Questions, Questions

This was an interview I completed in May 2018. I sent it off and didn’t hear another thing about it. I don’t know whether it was ever featured, but I’m guessing not.

As usual with reproduced interviews, I’ve changed the wording of the questions, although they were already quite generic, to avoid potential copyright issues. My answers I haven’t touched.
 
 

 

1 Give the elevator pitch for your most recent book.

My most recent release is called The Lord of the Dance, the final book in The Elevator trilogy. (Well, you asked for an elevator pitch…) It’s a dark fantasy tale that begins when four people step into an elevator, expecting to be deposited at their dreary workplaces. When the door opens, it isn’t a drab office that greets them.

The first book, which was intended as a standalone short novel, shows the unwilling companions whisked to various strange worlds—there are seven floors, including the basement—often inhabited by aggressive creatures. There are science fiction aspects, with elements of time travel and the pivotal appearance of an AI machine. Oh, and there’s a dragon.

The first book left me wanting to know what became of one of the characters (explored in the second book, Jack’s Tale) and to know more about the main antagonist (the eponymous title character of the third book). Thus, it became a trilogy.

2 What made you want to write this tale?

A couple of years ago in my regular job, we had to decamp to an upper level while our groundfloor office was refurbished. Most days, I climbed the six flights of stairs to the temporary office, but now and again I couldn’t be bothered and took the lift—it’s what we call an elevator in the U.K.

As I would wait for the lift door to open on my floor—there was always a pregnant pause while it made up its mind to lurch open—a question kept asking itself: what if, when the door opens, it’s to another world in another time?

When I started considering the answer to that question even when not riding the lift, I knew it was time to write the story.

3 Which part of the story is your favourite?

I was going to say the first time the door to the elevator opens and the occupants gaze out onto a new world, because that is the moment that kept nagging at me every time I rode that lift up to my temporary office. But there’s another moment that occurs at the very end of the second book, Jack’s Tale, that I didn’t see coming until the last minute and which ties the second book to the first, whilst setting up the third, in a manner that is wholly unexpected and satisfying to me. I only hope that readers feel the same way.

4 Has a character ever turned out to play a far more significant role in your story than you intended?

My apocalyptic science fiction trilogy, Earth Haven, is about the Earth being cleansed of humankind to pave the way for an alien species to make it their home. The character in question is a sixteen-year-old girl by the name of Bri (like the cheese but without the e), who doesn’t even appear in the first novel, The Cleansing.

I introduced her in the second novel, The Beacon, initially as little more than a companion to another new character, a ten-year-old boy called Will. However, Bri had suffered a head trauma, which resulted in her developing certain abilities. Those abilities, together with her general no-nonsense attitude to life and her determination to protect Will, made me realise that she wasn’t going to let me keep her in a minor supporting role.

Difficult to say too much without spoilers—suffice to say, her significance to the story grew out of all proportion to what I’d originally thought when introducing her, to the extent that she plays a key role in the final novel, The Reckoning.

5 What books did you fall in love with as a child?

I wrote an article for a magazine about major influences in my life, which I called ‘Enid Bloody Blyton’. I described her books for younger children as ‘insufferably quaint’, which probably makes it sound like I was having a dig at her. In fact, it was quite the opposite—I felt then as I do now: I owe her a great deal of gratitude for opening my eyes to the unboundless possibilities of the imagination and to the delights that can be found within the pages of a book.

As soon as I learned to read, I began to devour her books: The Enchanted Wood, The Magic Faraway Tree and Adventures of the Wishing Chair. Read them over and over until they began to fall apart. Bought new copies for my first-born and read them to her.

I graduated to her books for older children. She wrote tons of books aimed at children between the ages of six and ten, but there were two particular series that I adored: The Famous Five books and the Adventure stories.

Looking back with the cynicism of adulthood, the plots of these books were outlandish, involving unlikely spy rings and treasure maps and, memorably, anti-gravitational wings being secretly manufactured in the depths of a hollow Welsh mountain—you know, I’ve lived in Wales for most of my life and haven’t once heard anyone add the words ‘look you’ to the end of a sentence like the Welsh characters did in The Mountain of Adventure. But never mind the ludicrousness of the storylines or the stereotypical supporting characters, I was seven and lapped it all up.

That’s enough about Enid. There are too many others to mention. Books like The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down. The works of Roald Dahl and Mark Twain. The gripping Run For Your Life by David Line.

One afternoon in school, when I was nine, our teacher took out a book and began to read it to the class. It was about four children who are sent away to the countryside as evacuees in World War II to stay with an eccentric uncle in a rambling old mansion. I was instantly captivated. The book was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and so began my lifelong love affair with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I couldn’t wait for the teacher to finish the story in class; I had to get my hands on my own copy. When I discovered there were another six books in the series, I probably went into raptures.

I moved on to Tolkien and Stephen King and Heinlein and many, many others, but those are the books that most stick in my mind from early childhood.

6 What are you currently working on?

I’m writing a novel set in 1950, which hasn’t yet decided if it’s going to be science fiction or horror. It will probably turn out to be a fusion of the two. It’s going to have a pulp, B-movie feel to it; don’t ask me why—it simply feels right for the story.

