Monday, 23 January 2012

I'm being more adventurous!

There was a time, many years ago, when I would start a new book before I'd finished the one I was currently reading.  The current book would be left unfinished, and presently, so would the new book, in favour of a yet newer one.  A vicious cycle of never finished books.  I didn't keep that up for long, because it was just silly.  So for most of my reading life - with a big ten-year gap in the middle when I didn't read anything at all (and that includes my university days!) - I have stuck to reading one book at a time.  That meant that I got lots of books finished because I wanted to move on to the next one quickly.  I still think this is a good way of reading, and I'm kind of still sticking to it.

However, I'm also sort of not.  I am allowing myself to have more than one book on the go at once, but they have to be from different genres, and to be read at particular times of the day.  This allows me to read according to my mood, because I know what my mood is at different times of the day.  So now I have Mslexia magazines that I read during the day, and in breaks when I'm writing.  They spur me on to write more, and give me lots of ideas and motivation.  In the afternoons, when I'm not needed by my children, or when I'm waiting for the pasta to be ready, or whatever, I am reading science.  Popular science, I think it's called.  So I have just finished reading Richard Dawkins's new book, The Magic of Reality, which was wonderful.  I have now moved on to Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which is completely different, though it deals with many of the same questions.

In the evenings I'm reading whatever I like.  It just so happens that I fancied reading Lord of the Rings right now.  I'm reading it with a stack of sticky page markers next to me, as there are lots of snippets and passages and introductions to characters and journey descriptions and landscape paintings that are very useful.  I don't want to lose any of them, so I am planning to have a little bit of an analysis session once I've finished reading the book, and see what I can make use of in my own fantasy writing.

I'm also reading The Old Curiosity Shop, and am enjoying it hugely.  Although I don't like Dickens as much as I love Thackeray.  I prefer a bit of comedy, and Dickens is just so sad, so morose, so truthful in a brutal kind of way.  That's good to read from time to time, but sometimes I just want a bit of a laugh.  His characters are grotesque and at times they are funny, but you wouldn't call The Old Curiosity Shop a comedy.  Nothing that I am reading at present is humorous, and I might have to remedy that with a bit of Terry Pratchett once I've finished the Dickens.  (You see, I could start reading Pratchett right away, but I know that one of the other books I'm reading would sit on the desk getting dusty - the amount of books I'm reading right now is just exactly the right amount.)

This is my current reading pile - though the Dawkins is done with - and as well as my bestickied Lord of the Rings you'll notice another book I've not mentioned.  That's because I've not started it yet.  I keep putting The Man Who Cycled the World in my bag, and taking him into town with me on Starbucks mornings, intending to read him in between writing - but I haven't yet done enough writing to deserve that particular treat!

So, I'm reading.  I've started the Goodreads 2012 challenge - I've set myself a target of 50 books to read this year.  Next year I think I will be able to read more.  This year I think 50 will be a struggle, because I've got cycling to do as well.  But of course, it's not about the quantity, it's about the quality.  Or it is?  Nah, I think it's about the quantity.  Must read more, must read more ...

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Beyond Gormenghast

Now, hear me out, when I tell you that I gave up on Gormenghast, Part III.  The book had already taken up many weeks of my time, many, many weeks.  I was starting to lose patience with it, because it seemed to be going nowhere and I didn't recognise anyone or anything in it.  Titus had really ceased to be Titus, and had turned into Shasta from The Horse and His Boy.  He was wandering about, with no sense of direction or purpose, and I know that that was just part of the story, part of Titus's journey and all that business.  But I just really started to find it very dull.  Because my favourite characters were all (spoilers) dead, apart from one or two, I couldn't really be bothered to find out about new ones.  The first two books were just ... just ... difficult to find words to describe.  They were incredible, amazing, quite life-changing in a literary sense.  I've never ready anything like it.  I really don't know if I ever will again.  From the very first sentence I was engrossed, captivated.  It was like reading someone's dream right out of their head without them having to think about what they were writing, without them editing bits out that weren't good enough to talk about.  My goodness, I wish I'd written it.

I know that the third book wasn't finished; wasn't even near completion.  I have to make allowances.  I haven't put it away, for that reason: it's sitting on my bedside table, waiting to be finished, possibly in the summer.  I just haven't the patience to sit and read another few weeks' worth of book (it's still got a couple of hundred pages left, and the writing is so small!) when I have so many other books on my list.  So, I'm sorry Gormenghast; sorry Titus.  You will have to repose a good while longer.

