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Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Book Review: Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Thou shalt kill.

A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life - and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.

Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe - a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.

scythe, neal-shusterman, book

Right from the very start, I was intrigued by the idea and concept of this book. When it comes to dystopian fiction, it takes only the most special premise to really grab me and make me pay attention, even more so to make me want to pick it up and start reading. Scythe was one of these rare books.

Billed as the next Hunger Games and raved about by book bloggers and the publishing industry alike, it's certainly clear that I wasn't the only one to have enjoyed reading Scythe. And to me, there definitely wasn't much wrong at all with this book.

Featuring the perfect blend of true-to-life realism and dystopian sci-fi elements, Shusterman expertly crafts a story that grips you right from the very start. Although I wouldn't go so far as to call the plot fast-paced, it's undeniable that a sense of urgency is cleverly woven into the story - it's this that keeps you reading page after page, long after you vowed to set down the book for the night!

Similarly, it is this realism and a sense of a world that is like our own but not our own that really sets the book apart. Yes, the concept is clever, the prose on point and the characters engaging, but the care and attention taken over world-building are what stole the show for me.

Right from the start to the finish, I was undeniably hooked - I had to find out what happened and I was kept guessing all the way through the book. Packed full of action, adventure, twists and turns, there is always something unexpected lurking across the page!

Even with such a brilliant premise, there are still certain other factors which must be top-notch in order to warrant a five-star review from The Writing Greyhound. Each character was fully-developed and engaging, with a multi-faceted approach to their role in the story and complex relationships and dynamics creating intriguing avenues to be explored later. Of course, let's not forget that the quality of Shusterman's writing is second-to-none - is it just me, or does a story simply work so much better when the words seem to flow naturally and bring each page to life?

As soon as I finished the last page I was online, checking out the sequel and adding it to my ever-expanding tbr list. Now, I don't know about you, but I can't wait to get my hands on a copy!

Scythe is available to buy now.

Rating: 5 stars

* I was given an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review

Have you read Scythe? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Interview: Janet Elizabeth Croon

This week, I am happy to be sharing an insightful Q&A with you on behalf of author Janet Elizabeth Croon. I'm delving into the past and getting reacquainted with some history as I learn all about Janet's book - The War Outside My Window.

Firstly, please could you introduce yourself?
My name is Jan Croon and I have been an advanced history teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia, since the 2000-2001 school year. I’ve recently retired for health reasons. I was born in Mobile, Alabama but grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. I have two grown daughters who are the lights of my life!
How did you first become interested in writing?
I have always been a voracious reader and taught myself to read before Kindergarten. I read a book on the Civil War in my area of Virginia and felt that an unexplored story had been dropped into my lap. Having grown up in the Chicago area, I was totally unaware of how the war impacted Northern Virginia. The book got me asking questions that I thought were left unanswered, and so I started researching. Because of gaps in the extant historical narrative, it has turned into a work of historical fiction. It’s getting rather large, and I still have research and writing left to do.
the-war-outside-my-window, janet-elizabeth-croon, book

