May Indie Book Of The Month;

It’s the end of the May (already!!) so that must mean it’s time for me to pick my Indie book of the month. Lately, I’ve been trying to stray out of my comfort zone with reading, and I’ve dived into a fantasy and a comedy, which are not normally genres I would pick. My pick for this month therefore is the epic Heirs Of Power by Kay Macleod. You can read the blurb and my review below. This book is the first in a very original and well-written series, so if you enjoy fantasy, I highly recommend you check it out.

Here is the blurb;

“After stumbling upon an otherworldly ritual, Kitty Fairlow discovers that her own incredible hunting skills are not merely due to a lifetime of training. She’s been gifted powers from an ancient spirit, passed down by her father. She is a Constellation. And she’s not the only one. A new generation of heroes have each inherited unique abilities to prevent the corruption of their world by the Tenebri, a race that thrives on life energy. Kitty, along with a high-born dancer and a snarky juggler, must find their allies before the Tenebri army picks them off. With the powerful enemy emerging, can the Constellations gather in time to put an end to the threat for good, or will their foe succeed and wreak the same destruction they have unleashed on their own world?”

And here is my review;

An original and riveting read which had me hooked from the first page. I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend this fast-paced and well written fantasy, which is the first in a saga. I don’t often read fantasy, but this reminded me just how wonderful it can be to truly immerse yourself in a fantastical world of magic and wonder. What really shone through for me in this novel, is how much I could tell the author enjoyed writing it. It just shines on every page and regularly made me smile. I could also tell how much the author knows about and cares about her characters. From Kitty, the tough but kindly girl who finds out she is a Constellation, to the snarky yet vulnerable Asher, I truly believed in them and was rooting for them the entire time. This book is packed tight with action, drama, intrigue and revelations and an epic journey which tests friendships to the limit. Fans of fantasy will adore this book and for people who don’t often give fantasy a go, I urge you to start here!

You can find out more about Kay and her books by following her on;

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Kay has kindly agreed to an interview with me, so look out for that early next month!

 

Message and Themes; What Are You Trying To Say?

When I was at school, English Literature was always my favourite subject. I was a total book-worm who dreamed of becoming an author, so you can kind of see why I adored English Literature. Reading books, talking about books and writing about books was my idea of heaven. Having said that, there was always one part of the subject that annoyed me at times. When analysing a text, the teacher would often ask us to think about what message the author was trying to get across. It was a question akin to the equally confusing one; what are the themes of the novel? I remember thinking, I bet the author didn’t know there was a message or a theme, or that we would try to work one out. I always considered that Shakespeare, Bronte and Steinbeck just wrote books because they had great ideas, great characters, and could string some pretty awesome sentences together.

But English Lit demands we find the messages and the themes, and yes, when you pick apart a text and analyse it within a classroom setting, you do tend to find them. But were they intended? I suppose I’m asking, did the author write the book with a theme or a message in mind? Or is it the reader who later determines what the potential messages are? I mean, did Steinbeck write Of Mice and Men because he had something to say about society or human nature? When I was a kid, I thought not. But it turns out I was wrong;

In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

John Steinbeck in his 1938 journal entry
I remember trying to distinguish the themes of the novel when I was at school. What seemed so obvious to the teacher, had to be pointed out to us. I haven’t read the book since then, but it is on my to-read list as part of a reading challenge I’m undertaking, where one of the books has to be one I read in school. But I think I will see things differently now.
Why? Because I am approaching my fourth decade and I’ve seen enough of life, love, people and society to know that Of Mice and Men is not ‘just a story’ as I once mistakenly believed. It’s a book about dreams and aspirations, loneliness and solitude and the author had plenty to say about all of these things. I am now the writer I hoped I would be, and writing books is a fascinating process, which involves the seed of an idea germinating into an intricate plot full of characters who become real to you and set up camp in your head. But more than that, writing is about what you want to say to the world.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately after I received feedback from a beta on my still unfinished novel Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature. One of the things she picked up on was the messages or themes of the book, and in particular, her observation that some of the characters had views very similar to my own. She felt this at times made the narrative somewhat preachy, or at least, it was in danger of heading in that direction.
I had to stop and think about what she meant. None of the characters are me, or based on me, or anyone I know. I plucked them up out of the thin air to build around the character and story of Elliot, who I really did know and believe in.
However, I have to admit that unintentionally, or at least sub-consciously, bits and pieces of the writer and the writer’s viewpoints seep into the writing. I knew what this book was about, and I knew from the beginning what I was trying to say, so as you can see, I have come a long way from my previous scepticism that books did not contain deliberate messages. On the contrary, I have had something to say in all of my books, and I think it very much depends on what is going on in my life at that time. For this book in particular, Elliot and his mother are like the two sides of me. One side is heartbroken and terrified about the state of our world and wants to withdraw from it all, while the other side is perpetually hopeful and joyful, determined to the best in everything.
So is this a good thing or a bad thing? I think my beta was right to point out the danger of appearing preachy in the narrative. I certainly don’t want my books to come across that way. I have to be sure it is the character’s viewpoint being explored, not the author’s. I have to be conscious of what is being portrayed as ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ So at the moment, I am going through the book again, with the beta’s notes beside me. Sometimes it just needs a tweak, some words rearranged or deleted. Sometimes I don’t need to do anything because I think the character truly believes in what they are saying, and in doing so is remaining true to character.
This brings me to another question, though. Do people pick up books looking for messages or themes? Do most readers notice them, even if they are supposed to be there? I suspect that what one reader picks up as a message or theme, is very different to anothers. Do readers want to be spoken to in this way? I don’t think many people pick up a book looking for clarity or persuasion. I think they pick up books looking for stories. And stories involve people and their messy human lives, and messy human lives contain messages, whether intentional or not. Because they are written by one person, created by one person, and whether they were totally aware of it or not at the time, that person had something to say.
So, what do you think? As a reader, do you choose a book because of the message it seems to be conveying? Do you notice the themes of a novel as you are reading it, or do they become obvious to you afterward? Do you ever feel like the writer is trying to tell you something about the world or about life? Does this every feel like you are being preached to?
And what about you writers? Do you know what you are trying to say before you start to write the book, or does the message reveal itself to you in time? Are you aware of any themes in your book, and again, are these intentional? Do you ever worry that you are trying too hard to get a message across?
Please feel free to join in the conversation!

