And I Darken by Kiersten White

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that we’d started a new YA book club at work, and while we haven’t quite gotten around to the club part, I have now read the book.

 

And I Darken by Kiersten White boldly bills the lead character as the latest in a long line of heroines that includes Ellen Ripley, Elizabeth Bennett, Hermione Granger and Buffy Summers.

 

Books that make these sort of claims tend to fall into two categories, the vast majority of them are perfectly good books that are the victims of over eager publicists, or they genuinely are that good a book.

 

The latter are, unfortunately, rare. The reason good characters stand out so much, male or female, is because of their relatively small number among a vast sea of their merely adequate counterparts.

 

Telling your readers that this is the next iconic name in books is a bit like purposefully trying to write a tweet that goes viral. It should just happen naturally.

 

Having said all that, does Lada Dracul warrant being added to the list of slayers, spies and Scarlett O’Hara?

 

It’s a tentative ‘yes’ from me – and here’s why:

 

And I Darken is not just the tale of Lada – it’s also the tale of her brother, Radu (here’s mistake number one in the marketing – it’s not just for girls, Radu is as strong and compelling character as his sister).

 

They are the younger children of the leader of Wallachia, and he is absent from much of their early lives. However as they grow, he begins to sense something about them both. When it comes to leaving the country, he takes them with him, but ultimately has to leave them behind with the Sultan in order to safeguard his homeland.

 

Radu, younger, sensitive, but with a gift for charming people (you can see where this is going) starts to adapt, while Lada contrarian ugly duckling that she is resists, however they both befriend Mehmed, a boy they later discover is the son of the sultan.

 

And so we have our threesome. Every good story needs a trio of central characters be they Harry, Ron and Hermione; Kirk, Spock and McCoy; or Wakko, Yakko and Dot (the Animaniacs for those uneducated of you who need telling) – and And I Darken is no exception

 

Some of the peripheral characters are vague and forgettable, a trait that is unfortunate when a few of them pop up unexpectedly later on, causing me absolutely no degree of the intended surprise as I have no clue who they actually are – but our core characters are well defined, and not just our central threesome.

 

Plot wise the story is a little Game of Thrones-esque, a little hard to follow at times, but you get the gist, and understand all the important bits. There’s also some gratuitous nudity, although no dragons (SPOILER ALERT: Or are there? – that’ll make sense when you get to the end, it’s amused me).

 

I was surprised to discover that the book is largely based on true facts – Radu the handsome exists, albeit largely as a footnote in the story of Vlad the Impaler. Here our writer has taken some poetic licence, namely, taking Vlad and turning him into a teenage girl named Lada.

 

I know when I’m reading a good book, not only do I race through it, but I break my rules of how long I’m going to read for – and on this one, not only did I do that, but I also found myself desperately reading every part of the proof copy jacket to find out if any more were planned (yes they are, this is the first in a trilogy).

 

Does it live up to it’s promise? As I said at the beginning, it’s a tentative yes – I don’t believe anyone would have listed Buffy Summers or Katniss Everdeen great female characters of our time after their first outing, but the promise was there.

 

The promise is definitely there with Lada, but this is more than her. Radu plays a huge part in this book, sharing the narrative as equally with his sister. I await the subsequent books eagerly and hope that Radu continues to share this story with Lada. Together, the two of them could usher in the next big series in teen fiction.

 

And I Darken scores 4.1 out of 5 from me. It is published on 7th July by Corgi Books

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

“Winter is coming”

That’s what George R R Martin promised about a gazillion years ago. For those that are bored of waiting, winter’s here in Patrick Gale’s stunning new novel ‘A Place Called Winter’

Before anyone gets too excited The Game of Thrones series and Gale’s latest are about a million miles apart in terms of content, but I find inserting as many pop culture references into a blog post as possible (Justin Bieber, One Direction, etc) increases the potential reach of said blog post.

This book (and subsequently this blog post) deserves to reach as many potential readers as possible – so the bigger audience I can give it, the better. With any luck, I’ll be able to tell so many people it may break the Internet (thank you Kim Kardashian).

I’ll leave the references there (for now) and get on with telling you why you should read this book.

Now, don’t tell the others, but I do have a favourite book. I don’t actually name-check it much, although I have referenced it on this blog before, because it is inherently flawed.

Apart from being a wonderful and tragic love story that has moved me to tears before, there’s a large section of it that just doesn’t work. I couldn’t bear anyone telling me they didn’t like it.

A Place Called Winter is the closest novel to my favourite book, both in terms of content and in degree of favourite-ness that I’ve ever read.

