Monthly Archives: August 2012

Guest Blog – Scott Fitzgerald Gray, author of We Can Be Heroes

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wecanbeheroesA welcome to Scott Fitzgerald Gray, who is on a blog tour with his military/gamers coming of age/techno-thriller adventure book. It’s a really interesting genre mash-up. Because in amongst all the cool allusions to RPGs and the detail specs for the scarily lethal Vindicator (I’m banning my husband from reading this book, btw – he sighs for a Sherman tank in the front garden, I’d hate to think what he’d put on his Christmas list if he read We Can Be Heroes), there is a strong story about the people caught up in the middle of this adventure. Getting the balance between the techie content and the human side of the story is a great deal trickier than it looks. Scott does get the balance right and the result is this engrossing read.

Hallo Scott, and welcome to the blog. When reading We Can Be Heroes, I was immediately struck by the fact that your main protagonist shares your name. While I’m seriously hoping that this story is fictional, how closely did you model your actual teenage self alongside your character?

Thanks so much for the opportunity; it’s great to (virtually) be here. I confess that the more outrageous elements of the story (which is to say, most of the plot) are entirely made up. But at the same time, We Can Be Heroes was written as a kind of homage to a particular time in my life, the friendships I forged during that time, and a particular way of looking at the world that comes from being a doomed-romantic teenage nihilist gamer. The novel is kind of fake-autobiographical, in the manner of all of those books and films that advertise “BASED ON A TRUE STORY!!!” — but what that really means is that they kept the names, a couple of key events, and made everything else up.
The Scott of the novel isn’t so much me as he is a more self-aware version of me. Much of what goes into the character — his slightly twisted worldview, his aren’t-I-so-clever sarcastic wit, and his sense of wanting to help people even if they don’t understand how much they need help — is all drawn straight from my own life at that particular point in time. However, the Scott of the book is a lot better at getting in the face of the world as it pisses him off; I tended to take a more cowering-in-the-corner approach, myself.

I also found the setting to your story particularly effective. The sense of isolation that surrounds your protagonist – both actual and emotional – is well portrayed. How autobiographical was the setting? Did you work with maps and photographs, or did you drive/walk the sites you describe in the book?

Thank you, and I like to think that a part of the reason for that is that the setting is extremely autobiographical. The first half of the book takes place in a stylized version of the very small Western Canadian town in which I grew up and graduated high school; the second half takes place in Vancouver, Canada, where I spent most of my life after high school. The version of Vancouver that’s in the book is slightly closer to “reality” than the version of 100 Mile House, my hometown, just because the 100 Mile House of the novel exists as a kind of time-tripping double-exposure, where the town as it was when I grew up has been overlaid onto the “contemporary now” time frame in which the book takes place.

I know that it can’t possibly make a difference to the reader, because most readers are never going to have an excuse to visit 100 Mile, but having that connection to the setting really helped define the emotional tone of the story for me, which is, as you say, largely about isolation. But I also have to admit that having an autobiographical slant to the setting was also just a lot of fun. As far as the specific details go, I aided my memory with a lot of time spent on Google Maps and its Street View function, which I’ve always found endlessly entertaining. The layout and look of 100 Mile are exactly as described in the book (though you won’t find the specific stores mentioned in the story because they’re part of the mid-1980s overlay). Likewise, the high school in which much of the initial action of the story takes place is my high school, and if you walked down the corridors having read the book, you’d probably recognize it.

In order to make a contemporary techno-thriller work, the technical detail you include has be believable, easy to understand and yet not hold up the pace of the narrative. You’ve managed to achieve these criteria very effectively. How did you:-
– Tackle the necessary research?
– Ensure that you got the balance between pace and detail correct?

As the sort-of-autobiographical details of the story might suggest, I’m a bit of geek, so that provides a pretty big leg up on the need for research into technology and weapons systems and all that stuff. But having said that, I admit that I’m also fairly intellectually lazy, so a lot of the process of writing the technical story involved doing just enough research to make it sound real, without worrying about whether it would actually hold together under scrutiny. Most of that research was done in the course of writing. Which is to say, I didn’t sit down with a list of technical touchstones and then try to shoehorn them into the story. Rather, I’d come up with cool story ideas (or ideas that I thought were cool, at least), then I’d have to figure out how to make them work — often turning them into better ideas when I started applying the technical research to them.

