Wednesday, 22 September 2021

The Sisters Brothers

Liked the cover on this one:

Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die: Eli and Charlie Sisters can be counted on for that. Though Eli has never shared his brother’s penchant for whiskey and killing, he’s never known anything else. On the road to Warm’s gold-mining claim outside San Francisco — and from the back of his long-suffering one-eyed horse — Eli struggles to make sense of his life without abandoning the job he's sworn to do.

I'm a sucker for good Westerns, so I really enjoyed this. So well told, just oozes grit and saddle soap. It's the story of two brothers (the Sisters Brothers), who head off to kill this guy and steal his secret chemical recipe for making gold light up in rivers. It's pretty dark - people suffer, animals suffer - but it's very nicely done. 

I became increasingly drawn to filth. More and more I desired to lay and grovel in it, to actually live within it. My teeth fell out and this pleased me. My hair dropped away in patches, and I was glad. I was the raving and maniacal village idiot in short. Only the village was not a humble thatched-roofed township, but the United States of America. Finally, I was seized by an unshakable preoccupation, namely the belief that I was actually composed of human waste... a living mold of waste was my notion. Excrement. My bones were hardened excrement. My blood was liquid excrement. Do not ask me to elucidate, it is something I will never be able to explain.

Told in a rich, full voice. I think I fell a little for Eli, who is outstandingly picaresque. A kind soul in a rough world. 

Not much more to say other than it's worth picking up if you like that sort of thing.

Apparently it's also a film now. 

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Empire

 

Just finished this:

Continuing the saga begun in his New York Times bestselling novel Roma, Steven Saylor charts the destinies of the aristocratic Pinarius family, from the reign of Augustus to the height of Rome’s empire. The Pinarii, generation after generation, are witness to greatest empire in the ancient world and of the emperors that ruled it—from the machinations of Tiberius and the madness of Caligula, to the decadence of Nero and the golden age of Trajan and Hadrian and more.

Empire is filled with the dramatic, defining moments of the age, including the Great Fire, the persecution of the Christians, and the astounding opening games of the Colosseum. But at the novel’s heart are the choices and temptations faced by each generation of the Pinarii.

Steven Saylor once again brings the ancient world to vivid life in a novel that tells the story of a city and a people that has endured in the world’s imagination like no other.

I hadn't read Roma, but picked this up after watching the discussion on writing historical fiction with Steven Saylor and Steven Pressfield (The Virtues of War). I was looking for a little reassurance that I was heading in the right direction with my novel, Sargon. I didn't get that reassurance from The Virtues of War. It's brilliantly told, but first-person. I usually write historical fiction in first person (Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran, The Children of Lir, Angorichina) but Sargon is in third, and I was panicking a bit. Thankfully, this one made me feel much better. It's a third-person generational epic about the tyrants of Rome. The way it's written is very similar to what I've done with mine, though his prose are a bit crisper, so I need to work on that. 

It's really helped me climb back on board the editing wagon.

It is some sort of magic the way historical fiction can help you to remember things better than textbooks. I had not heard of Epictetus, Apollonius of Tyana, Sporus or Cornelia the Vestal Virgin before, and I certainly couldn't name Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero in the correct order, but now I can.

It felt like a fairly gentle story, with moments of extreme tension. I was letting it wash over me, until one of the characters ended up in the Colosseum by mistake - that was one heck of a rush. Really felt the horror of it. 

It's also made me feel a bit more confident in the way I've approached sex and sexuality in Sargon. Empire is removed from a lot of our moral beliefs today, but Sumer is just as far removed from Rome. For example, the Tigris and Euphrates were masturbated into being by the god Enki, there's several different types of prostitution, each with their own name and role in society, and the highest goddess in the land frequently goes on about ploughing her vulva - it's in all the poems. So, I was kind of sitting there wondering how far to push it. Empire gave me confidence with its exploration of Roman sexuality, and the entire story revolves around a fascinum, passed down from father to son. If you don't know (and I didn't) a fascinum is a flying penis

The ceremony gave Acilia something no unmarried woman possessed, a first name; it was a feminine form of her husband’s first name, and would be used only in private between the two of them.

There were some really interesting bits in there, such as giraffes being called 'camel leopards,' because nobody was quite sure what they were. I'm referring to horses as ansikurra ('mountain donkies') because they hadn't entirely been invented, either. All these things we take for granted now.

I also liked this paragraph, which sums up my own thoughts on fortune-telling:

He had also made a study of astrology since so many people held such store by it, but the fatalistic nature of it had only made him more despondent. The astrologers taught that every aspect of a man's life was determined in advance by powers unimaginably larger than himself. Within that predestined fate, a man had very little leeway to affect the course of his life. What was the point of knowing that a certain day was ill-omened if one could do nothing to reverse the tide of events? A man could hope to propitiate a temperamental god, but nothing could be done to alter the influence of the stars if, indeed, such an influence existed.

All in all, a really good read, and a reassuring read. I feel a bit more confident about my own story and how to tell it, though it still needs a lot of work. And I now know so much more about ancient Rome, which is not a period I'm usually that drawn to, but this has changed my mind.

