#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.

How much is an honest review worth?

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There’s been some discussion recently about the fact that Publishers Weekly is now offering paid reviews to self-published authors – for $399 a pop.

No, I haven’t mislaid a decimal place. Four hundred – as near as damn it – American dollars.

As I remarked on Twitter, for that sort of money I’d expect wing walkers, and a solo extolling the merits of my book at the Last Night of the Proms.

Now, there are various schools of thought around paid-for reviews. I don’t buy reviews myself (except that one time when it was a friend trying to get a service off the ground), and, from the other side of the counter, I’ve recently resolved only to review books that I’ve bought with my own money. (Because a refusal often offends, but not nearly so much as the bad review that you would otherwise be posting.)

Actually, I do believe that most book bloggers are basically honest, and tend to say nothing at all if they can’t say anything nice. I’d recommend this pair of posts from Jo Linsdell and Lovely Audiobooks which debunks the myth that book bloggers are all rolling in free money. Which is hardly surprising, when most of them don’t charge.

And that’s the thing: whichever way you slice it, $399 is a lot of money. Do I believe that I’d get an honest review for $399? Perhaps. Do I believe that anyone else would believe it was an honest review? Perhaps not. To be blunt, the more an author spends on a review, the more flattering everyone else (and perhaps the author too) expects it to be.

But I think that what’s going on here is slightly more than paying for a book review (you can get them a lot cheaper on Reedsy or Fiverr or all sorts of other places, or so I understand) or even plain old advertising.

They’re selling credibility – or trying to. They’re offering you the chance to say, ‘This is my book, and a review of it has appeared in a Publishers’ Weekly supplement, therefore it must be good, right?’

The thing about credibility is that you can’t just rock up and buy it.  Sooner or later the reader is going to catch on to the fact that a Publishers’ Weekly review can be bought. Even if your book actually is as good as all that, the reader will look at some of the others (which, to be frank, are already looking a bit amateurish) and start to wonder… The lowest grade on offer is a C: that means that some truly terrible stuff is going to come out marked ‘average’.

You have to earn your credibility. And the way you earn it is by making your book good. As good as it possibly can be. Oh, it does appear that the review may include suggestions for things you could do better in the future. But you could spend your money on making your book good now, before you put it out into the world.

(The other thing about credibility is that it doesn’t, in itself, make any money. It takes credibility plus hard work. Actually, it’s mostly hard work.)

Here are some other things that a self-published author might – note, I don’t say should – do with $399:

  • get a really good cover… for the next few books
  • get a really good editor… for the next few books
  • get a really good typesetter, proofreader, publicist… oh, you get the idea
  • get really nice gin for the people who do those things for you but refuse actual payment
  • buy Facebook ads from here to kingdom come
  • buy a couple of dozen copies of the book from Amazon to push it up the sales rankings
  • buy a couple of dozen copies of the book and leave them on honesty bookshelves and railway station bookswaps (I have long wanted to do this, just for the hell of it)
  • go on a research trip for the next book
  • any other ideas?

I mean, don’t take financial advice from me. I’ve just spent a chunk of my most recent writing income on a rainbow skirt, but I think I’ll get a good deal more joy out of that. It cost me $35.00.

And yes, that decimal point is in the right place.

 

 

#indiechallenge – The Duke Is Dead (Ankaret Wells and Irene Headley)

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The blurb

It is seven years since the Cousins’ War ended.

King Roald has brought peace to the Three Kingdoms and driven the last heirs of the king he deposed into exile. His brother Thomas, Duke of Wharram, is a man for whom loyalty is the greatest virtue and family the highest cause. So when his sister Josiane, Duchess of Bergomance, finds herself widowed, her beloved stepdaughter Ambrosia beleaguered by suitors and her late husband’s coffers mysteriously empty, who better to send than Thomas?

But the ghosts of old wars are waiting in Bergomance, and new threats are rising. Some see heresy everywhere, and others look to an Empire in the east that has suddenly begun seeking allies. And into it all, a ship driven off course by storms brings a young man fleeing King Roald’s mercenaries and throws him into Thomas’s path. Nicolas ás Ithel, a man with dark eyes and a love of numbers, and an inheritance in his veins that could reignite the Cousins’ War.

