Tyson Adams

Putting the 'ill' back in thriller

Archive for the category “Reading”

Book vs Movie: The Running Man – What’s The Difference?

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Given the impending authoritarian regimes and mega-media corporations forming, CineFix decided that this month’s What’s the Difference? would look at our near future. Reality TV will soon bring us The Running Man.

Back when I first saw Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man the title sequence credited the source material as being written by Richard Bachman. One of the people with me, turned to us all with one of those know-it-all looks and said, “That’s really Stephen King.” So as we watched Arnie take down hulking professional killers with his trademark killer puns, we wondered if he was correct. Spoiler: he was.

Decades later I finally got around to reading and enjoying the novel. The movie and the novel were starkly different in so many ways. For starters, no half-starved, poverty stricken Running Man contestant is going to look like Arnie. But many of the themes are the same, if explored in differing ways.

This made The Running Man more than just a standard action film. By exploring the themes of totalitarianism, class subjugation, and media control while Arnie slices a guy in half with a chainsaw, we got a movie that was subversive and satirical. While not on the same level of social commentary as King’s novel, it does stand as an example of how you can do a loose adaptation of source material as an action movie but retain the exploration of themes.

And watch a guy with no pants get electrocuted when the fire sprinklers are set off. Way better than reading the description of Ben Richards’ entrails getting caught on plane seats.

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Hipster Kindle

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I’ve been pulling out my Kindle more often of late. So many advantages, especially when it comes to getting my hands on Advanced Review Copies to read.

Anyone else love their Kindle?

Book Review: Raw Wounds by Matt Hilton

Raw Wounds (Tess Grey & Po Villere, #3)Raw Wounds by Matt Hilton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Blood is thicker than water, unless you stab a relative, then it needs to be washed off with water.

Tess and Po have stumbled upon a potential murder victim and are all set to investigate this puzzling crime when Po receives a call. His dying mother wants to see him. His mother’s husband swore an oath to kill him. The rest of the family is ready to help. Except his sister, who has just gone missing near a new oil pipeline development, who Po has just been tasked to find.

Having been a long time fan of the Joe Hunter series by Matt Hilton, I was keen to read this new series from Matt. Much like the Hunter series, Matt has given us a solid crime thriller with plenty of action. The hard moulded Po is a lived in character, and Tess feeling like someone who is still trying to adjust to her new life as an ex-cop. They feel like good characters to follow for more adventures.

I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Book review: The Devil You Know by KJ Parker

The Devil You KnowThe Devil You Know by K.J. Parker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled? Never messing with a philosopher.

Saloninus is the greatest philosopher of all time. But nearing the end of his life he wants another 20 years to complete his final works. So he does a deal with the devil. But the devil is suspicious. They might have an airtight contract for Saloninus’ soul, but there is something amiss. Is the devil about to be swindled by the greatest thinker?

A couple of years ago my uncle recommended KJ Parker to me. I’ve finally gotten around to reading one of Parker’s books. My uncle clearly has good taste.

This was an interesting and often humorous tale. After a recent letdown with an odious fantasy novel, this was refreshing. Briskly paced, world building without the laborious exposition, and characters that felt like real people, topped off a solid and interesting story. I’ll have to schedule some more KJ Parker reading for the near future.

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Interpreting Book Review Terminology

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Have you ever read a book review and been baffled by the jargon the reviewer uses? Like any profession, book reviewers have their own jargon that is meaningless and annoying to anyone not steeped in the mire of that profession. Since I’m a scientist and science communicator, I’m very familiar with how terrible the media are at explaining science. I’m also familiar with interpreting jargon for an audience. So allow me to elucidate.
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Page-turner: Meets the bare minimum standards for a book.
Gripping: I got this from a library where kids are allowed to play.
Poignant: Something sad happened in this book, most likely a character gets cancer.
Compelling: I spent so much time reading this book I had to finish it despite wanting to hurt myself after every sentence.
Nuanced: I have no idea what this book was about but I liked it.
Lyrical: Should be a poem instead so that it isn’t as long and self-involved.
Tour de force: The book is too long and waffly.
Readable: Boring but better than watching TV.
Haunting: Either used to describe a book that made the reviewer actually think, or, more likely, is meant to make you think but is just pretentious.
Deceptively simple: Could have been written by a 10 year old.
Rollicking: Something actually happens in this book.
Fully realised: The book has a beginning, middle and end.
Timely: Makes passing reference to something that happened 2 years ago.
X meets Y meets Z: The reviewer hasn’t read the book so is quoting the sales blurb.
Sweeping: Long.
That said: I’ve just insulted this entire book but it is popular for some unknown reason (e.g. Twilight).
Riveting: Was able to finish reading it.
Unflinching: Unpleasant.
Powerful: I read the hardcover.
Unputdownable: Reviewer is unfamiliar with English.
Masterfully or Masterful: The author is familiar with English.
Beautifully written: A lot of long words were used.
Startling: Reviewer was surprised the book was published.
Bold: Controversial.
Accessible: Written for kids.
Memorable: Reviewer didn’t have to look up the author or title to write the review.
Epic: Really, really, long.
A tale of loss and redemption: Someone dies, the protagonist gets over it, the end.
Sensuously, seductively, and/or lushly described: Painstakingly boring descriptions of mundane details.
Must read: Bestseller.
What it is to be human: Someone falls in love or someone dies.
Luminous: Has a pretty cover.
Evocative: Not boring or pedantic.
Poetic: Wordy.
Thought provoking: Reviewer is sure the book is cultural or intellectual but didn’t quite get it.
Rollicking roller-coaster: Kids book, or should be.
Provocative: Annoying.
Lends itself to X: Reading the book X was better.
Opinionated: The reviewer disagrees with everything the author has ever written.
Emotional roller-coaster: Nominated for some literary award.
Only minor quibbles: The book sucked.
Stays in your mind long after the last page is turned: Had a bad ending.
Writing at the peak of his/her powers: Much better than the author’s other books.
At once: The reviewer is about to use more than one of these terms in a sentence.
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Also, lets not forget the various terms that are used to tell you what the genre of the book is, rather than just say what the genre is:
Explicit, steamy, romp, raunchy: Erotica or has sex in it.
Charged, taut, woven, layered: Political thriller.
Heart-warming, life-affirming: Romantic drama.
Seamy, gritty, underworld: Crime.
Taut, fast-paced, dynamic: Thriller.
Epic: Fantasy.
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Hope this clears things up a bit.