As far as the balance between pace and detail goes, I’m happy to say I just got lucky with that. Like a lot of writers, my own writing will always be heavily influenced by the writers I love, so I guess I’ve picked up an innate sense of pacing that’s a kind of gestalt reflection of the skill of those writers. Three authors who were specifically important to this book were Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, and William Gibson. Not in the sense that this book necessarily feels like any of the works of those writers, but just because I’ve always been inspired by their ability to marry the technical and philosophical side of a speculative fiction tale with the human story at the heart of that tale. I think speculative fiction sometimes overloads the technical-and-big-idea side of the story at the expense of character story, but those three writers — as different as their works are — always managed to find that perfect balance for me.

While the events surrounding this adventure have to be realistic, the engine that drives this story is the conflicted teenage protagonist and his relationship with his four gaming buddies. To manage a group of five main characters effectively is a big ask – why did you decide on five, rather than three, or four?

That’s an interesting question, insofar as I honestly don’t have an answer. Right from the beginning, back to the very earliest incarnation of the story (when it was actually a screenplay project, from which the novel was expanded), it’s always been the five characters, like that was just something my subconscious knew was going to be necessary. Analyzing it after the fact, though, I think five characters creates an optimal amount of potential conflict, insofar as you have so many possibly groupings and alliances that can split off from within the larger group. With four characters, it’s too easy to have a split decision and no way to break the tie. With three characters, you always have an automatic majority-rules scenario. With five, it’s maximum Machiavellianism right out of the gate.

Beyond that, I think I was probably aware on some level that these five characters provided the archetypes best suited to bring the story to life. Scott is the redemptive hero, who frankly starts the novel being a bit of a self-obsessed dick, and who has to come to terms with what makes him act that way as he becomes a better person. Molly (Scott’s sort-of-ex-girlfriend) is the free spirit who’s tied down by the kinds of dark secrets and fears that I think most of us hold in our lives, especially as adolescents. The Mitchell character is a kind of wise mentor figure (as much as his wisdom is sometimes questionable), engaging with the world on an almost entirely philosophical level. Rico is Mitchell’s mirror-image counterpart as the physical hero, only believing in what he can touch. Breanne (Mitchell’s sister; Rico’s girlfriend) is the moral and emotional center of the story, avoiding both Mitchell and Rico’s paths in favor of engaging with the world she can feel. Certainly, it would have been possible to reduce the number of characters and double up on some of those roles, but I think I knew instinctively that these archetypes would be important foundations points for the story as a whole.

In Scott Gray, you have established a strong protagonist with a convincing narrative voice – are you planning to write any other books using Scott?

That’s very gratifying to hear, but at this point, I have to honestly say, ‘No.’ I loved the voice of the character myself, and in the course of playing around with that voice and playing in the character’s head, I honestly had more fun writing this book than I think any writer should be allowed to have. But for me, the essential process of transformation that carries Scott through the book marks a kind of end to that voice. By the end of the book, Scott is a changed person, a better person — but not necessarily as interesting a person from a narrative perspective. Even if I could come up with an idea for another story featuring these characters, they wouldn’t be the same characters anymore. I have no doubt that the five of them will continue to do amazing things in the world of their story, but for better or for worse, I think those stories belong solely to them now.

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This honest, brave blog offers insight into a particularly difficult time… Thank you.

Independent Woman

Grief is messy and hard. It doesn’t let up. You grow up an “I” person: I’m doing this or that, I’m going to such and such, I’m studying this subject etc. Then you meet someone and you find yourself becoming a “we” person: we’re buying a house, we’re having a baby, we’re going on holiday.

Then maybe that all goes wrong – or not – and you are again an “I” person, but not the same “I” person that you were before. Now you’re a little older and possibly a little wiser, or at least you have some life experience that you didn’t have before. You’re aware that you are now an “I”.

Further down the road you meet someone, again, and you find yourself back in the “we” mode. For me the “I” and the “we” jostled against each other for a few years and lately I settled into…

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Review of We Can Be Heroes by Scott Fitzgerald Gray

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This YA crossover science fiction techno-thriller (you may have gathered it’s something of a genre mash-up…) is the first of Gray’s work I’ve read – although it didn’t take long to realise We Can Be Heroes is the work of a fluent, experienced writer.

If you press them, anyone who games will admit to some variation on the idea of how they’d love to be the hero for real, just once. Just for one day. But right now, I’m on an empty street five hundred kilometers from home, barely able to walk. I’m soaked and shivering, wearing someone else’s clothes, and with way too many memories of almost dying rattling around in my head. And right here, right now, all I can think about is what I’d say if anybody asked me how much I want to be a hero…

This short paragraph gives a small slice of the narrative voice by űber-stroppy teenager, Scott Gray, sometime gamer and conspiracywecanbeheroes theorist teetering on the edge of dropping out of school. Like an increasing number of books, it is written in present tense which works well – particularly once it gets going.

