Category Archives: General

Kneejerk Nerdery, or How I Learned to Calm Down and Accept That I Like Some Crap Books

I’m not the most socially nerdy person you’re likely to meet. While my online presence basks in glorious nerdiness and geekery, in my offline life I personally know very few geeks/nerds/whatever term you wish to use. This isn’t a deliberate thing on my part, just that I had a weird – and somewhat, um, rumbustious – youth and have moved around a lot because of it, combined with the fact I now live in a small village in the middle of Northumberland. Those are the breaks. Because of that, I wasn’t really aware of the massive, clumping force of nerdrage. It never occurred to me that there was a SF&F community beyond the same twenty or thirty people who got their letters published regularly in magazines like Starburst or SFX.

Ignorance, I have to admit, was bliss in many ways. I liked what I liked, loathed what I loathed and got on with my life, in a state of cheerful unawareness about the simmering fury that lurks beneath the surface of so many SF&F fans when something they love does not receive universal acclaim, from the SF&F world at least if not necessarily the world at large.

Then the internet happened to me. The real internet, not just the bit with free downloads and pictures of women in their underwear. I learned about message boards, comment threads, blogospheres and so on and it was a joy to me, the poor schlub who’d never had the chance to discuss my love of Stargate: SG1 or my cordial dislike of Farscape in any depth with anyone. Very soon after that, I learned about people who take it personally if you don’t like what they like. Then I learned about the strange phenomenon of reviews being reviewed[1]. As I took more and more notice of, and participated a little bit in, the online SF&F community I learned about storms in teacups and internet hissy fits. It baffled me. To a certain extent, it still does. For years, I shook my head in confusion about it and wondered why people got so hot under the collar.

Then it happened to me.

If you’re British, aged 30 or over and have read fantasy novels for most of your life, chances are you’ve never seen a negative review of a David Gemmell novel. Oh, there are reviews that were couched in less than glowing terms all right, but nothing that outright eviscerated one. The late Mr Gemmell was one of our sacred cows, part of the 1980s and 1990s holy trinity of fantasy which also included Terry Pratchett and Robert Holdstock. Untouchable Titans, Colossi of praise and acclaim. Add to that the fact that Legend has a very deep and personal meaning for me[2], and this review cut me like a personal wound. A little bit of what made me, well, me was under attack.

This review right here. Go and read it, fellow fans of traditional heroic fantasy and feel your nerdrage building. But rather than comment on it immediately, come back here first and hear me out.

When I first read that review, on the day it went live as it happens, I felt my own nerdrage building. How dare he? How can anyone not love this book? Yes, it’s got its faults, but what book hasn’t? So what if the plot is kind of lumbering and sags in the middle? His handling of of the women characters in the book is risible, but it was his début novel so give him a break! He didn’t paint the invaders in the best light but tried to correct that in later novels! Clumsily, I admit, race wasn’t his strong point, but he was trying damn it! The prose isn’t great, but it’s not that sort of book!

(Hang on; nowhere in the review is there any critique of the prose style, so why am I on the back foot about it?)

That’s when I took a breath, deleted the comment I was busily typing and actually thought about my reaction. I wasn’t defending the novel, not really. I couldn’t actually refute any of the criticisms levelled at it. I was defending my love of it. Why did I feel the need to do that? I don’t have to justify my love for my wife, even though she enjoys Strictly Come Dancing and On the Buses[3]. I don’t have to justify my love of football, even though many footballers are complete dicks and the fans can be wearisome and annoying, as well as occasionally violent. I don’t have to justify my enjoyment of the first Transformers film, even though it’s dumb, loud, badly acted, badly plotted, badly written and obnoxiously edited, so why the defensiveness about a book?

It’s my belief, and one I’m sure that most habitual readers will agree with, that books are by far the most personal form of art. There is no other form of art, or entertainment if you prefer to separate the two, which is so utterly reliant on the consumer collaborating willingly with the creator. The writer creates the story, but it comes to life in a unique way for every person who reads it. Everyone who reads a book reads the same words, but no two people have the exact same experience. Hence, when someone tears apart a book you enjoy, they tear apart a little piece of you for liking it. They don’t usually mean to, chances are they don’t even know you, but they do.

