Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien | Vulpes Libris

Tolkien’s illustration for the original dust jacket of “The Hobbit” (1937).

Hi there.

Just got back from Oxford, where I went to visit the Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition at the Weston Library.

This is a must for fans of Tolkien’s work, and as it’s free (though it’s a good idea to book in advance) and runs until the 28th October, I strongly advise you to visit if you can. The exhibition collects together some of Tolkien’s art, including some stunning watercolours and pen-and-ink illustrations, some of which were used by his publishers for the dust jackets of early editions of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”, plus pages of notes, personal letters, and some mail he received from famous fans including Iris Murdoch, Lynda Johnson (sent on White House headed notepaper), and a young Terry Pratchett. There are also items from Tolkien’s study, including his chair and writing desk, and some of his pipes, and a couple of interactive maps, through which you can trace the journeys of his characters across Middle Earth.

It was a real thrill to see all of these things, gasping at the extraordinary detail of Tolkien’s invented world (I highly recommend this article by Rowan Williams on this), and, though the exhibition space is quite compact, they fit a lot in (my ticket told me I only had half an hour to look round, but despite it still being the summer holidays it wasn’t unbearably busy, and no one told me off for spending the better part of an hour there). There is a lavish book accompanying the exhibition, though like me you may find the price tag of 40 quid a little steep! But the Library bookshop has a large selection of works by Tolkien, as does the nearby Blackwell’s bookshop.

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Writing is Thinking

Hi there.

Hope all’s well with you all.

So, I’m currently working on the third – and probably final – book in the Glenaster Chronicles series, and, after much hammering away at it, and tearing out what’s left of my hair, I think the story is now taking shape as I would want it to, and moving towards a conclusion which will hopefully be both exciting and satisfying for readers of the earlier books.

The writing process is such a delicate thing that it can often seem like the slightest breath of wind could blow it all away, and once I’ve finished I can never quite remember how I got there, almost as if my mind just wants to wipe away the memory of the effort involved. You write, you rewrite, you edit, you move this bit here and that bit there, you delete an entire section, you write a new one, you restore a bit you’d earlier deleted (which is why you should never completely delete anything you write, and always keep copies of all your drafts), you decide to give up and have a cup of tea…

I believe it was Toni Morrison who said (and I can’t find the exact quote online, so forgive me if it’s not quite right, or if I’ve misattributed it) that readers “shouldn’t see the join, shouldn’t see the sweat” when they read a novel, and this is one of my favourite observations of the writing process – however difficult it is, when it’s done the reader should be able to just enjoy reading it without worrying about the process of its creation. Or, to put it in cruder terms, with novels, as with sausages, it’s best if you don’t know what went into making them! But it’s always good advice to do a bit of writing each day, even it’s only five minutes, to be disciplined about how and when you write, even if you hate what you’re writing at that particular moment, and to remember another one of Morrison’s observations – that “writing is thinking”.

“The Witch of Glenaster” Smashwords giveaway

THE WITCH OF GLENASTER COMPLETE

Hi there.

Just to let you know that “The Witch of Glenaster”, the first book in my Glenaster Chronicles series, is currently available for FREE (till the end of July) over at Smashwords. Its sequel, “The Widow’s Thorn”, is likewise available at half-price for the rest of the month.

Happy reading!

Adam Roberts on fantasy and violence

Hello again.

Apologies for not posting on here in a while, but there have been a few things going on in my personal life which have occupied all my time and attention, and I have not been able to give much consideration to anything else. Anyway, I hope to be posting again with greater frequency from now on, and wanted to start back by pointing you in the direction of this post from Adam Roberts, Some Thoughts on Fantasy and Violence, which is very long but well worth your time, as he expresses some real doubts about the current trend towards sadistic violence in fantasy, and how this is feeding into (or fed by) a political / social context which is increasingly polarised and lacking in empathy. It’s one of the best essays I’ve yet read on the fantasy genre, and certainly gave me some food for thought.

As always, thanks for reading.

Companion Dogs as Seers, Healers, and Fairy Steeds — Mimi Matthews

When considering dog folklore, we generally think of those stories which feature the Grimm, the Gytrash, or other sinister black dogs roaming the moors in the North of England. But there is more to canine folklore than the ominous black dogs of legend. Companion dogs, such as pugs and corgis, have their place in dog…

via Companion Dogs as Seers, Healers, and Fairy Steeds — Mimi Matthews

Super Relaxed Fantasy Club

Hello again.

Last night I went along to the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club, which meets every month at various locations, but yesterday was at the quite extraordinarily posh offices of Hachette UK in central London, right up on the sixth floor, where their meeting room gives onto a spectacular view of the London skyline.

Three authors currently making waves in SFF read from their debut novels – Anna Stephens with Godblind, Alexandra Christo and To Kill a Kingdom, and Nick Clark Windo with The Feed.

