Friday, 25 November 2016

It's 25 November, so I guess that we're allowed to start thinking about Christmas now. And that means that I have to remind everybody what good presents books make. Essentially this is the same message that I put out in October last year, so you've been spared a whole month of pre-Christmas buildup. (You can thank me by voting for Back Home in the #RBRT 2016 Book Awards.) Given that Christmas is about traditions and that the annual plea of all authors that you buy their books doesn't change from year to year, this is a slightly edited version of what I wrote last year.

Dead trees and Xmas gifts

Yet again, the news is telling us that paper books are very much here to stay. Honestly, they never went away and, equally honestly, e-book's have become  well established and they're not going to go away either. It's a non-story, presumably raising its head particularly at this time of year because with Christmas coming we remember that people still buy books as gifts.

It’s weird, this idea that e-books versus paper is like one of the great divides of human-kind, like Mods vs Rockers, Mac vs PC, Corrie vs East-Enders. [Should I explain the last one for American readers? No, that’s what Google’s for.]

I’m a huge e-book fan. I read mainly on an iPad. It lets me carry lots of books with me. It allows me to highlight and make notes on them. (I know some people do that on paper, but I was brought up to see that as vandalism and I still feel uncomfortable with it.) I don’t lose my place. And it’s massively cheaper and easier to get new books. (Given the amount of 19th century reading I do, it’s often the only remotely realistic way to get hold of obscure out-of-print Victorian volumes.) So am I a paper-hating child of new technology? Hardly. 

This is the biggest bookcase in the house, but far from the only one.

Practically every room in the house has at least some books propped up in it somewhere (not the bathroom – the steam makes the paper soggy). Paper books are attractive. It’s easier, sometimes, to browse a shelf full of books than to find something useful in an e-library. E-books are easier to search when you know what you want, but they can be frustrating when you’re not exactly sure what you’re looking for. Paper books allow more opportunities for serendipitous discoveries. The original inspiration for Cawnpore was a book I picked up browsing through someone else’s (paper) library, stuck indoors on a wet day. If I’d had an e-reader with me, I’d probably never have come across it.

Bookshops can be very frustrating in their selection of stock. (Try asking for one of my books – or pretty well anything published by a smaller press – at Waterstones and prepare yourself for, frankly ridiculous, claims that they can’t get it for you.) But the shelves of temptingly displayed volumes can draw you to books you would never otherwise have discovered.

Paper books can be lent to friends or passed on when they’re finished with. They do, indeed, furnish a room. Old textbooks remind us of our student years, an autographed volume of a special meeting. Most of all, as ‘Super Thursday’ reminds us, paper books can be gifted in a way that e-books cannot. A paper book says that you want to share something you have enjoyed, or that you have thought about the interests and enthusiasms of your friend and sought out a book that matches them. The transfer of digital data from computer to computer does not, for some reason, carry the emotional resonance of the gift of a physical book.

All my books are available in paperback as well as on Kindle. Most good publishers try to produce paper copies, if only for their authors to display proudly on their bookcases. (Second shelf down on the extreme right if you’re checking the photo.) All authors I have ever met want to see their words on paper. It’s odd because, in this digital age, the paperback is probably the first time I’ve seen my book printed out in its entirety. Still, there they are. And you can buy them, and give them to your friends.

Pay attention to that last bit. Buy one for yourself and give others to your friends. And keep a couple spare, for those last-minute gifts.  And remember, a book is for life, not just for Christmas.

Important note

This was a public information announcement  on behalf of all writers everywhere. However, I do draw your attention to the fact that clicking on any of the images of book covers on the right-hand side will take you to the appropriate Amazon page to buy the book. (It takes you to the e-book page, but you can click through to the paperbacks from there.)For the latest – Back Home –  click HERE. They are really rather good and if you buy them you will be one of my favourite people for the whole of 2017. Thank you.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Another book review: Best Seller

A couple of weeks ago I used this blog to talk about my books and suggest that people might read them. Posts here usually get a respectable number of views, but not that week. As an author published by very small press (Accent Publishing) with limited marketing budgets, much of my life is spent not writing but desperately trying to promote my books. My reviews suggest that the books are reasonably successful but my sales figures suggest that my promotional efforts are not.

It is a constant source of frustration to self-published or small press authors that they feel that sales are often more the result of a good social media presence and successful promotion rather than the literary merit of the books themselves.

Terry Tyler is in a better position than most to write about the angst of the self-promoted independent author. A prolific and successful writer, Tyler also has a strong social media presence. She understands how to use Twitter to sell books. (I wish I did.) She blogs, too. She's generous with advice and will happily promote other people's work if she thinks it's good. She is, all-in-all, what in a gender neutral (if dated) way you could call a Thoroughly Decent Chap. Yet, with all her hard work and talent, you will not see her books in WH Smiths and she will not be promoting them on The One Show.

