Novel Update

I haven’t posted much about my writing recently but I have a little good news to share about my novel for those following my progress: I finally finished the novel’s outline last week and as I couldn’t sleep last night as it was so hot in Sydney, at about 5:30 am I sat down and officially started on the first full draft of my novel. So it’s finally getting there.

To be honest I was so tired that I only managed a few lines but after more than two years planning it and all the backstory, it feels great to have finally started on it properly and I’m very excited with how it’s turning out. Can’t wait to get stuck into it later tonight.

As you can see in the photo I’ve given it the working title of Hallowden; at this stage I think it will probably be the final title as well, although that might change with time. Hallowden is the name of an ancient city where the majority of the novel is set and while I considered some other titles as well, in the end I thought it was the most suitable title as the city defines much of the novel. It also adds a bit of mystery to it that I like as well.

So what’s the novel about? Well, without giving too much away, the novel is about a man who returns to his home in Hallowden after fighting in a distant war, only to find that during his absence the ancient city has been taken over by extremists and is being torn apart by civil war. In the midst of the civil war, his lover has disappeared, feared killed in a brutal terrorist attack, and he must descend into Hallowden’s underworld to find the truth of what’s happened to her, to Hallowden, and to find her if she’s still alive.

The novel is set on an alternate Earth where magic and science are the same and it’s essentially a modern fable about religious extremism and the cost of war. It’s a bit of an adventure and a bittersweet love story as well… I guess I’m just trying to write the kind of novel I’d like to read and hopefully it will turn out well.

I hope to have this first draft (basically a rough draft without any dialogue or exposition) finished in about a month, then will start on the second (main) draft which will probably take about three or four months to write. There’ll probably be some revisions after that as well but with luck, hopefully I’ll have the whole thing finished in about six months.

Now that I’ve started I’ll be posting an update on my progress about once a fortnight and I’m also currently writing a short story set in the same world which I will post sometime in the next few weeks. If I have time I might also write a few other stories to help explore the novel’s backstory as well but I’ll see how I go first.

As far as my other writing goes, I’ve also almost finished a new poem which I’ve been working on for some time now and hope to post shortly. It’s a bit different to my normal poetry and I’m quite happy with it so far.

I’ve also been thinking about putting together an ebook collection of some of my previous works as a few people have suggested it to me now. The main reason I haven’t before is that I don’t think I own the copyrights to some of my published stories, so I’ll have to sort through my other stories and see if they’re of a high enough standard. The full novella version of The Life Artist might be an option… we’ll see.

I’m also still working on restoring my great-great grandfather Isaac’s memoir. I have a version of it scanned but the quality isn’t very good, so I need to type it by hand, which is a little time-consuming at the moment. I’m not sure when it will be finished but if anyone wants to read it in the meantime, I can send them the scanned copy. Just let me know.

In any case that’s where I’m up to with my writing at the moment. The novel’s coming along well and it feels great to finally be working on the first draft. I’ll have a bit more to reveal about the story once the draft’s finished as well.

Thank you to everyone who’s left comments or sent me emails recently as well. I haven’t had time to reply yet but I’ll be answering them properly tonight. ~ CJ.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I stumbled across The Magicians by accident a couple of weeks ago. I’d not read any of Lev Grossman’s work before but there was something about The Magicians that grabbed my attention. It was partly the cover, a haunting image of a tree surrounded by fog, its leaves scattered like tears across a small lake, that caught my interest. Likewise, something about the description reminded me of a grown-up version of Narnia, an adult fantasy mixing the beloved worlds of Lewis with the sex, angst and conflict of real, everyday life. With The Magicians Grossman tries to reinvent modern fantasy for adults and it’s a novel unlike any I’ve read.

The Magicians begins with Quentin Coldwater, a teenager who’s just finished high school with his friends James and Julia. Unsure of what he wants to do with his life and pining for Julia, his unrequited love, Quentin lives in a near-constant melancholy; the only relief he finds is in a series of novels from his childhood about the magical world of Fillory. He dreams of living in Fillory and longs for it to be real, believing it would give purpose and meaning to his otherwise unremarkable life.

