Books – Here

Here, by Richard McGuire, is no less than the zenith of the graphic novel as an art form.

It is one of the most profound things I’ve read. Continue reading Books – Here

Proximity and the manipulation of moral feeling

News coverage of Isis and Gaza recently has reminded me of Henry Fonda.  Specifically, the Henry Fonda thought experiment in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s landmark (and quite brilliant) paper ‘A Defense of Abortion’.1

For Thomson it’s a quite ghastly aside, the rejection of which (proximity to a moral issue has a bearing on one’s moral feeling) supports her overall view. Continue reading Proximity and the manipulation of moral feeling

  1. Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971) []

Books – The City & The City

Hopefully all China Miéville’s novels are as original and engaging as this one.  The City & The City is on one level a standard ‘detective investigating death of girl uncovers big conspiracy’ story, but Miéville has decided to weave the tale into a quite unique milieu.   Continue reading Books – The City & The City

Knowledge – a few helpful questions for the internet age

How do you know what to believe?

The internet has fragmented the ancient institutions that have shaped and disseminated knowledge and it has democratized facts in a way never before seen in human history.

When deciding what to believe, and by corollary what moral and practical courses of action derive from those beliefs, anyone with an internet connection can now cultivate a near endless hotpot of thought and opinion on almost any subject matter.

But, as argued by the author Mark Danielewski, in the field of images, moving or otherwise, the increasing fidelity of the recorded image has gone hand in hand with an increasing ability to convincingly manipulate those images. Continue reading Knowledge – a few helpful questions for the internet age

Books – House of Leaves

If the horror genre is a journey, then House* of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, is its destination.

I say this not only because it is an attempt to get at the fundament of what is horrifying, but also because the nature of the attempt is an audacious, remarkably intelligent and emotionally satisfying weaving of multiple narratives and perspectives working on many levels; straight, ironic, comic, academic and post-modern.  It is astonishing. Continue reading Books – House of Leaves

Books – One Hundred Years of Solitude

Hearing that I hadn’t read any of Gabriel García Márquez’s work, when his death was announced, a friend kindly bought me this, as he had Wolf Hall.  Clearly, he knows what’s good for me.

This twentieth century classic in the magical realist tradition was my first foray into the realm, unless Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller counts.

I urge you not to wait as long as I have, but to throw yourself into the story of the Buendía family across six generations and their doomed trajectory intertwined with that of Macondo, their near utopian village soon despoiled by the industrial revolution. Continue reading Books – One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sentimentality

Ricky Gervais’s new series of Derek has once again divided viewers and critics.  The show is a sentimental ‘mockumentary’ following, principally, four characters in a nursing home for the elderly.  I loved the first series, the final episode being as moving as the christmas special of The Office.  Many of the criticisms stem from a frustration that it’s simply too sentimental; “the mush outweighs the wit, with episodes ending on tides of sentiment” moans the New York Times.  But is that a bad thing? Continue reading Sentimentality

Books – Replay

Replay, by Ken Grimwood, tackles the classic ‘What if…’ scenario: “What if I could live my life over again?”

It treads a path between the wonderful Star Trek episode ‘The Inner Light’ and Groundhog Day.  Jeff, the book’s protagonist, is going to ‘replay’ his life more than once, unlike Picard; but unlike Phil Connors, he’s repeating decades rather than a day. Continue reading Books – Replay

Books – Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, is a masterpiece.  It is one of the best books I will ever read.

I know this because I’ve lost count of the times I’ve paused over a page, muttered ‘Fuck off’ at the sheer and dazzling quality and control of the form and the narrative, and then carried on reading, a little bit sick at the work I still have to do, learning how to tell a story. Continue reading Books – Wolf Hall

The Reader’s Gift

As someone learning the craft of writing, and leaving it rather late to do so, I need to read widely, and read writing of good quality so that I may learn from it.  It was inevitable I would become a neurotic reader.

Anyone with a passion for books has or will come to the realisation that they only have about two thousand goes at it in their life. Continue reading The Reader’s Gift

Books – Norwegian Wood

So, I’ve popped my Haruki Murakami cherry, having heard from a number of different sources about this writer and his cult following and magical prose.

Norwegian Wood is a story, set in Japan, of a teenage boy, Toru Watanabe, in love with a girl, Naoko, who we learn is schizophrenic and with whom he shares a tragic bond. Continue reading Books – Norwegian Wood

Good coffee is easy

In the UK in the last ten to fifteen years, there has been an explosion in the amount of us buying coffee while we’re out and about.

With this boom, its headline acts being the big chains like Starbucks, Costas, Nero etc. the word ‘barista’ has reached the common lexicon, rarely confused now with the legal heterograph (I was going to use the word ‘homonym’ but I’d have been mistaken!  The things you learn….).

The tragedy is that for your £2.50+ for a medium latté, you needn’t have one that tastes like someone’s chewed a full ashtray up and spat it in your mouth.  Continue reading Good coffee is easy

In the land of the blind, could the literary agent be king?

Writers have a problem.  It’s harder than it ever was to get published.  It’s also easier than it ever was to get published. Continue reading In the land of the blind, could the literary agent be king?