So what amazing book did I choose to read over Gormenghast 3?  Erm, well, I hardly dare say, because I'm slightly ashamed at my lack of will power; I read the Twilight Saga, for the fourth time.  Sometimes, one just needs a little Edward Cullen ... erm ... injection?  (Oh dear, entering the realms of fanfic!)  Well, it cheered me up, and got me through four books right quick.  I just needed to read some trash.


Now I am reading Thackeray to make up for my lack of literary morals.  Ah, Thackeray, you feisty old satirist!  How do I love thee?  In a thousand ways, that's how.  Thackeray also makes me happy.  I dare say I don't understand even half of his words, though he speaks plain enough English.  But it's so steeped in jokes, and puns, and historical references, that I really cannot keep up properly.  But Thackeray doesn't alienate anyone - he welcomes us all in, and tells us a nice story, which we can appreciate on many levels.  I read Thackeray as my children read fairy tales: innocently and naively.  I can tell when he's poking fun, and to whom the poking refers generally (ahem ...), but that's the extent of my insight.  I have no real in depth knowledge of the societies and characters he satirises.  But you don't need all of that to appreciate Thackeray.  He's like Dickens, but a bit easier to understand.  Not that Dickens is really all that difficult - just a lot darker.  I love Dickens too, but I think Thackeray is my favourite.  I need to read more though - who are the other famous satirists?  I'm so ignorant.

I have just read Thackeray's Catherine, which shocked me!  Shocked me, I tell you.  I didn't expect that sort of ending, not at all.  Upset me a little actually.  But it was splendid, simply splendid.  Then it was Cox's Diary, and I enjoyed that hugely.  It was very short, but very funny, and a real treat of a short story.  I recommend that one, heartily.  Now I'm onto A Shabby Genteel Story.  I've never read a collection of short stories and 'miscellanies' before, but they're such a pleasant way to read.  Little bitesized bits of funny.  I was slightly nervous when I decided to read these beautiful little Thackeray's that cost me quite a bit of money from Barter Books in Alnwick (read about my purchases here, in my hub, 'The Secondhand Book Shop' - this link will not always work, as I am trying to find a place to send this article to be published).  I had looked at the books (four from a set of about twenty-three or something) several times before making the decision to buy them, because I had absolutely no money; but how could I leave Alnwick knowing that those books were in the shop, and that someone else might buy them before I could come back who knew when?  I couldn't.  So I bought them.  They're paid for now, and it was a good decision to make.  What's a little debt, when there are precious Thackerays to be had?  Nothing at all, gone; the Thackerays are still here though, waiting to be joined, over the years, by their companions that may, at this time, be scattered across the country!

So it's Thackeray for me for a while.  Nothing else will do, except perhaps a quick read of Harry Potter over Christmas?  I might treat myself, if I'm very good and do lots of writing between now and Christmas Day.

Best crack on with my own novel then - it's coming along now.  It'll still be many years before it's in print though.  Don't hold your breath waiting for it.


Thursday, 29 September 2011

And I'm still ...

... reading Gormenghast.  It's really long.  It's a story about a castle and its occupants.  It could be told in probably ten chapters, but Mervyn Peake likes to draw things out and tell us many details about curtains and breezes and leaves and thoughts and whispers and noses and hairstyles and dresses and stones and books and rituals and coughs and graves and ribbons and attics and walls; things like that.

It's excellent, very good indeed.  No complaints from me at all.  I love it, love reading it; the words are put together in an astonishing way sometimes, and such vocabulary!  I wish I had such a lexicon at the ready.  But I've still got 400 pages to read.  I'm not bored of the book, but I'm just not used to spending so many weeks on one story.  It's taking a long time to read, because, although I've read a book of 900+ pages in less time than this, the words have been more widely spaced, seriously!  This book has more lines per page than your average book.  So whereas I might usually have a couple of minutes between page turns, I now have at least five.  I'm not complaining; I'm just saying; just incase you were wondering why I'm such a slow reader: I'm not; I'm a fast reader, usually.    (Last night I read some information, in New Hart's Rules, on commas and semicolons and I'm trying to see if I can use them correctly in order to spot their incorrect use when I'm proofreading!)

So that's all; for now.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The Gormenghast Trilogy

I'm working my way through this little 900+ page story.  Well, it's not really that big of a story, because it's three books in one, and I've read a few trilogies that are longer.  I thought I'd just write a little about my initial impressions of it.