When Quentin discovers and is admitted to Brakebills, a college in upstate New York that teaches its students how to use and control magic, it seems that his dream is about to come true. But studying magic is nothing like he imagined. It’s tedious, arduous work and his fellow students are competitive and hostile. Suddenly Quentin is no longer the smartest in his class and finds himself struggling to understand his full potential. His depression returns even as he begins to fall in love with Alice, one of his few friends at Brakebills.

Eventually, after five long years, Quentin and Alice graduate from Brakebills. They move in with a few other graduates from Brakebills and Quentin soon falls into a familiar pattern, losing himself in a world of drugs, parties and alcohol. It begins to drive a wedge between them, with Quentin seemingly content to live a life of mediocrity, while Alice continues to learn about magic.

When another graduate of Brakebills reveals that he has found Fillory — a real place connected to a whole nexus of other worlds — Quentin’s listlessness lifts again. This is what he’s been waiting for; what he’s always wanted. Together the magicians journey to Fillory but soon find that everything is different. The real Fillory is nothing like the world they know from the stories, more nightmare than dream. Together they pledge to set things right in Fillory… but as their relationships begin to fall apart around them, they realise their quest will not only reveal the truth about Fillory but about themselves as well.

I’ve been thinking about The Magicians since I finished it last week and I’m still not completely sure how I feel about it. On the one hand there’s no doubt that it’s a brilliant, literate reimagining of modern fantasy. But on the other, there’s nothing about the novel that feels particularly magical or wondrous. That’s because, when you get to the heart of it, The Magicians isn’t a fantasy novel at all, not really, and it’s hard to know how to judge it.

Rather, The Magicians is a novel about fantasy. It’s an examination of the genre; it takes classic themes — like magic, strange creatures, fantastical worlds — and in dissecting them and putting them back together asks the question, what if magic were real? How would we use it? Would we value the gift or take it for granted? It’s a serious, adult novel that uses magic to explore the darker side of human nature and particularly the danger of apathy.

As such, what really stands out about the novel for me is the characters. It’s not a particularly long novel but all of the characters feel detailed and real. They’re real people, complete with hopes, dreams, flaws, jealousies… they’re magicians capable of great feats, yes, but they’re ordinary and imperfect and that’s what makes them compelling. Alice in particular fascinated me; brilliant yet shy, she seemed almost autistic at times, capable of great power but never really understanding it.

Quentin on the other hand is a study in contrasts. He is both a dreamer and a pessimist, a young man who finds himself with a gift he has always wanted, only to squander it when he realises it’s not what he thought it would be. His moods range wildly from joy to despair and he keeps making all of the wrong decisions again and again, so much so that as a reader you just want to grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. But Quentin can’t help it. He’s our eyes into this world and represents our own expectations of magic; in a way we are Quentin and it’s hard to imagine that we’d react any differently.

Quentin is the main protagonist but it’s wrong to call him the hero of the story; there are no real heroes in The Magicians, just people. Everything Quentin does is because he longs to escape from his life but each time he just makes things worse and in the end that’s what The Magicians is really about — learning to accept reality, to make the most of what you have. It’s a lesson Quentin just can’t seem to learn and it costs him everything.

If there’s one problem I have with The Magicians, though, it’s that while all of the characters feel well developed, none of them are particularly likeable. With the possible exception of Alice they’re all bitter, competitive, narcissistic brats; Quentin in particular whines through most of the novel and it becomes tiring. None of the characters seem aware of the destruction they cause around them and while that’s the point, it makes it difficult to care what happens to them or to really relate to them.

Likewise, one of the other problems with The Magicians is that while it is a reinvention of modern fantasy, none of the ideas in the novel themselves are particularly original. Of course, they’re not meant to be; the story is meant to be reminiscent of classic fantasy motifs, making us look at them with new, adult eyes. For the most part that works and Grossman’s world succeeds in feeling familiar but different, but the setting still feels a little clichéd at times, particularly with some of the similarities between Narnia and Fillory.

