Friday 26 August 2016

some reviews - House of Shattered Wings, Cinema Alchemist & Under the Skin

Aliette de Bodard - The House of Shattered Wings

Paris has been devastated in a great war between rival houses. Fallen angels are the source of magic in the city and they scrabble around in the ruins vying for domninon. Mortals and immortals all chasing the last wisps of magic in a corrupted world. This book mainly revolves around the story of Silverspires, one of the great houses, formerly the greatest with Morningstar himself as its head. As we follow a cast of characters, as flawed and broken as the city they inhabit.

There is a murder mystery conceit but that just serves as a vehicle for intense character exploration. Mainly of the mysterious Vietnamese Philippe and the ingenue Isabelle, newly fallen and tied to Philippe though his imbibing of her blood (since fallen are the source of magic, people tend to harvest them). There are a host of interesting minor characters, although at the beginnign I was mixing some of the minor, less fleshed out characters up.

There's a lot here to like - the grand houses, the magical system, strong imagery and character. I would have liked to have seen more of post-fall Paris (a city I know quite well through many visits) but it's a world that Bodard will obviously return to. And some of it needs to be returned to I feel, I'd like to explore the under the Seine kingdom more and see inside the other houses so I will definitely return to the world once she writes more.

Overall - Enjoyable aftermath tale featuring fallen angels battling for Paris

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Roger Christian - Cinema Alchemist

Roger Christian is the legendary set designer for Star Wars and Alien and if that in itself doesn't make you want to pick up this book where he tells all about his experiences working on those films then I'm not sure what will.

The iconic nature of the films is such that any insight into how they were made is welcome. But especially the art department's role in creating some of the most recognisable characters - including of course R2D2 & C3PO.

Christian has obviously polished some of the anecdotes that appear in this book and it is a delight to see the films through his eyes, as well as the directors, actors and other crew. Tales of regular ten hour drives back and forth through the desert during low-tech days without mobile phones seem like a different world (the past is a different country after all)

If I had any criticism, and this is only very minor as I hugely enjoyed the book, Christian has the tendency to repeat himself - for example telling you there was a Roman road to Tozeur and then a few pages later telling you the drive to Rozeur is down a straight Roman road or the description of the Chinese restaurant is repeated a page later, or saying that there were no cellphones on page 124 and then repeating it on page 125. It happened so often that it was a little distracting once I'd noticed it and I think a good copy-editor could have picked up on that and smoothed it out for the reader. But, as I say, a minor criticism.

I enjoyed the Alien chapters more than Star Wars, but mostly because I'm a bigger fan of Alien than Star Wars (Geek friends don't hate me!) It was also interesting to read about his own directorial work on his own film Black Angel and his stint on Life of Brian (which re-used a lot of the same locations as Star Wars as any good fan knows)

There are a set of nice photographs of Star Wars and a storyboard of Black Angel but I wondered why there were no pictures of Alien.

Overall - This is an excellent book to add to the shelf if you are a Star Wars or Alien fan or any sort of film buff.

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Michael Faber - Under the skin

This was recently made into a film (a major motion picture in the jargon of the industry) starring Scarlett Johanssen which I haven't seen. It is the story of Isserley, a female driver who cruises the Scottish Highlands picking up hitchhikers. I'm not sure it's much of a spoiler to say - she's an alien - but Faber seems to think so as he doesn't explicitly reveal that fact for a third of the book, although it's obvious from very early on. For some reason that conceit is a little irritating - it's a bit like watching a zombie movie where no-one is saying the z-word. 

The glimpses into the POV of her victims is fairly repetitive, apparently all men can think of are tits - but then again that is her main feature, as Faber continuously tells us.

On a sentence by sentence level this is good writing. It just failed to engage me overly much, although I read it in just a couple of days of easy reading. And in the end it left me a little cold and unchanged. But I do want to watch the film to see how it has been adapted. 