This, more than anything else, goes to the heart of why book reviews in general, and fantasy book reviews in particular, generate such heated debate. It’s why the craven and disingenuous objection to ‘tone’ is so frequently a part of the occasional bout of nerdgassing that goes on when someone negatively reviews a book. If we enjoyed the book being dismissed, sneered at or even torn into little pieces and scattered to the four winds, we can’t escape the feeling that the person reviewing it is judging us negatively, as well as the book.

It’s why acrackedmoon of Requires Only That You Hate is so often criticised for the ‘tone’ of her reviews; it’s not that she doesn’t like a given book, it’s that she isn’t apologetic for it. It’s why Liz Bourke’s negative reviews provoke such interminable and circular bellowing about ‘tone’; it’s not about the negative review, it’s that she wasn’t nice about it[4]. It’s why there was so much bleating surrounding Christopher Priest’s recent criticism of the shortlist for the Clarke Awards; it wasn’t about the negative opinion, it was about the fact he didn’t dance on eggshells to prevent hurting people’s feelings.[5]

If a book is called out for sexism or racism, that doesn’t make you sexist or racist for enjoying it; if it’s called out for being rubbish that doesn’t imply that you are a lesser person for liking it.

That’s step one in learning to accept you like things that aren’t very good. Accepting that no one is insulting you personally (at least, not very often) by not liking the things you like.

Step two, and it’s a painful one, is admitting to yourself that just because you like something, that doesn’t make it good. While there’s no such thing as objectively good, there are too many variables between one person and another to declare a universal standard, there’s certainly such a thing as objectively bad and it’s OK to like things that fall into that bracket. Even by the standards of fast food outlets, McDonald’s is not good, in terms of taste, quality or healthiness (or, more disturbingly, ethical business practices); I still enjoy a Big Mac meal now and again. There is no possible scale by which the Hammer (ahem) classic Twins of Evil can be measured as a good film, but I shovel crisps down my gullet and enjoy it each time I see it. This is OK. It doesn’t make me a bad person and it doesn’t constitute a personal attack when someone points out that some of the things I enjoy are rubbish.

Stop trying to defend your bad taste; own it instead. Legend is rubbish. I love it anyway. Neither should you.

[1] Observational study indicates that reviews are classified as ‘good’ when the person mentioning it agrees with the review and ‘bad’ when they don’t.

[2] Long winded and boring story which means nothing to anyone but me, so I won’t waste your time with it.

[3] If you ever think you have to justify your love for another person, I mean one who doesn’t treat you badly or make you feel lesser in some way, give yourself a ding round the earhole, you over-analytical pillock.

[4] acrackedmoon and Liz Bourke also have to contend the with the joys of misogynistic spleen, condescending words like ‘shrill’ being used against them and, in a spectacular act of shooting your attempt to defend your entertainment choices in the foot, Liz Bourke was accused of being too intelligent to review a fantasy novel. I don’t care what you intend, that’s the only thing calling someone an “Ivory tower academic” implies.

[5] Yes, I have opinions on most of the novels acrackedmoon has reviewed, that Liz Bourke has reviewed and two of the Clarke nominations Christopher Priest ripped into (I’m behind with my reading this year). No, I’m not sharing them. That’s not the point of this post.

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One of Those Days

I’m a bit swamped today, between Real Life, the Work in Progress and one or two other things I’m working on, so with that in mind let me do some quick sharing. We all love to share and blather about ourselves, right?

Things I Do Not Care About

To all media outlets, everywhere: Charlie Sheen’s apparent mental breakdown.
To people who comment on youtube videos: Justin Bieber/Lady Gaga/Katy Perry.
To amazon.co.uk: Bargains to be found on clothes airers. I clicked one link damn you!
To football broadcasters: The opinion of the vast majority of pundits you hire.
To our fridge: That funny whiff coming from behind you. I’ve learned to live with it, nothing can convince me to lug your heavy arse out of your cubby hole to find out what it is.
To our cat: I never liked the wallpaper in the passage that much, anyway.

