Friday, 30 December 2011

The Demon of New Year's Eve

A demon walked the house on New Year's Eve. Clara had seen it. Before she had seen it she had thought things misplaced. But now she knew the demon moved things. The year before last the demon had picked up a glasses case in full view, removed her glasses and worn them awhile before casting them to one side. One lens had smashed against the hearth.

The demon looked a lot like Gary. It had the same posture as him, the same way of walking. Clara knew Gary well enough to recognise the little half-smile even on a lipless mouth on a face of cracked red-black skin. When Clara had seen it last year she was certain the demon had tried to talk to her in his voice. For a while she had entertained the notion that the demon was Gary. The thought had not entirely left her.

Like a child leaving milk and mince pies for Santa Claus, Clara had left out a few things for the demon Gary this year. Nothing dramatic; a Sunday newspaper, a drink of tea without milk or sugar and the wedding ring Gary had worn when he had been alive. Clara sat and waited on the staircase, listening for the sounds of movement.

A four minutes to midnight she heard the distinct sound of newspaper being rattled. She leapt to her feet and rushed into the living room. He was there before her, his naked skin cracked like cooling lava, thumbing through the newspaper as Gary had done. Her breath caught as she looked at him.

"Gary?"

The demon Gary looked up from his reading. There it was, the half-smile, the conspiratorial look that had always passed between them... and then a nod in the direction of his hands. Clara looked. The ring was there, on the fourth finger of his left hand. The engraving could still be read. 'To have and to hold'.

"Oh, Gary..." Clara reached up to kiss him. "I've missed you. I want you back." Their mouths met. His skin was hot and almost crumbly, like hot coal. She felt the tingles of old come back to her; she had forgotten Gary had made her feel like this.

They broke apart. Gary's smile was still on his face. Throwing the newspaper aside, he pulled her in again.

After they separated for the second time, Clara felt something like coal-dust on her face. Moving to brush it away, she saw the skin of her hands start to blacken and crack. It no longer felt like skin belonging to her, more like a strange glove she controlled on the end of her arm.

"Gary, what is this?"

Demon Gary smiled again, sadly, this time, turned his back and disappeared. Clara soon followed him.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Christmas

Christmas is well underway in the Wilson household. It's our tradition to have Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, so I've already thoroughly overindulged. I'd challenge anyone to not do the same when offered a plate of turkey, pork, pigs in blankets, roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, roast parsnips, carrots, peas, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce and apple sauce. With a Christmas pudding and gloriously thick custard to finish. Five and a bit hours on I still don't particularly fancy eating anything else. Maybe I'll have a turkey/pork sandwich in an hour or two.

In truth, it's been in full swing since the carol service last Sunday. I've always enjoyed the carol service. I don't do much singing (and I'm not very good at it - Wrisoccers who experienced my rare appearances singing at the karaoke will attest to that, as will members of the St Andrews congregation who were within twenty yards of me), but it's nice to belt out the carols with some feeling. Even though I do think that 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing' is better suited to the end of a carol service and 'O Come All Ye Faithful' is a better call to worship at the start, and not the other way round.

It's not been the same without having my sister around. Yes, I've talked to her a few times on Skype over the last few days, but I've missed the banter and her high-pitched squeaks of 'It's Christmas!' every couple of hours. Next Christmas will be better, with her actually here.

I'll end the post in time-honoured fashion: Merry Christmas one and all. Good will to all men (women, children and four-armed aliens from the planet Oud). Have a good one.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

A season with St Andrews (part four)

In football, everything ends. It might be a contract or a match or a time spent playing at a stadium. Nothing exists in perpetuity. The end of the season is a godsend for some, an annoyance for others. The end of my season playing for St Andrews was something of both.

It was late in the season when we found a bit of form. Even our performance against Christ The King was much improved. Our final few results included a 1-1 draw with St Saviours, the only game we took the lead in all season. And on the final day of the season we went to Trinity and only conceded half a dozen.

That game against Trinity was a rarity, taking place in midweek rather than on a Saturday morning. It was about a 6pm kick-off, as I remember. We assembled early, some of the lads coming straight from school. The whole evening had a strange feeling to it, as though it were something more than just the season coming to a close (although I'll admit that this may be hindsight). It was a beautiful evening for playing football.

Although we were beaten, there were plenty of positives to take from the game. Our young lads had come on over the course of the season. I could measure my own progress as a footballer in terms of school playground performances, where I went from an als0-ran to one of the go-to picks over the course of the year. In year five I'd notched about a dozen goals; in year six it was forty-odd. My confidence on the ball was improving by the week, and I'd even started making clumsy tackles on the bigger lads we faced. I wasn't alone in this development. Had the team stuck together for another season I have no doubt that we'd have started to pick up some much better results. St Aidans and Ravensthorpe Mosques in particular were nothing to be frightened of, and we'd already shown we could compete with St Saviours. The end of season five-a-side tournaments ended with us putting in two good showings, including a third-placed finish in the under 12s tournament (a team in which I made a big contribution, playing every game).

It wasn't to be. After a 1999/2000 season where we earned a grand total of two points from 18 games (and been knocked out of the cup in the first round), a lot of players didn't want to play for St Andrews any more. In hindsight, it's hard to blame them, but at the time I felt betrayed by my teammates. When the time came for player registration for 2000/01, I was one of only four players who signed for St Andrews. The team - which had played in the Mirfield District Church League since the 1920s - was forced to disband.

In later years I played against some of those I played with in my St Andrews days. It was always a bittersweet experience. It was good to see them doing well playing for other teams, but I couldn't forget that these were players who had turned their back on St Andrews. When I was younger I'd wanted to play for St Andrews with a passion. I'd followed my dad and Uncle John up to Knowl Park to watch a side with my Uncle John's son, Joe, and all manner of other talented players. I wanted to be one of them. I was for a season, but I always wish that I'd played for them for longer.

But I carried on playing in the Church League. When it came to signing for another side, I knew who I wanted to move to. I went to Trinity.

Monday, 19 December 2011

A season with St Andrews (part three)

Playing wide on the left or up front for the worst team in the league isn't a fun experience. The number of touches I took all season could be counted up on your fingers. I certainly don't remember making any particularly telling contributions, other than trudging back to the halfway line for yet another restart after chasing back in vain.

One day I certainly didn't get a touch was when we first visited Hopton. Hopton played down beyond the primary school, at the best ground in Mirfield. Not only was the pitch itself bordered by proper terracing, but there was a little stand on some banking behind the home dugout. The away dugout was on the opposite side. There were even some proper dressing rooms and showers in a cabin a little away from the pitch. It was a rare treat to play there.

I'd been there before, when my dad took me along to the previous season's cup final. It's another case of 'don't ask me...', because I can't remember anything else about it, other than that I'm fairly certain Hopton were the side who lost to Christ The King. Losing cup finals on your home patch can't be much fun.

On this particular morning, it was raining. When the car pulled up outside the ground I was straight into the away dressing room, shielding myself from the cold sheets of rain. A gale was blowing, meaning the stuff came down in entirely the wrong direction. Reaching the warm changing room was a relief. I grabbed a shirt (14 again - it had become my number) and sat down, waiting for the word to go out and warm up. A couple more lads came in, and it looked like we would at least have a full complement (even if it ended up being a wet, miserable complement who lost 15-0, there is something to be said for having all eleven out there).

Instead, the game was postponed. In my four years playing in the Church League, it was the only postponement. The re-arranged game took place the following week, and we lost 5-1. I was absent from that side. I was ill that day, and ended up curled up at home waiting for Final Score to come on so I could find out how Town had done away at wherever we were. At church the following morning Anthony reported a good performance and a goal from Luke, the no.7 from pre-season.

Another bad day came when we played Trinity at our place. We lost (again). But the worst part wasn't the defeat. It was the day my next-door neighbour, Matthew, broke his ankle in a challenge. I'd never faced a serious injury before, and seeing him carried off wasn't a nice experience. Being on the subs bench at the time meant I was nowhere near the incident, but as I remember it he and one of our lads went into a 50-50. His ankle was caught in the wet ground and the combined weight of him and the challenger resulted in the ankle giving way. I don't think he played for Trinity again, being too old the following season.

Memories of home games from that season merge into one, but I have another memory of another heavy defeat to Christ The King which just showed us as being inexperienced and lacking that bit of spirit which would have seen us right against the better sides. We lost 14-0. Heads dropped. It's not easy for kids to pick themselves up when they're being dumped to the ground week-in, week-out, no matter how much encouragement they're given.

By this time, we had a hard-tackling midfielder in the mix. Keady was a capable player, and he went on to play for St Aidans for a couple of seasons, including their title-winning year. But he was another youngster - being 11 at the time - and Kings' older lads just bypassed him. I hated playing Kings by this point. In a league where fair play and sportsmanship were two of the main values shared by most teams, they were a bunch of arrogant, bullying toerags. They gloried in humiliating teams and didn't like it when the opposition had some fight in them. Had we any fight in us they'd have probably got nasty, but we didn't, so they just went about taking the mickey with their every touch.

