Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Review: The Hounds of Samaria

I love anything to do with the two World Wars and of course, ancient history and mythology. I found an amazing package all rolled into one with Nigel Patten's The Hounds of Samaria. Here's my review of a great book and a compelling read.

Era: World War Two. Place: Crete. George Ghikas has Greek ancestry so the British army sends him behind enemy lines on occupied Crete with orders to organize partisan groups in the White Mountains. Before his posting, George had begun having strange dreams, almost hallucinations, about a dancing girl. These dreams continue upon his arrival in Crete. It appears that George was once the victim of a human sacrifice ceremony that took place in a restored Minoan temple located near his current base camp. The girl who has been haunting his dreams was the officiating priestess during the ancient sacrificial ceremony ... until the temple was destroyed by an earthquake. The past merges with the present until George almost commits suicide by reenacting the sacrificial ceremony from 3,600 years ago in the restored temple.

This book has an amazing sense of lyricism that draws the reader into a complex, yet finely woven plot. The author is a consummate wordsmith, whose eloquent and poetic descriptions paint a vivid picture for the reader, giving a sense of timelessness and a link to an ancient, bloody past. Given the nature of the plot, the author has included historical and mythological details to deepen the mystery surrounding George’s recurring dreams. In counterpoint to George’s experiences and discoveries as he delves into his obsession with Lamia the dancing girl are the experiences and impressions of Doctor Vassilis Iatros. The doctor became a monk when his wife was killed in a car accident. His obsession is to painstakingly restore the ancient Minoan temple on the island, the same temple that features in George’s dreams. Both George and the doctor become increasingly aware of the power of the subconscious mind and its ability to transcend time and space. The author uses an interesting technique by deftly introducing back story and other necessary details in a series of poignant memories to bring the reader and the characters to the moment in time when literally all hell breaks loose on the island. This is a wonderful book with a compelling story; a real page-turner.

First reviewed by Fiona Ingram for Readers Favorites.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Writer’s Digest - 8 Ways to Write Better Characters

Writer’s Digest - 8 Ways to Write Better Characters

This is a great post if you're struggling with your characters and want to give them greater depth, develop their motivations and desires, or even just understand them better. Ask yourself just how much you know about your characters: their opinions, their likes/dislikes; what they'll die to save and what they'll kill to preserve; who they hate and why. Oh, yes, and lots more besides.

This article struck a chord with me today because while I was doing something very difficult in my Pilates class involving a ball and a theraband (?) my trainer asked me how I come up with my characters - do I plot everything out step by step or does it just flow? I had to admit that in fact it's a bit of both. I make a basic outline, place who I think will appear where in the story, and away we go. However, what I found hard to explain to her, although it seemed to make complete sense to her, was that often the characters surprise me, overturn my plans for them, and forge ahead with a better storyline for themselves. So, that tells me I didn't know them very well. In my first historical romance (The Dangerous Duke published by Aurora Regency) I created a wonderful baddie called Sir Marcus Solesby. Oh, the epitome of sleaze and just the man to disgrace and discredit the heroine. However, Sir Marcus refused to seduce the unsuspecting young lady. That's right. He refused because he said he'd fallen in love with her and although wooing her would definitely annoy her employer (the dangerous duke himself) and please said duke's nasty mistress Lady Penelope Vane, he wanted to court her honestly. Lucky for me he dug his heels in because the story took a sharp turn and ended up being a lot more interesting and exciting.

The conversation continued and I brought up the beautiful and malicious Lady Vane, the duke's mistress. As I was describing to my trainer what a complete cow this woman is, and how she's one of those ghastly females who always manages to turn any situation round, even though she is caught red-handed, I found myself being rather envious of my character's ability to twist everything to her advantage. I grudgingly admired the kind of rampant self-centeredness that makes Lady Penelope just the bitch she is. Well, she doesn't get away with it in the end, of course, but she survives...

So, just a little example of how well I did not know my arch-villain and villainess. How well do you know your characters?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Submitting a Manuscript for Review?

This is a question many authors have asked themselves. Is it a good idea to submit a manuscript as opposed to a finished and published book for review? I think the answer is yes. I recently reviewed a manuscript (see my book review below) and because I knew the author had not yet published, I was more tolerant of the few errors that a good editor would pick up anyway; and I was also more keen to be of assistance. I spotted things in the otherwise excellent story that I pointed out and suggested the author fix before actually publishing. Had this been a published book, I would have been a harsher critic. Surely, I would have thought, the author had an editor to fix these glitches. Alas, glitches are part and parcel of being a writer. I have recently prepared my children's book for e-publishing and OMG, would you believe it, I found something (actually there were two somethings) that almost made me curl up and die. OK, so they weren't too bad as mini glitches, but the awful part is I had my manuscript rigorously edited before publishing to hard copy. I also have an eagle eye when it comes to errors. So, yes, if you are considering getting your work reviewed at manuscript stage, go ahead. Critics will be more helpful when they know it's not completed. You may also pick up some very good pointers instead of the reviewer thinking, idiot, why didn't he/she get an editor?

