Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Hobbit Too Far

Seriously, how many more fucking elves do we need?


Watched the Desolation of Smaug yesterday on DVD. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm getting sick to death of bloody elves.

My first recollection of Tolkein's The Hobbit was of having it read to us in primary school, by Mr Campbell as we all sat on the square of carpet in his classroom. I was probably eight or nine at the time. It was the only story I remember being read to us, and I was quite enchanted by the adventures of Bilbo and the dwarves as they battled spiders in the dark forest of Mirkwood.

I didn't read The Lord of the Rings until I was about eighteen, and I enjoyed that too. When I later played the RPG version of Middle Earth with some friends, I acted as gamesmaster and, as I couldn't afford the commercial supplements that contained the game missions, I created my own, using the original book as my guide. It would be no exaggeration to say that I studied The Lord of the Rings, cover to cover, appendixes included. Not out of undying fan devotion, but because I wanted to pillage it for game ideas.

The years passed by, leaving but a memory of moss covered stones and ruined troll towers, until Peter Jackson unleashed his recent movie extravaganza and I found myself in the cinema, bombarded by in-your-face special effects and nursing a bursting bladder as I sat through each marathon session praying I'd make it to the end without galloping to the toilet (alas, the final movie was just too long and I succumbed).

And it was okay. I mean, it was a pretty impressive effort, considering what there was to cram in. I wasn't impressed with Viggo Mortensen's debut - he made a fantastic action hero, but to my mind he wasn't really Strider. It was only near the end of the trilogy that he gained some of the necessary gravitas. And I thought the Nazgul were badly done - they were nowhere near as awesome and scary as they should have been. More like stiff, stupid robots than the tragic dread souls of ancient kings. But those are minor points. On the whole, I thought it passed, and it will probably be remembered as a great cinematic achievement.

Then we had The Hobbit. That slim book was really just a fun children's story. Peter Jackson obviously had the ambition and gall to make it something much more than that, and he had the reputation of his LoTR movies to build on, plus much of the original CGI and location teams. And New Zealand certainly needed the tourist funding. So off it went on the East-West road, over the hills and far away.

I had my doubts when I first saw the trailer for The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey. To start with, the dwarves didn't look very dwarf-life, most of them. Thorin especially looked like a Viggo Mortensen clone - fit, young and proud, but nothing like a Dwarf at all. The dimensions were all wrong.

It also had that annoying idiot James Nesbitt, who plays the same part with the same accent in anything he stars in, and who comes across as someone taking the piss rather than acting. Thankfully he was upstaged by the rest of the cast, so I didn't have to endure his excruciating performance like I did when I watched Coriolanus. Whoever decided it would be a good idea to cast him as a Roman tribune ought to be fed to the lions.

Anyway, I watched the first Hobbit movie, and it turned out to be okay. My kids loved it, and that was fine by me. Then we got to the second movie...

It started well, with an inserted scene in Bree (cue Peter Jackson cameo in the first few seconds) that set the scene for those who'd forgotten the first movie. The goblins did their thing, Beorn came and went from the screen a little too quickly, the spiders caught the dwarves and Bilbo rescued them just as he did in the book. Then, for no reason at all, the elves were brought in to finish the spiders off, just to show what cool fighters they were. Orlando Bloom reappears as Legolas, with his amazing moves, and a she-elf is added for the ladies in the audience. Or for the guys to fantasise over, I don't know. And of course, because we're no longer in the dark ages, the she-elf is the obigatory kick-ass heroine.

Action movies used to have token females. Now they have token feminists.

But apart from displaying lightning fast reactions and swift martial arts moves, this elf needs to be given something to do in the story - so she falls in love with a dwarf who, as luck would have it, doesn't look like a stumpy, stout beardy dwarf, but like a young, handsome man. Lucky her, eh?

But we're soon back to Legolas and the she-elf defeating half the goblin hordes all by themselves.

In the LOTR movies, we were treated to a whole range of elven martial arts moves ripped straight from the Matrix movies. It was new and interesting then, with mind bogglingly complex choreography and impossible gravity-&-physics defying stunts to wow the audience. It was original.

