Tag Archives: novel

Amster Damned – A review

Amster Damned, by Nils Nisse Visser is a steampunk novel and clearly the start of a series. The author and I were recommended to each other by a fellow reviewer. I love how this stuff works.

The main action in this tale takes place over a very short time frame, as private detective’s assistant Miss Kittyhawk is in Amsterdam on a missing person’s case. We’re offered an initial setup that looks mysterious enough – the case of the missing botanist – but as a few days of plotting and dramatic escape unfold, it turns out there’s a lot more to it.

Now to try and review without spoilering!

As the main drama plays out, we get details of Miss Kittyhawk’s back story, and she is certainly not as she first appears. There’s smuggling in her family background, and social unrest in her social background and rebellion against the state in her heart, but the state seems to be trying to recruit her, so that’s clearly all going to go well in future books!

The world building around the action-orientated part of the plot is superb, as a large and complex reality emerges. This is a world in which time travel is a criminal offence that will get you executed if you don’t have the right paperwork. This is a world where the skies hum with many different kinds of craft, and the scope for adventure, and misadventure, is vast.

I have one fairly small niggle over the level of description and technical information – this however is mostly a matter of personal taste. I know for some steampunk readers, the details of dress and technology are really what makes the genre, so for some people this is going to be a distinct asset, not an irritation. Less description would have been more, for me.

What really made this book for me, was the startlement of getting a little way in and going “Hang on, I KNOW THIS PERSON!” I’ve since discovered that the author is in the habit of recruiting real life Steampunks into his fiction, which adds a really interesting extra dimension, to my mind.

I also really appreciated that this is a story whose main characters all come from the back alleys and slums, and who are not enchanted by the great colonial, industrial machine, nor are they profiting much from it – well – smuggling aside! There’s an explicit critique of the ways those in power see and treat the masses, and plenty of real life relevance in that mix.

On the whole, a charming and entertaining read with the potential to develop into a really good series. I’ll be looking out for the next one.

Advertisements

The Adventures of Alan Shaw: A Review

Craig Hallam’s The Adventures of Alan Shaw is in many ways everything a person might expect from a steampunk novel. Set in something much like Victorian London, there’s lots of anachronistic technology – the monorail, dirigibles, automatons, some with ‘Babbage inside’ (I giggled about that, and about many other things). There’s also magic, crime, an inevitable event at The Great Exhibition, and a freak show. However, it is the ways in which Craig pushes out from those steampunk standards into unusual territory that makes this book such a good read.

Alan Shaw is a series of short stories, in chronological order. In many ways it functions like a novel, there are story threads that weave the tales together but each adventure is also a standalone. The main character is unusual because he’s a pauper. Steampunk can be a bit too fond of titles for my liking, so I really enjoyed seeing a proper filthy urchin taking the lead. At 11, young Mr Shaw is as dirty as he is disreputable. He’s also trying not to starve or freeze to death in a London that does not treat orphans kindly.

Although rescued from his sordid beginnings, Alan Shaw does not transform, Cinderella style into a handsome prince. He remains a misfit, no longer really working class, certainly not a proper fit for high society. He’s a young man with something to prove, and precious little sense when it comes to proving it.

There are all kinds of social issues laced through the adventures, and this is done with a light touch so it never feels like a lecture. Issues of what moral choices look like when you’re starving. Issues of class, and how society still works even now, advantaging some and crushing others. This is a London in which menial jobs are going to automatons. What are the poor to do? No answers are offered, but it parallels our own loss of employment to cheaper labour from machines. There’s some good subversion of gender norms, as well.

Colonialism is a big issue for anyone interested in reclaiming bits of Victorian spirit. I greatly appreciated the way in which Craig tackled this head on, with the final story of the book set in India. He manages the delicate balance of exploring some of the Victorian colonial mindset without ever letting the reader feel comfortable with it.

The book is laced through with humour, and written with considerable style. Craig has a real knack for working out which sense to draw on to convey a scene quickly. As a person whose thinking isn’t mostly visual, I appreciated having smells, sound and sensation as part of the descriptive mix. Plots bound along at a cheerful pace, characters are always rounded enough to engage, disaster is narrowly avoided. If you want to balance wild escapism with the option of dwelling on the implications, this is a very good read.

Alan Shaw on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Adventures-Alan-Shaw-Craig-Hallam/dp/1908600322/ref=tmm_pap_title_0


Did you whisper back? A Review

I picked up this psychological novel by Kate Rigby through my involvement with Neverland blog tours. What a wonderful find! I read it over an afternoon and evening – it’s not a huge book, but it was also something I found I just couldn’t step away from. I had to know.

