authors who is very hard to explain in summary.  His novels are always gut-bustingly funny with passages that leave the reader literally breathless with laughter, but his humour works by the build up of a carefully constructed farce.  Wilt's attempt to dispose of a rubber sex doll is uproariously funny, but it's impossible to explain why.  You have to read it yourself to get the build up to the climax.  The same goes for the sequence of events that lead to Inspector Flint looking at his pork pie and realising that he may be an accessory after the fact to a murder.

What can be said is that Wilt is arguably Sharpe's best novel.  His creation of Henry Wilt is a masterpiece of an Everyman who sees his life slipping away from him on a daily basis, yet comes to discover hidden talents in himself that ultimately allow him to overcome all obstacles.  His wife, Eva, is equally well written.  As Wilt describes her,
Eva is not forceful. She is a force. There's a difference. And as for character, she has so many and they're so varied it"s difficult to keep up with them all. Let's just say she throws herself into whoever she is with an urgency and compulsiveness that is not always appropriate. You remember that series of Garba pictures they showed on TAI some years back? Well, Eva was La Dame Aux Camelias for three days after that and she made dying of TB look like St Vitus' dance. Talk about galloping consumption.
They are a perfect match for one another and when they are unleashed, woe to the world.

The other thing that is delightful about Sharpe is that he is so gloriously un-PC.  Having been deported from South Africa during the Apartheid era,  he saw up close and personal what mental conformity looked like and has no truck with it.  In Wilt, as in his other novels, he takes great delight in skewering targets on the Left and Right, but takes particular pleasure in going for the soft targets of liberal pretence and hypocrisy.  This is probably the reason why his books, though still in print, don't get the recognition they deserve.

Something Henry Wilt would understand.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Review: The Science of Sherlock Holmes

The Science of Sherlock Holmes by E J Wagner

Sherlock Holmes is regarded as the world's greatest detective.  More than that, he is that rare instance of a fictional character who has not only become a household word, not only become a part of popular culture and folklore, but has joined that elite group of characters whom many people firmly believe really existed.  Dr Watson's accounts of his exploits, edited by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, are wonderful stories filled with adventure and the portrayal of a remarkable friendship, but they are also a primer of logical thinking and of proper crime detecting methods.  Indeed, much of modern police work can be traced back to Sherlock Holmes.  Therefore, a book about the science of Holmes would be a fascinating exploration of both the Holmesian Canon and forensic investigation.

Unfortunately, this book is not it.  The Science of Sherlock Holmes is a major disappointment.  Far from examining the science behind Sherlock Holmes, Miss Wagner merely uses the great detective as a framing device for a book that is little more than a potted and very superficial history of forensic science.  We are introduced to fingerprinting, the acid bath murders, Crippen, and the usual assortment of the lurid and the mundane, but it is territory that has been ploughed much more deeply and thoroughly by better writers and using the gimmick of referring occasionally to  Holmes before dancing off to talk about blood stains does a disservice to both topics.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Harlan Ellison

Frederick Pohl looks at science fictions perpetual enfant terrible, Harlan Ellison.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Review: Kalin

Kalin by E C Tubb

In his endless search for his home planet Earth, Earl Dumarest manages to forget the lost of his first love Derai when he meets a troubled woman named Kalin, who has the ability to see into the future.  Lost in a life bubble after surviving a botched hijacking attempt that destroys the ship they were travelling on, Dumarest and Kalin are rescued by a slaver.  Though Dumarest has enough money to keep them from being sold on the auction block, they instead find themselves dropped on the planet Chron; a miserable mining planet where the mines run on slave labour and there is no other way to earn a living.  Dumarest must find a way to keep both himself and his new love alive while finding a way off the planet.  Meanwhile, on another planet, the Cyclan sends one of their order to offer his services to a local noble, despite the fact that their world is too poor to afford their services.  What is it that they seek there?

The fourth book in the Dumarest Saga, this is where the series settles down into the pattern it will maintain from now on.  With less of an emphasis on intrigue than on a plot revolving around survival in various forms, Kalin is a simple, harsh story with moments of real tension when it seems that Dumarest is well and truly screwed for good.  More important, up until now, the relationship between Dumarest and the Cyclan has been one of mere mutual hatred–the Cyclan have killed those Dumrest loved and tried to kill him repeatedly, while he has been a thorn in the order's side.  By the end of this book, this changes when Dumarest comes into possession of a secret that the Cyclan want desperately and will stop at nothing to recover.  After this, Dumarest's quest becomes a chase as well.  Also, we learn more about the benevolent Brotherhood, who become allies of Dumarest in his adventures, though only as far their code permits.  Nevertheless, we get more insights into their organisation and another dimension is added to the saga.

This novel not only marks a turning point  in the saga, but it is also the one where Tubb reveals a greater love and command of the English language.  His descriptions become more on the mark and the world that forms the backdrop to Dumarest's adventures becomes more vivid and even stark at times.  It is here that the saga really begins.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Review: The Road to Wigan Pier

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937)

A remarkable thing about Orwell's writing is that even his prose rises so easily to the level of literature.  The Road to Wigan Pier is, at the end of the day, a work of sociology and a polemic call to action.  Orwell's concise yet evocative style provides a moving account of working class life in the coal mines and industrial cities of Northern England in the 1930s.  In fact, he does such a good job that anyone who pounds the table about poverty in Britain after 1955 looks like a fool to anyone who recalls the true privations and hardships that Orwell so movingly records

The second half of the book has dated very badly.  There Orwell gives a very open and honest account of why he became a Socialist, his idea of a proper Socialist society and what he thinks of fellow Socialists who are little more than poseurs and opportunists.  It's reasonably thought out, though one is astonished that Orwell seemed to regard the economy as a zero-sum game and it never occurred to him that the way to raise the poor out of their misery was largely a matter of making everyone more prosperous.  The idea of wealth creation never seems to have crossed his mind.

