Archive | January 2011

Blogging Q&A

Via From Sand to Glass.

1. If you blog anonymously, are you happy doing this? If you aren’t anonymous, do you wish you started out anonymously so that you could be anonymous now?
I started off blogging anonymously and I had two reasons. Firstly, I was a little nervous of what reaction I might get. I wanted to get settled into my blogging voice before I went public about it. The second reason was that I have a presence on the web related to my paid employment and I wanted to keep the two separate. I still use BoudicaM as a pen name for some things but it is less anonymous than it was.
2. Describe an incident that shows your inner stubborn side.

Inner stubborn side? My stubborn side is quite outer, thank you. And it most often shows itself when people tell me what or who I’ll like. As in “you must see this film, you’ll love it”. Oh rly? I think not. I think you love it and want me to validate your opinion.
3. What do you really see when you look at yourself in the mirror?

Umm, I see me. Which is too much to explain in a couple of sentences. And I’m over the self-hate that makes you see a monster in the mirror (and it took a lot of work).
4. What is your favorite summer cold drink?

Diet coke. With ice and lemon. All year round.
5. When you take time for yourself, what do you do?

I write. I play computer games, watch movies, read, meditate. Look at LOLcats on the interweb. I take a lot of time for myself. And I want MOAR.
6. Is there something you still want to accomplish in your life?

Oh gods yes. I want to publish a novel. And then another one. And then some more. I want to read all of the books in the world. I want to perform Raqs Sharqi. I want to learn how to use a broadsword. I want… to do so much. And I’m sure there’s stuff I don’t even know about that I will want to do when I find out about it.  
7. When you attended school, were you the class clown, the class overachiever, the shy person, or always ditching?

School. Loved the learning, hated the socialising. I was the unpopular academic overachiever who never quite did as well as everyone thought she would and was rubbish at sport. I’ve never wanted children, but in the alternate universe where I did have them I am homeschooling.
8. If you close your eyes and want to visualize a very poignant moment in your life, what would you see?

Poignant: a keen sense of sadness or regret. Yeah, there are few things. I don’t want to share them here.
9. Is it easy for you to share your true self in your blog, or are you more comfortable writing posts about other people or events?

It’s not easy. This is a writing blog, not a personal blog, and while I like to do the occasional personal piece because, well, writing is pretty personal, that’s not what this space is for. Having said that, I think I have become more personal in my writing style (I guess that’s what voice is) over the time I’ve been blogging.
10. If you had the choice to sit down and read a book or talk on the phone, which would you do and why?

Read a book! Because it’s more better than most things. And I have phone fear. But actually, it depends who the phone call is with, and when I last spoke to them, and what mood I’m in.
Your turn! Leave me the link in the comments if you do your own.

100 Books in 2011 review: Edge

I was looking forward to reading Edge by Thomas Blackthorne. I liked the blurb (which you can see in the picture). It sounded like it was going to be an ultra-violent Running Man fun type of silliness. Predators in book form. But that’s not what it was. Bad Angry Robot. That’s the second time I’ve read a book from this imprint that did not contain what was on the label.

Edge is actually a thriller set in a near-future dystopia. The son of a wealthy and influential tycoon runs away from home so he hires an ex-SAS soldier with mad software skills to find the boy. Doing so reveals illegal activity on the behalf of the tycoon’s biggest rival in cahoots with a corrupt government. It’s set in a near-future UK where everything is tracked and recorded electronically all the time and getting off the grid is tough. Knife duels are legal and as a result crime is down but loads of people die in duels. And sports/reality TV is dominated by a duelling league where combatants die every week for your viewing pleasure. But the book doesn’t focus on that part of it. That’s the backdrop for the real story.

It was a good thriller. It was easy reading and fast paced. The protagonist, Josh Cumberland, is a fairly typical modern thriller hero; big, buff, beautiful, with special forces training (which in this world includes cyber warfare) and an anger management problem. What lifts Edge up from the mass is the cast of strong female characters that support the protagonist. Cumberland’s team of ex-SAS buddies are not all male – and the ones that are, have three-dimensional personalities. His insider on the force is a policewoman who gives free self-defence classes in her spare time. The ‘love interest’ is a psychologist whose skills are pivotal to resolving the central mystery. And it’s nice that her role as psychologist way overshadows her role as love interest. I thought the characterisation was real and sensitive, and I think this might actually pass the Bechdel test.

