Sunday, 11 March 2012

I've moved

My blog is now at Please come and see me there.

I've been getting increasingly disillusioned with the ubiquity of google and what the company plans to do with that ubiquity. I don't think they can claim 'don't be evil' as their motto any more. I'm not especially worried about privacy but I do care about my searches being tracked so google can give me results based on what I've previously looked at. I like serendipity in my life and I like finding things I haven't looked at before. Go away google and stop interfering.

I'm not going to de-google completely, but my google+ account is going and I'm moving my blog. Oh, and I'm using a different search engine.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Way We Live Now

Free kindle books! Yay. There are books now out of copyright that are available free for the kindle and I have availed myself of a few. One of them is The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope which I wanted to read as it was mentioned in an article on The Business Case for Reading Novels.

Mr Melmotte arrives in London amidst rumours of vast wealth, shady deals and a lack of breeding. It is set in London in 1870 and there are several lordlets in search of an heiress. Melmotte's wealth is reckoned to be so great it overrides any considerations that he might be a commoner.

One of the lordlets is Felix Carbury whose mother has decided that she will make a living (she has to because her son gambles away her money) writing books. She surmises that it is more important to persuade influential critics to say her books are good than it is to actually write good books. Felix's sister, Hetta, has an offer of marriage from her cousin, Roger Carbury, who is a model of virtue. But she is in love with Paul Montague, a hapless young man who is manipulated into investing his entire wealth in a transamerican railway and finds it hard to disentangle himself from a previous engagement.

Melmotte is brought in on the railway scam and the share price rises. Melmotte's wealth is reckoned to be incalculable and his ego is flattered to the point that he is persuaded to stand for parliament. Then everything starts to unravel.

This was originally published as a serial and occasionally there is a bit of recapping. Obviously this is a very old book so there's not much to say about style - it is of its time. However, I found it highly readable and was completely absorbed. None of the characters really come out well and yet it is hard to say who is really bad.

It was funny in places and is very relevant to the current economic climate. I was a little disppointed by the ending and would have preferred a less fairytale resolution, but that's a minor point. Overall it was an excellent read and I recommend it.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Writing is a funny thing

I had a bit of break at Christmas and I took the opportunity to think about how the elements of my life fit together and where I'm spending my time. I decided I was going to work out how to reduce the amount of time I spend commuting and that I would put writing on the back burner while I sorted that out.

Ever since then I've been writing loads. Opportunities to reduce my commute are few and far between so that hasn't been taking up as much time as I thought. My novel is very much on the shelf, but I have a collection of short stories underway. I'm writing fiction based on my roleplaying games and am chronicling our current campaign at the London Storytelling Carrion Crown Campaign blog.

I haven't written this much in ages and I think it's because I'm supposed to be doing other things.

Monday, 20 February 2012

What I think I do

I love a meme. Have I mentioned that?

The latest meme I have particularly liked is the 'What I think I do' poster. Here are two that apply to me. And yes, this is what I think I do.

These were sent to me so I can't link to the originator. I would give credit if I could. 

Friday, 17 February 2012

Genres and sub-genres

Ever wondered precisely what genre you like to read and write? H/T to My First Book for linking to this fabulous genre map.

The original genre map is from Book Country. If you follow the link, the squares on the map have a short synopsis of the sub-genres and some examples of books that fall in them.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The first thing to say about The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender is that it has a great title. It's evocative and intriguing, the rhythm is good and is the sort of title that makes me wish I had a talent for titling things.

At the age of nine Rose discovers she can taste emotions in the food she eats. If it is manufactured food she can tell all the layers that contributed to creating it. If it is homemade she can taste how the person who made it was feeling. She finds that people around her feel things that they don't display on the surface and she struggles to work out a way to manage it.

Rose's brother Joseph is quiet and reclusive. As he reaches his late teens he starts to disappear in mysterious ways. Their mother is frantic and their father is distant. Eventually Joseph disappears and doesn't come back. Rose feels she can't move out now, but gradually she finds a way to use her gift and have a life of her own.

It's an easy read but the title really is the best thing about it. The powers that Rose and her brother have are not explained until the end when their father reveals that his father had a similar power. I found this element of the book unsatisfying. I could have accepted any number of causes had an effort been made to provide one.

The description of the emotions in the food could have been richer and more detailed. I thought that they were flat and I found them disappointing. What I did like was the concept; it's an interesting idea. The execution didn't do it justice and didn't live up to the title.

