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Review: The Yellow Birds

I don’t read much war literature, but something about The Yellow Birds grabbed me.

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Maybe it’s the book’s intriguing title or its captivatingly simple cover. Perhaps it was because it won The Guardian’s First Book Award, and the first four pages are filled with praise from Homeland’s Damian Lewis, Man Booker Prize winner, Hilary Mantel, and BBC Radio 2’s Simon Mayo, as well as being named one of the Books of the Year by publications like New York Times, Scotsman and Evening Standard.

Likely, it was because it answers one simple question about Iraq: What was it like over there?

Kevin Powers, a former machine gunner for the US Army, delivers an affecting, haunting and beautifully-realised novel that deserves all the accolades it’s received.

The Yellow Birds somehow manages to describe the indescribable with layered, rhythmic prose and minimalist-but-effective dialogue. The plot is pleasingly simple yet focussed as one soldier makes a promise he can’t possibly keep to a fellow soldier’s mother: “I promise I’ll bring him home to you.”Powers masterfully uses this inevitability to play with the reader with a refreshingly non-linear narrative that gives insight into the life of Private John Bartle; not just during the war, but also after he comes home – if you can call it that.

The book cleverly cements the idea that fighting in Iraq, and that question, is just the beginning – and, paradoxically, the end. We’ve, perhaps, become desensitised somewhat to the endless war, and to the fact that a human life is transformed entirely when he or she becomes a soldier. I was horrified over many of the book’s details as it trod the line between fiction and fact. It’s visceral and choking, but always honest and thought-provoking.

The way Powers questions what is right and what is wrong resonates long after you turn the final page.

But when Bartle comes home, essentially an empty shell, it’s just as surprising. What do soldiers do once the war has passed them by? How do they feel as we celebrate their homecomings after they’ve left their friends behind, broken and dead? And what happens once we forget about them?

Of course, this all sounds deeply depressing, but Powers balances out the terror, the chaos and the numbness with blindingly beautiful writing; his varying sentence structure, poetic language, and emotive descriptions. The examination of relationships from-the-heart. It all contrasts so wonderfully with the raw and vivid circumstances, the rough and crude dialogue.

The Yellow Birds rounds off satisfactorily, as if you’re leaving a friend in his new-found calmness. It’s powerful and heart-breaking. It would take a stone heart to weather the journey without at least a tear in the eye.

The concluding reading group questions are a bit jarring – but then, I’ve never been in a reading group. Maybe they act as an ideal ‘Starter for Ten.’ The interview with Kevin is a worthy addition, however, as the author admits: “the cliché, in my case, was true: I thought that the army would ‘make me a man’.”

It’s a very personal book but one with speaks harsh truths about humanity during wartime, and Powers’  concluding passage, in which he briefly mulls over his own writing experience, underlines the novel’s importance: forever a reminder.

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Posted by on December 29, 2013 in Books

 

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Interview: Bristol Science Fiction Writer, Tim Maughan

I arrive at the Watershed, armed with a notepad full of questions for local science fiction writer, Tim Maughan. His work – principally the short story collection, Paintwork, but also Limited Edition, written for New Scientist’s Arc magazine and shortlisted for a British Science Fiction Association award – is a glimpse into a possible future, mixing the concerns of today with the technology of tomorrow.

Tim Maughan

His writing is inspired by some of the sci-fi greats, including Neuromancer’s William Gibson, Fahrenheit-451 writer, Ray Bradbury, and J. G. Ballard, most famous for Crash. A copy of Ballard’s High-Rise waits for me at home.

I’ve prepared some less-probing questions, ready to ease Tim into the interview; everyday trivia that’s never going to make it into the final article, but nonetheless breaks the ice and allows us both to get to know each other. Standard stuff. But when we sit down on the balcony overlooking Bristol Harbour, I realise I don’t need that notepad. Tim’s enthusiasm is there from the get-go, and we’re discussing the merits of those classic science fiction authors straight away.

