A brief update (and free books)

Hello friends! I hope you’re keeping well. It’s a funny old time – though I think perhaps it feels less strange for me as we moved house two weeks ago, so the general chaos of curtain rails and cardboard boxes has drowned out the background, global, disquiet. And we still don’t have broadband at the new place so I haven’t been online much.

However, I have seen that many institutions, artists, musicians and writers, have put their work online for free, to go at least a little way towards brightening the gloom or passing a few dull hours. And I thought I’d do likewise. The ebook versions of both of my novels can now be downloaded for free from Lulu. The price reduction should eventually filter through to the other online bookshops.

If you’re trying to come to terms with the sudden absence of sport from your life, try A Spoke In The Wheel. If your church, university, or both, has moved online and you’re missing the politics (erm…) you might prefer Speak Its Name. Feel free to download both if you like! I’m in the fortunate position of being in salaried work that I can do from home, so I won’t be disadvantaged by people reading my books for free. And, once I’ve got fed up with putting up picture hooks and painting walls, I’ll finish the next book, and you’ll be able to buy that one.

 

What Remains and other Stories (Christa Wolf, translated by Heike Schwarzbauer and Rik Takvorian) #EU27project

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Continuing to work my way through what’s already on my bookshelves, I jump 140 years closer to the present with a collection of short stories by Christa Wolf. But she was writing in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, so again this comes from a culture that feels a long way away from where I am now.

I was struck by the sheer variety displayed in this collection. From the long, disorientating dream sequence of Unter den Linden to the satirical whimsy of The New Life and Opinions of a Tomcat, Wolf’s stories switch between genres and voices with confidence and panache. A Little Outing to H. reminded me very much of what Jasper Fforde would do later with the Thursday Next series. My favourite was probably the gentle slice-of-life June Afternoon, but I suspect that I will also remember Exchanging Glances, a teenager’s view of the end of the Second World War, and the claustrophobic, justified paranoia of the title story, for a long time.

But I have a feeling that there’s a lot going on under the surface, that I missed a lot in this first reading, and will need to revisit this book.

I’m counting this for Germany in the #EU27project, and it’s the twelfth book of the year/in the TBR20.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: N

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This is a surprisingly difficult letter. I struggled. Wikipedia’s List of fictional countries and List of fictional towns in literature both look hopeful, but a closer inspection of the N sections reveals that most of the locations either appear in a medium that I’m not including, or don’t pretend to exist in the world as we know it.

The exception is Norland, in a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which has little identifying detail beyond a sufficiently substantial submarine division to be a credible threat in the early 1920s. Even Thomas Hardy’s Wessex can only come up with Narrowbourne, in a short story I haven’t read. Novel-length works featuring settlements beginning with N? The internet fails me.

Why? New and North between them ought to yield plenty of plausible towns. I wonder whether calling anything fictional ‘New’ is a bit too much of a lampshade for something that’s meant to be set in the world as we know it. Perhaps it draws attention to the fact that the place has existed mere months, or, at the outside, decades, in the author’s head. (Or, conversely, one or more fictional Newports is slipping past me because I’ve mixed them up with the real ones.)

However, my father was able to point me at North Bromwich, and so it’s back to the fictional West Midlands, perhaps a little bit further west of where we were last time. He has a lovely set of blue-and-gold Francis Brett Young hardbacks, which no doubt I’ll read my way through at some point, but in the meantime Project Gutenberg came up with a couple. Of these, I’m reliably informed that The Young Physician spends the most time in North Bromwich, so off I went.

In fact, most of the first half of the book finds our hero, Edwin, at school in Sussex, with occasional visits home. And there’s a lovely train journey to get him there, which I can’t resist including at length, even though the Home Counties and Victoria and Paddington stations and Reading and Oxford are real enough. I’m going to say that it’s the careful positioning of the fictional place with reference to the real ones that makes it work:

By this time the region of downs had been left far behind.  They were gliding, more smoothly, it seemed, through the heavily-wooded park country of the home counties.  Stations became more frequent, and the train began to fill with business people hurrying to London for their morning’s work.  They settled themselves in their carriages as though they were confident that their seats had been reserved for them.  They were all rather carefully, rather shabbily dressed: the cuffs of their coats were shiny, and the cuffs of their shirts fringed, and one of them, a gentleman with a top-hat half-covered by a mourning-band, wore cuff-covers of white paper.  They all read their morning papers and rarely spoke; but when they did speak to each other they used an almost formal respect in their addresses which implied that they were all respectable, God-fearing people with responsibilities and semi-detached houses.  Edwin they ignored—not so much as a wilful intrusion as an unfortunate accident.  He began to feel ashamed that, by starting from the terminus, he had occupied a corner seat to which the gentleman with the paper cuffs had an inalienable right.

