Winter Reading (Again)

I’m hoping, or at least trying, to read a bit more over my winter break. I guess I’m averaging a chapter a day, but with the amount of different books I want to read… And since I clearly don’t talk about reading enough on this blog, I’m gonna look at that.

So, what am I currently reading?

I love the edit I've done on this photo. Magic, indeed!

A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC by V E Schwab. I’m currently half way through this novel, and I have mixed feelings at the moment. I don’t feel like much is actually happening, but I like the writing. I want to keep reading, so something is going right 🙂

A CONSPIRACY OF ALCHEMISTS. Liesel Schwartz. I will keep reading this one! It’s just not been on the top of my reading priorities, so I’m hoping to use the winter break to get through it.

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I lost my copy of THE LABOURS OF HERCULES, by Agatha Christie, for a bit, which means I am behind on that one, but I’ve got it back now, and intend to get back to thundering through this, a la my love of Christie. It’s an easy read.

I’ve started reading the novel Five Nights At Freddy’s: The Silver Eyes by Scott Cawthon, who created the game series which inspired this book, and Kira Breed-Wrisley. Always a mystery/horror fan, I am eager to unravel the plot of this novel. Obviously, it’ll be a change from the games, but that’s what I’m looking forward to, the POV and the unique story.

It’s an ambitious list, in terms of numbers.

Whodunnit On a Sky Cruiser: A Review of MURDER OUT OF THE BLUE

MurderBlue_AlexB1908. A gruesome death on board the Sky Liner RMS Macedonia exposes the clash of class, secrets and sexuality in upper class Edwardian society. On her journey home Maliha Anderson, Anglo-Indian daughter of a Scottish engineer and a Brahmin scholar, hopes to make peace with her past, her future and what she sees in the mirror every day – until the nurse of wheelchair-bound General Makepeace-Flynn is murdered. The General declares his innocence and Maliha is the only one to believe his story. With landfall in India only hours away Maliha must find the real murderer before the culprit can escape, even though doing so puts her own life at risk.

A 92-page novella by Steve Turnbull

I bought MURDER OUT OF THE BLUE at the Steampunk convention, Steampunks in Space, last year (and it is also listed under ‘Steampunk’ on Amazon), but I’d have to admit that there was less Steampunk involved than I expected. Perhaps this comes from the assumption that all Steampunk contains gadgets and gears and top hats perched at a less-than-discreet angle.

Which – as one knows – is all rather jolly poppycock.

Anyway, the vibe I got from reading was, for the most part, more Dieselpunk. At least, had I not known the era, I would have said late 1920s, early ‘30s. One character, Temperance, even appears in my mind in an early flapper-style dress, complete with long cigarette holder. Nevertheless, I’d say the setting felt realistic and absorbing.

Just not my vision of Steampunk. And I’m totally allowed to say that.

I’d also say that the blurb makes out that there is more plot than there actually is, but I suppose that’s what one can expect from a novella. For those of you who know Steampunk writing, it’s a far cry from the heavy, action-packed writing of Cherie Priest or the teasing, poking-fun-at-society of Gail Carriger.

Intriguing

This was an interesting read with an Agatha-Christie-esque feel to the writing with the idea of limited suspects in an enclosed space without police. Murder could happen at any point, and indeed it does, followed swiftly by a suicide, which only heightens the drama and the resolve of the protagonist.

I managed to guess the murderer, though not the motive, and I suspect this may have come from my Agatha-Christie-reading suspect-everyone mentality! Nevertheless, I liked the touch of every suspect having a secret or something to keep from others. The characterisation, too, was strong, though a touch on the archetype side – the General in the wheelchair, his acidic wife, the ‘modern’ woman and the happily-married couple. In a novella, there is little time for extensive character development, but I saw glimmers of it where necessary.

Maliha was a sympathetic protagonist. Although I couldn’t empathise with her being biracial, I liked that it played in an aspect of her investigations and one of the reasons she was able to be more intellectual than the average Edwardian 19-year-old. She’s been through enough already that she’s developed a hard-enough skin to snoop.

“What are you doing?” said Temperance from the door.

“Just thinking.”

“I am told gentlemen are not attracted to women who think.”

Indeed, it is snippets like that one that bring the characters to life. It’s cliché (one would find it in most a Christie novel), but nice to have something that one takes for granted in the 21st Century said out in the open.

