Tuesday 6 December 2016

My Life In Books ~ talking to author Mark Hill @markhillwriter

My Life in Books is an occasional feature on Random Things Through My Letterbox
I've asked authors to share with us a list of the books that are important to them and have made a lasting impression on their life.

Please join me in welcoming crime author Mark Hill to Random Things today.  I read and reviewed Mark's debut novel, The Two O Clock Boy back in October. I loved it, it really is superb.  Here's a little taster from my review:

"Mark Hill has written an explosive and carefully constructed crime story with a lead character who is flawed but intriguing. This is top-class, intelligent writing that makes the reader do some work too. Reading this story constantly throws up questions for the reader, it is impeccably timed and I certainly had no inkling of what was to be revealed during the final chapters."

Check out Mark on Facebook  and follow him on Twitter @markhillwriter

My Life in Books ~ Mark Hill

If you’re reading this right now then you don’t need me to tell you there are just too many damned fine books - just too many - and I don’t think I could manage to fit them all in here. I’d be writing this blog post all week, all month. I just wouldn’t know where to stop, and it would take you forever to read it. We’d both get tired and irritable and probably fall out. So instead I thought I’d reminisce about some of the books I read many years ago - this was when I was a young man, sometime in the mid-1870s – and my reading was picking up steam. Some of those books had a powerful effect on me. I learned an awful lot about writing and narrative from them, I think, even if I didn’t know it at the time. So here’s a bit of my life in books. Let’s get this thing done - and get the hell out of here.

There was a movie of The Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham back in the day – before my time, I may add - with Howard ‘Seven Brides’ Keel. It was ridiculous. The plants were big, shambling creatures who, I think, could be killed with seawater. But I remember subsequently reading the novel by John Wyndham and I loved it. The plants are bioengineered creatures who – when an asteroid shower makes humans blind and the world goes to hell in a handcart –  seize their chance to jump a few places up the food-chain. Most science-fiction books I read were set on other worlds, or in exotic places, but this was set in locations I knew, and I was mesmerized. Even today I get a bit anxious when the bushes rustle when I’m walking through Russell Square.

Everyone’s got a favourite Stephen King, right? I mean, there should be a law. He has written so many wonderful books. But I remember loving The Dead Zone, perhaps because it combined King’s usual horror sensibilities with a storyline which is also very crimey and psychological. It’s the story of everyman Johnny Smith who, following a terrible accident, acquires a precognitive ability. Johnny helps nail a serial killer in small town and then –  oh, heck! – touches a presidential candidate and is plagued by visions of World War III. I remember how thrilled I was reading it. This wasn’t about vampires or killer clowns, it was about a sweet guy with an extraordinary gift who bore - almost literally - the weight of the world on his shoulders. Of course it’s all make believe. The idea that a narcissistic maniac could get his finger anywhere near the nuclear codes is totally preposterous.

I will, with your kind permission, take a few moments to mention a much-maligned subgenre of book: the movie novelization. These days, if you go to see a film you can pretty much guarantee there’ll be other ways to enjoy it. There’s probably a TV spin-off in the works, or a computer game or graphic novel; you can buy the DVD and get more content, if you wish; the script is probably available online somewhere. Back when I was a teenager, there wasn’t so much of this stuff. Sometimes, if it was a movie like Alien, I was even too young to even go see the movie. So I would read the novelization instead. I burned through loads of them: movies like Star Wars and The Black Hole, and TV-shows like Battlestar Galactica, and Doctor Who, too. An author would be commissioned to write the book of a TV show or a movie directly from the script, maybe before it had even gone into production, so the detail was often scant and the writing consequently went like the clappers. As an added bonus they would often contain scenes that didn’t even make the final edited movie. Sometimes these adaptations were pretty ropey but sometimes they were incredibly well-written. They taught me loads about pacing and plotting and character – but mostly about pacing - and I have very fond memories of them still.

Now here’s a curious one, because it’s a little-known novel written by Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman, who wrote Butch and Sundance and All The President’s Men and loads of other amazing movies. Some of those, like Magic and The Princess Bride and Marathon Man, were based on his own books. Control is one of his lesser known novels, and when I picked it up I couldn’t believe what I was reading. There’s a scene towards the beginning where a rich Manhattanite lady goes into Bloomingdales one day and… well, what happens next is totally nuts. Control brings a lot of disparate characters together in the most-unexpected fashion. It manipulated my expectations in ways that nothing I’d ever read before ever had. I bought a copy on ebay recently to read it again – it looks exactly like the copy I read when I was a kid; maybe it is, nothing is beyond the realms of possibility – and all these years later it strikes me as a ludicrous novel. Part conspiracy thriller, part psychological potboiler and part science-fiction opus - it’s all the things that my teenage self loved so much. But the big twist at the heart of the book still, all these years later, took my breath away.

James Ellroy fans all admire LAConfidential and hipsters wax lyrical about his later highly-stylized books such as The Cold Six Thousand, but it was The Big Nowhere that was a revelation to me when I was a young man. Angry and visceral, its labyrinthine plot was told from the point-of-view of three very different and damaged characters on both sides of the law in a sinister 1950s Los Angeles, and the story hurtled forward like a runaway train. It’s a big, atmospheric novel – in which the LA sprawl is a corrupt, fetid landscape - and this kid from a small town was totally astonished by it.

Let’s mention Alan Moore’s graphic novel V For Vendetta, which is as nuanced and sophisticated as any novel. I remember the comic strip first appeared in a short-lived British comic called Warrior. V is set in a dystopian future – looking very much like the grim 1970s - where a mysterious masked anarchist in a Guy Fawkes mask fights an unrelenting war against a fascist government. It’s beautifully written by Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, and full of playful references, and its reputation has grown down the years. V’s iconic Guy Fawkes mask has been adopted by the Anonymous group. V For Vendetta is a hell of a thing – Lloyd’s Orwellian visuals are a treat - and it’s as relevant now as when I first breathlessly turned its pages in the early 1980s. It occurs to me that this whole post has turned out kind of apocalyptic - I don’t know, it must be the zeitgeist tapping me on the shoulder.

Everyone’s got to have a classic novel they love, right? Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is that book for me. Back when I was a teenager and even more anxious than I am now, it was my Big And Important Book, and helped me see the world forever more through a gauze of pitch black comedy. It’s a dazzling comic masterpiece and, of course, it’s been Big And Important for generations of brain-addled teenagers. I read it every few years and never fail to find something new to enjoy or admire in it. Deadpan and gripping, full of wonderful characters and very, very dark. And the writing – my god, Mother, the writing.

I’m done. You can go now.

Mark Hill ~ December 2016


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