OOPS!. Good English apples 8 days a week. — DIEPPE SHOPPER
Robots writing books
SOMETIMES while browsing in a bookshop, library or online, I get the feeling that many of the bestsellers were written by robots. Whether a thriller, romance, sci-fi or crime they seem to be programmed, even cloned. Now comes the fascinating likelihood that bestsellers really will be composed by machine in the near future.
The process is already started. Last month a thinking computer successfully aped a 13-year-old boy. It was called the Turing Test. So it’s all stops go towards the first non-human creation of a novel. Let my brainy laptop escort you to read about it!
Big spend, big sales, but oh the gap!
POOR Amazon. Every publisher knows the problem, and self-published authors in particular. Amazon's quarterly revenue jumped a fabulous 23% to total $19.34 billion. But expenses to earn this left the bookselling giant with a catastrophic loss of $126 million. Shares dived.
The heavy outlay was largely to introduce a new smartphone, Amazon Fire. The company will recoup and balance the books, I'm sure, with their incredible marketing flair. They are world wonders when it comes to the Big Sell.
Price of fame
NOW 88 and confined to a wheelchair, author Harper Lee has found the price of fame a lifelong burden. A poignant essay on the 50th anniversary of her global bestseller, To Kill A Mockingbird, reveals sad personal consequences. The book continues to sell a million copies every year, but its success probably killed the muse within that every writer relies upon.
The novel deals with justice, civil rights, and smalltown situations that are universal. For Harper Lee its mammoth success left nowhere to go but down. Ironically, it also brought her some of the smalltown injustice her book castigated. I found the article here.
A Man Booker sure thing
HERE is what I like best about the Man Booker. It’s a sure thing I’ll enjoy at least one of the novels on the longlist. That’s why I study it with greater hope than prevails for the shortlist of half a dozen. And as for the eventual winner, it is invariably (to me) one of the most undeserving.
This shows why the Man Booker has retained its popularity – reading tastes differ. In the longlist, just announced, I am fairly confident of finding something to delight. If I’m lucky, a new author too. Maybe a previously unknown American, because this year for the first time US titles are allowed to compete. It gives Britain’s premier prize for literature a global character where once only UK and Commonwealth writers were eligible.
See if there is a special attraction for you in this year's 13 contenders.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 1 August 2014.
First English book
IT was a translation from the French, and because I habitually reject translations I shall not be reading this History of Troy. Other people, however, and not necessarily people wanting to read it, value the 1460s work highly. An auction in London fetched $1.8 million for its owner, the Duke of Northumberland.
The original French version was translated by William Caxton who needed an ink-and-paper title he could sell from his newly invented printing press. I wonder what the first digital novel might fetch 500 years from now? Would anyone still be able to access it? My verdict, translation or not: There is a lot to be said for the longevity of traditional print jobs.
Anyway, the BBC has a full report on the Duke’s treasure.
Bulls author rues publicity
IT is said there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but author Bill Hillman, 32, must be pondering the truth of that. He received loads of publicity last week when badly gored in Spain’s annual Pamplona event, the running of the bulls. This attracts brave nitwits who sprint ahead of stampeding bulls along a narrow street, dodging into hopefully handy doorways if the bulls run faster. Another American author, Ernest Hemingway, famously described the festival in his novel The Sun Also Rises.
Languishing in a Spanish hospital, compatriot Hillman had time to reflect on how tripping in front of the monsters, and subsequent news reports, might affect his own book. Its title is How To Survive The Running Of The Bulls.
Incidentally, I recommend a brilliant bullfighting whodunit: Blood On The Wind, by Ann Morven. Sample it in digital format, at Smashwords, Kindle or Barnes & Noble, or in paperback in her short story collection titled Crime Please! (from the macabre to the magical).
God the killer!
"HELP! God is coming to kill me because I don't believe he exists."
Readers who find even a glimmer of logic in the above might appreciate Prayer, the latest and implausible thriller by Philip Kerr. For me, the novel died halfway through, killed not by God but by the author's weird plot.
Has Philip Kerr (58), one of my favourites, joined the Bible fanatics of Texas? Holy shit! (as his protagonist exclaims too often) I found this a big disappointment. As for the narrative style, I abhor overuse of the F-word, and I don't mean our Father who art in Heaven.
Kerr soared to fame with his Bernie Gunther novels about a Nazi-hating German detective who is forcibly seconded to the SS during WW2. Methinks Kerr’s switch to thrillers located in the United States is a ploy by his marketeers to recreate him as a brandname in the world’s top book market.
I have yet to come across a US-based Kerr novel that matches his Nazi series. Mind you, being a fellow Scot (Kerr was born in Edinburgh) I’d gladly risk my money, given the chance, on anything by Kerr featuring Scotland. With the referendum on full independence coming up September 18 there is vast scope for a thriller in the suspect scheming now taking place. Allowing 16-year-olds to vote on Scotland’s future? Ye gods and little fishes, is this vote at risk of perverted politicians or what!
Scottish books at risk
STILL on this referendum, authors and publishers face an uncertain fate. According to Scotland’s leading indigenous publisher, Berlinn, the result could be fatal to the Scottish book trade. Read about it.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 18 July 2014.
Bookselling gloom in the best of times
SAD to report, when fewer people are reading books there seems to be scant concern in US commerce to fund a bit of enthusiasm. World Book Night in the United States had to be cancelled because there simply was not enough money to proceed. This follows the distressing World Book Night in Britain this year when the giveaway quantity of books was reduced from half a million to 250,000.
The US organiser Karl Lennertz said his group had hoped to raise money through grant requests. “But there are a lot of other worthy causes out there and only so much money available," he added.
Brainchild of Jamie Byng, managing director of Canongate, the first World Book Night was held in Britain and Ireland in 2011. The event spread the next year to the US and in 2012 to Germany, but Germany dropped out last year for lack of funding.
