Mystery review: ‘Dead Wake’ by Dawn Lee McKenna

April 25, 2016 Review 0

This is the fifth book in the Forgotten Coast suspense series, and the author is nicely into her stride now. Although there’s a crime-of-the-week element, there’s also a depth of backstory developing in the history of main character Maggie and her family. Fortunately, these aspects are woven elegantly and seamlessly into the story, and never overwhelm it.

The plot is a straightforward one: a long-dead body turns up in a wall during renovations. The local crime lord is implicated, and Maggie and almost-boyfriend Wyatt are the two cops investigating, and finding themselves with differing opinions on the case. Complications ensue, and there are all sorts of murky shenanigans to dig up before the case is resolved.

The characters are a huge attraction of this series, being eccentric without veering into too much silliness, and McKenna’s deft hand with dialogue is always a joy to read. Wyatt is my favourite, but Boudreaux isn’t far behind. And then there’s the glorious atmosphere of the location (the Florida panhandle). I’ve never been there, but I feel I know the place intimately. Reading this book, I can almost smell the salt in the air, and taste the oysters as they slide down. Mmm, oysters. And I don’t even like oysters.

Another excellent chapter in the series, as Maggie and Wyatt inch towards a proper relationship. Five stars. Can’t wait for the next installment – please write faster, Ms McKenna.

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Authors Answer 12: What books did you read as a child?

April 16, 2016 AuthorsAnswer 0

Enid Blyton. And really, to be honest, I don’t remember reading anything else. Even though I read voraciously, and steamed through the library’s children’s section as soon as I was allowed to join, and then the school library, the books that stand out in my mind are the Enid Blyton ones.

Noddy_Goes_To_Toyland_1949_coverI may have had some of her fairy books, gifted by well-meaning relatives, but the first series I got into was Noddy, and I had the entire collection at one time, golliwogs, Mr Plod the policeman and all. They aren’t remotely politically correct these days, but they were very much the norm in the mid-twentieth century, when they were first published. They were popular for years, too. Everybody read them.

FiveOnATreasureIslandThen there were the Famous Five books, with Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy the dog. Again, not at all politically correct, with hindsight. Julian and Dick, the two boys, were the leaders and brains, George (Georgina) was the tomboyish wanna-be boy, and Anne, the girly-girl was terribly wet. But they did all the sorts of things that I would have loved to do but wasn’t allowed to, like going off camping alone and using their initiative and managing perfectly well without any adults to oversee them. And, naturally, they solved the mystery and presented the case, neatly tied up with a ribbon, to the flat-footed local police.

TheMysteryOfTheBurntCottageThere was a Secret Seven series, too, but I never liked that as much. The other series I remember well was the Five Find-Outers, starting with The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage. I loved these because the fat character was the smart one, and not just comic relief. I remember him doing all sorts of clever things with invisible ink, and escaping from a locked room. I liked the Barney series, too, which started with The Rockingham Mystery. There were some ingenious solutions to the mysteries — in one, a theft was accomplished by a trained monkey who could break in through a tiny window. But in all of them, the children were thinking, observing, weighing evidence and generally being smart and independent. I loved them.

Then, when I was sixteen, someone suggested I read Lord of the Rings, and I discovered fantasy… My reading was never the same after that.

Footnote: Authors Answer is the brainchild of blogger Jay Dee Archer, of I Read Encyclopedias For Fun. You can read the answers to this question by his eclectic bunch of authors here. More recently, Erica Dakin, of the Theft And Sorcery blog, has been answering the questions independently. You can read her answer to this question here.

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‘The Dragon’s Egg’: cover reveal

April 11, 2016 The Dragon's Egg 0

With The Dragon’s Egg winging its way to my trusty proofreader for a final check before publication, I thought it might be time to show you what the cover looks like. Once again, I’ve called on the services of Glendon Haddix of Streetlight Graphics, who’s done an awesome job taking my vague arm-waving and turning it into wonderful covers with strong fantasy branding.

Here’s his latest – enjoy!

