Wednesday, March 23, 2022

A Short History of Humanity – How Migration Made Us Who We Are by Johannes Krause and Thomas Trappe

I'm a sucker for history, especially human prehistory, since there's still so much to be learnt about our past – most of which has been dug out of all manner of locations all over the world. But a science that is fairly new, and is delivering some truly fascinating insights into our social, physiological, and even geological history is that of archaeogenetics. The two authors of A Short History of Humanity – How Migration Made Us Who We Are, Johannes Krause and Thomas Trappe, are both experts in their field, and this little book packs a lot of punch in only 272 pages.

You might be forgiven if you worry that A Short History of Humanity will be above the average reader's pay grade, but this is so not the case. This work has been wonderfully translated into English by Caroline Waight, and is accessible even to readers who have little prior experience on the subjects that are covered.

Who would have thought that the analysis of a small pile of bone dust would lead to the mapping of not only the Neanderthal but the Denisovan genome – there you have it. Not only have the authors untangled the complex web of our relationships with our extinct cousins, but through their work, and others', they've created a timeline that illustrates the gradual expansion of Homo sapiens across Africa, Asia, and Europe, while exploring a complex interrelationship between the different populations of hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists. The work these archaeogeneticists have done also challenges such tricky subjects such as race and species. How different were our ancestors truly from the Neanderthals if we could interbreed with them and produce fertile offspring? What of those whose heritage mingled the Neanderthal and Denisovan lines? 

Yet a history of humanity is incomplete if we don't discuss the looming spectre that follows in our wake – that of the diseases caused by pathogens. The Black Death has stalked among our communities for centuries, and the scientists have uncovered evidence that shows how pandemics played a huge role in human migration, too. A glance at how society has changed in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic is yet another example of how we are shaped by pathogens and how we, as a species, are engaged in a constant arms race with our microscopic nemeses.

What it all boils down to, is that our preconceived notions of race and culture are, to a large extent, social constructs – and we would do well to look past all this to the fact that we share an amazing kinship that stretches through the millennia. Whether we are refugees or travellers, we as a species are not static, and we would do well to remember this and think in terms of a global community, and perhaps one day if we venture forth into the galaxy.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Wild Horses on the Salt by Anne Montgomery

Okay, so I have mixed feelings about Wild Horses on the Salt by Anne Montgomery. It was the blurb that appealed to me – I love stories about women who overcome adversity and find themselves after escaping a terrible situation. And this book has all the elements that I love – a strong ecological theme, wonderful attention to detail when it comes to describing the natural environment, and a cast of lovely supporting characters. And Montgomery is *almost* there in terms of pulling all the themes together, but it falls ever so slightly short of being a powerfully impactful story in terms of character development. I feel this book tries to do too much, and then doesn't quite hit the mark when it boils down to execution.

If there had been a firmer hand on the reins during the structural edits, these threads could have been tightened and developed better. As it stands, it feels as if the love interest is slightly tacked on, and Rebecca dealing with her abusive, erstwhile husband comes across rushed – the conclusion to this arc far too convenient and reeking of deus ex machina. Rebecca herself as a character, flounders along, not quite developing as a person to transcend her difficult past. What further marred the story for me was the occasional head hopping – not enough to make me want to put down the book, but enough for me to notice and get twitchy.

I feel that the author-narrator voice was not quite strong enough to present us with a credible omniscient viewpoint, so that the shifts, when they happen, feel ever so slightly jarring, and some of the dialogue falls into 'as you know, Bob' territory. When we read scenes from the point of view of animals, such as the stallion, the expression feels too much like a human explaining things about the animal, instead of immersing us in how it might feel to be the animal – that won't be using human terminology to explain things like roads or vehicles. Or maybe I'm just hankering after Elyne Mitchell's brumbies. (And if you've read those books, you'll understand what I mean.)

So, these were my quibbles. Wild Horses on the Salt makes up for it by offering a deep dive into the Arizona desert – and this Montgomery does well, clearly writing with immense love and passion for this beautiful environment and the threats it faces due to human encroachment. She foregrounds the plight of the wild horses, and humans' indifference or outright hostility to conservation efforts.

While the novel gets off to a promising start, I do feel as though the ending was dashed off somewhat, though this wasn't a complete dealbreaker – and a more rigorous bit of editing could also have helped, as the final offering was a little wobbly in places. However, if you're looking for an easy read and a bit of armchair travel, that will take you to a breathtaking destination, then this will be a pleaser.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

How to disguise exposition

Every few months, I get invited to do a talk followed by a Q&A with a UK-based writers' group, so what follows are my notes that I've massaged into something of use for my readers. The main focus on this talk, was how to disguise exposition.

