Making Origami Cranes

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Origami CranesSomeone at work is getting married, and they’re going to Japan for their honeymoon. Someone else decided it would be a brilliant idea to give him 1000 origami cranes. It’s a Japanese wedding tradition that is supposed to bring good luck to the new couple.

So a box of paper and an instruction sheet appeared in the tea-room, and everyone who stands still long enough is being press-ganged into crane-making. Even me, and I don’t know if I’d recognise the chap if I met him!

I am, however, the only person who has made cranes before. I used to make them when I was a kid – origami was a minor hobby. Over the last few (!) years, though, origami has fallen by the wayside. Life just got in the way – one thing, then another, then another.

Making cranes (I think I’ve made about fifty now) has reminded me how much I used to enjoy origami. It’s too easy to allow life to get away from you, and then you realise that you spend all your time chasing after things you don’t really want, and not spending any time on things you enjoy. You always promise yourself that you’ll get around to it – tomorrow, maybe.

So I’m going to start doing origami again, see how much I remember. I’ll keep you posted on how I do.

Review: Burned, by Benedict Jacka

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Burned by Benedict Jacka
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once again, Alex Verus is up against it. He’s been sentenced to death, and has only a week in which to get the sentence reversed. And the sentence also applies to his “dependants” – Luna, Variam and Anne.

The book consists mostly of Alex trying to win votes to get the sentence reversed, and to remove the three young people from the list of his dependants so that they escape being collateral damage.
This was a quick read, and quite enjoyable. I do like the way Jacka has written Alex as someone who is not traditionally powerful, in the sense of being able to blow things up, but can still be very dangerous simply because of his ability to know what comes next. It’s an interesting demonstration of how power isn’t always synonymous with physical strength or force.

I also enjoyed the bits of book where Anne appeared – she’s my favourite character; she tries hard to be ethical and do the right thing – even when all she gets is hatred and suspicion. In some ways, I think she’s a more complex character than Alex. For me, she certainly more sympathetic. I could imagine going out for the evening with Anne and enjoying it.

On the other hand…

As another reviewer has pointed out, this whole book could have been condensed into a couple of chapters stuck on the front of the next book.

There are some substantial changes all around, so I do wonder if this book functions as a hiatus in the overarching plot to allow Jacka to move all his characters around into new positions for the next phase. It would certainly explain a lot.

Overall, although I think this is the weakest book in the series so far, there is still enough in it to make an enjoyable read, provided you are already invested in the series. Hopefully, the next book will see the plot back on track.

And the reason why I think Burned is the weakest in the series follows, but it’s spoilery so don’t scroll down if you don’t like spoilers.

I am also getting rather tired of everybody lining up to kill Alex. I mean, why? The guy just runs a magic shop. He’s hardly creating his own power bloc, so why are all these people – Light and Dark alike – so obsessed with him? The amount of time and resources being thrown at the Kill Alex Verus project is getting hard to believe without some indication of why all of these people feel it’s so important to either kill him or recruit him, rather than just ignore him. And where are the decent mages? Statistically speaking, Alex should have come across a few more of them who are not psychotic and/or amoral. The longer this series goes on, the more it becomes difficult to believe that Alex hasn’t managed to acquire more allies/friends.


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A week off… right?

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Tweet... tweet

Tweet… tweet… tweet…

The Easter holidays means at least a few days off, and this year I got the big prize of 10 days off for only 4 days’ annual leave booked. Of course, I had lots of big plans about how I was going to hit a few deadlines and get ahead, learn what the hell Twitter is all about, write some of the actual novel (you know, the one I’m supposed to be writing), and maybe even do this thing called relaxing that is apparently really good fun.

Well, I got some of it done!

I did hit one deadline, but then ground to a halt (I’ll catch up next week, OK?). Relaxing – yep, managed to do some of that. Lovely slow mornings with my husband (also off work), drinking coffee and talking. And things. You know. And, because he’s on a sports team, we have to do some fitness stuff. Well, he does, and I go along too. Who knows what a drop-dead gorgeous man might get up to in the park? I have to go along to make sure he doesn’t meet some hussy who will take advantage if his sweet nature.

Only, there’s this hill. Seriously, it’s about a 1/3 gradient, and we have to run up and down it. Five times. Not relaxing. Makes me think again about the whole marriage business.

