Jakub and the Green Man – A. Hanson

Green Man

Publish Date: January 8, 2015

Source: Free on Amazon

Format: E-book

Pages: 51 pages

Synopsis: In a small hamlet in the Carpathian mountain’s Jakub lived much as his father and grandfather had done before him. A man of few words, he lived close to the earth, and close to the forests that provided for him. His world revolved around the seasons and the uncomplicated cycle that Nature, in Her wisdom, had set upon the land. That was until he had a visitor. Arriving unannounced, he came as a troubling reminder of the world outside; a world where Science and Religion were sweeping away the old ideas and bringing in the new. Jakub struggles between what his heart knows and what his reason tells him, yet despite his best efforts the Stranger will be heard…….even after he has gone. Jakub soon finds the Stranger was not all that he seemed, and continues to lead him towards a frightening revelation that tells of Mankind’s separation from the green, and of Natures desire to bring her children home. (Source: product description on Amazon.com)

Short version: A vivid, sensuous tale of joy, loss, and mankind’s communion with nature.

Longer version: Full disclosure – I read this in the last week of 2014, which means I must have read a different version to the one published on January 8. I’ve just given myself a refresher of the version on my Kindle, but any commentary on the mechanics of writing refers only to the version I’ve read.

What stayed with me, and is likely to stay with any reader even weeks and months after reading Jakub and the Green Man, is a profound and genuine sense of holy reverence for the subject matter. In European pagan tradition, the Green Man is associated with many natural deities that were believed to bring in the spring and regrowth and rebirth. Hanson takes these ideas seriously and gives them a weight and dignity equal to something like Donne’s Holy Sonnets.

Green Man, by Lisa Parker Design

Green Man, by Lisa Parker Design

The book doesn’t read as a religious text when Hanson is in full descriptive swing, and at its best is anything but dry. From the first paragraph the prose vividly describes the setting, a country both beautiful and wild and sometimes menacing:

The Carpathian hills were the great arc, the spine, of Europe and along its length the arteries of a continent ran. The Turks ploughed their way along its length burning, killing, and pillaging; they razed entire towns building shrines in human bones, they impaled the weak…

Summer was a time of plenty when fields burned yellow with wheat and rape, winter, however, came dark and cold, and was a time when plum brandy warmed the bones of old and young alike, and death took of these in equal measure.

Hanson’s turns of phrase are a delight even when he’s describing the sad fate of a shepherd mentioned in only one paragraph; he died “hung from a hempen cord and sad despair.” (My note here in my Kindle simply says: “wow.”)

Hanson’s Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPaG, because I am classy like that), isn’t pristine, with faulty punctuation and multiple spelling errors. However, it’s about half to three-quarters of the way through the book before it becomes truly distracting: most notably, when the protagonist “Jakub” starts being referred to as “Jakob” and then “Jacob” interchangeably.

By contrast to Hanson’s revel in sensory description, the dialogue in Jakub and the Green Man seems stilted and forced. Part of the tale is set in 1599, and Hanson tends to get a little intrusive with the archaic (and sometimes incorrect) words and sentence structures. In an earlier conversation where Jakub speaks with a man called “The Traveller”, it’s almost as if the characters were not real people having a natural conversation, but two speakers debating in The House of Lords:

“I believe I do, yet to believe is not necessarily to understand. Is it not women’s tales you speak of, fancies for children and the like?” Jakub asked.

The Traveller smiled: “Any man born of woman has a knowing of such things, yet this knowing is misted by our fear of the truth… Through an infant’s eyes do we see verily, my friend.”

The upshot of this is a certain distance between the reader and characters like Jakub. Jakub and the Green Man is driven more by ideology than by character, but even so, the titular character comes across as strangely passive and barely there, as if he stood for a stance and not existed as a character. His now-dead wife, Anka, is the only named character who successfully “came to life” for me. She is Jakub’s spiritual teacher, a gentle, joyful child of nature… but sadly doomed.

With its emphasis on thick-set sensory imagery and deep, provocative ideology, Jakub and the Green Man lacks a strong plot. That said, the final section, The Green Man, has a beautifully written and genuinely tense action sequence where nature rebels against Jakub and his fellow villagers, and they are shown just how much they rely on the natural world around them:

And so death has come, Nature has turned her face away and hides herself in grief. The forests are still… cold, Jacob, so very cold will your future be without the Mothers [sic] grace. For Her grace is gone and the only mother you shall know will be of cold rationale, and science will be the new lore… such will be the greatness of man.

