More on bad books

Bad books

I’ve never read Stephanie Meyer and have nothing against her and her work. But I still find this funny because I’m a horrible person.

I’ve finally finished Trudi Canavan’s Priestess of the White. It didn’t get any better. And whilst I could ramble on about its flaws and failings, let me ask another question: why did I follow it all the way to the end? It was hardly short – 688 pages; over 19 hours in its audio version – and yet I stuck through it. Why? And, more generally, why do ‘bad’ books become hits? I’m particularly thinking of Dan Brown and EL James here: critically reviled and yet astonishingly successful.

‘Life is too short to waste your time with bad books’, says Michael Kruger. Joyce agrees: ‘Life is too short to read a bad book’, he says. Piffle and poppycock, says I. There’s nothing wrong with reading a book that someone has labelled ‘bad’ – even for reading a book you yourself know to be bad. Here’s a few reasons I might stick with a non-critically-lauded anti-masterpiece:

  • Bad books can be easy reads

Bad books often use simple language. Not only that but every sentiment will be rammed home myriad times. Every subtext will be explained. This means you don’t have to worry about missing a key fact or ‘clue’ because the significance will be hammered home. You know what’s important. You never get lost.

All this makes a ‘bad’ book easy, undemanding company: sometimes you want simplicity, especially if you’ve a busy, complicated, life, or if you only get to read in short snatches and are frequently interrupted. Bad books (of the Dan Brown variety) do not make heavy demands on you, and sometimes it’s nice to be told what matters.

  • A bad book can have excellent elements

You can fall in love with characters. You can be gripped by plot or seek out sizzling sex scenes. You might be desperate to see what happens. A ‘bad’ book can still seize you by the neck and refuse to let go despite flaws so large they can be seen from space.

This is the Philip K. Dick defence: the writing’s bad but the ideas are so strong that it’s worth the effort. At some point you might decide that the book’s not bad after all. But you can’t honestly say that, by the basic ‘readability’ test, it’s not pretty damn poor.

I promise never to write the phrase ‘sizzling sex scenes’ ever again. Urgh. I feel dirty.

  • Bad books help you learn

Why is a book bad? If overuse of a word sticks in your craw then you’ll know not to make that error yourself. If a deus ex leaps out at you you’ll make sure you appropriately foreshadow in your own work. A writer cannot live on badness alone but bad books can be invaluable adjutants in the long march to brilliance.

  • Morbid curiosity

Part of the appeal of EL James and Dan Brown is that they’re supposed to be bad. Who doesn’t like the odd ‘scoffee break’ in their lives? See also: all women’s mags ever*. I suspect that, in reality, it’s really difficult to hit that sweet spot between compelling and crap that these two have hit. And that’s why they’re rich and you’re not.

*My personal favourite: Take A Break’s psychic special – ‘Help – my bowel is haunted!’**

**No, really.

  • A bad book is better than no book

This is clearly self-evident.

  • Stubbornness

This is my sin. I just can’t bear to give up on a book once I’ve committed to it. If I’ve made a decision to read past a certain point then I want to see it home. No, I don’t know what that point is. And yes, unless you’re a reviewer or beta-reader or have some similar excuse, this is stupid.

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Anyone got any recommendations for can’t-miss bad books? What makes you stick with a book even though part of you wants to hurl it at the nearest wall? Are some sins just too much to bear? Comments, as always. welcome.

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The big board of truth

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I wrote nothing in 2017.

That’s not quite true. I did significant amounts of revision and turned out a few short stories. But nothing substantial and this bothers me. It’s time to do something about it. Yes, folks, at long last it’s time to start planning.

I’ve read two books on screenwriting in the last two years: Dave McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!. Both ended with advocating the same writing process: that of using what I like to think of as The Big Board of Truth.

They suggest that, before a word is written in anger, a story is constructed by using postcards on an idiot board: each postcard represents a scene (or group of scenes) and you build the story piece by piece, moving then around until truth and beauty become one.

