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 – The Key of F (Jennifer Haskin)

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The blurb

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

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

The author

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

The publisher

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

How I got this book

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

The bingo card

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

My thoughts

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

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

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

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

The Reader’s Gazetteer: G

For some reason, certain letters of this gazetteer are much easier to populate than others. G is a case in point. The fictional map of Europe is chock full of countries whose name begin with G. Here are a few of them.

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I gave up on the Princess Diary series before we ever visited Genovia – the princess in question lives in New York, and has only just discovered her royal status – but even from a distance it was pretty convincing. In The Princess Diaries: Take Two, Mia describes it as:

a small country in Europe located on the Mediterranean between the Italian and French border

The history, as Mia tells it, seems a little bit unlikely, taking no account of Italian unification, and claiming a much nobler backstory than Genovia’s real-life equivalent Monaco, but the geography is plausible enough. How to get there? On your million-pound yacht, or don’t bother.

I can’t quite believe in the Brontës’ Gaaldine and Gondal, but a brief foray into Sherlock fanfiction allows me to bring in A. J. Hall’s Queen of Gondal series, which relocates them from an African island to somewhere in the Balkans and makes them into quarrelsome, complicated, plausible nations.

In The Heart of Princess Osra we have a visit from the Prince of Glottenberg, which I don’t propose to spend too much time on, given that I can’t actually tell where it is and I’ll be devoting a lot of attention to Anthony Hope when we get to Ruritania (and probably Strelsau and Zenda, too).

And I have to admire Robert Louis Stevenson’s bold assertion in Prince Otto that the reason you can’t find Grünewald on your map of Europe is that you’re looking at the wrong map; the one that would actually show you where it is has been long since rolled up:

You shall seek in vain upon your map of Europe for the bygone state of Grünewald. An independent principality, an infinitesimal member of the German Empire, she played, for several centuries, her part in the discord of Europe; and, at last, in the ripeness of time and at the spiriting of several bald diplomatists, vanished like a morning ghost. Less fortunate than Poland, she left not a regret behind her; and the very memory of her boundaries has faded.

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There’s a good sense of physical and political geography, too, if one allows for some creative licence in the inclusion of The Winter’s Tale‘s Bohemia:

North and east the foothills and Grünewald sank with varying profile into a vast plain. On these sides many small states bordered with the principality, Gerolstein, an extinct grand duchy, among the number. On the south it marched with the comparatively powerful kingdom of Seaboard Bohemia, celebrated for its flowers and mountain bears, and inhabited by a people of singular simplicity and tenderness of heart. Several intermarriages had, in the course of centuries, united the crowned families of Grünewald and Maritime Bohemia; and the last Prince of Grünewald, whose history I purpose to relate, drew his descent through Perdita, the only daughter of King Florizel the First of Bohemia.

I can’t help wondering if that’s meant to be the same Gerolstein as the one in La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, which I haven’t included because it’s not a book. In fact, I rather suspect that Stevenson is having a good deal of fun with other people’s fictional locations. Which is, as is probably apparent, a favourite pastime of my own.

Books referred to in this post

The Princess Diaries and sequels, Meg Cabot

Queen of Gondal series, A. J. Hall

The Heart of Princess Osra, Anthony HOpe

Prince Otto, Robert Louis Stevenson

#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…

The Reader’s Gazetteer: F

Back to England, and back to Barsetshire and Framley. Framley Parsonage provides some more detail of the geography of Barsetshire in general.

… that letter went into Barchester by the Courcy night mail-cart, which, on its road, passes through the villages of Uffley and Chaldicotes, reaching Barchester in time for the up mail-train to London. By that train, the letter was sent towards the metropolis as far as the junction of the Barset branch line, but there it was turned in its course, and came down again by the main line as far as Silverbridge; at which place, between six and seven in the morning, it was shouldered by the Framley footpost messenger, and in due course delivered at the Framley Parsonage exactly as Mrs. Robarts had finished reading prayers to the four servants.

The further I get through this abecedarium, the more I’m coming to appreciate the importance of plausible fictional systems as a component of plausible fictional locations.

Because novels are about humans, and humans create systems, and are part of systems, and are influenced by the systems that contain them and are around them. A village is a system; a town is a system; a country is a system.