Worse, after over seventy years, we have a tremendous wealth of hindsight with which to judge the Socialist experiment; how it has been an abject failure across the board resulting in everything bankrupt welfare states at one end and murderous Communist and Fascist regimes at the other.  It is tragic that Orwell never saw that what he regarded as aberrations of Socialism were, in fact, the core of an ideology that did not understand human nature, never delivered what it promised and proved a ready-made template for every busybody, bureaucrat or totalitarian who craved more power.

The ironic thing is that Orwell did actually see one great truth, but he never recognised it as truth.  He observed that the working classes saw Socialism as being nothing more than being allowed to live their lives as they'd always lived them, holding on to the ideals, beliefs and institutions that they loved and were familiar with, but where they were paid more, worked less and treated decently.  Ironically, that's all they did want, expected to receive when the Welfare State reared up, and what they were denied as the Socialists unveiled their contempt for Britain, her history and her people as the old Establishment died and the New Political Class rose in its place; a class that looks more like something out of a couple of Mr Orwell's later, more prophetic books.  This is why so many in Britain today see the fruits of Socialism as making Britons feel like strangers in there own country.

Perhaps someone needs to make take another trip along that road to find that elusive pier.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Review: The Voyage of the Space Beagle

The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) by A E Van Vogt

In July 1939, Van Vogt's first short story, "Black Destroyer" was published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine.  By 1950, it, along with three other stories, were collected and rewritten to form his novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle.

The plot is familiar to anyone who's seen an episode of Star Trek, which isn't surprising because Beagle set the format for all the later space voyaging series.  In the  distant future, the giant starship Space Beagle is on a mission of exploration.  Exactly what this mission is and why they're out there is never made clear.  Apparently, pop off and have a butcher's was regarded as a sufficient brief to hurl a thousand men on a multi-year trek between galaxies.  While bouncing about space, the crew of the Space Beagle encounter the terrifying Coeurl in Van Vogt's première story, a creature retrieved in the depths of space in a tale that was the inspiration for a number of science fiction films ending in Alien, a mind attack right out of the Star Trek handbook, and a galaxy-eating gas monster.  In each case, the crew face a new monster, battle it and defeat it in a fashion that becomes formulaic by the end of the book.  In order to make this into a novel, Van Vogt stirs in a healthy dose of his obsession with mental self-improvement by introducing as his hero a "Nexialist"; a man who specialises in not specialising, but through hypnosis and lots of deck-staking on Van Vogt's part is able to master all the sciences simultaneously.  Naturally, despite the prejudice of his crew mates, he saves the day in every story and wins acceptance for his self-improvement regime.

Despite its fameThe Voyage of the Space Beagle is something of a disappointment.  The beautifully laid on atmosphere and sense of menace that "Black Destroyer" offered is ruined here as it is shoehorned into a novel and made to serve the ends of setting up the hero.  The next three episodes don't build on the plot or pick up the pace, but rather slow it down and dissipate any drama that might have existed.  Worse, each one is of poorer quality than the last until finally the whole thing bogs down in what can only be described as an anticlimax.  This may be a book worth picking up for historical value, but I'd much more recommend reading "Black Destroyer" in its unadulterated form and then seeking out the other short stories as opportunity offers itself.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Review: The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe Of Heaven: A Novel by Ursula K Le Guin (1971)

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

William ShakespeareThe Tempest: Act 4, scene 1, 148–158
That's how The Lathe of Heaven should have started, but, instead, we get an obscure quote about Confucius.  It's neither a very apt quote and neither is it very surprising, which pretty much sums up the novel.  Despite her reputation, which I've always thought was due more to her politics than her talent, Le Guin has always been a very tepid writer who never could come to grip with her stories.  Some novels end, others stop, Le Guin's just peter out as she runs out of things to say.  From the detached, disinterested tone she brings to her writing, I often suspect that she simply gets bored with a project beyond a certain point and only wants to get shot of it.  The Lathe of Heaven is no exception.

George Orr is an unexceptional man of the year 2002.  In fact, he's so unexceptional that he's exceptional because of it.  On every scale he lands right on the mean.  The only true peculiarity about his is that when he dreams, they become reality, but only he is aware of this change.  Convicted of drug abuse after trying to dope himself into not dreaming, Orr is sent to Dr Haber,  a psychologist who specialises in dream research.  Haber soon discovers Orr's secret and starts to use it to alter the world to suit his own ends and a battle of wills soon develops.

This is a story that couldn't be written today; one seemingly about world-shaking consequences, but really a  fight between two men in a doctor's office.  In many ways, the sci fi element could be eliminated and this could be simply a drama about a man and his psychiatrist.  Orr is well drawn, though maddeningly passive, effeminate, ineffectual and (worst) fatalistic.  And we're supposed to identify with him.  Haber, on the other hand, is a walking caricature of a Benthamite gone wild; creating the greatest good for the greatest number right and left and damn the consequences.   Surprisingly for such an arch-Feminist author, Le Guinn's female character, Heather Lelache, is very sketchy and peripheral with Le Guinn imagining it's enough to make a woman "strong" by telling us she is.

The real problem is that this is a novel of ideas and most of them are half-digested New Age quasi-zen pap mixed in with Le Guinn's background research on dream psychology that she insists on sharing in toto.  Worse than that, she is incapable of merely making a point and then moving on.  Instead, she is forever circling back to something from earlier chapters and labours it until it's as thin as the seat of an old pair of trousers.  We got the point a hundred pages ago, please ease up and hold the literary flourishes.  Finally, the story doesn't so much resolve as take a last gasp of air and expire.

