Tuesday, 31 May 2016

2 Things You Didn't Know About the Kingdom of Virdura

My latest book, Tales From Virdura, releases worldwide tomorrow. It's the second book in the Kingdom of Virdura series, four years after the release of my first book, A Petition to Magic.

Tales From Virdura is not really a sequel to A Petition to Magic, but it's set in the same world, and contains stories about many of the same characters. Here's the blurb:
Explore Virdura, a world full of fantasy, magic, and drama.
Find out what happens when a dashing young farmer's son swoops a neighbouring daughter off her feet.
Meet Queen Tricia and the Royal Wizard Solon. Or Queen Celeste, her daughter, as she continues to struggle to come to terms with her new role as queen after the death of her mother.
Or read about Tobin the Bounty Hunter as he takes down Jarvis, a merciless criminal who brutally slit a blacksmith's throat.
All these stories and more await you in Tales From Virdura, a collection of flash fiction stories that take you deep into the world and the lives of the characters who inhabit it.
If you enjoyed reading A Petition to Magic, this might just be your next read.
You'll find out more about old characters and meet new ones. You'll read prequels and origin stories, and you'll read original stories taking place in new locales within the Kingdom.
This book can be enjoyed as a companion to, or separate from, A Petition to Magic.

In honour of the release, here are two things about the Kingdom that you may not know.

The Kingdom of Virdura was originally going to be known as the Kingdom of Agrianova

That's right: in an early draft of A Petition to Magic, that's what I called it. Boy, am I glad my wife convinced me to change the name. Can you imagine how "Tales From Agrianova" would've sounded?

The Naming of Solon

For those of you who don't know, the name of the Royal Wizard and Queen's Advisor in A Petition to Magic, is Solon.

I've been asked where I came up with the name, because it turned out to be so apt.

Well, to be honest, it happened purely by accident. You see, one of the ways in which I come up with the names of my characters, is to use Behind the Name's Random Renamer. I just click "Generate" a few times, until I find a name that sticks.

That's what happened with Solon. I had no idea at the time that Solon was the name of a famous Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet, but the people who asked me where I'd come up with the name, sure did!

I now agree that Solon is a great name for the Royal Wizard, but just think: he could have just as easily been named Bob!

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

My Favourite Short Stories

With May being Short Story Month, I thought it would be nice to list some of my favourite short stories (that weren't written by me).

So I went through my Goodreads read list, and I came up with the following:

Sweet Violent Femmes by Holly M. Kothe (Collection)

These four short stories are all quite different, but they're all about women who've been hurt. In some, the hurt is once-off; in others, it's caused by systematic abuse. In some, the women are psychologically jaded or damaged at the outset, and in others they're perfectly normal, seemingly well-adjusted people until something pushes them over the edge.

I found myself struggling as I read the stories, to decide which one I would say was my favourite. In the end, it was impossible because I just loved them all so much.

These stories touched me in a way that no story has, for a really long time. They're all beautifully written, vividly detailed in their descriptions, and visceral in the emotions and experiences of the main characters.

Buy Sweet Violent Femmes from Amazon, or in paperback from Loot in South Africa.

Dangerous Voices by Rae Carson

This is a really entertaining little story about a man who is a "music mage" (makes magic with his song). He's been imprisoned for a really long time, and doesn't sing for fear of his guards killing him (a not unfounded fear).

It took a couple pages to really get into the story, to figure out what was going on, but once that happened I became truly and deeply invested in his fate, and the fate of a companion that he acquires early on.

The writing is awesome, and the ending is stunning. If you can spare thirty minutes or so to read it, do!

Get Dangerous Voices free from Smashwords.

Cage Life by Karin Cox (Collection)

These two short stories fit the title of the book perfectly.

Still Life was amazing! It tells the story of a young single mother, disillusioned with her marriage and her husband. It's very believable, and I really felt her frustration throughout. My heart sank at some of the tragedies she had to endure, and I cheered inwardly at some of the victories that she won.

The Usurper was also very good. It's about an ailing old man who's been taken in by a much younger women, who loves him and whom he falls in love with. It's the story of their relationship together, and the trials that it faces.

Definitely a great couple of stories, well worth the read. Karin Cox's writing style is... well, not quite unparallelled, but very pleasant indeed!

Buy Cage Life from Amazon.

Five Rows Back: A Short Story by Dan Kolbet

I really enjoyed this little story of a girl who suffers from (presumably) OCD. She is obsessed with, and consequently stalks, a man on a bus, and everything she does has to be in a number divisible by five.

Why she's stalking the man is surprising, and the ending is very good. This is a well written book that really gave me pause and made me think.

