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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Two books at Christmas

It's the holiday season so I ran down to the other end of the book life cycle and became a reader for a few days. One book, I found interesting, but not particularly enjoyable, the other enthralling.

Patricia Highsmith - "Nothing that meets the eye" - a collection of short stories. I haven't finished reading this one yet; it's split into two parts; some of her early stories and some of her later ones. I've read ten of the stories so far.

The good: I enjoy her descriptive style and her use of language. She certainly knows how to create image and I came away thinking that I had probably not plumed the depth of the literary allusions she created. Culture and time differences would have made some of them rather opaque.

The bad: I came away from all ten stories feeling dissatisfied. The sting in the tail (if it existed) always seemed so weak and feeble. Usually the story just petered out in some entirely foreseeable way. Certainly not what I was taught a good short story should be. I may not bother to read the other stories.

Leif Enger - "Peace Like a River". This book blew me away. It is Leif Enger's first novel and it is utterly readable with an ending that completely ambushed me. The story is written from the PoV of an eleven year old boy (Ruben) and is set in the 1960's. His elder brother (Davey) kills two town bullies and goes on the run. Ruben's father, Ruben, and his younger sister (Sweed) set out to look for Davey, traveling through Dakota in the middle of winter. Also searching is a Federal Marshal (Andreeson) and its a race to see who finds Davey first. A simple story at its heart, but one with so many different layers and twists that it ranks as one of those rare books that, having read it, one comes away feeling totally satisfied.

Lief Enger certainly knows how to cook up a good story and if you've not read it yet, then I highly recommend it.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Wizard's Bane - Book review

Today I finished reading Wizard's Bane, Book One of the Sojourn Chronicles, by crystalwizard.

Crystalwizard is a storyteller of considerable ability. Some people aspire to be good writers; my own belief is that the art of weaving a good story is a prerequisite to the craft of putting that story onto paper (or computer screen). Others will doubtless disagree. But, if I aspire to anything as a writer, it is to become a good story teller. Crystalwizard is a good story teller.

Though I have only read the first book of the Sojourn Chronicles, it is clearly an epic tale of Tolkien proportions. The characters are believable, in a fantastic sort of way, and there is both a noble goal (that spans books) and immediate challenges and dangers for the hero, Dale, to overcome. Dale has a mission to accomplish, though he only slowly becomes aware of its scope while struggling to survive on the world into which he has been thrust. His survival is accompanied by his gathering a strange assortment of misfits on his journey to the "city of wizards".

There were some nice touches in the story. I was tickled by the idea of programming as 'magic' (a spell got stuck in a 'for ... next loop')which reminded me of Arthur C Clarke's quotation "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

In one sense, I was disappointed in the way that book one ended; there was less of a climax than I would have liked. But in another sense, this is part of the epic genre; how do you end a story that is a part of a much larger story? If you read Wizard's Bane, then be prepared to read book two (and book three, and ...)

Also be prepared to encounter the odd misplaced word on the way through. These things didn't bother me, but I did notice them. If you are pedantically inclined, then don't let this spoil an otherwise great read.

All in all, I consider this to be a read that shouldn't be missed, and I will be reading the second book very soon.

Crystalwizard's books can be found at: http://sojourn.omnitech.net where you can order a print version or download the ebook (pdf format)


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Friday, February 16, 2007

"On Writing" by Stephen King

I'm no great fan of Stephen King's horror genre books but I do recognise him as a very accomplished and popular writer. In that spirit, I have just finished reading "On Writing" by Stephen King.

"On Writing" is a book about, yes, writing; the hows, whys and wherefores; as Mr King experiences them. From this perspective it is a book mainly for writers and would-be writers. Non-writers might also find the autobiographical first section interesting but would probably become bogged down in the rest of the book.

It's written well - should we expect less? - and I found it personally interesting. Writers approach the task of writing a novel in different ways; some plan meticulously others just start with a basic premise and write the story from there. King tends towards the latter; something that, as a novel virgin, I found quite validating of my own embrionic approach.

King also has some very firm opinions that at times verge on the obsessive. He makes a very strong call for the eradication of the adverb - especially those that end in the dreaded 'ly'. The issue for King is that adverbs modify verbs in a way that can usually be shown by the story. Using the adverb is, in effect, to 'tell' rather than to 'show'. I was left with a sneaking suspicion that at times King overstates his case, simply to push his point home; 'firmly'.

I recommend this book to any writer or aspiring writer; it is both entertaining and informative, whether or not you agree with everything King says. Stars? Let's say 4.5 (out of five).

"On Writing" by Stephen King, Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 0 340 82046 2

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Villenspell: City of Wizards - Book review

Earlier this month I reviewed Book 1 of the Sojourn Chronicles by crystalwizard (yes this is a pen name). I went straight on to book 2 - Villenspel: City of Wizards and am currently half way through book 3 (Wizards and Wanderers). Everything I said about book 1 remains true of the next two books; the story telling remains excellent and there is no sign of the plot flagging. Dale (the hero) continues to gather a company of misfits around him and the scrapes and binds in which they find themselves continue to be fantastically credible.