I also have the seeds of a time travel series germinating, and a fantasy novel clamouring to be written, so that’s the next year or so taken care of. *

7 What are you currently reading? And which book is the best you’ve read in the past year?

I’m currently reading Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, who’s a new author to me. It’s a tale about Earth becoming uninhabitable after the moon is destroyed. I’m around thirty per cent in and a little ambivalent about it so far.**

The best book I’ve read in the past year? That’s a tricky one, but I’m going to plump for The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp. It caused me a few nights’ disturbed sleep, the sign of a good horror story.
 

* the novel set in 1950 turned out to be a novella and retained its pulpy, B-movie feel, which I was quite pleased with. I bundled it together with two other dark novellas and published the collection as Moths.
I am in the process of writing the fantasy novel—around 50,000 words in, aiming for 180,000 in total.
What I didn’t know when I answered these questions was that I would soon be embarking on producing my own audiobooks, a massively time-consuming task, and so my flippant remark about ‘the next year or so’ being taken care of proved to be an understatement of epic proportions.

** I ended up enjoying Seveneves. Though I felt it went on a little too long at the end, that’s a minor gripe and it’s a good read if you’re a fan of science fiction.

Links to works and articles referred to:

The Elevator trilogy
Earth Haven trilogy
Moths
Enid Bloody Blyton
When I Was Three I Ate Mud  (favourite childhood books)

Favourite Novels

By ‘favourite’, I don’t necessarily mean the books I consider to be the best written or of the highest literary merit. Nope, I mean the novels (I’m including novellas) that left a lasting impression on me. Some of the books on this list I have read more than once—I used to reread some books over and over when I was younger, though not so much these days. Too many books, not enough time.

I originally called this list ‘Top 50 Favourite Novels’, but dropped the ‘Top 50’. There are novels I’ve greatly enjoyed that don’t appear on this list because I can’t now quickly recall them—I have read so many books over the years that I’ve probably forgotten loads—or because my mood when I compiled the list was such that a book didn’t make it when on another day it would have. So this is more properly a list of fifty of my favourite novels, but not necessarily the first fifty and not in any particular order.

I’ve read many books by the same author—e.g., Iain Banks (and Iain M. Banks), John Irving, Ursula Le Guin, to name a few—that I’ve enjoyed but that haven’t made the list. That doesn’t mean I don’t like their work. Far from it; merely that other books have stuck in my mind more.

There’s a preponderence of fantasy and horror and science fiction, often of the dark and/or apocalyptic kind. That’s the way my tastes run.

The books marked with an asterisk either form part of a series of which I could easily have included more or all, but I haven’t to save space; or, e.g., Christie’s Roger Ackroyd, I’ve included a book that’s illustrative of an author’s body of work of which I’m fond—I love Christie’s Poirot novels and could have easily included more—but again I want to save space; or I’ve named the series rather than just one book from it. Cheating? Maybe, but you’ll have to forgive me since it means being able to name more books. And more books is always good, right?

There are a few Stephen King novels in the list (and one slipping in under a pseudonym). If pressed to name just one, I’d say he is probably my favourite author so I had to include more than one of the twenty or thirty books of his I’ve enjoyed and reread over the years.

I didn’t consider the books I first remember reading: The Wishing Chair and Faraway Tree books by Enid Blyton, for instance, though I have included her books for slightly older children, such as the Famous Five.

The links1 are all to Amazon UK and are included for anyone who wants to check out the book.

Enough blathering. On with the list.

1. Imajica – Clive Barker


Imajica

2. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown


The Da Vinci Code

3. The Road – Cormack McCarthy


The Road

4. The Day of the Jackal* – Frederick Forsyth


The Day of the Jackal

5. IT – Stephen King


IT

6. The Lord of the Rings* – J.R.R. Tolkien


The Lord of the Rings

7. Shadowland – Peter Straub


Shadowland

8. Rape of the Fair Country – Alexander Cordell


Rape of the Fair Country

9. Men at Arms* – Terry Pratchett


Men At Arms

10. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe* – C.S. Lewis


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

11. Salem’s Lot – Stephen King


Salem’s Lot

12. Dracula – Bram Stoker


Dracula

13. Run For Your Life – David Line


Run For Your Life

14. The Fog – James Herbert


The Fog

15. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway


The Old Man and the Sea

16. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card


Ender’s Game

17. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert Heinlein


The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

18. The Valley of Adventure* – Enid Blyton


The Valley of Adventure

19. Dark Matter – Michelle Paver


Dark Matter

20. Red Dragon – Thomas Harris


Red Dragon

21. I Am Legend – Richard Matheson


I Am Legend

22. Five on a Treasure Island* – Enid Blyton


Five on a Treasure Island

23. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

24. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut


Cat’s Cradle

25. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte


Wuthering Heights

26. Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantell


Wolf Hall

27. Riddley Walker – Russell Holban


Riddley Walker

28. Life of Pi – Yann Martell


Life Of Pi

29. The Stand – Stephen King


The Stand

30. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak


The Book Thief

31. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger


The Time Traveler’s Wife

32. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller


Catch-22

33. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd* – Agatha Christie


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

34. 1984 – George Orwell


1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four

35. Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood


Oryx And Crake

36. Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury


Something Wicked This Way Comes

37. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy* – Douglas Adams


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

38. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline


Ready Player One

39. Watership Down – Richard Adams


Watership Down

40. Legend* – David Gemmell


Legend

41. World War Z – Max Brookes


World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

42. The Gone-Away World – Nick Harkaway


The Gone-Away World

43. The Last Days of Jack Sparks – Jason Arnopp


The Last Days of Jack Sparks

44. The Eyre Affair* – Jasper Fforde


The Eyre Affair

45. The Talisman – Stephen King & Peter Straub


The Talisman

46. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury


Fahrenheit 451

47. The Long Walk – Richard Bachman


The Long Walk

48. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever* – Stephen Donaldson


The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever

49. Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny


Lord Of Light

50. Tom’s Midnight Garden – Philippa Pearce


Tom’s Midnight Garden

 

Let me know how many of them you’ve read. Or if there are any you dislike. It’s okay—we can still be friends.

