Glancing Back, Focusing Forward: 2018 in Rearview

2018-review

As December closes out and the festivities of the season die down it’s always a great time to reflect on the year that was. I’ve done this in the past and I was doubly inspired by the lovely Charlotte’s recent post. So I definitely want to take stock on what happened to me in 2018 and, importantly, have a think about where I want 2019 to go too. Obviously it’s futile to really commit too rigidly to goals for the year as stuff invariably happens that cannot be foreseen but that doesn’t stop one from being as aspirational.

There were a handful of “big” events that I’m very proud of having taken place in 2018.

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Freshly graduated! 😎🎓 #KingstonUniversity

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The first of these was my graduation this summer. In the past I may have alluded to some dissatisfaction with the Creative Writing course I undertook at Kingston University, which is an experience I still feel I should chronicle in my blog in the new year now my immediate, somewhat… passionate thoughts about have subsided and mellowed. One thing from the whole experience that I take away is a sense of pride that I managed to get through it and succeed in this endeavour. My graduation was a very happy event and I end 2018 in the knowledge that I made my friends, family and most importantly myself proud with the achievement.

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The second “event” of this year has to be the finishing of the first, gruelling edit of my work-in-progress novel The Thaw, which I’ve mentioned previously I’m sure of. I went to Kingston to expend the remainder of my printer credits to print off the second draft which I’m very proud to have completed. I’m doubly excited as I’ve just received some of the first substantive feedback (thanks to the amazing Rosie) to that draft that I sent out in July; I’m eager to work on this project some more in the early part of 2019 so I can finally submit it to agents, editors and publishers. I’m still immensely proud of my work on this book, I definitely feel it’s a worthy piece of work and I look forward to taking it on the next step of its journey.

Reflecting on my year in reading I remain content that I made the right decision to not undertake a Goodreads reading challenge this year as it’s really helped with some anxiety that participating was otherwise emanating from that. I’ve had a more sedate year in reading in 2018, which is good as I’m better able to enjoy my books as opposed to racing through them.

Here’s my pick of the titles I read (or re-read) this year:

  1. The Boy on the Bridge by MR Carey. This was a book I thoroughly enjoyed – having previously been captivated by The Girl With All The Gifts I was intrigued to read the prequel. It was a haunting, atmospheric novel of the highest order.
  2. Artemis by Andy Weir – a case of lightning indeed striking twice with Andy Weir of The Martian fame – one I enjoyed a great deal, an excellent, accurate but not intimidating space thriller.
  3. Silo by Hugh Howey – One the bookseller in Waterstones highly recommended it when I bought it! Another example of enjoyable, atmospheric post-apocalyptic fiction in a well-realised, contained world. Very excited to read the second in the series, Shift in 2019!
  4. Misery by Stephen King – a re-read but a worthy one on the back of Charlotte’s review, and there’s just so much to take from this lean, taut thriller I might make it an annual re-read.
  5. The Fog by James Herbert – I was inspired to re-read this classic book from this Tweet from Iain Dale and the scene, and the book itself, remains a high-water mark of Herbert’s prowess. My collection of his work grows!

Still, however, I feel I’ve been a little… conservative in my reading and that does bother me a little – I find myself almost being slightly self-conscious of my reading, especially as I let Goodreads post to my Twitter in public view. I feel I need to be less in a comfort zone for authors/genres I like and experiment a little. I certainly want to read more non-fiction; indeed, I took a recommendation from a friend to take on Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy – a book I do need to finish, as it happens, but it’s again great to be able to take these on entirely at my own pace.

Landlady_Cover_MockUpAnd lastly, going again back to another post by Charlotte, that of her Halloween Story, I want to try to write more short fiction again; I’ve done it in the past way back when and I feel it’d be great to do so again, especially as I had such a positive reaction to The Landlady, my first foray into horror fiction which I wrote for my Creative Writing dissertation. I’ve been absolutely amazed at the reaction from friends, well-wishers and colleagues to that endeavour which has been absolutely lovely.

