Monday, 29 December 2014

Books of 2014

These are my books of 2014. I've included any book that I finished in 2014 in the running so these are not necessarily books published in 2014 (and indeed a number weren't). They are also the ones that have stayed with me one way or another.

I've not ranked them within the top 10; that would be unfair since some of these books are hard to compare to each other as they are so very different. So I have listed them in alphabetical order.

Bloodrush Ben Galley

My Goodreads review

It's a western set in an alternate universe with magic and faeries in. And it all works so wonderfully. Following the story of young Tonmerion Hark after his father (the Prime Lord of what is effectively Victorian Britain) is murdered as he is forced to travel to Wyoming where he discovers there is magick in every living creature.

I'm a fan of Galley's Emaneska series of books and the news that he was working on a fantasy western was an intriguing one. Thanks to an ingenious and consistent magick system, fantastic characters which are instantly recognisable from any western without being mere tropes and a driven but still immature hero this novel hums along at a rapid pace, leaving the reader breathless but never outpacing the need for proper exposition and descriptions.



Brood of Bones A.E. Marling

My Goodreads review

There is only one word to describe this book: Mesmerising. Hiresha is an Elder Enchantress who discovers something very wrong when she returns to her home town. All the women are pregnant and all due on the same day. But they are not carrying human children...

Hiresha must race against time as dark and unknown forces of evil move against her, but who can she trust and which is the lesser of two evils?

Anyone who is a fan of fantasy novels should read this book. Everything in it is carefully constructed and the reader really gets caught up in Hiresha's dilemmas until the twist laden climax.


Everything to Nothing Mark Henthorne

My Goodreads review

This is a stunning debut novel from Henthorne. Following the lives of three women who are connected by fate as events lead to an ultimate downward spiral for them all.

The book is quite slow at the start but once in its stride it packs a powerful emotional punch on all levels - from love and laughter to despair and ruin. It is not a book to be read lightly as the ending is far from happy - but there is always hope.


Half a King Joe Abercrombie

My Goodreads review

It's always got to be a risk for an author to leave the series of books that made their name and start a whole new world, a whole new cycle. Abercrombie has written the grim and indeed dark First Law novels. Gritty and hard, how would he manage a different setting, and a young adult audience at that?

The answer is: with ease. The hard bitten tough-as-old-boots characters are still here, the desperate and dangerous battles and the perilous fight for survival. This time told through the point of view of Yarvi, second son of the king but who was born with only half a hand. In a world where the strongest wins, what will become of Yarvi when he unexpectedly gains the throne?

Deceit and treachery follow as Yarvi is presumed killed in a coup but ends up enslaved and manning an oar, burning with the desire for revenge on what has been done to him. But is a keen mind any match for a keen blade?


Perfect Genesis Book One: The Adolescent Darla Hogan

My Goodreads review

This book was one of the big suprises of the year for me. I had no particular expectations of the book beyond that it was essentially a science fiction novel set several hundred years in the future. What happened is that the story blew me away.

It is a multi-layered story. Very simply Leonardo is dying and when having is brain scanned to try to salvage some of his knowledge he has a very long and detailed dream where he roams across strange lands and meets other people and civilisations.

The story in itself would have been enough for most authors but Hogan adds deep layers of complexity around the philosophy, psychology and meta physics of Leonardo's travels. As he is aware he is in a dream, does that excuse him from his actions? Is it really a dream or has he travelled somehow into an even further future? What impact has this had on Leonardo himself. I'm still pondering some of these today. Not one for a quick skim but definitely thought provoking and interesting.


The Pilgrims Will Elliott

 My Goodreads review

I was unaware of Elliott's previous work when I picked this book up but was impressed by the imagination of the world described and also by the handling of humans from earth travelling to 'fantasy' worlds.

The first of the Pendulum series of novels it follows Eric who discovers a door that leads to a land of magic, danger and strange creatures. But this is no Narnia and Eric and his companions are in constant danger in the strange world.

The characterisation in particular is phenomenal; everyone has their own agenda and believes they are doing what is right. Eric and his friend Case are both flawed characters in different ways and certainly are not simple heroes. The events happen around them largely out of their own control and they both struggle to just stay alive in a very hostile environment where very nearly everyone is out to capture them.


Prince of Fools Mark Lawrence

 My Goodreads review

I was torn between this, the first in the Red Queen's War series of books and the previous trilogy by Lawrence - Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns, Emperor of Thorns but on balance I think I preferred this book simple because the protagonist is so very interesting. Yes Jorg is an entertaining 'hero' but you just know he will thwart every problem with some over the top violence.

Prince Jalan is far more subtle, being basically a whining coward who just wants a quiet life of gambling, women and privilege at court. When fate binds him to Snorri, a norseman on a mission to the frozen north to find his family Jalan is forced to tag along. Dark forces are out to stop them and they are frequently under attack but Jalan proves to be remarkably resourceful whining coward. The chemistry between Snorri and the prince fizzes and keeps the story moving between fights really well, especially Jalan's self-mocking humour.