“For three years, the publishing industry and book community have very generously footed the bill and contributed enormous time and effort,” said Mr Lennertz in the US. “My gratitude for all of that is immeasurable. For us here at World Book Night, this experience has been life-changing, as it has been for the givers and recipients of the books."
The future of books remains to be seen. Physical bookshops and publishers have been in decline for a decade. Ebooks have soared in popularity, yet not necessarily quality, as would-be authors launch their own creations direct to the Internet.
There are, as always, many great books available – both digital and paper. The big problem for readers is finding them. My advice is: Browse and sample. Online links make this easy. Despite the World Book Night gloom, readers have never had it so good!
Historical crime wins
I LIKE crime novels and historical fiction, but I hate translations. So when historical crime fiction wins an award I confess to mixed feelings. Winner of the Crime Writers Association International Prize 2014 is Arturo Perez-Reverte, a Spanish author. His 670-page novel is called The Siege
The plot concerns hunt for a murderer during the Siege of Cadiz in the Napoleonic wars. It has mixed reviews on Amazon but, for the English version, mostly four-star. It definitely deserves inspection. My personal bias against translations is that they’re only as good as the person rewriting the original.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 11 July 2014.
Watch out! Dark tales ahead
STAND BY for a flood of dark, disturbing books for children. They will follow the recent winner of Britain’s top juvenile award. I don’t need a crystal ball to make this forecast. The clones appear like magic when a major prize, like the Carnegie, is published to big sales.
What disturbs me, however, is not the miserable novel (The Bunker Diary, by Kevin Brooks) but the bestseller status it gains largely through condemnation.
Have I read it? No. Comments by people who have done so (lots on Amazon) show it to be either liked or hated. Fair enough. Readers rightly enjoy the option of choosing whatever appeals to them.
My censure goes to the school authorities who have forced children to read such controversial text as part of their curriculum. Alas, real-life nastiness comes to children soon enough.
In children’s literature, my preference as an adult is the same as it was in primary school. Before that came my ‘listening to a story’ phase, which probably led to my love of reading. On that theme, parents seeking wholesome literature with a good story to read aloud to their littlies will find top stuff in Mousedeer. These exciting jungle tales were collected by the author many years ago in Southeast Asia. Their appeal and their social value remain valid today.
Big bucks in boozy pub verse
THESE lines got writ by Cathy Macleod/just for laughs in a London pub crowd./She praised the beer/which raised a cheer/but fame for her verse weren’t allowed.
If Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) had scribbled the above in a boozy haze, the pundits of poetry would cry genius. Innit funny how the world values things? Dylan’s pub scrawl, newly discovered, is worth a few thousand dollars. Here’s a sample: Mr Watts-Ewers / (Licensed to sell / Beer, wine and spirits / And tobacco as well. . .
Not exactly a lyrical masterpiece, but it’s going into Dylan’s collected poems to be published by Orion in October. The scrawled ditty was penned in a London pub frequented by the Welsh bard but has only this week come to light. The consequent excitement and value, no doubt, will give Dylan lotsa laffs as he quaffs ambrosia with the gods.
Another jotting by Dylan was auctioned for several thousand dollars in recent times. It was brief and it didn’t even rhyme. It said: “Sorry I couldn’t turn up to your festival.”
Literature is a weird business.
Burns manuscript fetches $67,000
How about this, then? A manuscript bearing the signature of Rabbie Burns has just been auctioned in London for $67,000. Written in 1792, it is a well known lovesong, Ye Banks and Braes o’Bonnie Doon. The Scots rhymer, when employed as an exciseman, wrote it on Customs notepaper.
For a more exciting Burns link I recommend a modern whodunit which has a vital clue in one of his poems:
Murder Piping Hot. This prizewinning novel is one of the best in cozy crime fiction.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 4 July 2014.
FEWER people are doing it these days, according to publisher and sales statistics. So, one day in the near future, will the human species stop reading altogether? There is a surge of new habits, all those smartphones, fast onscreen texts, distracting web links and a hundred other things in the year 2014 that discourage folk from reading. Yet it is worth the effort to maintain the will to find time to read at length. The benefits are unequalled and permanent.
Here are ten reasons to start with. There are many more. Admittedly, reading enthusiasts do not need reasons, nor do they analyse the Why of reading. They just read. One fiction author found this to be a good lead-in to fascinating stories and developed just the right book-loving character to bring these plots to life. The author: John Ivor. He explains how his own love of reading inspired him to create his many historical novels.
“Obscure book titles kept cropping up in research and I discovered quite a few ancient texts and exotic ideas from the past. These, along with some wellknown classics, became the education of my heroine. Maggie is a working girl in a tartan mill and absorbs advice and philosophies from the written word. She is a thinker and applies her book knowledge in tricky situations.
“Unfortunately for her, but good for a rattling good yarn, book lore does not always play fair and true to the drama of Life. Maggie’s good intent brings mayhem.”
Not content with a single novel featuring his unusual creation, John Ivor went on to write a trilogy. The setting for these, too, is unusual – a remote British colony in the 1830s that few people have ever heard of. Its history gave the author material for three sparkling novels blending ambition, irony, compassion and tyranny. And, of course, a feisty lass who fights injustice and endures thorny romance.
Happy reading! from Cathy Macleod, week ending 27 June 2014.
Gold or garbage?
FIRST the Pulitzer, now the Baileys. Critics never agree, but fierce division over these two prestigious literary prizes is worrisome when I note the 2014 winners. The top women’s fiction, A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride, is apparent gibberish. The Pulitzer winner, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tart, has been called ‘a turkey’ and dismayed several leading reviewers.
Let’s hope it is not a set trend for judges to confuse the reading public like this. Modern art went that way starting with Picasso. Who knows where the world of books is heading?
Beginnings, I just love ’em.
