Book Review

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The Disappearance of Tom Pile, by Ian Beck

This is a relatively new book (published in 2015 by Penguin Random House UK, ISBN 978 0 552 56776 3), whose full title, too long for the paperback cover, is The Casebook of Captain Holloway: The Disappearance of Tom Pile, and the author is new to me, but I have to confess that I was drawn to the book by the cover (thereby refuting the well-worn adage) and, given the author’s background, I was surprised that he didn’t design the cover himself: “Ian Beck has worked as a freelance illustrator for many years (including such notable artwork as the record [remember those?] cover for Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album). Ian turned to writing and illustrating children’s books when his own children were born.” This isn’t a particularly long book at 267 pages, so it is an easy read, especially if, like I do, you enjoy science fiction which has a reasonable plausibility, even if one’s disbelief does have to be suspended to some extent. The book also includes some monotone photographs which have been edited to support the narrative although, somewhat perversely, they don’t always exactly match the section of the story they support; that’s only a minor quibble, however.

Without wanting to give away too much of the plot, the story concerns the eponymous Tom Pile who, we learn, went missing and was quickly presumed dead, in the year 1900, only to inexplicably return forty years later, having not aged at all, in exactly the same location, which is a part of Dorset I know slightly, having had family whom I occasionally visited with my parents, living there, and some still do. The area, according to the story, has been subject to strange lights in the sky going back to some years before Tom’s disappearance; the author claims not to “know if strange lights have ever been seen over the hills of Dorset…”, and that could well be true, but there are military establishments not too far away (although they possibly didn’t exist when the lights were first noticed), so that would lend some credibility to the theory that curious extra-terrestrial visitors (since that is the obvious, albeit not initially stated inference to draw from these events) have been investigating earth’s military capability. However, to use a well-known saying of the time, “there’s a war on”, so the fictitious (probably) government department investigating these phenomena has to use the threat of a German invasion to cover its enquiries, in the person of a young, precociously gifted Londoner by the name of Jack Carmody, who is sent to deepest, darkest Dorset, to see what he can find.

There is a twist at the end which is not entirely unexpected, and the dénouement could have been extended somewhat, but what could have been a tragedy turns out not to be so, entirely anyway, and it would appear that this is the first book in what could be a series, given that there is at the end of the book an “exclusive extract of the next story about Captain Holloway [Jack’s superior officer], Corporal Carmody and Tom Pile: The Miraculous Return of Annick Garel”; however, one disappearance (this book) and a “miraculous return” (the next book) don’t necessarily suggest an open-ended series: time will tell, of course. This is definitely not hard-core science fiction (apologies if that upsets hard-core science fiction aficionados), but I think that will make it more attractive to a broad audience, including perhaps a lucrative demographic, the ‘young adult’ readers, although this book doesn’t appear to be specifically targeted there. If the paranormal and/or unexplained phenomena irritate you, this is probably a book best avoided, but given that there are indeed many reports globally of people who have mysteriously vanished, and/or experienced time loss (they can’t all be mad or looking to make an easy buck, surely?), as I said earlier, it does (in my opinion, of course) have a reasonable plausibility, so if you can handle that, give this little book a whirl. If it helps to convince you, on the Penguin Books page marketing the book, no less an icon that Philip Pullman gives the book a glowing, albeit oddly brief, endorsement: “A cracker . . . Utterly convincing”: it works for me!

Book Review

Westwind, by Ian Rankin

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Image credit: The Reading List

I like Ian Rankin’s work; or, I should qualify, what little of it I have read hitherto; but, given that this is not a detective novel per se, in the Rebus oeuvre, I thought it would be worth reviewing. It is almost science fiction, but (so don’t panic) not quite, for reasons which should become clear in the course of this review. It is also presented, on the cover of the 2019 edition which I read, as “The classic lost thriller”: hyperbolic, perhaps, but it seems that one doesn’t win many prizes in publishing for understatement. After the probably inevitable, and understandably somewhat grudgingly undertaken rewrites, the book, actually his fourth, was published on March 1, 1990, to an almost deafening silence: one small review in The Guardian. “So I decided that it would rest in a dark corner of my consciousness, never to see the light of day again.” Somewhat later, a surprise: Twitter to the rescue! Fans using this estimable service, and one in particular, combined to persuade Rankin to look again at this book, which he duly did, and it was republished in 2019, after giving “the original printed text a polish, … [a] few words have been added here and there, while others have been removed or altered, but it is essentially the same book it always was, just thirty years older and a little wiser . . .”

