Today’s Art (21st January 2020)

Woo Hoo! Here’s the second comic in “Damania Recanted”, a four-comic webcomic mini series. You can also find lots of other comics featuring these characters on this page too.

As usual, this comic update is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Recanted – Charity Shop” By C. A. Brown

Review: “British Bulldog” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a novel that I’ve been meaning to read for years. I am, of course, talking about Sara Sheridan’s 2015 novel “British Bulldog”. I originally ended up buying a second-hand copy of this book shortly after getting a box set of the first three novels in Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” series for Christmas in 2016. At the time, I’d planned to read all three of them and wanted to have a copy of the fourth ready for when I finished.

But, although I read the first two books (but only reviewed the first one), I wasn’t reading much at the time and it was only after I later read the third and fifth books in the series that I remembered the fourth one. And, yes, this is one of those series where each novel is fairly self-contained (although it’s worth reading the previous three books first in order to get to know the characters a bit better).

So, let’s take a look at “British Bulldog”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS, but I’ll avoid revealing too much.

This is the 2016 Constable (UK) paperback edition of “British Bulldog” that I read.

The novel begins in Brighton in February 1954. Ex-SOE agent turned debt collector Mirabelle Bevan is walking back to the office one evening when she notices a man following her. When he approaches her, he points out that he’s a solicitor who has been trying to find her because she has been mentioned in a will.

An acquaintance from the war, Major Matthew “Bulldog” Bradley, has died and bequeathed Mirabelle one thousand guineas on the condition that she finds information about a man called Philip Caine who Bradley escaped from a POW camp with but became separated from during the escape. Although Mirabelle is initially wary about the case, especially when Bradley’s widow doesn’t want her to investigate it, she soon finds herself tangled in a web of secrecy, intrigue and drama that will take her all the way to Paris….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is really compelling. Not only is the Paris setting a really refreshing change but, in addition to the detective elements that you’d expect, this novel also includes some faster-paced elements from the spy thriller, adventure thriller and suspense thriller genres that really help to add focus and momentum to the story too. Seriously, if you want a good historical thriller novel, then this one is worth reading.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re reasonably good – with the novel’s central mystery being intriguing enough to keep the story compelling. Given the pre-internet setting and the “cold case” that Mirabelle finds herself investigating, this also means that the novel can include a few scenes involving trawling through libraries and archives for information. Although this might sound boring, it not only allows for the novel to seamlessly add atmospheric background details/information, but the “needle in a haystack” nature of these scenes also helps to add a bit more more suspense to the story too.

But, surprisingly, this is actually slightly more of a thriller novel than a detective novel 🙂 Although the thriller elements only really become prominent during the middle to later parts of the novel, there’s a really great mixture of chases/evasions, spy stuff, suspenseful sneaking around and even a few fast-paced set pieces. In a lot of ways, this novel is a bit like an old-school spy/adventure thriller and, as such, it is probably the most gripping novel I’ve read so far in this series 🙂 Plus, unlike many other novels in the series, there isn’t really a second case for Mirabelle to solve (and the sub-plot is a character-based one instead) – so the story also feels a bit more focused and streamlined too.

All of these thriller elements are also helped by an absolutely wonderful atmosphere too. Not only is this story set during a cold, gloomy time of year but the fact that a good portion of it is set in Paris is a very welcome change too 🙂 Not only does 1950s Paris add a lot of extra atmosphere to the story, but it also allows for a lot of extra characterisation, character-based drama and WW2-related backstory stuff too. This includes stuff about the French Resistance, how everyone wants to forget the war, the fate of wartime collaborators etc… Not only does this stuff add a realistic historical background to the story, but it also helps to add a lot of extra weight and complexity to the novel’s drama elements too.

This novel is also something of a character-based drama too. Not only are Mirabelle’s conflicted feelings about her wartime affair with a since-deceased SOE agent (and friend of Major Bradley) called Jack Duggan a major part of the story, but one of the novel’s other characters is also heavily affected by the events of the war too. Needless to say, this novel’s characterisation is really good too – although it mostly focuses on Mirabelle, all of the novel’s other main characters have fairly realistic motivations, flaws, emotions etc… too.

