Trying something different this morning: free writing to a song. This is called ‘Aqua’ and I wrote it to ‘The Wind that Shakes the Heart”, with minimal editing. Do listen and read if you have the time. JRx
I see aqua. Aquamarine. Open waters. The golden sovereignty of sand. A line of foam. Feel the sun’s hot fingers stroking my neck. There were only two places I burned there. Once in Tanzania. Once somewhere else. Israel? Florida? Indonesia? Dubai – I don’t recall. But the heat. It lingers in your mind. On cold days like this. To float on the waves. In the waves. No cares. Freedom. Scuba diving over a jagged reef. The glittering, glimmering coral. Transfixed by the beauty of fish. Lost. The depths beneath. Stretching down to death. Resting above it all; knowing I’ll stay up here. Held aloft by the air in my lungs. The density of my bones. My kicking flippers.
I love words. I love their exactitude. Their nuances. The following 38 words are from Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan. See how many you know, and leave me a comment below.
The Peripheral - William Gibson
Loved this imaginative tale about the future connecting directly with the distant future through some crazy wormhole. I read it after seeing a 3d video where Bill Gates recommends it - and wasn't disappointed. Gibson is one of my fav authors, and he continually comes up with the goods. Read it if you want your mind expanded.
Farenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
Just read this imaginative dystopian tale about a ‘fireman’ who burns books to stop the population from thinking and rebelling, but has a change of heart. It’s very prescient, particularly on stupefying mass-media consumption. A good, quick (3.5hr) read, worth the investment.
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
Brutal & compelling dystopian fiction. Like being in a slo-mo car wreck. The narrator says near the end: "I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire, or pulled apart by force." Not planning to watch the TV series.
I hit on a fantastic was of scheduling my reading time by working out how long it will take me to read a particular book. I wish I’d done this when I was at Uni, studying Eng Lit & Lang. Ploughing through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Sterne, Joyce… Putting in the hours.
So, you know how a DVD, Netflix or Amazon movie tells you exactly how much time is left? Well, for my last three books, I worked out roughly how many pages I can read in 30 minutes. I doubled it to get my hour rate. Okay, stay with me.
Then I took the total pages in the book, and divided it by the hour number. The figure is roughly how long it will take me to read the book. It's also meant I can keep track of how long I have left, at any one point, by taking the pages left and dividing them by my hour figure. So simple!
The results are:
There you have it. Life changing, in a small but satisfying way. You can try it for free if you like!
I love reading. Here are 10 books that have influenced my writing over the years, and a sense of why I've loved reading them.
#10 - Dancers at the End of Time by Michael Moorcock.
This mind-bending series is wildly imaginative, set in a dying, chaotic world where humanity can create, destroy and time travel at whim using power rings, but finds itself utterly bored until…
#9 – Solaris by Stanislaw Lem.
Forget the Clooney movie (though Tarkovsky comes closer), Solaris is about a planet that communicates with the orbiting astronauts through neutrino-based replicas of close/dead friends. Mysterious and beautiful.
#8 – Gateway by Frederick Pohl.
Gateway is a tantalising tale, tracking the discovery of an intelligent alien race. Ahead of its time, it covers AI butlers and digitally-encoded after-lives. I loved the awe-inspiring sense of mystery and discovery.
#7 – The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien.
You HAVE to read the books. The movies aren’t enough. Only the words can adequately convey the impressive array of characters, terrains, cultures, domains, philosophies, humour & jaw-dropping vistas. Aah!
#6 – Neuromancer by William Gibson.
Cyberpunk classic Neuromancer makes the reader work hard: catching future-lingo and future-techs- brain-enhancing 'microsofts', visual implants and webrunners who live in the virtual world. Way ahead of its time.
#5 – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams.
The Earth blows up, a restaurant at the end of the universe, an infinite impossibility drive generator, a depressed robot: what’s there not to love? Proves you can combine sci-fi with outrageous humour.
#4 – Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson.
This one's so ‘out there’ in its vision of the future, it’s a dystopian inspiration. Anarcho-capitalism, an avatar-packed MMO VR world, massive hyperinflation, bio-warfare and corporate-owned suburbia. Stunning.
#3 – Bleak House by Charles Dickens.
