Posts Tagged Fiction

The Eagle’s Conquest by Simon Scarrow – Review by Alexicon

-THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR UNDER THE EAGLE, IF YOU INTEND TO READ IT, MY REVIEW CAN BE FOUND HERE

6460909Simon Scarrow’s difficult second novel is a damn sight better than his first one. The journey continues for Cato and Macro, through the bitter wilderness of South East England, about ten years after their fellow Romans seriously annoyed a group of Israeli Christians for crucifying their Lord and Saviour. The novel takes off about four days after the end of the previous one. The Second Legion are reeling from a messy victory against the British and the prospect of continuing a campaign in which the battles get bloodier and bloodier with no sign of any let up.

Cato has developed nicely from the first novel in the series. He’s more confident at fighting, and following the rhythmic process of thrusting a shield out then goring a man in the throat. For a scholarly young man he’s surprisingly ineloquent at public speaking, especially in the position of second in command in his century which he stumbled into one novel previously. He is also dreadfully mournful of the departure of his young lover Lavinia and pines for her throughout the novel, using her image as a reason to fight. These flaws and fumblings build up to make a nicely rounded character. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for his centurion.

Macro seems to have gone backwards. For a series which is purportedly about both Cato and Macro, his character goes from the complex hard outer shell with a softer centre – like a crème egg – to a man who is as brutish and simple. Cato has evidently more on his mind than to worry about giving him reading lessons as the entire plotline regarding Macro’s illiteracy seems to have been ousted and the novel passes by with just one solitary mention of it. It’s a great shame in my opinion. Macro was a complex and interesting character, and all though he is now depicted as a fearsome warrior, who fights by day and drinks the best wine the legion can offer by night, he’s lost a sense of vulnerability which Scarrow had so carefully built up in the last novel.

I must admit, this is honestly my only criticism. The novel is leagues better written than the previous one. Scarrow has nicely ironed out the cliché and the bizarre turns of phrase. The pacing is a lot better, and the climax is rightly where it should be, at the end (and what an end it is!). The other notable improvement is the politics in the novel. Where Under the Eagle bogged down in convoluted details, The Eagle’s Conquest deals with politics in the way a good thriller should. The wonderfully evil Tribune Vitellius sees to it that only the protagonists see him as who he really is, while he has Emperor Claudius on all fours, with a length of string around his neck like a leash.

Overall, it still shows as a second novel but Simon Scarrow is definitely finding his feet as a novelist at this stage. While there are some shortcomings, the novel is succinct, interesting, gritty and exciting. But please read the first one before this one.

The Eagle’s Conquest can be found on Amazon.co.uk from £2.49 and on Amazon.com from $0.99

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The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, Reviewed by Alexicon

FringesThe expression goes ‘never judge a book by its cover’. But John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids goes far beyond that. The cover in question is the image in the top left corner. It’s his name, in block caital letters, the title underneath and then an image of an alien lizard thing. It’s green. It has crab claws. It’s wearing armour which looks like it fell out of an early episode of Doctor Who and it’s carrying a rather brutal looking mace. One would surmise, and rightly so seeing as this alien sounding name is written above an alien looking creature, that it is a Chrysalid. One would be wrong.

This book has nothing at all to do with this apparent depiction of Chrysalids whatever they might be. This creature does not get a mention in the entire two hundred pages of novel. In fact, nothing even remotely like this creature gets a mention in this novel. But here I am, judging a cover by its book. A grossly misleading cover, I might add. But nonetheless, it’s a good book.

The Chrysalids is a novel about a boy called David Strorm who lives in the closeted, fundamentalist Christian village of Waknuk, in a futuristic projection of Labrador, in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. The villagers are obsessed with what they refer to as purity. A true form of person, if you will. Any deviation which crosses their path, they destroy. If a field is deemed to have too many variants from what is considered the norm, then it is burned. If a baby is born and is not considered the norm, then it is killed, and the mother is punished. David, as a child, meets a girl called Sophie, who has been living with the secret of having an extra toe on each foot and over the course of the novel he comes to realise he doesn’t fit the norm as well as he thought he did. David, and a collection of others from the village can communicate with each other with what they call thought shapes. It’s telepathy by another name, but it immediately put David and his friends in danger.

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Certainly a better cover!

The book is good. The characters are interesting and well rounded; the plot is interesting, if a little predictable. As per with Wyndham’s work, there is a sense that everything will be okay. It came through very strongly in the Day of the Triffids that there was never any real danger to the protagonists and it feels similar here. The characters are too good at surviving for there to be any real urgency. It was this, perhaps, which made it such a demotivating read for me. It’s a book which you can put down. It just doesn’t carry you very well. I think the concept is very imaginative, and the characters portray it well. The sense of oppression is excellent and the communication between the characters is fantastic. But for me it can’t really carry it.

