My daughter was recently listening to the brilliant Writer’s Routine podcast and mentioned a book written by Jaroslav Kalfař called ‘Spaceman of Bohemia.’ I was so intrigued by the storyline I bought the book immediately. A Czech astronaut heads into space to explore a mysterious dust cloud and ends up going mad (or does he?) after meeting a intergalactic philosopher spider with a serious addiction to Nutella -what’s not to love?
It should have a been a brilliant book, I wanted it to be brilliant – but, alas no. There’s a merger of Czech political history with a failed personal relationship and it’s all a bit of a tangle. It would, undoubtedly, make an excellent Netflix movie however, someone give Ben Whishaw and Andy Serkis a call. Oh, and Nigel Warburton would do a decent voice-over as the furry theoretician. Oscars here we come.
A recent email from my hosting provider prompted me to consider taking this blog offline completely. After all, I’ve not written anything for a while so maybe I should chuck the whole thing in. Then I began to think about this last year with Covid, about how insanely busy it’s been both at work and at home trying to return to some sense of normality, about the book I stopped writing because I told myself it was all too self-indulgent in a time of crisis, about the ultramarathon I did because running seemed to be a whole lot easier than writing, then about the synth I bought because I needed an excuse to wear headphones in a house full of screaming kids – so I thought ‘you know, there might just be a few things I could write about here after all.’
So watch this space. Hopefully, it won’t be for another year.
If you are fans of this blog (and by fans I mean you must be staunch acolytes as I only seem to be capable of posting every six months) you’ll know that I’ve been spending most of my spare time this year trying to write a novel. Along the way I’ve completed an online creative writing course, joined an actual real-life writer’s group (with actual real-life people) and produced more than ten thousand words of absolute dribble. Now, because that’s significantly better than previous years (prose poetry anyone?) I thought I’d celebrate by sharing with you some of my top reads have kept me sane throughout this whole writing process. Whilst most end of year roundups are super informative – this one is completely self-indulgent and of no practical use whatsoever. So, make of it what you will – even if that’s only a somewhat curious and unsolicited literary review of my brain.
To all writers out there: I salute you.
Geraldine McCaughrean – Where The World Ends/Fires’ Astonishment McCaughrean is my 2018 literary ‘bae’ – as it were. I’m extremely thankful to Philip Reeve who recommended ‘Where The World Ends’ on the Tea and Jeopardy podcast a while ago. I might not know St.Kilda where the book is set, but I’ve spent enough time around the Kyles of Bute to recognise the landscape she depicts so well. Reading this, I realised that there must be thousands of fantastic stories out there marketed to kids and entirely ignored by adults. What a waste. Probably, my fav book of the year…
…until I read Fires’ Astonishment. McCaughrean does something really very interesting in this novel – you’re never entirely sure if something magical is actually happening, or if it’s people wanting to believe what’s happening is magic. It’s such a brilliant tension, our assumptions as readers are constantly challenged. If nothing else, it’s a beautiful depiction of a time when myths and magic were woven into our understanding of the world. Does a dragon really have to exist for us to believe in one? Insert thinking emoji here.
Neil Gaiman – American Gods/Neverwhere What? I haven’t read these classics before – outrageous!
I know, I know. Like I mentioned above, American Gods is a superb study in how to slip between the real and the fantastical (often in the same sentence) effortlessly. One thing you learn from Gaiman – you really don’t need to offer much by the way of explanation to your readers before making the fantastical thing happen – you just make it happen. I loved the way the main character Shadow starts off as an outsider but is really complicit in the alternative universe he ‘discovers’. Plus, all those nods to classic comic book scenes are just genius.
Neverwhere: a central character finds his world view rocked by a series of unfortunate events. This particular execution is very reminiscent of Douglas Adams and I tore through it in 4 days. A fantastic read. You’ll never look at a London Underground map in the same way again.
Andrew Crumey – The Secret Knowledge At one point in the year I was writing a time travelling story set in Paris during the Fin de Siècle era. Someone recommended this to me and I was hooked. The hook: imagine a secret power hidden in a musical composition that can only be unlocked by the right kind of musician in the right frame of mind. Interesting concept…
The 7th Function of Language – Laurent Binet …and a bit like this one. Imagine a secret power (in this case the power to influence people) hidden in the rhetorical use of language. Now, imagine only being able to unlock this power once you’ve understood the whole mind-boggling post-structuralist debate circa Paris, 1970. Jeepers. Sounds extremely dull and literary, but it’s actually a really fun whistle-stop tour through some otherwise dense philosophy. A Derridean whodunnit. Now that’s meta!