I enjoyed the voice of the piece, even if there were times I felt it could be stronger. The novella is written in third-person (and has a couple of POV swaps that I felt could have been omitted) and this takes us away from really knowing Maliha’s sense of person. We weren’t close to her. In addition, some sentences I found were overwritten and sounded a little pretentious for the prose, and I spotted a fair number of run-on sentences, which made me stop and pull a face.

Overall, though, it was an enjoyable short read, and I would recommend it for those of you who are fans of Agatha Christie books and the pacing of the TV episodes, rather than for the Steampunk side, which doesn’t play much into the plot, as the author intended (which is a good thing in terms of the story, but I would’ve preferred more gadgets and sparking science).

I’d say 3 ½ stars out of five.

I’m not sure yet if I’ll pick up the other novellas in the Maliha Anderson series. The epilogue hinted at more to come, a cadence yet to close, and I liked how quick to read this novella was, even though the pacing wasn’t rushed. I’m just not desperate to read on yet.

Fall 1st Page Critique Blog Hop

(Or ‘autumn’, if we’re going by UK English ;))

The wonderful Michelle Hauck has kindly organised a 1st page critique blog hop, where we get to critique the five blog entries below and ours in the linky on her page. It’s open to all fiction writers, regardless of genre or age category.

Here’s mine, taken from Of Jackets and Phones. Because, why not? Paying forward critiques are awesome. Of course, if you want to critique and you’re not part of the hop, do so anyway. 😉 Updated, as of 12/11/14

YA Murder Mystery

A police car blocked the main road into my school’s burnt umber brick and whitewashed doors. I raised an eyebrow at it, nibbled a nail, and tripped out of the school minibus.

For April, the spring air rose way too crisply and held grass thick with swords of dew, and I struggled with the starched collar of my uniform as moisture crept up my arms and into that annoying air pocket between jumper and shirt. I loosened my tie and shook the wrinkles from my skirt.

“Agnetha! Come on.”

I jolted. Whilst I preferred Vera not laughing at me, I winced at her whining tone. Like I cared if we were late. First lesson on Fridays was Spanish, and I was already failing.

I walked to where she stood and rested a hand on one of her wrists with a nod towards the main entrance.

“Look.”

As she froze to follow my now-absent gaze, I wandered ahead and kicked at the flowerbed along the front lawn path. I’d have dived into the mushrooms and roses there instead of bumbling my way to class. I snapped off one pink-faced fool and tossed it into the mud, and then lifted a mushroom, shifting earth and shoe-dirt and wilderness as I tucked the fungus behind my ear.

A hand on my shoulder, and Vera had caught up. She skipped past me, bubbling with incessant words. “What’s up with the police car?”

“You think I know?” I eyed the blue, yellow and white chequers. Police cars had a weird kind of beauty.

An idea of St. Christopher's school exterior; St. Edmund's School, Summertown

The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery by Kyril Bonfiglioli

“She was a fellow and tutor of Scone College and the world must learn that Fellows and Tutors of Scone College shall not be done to death with impunity.”

That’s from the blurb. But it gives you a sense of the voice and language of The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery. And it was both the upside and downside of the book at times. If you like facetious books with upper-class flavours, however, it’s worth giving this mystery a read. Although it is technically the fourth book in the Charlie Mortdecai mysteries series, each are episodic in and of themselves, and I didn’t feel like I was missing too much history by reading this one first. Plus, the addition of the moustache meant that I was experiencing the new along with the other readers. 😉

Summary

When a female Fellow and Tutor of ‘Scone’ college, the Hon. Charlie Mortdecai’s old Oxford college, crashes her car into a bus under suspicious circumstances, many people suspect murder. Charlie leaves his Jersey home for the blackly humorous spires of jolly old Oxford, and – under the disguise of his new moustache – hunts after two pairs of thug-like spies who were inquiring after *cough* stalking *cough* the Fellow.

What I liked

The voice, the tone, the black humour. It was cruel and unnecessary at times, but that is black humour for you – even in murder, Charlie isn’t against making a snide observation of the situation and getting distracted by his personal issues when he should be focusing on the case.

I also liked the references to real places in and around Oxford, such as the street names and the other colleges Charlie visits, even when Scone is, obviously, a made-up place to stick one’s tongue out at the idea of an upper-class Oxford. The Chief Constable (who we meet once) is a Duke! But then that’s part of the fun/facetiousness – these random characters appear to reinforce the stereotype, and somehow Bonfiglioli (himself an Oxford man) and Craig Brown (who completed the book when it was left unfinished after Bonfiglioli’s death) make these comments and characters acceptable. The voice just makes it…right. It fits, and I can’t think of a better way of saying that.

