Book-keeping, and two quick not-reviews

I’ve sent this version of N&V off to a couple of beta readers. I’m too close to this draft to see the right shape. i know things are missing, but I’m not sure what. Hopefully, some outsider views can give me a better picture.

 

Working on a new book, just a fun little thing for me, and reading. So here are two small not-reviews.

 

CITY OF DREAMS – HARRIET STEEL

City of Dreams Cover EBOOK LARGECity of Dreams is the first in a planned historical series following the life and adventures of Anna, who starts off as the young daughter of a Russian furrier, and by the end of this book has changed cities, married a scoundrel, fallen from grace, become a mistress-for-hire, and slowly rebuilt her life in Paris.

Set in the lead up to and during the Franco-Prussian war, it’s a fast-paced and enjoyable read. The writing is invisible (a type that’s surprisingly hard to master), with little in the way of metaphorical ornamentation, but it works well with the first person narrative of Anna herself, and I found that I’d finished the book within a few hours in a single sitting.

I can’t speak to the accuracy of the history, but we do see the horror of living through a war, and again through the internal unrest in Paris during the rise and defeat of the Communards.

Anna makes connections and friends in Paris (sometimes a little too easily for my taste, though) that see her through the terrible things she must endure. She might start off the story aa a naive little child-bride, with seemingly barely a thought in her head, but she is quickly thrown into unexpected circumstances that give us her true mettle, and by the end she has matured and taken on something of a grave and quiet responsibility to those who have helped her.

There is romance, but it is not the impetus and is far from cloying. The real focus is not on Anna’s romantic entanglements, but on how she develops, and on the network of people she gathers around her. It’s a novel more of friendships than love affairs.

I will be looking forward to reading more of Steel’s work.

 

After that I read LIGHTHOUSEKEEPING by JEANETTE WINTERSON

lighthousekeepingWe are lucky, even the worst of us, because daylight comes.

Lighthousekeeping is a story about stories. We meet the narrator Silver as a child, her story told in the framework of the improbable. Child-Silver seems like something from a fairy-tale, albeit a dark and thin one. Fatherless, then orphaned, and finally handed on to the Lighthouse Keeper of Salts, she grows up strange, her world made of dark and light. Pew is blind, and he teaches her about light. How stories are light, and how it isn’t light that saves the sailors, but stories.

Eventually the lighthouse is automated (the stories lost) and Silver must venture into another world, one she barely seems to understand. Reality is something she cannot truly grasp, though perhaps it could be said her quest for reality becomes her quest for love.

Intertwined in Silver’s story are others about light and dark, man and man-beast, love and magic – Pew tells her the story of Babel Dark and Molly O’Rourke, and there are others; Tristan and Isolde, and the two parallels of Robert Louis Stevenson and Darwin (magic and humanity intertwined with science and evolution).

Our story is so simple. I went to bring you back for someone else, and won you for myself. Magic, they all said later, and it was, but not the kind that can be brewed.

And the final story, of Adult-Silver, recounting love. because love is also a story, and she tells her lover the words that shape them.

Turn down the daily noise and at first there is the relief of silence. And then, very quietly, as quiet as light, meaning returns. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.

I’m a huge fan of Winterson’s style – her descriptions, the puzzle-piece way her novels are structured. I really enjoyed this read, constantly wanting to underline phrases and lines. If you’re looking for a structured plot and a grand climax, you’re not going to get it. This is more intimate. It is overheard conversations, remembering pieces of stories while falling asleep. And it’s beautiful for it, like almost understanding the truth

The Mercury Waltz – Not a Review

Cry-the-Mercury

I seem to be experiencing a deluge of happy reading. Let me start off this non-review by saying if you told me I had to pick my favourite book of the year, this would be it, no contest. Not because other books aren’t good, but because this is the one that hits me on every level.

TMWI read Under the Poppy – the previous book in this duology(?) – a while ago, and in all fairness I could have done with a revisit before tackling The Mercury Waltz. However, it’s been previously established that I am lazy and I just floundered about until things started clicking together in my mind and I remembered who was who and the intricate knotted web of connections that ties these stories together. Kathe Koja does not pander to her reader. Not the fuck. You keep up, or you go read something easier. And I like it. Yes yes I do. For some reason I quite enjoy it when an author credits me with a little intelligence.

Perhaps because I was expecting her particular style, I found The Mercury Waltz easier to get into than its predecessor; the writing somehow more sinewy and articulated. It is a book without a drop of magic, and yet magic waltzes through it, underlines every breath and pulls every string. It’s a book of puppetry, where the play is the thing, and everything but oh god everything is artifice and lies, even when it’s not.

It’s a book that holds up a wicked libertine mask as a reflection of the truth, and the moral and narrow face of justice as the ultimate perversity. It shows you the way with a deck of cards and spin on fortune’s wheel, and leaves you lost, even so.

