Explaining The Everyday

I recently visited Beamish, a ‘living museum’ in the north of England. Set in rural land, it has different areas depicting life at certain times in history‌—‌a 1940s wartime farm, an 1900s town and pit village, and so on). Many of the buildings are genuine period properties, transported to Beamish and rebuilt brick by brick. Staff all wear period costumes, and play the parts of everyday people in these different areas‌—‌in the bakery, they make the bread and cakes using 1900s methods (and then sell them to visitors), and the guard at the wartime farm asked our children for their ID cards (and happened to have a couple they could take). Transport between the different areas is either by walking, or on restored buses and trams, complete with uniformed staff playing their parts.

BeamishRather than giving loads of information, it goes for an immersive experience. This approach allows visitors to experience these times and places, giving a more ‘real’ understanding of day-to-day life as it once was.

But, as we explored the place, one thought kept on coming back to me‌—‌it could never be totally realistic, because I was seeing all this through modern-day sensibilities. I couldn’t forget the ‘real world’, with all its tech and modern societal issues and so on. No matter how accurate the costumes and the settings and the acting, it was not my own reality.

And that got me thinking about fiction, especially any story that is not based in the here and now. It reminded me of the difficulties involved in making a story-world realistic in a genuine way.

vintage-1060202_1280Take historical fiction. The characters in the story should be used to the time period they are in, but as readers we might not be familiar with, for example, some of the social ‘rules’. So when, for example, a character removes their hat, this might mean nothing to us, but to the characters in the story it could be a sign of disrespect, and will colour their actions toward this character.

Then there is science fiction. We might take mobile phone technology for granted, and think nothing of texting or Tweeting or updating a profile, but these simple actions would be alien to someone from a hundred years ago. Now imagine how things might change in another century’s time‌—‌what will people then do that is normal to them, but unheard of to us?

So what’s the problem? Why not give us a bit of background info in the story so that we understand?

But that’s where the problem lies. How does a writer do this, without it coming across as a clunky explanation? How does a writer get this information across without shooting off on a tangent, or interrupting the flow of the story?

Surely, if the story concerns the characters, we need to remain with them as much as possible. We need to see both the story events and the story-world through their eyes, and experience it through their senses.

There are a few ways to solve this issue.

One that is possibly the easiest to pull off (and, unsurprisingly, one that is used a great deal, especially in fantasy stories) is to make the main character an outsider, someone who doesn’t initially know about the world.

The Harry Potter books are a great example of this. Yes, Harry is a wizard, but at the start of the series he doesn’t know this. He discovers this whole other reality, and has to learn how it works‌—‌and that allows us to learn through his story. It’s even pointed out in the books, most often by a frustrated Hermionie bemoaning Harry’s lack of knowledge.

LordOfTheRings_JRRTolkienThe Lord Of The Rings does something similar, through having hobbits as the central viewpoint characters. Although they are different to us, their world is similar to a kind of rural idyll we can relate to. This allows Tolkien to teach us, the reader, about the world beyond the Shire as the hobbits experience it.

Another example is Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose. By having one of the main characters as an apprentice, Eco is able to have the master giving information in a natural way, helping us, the reader, make sense of what is happening. Similarly, in Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes has to explain himself to the less quick Watson, allowing us (the even slower readers?) to keep up too.

But what if there are no characters close to ‘us’? What if there is no in-story novice who requires explanation?

There’s a thing called ‘maid and butler’, from stage-plays. Two servants appear, cleaning or whatever, and they talk about the current situation of the main characters‌—‌but often, it comes over extremely false. “As you know, Ethel, the master is due to return from his recent sojourn to the south of France, where he has been wooing young Miss Forester.” Yes, it gives us information, but it sounds unnatural‌—‌both characters know these facts, so why are they talking in this manner?

So, how do authors avoid this?

One way is simply through good writing craft.

ConsiderPhlebas_IainMBanksAn example of this is in Iain M Banks’ Culture books. The main characters are not human, and so they have alien (to us) ways of doing things. There are many references to characters glanding various compounds, but I don’t believe this is ever overtly explained, but context makes it clear that Culture residents can artificially introduce various drugs into their bodies by manipulating internal reservoirs. In a short phrase like ‘she glanded Bliss’, Banks leads us to understand that this character is giving herself some kind of euphoric ‘high’ as a way of coping with her situation.

Sometimes, an author will throw the reader in at the deep end, and force the reader to think. Michael John Grist does this in his Ruins War trilogy (beginning with Mr Ruin). Right from the start, we’re diving minds, and fighting the Lag in sublavic ships. There’s very little to explain these terms, but as a reader it is clear that these things all mean something, so we go along with it, trusting that things will become clear eventually.

Books like this aren’t necessarily light reads, but good ones (like Mr Ruin) are worth the effort, because our perseverance is rewarded. Also, we are in the characters’ world from the start, totally immersed.

