Sunday, 28 June 2009

Overtime by Tom Holt

A slightly more complete review now that I've actually finished reading it. One point I feel I should make at the start is that no, he didn't correct the second/third crusade mix up at the end in a brilliant time travel related conclusion, so I'm still annoyed with the lack of fact checking.

Actually, I'm a little unsure as to what the ending was, but we'll get to that in a minute. For now, the plot. World War II pilot Guy Goodlet finds himself whisked out of his soon to crash plane by time traveller, medieval bard, and most popular performing artist of all time Blondel, who is singing outside every castle in time and space (including the elephant and castle tube station) in an effort to find Richard the Lionheart. Goodlet agrees to help, principally because he falls hopelessly in love at first sight with Blondel's sister Isoude.

Various people aren't very happy about the great singer-songwriter's efforts. His time travelling investment banking managers, for one. The people who police time and space for another. And also the Antichrist, for some reason vaguely to do with the lease on the Earth having been negotiated by the aforesaid managers in a brief foray into the property market.

It's odd, to say the least. It's also very funny, in a wordy, observational sort of way. But then Tom Holt's books usually are. He has a knack for catching odd characters perfectly, and for providing exquisitely absurd similies.

It's just a pity really that it doesn't make a great deal of sense. Partly that's the fault of random time travelling plots, which rarely work. Partly, it's because things like Guy Goodlet's inexplicable ability to shoot off hats without ever hitting what he's aiming at look like they ought to have some hidden significance that never shows up. Partly, it's because the whole thing gets sorted out by a (literal) deus ex machina, which doesn't work even if you are jokingly pointing out that you're doing it at the same time. Mostly though, I got the feeling that Holt didn't have a clue how he was ending things, and as a result the apparent main character felt like a spectator.

All in all then, while it might be worth reading once (while on the blood pressure tablets if you happen to be a medievalist interested in the crusades) it's probably better to buy his his more recent, still hilarious but also coherent, novels instead.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Uses of History: Annoying Me When I Read

History has many uses, but not all of them are that useful. This one is downright annoying (as you probably guessed from the title). I'm reading Tom Holt's Overtime at the moment, which is a funny, well thought out book containing time travel, the fundamental interconnectedness of all red tape, medieval poets conducting world tours, evil henchmen put in for repairs between scenes... you know, the usual.

It also features a number of references to the Third Crusade. You know, the one everyone's heard of, with Richard the Lionheart, Philip Augustus, bouts of being kidnapped in Germany and so on. It's in the background of assorted versions of Robin Hood. At least, I think it's the Third Crusade, and so do the reference sources I checked. Tom Holt seems to be insisting that it was the Second.

You have no idea how much that annoys me. Calling the Third Crusade the Second not only means that the nice line of medieval french kings with crusades (Louis VI, Louis VII, Philip II) gets disrupted, it also effectively ignores one of the most wonderfully incompetant attempts at a crusade ever put together. Running from 1147-49, with Bernard of Clairvaux preaching it and Louis VII of France putting his not inconsiderable weight behind it, it should have been a roaring success... except that no one seemed to know what they were doing on the military side of things. The result was a largely humiliating defeat that I find rather amusing (look, after years of following the England cricket team you get a skewed view of failure).

As far as I can see, one of three things has happened. One, Holt has followed a book that has somehow decided the second crusade didn't really count. The numbering of crusades was a bit random for several years, so it's possible. Two, he hasn't done any research, deciding to rely on what he already "knew". Well sorry, but it's the sort of thing you'd expect someone to check (actually, why don't publishers have special "Crusade Number Checking Editors"? It would save a lot of trouble).

The third possibility is that I simply haven't read far enough into the book yet. There's time travel floating around, so I suppose the order of things could get changed yet. I hope so. History can be fun (I'm told), but there are moments when it can spoil an otherwise lovely book.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Serious Reading

A friend of mine has just finished Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy, apparently for fun, and it has me asking a simple question (beyond the obvious "is he mad?"): Why do we sometimes get the urge to read big, serious books that we never otherwise would? Some possible reasons:

  1. Because they are genuinely great books that have stood the test of time.
  2. Because they have a reputation as serious, important books and we want to know everything in the entire universe ever.
  3. Because books like that are a challenge, and we feel like we've achieved something when we finish them.
  4. Because we're utter show offs, who want to boast that we've finished books other people see as intimidating.
I'm trying to remember the last book like this I read. Probably my occasional forays into books on maths/science count, given that history is my normal field. There are lots that I've started and then somehow never got round to finishing, perhaps suggesting that I'm more interested in point two above than point three. Then again, maybe I just get enough big, serious books with my research. Keene's St Paul's certainly counts. That said, I'm still wandering vaguely through the complete works of Shakespeare when the mood takes me. What about the rest of you? What's the last big, awkward book you read?

