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Friday, 24 January 2014

Empty Shelf/Mad Reviewer Challenge #4 - "Instructions For Visitors" by Helen Stevenson

First off, I love books about France. I mean, this is only the second author I've read who has written about France (the first being Joanne Harris) but so far I've had a very good experience.

"Instructions For Visitors" is Stevenson's memoir of her life as an expat in a small town in Southern France, and in particular her love affair with a Frenchman called Luc. She develops good friendships with eccentric characters in the village, celebrating but also puzzled by her life in France compared to what life would look like back in England.

Stevenson really nails the "show, don't tell" rule of writing. She creates stunning imagery with delicious phrases: "Down on the beach the endless tiny lapping movement movement of the sea mills them to yellow salt, mingled with stale crustaceans, the nail clippings of the ocean bed. The sun has a simple journey to make each day, rising from a sea and setting in an ocean." On every page I felt like she was guiding me round the village, driving me in the car up to Luc's farm, inviting me into her new and strange friendships. It was such an easy and relaxing novel to enjoy, though not without its share of substance, particularly related to the complexities of human relationships.

There are books that you cannot go to sleep without finishing. And there are books which you can immerse yourself in but it's easy enough to put down and pick up the next day without feeling tense in between because you need to find out what happened. This is the latter. I was absorbed in every page but I could wait to find out more, which, in terms of sleep, was probably better!

Overally, a thoroughly enjoyable novel, and one which I would highly recommend to someone who is looking for an easy but absorbing read.

Until next time!

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Empty Shelf Challenge/Mad Review #3 - "Bring Up The Bodies" by Hilary Mantel

"We think time cannot touch the dead, but it touches their monuments, leaving them snub-nosed and stub-fingered from the accidents and attrition of time." 

"Bring Up The Bodies", Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winner sequel to her Booker Prize-winning "Wolf Hall", follows the period of time in which Henry VIII, after finally casting off Katherine of Aragon, starts to lose interest in Anne Boleyn, compounded by the fact that, after all this time and all this upheaveal, she still has not given him a son. After meeting Jane Seymour, the king tells Cromwell, in hints at first, then more explicitly, he wishes to be rid of Boleyn. His reasoning? He did not think the marriage is lawful after all. The story is narrated through Cromwell's point of view, though still in third person.

A book likes this makes me wish I were a better writer, simply so I could write a review that does justice to a brilliant book like this. I'm not saying it's brilliant just because it won the Man Booker Prize in 2012. It was that knowledge which made me deliberately examine it more as I was reading it to try and judge why it did win.

Most of the time I was reading this book I felt like I was being gently carried along by a smooth-flowing river, or floating in a dream. It was so easy to lose yourself in the narrative, and more than once I had a "wait, what?" moment that resulted in going back paragraphs, or even pages, to try and find my place in the story again.

The use of third-person present tense narrative was partly what, in my view, made this book so fantastic. The tone it results in is menacing - quietly so, at first, but increasing in volume. Cromwell is doing the best he can - it is no mean feat, bringing down a queen of England, let alone trying to do it legally, as well as protecting himself from the jealousy and haughty contempt of higher-born men surrounding the king - and although he foreshadows that it is likely that he himself will be brought down at some point, neither he nor the reader could say for certain.

Mantel herself writes at the end that she does not claim authority for her version of events. She is only offering the reader a proposal, and using a different point of narrative to display events of centuries past. We may never know whether Anne Boleyn truly committed adultery or not. What we do know is that she failed to produce an heir, Henry couldn't abide this and turned his attentions to Jane Seymour, and he bid Cromwell do his dirty work for him. 

I personally found this book fascinating all the more because it was written from Cromwell's point of view. He is clever, calculating, and deliberate in all his moves. To keep a king of England in order, much less Henry VIII, while trying to keep himself from the reach of more noble men with a jealous eye, must have made for a tiring but no doubt satisfying occupation. I am definitely going to seek out "Wolf Hall" very soon, and indeed other works by Mantel. A very good read indeed.

