Wednesday, 30 December 2015

A year in books

​I should be getting used to it by now, I guess. Back on January 1, set my annual target of reading 52 books in the year. Failed miserably. Again. I'll have one finished by the time the witching hour arrives tomorrow night, which will eek the total up to 31 for 2015. Which is frustratingly slack-arse, and one less than last year. I blame the top-quality TV that's around these days. And work. And the kids, of course. In an alternative reality, I'm paid to read books. Anyway, here's a list of the titles that I did manage to pluck from the to-be-read bookcase beside my bed - in chronological order:

A Clash of Kings (Game of Thrones #2) - George RR Martin
The​ Cut - George Pelecanos
The Double - George Pelecanos
The Bat - Jo Nesbo
Dark Matter - Michelle Paver
Broken Dreams - Nick Quantrill
A Song of Shadows - John Connolly
The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
A Web of Air - Philip Reeve
Dark Streets - Andrew Ravenscroft
Scrivener's Moon - Philip Reeve
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon - Stephen King
The Executioners - John D MacDonald
Morality Play - Barry Unsworth
The Martian - Andy Weir
Outer Dark - Cormac McCarthy
Farewell, My Lovely - Raymond Chandler
Iron House - John Hart
Finders Keepers - Stephen King
The Zoo - Jamie Mollart
The Ice Dragon - George RR Martin
English Passengers - Matthew Kneale
Make Me - Lee Child
Stardust - Neil Gaiman
My Swordhand is Singing - Marcus Sedgwick
Railhead - Philip Reeve
Night Music - John Connolly
A Monster Calls - Patrick Ness
Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King
How to Steal a Dragon's Sword - Cressida Cowell
Bazaar of Bad Dreams - Stephen King

Not a bad list, and pretty varied too - fantasy, ghosts, crime, sci-fi, historical, and a few short story collections (unusual for me). There are always repeat authors on each year's list. I used to blast through series without pausing for other authors, but have cured myself of that, although not entirely, as the double entry for Pelecanos proves - The Cut and The Double are the first two books featuring his latest MC, Spero Lucas, an Iraqi war veteran turned private eye.

Overall, it's been a fine reading year - there's not one title on there that I didn't enjoy, and of course there are standouts, including both Pelecanos titles, in particular the latter.

I finally read English Passengers when we secured Matthew Kneale to appear at Manx Litfest 2015 - and it was an absolute delight. Not an easy read; it's not the kind of book that you can blast through 100 pages in a single session, but it's a quite beautiful piece of writing.
Full length ghost novels can be notoriously tricky to pull off, but Michelle Paver's Dark Matter is one of the finest examples of the genre I've read in a long time. The Grapes of Wrath - first time reading it (I know, shocking), and it didn't disappoint. Slow in parts, but powerful, and as with English Passengers, one that says with you long after you finish the last page.

Connolly's Charlie Parker came storming back in A Song of Shadows, set against the backdrop of Nazi war criminals living in the US; A Clash of Kings was great fun, and Martin's children's novella - The Ice Dragon - is a damn fine little thing.

Farewell, My Lovely dripped cool and style; Stardust was... well, it was Gaiman, and enough said; A Monster Calls was my first taste of Patrick Ness, and it certainly won't be the last; Philip Reeve has another hugely successful series on his hands, if Railhead is anything to go by; and Morality Play was an unexpected and rich find.

As for Stephen King, Tom Gordon was good(ish); Finders Keepers was better than the first book in the series (Mr Mercedes), but I still feel that King is finding his feet with 'crime' (if that series of books can be classed as that); Full Dark, No Stars (four novellas) was superb, and Bazaar of Bad Dreams, which I'm close to finishing, is a mix of great, good and so-so, as tends to happen with short story collections.
Two debut novelists to note - Jamie Mollart's The Zoo is a dark and disturbing plunge into the world of corporate advertising, while Dark Streets by Andrew Ravenscroft (a Manxman now based in the US) is part Blade Runner/part urban London thriller. Looking forward to more from both authors.
If there was one disappointment, it was Iron House - a decent enough read, but as a second taste of Hart's work after the brilliant The Last Child, it didn't satisfy as much as I expected it to. That said, I've another of his books on the TBR shelf.

