Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Best Books Ever! What are yours?

I was asked to choose my 20 best books ever for The Book Club, a readers' group on facebook. Impossible of course! This is the list I came up with. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments! And help yourself to some Christmas goodies while you're thinking about brain food!

Pink Rheims biscuits
1. The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
Book 1 in a trilogy showing dystopian survival in a reality TV game where the forced participants can die. Not my type of book, I thought, but I could not put it down. I love the feisty teen heroine who's a deadshot with bow and arrows and no book better captures the post-truth machinations of current politics. (I've been wanting to use the word 'post-truth' since I discovered it was Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year 2016.)

2. The Gate to Women's Country - Sheri Tepper
Fantasy novel that turns what-if into a gripping story. What if there were a way to organise society so women can have great sex with unsuitable men AND also ensure that children are protected and nurtured? I read every fantasy book Sheri Tepper writes, for the way she creates amazing worlds, tells a good story and makes me see our own world differently.

Starry starry blinis
3. H is for Hawk - Helen McDonald
Best Autobiography
Autobiography about two interwoven emotional journeys; grief and training a goshawk. A book to savour for the beautiful way its written, for its passion and honesty, for its expertise regarding birds of prey and their training. A bonus for me is the analysis of received wisdom from the past re training hawks, in particular via quotations from the troubled soul T.H.White (another of my favourite writers).

4. The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Best Children's Book
The French Winnie-the-Pooh; a children's book with observations on life that strike a chord with adults. Full of quotable quotes! 'People have forgotten this truth,' the fox said. 'But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.'
Goodreads has 659 favourite quotes from this book so I think you'll find one that hits the heart!

French Christmas log

5. Mums Know Best - The Hairy Bikers' Family Cookbook
Best Cookbook
A recipe book collated from family recipes throughout the U.K. during the Hairy Bikers'  television tour. A tribute to Mums and to home cooking, with recipes that all work and that show the whole multi-cultural range of the British people and our food. When my French neighbours sneer at Britain's lack of cuisine, I tell them 'You find world cuisine in Britain' and nowhere is that more true than in this cookbook. It makes you want to write down all your own family favourites; I still use the splotched, handwritten recipe for Grandma's Christmas Cake although my mother is dead now and I am the Grandma. The photos are good too and as I'm a food shooter (with a Nikon D750 as weapon of choice :) ) I have hundreds of cookbooks and am very fussy about the photos.

6. The Visual Toolbox:60 lessons for stronger photos - David duChemin
The best photography book. From a master of travel / landscape/ wildlife photos who works with natural light. Offers inspiration and guidance, whatever level of photographer you are. In DuChemin's company I gain confidence in who I am as a photographer; I learn what I want to improve and how to do it. His own photos are a joy.

7. Assassin's Apprentice - Robin Hobb
Epic fantasy.
Book 1 of the Farseer Trilogy. Illegitimate and unwanted, young Fitz has to fulfil the only role at court which is offered to him - that of assassin. As the kingdom faces invasion, Fitz discovers his own magical powers and has to learn to control them, for his king and country's sake. The grand, heroic adventure swept me away, I fell in love with the wolf, and I read every Robin Hobb book the moment it's available. Training in magic has become clichéd but Robin Hobb pits the illegal Wit (bonding completely with an animal) against the court-controlled Skill (telepathic communication and control of humans) and, uniquely, Fitz has to master both kinds. The relationship between Fitz and his Wolf is as deep and convincing as those between the various humans.

8. Chéri - Colette
Very French love story.
First published in 1920, when France was where the British went to be naughty, Colette's story of a 19 year old boy and his 43 year old female lover is a sensual classic. Worldly-wise courtesans and pretty young things (male and female) play out their relationships against a backdrop of gowns and soirées. I discovered Colette when I was 18 and the whiff of decadence fascinated me as much as her beautiful, poetic style. She taught me about pearls. She also taught me that a woman could break all the rules, as a writer and as a woman. Colette was the first woman to be accepted into the all-male Académie française, and a poster showing her with her cat in St-Tropez is beside my desk. She was my first inspiration as a writer. Chéri is no longer shocking but this slight volume lingers in the imagination like French perfume.