Charlotte’s Halloween piece has inspired me to write more “seasonal” work for events such as Halloween, Christmas… I’ll see how it goes. I had planned to release a festive horror short about this time but personal circumstances have eaten in quite considerably to my writing time, but it’s an idea I would definitely like to try out more in 2019 – I have missed writing short stories a bit and, having reorganised my website in 2018, I had to look again at my early work and there’s some solid ideas. Maybe I might revisit them, we’ll see!

I also managed to lose about two stone this year which is fantastic – thanks to the brilliant Chris Kenny for being a great inspiration for my progress there! Let the side down a little toward the end of the year (who diets at Christmas?) but I’m already raring to reclaim the ground again in 2019 and really power through it!

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Book Review Double Feature: Misery and The Shining

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I’ve recently been on a little bit of a horror binge – not surprising given that the annual witching hour has been upon us. Accordingly, I saw the beautiful new Halloween editions of some Stephen King novels and treated myself to The Shining. The film is widely regarded as a seminal moment in cinema history, especially horror. And as the adage goes, the book is always better than the film, I was eager to see how this storied text stood up…

But before that, a note about today’s review. Immediately after I completed reading The Shining, I re-read King’s other horror novel from a decade on, Misery. The 1990 film adaptation of Misery (snapshots of which I use in this post) is similarly well-regarded as The Shining’s. My experience with both books was, frankly, night and the day, and while I’ve been planning this review for a little while, my good friend Charlotte’s post spurred me to finally (metaphorically) put pen to paper.

Misery is a taught, suspenseful psychological thriller whose characters, of which there’s a gloriously limited cast, make a lasting impact. The premise is also gloriously simple – novelist Paul Sheldon crashes on a snowy Colorado road and is rescued from the wreck by Annie Wilkes, his “number one fan”.

On re-reading Misery, I was surprised how the tension remained, despite my foreknowledge from my previous reading of how events broadly transpired. There’s a brilliantly claustrophobic sense to the story, confined not just to Annie Wilke’s house, but a single room in her house that quickly becomes a prison for Paul Sheldon, who quickly realizes that there’s more to Annie than the officious housemaid. Indeed, the interplay between these characters – Paul’s initial submission to Annie’s increasingly-explicit mood swings and episodes of psychotic behaviour brings out a glorious tension. It’s as if these characters are mentally playing chess against the other, each trying to gain the upper hand, and there’s a ratcheting up of the tension when Paul realizes that the chess game ends in both his and Annie’s death, so much so that the eventual confrontation between Paul and Annie is thrilling, gripping and just brilliantly portrayed.

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King’s prose in Misery helps this a great deal – it’s fluid, lean and punchy. Each line seems expressly constructed to further the tension or the story. There’re moments like Paul’s italicised thoughts that add context to the prose, but not too much to be overbearing or impactful on the pace of the book. A pleasure, too, is the in-world extracts from Paul’s book that he finds himself under duress to write, Misery’s Return. Being able to read part of this in-world work, that’s a central plot point to the whole book – is a judicious treat from King, and it allows the tense prose of the real-life happenings of Paul Sheldon to really simmer. Ultimately, it just adds another layer of believability to the whole work without unnecessarily padding Misery out.

And that brings me to my first contrast from Misery to The Shining. The Shining, in my opinion, is about 200 pages overlength. Where Misery is lean and tense, The Shining is lethargic and meandering. Indeed, it shares some overall plot elements to be found later in Misery – namely the isolated location, heck, even the fictional town of Sidewinder, Colorado (Misery makes a few explicit references to The Shining) and the ensuing descent into madness the antagonist (in The Shining, this is Jack Torrence) and the helplessness of the protagonists to escape from the isolation into safety. There’s even the same sort of-hapless third party intervention that both fails to expedite the salvation of the protagonists and also marks the crescendo of the tension and suspense – for Misery it’s the investigation of Annie Wilkes house by the state trooper and his gruesome disposal with the lawn mower; in The Shining it’s the reappearance of Dick Halloran, called back to avert disaster by Danny Torrence’s shining – across the books.