In a little while the villas from which this population had emerged began to creep closer to the track, and by the seventh station their backs were crowding close to the embankment with long, narrow gardens in which the crimson rambler rose seemed to have established itself like a weed.  The houses, too, or rather the backs of them, grew more uniform, being all built with bricks of an unhealthy yellow or putty colour.  Soon there were no more buildings semi-detached.  The endless rows seemed to be suffering some process of squeezing or constriction that made them coalesce and edged them closer and closer to the railway line.  Soon the gardens grew so small that there was no room in them for green things, only for a patch of black earth occupied by lean cats, and posts connected by untidy pieces of rope on which torn laundry was hung out to collect the smuts or flap drearily in a night of drizzle.  Then the gardens went altogether; and the beautiful and natural love of green things showed itself in sodden window-boxes full of languishing geranium cuttings or mignonette.  The very atmosphere seemed to have been subjected to the increasing squeeze; for the mild air of the downs had here a yellow tinge as though it were being curdled.  To complete the process the train plunged, at last, into a sulphurous tunnel, emerging amid acrid fumes in a sort of underground vault where the door was opened by a ticket-collector with a red tie, tired already, who shouted “Tickets, please.”

None of the respectable suburban gentlemen took any notice of him, for by purchasing season tickets they had rendered themselves immune from his attentions; but he glared at Edwin, and Edwin passed him his ticket, which was handed on as if it were a curiosity and a rather vulgar possession by the gentlemen on his side of the compartment.  The door was slammed.  The man with the top-hat placed it carefully on his head and adjusted the paper cuffs.  Others folded their morning papers and put them in their pockets.  One, apparently recognizing a friend who was sitting opposite to him, for the first time, said “Good-morning,” and the train passed amid thunderous echoes under the arch and into Victoria Station.  All his fellow-passengers were adepts at evacuation, and before he knew where he was Edwin was alone in the carriage.

He was very lonely and yet, somehow, a little important.  Usually, at term end, he had crossed London with Widdup, whose westward train also started from Paddington.  He hailed a hansom, and one that was worthy of its name: a shining chariot, all coach-builders’ varnish, with yellow wheels and polished brass door-handles and clean straw that smelt of the stable on its floor.  The cabman was youngish, mahogany-complexioned, and ready to be facetious.  He called Edwin “My lord,” and Edwin hardly knew whether to treat him seriously or not.  “Geawing to the races, my lord?” he said.  The Lord knew Edwin had had enough of races for a bit.  He said “Paddington.”  “Ascot or Newbury?” said the cabby, climbing to his seat.

It was a great moment.  The movement was all so swift and luxurious, the hansom so delicately sprung that it swayed gently with the horse’s motion.  The polished lamps on either side were filled with wedding rosettes.  Inside on either hand were oblong mirrors in which Edwin could almost see his own profile: a subject of endless curiosity.  There was even a little brass receptacle for cigar-ash.  A Cunarder of a cab!  The cabby whistled “Little Dolly Daydreams” with a ravishing tremolo.  The cab, which had jolted a trifle on the setts of the station-yard, passed among a flight of feeding pigeons out of the iron gates into the bowling smoothness of the Palace Road.  My word, this was life. . .  .  …

The streets were so wide and clean, the green fringe of the park so pleasant: through the railings he could see men and women on horseback taking an early ride, enjoying, like him, the coolness of the morning air.  He wondered at the great white stucco houses of Park Lane, standing back from the wide pavement with an air of pompous reticence.  Before one of them, remnant of a summer dance the night before, a tented portico, striped with red and white, overstretched the pavement.  Edwin did not know what kind of people lived in these houses, but in the light of this morning it seemed to him that theirs must be an existence of fabulous happiness, all clean and bright and shining as the morning itself or the rubber-tired hansom, spinning along with its yellow spokes beside the neat park railings.

