Book Review: Half-Made Girls, by Sam Witt

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Half-Made Girls

Star Rating: ★★★★

Characters
Joe Hark is definitely a flawed hero, maybe even an anti-hero. He’s a violent alcoholic who shoots first and doesn’t bother to ask questions because he thinks he already knows the answers. Or he doesn’t care. But according to his lights, he’s doing the best he can to keep the darkness out of Pitchfork County – the job his father died doing.

Stevie Hark is as complex a character as Joe; her dark heritage is almost as big a barrier between herself and her husband as the curse her mother laid.

Interestingly, Joe and Stevie’s children – thirteen-year-old Alasdair and eight-year-old Elsa aren’t just the ciphers or cute comic relief that children often are in books. They have their own darkness and their own power, and take an active part in the story as something other than hostages to fortune.

I’m looking forward to reading more about these characters – especially Stevie. Sam Witt seems to be an author who writes women well – like Jim Butcher, he treats his male and female characters the same. Both get the same level of thought and development put into them, and there’s the same sense that they have history that the reader doesn’t know about yet.

Setting
I loved Pitchfork County. I wouldn’t want to live there, mind you. I wouldn’t even want to visit. But as a setting for a dark urban fantasy/horror novel, it works <i>really well</i>. It’s a place of grinding poverty, drug addiction, despair, and black magic, and it suits the storyline perfectly.

I’m British, so the setting of Pitchfork County is pretty alien for me: the nearest we have is probably run-down council estates, or pit villages where the closing of the pit left poverty and despair. Come to think of it, Pitchfork County is similar – just bigger. And with more black magic. Probably (but you never know). However, Pitchfork County is definitely quintessentially American.

Plot
To be honest, this was the weakest aspect of the story – Joe does a lot of driving around shooting people, but not a great deal of thinking. This means that the plot isn’t as complex as it might be. However, the setting and characters are more than solid enough to make this a minor quibble rather than a dealbreaker.

I could have done with a bit more explanation – the girls are half-made, but what would they have been if they had been fully-made? Why does it make a difference? I suppose the problem is that Joe isn’t really the introspective type. Maybe future books will have more Stevie in them – she seems to be quite a bit brighter than her husband. 🙂

Summary
The Pitchfork County series has been compared with the Dresden Files and while it’s closer to Dresden than some other series, if you’re expecting humour and pop-culture references, go elsewhere. This is dark, gritty, and violent in a way that the Dresden Files books just aren’t. It’s closer to Stephen Blackmoore’s Eric Carter books (which aren’t available on Kindle in the UK, dammit).

This was a very solid four-star book for me – it didn’t quite have the zing that would have made it five stars, but I’ll definitely be reading more of Sam Witt’s work.

Amazon and Apple: why they succeeded, and why tradpub is failing

I wrote a blog post on adaptation – and why I have an Amazon Kindle, not a Sears Kindle. A tweet from Mark Huntley-James (whose books you should definitely read, but not while drinking a hot beverage or wearing nice clothes) prompted me to give my totally-unasked-for opinion on exactly what Apple and Amazon did right, and what various other businesses (including most of tradpub) are doing wrong. It’s probably not terribly unique, but this is my blog and if I want to be opinionated, I can. 🙂

Answer: they gave customers what they really wanted/need, not what they said they wanted/needed, and not what the company wanted/needed.

Amazon

Amazon, for instance, operates at the bottom end of the market – and is now so successful that the bottom end reaches most of the way to the top. But its dominance stems from three things:

  1. Sell people the item they want.
  2. Sell it at a reasonable price.
  3. Make it convenient for people to buy from you.

Amazon is the only retailer who has lockers in my office building so I can have purchases sent to work. Where I actually am, most of the week. I don’t have to spend hours going to fetch stuff, or have the delivery person put it in a ‘safe’ place (like the bin), or bother one of my neighbours.

People might say that they want ethically sourced local produce, or all sorts of other things (and there might be people who have the time and money to act on this) but in the real world, most of us want the thing we want, when we want it, with the minimum of disturbance to our already busy lives.

Amazon gives us what we really want/need, and does it very well.

Apple

Apple’s philosophy is different. It operates at the top end of the market. Apple’s philosophy is:

  1. Do everything you do very well.
  2. Don’t do anything until you can do it very well.

People point out that iPhones didn’t have NFC technology until even low-end other-manufacturer phones had it. What they don’t point out was that until Apple introduced NFC and Apple Pay, NFC was a bit of a gimmick. It was useful for finding your car keys, but not for muhc else. When Apple got into the game, it changed the playing field. Suddenly, NFC was useful. Part of that was that Apple waited to introduce NFC until they had Apple Pay ready to go – and partly that they waited until the technology was mature enough to make Apple Pay possible, and viable (e.g. the availability of contactless payment terminals in stores).

