Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Red Phone Box Book Swap

 

Someone's turned our local phone box into a book swap! Reminds me of this little title by Ghostwoods Books. I'm going to have to get a copy to put in there. You can find the book swap by the bus stop in the Northamptonshire village of Guilsborough.





Saturday, 20 November 2021

Vamp it Up


Turns out I'm not the only one who's been into Vampires this week - and Carmilla. One of my favourite author/YouTubers,  Caitlin Doughty, just covered it above. I also found a couple of interesting TED animations. One covers How Dracula Became the World's Most Famous Vampire and the other looks at the folklore of vampires and other, less sexy, interpretations.

Friday, 19 November 2021

Carmilla


I love Gothic classics. How did I never know about this? 

One of the very first vampire thrillers, this audio adaptation follows 18-year-old Laura as she recounts the story of her mysterious, intriguing and beautiful house guest Carmilla, who is stranded in the forest after a carriage accident and taken in by Laura’s widowed father. The girls develop a friendship which turns into a passionate meeting of souls. A relationship of vampire and prey, the story is told through Laura’s eyes as she is drawn further into Carmilla’s terrifying world of pleasure and pain.

A masterpiece of erotic Gothic horror, Carmilla encompasses mystery, suspense, forbidden lust, violence...and lots of blood....

Dear gods, it was lesbi-licious. I'm just left a little dazed. I am such a huge Castlevania fan, and Carmilla was a central character in that, played by Jaime Murray, who was fabulous in Hustle. Then I was reading The Infernal Devices trilogy, and there was Carmilla, the vampire, again. Instead of thinking, 'oh, that's strange, perhaps she's a recurring literary figure from history,' I just thought 'oh, that's a weird coincidence.'

I'm not that bright.

But now my eyes are open. 

I'm fascinated by this. It predates Bram Stoker's Dracula by almost three decades! But the Grande Dames of Gothic, Mary Shelley and Ann Radcliffe, still got the guys beat by quite a way in terms of original spooky. I just wish the Wiki page said more about how this was received because it was racy. Carmilla is a sapphic icon, and I just wonder how it went down back in the day. I mean, I know there was a lot of intimacy between female characters back then, but this wasn't playing. It's absolutely delicious. 

And, although I would have loved to hear Jaime Murray in the role of Carmilla, kudos for casting David Tennant, who played Peter Vincent in the 2011 remake of Fright Night. I still don't forgive them for doing that, but he made it tolerable. 

Anyway, it was a really fun, short, sexy dose of Gothic goodness.

Love it.

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

I Wussed Out - YouTube Shenanigans

Sooo.... 

I panicked. I've closed the new author channel I started about six months ago and I've gone back to my old YouTube channel. I started the old one back in 2013 and did absolutely nothing with it. I uploaded a few unlisted videos for friends and family and the occasional random clip about Rwandan dancing or weird insects. 

I started a new channel to post more consistently and talk about writing. 

Turns out, that was totally the wrong thing to do. A brief survey of Twitter confirmed this. 

My old channel had about 230 subscribers - again, from posting nothing, ever - whereas my new YouTube channel had only 50 subscribers after about six months. Also, despite putting up a video telling everyone I'd moved, and changing all the endscreens and sub buttons to the new channel, people kept on subscribing to the old one! It was bizarre. The harder I worked on the new channel, the more people subscribed to the old one...


New Channel


Old Channel


+26 subscribers in the past month for doing... again, nothing. 

Go figure. 

So, you can see the incentive really isn't there to try to build up subscribers from scratch on a new channel. Fifty wasn't bad, and those who subscribed to the new channel seemed more engaged in liking and commenting, but I felt I really needed to call it before things went too far. Sadly, you can't merge channels. If you take down old videos and upload them to another channel, there's no way to backdate them so they appear in date order, new uploads will always display as top of your recent releases list. 

It was a tough call to make. One video I made about the Nyarigongo volcanic eruption back in May got over 2,000 views and 49 likes, but the two most-viewed videos on the old channel include one about traditional Rwandan dance, at over 34,000 views and 178 likes, and one rather shaky video of a Congolese music group, 9,000+ views and 133 likes, so as uncomfortable as it feels, time is better spent on the old channel.

