I sound like a troll. You do too

Feeling good about the world? Are you happy, content and fulfilled? Don’t worry – we’ve got the cure. Simply descend into the comments section on literally anything online, and you’ll soon have all faith in humanity sucked out of you. Comment boards kill 99.9% of wellbeing iotas on first contact. Add comment facilities to your life today, and never worry about self-esteem, confidence or serenity again.

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You know how obnoxious the comments section of an article or YouTube video often gets? People tell each other they know bugger all about the subject matter; they tell the author he or she doesn’t understand what they are talking about; they apply negative labels to one another faster than The Flash breaking in a new pad of Post-It notes.

In other words, people are asses online.

But so am I.

Not on the comments section, and not on social media as such. But I realised the other day, when talking to a group of friends in a messenger app, that I sound like a troll. Not one of those racist, misogynist, homophobic trolls; just one of those ones who sounds nasty and superior all the time. Who is incapable of conveying a thought or making a point without condescending.

And so do all my friends.

It’s a closed group we use to communicate and we’re all very aware of each other’s biases, beliefs and political standings. In fact, we’re all strongly aligned on the same spectrums. And that knowledge, I believe, gives us the confidence to speak more harshly about topics than we would to strangers.

We know, for instance, that we can share studies that prove something we’ve always known and caption the link with something like ‘And today’s award for Saying the Blatantly Obvious goes to this moron…

Thinking back on it now, most people I’ve spoken to for long enough will have expressed an opinion with the same level of sharpness. The kind of opinion that gets thrust out there, covered in barbed wire. Sensitivity is as high up its list of priorities as it would have been for the person who invented the morning star.

And I realised then that the issue with the way we talk to each other online isn’t that we say bad things, but that we assume we’re talking to lots of other people who all agree with us.

Think how viciously we tear apart films, books, actors, bands, restaurants, jam, etc, that we don’t like when talking to people we know will, if not agree, certainly not be surprised by our vitriol. Yet were we to meet the people involved in those things in person, we’d likely moderate our views. We’d offer ‘constructive criticism’.

Well, I would, but then again I’m British. We’re so meek if John Wick had been a Brit in the film he wouldn’t have killed several dozen people to get revenge for the death of his dog* he’d have just written an angry letter. A letter that would have started: ‘I’m sorry to bother you, but by golly this just isn’t on’.

*(It sounds a stupid premise, but give it a go: they make it work)

I suppose, sat alone in our homes, we have only our point of view to go by when evaluating a comment we are about to post. I wonder how differently people would comment online if they had to read their response aloud to a group of strangers before posting.

I bet even just knowing they would have to read it out would make them change what they were writing. Even though the whole point of commenting online is that lots of people see your opinions.

There’s a study in there someone. That would be interesting to find out.

Do you think you sound like a troll online? Troll me in the comments section.

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Is Waterstones cheating independent bookshops and readers?

Books in the Dark

When is an independent bookshop not an independent bookshop? When it’s a Waterstones in disguise.

The stores all have their own unique names and branding, with just a small notice in the window pointing out that they are a trading name of Waterstones Ltd. Many local business owners are up in arms, claiming that the chain is deliberately trying to deceive customers looking to do business with an independent store.

Unsurprisingly, the owner of the local bookshop is not happy about it. Also unsurprisingly, Waterstones have rubbished claims there is anything underhand going on.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, I don’t think a national chain pretending to be an independent store is a good thing, if that is indeed what Waterstones was attempting. People have their preferences over where to shop, and regardless of whether those preferences are driven by logic or prejudice (I mean only the kind of soft prejudices like a dislike of corporations, obviously) they deserve to know into whose bank account the money they are spending is going to end up.

Villages and towns with a strong sense of community often like to support their local shops, so for someone to think that their money was going to a small business owner, or staying within the local economy, when in fact it would end up in corporate coffers or lining the wallets of shareholders isn’t fair.

But at the same time, I don’t know whether this is really an act of treachery on par with something you would expect from a character Sean Bean plays in a film. While I do understand the ‘big brand versus small business’ argument, I can’t help but appreciate the fact that many global corporations operating today started out a century or so ago as homegrown local businesses.

Look at McDonald’s for instance, the second largest employer in the world (according to data from 2012). The ubiquitous restaurant chain started life around 1940, founded by two brothers. Although it is putting it incredibly prosaically, the reason McDonald’s dominates in the way it does today is because it started out as a small business that did what it did incredibly well. Becoming a global brand, admittedly while not happening by accident, is a side-effect of business acumen, great products or services, and an ability to cater to local demand.