This is in essence a book about how ancestral choices can play out in the lives of later generations without them having any idea what’s underpinning things. The central character, Amanda, is both withdrawn and clearly a bit irrational, and we see this early on as she makes some troubled leaps of logic as part of a quest to find her missing twin sister. The book blurb reveals that the missing twin isn’t real and that Amanda is heading for mental breakdown, so, no spoilers from me in saying that much.

The questions of how and why the young woman at the centre of this story has become so unhinged from reality takes us on a journey into her past. As someone who has done a lot of work on ancestry and how it impacts on descendants, I can heartily recommend this novel as a representation of how things get passed down.

The writing is incredibly paired down and intense, full of depth and precise observations of both wider life, and the world inside Amanda’s head. This is an exquisite exercise in telling rather than showing. I’m not a big fan of the modern fad for ‘show not tell’ because it limits where you can go. When it comes to psychological issues, ‘show’ often won’t do it, and ‘tell’ can take us in deeper and far more effectively. There’s no page space wasted on playing everything out. We’re allowed instead to grapple directly with the meat of the story, and with the ghosts haunting it.

I loved this book, I think it’s a fantastic, gem of a novel. It isn’t comfortable or easy reading, but it is profound, intense and provocative.

Buy the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Did-You-Whisper-Back-disturbing-ebook/dp/B0077E2M26

 

 


Review: The Shadow Crucible

I was approached to review this book because the author – T.M. Lakomy –  found me online and thought I would like it! I love it when people do that, especially when they’re right – as in this case.

When I started reading The Shadow Crucible, I thought I knew what I’d got. The set-up looked like a straightforward Christian fantasy with angels, demons, Templars, and the such. I was reminded of Constantine, and Tom Sniegoski’s Fallen, only with a mediaeval setting. The male lead is cold, remote, firm. The female lead is wild, beautiful, dangerous and seems a bit petty – A Scarlet O’Hara with a retinue of orphans. And for a little while there I was afraid that this would be one of those romances where the cool controlling guy breaks and tames the wild woman. But, the fascinating world building and the writing style kept me reading, and I’m very glad I stayed with it.

Then, around page 57, the plot shape started to change, and I realised I was not reading some kind of historical romance. Page 73 pulled the rug out from underneath everything I thought I knew about this book. No one, it turned out, was as they seemed in those opening pages. What I thought was going on was not happening. I had been fooled, misled, overconfident… and I was very excited by this!

Thereafter, what the story keeps doing, is taking a step back every now and then to let you see a bigger picture than you could before. In the context of the bigger picture, what you thought you knew looks rather different, each time. With each step back, the world expands, the implications of the story get bigger, the stakes rise, the magic becomes even more wild and wonderful, the philosophy becomes even more persuasive…

Whilst trying to avoid spoilers, this is a book that is very much in opposition to dogma and blind faith. It’s a story to challenge organised religion and question the motives of anyone who uses religion as a power base. All of the characters go through radical changes. One way or another, they are peeled of their surface pretences and small selves to reveal the larger presence beneath. I came to love characters who, in the opening pages, I felt no attraction to. I came to feel sympathy for other characters I’d not really liked at the start. And some, when peeled back, where entirely horrifying. There’s not a vast amount of horror in the book but when it comes… it really is very dark indeed.

I think for most people, the writing style will make or break this book. This is an author relishing their deliberately archaic language. It is wordy, with turns of phrase that sound profoundly un-contemporary. If you’re the sort of person who only likes stark, pared down language, considers ‘said’ the only acceptable speech tag, and skims paragraphs of description, this is not for you. If you enjoy wilfully wordy books, I fully expect you’ll enjoy this. I found it difficult to put down, and was enchanted by the unconventional story-shape.

Buy the book here (or pre-order it, it’s not out at time of posting the blog) https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Crucible-Blind-God/dp/1590794141


Novel society

It may seem odd to claim that the way we tell stories shapes our culture, but I am absolutely convinced it does.

A novel, as we generally understand it, is fundamentally about conflict resolution. That probably sounds like a good thing, but I think it isn’t. A novel sets up a situation a tension, or difficulty, a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome. Then the characters deal with it, and if the book is tragic, they may fail, or die succeeding. The default story is that the problem is solved.

What was confusing, is caused to make sense. What was inexplicable, is explained. What was obscure, becomes clear. What was wrong, is set right. Mysteries are solved. Crimes are thwarted, or punished. The tension of attraction resolves into the familiarity of a relationship.

