Friday, 9 October 2015

Long Lost Authors

I was musing the other day about authors I used to like who just sort of went missing. In the days before Twitter and other social media (anybody remember that?) or indeed the easy access of the Internet in general the only access to authors was when books were published. Sometimes the authors just stopped publishing books and there was never any idea why. Even today trying to find information is hard because despite it's huge volume of content for certain things the Internet only really started recording information in the last 20 years or so.

So here are three authors that I used to enjoy but who just disappeared, sometimes abruptly. I'm guessing that they were dropped by their publishing company after poor sales but I still remember their works fondly.

Adrian Cole

A terrific fantasy author he was doing grimdark years before anyone else. His two major cycles - <i>The Omaran Saga</i> and <i>The Innasmourn Saga</i> - were vaguely linked as being in the same multiverse but with very different subject matter. <i>The Omaran Saga</i> was notable to me at the time (this was in the late 80s) for being a fantasy series that owed essentially nothing to Tolkien. Telling the tale of the planet of Omara under threat of being destroyed by the actions of the forgotten Sorceror Kings. It also featured one of the best anti-heroes (and bad guy made good) in fiction in the shape of Simon Wargallow, a Deliverer, a race of humans devoted to destroying any evidence of magic who had their right hands surgically replaced by a 'killing steel'.

<i>The Innasmourn Saga<i> was even more epic. Mankind is on the run from the vicious and war-obsessed Csendook who are moving from world to world and destroying and capturing humans in their millions. In one last desperate attempt to escape they create a rift to another cycle of worlds and arrive on Innasmourn. But the very planet is aware and their presents is a disruption to the natural balance. A small group of natives and a human must somehow prevent the Csendook from arriving on Innasmourn and reconcile humans to the planet. I once counted the rival factions and objectives in this series of books and it came to thirteen, a quite astonishing number to manage but Cole does it. And there is some superb storytelling roving from Innasmorn back to the wartorn worlds where the Csendook rule.

And then there was... nothing. I did see something about Cole writing children's books but I have never seen another one of his books and have sadly lost the copies I did have in the intervening years.

Andrew Harman

Following the success of Terry Pratchett in making fantasy funny, there were any number of attempts to duplicate this by the publishers of the day. I read a few and the only one that generally impressed was Harman. He created a fairly standard fantasy setting of warring kingdoms and then just dropped pop culture references into it like confetti, peppering the prose with more gags than an Airplane! movie. Certainly in the earlier works there was very little attempt at the clever satire of Pratchett (although his later works do start to move in this direction quite nicely) but the resulting books were always good for a few chuckles and plain laugh out loud moments. Giant warlike frogs anyone? Demons disguised as Dalmatian puppies?

Towards the end Harman started to write outside of the world he had created, crossing over into science fiction but with the same eye for a quick gag when he could squeeze on in. Always imaginative with a way of twisting something in a completely unexpected direction I eagerly looked forward to the next one appearing in the bookshops. Until they just stopped.

Phil Janes

Janes wrote comedy science fiction, and wrote it very well indeed as far as I was concerned. His first book, <i>The Galaxy Game</i>, stuck a mismatched crew in a spaceship on a trip to colonise a new world. They were joined by the shipboard intelligence called Arnold, a computer that had watched <i>2001: A Space Oddysey</i> one too many times. The book was just so himarious, spoofing anything from <i>2001</i> to <i>The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe</i>.

The second book in the series was <i>Fission Impossible</i> where, having reached the new world the crew find out they are not the first and now have to take part in some sort of intergalacti gameshow called The Galaxy Game, solving a series of puzzles and encounters. Again this setup let Janes poke fun at modern life and culture.

The third of what I was sure I the time was dur to be a tetralogy was <i>I, Arnold</i>. Arnold (having been given an android body in the second book) decides to run for political office rather than take part in the 'final' of the Galaxy Game. He has a gift for it despite being incredbly sarcastic and generally unlikeable to those who know him. Again the setup allows a number of digs at political systems and those who would put themselves forward for public office.