Kingsblood.

The authors

Ankaret Wells and Irene Headley are friends of mine, and they talked about how they came to write this book on this blog a little while ago.

The bookshop

I bought the ebook version from Lulu; then, on discovering that there were family trees and maps to flip back and look at, bought the print version too.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘Genre fiction’; ‘Book from a series’ (at least, it will be soon); ‘Book that defies genre’; or ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

In recent years, holidays with my partner have tended to be ‘somewhere in the Low Countries’ (Leiden; Ghent; most recently, Lille, which is pretty sure it’s in Flanders) and ‘some time when the wind is very cold’. Don’t ask me why we keep doing this, especially since we live in Cambridge and therefore this isn’t much different from being at home.

I mention this because The Duke Is Dead is set in a fantasy Flanders in the middle of winter, but is very much concerned with a fantasy version of British history. Specifically, the Wars of the Roses. If royal heritage on all sides was marked by some kind of magical power – which might or might not be useful. If the men we now think of as Richard III and Henry VII found each other inconveniently attractive.

But The Duke is Dead is not just about the slash. In fact, the uneasy liaison between Thomas of Wharram and Nicolas ás Ithel is one single example of the tension between personal inclinations and private loyalties and public politics and the way that plays out for many of the characters when there are kingdoms at stake. Thomas’s sister Josiane is a major player, and her daughter is much more than a pawn, no matter what her suitors seem to think. Religion in this universe is fascinating: there’s a béguinage and a St Mary the Evangelist, and the doctrine of the Trinity is heretical. The weather might be horrible, and the humans certainly have their moments, but this novel is, apart from anything else, fun. I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of the series plays out.

 

#indiechallenge – Keep Faith (ed. Gabriela Martins)

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I apologise for the quality of the picture. I took it on the train. Erm, at least you can just about see my jolly reusable coffee cup in the background? It’s in iridescent bi pride colours, not that you can really tell that. The cover looks much prettier in full colour.

The blurb

Keep faith, in the broad sense of the word. It doesn’t have to be a religion, unless you want it to be. It doesn’t have to speak about the universe, unless you want it to. It doesn’t have to be about anyone but yourself. Keep faith, in other planets and other houses; be it in the face of danger, grief, or while you spread your arms and laugh. Keep faith the same way you keep hope, bright and shiny, ever present. Keep faith in all your queer, beautiful self. Because you deserve it.

This is an anthology of 14 short stories, by 14 queer authors, where faith and queerness intersect. Incidental, purposeful, we-exist-and-that’s-why queerness. And faith meaning whatever you want it to mean.

The contributors

This anthology is edited by Gabriela Martins, with cover art by Kess Costales, and short stories by Adiba Jaigirdar, Bogi Takács, C.T. Callahan, Elly Ha, Gabriela Martins, Julia Rios, Kate Brauning, Kess Costales, Mary Fan, Mayara Barros, Megan Manzano, Shenwei Chang, Sofia Soter, and Vanshika Prusty.

The bookshop

This book is available on a ‘pay what you think is appropriate’ basis from Gumroad.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘An author from another country’; ‘A new to you press’; ‘Marginalised people’; ‘An anthology’, or ‘LGBTQIA’. Also, arguably, ‘Rec’d by a friend’, since I only came across this book when I saw a friend irritably tweeting it at Tim Farron.

My thoughts

The premise of this anthology is of course right up my street: the intersection between queer identity and faith identity is one that fascinates me on my own behalf and more generally.

The stories approached this from all sorts of different angles. Some, inevitably, worked better for me than others did. My favourites included “And I Entreated” (Bogi Takács), in which the narrator is having to deal with being a houseplant while her child prepares for their bar mitzvah, and “On The Other Side” (Shenwei Chang), which was a really poignant exploration of loss and tradition. “How Not To Die (Again)” (Gabriela Martins) was a light-hearted piece of high school magical realism. And “Godzilla” (Kate Brauning) was a perceptive picture of a well-meaning church attempting to be inclusive.