Once again the resorts of elegance were left behind.  The hansom, heaving heavily, was checked on the slope of the gradient descending to the departure platform at Paddington.  Opposite the booking-office it stopped, and Edwin was released from this paradisaical loosebox.  The cabby, wishing him the best of luck at Goodwood, patted his horse, whom he had christened Jeddah, and climbed up again to his seat whistling divinely.  Edwin was disgorged upon the long platform at Paddington that rumbled with the sound of many moving trollies below a faint hiss of escaping steam, and smelt, as he had always remembered it, of sulphur mingled with axle grease and the peculiar odour that hangs about tin milk-cans.  He was thankful to be free of it, sitting in the corner of a third-class carriage opposite a stout woman with eyes that looked as if she had been crying all night, and a heavy black veil, whose hat was surmounted by coloured photographs of the Memorial Theatre at Stratford and Brixham Trawlers waiting for a Breeze.

This train ran out of London more easily than the other had entered it.  The area of painful constriction seemed more narrow, and in an incredibly short time he found himself gliding along the Thames valley with the ghostly round tower of Windsor Castle on his left.

At Reading, where the sidings of the biscuit factory reminded him of teas which he had “brewed” with Widdup, the woman opposite took out a crumpled paper bag, and began to eat sandwiches.

The sun, meanwhile, was climbing towards the south, and the railway carriage began to reflect the summery atmosphere of the green and pleasant land through which the train was passing.  It made golden the dust on the window-pane at Edwin’s elbow and discovered warm colours in the pile of the russet cloth with which the carriage was upholstered.

It was a country of green woods and fields of ripening mowing-grass from which the sound of a machine could sometimes be heard above the rumble of the train.  It all seemed extraordinarily peaceful.  A cuckoo passed in level flight from one of the hedgerow elms to the dark edge of a wood.  In the heart of the wood itself a straight green clearing appeared.  It reminded Edwin of the green roads that pierced the woods below Uffdown, and he remembered, poignantly, the walk with his mother in the Easter holidays when they had reached the crown of the hills at sunset… another sight fell upon his eyes and filled him with a new and strange excitement: a small cluster of spires set in a city of pale smoke, and one commanding dome.  He held his breath.  He knew that it was Oxford.

This, then, was the city of his dreams.  Here, in a little while, he would find himself living the new life of leisure and spaciousness and culture which had become his chief ambition.  This was his Mecca: “That lovely city with her dreaming spires,” he whispered to himself.  It was indeed merciful that the vision of his second dream should come to cheer him when the first became so perilously near extinction.

Yes, you say, but what about North Bromwich? We’ll get there, I promise.

“This rack is intended for light articles only.  It must not be used for heavy luggage.  This rack is intended for light articles.  Only it must not be used for heavy luggage.  While there’s life there’s hope.  While there’s life there’s hope.  While there’s life there’s hope.”

So, in the pitiful whirl of Edwin’s brain, foolish words re-echoed, and in the end the empty phrase seemed to attach itself to the regular beat of the train’s rhythm as the wheels rolled over the joints in the rails.  Mesmerised by the formula he only dimly realised that they were now roaring, under a sky far paler and less blue, towards the huge pall of yellowish atmosphere beneath which the black country sweltered.

Soon the prim small gardens told that they were touching the tentacles of a great town.  A patch of desert country, scarred with forgotten workings in which water reflected the pale sky, and scattered with heaps of slag.  A pair of conical blast furnaces standing side by side and towering above the black factory sheds like temples of some savage religion, as indeed they were.  Gloomy canal wharfs, fronting on smoke-blackened walls where leaky steampipes, bound with asbestos, hissed.  The exhaust of a single small engine, puffing regular jets of dazzling white steam, seen but not heard.  A canal barge painted in garish colours, swimming in yellow water, foul with alkali refuse.  A disused factory with a tall chimney on which the words Harris and Co., Brass Founders, was painted in vertical letters which the mesmeric eye must read.  Another mile of black desert, pools, and slag heaps, and ragged children flying kites.  Everywhere a vast debris of rusty iron, old wheels, corroded boilers, tubes writhen and tangled as if they had been struck by lightning.  An asphalt school-yard on a slope, with a tall, gothic school and children screaming their lungs out, but silent to Edwin’s ears.  Endless mean streets of dusky brick houses with roofs of purple slate and blue brick footpaths.  Dust and an acrid smell as of smoking pit heaps.  More houses, and above them, misty, and almost beautiful, the high clock tower of the Art Gallery.  A thunderous tunnel. . . .  The clamour of the wheels swelled to an uproar.  “While there’s life there’s hope.  While there’s life there’s hope.”  Under the gloom of the great glass roof the train emerged.