Things I Do Care About

To my fiction writing brain: Completing my current work in progress, stop distracting me with the urge to write something else.
To the internet: Pictures of Bridget Moynahan. I don’t care if I’m shallow, vapid and guilty of objectifying an intelligent and talented actress, I just never get tired of looking at her.
To my reading brain: Reading the good stuff. Stop trying to convince me to reread bad stuff and post reviews of it.
To the world in general: Being too broke to afford Dragon Age II, so trying to figure out whether it’s worth trading in Heavy Rain, Fallout: New Vegas and a few less prestigious games to help finance the purchase.

That’s all for now. Drop a comment telling me what you do and don’t care about and I’ll catch you again soon.

In Which I Pontificate on Narrative Voices (and concede a minor defeat)

You might have seen one of my comments mentioning my grandly ambitious plans to use seven distinct writing styles for the five and two half POV characters in my current work in progress. If you did, then I’m here to tell you that that particular plan has had to be abandoned, hence my silence for the past ten days or so. I’ve had to throw out or retool approximately 20,000 words. Not my favourite thing I’ve ever had to do, but the plain fact is it wasn’t working. Each POV switch jarred too heavily and it felt as if each character was part of a different novel. That sounds very cute and clever in theory, but in practice it makes for a very choppy and disjointed story which doesn’t flow very well from one scene into another.

I’ve been having to rewrite things in something that approaches a consistent narrative voice and add minor flourishes of colour in character’s internal monologue or descriptive passages, which has taken up a lot of my time. I’m getting caught up to myself again, though, so normal service will be resumed soon. I’ll throw up a little taster of one of the other characters very soon.

Until then…

In Praise of Sandwiches

Sandwiches are really lovely, aren’t they? I like bacon, mushroom and onion ones best of all; which is another way of saying “I’ve got nothing”. See you tomorrow with a Northumberland Folklore piece and a linky post, ‘cos it’s been far too long since I pimped* anyone.

In the meantime, here are some things I’ve learned:

Primus: Boohbah is the scariest program ever put on television.
b: Despite what popular conception tells you, string does not make an adequate makeshift belt. It will snap. Your trousers will fall down.
3: Activating a talking Puss in Boots from Shrek toy as the cat sniffs at it once, will elicit a hilarious backwards jumping and fluffing of the tail. Trying it a second time will result in that same cat attempting to amputate your face. (Probably deservedly so, I admit)
iiii: There appears to be no moral low to which I will not stoop in pursuit of cake. Assassination for cake hasn’t arisen yet, but if it does, I’m not responsible for my actions. Just so you know…
: Putting your mouth over the cold water tap and turning the lever all the way to full blast as fast as you can, results in a passable impersonation of a fountain cherub. There’s also a mild choking hazard, but the risk of appearing on the Darwin Awards shortlist is well worth it.
Finally: When life gives you lemons, the correct response is to squeeze the juice into life’s eyes, punch it in the throat while it’s temporarily blind, then stamp on its groin when it falls to the ground choking. If anyone tries telling you it’s “make lemonade”, squeeze lemon juice in their eyes, punch them in the throa- you know where I’m going with this.

More bloggage tomorrow. TTFN

* WARNING! If I pimp you out, I want my cut dammit! My pimp hand is strong

The Joy of Sects

It’s a bit of a literary fetish of mine, but I love stories that feature clubs and secret societies. I’ve never been able to figure out why, but I go all gooey when I read one. Whether it’s the ultra cheesy pulp adventure of Dennis Wheatley and his Duke de Richleau stories, the hints and references to occult societies in the work of H.P. Lovecraft, the bizarre secret society in Christopher Fowler’s Roofworld, the many different cults and societies in China Miéville’s Kraken as well as countless other stories and novels, which are far too many to list here.

