wot I red on my hols by alan robson (peregrinatio)
The Travelling Man
Neil Gaiman has spent most of his life telling lies for fun and profit. Hes very, very good at it and now hes given a master class where he tells everyone who has ears to hear the things that he is saying just how to do it for themselves. The Art of Storytelling:
is a brilliantly insightful meditation on just how a story is constructed. Partly its nuts and bolt stuff and partly its philosophical musings, (and even the nuts and bolt stuff is often expressed in metaphors because theres more than a little bit of airy fairyness involved in putting all the twiddly bits together). The whole thing adds up to a magnificent tutorial. I wish Id found it years ago.
Ever since I retired Ive been using my spare time to do a lot of writing. So far Ive written about 80,000 words of short stories (thats about the size of a novel). If you are interested in reading any of my stories, you will find them all at:
Through trial and error (mostly error) Ive learned a lot about how to make a story work on the page. Now that Ive listened to Neil discussing the tricks of the trade, Ive learned a lot more. Ill be very interested to see how my future stories develop as a result of what Ive learned from this masterclass.
Ive wrapped one of my stories around this article, because I can. I hope you enjoy it
* * * *
If travel broadens the mind, reflected Martin Van Buren to himself, then my mind must be about ten thousand miles across by now. Funny, but I don't feel any the wiser for it. He was sitting in the dubious comfort of an airport lounge helping himself to free food and drink while he waited for his flight to be called. If this is Thursday, he mused, which I'm almost certain that it is, then I think I must be in Berlin. He checked his boarding pass yes, he was in Berlin waiting for a flight to London.
His flight was called and he made his way to the gate. There was the usual hold up while unsophisticated passengers who were overburdened with inappropriate luggage blocked the aisle as they struggled to fit their over-stuffed and oddly shaped parcels into the overhead lockers. But eventually Martin, who had no carry-on bags, managed to reach his seat. He plucked the in-flight magazine from the seat pocket in front of him and settled down for a boring read on what he hoped would be an equally boring flight. Martin was not a fan of exciting flights. He'd experienced far too many of them in the past. These days boredom and stultifying routine were all he asked for.
The plane taxied away from the gate and the flight attendants gave the usual safety briefing. Martin paid no attention. He'd heard it so many times that the words were engraved on his soul. Then the plane accelerated down the runway and lifted itself gently into the waiting sky. The flight attendants scurried quickly round the cabin serving coffee and tea. As usual, they ignored Martin completely. He left them to their own devices and read his magazine. The magazine was even more dull than he'd expected it to be. He approved of that clearly the editor was unusually talented at commissioning articles of pointless tedium.
The flight was a short one and Martin had barely finished his magazine before they landed in London. As he left the plane, he checked his boarding pass. It seemed that the next leg of his journey would take him to Los Angeles where there was a connecting flight to Auckland on the far side of the world. He'd never actually been able to catch the boarding pass in the act of updating itself. No matter how long or how fixedly he stared at it, it always changed his flight details when he wasn't looking. These days he didn't bother about it, and he just went wherever it told him to go.
Because the London to Los Angeles flight was travelling into American territory, all the passengers had to go through the silly rigmarole that lulled Americans into a false sense of security. Passports and travel documents were scrutinised closely, and all the passengers were x-rayed and sometimes physically searched. Martin had no travel documents. He'd never been issued with a passport and visas were a complete mystery to him. He wandered casually along with everybody else. The security thugs ignored him completely and he passed through their check points without any fuss or bother.
The flight to Los Angeles would last for many hours and Martin knew that he would need more than an in flight magazine to sustain him. So he spent a happy few minutes browsing through the airport bookshop. Eventually he settled on a nice, fat fantasy novel, full of dark lords, ambiguous elves, wizards with pointy hats, enchanted swords that never needed sharpening and scurrying, heroic clichés on a quest to save the world. He could have just taken the book and left, but while he didn't mind walking past petty officials, he always felt a little pang of conscience about defrauding legitimate businesses so he took his book up to the counter and tried very hard to attract the attention of the lady behind the counter. Eventually, by dint of much throat clearing, finger tapping and bouncing of the book on the counter (fat fantasy novels are particularly useful for that) he finally managed to get her to recognise that he wanted to buy the book.
