Friday, 31 August 2012

The Book I Read in August

'Inspector Ghote's Good Crusade' by H.R.F. Keating
In theory I have a job starting soon, but the company are niggling over so many minor issues and one of my three referees that I need having decided to go on holiday for over a month, it may prove that I never get the job.  Anyway, in the meantime I have remained unemployed and so reading very little.  I did manage to finish the second in the Inspector Ghote anthology about the murder of a us philanthropist at a children's home he runs in India.  The setting in 1960s Dehli remains interesting and with this one, I felt more aware of the difference in chronology as well as culture which had been the dominant difference in 'The Perfect Murder' which I read earlier this year.

There is interesting commentary on the impact of Westerners whether volunteering or giving money to good causes in India.  They are portrayed as being pretty naive and not understanding at all the context they are working in and as a result patronising the India population.  Even more than with 'A Perfect Murder', Ghote encounters people who are unwilling to answer his questions or aid the investigation and more than that, feel they have a right to opt out of the process.  I found the inclusion of one character like this in 'A Perfect Murder' to be refreshing and to add realism to the story, but in this book, there are simply too many.  This both frustrates the reader and makes Ghote appear as a man without any authority.  This steadily turns him into appearing as a buffoon, something exacerbated when he gives away his savings to a poor family who in turn fritter them away immediately.

By the end of the book Ghote has no credibility not only as a police officer but as an adult.  I was certain if this was meant to be for comic effect, but if so it does not go far enough.  If it was meant as comic then it undermines the points that the book makes about 1960s Indian society reaching from wealthy Western input, to the situation of street children and poor fishing families, why smuggling gold into India was worthwhile and the aspirations of middle class Indians in a period of the growing consumer society.  There was an uneveness of tone which left me feeling both dissatisfied and frustrated with the book.

Monday, 27 August 2012

What If The French Government Had Relocated To Algeria In 1940?

My views on this topic can be found in my e-book ‘Other Roads: Alternate Outcomes of the Second World War’ It is available for purchase on Amazon:

UK readers might prefer to access it through:

What If The British Expeditionary Force Had Been Eliminated At Dunkirk?

My views on this topic can be found in my e-book ‘Other Roads: Alternate Outcomes of the Second World War’ It is available for purchase on Amazon:

UK readers might prefer to access it through:

What If Appeasement Had Succeeded?

My views on this topic can be found in my e-book ‘Other Roads: Alternate Outcomes of the Second World War’ It is available for purchase on Amazon:

UK readers might prefer to access it through:

What If Resistance To The Japanese Invasion of China Had Been More Effective?

My views on this topic can be found in my e-book ‘Other Roads: Alternate Outcomes of the Second World War’ It is available for purchase on Amazon:

UK readers might prefer to access it through:

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Demanding Readers

I am often told that we live in a consumer-driven society and that customer power is stronger than ever.  I would contest this by pointing to how often companies now feel no obligation to even to respond to queries or complaints and state that your questions are 'inappropriate' or clash with data protection, or some other pseudo-legal excuse that they make up to not bother to address your legitimate concerns.  Complain about anything at an airport and you are likely to be threatened with anti-terrorist legislation.  If you do not believe me, simply try it.  There are articles enough online, one from 'The Guardian' that I remember featured a pregnant woman trying to get a trolley at an airport and being treated as if she was a threat to national security.

I would agree that customers do feel empowered these days.  Tutored by 'reality' programmes showing us how to get angry to get attention, a point I know I have made before, we have all been encouraged to be indignant and take very personal offence at even minor irregularities.  Given the corporate attitudes this almost creates an unstoppable force crashing against an immovable object, which does nothing for the health of the population, let alone good business.

Now, most of us are not large corporations, but increasingly we are businesses.  Selling on eBay, advertising a room to rent, even like me, putting up e-books for people to buy, we have become a business.  Yet, we are one without much power.  These days you cannot even put negative comments up about troublesome buyers and even saying that you had sent a replacement for something they did not receive, can lead to you being insulted with very colourful language.  The customer is not only right, even when getting a free replacment for something they say they have not received, but that their online image has to be pristine.  This is one reason why I sell nothing on auction sites, but of course, now I am selling e-books and that opens me up to such treatment.

