I would love to be able to tell you how the extended time at home has led to an outpouring of creativity, a flood of new writing and art and music from my head meats through my skilful fingers and out, fluttering like glittering butterflies of the imagination, into the world.
Yes, well, about that. It turns out that the quiet time I’ve always craved has arrived at my door like that one weird uncle, ready for a long stay and bearing baggage—a matched Vuitton set of cases bulging with existential dread, fear for the future and prosaic concerns like, ya know, are we going to be able to eat and stay sheltered this time next week. That sort of crap tempers the flood of creativity, in much the same way as a dam will have an effect on a moving body of water.
Am I blocked? No, I am not. I am writing—as you may note from the uptick in posts on this most intermittent of blogs. The great magnum opus or even an attempt to finish work begun and lost down the back of the sofa has, however, remained resolutely untouched. Oh well. Inertia is an appropriate response to interesting times. Sometimes, it’s OK just to be an observer.
I have, however, caught up a bit on my reading. Like a lot of us, I have a stuffed Kindle and a groaning To Be Read shelf. These have taunted me with every passing day. Now, finally, I’ve found the time to turn my back on the socials, put on some sweet music and finish off some half-read goodies.
Here, then, is an incomplete list of the books that I’ve ticked off the list. Progress, of a sort. We choose not to mention the books that have been bought while in lockdown. We’ll get to those in time.
To start with, a couple of Stephen Kings. I’ve been meaning to look at On Writing as one of those important texts that All Writers Should Have Read. Like Robert McKee, Syd Field and other story gurus. Unlike these, On Writing does not pretend to give you all the answers. It is, however, a practical and clear-sighted guide into building up a toolkit that allows the writer to crack on and get something more than word salad down on the page. Plus it’s written by Stephen King, which gives you the advantage of his sharp, no-nonsense style. It’s worth a look, if only for the end section which recounts the 1999 car accident that nearly killed him in teeth-clenching detail.
I also finally got around to Hearts in Atlantis, a linked set of novellas and short stories featuring a set of friends from childhood to (for some of them) the grave. Haunted by the memory and cultural weight of Vietnam, Hearts in Atlantis is largely horror-free—much more a meditation on choices made and how they resonate in later life, for good or ill. Fair warning, the first story Low Men In Yellow Coats requires a working knowledge of King’s Dark Tower stories to get the most from it. It also sparked a 2001 film, of which the less said the better.
We love Northumberland and Cumbria and try to get up to the borderlands once a year. I still desperately hope to make the trip up in 2020. Until that time arrives, I was warmed by Graham Robb’s The Debatable Land, a history of the disputed territory between England and Scotland. It was, for the best part of a thousand years from the end of the Roman Empire until the late 1500s, largely untouched. A lawless territory, home and refuge to robber barons, rievers and lots of cattle.
Robb’s book asks as many questions as it answers, given that there is very little documentation as to what was happening in the Debatable Land for all that time. It’s a fascinating read, scholarly but approachable and stuffed full with stories of derring-do and banditry. Recommended.
I’m a big fan of Robert B. Parker and his laconic crime fiction. His Spenser books are fondly revered, turned into a TV series and lately a movie starring Mark ‘Marky Mark’* Wahlburg.
In recent years Parker has opened up the books on a couple of new characters. Night Passage features alcoholic cop Jesse Stone, kicked off the LAPD and finding a new life as sherif of a sleepy Massachusetts town called Paradise. Except, of course, Paradise isn’t that sleepy, and Stone finds himself up against a corrupt town official, a body-building psychopath and three murders in as many weeks. It’s stylish, witty and elegant crime writing. Tight as a guitar string, sharp as a switch knife.
Back in Blighty for a spot of spy-fi. Mick Herron’s Slough House books have rightly snagged armfuls of awards. Densely plotted but propulsive, they feature one of the great new characters in the genre—the slovenly but fearsome Jackson Lamb, in charge of a sort of retirement home for British agents who have messed up too badly for active duty (called, with an added jab of insult, ‘slow horses’). The Slough House books are cynical but never amoral. Lamb treats his crew of screw-ups with undisguised contempt but would never leave them behind if they get into trouble. Which they do. Often.