 

 

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Thriller romance review: ‘Lowcountry Storm’ by Myra Scott

April 10, 2016 Review 0

This is the first in a new series, The Malone Family Saga. These are thrillers with a strong romance component, with some raunchy scenes along the way. Sarah Elliott is an insurance claims investigator, specialising in chasing down possibly fraudulent claims by wealthy rich men. When Charleston socialite Redmond Malone files a claim for a missing two-million-dollar yacht, Sarah sets her sights on uncovering the scam and earning enough of a bounty to set her up for life. But — wouldn’t you just know it — Redmond turns out to be handsome and cute and so, so hot.

Well, yes, we can see where this is going, but that doesn’t make the tale any less fun. I really enjoyed the way the romance developed between these two. It progressed slowly enough to be very believable, and I especially enjoyed the storm scene, which was quite awesomely memorable in a number of different ways.

The thriller part worked OK too. I’m not normally a big fan of high-drama thrillers, which tend to stretch credulity beyond the snapping point, as a rule, but this worked very well. I loved Sarah’s common sense under pressure, with all her actions being perfectly logical. She made a very sympathetic and understandable heroine, and Redmond was a likable hero.

There were a few sections that felt a little clunky, as the author was working to set up the family background for the later parts of the series, but that’s a minor quibble. A good debut. Four stars.

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Review: The Timeweaver’s Wager by Axel Blackwell

April 2, 2016 Review 0

An unusual book – I have no idea how to categorise it. Paranormal, yes, but with elements of thriller, too. Mystery, maybe, because the story is full of questions. But this is also a deeply character-driven story that is close to literary fiction.

The premise: Glen is a young man filled with regret. His best friend and almost-girlfriend, Connie, was murdered eight years before, and Glen feels he could have, should have saved her. Her death has haunted him ever since. More than anything in the world, he wishes he could go back in time and save her. But what if you were given the chance to do just that? Would you take it? And if you do that, would it work out the way you expect?

It’s a fascinating idea, and the author turns it into a compelling read that had me sneaking in just another chapter or three when I was supposed to be doing other things. It takes a long, long time to get to the point where Glen finally makes his decision, with perhaps a little too much agonising along the way. In some ways I would perhaps have preferred a different balance, a snappier decision and more time given to the post-decision events. That’s not a complaint about the book, by the way, just a comment that the idea is such an intriguing one, I’d have liked a longer look at the actual consequences and less mulling over potential outcomes.

Overall, a terrific read, with some neat twists along the way, and while I predicted some of them, others took me completely by surprise. A good four stars.

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Authors answer 11: If you were going to write in another genre, what would it be?

March 25, 2016 AuthorsAnswer 4

In a sense, I’ve already answered that question, since my current side project, apart from the fantasy, is a venture into Regency romance. I’ve always been a big fan of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer – very different styles, but both endlessly rereadable – and my very first attempt at novel writing, many moons ago, was a full-on Regency. That effort was banged out on an old manual typewriter, and I got maybe three-quarters of the way through before life overtook me. It now lurks, unloved, in a bottom drawer, and I haven’t dared to read it again. I’m quite sure it must be execrable.

Fantasy and Regency might seem to be very different creatures. One is a made-up world, with the only limitation being the author’s imagination, focusing on battles and monsters and world-threatening peril, not to mention magic, of course. A Regency focuses on a much narrower field of action, which may be just a few towns or villages in England, with one not-very-earth-shattering objective — to marry off hero and heroine. There may be adventures and high jinks, but generally a Regency is light-hearted fluff.

But in both cases, the characters are tip-toeing through the same minefield — the rules of their world. In a fantasy, the rules are made up by the author (you can use magic, but only if you’re carrying a certain gizmo, or use the right words). In a Regency romance, the rules are those in effect in the real world at the time — the social rules that constrain well-to-to families, with dire consequences if breached. So young women must be accomplished and knowledgeable, but also demure. They are brought up to run large households, yet must always defer to their father, brother or husband. They may speak several languages, but must never express a political opinion. Woe betide the young lady who dares to waltz in public before being approved by the patronesses of Almacks.

