Archive for the ‘books’ Tag

Best Books of 2016

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

Sometimes people ask me how I deal with the commute to work. I spend a good three hours a day – often four – travelling by public transport, into London and back again along with hundreds of other commuters.

The singular thing that keeps me sane on my commute is that I use the time for reading. Losing myself in a book allows me to find some pleasure in this daily ordeal.

For the last few years, I’ve participated in the Goodreads challenge by setting a goal for myself on how many books to read in the year. For the first time in some years, I did not complete my challenge in 2016 – I set myself a goal to read 70 books and only read 68.

Generally this time of year I list the best of the previous year’s reading, which is guided by which books I gave five-star ratings to. And in 216 there were four, as follows:

Defending Jacob – William Landay
Witches Abroad (Discworld #12) – Terry Pratchett
13 Minutes – Sarah Pinborough
Try Not To Breathe – Holly Seddon

There’s one comic fantasy, one crime thriller and two psychological thrillers. Further details, as well as a link to the Goodreads page for each book, are listed below.

Defending Jacob
I had to read this one for my book group, and it left me utterly gripped. The story is told from the point of view of Andy Barber, district attorney, whose life is rocked when his fourteen-year-old son is accused of the brutal murder of a classmate.It throws up an interesting moral dilemma: what is a father to do when he suspects his own child might be a murderers?

Witches Abroad
I’m still working through my re-reading of the Discworld books, and I have to admit that the books featuring the witches – Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick – are my favourites. In this book the witches have to venture to much-suspect ‘foreign parts’ to stop the happy ending of a well known fairy tale. Because there’s so much more to the story than the one that we’ve heard. I love the witches and their very different but forceful personalities.

13 Minutes
I tend to run into Sarah Pinborough at most of the conventions I attend these days, and know her well enough to say hello to. Not only is she a lovely person, but she’s a phenomenal writer, and one of those people that occupies a spot on the writing career ladder that’s much higher up than me, and I can only look up and hope that one day I can get to the same spot.

Sarah Pinborough writes in many different genres. This novel is pegged as YA, but I really hate that label because when I see it I assume it’s referring to a kids’ book. The main character of this novel happens to be a teenage girl, but the genre is most definitely psychological thriller. The main character is rescued from a freezing river and revived after being technically dead for 13 minutes, and this is where the title comes from. How she got there is the main plot of the story, and it soon becomes evident that all the main characters are hiding secrets. As well as being a gripping story, this also serves as a reminder as to just how bitchy teenage girls can be. I’m so glad I don’t have to go through all that again.

Try Not To Breathe
Another psychological thriller, I had to review this for Shots and I found it utterly compelling. It involves the story of Amy, who was attacked and left in a coma when she was 15. Fifteen years have passed and she is still in the coma, but the story of how she got there is gradually revealed through three viewpoint characters, one of which – disturbingly – is Amy herself, who still has active brain function within her coma although she is tragically unaware of how much time has passed.

For this year, I have set myself a target of reading 68 books – the same number I managed to read last year. However, due to the fact that there are a lot of problems on London transport at the moment and I am spending four hours a day on trains, buses and underground trains I have been getting a lot of reading time in and I am already two books ahead of schedule.

If you’re on Goodreads and want to compare books with me, or even check out some of mine, connect with my profile here.

 

 

 

 

Best Books of 2015

(Cross-published on the WriteClub blog)

I usually start each year with a round-up of all the books I read in the previous year, and highlight the ones that I thought were the best. To clarify, my ‘best books of the year’ includes the ones I have read – not necessarily those that were published – in the relevant year.

Those who have been following the blog a while will know that I keep track of this via Goodreads, which allows me to log all the books I read and give each of them a star rating. The ability to do this appeals to my overdeveloped sense of law and order. Generally the way I pick out the best books of the year is to select all those I gave a five-star rating to. I can be quite critical when it comes to books. Not many get a five star rating.

In 2015 I read a total of 70 books (reaching my Goodreads target, hurrah!) and I rated six of them five stars. Only two of them, however, were books I had not read before.

I started the year re-reading Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, and throughout the year not only completed all the previous books, but read the latest one, SKIN GAME – purchased as a signed copy at EasterCon in London this year – for the first time as well.

They all warranted four stars or higher. Four of them I gave five stars to. They are, in chronological order:

Dead Beat (#7)
Proven Guilty (#8)
Changes (#12)
Skin Game (#15)

So why did these ones rate higher than the others in the series? These are the ones that left me breathless. That had me gripped from beginning to end, turning pages faster and faster to find out what happens next, even on the second reading. But if we want to a bit more specific – and if you don’t mind spoilers (if you do, stop reading this post now) – there are specific incidents in each of these books that warranted that extra star in my mind. For DEAD BEAT, it was the T-Rex. No question. PROVEN GUILTY adds an extra complication to the series with the introduction of Molly Carpenter as a rebellious and confused teenager, who just happens to have burgeoning magical ability. A whole load of magical ability, and enough angst and anger to have her teetering on the precipice to the Dark Side. Harry just has to try and stop that from happening.

CHANGES is possibly the darkest book of the series. Jim Butcher says he likes to make Harry suffer, and he pulls no punches in this one. Harry loses everything. Literally. Starting with his office, which is blown to smithereens early in the novel. As the story progresses he pretty much loses everything else as well, including – at the end (SPOILER ALERT) his life.

