I didn’t get a chance to do an end-of-year review of books I read last year so I’m going to do one now. Three books I have read recently that I enjoyed.
The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik
Del Rey, 27 September 2022
This is book three in Novik’s Scholomance series.
I suspect I’m not the only one who, when they finished book two with Orion stuck back in the Scholomance and El on the outside immediately assumed that book three would be about what happened when El went back inside to rescue Orion.
This wasn’t that book at all.
This was more about what happened outside the school.
It’s lovely when a book throws your expectations so much but you still enjoy the story.
I don’t want to say too much because, spoilers, but if you read and enjoyed Scholomance and The Last Graduate, you should enjoy this one too.
The Weight of Command by Michael Mammay
Falstaff Books, 17 January 2023
All the top brass are wiped out, so lowly lieutenant Keira Markov is placed in charge of the army. She has to contend with attacks, politics and another lieutenant who thinks he should have gotten the job due to seniority.
Classic military sci-fi.
This one’s new, and it’s my favourite Mammay since the Planetside trilogy.
The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley
Bloomsbury Publishing. 26 July 2022.
This one’s a little more downbeat that the others, covering as it does topics like ethics, scientific experimentation, radiation coverups, the gulags, KGB purges (post-Stalin) with some flashbacks to the German eugenics program.
The story is set in 1963 in a town in Soviet Russia where Valery Kolkhanov is studying the effects of radiation on mice. Except, there’s a lot that’s hidden in this town.
It’s a genteel story, very Natasha Pulley, quite depressing and horrifying in places. It does have a happy ending, but first read around there were parts I had to skip. Not because they were bad, per se, but because of things I knew from history. For example, I skipped the flashbacks first time around as soon as I realised (long before Valery did) where his samples were coming from.
I’ve read a lot of LITRPG recently. These are stories based on concepts introduced in role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, and on similar digital games such as Elder Scrolls and Final Fantasy. They range from stories I would readily recommend to readers to some even I can’t finish. In these stories the protagonist usually completes tasks and levels up.
There’s a sub-genre of these stories where the protagonist is from Earth and transfers across to a new world. In a small but significant portion these (or otherwise I’ve just read a lot of them lately), the protagonist introduces this ‘amazing’ drink called coffee that all the locals instantly love.
Except … would they?
Particularly as the protagonist always seems to give the person who is trying the drink straight black coffee. No sugar/honey, no milk/cream.
Yes, I can drink black coffee, and do on occasion when I’m desperate, and the coffee I drink most is is what we here in Australia call a long black—a shot of expresso with the rest of the cup filled with hot water—but I add milk to it. Based on what I see around the coffeeshops, here in Australia only a small percentage of people drink straight black coffee by choice.
There’s the caffeine, of course, and that does help make one like the drink, but I’m not convinced that would override that first bitter taste. For many people, coffee takes time to grow on you.
We’ve had a lot of people ask how our writing is going. Here’s where we’re at for the moment. (Note, this is a long introspective piece, with a lot of covid in it. I know some people are covided-out—I was for a while and would have screamed if I had to read one more covid article—so reader beware.)
Some people found the covid pandemic the perfect time to write. I’ve read lots of books that were written during the pandemic. Other writers struggled.
We, both of us, were amongst those who struggled, and we still haven’t got totally back into the writing groove yet. We’ve spent a lot of time analysing why, and what happened, and trying to work out how we can get back into good writing habits (among other things, because it wasn’t just our writing that suffered). For those of you who, like us, struggled—with writing or anything else—here’s our story. Yours may be different but remember, you are not alone.
The pandemic started for us in early 2020. We came back from a cruise and effectively went into lockdown. It was easy enough for me, I already worked from home one day a week when I could, so it was business as usual except that all meeting were through Skype. Sherylyn’s setup took more time, as her office had to install a new phone system before she could log in. I worked nearly two full years from home, Sherylyn less, but we’ll explain that in a moment.
I have to say both of us working at home demonstrated two different management styles, and one was definitely better than the other. My boss was amazing, keeping in touch, ensuring I was coping and helping out in general. We started each day with a team chat, finished the week with virtual ‘drinks’ and games, and had other meetings in between, including a weekly one-on-one. In contrast, in the whole time Sherylyn worked from home they didn’t have a single team catchup that I recall and her boss may have spoken to her two or three times. You can imagine how isolating that was.
