Daily Decoration: iridescent plastic hummingbird

Iridescent plastic ornament representing a hummingbird, hanging from an evergreen tree

I bought this one from the British Library. I think it was in 2019, but it might have been a year or so earlier. There were four or five others like it which went to various family households, as is tradition.

I bought it because I liked it. (I do sometimes feel a bit odd about imposing my own very specific taste on my nearest and dearest, but I tell myself that they don’t have to display these things if they don’t want to. Usually they seem to.) I bought it because there was something about the depth of the colours and the gleam of the surface and the grace of the shape that appealed to me. There wasn’t any particular meaning; as far as I’m aware, none of us have any particular feelings about hummingbirds. I just liked it.

I think it’s now fair to say that my last book hasn’t done as well as I’d hoped. Sales haven’t been great; it has yet to be shortlisted for anything; reviews have been favourable but very sparse. One might use the word flop. There are various reasons for this. One big one was the SNAFU that was getting the damn thing out in ebook format, which eventually resulted in my pulling all my paperbacks from Amazon. Another, probably equally big, was the timing. Eight months into a pandemic, people were not terribly interested in reading about institutional inertia and a slow slide into depression. And much of the core, queer Christian, audience was distracted by Living in Love and Faith.

I still think it’s good. I still think it’s the best one so far. I think I managed to say something important. And most of the time I manage not to care what anyone else thinks. But it was a lot of hard work. It was very personal – more personal than I’d thought, going in – and it meant spending time in depressing places.

But it’s done. And it’s been something of a relief this year to find myself writing things just because I want to. Silly things. Frivolous things. Next door to fanfic, really. Yes, fine, in one I find myself gently making the same marriage: maybe won’t fix everything? point, and in the other I find myself looking at the inadequacies of yet another political system, so it’s business as usual. And next door to fanfic they might be, but since I’m still having to fill in characters, history, and geography on a blank sheet, they aren’t any less work.

I’m putting that work in. These are going to be good. They may or may not end up saying anything important. I’m alternating between having a huge amount of fun and tearing my hair out – over the thriller plot, over how to resolve the other one, over how clever is too clever and how many Easter eggs is too many. And once you’re this far into a book it doesn’t really matter why you started it: finishing it is going to be hard work. It’s going to be a lovely thing once it’s finished, though.

If you want to give The Real World a go regardless, it’s currently half price at Smashwords.

We interrupt this blog series to bring you a small Christmassy treat

Christmas tree decoration representing a shooting star

There’s a little Stancester snippet in the IReadIndies A Very Sapphic Christmas anthology. If you were wondering how things went between Speak Its Name and The Real World, this fills in a little bit of the gap. It also addresses the perennial question: why do we do Christingles, anyway? It’s one of nineteen stories and excerpts by authors from the IReadIndies collective, and you can download the whole thing here.

I’ll also be making it available to newsletter subscribers as a standalone in the new year (read: when I’ve had a chance to find a nice photo to make a cover). If you’re not already subscribing to my newsletter, you can sign up here.

Meanwhile, the books themselves are both in the Smashwords End of Year sale. Speak Its Name is free and The Real World is half price. Find them here.

I’ll be back later with today’s decoration, whatever that ends up being. In the meantime – enjoy!

Daily Decoration: Alice

A textile Christmas tree decoration representing Lewis Carroll's Alice

Alice came, appropriately enough, from the British Library. So did quite a few of the permanent inhabitants of Wonderland. I picked them up week by week: the Mock Turtle, the Cheshire Cat, the flamingo, the Knave of Hearts…

I looked at her just now and the part of my brain that’s always quoting something said, ‘Very Tenniel.’ I first came across Alice in Ballet Shoes, in the excruciatingly embarrassing sequence where Pauline gets the part instead of a friend who’s really better qualified and probably needs the money more, and then gets a severe case of swelled head… I didn’t read Alice in Wonderland until a few years later.

Actually, I’m not sure that this Alice is very Tenniel; she seems rather calm and unruffled, as if she’s never fallen down a rabbithole in her life. I’m very fond of book!Alice, largely because of how logical and observant she is, and the way she approaches confusing and frightening situations: wanders around and asks questions. And occasionally cries. It’s as good a philosophy as any.

In This Small Spot, Caren J. Werlinger

I read this in Truro, where we were staying above a pub. I started it in bed, and finished it in the beer garden, with the gentle sound of a little river running past, and the cathedral towering up above the trees, just the other side.

And I was thinking what a pity it is that Susan Howatch, who when she was writing wrote about unconventional clergy relationships like nobody else, never got round to the Bensons.