 

Book review: On Generation and Corruption by Aristotle

On Generation and CorruptionOn Generation and Corruption by Aristotle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not going to review this book. It’s a few thousand years old, I don’t really have anything to add.

What I found interesting about this book was what it got wrong. Obviously Aristotle is one of the most influential thinkers of all time, he was one of the earlier people to grapple with determinism (Democritis and Leucippus got there first). But in Aristotle’s arguments on the Four Causes and the Four Elements, it was interesting that he rejected Leucippus’ and Democritus’ Atomism, a theory that was ultimately proven correct. Which got me to thinking.

How would anyone describe fire – one of the four elements – without our modern knowledge? How would we explain or seek to understand (rationalise) the workings of fire without chemistry, physics, and all of that other knowledge we take for granted?

Reading the arguments melding the four causes and elements into an understanding of change and decay in the modern age, it is easy to point and laugh. Stupid philosophers can’t science! But as I was reading I realised I could counter the arguments only based upon the accumulated knowledge of the natural world. If I was to remove that knowledge and just go by observation, could I do better? The answer is clearly no. At best I could come up with different, but probably not better. Because I’m definitely in the same league as one of the greatest thinkers of all time….

This realisation then had me thinking about how we don’t value our modern age and modern knowledge as much as we should. As Douglas Adams noted, we are surrounded by wonders of technology and science, but could we explain it and rebuild it, or would we have to settle for being a sandwich maker from the stars?

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Book review: Dark Intelligence by Neal Asher

Dark Intelligence (Transformation, #1)Dark Intelligence by Neal Asher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If AI essentially become gods does that make humans the prime mover?

Thorvald Spear died 100 years ago in the war with the Prador. Fortunately, this is the future, so death is less final than it used to be. But Spear is less than happy with how he died at the hands of the black AI, Penny Royal, and decides to destroy it. Along the way he manages to piss off Isobel Satomi, who has also got a carapace to pick with Penny Royal. So she adds Spear to her list of things to destroy. Meanwhile, Penny Royal is up to something, and everyone wants to know what.

This was my first outing with Neal Asher and his Polity universe. Asher was recommended to me by a fellow blogger – Bookstooge – so I found this recent series in the library. There is much I enjoyed about this book, and by extension the universe Asher has created. The details that give this universe a lived in feel, the cyberpunk sensibilities, the interesting sci-fi technology, are all fantastic. The story and characters are also interesting. So why only 3 stars?

There were two things that really stopped me enjoying this novel more: the length; and the anachronisms.

Sci-fi has a habit of being long because someone decided that that was okay for spec-fic genres. Dark Intelligence made me notice that this was a long book. Usually if you are really enjoying a book, the length goes unnoticed. So I had the sense that there was too much padding, unnecessary exposition, and side plots. It all fits together nicely, but I’m sure that this could come in much shorter without losing anything.

The second problem I had was with the constant anachronisms. Sounds being described as like a domino being slapped on the board… because dominoes is so popular right now, let alone a few centuries into the future. The Polity universe is filled with hyper-intelligent AIs that can do just about anything… but apparently cars still need a human to drive them. Tesla had that covered two years ago. After noticing one anachronism the floodgates opened, to the point where I started to question if this was Asher having a joke. But I doubt this is the case, since he criticised Greg Bear for doing the same thing in a book review.

Perhaps I’ll enjoy The Skinner more, which Bookstooge originally recommended.

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The Art of Comics

Do you like comics? I’m not talking about movies based on comics. I’m not talking about comic fandom that can only be solved Utopia style. I’m talking about the art of storytelling that only the mix of art and narrative can manage.

How Utopia deals with comic fans:

I have previously discussed how some fail to give due respect to comics and graphic novels. The TL/DR is that literary snobs don’t like non-worthy genres to be discussed. I mean, how dare someone dilute words with pictures! Yet the comic format allows for a form of storytelling that other mediums would love to have. Literally showing can condense a novel to a few dozen pages whilst retaining all of the important details, as I discussed in my review of the Parker comics. Text can be used in a way that neither movies nor novels can utilise. An example is the way authors construct their ideas into sentences, paragraphs, and chapters to transition between ideas and moments. When you add the visual artwork you can add effect and impact to those transitions, ideas, and moments. You can’t do that in other mediums. Well, unless you’re Edgar Wright merging movies and comics.

The way the art is used to tell a story is an often overlooked aspect of comics and graphic novels. This is despite the fact that the art is their most distinguishing feature. That and the impossible physiques covered in spandex.

As an example, I’d like to share a page from a comic I bought when I was 10.* On this page is a panel that has stuck with me as an example of the combination of art and narrative. Comics can do this so easily. It would make movies jealous – unless they have the CGI budget. No big illustrated fight scene. No words like ZAP or KAPOW as a blow is struck. And within the context of this larger story, the minimalism is an important narrative device.

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From Batman #422 – Just Deserts (1988)

Obviously, this is just one example that lead to my formative appreciation of the comic book medium.* As much as many formative appreciations of comic books are based around the erotic art work… sorry, lost my train of thought.

For another example of the combination of art and story, Nerdwriter made a particularly good video discussing Maus and how it is constructed as a story and piece of art. Every frame, every image, the whole page, has meaning.

When it comes to discussing the literary and artistic merit of comics the discussion often never moves past the capes, spandex, and insecurity inducing bulges. Some articles have argued that if we let graphic novels into literature we have to let in everything. They must defend Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works. But comics are far more than the superficial observations of those dismissing them.

Well, at least I think they are cool.