"That'll be £15, please" she said.
Martin took a £20 note from his wallet and gave it to her. She seemed rather surprised to be given actual money. "I've not seen one of these for ages," she said, holding it up to the light. "Most people use a plastic card these days."
Martin didn't have a plastic card he'd never been able to hold anybody's attention for long enough to apply for one. But actual cash money was no problem at all. He just took it when he needed it, though he was always careful to take it from places that nobody would condemn him for using. The wallets of traffic wardens and the pockets of pickpockets for example...
The lady behind the counter put his £20 note in the till. She didn't give him any change and she didn't offer to put the book in a bag for him. Clearly he'd drifted away from her consciousness again. Slightly annoyed, but not at all surprised, Martin picked up his book and made his way to the first class lounge. He didn't have a first class seat his boarding pass was always very parsimonious when it allocated him a seat but that didn't matter of course.
* * * *
Leviathan Wakes by the pseudonymous James S. A. Corey (who is half each of both Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is the first volume of a series known generically as The Expanse. Its a space opera in the grand old tradition and it is enormously popular. The novel was nominated for a Hugo award in 2012 and the SyFy Channel turned the books into a TV series in 2015.
There is much to admire about Leviathan Wakes, but I must admit that there were things about it that I really didnt like and I found it a little bit of a hard slog to force myself through to the very end. Like a lot of modern novels, this one is far too long.
Humanity has colonised Mars, the Moon and the Asteroid belt and in the process of doing so it has, not surprisingly, separated itself into several mutually antagonistic political factions. Earth, is governed by the United Nations. Mars is an independent republic. The two planets are competing superpowers (can you say America and the Soviet Union? I can the parallels are all too obvious) both of which meddle with and attempt to control the people who live in the Asteroid belt. These people (guess what? They are known as "Belters", now theres a surprise) have thin and elongated bodies because of their low-gravity environment. They are blue-collar workers who supply essential natural resources to the solar system. A loose political organisation called The Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), seeks to combat the Belt's exploitation at the hands of the Earth and Mars (the so-called inner planets or "Inners"). The inner planets consider the OPA to be a terrorist organization and tend to take appropriate measures against them. And so the stage is set for dirty deeds done in the name of political expediency.
Frank Miller, a detective, is looking for the daughter of a very rich inner planet wheeler and dealer. She came to the belt and then disappeared, who knows where? James Holden is a crew member of a freighter which has been hi-jacked by unknown people for unknown reasons but the results of the hi-jacking seem likely to lead to a system-wide war. So perhaps the reasons arent really that unknown, though you have to wonder about the psychological health of anyone whose motives make that a price worth paying
There is a lot to like about the book the politics are complex and subtle, the technology is realistic and the laws of physics are always obeyed. There are no good guys or bad guys, just guys with mixed motives. And its one of the best examples Ive ever seen of "show" rather than "tell". Nobody ever sits down and reels off an infodump. Instead, the reader has to figure out whats going on from small hints dropped here and there. Dont blink or youll miss a big clue. You really have to pay close attention to whats happening on the page. Small mysteries abound and many of them turn out to be much bigger and more important than anyone thought they could possibly be, though often you dont find that out until very much later.
But theres a lot to dislike about the book as well. All the police forces, military outfits and business conglomerates are organised along strict twentieth century American lines, and they even use twentieth century American slang to define and describe themselves. So, for example, all space ships have an executive officer (XO) and marines are still referred to as jarheads. If you take this on face value then I suspect that it might be seen as a failure of imagination (or maybe a failure of nerve) by the author(s).
On the other hand, because there are so very, very many of these kinds of references, I cant help wondering if perhaps the author(s) did it deliberately and that maybe the whole novel is actually an allegory, and that therefore, in some strange way, it really is about twentieth century America after all. Thats no bad thing in itself, of course, (though like J. R. R. Tolkien before me I have disliked allegory ever since I grew old enough to detect it) but casting such a story as science fiction has a horrible habit of getting in the way because it tends to obscure whatever message might be hiding in not so plain sight behind the window dressing the SF tropes that sit on top of the allegory make it much harder to decode what the story is actually trying to say. In a lot of ways, I think I might have preferred to read the real novel that I strongly suspect is hiding inside this one But, on the gripping hand, if the authors had written that novel I doubt that it would have had the popular appeal that the science fictional surface trappings impart to this one. As a result, it would probably have lapsed into obscurity. So it goes...
