Sunday, 30 December 2018

Totally engrossing

This is another lovely, absorbing read in the Strong Winds series. Once again, the tempo of sailing in various vessels informs the narrative. Above and through the machinations – innocent or otherwise – of the various individuals and groups involved run the timeless winds, currents and flows of the elements. And yet that’s a misleading over-simplification, because, as well as enjoying the reassuring honesty of the children in the story and their delight in the vessels they use, we’re exposed to less comforting themes: Liam’s growing problems with his sight; the baffling realities of international intrigue; the uncovering of family secrets; the different perspectives brought by the need to care for those at the other end of the age spectrum. We share the infectious joys of the younger protagonists and are troubled by their (not insignificant) sorrows, and, at times, the relative ‘simplicity’ of the sailing is a soothing counterpoint to complex patterns of family connections and past intrigues.

The children live in the moment and bring to their experiences an apparent simplicity, but one laced with mystery. Liam, for example, holds a shell to his ear to ‘check that the sound of the sea [is] safe inside’ and checks again later to make sure it’s ‘still there’. But they’re not just dreamers, they’re practical, reliable young people, not content with ‘learning about the world from a textbook’.

There’s the same refusal on the part of the narrator to resort to straightforward ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Airbrushing out the unpleasant truths about Russian infiltrators and poisonous packages would have been understandable, but it’s resisted, so we experience the highs and lows of all these adventures without judgemental accompaniments. Like that of the real world, this is a complex tapestry; it’s the fact that it’s usually seen from the perspective of the children’s ‘simple’ ethics that defuses much of the nastiness of what’s really happening. But, despite the plot’s potential for disaster at various points, the overall theme, as always, is one of hope and a trust in the basic goodness of people, and friends.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Lev Butts Reviews Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker

American Edition
UK Edition

A few years ago, I stumbled across the authorized sequel to Bram Stoker's Dracula, Dracula the Un-Dead that was co-written by Bram's great grandnephew Dacre Stoker. It took place about two decades after the original novel and followed the original Crew of Light as they crossed paths again with Count Dracula and fought a second vampire, Elizabeth B├íthory. It was an enjoyable read, based partly on Bram's original notes for both Dracula and a possible sequel, partly on historical records, and partly on Dacre's own imagination. I recommend it heartily, if for nothing else than the subplot following Detective Cotford of Scotland Yard, a disgraced inspector who helped work the original Jack the Ripper murders (and a character Bram had originally intended for Dracula but apparently dropped in the drafting stage), as he investigates a series of murders he fears indicates the Ripper's return. It was a lot of fun, and I could not put it down, but it was not by any means a perfect book. As much as I enjoyed it and held hope for a second sequel, it didn't really feel a true sequel to Dracula. Perhaps it was the lack of the epistolary form, but it feels like more of a sequel to Coppola's film adaptation of the novel more than of the novel itself.

Dracul, however, is an entirely different story. Not only is it a prequel to Dracula completely unrelated to Dacre's previous sequel, it is so much more than an enjoyable read: It truly feels like part of the "canon" of Dracula. Based largely on the Stoker family's documented history and again on Bram's journals and notes for the original novel, Dacre and Barker expertly craft a decades-long mystery around the Stoker family.

Bram Stoker, aged 25, roughly the
age he is during the events of the novel
When I first learned about the novel, I admit I had my doubts: How could this be a "prequel" to Dracula if Bram Stoker, along with his older brother Thornley and his younger sister Matilda, is the protagonist? I assumed it was really more of a fictionalized story of how Stoker came to write Dracula.

And it is.

But it is also a chronological sequel to Bram's novel.* The Dracula who appears within the pages of this new novel is very clearly the Dracula from Bram's original text. He is decidedly not the Dracula from Coppola's film: there is nothing remotely sympathetic in this iteration. This is the first thing I enjoyed about this book. I grow weary of overly romanticized vampires that are more clones of Anne Rice's Lestat** than Stoker's Dracula.

The romantic vampire has been done to death (pardon the pun). I want a vampire that truly strike's fear in the heart, and the novel's Dracula does exactly that. In Dacre and Barker's hands the Count
Thornley Stoker
becomes just as evil, just as terrifying as he was the first time we saw him through the pages of Jonathan Harker's journals, lying in his coffin surrounded by worm-ridden soil.

