Archive for the ‘My life in books’ Tag

My Life in Books: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

HitchhikersWe are now into the 1990s on this list of books that have made an impact on my life in some way. Technically this book should be earlier in the list, as the first time I read it was some time in the mid-80s. But I have read it several times, so perhaps chronologically it doesn’t really matter.

This was the first book that made me laugh out loud. The first time I read it, I was in high school. I remember laughing reading it on the bus on the way to school, and getting some very odd looks from my fellow passengers. But I’ve laughed just as loudly in subsequent re-readings.

Douglas Adams’ strange sense of humour was unique. Who else could decide that the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything is 42? This may say something about the people in my social circles (most of whom are fellow geeks), but on any social occasion if someone mentions the meaning of life, someone else will pipe up with, “42”. Who else could decide that the worst swear word in the universe is “Belgium”?

His most famous quote is, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” I think a lot of us can relate to that one – especially writers.

The character of Arthur Dent, reluctant space traveller and Ordinary Bloke, stumbles through his adventures (wearing his pyjamas and dressing gown for the whole of the first book) with a sense of disbelief, like he can’t believe it’s all really happening. Rumour has it that Douglas Adams based this character on himself. It’s probably no accident that Arthur Dent’s initials are the reverse of Douglas Adams’.

The Hitchhiker’s series was supposed to be a trilogy, but there ended up being rather more than that. None of them were ever quite as good as the first and original.

I was really upset to hear the news of Douglas Adams’ death, at age 49 in 2001. Apparently he had a heart attack after going to the gym.

I always suspected that working out was bad for your health.

My Life in Books: Restoration

RestorationTremainOne of my first jobs was in a book shop (1989-1991), and at the time each employee was allocated particular publishers, and part of their job was to see the publishers’ rep when they came to the shop and listen to the pitch for new releases. Sometimes the reps arrived armed with free copies of these new books, and this is how I ended up with a copy of Rose Tremain’s ‘Restoration’, because in 1989 I had the Hamish Hamilton list.

Surprisingly, because I wouldn’t have thought it was my sort of thing, I really enjoyed this book.  It revolves around the escapades of one Robert Merivel, favoured physician in James II’s court. He’s not a terribly nice character at the start of the book – a self-centred, womanising rogue – but there’s a charm to him that makes you empathise with him anyway.  The King orders Merivel to marry his favourite mistress, the idea being that he can keep her close to hand without rousing the suspicions of his other mistresses, confident in the concept that Merivel is too fond of ladies in general to get attached to just one.  When Merivel commits the unpardonable sin of falling in love with his wife, he is banished from court, and the rest of the book is a story of his journey back to respectability.  He learns how to put aside his philandering ways and gains respect for women, and also discovers respect for himself.

Perhaps it is Rose Tremain’s writing style that endeared me to this character, but he changes and matures throughout the story in a way that I found engaging.  Merivel’s indiscretions include a dalliance with an attractive young woman in a mental hospital, and when she dies giving birth to his baby, he is left with a daughter to take care of and that is one of the key things that makes him re-assess his priorities.

I read this book once, over twenty years ago, but it stayed with me.  I was pleased to learn recently that Rose Tremain has written a sequel to ‘Restoration’, set seventeen years on, with Merivel an older (though probably not much wiser) man and his daughter Margaret grown and ready to make her own way in the world.  This book is now in my To Be Read pile, and I am looking forward to visiting Robert Merivel again.

My Life in Books: The Stand

The-Stand-Stephen-King-UsedI never read The Stand in its original published version, but came across it when it was re-released as an ‘author’s extended version’ in 1990.  I was working in a book shop at the time, a job that was responsible for expanding my library quite dramatically – not just because I was around books all day and kept finding ones I wanted, but because we all got a staff discount if we bought books from the shop.  For some reason I had trouble finding an image of the cover of the 1990 release, which is the book that still sits on my shelf (along with quite a number of other Stephen King books), to include with this post.  The one I am including here is photo of someone’s copy of the book, not a JPG of the cover.

