Did you know I also have a little weekly book review segment on Art District Radio?
Dark Mysteries features short book reviews of crime, mystery and thriller fiction. And I only talk about books I really like.
Check me out here.
I’m back in the swing of this writing thing after a brilliant holiday and so what’s next for me?
Origins of Common Superstitions monthly series
I’m writing a monthly series for the fabulous Folklore Thursday exploring the origins of common superstitions.
So far, I’ve written about;
· Bad Luck comes in Threes: Matches, Murderers or Mathematics
· The Origins of ‘Touch Wood’: Tree Spirits, The True Cross, or Tag?
And there’s another eight more to come….
Vigil by Angela Slatter is an urban fantasy set in Brisbane, Australia.
Brisbane has a number of nicknames, I generally call it Brisvegas but this book uses Brisneyland. Whatever you call it, Brisbane has a cliched reputation for warm weather, theme parks and palm trees. But Vigil shows Brisbane in a completely different light.
Verity Fassbinder is a woman who strides between two worlds. The world of the Normals, us everyday types and the Weyrd, the paranormal underworld sitting just below the surface of everyday Brisbane. Verity is the product of a Normal mother and Weyrd father, she inherited some powers, extraordinary strength, but the rest of Verity is very Normal.
Today, an anthology of short stories inspired by HP Lovecraft all written by women. The collection is called She walks in Shadows edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R Stiles, published by Innsmouth Free Press in 2015.
HP Lovecraft is a founding father of the horror genre but he’s well known for his lack of female characters and his dubious perception of anyone who wasn’t of English descent.
For those unfamiliar with HP Lovecraft, his work is filled with dark, gory, lush imagery and his stories often focus on scientists uncovering the paranormal in the course of their experiments and the revelations drive them mad. Or family legends of inherited guilt. In his writings, he built a rich pantheon of mythology including the all powerful cosmic entity Cthulu. Lovecraft never experienced fame during his lifetime but has inspired many writers since.
This collection, by all female writers, takes the Lovecraft universe and focuses on, or reimagines, the role of women in his world. The writers are from all across the world, each bringing their own unique spin on Lovecraft.
Usually I find short story anthologies are a bit hit and miss, but when I went back to write this review and looked through all the stories I liked, I was surprised how many I really enjoyed.
In the past few months, I’ve fallen in love with Shirley Jackson and her creepy weird normality. Today it’s The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, a classic haunted house story, first published in 1959.
Stephen King described The Haunting of Hill House as one of the most important horror books of the 20th century and inspired The Shining. It has also been the basis for two films. And today, a new ‘reimagining’ via Netflix was announced.
Dr Montague, a paranormal academic researcher, rents a haunted house for a summer to undertake a research project. Hill House has a frightening reputation and history of hauntings after a series of tragic events in the house. The local townspeople won’t come anywhere near the place, and any one who rents the house barely stays a week. Determined to document the phenomenon, Dr Montague seeks out a few research assistants to join him at the house for the summer.
This week, it’s fairytales with Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, first published by Del Ray in 2015.
Agnieska lives in a village deep in the Wood, where an ageless hermit Wizard called the Dragon lives in a white tower nearby. The Wood is no ordinary forest, twisted and enchanted it takes people, including the Queen who disappeared in the Wood twenty years earlier and over the years, the Wood has gobbled up entire villages.
Today I’m talking about Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley, a collection of personal essays by science fiction author Kameron Hurley, published by Tor in 2016.
Hurley is an award winning author and her personal essays covers feminism, geek and internet culture, the perils of being a writer, health and rebellion. Hurley critiques and challenges in a raw and honest way, drawing on her own personal experiences and life story.
Coincidence is a funny thing. I picked up this book right after finishing The Female Man by Joanna Russ (a feminist sci-fi novel I reviewed a few weeks ago). Hurley credits Joanna Russ with lighting her feminist fire. In fact, the book is dedicated to a “Joanna’.
The book is divided up into sections starting off with a section about writing and the rollercoaster ride of a writers life. As a writer myself, I found this section heart-warming and depressing at the same time. My favourite essay was the first, named Persistence and the Long Con of Being a Successful Writer. The title says it all.
Like you I love to read.
If you’d like to hear me talk about the books I love, check out my reviews on Art District radio. My show – Madeleine’s Speculative Fiction Review – is all about speculative fiction, where I bang on about science fiction, fantasy, steampunk, dystopia, horror, paranormal etc.
You can listen to the back catalogue of reviews as podcasts.
Happy listening and happy reading.
The Female Man by Joanna Russ, first published in 1975 by Bantam Books.
One of the main reasons why I like speculative fiction is how the genre allows the exploration of different ideas about science or culture or in the case today’s book, gender, by using made-up worlds.
While people might think it’s not about reality with all the aliens, spaceships, dragons and demons, but the truth is speculative fiction is a different way of examining our world by using these allegories.
