the nameless horror

Round-Up - Things Wot I've Read

I have Been Away, both literally (visiting family during the summer break), and metaphorically (having slipped into a sort of online ninja smoke cloud that renders me unseen and unheard, otherwise known as being mostly rather busy). During this time, I have read things and been shown things, and now I arise from beneath the waters, squamous and non-Euclidian, to share them with you. So, in no particular order, here we go.

Mockingbird (Chuck Wendig): Second in the Miriam Black series. I very much liked the first. This, probably a shade - but only a shade - less so. Something to do, I suspect, with the peculiar ease with which Miriam repeatedly makes her way around the reclusive girls' school in which much of the action occurs, and also with the bad guys not being, to me at least, either as entertaining or as fleshed-out as in the first. Again, only a shade - I pick holes because I care; for the most part, this book is still great fun. And I'll still read Cormorant when the chance arises.

The Blue Blazes (also Chuck Wendig): It's a gangland NYC organised crime story, only with goblins and vicious snake-people. It's also very good. The world-building for it (on which the story hinges) feels sound, and the characters, Mookie and his daughter in particular, are solid indeed. There are some lovely imaginative touches in here that I won't spoil. Great fun. I can't remember if it has/will/might someday become a series, but I'd hope so.

Finch (not Chuck Wendig for once but Jeff Vandermeer): I started reading this ages ago, but even though other stuff (work, mostly) got in the way, I stuck with it because this is a wonderfully-imagined world and the story is thoroughly compelling. If I were to pick holes, perhaps the ending doesn't quite compare to the build-up beforehand (the close of Heretic's part of the story, for instance, happens off-camera and largely off-hand) and lacks some of the grimy, fungal flourish of the earlier parts, the nature of the Resistance is a little odd, etc., but it's still OK, and what comes before is gloriously written.

Inverting The Pyramid: The History Of Football Tactics (Jonathan Wilson): Been meaning to look at this for ages. Obviously it's non-fiction, and obviously it's about sport, and not everyone has an interest. But if you do have any at all in football/soccer, this is a superb read. Excellently structured, with one piece of history in one part of the world flowing neatly into another in another, and very smoothly written. And genuinely fascinating too, far more so than perhaps the title suggests. It's a very broad history of the game told through the tactics, philosophies and developments that have shaped it and reshaped it down the decades.

The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong (Chris Anderson, David Sally): I grabbed this alongside Inverting The Pyramid as a sort of football reading twofer, but it's a whole 'nother world. Claiming to be a sort of objective statistical analysis of the game (Moneyball, mentioned repeatedly, is probably a fair analogy), its occasional good points are let down by some glaring errors in its methodology, most of which involve treating one side or element as existing wholly independently of others. For example, a key claim of the early stages of the book, one outlined at great length, is that 50% of games are decided not in fact by talent but by luck. Due, so the statistics go, to factors outside a team's control, such as the 'beachball goal' at Sunderland a few years ago or a misplaced pass or missed tackle in defence. Sadly, which getting a goal via a deflection off a beachball that's blown onto the pitch is genuine chance (and mighty rare), a misplaced pass or tackle can easily be argued to be the result of either a relative lack of skill or else deliberate tactics by the opposition to force such errors (such as Dortmund's pressing game) and thus not chance at all. Likewise, arguing that goalscorers are rare in football and thus more prized because ~50% of players in a given Premiership season won't score anything is crazy since you're completely ignoring the fact that this is largely the result of formation; all 11 don't take turns up in the opposing penalty box, and that a goalkeeper, four defenders and a holding midfielder or two generally don't appear on the scoresheet shouldn't surprise anyone at all. Again likewise, arguing that Chelsea should have signed Darren Bent because he scored the most key goals (that is, ones that win matches rather than, say, the third in a 4-0 thumping) two seasons running while players like Didier Drogba were further down the list ignores the fact that Chelsea, like other high-placed teams, were far more likely to thump teams 4-0 (and thus had fewer key goals as a ratio of goals scored) and had more goalscorers overall (with their talent-rich front line) than Sunderland, who lost more games, and squeaked more narrow wins as a ratio of their overall victories. (And who quite possibly also rotated their squad less, being a smaller side, giving him more match time.) I could go on. I'm sure the methods of statistical analysis employed are impeccable, but there's so often an apparent lack of consideration for the structure of the game in reality that picking out the good bits is an exercise in frustration.

Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat: The Graphic Novel (Andrez Bergen): I liked this a lot back in the day, and Andrez sent me - and, I imagine, half the population of the planet, being the cunning devil he is - the newly-minted graphic novel in digital form. If you haven't tried out TSMG, you now have another option by which to do so. He also sent me the upcoming Bullet Gal (spun-off from Heropa). In both cases he mostly uses photomanipulation rather than line drawing for the art, which is both clever, and hard to pull off well. If I'm honest, it doesn't always completely work for me - there are pages where definition loss through filtering makes it a little hard to follow (less an issue in TSMG, which has a more surreal air anyway), but again, I'm only picking. I'd still happily point your filthy view-holes towards both, and the digital copy of TSMG is only a couple of bucks so what's the risk?

How Amazon (or someone else) could do book discovery - Bookhoppr

My notebook has, on its first page, a little book discovery concept that I doubt I'll ever have the time to explore in reality. Ignoring the current publishing battles for a moment, let's look at how someone with the wherewithall - and a suitably chunky database of titles to call on, whether that's Amazon (the obvious) or someone else - could have another crack at book discovery. That notebook page is titled "Bookhoppr".

