Kill your darlings

Pigeon bus

I need to kill my darlings.

I’m not talking about that hackneyed ‘get rid of your good writing’ thing that may or may not be good advice (Spoiler: it’s good advice if it’s qualified enough to make it entirely different advice). I’m talking about rather more literal darlings. I’m talking about characters.

In 1998 or thereabouts I came up with a character for a roleplaying game. His name is Andrew Cairns, and he’s Australian. G’day.

A little later, in 2003ish, I came up with another. His name’s Paul Hazel and he was originally a wrestler.

I’ve been carrying these guys with me in my head for nearly two decades. I’ve been on many imaginary adventures with them. Gradually they’ve been moulded and grown far beyond the source material. They now inhabit their own fully-developed worlds.

So when I fancied writing a new novel it seemed natural to turn them into protagonists. I tinkered and shaped in my mind to worldbuild them a framework; to strip them out of their source material and create a universe that’d be worth exploring. I gave them an antagonist and a mission. And I set them loose.

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I’m quite pleased with the result. I’ve created a story with a plausible ‘world’ and a villain who’s a real star. The newly-created characters are fun to write and, I think, read well too.

The characters that hold the story back are, as you’ve probably guessed, Paul Hazel and Andrew Cairns.

The reason for this, I think, is that these two characters are overwritten. I’ve spent too long with them. They’re fully rounded, matured: I’ve not left any room for them to grow.

I listened to a podcast recently which said that the best characters are brought to the world without baggage. Certainly all my favourite characters in my own writing are the last-minute spur-of-the-moment creations.

From the policemen hastily conjured to fill gaps in my first never-to-be-shared novel The Ballad of Lady Grace, to the haunted, sleep-deprived Saira in Oneiromancer, the characters who sing for me are the ones I’d never met before setting finger to keyboard.

Hazel and Cairns came to the novel fully grown. All the interesting things about them had already happened. I left no room for them to grow into, no space for change. They’ve become immutable, ossified.

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They might be well-written, they might be realistic, they might be nuanced and have hidden depths – and let’s not forget the whole novel is built around them – but they’re sucking the life from the story.

All those guides for creating characters (like this, for example; there are hundreds out there) are just guides for carving blocks of wood. If they have any use it’s in helping remember the ideas you come up with on the fly. Otherwise just forget them. Bin them. Burn them.

Write. Let your characters surprise you. Run your plot into a place where you need a person, then click your fingers and bring alive the first thing that comes into your mind.

They’ll be a whole lot more realistic than the person you spent days creating a whole back-story for.

* * *

This blog has been brought to you by a critique by @orcsandelves and a particular podcast from a source that, after going on about relentlessly for the last few months, I am sworn not to name.

 

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The Editorium Strikes Back!

I’m deep in the middle of copy-edits at the moment. It is a doom-filled process and one I intend to write more about when I’m not too damn busy doing.

So in the meantime please enjoy these pictures of the all-new singing and dancing Editorium! A room of one’s very own (apart from all the family stuff that’s temporarily – he hopes – dumped in here for the interim) that actually has a view. I’ve spent the rest of my writing life staring at a wall; now I merely have to turn my head slightly to the left and I see fields! And trees. And a big, big sky.

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Typically I’ve waited until the heatwave has ended before taking my photographs. That’s just how I roll.

The most wonderful thing about this space is that I can cocoon myself in books. How wonderful, how warming, to be surrounded by some of my very best friends.

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The obligatory shelfie

My actual writing-desk is a hideous mess at the moment. I’d like to say that it is a work-in-progress, which is true. I suspect, though, that there’s always going to be debris scattered all over. The more mess changes the more it stays the same.

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Besides, I like a little mess. This is a work-space, not an Ideal Home installation.

Now I’m off to get back to my edits. Hopefully I’ll have a more enlightening post for you next week.

Happy writing.

 

Some ways I am racist

Not racist but

I have my first contracted copy-edits, and with them indisputable proof that I am, in fact, a horrible person.

