Posts belonging to Category Unexpected things about Juliet



Why that Facebook ‘Ten Book Challenge’ was impossible for me…

I’m sure you’ve seen it, and mostly likely been tagged – and unsurprisingly it turns out that was in service of Facebook generating a ‘news’ story. Which is harmless enough, as far as it goes. I didn’t not respond by way of any principled stand against being manipulated or exploited or anything. I just didn’t get round to writing a list because every time I tried, my brain just stalled. Hung. Locked up. Needed a firm ctrl-alt-delete.

“List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard. They do not have to be the ‘right’ books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way.”

I don’t have to take a minute to come up with twenty or thirty titles. A couple of minutes? Then I’ll have a hundred and then I’ll realise that I’ve still left out a vast chunk of my lifetime’s reading experience. There’ll be crime and SFF and historical – but no literary fiction, no comedy… And what about non-fiction? Biography? Memoir and diaries? Some of those have made a great impression.

Looking at the bookcases here was no help. Seeing one title would instantly remind me of five others just as memorable in their own and differing ways. I simply could not dash off a superficial selection without instantly regretting it.

On the other hand, I have found reading other people’s lists very interesting, by way of insight into them and their work, offering some surprises along the way. And being tagged by people doing that, it does seem a little rude not to respond in kind.

So I have come up with a list of books that have stayed with me – not any sort of definitive list, not the most memorable books in my life or even the most significant. For a start, I’ve limited myself to fiction. But these are ten books which have a significance for me and my own reading and writing, where each one is an exemplar for any number of similar works.

(and yes, this is consciously gender balanced list because what possible justification could there be for it not being so, given the thousands of books I’ve read in my life thus far?)

The Horse and his Boy – CS Lewis – the first Narnia book I read on my own with themes of being true to one’s own self that will still draw me into a book today.

The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien – for an introduction to epic grandeur which never loses sight of the human (or halfling or dwarven) costs of heroism.

The Ogre Downstairs – Diana Wynne Jones – for child-centered drama acknowledging that life isn’t fair, that everyone, old and young, makes mistakes and the only thing to do is tackle all that and move on. Also magical chemistry set!

Something Fresh – PG Wodehouse – for an introduction to the insights into the human condition that can be so very effectively conveyed through comedy.

Warrior Scarlet – Rosemary Sutcliffe – showing me that the past is a different country and they do things differently there, thus inspiring me to learn more about history while exploring how far the essentials of life and love stay the same.

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – introducing me to the popular fiction of decades gone by. Reading needs depth as well as breadth.

Brat Farrar – Josephine Tey – an introduction to just how much a crime/mystery novel can offer beyond the puzzle of Whodunnit.

Dragon Prince – Melanie Rawn – my personal favourite of the game changers writing epic fantasy in the 80’s, showing just what the genre could now address.

Vanishing Point – Val McDermid – showing how a genre novel can equal the very best of so-called ‘literary fiction’ and then go far beyond it in commenting on contemporary society.

Intrusion – Ken Macleod - informed, engaged, political, thought-provoking, giving the lie to any notion of SFF as ‘mere escapism’.

And now I’m going to hit ‘post’ before I start arguing with myself again about ones I’ve left off, but how am I supposed to choose which of these ten to chuck over the side…?

Ctrl-alt-delete!

A quick Fantasycon update

I’ll be heading up to York tomorrow for the UK Fantasycon, where I’m really keen to hear Guests of Honour Kate Elliott and Charlaine Harris talking about their lives and writing. Not to forget Toby Whithouse who’s written fine genre TV drama notably but not limited to Being Human, and artist Larry Rostant whose artwork brings fresh vision to classic fantasy book cover themes. I look forward to learning more about their creative process and inspiration and its similarities and differences to my own.

There’ll be lots of other writers there, working across the spectrum of speculative fantasy, from epic to horror and every variation in between. So there’ll be plenty of chances to sit and listen to them on panels and in readings and generally chat and socialise with like-minded folk.

My own programme is discussing Doctor Who, Classic and New, at 3pm on Friday afternoon, along with Joanne Harris, Guy Adams, Mark Morris and Jon Oliver. I’ll also be available to sign books at 5pm on Friday, so if you’d like a signature on a book, in your programme or simply want to say hello, stop by.

On Saturday morning at 11am I’ll be on a panel discussing the Pen vs the Sword, specifically the realities of sword fighting compared to what we read on the page or see on the screen. That’ll be me, Marc Aplin, Fran Terminiello, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Clifford Beale. Between us we have a range of skills and experience in different styles of sword fighting.

After that, I’ll spend the rest of the day between time with pals and the excellent convention programme, full details here.

After the convention, Husband and I will be staying on in Yorkshire for the rest of the week, since this month sees our 25th wedding anniversary and we spent our honeymoon in the county so we plan on revisiting a few places and seeing some new sights. It’ll be interesting to see how clean and tidy (or otherwise) the house is when we get home, after the sons spend the week here fending for themselves…

After that, I have assorted short stories to write and some longer term projects to plan.

