Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rogue Angel Books

These slender books are my secret shame. They are true escapist books. They follow the adventures of Annja Creed, archaeologist and tv-star from the show “Chasing History’s Monsters.”

It is is a bit similar to Tomb Raider but where Lara gets to use high spec electronic equipment, she has her cronies, the money and contacts to get herself into and out of trouble, they created Annja a bit differently. Annja is clever, agile and gifted with Joan of Arc’s sword which only she can carry – she has become a defender and protector of mankind, so there is more to her than just kicking butt.

These books all follow her adventures either on digs or on research for the show she appears on – giving her the perfect premise and excuse to go around and have these totally implausible adventures, discovering murderous cults, amorous sultans, lost civilisations and whatnot. How vastly cool is that?

They are genuinely easy to pick up and read – the initial writing style in the first two books came across as very basic but I’ve stuck with the series and bought them as and when I felt like a bit of escapism. I am happy to say that the series has grown, they seem to bring out a new book each month, and the writing has improved tremendously as the character has grown and become more settled. I know the main publisher for this is the e-Harlequin lot and under their Luna and Gold Eagle they seem set to take the supernatural romance /adventure market. The majority of their books can be found at Murder One on Charing Cross Road in London and I’ve spotted one or two being marketed in Waterstones. Naturally Forbidden Planet has stocked these for ages already.

I love these in general because they are fun quick reads and as they are slender volumes, they fit easily in your bag - how girly is that? - but because of the good action and combat descriptions, they are very visual books and would satisfy loads of action fans too. All round good fun books - I'm behind with about 2 months' worth, so I need to get cracking!

The Crystal Skull, Manda Scott

I was not at all prepared for this book. I loved her previous historical stuff and enjoyed the characters but wasn't entirely sure how she would be tackling the legends of the crystal skulls - especially with the Indiane Jones movie coming out shortly - naturally she wrote this ages before the title and plot for Indy IV had been made public. Just goes to show: the usual tapping into the dreamtree for writers and artists!
I am very happy and pleased to report that Manda Scott takes no prisoners in her newest book. It is a well written and well researched book. She comprehensively covers the legends, makes assumptions and runs with the story, embroidering on the bare bones and making it her own. She clearly states where she has borrowed and what is based on myth and legend. It is a book about a quest, about discovery and about pushing the boundaries of belief and suspending your own.
The story is set both in modern day and in the 16th Century and for me, the modern day section of the book, although well written with some genuinely good descriptive passages, just doesn't ring true for some reason. However, having said that, the parts I found myself enjoying the most relates to the travels of the young scholar Cedric Owen who was one of the keepers of the heart-stone. Somewhere along the line he seems more real and amusing than the two main modern day characters - or maybe that's just me being taken in my the Renaissance man?
This is a bit of the plot which I've copied across from Manda Scott's website to save some time:
The book opens with Stella Cody and her husband Kit searching a cave system for an ancient artefact, hidden there centuries before by Cedric Owen.
They have worked out the location of the crystal skull from a series of poems written by Owen. The skull is a remarkable sapphire cut into the shape of a human skull and it holds a great power over those who hold it, or even see it. Stella and Kit find the skull, but they are not the only people looking for it and Kit gets hurt as they try and escape from the caves.
Interlaced with the modern day plot line is that of Cedric Owen, the man who hid the skull, knowing it needed to be kept safe from the wrong hands. The skull had been passed down through his family for generations and he must continue to keep it guarded from those who would misuse it. He has several tasks he must perform to keep the skull, with its incredible powers, safe.
The skull is apparently one of thirteen skulls, recorded in Mayan prophecy. It is told that the end of the world will happen on 12th December 2012 and only if all thirteen of the skulls are in their appointed places in the world can this cataclysm be averted. The Mayan legends speak of a multi-coloured serpent which will be summoned by the skulls. Kit and Stella have to decipher Cedric Owen's notes and calculate the right place and time to place the skull.
But there are others who want to possess it and some who would destroy it. They need to figure out who they can trust and who is trying to kill them and seize the skull.
I would recommend the book as it is a good read and if you are a quest junkie like me, you will enjoy it. I think the fact that they are putting stickers on this to "Read the book before the movie" is a bit of a midirected marketing ploy, but it will find a home with many Indy and Tomb Raider fans - it has a bit more substance than some of the books out there written about various quests to find ancient artefacts and uncovering the real history of the world and such - suspend your disbelief and go on a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mothernight, Sarah Stovell