I think what I enjoy most about stories with cults, clubs and secret societies in them is that, the other Dan Brown’s novels excepted, you almost feel like part of a secret society or club yourself when you find them. The stories are strange, esoteric, and often quaintly outdated – in modern examples, deliberately so. This appeals to me greatly, in this age of over sharing and putting more of yourself into the public domain than ever before.

Make sure to check out the below example of a secret society in action.

Brian and Me: A memoir of Redwall

In memorial of Brian Jacques, 1939-2011

I shan’t enter a biography here, wikipedia has a far more comprehensive one than I can offer, simply a reflection on the effect the man’s work had on a young mind which had far too much on it, very little of it good.

In 1990 I was more than a little mixed up; in fact, it’s fair to say I was a complete mess. I didn’t fit in very well at school, coming from an extremely poor family but living in the first generation of working class British children to whom appearances were the sole defining factor of social standing. An ill judged admission of something horrendous from my infancy to the wrong person led to being ostracised by my former friends away from school. The trouble at school, which of course led to chronic truancy, caused trouble at home. My parents were not only struggling financially, but my father was fighting to come to terms with being disabled at a very young age, so even the very slightest of transgressions from me resulted in terrifying rages and often disproportionate punishment. All of this, combined with a school who refused point blank to admit that any bullying could possibly be taking place there, added up to a depressed 11 year old who had nowhere, and no-one, to turn to.

Like so many children in that position before me, I turned to books. I quickly burned through the small collection of paperbacks we kept in the house, so turned to the school library; a room I’d been in several times before, but never truly noticed until I was at my lowest ebb. I read volume after volume of ponderous, well meaning, but ultimately patronising, crap about kids who were going through similar things to me. I read a lot of very cosy sci-fi about middle class, popular lads with names like “Chad” and “Nathaniel” who got wrapped up in some mystery or other which always ended up being about a crashed spacecraft or a time traveller. I read the books, but none of it really sunk in. I wanted neither “someone like me”, nor a “role model” to aspire to. What I wanted was something I only know in hindsight.

One fateful afternoon during that one day a fortnight when a teacher could be bothered to unlock the library and let whoever wanted one borrow a book, I saw something unusual, something with a cover like nothing I’d previously seen on the school shelves, although it must have been there all along as it was fearsomely battered and dog-eared; I saw a faintly washed out image of a cart full of rats, careening down a country lane with one rather scary looking rat at the front of the cart, wearing the skull of another animal and carrying an enormous spear, while flames tore at the very cart he rode on.

Captivating image, isn’t it? The blurb on the back intrigued me even further, so I took the book home. I don’t think I so much read the story, as inhaled it directly from the page. I remember reading it at least four times during the period I had it on loan, then borrowed it again so I could read it some more. It spoke to me on a level far deeper than all of those oh-so-condescending, touchy-feely, it’s-ok-to-have-issues, worthier-than-thou novels combined. Not because any of the characters were monochrome reflections of what the writer thought I must be going through and not because any of the situations mirrored the things going on in my life. The book gave me something far more important than that; it gave me an escape from all of that rubbish. It gave me a window on a world where good and evil were clearly delineated.

There’s no way to underestimate how vital that was to me at that point in my young life.

Over the next few years, as a troubled childhood became a disturbed adolescence and my grip on what constituted being happy gradually eroded due to the tremendous weight of pressure I was under, the tales of Redwall Abbey, Loamhedge, Salamandastron and the good creatures who lived there were my life preserver, the things that gave me release and something to cling to in times of trouble, which unfortunately were almost never ending during my teens. No matter how rough things got, the anger of my father, the disappointment of my mother, the bullying from the other children or the complete indifference of my teachers to my problems, no matter how much I tried to impress on them how seriously I was struggling to cope with what was happening, I could disappear into a Redwall novel and for that brief period, all was calm, all was well and I could drown out the welter of emotions I was too young and inexperienced to process.

In short, at a time when I could have either gone off the rails entirely, or else stark staring mad through the storm raging inside me, Brian Jacques gave that storm a calm and soothing eye.