Whilst most errors are of the repetition variety – a pain to fix but mostly harmless – there have been highlighted a number of more serious faults of taste and discretion.

Let me share some of them with you:

  • Describing a black female character as a janitor

I was unaware that the role of janitor was considered especially lowly, and the sort of role that might be viewed as uber-menial: in other words, a typically ‘black’ job. By giving someone that title, and by making her black, I was unwittingly playing into stereotype. In my mind it was a jokey act of self-deprecation that had become a badge of honour. That’s not necessarily how it came across.

  • Introducing a white man and a black man, describing one by his job and the other by his race.

Yeah, this is bad. These are two fairly minor characters and I wanted to give my cast diversity. But by treating them differently I was creating an atmosphere where personality matters less than the colour of the skin. I don’t have a good excuse for this, unless ignorance and stupidity can be accepted as mitigating factors.

  • A chain round the black man’s neck

…and just to ram it home, here’s a little nod to slavery slipped in sotto voce. I thought I was just giving this chap a little individuality, but a black man wearing a chain around his neck? This is the sort of thing that, apparently, gets noticed.

  • Describing a Latin American character as ‘having a little rodent in his ancestry.’

You might think this is bad enough as it is. Given the current political climate this looks a whole lot worse. First Katie Hopkins calls migrants ‘cockroaches’, then – and more pertinently – Trump describes illegal immigrants (notably Spanish-speaking people) as animals. I thought I was making a nice, concise allusion to a character’s untrustworthiness. Instead it seems I am allying myself with people I detest.

  • Having a command structure where all the leaders are white

This wasn’t even a decision. It just happened. And that’s much worse than making a conscious choice because I can’t justify it: excuse me, sir, but your subconscious biases are showing.

Now I could go on at length to try and explain myself, but basically what I’m left with is this: I didn’t know what I was doing. It took a professional copy-editor to point out these errors. And whilst I feel crushed by the realisation that I’m not the careful, concerned liberal I try to be (have you read any of my recent posts? I’m now virtue-signalling at an expert level), I now have the chance to make things right. I am a very lucky boy.

What’s really struck me, though, is how easy it is to go astray. I wrote this novel, through all the drafts, thinking with smug satisfaction that I was doing the right thing. That I had diversity, that I wasn’t being a horrible thoughtless person. But what to me is a simple nickname, or character note, or description, is to someone else a red flag.

I don’t know who the copy-editor who spotted my sins is. I do know they’re American, and in this case that’s proved critical (such a small thing, isn’t it?). This is why getting diverse feedback matters. This novel has been read by around a dozen betas (for the record: all white, save one British Indian), has been assessed by an agent, and none of them saw anything wrong with the manuscript.

I’m not necessarily saying that a specialist diversity reader is essential for all books. I am saying that having a diverse assemblage of readers pre-release can help you kill this sort of mistake before the pitchfork-shaking mob arrives to serve a judgement of fire.

I am humbled. I have seen through a mirror, darkly, and am not the man I thought I was.

So all praise to the editors. They’re not just there to point out your dodgy spellnig.

The way it is

 

English in Asian Airports

Alfie lived at home with his mum, his dad, his sister … and a troop of monkeys. For some reason, no-one could see the monkeys except Alfie. That was just the way it was.

I shouldn’t let a children’s book make me angry. The intended audience don’t care about bad writing, or poor storytelling, though they might not find a book interesting for reasons we might describe as weak structure.

But I am not a child. And the above extract, the opening to No More Monkeys, by Joshua George and Barbara Bakos, makes my blood boil. It’s quite impressive, actually: the sheer badness contained within 33 words. And that they dared to put these words right at the beginning of the book. The publishers have some serious brass neck.

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Shall we start to unpick it? First off: we don’t need ‘at home’ in the first line. Of course he lives at home. He can’t live anywhere else, can he? I’d concede the words might be taken as shorthand for ‘in an ordinary house and not in an igloo or on the moon or in a moon-igloo’ if it wasn’t a picture book. But it is. The ordinariness of the residence is simple to establish.