I wasn't keen on the writing style, even acknowledging that anything read after Babel Tower would suffer by comparison, and I found it difficult to engage with the characters. It was not so bad that I couldn't finish it but I would certainly avoid anything else by this author.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Babel Tower

One of my top ten books is Possession by A. S. Byatt and so it stands to reason that I would like other books by the same author. I read Angels and Insects and wasn't blown away. I bought Babel Tower and it has sat on my bookshelf for ten years. Part of the reason I haven't read it is that it is a hardback and is 615 pages. The other part is that I was worried I wouldn't like it. Oh, how wrong I was.

On the surface it is the story of Frederica Potter, a woman who was a Cambridge graduate in the early 1960s, then her sister died and while she was grieving she married an inappropriate man. At the start of Babel Tower Frederica has a two year old and is realising that she made a mistake in her marriage. When she runs into an old friend it accelerates this realisation. The cracks in her marriage widen and her husband becomes extremely jealous and violent. After he hits her with an axe, she leaves and begins a life in London.

There Frederica renews old friendships and makes new ones, including one with the author of a book which is tried under the Obscenity Act. At the same time, Frederica starts divorce proceedings. What the book is really about is the terrible position and treatment of women in the 1960s and it is very feminist. It is also about the nature of art and about obscenity, morality and freedom of expression.

The quality of the writing is astonishing. It was so rich and complex without ever becoming florid. I wish I could write like this. On every page I was in awe. It is the third in a series of four and, of course, I haven't read any of the others but it easily stands on its own. Byatt is a literary writer who is gripping, tense and utterly absorbing. This was amazing and I could barely put it down. You should definitely read it.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Tiger of Talmare

Tiger of Talmare by Nina Scott is a novella that I stumbled across while I was browsing Amazon for contemporary science fiction written by women.

Mel is a space pirate who has been hired to hijack a spaceship carrying the cryogenically frozen Zach to be tried for a massacre on Talmare. Zach is a tiger-human hybrid soldier, who happens to have been chasing Mel across the galaxy for the last ten years, ever since she stole his ship.

The cryochamber is damaged so Mel has to revive Zach. He convinces her he's innocent. The man who hired her is the real culprit and is trying to silence Zach. As the story is uncovered it turns out there is connection to a troubled member of Mel's crew so Mel decides to do the right thing. And as this is a romance as much as an adventure, Mel and Zach get it on.

This is a fun romp heavy on action and dialogue. These elements are well done and the book is pretty entertaining. It's a novella, coming in at a mere 100 pages, so there's not much room for anything else. I think these characters have a lot of potential and if the story was fleshed out with description and context it would make a great novel.

I liked it. It's currently free as an ebook, so give it a go.

On a side note, I'm keen to read science fiction written by women. Any suggestions? I'm looking for people publishing now, rather than classics of the genre.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The Hidden Empire

The Hidden Empire by Kevin J. Anderson is the first book in The Saga of Seven Suns series which runs to seven books. It's a meaty space opera of around 660 pages. A nice substantial book to really get my teeth into. In theory.

Humanity expanded out into the universe in generation ships. They encountered the Ildirans who gave them advanced technology for spaceflight and helped them settle colony planets. They've discovered another extinct alien race and in the course of learning about them they've found a tool for tunring gas giants into suns.

Using this tool triggers a third alien race to reveal themselves and declare war on both humans and Ildirans.

As this is the first book in a series of seven it is largely setting up the war. Through numerous characters Anderson builds up a picture of human and Ildiran society and draws the relationships between them. The Hidden Empire is broad in scope which I liked, but it lacks depth which I didn't like.

Chapters are short, lasting only one or two scenes. This makes the pace quite quick. The chapters are told from the point of view of a single character and often ends refering to the character whose chapter is next so there is a pleasing chain effect.

What it lacks is depth. There is one main bit of human society (Hansa) and two further cultures (Theroc and Roamer) which have a tense relationship with the main bit. But the groupings are simplistic. For example, the Hansa have devolved to a psuedo-monarchy for their system of government and the rationale seems rather weak. There is also a lack of understanding of the dynamics of oppression and marginalisation. The characters are shallow stereotypes that exist primarily as narrative mouthpieces. The whole thing is heteronormative and white-centric - probably not consciously, but it does demonstrate a lack of thought or analysis.

I finished it (and I won't be finishing anything truely terrible this year), but I won't be reading the rest of the saga. While I do love fiction with a broad sweep I need that to be balanced with depth, good characters and complex relationships.

Monday, 30 January 2012

The problem of simile

Simile: a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared, as in “she is like a rose".

