And the skylight is like skin for a drum I'll never mend
and all the rain falls down amen
on the works of last year's man.
Last year's man - Leonard Cohen
Well, you know what they say about a broken drum - you can't beat it.
I thought I'd actually write about what was behind one of my books. I detest sermons-books, or agenda books (especially when they're a reflection of PC rather than thought). Books need to be enjoyable reads and it is a very rare writer who is good enough to carry a sermon and good entertainment. I know I am not that good (and frankly neither are most of the other proponents of this), so my target has always been to write a great story... which just might happen to make you think. Which show -- rather than prescribe how you should feel -- things which I feel strongly about. The conclusions you reach are your own. For example: RATS BATS AND VATS was variously described as "funny, funny, funny (Brian Murphy, SciFi.com), Noirish comedy alien shoot-em-up (Kirkus) . It's also probably the most serious book I have ever written, about socio-politics, and social exclusion. Oh and about conscription and militarism. I doubt if one reader in ten thousand realised all that as they laughed and enjoyed, but I do hope that a fair number of readers found themselves questioning other unsupported conclusions afterwards. It's what Sir Terry Pratchett does, and while I am not in that league, that is my role model. I remain, I suppose, an idealist. One who writes for money, a mercenary, if you like. But there are causes which pay well I could serve, but will not. And being paid for my books is the sincerest affirmation the fact that I do entertain, for all that.
Anyway: WITHOUT A TRACE is in many ways the works of last year's man. It was written in South Africa, at a time when the various militias of the various political factions were increasingly using children as cannon fodder.
It's not something that has gone away (they perpetrated most of the murder, destruction and rapine in Zimbabwe, and are stirring in South Africa now) -- or was new then -- and its tragic consequences, child soldiers in Sierra Leone, or in Uganda with the Lord's Resistance Army are the end point of this. Nor is something that is confined to Africa, as shown by the Hitlerjugend and the Deutches Jungvolk, and their charming Russian equivalent -- where children were encouraged to spy on their parents and turn them over ‘re-education' to merely name two of these pestilences.
I've always felt those using ‘youth leagues' for their political (and often military) ends were engaged in a process not unlike paedophile grooming -- and targeting the children for much the same reason as paedophiles find their targets suitably vulnerable for their depraved desires. I don't hold these organisers in very high esteem, as you might possibly gather. They like their fodder without much experience of a wider world, with discernment and empathy still only partially formed, and in the grip of that difficult hormonal phase (period seemed a bad choice of word). It does mess about with your thinking, especially, I think, testosterone. As someone once said: it's like having to get used to having PMT for life. It's not easy being a teen, and, as I remember it, my head was messed up enough without someone else manipulating it. To be clear: those who run youth organisations aimed at letting kids GET that experience and learn that discernment, and NOT TO USE the kids come under the heading of heroes in my book -- the very inverse of the Hitlerjugend, ANC Youth League or Young (insert political party of choice here) movement.
At the time that I wrote this book both the ANC Youth League and Inkatha Youth League were being used in what could only be called atrocities against their opponents. As another form of less obvious and brutal atrocity -- but none-the-less terribly destructive to society and their future, children - particularly boys - were being driven away from reading by the choices of prescribed reading matter for our schools. These were boring, PC and very agenda driven, slow moving, linguistically difficult/weak and nearly on average as appealing to a middle grade child as a bowl of cold dog-sick. There was little in the way of hope and VERY little in the way of entertainment in these books.
And one of the School Text Publishers decided to have a competition for a new school reader. I decided to take on both issues. I knew my attitude towards them had a snowflake's hope in hell with the gatekeepers, but I've been taking on hell with a fire-bucket all my life.
I wrote WITHOUT A TRACE. You can read the start of the book here.
The book was one the finalists, and retained for publication.
Only then after six months... they chickened out.
I shopped the book around to South Africa's pathetic crop of publishers -- who were divided into Apartheid government subsidy publishers, and struggle subsidy publishers. It took me another 14 years to find a publisher, get an advance... and lo, last year they chickened out.
So here it is: It's a story I believe that still has relevance. It was aimed at Middle Grade Readers... by me. Which means if I didn't think it was good enough for adults to read, it wasn't good enough children.
On the book itself: it is set on one of the most turbulent and wildest coasts in Africa: the appropriately named ‘Wild Coast' - the known grave of many ships and disappearing place of far more. A place of savage currents, vast waves, strange phenomena, fragments of history. It's a haunted coast, visited by centuries of Arab slavers and Portuguese carracks, a place of lost dreams, terrible deeds and of great courage.
It's a Bermuda triangle for Africa if you like. And into that African Bermuda triangle -- a universe close enough to break through into periodically - I plunge my heroes -- two boys, honor, courage, determination and mischief, a sense of humor, and lots of attitude. Just your average twelve year olds... dealing with a world lost in time and space, with remanents of all those lost in it: from pirates to warriors, from wild beasts to wild fire. About cliffs, and raging seas.
I've been there, I've seen it. I've done a lot of what I write about.
It's also about loyalty and hope (no love. No kissy stuff, sorry).
It's a boys book for boys, but I have been told by several young women that was pretty cool too. I dunno. I've never been one. But as a young teen it's the book I would have loved to read.
The e-arc of the novel is up at Naked Reader. If you have been wondering what to put on that Kindle for your middle grade reader: you might try this.