Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – a reread

book shorts blue (2)This is part of Shorts Series of book reviews (skimping on all aspects except Use for Writers)

By Douglas Adams                          Pan Books 1992                     Adult Fiction

Score: 9.5/10                                                                 Genre:  Science Fiction comedy

Arthur Dent lies in front of a bulldozer. He’s not happy. His house is about to be demolished to make way for a bypass. But his day is set to get a whole lot worse. Vogon ships gather around the earth to supervise the demolition of the ‘insignificant blue-green planet’ to make way for an hyperspatial express route. Arthur’s Dent’s friend Ford Prefect (from the Beetlguese star system) saves Arthur from obliteration by hitching a ride on a Vogon cruiser.

I could go on, but you really don’t read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for the plot you read it for the wacky characters, such as the boorish, disgusting Vogons or Zaphod Beeblebrox, the reckless, egotistical,  multi-armed and three-headed ex-president of the galaxy. You read it for the clever concepts such as the babblefish, which, once inserted in your ear, interpret foreign languages; or the super computer designed to find the answer to ‘Life the Universe and Everything’, and of course the wonderful ‘Guide’ with, DON’T PANIC, emblazoned on its cover and entries that are entertaining and often totally useless.

I frequently chuckled to myself as I lay in bed reading Hitchhiker’s Guide.  My husband, who has also read it more than once, finally put down his own book and said, ‘Just read it to me.’ And so I did. In our 28 years of marriage this is the first time he’s ever asked me to read out loud to him. That is the power of Hitchhiker’s Guide you’ll want to share it, to quote it and revel in its escapist wackiness with other fans.

There are very few books that have worked their way into the everyday vernacular and psyche to the extent of Hitchhiker’s Guide. As if to illustrate this, I turned on the radio the morning after reading aloud and the announcer said ‘I’ll be talking about, life the Universe and everything.’ In our family it is one of the only books/movies we can all agree upon as being fabulous. We once even named an anemone in our marine tank, Zaphod (It was also reckless – kept climbing into the filter).

I only reread the first book of the series this time but have the other three – The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life the Universe and Everything and So Long and Thanks for all the Fish. I will save these, like a bottle of happy pills, for when I’m in real need of escapism.

Use to Writers

Humour is (I believe) the hardest thing to write and hardest thing to analyse. Even those who write comedy for a living don’t always know where the laughs are going to come.

I guess I can only say we should give ourselves permission to be wacky, play with words, be observant, notice character quirks (Douglas Adams based many of his characters on real life people), see life’s ironic situations and odd societal trends. Keep a diary (or your phone) close to note situations that tickle your funny bone or make you scratch your head. There aren’t many genres (if any) that don’t benefit from an injection of humour.

The chances of another Douglas Adams arising in the universe is infinitesimally small (unless you happen to have an improbability drive) but maybe your own brand of wackiness will strike a chord with readers. I can’t end this review without sharing one of the many passages that made me giggle. Here, Ford is talking to Arthur:

… you’d better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.’

‘What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?’

‘You ask a glass of water.’

Arthur thought about this.

‘Ford,’ he said.

‘Yeah?’

‘What’s this fish doing in my ear?’

Big Little Lies

By Liane Moriarty                           Pan Macmillan Australia 2015                  Adult Fiction

Score: 10/10                                                    Genre: Australian suburban drama/suspense

book shorts blue (2) This is part of Shorts Series of book reviews (skimping on all aspects except Use for Writers)

There is death and mayhem at the primary school trivia night. Big Little Lies deals with the circumstances leading up to this tragic event. There is school-yard bullying, over-involved parents, dark secrets hidden behind closed doors, fraught relationships and firm friendships.

My first 10/10 book for the blog!

This book deals in part with dark subjects of domestic and sexual violence. But, like real life, these don’t exist in isolation. The farcical ‘mummy wars’ and the cringe-worthy helicopter parents are both humorous and all too familiar. The mystery is suspenseful and teased out in chapters in varying POV’S. But above all the dialogue and characterisations sparkle with authenticity and wit.

Use for writers: Liane Moriarty depresses me. Sometimes when I read a good novel I can convince myself of one of two things:

– I couldn’t write it because I don’t have the life experience or the time/resources to research the subject material.

– I think I can emulate aspects of the novel.

But:

-Moriarty doesn’t write about the unfamiliar – this is suburban coastal Australian. It could’ve been set at my local primary school, in my suburb. So, the first excuse is null.

–  And for the second: Moriarty so deftly handles structure and characterisation that it would be easy to try and do what she does, and fail.

