Saturday, 30 September 2017

Best book of the (new) trilogy?


I ran a poll in which you can still vote.

With 171 votes in the split is remarkably even!

It's not that readers don't have strong opinions. I see individuals saying book X was great but book Y was terrible. Or claiming that the trilogy starts off strong/weak and then heads rapidly down/up hill. But clearly all these preferences are scattered around the compass to such a degree that they balance themselves out.


Prince of Fools - 33%
The Liar's Key - 33%
The Wheel of Osheim - 34%


A result that's in stark contrast to the polls for The Broken Empire trilogy where a distinct favourite emerged.

In the case of the Broken Empire it seems that as the books fade into memory preferences harden. So maybe a clear favourite will emerge from the Red Queen's War books with time.





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Wednesday, 27 September 2017

REVIEW: The Lone House Mystery by J. Jefferson Farjeon

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I re-read this at the hospice with Celyn some 40 years after my last read.

This is a book I had to add to Goodreads because it wasn't there!

Congratulations, you’re on your way to being a forgotten author. That's what this book tells me.

As a child I read and enjoyed (several times) a book called The Lone House Mystery. If it had a dust jacket it was long gone when I got to the book. The front cover declares it ‘A Collins Junior Mystery’. The spine reports the author as one J.Jefferson Farjeon. Shortly after joining Goodreads.com I tried to find the book in their database (containing millions of titles) and rate it. It wasn’t there and none of the 11 million members have added it to the list of books. 

It wasn’t until I rediscovered the book on our shelves at home recently that I was convinced I’d got the details right. But I had. Inside the front cover in my mother’s handwriting is a large declaration of her ownership with a painted border. She would have been quite a small girl when she got the book new in 1949.

The book may not be mentioned on Goodreads but J.Jefferson Farjeon is. The site lists 10 of his books and says he wrote at least 70 others. The write up for Farjeon (1883-1955) includes:

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Joseph Jefferson Farjeon was always going to be a writer as, born in London, he was the son of Benjamin Farjeon who at the time was a well-known novelist whose other children were Eleanor Farjeon, who became a childen's writer, and Herbert Farjeon, who became a playwright and who wrote the well-respected 'A Cricket Bag'.

The family were descended from Thomas Jefferson but it was his maternal grandfather, the American actor Joseph Jefferson, after whom Joseph was named. He was educated privately and at Peterborough Lodge and one of his early jobs, from 1910 to 1920, was doing some editorial work for the Amalgamated Press. 

He also wrote a number of plays, some of which were filmed, most notably Number Seventeen which was produced by Alfred Hitchcock in 1932, and many short stories.

When he died at Hove in Sussex in 1955 his obituary in The Times wrote of his "deserved popularity for ingenious and entertaining plots and characterization".

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So, 80 books, obituary in the Times, a play for Hitchcock, born of actors and writers, descended from Thomas Jefferson ... and the 11 million members of Goodreads have given 10 of his 80 books a grand total of 11 ratings.

Time is the fire in which we burn and also the tide that drowns us. 

Extraordinarily few writers are noticed at all and the vast majority of those are lost from memory with the passage of five or twenty-five years. Sixty-some years has all but erased J.Jefferson.

So. I read his book again. I started reading it to my daughter but she got bored – it is rather dry and dated – and since it’s short and I knew the story I finished it for my own nostalgia.

The book was written and set very soon after the war. Three posh children outwit common and vulgar crooks. It has some similarities with Enid Blyton’s Famous Five in that respect. The book isn’t without charm or imagination though, and I do enjoy the ‘rather’, ‘do be a sport’ ‘I say’ ‘keep your pecker up’ ‘jolly rotten’ etc. The strong moral messages and reiteration that our three children are made of the right stuff are ... directed at children. Nobody here is complex except perhaps for a repentant thief – it is a children’s book after all and it was entertaining when I read it in 1972/3/4 less so now. 

The plot is implausible and discordant notes are struck when the crooks produce pistols and shots are fired and our children blithely carry on defending the house they’re ensconced in with a hose pipe. Possibly the proximity to the war put a different perspective on things at the time ... I don’t know. It seems bizarre now – as does the curious lack of emotion from their family who lose them from a train into a snow storm and don’t find them for three days. Most would expect the thaw to reveal frozen corpses . . . 