Adapted for the screen, once by PBS and remade with James Cann in what seemed like a fit of absent mindedness, The Lathe of Heaven is a decent story, but one that ultimately sinks under it's philosophical and literary pretences.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Review: The Skylark of Space

The Skylark of Space by E E "Doc" Smith (1928)

Chemist Richard "Dick" Seaton watches in astonishment as his experiment flies out the window and into infinity.  Before you can say "radium" Seaton realises he has discovered the secret of atomic energy and without missing a beat gets his best friend to back him in building a spaceship.  However, evil mastermind Richard "Blackie" DuQuesne is also after the secret and does all sorts of dastardly things to get a monopoly on the new power source, including kidnapping Seaton's fiancée in a spaceship of his own.

Skylark is one of the true classics of early science fiction, but "classic:" doesn't always translate into good.  This is a novel where to call the characters two-dimensional would be a compliment.  As to the plot, Smith sets up his chess pieces, gives you a good 360 degree look at them, and then sets them in motion with zero suspense or even conflict.  True, there are villains and fist clenchings and all sorts of melodramatic goings on, but none of it means anything because nothing is ever at stake.  When our heroes can effectively forget about the black-hearted Duquesne for the last half of the book, something is seriously wrong.  Instead, we get spectacles, set piece battles, and escapes that are about as engaging as watching a string of firecrackers go off.  And there are banquets.  Every time Smith's plot bogs down he has everyone march off to eat.

Worse, most everything depends  on a staggering string of coincidences.  Our heroes just happens to come across an airfleet bineg attacked by monsters never before seen in such numbers.  The fleet just happens to be that of the emperor of the planet they're visiting, who just happens to have the leader of his enemies captives, who the emperor just happens to give the Earthmen as a slave and who just happens to have a thought teaching device he just happens to have just invented.  And so on, and so on.

The only thing that keeps this going is sheer brass with Smith rolling out scientific wonder upon wonder in a parade of power fantasies.  Small wonder it was such a sensation in 1928.  It hasn't the "what the hell" bravado of Smith's later Lensman series, but it does point the way.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Review: Luminous Airplanes

Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge is a book that tries to answer the question of how to adapt the traditional paper and pasteboard book to the digital age. How do you take what is essentially a static collection of words and turn it into something open ended and interactive? How do you give it a new digital dimension? Mr. La Farge's answer is to turn his novel about a content manager returning to his boyhood home in the Catskills into an experiment in hypertexting or, as he prefers to call it, "immersive" text. Read More

Friday, 25 November 2011

Review: Conjure Wife

Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber (1943)

Behind every great man there is a woman–except that it often turns out that the woman is a witch.  At least, that's the premise of Fritz Leiber's 1943 supernatural thriller, Conjure Wife.  

Professor Norman Saylor has a happy life.  He has a secure position at the university where he teaches sociology, he's the favoured candidate as the new department head, he's popular with the students and he has a loving wife Tansy.  One day, in a fit of idle revelry,  he rummages through a drawer where Tansy keeps things and discovers that his rational, educated spouse has been collecting graveyard dirt and making magical charms, which she's been hiding all over the house.  Confronting Tansy, she tells him that she's been practising witchcraft for some time in order to protect him against those who meant him harm.  Wanting to prove to Tansy that this is all superstition, Norman makes her destroy all of her charms in the fireplace.  As the last charm burns, Tansy feels as if a great burden has been lifted from her, but Norman inexplicably experiences a chill.  Then the phone rings and Norman is confronted by an ex-student accusing him leading a conspiracy against him.  Within hours, Norman is facing charges of sexual misconduct, he has a gun pulled on him, and his life in general seems to be going to pot.   Worse, Norman senses that something is stalking him.  Is this coincidence and imagination or are there witches on the campus really working against him and sensing his vulnerability now that Tansy's protections have been withdrawn.

Today, Conjure Wife would be classified as "urban fantasy", but that is distinctly unfair and restrictive because it was Leiber who invented the genre before it even existed.  More to the point, he did it far better than his imitators with their katana-wielding babes in leather trousers have even come close to pulling off.  Though flawed by a few clumsy exposition scenes, Leiber's novel is a truly hair raising story.  Norman's mixture of paranoia and scepticism that grows more pronounced as the menace grows closer has rarely been equalled and  the way in which Leiber poises science (of, at least symbolic logic) against witchcraft remains fresh even to this day. But what makes it truly work is the characters.  There is a real logic to the plot that derives from them.  Norman has his entire world view at stake and Tansy is willing to literally risk her soul to protect him.  Even the villains of the piece are driven by their individual motives and suffer because of them.

As much a psychological thriller as a horror story, conjure wife shows what the genre can do if given half the chance.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Punctuation jokes

A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves. 
It's a specialised branch of humour, but it has it's moments.  More here.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Review: Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1959)

It's the day after tomorrow and a nuclear war has broken out.  A planeload of English schoolboys being sent to safety is shot down and crashes on a deserted tropical island. No adults survive and the wreck of the plane is washed out to sea, leaving the surviving boys, none older than twelve, with nothing to survive with except two small knives and the clothes they're standing in.  However, the weather is warm and there's fruit to eat and, having elected the boy Ralph as their leader, the boys settle down to a life of tending the signal fire and hours of play like characters out of Coral Island.

Unfortunately, things don't work out that way.  Under the dire influence of the power-hungry Jack, a boy obsessed with hunting and bloodshed, the group's minimal cohesion begins to unravel.  As the weeks drag on, the boys sink further and further into chaos as Ralph and his myopic friend Piggy try desperately to keep the hope of rescue alive and the final plunge in savagery at bay.

