Reading Challenge Week 9: Stranger on a Train (2002) by Jenny Diski

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This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 9… Stranger on a Train by Jenny Diski.

Synopsis: Jenny Diski – who hates talking to strangers – takes a trip around America on a series of trains. Though she plans on smoking and reading through the whole thing, she can’t help but get wrapped up in other people’s stories.

What I Liked: So much to love here that I don’t know where to begin. Diski’s complete honesty is refreshing – divulging very personal chunks of her past and revealing her honest opinions about the people she meets. While she has a tendency to go off on tangents, this is usually where the most beautiful sections of language come from. She offers fascinating glimpses into the lives of others – the sort of people you can’t make up. There isn’t really any sense of narrative in the book and that’s the beauty of it. It’s wandering and unfocused and feels very human. I’ve never had much interest in travel fiction before – and I guess this isn’t really travel fiction in the traditional sense – but found this book endless fascinating.

What I Didn’t Like: Not much. Given that this is a travel book I would’ve liked for Diski to have explored some locations during her journey, but understand that that isn’t really what Strangers is about.

Conclusion: Fantastic in every sense – Diski offers insight into her world in a way that many other authors would be afraid to.

9/10

Reading Challenge Week 8: Henry IV Part I (1600) by William Shakespeare

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This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 8… Henry IV Part I by William Shakespeare.

Synopsis: Rebellion brews in the court of Henry IV as a former ally, Hotspur, attempts to take the crown for himself. Henry also struggles to keep his son Hal in line who shows little interest in the duties of a prince.

What I Liked: Yep, more Shakespeare. (I really haven’t had time for much other reading at the moment!) I found this one particularly interesting due to how it went against the formula of most Shakespeare plays I’ve read… in the sense that hardly anyone dies at the end. In fact this play is pretty light-hearted overall, which is a nice change. In some ways this one feels like more of a modern-day blockbuster than a Shakespearean drama… if that makes sense. Falstaff and his group make for a fun comedic diversion from the betrayal plot and Hal and his father’s relationship really is fascinating.

What I Didn’t Like: But still… I don’t understand why this play is called Henry IV. Henry doesn’t feel like the protagonist in the slightest. I’m also not too sure about Hotspur as an antagonist… In some ways he feels like he’s there just to create conflict for the sake of creating conflict.

Conclusion: Being lighter in tone than many of Shakespeare’s other dramas, Henry IV Part I is a refreshing read.

7/10

Reading Challenge Week 7: Ideas into Words (2003) by Elise Hancock

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This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 7… Ideas into Words by Elise Hancock.

Synopsis: Elise Hancock offers an insightful guide on how to write nonfiction – specifically relating to science. She provides help with generating ideas, structuring pieces and redrafting among many other things.

What I Liked: I should probably start out by saying that I currently have very little interesting in writing science pieces, but heard this book was good for creative non-fiction. And it definitely is. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that some of it is helpful for writing fiction too! The first chapter in particular fires advice at the reader at a very rapid pace, leading to so many ‘Yes!’ moments. She doesn’t simply rehash all the same tips I’ve heard time and time before – saying what she thinks works, not what the general opinion is. Ideas into Words is a refreshing change.

What I Didn’t Like: I will say that some sections of the book can get pretty dense, featuring big blocks of text. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I just found myself getting lost between reading and scribbling down notes! The only other negative I really have relates to me more than the book – that I didn’t care for the parts specific to science writing. But that’s just because it doesn’t interest me personally.

Conclusion: A great how-to guide for non-fiction. If you’re interesting in writing for the genre – or writing at all – then this is a worth a read (or at the very least a skim).

7/10

Reading Challenge Week 6: Great Expectations (1860) by Charles Dickens

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This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 6… Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

Synopsis: The story of Pip, a young boy destined to become a blacksmith whose life changes dramatically after meeting the bizarre and rich Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter, Estella. Pip attempts to rise above his class and become a gentleman to win Estella’s heart.

What I Liked: Ah, Dickens… I really need to read more of your books. Great Expectations is a very strong novel, filled with the eccentric characters you’d expect from this author. Miss Havisham stands out in particular, but there are plenty other fascinating characters such as Estella and Wemmick. Even the minor characters, such as Mrs. Pocket, ooze with personality. The themes explored are equally interesting – it’s hard to wonder what the right life for Pip really is – and make this the sort of the book that can be endlessly analysed.

What I Didn’t Like: Like a lot of books from this era, I think Great Expectations does suffer from the fact that it was serialised. The story drags a little bit at times and overall feels a bit bloated. Dickens’ voice can easily change from charming to irritating if you read his work for long stretches as well.