Coming soon: Favourite Films.

 

1 they’re affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a small amount of commission from Amazon on any sales resulting from following the links; it doesn’t affect the price you pay to Amazon

More On Writing Apocalyptic Tales

Another blogger who enjoyed The Cleansing asked if she could interview me for her blog. I was only too happy to oblige. The interview appeared in February 2014.

Congratulations for The Cleansing—I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. What attracted you to writing an apocalyptic tale?

Thank you. I enjoyed writing it.

I’ve held a fascination for end of world tales since I was a boy. Books, films, computer games, some of the most memorable have been based in apocalyptic worlds. Difficult to pin down quite what the attraction is. I guess it has something to do with it being this world but not as we know it. All bets are off. No laws, no society, no civilisation, no checks or balance. What morality remains has to battle to make itself felt amidst the anarchy and struggle to survive. It’s man reduced to his basest, most bestial form.

The end of world scenario provides the writer with a blank page that he or she can fill in a wide variety of ways. I think that’s the main attraction of the genre to a writer. The possibilities are endless.

I particularly enjoyed how The Cleansing was set in various different countries. How else did you try to make the novel stand out from other apocalyptic fiction?

It wasn’t a conscious effort to make it different from other apocalytpic fiction I’ve read. Of course, I was well aware of its similarities to other stories. If I’d thought, however, that I was merely rehashing tales that had been done before without bringing anything new to the party, I wouldn’t have bothered sending it to my publisher. I still would have written it as it’s the only way to dislodge a story once it’s taken up home in the rattling space within my head. And The Cleansing had well and truly settled in for the duration. It was either write it or be stuck with a nagging lodger for the rest of my life.

As to how it’s different from other tales, I’ve not read a book that tells of humankind being wiped out deliberately to make way for new inhabitants. If such a book does exist, I haven’t read it but then I’ve only read a small fraction of the end of world tales that have ever been written. So it was a new take on the genre to me. I hope it will be to some readers, too.

The novel is exciting and fun to read, while also being tragic and upsetting in places. Is it important to move your readers as well as entertain them?

Vitally important. As a reader, I better remember books that have moved me than those that have merely entertained me. As a writer, I want readers to feel some sort of emotional reaction to my work, though I’d settle for them being merely entertained over feeling indifferent. I don’t deliberately set out to provoke particular emotional responses. I think that they are a natural by-product if a story is worth telling and is told well.

The Cleansing is part of a trilogy. Do you know how the final book will end or is it still evolving?

I can see in my mind’s eye the climactic scene that occurs at or near the end of the third book, but I don’t yet know how the characters will reach that point. They may take off at tangents that will result in a different ending – characters can be untrustworthy like that – or unforeseen events could occur that push the action in a new direction. That’s part of the fun of writing without an outline; it’s also a little scary.

Do you find the structure of trilogies restrictive? Why do you think they are so popular?

This is the first series I’ve written, though I didn’t set out to write one. It quickly became obvious when I was writing The Cleansing that there was way too much story to fit into one reasonably-sized novel. I didn’t want to write something the size of a brick because I felt that nobody would take a chance on buying a book that size by a virtual unknown. So a trilogy seemed the natural solution.

As for being restrictive, I’m actually finding it to be quite the opposite. Instead of trying to condense the plot into one novel, I have the freedom to explore the world more fully. If characters choose to deviate, that’s fine. There’s time and room for them to get it out of their system before finding their way back to the main action.

I’m not so sure that trilogies are universally popular among readers, at least not when the subsequent books have yet to be published. As a keen reader myself, I understand why. If the first book in a trilogy is captivating, the reader naturally wants to read more immediately. By the time the sequel comes out, readers will have moved on and some will have lost their sense of wonder at the first book. It may not be recaptured on reading the sequel.

However, from a writer’s point of view trilogies are attractive. For a start, writing the first book is nowhere near as daunting as writing a book three times longer. Moreover, the writer will have some idea how well the first book is being received while he pens the sequel. He will have the benefit of reader feedback that may shape the direction the sequels take. He will have the opportunity of answering questions posed by readers of the first book as he develops the sequels. Those questions may even prompt ideas that will enrich the sequels in ways the writer might not otherwise have envisaged.

When will the sequel be published and does it yet have a title?

I can’t tell you when the second novel will be published for a very good reason: I haven’t finished writing it yet. When it has been finished and edited, it will then be up to my publisher, Smithcraft Press, whether to accept it for publication and, if so, where it will fit into its schedule. I can tell you that the full title will be Earth Haven Book 2: The Beacon.

I’m a huge fan of apocalyptic novels. What are your favourites?

