‘You are the hero!’ Fighting fantasy

Background

‘You are an adventurer in a world of monsters and magic, living by quickness of wit and skill of sword.’

Reading those words for the first time as a young child sent a tingle of excitement that you were entering a world where you decided what happened.  It seemed something new and unique, that you didn’t follow the narrative but decided what action the hero took.  Also who didn’t want to be in a world of cut throats, goblins, wizards, and monsters?

All that was needed were two dice (easy to get from your board games) a pencil, and a bit of paper to mark your skills, stamina, luck, and all the other notes that you needed.  Sometimes you were given the opportunity of choosing say a potion or a particular skill.

It sounds a relatively simple game and after all it was meant to be an introduction to the fun of dungeon and dragons but the stories were gripping and enthralling.  They were also a challenge that showed no sentiment or allowed the reader an easy ride to a happy ending.  There were choices and sometimes picking the wrong path or item could result in a grisly end.

Like many others I did intend to play properly but after a few frustrated deaths that dice roll of one again for skill would mean that was a ‘test roll,’ mainly until it was a five or preferably a six.  Then there was the opening of a door and ‘a wizard robs you of two skill points and all your money.’  A little cough would follow and ‘I wasn’t going to go into that room anyway,’ with you choosing the other option.  That was part of the charm but even then  a dice roll or wrong choice could see your adventure coming to an abrupt end.

The covers and the illustrations were pretty cool as well but it was that excitement that you decided the fate of the hero.  It helped that the books were well written and painted a colourful picture.  Instantly you were sent down a helter skelter of a slide to another world where the characters and even the smells seemed real.

More than anything it was the words and the language that was used.  It was ‘you see an old tavern with the words The old Toad.’  It’s quite subtle in some respects but rather than saying ‘John goes to…’ it’s you…  Already you are involved as every action is described as though it is you walking through the town or even paying an innkeeper.

Once you took on the mission and turned that page over you were instantly plunged into a dilemma as though it was real-time.   Was it safe to go down that dodgy lane or play safe by going the long way across the field?  Should you help that man lying on the floor or open the door with loud noises inside the room?

It wasn’t as straight forward as you think and that was the beauty of the books.  Once you made that decision there was no going back, (unless you cheated of course but there was still that buzz of debating what you should do next).  Even doing the perceived right thing of helping someone could see you get into a fight or have a skill, stamina, or a luck point deducted.

Incidentally testing your luck was literally a dicey thing.  After being prompted I felt quite smug in the knowledge that I had ten points and felt that the odds were more than in my favour.  Casually I threw the dices and to my horror threw a double six.  There was an even sickening feeling as I turned to the relevant page as my character met a grisly death.

The books were also a puzzle were you had to follow a particular route to win.  It could also be harsh in books such as ‘Warlock of Firetop mountain.’   After completing dangerous tasks and fearsome foes such as the final and hardest villain you are asked ‘did you take that key?’  a few chapters back.  Feeling slightly puzzled as I didn’t take the key I turned as instructed to the no page only to find out that I had failed in my mission as I couldn’t open the chest.  Instead I spent the rest of my days apparently sobbing over the elusive treasure.

‘Creature of havoc,’ was one of the toughest books that was virtually impossible to complete.  With many others and after much perseverance you could complete the book.  ‘Havoc,’ though relied on you not only following a particular path but as you were a creature you relied on instinct or smell your fate also relied on a particular dice roll.

In one instance I ran into a bunch of arrow wielding Elves which ended with me dying a painful death with me crying out in pathetically in pain.  Re-starting through much gritted teeth I came to the same quandary of either going forward or taking another route.  As I knew the outcome of the former I took as you would the latter only to find out that one of the Elves took me clean out.

It seemed that particular route meant that you were as good as dead.  The only choice you had, was whether it was a clean or painful death.

