Sunday, 29 March 2009


For an author, one of the good things about book sales on Amazon is the opportunity to read what some readers think about your work. (One of the bad things is that one gets about a penny farthing for every book sold, but that is another story - and perhaps another blog.)

These reviews, of course, are from consumers who have actually bought the book and read it, rather than professional reviewers. Your real punters, in fact. Inevitably, then, the standard of criticism varies but, as with all these things, one takes the rough with the smooth.

There are some regulars who write about every new book and, in an amusing inversion, I now wait to see what they post with an eagerness that some of them, at least, seem to display in waiting to read the latest adventures of Simon Fonthill. The net is spread surprisingly wide: Arizona, Barcelona, Houston, Oxfordshire (from whence came a particularly thoughtful, if a touch ascerbic, review of "Last Stand at Majuba Hill" from C. Green), and even Andora, where I am regularly grateful for the idiosyncratic welcome given to each book by "A.D.B."

Nicholas Page, of Flintshire, U.K., however, has flicked a raw nerve in his review of the latest, "The Siege of Khartoum." It's a favourable notice, so I shouldn't complain. And I don't really. It's just that Nicholas - who has an M.A., by the way, and should know his stuff - picks up the old "Boys Own Paper" jibe, which always makes me wince. In fact, his review begins in a pastiche style that brings a smile, if a slightly forced one: " I say, chaps, bally well get down to your book shop and buy..." All was forgiven, however, when he ended, " of the best books in the series - and I have read them all." Thanks Nicholas. I think.

A review on the books pages of the U.K.'s Sunday Express for 'The Guns of El Kebir" was the first professional reference to this boys magazine, which was published, by the way, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. This, too, was meant favourably but it raised with me the exact meaning of the reference. Does it mean, good, juvenile stuff for kids? (I write for adults). Is it merely alluding to the time about which I write, the last quarter of the of the eighteen hundreds, when the magazine was in its prime? Or is it a veiled criticism of the plots, which has the hero engaged in a series of Queen Victoria's "little wars?"

It would help if I could recall something about the magazine. I dimly remember finding one copy in a cupboard in my grandmother's house when I was about seven years old. The only thing I retain is the title of one of the stories: "From the Gutter to the Quarter Deck - The Story of a Lad of Grit." I am fairly sure I didn't read it, for I do recall wondering if Grit was a place in Yorkshire or Lancashire or was the tale about a statue that came to life...?

You will take the inference. I am uneasy about being linked to this kind of stuff - however kindly the reference is meant. Say that I have been influenced by Kipling, Rider Haggard or even G.H.Henty and I will blushingly acquiesce. But bloody old Boys Own Paper....! Is there anyone out there who has actually read a copy?

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Getting Into It

So, you are in a book shop, you are browsing along the shelves and you've found a book that interests you. The cover has attracted you and the title intrigued. The price is within budget and the author is already liked by you or, at least, is someone whom you've always felt you should read.

What makes you buy it or stick it back onto the shelf?

For me, it's the intro. No, not the blurb on the fly leaf, the quotes from reviews of previous books by the same author, or the "let me be your father/mother" picture of the poor mutt who has written the thing, but rather his/her first few words of the story. From that introduction (or intro, as we old newspaper hacks used to call the first sentence or paragraph), I feel I can usually judge whether I want to invest in the book.

As a result, I usually deploy a quite disproportionate time and effort in constructing the first paragraph of my novels. I suspect that that is quite true of most other authors too and I feel that I can usually tell those who don't. Certainly, some great intro's have become classical cliches, viz:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"... A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens)

"Last night I dreamed I went again to Manderlay"... Rebecca (du Maurier)

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single
man in possession of a good fortune must be in want
of a wife"... Pride and Prejudice (Austen)

Of course I don't aspire to that greatness (and I think that the immortal Jane wouldn't get away with that sort of intro in these chick-lit days) but I try to discipline myself to begin each Fonthill story by putting the reader directly into the action. It doesn't always work. I couldn't really make it click in the opening to The Guns of El Kebir - you can't exactly slip in a bit of mouthwatering action at a breakfast table in Brecon - but I particularly liked the scene setting at the beginning of The Diamond Frontier and also for The Siege of Khartoum. But I may well be wrong.

Let me know what you think.