My Favourite Crooked Cat Books

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You probably already know that my Calgary Chessman trilogy is now complete, with the publication of The Ashentilly Letters (myBook.to/Ashentilly). Now that the series is safely launched, I thought it would be more fun to talk about some other great books from one of the best Indie publishers around. You can find all these books and more at http://www.crookedcatbooks.com/

Not only do you get quality story-telling from a Crooked Cat author, they also do their own in-house cover design, and the quality of covers is superb.

Scott Perkins’ Howard Carter Saves the World. Sure, it’s aimed at older children, but I’ve never let that stop me.  Here’s part of my review: Howard is about to save the world (from aliens, natch) but I’m four chapters in and still not sure how he’s going to go about it, given that despite his fiendish cleverness he’s barely capable of surviving in human society. He’s the kind of boy who, upon discovering that he’s never selected for basketball, creates a robot so impressive that his peers are terrified into picking him – whereupon the opposing side picks the robot and Howard ends up being trounced by his own creation. Little does he know it, but Howard has real friends at this new school, as well as the robots he creates (one of which is responsible for a truly terrible pun. No, I’m not going to repeat it. That would only encourage him).

Black-Eyed Boy by Laura Huntley (and its sequel, Green-Eyed Girl). Small town girl meets mysterious stranger, who turns her world upside down. The town is Whitby (home of Dracula), the girl is at the start of what promises to be an amazing journey, and the boy is much more than he seems: eyes as black as Whitby jet, or ravens’ wings. This is a romantic fantasy in which the ordinary world conceals magic – it’s suitable for young adults; a sweet and enjoyable read.

The Highland Lass by Rosemary Gemmell. A perfect example of one of Crooked Cat’s most popular genres: modern romance with historical links, in this case to poet Rabbie Burns and his Highland Mary. The romance is a lovely story in its own right, and the heroine’s search for her own roots tangles nicely with the real history of the famous poet.

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Emma Mooney’s A Beautiful Game. A story about dysfunctional families and a vulnerable boy trying to understand the adults who should be there to protect and nurture him. It’s dark, powerful, and difficult to read, and it made me cry. Exemplary writing.

The Ghostly Father by Sue Barnard. Sue’s an accomplished writer, a master of her craft, and this is only one of a number of great books from this author. Think you know the story of Romeo and Juliet? What if things weren’t quite what they seemed, in Shakespeare’s play? Sue plays games with the story, and draws surprises out of dark corners to rewrite everybody’s favourite love story.

The Psychic Survey series by Shani Struthers, beginning with The Haunting of Highdown Hall. Top class paranormal fiction, with a wonderful cast of characters and a series of astonishingly plausible ghostly phenomena. Don’t take my word for it: the first book in the series has had 228 reviews on Amazon, and I gave it 5 stars. I’ve loved everything Shani’s written so far. If you don’t fancy this, then try Jessamine, a more traditional romance, though still with Shani’s trademark twist. Quality writing.

These are just a glimpse of the variety on offer from Crooked Cat. I haven’t mentioned Catriona King’s Craig Crime series, murder mysteries set in Belfast, all expertly crafted; or David W Robinson’s Sanford Third Age Club cosy crime series (if you enjoy them, there are currently fourteen to choose from). There’s historical fiction varying from Nancy Jardine’s Beltane Choice trilogy, set in Roman/Celtic times to Vanessa Couchman’s The House at Zaronza, set on Corsica during World War I, and Jeff Gardiner’s tale of 1960s Nigeria, Igboland. There’s magical realism from Ailsa Abraham, fantasy from Maggie Secara, and historical romance from Cathie Dunn.

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Top of my wishlist, upcoming in 2017: Murder mystery The Hanging Murders by Rex Carothers, magical romance Thunder Moon by Joanna Mallory (with the most beautiful cover, completely spell-binding) and World War II historical fiction The May Queen from Helen Irene Young.

Whatever you’re looking for in a story, you’ll find it at Crooked Cat – ebooks at the touch of a button, or paperbacks delivered within a few days via Amazon. And doesn’t a book make the perfect Christmas present, too? Here, to finish with, are my own books, all with Crooked Cat – guaranteed to please and entertain.

