Category Archives: 2015 Reading

A Year for More Reading: update

I have been reading more this year, as planned, though until now I’ve been rather lax about the recording of it. Having just completed a book, I thought now would be a good time to update, and find out just where I am when it comes to that 26-book target.

Here’s the list of books I have read (as far as I can remember, by checking my bookshelf and my Kindle):

  1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman
  2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C S Lewis
  3. The Surgeon’s Mate, Patrick O’Brian
  4. The Ionian Mission, Patrick O’Brian
  5. Treason’s Harbour, Patrick O’Brian
  6. The Liar’s Key, Mark Lawrence
  7. The Bloodline Feud, Charles Stross
  8. The Trader’s War, Charles Stross
  9. The Revolution Trade, Charles Stross
  10. The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett
  11. Star of the Sea, Joseph O’Connor

As for non-fiction, I’ve read bits of a few but not got all the way through any, or even most of the way, so there’s nothing to list. Must do better. I suspect I might be reading more acadmically-written books, and finding them rather dense, so might see what I can manage in books written more for a general audience.

So that’s 11/26, if you count the books I said I wasn’t going to count because they’re by my favourite authors. I’ve changed my mind about that; I’m counting them. In my defence, I could count the three Charles Stross books as six, which is how they were originally published, but I’m not.

Eleven books may well be more than I read last year. I’ve got the twelfth lined up, freshly picked up from the library yesterday.

I’m glad I read Star of the Sea. It’s given me insight into a period of history I was previously ignorant of, and it is incredibly well written. The style used is that of the “true crime” genre, though the story is fictional, with a character of an author who claims to have put the disparate parts of the narrative together – captain’s log, letters, diary entries, recollections, witness statements and so on. It’s one of these books that leads you to draw certain conclusions while carefully sowing the seeds of truth where they might easily be missed. The key characters are complex and nuanced.

The book I picked up from the library yesterday is The Genesis Secret by Tom Knox, which I look forward to starting later this afternoon.

If I am to reach the 26 planned books by the end of December, now less than three months away, I’ll have to read more quickly. I don’t think I will reach 26, though perhaps I might manage 18. Still, an improvement on last year. I’ve also been reading more short stories too, though I can’t remember those so easily. Maybe I’ll start making records of that too.

A Year for More Reading: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

It is quite a glaring omission that I, though a fantasy fan, have not read  The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe until now. I watched the film adaptations – the 1979 animated one as a child of maybe 6 or 7, at the house of an elderly neighbour who babysat us sometimes, and the live action one when it hit cinemas in 2005. So I was familiar with the overall story.

I wasn’t familiar with the writing though, nor how accurate the 2005 movie – or my slightly hazy memories of it – were. On this occasion, I opted for the audiobook, which is available for free on Youtube. I haven’t listened to audiobook since my parents stopped using the Just William series to keep myself and my siblings quiet in the back of the car on our way to our annual holidays. Given that The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is a children’s book, though, this seems appropriate (I shall have to make a point of listening to an audiobook for adults at some point).

One thing I particularly noted about the narrative style is how it wasn’t afraid of breaking the fourth wall. At one point, it refers to a previous action taken by a character as having happened “at the end of the last chapter”. This, coupled with the introduction addressing a particular girl for whom the story was written, and, perhaps, the fact that I listened to rather than read this story, made it feel quite intimate. It wasn’t immersion-breaking as I would have expected, but gave me a sense of sitting on my grandfather’s knee as he read the story to me. It’s comforting.

The simplicity of the language and of the plot is entirely what I’d expect from a children’s story. I knew in advance about the allusions to Christianity in the story and could recognise those easily when they cropped up.

There is often a question, in fantasy, whether stories should be used to preach, and in the course of my life my own beliefs have let me to side with one side of the argument or the other, but having actually listened to it I don’t feel that religion was preached to me through this story, but rather used as inspiration. And there’s nothing wrong with drawing themes and arcs from existing well known stories and myths, whether you believe in them or not. After all, Bridget Jones’s Diary is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, altered to fit a different setting, just as this is a retelling of the end of Jesus’ life in the Bible, but set in a fantasy world. My lack of belief in the source material was not offended by it.

