Archive for September, 2011

Windows 7 for idiots.

Windows 7 for REAL idiots.

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Earth’s Children Six Not Very Good: Earth Still Not Flat

Before I bought “The Land of Painted Caves”, I had a quick look at the Amazon reviews first. Why I did this, I can’t say. After slogging through the first five instalments, there was never any doubt that I was going to buy this one as well. But I’m quite pleased I did, because it’s been a while since I’ve seen that level of vitriol directed at…well, to be honest, at anything.

“I waited years for this book and I was so excited,” wailed Mette. “This book is just depressing”, said Gobecgo. Great exception was taken to an excessive use of The Mother Song (“This has 35 verses (I counted) and it was repeated in full three times with extracts scattered throughout” noted M). While there is the odd lone voice gallantly trying to redeem the book (“There is not a mediocre book in the set!!!” insisted Janesk7), the general consensus is one of deep sadness, accompanied by genuine surprise.

I’m not going to go against the flow and try to argue that “Painted Caves” is somehow a work of tragically misunderstood genius. In fact, I’ll agree with everything the reviewers have said. It is slow-moving. There is a lot – no, really, a lot – of repetition. The Mother Song is utter drivel, the central characters ceased being in any way interesting about a thousand pages ago, and there are entire sections that read more like the Rough Guide To Paleolithic France than a work of imaginative fiction. The only thing I can’t understand is why anyone was even faintly taken aback by this. “Painted Caves” is exactly what I was expecting.

It’s not really possible to explain why I think the problems with “Painted Caves” are so entirely predictable without describing the other books first, so here’s a quick tour of the preceding five books in the Earth’s Children series. The series is set in the Upper Paleolithic era. The earth is in the grip of an Ice Age, and two species of humans – Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons – are busy figuring out who will inherit the Earth. One of these five books is brilliant. Guess which one.

Here’s the thing, you see. Auel did a lot of research before writing her first book; she did survival courses, learned from experts in Aboriginal culture, and probably went camping a lot. Although some of her basic premises (for example, the idea that the Neanderthals were basically silent and communicated through signs) have since been challenged by new research, at the time they represented cutting-edge thinking about the origins of human civilisation. And that’s what really makes the first book completely compelling. Because it’s Ayla’s journey through childhood, its large amounts of exposition and description make narrative sense. Ayla takes us into an ancient, primordial world – the world we all ultimately come from – and it’s a really amazing read.

The other dynamic which makes the first book great is that, while we know the Cro-Magnons win in the end, there’s simply no way Ayla is going to survive unless she suppresses her Cro-Magnon traits and adapts to Clan society. The attributes we, as readers, admire – her resourcefulness, her intelligence, her adaptability – are frowned on by the Clan, which has strict segregation of roles by gender and is genetically incapable of learning new ideas. Even though Ayla is beautiful by our standards, to the Clan she’s “big and ugly”. While we’re rooting for her, they’re frowning at her as unwomanly and “non-Clan”. It’s a great plot device, that gives the story an enormous, nail-biting tension.

In the first book, nothing comes easily to Ayla. She is constantly battling to balance her innate difference with the need to conform. In a particularly painful episode, she is raped by a Clan man, conceiving the baby she desperately longs for. Her child (half-Clan, half-Cro-Magnon) is clearly the genetic hope of the Clan, since children like him are the only way their gene-pool will make it into the future. But since he appears “deformed”, her son comes perilously close to being condemned to death.

This episode is the book in microcosm – the battle between the old and the new, the reluctance to accept difference, and the precarious balance that finally allows Durc to survive. And when Ayla is finally thrown out of the Clan at the end of the first book (sorry to spoil, but that’s what happens), it’s a genuinely great moment. Plus, it’s a magnificent set-up for a sequel.

Which…is inevitably disappointing.

“The Valley of Horses” is, essentially, a Caveman bodice-ripper. It describes the glacially slow but inevitable coming-together of Jondalar (who is undertaking a sort of Ice-Age Grand Tour with his brother Thonalan) and Ayla. Jondalar and Thonalan walk the earth, meet people, discover stuff, have adventures, and have really quite a lot of sex.

Oh God, the Caveman Sex. If you’re of a nervous disposition, look away now.