But sometimes there is need for explanation. There are books where a little up-front understanding will help the reader appreciate the story far more. And there are a few ways an author can do this.

Isaac Asimov uses one common method in his Foundation books. He starts each chapter with an excerpt from a fictional encyclopeida, giving some background information while still leaving questions, and all without disrupting the flow of the story. Other authors include extracts from ‘historical’ documents.

DreamingVoid_PeterFHamiltonSome authors delve into the details, but turn a possible distraction into an effective part of their writing. I’ve recently read The Dreaming Void by Peter F Hamilton, and there are long passages of explanation, far more than the story actually needs. But it adds to the whole world, and in a genre like hard sci-fi, many readers actively want these details. Similarly, Neal Stephenson, in Seveneves, provides so much technical information that at times it reads like a manual‌—‌but that is one aspect of his writing that his readers like. In the wide realm of science-fiction, some readers are drawn to the ‘fiction’ side, while others thrive on the ‘science’.

Of course, JRR Tolkien did this too, but on a far larger scale. The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings are the ‘stories’, but the details of the world he created fill up not only a lengthy appendix, but also many more books. And this is another way of doing things‌—‌write the stories so that the average reader can appreciate the story, even if they don’t quite get all the references, but provide additional writings for those who want to dive deeper.

Ultimately, though, the method used is not as important as the end results‌—‌to allow the reader to experience as fully as possible the characters’ world. Maybe, as with the Beamish museum, total immersion is not possible, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. It’s one of the joys of reading fiction set in different places and different times, filled with characters who are different to us‌—‌it gives us an experience we cannot get in our normal lives. It helps us see a world, be it real or imaginary, in a new way.

I don’t know who said it, but this quote is perfect:

I read books not because I don’t have a life, but because I choose to have many.

E-books – unrealised potential or just right?

Last year, it was reported that someone high up in Barnes and Noble had railed against e-books, calling them something like a wasted opportunity. Apparently (and I can’t find any links to this, so I may be wrong) he said they were a failure, because they didn’t do anything different to physical books.

In a way, he has a point. There is a great deal of potential in the technology behind e-books. They are based on html, and if you imagine how much is possible through web pages, you can start to see the potential for e-books.

maze-1804499_1280When I learnt about using in-file links in e-books (where clicking on a word or passage takes the reader to another section of the book), I immediately recalled the choose-your-own-adventure books I used to play/read as a teenager (I’ve still got a collection of the Fighting Fantasy books somewhere). But with e-books, there is no need to physically turn the pages‌—‌simply click, and you’re at the next section. And you’re not limited to a book you can hold comfortably‌—‌with e-books, there’s scope for longer adventures, with far more choices.

And there are e-book choose-your-own-adventures‌—‌a quick browse on Amazon brings up quite a few (and they seem to be either aimed at children or at the erotica market). But they haven’t caught on.

x-ray-1704855_1280Amazon have a feature called X-Ray. They pushed this a few months ago, but it’s actually been around since 2011. When this is turned on, the reader can highlight a word or a passage to gain more information‌—‌similar to the dictionary functionality, but with far more detail. With X-Ray, it could be possible to call up information on a town mentioned in the text, or a character summary when clicking on a name. Readers can use this to gain more insight into the story, or to read ‘footnote material’ that may interest them.

But it hasn’t caught on.

Then there are the multi-media potentialities of e-books.

hands-3236059_1280Amazon have their WhisperSync system, synchronising text and audiobook versions‌—‌if a reader stops at a certain point and goes over to the audiobook, it will pick up where they left off with the text, and visa versa. But there is far more potential here. There is a company called Booktrack that provides what they refer to as ‘movie-style soundtracks’ to books. From what I understand, the reader uses a dedicated app, where the soundtrack is linked to locations within the text, and includes things like gunshots and door slams in the appropriate places.

But this hybrid reading/listening model is nowhere near as popular as either reading or listening to audiobooks as separate activities. And even with audiobooks, many listeners say they prefer the words alone rather than words enhanced with music and sound effects. There are some dramatised audiobooks, but the vast majority are still well-narrated versions of the text book.

It is interesting that Booktrack, on their website, put more emphasis on ‘audiobooks with movie-style soundtracks’ than audio as an accompaniment to reading.

But what about visuals? Imagine having the ability to stop the text and watch certain sections as video. Or how about a page that ‘comes to life’, with characters moving and interacting with the reader.

It could be good, but I haven’t heard of any major developments combining e-books with video.

So it appears that, beyond certain niche markets, there is little call for e-books to be anything more than text.I think there’s one very good reason for this, and it goes back to why people love books.

reading-1249273_1280When most people read, that is what they want to do‌—‌read. They want to absorb the text. They want to be immersed in the story through the medium of words alone.

It is sometimes said that pictures are better in books, and that imagination is better than special effects. A well-written book, to many readers, is the best way to experience a story. Becoming absorbed in the text can be more immersive, with a greater emotional resonance, than staring at a screen. Allowing the writer to lead you can be more satisfying than making your own choices about what the characters do. Allowing the author to feed you information when it is relevant (and leaving you in the dark about certain things) gives more mystery than if you could learn everything about a story world instantly.

