I appreciate each and every single review, because they genuinely do make a difference. Every time you tell a friend about one of my books, it sticks in their mind, and maybe they pick it up one day, and enjoy it themselves. Every time you mention one in passing, or make reference to one, you pique someone’s curiosity, and perhaps they spread a little further.
And hey, if you don’t enjoy the book, remember other people have different tastes, and that also spite-recommending books to people is a fun prank.
Regular readers are tired of me hectoring them to buy my books and fund my decadent lifestyle choices like “being able to afford to get to my job” and “paying the electricity bill”. Irregular readers are confused as to why I’m not shouting about Huel at this precise moment.
In the fullness of time I’m going to come back and beat you all over the head with the imminence of The Next Big One, explain how I have gone from a banana-hating, coffee-eschewing meat addicted sandwich-lover to a cold-brew-hefting, banana-craving, bread-avoiding pescatarian hipster scumbag (actually that one’s pretty straightforward: turns out testosterone changes your tastes and body chemistry. Also, willpower and working nightshift. Hoo boy do you need to be able to stomach a lot of coffee).
But for now I want to draw attention to m’colleague and global opposite, Wayne Ree. Pronounced “Ray”, because fuck you, and also because there’s an acute accent over the second e that my keyboard wants no part of.
Wayne, a founding member of the aptly-named Global Beards, is a versatile and imaginative writer who I feel just isn’t getting the love he deserves. The man has written Yellow Princess: Attack of the Dinosharks, but also quieter, more adult and introspective pieces in Tales from a Tiny Room, and partnered up with the explosively excellent Anna AB on the ferocious collection Prompt – snappy, dangerous short fiction. Also, he’s bought me whisky at least once so that pretty much makes him a Good People.
So you should buy his stories, because they’re varied and exciting and because, if you’re very lucky and flatter him enough, he may one day let you touch The Beard. Maybe.
Hello! I just got an email from my lovely editors at New Smut Project letting me know the anthology I’m featured in (as Melissa Snowdon) got a really nice review from Adriana Ravenlust at Of Sex and Love! And in fact got singled out for attention (okay, okay, she singles most of the stories out for attention because it’s a great anthology full of inventive fiction and such but let me have my moment).
Which I hope stands as further encouragement to, if you haven’t already, grab yourself a copy of Between the Shoresand enjoy; and/or pick up Heart, Body, Soul which I didn’t write anything for but which does feature a story by a friend of mine.
In fact, if you search most regional Amazon sites, you’ll find it, replete with scorpions and stuffed with intrigue, adventure, massive arthropods, zeppelins, radio celebrities, and the grand knowledge that it is literally the best saxonpunk giant arthropod adventure story with a female protagonist of colour on the entire whole of my blog. Guaranteed.
Don’t have a Kindle or Kindle reading app? We got you covered.
“But Del,” you obligingly call out in a shamelessly P T Barnum hard sell hawker move, because I’m just so bloody excellent at marketing, “I have bookshelves, Del, bookshelves with gaps in them. Bookshelves which do not groan with the modest physical and pregnant metaphorical weight of the finest printed copy of a book which, lest we forget, is the foremost saxonpunk giant arthropod adventure story to feature a fictional version of Durham university.”
Unbelieveable! I am sorry for your bookshelves. The absence of this book is an insult they cannot be expected to endure for long. Happily, they no longer have to as for the price of a standard UK mass market paperback this handsome green jewel emblazoned with the most glorious arachnid the scorpion can shuffle off the bounds of the print-on-demand warehouse, TAKE FLIGHT (probably in a zeppelin) and bound willy-nilly with glee from the arms of the postman onto your loving shelves.
Where, if you feel like it, you can pick it up and read it. Amazing.
It’s real. It’s here. It’s got scorpions on it. And it’s available on Lulu.com for a perfectly normal price.
This was all Amy Macabre’s fault and I want her to be held responsible when I inevitably die of horror at this.