Considering especially that this raw, earnest, slightly-awkward tale is perfectly free, it’s worth having a look at.

The Case for Kindle

A couple of days ago, a writer I follow on Twitter shared a very rude email he’d got from a “fan” of his work. The fan was American and the writer English. The fan was furious that the writer’s most recent works were not available as E-books in America and got quite abusive about it (though what they hoped to accomplish by doing this is beyond me.)

The comments were, naturally, sympathetic to the poor writer who copped this abuse. But in their condolences, I could not believe how many people responded with variations on “Pah! E-books are shit anyway. REAL readers love REAL books!”

About five months ago, I blew a lot of my weekly budget on buying my first Kindle, a Paperwhite. (I won’t say that I blew “too much” of my weekly budget, because it was completely worth it, and I’d do it again.) I was, and am, thrilled with my gadget. Thousands of books, and they all fit in my handbag! I’ve gone on downloading sprees for hours.

So you can imagine how confused I was, reading all the scoffing (there and elsewhere; in fact, this has come up in almost every reading community I’ve recently read where the “K-word” is even mentioned). Generally, the scoffer follows up with a proclamation that they “prefer real books.”

I’m certainly not arguing in favour of doing away with traditional paper books. I have about three hundred of them (and I downsized, against my will, when I moved to a much smaller flat). All of them are special to me, from old university textbooks like As I Lay Dying or To the Lighthouse to my 1895 hardback edition of Sir Walter Scott’s poetry. Hell, I’m even the proud owner of two sets of The Lord of the Rings (paperback and hardback, and not including my Kindle version.)

Paper books are good.

But Kindle books are good too, and here are some reasons why having bought a Kindle has changed my own reading habits for much the better:

  1. As aforementioned, thousands of books now fit in my handbag. Just one of the paperbacks on my shelf would be difficult to stuff into my handbag, and most of the hardbacks wouldn’t fit at all.
  2. Kindles are a shield against intellectual snobbery. On a train, only someone who is nosing over my shoulder could possibly tell what I was reading. There’s no need for the reader to posture (or feel ashamed of what they’re indulging in), and no opportunity for others to judge them on their reading choices. When I was doing my degree, I had an acquaintance who was very clever but very pretentious. She owned thousands of books – so many that her bookshelves were stacked three-deep. I’d go to her house and just revel in them all, borrowing them one by one. But I noticed after a while that if I asked her what a book in the “front row” of her bookshelves was like, she’d say she didn’t know, and that she hadn’t read it yet. After a while I started asking questions, and she admitted that many of them (Dune comes to mind) were books she not only hadn’t read, but hadn’t the least intention of ever reading. They were there because they were “clever books” that she wanted to impress visitors with. Good luck doing that with your Kindle, folks.
  3. Downloading books from Amazon, and from other websites such as Project Gutenberg and Smashwords, is easy and provides virtually instant gratification. No trudging from store to store or waiting weeks for your book to arrive. A serious plus for people like me who are not the patient sort and who want to read a book when the mood takes them, not two weeks later.
  4. As someone who doesn’t have a bedside lamp and hates fumbling for the doorway in the dark, the internal light on my Paperwhite is a godsend.
  5. Since they’re battery powered, Kindles can theoretically run out of juice just when you’re in the middle of finding out whodunit or whatever. In reality, their battery life is immense. If I read an E-book on my phone, I’ll completely drain the battery in two hours or less. The battery of a Kindle lasts for around thirty hours. I once watched a woman read pretty much the entire flight from Singapore to London – a flight which takes about fourteen hours. Her Kindle was never plugged in at any stage, and it lasted the whole way.

Since getting my Kindle, I’ve had the opportunity to read basically anywhere. And because of that, I’ve already read twice as much as I had by this time last year. I’ll take that benefit. Yes, I will indeed.

Opponents of the E-book often cite the smell and feel of a “real book” as reasons for their preference for paper, and that’s a valid preference in taste. But I think it’s important to remember that the value of a book is not in what it smells like, nor what it feels like in your hands. The value of a book is in the words you read and the way you engage with it in your mind. If the words are the same, you can just as easily engage your mind on a Kindle as a “real book.” I love the smell of libraries as much as the next person, but I can’t get behind “the smell of books” as an absolutely inarguable reason why a page is superior to a screen.

Am I trying to convert the world to Kindle? No. (Unless Amazon would like to pay me, in which case, I’ll consider it.) I don’t mind at all if people prefer paper and stick to buying and reading in that format.