9. The Map of Love - Ahdaf Soueif
The best epic love story. Set in colonial Egypt and present-day, the story of a young English widow who meets the love of her life is revealed through the discoveries of her descendant, who also goes to Egypt. The relationship between Anna and Sharif is a heart-melter for any romantic and the exotic background takes you on a voyage of discovery.

10. The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
Best BIG 19th C novel. Historical romantic suspense set in the 17th C with the best swordsmen in the whole of France. The historical equivalent of shoot-outs and car chases; sword-fights and breakneck horse rides to save the Queen of France. So many characters to fall in love with but my favourite is Milady. The Best Villain ever!

11. The Zebra Affaire - Mark Fine
Historical / Literary Fiction. He's black, she's white, and in 1970s South Africa their love affair is a criminal offence. There are chunks of non-fiction you can read if you want (I loved them) as a love story challenges apartheid. Totally authentic in time and place with a real love of South Africa despite the horrors. Reminded me of 'Doctor Zhivago' and feels relevant again today.

12. Shogun - James Clavell
Best block-busting page-turner. The adventures of a 17th century English sea-captain surviving in the violent politics of Japan - and I mean violent. Gut-wrenching (this is the culture of hara-kiri after all!) high adrenalin and romantic. Bushido code, world trade, culture clash and steamy tea ceremonies. The beautiful translator Mariko is wonderful and so much depends on the choices she makes, we agonise on her behalf. An emotional roller-coaster, whether you like historical fiction or not.

13.  The Game of Kings - Dorothy Dunnett
Best historical fiction with fictional heroes in real 16thC events, starting in Scotland. Book 1 in the six-book Lymond series. Francis Crawford of Lymond is, in my eyes, the most desirable fictional hero ever and his complicated adventures are not short of romance. Intelligent, wide-referencing and thrilling, Dorothy Dunnett's books are the ones I'm most flattered at my historical novels being likened to.

14. Steppenwolf - Hermann Hesse
Modern classic. Appeals to the middle-aged lonely werewolf in all of us, the one who looks in the mirror with distaste and is willing to follow a free spirit into The Magical Theatre and dive into life's might-have-beens to discover what still could be. Wild psychic adventure!

15. Soul Music -  Sir Terry Pratchett
Best comic fantasy. The Grim Reaper's grand-daughter has to learn the family business; Death. Stands alone but set in the many-novelled Discworld where Pratchett fans like me have their favourite characters and set of stories. Death is mine, with his grim sense of humour and his kindness; the character of Death in 'The Book Thief' derives directly from Pratchett.

16. Sailing to Sarantium - Guy Gavriel Kay
Best historical fantasy. Based on medieval Byzantium but 'given a quarter turn to the fantastic' is how G G Kay describes his technique. He captures the grand sweep and scale of history in all his books, with characters who know they are part of something bigger, characters who make me feel in awe of their nobility, their love affairs, their creative work. He makes me feel proud to be human (not easy!) And there's a heart-pounding chariot race.

17. Lord of the Rings - J. R. R. Tolkien
The first fantasy novel, ever, and it's epic. If you've read other fantasy novels you'll recognise the elements: the band of elves, dwarves, men and hobbits, heroes who have to save the land from the forces of evil, with the help of Gandalf the wizard. What keeps it fresh for me is that Tolkien did it all first and there was nothing like this before TLOTR I can feel Sauron's eye seeking me out and I identify completely with the struggles of small people burdened with the responsibility of the cursed ring.

18. The Distant Sound of Violence - Jason Greensides
Modern urban fiction about British teenagers from different cultures. They have big hearts but the world's against them. You just want to adopt them all but the adults in their life have no idea what they're going through - or don't care :( An ending that stays in your mind, powerful and gives hope.

19. I Heard The Owl Call my Name - Margaret Craven
Modern fable. A young vicar, who does not know he is dying, is sent to a native American village where the two religions/ mythologies take the reader on a spiritual journey in two cultures. You don't have to be religious (I'm a sort of humanist) to respond to the wisdom in this novel, a metaphor for how to live well and accept death, when the owl calls your name. 'Don't feel sorry for yourself because you are going to so remote a parish. Feel sorry for the Indians. You know nothing and they must teach you.'