The one time I worried them in that game came because they were so obsessed with playing about and humiliating the opposition they missed the little lad closing down the man on the ball. He played a short backpass under pressure, which the keeper had to be sharp to pounce on. Had this been the Trinity team I played for the following year, there would have been six or seven players appealing for the free-kick, with accompanying shouts from the touchline. As it was, only I appealed to the ref, and that was a half-hearted arm in the air and imploring look in the official's direction. He was able to wave the appeals away, despite the fact it was a blatant backpass.

My dislike of Kings was growing with every game.

Friday, 16 December 2011

A season with St Andrews (part two)

No one likes losing. Losing hurts. When you've given your all and still come out second-best, there is at least some comfort. But when you're utterly humiliated by a defeat there's no comfort. The result burns an indelible mark into your memory, something that will never, ever be forgotten.

My third game playing for St Andrews was the first time I experienced absolute humiliation on a football pitch, and remains my worst-ever day when playing. Whilst results weren't exactly great, there had been positives to take from early performances. We'd shown heart, not giving up even when 7-0 down against St Saviours. Some of our young players showed talent, even if because we were all young we were at a distinct disadvantage against bigger, older sides.

Unfortunately, we were beaten before we even turned up at Christ The King that morning. Our young side had its ranks depleted. Our goalkeeper - who was also our captain and most experienced player - couldn't make it. We were down to the eleven who would play the full game, with no substitutes available. Kings, on the other hand, were a big side, full of older players, reigning league champions and cup holders. They were already top of the league.

I don't remember each and every goal. After twelve years, I don't think anyone would remember every one of twenty-six that went in. What I remember most was our best defender, John, being sent off for not having shinpads. I remember rotating our goalkeeper. I remember chasing back in vain more than once as Kings cut through a demoralised midfield and defence to sweep home yet another after drawing the unfortunate goalkeeper. And to this day I can see one of their players rolling the ball onto the line, getting onto his hands and knees and heading it over the line, our defence already making its way back into positions for yet another restart while our keeper stood, hands on hips, watching on in utter bemusement at what was going on.

Christ The King 26-0 St Andrews was my blackest day playing.

People handle defeats in different ways. Some get demoralised. Some get angry. In the short term, I grew to fear what Kings could do when they turned it on. They were miles better than us. But in the longer term, once I'd left St Andrews, that result turned into a spur. Revenge is a potent motivator before a match.

We never lost another game so heavily. Defeat was almost a formality, but never by that magnitude. A few weeks later we'd lost a couple more (to Trinity and Hopton) and found ourselves facing St Aidans at their place once again.

We were stronger than the side who had faced Kings. Our keeper was back. We'd found a midfielder who would stick a boot in. One or two older lads were playing for us. Despite quite a few defeats on the spin, we were fairly confident. We'd just faced three of the best sides in the league, and Aidans, after their promising start, had faltered. All in all, the spirit in the camp was good. We had 17 players on the day, and so we could finally play our strongest side.

We were a goal to nil down at half-time. Anthony rallied the troops, and we equalised soon after the restart. Don't ask me who scored; I only remember the order of goals. We were soon behind again, punished for lax defending. But, with only a few minutes to go, we levelled it again. The subs bench went mental. The encouragement for those out on the field was tremendous for the last few moments, and we held on for a point - our first point of the season. It was one of only three games I didn't play in that year, but it's one of my strongest - and happiest - memories of my days with St Andrews.

The following week we were dumped out of the Sonder Heating Cup by Ravensthorpe Mosques, who brushed us aside with a double-figures performance. I did play in that one.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

A season at St Andrews (part one)

Kirklees Council called off all matches (football, rugby and otherwise) on its pitches this weekend. Rainfall over the last few days has been heavy, and pitches have become waterlogged. No player wants to play on a waterlogged pitch, especially when it's freezing, likely to rain some more, and they're likely to be in a side on the receiving end of a drubbing, so the decision makes perfect sense. I certainly wouldn't have fancied it yesterday.

But just thinking about it reminded me about my days playing in the Church League, competing against interesting opposition on appalling pitches. I spent four years playing in the Church League on Saturday mornings, turning out for St Andrews in my first year before spending three years playing for Trinity. Many of the mornings I played were cold and miserable, but I loved almost every minute I spent out there.

My dad played in the same league when he was a kid. Back then, the league was in its halcyon days. There were a dozen teams or more, with dozens of boys between the ages of 9 and 16 turning out every week. He later went on to manage a team in the league and was president by the time I started playing for St Andrews, the same team he'd played and managed. In 1999, the age was restricted from 10-14 (or year 6 to year 10 in school terms), and the league had fewer sides, though local Catholic church St Aidans were involved for the first time.

It would be fair to say St Andrews weren't very good. In fact, we were awful, and we'd been a side struggling at the bottom of the league for a decade or more. Even as a five-year-old being taken along to watch I was used to seeing eleven grey-clad players trudging off after a heavy defeat, and things had become even worse by the time of my debut. At the other end of the table, Christ The King were sweeping all before them. Trinity and Hopton were good sides, while Ravensthorpe Mosques were no pushover for the top teams. St Aidens were the unknown quantity, whilst St Saviours were the next-weakest side in the division.

I played for St Andrews for the first time in September 1999 in a pre-season friendly at St Aidans, who played at Crossley Fields. By this time the awful numberless grey/silver concoction straight from the 1980s had gone, and we wore white shirts with green trim with black shorts (provided someone had black shorts). It was a novel feeling, pulling on the no.14 shirt for my church. I felt ten feet tall. This was the moment I'd waited for since I was old enough to tag along with my dad. I was sure that I'd score. I had to, after waiting for so long.

Sadly, St Aidans weren't in a mood for indulging me in my dreams. They won 6-0. I played in midfield and barely got a touch against two bullish 12-year-olds. The lad playing alongside me - Luke, wearing 7 - was like me, a waif who couldn't play against two bigger lads like that.

Not to worry. It was only a friendly. My optimism was undimmed despite the evidence of the past ten years. I was sure St Andrews would go on to have a good season. Sadly, our side was too young. Although the aggregate age of players on the field couldn't be over 130 under league rules (meaning younger lads and older players could get a game at the same time), all the other sides were bigger and older. We were a collection of 10- and 11-year-olds who had never played 11-a-side before.

I don't remember my competitive debut for St Andrews, but it was probably a heavy defeat at home (Knowl Park). I do, however, remember playing away at St Saviours on the second day of the season. It was my first start, and it was the only time my mum came to watch rather than my dad. In later seasons they came together a couple of times (more on that later), but on this occasion it was my mum on the touchline with Anthony (the manager) and a team mate's mum (another from church). I played up front for the first time, getting my hands on the no.10 shirt for the first time.

Saviours played down in Ravensthorpe, along the road towards the old council dump. There was a grassy verge where the home manager, parents and other supporters had taken up residence, with Anthony and our contingent banished to the other side. To one end, a pylon loomed over the pitch while the road ran parallel with the other dead-ball line. All in all, a pretty typical venue for a game like that.

Saviours themselves were a side we didn't enjoy facing that season. They were a side who still wore the same shirts they had in the 80s, a red shirt with white and blue trim, one shoulder covered by a patch of white. It was hardly elegant (think of Bolton's shirt this season in the colours I mentioned and you'd not be a million miles from the mark). And apparently they bought into the 1980s lower league idea of hitting the ball as hard as they could, even if an opposition player was in the way. And their management was even worse. It wasn't a cajoling, encouraging management - it was aggressive, critical. The language they used - whilst not out of place in adult football - was appalling. And it was this language which caused my mother to confront one man in particular in what was the first notable incident of my football career.

It didn't help the result. We still got beaten 7-1. But that was nothing compared to my third game, and first against Christ The King.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

General December update

It's all right. The lack of updates doesn't mean that I'm dead. It just means I'm a bit busier on account of having found some temporary (and voluntary) work. And that I'm hitting the trail for pupillage again.

NaNoWriMo fizzled out in the end. I'll be honest - I don't think the premise suits me and my style. Although the discipline is a good thing, having such high targets to hit is a nightmare, especially when I have a habit of writing only one day in three. Trying to hit my usual 3,000 words a week is more than enough for me! On the other hand, I've got some good work that I can take elements from to other projects.

I've managed to get submitting stories again, after a period where I couldn't finish a story for the life in me. The Strange Ways of Electronic Leprechauns went off to Daily Science Fiction last week, and I'm hoping for a response in the next week or so.

I mentioned that I'm back on the pupillage trail. My work at the solicitors has sparked something I thought was worked out of me, and since I started work there I've been phoning places like the CPS and downloading mini-pupillage application forms from chambers websites. And my applications for jobs have been honed down to being purely legal in nature. If I can get something like a paralegal post for a year or two while I'm waiting for pupillage opportunities, then I'll be happy as a pig in muck.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Thing On The Shore

I've never been one to believe hype that much, especially when it comes to publishers and what they say about their writers. After one good book too many people will jump on the bandwagon and declare a young writer the talent of his or her generation. Whilst that book may be exceptional, it is only one book and should be viewed as such, unless the writer already has a body of other work behind him. There's nothing wrong with lauding the début of a writer, but can reviewers please wait until after book two or three before declaring him as having that kind of talent?

