Category Archives: Reading

Frankenstein: a review

What on Earth can I say about Frankenstein that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over?

I added this book to my reading list some time ago, along with Dracula, to put right the wrong of not having read these classic horror books.

Dracula was a disappointment to me. True, it’s a rollicking good yarn, but it seemed to me to lack texture and depth – with no real layers beyond the plot it could excite but not move.

Not so with Frankenstein.

The story is familiar enough, but it’s not the plot points of this story which are so compelling. The language of this book is simply, stunningly beautiful. True, it’s of its age (as was Dracula) but it’s soulful and poetic – with a depth of emotion that conveys the real depths of despair felt by Victor Frankenstein as he comes to terms with the consequences of his actions.

The origin of this book is as well-known as the story itself. A challenge thrown down by Byron for he, Mary Shelley (née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) and her then lover Percy Bysshe Shelley to write a tale of the supernatural. Mary Shelley’s short story was so strong that with Percy Shelley’s encouragement she expanded it into a novel.

The legacy of Frankenstein is visual: Boris Karloff, with a flat head and bolts through his neck. What an injustice, when the writing itself can hold its head high in the company of the story’s co-progenitors.

Indeed, I was taken by surprise by the quality of the writing; by the elegance of the prose. It’s heartfelt, sincere, mournful – not absolute as the black of night, but rather an ever-darkening sadness that wraps itself around you as you press towards the end. It was with pleasure that I re-read many of the passages – torn between racing ahead and savouring each word.

Here, the monster faces his creator, “Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even YOU turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.

We hear the story from three viewpoints – of the sea captain, who rescues the exhausted Frankenstein, of Frankenstein himself and, of course, of the monster Frankenstein created – all wrapped cleverly into a single narrative. So, we’re afforded a greater insight into the torment of both Frankenstein and his unnamed creation – our sympathies changing with new insights into their motives and feelings.

The plot may be described as lightweight compared to the film versions most of us know – in fact, I’m sure this is the reason that various writers felt it necessary to embellish the story, to keep it moving along in a cinematic way. What a shame that, in so doing, they’ve mainly lost this book’s unique poignancy and depth. The greater shame is that the real story remains untold for those who don’t venture beyond celluloid.

11.22.63 by Stephen King – a review

I think there was a point at which it was fashionable to say that Stephen King’s best words were long since typed – perhaps around the time when he announced his retirement.

Just like his retirement, the notion that King has lost his mojo has been proven false – and nothing underlines the calibre of King’s recent creativity as much as 11.22.63.

I’ve long held the belief that the fact that King is so easy to read often leads people to conclude that while he might be a commercial heavyweight, he’s a literary lightweight. Personally, I think this is about as true as the idea that he’s a spent force.

Delving into the first pages of 11.22.63 was like revisiting an old friend. That easy style was welcoming, like a firm handshake or even a hug. Welcome back, reader. Sit yourself down.

And then 11.22.63 does what any good book should do – it draws you in. Within a few pages, you’re part of the story, being carried along for the ride.

The premise is simple: if you could go back in time, would you stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK? And, if you did, wouldn’t it make the world a better place? The proprietor of a local diner, Al Templeton, believes that this would be the case – and that he has the means to do it. But, for reasons better explained by King, he can’t – so he passes the baton to an initially reluctant English teacher, Jake Epping.

So Epping takes a trip or two back in time – the first to familiarise himself with the world of the past, a second to prove that the future can be changed. And then – the main mission.

The problem is that the doorway to the past lands you on the same day in 1958, so there’s some hanging around waiting to catch up with history. A few years when it’s important to stay out of history’s way, not make waves – and not change anything.

That’s enough in the way of spoilers. The book itself I’d describe as well-balanced – gripping when it needs to be, laid-back when life’s more normal. I’ve seen this described in other reviews as ‘sagging in the middle’ but I’d challenge that – King’s giving Epping time to grow, make friends, form relationships. And it’s this that I found more endearing than many of King’s other books. Sure, he writes great, believable characters, but I’ve not personally felt that the relationship between any come off so well – and be so moving – as that between Jake and Sadie in 11.22.63.

