I blame Glenda Larke

I had a dreadful headache all day yesterday, and I blame Glenda Larke.

Late last week I heard her new book, The Last Stormlord, was available at my local sff bookshop. I’ve been hanging out to read this one, so “visit to Infinitas” went on the to-do list for Monday.

Unfortunately for my head, I then discovered on her blog that the whole book was up on the Voyager website for a couple of weeks. (And what is up with that? Publishers giving away the whole book for free? Which universe is this again?)

So I thought I’d take a little peek. Cue hollow laughter. I ended up staying up till crazy stupid o’clock on Sunday night reading the damn thing onscreen in teeny tiny print. Despite knowing that I would have the actual real live book in my hands the next day. Despite knowing I had to get up early. Despite the fact that my eyeballs shrivelled up and fell out of my head. I just groped under the table, picked the dog hairs off and stuck them back into their bleeding sockets.

Note to Publisher: Do not offer Gigantic Whole Novels on your website. I don’t care what your marketing gurus told you, it is not good business to make readers’ eyeballs fall out of their heads. Not much chance of people buying your product, is there, if they can no longer read.

So Voyager must share part of the blame for the monumental headache I endured yesterday. But most of it is Glenda’s fault, of course, since if she hadn’t written such a good book I might have been able to resist the lure of just one more chapter.

I imagine Glenda might point out that people who have reached my age ought to be aware that staying up reading half the night will give you a headache. And if they persist in such foolish behaviour they deserve everything they get.

Much as it pains me to disagree with one of my idols, I would have to reply that people who commit reckless acts of Awesome World-building must in turn be aware that their actions are extremely dangerous to the reading populace. Books such as The Last Stormlord should come with a warning not to operate heavy machinery after reading. I was a write-off on Monday, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the story, couldn’t wait to get back to reading it.

The story is set in the desert world of the Quartern, where rain no longer falls randomly, but is summoned and distributed by stormlords. Water’s scarcity informs the whole society, and Glenda brings this alien world to life with amazing skill, from its marvellous wildlife to the rigid hierarchies of the cities.

Through a series of misfortunes, the number of stormlords has dwindled till now there is only one, and he is rapidly failing. The search is on for a new stormlord to prevent the total breakdown of society. But no one is as they seem, as the book’s two main characters, Shale, a water-sensitive boy from the lowest caste and Terelle, a girl struggling to escape a future of prostitution, soon discover. And maybe all those stormlords didn’t die by accident …

Quick! Run to your nearest bookshop and buy it. Don’t start reading it on screen, thinking you will be able to stop reading and go to bed at a reasonable hour. Trust me, you are not that strong. That way lies the Headache from Hell.

This is a seriously good book. Can’t wait for the next one! But please, Voyager, don’t make it available on your website. My eyeballs will thank you.

We interrupt this program

… to bring you a public service announcement. Jacqui Robbins has offered an amusing challenge on her blog: to write the worst possible first sentence for a children’s picture book ever. Is good! Is funny! … is nearly over!

Entries close on the 15th, so I have been slack in not telling you before this. Hop on over and join in the fun. Some of the entries so far require a strong stomach. I’ve had a couple of attempts myself, but I fear I shall never make it as a picture book writer – too wordy. Witness one of my efforts:

“Maybe the smell should have warned him, or the way Tricky Tim sniggered as he held out the bowl, but Greedy Gordon never said no to chocolate ice cream and by the time he realised what he really had in his mouth it was too late.”

Jacqui, however, already is a picture book writer, so her sentences are much better, eg:

“Fuzzy the Bunny lived with his Mama Bunny, Papa Bunny, and his sister, Roadkill, in a hutch at the base of a tall oak tree.”

Jacqui’s new book, Two of a Kind, has just come out, and promises to be full of all sorts of authorial genius. I bet it is even good for you.

And speaking of good for you, I bought a loaf of packaged herb bread to have with dinner tonight. As I prepared to put it in the oven, I noticed the advertising on the pack loudly trumpeted that it was “suitable for vegetarians”.

You know, unlike all those other loaves of bread that are made of meat.

Curse you, Dav Pilkey!