Tell me about The War Outside My Window.
The book is the edited transcription of a set of seven journals written between 1860 and 1865 by LeRoy Wiley Gresham; he was 12 when he began writing and the journals end with his death shortly after the end of the Civil War. LeRoy was the incredibly bright middle child of prominent parents in Macon, Georgia, and lets us in on not only the course of the Civil War, but the political, economic, and social changes in Macon and the South. Tragically, the journals also trace LeRoy’s health issues that culminate in his death. LeRoy read any newspaper he could get his hands on, gave insightful opinions on the issues of the day, and provided insight into the daily life of a privileged but disabled teen in the middle of the 19th century. He also gives us some enlightenment on the role slavery played in his life, one of mutual dependence that might surprise many readers.
What drew you to writing about the past?
As a teacher of history, I have long believed that it is important that we know how our society developed. I was a kid during the Cold War and had a hard time digesting the vast differences between East and West. During my last years of teaching, I would begin the first day of class by looking at the crisis in Syria, which all stems from unsolved problems and unintended consequences of the First World War. In a school with many students from all regions of the world, it was a way to show how the past impacts the present. Now I am “reinventing” myself from a classroom teacher to a writer... which I feel is teaching through a different medium.
Did you find writing the book a challenge?
There were some definite challenges that I had to get through! Some of it was technical; LeRoy’s handwriting is simply beautiful (another argument for teaching cursive in schools), but sometimes his abbreviations were mysterious and some terminology obscure. I had to override my tendency as a teacher to correct misspellings, although I thought it was amusing that he did not spell McClellan’s name right until after Lincoln had fired him for the second time! Occasionally, his pen would not be that good and it wouldn’t write clearly so I would have more difficulty deciphering his writing. Reading aged cherry juice ink is also not easy!  
The hardest part was figuring out his relatives! These were large Southern families – his grandmother had six sons fighting in the Civil War in various regions, not to mention grandsons, sons-in-law, nephews, etc. – and LeRoy wrote the journals knowing who these people were. I had to not only figure it out for myself, but for the reader! For example, who was “Jenks” Jones? Which Aunt Sarah was he referring to (and there were many)? How was Cousin Eliza related to her and to LeRoy? I ended up with an Ancestry.com family tree with 1700 individuals on it, and still could not find all the people I was looking for! I also had to figure out the status of the plantations that the family owned in Houston County, Georgia. It took a while, but with the guidance of some wonderful librarians, I was able to figure out where they were located, what they were called, how many slaves each held, and who the overseers were.
How did you get inspiration?
I got inspiration from LeRoy himself. I really wanted to tell his story. He is an amazingly intellectual young man, but still a teenager who could probably easily identify with the teenagers I have taught! That kept me immersed in transcription or revision, and occasionally I would end up working through the night without realizing it. Making a new discovery, finding a connection, or just simply viewing history through his eyes made it all worthwhile.
What’s your writing process?
I tend to write best at night, and so I would get settled with my laptop, cat by my side, and begin working on the next task, whether it was transcribing from the digitized journal pages that the LOC has online or searching in Ancestry.com for a new person. This work, unlike my other project, is very linear, and LeRoy drove how I approached it because I went along with his work from hopeful beginning to tragic end.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
For me, it was limitations of space. There are two letters from his parents in the book, acting as foreshadowing and then aftermath and there are so many more that I wish we could have included! For example, we know from a few of the letters that LeRoy’s mother suffered a miscarriage about the time that LeRoy had his leg accident when he was 8. However, no other mention is made anywhere of this. We also felt that two and a half years of daily weather temperature readings three times a day took up space and could be cut, leaving LeRoy’s generalizations about weather unless the temperatures were unusual that day.  
There are also striking incidents that we did find room for. The Gresham family were staunch Presbyterians and entertained the father and grandfather-in-law of future president Woodrow Wilson. I also discovered that LeRoy’s interest in railroads came from his Uncle LeRoy (his mother’s oldest brother) and that Abraham Lincoln began his railroad trek to inauguration in a train with the engine named after this uncle! Some of my initial footnoting was too lengthy, and fortunately, Ted was able to use his expertise in cutting this down so the book was not too overwhelming.
janet-elizabeth-croon, author

What do you love most about writing?
With this book, it is bringing a very significant primary source to life for people who are conversant in the Civil War and readers who are not but want to be; this book will appeal to those who want to read a non-fiction story of another era. I would tell my students that primary sources like this are the closest that we can get to “being there.” (And my love for reaching back as far as one can had them calling my pre-Smart phone cell “the Artifact!”) Reading this book will bring the antebellum and wartime South to life, and hint at the coming Reconstruction era. I find this truly exciting!
Which authors inspire you?
Jane Austen (I’ve read ALL of her novels several times) and Leo Tolstoy (I can’t count the number of times I’ve read Anna Karenina and I’ve read War and Peace twice). Both of them allow the reader to become immersed in their era, and if you read their work, you will find out what the challenges for English women at the beginning of the 19th century were, and discover what some of the inherent weaknesses of Russian upper-class society were that later contributed to the Russian Revolution a century or so later.
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
Tell the truth, or as Austen would say, “Write what you know.” This may mean a lot of research, organization, and attention to detail. But if you can accomplish those things, your writing will not only inform the reader but pull the reader into the story.
What are you currently working on?
I have been working on a story that I feel almost fell into my lap, although not as obviously as LeRoy’s journals did. It tells the story of western Fairfax County, which was occupied in one way or another for the entirety of the Civil War. It includes people such as Jeb Stuart, John Mosby, and local civilians who worked with them against the Union. The frustration with it is that the “heroine” left no written account of her own involvement, although she lived into the 1920s.  
While it is historical fiction, I am approaching it as if Austen or Tolstoy were looking over my shoulder. I am researching both in reading and in going to the actual places (where they still exist – the field where the Battle of Chantilly took place is gone now) where the events took place. It’s important, as I feel it is a way to get the people of the Washington, DC region to see what happened here 150+ years ago. Sometimes historical interest is not formed through academic writing but through a well-tailored tale. Diana Gabaldon has done this with her Outlander series, to give a modern example.
What are you reading at the moment?
I need to take a break from the Civil War on occasion, and with my background in the 20th century and Soviet history, I have picked up a book called 1917: Lenin, Wilson, and The Birth of the New World Disorder by Arthur Herman. I loved teaching students not only about the events but the personalities behind them and how these people came to have their viewpoints. I’m curious about these “contemporaries.”
What’s your all-time favourite fiction book?
Jane Austen’s Persuasion. It was her last and her most complex novel.
What’s your all-time favourite non-fiction book?
I totally enjoyed the three-volume series on Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. As I wrote earlier, learning about the backgrounds of both Roosevelt and Wilson helped my students understand the two main paradigms of American foreign policy in the 20th century and how other presidents would lean in one direction or another as the situations demanded.
What are your ambitions for your writing career?
I would like to be able to publish my next project, which like LeRoy’s journals, will have something for Civil War buffs and those who like detailed historical fiction. I would also like to bring LeRoy’s journals into the educational market, as I think it can be a very effective and multidisciplinary way to teach multiple levels (middle, high, undergraduate) about the Civil War.
What are your interests outside of writing and reading?
I am a former military spouse and have travelled a great deal and lived in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down; I went to Azerbaijan in 2002 but with a democracy education program, not the Air Force. I have been a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan since I was eight, and love to knit, quilt, cross-stitch, and cook. My daughters, even though they do not live locally, are still an important part of my daily life thanks to the ease of social media.
The War Outside My Window is available to buy now.

