Book Review: Only the Animals

Only the Animals is a selection of 10 short stories, each told from the point of view of the soul of a dead animal. Each story appears in chronological order, beginning with a camel who died in central Australia in 1892, and ending with a parrot in Lebanon in 2006.

Many of the stories focus on animals caught up in human conflicts, like a cat accidentally left in the trenches of WW1 France by an author visiting her soldier husband, a mussel (yes, the shellfish) clinging to the hull of an American battleship in 1941 or a dolphin used by the navy to identify sea mines in the middle east in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Although I admit many of the literary references went over my head (having had neither the time or the inclination to read many of the heavyweights mentioned, including Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath) the stories were very moving, with both humorous and tragic moments. I never thought I’d cry over the death of a fictional mussel (again, the shellfish!)

Although possibly not to everyone’s taste, I certainly enjoyed Only the Animals, and would recommend it to people who are looking to read something a little different.

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Book Review: The Woman in Black

Warning: Do not read this book after dark unless you are prepared to be frightened!!

Last Halloween my Dad had the ‘brilliant idea’ of watching the film version of The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe. This in spite of the fact that all of us who were home that night are terrible with horror movies, and he couldn’t even sit through the 1989 adaption. Needless to say we were all scared out of our wits, and got no peace until the story was ended.

You might be surprised then that I decided to read the novel by Susan Hill, on which both these movies was based. Be assured, I did so only in daylight hours, as the one time I tried to read it in bed I found the chilling atmosphere described too much to bear. Feel free to label me a chicken in the comments, but maybe horror and ghost stories just aren’t my thing.

Plot

Arthur Kipps is relaxing at home with his second wife and her adult children, when they decide to revisit an old tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. After the youngsters have all had their turn, they turn to Arthur, insisting that everyone knows at least one ghost story. He responds by leaving the room and refusing to discuss the matter further. Later he admits (to the reader) that he has had experiences of the supernatural that mean he cannot enjoy ghost stories, and decides to write an account of his past, which will be left to his family for them to read after his death.

Arthur then takes us back to the days of his youth, when as a young solicitor he was sent to an out of the way village, to attend to the funeral and estate papers of a recluse, Mrs Alice Drablow. Whenever he mentions his business to the locals, they immediately change the subject, and Arthur must discover the horrifying truth about Eel Marsh House and it’s tragic past for himself.

Having already said that horror stories aren’t really my thing, it would be pointless to suggest that I really enjoyed The Woman in Black. Even so, it was well written, the descriptions were believable and created the right kind of atmosphere for the different parts of the story. The characters were also relatable and it was easy to care about what happened to them. Obviously my reading of the book was coloured by having seen the movie first, but I think the book was actually less frightening – not just because I had an idea of where the story was heading – but because some of the elements of the story were altered or enhanced in the film version to add more of a chill factor. If horror stories are your thing, then I would recommend you read The Woman in Black. Even if they’re not, you still might want to try it!

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Book Review: Neverwhere

I mentioned last week that I’ve been on a Neil Gaiman kick didn’t I? Neverwhere is his novelisation of a television series he wrote in the mid-90s. You read that right – Neverwhere was a TV series before it was a novel. In fact, there are several novelisations, all by Gaiman: a British version, an American version and the “Author’s preferred” text, which basically attempts to unify the other two. I read the Author’s preferred version.

Plot

Richard Mayhew, is a perfectly normal human being who lives a perfectly normal life in London with his perfectly normal job and his perfectly normal fiancée, Jessica. That is, until one day he sees a young girl lying bleeding in the street, and insists upon helping her. She refuses his offers to call an ambulance, and instead agrees to be taken to his apartment for first aid. The young girl, who introduces herself as “Door”, speaks to a rat in Richard’s apartment, and then sends Richard out to find a man called “The Marquis de Carabas”. The Marquis comes to collect Door, and they both apologise to Richard for the trouble. We soon find out exactly how much trouble Richard is in… he becomes invisible to not only taxi-drivers and train conductors, but also his fiancée, co-workers and landlord. He has fallen through the cracks and become part of London’s “Underside”. Richard has no choice but to find Door and the Marquis, while being pursued by the villainous Croup and Vandemar, who have their own reasons for finding Door.