The ducklings have discovered Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books. Demon Duck and Baby Duck are particularly smitten. Not only do we have Captain Underpants stories at bedtime every night, but they have both written Captain Underpants stories themselves, which they read to each other. Demon Duck also does comics. Nor can we enter a bookshop without purchasing another volume in the saga. We also have Captain Underpants songs, computer games and much discussion of wedgies.

In short, our house has been taken over. Not even Drama Duck is immune. I have a whiteboard in the kitchen where I write the weekly menu. The other day I discovered my menu had been vandalised. Drama Duck explained that this was something they did in the Captain Underpants books – the boy heroes change the letters around on the school noticeboard to make the notices say something funny.

So last Tuesday, instead of beef skewers for dinner, we had bee sewers. Captain Underpants would be proud.

Books for ducklings

If you look to the right, you’ll see a few books for younger readers on my list of books read this year. There are two reasons for this:

1) As an involved parent, I like to keep up with what my kids are reading.

2) I find books that other people are reading insanely attractive. I’ve read a whole bunch of thrillers and sf space operas over the years that I would never have picked up except the Carnivore was reading them, and I couldn’t resist a little peek. It drives him nuts, which is an added bonus.

I’ve got Demon Duck started on Terry Pratchett, which she’s enjoying. She’s only eight, but she has quite an adult sense of humour. Either that or mine is pretty juvenile, because we laugh at the same things.

Drama Duck is more of a problem. She’s ten and reads as well as someone 14 or 15 – but she doesn’t like to read the kind of thing that’s aimed at 14 and 15-year-olds. She doesn’t like dark or scary or sad, which pretty much rules out most of YA, as far as I can tell.

She loves Emily Rodda’s Deltora Quest books, though she’s bright enough to pick holes in the plots. But she enjoys the adventure and puzzle-solving in them. She also loved The Hobbit. I gave her the first Harry Potter, which she liked, but the movie of it frightened her and she’s shown no desire to read any more of them.

I’d like to introduce her to some good writing, rather than the pulpy girls/babysitting/boyfriends type stuff she often reads, but I don’t know what. At her age I was reading The Lord of the Rings and other adult fantasies. I don’t remember much that came before that except Enid Blyton (which she also enjoys). And though I still read the occasional YA, I don’t read “middle grade” books, so I don’t know what to recommend. I bought her a Garth Nix on the weekend, which looks promising – and there’s certainly a good backlist there if she likes it!

Does anyone have any suggestions of something to suit a fluent but sensitive young reader who enjoys adventure?

Don’t judge a book by its … author’s surname

I did something very brave the other day. Even foolhardy, you might say. I wanted to google an author’s name. I’d just read a book of hers and wanted to see what else she’d written.

The problem was her name. Nina Bangs.

Exactly. Now that you have finished laughing, you can see why I felt some trepidation.

“Self, this is going to end badly,” I thought. “Your pure white computer will be sullied by the suggestive, nay – blatant – filth that will appear. Hot and torrid things will rear their ugly heads on screen and you will end up being spammed by a million people offering you enlargements for organs you do not possess.”

I almost didn’t do it. But in the end I took my courage in both hands, and was vastly relieved to find that the whole first screen of results were all about the author. Nothing turgid, throbbing or otherwise discombobulating in sight. (But I wasn’t game enough to look beyond the first page of results. There is a limit to my bravery.)

Turns out that Ms Bangs has quite a backlist. The book was called Eternal Pleasure, and the Carnivore bought it as a joke, simply because of her outrageous name. And then it turned out the joke was on us, because he read it and said “this is great, you’ve got to read it!”. So I did.

My first paranormal romance. It felt more like a guilty pleasure than an eternal one, as if I shouldn’t be reading such a book. As if there are book police who disapprove of books by authors with suggestive names. But I did enjoy it, despite yelling “you have GOT to be kidding!” when I first realised the nature of the hook. It was a real page turner, and certainly different to anything I’ve read before.

We bought another of hers today. What’s in a name, indeed? That one certainly did its job. I just have to make sure not to read the book in public places. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was in the market for an … ahem … organ enlargement.