When people buy books these days, they seem to expect that the book will be free or of a nominal fee.  The 99c book appears to be the accepted norm and anything above that, no matter how long it might be or how well written, is deemed to be too expensive.  No wonder bookshops where these days in the UK it is rare to see anything below £8.99 (€10.69; US$13.93) are struggling.  The major problem, however, is that the reader expects the book to be tailored to their specific tastes.  I write in British English and for most readers that is not a big issue.   This is a topic which I have discussed with other writers and I feature some of the examples they have told me about here. 

The problems for British (and some Commonwealth writers, depending on the brand of English they use) do come from US readers, not because we have spelt 'color' as 'colour', but because of reference to British society and business.  I have now learnt that apparently in the USA 'liaison' is a job title, whereas in Britain it is an activity; in the USA a manager cannot be a liaison, but in the UK, a manager often carries out liaison.  I have learnt that readers will count how many paragraphs start with the name of a character even when they are alone in the story at that stage.  Too many mentions mean the book is not worth reading.  Personally I am told I 'over write' and have readers sending me edited versions of my work, to show me how much better it could be, whilst reducing clarity.  People do not like me referring to characters by their surnames, though that is a traditional convention in detective novels.

One factor which I know has applied to movies as far back as 'Pretty in Pink' (1986), readers/viewers cannot tolerate any unresolved issues for the characters.  Famously, the end of that movie was re-shot so that a secondary character, 'Duckie' played by John Cryer ends up with a girlfriend after the heroine with whom he has been friends with for years, goes with another boy.  It appears that readers expect the same treatment.  I get emails asking me about the fate of minor characters and I feel as if I should have a coda like one of the sequences running up over the credits in movies, 'X went on to be ...', the one which comes most to mind is 'Three Kings' (1999) but I am sure there are tens more that I could quote.  The other thing these days, is that you should never leave a cliff hanger or an unresolved issue, even if you are writing a triology or a longer sequence.  It appears that readers demand that even those epic fantasy novels part of a 14-part sequence be self-contained in each novel.  I have people really upset that I have not tied down every single element before the end of a particular novel.  There is no sense of an arc being permitted.  Not only do such constraints inhibit the writing process, but I feel they are patronising to the reader, suggesting that they have no imagination of their own.

The woman in my house, having enjoyed the 'True Blood' television series has begun reading the novels on which the series is (loosely) based.  To some degree it suggests that they are produced for very different audiences.  I know HBO which produces the series is seen as 'high quality' and a serious production company.  The novels reflect their central character, Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress from a backwater village in Louisiana, not only in what happens to her, but how the text is written.  I accept that this may appeal to readers whose level of literacy is not high, but it seems very much at odds with what you see on the screen.  In addition, the drivers for the stories are different.  In the books, Lafayette, the homosexual diner chef is murdered at the end of the first book; in the television series he is one of the most popular characters and continues to have lots of adventures, certainly in the first four series so far shown in the UK.  Each series and many episodes end with a cliff hanger and what Sookie is (she can read people's minds) and the intentions of the vampires and werewolves she encounters, remain elusive.  Why is it that people will tolerate this in a television series and yet not in a book?  Maybe it reflects the different ways in which we consume these different media; perhaps the audiences are different.  I certainly feel that people will tolerate more left unanswered in a series which they expect will continue (though unfortunately many series in the USA are cut short abruptly, simply in the vampire field look at 'Moonlight' and 'Blade') whereas they tend not to expect that in a movie.  Even in the 'Twilight' and 'Harry Potter' franchises, bar the last two movies, there has always been resolution at the end of each individual movie.