Apple doesn’t go chasing after every cool gimmick its clever tech people can think up; it waits until the technology is something that people can use for something real (hence we roll our eyes over the Google Glass, not the Apple Glass).

Traditional Publishing and Bookselling

Traditional publishing and bookselling have a major problem: ebooks. For the first time ever, an author with no money and no connections can publish his or her book and make it available to every internet-capable person in the world without any middleman.

There is no need for a publisher, and no need for a bricks-and-mortar bookshop.

Therefore, in order to survive, publishers and bookshops need to re-evaluate what they can provide to their customers which ebooks and ebook-sellers cannot.

Traditional Publishing

The first problem is that tradpub has failed to identify its customers correctly in this brave new world of publishing. Traditional publishers are used to thinking of bookshops as their customers; the bookshops then pass on whatever they bought to their customers. Who had no choice but to accept what they were given.

Since readers can now buy books directly from the author or second-hand (via Amazon or other online outlet) the bricks-and-mortar bookshops, instead of being a vital part of the book world, are now optional. So tradpub needs to start thinking about how it can contact its real customers, and keep them happy.

Tradpub has also alienated many of its suppliers: authors. Predatory contracts and long lead-in times have led many authors to move away from traditional publishing and towards self-publishing. Tradpub’s response to this seems to be to carry on doing what they were doing before – only more. More predatory contracts, less willingness to let authors’ careers develop, and so on. And this will only lead to more authors jumping ship and going indie.

Tradpub is also trying to shore up its old customer-base (bookshops) at the expense of its real customers (readers) by raising the prices of ebooks above the prices of paper books. The thinking is that this will force people to go back to reading paper rather than ebooks, and thus return to bookshops. Unfortunately, this course of action is doomed to failure, because tradpub doesn’t have the power it thinks it has. If self-published titles were the tidal wave of dross that certain articles would have us think, they might be onto something – but self-publishing authors are just as good as tradpub, and the production standards are now equal or better, and rising all the time. Readers just don’t care who publishes a book, as long as it’s good.

AuthorEarnings reported that in 2016 42% of traditionally-published paper book sales in the USA (the biggest book market) were made via Amazon.

And in 2017, AuthorEarnings reported that in the USA, where Kindle was marketed first, 42% of all book sales were ebooks. In the UK, where we had to wait a couple more years for Kindles, ebooks have 34% of the book market.

That’s incredible.

And the numbers for ebooks are different, depending on genre: while nearly all juvenile non-fiction was, in 2016, in paper, 70% of adult fiction was sold as ebooks. Within adult fiction, 96% of romance novels were sold as ebooks (and 55% percent of that market was indie); for fantasy, 76% was ebooks and 37% indie.

The horse has definitely bolted and is now accelerating over the horizon.

Any attempt by tradpub to shut the stable door by raising prices of their ebooks is only going to drive people further into the waiting arms of indie authors. Ebooks are here to stay, and every day tradpub refuses to admit that is another day they inch closer to oblivion.

So what can they do to rescue themselves?

The only thing tradpub can do is reinvent themselves. Their new customer base must be authors. After all, tradpub’s existence depends on authors being willing to hand over their manuscripts – which they no longer need to do. Tradpub needs to entice them by offering high-level support and services, at a competitive price point: sign up with us, and we’ll take the worry and stress out of publishing, and for only a reasonable cut of the profits…

Any other course of action will result, eventually, in oblivion.

Bookshops

Bookshops are in a worse position than traditional publishers. There will always be people who want to write books, and not all of those people will be willing to learn how to produce a high-quality product. There will always be a market for ‘author services’. But bookshops?

When Jeff Bezos picked books as his first product for Amazon to sell, that wasn’t by accident. Books are an ideal product to sell online: they handle being posted very well (unlike, for example, eggs or milk), and if the buyer knows what s/he wants, there’s no risk that the product won’t fit or be the wrong colour (unlike clothes).

Amazon can also offer infinite shelf-space, and a catalogue in the millions. I remember my husband, in the early years of our relationship, wanted a copy of a particular out-of-print book. He went to a local second-hand bookshop which provided a book-search service and requested that – for a price – the bookseller find a copy. It took several months, but eventually a copy was obtained. Now, you just do an online search and buy the copy from anywhere in the world.

In order to survive, bookshops need to do two things:

  1. Prevent books moving wholly to ebook format (or hope that they don’t)
  2. Provide a better experience than online buying, or some other value-added that an online bookstore can’t provide.

I don’t think that books will move wholly to ebook format in the next few years – after all, there are still people who listen to music on vinyl. But the number of paper-book aficionados will gradually decline until it’s a niche interest. And there’s nothing booksellers can do about that.