And then theres the thing that really, really, REALLY annoyed me to distraction the habit of abbreviating the names of the space ships. A ship called the Canterbury is almost always referred to as the Cant and the Rocinante is always called the Roci. I got so completely and thoroughly pissed off with this authorial tic that I wanted to haul out my ebook editor and start doing a global search and replace on both of them. But I couldnt because I was listening to an audio book and, as far as I know, you cant do that sort of thing with an audio book so I just had to put up with it, even though it made my ears bleed!
Leviathan Wakes is nowhere near as good as its more rabid fans would have you believe. On the other hand, it is a rattling good yarn, with a rather subtle and pointed subtext, and thats nothing to be ashamed of or to sneer at.
Robert Silverberg is amazingly prolific. Just when you think youve read all of his books, another one pops up and takes you by surprise. Letters From Atlantis is an epistolary novel that was originally published in 1990. I missed it the first time round and it wasnt until I stumbled across the new ebook edition from Gateway that I even knew it existed at all! Its a thoroughly enjoyable, though ultimately rather lightweight, book.
The premise is that travellers can be sent back in time as discorporeal minds. They settle themselves in the minds of contemporaries in the time they are visiting and they experience the events of the time from the perspective of the person whose mind they are inhabiting.
The story is conveyed in a series of letters written by Roy Colton who has travelled back some 18,000 years to occupy the mind of an Atlantean prince. Physically, the letters are written by the Prince because, of course, Roy no longer has a body of his own to write them with. And there, we have the first of several existential dilemmas the Prince knows he is writing the letters but he does not (and can not) know why. Furthermore, the letters are in an unknown language so clearly he must be under the control of an unknown entity. A god? A demon? Something else? How will he solve that particular puzzle and will he go mad doing it? In the hands of a lesser writer than Silverberg, I suspect that the Prince might well have ended up a gibbering wreck. However Silverberg is a much more subtle writer than that. The Prince accepts his altered state and eventually strikes a bargain with the entity in his mind, to their mutual advantage.
Its a clever little story with quite a few unexpected twists.
David Downing writes rather dark spy/crime novels most of which are set in and around the 1930s in Nazi Germany. Diary of a Dead Man on Leave is his latest book and its a brilliant tale of the impact of political uncertainty on the lives of ordinary people.
The premise is quite fascinating it is 1938 and a German-born Comintern agent who is using the name Josef Hofmann has been sent to the small German town of Hamm with orders to make contact with, and potentially reactivate the communist cell that once operated there. He takes lodging with Frau Gersdorff and gets a job in the railway yards. He quickly befriends the Fraus son, eleven year old Walter Gersdorff. Fifty years later, the house in which Walter and his mother lived is demolished and Josefs diary is found cleverly concealed in the wreckage. Walter, now an old man, reads it and re-lives his childhood through the eyes of Josef. Much that was obscure to him then (because he was a child) becomes a lot clearer now. Old sorrows are re-visited and old decisions are re-examined.
During that fateful year of 1938 Josef kept an almost daily diary. On the face of it, that is a very silly thing for a secret agent to do, particularly since the diary contains many tradecraft details and thoughts about the double life of a secret agent. Its an incriminating document and if the diary should ever be found the authorities wouldnt even have to bother with a show trial. Theyd just shoot Josef out of hand. But Josef has his reasons for keeping a record of events (he explains those reasons very well in the diary) and hes quite sure that he has a secure hiding place for it. He is confident it will never be found and that confidence is not misplaced. After all, the diary does not turn up until fifty years have gone by and almost everyone mentioned in it has long since died including, one presumes, Josef himself. (There are hints in the diary that Josef does not expect to live out the year). But in the end, the diary is only found by accident because the hiding place that Josef chose for it has been demolished. So perhaps keeping the diary in the first place was not quite such a silly thing for him to do after all
Theres a striking verisimilitude to Josefs diary. It records the daily lives of ordinary people who are just trying to make ends meet. We see how they live, what they think, what they eat, what they drink and how they entertain themselves. And, of course, we see how the political machinery of the Nazi government infiltrates itself into their lives whether they like it or not nobody is immune. Walters older brother is sentenced to six months in a labour camp for a very trivial crime and Walter himself is given school homework that requires him to write essays that are little more than naive propaganda that regurgitates standard phrases about the glory of the Reich.
