Sunday, June 24, 2018

"TRACER" BY ROB BOFFARD: WILL THE HUMAN RACE SURVIVE?

I would start this review of "Tracer" with an exciting intro, but since the author, Rob Boffard, himself has provided one for me (see below), I don't really have to!   



I hope everyone got that!  There is absolutely nothing dull about this guy--trust me.  He is smart, sharp, and honest.

"Tracer" is the story of Riley Hale, a young courier, one of a group, who runs around a decaying space station called "Outer Earth" which contains almost 1 million people. She delivers various items in exchange for food, drugs, and whatever she is able to barter for.  Central to these couriers' survival is the agreement that they will never look inside the packages they are carrying.  In this futuristic dystopia, Earth was long ago destroyed in a nuclear war and the remnants of humanity are struggling to survive in the space station despite food shortages, gang violence, crime, and an increasingly disengaged leadership.  

As the story begins, Riley is taking a new order over to the gardens when she is assailed by the Lieren gang and relieved of her delivery.  At first she thinks she is done for, but then the Lieren slink away once they discover what she has been carrying--an eyeball!  Riley is shocked to see the eyeball, but she quickly repacks it and delivers it to the customer.  

Thinking everything is fine, Riley returns to the hideout or "nest" where the rest of her team--the devil dancers--live off the grid.  But "no" the delivery has triggered the final phase of an ongoing plot that the Human Extinction Movement has been masterminding to destroy the space station and thus what remains of the human race.  

Can Riley and her fellow couriers known as the devil dancers overcome all the obstacles in their way and save the station?  

As a major explosion rips through the food producing sector of the Space Station, and the villain Oren Darnell takes control of the Station and begins to shut it down in preparation for its complete destruction, we can only bite our nails in anticipation of what could be the end of all humanity.  

If there is one word I'd use to describe this book, I'd say it's a romp, because as soon as you begin reading one event pulls you rapidly into another and then another at a breathtaking pace and it becomes impossible to put it down.  It only took me two days to finish this book because I found the narrative so absorbing and the dilemmas kept me so on edge I couldn't bear to stop reading until I found out what was going to happen.  

So let me tell you a little bit about Rob Boffard, the author of this book. Unfortunately, like many new authors, Rob Boffard essentially wants you to guess who he is because his "meet the author" page at the end of the book is two sentences long.  The basic information you get is that he is from South Africa and moves from location to location, i.e from London, to Vancouver, and then to Johannesburg and back around again.  As his day job, for the last ten years he has worked as a journalist for media outlets such as "The Guardian", "Wired", and other locations.  He is around 33 years old, and is married.  

But that is pretty much the bare bones information we have about Mr. Boffard; there is a bit more on his website, but don't hold your breath for it.  Keeping the facts to yourself is kind of a Sci Fi, Fantasy author thing to do, as I've noticed.  These kinds of authors just seem to hate including acknowledgement pages like everyone else has.  There is no, "And I thank my next door neighbor, Doug, for making this book possible."  None of that.   Plus, Rob Boffard is too cool for that kind of chitter chatter anyway.  

I would say overall that "Tracer" was a really exciting book to read and I enjoyed it incredibly.  That said it is a first book and it does have upsides and downsides.  I'll give you the downsides first.  

To a certain extent Mr. Boffard doesn't work sufficiently hard enough developing motivation with his characters which means that they can come across as one dimensional and there isn't that layered feel you might have in a better written book. Also, I ended up writing down several questions I had about where the plot was going and how it ended up, that, with a more skilled author, I would not have had.  These are the kinds of capabilities you learn with experience, not to leave holes and not to allow your readers to start going something on the level of "I thought you said...or...How can that be because two chapter ago you said..."  

Of course, I'm quibbling here on a very high level, because this is really an extraordinary book.  

When it comes to the upsides, I have to say this book has some of the most amazing fight scenes ever, to the point where I felt as though they were being choreographed by a master choreographer.  Two thirds of the way through the book, there is a scene where Riley needs to make it through a door which is protected by several police officers in order to save the Station.  I don't want to give away any spoilers, but what I will say is that this scene is one of the most masterfully written scenes I've ever had the pleasure to read in a Sci Fi/Fantasy book.  

I give Rob Boffard credit for his fresh approach to these kinds of scenes and his capacity to maneuver his characters through very complicated moves almost effortlessly, or so it appears.  It's that genius Mr. Boffard has in creating these breathtaking action scenes that makes you as the reader feel, "Oh my God, I just have to find out what is going to happen next!"  There's knives, there's guns, there is extreme heat, there is extreme cold, there are people all over the ship running amok, our major characters are getting injured and pushed to the point of death--it's just one thing after another!  In other words, it's just one heck of a darned good read and who cares about any minor flaws anyway!  

