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on 4 May 2007
Mark has a very engaging writing style and as I read I found myself transported back to my adolescence. I think the experiences Mark shares are common to a lot of males of that age and era, whether or not they were consumed by D&D. I did laugh out loud on several occasions and found the book "unputdownable".
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on 27 March 2016
Not so much an autobiography as a painfully honest memoir of Barrowcliffe's teenage years in 1970's Coventry, 'The Elfish Gene' explores what it's like to grow up with the very distinct feeling you don't quite fit into the 'normal' mould your peers (and parents) think you should, whilst not really understanding why...

Barrowcliffe holds no punches when describing his D&D (Dungeons & Dragons for the uninitiated among us) friends; a group of adolescent boys who found solace in a game identified mainly for its 'geek' appeal, at a time when masculinity was defined mainly by your ability to stamp down any emotions you might be feeling for fear of being called a 'wuss'. Surrounded by fellow D&Ders, Barrowcliffe was able to scale the ranks (despite the majority of his peer group barely tolerating him) and live out a fantasy life he could never hope to obtain in the real world (even if magic really did exist).

Despite the more uncomfortable parts - mainly dealing with class division, fascism and racism, all of which were scarily acceptable in the 1970s (and not just in Coventry) - I found this quite a funny read. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but funny in the same way you cringe when your Dad/Uncle/aged Aunt gets up to do karaoke at a birthday party; you want to tell them to sit down or at the very least stop watching them, but somehow you just can't bring yourself to do either.

Growing up in the '80s and '90s I was aware of the existence of D&D and knew people who played it. What I wasn't aware of was the profound affect it had on some. And on Barrowcliffe that affect is still evident to this day. Immersing himself in the game and all it involved, D&D quite literally became his way of life. Without it he was set adrift, unable to function in the 'normal' world or cope with everyday things like boredom at work or choosing your favourite band (something that, unsurprisingly, was influenced by D&D).

From a psychological point of view this book earns kudos for documenting very well the immense impact this kind of immersion can have on an individual, especially an impressionable teenage boy. Barrowcliffe admits that he was socially and emotionally inept, hiding behind a raft of D&D inspired personalities in an attempt to get people to like him, unaware that it only succeeded in making people hate him. As a result he was bullied by those he hero-worshipped and spent the majority of his childhood and teen years gaining unattractive and offensive nicknames based mainly on his peers' opinions of him. It's safe to say he was an unpopular kid and he's not ashamed to admit it, but rather than making this a depressing read Barrowcliffe has written a light-hearted commentary about these years, which were clearly influential to him and which he remembers with great fondness.

If I had to highlight a downside to 'The Elfish Gene' it would be Barowcliffe's eagerness to blame his love of D&D and fantasy games in general for his shortcomings in later life. His inability to socialise, especially at university; his immense boredom once he started work; his lack of friends outside of the D&D arena; and the feeling that something was missing in his life, are quickly explained away by the conclusion that his love of these games made him into a massive jerk who just couldn't cope with anything normal life had to throw at him. However, one can't help suspecting that even without the influence of D&D, Barrowcliffe would still have had the potential to turn into the snarky, sarcastic and (at times) judgemental young man he became. It's less a case of D&D creating these traits in him and more a case of these characteristics simply being a part of his inherent personality and therefore something he could never hope to avoid.

Whether you're a fan of D&D or not, want to reminisce about a childhood lived in simpler times (if indeed it was in the '70s) or just fancy a bit of a laugh, 'The Elfish Gene' is certainly worth a read. Just don't expect to come away loving the author, because you (probably) won't.
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This book is laugh out loud funny, especially if you've played any form of Role playing game.

For some reason D&D largely passed me by, I played a bit of traveller & MERP at Uni but never really got heavily into it, however I was right in the middle of the nerdy computer/sci-fi/fantasy world.

Mark Barrowcliffe brilliantly evokes adolescense with its strange obsessions, malfunctioning body parts and crippling social anxiety.

