Thursday, 14 July 2016

The Summer Before the War - Helen Simonson


One hundred percent, my favourite book for 2016, and I've read a few! I am so excited about this book, it's ridiculous. I have sold so many that we have to keep getting them in. Back up the truck, I say. I've put numerous books into customer's hands, but when they ask me, "What's your favourite book?" I come alive and give them this one! Ssssomebody ssstop me! Ha ha...

Australian cover             &          Everywhere else's cover

Oh my goodness. I have not read Helen's other book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, and that's one of the things I love about my job. I so often come into a book not having read anything else by a well-known author and get to make my own judgements based upon their latest offering. Taste is highly subjective and opinions can be so dreadfully unreliable.

What's not to love about this book? Oh my goodness! Where do I start? I adored the prose, Positively ADORED it. There is such an atmosphere of light about this book, Helen conveys so perfectly the utter naivety of the era, the cheery optimism, before people knew what havoc war could really create on the souls of those involved with its ugliness.

For once an author gives a true portrayal of sentiments that belong to a time and place forever lost to humanity. The heroine is under the financial control of her peers and family counterparts, unable to rise except through her own hardship. There is no 'magic wand'; she simply must endure.

The men are outrageously good, mortified at the prospect of seeing an ankle, willing to protect their ladies from indelicacies as well as pig-headedly (in our modern view) going about their business often without a care for those same women. Such contrasts are beautifully conveyed and true to the time. There's something so Austen-esque about it.

There are moments of shock that occur, moments that had me reeling in my seat and saw to it that the half hour break for lunch was nowhere near enough to keep enjoying this astonishingly good book - I had to take it home and devour it to the end, so SO disappointed when it was over.

I'm not a Downton Abbey viewer (I know, I know... sorry everyone :), but fans would enjoy the simplicity of thinking and honest way Helen has recreated this world. I am loathe to say anything further, lest I endanger your own enjoyment.

Go get a copy, and savour it, because there are lines in this book you'll want to read three times over and linger upon, they are so well-crafted. Do not rush through it. It's just adorable, the characters so memorable that I wish this was a telemovie. It all plays out in the mind's eye with such clarity.

Helen Simonson made my heart sing with this book. No other book this year has resonated so clearly or with such honesty as this one. The words just drew me in and wrapped their siren arms around me, making me linger in the summer before the war, fully aware that life would never be the same.

Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life. Ecclesiastes 5:18

Monday, 7 March 2016

Perth Writer's Festival... Surprise!

Well, another PWF has come and gone, and for me, this one was by far the best. Not just because I got to meet a line-up of some pretty spectacular authors whose books I sell for a living, or the array of writers in the race for publication. No, there was much more to enjoy about this one (as always).

On the Thursday there is an exclusive day-long workshop for writers, and the final part of the day is The Pitch, where authors may get to do a three minute pitch for their book to whichever editors happen to have put their hands up for this interesting task. It's an amazing experience to be in a room filled with hopefuls who range from those who have never pitched before, to people who stroll through like old hands. But the Eds are always so encouraging. It's a nerve-wracking way to spend forty-five minutes and it goes up in smoke like you wouldn't believe.

Outdoors at PWF

This year the pitches were good and the Ed's responses were encouraging indeed, with a heady collection of local works up for offer. The way it works is that ten to fifteen names get drawn at random. Those who opt to try for The Pitch will have been writing down their names and details earlier in the day, and these are put into a box. Mixed emotions flood the atmosphere and you can hear a pin drop at each weighty silence.

We had just heard the fourth pitch for the afternoon, and I was murmuring to the lady next to me that the person who'd just made their pitch had what sounded like a good story when my name got called.


"You're on. You have three minutes."

Oh flip.

Sure of how it worked, I took the mic and dove straight in, giving what I refer to as a 'back page blurb' (telling the story as you might read it on the back of a novel in a bookshop), citing word count, genre, personal merits, what makes the story different and most importantly, what makes it saleable.

Now, I knew from the moment I received the festival program a month prior that none of the editors present at the festival would really publish contemporary romantic fiction. However I was aware that they know publishing and they can discern a strong story when they hear it. The feedback at times like these is valuable and the experience is necessary, so I went for it, truth, dare or torture. The responses went like this:

Ed 1) What are you reading to show you know the genre?
Me: I replied that I am very familiar with the genre as I work in a bookshop and am privileged to have all sorts of books at my disposal, many of them proof copies to take home and read. (I didn't even get to say 'My story would sit on the shelf alongside Fiona Palmer' because the first Ed simply nodded and said, "Say no more." She knew I knew my genre, and this is important to authors and publishers alike).