Similes are useful as a descriptive shortcut. They rely on the reader understanding what qualities a rose has that might be applied to a woman. Is it that she is a particular colour? Capable of photosynthesis? Thorny? Possessed of exquisite and delicate beauty?

In fiction there is a further level of assumption, not only that the reader knows what qualities the simile is eliciting, but that the characters have that understanding too. In science fiction and fantasy simile becomes a problem. Do roses exist in your world? If you're writing fantasy set in an earth-like world there probably are roses and you can use them in simile without trouble. If you're writing space opera set in a time and place far away from comtemporary earth then you're going to have to give it a bit more thought.

In something I was reading lately, a space opera, a character visiting an alien world and culture describes an animal as resembling the komodo dragon from old earth. This character doesn't come from earth. She is a second or third generation (at least) colonist. The planet was colonised by descendants of the original colonists who set out in a generation ship about one hundred years in the future. If komodo dragons still exist on earth what are the chances of this character having the first idea what they look like? The effect is that the reader's immersion in the world of the novel is disrupted.

So, if I can't rely on simile for creating a picture in the mind of the readers, what can I do? Well, one solution is to get better at description. It seems to me similes are the lazy option. Taking the time to describe my worlds without using references to things my readers would be familiar with will add greater depth to my stories.

The other option is to create similes that work within the world. This is something that could be derived from effective description. Characters would naturally compare things to other things, but only to things with which they are familiar. The trick is creating that familarity with the reader. This definitely seems like a more challenging solution but one which might lift my writing a bit above the ordinary. If I can pull it off.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Memoirs of Cleopatra

I love a big book - it's very satisfying. There is a depth of immersion that just can't be achieved in anything less than 500 pages. The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George is a big book at 960 pages and it is well worth the effort.

The memoirs tell the story of the whole life of Cleopatra; from growing up in Alexandria to her death by suicide at the age of forty. It covers her relationship with Caesar, her part in the chaos after his death and the side she eventually chose. That was the side of Marc Anthony and the book details their unsuccessful war with Octavian.

Margaret George derives a lot of the events from the historical record - relying on a broad range of sources and stripping away the exaggerations and defamations of Cleopatra's enemies. Some things are fictionalised but as much as possible is derived from the historical clues available.

It is an interesting story in that it is essentially the story of defeat all the way through. Cleopatra snatches her country from the machinations of her siblings and aligns herself with Caesar to preserve her throne. Which fateful decision sets her up for a lifetime of trying to prevent Egypt from becoming a Roman province. She fails at that, and ironically, it is a far richer prize at the end than it would have been if she had not saved it in the first place.

This was utterly engaging. The worldbuilding is very good and Rome and Egypt are fully realised. The staggering wealth of Cleopatra is effectively conveyed. I really enjoyed this.

Monday, 23 January 2012

A Diary of The Lady

So, how do you review a book you didn't finish? There might be a few more of these this year.

A Diary of The Lady by Rachel Johnson is an account of her time as editor of The Lady magazine. She is the sister of Boris Johnson, a columnist for one of the broadsheets, and a novellist. I got about a quarter of the way through before abandoning it.

I stopped reading because I found the writing dull and leaden. It could have been an interesting, funny story, but Rachel Johnson contrives to make it and herself come across as boring and unpleasant. Give it a wide berth.  

Thursday, 19 January 2012

I learnt a new word

I love new words. Especially when I've been looking for them for a long time. For ages I been trying to think of a way to describe those little phrases and saying that seem harmless but are actually harmful. They're often said without intent, but tend to provoke defensiveness when challenged.

Lo and behold, someone has coined a word to describe these things: microagressions. And helpfully, there is a blog full of examples.

Monday, 16 January 2012

I've started so I'll finish

Our lives are controlled by the things we believe and we're not totally aware of everything we believe. Our beliefs can be revealed to us in the little phrases and sayings that we like to use. One of mine is 'I've started so I'll finish' and variations on that theme. The belief is that if I've started something I should finish it. While that can be a useful piece of advice, because some things are better finished, it can more often be a source of stress. It is not true that everything should be finished. The things that are unfinished because I no longer want to do them become part of a to-do list which can get overwhelming.

Sometimes, the best thing to do is to admit you're never going to finish something and get rid of it. So, in the spirit of making my life less stressful, I've been through book mountain and found thirteen books I'm not going to finish reading.

1. A Time of Exile by Katherine Kerr. I picked it up from the book drop at work as I needed something to read on the way home. I read about fifty pages and I'm not going to read any more. I don't like the style of writing - it's too high fantasy for my taste. Back to the book drop.