But this is not the end of Harry, and the series carries on. SKIN GAME I was anticipating for a long time. I actually got to meet Jim Butcher himself at EasterCon, after standing in the signing queue for what felt like an age (and then babbled idiotically like a fangirl when I finally got to the front of the line). I had high expectations for this book. It did not disappoint. The series has taken a decidedly dark turn now, as has Harry. He is still as charismatic as he ever was, and still on the side of good, but due to various reasons is not quite as nice a guy as he was at the beginning of the series. But this means you never really know what to expect when you pick up a new Harry Dresden book. And that’s not a bad thing.

My only regret is that now I’ve re-read the series and the new book, I’ve got to wait a while for number 16 in the series to come out.

So, that’s four of my six ‘best books of the year’. One of the others is also from a series I’ve been re-reading.

I started re-reading Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ books a little while ago. I take comfort in the fact that there are rather a lot of books in this series – over 50 is the official count, I think – and I’ve only got to #7 in my re-read so there are still lots more to go. Number six, however, has made this list because I think it is the best one in the series.

Hence the next book on my list of ‘Best books of 2015’ is –

Wyrd Sisters – Terry Pratchett.

I know there are factions of Pratchett fans, divided by the sub-categories of the various characters whose stories make up the Discworlds. The Watch have their loyal fans, as to the wizards. I have to say I have always favoured the witches – the crotchety Granny Weatherwax (the Crone); the earthy Nanny Ogg (the mother); and the spinsterish Magrat (the Maiden, though this latter category is represented by various characters throughout the series after Magrat gets herself married and can no longer be classified as a Maiden). And this book sums up why I love the witches. It parodies Macbeth; it features Shakespeare as a playwriting dwarf, regicide, dastardly royal politics and even magical time travel. What’s not to love?

Finally, last but not least, the sixth book on my list is one I read for the first time this year:

NOS4R2 – Joe Hill

Son of Stephen King, Joe Hill proves himself here to be a horror writer in his own right. Featuring a supernatural and spooky car, rather like his famous father’s novel CHRISTINE, NOS4R2 may appear to cover familiar territory but it soon becomes evident that this novel is not just a retelling of CHRISTINE. It’s creepy and disturbing, and original enough to be a classic all by itself.

I have set myself a goal of reading another 70 books this year. I’m already working on the first two.

Monday’s Friend: Mark Pryor

Today crime writer Mark Pryor is chatting to me about his writing. Welcome, Mark!

SJT: When did you first know you were destined to be a writer?

MP: I think it’s always something I wanted to be, but I never really thought it was a realistic or achievable goal. Even as a kid I wrote (terrible!) short stories and my mum told me recently there’s a drawer somewhere full of them. Which is sort of a horrifying thought!

About ten years ago, though, I decided to really give it a try. I told myself that yes, I might fail and never get published, but the real failure would be not trying. So I wrote three (terrible?!) novels that never went anywhere, and then The Bookseller, which got interest from agents pretty immediately. Since that time, I haven’t dared to look back!

SJT: Who would you cite as your influences?

MP: I admire so many writers but I would have to say that the ones I read as a kid and teenager really shaped the stories I put together. People like Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle for their brilliant plotting, they would be my earliest influences. More recently I feel like I’ve learned from writers like Alan Furst and Philip Kerr, who manage to infuse their stories with such atmosphere, such a strong sense of place. I really admire that ability and try to emulate it in my own writing.

SJT: What advice would you pass on to beginner writers that you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out?

MP: I usually tell beginner writers two things: first, learn the craft. My first three novels didn’t get published because they weren’t good enough. I didn’t know about point-of-view, I used the passive tense, my characters were shallow and poorly-drawn. Maybe it’s time and practice that teaches, maybe it’s classes, or maybe it’s just reading a lot, but learning the craft is essential to success.

Once you have a handle on that, the only thing I can say is: don’t give up. I must have received three or four hundred rejections over the years, from agents and publishers. Sometimes my wife would look at me like I was mad for subjecting myself to all those “no thank-yous”. But I kept going, plugging away, writing and querying, and finally something clicked. Six books later I still look back and thank the lucky stars that I didn’t give up.

SJT: Tell us about your new book, HOLLOW MAN, and where we can buy it.

MP: You should be able to buy it everywhere, all bookstores and online. If not let me know and I’ll fix that lickity-split!

Hollow Man is a stand-alone, a departure from my Hugo Marston series. It’s a book that rattled around inside my head in various forms for several years before taking shape, and it’s certainly a lot darker than my series. It’s the story of a man who presents himself as a normal, functioning member of society when in reality he’s essentially mimicking those around him, copying them and learning how to express emotions by watching them. He’s aware of his emotional failing, though, and that’s why he tries to hide it—to protect his life, his lifestyle. But…

SJT: Your main character is a psychopath. How did you go about getting inside the head of this character, and making him someone that the reader would empathise with?

MP: I did a lot of research. I’m the kind of person who gets teary-eyed at commercials featuring puppies, or those videos of soldiers returning home and surprising their kids… so the idea of someone have no empathy is fascinating to me. I have a friend at work who’s a psychiatrist and an expert on psychopaths, so I bounced ideas off him a lot. And I did a lot a lot of reading, too.

