Posts Tagged Alexicon

Wan Hu’s Flying Chair by Richard Marggraf Turley, Review by Alexicon

1844712931book.qxdWan Hu’s Flying Chair is an anthology along the same strain for me as Your Brother’s Blood by David Towsey. Having said that, it does not feature any wild-west vistas or undead soldiers, it is only related by the profession of the authors, who are both tutors at Aberystwyth University. This is Richard Marggraf Turley’s third published collection of poetry after Whiteout, co-authored with Damian Walford Davies and The Fossil Box, his first solo project.

It stands to reason therefore that this collection should be a strong example of poetry from a seasoned poet. And it certainly lives up to expectations. The collection as a whole weaves its way through several themes from the exotic to the arts and delves into the cultures of Caribbean islands and ancient China. There is a natural sense of the exotic intertwined with astrology and science. Wan Hu, was a Chinese official who is said to have been the first astronaut. He crafted a chair and attached forty-seven rockets to it in the hope of visiting the moon. The story has been discredited as apocryphal, but the ideas it brings forth make for an interesting and unusual collection.

Margraff Turley’s use of language was a feat in itself. The way the words fall onto the page brings each poem to life in an almost sensual way. The language plays with you. Every single word knows its quarter and the structure of each poem is meticulous. One line which particularly stuck in my mind was in the section ‘Life Classes’ in the poem ‘Female Nude with a Mask’ where the word manipulation is cleverly split with a hyphen, leaving us with the line “torso of a man-“ followed by “ipulation” of light at the start of the following stanza. This trick with hyphens, which jars your reading slightly and deliberately was an extremely effective technique early in the book, but perhaps used to less great effect in the later half.

I do feel that the first half is the stronger half, though some of the sequences were very interesting and there were imaginative phrases all the way through. The way he writes about the natural world is exceptional and certain poems really stuck in my mind. ‘Seventh Moon,’ ‘Billiard Ball’ and ‘Beach’ were particularly good to read, but my personal favourite was ‘Islands,’ dedicated to his former co-author Damian Walford Davies with its wonderful final two lines.

“Let’s ride to the Pineapple Islands.

Perhaps there’ll be pineapple people.”

Wan Hu’s Flying Chair is available on Amazon.co.uk from £8.59

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Salem Falls by Jodi Picoult, Review by Alexicon

51+FptnodXLSalem Falls is my third Picoult. As such, it is, unfortunately, doomed to the blight of comparison. You can expect a lot of referring back to Second Glance and The Pact in this review. Salem Falls follows the same structure as The Pact; there is a formulaic build up, climax and then the court case which takes up the latter third of the book. It’s a tried and tested formula and still feels fresh in Salem Falls. I would go as far as saying it works better than that of The Pact insofar as the characters are much more interesting and varied. The backstory that there is, is hard hitting and concise and the events in the present dwell more in the characters than in the prison the protagonist ends up in.

Speaking of the protagonist, Jack St. Bride must be the most unfortunate man in fiction. He is a stranger in the town of Salem Falls, having just been released from an eight month prison sentence. He was serving time for a rape which never happened, but the people of the sleepy little New Hampshire town don’t know this. The majority of them are ready to froth at the mouths and run him out of town. The few sympathisers he has are Addie and her family, owners of the aptly named Do-or-Diner. Jack’s already marred reputation is even more dashed on the pavement when he is, yet again, accused of rape, and of course it’s up to the familiar face of Jordan McAfee (The Pact) to get him off.

Looking back at The Pact after reading this, I can really see where Picoult fell down in that novel and excelled in this one. The characters in Salem Falls have interesting quirks and personality flaws. My favourite being Jack’s obsession and extraordinary expertise at Jeopardy! Overall they are very well rounded. None of them are filler. Although some do occupy the rather nameless space in the background, these are not in any sense central to the narrative. The list of interesting characters is far, far longer than these few. There is a harrowing sense of realism to them, which is a common trope in Picoult’s work. Jack and Addie both have the ghosts of their pasts at the back of their minds. Jordan McAfee is more or less the same (if a little diluted) as he is in The Pact. The ‘prosecution’ side of the story is rather more expanded as well. Gilly Duncan is a fascinatingly complex teen girl, who has, with a quartet of friends, turned to pagan religion and her father is leading the town against Jack.

Salem Falls, finally, holds close the one amazing point I had about Second Glance. The research is phenomenal. Reading Picoult is like having a lesson on topics you would never have known of otherwise. It’s truly unique. The novel is intertwined with quotes from The Crucible. Salem Falls is her answer to it, however the witches are the one’s doing the prosecution and the victim is the loner in town. It’s a clever reversal and fits nicely into a very intelligent book. I recently heard someone refer to Jodi Picoult’s novels as “Chick Lit,” but I honestly don’t see the comparison. Salem Falls appeals to me after all, a twenty-one year old English guy. I see it as crime fiction most of the time. And who doesn’t love getting into the gritty deathmatch which is a courtroom drama?

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On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, Review by Alexicon

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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The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan, Review by Alexicon

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, 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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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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