Sunny sneak peek…

Less than a month now until Edge-Lit, the sci-fi, fantasy and horror fiction convention held annually in Derby (conveniently, about ten miles from my house). I’ve bought my ticket, I’ll be there – partly to see/hear loads of excellent speakers and to stock up on books (obv),  but mainly because Sunny with a Chance of Zombies (published by Knightwatch Press, including my story Run, Rabbit)  is being launched there. Yay!

To whet your appetite (and because I found it online today), here’s a sneak peek of the cover art, by Stephen Cooney:


The book features stories by some fabulous authors – and me, who somehow snuck in there. If comedy zombies are your thing (and let’s face it, what’s not to like?), get in touch with the editor Dion Winton-Polak to preorder your copy. If you do it before Edge-Lit, the attending authors will even sign it for you. (Well, I will, anyway. Possibly whether anyone asks me to or not.)

Sunny with a Chance of Zombies

For the last week I’ve been hopping about with excitement, desperate to celebrate and start shouting about something, but not quite sure whether it was allowed. I hung on, biting my lip, hugging myself with glee and squeaking quietly every so often, waiting for permission – until now, when, with great joy and a nod from the editor, I can announce that I’ve had a short story accepted into an anthology! Sunny With a Chance of Zombies, published by Knightwatch and edited by my online chum Dion Winton-Polak, comes out in July (announced here), and my story Run, Rabbit made it into the final choice of twelve.

Utterly delighted by this – Dion and I have known each other for a while (he used to run the Scrolls podcast at the awesome Geek Syndicate, and I contributed from time to time), and I’m so chuffed to be a part of his latest literary venture, I can’t even tell you. Run, Rabbit is the first properly creative thing I’ve written for ages, and I very nearly didn’t send it off – but so glad I did.

And the best thing of all is that the antho is being launched on 11th July at Edge-Lit 4, Derby’s annual sci-fi, fantasy and horror literature event – which is taking place at Derby Quad, a whole 25 minutes away from my house! I’ve been invited, and I’ll be there with knobs on and a massive stupid grin on my face. In fact, the massive stupid grin is already in place, and will probably stay until July.

2012 in review

So here we are at the tail end of the year. For me and my family, 2012 has been a year of spectacular highs and one or two crushing lows – a weird year in some ways, but it’s been creative and funny and scary and challenging and all of that stuff. In summary:

January was the month of snow, walking to work across drift-covered fields and nervy preparation for our first ever skiing trip in February, which was terrifying and exhilarating and expensive and fabulous and a thing to be repeated when we have saved up again. Real life, school and editing seemed terribly dull on our return.

March disappeared in a blur of school and work stuff (seriously, I’ve been back over my diary, and nothing happened. NOTHING), so we’ll move swiftly on to April, which was Book Club month, the inaugural meeting of a small group of friends from work. We have kept meeting, and during the year we have read a variety of books – not always ones I would have chosen, but isn’t that the point of Book Club? We’ve also had some truly memorable conversations, and not always about the books. Reading ladies of AHS, I salute you and look forward to more in 2013.

April was also the month when I was, rather astonishingly and out of the blue,  commissioned to write a book of my own. Therefore, writing and research in May, burying myself in the ancient and splendid Sussex dialect and peppering my conversation with words like sureleye and pathery. Turns out writing a book is actually quite hard work. Who knew.

June was more writing and great joy when I turned in the manuscript on time, but also sunshine, our brief warm summer, spent at school and guiding Molly through the first real round of her GCSE exams. Not that she needed much guidance; if ever a girl deserved to do well by dint of organisation, application and sheer gutsy hard work it would be my Molly. So proud.

In July I concentrated on getting to the end of the school term without collapsing or killing anyone (dropping my hours to four days a week certainly helped with this), and had a week at home on my own when Tom took the children to the coast (they had already broken up, I was still at school – happens every year). This was at the same time dark, empty and dreadful, and blissful, liberating and QUIET. Then, of course, came the Olympics – a fortnight of marvelling and weeping and laughing and marvelling all over again.

August was Big Theatre month, when we sang and danced and played and acted until we (literally) dropped, and between us produced The Blue Dress, the best show we have ever pulled off. So proud of all the Big Theatre babes, but (naturally) of my own children most of all. We also camped in Yorkshire, spending five wet and windy nights under canvas wondering where the tent was going to spring a leak next (once – memorably – under my bed).

Back to school in September, but as always the bitter pill was sweetened considerably by my birthday on the 11th. Also, I took part in a community performance of Carmina Burana, accompanying an 80-strong choir as part of a semi-pro orchestra brought together for the day. I’ve never been prouder to call myself a violinist.