But oh god I adore it; so dense and lush and grimy and slick and sexy and loveless and love-full and nnghhhh cities and dirty fumbles in the dark, and moral police and scandalised women and queer boys and actors and spies and taroc cards and games of chance and cheap wine and murder and a narrative that jumps characters in mid-sentence and says impatiently keep up or fuck off, but don’t come whining to me if you don’t know what’s going on and then maybe feels a little sorry for you and kisses you before twisting your nipple and walking away.

I have no idea if it’s a good book by whatever standards these things are held to. I often hate good books.

But this, this I fucking adore.

Living With Ghosts – Not A Review

So, I am not a reviewer; not in real life, and I certainly don’t play one on the internet.

HOWEVER *ahem* I was a reader long before I was a writer. I’m not planning on starting reviewing now, but I am going to talk about what I’ve been reading. Mainly because, you know what, I do this in real life, but that doesn’t really help the authors since I only talk to 3 people about the books I love and, well, the reach is wider here.

The other day I was having a twitter conversation, and during it Joyce Chng suggested if I was going to read Kari Sperring, I start with Living With Ghosts. I looked at the cover, read the blurb and thought mmmyes, this shall do nicely…

I admit I’m often a mite eh about reading the work of people I quite like, because there’s always that horrible feeling of ohgodwhatif…

Turns out I needn’t have worried:

LwGsperringWARNING: MASSIVE SQUEE AHEAD, DO NOT READ FOR COHERENCY OR FOR ACTUAL REVIEW CONTENT

As I imagine this story, sometime before 2009, writer Kari Sperring was sitting at her desk thinking, how can I make the world a better place and bring joy to these heathen readers of fantasy who like stuff that is not epic and grimdark and endless quest sagas…?

Then, CLEARLY, she thought of me, and began down to write – in a feverish outpouring of awesome – a book just for Dear Reader Cat, except, unfortunately for this story CAT IS A MORON AND ONLY FOUND THE BOOK 5 YEARS LATER DEAR GOD WTF.

So basically, everything I love ever squeezed into one book. Spies, courtly intrigue, PORT CITIES OMG PORT CITIES NNNGHHHHHHH, ghosts, shapeshifting fucking swans, magic, revenge, more revenge, queer love, NNNGHH DIALOGUE MADE OF SEX, um yes.

I was pretty happy, not gonna lie.

At first, the writing style felt a little staccato for my tastes, but within a few pages I was sucked in, and yes there’s not so much a plot thread as a plot tangle but I was invested in that tangle, dammit, and I trusted the writer to see me through and she did.

SO SQUEE MUCH HAPPY VERY MANNER

In case it’s not clear: damn, I wish I’d written this.

(I should do this more often, it’s rather fun just to gush madly.)

 

Writer’s block, or the clogged toilet of the mind

Today a writer friend of mine asked how I deal with writer’s block, and I didn’t have a good answer. My original flippant response was, “watch tv, read books.” Which doesn’t sound terribly helpful and is probably not what she wanted to hear. Truth is – that is exactly what I do when I get stuck. Or, at least, it’s one of many things I do.

 

Writer’s block isn’t one beast that I get to kill over and over again, the same way each time. It’s a hydra – and each head requires a different tactic. The trick for me is knowing what tactic to use, and since I don’t know how to do that, I generally just throw everything at it until something works.

 

So at the risk of sounding like a complete cockmitten, here’s a post about how *I* deal with writer’s block, and what sometimes works. It may not work for you, but hey, it’s good to know what’s in the other guy’s arsenal, right? Right.

 

First of all, sometimes writer’s block is not actually a problem, but a sign I need to do what I call “refilling the well” (Someone else came up with that, and I like it, so I stole it.). I have learned to make peace with those periods and refill the well by reading more, going out more, watching tv and movies and learning new hobbies. One day, normally when I least expect it, the well overflows and all the things I have been doing or seeing or reading come spouting out in a happy mix. And: words.

Sometimes it’s fear. “I can’t do this. Everything I write is crap. I’m a failure.” I get this a lot, and it’s probably the hardest thing for me to deal with. It’s normally at these exact moments I’ll read a review that says something about how I shouldn’t be allowed to quit my day job, or that this was the worst book they had ever read. Self-doubt works hand in hand with some nefarious force out there to make sure artists stop what they’re doing. Pretty sure. Anyway. These are the times I have to be kind to myself:

First, I give myself permission to write – “This story is for you, it has to please no one but you, and no one else ever has to read it. Be joyful in your own place.”

Second, I give myself permission to be crap – “It’s a first draft, you simian. Chill out and let it be crap. Revisions are for making pretty, not first drafts.”