The Rise of the Iron Moon Stephen Hunt

My Goodreads review

Stephen Hunt had managed to pass me by until I saw this and decided to give it a go. I was not disappointed. This is the third of a series of novels and it was very hard work at the beginning trying to work out what was going on since it is set in an alternate universe where very nearly everything is different. But it was worth persevering. Even better start where I should have at The Court of the Air which eases the reader in a lot more gently. This was still one my favourite reads of the year.

The Kingdom of Jackals is under threat but this time it is not alone. One by one all the countries of the world are falling before a new and terrible army sweeping across the globe. What has this to do with the Iron Moon? Can the traditional heroes of Jackals save the day with brains rather than brawn as their land-given powers are locked away? This book builds to an incredible climax.


The Sanctum Series Katrina Cope

My Goodreads review of Jayden and the Mysterious Mountain
My Goodreads review of Scarlet's Escape
My Goodreads review of Taylor's Plight

I have chosen a series rather than just one book for a couple of reasons; firstly because I read them all in 2014 and second because Taylor's Plight is unquestionably the best of the books the other two need to be read first.

These books fit neatly into the gap between children's books and 'young adult' and as the series goes on it slowly moves towards the latter, with slightly darker tones and themes around morality and respecting others. As such these are terrific books for children who are on the cusp of being teenagers.

The stories follow Jayden and his friends, homeless children who are taken to The Sanctum, as sort of high-tech school by friendly grandfather figure Avando. Here they take part in normal school lessons but also learn to control robot 'surrogates' to investigate and thwart possible terrorist activity. One of the places they investigate is another school, Ernest College, and the relationship between the schools and their pupils becomes more and more important as the books progress. The best description I have for these books is that they are techno-thrillers - Tom Clancy for young adults.


The Tournament Matthew Reilly

 My Goodreads review

Australian author Reilly is best known for his fast paced adrenaline packed thrillers such as the Scarecrow and Jack West series. This book is not in the same mould but it is a terrific read.

Young Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII travels with her tutor, Roger Ascham, to a chess tournament held in Istanbul where the top players from the known world compete for glory and riches. But even before they arrive there have been a series of grisly murders. As the body count rises and the political tensions mount, can Roger Ascham save the day?

There's no escaping that this is a dark book; not only are the horrible murders described in considerable detail but there is sex and debauchery of all kinds clouding the investigation. The pace is slower that previous Reilly novels, which allows for a lot of depth to both story and character. Comparisons to the Name of the Rose are inevitable but entirely justified.

Monday, 22 December 2014

The MacGuffin in Films and Literature

The head of M16 leaned forward and placed an object on the top of her polished mahogany desk. It was small enough to carry but at the same time too large to easily conceal and from the satisfying clunk! it made when it came to rest it seemed to be quite heavy.

I looked at it and remembered some schematics I had seen a little while ago. "Is that a MacGuffin 2000?" I asked, trying to be one step ahead of my boss.

"No, Agent 13," she replied cooly, "This is a MacGuffin 3000. We need it delivered to a scientist in a surprisingly remote location and it is vitally important that it arrives undamaged. Do I make myself clear on this? We don't want a repeat of the Rotterdam incident."

"It will be safe with me," I assured her, "Am I taking a direct flight there and will I have any sort of backup or additional agents with me if this is so important?"

She smiled at me condescendingly, "You know the drill, Agent 13. You will be working alone despite the apparent dangers and importance of the mission and we will send you via an indirect route that will take you to many of the more scenic places on the planet where no doubt others will do their best to relieve you of both the MacGuffin and vital signs. Although I'm sure you will find plenty of opportunity to gamble in various casinos and meet beautiful women. You leave in half an hour."

"One question," I said, "What does the MacGuffin do?"

"That," she replied, "Is of no importance to you."

For anyone unaware, a MacGuffin (the term is supposed to have been coined by Alfred Hitchcock) is an object, person or idea that drives the plot forward while being itself largely unimportant. Here a MacGuffin is clearly going to be used to provide Agent 13 with an excuse to get into a series of close shaves and exciting encounters of every sort but it's just something for him to carry from A to B, it's not really going to help him in any way.

MacGuffins are very often used in films; one of my favourites is the briefcase in Ronin. So many of my friends watch the film and are disappointed that they don't get to see what's in the case at the end of the film. They are somewhat missing the point that the film isn't about the case at all, it's just an excuse for a series of car chases, shoot outs and double crossing. The same goes for Death Star plans hidden in an astromech droid or Private Ryan needing to be saved.

In literature they still exist although since books can take a little more time to develop ideas they are not always needed, or can be more subtle. There are some pretty familiar MacGuffins though. The One Ring in The Lord Of The Rings being a prime example. In the Hobbit this is simply a ring that makes people invisible but in the sequel it suddenly becomes the reason for the whole trip to Mordor. In Little Red Riding Hood granny's lunch is what gets Little Red into a dangerous close encounter with the Big Bad Wolf.

