Tag Archives: novel

The Dillen Doll – a review

I’ve been aware of Jez Lowe for many years – he’s a singer-songwriter working very much in the folk tradition. The Dillen Doll is his first novel. I was not even slightly surprised to find that the word crafting and capacity for empathy that drives his songwriting translates very well indeed into longer pieces.

The novel’s title – The Dillen Doll, comes from a song. It’s a well known song and I’d just assumed it was one of those nonsense folk choruses. Dolly the dillen dah – is what I thought it was. Dillen, it turns out, is a Newcastle on Tyne word meaning runt. It turns out there’s a whole set of songs I’ve known most of my life that also come from Newcastle. What Jez Lowe has done in this book is draw on those folk songs, and brought them into a narrative. The songs are evoked in the text and if you aren’t familiar with them, there’s a CD that you can get alongside the book.

This is a story about people living in poverty in Newcastle. Sandgate, Byker Hill, Walker Shore, the waters of Tyne, the keelmen. There’s a long, hard look about what the press gangs meant, and the implications of war for those who may be stolen away against their will to fight for king and country.

This is a setting that gives us precarious employment for minimal wages, homes that do not need to be fit for human habitation, lack of care for the sick and injured, and those with power and money rigging the system to line their own pockets. It all sounds eerily familiar.

The story follows the adventures of young Dolly Coxen – the dillen doll of the title, whose song is written by a blind fiddle player. She works in a pub, and scavenges barely edible veg from the local market. Her man is a person of mystery with a story she does not, initially, know. Her story is about doing whatever it takes to save him as his past catches up with him. She’s a woman with agency in an era where women had very little power. She’s physically disabled, and a singer of traditional songs.

This is a celebration of a time, a place and a people. At the same time it isn’t sentimental and there’s no sense of a rosy glow being added to the past. Times were hard, hunger and privation were constant, conditions squalid – if you were poor. There’s an incredible sense of place and attention to detail that left me with the strange feeling that the author had simply time travelled to do his research.

I really enjoyed this book. You can find out more about it here – http://www.jezlowe.com/products-page/ 

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Of novels and graphic novels

One of my longstanding projects – Hopeless Maine – is a graphic novel serious, devised and illustrated by my other half, Tom Brown. He lured me in to write it for him long before we thought about living together. It is a big part of how we’ve ended up married.

Initially, I was intimidated by comics writing. You have to mostly focus on dialogue and there’s not much text on any given page. I felt naked and exposed without a narrator. It’s a totally different way of telling stories, much more stripped down and focused than novels. To get a story in a hundred or so pages of sequential art, is a very different process from novel writing. Inevitably we can lavish much more attention on what things look like.

What I can’t really do as a graphic novel author is spend a lot of time inside the heads of characters, exploring their feelings, history, motivations, and so forth. Whole relationships may have to be defined in just a few facial expressions and physical gestures. One of the things I’ve always liked doing as a novelist is taking journeys into people’s heads. I’m as interested by inner process as I am by action.

At the moment, I’m working on a Hopeless Maine novel – which is going to be illustrated. With an illustrated novel, there’s more room to write, and the art supports and enhances that, but doesn’t have to do the bulk of the work. This has the added benefit of requiring far fewer hours of art to make it viable. There are two Hopeless Maine novellas already – set in the lead up to, and the same time frame as The Gathering. Those will emerge into the world eventually.

Novel writing gives me a chance to dig into the details. Hopeless Maine has a lot of details in it that I’ve not been able to explore. We’ve only seen a tiny portion of island life so far. What goes on outside of the main town? What do young people do for fun? I’ve worked out a story that will give me more Hopeless grandmothers, and some scope for narrative mapping. I started working on this book with an aim to make it a bit like Around the World in 80 Days, only around the island. As the story has found its own shape, I’ve moved away from the Verne, and the feature of the original scheme I am most likely to keep is a hot air balloon, which Verne didn’t have. The principle of exploration remains, and for exploring the way islanders, and by extension, the rest of us, talk about landscape.

I re-read Around The World in 80 Days last summer as part of my warm up to doing this book. It turned out not to be an adventure story, but a tale about a man obsessed with timetables. Verne’s hero doesn’t really want to see the world, and thus the author is largely spared from having to describe anywhere he’s not visited. It’s rather clever, and I found it funny. As a child reader, I’d missed that entirely. There’s a definitely charm in having a main character who is looking the wrong way or interested in the wrong things. Will I carry that idea into this novel?  Don’t know. I don’t plan books in too much detail because for me, the pleasure of writing is the act of exploration, not the business of sticking to the timetable.


Something novel and full of magic

Those of you who have been with me for a long time may recall the Nerdbong podcast and a 22 episode serialisation of my novel Fast Food at the Centre of the World. Many of you have started following this blog far more recently, so this may be news. Twenty two episodes of a strange and speculative novel, read and recorded by me. The British amongst you will discover that I sound like a West Country yokel. For you Americans… I have one of those sexy British accents! (I never cease to be amazed by how much Americans seem to like my voice, because to me I sound like girly Hagrid).

Fast Food at the Centre of the World is based on a handful of ideas and characters Tom Brown came up with but does not have the time to do as a graphic novel. The premise is that a sorcerer called Dunsany discovers the magical centre of the world, buys it, and sets up a restaurant. That of course had me asking questions about why a restaurant, and why fast food. I rapidly discovered that Dunsany’s idea of fast food is an apple and that he lives in a place and time with a worse food crisis than our own. That’s Gary in the image. Gary is a demon. He likes making pastry.

When I started writing fast food, food banks were not a big thing, first world hunger was much less of a thing, and I was angry about licensing laws for music. I wrote about poets, but there were very few actual poets in my life at that point and far more of them now, which makes me feel a lot more exposed sharing this. Although I gather that during the Nerdbong period, the book caused someone to start writing poetry, which is an awesome outcome.

I shall be putting Fast Food onto bandcamp every Wednesday until all 22 are there. Part of the reason for using this platform is that you can listen to each episode for free if you do so on the site. You can also choose to buy and download. I’ve kept it cheap – episodes are fifteen to twenty minutes, and I’m charging about the normal price for a song. I want to make things as accessible and affordable as possible, which is very much in keeping with the ethos of the book. If a few people buy copies then I can justify doing another book next year.

I’ve seen other authors putting up free blogs and then making whiny noises about how much effort it takes in the hopes of eliciting money, and this is not what I’m about. I believe in gift economy, I want to offer access to my work for free. I don’t want money to be a barrier for anyone. If those who can afford to and want to buy something or drop something in the hat now and then do so, I stay viable and it’s all good. I’ve got a patreon for that. In the meantime, please enjoy the free things. It’s a massive validation to me to have people engaging with and enjoying my work, and as ‘professional author’ is increasingly something professional authors (as with Philip Pullman recently) are saying it is now almost impossible to make work, I figure I might as well focus on how to make this work creatively and not get trapped by the money issues.

Here’s episode 1 – https://nimuebrown.bandcamp.com/track/fast-food-at-the-centre-of-the-world-part-one


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.


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.