I think (hope!) I made him sympathetic in the sense that he never set out to harm anyone. Quite the opposite, he just wants to live his life as normally as possible, knowing full well that if he’s identified as a psychopath by his peers he’d likely lose his job and his career as a musician. In other words, this isn’t a story about a bad man doing bad things, it’s more a story about a man with the capacity for evil trying to resist those urges, and how he reacts when the choices he makes take him off that path of decency and goodness.

SJT: Like your character, you’re an Englishman living in Texas. What are the main differences you notice between the two places?

MP: Apart from the weather, you mean?!

SJT: That goes without saying!

MP: There’s a lot to love about Texas but I think one of the major things (and I’ve found this to be true of America generally) is the can-do attitude. You’re allowed to be anything you want, and when you strike off in a new direction people are there to cheer you on. I can’t tell you how much support I’ve had when, first, switching my career from journalist to lawyer, and then on becoming a published author. I think this is the attitude that separates this country from almost everywhere else, and I really admire and appreciate it.

SJT: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done in the name of research?

MP: Can I plead the Fifth? Okay, I’ll relent… I’ve swapped emails with an actual sociopath, which may not seem like much but having done a lot of research I have to admit to feeling odd when seeing her name in my in-box. Also, I set one scene in The Button Man at a bdsm party, and I’ll point out that I rarely describe things I’ve not researched in person. What else? I can assure you that a review of my internet search history would raise a few eyebrows, from the above-mentioned to various types of poisons, and some explosives-related searching.

SJT: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

MP: My greatest pleasure is my family, hanging out with them. Even when I’m writing, I try to do that—my eldest daughter often accompanies me to the library to read while I write. I’m also a huge soccer fan. I play on two teams and two of my kids play, so watching them gives me a lot of joy. I don’t have a lot of down time, or even time for reading, but I have no complaints about such a full life, I’m really very lucky indeed.

SJT: What’s next for you, writing-wise?

MP: I’m currently working on the sixth book in the Hugo Marston series, and I think my agent is negotiating further books in the series. I’ll focus on those for a bit but I do have a couple of idea for stand-alones that are slowly forming. I hope to find time to work those out, specifically one about a father and son who have to escape some bad guys chasing them across west Texas. I have a title for that book, but the story itself isn’t settled in my mind. Yet. 🙂

PRYORAUTHOR BIO

Mark Pryor is a former newspaper reporter from England, and now a prosecutor with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, in Austin, Texas.

He is the author of the stand-alone psychological thriller, HOLLOW MAN, released on September 1 of this year by Seventh Street Books. He is also the author of five novels in the Hugo Marston series, which are set in Paris, London, and Barcelona. The first, called THE BOOKSELLER, was a Library Journal Debut of the Month, and called “unputdownable” by Oprah.com. The fifth was published in June of 2015, and the series was recently featured in the New York Times.

Mark is also the creator of the nationally-recognized true-crime blog ‘D.A. Confidential,’ and has appeared on CBS News’s 48 Hours and Discovery Channel’s Discovery ID: Cold Blood.

Website: www.MarkPryorBooks.com
Amazon Link
Barnes & Noble Link

My Life in Books: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

HitchhikersWe are now into the 1990s on this list of books that have made an impact on my life in some way. Technically this book should be earlier in the list, as the first time I read it was some time in the mid-80s. But I have read it several times, so perhaps chronologically it doesn’t really matter.

This was the first book that made me laugh out loud. The first time I read it, I was in high school. I remember laughing reading it on the bus on the way to school, and getting some very odd looks from my fellow passengers. But I’ve laughed just as loudly in subsequent re-readings.

Douglas Adams’ strange sense of humour was unique. Who else could decide that the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything is 42? This may say something about the people in my social circles (most of whom are fellow geeks), but on any social occasion if someone mentions the meaning of life, someone else will pipe up with, “42”. Who else could decide that the worst swear word in the universe is “Belgium”?

His most famous quote is, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” I think a lot of us can relate to that one – especially writers.

The character of Arthur Dent, reluctant space traveller and Ordinary Bloke, stumbles through his adventures (wearing his pyjamas and dressing gown for the whole of the first book) with a sense of disbelief, like he can’t believe it’s all really happening. Rumour has it that Douglas Adams based this character on himself. It’s probably no accident that Arthur Dent’s initials are the reverse of Douglas Adams’.

The Hitchhiker’s series was supposed to be a trilogy, but there ended up being rather more than that. None of them were ever quite as good as the first and original.

I was really upset to hear the news of Douglas Adams’ death, at age 49 in 2001. Apparently he had a heart attack after going to the gym.

I always suspected that working out was bad for your health.

Best Books of 2014

As always, I have been using Goodreads to keep track of the books I read throughout the year. I set myself a goal to read 65 books in 2014. I actually managed to read 71.

The number of books I have been reading since I started keeping track on Goodreads has been steadily increasing year on year. Just look at the stats:

2011 – 55 books read
2012 – 60 books read
2013 – 63 books read
2014 – 71 books read

I am not sure why this number is increasing. I have started reading books on the journey in to work, whereas I used to read the newspaper, so that’s a difference. I used to take the underground from London Bridge to Holborn every morning, which required changing trains and a great deal of walking to get from one platform to another, which would interrupt my reading time. This year I’ve started taking the bus instead, which is a straight 20 minutes of uninterrupted reading time before I have to get off. So I think that’s made a difference too.

