Sunday, 28 November 2010

Book reviews: George Orwell and Muriel Spark

Reviewing all the books I read in a year is a nice record of my reading habits but hard to keep up with the amount of books I seem to get through! Without further ado, here are the latest two to be reviewed…

Animal Farm, by George Orwell
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark

Animal Farm, by George Orwell
First published by Secker & Warburg, 1945
This edition published by Penguin, 1973

Books that were on the school curriculum suffered as much as I did from forced reading. I still shudder when thinking of metaphysical poetry, for example. But slowly I am returning to the fiction made dusty in classrooms, and this is one of them – George Orwell’s ‘fairy story’ of a tainted revolution.

The book’s premise is achingly simple and oh-so clever. The animals stage a coup and drive out the farmer, proposing to work for themselves. Their success hides the fact someone has to be the leader, a mantle assumed by the pigs, and over time a terrible transformation takes place.

This is the sort of fairy story of which the Grimm brothers would have been proud. Each animal has a role that reflects our society – whether it is the honest everyman of Boxer the horse or the blind obedience of the sheep. It’s not a mirror one cares to linger in front of for too long in fear of what you may see.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
First published in Great Britain by Macmillan, presume 1961
This edition published by Penguin, 1969

This is a fascinating story of a woman teacher desperate to make an impression, to appear cultured and charming, and the impressionable girls who she taught at school. We are told early on that one of ‘the Brodie set’ betrayed her by bringing about her dismissal as a teacher. But which one?

Is Miss Jean Brodie in her prime? You’d never know from the prose. It’s only repeated about a hundred times, but Muriel Spark likes to hang tags on her cast of characters and invokes them with nearly every mention. In this way the characters become slightly two-dimensional as we only ever see one trait – Sandy’s small peering eyes, Rose ‘famous for sex’. But knowing one trait opens our eyes to details that surround the characters - 1930s Edinburgh, the era preluding the Second World War.

The novel unfolds making good use of prolepsis / flash forward – this technique allows us to know events before they happened and gives a sense of fatality to the story even before we pass the first chapter. But what we lose with suspense we gain with attention to detail, and try to pick up on clues as to why the story unfolds like it does. At first Miss Brodie’s influence over ‘her girls’ seems beneficial but as they grow older it is revealed as manipulation.

Incidentally, great cover, isn't it? It shows Maggie Smith as Miss Jean Brodie in the 1969 film, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Contractions in Dialogue

Popping in very quickly as today I have a day off ‘real’ work to do what I like to think of as my personal real work – work on my novel. As per, sometimes my body forgets that these days off are not proper days off and likes instead to lie about slovenly and watch random television. I have to bribe it with biscuits to sit here and write/redraft. And today would be the day when I have no chocolate whatsoever and am reduced to eating biscuits from the back of the bread bin. Yup, the Biscuits That Taste Forgot.

I still eat them though.

Today one of the things I am checking within my novel is the dialogue. What I am looking out for is things like ‘I am’ rather than ‘I’m’ – when speaking, unless there is a reason to say it precisely, mostly folk would use a contraction and say ‘I’m taking the dog for a walk’ rather than ‘I am taking the dog for a walk’. The latter brings a whole new stress to the tone of the dialogue – if you say it out loud it sounds like the person speaking is highly exasperated with the person asking, i.e.

Parent (asking even though is watching teenage son fixing dog leash to dog): What are you doing?
Teenage son: I am taking the dog for a walk. (Optional ‘durr’ on the end.)

It is more natural to use contractions within dialogue – it’s for it is, I’m for I am, that’s for that is, etc. I’m taking advantage of a quiet house to declaim my dialogue to the cats (they are thrilled) so I can listen to my speech. The trick is reading aloud exactly what I have written and not what I ‘think’ I have written!

Monday, 22 November 2010

Business Speak

I bloody hate it. Here are my pet peeves:

Elevate. What am I, a lift? This just means asking someone higher up, which leads us to:

The food chain. Nice. This is the sort of thing mentioned by people who rate themselves as sharks or tigers as opposed to plankton. No one would rate themselves as plankton. Even plankton itself, if it had an option, probably wouldn’t rate itself as plankton. People that use ‘the food chain’ often also use:

Cascade. E.g. cascading information up and down ‘the food chain’. (Although usually 'down' as, from what we have seen above, folk who use this like to think of themselves as sharks rather than mere worker plankton.) Whenever I hear the word 'cascade' I wonder what happened to the word ‘tell’? How about ‘distribute’? But people like to cascade information in relation to:

