Sunday, 26 October 2014

I've Earned A Break

So, where are we?  Late October?  Only I'm writing this a few days earlier, because I'm about to go on holiday (off hiking in the Lake District, to be precise), and since I have no intention of doing anything that might be considered as work next week, and also since I want to go away feeling happy and maybe a little good about myself, here's a post about where all of my ongoing novel projects are currently at.

By way of context, I should mention how I have a bad habit of setting myself crazy targets and then sticking to them, even when there's a chance that doing so might kill me and possibly others in my vicinity.  This is something I'm working on; in the shorter term, I did worry that trying to finish drafts of three novels plus all the other things I had planned for my first year of writing full time might be a bit on the insane side.  As such, if there's one fact I'm glad for right now it's that not only am I on target, it hasn't proven apoplexy-inducingly difficult to stay there.  Nor, for that matter, has it been anything like easy.  Which I seem to remember from some government-mandated training course I did once is pretty much the ideal for targets.

Now I'm cheating a little, because once I get back (which, I guess, is when I'm posting this), there'll still be another week for things to go hideously wrong in; but assuming that doesn't happen, here's where all of my current projects should be by the end of this month:
  • To End All Wars, the World War One-set Science-fiction novel I began at the start of the year, will be half way through its second draft.  And it feels like it's coming together nicely.  Given that my biggest issue with the first draft was its wordiness, it's satisfying to be going at the thing with a bone saw.  That first draft was a little over 103'000 words; I'm confident it will end up somewhere around ten thousand words shorter than that.  Whatever happens, I'm liking it a lot, and I'm still comfortable with saying it's the best novel I'm written so far.  Although that may change at any time, because...
  • Degenerates, the book that began as a rewrite of 2010's difficult second novel War For Funland and has since turned into a whole new, vastly more interesting thing with the skeleton of War For Funland wriggling beneath its muscles, will be finished in first draft.  I'm way too engaged with it right now to be sure what I think of it, except to say that there was never a point where I felt that War For Funland was entirely a success and there's never been a point where I've felt Degenerates was a failure.  I find myself falling back on that word, interesting; and I keep realizing that at this stage I'm absolutely okay with it being that.  I know that in the next draft I'm going to have to hammer this crazy monstrosity into some sort of shape, but right now, interesting is an adjective I'm comfortable with.
  • Then lastly there's The Bad Neighbour, my first stab at writing a crime novel, which will be past its mid-point and well on the way to an end-of-year finish.  Okay, this is the one thing about which I was maybe lying slightly above: as much as I'm on target (and indeed a fair bit ahead), it's looking like the target itself may be off; something that's been causing me a degree of panic since a) I'm pretty clearly obsessed with targets and b) this should not be a long novel.  It's supposed to be a book that jumps out and kicks you in the throat and then runs the hell away, and if it breaks 100'000 words I'm not sure it's going to be that book.  Still, that aside, I'm plenty happy with it.  It's not a bit like anything I've written, and since a large part of why I chose to write it was to see how far I could get out of my comfort zone before I burst into flames, that makes me feel like at least I'm achieving what I set out to.
All of which means there's a solid chance that I will in fact finish three first drafts this year, just like I planned - and perhaps more importantly, that I'll be happy with all three once they're done.  Giving up my livelihood to write full time has been one hell of an experiment, and one that still scares me a little every day.  Until I've got some books ready to sell I've no sure way to judge whether it has a chance of being a long-term success, and in the meantime my only measure is whether I can do the amount and quality of work I feel I should be doing to make a living as a writer.  So it's great to be able to say that right now, by those terms, I'm winning.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Film Ramble: Dragon Hunters

Sometimes it's hard to keep from being defensive in these Film Ramble articles.  For anyone who knows me will know that sometimes I get terribly enthusiastic about movies that are not, by any objective definition, entirely what most other people would call good.
Because try finding a high def version in English.