Perhaps it is her frustration at the blatant unfairness of the system that has produced the novella Best Seller. (She calls it a novella although it is at least as substantial as many novels.) [Major spoilers ahead, though the plot is hardly going to surprise anyone.] It's a book about a struggling author who concentrates on writing at the expense of maintaining a respectable social media presence and thus manages to sell even fewer books than me. The villain of the piece is a pretty girl, with excellent social media skills and an able publicist, who persuades our struggling author to write a series of books as a ghost-writer. The books are, of course, enormously successful but, contractually forbidden from producing any books of her own, the talented young writer kills herself.

This could easily have been a maudlin expression of self-pity by Tyler, but in fact it's a jolly good read. We learn about the ghost-writer’s plight through a friend of hers who is, in turn, tempted to pass off somebody else's work as her own. Lacking professional support and handicapped by a conscience, her efforts end badly whereas the pretty villainess recovers from the disgrace when her fraud is exposed and is clearly on her way to bigger and better things. (Hi, Zoella! How’s it going?)

Best Seller does offer some real insight into the modern world of independent publishing and a profoundly depressing insight it is too. It's a good thing that Tyler has a relatively light and bubbly style that carries us through a story that could easily leave us too miserable to read (or in my case write) anything else for a while.

Tyler is in a long tradition of books by authors criticising the unfairness of the publishing trade. Gissing’s New Grub Street (published in 1891) shows the talented and able Edmund Reardon dying in poverty while the superficial hack, Jasper Milvain, ends up with the girl, the money and the publishing deal. Over a century later, it seems that nothing has changed. Still we battle on. Writers gonna write and all that. Terry Tyler demonstrates that, despite everything, there are still good writers out there, writing good stuff.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Another take on James Burke

In an alternative universe, James Burke, hero of Burke in the Land of Silver, is Ben Blackthorne, hero of Rob Griffith’s book Expect No Safety. Blackthorne was an existing fictional character when Griffith appropriated Burke’s real life persona for a second book, while I started with the real-life Burke, who has become steadily more fictionalised as the series has continued. That’s just one way in which the two of us have taken different approaches to a very similar subject matter.

Reading the adventures of Ben Blackthorne was a strange experience for me. Here was this man who was clearly my own James Burke, a man I thought I had come to know quite well, having often very similar adventures and yet a completely different person written in a very different style. This makes a regular review rather challenging but does give the opportunity to see how two different authors will tackle the same subject matter in very different ways.

Griffith has produced in Blackthorne a hero who wants to be a spy, rather than a soldier, but who, at least in this book, ends up uncomfortably in command of soldiers in the field. In this he is almost the exact opposite of my James Burke, who desperately wants to be a soldier but who ends up always forced back into spying. Griffith is wise to have his hero spend a lot of his time in uniform, though, because this author knows a lot about warfare in the time of Napoleon – much more than I do. His battle scenes are longer and more detailed than mine and carry a great deal of conviction. Indeed, Griffith is simply much more in command of the details of the military campaign than I ever was. We both describe the taking of Buenos Aires in similar terms, but his account of the subsequent military defeat is detailed and based on thorough research. Mine is not – being almost entirely fictional and driven by the demands of the plot. If you want a good piece of fictionalised military history, you are better off with Griffith than Williams.

Where I have a slight advantage is that I have visited Buenos Aires and I hope that James Burke roams a more realised city than does Blackthorne, but I suspect that the difference is less than I would like it to be. Griffith’s grip of the reality of street fighting in the town is excellent and the scenes in which the British are forced back through the city to make a last stand in the town square are well-written and convincing.

The real James Burke was busy seducing Ana, the wife of his local contact in Buenos Aires. Ana appears here, too, and, as with my book, it is clear that she would be more than happy to betray her husband with the British spy. Blackthorne, though, for no obvious reason, will have nothing to do with her, instead falling in love with the fictional Romero. Romero is sexy and a useful girl to have at your back in a fight and, more importantly, contributes chapters throughout the book which show the scene from the Spanish perspective. She blunders from meetings with the local bishop (and arch-villain) who blackmails her into spying for him, to plotting with an ill-assorted bunch of Spanish rebels, to fighting alongside Spanish troops. Yet, through it all, she carries on her tempestuous affair with Blackthorne and is instrumental in allowing him to escape alive. At the end of the book they have been separated and we leave Blackthorne trying to swim to the safety of a British ship. Will he make it? We have no idea: the book follows the increasingly common (and to me infuriating) practice of ending on a cliff-hanger. We do know that he will get back with Romero, though, because she tells us so. Blackstome points out, in a post-modern comment to the reader, that this somewhat reduces the suspense of the romantic sub-plot at the same time as a quite artificial bit of suspense is inserted to get us to read the next book. In the name of god and traditional publishing values, can authors please stop doing this.