Forward Planning. How can planning be anything other than forward? Backward planning doesn’t really work. I wish I could backward plan not to have drank quite so much on Saturday night but wishing it won’t make the Day of Woe (Sunday) go away. This is also linked in with:

Pre-planning. Please don’t ever go there, either. A plan before the plan? Purlease. Although maybe they are making sure they are:

Sweating the Asset. What a pretty picture this conjures in my mind. A big hairy sweaty ass (arse). Thanks for that. When it comes to assets, people may also think about:

Leverage. For the love of plain speaking, why can’t folk say they are going to ‘use’ or ‘take advantage’ of their contacts as opposed to ‘leveraging’ them? Leverage sounds like something people do with a crow bar. Although when it comes to plain speaking, it appears business speak folk do not have:

Visibility. Used in sentences such as ‘I don’t have visibility of that issue/email/system/thing.’ Actually means ‘I don’t know’. Whenever someone says they don’t have visibility, my head will automatically translate this to mean they know nothing at all about anything. This will be further reinforced if they proceed to:

Speak in abbreviations. WTF?

Any more for any more?

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Resolutions, of sorts

And so she’s back!
From Lanzarote!
She swam in the sea
And it really wasn’t grotty
I should have packed my second sun-dress
I should have drank Sangria 'til I was sick
If I’d known for just one second
I’d be back so very quick!

My word. Holidays just fly, don’t they? I managed to read two books from my enormous pile (okay, that was a tad ambitious) and made the mistake of starting the whopper book breezeblock, Stephen King’s Under The Dome, on the last day. This meant I have been glued to it ever since – folks, it is a good one. I barely noticed the plane ride. This is the book I wanted Duma Key to be. Anyway, there shall be more of it in a review when I get my act together (looks under chocolate wrappers for Act; finds it cowering away with mahoosive To Do list).

Mahoosive. Anyone remember that word from school? A cross between massive Moose? Yes, that was it. Our school had such a way with words. I remember one of our teachers, a youngish chap but not young enough to be down with all the slang, flying into our classroom to ask us what ‘chief’ meant when aimed as a verbal arrow. We laughed, told him it wasn’t complimentary, and he went flying out of the classroom again in a rage.

Where was I? Ah yes. Act. I made a list (and I am checking it twice) full of things I need to crack on with, and most of it involves actually writing something. I feel like I have reverted into being a person with ideas for stories without actually committing them to paper/screen/software programme. This makes me a very sad girl indeed, so I am full of new resolutions to widen the cracks of space around full-time work so I can drip-feed in some stories. That is, if I can stay out from Under the Dome long enough.

What was the last book you fell into?

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Holiday Packing

Whenever I think of holiday packing, the thought uppermost in my mind is holiday reading. I have amassed a small light portable collection here.

Surely that little lot will fit into my suitcase?


Perhaps if I...

Hm. Surely I need clothes and things? Maybe I should rethink my books?


Ah sod it. Who needs anything else?!


Monday, 8 November 2010

Interview with Maria Zannini

Today I am hosting author Maria Zannini on her World Blog Tour. Please give her a warm welcome and enjoy the interview below!

Ps: There is an Important Update at the end of the interview. Don't miss it!


Due to circumstances beyond our control, this interview has been hijacked by the author's husband. He's threatened to hold Maria's computer hostage until this interview has aired.

Normally, we wouldn't condescend to threats—especially from husbands, but there is something deliciously scandalous about getting insider information.

Greg Tells All

Favourite author: I'm going to say Anne McCaffrey. It's the first author we read together as a couple.

Favourite guy: Me, of course! Maria is very hard to please, so obviously when I came along she snapped me up.
(Editor's note: Hey, wait a minute. I didn't ask that question.)

Favourite animal: Definitely dogs. But Maria has an amazing affinity with all animals. She can actually tell when they're about to get sick. I call it animal ESP, but she says it's just simple observation. What a liar! Maria can read minds. Her super mind powers are so intense, I've resorted to humming the national anthem to keep her from knowing too much. The last time she read my mind I was in trouble for a week. Observation, my foot!

Favourite season: You've heard of Spring Fever? Maria has a fatal case every year. She's literally bouncing off the walls waiting for the world to thaw so she can get outside. In the meantime she alleviates her insanity by cleaning house, organizing closets, and starting seedlings. That wouldn't be so bad, but she insists I help her. There's got to a be a support group for poor abused husbands.

