12 Bytes (by Jeanette Winterson)

12 Bytes Jeanette Winterson Social

“There’s a new kind of quasi-religious discourse forming, with its own followers, its creed, its orthodoxy, its heretics, its priests, its literature, its eschatological framework. Even its own Singularity. It’s AI.”

Title: 12 Bytes
Author: Jeanette Winterson
Pages:
368
Published by: Grove Press

ChatGPT, everyone’s favourite purveyor of bad poetry, was released in November 2022, with OpenAI’s generative AI tool altering the landscape of work for a number of industries. 

This of course extended to indie authors who, long-acquainted with having the odds stacked against them, found Kindle Unlimited flooded with bookish sewage overnight as a clutch of have-a-go writers and grifters took advantage. Fortunately, Amazon would eventually restrict them from only publishing a mere 3 books a day. That’ll teach them.

This brings us to 12 Bytes, a brilliant piece of non-fiction by witty wordsmith and all-round literary rockstar, Jeanette Winterson. Published as a series of topical essays, she guides the reader through key developments in tech.

And whilst it helps if the reader is familiar with AI, this is by no means mandatory – this is pure Winterson; informative and hilarious in equal measure.

Welcome to the metaverse

From sex robots and metaverse avatars, to transhumanist biotech such as Neuralink, the future is digital, whether you like it or not. 

And 12 Bytes offers a great insight into this from the perspective of a writer. Winterson speaks on the topic with a prescience, having immersed herself in the worlds of big tech, automation, and AI for a number of years.

In fact, her 2019 novel Frankissstein was a retelling of Mary Shelley’s famous gothic novel, with the monster less a physical manifestation and more a discussion on the ethics of AI, transhumanism, and cryonics.

Likewise, as generative AI develops in leaps and bounds, it poses a number of questions for society, including the future of creativity and employment. These are big, emotive topics with rival pro and anti-AI camps emerging in creative circles.

Binary opposition

Because our society thrives on binary opposition, the subject of AI has pitched tech evangelists against artists in public discourse.

Artists and publishers are (understandably) concerned that their work is being used to train AI tools, whilst the tech sector has to make the case that regulation (such as the EU’s AI Act) must be applied in calm and informed moderation rather than in a reactionary manner.

Fortunately, Winterson doesn’t buy into this adversarial discourse – engaging with the topic of artificial intelligence with, well, intelligence and nuance.

It’s worth noting that 12 Bytes was actually published in 2021, over a year prior to us mere mortals gaining access to generative AI tools. 

I asked Winterson at Manchester Lit Fest whether her thoughts had changed since the dawn of publicly available generative AI tools. 

Her answer? 

“Well, I have to be optimistic, because what’s the alternative?”

In 12 Bytes Winterson envisions a world where AI could help transcend human limitations and biases. Is this overly optimistic? Time will tell.

Womens’ erasure from tech - A tale as old as time

We live in a world of ‘tech bros’. Think Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Sam Altman. 

Tech Bro Spirit Halloween Costume - Stuff Tech Bros Like
Source: StuffTechBrosLike

And yet Winterson drops a series of truth bombs throughout 12 Bytes. The forerunners to modern tech innovations such as AI and automation lie in the work done by women. 

12 Bytes analyses the history of tech, bringing the women responsible for our current advancements into the public consciousness. She pores over the work of Ada Lovelace in particular, taking jabs at the notion that tech is predominantly for men (a myth invariably propagated by men).

To be clear, this isn’t a polemical book – it’s just the facts. And because of this, 12 Bytes is important. It’s a chronicle of history that simply isn’t taught or discussed, arriving at a time in which artificial intelligence models are being trained en masse in a sector lacking in diversity.

And from a historical perspective, 12 Bytes is a fantastic chronicle of the erasure of womens’ roles in tech. Even those familiar with the subject will find some of the passages astounding.

Final Thoughts

12 Bytes is an excellent piece of non-fiction that manages to inform and entertain in equal measure. 

At times Winterson, a sharp thinker, falls foul of the ‘looking at screens is inherently bad for us’ trope when discussing technology, which doesn’t hold up under any meaningful scrutiny.

Still, 12 Bytes is a witty and highly competent analysis of the tech sector’s history, and a must-read for anyone curious about the past, present, and future of the industry.

4/5

Luckenbooth (by Jenni Fagan)

Luckenbooth By Jenni Fagan

“There is cheering out on the street. There is dancing. People meet and fall in love. Scuffles break out. They drink far too much. All of life is happening.”

Title: Luckenbooth
Author: Jenni Fagan
Pages:
338
Published by: Windmill Books (Imprint of Penguin, 2021)

In Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth, we follow the often squalid, sometimes vivacious lives (and deaths) of its residents.

Decades pass, people come and go, but the curses of dead women remain, echoing through the cold halls and dank stairwells of 10 Luckenbooth Close.

And much like Fagan’s novella Hex, Luckenbooth is a macabre but powerful piece of writing.

A darker shade of Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a magical place, but like all capital cities, there’s a darker underbelly that most are not privy to. 

Fagan’s interpretation of Edinburgh in Luckenbooth is the antithesis to the tourist board presentation. The novel exposes the reader to political corruption, malicious landlords, extreme poverty, and ingrained misogyny. All the things that polite society is aware of but tends to avert its gaze from. 