Where I would disagree with him is his analysis - he claims D&D ruined his teenage years, whereas I rather suspect he would have a had a pretty ropey time, D&D or not. I certainly did. He says he was never bored whilst a teenager which seems like a pretty good deal to me. Also D&D honed his narrative skills - a novelist's bread and butter, surely.

However if you ignore the analysis, and the rather depressing Coda this is an excellent read and very funny, too.
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on 24 March 2016
Engaging story of adolescence and D&D. Easy to read, well-crafted casual-sounding dialogue and narrative style which brings you into the mind of the main character (the author as a teeanger). Offers insights into the author's world of working-class 70s England.

It is sprinkled with rather profound snippets of wisdom about life, and the author comes across as self-reflective (both about himself as well as his society).

However, it does that through the lens of a protagonist (the author's putative teenage self) who is - with apologies to the author - not the most lovable main character. Throughout the book, I sympathized with the protagonist, emphathized with him, and tried to rationalise some of his poorer life decisions - but, at the same time, I can't say I ever came to fully like the main character, to the point where I'd actually want to be in the same room with him. (I'm also curious to get another man's view on the book to ask if some aspects of the author's adolescence are normal and part of some aspects of the journey to manhood that I am unaware of.)

I am sorry if this sounds blunt because it's autobiographical but some other reviewers have mentioned something similar. Given that the author is a professional writer, I can assume that this choice of characterization was intentional!

One thing that was left hanging for me was in the part where the author's "friend" kicks him out of a Dungeons & Dragons game; I was wondering if that was because the "friend" felt the author was too obsessed over it, but I wasn't sure.

As a memoir, it succeeds; however, that choice of perspective also limits it solely to the characterization of fantasy/D&D as an adolescent male obsession as a means of escaping unideal circumstances, the dreariness of everyday life, and - on a deeper level - the reality of being born into the working class. It treats these as adolescent concerns, and concludes with the protagonist growing up.

However, it doesn't really admit to the possibility of people being interested in these things as adults (rather than as an adolescent rite of passage for the socially awkward male), or as things other than obsessions to cope with a sense of meaninglessness.

Additionally, being written from the perspective of a teenage boy attending a boys' school, it almost entirely leaves women out (although there is some brief discussion about why women were more or less excluded from this subculture). I was taken aback by some generalizations about women which I feel are untrue (for instance, men are obsessed with things and women are obsessed with relationships - no we aren't, we're obsessed with all sorts of things just like males), and I wasn't sure if they were the adult author's own comments or else his attempt to express what his teenage boy self would have thought.

In any case, an enjoyable read!
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on 16 December 2015
As someone who played a lot of Role Playing Games as a kid this book stood out for me. However, it's much more than that. It's about the reality of growing up as a teenage boy in the 1970's and from that perspective reveals all the insecurities and agonies most of us had to go through. Mark's descriptions of his inner turmoil regarding his peer group, the way he sees himself and relates to the world are very raw and honest. I'd picked up on some comments here that Mark comes across as mean and bitter. What some reviewers fail to grasp (or refuse to admit) is that young male teenagers tend to be like that. I certainly remember my own group of friends (including myself) could be particularly unmerciful when dealing with each other - but in a strange sort of way it also created close bonds between us. That's not excusing some of the things we did and said, but as Mark accurately points out, it suggested a lot about our own raging insecurities and concepts of masculinity.
As for Mark's addiction to Dungeons and Dragons I found it easy to relate to, but could easily have been about any sort of teenage obsession. Like many have mentioned, obsessions tend to seem much more intense when you're a kid. It's just that when you get older you understand that real life bumps up against you. That doesn't mean you have to abandon everything, only that you may have to put down the GM's Handbook in order to put the kids to bed.
I must say, my heavy analysis aside, there were plenty of times it had me laughing out loud. Two stand out moments for me were when Mark and Billy decide to create "real fireballs" using balloons and lighter fuel (with disastrous consequences), and Mark's insistence on describing D&D to his Nan.
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For the record, I have never played Dungeons and Dragons. What's more, I wouldn't have the slightest idea where to even start playing.