What an incredible book. I think, once the literary community picks up on this one, it will really kick off and shoot it up the charts. On the one hand I am keen for that to happen, but on the other hand I feel quite proprietary about this one – it’s like making that perfect cup of tea or eating that long longed for bar of very expensive and heavenly chocolate. You want everyone to know about it, to share it, whilst at the same time you are loathe to do just that.

"I was beginning to realise that time didn't move forwards here. It just spun round and round, circling an old date, endlessly."

So says seventeen-year-old Olivia who spends the summer at the home of her boarding school friend, the brilliant, distant, lonely Leila. Their intense relationship circles Leila's painful past: a dreadful accident when she was five, and then the sudden death of her infant brother four years later. Olivia meets Leila's childhood friend Rosie, a disturbing, manipulative influence, and Katherine, Leila's step-mother: bitter, damaged and unforgiving. Now on the verge of adulthood, Leila decides to confront her past and her family, but the atmosphere of blame and recrimination hangs as heavy as the summer heat and will prove more powerful than she could have ever imagined.

The above is from the back of the book. What sets it apart from the rest of the pack, is how beautifully it is written. You can tell the author has a continuing love-affair with description and words. Having said that, I am keen to point out that her prose is not flowery. It is refined, reigned in, very much like the character Leila.

Reading Mothernight was an examination into how people act in the wake of tragedy – the deep waters are stirred by how close the real emotions are to the surface and yet we never let it show, for society’s sake. When we do show it, as Katherine does in very small snippets in the book, we are termed insane, unfit, a bit unhealthy to be around whereas it is quite normal human behaviour.

This is set to become a classic, in my view. A genuinely enjoyable book written in a fresh voice with interesting characters with a lot of personal motivation and drive.

And the fact that it looks pretty, does it no harm, at all!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Maneater, Thomas Emson

This has to be one of the most visually arresting books I've ever received to review. The beautiful illustration hides a deadly story. I was slightly taken aback by the tone of the book, which is very in your face, very "balls to the wall" and the author pulls no punches and does not pretend that the "maneater" Laura is anything but animilistic in her behaviour. There is no dollying it up. She is a werewolf. She's not a nice girl. If you get on the wrong side of her, you will get a claw in the face or your bits, your choice.

The author's attitude is genuinely refreshing. It is a very interesting book. Well thought out and planned. I closed the book on the last page and felt exhausted - it felt like I had been running and fighing with the characters as the story unfolded.

I enjoyed it because it was different. There are a lot of other werewolf books out there, but the characters sort of get excused for what they are, they hide and lurk in the darkness and they never ever eat humans. **spoiler** Humans do get eaten in Maneater.

It was refreshing to find a heroine who was tough and strong and uncompromising in her views. Her enemies were exactly that and they deserved to be taken out. She set out doing exactly that, using instinct and brute strength. A lot of very strong imagery is used - words like padded, grunted, growled and tear apart, help evoke images of wildness. It is not a comfortable read but it is a very good and interesting read.

I wish the author, Thomas Emson the best of luck with this. I spotted it as part of the 3 for 2 offers at Waterstones. That is very impressive in itself. I would really like to see what he produces next.

A definite four stars for this one.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Author Interview, Daniel Clay

I am thrilled and honoured to have Daniel Clay here as my very first author interview. He patiently went through all 20 questions I put to him and wrote some really good responses. Here they are, unabridged.