It isn't now, though. As I watched Legolas twist, stab and shoot goblins at the rate of one a second in the water barrels scene, I felt weariness start to set in. The same moves that I'd seen in the LOTR, the same effortless smugness, even the same surfing-dude-with-a-bow move, this time with a dead goblin instead of a shield. If the elves are really as hard and as cool as that, one wonders how any goblins or orcs could possibly be left alive in Middle-Earth. And they go on stabbing and posing in Lake Town as well, even though they didn't in the book. I was getting sick of the sight of them by then and I just wanted them to piss off. Or maybe the pointy eared master race was going to conquer the whole of Erebor as well? Why not stick around to shoot the dragon, clear the mountains of orcs and take Dol Guldur as well, all before breakfast? And after that, they can drive their tanks through Poland.

Up till that point, the movie had been going fine for me, but worse was to come once Bilbo and the dwarves (remember them?) reached the mountain and slipped inside. After we got past the initial Sherlock and Watson Smaug and Bilbo encounter, we then got to see the (added on) spectacle of Thorin inflating his ego to no end, and the next thing you know, the dwarves are themselves swinging about pointlessly, leading the dragon to the forges, dragging out the movie with more impossible physics and special effects, just so the dragon can be covered in gold prior to pissing off to do what he was going to do anyway - which is to torch the town.

Except the bloody movie ends before that actually happens. Agh!

Would I pay money to watch the third one in the cinema? No I wouldn't, even if I could afford it. Three hobbit movies is too much - two would have been enough. The whole thing's been dragged out too far, with too much special-effects filler and too many desperate plot contortions.

Probably a great movie for kids - if you can get them to restlessly sit through it for long enough, as it's another marathon epic. Or maybe it just felt like that to me.

Still, at least the dwarves didn't sing in this one. And I got so pissed off at the elves and Thorin that I actually forgot James Nesbitt was there. So it wasn't all bad.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Aliens Built The Pyramids?

Up, up and awaaay!!
I promised last week that I'd discuss the Mayan connections in my last novel, The Tollon Codex, so I'll show you now some of the things that influenced the fiction, though it's worth remembering that some of the influences are fiction themselves.

Are you familiar with the Ancient Astronaut theory? This is the belief that aliens landed on Earth many years ago and taught us civilization, because we humans were too thick to work it out ourselves. You see that played out at the beginning of Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, co-written by Arthur C Clarke, when the dumb ape is influenced by The Obelisk to pick up a bone and use it as a tool for the first time. From there it was a short step to the pyramids and smart phones, it seems. Erich von Däniken popularised the idea further with his book Chariots of the Gods, giving us explanations for why the Egyptians and the Aztec/Maya built similar looking pyramids, even though the civilizations never met. Mr Däniken, by the way, is an interesting guy, since he doesn't appear to be an expert in anything at all other than fraud, for which he's been convicted twice, and imprisoned, but that hasn't prevented his ideas from being wildly popular. I mean, it's such a great idea, and it's been used in Stargate, Prometheus and Aliens vs Predators, among other things.

His most enduring idea, however, concerns the Maya and King Pakal's spaceship.

King Pakal was a Mayan ruler who may or may not have been a King - the interpretations are sketchy and, unlike the Aztecs, the Maya did not constitute a single empire, but a series of competing city-states and regions. But King Pakal, whoever he was, was deemed grand enough to get a beautifully carved sarcophogus lid (see image above). I've manually coloured some bits of it for clarity, but this is the image that Mr Däniken claimed was evidence of ancient space travel, since it purports to show the royal personage ascending to the stars in his elaborately ornamented space chariot.

Now you may not have seen this particular image yourself, but the chances are that you will have seen the stuff inspired by it. In Ridley Scott's classic movie Alien, Giger, the famous concept artist and set designer for the movie, was, I believe, inspired by it to create the mysterious 'space jockey':


The structure that extends from the seated alien was never explained, and it seemed such a weird thing to have in a futuristic cockpit, but it looked great, and the spectacle was all that mattered. But I think we can thank King Pakal for it.

Ridley Scott wasn't done with the original, however, and so it surfaced again in Prometheus, in a deliberately altered form:


King Pakal gets an air-hose in his mouth to look more like the space jockey in this artful depiction of a Mayan tablet (glimpsed only briefly near the beginning of Prometheus), but the link is obvious, I think.