Shouldn’t things be better?

“How is it that we have created so much mental and emotional suffering despite levels of wealth unprecedented in human history?” (The Spirit Level)

It’s not the sort of thing you can sort out in a blog entry, but there’s any number of things that don’t seem to add up when I think about British society now and twenty or thirty years ago.  Continue reading Shouldn’t things be better?

Abraham Lincoln, Jamie Carragher and me

I’m stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a post-apocalyptic ruin, watching a man called Hannibal slowly lead a handful of worn-out looking former slaves and a diseased, mutated Brahmin bull to the headless statue of the former president.  On the back of the bull are some supplies and the stone head of Abraham Lincoln, lashed together with rope. Continue reading Abraham Lincoln, Jamie Carragher and me

Ten of my favourite movie moments

Well, it’s my blog, I can do a ‘my favourite things’ if I want to.  What prompted it was this year’s christmas Radio Times.  For as long as I can remember I’ve enjoyed sitting down with it and reading through, picking out all the old films I’d like to watch, you know, ‘Meet Me in St.Louis’ mid-afternoon on BBC2, the Ealing comedies.  Then I never get round to it, that idyll in my head of some plummy old ham saying ‘my dear’ a lot while I’m sipping a Baileys and the christmas tree lights are reflecting back into the room from the window onto the darkening afternoon outside. Continue reading Ten of my favourite movie moments

Hard Copy

If our homes express who we are, what of the home where all of your literature and music is invisible to the casual eye; no trace of the stories and music that move you and define you represented alongside whatever art or furniture or decor you’ve put together to create a place that is special to you.

Through the ready availability of his books and records while I was growing up, I came to know some of what my dad loved, and so, some part of who my dad is.  My nascent exploration of his collections naturally then coloured my own interests.  Unquestionably, I was enriched. Continue reading Hard Copy

Why I love running

There’s an iron nail in my left knee the first half mile away from my front door, down the slope past the school, dozing in the silence of its lie-in on a bright Saturday morning.

The nail, where my iliotibial band sticks itself to my knee, warms and melts away as I turn onto the coast road and into the wind, fresh as mouthwash and ice, bumping and kicking me like students in a moshpit.

Across the road from where I run is a bus shelter.  It looks like all other bus stops; shabby, with a hangover.  Raindrops from last night’s downpour are splattered off its roof by the wind.  Sheltered by it are a girl in the shapeless lime green smock of a supermarket and a man that thinks a waistcoat over a tee shirt is cool.  Both stand with heads crooked and still like streetlights over their phones. Continue reading Why I love running

Making my own words work

I talked in my last blog-post about the pleasure I get from hard-working prose.  Good writing comes from the choices you make with the words you commit to the page.  In this blog-post I’m going to look at two scenes from my book Snakewood and explain what I was trying to achieve with them.  I daresay this is of limited interest to non-writers, unless you have an interest in why an author chooses to write about certain moments in a novel and not others, out of all that’s possible to convey. Continue reading Making my own words work

The deliciousness of hard-working prose

What would you say constitutes great writing?  For a practising writer like me, good writing isn’t just about what is enjoyable to read, but also about the choices a writer makes when they select words to convey their message.

I thought I’d try to articulate what great writing looks like to me, using an author that delivers effortlessly the kind of writing I love.  I’ve just finished Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines, a book very similar to The Old Ways, which I posted about here.

Like that book, the writing is remarkable, better in some ways, Jamie being an award-winning poet.  Given poetry involves (for me anyway) a meticulous choosing of words to create imagery, meaning and emotion in a distilled form, her prose is some of the purest and cleanest I’ve read, but in particular, like Annie Proulx’s writing, it has lines that work on multiple levels; efficient prose that delivers depth with the minimum of effort. Continue reading The deliciousness of hard-working prose

Books – Altered Carbon (veers into bonus thoughts on mental continuity and my nan!!)

Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan, is a cyberpunk-noir detective thriller of the ‘locked room’ variety.  If you want steam rising out of your grates in grimy streets straight off the ‘Blade Runner’ mood boards and a bosomy femme fatale in a plot full of twists and turns then stop reading and go buy it, because as a debut novel, it’s astonishingly assured plotting and writing. Continue reading Books – Altered Carbon (veers into bonus thoughts on mental continuity and my nan!!)

Books – City of Saints and Madmen

City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff Vandermeer, has been labelled ‘avant-garde fantasy’.  It is.  The city is the star; Ambergris is a violent and gothic-romantic ecosystem, the inhabitants of which live in a fearful symbiosis with the deeply mysterious ‘Greycaps’.  These underground dwellers were initially displaced by the founders of Ambergris from the much older city that it grew out of.

The Greycaps give a Lovecraftian edge to the tales of the city, silently malign landlords living in a world beneath the city’s people, the balance of power shifted emphatically after their initial genocide at the hands of Ambergris’s founders, with an event known as ‘The Silence’, that shattered the collective psyche of the city’s denizens, leaving behind a fragile society with a black hole where its heart and soul should be.  This book feels like Lovecraft-meets-literary fiction, and while not quite as dark as the master, its emotional canvas is broader, a playful black humour mixing with the horror in its veins. Continue reading Books – City of Saints and Madmen

Richly blending achievements may cause loss of sleep!

