Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Review by Alexicon

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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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, Review by Alexicon

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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Double or Quits – a 150 word story

Here is the second in my twitter prompts! How this works is I asked my followers on twitter for single word prompts for 150 word stories. The only rules are that I had to use the prompted word in the story.

This time the word ‘double’ came from Amelia Groves!

“Hello, I’d like to place a bet, please.” He leaned on the felt, staring up at an astute dealer. The roulette wheel glistened as it sat in the glaring light of the casino. He adjusted his bowtie and took a sip from a glass of lemonade.

“Place your chips on a square,” said the dealer.

“Ah, okay, I shall place this much on red, I believe.”

“Excellent, sir.” The dealer raised his eyebrow slightly as the man placed a two hundred and sixty thousand dollars-worth of chips on Red. He watched the wheel spin and then the dealer dropped in the ball. It bounced into the blur of colour and stopped. “Red 7! It’s your day, sir. You’ve won over five hundred thousand dollars.”

“Splendid! Do take a tip, good day!”

“I can’t tempt you with another bet?”

“Gracious no! I doubled my Grandma’s estate, what more could I want?”

The story is loosely based on the true story of Ashley Revell, who in 1974 sold all of his possessions and bet his net worth on Red at the Plaza hotel in Las Vegas, the ball landed on Red 7 and he left, twice as wealthy as he had come in but with no intention of gambling any more.  I wanted to make my character seem a little bumbling, hense the non alcoholic drink and the old fashioned and very formal speech. I hope you have enjoyed my little story, either way!

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The Pact by Jodi Picoult, Review by Alexicon

the pactI’ll admit I went into The Pact without really knowing what to expect. I left it knowing that I enjoyed it immensely and still reeling from the gripping last hundred and fifty pages which went down in one sitting. Picoult has a penchant for designing her novels. By which I mean everything ties in together very nicely, is exceptionally well researched and a very realistic mirror of perhaps the more unusual aspects of modern life. In my review of Second Glance I applauded her ability to collate research into a novel and although The Pact is considerably less complex in terms of plot, the attention to detail is still sublime.

I was perhaps a little worried that the book would turn out to be erring on the side of angsty, but I was pleasantly surprised when the main theme of the novel – a court case surrounding an alleged suicide pact was dealt with not only sensitively but interestingly. The pact was between Chris and Emily, a teenage couple living next door to each other in a small and romantic suburb in New Hampshire. Chris was among the first people to see Emily in the world. At her birth, he was six months old and was placed next to her in her crib. Emily however sinks into a downward spiral of depression and Chris can’t help her.

The double suicide goes wrong. Chris is charged with murder of the first degree and sent to prison pending trial and the novel really comes into its own in the courtroom scenes. Picoult introduces a wonderfully dysfunctional Lawyer – Jordan McAfee – as Chris’ defence. As it turns out he’s a viper in the courtroom and his character alone would make the entire book worth reading. He’s why the last hundred and fifty pages are so readable. He’s a confliction of uncultured layabout and maestro which works on multiple levels. He almost steals the story from the rest of the characters.

Unfortunately that’s not entirely a good thing. While the portion of the novel which concerns itself with Chris’ home life and his time in prison is an engaging read it’s not as engaging as the courtroom thriller it becomes in the last quarter. However, I would say that the courtroom proceedings may get tiresome if they took up the whole novel, and I would also say that the back story of Chris’ and Emily’s relationship is a necessary part of the novel. I just wish that it could have been written with the same hand-in-mouth verve with which the courtroom scenes were.

Chris’ parents are interesting but decidedly average. Gus (Augusta) and James are the typical supportive mother and distant father character. James flies on the edge of the novel and only really gains much of a character towards the end after realising he can’t just brush the death of his son’s girlfriend under the rug. Gus sticks with Chris throughout and is a lifeline between the prison and the outer world. Emily’s parents are the mostly insane Melanie and her oppressed husband Michael; they have a rift filled relationship, and quite rightly after their only child was taken from them – ostensibly by herself, but according to the officious policewoman Marie Marrone, by Chris. Michael is probably the less interesting of the two, just seeming rather normal. Like the character equivalent of mashed potato. Melanie is a freshly shaken up can of cola, braced for a good explosion. I must commend the diversity of character in the novel even so. The characters work excellently with each other to carry the novel forward when the frustrated, scared and confused Chris sits lonely in a cell.

I’d recommend the novel to anyone. If you’re out looking for a tearjerker you might find it here, but mostly it’s a book which has been somewhat misbranded. The young girl on the cover drawing a heart in the condensation on a window hides a brilliantly exciting courtroom drama on the other side of that misted up window.

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How to Poem: How to Write Villanelles

Welcome to the first of a new series which will pop up sporadically about my blog! Some of you may be interested to know I have recently finished a dregree in English Literature and Creative Writing, and looking back over it I realised I have had a load of exposure to a huge number of different poetic forms and prose styles. So I’m going to offer some of that knowledge to my readers. I will do this though two separate series: ‘How to Poem…’ and ‘How to Prose…’ each post looking at a specifical form or style of writing.

Hopefully at the end of each post I will have give you all some insight on how to make up these forms of poetry and prose and maybe you’ll even post response blog posts with examples of your own work!