Josef also talks about many real (historical) events as they are happening. He records the vast disappointment everyone felt when Germanys boxing hero Max Schmeling lost his fight with Americas Joe Louis. Josef also tells us about the impact of the Munich Agreement, and the Kristallnacht from the perspective of a person who is actually living through these things as they happen and who cannot (yet) see what they will lead to (though, to be fair, he has his suspicions the closely analytic Marxist view of history sometimes leads to surprising insights).
All of these things paint a remarkable picture of life in Nazi Germany just before the second world war and, as a result, the book is a wonderful unputdownable page turner.
Jack Schaefer wrote westerns and his reputation largely rests on his first, and most famous, novel Shane which was published in 1949. It was made into a movie starring Alan Ladd and it brought Jack Schaefer lots of fame and (I hope) lots of fortune. However Ive always much preferred the novel Monte Walsh which he wrote in 1963.
Monte Walsh chronicles the high days of the American West from the late nineteenth century and on into the early years of the twentieth century when the old ways of life finally started to fade away. We see all this through the character of Monte Walsh himself who runs away from an abusive home life in his early teens and who then lives through all those years until he finally dies in 1913.
Monte and his friend Chet work as trail hands throughout the west. They learn to cope with the hard life of a cowboy as they meet blizzards, rustlers, outlaws, and card games that go badly wrong. They drink and they screw without a thought for the next day they are just living life as it finds them. It sounds like a cliché (and in other, less skilful, hands it would be) but in the series of short stories and vignettes that make up this very long novel the whole history of the American West comes gloriously to life. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the terrible food and the even worse whiskey are all brilliantly evoked; and towering over everything is the sheer beauty of the country itself. I first read this book when I was a teenager in the early 1960s and it completely blew me away. I was more than a little uncertain about reading it again today. After all, I havent been a teenager for more than fifty years, and I was scared that the suck fairy might have visited the book when I wasnt looking. But I neednt have worried. It absolutely blew me away all over again. The book hasnt lost any of its magic. The writer Dana Stabenow called it "...one of the perfect novels" and I have no quarrel with that statement.
And if you dont cry when you get to the end, then you arent human!
The blurb on Phaedra Patricks novel The Library of Lost and Found was so intriguing that I really wanted to read it. But the publisher, Park Row Books, is an offshoot of Harlequin who are the publishers of romance novels. Would the book turn out to be a nothing but a bodice ripper? I neednt have worried. It held me enthralled from beginning to end and I was sorry when it was all over. If thats not a description of a brilliantly told story, I dont know what is.
Martha Storm lives alone in the house where she grew up. She had looked after her parents here in their final illnesses, but now they are gone and all that she has left are memories. Many of the memories are packed away in boxes objects from her childhood and from the lives of her parents. Martha is a hoarder. Much as she would like to, she simply cannot bring herself to throw these memories away.
Martha works as a librarian she finds it easy to live inside stories and correspondingly much harder to live in the outside world, though she does try her best. She has a notebook filled with lists of the tasks she needs to do to help various people who, she feels, depend on her, but somehow the tasks seldom get properly finished
And then one day a book of fairy tales arrives on her doorstep. Its in terrible condition the binding has been ripped off and pages are falling out. But theres an inscription in the front of it, a dedication written to Martha herself and signed and dated by Marthas grandmother Zelda who was Marthas best friend when she was a small child. But theres a mystery here. The inscription is dated two years after Zelda died.
Martha embarks on a quest to find out where the book came from and just what had happened to Zelda. In the process she is forced to delve deeply into her family history. The things she discovers there arent always pleasant. There has been a lot of pain in her life, much of which was caused by her fathers unbending, rigid control over every aspect of both her own life and the life of her mother. He was a bully and a martinet and the scars he left on Marthas soul have never properly healed. Confession time I could see a lot of my own father in the behaviour of Marthas dad, but unlike her I did manage to escape from my fathers influence, though I had to come to the far side of the world to finally get away from it all. So I have a very clear understanding of just how Martha turned into the person that she is. There but for the grace of God go I .