In the USA, this book is called Re-birth. It’s a title which makes a lot more sense to me. Potentially, it’s possible to surmise The Chrysalids is a reference to change, changing situations, attitudes, lives. It’s a novel about change. But as a title it’s an abstract way of saying this. It’s not often I prefer the American titles of novels but in this case I do. The cover on the other hand, I cannot see what it has to do with the novel, but thankfully, it’s hardly a point to stick at. Just be careful if you have an old Penguin edition of this book. I came into the novel expecting one thing and was left confused at the end and the cover was a large influence on my expectations.

Nevertheless, Wyndham writes brilliantly. His narrative style is relaxed yet interesting, he manages to avoid cliché neatly, while giving insightful commentary on a violent and twisted society brainwashed by their obsession with perfection. The novel was first published in 1955; I’d hedge a bet that he was drawing influence from the Nazi Aryan ideal. Overall, it’s worth a read, it’s a very interesting concept and well told, if a little slow, but it’s definitely worth the time spent reading it.

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Apologies for the lateness of this review! I’ve had a fair bit to do this week. I will also be missing next week’s review post and all of my P365 posts as I will be away on holiday. So expect a load of posts next weekend. 🙂

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How to Poem: How to Write Sonnets

vol2sonnet130websiteSo, it’s been a while, but this series is back, with the finicky world that is the Sonnet. And as if to make matters worse, I’ll be looking at two different types. The Shakespearean Sonnet and the Petrarchan Sonnet. There are more types, there are several types, but unfortunately I am not the great bard and cannot spend my entire day writing sonnets, so I’m just going to be covering the top two as it were.

There are a few key components in a sonnet which is why they are generally pretty fiddly to write. Firstly, they have a strict rhyming pattern which varies based in the type of sonnet you’re writing. They must be fourteen lines in length and each line must have ten syllables in iambic pentameter. They are either split into distinct sections, an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines) or three quatrains (four lines) and a couplet (two lines). Sonnets also generally contain a volta, or ‘turn’ which is the point in the poem where the narrative changes. It commonly occurs on line nine, but with the two I have written for this post, they of course don’t.

Iambic Pentameter

Iambic pentameter is simple. Iambic – stressing every second syllable. Pentameter – in a group of five iambs (ten syllables).

the MAN is LOOKing AT the WINdow PANE.

There is, as is often the case with poetry, some license that can be had with this. There are plenty of sonnets which have a line of 8, 9 or 11 (or there abouts) syllables. It doesn’t make it not a sonnet. However, it’s generally good form to not have another stressed syllable or it tends to throw off the rhythm of the poem. By no means either is pentameter the only option, it’s simply the most commonly found. Sonnets can be written in tetrameter (four iambs), or even hexameter (six iambs) and still be a sonnet. The only rules which generally must be adhered to are the rhyme scheme and the number of lines.

Volta

A common subject for sonnets is that with the change in rhyme scheme at line nine, the subject also changes or turns on itself. Sonnets are often about a disparity between two lines of thinking, a change of mind or heart and often it’s this vibrant change of form which signifies it. However the volta can come at a different point in the poem, such as with the couplet at the end, or at any point in the latter half of the poem.

Petrarchan Sonnets

Petrarchan Sonnets weren’t created by Petrarch, but rather by various Italian renaissance poets, hence its alternative name: The Italian Sonnet. A Petrarchan Sonnet is split into an octave and a sestet. The octave always has the rhyme scheme:

ABBAABBA

Whereas the sestet’s rhyme scheme varies between:

CDECDE, CDCDCD, CDDCDD, CDDECE or various other formations of Cs Ds and Es, usually starting with CD.

Cottage Frustrations

Take me to a place that I’ve not yet seen.
Somewhere beyond the dull world that I know
to a new place where the street lamps glow,
where traffic is loud and air is unclean.
I’m tired of this nothing where I have been
I’m tired of stillness, of nowhere to go.
I’m tired of stagnancy, nothing to show.
This cottage is empty, and I am unseen.
I’ll pack up my bags and I’ll move away
I’ll run like a deer from a speeding car
And reach my new world, never looking back.
But I could sit here and say this all day
If ever I leave, I wouldn’t go far.
Just the old farm, with the overgrown track.

In my example, I have chosen to use the CDECDE format, and to have the volta on line twelve. In my mind this man is an old farmer, who longs for the buzz of living in the city but knows he’d never really be willing to leave his home and doesn’t really want to anyway.

 

Shakespearean Sonnets

The rhyme scheme for the Shakespearean sonnet is far more uniform than that of the Petrarchan variety:

ABAB
CDCD
EFEF
GG

As you can see, the poem is split into three quatrains and a couplet, rather than the traditional split of the Petrarchan sonnet. The volta is still commonly found on line nine, which is the case in my own example. The couplet is often inset in the Shakespearean sonnet, and acts as a summing statement for the sonnet as a whole. Notably, however, in my pictured example at the top of the, the volta is on line thirteen.

