What’s Better: One Superb Stand Alone Novel or a Series-based Character Arc?

Books & Comics, Films

Increasingly I find myself reading books that are part of a sequence – from Philip Kerr‘s Bernie Gunther, to Peter James‘ Roy Grace, Vince Flynn‘s Mitch Rapp and even Lee Child‘s Jack Reacher. These range from guilty pleasures (Reacher – although this seems to be in sharp decline) to classy historical thrillers (see: Bernie Gunther, a series that borrows heavily from Raymond Chandler and manages to retain my interest in it’s historical context, a genre that otherwise does nothing for me as a reader).

In addition to those mentioned above, I’d cite Michael Connelly‘s Harry Bosch, Stuart MacBride‘s Logan McRae, Jo Nesbo‘s Harry Hole, Gideon Defoe‘s Pirate Captain, Alan Bradley‘s Flavia De Luce and Mark Billingham‘s Tom Thorne as excellent characters that are worth investing in, each with their own merits.

Some authors seem to encourage the reader to get on board at any point (Connelly) and others aim to enhance the experience for readers that are on top of the wider narrative arc (Billingham, Nesbo). Clearly the commercial success of an author will have some bearing on this, as will the length of a series. For example, Ian Rankin‘s much loved Inspector Rebus is one that I’ve yet to touch, because 19 books is a little daunting – although I have the first one, Knots and Crosses, ready to go when I get around to it.

This throws up some interesting points for me that I’ve never given thought to previously.

As an avid reader, would I prefer one superb stand alone novel to getting under the skin of a character’s development through an extended sequence?

The above list certainly points to the latter and in writing this I’d struggle to think of any stand alone books that I’d say were better than a great series in recent years. Jo Nesbo‘s recent stand-alone The Son (see my review here) was a good book – a little longer than necessary perhaps and, as film rights were picked up prior to English publication, I strongly suspect that this was written, at least in part, as source material for a film.

Solomon Northup‘s 12 Years A Slave is one of those books that deserves to be read by as many people as possible – it’s less than 50p in the Amazon store at the time of writing – but it’s of course a different experience altogether, which is entirely the point.

I also enjoyed Robert Galbraith (i.e. JK Rowling)’s  A Cuckoo’s Calling – although the second from the character, Cormoran Strike (!), has been announced in hardback for this June. Gone Girl was OK but I felt badly let down by the unlikely climax.

Indeed I have to go back some time to Julian Barnes‘ superb novella The Sense of An Ending to find a stand alone book that I could wholeheartedly recommend – and S.J. Watson‘s Before I Go To Sleep, before that. Will Self‘s Great Apes stands out in my memory, along with Ian McEwan‘s novels Amsterdam and Enduring Love, all from recent years.

So, whilst I certainly would never make a case for the series over the stand-alone thriller objectively, why am I increasingly pulled towards the lure of a) the series and b) often a Police-based character?

Does the world really need another police character?

Perhaps the point is that the flawed police-based character that is so central to many modern novels is that it is the contemporary incarnation of the mystery or detective story, made accessible in terms of the context of the mystery (i.e. typically a crime) and the solution (i.e. those landed with the responsibility of handling crime on behalf of the rest of society). Obvious really.

To criticise a good detective story or sequence is to criticise the history of the whodunnit and each reader’s relationship with a story of any type as it unfolds – which is surely the essence of both good storytelling and indeed the reading experience for many lovers of fiction (and, I would argue, is the same for great fiction in film, TV and gaming).

Why aren’t there more female characters?

In writing this, it had never before occurred how few of the books that I come across – which I believe to be a fair cross section of modern, mass market literature, albeit skewed towards my perspective, obviously – feature a female lead protagonist.

Flavia DeLuce, the 12 year old centrepiece of Alan Bradley‘s superb series that’s set in the 1950s is the clear exception to this.

In an attempt to redeem myself a little from some of the choices above, Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors – yet despite the female oriented Year of The Flood (and of course female leads in many of her other books, such as The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale), Oryx and Crake, a book with a male lead, remains her most remarkable novel in my eyes.