This fact of doing everything for the reader is an interesting one.  I suppose in a world where we primarily consume fast food or the home equivalent of it, we do not expect to have to get out the knife and fork or even chew, we just need to consume, in fiction as in food.  I guess this is why 28-page e-books for 99c are the most popular on Amazon.  Yet, on the other hand we have a vast quantity of fan fiction, i.e. stories written by members of the public which continue or extend movies, novels and series, which explore minor characters or put the major ones into very different circumstances.  Apparently, has over 150,000 stories and out of one of these came the best-selling e-book, 'Fifty Shades of Grey' which began life as a fan fiction story featuring characters from the 'Twilight' movies/novels.  An element of these stories is that sometimes, though not always, they involve sexual aspects that would not be acceptable in the original.  Given the emphasis on 'Twilight' on chastity and marriage, it is pretty ironic that a novel about sexual domination should have been spawned by it.

These days if a reader feels my novel has turned out 'wrong' or has too much unresolved I suggest they write their own version and I have some friends who are writers who do the same.  I must say that this is rarely taken up.  I suppose as yet, we do not have the standing of Stephanie Meyer or Charlaine Harris that people would feel that creating fan fiction was appropriate.  I guess fan fiction is like doing an impersonation or a spoof, others need to know the original sufficiently well to see what you have been doing.  Obscurity of my books closes off that for people.  Yet it does not douse their indignation that I did not get into their heads and saw how the story 'must' be and I have not provided a detailed biography of every single character who appears or is mentioned.  I get that too, even characters who do not 'appear' in the story but are referred to, such as relatives or employers, people want to know about them.  I guess, ultimately you end up with readers insisting that every novel comes with an accompanying volume like the 'The Dune Encyclopedia' (1984) which details every single scrap of everything that appears in the 'Dune' novels of Frank Herbert almost as if they were real.

I wonder how to respond to readers who are increasingly demanding.  I guess I do not need the money desperately enough to simply write to address what they want.  I have even found it hard writing stuff for an American publisher because it soon became apparent simply how many terms and how much grammar is different to British English.  If I missed even a single word such as putting 'film' instead of 'movie' or leaving in 'cinema' rather than 'picture house' it jarred and made the book seem invalid.  Maybe we are more tolerant in Britain; reading things I can adapt to US, Australian and even Indian English.  However, I do have a British friend who now will not read anything written by an American as he finds the differences too extreme that it does not permit him to enjoy the novel.  Maybe rather than having a 'global' language, local differences are becoming greater and less tolerable for readers. 

It is also time fixed.  I have found that readers expect historical novels to feature people speaking and behaving in a way that they would nowadays.  People often believe spoke in a more mannered way and did not know the swear words of the present world, for them I suggest reading the works of Chaucer produced in the 15th century in which 'shiten' , i.e. 'covered in shit' features in the opening passages and used to describe what it does today, though in 500 years it has evolved into 'shitty', I guess.  Certainly in movies, it is painful to me to see people in previous centuries behaving as if they have just walked in from a street in California in the 21st century, which of course they have, but theatre and movies are supposed to be about suspending disbelief rather than not even trying.   It is ironic that now we are able to conjure up accurate representations of medieval cities, the actors often lack the skills or direction to produce such an engaging portrayal as the famous scene in the television series 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' (1970) in which a scene in a studio feels as if it is outside simply through the use of a small branch of blossom and the skill of the acting. 

I would encourage readers to be more adventurous, to take out the mental knife-and-fork even the chopsticks and engage with books which are not necessarily hard to read but which need some 'chewing', which do not treat you as if you are in Year 3 (3rd grade for American readers) of school.  Bear in mind, many of the Harry Potter books were written for a pre-pubescent audience, and whilst flawed, do challenge the reader much more than what so many readers demand from me and other writers publishing online.  Finally I would say, if you are dissatisfied with a book but like its concept and its characters, do what I used to do and what tens of thousands of people do and write your own version.  After all you might end as successful as EL James, fastest selling e-book author ever with work coming out of fan fiction.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Gone Like Dust In The Wind

