It’s Another Reading Challenge!

backtotheclassics2015BUTTONIt’s back! Karen at Books and Chocolate is once again hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge! While I’m still a day or so off finishing the 2014 challenge, I thought I’d get in early and announce my 2015 reading list. There are some fascinating categories in the 2015 list, and, like as in 2014, I’ve already picked out the books I want to attempt.

1.  A 19th Century Classic Jules Verne – Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864)
2.  A 20th Century Classic E. M. Forster – A Passage to India (1924)
3.  A Classic by a Woman Author Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway (1925)
4.  A Classic in Translation Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo (1844)
5.  A Very Long Classic Novel V. S. Naipaul – A House for Mr Biswas (1961)
6.  A Classic Novella Franz Kafka – The Metamorphosis (1912)
7.  A Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title Charles Dickens – Oliver Twist (1838)
8.  A Humorous or Satirical Classic Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote (1605)
9.  A Forgotten Classic Rudyard Kipling – Kim (1901)
10.  A Nonfiction Classic Frederick Douglass – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)
11.  A Classic Children’s Book Frances Hodgson Burnett – A Little Princess (1905)
12.  A Classic Play William Shakespeare – Richard III (1592)

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This lot ought to make 2015 interesting! Reviews will be linked to this post as I complete each book.
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Book Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel

fa039-classics2014

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? - Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive pimpernel!

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy is the second last book I needed to read for the Back to the Classics Challenge of 2014. I don’t know now why I left it so long. It is a fairly short, easy read, with plenty of action.

It is 1792. Lady Marguerite Blakeney, a former French actress, is fed up with life with her lazy, indolent English husband – Sir Percy Blakeney. She dreams of meeting the swashbuckling “Scarlet Pimpernel”, the leader of a group of 20 dashing young English nobles who have made it their mission to rescue French aristocrats from the revolutionary government, and Madame Guillotine. Then disaster befalls her. Citizen Chauvelin, an agent of the French government, approaches her to warn her that he has evidence her brother is in league with the Scarlet Pimpernel. He gives her a choice: help him discover the identity of her hero, or her brother goes to the guillotine in his place.

As you can imagine, the plot is fairly predictable, and the clues to the Pimpernel’s true identity are about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Orczy frequently describes Marguerite as being renowned for her cleverness, yet she is the last person in the novel to figure out the truth. She is redeemed however, as she chooses to attempt to warn the Pimpernel of his danger, risking her own life to do so.

I actually really enjoyed this one, and can give no higher recommendation than to say that of all the books I’ve read for this challenge, The Scarlet Pimpernel is the first one I can genuinely see myself reading again. Keep an eye out in the next few weeks for my review of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, my wrap-up post for the 2014 challenge, and my announcement post for the 2015 challenge!

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Miniseries Review: Death Comes to Pemberley

I’ve been waiting months to see Death Comes to Pemberley, after I read and reviewed the book by P. D. James earlier this year. Apparently the UK got to watch it last Christmas, and the USA earlier this year, but down here we’ve had to wait, and wait, and wait. By the time I finally found out it was being aired here, I’d already missed the first episode. :-( Fortunately it was on a channel with a great online catch-up service, so I watched the first two episodes back to back. :-) Then I was disappointed to learn that I had to wait a whole week for the final installment. :-(

At first glance, the casting is not exactly what I’d have chosen, but all the actors did a great job bringing their respective characters to life. I was a little disappointed that Mr and Mrs Bennett stayed the night at Pemberley at the beginning, instead of Mr and Mrs Bingley, but it did make for some interesting exchanges between Mr Bennett and Mr Darcy.

It is fairly obvious that Death Comes to Pemberley is not part of the Austen cannon. It has the same piercing insight into the characters, but without the genteel restraint of Austen’s novels (and consequently, the film adaptions of them). Both the book and the miniseries assume that the audience are very familiar with Pride and Prejudice, but the miniseries is perhaps less subtle about it, using several flashbacks to events from the characters’ pasts throughout the series.