I’ve just finished Real Tigers, the third in the series, which features a kidnapped ‘horse’, an evil plot from a very recognizable parody of our best-known politician and a personal favorite of mine, a secret underground library. Look, all the Slough House books are great. Dive in and tell me you can’t see Timothy Spall in the inevitable TV adaptation as Lamb…
A Christmas gift from Leading Man Clive was This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. A lyrical, poetic SF novella, it tells the story of two post-human agents of rival factions, facing off against each other in a trans-dimensional war. The two, code-named Red and Blue begin to communicate. Their taunts and threats become something more, and the two begin to fall in love—a position that puts them both at horrible risk…
Beautiful and elegant as it is, Time War felt more like a stylistic exercise than a cohesive work to me. It didn’t help that it’s impossible to connect to the two main characters—they’re ciphers, pieces in a chess game. I never understood how they fell in love. They just kinda stopped trying to kill each other and started sending poetry instead. Ultimately it left me cold, but I know it gets a lot of love from a lot of people whose instincts I trust. I’ll leave it up to you. Do give it a go if you get a chance. There isn’t another piece of recent SF like it.
Still on the skiffy tip, I bolted down the last in John Scalzi’s Interdependency books, The Last Emperox, in two days flat. Do you like conspiracies, noble houses entangled in ever more knotty plots in the face of a rapidly approaching, all consuming doom? Do you like stunning reversals, plot twists by the page and industrial amounts of swearing? then BOY HOWDY will you love these. Scalzi knows how to bolt a story together so it ticks like a clock or a bomb. The Interdependency books are funny, smart and hold-your-breath thrilling. Like G**e Of T*****s without the ice at the core.
Time spent with Don Winslow is never time wasted. The crime writer is like James Ellroy with some of that Elmore Leonard rebop, angry but full of heart. His latest, a set of novellas called Broken, has the feel of an experienced musician riffing on old favourites and coming up with new tunes. The title story is a typically dark tale of drugs, death and vengeance, told full-throttle and hose-pipe gory. It’s classic Winslow, rich and bitter, but there are sweeter treats to come.
The best of these stories comes when Winslow loosens up a little and allows himself a smile. The San Diego Zoo is a riot, featuring hapless patrolman Chris Shea who wants nothing more than to become a robbery ‘tec, only to find his own best instincts tangle him up. It also features the best first line of the year for me—‘No one knows how the chimp got the revolver.’
Tell me you’re not interested now.
Broken is a real treat for Winslow fans, with old characters popping up in unexpected places. Yes, ok, it’s a bit fan-servicey, and casual readers might not get some of the hidden shineys on offer. Nevertheless, this is excellent stuff, with the right balance of tough to tender. Nowhere near as dark or bleak as his Border trilogy, this is as refreshing as a cold beer after a long drive down Highway 101.
A couple of comics recommends. The Situation is a major problem for creators in the field, as Diamond, the only major distributor, has suspended operations. Even if they were open, comic shops can’t get stock.
I’m especially saddened as Wicked Things, the new jam from one of my favourite creative teams, John Allison and Max Sarin, who brought us the hilarious Giant Days, has been paused after the first issue. In the face of this inertia Allison has gone back to his web-comic roots, releasing new pages of Steeple weekly on the old Scary-Go-Round platform. This is sort of like the Vicar of Dibley if Dawn French was a tall, glamourous, motorbike-riding ex-Satanist.
Tell me you’re not interested now.
It’s an absolute hoot. Sign up to John’s email alerts on the website and you’ll never miss a twist, snark or sick burn. I think he’s one of the best writers on the scene, with a very clear voice, sense of place and knack for quirky but endearing characters.
Apart from Magus Tom Pendennis. He’s just a dick.
I hesitate to recommend anything from The Big Two when so many creators are struggling, but if you fancy a freebie, it’s worth snagging the offerings from Marvel Unlimited. Also available on ComiXology, there’s a raft of great series on offer including Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s run on Black Widow (when will we see the movie now wheeeennnn) and Ed Brubaker’s seminal Winter Soldier story for Captain America. If you have a tablet, now is the time to put it to good use. Download the app and check Free Comics. No account or payment deets needed.
Phew. That’s quite a bit, in fact you could say quite enough. I’d love to know what you’ve been reading during The Time Of The Sofa. Any tips or recommendations are very welcome, especially those outside my particularly blokey bailiwick.
Hope the daytime drinking isn’t out of control just yet. Love you all, see you soon.
I’ll leave you with this. It’s… magnificent.
*it is a legal obligation for writers of a certain age to refer to actor Mark Wahlberg by his full name. I don’t make the rules, people.
Also—I’ve included Amazon links to some of the reviews for ease of reference. If you fancy any of the books I’ve talked about and have a favourite indie retailer please, please order from them instead. Everyone’s struggling and we all need to share the love.