Harry – because all the best characters in fiction are called Harry, including Harry Potter and my own hero, Harry Hicks – is a well-off bachelor, living his life in the early 1900’s, and he’s quite happy, with no job to speak of, but nor does he have any particular commitments either.

When he helps his brother court his future wife, he meets a woman of his own and quickly marries and has a child. Scandal soon threatens to hit however, when his affair with another man is discovered.

In order to keep it quiet and protect his wife and daughter from the news, Harry signs over his entire wealth and boards a boat to start a new life in Canada.

That covers the first third of the book, but I don’t think ruins anything, because it’s the last two thirds that are really the meat of the story.

I won’t go into too much detail on the rest of the plot, because I think this is a book that definitely delivers on the beautiful writing, and I won’t be able to do it justice, however I do want to talk about the title: A Place Called Winter.

Knowing I was going to do a review of this book, I spent the first part of the book trying to work out what this place ‘Winter’ was, what it represented.

I felt a little foolish when I realised that Harry’s new homestead in Canada was called Winter, and I nearly disregarded my previous thoughts, but they came back to me the more I read.

Winter usually represents an ending, a dark cold place, where things can’t survive. And that’s where Harry was heading. He had a wonderful life, he had money, no particular worries and a wife and daughter who he loved – despite his burgeoning attraction to other men.

And then he was banished, sent away across to ocean, penniless and alone. Hopes for him were not high and it was likely that having never worked a day in his life, he wouldn’t survive out in the coldness of Canada.

Life in the small homestead of Winter compared to the beautiful ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer’ of Jermyn Street in the early twentieth century was hard.

But because life was hard, everyone was just there to survive. They pitched in and helped, but ultimately everyone let everyone else live the lives that they needed and wanted to live.

Compare that to the civilised world of London, and suddenly Winter doesn’t seem so cold and inhospitable anymore.

Harry accepted his sexuality fairly quickly for somebody who had never even considered it before, but part of me wonders if that’s because it wasn’t a thing to consider back then.

Homosexuality, for many people, simply didn’t exist. Whenever news of it did start to surface because of scandal or rumour, it was quickly hushed, as it was in Harry’s case.

So maybe when Harry met this man, the confusion that he had probably felt, but had never been able to put a name to, suddenly made sense, and everything felt right, so he just went with it.

When I was growing up, it was ok to be gay. Perfectly legal, but still a bit of a taboo. Nobody was gay in school, nor did I know any real-life gays until I started at college. I was fascinated by them, but I also knew hundreds of stories where things had gone wrong for gay men who had revealed themselves.

It wasn’t difficult for me to identify what I was, because unlike Harry, I had been exposed to plenty of it over the years, but it did make it difficult for me, in a way that it wasn’t for Harry.

Ten years later, I think things are slightly easier. We’re further away from the Thatcher years, and it’s even more ok to be gay. In fact, it’s almost cool. Kids come out in school now, and maybe that’s because of gay men like me. I’m not saying I’m any particular trailblazer, but I am gay, I came out and nothing bad happened. The more stories we hear where things are ok, the more likely young men (and women) are going to be comfortable in telling the world who they really are.

The winter that existed in London for gay men a hundred years ago has thawed, and while not exactly easy, things are easier. But we mustn’t forget about people like Harry.

There’s an extra emotional punch in the story – Harry’s a real man. Or he was.

He’s the author’s great grandfather, and though the story has been fleshed out from the notes and letters that exist, the first third of it is real. Harry lost everything and had to move halfway across the world, because, well… we don’t really know why. Gale has embroidered the story and he imagines that it’s because Harry’s love wasn’t permitted in the society that he lived in. We won’t ever really know if that was the case, because the likelihood is if it was the case, it was hushed up and never spoken of again.

Losing your entire way of life, just because of who you love… That’s a very sobering thought.

A Place Called Winter is published by Tinder Press in Hardback and eBook in March 2015 – and in Paperback later in the year.

#BEDM14: Regretfully Yours

The trite answer to the question ‘what’s your biggest regret?’ is to say that you have no regrets. That everything in your life, good and bad has made you who you are today.

The supposition there is that the person you are today is the best person you could possibly be.

There are plenty of things I regret.

There are some things I’ve done which I regret more than I should. And I’ve done things that I should regret more than I do.

To go into them here is something that I will probably regret – like Rumpelstiltskin and his name, I would lose my mystery – so I shan’t reveal them.

I think something that we should all regret, though, is wasted time. There are plenty more things we could do with our lives if we didn’t waste our time.

So, I’m gonna wrap this post up and head off to do something productive*

*Watch Game of Thrones

Prompt: What’s your biggest regret?

Waiting For Doggo

Waiting For Doggo

By Mark Mills

We have a bit of a game in our office. We try and find the most ridiculous X meets Y descriptors for new books.

