Books To Read: February 2018

Seems it’s been almost a year since I posted an update on my to read shelf! So: here’s the unread books I have right now.

Actually a fairly modest selection, for the time of year – I didn’t get that many books for Christmas, though I did buy five more afterwards with my Christmas book token. So, here’s what I’ve got sitting around unread right now:

The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson: I’ve read the Odyssey before (several times) but when I heard about this new translation I had to have it asap! I was also very surprised and a little upset to learn that this is officially the first published translation of the Odyssey by a woman. Should be a good read, anyway.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle: this one’s been on my to-read list since I was in school, when a friend recommended it to me in very warm terms. I’ve since heard glowing things about the animated film… but never did get to watching it. It’s better to read the book first, anyway!

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: another one recommended warmly by a friend. I was originally down to review it for Shoreline of Infinity but unfortuantely they couldn’t get a review copy in time. Very much looking forward to this one.

Cadavre Exquis from Medusa’s Laugh Press: an anthology of fiction and poetry that well… well to be honest it looks like a fairly normal anthology it’s just that it consists of loose leafs ‘bound’ with a ‘burial shroud’. Quite hard to take apart and put back together again. Hopefully will be interesting.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys: another one that’s been on my list for a very long time. (Let’s make 2018 the year of cleaning out the to-read list!)

We Have Always Lived In the Castle by Shirley Jackson: I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about this one going in but picked it up on impulse in Waterstones. I’ve been curious about Shirley Jackson since reading some analysis of The Haunting of Hill House but ultimately too much of a scaredy cat to read it so I figured I’d go for something else!

A Story Waiting to Pierce You by Peter Kingsley: a (slightly late) Christmas gift. I’ve heard some odd things about it, reading reviews, but am keeping an open mind for now.

The Doll’s House by Rumer Godden: I’ve had this one on the stack for a while – because I’ve already read it, and love it very much. I picked up this new, very fancy edition last year and haven’t got around to re-reading it yet.

I’m reading Alias Grace at present, and after that I’ll be reading Scourge by Gail Z Martin for Shoreline of Infinity… so it may be a while before I get to the above books. But I’ll get around to them.

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My Week in Writing (18/02/18)

houseI’ve had a pretty busy week! I finished my edit on The Summer Masque and outside of a readthrough of the opening chapters to put a sample together, I have declared it ‘adequate’ and begun writing a query letter. In theory it should not be hard, having written an novel, to write a letter about said novel. In practice… oh dear.

I received (belatedly) my contributor copies of Microtext 3, a very nice (and very tiny) anthology from Medusa’s Laugh Press. I read it more or less in one sitting yesterday and thoroughly recommend it – not just because my writing’s in it! It’s a bit fiddly to read but there’s some really good stuff in there.

I also got, as an apology for the late dispatch of my copies of Microtext, a free book called Cadavre Exquis, which is certainly the most unique book I’ve owned to date. I haven’t read it yet but it came wrapped in a ‘burial shroud’. Very puzzling to receive with no explanation.

I went to see the Wikipedia Slam at the Scottish Poetry Library: slam poets presenting excerpts from Wikipedia articles in the style of their poetry. Very strange, somewhat educational, won by someone who read the article on the subject of rooms.

Today I made peanut butter cookies and went out for lunch at the National Gallery, which is always a good time.

The Green and the Gathering Tide is now over 200k and still climbing. I’m coming up on a good bit so looking forward to working on that later today!

And I submitted a story (at the last minute) to Pulp Literature’s Bumblebee Flash Fiction Contest. Last year I made the shortlist – we’ll see how it goes this time around…

Next week, I’m off to see The Shape of the Water and hopefully also Black Panther so quite excited for that. I’m also getting two fillings which is less exciting. Ah well.

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Review: The Good Place

311711-1I took philosophy for a year at university.

I’d really enjoyed studying it in school – so much so that my original plan was to do a joint honours in classics and philosophy. But sadly the University of Edinburgh doesn’t offer that particular combo.

Anyhow, second semester I had to buy a big, big textbook of articles about moral philosophy. I came to hate it with a passion. In retrospect? I think the turning point may have been the lecture spent discussing the trolley problem.

So there’s a runaway trolley – a trolley is like a tram but no-one really calls them trolleys anymore which makes the whole thing surreal and confusing – there’s a runaway trolley and there’s five people tied to the line, but if you pull a lever you can shift the trolley onto a different track, which only has one person on it. Do you pull the lever?

What if you’re the driver and not a bystander? How about if the five people are on the line as a result of their own incompetence but the one person was an innocent victim? What if instead you’re on a bridge and there’s a really fat guy on the bridge with you and you can stop the trolley by pushing him off? But what if the big fat guy was the real villain all along?