But that’s not the problem. That is a forgivable error. I don’t demand perfection in children’s books (though maybe I should): I can write that off as part of the voice and the rhythm of the story.

What I can’t forgive are the three little words that open the second sentence.

For some reason.

Let me translate: ‘For some reason’ means ‘the author hasn’t bothered to think about this.’ ‘The author has no respect for his reader.’ ‘It’s too much effort to come up with a real explanation.’

For some reason. Let me tell you, if you ever find yourself writing ‘for some reason’ in your work; or if you have things ‘just the way they’ve always been’, then you’re letting your readers down.

It’s a close cousin to that old beta-reader feedback: if a reader says ‘I didn’t understand this,’ it’s not not good enough to say ‘well that’s because of this complex set of subtleties, and therefore I dismiss your point.’ It doesn’t matter if you’ve considered it if you’ve not explained it.

This doesn’t mean that you have to go into every little thing that underpins your worldbuilding, or even that you have to consider every little variable of, say, the currency system in your world. But anything integral to the plot has to have an explanation. How you communicate that is a different issue.

I find this particular example really galling because it’s so unnecessary. The author could have put ‘The monkeys were invisible to everyone but Alfie’ – no reason is necessary. Or ‘The monkeys would only show themselves to Alfie and were really good at hiding when anyone else was around.’ That one’s nice because it conjures up a clear mental image that the writer and artist could play with. Bonus!

That’s just with two minutes’ thought. You can think of more alternatives yourself. Think of it as a little writing free exercise. You’re welcome.

Error number three: that final sentence. ‘That was just the way it was.’ My god this is horrible. You know what this means? This is the writer saying ‘I know the last sentence wasn’t good enough. Let me just reinforce my laziness by doubling down. No, you’re not allowed to be curious. That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change. Ask no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.’

It’s bad.

It’s the sort of thing you see in books all the time. One of my problems with The Time-Traveller’s Wife is the way the author casually dismisses all possibility of change. It’s been a while since I read it, but there is a point where the narrator says something like ‘it was predestined. There was no way to change the future.’ I nearly screamed. Why? Why is it predestined? Why can’t you change things? Wouldn’t you try? Wouldn’t you at least make the effort?

At the very least, if you don’t know why something happens, keep quiet about it. Shut your bloody trap and let us keep the illusion that you know what you’re talking about.

Right. Rant over. I’m off to take my blood-pressure medication; hopefully I’ll have something more interesting to write about next week.

As you were.

Death to the Editorium!

Egyptian mourning

Sad news! The Editorium is no more. It has ceased to be. It has shuffled off this mortal coil. It is an ex-Editorium.

Yes, I am moving house – moving across counties, no less. So far I have left my phone in IKEA and had to dash back 100 miles for forgotten things. Idiocy is no respecter of location.

The Editorium is dead. But fear not! For, like royalty, no Editorium can die without another rising to take its place.

All hail the Editorium! I shall shortly be tipper-tapping away in a room of one’s own: in the meantime, let’s all raise a glass to the place where I wrote all those thousands of words.

I will, at least. And you’re free to join me.

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Image stolen from natoli.deviantart.com

Everyday jargonism

Kenning

Last week I talked about Stephen Fry’s The Liar and how it described a world from which I felt alienated. Now it’s time to elaborate on that in yet another book-based ramble. We can but hope that at least one of you will find it interesting.

*Clears throats and adopts lecturing stance*

I’m pretty well grounded in genre fiction: that big, wide tent that covers not only SFF but crime, thrillers, spy novels and horror and, to a lesser extent, LBGT stories. I don’t know so much about literary fiction and, save for inevitable overlap, ‘popular’ fiction such as that produced by Dan Brown and James Patterson. This is another way of saying that I know the ‘rules’ (or tropes) of some forms of fiction but not others.

Knowing the rules is another way of saying that I understand the jargon. I know the shape of a crime story: I understand the differences between a police procedural and a noir thriller. I can instinctively – instinct being another word for experience – tell the difference between epic fantasy and grimdark. Each genre and subgenre has its own shape and structure.