Luckenbooth is therefore a seething critique of society’s failings. And whilst the novel lacks subtlety at times, with each chapter veering into a different injustice, this feels intentional.

Fagan drags the reader kicking and screaming from the comfort of fiction back into the stark reality of social issues in our own world, only to pull them back in with slick, beautiful prose.

Luckenbooth Close as architectural horror

10 Luckenbooth Close is a place poisoned by the people within and the world without – and throughout the novel, the building morphs and buckles in grotesque ways. 

It’s a dying building, with the spirits of its violent past clinging to the veil between life and death, haunting its residents.

Highly visual, Fagan’s depictions of 10 Luckenbooth Close elicit creation in the mind of the reader. This is especially powerful in latter parts of the novel where the once-packed building stands derelict and (almost) abandoned.

Byam Shaw, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There is a power to abandoned places – in the absence of humanity, they take on new forms and natural life takes over, which Cal Flyn’s excellent Islands of Abandonment explores with real-world locations.

A form of architectural horror, Poe-esque in execution, it’s a memorable setting that will haunt the mind of its readers long after the final page is turned.

Final Thoughts

Is Luckenbooth worth reading? Great pieces of literary fiction unlock the reader’s imagination, transporting them to wild and wicked places they’ve never experienced before. And Luckenbooth is one of those books – if you give it time. 

It’s a bleak affair and not all readers will enjoy this relentlessly dark interpretation of Scotland’s capital. However, Jenni Fagan is a wonderful writer with a marvellous way with words – and it’s a compelling tale for those willing to darken the door of 10 Luckenbooth Close.

If you’re in any doubt, try reading Hex first – it’s a shorter book that introduces you to the writer’s style. But, if you’re a socially-conscious reader with a fascination towards the gothic, you’ll absolutely love this one.

4/5

Christ on a Bike (by Orla Owen)

Christ on a Bike Book Review
Christ on a Bike Book Review Pin

"Cerys receives an unexpected inheritance but there are rules attached. Three simple rules that must be followed..."

Title: Christ on a Bike
Author: Orla Owen
Pages:
260
Published by: Bluemoose Books (2024)

What would you do if you inherited a significant fortune from a total stranger? How about if you were legally unable to share it with anyone else?

These are the questions that Cerys, the meek and humble protagonist of Christ on a Bike, must wrangle with.

Routinely unnerving, each chapter becomes progressively more uncomfortable as the source of the inheritance comes into question. In fact, Orla Owen’s third novel goes to some startlingly dark places.

It’s a compelling setup, and Christ on a Bike duly delivers dollops of payoffs. This is a brilliant novel – and one that would make for an equally brilliant TV drama.

The perils of greed

Speaking of television, the BBC once ran a TV drama called The Syndicate. This was about friends and families winning big on the lottery and how extreme changes in personal wealth can alter people in unexpected ways.

Owen takes this a step further, with the wealth possessing a uniquely selfish legal agreement.

There are rules attached, one of which is that Cerys cannot share her wealth with another soul under any circumstances. Her finances are audited by a specially-selected financial adviser, and the keepers of the estate have an uncanny ability to sniff out non-compliance.

It’s particularly pertinent that Christ on a Bike is set to release in the midst of an international cost of living crisis. From a readerly point of view, this context has a huge impact on how the novel is read. 

As Cerys’ lifestyle becomes increasingly lavish, with decadent details around the gorging of luxury truffles, and frivolous purchases of expensive branded soap and silky bed sheets, it makes for a physically nauseating read. 

This isn’t a criticism. To the contrary, it’s a remarkable achievement, eliciting a physical sensation of revulsion towards glutton via the medium of print. 

Meanwhile, Cerys’s sister Seren struggles to run a family home and cannot even dream of the excess wealth her sister has inherited by chance. 

And whilst Cerys is a more empathetic individual, Seren is more volatile. The money amplifies these character traits, and the disparity between the two creates an uncomfortable cocktail of guilt and envy.

Narrative & characters

As a writer, Owen positions herself as one who “focuses on the dark and macabre side of family life, the parts that go on behind closed doors.” And never is this more true than in Christ on a Bike, with tension around Cerys’s inheritance poisoning the relationships with her sister.

But the joy with this book is the incongruity between the subject matter and Owen’s own writing style. Her prose possesses a welcoming, approachable whimsy that captures the everyday in a genuinely satisfying manner; not unlike another Bluemoose author, Rónán Hession.

Between a mysterious recurring figure in Cerys’s new life and the feeling she’s being watched, Christ on a Bike retains a tense discomfort throughout. After all, what are the consequences of breaking this agreement? Can she back out of it? What would happen if she tried?

And it’s this dissonance between Owen’s affable style and the macabre narrative that unsettles the reader.

Owen’s novel broaches these questions – plus a number of moral quandaries befitting the biblical theme. And it’s a lot of fun.

Conclusion

Christ on a Bike is another feather in the proverbial cap of Bluemoose Books, and of Owen herself.

Each chapter has been crafted with a finesse that characterises the type of novel that Bluemoose Books publishes.

It’s clean, lean writing that never prevaricates or wastes the reader’s time. As I noted in my review of Heidi James’s The Sound Mirror, it’s clear that the team at Bluemoose have some remarkable editors on staff.

Owen is a fantastic writer too, which makes it easy to recommend Christ on a Bike to almost anyone. This is a novel that’s well paced and contains a darkly compelling narrative, with a divine writing style.

