#indiechallenge – Plus One (Sarah L. Young)

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The blurb

Junior year is hard for everyone, but especially for Lexi—and in about nine months, it’s going to get a lot harder. She doesn’t know what to do, how to do it, or who the father is.

Lost and afraid, she calls the only person she can think of for support: her ex-girlfriend Emily, who recently dumped her. But if Emily isn’t willing to help, then Lexi is afraid she’ll be facing this all alone…

The author

Sarah L. Young is studying at Wellesley College and is originally from Syracuse, New York.

The publisher

Less Than Three Press specialises in LGBTQ romance, and produces both print and e-book editions.

The bookshop

I downloaded this from Kobo.

The bingo card

Plus One could count towards: ‘Genre fiction’; ‘an author from another country’; ‘a new to you press’ (I’d heard of Less Than Three, but never read anything published by them, to my knowledge); ‘a debut’; ‘kids or YA’; ‘marginalised people’; or ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

This one was sold to me as ‘bi teen girl gets pregnant when she and her girlfriend split up, but only has her ex-girlfriend to turn to when she gets thrown out of her home’. Which immediately appealed to me in a nostalgic, school library, kind of a way. (If only Section 28 hadn’t been in force at the time. There were plenty of books about teen pregnancy in the school library, but none of them involved anybody being anything other than straight.)

And that was a pretty good summary. The problem was, there wasn’t much more to the book than that. Lexi is pregnant. Emily tells her that it’s going to ruin her life. Lexi’s mother throws her out. Emily takes her in. A deus ex machina in the form of the principled Christian father of a friend solves the money problem. There was very little in terms of character development, and such as there was felt forced. (For example, I really wasn’t convinced by the eventual resolution of the relationship storyline, and wasn’t reassured that any of the problems that had led to the initial break-up had been solved.) When I reached the end of the e-book and discovered that this had been written as a NaNoWriMo effort when the author was fifteen, my rather uncharitable thought was that this explained a lot.

There was a lot of infodumping about abortion options, and, later, what Lexi could expect in terms of physical symptoms of pregnancy. This was all very laudable, particularly given the patchy provision of sex education in the USA, but rather reminded me of the way that The Archers began as a way to distribute news of agricultural developments to farmers. And the prose was very clumsy. Too much showing, not telling, action, and too much telling, not showing, about emotions and relationships. Although this may just be a YA thing: this is the second one in a row where I’ve really not been convinced by any of the characters and have found the prose dull. I can’t help feeling that our young adults deserve better…

#indiechallenge – Sea of Ink (Richard Weihe, translated by Jamie Bulloch)

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The blurb

A beautiful novella in 51 short chapters and 11 pictures about the life of Bada Shenren, one of the most influential Chinese painters of all times.

In 1626, Bada Shenren is born into the Chinese royal family. When the old Ming Dynasty crumbles, he becomes an artist, committed to capturing the essence of nature with a single brushstroke. Then the rulers of the new Qing dynasty discover his identity and Bada must feign madness to escape.

The author

Richard Weihe studied drama and philosophy in Zurich and Oxford. His poetic biographies of influential artists have earned him a wide readership. Sea of Ink, published in Switzerland in 2005, won the Prix des Auditeurs de la Radio Suisse Romande. In 2010 he published Ocean of Milk based on the life of the Indian-Hungarian painter Amrita Sher-Gil

The translator

Jamie Bulloch has worked as a professional translator from German since 2001. His works include books by Paulus Hochgatterer and Alissa Walser. Jamie has also translated Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by FC Delius and The Mussel Feast by Brigit Vanderbeke for Peirene.

The publisher

Peirene Press specialises in contemporary European novellas, commissioning translations and producing absolutely gorgeous paperbacks.

The bookshop

I’m almost certain I got this one from the Book Bus. (The Book Bus is what happens when you put one of the most gorgeous buses in the world into one of the most delightful towns in the country and then cover every flat surface with books. I’ll see you on it at the end of July.)

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘an author from another country’; ‘a book from my TBR’; ‘biography’ (perhaps); ‘translated book’; or maybe ‘book that defies genre’

My thoughts

Like the bare biographical facts and the brush-and-ink drawings that this book is based around, it uses a little to say a lot. The style is deceptively simple, as if the author doesn’t want to get in the way of what’s known for certain:

This story is about Zhu Da, the Prince of Yiyang, distant descendant of the Prince of Ning, the seventeenth son of the founder of the Ming dynasty.