I recommend these books to anyone who enjoys the fantasy genre. Hop on over to http://sojourn.omnitech.net where you can read excerpts from the books and order either an eBook or a hard copy paperback.


Books 4, 5 & 6 have yet to be published but, I understand, are already written. I am waiting.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Get Writing

Get Writing. No, it's not an instruction, it's the BBC website for writers; which is actually a very fine instruction! Confused? You should be.

Like many things on the Internet, it's not always easy to remember how you ended up on a particular site. I can't remember how I ended up on the "Get Writing" site, but I am so glad I did and I think that every serious writer should end up there at some point or another.

I am completely overwhelmed at the richness of the material on this site. There is a whole section on "The Craft" of writing with substantial articles by professional writers. Not the teensy-weensy little articles you get on many sites, but substantial articles of around 3,000 words on topics such as:

"Anatomy of a Story" by Charles Palliser (The Quincunx) advises on what makes story work from beginning to end, and "Losing the Plot?" by Mike Phillips (Blood Rights, A Shadow of Myself) unpicks a number of plots and explains how to make your plot work.

If that wasn't enough, there is the "Mini-Courses" section with tutorials and advice split up into categories for Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced. These tutorials are amazing and the title "Mini-Course" is really a misrepresentation: each course is far from "Mini" and it would take most of us a year or more to work through all the material.

So, there's "The Craft" and there's "Mini-Courses" but there are four other sections to this site as well; "Reading", Tools & Quizzes", "Useful Links" and the very interesting "Watch and Listen" section with audio and video interviews on a range of topics.

I really can't recommend this resource highly enough. Pop on over to http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/getwriting and get browsing.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Time Traveler's Wife

I have just finished reading "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger. I come away from this book with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, the whole premise of the book is quite illogical. Henry has a genetic disorder which predisposes him to travel in time; unexpectedly and at the most inconvenient moments. If it isn't sufficiently bizarre that time travel is seen as a genetic disorder, Henry's genes seem capable of traveling and interacting with his own genes in another time - Henry as a man meets Henry as a boy and tells him things he will need to know. On this level, the book is rather silly and puerile.

While the time traveling Henry is indispensable to the story, the nub of the book is the relationship Henry has with Clare, his wife. In a silly way, Henry might have been a pink hippopotamus and the book could then have been written around his relationship with Clare. Silly, but hardly any sillier that the actual premise.

What redeems this book is that it is exquisitely well written. Allowing the odd premise, the reader is invited to explore the relationship between Henry and Clare as seen from their different perspectives. The whole thing alternating between a first person Clare and a first person Henry. While this switching of point of view can be difficult, Audrey Niffenegger handles it well and there were only a couple of points in the whole book where I forgot which person was relating the story. There was something in the story that, despite the odd premise, kept me reading; wanting to discover what happens (or happened) to these two people. If the writing had been less masterful, I would have put the book down after a couple of chapters; but no, I read to the very end and was pleased to have done so.

There was also a poetic feel to the writing, but it never became obtrusive. Rather, one stumbled across little gems of sentences like; "But all of our laments could not add a single second to her life, not one additional beat of the heart, nor a breath." It was a delight to stop at these points and reread a sentence or phrase and savour it for how well crafted it was.

I would recommend "The Time Traveler's Wife" as a good, well crafted, read that gets four, perhaps four-and-a-half stars, failing to get five only because of the silly premise.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Testament of Gideon Mack

Finally, I finished reading "The Testament of Gideon Mack" by James Robertson.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the positive side, Robertson writes good, readable English. I can't recall having to re-read a passage because it lacked clarity. I particularly liked the masterful way he handled the Scottish accent in dialogue; he wrote Scots and carried it off remarkably well.

Robertson also conjures up a cast of believable characters ranging from the mundane to the truly eccentric. One could argue that the characters were a little under-developed but, as the book was largely written from the first person perspective of the egocentric Gideon Mack, this is entirely understandable.

Where Robertson lost the plot for me was in his story telling. The hardback edition of the book runs to 387 pages, but my feeling through the first 200 pages, was that I was reading a lengthy and turgid prologue. The second half was different, however, and the book got into stride finally leaving me pondering Gideon's story as if he were a real person.

The person who recommended this book to me said that they started reading somewhere around chapter 33 and then went back to the beginning after they had finished, in order to fill in the gaps. I tried it from the beginning (as I always do) and found it hard going. Both experiences suggest the Robertson needs to work on the story telling aspect of this book; it just isn't right as it is.

During the early part of the book, my star rating was hovering around 2 (out of five), but with the game lifting in the second half I think that Gideon Mack deserves 3 stars overall with the last half scoring 4 or even 4.5.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Angel Rock by Darren Williams

Angel Rock by Darren Williams
Harper Collins, 2002

"Angel Rock is a fabulous novel of revenge and redemption, coming of age and coming to terms, of love, loss and yearning, and of trying to find your way home." So says the back cover and I agree.