What's in the pipeline for 2016? There are several Cormac McCarthy titles I've not read, and I really want to dig deeper into Margaret Atwood's back catalogue. I've got a real taste for King now - have had for several years, after largely ignoring his books as a teenager, when most of my peers were devouring them. I've caught up a bit in recent years, but thankfully there is still a long list left to read.

There will likely be more Gaiman, and I want to get back into James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series, which I stopped reading a few years back (as part of that cure), but he's too damn good to ignore any longer. Deon Meyer too - only read one book by him, and mighty fine it was too.

And there are several authors I want to try for the first time - including Joe R Lansdale, Bernard Minier and Noah Hawley, who also happens to be the brains behind the Fargo TV series that I'm trying to convince everyone to watch.

So here we go again then - target 52 books. Check back here in 12 months.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Patience, young grasshopper

We are in a golden age of television. Not everything is a home run, but there are so many damn fine programmes on our TV sets these days. Last night I brewed up and settled down for 70-odd minutes of pure brilliance - episode two of the second series of Fargo.

The first series had to live up to the Coen Brothers' dazzling 1996 movie, and did just that. Series two has to live up to series one, and is doing just that. Surpassing, possibly. The acting is top notch throughout. The direction assured, the writing confident. I said to a friend after watching last week's series opener that it was such a bloody pleasure to know you are in the hands of a cast and crew so confident in what they are doing.

The story will be told over ten or so hours, same as series one. And that, as with so much TV these days, is the beauty of it. I've never had much patience. (My mother would replace 'much' with 'any'). But as I get older, I am learning more, and in particular the satisfaction of enjoying a story well told, at a measured pace.

The last film I saw at the cinema was The Martian. Perfectly reasonable entertainment, nicely put together, if not as gripping as I’d hoped it would be, having read the book. The movie ran for two hours and twenty minutes – in that time, Matt Damon had (SPOILER ALERT) been stranded on Mars, recovered, grown a shit-load of potatoes (and an unfortunate beard), worked out how to get in touch with NASA, who sorted out not one, but two rescue plans, while our hero was hauling ass across the surface of the red planet, at the same time as the crew who had believed him dead made an audacious attempt to save him before his potatoes ran out. All in just over two hours.

I'm struggling to think of the last movie that really blew me away. And I know why that is - movies seem so rushed now, compared with the rich storytelling and character development on show in TV, where plots are allowed to breathe, unfurling at just the right pace (maybe not in every instance, but you get my drift).

I’m bored of hearing those movie-goers who don’t have the attention span to sit through a film that dares to run past the two-hour mark. If a movie hits three hours they are ready to rain fire and brimstone down on the cinema world. I just don’t get it. Is our attention span as a species so shot that we need everything in small fixes?

I was looking on Rotten Tomatoes a few weeks back, at what movies were coming up. One was the latest Spielberg/Hanks collaboration, Bridge of Spies. It had the running time down as 95 minutes. There are a few movies of that length which do tick all the boxes for me – The Usual Suspects was around 90, and that’s a lean mean machine. But by and large, if a movie by Spielberg and Hanks comes in at 95 minutes, the alarm bells start ringing. It's so bad, I thought, they've had to hack it to pieces.

When I checked back a few days later, I realised they’d made a mistake and changed the running time to 155 minutes. Now we’re talking. Sure, there are some lengthy movies that would have worked better with a little nip tuck here and there. But to my mind they are the exception, not the rule.

It's one of the reasons why movie adaptations of beloved novels don't tend to fare well when compared; they can work, of course - One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Jaws, LA Confidential, The Silence of the Lambs, to name a few. But again, exceptions rather than rules.