I waited for the fourth book - the final of the Galaxy Game - but it never arrived. The series is now solidly listed as a trilogy with no mention of the fourth book but it clearly was never written to finish at the end of <i>I, Arnold</i>. I will always wonder what was going to happen next.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Deus Ex Machina Endings

For those who are unaware, <i>deus ex machina</i> literally means 'gods from the machinery' and comes from theatres in Ancient Greece where plays tended to end by the gods (and presumably goddesses) appearing and sorting everything divine word. This allowed the playwright free reign to create difficult situations and convoluted plots without needing to worry about making it all work out logically.

These days tastes are a little more sophisticated (and certainly more agnostic) and using occult forces to solve all the plot points with a wave of their mighty and ineffable fingers is likely to be seen as a bit of a cop out, not to mention laziness on behalf of the writer.

But there are writers who still managed to get away with such things to some degree or another. This needs to be handled with care for the above reasons and it seems to me that a lot of time it would have been easier to arrange a more conventional ending.

The classic <i>deus ex machina</i> endings are those provided by arch teller of tall tales, Robert Rankin. He is well aware of the history and uses them in a somewhat tongue in cheek way, conjuring up old gods to literally inhabit a piece of machinery. This is particularly true and effective in the <i>Armageddon</i> trilogy where (apart from having Elvis Presley as a action hero and a time travelling sprout) the endings come to a head with the hero Rex Mundi having to overcome some possessed computer bent on world destruction.

A rather more subtle but very successful approach is taken by Stephen Hunt, author of a series of novels set in a strangely sub-Victorian far future country called Jackals. Here 19th century technology and ancient gods of the land rub shoulders and as a result the endings are a blend of both, the gods not being able to resist saving the world it seems. The best (and I think very well handled) example is in <i>Secrets of the Fire Sea</i> where in a very literal way everything is sorted out by a god appearing from a machine. But this is no cop out - the whole ending has been set up throughout the book.

We may not rely on <i>deus ex machina</i> endings for everything any more but they are still around if you know where to find them. Embrace them as being both different from the norm and throwback to a long gone age.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Paid for Reviews

Recently there has been a bit of fuss from Amazon about companies offering to post paid for reviews on their site; although these in particular were related to electronic and consumer goods there are services that offer to post reviews of books for money too.

I can see the attraction. Good reviews equate more or less directly to sales but clearly posting reviews that are good because they are paid for skews the system and if ultimately the product is poor there are going to be disappointed consumers (who probably won't buy the same brand/author again) and also the manufacturer/author misses out on valuable feedback if the reviews are not genuinely balanced and objective.

I'm also sure that for books there would be enough people who would review for free; the obvious limitations with this approach is finding people willing to write reviews (and from comments from authors I know they are few and far between and they value everyone who does) and that each person can only write one review (even if that can then be posted on multiple sites). Of course there could be negative - even hostile - reviews too but they are a separate issue and if they are genuine then it has to be accepted that you really can't please all of the people all of the time. Some authors revel in their one star reviews and accept it is part of being published.

Treading a middle line here are people like me who are given books for free to read and review, where the book would normally cost money. Now the obvious criticism here is that this is tantamount to paying for the review. Even if the book would cost less than a pound/dollar to buy from Your Favoured eBook Retailer there's still going to be concerns that this is going to skew the review to be more positive. Of course the obvious benefit for an author is that these reviewers <i>will</i> post a review with (hopefully) critical merit and giving others an insight into the work.

I hope this isn't the case - I certainly don't automatically give good reviews because I get the book for free. I judge each book on its own merits. It is true that posting a unconstructive negative review is harder when you have been sent the book. But as unconstructive negative reviews are not helpful to anyone this is probably a good thing. Providing constructive criticism, in my experience, is actually welcomed by the author. By and large authors are striving to make the next book better than the last so any advice the readers can give to help is useful to them.

But paid for positive reviews are just as damaging as the negative ones in the long term for exactly this reason. If every review is 5 stars and finds no faults then it doesn't help anybody and leads to a poorer product over time.

I'm guessing that the paid reviews are (mostly) the domain of the commercial product manufacturers rather than authors. But even so I doubt the short term gain offsets the long term damage. Instead honest reviews, either from purchases or items given to specific reviewers, whether good or bad, are the only way to retain a healthy market.