Just as a great painting doesn’t need a soundtrack to absorb us, or a fantastic piece of music doesn’t need a magnificent video to touch us, so a well-written book only needs the words to draw us in.

And this is why e-books, far from being a failure, are a success‌—‌they give us the reading experience we want, without demanding the use of gimmicks. They transfer words from printed page to screen. Yes, they allow us to alter certain factors (font, size, page layout), but that is formatting‌—‌it doesn’t alter the simplicity of reading words.

Is there room for improvement? Of course there is. Maybe voice control will change the way readers search their device libraries for a particular book (‘Kobo, I want to read Neal Stephenson’s new book.’) Maybe there should be ways to have two or more e-books open at the same time, so that researchers can compare and contrast different sources. And maybe scrolling text, combined with eye tracking technology, would assist those with physical issues (or those doing something else with their hands) to read with greater ease.

But these ideas don’t change the simplicity of the e-book idea‌—‌electronic versions of physical books. And that simplicity of concept, far from making e-books a lost potential, makes them a great success.

How physical bookstores can survive

For me, book stores pose a dilemma.

I love e-books‌—‌the compactness of the devices, the wide range of titles available, the ease with which I can access a whole library of books. I find them easier to read than physical books. Some people say e-books signal ‘the end of books’, but my experience is far different‌—‌since getting my first e-reader (an old Sony thing), I’ve read more and more, discovered loads of new authors, and caught up on classics that I’ve been meaning to read for years.

And I still like bookstores. There’s something special about those places, especially the quirky independent ones. There’s an atmosphere to a good bookstore that you simply don’t get anywhere else. I’ll go into a bookstore simply to relax by browsing the shelves.

But I don’t buy books in these stores, because I buy e-books. I can’t recall the last time I even read a physical book.

Bookstores are disappearing, and it’s behaviours like mine that are part of the problem. Through the way I shop, I’m destroying something special.

It’s not me alone, obviously. It’s all of us who buy digital, or who order physical books online.

So is this the end of bookstores?

flea-market-237460_1280Long-term, this is a possibility. Already, some big-name stores have disappeared from our streets, and others are struggling. Yet some still persist, and are even flourishing. There are stores that have found cracks in the on-line onslaught.

How do they do this? In the post-Amazon shopping environment, how can bookstores survive?

They can’t compete on price. Yes, they can run offers, but they don’t have the margins Amazon have. They can’t afford to be as aggressive with loss leaders. And they can’t stock as many titles as Amazon‌—‌they are limited by their size, whereas Amazon has huge warehouses and (for e-books) seemingly endless storage.

But bookstores can compete on specific stock.

When I was a teenager, my home town had a place called the Castle Bookshop. It was only a small place, but I much preferred it to WH Smiths just down the street. It didn’t have as many books, but it did have a large selection of sci-fi, fantasy and horror. It didn’t push as many of the big-name chart books, but it had the books that I was interested in.

The atmosphere was different, too. In WH Smiths, I always felt that the staff were ‘just doing their jobs’. They weren’t grumpy, or mean, or particularly unhelpful. I’m sure many of them were readers. But the guy who ran the Castle came across as a real book fan. I could picture him enjoying days when he only had a few customers, because that would give him the opportunity to get some serious reading done. And if he offered advice on what book a particular customer might enjoy, it would be a personal recommendation, rather than a suggestion based on what was selling well.

Something else I remember about that place‌—‌they had their own bookmarks. They were only coloured card, with the store’s name and logo, and a few other details (address and phone number only‌—‌this was pre-internet, after all.) If you bought a few books, or if he liked the look of you, or for whatever other reason, the man behind the counter would slip one of these bookmarks into whatever you were buying. Yes, it was a way of advertising his place, a way of enticing the reader/shopper back in. But it was also something unique, something special.

I had a collection of these bookmarks, and I’d always use them. On the few occasions when I had to use something else as a bookmark, things would feel off.

Thinking back to this place makes me feel good. It’s not so much the books themselves, but the atmosphere and the experience.

And that is another area where small, independent bookstores, can make their stand. Buying online is easy and convenient, but it is not personal. Even though companies like Amazon use all kinds of algorithms to push the products they believe we will like, based on our previous behaviour (and whatever other data they have), it still feels impersonal. Even if the recommendations are curated by a real person, the connection just isn’t the same.