A book, we are taught at school, has a beginning, a middle and an end. The ending has to round things up. At the end of a book, the world of the book is a clearer, simpler place. Of course there are exceptions.

Real life is not like books in that many things are never resolved or tidied up in this way. All too often, the consequence of the tidy plot ending is the loss of mystery, possibility and wonder. I have a problem with this.

As a writer of stories, I’ve explored a bit what happens when a novel opens up more possibilities than it shuts down. I tend to tell small coherent tales against a backdrop of expanding chaos. I’m somewhat influenced by Philip K Dick in this regard. It does not make for an easy sell, but it makes me happy. As a reader I prefer the worlds that aren’t tidied up – Mythago Wood, Earthsea, Winchette Dale – those places that leave me with far more questions than answers.

What does the story shape do to us? How much is our wider culture shaped by the idea of the tidy ending, and that all mysteries can and should be explained? What would happen to us if we told stories that expanded possibility rather than contracting it?


When we are hard to promote

One of the reasons book genres exist, is they make it easier to sell books. The understanding is that readers read genres, and can be persuaded to pick up things in their niche, and that you have to be able to tell a person what a book is ‘like’ for them to want it.

As a reader, I struggle with this, because what I want above all else is to be surprised, and the more tidily a story fits in a genre, the less likely it is to surprise me. I like to experience wonderful, imaginative, insightful things. I want to be played with, taken on a journey to an unfamiliar place, shown something I would never have thought of. That’s not even slightly a choice-of-genre issue.

As an author, it gets worse. I’ve tried writing genre fiction, for the being sellable, but of course because I don’t enjoy it as a reader, I’m not great at it as an author – I can’t stay inside the boxes, or what I write feels forced and I get miserable, and it all seems a bit pointless anyway.

I’d like to tell you about my new novel. It’s speculative. There are lots of trees in it, and a steam powered car, mad technology, some taking the piss out of New Age self help books, something a bit goddessy, a very curious sort of slow apocalypse in progress, Kafak-esque authority figures, V-esque revolutionaries, and a really arsey goat.

(It is so much easier plugging other people’s books, I never know what to say about my own).

My test readers gave such a mixed response that I still don’t know how to pitch it. My son laughed all the way through – which may just be proof that he inherited my dark and twisted sense of humour. One test reader found it ‘a bit grim’ while a third came back and said ‘how do we make this happen and when do we start?’

If you’ve ever thought that more trees and fewer people would be good, you might like this book.

If you’ve secretly cherished ideas about the one, big, tidy apocalypse that will wipe out the people who annoy you, leaving you and your friends improbably intact, then you may well like this book.

If the idea that a novel with a paradox at its heart is bound to be a bit confusing doesn’t entirely put you off, you may like this book.

And of course if you’ve read any of my other novels, and are still showing up to the blog, there’s a distinct possibility you’ll like this book.

Otherwise, consider it the ideal gift for a relative you don’t especially like!

More about said book over here – snowbooks.co.uk/


Authoring and inspiration

I generally avoid writing about writing because it’s dull, and the internet is awash with it, but there’s an issue I think needs tackling. One frequently offered piece of advice on blogs about writing, is that you should do it every day, or often. The impression given is that waiting around for inspiration is unprofessional, it’s the approach of the self indulgent hobbiest. I read the opening to an interview with Hilary Mantel a bit back in which she said of course she writes every day, she wouldn’t want anyone to think she was one of those people who just does it for fun (I paraphrase). I did not feel inspired to read any further.

Call me old fashioned, but I think there’s a role for ideas, imagination and creativity in books. I’ve tried it the other way, and I can reliably grind out words to meet both word counts and deadlines, but it’s rare these are my best words. I’m not at all sure the world will greatly benefit from more books that were written in a disciplined, professional way, without any inspiration in the mix. I have a suspicion this is how a fair amount of fiction is written, and I know the majority readership picks up books that conform to predictable shapes. It’s certainly what we’re telling each other to do. Books are more perspiration than inspiration, of course, but without inspiration, what are they? Painting by numbers?

For the person who wants to be An Author – published, recognised, and with decent sales figures, it makes sense to go after the markets that pay, and the dependable readerships. Give them what they want. As a reader I’ve never been attracted to those books (give me Matlock the Hare, give me Sheena Cundy and Carol Lovekin…). More than anything I want to be surprised, I want to be caught up in the imagination and vision of the author.