I quickly put the Dictaphone on and, an hour-and-a-half or so later, realise that this interview is something special: certainly the most extensive I’ve ever had the pleasure of conducting.
I touch upon Paintwork’s main character, 3Cube, whose art – graffiti utilising QR Codes – pulls Bristolians of tomorrow back to a more innocent time. I tell Tim I felt somewhat nostalgic at this prospect – but was this his intention?

“I guess nostalgia’s applicable,” he replies, mulling it over. “I think the idea there was that 3Cube’s artwork is maybe too optimistic or naive. He’s told that by one of the other characters in the story. I was really trying to write about authenticity in that story and about wanting to define what authenticity was. There was a review – it was on Good Reads, I think – of someone who really hated that story; they accused me of being a hipster, that I was saying it was only authentic if it wasn’t digital and it was analogue… and that wasn’t it at all. I was suggesting some people feel like that but I wasn’t trying to say that that’s how I felt at all.”

Paintwork 1

This brings me onto an idea that fascinates me: that once your writing is read by other people, it’s no longer yours. Everybody puts their own stamp on it; everyone brings something to it. No text is created in a vacuum – and no text is read in one either.

“It’s something that, as writer, you have zero control over,” Tim concedes. “You don’t. And I’ve seen really positive reviews of my stuff where people have come away with things that I didn’t think were in the story, as well as negative reviews. There was a really good review of Limited Edition a few months ago… I was kind of pleased actually because [the reviewer] came away thinking at times he was rooting for the characters and then he had to shake himself and realise that he shouldn’t be! And I like that. I like that he felt like that. You should be rooting for the characters, but at the same time, you shouldn’t. But it’s not their fault that they’re like that – and that’s the situation they’re in… So you have no control over that and I also like to deliberately be very ambiguous, especially about moral issues and issues like authenticity.”

Limited Edition tells the story of the Bristol riots from a looter’s viewpoint. It also raises an important question about if main characters have to be likeable – and even about whether the reader can be won over. I’m reading Neil Cross’ Burial at the moment, which examines an accidental murder. You disagree with what Nathan, the central protagonist, has done, but due to Cross’ sterling narrative, you root for him regardless. It’s an odd situation to be in. Similarly, I was disgusted at the riots a few years ago, believing that peaceful protest is the way forward. But listening to Tim talk so passionately about consumerism and expectations, and reading his short story, I can now sympathise with Limited Edition’s main character.

Art by Robert Carter

Art by Robert Carter

“I think if readers aren’t coming up with their own takes on my stuff, then I’m probably not being ambiguous enough. And it’s tough in science fiction, because I found a lot of readers and some critics don’t like ambiguity. They’re not interested in it. They want everything to be framed ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ They want heroes,” he explains. “There was a review a few months ago of Paintwork and one of the reviewers wasn’t happy with how I portrayed Paul in Havana Augmented as a hero. And I didn’t know that I had. I hadn’t set out to portray him as a hero. They were unhappy with the ending; he goes into this re-education camp, he’s treated well… But what about all the other people in the camp? It was a fair point, but I didn’t think that I was saying he should’ve been treated well. He was treated well in the camp because he was seen as this national hero – was that right? Have his actions damaged Cuba? But I don’t want to ram points home to people; I want people to come away with their own opinions. That’s fine.”

He argues that this definite line between hero and villain is linked to comic book culture, but says that he’s got used to dealing with what readers bring to his own writing. “It’s always interesting to me to hear what people think about your own stuff [but] I had to come to terms with it a bit,” Tim says, and recalls his main concern initially: “Does this mean I’m not getting my point across or does it mean that I can’t get my point across without ramming it home to people? And I don’t ever want to ram anything home to anyone. I sometimes joke about it with a friend of mine; sometimes, it feels like you can only be ambiguous if you spell out that you’re being ambiguous! I write the stuff, chuck it out there, people like it, don’t like it, have their own opinions on it – I have to learn to live with that. And that’s fine; I’m quite happy with that.”

Paintwork 2

Still, this ambiguity can be an issue when it comes to offending others.

“I got some probably fair criticism for not including female characters enough in my stories, but part of what I was trying to write about was male pride, and the role of young men in urban society; how they struggle with having significance and standing out and making their mark on things,” he says. “It goes back to this idea of showing who you are in a society where consumerism is more important than self-expression.”