Eventually, I grew out of the Redwall novels. There came a time when I didn’t need them any more, when that calm, soothing voice was no longer needed. I had become an adult, at last, and the books both read and felt childish to me, a relic of a time when I read only for comfort and escape. When that day came, I placed all of the books in a bag and bade them fond farewell. They didn’t go to a charity shop, or to a jumble sale. After all they’d done for me, they deserved far better than that. They went to my niece, a charming and intelligent girl who I hope can read the stories for their excitement, adventure, good humour and good nature. I only hope she enjoys them as much as I did, without needing to cling to them quite so hard or for the same reasons.

Rest in peace, Mr Jacques. The man I am held you in high regard and the boy I was owes you far more than I can adequately express.

A beginners guide to reading fantasy fiction

Being a small list of stories for the novice fantasy reader to sink their teeth into, before heading off into the choppier waters of the more modern, or even post-modern fantasy out there.

First of all, the recognisably “real world” approach to fantasy…

Chase the Morning – Michael Scott Rohan A gentle introduction to the fiction of the fantastic. It’s rooted firmly in the modern world, although it veers off rapidly into a realm of magic based on the span of human history, travel, folklore and trade. The “secondary world” element of the novel is a shadow world where all of history and myth can be reached by anyone willing to travel far enough and for long enough.

Age of Misrule – Mark Chadbourn A trilogy of novels, about what happens to the modern world when the technology stops working and the old Celtic magic and creatures of folklore come back. Fine novels, with a good blend of action, intrigue and emotional kick. any novel in which a group of heroes try to outrun the Wild Hunt in a transit van has to be worth a look, right?

American Gods – Neil Gaiman You can get away with this one by telling yourself it’s Literature (big L my emphasis). A dark, complex, multi-layered tale of con tricks, coin tricks, dying Gods, a young nation’s borrowed folklore and the impact of the modern world on belief in the supernatural – and vice versa. It also has snappy dialogue and a very kinky sex scene.

Watership Down – Richard Adams A secondary world fantasy in all but name, this book has achieved classic status with some considerable degree of merit, don’t let the fact that it’s about little fluffy bunnies fool you. By turns dark, brutal, haunting, complex, deeply emotional and downright scary in places, this is required reading for anyone who’s genuinely looking to get into fantastic fiction. You won’t regret it.

A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle Is it fantasy? Is it Sci-fi? Is it a children’s book? All three questions get a resounding yes for their answer, but just because a book is marketed as being for children, doesn’t mean it has nothing in there for adults to take away from it, even it’s only a sense of awe at the size of the author’s imagination. Find a copy, read it, then be surprised at the complexity and emotional resonance and honesty in a book aimed at children.

And now, for the books which fall into the category of “High” or “Epic” fantasy, as well as “Swords & Sorcery”

The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien You don’t have to finish it, it took me three attempts to get through it for the first time and I love this kind of thing, but you should certainly give it a really good go. There has still never been a more fully realised secondary world built in all of fantasy fiction. Almost all of the criticisms levelled at it are true; it’s dry in places, the characters can be one-dimensional, the morality is very black and white, if you don’t skim over them the poems in it can wear you down, the approach to class, race, sex and social standing in the book can seem anachronistic to modern sensibilities and the dialogue is, well, downright laughable in places. It’s also on an epic scale in a way that few stories have managed before or since, sweeping in scope, unparalleled in imaginative achievement and in places the writing is genuinely beautiful, far more often than the occasional clunky sentence or paragraph that the book’s loudest critics always pounce on (the same few examples of such, mostly). What’s more, almost every secondary world fantasy since LotR has been a reaction against, a response to, or an imitation of this book. It helps you to see the genre more clearly, if you have at least a nodding acquaintance with its roots.

A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula K. Le Guin One of the first secondary world fantasies to achieve major success after Tolkien, the Earthsea novels are a strange and wonderful mix of earthly, and earthy, characters and high magic. Le Guin has a far better feel for characterisation than Tolkien and while the story burns more slowly, it takes a deeper root into the subconscious of the reader. Less of an adventure story (although there’s plenty of that too) and more of a character study of a young man with great power. Well worth seeking out.