A year ago after a period of unemployment following a period of bullying at work, I had found a permanent job.  Whilst, my salary had fallen by £7000 and I had to work away from home only returning at the weekends, I was still earning enough to just pay the mortgage.  I had hoped that in time I would get a better paid job and work closer to home.  Yet, it has all gone the other way.  I am waiting for a job to send me a contract even three weeks after I accepted the post and the pay is £9000 less than what I earnt last year and £16000 less than my pay in 2010.  Last year my career seemed to be stuttering a little, but I believed I could get back on track once the economy improved or if I could get the right interview.  Now I have dropped back to a job and a salary of the kind that I have not had since 2001 when petrol was half the price per litre it is now and you could rent a flat for the price it costs to rent a single room now.  I am just about able to sell the house before the bank repossesses it, not helped by people lying and prevaricating around the sale; more on that later.  The woman and boy I have lived with for eight years now have to return to their family and I have to go back to living with my parents at the age of 44, my failure seems complete.  I know these are hard economic times, I know that I was persuaded to be optimistic when I should have been pessimistic and put the house up for sale the moment I was given a 'permament' job.  I am grateful at least that I have some family I can turn to.  However, I think that the hardest thing is the weariness.  So much of this has dragged on for months with a high price on my mental and physical health and I feel picked on, as I am sure most people do in these times.  I have not killed anyone or robbed from anyone, but because of bullies in the workplace I have lost everything.

The house.  Last month I outlined how we had effectively auctioned our house and how some of the people participating in the auction did so with no idea or very strong, but completely wrong, ideas about what they were participating in.  We accepted the highest bidder, getting the house for £45,000 less than we paid for it.  However, it turned out that she had lied to the estate agency.  No-one was supposed to be in the auction who was part of a chain and did not have cash immediately to buy the house.  This woman was in a chain and it broke, her buyer fell through.  With the building society slowly coming to protest the arrears on the mortgage we could not wait for her to sell her house again.  We knew from experience that this could take many months.  If we had been prepared to wait that long, then I would have pressed the woman who lives in my house to market it in January and we could have got closer to the price we were offered last year, £217,000 compared to the £195,000 we are now taking.  Anyway, we told the first bidder we could not wait for her and went to the second bidder who had offered £186,000, but he had now spent it on another house.  The third bidder was still interested so we are now down to accepting £182,000; flats in our street sell for £135,000, so he is getting a good deal for a 3-bedroomed house.  It was a hard decision, but we had to do it and even then, the three weeks we had lost while the first bidder mucked us around means that both me and the woman in my house and her son, all have a black mark about our credit ratings for the next 6 years.  This means, given I will be 50 by then, I will never have a mortgage again.  Worse than that though, given the credit checks that letting agencies run, neither me nor the woman cannot rent a house or flat unless it is through a social housing agency.  Hence us having to go to live back with our families.

You would have thought we would have been angry with the first bidder.  However, I am simply tired.  I am angry with so many people, not least the two line managers who have systematically wrecked my life simply because they enjoy being so petulant and indignant.  I can be angry with the human resources department, which not content with me leaving their employ, wrote, after I had been on unemployment benefits to five weeks to my job centre, saying, falsely, that I had made myself deliberately unemployed and needed to have my benefit stopped.  These things are checked when you first sign on and yet they were clearly indignant that I had been allowed to claim benefits and sought to prevent that.  They have 5000 employees to deal with, but clearly chasing after a former employee to stop him receiving £111 per week is deemed to be a proper use of their time.

Thus, I had no anger left for the first bidder who had lied and messed us around.  However, the same was not true for herself.  First she turned up on our doorstep to harangue us for 'breaking off' the 'agreement' to sell to her, even though no documents had been exchanged.  We did not let her in the house.  Yet she persisted, indignant that her plans had been put into disarray.  The estate agent selling her house was the next to visit us and in quieter tones asked us why we had shifted to another buyer.  We pointed out that given the lost time, if we did not, we would not have a house to sell as it would be repossessed.  It did not stop.  The woman sold her house and now got her husband or father to telephone to again to try to compel us to sell to the woman.  We explained that the sale was progressing with the third bidder.  I hope that is the end of it.  I know we live in a society in which if you are not angry, you are nothing, but given all that we have faced, to have someone who lied to us and wasted our time get angry at us, seems perverse.  However, as I well know now, my thinking is out of step with what is not only acceptable behaviour but expected behaviour in the UK nowadays.