Publishers will often try to sell a book into us by telling us it’s the next Gone Girl (which was the next Before I Go To Sleep, by the way) – or the next Fifty Shades. If there’s no obvious comparison they’ll tell us it’s the prodigal child of two other blockbusters.

 

Maeve Binchy meets Dan Brown

Harry Potter meets Queer as Folk

Game of Thrones meets Bridget Jones (Bridget Thrones, anyone?)

 

Ok – so, we’ve never actually had any of those (as far as I know!) but these are the kinds of descriptors we get. It’s sort of ridiculous, for example Gone Girl was bigger, better and completely different to BIGTS, but sort of understandable. I’ve used it myself (Memories of a Murder is Agatha Christie meets LOST, in case you were wondering) – it’s a really quick and simple way of explaining what you’re going to get.

Last week I received a proof copy of the new Mark Mills – Waiting for Doggo. Frankly, I was sold on the title alone – but the inside blurb describes it as appealing to ‘readers of Marley and Me and One Day and fans of It’s A Wonderful Life’

I’ve never seen It’s A Wonderful Life (shock!), I adored One Day, and I’ve never been that enticed by Marley & Me, so I had no idea what to expect when I opened this book.

First of all, it’s nothing like One Day, it has nowhere near the same emotional punch – but that doesn’t mean it’s not as good.

It’s a short book, but it’s almost perfectly constructed. It tells the tale of Dan who’s girlfriend of several years one day, just leaves him, leaving only a letter behind. She takes everything that they bought together over the years, including a wooden salad bowl. The only thing she’s left behind is the most recent addition to their family, an ugly, rescue dog temporarily named Doggo.

Doggo and Dan do not get on, but somehow they start to form a bond as Dan starts his new job at an advertising agency. Amazingly, Doggo is the most well-drawn character in the book, despite actually not getting a huge amount of ‘page-time’ (like screen time, but on paper).

That’s not a put down on the other characters, I actually think the reason the books is because he’s not a character, he’s a real person who springs forth right at the beginning of the book – everyone else – including Doggo – are the characters we see develop through his eyes, some of the minor ones not that well defined, to be honest.

The similarities between Doggo and Dan are not subtle, but they’re not clichéd, it’s this link between them, along with a great sense of humour (the Hatchback of Notre Dame particularly made me chuckle) makes for a great book.

There is a small emotional punch – naturally at the conclusion of Doggo’s arc – which almost elicits a tear or two, but at a mere 208 pages, the book can’t afford to dabble in sentimentality and so avoids dragging it out too long.

Waiting for Doggo is it’s own book – it deserves to stand alone on it’s own merit, so whether you’re a fan of Marley and Me, Game of Thrones or midgets wrestling in jelly (that last one’s not a book, I hope) – give it a go, at most you’ll lose an hour or two of your life, but the chances are you’ll find a little gem.

For me, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

If you can get hold of a proof copy, then do it – otherwise you’ll have to wait until it’s officially published in November of this year.

Pass the Gin

I mentioned in a previous post – at least I think I mentioned it, if I didn’t, then I’m mentioning it now – that a friend/colleague/flatmate of mine once said that I was too social to be a writer.

His view was that a writer is one of those people who sits inside, burrows themselves away and stays alone for months at a time, pouring their heart into their work – and likely, pouring gin into their mouths.  Simon romanticizes the process – and, there is likely nothing more romantic to him than being able to drink from morning to night.

But I disagree (not about the gin part). I like going out, of course I do, but there are some weekends where I get home from work at 6pm on a Friday night and don’t leave again until Monday morning. Even on these weekends, I often get little to no writing done.

It’s not because I’m too social, it’s because I get too easily distracted. Twitter. Facebook. The Simpsons: Tapped Out. The complete box set of Lost. Ironing. Painting the hallway. The flatmate (it’s a small flat, and he has a big mouth).

I recently deleted twitter from my phone. Not because of any misguided notion that without it I would become a 10,000 word a day writer, but because I just felt like I needed a break.

I did think that coming off twitter would give me a little extra time. But I’ve just found other distractions (Game of Trones, Grindr, this blog).

The trick to it is having a routine – and having one that you can stick to. I’m slowly trying to find one that works for me, but it’s difficult. Even if I do get all the little irrelevant distractions – life just gets in the way.

I will go back to twitter at some point – maybe soon – maybe I already have by the time I’ve posted this, because quitting it is not the secret to writing a bestseller.

I’ll try to give up some of the distractions and settle into a proper writing routine, but in the meantime, I need more friends on The Simpsons Tapped Out – I’m bertypop – add me!