To briefly expand on that: Amy posted a picture of the cover of this book along with some discussion about it being a Proper Gothic Gay Novel, and confirmed for the previous commenters that they could look forwards to a whole mess of description of the drapes and the grounds and absolutely none of gay sex. She also mentioned that it was a colossal turd of a book. Now: I have read the odd Gothic novel in my time and found them tedious in the extreme, but I am aware of the genre tropes and tics and this book rolls around in them to a degree that verges on, but has not so far entered, the realm of parody. I am also not usually given to spite-reading books which have been recommended to me as shit because frankly life is short and shit books are many – it’s much harder to find a genuinely good book and enjoy it than it is to find a genuinely terrible book and snicker at it. For a start, shit books are filling out the heads of various sales list at any point in history.
However, the book was 57p on Amazon and sometimes I have really bad ideas.
This book opens with the line “I resemble my mother physically.” and continues into a lengthy garbage paragraph about the looks of the protagonist because apparently Virga’s editor just threw up his or her hands and shouted “FUCK IT I CAN’T DO ANYTHING WITH IT”.
Maybe he didn’t have an editor. That would explain the next few pages, which amount to: ALLOW ME TO SPEND ENTIRELY TOO LONG ON MY BACKSTORY IN FIRST PERSON AND DESCRIBE LITERALLY EVERYONE IN EXCRUCIATING PHYSICAL DETAIL and tell you all about ALL THE ROOMS IN MY HOUSE.
Vincent Virga fearlessly breaking every possible fiction-writing rule. Not for him the constraints of “make something actually fucking happen on the first page”. No, in Gaywyck it’s full Gothic Novel, complete with a sickly, bookish protagonist, and EVERYTHING DESCRIBED WITHIN AN INCH OF THE LIMITS OF MY PATIENCE.
At the very end of the first chapter everything happens in a rush: the second chapter details, fairly pointlessly, the journey to the titular house on Long Island. I’m pretty much exactly sure that the second chapter exists because Virga wants people to know he did research, that he could write A Variety Of Characters (100% of whom exist to say something pointless to the protagonist and then vanish), and that he cannot write dialogue and I’m going to die of this book. This is Brick Bin dialogue that would get thrown out of a Brick Bin* movie for not propelling the fucking plot.
Chapter 3 of Gaywyck is all about the family history of the romantic interest it is incredible WHY DO I NEED TO KNOW THE EXACT STORY OF HOW HIS GRANDPARENTS MET AND ALSO HIS PARENTS. why do I need to hear about what a delicate opera-loving innocent flower his mother was? Whyyyyyyy.
Oh good grief this chapter is still going it’s still going apparently I need to know about every single circumstance of his tragic weirdo family background THIS HAD BETTER HAVE SOME BEARING ON THE STORY —
— the pacing just did the same thing it did in the first chapter, where it’s all background and then the actual Thing That Happened is crammed into a brief summary at the end of the chapter. This is like a first draft NaNoWriMo novel: “Right, I’ve hit the word count, fling the plot point in and go to the pub.” I could really, maybe, slightly, forgive the gloopy Gothic tropes and the gratuitous authorwanking about all the careful character background he’s come up with, were it not for the fact that the pacing is so bad, and the dialogue almost artistically wooden.
Also by the love of all that’s squashy and fragrant, this tragic dead twin had better be a Chekov’s sibling or something or I am going to resent the entire existence of this chapter as well. If this is just here for TRAGIQUE BACKSTORY reasons …
Genuinely so far the first three chapters could have been dispensed with in a paragraph. For reference (SPOILERS) the plot so far is: “Bookish, beautiful, slightly effeminate young man has sought solitude all his life. After the ~tragique~ death of his mother due to some sort of depression-induced physical stress which came out of nowhere and didn’t get anything like as much description as all the individual books that the protagonist has read, he is charitably given a job as a librarian at the estate of a wealthy recluse. The wealthy recluse also has a ~tragique~ background, as his twin brother died trying to save his father from an unexplained and undescribed (unlike everything fucking else in this book) house fire. Robert the Protagonist has arrived in New York but not yet made it to the house he will be a librarian at.”