I've also just invested in an Insta360 One x2 camera and an Acer Nitro 5 laptop, which is the quickest thing I've ever seen. You press a button and it's instantly booted up and ready to rock. I've never had a nice laptop before and the difference is startling. It walks through DaVinci Resolve like a strole in the park. I can't wait to get back to Rwanda and start shooting some beautiful footage. Well, I can wait a little bit, I'm rather enjoying all the food and bubble baths in the UK at the moment...

But, yes. It's something to look forward to.

Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Resolutions Anthology


Woke up this morning to a lovely surprise - author copies!

I entered the Bridge House Publishing competitions earlier in the year and was selected for their anthology Resolutions.

This is a collection of challenging and thought-provoking stories. All stories need a resolution and these provide ones that will astound and delight you. We looked for: story, good writing, interpretation of theme and professionalism.  All of the stories submitted had those elements. Here  we offer a variation to cater to our readers’ eclectic tastes. Sit back and surrender to the Bridge House magic.

Grab Your Copy Here

 Interview 

 

 


Sunday, 31 October 2021

Comical Observations

 

What a lovely week! Thank you to my gorgeous friends Vikki & Dai for my hand-knitted hat to help me survive the British winter. It is much appreciated and very necessary! And to my lovely friend Audrey Haney for sending a copy of her recently published poetry collection. You can grab your copy by contacting her through Audrey's Poetry group on Facebook. If you run an indie bookshop, please do give her a boost and stock up. Thanks!

Tuesday, 26 October 2021

The English Monster

It is annoying when publishers don't release a high-quality large cover image for people to use on their blogs. Anyway, I liked the cover of this one, felt a bit Rivers of London:

In the east end of Regency London, two families lie butchered. Residents of the notorious Ratcliffe Highway, the victims bear the mark of unprecedented brutality.

Panic sweeps the country as its public cries for justice. But these murders stem from an older horror, its source a sea voyage two centuries old. In a ship owned by Queen Elizabeth herself, a young man embarks on England's first venture into a new trade: human souls.

As a nation's sins ripen and bloom, to be harvested in a bloody frenzy on the twisted streets of Regency Wapping, an English Monster is born. 

This one was very atmospheric, a lot of detailed description of places and people that helped bring it to life. A nice, mysterious start. Though my head just wasn't quite in the right place for this. I think it was because I was so busy packing for the UK and listening to it in between Clockwork Angel, which had all of my attention. I lost the thread a little. There was a sort of supernatural element to it, with a man who didn't age, but also very realistic elements as well. There was an interesting character called l'Olonnais, who was a French pirate. Someone who didn't make an appearance on Black Sails, but who sounds as though he probably should have done.

There was also mention of The Mysteries of Udolpho in there, Ann Radcliffe... when the book is about the Ratcliffe Highway murders... probably over-thinking that a little too much.

Like all nods between Englishmen, this one carries an enormity of meaning. "We are sailing in uncharted waters," it says.

I have to say, it is rare that I fail to follow the plot of a story. I think I just wasn't paying full attention. The introduction of the supernatural to what was otherwise a realistic murder, based on true events, threw me a little. It felt like two different genres that didn't sit entirely easy with one another. 

There was also mention of the Zong, a notorious slave ship where many of the people being transported were thrown overboard and drowned as part of an insurance scam. This felt a bit thrown in there without much explanation of why the ship was so infamous. I first learned about this through Laura Shepherd-Robinson's period crime novel Blood & Sugar. I feel that novel really brought the horror of it to the forefront and built a solid whodunnit around those events, whereas this threw in a lot of references without them being central to the story.

So, this was descriptive and atmospheric, but could have picked up the pace a little. But, again, that could also just have been me, listening whilst packing and doing other things.

Monday, 25 October 2021

Jordan Persegati

 

I am really liking  Jordan Persegati's take on life. There was something a little Salad Fingers about his voice at the beginning of this. He also does his own creepypasta short stories with artwork.

 

 


Tuesday, 12 October 2021

The Infernal Devices #1 - Clockwork Angel


Oooh, yes, yes, yes.

Love is the most dangerous magic of all....