So here’s the deal. In Book One, Jean shows us Clan society, where any man can have sex with any woman he fancies, in a process described as “relieving his needs”. Obviously, That Shit Ain’t Right. So by way of compensation, in Book Two we get a Cro-Magnon society which is its polar opposite. Specifically, we get Jondalar. Jondalar is six foot tall with blond hair, blue eyes and a big knob. The big knob part isn’t just my wistful fantasy; it’s an important plot-point. Several episodes are devoted entirely to the enormous enormity of Jondalar’s enormous knob, and how he somehow feels the sex he has is never quite as good as it might be if he could get it all the way in (I’m not making this up, I swear), and how he wonders if one day he will find a woman who can take all of him that’s on offer. All of this is described in a weird combination of Solemn Capitalisation and yucky anatomical detail. Sex scenes in books normally cheer me up immensely, but these just squitted me right out. (Note for the future: when I am King, it will be illegal to Mis-use Capital Letters To Try And Make Your Gratuitous Sex Scene Sound More Like An Important Religious Ritual And Less Like Soft Porn. And anyone describing a character’s vagina as “The warm, yielding Centre of her Womanhood” will be taken out back and shot.)

So, Jondalar and Thonalan wander the earth, spreading the seed and meeting new people. Meanwhile, Ayla is living alone, and busily turning into the world’s first Mary-Sue. She discovers how to make sparks with iron pyrites and flint, thus eliminating the need for twirly sticks when making fire. She tames the first horse, and then gets all uppity and tames the first cat (in fact, the first Cave Lion). She builds the first prey-catching pit. She cooks delicious meals. How could any man resist? And, when Jondalar arrives after his extended humping tour of Ice-Age France and Ayla rescues him from a Cave Lion (sadly, Thonalan gets eaten, but if you’re anything like me, you won’t care), he is duly smitten.

There is then a whole lot of really very tiresome stuff where Jondalar teaches Ayla to speak using words. (The Clan, being basically silent, use sign-language.) Even Auel gets bored of this in the end, and Ayla has some sort of convenient dream-based brainstorm and wakes up with a perfect command of Cro-Magnon language. Then, just to spin things out a little, there’s all this confusion about sexual signals. Even while the two central characters are busy wanking in the woods (Jondalar) and lying awake at night wondering why, oh why, he doesn’t fancy her (Ayla), we can all see the inevitable union lumbering painfully over the horizon, and when they do finally get down to business, you wonder how it could get any more irritating.

And then…they have sex for the first time. Did I mention that Jondalar has a really big knob? Well, I now have to break it to you that the reason Ayla and Jondalar are clearly, like, destined for each other is because she is able to fit all of his outsized manhood inside her Magical Cave Of Wonders.

I know. Sorry, but it’s true.

See, as long as Ayla is struggling to adapt and survive, the story is fascinating. When she’s doing really well and having fun (and especially when she’s being given Pleasures by her dream man) the story is tiresome. There’s no narrative tension or fear to overcome the essential clunkiness of the writing style. Also, since this is Ayla’s journey, every time something new is needed for the story (like a tame horse), Ayla inevitably has to be the first person to discover it; which makes her unbearably talented, clever and beautiful.

The tiresomeness continues on down the quality curve throughout “The Mammoth Hunters”, when Ayla meets the Mamutoi and reveals yet more new talents. Now she can psychically track animals, and see the future. Every man who lays eyes on her fancies her. She tames a wolf-cub, thus inventing Man’s Best Friend. There is a really dull Edward-and-Bella-and-Jacob style sub-plot where Ayla briefly gets together with Ranec (the world’s first Token Black Guy), because she doesn’t think she’s worthy of Jondalar and he doesn’t think he’s worthy of her; but then they are reunited after all, even though Ranec is clearly a better bet, because their love is So True (and, presumably, because Jondalar’s knob is just that big). If your taste in erotic writing runs to a lot of Unnecessary Capitals, pulsing pink flowers scented with salt and honey, and pillars of throbbing maleness, well, you’re going to enjoy this book very much indeed. I’ll be the first to admit that’s a pretty big If.

“The Mammoth Hunters” ends with the happy couple setting off for Jondalar’s home. In “The Plains of Passage”, they meet a lot of other people who aren’t as nice as the Mamutoi, but are, generally speaking, in awe of Ayla and her tame horses and her tame wolf and her healing skills and her language skills and her beauty and her capacious vagina. (Okay, I made the last bit up.) They go along and they go along and they go along, Henny-Penny style, until they finally arrive at Jondalar’s place.

Guess where Jondalar’s family live. Go on. Where do they live? Where’s the only possible place the worthy mate of Proto-Mary-Sue? They live in the Caves at Lascaux. Seriously. Ayla’s man is a high-ranking member of the world’s most famous and gifted Cavemen ever. Holy-Paleolithic-Sparklemotion-Awesomesauce!!!