I began this blog five years ago as a man who seemed dogged by nasty people.  However, I never would have envisaged that in that time I would be effectively barred from owning a house and my career would be wrecked and the closest thing I have to a family would be divided not through arguments but simply because of the behaviour of others and benefit regulations.  I warn you, in our world, in which people relish destroying others to occupy their coffee break, be aware that everything that you can be gone from you so quickly as if it never existed.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Atlas of Imaginary Worlds 15: The Continents of Seanchan

Being busy working on e-books, I have rather been neglecting this blog.  I have been pleased to find that Blogger has stopped insisting that I use the interface that they introduced earlier in the year and which proved incredibly hard to use compared to the traditional one.  There is a warning that I see whenever I log in that they will introduce a new one.  Hopefully that is not simply the same one as appeared before, but something with better functionality rather than being simply new, which these days always seems to be considered by providers as 'better' even though that is often not the case.

Anyway, I came across another map of a fantasy world and so I thought I would put it up here and take a look at it in the way that I used to.  I think it was stimulated by me watching the movie 'John Carter' based on the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I have featured maps from there before.  I was also looking for some new wallpaper for my laptop and ended up digging out the Elric world map, which in terms of artistic merit is still one of my favourites.

This images is of the continents of Seanchan which feature in a 14-book fantasy series called 'The Wheel of Time' with the first book published in 1990, six years after the first author, James Oliver Rigney, Jr. (1948-2007) under the pseudonym Robert Jordan.  Under a number of pseudonym's Rigney wrote westerns, historical novels and in the 1980s a series of Conan the Barbarian novels, which may explain his interest in vast continents in fantasy.  After Rigney's death the Wheel of Time novels have been continued with the final three novels being written by Brandon Sanderson (born 1975), a fan of the original series.  Sanderson has had success in his own right producing fantasy and children's fiction.  Though Rigney was an Episcopalian, taking high communion a number of times per week and a Fremason and Sanderson is a Mormon, the Wheel of Time stories which consist of classic fantasy with magic elements, epic quests and a whole host of characters, are influenced more by Eastern philosophies, with references to the cyclical nature of history as found in Chinese perspectives and the circular nature of things as seen in Buddhism.  The wheel and circles feature heavily in the iconography of the series.  There are also Zoroastrian references to the duality of nature, though it is apparent many English-speaking readers see this in Christian terms as God and the Devil; though personally it reminds me both of Catharism and Michael Moorcock's concepts of Law and Chaos in many of his fantasy novels.

Being such a sprawling series, Wheel of Time has led to its own wiki from which I have drawn the following:

Seanchan is the name of the landmass located across the Aryth Ocean to the west of the Westlands, and across the Morenal Ocean to the east of Shara. It is also the name of the Empire that occupies most of the landmass and its offshore islands, and also of the people who inhabit it.

The Seanchan home continent almost girdles the world from pole to pole and is considerably larger than the continent consisting of the Westlands, Aiel Waste, Great Blight and Shara. The nearest parts of Seanchan to the Westlands are located more than 5,000 miles across the Aryth Ocean, a journey of some months even by the fastest ships and contributing to the lack of communication between the two continents for most of recorded history.
Seanchan is split into two landmasses, divided by a long dividing channel. There are four large islands located off the coast of the continent, and three small ones within the dividing channel.