*Please appreciate this post. It took me ages to figure out which comic I had owned. During high school we were asked to bring in a comic book to be part of a creative writing project in English class. The class never eventuated and the comics were never returned to us. As a result I couldn’t remember the details of this comic, and since there are a lot of Batman comics, it took a lot of effort to track down.

This also opened an old wound created by that high school English class. The wound of crushed creativity. The promise of being taught creative writing that went unfulfilled for decades. But thank goodness we got to learn how to write essays about ee cummings in Lit class instead.

Writing in Western Australia

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Two months ago (November 2017) the Western Australian Government released its Writing Sector Review. Okay, most of the readers here are international, so you’re probably shrugging your shoulders and reaching for an atlas – atlases are still a thing, right? But after my recent post on support for the arts (I was in favour as long as the support was for all authors, not just those deemed worthy/literary enough), I thought this review highlighted many of the same points and might be interesting.

Okay, that’s probably my West Aussie bias talking. But if it is a problem, just mentally substitute your local area name in place of Western Australia. The points raised appear to be universal. Well, Earthiversal. Well, Writerversial.

The Department of Culture and The Arts had nine recommendations in their report:

Recommendation 1: Maintain current levels of State Government funding to the writing sector
This point is at odds with the rest of the list. Lots of new stuff to fund but no extra funding to go with it. But I guess this is why they are writers and not economists.

Recommendation 2: Create a hub for writing and creative thinking at the State Library of Western Australia building
This makes sense, especially if this extends resources out to the larger library network in the state. And a coffee machine, this needs a coffee machine to be a creative hub.

Recommendation 3: Conduct a distinctive annual Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards The Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards
This is something that used to happen, but became biennial. I’ll have more to say on this point, mark my words.

Recommendation 4: Use investment in the writing sector to achieve synergies with existing Statewide library services to extend and enhance community engagement in the reading of Western Australian writers
Honestly, why wasn’t this already a thing? “Sorry, we don’t have room for you West Aussie authors on the shelves, James Patterson just published 12 new books.”

Recommendation 5: Foster professional development for writers to enable them to navigate the increasingly complex areas of rights and multimedia opportunities
This is already available, but an expansion would be welcome news to all of the state scribblers. The isolation of Western Australia from the rest of Australia, let alone the rest of the world, is something that needs to be addressed. I wonder if there is a world wide… network that could be used in some way to facilitate this.

Recommendation 6: Foster an environment to maximise the potential of Western Australian writers to be published
Like reminding the rest of the world that we exist. Or giving us decent internet. Or a can with a string attached.

Recommendation 7: Enhance data collection about Western Australian writing to provide benchmarks and evidence for policy development
Enhance? Starting would be good. As noted in the report, the Australia Bureau of Statistics stopped collecting data in 2003-04. Also great to see a report admitting they didn’t have evidence to base their recommendations upon.

Recommendation 8: Provide support for screen writing and playwriting
Aside from all of those tax breaks that film and theatre already get….

Recommendation 9: Establish writer-in-residence opportunities at National Trust properties (Source)
This is a specific focus thing about promoting literature with a local history emphasis. I’m sure that will make someone happy. Like sleep medicine specialists.

The overall emphasis of the report is that Western Australia isn’t a cultural backwater yet it is treated as one. So the state government should do something about that by promoting locals writers, local stories, and more people to wear neck scarves and beret caps.

This is very similar to the calls from The Guardian last month, which I covered in my recent post, Literary Fiction in Crisis. The government should be doing more to support, develop, and nurture artists. The publishing industry are somehow not being asked to do this. Apparently they are all tapped out, and definitely not owned by the biggest and most profitable media organisations.

There are a couple of big assumptions built into this report. The first most obvious one is that Western Australia isn’t a cultural backwater. Having lived here my entire life, I can confirm we are a backwater, and not just culturally. I think we need to accept this fact. Maybe if we grabbed a couple of cold beers and watched some sport it would help us get over ourselves.

The second big assumption is that writers in Western Australia are worth funding. Why? What exactly is the government trying to promote with this funding? Is there a return on investment intended? These things aren’t really defined, just asserted as true. Now, don’t get me wrong, everyone loves a government handout, just ask the banks who nearly destroyed the world’s economy. But I’d like to think that this funding is a bit better justified than it appears.

The other big assumption is that support should be directed at literary works. This is a common theme to these reports and the articles I discussed previously.  The report recommends the Premier’s Book Awards be annual again, which they want to be used to promote West Aussie authors and Western Australia as a successful writing habitat – possibly with the inclusion of an emphasis on “emerging” and “developing” authors. I note that they aren’t proposing to support genre authors, nor have awards to promote them.

Why wasn’t there a conclusion that the Premier’s Book Awards should include Spec-Fic, Crime, Thriller, Romance, and YA segments? Are these not worthy? Do these genres lack enough subplots about recovering from cancer and relationships with cats? Because we can fix that.

As I noted in my Literary Fiction in Crisis piece, we could acknowledge that arts are an important aspect of our culture and support ALL artists with grants – not just the “important” literary ones. The initiatives that are meant to grow and sustain the writing sector always seem to be only for part of the writing sector. IF writing is to receive government assistance then it would be nice to see it not playing favourites without some damned good justifications. Until then it appears that some animals are more equal than others.

5.1 CONCLUSIONS

In framing initiatives that will grow and sustain the writing sector, the following issues arising from the research and consultation process have influenced the consultants’ advice.

 The creative process – the act of writing – is severely hampered by lack of time and money

 Market development is a critical issue for everyone working in this sector in Australia, and one which WA needs to address with some urgency. WA’s isolation from decision-makers and peergroups exacerbates this

 Proximity to Asia and the alignment of significant time zones offers a considerable opportunity for WA writers (and to the creative industries in WA more generally)

 Market forces are causing publishers to become more conservative and mean they are not building writers careers in the same way. How is this gap to be filled?

 Collaboration between allied and sometimes competing parties is an emerging model in Australia and internationally. With the disruption of internet and digital technologies there is a greater need for publishers to cooperate and negotiate with other firms, including competitors, or others such as games, software and media companies in order to create new products.