Get Five Rows Back free at Smashwords.

The Visitation by Jo Robinson

A pretty cool story, with lots of food for thought. Is humanity really inherently evil, and do we deserve to be wiped off the face of the earth for the atrocities we've caused? Maybe, but there are two sides to every story.

It was good to read a South African author again, and I could almost hear her speaking to me in a dialect, and with an accent, that I can identify with.

Buy The Visitation from Amazon.

The Harpers by L.L. Watkin

It didn't take me too long to get into this intriguing short story. Two brothers, sharing the same mother but different fathers, live together under one roof. The eldest has possessed magic for quite some time, but the youngest has only recently discovered his own gift.

It's an enthralling read, and quite "different" to the usual fantasy staples. You can finish it in an hour or two, and I recommend you do, if you're a fan of the genre.

Buy The Harpers from Smashwords.

When God Whispers Loudly by Chris M. Hibbard

This is a really inspirational and thought provoking Christian story. It's about an un-named protagonist who's driving home from work today, cursing God for everything that's gone wrong in his life. He has a car accident, and proceeds to learn some very important life lessons.

I enjoyed the story, it had a good plot, and some interesting twists and turns. There were one or two points I didn't really get, but overall it's a good, strong read.

Get When God Whispers Loudly free, at Amazon or Smashwords.

Swords and Scimitars by Cate Rowan

This is a pretty cool little short story. It concerns two brothers, sons of gods, who are horsing around one day when something terrible happens.

One of the brothers winds up going down to Earth, and ruling his country with an iron fist.

It's pretty well written, and a wonderful introduction to the author's fantasy world. If I had any issues with it, it would be that the formatting of the ebook that I read on Scribd leaves a little to be desired. Firstly, there's lots of front-matter to get through, mostly praise for the author and the story, before I even get to read the thing. Secondly, there isn't really a proper table of contents, which I find frustrating when I have to decide when to stop reading for a session.

All in all, I enjoyed it. It's described as romance, which I don't normally enjoy. The thing is, while there are some romantic elements in it, I personally wouldn't put it in that genre.

Buy Swords and Scimitars at Amazon or Smashwords.

Root Canal by Sharon C. Williams

At first glance, this seems like a rather silly concept for a story, but by golly, it works!

This is the story of a tooth inside the mouth of a woman, who doesn't take care of her teeth very well. One day, the tooth begins to ache, and it (it's written in first-person, from the tooth's perspective) hopes against hope that its host will take it to the dentist, and also that it won't need to be taken out and thrown in the trash.

There isn't really much point to the story, and it isn't obvious that it means that people should take care of their teeth, although I gather that was the moral the author was going for. Even so, I really enjoyed it! My only concern is that, with the story being as short as it is, it was kind of annoying to have to wade through 20% of front-matter first, before getting into the story. If the story were longer, I would say move all that stuff to the back, since people read differently on e-readers, and it's not so easy to just skip past it as it would be in print (and also it means people who sample the book get less of the actual story to sample). But with the story this short, I'd say most of it can be dispensed with altogether.

Buy Root Canal from Amazon or Smashwords

Crutch by Alex Rushmer

Conner's parents are very nervous at dinner. It's the eve of Conner's eighteenth birthday, and tonight he must complete a coming of age ceremony that could very easily result in his death. To add a bit of a twist to this story, Conner is disabled, and nobody holds out much hope that he's going to survive the ordeal. The book doesn't explain the exact nature of his disability, only that he walks around on crutches.

It's a pretty good story, very vivid in its descriptions. I'm surprised that it's written by a fifteen year old girl. It does leave some questions unanswered, though. 

Buy Crutch from Amazon or Smashwords.

So what do you think? Have you read any of these short stories? Are there any gems that I've missed?

About Graham Downs

I'm a self-published fiction author living in South Africa. At the moment, I write short stories, novelettes, and flash fiction collections, in a range of genres. These books are perfect for people who long to read, but don't have the time, because they can be read in short, sharp bursts, like during your lunch break, or while your baby's catching a nap!

To find out more about me, and what I have on over, go take a look at my website, at http://www.grahamdowns.co.za/.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Why People Hate Reading (Fiction)

Consider the following meme:

"Books are useless. I only ever read one book, To Kill a Mockingbird, & it gave me no insight on how to kill mockingbirds!" - Homer Simpson
On the face of it, that's just a funny quote. But when you're done laughing, take a deeper look: are jokes like that a symptom of the culture that we live in, a culture that's rejected reading for pleasure as a boring waste of time? I mean, why read a book when you can watch TV, right?