The structure of both, Big Little Lies, and her novel, Truly Madly Guilty, follow the pattern of: A terrible event has taken place. What are the things that lead to this event (flashbacks and forwards). The who, how, and exactly what of the event. The fallout from the event.

Moriarty reveals each part of the mystery and each character’s secrets just at the right time. The changes in points of view enhance the pacing and add to the suspense. The dialogue and inner thoughts of the main characters are so witty that I wanted to reread sections just for fun. I particularly loved the use of the humorous snippets (flash forwards) of the police interviews for the minor characters. If you are thinking of writing a Multiple POV novel it would perhaps pay to do a table/map of POV changes and time shifts throughout Big Little Lies to get a sense of its structure.

Multiple POVs and fragmented timelines have the potential to make for a confusing read but not here because:

-We are kept orientated with statements about the length of time till the trivia night eg FIVE MONTHS BEFORE TRIVIA NIGHT.

– The voices and the houses/circumstances of the main characters are so different that you never lose track of where you are and whose head you’re in.

Madeline, the sassy older mum with fierce loyalty to her friends is a wonderful character. In this excerpt she is with her new friend, Jane and older friend, Celeste – on her birthday, feeling sorry for herself due to an injured ankle. The last passage shows how Moriarty cleverly segues into the future police interviews.

‘Let’s have some now!’ Madeline lifted the bottle by the neck suddenly inspired.

‘No, no,’ said Celeste. ‘Are you crazy? It’s too early for drinking. We have to pick the kids up in two hours. And it’s not chilled.’

‘Champagne breakfast’ said Madeline. ‘It’s all in the way you package it. We’ll have champagne and orange juice. Half a glass each! Over two hours. Jane? Are you in?’

‘I guess I could have a sip,’ said Jane. ‘I’m a cheap drunk.’

‘I bet you are, because you weigh about ten kilos,’ said Madeline ‘We’ll get on well. I love cheap drunks. More for me.’

‘Madeline,’ said Celeste. ‘Keep it for another time.’

‘But it’s the Festival of Madeline,’ said Madeline sadly. ‘And I’m injured.’

Celeste rolled her eyes. ‘Pass me a glass.’

***

Thea: Jane was tipsy when she picked up Ziggy from orientation… Young single mother drinking first up in the morning. Chewing gum too. Not a good first impression. That’s all I’m saying.

Footnote:  After this I read Liane Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty – also brilliantly structured. I give it 9/10. I favour Big Little Lies because the overwhelming feeling when reading Truly Madly Guilty was one of dread (it involved the possible drowning of a young child). This dread keeps you turning pages but perhaps not as entertaining as the mystery and humour which infuses Big Little Lies.

I am currently reading the, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, also by Liane Moriarty.

 

 

The Dry

By Jane Harper                  Pan Macmillan Australia 2016                                     Adult Fiction

Score: 9/10                                                                                    Genre: Australian Crime Thriller

book shorts blue (2)   This is part of Shorts Series of book reviews (skimping on all aspects except Use for Writers)

Aaron Falk, a federal police investigator, returns to his drought-stricken home town, Kiewarra to attend the funeral of an old friend, Luke Hadler. Luke is the apparent perpetrator of murder-suicide in which his wife and baby were killed.

Falk reluctantly stays to assist the local police sergeant in an attempt to find answers for Luke’s bereaved parents. The town holds bitter memories for Aaron including the suspicious death of childhood friend – Ellie. Falk’s investigation reopens old wounds and sets him against old enemies. What is the secret Falk keeps and is there a connection between the recent deaths of the Hadler family and the death of Ellie, 20 years ago?

This is the most gripping book of any genre I’ve read in many years. I am generally a slow reader but I read this in less than 3 days (a long train journey helped too).

Use for writers:

If you want the ingredients of riveting, crime page-turner – study this book. Some of the reasons why ‘The Dry’ is so gripping:

-The investigator is not a dispassionate outsider with no stake in the community or the crime. Aaron Falk has murky history and the suspense arises not just from the whodunnit aspect of the Hadler murders but the slow reveals of event’s in Aaron’s past.

-Jane Harper engenders empathy for Aaron Falk. She gives a him a tough motherless childhood, awkward teenage years and a haunted but thoughtful adult persona. As much as the reader wants to know who is responsible for the Hadler murders they also want to see Falk redeemed.

-There are, of course, the classic crime novel strengths of multiple suspects and motives. Who do you trust? However, unlike many crime novels I’ve read none of the secrets or motives seem strange or too convulted. The final solution is satisfying and plausible.

