Monthly Archives: June 2013

Getting the Best out of Goodreads as an Indie Author

According to Patrick Brown, Director of Community at Goodreads, there are 17 million readers on this site worldwide. Yes, you read that figure right.  17 million.  That’s practically the population of Australia.  And if that wasn’t incentive enough to get your work on Goodreads, then how about this statistic? There are only 70,000 authors on there.  That figure nearly had me leaping out of my seat during Patrick’s presentation at the London Book Fair.  And that was all the encouragement I needed to engage with the site a whole lot more.  Before I got too carried away, I did know that Goodreads is, as it says in the name, primarily for readers and they, quite rightly take a dim view of writers indulging in inappropriate self-promotion.

 

I joined Goodreads as both a reader as well as a writer just under a year ago and like many a user of a new social networking tool, I spent the first few months stumbling around, joining so many groups that I didn’t have time to engage with more than two at any one time.  I now only really actively participate in two groups, both of which have proved to be the source of some very useful reviews. 

 

One of these groups that I belong to, Book Loving Kiwis chose Revolution Earth for their June 2013 read, which was a great honour.  For a while now I had wanted to put the book in front of a group of New Zealand readers to seek their opinion, but as we now live in the UK and only make it back to NZ every couple of years, I had no real way of doing that – until now.  New Zealanders really do love their books and Book Loving Kiwis is one of the few sites on Goodreads that provide active support for authors – indie as well as traditionally published.

 

What I admire about the readers who took part in the June read is that they read a book that might not be their usual sort of read.  It’s been a very interesting exercise as some have disliked the story told from multiple points of view.  We didn’t set out to deliberately annoy readers by doing this, it was just the way I had always written screenplays and it never occurred to me that it was something that readers might dislike.

 

Of course, just as some readers might not enjoy this way of telling a story, there are others, who must think visually, as I do, who have quite enjoyed seeing a story from different angles.  But one thing’s for sure  – I wish that I had this group of readers as beta readers as their feedback has been invaluable.  And one thing is for sure, I am making notes of these comments so that we can incorporate any suggestions into Nighthawks, the second book in the series featuring Stephen Connor.

 

We’ve been lucky, I think to have found a niche group willing to give our book a go, as it’s hard for a book set in Australia or New Zealand to be found on the mega site, Amazon.com, competing as we are against all the output from American authors.  And what I like about Goodreads is that it’s a truly international site– with niche groups writing and discussing books in dozens of different languages.  

 

In a forthcoming post I’ll be discussing the results of our Goodreads giveaway, so stay tuned!

 

Chez Tulips – Stories & Recipes

Chez Tulips Stories and Recipes is an inspired set of short stories with accompanying delicious sounding recipes set in and around a fictional restaurant in the US state of Minnesota in the twin cities of Minneapolis-St Paul.
Sandra Rector’s characterisations are her strength and reading her bio I can see that she has drawn on her first-hand experience from living and working in the restaurant business. The characters in her stories are ordinary folk, who for one reason or another ended up waiting tables or cleaning grease traps. Illegal immigrants, guys who’ve been in and out of prison, addicts, the mentally ill, or those who were too poor to get a decent education: this is the reality behind the scenes in the restaurant business and it is these sorts of people that populate Rector’s story world.

The first story, Bugged is a magic-realist comedy where a woman who has an affair with her brother-in-law after her husband dies is consumed by guilt as she imagines being spied upon by an all-knowing spider. This story isn’t as strong as the others and as it’s the first in the collection it really does need to be as a reader might get the wrong impression that the writer doesn’t know her craft as it starts with exposition – telling us rather than showing us the two brothers both in love with Elizabeth. A short story has to get right on with the story and doesn’t have time for exposition and for me the story began at: ‘One drizzly, gray spring day, when the yellow daffodils and purple hyacinths had begun to bloom…’ If you really need that exposition just weave it in to the rest of the story on a ‘need to know’ basis.

The two strongest stories for me were Cremains and Mother’s Day, both of which feature Blossom the waitress. In Cremains, Blossom learns forgiveness, despite the behaviour of her errant husband, a man she never really knew. In the second, Mother’s Day, Blossom, like many a mother, believes that her adult son no longer loves her. She’s relieved that she won’t have to spend Mother’s Day at home alone, hoping in vain that her son will call her, as she’s rostered to work at Chez Tulips that day. There she observes another son who appears to detest his mother but has forced himself to take her out because that’s what’s expected of him. Although it starts off as a rather sad story of love and loss, there’s an unexpected twist at the end and Blossom emerges from her experience with a deeper understanding of human nature.

