What Twilight could have been-George R.R Martin’s ‘Fevre Dream’ Book Review

The latest book to be offered up for reading was by George R.R Martin, the modern day uncrowned king of fantasy. While much attention is of course given to A Game of Thrones and its TV spin-off, Martin has of late looked into his back-catalogue from the 80s and 90s, and has published a few bits here and there. One of these is Fevre Dream.

The Blurb doesn’t give away too much as to what this book has waiting for the reader, with a short synopsis only telling us a man named Abner Marsh runs a steam ship company in the 1850s, and a new client is hoping to help him build the ship of his dreams.

Soon into the book, we see the captain and his financier have different ideas in mind for their new boat. Abner Marsh wants a ship that will be famed all along the Mississippi-with a speed that will outmatch names like The Southerner and The Eclipse. On the other hand, the enigmatic but curious Joshua York talks little of profit and fame. His orders to Captain Marsh are simple; to give him a boat where he will be captain,where his odd hours are not questioned and where his word is absolute. And with that, the Fevre Dream is born, with all its 19th century splendour. But soon strange tales are spreading between sailors. There is talk of a captain, who never sees the light of day, but always comes out at night. His skin is pale as moonlight, and the company he keeps are equally as queer. And with river talk sufficient to ruin any ship, no matter what its grandeur, in time Abner Marsh has to come face to face with the man who is now his partner.

This book is a fitting testimony to Martin’s versatility within the fantasy genre. What strikes the reader first is the author’s unquestionable dedication to research. By the end of the first chapter, we have already been hurled back a hundred and fifty years in time, to a world where slavery is still rife, and talk of abolition is starting to stir. Here Martin also begins to show how much he has looked into the supernatural world, even going so far as to poke holes where he sees fit and strike up new definitions. Unlike other fantasy novels, where going against the grain is often perilous and amateur, here it feels really under control.

The book starts at a good time, with the exposition nearly completely finished in the first chapter and the plot opening up almost right away. The first half of the book is gripping, as the mystery surrounding Joshua York begins to unravel, re-wind and then fall apart again. The second half of the book feels a slight bit different. A small climax came near the mid-point, and so after that I really felt I should have been out the gap and on to another book rather than plodding further along. I think a small portion of the narrative dragged, as it didn’t seem to flow as the reader expected, with a lot of the twists coming off as unrealistic. It was at this point that it suddenly dawned on me who wrote the book. Then I got depressed, as each gut punch from Martin came bit-by-bit, slowly showing me that what I wanted for this book was not what I was gonna get. Old habits die hard, they say, and I guess here it was pretty evident.

The real finish did give me some bit of satisfaction with the novel, and had it come earlier it might have been the perfect ending. But how the author worked the whole story probably meant he had to have a prolonged ending, so I guess he is justified in that sense. This is 100% the type of book where much can’t be said without ruining it, so I’ll close with the above. Highly recommend it as a read, especially if you enjoy Martin’s writing.

 

The City by Stella Gemmell-Game of Thrones meets roman history

It was curiosity that made me pick up this fantasy novel. Firstly, the cover was shiny and well designed. Granted that’s the worst reason ever to buy something, but I stand by it. Secondly, and probably more importantly, the name stood out. Gemmell, a name not unused in the fantasy novel world. So it came as no surprise when I found out the author, Stella Gemmell, was wife to the late fantasy best-seller, David Gemmell.

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The City is the debut fantasy novel of Stella Gemmell (though granted she has worked on some of David’s books in the past). Coming into the game as a former journalist, the question as to whether this could succeed was just as intriguing as the summary itself. At circa seven hundred pages in this re-published edition, the book seemed to justify purchase. The premise of the story was basic enough at first glance; a large city is at war with its neighbours, but deep beneath it all, something else could be going on. The City is ruled by the omniscient emperor, a man they call the immortal, and one who is rarely seen outside the palace. Five noble families, claimed by some to be god-like, govern the city in its entirety, and help to raise armies to fight the war that is raging on all fronts. But below the city something else is stirring. We first meet Elijah, Emly, and the old man Bartellus, each of them living in a sewer world where the forgotten go to die or the remembered go to hide. The underworld teems with rats, murderers and conspiracy. Outside on the mainland, characters like Fell Aron Lee and the warrior woman Indaro are locked in combat with the enemy, known widely as “Blueskins”.

With flood waters rising, the foundations of the city begin to crumble, but its the people’s belief in their emperor that is truly showing the signs of faltering. The reader is cast forward eight years, where each of our characters is now on a path unknown to them that will lead them all to a plot to end the war. Our characters now fight their beliefs, their virtues and their morals, rather than the multi-national enemy which is pressing its advantage in the field of battle.

Personally I found the opening to this novel compelling. Gemmell succeeds in giving us an interesting setting to start with; that of a subterranean world haunted by cannibals and the ever potent darkness. Many of the author’s characters achieve independence in the mind of the reader, though later on when the novel propels eight years into the future, earlier characters now lose their distinctive flavour as we leave the sewer world in favour of the nation’s battlefields. The chapters of Fell Aron Lee and Indaro make this transition easier, as their world is interesting enough to help us keep going. Fell Aron Lee, now a leader of his own battalion is given a fascinating backstory which really ties the whole piece together, and perhaps marks him as one of the primary characters.

Characterisation of the emperor is done in such a way as to always leave the reader guessing, a purposeful act I would assume. The other noble families emerge to the reader in the middle of the book, and take on a very “Lannister” feel-the reader never certain exactly what it is they want. Gemmell done this for both factions of the war, a feature which makes our opening premise that The City is the good side increasingly doubtful.

The third quarter of the novel, when the writer skillfully weaves her separate threads into one piece is easily the best part of the novel. At this point we really feel the ‘oh so that’s why x happened’ surfacing, a knack I always appreciate in a good fantasy novel, as it shows the writer’s aptitude for controlling their story. Here, Gemmell also begins to blur the edges of her timeline, so events happen out of sync with one another, and as multiple characters now show up in each chapter, the pace seems to quicken and the tension comes across quite well.