A book unfolds at its own pace, but all that story has to be crammed into a couple of hours on the big screen. Unless, of course, a book is adapted for TV. Where, in the hands of astute showrunners, directors and writers, it can receive the treatment it deserves. And that's what we're seeing these days. My Sky planner can't cope, that's for sure.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Five (or so) of the finest reads

A little late, but here goes. My favourite reads from 2013. I managed just 32 books last year, which is pants, as I try to average one a week. Anyway, my top five(ish) reads from last year, in alphabetical author order:

The Blade Itself - Joe Abercrombie
 A good friend of mine had been mithering me for a few years to read this, praising Abercrombie as the best fantasy novelist writing today. I've not read much fantasy over the last ten years, certainly nowhere near as much as I did in my teens and early twenties, when every other novel would be fantasy. Must have fantasised myself out of the genre. But I finally succumbed, and so glad I did. Book one of Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy, this is dark and bloody. And bloody well written too. On the dust jacket, the author says he was tired of the usual fantasy fare of quests/wizards/dragons and wanted to write 'fantasy with the edges left on'. And that he did. Three very different main characters come together over the course of the book, each flawed, displaying few of the traits we would normally associate with heroes. Book two - Before They Are Hanged - is in my to-read pile for 2014

The Shining/Joyland - Stephen King
The first of three cheats in the top five. Joyland, released last year, was touted as a pulp crime novel, but the crime is secondary. It's a beautifully-crafted coming of age story about Devin Jones, a student who takes a summer job at an amusement park, where a girl was murdered several years before in the haunted house. The second King book was The Shining, which I'd never read. In fact, I'd never read any of King's books from the 70s and 80s. Not sure why - horror stories bored me as a kid and teenager, probably because I'd gorged myself on horror movies (unknown to parents) as a young lad. But I knew that when I started making inroads into early King, The Shining would be where I started. There's not much left to say about it, other than it is a quite brilliant read. I'm still a little uneasy taking baths, particularly if there are any old women around... and right now I'm in the middle of the sequel, Doctor Sleep.

Blood Meridian/No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy
I'm a latecomer to McCarthy, having first found The Road a few years back and I've been building up his back catalogue to read them in a short space of time. Last year it was these two books - and hell, if they aren't incredible. Very different, Meridian is an almost poetical blood-soaked meditation on man's fascination with violence, while No Country is a leaner, more streamlined novel, which the Coens converted into Oscar glory. Of all the characters I read last year, I think Judge Holden from Blood Meridian is the one most scorched into my memory. Wonderful stuff. This year's McCarthy books are Child of God and Outer Dark.

Shame the Devil - George Pelecanos
I'm close to catching up on Pelecanos's back catalogue and I find myself eeking out the books in order to make the experience last longer. Pelecanos writes about the underbelly of Washington DC and he is one of those authors whom I annoy the hell out of other readers by insisting they must be deranged if they've not tried him. Devil is the final book in Pelecanos's 'DC quartet', following on from The Big Blowdown, King Suckerman and The Sweet Forever, and it brings together two of his most enduring characters, Dimitri Karras and Nick Stefanos. It's a beautiful and haunting tale, as two killers return to the city three years after disappearing following a hit that went wrong, leaving a young boy dead and a cop wounded. I still find it hard to understand why Pelecanos isn't a household name around the world - this is a guy who has other crime authors such as Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and Lee Child drooling.

Mortal Engines quartet - Philip Reeve
Yes, even more of a cheat then entries two and three - four steampunk books in one. I started the year with the first, Mortal Engines, and devoured the next three - Predator's Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain - in quick succession. Wonderful storytelling aimed at readers aged 12+, a post apocalyptic world of moving traction cities and airships, with war looming on every front. The books follow the adventures of Tom and Hester from teens to parents, and there's no let-up across the four books. A wonderfully imagined world, and apparently Peter Jackson has had the rights to the movies for some time. Let's hope that now he's got The Hobbit out of his system, he can bring a lumbering, caterpillar-tracked vision of London to life.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

A sense of impending doom

Review - A Single Shot, by Matthew F Jones (Mulholland Books, £9.99)

Sometimes you know that whatever you write when reviewing a book isn't going to get anywhere near to doing it justice. And that applies equally to books you love more than, well, maybe not your children, but pretty close, and books that are so bad you'd happily take a scalpel to your brain to erase them from your memory. So I write these words in that knowledge.