I also enjoy the blend of first-person epistolary and third person omniscient narrators. You might not think such a switching of narrators would work, but it does so exceedingly well. And each of the epistolary narrators (Bram, Thornley, and Matilda Stoker) has his or her own distinctive voice. The editing here is also superb: Each narrator's section ends on a perfect cliffhanger, and the next section inevitably gives the reader important information relevant to the previous section before resolving the dilemma. The narrators move like a well choreographed waltz: each weaving in and out of each other as it progresses across the floor, while from above, the whole appears as organized and fluid as a well-oiled machine.

Matilda Stoker
The best part of the novel, however, is the Authors' Note at the end in which they relate the family historical data pertinent to the novel, after reading this, especially the seeing the bits of history missing from the historical record, it becomes easier to believe the events true, and to fear that vampires exist. I am not speaking hyperbolically in the least here. The effect of the note is the literary equivalent of the best Twilight Zone endings. Don't skip it when you're done.

In short, Dracula the Un-Dead was an enjoyable romp through what might have happened after Dracula ended and young Quincey Harker grew up, and I do recommend you read it, but it was never going to be on par with the original novel. Dracul, however, is not only a worthy precursor to Bram Stoker's classic; it is itself an expert piece of narrative work, smoothly weaving threads of truth and fiction into one seamless cloth. When I first received my review copy, I expected to enjoy the book as a quick summer read, but I never expected to find myself as intrigued by it intellectually as I did. Dacre and Barker's Dracul is so much more than just a great sequel to a classic literary masterpiece. It is itself a work of fiction worthy of its own scholarly study.

The book is released on October 2, 2018, giving you just enough enough time to read it before Halloween. Do that. You will not be sorry.
Dacre Stoker
J. D. Barker

*Read the original Author's Note to Dracula; it provides a surprising justification for the prequel focusing on the Stokers.

**Don't get me wrong, I love Rice's Interview with a Vampire, and Lestat is perfectly drawn for the role he plays in his own series. So perfect, in fact, that I find most attempts sympathetic, romantic vampires merely imperfect clones of Lestat, and thus superfluous.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Lev Butts Reviews Fields of Gold: The Orchid and the Rose by Jim Stephens

I'm a sucker for coming of age stories and good World War II dramas (one of my favorite WWII stories is Herman Wouks' duology The Winds of War and War and Remembrance). Jim Stephens' Fields of Gold: The Orchid and the Rose is both, and it is really well done.

The novel tells the story of Matt Weldon, a spoiled and arrogant young American who finds himself in London on the eve of war. He very soon falls for a mysterious woman he meets at a party. Shortly after this, he must decide between her and the girl from his past as the forces of history sweep them in its wake. This dilemma, played against the backdrop of the world at war, forces Matt to mature in ways he never expected, to learn the value of hard decisions, and to appreciate the effects such decisions have not only on himself, but others.

Is the story perfect? Of course not; few books are. There are places that might use a bit more editing: words that need consistent spelling, sections that tend to retell the same stories, and incidents that may seem unnecessarily gratuitous. But this, for the most part, is a matter of opinion. I found most of the scenes other reviewers deemed gratuitous to be effective attempts to establish historical touchstones, thematic parallels, or effective ambiance. Most of the retold stories are slightly different versions from other points of view, so that we generally get a new interpretation of the events on subsequent retellings.

For me, the novel has two major aspects for recommending it: Stephens is adept in his historical research, and it shows in his ability to weave a fictional story around the historical details of the 1930's and 40's. Secondly, he experiments with his points of view: some sections are told in third person, others in first, and others through letters exchanged between the main characters. (Anyone who has read my work knows I am particularly interested in how a story is told as much if not more than what the story actually is, so I appreciate a good point of view shift).

Fields of Gold: The Orchid and the Rose is available in paperback and eBook here.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Plots and Plotting written by Diana Kimpton

Plot and Plotting - How to create stories that work

Author: Diana Kimpton

Firslty a little about the author and her credentials for writing this title. Diana has been an author for almost 30 years and in that time has written more than 40 books, lots of articles and some scripts. So she has a lot of knowledge to share.

I wouldn't normally read this type of book from cover to cover, but would read a section I felt relevant to the writing issue I was struggling with at the time. However, I believe you can always learn new things. So, I decided to read from start to finish. Some elements I knew would be new whilst others would be a refresher. I'm glad I read the entire book. It's set out in clear, logical sections and written using easy and clear language. I definitely learnt new skills/ideas and have already put some of them to good use. 

