‘A robot may not cause a human being to come to harm’

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Machines Like Me sees Ian McEwan tackle a genre about which he evidently knows very little – speculative and science fiction – and it has to be admitted that he doesn’t fall completely flat on his face, although the most interesting aspects of this novel have only a tenuous relationship to artificial intelligence. There are actually two speculative conceits at work in Machines Like Me, though only one is obvious from the cover. Firstly, McEwan imagines a world in which robots which fully pass the ‘Turing test’ of sentience have been built, and, bizarrely, have been sold commercially for private use with seemingly few safeguards. These machines certainly don’t obey Asimov’s First Law of Robotics (‘a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, cause a human being to come to harm’) although, interestingly, they may be working with a version of the Second Law (‘A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law’) which would explain the seeming rebelliousness of these creations.

Secondly, this is all taking place in an alternative version of the 1980s, whose political history becomes increasingly satisfying as it moves outwards from its starting-point of Thatcher losing the Falklands War. McEwan enjoys himself sketching deliberate parallels to current politics, using Tony Benn as a Corbyn figure who gives an inspiring speech to huge crowds in Hyde Park then wins a snap election foolishly called by Thatcher as, like May, she struggles to hold on with a tiny majority of MPs (in this alternative reality, she’s also introduced the poll tax early, which has further hollowed out her support). I had fun reading all of this, but frankly, it serves little purpose in the novel itself other than to provide a background for the most plot-significant ripple effect: Alan Turing is still alive and his insights were instrumental in developing the sentient robots (though, like Einstein with the nuclear bomb, he is not happy about this).

Much of the novel, however, is taken up by the simple human story of its two central characters: Charlie, an aimless man in his early thirties who makes ends meet by speculating on the stock markets (a historical piece that remains firmly in place) and Miranda, his lover, a PhD student in her early twenties who is hiding something from him. The plot ostensibly kicks off when Charlie purchases Adam, one of the first robot prototypes, whom he installs in his flat as a kind of friend and servant. However, he’s slow to get to know Adam and to realise his potential. Because of this, Machines Like Me is very sluggish to start; the first half is slow, and says nothing about artificial intelligence that SF readers won’t have encountered before.

McEwan comes more into his own in the second half of the novel, which consists largely of a series of set-pieces, his consistent strength as a novelist. An immensely enjoyable scene when Miranda introduces Adam and Charlie to her father and her father assumes that Charlie is the robot could have stood to be even longer; while a final confrontation with Turing addresses some of the obvious moral issues that are weirdly ignored in earlier chapters. Nevertheless, I wasn’t convinced by the ending: while avoiding spoilers, the way Adam conceives of his ‘self’ didn’t seem to square with the moral burden that Charlie and Miranda end up carrying. This book did not make me cross, which is more than I can say for the last three McEwan novels I read (Saturday, Sweet Tooth, The Children Act); but it’s not really doing anything new. McEwan uses robots here as a device to explore some of his familiar preoccupations – culpability, moral responsibility and moral relativity – but just as the robot seems to have something to say on these issues, he throws it away.

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#100DaysofWriting: A Retrospective

 

 

On 29th December last year, I decided to take on the #100daysofwriting challenge. This challenge was originally created by the novelist Jenn Ashworth, who writes about it here, but I found out about it via Emma Darwin’s blog (which, by the way, is an invaluable resource for those who write fiction). I’ve never been won over by NaNoWriMo or similar challenges, which value word count above all else; neither have I found that telling myself I have to write for a certain amount of time every day is very productive for me, although I like Antonia Honeywell’s reformulation of this, which (paraphrased) suggests that you sit in a chair for fifteen minutes every day and try to write, even if that means spending fifteen minutes doing nothing. In short, this is how #100daysofwriting works; you work on your WiP every day for 100 days, but this could mean as little work as opening the relevant document on your computer, or as much work as a blazing five-thousand-word writing streak. Ashworth calls it ‘gentle productivity’, and for me, it strikes a good balance between the undoubtedly sound advice to write every day and the realities of most people’s writing lives.