In terms of the writing, it’s really good. The novel’s third-person narration is written in a fairly “matter of fact”, but slightly formal and descriptive/atmospheric, way that really fits in well with the novel’s 1950s settings whilst also being more readable than an actual 1950s novel would be. If you’ve read other books in the series, then the writing is up to the same standard that you’d expect but – to my delight – this novel also contains more fast-paced moments that, surprisingly, work really well with this writing style 🙂

As for length and pacing, this novel absolutely excels 🙂 At an efficient 274 pages in length, there are very few wasted pages here. Plus, the novel’s pacing is really superb too. Not only does this novel slowly increase the scale, pace and intensity of the drama (gradually going from being a detective novel to a thriller novel), but even the slightly more moderately-paced earlier parts of the story are still mysterious and suspenseful enough to keep you gripped. Although this certainly isn’t the first “Mirabelle Bevan” novel to include elements from the thriller genre, they are used in the best possible way here and this whole novel was even more compelling than I’d expected 🙂

All in all, this is probably my favourite “Mirabelle Bevan” novel so far 🙂 It’s a really brilliant and atmospheric historical detective novel that, thanks to some well-handled additions from the thriller genre, is also a really gripping and streamlined story too 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

How To Use Signposting To Make Your Story Less Confusing

Well, I thought that I’d talk about signposting today. This is where you provide the reader with quick, clear information about “who, where, when etc…” in order to prevent your story from becoming confusing. Although this is less of an issue in linear single-narrator first-person perspective stories and/or in most third-person perspective stories, it is absolutely essential in some types of first-person perspective stories and/or stories with a slightly unusual or non-linear structure.

In short, if you’re writing a story with multiple first-person narrators and/or lots of flashbacks or time jumps, then you need to signpost this. One common way to do this is by adding a few small pieces of information to the heading of each of your story’s chapters. This helps to reader to quickly and easily follow the story, without breaking their immersion by making them stop and think “what the hell is going on?“.

A great example of this can be found in Tade Thompson’s 2016 novel “Rosewater“. This is a first-person perspective sci-fi thriller that makes extensive use of flashback scenes (which aren’t always in chronological order) in order to add a second plot thread to the story without having to add multiple first-person narrators 🙂

Yet, the story never really becomes confusing. This is all thanks to excellent signposting – not only does every chapter heading include both the date and location (eg: “Lagos: 2045”) but, even more importantly, it also states whether the events of the chapter are happening “Then” or “Now”. Although this might seem like stating the obvious if you’ve been paying attention to the dates, it is still incredibly useful because it instantly tells the reader which plot thread they are reading. Without this, the novel might have been a little confusing.

If you’re using more than one first-person narrator, then you also need to clearly tell the reader whenever the narrator changes. Usually, the best way to do this is just to include the narrator’s name in the chapter heading so that the reader instantly knows who is narrating the chapter.

Plus, there are also other ways of clearly signposting stuff when using slightly unusual narrative/perspective techniques. For example, both Tess Gerritsen’s 2002 police procedural thriller “The Apprentice” and Dana Fredsti’s 2012 zombie thriller “Plague Town” combine both first and third person narration. Yet, this never becomes confusing because the changes are clearly signposted via the use of italic type (for first-person segments in “The Apprentice” and for third-person segments in “Plague Town”). Not only that, both novels also make subtle changes to the writing style in each type of segment so that it is even more clear to the reader that something has changed.

Of course, signposting can be done in much more subtle ways than this in certain types of story. For example, many third-person perspective action-thriller novels will feature two plot threads involving two main characters in different locations. These novels don’t usually need to add signposting to the chapter headings for the simple reason that not only is a location change shown by a chapter change, but the name of the main character each chapter focuses on is usually mentioned within the first couple of sentences. The third-person perspective also means that there’s less risk of a change in focus being confusing.

This means that, when a chapter ends, the reader is ready for a possible location change – with the character names in the first few sentences also telling them which plot thread the story is focusing on. As such, stories that use techniques like this don’t usually need to add signposting to the chapter headings.

But, whatever type of story you write, the most important thing to do is to think of your story from your reader’s perspective (and this is also why reading regularly is important if you are a writer, since it gives you direct recent experience of being a reader). If something seems like it might be confusing to someone who has never read your story before, then look for a way to signpost what is happening.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Rosewater” By Tade Thompson (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for some hardboiled fiction, so I thought that I’d take a look at a second-hand copy of Tade Thompson’s 2016 cyberpunk-influenced sci-fi thriller novel “Rosewater” that I’ve been meaning to read for a couple of weeks.

So, let’s take a look at “Rosewater”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Rosewater” that I read.

The novel is set in the Nigerian city of Rosewater in 2066. This city is only about ten years old, having been built around a mysterious alien bio-dome that fell to Earth. These alien visitations to Earth have not only had a major effect on geopolitics (with Russia, China and Africa becoming more powerful) but have also had a biological effect on the planet too. In addition to occasionally healing the sick, reanimating the dead, introducing new lifeforms and providing free electricity, the alien bio-dome has also caused some humans to become “sensitives”, or psychics.

Kaaro is a cynical, world-weary sensitive who works as part of a human firewall for a bank in Rosewater. Every day, he reads vintage novels to create interference to prevent rogue psychics from hacking into the bank. His co-worker Bola insists on setting him up on a date with her friend Aminat during a visit to one of the dome’s healing sessions. But, during the date, he receives a text from Section 45 – a mysterious branch of the country’s security services that Kaaro secretly works for. So, reluctantly, he goes over to their offices and extracts information from the mind of a tortured prisoner.