There are a few plausible reasons why not, of course. Firstly, I’m not sure that anybody would believe in the Bensons if they appeared in a novel. They’re really quite incredible in real life. (Edward White Benson was the first Bishop of Truro – this was why they were on my mind – and later became Archbishop of Canterbury. He proposed to his wife when she was twelve. After his death she set up home with the daughter of a different Archbishop of Canterbury. All the children were as queer as their mother, in every sense. No need to bolt invented polyamory onto the facts here. But even Susan Howatch might not have got away with the Bensons.) Secondly, she writes very heterosexual books. So she was probably never going to take on the Bensons.

Anyway, I was in the mood for something that took a queer, religious, character, that took both the queerness and the religion seriously, and was prepared to delve deep into the psyche of that character.

In This Small Spot hit that, er, spot about eighty per cent of the time.

This isn’t anything like a Howatch. It doesn’t have the snobbery, the psychics, or the daddy issues. And it isn’t so tediously straight. It does have the ‘can’t do anything, got to finish this book’ thing that Howatch manages to do over and over again; which is why I had to finish it in a pub beer garden before we could see any more of Truro. And it was almost but not quite exactly what I wanted.

“Here, the true you is most often magnified, for better or for worse.”

Abbess Theodora

In a world increasingly connected to computers and machines but disconnected to self and others, Dr. Michele Stewart finds herself drowning in a life that no longer holds meaning. Searching for a deeper connection after losing her partner, Alice, she enters a contemplative monastery, living a life dedicated to prayer, to faith in things unseen. Though most of her family and friends are convinced that she has become a nun to run away from her life, she finds herself more attuned to life than she has been in years. Stripped of the things that define most people in the outside world – career, clothing, possessions – she rediscovers a long forgotten part of herself. But sooner than she expects, the outside world intrudes, forcing her to confront doubts and demons she thought she had left behind. The ultimate test of her vocation comes from the unlikeliest source when she finds herself falling in love again. As she struggles to discern where she belongs, she discovers the terrifying truth of Abbess Theodora’s warning. For better or for worse.

I don’t think I’d argue with anything in that blurb. I bought the book on the strength of it, and I wasn’t disappointed. It wouldn’t be getting its own post if I hadn’t enjoyed it. The calm rhythm of the religious life, the complex relationships between the novices, the developing tension between Sister Michele and another nun, made for an absorbing read. It wasn’t perfect, though, and there were a couple of things that left me wanting to argue.

Firstly, the pacing was a bit off, or the plot. An overuse of ‘Later, Mickey would…’ built up a suspense that was never quite delivered on. Things developed sequentially, one event leading to another, and tending to evolve from characters’ desires and personalities. This suited the setting, but there sometimes seemed to be a reluctance to commit at key points. I said above that I was looking for something that would delve deeply into a character’s psyche. I think that often it didn’t delve deeply enough.

At one point Mickey reflects that the enclosed nature of the abbey makes trivial events take on an inflated importance. Actually, I found the opposite to be true: there would have been space to take much more time to explore the personality clashes and emerging trauma that grew from and drove events.

And then it takes an unexpected turn into melodrama.

Major spoilers follow the picture of Truro cathedral.

A pointy Victorian Gothic cathedral in grey stone, shot from below.

Mickey sustains serious injuries rescuing her love interest from a fire, a combination of events which results in both of them asking to be released from their vows. Mickey returns to medical life. Having both taken time to reflect, the two of them set up house together.

And very shortly afterwards Mickey dies.

Yeah.

In fairness, it didn’t strike me as a stereotypical ‘bury your gays’. There was too much of a sense of the bigger picture for that. The happy ending had already been earned and obtained; in fact, I’d have been perfectly contented had the book ended just a few chapters earlier. What we got, however, was an ambitious ending, and one that I don’t think the author managed to pull off. She didn’t quite earn Anselma/Lauren’s revelation that ‘The tragedy would have been never to have known her at all’. It might have worked, given some more space; as it was, it felt glib.

It was intensely readable, however, and I’ll be buying the sequel. I want to know more.

SOLD BY NOBODY: an unintentional affirmation from a tiny book

Two tiny books: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy and Church Seasons in Verse by Christina Rossetti, with a penny for scale

In my lunch hour today I went to the British Library and looked at an exhibition of tiny books. (These are not from there; the British Library frowns on people taking photographs in their galleries of precious books. These are the tiniest books that I have in the house.)