Like with anything that was good there had to be a challenge and that feeling of satisfaction that you had accomplished something when you were successful.  The fighting fantasy books were able to provide that and with the writing portraying a colourful world it seemed real.  Your imagination was able to run wild and that tense feeling of having to make a decision that could backfire or be instrumental in completing your mission.

There were numerous books that you could buy and as with anything successful there were also rivals such as lone wolf.  However like Adidas or puma football boots you either preferred one or the other.  For me it was fighting fantasy and the labyrinth of different stories that could see you being a wood elf or off hunting vampires.  Plus the stories were more varied and interesting.

As the genre was quite successful some television series such as Robin of Sherwood produced a couple of books were you played the ‘hooded man.’  These though were inferior in the sense that it was more harder to fail than it was to complete the adventure.  It was akin to playing a team two levels below you as a kid.  Once the second goal went in you knew there was only one outcome and no real joy could be taken from a routine victory.

For some unknown reason I do remember playing a football version of fighting fantasy. That was a pale imitation, a bit like drinking diet Irn Bru.  Sometimes only the real McCoy will do and although you had choices it wasn’t a patch on Livingston and Jackson’s books.  I can’t for the life of me remember what the plot although I think it was about a dodgy Chairman who wanted to turn the club’s ground into a supermarket.

Still on football, I suppose that you are the ref was probably a small snippet that was similar.  The only difference was that if you got the decision wrong you didn’t get an outraged orc’s axe into the back of your head.

Like anything there were those that mocked fighting fantasy as a pale imitation of dungeons and dragons.  Aside from the fact that they were meant to be an introduction there was if you were a big fan of books something exciting about deciding the fate of the hero.

Nostalgia can sometimes play funny tricks on the memory.  Old classic computer games or old TV series such as the X files do not have that same allure that they did in their heyday.  So it was with great trepidation that I bought second hand copies  of the City of thieves, creature of havoc, and phantom of fear.

Turning that page still brought the familiar feeling of excitement as it did many years before.  In many ways it was like feeling the weight of a football against your foot after a bad injury.  There is that surge of joy coursing through your veins as you throw the dice as well as weighing up the options of your choices.  It was still fun to play and the stories were well crafted to make me feel as though I was in a dodgy city attempting to take on Zanbar Bone.

The books were still as tough as ever with creature of chaos still impossible to complete.  Luckily City of Thieves wasn’t as difficult although it took a few goes there was still that feeling of achievement when it was cracked.

Sometimes your imagination can provide the best entertainment and the fighting fantasy books did precisely that.  All you needed was a pencil, a bit of paper, and dices to be plunged into another reality.  Fighting fantasy brought all that with their charm and making you personally involved.  We all need a bit of escapism which even now Livingston and Jackson’s books still bring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why the snobbery about Harry Potter?

Snobbery within the arts is nothing new.  Providing that you are in the right clique you could publish a novel full of your drunken rants and critics would delight in how marvellous and left field it is.  If you are outside that precious little circle then it is open season on any works that are considered inferior, thrashy, or silly pulp fiction nonsense.

When J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter became a phenomena with children all over the world, some the critics couldn’t help but sneer not just at Rowling’s writing ability about the stories themselves.  It was perceived by some critics as third-rate writing who couldn’t believe that adults never mind children enjoyed the magical world of Harry Potter.

Now if Rowling had declared herself to be the next big thing since Tolkien and that Harry Potter was the greatest piece of art then some of the criticism would be fair.  The fact of the matter is that Rowling has never professed herself to be a genius.  As most writers will tell you is for people to enjoy the stories as much as you enjoy writing and creating them.  From the interviews I assume that Rowling is satisfied so long as her fans enjoyed the exploits of Harry Potter.

A good work of fiction doesn’t necessarily have to be testing or require the works of  the Odyssey to understand the plot.  The art is to tell a good story that grabs hold of the reader and takes you deep into the pages of the world it is portraying.  This whether the critics like it or not is what Rowling excels at and is one of the reasons why Harry Potter is so popular.