The art gallery gives us the clue to the real-world equivalent of North Bromwich. Later we discover that the Mayor has presented it with an ‘unrivalled collection of Madox-Jones cartoons’. I went on a school trip to Birmingham Art Gallery, to look at the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Botanic Gardens, to look at plants, when I was twelve. I don’t remember much about it, except for a rather magnificent Lady of Shalott (not that one, a different one) who was on loan from somewhere else. Since then I’ve only ever been through Birmingham on the train, or changed at New Street. (By the way, the obvious London station to leave from would be Euston; I’m not really sure why Edwin goes via Oxford. Any ideas?)

As Edwin settles back in, and starts shuttling between his home of Halesby and the city of North Bromwich, we get to know it better, from, shall we say, various different points of view:

The city of iron stands upon three hills and its valleys were once watered by two rivers; but since the day when its name was humbly written in Doomsday these pastoral features have disappeared, so that the hills are only known as tramway gradients that testify to the excellence of the Corporation’s power station, and the rivers, running in brick culverts, have been deprived not only of their liberty but even of their natural function of receiving a portion of the city’s gigantic sewage.  The original market of North Bromwich has been not so much debauched from without, in the manner of other growing towns, as organised from within by the development of its own inherent powers for evil.  It is not a place from which men have wilfully cast out beauty so much as one from which beauty has vanished in spite of man’s pitiful aspirations to preserve it.  Indeed, its citizens are objects rather for pity than for reproach, and would be astonished to receive either, for many of them are wealthy, and from their childhood, knowing no better, have believed that wealth is a justification and an apology for every mortal evil from ugliness to original sin.

The narrative is quite concerned with water and where it goes, and what goes into it. Earlier in the book Edwin meets a labourer who’s working on the pipeline getting water from Wales into North Bromwich. (This, too, sparks vague childhood memories for me. I think we had a picnic next a Welsh reservoir somewhere.) Now:

the rain of the Savaddan watershed, which geology had destined for the Wye and later for the Atlantic, must now traverse eighty miles or more of conquered territory, and after being defouled by the domestic usages of North Bromwich, must find its way into the Trent, and so to the German Ocean, as the Romans thoughtlessly labelled the North Sea.  “Water,” said the Mayor, who was also known as Sir Joseph Astill, the brewer, “water is one of the necessities of life.  It is our duty to the public to see that they have it, and that they have it pure and unadulterated.”

Actually, I think he has a very good point. People need water. This fictional city, overlaid on a real one, needs its fictional plumbing and fictional sewers (not to mention its fictional railway lines) to make it function.

 

Books mentioned in this post

The Young Physician, Francis Brett Young

Danger!, Arthur Conan Doyle

Life’s Little Ironies, Thomas Hardy

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A Poet’s Bazaar (Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Grace Thornton) #EU27project

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On Friday I thought that I really ought to get going on the EU27 project before Article 50 became irrevocable and the wheels were set in motion for leaving the EU. This was one of (I think) two options that I had readily available, and as a narrative of a European travelling in Europe it seemed particularly appropriate in itself.

This book covers Andersen’s journey south from Copenhagen, via Germany, Italy, Malta and Greece, to Turkey, and back again up the Danube, in the early 1840s. It’s very much a travel narrative, but we don’t forget about Andersen the teller of fairy tales. Occasionally a particular landmark results in a self-contained story embedded within the text; sometimes Andersen remarks that some experience might prompt a story; most often it’s his lovely lucid style that reminds us that this man knew how to tell a story.

Sometimes his experiences felt very familiar to me, and I was pleased when he reached Pressburg (Bratislava in my time) and his boat moored in a stretch of the Danube that I’ve looked out over. And this, though it’s from the very earliest days of rail travel, captures exactly what I like about travelling by train:

Just look out! The nearest fields go by in an arrow-swift stream, grass and plants run into each other – one has the feeling of standing outside the globe and watching it turn. It hurts one’s eyes to look for too long in the same direction; but if you look somewhat farther away, other things do not move any quicker than we see them move when we are driving at a good pace, and farther out on the horizon everything seems to stand still – one has a view and impression of the whole district.

This is precisely how one should travel through flat country. It is as though towns lie close together, now one, now another! The ordinary travellers on the by-roads seem to be stationary. Horses in front of carts lift their feet but seem to put them down again in the same place – and so we have gone by them.