THE opening words tell me so much about a book. Is it a voice I want to hear more of? Cover and jacket blurb have already revealed what to expect. The beginning usually indicates pace and mood. The beginning is the doorway that takes me either to delight or to disappointment.
So this week I have selected a few openings of popular titles. Do they give a faithful idea of what follows? That’s something for individual readers to judge for themselves. All these works are highly regarded. Here goes, leading with the inaugural (and controversial) winner of the Baileys Fiction Prize for women’s fiction. It begins thus . . .
FOR you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you.
(A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing, Baileys 2014 fiction prize winner, by Eimear McBride).
ALPHONSE haunted the garrison school because it was there. It was heavily there, on his grave.
(Spirit of Waterloo, comedy, by Bryce McBryce).
I HAD this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other. I may credit the seductive influence of an old vintage upon the narrator for the beginning of it, and my own skeptical incredulity during the days that followed for the balance of the strange tale.
(Tarzan Of The Apes, fantasy adventure, by Edgar Rice Burroughs).
SOLO female on a long hike, I found words pinned to a dead man’s chest and they mesmerised me.
(The Seventh Petal, whodunit, by Ann Morven).
IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. (Pride And Prejudice, romance, by Jane Austen).
ONE of the greatest events has received no mention in humanity’s written records. It took place in the Dreamtime, when the sun each day came up in the north, curved across a sky that shimmered with cosmic purity, and settled beyond The Great Southland.
(Javaﾒs Dream, prehistory novelet, by John Ivor).
I DIALLED the phone number my informant had given and spoke to the Tsarevich, the Crown Prince of Russia, allegedly murdered with the royal family 53 years earlier.
(Gone To Bed, non-fiction memoir, by Charles Bryce).
THERE was a ticking time-bomb inside my head and the one person I trusted to go in and get it out hadn’t shown up or spoken to me for more than a year. That’s a lot of time to start asking yourself questions. Who am I? What have I done with my life? Who can I trust?
(Skin Game, young adult, by Jim Butcher).
IT was an ugly Monday just after noon. There had been no sign of sun so far, just a thick fog that had put the blocks to traffic around the Golden Gate.
(Unlucky 13 , thriller, by James Patterson).
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 20 June 2014.
Every reader has dun it
CRIME fiction enjoys a national celebration in Britain this month, organised by the Crime Writers Association. Throughout June and throughout the land, make-believe murder and mayhem will rival the real stuff that dominates the tabloids. Book sales, talks, author signings, workshops, festivals and forums will collectively anoint June as Crime Fiction Month and initiate a tradition for future years.
Why is crime fiction so popular? Every reader has dun it – by which I mean delighted in a compelling mystery novel. In sales and libraries, crime fiction leads all other genres. I’ve seen it written that this is due to the basic Good versus Bad element leading to a satisfactory outcome. CWA chairperson Alison Joseph puts it more simply: “We read crime stories because we know that within the pages of a crime novel we will find a story that interests us, entertains us, and possibly gives us something to think about.”
It’s obvious really. Crime fiction is most read because it embraces every other genre, be it romance, historical, adventure, medical, comedy, political, thriller, even war. Not all types appeal to every reader but every reader can escape into the joy of at least one of these categories.
Personally, I avoid hardboiled and love a good cozy where whodunit and howdunit present an intriguing puzzle. Given an interesting sleuth, the best of these usually make it to television and millions of followers. Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Poirot – all famous before telly arrived – have soared to new visual glory. One of my favourite authors, Ann Morven (featured on this page) has yet to enter the realm of a filmed series, yet her bumbling balladeer should soon be gracing your lounge of an evening. Negotiations are afoot.
Caroline Quentin, formerly of the Jonathan Creek TV series, has been suggested as Sheil B. Wright, solving murders in different countries and discomfiting their plods as well as their killers. Limited so far to text only, Sheil is not the most famous fictional detective but undoubtedly is one of the best. Come month’s end she’ll have won many new fans in the world of crime reading.
Who are the best known sleuths all time? See if your opinion matches the ones named here:
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 13 June 2014.
This man changed the world
IT’S JUNE! Time for everyone to read Captain Striver. Why June, why Captain Striver? Because it was June 1829 when . . .but let him tell you himself:
I CHANGED the world ― not a boast but obvious when you look at an atlas. Humanity should be grateful, yet is not; I get short shrift in the histories. The maps show my stupendous achievement, yet people show it best. My dream still pulls them to The Great Southland, for it is their dream also, an ember glowing deep within the ashes of despair. Look at them.
From the hunger and the slaughter; from the political and religious cauldrons of Europe and Africa and Asia and America, the poor, the hopeful and the dispossessed follow the dream. Others, as ever it was, come perhaps in greed or as desperate outlaws, yet theirs is the same motivation: a fresh start free from social disruptions, the beacon of opportunity beckons.
That beacon for all was raised by me, and, yes, I was indeed a striver as indicated by my family name, Stirling, derived from an ancient Viking word. A striving seagoer, I brought enlightened living to a savage wilderness.
Few of the dreamers have heard of me, Captain James Stirling, Royal Navy, and fewer care, yet my haven remains. It is ready for everyone, ready for you who read these words. My beam dominates the southern hemisphere and shines for the world ― my irrepressible dream, the soul of Australia.
Let me tell you how I did it against impossible odds. The idea came soon after I invaded the United States. I recall a fog of cannon smoke blinding my vision but nothing could reduce the noise of the guns blasting. My guns. They rained destruction and death upon the Americans, whose flimsy coastal defences were built in haste and futility against the might of the world’s greatest navy. My navy.
Now my task was to eliminate those forts, enabling our brave British troops to launch their shore landings. We were teaching the Yankee upstarts a lesson long overdue.
Read Captain Striver, by John Ivor, digital formats http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/134
eBooks by John Ivor https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/Ivor
Paperbacks by John Ivor http://www.amazon.com/John-Ivor/e/B005BOD5Y8
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 6 June 2014.