I hope you enjoy them.

Question 1
Your “Why I Write” article on Fifth Estate is what first alerted me to your forthcoming book, Broken being published. Following on from that article, do you think writers are born, as opposed to someone deciding to write to become the next massive best seller, and thereby trying to learn the craft, following some of the formulae you see set out in “How To” books?

I’m not sure either scenario is true for the vast majority of writers. For me, I started out with the urge to write rather than the ability to write and I’d say that’s the most important thing – it might have taken me years to get to a publishable standard, but if there’s someone out there of my age who was born with more natural talent than I was but no urge to do anything about it, then which of us has had the luckier break?

If you’ve always had the urge to write but don’t feel you’re making progress, I’d say there are different ways you can try to improve rather than throwing in the towel because you don’t feel blessed with enough natural talent. How-to books are good and I do think it’s important to read a selection of them, but, for me, trying to follow them took a lot of the fun out of writing and there was a stage when I almost gave up because I was sick of trying to stick to a bunch of rules that I didn’t necessarily agree with. I firmly believe the best people to learn from are the writers you love to read yourself. They’re obviously doing something that works for you as a reader, so if you can understand how they’re doing it and try to import their values into your own writing, the chances are you’ll improve much more than you would from any how-to book. Everything else is patience, time, writing stuff that excites you, luck, and not giving up.

Question 2
What made you write Broken?

The basic premise was to take the family structures in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and see how they’d interact with each other today. I’d read Mockingbird the previous summer and kept thinking, what sort of novel would Harper Lee write if she was sitting down to write it today, after living the life that I’ve lived? What would Scout Finch be like with a modern ‘one-parent’ up-bringing? What would the welfare state do to Boo Radley? How would those characters impact on each other today? This is why so many of the names in Broken echo the character names in To Kill A Mockingbird, because I wanted this starting point to be clear.

Question 3
Looking back at your completed novel, is there anything in there you regret having to leave out or realising that you had to put it in, in the final draft?

There were plenty of passages that I felt were very powerful pieces of writing that never made the published novel, but I don’t have any regrets about taking them out. It’s good to have fun when you’re writing the first draft and allow yourself to go off in different directions, but once that stage is over it’s important to think about what’s best for the overall novel and the characters in it – not to mention the reader. In terms of regretting anything I left in, no. When I read Broken through for final sign off, I was really pleased with the way it had turned out and felt it was the best I could do.

Question 4
Will any of your friends and family recognise shades of themselves in your work?

I don’t think so, no, and they’re making a mistake if they do. There’s bits of me in it – Mr Jeffries’ frustrations over his career when he gives his ‘life’ speech were very much my frustrations at the time – but my friends and family escaped Broken unscathed.

Question 5
How has your life changed since Broken has been published?

I’ve been able to give up my day job for a spell to concentrate on writing, which is fantastic, as that’s always been a dream. The most positive change, though, is that I always used to worry I was being selfish or unreasonable by putting so much time into trying to improve my writing, and that pressure’s been lifted now. I also used to worry that people thought I was wasting my time and being a bit of a dreamer, but I don’t feel anyone can accuse me of that anymore.

Question 6
I found, whilst reading Broken that you have a very keen satirical eye for current affairs. Did you have to hone it, specifically for the novel or is it something you find comes naturally to you?

I think it’s something that comes naturally to me as a person – I don’t have a lot of faith in human nature or authority and my sense of humour is dry and can be sarcastic – but it’s not something that comes naturally to me as a writer and I had to work on getting that aspect of my attitude into Broken.

Question 7a
Do you write at home, and if so – is it in ordered chaos or pristine contemplation?

