Tuesday, 19 September 2017

My Interview With Christine Bernard (Author of Unravel)

As I promised in last week's blog post, my interview with South African author Christine Bernard came out today.

Christine is the author of the psychological thriller Unravel, which I still haven't read (soon, Christine, I promise!), but which looks a treat.

I had a lot of fun with this interview. If you want to see the original on her blog, click here, but I've also reposted her questions (and my answers) below for your convenience:

Christine: Have you always wanted to be a writer? Or did life step in and change your plans?

Graham: I've always enjoyed making up stories, but I don't think there was ever a time in school where I formalised that into "I want to be a writer." In fact, all through Primary and High School, all I ever wanted to do for a career was be a computer programmer. Which I now am, and I'm loving every minute of it. I'm so lucky to be doing what I've always wanted to do - I know that not many people can say that.

I did, however, play a lot of table-top roleplaying games, especially in High School. I played Dungeons and Dragons, AmeriCHAOS 1994, GURPS, and... I can't remember the title; something to do with werewolves. More often than not, I ended up being the Game Master in our group. If you're not familiar, he's the guy (or, she's the girl, if you prefer - plenty of girls play roleplaying games) who makes up the story for the rest of the group, and tells them the results of their actions. It just always seemed natural for me, to take on that role.

One of the genres that I loved to read in High School was gamebooks, and my favourites were the Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever. I actually wrote a gamebook on our family's old 286 computer at one point. It was about a private eye, and it was terrible. I don't remember much about it, except for this one scene where the protagonist was following a trail of stompies (yes, I actually used that word) down the street in search of a suspect. Thankfully, this was long before the days of the Internet and backups, so that book has been lost, never to see the light of day.

Christine: Take us through your first novel, how the idea came and how it eventually came out into the world.

Graham: Having read voraciously throughout school, there were was about a decade or so afterward that I lost the habit. I got a job which took up most of my waking hours, and it was getting less and less convenient to pick up a book and read. Besides, when I did read, it was mostly for work - technical non-fiction, whitepapers, that sort of thing.

That all changed in 2011, when my boss bought me my first iPad, and I discovered e-books. E-books changed my life. Suddenly, I could read wherever I was, whenever I had a spare moment. I could read during the day on breaks, on my cellphone, and in the evenings, I could flick on my iPad and pick up exactly where I left off. Slowly but surely, I rediscovered reading, and soon I was devouring everything I could get my hands on again.

And then I started thinking, "Hey, I can do this. I could write something that people might want to read!"

Still, it wasn't very serious. I hadn't heard of self-publishing at that point, and I wasn't about to go looking for an agent and a publisher. That was about all I knew of publishing back then. Find an agent, find a publisher. Get published. Who's got time for that? Besides, even then I instinctively knew that it was a stupid way to go about it. I was a developer, a do-it-yourselfer. It was the 21st Century. Who in their right mind would want someone else deciding whether their work was worth publishing? I knew there must be a better way, but I put it on the backburner.

And then one of my Twitter friends, Ryan Peter, changed everything by self-publishing his fantasy novel, When Twins War, on Smashwords. I bought it, and I was in awe.

"You mean, you can just... do it? Like, all by yourself?"

"Yip, pretty much" was his reply (I'm paraphrasing).

I began researching everything I could about self-publishing. I'd had this idea for a fantasy story swimming around in my head for some time, but it wasn't until then that I put the proverbial pen to paper. I wrote it from start to ready-for-publishing in about four months or so. Then I got hold of a cover designer - one of my ex-teachers from High School came to mind. She had been my English teacher, but she also used to run the Art department. I tracked her down and met with her, and we fleshed out the concept. Things were moving fast, and before I knew it, on 23 December 2012, A Petition to Magic went live on Smashwords.

I published it on Amazon a week or so later, and that's been more-or-less the norm for each book thereafter - first Smashwords, into global distribution, then Kobo (separately, so I can take advantage of Kobo-specific deals and run promos there), then Google Play, then finally Amazon.