Hard to pick my fav Dickens (I also love Our Mutual Friend) but this has it all: legal plot twists (conflicting wills), intrigue, danger (spontaneous combustion) and loads of great characters. A masterful work.
#2 – Generation X - Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland.
A big-hearted story about Gen Xers telling each other life stories. I found the book in a discount bin in the 90s. It was my intro to one of my now fav writers. He’s a sharp culture-vulture and really funny.
#1 – Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake.
Castle Gormenghast is a sprawling, decaying, gothic labyrinth. Its deliciously-Dickensian inhabitants are its strength: scheming Steerpike, wild Fucshia, Lord Sepulchrave and Titus: the boy about to inherit it all.
These books - and others - have been a huge influence and help in writing the 5fingers series, including book 5 - 5fingers: freedom - which is being launched September 29th 2018. Come to the free launch event if you can!
How about you? What's your favourite book? Let me know - comment below!
(I Tweeted this bite-sized story over a 2-week period in 2017. The challenge was keeping each installment to 140 characters or less! I hope you enjoy it in its entirety. JRx)
Train platform. Cold spring morning. Waiting. Hoping this was the morning. The day I’d see Sarah again. Maybe even speak to her. Hold her.
Loneliness: a yoke today. A burden on my shoulders. Sometimes the darkness creeps into your heart and hides there. She’s never off my mind.
Memories. Slender fingers upturned. Back to back in her lap. Her voice on the mobile: matter of fact. Not unattractive. She enunciated.
“Will you kiss me?”
“Would you like me to?”
“But I don’t even know you.”
“Sure you do.”
The train jolts me awake. Alone. Work looms.
More memories. Floral perfume. Dark dress suit. Hair pulled back, held with ribbon. I fix my gaze on the grey horizon. Dreary. Urban. Work.
8am. The train skitters, rattles, clatters through a shimmering day.
I searched. All week. Each day. Sarah is nowhere.
It’s been five days.
“What’s your name?” I ached to know.
“Don’t spoil it.” Northern inflection. Maybe.
“That’s a funny name.” White teeth.
We float, cocooned.
Last interaction: “You like me. I can tell.” Eyelash flick.
“Yeah. Yes, I do.”
Sunbeams reaching through cloud. Hidden smile.
That was the last time we spoke.
Off the train she lingers. This is new.
Suddenly, she finds my lips. Minty breath.
She walks away grinning.
“Seen the person I was with last week?” My voice wavering. “Young lady. We sat together right here.”
Blank commuters: crazy man.
Next day. Still asking. “Name’s Sarah?”
Old man turns. “Sunday. Girl found dead, final station. Tragic. Think her name was Sarah.”
I hear those heels. See her float to her seat. Soft eyes. Calm and steady. Floral aroma. Of course, it isn’t her.
Darkness finds my heart.
New week. Grey morning. Emptiness my second skin.
Relentless journey up. Pointless return down.
Tired. So tired. Leave me now. Oh Sarah.
Her voice. “Hey stranger.” Shy smile.
Crutches. “Broke it. My foot.” A shrug. “Healing though. Slowly.”
“Sorry. That seat free?
Middle East Book Tour Part 2
March 2 - Friday
Friday marks the start of the weekend in the UAE. We met up with friends downtown, hit Dubai Mall, dialled down and relaxed. Over the past few days we had loads of interesting conversations with diverse people about life, politics, and things that matter.
Being part Indian, Middle Eastern, East African Asian and English and with Phoebe and her Prussian, Swiss/German/French, English, Scottish mix, this week alone we chatted to Indians, an Egyptian/Greek man, a Moroccan in an Aleppo restaurant, a Kenyan, a Malaysian, a man with Burmese and Irish blood, an Italian married to a Brazilian, and even Trinidadian Dame Floella Benjamin! I love people and listening to their stories and views – they are so fascinating.
March 3 - Saturday
Stayed with good friends in Silicon Oasis, Dubai. Close to our author visit the following day at world-leading Repton School Dubai. Our friends have a dog called Skyler and their son made a really impressive volcano for his homework. The dad runsthe engineering project to build the impressive Dubai Eye at the Marina. Felt happy and raring to go for tomorrow.