What is exposition? 

Any moment the story is paused so that a history lesson is given in some shape or form, it's a stage where you need to be very careful. It slows down your pace, and if there's too much of it, readers might put the book down. Remember also that we're living in an age where there are maximum distractions all around us all the time.

The big problem: 
I've lost count of how many first chapters I've read that had entire pages of back-story about a kingdom or a world. These days with Amazon's 'look inside' function, if you're not hooking readers from the start, Houston, we have a problem. Or I think of the SF writer I edited many years ago who had five pages of exposition discussing how the fusion drive on his space ship works. My eyes glazed over after the second paragraph, and I found myself skimming until he got back to the story. And of course there are the many times I've encountered chunks of info-dump right in the middle of an action-packed scene that threw me right out of the story.

My solutions:
So, how do you convey the vital information? 

  1. Keep it relevant. Feed small snippets of info-bites in WHEN the details are important. Keep it short, for example, if there is a river that is prone to flooding, only bring this up when a character is about to cross the river. It's on a 'need to know' basis for your character and, by default, your readers. 

  2. Dialogue is a great place, but be aware of falling into the trap of 'as you know, Bob' type dialogue that is clearly wedged in for readers' benefit. If it's information two characters both know, then find better ways to rehash it – perhaps characters have differing opinions that amount to an argument. And hey presto! You have not only a great opportunity for characterisation, but also for throwing in a bit of back story without making it yawn-worthy. Of course a prime example is when one character is a bit clueless, and the other is filling them in with something they don't already know. 

  3. Nesting narratives. Sometimes we can have a story within a story – so look at how a classic children's fairy tale is told, there's a beat and a rhythm to the telling. Look at what sort of imagery you can use, how you can make the language beautiful – especially consider the African narrative tradition where a 'telly' way of sharing a story actually does work quite well. Do yourself a favour and go see how masters such as Sir Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman handle exposition. They make it feel effortless.

  4. Show from context. If you want to show that a country has been suffering a great war, perhaps consider a chapter that starts with a character in a conflict area. Allow the contextual information, for instance, lack of supplies, bad weather, leaders who are out of touch with the common soldier, create a strong impression of what is happening. Turn it into a easter egg hunt of sorts. What sort of clues can you drop into your story that will gradually build up layers of meaning? You want to show that a building has suffered in a long-ago war? Maybe the bullet holes are still there, but they're furred with lichen and moss – this tells us the conflict happened a long time ago and no one's bothered to fix it.

Show, don't tell...
You've probably gone cross-eyed from having heard this, but there's some truth to it. Create a vivid setting, and readers will learn from what you feed them as things progress. Look at Bilbo in the Shire, as an example. Or Luke Skywalker the farm boy embarking on his journey. The world gradually unfolds and the writer creates a mystery that keeps dragging readers forward. Resist the temptation to throw everything and the kitchen sink at readers right at the start!

Your character...
Your characters will have opinions – not always the correct ones, but even two characters disagreeing on the same topic will not only give you good information about the characters, but will also show you more about the world. Two things happen – you build the world, but you also gain the opportunity to develop your characters. Think about why a story featuring a clueless character (farm boy, small children climbing into a wardrobe, a hobbit embarking on an adventure with a band of thieving dwarves) – we learn about the world through their fresh eyes. But even a character who is jaded, who has seen it all, can have Opinions that will also paint a better picture.

Choose the right events! 
Find events that are happening that are great opportunities to illustrate the mechanics of your world. There's a war brewing? What started the war? Was it a piece of land? Introduce a mystery that needs to be unpicked. 

Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope. 

Show the characters gathering more information as their adventure progresses – you don't need to reveal everything in one fell swoop.

Offer contextual clues
Don't explain why people would have to be at a destination at a particular time. Just show them arriving, infer that this is something they do often – perhaps because they've got stuff stored there. Paint a vivid picture with your environment and your characters. Once again, don't explain. Show from how people interact with each other and their environment. 

For instance, instead of going on about the racism in a particular city, perhaps show a horrible man spitting at a beggar woman who belongs to a different culture. This tells us a lot not only about cultural tensions, but also long-standing issues. 

You want to show how healthcare in a community works? Have a scene that makes sense within the story where a character gets hurt while problem solving, and has to go to see a healer or doctor. 

A very fine line exists between too much and too little. And it takes a while to figure out the balance. Not all exposition is bad, IOW. But by the same measure you mustn't give it the steering wheel, so to speak.

If I have to think of novels that I struggled with, Frank Herbert's Dune springs immediately to mind. I stop/started it three times before I finally pushed through and finished. Herbert wades through so much internal monologues, back story – and the real problem is that even if you're going to write exposition, you need to be able to evoke images, tell a story that moves from A to Z. 