Book Review: Cry of Eagles by Stefan Vucak

When the Valero refinery complex in Texas City is bombed, forensic evidence seems to point glaringly to one culprit—Iran, which had recently expanded its nuclear program. Instead of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities like they did in Iraq, the vacillating Israeli government has done nothing to crush this potential threat to their national security. In fact, Matan Irian, a former Israeli Army Colonel whose family was killed years ago in a PLO terrorist attack, created this strategy to protect Israel: sabotage a refinery complex in Texas City, plant evidence that incriminates Iran, and sit back while an enraged United States strikes back in retaliation. However, the president of the United States hesitates to act without complete forensic investigation. There seems to be no logical reason why Iran would willingly antagonize the United States, calling down upon itself the wrath of a much mightier nation, and one that instantly mobilized its two carrier battle groups off Iran’s coast in readiness to strike back. The perpetrators of the covert black ops have made one tiny but revealing error: they left behind a minute piece of forensic evidence that traces the operation back to Israel. When the real culprits are revealed, the USA turns on its former ally and demands that Israel makes reparations and finally recognizes Palestine’s right to exist. Israel rejects this demand as naïve. When the USA immediately withdraws all economic and military aid, Israel must either seek peace with the Palestinians or go to war on their own.

This is a great read, a real page-turner. The author lays bare the deep-rooted hatreds, as well as the tribal rivalries that dog the composition of the Middle East and preclude a possible resolution. From the start the author draws the reader into a world where modern and historical animosities are twisted together in a knot that seems impossible to untangle. Or is this indeed so? The actions of two men, Namir Bethan (Director of Metsada) and Matan Irian, the man who proposes a drastic solution to the nuclear terrors that threaten his county, cut this Gordian Knot.

The author draws on current events such as international fears of a nuclear-powered Iran ready to hit the red button at any time, to the natural anxieties of the USA bigwigs, to the defiant and entrenched recalcitrant attitudes of the Israelis towards any attempt at removing what they perceive to be their God-given rights. The author also eases the unversed reader into the technical and forensic aspects of explosives and armaments, as well as laying bare the complexities, the chaos and the internecine rivalry that dominates government departments in the delicate interplay of politics and war. I enjoyed the development of the characters and the dialogue. Each character came with his or her history and motives, created in a believable and natural way. The author also has an excellent eye for visual detail to paint the picture of different environments for the reader. This is a must for lovers of political thrillers.

The only hollow note for me was the author’s opinion of the television station Al Jazeera, which has one of the finest teams of international reporters, and reports fairly on Middle Eastern and international matters, given the hard-line attitudes of Middle Eastern governments towards the unbiased dissemination of information.

First reviewed for Readers' Favorite by Fiona Ingram

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Can Books Help Kids Cope with Life?

Can books help kids cope with life? Recently I thought about this because of a slew of articles that have appeared in the press and online, some denouncing the levels of violence and sexuality in YA novels, and others arguing that by reading about YA problems today's teens are able to deal with them.

This article appeared in the Guardian (UK) Writing in the Wall Street Journal, columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon argued that contemporary fiction for teens is now "so dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18".

This is a thought-provoking argument and it unleashed a firestorm of opinion. My own view is that the average teenager is not likely to encounter the dark and sordid side of life described in some of these novels. However, a sheltered teen from a wealthy family whose worst experience is being grounded or having their pocket money stopped is not the same as a young person struggling to survive in a situation of abuse, rape, incest and violence. I think the point is this: are novelists sensationalizing these real aspects of life in order to sell books? Have we, as a society become so hardened that only the most shocking of descriptions and experiences will move us? Will reading about these terrible experiences help the very young people who are undergoing the same sort of tribulation? One thinks immediately that possibly a poverty-stricken teen would not have access to either books or/and education, but I don't wish to split hairs. How can books help kids cope with life?

Life issues are sometimes a challenge for kids to comprehend. Although most parents wish to shield their children from the tragic side of life, many times reality intervenes and the parent may be powerless to adequately comfort their child when dealing with a sad or traumatic situation. Death, disease, divorce, moving house, loss of a pet, bullying, experiences with alcoholic or abusive parents, and drugs form part of a long list of potentially negative life experiences. The death of a beloved grandparent, parent, sibling, friend, or an important adult can have a potentially devastating effect on a young person. Books can offer the kind of therapy that a child will appreciate and in a format that they can understand.