Libraries join the Ebook Revolution
ALL ebooks published by the Darling Newspaper Press will in future be available in 20,000 libraries throughout the world. With the growing popularity of digital formats, public libraries in many lands have begun to include ebooks for free loan. This is organised by OverDrive, a network that sells ebooks to lending libraries.
The library then allows access by members on the same principle as its printed books. There is one difference. A library user will also enjoy the option of buying a personal copy outright. The book’s copyright remains protected by DRM, the Digital Rights Maintenance device that prevents copying.
Small publishers and independents lead the surge
While many (perhaps most) people still prefer to read a bound paper version, industry experts predict that digital reading will continue to grow in popularity. As will small independent publishers like Darling Newspaper Press, and the number of authors publishing their own work and selling direct to the public.
The catalyst for all this is, of course, the Internet. The worldwide web enables Darling Newspaper Press to sell globally from its remote location in Western Australia. The advent of ebooks multiplied this advance by eliminating the need for physical distribution.
Why be independent?
Commenting on the leap in independent authors abandoning the big traditional publishers, ebook guru Mark Coker, creator of Smashwords, declared recently: “There are some early signs publishers are beginning to feel the heat from self-published authors, and it comes from Harlequin, the grand dame of romance publishing. In Harlequin's management discussion portion of its 2013 earnings announcement (released March 4, 2014), the company for first time cited self-publishing as a potential competitive risk.”
Mark added this prediction: “As I look to the future, I think the numbers start looking really exciting if you're in the indie author's shoes, and scary if you're a Big 5 publisher. If my projections come to pass, indie authors will control over one third (35%) of the overall trade book market in seven years.”
He said independent authors had learned to publish like professionals, which meant self-publishing would lead to more better books, and more diversity of better books. “The professionalism and sophistication of indie authors has increased dramatically in the six years since we launched Smashwords, and this professionalism will increase in the future as indies pioneer tomorrow's best practices.”
Mark added two observations that explain the world trend. 1. Ebook authors earn royalty rates four to five times higher than they'd earn from traditional publishers. 2. Readers don't care about a publisher’s name. What they learn to value is the author’s name.
“Writers are angry,” Mark observed. “After centuries of living on the bottom rung of the publishing ladder, they're feeling their oats and relishing their new-found power and respect.”
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 30 May 2014.
Stays close to Agatha
Scottish author Gilbert Adair (1944-2011) wrote amusing whodunits in a narrative style equal to Agatha Christie at her best. He must have realised this, because his titles are borrowed from Agatha, thus ensuring they capture attention. In fact, that is how I found him during a casual Amazon browse.
The Act of Roger Murgatroyd sounds like a Poirot classic, The Murder of Roger Murgatroyd. Having been lured by this, I was hooked from the start! It is a locked-room murder featuring a Marple-like sleuth named Evadne Mount. For cozy fans it is totally superb and the solution is credible (just). Setting is an isolated country house in the 1930s, a period the author recreates convincingly.
Subtitled “an entertainment”, it is exactly that. Two other Evadne Mount puzzles are now on my must-read list. These are And Then There Was No One (cf Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None) and A Mysterious Affair of Styles (cf The Mysterious Affair At Styles).
Sherlock Holmes at 90
THE Great Detective has been returning to literature ever since Conan Doyle killed him off and was forced by fans to reincarnate him. Sherlock Holmes remains a regular modern intrusion into crime fiction, and the latest has him at age 90. And trying to ward off Alzheimers and pondering the distress of Hiroshima and getting all weepy over a baby.
All this from Mitch Cullin in A Slight Trick Of The Mind. As I’ve often commented, talented authors should do their own thing and not steal characters from the past. But if Sherlock’s name links Cullin to new readers, then no harm done. He does write well and should not need the Holmes prop.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 23 May 2014.
Twelve great midyear reads
SUMMER’S ahead in the northern hemisphere and dark days of winter down south, but wherever you live, whatever the season, I can name some great reads. Twelve great midyear reads, in fact (maybe more in the weeks ahead), and including something for every taste. Here we go.
Memoir: Crotal & White, by Finlay J. MacDonald. In a world where memoirs are dominated by celebrities of sport, showbiz and politics, I was delighted to discover this great writing by a ‘nobody’ in the Outer Hebrides. Finlay J. MacDonald (1926-1987) blends fascinating information, wry comment, island legend and uproarious story-telling. This way of living in the 1930s is long gone, yet its larger-than-life characters still delighted me in the Space Age. Finlay’s memoirs actually run to a trilogy. The others are Crowdie & Cream and The Corncrake & the Lysander.
Romantic pageturner: The Forgotten Seamstress, by Liz Trenow Two voices, one book! This is a tale of two secrets. Neatly embroidered, the twin narratives are 100 years apart. A mysterious quilt, plus the author’s skill in weaving words, brings together the contrasting women of this clever plot. I felt close to each of them. Liz Trenow instils instant empathy towards her characters. A mid-teen in the year 1914, the first of these has a rough, smoky, Cockney twang (it’s not overdone). The other is an educated businesswoman in 2008. She is 38 years old with problems: no boyfriend, no job, big mortgage, and can’t afford the care needed for her widowed invalid mum.
World War 2: A Man Without Breath, by Philip Kerr. Real facts, thrilling story. The elements of this gripper are German aristocrats plotting Hitler’s assassination, and the alleged Soviet execution of 12,000 Polish officers in Katyn Wood. Amid everything is Bernie Gunther, ex Berlin cop landed with a hateful special mission. Bernie’s task is to prove the Katyn rumours to be true and thus end Russia’s acceptance as an ally by the more ethical Britain and US. As always, author Kerr spins his thriller around extensive probing of WW2 records and real villains. And, not for the first time, Bernie finds himself on trial before a judge determined to hang him. Fully equal to the fiction here, Kerr recounts many shocking war crimes that really took place. This is not just entertainment, but a grim history lesson and a reminder of the beastly happenings that accompany warfare.
