I’ve been reading lots of middle-aged bloke’s books recently: The Mask of Demetrios by Eric Ambler, The Vivero Letter by Desmond Bagley, The Ipcress File by Len Deighton.
To offset this I became, briefly, a member of the Harlequin Mills and Boon book club and had a sex change.
For it is impossible to buy romantic novels without turning into a woman. I tried to get the publishers to call me Mr. Grinton but their database was very reluctant and I kept getting letters addressed to Ms. Grinton instead.
Finally the publishers accepted the change and I received a package addressed to Mr. Grinton. But the funny thing was, the postal worker who delivered it was a woman and when she asked me to sign for it she addressed me as “Mrs Grinton,” despite what it said on the label.
I’ve now cancelled my membership, not because of the mix up, but because the books are unbelievably dull and the free gifts fell far short of my expectations.
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The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov stood on my parents’ bookshelves when I was 15 and I looked at it almost every day without interest. It seemed on the face of it like a good idea, a detective story blended with science fiction. Fusing genres has always appealed to me. But I read a few pages of it and found the characterisation trite. I didn’t want to waste my time on it.
Maybe I made the wrong decision. Asimov was a very smart man. I know that. He wrote brilliantly about science. He also took novel-writing very seriously and he must have been doing something right because among my friends he had many fans and, although not passionate readers, they were passionate about his books.
So I’ve had it in the back of my mind that I’d read The Caves of Steel all the way through one day and maybe even other books by Asimov too.
Finally I got around to reading it this month.
I’m so glad I did because in doing so I fulfilled one of my new year’s resolutions (to read shorter books) and at the same time rid myself of a doubt that had niggled for many years.
The characterisation still didn’t grip me. The ideas were as expected. Asimov’s ideas have been around so long they are commonplace whether or not you’ve read his books. But the novel was mildly entertaining and even enjoyable in places. Asimov has great technique. He has a very logical mind and in this novel he was careful to construct a satisfying plot. I like writers who respect their readers in this way. You can see it pays dividends. Asimov has passionate fans.
But I think I made the right decision when I was 15. I was better off reading Dostoyevsky and D. H. Lawrence. I could be equally passionate in my way. I didn’t need a book about robots to teach me what it meant to be human.
Still, I really like the title of this book: The Caves of Steel.
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During Christmas in Bamberg I read a really exciting book and as soon as I got back to London I rushed out to various bookshops and tracked down other titles by the same publisher. There were not many so I bought them all. It seems they are now out of print.
It’s a shame because the series was really promising and this story in particular was terrific. A remarkable thing about it was that it was told in so few words. I don’t mean it was short, although it was. I mean the vocabulary was very limited.
It had to be limited for me to be able to read it because it was in Chinese.
But, although the authors used only 300 words, the story moved along at a very fast pace and introduced many surprising twists on the way to its satisfying denouement.
This proves, if proof were needed, that you don’t need sophisticated language skills to write a good story. You don’t even need a large vocabulary. You just need a little bit of imagination, a solid structure, and the determination to pique the reader’s interest with every sentence.
I wish more writers would make an effort to do that!
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