Category Archives: Reading

IN WHICH BETH BERNOBICH AND CAT HELLISEN SQUEE OVER BOOKS

Beth Bernobich is a writer whose Work I Love, and we’re just going to NNGHHHH about the work we love. So whip out your TBR lists and get adding. (All book covers lead to a goodreads page, for ease of finding a store)

I’ll wait….

Welcome Beth, and let’s get started in the misty past, and talk a little about influence.

 

Beth: So you asked me about writers I love who do that combination of complex characters and magic and intrigue. And I have names! But seeing as I’m a contrary sort of person, my first name is an author who wrote historical fiction, not fantasy or SF. Patrick O’Brian wrote a twenty-book series set during Napoleonic Wars. There’s Jack Aubrey, captain in the British Navy, and Stephen Maturin, an Irish physician, natural philosopher, and multi-lingual spy. I could probably go on for days about why I love these books so much. The sweeping action of historical events, the multi-layered characterization, the goddamned beautiful prose. Also, the sloth. (You really need to read the scene with the sloth.)

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Cat: Sloths and goddamned beautiful prose. I am, as they say, sold.

When I was a wee thing, most of my reading tended towards the Gemmel/Feist/Donaldson type stuff, but then a friend’s father handed me a copy of Mervyn Peake‘s Gormenghast, which has forever changed my view of fantasy. (I remember seeing Titus Groan in the sff section of my library before this, and dismissing it for having a “stupid title”. To be fair, I was a bratty teenager at the time.)

For me Gormenghast is utterly magical without being overtly magical and I think it set the tone, in that sense, for a lot of the fantasy I love now. I still adore the magical trappings of fantasy, but I am far more interested in characters and how they react to each other. Lush description and playful language are major added bonuses. All the elves and spells and monsters in the world won’t make a book interesting for me if it is not, at its heart, about the relationships between people. Those things are just there to make it richer.

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So, from the past and on to the now – is there a writer working now whose work you love? I think we both know that those are often the books that influence our own writing the most, but  in ways no reader could see. What they do is make us go, “OH YES, I want to be able to make a reader feel that too.” and we are once again inspired.

 

Beth: There are so MANY authors whose works I love, so picking just one is hard. *closes eyes, spins around, and plucks a name from the list*
 
Nicola Griffith. It feels presumptuous to say her works influence my writing. Let’s go with I love her books with the white hot passion of a thousand suns.
 
The first book of hers I read was Slow River, and it just devastated me in all the right ways. The prose, oh how I love Griffith’s prose. Exquisite, graceful prose. The characters, who are complex and layered. The story told through three interweaving threads, from past to present. Griffith is a master of technique. She can veer from past tense to present, from one timeline to another, all the while weaving an absolutely riveting story. She’s also not afraid to show her characters doing ugly things, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes because they are deeply flawed people. At the same time, it’s not ugliness for the sake of ugliness. Those flaws can be heartbreaking, and there’s a thread of compassion running through her books, whether she’s writing a near future SF like Slow River, or a historical novel like Hild, or a noire mystery like Stay.
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What about you? What books have colored your writing?

 

Cat: I have only read Hild, but that was amazing, so I need to go dig up her other works. This conversation is going to be hell on my bank balance *grins*

There’s one (to me) very clear influence on my writing, though whether or not that comes across to other people, I have no idea.

Tanith Lee. Okay, a disclaimer:  not everything of hers is brilliant, but when she hits the mark, she hits it ohgodsohard. Her writing is lush, dark, strange; her characters are never innocents, whatever side they seem to be on. For me it’s the fluidity of gender, the scheming, the betrayals, the gods and magics and darkness of her work that I fell in love with. I remember as a teen reading When the Lights Go Out over and over, and thinking,  “This this this, this is fantasy, this is how I want it to be.”

In that sense, although our work is dissimilar, her influence shows in the way I treat gender and love. I don’t think love is perfect or beautiful – there’s an underlying ugliness to it, an obsession; and obsession drives people to do terrible things. It’s overcoming that obsession, slipping between the cracks and flaws to find the bright hearts, that’s what I want to see.

Her fantasy tends to veer to more modern settings, and quite often in fantastically re-imagined European cities – her books of Paradys are stories scattered through a timeline all linked by the city of Paris. I don’t write faux-medieval settings with knights and princess who need saving, and her work has definitely influenced me setting-wise.

She’s *just* released a new book – A Different City, which I need to get my paws on.

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Okay, so we’ve done past and present, so let’s look to the future. This is less about influence and more about what exciting new worlds are going to be opening up to us.

Are there any newer writers who you hope to see great things from?

Beth: Yeah, my to-be-read list just grew that much longer as well.
 
As for newer writers? The first name that comes to mind is John Chu. John’s an amazing writer, who has already won a Hugo for his story “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”. Go, read this story now. In fact, read all John’s stories. You will be happy you did. His craftsmanship is superb. His characters are vibrant and real. I’m always delighted when I hear about a new story from him.
 
Shveta Thakrar is another new writer who is getting some well deserved buzz. Her short story “Krishna Blue” made the NPR Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2014 and 2014 Locus Recommended Reading lists, and I’m excited to hear that she’s working on a couple novels as well. The best way to describe her stories is to use her own words: “stories about spider silk and shadows, magic and marauders, and courageous girls illuminated by dancing rainbow flames.”
 