My mistake. One paragraph. The background stuff does not need to be shovelled in at the front of the book. I don’t care about the conventions of Gothic literature, it’s still perfectly possible to have the intensity and fragility and all the other hideous narrative tropes without subjecting your readers to an uphill slog through endless LISTS OF BOOKS before anything actually fucking happens.
* Brick Bin: any piece of media where the dialogue is so heavily composed of cliches from other media that it is as if instead of writing a script they just jotted down a cliche onto a brick for several bricks, and hurled them at a wastepaper bin, with the idea that any brick that goes in the bin goes in the script.
Afternote: I see Mr Virga has a website and therefore possibly an internet presence? Dear sir, if you have come across this liveblog just dismiss it as the bitter ramblings of someone who clearly isn’t refined enough to appreciate the genre, and don’t let it spoil your day.
It does my heart no good to have to give a bad review of a book, especially a book which has annoyed me by having profoundly decent ideas to go alongside its unsatisfactory execution. It does it even less good to have to compare it to books by another writer, especially when that writer is a friend of the book’s author and quoted on the cover of the book I am reviewing, praising it. However, it would be utterly short-sighted not to draw a parallel between the London-based supernatural crime drama of Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell and the London-based supernatural crime drama of Doctor Who writer Ben Aaronovitch. And I have to deal with the frustration of this book which had so much in it so poorly-presented, when it could have been brilliant.
Indeed, in description London Falling(currently a respectable 59p on the Kindle store) sounds like exactly the sort of thing I profess to enjoy, which just goes to show that trying to describe what one enjoys reading by means of characteristics is no more useful than saying “I like steak” when one means one likes grass-fed, correctly-aged steak of a particular cut and probably only served in the right way in about five restaurants overall. The difference is, I suppose, that while one can handle mediocre steak, because it is so common, this is rather more like finding a rare dish of a specific recipe and having it made by someone whose tastebuds aren’t aligned the way yours are.
For further disclosure, I found Paul Cornell’s two-parter on Doctor Who – Human Nature and The Family of Blood – almost the strongest of that season and certainly some of the better stories told since the return of that show to British screens in 2005. But he is out of kilter with my reading preferences, and I am about to explain why, with a certain number of spoilers, and comparisons to Ben Aaronovitch and Neil Gaiman which the author (who shouldn’t be reading this anyway) and his fans may find annoying and/or insulting.
The book follows the progression of a case through a series of established policemen, beginning in media res. That is to say, there’s no jumping-in point, no hand-holding, and no introduction, which I normally quite enjoy. There is, however, also no handle to be got on any of the protagonists, which makes it a little harder to like.
James Quill, the head of the operation, has a series of characteristics apparently pulled from the “honest copper” bin of clichés and nothing that differentiates him as a person, even after he gains “the Sight” and an unexplained and frequently dangerous insight into the malignant, magical city that lies below/beyond/through the physical one. Lisa Ross, the data analyst and eventual sacrificial hero, driven by a fairly standard-issue need for vengeance for her father (you will note no heroic woman ever wants to avenge her mother), has no other characteristics, no other desires, and like Quill no personality. They barely even have voices: with the attributions removed, I can’t tell one character from another for most of the book.
Tony Costain, the requisite reluctant hero/bad boy, similarly has no real personality aside from a desire for self-preservation and an ego which apparently vanish for most of the book in order to further the plot; Kev Sefton, the knight in shining armour and token nod to the existence of queer characters, goes on the hero’s quest for enlightenment, dumps a lot of exposition, and gets into a relationship in which he confides almost immediately every feature of his case in a dude he picked up in a bar. Sefton is described as having a posh accent that he slips into, of which there is no actual sign in the text.
I read stories for their characters first and foremost. A strong set of character voices is imperative in forming an emotional connection with the characters and in London Falling it is almost entirely absent. This is frustrating as all hell because there are some excellent ideas and some very solid world-building in here, but the overall tone of the book is cold. By comparison, the Rivers of London series provides a human warmth, set of weaknesses, and easy handle on all the human characters, and even the strange and esoteric creatures which pass through the world have glitches and points of interest.