Christine: You've gone the self-publishing route - do you have some advice for others wanting to go this way?

Graham: I never seriously considered any other route, but I will say that I've learnt a lot about self-publishing. It's a lot of work, and takes commitment. And it's getting harder as time goes on and the market becomes more saturated.

I'd say, first and foremost, you have to produce a stellar product. That product's not just the story, it's the editing, the title, the cover, the blurb... the whole package. Then, I'd say that you have to realise that what you've just produced is just that: a product. Don't get too attached to it. It's not some ethereal thing up on a pedestal. It's no different from a DVD, a board game, a set of tools that someone buys to do their woodwork with... and it's competing for people's attention with all those other things too.

Also realise, despite all that, writing is a labour of love. Don't expect to publish your first, or fourth, or sixth, book and quit your job. Some of the best known authors in history had day jobs for many years. Some, until the day they died.

Having said that, most of those authors were traditionally published, so I think that if it's your goal to write full-time, and you've got a good head for business and can detach yourself from the product you're producing, self-publishing gives you the best chance to achieving that goal.

Just, think carefully about your reason for writing. Me, I never really expected to quit my job and write full-time. I now see that as a possibility, but I'm not really sure how I feel about it. As previously stated, I love my job, but I'd love to have more time to write. Maybe one day I could reduce my hours at my day job. It's not an "all or nothing" thing.

Oh, and don't ever let other people pressure you or make you feel bad because you haven't achieved their idea of success. This is your journey, so enjoy it.

Christine: Take me through your top three books of all time? 

Graham: Top three? Hmm... Well, first off, I'd have to say The Sneeches by Dr Seuss. I read a lot of Dr Seuss in the '80s, but that one (along with Green Eggs and Ham) are the two that stuck with me the most. I think both those books really speak to our situation in South Africa, then and now, and I think everyone in this country should read them - but definitely the Sneeches.

Secondly (okay, maybe I cheated a bit above, by giving you two), Stephen King's IT. I watched the movie years before I read the book, and I was amazed by the sheer depth of the book. I think it was my first real introduction into the writing of Stephen King, and I've been a massive fan ever since.

Finally, I'd have to say Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind. Similarly, I watched The Legend of the Seeker TV series some time before I read the book, and I loved it. The book is much deeper again, but also much more vivid, violent, psychological.

Those three (four) books altered the way I perceive the world, which is the whole point of good fiction, in my opinion.

Also, those three books are from wildly different genres, which I think speaks to how I write. I read everything I can get my hands on, because I get bored if I stick with one genre for too long. So too, with my writing: I've published six books in four different genres, and my current work in progress has nothing to do with any of them.

Christine: What are your currently reading?

Graham: Right at this moment, I'm reading a mob-thriller called Paradise Burns by J.P. Sumner. After that, I've been asked to read and review two books - one is a religious thriller, and the other a non-fiction book about writing.

By the time you read this, who knows? I have an interesting system for figuring out what to read next: I have just over 700 books on my Goodreads to-read shelf, and when I finish book, I hit up random.org and generate a number from 1 to 700. I find the book in my to-read shelf at that number, read the synopsis and decide if I still want to read it. If not, it gets deleted from my shelf and I pick another number. If so, I buy it and read it.

And of course, the books on that shelf run the gamut of genres, from fantasy to horror to romance to children's books. I'll read absolutely anything.

Edit: I've of course finished Paradise Burns since I did this interview (see my review on this blog). I've now moved on to the first book I was asked to review, The Chiron Confession by Thomas Greenias.

Christine: What are you working on at the moment?

Graham: Right now I'm working on a story about a guardian angel and the adventures he goes on as he figures out his new role in life. It doesn't have a proper title yet. As to when you can expect it, I don't know - one of the beauties about self-publishing is that things will be ready when they're ready.