We’ve now reached the absolute bottom of the quality curve; if you can deal with this, I promise it won’t get any worse. Ayla’s Mary-Sueness is now in full flower. This entire seven-hundred-page book is about how all the girls are jealous and all the men are horny and all the elders are suspicious and the High Priestess wants to train her as her successor and Ayla gets a minor amount of teenage-style grief off Jondalar’s ex-girlfriend but she wins them all over by her unquestioning goodness and talent and beauty and really, you’ll probably want to kill her, but it’s still kind of fun, in a strange and dreadful way. It was during this book that I invented Auel Bingo, where you count off how many of the following events occur in any given chapter. 1) Someone meets, and is surprised by, Ayla’s tame wolf. 2) Someone meets, and is surprised by, Ayla’s tame horses. 3) Someone notices Ayla has a foreign accent. 4) Someone notices Ayla is really hot, and wants to get her deerskins off. 5) Ayla does something awesome, then explains that she got to be so awesome from living with the Clan. 6) At least one character is referred to by an incredibly clunky and burdensome name, e.g. The One Who Was First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother. 7) Ayla and Jondalar Have Sex and it makes your toes curl in a bad way. If you tick off all seven, you’re allowed to yell “House!” and run down the road to buy chocolate. The book ends with Ayla’s Matrimonial, where she is pregnant (naturally), and all the men are still lusting after her and Jondalar’s ex is still jealous.

As Ayla and Jondalar wander off into the chilly ice-age sunset, it’s all over. There can be no more. The reason why most stories stop at the wedding is because after that, they either live happily ever after, which is boring, or they don’t live happily ever after, which upsets the fans.

And then, for no good reason that I can account for, since after five best-sellers she must, must have made enough money to not need to do it, Jean Auel wrote another.

So, firstly, “Painted Caves” is largely boring. But of course it is! Ayla is juggling a baby, a home, a husband and a job (she’s training to be a Priestess). How is it fair to expect her and Jondalar to go off and have adventures on top of everything else? Secondly, there is a lot of wandering around caves, looking at paintings. Well, duh. If there’s one thing the first five books taught us, it’s that Jean Auel is not one to hold back on sharing the fruits of her research. If she’s been lucky enough to get an insider’s tour of the Lascaux caves, you’d better believe we’re all going to be reading a whole lot about what they look like.

Thirdly, a lot of reviewers seem to have taken exception to the end-of-book drama moment, where both Jondalar and Ayla have affairs. Once again I say to you; duh. Sometimes, this is what happens. Life is hard. People are weak. Marriage takes work. Sometimes we slip. And let’s face it, there’s plenty of evidence from the first four books that Jondalar and Ayla really, really suck at communicating with each other.

The other major theme of the review firestorm is the book’s repetitiveness, and I will admit that if you want to play Auel Bingo, this is definitely the best book to play it with. The basic narrative unit goes like this. Ayla and her crew rock up to some new location; there are many, many ponderous introductions; everyone is struck with Ayla’s foreignness / hotness / animal-controllingness / other miscellaneous awesomeness; Ayla tells her origin story; lather; rinse; repeat. If you turned Auel Bingo into a drinking game, you could probably be calling people up to tell them you loved them and staggering into doorframes within the first six chapters.

But, again – this was all entirely predictable from the previous book. The only difference between “Shelters of Stone” and “Painted Caves” is that, since Ayla has now been accepted by Jondalar’s family and they have got married, there’s even less going on than there was last time. Again, people, what did you think was going to happen? And yes yes yes, I know you all had much better ideas for sequels (Ayla’s half-Clan son Durc shows up; Ayla meets someone from her original tribe; there is some sort of Clan / Zelandonii war), but that’s clearly not how Jean Auel wants to play it. Since the very first book, we’ve all known what Ayla wants; she wants to be a Medicine woman, have her own home, get married and have babies. The entire narrative drive of the intervening four-thousand-and-odd pages has been leading her towards this destination. Why act all hurt and upset because she finally got there?

So, yeah; that’s “The Land of Painted Caves”; a lot of tiresome domestic detail, a dollop of marital unhappiness, and a lot of stuff about cave-paintings that would have been much better if they’d just bitten the bullet and put in a Photograph section in the middle. It’s not good. In fact, it’s really, really bad, and I’m not trying to defend it. It’s just not actually any worse than the last one.

You may now ask the really obvious question. Dear Cassandra. If you knew this book would be crap, and did not think much of the previous ones either (the brilliant opening book excepted), whatever possessed you to spend more than ten of your fine English pounds downloading the thing onto your Kindle? The only answer I have is, Why do people run marathons? All that pain and misery for the debatable pleasure of saying, “I did it”. I didn’t especially enjoy “Painted Caves”, but by God, at least I finished it. I’m expecting to receive my medal in the post.