My snobbery is that I have developed a mistrust of literary fiction. I see it as elitist and, to be honest, I’m just not sure what it actually is. Thus I have written off the McEwan’s and Amis’ of the world as being about English professors who attended fee-paying schools before spending three hundred pages agonising over whether or not they should boink their students.

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Martin Amis & Ian McEwan; an image taken from a joint 2014 interview

Which brings us back to The Liar. I felt excluded from this novel – especially in the first half of it – because it described a world I didn’t understand. It was hard for me to feel empathy with its characters because I’ve never known anyone like them. The jargon passed me by, the jokes too ‘in’ to welcome me.

And that got me thinking: this must be what other people feel like all the time.

Literary fictioneers don’t understand genre¹. They feel excluded. All that talk of elves and dwarfs and magic: it’s just another way to determine the in-crowd. It’s easy to pour scorn on something you don’t understand, to say ‘oh, it’s just escapism’ because they can’t imagine that might actually be a metaphor.

Similarly, I don’t get the subtleties of the romance genre. I know a little about the way Mills & Boon, in particular, are written to a formula but I don’t get the subtleties that distinguishes a potboiler from a beloved classic.

But these are little things. Some groups are excluded from the world of books altogether. Which leads us neatly on to Lionel Shriver.

“…literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer from that email that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling.”

Ms Shriver has courted fresh controversy with her complaints against the move for diversity within the publishing world. She worries that welcoming minority groups (especially if it’s a sort of quota system of positive discrimination) into fiction will be detrimental to quality. Why this should be isn’t immediately clear: it implies that the aforementioned gay transgender dropout is incapable of writing quality prose. It overlooks the great advantage that she herself received as a graduate of a private school and all that that implies.

[I last wrote about her views here. Spoiler: I disagreed with her then, too.]

First of all, it’s worth noting that a big reason why literary fiction is what it is because white middle-class men ran publishing for at least a century (and still do, though possibly to a lesser extent). Naturally they gravitated towards books they understood, that spoke to them: that were written in the jargon of their daily lives. Thus the ideal of ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ was to a great extent homogenised, one great circle-jerk of self-congratulatory smuggery.

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So it’s no wonder that minority groups see reading as not for them. When people feel that you’re not allowed to wear trainers in a bookshop², just how off-putting is it for BAME readers to be expected to wade through books with not a single character with a name like theirs?

No wonder ‘working class’ people don’t read when the books they like – the romances, the thrillers, the Dan Browns and James Pattersons³ – are derided as ‘silly’ or ‘simplistic’ or ‘unworthy’. Why should they bother? It’s not that books are uncool; it’s that they’re ridiculed for the books they’re drawn to.

[And this can go right back into childhood. So many girls’ stories are about princesses and boys have only ogres to model themselves upon. I’m not sure if it’s available to watch now, but if you get the chance I’d really recommend this documentary for more on the harm we do children through the small sins of stereotyping gender]

I like myself

People like to see themselves in the books they read. There has to be something they can grasp; some aspect of the character or their world they can relate to. That can be as simple as having a woman as a significant character, or someone not born with a silver spoon in their mouth, or as complex as a world with suspiciously familiar nation-states (or planets) in constant turmoil and warfare. Knowledge and experience all count here.

All this might make you think that I’m railing against The Liar and books of that ilk, but I’m not. What I’m doing is coming to terms with my own shortcomings. People who went to public school absolutely deserve to be served by the stories they read – but so do the rest of us, especially those who are typically unrepresented.

Repeat after me: not all books are written with me in mind and that’s okay.

Publishing has for too long been an Old Boys’ Club. Literary fiction is unduly represented in awards and the status it’s accorded is, in my view, unmerited.

Everyone deserves good books. If you want your writing to read a wide audience (which is not that same as more readers; there’s a reason why genre conventions exist in book covers) it might be worth looking at what you’re doing to exclude potential readers, and what you can do to embrace more people.

Oh and Lionel Shriver can just, please, go away.

***

¹Massive generalisation for the purposes of illustrative effect. I’m sure there’s a Classical term for the way I’m using it but the internet has let me down. Hyperbole is the closest I can get.