Personally, I think there may be an element of truth to this (that it's a symptom of our culture, not that books are boring wastes of time), but it's also a bit more complicated than that. Let me explain.

I think there are two groups of people who share funny quotes like this. The first group is non-readers, people who either don't read books at all, or perhaps only read non-fiction. These people see quotes like this and laugh at the idiocy of people who read, mocking us as geeks, nerds, outcasts, and general social misfits.

The other group is comprised of readers. People who devour books, both for learning and for pleasure. We see these quotes as a way to mock non-readers for being uncultured, uncivilised, empathy lacking brutes. Or, we pity them because they haven't experienced the true joy of reading.

I think the truth is probably somewhere in between. Yes, the Internet is filled with all the scientifically proven benefits of reading (not the least of which is that it improves empathy), and it's important that we evangelise how awesome it is whenever we can.

But there's another problem, and this is where I think we readers are sometimes at fault as well. People are sometimes of the opinion that the only "real" reading, or the only reading that gives any benefit, is when you read the classics (Like, in fact, To Kill a Mockingbird).

The thing is, some people just aren't going to enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird. Or Lord of the Flies. Or A Tale of Two Cities. Or any of the other well-known classics that are on every "Books to read before you die" list.

What is someone to do, if they're been indoctrinated to believe they should read the classics, but they've tried, and hated every minute? I think a lot of them decide that reading's not for them, and they give up trying.

This is a big problem; a school principal in the UK recently wrote a scathing blog post, saying that reading modern fantasy like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, among others, causes mental illness (he was wrong, of course).

Personally, I hated To Kill a Mockingbird, and didn't get very far into Lord of the Flies, either. A Tale of Two Cities was... okay, but hardly worth the hype. I'm sure there are loads of people like me. The difference is, I found other things to read. Things I really enjoy.

So, fiction lovers, let's stop being snobbish about reading (and while I'm about it, let's stop being snobbish about our preference for paper books over e-books over audio books, too). There are millions - perhaps billions - of books in the world, and I can say with one hundred per cent certainty that there's something for everyone. Why don't you help someone find a book that they will love?

About Graham Downs

I'm a self-published fiction author living in South Africa. At the moment, I write short stories, novelettes, and flash fiction collections, in a range of genres. These books are perfect for people who long to read, but don't have the time, because they can be read in short, sharp bursts, like during your lunch break, or while your baby's catching a nap!

To find out more about me, and what I have on over, go take a look at my website, at http://www.grahamdowns.co.za/.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Book Review: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

About the Book

Time is out of joint. The summer of peace and plenty, ten years long, is drawing to a close, and the harsh, chill winter approaches like an angry beast. Two great leaders—Lord Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon—who held sway over and age of enforced peace are dead...victims of royal treachery. Now, from the ancient citadel of Dragonstone to the forbidding shores of Winterfell, chaos reigns, as pretenders to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms prepare to stake their claims through tempest, turmoil, and war.

As a prophecy of doom cuts across the sky—a comet the color of blood and flame—six factions struggle for control of a divided land. Eddard’s son Robb has declared himself King in the North. In the south, Joffrey, the heir apparent, rules in name only, victim of the scheming courtiers who teem over King’s Landing. Robert’s two brothers each seek their own dominion, while a disfavored house turns once more to conquest. And a continent away, an exiled queen, the Mother of Dragons, risks everything to lead her precious brood across a hard hot desert to win back the crown that is rightfully hers.

A Clash of Kings transports us into a magnificent, forgotten land of revelry and revenge, wizardry and wartime. It is a tale in which maidens cavort with madmen, brother plots against brother, and the dead rise to walk in the night. Here a princess masquerades as an orphan boy; a knight of the mind prepares a poison for a treacherous sorceress; and wild men descend from the Mountains of the Moon to ravage the countryside.

Against a backdrop of incest and fratricide, alchemy and murder, the price of glory may be measured in blood. And the spoils of victory may just go to the men and women possessed of the coldest steel...and the coldest hearts. For when rulers clash, all of the land feels the tremors.

Audacious, inventive, brilliantly imagined, A Clash of Kings is a novel of dazzling beauty and boundless enchantment—a tale of pure excitement you will never forget.

My Review (5/5 stars)

I think that one of the things that makes this serious utterly engrossing, is the attention to detail.

The universe is so well fleshed out, and the characters who live in it do so in a completely believable way. For example, with the notable exception of Joffrey, I don't think there are any "bad" guys in this story. There aren't any "good" guys, either. There are just people, with deep and complex motivations and goals, and everything they do or say fits in with those motivations, and their circumstances in the world. If I put myself into any one of their shoes, I cannot say that I'd do anything different.

