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.