MacGuffins are useful to authors and readers; they require just enough justification for why the main protagonist should be interested in them but don't need a full explanation or even much logic behind them. But once they are established they can be usefully employed to give the plot a little push or twist.

But always look out for the Ronin problem; there the briefcase is so central to the whole film right up until the last few minutes that it's natural to wonder what is so great about it. So use a MacGuffin by all means but make sure it does not need a full explanation for the reader to be satisfied.


Monday, 15 December 2014


I've blogged before about how Twitter is a valuable (and free!) marketing tool for independent authors.

I though this time I would share some thoughts on how I use Twitter and maybe this will provide a few pointers to anyone looking to use this particular social medium.


 There seems to be a great perception amongst some Twitter users that it is all about followers. Now I won't deny that the statistic of the number of people interested in what you are posting feels better for the ego the higher it gets. But I don't chase followers as the be-all and end all of Twitter.

Much like blogging, I am not on Twitter because I think I'm special or because everyone should pay attention to what I say. If someone wants to read my stuff or follow me that is their choice. I would rather have one follower who interacted with me and was interested than a hundred (or even a thousand) that simply followed because they felt they should.

The reverse is also true; I don't automatically follow back. Why would I do that? If you are an author, or otherwise of service to authors, then you stand a very good chance indeed of me following. But that is because it is what I am interested in. If you are in some way interesting or have something to say then I might follow you as well. But don't follow me expecting me to follow you back because you may be disappointed. I have a number of new followers each week whom I don't follow back and then they unfollow me. Clearly they are playing the 'get as many Twitter followers as possible' game.

Now I won't deny that some people are dedicated to following back purely to get a range of interesting feeds and that is fine. It's just not my thing.

I also routinely ignore any tweets saying 'retweet this and follow the retweeters'. Again that's not what I am after and shades on the verge of some sort of Twitter pyramid scheme. I'd rather retweet something of interest whether that gains me followers or not.

Buying followers? Again why would I do that? Are they all interested in what you have to say? Probably not. They probably don't really exist and are just a way of making money for the user offering the service. So what is the point? A retweeting service seems like a much better option, that way if someone sees a retweet they may decide to follow you - and that's one more quality follower.

So follow me if you want. I may follow back, but equally I may not. Them's the breaks on Twitter.

Retweeting and Favourites

You follow someone presumably because you like at least some of their tweets. If you do then why not retweet them? The majority of my tweets are retweets, but then my timeline is full of tweets recommending books, author information or resources and I have a lot of authors following me. So I tweet these out. It gets the message out and every one is appreciated, Twitter is fantastic at free marketing, but only if people retweet. But I don't retweet everything. I do read each and every tweet I retweet to make sure it's something relevant, of interest to others and something I agree with (and also to avoid too much duplication).

It is a bit of a lottery what I can retweet; I don't really do it much when I am away from work so most of it occurs during office ours (UK timezone) so if someone normally tweets outside these times I will probably miss them (for which I can only apologise). I also have several hundred tweets hit my timeline every hour and can't do them all. But every little helps.

Favourites are interesting because realistically nobody is going to check the tweets you favourite so the only purpose is to tell the originator of the tweet that you like it. That's fine and recommended as a quick way to show appreciation. But a retweet is a lot better. It is very rare I favourite without also retweeting.

Replying to Tweets

This is where Twitter becomes fun. Don't be afraid to reply to tweets. I do like to see what people thing of mine - good or bad. The most random conversations can be had - I remember discussing the vagaries of Sky+ with an author during my Twitter early days. Unexpected but it's always good to connect to people on social media. Just remember that everyone can see what you have written.

Direct Messages

Direct Messages are rarer but do happen; I do like messages if they are relevant and interesting (and I have had a lot of good conversations). I generally ignore ones that say "Thanks for following! If you like me on Twitter you should see how crazy I am on Facebook. Come and like my FB page". I don't use Facebook that way (in fact barely at all) so these are generally ignored. Apologies if this seems rude, but I have to draw the line somewhere and I try to keep to Twitter.


Sometimes it feels as if there's a lot of pressure to come up with a witty, original, thought provoking and insightful comment all within 140 characters (with hash tags). But Twitter is for micro blogging not philosophy so I'll tweet stuff that might be of interest to others. Sometimes it will be something I have observed, or a conversation at work or a thought arising from work itself (I work in software support in a technical role). Sometimes I'll think of something (I think is) funny and will tweet that. I will also tweet what I am reading and of course blog entries. It never seems that I am doing enough compared to my retweets but some days are better than others. Don't worry if you have nothing to say one day. The next day you might be tweeting all morning.