A memorable meal – my guest post for Lawrence M Schoen’s blog

It’s time for something fun. So here’s my guest post for Lawrence M Schoen’s blog, specifically his ‘Eating Authors’ series.

In which I recall an Easter Sunday lunch in France when I was around nine years old, visiting a family whose European ties and history were so very different to anything I’d ever encountered in 1970s UK.

What Those ‘Richly Embroidered Wall-hangings’ In Your Fantasy Novel Really Mean.

As regular readers know, I like to embroider. I do canvas work and cross-stitch and thanks to an inspired idea by my sister, I’ve been learning Jacobean crewel work, courtesy of family and friends clubbing together to buy me birthday-gift-certificates for Royal School of Needlework courses at Hampton Court Palace. I’d like to show you what I was working on last weekend, not by way of an ego-trip* but to show you what nine hours of such stitchery looks like.

Jacobean rabbit

Yes, nine hours and as you will see, even this smallish design isn’t complete as yet. Granted, I’m still relatively new to this style of work. On the other hand, the tutor did remark I was making good progress.

Now let’s look at this. It’s a printed fabric but in very much the sort of design that crewel work was used for – embroidering with wool on linen twill – making curtains, wall-hangings, fire-screens and other decorative furnishings to brighten up – and insulate – homes in days of yore.

birds-curtain

For scale, those humming birds are about the same size as the flower in that first picture. If they’re too small to make out, click on the picture for a larger view. So just imagine how many woman-hours of stitching would be involved in say, making a set of bed curtains, canopy and valances decorated like that. Even assuming a practised needlewoman could work say, twice as fast as me. Even if that flower represented five hours’ effort, the labour involved is considerable.

This is what wealth meant, in the days before Ferraris and Rolexes. A significant measure of wealth was the ability to buy other people’s time and endeavour. You can see this in other day-to-day things historically. Dark fabrics with rich colours required multiple dye processes, so they were more expensive. High-status food like jelly/jello took a lot of time-consuming preparation and skill, starting with boiling up calves’ feet for hours at a time. This premium on personal labour has some consequences we might not expect today. When clockwork roasting spits came in, they were convenient but they weren’t a must-have item for the wealthy. It was more of a mark of status that you could employ a servant to manually turn your spit and roast your meat with personal care and attention.

And let’s not forget that you need good light for doing work like this embroidery; either natural daylight, which means whoever’s doing it needs decent glass windows which are costly, or expensive beeswax candles.

I know I’ll be looking at embroidered textiles in National Trust stately homes and castles with a whole new level of insight now. I’ll also be thinking carefully before blithely decorating any fantasy homes with those richly embroidered wall hangings.

*As a general rule, I am averse posting ‘look at me, aren’t I cool?’ stuff. ‘Read my books, they are cool,’ is an entirely different matter.

A few thoughts on costuming at SF conventions…

…over on the EightSquared/Eastercon 2013 blog, details of our costume event and some thoughts about costuming in fandom generally. Plus photos of a giant samurai rabbit, and me dressed up as a space admiral, together with my close protection detail.

How I met the Warlock of Firetop Mountain

As regular readers will know, I rarely blog between Christmas and New Year. As well as the holiday season, we have a slew of family birthdays from 20th December onwards so it’s a very busy time of year. This year however, I did write a guest blog for Jonathan Green, who’s been running a Kickstarter to fund a book celebrating thirty years and exploring the history of Fighting Fantasy Game Books. I’m thrilled to say the project is now funded – but there’s still time to get involved, and there are some great rewards up for grabs here.

And while you’re thinking about it, here’s that blog post, to explain why I’m backing this particular project.

I encountered Fighting Fantasy gamebooks not too long after they first appeared. I’d gone up to university in 1983 and that’s where I’d discovered Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, Aftermath, Toon, Heroes, Car Wars and other tabletop role-playing games which instantly appealed to my lifelong love of fantasy and science-fiction. Such gaming offered me a whole new interactive and participatory way of engaging with such stories. After all those books which I’d read, wanting to slap some sense into the hero who persisted in doing something so dumb that surely only an moron would go ahead. Now I could shout across the table to stop the idiot paladin about to open the grim portal or ominously rune-engraved box. I could be the one suspiciously interrogating the apparently helpful peasant giving directions to the dragon’s den. Now I could be the one rolling a critical fumble and getting skewered by a kobold. (As with just about everyone playing AD&D in that era, our group played a highly personalised and modified version of the rules).

I have wondered since why SF&F meshes so well with table top gaming. I think it’s because speculative fiction invites engagement with the narrative to a far greater extent than other fictions. SF&F isn’t reflecting the world as we know it, offering us insights into the reality we inhabit. It’s constantly asking us to imagine ourselves somewhere else, where the rules we think we know don’t necessarily apply, whether those are the laws of physics or society. The eternal question of SF&F is ‘what if…?’ That wish to step through the barrier of the pages and participate directly in the stories ourselves naturally follows. Indeed, portal fantasy has been a staple of the genre since Alice first fell down the rabbit hole and Lucy entered the wardrobe. Who would have imagined that a handful of weird-shaped dice could satisfy that longing?