Something terrifying is waiting for Tessa Gray in London's Downworld, where vampires, warlocks and other supernatural folk stalk the gaslit streets. Tessa seeks refuge with the Shadowhunters, a band of warriors dedicated to ridding the world of demons. Tessa finds herself fascinated by and torn between two best friends....

First in the best-selling prequel series to The Mortal Instruments, set in Victorian London.

Bought this on a whim. I occasionally get this mad fantasy itch and go hunting for something to scratch it. I'm exceedingly picky and haven't had much luck lately, but this one was delightful. Ticked all the boxes. Something almost Diana Wynne Jones-esque about it, with the kick-ass female character, the moody, broody Welsh arsehole of a magical male lead, and the detailed fantastical world in which they live. I guess DWJ meets Rivers of London. Very enjoyable, and choosing between Will and Jem is impossible. 

There's a lovely lick of steampunk in there, with an army of demonic automatons and, of course, the titular clockwork angel. 

I also loved that each chapter started with a homage to some of the greatest gothic and classic verse. Rossetti's Goblin Market was in there, Byron, Wilde, Kipling and Tennyson. It was joyous. A chocolate box of fancies. You can find a full list here.

It's not a long life, killing demons; one tends to die young, and then they burn your body - dust to dust, in the literal sense. And then we vanish into the shadows of history, nary a mark on the page of a mundane book to remind the world that once we existed at all.

*

"Nice place to live, isn't it? Let's hope they left something behind other than filth. Forwarding addresses, a few severed limbs, a prostitute or two..."

"Indeed. Perhaps, if we're fortunate, we can still catch syphilis."

*
"Almost the first thing I realized when I came here was that my father never thought of himself as British, not the way an Englishman would. Real Englishmen are British first, and gentlemen second. Whatever else it is they might be—a doctor, a magistrate or landowner—comes third. For Shadowhunters it’s different. We are Nephilim, first and foremost, and only after that do we make a nod to whatever country we might have been born and bred in. And as for third, there is no third. We are only ever Shadowhunters. When other Nephilim look at me, they see only a Shadowhunter. Not like mundanes, who look at me and see a boy who is not entirely foreign but not quite like them either."

*

"They have all kinds of odd magic and things in Wales, you know."

(I think this formed the Howl connection for me).

Warlocks in this are known as 'Lilith’s Children,' which has been an interesting part about my research for Sargon. The name Lilith comes from the word lil in Sumerian, lilu (m)/lilitu (f) in Akkadian. They are spirits of the unburied deceased. They can also appear in child form, Sumerian kiskil lila, Akkadian ardat-lili, and rank among the type of demons that need to be banished. (Thanks to Leif Inselmann for that information). So, the thing about warlocks and procreation makes sense, as the Children of Lilith are dead anyway. 

The only thing that gave me pause was the pronunciation of Boudicca/Boadicea throughout the book. In the UK, she's commonly pronounced Boudicca (boo-dika) or, for the Romanisation, Boadicea (bow-da-see-a). The latter is usually among the older generation, I think? There has been a shift towards Boudicca over the years. However, the book narration keeps referring to her as bowa-da-see-a, which I'd never heard before. 


(click to enlarge)


So, according to the phonetics it is a legitimate pronunciation, though it's not one I'd ever heard before. It makes sense when the American character says it that way, but it's much more common to drop the (ɘ) in British English or use the modern pronunciation, Boudicca. I suppose they kept the pronunciation the same throughout so as not to confuse listeners too much, but as the American character learns about Boadicea from an English character, it might have been better to go with a more common British pronunciation. 

I realise I'm over-thinking this. Either way, Boadicea /Boudicca wins the prize for the most confusing name in history, and the narration of the audiobook was absolutely excellent. 

Highly recommend. I very rarely get into a series, but I downloaded the second one of these before I'd even finished the first.

Monday, 11 October 2021

The Tale of Genji - Vol I



Okay, well... this isn't the review I was hoping to write about the world's first novel. But, what good is a review if it isn't honest?

Murasaki Shikibu, born into the middle ranks of the aristocracy during the Heian period (794-1185 CE), wrote The Tale of Genji, widely considered the world's first novel, during the early years of the 11th century. Expansive, compelling, and sophisticated in its representation of ethical concerns and aesthetic ideals, Murasaki's tale came to occupy a central place in Japan's remarkable history of artistic achievement and is now recognized as a masterpiece of world literature.