But, I have managed to figure out Twitter. I never quite understood it before, but apparently nearly everybody else in the world does not have this problem, and they’re all tweeting away like blackbirds in the springtime. Or bluebirds. I’ve finally got Twitter sorted out in my very visual mind as a giant cocktail party with all these conversations that you can eavesdrop on if they look interesting, or butt into if you think you have something scintillating and witty to say (in 140 characters or less). Of course, one then has to do the whole circulating thing, but fortunately there doesn’t seem to be a problem equivalent to having a plate of nibbles in one hand, a glass in the other hand, and then wondering how you are actually going to consume the nibbles… And unlike in real life, the object of the exercise is to get people to eavesdrop on you in turn.

And I managed to actually do some writing! Amazing! I’m now… wait for it… 60,000 words into the first draft. Some people call this draft zero; can’t quite get my head around that. Because if the first draft is draft zero, what did you have before you started? Anyway, whatever you call it, 60,000 words in, and I’ve got over a sort of narrative hump that was in the way (a bit like the hill in the park). I’m sort of closing in on the last quarters, so I’m probably going to end up around 80-90,000 words. However, I’m not getting all precious about word count; I’d far rather end up with a story that is just right, rather than stretch it out to get a couple more thousand words, or try to squash it into too small a space. We’ll see how it looks when I actually get to the end.

Of course, now I’ve just hit another narrative hump, but, hey, that’s life. Well, writing, anyway. Back to it…

Review: The Derring-Do Club and the Invasion of the Grey

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The Derring-Do Club and the Invasion of the Grey
The Derring-Do Club and the Invasion of the Grey by David Wake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Earnestine, Georgina and Charlotte are back for their third definitely-not-an-adventure (although each book stands alone, so you don’t necessarily have to read them in order if you don’t want to).

This time, it’s strange lights in the sky, little grey men in the kitchen, and the devil in the village. Also, spies. And kidnapping. And pirates. And worse things, like spelling and grammar. Once more, the British Empire (or the whole of civilisation, even) is at risk, and only the Derring-Do Club can save the day, the Empire, and possibly all of civilisation.

My favourite sister is still Georgina; although she’s the quietest one, and the only sister who really doesn’t like adventures (no matter what Earnestine says), I think she is in some ways the strongest of the three. No matter what life (or the author) does to her, or expects of her, Georgina does what’s right. Plus, she’s the scientist of the trio: very cool.

I’ve said it before, and will doubtless say it again: these books are fun romps. Well-written, fast-paced, and dangerously addictive – but with some extra thinking in there, too, should you choose to read it that way.

Once more, David Wake has demonstrated his ability to tell a story that is even more satisfying than you think it will be going in (even with the high expectations I now have of him!) and I’m looking forward to the next book – a little snippet of which is included at the end of the kindle edition of this one.

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Review: The Lustful Turk: Or Scenes In The Harem Of An Eastern Potentate

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The Lustful Turk: Or Scenes In The Harem Of An Eastern PotentateThe Lustful Turk: Or Scenes In The Harem Of An Eastern Potentate by Anonymous

The Review

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was first published in 1828, but only became popular when it was republished in 1893.

Emily, who is in love with Henry (Sylvia’s brother), gets sent off to India for reasons that are never made clear, and don’t matter because she never arrives. Instead, she and her maid, Eliza, end up getting kidnapped by pirates and sold as harem slaves. Emily ends up with the Dey of Algiers, and Eliza with the Dey of Tunis. Since this is erotica, what happens next is entirely predictable. Emily is raped by the Dey, but pretty soon realises that (after the whole messy, painful deflowering is over) sex is great, and the Dey is really good at it, so she’s entirely happy with the situation.

Emily gets to hear the stories of two other harem slaves – an Italian woman and a Greek girl. The Italian woman was captured on the way to Corsica with her new husband (she is so modest that she is still a virgin); the Greek girl is sold by a corrupt official after her father and fiancé are murdered. The story is pretty much the same in all cases, with only the names changed. Additionally, there is a sideways move into the adventures of a pair of Catholic priests, who have a similar line in forcing young women to have sex with them, then selling them to the Turks – including a young novice nun who is faced with being buried alive after trying to escape her convent (after her brothers refused to testify that they forced her to enter it in the first place).