Blackthorne is witty (wittier than Burke) but shares Burke’s cold-hearted ruthlessness. I like the man and his cynical take on life. His wit does cease to sparkle in some of the extended passages of dialogue that try to explain the political situation, but that’s understandable. The reader may well lose the will to live here and, unlike Blackthorne, the reader can slip off for a coffee (or something stronger) in the middle. Politics, though, isn’t really where this book is at. It’s about sex and violence, strong men and beautiful women and a fine understanding of early 19th century battlefield tactics. Griffith writes about all of these with confidence and conviction. Once you’ve read Burke in the Land of Silver, I can recommend Expect No Safety as a gripping alternative take on the same events.

A quick plug for my own book

Expect No Safety is a fine book, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Burke in the Land of Silver is a fine book too. Burke in the Land of Silver is less clearly in the military history genre and more a spy story with some war in it. Paul Collard (author of the Jack Lark books) described it as 'James Bond in breeches' and that's pretty much what I was aiming for. Just £1.99/$2.99 on Kindle.

Friday, 4 November 2016

The Williamson Papers

Every so often I remember that the purpose of writing a blog like this is to sell my books - and the arrival of a royalties statement this week reminded me that I don't do nearly enough of that. So here is an update on the Williamson Papers and why you should be reading them. [NB There are major spoilers here, so don't read on if you don't want any idea of how things end.]

The first book of the Williamson Papers is The White Rajah. It introduces us to John Williamson, a young man who runs away from farming life in Devon to go to sea in search of adventure. He finds it when he becomes the companion of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak.

James Brooke is an amazing figure. (I've recently written about his real-life history HERE.) Brooke arrives in Sarawak (in Borneo) in 1839 and is made ruler by Muda Hassim, the Bendahara of Brunei. He starts with nothing but the most liberal and humane of intentions, yet goes on to preside over a massacre so terrible that it leads to protests half a world away in London. It's a fascinating story of how the high ideals of some Europeans produced such terrible outcomes when applied to other peoples' countries.  

WHY READ IT? It's got pirates and headhunters and battles and loads of excitement. This is the background for a story about a good man who ends up doing terrible things and how this affects the man who loves him. There's a lesson for today in the story about good and evil in the mid-19th century.

In Cawnpore, Williamson leaves Borneo, unable to live with what he has seen. He sails for India and takes up a post with the East India Company. He is sent to Cawnpore, where he finds himself at the centre of the events that will lead to the siege of the city and a massacre of Europeans unprecedented during colonial rule in the subcontinent. As with The White Rajah, the background to the story is closely based on real historical events. Williamson, ever the outsider, flits between the Indian and European camps, passing himself off as an Indian amongst the sepoys (something that we know Europeans managed to do during the Mutiny). Again, Williamson struggles to reconcile his own liberal principles and the realities of colonial life. This time it is the Europeans who are (in Cawnpore, at least) on the losing side. Williamson becomes one of a handful of people to survive the siege and its bloody aftermath. The experience marks him, though. He has watched his Indian friends massacre women and children without mercy and then been rescued by European soldiers who strike back with awful savagery. Once again he turns his back on a European colony, this time to return to England, where he hopes at last to find peace.

WHY READ IT? The siege of Cawnpore is one of those bits of colonial history that we have decided to forget about but it's an amazing story - even if nobody involved comes out of it looking good. This lets you top up your historical knowledge and enjoy a good read at the same time. And I can't help thinking that if more people had known anything about the history of the region, some recent foreign policy adventures might have been given a bit more thought.

Back Home, Williamson finds a country he hardly recognises. Industrialisation at home and military expansion abroad have made Britain into a dynamic political and economic power that dominates the world. Yet Williamson finds the same divide between the poor and the rich that he saw in the Far East. A friend from his youth has tried to escape his poverty by entering a life of crime in the slums of London. Faced with threats of war with France and concern about Communist terrorists, the government needs to smash a foreign plot - and if they can't find a real foreign plot, they're quite happy to invent one. Williamson's friend is caught in the machinations of a Secret Service determined to prove him an enemy agent and, in his attempts to help him escape, Williamson is once again caught between the machinations of the powerful and the resistance of the powerless. 

Back Home ends with Williamson back in Devon where he started out in The White Rajah. But will he finally find happiness there?

Read the book and find out.