October was theatre again, recalling the Big Theatre cast and reprising The Blue Dress from the summer for a triumphant three-night run over half term. I also worked through the final edits for the Sussex book, involving lots of to-and-fro between me, the commissioning editor and the designer before we finally arrived at the print draft.

Eventually in November  Sussex Dialect was published, amid a great deal of pink-cheeked grinning on my part. Pity my poor friends and family, who have been forced to read the wretched thing over and over again and answer questions about it. (They haven’t really.) I also took part in my first podcast recording, having a total ball with Dion, Barry and Clo from the Scrolls book group at Geek Syndicate. I definitely want to do more of this.

December, as always, was a frenzy of concerts, school performances and preparations for Christmas, but also, out of nowhere, Wandering Weeds was published, containing a short story of mine which I had more or less given up for lost. Unbelievably happy about this, especially since fantasy fiction is what I really want to be writing. In the absence of any further ideas, though, I also signed a contract to write a Norfolk dialect book. Something of a pattern here.

Through this all I have edited, and written, and knitted, and edited more, and edited a LOT more, and generally wondered where all the work is coming from. If my freelance work continues to gather momentum in 2013 I’ll have to take serious stock of whether my current school commitments are sustainable, but that’s for the future. For now, I’m looking forward to going back to school and getting my teeth into writing Norfolk and editing a couple of novels which are lined up for the early part of 2013. Also, the last two months of 2012 showed an impressive average of a book published a month; I know I can’t sustain this over the next few weeks, but if 2013 can match 2012’s total in terms of publications with my name on (or in) them, I’ll be delighted.

Announcement: Wandering Weeds

So here it is – my exciting announcement, which I’ve been gleefully hugging myself over for a week or so. I had almost given up hope for my little story which I submitted to the Wandering Weeds antho way back (especially since the prospective publisher’s website appears to have been taken down – picture my joy when I discovered that). So I was completely delighted to receive word from Jaleta Clegg and Frances Pauli that the book had snuck out, in print and Kindle, published through CreateSpace and managed independently by the editors.

weedsebookcoversmallI’m so chuffed by this, I can’t even tell you. Fantasy is one of my go-to genres for reading and writing both, and I’m so delighted to have made it into this antho alongside a such a talented bunch of writers. Also, I can’t thank Jaleta and Frances enough. They’ve kept this antho alive through all sorts of backstage stuff which I can only guess at – believe me, bolshy authors have been the least of their troubles – and at the end of the day we (the authors) have come out with a rather better deal than we signed up to in the first place. Way to go, ladies – you’ve done us proud.

The book is available through the usual retailers in both paper and Kindle versions (Amazon US – here and here; Amazon UK – here and here), as well as direct from CreateSpace here. To whip up your enthusiasm even further, this post is part of a bloghop event for the book – you’re already part of it, but do take some time to poke about on the websites of some of the other contributors. Here are the links:

Finally, by way of an advert for the book, here is a short excerpt from my story, Sleeping Beauty – a retelling of the old fairy story that doesn’t have quite the happy ending you might expect.

Part of the enchantment, as I’m sure you know, was the dense hedge of razor thorns that sprang up and enshrouded the palace, sealing the recumbent inhabitants inside and disbarring all from entry. The thorns were as long as your arm, vicious and ragged, saw blade teeth with scalpel edges. The leaves were thick and leathery, darker green than the deepest forest night, and the stems and branches resisted any attempt to hack a path through them, twisting and writhing to trap the unwary or the foolhardy in a verdant tomb.

Those who tried—and many did, my dear, in the early days when folk were still testing the terms of the enchantment—were all beaten back, slashed and twined and strangulated into slinking retreat. Some never got the chance to retreat at all, becoming mired in the twisting growth, impaling themselves on the thorns and bleeding their life out into the roots of the plants. Their shrivelled corpses, sucked dry and gradually turning to dust, hung from the spines that drained them, the tatters of their clothing flapping and whispering like macabre ribbons on a deadly wishing tree.

As the decades passed the number of visitors dwindled, until eventually years might go by with no attempts on the palace at all. Where once there had been the laughter of well-bred maidens, there were no sounds but birdsong, the soft chirr of the wind slicing itself apart on the thorns, and the occasional sigh from the princess and her attendants in their tormented sleep.

However, excitement grew as the centenary of the enchantment approached, and hopeful youths came from far and wide. The beauty of the princess was legendary, as was the wealth of her father, and every boy in every village had heard the tales of the slumbering princess who could only be won after a full hundred years by her true love battling through the thorns and placing a chaste kiss on her soft pink lips.

Millers’ sons came, and farmers’ boys, and blacksmiths’ apprentices, and yeomen’s lads, and noble-born youths, and even a couple of princes. Some were handsome, my dear, and some were rich, some were both and some were neither, but all believed that the thorns would not pierce their tender flesh—or, even if they did, how bad could it possibly be?