How it would work:

When you finish a book and enjoy it (that part is key), you go into your Bookhoppr app and mark it as read. By scanning the barcode, or entering the ISBN or ASIN, or title/author matching, or through direct pipe from your reader app of choice ("mark as read on Bookhoppr"). If you know what you're going to move on to, you stop there. If you're not going to pick something else up straight away, you stop there. If you're not sure what to read next, or it's been a while and you're wondering what to pick up now, you tap on the big "tell me what to read next" button.

The system looks at what you've just read, and what you read before that, and before that - all the hops from book to book you've made - and compares them with other users. It takes the closest matches - let's say the statistically most similar 1% for a touch of variation in results - and based on what those people read next from the book you last finished, it gives you one suggestion at random that doesn't already appear in your own hops. If you don't own it, it'll give you a buy/sample/see reviews link. If you don't like that suggestion, you can tell it to try again.

That's it. Maybe throw in an extra button: "Make me different", that gives you a rec based on the statistically least similar 1%, or books that no one read next. Maybe too an algorithmic backup for when there are no hop-based recs. But basically very limited functionality. Tell it you've read something and it'll tell you what to go for next. No reviews, no attempt at being a social network because places for those already exist. Not even a "load in my existing bookshelf", except perhaps as a way of avoiding duplicate recs, though you could certainly have simple profile information showing what you'd read. It'd be easy enough to throw in a "Tweet this!"/"Facebook this!" option whenever you use the system for a recommendation, and an API to allow other apps to interact with your read/rec flow, but otherwise keep all of that side of things to those places that deal with it already. Stick to one thing and do it well.

What it would need:

First off, a huge goddamn database, carrying all formats and able to match each to one unified "this is all the same book" entry regardless of ISBN/ASIN. Amazon's must be just about the best for this. I can't remember if there's access Amazon's product database via some kind of API, but if not, well, this is probably something only the Big A could pull off. Even other vendors with databases of their own would struggle to include everything, particularly self-published work with only an ASIN. This is by far the biggest hurdle as without this the whole thing falls to pieces.

Second, a button for "add a book to the database" for those times when even whatever one you're using doesn't have what you've read.

Third, some people able to slowly sift those additions for duplicates and roll entries in together where needed.

Fourth, it'd have to appear as a mobile app on both iOS and Android from the very beginning. That app should ideally also have a barcode scanner (or ISBN number reader even), similar to that in the eBay app, to allow easy tagging of hardcopy books.

Fifth, and this is the second biggest hurdle, it would need a big userbase to be viable. It's dependent on there being enough user entries in the Bookhoppr list to produce recs from a wide variety of requests. And it would have to be able to do so at launch. That means a really big alpha/beta.

Sixth, it would need to be both simple and fun to use. You could, if you were so inclined, gamify the experience slightly as with Foursquare. ("Jane Q Public has just become George R. R. Martin's biggest reader!" etc.) If it's not quick, simple, and fun, it's dead. If you have to jump through hoops or fill out endless text fields whenever you've read a book, forget it.

Seventh, it would need to be quick and simple to maintain and manage users and the database at the back end. Having peered into the murky depths of a much smaller project back with 3NJ, I know how vital that is.

Eighth, you'd need either a vast pot of cash or some way of monetizing what would be a chunky thing to organize and maintain. Ads are annoying and an unreliable income source. Offering a hobbled free version and a full-spread paid version would be shitty to the user. Perhaps run a limit on entries/recs with a very, very low barrier to clear and the equivalent of a profile badge or a little bit of glitz to say thanks for supporting it. Every thirty books (or 30, then 50, then 100 to avoid gouging long-time users) you have to pay a buck in-app, something like that. Enough that you'd have to be a regular user (and presumably a fan of the service) to hit it, and a small enough amount not to seem grasping.

Anything else I'm missing?

Notes on morning reading

1. Hachette did not negotiate in good faith before the end of the contract.

They didn't negotiate at all. Amazon and Hachette agree on this crucial point. The first Hachette offer was in April. Amazon says the original contract ran out in March and Hachette hasn't denied it. In my view, the party that makes no attempt to negotiate during the term of the original contract is the instigator of the stand-off.

2. Hachette knew for months that their authors were being harmed and they did nothing.

Sullivan noticed that the usual Amazon discounts on his titles were gone on February 7. He saw the inventory issues on March 9. He let Hachette know about both issues. At that point Hachette had let their contract expire without so much as a counter-offer.

Read that again.

"Amazon says the original contract ran out in March..."

"Sullivan noticed that the usual Amazon discounts on his titles were gone on February 7. He saw the inventory issues on March 9."

"Hachette did not negotiate in good faith before the end of the contract."

Neither, apparently, did Amazon, if they felt happy to start playing hardball a month or more before the end of their existing contract. (Blah blah blah, confirmation bias, Stockholm Syndrome, etc. etc.) (linkage)

Publishing debates, the drinking game

Instructions: Have at least one bottle of something strong to hand. Open a blog post or news site article about some aspect of the publishing industry. If the article in question in any way refers to Amazon, make sure it's a large bottle. For group play, take it in turns to read each sentence, comparing against the long list below. Winner is the last one still standing. For solo play, keep it up for as long as your eyes still function or concerned neighbors call the paramedics.

For extra challenge: Include the comments.


Uses the phrase "70% royalties": take a shot.

Uses any of the phrases "12.5%/20%/25% royalties": take a shot.

If author royalties aren't relevant to the subject at hand: take another.