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Best Female Sci Fi Authors

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Last week I reposted (on Facebook) this interesting article about female Sci Fi authors (http://www.whizzpast.com/historys-10-greatest-sci-fi-novels-written-women/), and it roused a lot of interest, so today I’m going a step further: here are my top-ten female Sci Fi authors, and my top picks from their books.

Ursula Le Guin – anything from the Hainish universe, my favourites are The Telling and The Left Hand of Darkness. The latter is Sci Fi second, and brilliantly observed political commentary first. Great writing by a very clever woman. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Telling-GOLLANCZ-S-F-Ursula-LeGuin-ebook/dp/B0049MPKGE/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601355&sr=8-2&keywords=the+telling

C J Cherryh. She has a monumental oeuvre, many of which I’ve read, but my favourites are the Faded Sun books, about the last remnants of the enigmatic mri, warriors born and bred, and the man who finds himself forced, by isolation, to become part of their inward-looking tradition-bound culture. It’s an intimate story of three exiles thrown together, that takes places against a backdrop as big as the universe, and it’s awesome – and offers a perceptive take on Stockholm Syndrome. Foreigner is damn good as well, and I love the Exile’s Gate series, with Morgaine and her Gate Destroying sword. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Faded-Sun-Trilogy-C-J-Cherryh/dp/0886778697/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601386&sr=8-1&keywords=the+faded+sun

Vonda McIntyre. Famous for writing quite a bit of the original Star Trek (and for giving Hikaru Sulu his first name). Her best novels are Superluminal (about the kind of mind that is needed to encompass FTL/cross-dimensional travel) and Dreamsnake (about a healer and snake handler in a ruined earth, post apocalyptic events and alien visitations. The ecology of the dreamsnakes and the disconnect between primitive living conditions and surviving technology are both very interesting). http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dreamsnake-Vonda-McIntyre/dp/0857054260/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601491&sr=8-1&keywords=dreamsnake

Mary Gentle – the linked pair of novels Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light. Not only are they great world-building, with their own convincing ecology, but the sequel ends with a bang, and a sense of utter hopelessness. Very brave to avoid the happy ending in favour of the right one. When I retire, I want to live in Tathcaer, crown of the Southland. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Golden-Witchbreed-Mary-Gentle-ebook/dp/B00D8CY6PM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601536&sr=8-1&keywords=golden+witchbreed

Sheri S Tepper: Grass and its sequels. Grass is a brilliant book; the ecology of the planet Grass is dazzlingly realised, and genuinely scary. She always has an amazing range of characters; even the horrible ones’ behaviour is understandable (though perhaps not forgiveable). http://www.amazon.co.uk/Grass-S-F-MASTERWORKS-Sheri-Tepper/dp/1857987985/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601611&sr=8-1&keywords=grass+tepper

Robin Hobb: The Liveship Traders trilogy. You might define her novels as Fantasy, and the line is definitely blurred here, but I think there’s a strong scientific basis to the liveships and the Rain Wild River, even if it arises out of fantastic origins. She also wrote (as Megan Lindholm) the wonderful Windsingers series. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mad-Ship-Liveship-Traders-Book/dp/0008117462/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601626&sr=8-1&keywords=the+liveship+traders

Zenna Henderson: her The People series. Lovely, gentle, elegiac portrayal of aliens on earth and the possibility of telepathic powers. They work because she’s a fine observer of people, alien or otherwise. http://www.amazon.co.uk/People-Collection-Zenna-Henderson/dp/055213659X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601657&sr=8-1&keywords=zenna+henderson+the+people

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern. The books have dated badly, especially the early ones – I tried to persuade my sons to read them and they couldn’t get past the writing style. But Pern is a completely believable ecology, and I still love the dragons. Dragon Quest is my favourite. I love many of her non-dragon stories too: Restoree, the Killashandra books, The Ship that Sang. The woman has so much talent it’s just unfair. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dragonquest-Dragon-Books-Anne-McCaffrey/dp/0552116351/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601761&sr=8-1&keywords=dragon+quest+mccaffrey

Andre Norton’s Witchworld – I didn’t come to it until adulthood, and I’ve never fully embraced it, but she has a knack for taking you into places in your mind that are just a little bit uncomfortable and thus completely memorable. As a teenager I adored Moon of Three Rings and Exiles of the Stars which feature, amongst other things, mind transference, sorcery and galactic smuggling rings. Cracking! http://www.amazon.co.uk/Moon-Three-Rings-Andre-Norton/dp/B000UH4UNG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601741&sr=8-1&keywords=moon+of+three+rings

Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. Another one that blends fantasy and myth with hard and soft science. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dark-Rising-Modern-Classic/dp/1849412707/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601762&sr=8-1&keywords=the+dark+is+rising

Special Mention: my Facebook post produced several other good suggestions, the most notable of which was a heart-felt plea on behalf of the writer who is top of my Mythical World Building list – Patricia McKillip. Like my correspondent, I view McKillip’s Riddlemaster trilogy to be amongst the best of its kind ever written. It will always be on my shelves, and Morgon of Hed, Raederle and the inimitable Tristan have a special place in my heart. However, I view it as true fantasy, not Sci Fi (whereas some of the undeniably fantasy-based stories above have a firm Sci Fi foundation). So – not in this top ten, but definitely worth reading. Plus – riddles! Who doesn’t like to read a riddle book? http://www.amazon.co.uk/Riddle-Master-Hed-Patricia-McKillip-ebook/dp/B0124179II/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459602015&sr=8-1&keywords=the+riddlemaster

I hope you enjoy my selection. Join my on facebook if you want to offer your own alternatives. https://www.facebook.com/TheCalgaryChessman/

 

The Joy of Ghosts

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Ruins at Cracaig, Isle of Mull. Eileen Henderson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

We all like a good ghost story, don’t we? Apparitions, manifestations, visitations – the presence of the dead can bring a story to life. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol may be on one level a heartwarming if cheesy tale of triumph against adversity, and the value of family and generosity (and it probably wasn’t so cheesy in Dickens’ day – indeed, he’s possibly to blame for putting much of the cheese into Christmas) but let’s face it, it’s the ghosts that get all the action. Having your faults pointed out by a nagging spouse leads to a soap opera, or maybe a domestic violence story, but when you’re accosted by your dead partner (Dickens), or the unseelie spectre of your own guilty conscience (Edgar Allen Poe’s The Telltale Heart), that’s much more gripping.

So, I thought I’d share some of my favourite ghost stories with you.

1. The Jewel of Seven Stars, by Bram Stoker.

Bram Stoker famously wrote Dracula, but he also wrote a number of other novels that can only be described as Gothic. The Jewel of Seven Stars is my favourite. I first read it aged around 13, at a time when I was fascinated by Ancient Egypt, and the book made such an impression that I gave it a cameo in my novel The Book of Lismore. In Stoker’s story a young Victorian doctor is drawn into the affairs of an archaeologist and his beautiful daughter, who may, or may not, be the reincarnation of the female Pharaoh Tera. The book is full of great horror devices, including a severed hand that crawls around killing people, and we know that when man meddles in affairs of the supernatural it’s bound to end badly. And so it does. Watch out for your ending, though. After publication, there was an alternative version released which has a bizarrely unconvincing ‘happy’ ending. Get the original.

2. The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold.

I hated this book. I’m not joking – I hated it, and I never want to read it again. Here, it’s the ghost who tells her own story – not just a flashback narrative, but an insightful telling in which the ghost of a murdered girl watches while the effects of her death wreak enormous damage on her family. There’s a not entirely unhappy ending and a sense of redemption, but the overwhelming impression I was left with was hand-over-the-mouth ghastliness communicated through finely crafted words. That’s some powerful writing. Read it once.

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3. Macchiata in the Damiano books by R A MacAvoy

I’m very fond of the Damiano trilogy. There’s a glimpse of Middle Ages Europe, a flavour of the great events of the day (including war and plague), and a very real sense of magic. Dreamy Damiano’s Dad is a sorcerer, but Damiano longs to be a musician. He’s off to a good start – his lute teacher is the Archangel Raphael – but somehow life keeps getting in the way. Before long, his father is dead, his town overrun with soldiers, and his beloved muse (and her annoyingly protective older brother) have fled, along with the rest of the population. Damiano’s own magic is more a hindrance than a help as he sets out on the refugee’s road along with his talking dog: fat, short-legged Macchiata (Italian for ‘Spot’). I won’t give away the circumstance of Macchiata’s death, in case you want to read the book, but she carries on commenting on her Master’s circumstances from the shelter of Raphael’s robe (no, she won’t tell you what he wears underneath it).

