Amelia’s Challenge Number 5 “Something New”

So, it’s been a while, but I honestly feel like I needed a break.I have decided to make a few changes here and there, but I’ll explain those in a longer post which will be up soon. In the meantime, here’s another Amilia’s Challenge.

Getting it in right before the deadline! This is another from the wedding series of 150-word stories. You are tasked to write a 150 word story based on the prompts: “Something Old,” “Something New,” “Something Borrowed,” and “Something Blue.” But you can’t mention weddings or anything to do with them in the stories!

This week had a special challenge as well, which was to include an old or abandoned house within the story. I must have predicted it or something as I wrote my story with an abandoned house before Amelia even made that rule. Anyway, here it is…

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The newest part of the house seemed safer. I couldn’t believe they wanted to put me in the cobweb and dust infested west wing. Grand as it was, it didn’t even have electric lights. It was basically abandoned. The electric glow of the modern end of the house comforted me. I found a room, and entered.

Sleep wouldn’t come. At two I heard someone walking towards me. I flicked the bedside lamp on but the room was empty. I sat, and looked at my arm. Mottled red pools of blood oozed through my pyjamas. I rolled up my sleeve but there was no cut. At the edge of my vision appeared a figure dressed in green. Her neck was marked with a bloody line and her face was hollow. I stumbled backwards from my bed and ran to the safety of the gas-lit room which has so scared me before.

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I’ve always liked ghost stories, and I hope the atmosphere of this one is portrayed in such a small story!

Make sure to check out Amelia’s Challenge. Feedback would be appreciated very much, and if you wanted to have a go, just post up your response on her blog!

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A small break

I won’t be able to post anything this week as I am going off on holiday,  I will be back next week with more writing, reviews and other posts!

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On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

OnChesilBeachIan McEwan has a way with words most other writers can only imagine having. He has an almost Joycian level of complexity with his style, but it seems somewhat more accessible. On Chesil Beach is a novella full of this level of writing. It’s very impressive to read.

But does that make it worth reading?

The novella follows the two lives of a couple of newlyweds. The narrative is primarily set on the evening of their wedding. Edward Mayhew is a ‘sixties businessman, and Florence Ponting is a nationally recognised violinist. There is disparity between the two sides of the relationship. Florence is asexual, Edward isn’t. Progress is slow through the book as about three-quarters is given over to just the night of their wedding and flashbacks about how and where they met and segments regarding the development of their relationship. The remaining quarter rushed through most of the rest of Edward’s life. It reminded me of a cycling sprint race where they look over their shoulders at each other for most of the duration of the race then go like hell for the last forty seconds. However this section seems to be more of an epilogue than an end, and as such, it works quite well and leaves you with something to think about after you’ve finished.

One issue I had was the characters as neither Edward nor Florence come across as particularly likeable. Where this isn’t necessarily an issue in a lot of fiction, I find in here it becomes one because of how close you are to the characters. Almost every action, inaction and thought they display as their wedding night is described. You’re inseparable from their being. Again, it’s clever, but it’s not a place I as a reader felt comfortable in. The novella did make me feel uncomfortable in places. The detail is extremely graphic and each emotional response bears a lot of weight. But I didn’t enjoy reading it in the same way I have enjoyed other books. Perhaps it’s too real; the slow motion aspect of the novel leaves nothing to your imagination. It lays every detail on the bed and asks you what you think about it. Or perhaps I was simply frustrated with the two characters. Florence seems very self-obsessed. She talks about how the thought of sex with her husband revolts her. Edward is completely oblivious and naïve to any possible other way of thinking as well. It begs the question of why the couple thought they’d be good for each other at all.

It’s worth remembering that this novella is set in 1960’s southern England, it’s a different world to where we are now, post war, rationing may even have been in effect in some parts of the country. Edward fits into the Angry Young Man persona. He’s been denied fighting in the war due to the fact he was born during it and his tension is released in the form of arousal. The characters are oil and water and both have flaws which mean you cannot really side with either. It’s an interesting novella and the writing is shocking, beautiful and very well thought out. I couldn’t enjoy the book. But I could definitely appreciate the author’s skill in writing it.