For example, I've used some of the ideas in the writing classes I teach. I've also used the idea of mapping out (literally drawing a map of where my story is taking place) to help me write my latest work in progress (another collection of short stories). I was working on a chase scene and as I started to write I realised that I should follow Diana's suggestion and should draw a map to ensure the route taken made sense. This map has been so helpful that I've used it to assist me in writing all the stories in my latest work in progress and it may even make it into the book as an illustration    

A great book full of insights and ideas useful for new and experienced authors alike. 
Reviewer - Lynne Garner
Author of the following short story collections: Ten Tales of Brer Rabbit - Ten Tales of Coyote - Anansi the Trickster Spider - Hedgehog of Moon Meadow Farm

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Murder by the Book by Debbie Young (reviewed by Bill Kirton)

The fact that this is a “Sophie Sayers Village Mystery” indicates from the start that the book will belong to the section of the crime genre labelled “cosy”. And yet its opening lines introduce us to two shadowy figures indulging in some far from cosy violence which results in one of them falling to his death down the village well. Thereafter, we’re introduced to a cross-section of the inhabitants of the village of Wendlebury Barrow and learn in entertaining detail of their relationships, interactions and some relatively harmless secrets. The distance between that opening violence and the minutiae of their everyday lives couldn’t be greater. It’s obviously a deliberate juxtaposition on the part of the author which, by setting the violence in a simple, unthreatening context, increases its dramatic effect and, simultaneously, the reader’s curiosity. That curiosity is sustained very cleverly throughout the book because there’s no indication until very late in the narrative of either the identity of the two people involved or the nature of the dispute which leads to the killing. Instead, the two threads of normality and violence are drawn together by an innocent and apparently unrelated celebration the villagers are planning, which eventually creates the circumstances for the killing and gradually reveals the victim and the potential motives of several of the characters with whom we’ve become familiar. As we near the climax, our suspicions are made to fall on some of these same innocents in succession before the final revelation and resolution. The writing is assured, the characters well drawn, and the various plot lines are often very funny. It’s a highly entertaining and probably addictive book – addictive because these are people with whom you’ll want to spend more time.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Best Murder in Show by Debbie Young

Best Murder in Show: A Sophie Sayers Village Mystery
Author: Debbie Young

Genre: Crim, Thriller, Mystery, Women Sleuths, Romantic Comedy

This is the first in a series of books that introduces us to our lead character, Sophie Sayers. Sophie has made a huge change in her life and moved to a village in the scenic Cotswolds. She's inherited a cottage from her great Aunt May, who was a successful writer. Sophie intends to use this opportunity and become a writer herself, but things don'ts go to plan.

Our story opens with the village carnival and a dead queen. This leaves Sophie and everyone else in the village asking questions. Was it murder? If so, who did it? Why? Almost everyone is a suspect. 

A thoroughly enjoyable read which reminded me of the TV shows Rosemary and Thyme, Agatha Raisin and Miss Marple. Today these are classed (apparently) as 'cozy crime' or 'cozy mysteries' due to the lack of explosions, car chases and gratuitous violence. It's a well written book which contains some lovely descriptive writing and  strong characters. Some of which I'm sure most of us will recognise in some form or another from our own lives. 

It's not often that I enjoy a book enough to make me want to get the next in the series, but on this occasion book number two (Trick or Murder) is already downloaded and waiting for me on my Kindle.

Reviewer - Lynne Garner

Writer of the following short story collections: Ten Tales of Brer Rabbit - Ten Tales of Coyote - Anansi the Trickster Spider - Hedgehog of Moon Meadow Farm

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Christopher Uptake by Susan Price

Christopher Uptake By Susan Price

Genre: Historical, Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

Historical fiction isn't normally something I'd read. However, as the theatre (one of my first jobs was as a wardrobe mistress) and the setting is Cambridge (I went to university there) I felt I had to give it a chance.

Set in Elizabethan England the story follows the turbulent life of Cristopher Uptake. Sent to university he quickly discovers the rules and the boredom of student life means he's soon drawn to the excitement of the streets of Cambridge and lure of the theatre. With very little money but some talent he luckily finds a patron in the form of the wealthy Edmund Brentwood. However, this brings a determined spy hunter knocking on his door. Christopher is given a choice, betray his friend or lose his life.

The story is told in the first person (a POV I typically find difficult to follow). However, because it's so well written I found myself thinking just another chapter. The bonus was I didn't see the end plot twist coming.

In my humble opinion, this book is well worth a read.

Reviewer - Lynne Garner

Writer of the following short story collections: Ten Tales of Brer Rabbit - Ten Tales of Coyote - Anansi the Trickster Spider - Hedgehog of Moon Meadow Farm