Ed 2) This is not a genre FP takes, but definitely send it to one of the big houses publishing the same.
Me: (too stunned to speak, but nodding in disbelief)

Ed 3) Lots of manuscripts get sent to MRP every week, so my advice to you is to make the first chapter really sparkle. It needs to stand out.
Me: I explained the setting of the first chapter and gave some of the details, and because I knew the region this Ed comes from and that he is about an hour away from where my story is set, he immediately connected with what I said and laughed with several other attendees as I spoke about the first chapter.

After this dumbstruck mini banter session, their consensus was:

"Good pitch!"
"Go big."
"Go to the top."
"Don't waste time."
"Go to one of the big houses who are publishing similar."
"Don't muck about. Go in haste."
"Don't delay."
"Go big."

They were all talking over the top of one another and repeating their advice by this stage and I was blown away, thanked them, and sat. Mind awash with more than I could concentrate on, I quickly set about writing down everything I could remember so that I could reflect upon it again when I could think straight and in a place more quiet. It was all so straightforward.
I'm glad I wrote it all down, because after the warm receptions from family members when I mentioned the experience, now comes the hard part of actively pitching and submitting. In some ways it's like being caught between a rock a hard place - praise vs. action. I write for the most saleable genre in the world, but my niche within it is barricaded by my own lack of knowledge on how to break in, but break in I shall, because I am determined. I've been writing for twenty years, and I'm getting better and better at every aspect, finding the ins and outs so necessary to traditional publication.

We'll see what happens next.

What's your story on the road to publication? Was it rocky and turbulent, or smooth and shady?

The pathway is so different for everyone.

"But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it." Romans 8v25

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

One In a Million Boy ~ Monica Wood

I'm not a reader of the well-known books in life, per se. I have never read books like Harry Potter, Pride & Prejudice (for zombies, or otherwise), War and Peace, Treasure Island, and other more modern well-known offerings. Sorry. I just never have. This is only to let you know that if I pick up a book to read and manage to finish it, it's because it captured me for some reason and I liked where the author was taking the story.

I haven't read any of Monica Wood's previous titles, so this was my first, and it is due for release this April.

You can read the back page blurb here.

Why did I like this book? Because it was different. The characters are wounded and flawed, and I really like the Dad, Quinn. He is what we call a "battler", one who perseveres through sheer will - if, for no other reason. His motive gains strength through the story as he morphs as an individual. None of the characters are perfect (except maybe the boy), and watching Quinn travel the distance is satisfying because, as you get older, you learn some stuff. If you don't learn life's lessons, you never grow up. Ever.

Quinn truly grows. One of my favourite moments came when he had a moment of personal revelation on David Crosby. When I look back at my earliest encounters with famous souls it is so easy to see how he travelled so far with the impressions he did. It's so simple and so profound, and it's these simple profundities that make a novel really tick.

Ona is one epic lady, and I liked her very much. Her 'task-focused' approach at times reminded me of myself, where I can lose sight of a person because I'm so intent upon my goal. Yet on many occasions, she is so people-focused she forgets everything else. Above all else, I enjoyed her wisdom and perspective, which can only be acquired by living so many years and through so much. Older people are SO cool.

The final chapter was the best by far, and DON'T YOU DARE read it before the rest of the book simply to find out what it says, or else you will ruin its impact completely. To be with the boy, to know his thoughts, it is intimate and beautiful, and this section is done in such a lovely way that it makes the whole unforgettable.

As I said, this isn't my usual story, and perhaps that's much of why I liked it. There was a bit much swearing for my liking and this always makes me hold a story at arm's length. Quinn's encounters and experiences with the Christian boy band are also interesting to me, and I'd be interested to know where Monica wrote from in these sections. Curious...

Yes, I recommend a read. I think this will be a fantastic book club choice that will provide many questions, and I hope it does come with prompts for clubs who like to dissect their reads more thoroughly.

If you're an older soul, I'd enjoy knowing what you think of this one.

Reader copies can look so smart!
The white bit comes off, leaving a completely red book.
How snappy! :)


Monday, 15 February 2016

The Midnight Watch

It was back in year 3 that I first picked up A Night to Remember from the school library when all the other kids were grabbing The Hungry Caterpillar and Dr Seuss. Already, something inside me was drawn to ships, but even more so to the fact that a very large one had sunk whilst brand new, and with so many people on board because of the lack of lifeboats available. So my love for all things maritime was truly sparked, and in this instance, for the Titanic.

