Finding a fiver in your pocket.
Waking up in a panic thinking you’re late and then remembering it's your day off.
Accidentally overhearing someone saying something nice about.
What's it a list of? Pleasant surprises you don't expect. I couldn’t be happier than when I added this book to the list: Varjak Paw by SF Said.
And yes, it’s another cat book, much like Warrior Cats. And like Warrior Cats, I picked up Varjak Paw whilst on my mission to research cats in fiction novels. And while I’d heard of the positive reviews surrounding Varjak Paw, I still picked it up due to feeling more of a sense of obligation than actively wanting to read it. After all, it’s a small book, with big and spaced out writing, interspersed even further by illustrations. So all I expected was decent read, aimed at the 8-12 range, and nothing more.
Well, what I got was something special. Now I can see why everyone who comes within reading distance of Varjak Paw raves about it.
So what’s it about? Well, the titular Varjak is a kitten who lives in an isolated house on a hill. He’s never left the houses walls, until a strange Gentlemen enters the house. Sensing that something is wrong, Varjak’s grandfather ushers him out of the house, with only a slither of information on a secret martial art for cats called “The Way”, and a mission to gather help before the house of cats become another victim to the mysterious “Vanishings”.
So far, so standard. Or so you’d think. But my goodness, SF Said has a way with words. The shortness and simplicity of the story belies a depth to it, as if each and every word was painstakingly selected for just the right effect. There is not a drop of fat in this author’s prose. It doesn’t read like it was kept simple for the sake of the target audience, but rather to achieve this timeless, ageless quality. There’s an almost Zen-like feel to it, which is appropriate: Varjak Paw really is Warrior Cats meets Karate Kid.
As if the elegance of the prose weren’t enough, the story itself resonates to readers from all walks of life. The main theme is of someone trying to find their right place in the world. Does that ring true for children? Of course. And adults too? You betcha.
And that's where Varjak Paw dumbfounds me. At first glance it looks like a simple novel with all the standard nuts and bolts. And even when you take into account the taut prose and wide-reaching themes contained in something deceptively small as a cat looking for help, you still don’t get the full picture of makes Varjak Paw work so well. Tight writing and universal themes aren’t new, after all. But it's only when you sit down with the book that you realize that Varjak Paw has something - something! - that strikes a deep chord with it's reader, the way it sets up a powerful string of empathy between you the reader and Varjak and then proceeds to yank it every direction so you almost physically feel the same highs and lows as this kitten. Is that what sets it a cut above the rest? Or could it be the nervy, stylish illustrations by Dave McKean? Or the easily-recognisable vulnerability and self-doubt Varjak has? Possibly these, and more.
Look, what I'm saying is that this book has something very special beating at its heart that will make you think about it long after it's over. I don’t think it’s physically possible to read this book without feeling compelled to read the sequel, to be honest. The gap between finishing this book and picking up the second was painful, like I was suffering severe withdrawal symptoms from a book I’d only just picked up hours before. Sounds nasty, but when a book can make you feel that way it’s a very good thing. I don’t care who you are, where you’re from or how old you are. Go and get this book. It’s for everyone…especially you.
Last time, I took a shovel to the proverbial burial ground that is non-readers reading habits and asked one simple question: why? What is it about books that has made it the one source of information that folks will happily admit to not engaging with?
While I came up with some theories - the nature of how we consume media is the big culprit rather than the swelling mass of it - the simple fact is that there as many possibilities to that question as there are non-readers on the planet. That is to say: loads.
So what can be done? What, if anything, needs to change to make it a more widely-consumed medium, where people will gossip over developments in book series just as much as their favourite TV show or movie?
Well, let’s take a step back first. To say people should read more is to imply that they don’t read enough right now. Which it’s blatantly not true: people probably read now more than they ever have done, but again, it’s all different. Rather than long prose, we’re talking news articles, Wikipedia pages and clickbait. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, but all of these kind of works are ‘reactive’ reading: one doesn’t actively seek them out. You stumble across them online via Facebook and reddit and the like.
With other forms of media, we get a balance of this ‘reactive’ exposure with ‘proactive’ exposure. With TV and to a lesser extent movies it is now very easy to be casually surfing the internet until a link you see piques your interest and before you know it you’re hooked on a TV show. Yet at the same time it’s easier than ever to be picky about what we watch and listen to: we have immediate access to all TV shows, movies and music we could wish. We can proactively seek out what we want, rather than wait for it to come to us, thanks to the advent of things like Netflix, Amazon Fire TV and simply being able to record and watch your shows later.