There are obviously lots of ways in which the ‘corporations are evil’ axiom can ring true. But to say that a shop should be avoided or demonised because it has a name and branding that you already recognise seems to me to be an oversimplification.

And of course local businesses are going to complain: Waterstones is a threat to them. It is worth remembering that the same narrative that paints all chains as heartless and profiteering paints all small business owners as people of great integrity struggling to get by.

While it is true that being a small business owner is a great way of realising a passion and pursuing your dreams, there are plenty of people who open small businesses simply because they can see an opportunity to make money.

To return to the issue at hand, is Waterstones doing something that it shouldn’t? I guess it depends on your attitude towards independent bookshops. I love any kind of bookshop; I have to admit that local ones often do have more personality and flexibility to be different.

But it’s unsurprising to think that chains can often offer more: my local Waterstones (I say local, it’s still over half an hour away from where I live) is many times larger than the bookshops in my local town. But at the same time, one of my local bookshops always has windows brimming full of signed copies of the latest books by bigshot authors. It’s a bookshop you should take seriously: these are book-loving professionals running their business well.

So I suppose if you hate chain bookshops then this might seem like a bad precedent. While the idea that people working in a small family-owned bookshop love books, while those working in a chain hate them and just want a job, seems rather childish, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no truth in the point.

But looking like an independent bookshop can also be a double-edged sword. Not everybody loves independent shops. Some of them prefer chain bookshops, believing them to offer more variety and better service – I’m not saying it’s true, just that there are prejudices against small business owners and unique shops as well as there are national chains and global corporations. So Waterstones could find itself losing customers because they don’t realise it’s a chain and thus keep walking down the street instead of going in to browse.

Only if you dislike large chains do you see their branding and corporate identity as some kind of dirty secret they need to be rid of. Companies love their branding: that’s why they spend so much money on it. That’s why their carrier bags, pens, staff uniforms and delivery trucks are decorated in corporate livery. It is the brand that attracts the customer.

So while the one point of view casts Waterstones as some creeping and insidious force, attempting to infiltrate the local high street in disguise, the other depicts a well-known chain sacrificing its valued and advantageous branding for the sake of blending in with the aesthetic of its local trading environment. The move could be a concession on behalf of Waterstones; an acknowledgement that they are the outsider, and a sign that they’re making an effort to blend in.

I think that both these for and against arguments are a little too fairytale. Waterstones’ move was based upon a business decision, and, equally, it’s money that motivates the objections.

Ultimately, I’d say the outlook for those particular high streets is pretty rosy from the point of view of booklovers. More choice in books is never a negative, and if we can all agree on just one thing, it’s that readers are not the type of people to come out of one bookshop and say ‘I’d better not browse in that bookshop as well, I’ve bought enough books today.”

What about you? Are you Team Waterstones or Team Independent? Scroll down and leave a comment to let me know if you think Waterstones has done a bad thing, a good thing, or an irrelevant thing.

What is it about us readers buying books and not reading them?

Four books were added to my TBR pile over Christmas, although in terms of pages it's more like ten.
Four books were added to my TBR pile over Christmas, although in terms of sheer number of pages it’s more like ten.

Many people say their hobby is reading. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe reading isn’t how we should be describing ourselves. Because most readers have the same weakness – they love buying new books. They buy books even when they have a pile of books already waiting to be read; books they know will likely never get read.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Maybe our hobby isn’t ‘reading’. Maybe our hobby is ‘owning books’. Perhaps we are more collectors of stories than we are consumers.

It is not entirely a nonsensical practice. People collect an awful lot of different things, from shoes to memorabilia to antique toasters (bet you this is a thing). If anything, buying books and reading even a fraction of them makes us a step better than most collectors, who never use the items they have hoarded. (‘I don’t care if you are having a heart attack: that defibrillator is valuable and only for display’.)

Or does the fact we actually use our collections just make us rubbish collectors (as in collectors who are rubbish, not council employees who are highly undervalued by society)? We’re collectors who play with our toys. That’s not how it’s meant to work.

But in our defence, think about how much a book offers us. It’s a wealth of opportunity. It has unlimited potential; potential to take us on an emotional rollercoaster; potential to introduce us to new friends, love, and enemies; potential to take our breath away. And when all that is on special offer? Well, we’d be fools to resist.