So here, to give you some idea of whether you might conceivably agree with anything I say about Dragon Hunters - a film that, my god, I adore in a way I know can't be entirely reasonable - are some opening assumptions:

I like animation.  When it's great, it's fair to say that I love animation.  I like Western animation and anime about equally.  I'm happy to watch kids' films so long as they're not awful, joyless, carelessly-made kids' films.  I'm okay with the French sense of humour, unique as it can sometimes be.  And I'd sooner have style than content, but if there's enough style I can get awfully distracted by it.

And Dragon Hunters, by the standards of what it is - a just-about-feature length, CG-animated, French Fantasy movie aimed quite squarely at kids - has no shortage of style.  It is, in fact, all sorts of stylish.  It's also, in places, quite brazenly and stupefyingly beautiful.  Judged solely on its most beautiful scenes and images, I would say that it's the single most beautiful CG-animated film I've seen.  And I've seen most of them.  Is it more beautiful that the opening third of WALL-E?  More beautiful than that sequence in Monsters University where they enter the real world?  More beautiful than the frequently-beautiful Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs?  Yes, yes and yes, at least at its very best.  And if you're at all interested in animation, let alone computer-generated animation, that alone should be reason enough to take a look.

Now imagine that everything is moving.
 Unfortunately it's impossible to convey any of this in a still image - because at its best, Dragon Hunters doesn't only present astonishing scenes but moves its characters through them in genuinely imaginative, interesting ways.  Then again, it's a film that does almost everything in interesting ways, even when what it's doing isn't inherently all that interesting.   Its characters are archetypal on the surface, full of charming wrinkles in practice, and the character designs are gloriously eccentric, perhaps all the more so for having apparently each wandered in from different movies.  Its plot is straightforward - dragon about to end the world, mismatched cast thrust together to save the day - and yet its details are everything but.  Because that world that needs saving?  That would be a vast archipelago of islands and planetoids each with their own gravity, and man-made structures drawn from every place and era of human culture, all in a constant but steady process of disintegration.  Its action sequences are ingenuous and joyfully silly and, like the animation in general, preoccupied by doing interesting things with space and movement and in playing with the medium itself, in a way that so few films are.

Oh, right, and there's this kind of blue rabbity dog creature that pees fire.  For absolutely no damn discernible reason.  And it has a character called Sir Lensflare. Whose introduction just happened to the point where I went from puzzled affection to outright adoration.

Now, even as someone who clearly adores it, I'd admit without a thought that Dragon Hunters is a long way from perfect - and even perhaps falls shy of being the most perfect version of the film it might have been.  It flirts so heavily with elements of cliche that there are some who are bound to simply see it as cliched, and it only works even slightly if you surrender in the first few minutes to its internal logic - or rather, lack thereof.  There's something faintly but insistently wrong-feeling about the translation from French to English, which leaves characters speaking too quickly and far too much, and that French humour, which bounces fairly evenly between childishness and being downright weird, doesn't always translate well. Of its three central characters, two have the potential to be hugely irritating, and at points are clearly meant to be hugely irritating, and that's an awfully big gamble for any movie, let alone an animated kids' film.

Still.  It is beautiful - often astonishingly so - and it's almost bloated with interesting design choices, and silly and good-hearted and frequently, gloriously strange.  And if you're in tune with, let's say three out of five of the assumptions I set out above, I think there's a fair chance that you'll have fun with Dragon Hunters

Monday, 13 October 2014

Why I Joined Authors United

I guess "because I was asked" isn't an answer?

It's true though; or a part of the truth, anyway.   On July 3rd this year I got an e-mail via the SFWA, drawing my attention to an ongoing dispute between retail leviathan Amazon and publishing giant Hachette.  As the e-mail pointed it, such disputes are far from unusual; what was different in this instance was that Amazon had chosen to penalize Hachette by boycotting their products, which in this case meant books, which in turn meant boycotting the works of a considerable number of writers who were little more than innocent bystanders to the conflict.  In response, author Douglas Preston was intending to post an open letter of protest, and was looking for other authors who'd be willing to put their name to it.  Having read through what he'd said and done a little digging, I decided it was something I wanted to be a part of.