“I bit them both, Master!” she panted, exultant. “I bit both soldiers and old Marco, too! Three in one day.” Suddenly she came to a stop, turned, and threw herself, slobbering, upon her winded master. “Oh Master, I have never been so happy! This war is wonderful.”

4. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

I read this short story when I was still at school, and it’s another that has stuck with me. It’s the narrative of a Confederate sympathiser, Peyton Farquhar, who is hanged by Union troops during the American Civil War. As the trapdoor opens the rope breaks and Farquhar is free to scramble away. He begins to make his way back home. The narrative is confused and rambling, skipping through time, and it’s considered to be an early example of ‘stream of consciousness’. We learn a lot about Farquhar’s life and the circumstances of his capture, but as the story unfolds it becomes more and more apparent that there’s something wrong with his recollections, and the tale ends with a twist. What makes this a ghost story? You’ll have to read it to find out.

5. Dougie MacLean in Walking on Wild Air

Walking on Wild Air is my first full-length ghost story. It’s early days in my writing career, but so far he’s my favourite character. To all appearances, he’s a man in early middle age, friendly and likeable, nothing out of the ordinary. He roams the hills with his dog, recapitulating the life he once led, as a shepherd, back in the early part of the twentieth century. So far, so ordinary, but Sushila Mackenzie is the only person who can see him.

As the story unfolds we begin to learn what is special about Sushila, and she finds herself falling in love with someone who may not even be human. There is far more to Dougie than meets the eye, and I’ve enjoyed the challenge of providing just enough information to make him interesting without revealing all his secrets. I hope you like him as much as I do.

Learning to Write

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Those of you who know me are already aware that my sense of humour is quirky (and a little black), that my stories all have a bit of a twist, and that although I’m conscientious and thorough in my work, I don’t always do it by the book. The same is true of the way I have learned (and am still learning) the writer’s craft.

I’ve always known I could ‘write’. Even as a very young child I was forever getting in trouble for ‘telling stories’, or drifting off into a fantasy landscape while my Mum was telling me off, or having my nose in a book when I should be ‘making something of your life’. It wasn’t until my thirties that I really understood the way writing is the glue that holds the rest of my life together, and it’s only now my youngest children are nearing the age of independence that I have time. Time to indulge in reading. Time to delve into the black maelstrom of my subconscious and let some of my stories finally tell themselves.

There are lots of good books to help you with grammar and syntax, layout and style, points of view and tenses. But there are also others – books that come at the subject slantwise, that prod your subconscious to create, that pull you up short and make you re-evaluate aspects of writing that you’ve taken for granted, or not really understood. And it’s those books that I find the most valuable. Here are my favourites:

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1934, reprinted 1981. The 1981 imprint is still in print.) Dorothea’s approach is wholly positive. She begins with an assertion that she sets out to prove: “There is a sort of writer’s magic… {but} to be ready to learn it you will have to go by a rather roundabout way.” She proceeds to take us on that way, with chapters such as “The Four Difficulties” (the One-Book author, the Occasional Writer), “The Advantages of Duplicity”, “On Imitation” (the value of mimicking others’ work, to learn how they do it). Her writing is clear and cogent, and full of humour. Read this book, and perform all the exercises she suggests, and that book you thought you might never write will become the project you have to write. It’s joyous reading and I love it.

Starting From Scratch by Rita Mae Brown (Bantam Books, 1988. Still available in the second-hand marketplace). I love Rita Mae’s writing, especially her novel set in southern USA, Six of One, and the murder-mystery novels starring her cat, Sneaky Pie Brown. Her advice is very direct, and very personal. She tells you what worked for her. There are no short cuts. There are certain tasks you must perform. Reading it, you feel a bit like Hercules at the beginning of his labours. I must learn Latin? You ask yourself, whining a little. But I don’t have time! Well, she says, you can still write, but your writing won’t be as good. Fair enough. I don’t always agree with her, and it’s pleasant to have those disagreements out with her, in the privacy of my own head. She may not be comfortable, but she gives a good argument, does Rita Mae. I had this book out of the public library over and over again in my twenties, and now I have my very own copy to delve into when I need a bracing dip in cold water, or maybe a bucketful of ice poured over my head. In other words, anytime I start to swell with my own self-importance and need taking down a peg or two. This is the most useful of all my writing manuals – because it forces me to think.

