Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Faces of the Past

This is fascinating. The face of a Stone Age Briton from around 5,500 years ago. It's part of a beautifully crafted reconstruction project, bringing the faces of ancient people back to life.

As a writer, I love looking at portraits for inspiration. I could spend hours in the National Portrait Gallery just thinking up stories for the people looking back. This is particularly intriguing because it stands our imagined history on its head: First modern Britons had dark skin and blue eyes. How many writers would have thought to create characters like that without the insight of science? It's a constant discovery, and makes the recent UK wave of anti-immigration nationalism look distinctly silly.

Sunday, 10 November 2019


When you try to make a sensible promotional post and cats happen. Sophie, modelling some of my titles. She was exactly the same as a kitten...

Sophie and Howl

Friday, 8 November 2019


Back in March, I picked up a book called Differently Morphous by Yahtzee Croshaw and fell in love with it. I read quite eclectically, so with the exception of authors like Terry Pratchett and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, there are very few whose releases I follow. I usually love a book I stumble upon rather than deliberately go out to buy the next in a series by someone I've already read. There are a lot of authors I admire, but it's just a matter of hours in the day. Faced with someone I've read and someone I've never read, I usually opt for something new.

I enjoyed Differently Morphous so much though, that I thought I'd try out Crowshaw's first novel, Mogworld

In a world full to bursting with would-be heroes, Jim couldn't be less interested in saving the day. His fireballs fizzle. He's awfully grumpy. Plus, he's been dead for about sixty years. When a renegade necromancer wrenches him from eternal slumber and into a world gone terribly, bizarrely wrong, all Jim wants is to find a way to die properly, once and for all.

On his side, he's got a few shambling corpses, an inept thief, and a powerful death wish. But he's up against tough odds: angry mobs of adventurers, a body falling apart at the seams and a team of programmers racing a deadline to hammer out the last few bugs in their AI.

I was not disappointed. It was a crackingly clever idea for a book and anyone who grew up playing RPGs, MUDs, MOOs and adventure games will get it instantly. I can't really say much more without giving stuff away, but once you realise what's going on it's very funny. Brought back a lot of gaming memories of maniacal mods and recurring resurrections. All delivered with Croshaw's trademark cynicism:

The rumbling was turning into a roar, the stairs were starting to shift beneath my hands and feet, and small bits of rock were raining down upon us constantly. A much larger bit of rock decided to join in the fun and thundered down the steps, but it flew over me and collided with someone I hadn't had time to care about.


When I was a child, my dad used to take us out badger watching sometimes; we'd sit in a wooden box staring at a hole in the ground, in the hope of catching a glimps of nature's most boring animal. All buggering night. But dad's twisted idea of a good time could finally prove useful. 


"The same corruption of life that powers the- that powers James and Meryl, may be spreading to whatever magetechnology exists within the sphere."

"I don't really like 'corruption', it implies there's something wrong with them."

He smacked himself in the face in irritation, his signet ring clattered loudly against his mask. "They've both been dead for six decades and they're walking around. That strikes me as pretty damn wrong."

From the Jungles of Anorexia to the blade of the enchanted sword Killbastard, it's a very entertaining read. I really like his inventiveness when it comes to characters. Each book there's someone memorable. In this case, I think the award goes to Slippery John, a dreadful thief who always refers to himself in third person and shows a touching (ahem) amount of care towards a corpse warrior. There's also an evangelical priest who 'looks like he's been sucking vinegar from a stinging nettle,' and a fascinating character at the very beginning called Dreadgrave, who possesses some striking similarities - and wardrobe choices - to Doctor Diablerie.

It was also somewhat educational, introducing me to Quantum Suicide Theory, and the fact that computers have been passing the Turing test for years. I'm still trying to work out exactly when (comment if you know), as the BBC released an article reporting that the first computer passed the Turing test in 2014, but Mogworld was released in 2008 and says they'd already been doing it for years by then. It seems to have been ELIZA in 1966? Interesting stuff.

Anyway, enjoyed it and added a couple more Croshaw titles to my TBR.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019


The past month has been a pretty tough one for me. I had recurring malaria, meaning I got it once but the medication didn't clear it up, so it came back. Twice in one month had me pretty low, and when it came back the second time, it didn't show up in blood tests for almost two weeks. That was brutal, because I knew I was sick but I didn't know what was wrong.

Anyway, all better now, but during that dark stint, I wrote two posts on the subject:

Hopefully they're of use to someone in the future.