The story, which is set in a slightly alternate version of our world in 1990 (where Germany is still divided, for example), begins with parallel situations of a British government listening station, monitoring satellites, especially ‘our’ spy satellite, called Zephyr (the significance of which will become clear near the end of the book), and a space shuttle mission, Argos,  to launch a satellite ends disastrously (not unknown, unfortunately), when the shuttle crash-lands, killing four (all American) out of the five astronauts (or are some of them already dead?), and as a consequence, the British surviving astronaut becomes a hate-figure, because American military forces are being unceremoniously kicked out of mainland Europe, which considers that it is capable of defending itself against the old Adversary, Russia. At the same time, there has been a panic at the listening station at Binbrook, Lincolnshire, that has lost contact with Zephyr for over three minutes, which is unprecedented: it was not a drill, and yet the military overlords do not seem unduly concerned. One of the monitoring operatives, Paul Vincent, who is relatively new to the job but very well qualified, thinks he has spotted something worthy of mentioning to his superiors, but before his older friend, Martin Hepton, can quiz him further, Vincent is mysteriously sent on sick leave, to a nursing home, even though Hepton knows him to be very fit & healthy. Hepton is able to visit Vincent on a day off, but their eventual clandestine conversation appears to have been observed by two well-muscled ‘orderlies’, so when Hepton drives away, he becomes fearful for his colleague’s safety.

After this, the story develops into a cat & mouse chase, with an assassin thrown into the mix, and the British astronaut, Mike Dreyfuss, is brought back to England to assist the British security services get to the bottom of what has happened, and how much of a threat Hepton’s suspicions, and Dreyfuss’s near-death experience might be; not only to Britain, but to the whole world. There is many a slip along the way before the purpose of the satellite launched by the Argos mission is revealed, and as usual in any story involving security services, the reader is given clues as to who might be untrustworthy, or actively working for ‘the other side’: it is suggested that one of the main characters might be a wrong’un, but this turns out to be a red herring. It is clear (to this reader, at least) that, despite being one of Rankin’s earliest efforts, it is nonetheless a well-crafted thriller, and the pace of the action increases to a pitch where the book, which is not overlong at only 288 pages, not including the new introduction by the author, attains that epithet that has become something of a cliché: ‘unputdownable’! The story isn’t a classic in the way that, say, Doctor Zhivago, Jane Eyre, or Lolita are considered to be, but it is a thumping good mystery, and I recommend it.

Basing Your High-Fantasy Towns and Cities in the Real World

Should the towns & cities of your fantasy worlds closely resemble those in our world?

Nicholas C. Rossis

map of Beleriand | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

I wisely started the map and made the story fit.

The above words, spoken by none other than J.R.R Tolkien, have been taken as sage advice by many an accomplished – or budding – fantasy writer who felt inspired to create their own world. While Tolkien, like many others, has been lauded for his incredible imagination in bringing places like Middle-Earth to life, it’s worth noting that the creation of these worlds is not something done from scratch. At least, not exactly.

What I mean by this is that there is a – let’s call it a tethering – of the fantasy world to the real world. For instance, if you have a look at some of Tolkien’s hand-annotated maps of Middle-Earth, you will see he has made reference to things like The Shire being on the same latitude as Oxford. You can see the logic of doing this, as…

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The Future of Barnes and Nobles

Are traditional big bookshop chains doomed?

Nicholas C. Rossis

Barnes and Noble | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

The Passive Guy recently shared a post by Jane Friedman on the future of Barnes & Noble; a topic you may remember from my earlier post, “How Amazon Destroyed Barnes & Noble.”