Monday, 22 June 2009

Brent Weeks: Way of Shadows...

Also Shadows' Edge and Beyond the Shadows, this being a review for the whole trilogy. I imagine there might be a spoiler or two as a result.

It should be a measure of how absorbing I found them that I went through the three of them in about a week. The plot is essentially that a street kid named Azoth (Ah, traditional fantasy naming), desperate to get out, apprentices himself to the most dangerous hired killer in the world, Durzo Blint. The city they're in comes under attack from a neighbouring country that has dedicated itself to the worship of a dark goddess, and in order to deal with the threat, Azoth must not only take on a completely new identity, but must take the power of a magical artifact from his teacher. From there, he must face the power of the other nation's godking, meddle in the politics of the post invasion city, and eventually face up to the demon goddess herself.

It's a rough summary, obviously. And, like pretty much any summary of a fantasy book, it sounds pretty ludicrous when put like that. Ludicrous is the last word that springs to mind reading it though. This series is dark, involved, and frequently brutal. Maybe it's just me, but that seems to be a trend in the more recent wave of epic fantasy. It works too, letting Weeks rachet up the tension for the simple reason that very bad things can, and will, happen to the characters.

Those characters are probably the best part of the series. Forget the naming conventions, under those names they're rounded, intriguing creations that make you care. And there are lots of them. Weeks juggles plot strands expertly for most of the series, binding together a continent's worth of stories with a strong sense of history/destiny, yet still managing to keep things surprising.

Perhaps those surprises are the only downside here. Despite three long (600ish pages) books, Weeks still ends up doing some things very suddenly, without really enough foreshadowing. The descent of the character Dorian into evil and then madness happens far too quickly, while there's one magic sword in there that I swear has the magical power to make things happen behind the scenes, given that sections involving it seem to be set up and then skipped over. There are aspects of the love stories involved that are touched only briefly, making the resolutions to them perhaps less satisfying.

Maybe that's just a function of the scale of the challenge Brent Weeks took on here. There are so many plot strands that it seems impossible to give them all the time they deserve. Perhaps the answer there might have been to give the main strands slightly more at the expense of others. Certainly, I would have preferred the ending to have seemed a little less like Weeks realised he was running out of space and had to force things to a halt. But the thing is, this works anyway, and works brillantly. This series is dark, gritty, flawed, but an utterly engrossing read.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Not knowing.

It's a big, big world of information out there. On the net I sort of get that in a vague way, but there's nothing like stepping into a biggish library to remind you of all the things out there that you'll never have chance to read. Take the University of Hull's Brynmor Jones Library (about the only building in the city not named after either Larkin or Wilberforce, as it happens). Seven floors, plus a basement full of things that the library staff will bring out if you ask (probably still slightly damp from the floods we had last year), and an assortment of e-books and e-journals. Even with that, there are still a lot of things we don't have, otherwise known as whatever I particularly need at any given moment.

I've been looking into peripheral areas not really connected to my research, but brushing it enough to be worth a few references. What seem like tiny, insignificant areas of thought will, when looked into, still turn out to have a dozen works on the subject. There will be debates I've never heard about, but have to get the hang of quickly if I'm going to be at all coherent.

What does all this mean to anyone who isn't engaged in ultra-specialised research? Well for one thing, it points to a plurality of viewpoints on almost any issue. For another, it's humbling to remember how much there is out there that none of us will ever know, even if we set out to become full blown polymaths. It also offers a bit of a reminder to be careful with information we get from the internet. It's almost invariably only one fragment of a greater whole, usually simplified to be more "accessible".