Hash Tags

I don't think I use hash tags the way they are intended. I do use a couple 'correctly' - generally #FF for follow Friday and #amreading if my tweet concerns me reading a book.

The rest of the time they are pretty random. Certainly I'm not trying to get any of them trending they are more a quick shorthand to re-express the theme of the tweet itself. Sometimes they are pretty ironic or just (supposed to be) funny.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Literary Snobs (with particular reference to A Good Read)

Books are books. Not all books are equal and different people like different books.

That doesn't seem like a very controversial statement but there is a fair amount of snobbery around books; there are 'literary classics' that some people feel everyone should read. And then there are books that those same people immediately dismiss.

In terms of literary classics, I like Shakespeare and I even find his comedies funny. I like Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allen Poe and Joseph Conrad to name a few. I don't like Charles Dickens at all. I've read the Brontë sisters but not enjoyed it but I'm fairly ambivalent about them to be honest. Each to their own.

This goes back to me not liking to label books with genres. One of the ways genres are used is for those who consider themselves to have excellent literary tastes (i.e. better than yours) is to classify those books they immediately dismiss.

The impetus behind this blog entry is A Good Read, a Radio 4 programme I am lucky enough to listen to now and again on the way home from work in the car. For those unfamiliar with the format, a presenter (Harriett Gilbert) has two guests and each brings a book that the others read and discuss (so three books. I really don't know where Gilbert gets the time to do all that reading she has to bring a new book every week).

It is always interesting to hear what someone thinks of a book, especially if it is a book they have selected. Sometimes it's a book they love, sometimes it's one they like for some specific reason but accept that it's not the best book they have ever read. Occasionally (and most interestingly) it's a book they are not sure if they like or not and the discussion then is usually very interesting.

Most of the time the books are standard 'literature' books with maybe the odd biography now and again and Gilbert cheerfully praises or critiques each book having read it.

But... now and again a guest will bring in a book that Gilbert immediately feels she has to apologise for. And the reason she has to do this involves two words: Science and Fiction.

The first of these that I heard was when a guest brought in Kurt Vonnegut's <i>Slaughterhouse 5</i>, an acknowledged science fiction classic and given Vonnegut's style and subject matter this would fit in well with the show's ethos. However Gilbert's first words were "I don't really like science fiction but..." and then went on to say how much she actually enjoyed the book.

I wonder what science fiction she has read before that she immediately dismisses anything that is vaguely science fiction as being something that she wouldn't like? Not all science fiction (in fact very little of it in my experience) involves lasers and spaceships. Most science fiction involves taking an idea from our time and exploring it in another context where it can be exaggerated and looked at from every angle. Science fiction in particular is a very very wide area of writing covering many styles of writing, themes and ideas. Dismissing it on a literary programme as 'I don't read that' (with perhaps an implied word of 'rubbish' at the end) really does seem like the highest form of snobbery.

Of course she enjoyed <i>Slaughterhouse 5</i> it is an excellent and thought provoking book, well written by an outstanding writer. The fact that it is set in the future and can be labelled 'science fiction' is entirely irrelevant to its literary merit.

One occurrence of this I could perhaps overlook. But last week the reverse happened. A guest brought on Margaret Attwood's <i>A Handmaid's Tale</i> (which I have never read). This concerns a dystopian future where fertile women are used as breeding stock and explores the themes around that. As a label, science fiction fits it perfectly. There are no robots or aliens (as far as I know) but the concept of taking a theme (fertility being a commodity in a world where it is scarce) and exploring it makes it science fiction.

However Gilbert once again felt she had to excuse the book by saying "it's not really science fiction". Why was this? Does she think that the programme's audience will switch off if they dare to include a book that explores a relevant idea in a different context? Does the fact that she enjoyed the book but "doesn't like science fiction" mean that she is rationalising to herself that it's okay to like this, it's not what it seems?

This apparent snobbery has left me very confused. But still a great fan of the programme.

Thursday, 13 November 2014


I love libraries. Anyone who even vaguely has an interest in reading must surely share that feeling. They are places not only of escapism but of education and learning and also peace and quiet, a break from the noise and clamour of modern life.

And yet despite this libraries are almost constantly under threat; clearly it takes a great deal of money to run libraries and in these times savings must be found. But closing libraries should be out of the question. I would rather drive on an unmaintained road than miss my weekly trip to the library.

I got my sons into the library habit as soon as they could read (or even a little before) introducing them to a world of books which has stayed with them to this day. They get to explore new types of books and find new things to delight them - and if they don't like a book then can just take it back no problem.

Once of the main delights for me of the library is finding new authors and books, I have found so many authors by seeing a book at the library and deciding to give it a go - Joe Abercrombie, Matthew Reilly, Alan Campbell, Stephen Hunt - the list goes on. There have been books that I have fought my way through with grim determination and less enjoyment and books I have given up on completely (these are very rare). But each is valuable and all are worth it.