Says "Amazon lowers prices" or a variant thereof: take a shot.

Says "Amazon will drive prices into the floor" or a variant thereof: take a shot.

If consumer pricing isn't relevant to the subject at hand: take another.

References the DOJ suit and says publishers colluded to fix prices: take a shot.

If DOJ suit and price fixing aren't relevant to the subject at hand: take another.

Says "Amazon is a monopoly": take a shot.

Says "Amazon is not a monopoly": take a shot.

Says "publishing is an oligopoly": take a shot.

Says "publishing is not an oligopoly": take a shot.

Dismissal of unexpressed fear of company/ies in monopoly position raising prices: take a shot.

Refers to media bias for/against Amazon: take a shot.

Claims that writer would have/has criticised Amazon/publishers as proof of lack of bias: take a shot.

Dismissal of self-published material as trash by definition: take a shot.

Dismissal of published writers happy with their terms as morons: take a shot.

Suggests Amazon will let KDP wither on the vine once publishing is dead: take a shot.

Suggests publishing is dead: take a shot.

Suggests publishing will never die: take a shot.

Says "I'm not taking sides" or a variant thereof: take a shot.

Says "on behalf of authors": take a shot.

Makes claim not to be doing this (whatever this is) for themselves: take a shot.

Says that "more writers than ever are making money": take a shot.

Mentions personal money earned from publishing/self-publishing when money earned isn't relevant to the subject at hand: take a shot.

Mentions personal sales volumes from publishing/self-publishing when sales volumes aren't relevant to the subject at hand: take a shot.

Mentions either of those things while simultaneously "not taking sides" or "not doing this for themselves": take another.

Uses either of those things as a stick to beat other writers: finish the bottle.

Reminder writer "shares their numbers" when this isn't relevant to the subject at hand: take a shot.

Reference to writer being a lone/rare voice of reason: take a shot.

Implies self-publishing is an underground movement: take a shot.

Does so while simultaneously talking about how much money can be made from it: take another.

Says "Stockholm Syndrome": take a shot.

Uses the word "revolution" in reference to self-publishing except in historial context: take a shot.

Suggests "readers will decide": take a shot.

Says "restrictive contracts": take a shot.

Says "unconscionable": take a shot.

Says writer could be spending their time better by writing books: take a shot.

Addition of "and making money by self-publishing them": take another.

Tells their readers to stop reading and get back to writing: take a shot.

Readers ignore advice and comment at length anyway: take another.

Writer returns a day later with another lengthy piece on a similar subject: crack open a fresh bottle.

Note: While I've tried to cull all the usual suspects from these arguments, I'm sure I've missed plenty. By all means send additional suggest extras via @nameless_horror

Hachette, Amazon, rumor and giant apes

Everyone else has had their two cents on the ongoing Hachette/Amazon feud, and while I'm barely qualified to comment on it, fuck it, I will too. In part because while I'm not a party to the inner workings of corporate negotiations we're all picking sides on, neither is anyone else.

What you may hear from some sources - often in quite shrill, earnest tones - is that Hachette wants to control and raise Amazon's prices for books/ebooks and that Amazon is resisting this. Hachette is the bad guy, desperately trying to screw you, the consumer, and you, its own author, in a bid to keep the perceived value of ebooks high, the bastards.

What you may hear from others - also often in quite shrill, earnest tones - is that Amazon is seeking to wring every last penny from publishers and run them into the ground, eventually fertilizing the ground with the powdered bones of penury-driven authors, the bastards.

Pick a side in this battle between corporations folks, because goddamn those other guys sure are bastards.

Thing is, neither company has actually come out and said openly what the bone of contention is, so all of that speculating would seem to be horseshit largely reflecting the opinions of the writer. Which may or may not themselves reflect on their own past experiences or historical actions by either side that are better understood now, but still don't grant an inside track on what's going on now.

The closest I've been able to find to a reliable piece of detail arrives with no cite, source or quote, and so might equally be horseshit, in this Guardian article from the early days of the war. In this, it claims that Amazon is seeking to shift some of the cost incurred in discounting from itself to the publisher. (A claim it then contradicts in an actual quote from someone below, saying it's about profit splitting, a straight fight over percentages.) Given that it's Amazon who decides when and how to discount, that might seem a little rich; in effect, it's asking its supplier to take on some of the hit it suffers when it decides to sell products more cheaply in its store and thus draw buyers. In no other industry in the world would this happen.

The thing is, neither company is likely to be acting from a position of Ultimate Evil.

Amazon has always operated on razor-thin or non-existent profit margins, sacrificing income for market share. The remaining space to expand is a little limited these days and the company's shareholders seem to finally be expecting it to start showing some actual cash in the kitty. It needs to claw back some of the losses it incurs as a result of its deep discounting habits or else run into trouble with its own investors.

Hachette, like any publisher since the dawn of time, operates on thin and unreliable profit margins too, with the shift from physical to digital threatening those even further. If it is to continue to pay authors advances to produce books, an advantage that's only scoffed at by those with fat enough accounts or self-published sales to ignore such frivolities as contracted income, and to preserve the remaining vestiges of hardcopy book selling and distribution (a separate argument about the validity of which can be made), it needs to avoid shaving those margins even further.

Whether this is a fight about a shift in the standard percentages under the "wholesale model" (a model that Amazon more or less lucked into in the first place, being treated as a wholesaler and not a store, when it first rose from the primordial internet ooze) so that the publisher only offers it products at sales-to-retail prices instead, or whether it's about who picks up the tab when Amazon decides to drop an ebook's price 25% for shits and giggles (and sales), or whether it's some unlikely attempt by Hachette to resurrect the "agency model" post-DOJ, it's a free market dispute between two capitalist institutions.