Which was great as long as I was at university. But come the end of term time, I had to go home and in those long-ago pre-Internet days, there was no way of finding like-minded souls back in Dorset. How could I continue that direct participation in story-weaving that I’d got so used to enjoying?

Fan fiction? That was also something I’d encountered for the first time at university, through the dubious medium of a much-copied photo-copy of ‘Spock in Manacles’… Setting aside the literary merits of that particular work, I was familiar with the motivation behind fan-fiction. More than once, during a particularly tedious English lesson discussing the Romantic Poets, I would stare out of the window and indulge in a light reverie about Blake’s Seven, mentally writing myself into an episode never to be seen outside my own head. The thing is though, such episodes weren’t particularly satisfying and not only because I still had such vast amounts to learn about characterisation, pacing, exposition and all the other facets of writing craft. The main problem was, there were never any surprises. I knew what was hidden behind the curtain or in the talking box because I’d thought it up in the first place. All in all, I found such indulgent daydreams as unsatisfying as playing chess against myself.

Then someone lent me a copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I forget who it was but I’m pretty sure they were in the same fix as me outside of term time. Now we had a solution! Solo gaming within a system that played fair in the sense of punishing stupidity as well as rewarding intelligent thinking and still with the added edge of unpredictable dice rolls landing you in no-win situations. Because game systems should be fair but as the Goblin King reminds us in Labyrinth, real life simply isn’t. Which was great, because the endless variations and possibilities meant you could play the book time and again. Even once you’d won, you could go back and see where the roads not taken might have led.

I love the way these books endured despite the arrival of computer games. I remember playing early attempts at those and being very unimpressed, both by the quality of the writing and plotting and by the inadequacies of the graphics. Fighting fantasy game books offered far superior game play for a good long while as well as the fabulous pictures inside my own head, spun off the wonderful cover art and the line drawings inside. It’s only in recent years that computer games have come anywhere near matching such visuals, never mind such intricate storytelling and replayability.

So of course I’m backing this project. I am intrigued to learn more about the history of these books. How the idea first originated, how they came to be published and who was involved in their creation and development and why. Quite apart from anything else, I bet I’m not the only one currently writing epic fantasy fiction with such fond memories of flipping through an increasingly creased paperback, pencil between teeth and dice ready to hand.

A Tale of the Unexpected…

My sons have grown up with me writing epic fantasy. They can browse the bookshelves for non-fiction titles on biological warfare in the ancient world, women scientists in the Enlightenment, the folklore of trees, modern asymmetric warfare and that’s just some of what I can see from my desk. Fiction? Start with Aeschylus and go on through to Watchmen and beyond. We have originals of Geoff Taylor’s fabulous cover art hanging on our walls, along with Japanese wood block prints of samurai, sundry other pictures, aikido blackbelt certificates and such.

So it’s fairly rare for one of them to stop by the study and say in astonished tones, ‘Mum, what is that?’
To which I replied, ‘A cross-stitch pattern for a phone case.’
‘You’re making a case for your phone with a skull on it? Cool.’
‘No, it’s not for me…’

So I explained that one of the rewards we’re offering on the Tales of the Emerald Serpent Kickstarter is a slipcase for a smartphone with the Beyond the Black Gate medallion embroidered on it. Because ever since I first saw that art, I thought what a great design it would make. And I like to embroider. I find it relaxing, just small projects, nothing too time-consuming. But truth be told, there is a limit to how many bookmarks one house needs, even a house with this many books. There are only so many times you can give family and friends some piece of your handiwork without them starting to look sideways at you.

Beyond the Black Gate medallion

And then I remembered how people say that part of the fun of Kickstarter is offering unusual rewards by way of a thank you to supporters. Hey, CE Murphy offered to personally sing ‘You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings’ to the highest-level backers when she Kickstarted the ‘No Dominion’ Walker Papers novella. A little needlework is nothing to that!

So far? I’m on the hook for making four of these. Or am I? The thing about Kickstarter is, unless the project goal is reached, that’s the end of it. Fall short by ten dollars and nothing happens. And that would be such a shame – not because I wouldn’t get to do some embroidery. Because the world is intriguing and the stories are awesome and this could be the start of something truly fantastic in every sense. And there are great rewards on offer, including signed prints and even originals of the terrific artwork.

We’re doing nicely so far – I think. There’s all sorts of lore and graphs and charts about Kickstarter progress which I don’t pretend to understand. What I do know is we can’t look at the numbers at any point and take anything for granted. So if you have been thinking about chipping in to support the project, please do, at whatever level suits your pocket and your interest. Buying some embroidery isn’t compulsory.