What I would like is a greater understanding among readers that the value of a book is not in its format, but in its content, and in how the reader uses that content to create a better life for themselves and a better world around them. Some people like to read that content on a Kindle, that’s all.

Do I Review Requests?

Yes, I do. If you have a book you’d like me to review, get in touch with me here, via email (see sidebar) or on my Twitter page.

Please note that I don’t read erotica, and while I’m not going to write off Chick Lit as an entire genre, it’s not one I connect particularly well with or enjoy in my own time.

I also reserve the right to queue a book (rather than pick it up immediately), and my reviews will always be tactful and encouraging, but honest.

If your book is still in the MS process and you would like me to proofread or edit, please contact me and we’ll see if we can arrange something. Proofreading/editing a complete novel is mentally intense and time-consuming, so I do charge for my services. However, I’m sensitive to the fact that most Indie writers are not rolling in cash and my rates are reasonable compared with many big editing agencies.

Books Are Not Made of Stars

By now I should probably address something – why I don’t use a five-star system, a percentage system or a points system when I review fiction.

Books are not made of stars.

To quote John Keating, the late Robin Williams’ character in Peter Weir’s film Dead Poets Society, “we’re not laying pipe, we’re talking about poetry.” To simplify a book that someone has slaved over, sometimes for years, into a neat little five-rank system seems a gross injustice to both the writer and the potential reader.

In reviewing at Goodreads and on Amazon, I’ve even noticed that their star systems attach a completely different meaning to three-star reviews. On Amazon, three stars means “it’s okay.” On Goodreads, it means, “I like it”- which is a four-star review on Amazon.

While most book reviewers use the stars system (or a percentage system) in conjunction with a well-thought-out review, it’s all too tempting to skim the ratings and not read the content. I know I’ve done it. I can’t see that ratings are of much use to anyone except those who obsess about stats and rankings and whether a book is or isn’t on Amazon’s top 100 bestsellers list.

Bestsellers? More than anything, I’m aiming to deal with non-sellers and worst-sellers – non-sellers and worst-sellers not because of the quality of the prose, but because marketing your own work is difficult, and because there is a tsunami of self-published books out there. No human being could possibly read them all. (God knows I’m trying.)

If I go back to my Goodreads account and look at the books I have marked as five-star works, books I would rush into a burning building to preserve, I see these five:

Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

My Own True Ghost Story, by Rudyard Kipling.

What do these five books all have in common? Not a damn thing, except that I love them. To give them all five-stars (especially without an accompanying review that is fair and balanced) implies there is some more objective basis for comparison, one that I can explain to anyone outside my head.

Since I can’t, I’ll continue to review with words and not stars.

Rise of a Phoenix – Phill Syron-Jones

Phoenix Cover

Publish Date: October 10th, 2014

Source: Free copy from the author, in exchange for a fair review; copies may be bought at the UK and US Amazon sites.

Format: E-book or Paperback (read by the reviewer as an E-book).

Pages: 376 pages

Synopsis: In the swelter of a New York heat wave Detective Samantha McCall and her team are thrust on to the trail of a brutal killer. Soon more bodies are descovered (sic) and the team find they are not alone in their pursuit.
A shadowy figure follows them as if it is also searching for something in the horror the killer has left behind. McCall must figure out if this wraith is friend, foe or the killer himself.
As Detective McCall moves closer to the true she soon discovers, nothing is as it seems. (Source: Amazon product description.)

Short Version: Evocative and twisty murder mystery that kept me reading, though a little let down in the technicalities of storytelling.

Longer Version: If, like me, you enjoy the sort of crime mysteries presented by TV shows like The Closer and Cold Case, this book may just make your day.

Syron-Jones clearly knows and loves this genre of crime story, and it pays off. From the first few lines he is surefooted both in the world he’s created to drop the reader in, and the direction that his story is headed.

The above is most obvious in his descriptive passages. They are vivid and detailed, instead of resorting to vague generalities, and his descriptions and explanations of various weapons and warfare techniques are given with all the confidence of an author who served in the armed forces. He paints his word-portraits with a luxurious sort of leisure, giving due attention not just to our main characters, Samantha McCall and John Steel, but to locations sometimes only seen once, and to various mooks and doomed victims who get to star in their own scene. Here he describes an early crime scene:

Bethesda Terrace was a late 1800s wonder, the two-level courtyard displaying a mix of red and white brick, beginning with the smaller forecourt on the upper level, to which on either side two large sandstone staircases came down to give entry to a weathered underpass. This made the place look as if it had once belonged to a castle or a cathedral. A magnificent fountain loomed at the other end of the fantastic courtyard. This was intended to be a place of dreams, a place for people to come and lose themselves in another time. The park was awash with police putting up crime-scene tape and barricades, the press in their droves setting up tripods and getting video cameras ready to go on air: a media circus.

Details like a character’s nervous twitches or the contents of a police whiteboard are laid out with precision and care. The characters themselves are vivid and detailed, though their dialogue is a little forced in places, with a curious lack of the natural contractions most people use in real speech (“we’re, they’re, don’t, can’t, etc.).

Which brings me to a quibble I did have with the novel: it’s very much in need of proofreading for spelling, grammar and punctuation. The formatting is not consistent throughout, making it difficult to work out whether a line is a character’s thoughts, their speech or the narration of the omniscient author. On a couple of occasions two characters speak on the same line, and the transitions between different scenes and points of view within the same chapter aren’t always clearly marked, so I had to backtrack and work out where the transition actually was. It’s because I had to backtrack (and therefore break my immersion) that I’d consider it a strike against the story, keeping in mind that I was reading this with the aim of reviewing it, rather than being a casual reader devouring it on a cruise ship. The action sequences are carefully thought out, though they can come on a little abruptly and the “gear shift” doesn’t always come across well.

Syron-Jones expertly uses dynamic point-of-view shifts to keep the tension high, and is not afraid to write from the third-person point of view of someone who is about to end up horribly dead. As such, it’s almost impossible to guess the outcome of a scene or the ultimate fate of a character in advance. Good. I hate endings I can see from five chapters away.

Syron-Jones can be and is frequently is witty, with lines like:

Davidson was suddenly taken aback by the policeman’s correction; he must think a lot about himself, thought the doctor, admiring himself in the reflection from the window.

And this is a good example of how pithy he is at his best:

He felt joy, he felt exhilaration. And then he felt something hit him on the back of the head.

The book is mainly populated with archetypes of the genre: the plain-talking, fatherly police chief, the hard-boiled, no-nonsense female detective, Those Two Guys who shoulder much of the work (and provide much of the welcome comic relief) and, of course, the Phoenix himself: John Steel, a British import to the team. He reminds me of Nick from Stephen King’s The Langoliers, but it’s a favourable comparison, as he’s a lot of fun to read. Syron-Jones keeps the tension high by constantly drawing Steel actions and motivations into question. It’s an interesting sideline plot to see him struggle to be accepted by his American colleagues, particularly McCall, even if the conclusion to that struggle is pretty much a done deal.

In fact, Syron-Jones does this kind of characterisation well: drawing the reader into an assumption about a character and then dashing that assumption to pieces. In one striking example, he sets up a character as over-confident to the point of arrogance, then puts him in a situation well outside of his comfort zone and describes him as looking like a lost child in a playground.

As the story moves toward its conclusion it picks up to an almost breakneck speed. Syron-Jones actually summarises at times, which can detract from the growing tension:

North ordered his men off the roof. As he did so McCall turned to him and screamed abuse, telling him how he couldn’t leave Steel in there on his own.

The chapters, always bite-sized, become progressively shorter as the denouement rolls inevitably in. When it does, it’s complete and satisfying, though Syron-Jones has also left a hook for a sequel and many broad hints that he hasn’t finished telling us about The Phoenix yet, and he’ll rise again in the near future.

Gaslight – Mark Dawson

Gaslight

Publish Date: January 4th, 2014

Source: Free on Amazon

Format: E-book

Pages: 63 pages (according to Amazon).

Synopsis: It’s London, 1920. Newly demobilized soldiers have flooded the capital’s streets but an ungrateful country isn’t ready for them. Harry Costello has returned from the horrors of the Somme to no job, no money and no prospects. Desperate times demand desperate measures and when an opportunity to burgle a house presents itself, Harry seizes the chance.

When Harry and his brother Frank are blackmailed into paying off a local hood they decide to take care of the problem themselves. But when all of London’s underworld is in thrall to the man’s boss, was their plan audacious or the most foolish thing that they could possibly have done?

You think crime doesn’t pay? Meet the Costellos – the kind of criminal family that might make you change your mind. (Source: Amazon product description.)

Short version: Moody and vivid, though it leaves the reader hanging.

Long Version: On a September evening in 2013, I trundled my way through Soho, London, with a group of friends. They’d come from as far off as Scotland to converge on London with me, and I’d come as far as Australia, pushing a bright-red walking frame in front of me. The light was fading, and we were looking for a tapas bar. As we made our way further and further into Soho, the streets got narrower. The road surfaces got rougher and the gutters deeper. We walked past restaurants fronts painted in bright primary colours. We walked past haute couture clothing stores with delicate light-fittings that shone through the front windows like early stars. We walked past this mural in honour of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Past pubs and lamp-posts gaily strewn with baskets overbrimming with flowers.

It’s at one of these lamp-posts that Dawson starts the reader, though the flowers are absent and, in an age before public electricity and environmental concerns, that lamp-post has a layer of soot on it about an inch thick. In deft, vivid prose, Dawson paints a picture of London’s poorer quarters, as it was for the survivors of the First World War:

… A graceless wilderness where the kips and spikes throned with vagabonds, beggars, criminals and brasses… where whole families could be submerged forever and where, down darkened alleyways where policemen would only patrol in pairs, you could get your throat cut as easily as a ship on the South China Sea.

Dawson’s skill with description is not just restricted to London, but to the characters he invented to inhabit it. One memorable passage describes George Costello, one of the main characters, in this way:

Angelo Ginicoli, an acid tongued drinking pal of the brothers, said that his face was like half a pound of walnuts wrapped in a flannel.

The biggest disappointment about this book is one that should almost please any writer: it is too short, and the story is too thin.

In fairness to Dawson, Gaslight was written as a prequel to his earlier-published works, The Imposter and The Black Mile. Both these works are longer and presumably more detailed, and I’ve read neither of them yet. It’s supplementary material for Dawson’s fictional universe, but it also seems to telegraph to the reader that they have missed something.

This seems most prominent in the characterisation of Harry and George Costello and Bella, Harry’s love-interest. Dawson does a nice job of lulling the reader into thinking the Costello brothers are a brains-and-brawn duo, then subverts this when “brains” Harry turns out to be the more impetuous (despite the walnut-like appearance of George’s face.) But his impetuosity, while making some great action later in the tale, seemed a little out of left-field for me. When a character decides to seriously screw over the criminal overlords of London, I would like to know why he would choose to do such a thing, and in a little detail.

Bella, I felt, was the character who lost out the most in this book. Seen filtered twice through the perspective of Dawson the writer and Harry Costello the character, she is more of a plot device than a character: remarked on almost purely for her beauty, immediately igniting irrational jealousy in Harry, and infuriatingly passive when the plot demands she be a damsel in distress. Again, I got the impression she is seen in Dawson’s other works and may be fleshed-out there, but I can only go by Gaslight alone, and was left at the end still wondering what Bella was actually like. Given that the POV is almost entirely third-person Harry’s, I can see why Dawson was compelled to write Bella like the object Harry sees her as, but it didn’t make for a character I felt any connection to or sympathy with.

Bella does, however, passively facilitate one of Dawson’s key strengths – action sequences and violence. To quote would be to spoil, but these paragraphs are compelling and vivid without being disgusting for sheer shock value.

In terms of editing and proof-reading, this e-book is nicely done, though not perfect, with minor typos and the occasional punctuation gaffe here and there. These shouldn’t distract the reader too much.

Gaslight is, like most fiction, not without its flaws. But I felt it was well worth the time and effort to read. Better, it’s also inspired me to want to read Dawson’s other works set in this gritty, dangerous London.

Snorky’s Moll – Nigel Edwards

Snorky's Moll

Publish Date: 13th December, 2014

Source: Amazon, $1.20 AU.

Format: E-book

Pages: 36 pages (the Amazon page says so; the text I read was longer on my Kindle.)

Synopsis: Snorky’s Moll is a ghost story. It’s also a love story, a story of deceit and revenge – the dish, as it’s said, that’s best served cold. Although it’s a ghost story, you won’t find bed linen that suddenly starts to float around a room scaring innocent chamber maids, nor ghouls manifesting themselves because dorky teenagers have found a mysterious artefact which they begin to misuse. Nope, none of that here, I’m afraid. But there is a picture. A photograph of a woman staring out at you. Why is she so beguiling? Who was she? What did she do? And… who’s the guy sitting close by? (Source: Amazon product description).

Short version: A little story but a great read, and strangely fun, given the topic…

Longer version:  Since writer Nigel Edwards (listed as N G Edwards on the E-book sleeve) isn’t keen on revealing the identity of “Snorky” on his own synopsis of Snorky’s Moll, I supposed I shouldn’t spoil things. (If you’re the type who loves a good spoiler, “Snorky” and “Google” go together quite nicely.)

What I think I can reveal in fairness to the synopsis is this great hook of an opening line:

“I’d been married to Celia for more than fifteen years when I decided to kill her.”

If it’s not already obvious by way of his opening statement – the narrator of this story, Joe, is a Grade-A arsehole. Apart from his willingness to “ice” his wife (usually not a positive character trait) Joe is arrogant, vain and bigoted (“what is it with eye-ties and the letter ‘o’?” he laments at one point early on.)

Edwards gives Joe such a strong narrative voice, that for all his murderous intent and arrogant ways, he’s actually likeable in an odd kind of way. Slight wobbles of English like “I got my first heart attack” really bring him to life as a man who might be business-savvy, but not particularly sharp at just about everything else (he genuinely can’t understand how he can “take it easy” after multiple heart attacks, but also go for a walk every now and again.)

But he is also a man with vulnerable spots – a man who genuinely does seem wounded by his wife spurning him, a man who pays a prostitute an extra fifty dollars so others will think he “lasted longer” with her, a man who seems delighted that a woman named Julia is so into him, even if she may not, strictly-speaking, be real. He is intimate, almost affectionate toward the reader:

“I found a photograph. Not of Celia, but of someone I didn’t know. What’s so crazy about that? I’ll tell you…”

And he does – completely and intriguingly. Initially I didn’t pay much attention to the book’s cover – this was an E-book format, after all. Looking back to it halfway through reading, I realised that the photograph he mentions forms the front cover of the book. Look carefully and you might see a clue or two.

Both Edwards’ descriptions and his dialogue are, for the most part, rock-steady – enough that it was only after reading that I realised he isn’t an American writer (but then, I’m not an American reader.) Little hints in the narrative like his explaining that “cabbie” was an expression he picked up in London are nice little nods toward the author’s origins without being overbearing.

The dialogue, too, is splendid, not just in its colour, but in its scope and range. With perhaps a stranger’s ear for it, Edwards draws subtle but careful distinctions between the dialogue of different characters, from Italian-American Celia to 1920’s moll Julia, right down to a random modern-day taxi-driver who shows the protagonist around Chicago for a scene that only lasts half a page.

The characterisation of Snorky’s Moll herself – Julia – was particularly inspired, and Edwards’ control of both his POV character and the focus of the piece were probably what held it together the best. The protagonist is undoubtedly attracted to this vision, and vice-versa – they have sex together in the back of a cab. But one of his initial observations of Julia was that she was not really pretty – mouth too wide, nose too long – and, particularly delightfully, that she ate bratwurst and onions and:

 “…the way she ate reminded me of a dog snuffling after food in its dish.”

I like this writer.

I like him a lot.

And the woman’s unattractive eating habits speak to more than her own character. Such scenes are part of the way Edwards textures his novel with vibrant detail, both modern and historical. A fashionable young woman who’d dream of eating something as heart-attack-inducing as greasy sausage in public? We’re not in the twenty-first century anymore. It contrasts starkly with earlier mentions of the society beauty Celia, with her “white diamond caviar and blue lobster.”

Edwards plays fast and loose with history in Julia’s explanation of exactly why the protagonist needs to kill his wife, but the casual reader won’t notice and the more informed one probably won’t care. This is a work of fiction, not a textbook.

With some elements that are inevitable and some that are completely unexpected, the last scene is real ignore-the-phone reading, with a final line that I love more than is probably healthy.

Definitely worth the read.

Driftwood – Shauna Bickley

Driftwood

Publish Date: 1st March, 2013

Source: Free on Amazon

Format: E-book

Pages: 144 pages

Synopsis: The last person Juliet expects to meet on a work trip is Luke. She has changed her name and worked hard to ensure he wouldn’t find her, but now he is back in her life again. Is it chance, or something more sinister? Juliet has secrets she needs to keep hidden, but Luke wants to renew their relationship. After meeting him incidents occur that make her fear the unthinkable. Her life may be in danger. She leaves Auckland for Sydney on a business trip, but Luke appears there. Can she trust him, or are his secrets more dangerous than the ones she hides. (Source: Amazon product description.)

Short version: An intriguing premise and setting, but let down a little in the execution.

Longer version: Driftwood is the debut novel of Anglo-New Zealander writer Shauna Bickley. It was first self-published in October of 2010, and later published in paperback form. The version I read was the E-book published on Kindle in March of 2013, so any discussion of formatting, spelling, punctuation applies only to that particular version.

