Indite: a notebook crafted for writers – Adam Simone, Helen Savore

I love notebooks. I mean – LOVE notebooks. I have a huge stash and best intentions to use some before I buy any more, but that would go out of the window in a heartbeat for a physical copy of Indite.

The word means ‘write or compose’, in case you’re wondering, which is exactly what this book is for: custom made for writers, this “notebook with a purpose” is intended to be a “work in progress guide and historical record for your work’s progress”.

It’s split into three sections: craft, scratch, and productivity.

‘Craft’ is about building the foundations of your novel (if it’s a novel you’re planning; I’ll assume!), the plot and characters and so forth. You’re prompted to write your ‘Big Idea’ (a few examples are given, e.g. “a self-aware dog”), ‘Pitch’ (one sentence – go!), and explore your ‘what’ – what is the unknown you’re exploring in your story? What kind of structure and/or device are you using – here’s some blank space to ‘brainstorm’.

At first I thought putting these upfront was a little too soon – especially for the pitch – but the end of the section does have sections for query, hook, basic info etc – so actually I see why the split. You might prefer to fill these sections in later, but actually it’s really useful to have an idea – and written down, not just in your head – of what you intend the story to be. Referring back to this when you get a bit lost in the ‘saggy middle’ is invaluable! Besides, you can always change it later, right?!

Next comes several blank form pages for character sheets and ‘interview’ prompts, and settings sheets – all excellent things to think about, and have as a reference for later. There’s also a blank graph to ‘visualise momentum’ – i.e. plot narrative flow against pacing, looking for anyplace your story drags. To be honest, I felt this page needed a lot more explanation – it’s nice to have it there, but I would have to go look up how to make use out of it.

The middle section (‘Scratch’) is largely a collection of blank pages, several lined and then several dotted. A few of these have prompts, e.g. “Your character opens a door and…”, “Write a story in 100 words or less including these four words…”, “Draw a map that would be relevant to your character”, etc.

The final ‘Productivity’ section includes some writing session logs, space for a to-do list, and asks you to answer some important questions, e.g.: why are you working on this project? What parts of your craft do you want to improve? I really like this: it’s not just plotting or examining your characters, it’s about YOU, the writer, too. I have a feeling reading the answers to these would be highly motivational once the initial shiny glamour has worn off, and the going gets tougher.

I was initially a bit cynical about this book, given it’s 90% white space, really. I’d also have to suggest that it really doesn’t work so well in eBook/electronic format. However, even just reading through (rather than filling it in), I completely came around to the idea of having this kind of log for a writing project. It asks some really great questions, reminds you of several important areas to consider for a project, and generally just felt kind of exciting – a blank map to be filled out, as you start on your writer’s journey!

Very glad I got to have a look, thanks to NetGalley, and looking forward to getting my hands on a physical copy.

NetGalley eARC: ~206 pages
First published: 2017 (expected in May)
Series: Notebooks with a Purpose (www.atomandink.com)
Read from 3rd-10th February 2017

My rating: 8/10

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Slow Bullets – Alastair Reynolds

“My mother had a fondness for poetry.”

During the closing stages of a great war, Scur is captured by a sadistic enemy and left for dead. As she’s the narrator of this short sci-fi tale, obviously that doesn’t go exactly to plan, but when she wakes up it’s not exactly where she might have expected…

This is a relatively short piece, really an extended short story. As such, there’s a limited amount of background or layers to the plot, and rather it’s a simple story told with plenty of room for the reader to fill in some mental gaps.

As a whole, this works well – Reynolds is a great writer, after all. It really only slips for me at the end, which is a rather too-sweeping set of generalisations, which could really spawn a half-dozen further books!

Overall, though, it’s a well-written, rather intriguing slice of sci-fi, if a little heavy on the moralising about war and religion, and how and what we remember – plenty to get your brain going, given the slightness of the volume!

There’s no tie-in to any of the Revelation Space or other work, as far as I’m aware. Short and very readable, if you’ve not tried any of the previous work this isn’t a dreadful place to start, but it really won’t give you the full picture of how good the author can be.

NetGalley eARC: 192 pages
First published: February 2017 (in the UK; 2015 elsewhere)
Series: none
Read from 1st-5th February 2017

My rating: 7/10

Miranda and Caliban – Jacqueline Carey

“I awake to the sound of Papa chanting in the outer courtyard.”

Shakespeare’s Tempest more or less starts with the titular storm wrecking the King of Naples and his retinue on the island ruled by the wizard, Prospero. But what of the years before, between the arrival of Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, and the events told in the play? Jacqueline Carey sets out a plausible take on those years, explaining, perhaps, why Miranda is so obedient to her father’s whims, why Caliban’s hatred of his ‘master’ runs so deep, and why the sprite, Ariel, is so pressing about his release from servitude.