It's not easy reviewing a book that most people have already read in school and has praise heaped on it for over half a century.  It also doesn't help that I didn't like it the first time I read it when I was not much older than the main characters or that re-reading it has only altered my opinion slightly.  I suppose it's because the boys in the novel always struck me as being incompetent and that, by extension, this was Golding's opinion of civilised man.  Selling the premise of a book is always vital and it was hard for me to accept that these boys, who were my age, knew less about woodcraft than I'd ever forgotten–and I was no Daniel Boone.  They also seemed painfully ill-disciplined and I often wondered how different the tale would have been if the plane had been carrying boy scouts.

Mind you, I'm sure that Golding was also aware of this, but his decisions clearly show that he was stacking the deck by rigging his islanders for failure.  Ralph, for all his good intentions and nascent leadership, is utterly ineffectual with no concept of human nature, Piggy is as repelling as he is level headed and intelligent, and Jack and his henchman Roger are both obviously insane from chapter one.  So is the introspective and insightful Simon, come to that, who is best described as a high-functioning schizophrenic.

Golding is also extremely proud of his symbolism, but he is never clear about what the blazes the symbols are supposed to mean; leaving the point as a rebus puzzle for the reader.  Symbolism has its place as does allegory, but you still have to get to the point.  I can hardly believe that it's that when thing go bad civilisation can go to smash.. That's far too facile.  G K Chesterton made the much stronger point that what's really interesting is the balancing act of order and how it's able to reassert itself against all odds as if... But that's getting into theology.

I have read that one parallel that Golding was trying to draw was between the final, murderous hunt and the mission of the rescuing Royal Navy warship.  If this is the case, then I find his point insulting.  Jack is an instrument of chaos and tyranny bent on destruction.  The warship is an instrument of order intended to enforce the peace and protect civilisation.  They are not parallels, but diametric opposites.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Review: Toyman

Toyman by E C Tubb (1969)

Earl Dumarest has landed on another bad planet.  He's come to Toy to consult the supercomputer known as the Library about the location of Earth only to end up on the losing side in a gladiatorial game where the member of the losing team are all put to death and then, illegally, he escapes the arena.  Now a fugitive from the authorities, Dumarest must find a way to complete his mission and stay alive.  Meanwhile, Stockholder Leon and his fellow conspirators try to work out their next step in their plan to overthrow the brutal dictator of Toy, the Toymaster. And, of course, a member of the Cyclan is waiting patiently.

Toyman is the third in the Dumarest series and it takes a bit of a rest from developing the formula.  Dumarest is more brutal than we've seen him in the previous two outings, but the Cyclan here are more generic villains rather than the archenemies that they will soon become.  The novel is a straightforward adventure with two parallel storlines:  Dumarest's flight to avoid capture for daring to survive the arena and of Leon and his intrigues against the Toymaster.  Eventually, these two lines intersect in a rather neat blending that allows Dumarest to save the day without things seeming too contrived.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Review: Sinister Barrier

Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell (1939)

Hunting for books is an adventure.  Even in a digital age, running down a volume that you know by name or reputations, but have never laid hands on can be as exhilarating as stalking a buck and the kill as satisfying.  And you don't have to lug the carcass back to the lodge through two miles of undergrowth.  Unfortunately, sometimes finding that book proves more fun than actually turning the pages.

Such is the case with Sinister Barrier.  Like a lot of science fiction, it is famous for its premise to the point where its appalling execution is entirely overlooked.

First published in the short-lived strange fiction magazine Unknown, Sinister Barrier is the first sample of "Fortean" science fiction.  Charles Fort, a newspaper reporter and frustrated naturalist, was an obsessive collector of press clippings involving all manner of weird happenings all over the world.  Starting in 1919, he gathered these stories into four books that were part reporting, part speculation and mainly rambling stream of conciousness where Fort dabbled with and then rejected and then re-dabbled with all manner of bizarre ideas about what is "really" going on.   His books had a great influence on later science fiction writers, but it was Eric Frank Russell who first picked up on using Fort as a springboard.

Sinister Barrier starts out as it intends (or doesn't intend, but does so anyway) to continue by on the first page claiming to be fiction, but true.  Then there's a long disquisition on Fort that ends with a ludicrous "true story" opening that is left hanging in the air.  After this, the story proper starts with the mysterious deaths of scientists and police detective Bill Graham hot on the trail.  In a string of harrowing chases, Graham discovers that man is not alone on the Earth.  In fact, he is someone else's property and that anyone who discovers this truth is immediately killed.  Except for Graham, who has ESP or the aliens can't identify him or he's just lucky or whatever suits the plot at the moment.

That is the major failing of Sinister Barrier.  It's a haphazard novel that doesn't know what it wants to be.  It's supposedly wrapped up as a detective thriller, but it keeps shifting gears from scene to scene for no readily apparent reason.   Take our hero, for example.  One minute he's a standard issue flatfoot on the homicide beat, the next he's a topflight government agent loyal to the code, then he's an insightful scientific investigator, a an angry rebel, a charismatic crusader or a wise-cracking lady's man.  He's also a raving schizophrenic.

At least he's better off than his love interest who is inserted for no reason and is merely a snitty attitude.  Worse, there are far too many minor characters who are utterly indistinguishable from one another and when they die (as most do) we feel absolutely nothing.  It's hard to care about a character who is nothing but a moustache.