If you’re only going to read one book by Jean Auel, then it should unquestionably be “The Clan of the Cave Bear“. If you only read two, then the second one should be “The Valley of Horses“. But if you, like me, get suckered in and feel compelled to finish this marathon, then “The Land of Painted Caves” is available from Amazon for £10.99 for the Kindle edition or £10.79 for the book. My advice is to save a tree and go for the Kindle edition. The planet will thank you in the long run.

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And they said making cheap smutty jokes would never get anyone a job in the real world.

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In Which Self-Publishing Comes Of Age

It’s past September 14th, hooray! That means I can post my review of “The Atheist’s Daughter” – the book I’ve fallen madly in love with in the last couple of weeks, and which I got a sneak preview of so I could review it, and which has just – just – been published.

In the small, insular town of Ashfork, Kristin Faraday lives an isolated and penniless life with her single mother Becky – an adorable but feckless artist, who Kristin seems to end up parenting quite a lot of the time. Her adolescence has been difficult and lonely. Apart from two close friends, she feels disconnected from the rest of her peer-group, and longs to escape. Then, a group of oddly-assorted people arranged into a loose approximation of family move into town, and Kristin realises there is something sinister about them…

If you’re thinking these ingredients sound familiar, well, you’re probably not wrong. This is described by its authors (Renee Harrell being the nom du plume of a well-established writing partnership) as being “a supernatural thriller, posing as a Young Adult paranormal novel, written for a crossover audience”. The YA crossover genre is probably best known for the love-it-hate-it-please-God-make-it-stop trainwreck that was the Twilight saga, and every element I’ve mentioned above appears in Meyer’s books. Here’s why “The Atheist’s Daughter” is orders of magnitude better.

See, I have a theory. (I promise it doesn’t involve the relative width of brontosauruses at various points along their length.) With genre fiction, it’s not just about the basic ingredients; these are pretty much determined from the start. The magic, or lack of it, comes from what you do with them. With “Twilight”, Meyer took the basic YA / Supernatural elements of disconnected teens, small-town weirdness, one-sided romance, unexpected Speshul skills and vampy bad guys, and made this huge, syrupy, sugary, over-decorated…thing. And suddenly everywhere you looked, there it was, sickly and enormous and heavily promoted. And we were all seduced by its promises of oozing sweetness, and we ate it and ate it and ate it, even though it made us sick, forcing ourselves to go on to the end even though we’d had more than enough after the first five mouthfuls, because after all, we’d paid for it now, right? And then after we finished we all thought, “Shit. Really shouldn’t have done that” and had to go and lie down for a couple of hours and then exist on a Spartan diet of something very sour and indigestible, like James Joyce or something, for at least two weeks afterwards.

And then, sometimes, it goes the other way. Sometimes, you’re just wandering round town one day, and you spot a lovely little patisserie you’ve never even heard of before. So you go in, and you know what? They have something that looks sort of like that obscenity-in-carbs you got at Meyer’s Sickening Cakes the other week. Only this one, “The Atheist’s Daughter”, looks…different. It looks better. In fact, it looks downright gorgeous. The person who made this cake made it with love, and skill, and attention. It’s beautifully crafted, resting in its little paper case like a work of art. When your teeth sink into it, it’s got texture and bite. Its flavours are complex and tantalising. You eat it slowly, so you can savour it. When you’ve finished it, you lick your fingers clean, and then find you want another one. And you have this huge urge to go out and tell everyone you know about this fantastic, gorgeous little place you have just personally discovered.

Okay, so maybe my English teacher was right when he took to writing “Blimey” in the margins of my essays whenever I came up with a particularly purple metaphor.

I’ll try again. Let’s stop talking about cake (although I do like cake. If you feel like talking more about cake, click here or here, or maybe even here) and talk about the things that make “The Atheist’s Daughter” such a brilliant read.

I’m going to start with the heroine, Kristin. Like Bella, or Buffy, or Katniss, or Aislinn, or any other of the recent generation of YA heroines, Kristin has a gift. Hers is that she can see when people are lying. When someone tells a lie, she experiences an especially frightening vision where their mouths appear to disappear behind an overgrowth of skin.

Speshulness is, of course, a required trope of the genre. What makes this interpretation of Speshul so great is what happens to Kristin as a result. Instead of having every boy who lays eyes on her fall in love with her (or, indeed, leading a bloody revolution or enjoying a disturbingly intimate relationship with her teacher) Kristin’s talent lands her in a mental institution. She loses an entire year of her life – only finally being released when she learns how to muffle her screams when she sees someone’s mouth disappear from view. When she gets out, she’s the official Town Madwoman, and even fewer people want to be her friend than they did before, and her life is even lonelier than before she was admitted. Now, this is exactly what you’d expect to happen to a real-life girl with psychotic hallucinations. But it’s not what you’d expect to happen to a supernatural heroine. The clever trick here is that it fits perfectly into the plot, and is also convincing.