But in order to keep the paper-book customers they have, they’re going to have to offer something that online shopping doesn’t. There are several options:

  1. A long-hours collection point service (even if it’s a locker outside the store with a padlock to which they email you the combination) for those of us who work full-time and so are never in to receive parcel deliveries.
  2. Coffee (and eventually become a coffee shop with a few books, rather than a book shop with a few coffees).
  3. Community services, like book clubs, craft clubs (and eventually have to hire out rooms for money, because nobody’s going to buy enough books every week to support this).

But personally, bookselling is not a trade I would get into. I think bookshops will die, no matter what anyone does. A few will hang on, just like vinyl record stores, but they will be the exception rather than the rule, and will be patronised by a decreasing clientele of paperbook aficionados.

Isn’t it all doom and gloom?

Not really. This is the law of evolution: adapt or die. The book market has changed completely, and anyone who does not recognise the new environment and adapt to it is going to die. Some businesses will die anyway, because there is no place for them in the new ecosystem – a bit like there are a lot fewer longbow makers now than there used to be. This is the way of the world: no business has an inalienable right to exist. It will only survive for as long as there is a place for it.

And, to be honest, as someone who is trying to write a book – really slowly! – I find the new book world brighter and more full of possibilities than ever before. The new world might be disastrous for those who make money from authors’ work – but it’s downright magical for authors themselves.

Adapt or Die

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Today, Kristine Kathryn Rusch published a blog post about the bankruptcy of Sears, comparing it to Amazon. She thinks that Amazon will also go bankrupt, and probably within the next few years.

I read Kristine’s blog regularly, because she’s both interesting and knowledgeable. But this time, I think she’s – well, not necessarily wrong, more over-egging the pudding.

Not being American, I don’t have any happy memories of the Sears catalogue (we had Littlewoods, and, reading between the lines, I don’t think it’s the same thing at all). Sears started out selling one product (like Amazon) by mail order, then diversified and expanded (like Amazon), became one of the biggest retailers in America (like Amazon), and then folded… like Amazon?

Jeff Bezos has apparently said that he thinks one day Amazon will go bankrupt.

Kristine says the lifespan of a company is about thirty years.

My take on this is as follows…

A company does not have a natural lifespan: it can be immortal. The oldest continually-operating company in the world was started in 578AD. So it’s been operating continuously for over 1400 years. There are apparently over 5,500 companies in the world that have been operating for more than 200 years, of which the majority (over 3,000) are in Japan. But the tenth-oldest company in the world (the Bingley Arms, est. 953AD) and the eighteenth-oldest (Otterton Mill, est. 1068AD) are both in the UK.

So what allows a company to survive?

If Kristine’s assertion that the lifespan of a company is usually about thirty years (if it gets off the ground properly) is correct, then I would say that the reason a lot of companies fail at the thirty-year point is the retirement of their founder. To take an example, there was a lot of discussion about how Apple would survive after the death of Steve Jobs. To build a company that lasts thirty years, you have to have vision, guts, and ability – and to keep a company running for another thirty years, you need the same. How many companies are fortunate enough to either have a successor who has those qualities, or an easy enough business climate that a lack of those qualities isn’t an immediate disaster?

The second factor in company survival is related to the first: it’s the ability to adapt to changing market conditions.

I think Japan has such a sizeable proportion of very old companies because Japanese culture places a much higher value on tradition than many western cultures, and also they have not had any major social upheavals. I would bet that until the Chinese Revolution, there were a lot of very old Chinese companies, too. These very old Japanese companies simply haven’t had to face the extreme changes in the market that western companies have.

Kristine sees the failure of Sears and extrapolates forward in time to the failure of Amazon. I see the failure of Sears, and ask why do I have an Amazon Kindle and not a Sears Kindle? On the face of it, Sears was ideally placed to take advantage of the advent of online shopping: they already had the infrastructure in place and the mailing list of customers – all they had to do was encourage their customers to transfer their shopping from a paper catalogue to a website, and hey presto, no market niche for Amazon.

But they didn’t.

Why not?

I would suggest that it’s because their top management failed to spot the change in their market conditions until Amazon not only had its feet in the door, but had its coat off, and was sitting down at the table eating Sears’s lunch. Even then, Sears could have clawed back their customers from Amazon, but I would guess that Sears banked far too much on customer loyalty and the tradition behind their famous catalogue.

They didn’t realise that there is no such thing as customer loyalty. Customers go where they can most easily (and cheaply) get what they want – and increasingly, that’s now Amazon.

In short, Sears failed to adapt to new market conditions, and now they’re paying the price for it.

To go back to Jeff Bezos and his statement about Amazon’s probable demise: I would interpret that more as a warning, and as an indication that Bezos knows very well that unless Amazon adapts it, too, will die.