Asian: The Taliban Cricket Club. His books are not prolific but there’s never been a bad one. I refer to Timeri N. Murari, an Indian author of exceptional talent. This novel holds attention from start to finish. It is a well plotted tale of love and courage amid the horrors of Afghanistan when under Taliban rule. The heroine is desperate to escape her native land because an evil aging Taliban chief has decided to marry her despite family objections. Murari previously entertained with Taj, a love story about the Taj Mahal, and a pair of memorable thrillers that continued the adventures of Kipling’s Kim as an adult. These are The Last Victory (published 1988) and The Imperial Agent (1987).
Whodunit: The Seventh Petal, by Ann Morven. Scary Scotland! There's a tense beginning and then (true to the jacket blurb) the murders keep coming in a creepy old castle. Ann Morven's powerful writing sustains the grim stuff while giving us chuckles too. I would say the best thing about this author is that she is always entertaining. This is one of a series of whodunits featuring an Australian folksinger with the queer name of Sheil B. Wright. She always seems to find time to sing while bumbling along the murder trail. Here she warbles songs linked to Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose giant tapestry portrait plays a vital role in the plot. The riddles are not all to do with Scottish culture, because visiting the Highlands with one of his wives is an officer from Malaysia's Moral Police Force. All the characters are larger than life.
Espionage: A Delicate Truth, by John le Carre. Menace is the magic ingredient that spices le Carre’s charismatic prose. He does it so well – peerless, in my opinion. The menace grips throughout.. Dialogue, structure, pace and voice are also superb as usual, and the characters memorable. There’s an underlying message, too, in a plot set mostly in Britain. This comment from one of the players has a disconcerting grain of current fact: “The whole country’s crying out for a new elite. Begging for one. For people like you – real men – the real men of England, unspoiled – all right, dreamers too – but with their feet on the ground.” This is England in the Arab Spring and a world of shady liaison between entrepreneurs and government ministers.
Historical Adventure: Distant Thunder by T.D. Griggs. Here are all the ingredients of traditional historical adventure, and I enjoyed their blending by this master storyteller. He writes like John Ivor, another of my favourite authors. From the imperial Raj to Dickensian London, from a country manor with upstairs-downstairs tensions and forbidden love, to the desert battlefields of the Sudan and, above all, a feisty heroine.
Nasty Nazis: The Eye of the Abyss, by Marshall Browne. Reminds me of Le Carre. Nasty Nazis, fearful Jews, decent Germans . . . it's all here, plus an insight into international banking. The setting is before WW2 and the hero a dour, grim one-eyed banker who carries the genes of Teutonic knights. Double deals, traps, sexual passions and human conflict had me gripped throughout.
Humour: Brat, by Bryce McBryce. Bigger menace than militant Japan? That is the label given to one child in a far British fortress on the eve of World War 2. The Colonel trembles with rage, the nuns pray, while Charlie battles Life's monsters and strives to understand that peculiar species, the Adult. This is funny. An innocent yet disruptive child shows the absurdity of human behaviour. The setting of Ceylon in the 1930s is perfect for this purpose. Apart from the humour, I found interesting social and military history. It is not often you learn what family attitudes (and imperial arrogance) were like in that era. Nor the farcical events of an army's "married quarters".
Historical thriller: An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris. This novel dramatises the notorious Dreyfus Affair, a shameful injustice involving France and Germany. The hero is not the victimised Jew, Captain Dreyfus, but a French Army intelligence officer, Georges Picquart. After stumbling on proof that France convicted an innocent man, Picquart sacrificed his own career because he held that Justice must prevail against Politics and Ambition. It reads like a legal thriller, especially revelations within secret hearings that sentenced Dreyfus without right of reply. The research here is brilliant.
Legal hardboiled: Con Law, by Mark Gimenez. Needs a better title but the content is a good blend of action and legal argument. Some interesting points of law are explored, yet no actual courtroom drama. Nevertheless I found this a great read with entertaining dialogue and compelling situations. The author also reveals intriguing US justice and politics background and mixes this with a lawyer who is a sort of Indiana Jones. You can’t help but admire a professor who demolishes thugs with his bare fists.
American social history: The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane. Having discovered Dennis Lehane during his Mafia phase, and then into the violent romps of private-eye Kenzie, I was surprised to find he also wrote the great American novel of 2008. One of them, anyway, set in 1919. This epic work (while thrilling enough) delves deep into the American psyche. It is a marathon read of more than 700 pages. Nevertheless the pace never flags, nor its fascinating historical detail of the Boston riots after the Great War and just before Prohibition. At the centre is the Coughlin family, forever Irish. Through the father and three sons, the family is bonded to a police force rife with dissension and internal turbulence. Lehane’s trademark violence and humour skip and stir as he applies his high skills in dialogue and character. And the history is reliable.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 16 May 2014.
Find a new favourite author
OUCH! It wounds the purse, curdles the mind and plunges me to despair-- when a purchased book disappoints. The title and the cover were attractive, the jacket blurb entrancing, the opening lines a delight, but then these lures faded to a narrative both boring and ill conceived.
This happens too often in the ocean of published flotsam and jetsam. So how on earth does a reader discover a new favourite author? A public library is one way to delve for this rare treasure, or your High Street bookshop, yet these are impractical and time-burning methods which, more often than not, only add to the frustration. There is, however, a fairly reliable way to prove an author’s appeal before purchase, and doing this has never been easier.
The secret is to sample, easily done online nowadays at most bookselling websites. It still needs patience.
Google ‘find a favourite author’ and in 0.26 seconds you’ll get 134 million links. Also advice from fellow booklovers who have done the hard graft already. Several sites offer similar help.