Without knowing exactly what's at stake - and even the notion of percentage-based arguments is only a (probably correct) theory; for all we know, Hachette could be demanding the blood of 100 innocents before signing, or Amazon might have required all Hachette employees swear an oath of fealty on a tiny statuette of Jeff Bezos - it's hard, then, to say what happens if there's a winner.

We can speculate. And dear God, have people speculated. So let's join in. Probably, all the other big publishers would end up facing the same apparently onerous terms if Hachette blinks. Probably, you'd see less (or at least, less constant) heavy discounting of big name ebooks from the Big Five if Amazon crumbles before Hachette's terrible demands.

Certainly, Hachette has the most to lose directly here. While, if Amazon does give way, whatever mysterious terms it's insisting on will likely be mirrored by other suppliers across other sectors, something which could hit the Big A hard in the pocket, right now it's Hachette gambling with an estimated 40% (give or take depending on how you weigh digital vs. paper) of its market, not Amazon. Presumably it feels the risk is worth it, or the consequences of Amazon getting its way are serious enough to warrant it. (The other alternative is that the company is run by some kind of maniac.)

What it is probably not doing - intentionally at least - is throwing its authors (of which I suppose I'm still peripherally one) under a bus, as has been suggested in some quarters of the howling wastes. Its existence depends on (a) people writing books for it to publish, and (b) being able to sell enough of those books to make enough money to pay people to write more, and possibly buy some of its executives jet skis. It can't - unless run by a maniac intending to flee on said jet ski when the edifice crumbles around them - sacrifice (a) to retain (b). (Arguments about out-sourcing functions, hit-and-hope sales tactics, over-reliance on guaranteed sellers etc. to an extent impact on (a) but overall that part of the process is still required.) It is taking what I would hope is a calculated gamble in order to survive or to forcibly diversify in the face of what it perceives to be a threat. If it succeeds, its authors are safe. If it does not...

One can only speculate. Again. It's perhaps - and only perhaps - worth noting that when a single entity or a range of directly matching entities comes to control the bulk of a particular market on the basis of low cost to consumers, that control is not followed by price rises, but by cost squeezes passed down to producers. As far as I know, for instance, the UK's supermarket boom of the 80s and 90s, saw the terms offered to dairy farmers tightened and tightened to the point where the industry is only marginally economically sustainable. There's no other significant market outside the big chains, who all price match each other, and who all want to give shoppers, shoppers who are very happy with the idea, cheap milk. You either take it in the gut or quit the business.

Amazon is often touted as an innovator and a disruptor of markets. Its principal innovations, though, have been almost entirely economic. Sell more, sell cheaper, deliver faster, divide like an amoeba and move into another market as one saturates, repeat ad nauseam until the whole world is absorbed. The fact that it's been able to persuade the normally profit-blinded suits of Wall Street that constantly running barely ahead of collapse is a good thing is truly remarkable, but if it's now required to stop that and start earning a sensible living, if it can't somehow keep up the factors that made it a giant in the first place, it risks becoming Just Another Store, a fat, multi-celled monstrosity ripe to be killed off by the next fast young thing off the evolutionary ladder. It, too, is presumably taking a calculated gamble in order to survive the transition to middle-age with its adolescent chutzpah intact.

While I'm inclined, as human nature tends to, to support the underdog - the smaller multi-billion-dollar gorilla in this ape battle royale - I'm not sure it makes a lick of sense to pick sides, and sure as hell that it makes no sense to go screaming invective and abuse at those backing The Other Monkey, whichever that is, from your point of view. It's business. It's percentages. It's survival of the fittest in the great corporate jungle. It's not a noble crusade or plucky last stand against the darkness. Issuing a call to arms is like rallying the populace to your banner with a cry of "GARGANTUSAUR-9000 FOR RULERSHIP OF THE GREAT SKY REALM ABOVE OUR HEADS! DEATH TO GARGANTUSAUR-9001!", never being sure exactly whose giant scaled foot it was that smooshed your house out of existence.

Self-publishing and paid promotion

Not so long ago, an email arrived from an ebooky website whose newsletter I happen to subscribe to. It advertised cross-site promotion on eight websites, at least a couple of which I already knew as fairly big in ebook terms, for the half-rated introductory cost of $99.

I've had experience of the effect having a free ebook carried on similar sites can have on downloads before, but I've wondered whether the same would hold true for paid books. And I was clearly feeling adventurous that day, not to mention aware of roughly that amount of cash sitting unclaimed so the expense wouldn't be real money, because I went for the offer, and took a slot for DAY ZERO.

As it happened, I then took a second slot for MURDER PARK, because there was a serious glitch in the system first time out and DZ only appeared on two of the eight sites on its allotted Friday. To AAN's great credit, when I queried this on the Saturday evening I had a reply, fixing what could be fixed, with an explanation (not-unexpected teething issues with sync between sites), a profuse apology, and the offer of a free do-over slot a couple of weeks later, within an hour or two. The network is clearly well-run and not a quick cash-grab, and kudos for that.

So. Both books had Friday slots, were promo-priced down to $0.99 (mentioned in the splash text for DZ, not for MP), and I did nothing to else to push them at those times (because doing so would skew results). Both of them have respectable covers and copy that is OK at worst, and in terms of presentation I don't think there's too much to fault. Not seriously, anyway. One is in YA SF, one in a vague SF/thriller blurred no-man's land. DZ, in particular, is in a genre for which digital sales are reasonably solid.

