Monthly Archives: April 2010

Writing a landscape – you’ll be lost if you don’t…

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You’ve got this great story with a really neat ending. You’ve nailed the character – there was this teacher at your school who, with a bit of tweaking, will fit snugly into the part.

Fizzling with creative excitement, you spend the next week slaving over the computer. But on returning to your masterpiece for the first editing session, you are disappointed. It, somehow, seems rather flat. Which is odd – because the character is just as you envisaged and that cool plot twist has worked well, too. Chances are, if you are still scratching your head, your story is lacking an adequate setting. It’s crucial. But can get easily overlooked while trying to marshal all the other vital ingredients necessary to write a zinger.

Another classic ‘newbie’ writing fault is to give us a quick sketch during the opening paragraphs and then never touch on the scenery surrounding the action, again. However, it’s a tricky balancing act. Neither do we want detailed descriptions stretching into paragraphs, where your characters seem to have vanished while you are busy telling us about the lashing rain/drenched cityscape/squalid neighbourhood… How to get the mix just right, so that your characters and action are adequately anchored, without drowning your story in too much description?

This is where our old friend POV (point of view) comes to the rescue. You filter your backdrop through your protagonist– her thoughts, actions and reactions to the weather/Christmas shopping crowds/the herd of cows clogging up the country lane…

If you have multiple viewpoints, you can have some fun with one character loving the café – while another loathes it. Take care if you are writing short fiction, though. I don’t generally recommend switching viewpoints in any story less than 2,500 words. It CAN be done effectively, but you need to be skilful to pull it off.

Writing science fiction, my everyday surroundings can be of limited or no help. I find that using my characters to describe their landscape (or spacescape) is a huge help in getting the setting sufficiently depicted.

At times, I have also found the writing frame below to be useful in jogging my elbow. Although it is fairly crude, notice how it employs all the senses, ensuring that I haven’t neglected any of them. I’ve found it handy when writing a number of scenes in my books, when I don’t necessarily want to describe everything single thing around me to my readership – but I sure as heck want my character to be able to visualise it…

The air was ………………………………………… around me. A few steps in front of me I could see…………………………………
and above me ………………………………………… . The sound of
…………………………………………could be heard. To my right, ……………………………………, while to my left, ……………………
………………………… . Listening, I could hear …………………… …………………and the smell of ………………………………………… filled my nose. It felt ………………………………………… .

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Review of House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

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This novel of Reynolds is not part of his Revelation series, though posthumans still figure largely in the plot and his brain-achingly different worlds are entirely believable.

houseofsunsSix million years ago, at the dawn of the human Starfaring era, Abigail Gentian split herself into a thousand clones and launched them into the galaxy.  Their purpose was to gather more memories and wisdom than a single human could accumulate in a universe bound by Einstein’s laws.  Periodically the shatterlings of Gentian Line meet for a grand bacchanalian reunion, where, over the course of a thousand heady nights, they exchange memories. Two wayward shatterlings, Camion and Purslane, are about to be decades late for Gentian Line’s thirty-second reunion.  Even worse, they have fallen in love; the only thing standing between them and possible excommunication from the Line is the golden robot Hesperus, on the Machine People, the other great meta-civilisation occupying the Milky Way.  But Hesperus is an amnesiac, and all that he can recall is a vague sense that he was on a mission of desperate importance before his memory was wiped. The lovers are hoping that providing a prestigious guest will mitigate their punishment – until an unexpected distress signal makes censure by their fellow clones the least of their worries.  After six million years of stability, someone has decided it is time to end Gentian Line.

It always takes me at least a couple of chapters to become thoroughly engrossed in a Reynolds’ tale.  Partly, because I find it difficult to immediately empathise with the posthuman world and its characters – and partly because the pace at the start of his novels tends to be fairly leisurely.  But the slow start steadily builds into a pan-galactic conspiracy that puts the two major meta-civilisations on a collision course.

As Campion and Purslane become increasingly enmeshed in the immense, shadowy plot to end their Line, the chase across space had me reading deep into the night.  While his characters don’t necessarily leap off the page, their sense of ‘other’ is extremely well depicted and Reynolds is a master at cranking up a plot by alternate revelations and yet more twists.

The themes of extreme time, the accretion of memories and their impact on humankind are familiar ones for Reynolds fans.  But, he also poses an interesting issue in making our main protagonists on one side of a situation, while also very clearly presenting with the other side of the argument – to the extent that I became aware that if faced with a similar situation, I’d probably be opposing the Gentian Line.   I’m still left wondering if that really matters.  Probably not, as it didn’t impede my enjoyment of the book.