5/5

Top Book Bloggers to Follow in 2024

Top Book Bloggers and Influencers to follow in 2024
Top Book Bloggers and Influencers to follow in 2024

Blogging is still a hugely popular medium in 2023, with 77% of internet users reading blog posts on a regular basis. And book blogging is no exception.

Social media communities such as BookTok, Bookstagram, and BookTube have given the publishing industry a much-needed shot in the arm.

And whilst some see this success as a threat to conventional book blogging, I’d argue that it’s actually revitalised the bookish content creation landscape – including blogging.

So, to celebrate all aspects of bookish culture, I’d featured some of the best bookish content creators you should be following in 2023.

Book Bloggers

Pages Unbound is easily one of the best book blogs on the internet, with a diverse mix of classical literature and YA fiction.

Briana & Krysta are amazing at creating (and promoting) their bookish content – if I’m ever half as successful as them, I’d be thrilled.

Rebbie Reviews is an absolute star. Again, a really fine book blogger. She takes part in The Write Reads book tour circuit fairly frequently, so you can guarantee you’ll find some interesting independently published books on her blog.

She also brought my attention to a really interesting used book scheme that is promoting literacy in the UK, whilst reducing waste.

Alex @ Spells & Spaceships has cornered the SFF book blogging game like an absolute pro.

His interviews with authors are always interesting, and his famed #Norsevember month of Norse-based content is really impressive.

Little Bird Book Blog has captured a really neat aesthetic; it’s approachable and captures what Rosie, the blogger, is all about.

She has a very conversational writing style, which brings you closer to the writing itself. I really enjoy that aspect of her blogging.

Cozy with Books once posted 100 blog posts in 100 days. That’s how seriously she takes blogging. Her dedication is matched equally by her quality of content.

Plus, Esther’s just a really flipping nice person.

We don’t typically read the same books, but that’s partly why I enjoy her blog so much – it exposes me to other types of writing.

Mackenzie @ Lit Lemon Books is brilliant. She posts regular, diverse book-related content – as well as some fun ‘beyond bookish’ posts including her favourite scary movies

Interestingly, she also challenged herself to ‘read for free’ back in 2022, by supporting local libraries. For many of us, the idea of not buying new books for an entire year is virtually impossible, so do check in and see how she’s doing!

As you can perhaps take away from the name, Out of This World SFF is a blog geared towards fantasy and science fiction novels.

However, this is a blog that focuses on new and upcoming books from less-known presses and independently published fiction. Nick, who runs the blog, also publishes a variety of content outside of reviews, including book tour stops, cover reveals, and author interviews.

Because of this approach to blogging, readers of Out of This World SFF should expect to find fresh, exciting new writing in the sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Celeste is a fine book blogger who runs A Literary Escape –  a book blog that focuses primarily on fantasy fiction. However, she also publishes the occasional science fiction and non-fiction review (including high-profile release, Spare).

Reviews on A Literary Escape adopt a more conversational tone, which is super approachable, digestible, and actually feels very personal to the reader. Reviews provoke conversation, which is why Celeste has a healthy community of regular commenters.

Definitely worth checking out.

Jennie @ The Redhead Notes positions herself as a blogger who empowers authors by giving them a platform online.

As such, she features a lot of guest posts on a variety of topics. from spotlighting  indie publishers to the more quirky articles such as a guide to tea-drinking

It’s a unique corner of the internet, and the sheer variety of content on offer makes The Redhead Notes a book blog that comes highly recommended.

Bex is one of the funniest, most authentic people on Twitter – and a super passionate blogger. After all, she’s focused on ‘books, more books, and nothing but the books’!

If you’re not following Bex, you’re missing out big time.

BookTubers

Beth of BooksNest has been blogging at booksnest.co.uk for a few years now, but really found a voice and presence on YouTube.

Recently she’s pivoted towards travel-based vlogs, but high-quality bookish content remains at the heart of her channel.

 

Ashleigh at A Frolic Through Fiction is pretty prolific bookish content creator across both Bookstagram and BookTube.

And with a cozy cottagecore vibe and aesthetic, A Frolic Through Fiction videos always come with exceptional production value.

From witchy books recommendations for your TBR, through to bullet journal planning, and even immersive ASMR videos – A Frolic Through Fiction is a BookTube channel with some incredible content.

Chelsea, aka The Not So Secret Bookaholic, is a BookTuber who focuses primarily on TBR recommendations, book hauls, and weekly reading vlogs.

Using less stylisation and filters than other BookTubers, she keeps her content lean, clean, and super authentic. 

It’s this authenticity and approachable screen presence that makes The Not So Secret Bookaholic channel such a great channel to tune into on a weekly basis!

Got any bloggers you want to give a shout out to? Post a link to their site below!

The Chimp Paradox Book Review (by Professor Steve Peters)

The Chimp Paradox Book Review

‘It's not good or bad. It's a chimp’

Title: The Chimp Paradox
Author: Professor Steve Peters
Pages:
368
Published by: Ebury Publishing

The Chimp Paradox is a bestselling self-help book based on the Chimp Mind Management programme that has transformed the lives of many of its readers – notably in the field of sport psychology.

Steve Peters has worked with a number of sporting icons including Ronnie O’Sullivan and Chris Hoy (amongst others), before going on to work with Liverpool Football Club and the England national football team.