Conclusion: While Great Expectations is longer than it needs to be, it’s still a staggering work of fiction. Dickens is popular for a reason.

8/10

 

Reading Challenge Week 5: The Miniaturist (2014) by Jessie Burton

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This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 5… The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Synopsis: Nella is beginning her new life as the wife of a man she hardly knows – a wealthy Amsterdam merchant, Johannes Brandt. After receiving an intricately built miniature house as a wedding present, a series of mysteries surrounding her husband and the members of his household begin to unfold…

What I Liked: Yep, I’m actually reviewing a recent novel for once. This book is worth reading simply for Burton’s use of language – metaphors galore! She does a wonderful job of portraying both the beautiful and the not-so-beautiful; the wondrous city the novel is set in and some of the less-than-wondrous people that reside in it. The characters are generally very strong here – I’ve heard some people moan about clichés, but as this is my first historical novel I can’t comment. Marin in particular stands out to me – somebody that I’d love to have spent a bit more time with. The story is generally strong as well, with there being enough twists and shocking reveals to furnish fifty novels.

What I Didn’t Like: Though that’s part of my problem with this book. I think I kind of became desensitised to the twists after a while because the novel kept stacking them on top of each other. In short: they made for a definite page-turner, but one that left me feeling slightly unfulfilled.  A few strands of the plot don’t seem to go anywhere particularly interesting and just fizzle up towards the end. The novel also gets relentlessly dark and depressing towards the end… This, combined with the multitude of twists, just ruined things a little bit for me.

Conclusion: While this novel isn’t truly great, it’s still a good page-turner. I have no doubt that anyone who chooses to pick it up will enjoy it – just like I did.

7/10

Wretch – A Short Story

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His retching forms an interesting soundtrack for my afternoon. The sound of gagging followed by the plops of half-digested chunks of fish and potato into toilet water. I don’t mind the sounds too much – but the smells; he smells as though he’s rotting from the inside. I need a cigarette. I need a cigarette quite a lot.

‘Hon?’ An echoed voice.

‘Yeah?’

‘Could you, uh, get me a glass of water?’

I click my tongue and return the phone to my pocket. ‘Sure, darling.’

I grab a glass and fill it up at the sink. When I return the door has been creaked open just enough to accommodate the item he requested. I slip it through and a hand a greedily snatches it up. The contents are guzzled, the glass returned. The door shuts without a thank you. Plenty of retching. How rude.

I was supposed to be in there with him; that’s where he wanted me, you know? To give him a little pat on the back, to give him a little kiss on the cheek – to tell him everything’s going to be OK. I don’t see why I should. He brought this upon himself, he should be the one to deal with the consequences.

My back leans against the door as I let out a lion’s yawn. He’s been awfully quiet. The retching has been so consistent that its absence seems almost suspicious. I check my watch; plenty of time left. I pick up the shoebox to my right. The shoebox, I might add, that once contained the first present he ever bought for me; a pair of bright purple heels. They made me wince when he first revealed them – they seemed to contradict everything about me. Strike one. I told him this, I told him they weren’t really ‘me’ – I’ve never been a shoe person – and he nodded his head and said he’d try harder next time. Harder being another, very similar, pair of shoes. Strike two. I cradle the garishly coloured shoebox in my arms, no longer filled with shoes but something very different. Inside is strike three.

Photo after photo after photo after photo. A shoebox full of photos may seem like a cliché – because it most definitely is – but that’s one of the reasons why I possess one. Clichés are comforting. Another series of retches come from the bathroom. It’s the sound of somebody emptying a bucket of water; there’s no food left to throw up.

‘You’re doing great, darling,’ I say, shifting off the shoebox’s lid. ‘Just great.’ I reach up and click the lock on the bathroom door, hoping Jeremy’s a little too preoccupied to notice. It’d be the first time he really noticed anything I did in a while.

I fish through the shoebox, picking out photos at random. A rollercoaster ride. The two of them sat there – arms raised up high – as the camera immortalises their smiles. I wonder which of them thought it’d be sweet to pick it up at the gift-shop and whether they decided to get a key-ring as well. It must’ve been Jeremy’s idea; the man who thought it’d be smart to hide the photo in his sock drawer. It would’ve been a fine hiding place if he ever actually did the laundry.

The next photo is my own handiwork, the two of them sat in a café side-by-side, one arm around each other. I’m no stalker; I only followed them once, out of curiosity. I’m still a shining example of a human being compared to them.