Until next time! 

Thursday, 16 January 2014

A bit of exciting news to start the day!

I'm very grateful to Warwick University in many ways. Firstly, their entry requirements for Classical Civilisation (my degree) were ABB but they still let me in with a BBB. Thank goodness.

Secondly, the course was (mostly) amazing and I really couldn't imagine studying anything else.

Thirdly, I met some absolutely incredible people, including my lovely husband, there, and am still friends with these people over 3 years since graduation. (Seems like a small bit of time, but not that insignificant when a lot of us are now all over the country!)

Fourthly, they really like to big up their graduates! I saw a while ago on the Warwick Alumni section a special page for graduates whom have published books since their graduation. I wasn't sure whether my book, X&Y, would count, seeing as it's self-published, but I thought I'd give it a go anyway. And the very lovely people at Warwick Alumni services put it on!

Follow the link to share in my joy :)

Until next time!

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Empty Shelf/Mad Reviewer #2 - Eldest, Christopher Paolini

Just before I start properly, I wanted to add a note to my 'Empty Shelf' Challenge. I found a great blog called "The Mad Reviewer" and she has issued a challenge to read and review a certain number of books in 2014, according to how much time you have:

I have signed up to the status of "Crazy Reviewer" which means I will attempt to read and review 52 books this year. Thus the "Empty Shelf" and "Mad Reviewer" challenges are combined.


Once again, I am indebted to Jennie who, it's pretty fair to say, is my first "go-to" for new books to read. She guided me to Stephen King books that would not scare the crap out of me while enabling me to appreciate why he is so freaking amazing; she introduced me to Joanne Harris, whose books I now always look for in libraries and book stores; and now, I am reading the "Eragon" series.

"Eragon" and "Eldest" remind why I really love fantasy. It's incredible to read stories set in worlds that sprang entirely from the author's imagination. Yes, it may be pretty much the plot of 'Star Wars' but that doesn't take from the fact that Paolini created an entire world that's believable, that works according to very specific rules and logic, and that's so rich and diverse, when he was only fifteen.

Here's a few things I enjoyed about "Eldest", the second in the "Inheritance Cycle":

1) It didn't bore me. Obviously, it's a fairly fundamental intention of books to not bore its readers, but when you're dealing with a book 668 pages long, that's a pretty substantial achievement. Always something was happening to keep the reader interested. Even Eragon's training with the elves, which could have been repetitive and tedious to trudge though, I found fascinating.

2) The dual stories. I can imagine it's tough as an author to keep two different plot arcs going in one novel (I haven't attempted it yet) while ensuring that they're not so separate to belong in different novels altogether. I found Roran's story even better than Eragon's at times. That was probably due to the fact that Roran was having to deal with a lot more pressing matters than Eragon was, but it was great having the insight into lives that, though affected by Eragon's actions, were having to cope without the benefit of a Rider in their midst.

3) The character arcs. Both Eragon and Roran go through irrevocable changes in the book. Again, that's a fundamental of writing - to have an interesting arc that leaves the character fundamentally changed, otherwise what's the point of investing time in them? - but still, the changes Eragon and Roran experience are pretty drastic. Eragon is changing all the time through his bond with Saphira and communion with the elves, but he expects that and is equipped for it. Roran did not expect needing to kill in order to keep his village safe, and that leaves its scars. I liked that Roran was counting those he had slain - he is wary that the more he kills the more his humanity is under threat and that he is in danger of losing himself. From the man who had simple ambitions in life - learn a trade and become a man worthy to marry the woman he loves - he has to deal with the loss of his father, the - what he thinks as - betrayal of Eragon, and the threat to his village. He becomes the leader of a frightened rabble and pulls them together into a formidable force in order to save them from the mighty Empire. I would not be surprised if, in Brisingr, he is elevated to a high position within the Varden, so great were his deeds in this book.