One final thought – I’m finding that many of the series that I’m investing in are written out of chronological sequence from the timeline of the main character’s life. The Bernie Gunther books were written out of chronological order, as was the Mitch Rapp sequence. Having just read the first three Mitch Rapp books in what the author’s own site states to be the correct sequence, and thoroughly enjoyed the first two, I found the third to be over-long and at a much slower pace. A little investigation revealed that Transfer of Power (‘book 3’ according to the author’s site) was actually written first – hence what I was actually seeing in the first two books was the writer having both perfected writing about the character and going back to what might at the time be considered a prelude to the existing books. So, one final question:

Is it better to read a series of books in the order that they were written – even if they’re out of chronological sequence in terms of the character’s life – or is it actually better to read them in the chronology of the character?

One way to look at this is perhaps around whether there are any more books to follow. Sadly, in the case of Vince Flynn’s character, that’s not to be, unless they are ghostwritten (or indeed the character may be killed off – I’m not there yet!) as the author passed away recently. So, in that case, the reader can chose which route to go. Under other circumstances, I think I’d be included to read them in the order they were written, not least to see the writer develop, as well as the character, and avoid the jarring experience I mentioned above.

Partly in researching this post and partly for my own use I’ve researched a number of useful resources around some of the characters mentioned. I hope they’re useful…

Michael Connelly‘s Harry Bosch (and other characters)
Vince Flynn‘s Mitch Rapp (author’s preferred sequence or order in which the books were written)
Mark Billingham‘s Tom Thorne
Philip Kerr‘s Bernie Gunther (a fan-site list of both the character chronology and order that the books were written in)
Peter JamesRoy Grace
Stuart MacBride‘s Logan MacRae
Robert Ludlum/Eric Van Lustbader‘s Jason Bourne (fan-site)
Jo Nesbo‘s Harry Hole (also defines the early Harry Hole books from The Oslo Sequence)
Lee Child‘s Jack Reacher (a fan-site, listing both by character chronology and by publishing date)
Gideon Defoe‘s Pirate Captain
Alan Bradley‘s Flavia De Luce
Ian Rankin‘s Rebus (read from the bottom up)


New To Hitchhiking

Books & Comics, Films, Nonsense, Tech

I’m new to Douglas Adams. Well sort of – I’ve read a couple of his books previously, out of sequence.

So, I have just set about reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide series from beginning to end. Consequently, it’s now hard not to see his fingerprints over many aspects of modern life, ranging from his prescience regarding technological evolution to anticipating social, cultural and commercial trends.

As Python Terry Jones points out in one of the early Forewords, I’ve come the the conclusion that the point of reading any of Adams’ books is not for the story but for his joy with language and the way he shines a spotlight on a cliché, thought or truism in a way that is at first humorous and flippant but then, on reflection, is loaded with meaning.

Indeed, I’ve never read an author that is so completely disarming.

Strangely, I wouldn’t say that I particularly enjoyed the experience of reading The Hitchiker’s books – the narratives are disjointed and I’ve often found myself wondering if I’ve missed huge sections. But nearing the end of the fifth book in the series, I can see that a linear structure is really not the point. More that the narrative is a loosely constructed and held together vehicle for his various insights.

I guess I often judge a book in terms of whether it’s something I’d recommend if asked. Put it this way, it’s one of those books that I’m glad I have read and suspect that should be read by most people – but it isn’t something that’s necessarily for everyone.

If you can get past the hurdles though, the combination of silliness and frippery with substance and foresight seems in itself to be an allegorical statement about his basic subject matter, i.e. the meaning of life.

Now, can someone please explain why, despite having more than a hundred unread books on my e-reader, I still feel the urge to buy and read Chuck Palahniuk‘s Fight Club?

CD Shelf

Changing Times & Buying Habits

Books & Comics, Films, Music, Tech

So there I was, congratulating myself for not having spent any money for three or four days – until it occurred to me that although I hadn’t spent any cash money, I had downloaded a TV series to my tablet, rented an HD film to my laptop (which I then played via the TV), downloaded a multimedia children’s book, again for a tablet and, finally, about four or five books and short stories to various devices.

So, in other words, I had actually spent about £40-£50 on digital media in about a 72 hour period, seemingly without noticing.

Similarly, I’ve been battering Spotify for many months now. Having first joined way back when the service first came to the UK in 2009, I started buying the Premium service about a year ago and, for the first time in my life, have consequently entirely stopped buying music as physical media. Effectively the combination of ready availability and increasingly decent wifi coverage makes this an ideal phone app – and easily the one I turn to far more than any other, even Facebook.