 For emerging and small publishers, distribution can be a major hurdle

 Self-publishing without an experienced guiding hand is a minefield for new writers

 While authors still seek traditional publisher relationships there has been an increase in publishing innovation and technology driving new models. Australian publishers are experimenting across digital platforms with changes to royalty and subscription agreements, and providing free ebook downloads which helps make niche publishing projects viable

 Digital opportunities are encouraging a more direct relationship between writers and readers, publishers and readers, booksellers and readers

 Sales opportunities in the digital marketplace do not fundamentally alter the economics of publishing but have provided more opportunities for scholarly publishers

 The WA writing sector is supported by a range of community-based writers’ centres, facilitating organisations and by writingWA

 Throughout WA there are also 231 public libraries which provide a nexus for writers and readers in a geographically challenging state.

 There is a strong regional literary festival culture in regional WA – often initiated or supported by the public library. Geraldton, Kununurra, Avon Valley, Broome, Margaret River and Mandurah Festivals are all initiatives of, or have strong links with, their public libraries, and funding from DCA, DRD and Royalties for Regions, delivered via writingWA

 The history and capacity for publishing Aboriginal stories by Aboriginal people is a strength of WA writing

 There is a need to increase the diversity of voices and participants in the writing community

 Recent and current infrastructure developments, plus the proposed reconfiguration of SLWA offer opportunities for increased writing-based activity and activation

 Changes to governance arrangements at Screenwest and its greater emphasis on the telling of WA stories offer opportunities for writers

I Before E, Except…

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That’s right. Never trust anything the grammarians say, with their “rules” and mnemonics.

Apparently the 923 words figure comes from a QI fan who crunched the numbers from Scrabble. Most of the words are more obscure, so the rule is probably okay for the average person, and invaluable to football commentators.

Literary Fiction in Crisis

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Literary Fiction in Crisis was the headline lede for a series of articles in The Guardian last month. Long known as a balanced and inclusive arts publication (/sarcasm) they sought to highlight a serious problem and a solution for literary fiction.

In case you haven’t heard, people aren’t reading literary fiction. Book sales are dropping. I covered this in my post on Australian Fiction, and US Fiction, and the Guardian article covered the UK figures in its first piece in the series.

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Let’s try not to think too hard about sales being in value terms and not volume. I mean, ebooks aren’t usually priced cheaper or anything and would hardly contribute to this revenue figure whilst being more profitable. Clearly we need to get onto blaming the real culprits. Stupid kids these days are playing Tweeters and Facepage instead of buying books.

One reason suggested by the report for the decline in literary fiction sales is the recession, happening at the same time as the rise of cheap and easy entertainment. “In comparison with our smartphones, literary fiction is often ‘difficult’ and expensive: it isn’t free, and it requires more concentration than Facebook or Candy Crush,” the report’s authors write.

Won’t someone thinking of the starving artists!!

The researchers looked at the 10,000 bestselling fiction titles over the last five years and found: “Outside of the top 1,000 authors (at most), printed book sales alone simply cannot provide a decent income. While this has long been suspected, the data shows unambiguously that it is the case. … What’s more, this is a generous assessment. After the retailer, distributor, publisher and agent have taken their cut, there won’t be a lot of money left from 3,000 sales of the 1,000th bestselling title. That we are returning to a position where only the best-off writers can support themselves should be a source of deep concern.”

OMG, you’re telling me that artists have to have day jobs?* Oh the humanity! Surely this must be a new thing… Unless it has literally always been a thing. If only there was a graphic somewhere that could highlight the proportion of authors who make a living writing…

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Source: A 3.5 year old Guardian article…

The second article covers some of the same ground before highlighting a couple of important points.

This continuity imperative has long been built into the foundations of commercial publishers, who expect many of their most successful writers to cough up a book a year. And as publishing has become more centralised, with much of its power now concentrated in three giant conglomerates, it has become more ruthless.

The brutal truth is that through the 1980s and 90s it was possible for the literary novelist to make a living on advances that didn’t “earn out”. They were supported by an old-fashioned value system that sanctioned the write-off of losses for the kudos of association with an “important” writer and a belief that literary value could be offset against the profits of more pragmatic publishing.

These points are ones which are not made often enough. In an industry that runs on the work of part-timers (88.5%), the proceeds to these employees are decreasing, the time commitments are increasing, and the investment in their careers is decreasing. Where are the three articles criticising this problem?

Of course, we need to steer the ship away from that iceberg of issues. The second article instead makes the argument that the UK Arts Council should fund more authors (and let’s assume the implication is that other governments around the world should do the same).

Unlike the performing arts, publishing has always been a largely commercial sector that has had to square its own circles. This is reflected in the fact that it gets only 7% of the funding cake handed out by the Arts Council, compared with 23% to theatre and 11% to dance.

Personally, I want to see Arts Council funding to be decided in a Thunderdome. It would be great to see starving artists facing off against one another for grants. The fit and agile dancers doing battle against the people who spend all day sitting and typing. They could stream it on Pay Per View and raise some extra arts funds.

There will be those who argue that this just shows that literary fiction is a hangover from the past, and the poor dears should knuckle down and resign themselves to writing what people actually want to read. But few would dare to make the same argument about experimental theatre or dance.

Yes, I’d argue this. And I would dare to make the same argument for theatre and dance. Thun-der-dome, Thun-dur-dome, Thun-der-dome!

The third article in this series makes just this argument – just to be clear, for writing what people want to read, not fighting in the Thunderdome. It doesn’t mince words and goes straight for the jugular.

Following the announcement from Arts Council England that sales of literary fiction are plummeting, it is suggested that arts subsidies be deployed to help writers survive. I have another idea. They should write better books.

This article goes on to imply that literary authors could put some effort into writing stuff people want to read, mainly via utilising compelling plots, which the author feels is a major flaw in literary works. I think he misses an important point. Authors can write whatever they want. But I do agree that authors can’t expect to earn a living from this unpopular writing, nor have people like it, nor have it be accepted as appropriate (e.g. racism). Pleasing a small club of literary snobs with worthy books doesn’t entitle authors to a full-time career.