And something I wasn't sure about...
Sometimes, I admit, I did cringe a little at his choice of language. Choice examples include "waxed eloquent" and the dwarves' constant use of "Thou, thine, mine (instead of 'my')" etc. I'm sure that these were deliberate and considered choices by Paolini, but it sometimes struck me as a bit...pretentious? That's probably a strong word, but the times when this language was used jarred so much with the simplistic and easy flow of the rest of the book. Just my opinion, though.

Overall, though, I am loving these books. I'm going to take a break before 'Brisingr', though, to read "Bring Up The Bodies" by Hilary Mantel, the next in my Empty Shelf/Mad Reviewer Challenge. (Purely because I've gotten it out of the library and it's been sitting on the coffee table for a week already...)

Until next time!

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Empty Shelf Challenge #1 - The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

Some time before Christmas I saw a great thing floating around on Facebook called “The Empty Shelf Challenge” from a blogger called Jon Acuff. The idea is that you empty one of your bookshelves and fill it with everything you read in 2014.

Great idea, right?

The first book I officially read this year from the beginning (I had started 'Eragon' just before New Year and finished just after, so I'm not sure it counts) was 'The Cuckoo's Calling' by Robert Galbraith.

Now, I should probably have never come into contact with this book, never being a great crime fiction reader. (Actually this is the first crime fiction I have ever read). It emerged a while ago that Robert Galbraith, so-say a debut author, is actually Ms. J. K. Rowling. She enjoyed great anonymity for a while. People read this book, not because it was her, but because a) they were recommended it, b) they just happened to stumble upon it, c) they are fans of crime fiction and this was a recent crime fiction release d) ANYTHING ELSE unrelated to the fact that the author was actually incredibly successful and famous already.

However, things are as they are, and yes, pretty much the whole reason I trawled through library shelves every few days to find this book was because it is by J. K. Rowling. So sue me. I love her work.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this story. I'm not usually very good at saying why I love particular books, so I'm going to have a crack at it now.

1) The characters. 

Cormoran Strike is ex-military police. He is a decent, hard-working guy who is down on his luck when the story begins and is saved financially by John Bristow, who asks him to reinvestigate the death of his adoptive sister, Lula Landry. (Police deemed it suicide but John doesn't believe it. Cormoran thinks Bristow is off his nut but accepts the case anyway because he needs the money and takes pity.) Strike is immensely clever, discerning, and tough, but we see a more painful and vulnerable side to him when on the subject of his ex-girlfriend. I also really like the way he interacts with Robin (more on her in a minute). Though he's anxious at first as her employment sends him further into debt, he comes to truly value her and wonder how he would have ever done this case without someone as quietly brilliant and proactive like she is. He's also a true professional – he recognises that she's a 'sexy woman' but also notices the engagement ring on her finger and respects that boundary, and then some. 

Robin Ellacott. I find it extremely refreshing that there is a well-written, well-rounded female character who is not there to serve the main male character as a romantic interest. Thank you Galbraith/Rowling for that! Robin is smart, professional, takes the initiative and goes above and beyond in her work for Strike, particularly during one funny and touching part in the book when Strike is drunk and Robin looks after him.

There are, of course, a lot of other major and minor players in the book: John Bristow, and his family, Evan Duffield, Ciara Porter, Guy Some, the Bestuguis, and more. Some of them we never actually meet, such as Lula Landry. Even though she's dead before the book begins she still seems as well-written and fleshed out as the other characters, no matter how big or small their role is.

I guess when you've spent fifteen years creating the Harry Potter universe and its countless characters, none of whom are presented as superfluous, you get pretty well practised at that kind of thing. It's a lesson I'm learning for my own writing, for sure!

2) The plot.

Like I said, this was my first crime fiction read so I really didn't know what to expect, but the story absorbed me all the way through. I will admit, at times it felt quite frustrating during the parts where Galbraith was questioning people – I just wanted to know what they knew! - but it was clear that Galbraith/Rowling had done their research, and I guess this is what it might feel like to private detectives/police. They have to wring every bit of information out of those they are questioning in order to make things as clear as possible so they can build up an effective story.