Another noticeable change in reading habits in this past year is the increasing number of books I have read on the Kindle, as opposed to paper books. In fact the only paper books I read were those that I was sent by Shots e-zine to review for them, those that I picked up as freebies from conventions and those that had been given to me as gifts or were already on my shelves (for instance the Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky books). Every new book that I purchased myself, I bought as a Kindle version. The convenience of the Kindle is making a significant impact on my reading habits, and now that I have a plastic waterproof cover for it, I can even read it in the bath (which is another place I like to get some quiet reading time).

I started the year re-reading the Sara Paretsky books, who as I have mentioned many times is and always will be one of my all-time favourite authors. I enjoy all of her books, and many of the five-star rated books of 2014 are hers. I read many excellent books in 2014. However, since there were all of 16 books I gave five stars to, this already makes for a long list of ‘Best books read in 2014’. So although there are many deserving four-star books that should be on the list, the final cut contains only the ones I rated five stars. Some of them I have reviewed on Goodreads, and the link is included. Others I have included a few words about below the title.

Lamentation – CJ Sansom

This is the sixth book in the excellent crime series about Matthew Shardlake, hunchback lawyer in the time of Henry VIII, and it just as good as the previous in the series. The series is not only excellently researched, but each one has featured one of Henry’s six Queens, in chronological order. In this latest book, Henry is dying and his last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book called ‘Lamentation of a Sinner’ that has been stolen. Shardlake is hired to find out who stole the book and retrieve it, for if it gets out into the public domain it could prove the Queen guilty of treason.

The religious and political instability of this era is effectively portrayed. My only worry was that with the death of Henry VIII there would be no more Shardlake books. Without giving away too much, however, the end of this book sets the stage for a potential new era of Shardlake adventures.

Before I Go Sleep – SJ Watson

A film starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth was released of this book last year. It’s the sort of plot where you either read the book or see the film because once you know the ending, it’s a fairly major spoiler.

The premise of the plot is that Christine Lucas has suffered an accident that affects her long-term memory. Every day she wakes up with no memory of the last twenty years, and the man she wakes up next to, who tells her he is her husband, is a stranger to her. It’s a frightening concept, but as Christine tries to explore her surroundings she discovers she has secrets she has not been telling her husband. Who can she trust?

This book is a very exciting and gripping thriller, and I was hooked from the first chapter.

V is for Vengeance – Sue Grafton
W is for Wasted – Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton is another of my all-time favourite authors, and I love her feminist, kick-ass heroine Kinsey Millhone. The books are all set in the 1980s, when Grafton started the series, and she says she is going to stop at Z. So there will only be three more, which makes me sad. However, this is another series I shall enjoy re-reading, since it’s been some time since I read the early books and I can’t remember much about them.

The Secret Place – Tana French

This is book five of the Dublin Murder Squad series, and I haven’t read the other four, but found this book in my pile of free booty from the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. It involves the murder of a teenage boy on the grounds of an expensive boarding school for girls. The investigating officers whittle the list of suspects down to eight girls – two groups of four, close-knit clusters of friends. But who killed Chris Harper? I really wanted to find out. And this book about adults moving around in the world of adolescent girls made me feel really glad I am long past that stage of life – been there, done that, no wish to go back thank you very much.

Breakdown – Sara Paretsky
Hardball – Sara Paretsky
Blacklist – Sara Paretsky
Hard Time – Sara Paretsky
Tunnel Vision – Sara Paretsky
Guardian Angel – Sara Paretsky
Burn Marks – Sara Paretsky
Body Work – Sara Paretsky

I worship the ground Ms Paretsky walks on. I’ve re-read every VI Warshawski book, and in doing so came across a couple that were new to me (‘Hardball’, which somehow I missed the first time around, and the latest book ‘Breakdown’). I now eagerly await the next book, out later this year. VI Warshawski is now in her fifties, though, and I wonder how much longer she can run around scaling walls and getting shot at.

Stone Bruises – Simon Beckett

Merivel: A Man of His Time – Rose Tremain

The Accident – CL Taylor

Sometimes I browse the Kindle specials store, and end up finding something really good for 99p. This was one of those occasions. The premise involves a teenage girl who ends up in a coma after deliberating stepping in front of a bus. Her mother, desperate to find out why her daughter tried to kill herself, starts to investigate and discovers some murky secrets in her daughter’s life that she knew nothing about. It’s another suspenseful page-turner.

And so this is my review of the best books I read in 2014. I have set myself a goal to read 70 books in 2015. Could be a challenge, but the Kindle is charged and loaded with plenty of unread books, all ready for my return to the day job and the London commute tomorrow. I suppose that’s one good thing about the days the train service is appalling. The longer it takes me get home, the more reading time I have.

My Life in Books: Restoration

RestorationTremainOne of my first jobs was in a book shop (1989-1991), and at the time each employee was allocated particular publishers, and part of their job was to see the publishers’ rep when they came to the shop and listen to the pitch for new releases. Sometimes the reps arrived armed with free copies of these new books, and this is how I ended up with a copy of Rose Tremain’s ‘Restoration’, because in 1989 I had the Hamish Hamilton list.