The climax, for me, was the only disappointment. Well, perhaps the loss of individualized characters near the end was also  cause to complain, but this is a common aspect we overlook in the fantasy genre. The ending seemed far too dragged out, with my eyes alarmingly noticing there was a hundred and fifty pages left when I felt things should have been wrapping up. I imagine Gemmell wanted the ending to be significant, and not just end in a chapter or two as is common when writers see the finishing line in sight. That being said, I feel Gemmell lost control of her conspirator notions at this point, and segments of the story that probably should have showed up earlier if they were at all significant jumped right into the closing stages. The fighting scenes at the climax came across as languid and only present to chop down some of the less pivotal players in the game. given the third quarter of the book, I think Gemmell unfortunately gave the reader too much freedom in imagining things as they wanted,so that the alternative ending she actually wrote did not fit what it feels they were promised. For example, George RR Martin,who promises you pretty much from the start that you had best not get attached to anything or anyone, avoids disappointing in this sense after the first novel. Gemmell however, had the task of keeping the reader interested in her characters, while also providing the bitter-sweet ending the novel probably needed for realism, all in one book. Thus, we kind of leave with a sour taste in our mouth, as though we were betrayed. It’s features such as this that spur on the world of fantasy fiction, where spurned readers lash out with their own alternative ending. But some aspects of the finish did keep me satisfied, and overall even a shocking ending would not have diminished the respect which was already building up in me for the author on her maiden voyage in the fantasy realm.

So, if asked, I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in fantasy/historical fiction. It avoids outlandish fantasy for much of the book, so that you don’t need to be #GandalfsNumberOneFan to enjoy the plot. Given the third quarter may have been one of the best I’ve read since Martin had Ned Stark snooping around King’s Landing, I would give this book an A, and hope Gemmell churns out something else soon.

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Tales From The Perilous Realm- A J.R.R Tolkien book review

If you ask the ordinary fantasy fan to think outside the box when it comes to Tolkien, most would return with answers such as The Silmarillion or The Children of Hurin. When imagining Tales from the Perilous Realm, one must command the fan to imagine themselves standing outside the room which holds our original box. In short, it wouldn’t be the first on anybody’s list, but having read it, I feel it shouldn’t be anybody’s last.

This novel features five unique short stories as written by Tolkien, each based around the world of Faerie, a land we commonly associate with The Brothers Grimm etc. In stark contrast to this land of pixies and toadstools, Tolkien presents a meticulous essay outlining concretely what Fairy stories actually are, and how we should consider them as literary pieces.

The first tale presented is that of Roverandom. Featuring a dog named Rover, the story revolves around the animal becoming caught up in wizard dealings and being whisked away from his normal country lifestyle. What Tolkien succeeds in here unsurprisingly (if one reads The Hobbit) is perfectly building a world for a child’s imagination. Rather than soaking the piece in meticulous detail or filling every corner with aspects of his higher writing, Tolkien maintains a lighthearted tone throughout, and manages to turn a very average plot into a memorable story suitable for all ages. Though not my favourite form the book, the piece deserves praise nonetheless.

Farmer Giles of Ham definitely feels far more like the Tolkien we are used to, with its slightly dark undertone and a plot brimming with swords, kings and dragons. Similar to a world of Frodos and Bilbos, the tale focuses on how the ordinary man gets caught up in a world of valour and higher powers, simply based on how much love even the smallest man can show for their own homeland. Farmer Giles is Bilbo-like showing quick wit and a good humour, while his exchanges with Chrysophylax the dragon are hauntingly familiar if one has read The Hobbit to the finish. Suspense was maintained throughout which kept the tale moving and so the whole thing felt far shorter than Roverandom itself. Perhaps for those who enjoyed The Hobbit this would be a welcome read.

The Smith of Wooton Major dabbled most in what Tolkien considered the faery world to be. Based around a master cook living in a small town, the plot takes us into a parallel world of Faery, all accomplished through the magical ingredients of a special cake! The further the story progressed, the more the tale stood out as thematically impressive and not just a easy read. If Tolkien had delved more into the adventures that did occur in the world of Faery, the story would have benefited undoubtedly. However,given it was intended as a short piece (in which connection to the early paragraphs seems essential to grasp the overall feel), he might have chosen correctly in keeping the length short.

The literature then shifts to poet format, with a series of nearly twenty short stories being fed to the reader on a verse by verse basis. Some of these tales seem by themselves interesting, while others leave much to the imagination but succeed from a poetic point of view. Of all the pieces in this book, this would probably appeal least to the everyday reader. However, for those Tolkien fans who understand deeply that this man valued language far more than he did archers and cavalry, the section is a valuable insight into Tolkien’s ability.

The final piece presented is that of ‘Leaf by Niggle’. Tolkien was always quoted as saying he hated allegory; that is the intentional pursuit by a story etc to give the reader some sort of message (and in many cases the value of the story lies solely in this message). That being said, it is often argued this tale is a highly allegorical one, with its entire plot echoing the recesses of an aging Tolkien’s mind. Tolkien did once quote that for many pieces allegory is itself not presented, and any meaning found in the piece by the reader is purely coincidental, and evidently down to personal interpretation (as given in a note to fans in later LOTR publications). This is reasonable, but one would be hard pushed to read Leaf by Niggle and not come away feeling the whole tale circles around a painter who mirrors Tolkien himself; a man who was awash with worry, unhappiness and regret with not having finished his epic Silmarillion before his death (with this book being if anything the primary part of his legendarium). Just like Niggle, Tolkien continues to tack pieces onto his original work, filling in details here and there as he goes, never really settling on a defined picture/image and always looking to expand when he should consolidate and finish. The ending is too good to spoil, if one really wants value for reading.

Overall, anyone who shows a good interest in Tolkien’s writing will enjoy this quick read, with Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wooton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham standing out as a top three in my eyes. Next time I’ll be reviewing The City, a fantasy tale by Stella Gemmell, wife of the late writer David Gemmell.

 

Really? A guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse?

The final book review in the zombie stage of my summer reading list has finally arrived. Max Brooks was again the author in question, with this book simply titled “The Zombie survival guide”. Not to rip off Ronseal or anything (sorry American readers, I’m not sure if ye have that), but this book really does do what it says on the tin. Actually, wait no, I’ve found a far more clichéd phrase-one should judge this book by its cover. Having been wrote before Brooks’ bestseller World War Z, this book gives a far more superficial look at the post-apocalyptic fallout that threatens us all if the dead reanimate.