This is definitely the case with The Female Man. This is a book has been hailed as a landmark feminist science fiction novel.
Today it’s one of my all time favourite books, Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, first published in 1992 by Simon and Schuster. Alternative history with vampires!
In the world of Anno Dracula, Van Helsing lost and Dracula triumphed, killing Jonathan Harker and taking Mina Harker into his harem of vampire brides.
Beth and her husband Stu have moved to a new house in the idyllic English countryside to raise their baby, Gabriel. But one night, during a snowstorm, everything goes horribly wrong for the family and in the picture perfect setting, something ancient and evil emerges and changes all their lives and not for the better.
Today I’m going to talk space opera with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, first self-published in 2014 but now available through Hodder and Stoughton.
It’s time to talk spaceships.
The Wayfarer is a tunnelling ship, creating wormholes between planets, captained by a pacifist and crewed by a diverse group of characters from across the galaxy. In this ‘world’ (using the term loosely because there are many worlds), humanity is only one of a number of species all grouped together under the Galactic Council.
Today I’m going a little darker than usual. It’s time to talk horror with Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, published in 2011 through Pan Macmillan.
Horror is not a genre for everyone, but I like being scared. There is something about horror writing which makes my imagination go wild in a far more vibrant way than horror movies. Probably because I build my own images, creating something uniquely me from all of my fears.
Enough about me, let’s talk about The Ritual. Four middle-aged men get together for a hiking trip in Sweden. They’ve been friends since their university days as they have grown older and taken on responsibilities, their friendships have waned. Everyone has stressful jobs, kids, mortgages, marriages. All except Luke. But this camping trip is a ‘lads weekend’. A chance to renew old friendships and have a laugh. Or so they planned.
Today, it’s all about time travel with To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. First published in 1997 by Bantam Spectra and won two of Science Fiction’s major awards, the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1999.
As part of my speculative fiction reviews I am aiming to discuss as many female speculative fiction writers as possible. But of course, whether I like the book or not, comes first. No fear with To Say Nothing of the Dog.
Ned Henry is knackered and is on the verge of getting ‘time lag’, the time traveller’s version of jet lag. He’s been travelling backward and forward through a portal from the 21st century to the 1940s trying to locate a weird Victorian object called the “bishop’s bird stump.”
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch (published by Gollancz in 2011) is the first book in an urban fantasy series set in, you guessed it, London. But this book is also known as Midnight Riot in the US.
Peter Grant was a probationary constable in the Metropolitan Police Force (otherwise known as the Met). Peter was dreaming of being a detective but he’s not exactly the best policeman in the world and he’s mainly trying to avoid a transfer to the worst department with a lifetime of paper shuffling.
A few years back, a good friend of mine (Pete!) asked if I’d like to go and see Johnny Marr play at the Corner Hotel in Richmond. I have always been a Smiths fan and said ‘why not!’
For something different, I’ve started a short book review radio show/podcast on artdistrict-radio.com, a French digital radio station focused on jazz and the arts. Each week I’ll be sharing a book I love from the speculative fiction genre. (And my show is in English, in case you were wondering.)
Now 2016 has been one of those bastard years. With the deaths of lots of beloved artists and surprising political results, it’s been strange and shocking. I wonder whether the Queen will announce 2016 as another ‘annus horribilis’ in her Christmas Speech.
But beyond the rejection letters, two-star reviews and disappointments, 2016 wasn’t all bad.
Here are my top 3 good things from 2016.
Yep, another top 2016 list. But this one is all about me.
Here’s my list of 5 star rated books from my own goodreads list (because I can’t rely on my own memory) filled with vampires, time travel, near future spy thrillers and two present day thrillers.
I think I’ve established here, I’m a bit of a new age-y personal development type (in amongst the love of horror movies and heartless disdain for anything romantic).
As part of my routine, I keep a gratitude journal beside my bed and at the end of each day, I write down five things I’m grateful for. Sometimes the five things are puerile and short (coffee seems to feature often), other days they are fundamental and deep (being safe and empowered to make my own decisions in life).
I stumbled across a “30 days of gratitude” infographic and I’m using these suggestions as a prompt for new things to remember to be grateful for.
I checked Day 8. – what book are you most grateful for?
I’ve been spending some quality time by a pool with books attached to my face. I started many, finished a few and really enjoyed two.
Here are my highlight holiday reads. Quite different but both sci-fi.
Let’s start with a classic.
Finally I’ve finished my series, re-reading my favourite books as a child. The last book in my series is The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend. A British classic of the 1980s.
Adrian is a painful teenager with delusions of intellectual grandeur living through Thatcher’s Britain with his dysfunctional and disappointing parents. Adrian copes with his first pimples, his parents’ marital problems and his own crushes with an amazing lack of self-awareness. It is laugh out funny and I knew most of the jokes already.
I like my audiobooks. But for some unknown reason, I can’t focus on fiction in audio. My mind wanders and I miss sections of the story, so I’ve learned to stick with non-fiction for audiobooks.