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Amelia’s challenge number 4 “Something Old”

It’s a bit late this week but here is my response to Amelia’s challenge over at Putting Words Together.

The prompt this week was:

Challenge for this Week: Write a 150-word story using the prompt “something old” while paying close attention to and following the four rules above. Remember, it has to be a story, not just a scene, and it can’t be a word above or below 150.

This story went a bit bizarre and I really ran with it. I wrote the first half of the first line and then the second half popped into my mind. What can I say, it took a turn to the bizarre from there!

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The Sunny Day

 

“So, what is it?” said the Cricket to the Ladybird.

“The Ant King has found something, something old!”

The cricket rubbed his legs together with glee. “What did he find?”

“Think big, shiny and golden. Its beauty will astound you; you will be forever astonished by its unfathomable brilliance.”

“So where is it?” asked the curious Cricket.

“Follow me!” replied the Ladybird.

 

The pair walked in tandem towards the site of the Ant King’s discovery. When they got there the Cricket’s thorax begun to shiver. He gazed up as much as his abdomen would allow and stared in an enchanted stupor at the golden disc which hung silently in the sky. The light refracted onto the ground and the Cricket watched as it collected in one brilliant point. Slowly it enveloped him.

 

“Timmy, what did I tell you about playing with your magnifying glass when it’s sunny?”

“Aww, Mum!”

“No!”

 

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Amelia’s  next challenge will be “Something New” and I will post up my response to that one soon!

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The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

the-lifeboatThere can be no doubt that The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel, is an interesting an engaging read. But whether or not I actually like the book is a different matter. The novel, narrated by the rather prim Mrs Grace Winter, is her memories and recollections of the sinking of The Empress Alexandra, a transatlantic cruise ship, and her time floating aboard an undersized lifeboat with thirty-eight other people, a couple of years after the sinking of the Titanic.

As far as plot goes, there isn’t a huge amount of it, which is understandable due to the nature of the novel’s setting. The ship sinks; Mrs Winter finds herself in a lifeboat; they are eventually rescued, and then there is a court case surrounding some of the events which occurred on the boat. As such the novel really needs to be outstanding on atmosphere and character development. The former it excels at until they are rescued. The three quarters of the novel set on the boat are a harrowing recount of a group’s determination for survival amidst a seemingly hopeless backdrop of waves, sharing out knife caught fish, ship’s biscuits and water for the progressively decreasing figure of thirty-nine and the constant dissension amongst the passengers.

The latter on the other hand is severely lacking. Because the novel is written in first person and past tense there is a significant distance between the reader and the situation. It’s beautifully described but you cannot feel anything for the character who you are essentially watching through the particularly cold and disclosing eyes of Mrs Winter. There is very little engagement with the other characters on the boat and twinned with the truth that none of them, least of all the narrator, are distinctly likable; you can’t really feel for them. They end up just as objects. There is no sense of remorse for the dead, nor relief for the living. It makes the concept feel deflated. The other issue is that there are simply too many people on the boat to align with. Thirty-nine people are said to be on the boat. But you quickly forget those other than the key characters of Mrs Winter, Mr Hardie; the only seaman on board, the officious Mrs Grant and her dogsbody Hannah and the wet and annoying Mary Ann. I am certain that at least half of the characters on the boat are unaccounted for even at the end of the novel, so how can you care that they lived or died?