So am I, though I’m an avid reader of many genres so haven’t read as many apocalyptic novels as I’d have liked. Too many books, not enough time. Of those I have read, the three that instantly spring to mind that I’d have to name as my favourites are, in no particular order:

The Stand by Stephen King. Many apocalyptic tales begin after – sometimes a long time after – the apocalyptic event took place. What I love about The Stand is that the novel opens just before the event begins so we watch it unfold. I also liked the fact that it was not a traumatic event such as an asteroid strike or nuclear war so that our infrastructures remained intact. (The Cleansing is very similar in these aspects.) Certain elements of the tale didn’t appeal to me so much and I would have liked to have seen a little of what was happening outside the United States, but as a whole the book is a fantastic read.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but the book has a haunting lyricism and sense of mysticism that stayed with me long after I finished it. Just writing this is making me want to read it again.

The Road by Cormack McCarthy. Bleak, depressing, pessimistic… I found it utterly compelling. This seems to be a Marmite book, but I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp. It’s not often I find a book to be truly unputdownable, but this one was. Simply superb.

What was your favourite read of 2013?

My reading highlights included catching up on some classics such as The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury; my first, but not last, venture into the world of John Le Carré in The Little Drummer Girl; and the moving Joyland by Stephen King. But my absolute favourite read of the year, though I did not anticipate it being so, was World War Z by Max Brooks. I’m not a huge fan of zombie fiction but picked this up on a whim as a holiday read. Boy, am I glad that I did! The structure is unusual: a series of interviews with key players or witnesses in the zombie war that has recently ended. The advantage of the format is that we get to see the war unfold through many different points of view. Thoughtful, intelligent, it dragged me in and kept me totally engrossed to the end. Wonderful.

Thank you so much, Sam! Roll on Book 2!

No, thank you! Giving up space on your blog for my ramblings is greatly appreciated.

Thrills and Spills

Although my reading (and writing) tastes tend towards science fiction, dark fantasy and horror, I do occasionally enjoy curling up with a thriller. By ‘thriller’ I mean the sort of fast-moving tale that’s heavy on intrigue and excitement, but that doesn’t fall primarily into some other genre like murder-mystery.

Here’s a quick look at some of my favourites, together with one or two that I felt were a bit meh. As always, these are purely my personal preferences; if I enjoyed one you didn’t, or disliked one of your favourites, that’s okay—varied tastes make life more interesting.

The first out-and-out thriller I can recall reading was Run For Your Life (also mentioned in the post about children’s books, When I was Three, I Ate Mud). I guess I must have been around nine or ten when I first read David Line’s tale about two boys who go on the run across the wintry Norfolk countryside after witnessing a murder. It captivated me to the extent that I read the book over and over again during the next four or five years until it was falling apart.

If I had to name one thriller author as my favourite, I’d have to plump for Frederick Forsyth. Every novel of his I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed immensely. I’ll mention two as being superb examples of thriller writing. First, The Odessa File, the gripping tale of a journalist trying to uncover the whereabouts of a former SS concentration camp commander. Second, The Day of the Jackal, a white-knuckle ride about an attempt to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Both novels were adapted into darned good films, starring respectively Jon Voigt and Edward Fox.


The Day of the Jackal

There’s one author of whose writing on a technical level I’m not the biggest fan, yet I’ve read most of his books. It’s very much a case of story trumping writing style. (Not, I hasten to add, that I’m criticising his writing, and not that he’d give two hoots if I was—he’s sold millions of books and stellar actors like Tom Hanks star in adaptations of his works.) I refer, of course, to Dan Brown.

When I read The Da Vinci Code, I didn’t know the theory about the Holy Grail (being careful here not to introduce spoilers) that Brown drew upon—and which subsequently led to allegations of plagiarism and a law suit, but that’s another story—and it blew me away. It resulted in a trip to my local library to borrow a book on art so I could study Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper. (This was in the days before the internet was routinely used by pretty much everyone to look up pretty much anything, and it wasn’t that long ago.)


The Da Vinci Code

I also enjoyed one or two of his earlier novels, such as Deception Point, and another featuring Robert Langdon, Angels and Demons. The latter is set in Rome, a city with which I’m familiar after trips to watch Wales play Italy in the Six Nations. Brown uses many locations, such as the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, which I have visited many times. It doesn’t hurt to make a scene come alive in the imagination when you know the setting, and I enjoyed the novel in spite of the most far-fetched escape from a stricken helicopter you’re ever likely to encounter. I’m not so keen on the more recent Robert Langdon novels—in them, I feel that Brown’s tendency towards melodrama and contrived, cliffhanger chapter endings become distracting. Not enough, mind, to stop me reading each one he brings out.

Some thrillers I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed but almost instantly forgotten, which hasn’t led me to rush to find other works by their authors. These include novels by Robert Ludlum, James Patterson, Harlan Coben and Clive Cussler.

Then there are many celebrated thriller authors whose books I’ve never read. Tom Clancy and Lee Child, for instance, though I have one or two of their books sitting in my tottering TBR pile. As usual, it’s a case of too many books, too little time.

There are some well-known thrillers that left me cold. The Girl on the Train I found irritating and I saw the ending coming long before the main characters did. The Firm was meh enough that I never bothered with John Grisham again. And I Am Pilgrim was filled with improbable escapes from seemingly hopeless situations and began to drag around halfway so that I was relieved to finish it. (I’m not trying to put you off reading any of these books—you might love them.)


