Thursday 25 July 2013

Review: The Clan of the Cave Bear

Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear, the first instalment in her Earth's Children series, quickly became one of my favourite books when I first read it two years ago. I will say that, while it isn't my favourite book, it holds pride of place as the best book I have ever read.

So what do I mean by that? Well, while Clan of the Cave Bear doesn't quite capture my imagination in the same way my all-time favourite Maia did, on a purely technical level it is a far superior book. Rarely do you ever come across a story that's as well constructed as Jean Auel's debut novel, from the seamless blend of imagination with history, the rich and vivid characters, the nail-biting drama, and the pitch-perfect pacing. On a storytelling level, I can't praise this book enough. It really is a page turner that keeps you engrossed from start to finish with textbook examples of every technique a good writer should master.

While its sequels are unfortunately a lot more shaky in this regard, Clan of the Cave Bear is a perfect blend of smaller elements coming together to form one cohesive whole. I feel like I could write an essay on all the things I love about this book, but I'll try to keep my review as concise as possible.

In a nutshell, the story revolves around a young Homosapien girl named Ayla growing up amongst an Ice Age tribe of Neanderthals. The dramatic conflicts are numerous and fascinating, but they all ultimately stem from the idea of how Ayla is both charmingly similar and frighteningly different to the people whose society she becomes a part of. Much like the premise behind Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, this is a fantastic concept that allows for endlessly engaging scenes as our heroine struggles to find her place amongst a group of people who are fundamentally different from her.

One detail (often more than one, unfortunately!) that ends up damaging a lot of books is the degree to which authors spend time world building and fleshing out minor background details about the setting. While Clan of the Cave Bear is set in the real world, the way Neanderthal society operates is very much a foreign concept that requires large amounts of description and exposition. Jean Auel rides the line between shallow and superfluous description very well, doling out information as and when it becomes necessary, providing just enough detail to pique the reader's interest without getting bogged down by it (a trap which the sequels were less successful in avoiding). It's rare that I can say I've read a book where the world building enhances the narrative in a meaningful way, but Clan of the Cave Bear is certainly one such novel.

However, probably my favourite aspect of the story was the way in which the author handled dark subject matter. I've touched briefly in the past on how Jean Auel handles sex as opposed to an author like George R. R. Martin, and this extends further to the way in which she tackles dark subject matter in general.
Clan of the Cave Bear is a dark book. Probably one of the darker stories I've ever read, predominantly because of how vivid and personal the material is. Without getting into spoilerville too much, the novel deals with the subjects of rape, extreme sexism, and domestic violence in a big way. Admittedly this is presented through the filter of a developing culture whose moral values differ significantly to our modern day sensibilities, but that doesn't divorce these events from the traumatising emotional impact they have on the characters, and on us the readers.
Segments of the novel are horiffic, painful, and deeply unsettling, and yet they are never bleak and cynical. Jean Auel makes these themes work by contrasting them with incredibly positive, uplifting, life-affirming moments throughout the story, and the trials the heroine goes through consistently strengthen her as a person rather than breaking her down. This combined with the excellent pacing that never leaves us in a dark (or relaxing) place for too long helps the grim subject matter of the novel to work as a smaller part of a greater narrative, having a meaningful and emotional impact that challenges the reader without alienating them. If you ever need a good example of how to appropriately tackle dark themes in a conventional story, Clan of the Cave Bear should be number one on your reading list.

If I had to be critical of the book -- and in the spirit of giving it a fair review, I feel obliged to! -- the one area that I found a little offputting was the way in which the author handled the idea of the spiritual and metaphysical. The Clan have their own fascinating and charmingly logical set of spiritual beliefs about how life, the universe, and everything operates around them (mental arithmetic, for example, being considered a form of high magic that only the greatest of shamans can master!), and for the most part this is a fun and enjoyable extra dimension in the story. The differences in mental capacities between Ayla and her Neanderthal tribe are explained indirectly through differences in evolution, and for the most part the book is grounded in "believable superstition".
There are one or two moments, however, that stretch this suspension of disbelief a little. When a book that has been based in reality for several hundred pages hints at the idea of something a little more "magical" towards the end, it gives you pause to scratch your head and question the divergence in tone.
This is a minor part of the book, and certainly not a crippling flaw, but it stood out to me as an oddity amongst an otherwise excellently constructed story that could have easily been omitted.

Overall, though, The Clan of the Cave Bear is a shining example of superbly cultivated, deep, compelling storytelling that enriches you as a reader while taking you on a fantastic journey into an unfamiliar world at the same time. It's everything a quality novel should be, scoring top marks in almost every area for the technical expertise that went into crafting this story.

I give The Clan of the Cave Bear a critically acclaimed A+ Distinction With Honours out of ten!

Monday 22 July 2013

Wild Judgements Published!