²This is taken from a conversation on Twitter initiated by Joanne Harris on 28/05/18 with regard to the struggles of UK chain WHSmiths. Her initial statements are thus:

While it may not be the coolest shop on the High Street, research suggests that WH Smith, and not Waterstone’s, is the place where most working-class people buy books. If we care at all about promoting literacy, we should at least be aware of this.

All the replies from well-meaning, middle-class people saying; “Yes, but it needs to stop selling cheap chocolate and tat” may have missed my point. Some people may like cheap chocolate. They may like the fact that WH Smith provides a nonthreatening, familiar environment.

Research strongly suggests that readers from certain backgrounds are less likely to go into Waterstone’s because it looks expensive and intimidating to them. WH Smiths, with its “cheap chocolate and tat”, looks more welcoming. They buy their books there instead.

But I’m also drawing from the responses to this conversation. I personally have no facts & figures, sorry.

³Like Footnote no.1 this is a massive, crude oversimplification. I don’t think that the ‘working class’ only read blockbusters, and that blockbusters are only read by the working class. Hell, I’m not even sure who the working class are anymore. Please don’t hate me. I’m just trying to make a point

 

The darling books of May

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Photo from this Buzzfeed article

In the absence of anything more interesting to ramble about, I’ve decided to share a few quick thoughts about last month’s reading; not so much a review, more a quick recap of sentiments that might – yes – might just include the odd recommendation. All these are listed in my book log if you want an at-a-glance account of those listed below.

Belle Sauvage

So, without further ado, let me begin with La Belle Sauvage, the first in the new (planned) trilogy of Philip Pullman. Of course I am somewhat biased because my daughter’s named after the lead character in the His Dark Materials series. But this was, in anything, better that the latter. The writing was just a little clearer, a little cleaner, and the main character is a delight.

The only negative I have is that the whole novel reads like an adventure – except for one small episode two-thirds of the way through where fantasy intrudes. Of course I know the series is a fantasy, but after the mood being resolutely realistic thereunto, it jars – especially as we have no real sense of resolution.

Freakonomics

Freakonomics (Stephen Dubner & Steven Levitt) is another book I am well and truly behind the times with. It’s economics with a hand grenade, and whilst it’s fascinating and paradigm-shifting, I have slight reservations about some of the preconceptions the authors introduce into their findings: the value of exam results in determining success and failure, for example. Still, anything that makes you think is precious.

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You might by now be sick of my new obsession with Tim Clare: I promise I’ll stop going on about him shortly – just not before I rave again about his novel The Honours. It’s not only the best book I’ve read this month, It’s also my favourite so far this year. I can’t say too much about it because I think anything I can tell you will detract from the pleasure.

Part of the joy in the novel is determining whether we’re dealing with a coming-of-age story, an upstairs-downstairs tale of the aristocracy, a spy thriller or a fantasy. So I’m not going to spoil that for you; don’t read the blurb, don’t read reviews, just start on page one and go from there.

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John Scalzi’s Lock In is entirely different; resolutely sci-fi and highlighted by the wonderful writing that makes Scalzi a joy to read. If anyone wants to learn how to write fast-paced stories that you just fly through then study Scalzi. This isn’t his best, though, not because there’s anything wrong with it but because nothing’s really stayed with me. Fun but ultimately forgettable.

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The Zealot’s Bones (DM Mark) was a surprise. I picked it up on spec because I liked the cover and because that’s what libraries are for (all these books bar four were sourced from my local library) and was fully prepared to dislike it. But I didn’t. A murder mystery set in Victorian Hull scores points for originality, though at first I was a little uncertain because the story feels medieval, not nineteenth-century. But the quality of writing pulled me through. And maybe that’s what life was like for the common man: half primitive, half bang up to date. (And is the way we live now any different?) So this is a surprise recommendation from me.