There are many bookstores already carving out their niches, across the world. There are ones that include cafes and restaurants (in a far more integrated way than some big-name stores, where it always feels like the cafe franchise was simply renting space inside the bookstore). The Spotty Dog Books & Ale goes further, combining a bookstore with a bar, where you can browse with a beer. There’s The Book Barge, a narrowboat that travels canals selling books. There’s The Ripped Bodice, a Californian store that specialises in romance books. There’s La Libreira del Mare  in Milan, Italy, where all the books are about the sea (the name translates as ‘The Sea Library.) There are stores in old churches, in out-of-the way corners of cities, in the middle of nowhere. There are bookstores for food-lovers, sci-fi and fantasy fans, and mystery readers. In fact, whatever type of book you prefer, there’s probably an ideal store for you somewhere.

These stores all complete with the likes of Amazon, not by trying to be better, but by being different. They know their potential customers, and they give them exactly what they want. And the people who run these places do so, I am certain, because they wanted bookstores like these, but couldn’t find them. They are bibliophiles above everything else, just like their customers.

Is reading fiction useful?

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the use of story in relating real-world events, and how this engages us on an emotional level (and you can read that post here). But what about fiction?

Fiction obviously uses story to engage us, but using imagined events. We might become wrapped up in the plight of the protagonist, but we know it’s all make-believe. It’s entertainment, with an emotional pull to keep us reading/listening.

But there’s more to it that that.

Think, for a moment, what children do when they play. They make up worlds and characters, and seem to exist in a make-believe world. But this play is important, because it enables the child to learn. Through pretending to be an intrepid explorer, or a doctor, or a teacher, the child is learning how they might cope indifferent situations. They are developing an understanding of the way the world works.

Fiction works in a similar way, by allowing us to explore settings and situations that are unfamiliar to us. And there’s a quote from Stephen King that encapsulates this‌—‌’We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.’

Cope with Horrors

Obviously, that doesn’t mean we read a book like Salem’s Lot to learn how to deal with a town overrun by vampires, and The Shining isn’t a manual on how to cope with a deranged writer when cut off in a creepy old hotel. But these books do deal with characters facing situations that they never even considered could happen. They deal with characters who have to make difficult decisions, often requiring them to go against what they would normally do. In The Shining, Jack’s wife doesn’t want to leave him, but she had to think the well-being of both herself and her son. In Salem’s Lot, as more members of the town become vampires, characters are forced to confront their own feelings towards friends who are now turning on them.

But the characters don’t always make the best decisions. King says the horrors help us cope‌—‌they don’t simply give us a list of actions to follow. The best stories don’t tell us what to think, even though they might nudge us in a certain direction. Sometimes, the lesson in the book (the ‘coping strategy’) is not obvious. Of course it isn’t. Nobody likes being told what to do, and if our fiction did just that, how many of us would continue reading?

Sometimes (most of the time?) what we learn from a work of fiction will depend on us at that particular time. The same work can have different meanings, all equally valid, for different people. Take Lord Of The Rings‌—‌is this a simple tale of good overcoming evil, or is there more to it? Frodo cannot let go of the ring at the end, so what does that tell you about either the power behind the ring or Frodo’s character? Maybe Sam is the real hero‌—‌the one with no real power, who doesn’t want to be there except that he is loyal to his friend, but who ends up carrying Frodo for so much of the story‌—‌and the lesson here is that we can look past our own fears and limitations. And what of Golum‌—‌is he villain or victim, and what does his plight tell us about ourselves? There is clearly a warning about greed, but is there also a fatalistic lesson in how our desires can control us no matter how hard we try to fight? And what does the way we view him tell us about ourselves, and how we see others who are ‘evil’? Does our attitude to Golum change as we realise how he has been manipulated?

It’s a vast book, and there’s clearly more that can be drawn out‌—‌but only when we start to question. We put ourselves in the characters’ positions, and ask what we might do (or what we’d like to imagine we’d do, if we didn’t freeze with fear the moment an orc appeared).

Purpose of Storytellers

Brandon Sanderson put it this way‌—‌’The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.’ And a good storyteller will often leave the answers open. A well-crafted story will force questions into our minds, where they will ruminate for days. Think of the character of Hannibal in Thomas Harris’ books (such as The Silence Of The Lambs), and ask why we are drawn to an unrepentant cannibal?

America Psycho is another book that provokes questions. On the face of it, the book is a nasty tale of a sociopathic killer. But it’s also about money and wealth. It’s about power, and the lack of it. Why is Patrick Batemen such a despicable creature? Is he simply evil, or has something pushed him to this point? Is he, like Golum, corrupted by a power that he never saw coming? And what of the revelation (spoiler alert) that the killings are all in his head? Does this make him less of a monster, or does the way his mind convinces him that he has killed make him more evil?

Are there definite answers to these questions? I’d say no. Bret Easton Ellis is well-known for not explaining his book, and that is good. The reader needs to pull whatever they can from his stories. And that means one person’s answers will be different to another’s. Because we are all different. We all have different questions, and seek different answers.
But surely this is all academic. We’re discussing fiction, and characters who don’t exist in real life. What difference can this make to our day-to-day lives? So what if we analyse‌—‌it’s all make-believe.

Hopefully you’re ahead of me here.