In these days of computers and electronic books it seems that the library is considered somewhere 'old fashioned'. But although you can pretty much get any book you want delivered electronically there is no pleasure in the act of browsing, no picking a book that you hadn't previously been aware of, no 'judging a book by its cover'.

I love my library (I even smile when I pay my fines - they are after all my fault and are a small price to have all that weight of words available). The world would be a much poorer place without them.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Independent Authors

Since the invention of movable type until very recently, if an author wrote a book and wanted it published there were only two routes; either finance the printing and distribution of the book themselves or persuade someone else to invest their money in it in the hope of getting a decent return.

The first requires money - and that's just for the actual printing not to mention distribution. As not every would-be author is blessed with enough cash monies to cover this kind of outlay this necessarily means that the second option must be relied on. But again here is a problem because publishers can only publish so many books a year, which means that they must necessarily be selective. That selection is going to be based on the tastes and judgement of (usually) one person. Your book may be amazing but if that one person doesn't 'get' it, nobody will get to read it (the same thing happens in the music industry, which is why nearly all music on the radio is stuff Simon Cowell likes). There is also the problem of volume of submissions - not all manuscripts can be read.

Up until a very few years ago this had been the situation for generations. Either pay for a limited print run of your book or rely on someone else to actually give it a chance and like it and put it into general circulation.

Then came the eReader. The cost of producing a printed book from written copy is large. The cost of producting an eBook from written copy is essentually zero. So now the field is open for independent authors to get their work out there and be read. Maybe not by a mass audience but by an audience all the same.

Once the book is released it is then a question of promotion. This is going to be easiest by social media - Twitter, Facebook, whatever works - and get people to review the book wherever it is available, on reading sites such as Goodreads etc. Word of mouth can be powerful and a good word on social media and peer reviews are more highly regarded than professional criticism when it comes to something as personal and time consuming as reading a book.

And distribution is electronic, direct to the eReader or via eBook distribution sites (either independent like Libiro ( or commercial like Amazon) so there are no significant costs there either.

Which brings us to pricing. One of the great things about independent writers is that they don't have a whole paper book publishing and distribution arm and a lot of employees to finance. So the books can be inexpensive - a pound or two each - which also encourages sales. A great marketing tactic is also (if an author has more than one book to sell) to give one book away free to encourage a readership.

My eReading is almost exclusively 'indie' authors. I like reading these works that almost inevitably would never have been available previously. They may not always have the polish of a professionally (read: expensively) edited book but as with all works it is the core idea that is the point. Sometimes these are just slightly outside of expectation - and that is the real delight, finding a book that would not have been accepted for a large print run by a publisher but are nevertheless little gems of ideas well expressed.

Of course traditional publishing still has a large (major in fact) role in keeping the nation reading. But here's a shout out to those independent authors. Go and grab an eBook and enjoy something a little bit different today.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Newspaper musings

It must be tough for the print media. Since the World Wide Web took hold more and more people are consuming their news online and this has only accelerated as mobile technologies - pads, smart phones and unlimited mobile internet allowances - have become the norm. It surely can't be too many years before actual physical newspapers are regarded in the same way as town criers and merely produced for the novelty and 'olde worlde' charm.

I've been a regular reader of a few newspapers in my life. I started on the Independent when that was first launched. I found their balanced take on the politics of the news refreshing and showed that personal and party politics do not need to intersect.

When I started work I read Today (this was a while after its launch as the first colour daily newspaper). I can't think of any specific reason looking back but I think that it was always the underdog must have been an attraction.

As my time became more precious my newspaper reading was restricted to a Sunday; I would go to the shop on a Sunday morning and get the Times and the Telegraph. Weighed down considerably by their bulk I would proceed to wade through each and every of the many sections until my lounge resembled some sort of newspaper-as-snow Christmas scene.

I've not regularly read a newspaper for some years now; party because I simply don't have the time and also because I can get the news on my computer or phone whenever I want.
 I don't have the sort of commute or the sort of job where I have the luxury of a few minutes reading the news.

But it has to be said the newspaper content itself has to be significantly to blame. The lower end of the market is celebrity obsessed and the upper end is obsessed with politics and politicians. I have very little interest in either and absolutely no interest at all in someone's private life (which most of the stories boil down to one way or another). Of the so-called 'midsheets' the Daily Express is obsessed with the royal family. And then we have the Daily Mail.

The Daily Mail seems to have collapsed into a sort of middle England singularity. Rather than informing its readership of the news and providing them some background and perhaps informed comment on it it instead works somewhat in reverse. Which of the current news items is likely to get its readership angry and frothing at the mouth and worked up enough to shell out their money to read about it? That's the story that will go on the front page. Not the most important story but the most provoking story.

And if there is no big story for the middle class to tut about over their muesli, they are not above creating what seems to be a huge story but is almost entirely a construct of the journalist's imagination, with a small core fact (often unchecked for validity) or rumour carefully spun out into something that looks like some great affront to the British way of life (whatever that is) but is in fact nothing of the sort.

