Category Archives: Reading

Graphic Novels

I’m currently reading Pride of Baghdad, written by Brian K Vaughan and with artwork by Niko Henrichon. It’s a thought-provoking story about freedom and oppression, using the device of having a pride of lions escape from Baghdad Zoo during an American bombing raid. Inspired by a true story, it’s received lavish praise which it thoroughly deserves.

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Initially, I discounted graphic novels as being glorified comics. Then, I noticed that the film The Road to Perdition, starring Tom Hanks, was based on a graphic novel. I enjoyed reading it and saw how the moody, gloomy artwork inspired the noir look of the movie. This made sense, as film-makers have long used storyboards to lay out the plot in a visual form.

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I’ve gone on to read many more graphic novels. I tend to avoid superheroes in lurex bodysuits, though the Brian K Vaughan’s anarchic Runaways gang are fun—imagine having supervillains for parents, who neglected you and whose evil plans you tried to thwart.

Instead, I look for graphic novels telling tales of real life. Will Eisner, Harvey Pekar, Alison Bechdel, Robert Crumb, his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Daniel Clowes all have something to say about the human condition.

Harvey Pekar

In the fantasy genre, I loved Krampus: The Yule Lordby Bromwhich admittedly is more prose than pictures, but the artwork is astonishing and who could resist a story where Father Christmas is the villain?

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I’ve just requested The Arab of the Future by Riad Satouff from my local library, which might help explain the political turmoil of the Arab world to me better than any news report. Graphic novels can be effective in tackling politics, as the stunning Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, showed about Iran during the Islamic revolution.

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Literary classics have been turned into graphic novels too: I recently read Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher and I liked the graphic novel version of Jane Eyre.

Do any of you read graphic novels?

Any suggestions of what to read next?

Cult Authors

The most common use of the word ‘cult’ is a dodgy religion, one which involves brainwashing and that excludes the world through secrecy.

Areas of the arts, particularly film, music and writing are breeding grounds for cults, with enthusiastic followers knowing about work which is largely obscure to the masses. Being labelled a cult author could be seen as a comment on how commercial you are, though there are successful writers who have cult books.

By the qualifier of sales alone, most cult authors write in a literary way. There are some, such as Haruki Murakami who prosper, and whose readers could be labelled a ‘tribe’ or ‘nation’. Even deceased writers, such as Charles Bukowski, still have healthy sales while remaining an acquired taste. 

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Some authors who wrote a book that once had a cult following, have achieved recognition from masses of readers. The best-known recent example is Stoner by John Williams. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is the perfect example of a book that took years to be published, then won adulation for its deceased author, before becoming a novel read by only a few.

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Then, there are the less well-known novelists, who none the less have enthusiastic readers who hunt out-of-print titles and wait for the latest release.

Some of my favourites are Richard Brautigan, Mick Jackson, Brady Udall, Charles Lambert, Justin Cartwright, Tim Gautreaux and Donald Harington.

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If you’re looking for a laugh with richly-imagined situational comedy, seek out Brady Udall‘s Mormon novels or Donald Harington‘s Ozark Mountains sagas. Richard Brautigan’s style is unique and his stories can be funny, sinister and moving in their emotional intensity.

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Mick Jackson, Charles Lambert and Justin Cartwright are British novelists, whose fluid writing style is a joy to read, yet they’re largely overlooked in favour of hacks who’ve got lucky with a bestseller.

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Tim Gautreaux is a poet, short story writer and novelist, and his novel The Clearing is one of my favourites.

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Do you follow any cult authors?

What hidden literary gems do you know about?

Frequent readers make the best lovers

Proof, if proof were needed, that readers are sexier and more intelligent than the average person comes from the reports mentioned in this article:

Frequent readers make the best lovers, say dating-app users

This can only mean that writers are stupendously attractive and brainy!

I certainly agree that readers make better lovers—it helps me, for sure—all I’ve got to do now is find someone to be there when it happens! 

Reading in Bed

For as long as I can remember, I’ve read in bed before going to sleep.

I read in other places, of course, including on the ‘throne’! I’ve known several people who had bookshelves in their bathrooms, so they plainly expected you to be gone for some time and to come out from your ablutions more intelligent than when you entered.