The Painted Man

I mentioned in a recent post that I’d stolen time away from my Nano novel to read The Painted Man by Peter V Brett. If you like fantasy you have to read this. Especially if, like me, you’re sick to death of the run-of-the-mill garden-variety fantasy. As in: farm boy discovers he’s actually the lost heir to the throne/the world’s most powerful magician/saviour of the universe/(d) all of the above, goes on a quest and jaunts around the countryside meeting elves and dwarves, often with a mismatched crew of companions, till the book has been dragged out to sufficiently humungous length. May or may not involve dragons. Or – God forbid! – prophecies.

Or else it’s all kings and princes and constant battles. Sieges galore, political machinations, rise and fall of empires, yada yada yada.

Well, I’ve read a million of ’em, so I’m always desperately searching for something different. I might have missed this one, because a cursory glance had me thinking it was horror and not my cup of tea. I kept seeing the blurb on the Voyager site that begins: “Mankind has ceded the night to the corelings: demons that rise up out of the ground each day at dusk, killing and destroying at will until dawn, when the sun banishes them back to the Core. As darkness falls, the world’s few surviving humans hide behind magical wards, praying that the magic will see them through another night.”

But then I stumbled on Brett’s blog, and found he was a debut author. Reading back through his entries I followed his journey to publication, the bidding wars and overseas sales, and became intrigued. If everyone who read the manuscript wanted to publish it, it must be something special, right? (And besides, he seems like such a nice, regular guy and his baby’s really cute.)

So I read it, and okay, there was a farmboy. But he too, was such a regular guy — so real — that I became engrossed in his story and didn’t even consider till I’d finished the book that it had started with the dreaded farmboy motif. Because this one didn’t have any magnificent lost heritage or amazing hidden powers to make him “special”. He was an ordinary person doing the best he could to face and overcome his fears and by doing so became a true hero. He earned it, instead of having it handed to him on a plate (no “we know you thought you were a lowly scullery lad/farm boy/whatever, but actually you’re the long-lost king’s son – here, have a sword and the hand of the princess”).

The book spends a lot of time developing its main characters, so you feel you really know them. They’re real, not just fantasy stereotypes. They have real problems, involving complex relationships, which build and snowball into bigger problems till they achieve “saving the world” size.

And then there’s the demons. Loved the demons! The whole worldbuilding, with scattered remnants of civilisation, the nightly assaults of the corelings and the wards that hold them at bay, was brilliant. So fresh and original. Not a dragon, elf or dwarf in sight. No magic swords, magicians, embittered mercenaries or royalty, deposed or otherwise. Just the grinding menace night after night, ordinary lives lived in constant fear and the effect that has on individuals and society as a whole.

Great storytelling. It’s one of those books you want to stay up all night to finish because you can’t bear to put it down. Probably not the best choice of reading material when you’re in the middle of Nano. Comparing my ugly first draft to this made me feel even more inadequate than usual. But I can’t wait to see where he takes the story. There were some intriguing developments towards the end that have me hanging out for the next instalment, The Desert Spear. I really hope it lives up to the promise of the first volume. It’s so good to see someone breaking new ground in fantasy.

Now I’ve just got to figure out a way to do it myself!

Once upon a time — you were saying?

I posted a while ago about beginnings and how important it is to hook the reader right from the start. I said that “Once upon a time” just didn’t cut it any more.

Would you believe I’ve found the most brilliant beginning – and it starts with “Once upon a time”? Just goes to show that if you’re good you can make anything work. And also that I have no idea what I’m talking about – not that that comes as a great surprise!

It’s from Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler. I read her Digging to America when it came out (a couple of years ago?) and was awed by her skill. I went looking for another, but didn’t like it as much. Last week I picked up Back When We Were Grownups while browsing the secondhand bookshop and I’m back to awe again. She is a master of understatement. Her characters are brilliant; so real, so ordinary but so engrossing. Yet they are brought to life so obliquely. She could have written the textbook on “show, don’t tell”. It made me realise how much I have to learn.

It was a quiet little story, like the others of hers I’ve read. Everyday, domestic problems – but do you think I could put it down? The first line sucked me in and I was gone.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”

How cool is that? I want to be Anne Tyler when I grow up.

