Thursday, 12 March 2015

Terry Pratchett & Magic

"This is a story about magic and where it goes and perhaps more importantly where it comes from and why..."

So begins the first Terry Pratchett book I ever read, Equal Rites. I was fourteen and I bought it for £2.99 from WH Smiths in the Victoria Centre in Nottingham. I've still got the same copy, battered and with a huge crease down the front cover. I tried to take a photo tonight on hearing the truly sad news that Pratchett had passed away; my cat kept trying to get in the picture, but when I remembered how much Terry Pratchett liked cats that seemed appropriate.

I've written on this blog before about how many authors I discovered by perusing my Dad's bookshelves, but Terry Pratchett was the first adult author I can remember discovering myself. (And my Dad discovered Pratchett through me, and loves his books as much as I do. Indeed, all these years later the latest birthday present I've got for is Pratchett related. Sorry it's late!)

Equal Rites, the third Discworld novel, is possibly the best one to start with. It's not quite at that level of effortless brilliance Pratchett sustained for so many years, but it's almost there. Whilst the first two Discworld novels used his comic universe to satirise the tropes and cliches of fantasy fiction, Equal Rites seems to be where Pratchett realised how wonderfully he could use the Discworld to mock and illuminate our own world. It's about a young girl who has accidentally been gifted the power of wizardry; but on the Discworld only men can become wizards. Apparently. For some reason. An obvious common-sense reason, but one that no one can quite explain to the girl in question... It's a wonderfully comic and humane story about stereotyping and sexism, eloquent and sensible without being dogmatic. Pratchett's exceptional gifts of characterisation and dialogue are already fully on display, and it's the first book to feature one of his most enduring characters, the witch Granny Weatherwax. And it features Death too, of course. ("I HAVEN'T GOT ALL DAY, Death said reproachfully.")

After Equal Rites Pratchett went on to write a seemingly endless stream of brilliant books about magic and power and dragons and war and Shakespeare and trolls and opera and undiscovered continents and identity and orang-utans and religion and music and cats and jingoism and vampires and growing up and newspapers and growing old and football and story-telling and Death and death. And I loved them all.

Given how many books he wrote and how good they all were (and how utterly re-readable they all are) Terry Pratchett is undoubtably the author who has given me the most amount of pure pleasure in my reading life. For me, he's up there with the greats, possibly the finest comic novelist in English (Douglas Adams might equal him in quality but only wrote a fraction of Pratchett's output). One of the finest novelists full-stop.

Of course, some people are sniffy about fantasy writers or comic writers and especially comic fantasy writers, but those people are idiots. Terry Pratchett was a monumentally talented writer and by all accounts a thoroughly decent human being. He wrote over fifty books and even that still doesn't feel enough on hearing today's news. But it's what we have and it's a wonderful legacy. It's where the magic came from and still will, for generations.

"It is often said that before you die your life passes before your eyes. It is in fact true. It's called living." 


Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Recommendation: The Electric by Andrew David Barker

A brief post about a book I wish I had the time to write more about, The Electric by Andrew David Barker. I picked up a copy of this at last year's Edgelit, after many people had recommend it to me. And I can see why - The Electric is a wonderfully written supernatural coming of age story, about a group of three teenagers who find a strange, abandoned cinema near their home town. But despite being long shutdown, there still seem to be films shown at The Electric, and to a very niche audience...

The book genuinely captures the feeling of being a teenager, on the cusp of adulthood, and all that that entails. In tone, this is similar to Stephen King's The Body or the work of Ray Bradbury. The author's love of cinema really comes across as well, although you don't need to be a film buff to thoroughly enjoy a book as good as this. The only minor irritant I had with it was that sometimes the scares associated with the supernatural elements of the plot seemed a bit nebulous, but this is one of those stories that isn't really about the ghosts anyway but about growing up, friendship and the pain of nostalgia. 

And, like all the best movies, it's a bit of a tear-jerker as well. Recommended.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

My Dad, IT, And Me

A quick heads up to say that I've a guest blog up over at the King For A Year site. The brainchild of Mark West, the project aims to get 52 reviewers to review 52 Stephen King books throughout 2015.

My own piece is a rather personal take on what is, to my mind, one of his greatest books: IT (or CA  as it always pleases me to see it called in French bookshops). You can read my review here.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Recommendation: Nightingale Songs by Simon Strantzas

I've read a number of stories by Simon Strantzas in yearly best ofs and the like, but Nightingale Songs is the first solo collection of his I've tried. Given what I'd read before I was expecting something special, stories literate and creepy in equal measure. And I wasn't disappointed.

But before I talk about the stories themselves, it's regrettable but I must mention that this book had the worst formatting error I've yet seen in an ebook. I say 'formatting' but in fact it was worse than that: the entire ending to a story was missing, and instead appeared as part of the final paragraph of the following story, thus ruining the climax of both. What a shame. (I downloaded the Kindle version over a year ago; hopefully other formats aren't affected and the Kindle version has been corrected by now.)