Meanwhile, Emily has been describing her new life as a harem slave in her letters to Sylvia, who is shocked and rather insulting about the Dey when she writes back. Since has been reading the letters, the Dey determines to kidnap Sylvia to punish her – as you do. He manages this, and embarks on a complex charade involving himself pretending to be a French physician and a fake marriage conducted by an English Jew pretending to be a priest. Sylvia, of course, also follows the pattern and becomes quite happy in her new life.

So far, so unoriginal, so distasteful. However, before we mount our 21st century politically-correct high horse and ride madly off in all directions, we should consider that “woman who gets blackmailed/threatened/bribed into a relationship with the hero” is still a staple plot device – in women’s fiction, written by women, for women. Whilst this does not make rape any more acceptable, it does mean that we should consider that it isn’t limited to nineteenth-century erotica written by men [although, see below for a further thought on this]. It’s alive and well and living in formula romances written by 21st-century women, although in slightly less blatant form. Likewise, the enduring popularity of “the sheikh”, “the Greek”, “the Italian” and more recently “the Russian mafia boss” in women’s fiction: are we talking racism and stereotype, or are we talking “exciting and exotic”? Whichever it is – and it could be both – modern romances, written by women for women, have the same issues as The Lustful Turk, and you can’t logically censure the one without applying the same standards to the other.

Anyway, moving back to the adventures of the Lustful Turk, all of this bedroom activity is brought to a sudden end by a new slave, who cuts off the Dey’s penis. The Dey then orders his physician to also cut off his testicles, since without the penis they are useless, and has the amputated parts preserved in jars of spirits of wine – one of which he gives to Emily, and the other to Sylvia. After which, the two girls are sent back to England.

Once back in England, the last letter discloses that the jars of wine spirits (and contents) have been donated to Sylvia’s friend who runs an expensive girls’ school; Sylvia’s friend shows them to her students, as a reward for good behaviour. Furthermore, Sylvia has married (a baronet, who has apparently not noticed that she is not the virgin he expected), but Emily is determined not to do so until she can find a man who is sufficiently charming and skilled to replace the Dey in her affections and her bed. She has a “young willing maid” who “auditions” all of her suitors – of whom seven out of ten have been found wanting. Emily discloses that she has hopes that the current one, an Irish earl, will pass the test.

This conclusion to the tale is somewhat unexpected. The “bad guys” – the Turks and the Catholic priests – are portrayed as lovers with great skill as well as stamina and charm (we don’t know about the Jew), able to secure any woman’s love and devotion. Whereas of the “good guys”, Henry is portrayed as a wet blanket who goes into a decline when Emily leaves for India and thereafter does nothing; the Italian woman’s husband is so unmanly that a month after the wedding he still hasn’t consummated the marriage; the Greek girl’s fiance gets stupidly and uselessly murdered (though it’s in her defence, and it’s notable that she’s the only one who doesn’t completely fall for the Dey’s charms); the Italian novice nun’s brothers would rather leave her to be buried alive than admit that they forced her into the convent in the first place; Sylvia’s baronet husband is too stupid to notice he hasn’t married a virgin; and as for seven out of ten of Emily’s suitors – they’re just not worthy of her consideration.

Furthermore, the story ends not with the Dey going merrily on with his career of lasciviousness, but instead unable to have sex with anyone – a sort of enforced faithfulness to Emily and Sylvia. Meanwhile, far from being fallen women whose marriage prospects have been destroyed and now face a lifetime of misery and shame, Sylvia has married up (she is now a baronet’s wife) and Emily is determined not to marry at all until she can find a man who meets her high standards – hence the maid (not Emily!) auditioning the candidates. The current candidate is an earl, representing a huge leap in social status for Emily if she deems him worthy of her.

In short, the “foreigners” are consistently portrayed as more “manly” than the women’s male relatives and conventional lovers/husbands, and the two girls – far from being ruined by their experiences – return to England to social success. And the Dey’s parts have been handed off to Sylvia’s friend, not even kept as mementos – and how’s that for crushing to a man’s ego: you give a girl your genitals and she hands them off (like an unwanted birthday present) to be displayed to schoolgirls as a reward for learning their French verbs properly!

The book ends not with, as might be assumed, the men in control but with the various men dead, mutilated, deceived, or discarded, and Emily and Sylvia in control.


