Seven Books in Seven Weeks – Part Five

Seven Books in Seven Weeks – Part Five

 

Seven Books in Seven Weeks – Part Five

… The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser…

 

Introduction

Welcome back to Seven Books in Seven Weeks. Last time, I left you with a taste of epic fantasy, in the form of The Lightstone by David Zindell, so what better way to resume the series than with another epic tale, this one of swashbuckling adventure and derring-do on the high seas?

The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser is a wonderful romp through pirate lore, with a comic turn that has, without a shadow of a doubt, influenced my own writing over the years. First published in 1983, it predates Pirates of the Caribbean by two decades, yet many of the scenes and situations it describes would not be out of place in that particular movie series. I have a copy of the 2003 edition, which incidentally came out around the same time as the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie and I have to say that when it comes to dishonesty, scurrilousness and downright self-serving behaviour then Fraser’s Colonel Tom Blood outshines Captain Jack Sparrow in every respect.

 

Front cover of The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser - Rob Gregory Author

Front cover of The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser. The strange ‘scratch marks’ on the top are due to de-lamination of the protective cover!

 

Storyline

The Pyrates is a novel in three parts, with each part building on the one before. It follows the convoluted adventures of the aforementioned rogue, Colonel Tom Blood (cashiered) and Captain Benjamin Avery, hero of the Royal Navy, as they battle their way around the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean and the Cape of Good Hope, to Madagascar and back again. Along the way, we stop off on remote desert islands, pirate ports and the lair of Don Lardo, the reptilian viceroy of the Spanish stronghold in Cartagena.

The main vehicle for the series of misadventures that befall the heroic Ben Avery and the decidedly anti-heroic Tom Blood, is a crown, fashioned with six great gems, which must be delivered from England to the African King who commissioned it. Of course, when Tom Blood gets to hear of its existence, he wants the crown for himself, as do the six great pirate lords that sail the high seas. I won’t tell you who gets there first, but the shenanigans that follow ensure that both Blood and Avery get tested to their respective limits.

Map of locations in The Pyrates - Rob Gregory Author

From good old Blighty to Cartagena and back again. Which way is Hollywood?

 

Supporting Characters

One of the things that makes The Pyrates such an enjoyable read are the supporting characters. While Ben Avery and Tom Blood are as black and white as you can get, in terms of their principal qualities, the six pirate lords add varying shades of grey to the mix, while Lady Vanity, the Admiral’s daughter and Avery’s sweetheart, is a study in bimboism and snobbishness, who would be equally at home in Sloane Square, a trendy New York cocktail bar or the back seat of a Range Rover.

Without giving too much away as far as the pirates are concerned, we have Calico Jack Rackham, immaculate in dress, less than immaculate in thought and leader of the pirate band by the simple virtue of being literate. Then there is Black Bilbo, an ex-guttersnipe, who is deadly with a rapier and harbours dreams of being a gentleman. Firebeard is a giant of a man, who ties firecrackers in his beard and sings the kind of sea-shanties that would get you kicked out of any self-respecting parish choir, while Black Sheba (the She-Wolf) is an ex-Barbados slave, with a taste for Pierre Cardin and a hatred for men that would rival even the most radical of 1960s feminists. Akbar the Terrible, hawkish, hairy and of the Islamic persuasion, runs a crew of slaves and has a penchant for gold lame trousers, while Happy Dan Pew, is a poor unfortunate, who, after suffering a blow on the head as a child, came to believe that he was a French filibuster, even though he can barely speak a word of the language beyond that in the Collins Primer!

Then there are the minor characters, such as King Charles II, Samuel Pepys and Goliath, the dwarf who accompanies Black Bilbo wherever he goes. All serve to help move the story along and make The Pyrates a far richer tale for their brief presence in the book.

Now, just for a moment, turn your thoughts to the Brethren Court in Pirates of the Caribbean. Comprised of nine pirate lords, rather than six, it is interesting to see a Frenchman (Chevalle), an ex-slave (Joacard), an Englishman with gentlemanly pretensions (Barbossa) and the terror of the Arabian Sea (Sumbahjee) among their midst. It is likely just a coincidence, however, if you have ever read The Pyrates, then it is the sort of thing that does make you raise an eyebrow in curious speculation.

Inside cover of The Pyrates - Rob Gregory Author

Beautiful inside cover illustration for The Pyrates.

 

Humour

George MacDonald Fraser is, to my mind, a master of both humour and the burlesque. Consider the following excerpt from The Pyrates:

She was not tall, but her carriage was that of a fashion model who has been to a Swiss finishing school and knows she has the equipment to stop a battalion of Rugby League players in their tracks with the flick of a false eyelash…

… Captain Avery and Colonel Blood stood together by the rail, drinking her in – one in respectful worship, the other with thoughts of black silk bedclothes and overhead mirrors.

In just a few lines, he captures the characters of both Colonel Blood and Captain Avery, while at the same time giving us a compelling image and insight into the kind of woman that Lady Vanity is.