So, is it really a spaceship? Well, no. That theory's been debunked dozens of times. The image is actually meant to show Pakal descending to the underworld (whose jaws are opening beneath him), with the tree of life (in green) rising from him. That may be the rising of his soul or life force, but so little is truly known about Mayan religion (which varied from one city to the next), that we are left guessing. But the tree of life is a regular motif in Mayan art and appears on its own many times. I'm a science fiction writer, however, not a historical fiction writer, so I'm happy to hammer the wilder version of the myth in my story, though, as you will find, I have added a twist. I like the idea of the tree of life, the thing that connects the Underworld, the Earth and the Heavens. Not read the novel yet? Well, I won't give too much away.

But the bit in the book about the Guatemalan government encouraging the ancient astronaut myth for the sake of tourism? That's not something I completely made up. There's a lot of money in tourism, and it looks like a film-maker and a Mexican government official hoped to cash in with the alleged release of artifacts that 'proved' the link between aliens and Maya. Quite funny really, especially as the film-maker went bust before the film could be made, and the artifacts turned out to be fakes.

I also made use of a dummy called Maximon in the novel, and I didn't make him up either:

Photo by Ian Wikarski

Maximon is a popular effigy in local religion, also known as San Simon. He's the patron saint of health, crops, marriage, business, revenge and death. That's quite a combination. But locals build shrines for him and donate cigarettes and gifts as an offering. Then they burn him just before Easter Sunday. You see, he's also associated with Judas Iscariot, perhaps representing the dark side of people's character that must be indulged and then extinguished before the holiest day in the Christian calender. But he pre-dates Christianity and is thought to have originally been the Mayan god Mam (which means grandfather) who was a feared mountain spirit, so there's an interesting fusion of religions going on here.

Then there are the Tzitzimime.

Now these are more nebulous, and are thought to represent Star Demons, but information is sparse on the mythology, possibly because belief in them was not widespread. They are, in fact, an Aztec creation, but I used them anyway, because the existence of Star Demons in a novel about aliens was too attractive an idea to leave alone.

Oddly enough, Mr Däniken made no mention of them when he tried to connect meso-american culture with extra-terrestrial beings. Maybe the research books in the prison library had those pages ripped out for toilet paper. Maybe he was short of toilet paper himself.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Tollon Codex



It's out! The third exciting installment in the X-Troop saga, and it's just wall-to-wall action as Alex Harvey and the boys go hunting for aliens in Guatemala, picking up some Mayan legends on the way. And did I say Alex and the boys? Because there's a girl in this one as X-Troop gets its first female recruit.

How much should I give away? I don't want to ruin it for you by blabbing out the spoilers, but I just gotta, gotta, gotta say something.

And yes, I am excited.

Okay, I can mention a couple of things. You know the ancient astronaut theory, where aliens were supposed to have visited us in the distant past and showed us how to make the pyramids and all? That makes an appearance in the book, which isn't giving too much away as it's implied by the cover, but there's also more. Have you heard of King Pakal's sarcophagus? Or the tree of life? How about Tohil, the obligation of blood and the Tzitzimime? Or the history of Guatemala itself? Okay, I didn't exactly write the Encyclopedia Britannica here, but as well as the bone crunching punches and the rattle of machine gun barrels, isn't it nice to have a few things of local interest?

No? Okay, how about banter and the relationship between the characters? Because Alex, Cole, Moyles and Ray haven't lost their dry wit or their stock of one-liners. But there's a treat in store as we get to add Dolores and her own brand of southern Californian humour, plus a certain amount of incredulity as she struggles to understand the crazy Brits that she's working alongside.

The story is billed as 'The X-Files meets Call of Duty' (and yes, I do have the cheek), and it's Alex and Dolores that get to play Mulder and Scully as they work to solve the mystery in their own, inimitable fashion. Actually, I never watched the X-Files (though I did see the movie), so I don't know a whole lot about Mulder and Scully's relationship or working style, but I'm pretty, pretty sure it was never like this. I mean, Alex was a football hooligan and Dolores was a Hispanic gang member, and neither of them finished their schooling, both of them going to prison rather than college, so we're not going to see a patient FBI-style investigation. And they both like hitting and shooting people. So there's a subtle difference there, I think. Just a little one. But they do have to keep their heads while all around, people are losing theirs (literally? I'm not saying). And there's something quite interesting about the relationship between Alex and Dolores - and no, it's not that. Because I know how your brain works, and I can tell you now that you're wrong. Just wrong, okay? I can't say any more even though I'm itching to, so you'll just have to read it and see.