A huge doorstopper of a book, at over 1,150 pages, King allegedly put back in scenes that were cut from the originally published version, the reasoning being that people would be put off buying such a large book.  But I guess by 1990 Stephen King was such a mega-bestseller he had the freedom to do pretty much whatever he wanted.

Best described as a post-apocalyptic thriller, the plot of this book involves a super-virus, originally cultivated as a biological weapon, that effectively wipes out the population of the US, leaving handfuls of survivors that eventually band together, forming two camps – one clearly evil, the other fighting on the side of good.

The extended version, though a long book, is still one of King’s best in my view.  It’s a story of ordinary flawed people thrown into an extraordinary situation – what Stephen King does best.  The enduring appeal of post-apocalyptic novels is the study of how humanity behaves when the survival of the species is in crisis.  Modern post-apocalyptic stories generally feature zombies, but still study the behaviour of the human survivors – look at The Walking Dead, for example.  Though we’d like to think that when there are only a handful of humans left, everyone will pull together to save humanity, but sadly that’s not normally the way it is.  The surviving humans become extremely territorial, fighting each other.  This is the idea behind The Stand, and though there are no zombies to be found in this novel, the concept of what humanity is capable of in extreme survival situations is far scarier. The leader of the ‘evil’ camp is unquestionably a supernatural entity, evil for the sake of being evil, but his followers are all too human, and capable of some pretty despicable acts.  Like all King books there are truly hateful, but ultimately human, characters, who generally get what’s coming to them at the end, and likeable characters you root for and then get all upset over when they meet an undeservedly tragic end.

There are some passing observations about how our attitude to the things we take for granted shifts when the world as we know it has ended – using paper money as a book mark, for instance, as it has become worthless, and how a ruptured appendix becomes a fatal condition when there is no one around with medical knowledge to perform what is currently considered a basic and routine operation.

It’s not the first Stephen King on my list of memorable books and it will not be the last, but this book stands out for me as one of the best I ever read.

My Life in Books: Burn Marks

burn marksIn 1989, I had a job working in a book shop in Central London. I was there for two years. Although I loved being around books all day, I wasn’t so fond of dealing with customers. However, that job was where I really began to build up my own personal library. Before then, I’d largely acquired my books from the library. With this job, not only was I around books all day and therefore just about every day I’d come across at least I wanted to read, we also got a staff discount, so we were able to buy them at a reasonable price. And so this is when I started buying books instead of borrowing them – a habit I still continue. Like all book shops, ours used to have signing sessions with authors. Most of them were lovely. A few of them weren’t so lovely. I’m not naming any names. Suffice to say that since the shop was in Westminster, most of our most notorious “authors” were politicians… And then Sara Paretsky came to see us, for a signing session of her new release BURN MARKS. Up to then, I hadn’t heard of her, or her books. But she came, she was lovely, and I liked the sound of her kick-ass character V.I. Warshawski. So I bought the book, and had her sign it. Andthen I read it, and my life was changed. V.I. Warshawski remains my premier example of a tough female heroine. She’s smart, she’s outspoken, she knows her own mind and she’s not afraid to voice her opinion – even though doing so often makes enemies. Over the years she’s had many lovers, but none of them have made her happy enough to want to give up her independence for them, and she’s still single, preferring instead the company of her friends and her dogs. Daughter of an Italian singer and a Polish cop – both immigrants to the US – V.I. is an orphan, but her fierce love for her parents shapes her personality, and her desire to speak up for the underdog, especially oppressed women, colours her actions. This is not the first book in the series. If you’ve never read any of Sara Paretsky’s novels, start with the first one, INDEMNITY ONLY, which introduces us to V.I. After I read BURN MARKS I started the series from the beginning. I’ve read them all, and in my opinion Sara Paretsky has not written a bad V.I. Warshawski novel yet. Yes, I am a hardcore Sara Paretsky fangirl. And proud of it. There aren’t enough V.I. Warshawskis in the world, in my opinion. As long as Sara Paretsky keeps on writing books about her, I shall keep on flying the flag declaring her the best fictional heroine ever.