Quite frankly, Jane’s post made me sad. The latest chairman, James Daunt, is credited with saving UK’s famous bookstore, Waterstons. However, all you got to do is read the following quotes to understand that he really doesn’t get B&N – or books.

Early on, when Daunt was asked what he thought of Barnes & Noble on his last store visit, he said, “There were too many books,” by which he meant that featuring the right inventory is more important that stocking a big blur of titles. Back in 2015, he commented to Slate, “My faculties just shut down when I go in there.”

So… the big problem with a bookstore is that it has too…

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Ancient Travels

Do you write historical fiction? How long did it take for people to travel, way back when?

Nicholas C. Rossis

I came across an interesting question on Quora the other day: What was the approximate travel time between London and Rome in the 13th century?

As Frank Melling, author of “A Sixpence in the Settee,” points out, this is not a simple question to answer, as it depends on the circumstances. Are you a merchant, a peasant on pilgrimage, a priest, or a courier? Will you be walking, riding, or taking a Cog?

Read on to find out the answer – and check out Stanford’s Orbis, the great link in the end!

What a difference 900 years make

At the peak of the Roman Empire, an Imperial Messenger would cover 50 miles a day – and from all over the Empire. There are tales of Roman riders covering hundreds of miles in 24 hours when there was a desperate need. However, that was with as many…

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Free Online Character Name Generators

Is it a chore finding character names for your fiction writing? Use one of these free online name generators!

Nicholas C. Rossis

I have an unusual relationship with character names, probably because I have such a poor memory (as Electra likes to point out). Quite frankly, I don’t particularly like the process of coming up with names. As the saying goes, you don’t know how many people you dislike until it’s time to name your child. Or character. Plus, once I finish the book I forget the characters’ names within a few days at most (which makes reading Game of Thrones exhausting).

My way out is to name people after their role in the book. For example, in Runaway Smile we meet the boy and his mother. Neither has a name beyond that. Similarly, many characters in A Heaven for Toasters are called “The Professor,” “The Captain,” etc. Easy to remember, if not so easy to write, as I always struggle with capitalization.

When I do need to come up…

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Book Review

The Holdout, from The Rockwell Files, courtesy of The Saturday Evening Post

The Holdout, by Graham Moore

The snippet on the cover of this bang-up-to-date book tells the reader that it is a story which concerns a legal case: “One juror changed the verdict. What if she was wrong?”; so far, so good, but it is much more than that, and the attraction of the way the story is written is that the background details, to support the narrative that commences in 2019, although its origin is ten years previously, are served up (one might almost say ‘insinuated’) into the current action a chapter at a time, alternating with the present.

The protagonist in 2019 is an up-and-coming lawyer, Maya Seale, who is based in Los Angeles. Ten years previously, an Obama supporter and newly arrived in the City of Angels from New York, although originally from New Mexico, she decides, because “[i]t might even provide some fodder for her writing…one of the many new and informative experiences to which she should keep herself open.”, to accept a summons for jury duty (which most people, evidently, seem to try as assiduously as possible, to avoid), in a case where a young black man stood accused of the first-degree murder of a fifteen-year old white girl (and Jewish, although that does seem to be incidental to the plot, other than her father being a significant benefactor in the city), with whom he had been having an ostensibly improper relationship: improper both because she was underage, but also because he was her teacher. Before the trial even starts, Maya meets Rick Leonard, another anonymous juror, the man who subsequently becomes her antagonist although, initially, she is attracted to him, and they have a brief affair.

The trial is protracted, lasting twenty weeks, and the jury is sequestered in a hotel for nearly the whole of this time; in the final “three weeks of heated deliberations” Maya tries, and eventually succeeds, in converting all eleven contrarian jurors to her verdict of not guilty; the verdict is very unpopular however, because the consensus both in the courtroom and the wider world outside is that Bobby Nock was guilty, even though, as later becomes apparent, no body had been found. The whole process through which she has gone encourages Maya to train as a lawyer, which she does, successfully, finishing eleventh in her class at UC Berkeley Law, and ‘making partner’ at her employer in three years. Immediately after the accused had been acquitted, however, “[u]nder the hot glare of public condemnation”, Rick recants publicly, and claims that the “unjust verdict had been entirely Maya’s fault”, and “accused her of bullying him into acquitting a man he’d always been sure, deep down, was a murderer.”, which, naturally, ends their infatuation.