This book was far more interesting than I expected – although the interest lay mostly in how it ends. One might have expected the girls to stay in the harem as happy slaves, or, if they returned to England, to be either disgraced (morality tale) or indiscriminately exercising their new skills with anyone and everyone (erotica). As it is, they “get away with it” – their families pretend that they’ve been away at boarding school the whole time, and all is as it was, except that they now have higher standards in men. It’s explicit that Emily isn’t going to marry until she can find a man who meets her requirements, but I detected an implication that Sylvia was quite satisfied to have a husband who was rather stupid – presumably stupid enough to let her run her life the way she wanted.

This reminded me, a little, of Jane Eyre. In Jane Eyre we also have a relatively defenceless woman (economically this time) in the power of a man, or men; yet Jane eventually comes out on top. At the end of the book, Jane says, of Rochester, “Reader, I married him.” She marries him – not the other way around. Throughout the book, Rochester is portrayed as morally weak (thinking he can buy Jane’s affection with gifts, and attempting to commit bigamy) despite his appearance of power; at the end, he is physically broken too. Jane, on the other hand, has inherited a fortune and has decided, after all, to marry him – even though she is now a woman of independent means who could walk away if she wanted to.

This similarity – of women who appear to be be weak but actually come out on top – makes me wonder whether The Lustful Turk was actually written by a woman. I find it difficult to believe that a man, writing for men, would cut off the Dey’s penis (the correct functioning of which many men feel is inextricably linked to their own self-worth) and have Sylvia’s husband deceived and Emily rejecting seven out of ten suitors for not being good enough in bed to satisfy her maid. Emily doesn’t even conduct the auditions herself: the men are treated like domestic servants being interviewed by the housekeeper before the mistress selects the best of the short-list.

It’s also noteworthy that although the women are raped, the men who do it are not only skilled lovers but also personally charming, and find it easy to win the women’s devotion. Society expects women to be chaste, and to refuse sex when it’s offered: to say yes immediately marks you as a slut. So in the nineteenth century, and although this attitude is supposed to be gone, it’s not, and it’s perpetuated by women:  you can see it in the plots of contemporary romances. Why does the heroine have to be bribed, tricked, threatened or blackmailed into a relationship with a hero who has all the hallmarks of (according to the author) a desirable partner?  Because nice girls don’t say yes. In The Lustful Turk, the rape is a necessary device to allow the girls to have sex without being married, and while still keeping their character as “nice girls”; it’s glossed over very quickly and the description passes on to how great the sex is. Much of the description is, of course, from the girls’ point of view (though Sylvia’s tale is told from the Dey’s point of view), and one does wonder whether this also signals that it was written by a woman, possibly for a female audience. We should not forget that women read erotica – they just don’t talk about it as much as men do, and I should think that held true in the nineteenth century just as much as the twenty-first.

In some ways, I feel mean giving this only two stars. Nearly 2000 words of review should signal something a bit better than two-out-of-five. However, most of the book is pretty standard stuff – it’s only the last few pages, where the Dey’s bits get cut off and we find out what happens to Emily and Sylvia, that the whole book suddenly looks different, as if a different set of lights have been switched on. And the writing just isn’t good enough to lift it above two stars.

But this is a two-star book that anyone who’s interested in nineteenth century erotica, or women’s writing, might well want to give a try. It might not hit the spot as erotica, as such, but that twist at the end makes it a thought-provoking read.

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Copyediting: the agony and the… whatever.

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This month, I have got no writing done whatsoever. This is because I’ve been copyediting someone else’s book. Well, copyediting sounds a bit posh; what I was actually doing was reading it and marking comments in the margin like: Terry Pratchett says using more than one exclamation mark is a sign of insanity. And: Meteorology is the study of weather; metrology is the study of measurements. It is important not to confuse the two.

The interesting thing here is that my friend had already edited it himself and given it to someone else to edit, and he thought that two passes through would have got rid of all the stuff that needed getting rid of. This proved not to be the case, and I made enough comments to justify my continued existence. It was, however, a learning experience all round.

The most important thing my friend learned, of course, was that he hadn’t caught all the errors. When you’re self-publishing, this matters. You can blame your publisher if you like, but when that’s you, it’s a bit counterproductive. If you’re an indie author, when a reader spots the error, he doesn’t say “Poor author, why couldn’t his publisher pay for a decent editor?” – he says “Why is this bloke publishing a book? He’s clearly illiterate.”

