#indiechallenge – An Honourable Estate (L. A. Hall)

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The blurb

Clorinda has brought about a happier state of affairs in the Earl of N-‘s family, but fears that this may have earned her the Earl’s enmity. The bad poet Mr W- Y-‘s behaviour is becoming increasingly and worryingly erratic. Bets are being laid on the likelihood of Clorinda’s remarriage, and the identity of the groom. There are still a deal of contrivances upon hand.

The author

L. A. Hall is a historian and retired archivist. Short stories by her have appeared in The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women and The Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women. She regrets to say that she does not own a pet wombatt.

The publisher

Sleepy Wombatt Press is the imprint under which the author releases the stories of Clorinda Cathcart and her circle.

The bookshop

Amazon, which as a general principle I try to avoid. But I did want a prettily bound volume.

The bingo card

This could count as: ‘Book from a series’ or ‘A Women’s Press’. The cast is as diverse as ever, so one could make a case for ‘LGBTQIA’ or ‘Marginalised People’. But I think it’s probably going to end up as ‘Favourite’.

My thoughts

The Comfortable Courtesan series has been my bedtime reading over the last several months, and it only took a little bit of cheating to make the end of one of them fall within the week of the IndieAthon.

As the cover suggests, the wombatt plays second fiddle to the mongoose in this tenth volume of Clorinda’s memoirs. We pick up the action at the point where she has exerted some subtle leverage upon the Earl of Nuttenford to induce him to provide appropriately for his family; the unforeseen consequence of some of her earlier contrivances is that he’s no longer in favour of a marriage between his daughter Lady Anna and the Marquess of Offgrange. Which is unfortunate, because everybody else is very much in favour of it…

And, as the title suggests, marriages, or lack of same, of one sort or another are the main preoccupation of this volume even after Lady Anna’s problems have been sorted out. There’s a shotgun wedding, an attempted abduction, and the aftermath of a too early marriage, as well as the usual glimpses of established relationships: Lady Jane’s unorthodox marriage to Admiral Knighton; the other Lady Bexbury and Captain Penkarding’s household; and of course both sides of Raxdell House, which Clorinda spends most of this volume visiting.

I wouldn’t recommend this book as an introduction to the series, but for longstanding fans it’s another delightful installment of Clorinda’s adventures, with the usual mix of the sensational and the gentle.

 

#indiechallenge – Common Murder (Val McDermid)

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The blurb

Common Murder finds journalist Lindsay Gordon at the peace camp on Brownlow Common, reporting a case of alleged assault by Deborah, a peacewoman, on Rupert Crabtree, Chairman of the local opposition to the camp.

Then the body of Crabtree is found on common ground, victim of a vicious attack, and Deborah is accused of murder. Lindsay is plunged into an investigation with far-reaching political implications, in which no one – be they ratepayer or reporter, policeman or peacewoman – is wholly above suspicion.

The author

Val McDermid is of course a very big name in crime fiction these days; this was only her second novel, and the biography in the front talks more about her career as a journalist and her NUJ activity.

The publisher

The Women’s Press now seems to be defunct, but it used to put out a lot of feminist fiction and non-fiction. Its steam iron logo and stripy black-and-white spines are still worth keeping an eye out for when browsing charity shop shelves.

The bookshop

This was another one from the Book Bus.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘Genre fiction’; ‘Book from a series’; ‘A Women’s Press’; ‘A book from my TBR’; ‘A press over 20 years old’ (The Women’s Press made it to at least 30 before disappearing); or ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

This seemed like an appropriate choice for International Women’s Day and the first day of this year’s IndieAthon.

Set in a thinly disguised Greenham Common, this was a diverting murder mystery which veered off into sensationalist spy thriller territory towards the end (I wasn’t complaining; I like spy thrillers!) but it was just as absorbing as a reflection of the world of journalism and the politics and preoccupations of the 1980s.