Replace that horse and cart with a car, and that’s still what a train journey feels like. At other times, it’s evident how much things have changed – not least when Andersen talks to some of his fellow travellers about the most famous Dane in history. They agree this is Tycho Brahe; nowadays, of course, it would be Andersen himself. On the practical level, Andersen’s journey is hampered by ten days of quarantine, and in certain places on the Danube his boat has to be pulled upstream by teams of men on the shore. Earlier in the journey, he learns that there’s considerable unrest in Rumelia (now part of Romania), there are rumours that the couriers of the post from Belgrade to Constantinople have been murdered, and he wonders whether to cancel the Danube leg altogether. I got a distinct sense of a Europe that has always been in turmoil at one or more of its edges.

There are inevitably a few ‘man of his time’ moments, including a particularly eyebrow-raising visit to the slave market in Constantinople. Leaving those aside, however, it’s a very enjoyable read, and makes me think that I’d enjoy swapping travellers’ tales with Hans Christian Andersen.

This counts for Denmark in the #EU27project. And it’s my sixth book of the year/in the TBR20.

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2020 reading challenges – a bit behind the times

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Having – somewhat to my surprise – filled an entire bingo card on the Indie Challenge last year, I had a vague idea of quitting while I was ahead, and not doing any reading challenges this year. Then I was messing around on Twitter and found a couple that looked a) interesting and b) manageable.

  1. The #EU27 project. This involves reading one book from each of the 27 EU countries that aren’t the UK. I’m late to the party on this one, as it began when Article 50 was triggered, and here we are over two years later. I’m going to miss being part of the European Union, and I rather like the idea of this challenge as a way to remain connected with the rest of Europe in at least a small way. I will write up books from this challenge on this blog. The majority will be translations: my French is good enough to read Jules Verne in the original, if not Colette (mind you, I get bogged down in Colette in English, too) but I don’t think I can say the same for my smattering of German and Spanish, let alone my opera fan Italian – and that’s as far as my languages go.
  2. #TBR20, which involves making one’s first twenty reads of the year books which one already possesses, and which appears to be a descendant of the TBR Dare (which involved reading only books that one already possessed for the first three months of the year). Since I’m likely moving house in March, this seems like a useful discipline, and I’m going to go for both goals: the first twenty and the first three months. I won’t be reporting back on these unless they also count towards #EU27.

The other thing I’m trying to do is use Goodreads and LibraryThing more. I don’t do star ratings, which in my experience are pretty much meaningless, but I will be posting text reviews. We’ll see how it goes…

#EU27project

Denmark: A Poet’s Bazaar (Hans Christian Andersen)

#indiechallenge (completed!) – El Hacho (Luis Carrasco)

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The blurb

El Hacho is a timeless evocation of inheritance, duty and our relationship to the landscape that defines us. Set in the stark beauty of the Andalusian mountains it tells the story of Curro, an olive farmer determined to honour his family tradition in the face of drought, deluge and the lucrative temptations of a rapidly modernising Spain. Wonderfully crafted, El Hacho is a poignant and compelling story of struggle and hope.

The author

Luis Carrasco lives and writes in Gloucestershire. He was inspired to write El Hacho after falling in love with the people and natural beauty of the Sierra de Grazalema whilst living in Andalucía. He is currently working on his second novel.

The publisher

époque press is an independent publisher based between London, Brighton and New York, which specialises in literary fiction.

The bookshop

I ordered this book direct from the publisher.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘Est. 2018’; ‘A new to you press’; ‘A debut’.

My thoughts

This is a gentle book, but it’s filled with tension as it explores the relationship between human tradition, ambition and destiny, and the forces of the natural world. The mountain of El Hacho dominates the action as it does the landscape in which that action takes place. Close behind the mountain comes the weather: an active force, sometimes empowering, sometimes destructive, whose changes are to be both longed for and feared. And against that backdrop the minute details of human relationships stand out vividly.

This is a short book, but it packs a lot in. I think I’ll have to go back and read it again.

The challenge

And that’s my twenty-fifth book of the #indiechallenge completed and reviewed. Here’s a round-up:

It’s been fun: an opportunity to reread old favourites, to discover new authors, to make a dent in my TBR pile. I’m particularly amused by how much of the non-fiction in particular is on bi themes – well, it’s true, we don’t get much representation in the mainstream. (And how every single one of them came from my TBR pile…) Two books included contributions from me; four were written by people I know; one was translated by someone I know. (And Peggy Seeger once said she liked my hat, though I’m sure she says that to all her fans.) There are a couple of books on there that I wouldn’t read again, and YA in particular just doesn’t do it for me any more, but generally speaking this has been a very positive experience. Now, do I want to do it all over again next year?