Two of the tiny books were by the Brontë children. There was an issue of the Blackwoods Young Men’s Magazine by Charlotte and Branwell. And there was The Search After Happiness by Charlotte, with the following magnificent title page:

THE SEARCH AFTER HAPINESS

A TALE BY CHARLOTTE BRONTE

PRINTED BY HERSELF

AND SOLD BY

NOBODY

Now, that is an attitude I aspire to. Never mind fretting about taking one’s books off Amazon; this is SOLD BY NOBODY and proud of it.

Charlotte Brontë was thirteen when she wrote this. Jane Eyre was several years in the future. Even if she could have foreseen the millions of cheap paperback copies of that, I don’t think she could have dreamt that after a couple of centuries the stories of Angria and Gondal and Gaaldine would have prompted scads of scholarship, books, fanfic, and a small moral panic. And going by this, I’m not sure she’d have cared.

Thank you, tiny book, for a new perspective.

Lint rollers: or why you can’t find my paperbacks on Amazon any more

A model of planet Earth hangs in the nave of a cathedral

I went to my local homes and gardens shop the other day, looking for a lint roller. The man on the till explained that they did not stock them, as the peel-off sticky bits can’t be recycled. He offered me a clothes brush instead. I said that so long as it would get cat hair off the sofa that was fine with me.

I publish my paperbacks through Lulu. It can be a massively frustrating process, but I have yet to hear of any other print-on-demand service being noticeably better. There are two ways to get your books out there. Or one and a half, really, I suppose. You can sell them through the Lulu bookstore. You can also choose ‘global distribution’, which makes it available through all the big retailers.

The snag – and this has become much more of a snag in the five years since I started doing this – is that the big retailers also wish to take their cut along the way. Which is fair enough. But printing costs have gone up, and so, I think, has the cut, and the gap is getting wider and wider.

Take The Real World. The minimum I can sell it for on Lulu is £6.90. If, however, I want to put it in for global distribution I have to whack the price all the way up to £13.72. Which is a silly price, so I put it as £13.99.

So I was in the slightly ridiculous situation of having to charge four pounds more than I considered reasonable for a paperback in order to sell the item on a platform that made me feel skeevy (because it was almost always Amazon) to make a few pennies on the sale.

And then nobody was buying them. Quite reasonably. I wouldn’t spend fourteen quid on a paperback. (OK, I do spend thirteen quid on the Girls Gone By reprints of the Marlows series: but have you seen how much they go for second-hand?)

One solution would have been to dump Lulu and go with KindleDirect Publishing. Or go with both. I couldn’t face wrangling a third platform, so ‘both’ was out. And going exclusively with Amazon would have made me feel very skeevy indeed, and probably also have lost me a few sales.

(I don’t avoid Amazon entirely, but if I can get a book somewhere else, I will. For various reasons. And it does make a difference as to whether I get it in the first place. There are a couple of authors who’d be instabuy for me if only they weren’t Amazon exclusive. As it is, I only buy the books that really, really, really appeal to me.)

Anyway, I was fretting about this for months. Then Lulu emailed to say they were putting their prices up. And I realised: I could pull my books from everything except Lulu.

I know, I know. It doesn’t seem fair to react to ‘Lulu putting their prices up’ by ‘removing my books from everything except Lulu’. But see above. Lulu drive me up the wall, but they don’t make me feel skeevy. And actually, a company being honest about the true costs of something was surprisingly refreshing. Stuff does cost money, and if we’re not paying for it, chances are someone else is.

So. The best place to get paperback copies of my books is now Lulu. It’s worth waiting until they run a 10% or 15% sale, which they do quite frequently; this ought to go some way towards covering the cost of postage. (Alternatively, my mother has six copies of The Real World which I got sent to her address and then forgot to sell when I was there, and then forgot to take away with me. Sorry, Ma. Do you want to post them?)

The ebooks of the two Stancester novels are on Smashwords, from which you can download them in every format I’ve heard of and some I hadn’t. I have made my peace with their not being on Kindle: when these ones sell, it’s usually because someone’s enthused about them on Weird Anglican Twitter, and the denizens of WAT tend to be sufficiently net-savvy to track them down. A Spoke In The Wheel is still on Kindle. I have no idea why the others broke and this one didn’t, but for the moment I’m going to let well alone.

But what of my principled local homes and gardens shop? Well, I didn’t buy a lint roller. I didn’t buy a clothes brush, either, but only because I phoned home and discovered there was one on order. I did buy a garlic press, a potato brush, and an ash bucket in which to keep the dried cat food. The cat meanwhile, has decided that she prefers sitting on the windowsill, which is much easier to sweep.