It isn't only characters that suffer.  Events occur without any dramatic necessity to them and the climax of the story involves a race against time where the clock is ticking for reasons that are never revealed.  So far so dreadful, but having established that the world is only hours from doomsday, Russell has our hero, who is the world's only hope of salvation, drop everything and mount a rescue of a minor character.  Why?  I have no idea.  Is this important?  Evidently not because she dies and this has no consequences for anyone or anything.

In other words, this is a book about Fortean mysteries which poses it's own conundrum:  Why on Earth did it ever get reprinted after it's first magazine appearance?

Friday, 4 November 2011

Thou vain dread-bolted minnow!

For those of you struggling with Shakespeare pastiches.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Review: Tarzan of the Apes

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)

There are a handful of fictional characters who have become so fixed in the public mind that they transcend into folklore and then there are the select who fall into a quasi reality where people believe that they actually exist.  One is Sherlock Holmes, who to this day receives letters addressed to 221B Baker Street.  Another is Tarzan of the Apes, though if anyone is posting him letters, they must be going to "General Deliver, The Jungle, Darkest Africa.

Tarzan of the Apes is Burroughs's first novel in the series and with its sequel Return of Tarzan form some of his strongest if not best work.  It tells the origin of Tarzan that is as well known as that of Superman.  Tarzan is in reality Lord Greystoke, an English nobleman whose parents were marooned by pirates on the jungle coast of west Africa in 1888.  There Tarzan was born and after his parents died, the infant lord was adopted by a great ape who raised the strange little white baby (Tarzan means "white skin" in the ape language) as her own.  At first dismissed and mocked by the apes for his weakness, slow growth and hideousness lack of hair,  However, his greater intelligence and human nobility begins to tell as he approaches manhood and by the time he is 18-years old he has become lord of the apes.

Unfortunately, Tarzan is also lonely.  As he discovers how limited his "fellow" apes are, he discovers that his only relief is from the books he find in his dead parent's cabin from which he learns to read and write, but not speak English.  As to human companionship, the only human beings he encounters are a tribe of fierce cannibals who move into the jungle after fleeing the cruelties of the Belgian Congo and murder his foster mother. Tarzan therefore only visits to take his revenge on by tormenting them with tricks and killing any warriors who try to invade his territory. It isn't until another group of castaways appears that includes American girl Jane Porter that Tarzan's world begins to open up in new and puzzling ways.

You know where this is going.  This is basically a grown-up version of Mowglis brothers with apes instead of wolves, a love interest thrown in, and an opportunity for Burroughs to explore what it means to be human, how nobility asserts itself, and the enervating effects of civilisation that takes man too far from nature.  Burroughs's writing style is easy going and engaging and he is definitely able to capture the growing maturity of the burgeoning apeman.  He's also able to demonstrate how Tarzan is an exceptional individual among apes, but among men as well.

This is also the sort of book that in the 1970s and beyond gets regularly condemned as "racist" because of the author's use of a black stock character in the form of Jane's maid, who looks and sound as if she'd stepped straight off the stage of a music hall.  It's crude characterisation, I'll grant, but in Burroughs's defence, I would state that if he offended blacks, then he offended college professors, English peers, pirates and mutineers just as badly, if not worse.

On a personal note, this was a book that I greatly enjoyed as a boy and I had sitting on my shelf for years after buying a copy because it was a beautifully bound reprint.  I've only reread it now because I just got a Kindle and I resolved that this would be the book and swap over from print to digital to commemorate the occasion.  Verdict:  digital will never replace paper, but at least I don't have to carry my nice books in the car when I'm out and about.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
This is the story of 'The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. Perhaps the most remarkable, certainly the most successful book, ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor. More popular than ‘The Celestial Homecare Omnibus’, better selling than ‘Fifty-Three More Things To Do In Zero Gravity’, and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid’s trilogy of philosophical blockbusters: ‘Where God Went Wrong’, ‘Some More Of God's Greatest Mistakes’, and ‘Who Is This God Person Anyway?’. And in many of the more relaxed civilizations on the outer eastern rim of the galaxy, the ‘Hitch Hiker's Guide’ has already supplanted the great ‘Encyclopaedia Galactica’ as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom. Because although it has many omissions, contains much that is apocryphal - or at least wildly inaccurate - it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important ways: first, it is slightly cheaper, and second, it has the words ‘Don’t Panic’ inscribed in large, friendly letters on the cover. To tell the story of the book, it's best to tell the story of some of the minds behind it. A human, from the planet Earth, was one of them, though as our story opens, he no more knows his destiny than a tea-leaf knows the history of the East India Company. His name is Arthur Dent, he is a six-foot tall ape descendant, and someone is trying to drive a bypass through his home.
Poor Arthur Dent.  He wakes up to discover that the local council destroying his house and by lunchtime a fleet of flying saucers destroys his planet. Luckily, by an amazing coincidence, one of his closest friends turns out not to be from Guildford after all, but is an alien from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.   Unluckily, when they hitch a lift aboard one of the spaceships that blasted the planet to rubble, Arthur and his Betelgeusian friend Ford Prefect are captured and forced to listen to the captain's poetry before being thrown out an airlock.

The latter was much preferable.

And so, at the end of the world and the point of certain death for our heroes, our story begins.

It isn't often that one finds a book that starts with the end of the world and it's even rarer that the end should be treated so casually, but such is the case with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's also odd to be reviewing a book about an electronic book that already seems hopelessly dated in the age of the Kindle when ebooks are already out-selling the old paper variety. Still, after over thirty years, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy holds up well if for no other reason than that Douglas Adams discovered the truth about the future: Technology will not be frightening, it will be aggravating.  Based on the wildly successful Radio Four series by the same name, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is that rara avis; a science fiction comedy that is actually funny.   Adams created a fascinating universe where order is merely an illusion and any sort of insanity is not only possible, but occurs regularly.  It's a place where fish translate languages, restaurants do a booming business at the end of the universe and the last thing that anyone should ever have is a sense of perspective.