This book is actually better than A Game of Thrones, in my opinion. There's a lot more action... and a LOT of stuff happens. Unfortunately, I can't tell you very much of it for fear of spoilers, but I will say that many of our favourite characters return, and quite a few very important characters die. Oh, and there be dragons.

Something else that I thought was pretty cool: I read Game of Thrones three months ago, and there were a few minor details I'd forgotten. George R.R. Martin does such a wonderful job of explaining each character's place in the world as we first meet them, that it was a pleasurable experience when the memories of each came flooding back. I'd almost (ALMOST) say that it's not necessary to have read the first book in the series to enjoy the second. But I think you'd miss quite a bit.

Where to Buy

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

#SAIR2016 Was Amazing!

This past Saturday (30 April), I attended the SAIR Bookfest in Johannesburg, South Africa.

It was the first in-person writing event that I'd ever attended, and I think it was a good one to cut my teeth on.

We had some pretty illustrious guests and speakers, including:
  • Carlyle Labuschagne (Author of The Broken Trilogy, and our hostess for the afternoon)
  • Joanne McGregor (Author of a number of books for both adults and young adults, including Recoil and Scarred)
  • Fred Strydom (Author of the speculative fiction novel, The Raft)
  • Erika Bester (Founder of Fire Quill Publishing), and
  • Sonia Killik (Autor of the non-fiction book Birth, the book that is changing the way women see childbirth)

Reading Promotes Empathy

According to Fred Strydom, the biggest problem we have in South Africa at the moment is a lack of empathy: people are simply incapable of understanding the circumstances of others.

And that's something, says Fred, that watching TV and movies will never teach you. Those mediums are far too passive. But, when you read a book, you are spending days, weeks, or months, inside the mind of another person - the character. You get to understand where the person's coming from and why they make the choices they do. Do that enough times, and you become practised in the art of seeing things from another person's point of view. You learn empathy.

Truly profound!

Other Authors in Attendance

Some other authors were also there, promoting their newest releases, and talking about their publishing journeys:

  • Jean Archary, author of Taylor's Birthday Surprise, a picture book for teaching children about money
  • Megan Werner, author of It's Up To Me, which she published at the age of fourteen!
  • Elaine Pillay, author of Zwai and the Little Creature, who had a funny story about why you shouldn't send an angry e-mail to your publisher

Samm Marshall - Is Reading Dead?

Also in attendance was Samm Marshall, who is the current presenter of the SABC morning show, Morning Live. This man is passionate about books!

Something he said struck me as very profound. According to a recent survey, only something like 40% of South Africans can read. This is something we get very sad about, and we're angry to hear about libraries and bookstores closing down all over the country, and the fact that so many schools don't even have libraries.

But maybe that's not what we should be focussing on. Let's instead start focussing on how many kids are learning to read. Let's focus on the good news of a school getting a new library, of a bookstore deciding to stock independently published books... the more we focus on how reading is dead (which it's not), the more we perpetuate the idea amongst our kids and their parents that reading is dead, and boring, and dead-boring, and that all those other forms of entertainment are so much better.

We really need to stop doing that.

Our Guest of Honour - The Pavement Bookworm

This of course dovetails nicely into the whole reason for holding the festival. As a community, we committed to donating a thousand books to Philani Dladla's Pavement Bookworm Foundation.

We reached this goal, and it's going to make a massive difference in the lives of disadvantaged kids all over the country. And Philani himself is such a wonderful, humble man. Here is is, trying to speak, but unable to find the words:

A Digital Publisher in Africa

Then, we heard from David Henderson, who is the founder of MyeBook, talking about what it's like to be a digital publisher in Africa, and how Amazon and the other online retailers treat us differently.

We certainly have a tougher time of it than our American and UK counterparts, but the good news is that there is also lots of opportunity.

Need an Editor?

Finally, the afternoon was closed off by Lia Marus, Marketing and communication coordinator at the Professional Editors Guild. All authors need editors, and if you need one, you can find one at www.editors.org.za.

More Photos

There are loads more photos of the event over on my Facebook Page. Go take a look, and give me a Like while you're there.

About Graham Downs

I'm a self-published fiction author living in South Africa. At the moment, I write short stories, novelettes, and flash fiction collections, in a range of genres. These books are perfect for people who long to read, but don't have the time, because they can be read in short, sharp bursts, like during your lunch break, or while your baby's catching a nap!

To find out more about me, and what I have on offer, go take a look at my website, at http://www.grahamdowns.co.za/.