We'll assume that sales during the whole weekend are entirely down to the promotion. How did it stack up?

DZ shifted 11 copies.

MP shifted 1 copy.

Does this mean that paid-for promotion of this sort is pointless? No, of course not; this is little more than a single point of data, for two books on one cluster of websites. But it was certainly eye-opening, and it's certainly something I'd suggest others bear in mind when considering stumping up their hard-earned. Stories have suggested for a while that advertising of this sort (principally through Bookbub) has been losing its effectiveness, just as low pricing and pushing on social media had already lose theirs. And maybe that's true.

I've turned myself in to the Polis

Last year, as you may know, was not a great one when it came to my writing career. This year may be different.

A week or so ago I got an email out of the blue from Jason Pinter. I've met him once in person and known him via the internet for years (he kindly blurbed THE LEVELS back in the day too). Late last year he launched Polis Books, signing up an array of fine writers, and also Dave White and Bryon Quertermous, presumably as the result of a lost bet.

Anyway, it turns out he must have lost another bet because he wanted to know if I wanted to sign on to Polis, handing over North American rights (and gaining better North American distribution, promotion etc.) to All The Novels - the three "writer's cut" versions of my ex-Penguin books, the last of which remains unfinished, plus the two full-length ones out under the Sean Cregan moniker. Any new material could then be considered as, if, and when.

Just like that, as you do.

And I though about it for a few seconds, double-checked my instincts against sources in the know, and said, "Yup, sure."

And that, as they say, was that. (Bar a minor delay sourcing a scanner to swap contracts; I don't own one.)

This means Polis will be (re)publishing THE TOUCH OF GHOSTS, THE DARKNESS INSIDE, BURIAL GROUND (if it retains that title), MURDER PARK, and DAY ZERO across North America, and, of interest to MURDER PARK which is largely set there, the Philippines, over the course of the next few months. And all the books will be coming out under the 'John Rickards' label. (Elsewhere, in particular the UK where 'Sean Cregan' has/had print readership and I didn't want to garble my already horribly mangled publishing history any further, the rights remain mine and it's business as usual.)

This is awesome, and I'm looking forward to seeing everything pan out. Polis is a digital-only (or, with the possibility of print arrangements in the future, perhaps "digital-first") publisher, very young, run by a very smart guy with years of publishing experience as an agent and a writer, and a sharp weather eye on the future. It certainly fits the ideal of the smaller, leaner publisher that's quicker and much more adaptable than the traditional names, but still handles the donkey work faced by those self-publishing as well as having access to publisher-only outlets and promotional capacity, and doing crazy things like paying up-front and performing QA on output.

("Why give up the independence of going indie, John? 70%, complete control, etc. etc. buzzphrase buzzphrase." That previous list of things is why. I'm not a self-promoter at all, and the books, while well-received, haven't really torn up any trees. They earn a bit, but nothing to get excited about. I still have a foot in both camps, with the shorter material still mine, and the longer stuff outside N Am. I'd like both sides to work. But trying to make a real go of it everywhere sucks time and energy I'd rather spend doing something else, and if anyone's in a position to make the best fist of publishing in the future - and to find readers for books - it's outfits like Polis (and Angry Robot, etc. etc.). The contract's not a shackle, royalties are considerably higher than major standard, and the potential benefits are huge. So there.)

The particularly pleasing thing is that MURDER PARK now has a publisher, and an extra crack at finding a proper audience, because of all the books that's the one I'd most love to see do well.

So there we go. And now I have to go and finish hacking BURIAL GROUND into shape. I have a deadline.

Chuck Wendig's BLACKBIRDS, a late-to-the-party review

Sometime just before Christmas, the steel-clawed cybernetic rulers of Angry Robot decreed that there would be a series of by-author sales, with books reduced to free/peanuts or free peanuts for LIMITED TIMES and MASSIVE SAVINGS. TM. One of those writers was Chuck Wendig, and one of those books was BLACKBIRDS, which I had heard many good things about (and whose Joey Hi-Fi cover I'd always admired), but hadn't bought because I already sold both kidneys to cover my son's school lunch money.


So BLACKBIRDS winged freely to the feathered nest of my phone. (And so did MOCKINGBIRD and THE BLUE BLAZES for next to nothing, but I don't have a handy metaphor for those too and anyway shut up.)

And I've read it. And once I'm done with Jeff Vandermeer's FINCH, I'm going to read MOCKINGBIRD. And here's why.

Protagonist Miriam Black can see how you're going to die. One touch of skin on skin, and bang, instant replay, date and time. She lives hand-to-mouth, hitching around until she finds someone whose end is imminent, and then emptying their wallet after it happens. That's the core conceit, and it's obviously a good one. She meets someone whose death seems to directly involve her, and then someone else who knows what she can do, and then someone else else who also knows this and isn't at all nice. That right there is the story. More or less.

Like a lot of other people, I very much liked this book. It's really, really good. I've read Chuck before - and while, yes, he is a bearded internet phenomenon unto himself, he got that way through (a) working a lot and (b) being good at what he does. And this is good. Miriam is a superb protagonist, as miserable and messed up as you'd expect someone with her ability to be, and consequently when she has the chance to change her stars, just a little, you want it to work out for her. That the villains, held just shy of scenery-chewingly vicious, seem so capable of making it not work out, means that there's a healthy bucket of tension to sustain what's actually, despite its concept, a very simple tale.