If you track down this book, my first piece of advice is – keep reading, it gets a whole lot better. I understand why Gray wanted to take time to fully establish his character, setting and situation – but in my opinion, his approach is just a tad too leisurely for the genre and subject matter. However, once this book hit its stride, I was gripped.

This story isn’t just about Scott, it is also about his gaming team – Mitchell, Breanne, Rico and Molly. I liked the fact that there were two girls in there and was impressed that Gray managed to keep all five main protagonists fully engaged and developing throughout the mayhem – a feat far more technically demanding than Gray made it look. I wondered about having a team of five, rather than three or four, but came to the conclusion that using five quite different personalities, Gray was able to fully explore the notion of heroism and how it plays out in a variety of ways. Over-arching the whole narrative, though, is the self-absorbed, arrogant yet vulnerable persona of young Scott. The voice is a joy – those of us who have had the misfortune/privilege to have lived alongside an overly bright sixteen year old male will be forcibly reminded of the experience halfway down the first page. I even confess to sneaking feelings of sympathy for Seth, his permanently enraged father… Does this mean that my allegiance to Scott wavered? Nope. Not even at his most obnoxious. I am a sucker for a strongly written, complex first person narrator and Gray certainly delivered. Unlike so many techie-minded male authors, Gray manages to write his main character with depth and humanity.

In addition to exploring the idea of heroism, Gray also has his protagonist musing on the nature of isolationism, what defines humanity, as well as confronting him with the fallout when someone unexpectedly dies. All this without letting the narrative pace fall below frenetic once the action starts kicking off…

Other than my one niggle about the book being a bit slow at the beginning, I found this an engrossing, highly enjoyable and accomplished read and have marked Scott Fitzgerald Gray as One To Watch. I’ll be hunting down his back catalogue – in the meantime, I suggest you upload We Can Be Heroes, or order a print copy. Now that the summer is rapidly drawing to a close, you’ll need a bit of action to keep you warm – and this book has it in spades…
9/10

Review of Whispers Underground – Book 3 in Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch

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D.C. Peter Grant – U.K.’s answer to Harry Dresden – serves in a little known branch of the Metropolitan Police. So in this, the third book in the series does Aaronovitch manage to sustain the energy, quirky humour and detailed knowledge that has made this series so popular so quickly?

In Tuffnell Park, North London, a pair of railway tracks dive under a school, taking trains to and from Kings Cross. Wet, filthy, dangerous. Lovely place. And one Sunday before Christmas a sweet (sort of) kid called Abigail took me and my long-suffering Lesley May down there to look for a ghost.

We found one.

whispersundergroundAnd that was that, I thought, because come Monday, I get to do some proper policing. Persons Unknown has been stabbed to death on the tracks at Baker Street tube. Magic may have been involved. And sure enough, in the blood; vestigia, the tell-tale trail magic leaves. Person Unknown turns out to be the son of a US senator and before you can say ‘International Incident’, FBI agent Kimberley Reynolds and her firmly held religious beliefs are on my case. And down in the dark, in the tunnels of London’s Underground, the buried rivers, the Victorian sewers, I’m hearing whispers of ancient arts and tortured, vengeful spirits…

That’s the premise – and with that we are whisked off in Peter Grant’s engaging, chirpy first person viewpoint to a ringside seat as he embarks on another investigation. Once more, we are treated to his cinematic descriptions of the city he clearly loves and knows as well as a London cabbie, while he plunges into another plot more twisty than Mama Thames herself.

Lesley May is accompanying him for most of the ride – and the sparky, yet poignant interaction between the two of them lit up sections of the book for me. In any successful long-running series, it becomes as much about the supporting characters as the protagonist. Aaronovitch doesn’t rely solely on having one of the most cheekily engaging main characters to keep our interest – he also surrounds Peter with a quirky cast. This ranges from Molly, the housekeeper at The Folly (think Mrs Hudson with sharp teeth and chronic insomnia); Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, Peter’s boss and that last official English wizard, to the pantheon of headstrong river goddesses who all seem to have a bit of a thing for Peter…