That being said, superficial is far from what we get in all other areas. The book opens with a detailed look at what makes the walking dead tick (or well, what makes them not tick) in terms of their movement, hearing, eyesight, brain activity etc. As a pharmacy student, I found a lot of this material interesting, as not only is it hard to come by (ya know, ya don’t treat many zombies in community pharmacy these days) but it also ties up very well with concrete aspects of human physiology/anatomy. For readers less enthused by science, this section won’t stand out I’m afraid. Coming to the end of this section, however, we do get a good look at the classifications of an undead outbreak, and what signs to look for in the media.

The next thirty pages are more what the reader goes in expecting, with a full lowdown of all the weapons available and/or useful on commencement of the outbreak. Here we see Brooks got very creative, as his research obviously yielded cold hard facts about the drawbacks/limitations of conventional firearms or military based weaponry, but even outside of that he expands this section to give advice on combat styles, biological warfare and types of body armour. Anybody who has even dabbled in the infamous ‘zombie mode’ from the popular Call of Duty games would find this section more than enthralling.

Personally I found the next two sections to be the best in the book, as they again highlighted how far the writer was willing to delve into his work, but also could be extrapolated for use in other post-apocalyptic situations. The ‘On the defence’ chapter takes a comprehensive look at how homes can be vamped up for use as a defensive position once the dead come knocking. Not only does the author examine the different types of homes available, but he then provides tips for how to operate a defence in public buildings, such as churches, hospitals or schools. Given the outbreak is nigh able to occur at anytime of the day, you may find yourself relying on these pages more than you would have imagined.

The ‘On the run’ chapter then flips you out of the frying pan and into the fire-with its tips focusing on what your plan should be when the house-turned-fortress becomes a no-go. Because this section loosely resembles that of a doomsday prepper programme, it has its ups and downs. The major deal breaker comes in the form of how readily the advice can be applied, given the amount of money needed to create the standard pack alone would be dubious enough. That being said, the chapter does give a rather chilling view of the various terrains that will be encountered along the way, as the author succeeds in making the dangers of each jump right off the pages.

Next it was ‘On the attack’, a section I expected to pan out differently than it did. As it is, the major portion of the chapter centres on how to clear out different zones of infestation, as well as providing possible tactics as to how this process should go ahead. A lot of the terrain material gets repeated from the opposite perspective, and that maybe hampers the flow of the book. That being said, if we are to take this as a thorough guide, then I guess we have to call this repetition necessary, and maybe even important. As a final installment in the guide part of the book, we get advice on how to survive in an undead world, long after civilisation has collapsed and you are beyond hope of rescue. In this case, finding a permanent home is what’s vital, and so Brooks sets out to explore this concept, again using the terrain as a factor, but also looking at how accessible it is, both for yourself and those survivors who would wish to take it.

And so the guide comes to a close. The book however, stumbles on, its back pages acting almost as a prologue to World War Z, as in this section we get to examine accounts of outbreaks over thousands of years, and how these tie together. Here again, we see how Brooks can make a concept so surreal and unfathomable bite really close to the bone. Whether its asking what really happened to those ancient Egyptian bodies, or how did California find itself in the midst of a concerning outbreak, the stories champion all the good features of the classic zombie horror story.

And truthfully, that is really what Max Brooks delivers. For all of the ‘Dawn of the dead’ remake styled movies that now swarm in the film industry, these books are far closer to what we all identify as zombie. And that’s a good a note to close on as any.

World War Z without Brad Pitt

It’s very rare in the modern day to be able to read a book, watch it’s film adaptation, and still find no faults between them. Very rare. But here, after ploughing through an entire series of The Walking Dead books, the faults of which I outlined before both as a novel and as an on-screen version, I found a winner.

The above is actually incorrect, that is, in phrasing of course. I’d actually seen Max Brooks’ novel in the film version six months ago, long before Waterstones got paid a holiday visit from Kyle and his gift card. So when a quick google search informed me the movie and book were pretty much different in all but name, I wasn’t sure what I had got myself into.

The film World War Z stars Brad Pitt, who in the midst of a zombie pandemic finds himself shuffled into the deck of the world’s rescue team, which also features a globally renowned expert in viruses et al as well as the standard motley crew of army companions. Their mission is to go deep behind the enemy lines, to find patient zero and investigate how the infection operates. The journey takes them across countries which overall does try to encompass excerpts from the novel in as dramatic a fashion as possible. The portrayal of Israel is a good example that readers of the book could find a good parallel in. After that though, the similarities dwindle out. Most of the latter part of the movie centres on a World Health Organisation facility, where a plan for a cure begins to unravel. The climax is tense and overall as a narrative the movie successfully breaks into the ranks of respectable zombie films. This review will tend to focus more on the book though, as that’s probably where the real credit should go.

The most observable difference seen in the first few pages of the book on comparison to the film is the existence of the slow-type zombie rather than the fast-moving monster that is rampant in Brad Pitt’s world. Other than that readers would be surprised to see the book actually comprises a series of interviews, each skipping to different parts of the world and effectively examining the fallout of the “war” for people of all manner of class, gender, economic background and professional status. Even I thought this wasn’t going to work, with the skill needed to write a convincing novel made up only of interviews very hard to come by. But to Brooks’ credit, he whisks you right into the story from the beginning. The interviewer only intervenes to a point, giving the book room to flow, and so the pace isn’t hurt at all as mostly those being questioned are left free to describe first-hand what occurred to them during the apocalypse. However, if this was the only feature alone that Brooks employed, I’d leave the book thinking it was a solid shot at trying to convince the reader this had actually happened. What’s scary more than impressive, is that the author goes much, much further.

What’s immediately evident is the writer sticks to a set time pattern, with the novel’s early interviews revolving around the breakout of the virus, progressing eventually through survivor stories and the resulting fight back by the humans remaining.

The first twenty pages are an eerie look at just how terrifying it would be to come upon what seem like gruesome murders or abstract infections, the tone set by those interviewed (which of course the author controls) that all authority were completely incompetent, bewildered or out to cover up the true nature of what was going on. The writer breathes intelligence in every interview as he comes up with clever ways to get the virus on the move, such as cross-continent organ transplants or smugglers helping people out of quarantine zones. This helps quash the disbelief we all would have of “how exactly does this take over the world?”