Self-help books tend to raise an eyebrow from this reader, but The Chimp Paradox presents a genuinely interesting psychological framework that is highly applicable to all readers.

What is The Chimp Mind Management Programme?

The Chimp Paradox posits a highly simplified metaphor for psychological theory. 

Essentially, our minds are divided into three categories: Chimp, Human, and Computer.

The Chimp

The emotion-led, primal part of our brain. The Chimp is about evolutionary instinct, self-preservation, and winning at all costs. It’s the ‘gut feeling’ one gets (which may or may not be accurate).

The Chimp's reaction speed is five times faster than the Human. Whilst The Chimp can be highly inappropriate in certain settings, it’s also important for survival.

After all, “It’s not good or bad. It’s a chimp”.

The Human

The Human is the rational part of our brain.

It’s highly logical, processes information as things are (rather than as we would like them to be) and ultimately wants a positive resolution for all parties.

The Human is the mediator, the social animal, and the ideal state for social situations.

The Computer

This is our pre-programmed behaviour. Essentially, it’s how our brain responds to things, without having to even think. For example, learned behaviour such as riding a bike, or unwritten social rules that we don’t think about - we just do.

The Computer allows us to act before the Chimp, which is preferable due to the Chimp's destructive tendencies. However, when adverse experiences are introduced to the computer, they can be harmful and difficult to remove.

The Chimp Paradox presents a number of means and methods to calm the chimp whilst ensuring its needs are represented. It also discusses how to keep the computer in healthy balance, removing unhelpful ‘gremlins’ and fostering socially beneficial ‘autopilots’.

Interestingly, it has a lot in common with CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and also touches lightly upon trauma therapy, as covered in Bessel van der Kolk’s excellent book The Body Keeps the Score.

Is The Chimp Paradox a Difficult Book to Read?

Professor Steve Peters does an excellent job of making an incredibly complex field of psychology easy to follow.

The book also includes summaries of each section throughout, as well as practical ways to implement the theory. Its universal simplicity is brilliant – anyone can apply this logic to their own lives.

Some have criticised the book for its simplistic approach to psychology, but this is a fairly superficial point. Peters acknowledges this in the introduction and that The Chimp Paradox is a surface-level introduction to a much deeper topic.

Where the book can be criticised is its occasional lapsing into esoteric thinking. For example, Peters builds upon the Chimp / Human / Computer analogy by situating it within a cosmic universe. The ‘divided planet’ is where the human and chimp wrestle for control, whilst the ‘guiding moon’ is the computer that pulls the divided planet in the right direction.

It just about works, but it stretches the metaphor further than necessary, when the Chimp / Human / Computer explanation itself is fine.

Still, The Chimp Paradox is essential reading for those interested in personal development. If you’re an anxious person, quick to confront people, or feel like life is passing you by, this is a genuinely enlightening read.

Conclusion

There’s a reason that The Chimp Paradox remains a bestseller, many years after publication. It’s a compelling theory that anyone can use to improve their lives.

Whilst those with a qualification in psychology may find shortcomings in the theory, this is a book review – and as a book, it’s a very good read. 

Unlike some other self-help books, which border on smoke & mirrors, The Chimp Paradox is the real deal.

4/5

Are Tolkien’s Books too Complex?

Tolkien Books too Complex Blog Header
Tolkien Books too Complex Blog Header

Something I’ve noticed about Tolkien is that he’s often criticised by readers both for being too complex and yet, paradoxically, too simplistic.

Evidently these two positions aren’t expressed by the same people, but it’s nonetheless an interesting contradiction.

Is Tolkien too complex? Too simplistic? Let’s dig into this further.

Tolkien's Reputation for Complexity

Anyone remotely aware of Tolkien’s work will be familiar with the criticism that he ‘takes X number of pages to describe a tree/leaf‘ – a charge undoubtedly deserving of the phrase cliché.

Only recently, I was chatting with a friend who has yet to pick up a Tolkien novel, having been put off due to this observation.

This is nothing new. 

I recall Tolkien’s attention-to-detail, specifically of the natural world, being called out as long as 20 years ago. Having given up during the Old Forest chapter – the litmus test chapter for readers of The Lord of the Rings – as a nine-year-old reader, I think I complained about the same thing after hearing it from an adult.

But here’s the thing – like most clichés, there may well be a pinch of truth in between the hyperbole. After all, Tolkien was undeniably concerned by creeping industrialisation. 

His writing certainly contains an environmentalist angle, with the menacing fire & industry of Saruman standing in direct opposition to the aged, ethereal presence of the Ents. The battle for Isengard in particular pits industry in direct opposition to nature.

And yes, Tolkien is rather fond of trees. Most readers who give up reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time become ensnared in the Old Forest chapter along with Frodo & his companions.

Yet, on the other hand, there are plenty prepared to line up to argue that Tolkien’s writing is too simplistic and lacking in real world details.

Is Tolkien's Writing Simplistic?

George R. R. Martin – another fantasy writer who happens to have R.R in his initials, and author of the successful A Song of Ice and Fire series, is one such person.

Martin, in an interview with Rolling Stone once remarked:

“What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”
George RR Martin, on Tolkien

Martin’s tongue was perhaps slightly in his cheek, but it does represent a prevailing view that Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is a bit ‘vanilla’, or basic in its plot resolution and character motivations. 