At times I also felt that Grossman went a little too far in trying to make magic seem so ordinary in the story. Some of the scenes, particularly at Brakebills, feel like they’re included for no other reason than to show how hard it is to use magic in Grossman’s world (more like learning a science than a skill). I know that’s the point, to make it more realistic, but sometimes it just seems to take the magic out of, well, magic. On the other hand, some of the other magical scenes are captivating. There’s one scene in particular where Quentin watches the statue of a bird that a student had tried to bring to life; the spell had failed halfway through and the statue, thinking it’s alive, keeps trying to fly. But it’s too heavy and falls, only to get up and try again and again. It was little more than a paragraph but it’s haunting and stayed with me for the rest of the novel.

My only other real gripe with the novel is that while it’s well written, some of the dialogue feels a little stilted and unrealistic. Secondary characters like Eliot, meant to sound arrogant and supercilious, instead sound overly dramatic and some of the interaction between characters doesn’t ring true, particularly when they’re in larger groups. It’s a stark contrast to Grossman’s prose, which for the most part is excellent; there’s a subtle, rhythmic flow to much of his writing and some of his passages and descriptions are breathtaking.

Overall I’m still not really sure how I feel about The Magicians. I enjoyed it a great deal but at the same time I find it a difficult book to judge. As an idea and a reimagining of modern fantasy, it’s fascinating, but as a novel it’s not perfect by any means and is held back (ironically) by some rather mundane flaws.

Perhaps in the end The Magicians is a little too ambitious for its own good but in a market flooded with Lord of the Rings, Twilight and Harry Potter rip-offs, it still feels refreshingly different. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent novel and as a novel that makes you think about the nature of fantasy and reality in our own lives as well, it’s a resounding success.

Fantasy fans and general readers wanting something a little different will love it. Highly recommended.

Score:

August Reading List

I realised something this week: I’m so not a winter person. This has been one of the coldest winters in Sydney for years and I’m sitting here with a tea and four blankets as I’m writing this, trying to nurse a nasty cold. I don’t want to whine but I’m really looking forward to spring next month.

One of the things I like about winter, though, is that it’s perfect reading weather. It’s absolutely freezing at the moment but there’s nothing better than curling up in bed with a good book on a cold day and letting the story carry you somewhere far, far away. I think I’ve read more in the last two months than during the rest of the year combined.

Lately I’ve been working my way through the nominees for this year’s Hugo Awards. The awards are being held in Melbourne this year, which means I was able to vote for the first time. It’s a good list this year too. I voted for Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock in the end; I loved how fun and inventive it was but any of the nominees could win really. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl was the only one I couldn’t get to before the deadline; I’ll be reading that next.

I’m reading Nam Le’s The Boat at the moment and these are some of the other books I plan to read soon as well. The one I’m looking forward to the most is The Girl Who Played With Fire. I loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and I finally managed to get the first sequel the other day. Can’t wait to get stuck into it. It seems like everyone’s reading Larsson’s trilogy at the moment; it’s like The Da Vinci Code all over again. Except Larsson’s books are well written. And, you know, good.

I’ll post some reviews once I’ve finished them. I’ve been wanting to try out my new camera as well, so who knows, I might even do a couple of video reviews.

So what are you reading at the moment?

The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi

First Impressions: Bacigalupi’s short fiction has taken the SF world by storm in recent years. This is his first novel, about genetic engineering and a post-oil future where global corporations vie for the world’s remaining resources. Looks very promising.

The Girl Who Played with Fire
Stieg Larsson

First Impressions: Lisbeth Salander finds herself accused of murder and goes on the run while Mikael Blomkvist tries to clear her of the crime. Dragon Tattoo was the best thriller I’ve read in years; if this one’s even half as good as the first, I’ll be very happy.

The Forgotten Garden
Kate Morton

First Impressions: A young woman’s journey to find the truth about her grandmother’s life. It seems a little too reminiscent of The Secret Garden at times for me, at least in tone. I loved Morton’s The Shifting Fog, though, so maybe it’ll surprise me.

The Book of Illusions
Paul Auster

First Impressions: I’m not that familiar with Paul Auster, although he seems to really divide readers. Illusions is about a man who investigates the life of a silent movie star who disappeared in the 1920s, only to find similarities with his own life. Sounds interesting.