It's my longest, most ambitious project yet, though, so it's taking me a lot longer than normal. All of my existing stories have been short, with the longest being just over 13 000 words. For this one, I'm hoping to hit 40 000. Also, as I alluded to above, it has nothing to do with any of my previous works, so I'm finding myself having to come to terms with the expectations of an entirely new genre.

Christine: When you're not writing, what are you doing?

Graham: My wife and I watch a lot of TV. We love cooking shows and gameshows. Right now, we're binging our way through Iron Chef America and The Wall.

Other than that, I spend quite a bit of time honing my software development skills, and have a couple of personal coding projects on the go.

Christine: Ever write in coffee shops? 

Graham: I haven't, no. It's quite tough for me to write anywhere else, because I'm not very independent. I suffer from a hereditary eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa. In a nutshell, I have no peripheral vision and am completely night-blind, and one of the biggest consequences of that is the fact that I can't drive.

During the week, I wait for about an hour after work for my wife to fetch me That's when I do most of my writing.

Speaking of my wife, I'd be remiss if I didn't give her a mention in this interview. Honestly, words cannot express how grateful I am to have such a wonderful woman in my life. We leave before sunrise in the morning to get me to work on time, so she can drive an extra 30 minutes to be at her own job before eight. And in the evenings, we do it all over again in reverse.

I honestly could not do this without her. Love you, babes!

Christine: Lastly, what is the best way for people to get hold of your books?

Graham: My books are available everywhere, in electronic and print form. Search or ask for me at your favourite store, and if they don't stock my books, badger them until they do.

Failing that, all the links are on my website. Hit me up at www.grahamdowns.co.za, then pop me an e-mail and say Hi.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Paradise Burns by J.P. Sumner (Book Review)

Paradise Burns: Book One of The Adrian Hell Series -

This lightning-paced, all-action thriller introduces Adrian ‘Hell’ - a former Black-Ops soldier turned elite contract killer. Trying to forget a tragic past, he travels America as a hired gun. Helped by his only friend, techie Brit, Josh Winters, he uses his legendary reputation to make a living from killing bad people.

He takes a supposedly straightforward job in Heaven’s Valley, a sun-soaked paradise in the Nevada desert, but quickly finds himself embroiled in a complex plot that could lead to a devastating global conflict.

Armed with just his pistols and a sharp tongue, out-numbered and out-gunned in a city where everyone seemingly wants him dead, he’s left with no choice but to do the only thing he knows how to - fight back!

My Review (3 / 5 Stars)

I had high hopes for this book. A professional killer-for-hire gets commissioned by a mob boss in Vegas to take out someone who screwed him over on a business deal. He completes the job, but it opens a can of worms because things become apparent, involving a terrorist militia cell, a private military contractor, and the U.S. Government.

I still think the story is pretty good, but certain things just kept ruining my immersion. And those things largely boiled down to editing.

In the first place, the author is British. While this is not a problem, the protagonist is supposed to be American. And the book is narrated in first-person. But the narration used way too much British slang for my liking. You don't "phone" people; you "ring" them. He wasn't "standing" in the corner; he "was stood" in the corner. Likewise, people "were sat" in chairs.

While it was kind of nice to see that British slang again, it really didn't gel when a true-blue American started talking about picking up the phone and ringing someone.

The other problem the author has is with keeping a consistent tense. The whole story is meant to be told in past tense, but you'll read things like "I didn't know what was happening, but right now, I don't care." There are other examples of things like that, some more obvious, some more subtle, but I noticed every one.

I'm very sensitive about things like that, and I just couldn't get past them. It's a good story, but it needs the hand of an experienced editor to make it a brilliant one.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Review Requests and an Interview. What a busy week!

My word, but I've had a busy week!

First of all, two separate authors discovered that I review books on this blog, and e-mailled me asking if I'd review theirs.

Secondly, a well known South African author posted on a group I'm in on Facebook, offering to interview a few select authors. She picked me, and has sent me some questions to answer.

