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Interview with Alasdair Shaw

What genre are your books?
The overall genre is science fiction.

OK. What about sub-genre?
Now that’s a bit harder. Choosing a sub-genre is very subjective. Most books will have things which identify with several different categories. Sometimes I wish I could do a word cloud or heat bar for how much a book fits each sub-genre.

Sometimes I call my work military scifi, other times I call it space opera because there are elements that aren’t battles and strategy. Amazon puts my books in space marine, space fleet, and galactic empire. I guess they also fit some of the criteria of post-apocalyptic as there has been a planet-wide nuclear strike, but I really don’t think that is the right category given what most readers understand by it.

What draws you to this genre?
I have enjoyed reading SF for a long time. Iain M Banks’ Excession converted me to a fan and inspired much of the world I have created.

What is the easiest thing about writing?
The easiest thing for me is the world-building. I’ve had the background, technology, etc. in my head for years. I work out the history, rank structures, politics, and so on whenever I’m at a loose end. When I started writing the stories it just flowed.

One problem is trying to strike the right balance between info-dump and vacuum. Of course, different readers have different preferences, but I know that my love of long lectures on historical details is not shared by many.

One day, I might even write a ‘history’ of the Two Democracies universe.

What was your hardest scene to write?
There’s a scene where one of my main characters realises she is being sexually discriminated against. I haven’t written it yet as it will take place in a prequel series to the one I’m writing now, but having her remember it in a scene in my latest story was bad enough. Not only is putting myself in her place harrowing, more so than any of the combat or other horrific scenes I’ve written for her, but it is also very difficult to pitch correctly. She is the victim, but not a victim.

How would you react if a film were made of one of your books?
I’d be stunned. It would be really cool. To see “Liberty, the new movie by Stephen Spielberg” or something like that would be a mark that I had made it as a writer. I’d certainly go to see it.

One worry would be that it wouldn’t match what was in my head. Many of the scenes have detailed descriptions of actions, but a lot of what happens is going on in the characters’ heads and that is hard to do in a film.

If you could spend time with a character from your books, which would it be?
Now that’s not fair. I don’t think I could single one out without upsetting the others.

I’m going to have to insist on an answer.
Hmm. It’ll have to be a group outing: Prefect Olivia Johnson, Pilot Legionary Anastasia Seivers, and The Indescribable Joy of Destruction (well, its primary personality at least).

And what would you do on that outing?
Go for a walk in the mountains. Discuss things. Set the world to rights. Oh, and gang up on Johnson to try to get her to try reading more fiction.

What’s your favourite under-appreciated novel?
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. It is incredibly witty and clever, as well as being a great story. I also love the power he gives to books in it. The lead character is a Spec Ops 27 agent, responsible for policing crimes involving literary works (other than Shakespeare, of course, which is covered by Spec Ops 29).

Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?
Aristotle. I’d like to see if I could convince him of the Galilean/Newtonian understanding of the laws of motion.


Alasdair Shaw grew up in Lancashire, within easy reach of the Yorkshire Dales, Pennines, Lake District and Snowdonia. After stints living in Cambridge, North Wales, and the Cotswolds, he has lived in Somerset since 2002.

He has been rock climbing, mountaineering, caving, kayaking and skiing as long as he can remember. Growing up he spent most of his spare time in the hills. Recently he has been doing more sea kayaking, running and swimming.

Alasdair studied at the University of Cambridge, leaving in 2000 with an MA in Natural Sciences and an MSci in Experimental and Theoretical Physics. He went on to earn a PGCE, specialising in Science and Physics, from the University of Bangor. A secondary teacher for over fifteen years, he has plenty of experience communicating scientific ideas.

The Two Democracies: Revolution science fiction series starts with Independence, and continues with Liberty. The third story, The Perception of Prejudice, is released this month. Equality will hopefully be released in summer 2017, followed by Fraternity the year after.

You can see what else he gets up to on his website at http://www.alasdairshaw.co.uk.

Reading Science Fiction and Fantasy Makes Your Kids Smarter

by J. Philip Horne


Do you want your children to expand their vocabulary and, more importantly, learn to continue to expand their vocabulary in the normal course of life more rapidly? Give them science fiction and fantasy novels to read. Science fiction and fantasy novels overtly place demands on readers that are implicit and beneficial in all literature: namely, the skill of learning word meanings from context.

Children reading a novel set in a familiar time and place may gloss over words they don’t understand because the general setting and flow of the story isn’t compromised. The story, even the specific sentence, still makes sense to them, or makes enough sense, even if they don’t know the meaning of a particular adjective or even verb. The story remains enjoyable and engaging despite words passing by, unknown. Though they will still benefit from the gradual expansion of their vocabulary, they won’t necessarily be overtly challenged to wrestle with the context to find the meaning.

Science fiction and fantasy novels are in your face. They focus on strange new settings and employ vocabulary that is often new or even made-up. If the reader is unwilling to puzzle out the meaning of words from their context, the story will simply drag to a halt and the enjoyment of the story will evaporate. Young readers want to enjoy books and will find their natural curiosity pushing them to decipher these strange or made-up words.

Like any skill, the ability to learn word meaning from context improves with practice. In my experience, the overt practice of this skill forced on readers by science fiction and fantasy translates into an improved passive ability to harvest new vocabulary from other literature. The child practices the skill on behalf of their enjoyment of the The Hobbit, and goes on to more effortlessly expand their vocabulary when reading Where the Red Fern Grows.

You can find endless, helpful lists online of great SFF books for kids. Probably the most important series to me as a child was the Chronicles of Narnia. The seven books in the series get sorted in two different orders based on publication date and the chronology of the stories themselves. I strongly recommend starting with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. From there, either order will work.

Beyond that, I read voraciously from authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien (have you heard of him?), David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Robert Heinlein, and others. As I’ve read books along with my own children, I’ve come to love J.K. Rowling (you may have heard of her as well), Eoin Colfer, Margaret Peterson Haddix, and many more.

The goal is not to convince your child to read so that they improve their vocabulary. Rather, help them find books they love, and the process, particularly with science fiction and fantasy novels, will happen organically. Good luck!

You can check out J. Philip Horne’s books here.

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