Working from home had some definite advantages. No commute. Yay. That was the best thing ever.
We saved a lot of money because we weren’t spending anywhere near as much. (Sadly, both of us lost have a year on commuter tickets, but let’s not go there.) And when you did have to go out the roads were a dream to drive on, with hardly any traffic.
But there were disadvantages, too, and many of these were writing-related. A lot of our writing was done on the commute or at lunchtime at work. Many, many years of doing this had ingrained writing habits. (They say if you want to write, develop writing habits, and believe me, it works. I could get on the train and start writing from where I had left off.) New stories tended to be written outside the house. What we did at home was the editing. It was hard to go from this to writing new stuff at the same desk I’d just spent the last eight or nine hours working at.
Workwise I had just started a big project that ran for the whole of 2020-21. Over time, work-creep started to happen. I used to finish at 5:30 pm. That crept up to 6pm, and then seven, and then eight and often later. Life became a cycle of work, grab a late dinner, go to bed, then get up and do it all again. Exercise? What’s that? (And to be fair, for me my knee was starting to give major problems by then, so I was cutting the exercise anyway.)
Writing became something we did intermittently because we were too exhausted to do it regularly.
At the time we were working on the novel we’d promised to deliver to Caitlin (our agent). This was a change of pace for us, a fantasy rather than science fiction. But as we stopped writing, the story stopped flowing. Normally we take around twelve months to write a complete book but two years on we were only three quarters of the way through the first draft. Worse, as our writing time reduced the quality of our writing deteriorated as well.
We were both heading for burnout, although it took a while to realise that. Sherylyn worked for twelve months before she resigned. I have to say, based on what I observed, I am surprised she lasted that long.
After she finished work, she had more time to write but by then I wasn’t writing as much and this dragged her down because while she could write, I couldn’t. She’d jump to do her bits asap, then had to wait on me to do my bit. This added pressure for my writing, on top of a heavily-pressured work environment.
Sherylyn finished the first draft of the fantasy, and one round of edits but by this time I was so sick of the story that I couldn’t even look at it. Generally, if we give a novel six months on the shelf we can come back to it with fresh eyes but I can’t even look at this one now and it’s been twelve months. There are parts of it I love, parts I know need work and the story has promise (at least we think so). But it’s on hold for the moment, until I can get over that hump.
My big work project finished early 2022. This coincided with the sale of the company I worked for. As part of the sale we shifted from being a company that designed and built its own software to one that purchased software from other companies. I work in user experience and a lot of my work ended up done by the parent software companies. I knew that if I wanted to keep working in the field (and I do love the work) I’d have to change jobs. But … I had extra time now (no longer working till nine or ten at night) and we were starting to get some writing done. It wasn’t daily yet, and we hadn’t finished anything, but we were getting there. If I changed jobs I’d likely get caught up learning the new job for a while.
As we started to get back into writing we found two problems. First up, our writing was clunky. It didn’t flow, it was hard work to actually produce anything, let alone anything we like. Some of the writing was bad, some just awkward and a little bit of it was good. And yes, we do agree that there’s no such thing as a bad first draft, that’s why you have second and subsequent drafts.
Secondly, we couldn’t finish anything. Based on our regular writing, we have two story ‘humps’. If we’re still going by 30,000 words then the story’s a stayer and we can finish it. There’s another hump around 60,000 words which we struggle to get over, but we do get over it. Post-covid we’ve been managing the 30,000 word limit with no problems, but really can’t get past the 60,000 words.
We have spent a lot of time analysing what changed and why and how we can get back our writing mojo.
Problems occurred because
We broke long-defined writing habits and haven’t yet created new ones
We didn’t separate work and writing; we wrote in the same place as we worked
Covid isolation and working from home meant that we had less experiences outside of work/life, and absolutely no work-life balance
We tried too hard to make writing work like it used to, and to finish our stuff, and because we were struggling, this made writing a chore.
We’re gradually fixing these things by
Taking time off work—neither of us will be working a regular 9-5 job this year
Not being so tough on our writing—if we stop writing at 60,000 words in then we stop writing (allowing ourselves to come back later to the story when we’re in the mood)
Going back to some of the earlier exercises we used to do years ago. We’re planning our own mini NaNoWriMo (in May, not in November), for example
Experimenting with our writing
We’re travelling more, starting to get different experiences again.
The knee operation went well. Surgeon and physiotherapist are both happy with my progress. So am I.