Another area where Fraser excels, is in mixing up the old and the new. In fact, this is one of the things that I enjoy most about The Pyrates. Fraser takes the Seventeenth Century and liberally peppers it with Twentieth Century references. Purists would undoubtedly hate this molestation of history, but I love it. Consequently, we have references to Gucci, Cartier and Marvel Comics and that is just on one page! For me, this is what makes The Pyrates so special. Not only do we have an excellent historical adventure story, but we get to observe it and laugh from a modern perspective.

Then there is the pure silliness. One of my favourite examples is where Ben Avery renames a pirate ship that he has single-handedly captured. We are not told what his instructions to the pirate signwriter were, but when the name is revealed, he is horrified to read ‘The Glodden Vatiny’ on the rear of the vessel, rather than ‘The Golden Vanity’. I still laugh about that one every time I think about it!

Rear cover for The Pyrates - Rob Gregory Author

Shame about the rather plain rear cover!

 

Historical Accuracy

I mentioned the historical nature of The Pyrates above and this is something else that George MacDonald Fraser excels at, interweaving unique fictional characters and situations into a historically accurate background. Anyone who has read the wonderful Flashman Papers will know what I am talking about. In that series, he took a fictional figure, Harry Flashman, from the book, Tom Brown’s School Days, and placed him into history with a precision that was unnerving.

Cover of Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser - Rob Gregory Author

Flashman, another of my favourites by George MacDonald Fraser.

The same is true of The Pyrates. At the end of the book, Fraser briefly introduces the real-life individuals that inspired some of his characters and I have no doubt in believing that he more than thoroughly researched both the geography and history of seafaring and piracy in the Seventeenth Century, before setting pen to paper or finger to typewriter. As always, it is a case of knowing the rules before you break them and Fraser acknowledges this in the afterword, when he talks about some of the artistic liberties that he took when writing the novel, particularly those involving the time taken to make some of the sea journeys.

Conclusion

The Pyrates, by George MacDonald Fraser, is a fantastic book and one that is worthy of a place on anyone’s bookshelf, unless they have an aversion to pirates or the sea, in which case I would suggest that they leave it well alone.

As with all of the books I have covered so far, The Pyrates impact on me has been enormous. I love mixing up the old and the new in my writing and have probably done this most explicitly with my Fotherington-Tomas series of short stories. Incidentally, I freely admit that I followed Fraser’s lead with Flashman and lifted my protagonist, Fotherington-Tomas, from a pre-existing book by another author. You can check it out here if you are interested. Although some people might think that this is a little cheeky or disrespectful, in my view, I believe it is a way to breathe new life into existing fictional characters and take them in directions that their original authors would never have imagined. Call it a homage, if you will, to the brilliance of the originators that came before. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, is it not?

So, in a Cartier-diamond-encrusted nutshell, thank you George MacDonald Fraser for giving the world The Pyrates. More people these days might be familiar with Pirates of the Caribbean, but you got there first and for my money, did it far, far better!

*****

With only two more books to cover in the series, it is anyone’s guess as to what will pop up next. Pride and Prejudice? A Tale of Two Cities? 2001 – A Space Odyssey? Place your bets here and make sure that you check out the next instalment of Seven Books in Seven Weeks!

Amazing Thailand No 6 – Asian Insects

Amazing Thailand No 6 – Asian Insects

Amazing Thailand No 6 – Asian Insects

… An occasional series…

Welcome back to Amazing Thailand, the land of smiles, although you might be hard pressed to manage a grin if any of these little critters turned up on your plate!

Yes, that’s right. This time, it’s the turn of Asian insects to feature under the Amazing Thailand spotlight.

Thailand is full of weird and wonderful six-legged creatures. Some of them, like Rhinoceros Beetles and the Oleander Hawk-moth are quite impressive, although the latter does do a very good job of destroying my Busy Lizzie plants, during its larval (caterpillar) stage! Others are merely annoying, such as the ubiquitous cockroaches that scurry around the streets at night. And then there are the edible ones…

Not content with having a plethora of the wee, exoskeleton-wearing beasties running around in the jungle, or living under the house, the Thais have gone a step further and invited them into the kitchen or to be more precise, into their cooking pots.

Ugh, you might say, but the insect protein market is big business in Thailand and Asian insects should fear for their fleeting lives, as they are consumed in ever greater numbers each year. In case you don’t believe me, below is a selection of edible Asian insects that are on sale at my local supermarket, all pre-packaged and frozen for your convenience.

Definitely not for the faint-hearted, enjoy them if you dare!

 

Asian insects - Bag of Sa Gu Larvae - Rob Gregory Author

Mmm, a lovely bag of frozen Sa Gu worms for dinner tonight.

 

Asian insects. Close up of Sa Gu Worms - Rob Gregory Author

Just in case you wondered what Sa Gu worms looked like in close up!

 

Asian insects - Frozen Bamboo Caterpillars - Rob Gregory Author

Frozen Bamboo caterpillar anyone?