There's also a book by journalist Sonia Shah about malaria. It's called The Fever. I started reading it a while back but got distracted. I've just downloaded it from Audible now because it's a subject I feel a personal connection with and would really like to know more about. I'll put up a review once I've finished. Meanwhile, here's Shah giving a talk on the subject.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

The Old Man and the Sea

Recently, a friend had me watch Into the Wild, which tells the story of a real-life young man, Christopher McCandless, who went off into the wild to escape civilisation and eventually starved to death. The literature he reads is a running theme throughout the film, and not surprisingly, Hemingway makes an appearance. He crops up in many of-an-era road trip films and memoirs. 

I got to thinking that I'd never actually read Hemingway, and that I should probably change that. After all, he's held up as an icon of clean prose and something to aspire to in writing. If you want to get technical about it, there's an excellent article on What Makes Hemingway Hemingway?

The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics. - Hemingway

Not a quote I'm entirely sure I agree with, but the article certainly presents Hemingway's immutable laws in a way we can all understand.

So, the next question was where to start? I checked into a couple of forums and the two titles that kept coming up for newbies were The Old Man and the Sea and The Sun Also Rises. I went with the former, partly because it was shorter, partly because it was read by Donald Sutherland, and partly because I was curious how you could make an entire novella out of trying to hunt a fish... a whale, maybe, but a fish?

The Old Man and the Sea is one of Hemingway's most enduring works. Told in language of great simplicity and power, it is the story of an old Cuban fisherman, down on his luck, and his supreme ordeal, a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Here Hemingway recasts, in strikingly contemporary style, the classic theme of courage in the face of defeat, of personal triumph won from loss.

Written in 1952, this hugely successful novella confirmed Hemingway's power and presence in the literary world and played a large part in his winning the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.

I know getting it as an audiobook seems counterproductive to understanding Hemingway's style of writing, but when you read enough books and write enough books, you can actually see the punctuation float past most of the time. He definitely had a unique style. 

As with most classic literature, some of it doesn't translate brilliantly for a modern female reader living in Africa...

He always thought of the sea as 'la mar' which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as 'el mar' which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.


He was sure then that he had the negro, who was a fine man and a great athlete, beaten. 


"Fish," he said, "I love you and respect you very much, but I will kill you dead before this day ends."


You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?

The last bit sort of reminded me about The Most Dangerous Game, at the beginning where they're talking about how the lion, or whatever it is they're hunting, lives for the hunt and wants to be hunted. A way of thinking that still exists for some today, but is growing further towards the minority of popular thinking. 

It is deceptive the way that he writes. Because the prose are simplistic, and the plot is a very straightforward one, you occasionally get ambushed by rather graphic moments, such as the sound a Portuguese man o' war makes when you pop it with the horny sole of your foot on the beach.

I've mentioned before that I like graphic stuff, but that I sometimes struggle when it's directed at animals, so this probably wasn't the best book of all for me to choose, as it's all about hunting down a giant fish.

Most people were heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after it has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too. 

But there were also some moments of introspection that were very touching.

"Age is my alarm clock," the old man said. "Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?"


He did not say that because he knew that if you said a good thing it might not happen.

That last one was interesting, because it's a superstition still held to by so many today, such as when you make a birthday wish or you hope you'll get a job, but you don't tell people you've applied or what the wish was because you fear that by speaking it, you'll jinx it. 

The story was less than two-and-a-half hours long, but I made a surprising number of notes. 

I now appreciate Hemingway's style and what people see in it. Most of what he said is what I teach both in creative and technical writing, where I place a lot of emphasis on economic use of language - shorter sentences, fewer words. Though it's interesting to see from the article above that short sentences became less important to Hemingway as his career progressed. I think this is true for most of my students, too. Once you've got the basics pegged, and you know how to form clear, concise sentences, then you can play with them. Then you get poetic, you create more complex sentences. Hemingway's style is very recognisable, but so are other writers like Divakaruni, Marlon James and Ann Radcliffe. People have written best sellers and award-winning novels in many styles, long before and long after Hemingway. I like his style, but I wouldn't want it to be the only thing I ever read. Simplicity is refreshing and easy to follow, but sometimes you want to be swept away on a full-colour panorama of a sentence. 

More interesting than I expected it to be, and a story with a lot to consider. I couldn't help thinking, due to the ending, that it probably wouldn't have been published today. Not in mainstream circles. Not a crowd pleaser. That's why I do enjoy classic literature. It can really knock you out of your day-to-day headspace, and Donald Sutherland was the perfect voice to bring it to life. 

If you enjoyed the breakdown of Hemingway's writing style in the article, you might also like this artwork made from analysing punctuation.