It's also surprisingly frozen. Where the ease of updating things should mean the possibility for current knowledge in a way that shouldn't be possible with traditional print, I still run into ten or fifteen year old history articles that, if I didn't know better, I might take as the current state of knowledge. Not that the availability of information isn't wonderful, it is. I'm wondering though if it doesn't occasionally lure us into a false sense of our own knowledge, when perhaps knowing how much we don't know might be better.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

An Interview With Rachel Green

Rather later than I intended, and with apologies to Rachel for the delay, an interview with Rachel Green. Rachel is the author of the fantasy novel An Ungodly Child, which makes Heaven, Hell and potential Armageddon the funniest they’ve been since Pratchett and Gaiman wrote Good Omens. In addition, she maintains a constant stream of poetry and artwork on her blog (http://whenthedogsbite blogspot.com. /) as well as a separate blog for the tea obsessed demon Jasfoup. Having run into her on a couple of writing forums, it seemed like a good idea to ask her some questions on everything from why she manages to write so much to how exactly you prepare the perfect cup of tea.


The obvious (and possibly obligatory) question- Is writing something you've always wanted to do?

Actually, no – I trained in fine art and graduated with first class honours in painting. There are still a few of my paintings in private collections but I couldn’t sustain a living out of it. Oddly, I sell more paintings now than I did then.

I began writing in the late nineties. You wouldn’t believe some of the rubbish I wrote then.


You manage a pretty constant stream of poems in addition to your other writing. Is there some trick to being so prolific, or is it just something that comes naturally?

I wouldn’t call myself prolific *grin*. Any secret I have is mainly because I like my routines. The first thing I do every day is write four short poems (cinquain, haiku, tanka, fib) then Jasfoup’s diary, Laverstone tales, then the novel in progress.


An Ungodly Child is grounded pretty strongly in the more obscure bits of Christian mythology. Did you find yourself having to do a lot of extra research for that?

Sometimes! I have to admit, I know an awful lot about the Bible. I was raised by a devoutly Catholic mother, went to Sunday School, the whole works. I know my subject quite well.

I do have to look up specific texts, mind. I can often remember a law, but not where it was quoted.


Did you have more fun writing Jasfoup or writing Harold?

I can’t honestly answer that. They both exist as foils against the other. I love them both. I have to admit, though, that Jasfoup has his own blog and Harold doesn’t.


There are also some very memorable minor characters in the book. Did it take a lot of time putting them together?

A lot of the minor characters come from flash fictions and ‘grew’ into novel worthy status. When I copy-edited An Ungodly Child, a good many characters became streamlined into a few. The ghost in the Manor, for example, was not originally the angel Sansenoy.


Several parts of the book seem to be pointing in the direction of a sequel. Is there one in the works?

A sequel? *grins* If AUC sells well enough to interest a publisher in a second, I have a further two already written and am 5/6 of the way through the third. I’ve also written two Laverstone novels featuring characters other then H&J. Book two introduces the werewolf Felicia and her sister Julie.


There seem to be a lot of moments where reasonably ordinary people end up getting the better of the supernatural. Was that deliberate?

Mostly, yes. Although I poke fun at religion, Jasfoup is by definition a product of Christianity. By virtue of the mythos of the Bible, mortals are ‘better’ than the supernatural (cf the Fall of Lucifer). So mortals outwitting (ofter unknowingly) the supernatural is par for the course. Sometimes vampires aren’t chic.


Does working with the visual arts equate in any way with writing? What's the difference between the two (apart from the words, obviously)?

Ooh, good question! There are certain similarities. The need for space (literal and metaphorical) to explore the creative process, the work, the period of reflection, altering and never being satisfied with the final product.


You seem to show up on a lot of writing forums. Is there something about the idea of online writing communities you particularly like?

I find writing forums to be (mostly) very supportive places. There are one or two that I’m a member of but never got involved with because it was too much work to get into the ‘inner circle’. Others I’ve put a lot of work into and have become a core member. What I like about them is the chance to know people by their style of writing without being influenced by them as a person. I’ve met a large number of the people since and there isn’t one I haven’t liked.


How does the work of promoting a book compare to the work of writing it in the first place?

It’s much harder. Writing is a mostly solitary process. Promoting the book is far more gregarious. I actually have a lot of difficulties in that area (I’m a bit of a hermit) so it becomes hard for me to promote my book. Dog bless the internet.


