A title quest – the next Elementals book

Cover background

New Elementals book cover background

I’m struggling for a title. I have a title but because it’s also the title of an 80′s pop song by Echo & the Bunnymen – and a quite unusual title – I won’t be able to use it. I don’t mind this (well, I mind it a bit) but the first Elementals book had a working title (right up to the point where it was finished in its third or so draft) until Dark Peak landed in my lap again (I’d already dismissed it once but by the time I’d re-worked and edited the book down, Dark Peak was exactly right) so I’m not so worried. I think titles come to you when you most need them.

But it makes it difficult to talk about the book without sounding like I’m dissociating from it or like I have no idea what it’s about. Neither’s true. I will say it’s a tougher book to write than Dark Peak, partly because many of the characters are new and partly because I’ve got to be very careful I don’t re-write history (but they’re the kind of challenges I love!) but mainly it’s been tougher because I’ve been trying out different writing methods. I tried a linear, chronological method where I wrote what came next – but I don’t have that kind of mind. I tried mapping and structuring to know what my characters would do next – I found I stopped caring about what they did next when I came to the actual writing. I tried waiting until the story was finished before I started editing, but the story’s not finished yet and my re-drafting gene was dying a death!

Chapter 1 WordcloudThe fact is I write into the dark – for better or worse – and in episodic tranches that get collaged together and edited/re-drafted as the writing goes on. Now that I’ve admitted that to myself once more the book is coming on nicely. The word cloud I’ve added here is the first chapter scrunched up into pretty pictures and lovely words. I had fun doing it – both the writing and the word-clouding. It’s apt because the main Elemental in this book isn’t Stone, it’s Cloud – and her companion is a girl called Cirrus. I like them both. I’m getting to know them pretty well, even though they still haven’t given me a title. But they will. I’ll let you know how we get on.

 

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The Death of Grass by John Christopher

The Death of Grass (front)_2The Death of Grass is one of the darkest, most wonderful novels I’ve read in a long time.

Written in 1956, it still feels very fresh – especially with the  news recently full of the horrendous flooding in the Somerset Levels (and the inefficiency of the government to deal with it) and the emergence of looters and petrol thieves. (It’s also interesting to note John Christopher lived in Somerset.)

 John Christopher  (one of the writing names of Sam Youd) has a cult following when really he should be much better known in the mainstream because The Death of Grass (later filmed as No Blade of Grass) is a story about the social, moral and political breakdown of society when the balance of the natural world is altered. Countries abandon support for other countries, billions of people die of starvation or are murdered or, the brainchild of the fictional UK government, are sacrificed. It reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s books and HG Well’s War of the Worlds.

A virus (Chun-Li) has developed in China and has wiped out all the rice. Food parcels are shipped to Asia at the beginning of the book but it doesn’t stop the slaughter and cannibalism that ensues (we get this in the first chapter so this isn’t a spoiler). The rest of the world looks on with a smug and openly racist smile on its global face: “There’s an awful lot of Chinks in China. They’ll breed ‘em back up again” says one character. But rice is a form of grass, oryza sativa, and so is wheat and barley, bamboo and pasture grasses and many other cereal crops – there are 11,000 different types of grass. And viruses mutate and evolve quicker than most of us can sneeze.

Many viruses have a built in lifespan (like common colds) and die down quickly after a range of phases. Not Chun-Li. This virus continues to evolve (and is aided by the counter-viruses thrown at it). When it evolves to attack the other grass-types the implications are far-reaching. Imagine a world without cows, deer, goats, rabbits – any of the grazers and browsers. No butter. No bread. No milk. No leather. No meat. I can’t help but make comparisons with what might happen if the bees die out through varroa and colony collapse.

The meat of this book isn’t what happens to the grass but what effect its total obliteration has on the people in the book. The story lays down a foundation biblical in its essence right from the word go – but you don’t realize it until close to the end, because it’s so contemporary in its telling. Over three days or so you watch likeable characters turn into Conrad-esque nightmares and arses turn into humane, if a bit spineless, human beings. The treatment of the women – strongly written characters – is horrendous and they’re reduced unnaturally quickly to chattels. And there’s one main character I wish I’d never met.

I can’t say much more without giving out any serious spoilers but something Roger, one of the main characters, says in chapter two keeps buzzing between my ears:

‘The thing all you adult, sensitive people must bear in mind is that things are on your side at present – you live in a world where everything’s in favour of being sensitive and civilized. But it’s a precarious business.’

Well that’s me – I’m adult and sensitive and civilized and I would truly hate to think what would happen to me as a person if anything drastic caused that to change. And Roger’s tight, it is a precarious business – even without Chun-Li.

 

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Stalker by Lucy Hamilton

 

Stalker by Lucy Hamilton Shearsman Books, 2012 ISBN: 978-1848612242

Stalker by Lucy Hamilton
Shearsman Books, 2012
ISBN: 978-1848612242

From the book cover: The insidious peril that haunts these pages appears in various guises [...] Stalker is a collection of prose poems in which the narrator attempts to make sense of everyday experience, turning to Rilke, Van Gogh, Steinbeck and others in her quest for understanding.

Stalker is Lucy Hamilton’s first full length collection, and it’s telling of her intellectual integrity and confidence as a writer that she chooses to launch her career for a wider readership (she’s already had a lot of success with her Hearing Eye pamphlet, Sonnets for my Mother, and her translations) with prose poems – not many contemporary poets would have the balls to do that.Sonnets_for_my_mother_lucy_hamilton

The poems in this book are at once both beautiful and ugly, disturbing and tranquil; and yet they are always elegant in the writer’s choice of exactly the right word, the right turn of a line, the right shift of tone or scene. Hamilton is a poet who knows when to hold a line and when to let it go – she understands the give and take of cadence, the control of brevity (and when to swell the scene a little), and how to make the lines work for the poem; her similes stand out for their freshness (without being irritatingly quirky, which much contemporary poetry is guilty of) and the ability to convey perfectly what the poems mean them to, e.g.:

`I find him stacked up in the archives, row upon row, layer upon layer, like a slice of the paupers’ graves.’ (`Clochard’)

– this still gives me a chill when I think of it, even though it was a while since I read it.

The space of the collection is far reaching – not just across the geographical locations of the book France, Germany, Scotland, Greece, America, and England – but how it traverses the space of the heart: love, fear, regret, anticipation, sorrow, and those moments of happiness that we all have an echo of in our own hearts.

If you buy only one poetry book this year, you can’t go far wrong with this one. That it was shortlisted for the Forward Prizes’ Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection in 2012 is not surprising (that it didn’t win it is!)

(a shorter version of this review appears on AmazonUK)
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