My Life in Books: David Starr, Space Ranger

Still in my science fiction phase as a teenager, I found this book in the school library.  It was the first in a series of six books by Isaac Asimov, written to introduce kids to the solar system.  The main character, David Starr, is a dashing young adventurer, and each book of the series featured a different planet in the solar system, on which David “Lucky” Starr would get involved in an exciting adventure (I think he was supposed to be something like the Lone Ranger in space), using facts about the planet as a backdrop.  This first book was set on Mars. 

The problem was, these books were written in the fifties, and our knowledge of the solar system was erroneous back then.  I remember, for instance, that in the book set on Venus it was a planet where it rained all the time – we have since learned that the clouds shrouding Venus contain no water.  I read all six books in this series, and in the front of each was an apology from Isaac Asimov, pointing out what errors had since come to light since he wrote them, but since changing the books to correct the facts would change the plots too much, he’d decided not to rewrite them.

They may no longer be the educational tools that Asimov intended, but they are still rollicking good space adventure stories, and a great science fiction books for teens.

My Life in Books: The Sword of Shannara

In this series of blog posts, I have been talking about books that made some kind of impact in my life.  Terry Brooks’ SWORD OF SHANNARA made an impact, alright, but a very different impact to the other books I have been blogging about.

I mentioned that I got into science fiction after becoming obsessed with Star Wars.  In grade 10 I discovered Dungeons & Dragons, when I joined my high school’s D&D club.  I enjoyed the game, and thought perhaps I should read some fantasy, since it was this genre that inspired it.

The first fantasy book I picked up was this one.  And I thought it was a dirge.  Overstuffed with two-dimensional and boring characters and overlong descriptions of foliage, it was a world with a complete lack of strong female characters and it left me cold.  I didn’t finish it.  And that’s pretty unusual – to date, I can count the number of books I have abandoned halfway through on the fingers of one hand.

If I had started with something like LORD OF THE RINGS, would my perception of fantasy be different?  It’s possible.  I still connect fantasy fiction with overlong descriptions of foliage, plodding plots that take ages to get going and a mysogynistic society that has no real place for kick-ass women.  I am sure there are plenty of books out that that can disabuse me of these notions, but I never felt passionate enough about the genre to go seek them out. And for that, I’m still blaming Terry Brooks.

On the other hand, it might just be that fantasy will never be my genre and my life-long fondness for kick-ass women solving mysteries and stories about supernatural monsters eating children would have prevailed no matter what.

Bizarrely, I enjoy watching fantasy films. I’ve still never read LORD OF THE RINGS, but the Peter Jackson films rock. I particularly enjoyed the kick-ass women that were Arwen and Eowyn. I have been told that in the books, neither of them are quite so kick-ass.

And I still enjoy playing table-top D&D, where the world is interactive, the players control what’s going on, and in the games my husband runs (he’s still my favourite GM) there is generally a mystery to solve. And if I want to play a six-foot Amazonian female warrior who’s a demon with a quarterstaff and is, frankly, a one-woman killling machine, I can.

In fiction, I still prefer reading about kick-ass heroines with a mystery to solve. However, if someone can name a fantasy book that fulfils that criteria, I might be prepared to give it a try.

My Life in Books: Dune

I went through a science fiction phase in my teenage years,triggered by my obsession with Star Wars.  When I picked up Frank Herbert’s classic, I think I was 15 – the same age as the hero, Paul Atreides.  Which was probably one of the reasons I liked it so much.

My immediate impression is that the world building was overwhelmingly complex, but impressive.  I enjoyed the book and got to the end, and began to work through the series.  I think I got as far as GOD EMPEROR OF DUNE before it all got way too complex and I gave up.

