Monday, 19 April 2021

Where to Find Cover Art for your Book

 

Here's a little bit of information on my favourite place to find cover art for your books.

Check out The Book Cover Designer and Ghostwood's article on how they made the cover for Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran.

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Electronic Dreams

 

 

From the ancient world to the modern, I picked up a copy of Electronic Dreams: How 1980s Britain Learned to Love the Computer:

Remember the ZX Spectrum? Ever have a go at programming with its stretchy rubber keys? Did you marvel at the immense galaxies of Elite on the BBC Micro or lose yourself in the surreal caverns of Manic Miner on the ZX Spectrum? For anyone who was a kid in the 1980s, these iconic computer brands are the stuff of legend.

In Electronic Dreams, Tom Lean tells the story of how computers invaded British homes for the first time, as people set aside their worries of electronic brains and Big Brother and embraced the wonder technology of the 1980s. This book charts the history of the rise and fall of the home computer, the family of futuristic and quirky machines that took computing from the realm of science and science fiction to being a user-friendly domestic technology. It is a tale of unexpected consequences, when the machines that parents bought to help their kids with homework ended up giving birth to the video games industry, and of unrealized ambitions, like the ahead-of-its-time Prestel network that first put the British home online but failed to change the world. Ultimately, it's the story of the people who made the boom happen, the inventors and entrepreneurs, like Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar, seeking new markets, bedroom programmers and computer hackers and the millions of everyday folk who bought in to the electronic dream and let the computer into their lives. 

Really entertaining read and highly nostalgic. I spent many happy - and exhausting - hours wandering around Olympia with my dad as a kid, visiting the huge tech Expo they used to have there each year. I think one of my strongest memories was being captivated by the graphics on Kings Quest Seven and thrilled to go home with a copy.

Computers were such a huge part of my childhood. My dad was an early enthusiast, so I played Paddington Bear, Paperboy and other games on the ZX Spectrum - he still has a working one. My Uncle Clive was big into computers and had an early Mac. I remember spending hours playing Shufflepuck Café on that and being so disappointed that there wasn't a version for PC.

Before all that were the text-based games like Escape from Titanic, The Hobbit and that one where you played Denis Thatcher, trying to find a drink in 10 Downing Street without getting caught by Margaret. That game was actually mentioned in this book. Then, in my teens, discovering MUDs and losing myself in those for hours.

There were a couple of things I felt it missed out, which played a huge part in my experience of computers growing up. The first was the switch from CGA to VGA monitors. That had a massive impact on gaming. I remember playing Lemmings in magenta and cyan, then seeing it in full colour on a VGA. That was quite something. 

The other thing I was surprised didn't even get a mention was Fidonet. I ran up huge phone bills dialling international BBSs, such as Demon's Domain and Carnac, searching for the esoteric.

Just reading the book brought back so many memories of random games like Pipe Dreams, one where you used the mouse to shoot targets, and one with a cat called Niko who went from window to window. So many I remember playing but don't entirely remember the names of.

I bought dad a copy of this, and he loved the nostalgia too:

Just started but really well researched/written. Remember the Speccy (still have it) n was saving up for a Dragon when Amstrad hit the market 😊Also brought back memories of early Leicester making a bit of extra cash punching data cards to input into early academic puters. Loved the bit about the role of early Dr Who in demonising computers 👿😄

I've always credited a love of RPG games, such as Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, and early involvement in MUDs as being a key driving force in my own desire to write and create stories. Whereas I completely understand parental concerns over kids playing computer games for hours on end, I was like that, and I think I turned out okay. RPGs were great for teaching you problem-solving skills and introducing the entire concept of worldbuilding. MUDs were just amazing for that. When you saw people walking around and interacting with a room you'd built, it made you want to write better, and to imagine bigger things. 

I'm sort of bummed that I missed the really early days of BASIC and learning to code. I recently tried to find a decent Python course online, but it was dreadful. They basically took a programmer and sat him in front of a screen, explaining what he knew. There was no awareness of where beginners are starting from or how people learn. Apparently, it's rare to find a programmer - or a programming course designer - with experience of teaching. I've always had a passing interest in coding, but always felt I was too far behind to catch up. If a better course presents itself, I might give it a go, so please do drop suggested links below.

Anyway, really enjoyed this book. If you're British and grew up in the 80s and early 90s, you'll recognise a lot of what's in here, and hopefully it'll bring a smile to your face.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Akkad at 80k

 

The Great Ziggurat of Ur by Tony Caruana

 

Haven't done much writing lately because of work, but finally found some time to push Akkad over the 80k mark yesterday. Another 10k and it can respectably be called a novel, but I reckon it's going to be quite a bit longer than that. 

Anyway, here's a real roughshod excerpt. Apsu (baby Sargon), learns to fight in the Ebla-Mari conflict. Already King of Kish by 22, but a late bloomer on the battlefield. Good practise for the forthcoming showdown with Lugal Zage-Si.





