Saturday, 27 August 2011

Progress, Growth and Learning

A friend at work said something this week that made me realise how far I've come with my writing. A year ago I had many false starts and bits of stories lying around on my hard drive. I liked the ideas but I lacked the will to finish them, or even to continue with them beyond the first few chapters (or pages in some cases). But when I heard someone else say "wow, you've already written a book with 80,000 words done" it dawned on me that I have done more in the last year to improve and progress with my writing then I have ever done before. The thought scared and exhilarated me in equal measure. I've also started to play around with a new idea which recycles two of those false starts into one story, with the hope I can start a draft on that while I'm editing the first one. I would never have imagined working on two long stories at once but it's given me energy to work on more than one thing at a time and ironically means I get more done.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Book Review: Catching Fire (Hunger Games, Book 2)

Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins - 2009 - 409 pages

I had high expectations coming straight from The Hunger Games into Catching Fire, and was a little worried it would be more of the same without any real reason to it. I was wrong to be concerned; the sequel to The Hunger Games is a worthy follow up, and though it also features the kind of death match we saw in the first, the character's are changed by their experiences first time round, making this a different experience. Collins also begins to build on the notion that Katniss' role is more than just the girl who lived.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Harry Potter Hunt Continues

I saw this over the weekend and thought it was an interesting read for anyone into books or writing them. We all know that with the final instalment of the Harry Potter series recently released to cinemas, publishers and studios alike are on the lookout for the "next Harry". Well, the latest to be submitted is The Night Circus, the debut book by Erin Morgenstern. The story goes that this is her first novel, ever, and with not even a short story published before she has suddenly been catapulted into the big time. Not by sales (the book isn't out until September), but by marketing and investment from the publishers, with Summit Entertainment already snapping up the film rights. And it isn't even out yet...

Thursday, 18 August 2011

What's a Grade Worth Anyway?

Those in the UK will know only too well today was A-Level results day. For everyone outside of Britain... it was A-Level results day today, a day typically filled with images on TV of pretty girls hugging each other and consoling the one who didn't manage to get all A*s, and got an A instead... yes, that does happen. (For those not in the know, an A* is a super duper A. It was created because of how many people get As in their exams, to differentiate between those that are excellent and those that are almost godly in their knowledge.)

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Book Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins - 2009 - 464 pages

A friend at work recommended I try "The Hunger Games", so I downloaded a sample to my kindle. No sooner had I finished reading than I bought the whole book and read it in a week. A combination of a dystopian future with the kind of survival to the death contest a number of people are no doubt considering in post riot Britain, "The Hunger Games" is a fantastic read. Exciting, vicious and compelling characters create a work of fiction that really drew me in. The language is simple and the pacing is excellent, making it very easy to get through the book quickly (which is a plus in my opinion; I like long books but it's nice to read something I'm not dedicating weeks to).

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London Burns and the Bleeding Hearts Weep

I am a Londoner, born and bred. I was fortunate enough to live in an affluent area of North West London, where trees line the streets, with a large park nearby. I went to good schools, I had two loving parents who encouraged me without judgement and pushed me to achieve. My love of books, politics and history was grown out of the passion I saw in my parents, my teachers, my friends, my neighbours. Not everyone is as fortunate. There were kids at my school/college/work with far less pleasant home lives, with absent parents, and who had to live on estates where getting stabbed (or worse) was a genuine risk, where drugs were rife, where opportunities were scarce. I won't pretend to know what that's like, because I couldn't even come close. My own family come from a poor background, and it's my parents that got themselves out of it through hard work and determination. I am well aware of my privilege, of the sheer chance that meant I was born into reasonable wealth and comfort. But I have always been reminded how precarious it is, what being poor means, I am reminded of the reality of having to choose if you feed yourself or your child. Being poor does not make people riot. It does not force people to commit arson, and criminal damage. I beseech everyone to stop making excuses for the criminals besetting my fair city. Because they don't understand poverty, and have no desire to. All they understand is greed, entitlement, fear, and arrogance.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Book Review: Talyn

Talyn - Holly Lisle - 2005 - 592 pages

I've had a bit of a break from the writing this week (think I blew a fuse the week before) but have started up again now. So instead of writing I got myself reading again and finished off "Talyn", which I bought a while ago. It isn't a book you'll be able to find in most places, and at the moment it's only seems to be available in the UK as second hand or from sellers. Which is a real shame as this is a very interesting and unusual fantasy book.