So we have stories about EU laws insisting on straight bananas and cucumbers (they don't), repeated pieces on various councils banning Christmas as being offensive to other religions (they never have) and so on. I had the misfortune of reading one their recent lead stories. The paper claimed that some event had happened - spashed over the front page in a 2 inch high headline designed to raise the blood pressure of its readership - but strangely the story itself didn't actually discuss the alleged event.

Instead we had various spokespersons quoted for their reaction if something like this happened, not their reaction to the actual event. There are not eyewitness or official statements of any kind. The family involved were not available for comment - very wise - but 'one of their neighbours was quoted, presumably following the journalist describing the Mail's version of events and saying "what do you think of that?"

Creating news that your existing readership wants to read is obviously a reasonable survival tactic, but it doesn't attract any new readers and no doubt puts a lot off. It is also terribly lazy journalism. Rather than finding the facts and doing some digging this is simply spin, and of the sort the Daily Mail hates amongst politicians.

Thursday, 16 October 2014


I'm guessing I came to Twitter comparatively late. I used to use Facebook, mostly for keeping in touch with people I used to work with and that is still Facebook's forte for me. But in terms of constantly posting status updates Facebook seems a little self-indulgent; you are still posting what you want people to think is happening rather than what is really happening.

Then a friend suggested Twitter. Naturally I'd heard about it but didn't really 'get' it. Why 140 characters? I can post an essay on Facebook if I like. What's with all the hashtags (an innovation Facebook has since embraced).

Then I started on it, followed a few of my favourite authors (and the very very few friends on it that I could find) and didn't look back. The 140 character limit is liberating rather than restrictive. It encourages a quick, fast, instant post so what is posted is more what is really going on and can't really be dressed up too much.

I quickly realised the main trick is not to look at the number of followers you have or to stress about it. Obviously every extra follower is a good feeling - after all these are very nearly all strangers - although there are fair number of people on who only follow in order to get a follow back (a game I don't play - I'll follow you back if you look interesting)  But if the number goes down - well it doesn't matter at all. I don't post on Twitter because I need someone to read it. I post on Twitter because it's got to be said somewhere. I blog for very much the same reason (and after all Twitter is supposed to be about micro blogging).

The other mistake I made at first was to try to read every post that appeared in my feed. But after a very short time the number of updates makes this impossible, and it's not really necessary. It becomes a sort of stream-of-consciousness thing, ticking away with the occasional tweet grabbing your attention and deserving of a favourite, a retweet or - if you a feeling brave - a reply. Replying to a post by someone 'famous' you admire is just as daunting as asking for an autograph (for me at least). One of my early fond memories of Twitter is a conversation I had with the science fiction author and scientist (and someone with a fine taste in music) Alastair Reynolds (@aquilarift) about the vaguaries of Sky+ reliability,

The other astonishing thing was that I very quickly had a number of independent authors following me (and that spurred me into my blogging and book reviewing too). This brings us to another really strong point of Twitter: marketing.

I don't mean that in the sense of a huge company attempting to make some sort of promotion for their products go viral (which works so rarely you wonder why they bother) but rather the power if gives independent authors and small publishing houses to get their message out to a number of people. They can promote their books at pretty much zero cost. And once retweets and reviews are posted by others... well it can snowball into an effective campaign without any outlay at all. So next time a tweet comes from a small independent trying to get someone to look at what they have, give serious consideration to a retweet it could make a real difference to them.

So enjoy your tweeting and don't worry about how many people are following you. Although if you want to put my count up it's @PhilLeader. See you there

Monday, 13 October 2014

Reading multiple books at once

At the time of writing this, I am actively reading four books.

It is not unusual for me to read more than one book at a time; in fact it's pretty much how I work. I tend to have a physical book and an ebook in progress at all times. This is convenient simply because the ereader is handier when I am out and about and the paper book I find easier to read when relaxing. The real downside is that it just takes longer to read each book.

I've done this since at least University (where I would be reading text books simultaneously with fiction) and my record is seven simultaneous books. I finished six of the books, the other was a re-read of Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin which I didn't get to the end of (and the copy has long since wandered off to wherever unattended books go). I suppose technically I am still reading it but you have to draw the line somewhere and after nearly 25 years I think it's safe to say I'd need to start it again.

My wife doesn't understand how I can do this, she wonders how I don't get confused between the books. I suppose part of this is that the books are (usually) very different, or have a particularly identifiable style. And I have to admit I've not tried reading books which are close in story or style, or the same author. It might be an interesting idea one day to try it and see if I do get the books confused.

My reading list has doubled from it usual size at the moment simply because books come along that I have been looking forward to reading; when I get a new book I evaluate what I am currently reading and sometimes the new book ends up on top. The existing book is left - bookmark in place- until the new book is finished. Or as happened now, yet another book I have been even more impatient to read has come along so now the stack has grown larger. There are times when I have to avoid getting any new books because I know I will want to read them and I already have enough to read.