Overall - It may just be a very long advert for vegetarianism

Thursday 11 August 2016

Interview with Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard writes speculative fiction: her short stories have garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and a British Science Fiction Association Award. She is the author of The House of Shattered Wings, a novel set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which won the 2015 British Science Fiction Association Award. She lives in Paris.

Aliette has dropped in to talk about her book - The House of Shattered Wings

Tell us a little about the book - why is it called the House of Shattered Wings?

The House of Shattered Wings is a dark Gothic fantasy set in a decayed and dangerous Paris: in the wake of a devastating magical war, factions are fighting in the ruins of the city for power and influence. House Silverspires, once the first and foremost of these factions, finds itself in a precarious position when a newly-arrived youth from Annam (Vietnam) inadvertently unleashes a curse within its walls. 

It's called that because I brainstormed the title on twitter :) More seriously, the various magical factions are "Houses" because they're geographical units that control a set of streets, but also hierarchical ones that function like quasi-feudal, enormous households. And "shattered wings" refers to a major feature of this universe, which is that amnesiac Fallen angels arrive in the city (and all over Europe), and are the source of the dominant magic: both innate magic-users, and a source of a power that can be passed on to others and/or harvested from their dead bodies... 

And it's got Lucifer Morningstar sitting on a throne in the ruins of Notre-Dame. If that doesn't convince you to read the book I don't know what will! 

What was it about Paris that made you want to set a novel in the city?

Well, I live there :) It was very much a case of "write what you know", or at any rate what is close to hand. I originally set out to write an urban fantasy about families of magicians fighting for influence in Paris--except that my writer brain could never muster any enthusiasm for it. Then I decided I needed a setting that was a little more overtly fantastical, and I decided that destroying the entire city in a magical conflagration sounded about right--I could have a hint of the familiar but also the freedom to make up arresting visuals and an entirely different universe (I swear I don't have a grudge against the city, lol. I just wanted a particular vibe to go with the book, and I've always had a weakness for Gothic). 

Did you do any specific research for the book - was it difficult to stop researching?

I did a lot of research into places, mostly: monuments of Ile de la Cité and their history (trying to find out if there was a crypt in Notre-Dame, for instance, was rather more involved than I thought, since I was on bedrest for health reasons at that time), and also into the history of 19th Century Paris and 19th Century Vietnam, since that was the period vibe I wanted to give to the book. I didn't have trouble stopping to research: what I usually do is stock up on research until I can get a plot to coalesce together. When that happens I usually put away the research books and only dip into them for the occasional detail. 

If you could be one of the characters in the book who would it be and why?

Uh, I don't really think I would like to be anyone in the book, because so many unpleasant things happen to them (it's my job as the author *grin*). But if I had to pick someone I'd be Claire, the head of House Lazarus: she's this old woman who people keep underestimating--running one of the weakest magical factions in Paris, and getting away with it by sowing dissensions among the other factions. I'm not saying I like what she's doing, but she's certainly one of the characters who excels at getting what she wants! 

Do you write a lot of short stories?

I've lost count! I started writing short stories because I thought they'd be easier to get critiques on than a novel (I now know that was a really bad idea, in the sense that while there are common points, knowing how to write a good short story doesn't mean you know how to write a novel). I wrote a lot of.. middling ones before I came to a realisation in 2012--which was that, as uncomfortable as it was, I should focus on things that mattered to me and that touched on my personal history and culture. I ended up writing "Scattered Along the River of Heaven" (, a story that focused on wars, diaspora and forgiveness, and was rather surprised to see it well-received--and I haven't looked back since. 

Do you prefer the short or the long form & why?

I like both, but they're very different beasts! Short fiction is great for mood pieces, for experimenting with structure and unusual voices (all right, I confess to a liking for present person second tense, a POV I'd never try to write an entire novel in), and novels are good for tackling complex themes, complex plots, and for a deeper form of reader immersion. It's easier for a universe to feel lived in in a novel, I feel, because there's more space to show details, texture, and all the things I usually ruthlessly have to cut out of short fiction. 