McDermid’s observation of the crossover between different groups, and the fault lines within groups, is very sharp, and the way she portrays the uncomfortable sense that one isn’t doing enough for the cause of the moment feels just as relevant today. Lindsay, on the edge of two worlds as a self-described hack in a relationship with the highbrow writer Cordelia as much as in her compromised dealings with press, police, and protesters, makes a convincing character. I loved the depiction of lesbian subculture (one character runs a restaurant called ‘Rubyfruits’) and the casual assumption that the reader will find their way around it (recognising the jargon puts them ahead of at least one plot development). I’ll be keeping an eye out for the rest of the Lindsay Gordon series.

#indiechallenge – Rainbow Bouquet (ed. Farah Mendlesohn)

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The blurb

Stories of love in the past, present and future – all as fascinating in their variety as love itself.

The authors

There are several: Harry Robertson, Edward Ahern, Victoria Zammit, Erin Horáková, Cheryl Morgan, Sarah Ash, Kathleen Jowitt, Sean Robinson, Garrick Jones and MJ Logue. Biographies can be found here.

The publisher

Manifold Press has been relaunched recently, with a focus on LGBTQ historical fiction.

How I got this book

I received a free copy as a contributing author.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘Genre fiction’, ‘Marginalised people’, ‘An anthology’, or ‘LGBTQIA’. Calling it a ‘Book that defies genre’ feels like cheating, somehow, although one might make a case for some of the stories.

My thoughts

(Without, of course, reference to my own work, which obviously I think is OK. I wouldn’t have submitted it otherwise.)

This is an eclectic collection of stories, varying in setting (in the sense of both time and place), genre, style, tone, and which particular letters of the LGBTQ+ alphabet soup they used.

Personally, I felt that the strongest stories were the historicals, which is perhaps fitting given the publisher’s focus on that genre. MJ Logue’s Restoration-set Firebrand was spirited and witty; Cheryl Morgan’s The Poet’s Daughter was gorgeously lyrical; and Ubytok — umu pribytok by Erin Horáková seemed to me to be a convincing pastiche of classic Russian literature.

Overall, this is an enjoyable anthology, and with such a mixture there should be something in there to please most people.

March is for indies*

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Indieathon is back! This time it’s being organised by Ninja Book Box, who have a Youtube video about it here, and takes place over a week (8th-15th March) rather than a month. (Last time round I only found out about it halfway through March, so this is less of an adjustment than one might think.)

Anyway, I’m planning to join in, in a somewhat desultory way – by which I mean that I’ll be reading a little bit more than usual for a not-writing fortnight, and what I read will come from independent publishers and self-publishers, and will appear in due course as an #indiechallenge review.

The picture might look like one of those carefully curated TBR piles, but it’s really just a collection of books that I’ve been meaning to get around to reading that happened to be in an accessible place on the bookshelves. I need to check some of them to make sure that they really are independent publishers, and not just some imprint of one of the Big Five. And of course The Art of Lent is going to take me rather more than a week, otherwise there isn’t really much point to it.

Also in the middle of that week is the London Book Fair, which I will be attending courtesy of my Selfies Award shortlisting. The awards ceremony is in the afternoon of Tuesday 12th March, and I may also be appearing on a panel in the morning, talking about ‘the joys and perils of self-publishing’, in the morning. Both events are in the Author HQ.

 

*Now is probably not the moment to confess that I’ve always found the term ‘indie’ insufferably twee, is it? Oh well. There isn’t really anything else that covers ‘self-publishers, plus independent-but-not-necessarily-small-presses’, and ‘independent’ would sound insufferably pompous.

#indiechallenge – Plus One (Sarah L. Young)

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The blurb

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

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

The author

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

The publisher

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

The bookshop

I downloaded this from Kobo.

The bingo card

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

My thoughts

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

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

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

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

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The blurb

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

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

The author

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

The translator

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

The publisher

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

The bookshop

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

The bingo card

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

My thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

#indiechallenge – Milkman (Anna Burns)

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The blurb

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

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

The author

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

The publisher

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

The bookshop

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

The bingo card

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

My thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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