Aaronovitch is a highly experienced writer and knows that one of his writing strengths is creating powerfully effective backdrops, providing mood music to the action. This book has underground tunnels as a creepy setting to the action – not just the Underground, but also slices of the complex warren that burrows under London for a variety of purposes. I’d strongly advise you to avoid reading the passages set in the sewer while eating your dinner – it’ll put you right off your food…

Whispers Underground is every bit as good as the first two books – if anything, better. Peter’s character sings off the page and as Aaronovitch refines and fleshes out the world and supporting cast, his voice gains in emotional depth and confidence. This is certainly one of 2012’s outstanding reads.
10/10

Review of The Broken Kingdoms – Book 2 of The Inheritance trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

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The first book in this trilogy, A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, created quite a stir. It’s a sign that a genre is very much alive and kicking when authors tweak the conventions to offer something original and appealing – and that’s what A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms did for epic Fantasy. So in The Broken Kingdoms, does Jemisin manage to sustain that special ‘X’ factor?

In the city of Shadow, beneath the World Tree, alleyways shimmer with magic and godlings live hidden among mortalkind. Oree thebrokenkingdomsShoth, a blind artist, takes in a strange homeless man on impulse – a decision she begins to doubt when she realises there are hidden depths and powers at work in him. There’s more blurb, but as it moves into Spoiler territory I’m going to pass on it…

Initially, there seemed to be a lot of similarities between the two books – both narrators were young women isolated from any family ties; both of them rapidly find themselves out of their depth, surrounded by a number of beings a whole lot more powerful and deadly than they are; both possess more skills and resources than is immediately apparent. Both have an enjoyable narrative voice. Hm… are these books starting to sound waaay too similar?  Actually – no. While all above may be true, there are some important differences.

The backdrop in The Broken Kingdoms is more vivid and varied and while I really enjoyed Yeine Darr as a protagonist, Oree Shoth is even more engaging. Ten years have passed since the events described in A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – which is a smart move, as it means no one has to have read the first book in the trilogy in order to completely understand what is happening in the second instalment. That said, if you have somehow managed to pick up The Broken Kingdoms without reading A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I would recommend that you track down the first book as I think it will enhance your knowledge and enjoyment of what is going on.

Like all really good writers – and Jemisin is certainly that – she assumes that her readers are bright enough to join up the dots without spelling out every last nuance and allusion. So it becomes interesting to see characters we’ve already got to know well from an entirely different viewpoint.

However, what has this book humming is the vibrant story of Oree and her injured refugee. I’d intended to read a couple of chapters – but Jemisin’s magical prose drew me in and before I knew it, I was nearly at the end of the book. In addition to a cracking plot with various twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, there is Oree’s spiky character. She is an endearing protagonist – a great mix of gritted stubbornness and vulnerability. The supporting cast are a wonderful mix of godlings, gods and driven individuals, whose power and capacity to hold a grudge produce a deadly cocktail of vengeful anger. We are given a ringside seat at an immortal family tragedy from a mortal’s viewpoint, with Oree stuck right in middle of the immortal scrap – a very neat trick to pull off. As an additional treat, following the genre convention, Jemisin isn’t afraid to give us flights of descriptive prose that verges on the poetic.

I was completely drawn into the action – and found the ending moving and appropriate. So, not only does The Broken Kingdoms manage to live up to the promise shown in A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, it surpassed my expectations. If this excellent series has somehow slipped past your radar, I highly recommend it.
10/10

Review of Sound Mind by Tricia Sullivan

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I came across a copy of Sound Mind at the local library, did a happy jig and snagged it off the shelves on the grounds that Tricia Sullivan’s shopping lists probably make an interesting read…

When Cassidy Walker stumbles into the middle of the highway, bloodied and bruised, Bard College in flames behind her, and manages to flag down a ride, she thinks the worst is over. Arriving in the nearby town of Red Hook, Cassidy tries to call her parents but the phone lines are down. Later she will discover that no radio or television signals are being received. The town, it seems, is cut off from the rest of the world – no one can get in and no one can get out. But that’s not the strangest thing by a long shot…  There is more – but it ventures into Spoiler Country and I’ve views on ruining the reader’s experience by giving too much away in blurting blurbs.