Sunday, 19 September 2021

An Untamed State

 This was quite a read:

Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port-au-Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself "The Commander," Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.

An Untamed State is a novel of privilege in the face of crushing poverty, and of the lawless anger that corrupt governments produce. It is the story of a willful woman attempting to find her way back to the person she once was, and of how redemption is found in the most unexpected of places. 

And no, I didn't buy it because I thought it said The Untamed, though I will be all over that if the audiobook ever comes out in English.

This was a very detailed study into sexual violence, torture - both physical and mental - and survival. There's something a bit Death and the Maiden about it, though the stories are very different. It just has that really weighty sense of female testimony to it. So much so, that I looked up the author, Roxane Gay, afterwards. It's always impressive when you find a work of non-fiction that tells a deep truth, and even more impressive when you find a work of fiction that reads just as convincingly. This is the latter. As with the very best fiction, it didn't happen - but it might have done.

Certainly not a tourism brochure for Haiti, but a fascinating insight into another world. 

Soon, everyone was offering their own desperate piece of information about my country, my people, about the violence, and the poverty, and the hopelessness, conjuring a place that does not exist anywhere but the American imagination... There are three Haities. The country Americans know, and the country Haitians know, and the country I thought I knew.

You always wonder this about any country: how your perception of it fits with other people's perceptions. There are as many experiences of a place as there are people living there. I felt that when visiting Sierra Leone, I feel it living in Rwanda, I think it about my native country, the UK. The differences in experience depending on money, nationality, and networks. You are constantly assessing and reassessing your worldview, though you can never entirely break free of it. 

So, this was very thought provoking. And, of course, every woman wonders about what she would do, and how she would react, in a worst-case scenario - apparently that's why women flock to watch horror movies where the main victims are women. A safe space to think through what you would do. 

This was split, a bit like If This is a Man/The Truce, into the character's time in captivity and her return to 'normality'. It is told through the relationship between Mireille, her husband and her mother-in-law. Very boldly told, and very human. 

A challenging read, but a really good one.

Friday, 17 September 2021

Off to be the Wizard

Ooh, I loved this!

Martin Banks is just a normal guy who has made an abnormal discovery: he can manipulate reality, thanks to reality being nothing more than a computer program. With every use of this ability, though, Martin finds his little “tweaks” have not escaped notice. Rather than face prosecution, he decides instead to travel back in time to the Middle Ages and pose as a wizard.

What could possibly go wrong?

An American hacker in King Arthur’s court, Martin must now train to become a full-fledged master of his powers, discover the truth behind the ancient wizard Merlin… and not, y’know, die or anything.

Geeky good fun with a really entertaining approach to time travel. One of the characters keeps teleporting back to his own time to use the bathroom, but time doesn't move forward more than the time he spends there, so his toilet has been in constant use for five-and-a-half days. The water bill will be astronomical, but not for another twenty years.

They write all their spell macros in Esperanto:

"All of our spells are in badly translated Esperanto. It's a universal language that was invented early in the twentieth century to foster international peace and understanding. It's perfect for our purposes because there are many resources to translate things into it and absolutely nobody speaks it."

"Nobody in this time."

"Nobody in any time. Seriously, William Shatner and that's about it."

It was just very entertaining, and now I want to go and become a wizard. Apparently all the women are witches and moved to Atlantis to oggle fit blokes with swimmers' bodies, but I think I could cross the gender gap. Sounds like my kinda life.

By 6 p.m. Martin was back with his new toolkit. A massive metal case full of sockets, wrenches, screwdrivers, even a saw. He also had a drill he could use to drive screws. As he assembled the furniture, he mused that unlimited money was like a superpower. It allows one to do almost anything: hire a plane to make you fly, hire a truck to carry heavy things, hire doctors to keep you healthy, hire mercenaries to vanquish foes. You could pay someone to do anything. At the end of the day, you were responsible for having gotten it done.

*

"The only power you need to know about to make your decision is the power to lead a life where you're free to pursue whatever seems interesting without the pressure of keeping a job or paying off a car loan or a mortgage. We live like gentlemen of leisure. Our greatest challenge is looking busy. Welcome to wizzarding. Your last hard day was yesterday."

Definitely worth looking into if you enjoy RPG-related comedy, like Mogworld.

Thursday, 16 September 2021

WAG Appeal



Just to mention a little fundraising campaign for the local animal shelter here in Kigali. WAG do the most amazing job of caring for feral and abandoned animals in Rwanda. They helped rescue one of my cats from an awful situation a few years ago and saved her life. Anything you can give is hugely appreciated. 

Find out more about WAG on their website, and more about the funding appeal here.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Kigali Keys Update


A little update on the piano - building project I'm part of in Rwanda. We his a little mishap and need a hand finding some parts, but things are progressing.

Saturday, 11 September 2021

Editing ESL Children's Books


Doing a bit of editing this week for a friend's publishing company. They produce children's storybooks in English, French, Kinyarwanda and Swahili. There can be some interesting challenges when editing in English-as-a-second-language (ESL) countries, as explained above.