For those who still think that fantasy and nineteenth century manners have nothing at all in common, I refer you to a couple of examples of books which gloriously mash together the two genres. Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton is an only partially successful attempt to blend the Victorian social culture with dragons. Temeraire by Naomi Novik thrusts dragons into the middle of the Napoleonic wars, and although there are certain logistical issues (nations can call on fighting dragons, but somehow history has turned out pretty much the same? Really?), the first few in the series are quite glorious, entirely dominated by the rather bookish dragon, Temeraire himself.

Footnote: Authors Answer is the brainchild of blogger Jay Dee Archer, of I Read Encyclopedias For Fun. You can read the answers to this question by his eclectic bunch of authors here. More recently, Erica Dakin, of the Theft And Sorcery blog, has been answering the questions independently. You can read her answer to this question here.

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Archive review: ‘The Silence of Medair’ by Andrea K Höst

March 21, 2016 Archive, Review 0

I first read this in December 2011, when I was only just discovering self-published books, and finding most of them to be a bit ho-hum. Back in those early days of the Kindle, a lot of previously unpublished authors were dusting off long-abandoned manuscripts, kept in a drawer for years, maybe, and tossing them up on Amazon without much thought. The quality was variable, to put it mildly. There was a huge amount of dross, as is inevitable in a system with no quality control whatsoever, a lot that could have been better with a bit of polishing, and a few that just blew me away. This was the first I came across that made me say: wow, that was amazing! I’ve since gone on to read many more of the author’s works, and I highly recommend her for excellent reading that will shatter all your preconceived ideas of fantasy.


For those who say all self-published works are dross – this book is a stunning counter example. The manuscript spent an unbelievable ten years – I’ll say that again, TEN years! – languishing with a single publisher before the author withdrew it in disgust and self-published. You can see why they might have had a problem with it, because it’s very different from the average. It’s intelligent, thought-provoking and well written. It avoids cliches. It’s character-driven fantasy at its best. It’s also a cracking story. I loved it.

The opening is, surely, how all fantasy novels should begin: not by parachuting the reader into the middle of a battle, or some gruesome moment intended purely to shock, but quietly, with the main character in her setting, then adding in the mysterious background, some magic and a threat, to draw you in. But then this is an unusual book in a number of different ways. Many of the events which other writers would turn into a whole trilogy – a massive magic-induced disaster, an empire threatened by invasion, an escalating, seemingly unwinnable, war, a desperate race to find a magic gizmo to turn the tide, and then, miraculously, actually finding said gizmo – all happened five hundred years in the past, and are revealed only briefly in passing. The author even resists the temptation to put them into a prologue. Instead, the story starts some months after the primary character, Medair, has returned with the gizmo, only to find that centuries have passed, the invaders have become the establishment and she herself is the outsider. Her sense of dislocation, and how she adjusts to the new regime, form the substance of the book.

The created world is not outrageously original, just the standard-issue pseudo-medieval arrangement, with a few little touches to make it different, and happily no hackneyed taverns, assassins, thieves, whores and the like, and no gratuitous violence or sex. So this is a relatively civilised and orderly world, where the complications are political rather than societal. And unlike many low-technology worlds, there’s a relaxed gender-neutrality in operation. Women can, and do, become soldiers, heralds, mages, whatever they have an aptitude for. They can inherit empires, too. I get tired of the patriarchy thoughtlessly assumed in most fantasy.

And there’s magic, of course. Oodles of magic. There are mages and adepts (which may be the same thing, I’m not clear about that) who have quite powerful abilities, and there are also magical artifacts. There is also ‘wild magic’, which is hugely, earth-shatteringly powerful (literally) and very unpredictable. I liked the way that magic can be sensed in some physical way, some kind of feeling that allows a character attuned to it to know that magic is being used, and sometimes what kind, and where, and how powerful it is. That was neat.