I think that’s the key thing I can take from this as a writer: that even using easily recognisable source material as a major inspiration for a story does not stop that story being unique, interesting and well-told. I have previously considered a writing a fantasy retelling of an event from the Peloponnesian War, the conflict between Corcyra and Corinth that started it all off; I think I need not be worried that this is unoriginal, if I can make it interesting.

A Mystery Book from my local library

I popped into my local library this morning, and saw they had a Mystery Books shelf – books wrapped up in brown paper, their titles and covers obscured. This is an idea I’ve seen on the internet a few times, and I’m thrilled my local library has latched onto it – though they’ve gone even further than some of the versions I’ve seen, and have given no information at all, where other libraries have given the genre, the title, or one or two key points of what sorts of things to expect. So I picked up one of the books, and I plan on adding it to my A Year for More Reading list.

Before I unwrap it, I’ll describe it: it’s a hardback, maybe about the same size as most of my hardbacks, though not very thick. What I assume is the front (it’s got the sticker with the catalogue number on that side) has the cover jutting out further than the back, so it’s probably been well used. So let’s see what it is then.

I’ve unwrapped it to reveal The Bishop’s Tale by Margaret Frazer. On the cover is a picture of a wooden chalice and a walnut, standing on a surface covered with a green cloth; in the background is a wooden cross on a wall. Quotes on the back cover indicate it’s historical fiction, so it sounds like it might fit in nicely with the Cadfael books I was reading over Christmas and New Year.

Inside, the last dates it was borrowed are May 2013 and May 2012, so it’s not been a popular loan recently, though there are multiple loans for every year from 2006 to 2010, and the stamp suggests it’s mostly been housed in a different library in the county, in a town much smaller than my town. There’s a page listing books by the same author, twelve of them, so this isn’t the first in the series.

The blurb on the inside cover – mentioning death and mystery as investigated by a nun – suggest I might be right about it fitting right into the same vein as Cadfael.

Time to get reading.

Worldbuilding reflections: ancient networks

As part of my 2015 reading challenge, I am currently reading 1177BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H Cline (and yes, as a Brit, writing “civilisation” with a Z physically hurts me). I’m not far thorugh yet but something that struck me in my reading so far is the reach of the networks between the cultures that existing in the centuries prior to the titular collapse. Rulers whose capital cities were hundreds, even over a thousand miles from one another were sending each other gifts of things like leather shoes. Craftspeople from the Minoan culture on Crete travelled to the major cities of cultures all around the Mediterranean and beyond to create fresco wall paintings because it was fashionable.

"Knossos bull" by ArtStudy version 2.0 (Saskia Ltd, Thomson Wadsworth). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Knossos_bull.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Knossos_bull.jpg
“Knossos bull” by ArtStudy version 2.0 (Saskia Ltd, Thomson Wadsworth). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This was 3,500 years ago, before advanced shipbuilding techniques existed, before the road infrastructure of the Roman empire – or indeed the city of Rome itself – existed. It’s difficult not to think of them as primitive, because of how long ago this was and how different a world it was to what I am familiar with, but really it is still human culture. The people of this ancient time were no less ambitious, no less curious, no less vain than their descendants in classical Greece, with which I am more familiar, or the Roman Empire, or the Middle Ages or the Age of Exploration or indeed the modern day. They had different circumstances to deal with, sure, but every generation has different circumstances than their parents.

It seems to me that when I am working on stories I often think in very constrained geographies and economies. I think of trade as happening between two neighbouring countries, maybe between two countries separated by one other country in between or by a small sea. I struggle to think of alliances and diplomacy and trade and the movement of skilled craftspeople over long distances between vastly different cultures. I manage to think “oh yes, this country exports this metal” but I don’t ever get to the point of thinking, “this particular region is the only known source of this metal, so it gets exported to everywhere”.

Economy is something I need to work on. I tend to think in terms of what gets exported, what’s high quality, what needs to be imported, but I don’t think about the human level when I’m looking at economies. I don’t think about skilled craftspeople moving to where they think there are opportunities. I don’t think about rulers interacting with one another through the sending of gifts and envoys, or restricting the export of materials they don’t want their enemies getting their hands on. I don’t think of the different merchants through whose inventories individual items will pass on their way from one culture to another, and what those merchants have or haven’t seen of the cultures where these items originated or are destined for.