Stories, either fiction or non-fiction, enable children to identify with characters and sad or devastating events and relate these experiences to their own lives. Children are then able to recognize and understand how other people respond to frustration and disappointment. This helps children develop empathy and understanding of human behavior. It can also enable children to respond to discussing issues with a parent or responsible adult such as a teacher or therapist.

Today’s books also have opened up discussions on a variety of previously taboo topics or at least topics that were avoided. These issues can include:

  • bullying at school;

  • negative comments regarding a child’s weight, appearance, or lack of athleticism;

  • tolerance of differences among peers, such as income levels, religious beliefs, nuclear families vs. broken homes, etc.;

  • a parent’s history with substance, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse;

  • long term changes in living situations, such as the arrival of stepchildren or grandparents;

  • issues such as homosexuality and lesbianism, especially where a parent decides to ‘come out’;

  • unique abilities and challenges faced by peers or family members with special needs, i.e., autism or Down Syndrome, debilitating illness, or illness or trauma resulting in disability, etc.

Regardless of the issue tackled or the story composed, a book’s therapeutic effectiveness will be enhanced by:

  • age-appropriate language;

  • honest and realistic characterizations;

  • an avoidance of explicit preaching while allowing the reader to make the moral connection through critical thinking;

  • a good, well-written story with relevant illustrations

Books are essential guidelines between covers and the younger kids start reading, the better they will be equipped to deal with the many curved balls that will be flung at them.

Of course, even the best written book embracing a particular problem is not a cure-all, and parents should take note that books cannot replace the expert advice of a health care professional where necessary. However, using books for the purpose of healing will often be a solid step in helping a child understand and accept the realities of life, even when harsh and unpleasant. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Improve Your Child's Reading Levels

Lately I've been reading some disturbing stuff about the fate of books and libraries, and the decline of children's reading levels. It is ironic that in England the law says prisons have to have libraries, but libraries are closing in schools and boroughs because of spending cuts. I've also been reading how some children never open a book and as a result their grades suffer. On many occasions the reason is that there are no books to open! Believe it or not, there are homes with not a single book to read. Whatever the reasons for a child not reading, this situation can be reversed. Can parents make a difference and turn a non-reader into an avid reader? The answer is yes!

Parents already know that books are vital to their child’s scholastic achievements, and developing life skills. It can be disappointing when your child expresses absolutely no interest in reading. However, you can change that by coming up with new and interesting ways to ‘package’ the art of reading. Reading is a skill, just like any other skill. It has to be introduced, nurtured, and developed. Imagine trying to play championship tennis when you can barely hit the ball? Children don’t enjoy what they can’t do. And when reading is difficult, they shy away from even coming near a book. Turning your non-reader into a reader will require your participation and encouragement every step of the way.

• A good way to begin is to actually assess your child’s reading level. If it’s below par, then that’s one reason why he or she isn’t keen on books—books are the enemy, boring, a problem. Have your child read a page or two from a variety of books. Make a list of the words they find easy/hard/not understood. Once you have an idea of their level, based on vocabulary skills, then you can move forward. In fact, to build your child’s confidence, perhaps begin with a book for a younger age. Your child will skim through it, feeling proud at having finished and understood it, and you can offer praise by saying, “Look how easily you managed that! Shall we try something else?”

• A book can appear quite a formidable object to a non-reader. Begin small. Start with a thinner book, not some great tome, and say, “I bet we’ll finish this quickly.” Then let your child read the book in bite-sized pieces. Don’t try for ten pages—read only four or five pages. Your child will feel this is not a huge task after all.

• Reading aloud is something that all parents should do, regardless of children’s age. Most children really love that special time when Mom or Dad comes in to say good night. You can say, “Hey! I’ve got something really exciting here. Want to hear some?” Anything to delay turning off the light, your child will say (of course) “Yeah!” You can make this session into something really memorable by acting the parts and using your Repertoire of Funny Voices, but more importantly, stop at a really exciting point, just when the hero is about to be plunged into mortal danger. Close the book and say, “Gosh! I hope he survives. We’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out.” Generally, no kid can go to sleep without confirming their hero is indeed still alive…

• Praise and admiration boost a child’s confidence. You can do this by letting friends and family members know just how well your child is doing. “It’s amazing how many pages (child’s name) is reading every day now!” Soon your child will be the one to suggest reading. Use the time together to understand your child’s thought processes, and structure the book choices around what really sparks their interest.

• Get your child their own library card and encourage them to begin choosing their own material. Buying book vouchers instead of other kinds of gifts will encourage your child to start building their ‘own’ collection of cherished books.

• Go slowly—tennis champions aren’t made overnight….