The near-future setting was rich and cleverly put together. It was distinctive, memorable and thoroughly thought through, and yet at no time did the setting overshadow the story. I was disappointed that the knife duelling reality show didn’t have more airtime, but that’s only because that’s what I thought the book would be about. But Edge is excellent, and it was a better story than that. I hope Blackthorne writes more stories set in this world.

Writing-wise, it was clean and competent. Blackthorne has a very understated style. The writing focusses on plot with description and characterisation subtly woven in-between dialogue and action. Ignore the blurb and give it a go.   

100 Books in 2011 review: Alone in Berlin

Book club is off with a bang this year. January’s choice was Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (trans: Micheal Hofmann) and I loved it from the from start to finish.

Otto, an ordinary German living in a shabby apartment block, tries to stay out of trouble under Nazi rule. But when he discovers his only son has been killed fighting at the front he’s shocked into an extraordinary act of resistance, and starts to drop anonymous postcards attacking Hitler across the city. If caught, he will be executed.

Soon this silent campaign comes to the attention of ambitious Gestapo inspector Escherich, and a murderous game of cat-and-mouse begins. Whoever loses, pays with their life.

The opening chapter is one of the most powerful I’ve ever read. I read on the train and I was bawling my eyes out. Michael Hofmann’s translation is perfectly pitched and Alone in Berlin is an easy, fast read. Which may be surprising given the subject matter.

Fallada’s characterisation is exquisite. All of the characters are individuals and they come alive on the page. There are no stereotypes or stock characters here. And each character, regardless of how nice they are, is treated with empathy. Through these people Fallada shows how easy it is for civilization to crumble. The state can encourage the basest behaviour through making difference illegitimate, dissension dangerous and rewarding obedience. Systematic terror makes it hard to be a good person and easy to take advantage of the less fortunate. And it happens slowly, insidiously, until before you know it the world you thought you lived in is gone.

I love moral ambiguity and Alone in Berlin is replete with it. The Quangels made daily acts of resistance that achieved nothing except giving them back their self-worth. And you might say that knowing in your heart that you didn’t completely give in is important, yet Anna and Otto’s actions eventually damage the lives of several of the people around them. Their resistance had a tangible cost and an intangible outcome. Was it really the right thing to do? Should they have done something more? And this isn’t the only time the question of right and wrong is raised with complex, unclear examples. It’s not easy and all the pain of living with your choices is laid bare in this novel.

Alone in Berlin is an excellent example of an author that shows and rarely tells. We know who these people are because of what they say and do, not because the author tells us who they are. And this is a book originally written in 1947 so the omniscient POV is used and on occasions Fallada gives himself permission to use the authorial voice. Another member of the book club (who read the book in German) says that Fallada uses the Dickensian tradition of giving characters names that describe them.

If you like fiction that strips away the vanity of civilization and shows us what we are, what we can be, with brutal, uncompromising truth, then you will love this. For me, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

100 Books in 2011 review: Grass

Book number 1 in the 100 books in 2011 challenge is Grass by Sherri Tepper. It’s number 48 on the SF Masterworks list. The blurb says:

Generations ago, humans fled to the cosmic anomaly known as Grass. But before humanity arrived, another species had already claimed Grass for its own. It too had developed a culture… Now a deadly plague is spreading across the stars, leaving no planet untouched, save for Grass. But the secret of the planet’s immunity hides a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.

Grass follows Marjorie Yrarier and her family as they go as ambassadors to Grass with the secret mission of finding a cure for the plague. There are two societies on Grass; the aristocrats, an ossified relic of old European aristocracy that spends its time hunting; and the Commons which is a vibrant, trading nation. Then there are the Hippae, who act as mounts in the aristocrats’ hunts, but who are far more than semi-intelligent animals.

