Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “fiction”

Everything’s eventual by Stephen King

Everything's EventualEverything’s Eventual by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fourteen stories, ranging from good to mediocre. Most of them are ghost stories of one kind or another, about haunted people or places. Some have happy endings, others don’t.

The best, I think, was “Riding the bullet”, about a student who hitchhikes home to see his mother who has taken ill and is in hospital. I found the description of hitchhiking interesting, and it recalled a vanished age. Arthur Goldstuck once wrote a short story about a vanishing hitchhiker, an urban legend, actually. But it seems that all hitchhikers have vanished. No one I know has hitchhiked since about the mid-1970s, ever since car hijacking became the preferred method of vehicle theft.

The worst story in the collection in my view was “1408”, about a haunted hotel room. I kept falling asleep, even during the bits that were clearly meant to be the most exciting.

I thought some of the stories rated four stars, others rated two, so I gave the book as a whole three stars.

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The mystery of the Solar Wind (book review)

At our literary coffee klatch a couple of weeks ago Tony McGregor brought along a book called The mystery of the Solar Wind, which he said was about pirates in the 22nd century, so when I saw a copy in the library I grabbed it and brought it home to read.

The Mystery of the Solar WindThe Mystery of the Solar Wind by Lyz Russo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a bit conflicted about this book. On the one hand, I found it compelling reading, an interesting story, of pirates in the world a century in the future. On the other hand, there are too many rough edges, and it feels unfinished, like a rough draft that somehow escaped into the public library. The copy I read has no ISBN and is not listed on GoodReads, and the cover is different from all the editions that are. Its date is 2009, and it reads like a publisher’s proof copy sent to bookshops in advance of publication.

Some of the rough edges may have been smoothed out in a later “proper” edition, but I still wonder why this one was found in the public library.

It is set in a world in which two superpowers, the Unicate, which seems to be a kind of expanded and corrupt Nato, and the Rebellion, based in the south Pacific, are fighting for global dominance, and there is the Southern Free, in Africa, which appears to mind its own business and doesn’t come into the story much. And apart from that there are the pirates, who acknowledge none of the world powers.

The Solar Wind is a pirate ship, whose Hungarian captain seems to have an incongruously Slavic name. It is a wind-powered ship — ships using mineral oil as fuel are a thing of the past — though it does have fuel cell and nuclear auxiliary drives.

The protagonists are the Donegal siblings, Ronan, Paean and Shawn, orphans who joined the ship at Dublin, fleeing from the Unicate after the death of their mother in suspicious circumstances.

But there are puzzling quirks and plot holes. The pirates explain to the Donegals that they are not the bloodthirsty villains of popular perception, and go out of the way to avoid harming their enemies, until there is a sudden and totally unexpected outbreak of gratuitous violence and mass murder, which would certainly in our day be regarded as a war crime. And what kind of person gives a twelve-year-old a rifle to shoot people escaping a sinking ship in a lifeboat? Was it that the Donegals were only beginning to become aware of their real nature of their hosts? No, it seems to have been a turning point when they became loyal to them.

There are mysteries that are never explained, and the reader is simply left hanging. There are strange uses of words, some of which could be explained by language changes over the next century, except that they seem strangely inconsistent. “Anna bottle” can be accepted as a 22nd century expression, but exclaiming “Cor” seems so 1960s London. One sentence spoke of things being connected “by vice of a three-toed print”, and I tried to think of a three toed print holding things together like a vice, but the imagery failed. Perhaps it was meant to be “by the device of a three-toed print”, which would be evidence for my suspicion of its being an uncorrected proof copy that escaped to the library, but even that would make no sense in the context.

Something I also found odd was the reference to female characters by their hair colour — “the redhead”, “the brunette” (with black hair nogal). That seemed to belong to 1936 rather than 2116. And since the male characters weren’t referred to in that way it seemed rather sexist to me. It was also confusing, because there were two female characters with red hair, so one had to work out which one was being referred to.