As usually happens in film adaptations, things did not always occur in the same way or the same order as in the book. While nothing vital seems to have been missed out, there were times where I feel the drama was heightened – whether to make the series more interesting or to give Elizabeth more air time I couldn’t say. The big reveal at the end of the series was, in my opinion, slightly overdone, and did not maintain the strict adherence to the social niceties of the time that had been otherwise generally well portrayed. That said, I still enjoyed the series, and would recommend it to Austen fans, but should point out that it has little in common with most of P. D. James’ other works.

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On Expanding my Horizons

The other day, my father implied that I only read books of British or American origins. At first I protested, and then I thought about it a little. It turns out it’s true. Most of what I read does originate in countries that are/were a part of the British Commonwealth.

  • Australia
  • USA
  • Canada
  • Great Britain
  • Ireland
  • India
  • South Africa

There are a few notable exceptions. I’ve read a fair few French novels (translated into English of course). I’ve read a few things from Austria, Germany and the Netherlands (mostly memoirs from WW2 and the holocaust), and one novel about the Titanic by a Norwegian author. Here’s a map showing the origin countries of the authors I’ve read. (Don’t read anything into the colours, I just picked at random!)

To be honest, this is a little sad. I’m sure there are some awesome books out there from other cultures and awesome authors from other countries. I’ve even read reviews of some of them on other people’s blogs, but somehow the books themselves have never made it onto my TBR. So, in 2015, I will be challenging myself to branch out and read a few novels from other parts of the world (provided I can get an English translation). Hopefully when I publish this map again in 12 months time, it will be a lot more colourful!

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Book Review: The First Casualty

Towards the end of WW1, a famous British war hero, poet, and aristocrat is listed as “killed in action”. There is unease in political circles, as Viscount Abercrombie was actually convalescing in a home for shell-shocked soldiers, well behind the front lines when he died. The evidence suggests that he was deliberately murdered by a Private soldier with Bolshevist leanings. If this is made known to the wider world, it could ignite a mutiny among the exhausted troops at the front, and a class war back at home.

At the same time, the newspapers are filled with the scandal of a famous Scotland Yard detective, jailed for two years for refusing to be conscripted into the army. Surprisingly, Inspector Douglas Kingsley does not object to killing a man when it is deserved, but claims that the war is “illogical”, “not worth the destruction it is causing”, and that the German soldiers have done nothing to deserve death. Two weeks after his incarceration, Kingsley is pulled out of jail and sent to the front, where, in addition to discovering the truth about Abercrombie’s death, he learns a lot about himself as he struggles to reconcile his own morals with the actions he is forced to take to keep himself alive.

Before I read this I thought I was pretty familiar with Ben Elton’s work. I’ve read several of his other novels, including Stark, Gridlock and Dead Famous. I’ve also seen quite a lot of the British sit-coms to which his name is attached, such as The Young Ones, and Blackadder. With all that background, I was, I admit, expecting more comedy, but that is not what The First Casualty is. Instead it is a dark, raw view of the war. We follow Kingsley through his trial for “cowardice” and his short time in prison, then to France and Belgium where (traveling under the name of Captain Christopher Marlowe) he sees more action in investigating Abercrombie’s death than he would ever have if he had merely agreed to register as a “conscientious objector” and joined a medical regiment or other peaceful branch of the service. The language used is brutal, describing the horrors of mud and blood at the front. I should also warn that there are occasions where characters use extreme coarse language, which, while illustrative of their mental states at the time, may offend some readers.

A great deal of the novel is concerned with the politics of the time: the causes of the war, Irish home rule, the treatment of suffragettes, the rise of Communism, and the Russian Revolution. More than one character asks Kingsley how he can claim the moral high-ground in opposing the war, when as a London police officer he knowingly wore the same uniform as men who were oppressing those who were fighting for the above listed political causes.

As I already said, The First Casualty was not exactly what I expected it would be, but nevertheless I… (I hesitate to say enjoyed it, because quite a lot of the scenes did not make for very pleasant reading). I read it quickly, and I don’t regret reading it. (No, even that doesn’t quite describe it.) If you are interested in World War One, and are mature enough to handle it, The First Casualty is definitely worth reading, but you may not want to read it a second time! (At least, not for a while anyway.)

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What’s in my Spam Folder this week?