The Tale of Genji is presented here in a flowing new translation for contemporary listeners, who will discover in its depiction of the culture of the imperial court the rich complexity of human experience that simultaneously resonates with and challenges their own. Washburn embeds annotations for accessibility and clarity and renders the poetry into triplets to create prosodic analogues of the original.

 

It was translated by Dennis Washburn and wonderfully narrated by Brian Nishii, and first and foremost I am exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to access such a historic work in English.

That said, it was singularly the most boring book I have ever read. Forty years on the planet, at least 29 of those as an avid reader, and I have never encountered something outside of a maths textbook that sent me to sleep so quickly.

And I really didn't want it to be that way. The first novel ever written, and by a woman - I was very excited to read it. But, at the same time, it does provide an interesting insight into the evolution of written storytelling. The Tale of Genji is a masterclass in what not to do in the modern age. It is almost entirely tell, don't show. We are told that characters (especially women) are inelegant, unsophisticated, deficient in some way - we are rarely afforded any insight into their private thoughts or their subtle mannerisms, and there is no subtext in the prose or dialect. It is very bluntly 'what you see is what you get.'

It is also possibly one of the longest works in existence. Volume one is 35.5 hours long, and volume two is 37 hours long. I thought Bill Homewood deserved a medal for narrating 68 hours of Les Miserables, but Brian Nishii probably deserves a lifetime achievement award. It even beats War and Peace.

Unlike Les Mis, absolutely nothing seems to happen in Genji. It is purely a litany of his romantic conquests, more than a few that are not only distasteful by today's standards, but also shocked other characters in the story at that time: abducting a child from her father to raise her as his wife, making sexual advances on his own daughter, and climbing through windows to persuade women to have sex with him in the middle of the night. Genji is entirely self-obsessed and uses his privilege and good looks to 'seduce' (mostly coerce) women into sex. He's not a loveable rogue, there's nothing picaresque about him, he is just utterly unlikeable - for 35 straight hours. I don't know about the rest because I haven't listened to it. I think I need a couple of years' break before I tackle volume two.

It is worth pointing out that, as a story, it's dreadful, but as a piece of historical documentation about the customs and culture of the time, it is intriguing. So, a distinction should really be made between its entertainment value and its historical worth.


Google banner from Japan celebrating 1,000
years since The Tale of Genji. 
1 November 2008

One of the interesting historical points came quite early on, where it spoke of young boys receiving their first pair of trousers:

When the young prince turned three, the court observed the ceremony of the donning of his first trousers.

This was called 'breeching' in Europe and America:

Breeching was the occasion when a small boy was first dressed in breeches or trousers. From the mid-16th century until the late 19th or early 20th century, young boys in the Western world were unbreeched and wore gowns or dresses until an age that varied between two and eight... Breeching was an important rite of passage in the life of a boy, looked forward to with much excitement, and often celebrated with a small party. It often marked the point at which the father became more involved with the raising of a boy. - Wiki

Interesting that a custom from 1,000 years ago in China was also popular 500 years ago in Europe. The reasons cited are practical, for potty training.

Something else that piqued my interest was the mention of sea tangle, a type of seaweed that I discovered here in Rwanda a year or two ago. 



As I mention in the video, I think the most intriguing aspect of the book is why Murasaki Shikibu, if she was indeed a real person and a woman, chose to write such a misogynistic, unlikeable character, and why that proved so popular at the time?

My key theory is that the book is supposed to be read as a satire, not as straight fiction. If you consider that women of the age were not often formally educated, and if they were, they weren't supposed to flaunt it, then holding up a mirror to male society and saying 'aha, we know what you get up to,' would have been quite shocking. Perhaps it made the women laugh and provided men with a checklist of bad behaviour to make themselves feel better: 'yes, I might be a rogue, but I haven't done half the things Genji has.'

And I know it sounds hypocritical of me to berate a character for doing 'whatever he likes to whoever he likes,' especially after Rosy Hours, but I like to think that was at least entertaining? Not too predictable? A little subversive? Genji is more like what would happen if you took all the murder and mayhem out of American Psycho and just left the Phil Collins passages. 

I don't know. I can't quite figure it out. 