Surprisingly, because I wouldn’t have thought it was my sort of thing, I really enjoyed this book.  It revolves around the escapades of one Robert Merivel, favoured physician in James II’s court. He’s not a terribly nice character at the start of the book – a self-centred, womanising rogue – but there’s a charm to him that makes you empathise with him anyway.  The King orders Merivel to marry his favourite mistress, the idea being that he can keep her close to hand without rousing the suspicions of his other mistresses, confident in the concept that Merivel is too fond of ladies in general to get attached to just one.  When Merivel commits the unpardonable sin of falling in love with his wife, he is banished from court, and the rest of the book is a story of his journey back to respectability.  He learns how to put aside his philandering ways and gains respect for women, and also discovers respect for himself.

Perhaps it is Rose Tremain’s writing style that endeared me to this character, but he changes and matures throughout the story in a way that I found engaging.  Merivel’s indiscretions include a dalliance with an attractive young woman in a mental hospital, and when she dies giving birth to his baby, he is left with a daughter to take care of and that is one of the key things that makes him re-assess his priorities.

I read this book once, over twenty years ago, but it stayed with me.  I was pleased to learn recently that Rose Tremain has written a sequel to ‘Restoration’, set seventeen years on, with Merivel an older (though probably not much wiser) man and his daughter Margaret grown and ready to make her own way in the world.  This book is now in my To Be Read pile, and I am looking forward to visiting Robert Merivel again.

My Life in Books: The Stand

The-Stand-Stephen-King-UsedI never read The Stand in its original published version, but came across it when it was re-released as an ‘author’s extended version’ in 1990.  I was working in a book shop at the time, a job that was responsible for expanding my library quite dramatically – not just because I was around books all day and kept finding ones I wanted, but because we all got a staff discount if we bought books from the shop.  For some reason I had trouble finding an image of the cover of the 1990 release, which is the book that still sits on my shelf (along with quite a number of other Stephen King books), to include with this post.  The one I am including here is photo of someone’s copy of the book, not a JPG of the cover.

A huge doorstopper of a book, at over 1,150 pages, King allegedly put back in scenes that were cut from the originally published version, the reasoning being that people would be put off buying such a large book.  But I guess by 1990 Stephen King was such a mega-bestseller he had the freedom to do pretty much whatever he wanted.

Best described as a post-apocalyptic thriller, the plot of this book involves a super-virus, originally cultivated as a biological weapon, that effectively wipes out the population of the US, leaving handfuls of survivors that eventually band together, forming two camps – one clearly evil, the other fighting on the side of good.

The extended version, though a long book, is still one of King’s best in my view.  It’s a story of ordinary flawed people thrown into an extraordinary situation – what Stephen King does best.  The enduring appeal of post-apocalyptic novels is the study of how humanity behaves when the survival of the species is in crisis.  Modern post-apocalyptic stories generally feature zombies, but still study the behaviour of the human survivors – look at The Walking Dead, for example.  Though we’d like to think that when there are only a handful of humans left, everyone will pull together to save humanity, but sadly that’s not normally the way it is.  The surviving humans become extremely territorial, fighting each other.  This is the idea behind The Stand, and though there are no zombies to be found in this novel, the concept of what humanity is capable of in extreme survival situations is far scarier. The leader of the ‘evil’ camp is unquestionably a supernatural entity, evil for the sake of being evil, but his followers are all too human, and capable of some pretty despicable acts.  Like all King books there are truly hateful, but ultimately human, characters, who generally get what’s coming to them at the end, and likeable characters you root for and then get all upset over when they meet an undeservedly tragic end.

There are some passing observations about how our attitude to the things we take for granted shifts when the world as we know it has ended – using paper money as a book mark, for instance, as it has become worthless, and how a ruptured appendix becomes a fatal condition when there is no one around with medical knowledge to perform what is currently considered a basic and routine operation.

It’s not the first Stephen King on my list of memorable books and it will not be the last, but this book stands out for me as one of the best I ever read.

Monday’s Friend: Stuart West

Today I am pleased to welcome fellow MuseItUp author Stuart West to the blog.

Stuart WestSJT:  When did you first know you were destined to be a writer?

SW:  I don’t know that destiny had anything to do with it, but I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in third grade.

SJT:  Who would you cite as your influences?

SW:  It depends on if I’m writing YA or adult (I like to flip-flop back and forth), but I’d go with a hodge-podge of Stephen King, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, and let’s toss in some Joss Whedon while we’re at it.

SJT:  What advice would you pass on to beginner writers that you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out?

SW:  Make sure your liquor cabinet is well-stocked. No, I’d probably tell them to be prepared for a marathon rather than a sprint. Don’t expect overnight success. Write because you love to. Stay in school and drink milk.

SJT:  Tell us about your latest novel.

Elspeth 200x300SW:  Elspeth, the Living Dead Girl is a paranormal mystery, drama, comedy, thriller, romance what’s-it. Elspeth, a rebellious dead girl, is summoned from Limbo to uncover the identity of a murderous drug dealer at a suburban Kansas City high school. The only problem is she has to share a body with Elizabeth, an extremely uptight, preppie student who wants to attend an Ivy League college, win the title of prom queen, and marry her Prince Charming with picture-perfect posture. Hijinx and trauma ensue.

SJT:  Your books seem to be part paranormal drama, part mystery, part something else. How would you describe the genre you write in?

