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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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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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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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