So in the end, putting nostalgia aside, I’ll give this 2* for ‘ok’. It has dated, and it’s too dry for today’s 8-12 year olds who have so much else on offer, and too shallow for the 13+ who might read past the old fashioned language.

So back on the shelf it goes and J.Jefferson’s shade can slip back into the nameless horde of thousands of other popular authors who we’ve forgotten that we forgot.



Sunday, 24 September 2017

Fairness and the SPFBO

No System is Perfect


Kenneth Arrow won a Nobel prize for proving that no voting system is perfect. Each has its strengths but also, under certain conditions, will seem deeply unfair to someone. All democracies are flawed.

This observation extends to many other systems. Importantly for us it extends to selecting the "best" book from a field of 300.

It is possible to see a flaw and suggest a fix. But this will still leave the system flawed - just in a new way that may seem better to you and worse to someone else.


A natural consequence of this truth is that any such system will be subject to valid criticism. This is something that the system has to live with.

In addition to the unavoidable flaws a system may be corrupt. Flaws cannot be avoided but corruption can. A system that allows room for corruption (unfairness) will attract accusations of foul play even if none is actually happening. Hence it is important to have rules that allow no room for it.

For the SPFBO it is better that we select a good book by a process that is not only fair but seen to be fair, than to select the best book by a process that has room for unfairness in it (even if none is actually present).

Requiring each blog to choose the best book from their batch is a flaw since the blog may feel that a better book exists in the remaining 270 and has not made it to the final. It is a flaw that can only be fixed by introducing other flaws.

One seriously considered fix was the "Senlin Net" whereby a blog with a very strong 2nd choice (like last year with Pornokitsch and Senlin Ascends) could offer that book to other blogs to consider as their finalist instead of one from the batch they were assigned.


This is a reasonable idea whose only drawbacks are that it involves more work for the blogs (in the limit we could ask all blogs to read all books, resulting in a LOT more work but a better result - the line has to be drawn somewhere though) and that it may feel harsh to the "best" book from the batch that gets bumped to make room.

Other suggestions for the Senlin Net involve additional finalists. But this increases the workload for bloggers while diluting the cachet of being a finalist.

The Senlin Net was never entirely ruled out.


Importantly the Senlin Net suggestion always involved a push rather than a pull. I.e. one blogger with no connection to the author pushes the title out for consideration.

All bloggers are asked at the start of the SPFBO to identify any books in their batch by authors who they know. Those titles are then swapped with ones from other blogs. This is naturally to ensure fairness. It's not because anyone is saying they don't trust the blog to be impartial given the relationship with the author - it is to stop anyone being able to say that.

A possibility that has been suggested is that a Senlin Net be employed based on a pull. I.e. that the blog could select any entry over the best from their own batch.

The reason this isn't tenable is that we then have to consider the mechanism by which this book came to the blog's attention. It would be a system that favoured:

i) Authors with a high profile.
ii) Authors with pockets deep enough to send out physical review copies.
iii) Authors with whom the blog has some relationship, anything from best friend to casual social media acquaintance.

This is not to say that any of these things would happen or are even likely to happen, but that someone would then be able to say that.

In a contest where 97% of all entries are cut at the first stage it is natural for some to look for fault. The SPFBO must admit to its unavoidable flaws and to allow no space for accusations of unfairness.

A Senlin Net based on pull would allow the accusation that the blog that did it was always going to choose their friend. Valid or not, such an accusation would taint the contest and lessen the value of "finalist". The taint would spread to the winner and to past and future winners.

So, in order to avoid such issues, there will be no Senlin Net based on pull.

Whether there will be one based on push is still a matter for consideration and will only need to be considered should a blogger have a second choice they were very upset not to be able to put through, and another blogger is unhappy that the best from their batch is not good enough.














Monday, 18 September 2017

REVIEW: The Final Empire

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This was an odd one for me. I've seen an enormous number of opinions about Sanderson's books on the fantasy forums I hang out on, the great majority favourable. I was interested to see what it was that had sold so very many books and got such an incredibly high average score on Goodreads. 

The opening was strong and engaging. Then I started to falter. For most of the book I didn't think that I would be giving it 5*. I started to worry that I might have a legion of Sanderfans on my case :o

I think I am too much of a scientist for the magic system not to jar against me. I liked the complexity, and the effects, and the ways it was used were cunning, clever, and ingenious. But the ingredients and the execution fill me with unanswered questions.