The fact is, readers will always bring themselves to a text – and that’s not really a bad thing. “If people are talking about it, then it’s worked,” he concludes.

You can read my full three-part interview with Tim over at Guide2Bristol. In Part One, we discuss his sci-fi influences, most notably Ballard, while in Part Two, we talk about what it means to be Cyberpunk and how celebrity culture has affected his work. And, in Part Three, we conclude by mulling over the relevance of 1980s ideals, if the landscape of Paintwork is the future he wants to live in, and what’s next for Tim.

And you can read Limited Edition here and watch the short film based on Paintwork here.

(Thanks to Tim Maughan and Guide2Bristol’s Rudy Millard.)

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2013 in Books, Interview, Published work

 

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Top 10 books I read in 2012

I read a lot of books, a lot of graphic novels, a lot of comics. It’s my craft; it’s what I love.

What I read, obviously, influences what I write (and vice versa), and so pinpointing the ten best books I read last year helps me focus on what I like in a story. It seems variety is the key! So, in no particular order…

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Cast of Sherlock

The massively-successful Sherlock TV series on BBC1, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, spurred me on to discover the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – and I’m so glad it did! A Study in Scarlet was a revelation, and I eagerly picked up The Sign of Four. I now have all the Sherlock books, and so I began 2012 by reading the third book in the series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It’s the first of the short story compilations, and once again, Doyle’s wonderfully easy but genius style made it an absolute pleasure to spend time with Holmes and Watson. This year, I’ll endeavour to read the next three books, ready for Sherlock returning to screen.

Fahrenheit 451

I picked this up on a whim, but it started my love of Ray Bradbury’s writing. It’s such a cliche (a phrase which, ironically, has also become cliche!) but Fahrenheit 451 really spoke to me. The level of thought that had gone into the novel, the amount of love and passion, came through instantly. It’s a book about a world without books. It’s a terrifying thought, but you completely buy into it. It’s still as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1953, if not more so.

Crooked House

Gemma Arterton is set to star in the film adaptation of Crooked House

Gemma Arterton is set to star in the film adaptation of Crooked House

Agatha Christie, whom I’ve been a fan of for quite some time now, is brilliant. I love her work, and The Agatha Christie Book Collection is a perfect way to fuel my imagination and fascination. Crooked House is so ingenious, it blew me away. Nothing is quite how you expect. (Although my Mum figured out who the murderer is, I hadn’t got a clue!) It’s a surprisingly disturbing novel, and the end is really shocking. It’s the definition of a ‘whodunit.’

Fatherland

Fatherland

What if the Nazis had won?

Once the notion was planted in my head, I couldn’t escape from it. I needed to pick up this book by Robert Harris. It’s so simple – why hasn’t every novelist done it before?! Maybe because they couldn’t beat the quality of Fatherland. In its anniversary year, I couldn’t put this down – even if, with German insignia on the front, it made me look like a Nazi sympathiser!

The Girl on the Landing

I’d read Paul Torday’s previous novels (his first, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, being his most famous) but this altogether different. It’s more disturbing than those that preceded it, and leaves a lot to the imagination – but that just makes it more unsettling.

The lead character is a normal, boring bloke – until he sees the titular girl on the landing, who may or may not be real. Things soon spiral out of control and you soon can’t put the book down.
Though The Irresistible Inheritance of Wiberforce is my favourite of Torday’s books, The Girl on the Landing is up there with the best.

Mack The Life

Lee Mack is, by far, my favourite comedian, and his autobiography is hilarious. In fact, it’s the first autobiography I’ve ever read in its entirety; I’ve tried others, sure, but they’ve never gripped me as much as this one.

For all my thoughts on this revealing book, take a look at my review for The British Comedy Guide.

Casino Royale

Casino Royale

Spurred on by the exceptional Skyfall (and watching Daniel Craig’s previous outings as the famous MI6 agent), I was surprised at the debut of James Bond in Casino Royale. It was everything Bond encompasses, but it was also sensitive and heartfelt. The main action was over midway through the novel, but Casino Royale is about Bond falling in love: a brave step to start out an action/thriller series. Live and Let Die waits for me on the bookshelf.