There are other problems with the book, which ordinarily would have been nagging problems but not major ones: combined with the lack of character warmth and connectivity they became gaping. For example: in the Rivers of London books and Neverwhere, the fantastical London which lies within and through the London in which most people dwell is primarily neutral. It has its own laws, it can be extremely dangerous to those ignorant of them, but it is not malignant. In London Falling, the world which lies across ours is not fairyland, but Hell. The adversary of the overall arc of the Rivers of London books – and this is one of the things that really connected for me – is not a demon, not The Devil, but a human being who has become greedy for power. Something mundane, a form of evil with which we are all familiar, and which instead of excusing the greed and evil of mortal men by providing something bigger only underscores how rotten it is.
However, I can take fiction where the adversary is not mortal: in Neverwhere, Door and Richard Mayhew face a fallen angel, which is a pretty clear code for The Adversary in anyone’s eyes. In another of my favourite and not-exactly-well-written supernatural detective series, John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books, the adversary is again the lord of Hell: but the humanity of all its characters – including the grotesques – and the broadness and mundanity of the world, are preserved.
London Falling takes elements of traditional London storytelling: old Hob, a wicked witch, football legends, ghost stories, the power of the city, a hero’s vision quest, and the eternal copper. It lines them up together in a plot which makes good narrative sense and which hits all the major points at the right pace: but it feels both slow and rushed at the same time. The characters don’t speak from the heart, but are vehicles for the story, rather than driving it. There are times in which the narrative appears to be trying too hard to elicit a feeling that it doesn’t have the emotional vocabulary to instil; moments in which the reader feels more like the jaded coppers standing outside the horror with no connection than perhaps they ought.
Most of all, this doesn’t seem to have any love for the city in it. Rivers of London and Neverwhere, Memoirs of a Master Forger (William Heaney), among others, fairly throb with affection for the metropolis in which they’re set. The story has been coalesced from the sense of unreality and history and Something Bigger which I think affects almost anyone who spends much time here, looking at the past poking through the present in unexpected places and in incongruous ways. It is natural as breathing for any writer to look at London and think of the mystical past affecting the rational present. But Paul Cornell’s writing doesn’t betray any kind of love for his subject matter, and that I think is what really affects the tone of the book more than anything else.
The alternative London captured in his pages is Hell; the London Sefton enters via a number 7 with a London Charon is empty; the Londoners of our reality are aggressive and stupid and moved only by tabloid thinking; there is nothing but contempt and anger, and if that’s real sum of London I’d be surprised.
There are other ways to make a horrific story boil out of a city than by failing to appreciate the picture that its uglinesses and beauties give rise to, and I don’t think I’ll be expending money or energy on the sequels to this book.
If I were a complete dick, I could say “it seems fitting that at a time when hideous military things are happening in Syria, I have just finished reading about the liberation of Damascus in 1918”, but I am not the kind of dick who wants to tie that stuff together. That’s a job for journalists and historians, not people who write weird books about London and cry about T E Lawrence at inopportune moments.
The desert I’m leaving is the remembered desert of Seven Pillars of Wisdom: the book is finished. I’ve ploughed through the 9000-odd Kindle pages (this is not an exaggeration) of description, introspection, isolation, photographs, and guerilla warfare, and Lawrence has had his last whisper in my ear until I pick up The Mint.
I’ve had a lot of thoughts about this bookalready. They’ve wavered between being impressed by his prose, impressed by his exploits, horrified by the activities of both himself against others and others against him, fascinated by the landscape so eloquently given voice in this book that it feels like a series of still photographs supplemented by memories of travelogues and nature documentaries, exasperated by Lawrence’s outbursts of what feel like very juvenile whining (forgetting of course that he was younger than me while doing most of this), and often quietly in awe of the scope and seat-of-the-pants nature of several of the victories.
In completing the book there’s a sense of relief and loss, as there usually is at the end of any good book; the creeping horror of the oncoming scenes at Damascus turned out to be unfounded as it turned out that I’d misremembered the account from A Prince of Our Disorder and that the David Lean movie was as full of lies in this regard as in every other; the chaos did not end in disaster but rather in the return to function of the city.