Fluffy black and white cat curled up on a cushion

C.A.T.S.: Cycling Across Time and Space – Kickstarter live now

Fluffy black and white cat seated on top of a bookcase, in front of a model bus

This is Port. As of last Monday, she lives with us. She has spent most of the intervening week sleeping, eating, mewing for attention, being generally gorgeous, and climbing up to high places. It is very good to have a cat around the house; previously we have had to make do with talking to other people’s cats. Which is not the same thing at all.

In other exciting cat-related news, the Kickstarter for the latest Bikes In Space anthology is now live, and the theme of this edition is CATS, and I have a story in there. In Miss Tomkins Takes A Holiday it’s some time in the 1930s and a union organiser sets out on a well-deserved cycling break, accompanied by her cat Aster. Trouble follows them, but the two of them are very well-equipped to deal with it.

There are ten other sci-fi/fantasy stories in there, all featuring cats and bicycles, and all looking like they’re going to be a fun read. The Kickstarter offers all sorts of combinations of formats and rewards, depending on whether you prefer paperback or ebook or fancy getting a T-shirt or sticker as well. Have a look.

A kid on a BMX bike flies across the moon with a cat in the basket shooting lasers out of their eyes

Nada (Carmen Laforet) #EU27project

Ebook reader showing the title screen of 'Nada' by Carmen Laforet, on a dusty piano lid

I’m continuing to work my way through the #EU27 project in a desultory fashion. It tends to get as far as looking at a book, wondering whether it would fit, reading the blurb, and then putting it down again. Very handily, my work book club decided to read Nada, by Carmen Laforet, which, at the time of posting, I can count for Spain.

It’s a marvellously gothic book, with mysterious relations, sinister servants, and a decaying apartment. It’s an apartment rather than a house, because this is very much urban gothic: the narrator, Andrea, has moved to Barcelona to study English. I’ve never been to Barcelona, but by the end of this I felt as if I had. There’s a very compelling sense of place: windswept squares, cramped alleys, the scent of the sea. I’d like to reread when I’m more in the mood for descriptive prose.

I found Andrea a rather frustrating, passive, character, to whom things happened, or didn’t. That felt entirely plausible, however; I remember being in my late teens and early twenties and just waiting to find out what was the next thing that was going to happen to me. Actually, it reminded me more than anything of Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment In Love (mind you, that was also a book club pick).

What I completely failed to get was how deeply the book was affected by Franco’s Spain. Part of that is an artefact of having been written and published there: apparently there was a lot of censorship going on. Actually, it felt much more recent than that. I don’t know whether that was a quality of the translation or of the original, whether the absence of contextual detail set it free from time and place, or whether I was just missing a whole lot of clues. Quite possibly it was the latter.

I’m glad I read it, anyway, and will probably read it again. Hurrah for book club. Next time they’re reading The Count of Monte Cristo. Which is fine by me, though I can’t count it towards this challenge. As to that, it’s either going to be Mrs Mohr Goes Missing (Poland), The City and the Mountains (Portugal), or Inlands (Sweden). You’ll find out here. Sooner or later.

Two promotional things

Blue flower with feathery foliage

It is warm! It’s ten to ten at night and I’ve just been out in the garden, watering plants. This photo is from last year; the self-seeded offspring of this love-in-a-mist flower are merrily blooming away without my having done anything about them. That’s my kind of gardening.

In similar vein, I have a couple of book promotion things to mention that have happened without my having done much.

iReadIndies lesfic giveaway

Firstly, iReadIndies.com, a community of independent ff/wlw/lesfic/etc authors are running a giveaway over on Facebook, and The Real World is one of the titles on offer. To be in with a shout, you need to be a member of their Reader Central group; you’ll find the giveaway poll under Announcements.

(Or if you don’t like the odds you could just buy it on Smashwords.)

In all seriousness, iReadIndies is doing some excellent work pulling together a somewhat underrepresented group of writers, and I do recommend taking a look if you’re into books about women loving women.

A Spoke In The Wheel, on sale

Secondly, Amazon seems to be doing that thing it does from time to time and knocking an arbitrary chunk off the price of the paperback of A Spoke In The Wheel. At the time of posting it’s down to £7.12 (from a list price of £10.99). So if you’re after a paperback this is a decent chance to get it at a discount. (They don’t knock it off my cut!)

I should say that I’m rethinking my relationship with Amazon (longer post to come on that in the next few weeks) but it’s too hot for anything drastic. In the meantime, I hope you’re all staying cool and have some good books to read.

Historical fiction, knowns and unknowns

Three herring gulls on a shingle beach

This year I’ve read more historical fiction than I thought. I’ve just looked back down my booklist and found that about 20% of 2021’s reading has been historical fiction; it’s just that there are a couple of historical fiction books that have stuck in my head for the wrong reasons and they’re crowding out the other, really well researched, well written, ones.