As a prince, Zhu Da enjoyed a sheltered childhood in the palace, surrounded by splendour and wealth. At the age of eight he started writing poetry. Early on he also displayed a special gift for seal-cutting. He was spoilt and admired because of his talents. These were blissful years full of promise for the future.

Very little seems to be known for certain, and it’s difficult to tell where facts stop and speculation begins – where biography gives way to philosophy. I was fascinated by the detailed descriptions of the process of drawing, matching up the words on one page with the lines on another:

He had laid a square piece of yellowy-white paper on the desk, which was around four hand’s widths in size. At the lower edge and slightly to the left, he set down the paintbrush, drawing it upwards in a gentle curve, half a finger’s width, which started to the left then changed direction halfway up the paper. A second later he applied a little more pressure to the brush and veered it back to the left…

And I was intrigued by the development of Bada Shenren as an artist, which received considerably more attention than his other aspects – as hermit, husband, father. Perhaps that’s only to be expected, though: his work is what really catches the imagination. This was a short but lovely book.

#indiechallenge – The Key of F (Jennifer Haskin)

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The blurb

Though Fale has never discovered who murdered her parents and left her orphaned as a child, she attempts to lead a normal and peaceful life. After all, she is training to be a peacekeeping warrior under the direction of her adoptive father. But, when she starts having strange visions that predict the future on her 18th birthday, it turns her life into anything but ordinary. Alongside her best friends and the man who rejected her three years ago, Fale must discover the truths of her past to achieve her true destiny.

Can she harness her inner warrior to save her people? And can she prove that she is no longer an innocent child to the man she loves along the way?

The author

Jennifer Haskin is an ex-literary agent, author, and portrait artist who lives in Olathe, Kansas with her husband and five children.

The publisher

Rogue Phoenix Press is an ebook publisher representing a wide range of genres. It was established in 2008, though I don’t think I’d heard of it before I read this book.

How I got this book

I took part in the author’s 2 Writer Switch programme. (You can see what she thought about my book on Goodreads!)

The bingo card

Again, I have a lot of options here! This could count towards ‘Genre fiction’ (see ‘My thoughts’ for more on that!), ‘Book from a series’, ‘An author from another country’, ‘A new to you press’, ‘A debut’, or ‘Kids or YA’. I think I’m going to read a few more of the books I’ve got earmarked for the challenge and see where the gaps are on my card; at the moment it feels a bit like the connecting wall on Only Connect.

My thoughts

The Key of F is an ambitious young adult novel that straddles a number of genres. It has the intensive surveillance and the high-tech body modification of science fiction. It has the wizards and mages and the Chosen One narrative of fantasy. And it has the makeovers and petty jealousies of high school and college books. It’s not until about half-way through the book that those three strands come together and we see where it’s all been leading.

The main thrust of the novel follows Fale, an orphan who has been entrusted with a mysterious key and who is on a quest to find her guardian and mentor, Nelson. But of course it’s not as simple as that, and her investigations only present further missions. I did wonder whether her name, and ‘Effailya’, from which it’s derived, could be a punning clue to where this series is eventually going to end up… We’ll see about that one. She’s variously helped and hindered by friends Keron, Izzy and Lisle, who represent other groups within the social makeup of Algea, and the differences between classes and occupations lead to some conflict between the four – something that will no doubt be explored further in later instalments.

I was fascinated by the brief glimpses we got of the system that underpins this world: where people are forced to work in an environment that seems set up to seriously injure them, at which point their only option is expensive prostheses, which they then spend the rest of their lives paying off. It was a neat satire on certain real-life systems, and I’d have liked to have seen more exploration of it. But I was puzzled, too: daiquiris, lasagna, katanas and rock bands suggested the influence of an Earth culture that appeared never to have existed in this world.

This is only the first of the series, so no doubt some of my questions will be answered in the next book!

#indiechallenge – Milkman (Anna Burns)

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The blurb

In this unnamed city, to be interesting is to be dangerous. Middle sister is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her trouble and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. to be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous…

Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

The author

Anna Burns was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella Mostly Hero. No Bones won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in East Sussex, England.