Some of the best work is evident in the Israel/Palestine story. Of course, pre-war, this has its own political and social upheavals, so the virus only adds to the pool of problems the Middle East faces, with religion and military powers now coming into play as well. This is told from both sides of the Gaza strip, and from those both in power and those on the ground.

Once the plague begins to go global, the interviews shift to where the blame lies. At first we get glimpses of government officials discussing cover-up operations and attempts to avoid panic, but this also expands to give us a look at more interesting and obscure topics such as failed vaccine attempts and the embers of human-zombie contact on American soil.

The Great Panic spans a large chunk of the novel, and importantly deals with how humans became the losing side; a factor left out by most zombie movies where viewers are landed into the situation already after the government/society has collapsed. The tone here darkens significantly, and for the first time we begin to see the psychological implications of an undead world. Survivor stories feature a deranged woman, the fall of the army and the Russian side of the conflict.

After that we see just how big the fallout is, with stories of cannibalism and humans gone insane, either imitating zombies to their own demise or forming wild groups in the urban jungles. The book then takes the survivor cases in two groups-those still living in America and those located on other continents. Some pieces even go so far as to deal with life on the international space station, or life for a Japanese computer kid who is so hooked he fails to notice his parents gone for several days.

WordPress doesn’t have enough blog space to go into detail on all of the fascinating stories the author explores. As a result, I’ll focus finally on the last portion of the book, where I think the author succeeds to give the novel a lasting legacy. Here, during the human fight-back, we are painted a portrait of every aspect of the front line, whether it’s underwater, in cities, in Parisian catacombs or across the American Great Plains. Comprehensive would be insulting as a description, such is the extent to which it falls short in showing just how far the author’s research has prevailed. The ending is bitter sweet in most respects, with a lot of the earlier interviewees revisited to examine the aftershock. Realistically, if you took out the world zombie here and there, it really feels like the novel could have been the aftermath of any natural disaster. It’s less of a novel about zombies thriving, and more of a novel about humans clinging on, whatever for, and even then, remaining uncertain.

I would certainly recommend this on any summer reading list, if only for its merits in writing alone. Outside of that, the research, detail and difference in style the author brings to the table are commendable and go far beyond whatever Pitt and his friends were ever likely to achieve.

How The Walking Dead handles the move to a novel format

It’s been about a year since I took a gamble on following my interest in the ABC show “The Walking Dead” to the point where I purchased and read the spin-off novel; The Rise of the Governor. Mapped out by Robert Kirkman (the mastermind behind the original comic series) and pulled together by thriller writer Jay Bonansinga, the novel focuses on the back story of one of the most recognised and revered characters in the Walking Dead universe; Brian Blake (known widely as The Governor across all the aforementioned media). As my last review highlighted, the book overall pleased me, though it was not without its obvious drawbacks. Now nearly a fortnight into summer holidays, I’ve respectably flicked my way through the remaining three books in the series (though at two hundred and fifty-ish pages each, nobody is calling these a modern day War and Peace).

The second book in the series is titled “The road to Woodbury”, but rather than picking up where we left off with the Governors seizing of Woodbury’s power network, here we are thrust into the world of a separate character; Lily Caul (who is all but absent from the TV adaptation, but shows up as a regular at points in the comics). This installment starts as gripping and enthralling as that of the first, with Lily and her companions constantly facing human and zombie dangers alike. Being on the road, the pace ticks rapidly forward, never giving the reader or our protagonists a moment’s rest; a feature of Bonansinga’s writing that he might call a signature move. The inclusion of a female protagonist is a welcome sight, with Lily standing apart from previous male bravado-type characters and seeming far more human in what seems an increasingly unrealistic world of human responses to apocalyptic life. Josh and the remaining plot characters are written well enough that the story doesn’t suffer (at least not in that department), and by the halfway point there is a genuine desire on the part of the reader to want to see them safe. A huge plot shift occurs on arrival to the eponymous Woodbury. Rather than providing the overwhelming political and interpersonal tension that is characteristic of post-apocalyptic settlements, the novel seems to slip into a coma at this point; the new dangers of avoiding the town’s uglier denizens not living up to the perils seen on the run for our characters. By the end point the Governor is armed with enough psychotic intentions that the climax comes booming from the pages, but not without a splash of melodramatic flavouring.

The Fall of the Governor is split up into two identically sized pieces; its blurb reminding us that at this point characters made popular by the on-screen version are set to make an entrance into the series. Here Lily Caul again features as a viewpoint, a notion now so familiar the reader could wonder whether the Governor ever was supposed to stand out in this trilogy. Luckily this time even though we again find ourselves rooted in Woodbury, the tension is dialed up a notch, with Kirkman edging the Governor further over the edge in his actions, to the point where some of the residents question where the real problem lies-outside with the undead or inside with the living. Characters such as Martinez and Doc Stevens get more explored roles, with the Governor’s own henchmen also featuring to act as antagonists. By the time Glenn, Rick and Michonne arrive (their names so synonymous with the series it does jolt the reader back awake), the plot opens out into a much larger sweeping narrative, with multiple points of view becoming the norm, and short snappy scenes quashing the previous longer internal monologues. Austin arrives as a character throughout this final piece in the series, and immediately bolsters the ranks, with the Woodbury day-to-day life having diminished our pool of characters originally seen in book two. Once the narrative shifts to the prison, the challenge of trying to bring all the pieces into play at the right time really shows up in the pace of the story; the writer now clearly focusing on what is an inevitable outcome rather than giving the series the ending it deserves. The character of Michonne just gets annoying by now, her over the top displays in the field nothing short of laughable, a problem also seen in the TV show, which is no doubt always stemming from Kirkman himself. Lily Caul on the other hand goes from strength to strength, nearly reaching a point where the reader wishes a Woodbury victory over the memorable TV protagonists. Books three and four are swamped in tragedy, their tones far darker than those of the first two. The brutality now is relished by the characters not just thrust upon them.