Anyway, with that unpleasantness behind I can say that the stories that weren't mangled were fantastic examples of strange, ambiguous, supernatural fiction. Aickman's influence is often to the fore, fortunately not in a superficial way - indeed second story Her Father's Daughter may well be the best example I've read of a writer assimilating Aickman's influence whilst retaining their own voice. A story that combined elements of both feminist and Freudian psychology (although Aickman hated Freud) into a compelling psychic landscape of strange car accidents, reclusive sisters and a flatly ambiguous ending, this was one of the best stories I've read so far this year.

Other highlights included Pale Light In The Jungle and An Indelible Stain Across The Sky (what a title!) which owed something to Ramsey Campbell's style of paranoia built from metaphoric connection whilst, again, remaining completely Strantzas's own story. Mr. Kneale by contrast was a black, black comedy taking swipes at literary conventions and success, but still having a core of horror beneath. Nearly all the stories were impressive, and personal favourites will likely vary. Only Everything Floats was a slight disappointment to me, beautifully written and atmospheric but building towards an ending all too predictable.

An excellent collection, then. I notice Strantzas has had another collection of short stories released since Nightingale Songs, and given how satisfying these tales were I'll surely be picking that up soon.

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Quarantined City Episode 2: Into The Rain

I woke up this morning, ears still ringing from a Jesus & Mary Chain gig, to find out that Episode 2 of The Quarantined City, 'Into The Rain', is out now from Spectral Press.

Blurb and links below.

For Fellows, life in the quarantined city is getting stranger.

The previous day had been a normal one, spent walking the streets and hunting rare books. But then Fellows had read a story by the reclusive writer known as Boursier, and things changed. His memories of the city no longer seem to tally with the streets around him, and the ghostly child in his house seems to have redoubled its efforts to touch him. The protestors against the quarantine are getting more vocal and the unity government more intolerant.

Fellows just wants to ignore these complications and concentrate on finding further stories by Boursier, but his efforts to do so just entangle him further in the secrets of the quarantined city.

Into The Rain is the second episode of the six part monthly serial The Quarantined City from James Everington and Spectral Press.
(UK | US)

Episode One: 'The Smell Of Paprika' available here (UK) and here (US).

Friday, 20 February 2015

Recommendation: Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

Last year Penguin republished Shirley Jackson’s first four novels; I blogged about The Road Through The Wall last year and now I’ve just read her second book, Hangsaman.

Hangsaman is a strange novel by any standards; as if trying to remember a dream I feel the urge to write this blog quickly as I can, before it’s unique internal logic fades from my mind. Its central character is Natalie Whaite, a seventeen-year old American girl on the verge of going to college. The surface level events of the story are mundane, trite even: Natalie has bourgeois parents, and goes to a respectable girls-only college. But what happens externally is not really the point; this is a story about Natalie’s inner life, and how she reacts to and absorbs the world around her: parties thrown by her parents; the machinations of cliquey and spiteful college girls; the strangeness of returning to her family abode after months away. Transformed by Jackson’s inimitable prose, these mundane events seem vividly odd; sinister even. How much of this sense of threat is real and how much projected onto the world by Natalie’s precocious yet vulnerable psyche is one of the central ambiguities of the book.

Right from the start it is clear Natalie has a vivid imagination; much like Eleanor from The Haunting Of Hill House, Natalie is someone whose propensity for daydreaming and fantasy seems alarmingly strong. If her urge for escapism is so dominant, what is she escaping from? Early on in the story a potentially traumatic event is hinted at, and it is clear that Natalie is repressing something – but exactly what occurred is opaque, repressed by Jackson’s narrative as much as by Natalie’s mind. Exactly what Natalie is thinking and feeling is often obscure – it certainly isn’t revealed directly in her chirpy interactions with a college professor and his young wife, or in her playful letters home to her father. But what the reader becomes alert to is the brief glimpses that Natalie might actually feel unbearably lonely and distanced from the world. And it’s easy to understand why Natalie might be so alienated, when it and the characters it is peopled with are presented with satirical humour by Jackson. In part this works so well because isn’t this how we see the world as a teenager, as something faintly unrealistic, as a joke being played on us? Because everything is focused through the character of Natalie, the differences in tone (the novel can be cruelly humorous one minute, and disturbingly sinister the next) don’t seem to jar. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

As the book reaches its final third, it darkens considerably, and the exact extent of what is real and what Natalie imagines is unclear, with double and triple bluffs confounding the reader. It’s a compelling read, and despite similarities to The Bell Jar and The Catcher In The Rye, a unique experience. There’s no one quite like Shirley Jackson andHangsaman seems to me to be her first queer, twisted masterpiece.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Fox Bites Reading

This Saturday, I'll be reading from my story The Man Dogs Hated from Falling Over as part of the Fox Bites event organised by Fox Spirit, alongside a host of other great authors.

The event is at Cafe Malvern, Leicester starting at 3.30pm.