Over the coming weeks, you can expect my reviews of both those books, and the answers to my interview questions. In the meantime....

The Chiron Confession by Thomas Greanias

This is the first book I've been asked to read, and I must say, I'm excited about it. I rather enjoy books about cults, and as a Christian I have a particular interest in how our religion is portrayed in fiction. Although I must admit I seldom read such books. This one seems a bit like the Da Vinci Code, which I haven't read, but which is utter bunk, based on the reviews of my Christian friends who have. I'm keen to see if this one's any better.

Here's the write-up:

From Thomas Greanias, New York Times bestselling author of Raising Atlantis, comes an epic adventure of Ancient Rome that illuminates the gathering darkness of the 21st century.
The assassination of Caesar's chief astrologer explodes into revelations of a secret Christian order known as "rule of God." It's penetrated the highest echelons of the empire. Its mission: To fulfill a decades-old prophecy predicting the exact day and hour that Caesar will die. Desperate to prove the oracles wrong, an increasingly erratic Caesar kills all suspected enemies, anyone who even dares whisper of his hairpiece. No one from slave to senator can escape his reign of terror.
Enter the innocent playwright Athanasius. Wrongly accused by jealous rials of being Chiron, the elusive mastermind behind Rule of God, he is condemned to certain death in the unscripted "reality" of the arena. Miraculously he escapes, alone with a state secret that could destroy the empire. Hunted by assassins across the Mediterranean world, his only hope is the terrorist order he is accused of masterminding. But the only way up—or out—is to kill or be killed.
A meticulously researched and masterfully crafted conspiracy thriller inspired by real people and events, The Chiron Confession is the unforgettable story of one man against the world.

The Writer's Lexicon: Descriptions, Overused Words, and Taboos by Kathy Steinemann and Stuart Aken 

The second book is a little different, but I'm equally keen. I've read a lot of books on writing advice, some good, some bad. It's always interesting to see different people's opinions and perspective on what works and what doesn't.

I tend to be quite harsh about poor editing in my reviews, though, and you better believe I'm going to be doubly critical if I find editing problems in a book of writing advice!

Here's the write-up:

You’re a writer. You just read your manuscript and discovered your characters nodding like marionettes in every chapter. When they’re not nodding, they’re rolling their eyes.
Time to slash the Pinocchio strings and turn them into real live people. Award-winning author Kathy Steinemann will provide the tools. She cuts through the so-called rules and offers simple solutions.
Too many repetitions of “little”? There’s a cure for that. Do you rely on “very” too often? There’s a cure for that too. You’ll find the remedies in this book’s dispensary.
Should you ever use anything other than “said” to attribute dialogue? Are exclamation points taboo? The answers might surprise you.
Learn how to harness body language, cut hackneyed adjectives, and draw on the environment for ambience. No more wooden characters. You’ll transform them into believable personalities your readers will learn to love. Or hate.
Get in the driver’s seat, relax, and enjoy your journey—with Kathy Steinemann’s book as your GPS.

Author Interview With Christine Bernard

South African author Christine Bernard is just starting out on her indie author journey, and her first self-published title, Unravel, is out now.

I haven't read it yet, but since I enjoy psychological stories, I'm sure I'll love it.

Christine is running a feature on her blog, where she's hosting interviews with other South African authors. Watch this space for the link to her interview with yours truly. In the meantime, here's the synopsis of her book, Unravel:

A fast-paced psychological mystery that keeps you guessing until the very end!
Rose Madison is of sound mind, with a sharp focus and a willingness to succeed. At only twenty-three, she’s already won an award for her short story, and has been hailed as the next big thing in the literary world. She’s beautiful, funny, intelligent, and comes from a wealthy and successful family. It’s clear to all, including herself, that her future looks bright and promising.
Why then, does the perfect Rose Madison start to slowly lose her mind?
This is a story of a young woman in her prime, clutching at the remains of sanity. 