On a whole the series succeeds in its mission to capture many of the elements of the other formats while giving a good account of the stories of the main characters. It’s a page turner and there’s no doubting it; the evidence of Bonansinga’s thriller writing experience present throughout. When it’s on the road, the novels are tense, gripping and highly engaging. Once it settles into a standstill, the ability of the book to hold the reader falters a little, but not to the point that you will lose faith. The series oozes action scenes, something any interested reader came in expecting, and so there’s no disappointment there. Where the books really fall down is the writing. It’s a lucky thing I came in wanting a theme more than some great novel. Because the latter can never be found. The writing is at best page-turning, at worst it’s enough to make you cringe and wonder did the author’s nine year old daughter step in for a chapter or two. Over description of the most mundane details is widespread. The writer clearly tries to convey some deep knowledge of biology at any possible moment, though having studied basic physiology I could give him a few pointers. Characters become stereotyped the second time we meet them, words are used to the point of outrage (apparently you can just about ‘thumb’ anything) and the phrase ‘nobody notices’ may as well comprise half the series for all its usage. It’s enough at times that the writing is what really is going bump in the night; the danger of drowning in sea of zombies nowhere near as close to that of suffocating beneath an onrush of unnecessary jargon. That being said, not all is at a loss.

Not one hour ago, I switched the TV to Film 4, and seeing that “The Wedding Planner” was just starting, I shrugged and sank back in my chair. It’s a very dull rom-com starring Jennifer Lopez and a boyish looking Matthew McConaughey. Having racked up a meager 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, it leaves a lot to be desired, but there I sat, watching it at my leisure, completely aware of what I was getting into. And perhaps that’s where the Walking Dead books triumph. For all their faults, they give us, the enthused, exactly what we wanted. Seeing that Kirkman has ordered Bonansinga to hammer out another four novels (starting with “The Descent” in October 14), I’ll remain quietly hopeful of a revamp of the series. Let’s not forget, Matthew himself would have laughed on the set of the Wedding Planner if you told he would hold up an oscar for Best Actor not two decades later…

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The Desolation Of Smaug-or how Hollywood can make a hobbit even smaller (spoilers-obviously)

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Hello again, been a while. Anyway, never mind that. Two nights ago I went to “The Hobbit:The Desolation Of Smaug”. This is the second film in the Hobbit trilogy, for those who missed out on popular culture for the last three years or so. To say I was excited would be a massive understatement. At the age of eight, I was first exposed to Tolkien’s world when The Fellowship of the Ring was released in cinemas. Since then, it’s been an explosion of Tolkien into my life. Over the following two years I saw the other two films, and simultaneously read The Hobbit. But since then, it’s gone logarithmic. At this stage, I’ve read the Hobbit about ten times, the Lord of the Rings perhaps five. Outside of that, I’ve gotten through the Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin and am currently finishing up the Unfinished Tales. I bought “Tales from the perilous realm” the other day, though that’s a whole other story. Not that this is very impressive, but I guess it highlights just how much Tolkien has played a part in my life, so when ten years later “The Hobbit” was planned for cinematic release, ya..I was excited.

Last year we had our first taste, and granted, it was no LOTR, but not bad Jackson, not bad. When three films were announced, I was skeptical. Three is a lot. But then, we heard the appendices et al would feature, so I felt a bit more at ease. I myself knew one film would be enough to tell The Hobbit, but not very well. To me, in two films you could faithfully adapt the book and make two very good movies. Perhaps the break could have come at Mirkwood, though let’s not argue that here. What we have to work with is what’s given, and that’s three films. The second film came with a whole roster of changes, including extra characters, new plot lines and changes to original material. This always happens with adaptions. A book works slowly, and can have its effect in that way. On screen though, we need constant visual stimulation. Otherwise we grow tired. So I knew the original thing wasn’t gonna cut it in cinema. It was too formal, too organised and too moderated. Cinema needs more freedom than books do. But too much freedom and creative control can damage original material a lot, which I felt was the problem with The Desolation of Smaug (TDOS after this).

I have too much to say on all this, so I’ll go with numbers and try keep it short (hah, unlikely though).