Reading at work was easy when I was a librarian and a teacher, as it’s expected, but I once had a dreadful job on a production line in a factory that made artificial cream. I was second in the process, standing on a raised platform 12′ high, manning a stainless steel bath which tilted in a cradle operated by a large lever. Huge pipes supplied me with liquid ingredients, pumped from silos large enough to contain a bus. I filled the bath with the correct proportions of ingredients—lecithin, milk powder, gelatine, sweetener and vegetable oil, stirring it with a giant wooden spoon to prevent clogging, before tipping the mixture into another pipe which descended to filters and blending mechanisms. These pipes decreased in size until they entered the packing room, where the jollop was poured into pots to be sealed with foil lids. I was up there with nothing do for twenty minutes, in between batches, so took to reading a paperback—until the floor manager saw me. I was banned from reading…worker ants aren’t meant to use their brains.

Incidentally, the single and double ‘cream’ we made had an extra ingredient for a couple of weeks, as a lazy operative failed to clean one of the filters, which was awkward to dismantle. He went on holiday, and his replacement discovered a dead and rather rotten rat in the filter! They didn’t issue a recall for the thousands of pots of cream affected.

Laying in bed with books for companions is relaxing. I’ve lived alone for a while, but have read to wives and lovers, and occasionally been read to. There’s something that’s charmingly soothing about being told a story, like regressing to childhood.

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I’m not sure that I could easily get to sleep, without reading first. I like to ring the changes, so have four books on the go at the moment—a novel, a poetry collection, a lovely art book by David Trigg called Reading Art: Art For Book Lovers and a popular psychology book. About 90 minutes of reading sees me nodding off, and after turning the darkness on, I send a wish to my self-conscious about my WIP before descending into sleep.

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Reading in bed is a great pleasure and one that I enjoy without disturbing anyone, being a solitary soul. In the past, I’ve read to various wives and lovers at bedtime—and even been read to a few times—happy times.

Nonetheless, an inconsiderate partner who reads for hours, bedside table light blazing, can be a pain. Legendary Hollywood actress Jean Harlow supposedly divorced her third husband because he read in bed, as mentioned in this article:

Reading in bed is valid grounds for divorce

A discreet clip-on book light helps to keep the peace.

Do you read in bed?

To yourself, a partner or a child?

Do you have a clip-on book light?

Or, do you read from an ebook reader?

Or, an audiobook?

Do you ever dream about what you read?

What are you reading at the moment?

Reading In Bed by Mernet Larsen

Meeting your Favourite Author

I came across this quote recently, from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” 
J.D. SalingerThe Catcher in the Rye

It made me think of a contradictory epigram, from Arthur Koestler:

To want to meet an author because you like his books is as ridiculous as wanting to meet the goose because you like pate de foie gras.”—Arthur Koestler

All the same, it made me wonder which of my favourite authors I’d like to have a friendly chat with—for the purposes of this flight of fancy, I’ve allowed time-travel to include deceased writers. In no particular order, my wish list includes:

Guy de Maupassant, Richard Brautigan, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Dennis Lehane, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Hoffmann, J B Priestley, James Lee Burke and John Steinbeck.

Who would you like to talk to?

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The Good, the Bad and the Meh!

I was thinking about which authors I love, that I wish were more widely read, after finishing a novel by John Williams. He’s been acclaimed in recent years, finally receiving recognition for his wonderful story Stoner.

Set in academia, the plot sounds slight, concerning the career of an English professor and his dutiful ways and thwarted love life, but the writing is powerful and memorable. 

John Williams only wrote two volumes of poetry and four novels, which were all different in subject matter. I recently enjoyed Butcher’s Crossing. This would probably be classified as a Western, and shelved in that genre in a bookshop, owing to its 19th-century setting, but it’s writing of the highest order. There are no gunfights, but plenty of gore; it reminded me of Moby Dick in the way it portrayed a man’s obsession and flawed relationship with Nature. John Williams is definitely one of The Good.