One doesn’t necessarily need pages of infodumping explaining how it all works. The odd snippet of details can be enough to convey the idea of a coherent universe. In the Framley Parsonage extract above, it’s the postal system (which of course Trollope knew a lot about), which intersects with the rail system, and, here, meets the class system and the religious system. Framley Parsonage is not about the post or the trains. The systems that it’s really looking at are politics and money and friendship and marriage. But that little excursion along the Barset branch line situates it in a geographical system.

It’s where systems meet landscape – are imposed upon a landscape, shape landscape, are shaped by a landscape – that we get the kind of place that I’m looking at in this series. Different landscapes mean different systems. Which brings us to The Nine Tailors, and Fenchurch St Paul. The landscape here is fen – reclaimed from the sea, flat and prone to flooding, dotted with churches built with wealth from the wool trade – and the system is drainage.

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“… Ah! look – over to the right – that must be Van Leyden’s Sluice that turns the tide up the Thirty-foot Drain – Denver Sluice again on a smaller scale. Let’s look at the map. See, here’s where the Drain joins the Wale, but it meets it at a higher level; if it wasn’t for the Sluice, all the Drain water would turn back up the Wale and flood the whole place. Bad engineering – but the seventeenth-century engineers had to work piecemeal and take things as they found ’em. That’s the Wale, coming down through Potter’s Lode from Fenchurch St Peter. I shouldn’t care for the sluice-keeper’s job – dashed lonely, I should think.”

This is a system that’s been put in place by humans, and is therefore vulnerable to the shortcomings of those humans.

“Nobody knows whose job this here sluice is, seemin’ly. The Fen Drainage Board, now – they say as it did oughter be done by the Wale Conservancy Board. And they say the Fen Drainage Board did oughter see to it. And now they’ve agreed to refer it, like, to the East Level Waterways Commission. But they ain’t made their report yet.”

It could be argued that we hear more than we strictly need to about the drainage around the Fenchurches. But I think it contributes to the book as a whole. Certainly I would find it difficult to describe what drains into what and where floods or doesn’t flood as a result, but I come away with a sense of a vast landscape imperfectly controlled, and when, at the climax of the book, it plays its part, I believe in it unreservedly. (I feel much the same about the bell-ringing; I let my eyes pass over the page without feeling any particular need to understand what’s going on.)

Fenchurch St Paul itself has two pubs and a Big House and, set a little way off, on a hill (this is important later), a church, and it’s a very plausible fenland village. I’m quoting the description of the church, because it’s lovely:

At the first glance he felt himself sobered and awe-stricken by the noble proportions of the church, in whose vast spaces the congregation – though a good one for so small a parish in the dead of a winter’s night – seemed almost lost. The wide nave and shadowy aisles, the lofty span of the chancel arch – crossed, though not obscured, by the delicate fan-tracery and crenellated moulding of the screen – the intimate and cloistered loveliness of the chancel, with its pointed arcading, graceful ribbed vault and five narrow east lancets, led his attention on and focused it first upon the remote glow of the sanctuary. Then his gaze, returning to the nave, followed the strong yet slender shafting that sprang fountain-like from floor to foliated column-head, spraying into the light, wide arches that carried the clerestory. And there, mounting to the steep pitch of the roof, his eyes were held entranced with wonder and delight. Incredibly aloof, flinging back the light in a dusky shimmer of bright hair and gilded out-spread wings, soared the ranked angels, cherubim and seraphim, choir over choir, from corbel and hammer-beam floating face to face uplifted.

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Later we learn that the angels have in the current vicar’s tenure been restored with new gilt, which made me raise my eyebrows a little. I would be surprised to hear of a church doing that these days; but then fashions in church upkeep change – which is itself an important point.

Detective stories often oblige the reader with a plan of important locations. My copy of The Nine Tailors has three: the two showing roads and drains, and the church:

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They’re particularly useful in detective fiction because they allow readers to follow the action and authors to make sure that all the characters are in the right place at the right time. Some people use them to make a fictional location seem more real. But Fenchurch St Paul feels quite real enough already.

Books referred to in this post

Framley Parsonage, Anthony Trollope

The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers