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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Back To The Classics (Again)

BackToTheClassics2016Once again, Karen at Books and Chocolate is running the ‘Back to the Classics’ challenge. This year (2015) I crashed and burned in this challenge, and only finished one book. This was mostly due to poor book choices, and the fact that most of them were on my kindle (which I broke). I tried to pick it up on the kindle app on my tablet, but I’d lost my place, and couldn’t be bothered finding it again…that particular book is not on my list this year!

So which books are on my list this year? I present the list below. I’m so excited about some of them that I’m sort of disappointed I can’t start reading until January 1st!

1.  A 19th Century Classic – Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina (1878)

2.  A 20th Century Classic – Franz Kafka – The Trial (1925)

3.  A classic by a woman author – Louisa May Alcott – An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869)

4.  A classic in translationNaguib Mahfouz – The Mirage (1948)

5.  A classic by a non-white author – Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

6.  An adventure classic – Rudyard Kipling – Kim (1901)

7.  A fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classic – Jules Verne – Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864)

8.  A classic detective novel – Ngaio Marsh – A Man Lay Dead (1934)

9.  A classic which includes the name of a place in the title – E. M. Forster – A Passage to India (1924)

10. A classic which has been banned or censored – Aldous Huxley – Brave New World (1932)

11. Re-read a classic you read in school (high school or college) – Charles Dickens – Great Expectations (1861)

12. A volume of classic short stories – Andrew Lang (Editor) – The Pink Fairy Book (1897)

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Book Review: The Martian

Can I just say…wow.

I read Andy Weir’s The Martian in one sitting. It was that engaging, I just couldn’t put it down. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock the past few months, and haven’t seen the trailer for the new movie adaption of this book starring Matt Damon, the story is pretty simple:

Mark Watney is part of the Ares 3 mission, doing experiments on the surface of Mars, when the astronauts are ordered to evacuate due to dangerous winds approaching their base. As the crew race to their shuttle, Mark is hit by a flying piece of unsecured equipment. The bio-monitor in his space-suit shows no life signs, and the rest of the crew make the difficult choice to leave the body behind and save themselves. Hours later, Mark wakes up alone on an inhospitable planet, facing the prospect of surviving for four years with only the supplies that have been abandoned with him, until the next scheduled mission to Mars arrives.

I’ll be honest, there’s a lot of science in this, and sometimes the explanations of the things that Mark does to survive were a bit technical. On the other hand, the story was so compelling that I kept on reading, because I was so invested in finding out how he could possibly survive.

This is realistic science fiction. There are no aliens, no time machines… we are a long, long way from Doctor Who here. That said, it was fascinating and I’d definitely recommend it – just make sure you clear the rest of your day before you start (and don’t be surprised if you close the book and find it’s morning already like I did!)

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The many faces of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – a comparison

Pride and Prejudice is one of the best-known and best-loved English novels of all time. More than 200 years after it was first published, it is still eminently readable, even for modern audiences. (My sister did say that she  thought the sisters were nuts for sitting around waiting around for a man to propose…)

Pride and Prejudice is so popular (and also so far past the expiration of its copyright) that many modern authors have put their own stamp on this classic romance. For many years I resented this – Pride and Prejudice has been one of my favourite stories since I was about 12 years old, and the story is so special to me that I take a very dim view of people messing with it.

Even now I am very picky about reading adaptions and retellings. Here’s my thoughts on the ones I have read. Note: The following refers only to novels based on Pride and Prejudice, and does not include any film or television adaptions (although the BBC miniseries from the mid-nineties is, I believe, the best and most faithful to the original novel).

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The original and the best. As Mary Poppins would say, it’s ‘practically perfect in every way.’ If you don’t know the story…where have you been? Go read it, right now, then come back and read the rest of this post (you can download the e-book for free, or if your local library doesn’t have it, you need to find a new library to go to!) There are spoilers in the following mini-reviews, so don’t read any further if you haven’t read this one!!!

Darcy’s Passions: Pride and Prejudice through his eyes by Regina Jeffers

I was skeptical when I first saw this on the shelf at my local library, but I decided to give it a go. I’m really glad I did. A large proportion of the novel is devoted to scenes from the original, written from Darcy’s point of view, but it also explores his relationships with Bingley and Georgiana, and continues on from the wedding to the family’s first New Year’s Eve celebrations at Pemberley. It really tugs on the feels, and I was a little disappointed when it ended.

Longbourn by Jo Baker

There was a lot of hype about this one when it first came out, but personally, it’s one of the books in this post I liked least. It’s set in the same time period as Pride and Prejudice, but focuses on the lives of the servants at Longbourn. The events upstairs only appear when they affect the servants. (For example, at one point Sarah – the housemaid – consults Mr Collins for spiritual advice during his stay.) Like Darcy’s Passions, the story continues into the first few months of Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage.

While the depiction of regency life, particularly life below stairs, is (to the best of my knowledge) fantastically accurate, I felt like some of the plot lines stripped the story of its innocence. Elizabeth Bennet was also depicted as a little more selfish and thoughtless in her treatment of servants than in the original.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P D James

Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy are living happily ever after on their estate at Pemberley – until Lydia Wickham decides that she wants to attend an upcoming ball on the estate and insists that her husband should bring her to visit. I had to like this one, because it’s written by one of my favourite mystery writers.

You can read my full review here

Being Elizabeth Bennet by Emma Campbell Webster

A choose your own adventure story, where your goal is to marry both for love and money. Based on Pride and Prejudice, it also includes elements from Jane Austen’s other novels, and her real life. I really wasn’t in the right frame of mind when I read this the first time. I wasn’t in the mood for the complicated scoring system (your character gains and loses skills and abilities in a similar way to Dungeons and Dragons – a notebook and pen need to be your constant companions while you’re reading this). I was also horrified by the liberties taken with the storyline.

A little older and wiser now, I recently read this again. It wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but I did find a contradiction: In order to ‘win’ you need to be thoroughly familiar with the Jane Austen canon and the society in which the books were set, and yet the text is often over-simplified (in my opinion) perhaps to avoid alienating readers who don’t know the books as well. All of the major plot points are there, but very little of the detail. On the plus side, it can be read in an afternoon, and the multiple potential endings mean that you could have a different experience each time you read it.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

I was excited to read this, because I loved Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters (by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters). As I mentioned before, I am quite nit-picky about adaptions of Pride and Prejudice, and sadly, in this one there were nits to be picked. Some of my favourite pieces of dialogue were cut or altered – either to accommodate the ‘unmentionables’ or to make their meaning clearer for modern audiences. The depiction of Elizabeth and her sisters as ass-kicking warriors was a step towards female emancipation that I think Austen would probably have approved of, but the dirty jokes? Seriously? I think perhaps that was a step too far.

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