Just for a laugh, this week I checked my spam comments. I do that every so often, in case a genuine comment has slipped through the net, which sometimes happens. Honestly, most of them were really vague, but it’s funny that they were not in any way related to my blog, and clearly just fishing (phishing?).

The dodgy comments that had been trapped in the spam filter all had a few things in common:

  • They were posted from either dodgy facebook pages or web-based email addresses full of random strings of letters and numbers.
  • They were all posted on blog posts at least a week (and sometimes well over a year) old.
  • Most of them had at least one (or many more) typos.

Funnily enough, none of them contained hyperlinks to their own websites, which I thought was the whole point of spam?

While I’m not going to go into exactly what each one wanted, the comments all basically fell into the following categories.

  • Comments clearly trying to sell something: eg escorts, web browsers, tourist attractions etc.
  • Comments that were just trying to trick the spam filter by making vague references that may or may not have been related to my posts: eg Thanking me for books/reviews I’ve never written, thanking me for advice on topics I’ve never blogged about, comments starting off by talking about a book I’ve reviewed and then somehow trailing off to liking what I’ve said about books I’ve never read, and one comment telling me how talented I am (on my reviews page, but not specifying any particular post they enjoyed – even though they appeared to be asking questions about a specific book – not that the question was related to any of the books I’ve actually reviewed).

I can only assume that if I’d approved any of the comments in the second category, they would have then gone on to flood my blog with spam from the first category… but I didn’t.

So, what’s the most interesting spam comment you’ve had? For more information on spotting spam, I found this article pretty useful.

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Book Review: The Man in the Iron Mask

fa039-classics2014Hollywood has a lot to answer for. If you have only seen the big budget Hollywood movies of Alexandre Dumas’ work you would believe:

  1. The Man in the Iron Mask is the immediate sequel (and only sequel) to The Three Musketeers
  2. The Man in the Iron Mask is an action-packed romp that ends with the good guys winning one last heroic battle against unbelievable odds
  3. The character of ‘the man in the iron mask’ is the central focus of the novel

None of these things are true, so lets start sorting out the truth from the Hollywood myths shall we?

1. The d’Artagnan Romances, as the series is properly called, consists of the following novels.

  • The Three Musketeers
  • Twenty Years After
  • The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later (Which is further broken up into three volumes:
    • The Vicomte de Bragelonne
    • Louise de la Vallière
    • The Man in the Iron Mask)

Another two novels, The Son of Porthos (or the Death of Aramis) and D’Artagnan Kingmaker were written after Dumas’ death by Paul Mahalin, under the pen name “Alexandre Dumas”. Are you learning something yet? I didn’t know any of this until I was half-way through the book!

2. The Man in the Iron Mask is mostly about political intrigues, and an awful lot of the novel consists of people writing letters to each other, selling compromising letters from/about their political rivals to their political allies and making pointed digs about their political rivals whenever they think it might make the king like them more. Quite often these political machinations occur over meals, while walking or riding in uninhabited forests, or in the King’s private chambers just before bed-time.

The four musketeers (Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan) have limited communications between one another, but they are all very old men, and only Porthos and Aramis spend any large portions of the novel together. I don’t recall a single scene where all four are together in the same place at the same time. As far as I can remember, Athos raises a sword only once, to break it in protest at the King’s behaviour. There are a few action scenes involving the others, mostly towards the end of the novel and *spoiler alert* just about everyone dies.

3. These action scenes have little if anything to do with ‘the man in the iron mask’ (Phillipe) who appears briefly about 150 pages in to the (480 page) novel, has a slightly larger part to play around the middle (from about page 250 onwards), but is almost completely forgotten 150 pages before the end. Contrary to the Hollywood version, there is no triumphant second rescue and successful substitution for King Louis XIV, who is not quite as evil in the book as he was made out to be in the film. Instead most of the action is related to the arrest of the King’s finance minister (Fouquet), who stole a large sum of money from the royal coffers at some point before the novel began. This arrest then leads to the hunt for Aramis and Porthos, who brought in Phillipe in an attempt to protect the Fouquet, and are charged with treason because of it.