Since starting #100daysofwriting, I haven’t managed to write every day. I calculate that I wrote on 100/145 days since beginning the challenge, or 69% of all days. This feels both good and bad to me. I’ve had periods of my life where I wrote every day for a year, or two years; on the other hand, I’ve also had periods where I haven’t written anything creative at all for similar amounts of time. Writing on seven out of every ten days is a pretty satisfying achievement from that perspective. I also decided to write about my progress on Twitter, which was not required by the original challenge. I did this for two reasons: while I suspected that daily tweets about my writing progress would irritate or bore most of my followers, I personally would love to see other writers do this. And secondly, I hoped it would help keep me on track by providing an element of public accountability.

So what did I actually get done, and how far did #100daysofwriting help me do it? First things first: I didn’t spend most of my 100 days working on the Antarctic-set novel I mention in the tweet above, and write more about here. In January, I used Tim Clare’s freewriting exercise to work on two novels simultaneously, freewriting on the new novel while I worked on structural edits for my time-travel novel, A Minute’s Grace, which I also discuss here. Freewriting is another brilliant tool for a novelist who’s feeling stuck: it involves writing for fifteen minutes about anything you like, without stopping or editing, although you can also use prompts to get you going (Clare’s free online Couch to 80k Novel-Writing course and his #weeklywritingworkout emails are full of these). However, by early February, something unexpected but fabulous happened; I was offered agent representation for A Minute’s Grace by Kerry Glencorse at Susanna Lea Associates. After two wonderful meetings with Kerry where we discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the novel, it was clear that I needed to focus on A Minute’s Grace, rather than the new project, until these edits were done.

Over February and March, I found it much harder to get going again on A Minute’s Grace than I anticipated, and my #100daysofwriting progress was equally patchy. As I wrote on Twitter on February 21st: “Robin McKinley’s Sunshine has this brilliant line where the protagonist is making cinnamon rolls & is trying to ‘persuade stiff, surly, thirty-hour refrigerated dough that it’s time to loosen up’ & that’s EXACTLY what getting back into editing a draft feels like.” I think I was especially struggling with A Minute’s Grace, which had already gone through a number of edits based on professional feedback by that point (I was lucky enough to have been mentored by Orion editor Sam Eades through the Womentoring Project, for example), because my mind and heart had mentally moved on to my Antarctic novel. Freewriting for that novel turned out to be a wonderful way to wake up its cast, but I wished they wouldn’t insist on talking to me when I was trying to focus on something different. I also had some work issues during this period that swallowed up a lot of time and energy.

 

In April and May, I properly got into a serious edit on A Minute’s Grace, helped by a DIY writing retreat near where I grew up in Wiltshire, and ironically enough, this was when #100daysofwriting became less useful. When I’m in the swing of things, I want to write every day, and I’m privileged enough at the moment to have a job that allows me to do that. So I’m finishing out #100daysofwriting with a completely redrafted MS that will be ready to go back to my agent by my (self-imposed) 31st May deadline! That feels like a win. And even though I didn’t write every day, I think the reward of steadily clocking up 100 days helped me get back on the wagon more quickly when I fell off.

Would I recommend #100daysofwriting? I think it depends what you need it for. I’ll definitely be returning to it as I work through the early days of my new novel, provisionally entitled Old Ice, which I find painfully slow; creating something from nothing is so difficult. However, in general, I enjoy editing and find it easy to do once I’ve sorted it out in my head, so I found #100daysofwriting less useful for the later stages of a novel; at that point, I think I need chapter goals, not turning-up goals, as I’m going to turn up anyway. Similarly, the public accountability was more necessary, but more excruciating, when I was working on Old Ice; I’m worried that my more recent tweets have sounded a bit smug, but I know that some people blaze through a first draft and hate editing, so will have the opposite experience! Importantly, this will be different again for non-fiction and academic writers, some of which I know have been trying #100daysofwriting as well.

Are any of you working on your own writing projects at the moment? Do you have any productivity tips? And would you consider trying #100daysofwriting?