  1. Really childish action– This was probably the biggest flaw, one I’m sad to say carried over and multiplied from film one. Some would argue The Hobbit is a childish book, and so it’s OK, but since the tone has been adapted to fit LOTR, those people can go be wrong somewhere else. Every action sequence felt like a video game (that barrel one extremely looked like one too). There was no sense of danger like the Battle of Osgiliath, where anyone was fair game. Here the heroes felt invincible. There was no heroic and emotional sacrifice like Boromir, instead just a series of smiling dwarves killing orcs like they needed psychiatric support. It’s bad enough the poor characterization makes it hard to care for our heroes, but worse again that we know there is no chance they’re going to die. During the LOTR trilogy, I knew who would die and when, but even then I still doubted myself. Here, where again I know who dies and when, I sit completely calm as I know no number of orcs (of which there were many)  can stop our heroes picking them off in funnier and funnier fashions. That whole scene paved over one of the more well written and cherished chapters of the book, and replaced it with ten minutes of “kill orcs to win prizes NOW”. Orcs going down in twos and threes, orcs being flattened by barrels, and worst, orcs being catapulted up so Legolas can chop their head off. Did I say Legolas?
  2. LEGOLAS! Seriously though, why is he here? OK, I suppose considering they do go to Mirkwood, it is perfectly conceivable that a certain elf prince would be there. But that’s not why he is here. He is here, because somewhere out in the audience, people are going “he was in the other ones too!” Legolas was a good character in LOTR, now he has been cheapened down beyond comparison. No bit of his character has remained from the original trilogy, a fact I’m sure Jackson will say is due to “not being mature enough yet”. Yes, Jackson, I’m sure it’s perfectly conceivable that a few thousand year old elf would be obnoxious, reckless and all round annoying, but in seventy years completely change his entire personality because he “grew”. In the film series so far, he can only be described as a middle earth gatling gun, and a 2D one at that if we’re being honest. The fact he is given a love interest is even cringier, and no amount of “oh look he sees Gimli” is gonna make up for any of it.
  3. Tauriel- No, I’m not objecting to the presence of a girl in Middle earth (let’s face, we never see them). What I am objecting to is the idea that for the film to be good the producers felt she had to be there. And yes, that is why she is there. I’m sorry to anyone who loves this character, but her entire birth into the film is based on the fact that big corporate film makers think the normal population would be in uproar if a film ever went without both genders (because remember guys, Saving Private Ryan got horrible press..right?). What’s sadder is that in the modern generation, maybe they would be. Tolkien didn’t create Tauriel. Whereas Azog and the boys at least have some basis in the Appendices, this one is clean cut the creation of Jackson and co. When I heard it, I hated it, and then I was OK with it. After the movie, I hated it again. I think better film makers could have made it work, moulding the character into the story and making it realistic. I mean, real fans should have been worried enough when it was announced all her scenes were re-shoots. That just reeks of “We didn’t have it in their first, but then we showed it to our big producer daddy who said they wouldn’t put it on the fridge unless it had a girl”. I think Jackson went all out to show just how many orcs Katniss Everdeen Tauriel could kill in one film. We get it Jackson, girls can kill people too. Do they really have to carbon copy Legolas, who at this stage is a much better looking Rambo and nothing more, into a girl version just to spell out the most obvious message of the 20th century? All Evangeline Lily’s lines were weak, not her own fault, I mean after all, she had the huge task of convincing an audience this entire character fit into a story that they didn’t. But no, if only they stopped at the huge cliché that any girl in a fantasy film/book has to be either unbelievably attractive or a killing machine (bonus points here, they managed BOTH). Worse again, they stuck up their other middle finger to girls everywhere when they gave the character not one, but two romances. It is downright blatant sexism to include one girl in a movie, and then spend all of her lines having her fawn after elven Rambo and, well, what I would even admit is an attractive dwarf. As I quoted on another blog post, this was literally “I’m a strong independent elf who don’t need no other elf”. What she did need, it seems, is to cross cultural barriers put up by the author himself just to get across as many “nothing triumphs love” as humanly (should this be elvenly?) possible. There is really no end to the problems with this character, whose killing scenes well outrun any time given to Bilbo (remember him, he’s a hobbit isn’t he?). I feel most sorry for Evageline Lily, whose good acting skills would have been more than enough to portray Tauriel had she been included in a fair fashion. At the moment, she literally is stealing the show. If ever a character was so unflawed, it’s Tauriel. Her credits should literally roll as “Tauriel, played by (a) Martin Luther King (b) Mila Kunis (c) Mother Theresa (d) The entire team from the avengers (e) The concept of good will and kindness.” Arwen worked well in LOTR, but please Jackson, if you want to inject more girls into The Hobbit, please do it tastefully. (P.S. it is a huge plot hole to tell Tauriel she can’t have Legolas because she’s a lower class of elf, yet then have her as the captain of the entire royal guard…awkward).
  4. Bilbo…or lack thereof – Imagine my shock when, having watched TDOS, I walk out having seen nothing to do with a hobbit. On a serious note though, this film was the marring of the entire series, no matter how much the third one picks up. People will say the first one was long, granted, it was. But at least it felt like the book a little. Martin Freeman convinced me he was “on an unexpected journey”. It really felt like that childish sense of wonderment you get when reading the book. Film two abolished all that. Not only did Bilbo see as little screen time as possible (think Jackson’s cameo actually outran our eponymous hobbit), but anything with him was completely out of fell of the book. The only moment we even got close was during the Smaug scene, and even that was cut short by MORE action (more on that next). The whole second movie became for Bilbo what LOTR was for Frodo; a desperate struggle against the one ring. Only problem is that is literally not even close to what the books intends. The one ring wasn’t even “the one ring” when the hobbit was published. And yes, I’m aware Tolkien did later revisions to merge the books together, but still, only motivating Bilbo on the ring basically takes the entire book and shakes it upside down until all the substance falls out. It’s a shame that a chance at getting a real story on the underdog turned into “here are the overdogs doing their thing for the 234567th time this movie” (coincidentally, that’s exactly one tenth of the orcs that die in this movie).
  5. That last action sequence – If ever I thought in there Jackson had one more nail to drive in Tolkien’s coffin, I didn’t see it coming here. We were at the lonely mountain, all you have to do is put in those tantalizingly good exchanges between our dragon and bilbo and then send Smaug off to Laketown. BUT NO. Apparently the people need one last dopamine attack. Enter half an hour of unscripted action sequences involving a rather cumbersome Smaug chasing our dwarves (oh and Bilbo) around Erebor. If Smaug could breathe fire, he’d have killed them easy (oh wait he can! Are we sure?) But then it’s on to the grande finale. We’ve already accomplished destroying Tolkien’s work, we need something else to defy. Poor physics, never saw it coming. Watch as Thorin Oakenshield sails along a MOLTEN gold river on nothing more than an iron sheet. If dwarves can withstand this kind of heat, why not just bask in Smaug’s hell fire and get their tan on. I suppose their too busy trying to let loose an entire gold statue on Smaug by melting it (in the most ridiculous fashion of all time). Oh but look, heat didn’t kill a dragon. Damn, was sure that would work.

10 ways you can improve a short story for your english class

What is a short story? Much like judging the pieces themselves, the definition can at times be subjective. In general, we’re talking about something in the range of 1,000-9,000 words, though in cases that word count could shoot up to 20,000. We’re looking at small works of fiction; big enough to be able to stand alone, but short enough so that we really only ever see one or possibly two events. In the teaching of the English language in the modern day, short stories have solidified their position as one of the most viable forms of student essays. Realistically they can provide the greatest creative freedom. Whereas speeches and talks require the laborious task of assuming a formal tone, short stories allow the natural writing style to take control. A young mind is an imaginative mind, and what better way to show that than to bring whole new worlds and characters into being. That being said, even with their growing popularity, the short story is commonly viewed as an easy way out; a short cut to a good grade and an easy option to fall back on in any exam situation. Much of this arises from the vague wording of essay questions. Although a speech questions sets out the immediate issue, a short story may only need to draw on a certain theme or sentence for the chance to evolve. Even in an area of endless possibilities, we as story tellers need to play by the rules of our choice. Playing by some of the rules gets you a good standard. Playing by all of the rules gets you much, much further. As a result I’m gonna try my hand at outlining some key issues, which incidentally are all just falling into my head now.

