2007 Top Five Books

31 12 2007

The problem with top fives is that, rather like celebrations, it can be hard to stop and so today we have my Top Five Books What I Read in 2007.

The year started off well with a good haul of Neal Stephenson books including The Baroque Cycle, I went through those at a fair old pace. Then I reached a bit of a splutter as writing got in the way of reading and I went off to the land of short story for quite a while. Things got kick started again with Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box.

I’ve been very fortunate this year as people have passed me stuff that I would not have normally picked up and much of which I loved. Here goes:

5. The Bridge by Iain Banks – I wasn’t sure about this. It sounded quite dark, it opened in a style that struck me as very “in” during the period it was written (80s) and I was on the verge of putting it down. The thing about Iain is you have to stick with it. The points will become clear, the preamble is just him warming up and then the bugger’s got his claws into you. You can’t move, even if you want to. You have to finish.

On the face of it The Bridge is about death, our fear of it, what it might mean and exactly what is going on in a person’s mind when they hang in that doorway, half-in half-out. Plunge deeper and it’s about life, what we do with it, how we live it and who we choose to live it with. Just a beautiful piece of work.

4. For One More Day by Mitch Albom – This is a gorgeously crafted tale. I’m not going to explain the hook, or the setting or that it borrows in places from genre fiction, no. To do that would be to miss the point. This is a story about people, about relationships and about grief. I’m not ashamed to admit it had me reaching for the tissues.

Mitch I salute you.

3. Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill – Joe Hill’s debut novel is as impressive a first novel as any I’ve read in recent years, that the film rights have allegedly already been snapped up is no great surprise.

Telling the tale of an aging rock star, Judas Coyne, who orders a ghost off the internet – everything’s for sale these days – and gets more than he bargains for. As Coyne runs for his life he learns sometimes you just can’t run fast enough or long enough.

Joe weaves together a wicked ghost story with a story about cowardice, courage and redemption with the skills of a master. A tightly crafted story and, more importantly, a ripping yarn.

2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – A few of my friends had recommended Atwood to me and I thought well why not? I’m going to do that more often.

This novel is not a new or recent thing, it’s been around since 1985 and tells the tale of Offred, a Handmaid or concubine, in the Republic of Gilyead, a Christian fundamentalist state that has replaced the US.

An elegant, haunting tale of female oppression and the dangers of theocratic states this is, in my opinion, SF at its best : gripping, honest and prophetic. I can’t say enough good things about this. Read it.

1. The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson – OK, so it’s not technically one book. It is however one story and a triumphant one at that. Breathtakingly ambitious, masterfully told, sprinkled with liberal helpings of swash and shot through with lashings of buckle.

Stephenson takes us on a tour of the world from the late seventeenth century through to the early eighteenth century via the interwoven lives of a troop of characters most notably Daniel Waterhouse, Jack and Bob Shaftoe, Eliza (a Qwghlmian girl) and Enoch Root. Featuring cameos by Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys, Louis XIV, Charles II and plenty more.

On the face of it The Baroque Cycle is a historical series but to stop there would be misleading as Stephenson blends history, science fiction and fantasy together in a fairly unique blend. The result is an epic tale of alchemy, piracy, sex, slavery and the birth of modern economics. B.R.I.L.L.I.A.N.T.

And let’s face it. Eliza? Well, you would wouldn’t you…

More Top Fives: Short Stories

30 12 2007

I’m back in London. I spent most of yesterday driving, we took the opportunity to call in with some friends on the way back and we were not helped by proper Welsh rain. Now I’m quite enjoying flumping on my own sofa and not doing anything. Ergo there are no hilarious hijinks to report.

I’d better talk about something else then.

This year I’ve been very fortunate in reading many, many, excellent short stories. You know the kind of stories you read and they’re so good your breath is slightly taken away, you’re not sure whether to feel jealous or joyous, they have in short left their mark on you.

Here’s my top five (that I’ve read this year, in ascending order):

5. The Last Reef by Gareth Lyn Powell – I missed this when it was in print in Interzone but managed to catch it the second time round when it was released online earlier this year. The sf conceits in this story are not new, you won’t be blown away by a startling vision of the future, but what you will find is a brilliantly charming character driven piece, great imagery and some really tight writing.