This advice is meant for screenwriters and I’m not by nature a planner. But the benefits, as I see them, are that it’ll help focus my mind on the gaps in a currently nebulous plot. It’ll help me take the ideas from my head – where they’re currently floating free and randomly bashing everything else out of place – and pin them into physical form.

Will this work? Will it do anything more than take up valuable writing time? We’ll have to see. But I’ve made a start in my own particular, half-assed way. A big idiot-board? Pah, I have a spreadsheet.

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A brainstorm of initial ideas. The colours represent ‘acts’: yellow is backstory; green the opening; blue the story’s ‘meat’ and red the climax

The details are sketchy (and – unfortunately – blurry). It’s written in my own shoddy shorthand. It’s simply a list of ideas, some of which will be abandoned whilst others will be so heavily disguised that they could appear in an Anonymous’ Anonymous meeting without anyone being the wiser.

The next step was to transfer each scene to its predicted place in the finished novel, thus:

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I’d generally recommend a physical model rather than a computer version; solidity changes the way we perceive a concept. But I’m drowning in a sea of clutter as it is. If the worst comes to the worst I have scissors.

So now I have a plan. A plan of a plan, no less. Will this idea serve me at all? It’s kind of up to me. At the moment I’m just trying things out, trying to pin my errant dinosaur mind into the tar-pit of rationality. I’m hole-hunting. I’m seeking flow, direction and drive.

I’m seeking out characters to transform from placeholders into flesh-and-blood. I’m looking for motivations; for causality; for sub-plots; for flow. I’m using the technique to unspool a convoluted plot and find its place in a narrative. Whether this will become a one-off or will become a regular prelim to my writing – well, we’ll see.

I shall, of course, keep you updated on progress. But for now it’s peace out, y’all. Happy writing.

The most anticipated releases of 2018

Stack of books

Morning all. After a quick canter through my favourite books of 2017, here’s a simpler post: the books I’m most looking forwards to getting my grubby little protuberances on in 2018.

The Queen of All Crows – Rod Duncan

This, the first of The Map of Unknown things series, is already out and garnering excellent reviews. I’ve just finished the first chapter and am already seized.

Rod is a great writer (and a lovely chap) and Elizabeth Barnabus is a great character. I can’t wait to see how the Gas-lit Empire will finally fall. I’m just hoping it involves more of the dwarf Fabulo.

Out now

The Dark Angel – Elly Griffiths

I don’t read as much crime as I used to but I still can’t resist the lure of a good murder. The Ruth Galloway series is a wonderful example of how to carry characters over long arcs – this is the tenth book and the pleasure is as much in the protagonist’s uncertain relationship with (married, but not to Ruth) DI Harry Nelson as it is with solving mysteries.

Also it’s set in my spiritual home of Norfolk and features an archaeologist in the lead role. What’s not to love?

8th February

Smoke Eaters – Sean Grigsby

Grigsby is a new author for me; another I came across via Twitter. Smoke Eaters will be his debut novel and the idea – firemen versus dragons – is temptation enough on its own. The buzz for it is building, and that – along with an excellent cover – is enough to intrigue.

He also runs the Cosmic Dragon podcast, if you’re at all interested.

March

The Soldier – Neal Asher

I used to recommend Asher to all and sundry; he’s certainly one of the best sci-fi writers out there with his mix of AIs, interstellar warfare and viral contamination. Sadly, his politics means I can no longer extol his praises. His ‘Owner’ trilogy was just too much for me.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not eagerly anticipating his new release. I’ve learnt a lot from his writing over the years – he’s one of those surprisingly influential writers that seem to creep up on you unawares.

May

Revenant Gun – Yoon Ha Lee

 The concluding part of the ‘Machineries of Empire’ trilogy, Yoon Ha Lee is one of the authors (along with Ann Leckie) who has really changed the way we look at science-fiction other the last five years. This series isn’t for everyone, but it is great. Looking forwards to this immensely.

