Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 4)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read: Lust by Roald Dahl, Dune by Frank Herbert, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie or The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler is hereby advised that this point may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these things so I thought it was time for another exciting ‘books’ edition of Super Snappy Speed Reviews. You know how it all works by now: I review a bunch of books in a few short sentences and give a rating out of five stars for each. As ever, these reviews reflect nothing but my own personal opinions and impressions, condensed, crushed and deflated into a few short sentences. The books I have selected have nothing in common, save that they are all fictional. They are not necessarily books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. So, here we go.

Lust by Roald Dahl

Yes, the author of the B.F.G and James and the Giant Peach also wrote a few short stories about two friends who swap wives for the night, leper-loving-ladykillers and the devastating effects of combining politics with powerful aphrodisiacs. In true Roald Dahl style, this collection of short stories is often strange, occasionally dark and profoundly compelling. An excellent book.

Just not for children.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Dune by Frank Herbert

An absolute classic of the sci-fi genre: Dune is a complex, multifaceted and inventive. It is full of detailed world building, a well written cast of characters and undeniably forms part of the bedrock of the modern space opera genre.

Unfortunately, I did find it a bit of a drag at points. It feels needlessly wordy at times, has an increasingly grim tone from start to finish (and beyond if you read the whole series) and often sacrifices entertainment value to make way for its own cleverness. The dialogue was a bit dry at points too.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

If you ask me what my favourite book of all time is, there’s a very good chance I’ll say ‘Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.’

Where do I begin? Rich characters, a simple but compelling plot, vivid description, excellent use of figurative language, excellent narrative voice, carefully explored themes and a tragic ending. I can’t sing its praises highly enough.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 + ∞

The Mystery of the Blue True by Agatha Christie

Reading a Poirot novel has become like putting on a pair of comfortable slippers to me. You expect a similar blend of 1920s well-to-do types, scandal, bridge games, drawing rooms/steam trains and so forth while Poirot confidently pursues the truth all the while being patronised by those who think they know better. If that’s all you’re looking for, The Mystery of the Blue Train will not disappoint. It’s everything a Poirot novel should be (Oh, and I didn’t figure out ‘who dunnit’ prematurely which is always a plus).

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

I read this book for one simple reason: I didn’t have enough hard boiled detective fiction in my life and Raymond Chandler’s work is widely and justifiably considered to be the daddy of them all. The dialogue and narrative voice are both rich and striking (a little too rich at points; my ’30s American slang is a little rusty and I didn’t always understand it), the mood is dark without being depressing and the mystery is complex enough to keep the reader trying to figure out ‘who dunnit’ from cover to cover.

In spite of that, I personally found it a bit of a slog to read and, at times, a little difficult to understand, perhaps because the 1930’s American language and culture was so foreign to me. A very well written novel to be sure but not my cup of tea.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

DON’T FORGET TO CHECK OUT ALL THE PREVIOUS EDITIONS OF SUPER SNAPPY SPEED REVIEWS
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Edition (Vol. 2) Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Doctor Who Edition
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Books Edition (vol 1) Super Snappy Speed Reviews: TV Edition (vol. 2)
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Writing Apps for Android Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 3)
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Games Edition Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Star Trek Edition
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 2) 8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Film
5 Super Snappy Speed Reviews: TV Edition 8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

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Book Review: Burning Bright

SPOILER ALERT

Anyone who has not read Burning Bright by John Steinbeck is hereby advised that this post contains spoilers.

Well, well, well, believe it or not, I’ve never reviewed a John Steinbeck book before, despite repeatedly implying that he’s one of my all time favourite authors. That changes today with this review of John Steinbeck’s tiny and much maligned little ‘play-novelette’, Burning Bright.

Steinbeck himself described this book as an experiment in writing a play in the form of a novelette, and it becomes immediately obvious what is meant by that when you read it. Unlike most novels which are split into numerous chapters, set in various locations with a wide cast of characters, Burning Bright is split into three acts, each set in a single room (a circus tent, a farmhouse, a ship and a hospital to be precise). There are only four characters and the action is entirely driven by Steinbeck’s masterful use of dialogue and, to a lesser extent, description of setting.

