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.