It’s a whole new layer of complexity I have missed until now. A whole new area of human interactions that could provide me with stories to tell.

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I started reading The Ocean At the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman on Sunday evening. I stopped reading it when I could no longer keep my eyes open, having got more than half way through. Yesterday, on Tuesday, I finished reading it half an hour after I got home from work. So it’s safe to say I enjoyed it.

ocean at the end of the lane coverThe Ocean at the End of the Lane starts with George, a man in his forties, having come from a funeral and returning to visit the place where he grew up. What he finds there is a duckpond which is also an ocean, and the key to memories of a time when he was seven and he learned that the world was more magical, and more dangerous, than he realised. The book contains menacing beings, enchanting visuals and a family of very intruiging women. And also several cats.

It is a powerful story about memories, about childhood, and about how perspectives change between childhood and adulthood. I also think it is about belief: belief in friends, in oneself, and to a certain extent in things that aren’t seen.

It’s taken me as long as it has to write this review because it’s very difficult to come up with new and different ways of saying “it was awesome” for the length that I usually like to write a review. When writing is this good, it’s hard to pick out anything in particular to comment on; it’s hard to think about the writing at all, when it is written so seamlessly that mere words go unnoticed within the magic of the story.

So I suppose that makes a good starting point: the flow and pacing were spot on. There was no part where I felt the writing moved too slowly or too quickly for the content of the story. I finished this book in three sittings, and at the end of each I stopped for reasons which are not the fault the book – sleepiness, dinner being ready, and, okay, yes, the third one is the fault of the book; there was none of it left.

The only occasions I did have enough self-awareness to notice the writing was twice when I noticed how well chosen particular phrases were to give an impression of a visual in a masterful economy of words.

One of those visuals, of a scattering of candle flames and silk, really encapsulated one side of the magic of the world: it is full of enchantment and wonder. It is beautiful and beyond reason, and there is a comfort to its presence. The other side of the magical world mirrored it perfectly, with sinister creatures which felt genuinely creepy and dangerous, even before they actually became dangerous.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane gives also a very good example of how a prologue and epilogue can be used effectively to frame a story, while being both relevant to it and slightly outside it. They brought the story full circle, and gave insight into the characters and the world which could not be told from the perspective of the seven-year-old George.

This is a book I want to read again. It’s definitely going on my favourites shelf (the top shelf, alongside Howl’s Moving Castle). I am not at all surprised that it won the National Books Awards 2013 Book of the Year award. And after everything I have written above, I suspect you will not be surprised when I rate it 10/10.

Reflections on One Corpse Too Many (Cadfael Chronicles) by Ellis Peters

This is not a review. Not wholly. I’ve committed to reading 26 books in 2015, and blogging about them, and while this book wasn’t and isn’t on the list (I started it in 2014, and only read the last tenth or so today) I want to blog about it anyway. This is the second book in the series, which I only started reading relatively recently. It’s a series I’ve been meaning to get to for a while, partly because I’ve seen the adaptations with Derek Jacobi on TV, partly because it is set in a location that’s not too long of a drive from home, and partly out of a desire to branch out more into historical fiction, which I consider a sister or at least a cousin to fantasy, and can inform it.

I found One Corpse Too Many easy to get into, as I had with A Morbid Taste for Bones. What I notice about the prose is a tendency to slightly archaic syntax and sometimes vocabulary too, and occasional telling. The narrative is third person omniscient, usually looking from Cadfael’s point of view and within his thoughts, but with the points of view and internal thoughts of other key characters too. So overall rather at odds with the way I usually write, and yet it remains compelling.

My impression before I picked up these books, based on hazy memories of the TV adaptations, was that these were murder mysteries set in a medieval abbey. And to a certain degree, they are, but these stories take things further than finding out whodunnit. There is an element of everyday drama within them, where Cadfael’s goal isn’t merely to solve the murder, but to solve the other problems of the community of which he is part (or, in A Morbid Taste for Bones, to which he travels) to the satisfaction of all worthy of it. And while, on the back of two books, I have the impression that Cadfael is in some respects too perfect, the conclusions perhaps too neatly arranged at his urging, there is definitely satisfaction in the solutions he contrives.