The Ghost

I nabbed The Ghost, another book by Robert Harris, when it was on offer at Waterstones for just £2.99, and I’m massively glad I did!

The Ghost

Harris’ style is pacy and pleasing, intriguing but warm. The interaction between characters is just as important as the mystery behind the new PM, Adam Lang. It really got me into the conspiratorial mindset for my script, A Writer’s Retreat, and was a thoroughly entertaining novel.

The Illustrated Man

Ray Bradbury came up with the clever idea of bookending a collection of short stories with an intensely unsettling tale of the Illustrated Man, whose tattoos come alive and tell the chilling and thought-provoking tales.

It’s especially interesting to see Bradbury’s exploration and obsession with this idea as just last week, I finished reading Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s also interesting to note how Bradbury’s writing style changes – and yet stays the same, or, at the very least, recognisably Bradbury. Perhaps this is because his fairytale-esque tinged with horror tone comes through in whatever he writes?

Doctor Who: The Silent Stars Go By

Ice Lord

The final novel I read in 2012 was this considerable narrative by Dan Abnett, which sees Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond, and Arthur Darvill’s Rory Williams come up against one of the Doctor’s most-notable enemies, the Ice Warriors.

It was a real pleasure to read, with great characterisation, a well-thought-out plot, a big twist or two, and a wonderfully creepy-yet-beautiful backdrop. While the ending wasn’t perfect, the novel, as a whole, is a gem – and a must-read for Doctor Who fans!

 
 

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The Immortal Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

Ray Bradbury, perhaps best-known for his novels and short story collections including Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes, died in Los Angeles on 5th June 2012, at the age of 91. He wrote 27 novels and over 600 short stories, a bibliography and success that any writer would love to have to their name.

“When he was 12, Bradbury had a chance encounter with circus entertainer named “Mr. Electrico” who did a wild routine with static electricity. Twelve is an age when young men with imagination are especially impressionable, and Bradbury was enthralled by Mr. Electrico’s act.

At the conclusion, Mr. Electrico pointed his electrified sword at Bradbury and touched his nose, making his hair stand on end. As the sparks flew, Mr. Electrico exclaimed “Live forever!”

Bradbury said when he went home, he began to write his fiction, and he wrote every day for the rest of his life. He later realized that subconsciously, he had found the way to make Mr. Electrico’s command come true.

Through his literature, Ray Bradbury does live forever.”

–          Lou Antonello, RIP Ray Bradbury; The Daily Tribune.

I first came across Bradbury just this year. But it’s incredible how one chance encounter with Fahrenheit 451 has changed my view of the landscape. Though I’d heard of it before, I didn’t quite know what the book was about, but the cover intrigued me, so I picked it up and scrolled through the blurb.

‘FAHREHEIT 451: the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns.’

That first line blazed away any preconceptions that this was just any other book. I read on: ‘Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness.’ I didn’t need to read the rest of the blurb; this dystopian society was haunting and horrible instantly – and an extension of a few concerns that had been batting around in my head for a while.

The Times calls it: “A disturbing tale that explores the maxim, ‘ignorance is bliss.’” Kingsley Amis summed it up as “the most skilfully-drawn of all science fiction’s conformist hells.” Both those statements are true, of course.  But to balance out the hell, there’s also great hope.

Guy is in it deep; certainly from the first few stunning paragraphs, he’s the Man Beyond Redemption. But for book-lovers (and who else would be reading it?), that world doesn’t feel right. In fact, for anyone, that world doesn’t feel right. But maybe book-lovers can feel it more. And we’re represented there, amidst the flames: a glowing dedication and love for this intangible force presented to us each time we open a cover.

I discussed this a few years ago in college. Why are stories important? They make us human. And Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most human books I’ve ever read.