The Reluctant Construction Worker

He walks with his back bent low to the ground,
lifting the bricks and then placing them down,
his trowel on the clay makes a grating sound.
His slow but sure progress expands the town.
The earth beneath him is compacted tight,
he works in the dust, the grit and the dirt,
the soil is baked from relentless sunlight,
sweating, the worker removes his T-shirt.
He closes his eyes, remembers his past,
and looks at the land his work has defiled
he’d thought that those places he loved would last
but, these were the woods where he played as a child.
The work must be done, the foreman commands,
He has no qualms for his worker’s lost lands.

This is the sister poem to the first one, the character being the polar opposite of the farmer in the first one, he is a city working builder who laments the loss of the countryside, but cannot do anything about its destruction. Sonnets are frequently also elegies, or poems about love of one form or another. I tried to stay true to form with my examples.

 

So there you go! I hope someone finds this humble post useful, and if there’s anything you want me to clarify or add, please just ask! I may do another post in the future about the less commonly used sonnet forms. If you’re looking for sonnets which are better than mine, well, just look for Shakespeare’s although I’m sure you already have!

If anyone has a suggestion for a future topic for me to cover then feel free to drop it in the comments!

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The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman, Review by Alexicon

hoffman_thelefthandofgodThe cover is literally draped in praise. The Times, The Telegraph, Conn Iggulden, Eoin Colfer. Most of it selectively quoted from a series of mediocre reviews. The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman was sickeningly over-marketed back in 2010. You could barely move around a book shop for the posters of the (admittedly pretty nice) book cover. Publishers fought tooth and nail to get a piece of what could have been “the next Harry Potter”. Unfortunately, “the next Harry Potter” it failed to be. The novel was almost universally a disappointment to several reviewers and readers. The hype which surrounded it fizzled just as quickly as it rose up, and now The Left Hand of God and its sequels are condemned to the annals of failed fantasy literature.

Frankly, this sucks, because it’s really not bad. This novel is a prime example of how money loving publishers yammering for the next big hit can completely ruin a book. If it had been published on the sly, it wouldn’t have sold anywhere near as much but it wouldn’t have been battered by critics who were expecting an absolutely earth-shaking triumph of a novel.

It was also marketed completely wrong.

The novel was in the YA section. Its protagonist is fourteen and as soon as the suits got that they immediately billed it as teen fiction. It’s really not teen fiction. The darkness and themes are harrowing, the settings bleak and dystopian and the ideas are very complex. Teens might have liked it, but it’s not for them.

The Left Hand of God follows a boy called Thomas Cale, an escapee from the pseudo-Catholic concentration camp of The Sanctuary of the Redeemers. Hoffman explores religion with a machete, creating a twisted and terrifying force which has kidnapped thousands of young boys for forced military training. Upon reaching an age at which they’re ready to fight, they are duly sent off to engage in trench warfare with the imaginatively named ‘Antagonists’ and never heard from again. Cale and his two companions, Kleist and Vague Henri escape the Sanctuary and flee to a faraway city of colours, debauchery, gambling and luxury. Memphis… Memphis. Hoffman’s naming is fantastically irritating. We have Memphis, which is one hundred miles south of… York. Inhabitants of Memphis include the inexplicable IdrisPukke, the feared assassins Jennifer Plunkett and Daniel Cadbury, the mob leader, Kitty the Hare and a high ranking army official, Solomon Solomon. I honestly feel that a rework of the names of this novel would give the entire experience a lot more depth and immersion. It’s a minor point, however. I can live with bad naming.

As it stands, it’s a reasonably good story, well told and packed with interesting concepts and ideas. It’s a bit muddled, unfortunately, and far from the watertight narrative trilogies it competes against. Cale is what brings the book up in my estimations. He is one of few fantasy anti-heroes. He’s a violent, narcissistic sociopath and doesn’t bat an eyelid while he brings foes twice his size to the ground in a pool of blood. He could so easily be a villain, but he isn’t. That’s what really stands out to me.

This novel has had a hard time, and my nit-picking over the poor naming and a slightly incoherent plot line is rather unfair. The book couldn’t live up to the hype and unfortunately that’s what killed it. It’s four years since that hype though, so why not pick it up and give it a go now? I was pleasantly surprised with the motion of the story. It’s a good, fast and exhilarating read. It’s not perfect, but it’s only a couple of things which keep it from being a highly rated book. They are quite significant things, but overall I enjoyed reading it despite its flaws. I liked the atmosphere, the characters, the action I liked in particular. It’s just a shame it didn’t live up to the impossible to reach standards it set for itself.

You can find The Left Hand of God on Amazon.co.uk for £5.50, and Amazon.com for $5.57

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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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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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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 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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