Tag Archives: Reading

The Books That Shaped My Life: Guest Post – MR Carey

It gives me great pleasure to introduce the following guest post and give salutation to an undoubted plethora of new visitors to the blog. (Beyond the guest posts, there’s a veritable wasteland of disappointment and mediocrity for you to explore.).

Today’s guest post is from a writer whose novel made my ‘Books of 2014‘ and if that’s not a ringing endorsement of quality, well, I don’t know what is…

Mike Carey is a screenwriter, novelist and comic book writer.  He wrote the movie adaptation for his novel The Girl With All the Gifts, currently in production.  He has worked extensively in the field of comic books, completing long and critically acclaimed runs on Lucifer, Hellblazer and X-Men. His comic book series The Unwritten has featured repeatedly in the New York Times’ graphic novel bestseller list. He is also the writer of the Felix Castor novels, and (along with his wife Linda and their daughter Louise) of two fantasy novels, The City Of Silk and Steel and The House Of War and Witness, published in the UK by Victor Gollancz.  His next novel, to be published in April 2016, is Fellside, a ghost story set in a women’s prison.

The Books That Shaped My Life: MR Carey

The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

My memories of the first few years of my life are incomplete and jumbled, which I imagine is true for almost everyone, but a few of them stand out.  I remember becoming acquainted with Enid Blyton through a tiny book in landscape format in which some tiny pixies find a shilling that has fallen out of someone’s pocket.  They bring it back to their hedgerow village on a cart pulled by ladybirds, because to them the lost coin is as big as one of the stonehenge trilithons.  Then the pixies have an animated argument about what to do with the treasure trove before deciding that the only honest course of action is to give is back.

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I loved this little story, and I read and re-read the book until it fell apart.  It had the same kind of appeal that many of the Pixar movies have for kids today: it opened up a new world in a place where you didn’t imagine a world could exist, and it led you into it in a way that was immersive and enthralling.

I should explain that books weren’t really a thing in our house.  This was before the net book agreement was abolished, so by and large they were an expensive luxury item.  Children’s books, though, existed in a lot of pocket-money formats, affordable even to us, and of course there were comic books.  I got the fiction habit at a very early age.

But it wasn’t until I went to school that I was exposed to what in my opinion are Blyton’s two masterworks – the Magic Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree.  I read them in that order, and I was a fervent worshipper of the chair until I met the tree.  Then I became a heretic.  The Faraway Tree stories were as good as it could possibly get, and there were of them (four books to the Wishing Chair’s two).

Blyton’s style is penny plain at best.  She doesn’t do description, or realistic dialogue.  She doesn’t even do character, beyond a few superficial strokes so you can keep her child heroes distinct from each other in your head.  What made those stories so compelling for me was the profligate imagination that filled every page.

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The Faraway Tree is a real tree that stands in a wood.  An enchanted wood.  It’s so tall and thick that its top reaches the clouds, and through some magical chicanery the upper branches extend into other worlds.  If you climb the tree you’ll find yourself in a magical land very different from the mundane world you just left.  And these lands are always changing.  There’s a new one every day or every few days.  The Land of Do-As-You-Please will be replaced by the land of Topsy-Turvy.  Then the Land of Giants, or the Land of Know-Alls.

You can explore these weird worlds to your heart’s content, so long as you get back to the tree before the magic kicks in again.  If you’re even a few seconds late the world will have moved on, bringing the next land to the top of the tree.  That means you can’t climb down again until the mysterious cycle completes itself and the land returns to the top of the tree, which might be years.


That’s already a recipe for some serious juvenile fantasy riffs, but Blyton didn’t stop there.  She also gave the tree a population of its own, a group of weirdos and eccentrics who befriend the child protagonists and sometimes come along on their adventures.  There’s a fairy named Silky; Moonface, whose name describes him with complete accuracy; the Saucepan Man, who wears a vast number of pots and pans tied to his body with strings and has been driven deaf by their clattering; the amnesiac Mr Watzisname, the angry pixie, Dame Wash-a-Lot…  The list goes on.