Third, I set myself goals that will not make me feel like a failure – “50 words. That’s all. 50 words, every day. You can do that.” (And I can, and setting the jump so low – that little pole on the ground that I can simply walk over – allows me to Exceed Expectations. That’s a pretty good feeling when you’re used to beating yourself up.)

 

Sometimes it’s laziness. Mid-book slump, the boring bits, the ugh this novel, it’s so dumb, I should start something else. Because you know what, for me, starting stuff is pretty easy – it’s following through with it and doing all the hard-work of getting to The End and then hacking and grafting and rewriting that’s not so much fun. Usually it’s a matter of pushing myself, and again, setting goals low until I feel more confident again, and less overwhelmed. Or rewarding myself with Sherlock gifs for hitting wordcount goals :P Sometimes it’s as simple as skipping the boring bits and writing the scenes I really want to write.

All these things get me through writing a book. And sure, show me your arsenal – I need all the help I can get.

On folk music standards and drowning girls

If you know me, you’re probably aware I have a fascination with folk songs, and with the twisted tales they tell. One of my faves crops up in various versions and guises, though my two favourite renditions of it are Bows of London as performed by Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy:

 

 

The other version I love is by Tom Waits’ Two Sisters.

 

 

So when reviewer Charlotte Ashley referenced Pentangle’s Cruel Sister, I squealed in glee, and that was before I read her rather lovely and flattering review of my F&SF short The Girls Who Go Below. I can’t wait to see my copy and to read all the things therein. MUCH ASCITE and all that kind of stuff yes. :D

Short Story Day Africa Reading Post

I’ve been tagged by the very talented Rachel Zadok as part of the formative reading experiences of African writers, so here goes:

 

1 – What is your earliest memory of books and reading?

There are three things:

1) Lying on the floor for hours going through my Story Tellers over and over again.

2) My mom having to fight with the school librarian to allow me to take books out of the big kids’ section.

3) A huge fat book of illustrated nursery rhymes that I basically dragged with me everywhere.
2 – As a small child, what book/s were your favourite?

I was hugely into talking animal books, like Colin Dann’s Animals of Farthing Wood books, and from there I came to fantasy and got really into Diana Wynne Jones. Her book Dogsbody was probably *the* book that made me a writer, and a writer of the fantastic and strange.
3 – Where did you grow up? Do you have a particular memory of a library, bookshop or other place of books in your hometown?

I started off in Cape Town, then was dragged across country on a train and ended up in Joburg, where I spent the rest of my childhood. I hung out at my local library a lot – I was reading six books a day. In the end they gave me a job as a library page, purely I think because I was always there and they didn’t know how to get rid of me.
4 – As an adult, in the role of parent or caregiver, what has been your experience of reading with children?

I confess I hate reading aloud. I read pretty fast and reading aloud means slowing down and well…slowing down. I can find it rather frustrating. I made sure my kids could read as soon as possible so I didn’t have to read to them. They’re both massive readers so it doesn’t seem to have hurt them.

Tackling the black dog on my back.

That dog. That damn dog. You know the one.

It sits crouched up high on your spine, making everything seem impossible – making you feel impossible – that meaty breath, those long teeth. But that dog, you know that dog and it licks your hand and says it’s okay, we’re friends, I’m just here to help you understand your limitations, to stop you falling over the edge. Trust me.

I’m your friend, it says and it wags its tail to prove it.

That dog is not my friend.

I have these things the dog tells me until they are all I can believe; they are like an unhappy mantra of self-loathing and self-destruction: This book is shit. Your agent is going to hate it. You’re wasting your time. Can’t you stop writing this shit you like and find something publishable? Hot guys, come on, write about those. Make your characters cooler, no one wants to read about a deeply-repressed magician with no magic and a ruined knee. Give up, throw this away. This has been done before and you will bring nothing new to the table. Who do you think you are?

That dog is relentless. It. Never. Fucking. Shuts. Up.

Never.

I can try and drown that black dog out with other voices, repeat after me until I can sit in front of that empty document and just make words. They can be nonsense words, they can be boring and dull and uninspired and that’s okay because the longer I keep slamming those dull and boring and uninspired words down, the softer that howling gets.

When I stop, it’s back, but at least I know there is that way to quiet it for just a little while. And I will keep doing what I can to muffle it, and to write, even when it’s easier to just let the dog tell me what’s right for me, what a failure I am.

Because, that dog?

That dog is not my friend.

It does not protect me from myself.

It keeps me in a little pen, and pretends to have saved me.

Bed-ridden reading

Confession: I hate reading aloud.

Don’t get me wrong, I love reading, but reading aloud feels like such a chore, and I taught the Spawn to read as quickly as I could so I could stop reading to them (terrible parent confession hahaha). But this week we are all sick as can be, so with my croaky voice and my many interruptions for nose-blowing, I hauled out Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood and began to read to my attentive little audience (one Elder Spawn, one Younger Spawn, one fluffy cat).