Take home lesson: three sets of eyes is good. (Different people, obviously. Otherwise it’s… unusual.)

For me, I learned:

  1. Two people can read the same sentence in quite different ways. (“Oh, so that’s what you were after. I get it now.”)
  2. You have to concentrate more when you get to the climax because you’re more likely to miss things. (“This is a flying saucer battle! And you expect me to concentrate on whether a comma or a semicolon would be better?”)
  3. I’m quite good at spotting errant commas, and I have an unnatural love of, or possibly obsession with, semicolons.

I also learned some things about writing; copyediting someone else’s work forces you to slow down and think about what you’re reading. Pacing was the main one: my friend’s book was beautifully paced. Everything flowed naturally, the plot cantering along, until it accelerated into a gallop for the climax, and all the threads came together. It’s something I shall have to try to replicate in my own writing, if I can.

All in all, it’s an experience I would definitely recommend to anyone else thinking of self-publishing. If only because once you’ve checked someone else’s, it should be relatively easy to guilt them into doing yours…

Setting up the kill

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Skull and crossbones pictureSometimes, it has to be admitted, a character’s only reason to be in the book at all is to die; their death is the event that pushes the protagonist into doing something, or not doing something. Or, even more depressingly, their purpose is simply to be cannon fodder.

There’s even a name for it – redshirt. A character who has no past, hardly any present, and a future that consists of a grave or – in science fiction – some particles or a burned mark on the floor. John Scalzi even wrote a book about what happens when these poor blokes realise what god (i.e., the author) has in mind for them.

Then there’s the guy (or girl) who isn’t quite the poor no-name walk-on character whose one role in life is to die, but is just as surely marked out for an untimely demise. You know the ones. The grizzled old cop who is a week away from retirement after forty years’ honourable service. The young man, or girl, who just got engaged, or just got married. Or, if a character manages to make it past the honeymoon period, the last few months of pregnancy can be deadly for both partners. Another sign of circling vultures is the character whose life has been irredeemably crap… until they meet the protagonist. Just now, things are starting to look up… until, guess what?

You can see it coming from the time the character first walks onto the page, and the author tells you about his retirement date, her pregnancy, his new fiancee. You just know that this character isn’t going to make it to the end of the book.

As a proto-author, I found myself asking how. How do you have that feeling that a character is destined for an early grave?

I came up with some rules:

  1. The character is at some point in their life where it would be especially cruel to kill them off (retirement, marriage, new baby etc).
  2. The character doesn’t get enough page time for us (the readers) to really bond with them.
  3. The author tells us a lot about the character rather than showing it. This one was quite interesting when I figured it out. Telling is a quick way of giving the reader a lot of information about a character without giving that character much page time.
  4. The character isn’t necessary to the plot.
  5. The character is actually inconvenient to the plot. The protagonist has either moved on, or needs to move on.

The whole thing spoils the book: the reader doesn’t connect with the character so well (because what’s the point – they’re only going to die), and may also feel annoyed because the author is trying to manipulate them. After all, what is introducing a fiancee (that you never otherwise meet) other than a cheap-and-easy way of attempting to increase the emotional payoff when you kill the character? To me, this smacks of clumsy writing.

The question is, how to avoid it?

George R. R. Martin does it brilliantly. All through A Game of Thrones (the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire), you think Ned Stark is going to be the series’ hero. Until – and if this is a spoiler, you must be the last person on earth to not have either read the books or seen the TV series – he gets executed at the end of the book.

Either Martin is a closet psycho and we should all be grateful that he turned out to be an author, so he can kill made-up people instead of real ones, or he’s a sadist who enjoys making people care and then killing off the object of their affections, or he’s just a really, really great author.

Whichever one it is, Martin makes all his characters real – he makes you care, then he swoops in for the kill, just when you’re not expecting it. Oh, he won’t kill X; X is too important to the story, and too great a character to lose…. oh.

This, I think, is his secret. You can’t tell who’s going to die because Martin treats all his characters the same (i.e., equally sadistically), so we get emotionally invested in all of them, even if we hate them and want them to die. In fact, Martin manages to reverse the “red-shirt” phenomenon, by introducing characters whom you want to see die a painful death even though you’ve got a nasty suspicion that Martin might let them survive (Joffrey, that’s you).

