Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My Fictional Autobiography (part 2): Mostly Fantasy

My later teens are nothing to be proud about. I refused to read the required novels for my English classes in High School (but passed my final exams anyway). And I read many books of questionable taste such as Stanley Morgan’s “Russ Tobin” series, commencing with The Sewing Machine Man (gratuitous sex), and Richard Allen’s “Skinhead” series (gratuitous violence).
Those books are best forgotten.

I also had my first real taste of horror fiction with William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. It was the first time that a book genuinely scared me – something that the film failed to do, even though the book’s literary qualities are questionable and the film is considered a classic of the genre.

Some of the brighter spots in my reading diet came through my interest in fantasy and I rediscovered books by CS Lewis and Alan Garner. I had some memories of reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe years before, but I’d never moved on to the sequels. I’m not sure when I first came across Garner but his fiction seemed more grounded in “reality”. Lewis and Garner both portrayed a crossing over between real and magical worlds. Lewis took his child protagonists from their familiar circumstances and placed them in a world very different from their own, but Garner turned this around and showed the world of magic and myth crossing over to our world, bringing conflict here instead of isolating it in the relative safety of somewhere else. Garner also had less “jolly good show” about him than Lewis, portraying characters more familiar to me than those created by Lewis.

Obviously any serious follower of fantasy fiction can not avoid Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, but I have clearly not followed seriously enough because I've been unable to complete this revered trilogy. I’ve made multiple attempts, but have never made it to the end. It may seem irrelevant to others, but one hindrance to my progress has been chapter length. In my earlier attempts I found the chapters far too long to be tempted to read “just one more chapter” before I put the book down for the night. It’s amazing how much reading progress can be made through the “one more chapter” approach. When I read The Wizard of Oz as a child, I read the whole book in one sitting because I wanted to keep reading “one more chapter” before I was ready to put it down.

I recall very little fantasy fiction available for adults in the 1970s. That may be difficult to believe for anyone used to today’s abundance of fantasy titles. Almost everything I remember was written for children or ‘Young Adults”. The exceptions were Lord of the Rings and a couple of books inspired by it, like Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara. Some see Brooks as being the one who inspired the rise of Fantasy fiction as a viable adult genre, being the first to break through the fear of competing with Tolkien. (see

For some reason those first attempts to aim fantasy at the adult reader didn’t appeal to me and my own reading of fantasy remained with the books written for children and teens. To Lewis and Garner I would add Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising) and Lloyd Alexander (The Prydain Chronicles) as my favoured authors of that time. I even named my Collie, Bran, after a dog in one of Cooper’s books.
I know there were other books and other authors, but they haven’t stuck in my mind to the extent of those already named; and I’m sure that those I DO recall (Penelope Lively, George MacDonald, E Nesbit,) belong to a later part of my life in books.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Other Half Lives: Sophie Hannah

Sophie Hannah’s The Other Half Lives was so intriguing that not only did I read it at every opportunity I had, but I wanted to share the story with my wife who rarely spends time reading books. After each section I would put the book aside and bring her up to date with the story.

I first heard about the book from a very complimentary review in a Sunday newspaper. Very rarely am I tempted to buy a novel on the strength of a stranger’s recommendation, but this was one of the rare exceptions and without that review I probably would not have given the book any consideration, and if I’d known it would turn out to be a “crime novel” I would have been less likely to have taken an interest in it.

Considering my dislike of “crime fiction”, how did a book like this overcome my prejudice? Firstly its beginning didn’t fit with my idea of that genre and it was quite a way into the book before police investigators started to take a primary role.

It begins with Ruth Bussey being confronted with her new partner’s dark secret: that he, Aiden Seed, had killed a woman. Ruth’s initial shock resulting from this confession is compounded when she hears the name of the victim, Mary Trelease – a woman that Ruth knows is very much alive.

Ruth’s new relationship suffers from the turmoil created by the confession, and her attempts to discover the truth, and to convince Aiden that he did not kill Mary. Through this process we learn about Ruth’s own traumatic past which will re-emerge and affect her current situation.