SW:  Good question, Sara. I don’t know… “Kitchen Sink Genre” maybe? I do like to mix a lot of genres together and shake ‘em up. It keeps writing interesting (I don’t know what’s going to happen half the time until it does) and hopefully, the reader off-guard.

 SJT:  Your main character, Elspeth, is a ghost. What inspired you to write a book about a ghost who solves mysteries?

SW:  I wouldn’t necessarily call Elspeth a ghost. She’s just as alive as Elizabeth is. She just can’t bring her body with her when she leaves Limbo. I introduced Elspeth and Elizabeth in my second Tex, the Witch Boy book, Tex and the Gangs of Suburbia. At the time, I never suspected they’d get their own book. But Elspeth threatened to steal my book away from my protagonist, Tex, practically begging for her own book.

SJT:  Have you got plans for a series featuring Elspeth?

SW:  I’m never going to say never, but I think I ended the gals’ stories in a good place. However, I did leave it open. We’ll see.

SJT:  What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

SW:  To my wife’s befuddlement and I suppose, my shame, I’m an unabashed fan of absolutely awful horror films of the ‘70’s through the ‘80’s, the golden era of cheese. Sometimes it’s an endurance test viewing these, but it’s my duty to sit through every bad flick I can find.

Neighborhood Watch 200x300SJT:  What’s next for you, writing-wise?

SW:  I have lots of things percolating in various stages. There’s a historical horror epic told in the ‘30’s and ‘60’s detailing the downfall of a once prosperous mining town. I’m working on a darkly comic tale about serial killers. And my own take on zombies.

Blurb for ELSPETH, THE LIVING DEAD GIRL:

If you’re dead already, can you die again? Elspeth’s been summoned from limbo. Her new assignment? Track down the culprit in the mysterious death of a student at Clearwell High. And incidentally, uncover the identity of the new drug dealer prowling the halls. Only one problem—the body she has to co-inhabit has a different agenda. Elizabeth just wants to be prom queen, marry Prince Charming, and graduate with perfect posture. Both girls, alive and dead, will have their separate worlds rocked before the killer is unveiled. Nothing is as it seems. No one can be trusted. Being dead has never been so dangerous.

 LINKS:

All books available at MuseItUp Publishing: http://museituppublishing.com/bookstore/index.php/search?keyword=stuart+r+west&limitstart=0&option=com_virtuemart&view=category

And Amazon:

Elspeth, the Living Dead Girl: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00LBG4VKM

Tex and the Gangs of Suburbia 200x300Tex, the Witch Boy: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00B3U5OWU

Tex and the Gangs of Suburbia: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00E5RWBGA

Tex and the God Squad: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00H9HPIA4

And my adult horror tale, Neighborhood Watch: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00IA6ZTIO

 EXCERPT:

Chapter One

Elspeth

“So, Susan, have you ever made out with a girl?”

“What?No! Ewww.”

I knew she never had. Truth be told, I hadn’t either. But I enjoyed busting my roommate’s chops. Her expressions were always well worth it. I took my kicks where I could find them.

“Relax. I’m kiddin’!”

Susan stood by the door, her fingertips pressed against her lips in horrific contemplation. I rolled over on my bed, my leather jacket creaking like a tree limb in the wind. “It’s not like it was an offer or anything.”

“Elspeth, honestly!” She practically vanished when she sat on her bed. Only Susan would color coordinate her sweater with the ugly aqua-colored bedspread. “Have you, um, ever kissed a girl?”

Guess I had unleashed her inner beast.

“No.” I kicked my feet into the air. “I’m bored. Bored, bored, bored!” Everything about my living arrangement was boring. Our small bedroom was a simple dorm room, decorated in bland pastel colors—a sixties nightmare. The walls were constructed of cold, harsh cinder blocks at odds with the decor. A few paintings of doe-eyed children hung on the walls, attempting to spruce the joint up. Delivered the opposite effect.

Ho-hum. As I said, boring.

Thirty years ago, when I first woke up, I honestly thought I’d gone to hell. I encountered Ms. Pillows first. The name fit her to a T. Tightly packaged into her purple dress, her lumps bulged everywhere. And I remember thinking, the devil’s an overweight, blue-haired woman wearing cat-eyed glasses.

* * * *

Tex The Witch Boy 200x300“Am I dead?” I had asked.

“Well, child, that’s a hard distinction to make here.”

“Okay.”

“I’m Ms. Pillows. I suppose you can say I’m the welcoming committee.”

I sat up and studied the room. “So, hell is pastel colored?” Whether it was hell or not, it may as well have been. I absolutely despised light colors, preferring everything dark.

“Oh! Oh, my!”

I had shocked the devil, probably not an easy thing to do.

“No, Elspeth, not at all! You’re in a very special place now.”

“Heaven?”

“Let’s just say it’s somewhat of a way station.” She beamed at me in a grandmotherly fashion, waiting for her nonsensical words to affect me. “Tell me, Elspeth, what’s the last thing you remember?”

I closed my eyes, attempting to erase dark memories. But they came flooding back with a vengeance. “I was at a nightclub in New York. I glommed onto some guys. They took me out into the alley. They beat me, robbed me and…” My voice grew ragged. I fought back tears. I didn’t want to appear weak. Since there was no way I could finish my tale without breaking down, I just shook my head and embraced silence.

