Monday 30 April 2012

Book review: Dark Solus. An Assassin's Tale...

By David Andrew Crawford.

In the City of Duergar, the greatest yet most wicked city in the world, night is falling. And this is a place where the night is the time that evil walks. Leynorr, the pregnant half elf, and her partner Demon, one of the world’s greatest assassins, escape from the evil Arch Mage Kalifen and fly away on the enchanted ship Albatross to bear their unborn child away from danger. But danger, we learn, will always be close by.

Ten years later their son Dark is taken under the tutelage of his grandfather, the powerful wizard Mephistopheles. The wizard has a temper but underneath it all he does love his half elf grandson and presents him with a gift: Nightmare, the fire-snorting Hell horse with flaming hooves. And with that Dark’s studies commence.

But some years later old enemies catch up with his parents and as a consequence Dark desires nothing more than to see them punished. Mephistopheles does all in his power to stop his grandson but, realising Dark is heart set on his mission, he offers his assistance in the form of magic, mystery and a warden who will teach Dark to become a great assassin after his father. Dark concedes that more years of training and waiting will be worth the end result.

Dark Solus is indeed the assassin’s tale, as the first paragraph tells us, and it follows Dark’s story as he comes into his powers and learns to use them, although not always in the most cautious way possible and there are many trials along his way. The young hero is akin to classic tales of fantasy and we watch him grow and learn throughout his journey. His sometimes cheeky or arrogant nature makes him feel just a little more modern and more believable than other young protagonists I have read in the genre.

The best thing about this book is that it delivers pure unadulterated escapism and at a good length. Here we have the innocence of youth, a turning point in our hero’s life, and the man he becomes as a result, all packaged in a colourful and well-rendered world. There is as much joy in here as I get from watching classic fantasy movies from decades past, as the traditional elements of fantasy – the power of a name, mythical beasts, wizards and witches, magic, flying ships, floating castles, and creatures and places from legend – play out across the page.

It is an extremely visual story right from the start, and when statues come to life at the power of a druid’s chanting it makes for an action-filed and gripping opening. This power of description continues throughout the book, perhaps occasionally slowing the plot, but not losing that overall magic of an imagined world and the reader’s desire to finish the tale. Although at the end it did not finish, per se, and I am left wondering if a book two is on the cards. Nevertheless this is the perfect book for a lazy afternoon or a lunchtime break to really take you elsewhere for a few pleasurable hours.

Elloise Hopkins.

Thursday 26 April 2012

London Book Fair 2012, Blog two...

After the social media panel. I had a catch up with some colleagues over a late lunch (i.e. a hastily grabbed sandwich in a gloomy corner of the warehouse) and then headed to my last panel of the day ‘has anyone spoken to the author?’ This was a panel made up entirely of authors reflecting on the industry from their experience.

The main focus of the panel seemed to be about publishers always getting their own way and authors not being consulted. John Mitchinson described the author’s advance as “hush money” to go away and keep quiet and let the publisher take control of everything.

I was delighted to find Nick Harkaway was one of the authors – a man who is clearly as witty and engaging in real life as he is in his books. Also there was Ilana Fox who came from a social media background and she had some interesting ideas about how the author could use online networking as a promotional and networking tool.  Twitter training it seemed was a hot topic and was a suggested need for all authors.

Not being overly self-promotional also came up on this panel and Robert Llewellyn summed up how to do it well, and I paraphrase here, ‘fluffy thing, fluffy thing, news, book!, fluffy thing’ and so on. He said that he often lost followers through “the shame of self-promotion”.

Books becoming more interactive with the advent of ereaders and so on was also discussed. Nick Harkaway had recently seen a demo of ebooks that had sound effects and mood music and said that strangely it worked for him. There have been other instances where a book has been sold along with the author’s soundtrack – music they listened to whilst writing. Ilana Fox said that the website her characters create in her book will actually be live online for readers to see, with links to it in the prose.

The panel looked at the possibility of authors becoming even more promotional than they currently have to be, perhaps gaining and giving out credits for positive feedback on their books. Perhaps that will reduce the shame of self-promotion and make it a legitimately necessary part of an author’s job.

The panel also discussed their own working practices – switching off the internet whilst writing was a popular one, although Nick Harkaway said he does not do that because if the internet becomes more popular than what he is working on then he knows his work is not good enough.

I think the best advice from the panel though was reading work aloud to help with sentence structuring and so on. In the main if the reader stumbles over sections of the prose then it probably needs to be re-worded, although there are exceptions where writing for an inner monologue has proven successful.

Salena Godden finished off the panel with a performed poem about quelling high expectations, which was pretty breathtaking to see delivered live in such an engaging manner. The day on the whole gave me much to think about and helped to once again ignite my desire to become a professional writer. Worth the trip to London just for the inspiration.

Elloise Hopkins.

Monday 23 April 2012

London Book Fair 2012, Blog 1...

I headed to London Book Fair again this year, but this time with more understanding of what the event was about and what I could hope to achieve from it. Earl’s Court was full of the usual hustle and stress as the industry’s players filled four days with meetings, promotions, book launches and signings, panel talks and networking. At least this time I came prepared with comfortable shoes and lots of water.

First I spent some time walking through the stands and chatting to publishers, mainstream and small press alike, introducing myself and finding out a little bit about who did what within the business and what their big releases for the year were. I didn’t find many opportunities to talk fantasy unfortunately as this is not a genre event, but some of the small press publishers in particular were receptive to the idea of a genre writer and reviewer and I came away with some titles I would otherwise probably have never come across. Reviews on those will be coming soon.

I attended a panel on ‘turning social media into sales’, which I then discovered was the title of a book published by the panel’s main speaker Guy Clapperton. The talk wasn’t quite what I had expected – more geared towards how businesses can make social media work for them, rather than focusing on writers using social media – but I did come away with a few pieces of good advice:

Don’t overkill on self-promotion.
Be conversational, engaging and helpful.
Use hashtags to your advantage but do not hijack inappropriate ones to push your wares.
Start small with social media but make time for it.
Remember social media is there to support the business, not the other way around.

Social media was the hot topic of the fair as far as I could tell. More coming up in blog two.

Elloise Hopkins.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Book review: The Ten...

Book One of the Kingdom of Graves Series.
By Leland Myrick.

The war with the Kingdom of Graves is coming to a head. Jorophe finds himself scruffily attired in an overstretched army facing a battle that his command cannot hope to win. He clings onto his captain’s advice: to just kill one enemy at a time as he waits in line for the approach of the Kingdom warriors. Sparing one last thought for his lost love, he fights.

Two years after Ostholt’s defeat by the Kingdom of the Graves, Jorophe finds himself in the service of those he used to call enemy. Even worse, he is to be recruited into a special branch of the Kingdom of the Graves Guard – The King’s Ten. Ten highly skilled warriors that are charged with the highest order of them all: to protect the King. All Jorophe need do before he is recruited rather against his will into The Ten is to pass a test, or nine.

But all is not well in the growing Kingdom of Graves and there are darker enemies at hand than soldiers. Threats from religious cults, disappearing children, demons, magics, and assassination plots are all stacking up, and Jorophe discovers that he was recruited for more than just his skills in battle.

Meanwhile, Lord Prosper, the King’s Minister of Information, dispatches his best shadows to find out more about the evils that threaten the Kingdom. Some go to track down assassins, some to investigate the strange activities of the religious cults and one sets out to bring back a mage. Prosper’s tools are all in place and now the race is on to find out who will succeed and who will fall.

The Ten follows the stories of Prosper’s various recruits in a pacy, action-packed narrative that draws its strength from an ability to play out numerous plot threads in a controlled manner so that the reader remains engaged with each character throughout the narrative. The visual descriptions are one of the main strengths here and I felt instantly drawn into this world. Myrick writes confidently in well flowing prose using just a touch of humour to lighten more serious parts of the story.

This is a large, developing story and as I got towards the end of the book I felt that many parts of the narrative were only just starting to play out.  As the story progressed, more and more characters came into play and even at the very end new developments were happening to constantly make me question who is behind all of the evil deeds.

Certainly there is much left unanswered in this first book in the Kingdom of Graves series that will need to be expanded, explained and concluded in the follow up, so this did feel very much like a beginning rather than a complete story. Nonetheless this was an enjoyable read and a strong start to a new series that I would like to see in its entirety.

Elloise Hopkins.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Alt.fiction 2012 Day 2: Belief and revelations…

Day two of alt.fiction was basically a morning full of fantasy so I couldn’t really ask for more. It began with a discussion of they who were not to be named throughout the panel, or the EDFF. For those not in the know that’s the Extremely Dangerous Fairy Folk and centred on the darker side of the EDFF – this is not your Disney fairies. In fact an interesting revelation was that initially J. M. Barrie intended Peter Pan to be the antagonist in the story and that is why when Peter Pan is first introduced we do not know whether he is a force for good or evil.

Graham Joyce and Kate Laity had an animated discussion about the subject of the EDFF and it really was a pleasure to watch. Joyce admitted that he is an atheist but believes in the EDFF. Because of his stance, he has to believe that EDFF’s come from within humans initially, almost like the Maori believe in their spirits that come out of them and have “malevolent intent”.

The most interesting aspect of the conversation for me was relating to memory and the fact that we humans reconstruct our memories to make them safe. It is a mechanism for explaining and compartmentalising our memories and that is why our perception of an event or our beliefs may actually be an inaccurate recollection of the real event but feel as real and relevant to us as they first did.

