Tag Archives: novel

Sometimes you just have to jump

In the last few years, I’ve not attempted to write a novel on my own. I’ve co-written a novel with David Bridger, and we’re working on the second in the series. I’ve written two novellas in the Hopeless, Maine setting. Before that, during lockdown, I accidentally wrote three novels worth of material. However, the Wherefore books were written one short story at a time with a structure more like a soap opera, and collaborative partners, so that was a very different sort of thinking.

I’ve been asked to write a sequel to Fast Food at the Centre of the World – that one’s being published as a book this year having only previously been out in the world as audio files. It would be fair to say that while I’ve been thinking about themes, I’ve also been procrastinating a lot. It’s been a year since I last sat down to deliberately write a novel, and I have no idea if I can do it. I wrote that one to a tight remit in about a month for a project that didn’t work out – I was working with other people’s plots and characters, it wasn’t purely mine. This was not a good experience.

This isn’t an unusual issue for writers, or for anyone working creatively. Any time you aren’t doing the thing it is all too easy to feel like you aren’t someone who does the thing. Gaps between creations can loom large. Even if your creativity is central to your identity, there’s only so long you can go without doing it before all kinds of uneasy feelings creep in. It’s not like I haven’t been writing – I write every day. Novels loom large for me. They are large creatures, unruly, and requiring a lot of care and attention. And sometimes, as with last year, things can go badly wrong. It’s a lot of time and energy to invest in the hopes of making things work.

I started Fast Food at the Centre of the World on a plane to America, visiting Tom for the second time. The central characters were his, although I have developed them a long way from his original ideas. I started writing with a keen sense of the world, and very little idea where I might be going. I’m in the same position now, knowing the setup but not knowing the story. I prefer working this way, but it is a bit exposed. 

What’s focusing my mind is the support from the people who are into what I do. Mark Hayes was out on Twitter this week telling me that he wants to read it – without even needing to know what I’m working on. It’s a powerful gesture of support. Others of my closest people are being tremendously supportive and encouraging. 

Writing can seem like a really solitary thing to be doing. It isn’t – not for me. I depend a lot on my collaborators, on the people who inspire me, and the people I write for. Those are usually the same people. Writing is an expression of relationship for me, not just with people, but with the world as a whole.

I know I’m going to be including themes of fast fashion, AIs, disability, fatigue, parenting and the madness of late stage capitalism in this book. Maybe also looking at eco-fascism, and certainly thinking about regeneration and community. There’s usually a lot of Druidry in my fiction even though it isn’t always overt.


Publishers, books and sorcery

About ten years ago, I took some of Tom Brown’s ideas for a comic that never happened, and turned them into a novel called Fast Food at the Centre of the World – which you can find on bandcamp and can listen to for free if you don’t download it.

I’m delighted to announce that there’s going to be a print version, with Tenebrous Texts. This was the fastest and most entertaining experience I’ve ever had around pitching a book to someone. One of the upshots is that the publisher suggested I should consider writing a sequel, which I’m now exploring.

The core idea of Fast Food at the Centre of the World is that a sorcerer who has identified the magical centre of the world opens a cafe there. The fast food in question is about good quality, quickly available food, which is more feasible when you live where food is grown. 

I think the sequel is going to be Fast Fashion at the Centre of the World. I’m also thinking about corruption and overly complex systems that dehumanise workers. My aim is to end up with something funny, because it’s often easier to think about difficult topics while also having a laugh.

Since the first novel, I’ve had considerable experience of the Transition Towns movement. While the first novel clearly aligns with that movement, this was largely just a happy accident. I will be taking more knowledge and insight into this second novel. I also think I’m going to repurpose ideas I’d been collecting for a different project, that I now think won’t be happening. I’d been world building for a novel that was intended to be a joint project, but I don’t think I’ll be working with that collaborator now, and I’m not inclined to waste what I’ve already done. I think I can use ideas I’d been exploring to flesh out the curious city at the centre of the world.

One of the more pernicious writing myths is that a person has an idea for a book. I often hear from people at events who tell me they had an idea for a book. If you’re lucky, an idea will give you a short story. It takes a lot of ideas to tell a story that lasts for sixty thousand words or more. Those ideas need to connect with each other so that themes, setting and character combine into something that makes some kind of sense. Even when books are set in the real world, there’s a lot to know and understand before that can be possible.