What do you think? Are you interested in reading the book? Let me know in the comments below!

Monday, 21 May 2018

Five Things You Must Do Before You Get On the Property Ladder

for-sale, sign, house, buying, flickr

In case you are thinking about owning your own home, instead of renting or living in your parents’ house, you have a hard work ahead. Your chances of securing a mortgage that allows you to buy your dream home are much worse than people in your parents’ generation. You will need to have a solid financial history and plan ahead to get the rate you can afford and the amount you need. To improve your chances, below you will find a few tips.

Have a Steady Job (Or Income)

You must have a steady job or a good employment history to get accepted for a mortgage. Even if you can prove that you are earning a lot of commissions, and have been in the past year, this is not enough for banks. You will have to have a long-term job, or - if you run your own business - a steady regular income. Self-employed people often find it harder to get on the property ladder, especially if they have only started their venture a few years ago.

Build Your Credit History

It is also important that you make the lender trust you. Without any credit in your name, they will have no idea if you are able to make the monthly repayments. It might be a good idea to take out a credit card a year before you apply for your first mortgage or have a car loan, a mobile phone contract, or car insurance so you can prove yourself.

Consolidate Your Debt

You should also avoid applying for a mortgage with loads of outstanding credit. If you have credit card debt or multiple loans, it might be a good idea to sort out your finances first. Check out debtconsolidation.loans to find out more about the options available. It is always better to have one account you make regular repayments on than credit all over the place.

Learn to Budget

Buying your first home will change a lot of things about your budget. You will have to prioritise your regular payments, and this might mean you have to cut back on eating out or partying. You have to grow up to the responsibilities of homeowners and make sure that you have savings to cover emergencies, such as a broken down boiler or an electrical fault.

Save Up for the Deposit

Today, first-time buyers need at least 5-20 percent deposit. The more you can save up for the deposit the lower your monthly repayments on the mortgage will be. You should look at online mortgage calculators and create a saving plan so you don’t pay back more on the amount you borrow than necessary.

First-time buyers have a hard job securing a mortgage and making ends meet. You can increase your chances of getting accepted for a mortgage if you follow the above steps. Learn to be responsible for your money, start saving up early, budget carefully, and you are one step closer to your dream home.

* This is a contributed post

Have you managed to get on the property ladder? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Researching Dreaming of St Tropez

dreaming-of-st-tropez, ta-williams, book

Those of you familiar with my work will know by now that I always like to write about lovely places. The Dreaming of... series has already included Venice and Florence, so St-Tropez seemed like a fitting sequel to those two magical Italian cities. By the way, I can reveal that the next one after this will be set in a gorgeous five-star hotel in the Austrian Alps so you can see a pattern developing here – I like nice places. I also have a rule that I must visit these places before starting to write. They say you should always write about what you know and, great as Google Earth is, it can’t give you the scents, the sounds, the people or that indefinable thing – the atmosphere.