But it has to be said that sometimes the magic borders on being deus ex machina. The heroine gets into a tricky situation and has only to reach into her dimensionally flexible satchel and pull out some magic gizmo or other to effect her escape. Or else another character waves his or her hands around and – pow, she is magically constrained to do something or other. Is it really deus ex machina if we know ahead of time that the satchel contains magical gizmos, or that the character is a mage? Not sure, but it certainly made a very convenient plot device. On the other hand, it allowed the heroine to use her own self-reliance and not be dependent on a bloke turning up with a sword or a spell to rescue her. In fact, she was usually the one rescuing the blokes.

The heart of the book is the nature of the Ibisians, the invaders of five hundred years earlier, now the establishment. Medair’s hatred and mistrust of them is still fresh, and the scenes between them crackle with tension, as she tries to adjust her strong and perhaps legitimate feelings to this new world order. The issue is complicated, too, by the other countries and factions still fighting against the new rulers. Where exactly do her loyalties lie? She has the magic gizmo which will destroy the invaders, but are these people still her enemies five centuries later? These themes – of loyalty and oppression and enforced compliance and the nature of colonialism – weave throughout the story.

This part of the book is beautifully done. The subtle and not so subtle differences between the world Medair remembers and the current one are neatly drawn – the architecture, clothing, food, mannerisms and customs – so that we first see the invaders through Medair’s eyes as strangely alien beings, and only gradually begin to soften towards them as we get to know them better. It becomes apparent that five hundred years of assimilation has worked both ways, and these Ibisians are not the same as the enemy of Medair’s own time.

The plot revolves around Medair’s struggles with her own antipathies and growing respect for the Ibisians, so there is a great deal of introspection and (it has to be said) downright angsting going on. There were a few moments when I wished she would stop agonising and just get on with it. But fortunately there was enough action interspersed with the angst to keep things rattling along. There were a few places where I wasn’t too sure what was going on, where a little more explanation or description would have helped. Occasionally the complex hierarchy of the Ibisians caught me out (all the ranks begin with a ‘k’, so they begin to blur together), and sometimes I wasn’t even sure which character Medair was talking to. But these are minor issues, which never seriously affected my enjoyment. This is a great read, a story with an intriguing premise, unexpected twists and plenty of action. It’s also that rare beast, a fantasy novel with a truly strong female lead character who’s not remotely a stereotype. I recommend it. Four stars.

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My editing process

March 20, 2016 Current writings, The Dragon's Egg, Writing musings 0

I’m deep into the final edit of The Dragon’s Egg at the moment, and I thought it might be of interest to go into my editing process a little bit. Everyone has their own way of tackling the editing part of the job, and none of them are better or worse than any other, as long as the end result is a more polished and well-written piece of work. The only strategy I don’t recommend is skipping the editing process altogether. There are people who write a single draft and send it off into the world; Mark Lawrence, author of Prince of Thorns, is one of them, and if you write as well as he does, you can do whatever you like, frankly. But for mere mortals, or those of us with less experience, a solid editing process is essential.

Here’s my system:

1) First draft editing This sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? The first draft is the writing-from-scratch part of the process, and editing is what you do when you’ve got the words down. This is true, and a lot of people like to keep the two well apart. Concentrate on writing, they say, get into the flow, make notes of possible changes if you must, but don’t interrupt the first draft writing to edit.

But that’s not what I do. Instead,I edit as I go. Firstly, before I start writing each day, I read everything I wrote the day before and do some light editing – tightening sentences and paragraphs, improving descriptions and dialogue, cleaning up typos. Then I start writing, but if I come across something that needs (say) a change in the earlier part of the book, to add foreshadowing, to weave in a McGuffin that the plot now needs, or simply because the evolving story makes something not quite right, then I’ll go right ahead and make that change. Why? For me, it’s all about context.

What does that mean? When I’m writing a scene, I need to know exactly where the characters are, how they got to this point, what they know and don’t know, and what they’re feeling right now. Context, in other words. Now, meticulous plotters will have all that information written down somewhere, but I write the story as I go, so the details are all in my head. If I come back to a scene later, I won’t necessarily remember the precise context. So for me, it works much better to fix problems as I go.