A significant chunk of the time it takes to write a novel goes on figuring out how everything works. For me, that involves time spent learning, reading and ideally, experiencing things first hand. The more I know, the more raw material I have to work with. I also reject the image of the author alone and separate from the world, dreaming their book into existence. I do a great deal of imagining, but I also try to root that in things that are substantial.

My main aim with this project is to write something that will make people think about how preposterous modern life is and how much better our lives could be. There will be silliness, because I’ve found that I often do my best and deepest thinking when I’m trying to be funny, and because there’s comfort and relief in laughter and I think we could all do with more of that at the moment.


The Honesty of Tigers – a review

In the opening pages of this novel, Ken Jackson dies, and is reborn as himself. He is able to relive his own life with full memory of his first shot at it and to try and fix the things he thinks went wrong. It raises so many questions about what any of us would do differently if we knew how some of those choices would play out. But of course once you start changing things, you no longer really know how anything works anyway.

This is an engaging story about identity and choice, and about what we think we know and how partial that always is. The setup allows us to see multiple versions of the same people, and impressively, this is never confusing! The writing is incredibly skillful, with two closely related timelines playing out side by side for the majority of the book, in a way that always makes perfect sense. 

The story is set, for the greater part, in a Cornish fishing village. The sense of place really contributes to the atmosphere and the character of the book. Further, David draws on a rich seam of traditions, conveying a time and a place on the brink of change. From the 1960s onwards, the fishing fleets declined, taking other traditional industries with them and draining the life from traditional communities. This is handled with a sensitivity that never romanticizes what’s lost but doesn’t encourage you to be seduced by the idea of ‘progress’ either.

For the Pagan reader, there are generations of magical women, traditional herbalism and people who are deeply rooted in their landscapes. This is more in the wise woman tradition than practicing Paganism, and again it’s handled deftly and deeply embedded in the story.

David Bridger is a thoughtful, insightful author whose appreciation for messy, human lives lights up every page. I am entirely smitten with his writing style. If you like books with unpredictable shapes, this has a very satisfying and surprising story, richly emotional and ultimately hopeful.


Doing it for money

Living by creative work is a bit of a gamble, to say the least. Most of my working life I’ve had other jobs on the go as well – often also in publishing, because marketing and editing pay more reliably than writing does.

I spent this last year mostly working on my own stuff, when I wasn’t being horribly ill. Given the many rounds of being horribly ill, it’s as well I wasn’t trying to do much else! But, I gambled on a couple of things and it hasn’t worked out. This happens. Opportunities melt away, or turn out not to be as good as they looked. Currently the entire book industry is being sorely challenged by distribution issues, paper shortages and whatnot, especially in America. Royalty payments are down, because American book sales are really low right now.

What you earn as an author tends to depend on work you’ve done in previous years, and there’s often no knowing how long it will take for the work to lead to money. One of the advantages of self publishing is that you get the work out and sell it. Big publishers move slowly and can take years to make decisions. Graphic novels are slow to make, so the books we’re working on were first drafted ten years ago. With the series complete, that set of books will be more interesting to other publishers, and Sloth may be able to pitch it on – but who knows?

Once upon a time, I wrote a novel in six weeks because someone offered me something like a thousand pounds to do it, and that’s more money than I’d ever made from writing before that point. By the end of it, I had days where I was mostly just shaking and crying – multiple drafts of an 80k novel is a lot to do in six weeks and I didn’t sleep much. I didn’t do another one. I couldn’t have sustained it, although it turned out that my first husband thought I should have done.

I gambled and lost, this year. I lost money on an event where I really needed to come out ahead. Everything has been slower than I needed it to be. Releases are delayed. Various projects have been hit with problems and some things I’ve just had to rethink. Meanwhile energy costs, and food costs are set to rise. I have a safety net, but it’s finite, and shrinking. 

I spent New Year’s eve looking at local employment possibilities. I’ve done all kinds of work along the way, I have no qualms about jumping back in – shelf stacker or dinner lady maybe. My skills aren’t much use for conventional employment outside of publishing, I don’t have a car, and that means I’m pretty much obliged to look at minimum wage jobs if I can’t get the writing based work to pay. At one point a few years ago I was doing half a dozen small jobs to make ends meet, and it was tough. So, I was bracing myself to get back into all of that.