But, soon, strange things start happening. Kaaro gets psychic visits from a mysterious woman called Molara, his boss warns him about Aminat, some criminals are after him and, even worse, several of the other psychics start dying from a mysterious disease….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot of fun to read 🙂 Imagine a combination of a spy/action/detective thriller novel, Jeff Noon’s “Vurt”, a William Gibson novel, Greg Bear’s “Blood Music“, Eric Brown’s “Bengal Station” trilogy, the irreverent time-jumping weirdness of something like Robert Brockway’s “The Unnoticeables” and maybe the “Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex” TV series and this might give you some vague clue of what to expect 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements – which are really awesome 🙂 Not only is there a lot of good worldbuilding, showing all of the effects that alien contact has had on Earth, but it is also one of those interesting cyberpunk-style novels which doesn’t actually involve the internet.

Like with the hallucinogenic feathers in Jeff Noon’s “Vurt”, this is a novel that features cyberspace-like scenes that take place within a psychic space called the “Xenosphere” (a traditional VR internet called “Nimbus” exists too, but it is just a background detail).

Not only does this lend the novel a slightly fantastical quality, but it is kept firmly in the sci-fi genre thanks to the inclusion of an actual scientific explanation for it and – by extension – a series of rules surrounding it. And, since this novel relies on the mind (rather than machines) for it’s virtual worlds, it can be a lot more surreal, interesting and just generally creative with these scenes.

Not only is this novel’s worldbuilding absolutely excellent but, like the best sci-fi, it is also completely original too. The aliens are quite literally alien, with the characters knowing enough about them to live near them but not knowing enough for them to be intriguingly mysterious at the same time. Likewise, I cannot praise the atmosphere and descriptions of the city of Rosewater itself highly enough. It’s a really interesting place 🙂

In keeping with the cyberpunk genre, the setting also contains some dystopian elements – however, in an interesting twist, they don’t come from the usual mega-corporations but from more realistic things like government, outdated legislation, mob justice, crime etc… instead. In other words, this novel feels really original 🙂

The novel’s thriller elements are also brilliant too. Not only is this novel written in a fast-paced way, but it also makes excellent use of things like suspense, intrigue, secrets, mini-cliffhangers, mystery and a few action sequences to keep everything compelling.

Another awesome thing about this novel is how it mixes the immediacy of first-person narration with the traditional thriller technique of multiple plot threads. Most first-person thrillers that attempt this use the awkward device of multiple first-person narrators – but this novel instead uses a series of flashback chapters set a decade or two earlier to provide a second plot thread without breaking the immersion by switching the narrator. These time jumps are also very clearly signposted (not only do they tell you the date and location, but they are also marked as “Then” or “Now”) which prevents them from being confusing or breaking the flow of the story 🙂

Plus, this novel also contains horror elements too 🙂 Seriously, these were a really brilliant surprise. In addition to some chilling moments of dystopian horror, there’s also a good amount of psychological horror, a few moments of gory horror, some surreal body horror, a brilliantly intense scene of monster horror and – even better – zombie horror too 🙂 Even though the zombies don’t show up that often, the fact that this novel blends the cyberpunk and zombie genres is really awesome 🙂

In terms of the characters, this novel is reasonably good. The narrator, Kaaro, gets the most characterisation and he’s a classic cyberpunk protagonist of the morally-ambiguous, world-weary and cynical type (who, like Deckard from “Blade Runner”, also works for an evil police force). But, thanks to his narration and intriguing backstory (and a few well-placed moments of humour), he comes across as a really interesting, realistic and surprisingly sympathetic character. Although the novel’s other characters get slightly less characterisation, they seem reasonably realistic and there’s enough characterisation for you to care about what happens to them.

As for the writing, it is excellent 🙂 This novel’s first-person narration is written in the kind of fast-paced, personality-filled way that you’d expect from a good sci-fi or horror thriller novel 🙂 Not only that, the narration also reads like a more understated and streamlined version of the kind of classic hardboiled cyberpunk narration that you’d expect from a writer like William Gibson 🙂 Plus, the narration still manages to remain descriptive enough to add atmosphere and bring the story’s settings to life too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 390 pages, it’s a little on the longer side of things – but is written in the kind of fast-paced way that won’t make this too much of an issue. The novel is paced like a thriller – with multiple plot threads, compelling suspense, lots of dramatic moments etc..- which also helps to avoid some of the slowness that is typically associated with science fiction. Plus, although this novel is very clearly the first novel in a series (there’s even a note about the sequel at the end), the main plot has enough resolution for the sequel hook/background cliffhanger at the end not to feel frustrating or unsatisfying.

All in all, this novel was a lot of fun to read 🙂 If you want a more innovative and imaginative version of the the cyberpunk genre that moves at twice the usual pace, includes lots of atmosphere, some well-placed horror elements and an interesting premise, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.