I loved this. The central mystery is well-handled and the reveal is done slowly over the last third of the book. Grass as a world is vividly realised and it’s inhabitants and their relationships are well-drawn. The ideas about social organization are subtly woven in and the plot is always at the foreground. I actually couldn’t put it down. It’s nice to read something with a middle aged woman as the protagonist – especially science fiction, especially an adventure mystery. Marjorie is a wife and a mother, and yet she is portrayed as an individual, as active and as as driving the story. Marjorie is purposeful woman, driven to solve the mystery at the heart of the disturbing planet she finds herself on and, although she has love interests (three if you count her husband) they are secondary to the main plot. It’s worth mentioning because it strikes me that female protagonists, in this type of story, are pretty rare. Tepper avoids the traps of either making her female protag solely defined by her family and romantic relationships or making her a man in a lady costume. It’s so refreshing.

I only have two minor niggles, and seriously, they are tiny. First. the planet Grass is sharply drawn and the word picture is rich and vivid. The group of colonies that it is part of is quite fuzzy; I don’t even know whether to call it a galaxy, system or universe. Perhaps it doesn’t matter as most of the action is on Grass but it does feel slightly incomplete. The other niggle is the omniscient third person POV. Tepper handles it well so it doesn’t feel like head-hopping, but I did find it a little old-fashioned and in one or two places it is confusing.

So, Grass was excellent, overall. It was complex, deep and thought-provoking. It was beautifully written. It made me want to read everything else she’s written. Highly recommended.

The 15 fictional characters that have influenced me the most

Yay! Internet meme time! The latest internet meme that I have found is to list the 15 fictional characters that have influenced you the most. Tricky one this. I find it really hard to remember specific characters. You’re supposed to spend 15 minutes thinking about it but I spent an hour. Also, I’m not sure about what is meant by influential, have any of these characters induced me to think or behave differently? I don’t think so. Some of the lists I looked at seemed to just go for their favourites. So, I’ve gone for the 15 fictional characters that resonated most for me, in the order in which I remembered them:

  1. Elric
  2. Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  3. Sandor Clegane from A Game of Thrones
  4. Han Solo
  5. Roy Batty from Bladerunner
  6. Mendoza from Cities of Gold
  7. Aragorn from Lord of the Rings (the books not the films)
  8. Ivy from Soul Caliber
  9. Lara Croft
  10. Richard Sharpe
  11. Eleanor of Aquitaine (alright, historical rather than fictional, but any biography of a person that lived over 1000 years ago has quite a high amount of fiction in it)
  12. Red Riding Hood from A Company of Wolves
  13. Lisa Rowe from Girl, Interrupted
  14. Attia from Rome
  15. Eric Northman from the Sookie Stackhouse novels

So, stats.
7 women, 7 men, 1 male cartoon character
6 from books, 3 from TV, 2 from games and 4 from films

Who are the fictional characters that stayed with you the longest?

Thoughts on reading: Wolf Hall

I’ve been putting this one off since the end of September. It felt a bit like hard work. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was the Book Club book for September but this time I can’t blame the Book Club for making me read something I wouldn’t have touched otherwise because there was already a copy on book mountain when it was suggested.

It was winner of the 2009 Man Booker prize and I don’t often read those, but sometimes they pique my interest. Reading this was a strange experience and I think the reason is that there are a lot of things that I like about this book but in the whole, I didn’t enjoy it.

I loved the character of Cromwell. Mantel made him really sympathetic without compromising the hardness of his character. The description was lush and vivid, full of sound, smell, touch and movement, and using metaphor to work every ounce of worldbuilding out of it. It was loaded with symbolism – and I did like that because I felt I understood what was being conveyed. Sometimes I read books that are heavily symbolical and I feel like I speak a different language to the author because, although I recognise that an object is a symbol, I’m clueless as to what it’s a symbol of. Not in this case and I found it quite instructive in how symbolism can be used in a way that supports description and setting. Rather than being wanky.

The viewpoint in Wolf Hall is quite experimental. It is in limited third person and is so tightly held to Cromwell that it is almost first person. It’s also in the present tense which is hard to sustain over 160,000 words. That was impressive but I wondered if this was the reason I found this book very hard to read. It was so slow. It took me a good couple of weeks and I spend at least two hours a day reading and I’m a fast reader. But I recently read another book in the present tense, of about 140,000 words, and that was a very quick read. Both would also be considered literary fiction, so it’s not the genre. The length of it was off-putting to some members of the book club, but what’s 160,000 words in epic fantasy? Nothing! Anyhow,  it was hard work. So much so that I had to stop in the middle and read a Charlaine Harris. I think what Mantel did with the viewpoint and tense was really interesting but it spoilt the enjoyment of the story for me.

