Beginnings and Awakenings

Parts of a Whole

In the morning, the great looming bulk of the Vercors Massif is lit pink with the dawn, a line sliding down the cliff face to meet the trees below, the tenacious patches of snow a constant switching of pastels; an artist who can’t quite decide on the right shade. The snow is no longer pristine white — instead, the desert came to the mountains, strong winds from the south bringing Saharan sand to dust and coat all, concealing the view and make breathing harder for many. Ridgelines appeared and disappeared, orange haze obscuring then lifting, revealing the serried rows and points of peaks.

We are all connected, parts of a whole, a puzzle beyond simple comprehension, full of chaos, full of new beginnings, often at the expense of something else’s end. The wind blows from Africa and the snow in the Alps turns brown.

(Waiting for the bus from Cercal do Alentejo.)

Here, in Isère, winter is settling down for her long summer nap. She may yet toss and turn, throwing off a fresh blanket of snow with her movement, or crisping all with frost, but the sun is lulling her to sleep, simultaneously charming catkins, blossom, and early spring flowers towards the light. The ground is a riot of primrose in particular, with the blues, purples, and pinks of other fresh-faced early flowers scattered betwixt and between.

The birds are, in some cases, already nesting. Their songs strong and almost constant, here a great tit, there a serin, everywhere the blackbird, each defending their parcel of garden and urban oasis. I have my binoculars again, arrived from Portugal safe and in one piece, and I have an app or two to identify and suggest bird song. I did not know the call of the serin until last week — they hide in the trees, thrilling, trilling, then flitting across the field of view swiftly; blink and you will miss them.

Yesterday, the cherry trees began to tentatively unfurl, unsure whether winter is definitely sleeping or not. With luck, she is — some years, I am told, they get it wrong, and all the fruit is frost-murdered, long before it gets a chance to properly form. In the recent winds, clouds of pollen were shaken loose from the Italian cypress, so thick and dense that I initially thought it smoke. I am very glad I no longer suffer from serious hay fever. The sharp, acid-green leaves of the very first deciduous trees punctuate the woodlands, arriving in one day, unfurling their flag and claiming this early spring sun for their own.

In the evening, before the sun slips behind the Vercors, she backlights the catkins on the hazel and, especially, the aspen. They shimmer and dance, a host of wriggling, silvery caterpillars, each a-sparkle with promise. Then, suddenly, the sun has gone, and the temperature begins to drop, fast.

These mountains, where the plates of Eurasia and Africa meet, divide the weather of Europe into the wetter north and dryer south. Each peak a part of a whole, each valley a connection to the next, every path, rock, marmot, chamois, or snowflake playing its own role in the drama.

It is good to be here, at the start of spring. It is good to feel a part of a whole.

(Crossing over into Lisboa.)

Hello

This missive comes to you from France, as the above should tell you. This is now, finally, home, with our possessions making the move from Portugal, via Brittany and Paris, down again to the valley of the Isère. The process went well, every necessary step on the journey successful — here, the removal van arrived, there, a negative Covid test. It was stressful, it was exhausting — had one thing gone wrong, all subsequent plans would have been thrown into impossibility and disarray — but it has now been done and the search for a house begins in earnest. Even our period of isolation following the move is over.

I am glad the days of cold damp and mould are over, my lungs are much happier. Winter was still in the air when we touched down in Lyon, the Pyrenees from above had looked glorious, swathed in blinding snow and awash with sunlight. Since then, spring is very much alive, however, which makes me feel like we arrived at precisely the right moment, rather like a wizard. Never late, never early.

(A recent tweet, which was apparently seen by 123,169 people, thanks to a retweet from one Neil Gaiman. I do love this photo, it was entirely perfect.)

Free Books, Yet Again!

This month I am again on the hunt for more reviews.

As such, Death & Taxes is a part of Fantasy Reviews!, where you can also find over thirty other books. Each is free, in the hope you will leave a review at a place of your choosing, whether Goodreads, your blog, or Amazon, for example. As I’m sure you know, reviews are really rather handy in today’s algorithmic world, where the numbers of five star reviews outweigh actual content or readability. I suspect that, one day, this will change again but, for now, it is the world we live in and I have to play the game. I would, therefore, really, really appreciate it if you could take the time to read Death & Taxes and leave a review if at all possible. It’s pretty good and, as you may know by now, also comes with a free bonus novella, A Clean Death.