I'd not heard of Jones prior to cracking the spine of A Single Shot, although it turns out I was aware of his work, having wanted to watch the movie Deepwater for several years, not realising he wrote the novel upon which it is based.

It's a thing of wonder, discovering an author who writes this beautifully for the first time, more so when you realise there's a skutch of books on his backlist for you to read.

A Single Shot tells the story of a week in the life of John Moon, a lonely, awkward man who's lost his family farm, his wife and child and now earns a crust laying driveways and spending his spare time hunting on the forested mountain where he lives. Out stalking a deer one day, he hears a rustle in the bushes and shoots, a single shot. Instead of a deer, the bullet takes the life of a young woman. Panicking, Moon checks the area - she was holed up in a quarry, and he finds her campground, a stash of drugs and many thousands of dollars in cash.

Moon has a choice - and decides to bury the body and take the cash. He thinks there's nothing to link him to the corpse, and if he possessed a more astute brain, he might be right. But Moon is a simple man, who doesn't always think through his actions. The consequences of those actions bring those who own the drugs and the money after him and soon the hunter is the hunted, having to draw on his survival skills to stay alive. The small backwater town, the forested mountain, the one man trying to stay one step ahead of his pursuers; this has a feel of First Blood mixed with Deliverance, as the net is drawn tighter around Moon.

This is a book about choices, and, as a reader, you can't help but make your own decision as to what you'd have done in a similar situation, not you as you live your life now, but if you were in Moon's shoes, experiencing the shitty life he is. Despite his faults, Moon is an intensely proud man, a man of honour driven to desperate measures by the hand of fate and the dark deeds of those around him.

Jones doesn't waste many words, if any. It's a short book, 240 pages, but it packs one hell of a punch. It gets under your skin; the supporting characters, the town, the mountain itself, but none more so than Moon himself, a superb study of a man who has lost almost everything, but is damned if the bastards are going to take what little he has left.

A fine, fine read. It comes as no surprise that the movie is being filmed - but director David Rosenthal and stars Sam Rockwell (Moon), William H Macy and Forest Whitaker have their work cut out to come anywhere close.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Dark and bloody inspirational

Review - Lord Loss, Darren Shan

I first stumbled across Shan's work after asking some advice over at Litopia. My query was simple - as a spot of research, I needed the names of authors who wrote young adult books that pushed the boundaries in how dark a story can be when written for children. If the book I'm working on at the moment holds true to how I envisage it, it's going to be dark. And bloody.

One of the titles fired my way was Lord Loss, which is the first in a series of ten, the Demonata, and it doesn't take a Mr Spock-like intellect to work out what the books are about.

The book opens with Grubbs Grady - come on, you know you're on solid ground with a name like that - enduring the teenage hell that is family. An elder sister who makes his life misery, parents who just don't get him; poor Grubbs just wants a break.

The break he gets is perhaps a little more than he asked for - his family are killed by the demon, Lord Loss, and his two demonic sidekicks. Grubbs manages to escape, but soon finds himself locked in a padded cell, trying to convince everyone that it wasn't your average Joe serial killer who wiped out his folks, but monsters from another plane.

Grubbs is saved when his Uncle Dervish visits, and seems to accept what he says, and Grubbs finds himself holed up in Dervish's large country house in the remote village of Carcery Vale. There, he befriends one of the local boys, to whom Dervish seems to give the run of the house, and the two of them start to piece together what happened, including the big question - why was Grubbs' family targeted by demons?

That's about all I want to reveal by way of plot, other than to say it's good - well worth a read, and I'll be making a date with book two, Demon Thief. What was of more interest to me was how Shan developed the characters, and just how far into depravity he took his young readers. Whether intentional or not, twenty pages in and I didn't like any of the Grubbs family. I was struggling to connect, not convinced I could tag along with the characters for another 240 pages. Then the demons attack, and literally rip Grubbs' family to shreds. And as the young lad tries to recover in his padded cell, the sympathy - and understanding - came. By the time the enigmatic Dervish appears on the scene, I was hooked.