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Bad writers are legion, and, unfortunately, they often prosper. I’ve pilloried Jeffrey Archer before on this blog, so won’t go into a rant. Sufficient to say, the man is a scoundrel and horse-whipping is too good for him. For those of you not familiar with his loathsome career:

Jeffrey Archer – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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He writes with the skill of an illiterate ten-year-old, yet his novels have sold millions. It goes to prove that it’s not what you can do, but who you know that counts when seeking recognition. His contacts in the business world helped to launch his career, saving him from bankruptcy.

As for The Meh, writers who are lauded but who leave me cold, there are quite a few. Sadly, they often write what is known as ‘Literature’. By that I mean, more than anything, they are taken seriously by critics, win awards, appear at literary festivals as the main attraction and their opinions are sought on global affairs. They’re admired for their intellectualism, but their ability to tell a story leaves me going ‘huh?’

Something tells me, that Jonathan FranzenPaul Auster and Douglas Coupland would have a hard job telling a decent joke, and I’m not sure I’d want to be seated next to them at a dinner party.

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Who do you love, hate and feel apathy for? 

(I just had a thought—perhaps one’s reading tastes would make a perfect predictor of compatibility in a romantic relationship!)

Authors & Their Day Jobs

This infographic shows some famous authors who once had unconventional jobs:

Authors and Their Day Jobs: INFOGRAPHIC | GalleyCat

I think it’s intended to be inspirational, in a “well, if they can do it, so can I” way. I’ve certainly had some horrible jobs in my 65 years, including a few that were when I was on a career ladder as a librarian and teacher—rather than just doing a humdrum job to pay the bills.

The worst, and this might make vegetarians feel faint, was working in a food factory that manufactured bacon, pork pies and quiches. It was a long time ago, in the mid-70s, and I’m sure hygiene standards have improved since then—though, the factory where I worked was closed for contravening them. Everything happened on site, from slaughtering the pigs to making the product, packing it and sending it out to supermarkets.

One of my first jobs was sweeping up pigs ears and putting them in a dustbin to be used by a pork scratching maker. They do say that no part of a pig is wasted, and this was proven by my promotion to a new task. A supervisor took me into a steamy room and gave me a chain mail glove to wear on my left hand. My right hand wielded an electric knife with a rotary blade. Three black dustbins were placed in front of me. One contained 1,000 pig testicles, the others were for holding the gristly middle that I’d cut out and the meaty flesh. The gristle went to a lard manufacturer, the meat was used to make pet food.

I did this onerous task for eight hours a day. Holding onto the slippery testicles turned my hand into a claw—I could barely open it at the end of the day. It certainly made me look at my own manly body differently as I soaped myself clean in the shower!

It’s not the sort of thing that will appear on my author biography when I’m rich and famous, but I’m sure it contributed to my strength of character.

What’s the worst job you’ve done?

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May We Escape This Fate: Awful Library Books

As an ex-librarian, I understand the pressing need to free up shelf space. A lot of new books are published every year, as we writers understand from the competition we face.

A book’s return date label is good evidence of how popular it’s been, and with only so much room in the reserve stock basement, many titles end up in the library book sale or donated to charity.

They are deaccessioned, which sounds painful!

Some of the ripest titles appear on Awful Library Books, a site devoted to the weird, tasteless and downright bad books that shouldn’t have been bought or even written in the first place.

I found this example of fantasy fiction, written by Marian Engel, where a librarian enters into a sexual relationship with a bear! I like to include animals in my stories as wild creatures and pets, as they’re good indicators of a character’s personality, but this is taking things a bit too far….

What would Paddington, Rupert and Pooh Bear make of it all! 

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Inspiring fictional characters

This article in the Guardian, about a report published by the literacy charity Quick Reads, set me to thinking about my own reading and writing.

Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mocking Bird is certainly an inspirational character, though his popularity is undoubtedly aided through being played by stalwart Gregory Peck in the film adaptation. It makes the publication of Go Set A Watchman even more questionable, revealing as it does his racist attitudes.

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The survey by Quick Reads had two different categories, of those characters that readers found inspiring and which ones they most identified with. It tells us something useful as writers creating our own characters, that people like protagonists with flaws:

The survey found that readers prefer to read about a character who makes mistakes (23%) and is funny (20%), than one who is brave (19%), loyal (17%) or kind (11%).