Next, there’s the bad guys. They’re not exactly vampires, but they’re definitely on the spectrum…Vampesque, possibly? Vamp-ish? I don’t know. Point is, most authors who do the not-exactly-Vampires trick like to pick the nice bits; the insane good looks, the effortless charm, the super-strength and super-speed and super-fuckableness and the epic, turbo-charged moping. Mrs Norton and her crew, by contrast, have all the horrible bits. The absence of compassion. The utter, utter selfishness (their alliance, like anything built entirely on self-interest, is clearly an uneasy one). The tendency to regard humans as prey. The consuming and relentless hunger. It’s hard for a YA novel to have scenes which are genuinely chilling to an adult reader while remaining age-appropriate, but this book pulls it off. Like all truly great horror writing, the writing takes us right up to the edge of the terror and then tantalisingly pulls away again, leaving just enough detail for the reader to fill in the blanks with awful stuff.

So, that’s the heroine and the bad guys taken care of. Time to talk about the other characters, and I’m going to start with the mother. Again, the YA genre dictates that the heroine’s parents must be either hopelessly ditsy (so the heroine can sneak out every night and fight bad guys without her parents caring or indeed noticing), or tragically dead (so the heroine can sneak out every night and fight bad guys without her parents caring or indeed noticing). Kristin has one of each, which is perfectly fair. But, for the first time ever, Kristin’s mother has a character.

I think this is so cool that I’m going to say it again; Kristin’s mother has a character. She might be a bit impractical with money and a lousy cook, but she also loves her daughter, fiercely and without limits. In fact, it’s not giving too much away to say that her daughter is only alive at all because of her mother’s wild-eyed, monomaniac, mama-bear love. Kristin’s mother, in fact…is a mother. A believable, functioning, flawed, human mother. I honestly can’t think of another YA story containing a woman like Becky Faraday.

Similarly, although Kristin’s father is the obligatory headstone in the local graveyard, his death isn’t just the typical convenient off-screen accident. In fact, the occasion [must not spoil] and the manner [no, really, must not spoil] of his death [trying so desperately hard not to spoil here] is, to be honest, [can’t – stop – the spoiling!] sort of integral [forgive me, Father, for I fear I may have spoiled] to the entire plot [okay, I’m stopping there].

Then, there are the BFFs. Kristin’s two sidekicks are the frankly rather scrumptious Gideon Hawkins (and damn, but I totally would) and Liz, a pleasingly self-aware airhead who turns up about halfway through. (One small criticism; Liz arrives rather too late in the story to feel as integral as she really ought to.) But that’s a detail. The key word here is pleasing. She’s fun to read about. I can see why Kristin likes her. Shucks, I like her myself. She brings a lovely, girly frivolity to proceedings. But she’s not just there to be someone more shallow / worse at fighting / less pretty than the heroine. She’s actually important to the plot. In “Twilight”, Meyer could have changed the names, appearance and defining personality traits of every single one of her sidekick characters on a chapter-by-chapter basis, and I honestly don’t think I would have noticed. By contrast, if you take Liz out of the story, the plot simply doesn’t work. Absolutely nothing in this book is extraneous.

And as for Gideon…well, can I say how much I love it that the obligatory one-way swooning is Kristin’s love for Gideon, rather than Gideon’s love for Kristin? Or that the elements that keep them apart are explained by stuff that happens in the story? Again, I can’t tell you too much about this; the fun of seeing the authors’ meticulous plot unfolding around you like a fantastically good piece of origami is just too good to ruin. But trust me, when you get to it, you’ll be smacking yourself on the forehead and going, “Oh, of course! Blimey! But – that’s so clever…!”

I’m going to close with a couple of zeitgeisty observations regarding the book-publishing industry. First off, “The Atheist’s Daughter” is self-published, and not because the authors couldn’t find a publisher. They successfully placed the manuscript; but they made a conscious choice to go it alone. I was so intrigued by this that I asked them why, and the answer was illuminating. Basically, they chose self-publishing because they wanted to retain creative control of their book.

Historically, the ability of the author to write whatever the hell they wanted to has been one of the risks of buying self-published fiction. When you bought self-published, you might have been getting access to a work that the publishing industry was just too dumb to appreciate. However, the more realistic possibility was that you were buying a book that no-one in their right mind but the author would publish. But these days, self-publishing is a decision that’s being made by, you know, good authors. Authors who could have a conventional publishing deal if they wanted one. People, in short, who can actually write.