No doubt one of the (many) reasons I’m not very successful is that I was always more interested in the creativity than in being An Author. I wanted to write books that weren’t like anything else out there. I wanted to have ideas that would surprise, delight, blow other people away. I wanted to say something of substance about life and the human experience, but do it in a way that is readable and doesn’t require a degree in English Literature. I live in hope of achieving some of this one day.

I can’t do that without having ideas. I can’t manufacture ideas, I have to wait for them to turn up. I need time to reflect, to research, to experience, to gather material, gather wool, weave something in my head. At the moment, the balances in my life aren’t delivering the space to think creatively very often. I can and do sit down and write pretty much every day – I write this blog – but I wouldn’t create a novel this way.


A history of Fast Food

If you found the magical centre of the world, what would you do?

Fast Food at the Centre of the World first existed as a small number of instalments written and drawn by Tom Brown. It was part of the work he was doing, alongside New England Gothic back when we first ran into each other online. The second title I took on writing and that became our joint creation, Hopeless Maine. Fast Food languished in the background because there’s only so many pages of comic a person can draw in a week. (7, if you were wondering, but fewer than 7 if you also want to have a life and stay passably sane.)

The second time I flew to America, I took a big notepad with me. I spent the long hours of flight, and the dull hours at airports, scribbling frantically into it, much to the amusement/bemusement of the people sat next to me on the plane. I wrote sat on Tom’s porch, with him drawing, and we decided this was a way we could be and that we liked it. Most of my work now happens with me typing at one end of a table and him drawing at the other, and this is good, and suits us both well. In Portland, I read Tom what I had so far – because these were his characters in his setting. I had previously been very wary of sharing work in progress, but since then, Tom has listened to everything as I’ve been developing it. I find his insight and feedback invaluable.

Life threw us a lot of challenges, and the novel took a back seat. I eventually finished the first handwritten draft, and then, when I could get enough electricity to run a notepad computer, I typed it up on the narrowboat, and then it languished again. Last year I got it out and polished it up.

Since rejoining the land of electric, I’ve done a number of short audio stories over at www.nerdbong.com and decided to offer them Fast Food at the Centre of the World as an audio serialisation. I recorded it myself, at home, with limited technical gear such that I could do very little editing. Most of it went down in one take, and I did not find that easy. It wasn’t written for audio so there were a lot of voices to find, and as I can’t pull of the New Jersey accent that was in my head when I wrote some of the characters, alternative solutions had to be found for my jazz gangstas. I had to work out what Gary sounded like. That’s Gary, in the picture. He’s voiced entirely on the inbreath, which was tough on the throat, but gives him a distinct sound. I’ve never done any serious acting – only mumming, which is largely about shouting your lines, not nuance. Apparently I have scope for using my voice.

The first two episodes are now up, and more will be along, and hopefully they will amuse you… http://nerdbong.com/category/podcast/fast-food-at-the-centre-of-the-world/

Music by Cormac Brown – Tom’s awesome son, who has been with Fast Food since the beginning.


A novel year

It’s November, and around the world, vast numbers of people will set about spending it trying to write a novel. I won’t be one of them. I started a novel in November last year – not because of NaNoWriMo, but because I’d been pondering and planning for a while, and felt ready to start. It’s nearly a year on and I haven’t finished writing the first draft. I’ve written a lot, I like where it’s going and I could wish it had got beyond this stage by now, but at the same time, I’m not enormously troubled. It’s been a busy year.

In the same time frame, I saw a co-written novel come out (Letters Between Gentlemen) and started work on the sequel. I wrote ten new short stories and recorded them for www.nerdbong.com ‘s Splendiferous Stories for Slumber. Non-fiction title ‘When a Pagan Prays’ came out, and I’ve nearly written my next non-fic. I wrote a poetry collection, although am not quite sure what I’m doing with it, and a story that won me a place in Stroud Short Story competition. On top of this, I was a small part of the huge team effort that got Molly Scott Cato elected as a Member of the European Parliament, and took on managing two blogs for John Hunt Publishing. I spent a month working as a studio assistant. I’ve gone back to editing as well – the day jobs are many.

Alongside that there’s the more personal labours around being wife to a massively talented artist whose epic contract this year has meant he really needed me to keep the home front running smoothly. I’m also mother to a budding maths genius, with his rugby generated laundry and need for interesting and educational out of school options.

Along the way I’ve had several bouts of block with regards to the novel, a crisis over my creative work, and some serious run ins with depression. These are not unusual afflictions for authors, either. I’ve had patches where I needed to step away from the book to reflect on the structure, characters, and direction. I would not have had a clue how to finish it without some personal experiences this autumn that have made me realise what was missing, and what, therefore, will happen next.