Over the years I’ve been addicted to a number of games.  These include all the MMOs I’ve played, Championship Manager, Civilization, Elite, Just Cause 2 and Test Drive Unlimited.  And this was proper addiction, you know:

  • “Oh shit it’s 4am, oh man, not again.”
  • Five hundred calories a day on weekends (crisps, tea and chips)
  • Tips and strategy bookmark folders and printouts
  • Home made keyboard overlays
  • One game at a time, months at a time
  • Wife having second thoughts..

I’ve wondered what is common to these games that are in quite different genres yet cause such an immersive consumption of my time. Continue reading Richly blending achievements may cause loss of sleep!

End Day

“Sit down son.”

Jerry’s mum and dad were on the sofa opposite him.  This was his End Day, his sixteenth birthday, and so the day he would be told how long he had to live, the day the law said he had a right to know.

His mum was biting her lip, her knuckles were white with the ferocity of her grip on his dad’s free hand.  His dad held up the piece of paper the government sent three weeks after Jerry was born, but his fingers were trembling, and tears sprang from Jerry’s eyes as he began to accept that their trembling grief was like the rumbling of a train that was about to smash him to ruin. Continue reading End Day

Show don’t tell

I spend some time on an internet writing forum.  There have been a few forum threads that have exploded over the titular writing maxim.  One post in particular is based on some advice Chuck Palahniuk had written somewhere: ‘you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires’ (quoted from the forum post concerned).

So, it continues:

‘Instead of saying:  “Adam knew Gwen liked him”, you’ll have to say:  “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it.  She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume.  The combination lock would still be warm from her ass.  And the next break, Gwen would be leaned (sic) there, again.”’ Continue reading Show don’t tell

Books – Wool

Spoiler free.  Rest easy…

Hugh Howey is in the enviable position of the author who self-published with a good enough book, got a buzz going and then took off into the stratosphere – publishing deal! film in the offing!  I’m delighted for him.

It reminded me afresh that all the self-marketing in the world isn’t going to help a story that doesn’t drag the reader in and keep them there.  It also made me think that perhaps the books that break out from the ocean of self-published novels are the easy reads; great plot, transparent prose, a speeding train of mildly pleasurable distraction well worth a couple of quid.  I’ve yet to hear of work that is squarely literary fiction that has also broken out and gone gangbusters, but I’m happy to take some recommendations if I’ve missed anything. Continue reading Books – Wool

Books – The Old Ways

The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane is a book about walking country paths.

I know, that’s what I thought, and I only bought it because writers of the stature of John Banville named it as one of the books of the year on its release last year.

But then I started reading it, and I was blown away by the writing.  He writes, near the start, of paths:

“Paths were figured as rifts within which time might exist as pure surface, prone to weird morphologies, uncanny origami.” Continue reading Books – The Old Ways

Worldbuilding part 2: It’s a kind of magic

This blog post gives an overview of my very physical take on ‘magic’ in the world of Snakewood.

Now, inevitably, with a fantasy novel, you’re likely to have some sort of ‘magic’, something to make it fantastic in the purest sense.

For Snakewood, perhaps because of my conceptual struggle, as a materialist, for magic, I wanted what was magical about my world to be rooted in it somehow, to be earthy, tactile.  I didn’t want some hand-waving and lightning bolts and flames springing out of nothing or great waves of force from mere gestures. Continue reading Worldbuilding part 2: It’s a kind of magic

Love and brains and language games

I’m going philosophical in this post, so those of a disposition sensitive to pointless armchair theorising look away now.

I’ve long been interested in Philosophy, but particularly interested in the brain, the most complex thing in the known universe, as far as I’m aware.

In this post I want to explain why I think the mind is the brain and that love is indeed ‘just a bunch of neurons’.  To do this I need you to imagine that you have a PC, and that its hard disk drive has stopped working.

So, now you’re sat at a desk boiling with frustration, thinking “Why isn’t my PC working?”

There are a number of explanations, you think, but there are more you’re probably not considering.  Imagine that there is some kind of ‘ladder of explanations’ from the subatomic, through the ‘physical’ to the personal and social.  It’s a kind of ‘system hierarchy’. Continue reading Love and brains and language games

Worldbuilding part 1 – how prevailing winds shape history’s winners and losers

How to create a convincing fantasy world.

That’s the question I’m sure all writers in the genre wrestle with at the outset.  You can get lost in it.  All such writers I’ve read on the forums I frequent vary in how deeply they imagine the setting for their story, prior to banging out the chapters.

Most fantasy is set in a faux-medieval context, as is my own first proper attempt, Snakewood.  But once you’re in a position to build the world itself, how do you go about it?  How do you tie it all together so it makes sense?

Thankfully I’d read a book, Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration, that gave me both an elegant theory for why the course of human history has gone as it has, but in doing so also gave me a way of determining the economic and cultural topology for my own world. Continue reading Worldbuilding part 1 – how prevailing winds shape history’s winners and losers