This was my initial impression when I opened it at the first page of the first book, Titus Groan, and started reading:


The first, ooh, hundred pages, shall we say, were BRILLIANT.  I am now on about page 260, and I must say that my love for the book has gone off the boil a little bit.  I've been waiting for something, something epic, something to do with bigness, something that involves masses of little characters, something ...

This is what the blurb says on the back of the copy I have:

'Gormenghast is the vast crumbling castle to which the seventy-seventh Earl, Titus Groan, is Lord and heir.  Gothic labyrinth of roofs and turrets, cloisters and corridors, stairwells and dungeons, it is also the cobwebbed kingdom of Byzantine government and age-old ritual, a world primed to implode beneath the weight of centuries of intrigue, treachery, manipulation and murder ...'

Now, it all has the potential to be there, but I'm still waiting for it.  I know that the castle is vast, because I've been told that it is, but I'm still waiting to see any of it.  I've been allowed to see a little bit of it, right at the beginning when Flay walks about an area of the castle watching everyone celebrate the birth of Titus, but nothing really that suggests to me that I'm glimpsing just a teeny little section of a much bigger place.  At first I was introduced to a fair few characters in fairly quick succession, and I was hoping that the introductions would continue apace, but all of a sudden they stopped and it seemed that I'd met everyone I was going to meet, at least in this the first book.  I'm disappointed by that, because I really would like to meet more servants, and more dignitaries and such.  For such a vast castle, there are very few people at the hub.  There's nothing really wrong with that, but it's just not what I was expecting.  I've not really been made aware of the centuries of intrigue either - there's been no history recounted at all so far.  I can understand that that is because nothing has changed at Gormenghast for centuries, but it's just that I was told (as you see above) that there's been all this 'intrigue, treachery, manipulation and murder' for centuries - I just find it odd that I'm not told anything about it.  I don't really think that's the fault of the author - Mervyn Peake has written the book that he has written, and it's good, seriously good: it's the blurb that's misleading.

But anyhow, I'm carrying on with the book, because I really do like it, and am enjoying it very much.  The characters that I have been presented with are beautifully drawn, deliciously caricatured.  Strange that Titus Groan is a baby, and barely seems to feature in the book - but obviously he's going to become the title character is the second and third books, Gormenghast and Titus Alone.

I think I might be reading this book for about seven months though, since I'm only managing to read about ten pages a day.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Skull and Bones, by John Drake

What a great name for a writer of pirate tales, eh?  John Drake.  Not that Francis Drake was a pirate (quick look on Wikipedia has just told me that Francis Drake was a privateer, which is not so dissimilar from a pirate!) but I think he knew some things about boats.

I don't know anything about boats, except that they make me feel incredibly sick.  But I love how I can follow three whole books chock full of nautical terminology without breaking a sweat or suffering a headache.  I don't know how John Drake does that, but I do always know exactly what he's talking about - at least I think I do.  He doesn't patronise me by sticking in a landlubbing and stupid character who needs to have everything explained to them either.  He just chucks his readers in at the deep end and expects them to swim.

So, this, Skull and Bones, was the final part of the Treasure Island prequel trilogy - should the books be called a trequel?  Yes, I think so.  Was this book satisfying?  I think so.  Did it lead on to Treasure Island nicely?  Certainly.  Would I recommend the trequel?  Wholeheartedly.  Now, I would not say that I was disappointed with Skull and Bones, not at all: it was excellent, stunningly written by a master of his craft, an absolute joy to read.  I could read ten more, twenty more.

With a prequel, you necessarily have to manoeuvre the story into position to allow the main story to take over smoothly without too much of a change of tack (did you see what I did there?  A nice mash up of nautical metaphors).  That was all fine, and I could see that two particular characters had to be brought back together in order for both parts of the map not to be lost.  But what I did miss in this book was Flint's evilness.  In the first and second books, ooh, he was bad - a finer baddy you could not have wished for.  He was nasty, and his favourite pastimes were inflicting terrible injuries on anyone he cared to mutilate, and then watching them die gruesome deaths.  Another person's pain never failed to make him giggle, he was an absolute delight to read, wonderful.  I have never enjoyed a baddy more.  It was clear to see that Drake knew the character of Flint inside out (as far as Flint allowed him to, though I am sure Flint guarded his most secret thoughts from Drake), because he was so well written, so vivid and alive.  As was Long John Silver - but Silver was glorious in Skull and Bones, and I liked him just as much as I ever did.  But poor Joseph Flint had lost his sparkle for the most part, and I missed it.  It was part of the story, and it worked so nicely, really it did, the taming of Flint - however short-lived - but still I missed his games.  I'm sure John Drake probably did too.