If somewhat nit-picky, this isn’t an entirely redundant criticism – aspects of Tolkien’s plots are characterised by fate, circumstance, and a dash of good fortune.

Some characters lack complexity, and issues of power aren’t always explored in as much depth as they might be. For example, did the people of Gondor want a king? Would Denethor really just give up the throne? Why didn’t Aragorn’s return not spark a civil war?

Fantasy authors are amongst the most talented world builders in fiction. They craft worlds populated with people, cities, and laws. To seek greater depth, and a stronger internal logic within a fantasy universe isn’t unreasonable. 

And yet I can’t help but feel that these criticisms over a lack of complexity miss the point of Tolkien’s writing. Nor are many other fantasy writers able to create the blend of beautiful prose, timeless lore, and scope of ambition within Middle-Earth. 

The Context of Tolkien's Writing

To explore this further, it’s worth looking into a wider historical context of Tolkien’s novels.

Fantasy was in its infancy

Consider when Tolkien was writing. The Hobbit (a book written for his children) was published in 1937 and The Lord of the Rings in 1954. 

There wasn’t a particularly large commercial fantasy market, mainly because fantasy itself was in its commercial and reputational infancy. Tolkien was,  of course, not the first fantasy author – a title greatly disputed and perhaps one for another day – but his writing stood largely alone in the mainstream (bar a certain author and friend C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia).

Fantasy in the 1930s looked very different to the contemporary landscape. It was more simple, rooted in the ordinary everyday, and this humbleness is a core message behind the hobbits’ journeys through the land of the big folk. 

Tolkien is more concerned with broader themes of good & evil, rather than the intricacies present in more contemporary sci-fi and fantasy books, such as power levels, magic systems, and so on.

Could this be mistaken as simplistic? Perhaps, but there is an undeniable beauty in Tolkien’s writing. 

Less concerned about arbitrary ‘mechanics’ and politics of his world, Tolkien spends more time exploring the geography of Middle-Earth and the people who live there.

Tolkien as the perceived father of fantasy

Whether Tolkien is the father of fantasy or not, he certainly popularised it. So naturally, his successors have borrowed elements from Middle-Earth to greater or lesser extents.

This does mean that reading Tolkien for the first time can feel overly familiar. You’ve likely experienced Tolkien-esque elements in books ranging from Harry Potter to Discworld, or games such as the Warhammer Fantasy tabletop game and the World of Warcraft MMO.

Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and Orcs are almost tropey races at this point – with the latter echoing particularly uncomfortable racial imagery. So it’s easy to feel jaded by the atypical mellowness of Elves, the grizzled bad-tempered dwarves, and the poor attempts to deviate from fantasy races such as Orcs by simply calling them ‘Orks’.

But this is a modern high fantasy problem – not Tolkien’s.

The Lord of the Rings is a quest narrative,
not a political intrigue

Due to the sheer creativity on display, it’s hard to read books written by C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, and not wonder ‘what if…’?

Does this mean that George R. R. Martin’s observations have merit?

Perhaps.

After all, Middle-Earth is a vast world, populated by a wide variety of beasts, birds, and beings. Dwarves, hobbits, men, elves, Easterlings, orcs, wizards – and so much more. 

In some respects, these writings have fuelled readers’ need for granular details. It’s not unreasonable to want to know, for example, how Aragorn was able to claim the throne with very little dispute.

The key difference between Tolkien and Martin’s books, or even Frank Herbert’s Dune, is that both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are quest narratives. They just aren’t concerned with palace intrigue and political deception of the above examples.

And that’s okay.

Tolkien’s stories were written for his children

The excellent The Lord of the Rings movies have somewhat skewed people’s views of the books. And who’s to blame them – they’re amazing films that have redefined how movies are made.

However, because of the epic visual scope of the movies, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Tolkien’s writings were written primarily for his children.

Could he have written a fantasy novel with more gore and more political intrigue, akin to Martin’s A Game of Thrones? Sure – Tolkien fought in the Somme. He knows real war. It just isn’t the predominant concern of his writing.

Incidentally, Tolkien did start planning a darker sequel to The Lord of the Rings, provisionally named The New Shadow. He eventually abandoned it after deciding it wasn’t the right tone for his novels.

Prose versus Plot - The core issue?

In reality, Tolkien’s mixed reputation probably comes down to readers’ experiences of complex prose versus basic plot. I’m not certain that these are necessarily fair criticisms, but they do seem to be the prevailing views.

His prose is known to be rather flowery and, perhaps a little too over-descriptive in parts. Take this very brief example, highlighted by A Lent of The Lord of the Rings:

"Ling and broom, cornel and larch, cedar and cypress, tamarisk and terebinth, olive and bay, juniper and myrtles, thyme and various colored sages, marjoram and parsley, saxifrages and stonecrops, primroses and anemones, filbert-brakes and asphodel, lilies and iris-swords, briar eglantine and clematis."

Meanwhile the plot in his works (The Hobbit particularly) do tend to rely on pre-ordained fate, and in some cases a deus ex machina.

Most are familiar with the eagles plot hole, which argues that there was no discernible reason why the eagles couldn’t have flown Frodo & friends to Mordor. There’s a fantastic study by Sean Crist which came to the conclusion, using textual evidence, that there was no reason the eagles could not taken the ring to Mordor.

To conclude, it is possible that some are put off by the complexity his prose, whilst others are disappointed by his sometimes overly convenient plot resolutions. And whilst these aren’t criticisms I share, there is a sound logic behind both.