Tom Fletcher is a writer who was described as the most promising horror writer for a generation in the wake of his début novel The Leaping, an unconventional take on the werewolf legend. In it, a group of uni friends working at a call centre in Manchester get caught up in a chain of events leading to the eponymous Leaping. It was good, but I found myself frustrated by the annoying characters, which didn't help me to feel all that invested in the story. That said, the writing was good and the horror suitably visceral.

The Thing on the Shore is a sequel of sorts, whilst also being a standalone novel. Artemis Black, manager of the call centre in The Leaping, is assigned to a call centre in Whitehaven where the other characters work. One thing I noticed from the off was that the characters were far more human in The Thing on the Shore - no longer were they weird caricatures of people. And one of Fletcher's strengths lies in his characterisation, in particular of Arthur, the protagonist, and his father, Harry. He gets into his characters heads and works them over, pushing and prodding them into real reactions. It's easy to empathise with them - or hate them, as is appropriate.

Fletcher can write. He writes in clean, mostly unfussy prose with an elegance all of its own. He even has the gift of florid, fluid descriptions without losing any of his pacing and characterisation. In some ways, it's like reading pared-down HP Lovecraft, but superior by far. His variation makes it interesting to read.

But for me there's a problem. The first 2/3 of the novel are a little aimless. Mindless drudgery with a sinister boss can be horrifying in itself, but this ground was covered in The Leaping. That we have characters in the same dead-end jobs smacks of Stephen King at his worst - rehashing the 'he's a writer' thing for his main characters. Only when we get into the final third do we start to see a real pattern emerging.

It's not to say that what went before is bad, because it isn't. Fletcher's style makes it an easy read and the characters are superbly fleshed out. The idea of the whole community being dead and strangely grotesque is in itself horrifying enough to carry the can for quite a bit of time while hints are dropped about what's really going on.

On balance, The Thing on the Shore is a good read. Unfortunately, its failings are there to be seen clearly. But it does provide a step up from The Leaping, and I'm certain Fletcher is going to have a long, productive career as one of the foremost horror writers of his age, becoming one of the wonderkid writers who actually go on to fulfil their early potential.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

November writings

It's been a busy couple of weeks in my writing life. Not only have I kicked off writing a novel for NaNoWriMo (currently about 12,000 words behind the target, at 13,000 or so), but I've started a hatful of short stories, been planning another novel and I've even been doing workshops for Wrisoc. I wouldn't say I've been rushed off my feet - but it's been good to break the day to day monotony with a couple of hours a day of writing.

Nano first. I've wanted to have a go at it for the last few years, but thanks to uni commitments I've not had the time or the patience to sit down for a month. If I could write 10,000 in a day as some do, then it wouldn't be a problem, but if I get over 1,000 that's a big writing day for me - and one that's generally taken me a couple of hours. 50,000 words in a month is just too much to ask of a Bar Exempting student who just wants to crash when he gets home. This year, though, I've managed to get a good start, even if it has faltered. And it's helped to give me a kick-start to other projects. Although the Nano novel won't be finished, there's plenty for me to plunder for other works. And thanks to write-ins, I've become acquainted with a whole new group of talented writers.

Which brings me on to my second big writing project of this month: the Wrisoc workshop. Standing in front of a seminar room of your peers can be daunting, but when you know quite a few of those people have managed those workshops themselves and there are a few people with more experience present there's an extra edge. But the workshop - focussing on clichés, their identification, and how to avoid them in your work - went well. It was a little on the short side, but that wasn't much of a worry. Hopefully, I'll get the chance to go back and do another one at some point over the next few months.

My biggest project at the moment is the anthology. Shuffle is probably the biggest writing task I've ever taken on, and I don't think I'd be able to manage it without having the help of a band of talented co-editors, who will show their value to the project when we're getting regular submissions. Although it has been tough to get people involved on the writing point of view, things are coming together and soon I should be able to go back to universities and societies to demonstrate that this will happen. Shuffle will hopefully be released next June/July on the Kindle, so if you want to feature in the anthology, pop over to the website/blog (see link to the side) and find our guidelines.

And all of this without mentioning the short stories and other novel. My writing life is busy, indeed!

Friday, 28 October 2011

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days


I first read Alastair Reynolds' début novel Revelation Space last year. At the time, I'll confess to being underwhelmed for much of the book's 500+ page duration. There was no doubt in my mind that Reynolds could write, but that he had a problem with his pacing. What's the point of an exhilarating last 100 pages or so when the 400 before are glacial to the point of sending the reader to sleep? Events were slow and carefully constructed, but it was almost as if that care had sucked the energy from it.

However, I'm a quite a fan of Reynolds' short fiction. Over the past 18 months I've come across half a dozen short stories and novelettes by the Welsh writer, each of which has entertained me. Reynolds' style suits the short form very well; it is very correct, with a satisfying brevity to it, but that brevity doesn't undermine some excellent evocations of fantastic environments.

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days was my first foray into Reynolds' longer fiction since Revelation Space. It's a single volume containing two novellas, both set in the same universe as Revelation Space.

The first of those novellas, Diamond Dogs, is the better of the two (at least, it is for me). Anyone who's read Robert Browning's epic poem 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came' will instantly see the inspiration behind it. Through the eyes of Richard Swift we see an expedition under the leadership of Roland Childe to the uninhabitable world of Golgotha where there's a mysterious Blood Spire, complete with layers of challenges.

I may be spectacularly misreading this, but I read Diamond Dogs as being Alastair Reynolds' take on Browning's poem, just as The Dark Tower is Stephen King's. In each case there's an obsession about the object at the heart of the tale; in each case, that object is a tower of some description. Reynolds' take is wildly different from King's and Browning's in that the focus of the tale isn't so much the Blood Spire, but, rather, is the interactions going on around the setting. It's a bleak story, but one that's thoroughly worth reading.

The second novella is a little less impressive and a little more abstract. In fairness to it, it's actually a more complex tale than Diamond Dogs, but Turquoise Days just doesn't quite manage to do justice to the concept behind it. Had I more of an understanding of the Revelation Space universe I might appreciate it a little more, however, I can only work with what I've got. For that reason, a couple of the concepts - perhaps familiar to veterans of the series - were slightly lost on me.

Take the Pattern Jugglers. I understood what they were on a basic level - a form of collective waterborne life with a quasi-consciousness which have an alternative understanding of mathematics - but I needed to reference what I already knew about the series and its universe. A newcomer would struggle.

In all fairness, Turquoise Days would be a satisfyingly complex novella to a veteran of the series, containing subterfuge and subtleties suited to much longer books. And these two novellas have done much to re-ignite my interest in Alastair Reynolds' longer works. I have noticed that the difference between now and the time I read Revelation Space is that at the moment I'm not pre-occupied with work and I've got the chance to get my head round it a bit more, so it's probably a good time to give it a second chance.

So, if you're a veteran of the series, give Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days a spin. You'll enjoy it. If you're a newcomer, you might struggle with the latter story, but if you like dark, thoughtful space opera with a literary twist you'll enjoy Diamond Dogs.

Monday, 24 October 2011

The Lost World


Seemingly at every turn I'm confronted by dinosaurs. The BBC in particular seems keen to shove its Planet Dinosaur series in my face at every opportunity (despite the fact it's a cheap and less good version of Walking With Dinosaurs). So it's perhaps natural that, when stuck for something to read, I turned to the classic SF collection on my Kindle for entertainment.

Arthur Conan Doyle is best known for Sherlock Holmes. The Lost World is hardly unknown, however, and comes almost as highly-recommended as Baker Street's finest detective. It was first published in 1912, being serialised in one of the major publications of the day prior to being published in book form. The story is fairly well known: irascible Professor Challenger claims to have found a place in the Amazon where prehistoric life still exists, and forms an expedition to the isolated plateau, where dangers of varying varieties await the intrepid explorers.

The story is told through the diary/correspondence of one Edward Malone, a journalist who tagged along with the expedition. It bears many of the staples of SF of that era: the writing is bombastic and a little pompous, with the narrator given to exclamations which no modern writer would make. But it's not a bad thing when used well, as it is here, and it helps to place the book in its time. To compare the styles of different eras is a fool's analysis. However, I can't help but mention that the narrator tells us far too many of the characteristics of his fellow explorers, rather than showing them, as is the modern style. There's plenty of the good old 'said-bookism' on display, which always annoys me. Let the dialogue speak for itself! But still, it was the style of the time so a certain amount of overlooking has to go on.

The story is set in its time as well. Ninety-nine years after its publication we know that dinosaurs died out 65.5 million years ago. We know that there's no undiscovered plateau in South America where they could live. These days we'd see genetically engineered monsters in a theme park with some sort of technobabble explanation behind them. In 1912, however, it didn't take too much to suspend the incredulity of the reader and make them believe in this plateau, because it wasn't totally beyond the bounds of possibility that it could exist; there were vast tracts of land unexplored, away from which modern satellites and air travel have taken the mystery.