Long John Silver captured my heart from the beginning, and he held it fast until the end.  What maiden could fail to be won over by such niceties as 'bugger me, clap a hitch, you filthy swabs!'?  Not I.  I loved him, and always will, no matter how I find him to have been drawn by Stevenson in Treasure Island.

It's Selena who I still can't get on with.  I still find her a bit insipid, a bit whiney, too indecisive.  I want to give her a slap and tell her to decide who and what she wants.  And I can't really see what Flint and Silver see in her, except that she's stunningly beautiful, and the only woman the two pirates encounter in their years of sailing back and forth across the Atlantic (apart from some haggard old whores*!)

But all in all, a bloody good read.  I am sad that my seafaring adventures are over, because I know that Treasure Island, however good it is, will not have the humour and wit that Drake infused his stories with, and it won't have the tantalisingly naughty undertone that he sometimes plays with.  But I have hopes of it being exciting, and look forward to meeting again some of the characters that I feel I know so well now: Billy Bones, Israel Hands, Black Dog, Ben Gunn, and not to mention Long John himself.

Bravo, John Drake, bravo!

*John Drake's word, not mine; he also calls them 'tarts'.

I wrote a review of the other two books in the series a few months ago, Flint and Silver, and Pieces of Eight.  You can read that review here, on HubPages.

Red Gloves, by Beth Vaughan

Hmm.  Red Gloves.  I'm getting a bit less tolerant of books with beginnings that don't grab me - my time is precious, so I am tending to leave books unfinished if I'm finding them dull or badly written.  Red Gloves almost got put back on the shelf after a few pages.  It started well, and I was intrigued by the character of Red Gloves from the start as she was good and tomboyish in her mannerisms and speech.  I like tomboys, being one myself.

But I lost patience when after a few pages she was trying to seduce the first bloke offered up in the story, and I was disappointed that a perfectly good book could potentially be ruined by smut.  But I persevered because I wanted to see if there would be more to the story - surely a book with such instantly vivid characters would not be just full of filth?  I also hoped that I wasn't going to be expected to like Red just because she was physically strong, sexually independent and confident, and emasculated.

It turned out that I wasn't expected to like her for those things.  And it also turned out that I was rewarded for my perseverance.  There was much more to Red than sex.  What a great character, full of conflict, moody, transparent, complex, challenging.  She was a real treat actually.  She was also very easy to like.  Having said that I don't think she would be to everyone's taste.  And there was a history to the world that Vaughan had created.  I could well imagine more stories and more characters.

I've only one criticism really, though it is quite a big one.  With a story so well thought out as this one, and with so many interesting characters, I would have liked this book to have been three times as long, or even part of a series.  I felt as though the story was just getting going, and then it was over.  The end was rushed, the battle was too vague and was fought at a distance, and also was won too easily, and the conclusion was too obvious and a little too much on the sentimental and mushy side for my liking.  This book had tremendous potential, but it did not quite fulfill it.  I wanted more from this book, but I felt as though I had to fill in the detail for myself.  There were so many secrets - practically every character had one - but almost none of them were revealed and explained fully or satisfactorily.  The secrets of the two main characters were told, but I'm nosy and I wanted to know why everyone had a shifty look and a guilty manner.  If the booked had been stretched out a bit, these secrets could have become the integral parts of the story that I had expected them to be.

Actually I did have another criticism, and that was that the writing was sometimes a bit lazy.  I remember screwing my nose up at one particular sentence: 'Jonas just stood there'.  What?  Are you kidding?  The dialogue is often lyrical in its efforts to place itself in the high fantasy category, and then we get 'just stood there'.  Hmm.  Stood where?  Hmm.  A little bit first drafty, if you ask me; a sentence that was missed in the edit, perhaps.  Now, don't get me wrong, there was no peppering of lazy sentences in this book, and goodness knows my own writing is full of them.  But these kinds of sentence just helped to give the book a feeling of not being finished.

So in short, testing beginning, good middle, rushed end.  Maybe it's just that I like an epic: three or four books make a right good story for me.  A book of 300+ pages only whets my appetite, really.

And so here, I think we have learned something about different tastes ... err, they all ... different.  Mmm.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke

I read Inkheart.  It was good.  Very good in fact.  I'd heard that it was good, but it was one of those that I'm afraid I felt a little snobby about - all I knew of it was that it had been made into a film starring Brendan Fraser, and that small fact set me against it a little bit.  I suppose I imagined that I might end up reading something as time-wasting as California Man!  But of course, Brendan Fraser's not in the book, and the character that he played, Mortimer Folchart, did not resemble him at all, to me at any rate.

