Book Review: The Time Machine

fa039-classics2014Once again I feel bad, having abandoned my poor little blog for almost three weeks. Even worse, I missed my first bloggiversary!! What can I say? We all get busy from time to time… Had I remembered it, I would have thanked all my followers for sticking with me – in spite of my sometimes patchy posting record – so I’ll take this opportunity of doing that now instead…THANK YOU!!

Fortunately I’ve still had plenty of time to read (a couple of 2-hour train rides a week for work will do that) and I’ve now made good on my promise to read H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, after I watched a movie adaptation first. I suspected at the time that this would be a mistake, and it turns out I was right.

My first impression of The Time Machine was this: Unless you are a morning person, this is not a book you should start reading at 7:30 am. Wait until your brain is completely in gear and ready to process lots of scientific details and obsolete vocabulary. I was extremely grateful for my Kindle’s dictionary, as on the first page alone there were 4 or 5 words which I only vaguely understood, and more were sprinkled throughout the rest of the novel.

The narrative is told in first-person: one narrator introduces the Time Traveller, then hands over to him for the bulk of the story (most of which takes place in the distant future). We are then returned to the original narrator for the epilogue.

Only a few characters are named: there is ‘Filby’, a minor character who disappears entirely after the first chapter or two, the Time Traveller’s household staff, and ‘Weena’ a female of the surface-dwelling ‘Eloi’ (one of two distinct species of humans the Time Traveller encounters in the future – the other being the underground dwelling ‘Morlocks’). All other characters are merely referred to by their occupations: the Medical Professional, the Psychologist, the Editor, the Journalist etc.

Although I found it hard to immerse myself in the story, I was struck by the authenticity of it. The Time Traveller’s confusion in the future, unable to understand the language of the people and therefore constantly making false assumptions about the world in which he found himself struck a chord. None of this made it into the movie adaption I watched – I suppose Hollywood weren’t prepared to make a movie where the characters could interact only by pointing… As it turns out, many of the most memorable parts of the movie were Hollywood additions, not in the novel at all.

One more thing…I don’t wish to spoil the ending of either book or movie, but I will say that although they end up in more or less the same place, the routes they take to get there are vastly different.

So…who should read it? Fans of sci-fi for sure, if only so you can say you’ve read it (as it is a staple of the genre). Other than that, I’d say it’s short, so try it if you want to…but I don’t see myself re-reading it any time soon.

 

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Who decides?

Google “100 books to read before you die” and you’ll find over 200 million results. Why are lists of great novels such a big deal these days?? It seems like everyone is anxious to get in on the act. Amazon, Goodreads, the BBC, Penguin, Time Magazine (just to name a few).

My biggest questions about these lists are these…

  • Who is it that decides what books belong on these lists (and what criteria do they use)?
  • Have the compilers of these lists actually read all of the books they’re recommending?
  • If I disagree with a book that’s made one of these lists, does that say something about my taste, or the compiler’s?

I’ve read a lot of books…and a fair few of them have made one or more of these lists. Remember a while back when the BBC put out a list of 100 books and claimed most people will have only read 6 of them? I’ve read 41, and bits of several more. The ones I haven’t read generally fall into 2 categories:

  • Books I just haven’t got around to reading yet
  • Books that I’m just not interested in reading (usually because the subject matter doesn’t interest me, or I’ve heard that it contains graphic sex, horror or violence)

Here’s the point I had in my head when I started this rant post. Am I a bad person if I refuse to read a work of ‘great literature’ simply because it is not to my taste? Am I really missing out on one of life’s ‘must-have’ experiences, or am I better off deciding that ‘life’s too short’ and instead doing something I’ll actually enjoy? What do you think?

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Book Review: Villette

fa039-classics2014I had never heard of this book before I started this challenge. Villette is a semi-autobiographical novel by Charlotte Brontë, loosely based on her time in a pensionnat (boarding school) in Brussels, Belgium. Set in the fictional town of Villette, in the fictional country of Labassecour, it is told in first-person narrative by the English protagonist, Lucy Snowe.

At first the narrative seems somewhat disjointed, as we are flung from a scene of domestic bliss through a series of barely touched on personal tragedies to Lucy’s decision to seek her fortune abroad. On board ship she meets Miss Ginevra Fanshawe, who is on her way to study at Madame Beck’s pensionnat in the Rue Fossette. Arriving in Villette alone and disoriented, Miss Snowe takes a wrong turning, and instead of finding the English-speaking hotel that had been recommended to her, she winds up on the doorstep of this same establishment. She is immediately hired, first as a nanny to the directress’ children, and later as the English teacher.