Podcast – the Scrolls Book Club

A while ago, shortly after I started using Twitter in any sort of earnest, I fell in with bad company. These people are rude, funny and always online. They read and watch what pleases them, mainly geeky fantasy stuff, and then they write about what they think of it. They are Dion, Barry and Phil, among others, and they are, in short, my sort of people.

They hang out here, where they and loads of others review, argue, interview, podcast and generally get excited about a lot of stuff I like. So I started chatting to them, and … well, long story short, I ended up suggesting a book for an occasional book group podcast hosted by Dion. Before I could say “Joe Abercrombie” I was hooked up to Skype and talking book-related nonsense with Dion, Barry and Dion’s wife Clover about The Heroes.

There are worse ways to spend a Monday evening, let me tell you. I had an absolute blast, and am hoping to strongarm my way back in to be involved in another podcast some time soon. In the meantime, though, the recording is online here. Enjoy, and I’m sorry about the gushy fangirl wittering…

Book Review: Dead Mech by Jake Bible

Dead Mech arrived on my Kindle in the middle of a flurry of online purchasing, when I was doing my usual trick of massively overestimating the number of books I might be able to read during a week’s camping holiday (estimate – seven or eight; buy ten to be on the safe side. Actual – one and a bit). I didn’t buy it entirely blind, however – I looked up Jake Bible on the internet and was intrigued by the idea behind this, the first novel in the Apex trilogy, which is written as a series of drabbles.

For the uninitiated, a drabble is a piece of micro-fiction of exactly one hundred words in length. Along with the current vogue for flash fiction, drabbles represent a fast, modern, digestible way of showcasing a writer’s talent, and would seem to be custom-designed for the internet. Dead Mech represents the first in a new style of book – the drabble novel. That is, a novel-length story written entirely as a sequence of drabbles. The book first existed as a series of podcasts, but was published in 2009 as a full novel.

The story is a post-apocalyptic gore-fest of zombies, Transformer-style technology and big guns. Humanity has been ravaged by a zombie plague, which brings the dead back to life as a mindless ravening horde intent only on feeding from the living. The uninfected huddle together in heavily fortified outposts scattered across a barren wasteland, desperately defending themselves from the undead – and, it turns out, from each other.

The mechs of the title are huge 50-tonne war machines, piloted by men and women who are closely integrated into their hydraulic and robotic technology. The story centres around a small cadre of wise-cracking mech pilots and their support staff, based in a tiny outpost and defending the nearby city/states. However, the living are not the only ones to pilot mechs – when men and women die while piloting their war machines, they come back, and their mechs come back with them. These dead mechs are insane, driven only by their zombie pilots’ hunger for living flesh.

The style of narrative, driven by the drabble structure, is punchy and sharp, and Jake Bible has done a decent job of editing down and staying within his self-imposed hundred-word limit. However, there were significant sacrifices made in terms of lyricism, exposition and description; the staccato style meant that the flow of the story was often compromised, with changes in point of view from one drabble to the next and few descriptive or characterisation passages which would have added a great deal to the world-building.

Having said that, after an initial acclimatisation period and apart from occasional hiccups, the drabble structure became more or less invisible through the middle section of the book. However, the plot is complicated; by the end there were many different groups all fighting the zombies according to their own agendas and with shifting allegiances and alliances. This was hard to keep up with because of the fractured narrative, and my immersion in the story broke down repeatedly as I had to flick back to find out who was about to get blown up by whom, and why.

The manuscript also would have benefitted from at least one more round of editing. There were a significant number of errors in the text, ranging from at least one inconsistent spelling of a character’s name to an unforgiveable and repeated confusion between your and you’re. I also need to point out that while I’m not averse to swearing in books – in fact, I’m very partial to a bit of creative and inventive cursing – I did feel that the swearing in this book was neither inventive, creative nor necessary. Given that the drabble structure imposed a strict word limit on each micro-segment, the author could have saved himself an awful lot of words simply by using the word fuck less often. Just saying.

In summary, then, if you like your fiction fast-paced and full of shooting, stomping, splattering, swearing and zombies, Dead Mech is the book for you. It’s a ripping yarn of a story carried through with a decent amount of aplomb, but for me the book had significant shortcomings in terms of narrative structure and style. I do applaud the author for his discipline and inventiveness in sticking to the drabble structure, but ultimately I don’t think the drabble novel will catch on as a style of literature. I suspect the author also reached this conclusion, because the second and (forthcoming) third books in the Apex trilogy are standard novels – which I may well read, the next time I feel in the mood to splatter a few zombies.

Review: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

So today I finished The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, the middle book in the Kingkiller chronicle. This makes me sad, because Mr Rothfuss seems to have taken a leaf out of George R R Martin’s (very long, impeccably written but unfeasibly complicated) book and decided to wait a couple of years before publishing The Doors of Stone, the final volume in the trilogy.