So far, Amazon has shown itself to be extremely good at adapting to changing market conditions, and it seems likely that with Bezos at the helm, it will continue in that vein. After Bezos retires? Who knows.

But, if you aren’t the CEO of a multinational company, how is this relevant?

It’s relevant because market forces apply to all businesses – including indie authors. There are trends in fiction, and trends in style of writing. There’s no point slavishly trying to jump on every passing bandwagon, but you can’t afford to ignore the major trends like the rise of urban fantasy and the (relative) decline of epic fantasy – or the trend for sharper, simpler language rather than the purple prose of the ’70s.

In indie publishing, skimpy proof-reading and homemade covers might have been enough ten years ago, but not any more.

Adapt or die.

What do you think?

Review: The Haunting of Hill House

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The Haunting of Hill House
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books which lives up to its reputation – it’s a long time since I’ve added a book to my ‘favourites’ list, but this one makes the grade. However, I do think it’s one of those books where you either ‘get it’, or you don’t. If you don’t, you won’t understand what all the fuss is about. I don’t get Red Dwarf, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dr Who or Star Wars. Or ‘gaming’. Clearly, a lot of people ‘get’ what’s so all-fired wonderful about these things, but not me.

So, four people arrive in the allegedly haunted Hill House. The people themselves aren’t terribly unusual: the academic (Dr Montague), the playboy/cad (Luke), the arty/hippy young woman (Theodora), and the spinster (Eleanor). The story’s main character is Eleanor, and the bits told from a person’s point of view are told from hers.

This is not a book for people who like their horror with blood dripping down the walls and ghosts appearing and disappearing; it’s very low-key. This is psychological horror, and it’s written so that you can never be completely sure whether the manifestations described really happen, or whether it’s all in people’s heads. Although, as another writer has said, ‘Just because it’s happening in your head doesn’t mean it’s not real.’

Even without adding in Hill House itself, it’s an interesting portrait of a small group of people in an isolated location, and how they interact – and that seems to be a theme of Jackson’s: the unpleasantness that people can inflict on each other without the aid of the supernatural. I’ve read before about the tendency of groups to designate one member of the group as the ‘scapegoat’, to be the recipient of all the petty nastiness and bullying and ostracism that people get up to when there are more than two people together. This presumably aids group cohesion because everybody is united in making the scapegoat’s life a misery.

In Hill House Eleanor is the scapegoat: you watch as the group’s dynamics gradually change from a sort of comradeship on the first night, towards slowly separating into a trio and a single, as Eleanor is isolated and belittled by the others. Interestingly, although the group is supposed to be there to document supernatural occurrences, many of these are ignored or sidelined because they happen to Eleanor (who appears to be the member of the group the house is most interested in). Increasingly, towards the end of the book, the group’s scapegoating of Eleanor overshadows any ability of the others to recognise any kind of supernatural happening.

It has been said that lesbian sexuality is a theme of this book; personally, I don’t see it that way. Possibly the film contributed to this – I haven’t seen the film, but from what I hear, it ‘sexed up’ the book considerably. For example, in the film, Eleanor and Theodora end up in bed together (or so I’m told); that doesn’t happen in the book. They end up sleeping in the same room, in different beds. But I do think that a theme is ‘growing up’. Eleanor, it is made very clear, has had a very restricted life: a childhood with a mother who didn’t allow her daughters to ‘mix’ with the rest of the neighbourhood, then an adulthood looking after an extremely demanding invalid mother. Then, after her mother’s death, Eleanor moves in with her married sister, and is squashed and belittled there too. Eleanor has had no opportunity throughout her life to really grow into herself as a person: her trip to Hill House is the first time she hasn’t been with people who limit her completely. So, emotionally speaking, at the age of thirty-two, she’s still a child. Her relationship with Theodora seems to me like the relationship of a teenage girl: intense, and with, yes, some proto-sexual elements – as is pretty typical for teenage girl friendships.

Theodora, on the other hand, is an attention-seeking young woman who knows just how to wrap people around her little finger – and although she acts like a child, she’s playing a role for the attention it gets her. She’s emotionally mature enough to get tired of Eleanor quite quickly (especially when she realises that Eleanor doesn’t know how to give Theodora the attention Theodora wants) and move on to Luke. And yes, Theodora lives with a female friend – but this book was written in the 1950s: young women did not live alone. If they didn’t get married and didn’t want to live with their parents, they found a female friend to live with instead. Lesbianism was not required.

This emotional growth of Eleanor’s is another part of the story, I think. As Eleanor is the main character, the story follows her character arc (and, in fact, she is the only one that changes at all – the other characters and the house are left unaffected). At the beginning, she’s confined and limited by her life and the people around her: then she moves to Hill House and experiences freedom for the first time. She races through emotional growth, and then… what?