March 4 - Sunday
Very successful author visit at Repton Dubai, arranged with the Dubai LitFest (Emirates Airline Festival of Literature). I presented to and worked with literally hundreds of students from across the year groups. Great honour to be back there after 2 years and meet the Principal of the school. I did a number of dramatic readings from the 5fingers series, an audiovisual presentation and creative writing workshops. Also grateful to have a microphone everywhere we’ve been on this trip. Voice still intact. Last Middle East book tour I couldn’t speak for a few days in the middle!
March 5 – 7 Monday - Wednesday
Three few days off – ate, slept, went to the beach. Staying at Dubai Marina in a lovely apartment in Skyview Tower, over 30 floors up, with an outdoor pool and hot tub. The beach is just ten minutes walk away. Very hot here. This is the life! Incredible views over the city. Discovered Sarouja, a Syrian (Aleppo) restaurant with the best hummus, olives, flat breads and kebabs. Thoroughly recommend it.
March 8 - Thursday
Would also highly recommend Giovanni at Barbers Chaps & Co in Dubai Marina, who gave me a sharp new look - a “fade cut” with beard trim. Looking and feeling like an Emirati now! Ready for my return to the UK tomorrow, to brave the snow. Final appointments at Repton and The Dubai LitFest, then “home“ to pack and fly.
Saw an unforgettable sunset in Dubai. In the background, that jagged spear that is the Burj Khalifa. Flying late at night from DXB. Landing early Friday morning at LHR. The end of a highly memorable trip. Thankful for so many things: people, experiences, health, safe travel and new 5fingers readers.
Read Middle East Book Tour Part 1 here.
February 26 · 2018 - Monday
The start of the Middle East Book Tour! We flew through Sunday night from London Heathrow to Muscat, Oman (where my grandfather was born). Saw some really interesting airport snacks, quite unlike anything a western airport might offer! Then on to Doha, Qatar for an acclimatisation day. Travelling with my publisher wife Phoebe.
Arrived in sunny Doha on Monday morning. Our generous hosts at Qatar International School (QIS) put us up in the sumptuous Fraser Suites, a gleaming luxury hotel minutes walk from the school. There was a huge gym and outdoor pool – with very few people around! Went in search of a barbers. Found a French cheese shop and a huge mall instead – called Doha City Centre. Jetlagged and tired, I prepped for the first day of author work on Tuesday. Loving life!
February 27 - Tuesday
Up at 5am. Takeaway breakfast. Then a second breakfast with the very supportive English team at QIS: croissants and pastries. In other news, I hear my kids back home are having a snow day! The English Teachers at QIS were brilliant. Such fun presenting to the Year 10s as a whole then moving between 6 classrooms. Ingenious Carousel concept: teachers stay put, pupils move every 25mins & learn aspects of dystopian lit, punctuation, ‘show not tell’, ‘zooming in’, pace and style. So cool!
February 28 - Wednesday
Has this happened to anyone else? Hotel staff member knocked at 4.58am and asked if we wanted our room cleaned. I said “no, maybe later.” He said “9 or.10am?” I said, “what time is it?” He looked at his watch and said 5am. I said “okay. We have to be up anyways so time for a coffee!” Fortunately, we had a Nespresso Pixie machine in our hotel suite. (We subsequently bought a Nespresso Expert with Milk machine to celebrate our return to England and the end of the tour).
Second day at QIS – working with hundreds of Yr5s and 6s – full year presentations and smaller creative group-work. Journalism workshops with Yr11s. Ran a live press room and talked journalistic styles. Smart, lively bunch of students. Then a fab lunch with school staff at The W Doha – a swanky hotel and restaurant - then onto the airport for a late night flight to Dubai via Muscat. Muscat airport: dusty, spicy aromas, Arabic sounds and sights...
March 1 - Thursday
Flew all night - arrived at the final destination 5.30am! Raced to the Dubai Lit literary Festival Fest opening ceremony having slept for 3 hours then showered & changed. It was a private show downtown for the 180 authors working with the Emirates LitFest. Felt unbelievably honoured to be a part of it, and thrilled to be in a room with some of the world’s leading writers including Anthony Horowitz, Charlie Higson, Eoin Colfer, Jacqueline Wilson, Peter James, Kate Mosse, Alexander McCall Smith and Carol Ann Duffy. Woah.
We also met some amazing couples - Dame Floella Benjamin and her husband Keith, married 48yrs, still travelling & working together on diversity with the Football Association (FA) and other international bodies. We sat in the back row next to Richard & Judy, a humble & serving couple who were quite jetlagged.