1. See that dream sequence? It has to go…now.

We’ve all done them. Hopefully the older you get the less it arises. Now, before lovers of a good “I awoke in a sweat” smash their hands onto the keyboard, let me go further on this one. Dream sequences are tools used by some of the best writers around, but it’s where you use them that matters. If you can survey your story, and realise the whole thing works without the dream; cut it out now. Most of these openings only frustrate a reader, who thinks they have been landed in something fantastical and cool, only to find out the author was being very clever and painting a false reality. Also, ‘waking up from a scary dream that may come through later’ screams cliché. Writing a good start to hook the reader is important, but don’t fall back on something just for the sake of that. Basically, a lot of the unnecessary dream sequences run like this;

“I stumbled through the darkness(always dark in these nightmare ones), calling out for help and heaving in big breaths. I started to panic. A menacing laugh (I mean seriously) rang in my ears, and then I saw him (the ‘ole don’t give away the villain’ trick). Suddenly I was falling (they always are). I awoke with a jolt (couldn’t just flick your eyes open?). I was covered in sweat (bit OTT but OK). A light was coming in the window; it was morning (Reader is infuriated at both the trickery of the dream start and how the author must point out the obvious reality that it is morning). I heard my mother call downstairs; I groaned thinking of school (twenty euro says the mother is a single mom and that the male protagonist is unpopular in school). I threw on an old t-shirt and some jeans I found on the floor (why do they always insist on putting on terrible clothes from the floor? Oh yes, as usual, his room is messy).

I’m not going to continue, but the rest of this story always follows like this; ‘grabs toast just after popping because the yellow school bus is outside and he is late and he goes on the bus and averts his gaze from the footballers and sits alone and then his one friend comes on who has something quirky about them or is a nerd’. If your short story is in that format, go kick it across the room right now (DISCLAIMER: piece may be good but at this stage we’ve all seen that a hundred times). At this stage, ye get my point. A dream sequence if not needed wrecks any chance of a good opening, and fixes the idea in the readers mind; “The person who wrote this is a massive Richard” (no nicknames allowed).

2. Character description. Please don’t overload it.

Characters are the most important part of your story. They’re what’s main, what the whole thing revolves around and depends on. If the reader can’t see them, they won’t get very involved in your piece. As a result you need to describe them both physically and mentally (if the protagonist). However this has invariably led to a great deal of over description in many stories. Here’s a simple rule to live by: always think of describing your characters as trying to make a friend recollect someone they vaguely know. You never say to your friend, “Oh you know Peter, the guy with the eyes and the nose?”. Nobody can identify with that. It isn’t discriminating. Think of default on Fifa, and try work around it. What you do say to your friend is, “You know Peter, the guy with the scar by his left eye and the big chin?” granted Peter comes off as a bit of an ugly, violent man, but you see my point. as humans we pick up subtle differentiating characteristics. The only run of the mill things we always need to know are height/build and hair colour. For example, if I tell you I am tall, average build and have dark brown hair, you can surely already get someway towards picturing me. What you never want to do in your English essays is have your character stare into a mirror and go “I saw my hazel hair and my electric blue eyes. I was of average build, but hit the gym when I could. My nose was rather slender and long and my ears stuck out to the same degree as a normal human specimen’s would.” OK, I admit I overdone it near the end, but you see where I’m coming from. Anybody writing first person must NEVER say their hair is hazel or their eyes are electric blue. If someone told me that was their features I’d think, “Wow, what an arrogant Richard (seriously I’m going clean on this one).” Anybody writing 3rd person, keep it simple enough. In a short story we don’t need to picture them as well as you do. Leave some up to the reader. It is unfair to assume the reader can’t fill in some gaps themselves, and thus throw in every fragment of visual imagery you can think of. Hair colour and height are usually a must, unless you state an age and we can assume their build. Eye colour is of variable importance. Just highlight their striking features, and all is fine.

3. Keep the pace consistent

Unless your narrative demands it, don’t go cooling and heating up the pace on those words. We need a heightened pace near the conflict, and especially at the climax. We need a slow pace when we’re aiming towards that. Other than that a consistent pace is expected. Nothing is worse than reading of somebody going into massive detail for the act of pulling on a jumper, only to use three lines to get to school, have classes, and eat lunch. It just doesn’t sit right with the reader. It’s fine to skip the boring parts, but make sure it’s consistent. Don’t tell me “His feet shuffled along the floorboards, making small tapping sounds and coming to a rest in the doorway. The doorway was huge and made of mahogany and slightly worn” only to then say “about four days later”. it should write itself naturally in any case, but sometimes when we get nervous and want to jump to the good part, we take a huge leap and wreck the whole thing. Monitoring the level of detail and keeping an eye on how fast time is passing in-story should sort that out.

4. HAVE CONFLICT

Yes, this is an obvious one, but it would surprise people how many stories an English teacher might laugh at when they realise nothing has happened in the 3,000 words that are there. Conflict is huge in any work of fiction, but in a short story, it may as well be the corner stone. People like small stories because they get a small work load coupled with a nice piece of action. One way this might occur is if you go into too much detail at the start; a common mistake that stems from finding yourself in a new world and wanting to explore it (I admit, everyone does this). Make sure you know what the problem is at the start, and always work towards it. If you’re confident of your ability, you might even throw in subtle hints of what the reader should expect; dropping them into dialogue and making use of literary fancies like pathetic fallacy. OK, so pathetic fallacy might not be SO fancy, but it has pathetic in it, it sounds cool. If you plan ahead, the conflict will always arise, and a good grader will pick up on the fact that you had control of the plot all the way through. Never try squash in your action at the end. What you want there in terms of action may be a twist, but never your main predicament.