I Am Pilgrim

I’m going to finish on a high with a few more thrillers I felt were top-class. Before I Go to Sleep is the tale of a woman whose memory resets every night when she goes to bed so that she cannot remember who she is when she awakes the next morning. How she deals with this I’ll leave you to find out—it’s an intriguing journey. The only novel of John Le Carre’s I’ve read is The Little Drummer Girl, but I hope it won’t be the last. It’s an edgy story of a young actress recruited by Mossad to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist cell, and it gripped me to the end. The BBC recently made a damned fine job of adapting the novel for television. Finally, a mention of the best psychological thriller I’ve ever read. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris isn’t as celebrated as the author’s better-known The Silence of the Lambs, but is far superior in my view. Difficult to imagine a darker, more disturbing study of human depravation, at least when it comes to fiction.


Red Dragon

Thrilling reading, folks!

Stephen King Books

I’ve mentioned it before: I am one of Stephen King’s Constant Readers. Ever since discovering his books as a young teenager, I’ve devoured them. At least, his horror and science fiction and fantasy books—not so much the crime thrillers that he’s taken to writing of late.

Despite counting him amongst my favourite authors, I don’t love everything about his stories. For instance, the endings are sometimes a bit of a let-down. Yet this doesn’t detract much from my enjoyment. The pleasure with King is in going along for the ride—if the destination occasionally disappoints, the journey is nearly always a blast.

Here are some of my favourites among his books, along with a few not-so-favourites.

Let’s start with two novellas from the collection Different Seasons, published in 1982, the year I turned eighteen. Both are a little unusual in that they resulted in that rarest of things—a superb screen adaptation of a Stephen King story. The Body is a small-town tale (like so many of King’s) about a trio of friends who go off in search of a dead body they’ve heard is lying alongside a set of rail tracks. It’s a joy (as is the film version, called Stand By Me and starring the tragic River Phoenix), a perfect slice of childhood, something that King does so well. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (the Rita Hayworth part of the title was dropped for the film version) is a tale set in a prison with an unforeseen and wholly satisfying ending.

Different Seasons

Next, Insomnia, which King describes as a ‘stiff, trying-too-hard’ novel. It’s where we first encounter The Crimson King, who would feature in other King works, most notably The Dark Tower series. More on that later. Also good reads are The Green Mile, the tale of death row inmate John Coffey (whose initials are probably not coincidental), and 11/22/63. I’ve long been fascinated with the Kennedy assassination and time travel—this was a great way to combine the two.

The Green Mile

Here’s a selection of what I call Meh books—they were okay, but lacked something that might have made them appeal more to my tastes. (As always, my tastes are likely to be different from yours so it’s perfectly fine to disagree with me.) Cujo, The Dead Zone, Dolores Claiborne, Christine, Needful Things and Sleeping Beauties all had something going for them that made them enjoyable to a point, but that ultimately left me feeling a little dissatisfied, a little meh. I was enjoying Revival, when the most interesting character in the story fades out of sight. When we encounter him again much later, he has changed in ways that feel unrealistic. And the ending—hugely disappointing and nowhere near as scary as I’d been hoping. Finally for the Meh books, Under the Dome. Loved the concept and the opening. No spoilers, but after such a promising start, it descends into a bit of a mess—it’s probably been eight or nine years since I read it and I couldn’t even tell you how it ends. If not for the concept and intriguing opening, this one is unlikely to have even made it onto my list of Meh books.

Some of his earliest books are amongst my favourites. The following three were published in the 1970s. Salem’s Lot is a tale of vampire infestation of a small town and presses all the right buttons. I’ve long been fascinated with the blood-sucking fiends since first reading Dracula as a young teenager—the recent trend for sparkly, prance-about-in-full-sunlight lotharios (my younger daughter made me watch a certain series of films with her; by the end of the first one, I was pleading, “Bite her, already.” It took another two or three angst-ridden films before he did) hasn’t put me off—and King’s tale resonated as strongly with me as its classic predecessor. The Stand is an apocalyptic tale that I’ve spoken about in other posts. Suffice to say here, it’s a ripping yarn about good versus evil in a world that’s gone to hell. The Long Walk was published (among others) under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. It’s a dystopian tale about an annual contest involving one hundred teenage boys. The contest is simple enough—they all set off together walking southwards from Maine and the winner will be the last boy standing. However, any boy whose walking pace drops below 4 mph receives a warning; three warnings and, well, let’s just say that nobody is allowed to retire alive from this contest.

Salem’s Lot

Another of the ‘Bachman books’ is The Running Man. (It was made into a film starring Arnie, which bears only a passing resemblance to the novel and is far inferior.) This is also set in a dystopian futuristic America and is a tale that doesn’t let up. King apparently wrote it in a week and I think it shows in that it doesn’t pause for breath. I doubt my next pick will make it onto everyone’s favourite list, but there’s something about The Tommyknockers that I love. Maybe it’s the concept of someone tripping over a tiny protruding piece of metal in the woods that turns out to be the tip of a spacecraft a mile wide, or the 50s B-movie feel of the second half of the book, but it’s a novel I’ve returned to more than once. The most recent book on my favourite list is Cell, published in 2006. It’s another tale carried by a great concept and a fun journey that makes up for a lukewarm ending.