But anyway, back to the story. Ten years ago I'd have loved The Lost World, and it feels like I missed an opportunity to have a favourite book back then. Dinosaurs attacking, wars between primitive peoples and other such tales of high adventure would have piqued my immature interest. The story is suitably exciting for the 'boys own' audience, and for younger readers there's plenty to get stuck into. But as a slightly older reader, who has read plenty of better SF from a similar time period, it doesn't quite get me all excited as I would once have been. Which is a real pity.

Friday, 30 September 2011

In a bit of a pickle

Anyone on Twitter today will have noticed that Communities Minister Eric Pickles is a trending topic. Closer analysis will reveal why: he has unveiled plans to support councils who plan to revive their weekly bin collections to the tune of £250m.

What follows is an angry tirade at the announcement and the scheme itself. So don't say you weren't warned.

Let's start with the scheme itself. In the greater scheme of government spending, £250m is pocket money. So why has it got me so angry? We live in a time of cuts, and so seeing some money being spent should appeal to the part of me that believes a government needs to do its utmost to help growth (and that includes spending money on various schemes). And yet this scheme hits me as being beyond stupid, in the context of the day.

The Tories are making cuts to crucial services. Over 1,000 Navy staff were told they would be out of a job, to save a sum of money smaller than the amount which would go on this scheme. £1bn was cut from adult social care. But it was so important to make sure that Middle England could have their weekly bin collections that these thousands of people who had their livelihoods and standards of living directly affected by the cuts could just go hang.

I've used just two small examples there, the two examples used by former deputy PM John Prescott earlier today. But I could go on. Schemes to help young people find work have been cut. NHS staff are left underresourced for their work, spending 13 hours and more working one shift. £250m might be pocket money in political terms, but it could still go a long way to making the lives of thousands of people better.

Were this announcement made at a time when Britain was enjoying prosperity, with falling (and already low) unemployment, an NHS working at its most efficient, etc, then I wouldn't be complaining. But it's all about context. And in the context of its time, this is a scandalous move which just shows the Tories don't give a hoot about 90% of the people in this country, just that minority of backwards reactionaries who underpin the party and its policies.

And now, I shall move on to the announcement itself.

Eric Pickles is an idiot.

There. I said what I think straight off the bat. He's an idiot for a range of reasons. I encourage people to go off and read the announcement in any number of newspapers (Guardian here). It just makes my blood boil that he can describe weekly bin collections as 'a basic right'.

Here's a list of basic human rights (as provided by the European Convention on Human Rights):
  • A right to life
  • A right to freedom from slavery
  • A right to privacy
  • A right to freedom of expression
And I'll add a few of my own to that list. Notably, the right to an education and the right to the highest quality of free healthcare available, as well as, arguably, a right to work. Does Pickles think that the 'basic right' to weekly bin collections is as important as any of those? Or is he just an idiot who has risen to far too high a level of responsibility?

Something else Pickles said was that bin collection was the most visible of all front-line services a council or local authority would have on offer. To sum up: that's utter rubbish (pardon the pun). What about schools? Provision for businesses to set up shop? Financial support for those going to university? Libraries? Planning departments? Housing? Ombudsmen? I'd argue that each and every one of those provisions is more important - and more are more high-profile to anyone not just sitting at home waiting for the bin men - than a weekly bin collection. Yes, the rubbish needs collecting at some point, but right now it's not the most important thing in the country. To say it is the most visible of all front-line services is a self-serving and ignorant statement.

I'd like to end with a message to the Daily Mail. Let us not forget who campaigned for this, and who Pickles is trying to win over. Congratulations to them. On their campaign to make Britain as xenophobic, ignorant, selfish and moronic as possible they have won a famous victory. They must be so proud.

Friday, 23 September 2011

The Ghost Brigades


Why did it take me so long to get round to reading The Ghost Brigades? Old Man's War was as good a military SF novel as I've ever read (even including The Forever War, but that stands apart on different grounds), with engaging characters, an interesting story and a well-realised universe.

On this evidence, John Scalzi could write the handbook on writing accessible, engaging, compelling SF in the twenty-first century. The Ghost Brigades continues on where Old Man's War left off, both in terms of the story and stylistically. Scalzi doesn't overcomplicate his language, and some would criticise him for perhaps not stretching his abilities as he should... but why would he do that when he writes crisp, clear English with just the right amount of quirk as it is? True, he's not going to win awards for use of poetic language, but it works just fine as it is, thank you very much. The result is that a casual reader would do well to pick up Scalzi's work as a gateway to modern SF.

Old Man's War introduced humanity's colonies, the CDF, and the ghost brigades themselves. I'm not going to go into too much depth about them - read the book to find out more (and you'll enjoy it, believe me). And now the world is nicely fleshed out we can progress deeper into its depths. Relatively speaking, Old Man's War was a simple tale of a man going to war; The Ghost Brigades goes several steps further, with a far more complex story, which also offers the humanity we've come to expect from Scalzi.

We have a traitor who has left his consciousness behind. In an attempt to get to the bottom of his treachery, Special Forces try to transfer the consciousness into a Special Forces soldier. It doesn't take, and so Jared Dirac (that's his name) ends up in the ghost brigades, fighting to defend humanity's interests in space.

What Scalzi does particularly well is create characters who at one level have to be identical, but on another, completely different, level need to be individuals, suited to different roles in the narrative. There is one character who comes into the book already well established in-universe, and Scalzi keeps her character consistent with what went before, but he creates another half-dozen or so well-drawn characters. Even those he doesn't go into depth with are left with distinct personality traits which mark them out as different.

It's possible to connect with those characters because they are well-written and distinct individuals. Moments that shock the characters are felt by the reader (well, by this reader, at least), and every triumph and defeat is met by an emotional response.

At its heart, The Ghost Brigades is a good old-fashioned adventure story set in space. In many ways it's what the Star Wars prequel trilogy should have been if it was literature and not a set of undercooked films with too many special effects. And I don't think I can pay it a higher compliment than that.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Fall of Hyperion


After my gushing praise of Hyperion back in January, it's perhaps a surprise to many (well, both of my readers) to hear that it's taken me until now to get round to reading its sequel. This surprise will be compounded by the fact The Fall of Hyperion has been sat on my bookcase waiting to be picked up since May. Surely I'd want to know the ending while the events of Hyperion were fresh in my mind?

Well, yes, but there has been plenty to read in the mean time. The Scar. Iron Council. Helliconia. A Dance With Dragons. You get the picture. Besides, I didn't want to get to the end of The Fall of Hyperion and find I didn't like it. I was so emotionally connected to certain characters that I didn't want an unsatisfying end to their tales.

Whether the conclusions of those individual threads of narrative were satisfying or not is for you to find out. Read The Fall of Hyperion. Read it now. Rush out of the house without setting the alarm and camp outside Waterstones if you have to. (Or just buy it on the Kindle, which is easier and probably much cheaper). Because The Fall of Hyperion is a worthy successor to Hyperion.

The first thing to note is that the narrative structure is much-changed. The Canterbury Tales style of the first volume of the Hyperion Cantos served its time and was released in favour of a more conventional, linear style. The background tale has been told and from now on it's only forward, with events quickly unfolding.

The events of the first volume - not counting the prologue - covered around six days. The events of this volume last around a fortnight, by my reckoning. It's a fraught three weeks. This instalment introduces a cybrid of poet John Keats, who serves as the main narrator. It's through him that we hear the events unfolding which surround the Shrike pilgrims and the other events which plunge the Web into chaos in the face of war with the Ousters.

This is the volume where the action is. For the 471 pages of Hyperion we got back story, set-up, exposition - call it what you will. For the 535 pages of The Fall of Hyperion we get that back story placed into context, twisted, linked, like sand being melted into glass, with all becoming clear. Anyone who has only read the first volume should read it again and try to predict the twists which follow - they're unexpected, but work superbly. The pace of events is relentless, and Simmons does well to not get bogged down at times.

Simmons writes with clarity and sharpness. He's very technically correct, but his characters lose nothing for it. I criticised Alastair Reynolds' debut novel Revelation Space once upon a time for having excellent prose but very little character, but Simmons doesn't fall into that trap (and I'll be the first to admit to really liking Reynolds' short fiction, which doesn't have the same problem). There's still a pathos to each individual character. And one of the best things about them is that they're all different. Whilst there are one or two caricatures to be found in the minor characters (a la Iain M. Banks), by and large each character is well-rounded and human. They have motivations for everything they do and there aren't any moments I can think of where a character does something that has me asking 'why'. Their reasoning may be flawed... but it is at least reasoning and not irrationality.