Sex, the sea and academia: Night Waking (Sarah Moss) & The Pisces (Melissa Broder)

 

At first glance, it might seem perverse to pair Sarah Moss’s Night Waking and Melissa Broder’s The Pisces. One is about an harassed, exhausted mother trying to write an academic book and deal with two children on a remote Scottish island, ‘Colsay’ (St Kilda), while her ornithologist husband counts puffins; the other is about a single woman who, seeking no-strings sex, falls in love with a merman whom she meets on an LA beach. Nevertheless, I happened to read the two side by side, and that made me think about the ways both Moss and Broder write about sex, the sea and academia.

I first read Night WakingMoss’s second novel, eight years ago, and it’s been nettling me ever since. I couldn’t decide then, and I still can’t decide now, who to like and dislike, whose fault is what, and I think this is quite deliberate. Anna, our first-person narrator, a historian of childhood in her early thirties and mother to seven-year-old Raphael and two-year-old Moth, is not an easy person to warm to, even though her narrative is frequently hilarious and her complaints are usually justified. She tends to express her resentment through sidelong comments to her children; for example, when reading Moth the adventures of Lucy and Tom: ‘Lucy is helping to pack up the picnic… Tom, reinforcing gender stereotypes, has gone to get the buckets and spades from the sandpit.’ Or when Moth pleads ‘Mummy stop it raining’, ‘I can’t stop it raining. Believe me, if I had supernatural powers the world would be a very different place.’ 

When I first read this book, in my early twenties, I felt uncomfortable about Anna’s frank relationship with her children, but now I find myself applauding her. What’s less relatable now about her character, for me, is why she puts up with so much. We never find out why she decided to have two children so young (for her demographic), with a significant age gap between them (Anna is in her early thirties, so must have had Raphael when she was around twenty-five), why she insists on baking her own bread and cooking for the family when she hates it and is rubbish at it, or why she doesn’t just give husband Giles an ultimatum about his lack of contribution to childcare and housework.

On first glance, Lucy, the thirty-eight-year-old protagonist of The Pisces, might conceivably be more relatable to other single, childless women, and Broder certainly has her come out with some brilliant sets of observations, especially near the start of the novel. But she’s also frustrating in similar ways to the unnamed heroine of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and RelaxationLike Anna, Lucy has an academic book to write; unlike Anna, she has no caring responsibilities (short of a friendly dog called Dominic) and is being allowed to stay for free in her sister’s LA beach house.

This is reflected in the symbolic landscapes of the two novels. The sea that Anna encounters on Colsay is wild, cold and obviously deadly; she almost comes to grief trying to get back to the island in a small boat on one occasion, and we know that people have died in it in the past. Meanwhile, Lucy’s California ocean is warm, erotic and welcoming; we only find out later that it too has a fatal edge.

But what about the sex? This might seem to be the biggest difference between the two novels. The Pisces is deliberately explicit; Lucy’s sexual experiences both with her merman, and with a range of random Tinder dates, are described in detail, and while I didn’t find the novel crude in the way I was expecting, it actually becomes completely non-erotic in its clear descriptions of bodily functions. Meanwhile, Anna does have sex with Giles, but it happens offscreen every time, and is blink-and-you’ll-miss it, buried under the narrative’s dominant concerns of childcare, academic writing and the infant skeleton that Anna finds in their garden, which turns out to date from the 1860s. If Lucy’s Tinder profile says ‘Let’s make out in a dark alley’, Anna’s would probably say ‘Please leave me alone in a dark bedroom’. However, sex is significant in Night Waking in a way I didn’t appreciate at first, and less significant in The Pisces than I had expected.

Lucy pretends to be seeking carnal experience, but she really wants to be loved. All her pre-merman sex is disappointing, and while sex with the merman is transcendent, it doesn’t silence her deep conviction that all relationships are essentially power games. ‘When Romeo cried for Juliet, because he thought she was dead, it was Juliet who had the power. But then she cried for him when he was really dead, and he had the power. It’s the dead one who is the most cherished in the end.’ The Pisces ends with Lucy rejecting sexual love for platonic love: ‘I had hoped that fantasy would triumph. Now I was left with neither. But I had my sister.’ 