 

Asian insects - Frozen crickets - Rob Gregory Author

Frozen cricket or frozen house cricket, the choice is yours.

 

Asian insects - Silkworm pupae - Rob Gregory Author

Silkworm pupae. Treat your innards to some silk!

 

Asian insects - Silkworm pupae and frozen house crickets - Rob Gregory Author

Silkworm pupae and house crickets, a perfect combination for any dinner.

 

*****

Stay tuned for more Amazing Thailand soon… hopefully Asian insect free!

Seven Books in Seven Weeks – Part Four

Seven Books in Seven Weeks – Part Four

Seven Books in Seven Weeks – The Lightstone

… Part four of a seven part series…

Welcome back to Seven Books in Seven Weeks. After beginning our journey in the realm of classic children’s fiction and then retreating to the far reaches of the galaxy, with a Vogon Constructor Fleet hot on our heels, we return to Earth with a bump. Well, not Earth in the sense that we know it, but the magical land of Ea, home to Valashu Elahad and the Ea Cycle. Yes, folks, it’s epic fantasy time and where better to begin than with The Lightstone by David Zindell?

Those of you who have read any of the interviews I have given on various blogger and self-publishing sites will know that I hold a special place in my heart for David Zindell and his Ea Cycle. Born in Ohio, in 1952, he began his writing career in the mid-1980s, with several, critically acclaimed, science fiction stories, before moving into the realm of epic fantasy, of which, The Lightstone was his first foray. Critics have praised the depth, skill and complexity of his work and I cannot think of any other author, whose books have had me at the bookstore on their day of release, waiting to get a pristine copy into my grubby little hands, before eschewing the real world, to lose myself in theirs for days on end.

However, my literary love for the man who lives at the end of the bookshelf nearly didn’t happen at all…

Like many of the books in this series of blogs, I was given a copy of The Lightstone by someone else. In this case, it was a good friend of mine, who, many years ago, worked at a university bookshop in the UK. I think that I was reading another great book, The Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb, at the time, when he passed me an early reading copy of The Lightstone, to see what I thought about it. Flattered by his generosity, I went home, put the tome on my ‘To Be Read’ pile and promptly forgot about it!

 

The Lightstone by David Zindell - Rob Gregory Author

Front cover of the UK early reading version of The Lightstone, by David Zindell.

 

It was only later when I had finished with Robin Hobb and was between books that I returned to The Lightstone. Sitting at around one thousand pages, the book was one of the longest that I had ever contemplated reading, but undaunted by the monstrous word count therein, I settled down and turned the first page.

A few pages in and I nearly closed the book for good. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t empathise with the main character. Maybe the fact that The Lightstone was written in the first person was to blame, but Valashu Elahad, a man who would rather play the flute than go hunting, was, to my mind, a simpering, soft-hearted fool, who had no place in the pages of a fantasy novel, which promised war, conflict and bloodshed on a biblical scale. I have to admit that despite Zindell’s own description of Valashu, I was put in mind of Prince Herbert in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who did his best to burst into song at every opportunity! In the end, frustrated and annoyed, I did put the book down and turned my mind to other distractions.

Several months passed before I decided to give The Lightstone another go, and boy, this time, was I glad that I did!

I struggled past my previous sticking point and was rewarded by an assassination attempt in the woods, followed by intrigue, shame and regicide in the Grand Hall, on a scale hitherto unimagined by my impressionable young mind. Before I knew it, I was immersed in Valashu’s epic quest in a way that had never happened to me with other fantasy books that I had read.

Part of what I liked about David Zindell’s writing in The Lightstone was, rather ironically, considering my initial reaction, his characterisations. As the story progressed, so did Valashu and while his sensitivity remained throughout, it was gilded with a hard edge of gritty realism, as he took on the mantle of leadership and led his rag-tag team of adventurers into the jaws of death and back out again, battered, scarred and forever changed by their journey.

 

First page of the early reading copy of The Lightstone by David Zindell - Rob Gregory Author

Most definitely an early reading copy!

 

On the subject of Valshu’s companions, some might see it as cliched, but I loved the physical and behavioural contrasts that Zindell created within the group. From the hedonistic and larger than life, Prince Maram, whose many voracious appetites ruled his heart and his head, to the grizzled monk that was Master Juwain, Kane the warrior, tortured by his past life and, of course, Atara, the warrior princess, who needed to kill one hundred men, in order to be released from her tribal bonds, each provided a perfect counterpoint to the ambitions and foibles of the others as the story progressed.

Talking of clichés, you can’t help but notice the significance of the number seven in The Lightstone and indeed, the entire Ea Cycle. Valashu is the seventh son of the king. He and his companions’ grow to number seven in total, and there are seven magical stones or gelstei, which they discover during their travels, which ultimately make them the most powerful group of warriors in the land and a real threat to Morjin’s plan to enslave the world.