Part seven of Wild Instincts is finished and available to purchase on Amazon and Smashwords! As we approach the end of the serial things are getting emotional for Lyssa and Thorne, and at long last it's time to start setting up the dramatic climax to the series!

With Thorne's judgement decided upon, Lyssa's happy future amongst the Wood Pack is falling apart before her eyes -- but there may be a sliver of hope for the outsider couple yet. With the return of an old friend, the divisive decision to exile Thorne leads to fresh new conflicts amongst the pack, and Lyssa finally comes face to face with the truth of her feelings towards her wild lover.
Fingers crossed I'll be able to wrap up the series in a timely fashion. I don't currently have any other side projects to get in the way of my writing, and in about a week's time I'll be heading off on vacation for a fortnight. With a bit of luck I'll be able to get a ton of writing done while I'm away, but we'll have to wait and see on that front.

I'll try and get up another blog post before I disappear, but depending on internet availability my posts might be a little more sporadic over the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

J. K. Rowling, The Cuckoo's Calling, and the Ethics of Pen Names

In case you've been living under a rock in regards to the literary world over the past few days, the internet (and presumably all those other old media sources that I never bother following any more) has been abuzz with the news that J. K. Rowling has recently published not just one, but two new books. It just so happened that The Cuckoo's Calling was published under a pseudonym, and remained quietly anonymous for several months before we all found out about it. You can read the full story here.

So what does this all mean? A prominent point of discussion in regards to this story has been the critical praise, but low sales figures of her anonymously published novel -- something that stands quite at odds with the commercial and critical response to her other post-Potter release, The Casual Vacancy.

What interested me the most, though, was a discussion that cropped up over on kboards about the backstory to the pseudonym she used. Robert Galbraith, Rowling's alter ego, is described as follows:

After several years with the Royal Military Police, Robert Galbraith was attached to the SIB (Special Investigative Branch), the plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who returned to the civilian world.

The point of contention that sprung up amongst several of my fellow authors was the idea of concocting a false backstory for her pen name, particularly relating to the use of military credentials.

Now, to me this is largely a non-issue. When it comes to writing fiction an author could claim to be the Pope for all I care. As long as they can tell a good story, I'm happy. Being familiar with dozens of other erotic authors who employ various different pen names and personas (along with all the traditionally published authors who have done the same over the years -- let's not forget that Stephen King's Richard Bachman had an entire fictional family and fake author photos!) this just isn't something that registers as an issue for me when you're dealing with something as simple and harmless as fictional storytelling.

However, the discussion did give rise to a very interesting question in regards to how much authors can stretch the truth when creating a pseudonym, and where we draw the line with it. Obviously writing non-fiction and claiming to have based it in factual experience is a clear no-no, but at what point does a made-up backstory become unethical for a regular old storyteller?

One of my fellow authors mentioned that Galbraith's military backstory lent a credibility to his writing that could have been interpreted as a sneaky marketing ploy. While I don't believe Rowling's intentions were that sinister, it's still a very valid and concerning point. If you're going to make up a pen name, why not spice it up with some more imaginary details to hook potential readers in?

I've always refrained from putting things like "Claudia King is a classy sex goddess who has been through a string of handsome lovers and a lifetime of sexual experience" in my author bio, but I have to wonder -- would it help my sales if I did? If I concocted an imaginary persona dripping with intrigue and charisma, would it be a smart move for my career? And, more to the point, would it be ethical for me to do something like that?

In a world where so many celebrities and public figures are largely a product of PR and marketing, is presenting an embellished version of yourself to the world simply a smart move for an aspiring author, or is it a sneaky way to mislead your readers into buying your books? As much as I preach the lines between fiction and reality, I'm sure there are some readers out there who would take my word as authority on various sexual practices if I claimed they were all inspired by real-life encounters.

It's definitely an interesting topic, and a grey area that has no clear lines of division at this point. There are little white lies like pen names (spoiler alert: my real name isn't actually Claudia!) that authors use to preserve their privacy, and then there are claims to experience that stray into the territory of misleading your readers.

Monday 8 July 2013

Books and Interactive Storytelling

When people talk about interactive storytelling it's often in the most literal and direct way imaginable, relating to things like video games, choose-your-own-adventures, or visual novels. But I don't believe this is the bottom line of interactivity in storytelling.

I've talked in the past about the problems things like alternate endings can pose to the integrity of a story, and the same is generally true of interactivity in its broadest sense. There are precious few examples of stories that offer the reader a choice in what happens next, and then go on to reward them with a collection of equally enjoyable and satisfying conclusions afterwards. My perspective on the matter still hasn't changed: I firmly believe that a linear story will almost always be superior to one with multiple branches or endings.

However, that isn't to say that I dislike the idea of interactivity in storytelling. Far from it!
Something that I've been meaning to talk about for a long while now is the degree to which books and the textual medium have always been just as, if not more, interactive than any other form of storytelling out there.