20. The Bees - Laline Paul
Best novel about bee-ing. Suspense and dystopian paranoia drive the story because 'they' are out to get the young bee Flora 717. She tries to keep out of trouble while knowing that something is terribly wrong in the hive. Underlying the survival adventure is an accurate knowledge of bees. I'm a registered beekeeper, having followed practical training for three years in Provence, and the micro-view of the world created by Laline Paul is correct in all its facts and possibilities. If bees could speak human, this is the story they would tell and as well as being a page-turner, it's an important story for the planet.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The loveable assassin - Glen Barrera

I admit to being intrigued by Glen Barrera, the man behind the assassin who can't dance, a man who routinely shoots people and blows them up. (Glen will smile at the deliberate ambiguity - he's a writer who notices nuances.) So who is he exactly?

Glen, a former partner in a real estate appraisal company, who still takes appraisal assignments from time to time, now writes. Over the years he's edited a company newsletter, written short stories (one a contest winner) and poetry. It wasn't until he divorced a few years ago, however, that he finally found time to take a writing course while working on his first novel. The Assassin Who Couldn't Dance and a follow-up novel, A Capable and Wide Revenge (now available), were tutored by Michael Mirolla, a published Canadian writer. He is now working on a third novel with the working title, Sweet Peach. Glen grew up in Chicago, with college at Western Illinois University, College of DuPage and the University of Illinois, Chicago. He studied Isshinryu Karate for fourteen years, sailed for seven years out of Burnham Harbor, practices Tai Chi and plays classical guitar. A Chicago boy at heart, he now lives in a western suburb.
You say you started writing classes after your divorce. Was the personal change a catalyst in looking at your professional future? Had you always wanted to write?
I believe the idea to write was an extension of the countless books I’d read, an “I can do that” mentality, whether for better or worse in actuality. My first novel was written in the 1980s, on an Underwood typewriter (yeah, carbon copy), with no recourse other than a full re-type if I screwed up after fifty pages and needed to correct a plot-point back at page twenty-five (I think I still have the rejection slips). With a wife, two children and a demanding career, however, writing had to take a back seat to life. I was still writing, but in a technical environment. But even before the divorce, I knew I wanted to write fiction again. Writing classes, then, were a natural progression, to get me back into the rhythm and structure of the story. So no, there were no ambitions to write as a professional – I simply wanted to write.      
I often wonder whether I could have written at all if I'd had to hand-write or type a manuscript - redrafting and edits would have been a nightmare!

I know that you care deeply about work being well-written and well-edited. What have you gained from writing classes? Would you recommend them? Do you still go?
Writing classes were the best prelude to writing fiction that I could imagine. I signed up with an internet class from Canada, twenty lessons, coached by a published Canadian writer. The later part of the lessons took me through most of my first novel. It wasn’t a “gravy” adventure with accolades galore for my brilliant writing. Instead, my tutor, serious about the craft of writing, had no problem in correcting my errant ways with countless raps on my knuckles with his five pound cyber ruler. It stings. 

After two years, with very sore knuckles and a humbled opinion of my genius, I learned. So yes, I recommend writing classes. Taped to my desk is a quote (from Quality of Course): “Nice writing isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to have smooth and pretty language. You have to surprise the reader frequently, you can’t just be nice all the time. Provoke the reader. Astonish the reader. Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal…” Now, rather than classes, I meet every week with a very talented writers group of seven, all working on novels. I can bring in my weeks’ worth of writing, six copies, and have everyone read, correct and comment. I still get rapped on the knuckles occasionally, only this time verbally. 

Hector is an endearing character (for an assassin :) ) How did you come up with the idea of 'the assassin who couldn't dance' (and of course a great title for the book. Did you know straight away that Hector would be such a key character?
The idea for Hector came about through my belief that a good person isn’t always good – and a bad person isn’t always bad. I had been reading any and all thrillers I could find at the time, and the plots became boringly consistent: the “good” guys always against the “bad” middle-eastern terrorists. I decided to bend the rule. I knew Hector would be a key character. From seven years old until the age of twenty-three, along with classroom studies he’d been taught to kill. His target being the U.S. Army officers responsible for the deaths of his father and brother. He didn’t have a choice. But with little social interaction during those years - friends never made and family hardly known - he is emotionally vulnerable as he sets out on his quest of vengeance. He asks himself at one point in the story: If his family had moved to the States sixteen years before, would he have a girlfriend now? Would he have learned how to dance? It was such an innocent query, so like the character, I decided to use it in the title.  