Also, unlike, say, historically important tampons or antique spoons, you can never have too many books. Do you know what too many books is? A library. Having too many stories is better than having too few. We fanatical book buyers are simply stocking up for a rainy day. Who knows what might happen? Who knows when we might suddenly require twenty unread books with the price labels still on?

Tell me – how many unread books do you have in your collection? When was the last time you bought new books?

What could committing a crime lose you? The right to read, apparently

While it’s hard to imagine criminals quaking in terror at this, a part of the judicial system’s prison reforms has caused a lot of outrage on social media. In order to be able to enforce its new rewards scheme, prisoners have now been banned from receiving books that have been posted to them from the outside world.

Books Banned

It’s hardly likely to redefine the courtroom, or cause a paradigm shift in crime dramas. ‘You’re looking at 25 year’s no reading, pal,’ detectives won’t hiss as they snap a pair of handcuffs onto a murderer. Wrongfully imprisoned women and men won’t be depicted sobbing in therapy, wailing ‘They took away my Poirot’.

Reward scheme

The ban on receiving books is part of a larger series of minor reforms to try and reinforce the prison system’s rehabilitation and rewards scheme. Prisoners earn money and certain rights for good behaviour and participating in their rehabilitation programmes, which they can then spend on items such as books. Therefore, it is worth noting that this is not an outright ban on prisoners having books, or reading (they are allowed 12 in their room at any one time), but simply on how and when prisoners can receive their books.


This move has caused a bit of a furore (if you can have a bit of one), with several notable authors voicing their disgust. There’s a petition going around, although that’s a moot fact really, as when is there not a petition going around? ‘We’ve got 5 signatures in support of changing the pudding in the canteen back from mousse to custard, but we need your support!’

I suppose as a writer and reader, I should be strongly against the move. To be honest, however, I can see both sides of the argument. I’m a little on the fence.

I suppose the thing to ask is which is better for rehabilitating prisoners – certain freedoms, or certain incentives?

On the one hand

As many people on Twitter have pointed out, prisoners need rehabilitation, not retribution. There’s no point sending someone to prison simply with the aim of punishing them (although that should be partly it, shouldn’t it?). If someone goes into prison, has a miserable time, and comes out again the same person, then the system has failed. Nobody has been helped.

Which is why I don’t think this issue of banning books is actually about the books. It’s about how prisoners are going to react to their time in prison. The whole aim of the prison system is to inspire that epiphany that every prisoner needs to have – the realisation that they did something wrong, they made a mistake, and that their current situation is the result of their own actions, no one else’s.

Earning your books

I can see how having to earn your rewards, such as books, could have a positive effect on prisoners. The idea of earning the right to have something, and the notion of needing to deserve something before they get it is surely a vital concept for prisoners to develop if they don’t already have it.

Earning what we have is a vital part of our society and culture. It’s something everyone learns as they grow up, and without grasping that central idea, it’s not hard to imagine a person clashing against the rules. A prisoner being able to read a book because they have earned it – and deserve to have it – surely creates a feeling of satisfaction. It shows the pleasure in working hard to achieve something, and makes everyone appreciate their possessions and situations more deeply.

Getting your books

I can imagine, however, that prison can be a tad boring. In my experience boredom usually creates resentment. If you take away too many ways for a prisoner to pass the time, you risk them ending up sitting in their cell, bored out of their skull, angry at the system for making their lives a misery. Cutting off access to gifts from their family and friends is only going to heighten this resentment.

I doubt that frame of mind is one that promotes the humility required for one to accept his or her actions and come to realisation that the blame for their current situation lies entirely upon themselves.

It is of course worth pointing out again that these new reforms aren’t banning books entirely. Prisoners also have access to the prison library, and will be able to order books from a catalogue using the money that they have earned for good behaviour or carrying out other tasks. Some of the opposition have instantly jumped on this believing that it is a ban on reading in prison is entirely. The only thing that changes is how prisoners can get their books, as well a supposedly limiting the choice that is on offer.

I suppose when it comes down to it, what you want in prison is good prisoners. A man or woman who spends all day lying on their bunk reading isn’t going to be any trouble at all. In fact the idea of being locked in a room with a load of books, without work or other responsibilities to worry about, is one that probably appeals to most readers. The pleasure of reading could lessen the pain of having other liberties taken away, which again works against the development of hatred for the system and people responsible for putting prisoners in their current position.