Oh, Morjin! What a wonderful villain! Utterly ruthless and possessed of a twisted, bitter darkness that verges on madness, he is a brilliant character and the perfect opponent for the overly sensitive Valashu. The way that he shapes the truth to his own ends and challenges Valashu’s own view of the world around him, is nothing short of genius. I have no idea where David Zindell conjured him up from, but he did a great job and as a result, the Lord of Lies would be at home in any rogues’ gallery that you cared to name.

And the violence! Few things shock me these days, but the first time that I came across the climactic confrontation between Valshu and Morjin, in Argattha, his mountain stronghold, I was genuinely horrified. I will admit that I am not particularly well versed when it comes to contemporary epic fantasy, so I don’t know how common graphic violence is in these books, but for me, The Lightstone contains one of the most disturbing passages that I have ever read. I won’t spoil it for you here, but if you do ever read The Lightstone, then be prepared for a sleepless night when you reach that point and don’t worry, you will know when you’ve got there, trust me!

 

Song insert for The Lightstone by David Zindell - Rob Gregory Author

“But I don’t want to marry Princess Lucky. I just want to… sing!” Aargh, songs in fantasy books! Why do they do it?

 

If there is one criticism that I have of The Lightstone, then it is the fact that it contains poems and songs. Lots of them! I am not saying that there is anything wrong with the ones that David Zindell came up with or that they are not an effective device to impart important parts of the backstory. It is just that I don’t like to see them in books, period. They set my teeth on edge and make my skin crawl. I guess I must be allergic to them!

In my view, The Lightstone is a wonderful piece of writing and deserves far more exposure than it has received in the years since it was first published. David Eddings and J.R.R. Tolkien were mentioned on the front cover of the early reading copy that I was given, and I would have no doubt in recommending it to anyone who has enjoyed The Lord of the Rings. The other book that it puts me in mind of, is, oddly enough, Parsival, by Richard Monaco. Both works have a strong Arthurian element running through them — a whimsical fool’s quest to recover a golden cup that will heal the world — and it is surely no coincidence that the rear cover of the early reading copy of The Lightstone references Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.

One last aspect of The Lightstone and indeed the complete Ea Cycle that I absolutely adore is the way that, despite being a series, each book is a standalone story in and of itself. I despise cliff hangers and while I couldn’t wait for the next book to come out, at least I wasn’t left wondering what was going to happen to Valashu and his companions for the twelve months or more between each instalment.

 

Rear cover of the UK early reading version of The Lightstone by David Zindell - Rob Gregory Author

Now that is good company to be keeping with your first fantasy novel!

 

I think that you can probably tell that The Lightstone made a huge impact on me, both as a reader and a writer. It introduced me to magnificent world-building and epic storytelling on a par with The Lord of the Rings, and, in some ways, to the idea of having an anti-hero as a lead character. Valashu does end up as a hero but his journey is a difficult one, made no easier by his many flaws. Did he influence my main character, Drin, in Drynwideon – The Sword of Destiny (Yeah, Right)? You’ll have to read it and make your own mind up!

Finally, I have to say that having completed The Lightstone, I was hooked and followed the entire series until its end, after only four books. When I realised that book four was indeed the last and that the journey was coming to an end, I was genuinely upset and that, for me, is the mark of a truly great read! Well done, David Zindell!

 

*****

Right, four down, three more to go. Stay tuned for the next instalment of Seven Books in Seven Weeks and in the meantime, please do have a look at the others in the series and check out the free sample chapters of Drynwideon.

*****

 

Thank You!

 

An Interview with Jon Hillman

An Interview with Jon Hillman

An Interview with Jon Hillman

Hi there! Another month, another interview with an up and coming legend of the world-wide writing community. This time, I have the pleasure of introducing British author, Jon Hillman. If dark fantasy is your thing, then Jon is, most definitely, your man! Jon put a lot of thought into his interview, so rather than have me waffling on about it, let’s get stuck in!

 

So, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you? Where did you spring from? What part of the world do you call home and what is your biggest love/pet hate?

As a writer, I didn’t really spring into existence until the middle of 2013. Sure, I’d been kicking about for 30 years prior to that but I lived in a part of England that is notoriously boring. Flat, dry, dusty. Any given look around that area would give you two colours: brown and blue, dirt and sky.  Eventually, enough was enough and I moved to Scotland. Going from years of a perfectly horizontal horizon to a land of hills and mountains, lochs and forests, stones and secrets was akin to being dunked down in another world entirely. Biggest love? She turned up in 2016 and is now three years old. Pet hate? It’s a controversial one, but it’s the Internet! A veritable rat king of conjoined personalities and opinions that seems to grow ever more dangerous every day!

 

What motivates you to write books?

As mentioned, Scotland broke the dam of ideas in my head and they’ve been rushing forth ever since. Everything I have written about has originated in an experience I have had, but has been heavily twisted in the way of fantasy. If you have read Grim Work you might be wondering “what part of that did you live out?!” All of it, in a manner of speaking.