I was less impressed by “Bigger Than Us” (Megan Manzano) and “Golden Hue” (Mayara Barros). These both featured the sloppy worldbuilding that’s been irritating me in YA literature recently, where a very familiar twenty-first century culture prevails despite the presence of major fantasy elements that ought to have made things develop in very different ways.

Overall, though, this anthology was a good deal of fun, and I’d recommend it to anybody who enjoys exploring the nuances of identity.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: M

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M is another of those built-up letters. Hardy gives us Marygreen, Melchester and Mellstock. Wikipedia tells me that there was a Maltovia in one of the Biggles books, but if I read it (and I read a lot of Biggles, back in the day) then I don’t remember it. Helena Fairfax gives us Montverrier, and a dedicated exploration of the Ruritania series takes us to Mittenheim. (Well, it doesn’t really; a Grand Duke comes from there, but we never really learn much about it.)

Then there’s Maycomb. Google supplies a wealth of maps (extrapolating them from To Kill A Mockingbird seems to be a popular school activity) but I’m going to quote this lovely train journey from Go Set A Watchman:

The countryside and the train had subsided to a gentle roll, and she could see nothing but pastureland and black cows from window to horizon. She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful.

The station at Montgomery nestled in an elbow of the Alabama, and when she got off the train to stretch her legs, the returning familiar with its drabness, lights, and curious odors rose to meet her…

For no reason an ancient fear gnawed her. She had not been in this station for twenty years, but when she was a child and went to the capital with Atticus, she was terrified lest the swaying train plunge down the riverbank and drown them all. But when she boarded again for home, she forgot.

The train clacketed through pine forests and honked derisively at a gaily painted bell-funneled museum piece sidetracked in a clearing. It bore the sign of a lumber concern, and the Crescent Limited could have swallowed it whole with room to spare. Greenville, Evergreen, Maycomb Junction.

Although even this train doesn’t quite get us there, and the journey is completed by car:

No trains went there – Maycomb Junction, a courtesy title, was located in Abbott County, twenty miles away. Bus service was erratic and seemed to go nowhere, but the Federal Government had forced a highway or two through the swamps, thus giving the citizens an opportunity for free egress.

To reach Middlemarch these days you’d take a train out of London Euston and you’d be there in about an hour. But at the time that the action is set, the railway has not quite made it. In fact, we see it being built.

It’s not connections or landscape that make Middlemarch a place we can believe in. It’s the people. It’s the systems. It’s the systems in which the people live and move, and the people who make up the systems. There’s the class system, the minute gradations of commerce, the churches and the hospitals, the vain attempt to move up a rung, or at least keep oneself from moving down one, to escape it entirely, and the pettiness of the whole thing…

I know how to get to Middlemarch because I believe the introduction when it tells me it’s basically Coventry with the serial numbers filed off. (Which makes me wonder whether anyone’s written anything set in post-war Middlemarch. Or anything about the Middlemarch bicycle industry…) But I believe in Middlemarch because I believe in the people who live in it and around it.

 

Books mentioned in this post

Middlemarch, George Eliot

In the Mouth of the Wolf, Helena Fairfax

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy

The Heart of Princess Osra, Anthony Hope

Biggles Goes To War, Capt. W. E. Johns

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

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#indiechallenge – The Sleep Quilt (Tracy Chevalier and Fine Cell Work)

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The blurb

The Sleep Quilt is unlike any other quilt you will have seen. Commissioned by Tracy Chevalier, it is entirely stitched and quilted by prisoners in some of Britain’s toughest jails. Each of the 63 squares explores what sleep means in prison. A moment of escape for some, for others a dark return to all they most regret in life, sleep has a great significance in jail that is only strengthened by the difficulty of finding it in the relentlessly noisy, hot and cramped environment. By turns poignant, witty, lighthearted and tragic, The Sleep Quilt shines a light on lives that few outside can guess at.

The contributors

Tracy Chevalier is an American-British historical novelist, the author of books including Girl With A Pearl Earring and The Lady And The Unicorn.