I’ll say it again, because it bears repeating: these stories are not well written.  But there’s a kind of brilliance to them all the same and they kept me coming back for more for a very long time.  Blyton was a China Miéville for the kids of the 60s, putting a dozen novels’ worth of ideas into a single book.

She was also, for me, a gateway drug.  Her books got me hooked on fantasy before I’d ever even heard that word.  They left me with a life-long hunger for stories that will give me a similar mythopoeic hit.  From Blyton I went on to Moorcock, Zelazny, Peake, Asimov, Brunner and a hundred others.  The vector I’m still on today, as a reader and as a writer, came from those early experiences with her works.

Okay, that’s the encomium all done and dusted.  But I’d feel remiss if I didn’t have a little bitch, while I’m here, about the way Blyton’s literary legacy is being curated.


She was an incredibly prolific author.  Her bibliography runs to over 700 entries.  Some of these were tiny, of course, with a word count measured in the hundreds.  But they sold in the hundreds of millions, making her one of the most popular and successful children’s authors of all time.  Her work and adapations of her work are still being read, watched and listened to by tens of millions of kids the whole world over.  Noddy is still out there, as are the Famous Five.  The BBC has turned both the Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree into animated series, and so on.

But since her death she’s come in for some criticism from a lot of quarters.  The Noddy books featured gollywogs, who were invariably naughty and unruly.  In another story she wrote about a doll, Sambo, who is hated and shunned because of his “ugly black face”.  Her female characters (for the most part) defer to the boys around them with Stepford-like acquiescence.  The villains in the Famous Five books are often gypsies or foreigners, because we know what those people are like, right?

These criticisms are well grounded.  There’s a lot there for a modern reader to deplore.  But the response of Blyton’s estate and her publishers dismays me.  They’ve subjected the books to endless and relentless bowdlerisation, dismantling and rebuilding them at a cellular level.

The gollywogs are gone, which is perhaps the least controversial change – although replacing them with goblins seems to me to leave the underlying racism intact.  It’s really not hard to see through the metaphor, which still carries the moral that some beings are more human than others.

More disturbingly, the language has been altered.  Sometimes words and phrases are updated so that the obsolete cultural references won’t baffle a modern reader.  “Swotter” becomes “bookworm”, “school tunic” becomes uniform, “tinker” becomes “traveller”.  Adjectives and adverbs get a similar makeover, with “peculiar” and “queer” both being amended to “strange” and “jolly” (as in “jolly lonely” or “jolly decent”) disappearing altogether.

Along with these relics, anything that could provide ammunition for a double entendre goes too.  “Queer” was destined for the chop on both counts, obviously.  When Noddy falls into a thorn bush he no longer complains about the bothersome pricks.  And character names such as Dick, Connie and Fanny are replaced with more anodyne alternatives.

The bowdlerisation doesn’t stop there.  All references to corporal punishment have been seamlessly excised.  Slapping and spanking of children was commplace in Blyton’s time and she included it in many of her stories.  Now it’s thankfully illegal, and nobody sane would want that decision reversed.  But it doesn’t strike me as a good strategy to pretend it never happened.  I mean, bearing in mind that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, et cetera.  So it’s strange and dispiriting to see changes like this one.  In the book Claudine at St Clare’s, Carlotta the wild girl has an altercation with Angela which goes like this:-


“If I wasn’t in the fourth form I’d give you the hardest spanking you’ve ever had in your life, Angela. A good spanking would be the best thing you could have.” 

“Nobody has ever laid a finger on me in my life.”

Only now it goes like this:-
“If I wasn’t in the fourth form I’d give you the biggest scolding you’ve ever had in your life, Angela. A good scolding would be the best thing you could have.”

“Nobody has ever raised their voice to me in my life.”

The modern version is equal parts banality and bathos.  In taking out the offensive reference the editors have filleted the entire scene.

