Not a Review – Devilskein & Dearlove

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Devilskein & Dearlove is a whimsical and slightly dark take on the classic The Secret Garden (a book I have always loved, so this was great fun for me.) It is a book of hearts and keys and lies and sacrifices, set in the wonderfully prosaic (a block of flats in Long  Street, Cape Town) and the wonderfully metaphysical (A labyrinth of bartered souls.)

Erin Dearlove is an orphan who is blocking out the horror of her family’s death with an intricate fantasy history, and a cold and bitter demeanour. Sent to live with her Aunt Kate in an apartment in Van Riebeek Heights, she is constantly sneering at the apparent poverty and the people who live there, comparing it unflatteringly with her “previous” life in a mansion with staircases of glass, with peacocks roaming the grounds. She rebuffs the friendliness of fellow teen Kelwyn Talmakies and is isolated even from her aunt, who doesn’t know how to help her.

Miserable and antisocial and damaged, she meets a person even more so than herself – The Companyman Mr. Devilskein, who keeps a fantastical secret in apartment 6616. Devilskein has lived for hundreds of years, bartering the souls of people desperate for fame or love or genius, and making it so that they can never reclaim those souls,  trapping them in his interconnecting worlds behind a series of doors called The Indeterminate  Vault; the keys all unmarked and muddled. In Erin and Kelwyn, Devilskein sees a chance at immortality – he will take the children’s hearts to replace his own failing one.

But there are other factors at play – the cricket Zhou who guides Erin through the fantastical world, and a shadow boy called Julius Monk, trapped in the Haga; a doorless,
windowless prison. Both play Erin for their own purposes – capturing her with friendship real and false. Zhou guides Erin to a Chinese garden behind a turquoise door, and there, is where Erin begins to grow back her lost self, by caring for a garden that was salted with tears, and bringing it back to life. The book is layered with this kind of delightful metaphor, and deep readers will get a lot from the shadings that writer Alex Smith uses to deepen the narrative.

Through the story, Erin changes from the sour, lost teenager who invented a fantasy past, to one who is powerful, artistic, and brave, one who will be able to finally face the horror of her parents’ and brother’s murders, and see real magic. She is fooled by false friendships and rejects true ones, but it will take these actions for her to change her world, and be able to free lost souls, and save a city.

The story has magical charm, embroidered with sensory details, and is a lovely and strange little book. The characters are all very different, though I would say the one thing that I found jarring was that sometimes the ages of the teen characters were hard to place. I knew they were teens, but often they read younger than that, which may also be down to trying to capture a little of the spirit of the source material.

Published by Umuzi Press, so although the book is available in South Africa, overseas readers will probably have to go through Amazon to get a copy.

UPNEWSWITHKEEPING YES

So! Stuff has been happening. I’ve started my eldest Spawn at archery with me. She was rather upset at not being good but I pointed out she’s had 2 lessons. I’ve had way more and I’m still pretty terrible (though slowly getting better). The point is to have fun. You don’t have to be good at everything – that way lies despair because you will never be The Best or The Most Perfect. You just have to be the best you or else you’ll drive yourself to misery because other people are better than you.

 

Which brings me to running…. well walking. The Boy and I have been doing trail runs together, and by trail runs I mean we walk all the uphills because yeah… It’s been a fantastic good time though, and our last one is this Saturday and I can’t wait. Not because it’s the last – because they are so much fun, and I wish I had one every weekend.

 

In other good news, my story has made the longlist for the Short Story Day Africa 2014 anthology, Terra Incognita, which means it will be in the anthology, WOOH YEAH! The final judge is Nnedi Okorafor – so how cool is that?

 

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And the cover for my very very very very loose take on Beauty and the Beast, Beastkeeper, has been revealed by The Book Fairy, so go check it out. I LOVE it, so I’m a very happy cat right now.

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.