Book Review: Great Expectations

BackToTheClassics2016So it’s back to ‘Back to the Classics’. I had no difficulty choosing what book I wanted to read for the ‘re-read a classic from school’ category. I could only think of one book that met the guidelines of the challenge, that I hadn’t re-read since school. I’m counting Great Expectations – even though it wasn’t a set text, it was the book I chose for a free choice assignment in year 12 literature.

I have always had trouble with Dickens… I’m not sure why. At this point I think it must be some sort of mental block, because once I got going on Great Expectations I finished it relatively quickly (I won’t mention the three weeks it took me to get through the first 200 pages, the last 200 only took me a couple of days). I remembered very little of the book from the first read (which was 15 years ago). I don’t remember either loving or hating it, but merely forcing myself to finish it because I had to. This time around it was much the same.

The Plot:

Philip Pirrip junior, known as Pip, spent his childhood as an orphan living with his shrewish sister and her dull, blacksmith husband, Joe. Living near a river where some prison hulks are moored, he has several uncomfortable encounters with escaped convicts. For a time before he is due to be apprenticed to his brother-in-law, Pip is employed to entertain Miss Havisham, a wealthy recluse who lives in the nearby village with her adopted daughter, Estella. One day Pip is visited by a London lawyer, who informs him that a mystery benefactor has named him heir to substantial property. Pip is whisked away to London to learn the ways of a gentleman in preparation to receive these great expectations…

That’s it, really. The rest of the story is taken up with Pip’s life in London, and the eventual discovery of his benefactor. While the story has all of Dicken’s usual biting social commentary, I wouldn’t say that it was particularly eventful or memorable. It is unlikely I’ll be reading this a third time – at least, not for another 15 years!

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Book Review: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

BackToTheClassics2016This will be a quick review, as befits a quick read. Was it an easy read? Well there I’m not so sure.

I read this book to fulfill the requirements of the ‘classic fantasy, sci-fi, or dystopia’ category of the ‘back to the classics’ challenge. It is most certainly ‘science fiction’, but in some ways I felt that the science was more evident than the fiction. Clearly the premise is unlikely: a young man – the narrator, Axel – accompanies his uncle on an expedition to follow the footsteps of an early alchemist who had claimed to have visited the centre of the earth. Most of the novel is taken up with these two arguing about the feasibility of the journey, each relying on various scientific principles to back up their opposing opinions. The remainder of the novel is dotted with Axel’s complex descriptions of the various geology, flora, fauna and atmospheric phenomena that they encounter.

I don’t think I’ll be reading this again. The pacing was probably fine for a story originally published in serial form, but didn’t translate well to a single novel. I can’t decide whether I was more annoyed by Axel’s whinging or his uncle’s pig-headed determination, but I certainly didn’t care enough about either of them to be moved by the perils they faced. If you want to read Jules Verne, I’d suggest Around the World in 80 Days.

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Book Review: The Pink Fairy Book

BackToTheClassics2016Published in 1897, The Pink Fairy Book was my choice for the Classic Short Story Collection in the Back to the Classics Challenge for 2016.

The Pink Fairy Book is the 5th in a series of twelve collections edited by Andrew Lang, and follows on from the Blue, Red, Green and Yellow Fairy Books. Each of the twelve books contains about 40 stories collected from various oral traditions around the world. The 41 stories in the Pink Fairy Book are primarily drawn from Scandinavia, Germany, and Italy, however there are also several stories from Japan, Africa, France, and Spain. (Previous volumes in the series have also included stories from – among others – the Middle East, China, and Russia.)

Most of the stories follow the classic fairy tale template of ‘young person goes out to seek their fortune, and through showing kindness to disguised fairies or enchanted animals enlists their aid against corrupt monarchs or wicked witches’. *Spoiler alert* the good characters end up living happily ever after, while the evil characters end up being suitably punished.

You won’t find any of your favourite Disney princesses in this one, (most of them can be found in the Blue and Red Fairy Books) but some of the stories here are very similar to those that appeared in the previous coloured fairy books – as Lang freely admits in his preface. The series as a whole is amazing, and beautifully illustrated, but, perhaps as a result of the repetitions, the Pink Fairy Book doesn’t hold up quite as well as some of the previous volumes.