If you have any ideas, do drop a comment.

I'm really glad I have access to this and was afforded the opportunity to read it. Like I say, the translation and narration are excellent. I'm just mystified by the work itself. Especially when you take the poetry of ancient Mesopotamia from around 4,000 years ago, where women are liberated as fuck in fiction, constantly talking about their vulvas and wrapping male gods around their little fingers. It just seems odd that there's no real adventure or story behind it - other than sexual conquest. At least with the Mesopotamians you got sexual conquest, journeys to the underworld, devastating floods, islands where no one grows old... rich fantasy. There's a couple of demonic spirits in this who cause sickness, death and mental illness, but they're few and far between. Mostly, it's just Genji trying to get off with his daughter or anyone else in a skirt. 

Enough now. I think you get the gist. I'd love to hear from anyone who really liked it, and what they liked about it. I'm trying to view it from different angles to see if there's something I've missed.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Interview: William Bracewell

 

My incredibly talented, down-to-earth and exceedingly Welsh cousin, Billy, talking about his career in ballet. If you ever get the chance to see him dance live, please do. 


Thursday, 30 September 2021

Dragging My Feet


 

Ugh.

I'm at 390 pages of about 450 pages edited and I haven't done any in days.

Too much. Too many pages. Too many words. 

Make it short now please, yes, thank you.

I have also fallen down the rabbit hole of YouTube recently. Instead of editing the novel that I need to get finished, I have been making YouTube videos about Rwandan KFC and avocado chocolate mousse... Why? I have no idea.

I just can't decide whether I like YouTube or not. It makes me very uncomfortable, but I can't seem to stop doing it. First off, I hate the way I look on camera. It's dreadful. People say that about the way their voices sound when recording, but I've always quite liked my voice, and I find it easy to manipulate, to make it low and sexy or curt and direct. But you can't really do much about the way you look, and YouTube is full of beautiful people. Trevor Noah did an interesting piece on how constantly being online is affecting women's self-confidence: "humans didn't evolve to see their own faces all the time."  It's hard to feel comfortable, but I think I'm getting over it.

It also totally blows the mystique for any writer, and the viewing figures show that. It's been shown in previous studies that people fall in love with books rather than authors, and authors giving opinions and being actual people can put readers off pretty fast. So, there's a big risk in authors doing YouTube. It's like that whole photos on CVs thing. When people read a book, they have often never seen the author, and they imagine the best version of that person. When they do see a picture, or an interview, or hear the author's voice, it rarely lives up to the illusion.

Finally, the reason authors love writing is that it gives you time to consider what you want to say and to find the perfect words to do so. Whereas, videos are way more immediate. Yes, you can edit, but only to a certain extent. Fixing videos in post is way harder than fixing text in post. Writing, you can completely rewrite, whereas video takes a lot more effort to refilm. It also takes people more effort to quote from text than to copy and repost video clips. So, you feel a lot more social anxiety about it.

I just don't know if I like it or not. I swing wildly between 'make more videos!' and 'delete everything!' I don't know if I'll keep doing it or not, but, for the time being, it's interesting and there aren't that many people doing it in Rwanda.

I'm a bit annoyed as I have another channel with over 220 subscribers, and I have no idea how I got them. One of my videos about intore dancing racked up more than 30,000 views. But there's no way to transfer people over to my new channel, and that only has 45 subscribers, even though I feel the content is more interesting. It's irksome that the videos where I don't appear and don't talk get huge likes, but the ones where I do barely get any. 

I've been watching a lot of YouTubers talking about the social anxiety that goes with content creation, and the importance of not taking it too seriously - and the issues surrounding YouTube rewarding clickbait rather than quality content (because it's all about advertising revenue). So, I think, so long as it's just a side hobby, there's no harm in it. However, it is distracting me from writing a lot. I probably would have finished editing Sargon by now if I hadn't started making videos (and watching a shit ton of them). 

So... I don't know.

I'm having focus issues right now.

I'd love to hear from other writers with YouTube channels - what their feelings are about it and whether it's a constructive use of time or not? Is creating video content fundamentally at odds with the writer's psyche?

Saturday, 25 September 2021

Baron Book Prize



Shout out to a book prize run by Baron Books, which my friend Matthew founded.