What especially struck me, though, is how Chuck handles the issue of Miriam's past and the events that led to her manifesting her power. You don't see the Big Thing for what it is until quite late on, and even then it's not explicitly stated or explained that this is what did it. Its effects, which could/would be the source of much melodrama in lesser hands, are also never directly referred to. It's very smartly done.

The writing's lean, the skipping timeline never confuses (and features a nice little reveal when you learn when the interview happens in relation to the main events), and the secondary characters are rich and believable.

If I had a quibble, and in reviewing something you sort of feel like you should pick at anything if you can, it would be that Miriam escapes her lowest point on a particular bathroom floor with the aid of a truly remarkable piece of luck, not skill, that deals with the particular threat she faces. It's a very minor quibble, and by the time it happens the story has banked so much credit with you that it doesn't matter a damn.

BLACKBIRDS came out something like a billion years ago and as far as I know I'm the only person on Earth who hadn't already read it, but nevertheless, I'd would heartily recommend anyone else do so, for money and everything. It's really top notch story-telling.

Today's Links

Andrez Bergen's Depth Charging Ice Planet Goth, a somewhat cloaked review

Depth Charging Ice Planet Goth

Andrez is really, really good at getting books into people's hands. This is how come I'm one of those with a copy of DEPTH CHARGING ICE PLANET GOTH several months before publication. He's also really, really good at titles. This is how come it's called DEPTH CHARGING ICE PLANET GOTH.

These are things to bear in mind.

I also really, really liked WHO IS KILLING THE GREAT CAPES OF HEROPA?. Because Andrez is a really, really good writer. And that most precious of beasts, a writer with a pretty much fearless imagination. And a nice guy.

That's also something to bear in mind.

The short, short version is that I really liked DCIPG too, not quite as much as HEROPA, but it's still a fine book and you should purchase it with your moneys when you can, for definite. You will not regret it.

Explaining why I liked it "not quite as much but still a lot" will require the use of elaborate techniques to avoid spoilers and you probably won't understand what I mean when I say half this stuff.

That's the final thing to bear in mind.

OK. So. DCIPG is a Bergen-standard blend of genres (HEROPA's probably the only easy-to-classify one, and even that has elements of others). It's part teenage coming of age drama about a 17-year-old girl in 1987 Melbourne with an abusive brother and a recently dead mother. It's also part FIGHT CLUB. And part HEATHERS (which is coming of age, of course, but with a hefty side order of psycho). And part... FEAR AND LOATHING. Ish. Or Philip K Dick. Look, shut up; I'm struggling for analogies.

The first two thirds concentrate on the (sometimes hideous) school and home life of Mina, her clique-y circle of friends, the new kid at school who disrupts all this, and her family and past. It's a slow burn, but it needs to be, and Mina comes across as totally believable and sympathetic. Nicely complex, too. (Note: believability relative to my lack of never having been a teenage girl.) Good things happen, bad things happen...

And then there's a fairly abrupt shift. The story takes a big jump into very different territory (for perfectly good reasons), and I was thrown a little. Then it jumps again, and Mina's life is very different and new to her, and... I wasn't as sold on New Mina as on old. One character central to her story before had also shifted and had a past and... again. And then she sort of shifts back to Old Mina, and it turns out some of Old Mina's former friends and relations are very different than she'd imagined. They reveal all to her and... she ends it. Sensibly, I might add, and I felt back on firmer ground. The actual close to the story itself is superbly judged, too.

That sounds a lot more critical than I'm trying to be. But it's a little like explaining why the delicious honeycomb ice cream you just ate wasn't quite as delicious as the other honeycomb ice cream you had that time in that place. You end up focussing on the small things and everyone really needs to remember the context you're placing them in.

So, the context:

  • Mina's a great main character. Animeid (you'll see) is a sharp addition of ambivalent loyalties. Her arc carries you through very well indeed.
  • And it's a good arc. You want to follow it.
  • 80s Melbourne is excellently realised and rich in colour and depth.
  • Mina's family (I particularly liked her uncle) are great throughout, even the bad ones.
  • Her relationships with her friends, old and new, are solid and carry enough tension and interest to push the story. Which, as a coming of age tale at heart, they need to be.
  • While the shifts threw me a little (especially that big one), they're not crazy, just a bit sharp. They do mix up the story and keep things running along.
  • I like the ambiguity of what I can only describe as the FIGHT CLUB element. It's not FIGHT CLUB, but allow me to run with the analogy. I'd have to read it again to be sure, but I wasn't sure if it wasn't just a touch too ambiguous come the end for me, though. A little like getting to the end and not being sure if Tyler was actually the narrator or not.
  • That said, hey, FIGHT CLUB element. Ambiguous or not, it's very well done and a great part of the story.
  • And I love the note the story ends on.

So. As you can see, it's a fine book (hence 900 words of review). And definitely the most wildly inventive teenage girl grows up book you're likely to read this year. You can tell for yourselves by buying it when it's out, and then you'll also know for sure what the hell I've been talking about. Which you should. Buy it, I mean.

Today's Links

(Both good analyses/pickings-apart of Hugh Howey’s recent author earnings report. That’s linked to at both, if you haven’t seen it/want to, but best bear in mind the issues with its methodology first.)

Today's Links

10 bonus years: depression and suicide

If I was American there's a reasonable chance I'd have been dead ten years ago. That's because relatively easy access to firearms poses a much lower barrier to entry to reliable, fast, and reasonably considerate suicide than the options on offer here in the UK.