So, did this little ‘experiment’ pay off? Well, if the critics are to be believed, the answer is no. It seems everybody and their granny hates this book. But I’m not everybody’s granny and I do not hate this book! True, it’s not my favourite Steinbeck book and it could certainly stand a little constructive criticism (in fact, it’s just about to do so), but it’s definitely not my least favourite Steinbeck book either. So let’s get down to brass tacks and look at the story in more detail.

Joe Saul is our protagonist in this story: an everyman who desperately wants to have a child but alas, is sterile. He suspects it but refuses to acknowledge it, preferring to wallow in his misery. His younger wife, Mordeen, also suspects his sterility. She is so determined to produce a child for Joe that she is willing even to sleep with a man she frankly doesn’t care for, not because she desires another man but because she is desperate to give Joe a child.

Victor is the other man: an altogether arrogant, unlikable and ignorant little man who works as Joe’s right hand man in each act and who wants Mordeen for himself. Then there’s Friend Ed: supportive, protective and loyal towards Joe even if it means hurting him. None of the above are the deepest or most complex character’s Steinbeck has ever written, but they’re okay. I liked them well enough and it was pretty plain to see what they all needed and what stood in their way.

The plot itself is perfectly good in that it follows a natural and plausible progression, though there is a certain inevitability about it. Almost from the very start, we just know that Mordeen is going to try and get pregnant by Victor and pass it off as Joe’s, and we just know that Victor is going to become attached to Mordeen, and we just know that in his jealousy, Victor will threaten to tell Joe the truth and most inevitably of all, we just know that the story will climax with Joe finding out the child is not his. For most writers, this would be an express ticket to Rubbish Novel Land. Fortunately Steinbeck’s writing style is a joy to read even at the worst of times and beautifully carries this rather plain story along.

The action is heavily dialogue-driven, which is appropriate for a play. It is, however, less appropriate for a novel, and I think this is one key area in which the incompatibility of the play form and prose form is made obvious. The two forms just don’t blend, any more than clay blends with iron. However, while critics are often quick to bemoan Steinbeck’s use of lengthy and the unsuitably flowery language, I personally found that Steinbeck’s trademark artistry with words was sufficient that I still found the dialogue enjoyable (if a little jarring) to read.

There was one other very strange thing about this story, even within the experimental context of the story’s structure, and I’m not sure I liked it: the characters’ backgrounds change from one act to the next, yet the individual characters remain fundamentally the same people. For instance, in Act One, the characters are all circus performers, whereas in Act Two they live on neighbouring farms and in Act Three, they are sailors. They are all the same people, they all relate to each other in the same way and there is continuity with the key events of the plot, but their day-to-day situation is portrayed as variable and irrelevant.

My best guess is that this is an ambitious but uncharacteristically clumsy effort by Steinbeck to highlight the everyman quality of Joe and his fellow characters. By rendering the backdrop variable, and therefore irrelevant, the reader is focused exclusively on the naked humanity of their situation which could happen to any one of us. Be that as it may, it feels like Steinbeck was trying a bit too hard to be clever at the expense of writing a good story. It strikes me that by robbing Joe Saul and the others of their backgrounds, Steinbeck has effectively created shadow characters who exist purely as symbols of the idea he was trying to communicate. They don’t read like real people, as good characters should, because real people are defined, at least in part, by where they come from and what they do.

All in all, the critics are correct about one thing: this is not Steinbeck’s best work. However, in my experience, Steinbeck’s grocery list (probably) makes better reading than the average novel– and I say that as a bona fide bookworm. While not his most adventurous story in terms of plot and characters, its still a perfectly solid bit of fiction, and would perhaps serve as a useful case study for teaching the rudiments of quality story telling to the uninitiated. The experiment of bringing together the play format and the prose format was ambitious but, alas, the two things simply don’t mix. I don’t think this was because Steinbeck did it badly. I’m just not sure it’s possible to  effectively create a true mixture of the two styles, because they’re just too different and necessarily so. I did enjoy this book, but it was, without question, only Steinbeck’s trademark wizardry with language which held it together.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what novelises your play.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Writing a Good Character Description

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Good characters, more often than not, make for a good story. That means you need to write a character with strong goals, strong motives and a clear problem to overcome. We know this. Nevertheless, it also goes without saying that your characters must all have a physical appearance, which you can describe to the reader (unless, of course, you’re writing some highly ambitious piece of supernatural fiction where all your characters are non-corporeal beings who never interact with physical reality as we know it).