I'm not sure if Shan set out to make Grubbs (and his family) as initially unappealing as I found him. It seemed a strange tack to take - the family I could understand, but the hero? Of course, reading is subjective, and maybe it was just me. Yet it worked, ultimately, because Grubbs changes during the course of the story, and that's what all good writing is about - developing characters, watching them grow and adapt to the challenges that are put in front of them. What helps is having strong supporting characters, and Shan has them in Grubbs' new friend, Bill-E, and in particular Dervish, who is one of the coolest characters I've met in children's fiction.

So just how dark does the book get? We're talking headless corpses, blood-splattered walls and bodies split open by page thirty. It doesn't quite reach such graphic violence again, instead changing focus and ratcheting up the tension.

And what does it tell me about my own work? That what I've got planned will (assuming it's anywhere half-decent) work, and, given the success of Shan and others of similar ilk, that there is a market for it. Kids, it seems, want to have the bejesus scared out of them, just like I did when I was a kid. Consider me inspired.

Yet this last point opens another can of cliched worms; should we really be scaring youngsters with tales of demons, vampires, murder and blood-letting? Over at the Manx Litfest Facebook page, there's been a discussion on this very topic, sparked by an article in the Wall Street Journal, which claimed that YA fiction is too dark. I don't see a problem, generally speaking. Kids have always wanted to be entertained by such stories, whether it's Dad telling a creepy story around the campfire, watching the latest teen horror on a sleepover with mates or reading about rampaging zombies eating people's brains.

Of course, there is a limit to everything, although it's hard to say what that is. There's dark, and then there's sick. Or perverse. Or both. One person on FB suggested elements of society are viewing such books as the equivalent of video nasties, with the natural progression to assuming that any kid who reads about a demon killing his sister is going to follow suit. Should we sterilise our writing for children in order to ensure they read only nice, happy stories and are falling over themselves in a bid to help the elderly across the road? There is a place for such positive, happy tales. But I sincerely hope we're not heading down such a restrictive path, where darkness is, well, confined to the shadows.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Struggling to stay in the game

We're now 29 days into this 80,000 words in 80 days malarkey. Which, assuming my sums are correct, means my word count should be around the 29k mark. But it's not.

I've taken a 10-minute break to make a brew and write this post. The word count on the manuscript has just crawled over the 15k mark. So I'm writing a smidgen over 500 words a day, on average. I know. I'm not going to hit 80k. The good news is that I'm guessing the final word count for this script will come around 60k - so, with 51 days to go, I've got another 45k to write. Which is possible, right?

The bad news is that even 500 words a day is a struggle at times, given so many other demands on time. Not that I'm complaining; they are all of my own doing. But there are times when I check the word counts of other writers attemping this challenge and it's hard not to envy those who rack up several thousand words a day.

So onward I go. If I can hold the average at 500, I'll still have 40k words by the end. And that's 40k more than I would have had on May 1. You see, as with most things in life, it's all about perspective. Least that's what I'm telling myself.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Here goes nothing...

So there's just over an hour to go before the madness descends - 80,000 words in 80 days. I'm feeling scarily confident about the idea, but fear that the lack of time will make this an exercise in futility. But life's about challenges, giving it your best and learning from your mistakes when you cock it up. Worst case scenario, I'll have X thousand extra words by the end of it than I would have had if I'd not thrown my hat in the ring, though there's no guarantee those words will make any sense.

I'm considering a ritual, or superstition, for the duration of the challenge; lucky boxer shorts, refusing to trim nasal hair, only drinking tea from left-handed mugs, allowing myself two shots of absinthe (flaming, of course) every time I hit the 1,000-word-a-day target.

Seriously, though, best of luck to all those who are similarly delusional and attempting the challenge. It promises to be chaotic, stressful, frustrating and emotional. It should also prove to be inspirational and bloody great fun. Let's get this party started...