Companion-piece to a modern classic

Companion-piece to a modern classic

25114590The Collectors by Philip Pullman

When the existence of this new short story set in the His Dark Materials universe popped up on my social media feed, I bought it straight away! It’s the most gorgeously perfect little spin off short story that lets you relish in the best bits of Lyra’s world.

I say Lyra’s world but we don’t actually know which world we are in – I suspect an altogether new one as there are no daemon’s. It’s a story about a painting and a sculpture and is a must read for anyone who wondered what really did happen to Mrs Coulter.

Published now to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of Northern Lights I am reminded of exactly where I was when I discovered these books, right back there at the beginning. It was by chance, in the Winchester branch of Waterstone’s. I knew nothing of this book except for the Carnegie medal on the cover and the front cover printed free of both title and author (these reserved for the back) to let the illustration of the Alethiometer to tempt you in. I would refer to this front illustration often as I devoured this book, and tried to read it as Lyra might have.

The Collectors is a fitting celebration of Lyra’s Oxford, and the twenty year’s of joy and inspiration that those books have brought me. My only criticism is that there does not seem to be a print copy to buy.

Acquainting myself with the Discworld

Acquainting myself with the Discworld

13536272Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

There are apparently different ‘entry’ points to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, and in retrospect, I suspect that year’s ago when I read The Colour of Magic – it being the first – was probably the wrong decision.

Equal Rites was much more my kind of book from the start. Not knowing much about the Discworld universe, it was nice to be seeing the story through, and wanting to side with, the character of the Esk, a girl who should have been the eighth son of an eighth son, and thus the next wizard in the family. We learn about Pratchett’s wizarding world as she learns about them, and my relationship with this book is all going very well for at least the first half of the book with nice remisinces of Diana Wynne Jones…

Until they reach the Unseen University, and it takes an altogether weirder – and probably Pratchettesque – turn with an (I found) increasingly annoying omnisicient narrator. There’s nothing wrong with omnisicent narrators but I do like them to be couched in the world of the story too, and not as this one was, talking at us with an all-knowing, Earth-based knowledge.

Coming to Sir Terry too late

Coming to Sir Terry too late

23346759Truckers: The First Book of the Nomes by Terry Pratchett

When Terry Pratchett sadly died last week I felt terrible guilt that I had not fallen in love with his books in the way that so many people (and most of my friends had). I remember his books being recommended to me, in particular his Discworld books, and read the first in the series – The Colour of Magic – accordingly. I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by it to the point that I didn’t read any more.

In the days after Terry Pratchet’s death I discovered that there are several ‘entry’ points to the series, and that The Colour of Magic is not one of the better one’s and that I am not alone in missing out on the books. I went and purchased two books to start me off, this one, and Equal Rites to kick start the Discworld books.

Truckers is a delightful modern fairy tale with echoes of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers and Diana Wynne Jones’ The Power of Three and is set squarely in our here and now real world. But its a different take on our world. It’s our world seen through new eyes, that don’t understand our enviroment and interpret what they see through their own frames of reference. It’s very much the kind of fantasy that I am at home with.

My second solar eclipse

My second solar eclipse

When I woke up this morning I really thought that my luck was going to be out when it came to enjoying a second partial solar eclipse with a sky of leaden grey clouds. Emma had made me a box projector though, and I wasn’t going to be defeated, so I went to work, feeling sure that maybe, the greyness was a bit brighter.

On 11 August 1999 I experienced my first solar eclipse. I remember that day perfectly. I was working in the Journals Marketing department at OUP as a temp (yes, I was then still yet to land my first permanent, full-time job), my home computer consisted of an aging black and white laptop running Windows 3.1, and my mobile phone was the size of a brick and made calls, and only calls, in the UK only. The day was bright blue sky and sunshine and we spent half an hour in the office going to the window with our Eclipse glasses and checking the status of the eclipse, before doing a bit more work, then looking again, until…

…everyone decamped outside to the small car park at the back of the building to watch the main event. I remember the birds stopped singing, and the light – it didn’t get dark – went to this weird, washed out, colourless daylight.