Ken Grimwood – Replay More time-travelling antics. Man becomes god (being able to predict the future ‘cos you’ve already seen it) and wishes he were a man again.
Philip Reeve – Mortal Engines/Predator’s Device/Infernal Devices/A Darkling Plain I found a copy of Mortal Engines in a local second hand bookshop and bought it for my son for about 50p. He was so impressed with it I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. Wasn’t disappointed. Imagine taking a story and throwing everything you’ve got at it, including killing off some of your key characters. Then imagine your publisher asking you if you could write a second or third book. Doh! Chapter One of Mortal Engines is like an acorn, containing within it the unfolding logic for all subsequent chapters – it’s perfect. If you’re writing your first speculative fiction book, this would be a good place to start. Hint. Hint.
James Baldwin – Another Country If you’ve listening to a podcast and a writer tells you about a brilliant scene from a novel – then go read that novel. The first hundred pages or so concerning the jazz drummer Rufus Scott are exceptional. This is all about writing what’s right in front of you and that’s actually quite a hard thing to do.
Stewart & Riddle – The Edge Chronicle: Beyond the Deepwoods We listened to this audiobook on a long drive up to Scotland and loved it. What, pirates flying tall-ships? Lots of nasty creatures trying to stop a boy who just wants to find his place in the world? What’s not to like? Ace.
Kurt Vonnegut – The Sirens of Titan When I wasn’t writing I used to think writing was easy – just look at Vonnegut, I bet he knocked them stories out in a few days, right? And then you realise it’s a relentless process, chipping away until you’ve deleted most of the page. And that’s if you’ve got a decent story to tell in the first place. Oh well, at least Vonnegut seemed to have a lot of fun along the way and that’s something I try to remember when tossing balls of paper into the wastepaper basket. Must. Have. Fun.
Michael Moorcock – The Elric novels/The War Hound at the World’s Pain When I was nine I went to this school in the middle of nowhere. Once a month we were visited by a mobile library and we had about five minutes to choose a book before it whizzed off. Before it did the aforementioned whizzing, I spotted the artwork gracing the cover of an Elric novel and was hooked. Whoever said you can’t judge a book by its cover? Nonsense! This year I re-read the whole series again and thought it was pretty bad, with a few brilliant moments. By far the best book in the series is ‘Elric of Melnibone’ which I think was the last to be written.
‘The War Hound’ was another Moorcock novel I discovered at school. It’s such a curious oddity – a mercenary captain is trying to survive Europe’s thirty years war and gets enlisted by satan to find the holy grail. Bonkers. This book blew my mind at nine and it blew my mind times ten reading it again this year.
James Blish – Vor Loved this classic B-movie fodder. An alien lands in 1950s America. America attempts to communicate with it before losing patience and tries to blow it up. Nothing too deep here, but then you realise it’s all about ‘communication’ in general and how poor we humans are at it. Boom! Mic drop. Walks away.
This Thursday (March 8th) we’re launching a brand new podcast merging the world of true crime and classical music. You can read the full details here – the first one features the gruesome story of Haydn’s missing head which is just a flavour of what’s to come. So subscribe now and let us know what you think when it launches Thursday!
Last week we launched The Global Awards from London’s Eventim Apollo. It was an incredible night, featuring some great acts and moments from the blue carpet. We’ve posted the Global Awards video highlights here but you can watch the full version below. Needless to say we had a great response, not only during the public voting stage, but also whilst live streaming across social and onsite. Enjoy!
Earlier this year I was invited by Jonathan Kahn over at Together London to speak at his annual Agile Content Conference at Sadler’s Wells, London. This is a fantastic event looking at all aspects of agile content and it was a real pleasure to mix with content strategists working across a broad range of disciplines. You can watch all the presenters from the event here.
Yikes and holy cow. It’s been a while since I updated this blog but I wanted to let you know – I have the perfect alibi. You see, I’ve spent the last few months having a kind of mid-life crisis – only it’s been a very peculiar kind of crisis and probably a very British one at that. It doesn’t involve women, fast cars or huge quantities of fizzy-pop. No, dear reader, I stand here shamefully confessing that I have finally become addicted to… creative writing.
This week I was invited to speak at the annual Next Radio event in London – one of the UK’s biggest broadcast industry events. The conference was held at The Royal Institute which was a great choice of venue (especially as I’ve always been a Faraday fanboy) and a real honour to share our recent work in video.