Favourite colour: Brilliant, fiery, blood RED. Believe me, it matches her personality. Her closet is full of red. Her flowers are red. Her eyes are… I better stop there. I notice there's smoke coming out of her ears.

Favourite way to relax: Relax? Maria? She doesn't know how to relax. Her idea of relaxing is WORKING. There is definitely something wrong with that woman.

Favourite artist: Ah, an easy question. Caravaggio. She spent so much time studying him for her thesis, I was starting to get jealous. Lucky for him, he died four hundred years ago. Otherwise it would've been paintbrushes at high noon.

Favourite shop: Maria does not like to shop. (Am I not the luckiest husband ever?) But she loves browsing antique shops, forever on the prowl for elusive dog figurines and animal paintings.

Favourite way to procrastinate: :groan: This is an ongoing feud with us. She never procrastinates—but she says she does. You couldn't tell it by the way she gets me up at the crack of noon. The woman is a slave driver (with cleavage).

Favourite thing about your home of Texas: It would have to be the trees. She insisted when we were house hunting that our future house be surrounded by trees. I aim to please, so I found her a house in a forest. She had to take my word on it too. Maria was recovering from eye surgery and nearly blind for several weeks. Bwahahaha…she was entirely dependent on me. Drove her nuts!

Favourite character from your upcoming book ‘True Believers': She has a book coming out? I was wondering why she was in her office for so long. I thought she was killing zombies on a computer game.

Favourite scene from 'True Believers': Oh, great. Now I have to open the book. :scanning pages: Well what do you know, this isn't half bad.

His head jerked back and he gasped as she seared the wound shut. He was saying something in his native tongue, but she didn't understand him. It was either a curse or a prayer. Considering their circumstances, either one seemed like a good idea.

She should've pulled back, but when her essence touched his, she flinched. They were more alike than she suspected. As her na'hala wandered inside his body, it absorbed strange images and feelings of inadequacy from this man.

Who was he? What was he? He was hiding something. Even now she could feel him close himself off to her as she ventured deeper into his consciousness. Whatever he was holding back had to be big.

She pulled out of him and felt the drain of bolstering his shell. He was out of danger, but still weak.

Rachel shook him gently. “Taelen. Can you hear me? I didn't know you were so hurt.”

He opened his eyes and mumbled something under his breath.

“What?” She leaned in closer.

“You are heavier than you look.” He groaned and closed his eyes again.

(Editor's note: Ooo sounds good!)

From Maria:
Finally! I have my computer back. Tell me gentle readers. Should I beat the husband for his Kiss and Tell or cut him some slack for being so clever? Your votes will decide his fate.


Maria Zannini's latest release is a science fiction romance called TRUE BELIEVERS.

Mix one cynical immortal and one true believer and throw them into the biggest alien-hunt the world has never known. Rachel Cruz is a Nephilim masquerading as an archeologist and she's stuck with an alien who believes she can lead him to his ancestral gods. Black Ops wants to find these gods too. They want them dead.

You can follow Maria here:


She is also holding a contest! Every time you leave a comment, tweet or mention "Maria Zannini" anywhere with a link to her blog, your name goes in the hat for a chance to win a Texas sized prize. Go here for more information.

Thank you so much, Maria (and Greg!) Good luck with True Believers!

The Important Update: Maria needs your votes and your tweets! She has moved on to the second round for the Kensington Brava contest. Vote for her novel, Mistress Of The Stone. The grand prize at the end of this contest is a contract with Kensington. P.S. Maria is the one with the very cute dog!

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Book reviews: Mark Haddon, Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Nell Dunn

Poor little book reviews. They have really fallen by the way-side! I keep stacking the books up for when I have time to review them, as I do like keeping a record of what I am reading, but the pile is starting to look the same size as my printer. So here are the latest four…

Up the Junction, by Nell Dunn
Blaze, by Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon
Appointment with Death, by Agatha Christie

Up the Junction, by Nell Dunn
First published by MacGibbon & Kee Ltd, 1963
This edition published by Pan Books Ltd, 1966

‘Up the Junction’ is a slice of gritty sixties realism, far from the beautiful people. Nell Dunn uses colloquial speech of the time in her sketchy portraits of Battersea residents – girls with scuffed shoes and messy beehives, boys with leather jackets and crow-bars in their back pocket. There is no real story as such, but each chapter works as a vignette, giving us a glimpse into working-class life.