People, this was long before the James Cameron movie. It was well before Robert D. Ballard had even found the wreck in two halves on the bottom of the North Atlantic. Most curious to me was what Walter Lord so politely called the "mystery ship" between the Californian and the Titanic. I was too young to discern that such a ship did not exist. The Titanic and Californian were looking right at each other, and in his new novel, David Dyer expands on this intensely.

When our lovely Penguin Rep came by and handed me her stack of new offerings, I quickly laid claim to this one and had it read with equal speed. David Dyer does the story justice. He has clearly sifted through the 1912 transcripts that I became mired in to get to the bottom of what happened, and has accurately gotten beneath the skin of his subjects, translating facts and experiences into the highly readable novel, The Midnight Watch.
Nothing here is overworked. It would be so easy to give main character John Steadman his usual role as Boston American graphic artist-cum-storyteller to the dead, and paint heartbreaking tales of the souls lost. Instead, reporter John digs much deeper when on the scent of something rotten and the effect is profound.
If you are at all acquainted with the wider story of the Titanic, you will know that in addition to the avoidability of the disaster, there was a ship nearby that could have prevented such great loss of life. So why did that ship not respond? This is the question John seeks to uncover as the story breaks and the focus shifts between the saved and the lost. The things he uncovers left me wide-eyed afresh.
John has suffered his own losses, and the novel opens with this background. It's quite unbelievable, and I can imagine weird things like this do exist (weird, like w-e-i-r-d). Then, in 1912 with the awakening of the suffragettes, John is still dealing with his losses while maintaining a good relationship with his daughter, Harriet (she's pretty cool), who is something of a girdle for him (and she would hate my saying that, I'm sure).
What I found to be a beautiful angle was how John voyages to England and (unexpectedly) sees for himself first and foremost, the people, not the story. He's perfect for this task, and the author brings this home so well that you have to pause for thought and let it sink in. This is real.
The biggest moment for me would have to be when John looks into the eyes of Captain Lord. I found him so soulless, as much as I did when still a youngster and reading about him. And by the end of the book I was left utterly shaking my head at this man for the responses he gave and the ones he did not. I dipped my toes back into history and also went in search of images of Captain Rostron of the Carpathia, the ship that did pick up survivors. One thing you will notice as I did: Rostron is frequently smiling, where Lord is not.
Wonder why that is.
This weekend I'm attending the Perth Writer's Festival, and am deeply looking forward to hearing David Dyer expound, and to having him sign my copy of The Midnight Watch. I admire anyone who can keep up with this kind of thorough research, and highly recommend you find a copy - Titanic buff or not. It's going to be a provocative read among many ;)
The book that started it all for me.
It was just about the ONLY book I hired from the library!
Kids' books were SO boring ;)
...And I now have a terrible collection of books on the subject. Eeek :)

Working Stiff by Judy Melinek & TJ Mitchell

Impossible! Has it really been this long since I posted? A change of life, scene, EVERYTHING, can have that effect. I seriously have not been able to get in front of my computer for too long, and in fact, most of my friends will be under the impression I'm writing posthumously...

I guess it's only fitting I publish this at long last, and that it's on death.

It's been about seven months since I was able to review a book here, so there's a spot of catching up to do. I've decided to break the drought with something a little different - this book by Judy Melinek and TJ Mitchell, Working Stiff.

One of the benefits of working in a bookshop is picking up damaged copies of books to take home and read that you might not otherwise have picked up because 1) you've already burnt the budget with buying too many books, or 2) you have time to peruse it during lunch hour when the pace slows down and realise that closer inspection reveals more than you bargained for. Taking home Working Stiff was so worth it.

I read this while moving house and really liked it. If you want to perk up your book club, grab a copy of this one. It is many things (poignant, touching, funny) but never dull. Judy's firsthand point of view takes you straight into where the action happens, and I never felt queasy once (the only times I've felt yuck around blood is in year 5 when Brad Byrne showed me his HUGE skin flap when he bit his tongue playing soccer, and when my eldest lost her first tooth and showed me while I was meeting with a client. Gross). I honestly think just about anyone could read this.

Judy forms a sincere connection with those she talks about, and for better or for worse, conveys her tales with deep respect, right down to dealing with the tiniest remains from 9/11, which makes for very sad, astonishing reading. I loved the medical side to the stories and if you have a natural curiosity about the human body, don't shy away from it in death.

"To confront death every day, to see it for yourself, you have to love the living."