In my own writing I have worried about endings – and worried rather more about them than I have written of them. I seek to find that balance, where the ending is satisfying, but not too tidy, because life in general isn’t tidy. In these Cadfael books I have read, the ending is eminently tidy, where the key players generally get what they deserve, murder victims excluded, and the younger characters end up in love with the right people. All ends with relatively little grief, except for those who are dead, and no expectation of future drama or imperfection. I think this leans a little too close to tidiness, the loose ends too neatly tied. It leaves it feeling too much like a story. In my own writing, while I certainly enjoyed the satisfaction of how one plotline in particular turned out, I would not imitate this wholly. A satisfyingly tied up plotline at one juncture is uplifting, but in all plotlines feels cheap, sickly sweet perhaps.

More visible here than perhaps in other books, what drives the story is questions to which both Cadfael and I as the reader want answers to. Not just who is the murderer, but several questions about who did what, went where, and why. Questions about how things will turn out, how Cadfael will get his answers, and how the mess of several linked situations will resolve themselves. I don’t tend to think, in my writing, about questions and answers, of mysteries and the revelations of their constituent parts. Maybe there’s a lesson to be drawn in this book about that.

There’s a lesson, too, in one particular character who in the first half of the book is set up to seem one thing, and only revealed, along with his motives, half way through to be quite different from expectations. His motivations were not at all what I expected, but were very human and ordinary. It was a reminder to me that characters don’t necessary have to act based on their ambitions and desires, working towards a personal goal, but can also have goals which are nothing to do with their larger ambitions and long-term hopes, which have an element of selflessness to them, but be no less important to them. I think when I write my characters lack that humanity. I get stuck into this idea of “this is what they want” and don’t leave space for nuance, for different motivations, for goals that have nothing to do with one another while being worked towards simultaneously.

I’ll definitely continue reading the Cadfael series; I’m enjoying the prose and the mystery of them. And in my writing going forward, there’s a little more for me to think about.

2015: a year for more reading

I’ve been rather lax in my reading lately. I’ve let other things distract me, let games and forums soak up all my free time in mindless distraction. It’s not that I haven’t read, it’s just that it’s been rather background. I managed three books in six days in early December when I was cut off from my normal routine and my PC when travelling to France for my grandfather’s funeral, and that’s evidence enough for me that I can still devour books if I have the time for them and am enjoying them. So I’m going to make time by giving up Reddit from the 1st of January 2015, for at least a month, and setting aside half an hour before bed besides that for reading.

But more than that, I’m setting a goal: I’m going to read 26 books I otherwise wouldn’t have in 2015. Excluded from the list are the authors I’ve been reading for years, the books I’m currently eager to get my teeth into, the books I have on pre-order for when they are finally published in June. I figure it’d be cheating to set a goal to read a book when I know I won’t be able to resist it anyway – or to include a book I suspect I may just finish before this year is out.

My list is designed to help me widen my reading, expand my literary horizons. It includes both fiction and non-fiction, because there’s plenty I’d like to learn about the world as well. At the moment the list is incomplete; I welcome suggestions. Here it is:

Fiction

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee

I really should have read this by now; it’s been on my Kindle for months, ever since that whole thing about how hated Education Secretary Michael Gove wants to drop it from the curriculum. I did read a few pages, but didn’t get far into it. So now I’m giving myself a kick. It’s on the list, I have to read it.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

I don’t know much about this book except that it comes highly recommended by my brother’s girlfriend, who told me it made her think and that it’s her favourite book. So I’m gonna see what all the fuss is about.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

I’ve been meaning to read this but haven’t quite gotten around to it. Now I’ve got it in paperback, a Christmas gift from my parents, to whom I mentioned it a while back. No more excuses.

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

My sister bought this for me last Christmas; it’s been sitting unread for a whole year, and author I hear mentioned a lot in fantasy forums but whom I have never read. So it’s time I rectified that.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I bought this second hand about a year ago and haven’t got round to it yet. I’ve been holding off seeing the film until I read the book.