So now my worry is how to find enough time to finish my current books before the next 'must haves' come along to be read, digested and reviewed. There simply isn't enough time in the day...

Friday, 3 October 2014

Book Cover Blurb

I'm talking here about the little potted review of the book that is usually on the back cover for paperbacks and inside the front cover on hardbacks.

Clearly this is one of the most important marketing tools for the publisher; a description of the book to draw the casual browser in and decide to spend their hard earned cash monies on the product.


I feel these tend to give far too much of the story away. So much so that I don't read any of the blurb for books and authors I know I will like. I much prefer to read the story and experience the reveals, the characters and the twists as the author wrote them. So many times a vital plot point that essentially ruins at least one of the story threads (in terms of suspense and drama) it given away by the potted review. The worst examples I have seen give a basic plot outline up to as much as three quarters of the way through the book, or reveals that a key character dies about half way through.

So why is this the case? Is it possible to write something that is interesting enough to attract the casual browser and give them enough information to tell if they are likely to enjoy the book? When I write reviews I try my hardest not to fall into this trap; I try not to give any plot details away that I can help (or that aren't going to be obvious withing the first chapter or so anyway).

One example of this was when reviewing <i>Prince of Fools</i> by Mark Lawrence. The core of the book is a 'buddy buddy' story of two protagonists - the feckless Prince Jalan and the powerful and driven warrior Snorri Snagason. The thing is I found this pairing a real surprise - especially given Snorri's first appearance is essentially as an extra, then Jalan uses him in the fighting pits in a bid to clear his gambling debts. The way they are eventually forced to work together was a real joy to read as it unfolded on the page and I would have hated that to have been ruined by knowing ahead of time who Jalan's companion was. So my review simply does not mention Snorri by name, keeping the surprise for other readers to discover for themselves (of course it's ruined now if they've read this!)

And indeed the write of the 'blurb' for <i>Prince Of Fools</i> seems to agree on this, and it's a fine example of how it should be done... no specifics beyond those that are immediately obvious. Snorri is referred to as a 'fierce Norseman' and not named and although they are described as being magically entangled it's really not clear what that means.

Now compare to the text for <i>The Bootlegger</i> by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott. Here the villains are explicitly described as "Bolshevik assassins and saboteurs", a fact that takes some time to play out fully in the book and is probably not fully realised until a good half way through the book as his motives are kept deliberately obscure.

But this needs to be  tempered by the need to sell the book, to give enough details that someone might decide to pick <i>that</i> book instead of moving onto the next. It's got to be tricky to get this right but I'm sure a balance could be found.

So, writers of 'blurb' whoever you are, think about what you are giving away from the story and try to be specifically general in describing the content.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Negative Reviews (and why I wrote one)

Looking through the reviews on sites such as Amazon or IMDB it is clear that most fall into either clear likes or clear dislikes. This is pretty much as expected as unless someone is a committed revier they are really only going to post their views if they are at one end of the spectrum or the other.

Everybody likes positive reviews and these are all usually fairly similar. Negative reviews can be something of a problem area for the reader though. And the problem is usually with either what the reviewer didn't like or the way they have expressed that.

There are several categories of negative review and I feel some are significantly more valid than another. Some examples are:

Service problems translate into poor product reviews
This is especially true on a site like Amazon where someone will post a 1 star 'review' that simply moans that Amazon delivered the goods late, damaged or in some other way gave poor service. Unfortunately the review rating goes against the author (for books) or manufacturer (for products) and doesn't actually impact Amazon one jot. For small authors/manufacturers who rely on word of mouth and good reviews to sell, this can be extremely damaging. Sure, mention that the service was poor but don't let that affect the rating if it is outside the control of the producer of the product.

I tried it once and didn't like it
You buy (for example) a book, just on impulse, not due to any other recommendations or previous knowledge. It wasn't what you were expecting. This shouldn't really be a negative review of the book.. The review should still be fair and should explain what was wrong. I see far too many reviews that are essentially one-liners such as "It wasn't what I was expecting" and then one star. That's not helpful to another person reading that to tell what was wrong.

If I was in charge of giving names to things (which fortunately for everyone else I'm not) I would call this the "Come Dine With Me Syndrome". On Come Dine With Me (if you've been living in the wilds for years and are not aware of it) complete strangers are put together to throw dinner parties for each other. What happens every week is that there will be a prawn cocktail starter and one of the guests will say they don't like fish and so give the host a lower mark. Why? It's not the host that has been at fault, they should be marked on everything else and the fact that they served something that wasn't to an individual's taste should be ignored.

It was recommended/heavily marketed but I didn't like it
This is excellent territory for a negative review. If you pick up a book (again) but this time it comes highly recommended or with a very enticing marketing campaign and you didn't like it, you are entitled to say that. However it's not good enough to say "it was rubbish" it needs some context. What didn't you like? What did you like? This isn't the same as a constructive criticism but it does give the reader of the review an idea of if they might like it.

