Monday, August 25, 2014

A Review: Bumpy Roads, by Brian Wilson and Rachel Coop

It is never easy reviewing a collection of short stories, or an anthology, because inevitably the quality of the stories is going to vary greatly. This is particularly true when there is a variety of authors. Here there are just two authors. The majority of the pieces are by Brian Wilson, but a handful are by Rachel Coop. This is probably a good way to introduce a new writer to the public.

There are thirty-eight pieces here, including a few poems. A few are linked by the earthquakes that have occurred in Christchurch, New Zealand, over the last few years. ‘Bumpy roads’, both physical and emotional, is a recurring theme. Some of the stories feel like fictionalised (more or less) travel writing. A few pieces stand out slightly from the background. ‘Flatting Dramas’ (Rachel Coop) is lifted by its humour. ‘First Date’ (Rachel Coop) is also one of the better stories. Again, the humour works well here. ‘All on a Sunny Day’ (Brian Wilson) is short but clever. ‘Death in the Family’ (Brian Wilson) is also a cut above, although I did guess the outcome quite early.

Many of the stories are more like slightly elongated anecdotes than stories. These are often quite homely tales. Sometimes I felt as though I was reading a holiday blog. I was uncertain about the boundary between fiction and non-fiction here. If these tales were slightly fictionalised non-fiction, perhaps it would have been better to present them simply as non-fiction. As fictional stories, I’m sorry to say that I often found the writing unimaginative and the subject matter uninteresting. Some readers may like this quiet, low key style of writing, these everyday tales. However, I suppose I look for more in a short story. I look to be moved, surprised, shocked. Few of the stories had the kind of emotional depth or clever structure that I prefer. The writing, while competent, was rarely exceptional.

As I often do with a collection such as this, I arrive at a star rating by averaging what I have given to each individual piece. Here that rounds out to around three stars.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A 'romantic' at heart

I think I may have finally found my way on the path to my next novel. I think. I hope. It has been a real struggle to bring together the ideas, characters and storyline that I find I need in order to write convincingly. I have had some of these elements and made starts, only to run out of steam after a while. Some of the good pieces I nevertheless produced may eventually make it into this new project.

It may sound very corny, but I do need inspiration to fire my writing. I cannot write just for the sake of it. Well, I can, but without the passion to keep it alive it fizzles out, with a whimper.

Passion. Inspiration. These are essential ingredients for me in the writing process. For this reason I would hate some kind of publishing contract for x-number of novels. I could never become a book factory. The passion arises from the ideas which drive the story and from the characters who populate it. I have to have strong feelings for the characters, whether positive or negative.

In my first novel, Maybe they’ll remember me, I was really exploring the nature of love, commitment and companionship, mostly against the background of wartime and post-WW2 Britain. Can romantic love only be maintained by avoiding responsibility? Are companionship and security incompatible with romantic love? Can a relationship develop and be sustained without the latter? As a second theme I was exploring the ‘free spirit’. Does responsibility ultimately stifle the free spirit? Is the free spirit, in the final analysis, selfish and narcissistic? I needed strong characters to carry these themes.

In my second novel, Angel’s Harp, I turned my attention to more overtly spiritual themes, although not in a religious sense. ‘Cosmic forces’ however understood, whether real or imagined, play a role here. What is the nature of mystical experience, and its relationship with psychosis? Are experiences such as those described by Jung’s concept of synchronicity always uplifting, or can they sometimes be devastating? Is being open to the ‘music of the spheres’ always a positive experience?

And in my third published novel, Life Drawings, I explored themes of youth and awakening into adulthood, sexuality, the effect of past experience on development. Again, the characters and relationships are uppermost here. How do people deal with the painful experiences of the past?

I am something of a romantic at heart, in the technical, rather than the ‘romantic’ sense of the term. It has nothing to do with ‘romance’ as popularly conceived, as in the title ‘romance novel’. Romanticism, as a movement in art, politics, philosophy and literature, at the end of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, validated aesthetic experience as a legitimate path to knowledge, apart from the purely rational and intellectual. Those who are aware of my scientific background may be surprised at this. But I have a quite rational basis for valuing aesthetic experience. The complexity of the neural pathways of the brain allows for much more than simply logical, linear thought processes. We can perceive the ‘whole’, the gestalt. We can perceive connections and relationships. Indeed, we sometimes see them where none exist. Sometimes the rational must correct the aesthetic, and sometimes the aesthetic much correct the rational.

Writing (and reading) is as much an aesthetic as it is a rational process for me. Hence I must feel for and with my characters. Hence the story must move me as well as entertain or inform me. I must be passionately involved in the process of writing. It can never be a dry, mechanical process. I guess this is another reason why my writing will never make me materially wealthy.

Don’t forget, you can find my novels here....

Friday, August 22, 2014

All those 'okay' books

Over the last few months I have been posting quite a few reviews on this blog site. They generally attract a healthy number of page views. However, I find myself struggling with the reviewing process. It’s not that I find it difficult to review a book. I quite enjoy the process. I think I have a good eye for it. What is troubling me is that I find myself giving so many of the books three or three and a half stars. I should point out that there are quite a few books that I have chosen not to review because I could not rate them that highly.