I came to hate studying moral philosophy – and I love The Good Place.

Eleanor Shellstrop has just died in a freak accident (involving shopping trolleys, ironically). She wakes up in the Good Place, the afterlife for good and virtuous people. But there’s been a mistake. Eleanor Shellstrop, full-time misanthrope and fake medicine saleswoman, has been mixed up with Eleanor Shellstrop, human rights lawyer and and lifelong humanitarian.

If anyone finds out Eleanor is not Eleanor, she’ll be sent straight to the Bad Place. So she turns to Chidi Anagonye, a deceased moral philosophy professor, and presents him with a desperate (and ethically fascinating) challenge: teach her how to be a good person.

The Good Place is funny, charming, clever, and deeply philosophical even as it mocks every classical philosopher to hell and back (ha). Chidi’s lessons cover the trolley problem in season 2 and let me tell you, as a former philosophy student, it was cathartic viewing to say the least.

Don’t get me wrong, though. As much as The Good Place pokes fun at moral philosophers (everyone hates moral philosophers, after all), it does so with understanding and respect. Studying from books doesn’t make Eleanor a better person, but it certainly helps.

The grab bag of ethical ideas she arrives at over the course of the show will be familiar to anyone who’s studied moral philosophy. The fact is, there isn’t and won’t ever be a single, all-encompassing theory of ethics. But thinking through theoretical debates will deepen your understanding of yourself and the space you occupy in the world.

Much as I might hate to admit it, I learned from studying the trolley problem. And I learned from watchin NBC’s The Good Place.

If you’re interested in moral philosophy, give The Good Place a watch. If you’re not interested in moral philosophy, watch it anyway. It’s very funny and it has some killer plot twists.

I leave you with this article from Slate which says what I’ve been trying to say in this post but more intelligently, and my all-time favourite ethical thought experiment: Hitler’s Waller.

 

 

 

 

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My Week In Writing (11/02/18)

bridgeA short update this week as it’s very late in the evening  – but I have big news!

My short story 3.8 Missions is going to be featured in Best of British Science Fiction 2017, an anthology from NewCon Press. The anthology will launch over Easter weekend. I’m very excited, to say the least!

Spurred on by my success, I’ve submitted some more short stories, including an entry for the BBC National Short Story Award 2018. Watch that space, just… not very closely.

In other news, The Green and the Gathering Tide has crept up to a tidy 197k so I anticipate hitting 200k (whoops!) next week. And I have finished The Lightning Pit, which was one of those short stories that more or less wrote itself. Looking forward to getting some feedback on it.

And I went to Inky Fingers at Lighthouse Books, which was a delight as always.

Next week, I’m hoping to finish my edit on The Summer Masque and finally make a start on a query letter (gulp). I’m also hoping to make it to The Wikipedia Slam at the Scottish Poetry Library. But mainly I plan to keep plugging away at my various novels.

 

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Adventures in Novelling: Worldbuilding

5310797124_810e65c51e_oI am not a patient person.

I give up on most computer games I try to play as soon as I get hard. I regularly re-read books and notice lines I missed entirely first time around because I was skim-reading. Editing is hard to me because it takes so much effort to focus on my own words, when I know what I meant to say.

A lot of writers of fantasy and science fiction talk about the prep work they do, they time spent researching and making notes and drawing maps and coming up with lore. I… don’t really do that. I don’t have the patience. I dive straight in and make things up as I go along.

Sometimes this results in magic. Sometimes it results in continuity errors. Sometimes it results in… well, one of my novels has three separate alternate worlds referred to as ‘the witching hour’, ‘the other world’ and ‘the land of fairy’ and I’m still not 100% on what the difference is. But I can use them each in a sentence, which for a first draft is the important thing.

The upside of this is, I’m very good at writing first drafts. I also know writers who spent so much time on research and map-making that they never seem to get to actually putting pen to paper.

I used to have that problem – a lot of my writing projects as a child were in actuality world building projects, with everything from drawing characters and animals to endless mapmaking to occasionally branching into lovingly constructed cardboard sculptures.

So, let’s talk about my current novel. While I’ve been working on the world of The Green and the Gathering Tide for a long time (a very long time) there’s a lot of parts of it I’m still unclear on because for most of that time, I didn’t think about them because they were boring to me.

When I finally did begin to put down an actual alternate history I ran into problems right away and ultimately had to throw most of my work out. The problem was sheer laziness. I’m not a patient person. I just slapped an extra island onto the British Isles. It doesn’t work like that!