Today, an interview with a beloved beta reader of mine, Andrew. Andrew’s a voracious reader and so let’s learn a little more about his reading habits.
Why did I love Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson so much?
The book is a spy thriller set slightly in the future, in a time when the countries of Europe is dissolving. Every man and his dog is seceding, setting up their own principality. Borders are a bureaucratic nightmare and black marketeers are taking advantage of the chaos.
The hero is Rudi, an Estonian chef turned courier, who gets deeper and deeper into the murky world of espionage.
The book is in four parts following Rudi from his first gig until the point when it all goes wrong. It is almost like four novellas, pieced together eventually. The middle section with Rudi’s family in Estonia seems out of step at first until more details are revealed. I adored the excerpt from the map-making of Whitton-Whyte and the twist delighted this little sci-fi fan.
Why did I enjoy this book so much?
Perhaps it was the mix of vivid characters; the burly Hungarians, the obnoxious mentor Fabio, Rudi’s bizarrely robotic English captors, the grumpy crusty Pawel. The characters were well rounded and real.
Perhaps it was the slight weirdness of the world. Quite similar to our own, yet with minor technological and geo-political differences.It was familiar and yet intriguing. There was little time spent world building, the story jumps right in and explains the world as we go. Yet there are enough odd little details to remind the reader that this is not your ordinary Tom Clancy thriller.
Perhaps it was the wry English humour. The dialogue was sharp and believable. I chuckled out aloud a number of times.
Plus a cracking plot.
Let’s just say, I really liked this book.
But the topic of genre provoked the most thought for me. This is classified as a science fiction novel – which it is. The world is futuristic, but only looking a few years into a possible future. I was so curious about the genre of this novel, I contacted the author. I had a nice conversation with Dave Hutchinson over Twitter regarding the genre classification of this book. Hutchinson describes it as a “near-future espionage thriller”. This is a very apt description.
I struggle with the “science fiction” label because it brings to mind aliens and spaceships. My own writing is in a similar vein to Hutchinson’s – a different world not too dissimilar to our own. Is speculative fiction a better description or “fantastika” as Hutchinson offered? Yet, your average punter doesn’t use the expression ‘speculative fiction’. When I look at the categories for sci-fi in Amazon, the only vaguely applicable are “dystopian” and “post-apocalyptic” but my own writing and a book like Europe in Autumn does not fit with the other zombie invasion novels.
Anyway less about me and more about Europe in Autumn. If you like a well built near-future world with espionage, great characters and good writing, I recommend you take a look at Europe in Autumn.
I’m off to read the sequel…when I’ve finished The Wise Man’s Fear.
It’s time for part four of my “revisiting childhood favourites” series with The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.
Maria Merryweather is an orphan (of course) and sent to live with her long lost uncle in the West Country at Moonacre Manor. She takes the long journey by carriage through the night with her bilious governess and Wiggins, her grumpy spoiled spaniel. Her new home is mysterious, mythic and magical. Her uncle tells tales of the tragic love story of the Moon Princess and Sir Wrolf, the first Merryweather, and of course the rarely seen little white horse.
Firstly it must be said, this book should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in glorious world-building. The descriptions of Moonacre Manor and its characters are vibrant and rich. From cosy cave houses and circular bedrooms in towers to a curmedgeonly dwarf with a rich vocabulary baking fairy cakes and lavish descriptions of hearty country meals (very reminiscent of Enid Blyton) to a cat that can write and the grumpy spoiled Wiggins, the spaniel.
But the story itself is a little strange. The haughty Maria bullies her family (both immediate and estranged) into complying with her wishes. All the while maintaining a relationship with a shepherd boy which no one questions. And this is supposedly 1842. There is much talk of “wicked men” and yet she converts them to goodness with harsh words and pearls. Reality aside, she is a firebrand who gets what she wants. A feisty female protagonist.
But the pleasure in this book is the imaginative world-building. If you are interested in descriptions or characterisation, I urge you read this book. Especially the first few chapters as Maria explores her new home.
One of the curious things about my writing life is I write sci-fi but I don’t often read it. I’ve recently made an effort to read some “masterworks” to fill my gaps.
Don’t you hate it when you find a brilliant “new” writer, only to find out they are already dead? I’m definitely late to the Octavia Butler party, the trail blazing African American female sci-fi writer. Before reading a word of her work, only her bio, I was filled with deep respect for Butler.
First I read Bloodchild (mainly because it was free and I am cheap). I thoroughly enjoyed the story of the alien host and her human servants. Although reading the end notes, I jumped to the conclusion (like many others) that it was a story about slavery. Apparently not!
Then while on a recent trip to the US, I came across Parable of the Sower in a bookshop. The luxury of holidays gave me time to devour it quickly. If I’d been at home (and not required to be social), I would’ve curled up in a corner until I finished it.
