Monthly Roundup - April '21
I haven’t posted nearly as much as I’d have liked so far this year, especially in terms of short fiction reviews. A big part of that, unfortunately, is that despite bookmarking a great many and eagerly eyeing up promising-looking issues of new and established magazines alike, I just haven’t yet read enough of them. Or had time to properly organise my thoughts about the ones I have read. This is something that I hope to rectify in coming weeks, but for now I’m going to explain a bit of what I’ve been up to instead.
Not least of which has been actually getting some new fiction down for a change, and making an effort to break out of the loop of always just re-reading and rewriting older stories to send them back out in the ever-diminishing hope of success. Which is not to say that I don’t think these stories are good - I wouldn’t be persisting with them if they weren’t - but I’ve read them all so frequently by now, and had them commensurately rejected so often, that it can be difficult to muster the motivation required.
Anyway, last week’s fine weather, and my accompanying mood, translated into what I felt was some pretty good work, getting two flash pieces and a short story in shape to send off to a couple of competitions. Of those, only one was a relatively old piece (about three and a half years in its earliest form), while the others reflect my commitment to bolster my submissions stockpile with a few more fresh tales. Of course, not all the ideas for such stories are fresh in themselves; it’s more the case that I’m finally getting around to drafting pieces that have been on my To Do list for…a little too long. In particular, the short story, inspired by a decade of sporadic wedding attendance and occasional jaunts to (even) sunnier climes, has been gestating in some form or another for ages. But it also reflects another shift in my approach.
Personally, I find few things more frustrating in this racket than feeling I’ve really ‘solved’ a story and cleared the main problems that were holding it back, only to realise I’ve already sent early iterations to the most suitable venues, and now have no recourse to try them again. Therefore, I have resolved to be more patient with my process, and allow myself more time between initial ‘completion’ and first submission. This has already meant that I’ve missed or am shortly going to miss a few more deadlines than I’d like, especially at places that might only open for specific lengths (i.e. novella) once a year. But then, there isn’t much difference between a missed deadline and one that you’ve wasted with inferior work - except that with the former, you can always try again next time. And the flip side of this seems to be, so far, that I feel less panicked about that notion of ‘wasting’ such chances. For the submissions I have made with my newer work, and even with the latest versions of older work, I am generally more confident that it’s the best I can currently make it, and so I’m giving myself at least a half-decent shot. If nothing else, I hope that the first readers who receive these more patiently-polished drafts are able to enjoy them for what they are.
And then, if they should get rejected, the theory is that they’ll at least require less time and effort to tidy them even further before submitting again. Though, it will probably be a few months yet before I start to see whether this approach is going to pay off.
Meanwhile, I have also set out to read a lot more long works this year (hence, partly, why my short fiction reading has tailed off a tad). And listen to more podcasts and audiobooks, too. Of the latter, I’m finding they are exceptionally useful for more non-fiction works, and I recently finally finished Mark Kurlanksy’s Salt: A World History, which is expertly and engagingly read by Scott Brick. I was constantly entertained as well as educated by the author’s account of the continuing importance of salt to the development of human civilisation, and surprised by exactly how central a relevance it has had to some of the major events not just of ancient history, but the past few hundred years, too. Highly recommended for anyone with even a cursory interest in such things.
Thanks to Kirklees Libraries and their Libby account, I’ve also listened to Michael Palin’s version of Around the World in 80 Days, narrated by the author, mainly to accompany my morning stretches and my afternoon walks - and being a massive Palin fan I enjoyed it immensely. It’s not really a straightforward write-up of the TV series of the same name, but rather a reading of his accompanying diaries, and as such makes a great companion piece. As it was written over 30 years ago, some observations about the state of certain countries and modes of transport may seem slightly jarring now, although there are also several occasions where he finds places on the cusp of changes that have since come to pass. Though I probably shouldn’t have been, given the nature of his journey, I was surprised by the amount of time devoted to shipboard antics, and his relationships with the various crews who were generous enough to grant him passage are a real highlight - as are his often nonplussed (though somehow still gracious) reactions to the state of his on-board accommodation and the facilities on offer. At one point, while musing on the limited state of a particular cargo vessel’s library, he conjectured that he couldn’t exactly see such container ships in themselves inspiring great literature. This of course made me think of Horatio Clare’s Down to the Sea in Ships, which does a ruddy good job of proving Palin’s prediction wrong.