The problem with me is that one thought leads to another and builds itself up into an entirely new story. I don’t want to sit around with all of that pinging around my mind, so the best way to sort that out is to write it all down! I have to say, gaining readership is generally quite low on the motivation scale. I write what I want to write and I would never want to try and manipulate it into something that could be perceived as more popular. That anybody has read anything I have written has come as something of a shock! That they’ve enjoyed it almost keeled me over.

 

Grim Work by Jon Hillman - Rob Gregory Author

Grim Work by Jon Hillman. What a striking cover!

 

What’s the biggest buzz you’ve had from your writing so far?

One day, at work, I went to speak with a member of another department that I generally have very little to do with. There he was, sat on Amazon purchasing one of my books! I’m sure that the chances of me being behind him at the same time were about as low as that of a lottery win!

 

If you had the choice, what would you prefer to do, publish traditionally or self-publish, and why would that be?

First and foremost, writing is a hobby for me. I enjoy hobbies. I spend as much time as I can doing them, be it writing, or hiking, or photography. Once anything becomes more than a hobby, it starts to lose its shine – even if it is working on something I love. I genuinely want to be able see my writing as a hobby in the future, even if the powers that be deem my work fit to be enjoyed by, dare I say it, thousands!

To me, traditional publishing is work. I don’t want to come home after a hard day’s graft and graft again. Self-publishing feels like the like the hobbyist version of traditional publishing. Self-publishing can definitely bring success (though it generally eludes me), but it also allows me to carry on with my work at my own pace, in my own time, and to work on whatever it is I feel you want to. Self-publishing is relatively low on the stress scale (table of contents creation excepted…) and again, I want my hobbies to be fun.

 

Cold Call by Jon Hillman - Rob Gregory Author

Jon Hillman’s first book, Cold Call.

 

A lot of writing these days, especially with regard to self-publishing, is about marketing. What marketing do you do, if any, and what has worked and failed for you?

Marketing is a tough one! I don’t make much money at all from my writing and any advertising I do work on generally comes when I have dropped my books to the low, low price of zero pence. I am literally paying people to read my stories. Seems perverse, especially given the hours spent on writing the stories themselves!

That said, I have had some degree of success (or at least what I am going call success): my first book, Cold Call, managed to reach number one on Amazon in the free horror e-books on Halloween 2016. My first book! A number one ‘best-seller’. My advertising for that came in the simple form of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram ads. Horror seems to be more widely accepted than dark fantasy, however, and I have not relived such delights since!

 

Have you always aspired to be a writer, or did the idea just spring into your mind later in life?

Now, while I said that I sprang into life in 2013, I mean in terms of actually telling myself I would get a book out there one way or another; I have been writing for as long as I have been able to manipulate a pen nib into making shapes that look vaguely like letters.

At school, I wrote, illustrated, and printed (kids publishing) short books that I became so inspired with that I went above and beyond the teacher’s request of jotting down some ideas of storytelling, turning them into entire short stories of my own. Recently, I embarrassed myself on Twitter with photographs of The Secret Land of Boglins, an absolutely terrible story about my favourite toys. I made a cardboard-bound book based on Escape from Kraznir, and added an additional three acts to Shakespeare’s The Tempest (all in iambic pentameter).

During my time at school and university, I took writing-based decisions where I could. Focused on language and literature at GCSE and A-Level, did a journalism degree. Back then, I had planned to get into videogame writing. I wrote and published (again, printed) a fanzine at University that earned me work on gaming websites and interviews at magazines down in Bournemouth.

That didn’t pan out, and I’m really quite glad it didn’t as I don’t like the internet and that would be where I’d be working full time today if I had continued on with it.

 

The Crystal Keep by Jon Hillman - Rob Gregory Author

The Crystal Keep by Jon Hillman. Another striking cover!

 

What are your top five books/authors of all time and why?

If I go with authors, I can get more books in…

Mervyn Peake. Titus Groan and Gormenghast were hugely inspirational to my way of thinking. The castle-scape that Peake showed us was so rich, even in confinement, that each time I read it I find new things and create richer imaginations of Gormenghast itself. His characters were incredible, all mad, but quite fantastic.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. As a fantasy writer, if I hadn’t read Tolkien what on earth would I be? I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was nine, reading so long and hard into the night that I also experienced my first migraine and temporarily lost the ability to see much of the page on my right! Tolkien’s greatest success for me was the world he created. For years, I wanted nothing more than to simply exist in Middle Earth.

Robert E. Howard. Without Conan, there would be no Marigold. Without Crom, no Greldin. Among my favourite memories of Conan is a time he emerged from a battle with a spirit that cut like knives. We don’t see the fight, but Conan appears wide-eyed and shredded, but alive. That was where Marigold was born. I wanted to take that moment in Howard’s tales and turn it into a series of my own.

Joe Abercrombie. The grim and dark works of Abercrombie are perhaps the most directly inspirational to the writing I do myself. He doesn’t shy away from violence, from language, or from vile scenarios. The sense of reality in his books is practically tangible thanks to this, and I strongly believe that writings of foul misdeeds, violence, and subterfuge is being done incorrectly if it doesn’t include a hefty a dose of words that make folks wince.