In Parable of the Sower, Lauren is 17 and lives in a neighbourhood compound in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. Her father is the local preacher and community leader where the neighbours band together to keep themselves safe from the dangers outside the walls. The outside world is dangerous, filled with drug addicts who revel in fire.
Lauren listens to her father’s sermons but she has her own ideas about what God is. Over time her thoughts formulate in her mind, she is creating her own religion. It is called Earthseed.
One night, the compound and Lauren’s world is breached. She leaves and must fend for herself on the highways of California, looking for safety and a new life. All the while, building on her ideas for a new faith.
But the Parable of the Sower is much more than a dystopian road story.
As an aspirant writer, this is one of those books that made me want to put my pen down and give it all away. The prose so crisp and precise. The concepts so big and mind-chewing. This is what I want to be when I grow up.
As I said in my review of AYTGIMM, I’m ignorant about religion. The Parable of the Sower passage from the Bible has no meaning to me. I brought no preconceived ideas when I started reading.
With the chaos around her, Lauren sees God as objective. God is change and cares only about survival. There is no moral overlay about right or wrong. It just is. This reminds of the concepts in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile. Another book which wowed me.
I was struck by a single line. “Some people see nature as God.” Pow. There’s my worldview in a nutshell in a way I’d never considered it before. The way some people see God is the way I see nature/the universe. Awe inspiring and all powerful. But like Lauren, I never placed the moral overlay on nature. She doesn’t care about you and me as individuals. She only wants to continue on.
This book has stayed with me for months now. What more can you ask for in a book? Entertainment plus a soul searching challenge on your view of the universe.
Blog posts have been a little tardy. I’ve been distracted by the main game, my fiction. But let’s return to my favourite childhood books.
The next book in my series revisiting childhood classics is from Judy Blume. A classic children’s writer, I remember her books fondly. But funny how your memory plays tricks on you.
Time and memory are true artists; they remould reality nearer to the heart’s desire – John Dewey (1859-1952)
As an 80s child, my reading life was chock full of Judy Blume. I owned a copy of Starring Sally J Friedman As Herself. (This could explain why a kid in Tasmania in the late 1980s was reading biographies of old film stars like Lana Turner. Although as a voracious reader, I did work my way through most of the books in my small local library.)
Blubber. Super Fudge. Forever was the taboo book when I was in Grade 6, to be hidden from the parents under the mattress because it had s.e.x in it.
Then of course Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (AYTGIMM). The quintessential book on growing up. So today, I’m revisiting my old friend, Margaret.
Margaret has just moved to Jersey from NYC and she’s eleven. The child of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, she has grown up without religion, yet she talks to God every night. Margaret has a new school, new friends and new womanly body to manage.
Before I started to read this book, my memories of AYTGIMM were all about bras and periods. I expected it to be full of female body stuff. A fiction version of Everygirl. But on re-reading, I was surprised to discover that puberty is only one part of the story. The more important storyline is Margaret’s spiritual search. Is she Jewish or is she Christian? Who is this God she speaks to?
Looking at the title of this book, the religious element is completely obvious. Like Margaret, I grew up without religion, but I never went through a religious curiosity phase like she does. Margaret chooses to explore religion as the topic of her year long school project. As a child, this part of the story must not have resonated with me. Perhaps the difference is the overt religious tension in Margaret’s family. Or I blocked it out and focused on the juicy stuff.
AYTGIMM was probably the first time I read about someone like me, dealing with their newly adult bits, bras and periods, secret clubs and talking on the phone for hours about (very important) nothing. The “Two Minutes in a Closet” brought back cringe worthy memories of my own Grade 6 parties. Did we get the idea from this book? Although we used an ensuite bathroom. It brought back memories of my own experiences of being eleven.
The stand-out characters were Sylvia, Margaret’s grandmother and Laura Danker. Interfering and vibrant, Sylvia sounds like a super fun grandma but incredibly infuriating for Margaret’s mother. Laura Danker is a tragic innocent character. An early developer, the world makes assumptions about her morals just because she has boobs.
I didn’t enjoy AYTGIMM as much as I thought I would. The puberty stuff is of no interest anymore and neither is the religious angle. But I hope this book still resonates with eleven year old girls wondering what’s going on with their bodies and making sense of religious tension in their family. Just not for me.
Next book in line is The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. Apparently I’m in good company as this is also a favourite of JK Rowling.
The next book in my series of revisiting childhood favourites is Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.
Ah the memories…when I opened the first few pages of Anne of Green Gables, I was transported back to Grade 5 and my small primary school library in Launceston, Tasmania where I first borrowed this book. All the iconic phrases made me smile; the puffed sleeves, the alabaster brow, kindred spirits, bosom friends. I can see why people travel to Prince Edward Island today to see where Anne lived.