In contrast, Giles and Anna continuously squabble but do not separate, and it’s implied that what holds them together is a deep and mutual sexual bond, all the more powerful for not being shown to the reader, and revealed largely through Raphael and Moth’s surprise at their parents being more openly affectionate than usual after the deed: ‘ “Daddy, why did you do that?”…”What?”… “Kiss Mummy.”‘ Both books leave the reader with thorny questions. Is good sex worth it, if it binds you to someone who’s exploiting your emotional and domestic labour? Is it better to be with someone with whom you’re less sexually compatible, but who you can live a full life with, rather than having to mould your life around theirs? Does love need good sex? Does good sex need love? I wasn’t totally won over by either of these novels, but I know that both will continue to niggle at me.

A note re. the Women’s Prize 2019; while I’m not sure whether or not The Pisces, which was longlisted, would make my personal shortlist, it’s definitely better than at least half the books on the actual shortlist, and so should be there. And Sarah Moss being shunned unfairly by the Women’s Prize judges has a long history; Night Waking was not longlisted in 2011.

 

The Books That Made Me, Part 2

Part I can be found here. Images in this post are of the covers that I’m familiar with, or the closest approximation.

Early Teenage Years (13 to 16)

 

In my early teens, SF and fantasy still dominated my reading, with a little more realism creeping in. I read Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom as a child, along with many of her other novels, but in my early teens, my absolute favourite was Back Home, about a twelve-year-old girl, Rusty, who returns to England at the end of the Second World War after being evacuated to the States. As someone who spent a significant part of her childhood in Washington DC before moving ‘back home’ to England, where I was born, I strongly identified with Rusty. As I got older, I appreciated Magorian’s subtle characterisation more and more; Back Home is less idealised than Goodnight Mister Tom, and the adult characters don’t split so neatly into good and bad.

Berlie Doherty’s The Sailing Ship Tree really shaped my own writing as a teenager; set in the Edwardian period, it describes the emerging friendship between ‘Master George’, the privileged son of a landed family, and twins Dorothy and Walter, who live on his estate. Told in multiple viewpoints, The Sailing Ship Tree has virtually no plot but is emotionally complex and very moving.

I devoured Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights when it first came out and waited eagerly for the next two books in the series. Sadly, I’ve found that I don’t enjoy re-reading Pullman as an adult, but I absolutely loved all the His Dark Materials books as a teenager. Going to a comprehensive school in Bath where evangelical Christianity was surprisingly dominant among my fellow pupils, I ate up Pullman’s opposition to organised religion, even though I now find his world-view simplistic and aggressive. I also loved reading Pullman’s writing advice, much of which is quite sound, and his suggestion [paraphrased] that ‘writers should study anything but English Literature’ had a big hand in me choosing a History degree.

John Christopher’s The Lotus Caves is about two teenagers living on the moon who fall through its surface into a strange underground world. Eerie and compelling, I still enjoy reading this. Another SF favourite was Lois Lowry’s much more famous The Giver, which still has me pondering ethical questions about the distribution of resources in a fair society, the problems with sexual attraction, and how we handle feelings.

Finally, Susan Cooper’s time-slip story King of Shadows had a much bigger impact on me than her more famous Dark Is Rising series, which I read as a child. Nathan, mourning the loss of his parents, is flung back in time and becomes an actor in Shakespeare’s company. This rather whimsical premise is rooted in clever historical detail and a beautiful exploration of the filial bond that develops between Nathan and Shakespeare.