However, when building a story for over five hundred pages of tight-packed text, there has to be a worthwhile denouement.  And, in my opinion, the ending certainly doesn’t deliver if Reynolds doesn’t write the sequel to tie off the strands he’s left hanging.   I’m conscious that this type of big concept science fiction is as much about the world-building and themes as the storyline and there may be many fans  who just enjoy the ride, anyhow.   But, for me, the twisting plot and steady building of narrative tension needs the kind of brilliant climactic ending Reynolds gave us in Century Rain to bring House of Suns to a truly satisfying end.

6/10

Review of Grave Sight, Book One of the Harper Connolly series by Charlaine Harris

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Gollancz have brought this series out under their Romance imprint, which has me scratching my head, somewhat.  Because romantic it ain’t.  As far as I’m concerned, it is a cracking paranormal whodunit, written in first person POV by an accomplished writer.

grave sightSometimes, Harper Connolly dreams of buying a house and settling down.  But mostly she just gets on with cris-crossing the States with her stepbrother Tolliver, travelling from one job to another.  Because since a bolt of lightning zapped her on the head, she has an extra talent – Harper can find dead people.  Some people find Harper’s gift useful, but she’s getting used to most people treating her like a blood-sucking leech.  So she concentrates on getting the job done, getting paid and getting out, fast.

However, when they travel to Ozarks to find a missing teenager, things don’t go according to plan.  And while Tolliver is locked up on trumped-up charges, Harper finds herself fighting for her life…

If you like this sub-genre, then this series is a joy.  The character of Harper is delightfully complex – she is often morose, with a disturbed past and the world through her eyes is tautly described.  I relaxed and enjoyed the ride – for Harris is no slouch when concocting a murder plot.  There is a host of likely candidates with a suitably creepy backdrop.   And the denouement – always crucial in these books – is satisfyingly dramatic, with a surprising twist.

The relationship between Tolliver and Harper is another strength in this book.  It is multi-layered and beautifully depicted with not an ounce of sentimentality.  I suppose this is the Romance that allows Gollancz to shoehorn the Harper Connolly series under this imprint.  But don’t go looking for languishing looks and steamy sex.  There isn’t any.  This series is so much better than that…

9/10

Review of Elizabeth’s Journey 1945 by Renate Shave

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This book charts the plight of a set of people not normally considered in the slew of books and films about World War II – German civilians displaced during the fighting. Renate’s moving and unusual story tells of her mother’s efforts to keep herself and her children safe from the advancing threat of the Russian army’s advance through Germany.

elizabethsjourneyIn January 1945, with the weather at its coldest, loudspeakers announce that their hometown, Glogau is to be evacuated the following day. Elizabeth is faced with the prospect of leaving their comfortable home in the depths of winter with a five-year-old daughter and her eleven-year-old brother. This book is about their subsequent adventures as displaced and homeless, they are forced to rely upon the kindness of strangers.

Renate’s very straightforward writing style gives us the full impact of this amazing true story and despite her decision to write the story in her mother’s viewpoint, it is a highly personal one as Renate was the little girl. Apart from the sheer interest of reading a war story with such gripping human interest, I also found it unexpectedly moving. Elizabeth’s unassuming courage shines through. On top of trying to keep her family together, she was also constantly worried about the fate of her husband serving with the German military.

However, Elizabeth’s resourceful bravery isn’t the only admirable aspect of this narrative. By 1945, the German population knew the war was coming to an end. Food rationing and shortages of every description were part of daily life – as it was throughout Europe. But in addition, the terrible fear of the Russians and what they would do to the civilians – particularly the women – was an ever-present cloud on the horizon. Danger was all around. People died in the firefight between the Americans and Russians and Renate vividly describes the bombing of Dresden, as the glow in the sky could be seen miles away.

I was half expecting tales of hoarding and the constant fear of violence that a lone woman travelling with two young children must have felt. And yet, in the face of all these destabilising terrors, the vast majority of people encountered by the vulnerable, homeless family were generous, freely offering food and shelter to them – and later, extended their hospitality to Renate’s grandparents when they also had to leave Glogau.

I was struck by the gritted determination to keep everything going wherever possible. Elizabeth was able take the children to safety because the trains kept running. They might have been overcrowded and uncomfortable, but they still cris-crossed the country, even after Germany’s surrender. When the family are in Quedlinburg after the Russians take control, the shops and bakery still open as normal.

Having been brought up on a diet of war films and stories depicting Nazi Germany as the nadir of civilisation, this book revealed another side of the country where a war-weary, beaten populace struggled to maintain ordinary, decent lives. It is an inspiring and thought-provoking read that will stay with me for a long time – and one I thoroughly recommend.
9/10

I’m a cockroach, get me outta here…

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At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old woman, I don’t watch I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Outta Here. It’s probably a symptom of my self-obsession, but I just don’t care enough about a bunch of people I occasionally see on TV or in a film to want to watch them messing around in a jungle. However not only do I not watch it, I don’t APPROVE of it.