I guess my reasoning came down to two things.  Firstly, as a consumer more than as an author, I've been growing increasingly fed up with Amazon.  Some of the reasons are relatively minor: I got fed up with them when I took up their Prime trial offer and had a series of lousy experiences with unscrupulous couriers trying to meet unattainable targets.  I've been fed up with them since they took over Lovefilm, my movie-providing life blood, and ran it into the ground in ways that seem intended to push users to buy more stuff on Amazon.  Then again, some of the reasons have been more serious: I got deeply fed up with them when I saw that, during a period of brutal economic cutbacks, they continue to pursue a policy of what looks a lot like deliberate and calculated tax avoidance.  In short, my consumer relationship with Amazon had been suffering a death by a thousand cuts, until I'd come to view it as a company that liked to throw its weight around in ways I felt I was unwilling to support.

Despite all that, though, I think it was the second thing that clinched my decision.  Because the second thing is that I don't like seeing authors get a raw deal; and often, too, I get tired of the lack of cohesion in a field that could desperately use some.  Authors United, as it would come to be known, looked like a valid attempt to draw writers together in a meaningful cause, and that alone was enough to peak my interest.  In a sense it didn't matter that it wasn't a cause that directly affected me, or many of those being asked to involve themselves.  In a sense, that was the entire point.

Now here we are in October, the Amazon / Hachette feud is still a thing - and so is Authors United.  And despite being offered numerous opportunities to retract my signature, I'm still a member.  Will I see it through to the end?  Who knows?  And at this point, who can begin to guess what the end will mean?  At any rate, while there have been some points in their communications that could certainly have been phrased a whole hell of a lot better, I still feel like AU is doing more good than harm.  And if my presence and the presence of writers like me is useful for one thing, it may at least puncture the absurd myth propagated in some quarters that the group consists of nothing but high-earning, A-list authors - for I am clearly neither of those things.

Which I suppose is the reason for this post.  Because by the same measure, a lot of people (and notably, Amazon themselves) seem intent on turning the Hachette / Amazon situation into an argument between old-style publishing and Amazon's brave new world, or between print and e-books, or between outmoded traditionalists and self-publishing revolutionaries.  And there's no doubt it shades into all of those topics; it touches on a whole host of things, and the fallout of this dispute will undoubtedly have vast repercussions for the publishing industry and perhaps for consumerism in general.  But for me, what's at stake here is that Amazon is callously attacking the livelihoods of my industry colleagues so that it can plow more money into its already heaving coffers, and asides from finding that a disagreeable prospect, I have no dog in this fight.  I've little loyalty to traditional publishing or to print as a medium, and certainly none whatsoever to Hachette.  All this is to me is two companies throwing authors into the firing line - and while Hachette are surely not blameless on that front, Amazon have been the main culprit at every turn. 

Also ... they purposely misquoted George Orwell to suit their corporate agenda, in what would appear to have been an entirely unironic fashion.  And frankly, if it weren't for all the other reasons together, that one alone would have done it.  For wasn't it Orwell himself who said, "those who misquote 1984 are condemned to repeat it"?*

* No, it wasn't.  But I'm pretty sure Orwell said something about "those who misquote that quote about forgetting history are condemned to, um, something something something bad." **

** No.  Wait.  I made that up too.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Now With Added Art

A grumpy turtle.
It's fair to say I've wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, but that doesn't mean it's always been the only - or indeed the main - thing that I wanted to do with my life.  In my teens, if you'd asked me then I would have mentioned writing definitely, but I'd have probably talked more about wanting to be an artist.  For that was my dream when I was growing up, and if it hadn't been for our glorious educational system - whereby, thanks to some bafflingly half-assed non-teaching, my strongest subject managed to be the only one I failed - it's probably what I'd be doing now.