Howard Philips Lovecraft. The master of the impossible. Lovecraft brought us stories that frequently left us on the side of the loser. Only The Dunwich Horror seemed to suggest any form of victory for humanity over the cosmic almighties, leaving the score somewhere around 95-1. If you have read any of the books I have written, you may well see a hint of Lovecraft in them; fearful odds and vast powers.

Gareth Hanrahan. Earlier this year, Hanrahan released his first novel, The Gutter Prayer. It is written in an oddly present tense, everything is unfolding alongside you in a way that initially made reading a little uncomfortable, but now seems an almost natural way to write (and now I have to edit that to bring it back in line with how I write). The world on offer here is deep, chewy, and perilous. You wouldn’t want to live here! But, if you have read this fantastic book, you now also have Tallowmen permanently etched into your memory.

Tstutomu Nihei. Nihei is a manga artist who brought out this incredible series called Blame! The story takes place in The City, where construction began on earth by beings called Builders. The City grew and grew and at last count had reached Jupiter’s orbit. Blame! is very much the story of a manga artist. Dialogue is scant, visuals are the main feature here. Grotesque features heavily!

Oh, that was seven authors! Seven is a lot like five, only it is two more. That’s fine, yeah? Looking at these authors, it is clear to see that worlds are what draws me into a story. Guess that’s what I get for spending so long in a county of flat horizons!

[Editor’s Note: Okay, Jon, I will let you have a couple of extras, simply because I am merciful and your selection is so fascinating!]

 

Jon Hillman's world of Traverne - Rob Gregory Author

Map of Traverne, the world where Jon Hillman’s dark fantasy novels are set.

 

Are you a plotter, someone who maps out a story before writing it, or a panster, someone who just writes and sees how it goes? And would you change the way you write, if you could?

When I first began writing with the aim of releasing a book, I pantsed my way into a corner and ended up with some rubbish that couldn’t really go anywhere believable. After that I became the plottiest plotter that ever plotted. I have hundreds of thousands of words of worldbuilding, maps, full notebooks, creature designs, histories, and glossaries. I love plotting and designing, and I’ll readily admit that I can get thoroughly lost within it. I have stories everywhere, and nearly all of them take place in the world of Traverne, which is where Grim Work, The Crystal Keep, and my unpublished behemoth Havelock’s Path take place. I would never want to write any differently to how I do now, unless by some means I can stop time and do more with a single day!

 

If you couldn’t write, what would you do instead?

Scotland is a wild place, and I could happily spend the remainder of my time poking my nose into each and every one of its countless nooks and crannies. I soak up the atmosphere of this place, sit on mountain summits for hours and take it all in, leave the beaten paths and come back riddled with ticks and the threat of Lyme disease several times a month. If I couldn’t write, I know what I would do. I’d also be carrying my camera with me, and in many ways, photography is its own little method of storytelling.

 

Jon Hillman, the author - Rob Gregory Author

Jon Hillman, somewhere in Scotland, I would imagine.

 

What’s the most uncomfortable thing that you’ve had to do as an author?

Hmm, tough one. Does answering this question count? I think I’ve had it easy. I actually enjoy giving myself a challenge and writing something that should make me uncomfortable so I don’t think I can look to my actual writing here.

I’m going to have to go with physically uncomfortable, and that came when trying to write on a train during Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival. Bloody nightmare, and it’s just around the corner again…

 

The Vile Realm by Jon Hillman - Rob Gregory Author

The Vile Realm. Coming soon…

 

Are you working on anything at the moment and if so, when and where can we expect to see it?

I am indeed! The Vile Realm will be the next book I release and will continue the legend (yes, legend) of Marigold the Barbarian. This entry takes place several months after Grim Work, and we find Marigold working through a heavy sense of loss; what is he now that he has nothing? Well, it turns out his run in with another dimension in Grim Work wasn’t quite the end of that story…

Marigold’s stories tend to be quite “small” in their scope. This is a character that finds himself in situations while the world carries on around him. The Vile Realm will open up the world a little bit more, the stakes are higher even if nobody else understands the true scope of the impending disaster.

Fun fact, perhaps: there is a land called Simmermund featured in The Vile Realm, and this area was named simply so that I could call those that hail from it “Simmerians”. I’ve got to thank Robert E. Howard one way or another!

 

Finally, do you have a message for your fans out there and also any sage words of advice for aspiring authors?

I suppose it sounds a bit silly coming from such a small-time author, but simply the confirmation that you should write if you have a story is all I really have to offer. To quote a friend of mine (with a slight twist), it is better to have scribed and lost, than to have never scribed at all.

 

*****

Thank you, Jon, for a fascinating peek into your world. As I mentioned above, if dark fantasy is your kind of thing, then Jon’s books are most definitely worth a look. You can find them all on Amazon and if you would like to connect with Jon, then check him out on Twitter.

*****

As always, thanks for stopping by. I hope that you enjoyed the interview. Another one will be along soon, but in the meantime, why not have a look at some of the others in the list, here.