If a television programme wants to send some semi-famous folk off into the wilds to cavort around in tents, trying to rough it – fine. Muck about trying to cook rice over an open fire; or cross a river with a bridge made out of coconut shells and a ball of twine, by all means. What has me upset is the Bushtucker bit, where live creatures like cockroaches and meal worms are served up for people to eat. Or the hapless little beasts are dumped in baths and/or showers while half-panicking contestants thrash around. There must be a fair proportion of injuries and deaths caused – never mind about the stress of being poured in their hundreds over a squealing starlet, busy trying to flick them off.

Let me hasten to add, I’m not majorly into animal rights. I think the way that the scientists and their families working at Huntington Life Sciences were targeted and terrorised is disgraceful. But, I do wonder where all these do-gooders get to when insects and spiders are being treated like throwaway props all in the name of entertainment. I’m aware that in parts of the world, insects are a staple food. goldfishBut I’m willing to bet that no one appearing on I’m a Celebrity… makes a regular habit of eating live grubs, meal worms or cockroaches. It isn’t part of our culture. There seems to be something of a blind spot, here. When animals are being tested to ensure products are safe for us to use, there are now a set of standards to ensure they are treated as humanely as possible. And quite right, too. If we decide – very reluctantly – that this is the only way to safeguard consumers from damaging and unpleasant side effects, it’s the least that society can do to ensure they are properly cared for.

But, what about the creatures in the jungle? Why are they not covered? Is it because insects and spiders aren’t deemed important enough? Or is it because the local laws don’t cover such things? And why haven’t viewers in their hundreds and thousands protested at the revolting sight of someone chomping down on a wriggling bug?

In 2000, there was an art exhibition in a small museum in Denmark, the Trapholt Art Museum. Artist (I use the term very loosely) Marco Evaristti displayed ten blenders, each containing a goldfish, with the option for the viewing public to liquidise a fish. I’d love to tell you that no one pressed the button. But, of course they did.

Shocked visitors called the police, who charged the museum curator with animal cruelty. The case went to trial, where the charges were dropped because it was decided that the fish died very quickly and ‘humanely’. We live in a funny old world, don’t we? I think the court missed the point. By what right does someone decide that fish have to die on a whim, by calling it art? Or entertainment? These days, Mr Evaristti is very involved in trying to get the death penalty repealed in the USA. I’m hoping it’s because he is now sorry about those goldfish…

 

Review of Hilldiggers by Neal Asher

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The current fashion for ‘show, don’t tell’ that writers keep being nagged to follow by editors has clearly by-passed Asher. The opening pages of this book are groaning with information about the world, political situation and the main characters. That said, given just how background goes into making this story work, I’m not sure how else he could have communicated all this stuff. But, if you’re on the verge of tossing the book to one side, my advice is to hang in there. It gets better – and is seriously worth it if your taste runs to space opera. And I mean the real deal, with epic battles involving space-going juggernauts – the hilldiggers of the title.

hilldiggersA terrible war once raged between the two rival planets within a distant solar system. Over the centuries their human inhabitants had ‘adapted’ themselves to the extremely different conditions on the planets, far outside Polity influence.  In the midst of this merciless conflict, one side encountered an object suspected of being a cosmic superstring employed as a new weapon by their rivals. Their attack on it caused the object to collapse into four parts, found to contain some kind of alien technology or lifeform, which are stored in a secure space station. While conducting research on this alien entity, now known as the ‘Worm’, a female scientist falls pregnant and subsequently gives birth to quads. She then commits suicide by walking directly out into space…

The war was finally brought to an end by the use of new weapons made possible by research on the Worm. Deployed by space dreadnoughts nicknamed ‘hilldiggers’, their destructive power was sufficient to create entire new mountain ranges out of the vanquished planet’s ravaged terrain. Twenty years after the dust has settled, those four exceptional orphans have grown up to assume significant power and influence within the post-war society. And one of this talented brood seems determined to gain complete control over the deadly hilldiggers. But why?

Told in multiple viewpoint with the majority of characters in third person POV, the main protagonist, David McCrooger, an ambassador from the Polity, tells his slice of the story in first person POV. Although a slightly unusual mix, I think it works. McCrooger’s character leaps off the page with more vividness than the rest and his cussed attitude towards authority figures and anyone else who gets in his way starts to make sense when we learn that he has spent time on Spatterjay and was one of the Old Captains. Which revisits one of Asher’s other worlds outstanding by its wholly bloodthirsty fauna.

Although writing believable three-dimensional characters isn’t his particular thing, Asher does excel at rolling out a complex political situation with colliding social customs and taking the reader on a roller-coaster ride through events when the inevitable fireworks start. And to be fair, I think that McCrooger is probably one of Asher’s best characters to date, partly because he proves to be more physically vulnerable than most of Asher’s posthuman creatures.