Still, I'm not bitter.  Well, I am a bit, I failed goddamn GCSE Art because my school couldn't provide a teacher and it affected the entire trajectory of my future, but I'm not that bitter.  Because I love being a writer, and if you asked me to choose between the two - which I guess life sort of did - then I'd choose writing hands down.  However what would have been really neat would have been not to have to choose, and it soon became apparent that that wasn't a realistic possibility.  For the last few years, writing has been a full-time hobby performed around full-time jobs, and it barely left room for things like eating and sleeping, let alone picking up my art again.

A creepy child and creepy standing stones.
But I was always determined that I would.  In fact, looking back, that it was one of the many reasons I was so desperate to get to this point of writing full time: with writing a job rather than a sideline I could go back to being able to have actual hobbies, I could pick up art where I'd left off, and maybe in the long term I could see what might have been.

Only when the time came it was kind of scary ... because what if I'd lost whatever bit of talent I'd had?  I literally hadn't done more than doodle in ten years, and though people would occasionally point out that those doodles were quite nice, my own feeling was that I was struggling to draw a straight line, let alone anything that actually looked like anything.  Obviously then, the logical thing to do was to start with something really difficult.  Like a turtle, say.  Like the one up in the top right.   But, while it took me about two whole months, it did work out better than I'd dared hope.  And since then I've had a picture on the go pretty much constantly; it's staying as a hobby because, hey, that was pretty much the whole point, but it's been one I'm getting an awful lot out of.

Anyway, my existing impetus got a healthy push when I got talking to Mhairi Simpson at Fantasycon and was forced into playing her work-in-progress storytelling card game Be the Bard, despite my protests that telling stories is my day job and I was supposed to be on a break from all that, and also that I was pretty damn drunk.  And lo and behold, it was rather fun - but mainly I got distracted by the cards and the pictures on the cards and the possibility of getting to draw some of those pictures and how fun that would be.  And then I bugged Mhairi to let me do just that, which it turned out she was okay with, enough so that she promptly set me a few to work on ... like that scene with the standing stones up there.  I'm up to four designs right now, and it's great having someone actually asking me to draw things, so that I'd don't just stick with what I know or feel comfortable with.  (Which, by the way, also explains the unicorn.)
A penguin.  No, wait!  A bad-ass unicorn.

Now normally the blog is about writing and this post hasn't been at all, but there are some writing points to be made here, so let's finish up with those.  Or I could just point you to a recent blog post by Andrew Knighton, which says most of what I'd want to say.  But the gist is this: writing, if you put aside the manual dexterity required to hit keys / manipulate a pen / burn words onto a page with only the searing power of your mutant brain, is basically head work, and you can live in your head too much.  Every writer should have a hobby that isn't writing, and it's probably a good move to go for something that requires entirely different parts of your body and mind.  Which works for me, because what I'm discovering is that drawing compliments writing tremendously well, in that it's training me to look harder and in different ways at things I thought I understood - to literally see things anew, using whole other parts of my brain.  This, surely, is a good thing. 

And maybe, just maybe, if I work hard enough for long enough, one day I will be good enough to pass GCSE Art!  Hey, anyone can dream...

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Thoughts on Judging the British Fantasy Awards

So I mentioned last week that I was one of the three judges for this year's British Fantasy Award for best short fiction, and mentioned too that while I felt the result we came to was a definite win, whereby an excellent story gamboled off with the prize - that being Signs of the Times by Carole Johnstone, as published in Black Static #33 - there were also a few hurdles and moments of doubt along the way.

For instance, I'd by fibbing if I didn't say that I found the initial shortlist disappointing.  Not because there was anything wrong with the stories put forward but because the list seemed symptomatic of failings I'd noted before in regards to the British Fantasy Awards: too much emphasis on Horror over Fantasy, too many small press markets, too many British markets and - the one that personally galled me most - too many low or non-paying markets.