This is one of those books where giving out too much detail in a review would, I believe, spoil the experience of reading it. It should be enough to say that Richard is on a wild ride, and as he has no idea what is in store for him, the reader shouldn’t know too much in advance either. If you’ve read Gaiman before, you’ll know that he peoples his worlds with strange but loveable characters, who generally experience situations previously thought to be impossible. This formula really works for Gaiman, and it’s why I love his writing so much. I will say one more thing… this is definitely NOT a children’s book, and contains some filthy language, along with some detestable characters who do disgusting things… You have been warned, but seriously – read it anyway!

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#MyWritingProcess

I’ve been tagged to participate in the #MyWritingProcess blog hop by Kai*Jordan (Thanks Kai!)

What I’m working on

To be honest, apart from the book reviews on this blog I haven’t written a lot lately. I have ideas, and outlines, but for some reason that’s all they’ve come to so far. I’m currently working on a short story for a competition that closes at the end of October, and I’m hoping to embark on a new history project in the near future.

How does my work differ from others in the genre

This is a tough one, because at the moment I’m not really writing in one specific genre…

Why do I write what I do

Fiction: I’m heavily influenced by crime novels (I have ALL 66 of Agatha Christie’s in my collection) and fantasy (I started off with the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, devoured the Harry Potter series and now I really wish I had more time to finish reading A Song of Ice and Fire).

Non-fiction: I majored in Ethnomusicology at university, then followed it up by doing a business course that focused on using Microsoft programs for document creation. When I was offered actual MONEY to combine these skills and produce a history book, I obviously jumped at the chance!

How does my writing process work?

I’m actually a big fan of deadlines. I need them. When I’m just writing for the heck of it, not a lot happens. Put a deadline in front of me and there’s a sudden flurry of activity. I suppose it comes from my university training…

When I’m starting a new story, there’s usually a lot of planning goes on. Character profiles, photographs of real places that inspire me (or hand-drawn sketches of imagined scenes). If I’m working in an imaginary world I’ll start with a map, much like the ones in Tolkien or Martin’s books.

I still struggle a bit with the concept of letting myself write a bad first draft. I tend to write one day, then revise what I’ve written the next day before moving on. Perhaps this is why I only seem to finish short stories!

Who I’m tagging

Jodie Llewellyn describes herself as “an aspiring YA author and book blogger”. She is due to celebrate her first bloggiversay (bloggOversary?) later this month, and I am in awe of the following she has developed in such a short time.

Jeff Coleman Writes (really well!!) He describes himself as a modern literary fantasy author, and I can’t wait for the next installment in his current serial, A Case of Mistaken Identity.

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Book Review: The Graveyard Book

A mysterious man strides through a darkened house in the middle of the night. He has already disposed of the most of the family members, and is searching for the youngest child, a young boy barely old enough to walk. Unbeknownst to him, he has left the front door open, and the toddler has taken himself out to explore.

The assassin tracks the boy to a nearby graveyard, but is waylaid by a man who he takes to be the caretaker and is forced to abandon his search. Meanwhile, the ghosts of the people buried in the graveyard, realising the boy is in danger, agree to adopt him. Mr and Mrs Owens are named the boy’s new parents, and they call him ‘Nobody’ (‘Bod’ for short). The ghosts cannot leave the graveyard to provide food and clothing for ‘Bod’, so Silas (a mysterious man who lives in the graveyard’s chapel and transcends the borders between the living and the dead) agrees to be Bod’s ‘guardian’.

The rest of the novel follows Bod’s adventures growing up in the graveyard. Granted ‘the freedom of the graveyard’, he is able to perform many ghostly maneuvers such as fading into invisibility, walking through solid walls and entering the dreams of others. Unfortunately these useful tricks only work within the confines of the graveyard. Whenever he leaves the graveyard, trouble always follows.