Which brings me to my second zeitgeist observation. I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of this lovely, brilliant, well-crafted book solely because of its title. I happened across it via a Facebook shout-out, looking for bloggers who would be willing to review it. Apparently, established reviewers were turning it down because it contained, in its title, the word Atheist.

Atheist, atheist, atheist. Three syllables, an excess of vowels, and just for the record, I am one. Is this word, this concept, really so offensive? Well, apparently, in the US the answer is yes. This word is so charged, so politically sensitive, that conservative reviewers refused to review it in case it contains stuff about atheism, and liberal reviewers turned it down in case it contains stuff about God. Being British, I find this astounding. Commitment to a defined theological position – whether that position is “God is great” or “God is a myth” – is something I completely understand. But refusing to even read something because its title contains the ‘A’ word? Srsly?

Yah, well, they’re all missing out, those strangely blinkered idiots on both sides of the debate. No doubt a conventional publisher would have changed that title, and probably had a good old fiddle around with the rest of the book as well. Would it have been better for being packaged, renamed and edited by a third party? In this case, I’m struggling to see how.

I don’t think self-publishing is going to replace the conventional route to market any time soon. Most of us (like me) don’t know enough about how the book market works to even think about taking on the mind-boggling amount of work needed to effectively promote and distribute a book. Many more of us (me again) need the discipline of a damn good editing to stop us from waffling on and on and on and on and on and on and on, until our readers scream and throw the book at the wall and run away with their coats over their heads. But it’s definitely an industry that’s coming of age, and “The Atheist’s Daughter” is part of that. I admire the Renee Harrell team for publishing “The Atheist’s Daughter” themselves, with the title they chose, and with the words they chose, in the order they chose, and then taking on all the skilled and difficult work of promotion and distribution. I admire them for producing a book that’s so tightly-plotted, and written with such elegant economy, without the support given to most authors of a skilled editor. Most of all, I admire them for opening an intime little bistro rather than a soulless by-the-numbers franchise. And I’m thrilled that, for once in my late-majority, late-to-the-meme existence, I get to be one of the lucky people sharing the news.

“The Atheist’s Daughter” is available from Amazon.co.uk as a Kindle edition priced £1.71, and Amazon.com for $10.99 in paperback or $2.72 for your Kindle. To learn more about the fantastic team behind Renee Harrell, you can swing by their blog at marsneedswriters.com

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So the thing is, when I originally wrote New World Fairy Tales, they were written as presents for friends and family, and for the sheer pleasure of writing them. Although I entered them into the Scott Prize, it was a big surprise to me when I made the shortlist. And until the moment when they announced me as one of the winners, I never expected the Fairy Tales to actually be published.

But of course, that didn’t stop me from picturing possible book covers in my head.

Despite never expecting publication, I had some very definite ideas about what I wanted my won’t-ever-actually-be-needed book cover to look like. It would have a slightly faded, muted colour-palette, in greens and golds and pinks and browns. There would be some sort of striking central image, although I was rather hazy on what that image might actually be; but it would be definitely something that was at once beautiful, retro and faintly disturbing. The title would be in a pretty, curlicued font, and the whole thing would have a vaguely antiquey feel. Best of all, it would have My Name at the top. In BIG letters.

At the risk of making this whole entry sound like a bad magic trick, I can confirm that until this moment, I have honestly never told anyone about this. My vision for the cover of New World Fairy Tales has never left the confines of my head.

And then, the draft cover – my draft cover – the draft cover for My Book, the book I never thought would actually be published, but loved and worked on anyway, just because it made me happy – arrived on my Facebook feed. And here it is:

I actually burst into tears when I saw it. It’s not often that life turns out exactly the way you dreamed about it, but this definitely one of those times. I can only conclude that somebody at Salt is psychic.

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…and the last 6% we just culled.

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Before I Mortally Offend A Mate, I Feel I Should Begin By Defining What I Mean By “Trash”

So, here’s why I call my reviews “Adventures in Trash”. For the purposes of this blog, I like to focus on Genre fiction. I’m not actually implying I think these books are trash (although when I review one I do think is crap – as when my friend Heidi reviewed Lair of the White Worm – I promise I’ll say so). It’s more in the nature of a reclamation exercise. If Genre books are trashy, then God damn, I guess trash must be far more fun than we all ever imagined; and I shall celebrate the word “Trash” as often as possible, because I don’t think writing Trash should be anything to be ashamed of. So there.

Okay, now that’s out of the way, I can get on and review “Perfect World” by AJ Kirby. “Perfect World” is set in a futuristic English landscape, and it has by far the best high-concept opening I’ve seen in years. Sitting on the Bullet Train between a seedy, scruffy London and the West Country, Toby Hewitt writes the first line of the greatest scoop of his career; “I found God yesterday, happily retired in Elegant.”

