There are few things more pleasurable than coming across a fabulous new author, new to me anyway, who has written a whole series of books. Not only do I have one book to lose myself in, I have, in this case, five.
The author in question is Gail Carriger and the books are known collectively as The Parasol Protectorate. Think steampunk as written by Jane Austen in a particularly withering mood and you get the idea. Steampunk is a wide-ranging genre, and these books are definitely at the lighter, comedic end; as such they make for a wonderfully witty introduction for the steampunk novice like me.
Steampunk staples: parasols and dirigibles
The books are set in Victorian London, with added vampires and werewolves. These are not your ordinary vampires and werewolves, though; these supernatural creatures are less concerned with terrorising the populace and more worried about issues of social etiquette. This is the Victorian Age after all. The Parasol Protectorate’s novel twist on the genre is having the supernatural out in the open. In the books’ version of history, vampires and werewolves have been openly part of wider society since the time of Henry VIII, and have been instrumental in building the Empire. Well, it’s as good an explanation as any.
The books focus on the adventures of Alexia Tarrabotti, who is labouring under a few disadvantages. She is highly assertive, for one thing, as well as half-Italian, and soulless. Her soulless state cancels out the effects of the supernatural. In the first book Soulless, we meet her at a ball, where she is on the hunt for some tea and treacle tart. A young and hopelessly gauche vampire spots her alone and tries to attack her. She kills him accidentally and thus sets the plot in motion.
The plot concerns mysteriously disappearing vampires and werewolves, but to be honest the real pleasure of the book lies less in the plot and more in the characters. Alexia is a straightforward, no-nonsense delight, and she is matched by Lord Maccon, an equally blunt alpha werewolf and Lord Akeldama, an eccentrically dressed and formidably well-informed vampire.
The second book, Changeless, begins with Lord Maccon receiving disturbing news from the ghost Formerly Merriway. Something or someone has unleashed a plague of humanization – werewolves and vampires suddenly find themselves human again. Is it a disease or a weapon? Who is behind it? That’s what Alexia, now Lady Maccon, wants to know.
Changeless carries on the witty and irreverent take on the supernatural from the first book. It also includes a ride on a dirigible, and a new parasol for Alexia, complete with poison darts. I so want one of those.
Lord Akeldama plays a smaller role in this book, but in recompense we do have a wonderful new character to entertain us, the mysterious Madame Lefoux. A hat-maker and inventor, Madame Lefoux has a ghostly aunt and a fondness for wearing masculine clothing. I picture her as a steampunk Marlene Dietrich.
There are some wonderfully funny bits in both books, particularly surrounding Alexia’s trip to Scotland, where Miss Ivy Hisselpenny is confronted with a burly werewolf pack wearing kilts.
Miss Hisselpenny did not seem to know where to look. Finally she settled on staring up at the candelabra in abject terror. “Alexia,” she hissed to her friend, “there are knees positively everywhere. What do I do?”
There is probably a little bit too much Ivy in this book, and I could have done with a little less Felicity as well. Silly characters are entertaining, but best taken in small doses. Changeless meanders somewhat, and falls a little short of the sharp, focussed glory attained by Soulless, but it’s still great fun. Enough fun that I am prepared to overlook the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger – a pet hate when it comes to books in a series – and look for the next three books in The Parasol Protectorate – Blameless, Heartless and Timeless.
I think I’m getting my fiction mojo back! Here’s my first Friday Flash in a loooong time.
She knew she had arrived when she bought her first Monet. No longer the ingénue, the starlet under the thumb of a would-be Svengali, she had finally graduated from forgettable supporting roles to star billing. Her name was now above the title, and she was in a position to pick her own scripts.
And buy her own art.
It began when she accepted a role in an edgy independent film for next to no money and many column inches, and headed to London. It showed what she could do and it made her Svengali’s teeth grind, which was always a plus. And the shoot had coincided with the first auction of impressionist art of the year.
She always did have great timing.
It was a cold, bright day in February, she remembered. She had been warmly wrapped up in coat, hat, and gloves, the very picture of elegance. At the auction house she mingled with the sharply-dressed crowd like she had been hobnobbing with the wealthy all her life. Then she took her seat and composed herself, as she would before a performance. All these years later she could still feel a remnant of the adrenaline that had coursed through her as she imperiously raised her paddle for the first time.
No-one could do imperious quite like her. All the critics said so.
For a moment she had been worried that she wouldn’t succeed. But one by one her rivals fell away and the Monet was all hers.
It would set a pattern for the years to come. Win an award, buy a painting. She had quite the collection, but that first Monet would always have a special place in her affections.
They do say you never forget your first.
I have written about the Charles Dickens Museum before in Calling on Charles Dickens, but that was before I discovered the video button on my camera. The museum is fascinating and well worth a return visit, especially now that I have my National Art Pass and can get in free! Here’s the video – here’s hoping it whets your Dickensian appetite for your next visit to London.