December Reflections 5: best book of 2019

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As is often the case, my favourite book of the year is one that was actually published several years ago. Eleven, in this case, and the story begins twenty years before that, when the author moves into the Dower Houses at Morville and begins working on the garden. Or hundreds of years before that, when the monastery is built at Morville. Or decades before that, when she’s born. Or hundreds of years before that, when the monastery is built at Morville. Or thousands of years before that, when the Shropshire landscape is formed.

It’s the story of the landscape and the monastery. It’s the story of the author and the garden and her relationship with the garden. It’s about time, measured in days and sunlight and fruit. It’s about people. It raised in me a powerful nostalgia for the place where I grew up, which was not far away, and it observes the changes in society and agriculture with a clear and sometimes regretful eye, but I don’t think it’s nostalgic in itself. It lives too much in the present, and is too conscious of the constancy of change, for that.

#indiechallenge – Purple Prose (ed. Kate Harrad)

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The blurb

Purple Prose: Bisexuality in Britain is the first of its kind: a book written for and by bisexual people in the UK. This accessible collection of interviews, essays, poems and commentary explores topics such as definitions of bisexuality, intersections of bisexuality with other identities, stereotypes and biphobia, being bisexaul at work, teenage bisexuality and bisexuality through the years, the media’s approach to bisexual celebrities, and fictional bisexual characters.

Filled with raw, honest first-person accounts as well as thoughts from leading bisexual activists in the UK, this is the book you’ll buy for your friend who’s just come out to you as bi-curious, or for your parents who think your bisexuality is weird or a phase, or for yourself, because you know you’re bi but you don’t know where to go or what to do about it.

The editor

Kate Harrad is  a published fiction and non-fiction writer. She co-edited The Ladies’ Loos: From Plumbing to Plucking, a Practical Guide for Girls (The Friday Project, 2006), and her novel All Lies and Jest was published by Ghostwoods Books in 2011. She has over a decade of experience working in business editorial/writing positions, and has written for the Guardian, the F-Word and the Huffington Post. She has also been a bi activist for several years, and has co-organized numerous UK bi events.

The publisher

Thorntree Press is an independent publishing company that was founded in 2013 by Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux. They publish non-fiction books about sexuality, love and ethics with a focus on non-traditional relationship models.

How I got this book

I made a donation to the Indiegogo crowdfunder – a paperback copy was part of the reward level I chose.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘A crowdfunded book’; ‘A book from your TBR’; ‘Marginalised people’; ‘Non-fiction’; ‘Book from a micro press’; or ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

I have a soft spot for this book: I’m a contributor to it, in a very minor way (my poem Circles concludes the chapter on ‘Bisexuality and Faith’). And being a contributor, being part of process of putting this book together, was important to my own process of coming to understand who I was, of moving from an ill-defined conviction that I could call myself bisexual if I really had to, but God forbid it inconvenience anybody else, to a sense that I was part of a community.

But, although it was published back in 2016, I didn’t read it end to end until this year. And I think that what I really enjoyed about it this time round was that same sense of community. I follow many of the other contributors on Twitter; I’ve met some of them in real life, or recognise them as friends of friends. But even if that weren’t the case, even if I’d picked it from the shelf with no prior knowledge, I think I’d recognise myself in it, and be glad of that. It’s a great book for feeling less like you’re the only one who’s ever felt like this.

It’s a joyfully eclectic book, too – for a group that gets stereotyped as much as bisexuals do, we’re an eclectic bunch – and some parts inevitably feel more relevant (or, which is not the same thing) interesting to me than others do – but that’s a good thing. The multiplicity of perspectives makes it that little bit more representative.

The Reader’s Gazetter Special: Alpennia

We’ve visited Alpennia before in this series, but I have a particular treat for you today. As part of the publicity around the release of her new Alpennia novel Floodtide, author Heather Rose Jones has written a guest post exploring why she chose to set her stories in a fictional location, and what she had to consider once she’d made that choice.

It’s worth noting that, while Floodtide is a standalone and you don’t need to have read any of the previous books in the series to enjoy it, Heather is Bella Books’ featured author until the end of the month, so this is an excellent opportunity to pick up all the other Alpennia books at 30% off.

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I’ve heard the question often enough: If you’re setting your story in actual history rather than a pure secondary world, why invent a country to set it in? Why not use a real location? What is the appeal of Ruritania?

Some of the reasons are practical. If your characters are major figures in their setting, maybe you don’t want to insert them into events and relationships that actually existed. Maybe no historic figures did the things or were the sorts of people you need. In my case, I started out thinking I was going to set my story in France, but I needed some specific legal and social structures to make my plot work, and those were impossible in a French setting. In order to give my imagination the space to work, I needed to remove the constraints of an existing historic society. Plot trumped history and so Alpennia was born. (The fantasy elements came later.)