The final part of Eleanor’s story arc has a certain crushing inevitability to it. Eleanor has no husband, no children, and since the death of her mother, nobody to look after. Even the group at Hill House belittles and scorns her; not only is she the scapegoat, but this exclusion is underlined by the arrival of Dr Montague’s wife, and the pairing up of Luke and Theodora. Nobody wants Eleanor: as a woman with nobody to look after, she is the very epitome of the ‘superfluous female’.

And so the group’s final rejection of Eleanor – evicting her from Hill House and making her drive off alone, even though they know she has nowhere to go – results in her death, because that is the only possible ending, the only right ending, for a female who does not, or cannot, fulfil the caring role society demands of its females.

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Book Review: Brotherhood of the Wheel

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Brotherhood of the Wheel

Four stars.

R.S. Belcher has now been added to my list of Authors I Really Like.

What I Liked
Characters
Jimmie Aussapile is a great main character. I liked him because he doesn’t have any special powers: he’s just a man doing a job he knows needs to be done, at risk to himself and his family. Fighting evil might save the world, but it’s trucking that pays the mortgage. He’s also not some young, handsome hunk: he’s married with a loving wife he actually talks to, a daughter and a baby on the way. So, in all ways, not your typical urban fantasy MC. 

Secondary characters Heck (Hector), Lovina and Max were slightly less well-drawn, but still interesting. There are hints that all of them have depths currently unplumbed – future books will presumably flesh out all three of them.

Plot
To be fair, the plot wasn’t what you might call terribly complicated. However, it moved along with sufficient verve, and had enough interesting ideas in it, that I didn’t care.

Atmosphere
This is dark urban fantasy! It will probably appeal to fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and Craig Schaefer’s Daniel Faust and Harmony Black books.

Conclusion
Brotherhood of the Wheel didn’t quite make it to five stars for me, but it’s a very solid four. I’ll definitely be reading more of Belcher’s books; the next in this series isn’t out yet (tentatively titled King of the Road) but he has others, and I shall hunt them down.

Pecan Pie Bars

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Pecan Pie Bars

Pecan Pie Bars

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I tried this the other day; I love pecan pie, but my recipe for it is a bit gooey to use as anything other than a hot dessert. These bars have a nice shortbread-ish base, and are firm enough to be sliced and used for packed lunches. You can either eat it cold, or reheat and eat with ice cream.

Ingredients

For the base:

  • 225g plain flour (all-purpose flour)
  • 170g butter, softened
  • 75g dark brown sugar
  • 85g chopped pecan nuts

For the topping:

  • 350ml golden syrup (or corn syrup)
  • 150g dark brown sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 6 tablespoons plain flour (all-purpose flour)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla essence
  • 190g pecans (chop if you want, but you don’t have to)

Other:

  • Baking tin 9×13 inches
  • Greaseproof paper to line the tin

Directions

  • Heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius
  • Line a 9×13 inch baking tin with greaseproof paper. Do this by cutting a rectangle that is slightly bigger than the base + the side height. Line the tin by folding the corners, so there are no gaps. (This is important because the filling is sloppy; if there are gaps, it will leak through and glue your pecan bars to the tin. You can get it out, but it’s harder to do – and why make things harder than they have to be?)

Make the base:

  • Mix the butter and the 75g dark brown sugar together in a bowl.
  • Add the 225g plain flour gradually, and mix until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs.
  • Mix in the 85g crushed/chopped pecan nuts.
  • Pour into the tin and press until it sticks together in an even layer in the bottom of the tin. You can do this with your knuckles, or with something smooth.
  • Bake for 18-22 minutes, or until the edges are just starting to go brown.

Make the filling:

  • Break the eggs into a large bowl and beat them.
  • Mix in the golden syrup.
  • Mix in the vanilla essence.
  • Mix in the 150g dark brown sugar.
  • Mix in the 6 tablespoons of flour, and beat until you have a smooth mixture.
  • Pour the mixture into the tin on top of the base (which is now part-cooked as above).
  • Sprinkle the remaining pecans on top.
  • Return to the oven and bake for another 30-35 minutes, or until it’s done. It’s done when the topping is set (test by inserting a knife, which should come out clean or nearly so).
  • Leave to cool completely, then refrigerate.
  • Once it’s cold, cut into bars with a sharp knife.

Up above the world so high…

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Coming in to land

When other girls wanted to be teachers or models or nurses, I wanted to be an airline pilot. I loved the idea of learning to fly, and when I went on my first holiday flight, it was magical. Then real life happened. I realised that I wasn’t the sort of person who would be happy living out of a suitcase, and also that flying lessons were expensive. So I gave up the idea. It got a bit of a poke when I went to university: one of the first people I met was a qualified pilot. Her parents had bought her a flying lesson for her sixteenth birthday, and she’d loved it so much that they’d let her carry on learning. She didn’t have a driving licence, but she was qualified to fly for hire!