I’d be lying if I said I never read ‘children’s’ books – in fact I have a whole shelf of childhood favourites (and children’s books I’ve met in later life) that I still revisit from time to time. I chose to read The Graveyard Book because I’ve been on a real Neil Gaiman kick lately, not realising that it WAS a children’s book. There are many children’s (and young adult) books that have something for everyone, that everyone can enjoy. The Harry Potter series or the Hunger Games for example. I’m not sure The Graveyard Book falls into that category. While Gaiman maintains his usual quirkiness, and the story and characters are compelling, I didn’t enjoy The Graveyard Book in the same way I’ve enjoyed some of Gaiman’s other works. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it…but when I was reading it I was very aware that the book was aimed at children…

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Book Review: The Red Badge of Courage

fa039-classics2014I think I first became aware of this book when I was growing up and reading a lot of children’s and young adult books set in American schools. Somewhere along the line, one or more of the characters in one or more of these books had to study The Red Badge of Courage in English class. I can’t really remember…after all, it was about twenty years ago.

Even though I’ve been aware of the book for all that time, and even though Civil War history is something I’ve been interested in for a while, I’ve never really been motivated enough to read The Red Badge of Courage until I came across the ‘Back to the Classics’ challenge.

I have mixed feelings about the novel. It tells the story of Henry Flemming (referred to almost exclusively throughout the novel as ‘the youth’) as he faces his first active service in the Union Army. The particular battle is not named in the story, but in the afterword (titled ‘The Veteran’) we learn that it was the battle of Chancellorsville. As ‘the youth’ waits with bated breath for his first battle, he wonders whether or not he will be brave enough to stand and fight, or whether he will run when faced with enemy fire. Of course he soon finds out for himself.

I’ve heard it said that the depiction of the Civil War in the novel is so accurate that many people are surprised to learn that Crane was born several years after its end. This may be true, but personally I found Crane’s obsession with using colour in his descriptions a little unnerving – particularly as I lost count of the number of times things were described as ‘red’, ‘purple’, ‘blue’, ‘yellow’, ‘orange’ or ‘black’. Let’s just say that didn’t do much for me.

I also found that the beginning of the novel dragged quite a lot. Perhaps this was deliberate, as well over half of the novel was focused almost exclusively on the youth’s inner thoughts and feelings, and the first few chapters especially depicted the seemingly endless waiting before the battle. It was not until ‘the youth’ rejoined his regiment on the second day of the battle that the story became really engaging.

In spite of the fact that I first learned of this book in my childhood, I was surprised to find it lodged in the ‘Junior Fiction’ section of my local library. As it turned out, that was probably about right in terms of the reading level, although I doubt the same could be said for the subject matter. (Are graphic descriptions of rotting corpses and gruesome war wounds suitable for children?) I’m not sure that many children would have the willpower to read it all the way through either, unless they were being forced to read it for school…it’s no Harry Potter. If a child was going to read it, I think boys would enjoy it much more than girls. Other than that I’m not going to make a recommendation on this one, it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea.

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Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

fa039-classics2014Those of you who have been reading my blog regularly from the start will know that The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the few books I had ever DNF’d (did not finish). Not this time. I was determined to get through it, and I was actually pleasantly surprised when I did!

The last time I tried reading it, I was clearly not in the right frame of mind. I got about two chapters in and gave up. Knowing that this had been an issue for me in the past, I chose to download a free e-book version for my kindle rather than tie up a library copy, potentially for weeks as I tried to plough through it.

I love The Importance of Being Earnest (a stage play also by Oscar Wilde). So why did I have so much trouble with The Picture of Dorian Gray? Here’s why I think I gave up last time.

The first two chapters have an excessive amount of description, but almost no plot development. The dialogue tries to be witty, but what might have worked as a scene in a stage play didn’t come across that way when printed in black and white. We hear an excessive amount about why Basil Hallward (the artist) is infatuated with Gray, and how wonderful the portrait is, but it is not until we stop hearing about Gray from his friends and actually meet him that the story begins to get interesting.