But where is this balance with books? A number of people may argue that they get sufficient reading out of articles and news online, but the problem there is that, while a lot of visual and audio media bears relation to one another – YouTube isn’t a million miles away from actual TV, and radio is still close to your own music collection – articles online are wildly different from books. The structure, the purpose, and approach to reading and enjoying, are so different as to be regarded as something else entirely.
Where I’m going with this is that it would be nice to see more of these ‘reactive’ reading pieces bear closer resemblance to what you can find in a book. More short stories, more flash fiction, more sharing and exposure to these types of things. This can be a much more effective smooth step into full novels, and even if people don’t find the time or place to go that far then at least they’ve had some experience of fiction via reading or listening to it. It’s kind of what I try to do here, on the channel and on my website.
Now, to all of this, you may be asking that first question again: why? Why is it so important to get more people reading? Again, I don’t want to sound patronising when I say all of this, and I’m not about to roll out the health and intellectual benefits to reading – we already know this the same way we all know that we should be eating five fruit and veg a day – it doesn’t say anything new and it doesn’t change anybody’s mind.
My thoughts on the matter are quite simple: books themselves don’t need to change to differentiate themselves. The way we consume media now has meant that books have now become the brand apart, the entertainment form that’s just that little bit different. And that could be great way to get people to look at it.
A great way books are different is the scale of immersion: a music album lasts about an hour. A movie can last about two hours. Video games can be much longer, but you can only really immerse yourself in them for short stints at a time, and the experience can get repetitive. Books are in a different league entirely: they can last hours upon hours, and always remain gripping. You can truly lose yourself in the world of a book and stay there for an extended period of time without it getting dull.
Related to this is the fact that books demand your undivided attention. You can’t be reading while doing other things, not even listening to music. Other people find pleasure in listening to music while cooking, or skipping between video game and smartphone. Now, some people may find that frustrating – the last decade has taught us that we should always be multitasking, doing more than one thing at a time – so books demanding your complete attention my sound like a turn off. To that end, I say – see books as downtime. The time when we all want to be off the grid for a while, away from social media and our constant connections.
And books give that respect back to you. What do I mean? Well, two things: because there’s this sense of ‘just me and the book’, it feels like you’re giving yourself more me-time as well, rather than running to catch up with everyone else. And as I mentioned last week, whereas it’s impossible to indulge in a TV show that few else know inside out and has been dissected and discussed to death, with books its much easier to pick up something more unknown, to keep the story to yourself. Look at Game of Thrones, for example. Prior to the TV series, you had just the books. Popular books, sure, but I guarantee that 95% of the TV audience had no idea what Game of Thrones was until the TV show started. Now, it is veritable empire of entertainment, complete with internet memes, discussion boards, famous quotes, video games…the list goes on. There’s a lot of great stuff that comes out of that, and more people have snapped up the novels as a result, but something gets lost in the process as well. You are simply not allowed to enjoy Game of Thrones as an individual anymore. You cannot avoid being wired into the web of media surrounding it. One loses that sense that they can take in a story, enjoy it, reflect upon it however they wish and leave it there. Everyone needs to make their voice heard on what they think you should be thinking.
But with books, it is still easy to escape that. To find that solitude, to feel as though you’re the only person in the world to whom these books matter. I haven’t met anybody else who has read Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud, not even online. It really does feel like the book was just for me. Of course, that’s not true – that book is sitting on the shelves of thousands of people around the world – but it is very easy to retain that bubble of illusion, and it is a bubble well worth maintaining, for making these stories feel singular, personal and special. I cannot tell you what movies, TV and music I enjoyed in 2008, but I can easily tell you what I read back then.
This is my idea of why books not only remain relevant, but can easily position themselves as something different to the manic consumption and sharing of media of today. Books as immersion, as escape, as being more personal and separate. Something I think non-readers can understand and appreciate. Books are just as exciting, fun, funny and thought-provoking than anything else they enjoy, with all the added benefits of that feeling that it’s just for you. And who doesn’t like that?
It's fitting that I start off season 2 of Showcase with the same author that I started season 1 with: Jonathan Stroud. This time around, we are looking at his standalone novel, Heroes of the Valley.
I consumed the Bartimaeus Trilogy like a man starved: I had never known a story so gripping, thrilling, intruiging and downright funny all at once. Naturally, when they came to an end, I clamoured for more from this extraordinary, unbelieveably underrated author. I have Buried Fire and The Leap on my shelf, books that predate the Bartimaeus Trilogy, but I was most interested in seeing where Stroud would go after the fact.