I become a little tired of reading books that I consider to be ‘okay’, ‘not bad’ or even ‘quite good’. I suspect that those following my reviews may become a little tired of reading such reviews. Am I too harsh as a reviewer? Am I expecting too much?

I always begin reading a book with high hopes. I always want this book to be one I can praise highly and enthusiastically recommend to others. ‘Not bad’ or ‘quite good’ may sound like damning praise for a book, and perhaps it is. Unfortunately, as with almost everything we measure in the natural or human world, most books will fall somewhere in that middle category of okay/not bad. I will not discuss the ‘terrible’, the outsiders to the left of the ‘normal curve’. I long for the exceptional, those in the right extremity. They are inevitably rare.

This is a dilemma for me as a reader and as a reviewer. There are so many books out there, millions upon millions of them. Reading takes time. I want to spend that time profitably.

Let me emphasise that these three and three and a half star books are not bad. I don’t want to offend these writers or belittle their efforts. But as someone who loves reading and has too little time for it, I am looking for something that rises above the crowd.

So I am questioning whether this reviewing process is of any great benefit to me, to the writers or to those who read this blog. Should I be restricting my reviews to those that do stand out in some measure? Or do people find reviews of ‘okay’ books helpful?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Say 'NO' to living in terror of Terror

Australia and the world has been rightly shocked by the images emerging from Iraq, images of beheadings and of young Australian, British and American men participating in brutal atrocities. We are right to be disturbed that young men from Australia and other countries are leaving to fight in support of this barbaric cause. I have no sympathy at all for this ‘Islamic State’, or whatever they call themselves today. I have little sympathy for the young men who leave Australia on these ‘adventures’. Although I do think we should be taking the time to understand why they might be doing it.

I do, however, have to speak out when our Prime Minister raises the spectre of such acts occurring in Australia. Perhaps they could. People do shocking things to other people every day for all kinds of reasons, few of them religiously or politically motivated. But what could be Abbott’s motivation for suggesting that we need to be ever vigilant to prevent such acts from occurring here? It’s obvious to me. These are the usual fear tactics that governments use to shore up their flagging support. When you are making a mess of domestic politics, what better than to turn the nation’s eyes outwards, towards that ever-present, nebulous threat of terrorism.

It is always best, of course, to keep the threat vague, while exaggerating it out of all proportion. This is how governments make themselves appear strong and important. This is how they justify more and more expenditure on defence and security. All kinds of measures can be introduced in the name of national security. I have said this before and I will say it again. I will continue saying it until the day I die.

Mr Abbott, I for one do not live in fear of a terrorist attack. Such an attack is certainly possible. But it is nowhere near the forefront of my concerns for Australia. And, as terrible as such an attack would be, it is not the worst thing that could happen here. Worse is the gradual whittling away of our rights and our freedom in the name of this threat. Worse is the eroding of our society and our values under a conservative and regressive government. Worse is the almost total neglect of the very real and serious environmental threats that face us now. In the name of defending and saving this country, you are gradually stripping it of everything worth defending and saving.

I am deeply concerned and saddened by what is happening in Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East. But I am concerned, not because of some nebulous threat to me or Australia, but because of the terrible suffering that is actually occurring there right now. This tragedy is not about my safety. It is not about this country’s security, however much governments and the media want to make it so. It is about me and it is about us only insofar as we share a common humanity with those who are suffering as a result of the human race’s interminable inhumanity. We also share, perhaps to our shame, a common humanity with those who are perpetrating these atrocities.

What would a real leader do at this time? He would be assuring the nation that, while the threat of terrorism to this country is real, it is not huge. He would be taking measures to understand what is driving these young men to go and fight in this distant war. He would be assuring the Muslim community here in Australia that we do not fear them, and that we do not blame them for what is occurring over there. Nor would we blame them if any kind of atrocity or terrorist attack were to occur here.

Instead, he uses this opportunity to ever so calmly and reasonably instil fear into the Australian community, and sow the seeds of suspicion and hatred against the Muslim community here and around the world. I realise that none of his exact words can be used to justify this assertion. Abbott is far too canny for that. We are slowly being stifled and deadened in this country by Abbott and other infinitely calm and reasonable men and women, with their calm and reasonable propositions. I also know, however, that the effect of his words is to sow the seeds of fear and suspicion, and fan the flames of hatred. He can then ride in on his white charger and save us all.

Just remember: If we constantly live in terror of terrorism, terrorism becomes unnecessary.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Review: Randall Crane and the Whitechapel Horror, by Mark Weir

I am not a huge aficianado of the current swathe of vampire novels, although I did read Anne Rice in the early years. Because I am not familiar with the current trends in this genre, I cannot really comment on where this offering from Mark Weir fits. I can say, however, that this is not in the YA category. No sexy teen vampires here. Rather, this is a vampire novel in the more traditional vein, with sunlight-fearing, holy water- and wooden stake-vulnerable, rather smelly and decrepit vampire types. This is set in the latter part of the Victorian era in London, during the 1880s--not long before Jack the Ripper terrorised Whitechapel. The London presented here is itself decrepit and smelly, not to say a little vampiric.

