Today, an interview with a beloved beta reader of mine, Andrew. Andrew’s a voracious reader and so let’s learn a little more about his reading habits.
Why did I love Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson so much?
The book is a spy thriller set slightly in the future, in a time when the countries of Europe is dissolving. Every man and his dog is seceding, setting up their own principality. Borders are a bureaucratic nightmare and black marketeers are taking advantage of the chaos.
The hero is Rudi, an Estonian chef turned courier, who gets deeper and deeper into the murky world of espionage.
The book is in four parts following Rudi from his first gig until the point when it all goes wrong. It is almost like four novellas, pieced together eventually. The middle section with Rudi’s family in Estonia seems out of step at first until more details are revealed. I adored the excerpt from the map-making of Whitton-Whyte and the twist delighted this little sci-fi fan.
Why did I enjoy this book so much?
Perhaps it was the mix of vivid characters; the burly Hungarians, the obnoxious mentor Fabio, Rudi’s bizarrely robotic English captors, the grumpy crusty Pawel. The characters were well rounded and real.
Perhaps it was the slight weirdness of the world. Quite similar to our own, yet with minor technological and geo-political differences.It was familiar and yet intriguing. There was little time spent world building, the story jumps right in and explains the world as we go. Yet there are enough odd little details to remind the reader that this is not your ordinary Tom Clancy thriller.
Perhaps it was the wry English humour. The dialogue was sharp and believable. I chuckled out aloud a number of times.
Plus a cracking plot.
Let’s just say, I really liked this book.
But the topic of genre provoked the most thought for me. This is classified as a science fiction novel – which it is. The world is futuristic, but only looking a few years into a possible future. I was so curious about the genre of this novel, I contacted the author. I had a nice conversation with Dave Hutchinson over Twitter regarding the genre classification of this book. Hutchinson describes it as a “near-future espionage thriller”. This is a very apt description.
I struggle with the “science fiction” label because it brings to mind aliens and spaceships. My own writing is in a similar vein to Hutchinson’s – a different world not too dissimilar to our own. Is speculative fiction a better description or “fantastika” as Hutchinson offered? Yet, your average punter doesn’t use the expression ‘speculative fiction’. When I look at the categories for sci-fi in Amazon, the only vaguely applicable are “dystopian” and “post-apocalyptic” but my own writing and a book like Europe in Autumn does not fit with the other zombie invasion novels.
Anyway less about me and more about Europe in Autumn. If you like a well built near-future world with espionage, great characters and good writing, I recommend you take a look at Europe in Autumn.
I’m off to read the sequel…when I’ve finished The Wise Man’s Fear.
I’m in the process of revising Book 2 of my Monolith series Return to the Forest. Today I’m sharing a menu from one of my scenes. Who doesn’t like descriptions of food and feasts in particular?
It is the solstice ceremony of Sundku held on a hilltop clearing, where the religious community of the Sisters live. All the local women travel to the Sisterhouse for Sundku to welcome the early signs of Spring, the fading of the long Winter and to seek the blessing of fertility from the Goddess.
They dance, sing and chant around the pyre, honouring the Goddess and once the circle is closed, the women feast. Hungry after their homage, they need a hearty meal.
At the end of winter, fresh food is scarce but the women of the Forest are wise and resourceful. It would insult the Goddess to skimp on food at Sundku.
Each woman brings her own contribution to the feast. The long wooden table is piled with;
- Rabbit stew: served in a thick gravy seasoned with pepper berries, slow cooked in a large pot over an open flame. The stew is served in carved wooden bowls.
- Acorn bread: heavy and hearty, baked from ground acorn flour into loaves. The fire baked bread is coated with a crunchy caramel coloured crust. The loaves are cut into hunks and the women dip the bread into the rabbit stew, soaking up the gravy.
- Jam cakes: local blackberries are harvested in summertime and preserved in earthenware jars to last throughout the cold winter. The jam cakes are baked with more acorn flour, dotted with dollops of sweet black jam. The cakes are golden palm-shaped discs with a hint of summer sweetness.
- Red wine – of course
I hope you enjoyed a little view into the food world of Return to the Forest.
Villains. We need them.
We need the villain to threaten our hero. We need our villain to be strong and clever. We need her to give our hero a hard time. Villains add colour and complexity to our stories, they bring the complications.
But when I thought about villains, only the scary characters came to mind. Those men and women who send shivers down my spine. And one man jumped into my mind.
This is not my favourite villain for his intelligence or his outwitting of the hero. He brings no witty retorts. He just scares me like no one else can.
I bring you.
Bob from Twin Peaks.
Excuse me while I go and hide behind the couch…..
Who’s your favourite villain?
How do I approach naming my characters? Today I’m answering a few questions on character names from AJ Lundetrae.
Chanel, Dior, Lagerfeld, Givenchy, Gaultier, darling. Names, names, names!
Edina Monsoon, Absolutely Fabulous
How important are names to you in your books?