-The setting of a drought-stricken town where tempers and livelihoods are fragile adds to the tension and the constant underlying threat of violence.

Extra note about the writing: ‘The Dry’ stays in third person, past tense but when relating witness accounts rather than stay in Falk’s POV it switches to the POV of the interviewee (who has perfect recollection of minute details). It is a strange technique that threw me at first. It didn’t allow for lying and the reader appeared to be getting more information than Falk. I came to the conclusion it was cheating a little but allowed for more evocative, descriptions of past events and, therefore, was more entertaining than a question-answer interview. I have shown a short example below. Falk is talking to Luke’s father, Gerry. The switch to Gerry’s POV is in italics, as it is in the book. No spoilers here.

‘Is it connected with what happened to Ellie?’ (Gerry)

‘I honestly don’t know, Gerry. ‘(Falk)

‘But maybe?’

‘Maybe.’

A silence. ‘Christ. Listen, there’s something I should have told you from the start.’ (Gerry )

Gerry Hadler was hot but not unhappy about it. He tapped a light rhythm on the steering wheel whistling to himself. The evening sun warmed…

Gerry glanced at the bottle of sparkling wine lying on the passenger seat. He’d popped into town to pick up supplies and spontaneously nipped into the bottle shop.

***

What do you think about this technique?

Playing catch-up in shorts

I’ve been slack, very slack with this blog of late. Because like a true Geminii I get bored easily and am tempted by the next glittering thing. The next glittering writing project/genre/challenge and the next platform on social media. But here I am back with a renewed fondness for my blog because, let’s face it, I’m verbose. Restraining my word count is not my strong point. So really Twitter, Facebook and recently Instagram just don’t fill my rambling need.

And I admit I lost faith in my blog for a time I’ve been reading other excellent writing blogs and did a course on social media for writers and realised I’m doing it all wrong.

I should have a brand, a focus for my blog. I should target my potential fiction readers.  But like my restless Geminii personality my blog is a hotch-potch of nature photography and taxonomy, book reviews, writing (in all genres and ages) travel and general musings.

Who is going to follow that? Who has my eclectic blend of interests?

Probably nobody.

But that’s who I am. And even if I write to nobody but myself at least I’ll be writing a variety of things that’ll keep me interested. If one week somebody visits my blog who is interested in the Asian House Gecko and the next week another person reads my poetry challenge efforts and the next week a dystopian enthusiast reads my book review on, Wool then, to me, that’s thrilling. Not practical. Not good marketing. Just fun.

So what to do now? How do I play catch-up?

Well I’m writing a series of shorts. Not so succinct they are Twitter or Instagram size, but short enough to summarise my endeavours and observations over the last 8 months. Including:

 Reading shorts – Mini-reviews of the books I have read recently with a focus on my, Use for Writers (as there are plenty of reviews out there which have good synopses and inciteful opinions) – on my Book Reviews blog.

book shorts blue (2)

Creativity/Musing shorts – What I’ve learnt, where I’m heading on my writing journey and how I stepped outside my comfort zone in the last 8 months – on my Literaleigh blog

literaleigh-shorts-orange-2-e1493861180233.jpg

Nature shorts – this is the one I am looking forward to most. I’ve taken many photos and want to share some observations – on Nature Lovers Log.

nature shorts colour

 

 

His Dark Materials Book 1: Northern Lights

 

By Phillip Pullman    RHCP Digital 2015 (Book 1st published 1995)      

Children’s Fiction (*see warning)      

Score: 8/10                                                                               Genre: Fantasy

Northern Lights is the first in the, His Dark Materials trilogy, followed by, The Subtle Knife and The Amber spyglass. It is set in an alternate reality where every human has an inseparable animal daemon with whom they communicate and share feelings.

Lyra has an undisciplined childhood growing up in Jordan college with  old, preoccupied scholars as her guardians. When her Uncle, the formidable Lord Asriel, visits Jordan college Lyra overhears him request funds for a mysterious ‘dust’ research project that he is conducting in the cold North.

Lyra seems set to continue her carefree life until children start to disappear, including her good friend Roger. The charismatic Mrs Coulter arrives and whisks Lyra away to London, to a life of comfort and order. After hearing frightening talk about Mrs Coulter’s activities, Lyra flees her London flat and is taken in by the noble, boat -faring gyptians. She travels North with them intent on finding Lord Asriel and the missing children.

In the North Lyra encounters great dangers – crippling cold, institutions of child and daemon cruelty and warrior bears. Ultimately she exposes shocking truths about ‘dust’ and her parents.