The Art of Travel
Alain de Botton

First Impressions: I’ve not read de Botton before but a friend recommended this to me recently. de Botton explores the nature of travel (why we travel, what we get out of it, etc.) through philosophy, art and other musings. Sounds like just my cup of tea.

The Copper Bracelet
Jeffrey Deaver (et al)

First Impressions: A sequel to The Chopin Manuscript, this is a collaborative audionovel written by 16 writers including Jeffrey Deaver, Lisa Scottoline and Lee Child. The Chopin Manuscript didn’t quite work but I like the idea of a collaborative novel. Hopefully this is more successful.

Sleepless: A Micronovel

“If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
- Toni Morrison.

I’ve always loved that quote. It’s so typical of Toni Morrison; so simple, and yet it captures the process perfectly. Every time I read it, it reminds me of why I wanted to write in the first place.

I don’t think I’ve ever really talked about the first story I wrote. It was a thriller called School Terror and I was fourteen when I wrote it. Actually, it wasn’t quite my first story; I’d written a few other things when I was younger, including my very first story when I was seven. But School Terror was the first time I really tried to write something original, and I was quite proud of it.

Basically the story was about a prestigious school which was overrun by terrorists trying to take the students hostage; a girl, Mara, and her teacher escape and take on the terrorists one by one. If you think of 24 mixed with teenage angst, you’ll probably get an idea of what it was supposed to be like. The story was probably fuelled by my frustrations about school at the time but I thought it was kind of a cool idea just the same. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read about a sassy sixteen year old and her curmudgeonly history teacher, taking on a band of vicious terrorists?

To be honest, looking back, it was pretty bad. My spelling and grammar were atrocious and it was 1998; I was fourteen – I knew nothing about writing, let alone terrorism! But I’m still quite fond of that story. I think writing it was the moment I knew I really wanted to be a writer. It was the first time I’d tried to tell my own story, something original and uniquely my own, and it was the kind of story I’d want to read myself. Even now, twelve years later, that’s still why I write: to tell stories I’d want to read. I think if you ever start writing for any other reason, it’s time to put down your pen.

I haven’t posted an update on my writing in a while but it’s been going well over the last couple of months. I’ve got a lot further with my novel; most of the storyline is plotted now and I’m starting to flesh out the back-story before I start on a first draft. In the meantime I’m writing a couple of short stories which should be finished in the next month or so (but don’t hold me to it!). One of them is a modern fable about beauty and ageing, a slightly different take on an old theme.

I’m also starting a new project tomorrow which I’m very excited about. I’m announcing it now but it’s actually been something of an open secret for the last few weeks, so you might already know about it if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

So what is the project? Basically I want to try something a little different. From tomorrow I’m going to be publishing a micronovel via Twitter and Facebook. It’s called Sleepless, a story I’ve been developing for a couple of years now and it’s really an experiment as much as a novel.

The idea is that I want to try to write a story specifically for social media like Twitter and Facebook. A lot of writers have published works on Twitter and Facebook before so the idea is nothing new, but personally I think they’ve been going about it the wrong way. Twitter and Facebook are excellent tools for writers but they weren’t meant to be used like that; publishing a short story – let alone a full novel – takes thousands of updates. It’s just not practical and it becomes confusing and hard to follow.

The idea of building a community is also something that is essential to social media but many writers seem to misuse it. They don’t engage their community; they have a one-way dialogue with their readers, rather than an ongoing conversation. But the feedback and interaction that a social community provides is one of its biggest strengths and I think that should be embraced.

What I’m getting at is that I think social media should be treated as a new format entirely, with different rules. Writers shouldn’t be treating Twitter and Facebook as another publishing platform; rather they should be writing stories for Twitter and Facebook and posting them live, so readers can follow and share in the experience of creating a work.

Likewise the way writers approach stories should be different. Many people access Twitter and Facebook on their phones and they’re only online for a few minutes at a time. Expecting them to sit and read through large chunks of text is unrealistic. Instead I think writers need to find a new way of telling stories for that format by condensing their work.