And the ending? Did I find it satisfying? There were a few problems with it, to be honest. After 970 pages, the final 35 or so struggled with having to finish off the whole shebang. The climax had been reached already, the major revelations unveiled and all that was left to be done was the tying off of loose ends. It felt typically post-climactic and was frustrating in that regard. But considering that standard of what went before it's not perhaps too much of a surprise. Simmons made a rod for his own back with his own standards of storytelling.

So, what do we have? We have a space opera of the highest standard, vying for a place alongside Iain M. Banks' Use of Weapons in the SF hall of fame. Disappointing final few pages aside, it's as gripping a story as I've read all year. I'll be moving on to the second part of the Hyperion Cantos soon: roll on Endymion!

Friday, 9 September 2011

Shuffle Anthology

I've been sitting on this announcement all week. I've told a few people about it (WriSoc being the obvious group of people who know), but I'm going to announce it to the world now. If 'announce' is the word for something only a handful of people will read on my blog.

I'm starting work on a new anthology. I'll be editing it, rather than writing anything for it. The anthology's working title is 'Shuffle'.

The aim of the anthology is to showcase the best work of young writers nationwide. I want to be reading through work bursting with quirk and originality, selecting around 80-100,000 words of it to go in the final anthology. At the moment, I'm targeting a release on the Kindle in around June time.

As I'm trying to get as many people as possible involved, I'm in the process of contacting creative writing departments in universities, writing societies and any other creative organisation I can think of. A post will probably be going on Duotrope's Digest, calling for submissions. I'll be setting up another website/blog, and an email account for submissions.

I can't do it all on my own. If anyone's interested in lending a hand (whether that's in the editorial process, in contacting different universities, or on the technical side - especially the technical side), please don't hesitate to get in touch.

I'll release more details on the Shuffle site itself. Anyone wanting to submit now, hold your work for a week or two, until I've got an email address for you to send it to! I'll be happy to receive any short stories you have (so long as they're original works), regardless of genre.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five is a funny book. In many ways it was not enjoyable. It was stark, bleak, depressing. The style in which it was written was no-nonsense, straight to the point. It was jumpy and inconsistent. And yet, despite all that, despite my own feelings of disgust at the blasé way things were depicted, I could feel its ideas influencing me.

Of course, all the above is deliberate on the part of the author. It's a semi-autobiographical work with features of science fiction, set around the bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Those events, at least, happened. As did the capture of Kurt Vonnegut at the Battle of the Bulge, and many of the events described at the concentration camp. It's impossible to write a book around those events which doesn't inspire feelings of disgust. And it's meant to - it's meant to show the author's disgust with war.

Fundamentally, Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war novel. It runs deeper than that, however, analysing the illogical and irrational nature of the human race. It adopts the life of one Billy Pilgrim (supposedly a campmate of Vonnegut in his POW days) as a vessel through which to tell its story and get its point across. Through a temporal anomaly as a result of kidnap by aliens, his life unfolds in a non-linear fashion. One second he's in the concentration camp, the next he's on honeymoon with his wife, or an exhibit on an alien world.

The way the narrative jumps about is jarring. It's unconventional. And in the context of the themes the book tries to get across, it works. I'll admit to getting frustrated by the constant scene breaks (as a fan of a flowing narrative, without scene breaks apart from where strictly necessary), but otherwise the structure is well-suited to the story.

Some things in the book do stick with me. What was written on Montana Wildhack's locket, for instance (and its thematic significance), or the description of the bombed Dresden as being like the moon. But admiring a book is different from liking it. It was a gripping read, one which affected me, but I couldn't bring myself to like it in the slightest.

And for Kindle owners - I got my copy on the Kindle for £2.86. If you want to get it and read it at that price, it's more than worth it.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

In the Buff

Well, that took a while. It's been a couple of months since I started my watch through of the full run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and last night I finally reached the conclusion of the eponymous Buffy's TV adventures.

First things first, I thoroughly enjoyed most of the series. It had charm and wit as well as a multi-faceted dramatic approach - it wasn't wholly a drama series surrounding the core characters and their dilemmas, neither was it entirely a series concerned with the big bang special effects. It found a balance after a season two and thrived on it.

Season three represents the zenith of the programme's run. That balance is perfected. It's not just monster of the week heroics like much of season one. Neither is it life angst (season six). Characters have already found their roles and they continue to develop in them. I think I've already mentioned that the characters are very human, multi-faceted and comprising of real depth. By and large even the villains are the same.

Unfortunately, Buffy doesn't sustain this level of brilliance. Season four's big bad seems out of keeping with the rest of the programme, even if the season finale does a cracking job of setting up coming seasons. Adam could have been skipped entirely, as could the Initiative, in favour of a more mystical feel to the season. Whedon seems to struggle with running two shows in tandem (season four of Buffy coinciding with season one of the as-yet unwatched Angel).

Season five is hit and miss - although that's mostly hit, to be fair. The decision to bring Dawn into the show had clearly been taken as far back as season three (in the finale, Buffy and Faith discuss her impending arrival whilst making a bed), but that doesn't stop it being a not-particularly-good idea. Glory is a pretty poor excuse for a big bad, despite the fact she's probably the second most powerful villain Buffy faces (the First being the exception). On the other hand, we see good character development and a stonking emotional finale.

For the most part season six focusses on its young characters' development in the world, supernatural occurrences taking a back seat. It also has yet another poor set of villains in the Trio. Until the last few episodes, there's never the sense of impending doom there was in the first trio of seasons and season five. There's a sense of incredulity while they appear on screen. That one of them goes on to become an ally of the Scoobies does nothing to aid their credibility as serious villains.

Again, though, the season finale bails the season out. That's something Buffy does better than other programmes: pulls the big guns out in the finale for a brilliant season conclusion. Season one had 'Prophecy Girl', which still goes down as one of my favourite episodes. Season two brought us the two-parter 'Becoming'; season three was 'Graduation'. After a pretty poor run up to the apocalyptic final battle, season four did something a bit different in 'Restless', but it worked and was one of the most intriguing episodes of the whole run. Season five's 'The Gift' was one of the most emotional of the series. And then season six came along with a hat-trick of episodes leading up to 'Grave'. Season six's finale did actually have a tear in my eye at the end, which means it ranks up with Battlestar Galactica's 'Daybreak'.

Season seven is almost a return to early seasons' form. Sometimes the plot seems outlandish, but it recovers some of the oomph of seasons gone. And there's also that knowledge on Whedon's part that this is the end - so he can do some things he wouldn't normally do in case the show got pulled. So there's the first lesbian sex scene on television about three episodes from the end, the graphic depiction of a suicide and some more gratuitous violence involving Nathan Fillion. It doesn't reach the level of seasons two and three, but at the end there's the sense that it lived up to expectations and was suitably apocalyptic for the end of a series that showed about ten apocalypses being averted.

There are more than a few choices the makers make that I'd quibble, the main one being why did Spike have to become a good guy? Angel had a reason, Spike didn't so much. Another would be what possessed Joss Whedon to make him think 'Once More With Feeling' was a good idea? Sometimes it moves away from its roots without thought as to what went before.

But on balance it's a tremendous watch which I enjoyed. Though you won't find me watching later seasons so much as seasons one to three. And fangs for the memories.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Writing update

Twelve minutes for an update. Right... I can do this...

What writing have I done recently? Not a lot. I'll be hitting the trail again tomorrow, though, kicking off Chapter 2 after starting Chapter 1 on holiday. Both Chapter 1 and the prologue need work on them (not to mention finishing), but the scene for Chapter 2 came to me today whilst watching Gladiator and feeling ill.

On the short story front, I have a few ideas to work on. I'll get round to those in due course. But first, I need to re-write The Noose after it made the shortlist for an anthology but ultimately fell short at the final hurdle. I like the idea behind it, but as it is, it doesn't quite pull it off to the extent I want it to.

The target for the week is 5,000 words of various things. Let's see if I hit this target for once.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Helliconia

I want you to picture the scene: two figures prowl the ice-bound land, blizzards around them reducing their silhouettes to little more than dark outlines in the whiteout. One of them carries a spear, a crude instrument of flint and wood hardened by fire. They come to a bluff, look down, and see a sight beyond their wildest dreams.

This is the opening of the three-volume novel Helliconia. Written between 1978 and 1985 by Brian Aldiss, one of the contemporaries of Arthur C. Clarke, it tells the story of a 'Great Year' on Helliconia, a planet orbiting a binary star system. Each of these Great Years lasts 1,825 'Small Years', or around 2,500 Terran years. As the blurb of the SF Masterworks edition points out, cultures are born in the spring, flourish in the summer, and eventually die out in the winter.

Helliconia focuses on a mix of the people, the planet, the science, and the politics which make up the planet's history. We start at the end of a winter, with Yuli. From him we go on to the early societies, then to the advancement of technology and religion, to the eventual fall of human civilisation.

It's a remarkable achievement. Ambitious in its scope, it would have been easy for Aldiss to alienate a reader by introducing too much. I only read it in the summer and on holiday because I felt that at any other time taking on the challenge of reading it would render me incapable of understanding or following it. Perhaps some readers will be alienated - who knows? The fact is that he manages to pull off everything he tries, and in my book that makes this book something of a monument to ambition. Why write small when you can write big?