When I wrote Broken I did so in my study at home (it’s a box-room with a PC in it really!) and on a lap-top in my lunch hour in the staff canteen at work (a bit awkward when you’re writing strip-poker scenes between drunken fifteen year olds, not to mention some of the other stuff that goes on in Broken and other novels I’ve written). Our house is quite neat most of the time and I tend to listen to music through head-phones whenever I write, so I’m not sure if that classes as ordered chaos or pristine contemplation. Maybe a little of both.

Question 7b
Do you have specific times during the day which you write?

At the time I wrote Broken, I’d try to write as much as I could before work (sometimes an hour; quite often just ten or so minutes), every lunch-hour at work, ten till midnight every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and as much as I could at the weekends. I’m not sure how often I managed to stick to this, but these were the targets I set myself. I do think, though, if you’re working for a living, trying to write in your spare time, and trying to lead some sort of normal day to day life, that you shouldn’t beat yourself up too much if you don’t always stick to your writing targets. Any time spent writing is great. Any time not spent writing is experience for when you manage to get back to it.

At the moment, I take myself off to a library each week day to write, but also try to write in my spare time as well. When I have to go back to a day job, I’ll try to get back to the above routine.

Question 8
Writing is a lonely job. Did you find that you had to make a concerted effort to break away from it to be social with friends and family, fearing that you might turn into someone on the fringes, only ever observing?

I’ve never really had that fear because I’ve always had a tendency to feel a bit like that anyway, but when I was trying to write and hold down a day-job, it was easy to see time spent with family and friends as time that could have been better spent writing. In those terms, there were times when I had to be realistic about how much time it was fair to disappear for. Luckily, my wife likes a lot of her own space, and is often glad to see the back of me.

Question 9
How much of your story did you know when you sat down to write Broken?

Very little, and it took at least three months of messing around before it all started to fall into place. As an example of how little I knew, I’m pretty sure I didn’t know Skunk was narrating the story from a hospital bed until about a month before I finished the first draft. I always knew she was in trouble, but not what the trouble was or where she was telling her story from.

Question 10
How did you celebrate the good news when the firm offer for publishing your book came through?

I was at work when I found out. Very few people there knew I wrote and no one knew I had a novel under submission, so I went outside and telephoned my wife to tell her what had happened, then, at lunch time, went to a pub on my own and had a pint of Stella to celebrate. Sad, aren’t I?

Question 11
In your article, Coping With Rejection, you make several valid points about writers having to be stubborn and to believe in their work, to keep polishing it and not to give up. However, do you think you would have reached a threshold at some stage, had the rejections for Broken continued?

I hope not, no, but I think there would have been times when I didn’t write as constantly as I had been doing for the eight or so years before Broken sold.

I’m quite confident I would have carried on because, by the time I wrote Broken, I was already at a stage where I was only willing to write what interested me rather than if I thought I could sell it – if it felt right to start working on it, I didn’t then think, what genre is it, what’s the market, who are my readers, what publishing house is it aimed at? That was a very liberating decision to come to, and I probably wouldn’t have started to write Broken if I’d sat down and tried to tick all these boxes with my original idea. If you’re going to give over a lot of your spare time to writing, you have to make sure you’re doing stuff that excites you and makes it feel worth your while rather than trying to follow some sort of ‘getting published’ template.

Question 12

Have you started on anything else since handing in Broken?

I have, yes.

Question 13
How much do you plot when deciding to write or do you let the story take you where it will?

I do plot a lot, but mostly in terms of who the characters are and a few separate events that will happen to them throughout the novel. I like to have an end in mind, but rarely stick to it once I get started – if it feels right to move away from whatever I was originally thinking, then I do, but I’m not scared to go back to it either if things start to go a bit wrong. I also tend to make a lot of longhand notes before and during the time I spend writing, and then hardly ever bother to look at them. I think they just help me to think.

Question 14
In all the books that you’ve read, either fiction or non-fiction, what are your favourites and which do you wish you had written?

