Thursday 30 July 2015

Guest Post - Maria Nieto

Maria was born in New York City but grew up in Spain. She's a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia, and worked for several years teaching psychiatric nursing. After completing school, Maria moved to New Mexico and worked in the Navajo and Pueblo reservations offering psychological and counseling services.

Maria still lives in New Mexico enjoying the open spaces sometimes on horseback, sometimes on her mountain bike along the Rio Grande.

Maria wrote a book about the Spanish Civil War called - Breaking the silence and has dropped in to tell us about it.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

What's your point of view? Adam Roberts's Bête

Bete by Adam Roberts

Bête by Adam Roberts

"A man is about to kill a cow. He discusses life and death and his right to kill with the compliant animal. He begins to suspect he may be about to commit murder. But kills anyway ...
It began when the animal rights movement injected domestic animals with artificial intelligences in bid to have the status of animals realigned by the international court of human rights. But what is an animal that can talk? Where does its intelligence end at its machine intelligence begin? And where might its soul reside?"
There's that bit in Douglas Adams's seminal Hitchikers  - ably played by Peter Davison (and the story goes that he really wanted to be in the program but was playing the Doctor at the time and could only be in it if heavily made up)

Which is a slightly more benign vision of the future than Roberts's. What if animals were given intelligence and the means of speech - would killing them be murder?

For this book Roberts chose to write in first person point of view (POV). Since over ninety percent (according to some sources) of speculative fiction is written in close third person POV why would Roberts choose to embed the entire story within an "I"? Apart from one part (no spoilers).

Really - if you are going to ask fundamental questions as to the nature of consciousness what POV would you use?

Many writing guides and blog posts concentrate on the limitations of first person POV, and many seek to avoid it altogether. John Gardner in his The Art of Fiction seems positively censorious of it saying that it lacks grandeur, is claustrophobic and makes narcissists of us all.

But to explore consciousness would it be useful to head hop? Exactly because we cannot know what another conscious being is thinking, except through tell-tale signs, that makes it a good reason not to use omniscient, which is out of fashion nowadays anyway. However a great many beginning writers have trouble with limited third person, slipping often into a hybrid of limited and omniscient (and not only beginning writers, I've been told - although have not read them - the Harry Potter books have occasional POV errors). But this is obviously not Roberts's failing and not the reason he chose first person.

Although one can only speculate I believe he chose first person for a couple of reasons. The first I alluded to above, that it accentuates the fact we do not know what other people are thinking, and how much truer would that be for animal consciousnesses which we tend to anthropomorphise? The second is more to do with the plot, which I won't spoil, but suffice to say it turns on our narrators withdrawal from society.

The conceit of the book is such that it is not only the nature of consciousness that you can meditate upon whilst reading but also man's relationship with nature. As well as, by using our relationship with animals, an object lesson in how people treat each other.

Roberts has the skill such that everything that happens seems necessary. It is a plot that simply works, all the various cogs and wheels running smoothly in the background beneath your conscious notice. It is therefore a very satisfying book. Of course B happened, because A happened and therefore there could be no other development. That this plotting appears effortless belies the skill involved.

There are other limitations with first person POV that can trip the unwary or inexperienced writer - there is a "tell" trap. Everyone by now must have heard the dreaded words - "show don't tell" - which is a whole other post (and something else beginning writers struggle with). But there is a tendency for first person POV to fall into letting the character tell what happens, rather than being in immediate scene. The book immediately picked up after Bête, for reasons of book club choice, was Day of the Triffids

The Day of the Triffids (20th Century…

And despite being a massive fan of Wyndham when younger I am surprised to see that there are some issues with the first person POV in this book, especially as the narrator often adopts a lecturing tone to tell the reader things, that would have been much better parceled out.

But nothing like that trips Roberts up, and it could have done. The information about the chips that give the animals consciousness and speech is revealed through conversation and certainly not all in one chunk. Compare and contrast, if you will, the second chapter of Triffids which is one massive info dump, told to you by the narrator.

Writing in the first person is usually the best way to establish a deep and personal understanding of a single character whereas the third person is, according to received wisdom, more free in storytelling potential, although, of course has its limitations too.