4. Shattered Like A Glass Goblin by Harlan Ellison – I’ve like Ellison’s work since my teens but found it quite hard to pick up for some reason, I’d get scraps here and there. This year I treated myself to a massive volume: “The Essential Ellison”. There’s a plethora of good stories including “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman but, so far, Shattered Like A Glass Goblin is my favourite. The writing is tight; the imagery achieved with a surgeon like use of language, a well crafted allegory wrapped inside a terrifying dark fantasy. And Ellison doesn’t need the likes of me fawning over him, so I’ll shut up now. Read it.

3. How Do You Think It Feels? by Neil Gaiman – There aren’t enough stories about gargoyles, not in my opinion anyway. For a long time this year this was my favourite short story. It is a beautiful, sad, dark, strange, well crafted story. An unsettling meditation on love and loss. Gaiman at his best.

2. The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke – I’d been curious to read Susanna’s break through short story for ages; it has fast become the thing of legend, a story wannabe fantasy writers tell each other late at night with a kind of jealous awe. And there’s a very good reason. It’s off-the-page good. The kind of good that has you chewing your fist, asking why? how? and shaking your head with the cold knowledge that you’ll most likely never achieve such heights. Even with all that it’s a joy. You’re missing out if you don’t read this one.

1. The Cape by Joe Hill – I nearly didn’t read this at all. An ugly confession but it’s true. I read Joe’s first novel “Heart Shaped Box” and loved it, it was the best first novel I’d read in ages. I raved about it, I lent it to friends and basked in the reflected glory as they in turn raved about it. Then I went looking for his short fiction.

Eventually I managed to get hold of a copy of Best New Horror via an anthology. And wasn’t fussed. There I said it. Yes I know it won awards. Yes I know many raved about it including Neil Gaiman. But it wasn’t for me. And so I wasn’t sure about whether to pick up Joe’s collection. For about thirty seconds.

Picked up in an airport bookstore in Washington, Joe’s first collection 20th Century Ghosts is the most consistent short story collection I have ever read. Just the nuts. From the beautifully crafted ghost story that the collection takes its title from to the wonderfully strange, wonderfully moving Pop Art to the disturbing darkness of Abraham’s Boys.

But for me the one that got me, that really got inside my defences and ripped it up was The Cape. It’s a perfect short story from a writer at the height of his powers: you want to spend time with the characters, you recognise them, the pacing is perfect, the chills are cold icy hands on the back of your neck. And I didn’t see the end coming, pretty rare for me.

And that’s my top five. What’s yours?

Friday Flash Fiction: Clockwork Songs

28 12 2007

This post has moved. You can read the full story here: http://www.neilbeynon.com/fiction/clockwork-songs/

Another experiment, apologies if it’s too obvious or trite:

Clockwork Songs
By Neil Beynon

I went down to the glass river to sit on the lost walls and watch the swollen star melt night’s blanket from the ground. As I looked on a clockwork sparrow spun me a yarn from the song of the world. Sparrows sing the blues best, that tiny creature wrung me out and hung me up to dry in the winter sun.

It sang of the shield maiden Ásmóð falling in the mountain lands of the blind and aged Lord of War. Struck down by the Witch King in his exile. The creature lamented on the land’s grief and rage as the bards went from town to town with the tidings, brother turned on brother, sister on sister, claw on claw. The mountains turned ruby with it and the Witch King rose secure in his mountain fortress.

This post has moved. You can read the full story here: http://www.neilbeynon.com/fiction/clockwork-songs/

Friday Flash Fiction: 2007 Top Five

28 12 2007

There will be a new Friday Flash Fiction (called Clockwork Songs) in the next few hours, probably around 2pm. So stay tuned.

I was looking at my Friday Flash Fiction page today, thumbing through old stories and I realised I’d written over 25 of the buggers. That’s one a week for pretty much half the year. Anyway, in the spirit of end of the year round ups and because I’m a huge fan of High Fidelity, here’s my top five in no particular order:

1. Cliché – My feelings on this one, like the story itself, are bittersweet. On the one hand it got a very good reaction from everyone and, on the other, everytime I reread it the piece just doesn’t sound like me but another writer, even though at its core it’s about an event that happened to me. That most people like it is a bonus really it was just therapy.