Fortunately this didn't keep me from understanding the basics of what is going on in "The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange," which is basically all about coming of age in 1970s England with the help of then-new-and-impressive Dungeons and Dragons. Mark Barrowcliffe gives the constant impression that he was intensely annoying and possibly insane, but it's a fun little read about the passionate obsessions of youth and the appeal of ubergeekery.

In the summer of 1976, Barrowcliffe was aspiring to be cool and edgy, with a burgeoning interest in the opposite sex. Then he discovered wargaming in school.

And by attempting to weave more fantastical stuff into his wargames, he inadvertently fell in with a new school club that was playing an utterly new kind of RPG -- Dungeons and Dragons. Soon Barrowcliffe was not only a gaming fanatic for anything fantastical, but was also enamored of "Lord of the Rings," Michael Moorcock, Led Zeppelin and anything else with a faraway fantastical edge. Suddenly everything else in life went to the wayside to make room for a strange world of dungeonmasters, elves, magic-users and primal bad guys.

Unsurprisingly, that level of obsession tends to cause a bit of annoyance -- from family, friends, and members of the opposite sex (well, what do you expect when you greet a "slattern" with a cry of "What, fair maiden?"). And Barrowcliffe soon discovered the downsides of D&D as well as the upsides -- including oblivious parents, dabblings in chemical "magic" and an egomaniac dungeonmaster -- as he struggled through an adolescent's rapidly changing world. Hoo boy.

"The Elfish Gene" is fundamentally a book about "growing up strange" -- it's definitely saturated in Ye Olde Role-Playing Games from beginning to end, and Barrowcliffe's obsessions are undeniable ("I'd already begun to suspect that the D&D system might not be the EXACT recreation of real life that I'd taken it to be"). But in many ways, it's the adolescent journey of a highly imaginative adolescent who's struggling to find his place in the world, and uses D&D (and many accompanying games) as the doorway to that.

And Barrowcliffe is fearless in exposing all the dorky, dumb things he did as a teenager. It takes some real guts to show the world that you were once immature, irritating, enslaved by the concept of "cool" and tended to dress like a total dork. Fortunately he's able to strike a nice balance between self-deprecating mockery (both then and now) and rosy-hued nostalgia for the 1970s, his hometown and the feeling of being an overenthusiastic young boy ("I think the idea that women might fancy good-looking, well-adjusted men who are nice to them is too much for the average fantasy-head to bear").

But despite his adrenaline-charged forays into strange worlds full of mystical beings (and apparently a lot of ethereal maidens), the real drama here is in the real world. Barrowcliffe roams through shops, makes (and loses) friends over his beloved D&D, and has it shape every single part of his persona. Most shockingly, he gets kicked out of his first group by the chilly, egomaniacal Porter, and though he finds a haven with older gamers there's still plenty of tension and conflict. Call it a cautionary tale for people who try to misuse their dungeonmaster power.

But despite the clashes between gamers (usually because of Porter's inexplicably dislikes), Barrowcliffe crams the book with funny story after funny story. You can't make this stuff up -- chemical "fireballs" in a bathroom, RPGing with cosmetics, purple prose, teenage Nazis, and the distinct lack of breeks. And he has a knack for funny, wry prose in any situation ("I will make your flesh sing a song of ecstacy such as will echo through the caverns of your soul. Happily shalt thou spend thy sweet seed." "Right, cup of tea?").

"The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange" is an off-kilter, ubergeeky memoir of adolescence in the world of Dungeons and Dragons, and Mark Barrowcliffe knows how to keep it fun and interesting.
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VINE VOICEon 11 February 2009
When Mark Barrowcliffe tires of his weekly wargaming club he is enticed by the magical and mystical game of Dungeons and Dragons. Armed with a basic rulebook and a few polyhedral dice, he persuades other boys to join him in a game. Far from being a replacement for the Friday night wargame, roleplaying becomes an all-encompassing obsession for the teenager. He spends all his money and all his spare time on the game, and it dominates his conversation to the point of interrogating his gran on the relative merits of succubae and harpies.

The memoir explores the social mores of teenage boys in the seventies and provides several wry observations on the outlook of the British Working Class of the 1970s. This was my era and I remember it well - I even lived only a few miles away from Coventry and remember several of the places he mentions.