One potential limitation is distance, although with very limited 3rd person this is somewhat mitigated. There is the possibility that the reader will spot the author's voice hiding in there (the more omniscient the more likely) and this could be another reason Roberts chose first person. You are in one head and one only and the author's voice is severely muted. He is using the fact that you are constrained in one head to examine the nature of  only knowing what it is like to be being constrained in one head. 

The main character's constant refrain of "Don't call me Graham" when his name is, in fact, Graham is also a canny nod to the nature of naming and individuality and the sense of self, which is inextricably linked with how we think of ourselves. This makes me want to write an article upon identity now...

By exploring the "what if" of one potential future, and it there is a degree of plausibility to it, Roberts has very much embraced the speculative in Speculative Fiction. Highly Recommended.

Interview with A A Abbott

AA Abbott decided Bristol was a fun place to lose a bit of time, and to her surprise, has ended up living there for 10 years in a house that looks like an iced cake. Also known as Helen, she does temporary work, usually for enormous corporations. Sharply observed office politics occasionally slips into her colourful crime thrillers. New book, The Bride's Trail, features the City of London and an intriguing secret about Britain's second city, Birmingham - there's an extensive network of Cold War tunnels beneath the heart of the city...

BRSBKBLOG asked her all the usual questions...

For lots of freebies, including "5 minute crime thriller", The Gap -

Wednesday 22 July 2015

So, what about those reviews?

You wait ages for a blog post then two come along at once...

A couple of people have asked me, when I've mentioned I do reviews, what my star system is. People are used to Amazon/Goodreads & others that rate a book with a number of stars. Librarything even lets you do half-stars.

But I don't. I had an explanation of my "star" system (basically without the stars) on the 'Review Criteria' page of the blog (which has been updated following this post) I used to review on a 5 star rating scale but, although it offered good granularity, didn't really fit my needs. I then named the stars but dropped down to 4 categories a while ago (I used to have a "Bad" category but now I mostly just drop bad books without finishing them)

TL:DR - I like big books (and I cannot lie)

I'm reading The Vorrh

The Vorrh (Vintage Original) by Brian…

and it is a thing of beauty:

and I'm 1/5th of the way through and it is 500 pages long

The dream had hollowed him; no trace of rest remained as he crawled into the morning, defeated and abused. Hot water did nothing; the stain of the night was indelible. He dressed grudgingly, tightly buttoning himself into a costume of scratchy, irritant lies. With one gulp of bitter black coffee, he walked out of his room and into the day, speaking to nobody, Outside the hotel, the heat had waited, ready to pounce.

It's often lush, meandering prose is a delight.

And yet.

Anyone who has seen my TBR (To Be Read pile) will understand that there is a counterweight, a massive drag factor, when it comes to jumping into big books. I read a lot of books, around 100 a year on average (I can hear some of my even more bookish friends scoffing that hundred books isn't so many) and by that count I have more than a couple of  year's reading patiently waiting for me to get round to it on my TBR.

I also get sent several books every month by the publishers I review for ( I don't just review here)

So, when I pick up a book like this one I have two diametrically opposed desires. The first will be familiar to you, if you've ever been lost inside a story, as wanting to savour the rich texture of the prose and meander slowly through the experience. The other is to finish the book as fast as possible and get onto the next in the list.

The books in the corner of the library. The ones that have not even been shelved yet, due  partly to there not being enough shelf space (I don't have too many books, I have too few shelves!) and partly because until they've passed the readibility test they are not worthy to sit amongst former literary love affairs. Those books create a drag effect. Every time I venture into the library (or more prosaically, the spare room) their presence makes itself felt. "We're still here." they whisper drily.

So I am always nervous of taking on a big book. It must grab me, it must overcome the inertia generated by the massive TBR. I am 1/5th of the way through The Vorrh, and I will finish it, and although I recognise its merits, I can't help resent it a little. I could have read two or three books in the same time. Two or three books would have seemed to have chipped away a bigger space on the TBR.

I like big books, but sometimes I wish for faster reads.

Monday 20 July 2015

Some reviews

Old Market is an area of Bristol just off the main shopping area. It’s kind of isolated by a big interchange and is known, now, as Bristol’s gay quarter. Around twenty years ago I lived there for a year or so. This book explores the history of this small area. The title of the book is in reference to the churches and the red light nature of the area. There are a bunch of interesting buildings in the area, including Trinity - a former church turned community centre and occasional music venue and the location of Bristol’s anarchist book fair (there is also an anarchist bookshop in Old Market) & the old gin palace (Palace hotel). This books explores the history of these two iconic buildings, as well as many more. The area has a rich history which is ably brought to life by the two authors who spent eighteen months in research and interviewing many of the current and former residents.