But despite all that doom and gloom, there was much joy in Marthas world as well, a lot of it of it due to Zelda. Understandably, Martha was quite devastated when Zelda disappeared from her life.
Martha learns a lot about the history of the damaged book of fairy tales she found on her doorstep. Towards the end of the novel she even discovers exactly how and why the binding on this copy got torn off! As a result of what she finds, she learns to come to terms with her own life and to start healing the wounds left by her upbringing. She even learns how to start throwing things away! By the end of the book we have stopped feeling sorry for her and we are thrilled by the way she has taken back control of her life.
There are no big themes here. The book is just a story about ordinary people living ordinary lives full of ordinary triumphs and tragedies. And that is what I liked about it. Its a perfect little jewel of a book that dragged me in and simply wouldnt let me go.
Mario Puzo wrote one utterly brilliant book (The Godfather), one pretty good book (The Sicilian) and half a dozen mediocre and instantly forgettable novels. Ive read The Godfather at least ten times and every single time I read it Im overwhelmed by the brilliance of it. Ive seen all three of the movies that were made from it the second movie is even better than the first and even the third movie is pretty damn good, though it is rather mediocre in comparison to the brilliance of the first two. And now Ive listened to the audiobook of The Godfather while Ive been walking my dog, and Ive enjoyed it all over again.
Im not going to summarise the story for you. Unless youve spent the last forty years living under a rock you know perfectly well what its all about. Instead I want to talk about the experience of listening to the audiobook
Ive long been aware that when I read a story my eye has a tendency to skip over huge chunks of it, highlighting a key word here and there so that I pick up the gist of whats going on. Thats probably why I am able to read so many books so very quickly. Ive been a skim reader all my life. In my teens I would read a dozen books a week and still have plenty of time left over to play with my friends, do my homework and watch television. My reading slowed down a lot when I got to university (you simply cant skim read advanced text books) and while Ive speeded up again since then, Ive never quite managed to get back to the reading speed I had in my teens. As a result of all this, although I can legitimately say that I have read such-and-such a book, and I can generally talk intelligently about what I found in its pages, I cannot honestly say that I have ever read every word in any given story.
But audiobooks are a very different kettle of fish. You cant run your ear rapidly down a page and pick up the gist of what you are listening to. You simply have to listen to every single word. (Even if I zone out and miss some of it, I usually find myself going back a bit to re-listen to the zoned out portion). In the case of The Godfather I found that this requirement added a lot to my appreciation of the story. I learned to admire the clever phrasing, the perfect pacing and the little bits of business that shone a light on each and every character.
This effect works best with novels you are already familiar with. Rather than concentrating on the events of the story (as you must do with a book that is new to you), you can concentrate on the structure of the story instead. Because you already know "what happens" you have a lot more time to appreciate just how the author managed to make those things happen. And the more familiar you are with the original story, the more you can appreciate this effect. This month I also listened to Len Deightons The Ipcress File, a novel Ive read so many times that I can quote vast verbatim chunks of it to you sight unseen, and I found the exactly same effect with that as well it was just like meeting an old friend in the pub and reminiscing about the good old days.
And now Ive started to listen to James Clavells Shogun, another book Ive read countless times before. The blurb informs me that that the audiobook lasts for fifty-three hours. Thats an awful lot of dog walking...
I first came across Nicholas Parsons in the 1950s when he turned up on television as the stooge for a rather mediocre comedian called Arthur Haynes. Haynes died very young and that left Nicholas Parsons all on his own at a bit of a loose end. But over the next few years he kept popping up here and there and eventually he ended up as the host of a very popular comedy radio programme/quiz show called Just a Minute. Hes actually been the host of this programme for more than sixty years which I think is pretty good going. Hes become a British institution. Everybody knows him and everybody loves him. My Life in Comedy is his autobiography. I strongly suggest that you dont read a word of it.
On the one hand it is a typical theatrical autobiography, full of lists of obscure plays that hes appeared in and with lots of gushing praise for the actors hes supported and the actors who have supported him. On the other hand, it does have some thoughtful insights into just what it is that makes an actor an actor, and to that extent I suppose that its a worthy tome. But on the gripping hand, its also one long and very bitter whinge about all the brilliant ideas that Nicholas Parsons has had for comedy programmes over the years and how everybody has ripped him off by appropriating his ideas and making vast amounts of money for themselves from them, leaving him out in the cold. I started the book with a lot of admiration for Nicholas Parsons, but by the time I got to the end of it I was rather starting to despise him and thats really not what an autobiography is supposed to do.