Before I upset anyone unduly, I should put all of that into some kind of perspective.  I've nothing against Horror as a genre, I've written enough of it, and I don't even object to it straying into what's nominally a Fantasy award so long as there's a reasonable balance.  I've certainly nothing against the British small press, nor against British publishing, having had three novels and a chapbook out from UK publishers both large and small.  Non-paying markets, admittedly, I have a certain theoretical disagreement with, but I'm ready to concede that there are exceptions that make the publishing landscape a better place.  My point isn't that these things are bad in and of themselves, it's that put all together they don't do much to represent the current state of Fantasy publishing.  The small press unquestionably produces some superb work, but so do the many professional magazines out there - markets like Clarkesworld, Shimmer and Apex, to pick a few - and a list that included none of them felt blinkered.  To fall back on a word I've used on this subject before, the initial shortlist felt like provincialism; a British Fantasy Award that was all too close to actually, literally, being a British Fantasy Award.

And there ends the grumbling portion of this post.  Because while, if I remember correctly, there was a time not so long ago when the winning story would have been selected from that initial short list, that time is now past.  These days, the judges (I seem to remember a time when there weren't those either, but honestly it's hard to tell if I'm just making this stuff up) can add a couple of stories of their  mutually-agreed choosing, and what we decided to do - this not being a terribly difficult decision - was to add in the next two runners-up.

Honestly, it sounds like such a small thing, but it made all the difference.  Suddenly there was a better balance of genres, a better balance of markets, of writers ... and what made it most satisfying was that it also felt completely in the spirit of the award.  We weren't overruling the voters, just widening their selection a little.  And now we had seven stories to choose from, and somehow that list of seven felt in every way stronger than the original list of five.

That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Signs of the Times, our eventual winner, did come from the original short list.  Or that the story that everyone agreed was its closest contender was one of the two that we added.  Take from that what you will, but to me it says that things worked out nicely; that the combination of a membership ballot and a jury decision can yield both a strong shortlist and a solid result.

Is that to say the current situation is perfect?  Not entirely.  Regardless of the quality of the story itself, I personally feel that a story that appeared in a British Fantasy Society publication shouldn't have been eligible; for me that harks back too closely to the British Fantasy Awards of old.  Part of me feels, too, that putting novelettes and chapbooks up against shorter stories published in magazines is unfair to both, though I'm not one hundred percent sure why or what the answer would be.  I certainly don't think there's a need for British Fantasy Award for best novelette, but perhaps the current length bracket is a touch too broad.  And of course the greatest limitation on the British Fantasy Awards continues to be the membership size of the British Fantasy Society; with such a relatively small voter pool, there are always bound to be some curious nominations and results.

But you know what?  Awards don't have to be perfect.  And, as I touched on last week, nor can they be, because perfection lays awfully far outside of their purview.  What awards can do is make sure that things that are awesome get recognition they might not otherwise have done.  And, in my wholly biased opinion, that's exactly what happened - not only with the one I had a hand in judging but with this year's awards in general.  So, while I wouldn't mind seeing a little more tightening of the rules - seriously, BFS-published stories should not be getting nominated for BFS-issued awards - I'm really glad that things appear to be on the right track, and here's hoping that this year was an indication of what we can expect to see from the British Fantasy Award in the future.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Thoughts on the British Fantasy Awards

I've been thinking a bit about awards lately.

And barely two weeks ago I was attending the ceremony for the British Fantasy Awards, in the  slightly professional capacity of having been one of the judges.  Now I've been pretty damning about the British Fantasy Awards in the past, specifically right here, and I stand by what I said then: the 2011 awards were a train wreck, not even only for the reasons that found their way as far as the national press, and the 2012 awards were only better in that they didn't produce any obvious and massive embarrassments.  But in the end that's only the difference between being attacked by an angry bear and an angry dog, and I'm one of those people who would rather not be attacked by any enraged carnivorous quadruped, thankyouverymuch.

Wait.  That metaphor got out from under me.