It's always difficult to know what to write in a review without giving everything away, but the above statement sums it up. Facing death not only lets you know you're alive, but you get a chance to marvel at the intricacies of the human body. For as Scripture says, we are "fearfully and wonderfully made". For me, this book thoroughly proved that, and it's lovely to have books that show just how amazing the body is, especially how it behaves in death.

Don't buy it on e-book. Grip the pages as they turn, live the smell of the written word, use a bookmark, AND be alive. This is one for the collection.


Saturday, 30 May 2015

Five seconds of fame

That's what my original boss called it when we took stock of the shelf life of a new release. We were standing by the shelf nearest the front of the store, weighing up which books were coming off the new release bay to make way for the ones that had just been delivered, hot off the press. As an author, her remark made an impression on me of untold proportions.

Now under new management, the bookstore I work for has a new flavour as is to be anticipated with a change of ownership. However, the rules of engagement for buyers and their books haven't changed at all. The new releases get a far better timeframe for maximum exposure, but the best way to capture an audience is unchanged. I can only chart what happens in our store, but I believe this is applicable on a much wider scale, and dare anyone to share otherwise.

Our new releases pretty much get delivered on a Monday, and we have an enlarged new release bay (which began about four months ago) to house these incoming books. We now display a top 30 at the front of the store (to see what our nation is buying that week), and depending on volume, in the bay beside the top 30 we display between 30 and 40 books that are new releases which are predominantly fiction (there may be some sci-fi, literary, biography, or crime mixed in).

My co-worker and I get to put the books out ("face out" not spine out), and while the top 30 are listed for us in order of favour, the new releases get laid out according to date. BUT, in the likely scenario we get more than eight new releases all having the same date, we get to choose the order in which they are laid out for the public to peruse. Last Monday we received around eighteen new releases, so whatever had spent prime time on the top shelf for a week was now down to shelf number four, no longer in first place, no questions asked.

A book I thought was fantastic and that everyone would surely grab did not move from second place for two weeks, neither did any sell. The new releases came in on Monday and the novel was moved down to eighth position. By that afternoon we'd received another five boxes. Not five books, five boxes. Book number two was now book fifteen. Another couple of boxes were wheeled through the door by the courier, bringing the book to rest for the day at place twenty-one. By the end of the week, book two had become book twenty-nine, where it stayed for about one more week, finally coming to rest at book forty-five before finding a permanent home amongst Fiction A-Z having sold only one copy out of six.

Five seconds of fame.

In our shop, the books in the new release bay may occasionally be leap-frogged by other books as a bio or crime fiction sells or is moved to its proper place in the store, but there are no guarantees about book placement. What might be a new release sitting in pole position on Monday can be shunted down in an hour, a day, or a week. This is the reason behind the picture above. This is how your book might be promoted after only one week of hitting the shelves - unidentifiable unless people know what you've done, or what they should be looking for.

Next post, tips on what to do to help your book stay ahead of the bookstore slush pile (and you thought the only one that existed was on the editor's desk, right? Wrong.).

In God, Whose Word I praise - in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? Psalm 56v4.

Am I back? Really?

Talk about a false start. In many ways I can't believe it was January that I last made a post, but when I look back at even the last week, it is quite obvious as to why. They say that you give time to whatever you love, and as much as I love writing, I love my family more, proven lately by working the longest hours of my life.

My disappointment in not having the time to write is overcome by being able to provide for my family as well as spend time with them. It's a great combination. However I'm also old enough to know that if I don't spend a certain amount of time on creative me, frustration will peak quite readily. So, in recognition of the dust that has settled long enough for me to be able to dust off my dearly beloved laptop, I have also come back to write a post.

In the past five months there has been little time for expressing creativity as we have undergone an intriguing transformation as a family through a series and course of events we would never have thought do-able. Nothing life-threatening, but I think several of my friends must think I've either died or become a hermit from my lack of contact. But slowly and gradually, by the grace of God, they're finding out I've not dropped off the planet after all, and I'm slowing reappearing from being buried under work, packing boxes, and clients.

Not writing has also been fun. Yes, you read that correctly. It's been a recharge, a season to refuel, and as I (hopefully) continue to blog away that it will contain topics of interest. I'm never far away, and hope readers here can feel comfortable enough to either comment or tweet me and keep me coming back, too :)

I'm keen to share some fresh insights of my end in the publishing world, but first of all wanted to make a greeting. Yes, I'm still alive, and God is good, and that's my post for now. We are blessed to face new challenges, as it keeps us from being lazy :)

Catchya soon.

I lift up my eyes to the hills; where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and earth. Psalm 121:1,2