Much to my surprise, I find that instead I’m going to be writing a novel to a tight deadline and for a flat fee. I’ve got three books to read as a matter of some urgency, and I’m going to be flat out for the next eight to ten weeks. So if the blog is a bit brief, or sporadic, this will be why. But it will pay better than being a traffic warden, and I was going to have to lie on that application about how well I handle aggression and conflict situations…


The Amber Crown – a review

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This fantasy novel by Jacey Bedford is due out in January 2022, but I had the lovely opportunity to read it in advance!

This is a fantasy novel set in a reality that is like our Earth but significantly different in various ways. The familiar aspects serve to rapidly ground the setting and there’s a good balance between what is familiar and what is fantastical. The action takes place in Europe, and we’re at a technology level that gives us printed newspapers, officers on horseback, guns and artillery. In a scenario where assorted small nations are jostling with each other, a King is murdered, and this where the book starts.

We follow a number of characters, including the man blamed for the King’s murder and the assassin hired to do it. I always enjoy stories that make me complicit with problematic characters, and Jacey does an excellent job of persuading us to like the assassin. All of the characters are engaging, well rounded and interesting people. All of them are messy and flawed in their own ways, and driven by their own issues and obsessions. The story is compelling and nicely paced while not being overly demanding.

There are a number of rapes and attempted rapes in the book – which are integral to the plot and to the backstories of some characters. Part of the story is about exploring the impact of these experiences, which is done in a thoughtful way. I hate it when rape is used carelessly as a plot device, but that’s not what happens here, and given the way the story circles several key events, if you needed not to read the more detailed bits it is easy to see them coming and it would be feasible to skip over them. There is a significant amount of violence, including horrible execution methods, torture, nasty injuries, slow deaths, so if you’re a squeamish reader this probably isn’t for you. If you like your fantasy on the dark side without it glorifying the more horrific elements, this book will suit you well.

What I found most interesting was the sexual content. There’s a lot of sex and no jealousy. There’s an attitude of positivity towards sex workers that I really enjoyed. While it’s clear that some of the cultures value virginity in women, none of the female characters are shamed for being sexually active or promiscuous during the story. Contraception is very present and treated as normal in the setting. There are some queer characters – all of the focal relationships are straight, but there is an important background queer relationship in there too. Sex for comfort and not underpinned by a romantic relationship also features. The book has a lot to say about consent, love, attraction, and relationships as various of the characters move through different kinds of relationships with each other during the story. It’s not a straightforward romance narrative, and features a number of relationships that are important to the plot but that have very different shapes.

The magic in this story will engage Pagan readers. The author is clearly well versed in all sorts of traditions so the magic is rich and well informed.

I enjoyed the language used in the story telling. Faux-archaic writing can be the bane of the fantasy genre, as can the habit of fantasy authors to invent language off the cuff with little sense of how languages actually work. I found the approach to language exceptional and highly effective. But then, Jacey is steeped in the folk tradition and it shows in the work.

For clarity, I do know the author and have worked with her in the past while we were both wearing entirely different hats. Back in the days when I ran a folk club, Jacey was an agent I worked with on a number of occasions. I’m a longstanding fan of her band (Artisan) and have seen her performing on a number of occasions over many years. This is the first novel of her’s that I’ve read, but there are others and I hope to get round to them.

More about Jacey Bedford here – https://www.jaceybedford.co.uk/books.htm


Reinventing Herself – a review

Reinventing Herself ebook by DJ Martin

Reinventing Herself, by DJ Martin is an excellent comfort read. This is a modest peril sort of story in that people whose names you never even know are killed in the background, and there’s a killer to track down, and there is some drama at the end. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the peril level for the named characters never seems high and that you can safely read this story when you want something warm and reassuring.

Main character El has recently lost her husband, and has moved to a smaller home in the woods. She discovers that for women in her family, the menopause tends to bring magical powers in the form of being able to communicate with animals. This is a glorious idea, and as someone frequently drowning in the great menopausal hormone sea, I found it delightful to have this notion  of magical transformation instead.

This is a story full of talking animals. I really enjoyed that – I was the sort of child who really loved talking animal stories, and apparently that hasn’t gone away. If your inner child wants something a bit more grownup that still has talking animals, this is for you. There’s a lot of whimsy and cuteness, and some of the animals are really funny.