I wasn’t totally sure what decade it was set in, but it was post-war, so likely the 60s or 70s. Sociology was mocked for being an academic subject, and even Psychology was rather shunned. Despite there not being many ‘external’ (ie. not relevant to the case) references, I never really minded not knowing the temporal setting. It kept the mystery rather localised.

What I disliked

On the other hand, I’m used to reading mysteries straight and at times it felt like Charlie did more drinking, chatting, and thinking about his moustache than actual investigating. Sure, he meets a lot of police-type people and snoops around in official capacity, but every day detailed is full of hours of not-investigating.

Also, whilst I was satisfied by the ending, there were certain threads in the book, which I wasn’t satisfied had been fully covered. For instance, I think there was an excursion to Russia, but Charlie returns to the UK within a chapter of that. And another murder that, whilst implicitly solved, was pretty much brushed over. That’s not the way I like my mysteries.

So, overall? 4/5 stars. I’d read again.

Fun fact! Mortdecai, the trilogy of the first three books, is being adapted into a 2015 film with Johnny Depp in the titular role and Ewan McGregor and Gwyneth Paltrow also starring. *miniature flail* Looks like I’ll be reading the first books next! 😛

7 Quick Takes About The Usual, The Unusual and The Moving Back

Join us over at ConversionDiary as we recap our weeks.

7 quick takes sm1 7 Quick Takes about cool vintage books, a radio studio in my home, and the only five things that really matter when you host a party

~1~

Hullo. I travel back to uni tomorrow *sad face* So I expect the posting to become more sporadic again as I try and find my feet and help out with the freshers. On the other hand, that means I’ll have more to talk about every week! 😛

~2~

On the blog this week, I mainly talked about my trip to Lincoln and the annual Steampunk convivial held there. And it was amazing! Although I didn’t make as many of the panels, talks and workshops as I would’ve liked, and I didn’t buy any of the things I set out to, it was great to experience the British side of Steampunk lifestyle, which is, sadly, not talked about or videoed as much as US meets. We have more conventions in the UK than first appears, so it seems.

~3~

I finished a mystery book I’ve been reading – will get at least a mini review to the blog soon. I’m also munching my way through the biographical book about Agatha Christie, which is quite easy reading, but still detailed. I’m currently on the section about Poirot.

Poirot x2

Poirot x2

~4~

Music-wise, I’ve been learning to play some jazz pieces (as well as upping the tempo of I’ll Rust With You, which I am enjoying so much that I’m no longer following the twins strumming patterns and melody line, respectively) for the big Swing event we’ve got on the second week of October. Peggy Lee’s Fever is fun to play because of the jazz strumming patterns:

~5~

I’m CP for four-ish writers at the moment. Unusually, I managed to get some non-YA CPs, so, though all of stories I’m reading at the moment are fantasy, they are a variety of sub-genres, from steampunk NA retelling to time-travel to epic fantasies. Cool stuff.

On the other hand, with everything going on, I’ve not had so much time for editing. I tried to finish the rewrites of the first Craig house scenes, and I think I am almost satisfied with the details I’ve removed from that scene. As those things are important (to me), I hope to get the information squeezed into later chapters. I’ve also been thinking more about the use of cipher across the trilogy, and its fingertips in OJAP.

~6~

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I’ve been thinking about the companion story to Horology, and whilst I want it to exist, I have my reservations. There is, for starters, the fact that having it set in Egypt isn’t anything new, and this could be/is problematic in terms of plot. Sure, Amelia and Cathy’s world has The Passing of spectres, but what else can I add that’s not your stereotypical “let’s dig up this pyramid/dune; oh, look, weird artefact; oh, look, dead body…”?

The simple answer is “don’t write an excavation book”, but if I ever write a solo Amelia book, I intend to have her in old Dubai, which, according to the history I read when I was there, used to be all sand. She may be a cartographer, but Amelia learnt a lot living in Italy.

At the Lincoln writing workshop, the general reaction I got when I read it out was that the setting was very clear, the MC was more upper-class (good, I think), and it reminded people of the 30s. I guess that’s good. However – I hadn’t planned to write dieselpunk…even though the airship is powered by paraffin. I wanted an almost smoggy chemical to be polluting the air from the ‘ship, but I hardly had access to the internet to Google an elaborate-named simple compound.