5. Little language things that go a long way……to ruining your entire story

Language matters. In some cases, up to half the marks might go to your use of it. I’m not gonna try preach about grammar. I myself struggle with that. But the control of your language is VERY important, especially in short stories where description is abundant. At my age, and so at the age of college students and high school finishers, it may be tempting to throw down all the new words you are learning. Please refrain from this. What will drown your entire piece is too much adjectives, too much adverbs and too much ways of trying to say something. Adjectives are great; they help us see the world we’re writing. Sometimes though, it might be best leaving them out. Read the following sentence: “I ran down to the red door which opened into a wide, cold barn which was dark except for the small, wax candle in the centre.” It’s not TOO bad. At times though, especially when the pace is picking up, that looks cluttered. When you’re getting to action, strip back all those big adjectives. The same goes for adverbs; “I ran swiftly down to the door which hung limply. Opening it, I saw a candle burning brightly and faintly lighting the room.” Putting in too many adverbs is telling the reader: “you’re not smart enough to get what I mean. Therefore, I will spell out every action for you. IS THAT..OK…WITH YOU?” Readers, teachers in particular, don’t need your help. Try use something else to show verbs in action. It boils down to the old saying “show, don’t tell”. If you tell me he “ran hurriedly into class”, I get the point but frown on how babyish you treat me. If you say “Glen ran into the room; his bag crashing off the door and his books flying everywhere”, I know Glen was in a hurry. Either that or Glen is a nutjob. As for trying to say something, simple is fine in most cases. It gets painful reading exclaimed, replied, answered, shouted, muttered, murmured, screamed and announced after a while. Unless the person is actually doing these, ‘said’ is perfectly fine. Similar to above, by using these words you tell rather than shwo. By adding different points, you can empower the reader. Instead of saying ‘Glen announced’, try say ‘said Glen, his voice carrying to the far parts of the room’. At times, the word announced is fine; it’s short and we get it. But if you want your work to look less lazy, strive to cut out those little twists on said and embrace the simple form of talking.

6. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.

Not my strongest point as far as my own secondary school essays show, but worth a point in this note. As a younger writer, dialogue rarely crops up. This is normal. We are used to taking action over talking, guns over words, and explosions over conversation. But the pen is mightier than the the sword, or the tongue is in this case (that’s why I cut all my meals with my tongue…..OK, sorry, that was being a Richard). By the age of 15-16 though, we begin to appreciate the place of words in our stories. So do correctors and teachers. Why, you may ask? It’s simple really. A short piece of dialogue can explain the details of a situation far more sneakily than your own exposition. For instance, I may tell you “The school was flooded. All the classrooms were out of use and so the students had to crowd into the gymnasium for lessons”. However I could also do the following;

“What’s the rush, school doesn’t start for an hour”, said Richard.

“We need to get there early, our class if flooded, remember?”, said Glen.

“if our class is flooded why are we even going?” (notice here I can leave out the verb, due to the fact that we can tell who is talking)

“Lessons are in the gymnasium, I won’t be late!”

Peter, the boys’ father, broke in, “Will ye two Richards come on? I won’t wait around all day for ye two idiots.”

Sorry about that last part, as well as being ugly and violent; Peter is a terrible alcoholic. As ye can see, I got the same information across in both cases. Either is perfectly fine.However using dialogue we do have the added bonus of character building. Here we see Richard is forgetful and lazy. Glen is studious and on top of things. Peter is….well Peter doesn’t have much going for him does he? Good dialogue helps make your characters real and identifiable to the teacher. They stand out more, and go a long way towards making your grade a better one. Shorter dialogue is all the fashion now. Unless the point is for the speaker to be drawn out and boring, keep it snappy and charged with emotion.

7. Stay in character.

Nothing screams “I was out of ideas” more than betraying your characters. That doesn’t mean killing them off. By all means, kill those imaginary people (a quote from controversial child psychologist Kyle Malone). But as a story progresses we get a sense of what someone is. Even over a page or two we know who we’re dealing with. Don’t have some shy loser suddenly slam dunk a basketball or get the hot girl (I mean seriously if I’m not dunking a basketball there’s no way the other losers get to). Keep your characters..well..your characters. The only time it is excusable for someone to break character is when a)their whole personality was a ruse or b) they experience a traumatic event. I’m sure there’s other ways it can happen, but those stand out. If you have your protagonist wrestle a bear just for some action (and because you also hate grizzlies and all they stand for) then an examiner will know you’re a cheat. It’s be to tailor your action for your characters. Action can be an argument or a small scuffle. Not everybody has to storm Normandy or shoot Hitler (NB Hitler may actually have to shoot Hitler). The more realistic a character’s choices are in the face of adversity, the more likely a teacher will believe them and bump up your marks.

8. Avoid clichés, they’re as old as the bible itself.

Yes, we all do these too. In a short story, keep your vigilance up to make sure none of these slip in. In four-five pages you can make a good impression. In a novel a small cliché goes unnoticed, forgotten behind all the really good stuff. In a short story it stands out; it’s a blemish on your work and your credentials. A cliché doesn;t have to be an overused phrase. If your story is a short story on a boy who attends a magical school with two geeky friends…COME ON. It really needs to be original enough for short story. You only need like one event, so really you have no excuse if you throw in a cliché in the hope a proven track can please your corrector. You need something that wows your reader, something they haven’t seen before or something old in a different light. Original short story ideas always stand well with correctors, and guarantee higher marks.

9. You don’t need a twist

Twists are fine. They end up in a lot of short stories, a final joust to the reader and a lasting memory. It’s a good thing. But don’t throw one in for a two second shock effect if it destroys everything before it. A good story gets a good grade. But if it ends in a twist that shouldn’t be there…no. A wrong twist would be something like having someone being hit by a bus for no reason other than to add sadness to your piece. Or perhaps you will kill off half of a romance just to try make it gripping. Please refrain if it isn’t your original intention. If you get to the end of your work and decide there should be a twist, WARNING LIGHTS SHOULD BE GOING OFF. A twist should be something you decide on initially, and even then should be carefully considered. To sum up, a good twist should add to the piece, not take away from it and leave the corrector feeling sour.

10. Fill your plot holes

These are real deal breakers. If your plot doesn’t make sense, and the whole thing is like four pages, you’re doomed. A short story needs to anchor on a well-thought out plot. Why is Glen running back into that burning building? Why is Richard taking a scary route home from school for the first time? You can’t just throw in a fun plot for the sake of it; the thing has to fit together like a jigsaw. In a small snippet of time, it actually is difficult to make plot holes. That is why they’re so criminal. If peter decides to drive after alcohol, why is that? Is he mad? Is he in a rush? What makes Peter break the law? If the plot is consistent and self explanatory, the whole story writes itself a lot easier. It should flow when you read it. Your teacher or lecturer should never have to ask why this is happening. They should want to ask questions, but about the story itself, never about the design of it.

I might do more of these sometime, but for now, I hope these make your English answers a little easier in the coming academic year.