Overall – Does exactly what is says on the tin, gives you a history of an area in Bristol

Sorcerer to the Crown (A Sorcerer Royal…

“In the tradition of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” It’s a tough act to live up to, and possibly an unfair comparison. Regency period, check, magic, check, English magic in decline, check and yet that’s as far as the comparison goes. Cho has a superlative grasp of the language of the period - ”May I ask what possessed you to wreak such wanton destruction upon my conveyance?” he said in an indignant whisper. “I cannot conceive how you think I will contrive to take you to London in a chaise that has no wheels.” You may take this as either a strength of the book, or as a weakness depending on your reading habits. 

Zacharias, a freed slave, has been elevated to Sorcerer Royal, during a period of decline in English magic, taking himself to the borders of Fairyland to investigate he stops off at Mrs. Daubney's School for Gentlewitches, a girl’s school which teaches its pupils that ladies do not perform magic, as is only proper. There he meets a gifted dark-skinned orphan with a mysterious provenance and decides that women should, after all, be taught magic.

This book does well on the diversity front, adding PoC and women as prominent characters and has an intriguing premise but, for me, it didn’t quite deliver on its promise. 

Overall – If you love regency romance and think it can be improved with magic then you should check this out

The Dead Mountaineer's Inn: One More…

Inspector Glebsky goes on vacation at the Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, a remote ski chalet past the bottleneck pass, and expects to relax in solitude. He finds the inn inhabited by a host of bizarre characters, including a stage hypnotist and his ward of indeterminate gender, an incredibly rich couple, a physicist mountain climber and others. When an avalanche cuts them off and there is a dead body which may, or may not be human, Glebsky is forced to investigate, even if he usually only specialises in fraud.

This is an odd little book, which shifts from farce to science fiction and is well written but never really did it for me. I’m just not a big fan of farce. I had similar problems with The master and margarita which this book reminded me of, with its surreal comedy, that failed to make me crack a smile. There is a nice introduction by Jeff VanderMeer though and I enjoyed this book a lot more than Bulgakov’s. 

Overall – Zany oddball comedy crossed with a 1940’s scifi film that subverts the tropes of detective fiction

Europe at Midnight by Hutchinson Dave

This is a second book in the same world as the marvellous Europe in Autumn although I expect you can read this as standalone without missing too much, as it’s not a direct sequel. Hutchinson himself describes it as a spin off and there is a third book in the ‘series’ in production. The book concentrates on two main characters, both intelligence officers, but very different. Europe is splitting into ever smaller polities, breakaway micro-nations like the city of Dresden who have built a hundred foot wall around themselves and an economy built on information. The Xian flu has decimated the population of Europe and there are a great series of economic crises. If this wasn’t bad enough Jim is recruited into a new department when a stabbing on a London bus holds the key to an invasion by a nation from another universe.

Although the book feels as though it loses its way a little towards the end, and leaves things open for the third book, the first three quarters are utterly gripping and kept me turning the pages fully immersed in the fascinating world Hutchinson has conjured and is therefore well worth seeking out.

Overall – Excellent addition to the Europe in Autumn World, I look forward to seeing what Mr Hutchinson does with the third book.

The Written Graphic Novel (Emaneska) by Ben…

Ben Galley is a self-published fantasy author whose Written books have enjoyed a lot of success. The first volume of the series has now been turned into a gorgeous graphic novel, via a kickstarter.

Image 302462 original

Farden is one of the Written, a sorcerer, and he is tasked with a quest. Something has gone missing from the libraries of Arfell. Something very old, and something very powerful. Five scholars are now dead, a country is once again on the brink of war, and the magick council is running out of time and options. This is a tale of magick (with a k apparently), dragons, drugs and betrayal. I’ve not read the book, so can’t say if it’s a good adaption but expect it is with the same author. The art is very good, although occasionally the transitions are a little hard to follow and the plot uses a bunch of fantasy tropes, but gives them enough of a spin to keep your interest. Some of the backers had their images included in the art, which is pretty cool.