Once I got my first real job, I thought, “this time I’ll really do it”… only it never happened. I was sensible and got a mortgage instead.

But yesterday, I finally lived the dream – a half-hour ‘trial’ flight in a microlight.

A microlight is basically a very small aircraft. There are two sorts: flexwing and fixed wing. Fixed wing microlights are teeny, tiny little aeroplanes – less than 450kg fully loaded with fuel, pilot and passenger, maximum of two seats. The flexwing type are what most people think of as microlights: the unholy union of a pushchair and a hang-glider.

I went up in a flexwing.

When I first saw it, I more or less knew what to expect, but wasn’t prepared for quite how little there was of it. I was expecting higher sides on the buggy, at least! For someone who doesn’t even like changing lightbulbs, getting into an aircraft which is mostly not there with the intention of going several thousand feet up in the air was definitely nerve-wracking.

For flying in flexwing, one wears a warm flying suit, warm gloves, a helmet with a visor, and an intercom – which in this case worked through a sort of umbilical cord – so that pilot and passenger can speak to each other. I was given the choice of holding onto either the sides of the microlight, or onto the instructor’s shoulders – I chose the former, as I didn’t think the poor man would appreciate bruises.

Take-off was brilliant: in a flexwing, you get the wind in your face, and you trundle down the field at increasing speed until you suddenly rise into the air. I was surprised by how much I didn’t want to scream and beg to be let down. Not, as we climbed up to 2,000+ feet, that I was entirely comfortable. In fact, I spent the first twenty minutes of a half-hour flight with pretty much every muscle tensed, gripping onto the sides of the microlight like grim death. Exhilarating and terrifying at the same time!

One steers a flexwing microlight like a hang-glider: with a triangular bar coming down from the wing. The person in the front side usually does the steering, although the microlight I was in was modified so that someone could also steer from the back – which meant that two D-shaped loops had been welded onto the diagonal downward parts of the triangle to make rudimentary handles. It’s really designed so that an instructor in the back seat can take control if a student screws up – but in my case was used to give me a taste of steering myself!

Steering with the instructor’s handles, from the backseat, is much more difficult – you have less leverage because you’re holding the bars further up, nearer to the wing, and – especially in my case, since I’m short – reaching out at almost full extension, so I was using my upper arm muscles instead of my abdominal muscles. I have to say, it felt like I was trying to drag the wing around by main force! Apparently, if you’re steering from the front seat – the real pilot’s seat – you can steer with your fingertips.

I hope so, because, writing this a day later, my upper arms ache!

Flying 2000+ feet up in a microlight, feeling the wind buffeting against you, and knowing that there is nothing between you and the ground below is an amazing experience. Scary. But amazing.

From the fear perspective, I found I could handle level flight quite well – but going up or down made my stomach slide back and forth. However, I am proud to be able to say that when given a choice between the ‘boring’ way of losing height (a gentle slope down) and the ‘fun’ way (a relatively steep downward spiral), I chose the fun way. And I didn’t scream or clutch anything on the way down. But the instructor was right – it was fun!

 

As an experience, it was everything I had hoped it would be. I’ve never done anything like it – even though being that high up with nothing between me and splat was pretty scary, it wasn’t as paralysingly terrifying as I had feared it would be. It’s hard to describe it as anything other than amazing.

And I’m going to do it again next weekend – this time for an hour, a proper lesson. If the fear-quotient goes down further, who knows? I might carry on and get my licence!

Review: Bound

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Bound
Bound by Benedict Jacka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the eighth book in the Alex Verus series, and I’m glad to find that Alex is finally realising that he has to do something other than just deal with today’s problem then sit back and wait for tomorrow’s. He’s starting to think ahead, and this gives the potential for more interesting developments in the future.

Although the action takes place over several months – rather than the more typical several days – it moves quickly enough that this book felt shorter than the 416 pages Amazon says it is; I read it over the course of a single day. Alex is now working – against his will – for Morden the Dark Mage. Personally, I would have liked more on-page time for Morden: he’s intelligent and sneaky, and it’s nice to get hints of humanity rather than him simply being yet another interchangeable baddie. Of course, the Light Mages, who are supposed to be the goodies, are pretty interchangeable with the baddies too, so it’s particularly satisfying to see Morden (reportedly, at least) being pretty decent to work for – which gives Alex something to think about. It does make me wonder where Jacka is going with that.

Most of the action centres on Alex (obviously), but Luna is also developing and starting to think of her future; this rounds her out more as a character as it means she’s starting to become more of her own person rather than just someone who is connected to Alex. We also learn a little more about Richard Drakh, and it’s particularly good have him move into the ranks of actual characters rather than off-stage bogeymen. He’s interesting, and I hope he gets more page-time in future.