Of course, nobody is proposing supporting genre authors. They aren’t writing important fiction and are thus not real authors. They deserve to starve! This is the main issue I have with the argument to fund literary fiction. Somehow we’ve glossed over all the authors who aren’t making a living writing genre, as though they have nothing to contribute to society, and are thus unworthy of arts funding. Admittedly, a very good study, mentioned in the second article, does show there are clear empathy differences between readers of genre and literary novels** – although why is still a question to be answered. So there is an argument to be made for literature support.

As I see it, there are a few paths we could tread. The reading industry could acknowledge that most authors are part-timers and do more to support this reality while they balance a day job with their art. Or we can acknowledge that arts are an important aspect of our culture and support ALL artists with grants – not just the “important” literary ones. This latter option could be easily and justifiably funded by taking government funding out of popular high level sports – i.e. no more free stadiums for you football! Let’s just hope that sports doesn’t go up against arts in the Thunderdome.

*Side note: we could probably even refer to the artistic projects as the Side Hustle. This piece by Zen Pencils is quite good and captures the idea behind the author dream.

**Worth reading this paper, which I’ve linked directly. I expected this to be a small sample, poorly analysed, poorly reasoned, paper that was written to elevate snobbery with pseudoscience. It was actually a very solid study. Although, it is worth noting that literary merit was on a spectrum, so literary could be found in many titles. This included Raymond Chandler in the top third of literary titles, which surprised me (last spot was James Patterson, which should surprise no one).

Book vs Movie: Oldboy – What’s the Difference?

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This month in CineFix’s series What’s the Difference? they cover Oldboy. Live octopus not included.

Not having read the Manga, I don’t really have much to add to the above video. The film is amazing. It redefined “off-the-wall” and managed to make it compelling watching.

Let’s not talk about the Spike Lee remake. Because it wasn’t very good. Although, because it is an American adaptation of a South Korean adaptation of a Japanese work, it can be interesting in an intercultural sense. This article is very interesting in that regard.

Best Adaptations of All Time?

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In keeping with my monthly series of posts on book adaptations – Book vs Movie – I thought I’d share this CineFix video as my last post before the Festive Break. They cover a lot of great adaptations, even mentioning a few I was unaware were adaptations.

Thanks to my readers and commenters for dropping by this year. I hope you all enjoy whatever Holiday tradition you celebrate. Best wishes from me to you.

Now let’s argue over whether this video has missed any of our favourite movies based upon books.

Book review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer (Sprawl, #1)Neuromancer by William Gibson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you directly influence the creation of cyberpunk, The Matrix, the term cyberspace, and popularising the term ICE, does that mean you get a pass on influencing dubstep?

Case is your average run-of-the-mill washed-up loser. On his way to drug addled death after his hacking career is cut short, he is recruited to perform the ultimate hack. Patched back together with new organs, he joins a team recruited to help an AI.

I feel like I’m being unfair in my rating for Neuromancer. This is one of those classic novels that deserves the praise it receives. The influence this novel has had on science fiction, particularly upon film, is hard to overstate. It is also easy to underestimate the skill of Gibson’s writing. For example, just before starting Neuromancer I tried (and failed) to read a sci-fi novel with a similar level of world building and interesting ideas. Where that novel failed in being able to make the jargon feel natural, and the explanations flow, Gibson succeeds. His narrative isn’t bogged down by the world building the way many others can be.

Having said that, Neuromancer didn’t grab me. It was entertaining enough to keep me reading, but not enough to have me rating it higher. I’d imagine that had I read this novel 20-30 years earlier my opinion would be different. It is the curse of being the original that everyone copies. At some point people like myself won’t be wowed because they’ve seen it all before by the time they read the progenitor.

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Book Review: The Call of Cthulhu by HP Lovecraft

The Call of CthulhuThe Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Why choose the lesser evil? Vote Cthulhu.

Francis Thurston starts fossicking through his uncle’s things and discovers some notes and a carving. Fascinated, he searches high and low to uncover the origins of the carving. Soon he is traversing the world to uncover a cult and the being they worship. Things only get better from there on in.

It is hard to review a classic work of fiction. Usually, there are only a few paths open to you:
1) Fawning sycophancy;
2) A belligerent dismissal of the work as rubbish which avoids engaging in anything other than superficial comment;
3) Overly detailed comment and critique that ends up being worthy of a Masters dissertation that no-one will bother reading and just assume you did #2 (i.e. a complete waste of time);
4) A review that is clearly based on having watched the movie adaptation.

The reasons that this is a hugely influential work are clear. The mystery being uncovered with a slow reveal. The dense and subtle narrative. The gradual rise in tension as we come to the realisation. It is also a bleak comment on human existence and our insignificance. But there is also the use of the memoir narrative that appears to have been very popular in speculative fiction in the past. For me, this style removes both the narrator and the reader from the events of the story, which removes much of the tension and emotion.

I feel comfortable saying my rating is “good but not great” because Lovecraft himself described this as a middling effort.

giphy

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Book review: Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

Odd Thomas (Odd Thomas, #1)Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book Pitch: The kid from The Sixth Sense grows up to become a short-order cook.

Odd Thomas lives just above the poverty line in a small town. He works as a short-order cook, driver for Elvis’ ghost, and ad hoc homicide consultant. When a creepy guy surrounded by bodachs enters his restaurant, he starts to uncover a plot to stage a mass shooting. Yes, the small town is in the USA; how did you guess? With the help of his soulmate, Stormy, he tries to stop this evil from happening.

Ever since I watched the Odd Thomas movie on Netflix – starring Anton Yelchin – I have been meaning to read some Dean Koontz. My last Koontz outing was….. many years ago in the form of Night Chills. For some reason, despite finding Night Chills enjoyable and highly memorable, I’ve not come back to Koontz. Well, the drought has been broken.

Despite enjoying Odd Thomas, I still have reservations. The narrative is told in the memoir narrator style, something that robs the book of tension, yet still manages to provide a twist. The story itself feels drawn out, with a lot of detail put into things that probably don’t matter. So I’m left wondering if I’d prefer to try something like Phantoms rather than the next Odd Thomas novel. Probably won’t take me another 30 years to read the next Koontz though.

