Learning From Fiction

Growing up, I read a substantial chunk of Roald Dahl’s output. I liked them not just for the stories, but how he would explain concepts to his young readers. It was through his novels that I learnt why payments of royalties are made, how some fighter jets fired missiles through the propellor, and that finds of certain metals need to be reported to the authorities.

But learning from fiction is in no way restricted to children’s books. Anyone can glean or dispute historical stories from Dan Brown, or learn a little about the law from John Grisham.

A personal favourite is The Day of the Triffids, where a character talks about risk management by using an example from his family farm. It was explained that once in a while, the cows would bunch together and burst through the perimeter fence, yet it was so rare and unpredictable that it was quicker and cheaper to fix breaks as they occurred than to reinforce the whole fence.

And then I read Lee Child giving praise to Frederick Forstyth as The Day of the Jackal turns half-a-century old. The entire novel is almost a textbook for an assassination, such is the level of detail. The hitman isn’t a spiv with limitless resources. We see how he funds his operation and where his weapon and fake documents are obtained.

Yet the reader is never overloaded with lists of data. The key technique is to convey much of the detail via dialogue. At the very beginning, for example, a suspect begins to tell the police about the assassination plot, and the reader learns the details at the same time as the officers.

I feel compelled to leave a caveat here that anything learnt in fiction should always be cross-checked with a non-fiction source. That’s doubly true if you plan to include something educational in your own work.

Three Good Apples and a Lemon.

I’ve read a number of books this year, and the majority of them were well worth it, including the classics The Day of The Triffids and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. So I’ve only selected a few notable ones for this entry. The links go to Amazon, but to paraphrase the BBC disclaimer, other websites are available.

My choice of lemon proves the idiom that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Crawling Round South Oakwood by Stephen Slaughter has amazing artwork, with the words in the title becoming more and more blurred as the rows of pint glasses become emptier and emptier. I thought a story about a group of friends going on pub crawls would be a sure-fire winner.

How wrong could I be? The book seems to be a first draft, going into such minutiae as the details of the TV programme the group watches, and their exact route to the pub. Later in the book, a fight breaks out between the group members, yet no tension is shown to have built up in any other part of the book. I finished it, but I was disappointed.

Now let’s look at what went well. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller had an arresting concept. In a post-apocalyptic world, Hig and Bangley are survivors. The former owns a small plane with enough fuel for years of short reconnaissance missions. When he picks up a long-range radio transmission, he is determined to find its source, but it means using up all his fuel without enough for a return trip.

As well as the immediate problems, it explores the philosophical differences between Hig and Bangley. One asks questions then shoots, the other takes the opposite approach. I also like that the author doesn’t write needless pages dwelling on the causes of the apocalypse, but shows it throughout the story.

I was fortunate to see Iain (M) Banks at two live events before hearing of his illness and death this year. He didn’t fit the stereotype of the introvert writer mumbling answers to questions. Rather, he made a short speech then actively encouraged the audience to join in.

I haven’t read any of his science fiction, although I hear it’s excellent. Having read The Wasp Factory after his first appearance, I then tackled The Crow Road. I have two criticisms about the book: that the flashbacks aren’t as clearly marked as they could be, and some of the writing isn’t as tight as it could be, but once you become accustomed to it, you really believe in those characters and their views on life, as Prentice tries to piece together his family secrets.

I’ve also seen another Scottish author at live events, Chris Brookmyre, who signed my copy of Flesh Wounds. Like Banks, he’s very confident in front of an audience, his main topic discussing the merits of the phrase, “Taking a s***”

As in The Crow Road, the flashbacks are a little confusing, and the Glasgow dialect can be a little alienating. But it’s the attention to detail in a many-stranded story that really drives it forward. I really ought to read more of his novels, as the only other one I’ve tackled is All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye.

But if I was giving out awards for the best book I’d read this year, it would have to go to Layer Cake by J J Connolly, only £1 from a charity shop. As Flesh Wounds is set firmly in Glasgow, this is set in London, and the first-person narrator sprinkles in some Cockney rhyming slang, often without explanation. A, “Mars bar,” for instance is a scar, but it took me a few pages before I realised this.

My enjoyment wasn’t dampened in any way by the Daniel Craig film, in fact they complement each other, sharing several direct quotes. It’s difficult to judge the unnamed narrator for dealing drugs because he has the attitude of a businessman, just one whose activities are illegal. As he sees it: “Until Prohibition ends, make hay whilst the sun shines.”

I hope to read many more excellent books next year.