This story starts with a bang as Sullivan’s books generally do. And Cassidy is a wholly convincing, entertaining protagonist whose terrifying experiences are vividly portrayed. Although it gradually becomes clear that she isn’t exactly what she initially seems. Sullivan is a highly intelligent writer who isn’t afraid to push the envelope. As with all such artists, this means that the results can be variable.

soundmindThe overall story is full of tension and adventure and – mostly – moves along at a good clip. It was only about halfway through that I realised that Sound Mind is a sequel to Double Vision, which I’d read before I was organised enough to make a note of every book I read, on account of my chronically awful memory. Despite the fact that I couldn’t recall much about Double Vision, I didn’t have too much difficulty grasping what was going on in Sound Mind, so it certainly ticks the box of not relying on the first book in the duology to make it a viable read.

One of Sullivan’s trademarks is to start with a credible problem set in a recognisable primary world setting, always portrayed with pin-sharp clarity. And as the story advances, she steadily pushes the borders of normality until we are confronted with something that is right on the edge of the fantastical – while still within the science fiction genre. Unlike a number of science fiction writers, Sullivan has no problem keeping her protagonists vulnerable and sympathetic as they are subjected to a series of increasingly bizarre ordeals. I really enjoyed the ending, which after the fantastic, multi-layered plot, could so easily have sold the reader short. It doesn’t.

The role of music is thoroughly explored within this novel. Cassidy is a music student and comes to believe that it is one of her taped compositions that has brought into being the destruction that has sealed off Red Hook. She explains to the reader exactly what she was trying to achieve and why – and goes into a lot of fairly academic detail about her feelings about music as a personal anchor for her. As ever, Sullivan’s work is layered and clever, with constant touches of humour to help leaven the chaos and violence – and her discussions about music throughout the book are often enlightening and entertaining. However, there are also a few places where I think some judicious editing would have improved the pace of what is – essentially – an adventure story. I love the fact that science fiction is a genre where the story is often not only an entertaining escapist read, but a vehicle to explore ideas and themes, although this is something of a balancing act. At times, the discussions/explanations about the role of music silt up the pace and I found myself skimming across these sections, particularly in the second half of the book.

But this is a minor quibble about a book that once more establishes Sullivan as a major voice in the genre, who deserves a great deal more exposure than she gets. And if you also are fortunate enough to find a copy of the book in your local library or secondhand bookshop – scoop it up. You’ll thank me if you do…
8/10

Review of The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart

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This classic Fantasy tale – knocking around long before Harry Potter was a twinkle in Rowling’s eye – was always a firm favourite with all my classes when I taught. I dug out my copy and read it to my granddaughter this week. Despite the unfashionably long descriptive passages, the narrative was sufficiently engrossing that it held her rapt right through to the end.

littlebroomstickQuite right, too. I’d forgotten what a little gem it is, with beautifully flowing and evocative prose the whips the story along at a fair clip. Mary Smith is ten years old and due to an unfortunate illness and bad timing, finds herself parked with Great-Aunt Charlotte in her large house, Red Manor, in the heart of Shropshire right at the end of the summer holidays. There is nothing much to do. Until she encounters a beautiful black cat called Tib with glowing green eyes, who leads her to a rare flower in the middle of the woods…
And from that beginning, the adventure whisks up its young readers and doesn’t let up until the final page. Plain Mary Smith is an enjoyable, appealing protagonist who is just the right mix of innocence and quick wittedness. But there are also a strong cast of supporting characters – particularly the wonderfully creepy Madam Mumblechook and her sidekick, Doctor Dee.

Endor College, educational establishment of witches and black magic, is vividly described and until I read this again to Frankie, I’d forgotten just how disturbing it is. Under the cosy touches – ‘Badness me’ as an exclamation, for instance – there is real menace. Stewart’s wonderful description of Tib does more than mark her out as a cat lover – it also highlights the contrast between the lithe, independent creature who befriends Mary and the twisted toadlike thing he becomes thanks to Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee. And the reason why they expend all this magical energy and effort to transform Tib and a host of other creatures? Because they can…

Stewart gives youngsters a powerful insight into the nature of evil – all too often it isn’t about world domination with overblown, pantomime-type characters that slide into the ridiculous. It is about people in everyday situations who abuse the power they have to twist and torment those powerless to prevent them.

I’d also forgotten the poignant and fitting ending – which is (perhaps intentionally) diffused by the description of the top range of broomsticks available from Harrods… All in all, this slim volume is – like the best of children’s literature – a really good read for fantasy fans of all ages and I particularly recommend it to those who enjoyed Harry Potter or anything written by Diana Wynne Jones. The bad news is that it is currently out of print. So keep your eyes peeled – and anytime you come across a copy on a secondhand book stall, get it. Even if the children in your life are long gone, I guarantee that you’ll thank me…
10/10