The Enduring Magic Of Children’s Books

Just recently my two and a half-year-old son achieved a milestone I had been particularly looking forward to; that of being able to sit, listen and enjoy longer picture books such as The Gruffalo. We are now very much past the baby board books and the Usborne ‘That’s Not My…’ books (thank God!!)  We are still very much into flaps (Is There A Dog In This Book is a constant favourite) but we have moved on from touch and feel baby board books.

Finally, I can say with slightly emotional pride, my little lad can sit through the entirety of Room On The Broom without losing attention for a second. Oh, what wonderful opportunities now flood our way! Literally, bookshelves full of them!

He has enjoyed ‘We’re Going On A Bear Hunt’ and ‘Rattletrap Car’ for some time now, but the length of rhyming prose in books like The Gruffalo and Room On The Broom were too much for him until recently.

I’ve felt quite tearful reading to him lately, for many reasons. Of course, when your child passes a milestone, whether it’s starting to walk or starting to talk, you always feel a strong mix of emotions. Pride and excitement are the dominant ones, but there is always an added pang of wistfulness. Your little baby is growing and changing and time stands still for no one. I sat with him last night, his little legs pressed next to mine, his bottle of milk on his lap, while I read him The Gruffalo for the first time. By this, I mean for the first time since he’s been able to appreciate longer books! He was leaning over the pages and I could feel his concentration and anticipation. I wondered how much of the story and the tricks the mouse plays on everyone, were getting through to him.

I found myself drifting back in time, just as I had the day before with Room On The Broom. I have a strong minded, very individual fourteen-year-old daughter, who was once an equally strong-minded two-year-old. After her bath, we used to wrap her in a towel, sit her on her potty and read Room On The Broom to her. I will forever associate that book with potty training! And reading it again in its full glory, to my little boy brought back so many memories I could have cried. I found myself doing the same voices (I make the witch sound rather old and croaky, and of course the dragon has to sound like a ruffian from the East End of London)

The same thing happened while reading The Gruffalo tonight. My voice was getting louder, my accents more pronounced, along with my hand gestures! My little boy cracked up when the mouse said ‘gruffalo crumble!’ and we laughed about it for ages afterward. God, I must have read that story so many times to my older kids. How wonderful to be introducing such magic and laughter to another generation.

It was my oldest son, my nine-year-old who got into the Julia Donaldson books the most, though. For a fair few Christmases we would ask friends and family to buy him one of her books, so we have quite a collection now, which I am so pleased we held onto. The other day when reading to my youngest, his older brother drifted into the room and joined us on the bed. He requested Tiddler, which if I remember, was his favourite when he was just a tiddler himself. I hadn’t read it in years, but it all came back to me, and yet again I felt transported back in time. The loveliest thing was that my older son started reading it too, matching my voice, so that we were both reading it out loud at the same time. Tiddler! Tiddler! Tiddler’s late! Like an earworm, the refrain has been in my head for days since. I like tiddler’s story, said little Johnny Dory…and he told it to his Granny…who told it to a plaice!

Childhood books are like windows in time, taking you back to another you and another place, filling you with sweet warmth and stoking your belly with fresh giggles. I recently re-read Watership Down for the first time in adulthood, and I was hooked from start to finish. Not only that, I felt like a kid again. Touched by magic and wonder, on the edge of my seat with worry for this troubled band of runaway rabbits. Every chapter delivered a new adventure, the stakes even higher once they finally found a new home and discovered the vicious dictator in the next warren. I cried when I read the last chapter. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was that ten-year-old girl again, curled up in the arm chair in my childhood home, totally absorbed, my cloth ears closed to all but Hazel and Fiver and Bigwig, my teeth biting my lip, my eyes welling with tears when Hazel realised he didn’t need his body anymore… (Gulp)

watership-down

Children’s books are powerful magic indeed. Reading them, sharing them, reliving them in later years. Research shows that reading to babies and toddlers helps them associate books with love and affection, fostering a lifelong love of books and reading. I look at books as adventures waiting to happen, as worlds waiting for you to step inside them. I am so excited that my youngest can enjoy longer books; there are so many places we can now go!

What about you? What were your favourite books as a child? What books have your own children become obsessed with?