The novel opens with Juliet, our protagonist, suddenly hearing a familiar voice behind her in a coffee shop. It’s Luke, an old childhood friend and flame who broke her heart in university. Since she hasn’t seen him in twenty-four years, she’s baffled and upset, and quickly leaves. But Luke (now a forty-something widower with an adult son, Josh) won’t be put off as easily as that. There ensues a protracted game of Kissy-Chasey where the reader is left intrigued as to whether Luke is a romantic hero or a dangerous stalker.

The novella opens without preliminary or prologue, the reader into a scene and letting them sink or swim in terms of working out the characters, their previous relationship, the setting, etc. While I’m not a fan of expository prologues that explain the upcoming plot, throughout the first scene I kept thinking (and at one point actually wrote in as a note) “Who’s Juliet? Who’s Luke? I don’t know these people, so I don’t care about them yet.” Luke’s voice is described as appearing in Juliet’s “nightmares”, but there’s no elaboration on that for a long time. At another point Juliet is referred to as having attended a “leadership course”, but what she actually does for a living is not explained for several more chapters.

It’s obvious from Bickley’s writing that she loves her characters, from protagonist Juliet and love-interest Luke (“If rich dark chocolate had a voice it would sound like him…”) to minor characters such as Kim, Juliet’s assistant. (It was refreshing to see a female working relationship depicted in this novel, even if Kim is less than professional, raving about a complete stranger’s “cute butt.”) Juliet is likeable and sympathetic, and it’s no hardship to spend a couple of hours with her. Initially showing her as a consummate professional, somewhat closed-off emotionally due to her past, Bickley seems to enjoy revealing chinks in Juliet’s armour. I felt that this armour falls off altogether a little too easily and too quickly, but that is largely due to pacing reasons I’ll discuss in a bit.

While some characters are vividly and emotively drawn (I am particularly fascinated with someone who holds a relatively small role – Juliet’s independent, artistic sister Lia) others seem hastily sketched, there to service a plot twist or inject largely unnecessary tension into some of the narrative. One, a potential love-interest for Juliet named Alex, seems to be progressing nicely as a character until he becomes irrelevant to the plot and is quietly written out. I still wonder whether he may have fallen victim to a dropped sideline plot. Possible-hero-maybe-villain Luke fares little better – seen from Juliet’s point of view, he is slightly Harlequin-novelesque. We’re told frequently of Juliet’s attraction to him, but (beyond “he is kind of handsome”) not shown why he has had such an impact on her for nearly a quarter of a century.

While Bickley perhaps doesn’t give some of her characters the attention they need to become full-blooded and real to the reader, she is deft at tiny, vivid character portraits. Memorable ones include Juliet apologising to nobody in particular (so much character implied) and an elderly couple Juliet observes in an airport lounge. She observes and relays little details wonderfully, such as the wobble of a parked car next to high-speed traffic, and these bring her scenes to life nicely. At one point Juliet is involved in an accident that leaves her badly bruised, and Bickley’s description of the after-effects is so vivid it almost made my shoulder ache.

The dialogue in Driftwood seems a little stilted, especially in places where Bickley uses it to help along the plot. At one point, Luke’s son Josh tells him of his grandmother: “I think she has a hangover from my birthday dinner last night.” Presumably Luke knows his son’s birthday and was probably present for the dinner, so doesn’t need to be told that. The exchange, and some others, don’t resemble how real people would have a conversation, which makes it difficult for the reader to see these characters as “real people” and care about them as such.

Bickley is at her best when she is describing the beautiful and evocative New Zealand coast. She paints a vivid picture of pohutukawa (a sort of New Zealand evergreen) and windswept beaches and the “leprous blemishes” of underground rocks in shallow water. An early scene between sisters Juliet and Lia at Lia’s home was easily the highlight of Bickley’s writing for me, bringing out strong, specific sensory details:

“… the hill sloped gently down until it reached the steep drop. The ponga fronds waved gently in the breeze, and Juliet smelt the pungent earthy scent of Lia’s geraniums.”

A later scene where Juliet wanders around Circular Quay (an area I know well) demonstrates how meticulous she is with geographical detail.

To facilitate her plot, Bickley sometimes conceals information from the reader in scenes where it would be normal for it to be revealed. For example, in an early scene between sisters Juliet and Lia, the reader is shown a picture of a child, referred to in the narrative as “Rose.” But while Lia’s succession of dogs are discussed at length, Rose’s identity and significance to the plot doesn’t come out for several more chapters, and the reveal seems unnatural and a little stiff.