Simply browsing publishers and retailers also helps when there is a generous sample to download. Smashwords gives these in many different formats. Amazon, the Kindle monopolist, has more books and opinions (sometimes orchestrated) than anywhere else. Goodreads and other forums try to narrow the search in conjunction with fellow readers. Major publishers will often allow an online read of the first chapter. It just takes browsing time and ordered procedure.
And it is worth allocating this time when you consider the immeasurable value of an author who can magically transport you to familiar pleasures in new worlds.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 9 May 2014.
The books that most appeal?
IN this the International Year of The Book, free novels were distributed to encourage more people to read. On World Book Night (April 23), also the birthday of Shakespeare, the titles included Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl, Andy McNab, John Grisham and many others.
The organisers said the selected titles were seen as likely to appeal to folk who do not read for pleasure. Whether the giveaway will change habits is debatable, but the idea is worthy. The list of especially appealing books covers a wide range of varying interests.
Hurrah for Large Print
IT is 50 years since large-print books were introduced and they have never gone out of fashion. I confess to finding them easier on the eyes than many published works nowadays. Consider the opposite. There is a detestable practice by some publishers who despoil classic literature by squeezing great creations into too few pages. While text of the smallest size reduces the print bill, and consequently the retail price, it also discourages readers from delving into the book. So all praise to Doctor Freddie Thorpe, the man who gave us Large Print!
A Shakespeare quiz
WITH 450 years of Shakespeare, enthusiasts have dug up everything there is to know about the Bard of Avon. Just to keep the poet’s admirers on their toes, one English newspaper celebrated his birthday April 23 with a literary quiz. See how you rate. In the event you score 100% the same newspaper listed ten things you won’t know about Shakespeare, such as how he caused an aircrash etc. Fascinating.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 2 May 2014.
Jesus and the Bard
EASTER, traditionally the celebration marking the resurrection of Jesus Christ, shared its joy with lovers of literature this year when another immortal, Shakespeare, reached the age of 450. Even in England, a land staunchly Christian, the Bard of Avon was being feted with enthusiasm in the midst of the more sacred rituals.
Nobody seemed to mind. Christians are forgiving and, in any case, why not welcome the Son of God with prose and poetry beautiful as any prayer! Easter Monday, therefore, was a busy one for Londoners who have kept Shakespeare dear to their hearts for centuries.
At the Globe Theatre, a modern replica of Shakespeare’s original, it was party time and all welcome, admission free. Fun events for children were planned to coincide with the more adult fare of performers on stage. The play acting was programmed as 15 minutes every hour from 1-4pm. The Easter Monday shindig was just an early taste of nationwide events (and indeed worldwide) for the Bard’s birthday on April 23.
Fittingly, Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, was the main focus of his 450th anniversary, and the celebrations were arranged for April 23. The Shakespeare Birthplace trust and the Royal Shakespeare Company announced a full day of entertainment with ‘something for everyone’. That means music, street entertainers, story telling, face-painting, acting, stage combat and other theatrical activities. Also tours of the Shakespeare houses, children’s parties, sonnet readings – and the chance to spot a famous actor or two.
Away from the partying, academics this week used the occasion to renew their ongoing debate about Shakespeare’s identity. And author Ann Morven continued to sell her much praised whodunit, The Killing of Hamlet, in both paperback and digital format. Her plot links Shakespeare with modern murders in an English village. It also ventures a credible answer to Shakespeare’s real identity, which is perhaps more acceptable than many theories argued in high places. It’s a good read, with chills and chuckles in the inimitable Morven style.
Men are losing their imagination
I’M always a bit suspicious about surveys, but the claim this week that men read less than women fits my own perceptions. Two thousand men and women in Britain were quizzed in connection with World Book Night (April 23), and the results are now being used to fuel a Get Reading campaign
Books are being given free to persuade non-readers to discover or re-discover the joy of a good book. It probably won’t work if one is to accept the response of 70% of the men surveyed. These blokes said they just did not have the time to read a book. They’d rather watch a movie, TV or browse the Web, all activities that need no imagination.
Are male brains shrinking, then, in a wave of swelling technology? Our modern world is certainly changing, so the human species might be in for some bumps along the road. It’s too bad about this male reluctance to read books, but, as every woman knows, if you want to do something you’ll somehow find the time to do it. What a shame men don’t possess this essential female ability. The boffins call it multi-tasking. I call it sensible planning. Whatever your gender, and nowadays I believe three are officially recognised, changing habits make interesting reading.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 25 April 2014.
The best news and the worst for British authors.
TO plagiarize Charles Dickens, it is the best of times and the worst of times for British authors. First the good news. Self-published authors in the UK win a massive incentive from the Guardian newspaper. Confirming its renown as the leading daily for bookreaders and authors, the Guardian has begun a monthly contest for “self-published book of the month”.
Entry is now open for the initial monthly contest, for which the closing date is Friday April 18. The winner of this opening event will be announced in June. Entries of books self-published from 2012 are accepted by email in Word or PDF format.
When choosing the long-list and the winner, says the Guardian, the judges will select the entries which in their view are the most contemporary and stand out most from the others in uniqueness and writing quality.
Entry details are here. Hopefully, once the monthly series gets established, it might be expanded to include self-published authors throughout the world.
Now for the bad news: No British authors are in the shortlist of six books that remain to contest the prestigious annual Baileys Fiction Prize. There are two from Ireland and one each from Nigeria, United States, Australia and America.
The £30,000 prize, open to fiction written by women in English, will be awarded at a ceremony on London’s South Bank in June. Here are the six finalists:
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.ﾠ
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 18 April 2014.
First settlers enhance these whodunits
EARLY settlers always make for a good historical yarn. Pair it with a whodunit and the appeal is multiplied. Strange to say, not many authors have attempted this first-settler scenario despite the popularity of such novels. Yet it is not so strange when you reflect on the difficulties involved in penning a credible plot while sticking to factual events.