In the Faraway Tree stories there’s a character named Dame Slap.  She runs a school for naughty pixies, and her name indicates exactly the kind of treatment her errant pupils can expect from her.  In the modame slap 2st recent edition she has mysteriously mutated to Dame Snap, and she only ever administers intense telling-offs.

I can see exactly the kind of commercial imperatives that have led to these decisions being taken.  They keep Blyton’s books alive as profitable franchises, unchallenging and uncontroversial to a fault.

But – to draw a tendentious parallel – nobody would do this to Dickens or Tolstoy.  It’s because Blyton wrote genre fiction, and children’s fiction, that reworking on this scale seemed legitimate rather than outrageous.

Well, and it’s also because there’s a shedload of money to be made here, which makes Blyton a very different proposition from Dickens and Tolstoy (at least in book format).  The books are the property of the estate, the final decision rests with Blyton’s lineal descendants, and they’ve got to eat the same way everyone else has to.  I get all that.

But would it be feasible, at least, to keep in print a faithful facsimile edition of the original versions?  Or (which would presumably be cheaper and easier) make them available online?  There’s a cultural legacy to be curated here as well as a commercial property.  It’s surely not right that the original works are in many cases completely unavailable while the updated and bowdlerised versions are ubiquitous, with no listing or signposting of the changes that have been made.

A tiny corner of history has been rewritten, and it’s a corner where I used to sit sometimes when I was a kid and read some cool stories.

That makes me sad.

Mike Carey, August 2015


The Books That Shaped My Life: Guest Post by JS Collyer

Finding out what makes fellow writers tick is a constant source of fascination. Reading, as writing, is a very solitary process and in its formative years often shares the same innocence, that same lack of conformity and influence.

in this month’s blog – close personal friend and SF author JS Collyer goes completely against what I asked her for and gives a revealing summary of the most important books and authors that shaped her as she grew into word-spitting space creature she is today. (I’m not having a go here, it’s great!)

If you want to learn more about JS Collyer (and by rights you should, she embraces social media with the same enthusiasm that I endure it like an uncomfortable adolescent in a family photograph) her blog is here, her Twitter is here and she also has a Facebook with the highest concentrate of Star Wars memes on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

She also wrote a novel called Zero which has a sequel coming out soon. You can hurl virtual money in exchange for it just here.

Onward…to infinity! (or whatever it is these space-types say)