Honestly, that’s pretty much all this story had to do to get me hooked. God is living among us! The protagonist is actually going to meet him! If the premise of a man discovering that God has retired to Cornwall doesn’t grab you, then maybe this whole Science-fiction thang isn’t really for you.

Of course, there’s even more going on here than this outrageously good opening premise suggests. God, in this instance, is the creator of Perfect World, a virtual-reality construct that has evolved so rapidly and proliferated so hugely that it’s now possible to live an entire life within its confines. Perfect World has its own economy; you can get a job, buy a house, open a business. In Perfect World you can even get married. Toby has a Perfect marriage to a woman called Hakura – a relationship which, since they’ve never met in Reality, is conducted entirely through their respective avatars. And, most disturbingly, in Perfect World you can also lose it all, and end up living in digital squalor, a member of a virtual underclass, forever denied access to the consumerist pleasures of digital reality.

That’s what I like the most about the Perfect World concept, actually – how quickly the problems of this world seem to have been transported over there. When Toby visits his virtual flat to escape his boring train journey, he’s immediately occupied by mundane tasks. He deals with the junk mail (pleasingly, God decided He would make this appear as actual cans of Spam). He checks the fridge. He opens his mail. He has a low-grade argument with his wife about a speeding ticket, and they talk about the cost of the new, much better fridge they’re getting delivered that afternoon and who is going to wait in to check it’s installed properly. Of course, his apartment is far nicer than he could afford back in Reality, and he has actually managed to persuade a woman to marry him. But it’s quite satisfying that – even when we get to create our own world entirely from scratch and can do whatever the hell we like – we still give ourselves pointless and menial household chores, annoying delivery men, and household appliances with built-in obsolescence.

From this fantastic opening, the book gallops along with the speed and dizzying swerves of a racehorse on acid. While getting off the Bullet train, Toby accidentally picks a fight with a man in a sharp suit sitting opposite him, gets knocked out, and has to be rescued by God’s carer, Dr Griffin. Dr Griffin takes Toby to Elegant (a future incarnation of the Heligan estate???), and Toby achieves his ambition to meet God. Alas, God is now a sad, confused and possibly even senile old man, disenchanted with His own creation. And when Toby next checks in on his Perfect residence, he finds Hakura has been attacked by a man named Mr Addam…

Part of the joy of reading this story is the twists and turns of its plot, so I won’t spoil it for you by sharing any more. It explores the big stuff (the consequences of vast social inequity; the ethics of keeping people alive when they have no consciousness or hope of recovery), the high-concept stuff (the complex intersection between our Real and Virtual lives; the meaning of True Love in a virtual existence), and the little stuff (the special pleasure of getting drunk when you shouldn’t; the seemingly impossible amounts of food it’s possible to consume at a dinner-party). There are almost too many themes and ideas for this compact and tightly-written book to contain; my one criticism is that I wanted there to be more room for everything in there to breathe. Like the works of Philip K Dick, it’s bursting with great ideas and concepts that are thrown out, briefly examined and then discarded before I’ve had enough time to digest them.

But you know, that’s really more than okay. Sci-Fi, as a genre, is meant to make us think – to plant ideas in our heads that we obsess over for weeks afterwards. So when my only real problem with a Sci-Fi novel is that it contains a bit too much brain-stretching material for me to adequately get my head around, I’d say that’s a sign the author’s getting something pretty damn Perfect.

Just to get all my cards on the table, I had the pleasure of sharing a place with AJ Kirby in Legend Press’s “Ten Journeys” anthology (his story was “The Curious Case of Jenni Wen,” mine was “Interview #17”). “Perfect World” is available as a Kindle edition, for the how-could-you-not price of £2.85. “Ten Journeys” is also an Amazon Kindle book, price £5.51.

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A Pudding With A Health Warning

Let’s begin with the circumstances in which you should not make this pudding. Firstly, do not make it for any occasion when looks are important. It is delicious; it is chocolatey; it will make your guests’ eyes roll back in their head a little bit when they eat it. But it has to be said that it lacks kerb appeal.

Secondly, do not make it if you share a house with people prone to sudden and intense obsessions. Do not make it if, for example, you are a student living in a communal house and your three housemates are a bunch of Doctor Who fans and Electronic Engineers. They will become fixated on it, like cats with catnip, and will demand that you make it for them every single Sunday until the end of time. Just to pick a totally random example.

Thirdly, do not make it for anyone for whom sugar is an issue. It is simply not possible to substitute with sweetener in this recipe, so don’t even try. This pudding contains three (count ’em) different types of sugar, in quantities which together total significantly more than half a pound, and each type of sugar brings its own special characteristics which are essential to the pudding’s successful creation. Skinny minnies, diabetics or people who would be much happier with a really good cheese-plate will not appreciate the glory this pudding represents.