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Pyramids of Pluto (A Free Flash Fiction Story by Graham Downs)

For this month, I decided to post a story that I submitted a couple of months ago to The Short Story and Flash Fiction Society's Flash Fiction Contest #13. I didn't win that time, but that doesn't mean the story's not good - it just means it wasn't what they were looking for at the time. So without further ado, here is The Pyramids of Pluto. I hope you enjoy it!

“Can you believe it,” asked the astronaut. “We’re the first humans to stand on Pluto?”

“Absolutely. And it only took us three months to get here.” He pointed at the massive structures in the distance. “I never thought I’d see it with my own eyes. They look exactly like the pyramids on Earth. And those clouds. For five hundred years, we believed there was no atmosphere here.”

He began to take off his helmet.

“Uh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

“Relax, you big baby,” said the other, and punched him in the arm. He removed his helmet and breathed deeply.

“And?” asked his friend.

“I’m a little dizzy. The oxygen density’s not as high as back home, but I’ll survive.”

The first astronaut removed his own helmet. “You’re right. It’s not so bad. Although Houston’d be having a cow right now if they knew.”

The other chuckled. “Let’s take a look at those pyramids.”

They shuffled on towards the structures in the distance in their heavy EVA suits. Even without helmets, the effect was comical. The silence was deafening. The total desolation. No crickets, no night-life... no life whatsoever.

“Do you think the beings that made those, made the ones on Earth, too?” It was the second astronaut, the one who had removed his helmet first. The sound of his voice made his friend jump.

“That’s what they say.”

The questioner nodded, and they continued their trek in silence.
Eventually, the duo reached the entrance to one of the giant structures. It was even bigger up close than they had imagined.

“That’s strange.” The first astronaut pointed at the door. Where there should have been a giant stone slab, there was a pile of rubble.

“Do you think we’re not the first humans here, after all?”

“I dunno. Let’s go inside.”

The two gingerly stepped over the rubble, and into a dark corridor. A blinding flash of light hit them full in the face.


As their eyes adjusted, the two began to realise who it was.

“Doctor Jameson. Is that you? You’ve been missing for months.”

“Damn right it’s me. I beat you to it. I snuck onto the unmanned probe six months ago. And now, this planet belongs to me.”

“Doctor, you need to come with us. How have you been surviving?”

“I’m not going anywhere. There’s algae in these catacombs. Enough to keep a man alive for the rest of his life. And I’m staying here.”

“Ookaay,” said one of the astronauts, as the two backed away. “We’ll just leave you here while we get back to the lander. We’ll be on our way.”

“Oh, no you won’t,” said the doctor, who had produced a gun from somewhere and was now pointing it at the astronauts’ heads. “I won’t have you running back to Houston and telling everyone where I am. You’re staying right here with me. I got here first. I won, gentleman. And what do they say? ‘The winner takes it all?’”


By the way, if you'd like to read the story that did win that competition, click here.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Dark Moonlighting by Scott Haworth (Book Review)

About the Book

Nick Whittier, having been alive for six centuries, has had plenty of time to master three professions. In a typical week he works as a police officer, lawyer and doctor and still finds time to murder someone and drink their blood. He used to feel guilty about the killings, but now he restricts himself to only eating the worst members of society. Few people in Starside, Illinois seem to care about the untimely deaths of spam e-mailers, pushy Jehovah Witnesses and politicians. However, the barriers between Nick's three secret lives start to crumble when a mysterious man from his past arrives in town seeking revenge. Nick must move quickly to prevent the three women in his life, and the authorities who are hunting him, from discovering his terrible secret.

Dark Moonlighting is the first book in the humorous series. It explores four of the biggest clichés in popular culture, and it pokes fun at a number of popular television shows including Law & Order, Bones and House. It also takes a more realistic and amusing approach to the vampire cliché. For example, the average human has the equivalent of five Big Gulps worth of blood in their body. Nick takes twenty minutes to kill someone and, like the vampire bat, must immediately urinate afterwards.