That’s what I want to do with the micronovel. The idea of a micronovel is to tell the same story as an ordinary novel but in a condensed fashion. It doesn’t mean turning a novel into a short story or losing the structure of a novel. Rather it’s an exercise in brevity, where you find new ways to tell the story and explore the characters in fewer words. The finished product is about the length of a novella but in the end should still feel like you’ve read a whole novel.

Micronovels are something that more and more writers are experimenting with, particularly as Twitter and internet-capable phones have grown in popularity. They’re designed to be easy to read on mobiles and in many ways they’re inspired by Japanese mobile novels (keitai shousetsu), which are incredibly popular in Japan. Some people think it’s the future of storytelling, particularly for a generation used to so many distractions.

Personally I see micronovels and microfiction as more of an interesting experiment, something which could help to push the boundaries of fiction, particularly online. Certain kinds of stories could suit the format well, particularly minimalist fiction and stream of consciousness, and that’s kind of what I want to do with Sleepless.

I’ve talked about the story itself a little before. It’s about Jake Morgan, a man who wakes from a coma after almost twelve years. But the world he finds himself in is very different, a post-9/11 world, and his wife Rachel has remarried – and he has a son. As he begins to adapt to his new environment, Jake begins to form a relationship with his son. But he keeps wondering if he’s still the same man he was before.

At its heart the story is about the relationship between Jake and his son but it’s also a sad love story as Jake remembers his relationship with Rachel in flashbacks. It’s also a way of looking at how much the world has changed in the last ten years by seeing it through Jake’s eyes.

I’d always planned to write Sleepless as a short novel and I still do, but I think this is a good way of telling a version of the story now while it’s still fresh in my mind. The story should lend itself quite well to the format, particularly as a lot of it is told in flashbacks.

I’ll be starting it tomorrow and I’ll try to update it when I have a free moment; when I’m out on my phone or at home, etc. I imagine some errors will get through and it’ll probably go in new directions I hadn’t planned (as all stories do), but it should feel very organic and I think it’s a great opportunity for readers to see how a story evolves as its written.

If you’d like to read the story you can follow it on Facebook and on Twitter. I’ll also post it on my blog once it’s finished. What I’d like is to build up a small community as that interaction is part of the experiment as well, to see how it helps to shape the novel. So I hope you can follow along. And if you know anyone else who might be interested, it’d be great if you could let them know as well.

But to be honest, it’s an experiment and I have no idea how it’s going to go. If it works then it could be great… or it could just all fall apart! Either way it should be interesting. And I think that’s kind of the attraction for me as well, the idea of trying something new and different… it’s exciting.

It reminds me again of Toni Morrison’s quote and when I was writing my first story. I had no idea what I was doing but I knew I had a story I wanted to tell, and so I found my way. It was exciting; it made me want to write every spare moment I had, and that’s how I feel about this story too.

As a writer that’s what it’s all about for me… that feeling is the reason I write. So I think that’s a good sign. Anything else that comes from it is just a bonus.

I’ll be starting Sleepless tomorrow. I hope you enjoy it. Wish me luck. ;-)

Books of the 00s

It’s hard to believe it’s almost the end of another decade, isn’t it? The 00s have gone by so quickly and so much has happened in the last ten years. From tsunamis to bushfires; Afghanistan to Iraq; 9/11 to Katrina; the millennium to the GFC. I was still in high school in 1999. It feels like a lifetime ago.

As we’re coming to the end of the year I thought it’d be interesting to look back on the 00s as a whole. Particularly the fiction that has defined the decade.

For me the success of Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code and Twilight will be the enduring memory of this decade. In an age of iPods and YouTube, to see so many people reading again – on buses and trains, in parks and on beaches – has been remarkable. The publishing industry hasn’t seen their success before and it’s already changing the way books are being published and marketed.

Overall I think it’s been a good decade for literature. As you’d expect much of the tone of the decade’s writing has been influenced by 9/11 and there’s been some excellent fiction published, particularly by new and emerging authors. The quality of international fiction has also been excellent. My only disappointment has been with the overall quality of Australian fiction and the bleak direction of mainstream SF, which is becoming dark and depressing.