And I have to mention a couple of other key characters, like Ricardo, the phlegmatic Guatemalan policeman, and Father Banos, the ex-gangbanger-turned-priest. But that's just a taste, so I won't elaborate further.

So is that not enough? No? Okay, okay - *sigh* - there is a lot of action. Many, many people get killed. And maimed. Possibly mutilated. Depending on how you define mutilated as opposed to maimed. But the body count remains high - this is an X-Troop novel - and... agh, just read the damn thing.

It's available at Amazon and Amazon UK, and for the next couple of weeks it'll be dirt cheap, so get your sweaty mitts on it while you can. And if that's not enough, then next week I might just do a post on Mayan mysteries and the myths that surround them. Time permitting of course. But hopefully, I'll see you then. In the meantime, enjoy!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Sherlock's Veiled Victorianism

This is what a feminist looks like.

I watched an episode of Sherlock the other night - not a crusty old version, but the BBC's new souped up version, complete with drug dens, media barons (boo, hiss), parliamentary inquiries (Leveson, anyone?) and Watson suffering from PTSD from his time as a medic in Afghanistan.

And, of course, strong, modern women. Because these aren't the dark ages you know, with women stuck in the kitchen or fanning themselves in the drawing room as they recount their story to Mr Holmes. These are women who assert themselves, who take control of their lives and who consider themselves the equal of men. It's the 21st Century, you see, and the writers are keen to let us know it.

But let us deduce a few facts from the evidence, for all is not as it seems.

Sherlock is slapped repeatedly by a female doctor in full view of everyone at a hospital because he was supposed to be in a relationship with her and he lied to her about... something. What a cad.

Sherlock has his name smeared in the tabloids by a media secretary whom he was having a relationship with. Because he lied. And she turned down the morphine by his hospital bed while he lay recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound, so that he could feel more pain. Because he lied. What a cad.

Watson's wife turns out to be a secret assassin, rather than the person Watson thought she was. She lied to him. And she shot his best friend and hospitalised him.

Does Watson slap her repeatedly for the pain he feels? No. Does he get revenge on her by smearing her name all over the papers or otherwise making a profit out of her? No.

In fact, we're encouraged to feel sorry for Watson's wife - she is not to be seen as a cad. And Watson is essentially told to forget about his own discomfort and concentrate instead on hers. Because otherwise he would be a cad. And she is a woman who, while apparently a cold blooded assassin, cries and looks soft and caring. And vulnerable. She needs help. And sympathy. Whereas Sherlock and Watson just need to accept whatever happens to them, and take it. Like men.

The three women are, in fact, portrayed as victims, because that's what's currently fashionable. The trouble is, it's always been fashionable.

The BBC prides itself on its progressive egalitarianism, on its support for women's rights (it seldom uses the word Feminism) and on its genteel liberalism. So the victimhood of the female characters here is masked. They are portrayed as strong, confident females - the doctor stands firm and erect as she assaults Sherlock in public, the secretary smirks as she reveals how she got the last laugh in the end by profiting from her betrayal, and Watson's wife is given a scene dressed as a ninja and described as a very dangerous woman. Which, of course, is designed to go down well with female viewers. It's called pitching to a target audience.

But it's a thin mask that barely hides the victim status of the characters concerned - women scorned, women wronged, women unfairly judged just because they lied and killed a few people (I mean, who hasn't?). So rather than being a modern, egalitarian rendition of a classic story, it's actually just a throwback to Victorian values, where women aren't perceived as strong enough to take what a man can. They need a break. If a woman is wronged by a man, she deserves redress, for he did not act like a gentleman. If a man is wronged by a woman, well then, hard cheese old chap. Pip pip, stiff upper lip and all that. Just take it. Because women are fragile and emotional, so can't be expected to be judged the same as men or treated the same as men.

This new series of Sherlock is not, in fact, modern at all. It's a period piece. And for all its supposed egalitarianism, so is the BBC, with its studied paternalism and its tender pandering to women as it 'respects' them, while holding a door open for them and putting them on a pedastal.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Zombies, Jews and the End of the World.