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In both cases, I’d say that these excursions by other characters into the duopoly of the antagonist/protagonist spaces doesn’t really work, and if anything serves to deflate the tension by distracting the reader’s attention a little. In Misery, this is more acceptable as the state troopers slowly draw the net in on Annie Wilkes (which makes sense given we slowly learn more about her torrid past to make this line of enquiry more plausible); whereas in The Shining, Halloran seems to be recalled out of nowhere to ride through the snow to salvation. It’s an appreciable break in the tension because Halloran, at this point in Florida, many miles away, seemingly reappears just in time to attempt to act as the deus ex machina. But like the state trooper in Misery, it’s a doomed effort.

Simply put, I found The Shining to be largely incoherent in terms of the actual prose. The middle four-fifths of the book simply trudged along. I just found the action, interspersed with italicised inner thoughts of the characters, hard to follow. Jack Torrence’s descent into madness… the ingredients of this are laid out on the counter, so to speak, but the mixing and combining of these into something new, done at the malevolent whim of the Overlook Hotel simply sailed past me through King’s incoherent and meandering prose. I hate to be so harsh but compared to Misery, where King does similar things in terms of inner thoughts and actions, inexorably leading onto portray a confrontation after a character’s steady descent into madness, The Shining simply doesn’t, in my opinion, stand up.

There’s a lack of exploration for the Overlook’s malevolence in The Shining, it just exists because it exists. Misery’s core malevolence – the backstory behind Annie Wilke’s past that leads her on the path we the reader experience – is much more finessed and laid out in a way that slowly builds up a sense of terror and dread. Quite frankly, a lot of the notable moments that come to mind when thinking of The Shining exist in the film only – it was something I tried hard to put aside mentally as I read the book but the more I read, the more the book seemed to deviate from the film adaptation in an inferior direction.

King may not have approved of Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of the story but it absolutely nails the elements King laid out at the start of The Shining in a way the prose version simply missed the mark on.

Indeed, there’s some common elements I noticed across the handful of King books I’ve so far read (I want to read more) – a similar impact of the backstory on the characters. In The Shining we have the influence of Jack Torrence’s father on his childhood, and his fear that he will become that kind of father to Danny; this echoes into the journey of Arnie in Christine; after buying the eponymous car Arnie slowly transforms – both in character and even mannerisms and appearance into it’s owner and the source of its core malevolence, Roland LeBay. And in Misery we have Annie’s backstory as a nurse and the specter of mysterious deaths and an attempted conviction that we discover through Paul Sheldon’s excursions that there’s more to Annie than her kooky, thickly-veneered sense of warped sensibilities that manifest themselves as her petulant, and increasingly psychotic rages.

To me, Misery seemed the more personal book of the two I’m comparing today – there’s an obvious author avatar (literally, an author avatar) of King in Paul Sheldon, and as a writer too I identified with the pain that must come with being forced under duress to burn the only manuscript of his new book. But there’s also aspects of King clear in Paul – his addiction to novril, especially; King at the time was battling addiction himself but also in Paul’s desire to break away from the genre he felt he’d been painted into (King experimented with the Richard Bachman persona that Misery was intended to be published under to see if his ‘fame’ was a fluke).

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A good point brought up my friend and classmate Charlotte in her review of Misery is that Annie criticises Paul for using cheap narrative tricks in his forced assignment to revive Misery Chastain; saying this deus ex machina is ‘not worthy of him’ and isn’t fair; yet King himself uses these narrative hacks himself in Misery! How else would Paul return to his room just in time as Annie returns from an outing? Reflecting back this is a great example of King’s self-awareness.

Overall though, Misery is easily the more compelling read, in my opinion. It’s a tense, simmering tale that reverberates on the mind long after the final page is turned, and it rewards the reader on every reading. I devoured it for a second time in days; The Shining had, unfortunately, none of the finesse I found in the 1987 offering. Indeed, I’m glad I read Misery first – had I started with The Shining, I’d have been hard pressed to exempt King from my unofficial rule that my first experience with an author’s work will be their last for me should that first work I read score two stars or less for me.

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My wholehearted recommendation? Check out Misery for a breathtakingly effective piece of thriller/horror fiction. As for The Shining? Watch the film instead.