And you know what? It was kinda awesome. The words read differently aloud, they take on a new flow and pattern, and from now on I’m going to make a concerted effort to do more Reading for Spawn (and interested felines). They love it, and I can only see it benefiting me as a writer.

Okay back to bed with me.

Nerine Dorman talks Fantasy and the Boy Hero, Tropes and Twists

I’m taking a back seat today and letting author Nerine Dorman drive this hearse of mine and talk about Boy Heroes. Nerine writes dark fantasy, and The Guardian’s Wyrd is her first foray into children’s literature.

GW_Cover_09_author c i

Hands up if you watched The Neverending Story when you were a wee sprog. Extra Nerine points awarded if you cried when Artax died in the Swamp of Sadness. This classic film is based on a novel by Michael Ende, and it plays with a common fantasy trope that is as old as the dust of the planet Tatooine.

We’ve all encountered that well-worn trope of the farm boy who discovers that he is secretly a prince, haven’t we?

The boy on a quest is certainly not a new concept – in fact many fantasy or SF classics begin with the boy who has been the catalyst for world-changing events. He is Luke Skywalker, Ged, Rand al’Thor, Atreyu, Bastian Balthazar Bux, Frodo Baggins, Eragon, Harry Potter, Garion, Jaxom… I’m pretty sure you’ll have a few of your own favourites to that list.

They all have something in common. No matter whether they were of common or noble birth, they all went from the ordinary to the extraordinary, and embarked on a great quest, that often involves slaying monsters and retrieving some sort of McGuffin, be it a golden fleece or a magical sword.

Why is it that this trope keeps recurring? Isn’t it tired already? Why is this sort of story so satisfying?

To answer that question, I suggest looking at the words of mythologist Joseph Campbell, who had a fascination with history, myths and legends, that he examined in his many written works and lectures.

According to Campbell, a common thread runs through the majority of our cultural heritage, be it among the Hopi of North America, Europe’s ancient Celts, the Scandinavian Northmen or the adherents of India’s Hindu religion. He names this common thread the Monomyth or the Hero’s Journey. Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces makes for fascinating reading if this piques your interest.

To sum it up, the trope of the boy-hero setting out appeals to many of us precisely because it strikes a deeply rooted chord within our collective subconscious that spans our storytelling tradition from the earliest days when people first gathered around a crackling fire.

Though in fantasy and, to an extent science fiction, this trope does play itself out with greater frequency than other forms of genre fiction, it’s not so much the underlying framework that counts, but what author do to make it their own. As much as we get told to write what we know, real life often won’t fulfil readers’ expectations. After all, we ask ourselves, why is it that we read particular books?

I’m sure many of us can answer that it is because we wish to escape to a world other than the one in which we live. Real life is often frustrating, ugly and filled with limitations. What better than to step into another’s life where the hero overcomes many obstacles.

And I suspect, this is why our boy-hero (or girl-hero, depending on what your prefer) will never get old.

People have asked me why I’ve chosen to write a teenage character for my latest release, The Guardian’s Wyrd, when the majority of my fiction is aimed at adult readers. The answer is simple – there’s nothing more exciting than setting out on an adventure with someone who stands at the cusp of great change. I want to read about what the hero does before he or she learns to swing that sword. I want to share in their excitement when they unlock their powers. I want to grow with them when they have their firsts.

So I invite you to step into the shoes of Jay and Rowan as they embark upon a quest. You will never be sixteen again, but you can always heed the call to adventure.

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Add The Guardian’s Wyrd to your Goodreads list and purchase at Amazon or Kobo

Brrr

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Cat is a Cat of Very Little Brain.

Or at least, a cat with a rather poor memory. It’s winter again. I forgot how cold it gets, also how damp and grey. *stares at towering piles of mouldering laundry* I’ve always told myself that I will never own a tumble dryer because electricity costs but the time has come for me to face the truth. Having no tumble dryer is fine in Joburg where the winters are dry and the summer rain comes like clockwork at precisely 3:12 pm, but in Cape Town…not so much.

Yesterday I was trapped in the outdoor office by hail. Then wind, then deluge, then more hail. During most of this the sun was shining through one blue and spotless section of sky. So, yeah.

Anyway, back to my dryer. Since I have no knowledge of home appliances, I did the logical thing and asked facebook, and I ended up not buying a dryer at all, but some weird little spin dryer called a spindel. We shall see.

Somehow I shall make it through winter, and in the meantime I will have tea parties with the Spawn, finish these godforsaken edits, feed the winged pigs all the birdseed, and get used to wearing the same clothes endlessly.

tea