Plot-wise, Bound definitely moves things along: not only is Alex being more proactive, but we get unmistakable signs that there is something in the works, and future books are (hopefully) less likely to be simply more people trying to kill Alex for stuff that happened ages ago/stuff they think he’s going to do/just stuff. There are certainly enough changes in characters’ attitudes, abilities, and situations that book 9 should be very interesting indeed – and I’m looking forward to reading it. 🙂

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Products: success and failure

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We’re surrounded by products, day in and day out. The world is full of things to buy – not all of which are books. Personally, I’m a sucker for high-end tech. Some people buy designer jeans or expensive cars; I wear army surplus combats, drive a car that’s so small and fuel-efficient that I don’t have to pay road tax, and spend my hard-earned cash on personal tech with specs higher than I will ever need.

I’m not an IT professional – or even a particularly skilled amateur – but I love finding a new bit of tech that makes my life easier or more fun. Some women buy new clothes; I buy new apps.

Product Failures

So I find it interesting to look at what products succeed, and which ones fail. This article describes four products that failed:

  • The Ford Edsel – the only other time I’ve heard of this is in one of the Herbie films where an Edsel gets cut up and made into sculpture. A classic example of trying to be all things to all men and ending up not pleasing anybody. Plus, if you add all those knobs and whistles, they’d better work. Plus, not look weird.
  • The Microsoft Zune – Microsoft’s answer to the iPod, which I vaguely remember. Failed because it didn’t do anything new, or better than the iPod, and additionally had the square, clunky Microsoft design aesthetic. Might appeal to today’s hipsters, but back in the day, it was just uncool.
  • McDonald’s Arch Deluxe – ‘grown-up’ burger. The thing is, you don’t go to Macky-D’s for grown-up culture. You go for food that is fast and cheap.
  • The Google Glass. Apparently, released onto the market (and to journalists) before it was an entirely finished product. Prototypes are often less-than-stunning – and that was the Google Glass.

The last is the most interesting for me. It reminded me a lot of this article about care robots in Japan – and how Japan’s interest in robotics in the care industry has met with an unenthusiastic response from prospective users. At least in 2011, Japanese people wanted to be cared for by human beings, not robots – no matter how good the robot was.

Part of the failure of the Google Glass seemed to be an emotional adverse reaction from potential customers – just as elderly people in Japan didn’t want a humanoid robot caring for them (although non-humanoid robotic tools appear to be less of a problem), people found the Google Glass creepy, scary, and threatening – even to the level of assaulting the wearer, or ejecting him from shops simply for wearing a set. I wonder how much of this has a parallel with the Western fear of Muslim women wearing the face-covering niqab – culturally, we place great importance on being able to see people’s faces. We’re used to spectacles – since they’ve been around for about 750 years – but any other face-covering is weird and scary.

Another part of the failure of the Google Glass, I think, is that it was a cool bit of tech that did a job that very few people needed done. While having instant access to email and weather reports sounds cool – it’s actually not what most people either need or want. For the majority of the population, having your mail on your phone is quite enough. Apparently, Google Glass hasn’t gone away – but I predict that when it returns, it will be directed towards the sector of the population that really does have a need for it: e.g. police and security personnel, surgeons, on-location reporters. It seems unlikely that, culturally, society at large will be willing to accept Google Glass as personal tech for some time to come.

Apple: Product Success

Our household is a Mac household: Macs, iPads, iPhones, Apple Watches. My husband and I both like the Apple ecosystem – it’s reliable, efficient, and viruses are less of a problem (though my husband’s Mac still managed to catch one).

But one thing I notice about Apple is that they are very careful about what new products and features they introduce:

  • iPod/iPhone: kicked off serious changes to the music industry. Then – with the introduction of the app store – the rise of customisation of personal tech by enabling the consumer to buy little tiny programs that did a limited set of things, rather than a one-size-fits all big-program approach.
  • NFC technology: much whining about how Apple was falling behind because Android phones had NFC before the iPhone – but when Apple put NFC into the iPhone, it was coupled with the launch of Apple Pay, which revolutionised the way we pay for things. Either that, or they timed their market entry perfectly to catch a significant uptick in contactless technology adoption.
  • Apple Watch: latecomer to the smartwatch market, but I see Apple’s market share is now about half of the smartwatch market.

And this summer, we’re hearing much sneering about how Apple is missing a trick on the home automation market, with Google Home and Amazon Echo busily carving up the market between them. Personally, I think we’ll see – as predicted – the Apple entrant into the market next month, and I’ll be surprised if it isn’t something special. Apple’s strategy seems to be to wait until the technology available enables the manufacture of a product really worth having, rather than just a tech toy, before they enter that market themselves. More cynically, one might say that they wait for other people to make the mistakes, then swoop in with a beautiful, finished product that doesn’t have any embarrassing gaffes attached to it.