Misery: Highly Recommended

The Shining: Not Recommended

 

Book Review – Altered Carbon

Altered_CarbonIt’s a bad sign when a book takes me two weeks to complete. It’s especially troubling if it’s a book I’ve read before. This review took even longer.

Going back to an earlier post, I recently purchased Altered Carbon in paperback form; a number of years ago I ‘d read it on my Kindle. So, approaching the paperback for a re-read, it was going to be plain sailing, right?

Unfortunately, after a pretty crackers first act, Altered Carbon gets stuck in the mud. The first act does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the futuristic world, with a gritty action scene that seems to show the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, meeting a grisly end. But then the twist of the book’s core concept – that of resleeving, where consciousnesses are downloaded to new bodies at will, essentially creating technological immortality – is introduced, and the subtle nuances of how this technology affects and moulds human society is laid bare. Amongst this we are thrown into a murder mystery story with this technological, cyberpunk twist.

For most of the book, though, the actual mystery, the reason the protagonist finds himself where he is, is essentially sidelined. I’m pretty new to reading noir fiction but I’m persevering on the recommendation of a friend and university classmate. Recently I read Sirens which went on a similar detour through the world – that of Manchester’s gritty underbelly – so this is a staple of noir fiction I’m gathering; however, Altered Carbon seemed to be falling into the fatal trap I experienced with Ancillary Justice – I just wasn’t engaged enough with the characters exploring their own issues and backstories which I honestly experienced trouble relating to and keeping up with.

Fundamentally, in Altered Carbon the narrative seemed to veer wildly around (Sirens was more a gentle meander; I saw the context of the exploration of the world and the characters) and ultimately after all this exploration of the characters and the world. We learn a lot about Kovacs’ various foibles – there’s a lot of hints to a deep past, but ultimately I cared not for the character; rather I found myself quite irritated by his self-absorption. I just wanted the plot to remember the reason it existed: the murder mystery with a cyberpunk twist.

Ultimately even the core plot that I was enticed in proved bunkum; the assumption about the mystery made right at the start, that is asserted by the characters couldn’t possibly be what happened… is exactly what happened; it just g gets some grey, amoral window-dressing. I was very disappointed after persisting with the book to find out that the answer had been on page one all along.

Sadly however, the re-read of Altered Carbon made me feel that it was a classic example of an intellectual novel masquerading as genre fiction. Some readers may indeed find the book stimulating – I would agree the concept proved considerably more interesting than the execution belied – but if I had to describe my experience it would be one of tedium and bewilderment. There was a lot of pace – which I usually like in a story – but a lot of it I feel was firing in several different directions at once.

The concept of “sleeving” is very interesting – especially when amalgamated into the elitist/class-based system that this technology is controlled by and accessible to but unfortunately the cast of characters we experience this world with in Altered Carbon just didn’t do the concept justice. Ultimately with Altered Carbon it became a book I liked for its setting and visceral prose but by no means did I love it; the characterisation and plot was just too erratic. The narrative for me seemed to get stuck in gear – the book has an excellent first act, setting up the story to come but instead delivers more on inward-looking character and worldbuilding than propelling that story along, and I left deeply disappointed. There’s cool action sequences (some complain that the use of sex in this book is gratuitous; perhaps so but I found myself feeling nothing either way) but that underpins my concerns and misgivings: light on plot, heavy on action, heavy on backstory… with Altered Carbon your mileage may indeed vary wildly.

Book Thoughts: The Attraction of Physical Bookshops

Book Thoughts by Richard Holliday

A recent newsworthy event was that Waterstones, arguably the leading High Street brick-and-mortar bookshop here in the UK was to acquire Foyles, a chain of independent bookshops with a storied history.

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The outside of my local Waterstones

Ordinarily I would be fairly unimpressed at the homogenisation of the marketplace as I do believe competition fosters the best – indeed, over the last fifteen years or so the number of discrete chains of bookshops has steadily declined through acquisitions. Borders, Dillons, Ottakars… I was even a little disappointed when I visited Hatchard’s in Piccadilly at the recommendation of a friend to find it was a slightly-rebadged Waterstones. Not that that was intrinsically bad… but I’d left the flagship Waterstones store (which I instantly fell in love with) to explore this purported quirky independent.