Names are very important to me.
I was a strange child and completely obsessed by boarding school books (especially the Chalet School). Using my illustrated atlas and a reference book of names and their meanings, I created my own school rolls. Lists of girls names and their exotic home cities.
A name tells you a lot about a person’s past, their heritage, their social position. Names are infinitely fascinating. Especially in writing (rather than making your own children) when you get to choose the first and last name. In writing, your names can be descriptive of the character’s personality or mannerisms. And it’s just plain fun.
Do you choose the names based on liking the way it sounds or the meaning?
A little of both.
For my Monolith series, I have been obsessed with length. For my main characters, they all have names with four letters; Hana, Alga, Lucy, Erin and Mora. The lesser characters tend to have names of five letters.
Alga is an indigenous Northerner from a goddess worshipping religious community. For Alga, I searched for a four letter names with Estonian and Latvian heritage. I have also made up names for other characters but using foreign language name lists as inspiration.
I really struggled with the right name for Mora for over a year. Mora is the wise feisty grandmother. At one point she was named June, then Vera but now I have settled on Mora. Slightly inspired by the feisty playful Australia artist Mirka Mora.
For my steampunk novellas, I had great fun finding silly place names from the United Kingdom. I didn’t need to make them up. They are all real villages, hamlets or towns from various counties. I also searched for historical popular names on the census.
But in the end, the sound is most important to me.
And a tip I picked up somewhere – avoid names ending in “s”. This makes it messy when adding the possessive noun.
Do you have any name choosing resources you recommend?
My manager at work caught me looking at baby names lists recently and asked me if I had anything to tell her. So, yes, baby name lists from pregnancy sites. I have also found names by number of letters, for my obsession with four letter names.
I also search for foreign names and place names.
Here’s a few examples
As you can see, I have finally found a use for my obsession with names. If only I’d kept my list of names for my fictitious boarding school. I could finally find a home for my school girls.
It’s time for part four of my “revisiting childhood favourites” series with The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.
Maria Merryweather is an orphan (of course) and sent to live with her long lost uncle in the West Country at Moonacre Manor. She takes the long journey by carriage through the night with her bilious governess and Wiggins, her grumpy spoiled spaniel. Her new home is mysterious, mythic and magical. Her uncle tells tales of the tragic love story of the Moon Princess and Sir Wrolf, the first Merryweather, and of course the rarely seen little white horse.
Firstly it must be said, this book should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in glorious world-building. The descriptions of Moonacre Manor and its characters are vibrant and rich. From cosy cave houses and circular bedrooms in towers to a curmedgeonly dwarf with a rich vocabulary baking fairy cakes and lavish descriptions of hearty country meals (very reminiscent of Enid Blyton) to a cat that can write and the grumpy spoiled Wiggins, the spaniel.
But the story itself is a little strange. The haughty Maria bullies her family (both immediate and estranged) into complying with her wishes. All the while maintaining a relationship with a shepherd boy which no one questions. And this is supposedly 1842. There is much talk of “wicked men” and yet she converts them to goodness with harsh words and pearls. Reality aside, she is a firebrand who gets what she wants. A feisty female protagonist.
But the pleasure in this book is the imaginative world-building. If you are interested in descriptions or characterisation, I urge you read this book. Especially the first few chapters as Maria explores her new home.
Blog posts have been a little tardy. I’ve been distracted by the main game, my fiction. But let’s return to my favourite childhood books.
The next book in my series revisiting childhood classics is from Judy Blume. A classic children’s writer, I remember her books fondly. But funny how your memory plays tricks on you.
Time and memory are true artists; they remould reality nearer to the heart’s desire – John Dewey (1859-1952)
As an 80s child, my reading life was chock full of Judy Blume. I owned a copy of Starring Sally J Friedman As Herself. (This could explain why a kid in Tasmania in the late 1980s was reading biographies of old film stars like Lana Turner. Although as a voracious reader, I did work my way through most of the books in my small local library.)
Blubber. Super Fudge. Forever was the taboo book when I was in Grade 6, to be hidden from the parents under the mattress because it had s.e.x in it.
Then of course Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (AYTGIMM). The quintessential book on growing up. So today, I’m revisiting my old friend, Margaret.
Margaret has just moved to Jersey from NYC and she’s eleven. The child of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, she has grown up without religion, yet she talks to God every night. Margaret has a new school, new friends and new womanly body to manage.
Before I started to read this book, my memories of AYTGIMM were all about bras and periods. I expected it to be full of female body stuff. A fiction version of Everygirl. But on re-reading, I was surprised to discover that puberty is only one part of the story. The more important storyline is Margaret’s spiritual search. Is she Jewish or is she Christian? Who is this God she speaks to?
Looking at the title of this book, the religious element is completely obvious. Like Margaret, I grew up without religion, but I never went through a religious curiosity phase like she does. Margaret chooses to explore religion as the topic of her year long school project. As a child, this part of the story must not have resonated with me. Perhaps the difference is the overt religious tension in Margaret’s family. Or I blocked it out and focused on the juicy stuff.