I watched the movie World War Z the other night. It was more interesting than I thought it would be. I mean, I'd read the novel it was based on, and that was okay - a clever attempt to do something different with the genre. The book was more a collection of short stories, with each one adding something to the underlying narrative, but as a plot device it was a bit lumpy. A lot of stopping and starting. I read about half of it, stopped at the end of one of the stories, then never got round to picking it up again. There was nothing really to make me want to keep reading - it didn't follow one character, and the underlying narrative of how the zombie virus spread didn't interest me overly much. Had I been really into zombies, then maybe I'd have been fascinated enough to carry on, but the whole undead thing doesn't really grab me, as I know it's a pure fantasy that has less chance of happening than an alien invasion. Or, say, a world takeover by the UN. So to me it was just a setting for some interesting characters to do stuff in, and as the characters themselves were just another part of the setting, rather than the driving narrative, I never felt compelled to return to the story at all.

Maybe I'll finish it one day. Maybe I won't.

The movie however, from the original trailer, just looked like a Brad Pitt vehicle, with lots of CGI, Go-Go-Go action and not much else. It certainly didn't look like it had borrowed anything from the book at all.

But it turned out not to be quite as different as I thought - it kept the global outlook, the whole Israel sanctuary thing, and of course, the UN. It also wasn't completely a mindless action flick. I mean, mostly it was, but not completely. You're thrown into the action very early, and it goes all Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow on you, but then it segues into 28 Days later, complete with English accents, with a passing attempt at some science and a view of the Welsh Hills. Or their fake equivalent, anyway.

So I ended up enjoying it more than I thought.

The featurette on the DVD extra was interesting though, especially when some film executive tried to explain the whole zombie phenomenon as 'the fear of death'.

Attempts by movie directors or actors to explain the philosophy behind plot decisions often make me laugh. I mean, these people are obviously very good at their craft, but when it comes to sweeping generalisations about philosophy or the meaning of life (or their own movie) these people are just clueless.

The whole horror genre can be explained as 'the fear of death'. As can disaster movies, war movies, murder mystery movies, action hero movies, etc. It's kind of a dumb explanation that doesn't explain anything, really.

And then of course there was the reference to 9/11, which apparently every action/disaster movie is supposed to be referencing now. As if these kinds of story had never existed before then.

The roots of the zombie movie, and indeed alien invasion movies, don't begin with 9/11. Nor do they begin with the Cold War, as some have alluded to. They don't, in fact, have anything to do with anything in the 20th Century.

The idea of the world being overrun by unstoppable zombies, unstoppable aliens or unstoppable anything is in fact a legacy of Judeo-Christianity. It's just another version of the Apocalypse.

The ancient Jews, while considering themselves the chosen ones, were acutely aware of their fragility. Whether enslaved by Egyptians or crushed by the Romans, they knew that their world could come to an end. And when they were exiled from the Holy Land, that's precisely what they felt was happening to them.

The Christians were also aware of the fragility of world orders. They had witnessed the crushing of the Jewish kingdoms, then the collapsing of the mighty Roman Empire. Born among Greco-Roman ruins, the early Christians expected things to come crashing down any time soon, with mankind extinguished by plague or demons or whatever. It was explicit in the Christian mythology that went on to underpin modern Europe.

And modern America.

America was, and to some extent still is, a profoundly religious country. As the Jews were exiled from the Holy Land, so the first Protestant soon-to-be-Americans were exiled from the collapsing Papal empire in Europe. And they brought their apocalyptic beliefs with them. This is why George Washington warned his fellow Americans about the need for vigilance, in order to maintain their freedom. Not some existential idea of freedom, like human rights (that came later), but actual freedom from that dastardly British Empire which might still try to win the colonies back and enslave free Americans under the yoke of monarchy again.

This is why America, with the mightiest military in the world, has remained so paranoid about being overrun by anarchists, communists and, lately, Islamists. The US military could take on the combined armies of the rest of the world and completely wipe the floor with them. Yet deep in the American psyche remains the fear that they will be overrun as they make their last stand.