Swords /* – Fritz Leiber “/*” meaning any one of “Against Deviltry”, “Against Death”, “in the Mist”, “Against Wizardry” or “of Lankhmar”. These collections of short stories represent some of the best “Swords & Sorcery” adventure to be had. Away from Tolkien’s “High Fantasy”, in America there was already a booming trade in down and dirty, sword swinging, thieving and womanising adventures and Leiber as good as cornered the market in them back in the old pulp magazine days. If you like your stories fast paced, action packed and filled with dashing heroes, desperate fights, monsters and buxom maidens, then these are the stories for you.

Magician – Raymond E. Feist Another epic fantasy, this time of a slightly different nature. This one borrows heavily from the American swords and sorcery tradition and marries it to the epic style of Tolkien. Other books had tried it before and many more have done so since, but few have done it with such ease and readability as the first novel in the Riftwar saga. A thoroughly enjoyable page turner and worth a couple of quid of anyone’s money.

The First Law – Joe Abercrombie Now that you’ve read the other novels (you have read them all, right?), it’s time to see where modern fantasy lies. It lies in a bloody mess on the floor, where Abercrombie’s characters stabbed it in the testicles and took its money pouch. The First Law is the first series of novels to truly place characters who  feel genuinely real into a story of epic quests and high stakes with the whole world hanging in the balance. Littered with memorable characters, including a corrupt and self-serving torturer, a mass murderer, a spoiled lordling and a woman beater with a murderous temper as the heroes of the story, then you have some notion of what the book is like. Only a notion though. It’s far more brutal, exciting, morally ambiguous and funny than I make it sound.

Now, go forth and read. Hopefully enjoy, too. These books should amuse, delight and enthuse most readers. If nothing else, there’s some serious weight of paper amongst them, so you’ll never be short of a doorstop if the books don’t engage you the way I think they will.

Long overdue update

I can’t pretend I’m the most dedicated blogger. That being said, I’ve neglected this place for long enough now. Between the World Cup and some real world stuff, I’ve been entirely preoccupied of late. So, on to matters updatey without delay.

1. The World Cup blog. I’ve ditched it, quite unceremoniously and unannounced. I’ve learned something important from this. While I love football passionately, I don’t like writing about it. Writing fiction, or waffling inanely in posts on here and comments on blogs and fora (forums? fori?) feels like fun. Writing about football feels like work. Unpaid work at that. From now on, I’m just going to post my football or sports opinions that I simply must get off my chest on here. Those of you who don’t like sports shouldn’t worry. I think my love for footie and cricket in particular are how I switch my writing brain off, so those posts will be infrequent.

2. For no reason I can decipher, every piece of fiction I write of late is trying to expand beyond my initial intentions. This might be a signal from my hind-brain that it’s time to try writing something in novel length*. So much so, that my attempt to write a piece of fanfic (Don’t judge me! It was fanfic for one of the most awesome things EVAR!) of 500-2000 words in length failed dismally because the story I wanted to tell refused to tell itself in less than roughly 5000 words. My, quite frankly EPIC, entry is consigned to the dusty and neglected folder on my hard drive entitled “misc unusable projects”. It’s the same folder where I keep my Christopher Fowler/Joe Abercrombie explicit slash fic.

3. Mr Jake Kale continues to be more prolific and more talented than myself. He will pay dearly for this insolence. Oh yes, he will pay**. He has been warned…

4. The England performance at the World Cup has left me furious. More on this in a future post.

5. Dreamworlds continues to be an amazing forum populated with lovely and talented people, which I don’t spend anywhere near enough time posting on. Please to go there and sign up, if you enjoy fantasy fiction or role-playing even a little bit.

* More on this soon. I’m still planning.

** More on this also at a future date. I’m still planning this too, although this one will be far more nefarious. MWU-HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!