The Lord of the Rings is not a perfect trilogy of books (in spite of my tongue-in-cheek insistence that they are). However, they are timeless for a reason. Frodo’s journey is relatable on a human level, whilst the moral and ethical lessons contained within will endure for evermore.

What do you think? Do you find Middle-Earth to be a little simple? Too complex? Just right? Let me know in the comments below.

The Art of Escapology Book Review (by Nicola Ashbrook)

The Art of Escapology Book Review Featured Image

Ever had that feeling of just wanting to run away? To disappear and start over, leaving your troubles behind like shed skin.

If so, The Art of Escapology should be one of the next books on your reading list.

From a receptionist fleeing the mundanity of day-to-day life, through to darker topics of domestic abuse, The Art of Escapology sweeps the reader through a series of compelling vignettes on the theme of escape.

Small but mighty, it’s an 88-page anthology of highly impactful writing.

Flash fiction is a remarkable medium of storytelling.

Humble, yet radical, it’s the panacea to a publishing landscape dominated by 800-page epics and a movie industry shackled by sequels and reboots. In as little as two paragraphs, a talented writer can impart a character’s entire life story and challenge a reader’s worldviews.

Nicola Ashbrook’s The Art of Escapology is no different. Punchy and perfectly paced, each story subverts the reader’s expectations (sometimes multiple times) and delivers some gut-wrenching twists. 

Personal highlights include Moving Homes, Giants of the Sea, Thor is to Bifrost as I am to The Mersey Gateway, The Sparkly Horse Story, Run Ratty, Run, Delphine’s Decision, and Praying for Dad.

Escape, or the need to escape, is a powerful emotion, and it’s partly because of this that these stories succeed – the other part being that Ashbrook is an excellent writer.

Conclusion

Occasionally witty, often thrilling, and always thoughtful, The Art of Escapology is an elegant collection of flash fiction that should be on every short story lover’s bookshelf.

There’s a brilliance to each narrative and it’s a genuine pleasure to read. Don’t sleep on this one.

5/5

The Battle That was Lost Book Review (by Michael S. Jackson)

The Battle That Was Lost by Michael S Jackson Book Review
The Battle That Was Lost by Michael S Jackson Book Details

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The Battle That Was Lost is the latest book in Michael S. Jackson’s Ringlander series. 

A 50ish page novella, this entry details a battle that has significant ramifications for the narrative of Jackson’s full-length fantasy novel, Ringlander: The Path and the Way.

On the surface of it, how interesting could a novella about a battle be? Swords presumably clash, armour is rent, and people die. Par for the course. And let’s be honest – the most memorable parts of fantasy fiction tend to be the character moments and world-building.

Fear not, dear reader. The Battle That Was Lost strikes a good balance between character and world-building elements. The frenetic fighting is punctuated with flashbacks that help steady the pace of the writing, giving the story both time and space to breathe.

This is another impressive outing from Jackson, and well worth your time if you’re into fantasy fiction.

Discontent is brewing in the world of Rengas.

The occupying Bohr faction faces a rebellion in the form of the native Tsiorc, led by Tactician Laeb. And whilst this civil war plays out in more detail in Jackson’s full-length novel, The Battle That Was Lost instead focuses on the smaller, but nonetheless important frontier of Drakemyre.

Thugs for hire, Qor and Staegrim – the latter a proud bastard – prowl the outskirts of the battle, moving between the lines of troops in pursuit of their target for assassination.

The banter between the two is a winning formula; it’s authentic and genuinely amusing. 

They share an unconventional relationship; friendly, but wildly antagonistic. Each exchange is tense, yet amusing – it’s a compelling paradox that keeps the reader involved in the narrative, and it’s this relationship that forms the heart of The Battle That Was Lost.

But there’s plenty more at stake here than the result of a single pitched battle. After all, this is a world of political intrigue, supernatural forces, and tactical minds. This confrontation between the Tsiorc rebels and the Bohr could determine the future of the continent.

The Art of the Novella

The publishing industry is not short of fantasy novels.

People are constantly on the lookout for the next The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, and because of this, fantasy novels tend to be fairly lengthy in an attempt to replicate the epic scope of the genre’s more iconic titles – whether they justify the length or not. 

The novella is therefore a brilliant medium for readers to enjoy the genre. It’s a challenging style that forces an author to be clinical with their prose, including only the best of their writing.

Indie Publisher Interview

I recently spoke about short-form writing with Andy Leach of subscription-based publisher Seventy2One.

And in a world where some fantasy authors simply want to write 7-book epics, it’s refreshing to see a writer embrace the short form for a change.

Jackson’s a good writer too, and this novella is no exception. It’s witty, amusingly crude in parts, and tells a good story in a concise manner.

It’s an accessible means of introducing new readers to a larger world, allowing them to dip into a mythos without the need to commit their time and patience to a larger novel. Plus, The Battle That Was Lost also includes the first three chapters of Ringlander, Jackson’s full-length novel, to give the reader a taste of what’s to come. 

From the author’s point of view, it’s great marketing for their larger novels. From the reader’s point of view, they get a shorter, more concise snapshot of what to expect from the author’s larger books, as well as their writing style.

Flashbacks to the Future

Flashbacks have a sketchy reputation in fiction, both on-screen and in books. And for good reason.