Peter May has achieved a good one with the recent release of Entry Island, which roams from Scotland to Nova Scotia. Likewise, John Ivor has a swift moving historical whodunit in No Kiss For A Killer, set in early Western Australia (no convicts allowed, yet murder rampant!).
John Ivor sticks to the 1830s. His hero is a young skilled swordsman committed to finding and killing his father’s murderers. The problem is he’s a coward. Peter May also has a hero with inner doubts. He’s a detective brave enough yet suffers mental distress. And no wonder – he is oddly linked 200 years into the past with the prime suspect in the murder mystery he is investigating.
An unusual historical murder novel is Abraham’s Knife by Ottar Nordfjord. Set in Iceland, it is crime-fiction both futuristic and historical. Somewhat biblical too. It’s appeal might be limited but it is a darn good read.
One of the best known historical crime novels is A Study In Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle. It is a Sherlock Holmes mystery that takes us to America’s Wild West.
There are countless others, of course, with detectives doing their stuff in Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt, Medieval Britain, Viking lands, colonial India and just about everywhere else. I mention the few above because they share two ingredients. They are unusual in scope and exceedingly well written.
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 11 April 2014.
Weird path to fame
Whodunit diva Ann Morven achieved global popularity by inventing grisly plots, cunning murderers and a female sleuth who is a dunce at deduction.
Sounds weird, yet her short stories and novels are prolific in chills and chuckles, always entertaining. I visited her home in Kalamunda, which is a village in the forested hills overlooking Perth, Western Australia. On the back verandah of her bungalow we shared a pot of tea, watched wild parrots and honeybirds and exchanged thoughts on reading and writing.
I recorded the interview and pass on her comments here.
How do you discover the ebooks you read?
I browse online, searching for favourite genres or authors. Sometimes a new name appeals because of a striking cover or a good blurb, and then I'll take a look at a sample. Sampling is a must for me nowadays. Too often, and even with a print copy in a bookshop, I have rushed to purchase and been disappointed. Once I find an author I like I'll look at everything they have written.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I used to make up stories for my son, inventing as I went along while monitoring his expression for the effect. From age 2 to age 8 he was my inspiration (and unsuspecting tutor) in the art of creating fiction. Most of all, it was a satisfying exercise for a new mum. Later I wrote down a few of these tales and later still had a go at writing a mystery for adults. It was a short story, and I sold it for a couple of quid to Central Press, a London agency that supplied features for newspapers. Its title: "The Man Beyond Suspicion". I have always enjoyed reading whodunits, so I suppose it was natural to begin writing them. I also love country music, which is why my female sleuth follows that vocation. Her very first case was bought by the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (The Clue of the Willy-Willy, set in outback Australia. This same story has been republished as Blood On The Wind). Since then, Sheil B. Wright has visited other lands to sing, solve murders and irritate various police investigators throughout the world.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
I remember Myths And Legends, author unrecalled, a gift from maternal Grandmother. It was beautifully illustrated and comprised the Greek and Norse tales, creating a lifelong interest. I think I was five. My Dad read it to me, as he did Grimm's Fairy Tales. My first full length adult book, read by myself unaided, was a whodunit, title and author unrecalled. I was eight and found it in the ship's library on a long cruise. The plot involved a passenger liner, which explains my interest. The killer was the investigating detective!! This compelling read might explain my love of whodunits. It was followed on the same voyage by Tarzan Of The Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
How do you approach cover design?
Not being an artist, I browse online for oldmaster paintings that might fit my story. These, or details taken from them, are incorporated into a 5x8 cover using Microsoft Publisher. Of course, I have to check before using anything that it is free of copyright. Sometimes I use a photograph I have taken myself. For instance, the old and mossy gravestones on the cover of The Killing of Hamlet are in an ancient church cemetery at the village of Cromarty, Scotland. I snapped them when impressed by the ageless atmosphere. Murder Piping Hot blends Scottish tartans with my photo of sacred Aboriginal rock art.
How important is an opening hook?
I believe the very first sentence of a book must grip the reader, even if it is just the rhythm of an author's narrative style. This is what I always look at myself when sampling a book. Naturally, I try to make my own openings appeal in this way.
What do you read for pleasure?
Murder fiction, courtroom drama, historical fiction, historical non-fiction, and gentle feel-good humour. Romance rarely appeals to me, although a well written love story can hold me captive
What is your e-reading device of choice?
My laptop computer. But frankly I prefer a traditional printed paperback.
What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
Hard to say, but my guess is press releases to the world's newspapers and requesting a mention in the newsletters of special interest groups.
Describe your desk
Cluttered! One of Professor Parkinson's laws is that when an office becomes tidy it ceases to be creative. And that's my excuse.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
Travelling to many lands with my parents. My father was a soldier and, in peacetime, Married Families were posted around the globe. This has certainly influenced my stories, as has my lifelong career as a journalist working in different countries. It is the reason my bumbling female sleuth, Sheil B. Wright, upsets the police in a variety of nations. As a journalist I used to raise similar ire from corrupt politicians!
What's the story behind your latest book?
The ongoing Shakespeare Debate. Was he Marlowe, Oxford, Bacon etc? In The Killing of Hamlet, my whodunit linking Shakespeare to modern murders, I give my own suggestion and reckon it is every bit as plausible as the chancy theories put forward by learned academics.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
The knowledge that I am in total control of my work.
How has Smashwords contributed to your success?
The advent of Smashwords was a godsend providing a distribution resource previously unheard of.
What are you working on next?
Top secret, but it is a multi-murder whodunit in an exotic setting. Bumbling sleuth Sheil B. Wright will face a death sentence!
Who are your favorite authors?
At the moment, Caroline Graham, Michael Connelly, Alexander McCall Smith, Dennis Lehane. Sadly missed is George Macdonald Fraser and his Flashman comedies.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
The thought of a brisk walk conversing with the birds in a clean dawn air.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
Reading, gardening, walking, spoiling my three grandchildren.