Lyra is assisted in her adventures by the truth-telling alethiometer – a compass-like instrument given to her in secret by the Master at Jordan college.

This is a beautifully written book. The descriptions of landscapes and characters are evocative without being too lengthy or pretentious.

Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skilful dancer (description of the Northern Lights).

The settings in this fantasy are the earthly landscapes of Britain and the polar regions, making it easy to visualise Lyra’s surrounds. This leaves the reader more mind space to digest the vivid character and daemon descriptions.

Crouching like the Sphinx beside him was his daemon, her beautiful spotted coat glossy with power, her tail moving lazily in the snow.

The presence of daemons adds another layer to each character, as each person’s personality is reflected in, both the type of animal, and the actions of that animal. The alethiometer as a device is less effective. There are points in the plot where it would be logical for Lyra to use the all-knowing alethiometer but it is obvious the author has chosen not to in order to heighten the suspense. The movie based on this book was named after the alethiometer and called The Golden Compass (I haven’t seen ).

*The POV character, Lyra, is eleven years old so this is classified as a children’s book, but be warned the story involves horrible cruelty to children and a brutal bear fight. Pullman is prepared to push his characters to the limit which makes for a tense read.

A writing colleague of mine found Lyra’s character to be too much of a brat in the opening chapters and consequently put the book down. I think it pays to stick with Lyra for a while as her feistiness and stubbornness prove to be necessary character traits for survival. Her early waywardness also allows room for her to grow and mature.

The other characters in, Northern Lights, are cleverly nuanced and not always what they seem. We find that the evil can be charismatic the wise, unassuming and the ferocious, loyal.

I was prepared to give this book a nine based on the beautiful writing and interesting concepts but I found the end a little convenient and rushed. I’m not a fan of sudden realisations with no lead-up.  This book is not entirely stand-alone as Lyra’s quest is obviously not finished at the end. However Northern Lights can be enjoyed by itself as it does bring to a close a significant chapter in the quest.

Recommended for: 11 to 15-year-olds who are not upset by violent or sad scenes in a fantasy book or adults who enjoy reading fantasy (the language and the concepts are sophisticated enough to keep your interest).

 

Use for writers :

No info-dumping: Exposition is deftly sprinkled throughout the story especially in relation to the daemon concept. It would have been tempting for the author to immediately give us all the practices and limitations relating to daemons in the opening chapter, instead he only gave out information when it became pertinent to the action. Because the daemon-human relations are so fascinating and offered in easily digestible bites each revelation is eagerly anticipated.  To offer concrete examples of the spacing of some of these bites of exposition :

Chp 3 – We learn children’s daemons change form but the daemons of adults do not. (although hinted at before)

Chp 5 – We learn that a humans and their daemons share each other’s pain.

Chp 9 – We learn that it is taboo to touch another person’s daemon.

Vivid descriptions: (as written above) Pullman uses all the senses in his descriptions of landscapes and people. The descriptions of the historic building and spacious grounds of Jordan college, the claustrophobic comfort of Mrs Coulter’s flat and the cold bleakness of The North transport the reader to those locations. Here, the journey  north in the gyptian boat is described:

But the rush of water below, the movement in the air, the ship’s lights glowing bravely in the dark, the rumble of the engine, the smells of the salt and fish and coal-spirit, were exciting enough by themselves.

 

 

Wool

By Hugh Howey            Century 2013                Adult fiction

Score: 9/10                    Genre: Post-apocalyptic, Dystopia

The community in Wool are confined to an underground ‘silo’. 150 floors are joined by a single metal staircase bustling with porters transporting goods and messages between the levels. There are floors for agriculture, supplies, deputy stations, apartments, the down-deep mechanical level and the mysterious, powerful, IT placed in the mid-levels. The ‘wool’ in the title is a reference to the material of the cleaning pads that doomed outcasts must use to scrub the outside camera lenses. The view of a desolate landscape captured by these lenses is projected onto a screen in the upper level cafeteria. This is the community’s only connection to the outside world.

Within the confines of the silo many restrictions are imposed on love, birth , marriage and communication. Order is maintained by discouraging curiosity, limiting interaction between levels and imposing taboos around speaking of the outside. Secrets are kept, and lies are told about the past and the ‘cleaning’ procedures. Those who ask too many questions risk  being sentenced to the publicly-viewed death by ‘cleaning’ in the toxic outer world. Who is pulling the wool over the eyes of the silo community and why? Can Juliette, the newly appointed sheriff, cut through the deception or is she also doomed like the truth-seekers that have come before.