It is that excitement of discovering a new world where you can be yourself. A place of magic that temporally takes you away from what is happening outside.  These are characters that they can relate to as Harry and his friends develop to young adults. What Rowling does and does well is create a well written story that the reader can easily become enthralled and feel an emotional connection to the characters.  There is a undeniably a feel good factor that good will always overcome evil.

You would think that any books that encourage children to read and enjoy the world that literature can bring is a good thing.  However there are people who frown at Harry Potter and even some that are aghast that their children not only devour them but are big fans. Some will argue that they are badly written, juvenile, and that there are better works of fiction that should be read.

That though is just snobbery.  Reading is about enjoyment.  It is about discovering and moving on to other works that you want to try or sends a tremor of excitement when you read the blurb on the sleeve.  Reading should be fun and down to the individual to decide what they want to read.

Of course you don’t necessarily have to like the books your children or even your partner enjoy.  Sometimes that can be the fun part of having a proper debate about the stories.  What is not acceptable is deriding the book simply because it is either J.K. Rowling or Harry Potter.  To just dismiss it as childish nonsense and to tell them to read something proper like Charles Dickens Bleak House

Books lead to other stories and how many children have discovered the likes of C.S. Lewis the tales of Narnia or even Roald Dahl through Harry Potter?  Influences that are quite evident within the Harry Potter world.

Is everything a bit too black and white in Harry Potter?  Maybe.  Are some of the characters such as the Dursley’s too much of a caricature?  Possibly.  Besides the strong themes of friendship, love, loyalty, even coping with the death of a loved one are all topics that are covered quite well in Harry Potter.

The main thing is that the Harry Potter stories are enjoyable page turners.  You can feel the joy, excitement, the injustice, and the danger within the pages of Rowling’s novels.

That for me as a writer is a success.  To hit that connection with the audience has to be the overall aim.  You want the reader to feel that they know the character and care about their journey.  You want them to feel part of that world and delight in it.

JK Rowling whether critics like it or not has made her mark in the literary world.  Harry Potter like Bilbo Baggins or Aslam the lion are very much well-loved and known literary characters.

It is high time that some critics stop being a snob and mocking books that doesn’t fit into their criteria of literature.  After all we all need a bit of escapism and books are about entertainment and enjoyment.  Besides anything that encourages children to read has to be a good thing.  Rowling certainly knows how to write a good book and for that at least should be given praise for that.

 

 

 

 

Sherlock and the case of losing the plot

“The name is Sherlock Holmes and the address is 221B Baker street,” Benedict Cumberbatch tells Doctor Watson as he gives a cheeky wink and so begins the adventure of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes.

It was a brave but a good idea to cast Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in a world familiar to our own.  For most Holmesian fans the world of Holmes and Doctor Watson is a Victorian one of London fog and Hanson cabs as they dash through the streets in London.  Nevertheless the idea of Sherlock in the 21st century was an anathema to some staunch fans and indeed it was a question of whether it would be style ove substance as well as whether the stories would transfer over well to a modern era.

If Gatiss and Moffat had decided to stay with the Victorian era then it would have instantly been compared to Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes respectively.  Both of these are classic adaption’s and there always would have been the feeling that Cumberbatch’s Sherlock would be the ‘Robin,’ to Rathbone and Brett’s  ‘Batman.’ Added to which there was a feeling of something new and exciting in just what Sherlock would look like in the here and now.

With a cast  that boasted the likes of Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Una Stubbs to name but a few they pulled it off.  It felt like something new and unique with the early episodes strongly related to Doyle’s stories such as a ‘study in Scarlett,’ with the episode titled ‘a study in pink.’

For Holmes it is about solving the problem through using his brain and deducting probabilities until in the words of Sherlock he is left with the answer no matter how implausible it may seem.  Emotions, relationships, even in some respects getting justice were immaterial.  To Sherlock it was the high adrenalin rush of trying to solve a difficult puzzle against the clock.  Brains not brawn was normally the order of the day.