Part of the appeal can be a type of laziness. Some authors are happy to break history and deal with the consequences when a subset of readers protest, “That’s not how it works! That’s not how any of this works!” Others may prefer the softer path–the ability to say, “That’s just how things are in this country.” Ruritania isn’t an excuse to create a society that isn’t internally consistent. There are limits to how lazy you can be and still write a good story. But the limits are more elastic, more forgiving.

An excellent reason to use an invented country is to be sensitive to the real-world cultures that inspired you. This is a sensitive topic, because borrowing elements you find inspiring can merge into appropriating the heritage of actual people while erasing their ancestors from the story. I’ve tried to make it clear that Alpennia is its own place, not an existing culture dressed up in a costume, but the approach has its own risks.

Sometimes inventing a country is a case of wanting to create a setting that could have existed but never did. To design realistic people and events that by chance never happened. Or ones that you suspect did happen but have been written out of history. The heart of my books is a focus on queer women. We know from the bits and scraps that were recorded (and for whom those records survived) that women have loved each other across the ages, but only certain types of stories have come down to us. Often the ones that ended badly. I don’t claim that Alpennia was some sort of queer paradise, but by creating my own society, I can integrate my queer characters without the charge “that’s unhistorical because these people aren’t in the history books.”

Once you’ve decided to invent your own country, the question becomes “how?”

I wanted a place that made sense within its context–that could have evolved naturally out of real historic settings and forces. The geography might be inserted sideways into the existing map of Europe, but the culture, the history, the economy needed to be unexceptional.

The original idea of setting the story in France had already shaped parts of the culture, so it made sense to place it on the border of that country. There were still plenty of small semi-independent duchies and principalities scattered through western Europe in the 18th century. For its simple existence, Alpennia makes as much sense as the Duchy of Savoy, straddling the modern border of France and Italy. In fact, the two are technically neighbors, though by the time of my stories, Savoy was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. But I digress…

Sitting on the intersection of France, Italy, and Switzerland, the recorded history of Alpennia would of course have begun as part of the Roman Empire. There are references to Roman ruins in Daughter of Mystery, and fans of Roman archaeology will be entertained by the discovery of an ancient Roman monument that plays a key role in Floodtide.

As a consequence, Alpennia will have a Romance language, but likely with a Germanic substrate entering during the Migration Era. When I needed to build a “look and feel” for Alpennian names and vocabulary, I wanted something that was recognizably central European but not quite like any existing Romance language. I settled on using the (fairly fragmentary) written records of the Langobardic language as inspiration for the appearance of the language and developed a set of sound-change rules to use in transforming Latin vocabulary and names into early modern Alpennian. Hey, I have a PhD in historical linguistics, don’t think I was going to gloss over this part!

Alpennia sits on the edge of several large-scale cultural patterns. As a vast oversimplification, these patterns include falling on the Catholic side during the Reformation, an emphasis on “honor culture,” and tending to follow southern European marriage patterns.

Not having a direct sea port, I didn’t see Alpennia as participating strongly in colonial expansion (not for any virtuous reason, just lack of opportunity), and their water-based foreign trade is dependent on access to the Mediterranean through French ports. Alpennia’s major river, the Rotein, is a sort of shadow-twin of the Rhône (which might be guessed from its name) and the positioning of the capital of Rotenek is implied to be at the farthest upriver that commercial barge traffic can reliably go. When I first started plot-noodling the seasonal spring floods that give Floodtide its name, I envisioned the snow-melt of a fan of Alpine tributaries hitting the flatter country around Rotenek in potentially disastrous ways. News images of urban flooding in Europe in the last couple decades have been very inspiring for what the results might look like.

The most fun part of developing the physical environment of Alpennia is how the architecture of human spaces reflects the layered history of the country. The heart of the “upper town” (both upper in elevation and as the heart of upper class culture) is the plaza between the palace and the cathedral. But Floodtide centers more around the marketplace between the church of Saint Nikule (the patron of sailors and merchants) and the old river landing–a relic of a time when the shipping trade was no longer in the hands of the merchant families living along the Vezenaf (whose houses are now the most prestigious in the city) but before it moved to the south side of the river where land was less dear. The simple existence of the Nikuleplaiz summarizes the merchant history of the city. I created the remnants of an old public market building there, now only a covered arcade where the charmwives sell hope and magic, and a secular bell tower that chimes for fogs and floods.