The Apple product philosophy seems to be, “Forget what’s cool, or what we can do – what can we make that is useful?” Then, of course, they make the useful product cool.

Back to Books

And, to relate this back to books and publishing…

Firstly, many of the same rules apply to books as to other products:

  • Don’t try to be all things to all men: figure out who your target demographic is, and write the book they want to read. Even if the target demographic is people exactly like the author, the market might be small, but they’ll be really happy. The more different people you try to please, the less chance you’ll please anybody.
  • Steer away from just mashing together as many genre conventions as you can, in the hope that this will increase popularity. It won’t: it’s more likely to look like parody. Or just silly.
  • If you’re going to offer something similar to what is already out there, you’ll have your best success if you add something new and interesting, something that is uniquely you. Otherwise, people will just stick with the market leaders, or at best you’ll have to fight everyone else for your share of the pie.
  • Know what people want from your kind of book. And give them that thing. You might give them other things as well, but you need to give them what they came for. People read romances for the happily-ever-after; they don’t read it for the hero and heroine to die tragically in the last chapter.

And when it comes to the book, the item itself? People want to read. E-books have taken off because they give people what they want – the author’s words – in a format that is convenient and fits into today’s busy lifestyles. Likewise, audiobooks are on the rise because they’re downloadable now, and they enable people to ‘read’ while they’re doing activities that otherwise make reading dangerous (like driving, or ironing).

Will electronic books ever include ‘expanded content’ like video, or background tracks? Well, maybe. But I wonder if those things come under the heading of ‘cool but ultimately useless’ because even though they’re possible (and people are already doing it) they’re just not what people come to (fiction) books for. I expect sound and video will become very much a part of textbooks, where they can be truly useful – but fiction is a different landscape, and like Google Glass as personal tech, I don’t think they’re what readers really want.

Of course… I might be wrong!

What do you think?

Productivity

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I’m uneasily conscious that I haven’t blogged in far too long. I’d say it’s been the month from hell, but it’s more like the year from hell. However, there’s only so long you can exist in an endless round of work-eat-sleep before you have to do something about it. Even if that something is to acknowledge that you’re stuck with it for the foreseeable future.

When it comes to writing, I’m not a member of the lucky tribe that smugly says, “if you want it enough, you’ll make time,” as if wanting time to write will magically make two hours of commuting (by road, so not writing time!) disappear, or reduce your dayjob workload so that it’s possible to do it all without bringing anything home. Some of us just aren’t that lucky.

Sometimes, you just have to acknowledge that unless something changes – you move house closer to work, you get a different job, whatever – writing time isn’t going to happen. And if that’s the case, put the writing away until you do have time instead of torturing yourself with guilt that somehow you’re inadequate because you can somehow magic up the time.

But sometimes, there are tweaks you can do.

My husband and I have recently started getting up half an hour earlier. It saves a few minutes on travel because there’s less traffic on the motorway at 6.15am, but mostly it means we’ve both got more time at our respective workplaces before the day gets into its evil stride. Until recently, I was using that time for writing (until this month, when workload meant that I had to use it for, well, work) and he was using it for work. It was working out for both of us – I had been trying to write in the evenings, but by the time I’d made the dinner, cleared up, and gone for a run, I was too exhausted to think, let alone write. My husband was bringing a lot of work home; he’s finding that he’s more efficient if he does it in the morning – more work is getting done in less time, and for the first time in ages, he’s having some evenings off.

So, just rearranging our schedules a little bit – getting up earlier, going to bed earlier – has made us more productive.

I’ve also made a couple of other resolutions:

  • I’m going to try to do the GTD stuff – keep my to-do list up to date, and actually do the things on it instead of procrastinating and
  • Journaling. People say you ought to do it, and there’s a certain attractiveness to the idea of having somewhere to dump all the whining and complaints (other than into my darling husband’s ears). Plus, a place to just think in print.
    • And, following from the idea of journaling… recording achievements. It’s so easy to go from day to day, always busy, but never thinking about what you’ve actually achieved through all that busyness. What, during the day, did you do that you were proud of? I’ve decided to record my Achievements in my journal.

And where, in all this efficiency and productivity, is the actual novel, I hear you ask?

Well, it’s progressing. Faster, hopefully, when I’ve got a handle on the dayjob workload and I can have my morning writing time back.

However – and this is an important point – I’ve learned a hell of a lot about writing over the last couple of years. I can certainly see why so many authors say that they’re embarrassed by their first finished (but unpublished) novel. I’d be embarrassed by mine if I’d finished it two years ago, and I haven’t even finished the thing yet.

However, I do have a finished short story which will be coming out in a New Street Authors anthology at some point soon. It’s urban fantasy set in Birmingham (UK).