I know you have an interest in martial arts, and in assorted pointy objects, so was it hard restraining yourself when it came to the action scenes?

Not really – When I write the fight scenes they are far longer and often full of technical terms. When I edit I cut the scenes in length and make everything simple. Most readers won’t care what the name of a particular rapier move is called, other than lunge, parry and kill. I do try to keep it simple instead of delving into esoteric weapons, although Lucy, in Halcyon Days, has a penchant for bo-shuriken.


As Jasfoup's creator, you'll probably know; what's the best way to make the perfect cup of tea?

It rather depends upon the tea! A standard black leaf tea, such as you get in the supermarket, requires a warm pot, two or three teaspoonfuls of tea and water that’s just gone off the boil. Steep the leaves for three minutes. Put milk into the cup first, then add the tea, followed by sugar to taste.

A green tea follows the same process, but is generally drunk from bowls without milk. There is a huge variety of tastes and colours and I could never hope to try them all. I occasionally talk about tea on my blog.


Stuff

  • Yet more footnotes. I spent more than an hour looking one up the other day after realising that six months ago I'd left it, presumably thinking "I can't be bothered now, and anyway, it'll only take ten minutes".
  • My occasional forays into cricket have become very occasional indeed, since our team seems to be capable of coming up with any number of players other than eleven. The weeks with twelve aren't too bad, you just let the captain find an excuse to leave himself out. The weeks with eight work less well.
  • Things I'm reading: Robert Graves- I Claudius, Laurell K Hamilton- Skin Trade, Keene et al- St Paul's. The last is notable mostly in that it's the single largest history book I've ever had to borrow. It's on the scale of the old Victoria County Histories, which means that it would only count as coffee table sized if you reinforced the table in question.
  • I've discovered that, as usual with me, the secret for finding a perfect fencing club lies mostly in finding somewhere I fit in. Goldilocks like, there are three local clubs. One is a little too serious for my tastes, the second doesn't have quite enough tough fencing, but so far the third is just right. Also it's the closest to me.
  • Sri Lanka have shown in the T20 world cup that one of the secrets to success in cricket's short format is a really mysterious spinner like Ajantha Mendis or Muttiah Muralidarin. Well England, I'm ready and waiting. Not even I have a clue which way mine are going to turn, so that has to be at least one step better... doesn't it?
  • I started a plan for a novel the other day, a sequel to the comic fantasy one that my friend Adam is reading. Planning is allowed. It's not like I've decided to try and write the thing at the same time as everything else (again).
  • Also, the sequel to Searching is submitted with the publisher.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Are Minor Characters Funnier?

One thing I've found when writing comedy is that the main character often ends up slightly less funny than peripheral ones. Not a worse character, you understand, they still fill their role, and are in some ways much more complete, but less funny. The funniest characters in my current (well, not current, because I'm not working on them, but you know what I mean) works are definitely not integral to the plots, but the books would be far more sensible places without them, and none of us wants that.

Maybe their lack of importance is the point. Main characters have to go around being well rounded. They have to behave in ways that make some sort of sense, and they have to engage with plots that are not inherently ludicrous. Less important characters can be stretched almost to breaking point, can take on ludicrous story lines, strange obsessions, and all sorts of other things that we would never dream of doing with main characters. We can also make them look utterly stupid without having to worry about whether that is damaging the emotional impact of their presence, which leaves me nicely free to occasionally have them run into things.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

A Story

My fantasy short story, The Woods and a Wedding, has gone up over at Bewildering Stories

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Priorities

So, it seems I share something in common with Margaret from 'The Apprentice' (UK version with Sir Alan Sugar). She's quit the series to concentrate on her PhD in papyrology. I'm carefully avoiding novel writing until I've finished mine. That said, I do occasionally plan things out, so by the time I'm ready to get stuck in again, I'll know exactly what I'm doing.

That, I think, is probably one of the important things with any sort of fiction. There's a temptation to just write it, or to get the plan done quickly and then get on with it. It's a temptation I've given into more often than not, only to have to do some serious reworking. I'm beginning to suspect though that the best results come when you live with ideas for a little while, giving them time to fully develop.