I like to find inspiration in the quirks of real spaces that break the illusion of cleanly planned buildings in the past. The charity housing built into the spaces between the buttresses of Saint Nikule’s church are inspired by actual medieval structures of that type still standing around a church in Deventer in the Netherlands, where I was visiting a friend several years ago. I love details that imagination alone couldn’t create–details that reflect the messy and contradictory relationship of people to their surroundings.

We currently have a wealth of resources for envisioning environments of the past, from easy online access to art, texts, and publications, to reconstructed virtual environments. I find these things invaluable in fleshing out the Alpennian landscape, but my heart always goes back to the time I’ve spent traveling and living in older European cities. That sense of place and presence made a big impact on me when I was a ten-year-old California girl traveling to Europe for the first time–the year that inspired my ongoing love of history. Alpennia is my chance to share that love without laying claim to a heritage that doesn’t belong to me.


Floodtide

The streets are a perilous place for a young laundry maid dismissed without a character for indecent acts. Roz knew the end of the path for a country girl alone in the city of Rotenek. A desperate escape in the night brings her to the doorstep of Dominique the dressmaker and the hope of a second chance beyond what she could have imagined. Roz’s apprenticeship with the needle, under the patronage of the royal thaumaturgist, wasn’t supposed to include learning magic, but Celeste, the dressmaker’s daughter, draws Roz into the mysterious world of the charm-wives. When floodwaters and fever sweep through the lower city, Celeste’s magical charms could bring hope and healing to the forgotten poor of Rotenek, but only if Roz can claim the help of some unlikely allies.

Set in the magical early 19th century world of Alpennia, Floodtide tells an independent tale that interweaves with the adventures.

A stand-alone book in the Alpennia series (Alpennia #4)


Heather Rose Jones is the author of the Alpennia historic fantasy series: an alternate-Regency-era Ruritanian adventure revolving around women’s lives woven through with magic, alchemy, and intrigue. Her short fiction has appeared in The Chronicles of the Holy Grail, Sword and Sorceress, Lace and Blade, and at Podcastle.org. Heather blogs about research into lesbian-relevant motifs in history and literature at the Lesbian Historic Motif Project and has a podcast covering the field of lesbian historical fiction which has recently expanded into publishing audio fiction. She reviews books at The Lesbian Review as well as on her blog. She works as an industrial failure investigator in biotech pharmaceuticals.

Website: http://alpennia.com

Twitter: @heatherosejones

Facebook: Heather-Rose-Jones-490950014312292/

HRJ

The Reader’s Gazetteer

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#indiechallenge – Squirt (Kate Spencer)

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The blurb

Kate made a discovery. She wrote a poem. She writes lots of poems about sex, sexuality, the body and body and bodily functions. She’s filthy, flirty, and funny; saucy, seductive, and sensual; raunchy, ridiculous, and ravishing. You won’t believe what comes out of her lips.

The author

Kate Spencer is co-producer of Poetry in Motion, the Wellington Feminist Poetry Club and Naked Girls Reading NZ. She’s a national slam finalist, a typewriter poet for hire, an editor, a writer, a promoter, a committed Christian, a dichotomy.

The bookshop

I ordered a copy direct from Kate.

The bingo card

I am going to count this for ‘a poetry collection’, but it would also work for: ‘a debut’; ‘a women’s press’; ‘LGBTQIA’; ‘Marginalised people’; and very possibly ‘Favourite’.

My thoughts

I’m somewhat amused by the way that this challenge started out as an earnest attempt to take on the worthy books that hadn’t got to the top of my TBR pile, and has recently become ‘I read this book by a friend and it’s a hell of a lot of fun’.

It would be funny to say that Kate was the one that the Christian Union warned me about, but I never really got into the Christian Union. Still, by all accounts we had far more fun in the Methodist and Anglican Society. (Not like that.)

Anyway, oblique nostalgia for my university years aside, this book is a hell of a lot of fun. It has all the verve and immediacy that I associate with slam poetry. An extensive vocabulary, creatively and joyfully used (‘Don’t expect me to labour over my labia/epilate before a date/or pluck pre-fuck’). In this book there’s a joy in both sex and words that makes me smile. It’s usually funny (‘don’t tell me I’m ovary-acting’), sometimes angry (‘Fucking is supposed to be fucking consensual/if not, it’s not fucking sensual/it’s a fucking con/and you should be fucking convicted’) and always honest.