How do you decide what is a short story idea and what is a novel idea?

Mostly it's a question of depth? Not of the world as I've become rather good at highlighting only the pieces of the world that the plot is interested in: in my Xuya universe stories (they're short stories set in a recurring Vietnamese galactic empire), I don't have too much trouble throwing the spotlight on one feature or another and still keeping the result short. But rather it's plot and characters: in a short story I have a fairly simple plot, and a limited number of characters who aren't spear-carriers; in a novel there's more scope for several entwined stories, longer timeframes, complicated plots... The House of Shattered Wings, for instance, has three main characters, the Vietnamese youth, an alchemist addicted to a lethal drug, and the head of House Silverspires, who's desperately trying to safeguard her faction from the curse; and I had a lot of space for delving into these characters--what made them tick, how their past got them where they are, and also how best to use the plot to put them into uncomfortable places (my way of writing tends to be "how can I make this character's life miserable", accompanied by "what could go horribly wrong here?"). 

What are you most proud of in the book?

Having written it at all I think! I hadn't written a novel in five years, and I started seriously working on this one while I was pregnant: it moved in fits and starts because I had to juggle fatigue, health issues, and later a newborn. I was convinced I would never finish it, and the process was extremely draining. But I hung on because I've always been stubborn (and my agent was kind enough to send encouragement as I was making my way through it). 

You have lots of recipe links on your web page - is food important to your writing? If so how? 

I love food! I'm a foodie (I love to eat well, I love to cook for myself and especially for friends and family, and I'm always on the lookout for new experiences I can try to improve my cooking). And because food is important to me, I feel like it should be important in my worlds as well. If you think about it, how we prepare and eat a meal packs up so much meaning: what kind of staple food and how it gets there (agriculture, commerce), how it is prepared, in what company and what conditions (families, social hierarchies, implements and sources of heat available), how it is eaten (communally, in individual meals, how restaurants and cafés and inns differ from home cooking, food as a sign of social standing), how food plays into memory (childhood meals) and perceptions of home, etc. In my fiction I use it deliberately as an indicator of some or all of those things: there's a scene in The House of Shattered Wings where a magical faction serves shrimp on toast, an indication that, in a devastated country, they can afford to have fresh seashell--it's not only a matter of taste, but also a statement of wealth and power, a "you do not want to mess up with us" sign!

In one sentence what is your best piece of advice for new writers?

What you feel while writing something and the quality of that something have absolutely no correlation. 

Thanks to Aliette for her interesting answers - please do go check out her work here 

Ive just started the book so expect a review shortly

Wednesday 10 August 2016

The discoverability challenge - an apology, an update

So whatever happened to that Discoverability Challenge?

See also here and here

Well things got busy with a major project hitting the day job and getting two book deals, and bringing out a book, and writing a book, and editing a book...

But I have been reading women unknown to me after March but not enough time to do reviews sadly

I read - Dear Amy by Helen Cunningham in May (which I did manage to review)

I read The Well-Tempered Sentence and The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon in June & I'll just have to owe you a review for them (they are very good basic primers on grammar)

The Well-Tempered Sentence by Karen…

The Transitive Vampire: a Handbook of…

and I read The Anatomy of Prose by Marjorie Boulton in July, again review owing (an interesting book on prose forms, rhythms, and construction)

But the writing books aren't really discovering new women writers, or at least they don't feel like - and I completely missed out April...

Out of the 60 books I've read so far this year 13 have been by women and 8 by collections of authors that include women - so it does look like I'm on track to be better than last year.

I do have books that I'll get to soon for women new to me - but I think I need to prioritise them to get back on track with this challenge!

Once I've finished the ARC I'm currently reading for Titan I'll move onto The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard - a writer known to me, but not yet read.

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