And the best part is that it's doing the PhD some good. I'm still going round re-writing, but I'm not getting masses of comments back now. My supervisor even mentioned getting in touch with likely examiners in our last meeting, so it can't be that far now.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Stuff

  • My brother's been moving house, with all the attendent stress, mess, and boxes. Also with occasional bouts of having to keep an eye on the cat, so he doesn't get in the boxes.
  • My first leg-spinning outing of the season on saturday resulted in 10 overs, no wickets for 31 runs. Acceptable enough, but when there were about five missed chances off that, I think it could have had better results.
  • My quest to find a decent fencing club outside of university continues. There are only two clubs even vaguely in the area that I haven't tried, and I know from friends that one isn't very good, so I'll have to try the other.
  • You know when you're nearly at the end of a PhD when some of the chapters come back without corrections for once. Now to sort out the rest.
  • I've sent my comic fantasy manuscript to a friend to look over. Personally, I think it's much, much better than my urban fantasy efforts (though those are nice too and there's a link below should anyone want a copy) simply because I like being funny more than I like randomly following the fashions in fiction.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

A note on footnotes

A quick word on footnotes. That's right, those boring things you skip over in the middle of books. They're everywhere. In fact, in academic writing at least, they're almost as important as the main text. You learn things that you wouldn't otherwise have learned, find the references to back things up, and generally get all sorts of bonus extras, DVD fashion.

At the moment, however, they're taking over my life. I'm at the stage of putting more connections to other things in the PhD, which means more footnotes. I'm also checking the ones I've already put in, which would be a lot easier if there weren't hundreds of them.

So, in the interests of remembering that they can be fun, and aren't just there to take up half the page, I thought I'd remind myself of the two masters of the art of the footnote in fiction: Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde. Pratchett uses them everywhere, particularly in his early work. Most of the time, they're an excuse for an extra joke, or an explanation about concepts such as Milton Keynes, which is almost the same thing. Sometimes he even uses footnotes on his footnotes.

Fforde's are a bit weirder, thanks to the concept of the footnoterphone in his Thursday Next novels. Essentially, several characters communicate by means of them, which means that the main thrust of the book jumps down to the footnotes for paragraphs on end. It's clever in its way, and Fforde is very funny in other areas, but I know which approach to footnotes I prefer. Of course, right now I'd prefer an approach to the things that involved their utter obliteration, at least if I didn't think that would leave us with the prospect of doing everything through end notes instead.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Some Sources

An addition to the last post, really. Should anyone feel like doing some historical research, there's a good set of resources over at this site run by the Institute for Historical Research. It includes the various Victoria County Histories, assorted calendars of official records, some online transcriptions, and all sorts of other stuff that hasn't actually saved me much time because my area is too specialised, but might help someone else.

Research

The process of research is a strange one in its way, and one that I thought I'd share. We all know how we think it ought to go. You have an idea you want to test. You work out what evidence you'll need. You either locate or generate that evidence. You work out whether you were right. You write the whole thing up and get on with your life.

The thing is, while that was a pleasant flashback to some of my school science lessons, it's not an entirely accurate description of historical reseach, and may not even apply to other things. For one thing, it's far too neat, like following a well designed recipe. The real thing is more like making the recipe up as you go, changing it from a pie to a cake to a sort of strange biscuity thing as the mix of ingredients changes.

There aren't neat steps. There's a beginning phase, where you try to define an area of research along with some possible questions. There's an end phase, where you do nothing but polish what you've written. In between though, you mix in bursts of research and writing, tease ideas out, change your mind completely when a piece of evidence you hadn't previously seen shows up, and generally try to impose meaningful order on the chaos.

Somewhere in all this, rather like big things with too many teeth, ideas start to emerge. I'd normally laugh at that choice of word. The idea of letting ideas emerge from the evidence is something that belongs to the likes of Elton and Acton, both long dead. But there are moments when you look down at something you've written, think "actually that's a really good idea" and end up with it running as a main theme. What you start off researching ends up being something very different from what you finally produce.

For me it was some stuff about institutional identity, institutional survival, convergence, re-organisation, that sort of thing. What started out as simple institutional history is now more about groups of organisations and the way their identities get affected by the world around them. It wasn't remotely what I intended to write, but it is more interesting. Who knows what shape my research will be tomorrow?