Monthly Archives:: August 2015

Mystery review: ‘What Washes Up’ by Dawn Lee McKenna

August 24, 2015 Review 0

This is the third book in the sequence that started with Low Tide, and the author is really getting into her stride now. Florida cop Maggie Redmond, a divorced single mum getting by and tentatively inching towards a new relationship with fellow cop Wyatt, is a sympathetic heroine. But her life is quietly unravelling, with secrets emerging that draw her into the orbit of local crime-lord Bennett Boudreaux.

As in all these books, there’s a crime-of-the-week, but the main feature is the intricate personal life of Maggie herself and the developments arising from the death of Gregory Boudreaux in Low Tide, which get murkier and more complicated than ever in this installment. The characters are so real, you feel you know them personally.

However, the star attraction is McKenna’s glorious writing style, which is brilliant at the sort of superficial dialogue that hides an ocean of hidden meaning, and also recreates the atmospheric setting so effectively, you’ll feel the sweat trickling down your back, and smell the salty tang of the sea. These are short books, so a good, fast read. Four stars.

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On staying connected while travelling

August 23, 2015 Ramblings 0

There are many wonderful perks to living in the twenty-first century, but ease of travelling and a connected lifestyle are two that I love more than (say) ubiquitous coffee shops or fast food. What could be more fun than hopping on a plane and stepping off hours later somewhere jungly hot? Or leaping into the campervan and parking beside an empty beach on Scotland’s west coast? And as for connectivity, I’m one of those people who likes to be permanently online, checking email, reading blogs, catching up on forums and generally chitter-chattering away the days.

It’s when you try to combine the two that things begin to get tricky. Wifi’s not an option on that glorious beach, and unless you’re very careful, streaming a YouTube video from that jungly resort could cost you an arm and a leg. If you’re on holiday, that’s fine. Look for an internet cafe once or twice a week to check email, or simply enjoy being disconnected for a while.

crocodileclips But if you have a business to keep running, it becomes important to find ways to stay connected that: a) work; and b) don’t bankrupt the business. It’s always been technically challenging. When my husband travelled on business in the late 80’s, an essential part of his travel kit was a set of crocodile clips. You had to heave the bed away from the wall in your hotel room, find the phone socket and dismantle it, and then attach the crocodile clips, before you could download your email.

toshibaearlylaptopHe had an early Toshiba laptop, too, which was such a new idea that he once startled a New Zealand government department merely by picking it up and walking across the room with it (presumably they’re more technologically savvy these days).

When I first started my bijou software business in the late 90’s, I only needed to be able to read and send email to keep the business ticking over. If an order came in, I could send an acknowledgement. I could send the software itself on floppy disk when I got home. Once I switched to encrypted keys to unlock the full version of the software, it was even easier – I travelled with a list of keys, and simply emailed one to the customer as needed.

jornada680Things had moved on from crocodile clips by then. In 1999, I had a Jornada, a pocket PC, which had cut-down versions of office software as well as dial-up capability for email. Mind you, it still needed a physical phone socket, and (to my surprise) not all hotels supply phones in the bedroom. I once downloaded my email in the kitchen, while the chefs good-humouredly prepared dinner around me.

 

 

nokia_9300iBy 2001, I had a new gadget – a Nokia Communicator. This was a smartphone before the term had even been invented. Like the Jornada, it had cut-down versions of all the basic office software, and – miracle of miracles! – it fetched and sent email without needing to plug into a socket. It needed a mobile signal, but it made me independent of the physical phone system. Oh, the pleasure of leaving dial-up behind! I had two different models of this, and although it’s long gone now (models were produced until 2007), it saw me through to the closing down of my little business.

Now that I’m an author with books published, I find myself back in the situation of needing to stay connected to keep the business ticking over. There’s less to do, apart from obsessively checking sales numbers and rankings, but there are times when I absolutely have to respond to emails or pay an invoice or log in to my author account at Amazon to make changes. And I wanted to be able to carry on writing, even when away from home. Smart phones are wonderful, but they’re still phones, and typing more than a text message on them is a pain. And lugging a full-sized laptop everywhere is a hassle when travelling. So, something bigger was needed, and preferably with a decent keyboard.