2. Dark Secret by Christine Feehan. I actually got three-quarters of the way through this, but one day I put it down and didn't pick it up again. It's paranormal romance and I don't like the highly traditional gender roles advocated by the book. Charity bag.

3. Labyrinth by Kare Mosse. This was given to me and I do think it's the polite thing to do to read something given to you. But I tried and I just didn't engage with it. Charity bag.

4. The Historian by Elisabeth Kostova. See above.

5. & 6. Magic Study and Fire Study by Maria V. Snyder. These are parts two and three of a trilogy I foolishly bought all together. I read the first one, Poison Study, and I really didn't like it. I haven't been able to bring myself to read the other two. Charity bag.

7. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I bought this because a friend raved about it. That was before I read Captain Corelli's Mandolin on his recommendation and realised I hate his taste in books. Charity bag.

8. Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley. I've made two attempts at this and I just can't get into it. To me, it seems like a massive, poorly executed, rip-off of Game of Thrones. Charity bag.

9. Medusa Rising by Cindy Dees. It's Mills & Boon with a modern military setting. Did. Not. Like. Charity bag.

10. Once by James Herbert. It started off ok but got really slow in the middle. Once I'd stopped reading it I developed an aversion to starting it again. Charity bag.

11. "Dumbth" by Steve Allen. I understand this man is supposed to be funny. I don't think so. The premise is interesting - 101 ways to think better - and there are some great concepts in here. Unfortunately it's all conveyed covered in nasty, judgemental, mean-spirited mocking of people perceived by the author as stupid, rude or uneducated. Reading it was a horrible experience. I want to burn it.

12. Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden. Should be the sort of thing I would enjoy, but the writing wasn't great. It is heavy on exposition and I got bored. Charity bag.

13. Wildwood by Roger Deakin. This one I'm actually a little sad about. I so wanted this to be good, but I've given it a couple of tries and I was bored by it. I know someone who wants to read it and hopefully he will enjoy it.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession

New for 2012! Book reviews for non-fiction titles! I read quite a bit of non-fiction and, as my reviews have slid away from being purely about what I've learned about writing through reading into more traditional book review territory, I thought it was time I started recording those as well. First book of the year is Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession by Craig Childs.

The book is an exploration of the ethics of archaeology and I was attracted to reading it because I have a love for the artifacts of the past. Archaeologist was one of my many answers to the question 'what do you want to be when you grow up?'. The book isn't quite what I thought it was. I expected a more scholarly approach to the complex and ambiguous question of what we should do with old stuff.

Who should have it? Does it belong in museums where it can be studied? Lots of the stuff in museums has been obtained unethically, especially in the top institutions. Should it go back to the culture it came from? Are artifacts art or information? Should they be displayed for aesthetic enjoyment or catalogued for posterity? Should they be owned by private collectors or held by governments and public insitutions?

There are no easy answers to these questions and Childs presents a range of views in an objective and non-judgemental way. He tells his own stories of his experience of making archaeological finds and what he has done with them, as well as the stories of people involved at various levels of the antiquities trade.

In the end, Childs' view is that artifacts should be left where they are found, in context. But this view is based on feeling and he struggles to articulate why that is the right thing to do, so the reader is left to make up their own mind if they can.

I enjoyed this, even though it wasn't quite what I thought it would be, and if you're interested in old stuff, museums or archaeology it's worth a read.

Monday, 9 January 2012

I'm not sure that was a joke

Under the label 'Things I wish I'd written', because they express a point I've been wanting make for ages, is this post from The F-Word blog on that hateful phrase 'can't you take a joke?'

When someone says this to you, it isn't because you had a sense of humour failure, it's because they're being hostile.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Kindles and page fondling

I got a Kindle for Christmas. Yay me. Not exactly newsworthy on its own, but I noticed something interesting the other day. When I'm reading a book I get a tactile experience that reminded me of the habit forming behaviours that go along with smoking. With the Kindle, my hands are fidgety.

I'm not a luddite in any sense. I love technology and usually can't wait to get my hands on new kit. I've only delayed getting a Kindle this long because of the sheer number of unread books in my house. I thought that having a Kindle would mean I wouldn't read any of them and I promised myself I could have it when I'd read all the unread books. What actually happened was that I kept buying books so the unread books pile is not that much smaller. I decided I would ask for a Kindle for Christmas, continue to read the unread books and only buy new ones for the Kindle.