We think, and we question. The answers we arrive at affect the way we think, and that alters the way we see the world. And, when so many books are, at their heart, about humanity, and about the way people respond to others, this alters the way we see those around us. It alters our whole world-view.

We could make these changes through other means‌—‌philosophical discussion, or ‘education’ (whatever that means). If we want people to think a certain way, we could simply tell them. We could come up with a set of rules, or instructions. But stories speak to us in a way facts and data cannot. Stories reach deep inside and force us to step outside ourselves. Stories show us a world far wider than anything we can imagine.

And that is why, throughout history, fictional stories have been used for the advancement of mankind. From camp-fire tales, to religious parables, to morality tales, stories have always been at the forefront of guiding us in our journey through life.

Yes, fiction can change us. Think of the anti-war sentiment in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, or the challenge to prejudiced ideas in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Think of the chilling vision of the future in George Orwell’s 1984. And then think of the books you’ve read, the books that have stayed with you. Maybe the ones you re-read, the ones that are still opening up their secrets. The stories that are still making you think.

I’ll finish with another quote, this time form Neil Gaiman. His stories are larger-than-life, with fantastical elements, and I don’t think it is any surprise that he writes for both adults and children. He understands how those age-old primal stories can be a force for good, and he knows that we should never lose that child inside, the one that play-acts as a way of solving difficult problems before they even appear. He understands the power in stories. And that is why he said, ‘Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.’

Dragons Can Be Beaten

If I don’t like a book that others love, am I wrong?

bad-review-2813741_640This happens quite often: I start reading a book, and within a few pages I find myself thrown out of the story. Maybe there are too many grammatical errors, or the story doesn’t make sense, or possibly the writing is bland and uninspiring. I’ve read too many books in need of an edit, and sympathise with those who moan at the amateur nature of independently-published books.

But I don’t like to give up on books, so I plough through to the end, inwardly moaning about the hours of my time I’m wasting.

feedback-2800867_640Then I’ll pop on to Amazon or Goodreads, interested to read what others thought of the book. And I’ll be confronted with pages of five-star reviews. They’ll praise the exciting story (that I considered tedious and predictable), or the wonderful characters (that I found to be cardboard cut-out cliches). These reviews talk of the enjoyment they got from the story, and how much they’re looking forward to that author’s next book.

This happens often enough that I wonder if I missed something, or if my judgement on books is awry.

But it isn’t. What I think of a particular book is what I think of it. It’s my personal opinion.

There is no right or wrong here. Everyone is different. What I look for in a good book will not necessarily correspond with others’ idea of an enjoyable read.

Other people will have different opinions.

Some readers can’t get past more than a handful of grammar issues, but others don’t even notice the mistakes. Some readers are turned off by bland descriptions, while others are enraptured with the dialogue in the very same book. Some people enjoy the richness of the language, while to others the words are nothing more than a way of getting the story across.

Everyone is different, in both their preferences and what they expect from a book. An author like Dan Brown is often frowned upon by those who prefer more intellectual books (whatever they are), but he has far more readers than any of the year’s Booker nominees. James Joyce’s works are considered classics by some, and undreadable nonsense by others. Some people relate to Twilight‘s Bella, and others find her a nonentity.

This doesn’t only happen in books, of course. A new art-house film might receive outstanding reviews from film critics, but it will never come close to making as much money as the latest big-budget effects-driven spectacular. The latest pop music sensation will easily outsell a band that is pushing the boundaries of music. Sometimes, a musician might straddle both ‘popular’ and ‘experimental’ music, but they are rare indeed. Bjork continues to produce challenging music, but she is no longer the ‘popular’ artist she was when she had hits with tracks such as ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ or ‘Human Behaviour’.

So if her older music was more popular, is it better than her latest stuff?

That’s not a sensible question. It’s different. Each album is what it is. Just as each book by each author is what it is. As every author is individual, so is every reader. Every reader is seeking something different from a book.

pair-707505_640So no, I’m not in the wrong if I don’t enjoy a book that others view as a classic. I might not have the same opinion as the majority of others, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Just different.

And that is why reviews can only ever be guidelines. For all the importance placed on them, especially in the independent-publishing field, they are not fact. A load of good reviews might mean that the book is popular, but they are still only the opinions of individuals.

Of course, reviews have their uses. If a review favourably compares a book to one of your favourites, of it that reviewer has given positive reviews to other books you like, then you might want to check the book out. If the reviews talk about plot twists, or evocative language, or snappy, sarcastic dialogue, and you enjoy these things, then it’s more likely that you will agree with their opinion of the book.

Negative reviews can be ‘positive’ in guiding a reader to a book too. If you enjoy violence and lots of swearing in your books, and a negative review decries the coarse language and gore-filled descriptions, this might be the book for you. If the reviewer moans that the sappy relationship gets in the way of the mystery, but you like romance stories, that could be a good sign.