The novel seems to be trying to make a statement, but it doesn’t seem to know which statement to make. It extensively addresses feminism and suffrage, but as it appears to be leaning towards that it veers off into religion. I couldn’t even call it a novel about survival or trauma. It’s a novel about a selection of cardboard cut-out stereotypes who find themselves in an extreme situation. But it’s the situation which wins the awards, not the characters. To be honest, the boat left bobbing in the ocean at the end as the survivors departed on a fishing boat was the only character I truly missed. If the first three quarters existed without the final one and if the novel had been in third person then perhaps it could have been better. Unfortunately it had a lot of shortcomings. It’s real saving grace is the description and the tension Rogan creates. I feel it’s a divider of opinions and you can only really know what yours is after reading it.

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The Wind Farm

I’m not one to explain poems that much, but just for a small amount of context. I studied at Aberystwyth University and on several occasions found myself travelling between Aber and my home town. Just East of Aberystwyth there is a huge and impressive wind farm which we almost always passed on the way. It’s always been in the back of my mind, and I do find they have a certain romance to them.

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The Wind Farm

Up on Rheidol
the brush grass, rough, windswept,
mingles with the gorse
which grew thick in the summer.
The October chill drains
Its colour. Green becomes buff.

The hillside is ragged,
Ruled by sheep.
There are no crops.
No cars.

No sound.

Except…
For the dull drone.

White pillars, each pristine,
Set with a propeller,
three blades, equally spaced.
The rotation is slow
at first, but speeds up
as a gust blows
in from the sea.

They stand tall like watchers
looking out over the hill
and the road.
The sheep,
and the irritable clouds.

There they stand. Innocently
battling the Westerlies.

There they stand and there
they will stand.

Turning.

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Additionally!

Shout out to Amelia Groves at Putting Words Together. As part of Writing 101 she made an awesome short story called Watching The Clouds, you can find Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 here!

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Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

isbn9780755322800-detailNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman is a dark fantasy masterpiece. I feel I should apologise as this blog slowly becomes “Let’s gush about Neil Gaiman” but I keep finding new things to gush about. Published in 1996 as an expansion on the script of a TV drama he wrote for the BBC, Neverwhere was Gaiman’s second adult novel, and easily surpasses Stardust (his third).

Richard Mayhew is a bewildered Scottish businessman, living in London and working for a marketing firm, his day to day is the average day to day of an average London professional, and his girlfriend Jessica fits the bill nicely. The novel sets you up on false pretenses however and with the introduction of the strangely named female lead ‘Door.’ Richard is a man who falls through the cracks. He finds himself in London Below, twisted, dark and mysterious version of its plate glass and pigeon filled sister. Old Bailey is a man who lives atop roofs. Earl’s Court is a converted underground train carriage containing an Earl and his court. Hammersmith is a ten foot tall blacksmith and The Angel, Islington… Well you can probably assume.

The quirky nature of the characters and places within the novel are a true strength, and the characterisation is so well rounded as well. There is no one in there who feels like a plot device. Even an early misfortune, involving a comparatively minor character, which Richard has to come to terms with eats away at him throughout the novel. Two of the most excellently developed characters are the perfectly evil Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar, two of the most prolific assassins, brutes and killers in all of London Below. They gave me an instant vibe of Mr Wint and Mr Kidd in the James Bond adventure Diamonds are Forever, packed full of whimsical quips and a malice which can only come with a huge grin. Mr Croup is the more intelligent of the two, while Mr Vandemar is the Lenny to his George. Together they almost singlehandedly (were there not two of them) take the position of some of the most enjoyable antagonists to read in all of fantasy literature.

There is nothing like the atmosphere this book sets up. There is that back-note of familiarity and then the bizarre nature of the novel and together it makes for a page-turner which will constantly surprise you. The style is excellent, a perfect blend of black comedy, fantasy and harrowing, nail-biting moments. The pacing is perfect. My only criticism is that I wish there could have been more. Gaiman doesn’t tend to write sequels, but he’s hinted in a lot of places that Neverwhere may well be an exception to that rule. I for one hope it is.

Neverwhere can be found at Amazon.co.uk for £7.91 and Amazon.com for $8.98.

