Monthly Archives: July 2014

4214

Review: Life of Pi

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4214.Life_of_Pi

4/5

Pi Patel travels with his family from India to Canada, on a cargo boat filled with zoo animals. When the boat sinks, Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger for a castaway companion.
When I started this and the author spent a page and a half talking about three toed sloths, I thought this was going to be a long haul of a book. To my immense surprise, the pacing picked up and I zoomed through it.

What helped is the voice of Pi. He’s warm, very smart, witty, loves wordplay and puns, and has an unending love of life he voices through his polytheism and zoology. His relationship to Richard Parker, the tiger he spends seven months on a boat with, is full of clever observation and humour.

Then something interesting happens almost at the end of the story. Pi tells some insurance people what might have happened on the boat, and suddenly…you’re left wondering. You’re left to examine the story anew. Pi even asks which version of the story you prefer, and leaves it up to you as reader to decide. It’s an interesting twist, but did the book need it? I didn’t think so.

This is how all literature should be. It’s accessible, it’s smart, it’s dark and it’s humorous, and works on as many levels as you want it to. Great book.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestWordPressShare...
11735983

Review: Insurgent, Veronica Roth

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11735983-insurgent

3/5

Tris has to come to terms with killing a friend, and losing her parents, while trying to form and keep new alliances with The Factions (and Factionless). But nothing is black and white anymore…

I checked back, and it’s been two years since I read Divergent – high time I read Book Two, I thought, and I had some summer time reading space and went for it.

Despite the gap between the stories, I didn’t feel lost as to what was going on in this book. It’s almost self-contained, with enough back-story reminders to keep you on track. There’s a nice sequel hook at the end so you come back for Book Three to see how it all works out.

Roth sketches her world in rough outlines, with shades of grey and rain the predominant colours and weather, but despite that, you get a solid sense of place and are very grounded in this world and its characters.

I commented in the first book there didn’t seem to be much chemistry between Tris and her instructor, Tobias (now her lover). This time it seems more developed and the relationship more concrete. There seems to be more of a need for each other now.

Roth doesn’t hang about in this book. Her pacing is relentless; there aren’t many pages where the characters aren’t moving forwards to the next event. Tris is shifting locations constantly in this book, from Amity orchards to Candor confusing corridors. The pacing is almost too fast, and sometimes the action blurs into one.

Tris also changes alliances as her whims take her. I’m not sure I would Tris with my back in a fire-fight: She might decide the people we were supposed to be fighting have a better deal for her.
It does make her character and the dynamics of her relationships more interesting though. Tris is a woman in conflict, with everyone around her and herself.

I will be coming back for Book Three…maybe in another two years

6771443

Review: Coraline and other stories, Neil Gaiman

4/5

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6771443-coraline-and-other-stories

My first dip into the Gaiman universe was an enjoyable experience. Like a day at the beach – sometimes the wind will drop and the vista of the sea before you will open out to infinity. You’ll settle into your chair of choice and sigh, contented. The next minute, the wind will be kicking sand up your nose and the sun will be shooting shard of lights into your eyes from the choppy ocean.

Gaiman is like that. When he’s good (which is most of the time), he’s excellent, with a wry and humorous turn of phrase, a delicate touch of wit. When he’s bad, he’s mediocre, and doesn’t do a lot for you. You shift in your seat and push on, hoping he’s going to get better again.

This was a collection of eleven stories and one blank verse…

Coraline, the header of the book. An old-fashioned fairy tale, with an old-fashioned witch and a feisty heroine. Nothing new here, not really, but Gaiman spins the tale with a deft wit into an exciting and at times frightening tale. To be honest, I was more scared by Coraline’s parents’ indifference than by her Other Mother. Great bedtime story for kids though.

The Case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds This is an absolute hoot, a riot of a tale. A hard-boiled detective working the nursery rhyme beat, full of characters like Little Jack Horner and Humpty Dumpty, aka The Fat Man. Just brilliant, and I guffawed and chortled my way through it. One to read aloud, detective voice included.

Don’t ask Jack The weakest and shortest story in the collection, about a malevolent toy abandoned in a toy box. Such little happens that it wasn’t worth the effort.

Troll bridge A spin on the tales of trolls that live under bridges, but more about the boy (and later man) who discovers it. Since he’s a jerk, we don’t really care if the troll catches him or not; and since he’s a jerk, the story didn’t do much for me.

How to sell the Ponti bridge The oldest scam in the book – selling something that isn’t yours. A twist at the end, but it isn’t a particularly good twist, and doesn’t lift the story above average.

October in the chair A homage to Ray Bradbury, full of strange imagery and twisting sentences. The story itself is quite weak, but the frame around the story is nice, full of seasonal atmosphere and wit.

Chivalry Another hoot of a tale. An old lady finds The Holy Grail, and refuses to part with it, even when a knight makes her better and better offers. Wonderful tale, especially the little epilogue.

The Price A family takes in stray cats, and one of them repays them. Interesting story; what was refreshing was how genre-savvy the character was. He locks the cat in the basement, and his life starts to go wrong. He releases it, and his life improves. He’s smart enough (for a change for a literary character) to realise what’s going on.

How to talk to girls at parties Thinking about this one again, I see where Gaiman was going with it. Talking to girls when you’re a teenager is like talking to strange aliens who make no sense. In fact, I think it still is.

Sunbird Strong characters let down by an average story and so-so ending.

The witch’s headstone A boy – who might or might not be dead – can see the dead and interact with them. He decides to buy a witch a headstone as a favour. Too easily resolved, this could have been stretched a little more and the characters given more depth to make it more satisfying.