The Books that Shaped my Life – JS Collyer

I always find it incredibly interesting when writers share the fiction they enjoy as a reader. Translation is one of my favourite aspects of writing fiction: taking that which inspires you or that which you admire and using it to inform your own process. It helps a writer be as engaged to their own work as they are with the fiction they enjoy reading.
Having been a prolific reader all my life, you might think it would be hard for me to narrow down the works that have most impacted on me as both a reader and writer, but far from it. I know very specifically what fiction has left its mark, because it is those books I remember the most and try and consciously emulate in some shape or form whenever I commit words to page.
If we’re going in chronological order, I’d have to say the very first works of fiction that need to be mentioned are the Narnia Chronicles. Whereas, as I’ve grown, I’ve wandered more toward SciFi than fantasy and fairytale, these have to have a mention because they are stories I return to again and again, even know. The magic, the characters and the rich arc of the all the tales continue to stir something childlike in me from a time when I still believed in magic. 200px-ScholasticNarnia
However as a teenager, I discovered Star Wars and a life-long-love was born. (This was before the new prequels I’d like to add) I devoured every novel that was released set in this universe. I knew every character, location and aspect of the political structures of the galaxy. Yes, I was a totally obsessive nerd, but that was because for me the universe was so rich and full of a magic of its own I couldn’t help but be drawn in. Though I’ve grown apart from the novels in recent years, I still love the films and am eagerly anticipating the new one. And even with the distance of time, my love of those books is the yard stick by which I now measure my interest in things. I’m always on the lookout for something that grabs me so tight that I can’t get away and just have to find out more, like they did.
The loved the sheer scale of the story, as well as the well-realised settings and intriguing characters. It was also where my love of character-driven fiction was born. I love experiencing a story through a character or characters, driven along by their decisions and motivations. I like to live the story with them and my enjoyment of this way of storytelling has led me to try and write the same way.
There were dozens of these novels – I had several bookshelves of them – and they all influenced me. But if I had to choose one in particular, I think I would choose the New Rebellion by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, simply because it was the one I went back to again and again.
I have, in fact, recently re-bought it to revisit it again, 15 years later.
Next I do feel like I need to drop in the Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles, particular the first one, Interview with the Vampire. In my world that until this point had been dominated by lightsabers and spaceships, it was thrilling to discover this dark and decadent world of velvet, destruction and blood. I was hooked from the beginning. They showed me that I love a bit of darkness in my fiction and desire richness alongside everything else. The first book in particular with its melancholy and introspective narrator Louis de Point du Lac confirmed for me that it’s all about character-driven fiction. Still now, my favourite story is the sort that lets you get into the characters’ heads and knowing the story and settings as they know them.
The last two books I feel have to mention because they too have shaped me as a reader and a writer are both Fantasy series. Yes, I’m a SciFi writer, horror writer on occasion, but I simply have yet to find any SciFi books, or series of books, that inspired me as much as these and made me want to write exactly like them. Star Wars I loved as I say, and started off certain trends in my preferences that I still hold dear, but they were not novels that inspired me with their technical abilities. These series did.
The first series is just two books: Point of Hopes and Point of Dreams by Lisa Barnett & Melissa Scott. The series, sadly, never got any further since Lisa Barnett passed away in 2006. Her writing and life partner, Melissa Scott, did bring out another novella in the series, Point of Knives, very recently. However, I have to say, it wasn’t a patch on the novels she wrote alongside Barnett.
I would go so far as to say these are my favourite books ever. They are not for everyone, mind. They are full-on fantasy: magic metals, gargoyles, spells etc. However, I haven’t before or since encountered the genre used in quite this way or written so well, with such a simple yet effective approach. I think this is why they stuck with me the most: the writers are the best I’ve ever found for use of exposition. They have created the most amazing world in these books, rich in history and magic, but write about every aspect as if it were commonplace, with very little out-and-out explanation. It means to begin with you sometimes have to make a couple of passes to follow what’s going but, but this gives it such a real feel, no matter how far-fetched the object, context or motivation, that the reader is sucked right in to experience it all right alongside the characters.
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Plus, the actual stories are basically whodunnits, the main character being what passes for a police detective in that world, and they are one of my favourite types of story when done well.
My list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies by Robin Hobb. Hobb is a wonderful writer. She, like Barnett and Scott, creates a world that has magic and dragons but makes it feel real. The stories are character-driven again (sensing a theme here?) so, even though there are magic powers and mystical beasts crawling through the stories, the primary driving force of the plot is the narrator, FitzChivalry Farseer. We live his tumultuous but adventurous as a bastard son of the royal family alongside him and feel his pain and share his victories. It is all about fate and free will, decisions and love, heartbreak and power. The books are, without a doubt, magical, but with a really generous helping of grit and realism, my ultimately favourite combo.
I have Robin Hobb to thank more than any other author for wanting to become and author myself and for showing me the sort of author I wanted to be. I wanted to take people on a journey like she did with me. She also replied when I wrote to her in Canada (in days before the internet) encouraging me to follow my dream.
Hobb has also just begun releasing a third trilogy in this series too, the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, the first novel of which, Fool’s Assassin is out now and waiting in my book pile for when I am through the half-dozen other novels I am reading at the moment. It pleases me immensely that she is still releasing these novels I love so much and her writing still continues to inspire me.
Narnia birthed my love of stories. Star Wars my love of Scifi. Lisa Barnett, Melissa Scott & Robin Hobb my love of wonderfully written fiction. They are all the reason I am the reader, the writer and probably the person I am today.