 

The BARON Book Prize is an annual prize, which recognises book projects from emerging artists and image-makers who have created projects investigating gender, sex, sexuality and identity politics. 

BARON was launched in 2011, stocked worldwide in 26 different markets, many of our books are in collections, including the book collections at MoMA, NYC and The LUMA Foundation.

The prize is open to artists and image-makers working in any medium, from anywhere in the world, over the age of 18, are invited to apply. The winner will receive the opportunity to work with BARON in publishing their book project. The winners will be announced in December 2021, and their book published  as part of BARON’S summer 2022 catalogue, with global distribution.

FULL INFO HERE


Friday, 24 September 2021

Musical Interlude: Save Your Tears Lo-Fi Edition


I'm all tingly for lo-fi. Some great tracks out there. I'll talk about my ASMR intrigue another time, but this kinda feeds into that. I just find some of the lo-fi stuff insanely relaxing. Its scratchy quality just seems to improve any track. The first one on this is a slowed-down, lo-fi version of The Weeknd Save Your Tears (original/Ariana Grande remix). It's such a gorgeous track anyway, reminds me a bit of On Melancholy Hill with that same kind of sadness - err, melancholy. Slowing it down and roughing it up really works.  

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. 

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Ansikurra - The History of Horses


I need to take a deep breath before I begin this one.

I have just completed 300 pages of editing, with 230 more to go.

I finished the manuscript at around 147,000 words and 478 pages.

The edit has just been supersizing this. I'm now at 165,000 words and 532 pages.

It's been a trip.

As in, I really tripped up in places. I need to rewrite the entirety of chapter 19, which is a lengthy battle scene involving horses...

Did you know the Sumerians didn't have horses?

Yeah, neither did I until a couple of days ago. So, there's plenty of depictions of Sumerians racing around in horse-drawn chariots, like the Standard of Ur (c. 2,600 BC). 




Only, those aren't really horses as you and I would know them. They're more sort of donkeys (look at the tail).

The images we're used to associating with ancient warfare, like this one, come in around the Neo-Assyrian period, about 1,500 years later.




Even then, they're not using stirrups or saddles. The Sumerians had a word, pala meaning a long, quilted saddle cloth. Probably much like the person above is sitting on. It provided a little cushioning between the bum and the back of the horse. 

There is a word in Akkadian, taapsu (taap-shu), which is translated as 'saddle'. In Turkish, you get pal-tar. This is also translated as 'saddle,' or in modern Turkish (through Google Translate) as 'coat'. So, again, perhaps pal-tar is more like a padded blanket than an actual leather saddle that you or I would recognise. 

Saddles as we know them today are thought to originate around 365 AD with the Sarmations, and were widely adopted by the Mongolian Huns. The Romans also had an earlier version of a saddle, but it didn't have stirrups. 

Pal-tar does seem rather like a portmanteau of pala and taapshu, which is not implausible as both Sumerian and Akkadian were spoken in the same region at the same time. This serves to highlight the problem when researching things like this. Although taapsu is translated as 'saddle,' it is more likely to just mean a padded blanket. The Akkadians also had a word for reins (asatu) and their donkeys do appear to wear them, but again, this could mean many things. In the pictures above, they appear to be attached to a muzzle around the nose. Other descriptions speak of a ring through the lip, much like a bullring. There is an Akkadian word for a horse-bit (ispardu/isperdu/ispar), but I don't know when these words came into the language. Akkadian was spoken from the 3rd millennia to the 1st, spanning the period of history when horses were introduced. I am writing c. 2300 BC, right on the cusp of their introduction. I know horses do not exist at the beginning of my story, but they may exist towards the end, especially as the conquest of cities stretches to the hill regions beyond Sumer. 

The Sumerians had the word sisu for horse, and the Akkadians had several words for horse and horse breeds: kilidar, sissu, sullamu, musarkisu, and even a couple of words meaning 'battle horse': mur nisqi and murnisqu. But the two questions here are, 1) how did they define a horse? Are these words for modern horse breeds or for something more like a donkey, and 2) when did these words come into being? The last known Akkadian document dates to the 1st century AD, so horses were very well established by then, and 'war horse' may well have become a common sight.