“It’s okay now, Elspeth,” she said, patting my hand. “Those days are behind you.” She smiled sadly, knowingly, her eyes crinkling at the corners. “Everything’s fine now.”

I sacked up and pulled my act together. Couldn’t keep me down for long. “Okay. So, what is the deal anyway?”

“Elspeth, you’ve been given another chance. Your life was forfeit before your natural time. It happens sometimes.” She shook her head apologetically as if bureaucratic incompetence were to blame for my death.

“So, what does that mean, exactly? Am I alive? Did the doctors save me? Or what?” I rose from the small bed and grabbed my jacket from the back of a chair. Feeling woozy, I immediately crashed back onto the mattress.

“Now, now. It’s going to take you a little while to become acclimatized to your new existence.” She placed her hand on my forehead. “Just relax. You’re not going anywhere for a while.”

“Ms. Pillows! Would you please tell me what the hell is going on?”

Ms. Pillows blinked her eyes at my blasphemy. But I felt the fate of my soul was kinda’, you know, important.

“Oh, my! Language please, Elspeth.” Her lips turned white and all but vanished into a tight grimace. “As I said, you’ve been given a second chance. I’m afraid you have left the mortal world as you know it.”

“All right.”

“However, there are certain individuals we encounter from time to time whom we feel are worthy of a second chance. Sometimes, it’s because a mistake was made and as a consequence, they’re taken before their previously scheduled time. Other times, we feel a person has special qualities—talents—that can be used to make the mortal world a better place.”

“Which kind am I?”

“A little bit of both.”

“Well, let’s get going, then!” I swung my boots over the side of the bed. “How’s this work?”

“Patience, Elspeth, patience.” She grabbed my feet, attempting to hoist them back into bed. After huffing and panting, she gave up, leaning back in her chair. “Youth today. No patience.” She clucked disapprovingly. “I’m afraid it’s not as simple as your going back to the mortal world and picking up where you left off. You’ll be assigned a host body.”

“A ‘host body’?”

“That’s correct, Elspeth!”

Where’s my damn gold star?

“Your host will be someone your age, sharing similar physical qualities. It will be up to you to make her understand what’s happening. We can’t have an unwilling host body, after all.” She giggled toward the ceiling as if sharing a private joke with God.

“Yeah. We can’t have that.”

“Anyhoo. You’ll have to share the host’s body. And, mind you, it’s just a temporary thing. We can’t be expected to inhabit your host full time!”

Tex and the God Squad 200x300“Of course we can’t.”

“Yes, well…”

“So. What’s the catch?”

“Excuse me?” She pushed her glasses up along her nose.

“I know damn well…”

Ms. Pillows gasped.

“There’s gotta’ be a catch. You guys aren’t doing this just because you’re nice! Whoever you are!”

“So cynical. Yet, in this case, you’re correct. You will be asked to do certain things. Sometimes, they might even prove to be dangerous.”

“Kick ass!”

Books, Books and E-books

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

Ever since I first learned how to read, I have spent much of my time with my nose in a book. I was starting to read by myself by age seven, I think. That’s a good 37 years ago. I have devoured a great many books in that time.

In recent years there has been much debate about the format of books – hardback; paperback; e-book. In my own personal library, there are more paperbacks than anything else. But this is largely because I have been a commuter for the last 25 years, and most of my reading has been done on the train to and from work. Paperbacks are much more transportable than hardbacks. In the last four years or so I’ve had an e-reader and have been collecting e-books, and it won’t be long before they overtake the number of paperbacks, even given their relatively recent appearance on the market.

I also possess a number of hardbacks in my library. Most of them have come my way as gifts, from someone who wants to buy me the absolute latest novel by one of my favourite authors, and who feels that a hardback is a more substantial gift than a paperback. I also have hardbacks that are personalised and signed by the author, because I went to their signing session and bought the book.

Ultimately the format is not as important as the words in the page. Books can transport you into another world. They are an escape from everyday life. They are the key to you becoming someone else, even if just for a few hours.  A dashing and brave hero. A magician with superior intellect. A hard-bitten cynical cop. The daring captain of a spaceship. Whatever you want to be, the words of a novel can take you there.

And yet the format of a book still matters, even though it shouldn’t. Many people insist they don’t like the idea of e-books because they prefer the feel of a ‘proper’ book. As if e-books are somehow not ‘proper’ books. I must admit I was a tad suspicious about them myself, until I got my first e-reader and realised how wonderful they were. No longer do I have to weigh down my suitcase with half a dozen books when I go on holiday for two weeks – all I need is my Kindle, and I have all the books I want. If I finish reading a book on the way into work, I don’t have to lug another around another for the journey home, I just open up another book on the Kindle. My handbag is much lighter with the Kindle in, instead of a paper book. I am someone who has a book with her at all times, no matter where she is going. And a Kindle is so much easier to transport. It will practically fit into a pocket.

My e-reader has also allowed me to buy more books.  I browse the 99p books in the Kindle e-book store almost daily.  Quite often if I am intrigued by a book’s cover and blurb I will decide to take a chance on it because it’s not a lot of money to part with, and it might lead me to discover a wonderful new author.  One click is all it takes to buy that book and transfer it to my Kindle.  It’s ready to begin reading mere seconds later.  And best of all, I don’t have to find shelf space for all these new books because they don’t take up physical space.