It takes a lot of material to write a rich and engaging novel of decent length. I read all the time, I study people, absorb ideas and influences, and sometimes that radically impacts on what I was doing. What I set out to write is seldom what I end up with because I learn so much on the way. If I tried to write a draft in a month, I would lose all that space for learning and reflection. I would lose the real life events that feed into what I write. I know there’s a logic that says get something down and then hone it, but that doesn’t work for me. I need to like what I’ve written. It has to be good enough to justify the time and energy of a redraft. If I don’t give it my best the first time around, I won’t feel inspired to stick with it.

I notice that I do my best work when it can go at its own pace, when I can have a range of creative projects on the go – music and crafting, kitchen projects, learning things – at the same time. I write better when I have a good diet of creative and inspiring input, when I have time to read, walk, go to gigs, dance, daydream. To write a book in a month, and honour the day jobs, and care for my family, I’d have to write about 2000 words of fiction most days. Other things would have to give. What I’ve learned this last year is that when I give up that balance of things to focus on whatever is supposedly more important, my creative output goes down, and so does the quality.

We’re all different in terms of how we think, feel and create. If running flat out for a month at the expense of everything else works for you – fine. But if not, there are other ways. There are always other ways.


Novel forms of insanity

During the last few months, I’ve put the current novel to one side, in order to work on writing and recording the secret audio project. There are ten new short stories, and they will be happening in a way you can hear later this year. (More information when it’s happening!) I wrote those in response to a request, with some sense of an intended audience, and a desire to get some of my own eccentricities into the mix. The result seems to involve a lot of very dark humour.

There’s a practical limit to how many things I can do with my brain at a given time. Normal life involves this blog, plus other Pagan content at Patheos.com http://www.patheos.com/blogs/agora/category/columns/druid-thoughts/ and Pagan Square http://witchesandpagans.com/Nimue-s-Wheel/Blogger/Listings/nimue-brown.html. Most days I spend time working as a Press Officer for the Green Party – blogs and press releases, some of them requiring a lot of research. These things normally leave me enough time for some creative work, but if anything else turns up, it doesn’t take long for me to reach capacity. Frequently other things turn up. Books to review, requests for articles, and in the last couple of months, a book in edits as well.

It is undoubtedly easier to write a novel when the only thing you really need to focus on from one day to the next, is the novel. All the thinking time goes on characters, plots, interactions and world building. In an ideal world once you’re in the flow, you stay there, writing through the night if needs be, free to sleep when it fits the call of the muse. In practice, it is not usually like this, and the life of the writer does not actually allow a person to work in a way that most serves the next piece of creativity. Perhaps with a first book you can do this, but once you’re out in the world, or if you have to think about paying the bills, writing is not directed purely by ‘the muse’ but by when you can grab half an hour of thinking space.

Then what happens? Yesterday, the picking up of a novel I had barely thought about, much less worked on in the last six weeks. Trying to remember what I was doing and where I was going, and to find the same voice and the same flow. A half an hour dash of putting words onto the page, hoping they fit with the other words. While I’m doing it, novel writing is a high like no other. It absorbs me entirely, and I pour heart and soul into it. This is not to say that I love it more than other forms of creativity, but that each one is a very different process. Novel writing is a special form of insanity, involving the devotion of lots of time to things that do not exist but need to be plausible. Long conversations with imaginary people about things that did not happen. Deep emotional investment in that which never was and never will be.

That in itself is enough to do odd things to the mind, but then there’s the other process, of going from words written to a book manifest in the world. The need to shift gears, grab a business hat, study contracts, consider marketing, and get out there and sell the work: To an agent, a publisher, and then anyone who might read it. Dealing with the people who do not like it, trying to work out which bits of criticism are valid and which are best ignored. Performing the strange dance that is ticking boxes for commercial success and creating something that does not look as though it was made simply to tick all the boxes.

When I am writing, all else is forgotten. When I surface, all kinds of other things creep in. The doubts and questions. What is the point of all this? What good does it do? Is it merely delusion and self-indulgence? When you’ve just spent an hour talking to pretend people, it is not difficult to imagine that the idea of putting a book into the world is just as make-believe.

I know how much richer my life is for there being fiction in it. I have loved novels ever since I was capable of reading them. I have valued those other lives and imaginary worlds that other people’s writing has allowed me to enter. I’ve also seen how the joy of creating catches other people, and the effects of dealing with the non-writing side of the process too. Write, and go a bit mad, with the industry, the economics of it, the juggling. Do not write, and also go mad, with the not writing. If there’s a way round either, I have yet to find it.