The Charles Dickens Museum is at 48 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LX. Adult tickets cost £8 (free with National Art Pass from the Art Fund).
In a mingling of Greek and Egyptian myth, the rose came to be associated with secrecy in the ancient world. According to one version of the story, Aphrodite gave a rose to her son Eros, who in turn gave it to Harpocrates, the god of silence, to ensure his mother’s indiscretions were not disclosed. Harpocrates was the Greek name for the Egyptian god Horus.
When a rose hung over a council table, all present were sworn to secrecy, an ancient form of the Chatham House Rule. Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series is therefore the secret history of Rome, as seen through the eyes of Gordianus the Finder. Gordianus is an ancient Roman private detective, a cross between Philip Marlowe and Sherlock Holmes, and he has a great eye for the wonders, absurdities and dangers of Roman life.
I first read these books some years ago, and loved them. I am now rediscovering their virtues, as I work my way through my boxes of books, and I’m reminded of why they’re so good. In books like The Venus Throw and Rubicon Saylor shows the scholar’s knack for fascinating detail, allied to a wonderful sense of story. He also has a great talent for genuinely surprising endings that at the same time make you think “Of course!”
The books are set in the last decades of the Roman Republic, when powerful figures such as Sulla, Catalina, Pompey and Caesar are jostling for power. Saylor uses real events and real characters as backdrops to his stories. There’s certainly enough dramatic material there to fuel a hundred books!
I talk a little bit more about these books in my video. (These videos are fun, but there is a learning curve!)
For more information on the series, check out the Roma Sub Rosa page on Steven Saylor’s website.
I recently got myself a National Art Pass from the Art Fund. I’m a museums/art galleries/history geek, so I don’t really know why I didn’t get one long before this. The pass gets you free entry to loads of museums and art galleries around the country, along with discounted entry to exhibitions. I foresee a very cultural autumn coming my way!
Of course, many of the big museums in the UK are free anyway, but a lot of the smaller, more specialist museums aren’t, so my arty horizons have opened up a bit. I started with a visit to the Courtauld Gallery in London, famous for its Impressionists. To be fair, the Courtauld isn’t exactly expensive – tickets for the permanent galleries cost £7, but there is a certain frisson about getting to see an art gallery for free. There’s such a frisson, that I even made a video about it!
This YouTube venture has been equal parts frustrating, scary and fun. The frustration comes with getting the audio right (there’s a slight sound hiccup in this, sorry!), scary because I’m on camera, speaking to people (potentially lots, but probably not), and fun because, well, it’s new territory. I’m learning new things, which makes me happy.
I hope you enjoy the video! Let me know in the comments what you think of the National Art Pass. Do you have one?
As you may have noticed, I’ve been getting interested in YouTube lately. I’ve mostly been catching up with documentaries I’ve missed, along with old television shows and clips from favourite movies.
I’ve also subscribed to a few channels catering to my various and sundry passions – sci-fi, books, film and so on – and have noticed that many of them are run by talented and enthusiastic but not very well-known people. Some are, of course, but in a fairly narrow, and wonderfully geeky, niche. I’ve been particularly inspired by the channels of Felicia Day and David Hewlett.
The penny finally dropped. You don’t have to be a megastar to have your own channel on YouTube! The barrier to entry is really quite low. All you need is a camera. (And a personality – I’m working on that.)
So, have camera, will video! Or, in my case, will slideshow.
I have a lot of photographs from my travels – in this digital age, it’s easy to get carried away – so I thought I would start off with slideshows, complete with music. YouTube has a range of copyright-free music you can use. The whole copyright issue looks to be a minefield, so best to steer clear.
The slideshows have been fun to put together, mostly through a process of trial and error. I know a lot more about imovie now than I did last month!
Here’s an example, about the gorgeous Miramare Castle in Italy, to give you an idea.
I then got a little ambitious, and added a voice-over to one of my slideshows, which leads me to revise just what you need to make a successful video. Namely, a camera AND a proper microphone. The internal microphones on most consumer dslr cameras are not up to the task, to be honest. This realisation led to much surfing the web in search of information about recording sound.
After wincing at the price of much of the equipment I came across, I then remembered I have a digital recorder I bought in China. It took a bit of fiddling about, as I hadn’t used it in ages and the instructions were in Chinese, but I finally got it to work, and the quality was much better. All I had to do was upload the file to my computer, and move it across to imovie. Voila!
So, now I’ve got slideshows sorted, more or less, I’ve been toying with the ideas of moving pictures, and maybe doing pieces to camera about history, travel, and books (or anything that takes my fancy, if I’m going to follow David Hewlett’s example, although I doubt I could talk as fast as him).
So, if you’d like to follow my first tentative steps in the world of YouTube, head on over to my channel (I do like typing that!) and subscribe. It would be great to have you!