Before we begin, let's make a few things clear. Firstly that this isn't a post with a clear structure, a host of crosslinks, and an easily quotable, uplifting message of hope at the end. It's an undirected load of personal waffle I've been mulling over since a tragic spate of friend-of-a-friend suicides towards the end of last year, around the same time as a bunch of stuff appeared online on the subject (some of it very good indeed). Secondly that any kind of description of depression (or, I'd guess, most other mental illness) or talk thereon should come with an automatic prefix saying "IT CAN BE VERY DIFFERENT IN EACH CASE AND WHAT APPLIES IN ONE INSTANCE DOESN'T NECESSARILY FOLLOW IN ANOTHER". Since that's a mouthful to type each time, just mentally add it in there whenever I say anything. Thirdly that I know jack about actual mental health and I'm in no position to offer advice. Take anything here as personal biography/history and nothing more weighty than that, even when I'm trying to persuade you otherwise.

So. Onwards.

A decade ago, more or less at this time of year, something happened to me that triggered a bout of severe depression. The event isn't really important - one of those things that happen in life to most of us now and then, generally without causing more than a few emotional scars that heal naturally with time - it just so happened that it was one I dealt with very badly. I was 26.

This wasn't the first time I'd experienced depression. I had a bout after leaving university bad enough to try St John's wort on the quiet (I was back living with my parents and didn't want anyone to know how I felt), which was very much not a success, and to talk to my doctor about it, which was.

I had a bout working for a major book wholesaler in my last uni summer break thanks to the company's unpleasant working practices (particularly the forced overtime - "you work until we tell you you can go home, regardless of your shift, and you'll find out when you can go five minutes before you can go"). When I was there the gates would have leafleters from two trade unions outside each morning trying to get enough members to organise a strike because of those working practices. Not long after I left they presumably achieved the numbers needed because they threatened the company with outright legal action if they didn't change and the place was consequently a lot nicer to work at, at least according to friends employed there after me.

I had another a year or so before that when I was thinking about dropping out of my course to do... some undefined alternative instead.

And so on. Periodic episodes of bleurgh. None of those were anything like as bad as this one, though. This was the mother of all downers.

(If you want to place it in my professional chronology, it was the winter/spring before WINTER'S END came out in paperback and THE TOUCH OF GHOSTS in hardback. I was a third of the way through the next book. I hadn't yet gone to Bouchercon for the first time (that was Toronto, the autumn of that year), and had only barely been to Harrogate (one night, the year before, for a Penguin party at which I got blind steaming drunk with Stav Sherez and some other reprobates and didn't leave the hotel bar until nearly 5am). I hadn't started blogging (that came in the June of that year, IIRC) and this was a long way before Facebook and Twitter. Ancient times.)

The healthy thing to do when something in life goes south on you is to be down, then be angry, possibly be drunk, and then get over it, fast or slow. Time rolls on and the intensity of our experiences fades as they retreat into the past. The unhealthy thing to do is to cycle through them time and again in your own head until the cause(s) itself is neither here nor there and all you're left with is the misery feeding on its own tail. You can't lift yourself because you feel bad and you feel bad because you can't lift yourself and you should be able to.

I lost, as I recall, a stone in weight in just over a week, half of a second over the next month (which from only ten and half to begin with is quite a bit), and stopped routinely sleeping more than 4-5 rather broken and unhelpful hours a night. Insomnia's miserable and frustrating at the best of times, but when you're depressed the long, long stretch between 3am and dawn is very tough indeed.

Give it two, three months of this, maybe more, with no sign of improvement, and you start to look at any possible way out as worth considering. Worth embracing, even. This is how come you end up considering killing yourself. You just want out. It's not because your dog dies/you're in massive debt/your spouse leaves you/because you can't see how you're ever going to have control over your own life/whatever. It's because of the misery spiral that arises out of that. A spiral you can't seem to escape and you're getting more and more tired of trying and failing to fight. Don't equate x with z; it's y, the crushing unhappiness in the middle, that's the cause.

Which, incidentally (and for God's sake remember my disclaimers here), is why if you ever find yourself talking to anyone suicidally depressed, you shouldn't say "killing yourself doesn't solve anything". Because that argument - unless the person in question is hoping to save their family from the burden of their personal debts, which do get inherited after death and consequently aren't solved by suicide - can be instantly shot down. It's a terminal solution, it's not necessarily a proportional or sensible solution, but if your main problem is "my life is a seemingly never-ending trudge through an internal swamp of horribly bad feelings about myself and I can't cope with that any more", ending that life is a solution. The thing to ask is probably, "Sure, but is that the only option? Depression's extremely common. It's also very rare for it to last forever. Many people find another way past it, so let's explore some possibilities, huh?"

I put a lot of time into figuring out how, if I was going to do it, I would. It sounds odd, but doing so gave me something to hang on to and get through those long, wide awake hours in the early morning. In Craig Ferguson's (well worth watching) monologue about alcoholism and Britney Spears he talks about the moment he decided to throw himself off Tower Bridge. "I thought by doing this: I'll show them. I wasn't sure exactly who 'they' were, but I was going to show them."

And that's the other thing which makes suicide seem a viable choice. It's feeling like it's one thing about your life that you can get a handle on. One thing that you can control and you can do when everything else is beyond you. It's not a coward's choice or a fool's choice, and if you're fond of saying that you might want to keep it to yourself because you're sure as hell not helping anyone. It actually takes real guts to kill yourself, and very few make the decision lightly. No one's an idiot or a selfish arsehole. It's just that the data they're basing that choice on is faulty.