So I don't have much more to say here except after "Tracer" there are two more additional delightful sequels which I look forward to reading since I purchased the omnibus book including them in a single package.  So in due time, I will be reading them as well, i.e. "Zero-G" and "Impact."  

Just for a few final details regarding this omnibus book, it has a very intriguing picture of the Space Station rotating in orbit around the dead planet Earth with the sun creeping up the horizon.  I would say this dazzling art played a major role in catching my attention so I ended up purchasing the book.  This cover art was produced by Das Illustrat Munchen.  

Rob Boffard is represented by Literary Agent and Co-Owner Ed Wilson of Johnson & Alcock in London, England.  Apparently, Ed Wilson is the kind of agent who prefers to represent authors who will have a long term appeal and won't fizzle out with the most recent trends.  He is currently working hard at building his Sci-Fi list, and from what I hear, he is also open to thrillers, teen and YA.  My impression of him is that he is a loyal agent who really stands by his clients, as well as an intelligent and imaginative reader.  

My guess is that, as a writer, Rob Boffard is a craftsman and that we will continue to see him produce many more wonderful books in the future.  Luckily, he appears to have a literary agent who can partner with him in getting that task done.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

BERNARD CORNWALL CLUES US IN TO THE NAMES AND PLACES IN HIS SAXON TALES!

BLOOD AND GORE--MURDER AND MAYHEM -- BERNARD CORNWELL'S "THE LAST KINGDOM"!

I became interested in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon novels after watching BBC's televised version of "The Last Kingdom" on Netflix.  Not only was the series dramatic and absorbing, it was also somewhat funny, a quality that does not quite come across that well in the actual books.  The books were published by HarperCollins with the first book coming out in 2006.  

know it is traditional to say that the books are much better than the movies,  but in this case I'll have to say they are both pulling head to head.  The series is pulling a little bit ahead in regard to humor, while the actual book is gaining traction from the sheer scholarly detail that informs it.  If you are like me and you want to know all the details of how the Danes and the Saxons conducted warfare in England in the late 800s, well, in these books you've come to the right place.  

I'm not sure why, but for me, the world of Bernard Cornwell with its plots clogged with tales of clashing armies assaulting each other behind death dealing shield walls, hand to hand combat, and the intimate details of the varieties of ways to kill another human being with a broad range of implements--a sword, an axe, or a sharpened hoe during warfare--appears to be my natural environment.  The central character through whom the story is told, i.e. Uhtred, son of Uhtred, of Bebbanburg, is at turns gentle, truthful, murderous and barbaric, and throughout it all he holds true to the code of honor his adopted Danish father brought him up with, grounded in his belief in the old Norse Gods of Thor, and Odin, and the three spinners who sit at the foot of the tree Ygdrassil and determine the fate of everyone in the world.  

Uhtred is unique because he has a foot in two worlds.  On the one hand, he is the child of a Saxon nobleman, yet he was captured by his adoptive father, Ragnar, and in every respect adopted Danish ways.  However, upon his adoptive father's untimely death, he is inexorably drawn into the service of the English King Alfred (the Great) and the Christian God he serves.  The major character, Uhtred's, opposing commitments, nationalities, and faiths play a central role in the evolution of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales.  

As a person who has also been torn between competing loyalties and legacies, and who has been drawn into many conflicts over the years that have arisen from them, I certainly comprehend and empathize with these kinds of struggles.  Thus, I have been greatly entertained as I've read these novels.  Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe Series which take place during the Napoleonic Wars are also very similar, full of battles, conflict, and the tough, often inadequate choices that must be made during times of war.  I also understand that the inspiration for much of Bernard Cornwell's work is the Captain Hornblower series, which my father used to read to us children as bedtime stories.  Probably a bit bloody in terms of content for kids, but it tells you how I cut my teeth in the reading arena and the kind of content that informed my intellectual growth as a young person.

Bernard Cornwell is one of the older generation of writers who tend to dominate the landscape simply by virtue of their steady and overwhelming output. For instance, John Grisham, James Patterson, Danielle Steele, Lisa Scottoline, Mary Higgins Clark--we all know who these people are.  They come to writer's conferences and take charge of the scene and the rest of us kind of scramble around trying to catch some of the rays they cast off.  You want to be able to say of these kinds of writers, "but they are not really literary, they are fairly vulgar and brash with their constant creation of new product."  On the other hand, with tens if not hundreds of books in print and millions of readers around the world, what can you say but "give me some of that."  Literary, in the dazzling light of these major stars, comes across as tight lipped, staid, and utterly pretentious.  