And don’t forget — if you want to actually buy the book, it is on sale at the Smashwords Read an Ebook Week, until Saturday the 13th of March.

There will be a further newsletter this month, with details of two other offers, so keep an eye on that inbox — and please do check out the group review promotion, here, in the mean time.

(This is the metro in rush hour Lisboa, on the way to the airport: eerie, quiet, abandoned.)

The World of Web. Or Something

I have completely rebuilt my website. It is, at the time of writing, still waiting for several pages of content, the pages themselves built but only harbouring placeholder text, notes to ease me into the process. Maintenance Mode is in effect.

Amusingly, I have taken a step backward from the fancy sliding parts, the parallax headers and dynamic hero menus. Instead, I have gone crisp and clear, fast and sure — the site loads quickly and has no unnecessary bells or whistles. I like this, it also feels like spring. I am building several ways to earn some pennies or cents into the site, of which I will no doubt share more in the future.

I also now own alexandermcrow.com, but this shall only be held with a redirect, at this point at least, and once I get around to it. Perhaps, in the future, the websites will shift but, for now, I still like the SEO-friendly notatravelwriter.com.

The website should be launched soon, with some new pieces ready to roll and several cunning ideas of cross-promotion and soft marketing waiting to fly into the ether. As much as I love these newsletters, I’ve also really missed posting on a website, it gives the opportunity for different things, for smaller pieces and larger, for experimental items and standard — and I have every intention of sharing all these.

When I was registering the new address, and adding the analytics to the revamped notatravelwriter.com, I found a list of all the properties I’ve registered in the past with Google, going back to the mid 2000s. There were several I had completely forgotten about, and I initially thought I had simply registered the name and set it up, without going any further. However, upon investigation, every one of them contained several posts: some a handful, some dozens. Thousands of words I’d forgotten crafting.

Reading through these was an exercise in self-awareness, seeing just how far I have come as a writer, even since those pieces which were shared a mere eight years ago. The secret, of course, is that these words needed to be written in order to reach the better ones — something many people who ‘want to be a writer’ fail to see. They dare not write, for fear their words will, in a word, suck. And the bigger not-very-secret secret is that yes, they will. Yet, without them, there’s nothing to polish, no foundation to build on, nothing to reread and wonder where you could improve. Writing is hard work, but there is no way you will ever get further on your path without putting in the effort and placing words on the page, without actually doing the writing. It is, after all, a practice.

There is no wanting to be a writer: there is either being a writer, or not, to turn a little Yoda on you.

(Take off from Lisboa. Without these snapshots, small details are often forgotten, such as the weather, for example.)

On Novellas, Briefly

I recently decided to get back to Reddit, read what the /Fantasy community were up to, filter out the ever-present nonsense and find some chewy discussions to enjoy. Eventually, I might even comment again myself. Interestingly, after my newsletter last month, in which I talked about the novellas and Tales I am currently writing and sharing, there was a thread about “unnecessary novellas”. In a good way.

This thread made me realise that there is definitely a market for the Tales of the Lesser Evil, as these stories definitely fit this definition (they are not essential reading, but do add depth of flavour to the whole). I already suspected there would be, even with few actual sales thus far (although Only One Death has been downloaded many hundreds of times, it being free…). I have always known that the ultimate financial pay-off for these words is to come in the future, once the longer pieces have been crafted, as I have talked about before. It’s good to see evidence that others enjoy this bonus tale/novella idea, however.

(Flying above the Pyrenees.)

Reading

It has been a while since I shared the books I’ve been enjoying (or not, I guess, but I prefer to only share the positives where possible). Here is a brief run down of a few recent reads. I’m ashamed to say I don’t have time to add links to each book or author.

Between other novels, I’ve continued to work my way through Lee Child’s Jack Reacher stories, and I am now up to number 18 in the series (I think). Sometimes these books work better than others, but there is always something for the writer to take away, something to squirrel and ferret, to absorb and ponder. There’s a reason many authors call these books their guilty pleasure (or they are reported as doing so in interviews); for me, I find the phrase oxymoronic: experiencing guilt after pleasure is far too puritanical in my opinion. Better to enjoy, to learn, and feel happy to do so.