I definitely felt the tension rising through the book. As the questioning got deeper, as he got closer to the people who were at the centre of the family, as he just began to see more, I felt quite worried for Strike. Not as much as I could have done, as I thought: “He's ex-military. He can look after himself”. And I have to admit, even when all was laid bare at the end, it still blew my mind. I would never have guessed the “Whodunnit” part. And I'm glad I didn't. It made it even more enjoyable and satisfying finding out the truth.

3) The use of language.

I love the way Rowling writes as, for me, she can make any subject seem absorbing. Take “The Casual Vacancy” for example. She can take two ostensibly simple and ordinary sides of town – one oppressively middle-class and one very sadly poor and run-down – and create huge drama between them, resulting in a 576 page tome that did not bore me from beginning to end.

Anyway, preamble over. I'm not really sure how to write about language specifically (A-Level English Literature seems a lifetime ago) so I'll just give a few examples to try and convey what I want to say.

A) She sets the scene well. I know it sounds cliché, but the prologue drew me in to a place where I felt like I was one of the observers trying to catch a glimpse of the fallen body, drawing my coat tightly around myself to keep warm and yawning because I did not want to be up and out but at the same time, in a weird, twisted way, I did not want to miss this.

B) Her similes and analogies:

“The cameras looked like malevolent shoeboxes atop their pole, each with a single blank, black eye.”

Seriously, has anyone ever described cameras like malevolent shoeboxes before? Brilliant.

“...reflecting that Lucy's idea of sympathy compared unfavourably with some of the interrogation techniques they had used at Guantanamo.” I actually laughed for quite a while at this bit. The analogy is extreme, but it does its job of showing Lucy's character.

C) What could be tedious, isn't. Strike has to question a lot of people, and his line of questioning begins similarly with each person until they get to a fork in the road where some turn left and some turn right. At times I felt I wanted to shout “Get to the point! What does this mean, Strike?” It felt like Galbraith was almost teasing. You knew the Strike knew what was going on, or at least had some idea, whereas I had no flipping clue. I enjoyed that. Some endings are just too easy to guess.

Anyway, I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone. Not because it's secretly by J. K. Rowling but because I found it a genuinely enjoyable and thrilling read.  

A Broad Overview of my Writing Journey so far.

Part 1

Way back in the Spring of 2010 - my third and final year of studying for a degree in Classical Civilisation at Warwick University - I was struggling to write my dissertation. I mean, really struggling. One day I was so frustrated I wanted to cry and delete the whole thing because I thought it was utter, worthless tosh. 

Then I thought, do what two of your friends are doing, and write a story.  (Two of my friends have excellent novel in the works and I can't wait to read more of them). Refresh yourself and prove to yourself that you like writing and are at least passable in the art. 

So I did. I started a novel called "The Secrets of Nethiaria: The Magician's Book", originally intended to be a trilogy, but ended up being a single tome. I started it in March 2010 and maybe wrote about eighty pages between then and August 2012. (That including writing the beginning maybe about five times!) At a certain point, I got frustrated. The book wasn't going fast enough because I had very few opportunities to write, and I was feeling more and more like writing was going to be a definite part of my future, somehow. 

So, after a lot of thought and prayer, I asked my then-fiance during the Spring of 2012 whether he would mind me taking a year out of work in order to write and do some charity work. Bless him dearly, he said yes. 

So, from September 2012 I started writing in earnest. I gave myself a personal target of at least 2,000 words a day. I'm happy to say that, one or two 1,000-word days aside, I did write at least 2,000 words everyday. (My personal best is about 7,000 in one day. Safe to say I only came close to hitting that once more, at around the 6,000 word mark). 

One thing you're never told when you begin to write a book is how damn hard it gets after the honeymoon period. You start so well, the words are flowing through your fingertips like a gushing river being fed by Niagara Falls....and then someday it's like Niagara Falls dried up. Some days I was switching to YouTube every three or four sentences to watch Ellen videos. And yet other days it was like my fingers had to be fed energy drinks in order to keep up with my brain. 