There is a specific dimension to textual storytelling that is left almost entirely in the hands of the reader. Namely; the visuals. Theatre, film, video games, and art are all predominantly visual mediums, and very little is left to the audience's imagination when they're sitting in a theatre or watching a screen. Books do, of course, rely on description to fill in these visual blanks, but this generally varies from author to author (I'm a big fan of staying light on the description myself), and even the most vivid of sentences are never going to create exactly the same image in the reader's head as they do in that of the author.

In fact, when you think about it, the auditory element of novels is also entirely in the hands of the reader. We're all going to give the voices of characters different accents, inflections, and cadences in our heads. Even in the most meticulously described stories, there will always be a wealth of features that we have to fill in for ourselves. Every reader has, at some point, conjured up the outfit a character is wearing in their head, the layout of a room, or the features of a face. These are things that stick with you for the entire novel, and they define a huge part of how we respond to the material in hand.

If you compare it to a move, the job a reader has isn't much different to that of the casting director, set designer, and costume designer all rolled into one. We have the blueprint of the story laid out to us with instructions on how each of these elements should generally look or feel, but the details are all ultimately up to us. We conjure up entire worlds in our heads as readers, and there are millions upon millions of different interpretations of Hogwarts, Middle Earth, and Watership Down out there across the world. Christian Grey has a thousand different faces, and Ned Stark has said "Winter is Coming" in too many different ways to count (though most of them probably sound like Sean Bean).

I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but this is part of what makes books so special to me. They hold the potential for far more interactivity than the majority of other mediums out there. Even in a non-linear video game with dozens of choices that all alter the plot in some way, does that degree of interactivity really compare to creating entire worlds, characters, and voices in your own head?

I'd love to hear what other people think about the subject. Do you agree that books are as interactive as I seem to think? Or am I overlooking the degrees of interactivity present in other mediums?

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Indie Versus Industry

The twenty-first century is a very exciting time to be alive when it comes to consuming entertainment, and a large part of that is the accessibility and prevalence of indie artists these days.

In years past, the idea of an "indie" project was something reserved for hip underground clubs or niche festivals, not the sort of thing we'd experience from the comfort of our own homes on a daily basis. The advent of digital distribution, however, has cut out the barrier of entry for independent projects into the mainstream consciousness. Everything from books to films to games to music -- it's all there at the touch of a button just waiting to be discovered.

It's not even necessarily something you even notice, but I realised today that the vast majority of content I consume now comes from indie artists rather than industry sources. Many of the books I've read within the past year have been self published, most of the video games I've played have been quick and fun indie titles, and most of the visual media I consume comes via youtube. I barely ever watch TV any more, because I can get access to cookery shows, chat shows, comedy pieces, reviews, news, and just about anything I want via the internet, often tailored far more effectively to my own personal tastes than anything the mainstream media puts out.

And this is really the great strength of successful indie projects -- they are able to cater to a niche that suits you down to the ground. There's far less pressure to cast the net as wide as possible to hook in a massive financial return, so artists are able to focus on far more obscure and diverse subject matter. One of my favourite youtubers, Rosanna Pansino, produces a fantastic show in her kitchen called Nerdy Nummies, where she bakes all sorts of cute little treats themed around internet/geek culture. That sort of concept would have a hard time finding a home amongst the mainstream media, but through the power of youtube it's been able to garner her hundreds of thousands of fans and millions of views from across the world.

So indie culture is a big thing these days, and it's only going to continue getting bigger as time goes on and more of the world makes the transition into the digital age. What I wanted to comment on, though, was how this affects books.

Books are a strange little outlier in the indie scene, because even the biggest industry blockbuster titles in the world of literature still tend to come from the exact same place as the smallest of independent projects. Admittedly, there's likely to be pressure on the writer to meet deadlines or tailor their content to varying degrees, but writing has always fundamentally been about one person telling their story, and the corporate mechanisms working behind the scenes have had relatively little impact on that compared to how drastically they affect the content of many other mediums.

It's one of the things that's always drawn me to books, and allowed me to forge a personal connection with them in a way I rarely feel towards other forms of mainstream media. I feel like a book is always talking to me. It's (usually) one author's work, in their own words, translating from their mind into my own via the medium of the page.

It's absolutely wonderful that more artistic mediums are now able to recapture this sense of intimacy that books have held the monopoly on for so long. Of course, indie projects aren't without their faults. Many of them are awful, and suffer from the lack of quality control that an established industry brings, but amongst the sea of bland, mass-market content we see out there these days, the indie gems still shine just as brightly as the traditional ones.

Maybe it makes me a massive hipster, but I adore the sense of individuality and personality that the indie scene is currently bringing to our media, and it's fantastic to see the qualities I've always admired in books drawing me in to other artistic projects.