This book is a compelling story well told. The characters are believable and the setting, Australia 1969, portrays a less sanitised life, a raw and more dangerous life, than most of us are used to in the twenty-first century. It is a beautifully crafted story that I found hard to put down, even when tired at the end of a long day.

I believe that a well told story can redeem poor writing, but good writing will not make up for a poorly told story. This book was an example of the former; I enjoyed reading it despite poor writing and, by implication, poor editing.

The opening sentence of this book was a whopping forty-eight words long and the second sentence was written as follows:

"The footpath was baking hot and the grass on either side of it full of bindi-eyes and no easier on his bare feet and his progress was punctuated by spells of hopping to recover from one or the other." I stopped and read it again, and a third time. Then gave up and moved on. The book was full of such bad construction and I soon gave up trying to decipher each one and just read through them to maintain the flavour and rhythm of the story.

The other problem was the dialogue - it was well written and believable but appallingly attributed; it was as though either Mr Williams or his editor didn't believe in attributions and deleted them at every opportunity. The result was strings of short pithy dialogue where, as a reader, one had no idea which character was saying what. Again, in order to maintain the flow of the story, I had to stop trying and simply move on.

How much of the subtlety in this story I missed due to poor writing and poor attribution, I have no way of telling, though I suspect that it may be quite a bit. Nevertheless, this story was ultimately a good read and one that I am glad to have spent time with. If the writing had been better, it would have achieved 4.5 stars but, as it stands, it really only qualifies for 3.5 and a "Should try harder" comment for both writer and editor.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Raw Shark Texts

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

I come straight from the pages of The Raw Shark Texts, overjoyed at the freshness of this book and wondering how on earth I can post a review without putting people off reading a fantastic book.

It is probably one of those 'love it or hate it' books that will polarize those who read it. What will you make of the seven blank pages towards the end of the book? They contain no words yet, in context, they say a lot. What will you make of the 'letter graphs', the little pictures made up of letters and words that are scattered throughout the book? Difficult to understand at first, yet so much a part of the story.

By now you will be getting the idea that this is an unusual book and so it is. But in the midst of this strangeness Steven Hall weaves a compelling and well written story. Conceptually this book shouldn't have happened (who would have thought a publisher would take it on?) and it shouldn't work (what reader could enjoy its confusion?) but the facts are; it's here and it does work; very, very well.

Douglas Adams (the infinite improbability drive) meets Rene Descartes (I think, therefore I am) might sound like a scary and unlikely combination but it's what came to my mind early on and that conviction didn't shift by the time I got to the end. It's a psychological thriller, its a love story, its an action mystery and, if I were to try to give you the gist of the story, I would probably give too much away.

Advice; get hold of it quickly, the literary sharks are circling and it's bound to get snapped up.

Definitely a five star read.

"The Raw Shark Texts" by Steven Hall, Published by Canongate, ISBN 978-1-921145-74-2

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Monday, April 28, 2008

WriteItNow & Papel

Tools ... I love tools. Tools are the prevaricator's best friend; when you don't feel like writing or the block has struck, you can play with the tools! I've played with lots of tools - here are two of the best.

The first one is called "WriteItNow" by Ravenshead Services. "WriteItNow" allows you to keep all the information you collect about your writing project in one place. There are tabs that allow you to write chapters, detail characters, events, locations, ideas and notes. "WriteItNow" even allows you to keep a visual time line for all the events in your story. The characters tab can be fun; as well as entering basic data like name, gender and date of birth (date of death too!), you can have fun auto generating characters complete with names and personalities - great for some random inspiration

Of course "WriteItNow" can spell check, count the words, has a built in thesaurus and can assess the readability of your work. When you are done you can export your work to either RTF, plain text or HTML. Oh, and if you are writing seriously then "WriteItNow" can track your submissions. The final 'clincher' for me is that "WriteItNow" is written in Java so it runs under Windows and Mac and, although Ravenshead Services don't advertise it, I managed to get it running under Linux (Ubuntu) too. All this for a smidgen under US$50 - that's pretty reasonable in my book. You can find "WriteItNow" here: http://www.ravensheadservices.com/

The second piece of software is called "Papel". It looks very different from "WriteItNow". Papel is a graphical environment where you drop 'papels' onto a desktop. A papel represents a piece of paper or sheaf of pages that can represent chapters, scenes, characters, in fact anything you like - double click to edit any papel. You join your chapter and scene papels together to form a book and Papel will generate the output text file for you. Papel also has spell check, thesaurus and word count built in and can also count word frequency and search for how many times you have used a certain phrase. Papel only works in plain text, runs on MS Windows only and, disappointingly, is no longer supported by the author. However, a Papel fan has set up a web site where you can download it for free at: http://papel.teiru.net/papel/

Over the years I have tried a few writing tools both commercial and free and these represent the best of each category. Papel is the best free writing program by far and "WriteItNow" the best value for money commercial writing tool.

Try ... enjoy.

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