I won't pretend that at times it isn't slow, difficult going. Much of the time it is. That blend of ideas and theories mixing together means that sometimes the plot - insofar as events pertaining to human protagonists make up the plot - moves at a glacial pace. This is especially noticeable in the second part, Helliconia Summer. But ultimately the standard of writing never drops and it's a rewarding experience.

Central to the whole work is this idea of the cycle. The most notable cycle is that Phagors - humanity's traditional enemy on Helliconia - dominate throughout winter, but fall under the yoke of human control in the spring and summer. Plans are laid to eliminate the Phagors - and for by the Phagors to overthrow the humans - but none comes to fruition. There are the diseases - bone fever and fat death - which are vital to the ecology of the planet but against which humanity fights, again, fruitlessly.

Earth is watching Helliconia through its observation station, Avernus, and through its observations we see another side of humanity, where everything isn't caught in a cycle. We see destruction and rebirth. We see the whole spectrum of humanity through various lenses, through the sweeping observations of life on Earth or Avernus, and the close scrutiny of Helliconian life.

Helliconia isn't a book about wonderful adventure or the everyday human dramas of life, much as it does have those things in it. It's got a grand majesty to it, being about something larger and greater. Ultimately, it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it had me interested and engaged. Much as I was pleased to see it end (it's 1,300 pages long - anyone would be quite pleased to move on!), I'm not averse to reentering its world and exploring Helliconia a little more

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

An open letter to the Telegraph

Dear Sir or Madam,

In the light of the current situation in the UK with riots and looting it is understandable that people have strong opinions on the cause of the riots and of what measures need to be undertaken to prevent further problems. Included on the letters page of the 10th August edition of your newspaper was a letter from retired Colonel David Whitaker, which read 'Sir - if the police were not racists before, they have every reason to be so now.'

Strong opinions are natural, and over the last few days I have seen many with which I disagree and more than a couple which I abhorred. However the letter published within your pages was the first I felt the need to write about.

The gentleman's letter, whilst short, contains several assumptions which are dangerous within a society such as the United Kingdom. Perhaps the most dangerous assumption is the assumption that the problems that have arisen are as the sole result of ethnic minorities and their actions. The letter also assumes criminality on behalf of members of a race, a fundamentally dangerous opinion to hold.

I do not know what the gentleman has formed his opinions on. News coverage has clearly shown the perpetrators involved in the riots to be of all races.

The man shot in the events leading up to the riots was black, that's true. It is also probably true that many of the original protesters whose protest was broken up were black. They lashed out as a result of frustration and anger, an understandable reaction considering that a friend or a family member had been killed. The colour of their skin has nothing to do with that reaction. A general sense of frustration, not only with the police but with perceived ostracism from society was the trigger. What would the police being racist towards the black community achieve beyond further feelings of alienation from society? It would be inflammatory and counter-productive. The end result would be further riots. More damage. In the end it would be a destructive cycle. Attempts must be taken to engage communities, not alienate them. The only way to end such riots is to engage the disaffected through positive policing and discourse with the community.

Events following the first night, however, have nothing to do with the black community. They are entirely to do with an underclass of all races seeing an opportunity to cash in. That the underclass in itself exists is a bad reflection on society, although the underclass also demonstrates no intention to better itself, seemingly content to exist without the morality of most members of society. It's the fault of society, but also of their parents. Earlier I mentioned people being disengaged with society, and somewhere down the line this has happened to many of the families of those involved, resulting in the loss of a moral compass, largely through irresponsible parenting. Somehow that underclass needs to be re-engaged and re-initiated into society as a whole. To characterise this issue as a problem in the ethnic minority communities ignores the deeper problems.

On the same letters page, I saw many letters and comments which ignored the deeper issues at hand. Whether that's down to the politics of the paper or not is known only to yourself and your colleagues. Another suggestion on the letters page was to criminalise the wearing of hoodies - another comment which ignored the millions of people, young and old, who wear them without causing problems. I am a qualified barrister, a published writer, a man with no criminal convictions and a man who doesn't engage in criminal activities, and yet I regularly wear a hoodie. Does merely wearing a hoodie place me in cahoots with looters and rioters?

There was, however, one telling comment: one gentleman noted that bookshops were apparently immune from looting. The ignorance of the looters is apparent, because they don't seem to have a grasp on reality and what their actions really mean, and what they are. However, it also seems that ignorance is on both sides of the debate.

That your newspaper published the offending letter is surprising. The Telegraph is known for high standards of journalism, even if the politics are not something I agree with. It's also understood that the letters are not the opinions of the paper. However more care needs to be taken when selecting letters for publication, especially when the ideas contained within them are potentially dangerous.

Peter Wilson

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

To the Bar!

Apologies to Heather and Danny for shamelessly nicking one of their in-jokes, but it had to be done. Especially as my legal career started first!

Hidden amongst the self-publicising material of my last posting was the fact I have now, in fact, graduated from university. This in itself is momentous - it brings to an end four years of education in a strange city slightly further north than I'm used to. No longer will I associate with the merry Geordies and attempt to ape their accent. The Metro will no longer be frequented. And I no longer stalk the hallways of City Campus East like a vengeful bespectacled ghost (minus the haunting parts, as I had a working day which I worked to).

The day after tomorrow, my entire legal education comes to an end when I'm called to the Bar of England and Wales as a barrister at law. For this reason, I'm writing another self-publicising blog post.

I'll be spending the next couple of days in London, staying overnight. Tomorrow night, I'll be taking in Yes, Prime Minister with the rest of the family, before Thursday morning, when the world will, at long last, see me in a wig and gown. In the ceremony at 1pm, I'll stride across Middle Temple Hall's floor and sign my name on the cup board, like so many before me. And thus will my time in law come to an end (or, at least, a hiatus).

And after that, it's off to Scotland for a week. While I'm there, I intend to write several thousand words. My writing has felt stilted of late, and I'm living in hope that a change of scenery will reignite my creativity.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Anthology

Monday was a momentous day. Not only did I graduate from university after 4 years of toil, tears and sweat, I finally held in my hands a copy of a book with work of mine in it. I may be ten pounds lee rich, but I own a book to which I have contributed. An actual book. Proper binding. Proper cover.

It was an unusual feeling.

Of course, the book isn't purely mine. Far from it. The book was the result of the dedication and hard work of the Northumbria University Writers' Society (they of the blue hoodies). It was the culmination of 18 months of badgering the publisher and finally getting the collection released. There are some 20-odd talented writers represented in the anthology. Hours upon hours of work, finally realised in this book.

I'm about 50 pages in thus far, reading the 2009/10 part of the collection. Its theme is colours, and a broad spectrum of work can be found. Mostly, it's short fiction (my contribution to this half is a short story), but there is also some poetry to be found. Being a broad subject to write on, there's a range of ideas represented. It's worth a read, and I'm not just saying that.

It's a nice feeling, to be published at last. It's been the better part of a decade since I started writing (9 years, 5 months, if you want to be precise), and I finally feel like I've got a foothold from which to launch my writing career. But the pride isn't just there for myself. I'm proud of everyone involved in the writing and the editing.

I salute each and every one of you.

Friday, 15 July 2011

A love letter to the hardback


It's been some 4 years since I took the plunge and bought a hardback. I feel it needs justification before I go and do something like that; hardbacks are expensive, for one thing, and if I'm patient I can get the same content in a more easily-accessible format inside the year anyway. Plus, these days I have a Kindle - that gives me both cheapness and a more comfortable reading format for virtually any book.

Despite this, however, I felt the need to buy A Dance With Dragons on Tuesday, the day of its release. It's a hefty volume. At 1,016 pages - in hardback, to boot - it weighs in at almost two kilograms. It's also the best part of three inches thick. It's unwieldy, ungainly, difficult to get particularly comfortable with. Unlike the Harry Potter hardbacks its two-dimensional cover size isn't that of a paperback. In short, it's a beast of a book.

But it's a magnificent one. There's just a certain quality about hardback books. Whilst it's always gratifying to see a fresh paperback waiting to be read, hardbacks have that extra something which marks them out. You can't bend their spines, hold them open by resting them upside down, rip the cover off (sacrilege though that it, people do do it). They're books for show as much as for reading.

With the dust-covers, they look good. The granddaddies of books which will later morph into something more friendly. Without those dust-covers, they look magnificent. Gold lettering stands out proudly on the spine, lending an air of old-fashioned quality. The covers may be cardboard rather than leather, but they still have that rough texture marking quality. And they have their own smell. Like paperbacks, they retain that odour of freshly printed paper which grows sweetly stale as the pages age, but they also have another smell about them, something like that of cut wood.