The police become involved when Ruth tries to get them to investigate the murder she knows could not have taken place, hoping that where she had failed, the police may be able to convince Aiden of the truth.

This book has been described as a “psychological thriller” rather than crime fiction, and perhaps that label is more appropriate. Many of the characters have been damaged in some way by previous experiences, and those experiences are the catalyst that draws them all together within the unfolding conflict.

Towards the end of the book I lost a bit of momentum when I had to put it aside for a while. When I finally picked it up again I found it hard to get back into it. This was possibly because I was unable to devote a serious slab of reading time to one of the most crucial parts of the book; I could only read small portions at a time and I had trouble picking up the flow of the resolution.

I’m quite sure that Hannah managed to resolve all of the questions and quandaries she created, but my disjointed reading pattern at an important part of the story made it hard for me to appreciate the closure she brought to it.
If only I could go back and read it for the first time again, without the unfortunate break that disrupted my concentration at such a crucial time!

[I recently listened to an interview with Hannah, which can be found by clicking on the book title in the “Books Read” section the side bar. She reveals that a TV series based on her books is being planned.]

Black Swan Green: David Mitchell

I found a hardcover edition of David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green in Wagga Wagga K-Mart selling for $7.00. I had never heard of the author or the book, but the blurb and the bargain price gave enough incentive for me to buy it.

It was after I’d finished the book that I found out that Mitchell had been twice shortlisted for the Mann Booker prize, and that this particular book had made the long list. That discovery made me wonder whether I should have liked the book more than I did.

The book wasn’t a disappointment. I DID enjoy reading it and it WAS the first book for a long time to keep my interest from beginning to end. Unlike many other books it didn’t get put aside for a lengthy period prior to finishing. But I’m not sure it was worthy of consideration for what is supposed to be one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes.

Apart from the bargain price, what attracted me to THIS book instead of one of the others in the bargain bin? Mainly because it was about a young teenage boy growing up in the English Midlands and until I turned thirteen, I had also been a Midlands boy. Mitchell’s story about 13 year old Jason Taylor to a degree continued where my experience of English village life ended with my family’s move to Australia. Despite the 10 year gap between Jason’s time and my own there remained enough familiarity to recognise a lot of his story and environment.

The book looks at 13 months of Jason’s life at the beginning of puberty. We are not given a continuous narrative, but each chapter is like a short story of Jason's month by month experiences. Not all of these experiences are given full and immediate closure, but their outcome is revealed in hints throughout subsequent chapters. This approach is something I find appealing and has a slight similarity to Tim Winton’s technique in The Turning, where Winton used distinctly separate short stories to bring together an overall narrative linked by common characters. Mitchell’s book however maintains a more significant focus on the one person’s experience.

Jason faces all of the usual teenage anxieties of relating with family and being accepted by peers. The book shows how fluid and changeable concerns about those relationships can be and how successful manoeuvring through those changes is often dependant upon the image someone is able to create and maintain. Jason, having a persistent stammer has an obvious disadvantage regarding his perceived place among his peers.

Reviews of Mitchell’s books mention his uses of unconventional writing styles. Black Swan Green seems like it must be more conventional than his previous works, but it still has the interesting handling of narrative continuity mentioned above. While I wasn’t completely won over by this book I’m grateful for the introduction it gave me to David Mitchell and I look forward to trying his other novels.

For more information see: blackswangreen

Friday, November 13, 2009

My Fictional Autobiography (part 1): Childhood

In my early blogging days I wrote about the progression of my musical tastes through the different stages of my life. I have been thinking of doing the same with my literary tastes, but for some reason it doesn’t seem so easy.

One of the surprising things about considering the music in my life was how complete I was able to make the list. Of course I didn’t refer to every group, artist or recording that I liked over the years, but I was able to recall all of those who had an important influence on my tastes.

(See: Changing Tastes)

Applying the same approach to my relationship with books is much a more complicated process, but I’ll do what I can.