Returning to the point: the UK retail book market has essentially homogenised into three large players whose stores I do frequent often – a trip down the High Street usually results in popping into all three:

  • Waterstones is the “full-fat Coke” of UK bookshops – stores that have wonderful bookish atmospheres that encourage browsing.
  • WH Smiths, whose more utilitarian “plain vanilla” shops lack a bit of soul, but WH Smiths has that rich history behind the name, for it was WH Smiths that led the popularisation of fiction back in the Industrial Revolution;
  • The Works, a young upstart whose stores are cheap and cheerful, usually packed with items and nick-nacks I have no interest in purchasing but there’s always the chance of a discount steal. Indeed for a long while I did not know that The Works sold books!

Why am I telling you this? Waterstones would have you believe that the acquisition of Foyles is about challenging Amazon as the big intangible behemoth. Whether that’s strictly true (or if it’s a calculated attempt to simply buy up market share) is not really the remit of my blog but it’s a precursor to the point I want to make and started with in the first Book Thoughts post.

But what’s interesting is that each of those three major chains seems to have carved out their own particular part of the book market – Waterstones is perhaps more “premium”; WH Smiths is more in the middle; The Works serves the budget end of the market. And that’s actually a great thing as it serves the entirety of the market with pretty good bookshop coverage – something for everyone!

Not only, in recent times, do I read more physical books while my Kindle gathers dust in a drawer, I find myself purchasing these books in a physical bookshop – usually but not always a Waterstones. Waterstones is certainly not the cheapest place to purchase books but, much like libraries, physical, tangible bookshops I think are important to support.

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I’ve actually been one of those people who goes into a bookshop and photographs a book to look it up later. Indeed, throughout University my first port-of-call would be to buy the paperback on Amazon and have it whisked at near-light speed to me via Prime – because it was convenient and I was hardly the most assiduous student, a fact I take no pride in.

But what I’ve noticed more than anything… buying books on Amazon is so mechanical and, if you like, soulless an experience it’s a little disheartening. What Waterstones, especially, but the others do well also, is to foster a sense of discoverability. Browsing in Waterstones is a joyous experience because their stores are near-universally great places. There’s a sense of care and attention, maybe even a bit of personalisation in each when it comes to the table displays and endorsement cards that adorn shelves.

Again, whether that’s a corporate missive or genuine is neither here nor there. This post is not intended to be a treatise on the rights and wrongs, and the motivations of large companies. I’ve had wonderful experiences buying books from Waterstones, chatting to engaged and enthusiastic staff… it’s an experience I feel Amazon cannot replicate. Amazon does a lot well, but this is one thing I feel visiting a physical store cannot compare to.

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My local Waterstones in Sutton, South London. Photo credit: Tony Monblat

That’s not to say Waterstones as a company is perfect. I’m aware of stories where they’ve acted what seems to be capriciously in notable times, and they’ve perhaps thrown their weight around as the UK’s dominant bookseller to mistreat authors. And it’s easy to chalk them up as another “big corporation” – this is by no means a total defence of Waterstones, but neither is it a total defence of Amazon. Waterstones may still be the biggest bookshop chain in the UK, and about to grow some more, but even then as a corporate identity Amazon is a truly gargantuan behemoth.

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My local Waterstones in Sutton, South London. Photo credit: Tony Monblat

What I am defending is the experience that a physical bookshop gives to its customers – this an experience I am totally in favour of. Waterstones are the totem of what I’d call a welcoming environment for book lovers – not to say independent bookshops are worse, but Waterstones as a brand are cementing their position. And their shops – like all bookshops – are ones we should support as readers.

Physical books are making a surprising comeback, and I’m happy to think about factors other than solely the bottom line on my wallet. I’m happy to pay for the experience of walking into a bookshop and enjoying the experience of being there. Amazon might have the convenience and price factor (and I’m not for one moment saying I’ll never buy a book on Amazon again) but they lack the experience and discoverability that walking around a physical bookshop can provide.

Oh, and the irony among irony? Waterstones’ website is a pale imitation of Amazon – so the battle lines are drawn!