The only real failing of Hitchhikers is that Adams hit the mark so beautifully in the original radio scripts that he never had anywhere to go with it.  True, the book adaptations and sequels made sense because most people never had a chance to hear the radio version and so did the jump to television in the '80s because it allowed Adams to reach a wider audience while the original radio cast were still young enough to reprise their roles, but after?  Comic books, coffee table books, a very bad feature film; none of what came after had a chance of going anywhere because everyone loved the originals so much that they wanted to hear the same jokes over and over again, yet complained that it all came across a bit stale.

There's an old saying about not being able to catch lightning in a bottle twice.  There should also be one about how only one brilliant version of a gag is like jumping off a cliff; for most people, once is enough.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Review: Hell House

Hell House by Richard Matheson (1971)

There are haunted houses and then there is Hell House.   Where your run of the mill Gothic two-story with a spectre moaning and clanking chains is a bit of a hair raiser, the Belasco mansion is a place of pure evil.  It doesn't just frighten visitors, it maims and kills those it doesn't drive insane.  Having already destroyed two teams of investigators, a third is hired by a dying billionaire who believes that at the bottom of the mystery is the answer to life after death.  Each of the team members will be paid $100,00 for a week's work, but the price they pay may be their very souls.

Those who have seen the screen version of the novel, The Legend of Hell House, will already be familiar with the book's plot, which the film follows closely.  This isn't surprising since Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay as well.  The story of how the three psychic investigators and one investigator's wife cope with trying to unravel the secret of a house with a hideous past of degradation and murder only to be followed by decades of lethal haunting translated well to the screen and Matheson took the opportunity to tighten the story a bit and to improve the climax, which is far more dramatic and satisfying on film.  Also, the low budget and technical limitations of the time was an unintentional boon because the work arounds used by the director (in one scene employing nothing more than a wind machine and piano wire) are far more effective than anything CGI could have created.

However, a film can only give the highlights of a novel–or should.  Yes, I'm looking at you, Harry Potter!  In the end, the film could only present simplified versions of the characters and even today the sex and violence of Matheson's story would have a hard time getting away with less than an X-certificate.  In the book, the characters are American, ten years older than their cinematic counterparts, and their motives and rivalries are much deeper and stronger.  Where in the film the physicist Dr Barrett is bent on proving his theories, the book's Barrett is a man who has spent thirty years struggling in near poverty trying to get his ideas taken seriously and looks fearfully at an old age spent in penury.  His wife, meanwhile, is so devoted to him that she becomes suicidal if they're separated for more than a couple of days and struggles with a strong case of sexual confusion.  The medium, Miss Tanner, is an ex-actress who is aware of her strong physical attractiveness and how it conflicts with her new-found spirituality.  She is also in stark denial about her abusive father and the tragedy of her brother's death.  Finally, our hero Benjamin Franklin Fisher isn't just terrified of the house after being the only survivor of a previous encounter, as he is in the film, he's also a man who has run away from himself and comes to the growing realisation that he must either confront the evil before him because that will mean confronting the failure of his life.

The final character in the story is the house itself–or rather, the evil within it.  What begins as a breeze on a staircase grows with each chapter in eeriness and violence until the reader is genuinely frightened when the characters decide re-enter the house after fleeing it.  It goes beyond scary to being A Really Bad Idea.

I would not recommend reading this book in any house larger than a bungalow and more than 20-years old.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Writing: The Home Front

A family that plays together, stays together.

A couple that writes together... Needs a few ground rules.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Juicing up scenes

Do you want to write screenplays?  Do your attempts look flat and lifeless on the page?  Does it seem like forever for the story to get started?  Part of the problem may be your scenes.  They aren't just bland building blocks that you stack up to make a story.  Think of them as little stories in themselves with their own conflicts and dramatic arches.

To see what we mean, check out SciptShadow's article, 10 Ways To Juice Up A Scene.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)

The sad irony of pictures is that they always remain young while we grow old.  Wouldn't be better if it was the other way around?  That our portrait should age and wither and bear the mark of our sins and vices while we continue youthful and unblemished is an interesting, though shallow idea.  For Dorian Gray, wealthy member of Victorian London society, it becomes reality owing to a grotesque wish. He becomes a man who never ages and no matter what he indulges in, his face and body always remained as unlined as unscarred as an innocent young man on the doorstep of life.   His portrait, on the other hand, must be kept hidden away from human view because it becomes a testament to the awful state of Dorian's soul

An author often places himself, or at least part of himself, in his works and it's interesting to speculate on whether, how much and into whom Oscar Wilde placed himself in this novel.  It would be very easy to dismiss this book as some sort of veiled autobiography or self-portrait of Wilde just as it would to slap the label "horror fiction" on it and leave it at that.  In fact, Dorian Gray is a complex work that often vanishes under Wilde's premise and his tendency to lumber the text with far too many artistic airs and self-indulgent passages that come across as mere word play.

Dorian Gray is more than a bogey story about an ageless youth or one about a bohemian who hides behind a mask of respectability.  Dorian is more than a mere rack.  He is a man who at a very young age falls under the sway of Sir Henry Wooton; a cynic with a gift for epigrams who covers his utter disdain for the human race with an unending stream of provocative, yet utterly vacuous remarks.  Most people quite rightly dismiss him as an upper class ass, but Dorian takes him seriously and Sir Henry delights in having a protégée whom he can lead astray.  Dorian, on the other hand, thinks he's found a philosophy of life and soon becomes an epicurean of the most extreme liver who embraces a life dedicated to pure sensation and personal fulfilment. Some of this takes the form of artistic extravagances of collecting jewels or studying tapestry.  Others are indulgences of the most hideous vices and low corruption.  And over all of this is a complete self-centredness; the "individuality of sin" that Wilde points out is it chief attraction.