Late Teenage Years (16 to 19)

 

While the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books were not as structurally perfect as the first three, they fuelled my Harry Potter obsession further; this article gives a pretty good account of how it felt to be a teenage fan in the years before book six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, came out. While I never ‘shipped’ Sirius and Lupin, I was just as devoted to seeking out clues in the text of the first five books as were the romance-orientated fans described in the article linked above. I was convinced that the moral complexity that seemed to be emerging in book five, when Sirius tells Harry that ‘the world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters‘, would pay off, and spent hours on the internet discussing theories with fellow fans – both other teenagers, and adults. Therefore, it’s hard to convey just how disappointed I was by book six without sounding silly. I’d invested so much time and effort into this series, and I felt like JKR had thrown it all in my face – the terrible romance, the awful plotting, the evil-from-birth baby Tom Riddle who ‘never cried’. I’m not going to write extensively about Harry Potter here because I have a Monster Rant post coming up, but suffice it to say that my anger with books six and seven was incredibly formative. As an adult, I can see that many of the structural problems that afflicted the last two books in the series were present in books four and five as well, but the material in those books was so much more generous and interesting, that I still like them even though I know I shouldn’t.

Luckily, George R.R. Martin stepped in to fill the fantasy gap. I first read A Game of Thrones in 2004, when seemingly no-one else in the UK had heard of it, and became totally addicted to A Song of Ice and Fire, blazing through the next three books over the next year. Please always remember: these books are nothing like the TV series. Rather than a nihilistic world portrayed through a series of misogynistic tropes, Martin presents a universe that is brutal and misogynistic, but where hope and honour can win out, and with a large and diverse female cast who deal with Westerosi society in their own way. What Martin is best at is handling the readers’ sympathies; making us rethink our own allegiances; exploring shades of grey. It’s a literary skill that I still think is massively underrated, and it’s been hugely influential on my own writing. One day I’m going to write a longer post about A Song of Ice and Fire, but suffice it to say that it ENRAGES me that the Harry Potter series has a wholly undeserved ‘feminist’ reputation, whereas Song is written off as sexist, largely because of the awful TV series.

 

And now we get to the really formative books, the books that have had the most profound impact on the way I read and write. The most significant of these has to be Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. As an eighteen-year-old, I was entranced by how Ishiguro approached speculative fiction; throwing scientific accuracy out the window in favour of emotional truth. Kathy H’s voice is absolutely convincing, and I still think about Tommy’s tantrums: ‘Maybe I knew something all along. Something the rest of you didn’t’. If you haven’t read this uncanny story of three teenagers growing up in a peculiar school, what on earth are you waiting for?

Two classic novels also shaped my mindset during this period. My school had been given a free set of Everyman’s Classics at some point, so around the age of sixteen, I started methodically reading through them. I had studied Jane Eyre in Year Nine and liked it, but Charlotte Bronte’s lesser-known and yet greater novel, Villette, totally blew me away. Lucy Snowe, its protagonist, is a strikingly modern heroine who only slowly infiltrates her way into the narrative. She’s an unreliable and not totally likeable narrator, but Bronte’s exploration of her emotional isolation is utterly heartbreaking. I’ve written more about Villette here. Similarly, Middlemarch was an education; the ways in which Eliot extends sympathy to each and every character are still too little replicated in modern novels. (Though it’s clearly an inferior text, I also loved Adam Bede).

Finally, I returned to a childhood favourite, Robin McKinley, for two novels that I’ve re-read countless times. Rose Daughter, a second retelling of Beauty and the Beast, shaped how I write about place and landscape, with its beautiful evocation of the Beast’s castle and the roses that Beauty cultivates there. (Poor McKinley has been lumbered with some terrible covers in her time – please ignore the fact that this looks like a bad romance novel!) Sunshine, which featured vampires before they became fashionable, is a totally different kind of story, with its rambling, captivating narrator and brilliantly imagined futuristic world. I’m only allowed to re-read this very occasionally for fear of wearing the magic out; I love it so much.

What were your favourite teenage reads, and do you still enjoy them now?

[NB. I have put the promised Parts 2 and 3 into one post as there wasn’t really a sensible way to separate them – hence why this is so long!]