In the north, fighting was fierce. Ibrium took the blunt force of the Mari army. Scores of his men were felled by arrows as they attempted to cross the Euphrates. Alongside sharp metal, the Mari filled clay pots with burning tar and launched them through the air with slingshots. Men ran flailing and screaming, trying to put themselves out, whilst the thick scent of charred flesh filled the lungs of survivors.

To the east, Apsu and Aba rode abreast with the mighty Astabil. Whereas Ibrium was in the prime of life, his skin taut over toned muscle, hair knotted in a fist at the back of his head, Astabil was what Ibrium might someday become. He was a grizzled old warrior with a beard of brittle grey. He bore scars on his face and his arms, several of his teeth were missing, and he wore a cloak of fur over his armour which seemed to double his size. He looked fearsome beneath a pointed helmet, trimmed with leopard skin and scarlet feathers.

“One feather for every kill,” he said. “This is my fifth hat.”

 The first day, they had ridden to a village not far from the border. The place was completely deserted, just a huddle of houses on a grassy plain.

“The people here,” Astabil explained, “are tired of war. First, they were Eblites, then they were Mariotes, then Eblites again, and so on. They were forced to change direction so many times, they no longer knew which way they walked. They got lost out there on those phantom-haunted steppes, and now this is a ghost village. Some nights, the wind rips through so strong you can still hear the screams of babes on the birthing bed. And you stop to listen, because you know those babes long-since grew to be men, and went to war, and will never come home again. Yet still, it was here they first opened their eyes on the world. It is here they return to in death.”

During the two days they spent there, allowing time for Ibrium to travel north, Astabil and his men tried to teach Apsu and Aba about warfare. It began good-naturedly, in a teasing, cajoling sort of way.

“Hey, Kish boy,” one of them addressed Apsu, knowing full well he was a king. “How’d you get a throne without ever learning to fight?”

Apsu smiled and joked in return, and the training had been light, almost a game.

Then their faces hardened, and the blows grew firm, and the two friends understood that these were lessons that would keep them alive.

“Don’t you dare go playing the hero,” Astabil warned. “If I see you ahead of me in the charge, or if I tell you to stay put and turn to find you’ve moved, I will haul you out of there and kill you myself. A battle is never about one man. Certainly, it may look like each man for himself, and your sole purpose is to stay alive, but it is to stay alive so that you can continue to fight beside your brother. Because you can be damned sure your brother is fighting for you, so that you both get to go home to your wives. You are not a single person out there, though you will never have felt more alone. Each action, each reaction, each breath that you take is on behalf of the beast. We move as one, ferocious, monster and we do not stop until we have devoured our prey. And I am the head of that beast. You take your orders from me, King of Kish, you do as I say – and we live. But should you be foolhardy enough to think for yourself, I will not slow down to save you. I have all of these men, all twenty thousand of them, to think of, and you are only one tooth in my jaw. Do you understand me?”

“I understand,” Apsu replied.

And he did understand.

In fact, he understood three things in that moment. The first of those things was that Astabil was possibly the most frightening man he had ever encountered. More so even than Zage-Si, for Zage-Si restrained his emotions. You could never tell what the King of Uruk thought by the expression on his face, and what’s more, he kept his face well-groomed and his armpits oiled. He was a warrior, certainly, but he had an air of civility about him. With Astabil, no such civility remained. He was a man who had grown up on the harsh terrain of the north, who had wandered the wilderness with the nomadic Didnu, and broken bread with Anubanini, the legendary King of the Lullubi. He was known to worship Sakkan, god of wild animals, and it was said in hushed tones about the fires at night that he could himself turn into a wolf at will, and frequently did, leaving late at night beneath a moonless sky, and returning in the morning with the head of his enemies between his teeth. Apsu did not doubt those stories for a moment.

The second thing that he knew was that, upon the roiling belly of this beast, which was limbering up to devour the hell-fiend of Mari, he was not the only flea. Even if Astabil would not wait for him, even if he trampled over Apsu with a thousand of his men, he, Apsu, would always look behind to see where Aba was. Of all the twenty-thousand men spread across the plains that night, eyes shining up at the stars shining down, he and Aba were the only two who had never charged headlong into battle. He wanted it to be thrilling, he wanted to savour the moment when all the world stood still, as the men assured him it would, yet he also knew that it would be terrifying, and that it would change him, and that there was a very real possibility he might die. Whatever happened, he would not let go of his friend’s hand. Aba was a simple saffron picker from the mountains, filled with fresh air and glossy with evening dew. He’d be up there still if the two of them had never met. If Apsu hadn’t spent a season there as a boy, and persuaded Aba to sample the temptations of city life. However much Aba had enjoyed those temptations, Apsu was determined that his friend would live to stain his fingers gold again. He would not die this day in the arid earth of a foreign land.