Thank you to everyone who sent good wishes. I haven’t answered your mails personally, for reasons below, but they were appreciated.
I confess, I didn’t think it would knock me around quite so much physically. For a few weeks there all I seemed to be able to manage was physio, take some painkillers, sit around a little, sleep, then repeat. I have read books I can’t remember the plot of, played basic computer games like Solitaire, and haven’t done much else. Life seems to be one long cycle of bed, physio, painkillers, bed.
It doesn’t help that there seems to be no comfortable chairs to sit in. The couch is too low to get up from, the dining chairs are hard. Small problems in the scheme of things, but my back is noticing.
We have an over-bath shower at home, and the first three weeks I couldn’t manage to get into the bath, so I made do with sponge baths. It has given me a renewed appreciation for those fantasy novels where the intrepid travellers reach an inn and take a sponge bath rather than bathe. (A long time ago I voiced my opinion of bathing in tubs—it’s not as easy as it sounds.) When we write fantasy our protagonists will have running water, hot and cold.
Glad to say, that particular washing difficulty is over, even if I do need a chair and a crutch to get into and out of the bath.
Speaking of crutches. The physio has this little memory trick for the order of stepping with crutches on the stairs. “Good step goes to heaven, bad step goes to hell.” Meaning step with the good leg first if you’re going up stairs, step with the bad leg first if you’re going down. (The difficulty is remembering where the crutch step goes in the sequence.) I’ve had Meatloaf’s Bad Girls Go to Heaven running through my brain ever since.
Hopefully back to more regular postings after this.
I had planned to restart writing posts at the start of the new year, but I have a knee replacement due early February (the image above is what my knee feels like most of the time, now, especially if I need to do even moderate walking) so I’m holding until after that’s sorted. I hope to be posting again regularly toward the end of February.
Lots of changes for me personally, including that I stopped working. I’ve got writing time back, and so far it’s been really good.
Sherylyn is studying Spanish. A friend who’s studying with her suggested she watch Dora the Explorer in that language.
“It’s a children’s movie,” she said, “And they give the child who is viewing time to answer the characters, so it helps you to learn.”
Unfortunately for us, Dora the Explorer isn’t on Netflix Australia, and that’s the only streaming we subscribe to.
I suggested we try something similar with Princess Bride, given it’s one of those movies we can almost quote off by heart. So we sat down in front of the television, set the language to Spanish with English subtitles, and watched the movie.
I don’t know if anyone here has watched the movie in a language other than English, but I have to say, if I had watched Princess Bride first as a sub-titled show, I have no idea how many times I would have returned to the story. A lot of the subtlety was lost and as a result a lot of the humour, as well. Vizzini’s “Inconcibible” doesn’t work as well as Wallace Shaun’s slightly lisping, “Inconceivable.” Westley’s fight with Fezzik loses a lot when you don’t hear Westley’s grunts each time he is slammed back against the rock, and so on.
It was interesting, to say the least. I think I prefer to listen to any show in the original language and go for English subtitles. So much is conveyed on the screen non-verbally that words are less important than hearing the rest.
Now, I think I might go watch the English language version of Princess Bride.
There are some stories that pull you into the book, and remind you just how magic books like this can be. I was lucky enough to read two books like this recently.
First up is Margaret Rogerson’s Vespertine.
This is a story about a girl who is, literally, a saint. Artemesia inherits a powerful relic which helps her in her fight against revenants. Artemesia is a truly good person, but as Molly Templeton says over on the Tor site, being a saint isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Published October 2021 by Margaret K. McElderry Books.
The second book is Brian McClellan’s In the Shadow of Lightning.
This is the first in his new series and while I enjoyed the first Powder Mage books (I only read the first three), I love this one so much more.
It’s a story about a mage who works with glass, a former soldier, now drifter, who learns his mother has been murdered. He goes home to find out whodunnit, and to complete the task she was killed doing. Meantime, some of the bad guys use his mother’s murder as an excuse to raid the closest city-state. Note, this is a vastly understated summary of the plot. It’s a lot grander than that. There’s politics, battles, new discoveries and a unique magic system.
Even though it’s nothing like it, Sherlyn says it reminds her most of Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings in the feel and grandeur of the book and yes, it does a bit.
Published June 2022 by Tor Books.
These are the type of books you stay up until 4am on a worknight to finish reading.