I liked the title, but in the end I felt that that was misleading. We don’t get to Wolf Hall until the end of the book and although in the author interview at the back of the book, Mantel says that Wolf Hall is a metaphor for Henry’s court, I didn’t get that. And given that her use of metaphor was so effective throughout I don’t believe that she meant that. I think she just liked it as a title and used it even though it wasn’t quite right for the book.

There was a lot I liked about this book and I wanted to enjoy it. Because it was so slow and such hard work to get anywhere with, I didn’t enjoy it. In spite of all the things I liked about it. In spite of a great character, brilliant dialogue and gorgeous writing. I was frustrated and disappointed.

I’m on Twitter

In my day job I have to tweet about the technical publications I’m working on. I’d been avoiding it all last year on the basis that I’m on LinkedIn and a few other places, and after all social media isn’t just Twitter. Then I had my appraisal in December and I was ‘encouraged’ to tweet. Specifically to tweet. I offered to write a blog, although I’ve no idea what I’d say, but tweeting is the thing, so tweeting it is.

And I feel a bit weird about it. It feels like going into a room crowded with strangers and shouting something random out. This makes me anxious. But of course, I am now tweeting. It’s kind of addictive. And I figured if I could tweet about boring work stuff then I should also be able to tweet about what I am passionate about – writing.

If you want to follow me, I’m @BoudicaM. Anybody else out there in this strange world? Leave your twitter names in the comments.

Thoughts on reading: A House for Mr Biswas

You know there are some books that you’re really supposed to like, or at least pretend to like. A House for Mr Biswas by V. S. Naipaul is one of those. All the world appears to think it’s great.

This was the December read for my book club and I don’t think I would have ever read it otherwise. I’m going to start with the good. The prose was gorgeous; it was incredibly well-written. I’ve never given much thought to life in Trinidad between the two world wars and the setting is vividly drawn. The social relations and culture described were new to me and I liked that. The characters were equally well realised. In technical terms it was clearly brilliant.

And I just didn’t like it. Which I suppose answers the question of what matters more, the writing or the story, because all that beautiful writing couldn’t make this story interesting to me. It is a fictional biography of a horrible man who has horrible relationships with other horrible people. It’s supposed to be a comedy but I didn’t get it. It was a struggle to finish it and I only did because I have a rule about finishing books I start. Unless you’re already a fan, give this one a miss.

Writing goals for 2011

Last year I said my writing goal was to finish my work-in-progress, Sacrifice. I didn’t do it. I added 10,000 words, came up with a better working title (Immortal), and re-wrote some parts of what I’d already written. It was all going well up until August. Then I hit a bad patch writing-wise; I got really busy at work and I had some stress in my private life at the same time. Those two things left me with very little energy for writing.

Happily, things are easing and I’m writing again. So, my first writing goal for 2011 is simply to make more progress on Sacrifice. I want to get to 75,000 words and I want to get it ready for submission.

I had hoped that I would have a short story published this year but the ezine that had accepted it went under. So, my second writing goal for 2011 will be to submit that story to other markets and either get it accepted or collect six rejections.

What are your writing goals for 2011?

Most and least enjoyed books of 2010

I read a lot of books last year. Many were good, some were great and some were horrible. All taught me something about writing and some were a great deal more enjoyable in the process. So here are the three I enjoyed the most and the three I liked the least.

Top Three
1. Black Man by Richard Morgan
2. Matter by Iain M. Banks
3. Boudica, Dreaming the Eagle by Manda Scott

Bottom Three
x. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
y. A House for Mr Biswas by V. S. Naipaul
z. A Wicked Liaison by Christine Merrill

So, interestingly, two of the books on the least favourite list are highly critically acclaimed. Both Wolf Hall and A House for Mr Biswas (‘thoughts on reading’ forthcoming) were technically brilliant but the experience of reading them was unpleasant. The out and out winner though was A Wicked Liaison. My brain was stained for months after reading it.

The three at the top had a lot of competition; most of the books I read last year were enjoyable. The three that I’ve chosen are my favourites are the ones were I struggled to read as a writer because I was so carried away with the story. Black Man won out because the scope of it was breathtaking and because the plot twists were genius.