Overall in spite of the jittery action and the push and pull of military minutiae, in spite of the electric relations between the men of the Arab Revolt and Lawrence’s occasionally tenuous grip both on his plans and on his person, the cast of the book is of a kind of peaceful reminiscence: coming away from it, the stresses of a military campaign appear like faded memories in a rear view mirror. It is, initially, a hard book to break into: Lawrence makes his prose unfriendly, almost, to intruders: but soon he slackens off and as the campaign begins to shape up so does the ease of reading.
In A Prince of Our Disorder, John E Mack comments that a lot of the men who spoke with Lawrence throughout his life found he gave something to them, and that they saw parts of themselves in him. It seems to be a common theme: I’ve already joked a few times about getting a “what would lawrence do” bracelet with “do the opposite of that” on the other side (for a start: always wear a motorcycle helmet when riding a motorbike, especially when riding a Brough Superior at preposterous speeds on winding country roads; do not utterly refuse to get into any kind of relationship on the basis of some mad ideals which cause you emotional distress, etc), and it occurs to me that there are a few lessons to be learned from him in the course of this book and the circumstances of its publication which could well be applicable to me.
First, with regards to his back-and-forthing on and lack of confidence in his manuscript, leading an exasperated Siegfried Sassoon to send him a testy letter containing the phrase “you have written a great book, blast you”: his eventual decision to produce a small print run funded by subscribers is remarkably similar to my own idea for what to do with my next novel. It is of course a different matter, I’m not trying to hide my work because I have issues with the quality of it (if you like, I have long since ceased to care whether what I’ve written is perfect or not as long as it says what I need it to say), but because I can’t fund the thing on my own. And unlike Lawrence I don’t have an eager public desperate to hear what I have to say because unlike Lawrence I’m somewhat not a hero of a gruelling war and an eloquent Oxford alumni with a great wealth of friends in hundreds of places.
… Also I’m taller than him by about two inches.
Second, a less practical consideration. In the latter chapters of the book especially I “saw” Lawrence come into conflict with people who found his manner inappropriate or his attitude ungentlemanly, and both chastened him for it and occasionally physically assaulted him (one officer “struck him across the face”, for example). His sense of vision generally kept him from being smothered or particularly bothered by attacks on his persona: while he was prone to introspection, and also to what looked like self-hatred, this was at the instigation of his own conscience and comparison of his awkwardness, his “other”ness, to those around him. He fretted about his guilt and despised himself for his deceptions, necessary though he believed they were, but did not care for propriety or “what others might think” of his demands for resources or his person unless the manipulation of his image in their eyes was vital to the fighting strength of his little army. He talked often of flattering or phrasing things in specific ways, but not of feeling ashamed of pursuing the things necessary to his task.
This represents a lesson in that while it is important to consider the possibility of harming others it’s not actually necessary to concern oneself overly with whether or not their approval is bestowed. I’m on the verge of stifling myself for the sake of not appearing ridiculous, for the sake of not being “talked about behind my back”, and in a timely manner have read an example of why that’s not feasible or worthwhile: it doesn’t matter if you look ridiculous, and it doesn’t matter if people gas and gossip. The thing you set yourself to should be more important than the vagrancies of strangers and acquaintances, and if your real friends have doubts they will voice them honestly and without spite.
I plan to start reading Lawrence’s book about the conditions of the fledgling RAF – The Mint – by the end of this year, and I’m eager to see what I can learn from that, as well as to listen to a voice separated from mine by a good eighty years.
Because of medical service interaction making me into a singularity of unnecessary stress (I am the kind of person who can worry themselves into a black hole-level panic over a GP’s appointment, and this one was the next stop along the line), I abandoned anything remotely responsibility-like over the weekend and following two days, and proceeded to plough through a newly-purchased (and signed!) copy of “Broken Homes” by Ben Aaronovitch in a single afternoon.
It was a return to form, hovering somewhere around the first book in the series (“Rivers of London”) and the third (“Whispers Underground”) in terms of quality, and chasing the major plot arc that was introduced in the second (“Moon Over Soho”). The series has a genuinely engaging selection of regular characters and treats the one-offs as potential returnees, so everything feels solid, real, and well-constructed. This unremitting attention to the dimensions of characters extends to the landscape – it’s a cliche to say that the city is a major character in any given book, but when the book is set in London that’s almost a requirement. Ours is a city with a great deal of character, and to neglect that would be borderline criminal.