To be honest, I found Lucy Snowe to be a fairly annoying character. Although she writes with humor about her trials and tribulations, she bears them far too patiently. If I was placed in similar situations I’d kick up a fuss, but Lucy never does. Although well aware that her employer is spying on her, she never complains about her lack of privacy. Although she clearly has feelings for at least one male character throughout the story, she gracefully steps aside when she feels that other ladies of her acquaintance have a better claim on his affections. Only two characters ever really stir her up, and both are portrayed (at least at first) as genuinely odious people who would drive a saint to blasphemy.

That said, I still enjoyed reading Villette, although it was hard going until a few of the seemingly disconnected characters and events started to interlink. There were occasions when Lucy deliberately chose not to reveal details she’d learned about characters until later because ‘it did not suit her humor’. Personally I would have found it an easier read if it had.

Note: I was grateful that the library’s edition of Villette was annotated, as much of the dialogue in the book is in French, and although I was able to follow some of it, I would never have finished the book without the translations provided!

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Movie Review: The Time Machine (2002)

fa039-classics2014You probably won’t believe me when I tell you this. It was just like something off The Simpsons. There I was, sitting on my couch, contemplating my next step in the “Back to the Classics 2014″ challenge. I was checking my local library catalogue and thought I’d better look up The Time Machine, knowing that as there had been no very recent adaptions it might be hard to track down a DVD. I realised with horror that they didn’t have a copy of any film adaptions, recent or otherwise. Just as I was debating whether my next step would be a trip to Video Ezy or eBay, an ad came up on the TV. “Guy Pierce in The Time Machine, coming up next on GEM!”

Hard to believe, but 100% true! I had to make a difficult choice. Watch the movie before I read the book (one of my pet hates) or wait and read the book, knowing I might not be able to get hold of a copy of the movie again before the end of the challenge. As you can probably guess from the timing of this post, this time practicality won out over pet peeves. I will of course be reading the book as soon as possible.

Not having read the book, I can only describe the movie as I saw it. It tells the story of engineer Alexander Hartdegen who, after the sudden death of his new fiancée, becomes obsessed with the idea of time travel. After one unsuccessful attempt to save her life, he travels forwards in time to find out if any later advances in the field may help him understand why he failed. An accident flings him many thousands of years into the future, where he finds that humanity has evolved far beyond his imagination.

Obviously I cannot comment on how closely this adheres to the book, but I look forward to finding out. I will say that I thought the period sets and costumes were well done, and I enjoyed the acting, although it will probably colour my reading of the book.

Most of the special effects were also quite clever; the time lapse sequences as Alexander moved back and forwards in time were particularly stunning. I loved the vox (a futuristic library interface) but don’t expect to find him in the book. His frequent references to pop culture created since 1899 are obviously not going to appear in the novel (unless H.G. Wells had a time machine of his own!) Sadly I found the Morlocks too puppetlike to be truly frightening, although Jeremy Irons’ Über-Morlock was fairly chilling.

Although the ending was satisfactory, it left many unanswered questions. For example, how on earth did the Eloi learn ‘the stone language’ (English) from a pile of fragmented plaques? I also found Alexander’s confrontation with the Über-Morlock particularly unsatisfying, with many more questions only half answered. Overall The Time Machine was a fairly stock-standard fantasy adventure, worth watching once, but probably not something I’d watch over and over again.

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Just coming up for air

I feel like I’ve been neglecting my blog this week – and by extension all of you readers. It’s been crazy, and much as I’ve wanted to, writing a blog post has been the last thing on my mind (and my to-do list).

Good news #1

I finished and edited a short story, and submitted it to a local literary competition…I was really proud of the beginning, but the ending wasn’t as strong as I’d hoped. My confidence has also been a little battered by the fact that my beta reader (my Mum) didn’t seem to like it all that much, but it’s not a genre she reads a lot so I’m trying to stay positive.

Good news #2

I’ve been kept pretty busy with additional days at my paid job…which means more money coming in!!

Bad news #1

More paid work = less writing time. I had to abandon one competition this week as the deadline was unrealistic, and it looks like I may not have anything ready for next week’s competition either.

Bad news #2

Less writing time = less blog posts = less people reading my blog. This makes me sad :-( I love the feeling of knowing that I’m not just sending my thoughts out into nothingness, but when the posts dry up, so do the page views…

So…that’s my week. How was yours?

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Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

fa039-classics2014This is book number two in the “Back to the Classics 2014 challenge”, which could have fulfilled any number of categories for me.

  • 20th Century classic
  • Classic in translation
  • Author that is new to me
  • Classic adapted into a movie or TV series

I have chosen however, to review this under the category of “Classic About War”. I knew very little about this book when I started reading it. The first surprise I had when I took it off the library shelf was how skinny it was. I was expecting it to be a much longer book, but in the end it took me under three days to finish it.