With perfect timing, the RSC had broadcast their new version of The Tempest in cinemas not long after I received this ARC. It’s not one of my favourites from The Bard, I must confess – but perhaps that’s why so many feel driven to expand on the story. It seems that of all Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest is one that inspires a great deal of other works. I recently read the most excellent Coral Bones, a story in the Monstrous Little Voices anthology, which deals with the after-events, as does a previous read, Tad Williams’ Caliban’s Hour. This, however, was the first time I’d seen an attempt at a prequel.

The obvious ‘weakness’, then, is that we know exactly how things are going to end (at least, if you know the play at all!). Carey’s strength as a story teller, however, means that the lead up to the events we already know is full of character development and relationship building. She doesn’t change the play, but she does manage to cast a slightly different light on some of the preconceptions about why things played out as they did.

In particular, she manages to take a story in which I liked almost none of the characters – the sole exception, perhaps, being Ariel, who doesn’t get a particularly good deal here, alas – and give at least the titular two far more rounded, full-formed personalities, with chapters alternating between their points of view. Miranda stops being a complete drip; Caliban is not just a two-dimensional villain. Nothing can be done for Propero, of course – he’s still a dick 😉

As much as I enjoyed this book, that known ending does feel slightly unsatisfying, to me at least, after several hundred pages of build up. But then, that is the perfect time to go and grab Monstrous Little Voices! Still, feeling the need for a ‘next chapter’ did slightly lower my rating here. That said, still a lovely read, and you don’t even need to know a thing about The Tempest to enjoy it.

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 57 chapters
First published: February 2017
Series: none
Read from 11th-10th February 2017

My rating: 7/10

The Fortress at the End of Time – Joe M McDermott

“We are born as memories and meat.”

On graduating from military academy, Ensign Ronaldo Aldo discovers his posting is to the last outpost in human space – the worst fate he can imagine. He steps into a cylinder, sees it fill with gas, and then goes back to his life. At the same moment, a new clone of Aldo wakes up on the edge of the galaxy.

This is the premise of the book: that people no longer travel between the stars, instead through the ‘ansible’ network they send the information needed to fabricate a copy from organic material at the other end. Which is kind of cool, but that’s all you’re going to learn about that, disappointingly.

The story is told in the form of a confession: we know from the outset that Aldo has done something deserving of punishment. His tale goes back to his graduation, then describes his life aboard this orbiting space station, where the biggest danger is suicide, better to show what drove him to whatever terrible transgression he has committed.

Fortress’s strength is the world-building. The bleak despair comes across well, and the setting feels remarkably plausible. The weakness, however, is the characterisations. In particular, our lead is something of an idiot. As his tale progresses – slowly – we still cover several years, but without it feeling like Aldo ever learns anything. He’s a stickler for the rules, he doesn’t gel well with his comrades – and none of that seems to change in the decade or so he’s on board. Hmm.

It also felt like many of the plot threads just didn’t amount to anything. The beginning failed to have much of a purpose, in my view, and really a lot of the rest feels like scene-setting for the sake of it – as I said, this does work in creating a reality, but it’s a bit frustrating in terms of the story. As is the foreshadowing of several things that turn out to be next to nothing, really.

Ultimately, I’d suggest very little happens over the course of the book. Still, I didn’t hate it: there’s a lot of interest to be had thinking about the headspace of a clone, or that of someone who trains for a life the clone will lead, not themselves (disappointingly, little is revealed about what happens to Aldo 1). Life on the edge of the universe is unlikely to be glamorous, and that’s captured well here – even if it doesn’t make for the most fascinating of plot lines.

NetGalley eARC: 272 pages
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 18th January – 1st February 2017

My rating: 6/10 – interesting, but neither gripping nor wholly satisfying

The Undiscovered Goddess – Michelle Colston

“Stylish but Shallow: The upside is you have great taste. The downside is you’re completely shallow.”

When Holly gets the above result from a Cosmo personality test, it somehow hits her harder than the hundreds she’s taken before. And although she’s already started and discarded dozens of self-improvement schemes, this time she’s determined to stick to one, even if it involves death by yoga, herbal supplement-induced diarrhea, or – heavens forbid! – getting outside.

I confess, I picked this up and put it back down quite quickly some time ago – the opening is really not very enthralling. I couldn’t quite figure out if it was fiction (in which case I thought the opening read terribly!) or a non-fiction, in which case the style is a bit more forgivable: first person, confessional-type thing.