There’s a lot of humour in the book. It’s a warm and charming sort of humour, based on surprise, humorous situations, and charm. There’s also a lot of content around people having and developing really good relationships – friends, family members, romance – it’s really nice seeing a book in which all kinds of healthy and functional relationships are explored and you see a lot of people being thoughtful and caring towards each other. There’s also enough complexity in the relationships to stop that feeling implausibly sweet. It’s also about people figuring out who they are and becoming more themselves, and making choices to support their own growth and wellbeing.

If you’re in the mood to grab a blanket and snuggle up with something cheering, this is an ideal book. Take it to your pillow fort, bring snacks, have fun with the modest peril and the magical take on reality this book is set in.

Find out more on the author’s website – http://www.authordjmartin.com/fiction-books/blue-ridge-series/


The Hourglass Sea – a review

The Hourglass Sea is the second book in Mat McCall’s Dandelion Farmer series. It’s steampunk fiction set on Mars, and I reviewed book 1 here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/the-dandelion-farmer-a-review/

I think there’s a fighting chance this would stand alone without reading book 1 first, but really, why would you do that to yourself? Read book 1 first and then read this one! There’s always that worry with a series that the author won’t be able to live up to the promise of the opening, or that it will all spiral out of control – well, that’s not an issue here.

I loved book 1, and book 2 follows on from it wonderfully. Mat expands and develops the story and the setting with great style and skill. Life on Mars is explored in greater detail and the plots we encountered in book 1 become even plottier. As some mysteries seem to become clearer, new questions and problems arise for the characters. What’s critically important in this is that it feels entirely controlled. There’s clearly an underlying story here, and as the world building expands, more sense can be made of what’s going on, not less.

This is a wonderfully diverse tale, with characters from all kinds of backgrounds. It sets that diversity in a context that is sometimes supportive, sometimes problematic for the characters. There’s some of that Victorian prudery, and an exploration of prejudice around it, but also a strong pushback against narrow and restrictive ways of being. There’s a look at the realities of colonialism that does not romanticise invasion, conquest or settlement. While the central characters are largely privileged people, the story itself exposes that privilege and its implications in all sorts of ways.

This is a complicated adventure with a lot of action and a great deal going on – murder and revenge, spies and political scheming, evil science, strange sf elements, mystery, wonder, smugglers, airships, afternoon tea… it’s a really strong mix that managed to be both grounded and surprising.

I particularly like Mat’s approach to storytelling – the tale is presented as a series of documents gathered after the event – diaries, text books, letters and so forth. Sometimes the story is fragmented. Sometimes it overlaps, but in the overlapping versions, doubts and possibilities appear. The first person voices of the characters are distinctive, and the choice of who not to give a voice to also affects the plot in significant ways. I think it’s technically a really clever piece of work, which I also enjoyed. I may think about the mechanics of this sort of thing more than is normal!

It’s not easy reviewing a book in a series because almost any comment on the details has the potential to spoiler the previous instalments. This is especially true of this series, where even talking too much about the identities of the characters in book 2 might give away too much about who has survived book 1 and what has changed for them.

Heartily recommended!


Wherefore Series 1

Wherefore started life as a youtube project with me doing episodes as videos a couple of times a week. You can find series 1 over here – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLd-6bmI3UuPDjEp1YqIYY6GkVTmG-1qux

This is fairly silly, speculative fiction. it does have some serious themes around extinction, climate crisis, and re-enchantment, but i figure it makes more sense to tackle the hard stuff by making people giggle. It’s a collective project and I am especially indebted to Mr Bob Fry (later to become Professor Bob Fry in series 2) and Robin Treefellow Collins, for ideas and contributions.

Wherefore series 1 now exists as a pdf and you can pick it up for free in my Ko-Fi store. Or you can pay, if you like. I believe in gift economy, I like giving things away and I don’t want ability to pay to ever be a barrier for anyone. So, the youtube version is there to be enjoyed, the pdf version is equally free. If you’re in a good place economically and want to pass something back, that’s lovely, and thank you.

https://www.ko-fi.com/s/2241a51430


The Book of Babalon – a review

I first encountered Anna McKerrow when I had the opportunity to review her Greenworld trilogy. That was a glorious YA series heavy on the Paganism. Her latest title, The Book of Babalon is not for younger readers – it is resplendent with sex magic, and also digs in with the kind of abuses modern women continue to face. It’s glorious, heartbreaking, rage-inducing, enchanted stuff.

