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).