I have trouble agreeing with the people who described the move as barbaric. Yet while I think that having to earn the books they read could do prisoners a lot of good, the risks of limiting access to a resource that is vital for personal, intellectual, and moral development can’t be anything but a mistake.

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November: The month I give up

I’m sorry, I know I’d committed myself to it, but I can’t go on with it any longer. It’s defeated me. I’ve tried and tried, but like a hamster trying to eat an elephant, it’s just too much.

I just can’t finish Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb.

On giving up

I don’t like leaving books halfway through, but sometimes you just have to. It’s kind of embarrassing really, considering I’ve spent a lot of time singing the praises of the trilogy to anyone who will listen (and bloggers who had no choice but to read my comments…). But I’ve been trying for a long time now, it’s been on my to-do list, but every time I think about it I put it off. I’ve found reading this book rather like trying to eat a whole box of Shredded Wheat without any fluids.

What went wrong?

The first two books in the trilogy were brilliant. So what happened to turn me against the final instalment, the book that should be the ‘epic conclusion’?

Two things, really. And I should say that this now, that there will be spoilers for the entire Farseer Trilogy. And proper spoilers too, not like when people warn about spoilers because they reveal that, half way through the story, one of the characters puts on a hat.

The book does what many a final volume in a trilogy seems to do, in that it sheds everything from the first two volumes. All the characters other than the protagonist are quickly discarded, as are the familiar settings. This book becomes one of the narratives archetypes I can’t stand in fantasy; a story about travelling. There’s lots of it. First Fitz walks along a river, then he walks through a forest, then a swamp, then a desert. Who knows what exciting terrain I missed him walking through because I’ve given up on the book? Tundra? Beach? Mordor?

The second problem is actually simply one of quantity. There are problems in the first two books, but they are problems that I haven’t been able to notice because you have to be exposed to them for a while before you pick up on them, like how it takes quite a while to grow an extra head following a radiation leak.

The main problem, that combines with the travelling to make something truly impossible to stand, is that Fitz is so pathetic.

What a bad character

I’ve now read enough books of Robin Hobb’s to realise that this is perhaps one of her flaws. Don’t get me wrong, she is a fantastic writer. Her prose has a flowing beauty and her plots are intelligent and dynamic. But hell, do her characters whine a lot.

Fitz seems to spend every other page banging on about how useless he is, how he’s failed everyone, how he’s worthless, yadda yadda yadda. I think I’d only begun to suspect it in the other books because there was a lot going on to keep you distracted from it, but now that everything else interesting from the previous two instalments of the story has been removed, all you have is Fitz and a lot of travelling.

In some places it seems like a 3-page long Fitz rant has been triggered by him standing on a flower, or having an itchy tooth, or spotting a goat. It’s something I’ve noticed about all Hobb’s characters; they are all very very irritating in that they spend their whole time beating themselves up and complaining about how useless they are.

And the other thing they all do is…nothing. Fitz does nothing in this story. He gets told what to do, he does it, it goes wrong, and he spends the next chapter whining about it until something happens (something he had no hand in causing) and changes circumstances. I noticed this with Alise in The Dragon Keeper (which is a very good book). Part of Alise’s narrative is building up to the moment when she finally stands up for herself. But by the time she actually does, she’s missed so many opportunities that, as the reader, you don’t think ‘Yeah! Go Alise!’, you just think ‘Finally! I can go home and let the librarian lock up now.’

How long do you give a book?

I’ve read through half of Assassin’s Quest. I can’t read anymore, and I’ve got better, more exciting books waiting. I think there has to be a compromise between author and reader. As a reader, I respect the author for making the effort to write the book, and so I try to go on past when I want to give up, because I like to give the book a chance to redeem itself.

Having said that, I did read one post by an author who said that people who give up on the book after a chapter or even a few pages shouldn’t have the right to post a negative review of it. I disagree with this, because it’s not the reader’s fault they found it so bad they couldn’t bear to read more than a few pages. To say they don’t deserve to post negative reviews of the book is basically saying ‘You’re not qualified to review the book’. Yet surely someone giving up after a chapter or a few pages tells them something quite important?

So, what was the last book you gave up on?

Or don’t you give up on books?