 

Thank you and happy reading!

 

 

Seven Books in Seven Weeks – Part Three

Seven Books in Seven Weeks – Part Three

Seven Books in Seven Weeks – The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

… Part three of a seven part series…

Welcome once again, to Seven Books in Seven Weeks. This time, we’re all about Hoopy Froods, Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters, Vogon poetry and a man with the same name as a car. So, hold on tight, grab yourself a pint of beer — because you’re going to need it — and whatever you do, don’t forget your towel!

I was too young to remember the original radio plays, which made up Douglas Adams’, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and probably wouldn’t have liked them anyway, because I would have been four years old at the time. I do however, recall watching repeats of the subsequent television series, during the mid-1980s and being amazed, not so much by the storyline, but by the eponymous book of the title, which contained everything that a young boy could ever want to know about the world beyond our own and did so in a very amusing way. I think, at the time, I would have been quite happy if the programme had simply been a reading of ‘The Guide’, from A to Z, but then I was a strange child and always have been.

Incidentally, I later found out that the text and graphics used to animate the book’s entries on the television programme, were produced by hand painting the content, then covering it with a piece of black cardboard, which was drawn back, one character at a time, by the poor special effects’ technician and photographed with a rostrum camera. When all of the images were put together, the result was a series of smoothly appearing visuals and text, which looked exactly the same as if someone had typed them on a keyboard!

 

Babel fish still shot from The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Rob Gregory Author

Still shot of the Babel fish animation from the 1981 BBC television series. All of the text was revealed one character at a time.

 

Anyway, enough about radio and television, this is supposed to be a blog about books! Sometime after first seeing the television series (sorry, that’s the last time I will mention it), I got my hands on a copy of the book from the local library and then, in the mid-1990s, bought a copy of the five-part trilogy, which contained the story in its entirety*. However, it is the first two books in the series that I want to focus on today: The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, because that is what pretty much made up the television series (Aargh! Not again!).

The story focuses around Arthur Dent, who, in a very short space of time, one Thursday lunchtime, to be precise, loses his house and then the entire planet — when the Earth is demolished to make room for a hyperspace bypass — before finding out that his best friend is an alien researcher for amazing, electronic publication called, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His subsequent adventures take him through space (and time), in a madcap journey involving, among other things: a spaceship with an Improbability Drive, super-intelligent mice, a whale and a bowl of petunias, aliens who make a living by building planets, a robot that suffers from chronic depression, and the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, which in case you didn’t already know, is forty-two.

 

Front cover of the 1995 hardback edition of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Rob Gregory Author

Front cover of the 1995 hardback edition of Douglas Adam’s, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

 

One of the things that has always amazed me about the book, is the sheer amount of stuff in it. I’d be lying if I said that every page is packed with witty asides and observations, but it often feels like it and almost all of them would be worthy of further exploration. Take, for example, Mr Prosser, the council official tasked with overseeing the demolition of Arthur’s house. A direct descendant of Genghis Kahn, he wonders why an army of unidentified horsemen laugh at him within his head, whenever he feels miserable or hard done by. Prosser is only in the book for a matter of a few pages and is then discarded, having done his job in both the literary and physical sense, with all of his unique and fascinating foibles left unexplored.

Another thing I love about The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is how it works on so many different levels. I have no idea if Douglas Adams intended this when he was writing the radio plays or novelisations, but for me, it is one of the things that keeps me coming back time and time again. Taken at face value, the book is a relatively straightforward comedy story, involving the misadventures of the last human being** in the galaxy. But look a little deeper and there is a tale of a man who has lost everything and is struggling to come to terms with his place in a bewildering new environment, where he is closer to the bottom of the food chain than the top. Then, peel back another layer and you have a metaphor for the chaos and futility of life in general.

Poor old Arthur Dent. Not only is he a veritable Babel fish out of water, but he also comes to realise that it doesn’t matter what he does, the universe is more messed up than he ever imagined, so the best thing he can do is just go along with it. In, fact, it would probably have been a lot simpler for him, if he had stayed in bed on that fateful morning, all those years ago!

 

Rear cover of the 1995 hardback edition of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Rob Gregory Author

Rear cover of the 1995 hardback edition of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I wish that I could write blurbs like this!

 

I was going to have a bit of a dig at some of the names in the book, which I don’t feel have stood up to the test of time, but on closer inspection, it is pretty much only the Arcturan Mega Donkey, the Kill-O-Zap guns and occasional mention of Maximegalon, that make me cringe, which isn’t bad when you consider how many other unique names Douglas Adams came up with, including the wonderful Slartibartfast and Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz.

 

DVD cover of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Rob Gregory Author

BBC DVD (collector’s edition) of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Did I mention that I was a bit of a fan?