In Im Westen nichts Neues (literally: Nothing New on the Western Front) Erich Maria Remarque drew on his own experiences as a young German soldier in World War I to give an unvarnished account of life in the trenches, told through the eyes of Paul Bäumer.  Bäumer tells readers that he was one of a class of 20 students who, before finishing school, were marched down to the local recruiting office by an overly-enthusiastic teacher to enlist en masse in the army. He shares his best and worst memories of basic training, fighting on the front lines, visits to casualty clearing stations and army hospitals, as well as the difficulties he faced when going home on leave. I was especially touched by a scene where Bäumer finds himself in a dugout with a dead French soldier, and reflects on the fact that both were just soldiers, following orders and trying to stay alive.

I probably don’t know enough about the underlying causes of the war, but knowing how it turned out, I did find myself conflicted at times. In reading this book though, I was reminded that often in war, the ordinary soldier is only following orders, and does not deserve the ire that is sometimes directed at them. Apparently some of the earliest German readers weren’t impressed with this message, as the Nazi party had copies of the book burned for being ‘a betrayal of the German front-line soldier’.

I found All Quiet on the Western Front to be an engaging read, although I read a more recent translation (by Brian Murdoch). It would be interesting to compare it with older translations to see if still I found it as enjoyable. Certainly I found it to be educational, and I can’t help but wonder why it took me so long to try it. I would say it is a must-read for anyone interested in 20th century history, and World War I in particular.

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The Etiquette of Competitions

Just a short post today, because I’ve been pretty snowed under lately. I have a few competition deadlines coming up in the next couple of weeks, and to be honest, I’m starting to panic.

Right now, I have well over half of a story that I’m really proud of. I was sitting on a train scribbling some nonsense or other (with pen on paper!) when this story just started flowing on to the page. Normally I’m a serious ‘plotter’ but I really enjoyed ‘pantsing’ this one. If I can end it as strongly as I started, then win or lose, I’ll be happy to submit it for my first deadline.

My problem is, there’s another competition that closes the next day. And I’ve got nothing. I’ve got a few key words I’m playing with, but they’re really more suited to a competition that closes the following week.

For those who aren’t into entering competitions, most will only accept original, unpublished works – but they are pretty open about how new they are. Some have a timeline, for example ‘only works written after X date will be accepted’. Some organisations will accept works that have previously been submitted to other competitions provided they have not been awarded a prize. Some organisations will even accept works that have been submitted to multiple, simultaneous competitions, provided the author immediately withdraws their entry if it wins a prize in another competition. Then again, some organisations insist that works must ‘not be under consideration’ for any other prizes during the period of their competition.

My preference is to submit something new to each competition I enter, mostly because if a piece isn’t good enough to win a competition when it has been specially written to fit the theme and word count, it is unlikely to win anything else. Of course this does put me under a lot more time pressure, so I’m pretty careful to only choose competitions that really interest me (for example, next month I want to enter a competition where writers are asked to write a story based on one of three Shakespeare plays).

Well…that’s what I’m up to this week – along with reading a stack of books I’ve borrowed from our newly refurbished local library and writing some more reviews…I’d better get back to work!!

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Book Review: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

fa039-classics2014 This review is my first for the “Back to the Classics 2014″ challenge.

First a bit of background. Several years before the debut of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Fergus Hume emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, from New Zealand. He was a law clerk with aspirations of becoming a playwright, but he could find no theatres prepared to premiere his work. Determined to become a writer, he asked a local bookseller what was the current bestselling genre, and was told that crime novels by French author Emile Gaboriau were selling particularly well. Hume purchased several of these and studied their style, before writing his own novel, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Unable to find a publisher, Hume had the novel printed himself and became almost an overnight success, with 5,000 copies sold in October 1886, and 20,000 by the end of that year. He sold the publishing rights to a group of London investors, who soon went bust, and the London publishing firm who succeeded them insisted on several alterations. Fortunately I was able to find a recent edition which claims to have reproduced the original text.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The story is fairly straightforward. In the early hours of a Friday morning, two men get into a hansom cab, one claiming he wishes to see the other (who is very drunk) safely home. A few blocks later, the sober man gets out of the cab, telling the driver the passenger is much better and will give him directions when they arrive in St Kilda. Later, the driver is unable to rouse the passenger and finding him dead, drives to the nearest police station. What follows is a scandal which embroils members of both the highest and lowest echelons of Melbourne society. Who is the dead man? Why does no-one come forward to identify him? Who would want him dead? Why?