So is there a lesson in this? If there is, it is probably to take reviews with a pinch of salt. Read them, yes. Take note of the thoughts of others. But don’t take their word as anything other than their personal opinions. Understand that when you read the book, you are doing so for yourself, not for them. Remember that you can think for yourself, and you can reach your own conclusions.

If you disagree with a review, it’s not a case of right and wrong, just a difference of opinion.

My Reading Year 2017

Another year over. Where does the time go (and all those usual cliches)? But this is a good opportunity to reflect and to look forward, and in that spirit I thought I’d look back at some of my reading highlights of 2017.

I started keeping a log of all the books I read at the start of the year, and that tells me I read roughly 25 non-fiction books (mainly about writing and publishing), 25 novellas and 80 novels (and quite a few short stories, either on their own or in anthologies). They have been both traditionally published and independently published (with the latter probably in the majority, simply because I started using Instafreebie earlier in the year), and span a range of genres (some of which are not what I would normally read).
So, some highlights.

The new-to-me author who has been around for ages

It’s often said that even an old book is new to someone who has not yet read it, and I’ve read quite a few older books for the first time this year. This includes Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (which I enjoyed, although it felt a little rushed), A Falcon Flies by Wilbur Smith (not the kind of thing I’d normally read, but I’m definitely interested in reading more) and Sharpe’s Tiger by Bernard Cornwell (which was a great read, even though I don’t often go for historical war novels. I think it worked for me because it focused on the character of Sharpe rather than the historical details). But the one that impressed me the most was Brandon Sanderson’s first Mistborn novel, The Final Empire.

FinalEmpireMistborn1_BrandonSandersonI’ve heard Sanderson talk on the Writing Excuses podcast, so I expected something well written, and I was not disappointed. It’s long (pushing a thousand pages if I remember correctly), but never felt long-winded. Often, by the time I’m three-quarters through a book (of any length), I’m already thinking of what I want to read next, but I never reached that point with Mistborn.

I loved the magic system, and the way it worked almost like a science, with a clear set of rules. Again, I’ve heard Sanderson mention how he believes all magic systems need rules, and reading this novel showed me exactly what he means.

I already have more in this series on my to-be-read list, and can see Sanderson becoming one of my favourite authors.

The sci-fi/comedy that continues to work

Most combinations that include comedy fail. The humour might be annoying or puerile, and often the story takes a back-seat in the set-up to the next joke. Even something like the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series (which I love, despite what I am about to say) often feels like a series of cool, funny moments shoe-horned into a story-arc (possibly because this was how Douglas Adams wrote it, having no idea where it was headed).

But it can be done. Terry Pratchett did it expertly in many of the Discworld books, and Harry Harrison did a good job with his Bill The Galactic Hero books. And now, Barry Hutchison has written a series that strike just the right balance between humour and story.

SpaceTeam_BarryJHutchinsonHe released the first Space Team book back in 2016, but is now up to number seven (and has a spin-off with another couple of novels), and I don’t know how he puts out consistently good books so fast. The stories stand up on their own, with the humour based around the characters and the situations, but the stories stand up on their own too. The characters have also grown over the series, with ‘throw-away’ back-story helping to develop the characters even more.

If you like Douglas Adams, I’d recommend Space Team (and the first book is only 99p/99c, so what have you got to lose?)

The story-studio that continues to impress

I’ve been following the books (and writing careers) of the Sterling And Stone team for a few years now. They continually push the boundaries of independent publishing, and are unafraid to try new (or old) ideas. They started their author careers with serialised fiction, and have written sci-fi, horror, thriller, literary (and, under pen-names, children’s fiction and romance). They will write an unashamedly commercial series like Invasion, but also write books simply because they want to, like Crash.

DevilMayCare_PlattTruantThe three authors on the team usually write in pairs, so you either get a Sean Platt/Johnny B Truant book, or a Sean Platt/David Wright book. So far, I’ve enjoyed the ideas more in the former, but get a kick out of the darker writing of the latter.

This year, they’ve produced three things that have impressed me. First, the Platt/Truant literary book Devil May Care. It’s a kind of road trip book, with two story-lines that are related (and I won’t spoil things by saying how they connect, although I think I figured it out a good while before the authors intended). It doesn’t quite work for me, but I admire how Platt and Truant constantly push their writing in different directions‌—‌and there are moments, especially nearer the beginning, that contain some of the finest writing they have produced to date.

TomorrowGene_PlattTruantThey also published The Tomorrow Gene trilogy of sci-fi/thrillers, based around cloning. They billed this as the spiritual follow-up to their Invasion series, and it is clear that they were aiming for something commercial. But the ideas are definitely not dumbed-down, and these are intelligent reads. Also, each book has a different feel. The first begins fairly languidly, which suits the story perfectly, and the unsettling elements are allowed to creep in at their own pace. The second is incredibly fast-moving, with loads of action. The third deals more with conspiracies and lies, and is a more psychological book. Yet all three work well together.