Apart from Brendan Fraser's link, I knew nothing about the story really, except perhaps something about characters from a book being read into reality.  And essentially, that was the bones of the book.  It's about books, reading them and bringing them to life.  It's a book for people who love books, and who love disappearing into them.  Each chapter begins with a quotation from another story, which is a lovely touch.  Each quotation has been carefully selected, and they really do add something to the story and to our understanding of it.  It was a joy to read these quotes, and to see that so many of my favourite books were included.  And actually, it was a good one to read after writing that hub on what constitutes a good book, because it confirmed my suspicions that our choices are our own business and never anything to be ashamed of!  We read to allow our imaginations to travel to a different place and time, and whether we go to a place of fantasy and magic, or only as far as a different country in our own world, it's all valid, all important.

Inkheart is a simple story, really not much to it at all, but it is beautifully executed.  I was gripped from the first page, by the writing initially, and then by the story itself once I got into the flow.  We're kept in the dark about just enough of the story, but not too much that we start to lose interest.  For instance, the mysterious character of Dustfinger appears at the beginning, and we don't know who he is or what he wants from Mo and Meggie.  But we can suspect that it is something to do with the book, we know that much, and that is enough.  The book I am reading at the moment, Red Gloves, just keeps me in the dark a little too much, and I find it frustrating.  Every character has a secret, and we find out that there are several secrets in quick succession; as yet no-one's telling, and I'm almost near the end of the book.  I do hope that everyone's secret will not be told all at once in a horribly contrived chapter of revelation.  On the other hand, I do hope that I will be told the secrets after putting in the effort of reading to the end!  But I'll write about that book once I've finished it, hopefully tomorrow actually.  It's not all good.

The writing in Inkheart is very ... mm, delicate I suppose.  I'm not quite sure what I mean by that, but I'm just left with a feeling of Cornelia Funke's words being gentle.  She's written the story with a lot of love, and it's a precious thing to her.  That seems strange, because there's quite a lot of thrilling suspense (as thrilling and suspenseful as it's possible for a children's book to be) and lots of descriptions about the things that Capricorn had done to his victims and those who did not submit to him.  But that is the feeling I'm left with, of a book that just flows beautifully.  There was a little bit in the middle when I felt that the pace had slowed horribly and that the story was becoming a little repetitive, but that was because I was very tired, and was only managing to read three pages before going to sleep: the fault was mine, and not Funke's!  I soon realised that I'd been mistaken in thinking that it was all going wrong.  The end was superb, and although I had seen it coming, it was satisfying to see it played out.  I wasn't entirely happy with the sudden appearance of blue fairies, but I suppose we'd had warning of them from early on, so I can't really complain.  They just seemed a little Disneyesque - and Tinkerbell certainly was, despite her being read from a book and not an animated film.  Maybe that's just me being fussy though, as the fairies in my book are so much more than just fluttery butterfly creatures that twinkle and tinkle.

I was happy to find that the character of Meggie grew throughout the book - I had found her a little whiny at the beginning, and did want her to grow up a bit and find her backbone; she did that, and it happened naturally and convincingly.

In fact, the real strength of the story is in its characters.  We hear a great deal of their thoughts, of almost everyone's thoughts.  Funke contrives reasons for each of the main characters to be alone at times when it's important for us to know what they're thinking.  Perspective changes very frequently, and at first I was alarmed by this, as a new writer myself, because I thought that we weren't supposed to do that!!  I thought we were supposed to stick to one perspective, and only have access to one person's thoughts.  Now I've seen how switching perspective can be done very skillfully, and can be used very effectively.  We know each of the main (goodie) characters very well because of this.  We don't know the baddies so well, because we never go into their minds.  This keeps them remote, and prevents us from sympathising with them because we can't know their motivation for their actions.  Red Gloves has a shifting perspective too, but it's done slightly differently, but just as effectively.  I didn't like it at first, found it too confusing; I'm used to it now, and actually think it's very cleverly executed.

So, Inkheart, very good.  It had a similar feel to  Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, but on a much smaller scale.  Meggie had some of the same kind of pluck as Lyra, although I liked Lyra immediately whereas it took me longer to take to Meggie (I think it was probably only because her name annoyed me, as I thought it was a little babyish!).

I will have to wait for quite a while to read Inkspell and Inkdeath, since they're not on my list!  Must stick to the list; don't know why, I just must ...