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Sixteen year’s on and, I’ve been in full-time work for sixteen years now (with a brief hiatus into temping after I got replaced by a machine), I have constant contact to email, social media is not just a Thing but part of my Job Title, my mobile fits in my pocket, sends and receives texts, goes on the internet, and, if I’m lucky makes telephone calls.

This year, the weather was altogether uncertain. I carried my pinhole projector into work, and upon entering the office, Kirsty was quick to suggest that I was going to be disappointed, that the leaden grey skies were going to remain through and beyond the eclipse time.

Then, a moment of brightness. We looked out the windows, and could see the sun, and the moon already taking a bite out of the sun! We must have been on the border line of sun and cloud and the weather gods played nice for us, as the clouds parted to allow us to view the eclipse. Back in 1999, the path of totality crossed Cornwall and in Oxford we must have had about 95% eclipse. Today, we had only 85% and you could see the difference in light. The day did darken but not, I thought, as much as it did 16 years ago. But the cold, it got so cold – cold as night – but in the middle of the day. Just incredible.

Our next partial eclipse will not be for another 11 years, when totality will miss the UK completely again but we will get 90% coverage as it sweeps down north to south to the west of us on 12 August 2026. Get those Eclipse glasses at the ready…

A Saga of Epic Proportions

22740513A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1) by George R.R. Martin

Game of Thrones is a phenonemon that everyone seems to read and/or watched and have been raving about. I actually ended up reading this pretty much concurrently with watching season one of the TV series which might or might not have been a good idea, although I have to say it does seem to be a pretty faithful adaptation.

This is a Big book with a sprawling cast of characters. I was reminded of what Diana Wynne Jones said about maps in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland as I waded through pages and pages of maps at the beginning and wondered how I would keep track of things – short of The Wall in the distant north I’m not sure if I ever really did.

The book is also what I would describe (for want of a better word) as classic ‘sword’n’sorcery’ or high fantasy – the stuff of swords and swordplay, dragons and deception, and battles, whereas ‘my’ kind of fantasy is more your ‘realworld fantasy’ or magical realism. That said I enjoyed the way that the stories (for there are many) are character driven and are told through chapters that are for and about single characters. In this way I felt it was a bit like an Icelandic Saga of old.

My favourite stories were the one’s that involved the young, the in-experienced, or the cast out, who are set to find themselves and learn who it is they must defeat to stay alive. Thus, I found myself most engaged with Bran, Arya, Jon, and Daenerys: all characters to survive until the next book.

A Song for Ella Grey. Just read it. Now.

A Song for Ella Grey. Just read it. Now.

22632889A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond

Ever since I first read David Almond’s Skellig I have been a fan of his writing, and loved every one of his books, and this is no exception. A Song for Ella Grey is a story of “love that leads Ella, Orpheus Claire to the gates of Death and beyond”.

Just as with David Almond’s other books the the language is beautifully understated and simple but the stories are anything but; deep and rich, and mysterious. It is told mainly through prose, that, almost poetic at times, does as the story of Orpheus moves to a conclusion sprials into actual poetry, and then, just as the author has previously done with My Name Is Mina, utilises typgoraphic effects to further push home the story.

This is a story of teenagers on the cusp of becoming adults and finding themselves in the world. Ella and Claire are friends who you wonder if they are more than just friends, and Orpheus is the mysterious lyre-playing stranger who enters their lives.

A Song for Ella Grey is a beautiful and enchanting book with a dark secret which is both impossible to describe and to not recommend. Read it. Now.

An interesting prospect of a book that somehow failed to deliver

An interesting prospect of a book that somehow failed to deliver

16040421Nolander (Emanations 1) by Becca Mills

This is a book with a very interesting premise that somehow fails to deliver. I absolutely loved the use that Beth makes of 35mm photography and developing her own black and white prints, and how this introduces the idea of S-Ems in our world, but for me she ended up finding out too soon what was going on.