Also, despite having hundreds of DVDs and blu-rays, my purchasing habits there seems to have slowed right down too. The aforementioned TV series purchased was a special offer of The Thick of It, which I already owned on DVD aside from series 3. The fact I was a) willing to pay again and b) motivated by having a decent quality digital copy rather than a port from DVD – which is shaky at best, legalities aside – demonstrates a fairly tangible shift.

Thinking about it, this constant change in what is the preferred media is a long term issue, which lends itself to countless re-purchasing of the same content. Although this move to physical media-free content is the latest shift, the trend is hardly something new – I recall owning about three copies of the original Star Wars films, firstly on video, then special edition and finally DVD, before the recent blu-ray versions even came out.

Still, I must confess that although I’m happy to lose the box for music and movies, the same can’t be said for books. I admit I’m starting to read more via the Kindle and Google Play apps on various devices – but whereas I’d be fairly happy to see my CD and DVD shelves empty, provided I had access to the content, I just can’t imagine a world with no books (although it could arguably be somewhat improved by a major reduction in CDs, DVDs and the associated packaging).

If nothing else, I reckon it has to be a good idea to give the eyes a rest, away from a screen for a couple of hours each day.

Never Let Me Go: Not A Comedy

Books & Comics, Films

I watched ‘Never Let Me Go’ last night, which I thought to be harrowing, provocative and highly thought provoking.

Although the plot and situation are clearly very different, I thought that the theme borrowed heavily from Blade Runner’s source material – the Philip K Dick book ‘Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep?’ – ie whether something artificial has the same value as something natural – specifically in terms of emotions and the soul. At the end I couldn’t help but compare the set up of whether Dekkard is really a replicant to the feeling of loss by the main characters in this film – and the guilt of the viewer.

I have been meaning to read the book as I’ve enjoyed a few Ishiguro novels, not least The Remains of The Day, of course. Not sure i feel i need to now – others look higher up the priority list.

However, if you can face it, I would strongly recommend this film as something that is genuinely life affirming and a piece of artistic entertainment.


Deadmau5 & Eldritch Coincidences

Books & Comics, Films, Music, Nonsense

As someone that enjoys this kind of thing I’m not entirely sure why Deadmau5 has passed me by until this point. I’ll put it down to the onset of middle age.

Anyway, having listened so some this week, I quite liked it at first and then found myself becoming increasingly irate that it seems to be a little to close to the livelier tracks by Basement Jaxx and Groove Armada, by way of an attempt at Daft Punk, with a little Richie Hawtin (Plastikman) thrown in.

I still can’t make up my mind as to whether this is a coincidence, bad temper on my part or just a bit too close to direct plagiarism to be acceptable. The jury is out – and a bit grumpy.

That aside I had to mention a weird set of coincidences that have happened in the last couple of days.

I have just bought and read The Courtyard, a short but nonetheless terrific comic by Alan Moore (of Watchmen, From Hell etc etc). He’s a bit obsessed by Lovecraft generally and the cult of Cthulhu specifically. Having read comics for a while (ie, since I could read) I know a little about this second hand but realised that I’d never read any actual H.P.Lovecraft, so I picked up and swiftly read the short story ‘The Call of the Cthulhu‘ – which was, as anticipated, weird, bleak and a bit nasty, but in a good way.

So, when being given my lesson in Deadmau5 by the young folk a few days ago I was to find that ‘Cthulhu Sleeps’ is one of his better known tracks (and was the first one I heard).

Is that kind of thing normal?

Kill Your Friends, Cloud Atlas & The Walking Dead

Books & Comics, Films

I’m just reading ‘Kill Your Friends’ by David Niven. It’s described by many reviewers as variations on the theme: ‘nasty’. And, whilst that’s most certainly true, it’s also brilliant.

It is not necessarily for everyone, not least given the language and content, some of which is clearly intended to shock even a hardened reader, however if you can stomach that it’s unbelievably funny semi-fictional account of the British music scene in the 90s which I’d heartily recommend. It has had me laughing out loud in public on more than one occasion over the last few days.