Soon, I found The Illustrated Man, a collection of short stories with a bookending narrative about a man whose body is caressed with tattoos – tattoos that move and tell stories. Here, Bradbury presented me with fairytales and wonder, but tinged with a chilling sense of doom. (And notice I say me, not us. Because Ray’s books speak to you personally.) Truths we should all face up to. Here’s the perfect illustration of what Bradbury does:

“Yet the Illustrated Man has tried to burn the illustrations off. He’s tried sandpaper, acid and a knife. Because, as the sun sets, the pictures glow like charcoals, like scattered gems. They quiver and come to life. Tiny pink hands gesture, tiny mouths flicker as the figures enact their stories – voices rise, small and muted, predicting the future.”

Something terrible and magnificent at the same time. And this theme carries on throughout the book. Kaleidoscope gives us a beautiful image that might haunt our subconscious every time we look up at the stars. The Playground feels real and troubling, but also signals the brilliant bravery and love we feel around our family. The Long Rain is creepy and bleak, evaluating what life might be like when we step out onto other planets, but makes you realise how lucky we are.

I was surprised to see that Wikipedia list The Veldt (or The World the Children Made) as ‘children’s literature.’ Opening my edition of The Illustrated Man, it’s an incredible tale that shows what future technology might offer kids as they discover mortality. It’s genuinely shocking stuff.

I know certain themes run throughout Bradbury’s books, inevitably inspired by his life and, in particular, his childhood. This led Spiked! writer, Patrick West to say that:

“The great Bradbury longed for a future that would recapture the past.”

This nostalgia is just part of the rich tapestry that Ray weaves into his stories and, indeed, the world. To paraphrase a different genre of literacy, Sherlock Holmes says that we see, but we do not observe. But Ray Bradbury helps us observe.

Thank you, Ray.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2012 in Books

 

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My experience with publishers

Guest post by Marc Leverton.

Personally, I have found the experience of dealing with publishers to be fairly straight-forward.

I think one of the keys to this is that both of my books have been published by independent publishers. Things tend to be easier with them. They are smaller, easier to get through to and hopefully get fewer approaches from hopeful writers than the big publishing houses. My first book [How to work as a Freelance Journalist] was published by How To Books after I got chatting to them at the London Book Fair. I sent them a synopsis afterwards and was given the green light.

There are other advantages too: a small independent publisher is often hungrier and needs your book to do well. I have read countless authors complaining that their books have become ‘lost’ and have barely been promoted. ‘Indies’ have fewer overheads, so can spend more time focusing on you and your book. That is not to say that it is down to the publisher to promote your book; I think the author has to take more of the onus on now for promoting their books. Some authors are better at this than others.

There are similar rules for approaching any sized publisher: have a good synopsis and show them that you have researched the potential market for your book. One thing that I will say is not to rely on your advance for making a living; the six figure sums you see in The Bookseller are only for the lucky few. I heard recently that most authors make around £5,000 per year from their books. So it is probably wise to keep that other job on for a little while yet until the writing career really takes off.

The Naked Guide to Bristol

Having sung the praises of independents, I am now in the lucky situation of having an agent who is doing all the donkey work of finding a publisher for my third book. I am hoping they will find me a bigger deal, with a bigger advance and find me a Publisher with more marketing clout. The theory is that they get you a better deal than you would get for yourself, which pays for their 10%. Plus they have more contacts in publishing, increasing the chances of success. Having done the work for myself in the past, I appreciate someone else’s faith in my work. I just hope that it pays off.

Marc Leverton is a freelance writer, who lives and works in and around Bristol. Aside from lecturing for Bath Spa University, he has written for The Guardian, Venue, Bristol Review of Books, and many more as a freelance journalist. He also worked as Publisher on The Big Issue for six years.

Since going freelance in 2006, Marc has written two books, and is currently working on his third (after a stint as a ghostwriter). How to work as a freelance journalist is an essential, comprehensive guide to the industry, while Banksy: Myths and Legends looks at the mysteries surrounding the influential graffiti artist, packed with fun facts and fantastic photos. He was also a contributor and co-editor of the 2011 update of The Naked Guide to Bristol. You can follow him on Twitter, or visit his blog.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2012 in Guest Posts

 

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10 writers you should follow on Twitter

The main advantage of Twitter is that you can talk to and gain experience from some of the big names in any industry. And writing being my speciality…

Just think of it as a big #ff (follow Friday).