The story then quickly departed our world – Beth joined up with the mysterious organisations far too quickly for my liking – and the story started to inhabit a world that I did not know and didn’t have any way of latching on to what was happening.

The second half of the book was clearly building up to a series, but I doubt whether Beth will return to her photography and that subtle fantasy that I had been so attracted to at the start.

Composed on the bus

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Disengagement (of the modern world)

Scroll down
Swipe left
Swipe right.

Scroll down
and back.
Missed announcement,
Not even a like,
or a comment.
Friends’ news?
Did you really,
even read it?

Scroll down
wry smile
if we’re lucky.
Most likely, blank face
—a disinterested gaze.

Journies end,
and batteries drained
Knowledge learned,
engagement given.
Nothing.

Too many stories; too little time to write them

Too many stories; too little time to write them

Two days ago I wrote this post about how new stories are emerging in my mind, and how I now had an unexpected sequel to Mr Tumnal. This morning whilst walking to work across the quad of Oxford’s Bodleian Library I suddenly realised that I had an idea for a second sequel too.

Mr Tumnal #3: Forgotten Friends is a ghost story with a very Thomas-twist to it. Just need to get on and write them now. The thing is I’d already started writing In Your Own Words, and I was excited by that, not counting my spin-off short story Summers In Winter …I just have too many stories to write and to little time in which to write them.

A Big Book of legends and misunderstandings

A Big Book of legends and misunderstandings

7064529Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge

My people knew all this once, but then we made up a story about it and forgot everything but the story.

And that is how legends are born. That is, legends, and misunderstandings…

Gullstruck Island is a Big book, with a Big story, and Big ambitions. It is about racial hatred and genocide and natural disasters all rolled into one on the fictional island of Gullstruck, and it is a good book that I am pleased to have reached the end of, for the ending alone, but it was, I found, a hard book to get in.

I am pleased that I came to reading this after having read the outstanding A Face Like Glass and the terrifyingly scary Cuckoo Song because they are, in my opinion, much stronger and more accessible books – more easily able to get into and imerse yourself in.

Gullstruck is a world where, for all its allegory for our lives and history, everything has been rewritten and reinvented and even the names are unfamiliar, and as a reader we have to piece together all of that whilst following the story. At several times I though I was just getting it, and then the scene would change and I would be left puzzling again. This is why I am offering up only four stars, but I feel that that missing star is my own star, and that if only I had understood it better I would have been able to rate it harder.

This is a book that makes you think about our society a lot. It reminds you how important it is to listen to the present, remember the past, and avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.

Stories emerging

Stories emerging

I enjoy getting feedback on my stories. My latest 5-star review, solicited from a blogger in return for an honest review, was amazing, and just the latest review which has asked for/expected a sequel. I wonder if this is book series culture coming out, that I don’t seem to be “allowed” to write a standalone novel these days. I always thought of Mr Tumnal as its own, complete, story with its end being The End.

That said, my characters have continued to talk to me which has led me to believe that maybe there might be something more. Today I had an idea which links in nicely with The Imaginary Wife in which Louis and Kathryn do both take on central roles again in another follow-on story. So maybe there will be a Mr Tumnal #2: The Imaginary Wife. It’s actually an exciting prospect. It enables the original story to remain itself, a standalone, but also allows my fans to enjoy the characters once again. This is good.

The minutiae of the story

The minutiae of the story

21070479The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Although I had heard some very good things about this book I was unsure if I was going to take to it; a period novel set in Amsterdam about Nella, newly married to a successful trader…

What I found was a page-turning, beautifully written, and intricately crafted gem. It was the miniature furniture and the dolls house that drew me in (reminiscent maybe in some small way of The Borrowers?) and it certainly does draw you into to details of late 17th-century life.