What makes this particularly interesting is that Dorian is eventually revealed as having lost any sort of moral compass.  He spurns a young actress to the point of suicide because she gave a sub-standard performance as if she were a toy that had ceased to please.   He is forever accepting emotional or moral aid from people, yet has none to give in return as he uses or corrupts those around him.  Even when he tries to reform, it is merely another self-indulgence and posturing for effect.  He is, in other words, a man whose face hasn't just remained young.  He is a person who has never and can never mature.  He is C S Lewis's good egg that never hatches, so it must go bad.  In that way, The Picture of Dorian Gray rises comfortably to the level of literature by dealing with a universal about sin and redemption that sits as uncomfortably with the faculty of a modern English Lit faculty as innocence did with Sir Henry and Dorian.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Monday, 17 October 2011

Slipstreaming away

Image source: Deviantart
One of the fascinating contortion acts of our time is when writers who pen science fiction stories but don't want to be labelled as science fiction writers try to explain that they don't "really" write science fiction.  Instead, they say that they write "speculative fiction" or they "slipstream" or they use some other dodge that involves so convoluted that Treasure Island could be called sci fi.

It's a futile exercise, since if one defines science fiction as a subgenre of fantasy that uses science and technology to provide an air of verisimilitude, then no matter how hard you try, the slipstream is still sci fi.  Now, you can argue that your book may be science fiction by definition and not by description, but that's another thing entirely.  Science fiction is a genre, which means that it is inward looking and seeks to provoke a reaction rather than a response in the reader.  It has many conventions, jargon and so on that the reader expects and it is in its essence a mixture of the Gothic and adventure fiction.  However, Atwood (whose intellectual powers I've always found wanting) is wrong to claim that science fiction requires explanations and since she doesn't explain, she isn't doing science fiction.  There are many examples of solidly science fiction stories that don't provide neat explanations of how the scenario came about.  Even when an explanation is provided, it is often a way of establishing the credibility of the plot.  Having read Atwood's novels, it would be fairer to say what she does isn't "slipstream", it's sloppiness wrapped into pretension.

At the end of the day, she is a mediocre sci fi writer who tries to gain the status of literature by flying under false colours.  Sorry, Miss Atwood, you are no Orwell.

Friday, 14 October 2011

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

If science fiction is your metier, you might want to look at this; The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is now available on line.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Review: Asimov's Mysteries

Asimov's Mysteries by Isaac Asimov (1968)

Isaac Asimov may be best known as a science fiction and popular science writer, but he liked to wander out into other literary fields from time to time–often ones that he wasn't very good at.  The mystery genre had obvious attractions for Asimov with its puzzles and simple prose conventions very similar to science fiction and from time to time he'd put aside his robots and psychohistorians, pick up his magnifying glass, and try to craft a whodunnit.

Asimov's Mysteries is a collection of 14 mystery short stories penned by Asimov between 1939 and 1967.  They're a mixed bunch.  Ostensibly an anthology of science fiction mysteries, some are not mysteries, some are not science fiction, some are straight mysteries pretending to be science fiction, and some are just extended jokes.  In other words, it's about as consistent as any later anthology of Asimov made up of stories written over three decades.

Most of the stories revolve around Dr Wendell Urth, an "extraterrologist" and extreme agoraphobic who never leaves his flat and is obviously Asimov's attempt at reinventing Rex Stout's homebody detective, Nero Wolfe. As is usual in the mystery story, the plots revolve around puzzles of murder with one red herring thrown in and, save in one case that isn't a mystery, a neat solution at the end.  As is typical with Asimov, the mysteries are generally logic problems which he dresses up with grander science fiction ideas that are really overstuffed McGuffins played out by flat characters who never develop any individuality, much less anything more profound.

It's all very fluffy stuff and wouldn't matter except for Asimov's maddening dislike for rewriting that leaves his stories sloppy and filled with all sorts of holes that he gets away with only because they never occur to him in the first place.  Asimov never grasped that a successful story needs to be not just a logic puzzle, but a logical story that needs to be honed and polished until the conclusion is inevitable from a dramatic point of view as well as from the crossword puzzle point of view.  What a sci fi story can forgive, the mystery cannot, which just goes to show that mixing two genres is more than mixing tropes, but rather of adapting one genre to the demands of another.

That's one mystery that Dr Asimov never solved.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Writing in the digital age

The Frankfurt Book Fair opens today and in the era of the ebook authors must come to grips with a changing industry responding to changing technology.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Monday, 10 October 2011

Friday, 7 October 2011

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Self-publishing perils

Thinking about self-publishing?  With e-books and publishing on demand, there's never been a better time to get around the gatekeepers of the big publishing houses, but it isn't all beer and skittles. If you're publishing your own work, you're responsible for all the artwork, editing, formatting and all the other grunt work that the publisher traditionally handles.

Look out for these signs of a badly done job of self-publishing.  If your book looks like this, you're in trouble.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011


Do you drink only Nescafe?  Eat only minute steak?  Prefer minute mysteries because two-minute mysteries are too long?   Then Book-a-Minute is for you. Here, for example, are the collected works of Isaac Asimov:
Stock Asimov Character #1 
I'm a suave, witty, brilliant, good-looking scientist. I am everything Asimov thought he was. 
Stock Asimov Character #2 
I am the same, except the opposite sex. 
Stock Asimov Character #1 
Great! Let's do some science stuff, save the world, and make out. 
(They do.)