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Amelia’s Challenge Number 3 “Locked Out”

It’s back again, and I am getting rather addicted to these 150 word stories. I’ll reshuffle my post around this week, here is the challenge taken directly from Amelia’s Putting Words Together:

“Challenge for the Comments: Write a 150-word story using either

  • the prompt “locked out”, or the general idea of someone being kept outside of something, or,
  • the method of “surprised author” – change your story’s direction halfway through, even if you already had an idea of how it would end, and see what happens!”

I decided to try and incorporate both of the sides of the prompt into this one, and also I wanted to try and create some more questions for the reader, while deliberately not explaining them. Sorry about that! I also wanted to experiment with a 100% dialogue piece to combat my overly descriptive story from last time, so here it is:

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Doppelganger

 

“Welcome to the Early Riser Show on 99.6 Shout! FM. It’s 4am, how are you Daniella?”

“I’m great, Pete, and may I say I like what you’ve done with your hair today. How are you?”

“Thanks, but I’m not so good, I’m afraid, I got locked out of my car just now. I could see the keys through the window.”

“Bad luck! Well I hope you can get back into it later. Listeners, tell us your stories about when you’ve locked yourselves out, I’m sure Pete would love some ideas.”

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“Listen, boss, I can explain. I couldn’t get in and I didn’t want to call anyone out when I had a corpse in the boot.”

“You should have dumped the car, leaving him in public was idiotic. What if she’d seen?”

“It’s fine, she didn’t notice during the show. She doesn’t even know he had a twin.”

“On your head…”

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I hope my little subversive piece was an interesting read, and I hope it formed more of a story/concept rather than just a scene. Feel free to leave feedback in my comments section and make sure to head over to Amelia’s blog and take part in the challenge yourselves! These stories are taking me out of my comfort zone, it’s a really interesting thing to do if you are trying to take a break from writing a novel or any kind of longer piece. Or maybe try it out if you just want to experiment with a different style or try out a concept.

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The Saboteur – a 500 word story!

This is just a little story I wrote the other day, I had a vague idea about what I wanted to write and just decided to go ahead and try it out. I’d appreciate any feedback!

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Brett Hardwick blamed the toaster. He woke when a north-westerly gust soared in through his open window, bringing with it the first few snowflakes of a blizzard which would last for the next two days. He had felt certain that he had locked the window before going to bed, but there it was as open as an unblinking eye.

He clambered out of his bed, scraping his leg on an exposed spring and reached the window just in time to see that his newspaper was missing. Was it too much to ask, he thought to himself, that the shiftless lout of a paper boy could deliver his paper through the letter box? Brett checked his leg, which was now oozing a glossy line of blood. He made his way downstairs.

The toaster sat in the kitchen, mocking him. He dressed his leg as best as he could, placed the roll of bandages on the worktop and set about making himself some breakfast. He glared at the polished stainless steel curvature of the infernal appliance as he slid two slices of bread into its inner workings. The toaster made a vague hum. Brett carefully studied the dial, which was set to ‘2.’ Any lighter than that and the bread would have come out of the toaster as a bag of flour. He reluctantly peeled his gaze away from it and turned his attention to the fridge, which had been unplugged. He kicked it with his bare foot, opened the door and took out a bottle of tepid orange juice and poured himself a glass.

The plug was stuck behind the metal grating on the back of the fridge, but no matter how hard he tried his arm wouldn’t stretch to it. Taking the weight of the fridge on his chest he pulled it away from the wall. With a clunk he heard the plug come free. He had just plugged it in when the familiar smell of burnt toast wafted graciously into his nostrils.

 

The toaster blamed Brett Hardwick. It watched as Brett wandered down the stairs, his eyes glazed over and milky, feeling in front of him. The toaster wondered what possessed Brett. Why did he keep stopping what he was doing? Why did he keep undoing the things he had done?