 

Villanelles

I’m not starting you off lightly. The villanelle is one of the most annoying and tricky poetic forms to imitate, especially if you are trying to make it a perfect example of the form. The issue is the strictness of the rhyme scheme and the refrains you have to use. The poem of course should make some kind of sense, but it should also have the right rhythm and tone as well as adhereing to one of the stricted rhyme schemes in all of poetry.

A villanelle is a nineteen line poem which consists of four tercets (three line stanzas) and one quatrain (four line stanza).

The rhyme scheme is:

A
B
A

A
B
A

A
B
A

A
B
A

A
B
A
A

That’s an awful lot of As and Bs! Each of those has to have the same rhyme, and so you ahve to pick a word sound which is commonly found at the end of a lot of words. Things like AY, OUND, EYE, ED, AIN, ITE, ING, ER and EEP are good because of the sheer number of words which fit into that pattern. But any words where there is a significant limit to the rhymes you could use are things best avoided.

On to the refrains, the first tercet’s first and third lines are repeated throughout the poem. It’s probably easiest to show rather than tell in this case.

A – 1st refrain
B
A – 2nd refrain

A
B
A – 1st refrain

A
B
A – 2nd refrain

A
B
A – 1st refrain

A
B
A – 1st refrain
A – 2nd refrain

So! The first line is repeated exactly on lines 6, 12 and 15 and line 3 is repeated on lines 9 and 19.

So, using this format I have written an example poem. My poem uses OLD and EES as its two rhymes, EES was probably the more tricky to find relevant words which fit the themes of the poem. I chose this particular topic because I’m a bit of an eco poet, I love writing about nature and things like that!

Well this is awkward, there was a poem here, but it’s been published! I’ll post the link to it when it’s up!

I hope there was something useful in this post! If you want to have a look at some better villanelles than mine I’d suggest looking at Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’ or W.H. Auden’s ‘If I Could Tell You’ which isn’t as strict as Thomas’s but is still really good!

I hope I have inspired you all to try out this form, and feel free to leave suggestions on the comments as to what I should look at next.

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The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, Review by Alexicon

76740Alfred Bester has been lauded as one of the science fiction greats of the Twentieth Century. His two must critically acclaimed novels are The Stars, My Destination and the subject of this review, The Demolished Man. The novel follows the undeniably unpleasant protagonist Ben Reich. Reich is the CEO of Monarch Utilities & Resources, a prolific and gargantuan cartel which has all but enveloped all business it deals with. The exception of which is Monarch’s rival: The D’Courtney Cartel to which Monarch are losing.

Reich plots to murder Craye D’Courtney. But there is a significant additional complication to his plans. The world in which Reich lives is policed by telepaths. Bester calls them ‘espers’ or ‘peepers’ and they fill the roles of doctors, psychologists, even a seedy club owner cum psychic medium, and of course, the police. The Guild of Espers is a fascinating concept, described as a psychiatric hospital in the novel. The place comes across as a realisation of a bitter and confining life which plagues all espers. An esper can only marry another esper and each person with esper powers must join the guild. Reich, unfortunately, does not have these powers. The result is a constant struggle for him to keep his plans from peeping minds.

He recites a rhyme:

‘Eight sir, seven, sir,
six, sir, five, sir
four, sir, three, sir,
two, sir, one.

Tension, apprehension
and dissention have begun. ‘

The infectious rhyme blocks out his thoughts to peepers and with the help of Augustus Tate, a first grade esper in the guild his plans slowly roll into action.

Bester’s style is captivating and post-modern. He effortlessly designs the future of the Earth while keeping the science entirely plausible, despite being able to get to Venus in a matter of hours. The world he builds is as detailed as a photograph in comparison to his characters; the novel reads like a moving image in the mind. His characterisation is exquisitely done and each character has their own human flaws, creating a realistic and deep set of complexities to dwell over while reading. Reich seems to be as much an enemy of himself as he is of Lincoln Powell, the esper police prefect determined to send him to be ‘demolished.’ Bester’s writing as well is inundated with the futuristic naming schemes of the world he created. He replaces sections of names with similar sounding grammatical and mathematical symbols: @kins, ¼maine and Wyg&, to name a few. The effect is an alienation from the contemporary world in which he was writing, planting the novel squarely in the realms of the yet to be.

Bester is a science fiction master and a must for anyone even remotely interested in science fiction. The Demolished Man is among his finest novels. Think about it.

The Demolished Man is £6 on Amazon.co.uk and $16 on Amazon.com

NEWS: I have finished Under the Eagle and I am now on to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, so you can expect that review in three weeks time after The Pact and Under the Eagle.

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Welcome to my blog!

Hi there, I had a different blog but now I have this one!

Basically, my old blog, Alexicon Reviews was problematic for me, I constantly wanted to post things which weren’t reviews on it but I felt like I couldn’t re-purpose that one to include book thoughts, my own writing, interesting literary things I find and reviews as well. As such, I made a more general purpose writing blog right here. I hope this one will get more activity and I will be porting my old reviews over on to an archive here for posterity.

So as a small welcome, here’s a 33-word story:

“Just give me eight minutes alone with him, a plate of Scotch pancakes, a four foot length of vulcanised rubber, a pitch fork and a sewer map of Leeds. Then he’ll be sorry.”

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