Sticking with it – one of my New Year’s resolutions being to finish stuff! – it quickly gets much better, and yes, it’s fiction. It turned out to be an amusing pastiche of self-help books, told through one woman’s journal as she works her way through a life-changing program. Holly, a housewife and mother of three, is living a self-confessed ‘perfect’ life, and yet so miserable she’s a borderline alcoholic with binge-eating issues and a possible child-neglect charge in her future. Likeable? Heck no. But, she is self-deprecating and funny enough in her journals that I didn’t utterly hate her.

Of course, there’s a massive element of wish-fulfillment going on here, and that runs the risk of being irritating. Holly suffers her fair share of disasters, of course, but you know exactly how this is going to work out.

And yet… I still really enjoyed the read! This is so not my choice of genre, but I was obviously in the mood for some light-hearted fluff. More, despite the utter hippy-tastic nature of the book-within-book, I couldn’t help but wish that I, too, could find a self-help tome to make my life that much shinier…! 😉

Rather disappointing that the author hasn’t written anything else, as she has an easy to read style – once you’re past those opening paragraphs, so stick with it!

NetGalley eARC: 327 pages in diary format
First published: 2012
Series: none
Read from 3rd-9th January 2017

My rating: 7/10

The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

“It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.”

Deep in rural Rus(sia) – some 200 years before the rise of Ivan the Terrible – Vasilisa is the youngest child of the local lord, allowed to run somewhat wild after her mother dies in childbirth. Life is hard in the cold North, but Vasya’s (yes, prepare for all those strange Russian pet-name forms!) life only grows difficult with the arrival of her new, young stepmother. The two are the only ones who seem to see the domovoi, the household spirits, but their reactions couldn’t be more different.

When an ambitious and charismatic young priest is sent to the village, hell bent on driving such superstitions out of the local populace, it isn’t long before darker forces begin to gather, looking for a way in…

The Bear and the Nightingale is a lovely mix of a fairy tale and a history lesson. With all the classic elements – evil stepmother, helpful sprites only the heroine can see, etc – it would be easy to turn this into a cosy folklore retelling, which would be interesting enough especially with the Russian setting.

However, the story becomes something that much more powerful by being full of excellent (or so I’m told) historical detail. The sense of this being a real place and period of history stops the fairy tale taking over, giving the whole thing that much of a darker edge.

That too, though, is the weakness. It took me several chapters to settle into reading this, largely because the history and level of detail makes for a rather slow read. As Vasya grows up, there is a very unwelcome hint of sexual violence, particularly as girls became women at an age we’d find shocking now, and just the general less-than-pleasant treatment of women ‘back in the day’ (hah!). That she overcomes so much and remains so staunchly a feminist hero as she takes on all the real and un-real worlds can throw at her just feels a little like wish fulfilment.

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The pacing is a little slow, and the occasional switch of viewpoint doesn’t help with a consistent tone, but overall the world building is superb, and the story both sweetly familiar and nicely just a bit different.

NetGalley eARC: 480 pages / 28 chapters
First published: January 2017
Series: the author says on GoodReads that there will be two sequels – yay!
Read from 22nd November- 6th December 2016

My rating: 8.5/10

Labyrinth: one classic film, 55 sonnets – Anne Corrigan

“Perhaps, in childhood, you a movie saw; the title of said film, ’twas Labyrinth.”

Once in a while something really random catches my eye on Netgalley, such as a book of poetry based on the classic film, Labyrinth (1986). I really loved the concept: the author being a huge fan of the movie (well, who isn’t, quite frankly! :)) found the novelisation (which I didn’t know existed) lacked any of the poetry or visual flair of the screen version, and set out to do her own version.

It’s very true that the movie is worthy inspiration for any number of poems, paintings, and other creative endeavours. However, while this book has flashes of really lovely phrases, I can’t help but think that the author constrained herself too much by (a) choosing the sonnet form, which means 14 lines and a certain amount of iambic pentameter, and (b) retelling the whole movie, faithfully. Sadly the combination can lead to somewhat sticky, clunky rhymes, or scenes that just aren’t that, well, poetic. Is it anti-art to suggest that a focus on the more lyrical moments would have been preferable to trying to shoe-horn in every scene?

That said, there are some quite lovely parts of this, and I particularly liked the moments where the author’s sympathies shine out more than is warranted by the screen version. It’s been too long since I watched the movie, and this was a nice reminder of the story. Perhaps if I were a bigger fan of poetry, or more geeky about the film, I would have gotten more from this book.

NetGalley eArc: 55 pages/sonnets
First published: October 2016
Series: none
Read from 24th-28th October 2016

My rating: 6/10