14th June

Lies Sleeping – Ben Aaronovitch

I love the Peter Grant series. I can’t express just how much I wish I could write with this much smart humour. And, as ever, it’s the audio version for me: Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s voice is perfect

21st June

The Labyrinth Index – Charles Stross

In The Delirium Brief Stross left us with the government killed and an elder (evil) God in charge of the country. How will we get out of this one? Bob only knows.

And no, you’re not allowed to complain about spoilers. You’ve had months to read it. And spoilers only whet the appetite. It’s true. I read it on the internet.

July

Priest of Bones – Pete McLean

I’m not so massively up on grimdark. I respect it, for sure, but I like some sense of hope in my life. I like to be able to feel that things might some day be better.

But Pete McLean is a great writer. I trust he’ll bring some smart humour to illuminate the darkness.

October

The Widening Gyre – John Scalzi

Sequel to The Collapsing Empire, I recently learned that the series was inspired by musings on the trade empires of the colonial era, and what would happen if the winds suddenly changed. And if that’s not enough to get you reading, I don’t know what is.

October

Night Shift – Robin Triggs

Cheap plug alert! 2018 should see my debut release. Yes, I’m in a state of eager, anxious anticipation. Stay tuned for more news.

Late 2018

The Thorn of Emberlain – Scott Lynch

Volume the fourth in the Gentleman Bastard series, and if you’re not up on the Gentleman Bastard series you’re missing out. They’re wonderful: the long con is a wonderful game to watch, like an episode of Mission: Impossible set in a nightmare fantasy-land of depth, conviction and – yes – horror. Really looking forwards to this. We just have to hope that it actually comes out this year after a series of delays.

Who knows?

Winds of Winter – GRR Martin

Will 2018 finally see the release of the next book in the Song of Fire and Ice series? To be honest I’ve almost forgotten about Martin: I’ve avoided the TV show because I want the characters to still be the ones I’ve created in my head and it’s been such a long time that they’ve become lost to me.

But maybe, just maybe, this will be the year it all comes flooding back…

Maybe?

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This little lot, plus the three shelves of books still to be read from last year’s accumulation, will keep me busy. But I’m always distracted by new shinies: my local library will no doubt tempt me from the straight and narrow. And you, lovely reader – what’s tempting you this year? What have I overlooked? All recommendations gratefully received.

A second note: I came across several of these authors (and others without scheduled 2018 releases like Aliette de Bodard) through Twitter, and through them being nice people. The rest I found through my local library. These things work, folks. Make use of them and make the world a better, more interesting place.

Best Books of 2017

Cat and books

Happy 2018 y’all! Sorry it’s delayed, but I was in hospital just before Christmas. But now I’m back and exactly the same as ever. And, without further ado, it’s time for…

The Best Books of 2017!

…but not before a quick note. In previous years I’ve limited my choices to books released in the year in question. I’ve now decided to abandon this policy as I really don’t read enough brand new books. Maybe in the future I’ll be invited to all the great publishers’ pre-release parties, but at the moment I’m still picking up the crumbs in my own sweet time and at my own expense. I’ll still use 2017-ness as a tiebreaker – I’ll favour newer works – but it won’t be a prerequisite. That okay?

So, without further ado, here is my

Book of the year 2017

The Stone Sky: NK Jemisin

…and we start straight away with a cheat because I’m really meaning the whole ‘Broken Earth’ series, not just this, the final volume. But my blog, my rules.

If you’ve not come across this series before, a quick précis: this is the multi-award-winning story that breaks rules with an almost spiteful joy. Large chunks in second person? Why not. War crimes committed by the hero? Yes please. Combining sci-fi and fantasy in a way that takes it beyond both? Oh, go on then.

The simple fact is that it’s brilliant. The writing and the world-creation are masterful. It’s one of those rare books that makes you re-examine your own writing and asks you why you’re holding back. And then demands you go and check out Jemisin’s entire back catalogue.