If you haven’t read or seen Anne of Green Gables, basically it’s the story of an eleven year old orphan* who is mistakenly sent to live with a gruff brother and sister in Avonlea on Prince Edward Island. The brother and sister really wanted a boy to help with the farm work but instead Anne arrives, filled with wild imaginative romantic notions and who cannot stop talking.
Reading Anne of Green Gables again was an absolute joy. I had forgotten what a wonderful character she is, so quirky and irrepressible. Despite her terrible childhood prior to moving to Avonlea, Anne is optimistic. An uneducated orphan, she built a fertile imagination to cope. But Anne is not all sunshine and lollipops, she’s feisty and stubborn. She stands up for herself and others if she feels she is being mistreated. There is no doubting why this is an absolute classic, Anne is such an endearing character who leaps off the page.
The novel travels through Anne’s life from aged eleven to over sixteen. Anne doesn’t just flounce about the countryside for 300 pages. We see Anne mature, and to some extent, conform. Towards the end of the book, where Anne buckles down to study hard for her examinations, I missed the quirky, nutty, overly emotive Anne. She makes tough decisions in the end, particularly hard decisions for a sixteen year old. Compared to the Blyton boarding school books where the characters are of similar ages, Anne grows up and makes adult decisions, unlike the protected girls from St.Clare’s.
Side note – Were 17 year olds really teaching school in Canada in the early 20th century?
Like Blyton, there are very few men in Anne of Green Gables too. Only the man-of-few-words Matthew and her number one rival, Gilbert Blythe. Anne is surrounded by strong, opinionated and capable women.
From a structural perspective, I wondered whether this book was originally a serial. The structure is very episodic, with 10 page self-contained chapters, perfect for a quick 15-20 minute read before bed or perhaps designed for reading to children. The structure reminded me of a TV series with the “story of the week” with its beginning, middle and end, plus a thin thread of overarching story. I’m now inspired to try this structure myself… one day. I’ve already got 5 novels in the works at the moment, in various stages from Draft#7 at 100k words to a paragraph of jotted thoughts. Maybe in 2018?
All in all, Anne of Green Gables stands up as a wonderful read and truly worthy of its classic status.
What’s next? Get ready for the real side of blossoming womanhood. It’s time for bras and periods with Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret.
Do you have fond memories of Anne with an e?
*What’s with orphans in childhood literature? I’m sure there’s a million PhD theses on this topic.
Here’s the first instalment of a new blog series where I revisit my favourite children’s books, beginning with Enid Blyton’s The O’Sullivan Twins.
Good old Aunty Enid is the grand dame of influences. A little passe and politically incorrect these days but Blyton was the influence for me. From Noddy to The Enchanted Wood to the Famous Five to the Naughtiest Girl/St.Clares/Mallory Towers series, Blyton was my author.
I owned a large illustrated copy of The Enchanted Wood and dressed up as Silkie for Book Week (another reference to Book Week dress-ups in a future blog post). The Famous Five probably whet my appetite for mysteries and I also remember the 70s telly series fondly. Sing along with me now… “George and Timmy the dog..”
I loved most of Enid’s book but her boarding school books were my absolute favourite. Maybe I need some therapy to understand why. I loved the idea of midnight feasts, “short sheeting”, French prep, being “sent to Coventry” and lacrosse. I longed to go to boarding school and devoured all of these books.
Then I re-read the O’Sullivan twins…
I don’t spend much time in the children’s section of bookshops, so I was shocked at the number of Enid Blyton books still on the shelves. I thought in these days of Harry Potter, YA and MG galore, Aunty Enid would be less popular. Wrong.
From the first few lines of The O’Sullivan Twins, I was transported back. The words and the character were so familiar. How many times had I read this before? I giggled along at the quintessentially British language and the tropes. It was all there; midnight feasts, “bricks” and “old girls”, lacrosse matches, French prep, descriptions of cake and “being sent to Coventry”. The now sensible O’Sullivan Twins return to St.Clare’s for their second term, this time accompanied by their “feather-headed bleating” cousin Alison.
But as I progressed through the book, I was transported back to the feelings of a tweenie. I was shocked by the way the girls treat each other, there’s an awful lot of bullying in this book. Girls ganging up on each other, gossiping and isolating individuals for their “mean and spiteful” behaviour. And this is exactly what I remember about being a tweenie.
This is a moral tale for playing by the rules and conforming. Margery is the sullen outsider who redeems herself and teaches the twins a lesson about assumptions. I was surprised how old the girls were (fourteen to sixteen). The girls at St.Clare’s lead a terribly sheltered life, yet there is tragedy and teen angst, father-daughter relationships, family accidents and poverty. Aside from their fathers and one mention of a gardener, there are no men in the world of St.Clare’s. Is that what Blyton was trying to do? Create a series of books to teach young women the right way to behave in WW2 Britain?
With my writer hat on, I was surprised at the “head-hopping” or point of view changes within the same paragraph. I thought ‘head-hopping’ was a big no-no. But if Aunty Enid can do it…?