The setting and the dystopian concept of this novel are intriguing but it is the characters that drive the story forward and make this a tense read. Without giving too many spoilers, the unwelcome deaths of three likeable characters in the first quarter of the book sets the pace of the gripping narrative that you never trust to deliver happy outcomes. Juliette the central character is a non-nonsense, down-deep mechanic when she is approached to take on the high-up position of sheriff. She is a well-drawn character who this reader barracked for every step of the way. Although there are action sequences aplenty these never dominate human dramas and relationships. Even minor characters are carefully and often beautifully described.

Perhaps the only character that was weak and hard to get a grasp on was Lukas – Juliette’s love interest. It was difficult to understand what Juliette sees in him. The reason for this unflattering, ambiguous portrayal may be become more evident in future books.

Overall this post-apocalyptic world and its people really hooked me and I will definitely be buying the next two books in the series – Shift and Dust.

Recommend for: Everybody, even those who do not generally read science fiction/dystopia will find the human element of this story has depth and warmth.

Use to writers : Hugh Howey shows us that rules can be broken as long as they are broken with flair. Some of the conventions broken by Wool :

– the central character does not make an appearance until pg 89 and doesn’t get her own POV chapter until page 123 (try pitching that to an editor!).

– two POV characters are killed off early.

– there are many changes of point of view. It is written in third person limited but Juliette is only one of many characters (over six) that get a section of limited viewpoint. In the wrong hands this technique can dilute interest in the main character’s journey but Howey uses it as a technique to elevate suspense. The multiple viewpoints enable the reader to visit dramatic events in various parts of the setting and timeline that impact on Juliette’s struggle. The reader forms a greater connection to minor characters but is always  anxious to return to Juliette’s scenes to check her progress.

 

 

Bitter Greens

By Kate Forsyth            Vintage Books 2012             Adult fiction

Score: 8.5/10                Genre: Historical Fiction & Dark Fairytale Retelling

Charlotte-Rose de la Force has been exiled to an austere nunnery by Louis XIV. The story follows her recollections of her journey from French country nobility to the decadence of the King’s court at Versailles. Charlotte-Rose is neither beautiful nor rich but gains admiration through her quick wit and storytelling abilities. Scandalous love affairs and accusations of witchcraft damage her reputation. Finally, she finds her true love but obstacles of different faiths and status conspire to force them apart.

The Rapunzel-based tale is a story within the story. It is told to Charlotte-Rose by an old nun, Soeur Seraphina while they work in the garden. La Strega is the youth-obsessed witch of the tale and Margherita, the beautiful girl who she abducts and imprisons in a high tower.

This is an ambitious novel blending genres of fairytale fantasy and historical fiction. Forsyth uses a backdrop of real historical figures and events. The settings of 16th century Venice (La Strega’s domain) and 17th century France are described in vivid detail – from the festivals of Venice, to the squalor of the Bastille to the ridiculous fashions of the French court -it is obvious all facets of French and Venetian life of the periods have being meticulously researched. The story of Charlotte-Rose (based on a real writer) could have stood alone as an historical fiction novel but the added fairytale strand inject magic and romanticism.

I wavered between preferring the Charlotte-Rose story and the Rapunzel story but I worried most of the way through about how the plot strands would come together in the end. Rest assured they do. The resolution of this story was satisfying and complete.

This wasn’t a page turner for me. Perhaps it was the inappropriate circumstances in which I read the novel (see below) or perhaps it was the sometimes confusing parade of French noble names or maybe the complexity of the plot didn’t allow enough room to relate intimately to the main characters. Strangely I admired this story more after I finished it than when I was in its midst.

A note about the cover: The quote from the The Age on the front cover says ‘A darkly compelling novel which simply seethes with sex scenes.’ There are sex scenes in this novel some passionate, some violent however to put this as a prominent main descriptor is, I think, a misrepresentation. It is more historical fiction than erotica.

Recommended for: Historical fiction lovers and those who are nostalgic for fairytales. Particularly recommended for those who have travelled or are planning to travel to Venice or France. Take this as a holiday (or post-holiday) read. It will add a level of magic to your view of historical landmarks and the countryside. I read this during a tour of Australian country towns and it just didn’t feel right.

Use for writers: Historical fiction writers – read this book and weep. The rich detail and the historical authenticity is hard to live up to. I believe Kate Forsyth when she says that she read many, many biographies and history books in the course of her research. She also travelled to Venice and France to immerse herself in the environment of the novel.

Writers could also learn a lot from the ending. The concluding chapters tied up all strands of the complex plot and left me, not only satisfied, but somewhat relieved. Like long matted tresses that are magically untangled and tied neatly in a snood.