Monday, 3 October 2011

Review: The World According to Clarkson

The World According to Clarkson by Jeremy Clarkson (2004)

Jeremy Clarkson's columns fall into two categories:  The car-centric ones, which are very entertaining, but a hard slog because you need to be up on every obscure marque of the past half century; and his non-automotive ones, which are a much faster read.  This collection of Clarkson's columns from 2001 to 2004 introduces us to his views on town centres (determined to drive out motor cars at the expense of everything else), holidays (mind-numbing periods of boredom destined to cause household destruction), Concorde (the last great thing that Britain produced), and gardening (proof that middle age has arrived).  In between we're treated to Clarkson's war with a fox, the time he unsuccessfully participated in an army assault, and why juries are scarier than criminals.

Clarkson's appeal lies in a light, humourous style matched with an outspoken attitude that regards political correctness as a challenge.  Despite having very definite opinions, he also has a wide streak of self-deprecation that makes for a good leavening.  The fast pace of his style is also helped by the public persona that he's cultivated over the past thirty years that allows him to voice his views as that of a bewildered, ham-fisted petrol head, though if you listen carefully sometimes the mask slips and a much more thoughtful and widely read man is revealed who simply never bought into the media heard instinct.

Be that as it may, stay well clear if he ever decides to take out a fox with a shot gun.

Friday, 30 September 2011

How to avoid writer's block

Apparently, the way to cure writer's block is to think of it as talker's block:
No one ever gets talker's block. No one wakes up in the morning, discovers he has nothing to say and sits quietly, for days or weeks, until the muse hits, until the moment is right, until all the craziness in his life has died down.
I understand where this is going, but if you think there's no such thing as talker's block, you've never seen one of my students give a presentation.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Review: Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett (1996)

Commander Sir Sam Vimes has a problem.  His wife Sybil insists that he go to the Ankh-Morpork Royal College of Heralds and get himself a coat of arms drawn up.  Oh, and two people have been found murdered with the only clue a small lump of white clay found at the scene of each crime and someone is trying to poison Lord Vetenari.  The Assassins Guild denies any involvement, so there is a freelance killer loose in the city.

It's a toss up which he thinks is worse.

I have a particular fondness for the Commander Vimes stories.  Because they tend to be mysteries, almost whodunnits and thrillers in some cases, they are much more tightly plotted than Pratchett's other Discworld novels and I've always found Commander Vimes a real treat of a character.  As the dedicated beat cop promoted to suit his abilities, but way above his preferences,  He's a marvellous combination of weariness, frustration, anger, stubbornness, anger, suspicion, anger, resourcefulness, anger and anger.  He's also a wonderfully stable centre for the Watch, a police force that includes trolls, dwarves of both (albeit indistinguishable sexes), werewolves, humans and Corporal Nobby Nobbs, who has a letter that states that, appearances to the contrary, he's human, too.

Feet of Clay twists with all manner of subplots that eventually tie up nicely and the climax highlighted by Pratchetts comic imagination and talent for a neat turn of phrase.  Only Pratchett could come up with a rat catcher who meets his quarry face to face (well, forehead to forehead) and can make proper characters out of walking lumps of clay.

The only sad part about Feet of Clay is that it shows how the world has changed since he wrote it back in 1996.  Then, his satirical city of Ankh Morpork was a wonderfully twisted version of a modern Britain trying to  cope with immigrants.  There may have been dwarfs, vampires, zombies, gnomes and golems moving into the city, but they were all hard working and, aside from the odd riot, wanting to get on with their lives.  Unfortunately, in a modern Britain where immigration has become colonisation and includes a sizeable faction of fanatics who despise their host country and actively work to overthrow it, that happy image seems as hard to see in our world as one that rests on the back of a giant turtle.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Blog to sell

More stages here.
If your book gets published, you must help sell it.  If you've self-published your book, you really need to sell it.  One way of doing this is through a blog.

Here are some tips on how to get started.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The book tour

Yearning for the day when your novel is published?  Be careful what you wish for.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Mad tips

I found this tip list on a site that also has some excellent advice on how to write scripts for Mad Men, which has some good general advice mixed in.

The only objection that I have with the tip list is with No. 5, which I would amend to read:
...unless it works, in which case, go with the stereotypes.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Review: Clarkson on Cars

Clarkson on Cars by Jeremy Clarkson (1996)

A collection of Clarkson's columns from the mid-1980s to mid-'90s, Clarkson on Cars airs Mr Clarkson's views on Volkswagen Beetles (Nazi cars), vegetarians (expect everyone to conform to their whims), Beards (just weird), the Jaguar XJS (Glorious) and the usefulness of car performance stats (0 to 60 in 3.4 seconds is less informative than calling it "terrifying").  Along the way he talks about his abortive attempt to use a bicycle in London, why he feels so sorry for Japanese car makers when their presentations go wrong, and the utter pointlessness of 'roo bars in a car without kangaroos.

Essay collections can often be hard going and this one is no exception.  More of a book to be dipped into rather than read cover to cover in one go, Clarkson on Cars  is filled with Clarkson's outspoken, humourous style, but it also exhibits his encyclopaedic knowledge of cars, which is impressive.  Unfortunately, it also means that reading the book often calls for having an ipad at hand to look up whatever obscure marque he's talking about.

And it has a kangaroo on the cover.

Friday, 16 September 2011

You've got Trollope in my Austen

Joanna Trollope is set to bastardise rewrite Jane Austen's books start a "'conversation' between Austen and today's novelists"

Fortunately for Miss Trollope, Miss Austen has been safely dead for some time, so there is little chance of her receiving a sound beating about the head and shoulders by the offended author.

Thursday, 15 September 2011