So this time last year, my wife and I headed across to visit St-Tropez to see for ourselves. If anybody is inspired to do the same after reading Dreaming of St-Tropez (and I highly recommend it) here’s a tip: don’t stay in St-Tropez (it costs an arm and a leg). Stay in Ste-Maxime, a fifteen-minute boat ride across the bay. It’s a lot cheaper and, while not as atmospheric as St-Tropez itself, it has its own charm (and a load of great restaurants).

We were fortunate to have sparkling warm dry May weather – justifying St-Tropez’s claims to have more sunny days than anywhere in France – and the first impressions were terrific. St-Tropez is set at the mouth of a delightful bay and the tree-covered hills behind the town have been designated a national park. Considering it is on the highly populated Côte d’Azur, the area is remarkably unspoilt – and that came as a surprise. As a result, there are delightful wildflowers all over the place and the woods are rich with fauna from wild boar to the somewhat less appealing large snake I discovered on the path in front of me one day. They say snakes are more scared of you than you are of them, but I don’t buy it. This thing gave me a “Make my day, punk” look before reluctantly slithering into the bushes, nonchalantly leaving its tail still on the path. I was never much good at the long jump at school but, believe me, I vaulted that bit of path like an Olympic athlete.

The other big surprise I got in St-Tropez was the fact that it wasn’t just stuffed full of rich people. I hope I manage to convey this impression through Jess’ eyes in the book. Yes, the quayside is lined with spectacular yachts (most registered in the tax havens of the world), yes, there are more designer clothes shops in just one street than in the whole of the West of England and yes, I saw more Ferraris there than anywhere else on earth. But, beneath the veneer of the rich and famous – did I mention, I saw Brigitte Bardot? – the place is still a French fishing port. The people we met in the shops, restaurants and cafés were normal folk, just like the rest of us. The feel of the place was refreshingly ordinary.

Research is vital to my work (and I keep telling the Inland Revenue that) and there is no substitute for going there and seeing it for yourself. Now then, how about Dreaming of the Seychelles...?

ta-williams, author

T.A. Williams lives in Devon with his Italian wife. He was born in England to a Scottish mother and Welsh father. After a degree in modern languages at Nottingham University, he lived and worked in Switzerland, France and Italy, before returning to run one of the best-known language schools in the UK. His hobby is long-distance cycling, but his passion is writing.

Dreaming of St Tropez is available to buy now. For more about the author and upcoming books in the series, you can follow him on Twitter.

Have you ever been to St Tropez? Let me know in the comments below!

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Interview: A.K. Amherst

This week I am pleased to welcome author A.K. Amherst to The Writing Greyhound!

Firstly, please could you introduce yourself?
Hi, I'm Andrea. I'm an Austrian writer who loves to travel the world. Whenever I get the chance I spend some longer time abroad. I lived for three months Down Under, another time I spent a year in Sweden. Living with people from other countries and experiencing their culture really helped me to broaden my horizons. I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything in the world. 
My interest in foreign countries also shows in my writing. My books usually pick up one or another historical or cultural topic. By telling my characters' journeys I want my readers to experience a life different from their own and relate to it one way or another.
How did you first become interested in writing?
I started writing my first short story when I was nine. I used the characters of my favourite kid's book and put them into my very own adventure. It took me about six months to develop and write the story. I remember how proud I was when I finally finished it. Then I made a huge mistake: I showed it to my German teacher. He took the story home with him and read it. In the next lesson, he made me read it out loud in front of my classmates. I was so nervous. I asked him to read it for me but he pointed out: No, a writer always reads her work herself.
belfast-central, ak-amherst, book