So, hey.  I've been thinking a bit about awards.  What I've been thinking, in a nutshell, is that awards are both inherently stupid and inherently useful.  In the absence of god or a godlike supercomputer, it's absurd to suggest that any body could judge the thousands upon thousands of novels, short stories, films, comic books, anthologies or microwave ovens brought into existence in any given year and declare meaningfully that one of them is the best.  However awards are also inherently fun, in the way that any fundamentally arbitrary competition can be fun.  And when it comes to genre fiction they're handy for drawing fringe readers into the camp and guiding those of us with limited time on our hands.  So in that sense, any award that represents a broad consensus and rewards works with widely acknowledged merit - a best novel award that goes to a book that the majority of people would consider amongst the best works of that year, for example - has pretty much done its job.

Which brings me back to the British Fantasy Awards, which in the past have had a habit of failing conspicuously to do that thing I just described.  In a nutshell, the problem was that they'd tended to represent the specific interests of the organization of which they were a part, or perhaps even rather just a percentage of that membership, whilst in so doing showing a startling lack of attention to what was going on in the wider world.  I think the word I'm looking for is provincialism ... although to take an example I brought up a couple of years back, calling a situation whereby three out of five nominees for an award are the same person who also happens to be a significant figure in the body behind the award provincialism is being awfully damn polite.

Thus it was that when Stephen Theaker approached me to ask if I'd like to judge the British Fantasy Award for best short story I was somewhat hesitant.  But Stephen is a mate and he's still accepted more of my work than any other editor, and there was a malicious little voice in the back of my brain pointing out that if it all turned out to be yet another horrid shambles then I could at least snark about it here on the blog.  Because I won't lie to you, when I'm mean about stuff I get about a thousand times as many hits.

Which makes this post just slightly frustrating to write, for, while I had some doubts in the early days - which I'll come back to next week - I've got to admit that on the whole I think we came up with a thoroughly solid result.  An excellent story walked off with the prize, one I hope most people would recognize the inherent quality of, and I'm happy to call that a win.  And, (this being the point I suppose I've been working towards throughout this whole post), that goes for all of this year's British Fantasy Awards as well.  There were a few eccentric nominations, but a little eccentricity shows character rather than, say, craziness or ignorance or nepotism.  A lot of good work was nominated.  A lot of good work walked away with prizes.  Nothing stood out as being egregiously stupid.  For the first time in my experience, the British Fantasy Awards actually felt like something worthwhile, sensible and internationally meaningful.  Which, given the state of play a mere couple of years ago, is nothing short of a miracle.

Okay.  That'll do for the moment.  If only because all this positivism is surely losing me readers even as we speak.  Next week I'll get to what it was actually like judging a British Fantasy Award, and perhaps suggest some refinements to the criteria and process that I think might help smooth off a couple of remaining rough edges.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Research Corner #7: Random Research

Well not random as such, it's just that I've reached a point now where I have so many novels in the works - at this point, four that I'm actively working on - that my research reading is bouncing between topics considerably more than it was at the beginning of the year.  This is actually proving to be a lot more fun, since you can only read so much about the First World War before your faith in humanity starts to flag; but it's also also a bit confusing, for reasons that will probably become apparent.  I seem to have accidentally stumbled across the literary equivalent of late night channel swapping...

Crossing the Line by Christian Plowman

 Having never read a great deal of True Crime before, I suddenly found myself tearing through quite a lot of it as research for current novel and my first attempt at writing (non-True) Crime, The Bad Neighbour.  Out of everything I read this was one of my favourites, in that the writer-protagonist wasn't a complete asshat - from my limited experience, this being a definite thing when it comes to True Crime.  (For which, see below.)

Plowman's definitely a capable storyteller, with a sense of humour and a good grasp of language, and if that sounds like faint praise then trust me, for this particular sub-genre it's pretty much declaring him to be the next Shakespeare. The experiences he relates were not perhaps that exceptional given the line of work he was in - undercover policing of one sort and another - but his outsider-looking-in focus is definitely the right way to bring this sort of material to life.  Plowman manages to keep things both interesting and suitably horrifying, and as with so many of these books, make you kind of resent the police - watch as your taxes are squandered in horrifying quantities to little noticeable effect! - whilst also being really glad that it's them and not you.