Science fiction for the spring, May 2019

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Having now read Nina Allan’s second novel, The Rift, shortly after finishing her third novel, The DollmakerI feel like I’m getting a better grasp of her overarching literary project. Allan’s novels explore the line between fantasy and reality, presenting a relatively realistic version of the present while making our own world persistently sinister. She’s especially interested in parallel stories – both The Rift and The Dollmaker include sections from fictional texts, whether those are fairy tales, newspaper cuttings, lists, alien histories or alien novels. Because of this, both these novels are ‘speculative’ in the broadest sense; neither absolutely rests on the existence of any SF or fantasy element. However, The Rift opens up a much bigger space for reader speculation than The Dollmaker, and perhaps that was one of the reasons I liked it so much better.

The premise is simple. Selena’s sister Julie goes missing at the age of seventeen and turns up twenty years later, claiming to have been mysteriously transported to another planet, which she calls Tristane. Selena wonders if Julie is deliberately deceiving her, or if she is mentally ill, or if she’s really her sister at all. However, Julie’s own narrative is remarkably coherent, and she knows things that only she could know about the sisters’ past. On one reading, The Rift, like The Dollmaker, uses this set-up to explore the experience of loss and change on a metaphorical level. Allan doesn’t make the connections for us, but lets us draw our own conclusions. Selena watches a documentary about a woman in the States, Sharon, who was kidnapped and held prisoner for seven years: ‘Selena gained the impression that Sharon Wade no longer cared if people believed her or not. They could believe her or think she was lying, that was their choice.’ Julie hears an apocryphal story about Tristane’s twin planet, Dea, and a monster called the creef that invades human bodies and hollows them out from the inside, gradually eroding their identity.

However, what worked better about The Rift for me is that there’s also space for the reader to believe Julie’s story, if they want to. The novel is infused with eeriness; nothing overtly scary happens, but it’s still a very unsettling reading experience, uncanny in the most specific sense. As Julie’s teacher recalls in a newspaper article after her disappearance: ‘You know the strangest thing about her? Julie was terrified of black holes. She told me they gave her nightmares. When I asked her why, she said that black holes proved there were a lot of things we didn’t know about the universe, and most of them were terrifying.’ Allan explores the line between what we know to be true and what we know to be false, and suggests that the state of that knowledge is fragmentary at best. This incredible novel has to be a contender for one of my favourite books of 2019. Thanks to Victoria at Eve’s Alexandria for the recommendation!

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Unlike The Rift, Children of Time, which won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best novel in 2016, is proper, hard-core science fiction. The remains of the human race are sleeping in stasis on a cargo ship called the Gilgamesh having fled from an uninhabitable Earth. Far in the past, their space-faring ancestors terraformed distant planets as homes for new life, and the Gilgamesh happens upon one of these planets, which looks like the last hope for humanity. Unfortunately, it’s guarded by an aggressive and hostile AI, and populated by giant spiders. Children of Time spans centuries through the eyes of its principal protagonist, the classicist Holsten, who is continually awoken at times of crisis and then sent back to stasis.This incredibly clever device allows Tchaikovsy to tell a massive story about the human race’s interactions with this new planet while giving the reader an anchor.

This is necessary, because Children of Time, like a number of epic SF novels I’ve read, suffers from a certain coldness. Tchaikovsy is clearly most interested in exploring big questions about evolution, co-operation and society, and I love cerebral science fiction, but the individual element sometimes gets a little lost. While the characterisation isn’t bad, we only ever see these people when they’re doing important things; there’s no sense of what they do when they need to take a break, or be with other people. Arguably, this is because the key characters are only awake for short periods of time, but if so, I’d have liked to have seen the psychological impact of this more deeply explored (although Tchaikovsy, to be fair, does make a stab at this through a running theme about Holsten being ‘the oldest man in the universe’, a statement that’s both true and not true at different points).