There’s also some lovely writing – sections which show King not just as a master of plot and character, but as someone who really can twist words to his will. But he’s not an indulgent showman – for the most part, he lets the story do the talking. He’s out to entertain, not impress.

There were a few parts – not many – where I felt things were a little overplayed, but these were brief and didn’t detract from what is a great read. 11.22.63 is entertaining from end to end, gripping, emotionally intelligent and at times moving.

Video interview for Back of the Book Reviews

I thought that you might be interested in seeing this video interview, which I recently did for Back of the Book Reviews. I can’t claim to be a natural presenter, but I enjoyed doing it.

The Well continues to travel

Following the photograph sent last week from Italy, I’ve had a flurry of photos sent to me.

The first is was sent by my brother Andy, when he was touring with the rock band The Alarm recently (he takes their tour photos and generally helps out).

The Well, outside the Bodleian Library in Oxford, one of the oldest libraries in the world.

The next batch was sent by Les Nuttall, who took The Well with him on holiday to Ibiza – and was, let’s say, a little more creative with his photos. However, he did fail in the main task, which is to be photograph with it, near a recognisable landmark. Kudos for originality though.

The Well choses its seat on the plane.

The Well choses its seat on the plane.

The Well gets intimate with a friendly magazine.

The Well picks its bed in the hotel room.

The Well goes for a trip on a pedalo.

The Well has a game of pool.

First sighting of a Bookcrossing copy of The Well

Some weeks ago, I released a few copies of The Well into the wild as Bookcrossing ‘travelling books’.

The idea’s a simple one – you leave a book lying around for others to read and then pass on when they’ve finished. The book has stickers in it,which ask that people log its progress on the Bookcrossing website.

In the case of The Well, I also asked if people would take a picture of themselves with the book – if they did, I said I’d post it on my website. Well, here’s the first one. This is reader Nicola Heaney, who posted this picture on her Facebook page.

Nicola Heaney reading The Well while relaxing near the Adriatic Sea

She’s currently reading The Well while relaxing near the Adriatic Sea, near Rimini in Italy. She’s promised to take a picture of herself with the book in Rome, before passing it on.

Any pictures of people with a copy of The Well (a Bookcrossing copy or not) will be posted here if people send them to me.

10 ways Amazon could improve Kindle

There are so many things that I really love about Kindle and about being a Kindle author. I don’t want to get into Kindle-bashing because Amazon’s system is easy to use for readers and writers – but it does have some shortcomings.

Book-gifting across Amazon websites

Currently, only US Amazon users can enjoy book-gifting, but only amongst themselves. This is frustrating, since you can’t gift a book to someone in another country. If you have Amazon accounts in the US and UK (as I do) and a Kindle that’s registered to the UK (you can only register your Kindle to one country) then you can’t even log into your secondary country to gift someone a Kindle book – because your Kindle (which has nothing to do with the transaction) is registered in another country. The only workaround at the moment is to send the person a generic gift certificate, for which you need an Amazon account in that country. Or, I guess, have a second Kindle, which is registered to the secondary account. Hardly global thinking – indeed, many of my gripes would be resolved if Amazon actually traded as a global company and joined the dots on its many offerings.

Gifting or loaning review copies

As a writer, one thing I need to do fairly frequently is to let legitimate reviewers have a free review copy of my novel. At the moment, I either have to mail a printed copy or send someone a gift certificate. Verified authors should be able to either loan or gift as many review copies as they like, direct from their Kindle Direct Publishing account. This would make the process easy and be good for both parties – every book depends on getting reviews.

Book-lending globally

As with book-gifting, book-lending can only be done within the US. It’s a simple and great system – you loan your book to a friend for a fixed period, during which time you can’t read it. It works pretty much as if you had a printed copy so writers aren’t really disadvantaged. Again, this should work globally – not all of my friends are in the UK.

Review linking across Amazon websites

Book reviews clearly help to sell a book. Currently I have over twenty 4/5-star reviews on Amazon in the UK but less than a handful in the US – for the same book. It would help readers, authors and Amazon if book reviews were linked across other Amazon websites.