The cover featured here was on the book that I read, but I had trouble finding it.  There have been many editions of it published since then.  There also seems to be a vast number of additional books in the series published since I gave up on it.  I have never met anyone that stuck with the whole series – most people who started reading this series appear to give up with the same book I did, or on CHILDREN OF DUNE, which I think was the one before.

The first film of the book, with Kyle MacLaughlin, came out not long after I read it, and when I went to see it, I was rather glad I’d read the book first – as a teen, I felt the film would be pretty incomprehensibe to anyone not familiar with Frank Herbert’s universe.  I did quite like Kyle MacLaughlin’s portrayal of Paul, though (he was too old to play a 15-year-old, but since he had to age several years in the course of the film, I was prepared to overlook that), and I thought the Baron – the Floating Fat Man – was suitably disgusting.

I think this book is one of those timeless classics, that should be read by anyone with even a passing interest in science fiction, no matter how old or young they are.

My Life In Books: It

When I was 14, my sister and I spent the summer holiday in England with our dad (we were living in Canada with my mother). I’d already discovered Stephen King and my step-mother, herself a big reader, had this one on the shelf. So I read it that summer, and once I started, I found I could not put it down.

The book runs along two separate time lines.  A group of five children, all considered freaks and weirdos by their classmates, become firm friends and form what they call “The Losers’ Club”.  But in their little town of Derry, Maine, a brooding evil lurks – a supernatural creature that can take on the form of whatever scares you the most.  It lives in the drains and it’s preying on the townspeople.  The five children are the only ones who discover how to stop it, and they undertake a terrifying ordeal to banish the monster.

Thirty years later, the children are grown up and have all dispersed.  Four of them have left Derry and become financially successful.  They all get married, but notably none of them have children.  The one who remains in Derry, Mike, remains single, and brings in a modest income as a librarian.  He has appointed himself Derry’s guardian, looking out for the return of the monster, which as children they defeated but did not kill.  Having made a pact to return and go after it again should the creature return, Mike has kept track of his friends’ movements since they left Derry, and when the monster does return, he calls them all, and reminds them of their pact.

The book then follows the two timelines – the original journey the characters made as children, to defeat the creature, and the one they make in the present day, as adults.  But the monster still knows their childhood fears, and they are forced to face up to some unpleasant long-hidden truths about themselves, as well as dealing with the creature.

Anyone who’s read SUFFER THE CHILDREN will probably have noticed that IT was an influence.  To me, IT is the perfect horror novel. It has characters who are dealing with inner demons as well as an actual one, and a monster that has the ability to appear in the form of whatever scares you the most.  My only criticism is that at the very end of the novel, when the monster finally reveals its true form, it was something of a disappointment, as it turns out not to be scary at all.  But apparently this plays on Stephen King’s own phobia, so I guess to him the true form was pretty damn scary.

I would also have liked there to have been more than one girl amongst the five main characters. It’s not as if Stephen King can’t write female characters.  Beverley is the lone female in the “losers’ club”, a girl suffering physical abuse at the hands of her father.  She grows up and becomes a successful fashion designer, in partnership with her handsome and wealthy husband, but she’s been unable to break the pattern of her damaged childhood because her husband beats her up, too.

I also empathised with Eddie, the hypochrondriac weakling who lived with his obese and overbearing mother.  He grows up to run a chauffeur service to the stars, along with his wife, who physically bears a striking resemblance to his mother.

There was a mini-series made of IT about 20 years ago, but it really wasn’t very good.  I don’t think any visual representation of IT will ever do the book justice.  Some books should just remain as books and this one, for me, will always be up there on the list of books that had the most influence on my writing.  If people describe my writing as being like Stephen King’s, then I take that as an incredible compliment.  Much as aspire to that, I don’t think I will ever write anything that can hold a candle to IT.