“It is clear that readers are not looking for flawless characters, but instead they are looking for real characters that show us that it is OK to make mistakes. Bridget Jones tops the list as the character that most women identify with, but interestingly she is also in the top five of most inspiring characters, too,” the researchers write.

“The realisation that others share similar feelings of imperfection or inadequacy creates a shift from being ‘alone’ to being ‘one of many,’ enabling readers to challenge previous ideas of being different or non-normal, and become more accepting of their true selves.”

I find it hard to split the difference between the characters who’ve motivated me and those who I feel akin to, but in no particular order:

1) Mole, Ratty and Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows —for their loyalty to friends, love of home and Nature, daft obsessions and opposition to tyranny.

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2) Private Investigator Matt Scudder from Lawrence Block’s long-running New York-set crime novels. His unlicensed private detective is down on his luck and battling alcoholism after a tragic shooting when he was a cop. He’s resourceful, determined and flawed. I was doing cold turkey quitting drinking after 27 years of alcoholism when I first read the stories, and they really helped me. 23 years dry and clean this August, I don’t miss it a bit—life is a damned sight weirder sober!

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3) Dave Robicheaux, from James Lee Burke’s Louisiana set crime novels. Burke is a supreme prose stylist, one who Stephen King adores. His ex-cop, ex-infantryman hero is also an ex-alcoholic who endures and survives hardship and tragedy full of doubt and depression but still doing the right thing. He faces down some of the scariest villains in fiction.

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Who are you inspired by—and who do you like?

The Worst Bestselling Books

Sometimes, it’s fun to squirt a little venom around. My ire is prompted by an article from one of the newsletters I received, which chooses five of the most poorly written top-selling books from history:

I agree with two of their choices, the Robert Patterson collaboration and The Celestine Prophecies, both of which were so bad that I wanted to throw them across the room. I could only do this with the Patterson, as I was given the Redfield pile of tosh to read on a transatlantic flight by a friend whose opinion I admired. Like a fool, it was the only reading matter I took and rather than be arrested by an air marshal for clocking a fellow passenger around the head with it, I thrust it into my carry on bag, later donating it to an Atlanta thrift store—where it joined about 20 others on the shelf!

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I’ve never understood the devotion that Ayn Rand’s terrible writing inspires, but criticising Jonathan Livingstone Seagull is a bit like knocking a lava lamp as being kitsch—they’re both symbolic of a period and mindset. 

Patterson’s collaborations with guns-for-hire authors mystify and infuriate me, as they read like a poorly worded outline for a novel, being sketchy and with no flesh on the bones. His Alex Cross novels are well written in comparison, so this co-authorship feels like cynical manipulation of a non-judgemental fan base. At least he’s been giving millions away to needy literary causes, so perhaps he has a guilty conscience.

Mind you, it was anger at his poor quality writing, along with one other appalling novel I read at about the same time, which prompted me to write my own, so reading rubbish does have some hidden benefits!

The other book that pissed me off was well-reviewed, but I detested it, as it’s ghastly, mawkish and with no trace of empathy or sympathy for the characters. I’ve seen it described as a black comedy, but it’s not that, as it completely lacks any wit or irony.

Michelle Lovric writes as if she hates every one of her characters and her readers too:

I literally hurled this book at the bedroom wall, causing a dent that I’m rather proud of….

I should add anything written by Jeffrey Archer, who is a failed politician and best-selling author, as well as a rogue of the lowest order. Apart from the scandals littering his career, he writes with the skill of an illiterate ten-year-old and has a long history of plagiarism.

He even copied a little-known Ernest Hemingway short story, almost word for word, getting paid thousands of pounds for it by the Daily Mail as an exclusive. When his perfidy was exposed, he claimed to have merely been inspired by the story—and refused to return his fee.

I read one of his novels once, and it was so terrible that I sampled another, wondering  ‘who reads this shit to make it a bestseller?!’ It’s said that his manuscripts require teams of editors to knock into readable shape. 

We’re all told as writers seeking publication, to produce the best work that we can and that a fine quality story will eventually gain readership. This isn’t necessary if you’re already famous, spinning notoriety into career-enhancing public recognition, and have lots of servile contacts in the publishing world ready to cash-in on your celebrity.

What best-selling books do you loathe and detest?

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