Every morning without fail Brett would place two slices of bread inside it, every morning he would set the dial to ‘2’ and study it for a while, and every morning he would glaze over and spin the dial up to ‘10’ as he went to the fridge (which he unplugged every night before bed) to get some warm orange juice.

 

Brett’s eyes went glassy. He whispered to himself, his voice rasping. He said nothing like any recognisable language, but meandered through a sequence of rhythmic sounds. Almost a chant. He picked up his keys and placed them behind his TV set. His eyes grew bright again.

“Right… Keys, keys… Damn it all I left them right here.”

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Thanks for reading!

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Under the Eagle by Simon Scarrow

isbn9780755349708-1x2aI was once again, much the novice coming into this series of books, I have an appreciation for historical fiction but I haven’t really explored it that thoroughly. It was interesting therefore to begin with a less commonly written about period of history: the second Roman invasion of Britain, rather than the more commonly written about, like the Plantagenet kings, or Caesar or Queen Victoria.

The novel follows two principle characters through their lives in the Roman army from living in Gaul and being attacked by barbarians to the invasion of Britain, a soldier mutiny and ther first battle on English soil. Macro is a powerful but illiterate Centurion who is a very strong willed person. He develops nicely from his introduction to Cato, the other main character, and inevitably is a student of literature and teaches Macro to read. Cato joins the Second Legion of the Roman Army as a Optio (a Centurion’s second in command) from the palace in Rome. He seems he would have been more suited to the libraries of the Roman palaces, yet somehow becomes a fairly formidable warrior by the end of the novel. The issue I had was there was very little character progression for Cato. He starts as an inexperienced and bumbling boy, elevated above his rank through a favour from the emperor and ends as a well deserving war hero. It could be put down to being a natural, but it seems too far a stretch of the imagination to me. The training of the soldiers is almost entirely glossed over, which innately is not a bad thing – endless chapters of sword drills and building base camps would be very tiresome indeed. But because there is so little mention of Cato’s training, his military prowess seems hard to explain.

Simon Scarrow is a former history teacher, and Under the Eagle is his first published novel. Unfortunately, it shows. It’s good to a point but it falls short in several areas. My first reading session ploughed through half of the novel, during which the main characters are introduced and sent off to deal with a small matter of legal business at a nearby German village. This quickly escalates into a brilliantly described battle. The problem is, is that this isn’t the end of the novel. The true climax at the end (which dealt with the first battle in Britain) felt somewhat anticlimactic in comparison. It had significantly less air time than the German skirmish and was less enticing to read. It didn’t make it bad, just not quite as good as the climax in the middle had been. It left the novel rather bloated and misshapen. There are frequent jarring moments throughout the novel as well, particularly in dialogue: Macro yells to a barbarian soldier “Piss off you bugger!” which sounds considerably too upper middle class British than you’d expect of a 43AD Centurion sticking a sword in a German’s throat. The politics in the novel are another point which I found somewhat lacking. The main political twists were either lacklustre or predictable and overall the writing felt somewhat unfitting in comparison to the action sequences. Macro’s reaction to the politics is what I found most interesting. Being illiterate, he cannot read the messages and cannot sign his papers. His slow understanding of the politics behind the army is a very nice touch.

One commendation I have is the historical accuracy of the novel. The Second Legion (of which Macro and Cato are part) march to invade Britain, and the events which pan out are as history dictates. The research is second to none and the atmosphere (with the exception of some dialogue) is very Roman, and creates an excellent feeling within the novel. It is obvious that Scarrow truly knows this period of history.

The reason I will be reading the next one is because despite the novel’s flaws I can definitely see potential here. Scarrow’s first novel will never be as well written as his seventh, but it’s the place to start if you are at all interested in getting into this series. I am hooked, and the other books will be reviewed in due course. Under the Eagle is an okay book, but it’s the prospect of this book with the promise of a seasoned and experienced writer in the future which kept me reading.

You can buy Under the Eagle from Amazon.co.uk for £5.72 and from Amazon.com for $13.36

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