Now, let’s talk about who you should make this pudding for. Make it for your family on a cold winter afternoon, when you want everyone to be sleepy and peaceful and contented. Make it for your partner when you’ve reached the no-make-up, greying-t-shirt stage of being contented in each other’s presence. Make it for the friends you’re so comfortable with that you will quite happily go round to each other’s houses in your pyjamas. Make it when people are sad and need comfort food; and make it when people are happy and want to celebrate with something indecently delicious. Make it when you want to believe in magic (I have no idea how this pudding can possibly perform its strange layer-swapping trick, but it does). Look, just make it, okay? And don’t judge it by its slightly odd appearance when it comes out of the oven. Just wait for it to cool, plunge that spoon in deep, scoop out a big fat portion and start shovelling.


6oz Granulated sugar

4oz Self-raising flour

2oz Cooking chocolate

3 tbsp butter

1/4 pint milk

2oz brown sugar

2oz caster sugar

3 tbsp cocoa

6 fl.oz water

A medium-sized Pyrex or other ovenproof bowl

Oven at 160C

1. Float a bowl in a saucepan of boiling water to make a bain-marie, and melt your cooking-chocolate and butter together.

2. In your pyrex bowl, mix the granulated sugar and self-raising flour.

3. Mix your melted butter and chocolate with your sugar / flour mixture. You’ll end up with a sort of pale-brown, grainy, pasty, stiff mixture.

4. Gradually blend in the milk. You should now have something that looks like pale-brown thick custard.

5. Over the top of your mixture, sprinkle the following, in the following order and in three separate layers:
– 2oz brown sugar
– 2oz caster sugar
– 3 tbsp cocoa

6. Carefully pour over the water. Don’t worry if you have strange beads of water dusted with cocoa-powder rolling around the surface, and don’t worry if you haven’t. Do not stir, poke with a spoon to see what happens, or interfere with the delicate balance of your pudding in any way. Just shove it in the oven and walk away for forty-five minutes to an hour.

7. After forty-five minutes to an hour, open your oven, and be amazed by the secret cooking magic that has occurred. The stuff you put on the bottom – the flour, the sugar, the butter, the chocolate, the milk – has made its way to the top, and turned itself into a luscious, dense, cakey, chocolate-sponge topping. And the stuff you put in on the top – the other sugar, the other other sugar, the cocoa, the water – has somehow found its way to the bottom and turned into the most beautiful fudgy chocolate sauce you could ever imagine.

8. On the downside, when you look at the centre of the pudding, you will now understand why its name is Catsbum Chocolate Pudding. Although I can’t prove this, I suspect this weird, puckered…thing…in the centre is the exit-route for the fudge-sauce ingredients on their mysterious journey to the base of the pyrex dish.

9. Leave the pudding to cool for at least an hour, plus as long as you can all bear to wait thereafter. Serve to your loved ones (you should never make this pudding for anyone you don’t love…it’s too delicious to waste on people you don’t have a deep and sincere affection for), with cream, ice-cream or anything else cool and melty you like the sound of. Lick the spoons clean, scrape the bowl, and fight over the leftovers. And for God’s sake, don’t count the calories. Ignorance is bliss. Just like this pudding.

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So I think I just caught Microsoft out in a sneaky childish “La, la, la, can’t hear you, not listening” moment with Android.

This is Microsoft’s latest effort to convince me that I really, really, really want to give some more money to Bill Gates. If I look at it on my computer, using a Google Chrome browser, I see this –

But if Tony looks at it on his tablet, using Android, he sees this –

(For those of you who have lives instead of Marketing jobs, the Lorem Ipsum stuff is the standard holding copy used by advertising agencies as placeholder copy when they haven’t yet come up with something sufficiently brilliant to fill in the space.)

Tony, who knows orders of magnitude more about technology than I ever will, claims this is because he is using Android whereas I am using Chrome. But why would a different browser see an earlier version of an advert – which, since it’s using the Lorem Ipsum copy, the Android one clearly is? How can two different versions of the same ad be inhabiting the same virtual spot on the same webpage, and which version you see depends on how willing Microsoft are to acknowledge your presence in the marketplace?

There’s probably a good technical reason for this to be true. But I like to think that it’s because the good people at Microsoft have made it that way on purpose, to try and convince Android users that even hard-pressed advertisers think their technology platform isn’t worth bothering with.

If you want to check this out for yourself, it’s currently on rotation on the front page of the Daily Mail. Which I don’t read, obviously. I just…um…happened to click on it by accident. Yes, that’s it. That’s definitely what happened.

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