It was a stunning opening ceremony with stunning visuals using silhouettes, performance poetry, engaging readings. Very exciting. The ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and his entourage arrived by helicopter 15mins before it started. That’s like the Queen arriving. Naturally, everybody stood when he entered the auditorium. Quite the honour.
Read Middle East Book Tour Part 2 here
As advent begins, and the Christmas season looms, it's an ideal time to carry out a self-audit and check you're doing okay. I recently took the family out to dinner at a local restaurant. While we waited for the food, I handed out five sheets of paper. They had four gauges on them: simple circles that look a bit like a car’s petrol gauge and have an ‘empty’ marker on the left and a ‘full’ one on the right, with a line to mark the middle.
The four gauges were titled: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. I gave my wife and three children a coloured highlighter each, and asked them to think about how full or empty they felt in these different areas. The ensuing conversation was fantastic: we all got to talk and be listened to, and even came up with some solutions.
I think it’s important to ask these questions of ourselves from time to time. And if you’re a writer, it can help your characterisation. Above all, I believe it will help us with our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. So how are you doing in the following areas today?
Are you getting enough sleep or rest? How about nutrition? Are you happy with your level of exercise? Do you experience aches and pains? Headaches? Is your gauge high or low and is there anything you can do to improve it?
How are you doing emotionally? Are you relating to people or do you feel you need to get away? Is there anything you can do to improve the situation: diet and exercise? Are you doing enough of the things you enjoy? Anyone you need to forgive? Anything you should let go of? Do you need to ‘count your blessings’ or maybe do something selfless or generous? Is it time for a Facebook/Instagram vacation?
How is your mental health? How could it be better? What are you putting into your brain through TV, YouTube or reading? Is it helping, or making you unhappy or anxious? Are you getting enough sleep, exercise and time outdoors? Do you have good people around you that you can talk to? Are you taking enough rest? Could relaxing music be of help? Is it time for a change of job? Maybe put the mobile phone aside for a day?
Is this an area that you need to improve or explore? Do you pray or meditate? Do you have any spiritual disciplines - things like: solitude, worship, simplicity, service, joy or fasting? How are you doing in terms of your selflessness, generosity, encouragement, peace? Is there anything on YouTube or Ted that can help improve your spiritual side? Go for it!
Tell me how it goes!
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It seemed like such a good idea in the middle of the night. But now I come to reflect on it and actually write the blog post, it’s pretty heavy. I’m thinking about friends and colleagues who used to live but no longer do. Here are five observations, feelings and thoughts on death and writing about it.
1. As you get older, your friends leave the party
The older you get, the more people you know depart from the ‘currently alive’ club. I’m thinking of school friends: and the medical issues; car accident; and ill-health that took them. And family members: an armed robbery; a train accident; old age. College friends: several from cancer. Work colleagues: heart attack; cancer again. So sad.
2. You remember the names
The names become important to you: Adam the drummer; David the publishing MD; Anne-Marie, an ex-girlfriend’s younger sister; fellow journalists Guy and Ed - cancer chased them both down. School friends Tony, Graham, Beth. Tragic.
3. They live in your mind and heart
Sometimes you don’t talk to good friends for ages. When you catch up with them, it’s like you were never apart. They carry on existing in the interim. Most of the time you didn’t think of them. With departed friends and family, it’s like they’re still alive. They live in your memories, mind and heart.
4. Life is for living
You realise that you have a finite number of opportunities to see loved ones - and that there’s probably a figure on the number of times you will spend time with a relative or friend. It becomes even more important to make time for people, live in peace, with joy in your heart. Every moment is precious.
5. Writers should approach death sensitively
It’s an important subject for a writer to grapple with. And you’ll need to if you’re writing stories that span any decent length of time. In 5fingers, I reported on the ends of several characters’ lives. It felt important to do it, and do it right.
As 5fingers: initiation begins, you learn that Rachel lost her mother when she was young. It’s sensitive for Rachel: painful. I was very aware of readers, friends and close relatives who have gone through a similar experience. I think you have to respect your readers, and try not to patronise them.