Remembrance of the Daleks by Ben Aaronovitch

Another Christmas gift from last year that I’ve been ignoring on my bookshelf for a year. And I was so enthusiastic in thanking the friends who gifted it to me, it would make me disingenuous to not actually read it. I have seen the Doctor Who episodes it’s a novelisation of and I enjoyed that so there’s no reason I shouldn’t like this book.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis

Yes, I must admit to having never read this book. I have of course seen the film adaptation from a few years ago, and I think I saw the animated adaptation when I was a kid, but for a fantasy fan this is rather a big oversight.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I’m not particularly up to speed on some of the “classics”, the “must-reads”. Yes, I’ve read Jane Austen and the Brontës, and, well, I was involved in a production of Oliver! once, does that count for Dickens? Well, anyway. Moby Dick has had a pretty big impact on popular culture so I figure I’d best include it.

Non-fiction

I decided to include non-fiction in my reading goals both because I have an interest in learning about the Earth’s history and because I can use what I find in my own fiction, either as the inspiration for stories or to help me flesh out my worlds.

Did Moses Exist? The Myth of the Israelite Lawgiver by D M Murdock

I downloaded this after hearing about it and some of the stuff in it on the Thinking Atheist podcast, but it’s pretty academic in tone so I gave up after a little while and haven’t looked at it again since. Still, it is interesting and I do have an interest in how myth develops, so in 2015 I’m determined to get through it.

1177BC: The Year Civilisation Collapsed by Eric H Cline

This one came recommended by historical writer and cricket enthusiast Tom Holland, who I follow on twitter. I downloaded the sample, enjoyed it, and asked for it for Christmas from my parents, who happily obliged.

China: A History by John Keay

This is probably the book I’ve had on my Kindle for the longest without having read it – a total of 2 years. Shameful, I know. Not even glimpsed inside the pages. But given that my knowledge of China’s history can be summarised as: “Great Wall, gunpowder, Ming vases, Mulan” it’s probably time I read up on it and found out something I didn’t know before.

1491 by Charles Mann

Just as I don’t know about China, I also know very little about pre-colonial Americas. I have been watching the Jago Cooper programmes on the BBC about Lost Kingdoms of South America and Lost Kingdoms of Central America, which I thought were really well put together and fascinating, and something I want to learn more about. This book came highly recommended on the /r/AskHistorians subreddit booklist so I figured I’d give it a go.

Pagan Britain by Ronald Hutton

Another book recommended by Tom Holland via twitter. In fact he’s been tweeting bits from it, little nuggets that have got me very interested indeed. I have studied pre-Roman Britain before, inclduing as part of my degree, but usually in the context of Roman Britain, and even then, not too deeply. Still, it’s a period of British history that really fascinates me and about which I’d like a more rounded understanding.

God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam

This is another /r/AskHistorians recommendation. It’s often asserted that Christianity set back scientific advancement, and while in some respects that has been true, the assumption that this was a blanket approach, even policy, is absurd, especially when it was the church itself, the monks in the monasteries, which deliberately preserved ancient manuscripts by Greek and Roman natural philosophers. This history of scientific and technological development is one that interests me, both from the historical perspective and from the perspective that I’m a writer, and learning about the past helps me shape the world of my fiction. I’m hoping this book will help me learn more about the development of science in the medieval period, both because it’s interesting and because I can use it.

So that’s my list so far.

It’s only 14 books, not the 26 I’m aiming for, but it is a solid start. If anyone happens to feel like recommending anything else I’m open to suggestions. I won’t be including authors I have read a lot of before in this list – so that rules out Terry Pratchett, David Gemmell, Diana Wynne Jones, Robin Hobb, Mark Lawrence, Patrick O’Brian, Bernard Cornwell and Ellis Peters. For fiction, I think stuff outside fantasy would be best, since I want to widen my reading, not just read more within my genre.

For non-fiction my initial thoughts tend towards the history of astronomy and astrology, because humans have been looking at the stars for millennia, trying to make sense of it and trying to see if it could give them insights into their own lives. I’m also interested in reading about mythology, and this ties back in with astrology, because I’ve always had an interest in what people believed about the world – and the universe – around them, trying to conjure up explanations for the things they’ve seen and heard but not understood.

I’ll keep my eye out for books I can add to my list over the next few days, and hopefully have a complete list for the start of 2015, but if there are still spots unfilled I don’t see it as a disaster; there’s bound to be something that catches my eye before the year is up.

In the meantime, I plan on blogging about each book on the list as I finish it. 2015 is not just a time for more reading, it’s a time for being more active in general, including on this blog.