How long do you give a book before you give up, and what’s the fewest pages you’ve read before giving up on a book? For me, it was one chapter, and was a book by Raymond E Feist, A Kingdom Besieged. It was poorly written, poorly characterised, used far too many capitals (see Fantasy and the Curse of the Capitals of Deemed Importance). I felt guilty giving up on it (I feel guilty writing about the fact I don’t like it), but there you go. In that situation, as in the one I am now, I had better books waiting to be read.

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What a difference; reading Robin Hobb a second time

Observation of the week

In films, when a character is hanging off the edge of a cliff, why does the character trying to save them/going to get help always shout ‘hang on’? What else are they going to do?

Round Two With Robin Hobb

Those of you who have read
Fantasy Writing Is Not Porn: Why Length Isn’t Everything, will know that I didn’t much like Shaman’s Crossing (book one of The Soldier Son trilogy). If this was typical Robin Hobb, I couldn’t understand all the fuss. However it seems (from reading reviews) that the consensus among Robin Hobb fans is that this is one of her worst books.

When I saw The Dragon Keeper (book one of The Rain Wild Chronicles) in my local library, I decided to read Robin Hobb ‘on form’. That, and there happened to be a pitiful selection of books to choose from this week. No, I don’t want to read a book based on a video game. There would be nothing worse than reading about a character losing a fight and thinking, “I wouldn’t have lost that. I’d have used the X,X,Y combo, then thrown a grenade with R2.”

Sorry, I thought you were a different author

What a difference. For a start, dragons are always a win. Having a dragon in a story always seems to guarantee that stuff will actually happen, like how the words ‘this is based on a true’ story at the beginning of a film guarantees 90 minutes of pure fiction. If you remember from Fantasy Writing Is Not Porn, my main gripe with Shaman’s Crossing is that nothing happens. In The Dragon Keeper, stuff does happen, and what’s more, we have a conflict right from the beginning of the book. The serpents have left it too long to nest, and most of them are dying before they can even get to the nesting ground, where they will cocoon themselves and become dragons.

Shaman’s Crossing, however, starts with Nevare reminiscing about the magic of the Plainspeople, in a 24 page-long chapter in which nothing happens but a lot of exposition. Yes, I guess we learn something. What I learned was that I should have bought another book.

A Comparison

In fact, the more I read of The Dragon Keeper, the more I compare it to Shaman’s Crossing, the more it seems as though Robin Hobb’s goal when writing the latter was to actually write a boring book. Nevare is as bland and passive a character as you could get – he’s not a troublemaker, so doesn’t do much to break the rules once in the Academy, and he’s not timid enough to be a real outsider. He just sits in the middle wondering how things have ‘behooved’ him, and worrying about his honour. Perhaps this would not have been so bad if the whole 650 page tale was not entirely about him, but it was.

That might be one place in which The Dragon Keeper instantly stands out. Third person, multiple viewpoints; stylistically it’s a very different book. The list of characters is also impressive: a newly hatched dragon, finding her place in the world; a young hunter-gatherer girl, born with scales up her spine and claws instead of nails; the captain of a river barge, who finds an expensive, but illegal, treasure that could keep him rich to the end of his days and, my personal favourite, the middle daughter of not-so well off Traders, pressured into marriage whilst wanting instead to become a dragon scholar.

To Conclude

The Dragon Keeper is rich with interesting characters, a new take on dragons, politics, what looks to become some scheming, and the looming threat of war. Shaman’s Crossing is full of…words. Most of them are ‘rebuke’, or ‘behooved’. The Dragon Keeper is very well paced – as well as lots of detail about the world and personal reflection by the characters, the plot is advancing at a good speed and I do not feel that narrative has been sacrificed for world building or characterisation or vice versa. Shaman’s Crossing has none of the above.

How convinced am I by Robin Hobb? Enough that, whilst only 150 pages into The Dragon Keeper, I have already bought the entire Farseer Trilogy, widely regarded as her best work.

Moral of the story

There seems to be a philosophy amongst Fantasy and Science Fiction writers that books must be long; as though instead of writing a book to be as long as the story, you should write the story to be as long as the book. Read the shorter works of Terry Pratchett, or any of Arthur C. Clarke’s books to see why short novels can still pack a lot of punch. Shaman’s Crossing is about the same size as The Dragon Keeper, yet the two are vastly different. The Dragon Keeper is rich and vibrant, filled with interest and intrigue, whereas Shaman’s Crossing seems almost vacuous.

Fantasy Writing is not porn. Length isn’t every. Plus, dragons are always awesome.


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