It was a long wait. 2005 to 2008, to be precise. What was taking so long? Was Mr. Stroud struggling with ideas, or just perfecting his creation no matter how long it took? It was impossible to tell. So when I finally got a copy of Heroes of the Valley in my hands, I was both excited and nervous about reading new material from Stroud. Well, it becomes quickly apparent that the answer to the previous question is, yes, he took his sweet time crafting it to perfection.
At first, the book throws you off balance: it reads nothing like Stroud has ever written. The Bartimaeus Trilogy were busy, chatty adventures filled with events and colorful characters, but this standalone is something smaller, quiter, a bit more ponderous. There's an old-fashioned, sweeping epic quality to HotV that echoes similar fantasy epics in style, most notably Lord of the Rings. So whilst it certainly didn't feel like classic Stroud prose, it is nonetheless impressive, different and an indication of just how talented and flexible he is as an author.
But it's not all new. What is classic Stroud here is just how criminally good the story and setting is. The world of the Valley is brilliantly realised in evocative prose that, for me, brought back memories of the time I hiked around the Lake District and Scotland: the stark beauty, the harsh weathers, the looming mountains. The settlements, Houses, farmlands and Valley-folk, too, give off the vibe of Scandinavia in the Iron Age - it's all fantastically evoked, you can almost smell the horse manure.
But the real crux of where HotV will either fall or fly is in the story, and I'm safe to say it's as good, if not better, than anything he's produced, and believe me, that's saying something. The plot twists, turns, and leaves you guessing right up to it's climax, which is breathtaking, to say the least. You honestly have no idea where Stroud will lead you next. This is one of those precious stories that will have you squirming with delight as you cook up theories in your head as to why is going on, made all the better by the fact that the truth tops anything you came up with. All the thrills, scares and laughs that made his previous work so brilliant are all present and correct, yet maintain a feel of freshness, that this is it's own beast of a book in it's own right. And, of course, Halli is an anti-hero who is as complex as they come. This ain't no pretty boy Mary Sue who has strangers fawning at his feet, far from it. I dare you not to punch the air when he succeeds, as well as feel for him in his darker moments.
HotV is precisely what I'd hoped for: which was, ironically, nothing like what I'd expected. It's everything a fan of Stroud (and downright awesome storytelling) could ask for, and yet is so different, layered and thought-provoking that you can see why it took so long to write.
HotV isn't perfection: what is? One of the weaknesses of this story is that, As a standalone novel, it is tasked with beginning, developing and ending a fantasy epic in one go - not an easy task. HotV handles it amicably, but after you reach the back cover, you can't help but wish there were more to it, more pages or spreading it over a second book, to really get to grips with the numerous Houses and really beef up Halli's journey through the valley.
But this is scarcely a complaint: if anything it's just one more thrilled Stroud reader who clamors for more. Thank you once again, Mr. Stroud, for taking me places beyond my dreams.
"I don't read!"
How often do you hear that? Well, probably not that much if we’re being literal about it, but if you were to go out and do a quick survey of passers-by on the street and ask them these three questions: “What are you watching?”; “What are you playing?” and “What are you reading?” the vast majority of people will gleefully rattle off the latest TV show, movie or video game they’re currently digging, but when it comes to books don’t be surprised if many of them say they’re reading nothing or simply forgot you asked a third question as they got so worked up telling you how great Community or Dark Souls 3 is.
Why is that? I sincerely don’t think that it’s a case that hectic lifestyles combined with instant access to social media, internet and entertainment as squeezing books back, though that’s certainly a factor. Nearly all forms of entertainment have benefited from the digital age, including books if we’re honest, but not nearly to the same degree of success that other media has. And I’m sorry, but the constant trumpeting of “hectic lifestyle! No free time!” is utter bunk. People only associate the shrinking of free time with themselves, not as a collective whole. And surprise surprise, people get older, move up in the workplace, start families and generally get busier. People may get a more hectic lifestyle as they move up their own personal ladders, but as a whole humankind has never had such a rich abundance of free time. We can now watch movies in cars, listen to music while walking from A to B, and play mobile games on the toilet. Don’t look at me like that, we’ve all done it. This is before we get into the real pure free time in evenings and weekends, when people will happily boast binge-watching whole seasons of Game of Thrones.
And yet it’s very rare that you hear about binge-reading. Oh sure, reading sessions are long by nature and we’ve all heard people waxing lyrical about a book they couldn’t put down, and they read it from cover to cover in one go. But that brings me back to my first point: imagine a group of friends just talking, during a lunch hour. And, as these casual talks go, you tend to talk about the various media you’ve consumed recently, right? Now, it would be strange if one of your friends declared he hadn’t watched, played or listened to anything recently, wouldn’t it? You’d think that something was wrong. But if one of your friends said they hadn’t read a book recently, you’d probably consider that to be utterly normal.