2. The Ghost in the Glass – This was the first FFF where I thought it was good, if a little long and people seemed to agree with me. At some point it’ll be turned into something a bit bigger.

3. Dear Sarah – This was a themed week and I wrote two pieces that I couldn’t decide on. Time and the warm response it received leads me to believe this is the stronger piece. Although I still like the other entry.

4. When I was Bad – This one got mixed reactions. I like it because it was the first faerie story I wrote where my test reader went “Wow” and quite frankly I live for that reaction. Sad but true.

5. Because – This entry began with a probably ill-advised rant that may have distracted from the story slightly. I took some characters from another story I wrote and spun them on ten years, I was pleased with the result and the story went down well.

Truthfully I like all of my FFF in some way or I wouldn’t have spent time on them and certainly wouldn’t have shared them with anyone else. It’s been fun. And I’ve met, virtually anyway, some really nice, talented writers along the way:

Shaun C. Green
Gareth D. Jones
Martin McGrath
Dan Pawley
Justin Pickard
Gareth Lyn Powell
Paul Raven

See you in a couple of hours for Clockwork Songs.

The Power of Three

27 12 2007

Boxing Day has its many traditions from passing presents to watching the football.

For many years ours has been to see my mother’s side of the family. Each year, on rotation, we all decamp to whomever has been tagged as host for the year. Aunt J was this year’s hostess and so the Beynon clan descended en masse.

We’re nine with partners, if you throw in my mum’s siblings that takes it to thirteen, sprinkle in their husbands and wives you’ve got seventeen, then add children…you’ll get to twenty-two easily, they’re all grown and so kids partners takes it up a few to twenty-four. My great aunt and uncle put in a show, topping it off at twenty-six.

That’s just fairly immediate family. I wasn’t kidding: I really am related to half of Wales.

There was beer, banter, food, a tremendous trifle, reminiscing and a movie music quiz (G and I were triumphant, not that I’m bragging). It was great.

Anyway, these things are tremendous fun and also a little off the wall. For years my mother led me, in a cunning plan of subterfuge and deception, to believe the chaos was because there were so many children there. Given my mum and siblings between them have nearly enough for a whole football team this seemed a logical explanation.

Not a stretch.

It’s still a mad event and with the youngest of us now seventeen this plausible explanation just doesn’t fly. And I’ve worked out what I suspect my father and uncles knew all the long.

It’s the sisters three: Mum, J and SJ.

The proof is burned in the retina of my mind for all time:

My mother, SJ and J belly dancing across my aunt’s living room foisting turkish delight (the chocolate – get your mind out of the gutter) on anyone who was passing. I would have posted a picture of the spectacle but alas I have been warned, and, quite frankly, I don’t think wearing my genitalia on my ears would really be practical.

Now if you’ll excuse me my therapist is on the other line…

Columbo Villian of the Week: Simon Cowell

26 12 2007

This week’s CVTW is the godfather of TV talent shows, Simon Cowell.

Simon Cowell

Cowell made his bones as an A & R man in the notoriously unpleasant music industry, first at EMI and then later in a strong of his own labels of varying degrees of success. In the nineties he made some serious cash by successfully using other media, noticeably television tie-ins such as wrestling, Teletubbies and Power Rangers to produce hit records.

Maybe that was where the nugget came from. Or perhaps it was his time with Pete Waterman, the man who in the eighties gave us so many soap stars turned singers. Don’t mock him, he gave us Kylie.

Kylie…mmmmm…. sorry went to a quiet place there.

Anyway, Simon has been there on the fringes of popular culture for a lot longer than most people realised when he shot to national fame as a member of the judging panel on Pop Idol. The idea was for an interactive talent show where the final judgement as to who won would be down to the voting public. The winner got signed to Cowell’s label.

Cowell’s cuttingly blunt critiques earned him a reputation as a villain but his success with this type of show (he was the producer on nearly all of these things) meant he also got something of a reputation for the Midas touch. He reportedly (and probably incorrectly) earns more than fifty million pounds a year. That’s over a one hundred million US.

In recent months the tarnishes have started to appear. His show Grease is the Word flopped, rightly suffering by comparison to How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria and the like. There was an embarrassing incident where he fired one of the other judges on X-Factor then had to take them back because the show didn’t work.

And there was that spat with Sharon Osbourne over Dannii Minogue.