What was also interesting was Laity’s acknowledgement that she can’t always remember writing sections of her books, that she must tap into her subconscious when writing and doesn’t know where some elements come from. The spirits within perhaps. For me it was a relief to hear that, as there are sections of my novel that upon reading I realised I had no recollection of writing them. It was reassuring to hear someone else say the same thing.

The next panel was ‘diversity in fantasy’ with Mark Charan Newton, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Anne Lyle and Sarah Cawkwell. The panel began with speaking about the representation of minority groups in fantasy and explored race and sexual orientation and how readers react to it. The explicit gay sex scenes of Richard Morgan were among the examples given, and another revelation was finding out that the only real negative reaction Mark C. Newton’s character received was that he was “not gay enough”.

What was most notable for me during the day though was gender representation in fantasy. Particularly interesting for me as a reviewer, was the fact that (concluded in a Strange Horizons poll) there are more reviewers that are male than female, and more male authors being reviewed than female authors. Anne Lyle confirmed this was true in terms of reviews she has received for her book. A book, which I must point out as a female reviewer, I reviewed! I am officially the minority.

Thinking about recent blogs I’ve read, gender parity at conventions and in the genre community has been under discussion. Paul Cornell recently stepped down from a panel and stated that he would no longer be part of panels in which there was not gender parity, and of all the panels I saw him on at alt.fiction this indeed had been adhered to.

Anyway the diversity in fantasy panel also brought with it the revelation that Dumbledore was gay, a point that I seem to have completely missed when I read the Harry Potter books. That must have been a pretty low key and last minute reveal from the author, which again reflects the reluctant attitude that still exists within the genre to exploring and representing certain areas of society.

Finally religion in fantasy provided an interesting ending and another revelation from the panel. Adrian Tchaikovsky pointed out that fantasy has stock religions – the desert dwelling fanatics, the evil catholic types and the strange pagans – something I have never consciously noticed in fantasy, but yet have managed to unknowingly write into the world of my own novel. That has certainly given me food for thought, and investigation.

So alt.fiction day two was really an eye-opener on many levels with the overall theme of the day being the growth of the under represented. The conclusion and the happy thought I took away with me is that fantasy is moving in the right direction, and perhaps this is a really exciting time for me to be breaking into fantasy writing and hopefully contributing to these positive changes on a wider scale. A great convention and an immersion into the genre. Alt.fiction 2012. The end.

Elloise Hopkins.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Alt.fiction 2012 Day 1: Zombies…

So Saturday brought my first outing to alt.fiction in Leicester and the word of the day did appear to be ‘zombies’. In fact I think it made an appearance in every panel I attended that day, bar one. My favourite occurrence was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “I’m so bored of zombies”.

That actually cropped up in a rather cosy panel entitled ‘Not another F*cking Elf’ in which Tchaikovsky discussed the perceptions of fantasy and the movement away from Tolkien-esque worlds and assumptions along with Jenni Hill, Paul Cornell and Emma Newman.

This was a really interesting panel focusing on the tropes of fantasy and how the genre has changed over the last 20-30 years, initially with many writers emulating Tolkien’s work and making characters such as dwarfs and elves a genre staple, and then the reaction against that, bringing in new sets of secondary world characters without an elf in sight.

The general consensus was that great fantasy is great not because of the particular character types and races it uses, but because the emotional content is sound and the reader can relate to it.

I see fantasy very much as a way to explore human characteristics and behaviours in an environment in which the normal rules of engagement can be altered, enhanced or abandoned in favour of exploring the fundamental human instincts that exist within us. Zombies were discussed in the context of being the stock baddie that we can mindlessly and guiltlessly slay in our fiction, although the discussion did illustrate that we are moving away from being uncaring killers to genuinely seeking redemption for our actions; we now seem to be acknowledging that primal need to kill but are less reluctant to go through with it without it having a larger cost of that action as the genre develops. 

Following that panel was ‘Dragon’s Pen’, a Dragon’s Den style panel with some very game authors showing us how not to pitch to agents and publishers. It was thoroughly enjoyable; a very entertaining way to deliver information on an important step in a writer’s life.

It included some great tips from John Jarrold and Jenni Hill in particular, who reminded us not to rely on the endorsement that your mum/dad/brother/sister loved your book, to follow submission guidelines, to remember that agents/editors are there to help you and to work with you, to not be unwilling to make alterations to your book (it is not perfect as it is), and not to treat agents and publishers as customers – they want to know the ending to the book, they do not want a cliff-hanger in the pitch.

I wrapped up the day with the comics panel, which started with pre-panel shadow puppets from Paul Cornell and Emma Vieceli. Selina Lock, Jay Eales and Mark Chadbourn joined them for a great discussion of comics including which ones they would save from Galactus, the ones that got away, recommendations for comic newcomers, entry to comic careers for writers and artists, and perhaps more enlighteningly the various ways the panellists first discovered comics. It seems Mark Chadbourn was left his by a psychopathic shotgun wielding relative.