I have now moved on to Palin’s reading of his recent historical work about an early polar exploration ship, Erebus, (also through the Libby app) which is fascinating and well-told. He strikes a fine balance between clear admiration for the men who crewed such expeditions and sought out the unknown, facing equally unknown dangers, and rueful reflections on colonial rule and the accompanying mind-set, especially as regards the treatment of indigenous peoples and the inhabitants of penal colonies, and the short-sightedness of the officers' exploitative approach to any wildlife or natural resources they found.
I have also started listening to The History of the Ancient World, by Susan Wise Bauer, which is great listening so far, and strewn with eye-opening anecdotes, though I still have over 18 hours left to go.
In terms of actual reading reading, since making a few mid-month deadlines, I took it a bit easier for a few days and used the unexpectedly consistent weather as an excuse to sit out and finally start Michael Ondaatje’s most recent book, Warlight. I absolutely adore Ondaatje’s work, and this now means I’ve read all of his novels at least once. But, as with his others, I very much intend to reread this in future. Like his most famous novel, The English Patient, it is another historical story linked to World War 2, and indeed there are echoes of that narrative, some of which seem deliberate and perhaps others subconscious. There are links to Anil’s Ghost as well, with the notion of recreating the full image and import of somebody after they’ve died, to try and at least make a little sense of a conflict. Despite the heaviness of many of the themes and undercurrents, however, it is a frequently light and adventurous book, particularly in the first half, when it feels as if the heirs of the author’s Caravaggio have all been loosed in post-war London. There are even scenes throughout to rival that character’s indelible jailbreak from In the Skin of a Lion. It is very much recommended.
As is The Dig, for those who’ve not yet seen it on Netflix. I must admit that what drew me to it at first was the chance to see Ralph Fiennes in a role that seemed to bear some relation to his performance as Count László Almásy in the adaptation of The English Patient (which I still think is an excellent example of such, not only for how it handles what is included from the novel, but perhaps more for what it is wise enough to brush past or leave out). And while there are certainly similarities, in his taciturn nature and general air of expertise, Fiennes also succeeds in crafting a very individual portrait of a man constrained by class prejudice and Establishment rules. Carey Mulligan does fine work as well, as does the actor playing her son. The overall theme of the film was intriguing as well, though, so I’d probably have got around to watching it at some point even without their involvement. I’ve been intrigued by the treasures of Sutton Hoo ever since I first heard about them as a kid, although I must confess to being generally more taken with similar discoveries made overseas, and so have never really investigated this one in any great depth. As a primer into that period of British archaeology, this works well - even if I did hope for perhaps a bit more focus on the minutiae of the process. It has made me interested to look up the novel it’s based on, and possibly some related non-fiction texts, too.
With it taking place at the other side of WW2 to Warlight, I have made preliminary notes for a kind of comparative essay, which I may get around to at some point soon. And which I think would make a useful change, craft-wise, and perhaps reintroduce some more discipline to my critical thinking. That would help my focus with longer works, I feel.
On the subject of which, I have been making more notes recently for not only my in-progress second novel, but also one of my long-planned novellas, and a couple of other story ideas I’ve been sitting on for a while. So, hopefully I’ll begin making more progress with those projects shortly.
In the interim, I shall aim to post some more regular updates of this kind. Although, probably the next one won’t have quite so much waffling. And may feature my thoughts on Catherine Menon’s recently-released debut novel, Fragile Monsters, and Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, which I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time.
Please feel free to let me know on twitter if you’ve found this of interest, and whether you’ve read/watched/listened to some of the works mentioned, or intend to do soon. Also, if you are eligible/aiming to vote in the upcoming Hugo and/or Ignyte Awards, please do consider voting for PodCastle, who are shortlisted in both!
(Disclosure: If you buy books through certain links on this page, I may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees also support independent bookshops.)