The northern landmass
The northern landmass is the smaller of the two. The northern-most part of the landmass consists of the Lesser Blight, which is a corrupted landscape similar to the Great Blight north of the Westlands. Considering its latitude, it is possible that this corrupted landscape extends across the entire world, even below the waves. Although the Lesser Blight is not as hostile nor as dangerous as the Great Blight, it is still considered the most dangerous part of the Seanchan continent.
South of the Lesser Blight are the Mountains of Dhoom [this seems rather derivative, almost comic in its title]. These are considered to be an extension of the mountains of the same name in the Westlands, and it is possible that the mountains completely encircle the Blight and even continue beneath the waves, as they tumble into the sea in the same confused morass of islands and cliffs as in the Westlands.
The Seanchan Empire claims all parts of the continent south of the Mountains of Dhoom. The remainder of the northern landmass consists of three peninuslas which extend for several thousand miles southward from the mountains. These peninsulas are mountainous, with only a few major rivers being marked on maps. The largest cities on the northern landmass are Sohima, Imfaral, Asinbayar and, located at the southern-most tip of the landmass on the equator, Qirat.
The north was secured by the invading armies of Luthair Paendrag Mondwin early during the Conquest, who took Imfaral as their base of operations and first capital before they invaded the south. This suggests their invasion fleet landed on the north-eastern coast of the northern landmass. 

The dividing channel
The two subcontinents are divided by a channel or sea. This body of water opens onto the Morenal Ocean at Qirat in the west and proceeds eastwards before turning north for several thousand miles, opening onto the Aryth Ocean at roughly the latitude of the Aile Dashar. A large off-shoot of this channel forms a significant bay or gulf between the peninsulas on which Sohima and Imfaral are located. There are three islands in the channel where it swings northwards.

The southern landmass
The southern landmass is by far the larger of the two. It is located mostly within the southern hemisphere, but a huge peninsula extends north and east for several thousand miles into the northern. The imperial capital of Seandar is located on this landmass, roughly due west of the island of Tremalking. Seandar is located at the meeting-point of two substantial river networks.

The southern landmass proper is vast and is covered by mountains several times the length of the Spine of the World, lakes large enough to be called seas, rolling plains, deserts and immense rivers longer and wider than the Erinin or Manetherendrelle. The other major cities of the Empire located on the southern landmass are Kirendad, Anangore, Shon Kifar, Rampore, Tzura and Noren M'Shar. Several large islands lie off the coast, one of which is presumably Marendalar, site of the last major rebellion against the Crystal Throne. The island of Maram Kashor lies off the south-eastern coast of the southern landmass.
[A coda on the bottom of the entry shows up some of the challenges that authors face when creating a world and trying to fit lots of interesting land masses on it.]
According to the text of The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, the Seanchan continent stretches for 4,000 leagues (16,000 miles) from north to south and for some 1,500 leagues (6,000 miles) at its widest point east to west. However, the former figure is not actually possible since the world of the Wheel is our world [I am not really sure why the author assumes that this world is Earth, maybe I missed something in the back story] (since it exceeds the Earth's half-circumference of 12,000 miles). The accompanying map, although hardly of scientific quality, suggests more plausible figures of just over 10,000 miles from north to south and just over 5,000 miles from east to west at its widest point.
The names seem to mix Middle Eastern/Indian ones with Celtic ones, both popular sources for fantasy country names certainly since the late 1960s.

What I liked about this continent is that bar a couple of lakes, it seems to have avoided any major inland seas for a change.  It has also avoided archipelagoes.  Instead we have something that almost has vast fjords.  In part it reminds me of Baja Mexico and in the East it is reminiscent of the Great Lakes.  Overall, however it seems to be influenced by Scotland and this is heightened by the dividing channel.  The part of Scotland to the North-West of the Highland Boundary Fault originally was part of the North American continental plate whereas the land to the South-East of the line is from the European plate.  The fault has a series of lochs running across Scotland from South-West to North-East.  Bar a twist of geology, a chunk of Scotland could lie separated from the rest of it by a channel like the one shown in this map.  In some ways it is nice to see that fantasy novels with wonderful continents are still being produced even today.