Ten years later, a reunion is organised by a podcast company, proposing to produce an eight-hour ‘docuseries’ for Netflix, adapted from their podcast by the name of Murder Town, but not all of the erstwhile jurors attend, and during the night of the reunion in the same hotel, one of them is killed, a crime of which Maya herself becomes accused. Luckily for Maya, her boss, a senior partner, whom she engages as her attorney, is able to persuade the presiding judge to let her out on bail, albeit in the amount of one million dollars, and the story then unfolds thereafter describing Maya’s quest to prove her innocence, and the back-stories of the other jurors, as well as the original accused and the first victim’s family, reveal details which contribute to an intricate, but believable picture of human foibles & weaknesses.

The dénouement, although not entirely unpredictable, is nevertheless skilfully revealed after significant facts, understandably hitherto concealed, are revealed about certain key characters in the story. Given that the writer, as well as being a bestselling author, is an award-winning screenwriter (one of his plaudits is an Academy Award for The Imitation Game), it is hardly surprising that characters are well fleshed-out, and it is quite easy to imagine the chapters being played out as scenes in a film, complete with flashbacks, although these have to be handled carefully, to avoid accusations of laziness. The contemporary nature of the story is definitely a bonus, but I found the story engaging, and held my attention and curiosity right to the end.

Win $500 for writing!

Can you write a blurb for a hypothetical book? QueryLetter.com is running a competition for would-be writers, and there is a prize of $500 on offer!

This writing contest is all about book blurbs. The twist? They want blurbs about completely made-up, nonexistent books. Get creative!

Write and submit a back cover blurb of 100 words or fewer that sets the stage for a novel, establishes the characters, and raises the stakes in a way that makes readers want to find out more; but hurry: the competition closes in a week’s time, on September 15, 2020, at noon (US Eastern time).

For further details, and to enter, go to: https://www.queryletter.com/contest

Good luck!

Featured blogger: Suzan Khoja

Take some time to have a look at this blog of a book-lover living in India.

beetleypete

Suzan is a young blogger who lives in India. She is a confirmed book lover who also tackles serious subjects on her blog, like body-shaming.

https://magicalbooklush.blog/

Anyone who has ever visited her blog or has been lucky enough to have her as a follower will be aware that she is fully-engaged, lively, friendly, and very entertaining. Her book reviews range from childhood favourites like comics, to serious classic novels such as Orwell’s ‘1984’. There is definitely something for everyone on her blog.

This is what she has to say about herself.

Be Free!!
These days all I hear is people don’t have time to read or don’t know what to read. People feel shy reading in public because they get labelled as ‘Nerds’ and are often insulted. Athletes and social butterflies who love reading hide to avoid embarrassment. I am here rebelling against those human shaming people that force readers…

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The Best Way to Promote Your Books

If you enjoy a book, tell your friends!

Nicholas C. Rossis

What is the best way to promote your books?

The answer comes from an interesting article on GrowSurf.com that explained the power of referral marketing. According to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), there are more than 2.4 billion brand-related conversations every day in the US alone. Sharing is an innate human trait, and people are always interested in talking about their favorite products/services.

Leveraging word-of-mouth is one of the best marketing decisions you can make. Referred customers are more loyal, less likely to churn, and are a cost-effective way to sustainably grow your business.

Referral advertising | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Image Source

The power of referral marketing:

Here are some incredible numbers that show the power of referral marketing:

  1. People who were referred by their friends are 4x more likely to make a purchase (Nielson)
  2. 84% of consumers trust the recommendations of others over other forms of marketing (Nielson)
  3. The lifetime…

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