NoJustice_PlattWrightAnd finally, there is the Platt/Wright book No Justice. It is a very dark book, very unsettling, but this is a strength of their writing. The protagonist, the guy we’re supposed to be rooting for, is a vigilante, and he does some things that push the reader’s empathy. Yet this adds to the tension‌—‌you’re never sure if he’s going to go too far and become a full-on villain. Also, giving point-of-view scenes from the antagonist (a paedophile who kidnaps and later kills children) is a brave move, with disturbing moments where he justifies his abhorrent actions.

These books aren’t for everyone, but if you like to be challenged by what you read, and are not afraid of being unsettled, I’d recommend them.

The Dystopian series that taught me how to do it

TubeRiders_ChrisWardAlong with Barry Hutchison, I’ve found another new favourite author this year in Chris Ward. He wrote the Tube Rider trilogy, and I loved the books. They are based in a future UK that is separated from the rest of Europe (these books were written before the Brexit vote, but now they feel worryingly possible), and the main characters are youngsters who ‘tube ride’ for kicks (grabbing hold of moving underground trains and hanging off the side). Of course, they see things they aren’t supposed to, and the story soon has them fleeing for their lives.

I love how Ward deals with the characters. None of them are perfect, and sometimes even the good characters do the wrong thing, occasionally for purely selfish reasons. He sets up the notion of ‘nobody is guaranteed to be a hero’ early on by having one of the gang betray the rest and then die‌—‌which also sets up the expectation that nobody is guaranteed to survive. The villains are very believable, with clear, logical reasons for their actions, and all have the possibility of redemption (whether that happens or not is a different matter, and I’m not going to give any spoilers). And the world Ward creates is frighteningly realistic and plausible.

For more of my thoughts on the Tube Riders series, click here.

I intend to read more of Ward’s books over 2018, including his new YA series, Endinfinium (starting with Benjamin Forrest And The School At The End Of The World).

Revisiting old books‌—‌not always a good move

I’ll re-read old books every now and then, but some of the ones I’ve returned to this year have left me questioning how I rated them so highly. I suppose I was more impressionable as a teenager when I first read James Herbert’s The Rats and the sequel, Lair, but now the prose feels somewhat clunky, and the stories don’t interest me as much. Robert R McCammon’s Baal read like a series of separate but connected stories, and Dean Koontz’s Watchers had story arcs that I felt could have been ignored for much of the time. I can’t help wondering how much of this ‘padding’ was at the request of the publisher, to make the book a certain length.

It_StephenKingI also re-read Stephen King’s It. I can’t recall what I thought of it when I read it when it first came out, but I’m in two minds now. There are parts I love, but overall it felt too long and repetitive. Some of the creepy horror is excellent, though, and King is a master writer. One of those books where the parts are more impressive than the whole, and it hasn’t put me off re-visiting more of King’s books (or reading his newer novels).

The novelisation of the original Star Wars film was a disappointment (I’ve written about this in a previous post, which you can read here), but I did enjoy listening to the audio-book of the ET novelisation (and you can read more of my thoughts on this here). I read this years ago, and I’m sure I didn’t get a lot of the subtext when I was younger, especially the mother’s thoughts.

A perfect shorter story

AllQuietOnTheWesternFold_JamieBrindleI’ll finish with a shorter work I really enjoyed — All Quiet In The Western Fold by Jamie Brindle. Imagine stories exist as living, breathing characters, in a wild west kind of setting. Stories are becoming sick, though, and the new sheriff has to investigate.

If that sound a bit strange, it is. But it is so well written, and manages to be serious and playful at the same time. For example, take this description:

High Sheriff Grok was a huge fat story, with thick wads of excess characterisation around his jowls and a pair of ugly similes that hung like ammo belts around his chest.

It’s a joy to read stuff like this, but the story itself is also intriguing, and makes me want to read more by Brindle. In fact, I have some of his books on my to-be-read list.

I have a lot of books on this list — far too many. Next year I need to stop downloading so much and get through more of the list (hard to do‌—‌I’ve already added a few more books over the holidays).

So, what else for next year? I’ve already mentioned wanting to read more from the authors above, but I also want to get back into some of the classics. A couple of years back I set myself the challenge of getting through all of Balzac’s Comedie Humaine (something like a hundred titles ranging from shorts to 500-page novels), and I don’t think I read any in 2017.

I’m also wanting to discover more new (to me) authors, so if you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them. I prefer darker, more thoughtful stuff, but I’m open to just about anything (I’ve even read Fifty Shades, although I’m sure I shouldn’t have been laughing quite so much).

So, here’s to a good year of reading in 2018.


What is a book worth?

That’s a very ambiguous question. To narrow it down a bit, I’ll only consider fiction here, and will define a book as an object containing a text version of a story. Generally, this is either a physical book (paperback or hardback) or an electronic version (audiobooks have another layer of performance, so I’m discounting them for this discussion.)

reading-1249273_1280One measure of worth is money, so how much do we pay for books? In the UK, a paperback is generally between five and ten pounds, and a hardback around twenty. E-book pricing varies considerably‌—‌there are the free or 99p books, right up to about twenty pounds.