So in order to get the reader to invest in the character and be honestly shocked/sad/glad when a character dies, I think the author has to invest that time, thought and emotion first (or else fake it really well). If the author cares, the reader will too.

The two-edged sword of the editor

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The_OrderLast night, my husband and I had Film Night, for the first time in ages. We decided to stream our first-ever film, and settled down with my iPad for the experience, with popcorn. The film we chose was The Order, starring Heath Ledger. You can read the plot here.

Now, I like a good religion-thriller. I had high hopes of this one, especially since it was a religion-paranormal-thriller, which is like triple-chocolate-chip cookies. And it was an enjoyable enough interlude, particularly considering the popcorn. However, it did have some major problems, which could be ascribed to really, really bad editing – either not enough, or too much.

The job of an editor, as I understand it, is to make a story – whether that’s a film or a book – into the best story it can be, by the judicious cutting out of irrelevant crap, and possibly advising on plot holes and parts that need expansion.

The Order is about Alex, a Catholic priest who discovers his mentor (Dominic) has died in mysterious circumstances, in Rome. He goes to Rome – with a girl who’s escaped from a mental hospital, where she was put after trying to kill him during an exorcism – to figure out what happened. With him also goes Thomas, his fellow-priest. So far, so good. When there, they discover that there is a “sin-eater” involved – a person who can perform a ceremony and essentially remove someone’s sins, leaving them in a state of grace and therefore able to enter heaven – without absolution from a priest.

The synopsis promises that Alex will solve a trail of murders, which does not happen. There are pregnant hints of a “fate worse than death”, which also seems to be a bit lacking. However, that’s mostly down to a really, really bad synopsis.

One major problem – for me – is that the girl, Mara, exists solely to get Alex to do things. When they get to Rome, she does nothing except hang about looking beautiful and tragic, until Alex finally gives in and has sex with her (thus breaking his vow of chastity). She then gets murdered, which prompts him to perform the sin-eater ceremony to take away her sins and allow her to enter heaven. She is, therefore, a typical Hollywood female – she has no personality of her own, and no real role in the action. She could be replaced by a hatstand and the plot wouldn’t be much different. This is pretty disappointing in the 21st century.

Mara aside (and it’s easy to put Mara aside, because she’s a cipher), the real problem with this film was the editing. At the beginning of the film, we see Thomas doing what is presumably an exorcism – he and Alex (along with the now-dead Dominic) are apparently the last three members of the Carolingian Order, the mission of which is supposed to be fighting demons and so on. However, the spooky-quotient of the film is surprisingly low, considering the two main characters are both exorcists. Why are they exorcists if exorcising isn’t a significant part of the plot?

There are a couple of children sitting in Dominic’s workroom – we discover later that they’re demonspawn. However, we never find out why they are there, and Alex doesn’t do anything about them. They could be removed from the film completely, and nothing would change. Either cut them, or do something with them. Don’t leave them looking as though they wandered in from Oliver Twist to look around and couldn’t figure out how to get back out.

Important scenes, such as Alex’s decision to abandon his vocation (surely he tells someone about this?), and the later scene where he reveals the dirty deeds of Cardinal Driscoll (one of the two bad guys) don’t happen on screen. You’re told that they have happened – but these are pivotal moments either in Alex’s development, or in the plot. Why don’t we get to see them? If it had been a book, I’d have been checking page numbers to see if my copy was missing a chunk. Important events need to happen where the audience (or reader) can see them, because these are what gives the plot much of its tension.

It’s revealed near the end that Alex’s parents were both killed by the sin-eater (William) to set him up, in some way, to become the next sin-eater. Dominic was complicit in this, and so was Driscoll. It’s never explained why such steps needed to be taken, or, indeed, why it worked. In fact, apart from a short scene where the child Alex says goodbye to his dead mother, we don’t know anything about Alex’s past at all. Since it turns out to be relevant, surely we should have been given more information? Plus a bit more plausibility would definitely have helped.

What you leave in should be relevant to the plot; what you take out should not leave huge holes in the plot that make the audience wonder just what the hell (!) is going on.

The take-home message is that The Order could have been a brilliant film – but it was ruined by poor editing. To show at its best, therefore, a story not only needs editing – it needs good editing.