 

On a more positive note, the impact of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on me has been enormous. It has influenced the way that I think about the world and also the way that I write about it. It has even made an impact on my sense of humour, by introducing me to a wonderful sense of the absurd and ridiculous that I never knew existed. Just think about the idea that the Earth was constructed as a massive, organic computer, which was destroyed in a bureaucratic cock-up a mere five minutes before its ten-million-year programme was due to end. That and the fact that the fjords of Norway were designed by the aforementioned Slartibartfast, who carved his likeness and name into them, not to mention that the ultimate question to life, the universe and everything, does not marry up with the answer… or does it? All of it, sheer brilliance and utter madness.

So, thank you, Douglas Adams. You may have destroyed the Earth, but you gave us a wonderful galaxy in return!

 

Footnotes:

* There has since, been a sixth book in the series, written by Eoin Colfer, but I don’t have a copy of that… yet.

** If you’ve read the book, then you’ll know that Arthur Dent is not actually the last human in the galaxy, but for the purposes of dramatic licence, please bear with me.

 

If you enjoyed this blog, then please share it with your friends and why not check out my other blogs and books?

 

SO LONG, AND THANKS FOR ALL THE FISH!

Angkor What? Discovery leaves experts baffled

Angkor What? Discovery leaves experts baffled

New discovery leaves archaeologists baffled

… You heard it here first…

CAMBODIA: Archaeologists exploring a recently unearthed section of the massive temple complex, known as Angkor Wat, have been left scratching their heads, by the discovery of what appears to be a ‘Made in Italy’ sign, found in a subterranean cellar, deep below the main gallery.

The sign, discovered by head dirt scraper, Enzo Spaghetti, during a NABISCO sponsored rummage through the sacred remains of other peoples’ cultures, has upset locals and caused many of the world’s other professional Indiana Jones impersonators, to label the find as fake, or a cheap publicity stunt, designed to put Spaghetti’s ailing career back on the map.

However, Spaghetti, who has previously courted controversy with finds including, a ‘CE’ mark at on a rock at Stonehenge and a Cadbury’s logo carved into the statues on Easter Egg Island, remains firm on the matter, claiming that his discovery is indeed genuine and that once and for all, the myth that the 162-hectare monument was built overnight by a divine architect of Asian descent, has been debunked.

 

Stonehenge at dawn - Rob Gregory Author

Stonehenge. Here be druids… and a CE mark, if you look closely.

 

“I am as surprised as you are…” said Spaghetti, speaking in an exclusive interview with our border-hopping Asian Correspondent, Arjan Falangies-Hoojenflicker, who was wearing khaki, satin, cargo shorts, a battered Fedora and a bull-whip for the historic meeting.

“… But to me, it is indisputable. Angkor Wat was built by the Romans and this twelfth-century design and construction tale that everyone believes, is nonsense. It is nothing more than a smokescreen to prevent the real architects of the monument, us poor Italians, from claiming all the glory. I mean, look at the columns, not to mention the very design of the massive towers outside. You would have to be crazy not to see the similarities with classical Roman architecture. It is as plain as the nose on my face, which is also Roman, by the way.”

The ‘Made in Italy’ sign, which Spaghetti allegedly found scratched into the wall of the temple, just above floor level, has an amateur look about it and lacks the feel of antiquity of the surrounding décor, a point which critics have been quick to jump on.

 

Tower at Angkor Wat in Cambodia - Rob Gregory Author

Tower at Angkor Wat. Of Roman design, if you believe Enzo Spaghetti, that is.

 

Speaking on behalf of the Archaeological Research Society of Europe (ARSE), Doctor Hibiscus Flange of Oxbridge University, said: “It is obvious to us that the fellow has scratched the writing onto the wall himself, in what has to be one of the greatest acts of archaeological vandalism in living memory. If he was a complete ARSE member, then we would excrete him from the society without delay. Unfortunately, he isn’t, so we can’t.”

When questioned about the authenticity of the find, Spaghetti was quick to defend his claim: “Of course, the writing is a bit wobbly and looks scratched into the stone. That’s because it was! The Romans didn’t have the luxury of modern technology and it is amazing that they managed to build something as magnificent as this with the basic tools that they had. It probably took some poor Centurion over a week to etch those words into the stone, using nothing more than his bare hands and the fingernails of several dozen of his slaves.”

 

Statues on Easter Island - Rob Gregory Author

Statues on Easter Egg Island. According to Enzo Spaghetti, Cadbury got there first!

 

However, despite Spaghetti’s compelling arguments, the one question on everyone’s lips and the one question that Spaghetti himself cannot answer, without looking guilty, is: If the sign is genuine, then why is it written in English and not Latin?

After the official interview, our reporter was approached by Spaghetti’s personal chef, a moustached man of Italian-American descent, called Hocks, who is believed to be an associate of the famous Vietnam war leader, Colonel Klutz. Hocks had this to say about his boss: “This Spaghetti guy – he’s wacko, man. He’s worse than crazy. He’s evil. I mean… it’s Pagan idolatry around here. Look around you!”

So, there you have it. Rumour and speculation about the true origins of Angkor Wat continue to abound this evening, but as far as one man is concerned, it is not even worth boiling a sausage for!

*****

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