I don’t want to give anything away, but there are more deaths in 5fingers: vortex, trinity, rescue and freedom. But in each case, my aim is to make the coverage appropriate and respectful where required. Ultimately, I believe that there’s a bigger picture and that this life is only part of it. And like a good story, every life has a significant start, a compelling middle and a memorable end.
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In May I got new eyes. Here is the diary I kept on my Facebook Author Page.
Today my eyes get fixed. Elation. The left one first, the right next week. Cataract extraction plus trifocal implants. I'll be bionic. 45 years of terrible vision, corrected in an instant by the surgeon's laser. Unreal. At night my mind ticked over. Not anxious, just active, trying to see the future. Mostly I'm calm. And excited. I'm looking forward to the colours, you see, the stars, seeing underwater and the dust in the sunlight. That and being a cyborg, of course.
The adventure begins. A lovely room to wait in at The McIndoe Centre, kind and caring staff, and a dot above my eye so they laser the correct one. It's the left eye, right?!
It all went really well - looking forward to 20/20 vision this time next week! Loving my new bionic left eye. Colours are brighter, and everything is crisp blue-white. My cataracts gave the world a dull yellow hue. My far and middle distance sight is sharp, and close up improving by the hour (it carries on getting sharper day by day). Resting up today. No pain, just tired after surgery.
I have an eye drop regime for the next 28 days. Then from next Friday -the same for the right eye. No heavy lifting or exercise for three weeks (total). No swimming for five weeks (total). Then I'm free.
Been relaxing and healing. My first full day at the desk today. Still loving the bright colours, the quality of the light, sharp edges. I live thankful. Good distance vision; mid-and near vision not completely sharp yet. Eye healing slowly, takes time... The right eye operation is this Friday.
Top 3 annoying things about having one good eye and one bad one (until this Friday!)
1. Screen work and reading take forever
2. I keep squinting
3. People are both blurry and clear at the same time, which is kind of trippy
Top 3 fantastic things about having one good eye and one bad one (until this Friday!)
1. I can see through my left eye again
2. I can see through my left eye again
3. I can see through my left eye again
Cued up for my right eye operation: dilation drops and anaesthetic in... not long now! And incredibly, such a blessing, I now have 20/20 vision in my corrected left eye. So grateful. I have the family with me today and we are enjoying ourselves way too much!
Just out of surgery. An amazing experience again. The bright lights of the operating theatre became like the sun at the beach after twenty minutes of staring into them. I could see the surgeon's fine tools and hear the laser talking after it did its work. The world became clear as the trifocal lens descended. Ravenous now, slight headache, but lunch has arrived! Oh, and I can see clearly with BOTH eyes now. Overjoyed.
Incredible to be able to see again, and 20/20 is more than wonderful. It's transformational - here's to being able to do readings, videos, and actually read books again!!!
So, still on the subject of eyes - and I promise, I will stop soon, this is for the more technical of you who might be interested. Two pieces of acrylic are now part of my two eyeballs - Carl Zeiss 'AT Lisa' trifocal intraocular lenses. They will probably last longer than my eyes will and have concentric circles with differing magnification strengths.
The eye automatically finds the best one to read: long, middle and short distance, with the brain getting better over time at working it all out. So, theoretically, the vision continues to improve over the months! Clever design, the human body. Me? I'm just ecstatic I can see.
5 things I'm enjoying today with my new bionic eyes
1. 20/20 vision (particularly first thing, waking up)
2. Being able to see in the shower!
3. Blue/white sunlight and the morning sky (mmm)
4. The ability to read books again (hooray!)
5. Seeing a family of yellow birds in a tree (lovely).
Friday, my latest eye check at The McIndoe Centre: healing well and better than 20/20 vision- I didn't even know there was such a thing!
I have a new reading pile now I can see clearly again!
First time back at the gym for a month (after healing from the eye op). Man, it was SO great being able to run without glasses, and see in the shower... Trying to up my mileage bit by bit.
Final thoughts. I am still enjoying excellent vision. My new eyes have enabled me to finish writing the fifth 5fingers book with ease, which is out in spring 2018 . With a Middle Eastern book tour due next spring, and a full schedule of author visits, I will be able to read confidently in public, wear sunglasses and go in the sea. Thank you Damian Lake and the team at The McIndoe Centre!
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Joshua Raven, novelist. Read about my writing and my life here. And have you discovered 5fingers yet?