Review: Fluid

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Fluid by Alex Hughes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are not many authors whose books (or novellas, in this case) I automatically buy. Alex Hughes is one of them.

I was hooked on this series from the first book, and Fluid carries on the series just as well as I was expecting. The growth of the ebook has had the interesting side-effect of making novellas commercially viable again, so we get to see characters in shorter, more focused situations. This is not to say that Ms Hughes’ writing is habitually less than focused – it’s not – but when you’ve only got 72 pages to play with, you have to get pretty streamlined.

In this novella, we see Adam working with Detective Freeman following the events of Vacant. Anyone who’s read the blurb knows there’s political stuff (dirty cops, being investigated by the murder victim, before he got a bad case of dead). What’s interesting is what Hughes does with it. It’s not so much a murder-mystery as an ethical vignette. Does a victim who was a less than perfect human being still deserve justice? And if not, why don’t we all pack up and go home because who’s perfect? Does the end justify the means? And what is justice anyway? And is justice infinite or is there anyone a certain amount to go round, and therefore it should be doled out where it will do the most good? And whose good are we talking about here anyway? Who has the right to choose?

**If you’re sensitive to spoilers, stop reading here!**







Another interesting thing about this story, and possibly why it’s a novella rather than a full-length book, is that it doesn’t have a happy, tidy, satisfying answer. Good-triumphs-over-evil is a big staple of detective stories: Dorothy L. Sayers even has her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, say (about Harriet Vane, detective novelist accused of murder, whom Peter eventually marries):

“Damn it, she writes detective stories, and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.”

In Fluid, virtue is not triumphant; justice is not achieved. The murderer gets away with it, although the implication is that the dirty policemen (at least some of them) get caught. Adam is left to ponder a situation where a man is dead, and nobody seems to care: politics has won out over justice. And, very personally for Adam, part of the reason nobody seems to care is that the man was an alcoholic – a drug addict. Not terribly dissimilar from Adam himself in a lot of ways.

Fluid is therefore also about the way we dehumanise people whom we perceive as worth less than ourselves: the poor, the homeless, the addicts – and, at the moment – the refugees. We tell ourselves that if they get hurt, or killed, they deserve it. They brought it on themselves. Or at the very least, it was bound to happen because of the way they chose to live. After all, if they just pulled their socks up, tried a bit harder, they wouldn’t be in the fix they’re in. We don’t have to be sympathetic, we don’t have to treat them the way we’d like to be treated, and they certainly don’t deserve the good things that we deserve, like justice.

Justice is for people like us, not people like them.

In FluidAdam gets his face rubbed in that us-and-them attitude, and I wonder how Hughes will take this forward. Will the next full-length book in the Mindspace Investigations series be darker, more ambiguous? Or will Hughes carry on with the detective story in Wimseyesque form, showcasing justice because we need to believe that justice exists for someone, somewhere – even if it’s only in fiction.

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Oh, Author, what have you done to me?

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Labrador puppies: very cute!

Recently, I read the latest book in a series, and it left me feeling… betrayed. It’s as if you’d been using toilet paper all your life and enjoyed watching the adverts featuring happy Labrador puppies, and never realised – until now – that toilet paper was actually made of Labrador puppies, which were skinned alive and left to die in horrible agony to achieve that soft, strong feel. And after finding out about it, you never feel the same way about toilet paper ever again. In fact, you seriously consider not using it any more.

That’s how this book left me feeling.

I’m not saying it was a bad book. In fact, it was quite a good book. But it led me to reassess the main character’s words and actions throughout the rest of the series. I’d thought that she was a person who’d found herself in a position she hadn’t anticipated, and wouldn’t have asked for, but having found herself there had come to terms with it and made a good, happy life for herself.

Then this book comes along. And I find myself wondering, was she happy after all? Or was it just a facade, and she was really increasingly miserable and bitter all along? Was the whole series – which I’d regarded as clever and reasonably cheerful – built on this woman’s hidden misery?