2) Interlude Once I’ve reached that final chapter and written ‘The end’, I like to leave a book to brew for a while. I set my first book aside for five months while I wrote the whole of the second book, but nowadays I find that a month or so is all that’s needed to give me a little distance and perspective. Again, not everyone wants or needs to do this, but it works for me.

3) Full read-through and first-pass editing When I feel the book has brewed sufficiently, I create a mobi file from it and put it on my Kindle. Then I read it through from start to finish, as a reader. I keep a notebook handy, and write down anything that comes to me. Then, I fix whatever I’ve found. But because of the whole edit-as-you-go thing, my first drafts are pretty clean, so there isn’t much in the way of major changes to be done. I know plenty of authors who practically dismantle the book at this point, adding or removing whole scenes, chapters, characters and sub-plots, but that would drive me insane. The cleaner I can get the first draft, the better I like it.

4) Beta reading and final edit Once I’m happy with it, I look for beta readers. I have a couple of paid-for beta readers that I use regularly, and several author friends who are kind enough to volunteer when their own work permits. My daughter is also an informal beta reader, who gives me an invaluable reader’s-eye-view of the book. My author friends are terrific for craft issues. They’ll point out problems with motivation, pacing and description, and suggest ways to make a scene stronger. Which is great, so why pay for beta readers as well? Mainly because, as professionals, they give me guaranteed feedback to a schedule. Volunteers may get caught up in their own work, or real life may overwhelm their good intentions, but a professional is guaranteed to give me solid feedback by a set date, and that’s golden. When all the feedback is in, I work through it and make the final edits.

5) Proofreading This is the final step in the polishing program. I was lucky enough to find an excellent proofreader at the first attempt, who weeds out typos, missing and duplicate words and (my weak point) fixes punctuation. I can manage the basics fine, but knowing when to hyphenate, when to use en-dashes and em-dashes, when to use ellipses… she has all of this at her fingertips. She also starts the formatting process for me. I give her a Word document, and she creates the styles and sections so that I can finalise the formatting before uploading.

6) Post-publication editing Some people don’t touch a book after it’s been published. It goes out into the world, and that’s the end of it. Some will update the beginning and end sections (frontmatter and backmatter) to add in links to new books as they come out. But a lot of self-publishers tinker with a book even after it’s live, changing anything from minor typos through a full proofreading edit to changing the ending. My policy is to fix any obvious errors if they’re reported to me. This doesn’t happen often, but if someone points out a misspelling, I’ll fix that. But I don’t change the story itself, or add or remove text — with one exception. A reader wrote a review pointing out a couple of inconsistencies in the plot. In one case, it was clearly a misunderstanding of what was going on, which is fine, it happens. But in the other case, I could actually see the point. It wasn’t truly inconsistent, but I could totally see why a reader might think it was. So I added a sentence to clarify the situation.

So that’s my editing process. Editing is a little like sculpting. You start with a solid lump, then you hack chunks off to make a rough shape, then you smooth and refine and polish, in smaller and smaller iterations until the work is finished. It doesn’t matter whether the smoothing and polishing goes on alongside the initial hacking or as a separate process, so long as you end up with all the roughness worked out of it.

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Plotting for pantsers

March 6, 2016 Current writings, The Second God, Writing musings 0

Most authors like to plot a book out before they start to write. For some, that may be a couple of A4 sheets of scribbled notes. For others, it will be so detailed that it includes every chapter and scene, including lists of characters present and what happens, with a huge pile of background notes on characters, places, research, historical data and so on. The advantage is that when they come to write, they can focus on the words and not have to keep stopping to work out what happens next. The disadvantage is that a tightly plotted book can feel over-contrived and artificial.

And then there are pantsers. What’s a pantser? An author who writes by the seat of her pants, that’s what. A pantser sits down with a blank sheet of paper (metaphorically, because almost everyone writes direct to computer these days), maybe a character or two and an opening situation and… just writes. She never quite knows where the story is going until it gets there. The advantage here is that the story often has a more natural, organic feel to it. The disadvantage is that it’s all too easy to wander off-track and get diverted into possibly interesting but ultimately irrelevant side plots.