 

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Book Review: A Man Lay Dead

BackToTheClassics2016In 1931, Ngaio Marsh spent a rainy afternoon reading a detective story. She wondered to herself whether she could write a novel in the style of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, and aimed to create a detective without the stereotypical eccentricities of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.

She certainly proved her ability in the genre, as A Man Lay Dead was published in 1934 and spawned over 30 sequels.

Plot: Sir Hubert Handesley invites a group of bright young things to a weekend party at his country house. The main attraction is to be a ‘murder’, a game that is currently all the rage in fashionable society. One of the guests will be secretly handed a token denoting them the ‘murderer’ – they in turn will attempt to get one of the other guests alone and inform them they are the ‘victim’. The remaining guests then hold a ‘trial’ to see if they can unmask the villain.

Shortly before dinner on the second evening, the agreed upon signal that the murder has occurred is given, but when the guests assemble around what they assume is a fake corpse, the antique knife sticking out of his back turns out to be all too real. Enter Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn…

On the plus side, A Man Lay Dead was a short and entertaining read. It followed the formula of a typical 1930s whodunit, with a number of suspects who all had reason to want the victim dead.

On the negative side…

  • Alleyn’s investigations are methodical, but he really doesn’t find any useful clues
  • Some of the forensic details are laughable (for example, rather than asking all the suspects to give their fingerprints for comparison, the police choose to assume that fingerprints found in bathrooms belong to the occupants of the adjoining rooms – even though it is stated quite clearly that the bathrooms are being shared by multiple guests)
  • A good half of the narrative is taken up with a sub-plot which basically goes nowhere – while it exonerates a couple of the suspects it provides no insight into who the actual murderer might be.

These aren’t really fatal flaws, and I’m not saying don’t read it. I’m just saying the ending of A Man Lay Dead probably won’t come as a surprise. Since I read this in an anthology edition with the next two books in the series, Enter a Murderer and The Nursing Home Murder, I’ll be rolling on and reading those two next. Hopefully I’ll find them a little harder to crack.

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When writing sucks

Remember that tangled mess of a short story I wrote about about six weeks ago? I fixed it. I was really proud of it. I submitted it to a competition…

It wasn’t even shortlisted. Finding this out has pretty much ruined my day. The rejection an author faces can tear your heart out if you let it.

I know I shouldn’t take it personally.  I keep reminding myself that there were over 200 entries, and the longlist was the decision of a single judge. (The longlist wasn’t published, so I don’t know whether I made it that far or not.)

I haven’t read the winning entry yet, but the way the judges described it makes it sound amazing. I wish people would talk about my stories with so much enthusiasm.

I’m submitting another story to another competition today. I’m really proud of it – at least I was. Now I’m secretly wondering if it’s worth the cost of printing and postage…and the dejection I might feel when I hear the results.

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Book Review: The Mirage

BackToTheClassics2016Originally written in Arabic by Egypian author Naguib Mafouz, The Mirage was my selection for the ‘Classic in Translation’ category of the 2016 Back to the Classics challenge.

Plot: Kamil Ru’ba is a shy young man who has always found it difficult to relate to anyone outside of his immediate family. After his mother’s death, he takes up a pen to write his own life story, in an attempt to help him make sense of it for himself.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first picked up this novel, as I’ve not really been exposed to much middle eastern literature beyond a few Arabic fairy tales. Now that I’m finished it I’m sure there were probably things I missed – cultural references and so on – in spite of the brief glossary of terms at the end. I’m much more familiar with the history of Egypt in the time of the pharaohs than modern Egypt.

I was surprised that the novel was first published in 1948, particularly when you take into account the frequent, sometimes graphic sexual references. I find it hard to imagine such things being welcomed by English-speaking publishing houses of the time. Nevertheless, I found the story engaging and read the second half of the novel (240 pages worth) in a single sitting.

I’m having a hard time thinking of any other books to compare The Mirage to. I found that the narrator spent as much time examining his thoughts and feelings as his actions, far more eloquently than his low level of education would suggest. This did make it hard for me to lose myself in the narrative at first, but eventually I was able to suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the ending.