The themes raised in this book will be familiar to Asher fans – an examination of posthumanity; social breakdown and the pressures that cause it; and whether the pragmatic sacrifice of a few for the benefit of many, although desirable for strong governance, is really a good thing. Once the pace picks up the book cracks along with plenty of action, while bulging with all sorts of ingenious gismos we have come to expect from Asher and is a thoroughly entertaining read.
8/10

Review of The Shadow Pavilion by Liz Williams

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A bit fed up with your urban fantasy detectives? Well, if you do fancy a change from the plethora of vampires and/or werewolves that frequent city streets righting wrongs – then look no further than the Inspector Chen books by Liz Williams.

shadowpavilionSet in a near-futuristic city, Singapore Three, Inspector Chen is a Chinese police officer whose remit takes him into Heaven and Hell to investigate crimes. Having said that, the vivid characters surrounding him easily eclipse our self-effacing hero. Chen’s wife is a half-demon on the run from Hell and her pet protector is a badger whose lethal persistence are matched only by his bite and ability to turn himself into a teakettle. Williams even manages to make the Celestial Emperor, Mhara, an intriguing personality – which is a feat. Ineffable goodness, while very pleasant, is often rather boring, except in Williams’ hands…

Singapore Three, Heaven and Hell are described with panache in Williams’ vivid prose. This particular story follows the adventures of a Bollywood director who summons up a Tiger demoness to star in one of his films. However, when he tries to send her back, a trail of destruction is unleashed that pulls in Chen’s partner and the badger. And if that wasn’t enough, the fabled Shadow Pavilion houses a formidable assassin, Lord Lady Seijin, contracted to kill an extremely important personage. If Seijin succeeds, the fragile stability of Heaven, Hell and Earth will dissolve into chaos…

Williams’ lush prose whips this story along at a cracking pace. Now that I’ve read previous Inspector Chen novels, know the characters and fully appreciate the world she has created, I was able to relax and thoroughly enjoy the ride. But – and it’s a major But – I didn’t start this series with the first book Snake Agent. And I nearly didn’t bother going any further. Williams – in common with many authors writing multi-book series – doesn’t go in for any type of Foreword or ‘Story So Far’. I am aware that it’s always something of a judgement call. In most series, perhaps the odd sentence here and there, alluding to previous action or characters is sufficient to fill in the reader. But this world is so very different with its richly textured Eastern origins, that I was frankly floundering until I read Snake Agent. I am aware that this is beginning to sound a bit like a hobbyhorse of mine. But all too often these days, my enjoyment in a book is spoilt because I haven’t started a series at the beginning.

And for any writer experiencing these problems – how to write a succinct ‘Story So Far’ in a lively, entertaining style so you won’t alienate your current fans – look no further than John Scalzi’s third book in his Old Man’s War series The Last Colony. The first couple of pages are a masterclass in how to pull off this trick. Liz Williams et al, please take note. Other than this quibble – I found the book a very entertaining read. But, whatever you do, get hold of Snake Agent, first…
8/10

Handy way to keep in touch…

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We all know that mobile music and phone equipment is getting ever dinkier – however there is a stumbling block. The fact that we need to interface with these gismos using our fingers to tap/switch commands and messages means that they have stalled at a certain size and cannot get any smaller.

skinput-1-500x250However, US researchers are in the process of overcoming this hurdle – by using our own bodies. When linked with a projector strapped to the arm, our skin can become the screen on which menu lists, a number/key pad or screen can be projected. Tapping on various parts of the body generates different kinds of vibrations, depending on the muscles, tendons and skeletal shape and density beneath the tapped area. Initial experiments have indicated that it takes about 20 minutes to learn ‘Skinput’, which has a promising prototype accuracy of over 90% when using finger flicks.

“The human body is the ultimate input device,” comments Chris Harrison, one of the project leaders.

When seeing the video of this prototype, I experienced a real sci-fi moment and felt that, particularly with mp3 commands, there is strong potential for this technology.

However, I winced when I saw the bit where they were playing games using the hand as a screen. I’m not a naturally gifted computer game-player – a few rounds of Bejewelled and Tetras is about my limit… But when I’m engrossed, I do tend to give the keys a bit of a pounding. What happens to that complicated set of nerves, muscles and tendons making up the human hand if someone spends extended periods of time jabbing at it? And don’t say that the pain will be a useful indicator. Some of us who are VERY sore losers only notice such details after the game is over…

Maybe, it’s just my cautious nature going into overdrive – but I’ll be thinking twice before stabbing at my precious, irreplaceable hand while playing a quick game on the move.