Tell me about Belfast Central.
Belfast Central tells the story of the young and idealistic paramedic called Ryan. In order to work in his dream job, he neglected a career in the company of his family who made a fortune with producing and selling guns. 
When Ryan gets shot on duty at Belfast Central, he has a hard time dealing with what happened. A welcome distraction is the search for the stranger who saved his life. But the more he finds out about this stranger's past and his involvement in the shooting, the more dangerous it gets for Ryan. 
In order to stop those responsible for the shooting Ryan might be forced to let go of some of his deepest values and deal with the consequences...
What drew you to writing in the thriller genre?
To be honest, when I sat down and started writing this story 13 years ago (yes 13!) I didn't intend to write a thriller. I had the character in mind and the topic, everything else came with the writing. Ryan is very driven to find out why the shooting at Belfast Central took place and he is more daring than I ever could have imagined. I like what he has become, what he made of his own story.
Did you find writing about history a challenge?
Yes, it was challenging. Since I don't live in Northern Ireland I had to do a lot of research from afar. I read a lot about the history and checked each fact multiple times. It was important for me to have the story set up before travelling to Belfast myself. Once there, I didn't want to waste time with basic research but dig as deep as possible. Travelling to the settings of my book was also very fulfilling. It was the last step of a very intense and fun journey.
How did you get inspiration?
I draw a lot of inspiration from music. I love listening to ballads and country, but also pop – everything that catches the mood or feelings of my characters in a certain moment. Most of my key scenes are linked to songs with strong messages. Whenever I rewrote a scene I made sure I have the adjoining tunes in my ear.
What’s your writing process?
I have the worst writing habit you could imagine. I just start randomly in the middle – from there I go wherever my imagination leads me. With Belfast Central being my first book this approach cost me a lot of time. But I learned from it, I'm approaching storytelling a bit more structured now. Still, I don't like to know where my story ends when I start. I want the characters to lead me. It's much more fun that way.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
To get your message across. Knowing what you are on about is one thing, making a reader – a total stranger from probably another part of the world – understand your point, is a completely different thing. 
I never really had thought about that until I started reading to my writers' group. When one scene created completely different emotions and interpretations among a group of ten people I understood the scope of the challenge. But the solution was quite simple: I took the feedback, rewrote the scene and made the message clearer. 
This was an important lesson for me. The art of good writing is to hint a certain direction but to never limit the reader in his own opinion or imagination. As a writer, I need to be aware that they will have their own interpretations of my text and accept that. Telling my readers what to think would be the worst I could do. So I won't. EVER.
ak-amherst, author

What do you love most about writing?
The ability to touch readers with my stories. Storytelling is very powerful. I find it interesting that in marketing – the branch I work in - this is a rather new concept. Companies and brands are trying to tell stories in advertisements and on social media more than ever. But this is nothing new. Writers have used the art of storytelling for centuries. It's the means of choice to get a message across, to make it stay in someone's mind. 
After all, I could spare myself the trouble of writing a book about friendship and simply post on Twitter: Friendships can bridge any difference. - Nice statement but probably forgotten the moment I post it. Having two characters, on the other hand, who come from different backgrounds and embody such an unlikely friendship is much more powerful and memorable.
Which authors inspire you?
I take a lot of inspiration from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – his Sherlock Holmes is brilliant but what I admire even more about him is his versatility. Besides crime stories, he wrote adventures like The Lost World or (slightly) supernatural stories like The Mystery of Cloomber
For Belfast Central, my inspiration came from Joan Lingard who wrote the Kevin and Sadie series. My English teacher in school first recommended those stories and I was hooked immediately.
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
Keep going. It gets though that's normal. And it might get even tougher but if you keep holding on the result will be priceless.
What are you currently working on?
Well, there will definitely be a sequel to Belfast Central. It's half-finished and I'm very eager to give those characters the wrap that I have been working on for years. 
Parallel to that, I'm crafting a story that addresses The Lost Generation in Australia. I came across the topic while living there and ever since I feel the need to write about it.
What are you reading at the moment?
I usually read at least three books at the same time and I continue with the one that best fits my mood at the very moment. Currently, I pay much more attention to independent authors than I used to. I started reading the Shelby Nichols series by Colleen Helme and I love it.
What’s your all-time favourite fiction book?
I really liked Tess Gerritsen's The Surgeon – the first part of the Rizzoli & Isles series. The book really gripped me because the medical background of Gerritsen shimmered through. The surgery and coroner scenes were so real. I felt like I was standing next to the doctor the whole time... and I know more about sewing material for dead bodies now than I ever wanted to know.
What’s your all-time favourite non-fiction book?
I don't read a lot of non-fiction book, to be honest. If I do it's usually connected to a book research. But the one non-fiction book I bought and read out of pure interest was written by a former Australian police officer. She was one of the first female detectives back in the 1980s and came across a lot of corruption. In the book she described her journey and what made her become a whistleblower.
What are your ambitions for your writing career?

My ambition really is to keep writing, to keep being inspired. A writer friend once told me that publishers consider the average lifetime of a writer to be 10 years – then they have written everything they had to say. I can't imagine this happening to me and I really hope that my curiosity and my travelling will spare me that fate. I can't imagine my life without writing.

What are your interests outside of writing and reading?
Well, travelling is one. And trying new hobbies. I want to live as many lives as possible, make as many experiences as possible in order to keep my mind and my writing fresh.
Belfast Central is available to buy now. 

What do you think? Will you be reading the book? Let me know in the comments below!