When I finished the last page and said goodbye to my old friends, my feelings on boarding school have changed. I couldn’t think of anything worse than going to St.Clare’s with all the bullying and conformity. But I am hankering for an afternoon tea with “Buns and jam! Fruit cake! Meringues! Chocolate eclairs!”
What are your memories of Enid Blyton?
I was pulling together a series of blog posts on my top 5 most influential books of my childhood and an idea struck me. Why not re-read all five books and review them with adult eyes.
So I’ll be reading and blogging about….
All female writers too.
Look out for the posts in the weeks to follow….
The Story Grid (book soon to be released) is a story design system and a step-by-step process for analysing and improving your writing. It teaches you to be your own editor. Definitely one for process-minded, plotter, spreadsheet nerds like me.
Shawn Coyne works closely with Steven Pressfield (of War of Art, which I blogged about in my recent post on Kicking Resistance in the nuts) and one of my recent completed reads was Steven Pressfield’s The Profession. While reading, I had one eye firmly on the Story Grid system, looking for the tips and structure outlined by Coyne. Luckily, The Profession is also a cracking read.
The Profession is set in the near future, following the story of Gent, a soldier for hire. The Middle East is a mess of corporations, tribal war lords and nation-states, all vying for supremacy and protecting their interests by hiring mercenaries. Gent, after years of warfare and campaigns, knows no other life.
I am a warrior. What I narrate in these pages is between me and other warriors. I will say things only they will credit and only they understand.
Gent works for a disgraced US General, Salter. His devotion to Salter is absolute. He loves this man and unquestioning, follows this man into anything.
Now, on the face of it, this is a book for blokes. It’s a geo-political thriller with gun fights and machinations, warriors and mercenaries and there’s a lot of gear porn in it. Loads of description about guns and bombs and helicopters. Information I skipped over.
Yet underneath the testosterone, there is something epic about this story, something mythic. I’m no historical scholar and Pressfield’s other works include Roman historical novels, but there was something familiar about the tale of Gent and his loyalty to Salter. It resonated. Is it based on a myth or is it completely original? I’m not sure and I don’t care. Richer than your average thriller, I was moved by Gent’s anguish as he faces the tests of his love and devotion to Salter and choosing right from wrong. It felt bigger than just blowing stuff up.
Back to the Story Grid, I flicked backwards and forwards between reading this for pleasure and looking for the elements of the Grid in it. One of the key elements of the Story Grid is internal and external value at stake. Although I was looking for the structure through out the book, this was a great example of the battle between the main character’s internal and external values. How the character changes through the story and how inner conflict and external conflict play out.
I recommend The Profession for an intelligent, fast paced read (and for writers, I recommend the Story Grid.)
Last week (last century in internet terms), the hot trending hashtag was #womeninfiction. Everyone chiming in with their favourite female characters. I jumped on the band wagon and here’s my picks in more than 140 characters.
In no particular order:
Harriet the Spy – Louise Fitzhugh
Harriet M. Welsch, an eleven year old budding writer, who started jotting down everything she saw in a notebook. I’ve just reread the synopsis of the book and I can’t remember any of the rest of the plot! But her inquisitive ways, her bravery and her love of tomato sandwiches stuck with me to this day!
Lisbeth Salander – Steig Larsson
“Salander was the woman who hated men who hated women.”
A powerful messed-up character, who you cheer for, cringe with and cry for. Smart, stupid and stubborn. The only female character here written by a man.
Pippi Longstocking – Astrid Lindgren
“Don’t you worry about me, I’ll always come out on top.”
Free-spirited girl, strong and brave, clever and resourceful. A rocking role model for any girl.
VI Warshawski – Sara Paretsky
I went through ten years of avid crime reading. Then one day I woke up and seemed to have moved on. One of my earliest reads and loves was VI Warshaswki. VI was the original self-sufficient, tough, clever female private investigator.
Super exciting post script – Sara Paretsky tweeted me back to thank me for my nomination. Squeee!
I’m sure I’ve missed a million others, who are your #womeninfiction?
After I finished reading Merivel: A Man of his Time by Rose Tremain, I read a review on The Guardian website. A commenter described Merivel perfectly. He/she described Merivel as “an arse.” And that’s exactly what he is. A bumbling, pompous, foppish buffoon of a man. But also completely hilarious.
I can’t remember the last time I chuckled so much throughout a book. I was not expecting such a funny book. I laughed along with Merivel with his complete lack of self awareness and self-obsession. I’ve not read Tremain’s first Merivel novel, Restoration, I just picked up this book at a sale and thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
Merivel is a 17th century doctor and friend to the King (or perhaps more like the King’s fall guy/idiot friend). Merivel is filled with melancholy and middle aged angst, spending his time moping around his manor house, until he decides to try his luck in Versailles with the French King. By happenstance, he meets a wealthy Swiss aristocratic botanist and follows her back to her mansion in Paris to become her plaything until the husband comes home. Then Merivel’s daughter becomes ill and he rushes home to tend to her. On the way, he saves a bear from death and transports it back to Norwich.