If you’re not familiar with the Goddess Babalon, this book would work as an introduction and may send you off on a journey. Do read the author’s comments at the end to see what is rooted in fact and what isn’t!

This is an unapologetically feminist book, telling a story that very much demonstrates why we still need feminism. It’s also full of the sorts of things angry patriarchs would like to shut down – sexual expression, the right to body autonomy, the right to say no. Lesbianism, witchcraft, divorce, abortion… all those things they tell us will happen if women either take up witchcraft or get into masturbation, or both!

This is a story where triggering content is handled with care. No punches are pulled, but none of the horrors are glorified or dwelt on too much. You know what’s going on. If you’ve been there… you know exactly what’s going on. Too many of us have been there. All the things women are not encouraged to talk about – the blood, and the miscarriages, the shame, the stigma, the desires and the dissatisfaction are in these pages. These are stories we need to tell each other.

It’s a powerful piece of writing, and I read it in large, intense bursts because I did not want to put it down.

The story then… Woven through this novel is text in here from an imaginary Book of Bablon, written by Scarlett Woman, founder of an organisation called Bablon. The book within the book explores her history with Bablon, and anyone whose read any 20th century occult stuff will find this familiar, especially around how women can be both ‘goddess’ and totally objectified at the same time. The story itself follows several Bablon members using magic, activism and other avenues to fight oppression and get some control of their own lives. The characters are engaging, and between them they capture a broad range of female experience.

It’s a powerful story, underpinned by substantial philosophy. If you’re already into smashing the patriarchal structures we live in, this is for you. If you think we don’t need feminism any more, this book is especially for you. We’ve got a long way to go on the road to equality.

Buy the book – https://www.amazon.com/Book-Babalon-Anna-McKerrow/dp/1890399698 


The Last Priestess of Malia – a review

Laura Perry is an author of several non-fiction titles about ancient Minoan culture and belief. She’s worked extensively with the imagery of this fascinating culture. Now, Laura has written a novel set at the end of the Minoan civilization and it is a truly remarkable piece of work. There is a powerful sense of place here, rich with details of everyday life and underpinned by a wealth of historical insights.

The central character of the novel is a priestess, so the rituals and beliefs of the Minoans are very much at the centre of the tale. Obviously, much of this had to be invented/discovered/remembered. I was struck by how powerfully this had been done. Too many representations of ancient Pagans just retro-fit contemporary belief or play out modern Pagan fantasies. There’s none of that here. The rituals feel specific, and culturally rooted. Many of them relate to specific locations and seasonal events and while we have no way of knowing exactly what the ancient Minoans did or believed, this all feels utterly plausible and convincing.

This is a story about the end of a civilization, and as such, I felt it speaks to the present in a powerful way. One way or another, we are also approaching the end of an era, and perhaps the end of western capitalist culture. Either the climate crisis will destroy us, or we will have to radically re-think how we do everything.  We aren’t the first people to have stood and the end of their known world and there’s a lot we can learn about resilience by looking to the past.

The Minoan world Laura describes is one of a peaceful culture based on co-operation, sharing, trust and mutual care. During the story, we see this culture brought down by an aggressive, hoarding, greedy, power-hungry culture. We see respect replaced with violence. We see consent replaced with conquest. It’s a tough read, but also a pertinent one. Culture is what people make of it. We all get to make these choices and decide what we support and enable, what we resist, and what we do with ourselves.

What do you do when the Goddesses seem to have abandoned you? What do you do when everything you hold sacred is in peril? What do you do when your power is taken from you by people who decide you have no right to self-determination? What do you do in face of abuse, contempt, violation, sacrilege and cruelty? When there is no magic solution to restore justice or give you back what was rightfully yours? These questions are so very pertinent right now, with international companies killing and displacing indigenous people around the world.

This is a beautifully written tale that will break your heart. There’s no making entertainment out of horrors here, but if it sounds like you could be triggered by the content, approach with caution – there are some very difficult scenes in there. Even though it is a book that will break your heart, it has potent and inspiring messages about how to keep going in face of overwhelming adversity.

 

The book is widely available online, here’s the Amazon link – https://www.amazon.com/Last-Priestess-Malia-Laura-Perry-ebook/dp/B07XGDNFWY