Although I find it quite hard to accept that people harnessed horses to chariots before they decided to ride them into war, this does appear to be the case. Horses, at that time in Mesopotamia, appear to have been strong, but rather small. Donkeys could pull chariots in teams and transport heavy loads as pack animals, but they were unlikely to have been strong enough to carry a man into battle. They certainly wouldn't have provided the height advantage that medieval war horses did. 

Horses, as we know them, did exist in the world, but over in Kazakhstan, where horse riding was becoming a bit of a specialty. The first horses were apparently ridden there around 5,500 years ago (3,500 BC). They then seem to have migrated down the mountainous regions into Mesopotamia. They may also have arrived through modern-day Iran. The mountain-dwelling Lullubi tribes were said to have a large supply of horses, and the Sumerians apparently distinguished this larger animal as ansikurra, meaning 'donkey of the mountain.'



This is what I've gleaned so far, and please do correct me if I've got something wrong.

Unfortunately, all of this means that I now have to go back and rewrite all the battle scenes involving horses to feature donkey chariots instead. It certainly changes the logistics of the battle quite a bit. 

I keep coming back to an essay that Bernard Cornwell (author of the Sharpe series) wrote years ago, where he got pulled up for including snowdrops in a scene, when they hadn't yet been imported from Turkey yet. 

The internet makes researching so much easier, but it also makes it easier for readers to check your writing and spot major historical mistakes. It's both extremely helpful and a complete headache at the same time. 

Enough about horses.

As for the edit, it's been tough. Really tough. So far, the story starts strong, and it's getting better after halfway, but there was a real slump in the middle where I just couldn't face it for a few days. It is by far the roughest draft I've ever written, and a lot needs fixing. I'm just trying to get it to the stage where I can show it to Leif and get my historical facts checked, but I think there will be several more edits after that.




Monday, 6 September 2021

Gilgamesh-themed Words With Friends

I'm a bit of a Scrabble fanatic. There's this progress map where you level up through genres such as Romance, Horror, and Adventure. I'm currently on Ancient Epics, and you can imagine my joy to discover I'm on the Epic of Gilgamesh!  



Saturday, 4 September 2021

The Virtues of War

 

I hit a bit of a slump with editing a while back, so I watched an interview with a couple of historical fiction authors to try and draw courage, and ended up buying a couple of their books. One of them was The Virtues of War by Steven Pressfield: 

EVERYTHING IS THERE FOR THE TAKING

He ascended to the throne of Macedon at the age of nineteen.

He conquered the seemingly invincible Persian Empire before he was twenty-five.

He died at the age of thirty-two, undefeated by any enemy.

His reputation as a warrior and leader of men remains unsurpassed in the annals of history. We remember him as Alexander the Great...

It was outstanding. Alexander the Great, told in first person. An astonishing undertaking and perfectly executed.

Certainly didn't reassure me about my own position, but I'm very glad I read it. It was a real insight into the Greek war machine and how battles were staged back then. It's a lot later than the period I'm writing about, but there's some similarities, in that Sargon must have been very young as well when he came to power. It's fairly inconceivable that such young men could command such great armies. But, I suppose that's what happens when you don't have television and Instagram. 

One of my least favourite things is writing battle scenes. I just don't enjoy it very much, but this really helped. It showed me how they can be written. How much detail to include and how much to leave out. How to involve the reader in the action. Pressfield confirmed my nagging suspicion that historical fiction is better in first person. It lends power to a powerful character. 

It was also beautifully written: 

The plain at Chaeronea runs northwest by southeast. The ground is in lavender and fragrant herbs, perfume plants, with the fortified acropolis on the rising ground to the south and Mount Acontion opposite across the pan. 

*

These fight under the colors of Arsites, whose pennant is a golden crane on a field of scarlet. The Persians call these standards "serpents" for their long snaky shape and the way they writhe upon the wind.

*

The passes across the Taurus out of the north are called the Cilician Gates. This is a wagon road, so steep in places that a mule's ass hole will open up and whistle, so mightily must the beast strain to haul its load, and so narrow in parts, the locals say, that four men abreast who start up as strangers will reach the other side as very good friends.