Overall – Gorgeous art, interesting Kickatarter project

Friday 17 July 2015

Interview with Ieva Melgalve

(image by Spīgana Spektore (,

Ieva Melgalve is a Latvian writer from Riga. She writes poetry, plays and novels as well as teaches writing. Her novel - The Dead Don't Forgive was nominated for the Latvian Literature Award of the year.

Bristol Book Blog met Ieva at the fantastic Archipelacon and asked her a few questions about her writing

Guest Post - Richard Jones - The Politics of Crowdfunding

Today Richard Jones, from Tangent Books has dropped by to talk about Crowdfunding.

Take a look at his Fundsurfer page here

Image result for fundsurfer stanley donwood

I wonder how many friendships have been broken and maybe even relationships ended by crowdfunding.

You see, a crowdfunding campaign isn’t all about raising money, it’s mainly about trust and expectations. You trust that certain friends, family and colleagues will support you. You expect them to do so because you sponsored their kid for a fiver or donated to a charity when they asked you.

When those people don’t respond to your crowdfunding campaign, it’s all too easy to take it personally. Although with some people it’s actually quite cathartic – deep down you always thought they were a tosser and their lack of support confirms this.

But sometimes it’s hurtful. People you like and respect, shun, spurn and avoid you. Why?

Before I started a campaign to fund the reprint of Stanley Donwood’s lost ‘classic’ Catacombs of Terror! I was warned that the above scenario is common to everybody who takes the crowdfunding route.

The solution is twofold.

1.    Don’t take it personally. Difficult.
2.    Be very specific. Easy.

So, I compiled 20 lists of 10 people (to reduce chances of emails going in spam folder) and emailed the same general message. It asked for their support, pointed out that many people who said they would back the campaign also asked to be reminded, and gave them the option to be removed from the list if they were not interested.

Five people said they didn’t want to contribute, about 20 contributed, another 10 asked to be reminded closer to the deadline. Some of these were people whose campaigns I have personally backed.

Great. We hit 10 per cent of our funding and had about 150 people who wanted reminding. So I was fairly confident that the next email would get a decent response. Instead we got zilch, nada, zero from that mail out, although we did get some pledges from people we don’t know.

So what next? Well it’s time to get personal and invoke solution 2 (above). I’ll now email people individually and specifically ask them to pledge and to share the links on Facebook, Twitter etc. It’s not a question of harassing people, I just need to know whether they intend to support the project. If they don’t want to I can concentrate on finding new people who are interested in the book. And of course, I will never help those who rejected me or members of their family in any way, ever again (joke).

Image result for fundsurfer stanley donwood

But the really important thing is to look at the big picture. Crowdfunding is vital for radical, independent publishers such as Tangent Books. It’s a way of communicating with a global network who share Tangent’s values.

I’ve worked in publishing all my adult life, as a newspaper journalist and sub-editor, magazine editor and book publisher. I see my role as disseminating information and I’m really not too bothered whether that’s in print or digitally. For me, the message is of primary importance, the format is of secondary consideration.

Crowdfunding offers a radical solution to a retail industry that has centralised (Waterstones) and globalised (Amazon). Let me tell you, there is no pleasure in dealing with Waterstones while Amazon represents some of the things I hate in life – it ruthlessly exploits people, it is greedy, it gives nothing back. It’s also essential for publishers.

So crowdfunding offers an alternative to the all this. Sure, it’s frustrating, yes you feel let down by people you thought would behave better and of course, you’re overwhelmed by the generosity of many people.

Supporting my crowdfunding campaign is a political act. It’s a bit like buying Fairtrade products. You can choose to support independent publishers and authors or you can fuel the greed of Amazon.

And look, I haven’t even told you anything about the project. Go look for yourself. Share the link, make a pledge, the book is going to be gorgeous. And if you know anything about collecting books, check out the signed copies of the original edition. They could be worth a few bob in years to come.

Image result for fundsurfer stanley donwood

Go to…


Back in 2012, before starting this blog, I reviewed Stanley Donwood's Household Worms on Amazon - I gave it 5 stars. Bristol Book Blog thinks you should go and fund this project, because we want to read the book & expect it to be on the list of "Year's Brilliant Reads" 

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