The magic system and the fantasy material more widely I have fleshed out fully but I’m still a little hazy on how it meshes with real history – because I do want it to mesh with real history.

I just recently watched Lindsay Ellis’s video essay Bright: The Apotheosis of Lazy Worldbuilding, about the Netflix original movie Bright. Bright is set in a high fantasy world based on twenty-first century LA. The worldbuilding is, according to Ellie, not good.

Ellis describes Bright’s worldbuilding as ‘refrigerator magnet worldbuilding’: the world of Bright isn’t a fleshed out fantasy world at all. It’s just the real world, with fantasy elements stuck on top like fridge magnets.

It’s a form of bad worldbuilding I’m aware of but haven’t seen described so bluntly before. It’s something I worry about a lot in my own writing, because while I do want to write fantasy, I do also want to write about world. I’m not trying, in this novel, to create a fully immersive alternate world (not yet, anyhow).

But ‘unless otherwise stated, everything is the same’ will only go so far. At some point I’m going to have to think very seriously about the impact naturally occurring portals to other universes would have on world history. I’m going to have to think about where Wizards fit into the history of the Christian church(es). I’m going to have to think properly about non-human people and how that works.

For now I’m content having fun, laying down the bones of my plot, and exploring my characters. But a first draft can only take me so far. When it comes to my second draft – if it comes to a second draft – I’m going to have to be very patient.

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My Week In Writing (04/02/18)

Dscn0652It’s a month into 2018, and what have I accomplished? If I’m going to be brutally honest very little. Oh well.

I did not have the best week at work, for reasons I can’t go into partly because of privacy and all that and partly because all of them are actively distasteful in some way. However, I will say that a thing happened this week that prompted a ten year department veteran to say that they’d never seen anything like it before. So, that was quite something!

I went to the Edinburgh Literary Salon, where as always I met some interesting people and acquired a new Facebook friend. I also registered my interest with Super Power Agency, which seems like a really great project.

In other work-related news, this week I finished my second proofreading course. My final assignment was graded ‘good’ (previously two were merely ‘acceptable’) and I got a certificate.

The Green and the Gathering Tide is unfortunately sitting at only 192.k (a measly advance on last week’s total) as I’ve been busy. However I did start a new arc which I’ve been very excited about. It’s an action heavy arc (previous arc was a slow-paced character piece) so should be a nice change of pace.

I started a new short story, tentatively titled The Lightning Pit, which is for an ongoing collection of tie-in stories for my as-yet untitled trilogy. It’s a bit of a departure from previous stories – the other ones have all directly tied into the plot and characters of the main trilogy, but this one is set in ancient Rome and is an exploration of the world and concepts.

I’m still reading Alias Grace which I’m finding slow going. It did however, in a roundabout way, inspire The Lightning Pit so I’m getting something out of it.

I also finally finished Planet of the Rani which I found ultimately unsatisfying – I was gearing up for a reveal that I thought was a dead cert, but it never came. Genuinely surprised and disappointed to be wrong. Otherwise it was some fairly run of the mill Big Finish. Up next: Shield of the Jotunn.

And I watched the season two finale of The Good Place, which was… not quite what I expected. I all honesty I fully expected it to be the series finale, given the way season two went, but I’m pleasantly surprised that the series is continuing (hopefully). I’m reserving judgement on the new arc they’re setting up for now.

Next week, I’m planning to go to two open mics and hoping to have a better and less weird working week. Fingers crossed.

 

 

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Review: Doctor Who: The Early Adventures 4

Big Finish’s Early Adventures range has been running since 2014. The series acts, in many respects, as a follow-up to The Lost Stories, audio adaptations of unproduced Doctor Who scripts and story outlines.

 

Between the Lost Stories and the Companion Chronicles Big Finish have a lot of practice recreating sixties Who, and they’ve produced some really phenomenal stories over the years. The returning cast members are always a delight, the recasts (Elliot Chapman as companion Ben Jackson and Jemma Powell as Barbara Wright) are on point and some of Big Finish’s most celebrated writers have written for the Early Adventures.

In short, I had high hopes for this series, but it turned out to be something of a mixed bag. Season one’s An Ordinary Life and season two’s The Black Hole were, in my opinion, instant classics. But scrolling over the first three seasons, I find myself struggling to remember what even happened in some of the stories.

So: let’s talk about season four.

ea1The Night Witches by Roland Moore

Landing in 1942, in the midst of the Eastern Front, the Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie are captured by the Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment – better known as the Night Witches. As per usual, they’re presumed to be spies and swiftly locked up.