My Life In Books: Carrie

This was the second Stephen King book that I picked up, and again it was from the school library.  This memorable tale of a bullied teenage girl with powers of telekinesis, who gets revenge on her classmates at the high school prom, really resonated with me.  I, too, was a bullied teenager.  After I read this book I started fantasising about what I might do to the bullies if I had telekinesis.  Not surprising that I turned into a horror writer.

What also struck me about this book was how convincingly King, as a male writer, can write about teenage girls – something not all male writers are able to do.

Interspersed with Carrie’s story are extracts of fictitious newspaper reports and witness autobiographies.  The first time I read this book, it struck me as unnecessary padding.  I found out later that this was exactly what it was.  CARRIE was Stephen King’s first published novel.  The story goes that when he finished it, he was so unhappy with it he threw it in the trash.  His wife extracted it, read it, and encouraged him to submit it.  He did, and it was picked up, but the publisher decided it was too short for a novel – more novella length.  King added all the newspaper reports and autobiography extracts to add to the word count.  If only the publishers had known then just how huge King would become, maybe they wouldn’t have cared quite so much.  I wonder if anyone nowadays would dare to tell Stephen King his book was too short (or too long).

The other thing that strikes me now is that if Stephen King was starting his career today, would he be labelled as a YA writer? A lot of his stories are about teenagers.

The main character of CARRIE was 16, but there was no such thing as YA fiction in the 1970s.  CARRIE was always shelved in the horror section.  Nowadays, it seems that if you write a book about a character who is under 18, it’s going to be labelled as Young Adult.  Though I suppose the fact that my school library had a copy of the book suggests it was always considered an appropriate read for teenagers.

When I first wrote SUFFER THE CHILDREN, the main character, Leanne, was 14. It was rejected by several agents on the basis that they considered it a YA novel and they didn’t deal with YA. I always maintained it wasn’t. It was inspired by Stephen King. It seems some agents believe that Stephen King is only read by teenage boys. After getting this message several times, in the end I gave up and made Leanne 18, but since the tone of the story didn’t actually change I still maintain it was never YA to begin with.

I still hold the view that Stephen King fans fans are teens and adults, male and female, and not necessarily horror fans.  King’s stories are accessible to all. Ultimately I think that’s the way it should be, rather than writers having to fit into tidy little boxes.

My Life In Books: The Outsiders

This book was on the curriculum for Grade 7 English.  Quite a strange book to study at school, I thought at the time. Up until then, I’d thought that all books studied in English class had to be classic literary masterpieces, and here we were being presented with a contemporary mass market paperback.

It’s effectively the story of a gang of teenage boys in the 1960s, all of whom are from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’.  The narrator is Ponyboy Curtis, a sensitive young man who writes poems, but his sort aren’t encouraged to follow artistic pursuits.

The year we studied this book, the film was released, so a class trip to the cinema to see it was entirely justified.  I quite liked the film, but I admit it was hard to hear much of it.  This is a film packed full of hunky young actors (most of the so-called ‘brat packers’ were in it).  Take a class full of hormonal 14-year-old girls to see it, and they aren’t going to be following the story.  In fact, in retrospect I feel quite sorry for all the other cinema patrons. What must have been going through their heads when we all trooped in for the matinee showing?

All of my classmates were swooning over either Patrick Swayze or Rob Lowe (or sometimes both).  Me, I decided I liked C Thomas Howell, who played the artistic Ponyboy.  It was more the character than the actor, I suppose – I’ve always gone for the sensitive artistic types.

In googling the image for this book, I came across a load of Grade 7 book reports on the Internet, so it would appear that it’s still on the curriculum for Grade 7 English, 30 years later, which I find very interesting. Then again, a book about a group of teenage outsiders will always hold universal appeal for teenagers, no matter what decade it is.

I am including here, as well as the book cover, the movie poster featuring all the stars, adopting mean and moody poses. No wonder, as adolescent hormone factories, we all got a bit flustered…