Oh yes, the tide may be turning on Mr Cowell, the telephone vote may not be in his favour. I can see it now…

Cowell’s latest project to produce a hit record for The Queen, following on from the success of her TV show Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work, is a disastrous flop. The world is not quite ready for her cover of Hero.

A series of exposes with artists who have worked for him in the past reveals him to be just as tyrannical off-screen as on. The most damning comes from the Teletubbies who have checked into rehab due to drug induced paranoia – they keep hallucinating they’re George Bush. And then it’s revealed his pithy comebacks are actually written by Max Clifford (allegedly).

Simon is on the rocks. Then he makes his big mistake. He fires Sharon Osbourne from the next series of X-Factor. Sharon, already upset that Simon’s favourite this series was Dannii Minogue, is not a woman to scorn and she sets about her vengeance with the speed of a Klingon on smack.

When Simon receives the photos of himself and his signed photo of Danni Minogue in a compromising embrace, allegedly; he knows who sent it. His only real question is how she got into his dressing room.

Simon has been bankrupt before. He can’t do it again. Swift action is required. And so he springs into action. Ostensibly he rehires Sharon Osbourne to X-factor.

Simon’s bought himself time and a setting for the big finish now he just needs a means. Never short of ideas and ever up for the opportunity for a TV tie-in, Simon makes a call to The Priory.

It’s the day of the first auditions. The atmosphere is tense as Sharon and Simon are barely speaking, Danni is wondering why Simon’s asked for yet another laminated signed picture and Walsh is just confused.

The contestants are typically awful and cruelly dispatched by the judge’s wit. The final contestants come in to the room.

“You look awfully familiar,” says Sharon.

What Pinky Winky says is unrepeatable. The ‘Tubbies tea has been spiked and they think they’re on the trading floor, shrieking they leap at the judges.

Simon, hero like throws himself on top of Danni, holding her tight during the ensuing melee. Oddly they don’t go anywhere near him. Sharon and Walsh…well they manage to pick up most of the pieces.

And it’s all on camera.

Simon is home free. He’s a hero. The footage of him selflessly throwing himself on Danni is shown over and over again. X-factor is delayed but re-launches with new judges and a new concept – the losers get thrown to the Teletubbies for food.

All is well with the world.

Except he can’t get that bloody tune “Give the dog a bone” out of his head, at first he thought it was down to him thinking about Danni too much but then he caught that bloody detective whistling it. The one investigating The Tubby Day Massacre as it’s being referred to the world over.

And those cigars, eek! Does he not know what they’re doing to Simon’s youthful good looks and his toupee? Look here he comes again waving a phone bill in his hands.


Merry Christmas

25 12 2007


It’s Christmas morning here in the UK. At least for the next twenty minutes or so.

I’ve already had a glass of champagne and, by way of warm up for eating my own body weight in turkey, smoked salmon and scrambled egg on toast. Oh yes, we do Christmas in style here.

My presents have gone down well. I’m pleased about this as I’d been a lot more organised this year and one or two presents were a gamble as to whether someone else had bought them or not.

I’ve had a remarkably good haul this year; people have been very generous and very thoughtful. Somewhere along the way people got the idea I’m a Neil Gaiman fan, I can’t imagine where 🙂 Thanks to some masterful co-ordination of my family by G I now have a much larger Sandman collection than I had before.

The great thing is my youngest sister has become a huge Gaiman fan in recent months also getting a substantial amount of the Gaiman back catalogue and I get to play the cool older brother who recommends good stuff. There’s not much opportunity for that anymore now all my siblings are pretty much grown up.

Anyway, I’m being antisocial now and really the point of this entry is just to wish all my readers a very Merry [insert festival name here]/Christmas.

And remember a turkey isn’t just for Christmas, there’s Boxing Day too. (Best I could do at this time of day.)

Christmas Trees Cost Lives

24 12 2007

This video made me smile.

I got sent this courtesy of my alumni mailing list. The animator, Ed Hartwell, graduated the year after me, that’s all I really know about him – you can check his site out here.


The right side of the river

23 12 2007

Welsh Flag

I’m back in Wales, back at home, and after four months – four difficult months – it really does feel great to breathe air that doesn’t leave you with snot the colour of slate. To be able to look up at the night sky and see actual stars instead of enough neon to power a small African state.