Fine Cell Work is a charity which makes handmade textile products in British prisons:

Fine Cell Work enables prisoners to build fulfilling and crime-free lives by training them to do high-quality, skilled, creative needlework undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells to foster hope, discipline and self esteem. They can also learn sewing machine and textile production skills in our prison based workshops. Our aim is to allow them to finish their sentences with work skills, money earned and saved, and the self-belief to not re-offend.

The publisher

Pallas Athene has been publishing books for 25 years, starting with travel guides and now mainly focussed on art. Rather endearingly, they say:

We also have some wine and food titles, and other books we publish simply because we like them and want to bring them to a wide audience. (Most recently, David Lack’s wonderful Life of the Robin). The aim is always to make books that are approachable and intelligent, and we are great believers in illustration.

Where I found this book

I’ve been staying with a friend and reading my way through as many of her books as I could in a week (while also managing to fit in a lot of standing at the side of the road cheering on cyclists, and playing Pandemic in between times). We’ve been comparing textile notes for years (she is a very good embroiderer; I am a slapdash quilter) and so she brought this one to my attention.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘Rec’d by a friend’; ‘A crowdfunded book’; ‘A new to you press’; ‘Marginalised people’; ‘A press over 20 years old’; ‘Non-fiction’, and, perhaps, ‘Anthology’.

My thoughts

This is a beautiful, moving, little book. It opens with an essay by Tracy Chevalier explaining how she came to commission the Sleep Quilt (for an exhibition of quilts entitled ‘Things We Do In Bed’) and one by Katy Emck describing the aims of Fine Cell Work. The majority of the pages, however, are devoted to pictures of blocks from the quilt accompanied by contributions from the prisoners who worked on it, explaining the thinking behind the designs or expanding on quotations included in them. It’s fascinating and thought-provoking: a small treasure.

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#indiechallenge – Meant To Be Me (Wendy Hudson)

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The blurb

Trying to find “The One” is never easy and engineer Darcy Harris is finding it tougher than most. It doesn’t help she’s also dealing with a shadowy stalker trying to make trouble for her. But Darcy’s determined not to let anyone ruin her life.

Her loyal best friend and boss, Anja Olsen, is stuck in a strange conundrum, forced to question who she has become and who she wants to be.

Meanwhile, stranger Eilidh Grey’s first instinct is to run fearlessly toward chaos and love. But this time she’s on a collision course with fate.

A chance meeting on a snowy bridge in Inverness, Scotland, binds all three women together, creating an unexpected, tangled, love triangle. What happens when it all unravels?

A compelling, slow-burning, romantic suspense that will keep you guessing right to the end.

The author

Wendy Hudson is an award winning author based in Scotland.

Her debut novel “Four Steps” won a 2017 GCLS Debut Author Award, was a Diva Literary Award Finalist 2017.

Her second novel “Mine to Keep” was a 2018 GCLS Finalist.

All her novels are set in Scotland among the inspirational landscapes that first inspired Wendy to write.

In her spare time, Wendy has a love for travel, as well as camping, skiing, football, festivals and reading.

The publisher

Ylva specialises in lesbian fiction by authors from all over the world and across a wide range of genres.

The bookshop

Another one from Kobo.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘Genre fiction’, ‘A Women’s Press’, ‘Marginalised people’, or ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

Wendy Hudson is a colleague, and about a year ago we spent an enjoyable evening in the bar at one of the University of Warwick’s conference centres, drinking beer and talking about writing. She was working on this book at the time, and she told me what the twist was going to be.

And it didn’t matter at all. It was as much fun knowing what was coming as it would have been to be guessing. That particular twist was revealed about a third of the way in, after which I was on a level playing field with everybody else – and there was still a lot of suspense to come. Knowing something that the characters don’t is all very well, but I didn’t know when or how they would find out. And I kept on reading until they did.

Beyond that: it was a romance between two women, each with a complicated past, which was always haunted by the claustrophobic, effective, suspense plot. I’d have liked to see a little more of how that eventually plays out, but that would have made for a very different book.