Also: Mummy on the Orient Express. I think we’re going to see Egypt and archaeological stories come back into fashion soon.

Hence, I’ve planned it as a novella. I’ll aim for 40,000, but I believe that’s the upper boundary, and I’d be happy with 25 or 30,000.

~7~

This is the beginning as it stands so far. Actually, for me, I’m pretty proud of this beginning. It has setting, genre and conflict, and the writing is pretty spiffing in any case.

Amelia stared at the academic as he scrubbed sand from his duffel coat. The skyship had barely left a trail of ash and paraffin across the sky, and he was already complaining.

“Damn scarab bites. Almost as bad as horse-flies.”

Amelia straightened her under-corset and cleared her throat. She was already getting the feeling that Dr. Rathburne would be the one man here to rattle her nerves.

“Welcome to Egypt, Dr. Colonel Reynold and my team are arranging the newest artefacts in tent F.”

Your team?”

Ah. Only a matter of time.

Amelia caught the end of her blonde plait as it swung towards her face, and retied it with a tough tug.

“Reynold didn’t tell you? I’m the one leading the expedition. After Italy, that’s the least I can do, don’t you suppose?”

The doctor of Archaeology – the Institute of London’s finest, apparently, and she should know – grunted. He shuffled his satchel over one shoulder, avoiding her eyes with flail, and set off across that ‘damn sand’.

Personally, Amelia liked it.

Thoughts on the beginning? I’m still not sure what I think of the changes, especially in Amelia’s line. It’s less telling, but… Also, I have a friend whose allergic to horse-fly bites. They are cruel.

Beta/CP Match-Up

To cap off the summer long Ready. Set. Write! initiative, hosted by Alison MillerKaty UppermanJaime Morrow, and Erin Funk, a mixer for potential critique partners and beta readers is being held. Today we’ve been invited to talk about our WIP and MSs, so without further ado…

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OF JACKETS AND PHONES

Genre: YA Mystery (contemporary)

Approx. wordcount: 55,000 words

Standalone or series? First of a trilogy. Second book – first draft written; third book – planned, a few chapters written, on hold.

Ready for CPs? On fifth draft editing. Most chapters ready now, but might rewrite a couple of the chapters, so sometimes chapters might not be insta-available.

Small house like Agnetha's

Betas or CPs? Primarily beta(s), as I won’t be able to critique once the academic term starts (Oct), but I’m happy to have a CP or two if they don’t mind intermittent critiques/don’t need

Warnings? Mentions of drug use, but no explicit use in scenes. Murder, obviously, but again no explicit description or gruesome blood and guts stuff.

Elevator pitch: 14-year-old Agnetha fights the police to bring her favourite teacher’s murderer to justice – for better or worse, even when she and the greatest link to the truth are the next targets on the shadowy killer’s list.

body outline

Excerpt

“I do remember talking. But that feeling!”

I glanced at Ms. Peterson. She blinked, wincing as she rubbed a raw temple. It must’ve collided with the corner of the table, and a trail of blood began snaking its way down the side of her thin face. Her speech settled to a rough breath, exhaled in a frustrated puff.

“It’s no use,” she remarked. “I can’t remember a word after that. Fuzziness.”

I nodded to her with a sigh. In a half-twist, I circled around, surveying the room: the glass and the ceramic blown apart, scattering their guts against the opposite wall, and the floor was a bed of plaster. Dishwasher-style disturbed. Dishevelled. Disgusting.

At least three walls and a door hung on their hinges. I shoved the remains of the table against the innermost wall, and, ignoring a bright bruise on my arm, pushed through the stray books.

skull bookcase

I hope this has at least piqued your interest. I am totally up to trading first chapters only to get a feel for each other’s style and voice. (I can’t think of anything else relevant right now…)

Beautiful People: Agnetha

I’m editing her first adventure at the moment, so I think it’s appropriate that I tell you a little about my favourite – and first – protagonist via the Notebook Sisters and Further Up and Further In monthly meme.

I turned my attention to the question of names – and my realisation was bitter. Inwardly, I cursed at the simple word Leonard. And how joyful I was when toothbrush-moustache came through the double doors, clutching his informative clipboard of the random facts nobody wanted to know.