And if it's not the godless commies or the fanatical muslims, then it's the mindless zombies or the technologically advanced aliens. Or some awful punishment unleashed either by nature, Gaia or God. Take your pick.

It's part of the very fabric of Western mythology, and it's very, very old. Is it a coincidence that the zombie storming of Israel's Masada-like fortress in World War Z mirrors the orc assault on Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings? No.

"Help, the old virtuous order is being overrun by demonic, evil things."

When it comes to story telling, it's in our Jewish-Christian DNA.

The Apocalypse is coming, it's always coming, so grab your popcorn and stare wide-eyed at the end of the world, just so's you can wonder how you'd survive.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

American Warrior - A Review

http://www.amazon.com/American-Warrior-James-Snyder-ebook/dp/B00ENL8C6G/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1388681841&sr=1-1&keywords=american+warrior


 I got a Kindle for Christmas, which is quite a technological advance for me - I don't even have a smart phone.

I'm quite pleased with it. It's neat, light and works really well. The whole WI-FI thing, whereby I purchase an ebook from Amazon on my computer, and it downloads it direct to the Kindle, bypassing the computer completely, amazes me.

But I'm easily pleased.

Anyway, I love being able to carry a bunch of books with me wherever I go now, like, say, to a hospital waiting room. Or on a Christmas visit to the in-laws (I'm not the most sociable of people). But what I really like is having portable access to a massive range of self-published, Indie e-books. And there was one book in particular that I had my eye on, and which I was determined to make the first book I read on the Kindle. In fact, it was what swayed me into getting a Kindle in the first place.

I first saw it a month or so ago as a tiny ad on Kboards. It had one of the worst covers I had ever seen on a book, it was billed as $0.99 and it was called American Warrior. It looked awful, and I thought, 'How bad could this be?' So I clicked on the ad link.

Now I'm sure that, somewhere on the net, there's a whole list of dos and don'ts in marketing that says that I, the consumer, really shouldn't have been drawn to clicking that link in the first place. I mean, I really shouldn't have wanted to click that link. Not according to the experts.

Which is why I don't have a career in marketing. I'd suck at it. But I digress.

So anyway, I clicked the link, got past the terrible cover (which has now been changed to something a lot less crappy - no, really, the last cover guy looked like he was made of wax. And was melting), got intrigued by the blurb and was taken with the sample of writing inside.

And I saw immediately that this was not a book to be judged by its cover. Or its cheap price.

The novel charts the journey of Paul Brett, a kid living on the wrong side of the tracks in rural 50's America. Surviving the predations of both his abusive father and the gangs that prowl the migrant camp where he lives, Paul embarks on a life-changing odyssey that takes him from the underside of America, through the underside of the war in Vietnam, and into military prison, itself the underside of the US military. It's a harrowing journey that's packed with some of the most authentic scenes you'll ever find in a work of fiction.

The first thing that struck me about this book was its literary writing style:
Draeger had warned him about such complications, to never go looking for them, because they would seek him out, regardless. And a girl like Sarah Perez had complications written all over her. Even the way she lifted her head up from the microscope and looked at him when it was his turn was complicated. So he ignores her, though it takes all his will power to keep from reaching over and touching her hair as it spreads out before him like a dark red flood, covering everything in its path.
This is not some clumsily written self-published novel hastily typed by some unwitting amateur who has no clue about the art of writing. This is serious, thoughtful prose.

It's not entirely perfect, of course. Literary, artistic prose is hard to write, and there are odd moments when the writing goes a bit opaque, like the author is trying too hard. There's also a couple of occasions when more clarity and less poetry was required, like the passages where it's not clear who is talking or acting.

But in a big project like this, there's bound to be a couple of slip ups. And at least the typo count is reassuringly low. 98% perfect, which is better than a lot of trade published books these days. It's not an exceptionally long book - it's about 300 pages long - but its scope is massive, or so it feels when you're immersed in it. I mean, the sheer detail of life in a slum, of army training, of martial arts, and of war, is impressive. On one occasion the detail did stray over the line into tedium, but I was never tempted to skip parts. There's a documentary quality to the settings, like it's a memoir, and there's clearly a lot that comes from the author's own experiences. But there's also a lot that doesn't. It is a novel, and a lot of research has gone into it. You can feel it. Or rather, you can't.