I’ve also just finished Cloud Atlas, which was given to me by my colleague Keredy before Christmas and which is another belter, although it is obviously far more widely known as it was shortlisted for the Booker a few years ago and was recently on the BBCs list of ‘100 Books You Must Read’. It’s another book that’s not for everyone – and is even a little gimmicky in form as it’s a sequence of six eighty page stories that are set in different time periods with different characters, each split in two and which progress chronologically and narratively to the centre of the book and then back again, following a loose thread through each. The language in a couple of the sections – primarily the first and the last of the chronologies – is a bit dense and impenetrable, but it’s worth persevering and despite not being a fan of shorter stories typically, these are superb.

Finally, my colleague Alex has recently put me onto the graphic novels of The Walking Dead (having watched Frank Darabont’s mini series that are based on these comics over Christmas). Whilst the subject matter is again offputting and not something I’d typically be interested in, it’s a great example of a story that has little to do with the genre through which it’s told.

So, three definite recommendations. However I’m now bound to read a howler next – it’s virtually inevitable…

New Look, New Home

Books & Comics, Films, Games, Health, Music, Nonsense, Parenting, PR, Rugby, SEO, Social Media, Surf, Tech, Travel

So, a few weeks ago I moved this blog from it’s former home to this new location, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the software I was using, from a site called ‘edublogs’ was proving extremely painful to use despite being based on WordPress, resisting updates on a seemingly arbitrary basis. Secondly I also wanted this to be more personal and less a blog about Punch (we have one of those already – here), which takes up most every waking moment outside family life anyway. Hence, this blog’s new name – Out of Office Messages.

Much of what I had written previously is actually still relevant, so I’ve imported the content here – but really, this is more about my personal point of view and perspective which, increasingly, as Punch is now growing (we’re on the point of appointing two more people, taking us to ten) is happily just one facet of the whole picture during the working day.

I’ve also changed the look and feel a couple of times in recent weeks and have finally settled on this layout. Whilst the ability to choose templates on wordpress is undoubtedly fun and designed to ensure that there’s something for everyone, I’ve found that most of the templates feel very old very quickly – and in some cases even quite amateurish – the blog equivalent of clipart. So, the simplicity of this particular layout suits me perfectly.

I have wrestled a little with the extent to which I make this about my interests – which has made me reflect on what my interests actually are. As anyone that knows me personally will, I’m sure, testify, I’m very fortunate in that I’m hugely passionate about my working life. So, whilst it is clearly work related, it’s fair to say that one of my interests is technology and moreover, at present, how technology is effecting sociological change – with innovative web applications breeding new means of personal interaction, for example.

Similarly, it’s interesting to me that reputation management is becoming ever-more relevant, with the current shift towards personal reputation management through web 2.0 and the trend for execs constantly having an eye towards their next opportunity. I suspect this is likely to crop up fairly regularly.

I love the fact that this post may be read by no-one or hundreds+, based on a number of factors, not least merit – but also context/distribution. As per my recent post referencing a couple of bloggers that apparently hadn’t grasped that their entry may in some way have a detrimental effect on their careers, it’s hugely interesting to me that the traditional ‘rules’ of PR still very much apply here – it’s just that the distribution landscape is dramatically different.

Finally, on this, I’m also hugely interested by the prospect of how ‘PR2.0’ can be integrated with (note, not a substitute for) traditional PR techniques, meaning that all reputation campaigns can benefit from a coordinated approach to search engine optimisation, social media and bloggers/blogging, for example.

So, on a different note entirely, outside work my life is really almost entirely devoted to three girls – my wife and two daughters. We’ve had an extended period of intensity at work, dating back to September ’07 when we our first employee joined us to work alongside myself, meaning that I rarely have too much time for anything else.

With a set of golf clubs in the garage now gathering dust having not been used since the birth of my daughter 4+ years ago, I think that can safely be discounted as a likely regular subject. However, as a season ticket holder at Leicester Tigers (having just bought two more for my two daughters for next year) I try to go as often as possible – although that has meant about five times a year for the past two seasons, which is criminal really.

Finally, the last subject which is likely to crop up regularly is my love of the water. Again, swimming has suffered in the last 18 months but it’s something that I do love with a passion. Moreover, I try to get a surf at least a couple of times a year – which dates back to when I was first taken into the sea with my Dad and his board when I was about four.

So, that’s a wrap as far as I’m concerned. My main issue with blogs is that they are frequently too self absorbed so my aim is to always avoid that – but I did want to somehow mark what feels like a significant shift, if only in terms of intentions as opposed to output.