But finally, in January 2013, I finished the first draft. Hallelujah. I then re-read, re-wrote, and edited a number of times, and finally I thought it was time to send to agents. 30 agents and 30 rejections, but I'll go into that in another post.  

I really, really enjoyed writing this book, and I'm excited to put it on Kindle this Spring. I wanted to write good, old-fashioned fantasy: epic quests and landscapes, good versus evil, and some kick-ass characters. I hope I achieved that! 

I should add, another reason why I started to write this particular story was because, after coming out of my Twilight-mania, (mostly thanks to my amazing friend, Jennie), I was so sick of seeing vampire fiction vampire fiction vampire fiction dominating the teenage market. I wanted to write something healthy, something where female characters were not there to serve their male counterparts' dark, twisted desires and obsessions. I wanted to write something that did not involve a love-triangle. I hope I wrote something in which, major evil character aside, the characters were well-rounded with bits of good and bad in all of them, because that's what human nature is like. 

Part 2

Almost immediately after sending "Nethiaria" to agents, I started work on my next novel, "X&Y". This I actually polished and put on Kindle before "Nethiaria", mainly because YA Dystopian fiction is a huge trend right now and I wanted to get in there before it blew over! 

This novel was inspired by a Year 10 R.E. lesson I was supporting a couple of years ago. (I was, and am now, a Teaching Assistant.) We were studying Genetic Engineering and it scared me that we have the technology to genetically alter children in the womb. It's a controversial topic that I won't go into here, but basically I was horrified at the thought of 'designer babies'. Thus, the logical conclusion (in my head) was to write a book about it, a book where society has gone mad on it. 

I also very deliberately chose to write the story from the point of view of a character who was from an incredibly wealthy and powerful family, because - correct me if I'm wrong - but I've not seen that done yet in YA Dystopian fiction. If I had written it from the point of view of an ordinary, poor character, it would inevitably have drawn comparisons with, oh I don't know, Katniss Everdeen? Katniss is brilliant but I didn't want to recreate her, and I don't think "X&Y" would have worked with a character from that kind of background.  

If you're interested, by the way, you can find it here!

I finished X&Y in about March 2013 and spent some time polishing and sending off to agents. Fewer, this time, but still rejected. But then I discovered Amazon Kindle, who provided me with the space to distribute my work to many people! (Again see separate post).

Part 3

After I finished X&Y, for some reason (I think it was around the time my husband and I watched the entire Harry Potter movie collection over a few weeks) I started watching loads and loads of interviews with J. K. Rowling, who is an even more amazing and inspiring person than I thought. This was around about the time that Amanda Bynes was in the news a lot, seemingly having a sad, strange breakdown in public - or, at least, the tabloids made it public. The inevitable commentary came through about child stars being ill-equipped to deal with fame and it coming to a head at some point in their early twenties. These two things in my mind combined and I wondered what it would be like to be a child star, not from movies but from books? This resulted in starting a story (as yet unfinished) called "Ladder To The Stars". I'm about 130 pages in but - confession time - I think it's going to go on hold for a while. I honestly have no idea where I'm going with it, or what the point of it is yet, and there are other stories I want to work on. 

I had a rule, when writing 'Nethiaria' that I wouldn't start another story until the current one was finished. I'm kinda breaking that rule now, but I think it's okay, as long as I'm kept accountable. It was immensely useful during my year off and kept me disciplined and focussed during the most frustrating parts of 'Nethiaria', but I've just had an idea for another fantasy epic which I am really excited about writing, and think I can complete a least a first draft of it before the summer. I haven't been this thrilled about the prospect of writing another story for a while now so I want to capitalise on this while I can. 

Okay. This is a huge post, and I'll be impressed if you get all the way through on one sitting, but it's been good for me to process and assess where I am now - plus, who knows? It could actually help someone. #dream.