'Real world' heroes in fantasy

I know when I was (much much) younger and read <i>The Lord of the Rings</i> and Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels I wanted to visit those worlds. And indeed there is a solid history of fantasy novels featuring characters from 'our' world crossing to the fantasy realm and in some cases the opposite.

Now on the whole I'm not a fan of this plot device; it seems in some ways to break the concept of a separate world and any explanations of how it works are always a bit hand wavy. I can see the appeal - not only do you get someone with our point of view suddenly thrust into a world of strange races and magic but there can be some fish out of water and culture clash humour.

There are notable examples through literature of course. <i>Alice's Adventures in Wonderland</i> and <i>Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There</i> both feature the heroine travelling to fantastical places seemingly just a rabbit hole or mirror away from ours, but populated by strange characters and possibilities. Alice takes it all in her stride, announcing how peculiar everything is. However these are explained in the book as merely being, in effect, dreams and not really crossing from one world to another.

The Narnia books by CS Lewis are another obvious example. Here the first mechanism is the wardrobe which four children discover contains a gateway to a world of talking animals. What is neat here is that the wardrobe is explained to have been made from a tree which grew from seeds from Narnia so there is some logic there. But as the series continues it seems that crossing to Narnia can happen a variety of ways and it's never really explained. It's also clear that the wardrobe (at least) is not a simple gateway; the children go through in their normal clothes and age to adulthood in Narnia. When they return they are children again and dressed in those same clothes. How did that happen? As a child reading the stories I don't think it bothered me but looking back on it I find that aspect the elephant in the room. If the wardrobe is a portal to Narnia it should work both ways to my mind. It just seems a little too pat and prosaic.

The <i>Truth Teller</i> series by Kurt Chambers has a superficially similar mechanism where the heroine, Charlotte, is transported to a land of elves and dwarves by use of a magic talisman. For me this actually worked well since it was constructed and designed (magically one presumes) to allow her passage as she is the 'chosen one' (fantasy loves a good prophesy!) therefore any side effects, such as time not having passed in the 'real world' during her adventures can be explained as a deliberate intention. Travel is also possible in the other direction for both friends and foes via a similar pendant.

Neil Gaiman's <i>Neverwhere</i> and China Mieville's <i>Un Lun Dun</i> have a slightly different concept, that our cities have an alternative version just a shadow away and that what happens in our version is reflected in a strange and fragmented way in the other world. These worlds are similar to Wonderland in that they essentially co-exist with our world and are accessible via particular channels. They are not really separate worlds but symbiotic with our own. In fact both Gaiman and Mieville typically tackle this the other way around, with the fantasy elements being present in our own world rather than having to invent a new one.

In <i>The Pilgrims</i> Will Elliott uses a simple and completely unexplained method of access to another world - a door set into the wall of an underpass. This enables the two protagonists from our world to enter the other but it's not really explained why this happens or who put the door there. Since presumably these worlds have been linked for some time, what was there before red wooden doors were common? As a quick and dirty mechanism to allow characters to step between worlds but for it does somewhat jar against the rest of the narrative.

What first got me thinking about this years and years ago (and make be pretty jaded about the whole our world heroes travelling to fantasy worlds) was <i>The Summer Tree</i> by Guy Gavriel Kay. For some reason the whole premise (which I have now forgotten) just didn't sit at all right when I read the book and just seemed to be more wish fulfillment than a solid premise for a fantasy work. There is no slight intended and I know many people enjoy his work but for me it didn't gel.

Much as my much younger self might have imagined travelling to the worlds he read about, it is certain that actually writing a story with that as the basis is bound to cause problems with the reader unless treated with the utmost care and that most of the time this is actually achieved with a little sleight of hand (or word), creating the fantasy world so that it is really a part of ours rather than somewhere separate that must be travelled to. Sometimes a little wish fulfillment is a good thing but must be handled with care.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Song Lyrics: Why do they need to mean anything?

The news recently was that the original lyrics for Don McLean's American Pie were being auctioned off, the pages and pages of hand scrawled notes expecting to fetch a good price. But part of the media speculation was that 'at last' the 'meaning' of the song might be found. It is well known that the first verse and chorus about the death of Buddy Holly but the rest (there's a lot of it) is less clear.