Another one that grated my gears was Laurell K Hamilton's habit of describing a laundry list of everything from the hair down to the shoes. Every. Time. A new character comes onto a page. It becomes so obvious after about a few chapters that I eye-rolled so much, and if it weren't for the fact that I was writing the review for the papers, I probably would have stoped reading after the first three chapters.

Handling exposition in your writing is very much a case of practise and awareness. Fellow author David Miles mentioned a great exercise where he advises writers to delete all the parts with exposition in an excerpt to see how it reads, then only to reinsert the bits of exposition needed to motivate what's being said. This is a good practice. Don't be afraid to cut words. You can always put them back later, where they offer better context. Or you could shape them so that they're more fascinating to read.

If in doubt, spend time reading attentively, and see how the classic authors out there handle exposition, then experiment with your own writing. 

Thursday, March 10, 2022

The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes translated and narrated by Jackson Crawford

One of my favourite authors, JRR Tolkien, has a heavy debt to pay to the Old Norse Poetic and Prose Edda, which are writings that date back to the 13th century when Christian priests recorded the old poems. Considering that the ancients, for whom these poems were living, breathing cultural objects, had primarily an oral tradition, if these early scholars had not recorded the verses, they'd no doubt be lost in the mists of time. Thanks to their dedication, we have some ideas of the beliefs and culture of our Scandinavian ancestors. The irony of Christians preserving artefacts of Heathenry is not lost on me.

I will admit that The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes, translated and narrated by Jackson Crawford, is my first serious dip into the source material that has informed so many of my favourite TV series, films, and books. And while Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology is still lurking in my TBR pile, I'm altogether keen to get to the actual source material before I take up Gaiman's book. When the time comes, it will be interesting to make comparisons.

What I enjoyed about Crawford's writing and narration is that not only does he have a lovely, melodious voice and exquisite pronunciation, but he also offers a little background information about each of the poems before he plunges into the reading that helps to establish context. I'll admit that I was initially somewhat hesitant, fearing that the verses would be dry. How wrong I was. Many of these myths are familiar to me, thanks to the many years that I've been delving into mythology, but with Crawford's telling, the stories came alive as close to the original source material as we can get.

Some of the sayings that were included I reckon are still relevant to this day, which is something indeed. Not that I'm about to go a-viking anytime soon. I'd love to know more Old Norse, because I suspect that not all the imagery and subtleties translate all that well into English, but I feel Crawford still did an excellent job with this work. I'll happily recommend the audiobook to anyone who wants to learn more about the philosophy, culture, and cosmology of the ancient Scandinavians, who in their fatalism (there's A LOT of death, treachery and bloodshed in this book) still managed to live their lives to the fullest. This title was included in my Audible subscription, and was worth every moment.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Palaces of Stone: Uncovering ancient southern African kingdoms by Mike Main & Tom Huffman

I've known about the existence of the iconic Great Zimbabwe ruins for years, but until Palaces of Stone by Mike Main and Tom Huffman arrived on my reading pile, I had no idea that the story behind these remnants of a culture were far more numerous and widespread – with 566 known sites described. Before the Europeans had the wherewithal to sail around the Cape of Storms, kingdoms existed in southern Africa with dwelling-places and palaces with such evocative names as Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, Khami, and Zinjanja, among others.

The first settlements date back to 900 CE to 1850 CE, with the last, the state of Mutapa, seeing the start of its demise with the arrival of the Portuguese in the1600s, whose meddling in local politics stirred a toxic brew of intrigue and conflict. Main and Huffman paint a picture of a series of states, each growing phoenix-like out of the ashes of the old, with complex cultural practices and a wide net of influence within the region.

We are fortunate that not all the research into the culture of the region is conjecture – much of the lore is still alive today, courtesy of the Shona people, and the authors offer up fascinating details behind the meticulously laid-out stonework, the arrangement of dwellings, and the roles played by their inhabitants. Even the patterns of the stones have their meanings – the chevron, check, and herringbone patterns each telling their own stories. 

What troubled me was also my understanding of the great damage wreaked by the British, whose shameless treasure hunting in the Great Zimbabwe ruins destroyed any hope of piecing together accurate archaeological data. This disregard for an immense cultural heritage means that we have lost so much, and Cecil John Rhodes and his ilk have much to answer for.

Palaces of Stone might be a slim volume whose size cannot do justice to the beautiful photographs and detailed maps reproduced within, but for those who, like me, are fascinated by southern Africa's natural and cultural history, this is a veritable treasure trove of information. What I've learnt is that these walls are more than just tumbled ruins, but they echo with a vast reservoir of meaning and a vibrant past deserving of preservation and further research.