Cumberbatch was excellent in deducing information about people in that know it all matter of fact way .  He also perfected that know all smirk at the amazement of everyone when he explained the giveaways about their character or solving a case.

The chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman is caught perfectly as Watson is equally exasperated and a the same time reveres Holmes.  When Sherlock fires a gun because he is bored or does something abnormal Freeman’s Watson shows the frustration as he tries to tell him that his behaviour is out-of-order.  Not that Holmes is bothered and Cumberbatch captures the selfishness and smug amusement that Watson is capturing his cases on his blog.  In Sherlock’s words he ‘is a functioning sociopath.’

Some may have wondered whether the modern technology would hinder the series but instead Holmes who embraces new technology adapts to it like a duck to water.  Mobile phones, laptops as an annoyed Holmes instructs a bewildered Watson on a webcam it still captures the spirit of Conan Doyle’s Holmes who let it be said embraced science like a friend.

There are still some of the interests and habits of the Victorian Holmes as Cumberbatch’s Sherlock knocks out a mean old tune on his violin. He too has a nicotine addiction although unlike the old Holmes who contentedly puffs on his pipe he is trying to kick what is now deemed a filthy habit with nicotine patches.

Although Mycroft might be a slimmer version of Conan Doyle (granted he still worries about his weight) Lestrade is still the bumbling inspector who relies on Sherlock’s assistance and like Watson is amazed at how he solves the cases.  There is a bit more flesh to Mrs Hudson who has a bit of a colourful history whilst Molly the pathologist has a not so secret crush on Sherlock.  These characters though all work as they act and react as you would expect in the modern era.  Sherlock is still a man who doesn’t do emotions and sees his fellow-man as an interesting study.

Moriarty is probably the weakest of the well-known Sherlock Holmes characters in Sherlock.  For starters he seems to be younger than what is expected of Sherlock’s nemesis.  Added to which Andrew Scott hams it up just a bit too much for him to be taken serious.  Rather than coming across as one of the most dangerous criminals he comes across as the unhinged lunatic who gets on the bus with people getting their heads down hoping not to make eye contact.  It is hard to see him as a major crime lord as there isn’t a sense of seriousness or danger of someone who doesn’t take prisoners when crossed.  Nevertheless there is a tension between the pair as they pit their wits in what they seem to see as a game between each other.

The early episodes certainly work with the modern twist of the Hound and the Baskervilles and scandal in Belgravia.  Lara Pulver plays Irene Adler magnificently and even steals the show.  It could be argued that Conan Doyle’s Adler was portrayed as a stronger woman.  After all Irene Adler in scandal of Bohemia is one the very few people to get the better of Holmes whereas the modern Adler gets rescued by Sherlock dressed up like an extra from the 1970s Turkish delight advert.

Nevertheless it was an enjoyable show as Sherlock enjoyed the thrill of the chase with the game afoot.  However the series was about to lose its direction and verge away from what Sherlock Holmes is about.  There were a couple of reasons for this and that was the decision to try to delve into what makes Sherlock tick and the introduction of John Watson’s new bride Mary.  Aside from the secret SAS type agent on the run Sherlock for some reason started to become more of an action hero rather than solving crimes.

For starters would Sherlock Holmes really feel that the only option that he had was to shoot and kill Charles Augustus Magnussen?  Apart from Holmes priding himself on using his intelligence and finding out his weakness would he really cross the line?  After all that is meant to be the big difference between Sherlock and Moriarty in the sense that he believes in justice and has a more moral sense that his arch-enemy.

The abominable bride was quite frankly abominable but was quickly forgiven as being more of a teaser for what was to come as well as giving the cast an opportunity to don Victorian garb.  However the last and what is rumoured to be the last series went completely off kilter.  Again it was all focused on Mary being an action hero that it detracted from what we expect from a Sherlock Holmes story.

It seemed as though the show was back on course with the lying detective a take on the dying detective story only for it to all go a bit Pete Tong at the end when John Watson’s therapist turns out to be Sherlock’s secret evil sister Eurus.