All three authors fought valiantly against the room’s aircon unit to read from their work, and to talk engagingly and informatively about how they came to write their novels, and of their struggle to be published (in Anna Stephens’s case, it took 13 years from writing the first draft to publication). Nick Clark Windo’s book has just been picked up by Amazon for adaptation into a TV series, and all three books – very different in theme and scope, and a reminder of how broad a genre SFF can be – have gone on to my Want to Read list.

There is a (very reasonable) entrance fee for the meetings, and as you get an evening of readings and talk from some of the most prominent SFF writers around, plus a free book (I picked up No Present Like Time by Steph Swainston), it seems like a bargain to me. Well worth popping along if you enjoy fantasy and live in or near London.

“Annihilation” review

 

There has been a lot of chatter about Alex Garland’s new film, Annihilation, and much of it has been asking why, outside of the United States and China, it has not received a theatrical release (it premiered in the rest of the world on Netflix on March 12th).

In my opinion, though I think the film has flaws, it was certainly deserving of being seen on big screens worldwide, and it’s a great shame that hasn’t happened (apparently it’s due to differences between Paramount Pictures and the film’s producer, Scott Rudin). Nevertheless, for those of us who subscribe to Netflix and have had a chance to see the movie, it’s a fascinating and beautifully made science fiction film that treads a well-worn path in terms of both tone and subject matter, but does so with some style.

Warning: spoilers.

It tells the story of biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) suddenly reappears after going missing a year before, on a top secret mission. He’s acting strangely on his return, and when he becomes violently ill Lena calls an ambulance; but on the way to the hospital she and her husband are intercepted by shadowy government agents who take them to the top secret research facility known as “Area X”, whose psychologist, Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), explains to Lena that Kane was part of an expedition into the nearby “Shimmer”, a strange force-field somewhere on the coast of North America, whose centre is an old abandoned lighthouse. Little is known about the Shimmer except that none of the people so far sent in have come out – with the exception of Kane. Oh, and it’s growing…

So, racked with guilt about her husband as he lies in intensive care, Lena decides to join an all-female team of scientists led by Dr Ventress to explore the Shimmer, and find out what’s happening inside.

This is an intriguing premise for a story, no doubt, though the pedant in me couldn’t help but question the lack of common sense the characters display – why, when the Shimmer has been growing for three years, and countless teams have disappeared inside, would you send yet another team of researchers into it? Wouldn’t they use drones or something? And if you’re going to send people, at least put them in hazmat suits, right? Honestly, anyone would think these folks have never seen Eddie Izzard’s routine about the forest of death and blood:

The Shimmer certainly looks beautiful (location shooting was in Windsor and Norfolk), and the vegetation and bizarre animals (a result of the Shimmer’s strange mutating effects) are a credit to production designer Mark Digby and his team. The human/bear hybrid was especially disturbing (and surely owes a debt to the alzabo, a bear-like creature who speaks in the voice of its victims in Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun”), and there is a scene involving human intestines which is not for the squeamish. As the team get closer and closer to the lighthouse, they become increasingly unhinged, and the final confrontation between Lena and the alien presence there is an extraordinary, bravura sequence which reminded me of Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”.

Like that film, “Annihilation” is apparently only loosely based on its source novel (by Jeff VanderMeer), and made me curious to know how and why Garland has deviated from the original story. In sci-fi movies, the theme of human beings being physically and/or psychically altered by encounters with extra-terrestrial life goes back at least as far as The Quatermass XperimentThe Thing from Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and on through Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Ridley Scott’s Alien, the work of David Cronenberg, and the recent Netflix adaptation of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse novels:

So Annihilation isn’t doing anything spectacularly original in that sense. But its predominantly female cast (Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny & Tessa Thompson play the other three scientists assigned to Ventress’s team) , and unsympathetic heroine (Portman’s character has been having an affair, and it is implied that this may have pushed her husband to embark on such a dangerous mission) are major plus points for a Hollywood blockbuster (at one point Kane tells Lena, before he leaves, that at least they will be in the same hemisphere, and so when he’s gone she can “look up and see the same stars”, and she angrily retorts that she has better things to do in his absence than just stare at the stars), and thus, disappointingly, may also have contributed to Paramount’s getting cold feet about an international release (see Helen Lewis’s detailed discussion of this in the New Statesman).

But though it boasts a superb cast and creative team, and I wanted very much to like it, I fear the film left me a little cold in the end. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s not a romcom, after all – but I felt that its precarious balancing act between the commercial imperative to deliver an exciting slice of commercial cinema, and its makers’ desire to reach for Some Deeper Meaning, never fully resolved itself. That said, we need science fiction and fantasy that has ambitions beyond simple audience titillation, and for that I salute this film, and heartily recommend that you see it if you can.

 

Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.