I recently started Mick Herron’s Slow Horses/Slough House series and have found a similar learning experience. If you like espionage books and depictions of a certain side of England, and London in particular, then these are essential reading. Having such a loathsome main character helps too and, amusingly, Jackson Lamb reminds me of a friend from many years ago. For those of you who have ever worked in an office environment, much will be cringeworthily familiar. Here’s a link to a recent interview with Herron, in which I learnt there will be a TV series too, with Gary Oldman playing Lamb, and also featuring Kristen Scott Thomas and Jack Lowden. This interview is yet another reminder that the idea of the overnight literary success is, quite frankly, nonsense. This is a job that does not pay for a long time, if ever, but when you know you have to write — you have to write. And write we do.

Fantasy-wise, I am partway through The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, which I’ve been itching to read. So far, I really enjoy the dialogue and exposition, but I’m still relatively close to the beginning, so can’t say much more yet.

I recently finished Priest of Lies, by Peter McLean, and enjoyed it as much as its predecessor, Priest of Bones. The first person perspective of Tomas Piety is interesting, he is a different narrator to others, and the book’s ability to show extreme violence and cruelty, but not to do the usual fantasy thing of sidestepping the PTSD that so often follows, is powerful.

A Fool’s Hope, by Mike Shackle, is likewise strong, with the tale essentially beginning right where the previous book, We Are The Dead, left off. The characters in this series are fantastic, different and fresh and complicated. Rather like real people, in fact. Clever things were done to advance the plot, things which I had pondered potential solutions for in the preceding tale. I think it works well, and raised interesting possibilities for the third volume.

So far, this year seems to have had a strong second-book-of-trilogy flavour, with Joe Abercrombie’s The Trouble With Peace being another on my recent list. It’s Joe Abercrombie, doing his Joe Abercrombie things and delighting in sharing out disappointment, horror, and sheer misery to each and every character.

I really enjoyed The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E Harrow — there were many points in this which resonated with ideas I’m also playing with — her book, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, was perhaps my favourite of 2019, so this novel had a lot to live up to. It is excellent, and you should read it, but (for me) January was exceptional. Witches and witchcraft are something which have stuck with me since I was a child, for various reasons, which I intend to discuss further in a forthcoming essay (not sure exactly when, but it’s scheduled to be crafted before The Care Industry is published, seeing as witchcraft, and Orcadian witchcraft in particular, is a central theme that novel).

Finally, for now, in non-fiction I have been pondering and digesting The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K. Le Guin, which is remarkable. If you are at all interested in writing, or in Le Guin, then I’d recommend getting a copy of this as soon as you can. The sharpness of her mind and clarity of voice and vision is astounding, and makes me realise how far I still have to grow as a writer. Which can only be a good thing.

(A snow day in L’Alpe d’Huez. After our isolation period, it was good to get some mountain air. I am aware how lucky we are to have such wide open spaces close by, and to be allowed to visit them.)

Finally

I shall be back soon with more, I’m still getting into the swing of publishing this newsletter at least twice a month, and one of the issues which I need to constantly address is the length of each missive. I like sharing lots with you, talking about this, that, and the other, but I can’t afford to send three thousand words every two weeks, those words are then lost from others that are also essential. A balancing act, certainly, but being aware of this is a big forward step.

In coming weeks, I intend to begin posting on my website again, with a forthcoming series related to The Lesser Evil in particular, all a part of the marketing and, to the best of my knowledge, not something a fantasy author has done before. Watch this space.

I also still have the final two scenes of Death in Harmony to edit, before sending out to the A-team. After this, I will give it a final sweep and sew and prune, before others get a chance to read it. I’m still trying to put together a larger team of beta readers. I have a couple, and I might approach a couple more, but if you are interested in a pre-publication copy (perhaps in exchange for a review, as mentioned earlier), then do let me know.

Until next time, take care of yourselves. It won’t be long until the equinox, which is always a magical time, joining us together through the medium of daylight, right across the world.

(Evening light behind the aspen. Not the best photo, but I think it captures exactly what I wanted it to.)

The photos are from recent events, places and journeys, in chronological order. Some are not the best compositions, but I thought it interesting to share the photos I snap as memory recall aids, those moments in time while travelling, which will one day reappear as words, each a tiny part of a whole.