One last author I want to mention is Aliette de Bodard. Aliette has already collected an impressive number of awards for her short stories, including a couple Nebulas. The minute you read one of her stories, you’ll see why. She uses her lovely, sharp prose like a scalpel that cuts deep into her characters. Unflinching is the word that comes to mind. You can imagine my excitement when I found out that she has a novel coming out this August. It’s called The House of Shattered Wings and the description is  “a devastated Belle Epoque Paris split between quasi-feudal Houses, addictive magic, dragons–and entirely too many dead bodies!” My first reaction was a giant YES!!!
What about you?
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Cat: OH. That was lovely.

Both names heading to my Rather Immense and Scary reading list. Funnily enough, I was also going to talk about Aliette, so *grin* Pipped to the post….

I’m always seeing new names doing interesting things, often coming up through short stories, and then there are names who have been around for a while writing short stories and novellas and winning things so it’s not as if they are *new* writers,  but certainly ones who I think are going to go from strength to strength.

However, there are writers who are not famous, or well-known outside of South Africa, who I think are amazing, and I really want to see what else they’re going to do: one of those is Rachel Zadok, who has been drifting closer and closer to specfic, and her novel Sister-Sister is a beautiful, dark, twisted ghost story set in a South African near-future.

Another not-that-new writer who I think is going to become more and more interesting with time is Laura Lam, who writes gender-playing fantasy with circus-bright trappings.

And that’s a wrap!
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Thanks so much for chatting, Beth, and for adding ALL THE THINGS to my reading list. For those interested in Beth’s work, she’s currently running a kickstarter to fund a coda to her three book River of Souls series. if you’re not familiar with them, one of the tiers gets you all three novels, which rather helps.

 

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.

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

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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.)

 

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.

The wyrms lie in dank terrariums and shed empty papery skins

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Morning spent fixing the Hobverse selkie story, A Sun-Bright Prison.

I had a long, hard think about subbing. I tend not to write short stories, so choosing not to sub them feels a bit like I’m giving up before I even begin. I had a look at it and I think it’s too intimately connected to the Hobverse mythos. I dunno, perhaps I’m wrong and it stands alone fine. It’s very hard to judge one’s own work.

Also, it’s pretty much a coming of age story and I think those sort of get default lumped into YA? Again, I don’t know. Publishing is strange and I don’t really understand it. I’m not sure anyone does, actually.

But I’m taking a break from reading novels. At the moment it’s non-fic and short stories to season them, which is how I stumbled across the story Mulberry Boys, by Margo Lanagan. I really enjoyed it, so if you’re in the mood for a short story, here you go:

On a less fictitious note, this article on Hijab Tourism articulated for me a lot of things I had felt uncomfortable with but couldn’t quite pinpoint what about them was bugging me.

(image from wikipedia)

NEVER READING AGAIN TBH

Yep.

That’s what readers always say after finishing an amazing book. Trufact.

You know that’s not true. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. Every time I finish a book that made me happy, I go hunt down all the writer’s other titles, stalk them to find out what books they’re reading*, and look for recs for similar titles.

Because here’s the big truth: OTHER WRITERS ARE NOT THE ENEMY. So That Writer You Vaguely Know Online sold 60 000 books and you sold 6? She’s not the reason your book tanked.

Reading an amazing book and then keeping quiet about it in case she/he gets more sales while you cry into your cereal-spattered dressing-gown is not the solution. Tell people about the books you enjoyed, and be supportive of other writers in the industry. This doesn’t mean promoting books you think were great steaming piles of dung in the hopes that the author will promote you back. Inauthenticity is lame. I can smell it on you like the stink of yesterday’s vodka tears.

Be genuinely enthusiastic and supportive of work you think is good. Because I find it hard to believe that by supporting other writers you are somehow “losing” readers to them. Readers are voracious. You should know – you are one.

* Hush. I can’t be the only one who does this.

New SA Horror anthology coming soon.

On June the first, editor Nerine Dorman will bring the latest Bloody Parchment Anthology out of the dark, and indulge in her love of pulpy horror.

Bloody Parchment 2012 sml cover

Bloody Parchment: The Root Cellar and Other Stories brings a fresh crop of horror and dark literature from the most recent South African HorrorFest Bloody Parchment short story competition. From dreary subterranean chambers and angelic visitations to the many-legged horrors of alien invaders and a meeting with the Devil himself, this collection of tales offers readers the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the likes of Toby Bennett (winner), and runners-up Anna Reith and Chris Limb. Finalists include Diane Awerbuck, Simon Dewar, Zane Marc Gentis, Stephen Hewitt, Benjamin Knox, Lee Mather, Glen Mehn, S.A. Partridge, and Icy Sedgwick.

“You’ll be hard pressed to find a stronger anthology of horror stories this year. There’s a staggering number of original ideas and talent on display here, as well as several stand-out stories that easily hold their own against work in any genre. And most importantly, they will creep the hell out of you.” – Sarah Lotz, author

Exercising my reading brain

I’m around, just that nothing terribly exciting has happened worth blogging about. I’m using the time to catch up on a number of books I wanted to read. Lots of thoughts clashing around in my brain about Young Adult and what it means when people mindlessly adhere to certain tropes associated with the genre.

 

That and about expecting more from YA and not allowing it to sit there all bloated and cannibalistic, like a tick sucking from a tick.

 

But, yeah.

 

Mostly I’m just reading.