1.       Steven Moffat

@steven_moffat

Do you really have to ask? The Moff is the showrunner of Doctor Who and Sherlock, and has written some of the best television of all time. Why aren’t you following him already?

Typical tweet:

“About to do Sherlock interviews in Paris but WITHOUT @ Markgatiss. It’ll all be bad taste and no erudition.”

2.       Stan Lee

@TheRealStanLee

The living legend himself. Stan “The Man” Lee created Spider-man, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four – and countless more! He’s a true hero of mine.

Typical tweet:

“Wouldja believe I once got a royalty check for ONE CENT?!! They spent more than that to send it to me!”

Stan is The Man

3.       Tom MacRae

@tommacwriter

He burst onto the scene with Doctor Who: Rise of the Cybermen/ Age of Steel (2006) with Russell T. Davies as his mentor, but has since written for the 11th Doctor (in The Girl Who Waited) and created a hit sitcom for Comedy Central UK: Threesome.

Typical tweet:                  

“Email spam today: ‘Did You Know You Could Make A Living As A Full-Time Writer?’. Yes. I did, thanks.”

4.       Simon Guerrier

@0tralala

Science-fiction and freelance writer, who sums himself up as a ‘glorified typist.’ He’s written for many mediums and edited Big Finish’s Short Trips range. My favourite book of his is The Time Travellers: all wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey!

Typical tweet:

“Transcribing an interview. Increasingly annoyed by my own nervy failure to ask a simple question.”

5.       Ben Aaronovitch

@Ben_Aaronovitch

Ben wrote the amazing Remembrance of the Daleks, but you’ll probably know his books better as best-sellers in WHSmith and Waterstones: Rivers of London; Moon over Soho and the upcoming Whispers Underground.

Typical tweet:

“The #halifax – screwing our customers because we can!”

6.       Gareth Roberts

@OldRoberts953

Screenwriter whose Doctor Who credits include: The Shakespeare Code; The Unicorn and the Wasp and The Lodger. He’s also written the novel, Shada, based on the work of Douglas Adams – and is getting rave reviews from everyone! He comments on TV a lot.

Typical tweet:

“Thank you midnight downloaders of #Shada. No idea who Kindle author Gareth Adams Douglas Roberts is. Will ask Queen Amazonia if she knows.”

7.       James Goss

@gossjam

A truly fantastic author, James wrote the fantastic Dead of Winter, a really creepy and shocking novel that’s one of my favourites – plus it’s got all 5-star reviews on Amazon!

Typical tweet:

“The woman next to me is colouring in her cv with crayons. Ten years ago I would have sneered. Now I want to applaud.”

8.       David Wolstencroft

@woollensocks

A true expert in the TV industry, David created the BAFTA award-winning Spooks, which ran for ten fantastic series. Surely that’s all you need to know?!

Typical tweet:

“I get it. All writing is re-writing. But re-writing, that’s also actual writing. So really what you’re saying is, “all writing is writing.””

9.       Mark Gatiss

@Markgatiss

Mark Gatiss is a man of all trades. But he’s best-known for writing Doctor Who, and co-creating Sherlock (with Steven Moffat – and Arthur Conan Doyle!) Aside from that, he’s a great actor and has a passion for horror.

Typical tweet:

“Charmingly fitting that, on such a sunny weekend, hundreds of Doctor Who fans will be inside with the curtains drawn.”

10.   Andrew Smith

@Andrew_Smith_DW

Smith was a Doctor Who fan, and sent a script in. Nowadays, it would never happen – but that was the Eighties, and his story was shot, and became a classic: Full Circle. He disappeared from the industry, becoming a policeman, but has since returned, triumphantly!

Typical tweet:

“My wife: “Which one’s the Project Manager?” Me: “The only one who didn’t speak.” #apprentice”

So that’s it for now. And you can even follow me, if you get the urge!

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2012 in Unpublished work

 

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