I guess the most important question, now I’ve got all that out of the way, is did I enjoy the book? Yes, and No. It took me a very long time to get into the story (about 150 pages actually) and then with NaNo I barely read any over November. I read about 200 pages yesterday, and the last 100 or so today, so I suppose you could say the ending was certainly able to keep my attention, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Thank you Hollywood, for making a movie that was better than the book – although the only thing the two have in common are the title and the main characters…

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Post NaNo Blues

This week has felt really weird. (I know it’s only Wednesday today, but it has been 5 days since I finished NaNo, so almost a week.)

  • It’s been weird not forcing myself to sit in front of a computer screen until I’ve churned out at least 1,667 words each day.
  • It’s been weird not having conversations with my characters in my head.
  • It’s been weird not having something interesting (in my mind) to blog about each day.

In mid-October I made the decision that I was going to start the whole crazy NaNoWriMo journey. I sat down and started plotting and planning, thinking that I was nuts and would probably flame out by about day 5 or 6.  I never thought that not only would I love every minute of it, but I’d miss it when it was over. I really do miss it. So much so that I’ve already started jotting down notes for next years’ novel. Wait… did I mention that in my last post? I think I did. See… I’m running out of interesting things to say already!

Apparently, whether I meant to or not, I’ve learned a valuable lesson about making writing a daily habit. Now I need to work on balancing writing with my other commitments (or maybe even getting a life?) This year I haven’t written nearly enough. Well, I wrote a novel (eventually) and a lot of blog posts, but only one short story… Now that NaNo is over, I’m energised and enthusiastic, and already researching three short stories… and I mentioned next years’ novel, right?

To paraphrase Ebeneezer Scrooge, ‘I *will* honor [NaNo] and try to keep it all the year!’

On a different, but vaguely related note, today I got through nearly 150 pages of a book I started reading in October. I only have about 100 pages to go, so if I go back to it now, I may just have a review to post tomorrow!

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NaNo’s over… Now what?

So, now that NaNoWriMo is finished, you might be wondering, ‘what’s next for Aspiring Scribbler?’ Funny you should ask. I’ve been wondering that myself.

  • First and foremost, I am looking forward to taking some time out to catch up on some reading. I’ve only managed a few chapters for the whole of November, and I’m very behind in the Back to the Classics challenge I started in January. I have 2 and a 1/2 books to read, and three reviews to write by the 31st of December.
  • During November I alluded to a history project I’ve been asked to work on for a local community group. Now that I’ve finished drafting my novel, it’s time to commit to some serious research.
  • This year I’ve been extremely slack about working on short stories and getting them entered in competitions. Now is the time to start picking some upcoming competitions for 2015 and brainstorming plot ideas.

That’s probably enough for December, but then there’s the 50,000 words I have sitting on my computer (and backed up on a USB!) What about those?

  • I’m going to take some time out, maybe a few weeks, maybe a couple of months, so that I can go back to it with fresh eyes. I’ll read it over and fix any glaring errors, before I give it to a couple of beta readers for opinions. It’s the first time I’ve completed a draft novel, so I’m guessing it’s going to need a LOT of work before it will be ready to query.
  • I’ve already started jotting down ideas for next year’s NaNo novel. I was originally planning to work on that plot this year, but as it’s a fantasy novel, I needed more time for world-building. I figure with twelve months of (relaxed) preparation and research behind me, I’ll be able to produce a better quality product next November.

What about you lot? Got any post NaNo plans yet?

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NaNoWriMo 2014: Wrap Up! (Day 28)

It’s done. This is the moment when my word count crossed the finish line.

NaNo2014goalHere’s a few stats:

  • 28 days
  • 49 chapters (at least that’s how it’s divided up at the moment)
  • 50,338 words (of very rough and definitely in need of serious revision novel, according to the NaNoWriMo validation page)
  • 26 blog posts (if you’ve been keeping up, you’ll know I missed a couple of nights)
  • About a dozen new followers

Most words written in one day: 3,598 (November 20)

Least words written in one day: 284 (November 9)

Meals eaten in front of my computer: Totally lost count. I’m still finding random cutlery mixed in with my writing tools…

Will I be going again next year? Hell yeah.

Now I just have to wait for the lovely winners t-shirt I’ve ordered to turn up… and face the hard work of rewriting and editing the damn thing so that someone other than myself might want to read it (or even *crosses fingers* pay me money for it?)

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