There are so many. In terms of imagination, Clive Barker’s Weaveworld stands out. In terms of wishing I’d written it, probably Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, although I haven’t read that in quite a few years now, so might change my mind if I did. Jonathan Trigell’s Boy A is probably the most recent novel I’ve read where I’ve really wished it was my name on the cover; Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin stands out in that respect too.

Question 15
Do you have a favourite genre?

No. I tend to like novels that rise above their genre or don’t have one in the first place. The Exorcist, to me, is much more than a horror novel. I think Jaws is much more than a beast v man novel as well. I wouldn’t like to categorise One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or Boy A or We Need To Talk About Kevin. They’re just novels I loved to read. If someone said, you must read this novel, I wouldn’t think ‘no way, it’s sci-fi or romance, etc.’ and turn my nose up at it.

Question 16
If someone came into a bookshop where you worked, how would you sell Broken to them?

I probably wouldn’t be able to. I’m terrible at promoting myself. If someone had a gun to my head, though, while I was doing my shift behind the counter (my agent or editor, for instance) I’d probably say something like ‘this is a really gripping contemporary read, full of characters you’re going to recognise and emphasise with, and available in 3 for 2’.

Question 17
Do you ever get writers block and how do you overcome it?

Not really writer’s block, but I get periods where I know I’m not writing as well as I should be writing; the expressions that matter aren’t there and I don’t believe in the scenes or characters I’m creating. I just tend to keep on going as sometimes it’s not quite as bad as I think and, even if it is, at some stage I tend to write myself out of it and then just go back and redraft. I also get periods where I don’t want to do any new writing, I just want to polish what I’ve already done to the point where I’m no longer making improvements, I’m just changing words here and there that don’t really make any difference. If this gets really ridiculous, I split writing sessions so half has to be on new stuff, and half can then be on polishing.

Question 18
I think Broken can be made into an excellent mini-series. You only have to look at the good quality shows currently doing the rounds, Skins, Ashes to Ashes, to name a few. If you had to cast the main characters in Broken, do you have any actors that immediately come to mind?

I’m afraid I don’t, no, but Broken has recently been optioned by BBC Films, so maybe one day we’ll get to see a casting director’s take on who should play who.

Question 19
Did you attend any writing courses and what is your opinion about them?

I did a Writers’ News correspondence course in my mid twenties and I’ve attended the Winchester Writers’ Conference on and off over the past eleven years, as well as several one off events at different times. I’ve got very mixed feelings about them. They can be great if you get someone who understands what you’re about as a writer (I’ve had some really good advice and encouragement) but they can be an absolute nightmare if you get someone who rips your stuff to shreds on the basis of a few pages and a synopsis. This happened to me with Broken while I was still working on the very first draft and it’s a hard thing to tell yourself you’re right and they’re wrong when they’re the ones making a living out of writing and you’ve got nothing behind you. Like any form of criticism, it’s always important to understand what you’re being told and I’d never say dismiss negative feedback out of hand, but think very carefully before you act on it. So long as you understand this, I’d say conferences and courses are good, and you should attend them if you get the opportunity to.

Question 20
Finally, after all your articles on Fifth Estate, do you have words of wisdom for other yet-to-be published authors out there?

Show your completed novels to as many people as you can, especially those who read for pleasure. I was very shy about my writing and hardly ever showed anyone who didn’t write or work in publishing what I’d produced. Now, with hindsight, I think doing so would have speeded up my development, as it would have made me think about things from a reader’s perspective much more than I used to.

Also, don’t think you’re a failure or wasting your time if you haven’t had anything published yet or aren’t making a living from your writing. I felt like that about myself and I regret that now. Some of the greatest novels in the world have been written by people who had never been published the day they sat down to write them. Who’s to say you won’t be next? And, even if you’re not, every time you sit down to write you’re going to be learning and improving as a writer, so how can it ever be wasted time?

His debut novel Broken has been published by HarperPress in March and is currently available in all good book stores.