This book still has the power to shock now, so I can well imagine it was a bit of an eye-opener back when it was published. Controversial subjects are brought into the light, such as back-street abortions, slum clearances, living on higher purchase, casual sex, and teenagers with no prospects. Nell Dunn made her name from writing such truisms, alarming the Establishment. ‘Up the Junction’ was awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize, adapted for television, and made into a film. To say it touched a nerve for entire generation is an under-statement.

Blaze, by Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman
First published in Great Britain by Hodder & Stoughton
This edition published in 2008

As much as we are Stephen King’s Constant Readers, he is our Constant Writer, a prolific author who can bring out a book under his name and that of his pseudonym in the same year. This is what happened with Blaze, released alongside Stephen King’s novel ‘Desperation’.

Richard Bachman books nearly always see life from the bitter slice of the lemon. Blaze is about a mentally challenged man who hasn’t had much luck in life. He pairs up with a con-artist called George who plans to kidnap a millionaire’s baby and live off the reward money. After George dies Blaze attempts to continue the kidnapping, all the while asking George for guidance. And eventually, George starts speaking to him again…

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon
Published by Jonathan Cape, 2003
This edition published by Vintage, 2004

This novel won the 2003 Whitbread Book of the Year and the 2004 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book. After reading it you can see why – it is a refreshingly unusual story. It is told in the first person perspective of Christopher, a fifteen-year old with Asperger’s Syndrome and the tight viewpoint mirrors his condition. The story starts with his investigation of who killed a neighbour’s dog but reveals far much more than anyone intended.

I found it a clever book that is more of a galloping read than a story to linger over, although curiously (how apt) the impression of the story, and what isn’t told, is something to ponder long after the book is closed. It really gives you an idea of what it is like living with a child who sees the world in such literal terms – you feel for him and his parents. The only note that jarred for me was when Christopher hides in the luggage compartment of a train. On trains these are simply tiny, a small shelf in which to stow suitcases, and try as I might I cannot see how a fifteen-year old could possibly hide and be undetected in such a small space, not on a busy train to London. But then again we see things from Christopher’s perspective, so maybe because he didn’t notice anyone, we didn’t as well. It’s that sort of book!

Appointment with Death, by Agatha Christie
First published by William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1938
This edition published by Fontana Books, 1980

Oh how I love Agatha Christie books – she leads us neatly up the garden path when all along we should have been looking in the house, or rather, at the red cliffs of Petra. Appointment with Death takes us on a journey to Jordan where we meet the monstrous Mrs Boynton, a woman who likes to pull the reins of power tight around her family. Too tight, perhaps?

Poirot shines as ever, despite the dust and the heat wilting his magnificent moustache. I find Agatha Christie books are ‘comfort-reads’ for me – odd considering they are murder mysteries!

Want to read more of my book reviews? Click here

Monday, 1 November 2010

Forget your troubles come on get happy

Today I am channelling Judy Garland. I am missing the following items though:

Some sort of gingham checked material
A small dog called Toto
Magical ruby slippers

Instead I have:

Black office attire (including annoying hip-circling-with-every-step black skirt)
A small handbag (unnamed)
Scuffed black boots that have no magic about them whatsoever

I can now see where I have been going wrong. Wallace & Gromit had the wrong trousers, and it appears I have saddled myself with the wrong wardrobe.

Oh boy. A wandering lassitude has taken residence in my soul and it’s not shifting for toffee. Hence being quiet... it’s only my own pressure I know, but I like to be cheerful here on the blog, if I can, and when I feel like this it just doesn’t happen. Chocolate will only rectify a few ills, then the concentration (and obsession) moves to the lack of waist. But I so hate feeling negative – surely that energy can be put to better use. The problem with negative is that it is so solid an emotion and positive can feel so flimsy.

Today I decided at lunch that the cure may be found in hair dye. This will be the wash in/wash out variety as I quite like my natural hair colour (until of course the day comes where silver out-threads the red, and then I will go positively bonkers. Blue? Bring it on!) It’s not really so much the hair dye, but this sort of thing shows a commitment to caring about yourself, in a funny way. Today my soul feels a bit unkempt. Tomorrow it may feel a bit pampered, and who knows what that will do to my creativity? It shall Unleash The Tiger. Or something.

What do you mean, unleash the tiger?!

Best get spruced up. Thanks sis.

While we are waiting for tigers, we are going to have a snooze. You didn't want this arm back again any time soon, did you? Good.