It reminded me of a similar experience when I was a child and I realised that the Narnia books, with their stories of children discovering new worlds and having adventures (mostly the boys, admittedly), weren’t the exciting tales I’d thought. They were, instead, thinly-veiled Christian polemics and the ending was just plain sick (quite apart from the obvious Susan’s-going-to-hell-because-she-likes-lipstick thing, which says a lot more about C.S. Lewis and his attitude to women than it does about poor Susan). There’s something particularly nasty about a book that tries to make you think that three of the main characters dying in a train crash is a happy ending. Or, alternatively, that not having to grow up is a happy ending. But for me, the real shock was that the books were not what I had been led to expect. I’d thought I was having fun, and it turned out that I was being preached at. Silly me for not guessing earlier, I suppose.

There was also a fashion, in the 1980s or 90s, I think, for stories that ended “and s/he woke up and it was all a dream.” At which point, the reader mentally screams “You what? You put me through all that for nothing!” (And I admit that I did it at least once – in my English Language GCSE exam, I think – but it was because I’d run out of time and had to end the story somehow.)

The question becomes, then, when is it right for an author to do that (not counting exams)?

Obviously, a story is the author’s train set, and they can play with it however they want. But if you set up your story in one way, and then don’t deliver, your readers are going to be pretty shocked.

Shocked is sometimes a good thing; it means that author has succeeded in doing something that their readers didn’t predict. But could it have been predicted, or was it just sprung on the unsuspecting readers like an ambush?

Personally, I think that’s the difference between a good shock and a bad one.

Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy would probably be an example of the former. This is not a series I have read, or probably ever will: it chronicles Tris’ development towards understanding the true nature of self-sacrifice. I do not find a lifelong desire to sacrifice oneself for others to be an attractive personality trait, and I don’t really want to read about a young woman spending her life trying to figure out the best reasons for getting herself killed on behalf of others. However, that aside, from what I’ve read, the “switched on” reader should be able to see what Roth is setting up. Tris repeatedly tries to get herself killed, in a number of different ways and for different reasons, but each time she is saved. By the end of the third book, she understands that “sacrifice should come from love, strength and necessity”, and, as she has reached that pinnacle of understanding, Roth allows her to die.

It’s quite brave for an author to kill off a main character, especially in young adult books, as dying isn’t usually on the menu. But, in the case of Divergent, Roth has spent the entire series setting up Tris’ death;  the clues are all right there: Tris wants to die, and she finally achieves it after three books of trying. It’s really the readers’ own expectations – i.e., that the heroines of young adult books should do the socially-expected thing and survive, get married, and have babies – that lead them up the garden path. Kudos to Roth, then, for making it work, for letting readers deceive themselves (despite all the evidence) into believing Tris will get over her obsession with self-sacrifice, or that Roth herself won’t have the guts to kill off her heroine.

On the other hand, you’ve got retcon.

In the series before the book I’ve just read (and which may have scarred me, if not for life, at least for the next month or two), there were no hints whatsoever of what the author pulled in The Last Book. She says she’d been holding onto the possibility of one revelation for years, and did nothing to deliberately confirm or deny. On the one hand, I can see why. On the other, as a reader, I feel betrayed.

Part of the fun of reading (for me) is to see if you can work out what’s coming up next. I love Jim Butcher for this, because you don’t see it going forwards, but you certainly see it looking back. Whenever he springs a surprise on you, you have all the fun of going back and seeing where he’s been carefully setting it up for the last seven books, and you didn’t spot it. So you always wonder, what’s he doing now? Can I guess what this book is setting up for seven books in the future? I don’t know whether Jim thinks his readers are smart enough to spot him doing it, or dumb enough that they won’t – or if he just doesn’t care either way, and only wants to write the best books that he can. But whatever the answer is, he never does the “Oh, that was happening all along – but just never ‘on page’.”

So, for me, the answer is always going to be, yes, do your best to surprise your readers. Do the stage magician thing, and fool them into thinking you’re doing one thing when you’re doing another, or get them looking in one direction while you hastily move things around to avoid having to actually saw your assistant in half (the paperwork would be ghastly, doing it the other way). But your readers should, I think, always be able to go back and see exactly how you fooled them, thereby getting double the fun out of the book.

But to do the “Oh, it was like that all along… didn’t I mention it?” is just wrong. To me, it’s lazy from a writing perspective because the author doesn’t have to do all the work of setting up the illusion (or even any forward planning at all, in particularly bad cases). And as a reader, I hate it because for really big changes, there should have been hints. It just doesn’t play for me, that an entire empire, or an entire relationship, could have been hiding in plain sight through several books without so much as a hint.

But then, that’s just my opinion. 🙂