So to sum up the day, we were mostly bored with zombies, the word ‘meta’ was also caught sneaking out in various guises, there were lots of laughs, some revelations that may have been better kept quiet, lots of great advice, but most of all inspiration – it is such a buzz listening to people talk about subjects they are so obviously passionate about. Well worth attending. Day 1 was a success. Day 2 blog coming soon.

Elloise Hopkins.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Six weeks off alcohol....

And how did it feel? Well irritating is the real answer to that question. The first three weeks were a minor struggle with obligatory work occasions in pubs having to be sober affairs, but by the time weekend number 4 had been vanquished I felt quite proud of the achievement.

As a test of will power it was great. As a writer sometimes I like to sit with a glass of wine by my side as I work, or sometimes just randomly enjoy a local ale outside on a sunny day. I feel proud that I have managed to get through these occasions recently without bowing to my inner desire or bowing to peer pressure. But are there any other positives? My liver would probably say yes and I’m sure the good medical profession would congratulate me.

Nonetheless, six weeks without having any alcohol and I don’t feel any better than normal. Not a scrap healthier. In fact I think I had more of an appetite than usual and ended up eating more – strange side effect, weight gain through alcohol withdrawal? I didn’t sleep any better, or any worse, than usual. I feel no healthier, happier or in any way improved for the abstinence, which is kind of a let down. I’m sure it must have done me good in some unseen way. Anyway, I am looking forward to my next drink in the hope that some lesson will become clear over time.

Elloise Hopkins.

Sunday 8 April 2012

Blind as a bat…

As blind as a bat, ears like a hawk, the eye of the tiger. Why do we have so many animal analogies in our language? Trawl back in time and I bet you would find that humans have been using animals as a comparison and justification for their actions and behaviour for most of our existence.

Of course some of the analogies get warped over time and develop. Think mad as a hatter, a badger, or a box of frogs. They all have their roots in our past, be it elements of popular culture or a result of our industrial heritage. But why are animals so crucial an element of these comparisons?

My theory is that humans have an inbuilt need to compare; to be able to justify reasons for our actions. And we use animals because we are not confident enough in our own existence to build them on ourselves. Perhaps we don’t quite feel we deserve the lives we lead and have to sink them to an animal level – primal, natural, just. I will leave you to muse on that for now because my head feels as lazy as a sloth.

Elloise Hopkins.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Snow in April...

And why it made me smile. I woke up early this morning, groaning at having to face a day at the office. The bank holiday weekend seemed such a long way away. I looked outside to see beautiful snowflakes drifting outside my window caught up in a wind that rocked them up and down and round in a circle. Despite myself, I smiled. Snow in April – possible if not probable. There it was: a calming blanket to soothe and relax my morning.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at a funeral as my friend said goodbye to her husband after his shocking and untimely death. The service was as lovely as these things can be. Friends and relatives gathered and celebrated the life of a man who I did not know, but who clearly made an impression on many throughout his life. The room was full. The mourners included the vicar himself, a friend of the family, who cried and grieved along with the congregation as his wife played the harp.

I have carried a melancholy air with me since learning of my friend’s loss, which occurred tragically on the day before her mother’s funeral. A time of great sadness that will take a longer time to heal.

And so it was I woke up the morning after, still feeling awash with sadness, looked out at the newness of the snowflakes and managed a smile of possibility. People will move on, it is what we do; that instinct that drives humans to survive and continue despite what happens in life.

One friend grieves for loss, another prepares to bring new life into the world, and a strange sense of balance has settled over our group. The happy unhappy cycle of life goes on. 

Elloise Hopkins.

Sunday 1 April 2012

Amateur books…

A work colleague was reading an ebook in the office recently, which is such a rarity in my corporate world, that I felt compelled to strike up a conversation with him about it. The usual "what are you reading" questions escaped my lips and I was thrown slightly by the bored and angry answer: “some awful amateur book. Never again.”

So ok let’s accept that all books, like other art forms, are ultimately a matter of opinion and no book is going to be liked by everybody. But it was the phrase ‘amateur book’ that stood out for me. I asked what he meant by amateur book and the response was that when he bought the e-reader, he purchased several new books that had been self-published by the authors in eBook format and found them less than impressive. This was what he was referring to as an amateur book.

It got me thinking that there is so much self-publishing happening by authors today that the entire industry is changing forever. And the bottom line is that it is so easy to publish. Look, I’m doing it right now by posting this blog. It does make me wonder whether in a decade the faces of literary, genre and bestselling fiction will be skewed by the availability and influx of this so-named ‘amateur’ work. Definitely something to consider, she says, continuing work on her debut novel.

Elloise Hopkins.