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Book Review: Solomon Creed By Simon Toyne

Solomon Creed (Solomon Creed, #1)Solomon Creed by Simon Toyne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When people have had enough of a white guy as the hero, make them an albino.

Solomon Creed, dressed in a handmade suit sans shoes, is walking into the desert town of Redemption when a plane crashes on the road behind him. And then he’s running away from the fire and into a town of crooked business leaders and cops. Solomon is here to save a man who was just buried. Guess he’ll just have to save the town instead.

When I spotted this novel on my local library shelf I was intrigued. After the opening few chapters, I was strapped in and ready for more. But somewhere along the way, I started noticing things that lowered my enjoyment of this thriller. There is a brisk pace to Toyne’s writing, and that is coupled with short chapters and plenty of action. Though the pacing is oddly coupled with a drawing out of events, and some scenes that feel like diversions from the narrative. For example, the opening fire is still raging until 30% of the way through the novel, which means we don’t really narratively move forward despite plenty occurring.

The other part that didn’t work for me was the final “twist”. While there were hints of the supernatural dropped throughout the novel, the last supernatural elements that tied the plot together and told us who Solomon Creed was (kinda) felt like they weren’t foreshadowed well enough. This could just be me being mean to a novel I was only half enjoying, but it could also be why I was only half enjoying it.

Those comments aside, this is a fast-paced thriller, and it does offer a slightly different take on the Knight Errant or Walking the Earth stories.

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Book review: King Solomon’s Curse by Andy McDermott

King Solomon's Curse (Nina Wilde & Eddie Chase #13)King Solomon’s Curse by Andy McDermott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Do lost cities get social media pages when they are discovered so archaeologists can check-in?

Nina and Eddie are again inexplicably searching for the lost relics of myth and legend. This time King Solomon’s lost treasures – which have previously not turned up, because reasons – are the McGuffins that could fall into the wrong hands. What could possibly go wrong with a post-Brexit rogue MI6 (SIS) spy and a Congolese warlord hot on your tail?

It has been a while since I’ve read a Nina Wilde and Eddie Chase adventure. The last Andy McDermott novel I read was the excellent Persona Protocol. Slipping back into the cozy comfort of a Nina and Eddie novel wasn’t just welcoming but reminded me I’ve missed this. Implausible and over-the-top is something very few authors manage to keep interesting, but Andy does it with ease. I hope Andy doesn’t start phoning these Artefact McGuffin Adventures in, I’m looking forward to reading more.

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Let’s bash the ‘airport’ novel

Sir Ken Robinson - Do schools kill creativity?

Do you like backhanded compliments?
Do you like to make basic mistakes and misrepresentations of the entertainment industry?
Well, you’ll love this article by Nick Cohen.

The genius of bad books
By Nick Cohen

From James Bond to Jack Reacher, we’re suckers for an uncomplicated hero. But there is an art to the action novel, writes Nick Cohen

Anyone who believes the human race is rational should try introducing themselves to strangers as an author. You do not need to do it too many times before someone says, “I need to make money. I’m thinking of writing a bestseller.”

I may be early into my author career with only a handful of published short stories under my belt, but that does allow me to brag complain mention that I’m an author. Clearly Nick finds himself in the company of very different people to myself. Sure, the average person has a lot of misconceptions about being an author, just as I’m sure I have misconceptions about what it means to be a politician – they kiss babies to find the tastiest ones for dinner, right?

They do not understand that they have more chance of winning the lottery. Countless millions have written novels no publisher will touch. Of the thousands of hopeful thrillers, rom-coms and sex-and-glamour blockbusters published each year, only a few will sell 50,000 or more. Fifty thousand is only the capacity of fair-sized football stadium, but it is a more than respectable sale for a book. At the top of the pyramid are the genuine blockbusters: the few books that fly off the stands. And if those odds aren’t daunting enough to the person in front of you, clutching a glass and expecting fame and money, you need to tell them best-selling authors must have talent too.

Replace author with literally any other career path. Of the millions of scientists hopeful of winning a Nobel Prize only a few will ever win one. Of the millions of junior footballers only a few will ever be paid to play before a packed crowd in a football stadium. And of course, no Nobel Prize winner, nor any footballer would ever be accused of having talent. I hope no-one paid money for this article to be written.

To the educated, the idea that the airport thrillers I find myself picking up despite my better instincts are written by talented authors is absurd. It is their clumsy writing and formulaic plots that make everyone believe they can knock one out. They are not GK Chesterton’s “good-bad books” – the Sherlock Holmes or Jeeves and Wooster stories, which are read and loved after works that are more serious are forgotten. No one reads Alistair MacLean, Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins today. The fate of the airport novel is to be everywhere and then nowhere. Their authors flare and then vanish. I know it, so why do I, like so many others, still put aside worthwhile books for trash? No book sells in millions by chance. Their authors have something that readers cannot find elsewhere, or at the very least struggle to find elsewhere.

I really do take issue with the term airport thrillers and its sister term airport novels. There is an inherent invective in these terms as they are almost always used as a pejorative. The implication is that no-one would read these novels if they weren’t going to be bored out of their minds, stuck at 9,150 metres in a metal tube for endless hours. Whilst the descriptor is widely used and conjures to mind the sort of titles you see in airport bookstores, it is another version of the worthiness argument. Another defence of Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works.

To start with the assertion that these are Lesser Works and then further asserting the evidence is in the “clumsy writing and formulaic plots” is fallacious. At a glance you could mistake this for an evidenced argument, but we’re just told this is the case. What Nick is actually complaining about here is the popularity of novels that are primarily written to be entertaining. It’s like saying that all TV dramas are rubbish because they aren’t super serious documentaries about WW2. But those two genres are trying to achieve two very different things, so of course they will have differing approaches.