Happily Ben Aaronovitch has not at any point in this series been in the habit of neglecting the character, shape, or foundations of my beloved home. He’s also given such seamless attention to two fictional locations (Skygarden and the Stromberg House) that until the aftermatter I was convinced that both of them were real, and was even plotting to see if my Art Fund card would get me into the Stromberg house (a National Trust property in the book) for free! I’m not sure whether this is a testament to my gullibility or to Aaronovitch’s well-painted landscapes, but it made for an amused feeling after finishing the book.
The copy I got, from the Covent Garden Waterstones, also contains a short story concerning a genius loci of that very bookshop, which was charming and pleasant and reminded me strongly of Neil Gaiman in ways that occasionally make me shake my head when Neil Gaiman does it. That, I suspect, is a case of familiarity breeding contempt: when you read a lot of someone’s work, you start to see the strings and hear their voice and see their preoccupations in their text.
Granted, if the someone is China Mieville it’s one book and half-way through it that you see the preoccupations and favoured word of the month…
Having finished “Broken Homes” one day, I decided to make good my sudden surge of desire to read fiction again and ate up “Dodger” by Terry Pratchett in less than an afternoon.
My only reason for choosing it was that I’d been loaned the book a while back and it had proceeded to sit on my “read this sooner or later because you’ve borrowed it you dickhead” pile for an egregious amount of time, but it’s thematically appropriate. After “Broken Homes”, a book about dodgy geezers in London, I read “Dodger”, a book about dodgy geezers in (Victorian) London.
As I have been a fan of Pratchet since I was roughly 11, and am 30 now, it’s probably no surprise that I had a wonderful time, as one tends to while reading Pratchett. There were no alarms and no surprises, and that, too, was an entirely pleasant process given that I was straining my intestines in fear over going to a hospital appointment in two days time.
Pratchett brought all of the humanity and wryness and gentle combination of affection and unflinching acknowledgement of the darker sides of mankind and specifically poverty-stricken mankind that he usually brought to the Discworld novels, and applied it to early-Victorian London. I appreciate that as I appreciate Aaronovitch’s witty, familiar poetics about the modern city; they are both writers who have poured a deluge of research into their cities – Pratchett drawing a great deal on the history of London for the unshakeable and distinctive foundations of Ankh-Morpork. I was in love with AM from very early in my life, and I suppose one can credit that for the delight with which I now absorb London’s seedier parts.
My favourite part of “Dodger” is the ease and joy with which Pratchett picked up the most unpleasant failing of “Oliver Twist” – the anti-semitic caricature of Fagin – and gracefully inverted it, making Solomon Cohen a genius, a fugitive, a kind man, and a man full of wit and sarcasm and references that fly over the narrator’s head but land with a satisfying plop in the mind of the reader. Again, “affection” is probably the word I’d use to describe the process; Solomon Cohen is a character written with a great deal of love.
Two books about dodgy geezers in London down, I merely picked up the largest book on the “you’ve borrowed this, hurry up and ever read it” pile, and it, too, turned out to be – so far – about a dodgy geezer, in London. It even references toshers, the profession attached to the titular character in the Pratchett book.
This third book, Nick Harkaway’s “Angelmaker”, is much denser than the Aaronovitch or the Pratchett. Harkaway relies on cramming in every possible detail and thought of the characters to illustrate both the individuals and the landscape, which makes for slower going than the well-timed touches of Aaronovitch and Pratchett, but it is still a highly enjoyable read: Harkaway’s “show AND tell” approach to storytelling is not too off-putting. Also, so far there have been clockwork bees, and I am easily sold on gimmicks like that.
(for those keeping track, I am also sporadically reading “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” on the Kindle and have reached the 90% mark; Lawrence is nearing Damascus and I am distressed by what will surely follow; for non-fiction I am ploughing through “Hiding the Elephant” and taking copious notes).