I've seen it called 'pop's most enigmatic song' although arguably this accolade goes to A Whiter Shade Of Pale by Procul Harem.

But why does it need to mean anything? And even if it did mean something to Don McLean when he wrote it, why can't we each interpret our own meaning how we want to, or just enjoy the music.

Part of this is probably that lyrics are part of the poetic tradition, being essentially poems (at least things that are in verses with rhymes, which isn't quite the same thing) set to music. And poems really ought to mean something. The deliberate nonsense poems of the likes of Edward Lear a notable exception.

But songs have another component - the music. What if you have a good tune and want to just stick some words on it, because songs sell better than instrumentals (or at least are more marketable by popular music radio stations). Or perhaps there's only one phrase that's meaningful but it needs a bit more structure around it to make it into more of a conventional (and therefore acceptable to music publishers) song with verses and a chorus etc.

There are examples of this. My favourite artist is Brian Eno. If you haven't heard of him you have heard his work. He started his musical career as the synthesizer wizard for Roxy Music, processing all their instruments so they didn't sound like any other band. He is therefore on the music side of the creative process (despite for many years claiming to be a 'non musician') and the words are just another instrument, there to give counterpoint to the tune.

He has created some very meaningful lyrics, but by the same token some are just nonsense, sometimes resembling something Edward Lear might have written. He has said that he just says random words, syllables and noises into the microphone and then plays it back to tries to coerce the sounds into something that sounds a little like English. Other times he has used words from a dream, or even the English translations of a series of Spanish phrases from a book on learning Spanish.

Sometimes the lyrics simply have no meaning except any meaning that the listener imposes on them. And that's a good thing.

And the real meaning of American Pie? According Don McLean it means never having to work again...

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Harry Potter

I have a real love/hate thing going on with Harry Potter when the rest of the world (or at least a large proportion) only seems to think the world of wizards and muggles created by JK Rowling is the best thing since dragon fired central heating.

First of all let me say (at considerable risk of charges of blasphemy and being burnt as a witch by some die hard fans) I don't much care for the books or the films; I tried reading the first book at some point (I got it from the library to read to my children when they were younger) but found it too superficial, a fairy tale extended to novel length. My children have both tried to read it too and find the same - it's just not challenging, there just aren't enough good characters or good ideas to make it work the time to read.

This probably sounds pretty snobbish and I suppose it is in a way. But on the other hand everybody isn't going to like every book and there are other books and authors I have tried and just don't like for any number of reasons. They are clearly not bad books, and I certainly wouldn't give them a negative review. They just seem to me to be the fantasy equivalent of muesli or magnolia paint.

There is also the undoubted truth that these books alone have kept many many youngsters reading when the temptation of electronica of one sort of another is there and this has to be saluted. But I do wonder if part of the appeal of the books to the majority of people is their sheer accessibility for those unused to fantasy of any sort (or even fiction that is not very closely tied to 'real' experiences). Perhaps I have just read too much to find anything new in Potter?

But Harry Potter is different. I don't like the books or the films but there is something about the world of the junior wizard which does fascinate. It's almost as if there is a really really good idea in there, the possibility of an alternative universe version of Potter that I would enjoy reading. The world does seem to have been carefully crafted by Rowling and the characters clearly connect with a large number of the audience. It's almost as if I have constructed my own version of Hogwarts and taken the sparse bits and pieces that I pick up reading articles on it (and I do) and used them to build my own version in my head.

No doubt I will be told I should give the books another chance but there are so many great books out there to read that really I'd rather spend my time finding a new world that chimes rather better with my imagination. And I think that's the key. Read what you like regardless of what it is. And if you find you don't like something don't feel pressured into reading it just because it is popular..