But in a strange twist of fate, Polly turns out to be the spitting image of Tatiana Kregki, the Night Witches’ ace pilot – and while all they want to do is go back to the TARDIS to safety, the uncanny resemblance draws the Doctor and all his companions deep into the war effort.

The Night Witches is in many respects representative of the series as a whole: perfectly enjoyable to listen to, but it smacks of unfulfilled potential. The Night Witches make for brilliant material for a historical Doctor Who serial, but that’s really all there is to the script. The Night Witches are themselves – which is to say, fascinating and kickass – while the lead cast tries to survive and escape.

The script continually hints that there might be something deeper going on – some strange, timey-wimey explanation for Polly and Tatiana’s resemblence – but nothing comes of this. I spent the whole story waiting for a twist or pick up which never came.

That said, I still had a good time. The Night Witches were worth the price of admission, and I’m always here for this particular TARDIS team.

ea2The Outliers by Simon Guerrier

In the distant future, the Doctor and his companions find themselves in a strange underground city. The ordinary suburban houses are brand new and ready to be lived in. The streets are flooded. Something is living in the water.

The Outliers is a story in the vein of The Macra Terror, one of Patrick Troughton’s best loved stories – which is to say, it’s eerie, social conscious, and utterly bizarre.

The twist – such as it is – about what’s in the water is spelled out fairly early, but any predictability is more than made up for by the time-bending sequence which follows the reveal. It’s both poignant and fascinating from a sci-fi point of view – and there’s some delightful continuity porn to boot.

This isn’t a subtle story, in terms of its storytelling or its politics, but then again neither was The Macra Terror. Fully in-keeping with the era and genuinely unexpected.

ea3The Morton Legacy by Justin Richards

In London, Ben and Polly find themselves in the right place but the wrong time. It’s the 1860s and they’re as far from home as ever. The Doctor thinks that he can make a controlled jump a hundred years forward and get them home… but before he can put this plan into action, the TARDIS is stolen.

It’s been spirited away by Josiah Morton as the newest addition to his collection of antiquities and to get it back they need to befriend him – but Josiah Morton has just been accused of murder.

I was excited for this story most of all, for one very simple reason: the plot summary is uncannily similar to 1967’s The Evil of the Daleks, one of the best-loved Classic Who stories and (for all its faults) a truly epic ride. The TARDIS stolen by an antiquarian… in the 1860s… who has a beautiful daughter who Jamie falls in love with… I was so sure the resemblence must be significant.

But as it turns out, it’s entirely irrelevant. Apparently the TARDIS just got stolen by two separate Victorian antiquarians on two separate occasions!

I was expecting something interesting, possibly involving alternate timelines, possibly involving daleks. What I got was a solid enough story in which the final twist is that the events depicted were actually entirely prosaic.

It’s an enjoyable murder mystery and I may well enjoy it more on second listen. But as it is, the whole thing just felt rather uninspired and lifeless.

ea4The Wreck of the World by Timothy X Atack

Attempting vital repairs in the deepest of deep space, the TARDIS is caught, impossibly, in the gravitational pull of a vast, unknown object.

Almost before they know what’s happening, the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe collide with the remains of an ancient colony ship. With Zoe lost inside, the Doctor and Jamie set out to rescue her, only to find that they’re not alone.

This is the World, the first colony ship to leave earth. It never reached its destination. The colonists are all dead. And the Doctor and his friends are about to learn why.

The Wreck of the World is by no means a perfect story, but it has the quality that was missing from the previous three. I’m not sure exactly what’s different, but there’s a spark here that the Early Adventures is usually lacking.

Maybe it’s that the author actually seems to love the central characters and love writing them. This is Timothy X Atack’s first story for Big Finish and perhaps testament as to why they need some new blood.

The story itself I’m not in love with – for such a hard sci-fi setting, the big reveal seemed to belong more to the realm of fantasy to the point that I found it jarring. But it’s fast-paced (despite the narration), genuinely poignant and also very funny. And it has Jamie singing Hey Johnny Cope! What’s not to love about that.

Verdict: this is, overall, a stronger run of stories than series two. I’d recommend all of them to a friend bar The Morton Legacy. At their best, these stories deepen the characters and their relationships and that’s exactly what all good expanded universe stories should do.

Unfortunately, with the exception of The Wreck of the World, every one of them bored me to some extent. It’s partly the narrated full cast format, which slows the scripts down enormously, and partly that the first three stories feel, to be blunt, phoned in. It’s a difficult quality to pin down, but given how long Big Finish have been making Doctor Who – nineteen years this year! – it’s not hugely surprising that some of their stories might feel a bit, well, tired.

 

 

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