The third somehow manages to be both. Last night I sat up until midnight (well, 23:57 if we’re going to be pedantic, which I am) to finish The Heiress (Molly Greeley). Which, if you can get past the Britpicky Angliquibbling gripes that I’ll get to in a bit, I do recommend.

The problem with both The Quickening (Rhiannon Ward) and Turn Again To Life (A. Zukowski) was that they knew they were historical fiction. The characters didn’t live in their now; they lived in the author’s nineteen-twenties. We get lines like this:

A wonderful story, except the fairies were dressed in 1920s clothes, copied probably from a magazine.

At this point it’s 1925. Now, I might describe the dress I wore yesterday as ‘a bit eighties’ or the one I wore on Tuesday as ‘vaguely fifties’. I wouldn’t call the one I’m wearing today ‘2020s’, or even ‘twenty-tens’. I might say ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’, or just skip straight to calling it ‘a v-necked cotton jersey dress with a flared skirt’. And the reason for this is that I am living in the twenty-twenties. For me, it’s now.

In the case of Turn Again To Life, it was a case of too much research and insufficient mixing. One kept coming up against solid lumps of history: a summary of the suffrage movement plonked into the middle of a love letter, for example. I couldn’t decide whether the book needed to be twice as long or to have half as much plot, but either way it needed a better editor. A pity, because it had a really intriguing premise.

This was not at all a problem in The Heiress. This is a riff on Pride and Prejudice in which Anne de Bourgh’s invalid state is caused by involuntary laudanum addiction: a great premise, and one which is delivered on. It’s a peculiarly immersive book, and the immersion in Anne’s surreal mental landscape is a neat escape from having either to pastiche Austen or explain one’s more departure from her voice. Anne felt at once very human and very much of her time.

However, I got thrown out quite violently when she mentioned having read the Book of Common Prayer through several times and finding it ‘dull’. There are two problems with that. Firstly, I have never known anyone read the BCP cover to cover: that’s not what it’s for. The only scenario I can think of is someone who has nothing else to read: in which case it surely shouldn’t be as dull as not reading it.

The second is this: it isn’t dull. Parts of it are, yes, and if you’re reading the Calendar and the General Rubricks straight through then you deserve everything you get. But there’s an awful lot more in there, and the author just didn’t seem to know about it. One wouldn’t even need to have an unequivocally positive view of it. One could be horrified by the Commination or perplexed by the Athanasian Creed just as well as charmed by Psalm 19. Anne’s aunt dies giving birth, and yet the pain and peril of child-birth doesn’t come to mind. The Book of Common Prayer (she always calls it that, not the Prayer Book) just doesn’t live in Anne’s head the way you’d expect it to if she’d read it several times. And yet she reads The Seasons and suddenly discovers the joy of words.

It was at this point I nearly DNFed. It felt very much as if it was heading straight for Not Like Other Girls Anachronistic Atheist Feminist territory. (It didn’t get there.)

And all that made me a lot less inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt when Brighton beach was sandy and when they came back from Brighton it was snowing. The snow is just about possible. The sand… well, see the picture at the top. That was Brighton in June 2016. There will have been some geological upheaval, but still…

The problem here is not so much the historical research as the geographical research. And that’s social geography, religious geography, as well as physical geography. I know the landscape that Greeley is trying to write in, and every mistake jars. Not, admittedly, as much as that Alyssa Cole book where the hero turns out to be the Duke of Edinburgh (now that’s something you really should look up before you start writing), but it jars.

Fortunately, things got a lot better after that, and I got to the end with only a couple of hiccups: wondering when the word ‘orange’ was used to describe the colour (the 16th century apparently, so that’s a pass) and thinking that it’s slightly odd to talk about Kent being ‘only forty miles away from London’. I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at those if I hadn’t been so annoyed about the BCP thing. And everything else about it really was very good. The depiction of addiction and coercion, the challenges of entering society a decade late and massively underprepared, the convincing depiction of a same-sex relationship in that particular context, the physicality… I do recommend it. But.

All this gives me much to think about as I embark on long-form historical fiction for the first time. Can my Yorkshire Quaker shop steward call his much younger boss ‘thou’ in 1919? (Actually, he probably would, and get away with it, but I can’t have him doing it, because it will throw the reader out for as long as it takes them to wonder the same thing – which might be all the rest of the book.) I was going to send my main characters to Hastings on honeymoon, but it turns out there was a blooming great U-boat cluttering up the beach all that summer. Which I think might be a bit too, er, metaphorical. I think I’ll send them a mile or so down the coast to repent at St Leonards instead.