Friday, 20 March 2015

Books With The Same Title As The Book Within A Book

Yeah, confusing blog title but this occurred to me whilst reading A Clockwork Orange where the title of the novel derives from the title of a book within the novel.
This had me thinking of other examples of works where the title was taken from a book within the book. It's not terribly common (at least in the books I have read) but I can't help thinking I've missed a couple of obvious ones.
The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy
Possibly the most well-known example, Douglas Adams' fantastic comedy science fiction romp is of course based on the radio series of the same name. The novel concerns the (mis) adventures of Arthur Dent who wakes up one morning to find his house being demolished by the council to make way for a bypass then Earth being demolished by aliens as it lies on the route of a hyperspace expressway. Fortunately his friend, Ford Prefect, is also an alien and a researcher for The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, a sort of irreverent electronic encyclopedia of everyone, everywhere and everything in the galaxy.
Adams uses the book as both narrator and as a very slight excuse to get the plot moving and this works well as his sense of the absurd and love for word play can be maximised in the short entries from 'the book' that frequently appear.
The Book Of Ultimate Truths
The first of two novels in this list by the master of far-fetched fiction, Robert Rankin. The Book Of Ultimate Truths sees Cornelius Murphy and Tuppe embark on a series of fairly surreal and unlikely adventures in search of the book of the title, written by the guru's guru, Hugo Rune. Full of the usual quirky humour, in jokes and obscure cultural references this is one of Rankin's best works.
The Greatest Show Off Earth
Another Rankin book but in terms of books-within-a-book I've not come across another where the book and the book it contains are the same. Here the hero receives a copy of the book he is in. Amusingly his attempts to read a part of the book later than the point he is at are always thwarted although other characters have done so and claim to know what happens 'at the end'. A typically strange warping of reality by Rankin into something approaching recursion.

I'm sure there are many more but these are the ones that spring to mind immediately. Needs a term coined for it too, and maybe a hash tag to get it trending on Twitter...

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Beautiful Writing

I read plenty of comments and reviews from people on books who complain that the book is too slow or that the plot didn't make much sense. These may be valid criticisms but I have seen comments like this for books that I like a lot and I couldn't disagree with the comments. So I wondered what it was I liked about the books.

After only a little thought I had the answer: sometimes the writing is just breathtakingly beautiful and the plot or characters are just there as an excuse to read it. Writing can be lyrical, poetic, clever or imaginative and still be a good read even if there is little actual content.

Part of this is that I do have a certain penchant for 'nothing happens'. I love the films 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris (the original Russian one; I've not seen the remake). Yes they are good science fiction films but what makes them good to watch is that nothing really happens for vast amounts of viewing time - but nothing happens in such a beautiful and hypnotic way that when the point of film, the central idea, is enacted it creates something special.

Writing can be the same, but as with film, the writing has to be exception otherwise it really is just tedious to read. Two recent examples where other readers struggled are described below along with why I liked them; that may give other readers a clue if they might like the book or not.

This isn't to say that all slow books are worth it. For every gem there are any number of exceptionally tedious works; but then one person's gem is another's hell (don't get me started on Dickens).

The City & The City by China Mieville
As with all of Mieville's books this is a very intellectual idea wrapped up in a story. In this case the story revolves around a detective investigating a murder. For me the actual plot is really just a coat hanger to drape the brilliant descriptions around. As a detective story is moves very slowly and isn't particularly deft. But the joy is in the descriptions of the unique setting and the reactions of the detective as he 'treats' himself to breaking the apparent psychological conditioning of the people. Or his reactions when he is outside of the system and sees it with fresh eyes. This is all helped by no explanation of the peculiar geo-political situation of the two cities of the title and all the clues come from the hints as filtered through the eyes of the hero. I don't read this book for the plot. I read it for the descriptions.

The Court Of The Air by Stephen Hunt
I am still reading this book and taking my time but I have seen comments from readers who found it hard going. By and large they seemed to read this expecting a steampunk novel and although it is set in a sort of strange technology version of Victorian England and does have steam driven robot sentient beings I wouldn't really describe it as steam punk in any way. And again it moves slowly and here the wonder of Hunt's imagination is what keeps the book alive. I like books set in alternative universes where things are a little different to ours, but this really does push it to the limits. It's not that things are mostly similar but with some interesting differences; rather nearly everything different and it's just the flavour that seems Victorian. There are little traces of history that run parallel to ours and teasing those out while enjoying the huge imagination at work to create such a deep and detailed world is what this book is about. I know that at the end the various threads will come together and there will be a climactic and action-packed ending but until then, sit back and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Reports of poor Kindle sales from Waterstones

This was inspired by this article in the Telegraph where Tim Waterstone claims that Kindle sales have 'disappeared'. The reporter then goes on to essentially predict that eBooks have had their day.