Let me tell you right now, there’s an art to describing characters. Do it right and your audience will have such a vivid image in their minds that they’ll swear they’ve actually met your character. Do it wrong and you might just produce one of the most pedestrian scenes in your entire story. Nothing drags the pace of a narrative down quite like a long winded description of Jimmy’s hair colour, eye colour and whatever unremarkable clothes he might be wearing. I say it’s better to have no physical description than a bad one.

If you give a simple description of height, weight, hair colour, eye colour and so on you will not only bore the reader to tears but you will also, in the most long-winded way possible, tell us nothing significant about the character. Instead, focus on distinguishing features and other details which help us to really get to know the character. Let us refer, once more, to the master, John Steinbeck. He described his character, Lennie Small, in this way:

A huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely and only moved because the heavy hands were pendula.

(John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men).

If you’ve read Of Mice and Men, you’ll know there are two essential things to know about Lennie Small: 1) he’s a large and strong man and 2) he has a childlike mind. These two facts form the basis for his entire plotline from start to finish. Is it any surprise, then, that Steinbeck’s description emphasises these qualities? Just look at the adjectives/adverbs: ‘huge’, ‘large’, ‘wide’, ‘heavily’, ‘heavy’. All these words signify bigness. Notice, incidentally, that Steinbeck never says ‘tall’, nor does he give a specific height. After all, Steinbeck’s purpose is to emphasise how physically imposing Lennie is but not all tall people are imposing. Whether Lennie is tall or not is unimportant. What matters is that he is huge.

Similarly words like ‘shapeless’, ‘pale’ and ‘hung loosely’, used to describe his face, eyes and body language all have a certain vacant quality to them. The bear metaphor is especially powerful, as bears are animals which are known to be physically imposing but not frightfully intellectual. Nothing in this description is superfluous. It tells us everything we need to know about Lennie. We can imagine unimportant details like his hair colour for ourselves.

Another important thing to consider is how subjective/objective your word choice is. Objective language sticks to the facts. For example: ‘Johnny had brown eyes’. Subjective language is based on one’s personal impressions: ‘Johnny had eyes of the richest chocolate’. Or alternatively, ‘Johnny had eyes like a pair of dirty brown pebbles’. Striking the right subjective/objective balance can be hard and will be largely dependent on your narrative POV. As a rule, First Person and Third Person (Limited) narratives can and should include a generous dose of subjective language, since we are being given the personal impressions of a particular character. We want to know whether or not the narrator is attracted to or repelled by the character in question. Third Person (Omniscient), on the other hand, should be more reserved with its use of subjective language. But that’s only a guideline.

One last tip: use vivid but precise language. Consider again Steinbeck’s description of Lennie. The word ‘pendula’, used to describe the movements of Lennie’s arms, creates a very sharp image in the reader’s mind. After all, we’ve all seen the lazy, mindless but unceasing swing of a pendulum that hangs from a clock, powered by nothing but simple physics. We can imagine that motion so clearly that it is easy to picture Lennie’s arms as they swing in a way that more bland language might not have been able to convey. Beware, however. Don’t let clever sounding words get in the way of a description which is also precise. Steinbeck is a master of description not only because of the vivid imagery he employs, but also because the imagery is so very appropriate. If simple language creates desired effect, use it. Don’t bamboozle your reader with peripheral unnecessary purple prose, especially not if it is less precise than simple language. You will lose your reader’s attention if you do. Instead, aim to use words and metaphors which convey an accurate and vivid image in the most direct way possible.

Remember, your reader doesn’t really care what your character looks like. They care about who your character is. So when you describe your character’s looks, cut to the chase. Keep it snappy, keep it sharp and most importantly of all, keep it relevant.


ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Books (vol. 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson, The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck, Different Seasons by Stephen King, Curtain by Agatha Christie or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Merry Men & Other Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson is hereby advised that this point may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

It’s that time again! We’ve already had super snappy speed reviews for books, TV shows and films, and now it’s time to return for a second helping of super snappy book reviewsAs before, the books I have reviewed here have been selected entirely at random from my ever-growing book collection and do not necessarily have anything in common apart from the fact that they are all books. They are not necessarily books that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

As always, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressionssquished, sliced and diced into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

As much as I like fantasy, I’m also picky about it. Fortunately, this book (the first instalment of the Mistborn series) has it all: a richly imagined fantasy world, compelling characters, an excellent magic system and a plot which kept me glued to its pages from beginning to end. Best of all, Sanderson has obviously understood that while good world building and detailed magic systems are important elements of fantasy, it is characters that really count when it comes to writing a good story.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Speaking of fantasy, this book (the first instalment of Pratchett’s Discworld series) is arguably one of the most imaginative books I have ever come across. The characters are compelling and there is a goodly dash of wit spread throughout this rather dream-like narrative. My only complaint is that while the world building does demonstrate something of Pratchett’s superhuman imagination, the time spent he spends explaining the minute details of his world (and the additional time required for the reader to assimilate it all) does drag the pace down to a crawl at certain points.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

At the risk of being flamed to death… I found A Game of Thrones a bit of a drag. No, wait, hear me out! It’s got a lot going for it! There’s a lot of different characters’ points of view represented in the book which made it more true to life (though a bit more difficult to follow; just who is the protagonist in this story?), strong world-building, a good plot it’s just… I don’t know. I found myself getting bored as I read it. I’ve not been able to bring myself to read the next six books yet. Maybe I’ll watch the TV show one day and see what all the fuss is about.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck can do no wrong. This little novel is about a small but tactically important coal mining town which is taken over by a battalion from a non-specific nation (reminiscent of Nazi Germany) who are at war with England and Russia. It is essentially a story about freedom, democracy and oppression, crafted with the kind of fineness of style that only Steinbeck can produce. Read it now.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Different Seasons by Stephen King

This collection of stories by Stephen King includes, among others, the classic Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. In true King style, most of these stories have a dark tone to them, although I wouldn’t really have described any of them as horrors or fantasies in the truest sense of the word (although The Breathing Method does include certain fantasy elements, I suppose). I loved, loved, loved Shawshank. The Body and The Breathing Method were alright too. Apt Pupil was also very well written, however it did focus on a young boy with an unhealthy obsession with violence and his toxic relationship with a Nazi surgeon. Personally, I found it a little too dark for my tastes.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Curtain by Agatha Christie

In this, the final adventure for Christie’s famous Belgian detective, we see a Hercule Poirot (now very frail and elderly) who has been drawn back to the scene of his first adventure to solve one last crime before it even takes place. The mood is somewhat more melancholy than in earlier Poirot novels and I must admit… I found the ending just a little bit ridiculous, given the otherwise serious tone of the book. It feels a bit like Christie came up with a compelling mystery but then was unable to imagine a good way to resolve it. In a word, an okay read until you get to the end.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Merry Men & Other Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson

I thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories in this little volume. Jekyll and Hyde is, of course, a classic tale which has justifiably earned a familiar spot in modern culture, even among those who haven’t read it. The Merry Men was okay, although I found Stevenson’s rendering of the Scottish accent difficult to follow (and I’m a Scottish person myself!). Markheim and Olalla were both enjoyable enough little reads with (not too) dark undertones. Janet Thrawn was decidedly tedious. The Treasure of Franchard, with its larger than life characters, was easily my favourite.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Well, I hope you enjoyed these itzy-witzy book reviews. No doubt we’ll do it all again soon! Why not comment your own thoughts on these books below? Or maybe you could give us a short review of something else that you’re reading? And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to ‘like’ it and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you fancy it.

Oh, and be sure to come back next week for the next instalment of 6 ‘SIX WORD STORIES’ FOR THE 6TH.