And for much of the middle section I was struggling through all the balls and house politics, having a hard time caring.

And the plans felt flimsy and dubious...

***BUT***

But, the last hundred and fifty pages were a huge payoff and I really liked all the twists and turns. Also the action scenes were great, and the tension was kept high, nobody felt safe, the reveals kept coming ... it was all really well done and I had a blast with it.

I've heard it said that Sanderson's biggest strength is plotting, and yes, the plot unwound splendidly.

The reading experience and writing put me in mind of Brent Weeks more than any other writer I know.

A really fun read.


You can go like my review on Goodreads if you like.







Book sales: how's it stacking up?

As I've noted before, the number of Goodreads ratings a book has give a good indication of sales

This, combined with Goodreads willingness to let you have the daily ratings statistics on any book for the last six months (though, annoyingly, not any longer than that) means you can generate all manner of analysis. Recently, some publishers have begun to offer their authors access to detailed and high tempo sales data online, but in reality a pretty good version of that is available to Joe Public on Goodreads.

Here are the daily ratings numbers for all 7 of my books for the last 6 months, stacked up in order, with Prince of Thorns at the bottom and Red Sister at the top.


So you can see that around its release Red Sister was outselling Prince of Thorns but that currently Prince of Thorns has regained the throne. You can see that collectively the Red Queen's War trilogy sell around the same as Prince of Thorns does on its own. And by using the ratings-to-sales ratio of 7.7 you can see that I'm selling around a thousand books a day in English.

Do publishers use these sources of data when looking at authors they might want to sign? My feeling is that they don't, but they probably should.







Friday, 8 September 2017

Why you're not getting a map.



A question posed to me on this blog.
Q: When are you going to draw a map for Book of the ancestors series? I'm dying to read Red Sister but can't bring myself to do it without a map.
A: I'm not going to. If you can't read a book without a map I guess it's not a book for you.

I'm often asked: "Did you draw the map first or as you wrote the book." This is frequently by people who haven't read any of my books. 

There is an assumption there ... fantasy books have maps. Which is odd, since I have read hundreds (possibly thousands) of novels without maps, many of them set in regions I'm unfamiliar with. The fact is that for a great many works of fiction maps are irrelevant, they are about what people are doing in their lives, if Sarah goes to visit her uncle in Vostok it is sufficient for me to know it took her several hours on the train and when she got there the forests were covered in snow. I don't need to look it up on a map. It doesn't matter. 

(small spoilers for the setting in The Broken Empire and The Book of the Ancestor trilogies follow)

When I wrote Prince of Thorns I did not draw the map first. Or during. Or the day, week, month, or year after I had finished. I didn't consult some map in my head. When Jorg goes to Gelleth it was enough for me to know that it took him and his men several days to get there, crossing through mountain passes ... or whatever ... I forget the details. It was never important to the story. The fact is that what was important was that he had to go somewhere and do something.

I drew the map for Prince of Thorns three years later when my publisher asked me to. Sure, I thought, I can draw a map. At that point I thought it would fun to use the map of Europe with a raised sea level. The map never mattered to me writing the story, so it can't really add anything to reading the story except for an illusion of "control".


I've nothing against maps, I just never look at them. I've read the five books of A Song of Ice and Fire twice. The first time I saw the map was when watching the credits of the Game of Thrones TV show. I certainly acknowledge that the map in a story of many nations and multiple widely separated PoV characters does have value to add, and if I wrote a story like that I would draw a map. But the fact remains, I very much enjoyed the story without reference to the map.

In Red Sister the vast majority of the story takes place within a circle a few hundred yards across. The small amount of traveling is simple. The rare references to remote places are similarly simple. The habitable world is a corridor fifty miles wide and tens of thousands of miles long, following the equator. The empire is flanked to the west by one country behind a mountainous border, and to the east by a sea with another country on the far shore.

A map would be a long skinny thing on a page that was 90%+ white space. The detail would be hard to see and invented by me entirely to fill the map ... no other reason. Or alternatively it would fill a dozen or more pages (the corridor now the height of the page and the length stretching through many pages) filled with even more arbitrary detail, hills, mountains, forests, rivers, roads, and towns never referenced in the book.

Well ... I'm not doing it!


By way of compromise, here's a "word map"



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<-Points East, Scithrowl (mountains) Empire (Marn Sea) Durn, Points West->
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Chocolate ... no wait ... more ice.
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