The publisher

Faber & Faber calls itself ‘one of the world’s great publishing houses’. It was founded in London 90 years ago. I’d associated it more with the highbrow end of the market and with poetry, but it also does things like the QI tie-in gift books.

The bookshop

I bought this in Hatchards in Saint Pancras station (and missed my train). Hatchards is a subsidiary of Waterstones these days, but the carrier bags are a very classy green and gold design, if you care about that sort of thing.

The bingo card

This could count for either ‘an award winner’ or ‘a press over 20 years old’. This one the Booker Prize in 2018, and Faber & Faber have been around for a very long time.

My thoughts

This was one of three books offered as choices for my office book club, and I have to admit that my first thought on seeing the shortlist was, ‘Ugh, this is all a bit worthy’. By the time we’d all voted and the results had come back, however, I’d read a review of this by a friend, which suggested that this novel wasn’t going to be as much of a slog as I’d feared.

And it wasn’t. What I’d heard about it – that it’s set in the Troubles; that the paragraphs are long and the prose is involved; that hardly anybody has a name – was all true. But, although it was often grim and often bleak, it sometimes struck a gorgeous seam of hope and sometimes made me laugh outright; although I occasionally lost track in the middle of a flashback in the middle of a conversation, I always had a reasonable idea of what was going wrong; and the thing with the names didn’t bother me at all. After all, we often find ourselves talking about ‘you know, thingummy, the narrator’s sister’s husband, the one with the shop,’ even when we’re talking about books where all the characters have names. The narrator was unreliable, but not in the annoying way, more in a demonstration of how living in the middle of a state of war messes with your head, and how other people don’t see us the way we see ourselves.

And it was all horribly plausible. The unwritten rules of interaction are written down here; the narrator knows them (she thinks) and sets them out as a thing that everybody knows. Burns makes the link between ‘existing as a woman’ (which is a thing that I know about) and ‘existing as a person in the middle of sectarianism and violence’ (which is something that I don’t), and it’s very effective:

I did not want to get in the car with this man. I did not know how to say so, though, as he wasn’t being rude and he knew my family for he’d named the credentials, the male people of my family, and I couldn’t be rude because he wasn’t being rude….

At the time, age eighteen, having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t there? At eighteen I had no proper understanding of the ways that constituted encroachment. I had a feeling for them, an intuition, a sense of repugnance for some situations and some people, but I did not know intuition and repugnance counted, did not know I had a right not to like, not to have to put up with, anybody and everybody coming near.

I thought Milkman was well-observed and convincing and, rather to my surprise, I enjoyed it very much. Book club hasn’t met yet. I’ll be interested to see what the general response is…

#indiechallenge – 119: my life as a bisexual Christian (Jaime Sommers)

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The blurb

As a bisexual Christian woman, happily and faithfully married to a man, a mother of three children and with a blossoming ministry as a preacher, Jaime Sommers had always felt as if her true self did not really exist in the eyes of the Church. She could find neither theology nor pastoral support for a person who felt the need for physical closeness with both sexes in order to feel well or ‘whole’.

Following a brief, isolated incident in which Jaime kissed another woman, the full extent of the Church’s inability to acknowledge or understand her identity became apparent. The disciplinary process to which she was subjected led to her suffering depression and anxiety and feelings of isolation.

Jaime’s powerful and emotive story reveals the failure of the Church – and of large parts of wider culture and society – to recognise and support the experience and needs of those who identify as the silent ‘B’ in LGBT.

The publisher

Darton Longman Todd is an independent Christian publisher, specialising in books for the awkward squad. (I’m paraphrasing their ‘About‘ page there. I am myself a proud member of the awkward squad and have an essay in Our Witness, published by DLT.)

The bookshop

I bought this in Gay’s The Word, a long-established independent London bookshop (not far from my office, to the great detriment of my bank balance).

The bingo card

There are quite a few squares that this one could be filed under. ‘A book from your TBR’. ‘Biography’. ‘Marginalised people’. ‘Non-fiction’. ‘LGBTQIA’. Even ‘A debut’. I’m going to see what else I end up reading before I decide where to put this.

