Monday, 31 October 2011

Eat the strawberries

It certainly isn’t an overstatement to say I’m melodramatic. If I read something in a book that I find particularly inspiring, I’m likely to respond to it in quite a spectacular way. Say, for example, wanting it tattooed upon my person (by which I mean myself, of course, I don’t actually own a person just so I have somewhere to put inspirational quotes).

Bearing in mind my tendency for melodrama, there have been two particular passages in two wonderful books that changed me.

The first is in American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I have always been a careful person, sometimes at the expense of trying new things. I still firmly hold the belief that I would find the one corner that existed in the Trebor Softmints universe and, with the dexterity of a wardrobe trying to cartwheel down a flight of stairs, proceed to bounce off it using only my eyeball. However, there is a part in American Gods where the main character, Shadow, seizes the moment, with no thought for the future and because he can, and because he should. He recalls a fable and suddenly the meaning of this tale clicks with him. Something clicked in me too, and I had an instant of clarity where I realized that not every little thing in life requires a thorough worrying over, or even needs to have more meaning beyond the act itself. This doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about impaling myself while walking down the street, but I do, just occasionally, stop to eat the strawberries (though I might wash them first).

Still, there was a tale he had read once, long ago, as a small boy: the story of a traveler who had slipped down a cliff, with man-eating tigers above him and a lethal fall below him, who managed to stop his fall halfway down the side of the cliff, holding on for dear life. There was a clump of strawberries beside him, and certain death above him and below.
What should he do? went the question. And the reply was, Eat the strawberries.

My response to the next passage was, if possible, even more self-indulgent. I was going through a breakup. It was tragic. The universe became gaping void. Diet Coke lost its taste. It was, in short, pretty bad. Then I ordered the latest Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. It was White Night. I booked the day off work. I wandered into a café. It sucked. I felt too raw to sit in the sunshine reading. I went inside. I read to distract myself from myself, and as joylessly and painfully as possible. I thought that Butcher would be a frivolous tonic. And then I read this.

We still hadn't learned, though, that growing up is all about getting hurt. And then getting over it. You hurt. You recover. You move on. Odds are pretty good you're just going to get hurt again. But each time, you learn something.

Each time, you come out of it a little stronger, and at some point you realize that there are more flavors of pain than coffee. There's the little empty pain of leaving something behind - graduating, taking the next step forward, walking out of something familiar and safe into the unknown. There's the big, whirling pain of life upending all of your plans and expectations. There’s the sharp little pains of failure, and the more obscure aches of successes that didn't give you what you thought they would. There are the vicious, stabbing pains of hopes being torn up. The sweet little pains of finding others, giving them your love, and taking joy in their life they grow and learn. There's the steady pain of empathy that you shrug off so you can stand beside a wounded friend and help them bear their burdens.

And if you're very, very lucky, there are a very few blazing hot little pains you feel when you realize that you are standing in a moment of utter perfection, an instant of triumph, or happiness, or mirth, which at the same time cannot possibly last - and yet will remain with you for life.

Everyone is down on pain, because they forget something important about it: Pain is for the living. Only the dead don't feel it.

Pain is a part of life. Sometimes it's a big part, and sometimes it isn't, but either way, it's a part of the big puzzle, the deep music, the great game. Pain does two things: It teaches you, tells you that you're alive. Then it passes away and leaves you changed. It leaves you wiser, sometimes. Sometimes it leaves you stronger. Either way, pain leaves its mark, and everything important that will ever happen to you in life is going to involve it in one degree or another.’

That’s right, Butcher and Gaiman? They’re all about me.

Monday, 17 October 2011

TV review: The Fades

At the risk of hyperbole, BBC 3’s new supernatural drama The Fades is just about the most amazing piece of British television I’ve ever seen.

Quite an assertion, I think my reader will agree.

Here’s my supporting statement:


When awkward teen, 17-year-old Paul (Iain de Caestecker) stumbles across a zombie-like creature attacking two humans in an abandoned shopping centre, he soon realises that the survivor, Neil (Johnny Harris), holds the answers to the apocalyptic dreams he’s been having. Neil tells Paul he’s an Angelic like him: a person who can see the fades, i.e., dead people. Paul’s apocalyptic dreams were visions of the future. Angelic Sarah (Natalie Dormer) also experienced them before she was killed by the Angelic Killer, a corpse-like fade. Sarah now haunts her husband, Mark (Tom Ellis), because she, like so many others, was unable to ‘Ascend’ to death (which, like life, isn’t easy). The mysterious blockage to ascension that began nearly 100 years ago has left countless angry fades trapped on earth. The dead continue to grow old and rot, unable to open doors, or interact with their loved ones without intense pain. However, the Angelic Killer has found a way to take on physical form once more and reverse the rot by first drinking human blood, and then chowing down on human flesh. The fade is determined to wreak revenge on the Angelics, and the human race in general. He starts by recruiting an undead army, taking his first steps towards creating the ash-filled wasteland in Paul’s dreams.