How Not To Write A Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark (Penguin 2008). This hilarious trawl through the vast array of mistakes writers make, with cringe-worthy examples, is worth reading for entertainment alone. If you’re still confused about what exactly ‘info-dumping’ is, or why editors don’t like POV changes in the middle of a chapter, this book will give you examplars of how not to do it. I’m a great fan of Sandra Newman’s work, and this book is no exception. On first reading, I spotted an even dozen ‘errors’ I’ve made in my published writing to date. I stand by some of them, but possibly not with quite so much conviction as when I wrote them. Improving your writing while having a laugh – what could be nicer? If you enjoyed this, you might like to try The Western Lit Survival Guide, also by Sandra Newman. A sweep through the entire Western canon at breakneck speed – a good way to spot gaps in your knowledge.

Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin (The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998). Ursula Le Guin is my favourite living writer; she’s the consummate author, writing beautiful fantasies and perfectly-crafted essays, creator of universes, true disciple of the word. There is much useful advice, and many pertinent exercises, here (“Being Gorgeous”, “Telling it Slant”). Much like her translation of the Tao, Steering the Craft is the kind of work that you can dip into, reading a few paragraphs or performing just one exercise, and it will rest and open your mind just as meditation and tai chi relaxes and realigns your body. “Writing… is a craft, a making. To make something well is to give yourself to it… To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it.”

Creative Novel Writing by Roselle Angwin (Robert Hale Ltd, 1999). Roselle teaches writing, and she’s no mean poet and author herself. This book is still available, and you can get the link from her website, http://fire-in-the-head.co.uk/. This is the most traditional of my manuals. It gives lots of good advice about POV, characterisation, structure but also about inspiration, imagination, how to get started and how to drive the work forward – and how to identify whether your work has that extra factor, which sets it apart from other people’s writing and makes your story unique. In essence, all writers are alone, and it’s how we approach that solitude that determines how successful we will be in dragging our stories out of the darkness and committing them to screen or paper.

Stealing Fire From The Gods by James Bonnet (Michael Wiese Prodctions, 2006). It’s early days for this one – I only began reading it a few weeks ago. Like Rita Mae Brown, James Bonnet makes some assertions that I don’t completely agree with (although on flicking through it now I can’t quite spot any of them). This is a book about how the human mind works – how humanity has told itself stories, and how the writer can identify and employ the great archetypes of human storytelling to may his/her own writing more convincing. He progresses from potatoes to heroes, and along the way we visit Jungian archetypes, listen in on the fascinating thoughts of Joseph Campbell, and call in on all sorts of well-known writers and their characters to see how they did it, from Aristotle to Mel Gibson, Dracula to Frodo. This is a book for prospective film-makers as well as writers, and its approach is very visual. I’m not yet 100% sure this is going into my canon of classic writers’ manuals, but I think it will. It’s already challenged me to think.

50 Essential Works of LGBT Fiction

Some gorgeous books in this list. I’ve only read a few, just added others to my wishlist. The big one that jumps out is Dhalgren – I read a lot of Delany in my late teens and you never forget his writing. Not sure I’d recommend it as a ‘good’ book but it possesses the power to paint a different colour into your mind.

My ‘The Calgary Chessman’ series has major supporting characters who are gay, although the protagonist of the first two books is a heterosexual female. The relationship between the men forms the primary sub-plot, which grows in importance as the series progresses, however both characters have complete lives of their own, and both play a major role in the plot, irregardless of their orientation. That’s how I believe it should be – our sexuality is a vital component of our lives, but it’s not the only focus. LGBT characters have the same right as any others to be believable, and to lead full lives. Mine would never let me get away with less!

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Here’s the thing: “LGBT” is not a genre, but if you walk into any big chain bookstore, you’ll likely to find a “Gay and Lesbian” shelf in the literature section. Works of fiction that heavily feature queer themes are often ghettoized, only placing an unfortunate stigma on indelible pieces of writing that, while attracting a small group of readers, only serves to alienate others. While we’re still waiting for queer literature’s mainstream acceptance — The Great Gay Novel, if you will — there have been numerous novels and plays published in the last century that have illuminated the multifaceted queer experience among a diverse, wide-reaching community. While this list is no way a definitive canon of the best in queer literature, it does include some essential works that can provide entertainment, introspection, and comfort to those who identify as queer or straight.

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