One of my favourite blogs, The Millions, recently published a list of the best fiction of the 00s. It’s a good list and I thought I’d do my own to mark the end of the decade. This is a list of my favourite books of the 00s, the novels which have had the most impact on me and my writing.

Let me know which you’ve read. Do you have a favourite book of the 00s?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson

The Road (2006)
Cormac McCarthy

Few novels have affected me as much as reading The Road. It’s a devastating novel, stark and confronting, and is so intense that at times it’s difficult to read. But it’s also a beautiful, poignant novel, about a father and son struggling to survive, characters that come to life even though you don’t know their names. McCarthy’s prose is restrained and hauntingly beautiful. A magnificent novel; one of the best I’ve ever read.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005)
Stieg Larsson

Larsson’s novel is a remarkable début. It’s an unorthodox thriller that centres on the 36 year disappearance of Harriet Vanger, the grand-niece of former industrialist Henrik Vanger, but soon becomes a story about the family itself and their secrets and corruption. Larsson’s characters are unforgettable and Lisbeth is one of the most memorable female protagonists in years. Larsson died before he became known outside Sweden, leaving this and two sequels as his legacy.

American Gods (2001)
Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is one of my favourite writers and American Gods is an unusual mix of fantasy, reality, myth and Americana that somehow all works. Gaiman’s prose is vivid, bringing to life a twisted version of our world where the gods of old and new religions are preparing for war, and its subtext on the changing nature of religion and the place of technology in modern society is fascinating. It’s also darkly funny and scary.

Magic for Beginners (2005)
Kelly Link
Short fiction has continued a sad decline in the 00s but Kelly Link is a master of the form. Magic for Beginners collects nice stories which mix fantasy with everyday life, the mundane with the majestic. Her stories are unpredictable and dreamlike, none more so than The Faery Handbag, where an entire town takes refuge inside a forgotten handbag. Her prose is evocative yet simple and her stories haunt you long after you’ve finished them.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)
Mark Haddon

Haddon’s début is an unusual novel. On the surface it’s an unorthodox mystery about Christopher, a teenager who finds the body of his neighbour’s poodle and decides to try and find the killer, but it’s really a careful examination of autism. Haddon’s depiction of Christopher is remarkable; Haddon gives us subtle insights into Christopher’s world, making him sympathetic & likeable, but without ever feeling exploitative. It’s original, funny and compelling.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)
Michael Chabon
There’s something unsettling about Chabon’s novel. Its style is a throwback to the detective stories of Chandler and Hammett, set in a world where a community of Jewish refugees settled in Alaska after World War II and the State of Israel collapsed. Chabon uses the novel to turn the conflict with Israel and Palestine on its head, asking what it means to be Jewish in the modern world. It’s a brilliant novel; Chabon’s alternate history seems eerily plausible.

Cloud Atlas (2004)
David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is less of a novel than a series of connected themes. It’s told across six stories that span centuries and different genres but each story is incomplete; the second half of each story is revealed in later chapters and it’s not until the end that you realise how they all come together. Each chapter is a mirror image of another and following the plot is almost like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It’s unusual and beautifully crafted.

Life of Pi (2001)
Yann Martel

Martel’s novel is something of a surreal fable. Pi, a sixteen year old boy from India, the son of a zookeeper, becomes shipwrecked on a voyage to Canada. Finding himself stranded on a lifeboat with a 450-pound tiger, Pi has to use all of his knowledge and imagination to survive. Martel writes effortlessly and despite the unlikely premise, it’s really a clever allegory for the meaning of faith and storytelling in the modern world. An engaging and charming novel.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004)
Susanna Clarke

Clarke’s début is one of those unusual works in fantasy that is both superbly written and entirely original. Set in an alternate version of 19th century England where magic has all but left the country except for two magicians, its style feels like a pastiche of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, gothic and darkly beautiful. At its heart it’s as much a story about friendship, obsession and Englishness as magic. It’s a wonderful novel that took Clarke ten years to write.

Orpheus Lost (2007)
Janette Turner Hospital

Orpheus Lost is a sad love story inspired by the Orpheus myth. When a series of terrorist attacks strike Boston, Leela is interrogated and told that her lover Mishka may be a terrorist, leading her to try and find the truth and rescue him from the secret prisons and torture chambers of the modern underworld. Hospital focuses on the nature of terrorism and paranoia in the post-9/11 world, but the story is as much about the redemptive power of music; her descriptions of Mishka playing the violin and oud are breathtaking.