My Review (4 / 5 Stars)

What if vampirism was caused by a good old fashioned virus? In that case, they wouldn't be demons, or demon possessed, and crosses and holy water wouldn't work on them. They'd be able to see their reflections just fine, but they wouldn't be able to shape-shift.

That's exactly the scenario postulated by Dark Moonlighting, a humorous story of a 600-year-old vampire trying to make it in the modern world. He only needs two hours sleep a night, so to pass the time, he works three different jobs.

I really enjoyed this book. It's funny, almost in the style of the Fat Vampire series by Johnny B. Truant, but it's not nearly as silly.

The writing is polished and the plot is fast-paced, but never too much. And there's lots of humour... although it took me a while to "get" the names of Nick's nemesis' henchwomen, once I did I couldn't stop laughing!

The ending's not really a cliffhanger, but it does pave the way nicely for the sequel. Which is definitely going on my to-read shelf.

If you like vampires, but hate Twilight, and you don't feel the need to take yourself too seriously, this is the book for you.

Click here to find out where you can pick up a copy.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Win a $10 Amazon Gift Card

In honour of the fourth anniversary of my e-mail newsletter, I thought it might be nice to do a giveaway. So if you buy books on Amazon and would like the chance of winning a $10 voucher, read on.

I love these: as you may know, my last book, published in 2016, is called Tales From Virdura. It's kind of like the spiritual successor to my first book, A Petition to Magic.

All you have to do is answer one simple question. In the seventh story of that collection, what is the second word in the second paragraph?

To enter, email me with your answer at graham@grahamdowns.co.za.

All correct answers will go into a draw to win the $10 Amazon voucher. The draw will take place on Tuesday, 26 September 2017, and I'll announce the winner in my September 2017 newsletter as well as on this blog.

Sound simple enough?

Oh, and if you need a copy of the book, click the image above to find out where you can get your hands on it.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Night Magic by Thomas Tryon (Book Review)

My Review (4 / 5 Stars)

Wow. Just... wow. There isn't much more to say than that (but I'm going to try and say it anyway).

This book was amazing. A little unexpected, to be sure, but amazing nonetheless.

There's this young street magician and mime (Michael) in New York. He's got some skills, and he makes a decent living, but he wants more.

Enter a very old, and very experienced, magician (Max). Planning his retirement, he doesn't want to leave a void, so he needs a protégé. He comes across Michael, and decides the kid's got potential.

The story blurs the lines between magic and illusion. Does "real" magic exist, or is it all just illusion, when it comes right down to it?

The author clearly thinks it does, but Max isn't so sure. A lot of weird, creepy, and even freaky stuff happens, but even by the end of the book, the reader isn't so sure either... but they're certainly left with lots of think about.

If you enjoy magic, and you're even remotely interested in the occult, I can recommend this book.

It lost its fifth star because I spotted some minor editing issues, but that doesn't mean I don't still believe this is an amazing book. And to think I'd never heard of Thomas Tryon before. Now that I have, his books are going on my to-read shelf right now.

About the Book

A young magician will risk his soul to learn the secrets of the universe

Though he bills himself as the Greatest Magician in the World, Michael Hawke is painfully aware that he’s nothing more than a sidewalk. He plies his trade outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, entrancing passing crowds with feats of conjuring and sleight of hand. One afternoon, he plays a trick on a shabbily dressed man whose beard is twisted and whose glass eye gives him a sinister leer. Offended, the man responds with magic of his own, casting a spell that causes Michael to hop like a frog, maniacally splashing in the fountain until the police have to haul him out.

When he recovers from this trance, Michael knows that he has encountered a true magician, one whose secrets he will give anything to understand. But this is black magic, mysterious and deadly, and pursuing it will mean a confrontation with an evil older than civilization itself.

Click here to find out where you can get your copy.