Too often, they interrupt the pacing of narratives, risking the alienation of a viewer or reader who is thrust into a time or space they don’t immediately recognise. If the flashback doesn’t add to the present narrative, either plot-wise or thematically, it can be jarring.

Fortunately, this isn’t the case in The Battle that was Lost. Jackson uses the technique in a really smart way, with each flashback foreshadowing future events whilst creating a sub-narrative of its own. These are equally compelling as the battle, helping to switch up the full-tilt pace of the titular battle.

The flashbacks make this novella far stronger, and also serve as a window into the events of Ringlander: The Path and the Way.

Book Review

Read the full Tales from Absurdia book review of Ringlander: The Path and the Way

Conclusion

The Battle That Was Lost is another solid entry into Jackson’s expanding world. It’s an approachable novella that reconnects readers already familiar with the world of Ringlander, whilst serving as a solid entry point for new readers.

It’s witty, features some brilliant battle sequences, and fleshes out the existing lore in a really satisfying way. The inclusion of maps is also a brilliant addition – every fantasy author should do this. It’s a great way to situate the events of the book, whilst still encouraging the reader to use their imagination.

Sure, it won’t change the minds of readers who don’t enjoy fantasy, but for those who do, The Battle That Was Lost – plus its full-fat sibling Ringlander – offers readers a compelling world, a strong narrative, and a bevy of unique characters.

4/5

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Publishing Interview with Andy at Seventy2One

Recently, I caught up with Andy Leach of Seventy2One – a publishing imprint of Massive Overheads.

Hi Andy – cheers for getting involved. Great to have you on the blog.

To start things off, can you tell my readers some more about Seventy2One and Massive Overheads?

What’s your angle as a publisher, and what sort of literature do you want to deliver to your audience?

Hi, John, good to be here. Massive Overheads Productions is essentially me and my pal Alec Bowman-Clarke.

Alec’s a photographer, filmmaker and musician. We’d met via Twitter and talked about doing a project together. In 2020 I mooted the idea of a short film and sent Alec a script I’d written. He liked it, so as the UK came out of lockdown we started making a film, called Overheads. The experience was great for both of us, so we set up a creative collaboration called Massive Overheads Productions, through which we could put any other work that we might do together. Over time I began to like the idea of Massive Overheads being more than short films, and so when I decided to set up a publishing imprint, I put it under the same umbrella.

Seventy2One was essentially born out of frustration. My friend (writer) Hannah Persaud and I had long talked about how we’d like to run a small press. In 2021 we found ourselves in similar positions; we’d both recently split from agents, were both frustrated at both the pace and lack of originality in publishing. 

"I want to concentrate on short stories, in a genre I'd call accessible literary. Bite-sized pieces of art."

So we decided to do something about it and created Seventy2One. In July 2021 we agreed that the first book would be a collection of short stories, focusing on the climate emergency. Somehow, 80% of the writers we contacted about it said yes, and it came together quickly, enabling us to launch Sunburnt Saints in November.

Hannah stepped away from the project after Sunburnt Saints came out; she’s still an enthusiastic supporter and we’re still good friends, just that the demands of Seventy2One didn’t sit with the rest of her life at the moment. Whereas I had 101 ideas about how I wanted to progress the imprint, so decided to take it on myself. 

I want to concentrate on short stories, in a genre I’d call accessible literary. Bite-sized pieces of art.

I hear that a lot from indie publishers in terms of a lack of pace and originality. Could you expand upon it a little?

And regarding your point on making literary writing accessible, I think that’s a really great endeavour. Some readers I speak to on a regular basis tend to be quite put off by literary fiction.

Speaking as a marketer, I think your Twitter presence gets that ‘accessible literary’ vibe across really well to be honest.

Thanks for saying that we’re managing to get what we’re about across on Twitter; it’s certainly been a good place to grow our community.

I’ve always found the term [literary fiction] to be somewhat pretentious, a bit up its own backside. It suggests a denigration of other genres in favour of itself, a sort of ‘one true calling’ of book genres. But as we seem stuck with it, what I mean by it is something that’s original, that uses language to communicate as much as story, if that makes sense, and which doesn’t follow a conventional pattern. Those type of books have always been more interesting to me. 

But essentially it’s a nonsense term. I remember a Booker longlister being described as a litfic crossover with crime and thinking ‘Stop trying to pigeonhole books! It’s just a damn good book that happens to be about a crime.’

As to pace and originality, there are times when publishing feels like a sausage factory, a never-ending line of genre-based identi-books. And then when something new does come along and become an unexpected hit, everyone spends the next eighteen months trying to pull off a repeat of it with sub-standard replica books.

The pace thing is a mystery to me. Books are written within a timeframe and yet by the time they come out, the author has moved on, is probably interested in different things, is writing different things, so they’re always retrospective. I’m less bothered as to why this is the case (because I’m sure someone from Harper Collins or wherever would have an answer) than the fact that it just shouldn’t, needn’t be the case.

For me and what I’m trying to do at Seventy2One, it’s back to that late ’70s early ’80’s ethic of immediacy, of writing it, editing it and getting it out all within a pretty short period of time. And then move on to the next one, knowing that the best of them will stand any test of time as great works.

At Seventy2One, you’re all about chapbooks.

What are they exactly, what made you opt for that format, and how do they differ from a regular paperback?