Spin (2005)
Robert Charles Wilson

Wilson is one of my favourite SF writers and at its heart Spin is about isolation: when a mysterious event causes a shield to appear around the Earth, humanity is cut off from the universe and reacts with a mixture of fear, panic and awe. Wilson’s prose lingers in your mind and Spin also acts as an allegory for 9/11, an event that changed the world in a moment, but never loses focus of its characters. It’s a remarkable novel; for me the best SF novel of the decade.

Restless (2006)
William Boyd

Restless is a brilliant, subtle novel. On the surface it’s a thriller about Eva Delectorskaya, a half-Russian emigrant who is recruited into the British SIS after her brother’s murder, but it’s really an examination of paranoia and how a lie can take over your life. Boyd writes vividly and his story is as much about nationality and the relationship between Eva (Sally) and her daughter, as Ruth slowly begins to learn the truth about her mother for the first time.

The Corrections (2001)
Jonathan Franzen

Franzen is a master of character portraits and The Corrections is a fascinating study of a seemingly ordinary family. The novel follows the Lamberts as they gather for one last Christmas together, but soon their carefully orchestrated lives begin to unravel around them. It’s a very American novel and a sharp commentary on greed, capitalism and the nature of parenting and family. It’s also eerie how its themes foreshadowed the post-9/11 world. Magnificent.

Never Let Me Go (2005)
Kazuo Ishiguro

At its heart Never Let Me Go is about the preciousness of life. The story is told by Kathy, a carer who looks back on her early life at Hailsham, a boarding school in Britain. The children of Hailsham are special; clones created to provide donor organs for transplants. As Kathy matures into a woman, she slowly begins to accept her sad fate. Ishiguro’s prose is beautifully subtle and Never Let Me Go is a sad, haunting novel that stays with you long after you’ve finished it.

Veniss Underground (2003)
Jeff VanderMeer

Veniss Underground is an unusual hybrid of SF and fantasy. Told in three parts, the main story focuses on Shadrach, who descends into the underground levels of Veniss in search of his love Nicola, travelling through a bizarre cyborg hell. The novel echoes Orpheus and Dante but VanderMeer uses his version of hell to highlight the dangers of human reliance on technology and the pursuit of perfection. It’s an excellent novel, filled with bizarre, dreamlike imagery.

The Temple of Learning

reading

Do you have a favourite past-time? Something you love to do at the end of the day to unwind? Perhaps you’re a movie buff or enjoy exercising at the gym. For me it’s reading. I don’t think there’s anything better than curling up with a good book at the end of a long day to unwind.

Some of my earliest memories are of books, of my parents reading to me while I lay in bed and looked at the pictures. I often think that without those experiences I wouldn’t be who I am today. Reading is such a large part of a writer’s life; if you don’t take the time to read, you can’t develop the skills to write. But reading has never felt like a chore to me, largely because all of those stories when I was younger made me dream of my own.

If someone had told me when I was first learning to read that I’d become a writer later, though, I’m not sure I would have believed them; at the time I probably wanted to be a palaeontologist as Jurassic Park had just come out. At that stage I found reading difficult. I loved books but like many children – boys in particular – my literacy skills developed late and it frustrated me.

Generally the average age a child learns to read is 6; some learn earlier, others a little later. I was 7  & a ½ when I could finally read and write competently. Perhaps that’s not unusual for some children but it was extremely frustrating for me; my teachers said that I’d pick it up on the way, but the curriculum – at least 18 years ago – made few allowances for those who didn’t develop as quickly or were ill. Subsequently I kept falling behind.

Finally my parents, who’d gone against their instincts on my teachers’ advice, taught me themselves. They bought a range of reading aids to teach me phonics and they read with me, particularly my mother, for hours every night; I can still remember the Bangers & Mash series, about two mischievous chimpanzees who kept getting themselves into all kinds of trouble. They made learning fun!