The Tommyknockers

How about one or two that I positively disliked? The first is Gerald’s Game. I can say, without having to think about it much, that this is my least favourite of any King book I’ve read. There’s one genuinely creepy moment, but it couldn’t make up for the drudgery of trying to get through the rest of it—the only time I’ve been relieved to reach the end of one of his books, shove it back onto the shelf and forget about it. The other is the seventh novel in The Dark Tower series. I’d worked my way through the preceding six instalments with varying degrees of pleasure and I was keen to see how the series would play out—to find out, at last, after more than a million words, what Roland would discover at the end of his mission… quest… thing. (Sorry—can’t resist a LOTR reference when the opportunity arises.) Well, before reaching that point, Mr King engages in a moment of such self-indulgent author intrusion that it completely threw me out of the story and made me hesitate about continuing. I don’t want to be critical of someone whom I hold in such high regard, but I felt it was a mistake. I imagine he must have deliberated hard before deciding to do it, but I wonder whether he’s ever regretted it. Anyway, I pressed on and eventually Roland reaches the top of the Dark Tower where awaits a door with his name on it. I won’t say what happens next but it was enough to make me swear in disbelief and want to throw the book at the wall.

I’ll finish on a positive note with a mention of three more favourites. The Talisman, co-authored with another writer I admire, Peter Straub, is a fantasy tale about a boy’s search for a magical amulet that will save his dying mother. Flitting between this world and ‘the Territories’, it’s a fun-filled, dark ride. Pet Sematary contains a scene that scared me more than any other King book. It has made me go back and read it again more than once, and I don’t think I’ve finished with it yet. And, finally, the book if pressed I’d name as my favourite of all Stephen King books. IT takes place in two timelines—late-1950s and mid-1980s—because the eponymous monster feeds on a 27-year cycle. The 50s sequences, when the group of heroes and heroine are aged around eleven or twelve, once again display King’s talents at evoking childhood; downtrodden childhoods, at that, for each of our children is at some disadvantage, perhaps from an abusive parent or speech impediment or obesity. They call themselves the Losers. The 80s sequences take place when the Losers are all grown up, though not all have shaken the self-appointed loser tag. Despite a scene that many readers find, to put it mildly, disconcerting, and an ending that disappoints a little, IT is a nostalgic, horror-filled feast. There are nods to classic villains like Frankenstein’s monster and the werewolf, and it’s a book, despite its brick-like size, I’ve returned to again and again.

The Talisman

I recently did an interview (for another author’s blog) where I was asked to name one person, dead or alive, I’d like to meet. Almost impossible to pick only one from our entire history. In the end, I plumped for Stephen King. Well, I would love to sit and discuss books and writing and films with him over a beer or coffee. Since that’s never likely to happen, at least I still have his books.

Till next time… 

This is the Way the World Ends

If pushed to name a favourite genre, post-apocalyptic would come close. Depending on my mood, it would often be top. That’s the thing with naming your favourite anything, from food to film to song to book: it depends how you are feeling when deliberating. I’ve talked in a previous post about my love for this genre and how I first became attracted to it by watching the film The Omega Man when I was a child, and I’m not going to rehash that. Instead, I want to mention some of my favourite apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels. (I’m not going to discuss dystopian books where there hasn’t been an apocalyptic event, or there has but it isn’t key to the story—dystopia has its own post.)

This is a category crammed with excellent novels. Harder to know what to leave out than include, but what follows is a mention of many of my favourites (which, of course, on another day might have included one or more of the books I’ve today omitted).

Let’s start with one of my favourite authors. If you know me, you’ll realise I refer to Stephen King. Can’t recall how old I was when I first read The Stand, but I’m guessing I was around seventeen. The tale of civilisation coming to an end through the accidental release of a lab-engineered strain of influenza blew me away and cemented SK as my go-to author. (As an aside, one or two reviewers of my own apocalyptic novel, The Cleansing, commented that it reminded them of The Stand. True, my tale also involves a manufactured virus which virtually wipes out humankind, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Tenuous though the comparison is, I usually shrug and take it as a compliment, even where it’s clear it’s not intended as one.)

Another PA novel I read in my teens was On the Beach by Nevil Shute. Set in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, it tells of the last days of humanity while the survivors wait for the fallout to reach them. It was published in 1957, which perhaps explains why I felt in some ways it was a little unrealistic. I mean, for people awaiting certain death, they behave in an awfully civilised manner—stiff upper lip and all that. Still, it’s a sombre evocation of how the world might end (‘not with a bang but a whimper’*), with the government doling out suicide capsules so the people might be spared the slow, lingering end of radiation poisoning, and entire families popping them together.


On The Beach

Another favourite of my younger days was Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. The apocalyptic event doesn’t take place until towards the end of the tale, but when it does, it’s about as life-ending as it’s possible to imagine. And that’s all life, not only human.

A couple of books I’d describe as curious, both disturbing in their own ways. The Death of Grass by John Christopher presents a grim (grim? It’s PA—of course it’s bloody grim) look at how humankind might react in the event suggested by the title, with the British government responding to the crisis in a dramatic and overly drastic way, and what is left of society descending almost instantly into mob rule. And Night Work by Thomas Glavinic. It’s not giving anything away to say that it’s about a man who wakes up one day to find that he appears to be the only person left alive on the entire planet. Can’t say more because spoilers, but it’s a dark and intriguing read.