If you're depressed and you can find something else you can control or you can do, no matter how small (Matt Fraction's post linked to above talks about deliberately making himself laugh by shaving off half his pubic hair because he realised he hadn't found anything fun for a long time), killing yourself may no longer be the last available straw you can grasp. That's worth bearing in mind too, should you encounter someone on the brink.

I was smart enough to know that overdose-by-pill only works in the movies or the distant past when doctors prescribed barbituates willy-nilly. Try pulling that stunt now, especially with everyday painkillers, and generally you'll just end up with horrible liver damage, agony, and a long life afterwards to regret it. I was (and still am) far too squeamish about digging around in my own innards to even remotely consider slashing an artery. Both, in any case, leave you a long time to have second thoughts and have too much that can go wrong and leave you alive, but with problems. Hanging, too.

That left jumping off something tall enough onto something hard enough, which has the advantages of being quick, consequently usually painless, and so long as you plan ahead, pretty much guaranteed to work. But it's also messy and I'm a considerate type, and while I've grown up by Beachy Head that also means I know collecting bodies is difficult and dangerous work for the coastguard, and that even from 600 feet it's possible to survive because the cliff slopes outward. (I've since happened to meet someone who did just that; albeit with considerable brain damage and a jaw and various other bones held together only by massive numbers of steel pins.) That left one of the town's multi-storey car parks as the best choice, ideally at 3-4am so no one would have to see the unpleasant results apart from the emergency services. (Which sucks badly too, but you can't do it totally cleanly was what I figured at the time, and at least those guys have training.) Up top, phone a rather apologetic report to 999, jump, done.

Of course, to do that, you have to get into a locked multi-storey car park in the middle of the night without being spotted. That's quite a high hassle barrier to overcome. It's not impossible if you're smart, but it's certainly a challange (challenges not being something depressives are famous for overcoming, of course). If you're going to go through all that, you need to be goddamn sure that that's what you want to do. No backing out. No change of heart. Once you go, you're committed, because you start off by breaking the law. That's pretty daunting.

In the US, I could've bought a gun. I've got no criminal record, nothing to see me fail a background check. Hell, I could've rented a gun, as numerous people apparently do for precisely this purpose. It's a lot, lot easier. Maybe I'd have been more inclined.

Because I didn't do it, of course. Be hard to type all this if I had. I eventually figured if I was going to spend all that time failing to get out of the rut, not to mention wondering about ending it all but never being sure enough to try that very high barrier for entry, I might as well suck it up and go and talk to my doctor. I didn't want to hassle my family or friends. My mates had been great early on and I didn't want to load them down with heavy stuff they didn't deserve and wouldn't handle. (Generally whenever we'd meet up for gaming or the pub - both of which I'd generally enjoy at least a little right up until I got home again to the empty gulf of my own regular life - I'd put on the ol' 'everything's great' suit and try, probably not very convincingly, to act normal.)

Depression will tell you it's a bad idea to speak to people about it because it'll just make people want to avoid you. It's a selfish illness and it wants you all to itself. Feeling guilty about dumping your emotional wreckage on those closest to you - those you really, really don't want to drive away - is as far as I know a common reason not to want to talk about depression. It's also why I'd modify the standard advice - "talk to someone, anyone" - with a caveat: "Talk to a professional if you can, someone you won't have to feel bad about opening up to. You might think your regular GP/doctor doesn't deal with depression but you're wrong. Talk to them. If they're unsympathetic, the hell with them; talk to another doctor. If you don't have one, don't know the number for a crisis line and can't find anyone else, sure, talk to someone, whether a friend or a stranger, because you shouldn't try to tough it out alone."

I still felt like a total time-wasting fraud when I saw my doctor but to her lasting credit she was great. Very matter-of-fact. I explained what was happening ("Suicidal thoughts? I spent two hours last night unable to sleep, thinking who I'd leave notes to and what they'd say.") and she said the two options were counselling or medication. I said I didn't have any actual issues that needed working out, I just needed to get out of the self-feeding cycle of misery, to get a bit of a lift so I could break the habit of having my thoughts turn back in on themselves to make me feel worse for feeling bad (as per Hyperbole And A Half's excellent account). If I did that I'd be able to shake it and pick myself up. "OK," she said.

She prescribed me this stuff, then comparatively new in the world of serious antidepressants. If you're not sleeping and not eating, something that knocks you out (12 hours straight on the night of the first dose which I still remember being astonished by) and gives you a bad case of the munchies is not to be sniffed at. She doubled the dose after a fortnight, and the depression did indeed lift over the next few weeks. I was able to start writing again, having done no work at all for five months because I just couldn't concentrate worth a damn. With the slowdown period at the end to avoid withdrawal, I was on the pills for four months or so.

In the ten years since then, I've had two kids, I've gotten married, I've moved home more times than I can count. I've had good times and I've messed up and life's not as simple as it might be (with those two kids coming from different relationships, the main source of stress I now have isn't career or money or love-life based but now whether or not my oldest is happy and how well we work out the rota between me and his mother). And sometimes days are bad, and I can feel the old process tickle at the back of my head, though I know it for what it is now. I've got a lot more responsibility and more things to worry about and more pressure to put myself under. But I've never gone back there. Mostly, on a down day, I just have a couple of beers, shoot some zombies or watch a crappy movie, and forget about it come morning. Like any healthy person.

If things had been different, I do wonder sometimes if I'd ever have gotten out in the first place.