The pacing is a little uneven, some scenes (such as an early meeting between Juliet and Luke at a winery) becoming almost a summary, with vague lines like: “she saw some people she knew and joined them.” The plot is tight to the point of being rushed toward its final climax, though toward the end of the book I was genuinely interested in how events would turn out. There were a few moments where my suspended disbelief caved in slightly (why would a stalker park their car in plain sight, then get out of it and hide in the shadows next to it?) but these are niggles, not dealbreakers.

I won’t spoil the ending in a review. I will say that it seemed rushed, with a deus ex machina descending on the plot with such abruptness that I actually checked the page numbers on my E-book, wondering if I’d downloaded a faulty partial copy. Driftwood is a novella, and only clocks in at around 30,000 words. But it seemed to be crying out for about least 20,000 words more, to flesh out the characters, their backgrounds and motivations, and to texture the ending.

Chipping away at my enjoyment of this book were a number spelling, punctuation and grammar issues (SPaG.) In any novel, particularly a self-published one, I would expect to see the odd typo or punctuation flub. In the free Amazon version of Driftwood that I read, there were minor, but niggling, SPaG issues on almost every page. Bickley has a habit of dropping commas, as in her first line of dialogue: “A flat white please”, which would be more correctly rendered “A flat white, please.” In other places she uses too many commas, as here: “She pulled on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, and went for a walk, but nothing…”. She has a tendency to drop question marks from both rhetorical and direct questions, particularly outside of dialogue. There were also several spelling mistakes, where she writes “blonde” for “blond” and “lightening” for “lightning.”

All these glitches don’t obscure the meaning of the story, but I found them as distracting as a dripping tap at midnight. The impression I got was that I was reading a draft, not the finished product. If it didn’t undergo rigorous editing prior to being published in paperback form, it should have.

There’s lots to like about Driftwood, but it reads like a book born prematurely.

Sarann and the Prince of Angkor – Camron Wright

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Publish Date: 30th January, 2013

Published By: Shadow Mountain

Source: Free on Amazon

Format: E-book

Pages: 24

Synopsis: “Sarann and the Prince of Angkor: A Cambodian Cinderella Story,” is just one of many pieces of literature that weave into the plot of The Rent Collector, a novel by Camron Wright.” (Source: Amazon product description.)

Short version: Beautiful in its emotional austerity. Read it.

Longer version: My initial vision for this brand-new book review blog was as a space to review new writers, or self-published writers whose works are in danger of being lost in the flood of self-published e-books available on Amazon and elsewhere online. Wright is neither a new nor an obscure writer, and Sarann was published in its own right nearly two years ago, but it’d be wrong to not give Sarann its due meed of praise just because I missed the boat initially.

I’ll freely admit, however, that I’m still relatively new to Kindle, to Amazon and frankly, to anything that has been published this century. So I was woefully ignorant of Wright’s novel, The Rent Collector, of which Sarann is an excerpt. This short work of only 24 pages works remarkably well as a stand-alone Cambodian fairy tale, with a framing device that was genuinely moving even outside of the context of the novel it occupies.

In a work so short, to explain in detail would be almost to rewrite it. The protagonist, Sang Ly, lives at Stung Meachey, Cambodia’s largest dump. She etches out a meagre living scavenging among the waste, something given much more attention and scope in the parent-work by Wright, The Rent Collector. Sopeap is her teacher, who introduces her to the Cinderella mythos in the shape of the story of Sarann, a Cambodian girl who escapes a wicked stepmother and apathetic stepsister to marry the Prince of Angkor.

Wright’s style is flawless, giving his characters strength and dignity largely by way of a restrained, almost reserved style and straightforward storytelling. The three female characters – Sang Ly, Sopeap and Sarann – come through strongly, particularly Sopeap, regardless of the small amount of narrative space allotted to her. This is a perfect “teaser” for The Rent Collector.

What really lifts Sarann and the Prince of Angkor up beyond being simply a Cambodian version of Cinderella is the follow-up conversation between Sang Ly and Sopeap. Why is the story of a downtrodden girl who marries a prince one we keep telling, across years and across culture?

“Can you tell me why you enjoyed it?”

Speaking to a teacher, I feel duty bound to offer a reasoned and thoughtful reply, one that recognises the story’s qualities. The truth, however, is much simpler. “It makes me happy.”

I’m sympathetic to Sang Ly on this one. Wright’s 24-page jewel of human understanding makes me happy.

On a brief and purely stylistic note, the body of the story of Sarann itself is in grey text on the Kindle version, which may be a little hard on the eyes of some people. I don’t know whether this is standard on all copies of the E-book or not.

Right. I’m off to find a copy of The Rent Collector.