There are number of this about this article that annoyed me, but first clearly eReader sales are going to be flattening; they are really only useful for those of us that are avid and continual readers and who are interested in seeking out new books. They are not aimed at casual readers and that limits the market. Once the market reaches saturation (and it probably has) then any further sales will merely be upgrades or replacements for existing eReaders.

However let's be clear: Tim Waterstone is in the business of selling real books from real (and therefore expensive to operate) book shops. He is going to take every opportunity to push the idea that physical print copies are winning the 'war' (there is no war). Getting into bed with Amazon to sell the Kindle direct probably made a fair bit of margin for a few years but it was never going to be a long term source of income.

The reporter on the story also then uses specific examples of Waterstones and Barnes & Noble (reminder: real, expensive book shops interested only in selling physical copies of books) to extrapolate to the end of the eReader.

But what about eBooks? Surely all those people who already have eReaders must be buying eBooks? Well according to the figures quotes by Barnes and Noble in the article, they did 2.2bn in physical book sales but 'only' 300m in eBooks. A damning figure surely? But if you look closer, that is maybe a little above expectations (at least my expectations).

The problem with all eBooks produced by the major publishing houses (who after all is primarily what Waterstones and Barnes & Noble stock) is that they are no cheaper to consume on eBook. And given the choice between spending 7.99 on an eBook and the same on a physical book I'll have the physical book every time. And as discussed above, not everyone is interested in having an eBook. So sales of eBooks that are 14% of physical books actually looks pretty good.

It is interesting that in this article there are no figures quotes from Amazon. Amazon scores over the traditional retailers in two areas: firstly it can discount the books so that the eReader versions start to become economical to buy and also they carry independent authors, whose books sell for 0.99 or 1.99. Cheap enough just to buy and stick on the eReader and read at leisure. This is where the real eBook market is.

Now I don't like the way the Kindle is tied to Amazon so tightly but it does mean it's easy to use. Personally I use a Kobo and have all the conversion/DRM management tools I need for converting to and from any format I require. But what is Amazon's view on how eBooks are selling? This is far more important since they are consumed by the customer in very much the same way - navigate to the website, select the book and click to order. The only difference is that the physical book has to be posted (or shipped by drone of course) whereas the eBook is immediately available whereever you are (surely a real plus point if you unexpectedly run out of reading material).

So the article tells the story as seen from the viewpoint of a couple of businesses who dipped their toes into the eBook world when it is at odds with their primary business model; unsurprisingly they talk down the future of eReaders and eBooks. Yes, currently they will not take over from physical books but they are far from dead as I'm sure the sales of books from independent authors would reveal.

Monday, 5 January 2015

New Year Resolutions

I'm not a big one for New Year Resolutions but now is the time of year when every blogger trots out an update about them so I ought to say something.

In fact I'm not big on waiting until particular times to change something or start something new; if something's worth doing why not start it immediately? It's the same at work - if I have an idea for something I will mention it there and then, not wait for my annual review to bring it up. Why wait?

I do have a list of things I would like to achieve in 2015, although nothing that I would call a resolution in any way whatsoever.

I would definitely like to read and review an awful lot more books; I have Goodreads to refer back to to see if I can beat 2014s (woeful) tally. I'd also like to read more independent authors and a wider range of work. They say travel broadens the mind, well so does reading widely different books.

I'd like to blog a lot more; I think of things to write and then when I sit down at the keyboard they seem rather trite (as indeed does this). But then surely that is the essence of blogging? I'm going to aim for one a week at least but there's no guarantees in this game.

Following a discussion today I'd like to learn more British Sign Language. Fitting that in between everything else is tricky especially as - with learning any language - it must be somewhat immersive. However I'm sure games of sign language I-Spy with my youngest son will continue.

So there are my vague plans for 2015. Hopefully you have somewhat better and firmer goals than mine. All power to you to see them through.