The Defence of the Realm by Christopher Andrew

If there's one thing I've never had much desire to read it was a history of MI5, so I approached this one with trepidation.  Misguided trepidation as it turned out, for the sections I read turned out to be an intriguing, in-depth, warts-and-all take on a vital part of British history and, more interestingly, a distinctively slanted interpretation of that period.  Given their particular concerns, the burgeoning MI5 didn't view the First World War through quite the same eyes as everyone else did, and as such their approach, for better or worse, was quite different.

I don't know exactly what access Andrew had but he certainly seems to know his stuff, and he does a great job of introducing the major personalities and then plunging the reader into their murky affairs.  There's a constant, fun vibe of being made party to something you probably shouldn't be hearing this much about, and also a solid sense of just what this kind of organization does and why and how it can go both right and drastically wrong.  Given that this was supposed to be research I couldn't justify reading beyond the end of WW1, which took me to about page one hundred out of six hundred ... it's a hefty tome.  But what I got through was a fascinating read, and I hope I find an excuse to finish it one of these days.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

I based a lot of my To End All Wars protagonist Rafael Forrester on Siegfried Sassoon, whose journals were a huge influence on my early research.  But with all respect to Sassoon, if I'd read Graves first then it would have been him that I picked; in fact, given that I came to to Goodbye to All That too late for it to have a significant influence, it's uncanny how much Forrester feels modeled on Graves.  If only because Graves, with the advantage of writing long after the event, is a heck of a lot more open about his private life and particularly his sexuality.

At any rate, this is pretty much a glorious biography.  Graves is sharp, witty, self-effacing, endlessly entertaining, and always writing with a clear sense of what was vital about the times that he witnessed.  Where the first volume of Sassoon's biography was something of a slog for me, as a reader with less than no interest in fox hunting, Graves is pretty much brilliant from the get-go.  In short, a great read this, especially if you have even the faintest interest in the history and personalities of the first decades of the twentieth century.

The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer

I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't know a great deal about Gandhi before I read this.  And I haven't read a great number of biographies, so that when I say this is the best one I've read, I suppose you have to take that with a pinch of salt.  Nevertheless it is, and as such I recommend it wholeheartedly.  Gandhi was an astonishing individual, a truly unique, extraordinary, revolutionary figure of the kind that comes along perhaps once in a generation, if that.  He was also - and I say this with no intended disrespect, not to mention a healthy dose of understatement - kind of crazy.  And perhaps the main reason that this is a great biography is that it embraces both of those extremes, without ignoring the middle ground whereby Gandhi was a human being with the usual human concerns and frailties.  Fischer has no qualms about portraying Gandhi as a saint, nor about showing the occasions when his eccentricities did harm, as they often did, particularly to his own family.  But by the end it's hard not love and mourn the man, and to be saddened at the thought of the world we might be living if only he had been listened to a little more.
Running With the Firm by James Bannon

Ostensibly a book about an undercover cop masquerading as a football hooligan, Running With the Firm soon starts to look like the precise opposite: Bannon hints that he could have gone either way, and it seems more luck than judgement that he ended up at least nominally on the right side of the law.  Whatever the case, he sure does love pretending to be a hooligan, and doesn't seem greatly bothered by who gets hurt along the way.  What follows is a lot about Bannon's own life and thoughts and feelings and a largely insightless account into football hooliganism, (hooligans are just normally people, basically, except that they really like football and kicking the crap out of each other on a weekend), backed up with a whole lot of self-justification, whereby Bannon tries to convince that he was just doing his job, or else that it wasn't a job worth doing in the first place, but at any rate he's definitely a good guy.

By his own limited definition that's probably true, but by anyone else's maybe less so, and by the end I was really glad not to have to spend any more time in his company.