Nick Mason was (is) the drummer for Pink Floyd. He was there at the very beginning when the band first formed and hes been there behind his drum kit through all the changes of personnel and the bitter in-fighting that kept threatening to tear the group apart. And hes still there today, though the band now really exists in name only. So hes uniquely suited to tell the history of Pink Floyd and in Inside Out thats exactly what hes done.
The book is subtitled A Personal History of Pink Floyd and, in his own words, Nick Mason has used it to tell a tale that is "...hopefully a rather funny book about a serious band.". In my opinion, hes succeeded in his aim magnificently.
Pink Floyd have always had a sense of humour about themselves that has often manifested itself in their music. I defy anyone to listen without laughing to a track called Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict (from the album Ummagumma). And because my name is Alan, I always smile heartily at Alans Psychedelic Breakfast ("Marmalade? I like marmalade") from Atom Heart Mother.
Ive been a fan of Pink Floyd since I listened to their very first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I had never heard of the band, but I stumbled across the album in a record shop and I bought it purely on the strength of the title which I recognised as a chapter title from Kenneth Grahames The Wind in the Willows, a book I greatly admire. I was absolutely blown away by the music and from there on in I made it my business to buy their albums as soon as they appeared in the shops.
The driving force behind Pink Floyd in those days was Syd Barrett. However he became progressively more unsettled and unstable and, following a (probably) drug-induced nervous breakdown in 1968, he was, for all practical purposes, forced out of the band. He was replaced by Dave Gilmour, who was himself a very talented musician, but I cant help feeling that a lot of the magic went out of Pink Floyd when Barrett left the band. To this day I much prefer the albums from the Barrett era I possess, and have listened to, every album that Pink Floyd ever made (they were not a hugely prolific band, they only made fifteen albums) and while I admire all of their work, it is the early Syd Barrett albums that I return to time and time and time again.
The book is by turns both serious and funny Nick Mason is a master raconteur and he tells a good definitive tale. If you are at all interested in the music of Pink Floyd I doubt that you could do better than to read this book.
* * * *
The flight wound its weary way through the sky, engines thrumming as it ate up the miles to Los Angeles. Martin lost himself in his novel. Occasionally, as a flight attendant wheeled a trolley past him, he helped himself to food and drink. And then the moment he'd been half expecting arrived. The man sitting next to him finally noticed he was there. Spending many hours in close proximity to him seemed to reveal rather more of him to other people than was normally the case.
"Good book?" asked the man in a broad American accent.
Martin groaned inwardly. Americans were the worst travelling companions. They seemed actually to enjoy speaking to total strangers and often it was quite impossible to shut them up. Martin much preferred the very reserved British who generally refused to talk to anybody they hadn't been properly introduced to.
"Yes," he said. "It's really quite exciting."
"Gee," said the man, "that's an interesting accent you've got. Where are you from?"
"Holland," said Martin. "I was born in Amsterdam."
Martin could almost see the wheels turning in the American's skull. Oh no, he thought. Please not again. I've heard what you are about to say far too many times... But his prayers were in vain.
"Holland," said the predictable American. "So you're a Dutchman and you're on an airplane. That must make you the Flying Dutchman!" He collapsed into snorts of happy laughter.
"Yes," said Martin through gritted teeth. "That's exactly who I am."
|Neil Gaiman||The Art of Storytelling||Masterclass|
|James S. A. Corey||Leviathan Wakes||Orbit/Audible|
|Robert Silverberg||Letters from Atlantis||Gateway|
|David Downing||Diary of a Dead Man on Leave||Soho Crime|
|Jack Schaefer||Monte Walsh||Bison Books|
|Phaedra Patrick||The Library of Lost and Found||Park Row Books|
|Mario Puzo||The Godfather||Arrow/Audible|
|Nicholas Parsons||My Life in Comedy||Weidenfeld & Nicolson|
|Nick Mason||Inside Out - The Story of Pink Floyd||Chronicle|