Other excellent reads:

Ninefox Gambit: Yoon Ha Lee

This is the other book that everyone’s going on about. The sequel to Raven Strategem, this takes us further into the world of exotic maths, religious heresy and giant space moths. Like Jemisin’s work (and Ann Leckie), this redefines how we think about science-fiction.

The truth is, though, I was all prepared to be disappointed. The lead character of the first book seemed to be missing and without her I felt loss, both on a personal level (she was great) and on the dramatic. The story needed her.

But Yoon Ha Lee rescued the game in the last third, setting up a rousing climax and a thoroughly satisfying ending.

The House of Binding Thorns: Aliette de Bodard

This is the sequel to the excellent The House of Shattered Wings in the ‘Dominions of the Fallen’ series. It works as a stand-alone novel as focus shifts from House Silverspires of House Hawthorn. Madeleine, angel-essence-addict, is the main link between the stories.

This is a novel of intrigue set in a Paris recovering from an onslaught of sorcery. The feel is Gothic, decadent and decayed, with Dragon princes, drug trafficking and fallen angels running the city like a mafia.

Beautifully balanced with characters both old and new at the forefront of the novel, this story both satisfies and tempts the reader to a third act which surely must be in the pipeline. Can’t wait.

The Collapsing Empire: John Scazi

Scalzi is a genius at introducing concepts with the minimum of fuss; of gripping you right from the start and propelling you forwards at breakneck pace. I’m not sure how he does it. I suspect he’s one of those authors whose cleverness and skill is overlooked as he makes it all look too simple. I want to break done his novels line-by-line to see how he does it.

The Collapsing Empire is as fun, fast and foul-mouthed as the rest of his work. The underlying themes, however, are about power and its abuse. To quote from this review, “Each of the main characters may be, as one puts it, ‘an asshole,’ but they are also fumbling toward having an ethical position on how to save people from impending disaster.”

You’ll read it so fast that you barely notice the pages turning.

The Delirium Brief: Charles Stross

We all know that Charles Stross is a great writer. We all know that the Laundry series on novels is a cross between Lovecraft, Fleming and Le Carre with a special dash of humour poured in for good measure. What we hadn’t seen is how dark his satirical tongue is.

The Delirium Brief is not only a great novel in itself but takes a surprisingly trenchant stance on issues such as privatisation, religion and media exposure. It follows on from The Nightmare Stacks in a way that might lose readers new to his work but magnificently raises the stakes. This is another book you’ll simply fly through and come out desperate for the next in the series.

Damnation: Peter McLean

Well this – and the whole series – is just fun. I mean really fun. Gritty urban noir with deep sarcasm and real punch. This is another book you’ll fly through – only to be shocked awake by an ending that demands the next book be read immediately. Or it would if it were out yet.

The characters are magnificent. Such a shame to see them damned all to hell.

The Essex Serpent: Sarah Perry

This was 2016’s hot ticket and I’m running a year behind. Which, to be fair, is quite good for me.

I came to this without knowledge beyond the title and its reputation. Turns out it’s a historical novel: it is, simply, a story of life the conflict between rationalism and superstition in the late nineteenth century. What sets it apart is wonderful writing and an ending that defies convention.

The female lead is unorthodox and convincing; the male foils – especially surgeon Luke Garrett – are perfectly drawn. This is a quiet novel and won’t be for everyone, but the quality of the writing alone earns itself a place here.

Glorious Angels: Justina Robson

I’ve done my best to track down all of Justina Robson’s works (Mappa Mundi in particular is worth tracking down) but in recent years she’s slipped from notice; this was released in 2015 but I only found it this year. And it’s great. A hierarchical society with women in power; ancient technologies that are used without understanding: and an archaeological dig that could cause a war.

There are more details in this review which also acts as a counterpoint to my opinions. This book, it appears, is not for everyone. Still, this is my blog, I loved it, so here it sits.