asussliderMy first thought was a tablet. In 2012 I bought an Asus Slider, which can be used as a (rather thick) tablet, or, by sliding the screen upwards to reveal a keyboad, acts like a mini-laptop. This worked really well for basic email, internet browsing and so forth, as long as there’s wifi available, and I could type on it, too, so I could do some writing. As an Android device, it offered a mean set of apps, too. But there was one big problem: it couldn’t run Scrivener, my writing software of choice. That meant that my travel plans involved copying parts of the work in progress to a Word document, exporting it to the Asus, and then importing it back with changes later. And restoring all the curly quotes, which mysteriously disappeared. Very tedious.

asustransformerSo earlier this year, I upgraded to an Asus Transformer. This runs on Windows 8, and while it has some issues, it’s light, it has a keyboard (albeit a terribly clicky one) and it runs Scrivener. This has become my writing ‘sandbox’ – a separate machine for the current work in progress. When I travel, I can get email, access the internet, pay invoices and backup my writing to the cloud.

But only if I can connect. And hence the reason for this post. You wouldn’t think it was difficult in this day and age to get internet access anywhere you happen to be. The days of built-in modems and cables have gone, and the era of crocodile clips is far in the past: nowadays everyone has wifi, don’t they?

Well, yes and no. Big hotels all have it, of course, but you might have to pay extra for it. And every rinky-dink little coffee shop offers free wifi, but how secure is it, if you have to pay bills or access your bank account? And then there’s the dreaded login screen: just 5 pages of personal data to type in and away you go.

vodafonemobilewifiThere has to be a better way. So I got myself a mobile wifi gadget. This connects to the mobile phone network, and creates a personal wifi hub for up to 5 devices. I chose a Vodafone model, because they have good UK coverage and they also have the cheapest top up, only £5 for 250 Mb of data. And when it works, it’s as fast and solid as the broadband connection at home. But…

And now I’m going to rant a bit, so grab something solid and hang on tight. The first requirement is a mobile signal, and you would not believe how unreliable this can be. Generally you can get enough signal strength to make calls and send texts, but for data, no, forget that. And it dips in and out randomly. I got very tired of seeing the signal bars at orange or red on the gadget instead of green. I get that there are black spots, but when the signal comes and goes, without any rhyme or reason, that’s very frustrating.

And then there’s the cost. Mobile wifi works on the same principle as mobile phone bills. For pay-as-you-go, there’s no contract fee, so you buy a top-up lump of data, in this case. And off you go until it runs out, and then you top up again. Simple, right? Except that for emails and basic internet browsing, you don’t use that much at all. So you save it for the next trip… or not. Because the stuff expires in 30 days. Yep, anything you don’t use is gone 30 days later. So I pay £5 for 250Mb, use a tenth of that, and then, for the next trip a month later, I have to pay for another 250Mb. This is a real rip-off for occasional users. I’d be happier to either pay more for the gadget up-front, or pay a minimal amount as a monthly ‘retainer’ and have the data last for a reasonable time – a year, say.

But there are some companies that get things absolutely right. Splashtop makes software that allows you to access other computers on your wifi system remotely. So I can be using the tablet downstairs and connect through Splashtop to the main computer on my desk upstairs. Simple and effective. And for a modest monthly fee of £1.22 (around $2), I can also connect remotely. Yes folks, I can sit in my campervan on the west coast and move files around on the computer at home. It needs a fast wifi connection, but given that, it works amazingly well. There have always been ways to connect remotely, of course, but this is surely one of the simplest and easiest.

We’ve come a long way, it’s true, and it’s possible to stay connected wherever you happen to be in the world, with the right technology. And perhaps one day it will all work seamlessly, without annoying glitches or great expense, and we’ll look back on the days of wifi and laugh, as we do now at those early laptops and crocodile clips. But for now, all I can say is: it works brilliantly, right up to the point where it doesn’t. Which is probably true of life in general, actually.

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Mystery review: ‘The Mystery of Underwood House’ by Clara Benson

August 21, 2015 Review 0

I enjoyed the first book in the Angela Marchmont series of country-house cozies set in the twenties, but to my mind this one worked a lot better. I didn’t guess the identity of the murderer, for one thing (although that particular character was definitely on my list), and this one felt much more satisfyingly complex. It also features Angela Marchmont, the lady detective herself, as the point of view character, which I think works much better than having her as a side character (as in the first book).