My mum taught me to read long before I started school. I have vague memories of two “Ladybird’ books, one about the alphabet and the other about farm animals, which must have played a part in my introduction to reading.

At school I remember “Janet and John” books that were used as a basic introduction to reading in class. Among the books available later were the “Thomas the Tank Engine” series and “Topsy & Tim” books.

A significant part of my reading journey began with a nose bleed that started on the way to school one day. I spent some time out of class with huge wads of cotton wool to soak up the blood. Eventually the school staff decided it would be better if I bled to death at home rather than on school premises and they contacted my mum who took me home.
I was very upset about missing class that day because I would miss the story broadcast via radio each week. As compensation my mum arranged my membership at the local library and selected a few books for me to read.

Apart from those few details I have no memory of specific books in those early years, but as my time in Primary school progressed I was a keen reader of the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. I also enjoyed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books prior to the TV adaptations and Doctor Dolittle was a friend long before Rex Harrison played him in the original film.

Part of the problem in recalling the books of my early life is the fact that there were so many of them and their significance to this project is merely due to the fact that I can remember their titles or parts of their plot.
Dodie Smith’s “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” is memorable partly because of the animated Disney film and also because my family had a Dalmatian for a pet. And there are similar Disney links for “Emil and the Detectives” and “The Incredible Journey”.

In my final Primary years the class library had a series of novels about wildlife. Each book focused on a different animal, creating a storyline out of its natural day to day experiences. I don’t remember any details of author or title but I loved them at the time. Those stories inspired me to write my own contribution to the genre and I spent hours filling an exercise book with the improbable exploits of a wolf cub and his family. I must have included drawings to illustrate my story because I remember one of the wolf pack in a deadly fight with a herd of buffalo (though the image I recall looks more like a cow).

My early high school years brought on an obsession with James Bond and Modesty Blaise; books with content intended for readers much older than myself. Years later I wrote fan letters to Peter O’Donnell, the author of the Blaise books and was excited to receive a reply to each typed on special “Modesty Blaise” letter head. I regret not keeping them. They could have been a valuable part of my current autograph collection.

The most memorable short story I wrote in my teenage years was a James Bond tribute. After an accident my protagonist woke to find he was the “guest” of various Bond villains, and had been mistaken as Bond himself. While I regret not keeping the story, I recognise that my memory has perhaps given it qualities that I would find lacking if I had the chance to read it again. Sometimes memory might be a kinder literary critic than reality.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Withering Heights: wrestling with a classic

In escaping my “reader’s block” I’ve run into the first obstacle. It could have been avoided with adequate preparation and the application of more thought.

Instead of finding an irresistible, can’t put it down, what happens next, guaranteed good read to start me on the way, I picked up “Wuthering Heights”.
And in place of the thrill of anticipation and the desire to turn back to the book at every opportunity, I am begrudging the thought of spending my reading time plodding through its pages.

Its one of those books that has been sitting on my shelves for over twenty years along with many other “classic” Victorian era novels; then after seeing the recent dramatisation of the book on TV I thought I should see how the story REALLY played out. The series seemed to be rushed, trying to cram a lifetime of experience into two episodes and therefore missing so much of the character development that might explain the actions and attitudes of its characters.

I am barely 90 pages into the book and it seems I have more interest in how many pages are left to read than I am in the fate of its protagonists. However, having started, I am hesitant to add another failure to the growing list of books I’ve been unable to finish.

What is it that makes one of these books into a “classic” of literature? Why has this book survived and maintained a following when others of the same era have been forgotten? Is its style merely a trait of its era, common to most books of that time? (I don’t recall the older Jane Austin novels being so hard to read). Or is the style a peculiarity of the Brontes?

I have found myself continually re-reading sentences that on my first attempt have seem badly structured. But again that might be a matter of the linguistic differences between 19th Century Yorkshire and 21st Century Australia.