Alongside the story of the Gilgamesh, a second, equally dominant narrative thread in Children of Time covers the evolution of a race of giant, sentient spiders on the terraformed planet, and how they too begin to reach out to the stars. Again, this is imaginatively handled; while generations of spiders are born and die, Tchaikovsy uses the same set of names for his central characters in each generation (‘Portia’, ‘Bianca’, ‘Viola’, ‘Fabian’), so we feel like we have something to hang onto. However, I found this strand of this story much less compelling than the alternate half of the novel. Part of this is personal preference: I’m not especially interested in reading about primitive societies. By the end of the novel, the spiders have become an interesting, sophisticated civilisation, but this is really only in play for the last few chapters. There are good plot reasons for this, but sometimes I couldn’t shake the sense that this was 600 pages of set-up for the next novel in the series, Children of Ruin. The inevitable conflict between human and spider is solved rather neatly, and while I don’t think the solution is a cop-out, as such, I’d have bought into it more if it had been the beginning of a novel rather than the end. Nevertheless, I have to admire Tchaikovsy’s ambition and imagination, and I’d be up for reading the sequel.

I have also recently read one relatively poor speculative novel, Luiza Sauma’s Everything You Ever Wantedand one really awful science fiction novel, SK Vaughn’s Across the VoidLinks are to my Goodreads reviews! Finally, I’ve just started reading Annalee Newitz’s Autonomouswhich is about space pirates.

The Books That Made Me, Part 1

I’ve been thinking about where my basic assumptions about what makes a good novel comes from, and how both my reading preferences and the themes, structures and concerns of my own creative writing can be traced back to a handful of crucial titles. These are not my favourite books of all time, or the books that I think are the best, but they are books that I once loved or still love. Post inspired partly by Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm!

Early Childhood Favourites (Under 8)

I was a precocious reader (nobody who reads this blog will be at all surprised to hear) and my mum struggled to find me books that I wouldn’t eat up in two seconds and yet would still be appropriate for my age. It’s not surprising that she turned to fantasy. What’s wonderful about all these titles is that they’re books that have lived with me for more than twenty years, enriching my life differently as I get older; they’re books that I didn’t necessarily understand completely the first time I read them, but which have shaped my understanding of story-form on an unconscious level.

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Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, especially the first two titles in the series, Dealing With Dragons and Searching For Dragons, have given me endless pleasure throughout the years. Most importantly, I think their use of twisted fairytale elements made me understand that stories look different from different points of view. Princess Cimorene volunteers to live with a dragon, but has to constantly turn away disgruntled princes who want to rescue her so they can get half her father’s kingdom and her hand in marriage. Rumpelstiltskin is forced, through family tradition, to take the babies of women who can’t guess his name after spinning straw into gold, but he can’t provide for all the children, and he can’t spin gold for himself; he solves the problem by setting up a boarding school and hiring a good lawyer to make it into a charitable trust, so he can spin for charity. Wizards, like the Wicked Witch of the West, can be vanquished by a bucket of soapy water, but don’t forget to add lemon juice, or it doesn’t work. Unlike many favourite children’s books, I honestly feel that these could be read and appreciated at any age, even if you first come to them as an adult.

Monica Furlong’s Wise Child and Juniper, about a group of powerful women, called dorans, who strive to live in harmony with the earth, put forward a beautiful and subtly feminist vision of female power, based on Cornish folklore. In that, they share some elements with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet*, especially The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu. I didn’t fully understand any of these books as a child, but their descriptions of light and dark magic made a deep impression. Similarly, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, about a female dragon killer, was almost incomprehensible to me at first due to the way it nested stories within stories, but it became my first introduction to this storytelling style. Her Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast was more accessible for a seven-year-old. Finally, my mum’s childhood copy of Alan Garner’s A Weirdstone of Brisingamen scared me and delighted me at the same time, and the scene when Colin and Susan are chased through an underground cave system is still an exemplar of how to build up tension.