Following her success in the previous murder, Angela is called upon by her friend Louisa to investigate her husband’s family. After his father’s death, a rather peculiar will left money to the four children only for their lifetimes, after which it reverts to the family solicitor. Now three of the four have died in mysterious circumstances. Is it murder? And if so, who is responsible?

This sort of book follows a very predictable pattern, which anyone who’s read any Agatha Christie will recognise. There is an array of suspects with motives, secrets gradually revealed and (possibly) another murder or two before the detective (and reader) works it all out. This is an excellent example of the genre, with a wonderfully literate writing style evocative of the period which makes the read an enjoyable ramble rather than the more frenetic pace of modern murder mysteries. Recommended for those who like their cozies quaintly old-fashioned. Four stars.

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Fantasy western romance review: ‘To The Gap’ by Kyra Halland

August 17, 2015 Review 0

Well, that was a ball of fun, and no mistake. I’ve been loving the whole Daughter of the Wildings series, but I positively inhaled this fourth installment, quite unable to tear myself away from it. For anyone who likes a little fantasy served with their westerns, and a side helping of romance, this is absolutely the series for you. Start with Beneath The Canyons.

Silas is a trained mage from Granadaia, sent to the Wildings as a bounty-hunter, catching rogue mages. Lainie is Wildings-born, with untrained mage power, which taps deep into the natural power of the region. Now they’re married and on the run, while Lainie learns to control her power and the two of them avoid mage-hunters and the hostility of Plain folk (those without magical ability). All they want is a safe place to live, and to be left alone, but those are proving hard to find.

In order to make enough money to escape the mage-hunters, they join a cattle drive, and this part of the story was fantastic fun. Dealing with weather, stampeding cattle, river crossings and possible rustlers while trying to keep their magic out of sight provides plenty of entertainment in the first half of the book. But when they encounter some mischief-making mages, all hell breaks loose and things get very tense.

Silas and Lainie are a lovely pair. In most fantasy that I read, I look for characters that are complex and not solely black and white; a little grey makes things more interesting. But here there’s so much old-fashioned charm in these two that I wouldn’t change anything about them. The side characters could do with a touch more depth for my taste, but it’s not really a problem, since it all fits perfectly well with the western black-hats/white-hats style.

The magic is quite complex, and each book reveals a little more about it, and about how Lainie can use it. There’s also some intriguing political backstory going on behind the scenes, which is becoming more significant as the series progresses. I love the fact that Lainie is both more powerful than Silas, and also more inventive (which is logical, given that she’s untrained; she doesn’t know what she’s not supposed to be able to do!). I also love it when they work together as a team.

The ending is a bit of a humdinger, although not entirely unexpected; not exactly a cliff-hanger, more of a can’t-wait-for-the-next-book moment (and it will be called City of Mages! At last we will get to Granadaia, which I’m desperate to see! Write faster, Ms Halland, write faster!). This book is possibly my favourite of the series so far, enjoyable from start to finish, with an awesome mage battle, and Lainie’s little victory near the end a terrific punch-the-air moment. Five stars.

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Fantasy review: ‘The Living Throne’ by H Anthe Davis

August 16, 2015 Review 0

This is the third book in the War of Memory series. I’ve already raved at extended length about the awesomeness of these books, so I won’t repeat all that. Suffice it say that if you like your epic fantasy with industrial-strength world-building, compelling characters, a plot that stretches itself over a whole continent and a vivid writing style with just a hint of horror, you should give this a try. Start with The Light of Kerrindryr.

So how does this book stack up against the first two? Surely by now the tale must be hitting mid-series sag and getting bogged down in plot sprawl or weighed down with its own history? It’s true that there are two large books’ worth of the story so far, and a huge array of characters to keep up with. I’ve said before that this is a series that would justify its own wiki, and it would have been useful to be able to look things up from time to time. However, there is a list of characters and a glossary at the back of the book, so that helped.

Fortunately, the author cleverly manages to revise the previous events while still moving things forward. There were a few moments when I couldn’t quite remember the fine detail of some earlier plot point, but only once where I just couldn’t remember anything at all about a character and his previous interactions with our heroes. So although it worried me going in that I wouldn’t be able to remember anything, it really wasn’t too much of a problem.