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It’s January 3rd

I’ve already finished two books this year. (Reading of course, not writing!) I think aiming for a third by the end of today is too much to ask…unless I find a really short one.

I’ve been meaning to work on a couple of short stories over the past few weeks. I’ve had very good intentions, but of course the silly season sometimes gets in the way, and a 2016 deadline feels like ages away when the calendar still says 2015.

All of a sudden it’s 2016, and the end of the month seems frighteningly close when all I have one half-outline and one half-draft, that I’m intending to enter into two different competitions. The half-drafted piece is due on January 31st – and thanks to our lovely postal service’s recent changes, that means it needs to be in the post by about the 25th (even with a priority label on it!)

The piece which is currently only a half-outline is due on February 1st, but thankfully only requires electronic submission, so I will have that last week of January to focus on it entirely.

What am I doing here? I have short stories to write!

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Happy 2016!

It’s a new year, and once again I’m reflecting on how I did with the goals I set for myself twelve months ago. In summary – not good.

#1 Back on the diet… again

I’m really good at dieting (although the people I eat with when I’m on a diet find it a pain in the neck). My biggest problem is that I have a lot of weight to lose, and when it doesn’t come off fast enough I get frustrated  and depressed, and start eating badly again. This year I think I’ll aim low and just focus on trying to minimize binge eating.

#2 Edit my novel, and get it ready to query

I tried doing this twice: neither time did I get more than a few chapters in. I still have hopes that it will happen though…

#3 Write another novel

If you are a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that NaNoWriMo is a wonderful thing, and I now have a second draft to edit in addition to my 2014 novel. Honestly, I think the second one has probably benefited from my 2014 experience, but it also has a lot of issues to iron out.

#4 Actually enter the competitions I’ve picked out

Hmm… I did better at this in 2015, because I actually entered a writing competition this year. (True, it was in the middle of December, but that still counts, right?) I have a massive list of competitions I’d like to enter in 2016, and a couple of drafts on the go… I just have to make sure I finish them this year!

#5 Spend some more time hanging out with people in the real world

Again, NaNoWriMo is a wonderful thing. I actually had a social calendar in November. Pity about the rest of the year…

2016 Goals

Umm… I’m not doing so well on the following through part, so I think this year I’m just going to try to do better at accomplishing 2015’s goals. I do hope to be more consistent with this blog though, even if it means scheduling posts in advance for times when I’m not going to have internet access. This year there was almost a six month gap between posts in the middle of the year – I don’t intend to let that happen again!

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More on expanding my horizons

This is a follow-up to this post from December last year.

Last year I was concerned that my reading wasn’t diverse enough, and I published a map of the world showing the countries from which I had read something. I have included novels, short story collections, autobiographies and memoirs written by authors who were born/raised in these countries (even if they later moved elsewhere). I have not included books I’ve started but not finished, or single short stories. (Although I have read a lot of Russian and middle eastern fairy tales recently.)

This year, I have added books from China, Nigeria, and Japan to my map. Not a great start considering the high hopes I had twelve months ago, but I’m not giving up. My 2016 reading wish-list includes authors from:

  • Afghanistan
  • Czech Republic
  • Egypt
  • Mexico
  • New Zealand
  • Russia
  • South Korea
  • Spain

I’d better get back to reading!

 

 

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How do you fix a tangled mess?

I have a story I’m working on. (Actually there’s about four, but this one is on the shortest deadline.) I started it about two years ago, but stuff happened and I forgot all about it. At that point it was basically an outline and the first paragraph.

A few weeks ago I was going through some of my old files, looking for another story that I felt needed to be re-written, and I found this outline. I read what I had done and loved it. It’s actually the perfect plot for a competition I had on my list, so I dug it out and started writing.

Here’s my problem. My original plan involves flash-backs, or maybe it’s a story within a story. Anyway…I’m happy with both of the past and present parts on their own, but I’m having real trouble making the two of them mesh together. When is the best time to throw in the tragic twist for the maximum emotional punch? How do I hide the clues that lead to the surprise ending without them sticking out like a sore thumb?

In order for this story to be considered for the competition, it needs to be postmarked by Friday. I have a lot of work to do to get it in shape by then!

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