During my research on Bernard Cornwell and listening to his interviews, he seems like an honest, approachable and likable guy, but my suspicion is that this amiable surface hides a fairly demanding intellect.  Some of that probably arises from his somewhat unusual upbringing.  He was born in 1944 and was one of five children adopted by a couple--Joe and Marjorie Wiggins who were part of a now defunct fundamentalist Christian sect called Peculiar People. From what I have read, both were extremely abusive, although Cornwell reconciled and maintained a decent relationship with his adoptive father, Joe Wiggins until the latter's death. He never had anything more to do with his adoptive mother.  Out of respect, he only adopted his biological mother's last name "Cornwell" after his adoptive father, Joe Wiggins, died.

His biological parents were a Canadian airman named William Oughtred and Dorothy Cornwell a member of the British Women's Auxillary Airforce who had a brief affair during the war and were not equipped to raise him.  Needless to say, the adoption didn't work out that well and it was clear to Bernard Cornwell at seven years old that his adoptive mother--Marjorie Wiggins--did not like him.  Once he left the home of his adoptive parents, Bernard Cornwell went to London University and majored in theology, but eventually decided that he was an atheist, a position he has maintained up to the present time.  

Subsequently, Mr. Cornwell worked as a teacher, and then for the BBC.  During that time he had one failed marriage and one child.  Then in 1978 he met his current wife, Judy, married her and moved to the United States.  Because he was unable to obtain a work permit, he ended up taking his writing very seriously and began to produce the novels for which he is so well known today.  

Eventually, around his mid 50s, he ended up getting in touch with his biological parents and met with his step brothers and sisters, and got along with them quite well.  He was really surprised to find out how much he looked like his Dad, and when it came to his Mom she was a big fan of historical novels.  

Bernard Cornwell has always stated that his success is due, not only to his supportive wife, but also to his agent who has always worked with him and believed in him.  That agent was Toby Eady who passed away on December 24, 2017 and who, prior to that, had sold his agency to David Higham Associates in 2015.  Apparently, Toby Eady established his agency in 1968 and Bernard Cornwell was among his first clients.  According to David Higham,  Toby Eady, "was notable for having a strong international perspective."  Along with Bernard Cornwell, the agency represents Stephen Fry, Paula Hawkins, Gao Xingjiang, Ted Lewis, and a substantial number of other highly regarded authors.  The Agency also represents children's and YA authors, screenwriters and playrights as well as successful self-published authors. Plus, it has a considerable translation department. The link to the Agency is as follows:

https://www.davidhigham.co.uk

If there is one thing that I admire about Bernard Cornwell it is his mastery of the craft of writing an historical novel.  He is great at sketching memorable, complex characters whom you care about and then putting them into situations that keep you turning the pages, desperate to find out what happens to them next.  

He is also a master of plot structure.  He takes you down a path, pulls a side story out of thin air, takes you down a path you hate to tread, and then rescues you when you least expect it.  This is just someone who has done his homework thoroughly, has acquired excellent skills of storytelling, and executes his craft with confidence, consistently producing an extremely high quality of entertainment.  While I'm sure there is a certain level of grinding away involved in writing two books a year, you never feel that or see it.  

For those of you who would defer to Bernard Cornwell for some tips on how to be a good writer yourself, Mr. Cornwell has a statement he has put together for you on his website.  I have to say that this is the best and most wise discussion of what is involved in becoming a novelist that I have ever read.  You can find this statement on Bernard Cornwell's website under "Writing Advice" at the following link:  


Some comments from that article that struck me were the following:

"You write for yourself first.  You write what you want to read."

"Write, rewrite, rewrite again, and do not worry about anything except story.  It is story, story, story.  That is your business."

"Once the story is right, everything else will follow."

There is more, but I don't want to take the pleasure away from you.  As of 2015, Bernard Cornwell had sold up to 30 million copies of his books and he shows no signs of stopping, although he has slowed his output from two books a year to one.  Each book includes a map where the dramatic scenes take place, plus a list of names and places.  In addition, Cornwell provides a brief discussion at the end of his books describing the historical facts versus the ways in which he has filled in the blanks of left by history with his imaginative details. There is no doubt that Bernard Cornwell will always have an audience for his work and a friendly hand outstretched towards his readers and acolytes who wish to follow in his footsteps.