Rather than the final episode being a fitting finale it was aptly titled the final problem which was quite ironic as there were a lot of problems and holes with this episode.  Critics pointed out that Sherlock was morphing more into James Bond with all the explosions and action hero scenes.  To be fair they had a point with the promo of Sherlock in a smart suit whilst fixing his sleeve more 007 than 221B Baker street.

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Sherlock more 007 than 221B Baker Street

From the drone with the bomb blowing up the front room of Sherlock’s flat to hijacking a fishing boat to break into the secure prison that was holding Sherlock and Mycroft’s sister there were more holes than Mycroft’s Captain Fishy’s net.  Aside from the ease of breaking in why did Mycroft need to don a disguise when he had access to the institution anyway?  Why would a young Eurus be locked up in such a prison at a young age?  Plus the bit with Moriarty being allowed to visit Eurus with both being considered criminal masterminds and being left alone was ridiculous.

The games and the girl on the plane full of dead passengers which turned out to be how Eurus mind was feeling was self-indulgent that you were beyond the point of caring and wanted it to end.

It seemed as though Moffat and Gatiss wanted to explore on what made Sherlock the way he was with the ‘Redbeard,’ murder of his friend (he thought it was the family dog) and strange behaviour of his sister meant to being going some way to explain his psyche.  The whole episode was quite frankly a mess and without the Sherlock Holmes moniker would probably not have been made.  All of it seemed conceited rather than producing a series to merit the early episodes.

Mark Gatiss responded to criticism in the same vein that Arthur Conan Doyle did to a critic by writing a poem.  No doubt it was tongue in cheek but would have been better if he had been influenced by one of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories rather than a panda cola version of the real thing for the final series.

The early Sherlock was an excellent show and despite some cynicism of portraying a modern-day Holmes it worked whilst also looking fresh.  Despite the last few episodes Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman will still be remembered as one of the best Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson especially when the game was afoot.
Brian Benjamin

Books under the radar 

There is no better feeling when you take a punt on an unknown book and realise that you have a classic story in your hands.  To feel that shiddy giddy excitement as you are absorbed in this new world that it’s as though you have been beamed down standing alongside these heroes or villains as they face their next task.  It’s also the groan that you feel when your dramatically pulled into reality when the train station for work pulls into view.

Discovering these books is all part of the fun.  Sometimes it can be a word of mouth or simply just liking the look of it when you’re in a bookshop.  When it delivers its like discovering a superstar like Lionel Messi and it’s the pride and the yearning as you want people to know and enjoy the book as much as you have.  Here then a few books that may be worth taking a punt on.
TheSlowRegardOfSlientThingsCoverThe slow regard of silent things by Patrick Rothfuss

Auri the main lead is a character from Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle in this novella.  In many ways the story deviates away from the basics of what makes a novel as there isn’t an actual plot.  There is no beginning, middle, and an end with any climax being built up.  Instead it is a character study that allows you a peek into her world for seven days.  You could argue that it is a story about nothing with one chapter solely devoted to Auri making soap but there are a couple of reasons for taking a punt on this book.  Firstly Rothfuss is a fine writer as anyone who has read the Kingkiller Chronicle his words are rich and are never wasted.  Secondly you somehow seem to understand more about Auri and have an inclination as to why she became the person that we know through Kvothe in the Kingkiller.  It’s a book that absorbs  and dwells on you like a fine whisky as you still ponder and think about the brief view that you have been allowed in Auri’s world.

ThevesuviusclubThe Lucifer box series by Mark Gatiss

Famous for the league of gentlemen, Sherlock and Doctor Who Mark Gatiss is a man of many talents.  Even so there is always an air of trepidation of a big name pushing his book.  For most there is an air of hype that doesn’t live to the gushing praise of the media.  The Lucifer box trilogy bucks this trend.  For starters there is no drivel about how it is the best book ever and breaks new boundaries.  Gatiss relies on the strength of his story which is a rollicking adventure that starts with the Vesuvius club.  We begin in the roaring 20’s  as we are introduced to Lucifer Box a dashing agent with the looks of Dorian Grey and ends in the 1950’s.