It’s all about chapbooks for now. Going forward, there will be other projects. I think chapbooks suit the short story format really well. They allow short stories to stand up for themselves in the way that a novel would, rather than getting lost within an anthology. I find the best short stories more satisfying than most novels.

"Think high-end punk aesthetic. The Elvis Costello of publishing! "

There are lots of definitions of ‘chapbooks’ online; as I understand it. They originated in the sixteenth century as little folded pamphlets, and were popularised in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as print became more accessible. ‘Chap’ books because they were sold at the roadside by chap men: pedlars and street sellers. Chap taken from the old English cäep, meaning ‘cheap.’

The modern resurgence tends to mean little books of 40 pages or less. Mine are 28 pages from cover to cover. I wanted them to be easily affordable but with great writers, quick, unpretentious, accessible, things you could slip into a pocket or handbag, but at the same time retain a literary integrity. Think high-end punk aesthetic. The Elvis Costello of publishing!

On a similar note, you’re a subscription-only publisher.

What made you take that route, vs the traditional method of selling books for a one-off fixed price?

I think the traditional method is broken. I spent some time working as a bookseller at a branch of Waterstones, ostensibly to gain more insight into the UK fiction publishing market. 

I started wondering why they made Greta Thunberg ‘author of the year’ yet positioned her books at the till, surrounded by plastic toys and all sorts of environmentally ridiculous bits and bobs. I got told that’s where the profit is. It’s not in books. And then you have great indie publishers putting out some terrific work that are one flop away from going bust. 

I also think distributors have too much power. So I wanted to see if things could be done differently. Subscription builds a community among Seventy2One’s readers and also means the cost can be kept low. Times are so tough for so many at the moment, that spreading the cost of four storybooks over a year at just £1.50 a month means that perhaps people might be able to manage that, rather than an outlay on one individual book. 

Books are, after all, a luxury item. At least when compared to food and energy costs.

Wow, that’s pretty telling.

I must admit my (and a fair few others’) eyebrows were raised when last year’s Waterstones Book of the Year was Paul McCartney’s book (selling for around £75 no less!)

I think the booksellers at high street bookshops do a great job, and I’ve got a lot of time for them, but it’s pretty interesting to get that insight from a higher-up commercials point of view.

Yes, the McCartney book is another good illustration as to what’s wrong.

No one loves McCartney more than me, I think he’s up there with Mozart as just the greatest composer we’ve ever known, the definition of a living legend. But for a £75 book to be Book of the Year suggests someone somewhere is trying to claw back a huge advance!

I noticed that you published an anthology on climate change in Sunburnt Saints – you’ve got some really talented writers in there!

What impact do you think writers, and indeed publishers, can have on influencing positive action towards climate change?

To a certain extent we’re preaching to the choir. If you have a book subtitled ‘An anthology of climate fiction’ it’s not going to be bought and considered by those in denial. By the same token, I think it’s vital that we, everyone, not just writers and publishers, continue to engage with the subject, learn more, demand more, take action, make better decisions. 

And the one thing writers and publishers can do is use their voice, their platform, to continue to raise awareness, to show what’s happening. If one story in that collection made one reader out of hundreds stop and think and make a better choice with the environmental crisis in mind, it’s done its job.

What are the main challenges you face as an indie publisher? In an ideal world, what would you change overnight?

Seventy2One’s challenges are those that face any new brand: awareness and customer acquisition. The quicker we can grow, the sooner we can bring out more books and do more things. 

But it’s very easy to lose money in publishing! So it’s a constant battle between seeking growth and finding out what works. 

In terms of changes, my initial reaction was to restore the net book agreement, but in retrospect that ship has sailed. I think changing the distribution landscape would bring most benefits to indies. Distribution deals that don’t allow for more than a certain percentage of returns would make a more level playing field. At the moment the publisher takes the risk at both ends of the market and that can’t be right.

Yeah, distribution returns can be a real pain point for small press. I can imagine it’s incredibly hard to manage the budget with that in mind.

For my readers who aren’t aware of distribution agreements, essentially, how it works is that a publisher sells an inventory of books to the distributors, who then move them on to retailers.

If the stock isn’t shifted by the retailer (or not shifted after a stipulated period of time) the books get sent back to the publisher and the publisher essentially has to reimburse the distributor accordingly.

Pretty much, plus a distributor can, for example, charge the publisher for its services on a weekly basis and then agree to pay the publisher for books sold monthly or quarterly, so it becomes a cashflow issue too.

Do you think there’s an appetite for that sort of change? Presumably it would have to come from the bigger publishers.

There are a number of small distributors out there, but since Bertrams’ demise it’s basically Gardners, so it’s fair to say a large percentage of the market is sewn up. And of course, the big publishers have their own distribution services, too. Grantham Book Services, for example, is owned by Penguin Random House.

But things are changing, indeed have been changing since Amazon entered the UK 15 years ago (yes, it’s only been 15 years!). Don’t forget, Amazon’s original offer was built around books. They were the first real modern disruptor to the books market and offered all sorts of differences to the consumer and to writers.

And from a Seventy2One point of view, I see lots of things being sold by subscription that in times past you’d never have thought would have been: wine, fruit and veg, beauty products, vinyl records, gadgets, cheese… they’re all available on subscription. We’re just adopting a retail method that’s proven in other sectors. 

Big thanks to Andy for getting involved. If you enjoyed this interview, leave a comment below and head over to Massive Overheads to find out more!