Campaign to get VAT removed from e-books

It frustrates people when e-books cost as much as physical ones – after all, there’s no physical or transportation costs. But some publishers do reduce pricing – only to have 20% VAT added back on, because for some reason I can’t fathom, e-books are seen as a ‘service’ and not as a book. The law needs to catch up with reality – and it’s companies such as Amazon who can help make it happen, by putting pressure on the Government.

Fix the review system

As I said before, reviews are really important to a book’s sales. But the Amazon review system is flawed – anyone can leave a review, whether they’ve bought the book or not. This means that authors can persuade friends to post glowing reviews and those of a vindictive nature can leave poor reviews for no reason. Would it be such a problem if only those who have bought a book were able to leave a review? (Or, perhaps, since a book can be loaned, only those who have loaded it legitimately onto their Kindle.) Authors are now able to easily see their reviews and can respond to each one with a comment – I really like that nice touch that enables an author to build a rapport with readers. However, an author can’t easily flag a review as inappropriate. These two simple changes would help to police the review system.

ePub support

The Kindle infrastructure provides a seamless purchasing system – but it’s tied largely to Kindle’s own file format. I can understand this – but even iTunes supports MP3. ePub is pretty much the equivalent of MP3 and it would make people’s lives easier if they could install books that aren’t available on Kindle.

Social networking integration

There’s a lot of buzz about books on Facebook, Twitter and the excellent Goodreads (a massive and wonderful community of readers). It would be great if some of this buzz could be seen, as it happens, on an author’s page or on the book’s page. I’d like to see this integration taken further, too – so I can see what my Facebook friends, Twitter followers and Goodreads friends think of a book while I’m reading it, from within Kindle.


A lot of Amazon’s success has been based on its recommendation engine: you know, you look at something on Amazon’s website and you can instantly see how many people have bought it, if they bought something else instead and so on. It would be great to have recommendations on the Kindle itself – see what people thought of an author, related authors and so on. (The Kindle screen saver could be used to display information about your current read.)

More promotional tools for authors

I’ve personally found Amazon to be great for authors – they’re responsive to queries, fix issues fast and let you build your own author page to promote your work. But I think there’s more that can be done. Goodreads lets you host a giveaway draw for a new book, for instance, which really does raise awareness. So, I’d like to see Amazon giveaways along with the ability to post books at a special price for a fixed period – a ‘sale’. (With some restrictions, clearly. And yes, I know I can just drop the price for a month, but that doesn’t have the marketing pull of ‘20% off for two weeks’.)

As I said at the start, I don’t want to bitch about Amazon, Kindle Direct Publishing or the Kindle itself – because I love it. Kindle’s a great product that’s hooked into a thoughtfully created ecosystem – but I think it could be better.

Goodreads – Facebook for readers

I stumbled across a really wonderful website recently, Goodreads. Now clearly I’m behind the curve on this one, as Goodreads already has thousands of members.

The first joy was that Goodreads has been created by people who really understand both readers and authors. It’s wonderfully structured, allowing you to build up a list of books you’ve read, are reading and intend to read very quickly. You can then review and rate books – all of which makes it easy for you then to connect with others who have similar tastes.

The second joy was finding that my novel The Well was already listed as having been read by someone, who had given it four stars.

The third joy was being able to easily set up an author dashboard so that I could promote my own work. One of the things I really do like about being an author today is that technology makes it easy for readers and authors to connect, via Facebook, Twitter – and dedicated websites such as Goodreads. I like the notion that an author is accessible to readers should they wish to comment on a novel.

My Goodreads giveaway

I also found that, since The Well is only recently published, I can promote it on Goodreads with a Goodreads Giveaway. Essentially, I’ve promised five copies of The Well, signed, to anyone who wants to be entered into the giveaway draw. At the time of writing this blog, the giveaway has been running for four days and almost three hundred people have signed up for it. What a great way to reach a massive audience of people who love reading. (The giveaway runs until the end of March, if you’d like to enter. ENTER HERE)

Join in with the fun

If you’re an avid reader, why not give Goodreads a go? It takes something that is essentially a solitary experience but allows you to make it social, by connecting with other people who love the same kind of books you do.

As well as reviewing and rating books, there are forums to discuss books, authors and genres – and of course lots of book giveaways (at the moment, around 150 books are available).

Maybe see you there?