My thoughts

The ‘119’ of the title refers to the 119 words granted to the subject of bisexuality in the Church of England House of Bishops’ Issues in Human Sexuality. Those are 119 words that I’ve ranted about myself before now, and this book resonated. The early parts, dealing with Sommers’ childhood, adolescence and university years, felt a little incoherent and self-conscious, but when Sommers begins to address the crisis that forms the greater part of the book all that falls away, and she recounts the events with an honesty and clarity that roused my anger and kept me reading. Because yes, this is what it feels like:

It was very clear that they had absolutely no idea what to do with me. I wasn’t gay, but I wasn’t wholly straight. My marriage was not in trouble and my husband was supportive of my sexuality. I did not fit a single box they sought to put me in. In short, I was an inconvenience – and a major one at that.

I don’t experience bisexuality in quite the same way that Sommers seems to – for me, it’s more like a dormant but undeniable sense of possibility, the knowledge that, regardless of the gender of my current partner, my next one (if there is a next one) could be of any gender. But the consciousness of all that being erased, looked past, ignored, because one looks like a straight married person – I recognised all that. And realised how very fortunate I’ve been not to have come up against the Church’s misunderstanding of it in such a destructive manner.

In some ways, ‘119’ feels like a slightly irrelevant title. This book challenges Issues in Human Sexuality, yes, but it’s much more than that; it’s a personal account of how the system failed an individual; it’s representative of the failure of a whole system to recognise and provide for a whole group of people within it. Having said that,  the title does highlight how criminally inadequate the current thinking is.

… what is missing in the bisexual Christian’s life is the ability to hold a bisexual identity – and a clear sense of personal identity is imperative to mental health. Bisexuality is largely invisible in church publications and doctrinal debate and support for bisexual issues are missing in our churches and faith communities. It is as if we don’t really exist, that we are just a figment of our own imagination.

People forget about us, particularly when we can be slotted neatly into the ‘married’ box. I’m glad this book exists, because it must go some way towards stopping people forgetting.

2019 reading: #indiechallenge

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I remain committed to my principle of reading whatever the hell I feel like, but I liked the look of this challenge and I think it’s compatible with it. It will be interesting to see what the balance between books from small presses and self-published books ends up looking like. My instinct is that I’ll pay more attention to self-published books, for fear of being bitten by imprints; on the other hand, I’d like to put less business in the way of Amazon this year, and more in the way of independent bookshops.

I’ll be posting brief write-ups on this blog, but if I don’t have anything nice to say about a book I won’t say much at all.

There’s a bingo card:

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It would be very poor business practice not to point out that I have two books that are eligible for this challenge.

I can potentially help with the following squares:

  • A debut. Speak Its Name was my first book.
  • An award winner. It was the first ever self-published book shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize, and that’s one of those lovely prizes where just being on the shortlist means you come away with an award.
  • Book that defies genre. Speak Its Name is LGBT university-set Barchester. A Spoke In The Wheel is… belated coming-of-age? Redemption? Maybe romance, if you look at it sideways? I tend to stick them both under ‘contemporary’ and dodge the question.
  • Out of your comfort zone. Depends on where your comfort zone lies, really. You may run screaming from Christian politics, and I really couldn’t blame you. I will say that a lot of reviews of A Spoke In The Wheel have led with ‘I know nothing about cycling, but…’
  • LGBTQIA. Both of my books feature queer characters in prominent roles (two bisexuals, a lesbian, and I’m still not sure about Gianna). If you want head-on engagement with the space where faith meets sexual orientation, try Speak Its Name. If you want a happy background f/f relationship, go for A Spoke In The Wheel.
  • Marginalised people. See LGBTQIA above, and there’s also Polly in A Spoke In The Wheel, who has a chronic illness.

I also have a short story in Supposed CrimesUpstaged: an anthology of queer women in the performing arts, which is:

  • an anthology

There’s only one of me, and I’m a woman, so you could make a case for my being both:

  • A Women’s Press

and:

  • a micro press

If you’ve never heard of me, I’m:

  • a new to you press

And, if you’re not from the UK, I’m:

  • an author from another country

Finally, of course, there’s the old favourite:

  • free square

 

Now to see what’s already on my bookshelves that will count towards the challenge… Whatever you’re intending to read, I hope 2019 has many good books in store for you!