I find it hard to talk much about this book without giving away spoilers, but suffice it to say that we quickly discover that the marriage that Nella finds herself in is not the marriage that either she nor we are expecting. Like with a good thriller, we know that something shocking is going to happen, but I think we are all shocked by what does happen, and then the surprises keep on coming, as do the gifts from the mysterious Miniaturist of the title, and the gifts that they send to Nella that seem to echo and foreshadow events with unnerving regularlity.

This is a fine, if curious book, all the more startling for it being Jessie Burton’s debut novel. I shall look out for the next.

Two-Story Thomas†

I’m writing again. This is good, however I’m not writing the right thing. I have Novel #3 underway and its a good novel and every bit as weird and wonky as Mr Tumnal. The thing is the characters from Novel #2 keep on talking to me and demanding that I write them their short story follow up. So that’s what I’m doing, and I am enjoying being plunged into a cold winter storm with visions and people hiding in the flickering shadows….

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Thomas is actually filled with many than two stories.

The review in which I find out what all the fuss has been about…

The review in which I find out what all the fuss has been about...

18626858The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I came to be reading this because both it and the films have been recommended to me by so many people, and to be honest, I think if it hadn’t have been I would have walked on by having taken a quick squizz at the synopsis. It is an odd book to *want* to read; a book about a girl who must ultimately kill any number of fellow children. Why would I want to read a book about that?

I actually saw the film first, and my feelings about that were that yes, it is a pretty unpleasant tale set in a dark, distopian future, but that it was quite clever in the way that dispite Katniss Everdeen’s need to kill at least some of her competitors in order to stay alive, you are made to side with her, and root for her survival.

The book is no less disturbing. It also shows that the film is unusual for being a very close adapation of the book – hardly surprising considering the author’s heavy involvement with the films, previous writing experience for television, and that the films were made within years of the books publications. However, unlike in the film whereby, film being film, the viewer is confronted full on in the face with with the true horror of the story, in the book you are at least allowed to hear Katniss’ thoughts which does well to make you root even more for her survival.

Suzanne Collins apparently had the idea of writing this story after seeing the juxtapositon of war coverage on TV with that of wall-to-wall reality shows, and you can see those influences clearly – just what could happen if reality television was allowed to go to its natural inevitable conclusion. Its all too believable. The book is more than that. On more than one occasion I saw parallels with William Goldman’s Lord of the Flies, and how quickly, faced with certain situations, even the previously most-peaceloving competitiors/children can be drawn into enacting the most horrific of acts.

The darkly harsh tale of the Boy in Winter’s Grasp

The darkly harsh tale of the Boy in Winter's Grasp

24102794The Boy In Winter’s Grasp by John D. Scotcher

Basing fantasy adventure stories around the Arthurian legends is nothing new, and nor is setting them in wartime. What is different, is mixing them both together, into a Big book with a Big story.

This is a dark tale set at a dark time with a sinister Master and young boy mourning the loss of his brother in the war which has a feel of Neil Gaiman book, but there is an underlying adventure story that is reminiscent of the magic of Diana Wynne Jones with but in its Arthurian links I find Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising Sequence the most influential. We quickly learn what the Winter’s Grasp of the title is and what it can do and we are pitched into a medieval ‘road trip’ to get home in an unfamiliar world.

Just how unfamiliar the world is is just one of the many twists of the book that is cleaning leading up to the series. And whilst I am looking forward to reading the next instalment of the series (something which I hope John Scotcher is already deeply immersed in writing), it is this ‘first book in a series’ nature of the story that I find most troubling. We are always wondering what exactly the Master is wondering and it is never quite explained.

If you have wondered how dangerous dreams can be this is the story that you should be reading.

There once was a chicken called Wiggy

Wiggy

You were not our first hen,
but you were
our oldest lady.
One of the girls.

Your eggs
they were not the biggest
Indeed, they were the smallest
of the small.
Perfect blue,
with the creamiest
yolkiest
yellowist
tastiest eggs of any.