*There were only four books when I was little…

Late Childhood Favourites (8-12)

Fantasy and speculative fiction continued to dominate my reading during this period (I read plenty of more realistic books as well, I just didn’t like them as much) with the beginnings of some science fiction as well. Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams is still one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read, and also a great lesson in how to mix fantasy and reality; it focuses on Marianne, who is confined to bed with a long illness, and who starts to discover that the things she draws come to life in her dreams. Lionel Davidson’s almost unknown Under Plum Lake is a deeply haunting narrative of a boy who discovers a secret world deep under the sea; impossible to summarise, impossible to forget. The last of these three books – they always go together in my mind – is Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, about a girl at boarding school in the 1960s who unknowingly swaps places with a girl at the same school in 1918. All these novels have the supernatural, otherworldly quality that I strive for in my own fiction.

All these books were published decades before I was born. On the other hand, there were modern series: so many series! Growing up in the 1990s, very few new books for children or teenagers seemed to be stand-alones. Many of these titles were rubbish, but there were some exceptions. I bought the first Harry Potter book in 1997, and so was a little ahead of the curve; I was enraptured by how incredibly well-plotted it was, and the complex moral universe that seemed to be suggested by its two sequels. Alas, the Harry Potter series jumped the shark for me after book five (see monster rant coming soon), but I still admire the first three books. More satisfying was K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series, which I’ve written about before but will never stop talking about, probably because they had the single biggest impact on my childhood self. This SF series stars a group of teenagers who can change into any animal they can touch and have to use these powers to fight a guerrilla war against an undercover alien invasion that’s infiltrating Earth by taking over human bodies. By the age of ten, I was desperate for books that moved beyond heroes and villains and explored more difficult questions about morality; Animorphs, which ends with our all-American boy hero committing genocide against the main alien antagonists of the series, delivered this in spades. Given that the series is fifty-four books long, plus some sequels, super editions and spin-offs, it obviously varies in quality, but nothing else I read made me think so hard.

This post got too long, so Parts 2 and 3 are coming soon! Images in this post are of the covers that I’m familiar with, or the closest approximation.

Have you read any of these books? What were your childhood favourites, and how have they affected the way that you read and/or write fiction?

The 4.5 Star Challenge

Taken from Rachel at pace, amore, libri! The idea of this challenge is that you choose five books that you think you’ll rate five stars but that you haven’t read yet, and see what happens. I have renamed this challenge as it’s so unusual for me to give out five star ratings – so I’ll be looking for these books to be at least 4.5 stars.

So I don’t add to my reading list, everything I’ve chosen is from my 2019 Reading Plans.

Téa Obreht: Inland. I already wrote about how much I’m looking forward to this, but suffice it to say that (a) Obreht’s debut, The Tiger’s Wifewas one of my favourite books of the last ten years and (b) this is set in the Arizona Territory in 1893, allowing Obreht, whose last novel was focused on folklore and conflict, to ‘subvert and reimagine the myths of the American West’. This is out in August.

Sally Rooney: Normal People. A funny one for me, as I enjoyed Rooney’s debut, Conversations With Friendsbut it didn’t blow me away. However, I adore novels with university settings and, as I am the last person in the world to read this book, I’ve seen lots of glowing reviews.

Allegra Goodman: The Chalk Artist. Again, a bit of a leap of faith. I admired the intelligence and sharpness of Goodman’s Intuition and The Cookbook Collector, but neither novel really came together for me. Still, I’m convinced that Goodman can write, and the premise of this novel – a boy whose life is taken over by an alternative gaming reality – couldn’t be more up my street.

Evie Wyld: The Bass Rock. Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing was also one of my favourite novels of the past ten years, and although I was less impressed by her debut, After The Fire, A Small Still VoiceI loved her graphic novel, Everything Is Teeth. This one tells the story of three unconventional women who live hundreds of years apart. It looks like the publication of this has been pushed to 2020, though, so I might have a while to wait. (It also has no cover yet, so I’ve used a photo of Wyld instead.)

Richard Powers: The Echo Maker. I was hugely impressed by Powers’s The Overstory, which was one of my top ten books of 2018, and have decided to explore his back catalogue. I was most intrigued by this one, which is about a man who doesn’t recognise his own sister after suffering brain damage in a car accident, but sounds like it might take an unexpected turn.

Have you read any of these novels? What did you think, if so?