The last recipe – the diet-busting Crème Brulee French Toast ought to come with a government health warning – with ingredients including corn syrup, half cream – half milk and five eggs and French bread – a concoction not dissimilar to that British staple – bread and butter pudding.
Although I read this for review as part of a non-reciprocal reviewing group, I was immediately drawn in by these stories as they are not only inhabited by well-researched characters but because of the ability of the writer to weave original stories with surprising twists and turns.

Australia – still the lucky country?

Australia with Simon Reeve, a three part series screened on BBC2 in May revealed a side to the ‘lucky country’ that was a long way from the usual sun, sand and surfing clichés of the average travelogue. Yes there’s a shot of Reeve driving over the Sydney Harbour Bridge but in the rest of the series if there is any spectacular scenery it’s put firmly into a context that not everything is as it might seem. For the segment on venom hunting off the coast of Cape York that means – don’t be fooled by these idyllic-looking waters because if you venture in without a protective ‘stinger’ suit – if the box jellyfish doesn’t kill you, a hungry salt-water crocodile will.

The paradox is, of course, that although Australians’ love to scare the bejesus out of British visitors to Oz – where there’s usually a competition for which state has the most deadly creature that the hapless tourist is going to encounter – the truth is that Australia is one of the world’s most urbanised societies and the closest that city dwelling Australians have been to a salt water crocodile is either in a zoo or on a television programme.

Up on the Gold Coast in Surfer’s Paradise tourists go for sun, surf – and casinos and most visitors are too busy enjoying the hedonistic lifestyle to notice what goes on behind the scenes here.  There’s a seamy side to Surfer’s and that is the organised crime scene, run by what appear to be renegade motorcycle gangs. Violence fuelled by drugs, alcohol and gangland rivalry – it’s all there – something I expect the tourist industry would rather you didn’t know about.

There’s another side of Australia that the tourist industry is keen to cover up and that is the scandalous paradox of the amount of poverty and suffering that still exists in one of the world’s richest countries.  If there is any mention of indigenous culture at all to tourists it is packaged as the promise of some sort of entertainment when visiting Uluru or Ayers Rock as it was previously called.

This series isn’t afraid of getting stuck in to the darker side of Australia – and exposes the way that the dominant white culture and the indigenous one lead vastly different lives. The programme takes the viewer into the heart of an isolated (as most of them are) and highly dysfunctional aboriginal community and showed the shocking housing and living conditions. There are no easy answers here as any Australian will tell you, as it’s not as though the State and Federal governments haven’t pumped money into trying to improve Aboriginal people’s lives.  It’s just that so far there still seems to be a vast cultural gap between the two sides about the way to go about it.

Although this aspect of the programme was shocking for many of us watching, even for those of us who have travelled into these remote communities, Reeves does provide an example of one feel-good story in the indigenous community as he interviews an entrepreneurial Aboriginal woman in the Cape York area who is actively involved in the resources boom, hiring out diggers to a mining company.

Although it may come as a surprise to the rest of the world, the resources boom is the greatest driver of the Australian economy and is the one reason why Australia largely escaped the global recession.

A resource boom driven economy though is nothing new.  Before Australia became a federation of its various states, the state of Victoria was for a time the richest colony in the British Empire, founded as it was in the Gold Rush. Profits from gold ensured that Melbourne could build on a scale to rival some of Europe’s greatest cities and even today there is a part of the city at its eastern edge known as ‘the Paris end of Collins Street.’

One of the most extraordinary places that Simon Reeves visited was Kakadu National Park. It is the size of Wales yet rarely visited by tourists and certainly not by the numbers who visit Uluru. Kakadu is an extraordinary ecosystem and we used the park as a setting for the prologue and the final chapter of Revolution Earth.  Another World Heritage Site it too hasn’t escaped the drive to find minerals to dig up and export to the booming economies of Asia.