I grew up reading fantasy stories, particularly ones written in the seventies and eighties, thanks to my mum being a huge science-fiction and fantasy fan. She especially loved the female writers of those decades, such as Sheri Tepper and Tanith Lee, as they normally wrote adventures with women as the main protagonist. I too loved these types of stories, and though I had no problem with stories with male main characters, the books that have made the most lasting impressions on me generally feature a strong central female role. So when I discovered Holly Lisle's website a couple of years ago (which I highly recommend any would-be author visit - her advice is excellent) I was interested to see that she too seemed to have strong central female characters in her stories. And, as I found her writing advice so helpful, I wanted to know what her own writing was like. I chose to buy "Talyn" as it sounded similar to those works I've enjoyed from others. Having now finished it I can say it bears some likeness to those works (which made me think it was a much older book than it actually is) but it also stands on its own. One thing it lacks that the likes of Sheri Tepper include in their stories, is the feminist message, but it in no way is the worse for this. There are themes a plenty in "Talyn" and these stay with you long after you put the book down.

The tale begins with a soldier called Talyn, using her magical abilities in her people's fight against their neighbour, the Eastils. Talyn is a Tonk, and the Tonks and the Eastils have been fighting their war for 300 years with no respite. Needless to say both of their societies have been shaped by this constant state of war, and Lisle does a wonderful job of fully building this world, and the two warring cultures within it. The Tonks are a scattered people, many of them nomadic and the rest made up of individual city-states. The Eastils however are ruled by one central government, headed by a King, and are expansionist by nature. The people of both lands have only ever known war, and Talyn is no exception with her whole life revolving around her duty. Then suddenly the Feegash arrive from over the sea and broker a deal between the two sides, effectively putting Talyn out of a job but more importantly removing her whole purpose. She has to learn what's left to her without the war, and whether without duty she can find meaning in her life. Before long though she comes to see that something even darker may be threatening Tonk and Eastil lands, and she must choose between duty and honour if she wants to protect her family, and herself.

The most remarkable things about Lisle's writing is the deep and multilayered world she creates. Just as in real life, nothing is simple or necessarily what it seems. The people are no different; we delve into the mind of Talyn and find a woman who is torn and uncertain of her life, but at the same time is incredibly strong and confident. Lisle also uses an interesting writing style that I didn't even notice until half way through. Whenever the action is from Talyn's perspective we are told events in the first person. But when we see events from anyone else's point of view it's told in the third person. This is a bit odd when you first notice it but it seems to work; the reader is drawn into Talyn's mind, and needs to be there for some scenes to work, but we are never sure of anyone else's thoughts or feelings, just as Talyn isn't. Her distrust of non-Tonks is a feature throughout the book and it's interesting to see her wrestle with this, being betrayed when she puts it aside, and being helped when she doesn't.

The themes are strong throughout the tale, with not just honour and duty featuring, but the total divide between good and evil, and how even former enemies need to unite when faced with the darkest of threats. At times these strong themes actually hinder the story a little, as we get internal discussions from Talyn that don't have any immediate relevance to the story. But the effect is cumulative, and ultimately results in a deeper book that stays with you after you read that last page. The only areas where some may struggle is the slow beginning, which sets up the world so when it all gets ripped apart we understand how devastating that is, and the end, which I thought was too sudden. Then again that may also be to do with wanting the story to go on for a little longer as I enjoyed it so much.

Some warning about "Talyn"; this is not a book that is appropriate for children. It features some sex but more relevantly, it includes scenes of sadistic torture, and I was surprised at how much it dealt with how victims of violence blame themselves for their pain, and how they get trapped into thinking about what they could have or should have done differently to prevent it. Not your typical fantasy subject matter, but it brought a solemnity and realism to the story that I hadn't expected and only added to the impact of this book.

I enjoyed Talyn very much, and will be seeing what other works of Holly Lisle's I can find as her writing is excellent and she shows how important it is to create a fully realised world. She has recently announced that she is self-publishing her books, including her back catalogue, so we can only hope that "Talyn" gets a rerelease in a print version, and is made available in an ebook format too. With more access I truly think this book could sell extremely well, and offer something a bit different to us Fantasy fans tired of the same old cliches.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

What Makes a Good Reviewer?

It sold over 50 million.
It must be rubbish.
A few weeks ago, while I was neck deep and swimming frantically to get through Julnowrimo, I came across a post on Joe Konrath's blog about reviewers, specifically about confusing personal feelings with a product's worth. In essence he points out that if a work has deliberation behind it, in that a creator had a vision and deliberately set out to create that vision with effort, thought, and time, then it can't be totally rubbish. It might not be good but it won't be crap. This made me think of Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code, which many online and elsewhere have reviewed badly, and it is often torn to shreds and posted as an example of how not to write a book. But it sold millions. Why, if it's so rubbish? Because people are stupid? Or is it that Dan Brown set out to do something with it, and he achieved that, and that's what people like about it (i.e. the book is very fast paced and is an ideal holiday read.) This doesn't make it a masterpiece but it does mean it successfully achieves what it was meant to do. (I have read it, I enjoyed it, and I'll likely never read it again. It does what it's meant to!)