I mean, sometimes you know that an author has done a ton of research, because as a reader you're being whacked over the head with it, like they want to show you how clever they are or they have to insert it all in a really obvious way, no matter how clumsy it looks. Well, this book isn't like that. I know, as a writer myself, that this author has done a lot of research. But as a reader all I get is the sheer immersion into a scene or a setting, like I've been there before, even though it is as far from my own experiences or anything I've read as I can get. And the characters feel real too, and they appear and disappear throughout the narrative in a more realistic fashion than is normal for fiction. Meet one on a page and you really don't know whether you're going to meet them again or just hear about their rumoured demise/exit/promotion from a second-hand source. In fact, I half expect to read about them again in the local news one day.

Paul's journey is a gritty odyssey, with a fair bit of heart ache to endure, but it's not a miserabilist tale by any means. It's just too damned interesting for that. Paul starts his journey as just another dirt poor kid, but the journey he's on is very much a spiritual one, and you can't help but be moved by his hope, as much as his pain. And in fact, the biggest pain for me was in reaching the end, because I didn't actually want it to end. I wanted a postscript, with all the loose ends tied up. I wanted to follow Paul through the rest of his life. That's how much emotional investment I had in this book.

Which is my way of saying, I really liked this book, and I recommend that you read it. It certainly has a place in the top five of my all time favourite novels. In fact, I'd love to see a movie made about it. I can already picture it as a cross between Forrest Gump, Platoon, Shawshank Redemption and the Thin Red Line. And if you think that's an unlikely mash-up, trust me when I say it works.

I give this book five stars out of five, and if you're interested in taking a look, just click the picture above to be taken to its Amazon site.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

2013 in review

The ruins of Haughmond Abbey in Shropshire

Not a lot to review, honestly, but the picture's not a reflection of the kind of year I've had. It's just the closest to a Christmas picture that I have. I've just finished putting the children's presents around the tree and now I have to just sneak into their room with their stockings before going to bed myself and hope they don't wake up as I do so.

Each year I think that, as I delicately place a stocking at the foot of a bed, the lights will suddenly come on and I will find myself staring at my wide awake children, trying hastily to think of a reason why it's me and not Santa putting the presents out.

One year they may set up tripwire alarms for that very purpose. My wife wonders why I don't buy them electronic spy-kit sets, but that's just me thinking ahead. Might be a good idea to pass on the My-Little-Waterboarding set too, in case they get a bit too sophisticated with their interrogations...

Anyway, 2013 has had its usual share of ups and downs, though with a few more downs than normal. I started the year with just one novel out, and the lack of sales had me despairing. Starting the X-Troop novels put me back on track and made me focus long term, which was okay until the summer. Then a series of setbacks hit the family and we've been struggling to recover. Our finances took a nosedive, a cardiac scare (and possible misdiagnosis) cast its shadow and other stuff kind of just piled up to make the second half of the year something of a trial. The third X-Troop novel has been delayed as a result, for which I apologise. The majority of it is finished and it's looking like a January/February release now, but the setback has been frustrating.

I've also discovered that I may have Aspergers (a mild form of Autism). It's only a self-diagnosis (for which I'm 99% sure), but it explains a lot about my life. To some extent, I think I've always known. Deep down inside. Like something wasn't right.

Well, actually I thought I was just fucking nuts, which isn't quite the same, but I just hadn't been able to put a word to it. And now that I have, it just feels kinda strange. Not in a bad way, necessarily, just... weird. Like putting in a corrective lens so that everything springs into focus for the first time, and what I thought I was looking at turned out to be something else. So I'm staring a lot at the new sharp outline and wondering if I preferred it blurred.

But life's still good. I'm alive, I have a roof over my head and tomorrow's Christmas day. We've made it through another year and we haven't run out of options yet. Life used to be very shit for me, and more than a little goofy, so I feel lucky to have come this far and that has to be cause for a celebration.

So tomorrow I shall be celebrating, and I hope you can too, whether it's with your own family or by yourself. Eat what you can, drink what you can and know that, as a project, 2013 is pretty much wrapped up. You did your bit and now it's time to take a break before starting the next one.

Merry Christmas, and I wish you a hopeful, resourceful, ass-kicking New Year. Because who knows what's round the next corner?

Salaam, Shalom, have a good one.