What's the hardest part of writing a story?
Getting the plot right, so that it fits the natural inclination of the characters without seeming to be contrived. Often after completion I discover a "fatal flaw" which needs lots of hard thought to amend. Being immersed in my story makes it easy to gloss over inconsistencies, so I put the work aside for a few weeks after completion, then read it again as a stranger. Then a painful rewrite and another and another. Then, finally joy! I love it.
Do you write from start to finish in sequence, or do individual scenes separately?
From start to finish is usual in a short story, with minor revisions later. My novels demand lots of revision after my first draft has set a basic structure. Rewriting sections is a pleasure, the first draft hard work.
Do you get fan mail?
Sometimes, and it's pleasing to hear of the enjoyment a book brings to its reader. I also send fanmail when the author's email address is known, just to say thanks for a good read.
Do you write on a PC, laptop or by hand?
On my laptop. Some passages, the more tricky ones, I write longhand into my notebook and then transcribe, editing as I go
Is researching a book difficult?
It's mostly a pleasure, entailing library visits and lots of reading. Also internet browsing. The internet is a boon to authors for fast-checking facts or discovering vital information of all kinds.
Favourites old as the Ark
ANIMALS, not fairies, giants, witches or aliens, remain the most popular characters in books for young children. This can be confirmed in the 2014 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for titles published last year. Now celebrating its 10th birthday, the prize is worth $8,300 to the overall winner and $5000 to the winner of each category. And it is heartening that Britain’s biggest book chain can afford these generous prizes after a year of financial plummet. The company was saved by a foreigner, Russian billionaire Alexander Mato. He bought it despite an operating loss of $20.3 million.
Shortlisted for prizes to be announced in April are weasels planning world domination, a Parisian parrot, a kidnapped penguin, a crocodile afraid of water, a vengeful dragon, a bossy cockroach, a friendly stag . . . quite a menagerie!
Of course, it’s no surprise to mums, especially those who read aloud to their littlies. The appeal of animals has been around since forever. One animal not in the shortlist (which is confined to 2013 releases) is the classic Mousedeer, a children’s favourite for 2000 years or more. These traditional forest tales from Southeast Asia teach good behaviour as well as being darn good stories. Probably the best collection in English is by author Charles Bryce. He gathered the tales orally in Borneo and Malaysia from jungle dwellers and gives them a professional touch. Interested mums might care to find a sample in either digital or paperback.
For exploring mums, here are the Waterstones shortlisted titles for 2014 (in alphabetical order by author):
Best Picture Book:
Open Very Carefully by Nick Bromley and Nicola O’Byrne (Nosy Crow)
Harold Finds a Voice by Courtney Dicmas (Child’s Play International)
Weasels by Elys Dolan (Nosy Crow)
Penguin in Peril by Helen Hancocks (Templar)
Time for Bed, Fred! by Yasmeen Ismail (Bloomsbury)
The Crocodile Who Didn’t Like Water by Gemma Merino (Macmillan Children’s Books)
Best Fiction for 5-12s:
The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani (HarperCollins Children’s Books)
Darcy Burdock by Laura Dockrill (Random House Children’s Books)
Shiverton Hall by Emerald Fennell (Bloomsbury)
The Skull in the Wood by Sandra Greaves (Chicken House)
Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (Faber and Faber)
The Last Wild by Piers Torday (Quercus)
Best Book for Teens:
The Bone Dragon by Alexia Casale (Faber and Faber)
Butter by Erin Lange (Faber and Faber)
If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch (Orion)
Paper Aeroplanes by Dawn O’Porter (Hot Key Books)
Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys (Penguin)
Geek Girl by Holly Smale (HarperCollins Children’s Books)
Happy reading! from Cathy, week ending 21 February 2014.
British Raj soldiers on
IN India, as in Britain, the Raj never goes out of fashion. It was the formative period of the nation we know today, comprising more than 300 years under colonial rule and the development of roads, railways and trading ports. Also much strife. Inspired authors have found rich material in all this human endeavour, and their work is much in evidence at the current Kolkata Book Fair, the world’s biggest after Frankfurt and London. In terms of non-trade attendance it actually attracts more people than all the other annual book fests.
Before drawing to an end on February 9, the gathering will have attracted two million book lovers from around the world. Note: they were mostly readers, unlike the European trade fairs that attract publishers and booksellers.
Held in the former capital of British India (Calcutta, now renamed), the Kolkata event this year had ‘Peru’ as its central theme. This did not overshadow the immense availability of Raj titles, including the popular humour of Bryce McBryce. His fictional tales are contained in the paperback original titled simply Brat. This is a brilliant take on the twilight of empire on the eve of World War 2. A British ‘brat’ – the official term for children of military personnel – provokes alarm and despondency in a British garrison fort in charge of ‘the natives’. The troubles result from this young innocent’s striving to understand the weird world of adults. Get a free sample. Or select an extract as a complete short story.
Among more serious Raj authors, traditional adventure favourites like Katharine Gordon, M.M. Kaye, John Masters and Paul Scott are still being republished, as is the great Rudyard Kipling. And of course there is a whole new world of Indian authors. Along with fellow writers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, these have for many years been the lifeblood of the Kolkata Book Fair
Booktaste.com is owned and operated by The Darling Newspaper Press, a small independent publisher in Western Australia. Its principal is Charles Bryce (email@example.com), lifelong journalist, Scottish born, formerly of The Sunday Post, The Straits Times, Reuters, The Sunday Times (Australia) and creator of The Darling Advertiser newspaper.
Blogger Cathy Macleod (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an independent literary critic who monitors the Internet for good reads, bookworld views and news.
For Darling Newspaper Press email email@example.com or post to PO box 176, Kalamunda, Western Australia 6926.
Back to top