Randall Crane, the title character, is himself a vampire, turned sometime in the previous century. He attempts to `live' a more noble life than many of his ilk, trying to avoid feeding on humans as much as possible. We are told of his conversion and a little of his back story, but most of the story takes place in 1880s London, where Randall finds himself investigating a series of vampire slayings--mostly of prostitutes--in cooperation with a detective, Thomas Grantham. He and Grantham strike up an unusual friendship. The villain of the piece is a nasty, ancient vampire rather incongruously known as Spring-Heeled Jack. Other villains lurk in the background, but I will say nothing of these to avoid spoiling the plot. Entangled with the murder mystery plot is another of political intrigue.

The book is competently written, with no obvious gaffs or clangers. Some of the scenes of the London of the day and the characters who inhabit it are quite evocative. Indeed, these minor characters are often more interesting and colourful than the leads. There are some well-developed scenes, leading up to key events. However, I would have to say that I found the final scenes rather predictable and `Hollywood'. The plot is a little slow to develop, and the narrative becomes bogged down at times in rather tedious dialogue. The writer is clearly trying to reflect what he imagines to be the style of speech of the day, formal and wordy. While I appreciate the effort, it becomes turgid at times.

Neither of the main characters, Crane or Grantham, really grew on me. Neither was as interesting and colourful as the minor characters, either the villains or their victims. Crane in particular is rather dull. The most interesting part of his story was the back story. But in the present he has little personality or character. Nor, in the end, despite the title of the book, is he the main character here. I think Grantham deserves that title. He is more interesting than Crane. Nevertheless, his personality is somewhat overshadowed by his role.

There are a few minor anachronisms in the story. There is reference to an emperor in France, but France had been a republic since 1870. Someone smokes King Edward cigars, decades before the Edward for whom they are named became king. Someone plays discs on a gramophone some years before they were invented. These are minor--but to someone like me--irritating oversights.

This is clearly the first in an intended series of books--yes, yet another--and the seeds for the sequel are rather unsubtly sown in the last few pages. If the series is to go forward successfully, I think the character of Crane needs to be made much more interesting, if not charismatic.

While some things weigh this book down, some of the well-written scenes and interesting minor characters lift it slightly. Three and a half stars from me, but I have to round it down to three for those sites that have yet to invest in half star icons.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Buy Direct

I am trying a new experiment on my website: direct sales of my ebooks. I was hesitant at first because it seemed rather complicated technically. How would I handle the payments? How would I facilitate the downloading of the files? I didn’t particularly want to deal with the thousands of email requests I would receive­­—cough—once I made the announcement that the books were available. With a little research and ingenuity I was able to automate the process, at least at my end. Now I just have to sit back and watch the money roll in—cough. Sorry, there seems to be something caught in my throat.

There is at least one obvious advantage to direct sales: cutting out the middle people. The consumer pays less, and I make more per sale. What could be better? PayPal takes a small percentage, but the rest is mine. However, there may well be pitfalls. I began a discussion on one of  LinkedIn’s forums to see what other people had to say, based on their experience. Three issues dominated.

The first was security. How would I prevent someone passing the book along, or perhaps even selling it on other sites? There is software that can be purchased (I believe) to make the files secure; but I wasn’t keen on forking out for that. The truth is that these security measures can be cracked by anyone with a little determination. The DRM on Kindle books is easily removed (I’m told). So theft is potentially a problem anyway. But is it? I would be quite pleased if someone thought my books were worth stealing. In addition, there is that oft-quoted adage from Tim O’Reilly: ‘For a typical writer, obscurity is a far greater threat than piracy.’ No one seems particularly concerned that people pass on physical books to friends. Or that libraries loan books.

The second issue was the problem of generating traffic to the website, but this is a furphy. No one who doesn’t already know me will find my ebooks on Amazon or Smashwords. It is no easier directing traffic to my books on those sites, than directing them to my own site. In any case, so that people will find my book on Amazon and other sites, directing them to my site is my first step. That is the only economical way—in terms of time management—to alert people to all the avenues for purchasing my books, electronic or physical. So nothing at all is lost by also offering direct sales from that site, while there are potential gains.

The third concern was how to deal with customers who might have difficulty downloading a file, or transferring it to their e-reader. I don’t know yet whether this will be a problem. People have my email address should they have a problem, and in such cases I can email them the file. I can even email directly to their Kindle if they give me the address. (I’m not sure if that is possible with other types of e-reader, but I imagine so.)

A fourth issue, and one that affects my ego more than anything else, is this. Direct sales from my site will go unrecorded. Even when I sell millions—cough—of copies this will go unnoticed in the world. I will never make the best-seller lists. This might be a problem if perceived sales generate additional sales, which they probably do.

So this is an experiment. I have nothing to lose. If anything interesting comes of it I will let you know. In the meantime you can purchase my ebooks directly from here.