Yesterday I pretty much kicked back; I worked on a redraft of short story I wrote in Hong Kong and read some Lord Shang. I’m currently recovering from the disappointment that my story, my masterpiece, is not quite as wonderful as I thought it was when I was writing it. But I still like it.

Last night I popped over to see my brother, R. There was beer, banter and a remote control helicopter. G and my sister, E, looked on with amusement as the previously mentioned helicopter was flown into the Christmas tree, TV, sofa, table, pretty much anything. Never let my bro or myself behind the controls of a real aircraft.

Now I’m warming up to tackle a tricky story I drafted a while back that needs some major work before it’s anything like ready to go out. Later I think I’m going to go for a walk. Possibly down to where the masthead photo for this blog was taken (courtesy of my lovely G).

Anyway, it’s the time of year when everyone and their dog is posting top tens rounding up various aspects of the year. I’m no different. Here’s my top ten cool shit about Wales:

1. Coast: There’s no getting away from it: the Thames is simply not a compensation for real coast and, although I moved around an awful lot growing up, I’m most at home by the sea. There’s nothing best than getting on a good road bike (pedal not petrol) and cycling along the cliffs, even in the rain, it’s just the nuts.

2. Air: Once you’ve lived in London you don’t notice how polluted it is, I do like going for a walk and not feeling like I’m smoking twenty Benson and Hedges.

3. Rissoles: For the uninitiated a rissole is a corned beef potato cake wrapped in either batter or breadcrumbs, an acquired tasted. You can’t get them in England. Not in London. Not in Leeds. Not in Bradford. Not in Bristol. Nor Birmingham. Nor Manchester. A real childhood thing: rissole and chips soaked in enough vinegar to make me feel light-headed. Damn I’m hungry.

4. Grass: Now to be fair in London I live on the side of a hill on top of which sits a large park but it’s contained, an artificial thing preserved within the confines of a city. Yes it’s a cliché but I like the fact that from my parents place I can walk into proper countryside, if I want, with horses, sheep and even a cow or two.

5. Mountains: You have to go a long way to even find a decent hill in London; I know how long it took to find the one I live on. For mountains you have no chance. Wales is a nation of mountains, hills and coast. There’s landscape here you can’t get anywhere else.

6. Beer: It’s nice not to have to auction your kidney to buy a pint of beer. It’s nice it doesn’t have to be from a chain pub that was once an old theatre or music hall listening to stockbrokers bragging about who’s got the biggest…deal.

7. Castles: It’s very hard to get blocked in Wales, especially if you write fantasy. If you do you just go for a walk, there’s a legend lurking around every turn. In addition to the features already described there are three castles (albeit in ruins) all within easy reach of my folks place. In fact there’s one just out of shot on the masthead for this blog.

8. Family: They’re all here, especially at this time of the year. Quite frankly it’s great to see them, to chew the fat and take the piss. And my brother’s enthusiasm for this time of year is infectious.

9. I’ll be there now, in a minute: Although there is arguably a strong Taff contingent in London you don’t really here the accent or the idioms that often and so when I do it makes me smile.

10. Home: Wales is home, it’s where I spent the most time growing up, it’s where my folks are, it’s where my brother is, it’s where I met G and it’s where I go when I’ve had enough.

Oh yes. The taffro is on recharge. Be afraid.

Friday Flash Fiction

21 12 2007

This post has moved. You can read it here: http://www.neilbeynon.com/fiction/centre-point/

An experiment this week:

Centre Point
By Neil Beynon

The city of light glows black in the afternoon sun. Coiled snakes run through its passageways and thoroughfares, snip snapping at any strays, grinding over the unseen, the passed out, the forgotten.

Confused, bleeding and lost in the maze, Will wanders. He is clutching paper on which monkey glyphs are scrawled; he cannot read them. Once he had the power but it has been taken from him. So many things stripped from him. He is not even naked, he is like a skeleton picked raw by birds and bleached white by the burning star above. He does not know why.

Will ambles through the hidden paths, secret stairs and high towers until he comes before the sorcerer. Will does not know for what reason he has made this journey to a man even madder than he, if that’s what the sorcerer is.

This post has moved. You can read it here: http://www.neilbeynon.com/fiction/centre-point/