This sounds like a romp and it is but the book is wholly more literary than I’m giving it credit for. And there’s quite a bit of sex.
I was impressed and awed by Tremain’s characterisation of Merivel, a big well-rounded character, raw and embarrassing, yet poignant. A character I will not forget.
If you like literary historical fiction with fools, sex and bears. This is a book for you.
It’s historical mystery time. The Dark Monk by Oliver Potzsch is a cracking fun read, filled with action and fight scenes. Plus I learned some stuff about 17th century hangmen.
The Dark Monk is set during a particularly grim winter in Bavaria. The local foppish medic, Simon, is assisting his father to cure an outbreak of influenza, while the local hangman Jacob is dealing with highwaymen. His feisty daughter, Magdalena, is having a tryst with Simon, although relations with the hangman’s daughter are frowned upon by the local community.
The local church is under renovations and the opening scene finds the death of the parish priest. Did he overindulge on honey cakes or was he poisoned? Prior to his death, he sent a mysterious letter to his sister. He had made a discovery in the renovations. What has he found? Why are there three monks in dark habits roaming around?
The pace of this novel is fast, the characters interesting and rounded with great strong females in Magdalena and the dead priest’s sister, Benedikta. But what I found most compelling was the detail of the background of 17th century rural Germany and the role of the local hangman in the community, as both the executioner and local healer. This was all new fascinating information to me.
All in all, I can recommend The Dark Monk for people who like fast paced mysteries with some education on the side.
The difficulty here is how to even describe this amazing novel. Highly imaginative with densely detailed world building, cinematic (although I challenge anyone to adapt to a live action movie!), moving, intellectual and sometimes confusing. The prose is so lush and beautiful, I restricted myself to one chapter per night to wallow in the description (until I got near the end and gobbled the rest up). This is not a book to read with the TV, it demands your attention. Even then I don’t know if I fully understood it, I plan to give it a second read some day.
OK, so what’s it actually about – a fat mad scientist is contracted by an outcast eagle-person without wings to help him to fly again, whilst the scientist’s insect artist lover is commissioned by a mongrel underworld figure to immortalise him in sculpture and the government are experimenting on some kind of top-secret moths, all happening in a multi-cultural, multi-species city of wildly different neighbourhoods and enclaves. It’s about individual freedom and drugs, love and rebirth, art and science.
This is the second Mieville novel I’ve read, his work is complex and odd. He makes me feel a bit dumb sometimes, but I like it. I did get lost in some of the descriptions of high maths and scientific experiments (not my forte), there is where the detail was too dense for me. I am still processing the ending, sad, moving and just.
This is an award winner, so it barely needs my recommendation, but I thoroughly enjoyed Perdido Street Station. If you’re a budding writer and you want a novel to inspire and discourage you, get your hands on this book.
I’m on a real historical fiction jaunt and my most recently finished novel is The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman. Originally published in 1982, this was re-released in 2013 with additional author notes.
This is the re-telling of the story of Richard III, a large monstrous figure, who Penman feels was wrongly treated by history and this is her version of the events. I’m no history buff (which makes my sudden penchant for historical event even stranger, more on that later) and had little more than a passing knowledge of Richard III and his story – his caricature as a deformed Machiavellian king. I came to this story with an open mind and went along for the ride. And it was a rollicking ride over 1,200 pages, keeping my interest along the whole way. Others with pre-conceived ideas about the “real” Richard III may not have as much fun as I did. With her excellent storytelling, I could suspend my disbelief and go along with Penman’s tale of a man betrayed by his friends and history.
The novel starts in 1459 and is split into four books; Edward, Anne, Lord of the North, Richard by the Grace of God.
I was surprised how two-thirds of the novel was devoted to the reign of his brother, Edward. Perhaps this build-up was what kept my interest, I was waiting to find out what happened when Richard actually became King. The battle scenes are lively and colourful, providing great insight into the battle strategy and the bloodiness of medieval wars. The politics and alliances are wild and tempestuous, outstripping any of the political shenanigans in modern day.
I struggled occasionally with the names of the characters but this is where the facts constrain the author. There were far too many Edwards, Georges, Johns and Richards. Then titles were awarded, then stripped. Who is Earl of Warwick now? Those medieval people needed more variety in their names.
The female characters were strong, from the equally evil Marguerite d’Anjou to Elizabeth Woodville and Richard’s own mother, Cecily Neville. The book highlighting the influence of strong women in the shadows and mainly left out of history. My interest waned a little with the love stories, but I do have a heart of stone.
The book concludes with Penman’s author notes and a 2013 update following the discovery of Richard’s remains under a carpark in Leicester.
I highly recommend this book for great storytelling, pace and character. But I will leave the believability of Penman’s version of events up to you.