Before long I had moved on to the Berenstain Bears series and Dr Seuss, particularly The Butter Battle Book. Soon I was analysing and sounding out difficult words on my own, associating words with different meanings, and my reading speed improved greatly. I devoured everything, hungry to learn, and within a month I’d leapt ahead and was reading books my parents had read to me like Matilda, The BFG and finally Narnia by myself.

My writing skills improved at the same time; my spelling was awful but my grammar and punctuation had come a long way. And before long I decided to write my first story. It was a Batman story, probably inspired by Tim Burton’s Batman film which I saw on TV. I didn’t like the ending, so I changed it; I killed Batman – so even then I had a thing for macabre endings.

Within six months I was reading and writing at an advanced level. I’d moved past most of the children in my class and within three years I was comfortably reading Dickens and Conan Doyle, which showed how far I’d been held back. I was writing poetry and short stories regularly and English became my best subject. I’d turned my weakness into my strength; that’s something I’m still proud of today.

That’s why literacy is so important to me, not just as a writer but as a person; I know how frustrating it is to feel like you’re being left behind, and the joy when all those hours of hard work finally pay off.

It saddens me when I hear of the falling literacy standards in Australia, of a growing gap between boys and girls in English and language skills. Officially Australia has a 99.0% rate of adult literacy, one of the highest in the world, but that doesn’t take into account the widening gap between genders, nor the differences in various socio-economic and cultural groups, nor the retention rate for school students (particularly among older boys, whish is rising). Many people are aware of these problems but we hear few solutions, other than the government’s “education revolution” which no one understands.

The situation with Indigenous literacy is becoming even more serious. It’s believed that by the age of 15 more than a third of Indigenous students don’t have adequate literacy skills and are disadvantaged, while in remote areas it is even worse, with only 15% of year 7 students achieving the benchmark in literacy tests. Coupled with high unemployment and mortality rates among many Indigenous communities, it’s a serious problem and something no one should consider acceptable. Yet for the most part the same policies continue to be implemented, only now under the intervention.

Likewise the fact that there are 776 million adults in the world lacking basic literacy skills (66% of them women) and 75 million children out of school is a statistic I find staggering. Surely in a modern society those kind of figures are unacceptable? Surely we can do more to help? Of course we do what we can, giving money to governments and helping to build schools and libraries, providing new equipment… but sometimes I wonder if even a fraction of the money spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan went towards addressing illiteracy and poverty instead, would the world be any different?

I suppose I just wish that we’d be a little more responsible, that instead of giving money to corrupt regimes we’d give it directly to the agencies that are trying to help. If we made a serious dent in illiteracy and poverty in the world, it would help us as well. One of the biggest factors in poverty, terrorism and AIDS is a lack of education. The only responsible way out of poverty is to learn, to educate yourself and learn not to make the same mistakes again. If that education begins early, with literacy and other skills, then children can learn and see ways of improving their lives and they’re less likely to fall under the influence of extremism.

That’s why I like the work many of the smaller organisations and charities are doing around the world. Working at grass roots level they can have more success and make a difference in peoples’ lives. Projects like Books for Cameroon, which is aiming to establish a library in 25 schools and help 20,000 students, or the 100 Mothers Literacy Program which funds a basic literacy program for mothers in Afghanistan. These kind of projects provide a greater level of transparency and average people can support them, trying to help in their own way.

Overall, though, I think if we’re to improve literacy standards we have to change our approach. Days like this International Literacy Day help to raise awareness but it’s by building new schools and libraries and training teachers in new methods that we might succeed overall, methods that make learning fun again. We need to move away from whole language methods, towards systematic phonics. Most importantly we need to take a larger role in our children’s education as parents and role models and help them; if we read to and teach our children, they’ll want to learn.

I don’t know if I will be a father one day but I know if a child asks me for help to read or write, I’ll always try to help them. I know what it was like to struggle with reading and it’s never too early to teach a child to read, to love books – if you do then you’ll give them skills for life.

The rest will take care of itself.

“The library is the temple of learning, and learning has
liberated more people than all the wars in history.”
~ Carl Rowan

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Image Credit: Reading Books At Home ~ hortongroup

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