This is not a typical whodunnit, and does not follow the standard formula so well-known to fans of Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie. The detectives in charge of investigating the case appear only sporadically, and instead Hume focuses on the private lives of the subjects of the previously mentioned scandal. At times the mystery is almost forgotten in favour of exploring the romance between two of the high-society characters. Unsurprisingly (given his background), one of Hume’s lead characters is a lawyer, but although he expends the most energy on attempting to solve the case, his proposed solution is not the correct one.

What I did enjoy was the depictions of Melbourne society, and the particular attention paid to the geography of the case. I lived in Melbourne for several years when I was a student, so I did get a certain thrill in recognising several landmarks, and being able to visualise many of the settings (which have barely changed in 150 years). I was also struck by the many literary references sprinkled throughout the pages, although I must admit that with the exception of Shakespeare, I recognised very few of them.

Would I recommend it to others? Hard to say… If you enjoy classics, mysteries, or classic mysteries give it a go, but it probably won’t appeal to those whose tastes lean towards the more modern.

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New Year’s Resolutions: Update #1

This is a follow-up post to Happy New Year! and The Disciplined Writer.

Discipline-wise, last year was not a great year for me. Don’t get me wrong. I made a lot of progress. I established this blog, had a few things published in The Paperbook Collective (Issues 3 and 5 if you haven’t read them yet), and worked really hard on always having some form of writing materials on me in case I had a great idea when I was out and about.

What I didn’t do well was actually sitting down and translating those ideas into prose. Recently I came across what I’m hoping will be a useful piece of advice in this area. A professional writing mentor suggested keeping track of word count goals by dividing them up into a pie chart and colouring in the segments as you go. (You can read the full interview here.) My pie chart hasn’t got any slices filled in yet, but I’m working on it…

Word count chart

Another thing I didn’t do well last year was meeting deadlines and submitting work to competitions and journals. Perhaps that had something to do with the way I was storing my list of deadlines. Here’s a screenshot of the excel spreadsheet I use.

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Quite straightforward really. I think what we have here is a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. If I wasn’t anticipating a deadline in the near future, I wouldn’t bother opening the document. If I suspected one was coming up, I’d check the list, and nine times out of ten, realise the deadline I was looking for was now unrealistic, or worse, already behind me!!

Now I have a constant reminder – front and centre.

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I’ve had this whiteboard for a while now, but it’s taken me a long time to figure out the most efficient way of using it… For a while I was using it for ‘to do’ lists, but since those changed almost daily, a notebook was sufficient. Now (as you can probably see) the left half is taken up with a list of potential blog ideas, and a small fraction of what’s on my TBR list. On the right hand side is a list of competition deadlines, themes (or organisation names where no theme is specified) and word limits. THIS YEAR I HAVE NO EXCUSE FOR FORGETTING A DEADLINE. Of course there’s always the possibility that I’ll miss one for any one of a variety of other reasons, but at least I’ll be aware that I’m missing them!!!

Incidentally, I’ve noticed the first couple of deadlines on this list are only three weeks away…I’d better go write something! :-)

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Movie Review: The Book Thief

For my review of Marcus Zusak’s novel, click here.

I probably don’t need to remind my regular readers that I loved the novel, The Book Thief. After all, at the time of writing, it is only three days since I published that post. I had some free time this afternoon, so my Mum (who read the book a few days before I did) and I went to see the movie.

The story is basically the same as the novel. On the cusp of World War II, Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is deposited with foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) in the small German town of Molching. She is immediately befriended by next door neighbour Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), in spite of the fact that their classmates consider her a ‘dummkopf’ due to her inability to read. Hans works hard to help her overcome this difficulty, and in doing so opens her eyes to the power of words. Several months later, a Jewish refugee, Max (Ben Schnetzer) arrives on the Hubermann doorstep begging for sanctuary. As Max’s father sacrificed his life for Hans in the First World War, the Hubermanns feel they cannot refuse…

Yes, the story is basically the same, but the film-makers have made a lot of minor changes:

  • Liesel came to Molching a whole year earlier in the film version, perhaps so she could be present for events which she was only told about later in the book.
  • Several minor characters were omitted or merged.
  • Several incidents from the book were omitted, merged or referred to only in passing, rather than seen in their true context. This also led to several incidents occurring in a different order to that in the book.

That said, the interior of the Hubermann’s home was exactly as I imagined it, as were most of the other backgrounds/sets. The acting was also superb, and the characters were very much as described in the novel. I think that had the movie adhered more closely to the book, it would have added at least another hour to the running time, which, given the subject matter, may have been hard to swallow for some.

I certainly enjoyed The Book Thief, but perhaps not quite as much as the book. If you want to experience the full richness of the world Zusak created, read the novel first.

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