Now, why am I obsessed with historical fiction at the moment? My current theory is I enjoy exploring how well formed and believable characters respond to great moments in history. Seeing from a personal perspective makes the bigger historical events more real. As a reader, I have the benefit of dramatic irony and knowledge of what’s to come, I am better informed than the characters and I’m curious to see the effect on their lives and how they’ll react. In some part relating back to my own life and wondering how would I have responded if my husband was killed in battle and I had to seek sanctuary in a church, or if the Russians came into my town after WW2. I also learn a bit of history along the way.
Do you like historical fiction? Why does it resonate with you?
It’s historical fiction time! I first picked up a Ken Follett book in a secondhand bookshop when travelling through Nicaragua. I was looking for a big thick saga to read by the pool and Pillars of the Earth ticked all the boxes. Follett has been a guilty pleasure ever since.
Edge of Eternity is the latest Ken Follett novel, the third in his Century series, continuing to follow families in Russia, Germany, the UK and the US from 1961 to 1989. This is another doorstopper of a book, running over 1,000 pages (yay Christmas holidays, otherwise this would have taken me months to read) but there’s an awful lot of history crammed inside.
I was entertained right to the end, keen to see how the characters reacted to the events of 1989, considering a significant amount of the book was set in Eastern Europe. These sections were particularly interesting to me. However Edge of Eternity is weaker than Follett’s previous novels. Many characters were thin with the focus more on the historical details. Tania, the Russian journalist, was one of the exceptions and Maria Summers, the African-American bureaucrat. Although at the end, Maria’s regrets had my feminist alarm bell ringing. I was also surprised there was no mention of Chernobyl, although I guess Follett could not have included everything, otherwise it would be a 2,000 page book.
All in all, not as good as Pillars of the Earth or Falls of Giants, but still entertaining enough to keep me gripped for 1,000 plus pages.
When I’m writing my speculative fiction, I try to read from another contrasting genre to cut down on the influence. So during Nanowrimo 2014, I read historical fiction instead and the novel “Csardas” by Diane Pearson.
Csardas, a family saga set in Hungary, traces the lives of three privileged families from the simple days prior to WW1 right through the establishment of the Communist regime post WW2. The novel begins following the “enchanting Ferenc sisters” Eva and Malie as they enter society and as the world collapses into WW1. It follows the losses and uncertainty of war and the impact on their suitors and their families as everyone tries to make sense of the new world. This story continues following their brothers and eventually their children.
With a large number of character, only three really captured my interest. The two sisters, the sensible and strong Malie, the frivolous and silly Eva and later in the novel, the son of a peasant on the neighbouring Kaldy estate, Janos. We follow Janos from his abject poverty to his blossoming career in the new communist world, a man who cannot connect with his own feelings.
This book had a little too much romance for my liking (yes, I am a bitter old prune), however the struggle for the old guard to come to terms with the new world captured my interest, especially shown through Eva who bitterly complains about not receiving roses, when they barely have enough bread to eat.
Interesting, yet saggy in the middle.
I’m a bit late to this party but The Rook is a highly awarded book which I thoroughly enjoyed. The travesty is I picked it up from a local second hand book shop in the $2 bin. Bargain for me, but such a shame. Worth every cent!
The Rook is an urban fantasy set in modern day London. Myfanwy Thomas, a high ranking official in a secret paranormal government agency, has regained consciousness, she has two black eyes and no memory of who she is. Luckily she has letters in her pocket from herself, explaining what to do next.
In a similar vein to Ben Aaronovitch (but can I suggest maybe better?!), The Rook is funny, weird and richly imaginative speeding along with gripping action and bizarre monstrous characters.The world of Myfanwy and The Chequy is so vivid and well detailed, I can almost picture the television series.
Hunt this one down and immerse yourself in Myfanwy’s world. When’s No.2 coming out?
My Notorious Life by Kate Manning is the tale of Axie/Ann Muldoon, an Irish immigrant child from the slums of New York.
Opening in 1880 with Ann using a tragedy as an opportunity, we follow Axie back to her humble beginnings , starving and cold, begging with her younger brother, Joe and sister, Dutchie as her mum lies ill in bed.
The story follows Axie/Ann throughout her life as she taken to an orphanage, is moved out West to find new families and eventually finding her own occupation.
Ann begins to help women with their fertility, in a time when men had begun to usurp the role of midwifes. She eventually becomes the Notorious Madame DeBeausacq, controversial and wildly successful purveyor of remedies for women’s health.
Axie is lively and spirited, inspirational and tragic, a successful woman never forgetting the streets where she came from with a dogged devotion to her family.
I found this novel compelling and heart breaking, particularly the backdrop of the world of women’s health during this period. The men who sought to demonise the ancient craft of midwifery and the women who helped others, assisting with births and providing remedies to prevent/promote pregnancy.
An interesting historical read about a controversial business woman. Recommended.