“You can be 50 pages into a Jack Reacher novel before you realise you have already read it”

Sorry, is this pull-out quote meant to be an insult or compliment? Is this meant to suggest Lee Child’s writing is similar between books, or that you’re so wrapped up in the opening pages you don’t realise you’ve already read it?

Every time I finish a Jack Reacher novel, I wonder why I have wasted my time. The Reacher stories are like pornography. They grip you while you read them then leave you with a feeling of futility and shame at the end. Lee Child is so determined to churn out a book a year he recycles his plots: a particular favourite is the villain who organises an apparently crazed serial killing so the police never guess that he was only in cold-blooded pursuit of one of the dead. So similar are his stories that you can be 50 pages into a Reacher novel before you realise you have already read it.

I hate to break it to Nick (not that he is likely to read this) but there are only a handful of plots. Six story arcs. Even if you don’t look at the story arc and just at the plot premise you still don’t get many. Lee Child has written twenty-two Jack Reacher novels (to-date) so of course they are going to feel the same – I’ve even said as much in my review of Make Me. What Nick is actually complaining about here is that Lee Child unashamedly writes commercial fiction with the intention of entertaining rather than having more literary pretensions. I mean, how dare he!

Yet Child has sold more than 100 million copies because he has a talent beyond the ability to construct a convincing plot and describe action – skills which on their own are far harder to learn than those who breezily think they can write a blockbuster imagine. His hero can beat anyone in a fistfight. He loves guns and knows how to use them. He is strong, largely silent, entirely self-sufficient, clever, honourable and always on the side of justice. He never suffers a moment of doubt about the righteousness of killing wrong-doers, and he never needs counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder when he has dispatched them. Such men have been heroes from Homer through the knights of Arthurian legend to the cowboys of Hollywood’s golden age. They are almost entirely absent from today’s fiction, because our age regards men of violence with understandable wariness. Although the modern world is preferable in every respect to societies that mythologise warriors, there remains a yearning for the old heroes, and not just among male readers. Jack Reacher is a modern Hercules or knight errant. Child has found that readers respond to stories of violence without guilt in a world without complexity as enthusiastically as their ancestors did.

headscratch

Highlighted a WTF? moment. Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen bestselling thriller authors with at least one vigilante hero series. To suggest the vigilante hero – which Nick rightly pointed out dates back to the Ancient Greek myths – is somehow absent from modern fiction suggests Nick is ignorant of the topic he is writing on.

This point is illustrative of a very basic flaw with this attack on “airport thrillers”. He hasn’t even stooped to familiarising himself with the topic. As such, his article is the opinion of the uninformed. Kinda like saying Terry Pratchett was a hack when you haven’t read any of his books – but nobody would ever do something that stupid in a major news publication…

A decade ago, Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novels sold almost as well as Child’s novels do now. They have equally far-fetched plots. The most telling and unconvincing is the willingness of beautiful women to sleep with the shabby middle-aged journalist hero, who, strangely enough, sounds rather like Larsson. Granted, they are more thoughtful than the Reacher novels, but I would be astonished if they survived.

It is greatly insulting to compare Larsson to Child. The latter is a writer with very few peers. The former proved that anyone could have a bestseller if Oprah recommended it. And this isn’t just an assertion on my part, Lee Child isn’t just one of the bigger bestselling authors. Child manages to retain more of his readers with each instalment of his Reacher series than his peers. Where a John Grisham or Stephen King are getting 40% of their audience to read their next instalment, Patricia Cornwall manages 50%, and Lee Child has the strongest brand with 70%. Or put another way, Lee Child’s readers really like his books, and Nick is bashing the wrong thriller author.

“Lisbeth Salander may be a cartoon character, but she foreshadowed today’s explosion of feminist activism”

This is a sentence only a white guy on the internet could write. I guess he’s never heard of the suffrage movement, or the electoral and social reform movements, and the reproductive rights movement. Referring to the fourth wave of feminism in this way is kinda cute. At this point I’m starting to wonder if Nick actually researches any topics he deems to write about.

Yet, once again, beneath all the murders and conspiracies, Larsson had a kind of truth to tell, and news to bring. He understood how computers could be hacked to devastating effect long before Edward Snowden. Moreover, his heroine, Lisbeth Salander, who doesn’t “hate men, just men who hate women”, may be a cartoon character, but she foreshadowed today’s explosion of feminist activism.
The king of the airport bookstands at present is Terry Hayes’s I Am Pilgrim. It is the best thriller I have read in years, in part because it deals with Islamist terrorism. Most film, television and literary thrillers avoid the subject for reasons that are honourable in their way. Writers do not want to stir anti-Muslim prejudice, or are appalled by the west’s wars after 9/11. They are also constrained, although they rarely admit it, by their ignorance of religious fanaticism. Hence, Jason Bourne fights his employers in the CIA and James Bond fights shadowy conspiracies of powerful westerners. The combined effect of these good motives is strange, however. Real spies worry about radical Islam more than any other threat. Fictional spies barely think about it. Hayes succeeds, not because he is a better writer than his contemporaries are, but because he addresses fears that his rivals, both highbrow and lowbrow, cannot bring themselves to face, and spends the time needed to research and create a plausible Islamist villain.

This is again a great example of Nick’s ignorance of the thriller genre. I’ve reviewed one thriller in the past year that used Islamic terrorists as the villains, and I haven’t even been focussed on thrillers. My reading has jumped over just about every genre. Nic can’t really be trying.

Also, not sure if he is aware, but the FBI is concerned about white supremacists (and other domestic terrorists) more than ISIS et al. The former chief of MI6 (actually called SIS, but let’s go with the name people know from the movies) called Trump the biggest threat, a view supported by the US intelligence community. I suppose you might say radical Islam ranks Top 5, if you just pretend religion drives terrorism like Nick does here, rather than it being more complicated than that… If it isn’t obvious, Islam is one of Nick’s trigger issues. He can’t help but throw a few stones at it every chance he gets. Pity he doesn’t seem to be informed on this topic either.

“The first person an author must sell a book to is himself or herself”

Yeah, it’s a zero sum game. And I’m sure this sentence seemed really profound before it become a pull-out quote.