Night Work

The next two books have something in common: they both involve a form of vampirism. In Justin Cronin’s The Passage, we see the event unfold. The story continues in two sequels and it’s a fine trilogy indeed. In Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (the book upon which the film The Omega Man is loosely based), the event has already taken place and we witness the aftermath. Unlike the film versions, the book’s ending is deliciously dark; pity the film makers didn’t have the courage to stick with it.


I Am Legend

Next, a Marmite novel: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp (that’s the book, not Marmite). It’s unremittingly bleak and utterly gripping. They didn’t do a bad job with the film version, either.

A few more crackers (most of the books included in this post are crackers). Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.  Both captivated me for different reasons: Atwood’s for its sense of lyricism and surrealism mixed with a scenario all too realistic, Mandel’s due mainly to the intrigue I felt as to how the present would tie-in with the back story, though this is beautifully written as well. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller is a classic PA novel, though it reads more like three long short stories, which is how they were originally written.


Oryx And Crake

For someone who’s a huge fan of TV’s The Walking Dead, strange that I’m not really one for novels about zombies. They simply don’t interest me. The exception is World War Z by Max Brooks. I bought it as one of my books to take on holiday to Greece a few years ago. It took me a while to grow used to the style of the novel—it has no central narrative, as such, but is told after the event through a series of interviews with characters who played a central role in the ‘war’—but once I had, Wow! A rip-roaring read that I didn’t want to end.


World War Z

To finish, a novel that haunted me for weeks after I’d finished it and one that I want to read again: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. The story is set in the south-east of England, far into the future, hundreds of years after the apocalyptic event. I’m hazy on the details because it’s been more than five years since I read it, but I still recall how the tale resonated with me. The author developed a form of pidgin English in which his characters speak and, due mainly to that, it’s a difficult book to get into. But, boy, was it worth persevering. If you enjoy works of apocalyptic fiction, I’d strongly recommend this, and every other book mentioned in this post.


Riddley Walker

Happy reading!

* this is a line from a poem by T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, the same poem from which Shute took the title of his novel, and I took the title of this piece.

Reach for the Stars

It is so long since I read my first science fiction novel that I can no longer recall the title or author. It was something to do with space travel to a distant planet, possibly Mars, and that’s about all I can remember. However, I do recall the way the book made me feel: it fired my ten-year-old imagination, struck me with awe not so much by the suggestion of man reaching for the stars, but of the boundless possibilities for inventing stories about such exploits. Whatever that long-forgotten book was, it made me fully realise that even if there are limits on what we as a species can achieve, there is no limit on what we can imagine and convey through fiction. I’d like to say this was the moment of epiphany, when I realised that I had to become a writer as nothing else would ever feel as fulfilling, but I’d be lying; that wouldn’t come until years later.

Here’s a mention of some of my favourite science fiction novels; at least, of the ones I can remember.

There’s a crossover between science fiction and fantasy—sometimes the line between them is a blurred one indeed—but I’m confining myself to stories where the fantastical element is based on some form, no matter how far-fetched, of technology, as opposed to magic, or mythical creatures like elves and centaurs, or imaginary worlds reached through magical portals. Of course, aliens and imaginary worlds reached through faster-than-light space travel qualify, which just goes to show how artificial these distinctions can be.

Oh: as usual this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list— there are too many books I’ve read, let alone the thousands I haven’t, to even attempt such an ambitious undertaking. And these are my views, based on my tastes, with which you are free to agree or disagree as you wish. Just don’t take it personally if I happen to like a book you hated, or vice versa.

Oh, part 2: I’m excluding apocalyptic and dystopian novels because they’ll get their own piece at a later date, along with fantasy and a few other genres.

Oh, part 3: I don’t want to say too much about any of the books I mention in case I inadvertently spoil it for those who haven’t yet, but intend to, read them. So, of necessity I talk only superficially about the works.

To the first book, then, a perfect illustration of the marriage between science fiction and fantasy: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. How can this be science fiction, do I hear you ask? It’s about gods of eastern mythology, like Buddha, Vishnu and Krishna. And so it is, yet their powers (or ‘Attributes’) in Zelazny’s wonderful imaginings are technology based. I read this recently and wondered why I hadn’t read it years earlier. It’s the sort of book that’s so breathtakingly good, most writers will read it in awe and wish they’d written it.


Lord Of Light

Despite some rather antiquated (that’s putting it mildly) outlooks on women and their place in society, I’ve enjoyed most of the Robert Heinlein books I’ve read. (There’s a notable exception: Farnham’s Freehold; as well as his usual misogynistic touches, there are some aspects about race that make uncomfortable reading to a contemporary audience.) Here are some of the better ones: Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Door into Summer, Tunnel in the Sky.


Stranger in a Strange Land

In a previous post, I mentioned Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, probably my favourite book of his I’ve read, but another I enjoyed was The Man in the High Castle. It’s a dystopian tale presenting an alternative reality in which Germany and Japan have won the Second World War, and are competing as the world’s superpowers. I didn’t find it the easiest book to get into, but am glad that I persevered.

I haven’t read a great deal by Arthur C. Clarke (too many books, blah blah blah), but one I thoroughly enjoyed is Childhood’s End. It slightly depressed me, with its gloomy outlook for the future of the human race (I don’t always like to be reminded of man’s fallibility when reading for pleasure), but is a greatly entertaining read that also makes you ponder, and despair, a little.