Would you like cliches with that?

I was reading the monthly newsletter from my favourite bookshop, Infinitas, today. It lists all the new books out and reproduces the blurb for each to whet your book-buying appetite.

When you read a whole lot of blurbs in one sitting like that it’s like getting a big shiny needle to vaccinate you against the dreaded cliche disease. After a while you just don’t notice them any more. Everything is “epic”, all the evil villains are “hell-bent on destroying everything that [insert name of protagonist] holds dear”, etc, etc. It all starts to sound the same after a while.

So there I was, scrolling half brain-dead through a tide of “mismatched bands of saviours” and heroes who had to save the world “but could he save himself?” when one sentence leapt out at me.

“Hidden hands pluck the strings of tyranny like a fell chorus.”

I boggled at that one for a moment while I tried to picture hands, hidden or otherwise, singing like a chorus. Where are their mouths? Exactly how many hands are we talking here? More than a pair, clearly. Where does one find all these disembodied singing hands? And they can pluck too, not just sing. Such multi-talented little hands.

I stopped skimming then and went back to look at the rest of this blurb more carefully. There were “dire portents” plaguing people’s nights and assassins skulking. “The hunters have become the hunted.” (But what are they hunting? Talent scouting for performing hands perhaps?) Then there were strangers arriving, bards singing “their tragic tales” and “somewhere in the distance … the baying of hounds”.

But wait, there’s more! “All is palpably not well.” No – really? What gave it away?

By this time I was feeling very sorry for the author. I know nothing about him, but I’m assuming he can write better than this. Most likely the marketing department came up with this deathless prose, and now the poor guy has to cringe every time he sees his own book. Apparently there are also “ancient crimes … clamouring for revenge”. I think I’d be clamouring for revenge myself if I were him, for crimes against the book-buying public.

The blurb concludes with the assurance that “this is epic fantasy at its most imaginative”. Quite possibly. Pity you can’t tell that from reading the blurb. Though that bit about the hands takes a special kind of imagination, I guess.

It makes me wonder about blurbs, though. Yes, they often draw on archetypes or tropes as a way of packing a lot of information into a short hook. But how much is too much? How many cliches can you pile on before it becomes unintentional parody? If I read that on the back of a book I was browsing, it would be back on the shelf as fast as my non-singing little hand could manage. Hardly the desired effect. Am I expecting too much?

The Art of Racing in the Rain

I am not the slightest bit interested in car racing. Would I willingly read a book featuring car racing? Not in a million years. Yet I have just read such a book and I absolutely LOVED it. I gulped it down in one sitting then sat there going “wow!” for a while. Then I wanted to read it all over again, more slowly, so I could savour it. I wanted to run out and buy a copy for everyone I know so they could all share in its brilliance. And I really, really wanted to have written it!

The book is The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. I heard about it on the internet – that it was good, and that it was narrated by a dog, which was intriguing enough to make me buy it. Luckily no one mentioned the car racing, or I might not have.

Enzo, the narrator, believes that when a dog dies, if it has perfected life as a dog, it will come back as a human. As a result, he makes a very careful study of the humans in his life so that he can learn to be one. He is chatty, funny, philosophical and very observant in an innocent way. His voice is distinctive and endearing. Seeing the human experience filtered through his eyes is fascinating. Even though some dreadful things happen to his family, his native optimism and faith in his owner mean that the book is always hopeful and leaves you feeling uplifted. If that sounds corny, that’s my fault, not the book’s. I find it hard to explain why I loved it so much.

It even made me look at Two Planks with new eyes. Could there be a philosopher hidden in that furry blonde head? Then I came to my senses and thought: “Nah!”

Part of it was the brilliance of the writing. It was so tight – nothing was in the book without a reason. Everything had significance – especially the car racing, which formed a beautiful metaphor as well as its practical function in the plot. And he made it sound interesting – even fun! If Stein isn’t a fan I’m in even more awe of his skill.

Now I have to get my hands on his other two books. I’ve decided to read less fantasy and try to branch out a bit more. This was certainly a flying start for that resolution. Anyone got any recommendations of books they’ve enjoyed lately?