'A Capable and Wide Revenge' is another interesting title. How did you come up with this one?
It’s been a long time since I’ve read the complete works of Shakespeare, so I can’t say I remembered the line from Othello. But the quote I used (from Dictionary of Quotations by Bergen Evens), which reflected exactly what I had in mind, read: “Till that a capable and wide revenge swallow them up.” Shakespeare: Othello III.iii 

amazon link

Your thrillers detail special ops and Middle East politics. How do you get your background information? Or should I call it 'intel' :) ?
Most of the background information came from books, the internet, and two Marine vets with experience in Iraq. I probably went through four or five books relating to the Gulf War. The internet also offered a wealth of information. In the second book  A Capable and Wide Revenge  I used an armored Humvee, mounted with a 50 cal. machine gun. Not only were pictures plentiful for research, but videos of the Humvee with the machine gun in action came along as a nice bonus. Articles pertaining to political structure in Baghdad, street views, neighborhoods and militant groups were there for the taking. I’ll confess, I’ve taken many liberties with the truth in the course of my novels, but then again, I don’t feel I was too far from the actuality.  

Events in your novels seem to me to be mirrored in events that hit the news. Have you had a moment where you switched on the TV and there it was - your fictional story come to life?
Yes. The first book took place in 2006, the second in 2009. The destabilization and turmoil in Iraq, and its effects, were a given even as I wrote. With approximately one million (+) U.S. dollars funneled into Iraq each day, corruption was rife and militant groups controlled areas police were loath to enter. The U.S. pulled the last of its troops in December 2011, leaving a vacuum to be filled – and it was, as is apparent today. The geopolitical nature of the area would rule out a direct correlation to the Vietnam fiasco, but as a student of military history I’d have to quote Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Do you worry that your books might attract attention from terrorists or militant groups?
Not really. For the most part I try to be somewhat vague. In Capable and Wide, I noted actual names for the militant groups in and around Baghdad at the time, but the names I eventually used for my “bad guy” groups – Sword of the Righteous Lions and Green Shields of Allah – were made up, using bits and pieces of the others. I can’t get into too much trouble with that…I think (he said, looking over his shoulder).

What do you hope readers will get from reading your books?
My original theme was the relationship of family and friends within conflict, that they will support each other no matter the odds. But I found myself writing another theme as well – that is, everyone is searching for someone special to love, and when that love is found you don’t want to let it go. In The Assassin, Lucy and Hector/Morgan and Gil were looking for that love. In Capable and Wide, it was Wes Easterly, Darien and Colin, and even twelve-year-old Ashi who needed that special belonging. I guess I’ve always rooted for the underdog, faced-off against the bully that life, and people, can sometimes be.  

What are your future projects?
I’m currently working on a book titled, Sweet Peach. The first line of her introduction to the story is: Sweet Peach (yeah, momma was slugging beers right through the midwife’s delivery) stumbled out of her battered Honda Civic. 

The story takes place in Tennessee. Hector, Gil and Morgan, and the others will be back. It’s a bit different from the previous books that used Iraq as a backdrop. I’m currently working on some “bad guys” as worthy adversaries, of the drug-running, cartel type. This time they’re from Mexico. 

What are your own favourite books?Strangely, as I write fiction, many of my top picks are non-fiction. I’ve read The Outline of History by H.G. Wells (originally written in 1920, revised in 1976) three times. Not just for its historical significance, but for its literary elegance. H.G. is a great writer! In contrast, I finally read Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire three years ago. It was written (first volume) in 1776. The history is good for the period, imbued with the bias and prejudice of the time, but the writing tends to be stifled, flat, and exciting as year-old fruitcake (all the footnotes are in Latin, and even with my two years of study, plus copious notes taken from Google translation, I could only pick up about 60%). Of course, Tolkien is still a favorite. I re-read him every year or two. I’m currently reading a lot of Indie publications, and have found some very good writers. But as I read so many, I can’t recall the title of the book I read last week, or who wrote it. I could give a list of authors I like, but I’d likely leave someone out. 