There's a romance to hardbacks. Whilst I can't justify buying every book I want when it comes out in hardback, sometimes it's nice to buy one just to remind myself of the majesty of books. Perhaps it's harder to love books with an aura of magnificence, but it is easier to get sucked into their thrall in the first place. I will probably get The Winds of Winter in hardback when it comes out (sometime in 2017, based on GRRM's current rate of productivity), as well as one or two others.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Steep Approach to Garbadale (Iain Banks)


Iain M. Banks may be a familiar name to anyone who has browsed my bookcases. It's a prolific name; each and every one of the twelve books published under that name appear in various places. The nine Culture volumes take pride of place on the shelves above my desk, as one of my most-oft-referred-to series.

Banks' mainstream alter-ego, however, doesn't make so many appearances. Prior to picking up The Steep Approach to Garbadale, Banks' 2007 novel, I'd read just The Wasp Factory, his debut, and Transition, the SF novel published using his mainstream name. Both were good. The Wasp Factory was a compelling - if short - horror set on the isles on the Atlantic coast of Scotland; Transition an accomplished SF novel which utilised parallel worlds, even if it was occasionally heavy-handed with its criticisms of modern society.

I recently criticised Feersum Endjinn. To date, that's the only Banks novel I've read which I've not enjoyed. I feel that it's necessary to say this, because I have my complaints about The Steep Approach to Garbadale.

The story is set around the Wopuld family, which earned its fortune in days gone by through the success of its board game, Empire!, a game which can best be described as a variant of Risk. Over the generations, that success has gone from board games to video games. And now an American corporation wishes to buy them out. An EGM has been called, with all the family congregating at Garbadale, the ancestral home.

Our protagonist is Alban, disillusioned family member. He has unanswered questions in his life. Some are answers which he must find within himself - the main one of these being how does he feel about his cousin Sophie, the girl with whom he lost his virginity at 15, the supposed love of his life. Others are questions for others to answer - such as why did his mother commit suicide.

The novel's structure is a hodge-podge of past and present scenes coming to a climax at Garbadale. Alban's past is occasionally affecting and emotional, but often a little too convoluted. There's even one side-plot which could easily have been cut completely to avoid confusion. I'm not sure whether it is meant to demonstrate how one character appears to the rest of the world, but it's unnecessary. At its best - and when Banks is at his best - the story is fluent and well-told, but for too much of the time you're trying to piece events together in the chronology in an attempt to get a clear picture. Even the one crystallising moment of clarity at the end doesn't make up for the prior annoyance.

There's also a few features which irritate me. The idea of the board game of territories has been used before - The Player of Games, possibly Banks' finest work, used it as the core story motivation. Re-hashing the idea felt lazy outside of a Culture setting. The weakness of Alban as a character also got to me in the end. Whilst some might find it difficult to move on following a love-affair in their youth, a normal person doesn't spend fifteen or twenty years obsessing over it and the object of their desire. Regrets may live on, but an obsession doesn't transcend time, space, distance and normal social barriers.

Then there's the heavy-handedness of the political rhetoric behind much of the novel. Banks uses Alban to expound on problems with America's foreign policy. Straight out, no metaphor, no veiling. While that's fine to an extent, it feels weak after Look to Windward's subtlety. Both work in-depth with a serious real-world problem, but one uses the tools at its disposal so much better than the other (for me, Windward is one of the finest books of its type around). Allegory is out of the window, and it frustrates me. The constraints of the literary genre are more than apparent.

But at its best, The Steep Approach to Garbadale is a good book. It's not at its best too much - a majority of the time is distinctly average by Banks' standards - but it's far from a bad book, and I did enjoy the fluency of Banks' prose and his ability to make me care about characters, even if I wasn't a fan of them. But I can think of many better things I've read this year.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The preparation

In case anyone's failed to get the message, I like to write. I also like to read. On this blog, I often write about both (if you could ever describe 'intermittently' as 'often). As it's summer, I'm doing both a bit more than usual.

Today's going to be a light reading and writing day. I barely slept last night and I can think of a couple of things I need to do before embarking in earnest on writing my latest project. Yes, I'm writing a novel - again. Or I will be when I'm up on the sleep.

But I am ready to go. Big style. Not quite to the point where the kettle's on in readiness for a cup of tea to sit cooling on the desk while I fail to think up imaginative ways of saying Character X has kicked the bucket, but I'm stocked up on sweets to suck, the template is there for me to type into and my notes are compiled and filed. Now all I need is to sit down and write. And write. And write.

To keep things varied, I'll have a couple of lesser projects on the go at the same time. I have a couple of stories out, so I'm waiting on those. Hopefully, when I need a bit of something different to occupy my creative time I'll have enough to keep me interested.

But for today, writing will wait. I'm tired, and that's not the best time to write. I want to be on top of my game tomorrow afternoon and do my opening scene justice.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Buffy season 2: a retrospective

Thanks to a housemate, I've recently acquired the full seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I watched the first couple of seasons in the late 1990s on the BBC, and I always enjoyed the somewhat censored version that aired back then. So, more than 10 years later, I've finally got back into the series.

Season one is truncated and uneven. There's an element of inexperience about the whole thing. The casting's spot on, but at this point the characters are works in progress rather than the rounded beings they'll become. The series veers unevenly between teen angst drama and monster hunter action series. It isn't bad, far from it, but against another Joss Whedon truncated series (Firefly), it pales in comparison.

So we move on to the (not shortened) second season. The first season serves a purpose in establishing our setting and characters. The second season builds on it. Those characters grow into their roles. There's Buffy, the wise-cracking slayer with emotional issues; Xander, the sarcastic everyman; Willow, the obligatory cute-as-a-button nerd (good thing!); Giles, the librarian and watcher. The cast is pitch-perfect, with the characters balancing and offsetting each other beautifully.

Compared to season one the balance of the series is far more evident. It's grown into its position, managing to combine the teen angst with the action to a point where it feels like they're not juxtaposed against each other. It could have been narmy (a technical word - look it up on TV Tropes), but it isn't.

The writing is quirky. Again, it's all about balance, and this is something Joss Whedon and his team can manage constantly. They can tug heartstrings one moment and make you giggle the next. It's drama and comedy combined, and then there's the (noticeably late 1990s) action scenes. A writer could learn a lot from watching Buffy season two and seeing the (that word again) balance the writers manage to strike.

Plotlines wise, you see so many things relevant to teenagers and young adults interspersed with the undead bashing. Why does my boyfriend (not mine, obviously) act differently now I've slept with him? In most cases, the answer isn't that he's turned into a soulless demon, which is the answer in this instance, but you catch my drift. Let's add to that, it's just plain good telly - how often do you get to watch a teenage girl with superpowers kick someone's backside up one door and down the other? We see young characters take responsibility, get their hearts broken, learn to live with circumstances. For what is ultimately teen TV, it's remarkably true to life (unlike that more recent 'sensation', Glee). This, despite the presence of the walking bloodsucking undead.

And season three is even better (it has Eliza Dushku playing Faith - and the dark ones are always more fun to watch and, in my main hobby, write).

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The results are in...

Well, that's it, then.

I appear to have passed all my exams.

Next stop graduation.

I can't pretend it isn't a relief. Thoughts of failing have plagued me since the exams themselves. I seem to have this habit of going over exams after the event, and it's not conducive to a positive mental state when it comes to exam results.

But all my fears were ill-founded, and I'll be graduating with a 2:1 honours degree. And to cap it off, this year's results have been rather good. No fewer than six firsts in modules. My highest-ever exam mark (88) just topped it off. And it came in my last exam in the place.

Overall, it's a successful day. I'm rather pleased with myself.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The dark side of the Kindle

There are plenty of freebies to be had on the Kindle store. Many are old classics in the public domain, converted to Kindle format by enthusiasts so people can read them free of charge. But others are less well-regarded.

I'm talking about those released by writers without a publisher who want to see their name in print.

It's easily possible to release a book of your own on the Kindle. A Word document can be converted using Amazon's own programme, and then released (complete with artwork, provided you have some) at a price of your choosing. It's no-risk self-publishing. Amazon take from any profits you gain, but you can still get a load of money, as proven recently by one man who recently sold his millionth ebook on the Kindle.

The problem it that it's too easy. Why go through the effort of trying to find a proper publisher when you can just upload a file and have people download it for little or no cost? Why risk rejection when you can be guaranteed to see your name in print? It won't make much money, but it'll still be there. And for me this risks killing the legitimate publishing industry, with the standard of writing dropping.

If I want to read a novella, I'll generally look for something by a writer I know. I downloaded Sublimation Angels by Jason Sanford not so long back, for example. It had a cost (a couple of pounds, if I remember correctly), but I knew what I was getting. I knew I was getting something that had previously been published in Interzone and serialised on StarShipSofa. It had got the seal of approval of the industry before being released as an independent ebook. Needless to say, I enjoyed reading it.

On the other hand, if I'm cash-strapped, I might want to delve into the free ebooks. Some will have come from legitimate publishers, of course, and if they have that's a nice bonus, but quite a few have probably come via self-publishing. And having experienced a couple, the quality isn't great.