Next is a scenic view of Bruges, Belgium. A postcard. She sent it to him, to our address – being careful to dance around the fact that she’s fucking him. That they thought they could flaunt their relationship in my face like that is admirable. He told me she’s just his cousin, that they were close when they were kids. Cousin – that’s not even trying. I’d be bloody concerned if my cousin sent me that many kisses. It reminds me of when he and I used to send postcards to each other. That time is nothing more than a half-remembered dream now.

‘Hon?’ he says.

‘Yeah?’

‘I think we should, uh… Could you call an ambulance?’

I check my watch. About five minutes left. ‘Why, darling?’

‘This is… This food poisoning is really bad. I feel like I’m…’ A retch interrupts. ‘This feels really bloody awful.’

‘Just wait it out,’ I say. ‘Trust me.’

‘Hon, could you get me my phone? I really think…’ He tries to open the door, rattling the handle up and down with little success. ‘Is the door locked?’

‘Just wait it out. Trust me.’

‘Sophie, open the door.’

‘Jeremy, I can’t.’

‘Sophie, open the fucking door. This really isn’t…’ More vomiting. ‘It’s not fucking funny, I think I need to get to a hospital or something.’ I slip his phone out of my pocket. I turn it on, unlock it and locate the number I want almost immediately. ‘Sophie, open the fucking door.’

‘Hold on darling, I’m just on the phone.’ It’s ringing.

‘An ambulance?’

‘Sure, why not.’

‘Jesus Christ, can you just…’

‘Shh. She’s picking up.’ He goes quiet. It’s hard to tell whether he’s caught on or is just being polite.

‘Hello,’ answers a voice, ‘Jeremy?’ It’s the first time I’ve heard her speak. Her voice is soft and irritating.

Deep breath, Sophie. ‘Fuck you.’ I hang up the phone and toss it across the room. The screen doesn’t smash like I’d hoped, but you can’t expect everything to play out as you imagined.

‘Sophie, what was that?’ I head into the kitchen. ‘Sophie, I don’t think I can… I need you to…’ I get myself a beer from the fridge. ‘I need… I need you to…’ I crack off the top and fill my mouth with the bitter taste. A few indistinct sounds arise from the bathroom, succeeded by a dull thump. I check my watch; right on time.

[And yes, the title is a pun!]

Five Tips for Short Stories

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I’ve been marking short stories for a competition recently and have noticed several issues cropping up again and again… So I thought I’d do a post about what breaks a short story for me; what five things will totally turn me off it. These are personal opinions of course – and even if a story follows these five tips it doesn’t mean it’s a masterpiece. They’re just things to bear in mind.

1.) Is the premise too big? Can you cover your story in a fairly small amount of words? (The ones I’ve been marking have all been under 2k.) If not then don’t make it a short story, make it something else. I’ve seen too many stories where things just cut off abruptly at the end to stay in line with the word count because the writer didn’t think things through. If you’re thinking of writing an epic science-fiction adventure then you’re probably gonna end up with an ‘epic’ word count.

2.) Cut to the chase. No detours, please, please, please! Don’t tell us anything that isn’t completely essential to the story or important to build its world. If you devote a couple of paragraphs to telling me the history of protagonist’s house it needs to be relevant – and enjoyable to read. If not then why is it there? Short stories are meant to be short reads and long sloggy sections like this make a story feel longer – and more like a chore. No novel should ever feel like a chore, let alone a short story.

3.) Small cast, big characters. This one is slightly similar to my last point, but specifically about characters. Have as few main characters as possible; no more than you can count on one hand. For each extra main character you have, you lose words that you can spend fleshing out another one. The less main characters you have the more fleshed out the ones you have will be. And if you don’t have time to flesh out your characters then, well, they’ll most likely end up being stereotypes.

4.) Do not summarise. It’s a little concerning how much I’ve seen this. Summarising events make them seem distant and should only be done to get through parts of the story that you think the reader isn’t really going to be interested in. What you should never summarise are bits like the end. It makes the whole thing feel rushed and destroys any sense of emotional pay-off. Only summarise when completely necessary.

5.) Endings are very important. Okay, I can forgive a bad beginning but I cannot forgive a bad ending. It’s a lasting impression and should feel like an accumulation of everything that’s come before it. If your narrative ends with a *gasp* shocking twist that comes out of absolutely nowhere then I’ll simply groan and try to purge the whole story from my mind. Building up a story is the easy bit; making it build up to something worthwhile though… that’s the trick.