You may not have been
the smartest chicken in the coop.
And you used to make an awful
racket in the morning.
But we loved you still.

Your soft, feathery wig
made your character.
Your feathers were proper
dappled browns
and mousey greys.

You will always be
Our Wiggy.

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2007–2014

The other side of the story

The other side of the story

Ever since I finished writing Mr Tumnal I’ve found myself missing my small cast of characters. I’m in the middle of a short story involving the character of my Sarah set in the cold, dark, winter. Today, on the final walk home from the bus stop, I ended up coming up with the idea for another, second sequel in short story form.

Just like in Mr Tumnal where we ask what its like for a man who marries his imaginary friend, in The Imaginary Wife I ask the question of what becomes of the girl when her boy grows up to live without her.

I’ve already written the first 100 words and I’m already very excited about it.

The Agony and the Ecstasy

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Mr Tumnal has now been out in the real world for a month and and a half, and its already out sold my debut novel by this point in the publishing cycle, and its starting to gather up a number of 5-star reviews.

Five star reviews! The joy, the ecstasy of it! People actually *like* my story…

Very Very Clever, Very Different – I Want To Read More!

Really really loved the story (very memorable, and very different) – certainly kept me gripped, and the characters were well rounded, fully formed and interesting

the dark, mystical elements which I have missed since childhood classics from writers like Susan Cooper and Alan Garner … this is a book in the same genre but for adults, which is refreshing

I was sad to have finished it

A great read that hooked me and I couldn’t put it down

instantly grabbing. You’re lured into two separate worlds between Lewis and Louis, and the plot keeps moving at a comfortable pace

You can read the reviews in full – have you read it yet? I’d love to hear what you think it too!

But whilst I revel in people enjoying my story of a man who marries his imaginary friend, I also have the agony of discovering that I released my story with some lingering typos. I hasten to add – and this is from my readers too – that none of the typos hinder the enjoyment of the story but they are annoying and frustrating nonetheless. It’s the pain of the Indie Author: even with an editor, I am just one man at war with words. I’ve since corrected a good number of them and notified Amazon. Hopefully anyone who has downloaded the Kindle version will soon get an opportunity to update their edition, whilst owners of the paperback edition will have rare first editions.

Mr Tumnal is available as both a paperback and an eBook for Kindle.

Mr Tumnal

Shepherd, T E (Cover illustration by Silviu Sadoschi)
Publication date: May 2012
Ebook ISBN 978 0 9571756 6 2 (£2.99) Amazon UK | Amazon.com
Paperback ISBN 978 0 9571756 7 9 (£8.99) Amazon UK | Amazon.com

A pageturner to read and read again

A pageturner to read and read again

17320735 A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

This is a big, epic book involving an complex, involving thriller and whodunnit. I came to this book after reading Frances Hardinge’s brilliant, if terrifying, Cuckoo Song, and I was cautious that this one might be equally chilling. When I first read the cover blurb I had no idea what th expect…

In the underground city of Caverna, the world’s most skilled craftsmen create delicacies beyond compare: cheeses that can show you the future adn perfumes that convice you to trust the wearer, even as they slit your throat.

…I simply had no idea what to expect but it sounded intriguing. What I got was pageturning joy of a read involving wise men who were fools, friends who are enemies, madmen, and thieves who are friends. It’s hard to talk about this book without giving away spoilers.

This is a fantasy adventure, clearly, with the population of people who live underground, but it needn’t be a fantasy. Yes there are cheeses that can show you the future, perfumes that deceive you, and wines that give and take memories from you, and of course faces that you can learn for every occasion, but you can read this as a story set in the real world. The scary idea of Facesmiths (remember those scary doll-eating dolls in Cuckoo Song) just makes you really think about the very human condition of people who are two-faced or like our heroine Neverfell, a face can betray nothing but the truth.

This is a book that will keep you guessing to the very last page, and it all makes absolute, perfect sense. For a first book to read in 2015, all that follow have got some topping.