A lot of it is tongue in cheek with a mix of James Bond meeting the inhabitants of the Naughty Hellfire club.  Indeed there is a bohemian spirit throughout the book but just as importantly it is a fun book with a character who knows no boundaries and has a carefree free spirit.  An enjoyable light read that you won’t regret reading.

The_Damned_Utd_coverThe damned United by David Peace

It is in the words of David Peace fiction blended with fact as it focuses on the troubled and disastrous forty-four days of Brian Clough’s time in charge of Leeds United.

The style is of a hypnotic rhythmic prose stream of consciousness inside the mind of Brian Clough.  There are the doubts and his resentment of  Don Revie and the loyalty that he perceives his players still hold for their former boss whilst he tries to impose his style on the team.  It also cleverly takes you right back to the start of Clough’s career as a fledgling manager and how he ends up at Leeds.

It is quite a dark story but you can hear Clough’s resonating throughout your mind with his revulsion for Don Revie and what he perceived his Leeds United team stood for.  The words ‘his team.  His Leeds.  His dirty fucking Leeds and they always will be,’ are spat out so violently that you can feel the venom.

Peace also somehow takes you back to the 1970s that you can feel and smell the stale cigarette smoke and atmosphere of the era.

You don’t have to be a fan of football to appreciate this story and if you are a fan of modernist literature then this will be a book that you will enjoy as it is certainly up there with the best of them.

end of mr YThe end of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

A book that manages to grab your attention from the very first page.  Ariel Manto the protagonist stumbles onto a rare book ‘the end of Mr Y,’ by the scientist Thomas Lumas.  Although delighted with the find there is a troubled rumour that those who read the book die afterwards.  That’s not to ignore the strange going ons at the University due to an unexplained earthquake that leads one of the buildings to subside.

As Ariel progresses through the book and discovering more about Mr Y things get more weirder as she travels through time using the thoughts of people.

It does admittedly fizzle out towards the end but its an adventure that is unique, different, and enjoyable.

300px-Ocean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane_US_CoverThe ocean at the end of the lane by Neil Gaiman

There are books that bring a sad feeling that comes after having to say goodbye to friends after a good night out.  This is very much one of those books that also leaves you thinking a lot about the story with bits slowly settling in much later like a good pint of beer does.

In many ways it’s an adult fairy story with themes about childhood and the past.  Without giving away the plot it’s about a middle-aged man returning to his childhood home for a funeral.  Whilst on his way he comes across an old farm-house where he remembers Lettie a friend who claimed the pond by the farm was an ocean.

Upon spying the house the memories come back on that particular moment in time as a child.  There are many subjects such as death, family life, friendship, imagination and what is real and not.  Even after finishing the novel you really are none the wiser.

This is a book that I would recommend anyone to read.

tenantofwildfellhall1The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Although her sisters Emily and Charlotte Bronte are more famous for their works such as Wuthering heights and Jane Eyre respectively this is a novel that in many ways was ground breaking, topical, and in some ways ahead of its time.

When taken into context the time that it was released it is easy to see why it was so controversial.  One of the good things about books is that it can hold up a mirror image and force people to look at what is happening within their own society.

It is a blow-by-blow account of an abusive marriage and the feeling of helplessness of having to withstand due to conforming of what society expects.  There is also the treatment and hypocritical sensationalist gossiping and sneering at someone trying to escape it.

The story itself is about a mysterious tenant called Helen who moves into the said hall with her son.  Gilbert Markham a farmer slowly falls in love but following a misunderstanding finds out the truth about Helen’s past.

Perhaps Anne Bronte was not as strong in her story telling and structure in her books but in terms of the topic it very much moves away from what was the perceived ideals of romantic novels.

B. Benjamin