What about the private Glen Barrera? What are your favourite activities apart from writing and reading? Can you dance?
Ha! Yes, I can dance fairly well. I also play classical and blues guitar (although, I don’t pick up my guitars as much as I used to). I sailed on Lake Michigan for a few years on a Rhodes 22 and a Seaward 26. Unfortunately, we had to sell the boat when my ex and I divorced. I still practice Karate kata (formalized movements like Tai Chi, but faster and with full force) and Tai Chi. I was in Florida this past November, staying with my sister who works with horses as a trainer/dressage teacher/coach. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a horse, let alone one showing at a dressage-trained level. It was a very interesting experience, with riding nuances to boggle the mind. A new endeavor perhaps? 

Which question do you wish somebody would ask in interview?
Can you sing?
And the answer is?
Yes. I was a member of the Bogan (my Chicago High School) Boys Choir. Except, our “choir” relied on one of us getting dad’s car, getting an older guy to buy beer for the four or five of us, and then cruise around singing songs on the car radio (okay, and trying to pick up girls). 

The Assassin Who Couldn't Dance

The Story
Blue-eyed Hector Munoz (his present name) is fluent in five languages, can kill a man a hundred different ways and yet, at twenty-three had learned almost nothing about life and love. His father and brother were brutally murdered by corrupt U.S. military officers when he was seven. The teacher, a close friend of his father, took control of the boy’s life, as well as the future debt to be paid. Now, after years of rigorous training, the assassin is judged ready. But is he?

The plan to draw out the officers has been set into motion. Hector has only to illegally cross the border from Mexico and retrieve keys to safe deposit boxes containing eight-million dollars and incriminating documents before the officers can respond. It shouldn’t be a problem. But then Hector’s plan didn’t include Mexican bandits; ruthless mercenaries also after the keys and led by a sadistic cowboy; or a sleazy Chicago mob figure. Things get more complicated for him when a third party joins the search for the keys, the crazed leader of a militia group with a secret room in his basement reserved for “guests” – and then falling in love with an escaped guest, Lucy. Hector also didn’t realize that the mercenaries’ target, an ex-Force Recon team holding the keys and the last four men to see his father alive, were far from old and rusty.

In the race for the keys, Hector must confront the emotional emptiness in his life that he wasn’t allowed to experience in his quest for vengeance. With time running out, he is forced to make a choice: follow the assassination plan or ally with the surviving recon team, their families, and Lucy before they are eliminated; and, maybe discover who he really is.

amazon link

The Assassin Who Couldn't Dance 

My Review

Loyalty between friends in all-action special ops thriller
I was worried the book might be too violent for my taste but Glen Barrera's judgement stayed within what worked for me as part of a fast-paced all-action story. The opening scene is as violent as the book gets so that sets the tone - and gets you straight into the twists of the plot and some of the key players. If the guerilla warfare and killing can be gutsy, the romance is the opposite - tender and implicit.

What I think sets this at the top of its genre is the portrayal of loyalty and trust in the midst of warfare. We see traditional military values (and weapons) in the midst of criminal chaos and outright warfare and we care about this band of brothers. I want a new term to replace 'band of brothers' because what the author does really well is to include women as equals in that band. The links of loyalty and trust unite the whole group, with romances being more like special friendships within the overall bonds. Crime novels often show the bond between detective partners but this is the first book I've read which really shows group friendship in extreme duress. Imagine the Famous Five in the army, having adventures in which people are killed.

'The Assassin' and 'A Wide and Capable Revenge' give you no time to draw breath but across the two books the reader gets to know the characters more. The language is suitably muscular and when there is a little description, it always fits the scene and the characters - I'd enjoy more of that but then, I guess I'm reading out of my usual genre and I'm not used to all that gunfire!

Coming Soon! Twisted Tales

Glen and I will be keeping each other company in this collection of short stories from Readers' Circle of Avenue Park. The Burglar by Glen Barrera is about a burglar's chance meeting with a large unfriendly dog. My story The 13th Sign also features a dog of sorts... Perhaps Twisted Tails may be more appropriate. I'll keep you posted re publication as it looks like great holiday reading.