However, the breadth and depth of the world-building means that there’s an enormous amount of background information: about the world itself, the various flora, fauna and races, the history, geography and ecology of the continent. In the first two books, almost all of this stayed in the background, dribbled out in tiny amounts as and when needed. In this book, there were several places where the action stopped so that the main character (Cob) could be informed of some important piece of history. For the first time, I wondered if the sheer weight of backstory would topple over and squash the plot. And the device of having the Guardians withhold information, just because? That’s really got old. Cob gets mad with them for it, and so do I.

So let’s talk about Cob. He’s the archetypal teenage boy thrust into a position of power, but unlike many such stories, Cob doesn’t really grow into his powers and become a wise and just leader. He gets mad at everyone, even his closest allies, and lashes out when he shouldn’t. And he makes mistakes. This makes him human, and therefore very believable. There has been progress in the growing-up department, but he’s still a long way from wise and just leaderdom. Which is good, because that would be dull.

Of the (many) other main characters, some of them are likeable and some are intriguing and all of them are multi-faceted and compelling. There were one or two that I guess were necessary for plot reasons, but I didn’t find them desperately interesting (Weshker, for instance, or Geraad). Even so, I never got to (say) a Weshker section, and thought ‘Oh, no! Not him again’ as I did for some Game of Thrones characters (Catelyn, I’m looking at you here). And even if I had, one Enkhaelen, complex to the nth degree, would compensate for twenty Weshkers.

The plot in this installment is flimsily constructed around one of those zero-chance-of-success missions, where you know everything is going to go wrong along the way, in spades. And it does, of course, but the ways in which it went wrong still took me by surprise, with plenty of dramatic encounters, some tense episodes amongst Cob’s pals, and a few heart-wrenching moments. And there are revelations along the way that blew my socks off. I thought we’d pretty much got to the root of the main characters, but nope, not even close.

And then the ending. This is epic fantasy in every sense of the word, so the ending was suitably epic as well, with starring roles for every one of the (many) point of view characters. This did mean that the dramatic denouement went on and on and on, with three steps forward and two back. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of grandiose action, but for those who are, this is a perfectly executed example. And, just when you think it’s all over, the setup for the next book in the sequence, and what a setup it is! Awesome.

Another excellent book in the series. Beautifully constructed and written, with a complex plot and compelling characters, emotional depth, and some jaw-dropping revelations – five stars.

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Update on the self-publishing fantasy blog-off (#SPFBO)

August 14, 2015 Publishing/marketing, The Plains of Kallanash 0

You may remember me mentioning some months ago that Mark Lawrence (author of The Broken Empire series) had organised a competition for self-published authors. He rounded up ten well-known bloggers who review fantasy, and sent each of them a ‘slush pile’ of 25 self-published books submitted by their authors. All the bloggers had to do was to work through their pile, just as an agent would, reading as much or as little of each as they wished, and choose just one book to put forward as their champion for a second round. Each of those ten would then be read by all the bloggers, who would award points and thereby a winner would be chosen.

I submitted The Plains of Kallanash, and the blogger it was assigned to was Sarah Chorn of Bookworm Blues. With the end of the first phase in sight, she’s now read all her 25 books, and reviewed Kallanash on 6th August. The good news is that she finished it! She rated it 3 out of 5 stars, and the winner of its mini-batch of 5 books. She described it as: ‘…certainly unique, and quite bold. The plot is intricate, the world building is superb, and the two mixed together creates a rather engrossing mixture that is hard to pull away from.’ She had trouble liking protagonist Mia (but everyone has that problem!) and also found that the ending left her: ‘…a little underwhelmed, as the big climax that I wanted to read about never really happened.’ All in all, a very fair review, and a big thrill for me in that one of my favourite bloggers read and reviewed my efforts. You can read the full review here, and see the champion Sarah chose here. For the full list of 250 entrants and links to many more reviews and the list of 10 champions, check out Mark Lawrence’s website here. The page to keep tabs on progress in the second phase of the competition is here.

Elsewhere in the SPFBO world, Marc Aplin of Fantasy-Faction, having chosen his champion already, has been explaining why he advises beginning authors NOT to self-publish, but to wait it out for acceptance by an agent and then a publisher. His main reasons seem to be, firstly, that being rejected multiple times and then working with an editor is the ideal way to hone your craft, and secondly, that self-published books are (mostly) rubbish and you (probably) won’t make any money anyway. You can read Marc’s article and the comments it spawned here.