*

"Alexander, your character and works will be judged not by Athenians, however illustrious their city may once have been, or by any of your contemporaries, but by history, which is to say by impartial, objective truth." Antipater was right. From that day, I vowed never to squander a moment's care over the good opinion of others. May they rot in hell. 

*

The sight of their king in arms rendered timid men brave and brave men prodigious. His years of campaign were not thirteen. Who has won what he has? Who shall ever again? What Alexander said of his beloved Bucephalus may be applied to his own case: that he belonged to no one, not even himself, but only to heaven. Why does Zeus send prodigies to earth? For the same reason He makes a comet streak across the sky. To show not what has been done, but what can be.

Highly recommended. 

Friday, 3 September 2021

Hamwe Short Story Contest


The University of Global Health Equity is running a writing competition as part of the Hamwe Festival 2021.

It focuses on life during COVID. Those aged 18-30 can enter from anywhere in the world, in French or English. Deadline is 12th September 20201. Top prize, $1,000.

FULL DETAILS

Thursday, 2 September 2021

Desktop Tour of Rwanda

In Rwanda, we have recently come out of a third lockdown. To keep myself occupied during the last one, I thought I'd put together a little compilation of places I like to visit when things are normal and we're all free to move about. I realised that I take very little camera footage, so they're not as glossy as most travel videos on YouTube, but they were fun to do and hopefully it's useful for anyone planning a visit. 

I did a short video for each of the five provinces: North, East, South, West and Kigali.

Welcome to my world. 











Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Slaughterhouse-Five

 

Just finished this.

Slaughterhouse-Five is the now famous parable of Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran and POW who has, in the later stage of his life, become "unstuck in time" and who experiences at will (or unwillingly) all known events of his chronology out of order and sometimes simultaneously.

Traumatized by the bombing of Dresden at the time he had been imprisoned, Pilgrim drifts through all events and history, sometimes deeply implicated, sometimes a witness. He is surrounded by Vonnegut's usual large cast of continuing characters (notably here the hack science fiction writer Kilgore Trout and the alien Tralfamadorians, who oversee his life and remind him constantly that there is no causation, no order, no motive to existence). The "unstuck" nature of Pilgrim's experience may constitute an early novelistic use of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder; then again, Pilgrim's aliens may be as "real" as Dresden is real to him.

Struggling to find some purpose, order, or meaning to his existence and humanity's, Pilgrim meets the beauteous and mysterious Montana Wildhack (certainly the author's best character name), has a child with her, and drifts on some supernal plane, finally, in which Kilgore Trout, the Tralfamadorians, Montana Wildhack, and the ruins of Dresden do not merge but rather disperse through all planes of existence.

Brilliant.

Really brilliant.

One of those titles you always hear about, but for some reason I hadn't gotten around to reading. Glad I did. Loved the drifting in and out of time periods. That's quite hard to pull off whilst still taking the reader with you. Vonnegut managed it perfectly. Highly recommend. 

The story of the Children's Crusade was interesting, and a part of history I didn't know about. 

The part about pornography and photography carried rather an echo of The Poignancy of Old Pornography

The stills were a lot more Tralfamadorian than the movies, since you could look at them whenever you wanted to, and they wouldn’t change. Twenty years in the future, those girls would still be young, would still be smiling or smouldering or simply looking stupid, with their legs wide open. Some of them were eating lollipops and bananas. They would still be eating those. And the peckers of the young men would still be semi-erect, and their muscles would be bulging like cannonballs. 

The book also brought back interesting memories for me. I once drove to Dresden just to look at it. It's one of those places you grow up hearing about.

“As you know, I am from a planet that has been engaged in senseless slaughter since the beginning of time. I myself have seen the bodies of schoolgirls who were boiled alive in a water tower by my own countrymen, who were proud of fighting pure evil at the time.” This was true. Billy saw the boiled bodies in Dresden. “And I have lit my way in a prison at night with candles from the fat of human beings who were butchered by the brothers and fathers of those schoolgirls who were boiled. Earthlings must be the terrors of the Universe!”

I think I spent a day wandering around there on my way back from Poland. I remember a toy museum...




Obviously, you don't read a book like this without looking up the author.

He was interned in Dresden, where he survived the Allied bombing of the city in a meat locker of the slaughterhouse where he was imprisoned. 

 

So it goes...