Neither way is better or worse than the other, since there’s no right or wrong way to write a book. The best way, perhaps the only way, is whatever gets the story written and that’s going to be different for every individual. But for any writer who’s having trouble finishing a book, it’s worth trying an alternative. If you’re a plotter, try pantsing. If you’re a pantser, try a bit of outlining. Whatever works.

I’m a pantser at heart. Of the five books I’ve published so far, four were entirely pantsed, starting with that blank sheet of paper, a single character and an interesting situation, and allowing the story to evolve however it wished. I like to call it discovery writing, because I discover the story as I write it.

What about the fifth book? That was The Fire Mages’ Daughter, and it was a little different. It was a sequel, so I already had a character in mind, and she was in an interesting situation. Her mother was a powerful mage, and so she was immersed in magic from the moment of conception until her birth. I wanted to explore that idea. How would it affect her, physically? How would she be different from any other child? So I had a character and a starting situation, but no plot. I had some ideas about what Drina would be like, but no idea where life would take her or what challenges she would face.

So for that book, I turned to the only plotting book I’ve ever found that works for me: Take off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker. It’s a very character-based approach, nice and simple, so it only took me an hour or two to come up with a plausible outline. I veered away from that towards the end, but it was a lifesaver because it got me off the ground.

For the current work in progress, The Second God, which is a sequel to the sequel, I didn’t need a full outline, because I already had a pretty good idea of how things would start off. And it rattled along really well, so that I’ve now got 70,000 words written. But… I’ve got to that sticky point in the middle where I have half a dozen different plot strands running through the book, and I need to start to pull them together. And that means I need to know how things end.

Now, I could just let it unfold. I’ve done that before, and let the characters lead me along whatever path they choose. And sometimes that works well — and they surprise me! But for a truly satisfying and resonant ending, especially since this is the end of a trilogy, I needed to be sure everything is tightly focused and not too rambling. And that means…

Plotting!

Being a pantser to the core, my plotting doesn’t involve wikis and spreadsheets and timeline software. I simply wrote down all the dangling plot threads I’d accumulated and points I felt were important, about twenty or so. Then I mulled it all over (while doing the ironing, as it happens; mindless chores are perfect for this). And gradually, some ideas coalesced. I think it will make the book a little longer, but that’s fine — epic fantasy is meant to be long.

And that’s probably all the plotting this book is going to get. Watch out for The Second God in September or thereabouts, and you can judge for yourself how successful it was.

 

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Author Answers #10: What are your least favourite genres to read?

March 2, 2016 AuthorsAnswer 0

Horror is the first that comes to mind. A little bit creepy or spooky is fine, but out and out horror is a non-starter for me. I have vivid mental images of books I read decades ago that seared themselves into my brain and still have the power to make me shudder. Then there are the nightmares…

Erotica is another genre I’m not fussed about. Now don’t misunderstand, I love me some heavy-duty grappling in a book, so authors can toss in as much or as little sex as they like, on condition that it fits into the story, and the plot isn’t just flimsy scaffolding to hang all that industrial-strength humping on. If the characters are constantly either doing it or thinking about doing it, that’s too much. I loved Erica Dakin’s Theft and Sorcery series, for instance, which features some seriously horny half-elves, but there’s a cracking fantasy plot behind all the bonking.

Then there are thrillers. If there’s a gun on the cover, it’s a safe bet I’m not going to enjoy it. I suppose military sci-fi comes into the same category – lots of fighting, explosions, shoot-outs. Give me characters first and foremost, and don’t overwhelm me with action that features an explosion on every other page.

Footnote: Authors Answer is the brainchild of blogger Jay Dee Archer, of I Read Encyclopedias For Fun. You can read the answers to this question by his eclectic bunch of authors here. More recently, Erica Dakin, of the Theft And Sorcery blog, has been answering the questions independently. You can read her answer to this question here.

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