When the picture is finished, Gray is overwhelmed, and wishes or prays that he could remain always as young and attractive as he is portrayed. For some reason which is never entirely explained, the wish is granted, and from this point on, the portrait ages, while Dorian Gray outwardly remains a boyish 20-year-old.

The young Dorian Gray is heavily influenced by Lord Henry Wooten, who lives entirely for pleasure. After a brief love affair with a teenaged actress ends tragically, Gray first notices that his portrait has altered. He now faces a choice: to atone for his sins, or give in to a life of pleasure, knowing that any physical manifestations of his crimes will be borne by the painting, while he retains the outward appearance of innocence.

At this point the story finally becomes interesting: we follow Gray’s internal struggles as he wavers between Lord Henry’s influence and Basil’s concerns for Dorian’s soul, and his (Basil’s) confusion at not being allowed to see the portrait he painted.

The second half of the novel is a fast-paced, fascinating read, well worth the effort of struggling through the slow beginning. I thought the novel was going to deal more with the supernatural (my only previous experience of Dorian Gray being the character’s appearance in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) but instead the drama is almost entirely psychological. I enjoyed it anyway and would recommend it to fans of late 19th century literature.

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Book Review: The Lord of the Rings

Things have been fairly quiet around here lately. I’ve been here – reading and commenting on other people’s blogs, but I haven’t had a lot to say for myself. I’ve still been busy reading though. Since mid-June I’ve been working on the Lord of the Rings read-along run by Robert Bruce at 101 Books.

If you don’t have a basic idea of the story, where on earth have you been? I thought everyone in the English-speaking world must have seen Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy by now! What’s that? You haven’t seen it? You’re missing out. Seriously, go and borrow it from a friend, because I guarantee you’ll know someone who has the DVD’s. In the meantime, here’s a summary:

Bilbo Baggins is preparing to celebrate his 111th birthday. Among the invited guests is Gandalf, a wizard who was responsible for sending Bilbo on a fantastic journey with a group of 13 dwarves, a journey from which he returned with a life-time supply of treasure and a magic ring that he found on his journey. (The full story of that journey is told in “The Hobbit”.) Gandalf has always had some concern about the origins and power of Bilbo’s ring, and when Bilbo decides to go traveling once again, Gandalf insists that the ring should be left behind with his nephew Frodo. After some research, Gandalf discovers that the ring is actually a dark object that was thought to be lost hundreds of years ago, but now the original owner (Sauron) has become aware that the ring still exists and has a pretty good idea where to find it. Frodo is forced to flee from his home, pursued by the servants of Sauron, but although there are a few holdouts where elves and elders still live protected deep in ancient woodlands, the wider world will not be safe unless Frodo and his friends can find a way to destroy the ring.

The Lord of the Rings is not actually a trilogy, but a single novel published in three volumes.

  • Books 1 & 2 – The Fellowship of the Ring, covers a period of about 17 years from Frodo’s inheriting the ring through the first 6 months of his journey across Middle-Earth.
  • Books 3 & 4 – The Two Towers, picks up exactly where the first volume leaves off, and covers an action-packed 2-3 weeks in the middle of the war.
  • Books 5 & 6 – The Return of the King, covers the conclusion of the war and the aftermath for the main characters.

This is high fantasy at it’s best, there are wizards, elves, dwarves, men, and a variety of other creatures, magical and non-magical. There are clearly defined good-guys and bad-guys, but also a few characters who allowed themselves to be corrupted by evil. We see individual characters dealing with their own stories, played out against the vast troop movements of a world-wide war.

The plot is fantastic, with twists and turns in all the right places, but to be totally honest, Tolkien’s writing style is quite out-dated (deliberately so) which makes The Lord of the Rings quite a difficult read at times. Still, there is a reason that this is a classic, and definitely worth the effort if you haven’t already read it.

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In Memoriam

On this day in 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand became the spark that finally ignited the powder keg of early 20th century European politics. In honour of the 100th anniversary of the onset of World War I, here’s a list of some of my favourite books and films set during that conflict.