Using my superb naming skills, this would be called the "Barry Norman Effect". I used to watch the Film porgrammes with Barry Norman. He would review the major films out at the time. Some he would like, others he wouldn't. But he always said why he didn't like it. And I didn't always agree with Mr Norman's choice of likes and dislikes. But because he was clear what he found good and bad I was able to judge if I would like it.

Yes I wrote a negative review
What brought this blog entry about was that, after nearly a year of writing reviews of every book I had read, I finally got to one I didn't like. I have to admit I was getting a little worried that I liked everything because I knew I was going to review it and post that review in the public domain and didn't want to offend the author... but I finally had a book I couldn't finish and really was probably one of the worst books I have ever had the misfortune to try to read. Yes I really did find it that bad and struggled to find anything I liked about it. You may disagree with me, but then that means that you may be able to judge the next book I write a review for a little better.

The book? A Game Of Thrones. The review can be found here

Monday, 22 September 2014

Genres (and why I don't like them)

The question I dread most (other than "You work in IT can you look at my computer?") is "What sort of books do you like?".

I have two problems with this. Firstly what is going to be gained by my answer? A generalised response simply can't express the breadth of literature available. A better question might be "what are you reading now" which would at least provide specific information. My second problem is the idea of pigeonholing books (or indeed anything) by giving them a genre or a label.

I can see the basic idea - classify the fiction by type, much as the reference books can be classified by subject - but fiction doesn't work like that. Authors (the best ones anyway) are always pushing what they do, exploring what other elements they can incorporate into their work to stimulate the reader (and often to defy their expectations).

This leaves the classification as a 'best guess'. Even in the libraries in our town some of them file the same books in different sections. What makes a book a 'thriller' or a 'crime' or 'adventure' book? The same book can be (and sometimes is) filed under all three.

To answer the question about what I like to read I often fall back on 'Science Fiction and Fantasy, mostly' (which is actually two). But this ignores that I like some of very nearly every 'genre'. This isn't because I am in any way 'collecting' genres. I'm not filling in the 'I-Spy Book Of Genres' and get to tick one off each time I read one (whatever happened to I-Spy books?). I just like reading good books (or at least books I find good). I don't honestly care what kind they are.

My favourite shelves in the libarary? "New Books", "Just Returned" and "Recommended Reads" because there the books are piled next to each other and not separated, a real opportunity to read something new and interesting.

Clearly we are never going to get rid of genres - it is too hard-wired into the human brain to want to say "this is like that" but it pays to ignore the labels and move outside of the comfort zones. You never know what you will find.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Review: Taylor's Plight by Katrina Cope

Taylor's Plight is the third book in The Sanctum series of pre-teen adventure novels by Katrina Cope. Once again Jayden, Eva, Robert and Aaron are attempting to stop terrorism by using 'surrogates' - robots they can control remotely that appear to be human.

This installment starts with a bang (quite literally) and just keeps going. The previous two books took a little while to lay the groundwork for both characters and plot but there is no need to do that here, especially as the story continues essentially from the end of the second book, Scarlet's Escape.

Once again someone is moving against the Sanctum, trying to stop their fight against terrorism, attacking their infrastructure in an attempt to bring down Scarlet, the computer intelligence that controls much of the Santum's functions.

Liam and the other pupils at Ernest College are also involved, and seemingly on a course to uncover the Sanctum's meddling at their school. But are they working towards the same cause, or against? As the two groups of students converge on the truth, the stakes have never been higher and the danger never more real.

This really is a fantastic read. From start to finish it grips the reader, drawing them along. The threads of Ernest and the Sanctum play off of each other, each giving a slightly different view of what is really going on. Most of the second half of the book is a breathless rush towards the final climax as the children on both sides uncover the truth. The phrase 'I couldn't put it down' is overused but is totally justified in this case.

Not everything in their world is safe and cosy and this is one of the great things about Cope's books. She is not afraid to put her characters through the mill, but they are always shown to be able to overcome adversity through quick wits and to come out stronger the other side. As usual the strong role models are well in evidence.

This is a book I would unhesitatingly recommend to any reader from about 9 upwards, although reading the first two books will be necessary to introduce the characters involved and the world of the Sanctum.

Monday, 15 September 2014

A change is as good as a rest

I used to blog (very occasionally) on as Books In Progress but posts got very few and far between... partyl because of me being 'too busy' (in other words I failed to manage my time) but also a couple of other factors.

The blog was really for me to review what I was reading... but now I use Goodreads for that and although I have ideas for blog posts about reading, books and reviews that would have been good material I felt a little hemmed in by the need to blog about books... there are usually other things on my mind.

So a change of blog platform to Blogger and a change of direction too.... and of course a kick up the backside to make me write a post every lunchtime (if I can)