AYTGIMM was probably the first time I read about someone like me, dealing with their newly adult bits, bras and periods, secret clubs and talking on the phone for hours about (very important) nothing. The “Two Minutes in a Closet” brought back cringe worthy memories of my own Grade 6 parties. Did we get the idea from this book? Although we used an ensuite bathroom. It brought back memories of my own experiences of being eleven.
The stand-out characters were Sylvia, Margaret’s grandmother and Laura Danker. Interfering and vibrant, Sylvia sounds like a super fun grandma but incredibly infuriating for Margaret’s mother. Laura Danker is a tragic innocent character. An early developer, the world makes assumptions about her morals just because she has boobs.
I didn’t enjoy AYTGIMM as much as I thought I would. The puberty stuff is of no interest anymore and neither is the religious angle. But I hope this book still resonates with eleven year old girls wondering what’s going on with their bodies and making sense of religious tension in their family. Just not for me.
Next book in line is The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. Apparently I’m in good company as this is also a favourite of JK Rowling.
Last week (last century in internet terms), the hot trending hashtag was #womeninfiction. Everyone chiming in with their favourite female characters. I jumped on the band wagon and here’s my picks in more than 140 characters.
In no particular order:
Harriet the Spy – Louise Fitzhugh
Harriet M. Welsch, an eleven year old budding writer, who started jotting down everything she saw in a notebook. I’ve just reread the synopsis of the book and I can’t remember any of the rest of the plot! But her inquisitive ways, her bravery and her love of tomato sandwiches stuck with me to this day!
Lisbeth Salander – Steig Larsson
“Salander was the woman who hated men who hated women.”
A powerful messed-up character, who you cheer for, cringe with and cry for. Smart, stupid and stubborn. The only female character here written by a man.
Pippi Longstocking – Astrid Lindgren
“Don’t you worry about me, I’ll always come out on top.”
Free-spirited girl, strong and brave, clever and resourceful. A rocking role model for any girl.
VI Warshawski – Sara Paretsky
I went through ten years of avid crime reading. Then one day I woke up and seemed to have moved on. One of my earliest reads and loves was VI Warshaswki. VI was the original self-sufficient, tough, clever female private investigator.
Super exciting post script – Sara Paretsky tweeted me back to thank me for my nomination. Squeee!
I’m sure I’ve missed a million others, who are your #womeninfiction?
After I finished reading Merivel: A Man of his Time by Rose Tremain, I read a review on The Guardian website. A commenter described Merivel perfectly. He/she described Merivel as “an arse.” And that’s exactly what he is. A bumbling, pompous, foppish buffoon of a man. But also completely hilarious.
I can’t remember the last time I chuckled so much throughout a book. I was not expecting such a funny book. I laughed along with Merivel with his complete lack of self awareness and self-obsession. I’ve not read Tremain’s first Merivel novel, Restoration, I just picked up this book at a sale and thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
Merivel is a 17th century doctor and friend to the King (or perhaps more like the King’s fall guy/idiot friend). Merivel is filled with melancholy and middle aged angst, spending his time moping around his manor house, until he decides to try his luck in Versailles with the French King. By happenstance, he meets a wealthy Swiss aristocratic botanist and follows her back to her mansion in Paris to become her plaything until the husband comes home. Then Merivel’s daughter becomes ill and he rushes home to tend to her. On the way, he saves a bear from death and transports it back to Norwich.
This sounds like a romp and it is but the book is wholly more literary than I’m giving it credit for. And there’s quite a bit of sex.
I was impressed and awed by Tremain’s characterisation of Merivel, a big well-rounded character, raw and embarrassing, yet poignant. A character I will not forget.
If you like literary historical fiction with fools, sex and bears. This is a book for you.
It’s historical mystery time. The Dark Monk by Oliver Potzsch is a cracking fun read, filled with action and fight scenes. Plus I learned some stuff about 17th century hangmen.
The Dark Monk is set during a particularly grim winter in Bavaria. The local foppish medic, Simon, is assisting his father to cure an outbreak of influenza, while the local hangman Jacob is dealing with highwaymen. His feisty daughter, Magdalena, is having a tryst with Simon, although relations with the hangman’s daughter are frowned upon by the local community.
The local church is under renovations and the opening scene finds the death of the parish priest. Did he overindulge on honey cakes or was he poisoned? Prior to his death, he sent a mysterious letter to his sister. He had made a discovery in the renovations. What has he found? Why are there three monks in dark habits roaming around?
The pace of this novel is fast, the characters interesting and rounded with great strong females in Magdalena and the dead priest’s sister, Benedikta. But what I found most compelling was the detail of the background of 17th century rural Germany and the role of the local hangman in the community, as both the executioner and local healer. This was all new fascinating information to me.
All in all, I can recommend The Dark Monk for people who like fast paced mysteries with some education on the side.