I’m a sucker for epic fantasy tales which run over many books. I blame my father, who introduced me to Tolkien at an impressionable age – The Lord of the Rings set the bar pretty high, but from there I progressed through David Eddings (the Belgariad and more), Mervyn Peake (Gormenghast, obv), Robert Jordan (the ongoing Wheel of Time epic), Robin Hobb (the Farseer, Liveship and Soldier Son trilogies), Janny Wurts (the also ongoing Wars of Light and Shadow), J V Jones (the Sword of Shadows books), Greg Keyes (the Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series), Joe Abercrombie (The First Law trilogy) – like most of these authors, I could go on. And on. And on and on and on.

Some of these series are better than others, of course, but they all grabbed and held my attention through more than one volume, often into three, four or more. Some of them did lose their way a little – I will admit that I haven’t read the latest few Wheel of Time books (I believe there are more than a hundred now*), and I almost didn’t finish The Born Queen, the last in Greg Keyes’ KoT&B cycle. However, I do love to be immersed in a well-crafted and complex world with characters I know, and all these series (and many others) have done that to a greater or a lesser extent.

Some, however, stand out. Tolkien, of course (the daddy), and Peake, for his Gothic grotesques, and I was obsessed by Janny Wurts’ lush description and tortured characterisations for a long time. Joe Abercrombie’s casual, graphic but somehow sympathetic violence left me breathless, and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen took me in a whole different direction, into a messy, complicated world where conventions are overturned and central characters are bumped off with alarming regularity.

Most recently, however, I’ve been living in Westeros, with Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister and the rest of George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire cast (and I don’t just mean on television, either) (although that too, obviously. Mmm, Jon Snow…). Then, when I finished A Dance With Dragons and arrived at the terrible realisation that I have to wait AT LEAST TWO YEARS for the next book in the sequence, I picked up The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss’ sequel to The Name of the Wind and the middle book of the Kingkiller chronicle.

And oh my word, I’m bereft all over again. Kvothe, the unreliable, anti-heroic, proud, self-deprecating and precocious narrator of his own story, is at different times infuriating, pompous, naïve and prickly, but at all times he is aware of his own deeply flawed nature, and Rothfuss’ writing is supremely sympathetic – even when I want to slap Kvothe and tell him to get over himself, I also want to go out drinking with him and persuade him to write a song for me.

The story is told in the first person – the conceit is that Kvothe, trouper, student, arcanist and general trouble-maker, is now retired to a village in the middle of nowhere and has assumed the simple anonymity of an innkeeper named Kote. However, he is persuaded to relate his tale to a Chronicler of stories, setting down a true version of events as a counterpoint to the wildly embroidered and exaggerated tales of his exploits that circulate around him. As with any first-person narrative, this gives us a privileged view of Kvothe’s retrospective motives and uncertainties, but there are also third-person interludes during which we meet the Chronicler and some locals, as well as Bast, Kvothe’s student/companion and (evidently, apparently) a mysterious creature of the Fae. During these interludes there are fights, arguments and all manner of hints and clues, but (as yet) no firm information about how Kvothe became Kote – and as everyone knows, names are important things.

The huge cast of supporting characters is equally well-drawn – in fact, one of my (small) criticisms of the books is that characters are created in minute detail, the reader gets to know them, and then they disappear as Kvothe moves on. Rothfuss’ world is becoming increasingly complex as the books progress, and Kvothe’s passage through it is at once disruptive, infuriating and nail-biting – we cheer him on as he makes mistakes and wrong-headed decisions, gets trapped in seemingly impossible situations and offends the wrong people YET AGAIN.

A bit of internet research has revealed a wide and active fan community, constantly engaged in speculation, deconstruction and discussion of the books’ massive complexity and Rothfuss’ confusing, maddening, intriguing hints and plotline machinations. I’m avoiding those discussions here because they are available elsewhere if you want them, and because spoilers are unpleasant things if you’re not expecting them.

The third and final book, The Doors of Stone, is due – when? Sometime, maybe; apparently it’s written, but Rothfuss likes to take his time with the editing process. I appreciate that, but please – not four years, like the gap between The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. In the meantime I’m in limbo, missing Kvothe, wondering what he’s up to and how his life unravelled badly enough to deposit him in the obscurity of a countryside inn – and for him to be apparently content in (or resigned to) that state of affairs.

The best books leave one like this – missing the characters like old and dear friends, looking forward to their next visit, half-wanting to live in their world. However long Rothfuss takes over The Doors of Stone, I’m certain it’ll be worth the wait.

*Not really. The fourteenth and (we are assured) final book is due out next year.