Finding out he’s an Angelic is only the start of Paul’s problems. His ability to heal people, which causes moths to crawl from his mouth, makes the tiny band of Angelics believe he is the only one who can save the world. There’s also the inconvenient thing that happens to him when he ejaculates. After confiding with his best friend, the pop culture referencing Mac (Daniel Kaluuya), much to Neil’s irritation Paul becomes determined to live a normal teenager’s life. Particularly because, despite risking the wrath of his caustic non-identical twin, Anna (Lilly Loveless), he has found illicit love in the shape of the elfin Jay (Sophie Wu), his sister’s best friend.

Here’s why you could love it too:

It’s slick, funny, powerful, disgusting, true, heart wrenching, heart-warming, at times terrifying, unique and even beautiful stuff. The script is sharp, and neat, and tight.

With Loveless, Kaluuya and, in later episodes (spoilers), Joe Dempsie, The Fades is a bit of a Skins fest. But that’s because the producers know how to mine the best young talent (and possibly, regarding Skins, the only talent).

Here’s why you should really love it:

Iain de Caestecker’s performance as Paul is a nuanced phenomenon. You really believe his struggle to stay sane against the odds, and to understand his place in the world. But what’s more incredible, is the relationship between Paul and Mac. Kaluuya shone as Tealeaf in Psychoville, and in The Fades he positively gleams. His Mac is a heartbreaking bundle of idiosyncrasies, fragility and fierce loyalty for his best friend. His tendency to reel off trivia in the face of danger masks deeper emotions, like love and grief, which brim to the surface in all the right places. His ability to wrench your heart is as flawless as his comic timing. Together, the pair are a beautiful thing to watch.

There might be some negatives, but they’re minor. Paul isn’t always on the ball when it comes to asking the important questions, such as ‘How do the moths get into my throat, and why are they crawling out of it?’ However, this is probably something to do with the mystery that writer and creator Jack Thorne clearly loves frustrating his viewers with. And, let’s face it, it’s what keeps us coming back for more.

BBC iPlayer currently has it on series catch up. The rest of us (adults and teens alike) are on episode 5 of 6 this Wednesday at 10 pm on BBC 3. And if you’re not yet fully convinced, it references, of all things, this. What’s not to love?

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The digital convert

I am currently suffering from an escalating problem. On bowing shelves, under the bed, beside the bed, at the foot of the bed, in my wardrobe, under my shoes, above my clothes, beneath my clothes, in my drawers, between my DVDs, my book collection is growing. It has gotten to the point where when I finish a book I chuck it over my shoulder into to cascading pile of my latest reads that lines the back of my bed like an abandoned game of dominos. As a hoarder by nature I live in genuine fear that I am one day going to be one of those old ladies who builds secondary corridors out of old reading material. I will be forced to spend a large portion of my day navigating the expanding maze of epic fantasy just to reach my settee in time to shout at Noel Edmond’s Deal or No Deal (somebody has to).

In my darkest moments, I think of the multiplying collection of cats I’ll have lost amongst the stacks who have given up all hope of rescue and have taken to building their homes out of my collection of ‘90s James Herberts, which they’re slowly but surely teaching themselves to read. It’ll be like The Rats, but with cats. The Cats. I’m going to be found with my arm gnawed off, buried beneath a pile of Robin Hobbs, my only legacy the army of felines that have evolved enough to survive nuclear apocalypse.

The real issue is that I can’t throw books away. It would be like throwing your first child away, just because you’ve had another. It just isn’t done.

My other problem is that I know the solution, and it isn’t one I am particularly happy with. I should convert to digital. Buy an eReader. Get over the printed word.

If I put so much value in the physical copy, if I really class myself as a lover of beautiful covers, clever designs, the tactile reading experience, the smell of a page, then why is my ever-growing collection living rough in its haphazard piles?

I’m either going to have to give up and buy a cat now so I can practice losing it, or suck it up and become a digital convert. It's me or the books.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Write what you love

Since finishing my dissertation I have been wondering what to do with this blog. Admittedly one thought I had was ‘abandon it to the ether and run wildly into the night’, but after a brief, dizzy bout of freedom in which I drank enough Diet Coke to dissolve an elephant, I’ve come back to my senses and my laptop.

I asked for some advice from a much-respected source about how to make the switch from semi-serious dissertation blog to mostly personal, while still staying fairly close to all things books and SFF. His advice was simple yet perfect. Thus: ‘Whatever you write about you have to love it and be genuinely interested because that will seep through into whatever you write’.

This might sound particularly dumb but I was so blinded by other things that I didn’t actually consider ‘write what you love’. So that made me pause. What did I love? SFF books, Jim Butcher and Diet Coke, obviously. But is that enough? Time will tell.

So, welcome, gentle reader. If you journey beyond this post, you will find my dissertation ramblings about Science Fiction and Fantasy publishing and marketing ploys. If you journey forth with me, I can promise slightly broader ramblings, and considerably less talk about dissertations. However, I can’t promise I will refrain from mentioning My Love for Jim Butcher or Diet Coke.