Instructions A blank verse poem about going on a quest, with some cool imagery. Falls apart at the end though, like Gaiman didn’t know what to do with it.

So, in the end, what do I think of my first dip into Gaiman? I liked the way he developed his characters, and his world building – sometimes in a phrase or two – was brilliant. His characters are very genre-savvy, which is energising. When the boy in “October in the Chair” meets another boy in a graveyard, he knows (as we almost instantly do) that the boy is a ghost; as when the man in “The Price” who finds that a stray cat is protecting his family when he locks it into the cellar and his life begins to break.
His endings seemed the weakest part of his writing. He seems to be aiming for twists in some of his stories, but they were laboured and obvious.

However, I think I’ll be back for more Gaiman. I’m intrigued enough to continue reading!

6969

Review: Emma, Jane Austen

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6969.Emma

3/5

Emma Woodhouse is an early 19th century matchmaker. She’s also very rich (I saw a modern comparison put her wealth at $3 million or so in 21st century value), very bored and a snob – and a spoilt brat with a sense of superiority and inflated ego.

In the 19th century, the only way a woman could make her mark on the world was to marry; it was the only way she could secure her future and the future of her children. Marriage to the right man was all that mattered. And when I mean the right man, I mean a richer one. Everyone in 1815, it seems, was a social climber.

It’s background like this that you need to have before you go into this book, or Emma’s attempts at matchmaking and her refusal to marry won’t mean a thing. Once you get that idea of the social set, you’re on your way.

I had a hard time getting into this book. No fault of Austen; I was reading thirty minute snippets at lunchtime in a very noisy and distracting environment at work, and not much seemed to be happening – endless dinner parties or arrangements for dances or visits, mixed in with Emma’s hopeless attempts at matchmaking and discerning human behaviour.

I didn’t feel I was being fair to the book, so I started reading where it was quiet. Suddenly, something about Austen seemed to click. I practically heard it. Everything she was doing with the characters and situation started to make sense.

And let me tell you something: Austen is a bloody brilliant writer. Her characters are warm, witty, full of life and idiosyncrasies and funny. They are human and jump right off the page. Her small cast of characters and her observations of humanity are spot on.

Here’s an example. Mrs Bates: That woman. Will. Not. Shut. Up! And then Emma calls her on it, and realises how much it has hurt Mrs Bates.

As a reader, I thought, I’m just as bad as Emma. I’m just as rude for not listening to her, or at least tolerating her. Brilliant.

Emma and her life herself take some dissection. Her social set consists of about ten people in one village, and she has no means of travel for long periods away from home. Her father worries a lot about everything, convinced some disease will strike her down if she does, and Emma respects that.

Her life is boredom, essentially. She matchmakes the people around her to stretch her strait-jacketed life and to alleviate the tedium – a tedium I felt as keenly as her as she arranged yet another trip to Randalls, or discussed the best place to hold a ball.

The only thing about Emma’s matchmaking…she’s not very good at it. No; she’s useless at it, completely misunderstanding everything that’s going through other people’s heads and hearts. Her ego and self-assurance won’t admit to any fault on her part though. She’s convinced she can’t be wrong.

She also refuses to mix with people below her, or those she considers ‘inferior’, like Jane Fairfax. She’s not an easy person to like. But despite that, you stick with her because you glimpse the good in her – in her respect for her father, her heeding advice for Mr Knightley, she shows the good woman she could be. And she does get better. A whole lot better, by the end of the book – she’s a woman transformed.

I enjoyed this a whole lot more than Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps now I’ve got the hang of Austen – she’s a writer having a blast and a whole lot of fun – I might go back and give it another try.

I certainly have a lot more time for her now.

Writing tips: Remember every scar

 

“A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.” – Stephen King.

 

I was e-mailing an Antipodean writing friend the other day. I’d sent her the first page of my WIP and explaining a little where it came from, when that quote from Stephen King popped into my head.

A little backstory: The first page of my WIP has a character shoot someone. It’s a kicker of an opening, but what I was telling my friend was where it came from. I’ve never shot anyone in my life (You’ll be delighted to know), never even held a gun, loaded or otherwise. Air pistol and air rifle – shot at a few empty cans – but never a gun.

The shooting isn’t the important part, and not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about the person who did the shooting, which will – trust me on this – get me back to the quote at the top.

I have a not-seen-in-years cousin in the police. More years ago than I can date, he told me (or my dad while I was listening) that he’d had someone point a gun at him. At the time, he was as professional and calm as his training taught him. But he said after the incident, he was still shaking hours later.

So my character shoots someone, calmly and professionally, as they were taught. Then they realise what they’ve just done and the effects hit them.

Which brings me to my point (told ya!) and the quote above: Writers never forget anything.

We can, indeed, point to every scar and tell you its story. In detail.

Everything we’ve ever seen will probably end up in one of our stories somewhere; from the shop assistant who compulsively stretches her sweater cuff over her wrist (Eight Mile Island) from someone who loves rainstorms (Over the Mountain). Everything gets stored and sifted in a writers head and pulled out when we need it.

I’m very lucky in the regard that I have a pretty good memory. I do remember the most obscure occurrences years later – even if I can’t accurately date them. It’s not so useful for real life – I can’t remember how to fold bath towels for instance, which drives my wife mad every week.

But if you don’t recall things as well, then write it down. Or sketch it. Or scribble yourself a note when you come across something. Do whatever works so you remember it.

You never know when it’s going to be useful.