Over the last few days I've had a bit of a cold so I grabbed a couple of books and headed for a snuggly blanket-laden sofa. I finished Others in hard copy then picked up my Kindle on which I am reading the first book club book of 2012 (it's awful, but more on that at the end of the month) and read that for a bit. Then I started on Finders Keepers in hard copy.

I had noticed with the Kindle that if I'm not careful I press the forward page buttons on the side and lose my place, so I have some difficulty finding a comfortable holding position. It doesn't yet feel quite right in my hands. When I picked up an actual book to read I found myself fondling the pages. There's something about the feel of the paper books are printed on - this particular book was using a soft but thick paper that was especially pleasing to the touch.

Part of the difficulty in overcoming addictions like smoking is the way our bodies get used to certain actions and sensations. So, it is not just the addiction to nicotine, but also the addiction to having something in our hands, to the feeling and motions, to the habit of the actions associated with smoking a cigarette. When you give up smoking, as I did five or six years ago, you have to give your hands something else to do.

It made me wonder if some people who are clinging to the printed book as the ultimate media for delivering fiction dislike e-book readers because they don't feel right in your hands. They feel different, and therefore, a bit strange. A little disconcerting, even. I wonder if the nay-sayers have an addiction to the physicality of books rather than to the content of books.

Maybe I'll just get a cover for my Kindle that is pleasing to the touch and that will solve the problem. Maybe that's why most seem to be in suede.

Friday, 6 January 2012

100 Books in 2011: Others

This is the last book in the 100 Books in 2011 challenge and it is Others by James Herbert. A man's soul is in Hell, tormented, and is given a chance to redeem himself. He accepts the offer.

Nick Dismas is a private investigator running a small, successful business in Brighton. He happens to be mishapen and ugly and so encounters much of the worst of humanity. A woman approaches him and asks him to find her long lost son. She was told that her baby didn't survive but she believes that he is still alive and now wants to find him.

After he takes this commission he is plagued by nightmares which he tries to explain away as the result of the drugs he takes to deal with his condition. The woman is revealed to have been recently widowed, requiring a son in order to benefit from her husband's will, and acting on the advice of a psychic. Dismas tells the woman he can't help her, but a combination of psychic phenomena, intuition and pressure from the psychic pushes him into following up the one lead he has. He thinks it's pretty tenuous but it leads him to a place where deformed and mutated children are kept secretly from the world, experimented on and exploited.

Dismas rescues them and comes to remember who he was in his previous life. Then, having redeemed himself, he dies.

This is definitely a book on the warm end of the spectrum of writing technique. We spend most of our time in Dismas' interior world as he ruminates on what is true and what is not, follows his intuition, and explores his feelings for the people around him.

Much of Others feels more like a thriller than a horror. Dismas is trying to find a missing person whilst battling personal demons. It's ok. It's pretty readable but I didn't find the characters that engaging. There is a motif of 'ugly but good' and 'beautiful but evil' running through the book like a freight train, which I found unsophisticated and heavy-handed.

As a thriller, it was alright until the ending, which was Dismas remembering the bargain he had struck and then all the loose ends being tied up in a couple of expository pages. It felt hurried, especially as the final escape from the burning building had taken over sixty pages to play out. The action was tense and exciting in places but the pacing was a little haphazard. As a horror, I didn't really get it. I suspect the horror lies in what has been done to the 'others', how they have been treated and how society has effectively erased them. The horror is in how easily we decide people aren't people. But choosing to tell the story from the POV of the private investigator distances us from that for most of story. Unless, of course, you're freaked out by the idea of demons invading your nightmares. I don't believe in an afterlife of any kind and so I find it hard to be afraid of that sort of thing.

Anyway, it's alright. If you enjoy mild supernatural horror, you might like this.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Hemingway vs. Austen

Writer Unboxed has a recent post on warm versus cool writing which made me rethink some of the things that I've heard and read about writing.

Cool writing, as illustrated by the work of Ernest Hemingway, is dominated by 'showing, not telling'; action and narration are prominent with the reader left to infer what the characters are feeling.

Warm writing is the other end of the spectrum, delving deeply into the interior worlds of the characters and focussing on emotion. It is the style used predominately in the romance genre and is illustrated in the article by the work of Jane Austen.

The Writer Unboxed post asks who is the better writer. I don't think I could honestly say who was the better writer, given that they are separated by time, geography and subject matter. I enjoy the works of both but I prefer Hemingway, which indicates that I am a writer on the cool end of the spectrum and could use some warming up.

The spectrum of warm to cool is an interesting way of looking at different styles of writing that gets away from arguments about good and bad writing. I think the next time I read a romance novel I might have better insight into the style of writing.