Books

All Quiet on the Western Front

Follows the fortunes of a group of classmates who enlisted in the German army together at the insistence of their excessively patriotic teacher. For my full review, click here. This was also made into several feature films, but I am still yet to see any version in it’s entirety, so cannot list it as a favourite.

War Horse

I was surprised to learn that this was actually a children’s book. Think Black Beauty but, instead of pulling a hansom cab in London, he is pulling an artillery wagon in France. Of the movie and the stage show based on this book, I preferred the stage show – the puppets are amazing!

Rilla of Ingleside

The final novel in the Anne of Green Gables series follows the fortunes of her youngest daughter, Bertha Marilla Blythe, as Canada’s sons (including all three of Anne’s, and most of their friends) answer Britain’s call to defend Belgium and France from the German advance. The absolutely terrible telemovie Anne of Green Gables:The Continuing Story was in no way based on this book (and would have been much better if it had been).

Movies

Gallipoli

Follows a group of young Australians from their enlistment through to the Gallipoli campaign.

Beneath Hill 60

In 1916, a group of Australian miners are detailed to burrow under the German trenches and pack the tunnels with high explosives.

My Boy Jack

Rudyard Kipling pulled all the strings he could to have his 17-year-old son admitted to the army, in spite of his age and poor eyesight. Just days after his 18th birthday he leads a platoon ‘over the top’ ‘somewhere in France’ and tragically is never seen again. Stars Daniel Radcliffe at the height of his Harry Potter fame.

TV Series

Blackadder goes Forth

Probably the series of Blackadder I’ve watched the least, but in only six 30 minute episodes it deals with many aspects of the war, including: trench warfare, troop morale, trench art, court martials, military hospitals, espionage, and the fledgling Air Force (with the late Rik Mayall as flying ace ‘Lord Flashart’ Whoof!) In spite of the show’s reputation for bawdy humor, the series finale is touching, as Captain Blackadder is finally called upon to lead his men ‘over the top’.

What are your favourite representations of WW1? Books, movies, TV shows? It seems that in popular culture there are a lot more stories told of WW2 than of WW1. Why do you think that is (or do you disagree)?

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Book Review: Death Comes to Pemberley

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I was initially afraid of reading P. D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley. After all, it combines the talents of one of my favourite crime writers with characters from one of my favourite books of all time. There’s a lot of scope for disappointment there.

After a brief recap of the events of Pride and Prejudice, told from the point of view of the Meryton gossips, and a whirlwind tour of the lives of the Bennett sisters in the following six years, we find Elizabeth Darcy making the final preparations for the annual ‘Lady Anne’s Ball’ in memory of Mr Darcy’s late mother. As the day progresses, Colonel Fitzwilliam requests an audience with Lizzy, and Jane Bingley and her husband arrive with a lawyer friend who has been frequently visiting them from London. After a quiet family dinner, Colonel Fitzwilliam goes out for a horse ride, and Georgiana is the first to go to bed, but the others are prevented from following her upstairs by the sound of a carriage speeding up the driveway. Inside it is Lydia Wickham, screaming that she is sure her husband has been murdered. Immediately a search is arranged, and a body is found in the woods, but it is not Wickham who is dead.

I found this to be a very light and entertaining read, in spite of the dark subject matter. I was pleased with the way that James kept to the spirit of the original, and she dealt with the characters in much the same way as Austen did. What was not quite so good was the plot. Perhaps it’s just because I’ve read far too many murder mysteries, but some of the clues might as well have had neon signs pointing to them, they were that obvious. Admittedly I didn’t put all the pieces together in exactly the right order, but I had enough of them in place that I wasn’t all that surprised by the solution.

I have read some very disappointing Austen fan-fiction pieces over the years, but this is one I would actually recommend. It is perhaps concerned more with legal procedures than the ‘manners’ and ‘money’ that fans of the original Austen novels would be used to, but nevertheless it has a lot of charm, and is worth a look.

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