The raw material for uranium has been mined for many years – it’s only in recent times that the infrastructure has been put in to mine it on an industrial scale.  As recently as the 1950s, mining uranium ore was carried out by hand (often by migrant labour) with pick axes and shovels, with not even so much as gloves for protection.  You can see how primitive these mining implements were in the photographs that accompany this piece. And contrast that to the scale of the mining now.  To research our book we posed as tourists and took a trip around Ranger Mine in Jabiru. It was certainly an eye opener to get the slick PR spiel about the benefits of uranium mining to the Australian economy and how the company was committed to employing indigenous people.

But benefits aside, we didn’t hear much talk on that trip of the environmental damage that Australia’s resources boom has caused.  In the wet season the run-off from uranium mining washes directly into the river systems in Kakadu National Park. The problem for environmental activists in Australia is that these remote places are so far away from the major cities (Darwin is five hours by jet from Melbourne) that it is very hard to monitor the environmental impact of mining from a distance.

Even though Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef is a protected World Heritage Site the need to protect the reef from the impact of environmental damage isn’t allowed to obstruct the resources boom as massive container ships are allowed to use it as a shortcut to get to port.  They do so under the guidance of highly experienced reef pilots but even so, all it takes is one small error of judgment that could have potentially deadly consequences for the wildlife.

There is one predator though that has been quietly creating havoc on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef since the 1970s but in recent years the crown-of-thorns starfish population has increased to epidemic proportions.  Usually when a species in Australia becomes invasive it is because it was introduced but the starfish is native to the reef.  If you think of the word starfish you may be imagining a small, benign little creature but the crown-of-thorns is the stuff of science fiction – with multiple arms that slowly eat their way through the coral.

The problem has got so acute that the tourist boat operators, who depend on the reef for their livelihoods go out and try to kill the starfish on the parts of the reef where their boats take visitors. Although you can understand why the operators are worried, such an undertaking seems futile, as the cause of the proliferation of the crown-of-thorns is likely to have been caused by human intervention, namely pollution and the run-off from agriculture fertilisers leaching into the ocean. The fledgling starfish thrive on the algal blooms caused by the chemicals in the fertiliser.

Lest you get the wrong idea, the series finishes on an upbeat note as Reeves celebrated Australia Day in Melbourne. I do hope that an Australian broadcaster buys Australia with Simon Reeve so that locals get the chance to see the series for themselves.

Australia – the lucky country? Certainly it is for those who have been able to live and work there as a result of the resources boom – but sadly not for those marginalised communities  that are still yet to be given their share of the proceeds of the wealth bonanza.  Image

The Fall – the best thriller to come out of Belfast

The BBC have commissioned a second series of Belfast-set psychological thriller The Fall – which is currently screening on BBC2 as well as streaming on Netflix.  In case you haven’t caught up with the five part series yet, X Files star Gillian Anderson plays DSI Stella Gibson, a Metropolitan police officer brought in by the PSNI to solve what starts out initially as one murder but before you can say pretty brunette, turns into a series of slayings.

Jamie Doran plays the role of the serial killer, Paul Specter, who outwardly at least, leads a normal life – married father of two young children who works as a counsellor.  He just happens to have a nasty, sadistic side to him that is played out in his targeting of professional women in their thirties who all seem to wear their long, dark hair in a similar way.

Written and executive produced by Allan Cubitt, who wrote Prime Suspect 2, The Fall is perhaps the first drama to come out of Northern Ireland that doesn’t have politics and the Troubles as its main premise.  As well as the fine, restrained acting from Gillian Anderson and the outstanding performance by Doran as the sadistic, manipulative killer, the success of the series is down in no small part to the work of  Belgian director, Jakob Verbruggen.

Verbruggen turns present day Belfast into a dark and moody, almost menacing place.  A meeting that takes place between two senior police officers on a rare day when the sun is shining is set in the vast but empty looking Titanic quarter.

In contrast to the feeling of alienation and distance that Veerbruggen invokes in his location scenes, he takes the audience up close, too close at times, which is very unsettling, in the scenes with the killer as he watches and stalks his prey.  The camera work allows us to see every detail on Stella Gibson’s face as she reacts to the latest developments in the case.

There is a neat parallel between the way that Stella Gibson works off the stress of the case by swimming fast laps of a half empty pool and the way that Paul goes running at night through the deserted streets before he’s about to commit a new crime.

As the drama draws to a close, the question is, will Stella catch her man.  Find out on Monday, BBC2.