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The Good Story, by contrast, was a disappointment. It’s a epistolic discussion between JM Coetzee and psychologist Arabella Kurtz on the nature of psychotherapy and story. But it is, frankly, hard work; and the format – neither essay nor discussion – does it no favours, and neither does the over-literary tone invite the reader to share in their profundity. There are moments of interest and revelation but I don’t think it’s worth the effort and, if anything, serves to steer me away from Coetzee’s novels.

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The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks), on the other hand, drew me right in. This has been on my shelf for years, always deferred because I had a terrible foreboding that this would be really, really sad and I don’t like sad stories. Sorry. A personal failing, I know, but there it is.

And sad it was, but also somehow wonderful. The main character is a monster and a victim and sometimes it’s hard to share their head. But the writing pulls you along, drip-feeding you revelation. This, I feel, is a novel I’ll never forget. Sometimes I’ll wish I could, but that doesn’t stop me recommending it here.

Thornhill

Thornhill, by Pam Smy, is magical. Sold as YA, it’s two stories in one: the diary entries from a girl who lived in the Thornhill children’s home thirty or so years ago, and the ‘silent’ graphic tale of a lonely girl who discovers her story. The art (also by Smy) is wonderful and evocative, the wordlessness perfect for the tale its telling; the diary entries are haunting and tell the tale so well. I read the whole thing in a day.

Silver Locusts

I’ve read a few Ray Bradbury’s before and loved the lyricism in the prose, so The Silver Locusts – a boot-sale bargain at 20p – came as a disappointment. It’s not the writing that was disappointing, simply that the story was so completely out of date.

I can cope with the bad science (Mars having a breathable atmosphere; there being ‘Martians’); it’s the social changes that really grate. It’s not that everyone smokes – hell, every novel written in the fifties is full of cigarettes and cigars – but that, aside from a very few minor (and barely significant) characters, everyone is male. Bradbury never even considers that women might have an active part to play in the story.

Similarly, whilst I can cope with a racist character using the ‘n’-word, the description of the Jim Crow-era South went over my head. The depiction of the black population came close to the ‘noble savage’ stereotype, and an interesting idea (what happens to a land when the ‘workers’ leave en masse) got subsumed by the distance between the writing and the reading. The book is interesting, but more for the historian than the SF fan.

King of Dreams

Phew. On to The Sandman: King of Dreams. This is a companion/hagiography of Neil Gaiman’s graphic series and Kwitney’s book was a fine, fun read. There wasn’t that much to it, though, and all it really did was made me want to re-read the source material again.

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Speaking of fun reads, Sean Grigsby’s Smoke Eaters is a great little high-concept adventure. Here firemen don’t put out blazes – they fight dragons. What Grigsby does really well is convey the mundanity of life post-cataclysm (the catastrophe has passed and normal life is normal again) – and also the great wasteland that much of the planet has become.

If I have a criticism it’s that we don’t see enough of the world, and that there’s so much that’s left unexplained (where did the dragons come from?). But that just means there’s loads to look forwards to in the promised sequel.

The Liar

Finally: The Liar by Stephen Fry. This is… curious. It is good. It was a pleasure to read, and yet… it’s so damn elitist. It’s the story of a public schoolboy going on to a top university to meet over-privileged professors and their circles. I take a look at the cover-quotes and review-samples and I wonder: how many of them went to fee-paying schools?

I felt alienated. I felt angry at the arrogance of the class represented in this novel. The references and classical allusions left me on the outside looking in. It made me wonder if this is true of all novels: if every ‘target audience’ has this sort of jargon that excludes outsiders. Why shouldn’t public schoolboys have their moment too? There is a future blog-post on this, once I’ve managed to untangle my own feelings.

Anyhoo, Fry kind of won me over in the end. I enjoyed The Liar, though it’s a hard novel for me to recommend

And that’s all. If I repeat this round-up I’m going to have to read less books; this has been a marathon. In summary:

Book of the Month: The Honours – Tim Clare
Book to Avoid: The Good Story – JM Coetzee & Arabella Kurtz
Biggest Surprise: a tie between Thornhill (Pam Smy) and The Zealot’s Bones (DM Mark)

Happy reading, y’all