Leviathan Wakes: James SA Corey

Space opera on a grand scale; conspiracies, conflict, and a deadly alien contagion. Explosions, murder, all that stuff…

But the more time passes the less sure I am about it and I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly. I could probably write a whole blog-post on it, but suffice to say that there is just something slightly… um… ‘white male’ about it that makes me a little uncomfortable. Although there are physical differences (between the inner planets and the asteroid-dwellers) that could be taken as ‘racial’ the story feels very monoculture.

What struck me, though, is that there are no homosexual characters in a novel with a large cast. More than that, none of the characters seem to have considered homosexuality a possibility. This just seemed to me bizarre. There are also criticisms of total unfettered access to information that seemed undeveloped.

So yes, this gets my recommendation and I want to read more in the series. But not unreserved praise.

Best non-fiction

Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve: Ben Blatt

This is a novel of statistics. No, hang on, come back! I loved it, and, if you have an interest in books and writing, so will you. The basic premise is that you can use mathematical modelling to work out how an author constructs their books: not only their ‘favourite’ words (the titular Nabokov’s ‘mauve’, for example, or my ‘wrangling’) but the little words that can tell you whether a book was mainly constructed by a big-ticket author or by his writing ‘partner’.

The book also looks into writing ‘rules’, like whether we should really avoid adjectives and whether it really is a sin to describe the weather in the opening sentence. The only complaint is that you feel there’s so much more he could cover (Did Shakespeare really write those plays? What about my genre?) that the book feels a little short.

Also recommended:

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer: Sarah Bakewell

Philosophy. Thoroughly enjoyable philosophy at that. Montaigne was a French estate owner who dabbled in politics and diplomacy and left several volumes of thoughts about sex, farting, foreign travel and love. It’s his ordinary blokishness that shines through, ably brought to life by Sarah Bakewell and her innovative approach to his life and beliefs.

I came across Montaigne through Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy, which serves as a useful primer to the subject and the ways it can help you. Consider this a tiny bonus recommendationlet.

Best Graphic Novel

Saga: Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

I know, I know, I know. It’s hardly a surprise selection. It’s already, if Wikipedia is to be believed, won widespread critical acclaim. And I know I’m wildly out of date in only just getting round to it.

But it’s really good. The characters are beautifully rounded, the artwork sumptuous, the world (universe) convincing and just odd enough to keep us on our toes.

It’s even good enough to beat The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl to top spot. And you have to be good to do that.

Best Doctor Who:

Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet: James Goss & Douglas Adams

Well this was just a blast. An old Adams script has been expertly adapted by James Goss and for a dyed-in-the-wool H2G2 fan like myself it was a dream. Full of delightfully odd characters like the Pirate Captain and his nurse, this is Adams through and through.

The parrot – sorry, the Polyphase Avatron – steals the show, though. Kudos to Goss to making a brilliant, confusing, insane story into a fantastic and coherent novel.

Best Classic

Pride & Prejudice: Jane Austen

I know, I know. But I’d never read it before (I missed Austen week at school. I’ve not read any of the Bronte’s either) and I’ve always managed to avoid the adaptations too. I never thought I’d actually find it full of irony and dry wit.

There’s not much I can say that’s new; I’m sure you can find a line-by-line textual analysis cheap on ebay if you’re that way inclined. Let me just say that I found it much wittier and livelier than Dickens and no-one ever told me Austen was funny!

Best Short

A Rare Book of Cunning Device: Aaronovitch, B

This year’s ‘Best Short’ nominees consist of two novellas, both by Ben Aaronovitch. But limited opposition does nothing to diminish the joy with which I hold the Rivers of London series.

This is a short but perfectly formed little adventurelet set in the basement of the British Library. It’s only available as audio only – which is fine by me as Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is the perfect companion.

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And that’s all folks. My prize picks from an excellent year for reading. I’d love to hear any recommendations you might have, and, if you’ve read any of these, whether you agree or not.

Here’s to 2018. It’s shaping up to be another fantastically-fictational year.