Childhood’s End

Apologies to any hard science fiction fans looking in, but that branch of the genre doesn’t overly interest me. (‘Yeah, anyone who’s read your books can tell that, you techno-doofus,’ I hear someone say.) Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed works of hard science fiction, but pages of detailed exposition on how a plasma blaster or anti-gravitational device works tend to make my eyes glaze over. I’m less put off by detailed world building, however, politics and all. I’m thinking of two tremendous series I’ve dipped in and out of over the years: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Iain M. Bank’s Culture series. If you’re a fan of science fiction which involves power-struggles and cultural clashes and political machinations on an intergalactic scale yet have never read either series, you’re in for a treat. (I suppose I could include the Dune series, but didn’t enjoy that as much after the first book.)


Foundation

The next book was written by an author who some readers boycott due to his controversial views. This isn’t the place to go into those views; suffice to say I strongly disagree with them, too, but that didn’t stop me greatly enjoying his novel Ender’s Game. The whole book was good, but the ending, which I completely didn’t see coming, was a real Wow! moment.

I couldn’t write a piece about science fiction without mentioning The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It became a ‘trilogy’ of five books, but it’s the first one that I am fondest of and re-read from time to time. It’s wacky, irreverent and pure genius.


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Finally, a mention of Ursula K. Le Guin, who died earlier this year. I have thoroughly enjoyed those of her works I’ve so far read. I’ll talk a little about her fantasy works in the forthcoming fantasy post, but to end I’ll mention one of her science fiction novels I enjoyed: The Lathe of Heaven. Although I felt the story ran a little out of fuel during the second half, it’s well worth a read.


The Lathe Of Heaven

Why We Write

[This article first appeared on a friend’s blog in September 2014. She asked me to talk about why I write, citing books that influenced me growing up. I took this to be an invitation to talk about books that I’ve loved over the years, although I remembered to tag a paragraph on the end that mentions writing.

It might seem faintly ridiculous that a man then a few months shy of 50 with a tendency towards the Dark Side in both his reading and writing tastes was talking about Enid Blyton, but her books are the ones I devoured as a young child. So shoot me.]

From the moment I learned how to read, I read. We’re talking more than forty years ago so my recollections are a little hazy, but the first books I can remember reading were by Enid Blyton. I guess I was around the age of five when I started to read The Adventures of the Wishing-Chair. When the wings first sprouted on the chair’s legs, thus opening a world of adventure for the children who owned it (who probably had names like Fanny and Polly and Dick and James), something sparked inside me, something that still burns all these years later.

The flames were fanned by The Enchanted Wood and The Magic Faraway Tree. I moved on to her books for older children and discovered a taste for adventures. A series of books (that I read over and over) about four children and a parrot that started with The Island of Adventure and ended with The River of Adventure. There was even one (The Mountain of Adventure) set in my homeland of Wales.

And The Famous Five. I remember the first day of the summer holidays when I must have been six or seven, my parents taking me to Smith’s to buy the next book in the series. I recall it cost me £0.25, but that probably represented a month’s pocket money. I took it home, read it the same day, pined for the next one. I got them all – all twenty-one – and read each of them more than once. ‘Lashings of ginger beer.’ Did they really say that?

I discovered other authors. Run For Your Life by David Line. Wonderful; I read it until it was falling apart. Some classics: The Three Musketeers, Coral Island, Robinson Crusoe. There were more, but my attention was diverted.

A new teacher started in our class. One afternoon, she gathered us around and began to read a book to us. A book about a land of snow and magic that could be reached through the back of a wardrobe. I was instantly captivated. The sense of wonder that began with Enid Blyton, the sense that anything is possible within the pages of a book, was firmly entrenched by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I soon acquired the book and the six others in the series, and read them over and over. I read them to my daughters when they were growing up as an excuse to read them again.

On entering my teens, I discovered shock horror authors like Guy N. Smith. James Herbert struck all the right notes with books like The Rats and The Fog.

Then I bought a book by a writer I hadn’t heard of that sounded promising: Carrie by Stephen King. It was good, but it was Salem’s Lot which cemented my love affair with Mr King’s books that continues to this day.

And there was Tolkien. My parents had a hardbook copy of The Lord of the Rings, complete with wonderful illustrations upon which Peter Jackson based many of the sets for his films. I now have my own copy and return to it every few years.

In my twenties, a friend lent me a book by someone called Terry Pratchett: The Colour of Magic. Instant addiction. Every now and then I give in to the urge to reread every Discworld book and fall in love with that world all over again.

And there are others, many others, way too many to mention them all. Here’s a few: Imajica by Clive Barker, anything by Bill Bryson and Iain Banks (and Iain M. Banks), Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell, Shadowland by Peter Straub, Christie’s Poirot novels and short stories. And there’s John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, Laurie Lee, Robert Heinlein, Gerald Durrell, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Frederick Forsyth, Philip K. Dick…

Reading has played such a big part in my life, it was almost inevitable that I would turn to writing fiction. My favourite books provide a means of escape from the trials and tribulations of real life. Writing serves a similar purpose, a sort of pressure-relief valve that also helps unclutter the jumble of my mind. And those authors and their books have had a profound effect on me, prompting awe, fear, sorrow, amazement, or simply entertaining me. I wanted to provoke the same emotions in others, though I’d settle for merely entertaining them. Sometimes mere entertainment is enough.