It's easy to go for self-publishing for the Kindle, simply because you don't have to improve your writing style and quality for a chance at making some money. The one I picked up recently wasn't bad per se (it had an interesting story), but the writing was lacking. There wasn't any flair or originality. It seemed to be a stock collection of clichéd dialogue and substandard action scenes ("No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die" etc). An editor at Interzone would have taken a look at it and thrown it out. On getting the rejection slip, the writer would have had the incentive to look at his work and improve. With this system, there isn't an incentive.

One of the biggest things I find worrying, though, is the potential to sideline major publishing companies and - even worse - smaller publishing houses and their imprints by the flooding of the market with cheap, substandard stories. A glance at the top sellers in SF for the Kindle at the moment tells me that there are a few 'big' titles from professional publishers selling well (Surface Detail is one; A Clash of Kings another), but will that last long?

And if people get used to less than mediocre fiction, what does the future hold for fiction in the future? We already see the Dan Browns and Stephenie Meyers of the world - complete with their advertising juggernauts - dominate bestseller lists, while more intelligent, better written books are pushed into niches. We're constantly told (or, at least, I am) that being a bestseller is a mark of quality, so are we going to find twenty years down the line that children, having been brought up on cheap, poorly edited ebooks, think of those as being the zenith of literature?

It's all hypothetical at the moment. But it's a worrying thought. It could be that a potential saviour of the publishing world turns into its destroyer, and that would be a real shame.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Scar


When I reviewed Perdido Street Station at the beginning of the year I was keen to get my hands on the sequels. It doesn't feel six months since I said it. It certainly didn't feel like I'd been out of Bas-Lag six months when I started reading The Scar.

It's a slow starter. China Miéville builds his world up again with great care and attention to detail. The journey away from New Crobuzon by one of the renegades connected with events in Perdido Street Station is initially to reintroduce the world and get a feel before the real action gets started. And that takes 200 pages. Not that it's a bad read at this stage. The conflicts Bellis Coldwine, the protagonist, feels draw you in to the character and introduce the mysteries of characters who will play a prominent part in future events.

And then we reach Armada.

Armada is a remarkable creation. I don't normally comment, simply because many steampunk locales have a vaguely similar feel even if they're portrayed differently. New Crobuzon itself is a remarkable achievement, being possessed of its own intrigues and a unique feel, but the floating city of Armada surpasses even that.

Armada is a city comprised of hundreds of vessels lashed together and built upon, turned into a floating city moving gradually around the open seas. Its people are pirates and pressganged, arranged into their districts. No one leaves; should you be unfortunate enough to find yourself kidnapped by the pirates who range on missions for Armada, then that's it. Your life will be spent in the city. Your loyalties will be dictated by your district. It's a city portrayed visually as something out of the ordinary, which Miéville's writing makes it easy to see in your mind's eye.

Then there's the people. There's a vast range of races, mostly humanoid, but some vastly different from the norm. Miéville makes up races for fun: there's the Cactacae, the Vodyanoi, the Khepri, Scabmettlers, Remade, Vampir... Each brings something new to the eclectic mix. And then there's the characters themselves. Mysterious, with hidden agendas aplenty. We only find out the truth of them late in proceedings.

Armada seems to lurch from place to place, guided by the schemes of its leaders. One thing leads seamlessly to the next. On the way through the 800-page novel there are dramatic uses of the sciento-magic thaumaturgy, quests, subterfuges, battles a plenty (both with and without hardy pirate cutlasses being involved). It's a book of great range, epic in its scope. At once it can be intensely personal and grandly epic in the same way as significant historical events. It has a life of its own.

So would I recommend The Scar? Heartily. It's something remarkable. It's not a book to read so much as you experience it. Miéville's writing means you can smell each and every moment as well as visualise it. It is immersive and once it's over you'll feel like you've lost a part of you. It's something to cherish.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Summer reading

It's the same, day in, day out. Wake up on a morning, browse the Job Centre website for jobs, apply for two or more, make lunch, and then have an afternoon to myself. It's starting to get boring already. Fortunately, there is a saving grace in this dull routine, and that's time to engage in my summer reading.

It seems to be a very British thing. The summer read is something that (perhaps thanks to Richard and Judy) has become a part of British holiday and summer society. People who don't touch books all year suddenly pick up the latest bestseller (generally something by Dan Brown or Jodi Picoult) to read either on the beach or in the park. Those who generally do read far more mark out certain books that they want to read. As I'm part of the latter group, I've bookmarked five books I want to read this summer.

5. War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)

There's always a classic on the to-read list, and this year it's probably the biggest of the lot. Last year, Crime and Punishment had me in the garden soaking up the rays while I read about deepest, darkest Russian winters with destitute students (that sounds familiar) and sordid murders. It was all right - not my cup of tea, but it was bearable enough. I also had a shot at Pride and Prejudice and hated it. But I'm now at an age where I may as well at least have a go at reading Tolstoy's epic, as much to say I have read it as much as anything. Plus, it was only about 70p on the Kindle.

4. Helliconia (Brian Aldiss)

It's another not-short book. This time, it's the omnibus edition of Aldiss' Helliconia trilogy. I've always enjoyed classic SF, and although this is from the 1980s rather than the 1950s, the name of the author alone (and the imprint it's from notwithstanding) is enough to qualify it for classic status. I've read books by Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, etc, but never one from British SF's second most influential writer. Plus, I got it for my birthday and wanted to do it justice rather than rushing chapters at the end of the day.

3. Iron Council (China Miéville)

I really need to learn the shortcut for the flick over the 'e', as I seem to be writing Miéville's name every five minutes at the moment. Right now, I'm in the middle of The Scar, Iron Council's immediate predecessor. There's something about the Bas-Lag world that's addictive and which means Iron Council is one of my essential summer reads. Plus, it's always nice to see a player of Dungeons and Dragons who's made it big.

2. Starship Troopers (Robert A. Heinlein)

I've read Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, and it only feels right that I should read its spiritual rival. I've also read John Scalzi's Old Man's War, and it feels somewhat wrong that I've read different worlds of military SF without reading the paragon of the sub-genre. For years I've bemoaned the cost of what is ultimately a slim volume, but the Kindle edition is far cheaper, and it's about time I got round to it.

1. A Dance With Dragons (George R. R. Martin)

A few people will be annoyed at me. I've been ever so smug over recent weeks while the HBO series Game of Thrones aired on Sky Atlantic, knowing each twist coming well in advance. Reading the book before it came out on the telly was a good idea. I've also read the rest of the series, finally reading A Feast For Crows back in February. And since then I've been waiting to find out what happens next. In July, the next volume of the series comes out, and I'll be getting it for the Kindle (despite having it pre-ordered for when it comes out in paperback... next September). I'm rather looking forward to it.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The City And The Stars


I always struggle when writing titles containing lots of 'ands' and 'thes'. I'm never sure whether to capitalise them or not. In this case, I've gone for the 'yes' option. No doubt before too long I'll be opting in favour of 'no' for a while.

What I'm trying to say is that the title of Arthur C. Clarke's 1955 novel annoys me.

The book focuses on the city of Diaspar, a city apparently existing in perpetuity through the ages. Even by SF standards the setting is a long way in the future, taking place over a billion years in the future. Throughout the preceding billion years Diaspar has sat on 'the breast of the desert' (loved that phrasing) of an otherwise deserted Earth. It's apparently changeless, with even its population recycling itself. The city itself is run by a central computer, into which the city's founders have programmed a plan, the precise details of which are unknown by any of the human characters. In the previous billion years various stories have been passed down about the empire of humanity in the stars, and how the mysterious Invaders ended the empire.

As the population of Diaspar recycles itself, a new person is 'born' only once every deciaeon. This is someone with none of the pre-programmed fears and superstitions of perhaps twenty thousand years of life (each of the recycled people rediscovers all the memories of previous incarnations after 20 years). And the book follows one of these 'Uniques' on his journey beyond Diaspar.

If I had to liken The City And The Stars to another novel, it would have to be Asimov's Foundation. There's something analogous between them, right down to the whole galactic empire thing. Thematically they differ, but the two plots are comparable.

Of all of Clarke's works I've read to date, this is the best-written. The example above included, the use of language is somehow more lyrical than later works such as Rendezvous With Rama. However, it greatly differs from Rama, 2001: A Space Odyssey et al. TCATS is more character-driven, relying on characters to influence events. By contrast, those it's being compared to were written in reaction to the latter part of the Space Race and the later, post-Stalin Cold War. They also had far more emphasis on the hard science of the here and now (relatively speaking).

That being said, there are a few Clarke staples to be had. Unfortunately, I can't say what these are without spoiling the book.

There are weaknesses in the book. For one thing, it takes far too long to get going. Only once our protagonist, Alvin, get out of Diaspar does the pace start to pick up. Of the 256 pages, over 100 feel plodding. As a result, it's not easy to get into. Once it does get going the book flies by (I read the final 150 pages in a sitting), but readers will be put off by the slow start. The book also struggles with one or two loose ends, and would perhaps have benefited from losing one character completely.

However, I enjoyed The City And The Stars. It may not be Arthur C. Clarke's best-ever work (at least, not for my money), but it is a very enjoyable and thought-provoking novel.