Why the difference in prices? So let’s consider what we are actually paying for.

When we buy a paperback or hardback, we exchange money for a physical object. Yes, we can read it, but we can also display it on our shelves. We can admire it as a thing in itself.

But with an e-book, we received a string of zeros and ones that are stored on a hard-drive somewhere. Our computers (phones, e-readers or whatever we use) translate this information into the words we read and the pictures we see. But ultimately, it’s just data.
It’s the same story in both versions‌—‌the only difference is in the means of delivery. Any difference in price should therefore reflect the costs involved in creating and distributing these different versions.

write-593333_640Think about what it takes to turn a story into a book. There is all the work the author puts in‌—‌planning, research, writing, re-writing and editing. There are external editors and proofreaders. This goes for all books, electronic and physical.

But after this, things diverge. For a physical book, the pages are formatted, then proof-read (in the original sense of the term‌—‌checking the proof copy, and not just looking for spelling and grammatical errors). These pages are then sent to the printer, who creates the physical book itself from materials the printing company purchases. The book is bound, with a cover that includes front, back and spine. The book is stored and, when requested, shipped to stores. These stores have their own overheads to cover‌—‌rent on the building, wages for staff, store furniture and power etc. This is true for both bricks-and-mortar and on-line sellers.

And all this, apart from the creation of the original proofs, needs to be repeated for each book sold.

Now consider an e-book. Once the text is completed, it is formatted, and a cover designed. These files are then uploaded to a seller, be that an independent website or a company like Amazon or Kobo. The seller requires a server etc., but the costs are far less than for the storage of a physical object. And there is no need to create a new e-book for each sale made‌—‌the original is simply copied digitally.

From the above, it seems pretty clear to me that the cost of bringing an e-book to a reader is far lower than getting a physical book in their hands, and for this reason alone it makes sense that paper books should be priced higher.

Yet this is not always the case. I often see e-books priced the same as paperbacks (normally by traditional publishers). I have seen e-books priced the same as a hardback, even though the paperback is under half that amount. And I can see no possible justification for this.

But that is only part of the question I first posed. This is price as a reflection of the manufacturing cost. This is the price of the book as an object.

once-upon-a-time-719174_1280Books, as a means of conveying a story, have a value in the words themselves, and the artistry and craft that are displayed in the writing. What we value in a book is the experience of reading.

And this is where things become far harder to quantify. How much would you pay for entertainment?

We could consider time. If we are willing to pay, say, ten pounds to watch a two-hour film, should a novel that takes five hours be worth over twenty pounds? If that were the case, a book like War And Peace might be over a hundred pounds. I can imagine someone paying that much for a rare edition, but I’ve seen paperback copies for around £0.99.

But it would be wrong to assume there is a correlation between quantity and quality. Is Stephen King’s It worth five times the value of Animal Farm? Much as I enjoy both books, I wouldn’t agree with this statement. In fact, many smaller books outclass longer stories. To me, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Fight Club are far more enjoyable than, say, George RR Martin’s Game Of Thrones / Song of Ice And Fire books. And I know that sentence will upset some people, but that’s just me and my reading tastes.

light-bulbs-1125016_1280Which gives us another issue to consider‌—‌everyone is different. One person’s life-changing entertainment will be wasted hours to another. The same books could be considered a thrilling roller-coaster ride or a hideous excuse for gratuitous violence and bad language. A thrilling tale might be gratuitous violence and bad language to someone else. One person might value well-crafted prose, but another might find more of value in a finely-tuned story. One person might get swept up in rich descriptions, and another might be drawn into snappy, sarcastic dialogue.

In other words, two people will consider the same book to have different worth. I might baulk at buying the next book Martin release, even if it was on special offer, but others will gladly spend twenty pounds on the hardback version, then buy another copy when that one wears out. To them, the book is worth far more than it is to me.

Because value is about more than money. What we pay for something, and it’s value, are not always connected. Some of the best books I have read‌—‌the books that I value‌—‌did not cost me a great deal, but there are other ways I can pay the author, and other ways I can demonstrate how much I believe that book is worth. Some of my new-found favourite authors can rely on me to keep buying their books. I can tell others what I think, and I can write reviews (or mention books and authors when I’m writing here). Some fans draw art based on their most valued books, or write fan-fiction. Some buy electronic, physical and audio versions. Others frequent author websites, or follow the author on social media.

So the question ‘how much is a book worth’ now encompasses more than money. It involves time and effort. A good book is worth our undivided attention for a number of hours. A good book is worth thinking about, and maybe revisiting.

It has been said that any object is only worth what someone will pay for it, but this needs to be extended. A story is worth the money you pay for it, the time you spend reading it, and the effort you expend in thinking about it.

What is a book worth? Ultimately, it depends on both the reader and the book.