I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of self-publishing here, it’s an old argument that everyone has to work out for themselves. There are valid reasons for pursuing a trade deal, valid reasons to self-publish, and there are also valid reasons to pay someone to publish for you (so-called vanity publishing). I’ve never submitted to an agent or publisher, so I’m not one of those who chose to self-publish because I was rejected. I just preferred to publish exactly the book I wanted to write, warts and all, and not wait years for some kind of validation. As for money, I’ve said before that it’s perfectly possible to make money from self-publishing. There are techniques that work, and luck doesn’t (usually) have much to do with it.

I do have some sympathy with Marc’s main points, though. There are innumerable authors who finish their very first book and bang it up on Amazon without any thought at all. Almost all of them would have done better to take a bit more time over it, polish it up, get proper feedback or even set it aside and write something else. I’ve read many, many self-published books where the writing became noticeably better as the book (or trilogy) went on. Even when an author has talent, it can take years to hone that talent, and self-publishers do tend to show the world every stage in their development.

Are most self-published books poor quality? Yes, in my experience, they are. I read more self-pubbed books than trade pubbed these days, but I’ve become adept at weeding out the ones that will be unreadable (to me). That is, books riddled with typos, grammatical and punctuation errors, books with trite plots and cardboard characters, books that meander all over the place without getting to the action.

There is no quality control on self-published books, whereas trade-pubbed books have at least been through some basic checking. That means that trade-pubbed books vary from brilliant to middling, while self-pubbed books vary from brilliant to execrable. That is inevitable, given the nature of self-publishing. It takes time to search out the gems, and I don’t blame anyone for choosing not to do that.

Having said all that, not all self-published books are dross. The very best are easily on a par with the very best trade-published works. I’ve posted lists of a few of these hidden gems over at Fantasy Review Barn for 2013 and 2014. Then there’s a tranche of self-published works that are comparable with many trade-pubbed books: professionally produced, competently written, which would qualify as excellent reads without setting the literary world alight. But below that level are many that fall into one of two categories.

Firstly, they have extremely original ideas but the execution may lack polish. They may have some typos, some structural or characterisation issues, the formatting may be poor, or the writing may be amateurish. I’ll happily try these, because originality is more important to me than perfect presentation.

The second type has solid writing skills, but the plot may be trite, the characters fall into tropes, the world-building is lazy and the ending predictable. I’m likely to give these a miss; I do like to be surprised in my reading, and I get bored reading something familiar. It has to be said, though, that works like this can do very well. There seem to be vast numbers of readers who do actually want familiar tropes and themes.

But below this level there are many, many self-published books that, for me, anyway, are just not readable. They are simply not professional enough to be worth my time. Some of them, with good marketing, can produce a good income for their authors. Most, however, won’t set the bestseller lists on fire (but that’s true of almost all books).

So when the SPFBO shines a spotlight on self-published work, it’s not surprising that the bloggers trawling through their slush piles found a mixture of books, some good, some OK, some that definitely needed more work. There was also the inevitable result of randomness: that they encountered books that, while they may be fine in themselves, just didn’t appeal to that particular blogger.

But – and here’s the key point, for me – they are actually reading self-published books, in some cases for the first time. They are bringing exactly the same critical skills and broad fantasy-reading experience that they apply to trade-published books. And that’s a wonderful thing.

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I’m away for a few days…

August 5, 2015 General, Publishing/marketing 0

…so there may not be any posts for the next week or so. Happily, my trips always allow me plenty of reading time, so there will be some reviews coming soon. Watch out for my 5* review of The Living Throne, part 3 of H Anthe Davis’s stunning epic fantasy series. I’ll also be reviewing another of Dawn Lee McKenna’s atmospheric suspense tales set in the Florida panhandle, What Washes Up.

And in current reading, I’m deep into Clara Benson’s country house cozy, The Mystery At Underwood House, and just starting a popular traditional epic fantasy, Arcane, by Sever Bronny. After that, one of my favourite series returns: To The Gap is the fourth part of Kyra Halland’s enjoyable fantasy western series.

The Mages of Bennamore is just 99 cents in the US (99p in UK)  from 7th August!

If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of the newest addition to the Brightmoon Annals, this is a chance to buy it for just 99c (or 99p). Prices are good from Friday 7th to Wednesday 12th, inclusive. Sorry, this offer is only for US and UK purchasers. If you live elsewhere in the world, watch out for my anniversary sale in September, when all three books will be discounted worldwide.

Have a good weekend, and I’ll be back soon.

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