And finally, should every thread slip from his grasp, and should he no longer be able to weave his own destiny, Apsu knew, as surely as he knew the first two things, that he would fall into the arms of the woman he loved. The woman whose figure still paced the empty hallways of his heart. Whose steps still echoed through his mind, as he raced to catch that simple scrap of blue skirt, disappearing between the trees. Masarru would come for him. She would know where he lay, and she would reach down to pluck him from this messy, mortal world where shattered dreams slid like splinters into the joy of youth.

He was ready.

Should it come to pass, he would embrace death as a lover’s kiss.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

The History of Creative Writing

 

Here's a little tour de force of the 4,000-year history of creative writing, from ancient moon priestesses to the modern digital age.

Saturday, 10 April 2021

Gilgamesh Rolling Pin

  

 

Oh, this is delightful! You can now roll the Epic of Gilgamesh into your pastry in its original cuneiform. Shamelessly shared from this blog here. There's even a recipe for a gingerbread tablet.

Friday, 9 April 2021

Kismet

 

Shout out to my very cool cousin, Sali Bracewell (<---even her website is amazing).

Her album Kismet is out. You can find it on Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music and Bandcamp, as well as following her on Facebook and Instagram.

I was a bit fascinated with the track Mickey Plum, and she explained it's an old Lancashire poem her paternal grandmother, Olive, used to recite. She managed to record her before she passed and added her to the album in remembrance. I just thought it was so unusual and good.

Show some love and support artists through lockdown x

Monday, 5 April 2021

Go Go Disco Janet!


 

Thanks to Netflix, I finally got to see the final series of The Good Place last night. Like most people, I was crawling on the floor by the end. Kudos to a series that knows when to end, and went out in incredible style. That really was quite a ride.

There's been a few series lately that have appeared deceptively funny then turned out to be forking profound. My top three have been:

 


Hotel Del Luna

This is similar to The Good Place, in that there are moments of extreme silliness and it's deceptively comical at times. However, it's much darker and the episodes, at around an hour and a half, are much longer. 

It's all about a hotel where souls go when they die, to recover from life before heading on to reincarnation. It's run by a woman who cannot die because she's got a few issues to work through before she can let go of her former life.

As with TGP, you really get to know and care about the characters, which leads up to a hell of a finale. Make sure you have a cupboard full of tissues and a generous quantity of gin.

More about Korean soaps here.


 

The Good Place

Just brilliant. A very silly, very light-hearted look at mortality and morality in short, bite-sized episodes. Extremely easy to binge watch. Having said that, it poses some great philosophical dilemmas and leads up to a final series that is both heartbreaking and wonderfully fulfilling. As someone online put it, 'one of the most wholesome series out there.' 

It's about a group of people who wake up dead in the afterlife and think they're in heaven, or 'the good place.' But that's not entirely true, and they have some entertaining adventures working that out. 

It's easy to dismiss it at first because it is so glossy and upbeat, but that's how it pulls you in. It's best to watch it in one go. I found, with long gaps between releases, that it was hard to remember what had happened in the previous season by the time the next one came out.

As mentioned above, it had a really satisfying ending. It didn't do a Dexter or anything silly like that. Which is my only criticism with Hotel Del Luna, which also had an excellent finale, but then couldn't resist adding a little teaser trailer on the end for a potential next series that, thankfully, hasn't materialised. When a series is so good, you should leave it there. Immortalise it - which is a funny thing to say about a series dealing entirely with mortality.

TGP did a great job all round. We love you Disco Janet!


 After Life

This one is a slightly different fish to the other two, in that it's written and acted by a comedian, Ricky Gervais, but isn't all that funny. Or, rather, it's funny in a British way, which is my native humour, so I appreciate it, but I can see how it might come across as a bit bleak to other cultures. It's more of a serious drama with moments of comedy, rather than the other way around.

Still, it's absolutely excellent. Again, dealing with death and morality. Whereas Hotel Del Luna is about reincarnation, and The Good Place is a bit more Judeo-Christian in its outlook, in terms of heaven and hell, this one is from the atheist perspective. 

It's about a guy who's just lost the love of his life to cancer, and how he copes (or doesn't) with life after her death. It's very well done. It's the calm to TGP's crazy.


So, there you go. My top picks on the theme of life, death and in between.

Saturday, 3 April 2021

Andy Mwag

  

This is the latest video by my lovely friend Andy Mwag. He's a really talented musician, and used to play each week here in Kigali. Seriously, the best live music in the city, often with guest appearances from amazing DRC and Burundian musicians. Me and my friend Harris had some brilliant nights out with the Viva Beats crew. 

 


Sadly, when COVID hit, it completely wiped out the live music scene in Kigali. As a gigging musician, Andy couldn't make enough to support his wife and two young kids, so they had to move back to their home country of Burundi, which required special permission from their embassy as all the borders were closed. It was a really sad day to see them go, and my friend Emmy drove them to the checkpoint.

At the Border between Rwanda and Burundi

He's still continuing to make music in Burundi, but life is not much easier. For as long as restrictions and social distancing remain in place, many musicians are struggling to make a living.

If you'd like to help support him, you can buy his music online.