I enjoyed this book immensely for both the memorabilia of the background and the memories of Dungeons and Dragons (though I didn't get into RPGs until I met some boys who played AD&D in the eighties.) I even nodded in amusement at the authors scathing criticisms of the game's illustrations.

I give this book a 4 out of 5 stars, but if you've never grown up in 70's Britain, or never been in a room until the early hours of the morning because you didn't trust your friends not to kill off your character, you won't enjoy is as much.
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on 6 November 2007
Yes I thought it is a great title, really caught my eye. Though I have never played D and D, I am a girl after all, I have been caught up in the video game world of Dungeon Master on to Oblivion so some of the technical stuff made sense.

However I liked this is a coming of age book, especially since it was set in the seventies it brought back all those memories of "Sale of the Century", sweeties, heavy metal. Actually I didn't really want to remember sale of the century, but hey ho.

We see how Mark came into contact with D and D and introduced it to his friends, who promptly took it up and then excluded him. There is also a wonderful sense of his driving passion for the game which echoed the kind of passion most of have as teenagers, though it is not usually for role playing board games.

It really felt as if the author was being very honest, especially as the picture he paints of himself is an annoying little oik. It's really good storytelling that does draw you in to keep on reading. And also some very funny moments, the laundry basket comes to mind!

Good writing from the days of the selfish elf!
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on 10 January 2014
Technically this is a well-written book. Sometimes funny, and the characterization is superb. Sadly, it characterizes a monstrously unlikable character, who refuses to learn anything from adversity, doesn't grow and consistently blames external factors -a game- for his problems.

It is written in an memoir format, and is the story of a hideously unsocialized boy who discovers Dungenos and Dragons. The boy comes across as a terribly repellent person, and the adult, looking back at this socially misplaced childhood appears a dissassociative personality. All the things that went wrong in his life is the fault of Dungeons and Dragons, not the fact that he was a social misfit. And his life, he believes, would have been much better if he had never picked up the dice. However, the book provides ample evidence that he was badly dysfunctional socially long before he discovered Dungeons and Dragons.

He supposes life would have been much better if he had found a different, more "normal" interest, but the book subtly illustrates that his the subject of his interest was not the problem, but the intensity of it. Looking at it with a readers eye, it seems unlikly that the main character would have been any less obsessive over a different interest. He'd simply have ended up in a subculture less tolerant of social misfits.

In writing this "memoir" the character believes he would have been much happier if the game had not conditioned him to expect more out of life and sparked his imagination. This is written by the adult character, a successful writer looking back on his life. He imagines that without the game dragging him down, he would have gotten better friends, a more "normal" social life, and a career not burdened by his own expectations. He never explains how the socially inept boy he was would have done so much better in the Coventry of the 70s. His reasons for believing that a "normal" adolescnese in 70s UK would be better than what he had is unclear.

To the reader it shines through that the game gave the character everything that led to success in his life. The imagination, the vocabulary, the ambition, everything that made him a popular writer. While he bitterly blames it for all his personal failiures, his life history is basically a best-case scenario for the boy we come to know through the book.

Unlike the other reviewrs, I don't think it is intended to be an honest autobiography, but a character-portrait presented as an memoir. I went to the authors website and he seems to be doing D&D contentedly. Entirely unlike the bitter alter-ego of the book, who rejects it utterly. The problem is that by using his own name, and probably quite a bit of his own history, the author becomes too strongly identified with the utterly unlikable character.

Basically, he is too subtle in showing that the character is someone who was salvaged by dungeons & dragons. The writing is taken at face value and its not a pretty face.
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on 24 November 2009
This certainly took me back to my D&D days, and my (like the author's) misspent youth. What elevates this beyond a mere chuckle at strange roleplayers is the touching innocence of the times, the people and memories of a slightly-forgotten era ... 80s heavy metal, rules lawyers, terror of females and obsession. Very, very funny and, in a strange way, quite moving. You don't have to be a games nut to read this. In fact, I think my wife should read it and she'd understand me better! Also brought back memories of Cov(entry) in the 80s.
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