How has this happened? How has it become normal for reading to be such a sparse, even nonexistent activity? How have we come to this point where adults will quite happily tell you, without any hint of humor or shame, that the last book they read was “The Hungry Caterpillar” (which, even more depressingly, is not the actual title of the book)?
Smarter people than me have tried to answer this conundrum, but I will throw in my two cents regardless. Which brings me on to my first point: reading books have always had this air of exclusivity to them. Reading is by nature a very individual, insulated experience. TVs movies and music can be enjoyed on mass, and in fact can amplify the enjoyment, but books are at their best when the the book and the reader are alone in a bubble.
Plus, TV, movies, video games and music are largely expensive affairs, worked on by small armies of people who need to be paid, who may in turn feed families. They can't afford to be exclusive about what they do. They must throw their arms as wide open as they dare in order to put food on the table. Books, in that regard, have the luxury of not having that weight on them: they can afford to be a little more niche because only one or so people rely on it - if they rely on it at all, mind. Add to that the relative ease of putting a quality book together compared to what's needed to put a movie or TV show together, and you have the reasons why there's just so many books and authors out, way too many to keep up with, while its relatively easy to stay up to date with the biggest hits of the silver screen. And it's because of this that one can still walk into a commercial bookstore today and still pick up a book that, in the grand scheme of things, is obscure. At least, your friends and family have never heard of that book or that author anyway. It's this fact that still gives the act of reading a kind of aloofness, setting the reader apart from the masses...and yes, making one look a bit of a snob. No, there's no avoiding the fact that reading can come across to the average non-reader as a high brow past time. Look at it this way: we all know people who would've seen my decrying the fact that adults cite Eric Carle's magnum opus as latest and greatest read as sounding snobbish and elitist, and yet if I was concerned that a friend of mine who was in his 30s was genuinely arguing teletubbies as the greatest TV show of all time, the world would be on my side.
Now I'm not here to talk about why reading has this air about it - perhaps that's for another time - but I am here to talk about the result that got us here. Because it wasn't always like this: you don't need to rewind that far back in time to when it was deemed unusual to not have a book going. You don't need me to tell you what has changed since then, but remember that the TV coexisted very happily with books for a long time. No, what's changed is how we consume or media, rather than the increased options. We don't need to sit through bits of TV we don't want to watch any more, we can just jump straight in! We don't need to sit through the filler tracks on an album any more or even fast forward, we can skip it! And we don't even need to wait until we get home to do any of this any more, it's all within reach by a device in our pockets!
Now, I don't want to sound like a Luddite here - quite the opposite, I think the digital age has done uncountable good for mankind, and heck you're here drinking in my ramblings thanks to those changes - but we have definitely lost one thing in the transition. We don't put with filler any more. If our entertainment doesn't hit our sweet spot, we don't have to put up with it anymore: we just move on to something else. But in pre-digital age, you had to put up with the boring stuff - you couldn't jump around media like a bee collecting pollen, you had to put up with it.
So on the whole, while this change in how we entertain ourselves has been for the better, we've lost a valuable skill: patience. That willingness to put up with something just that bit longer in case it starts to get good. Watching or listening to something you had no intention of watching or listening, but you have no other choice, and finding you actually really like it and thus expanding your horizons in ways you weren't expecting, rather than today where we can carefully craft our playlists and habits until we are surrounded only by the genres we presume to love.
It's this change, this newfound taste for instant gratification, that is hurting people's desire to read, I think. Reading requires effort at the best of times, and heaps of patience. Usually that patience reaps rewards, in the form of a slow-burning but deeply satisfying read. But who has the patience or will for that?
Again, I know I'm coming across as an old-fashioned grump when I say all this, but I don't say this out of blind favoritism or assuming books are automatically better. But books can be immense fun to read and worthwhile company, even if they don't reveal their wealth of joy as immediately or obviously as their other entertainment cousins.
Next week, we'll continue to dig deeper into this conundrum, seeing what can be done to change this attitude...if anything.
Off the Shelf
Here I share my ideas, musings and advice on the writing process. I also analyse some of my own writing for examples to show how I work.
Here I will show off of some of my favorite good and great stories, gushing lovingly over why I adore them and why you should too. I will also show you the other side of the spectrum: bad examples of stories and what we can learn from them.