Yet in spite of this, I haven’t stopped buying paper books. I will go to signing sessions and buy hardbacks. I will browse second hand book shops and buy books that take my fancy. I still browse book shops, heaven forbid, and take a punt on a new author’s paperback simply because the cover and blurb on the back attract me. And I don’t think this will ever change.

As a lover of books in all formats, it worries me there’s still some resistance to e-books – occasionally even from publishers, though this is getting better. Only this morning I was reading an article in the news stating that e-book sales are predicted to overtake paper book sales in the UK by 2018.  And a spokesperson for a particular publisher was quoted about how e-books have revitalised the book market, with the technology to make e-books available on tablets and so forth making reading accessible to people who never used to be book buyers.

I’m not someone who gives books to charity shops when she’s re-read them.  Maybe this is a selfish attitude, but I like to have books available to re-read at a future date.  Going back to a favourite book is like visiting an old friend you haven’t seen in a while.  Hardbacks do make this a bit problematic, though, when most of my reading is done on the move.  I’m in the process of re-reading Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski books, and the next book on the list is BODY WORK. My copy of this is a hardback, signed to me personally by Sara because I met the great lady herself at the UK launch for this book. And as she is one of my favourite authors of all time, I will treasure it. Having paid £15 for this signed copy, I don’t particularly want to have it bashed about in my bag on the train, or dropped in the bath, or whatever. Ideally I’d like to keep the hardback on the shelf and have a electronic version to re-read, but this would mean having to pay for a second copy of a book I already legitimately own.

I’m sure I’m not the only reader out there who likes to have shelves surrounded by books, whilst enjoying the convenience that an e-reader brings to the reading experience.  I’d like to see publishers bundling a free e-book version of a novel with every hardback edition sold.  That would certainly encourage me to buy more hardbacks to fill up my bookshelves at home, and I’d still get to enjoy the convenience of my e-reader on my daily commute.

A few years ago there seemed to be much suspicion in the publishing world, and a widely held view that e-books would see the end of paper books.  I maintained then, and still maintain now, that there is room in the world for e-books and paper books to exist together, and there does seem to be more people acknowledging this now.  But there’s still a way to go before e-books and paperbacks are truly equal.

Best Books of 2013

As usual, over the past year I have been using Goodreads to log the books I read, and rate them using a scale of one to five stars.  About this time every year I use this to review the books I have read and which ones I have rated highest.

A book has to be pretty exceptional for me to give it five stars, but as it happens there were five books I rated five stars in 2013, so these are the books as I am citing as my best reads of the year.  Three of them are written by the same author:

Killing Orders/Bitter Medicine/Toxic Shock – Sara Paretsky.

This demonstrates why I don’t have a favourite book, I only have favourite authors.  I can never choose just one.

In 2013 I decided to re-read Sara Paretsky’s series about Chicago private eye V.I. Warshawski from the beginning.  Some of these early books I have not read in nearly 20 years, but I was reminded why Sara Paretsky remains one of my all-time favourite authors.  It takes her a little while to get into the series.  The three books listed above are numbers 3, 4 and 5 in the series respectively (the first two books I gave four stars to).  But once she does, I can find no fault.  The stories are tightly plotted, the clues are carefully and often subtly placed.  V.I. is a brash, outspoken heroine with left-wing politics and a keen social conscience.  She has no patience with arrogant mysogynistic men – who it must be said she meets a lot of – and she doesn’t care what people think.  And I love her for it.  I love her outspoken-ness, I love the way she refuses to be inimidated, I even love the way she puts people’s backs up.  I especially love that she’s a woman with no particular desire to get married or have kids (V.I.’s back story sets out that she was once a lawyer, briefly married to a man she met in law school, but that ended when he cheated on her and she has no desire to repeat the experience).

I re-read the first five books in 2013 and there are 16 – thus far – in the series.  It’s not going out on a limb too much to predict that Sara Paretsky will also feature in my ‘best books of 2014’ list.

I also realised in re-reading these books how much my own writing style is similar to Sara Paretsky’s.  The conversational style of the narrative, the brief descriptions of day to day activities that fill the character’s time between key plot points and most significantly the technique of leading characters to the bedroom and then closing the door before the sex scenes are all present in my Shara Summers series.

Anyway.  That’s enough of my fan-girl wibbling.  In brief, I am re-reading the series and finding it as wonderful now as I did the first time around.  On to the other two books I rank as best reads of 2013:

Dracula – Bram Stoker
Joyland – Stephen King

‘Dracula’ I re-read to refresh my memory ahead of the panel I was doing on Dracula vs Frankenstein at EasterCon.  What can be said about this book?  It’s a gothic horror classic, and even though it was written over a hundred years ago it still packs a punch.

‘Joyland’ is the only recently written book on my list, by another one of my all-time favourite authors.  And in my view it’s one of his best, though I would categorise it as supernatural crime rather than horror.  I did a review of this book on Goodreads which I won’t repeat – if you’re interested, you can find it here.

Goodreads also allows you to set yourself an annual challenge of the number of books you want to read in a year.  Last year I challenged myself to read 60, and managed 63.  I spend over two hours a day on public transport going to and from work, and that’s where I get most of my reading done.

I’ve decided to push the boat out a bit this year and aim to read 65 books.  That is a bit of a challenge, but I think it’s achievable.  I’m looking forward to reading more great books in 2014.