Oh, hai, Agnetha King.

She could totally be Stitch.

1) What does your character regret the most in their life?

I suppose Agnetha’s greatest regret would be that she never got to know Josh Craig as much as she thought she did. You know? That realisation that you’re never going to see someone again and suddenly every little thing of theirs becomes the most important thing in the universe. She finds it difficult to conventionally make friends, and so losing one best friend is a blow to the soul, definitely (soul being my word, not Agnetha’s). Students her own age are moronic and self-centred, but maybe later she’ll regret never making those close friends when she had the chance.

2) What is your character’s happiest memory? Most sorrowful memory?

I guess Agnetha’s happiest memory (or one of; it’s very difficult to pin-point one exactly, and thus I’m going for the most obvious in answer to this) is one she reflects on in Of Jackets and Phones: when she first meets Josh Craig in the corridor of her school. It’s that kind of electricity that warms one’s soul (“cue the pyrotechnics, Steve!”) and that connection of knowledge and self.

Her most sorrowful memory? When she loses him. That exact moment DI Leonard says those words died in suspicious circumstances. It influences a lot of her future actions, though I’m not sure that’s a good thing when it interacts with the facets of her already-personality, such as the petty kleptomania*. However, as we’ll later see (when I get around to writing it), she plays with the ring she steals from his house before making any massive decisions, as if she wants to channel Josh and his good heart.

3) What majorly gets on your character’s nerves?

Her mother and brother. They don’t quite get her love of unwinding mysteries and trying to crack puzzles. Although (by the third book) she no longer talks to her father, she might get her logical mind from him, whereas her mother and brother are more…simple and down to Earth. They take things at face-value.

4) Do they act differently when they’re around people as opposed to being alone? If so, how?

Agnetha, especially as she gets older, has to subdue herself around others. Her personality does almost a complete flip. In OJAP, she’s definitely a ponderer on the inside and bolshie on the outside, a rebellious little fourteen-year-old; by OOLE, the third book in the trilogy, she’s a lot more of a thinker on the outside, and has to hold in her own opinions when in the working world. Agnetha’s finally learnt that authority is (not so much) out to get her. At least she’s not pulling punches and pulling pistols on people by the time she’s eighteen!

5) What are their beliefs and superstitions?

In Of Jackets and Phones, Agnetha has yet to have a religion, but she is fourteen and teetering on the brink of depression, so that’s acceptable. However, she believes in fatalism and this influences her pessimistic view of life.

6) What are their catchphrases, or things they say frequently?

Whilst Agnetha doesn’t have a definite catchphrase more than fidgeting habits, she does tend to make the most facetious of remarks. A couple of times in OJAP, she makes references to mystery writers (as per a little satire I’ve attempted to weave), including one of my favourites, Colin Dexter, whose Inspector Morse books are (coincidently, I promise!) set in and around Oxford.

She’s also kind of a compulsive sorter, since physical ordering things allows her to mentally reorganise without using up conscious energy.

7) Would they be more prone to facing fears or running from them?

Running from them, most likely. Whilst physical fears – such as her claustrophobia and facing off against villains – and, actually, one of my favourite scenes from the middle book, Of Moscow Mysteries, is the final fight scene between Agnetha and the antagonist – she seems to face, her inner fears and her emotions she runs from. And those inner demons quake her very shoes.

OMM concept drawing of the fight

OMM concept drawing of the fight

8) Do they have a good self image?

Far from it. I’m not sure if I’ve kept the phrase, but in the first draft, Agnetha studies herself in her bedroom mirror and complains about her blemishes as “a battleground, marks against the perfect snow-white blanket of youth. I’d always been a pale child – a tan never stayed on my skin more than ten minutes.”

9) Do they turn to people when they’re upset, or do they isolate themselves?

Similar, in fact, to #4 and #7, she isolates herself because she’s an introvert and goes so far as to even mock those who are dramatic or possibly overdone in their emotions. She’d never turn to people because she can’t rely on people, though she does occasionally turn to her rabbit, Cinnabun, when she wants to be listened to without interruptions.

10) If they were standing next to you would it make you laugh or cry?

Am I allowed to offer ‘cringe’? Agnetha is likely to make me laugh and cry simultaneously. I can imagine her tossing out her blonde hair and making up some hodge-podge remark as she studies her nails.

*I am well aware that this is probably a linguistic oxymoron.

AgnethaIllustrated_AlexB