He believes in his story, in other words, as all successful authors must. You can hide in an article or a web posting of 1,000-words or so. Those who think they can write a bestseller do not understand that there is no hiding place in a novel of 100,000 words or more. The first person an author must sell a book to is himself or herself. If they don’t believe in their story, no one else will. If they are following formula, their insincerity will out.

What Nick is trying to articulate here is that it is harder to write a novel than an article or other short piece. There is more to a novel, it has to be more substantial, and it has to engage the audience for much longer. He isn’t wrong here, just dancing around the point like Mick Jagger on LSD.

I accept that I risk sounding naively romantic about a publishing business without a shred of romance in it. So let me stress that I am not arguing that an author’s sincerity guarantees that a book will be good or even publishable.

Nor am I saying authors must sincerely believe their story is a realistic or even quarter-way realistic portrait of the world. The thrillers that sell in their millions are by any sensible standard ridiculous. The forces of law and order are either corrupt or asleep on the job. Western societies endure extraordinary levels of violence, and are threatened with worse, even though by historical standards they are more peaceful now than they have ever been.

So only very serious works are worthy? Because the attempted point appears to be that the premise of thrillers are unrealistic, which is somehow bad. I sure hope Nick doesn’t stray into the speculative fiction, romance, or political biography sections of the bookstore. Talk about unrealistic stuff!

You can claim that every device their authors use is false. Every device, that is, except one. They must believe in their books so that, if only for a moment, their readers can too. To put it another way, if you want to show a lone agent taking out a crime gang or saving America from a biological attack, you had better be able to convince yourself that he can.

Yeah, that’s not how it works, Nick. It’s called a plot contrivance and audience buy-in. You don’t have to convince people, they just have to accept it as plausible in the fictional work they are reading. This is Fiction 101 stuff. He must have slept through that class.

At some level, all popular writers share a similar delusion. Barbara Cartland believed that princes would come for virtuous girls who waited, and Ian Fleming thought that men could be James Bond. The best airport thriller writers are no less lost in make-believe.

Again, this isn’t about any delusion. This is about the craft of telling any fictional story, especially stories that are fantastical. Or put another way, the first authors to write about space travel were delusional by Nick’s estimation. But many of those authors were particularly prescient and even inspired rocket scientists to make space travel possible. Those authors never deluded themselves that space travel was possible at that time, but they were still able to convincingly tell a story that inspired it to become possible. And the moon still counts as space travel. Even though that isn’t anywhere near as cool as the ideas we have in fiction.

Rational people may want the advances, but cannot begin to imitate the immersion in fantasy. For that, perhaps, they should be grateful.

Nick Cohen
Nick Cohen is a journalist, author and political commentator. He is a columnist for the Observer, a blogger for the Spectator and TV critic for Standpoint magazine. His books include You Can’t Read This Book, What’s Left? and Pretty Straight Guys
@NickCohen4

Honestly, I could write a piece every week discussing one of these articles. They are written because people will read them. We love to pretend to be intellectual as we deride someone’s favourite movies, books, TV shows, art, etc. But where real critique and discourse would offer insight, and thus informed judgement, these articles never elevate themselves above unsupported assertions. They are merely attacks against the invading Lesser Works to keep Fort Literature safe.

The main problem with Nick’s brain droppings is that he is mistaking his subjective view for being objective. There is a level of snobbery to his derision of Lee Child (and other “airport novels”), something I’ve taken issue with previously. But it also displays the pseudo-intellectual nature of his arguments and his ignorance of the genre he is criticising.

We’re not just talking about Nick’s displays of ignorance about “airport thrillers” or the other highlighted inaccuracies. He is also blithely unaware of what makes art and how the aesthetics of art are appreciated. It could be argued, and has been, that art being enjoyed is subjective and multifaceted. But there is also an objective measure of art, part of the culturally shared aesthetic and the understanding of the art form. For example, we can recognise when a book has spelling and grammatical errors, we can spot confusing sentences and may have trouble interpreting what the author is trying to say. So there is an objective measure of art. But how do you compare a literary novel to a Jack Reacher thriller? You have to make subjective divisions and distinctions that is more about individual enjoyment or appreciation than it is about objective aesthetics.

In short: just because you like something doesn’t make it better than what someone else likes.

Further to that, Nick fails to set forth a proper argument with clear divisions and distinctions (probably due to ignorance on his part) with which to argue his central premise. “The genius of bad books…. there is an art to the action novel” remains largely unsupported because his points could apply to any novel in any genre. At no stage does he define what the art is to the action novel, and thus what sets it apart from whatever thing he thinks is superior art.

Book review: Richard Stark’s Parker by Darwyn Cooke




Richard Stark's Parker: Slayground
Richard Stark’s Parker Series by Darwyn Cooke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Please…they’ll kill me.”
“I’ll kill you…worry about me.”

A long time ago Donald Westlake (aka Richard Stark) imagined an imposing figure with large hands storming over the bridge into New York. Who was he? Why was he so pissed off? Who was he intending to kill? And so was born Parker.

Fast forward past 24 novels, 8 film adaptations, and countless impersonators and homages, and we come to this graphic novel series by Darwyn Cooke. I’m not a fan of most of the film adaptations of the Parker novels as they don’t seem to understand the material – although Payback – Straight up: The Director’s Cut was pretty close to getting it right. But Cooke did understand the material.

This series didn’t just adapt the novels to the graphic novel format, it improved upon them. The artwork especially captured the grit of the original stories. This was done without compromising on the story, remaining very faithful to the originals.

I have previously read The Hunter, The Outfit, and Slayground, and managed to get my hands on an Omnibus edition to read The Score and re-read the others. It was a treat. At the end of Slayground is a short adaptation of The Seventh, a novella I have previously read. Cooke managed to capture much of the story with just a few panels on a handful of pages. I think this short work is emblematic of the skilful artwork and storytelling Cooke has brought to these adaptations.

Unfortunately both Cooke and Westlake are not longer with us. Just as there will be no more Parker novels, there will be no more graphic novel adaptations by Cooke. It is a pity.

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