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:

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.