It’s been a long time since I read anything of its particular era, but I still recall the difficulty I had when I first read Thomas Hardy. I battled through Tess of the D’Urbervilles as if it was a test of endurance yet eventually, on reaching the end, I appreciated why it was considered a classic. I’m still not sure whether that was because I had finally grasped and enjoyed the point of the book, or whether it was merely relief that the ordeal was over

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why “Out of Shadows”?

I gave some thought to the name of this blog. My first choice was “Reader’s Block” – an idea I came up with after reading something by one of my former University lecturers (Richard Harland). He mentioned suffering more than 20 years of “Writer’s Block” that gave him a large collection of unfinished novels. No matter how many times he started, he would always stall and get no further with a project. (A situation that has changed and he is now a many times published author).

It’s a situation I can identify with. My own writing attempts never got to the stage where I could call a project an “unfinished novel” because nothing I attempted came close to resembling a novel in scope or length. The similarity was not with writing but in the reading. I realised I had an acute case of READER’S BLOCK.

Where Richard had a sizeable collection of uncompleted writing projects, I had a massive library of partially read books. Going to my book cases now I can see countless bookmarked volumes displaying evidence of how long they were able to maintain my interest before other distractions led to their neglect.

Post-it notes, shop dockets, business cards and assorted scraps of paper join “proper” bookmarks of various types: publisher’s and bookseller’s promotional material, tourist souvenirs, home made gifts…everything except the sacrilege of the dog-eared corner.

Occasionally I’ll come back to a long neglected book and will find that I can pick up where I left off. But usually I’ve forgotten too much of what I’d already read for the remaining pages to make enough sense. Then if I try to start again at the beginning I feel like I’m wasting time by digging over old ground, finding enough familiarity to rob me the novelty of reading something for the first time. Usually I find it hard to tolerate repetition and I find affinity with the robot in the film “Short Circuit” (“more input, more input!!!”)

So, the name “Reader’s Block” seemed appropriate for a literary blog written by someone who had difficulty committing to a book for long enough to finish it. The name could be offered to forewarn readers and to excuse myself for sharing thoughts on PARTS of books instead of giving intelligent comments on completed books.

If the name was so appropriate, then why didn’t I use it?

Someone else beat me to it and used that name for a blog, posting two contributions before leaving it neglected in 2001.
Before moving on from that first strike against originality I will note that the owner of the “Reader’s Block” blog provided a reading list of his childhood reading matter; and it was scarily close to my own, naming the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins at the top of the list.

My Second choice was “Out of Shadows” and I decided to stick with that name despite finding another blog with the same title. The difference in this case was the other blog was created almost five years ago but was never used. Nothing at all has ever been posted on it. I therefore decided to give the name a go and to liberate it from neglect.

So why was the title considered in the first place?

After my university days when I still had enough confidence to think a writing career was possible, I had a title ready for my first book: “Out of Shadows into Darkness”. Eventually when I realised the possibility of a writing career was fading away, I created an extremely limited edition (2 copies) self published collection of my stories and gave it that title as a form of closure on my writing ambitions.

The title has remained fixed in my mind since then, and due to the continuing absence of a proper book to which it can be applied, I will use an abbreviated form of the title for this attempt to relaunch myself into the world of books, literature and related arts.
“Out of Shadows” could possibly describe this tentative journey, with the hope that it will be a journey into light and not further into darkness and greater obscurity.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Why am I starting yet another blog?
I have two others that have been active for a few years – aren’t they enough?

Links to those blogs can be found in the side bar, and each serves a specific purpose.

The first “ONESIMUS FILES” provides an outlet for ideas and discussion relating to theological issues. The other “WHERE THE BLOGS HAVE NO NAME” started as a site for more “arts” related matters, but it soon changed when other things started to take priority in my life. It became dominated by my move to the country and attempts to convert my new garden into something more attractive and productive.

I have now decided that I’d like to regain a focus on “arts” (literature in particular) and so I’ve created this new blog to give that focus its own designated outlet.

Some background reasons for the making of this choice can be found here:

Autobiographical Musings