One of the books we also discussed at the literary coffee klatsch was A high wind in Jamaica, which was also about children and pirates, though the setting was about 250 years earlier than The mystery of the Solar Wind, so I can’t help making comparisons. In A high wind in Jamaica the children (who are mostly younger than those in Solar Wind) are inadvertently captured by pirates, and actually turn out to be considerably more bloodthirsty than the pirates, especially when the pirates are themselves captured and put on trial, and the children are called upon to give evidence at their trial. But the bloodthirstiness of the children as as nothing compared to the imaginations of the adults at the trial, who embroider the evidence given by the children into something utterly remote from the reality.

At the time of writing The mystery of the Solar Wind is  available free on Smashwords.

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Bad boy

Bad Boy (Inspector Banks, #19)Bad Boy by Peter Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read most of Peter Robinson’s detective novels featuring Alan Banks (now Detective Chief Inspector or DCI), and enjoyed them all. This one stands out as being better than most.

It’s a police procedural rather than a whodunit, so you get to know fairly quickly who the villains are. The plot turns on how the police go about catching them and getting enough evidence to make a charge stick.

It won’t be a spoiler to say that in this one the plot turns on how DCI Banks’s daughter gets involved with one of the villains, and gets in over her head. It tells you that on the front cover: “A policeman’s daughter should know better.”

So the reader is not kept guessing about the identity of the bad guys. What is left as an exercise for the reader is the moral issue of the use of firearms by criminals and the police. This has bean a contentious issue, especially since the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in London in 2005.

Peter Robinson does tend to bring such issues into his novels, and some other social issues are not absent from this one as well — the position of gay, black or female officers in the British police, for example, and relatively new crimes like people trafficking.

But the main issue here is the use of firearms by the police, and the procedures for controlling that use. I’ve noticed that in news stories about crime in the UK one increasingly sees images of armed and armoured police, intimidating Darth Vader-like figures, running around shouting at people with weapons ready to be fired. Here one gets a glimpse of how such things are ordered and controlled, and how things can go wrong.

One of the things I like about Robinson’s books is the way in which they compel the reader to try to exercise moral judgement. I know it’s fiction, “just a novel”, but I wonder whether, if South African policemen read books like this, we might have avoided events like the Marikana Massacre.

The book is not moralising, or morally didactic in the sense of the author telling people what to think. Rather he stimulates the reader to think about moral issues.

From the broad sweep of moral judgement, I descend to the level of nit-picking about Robinson’s use of language.

Peter Robinson was born and brought up in Yorkshire, where the novels are set, but he has lived for many years in Canada, and I wonder if he had perhaps lost touch a little.

Robinson rather selfconsciously draws attention to one of the senior police officials using American slang in referring to one of the villains as a “scumbag”.

But he passes over, without comment, one of them using “momentarily” in its American sense of “in a moment” rather than “for a moment”.

I would have thought that “scumbag”, though it may have originated in the USA, has become fairly universal by now, and is therefore unremarkable. It does not surprise me that a British policeman would
use the term.

But it would surprise me if a British police officer used “momentarily” in its American sense. It is a far more remarkable use of American slang than “scumbag”.

Or have I missed something?

Has the US slang use of “momentarily” spread not only to Canada, but to the UK as well?

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Literary critics needed

One of the things in the blurb for this blog is that it’s a place where I post half-baked ideas that I hope others will help me to bake. Ususally that’s just in the form of a direct comment on a blog post, which can be just a line or two — “I disagree” or “You’re talking rubbish” or something like that.

This time, however, it’s a request for a bit more effort.

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In November 2006 I participated in National Novel Witing Month (NaNoWriMo), and challenged others on the Charles Williams discussion forum to join in as well, and try to write a Charles Williams-type novel in a month. I hoped that we could then “have an Inklings”, and discuss each other’s writing, as Charles Williams and his friends did over 60 years ago in Oxford.

Unfortunately there weren’t many takers, and so there was not much discussion. Nevertheless, I finished my novel in the allotted time, and am now revising the draft, and I’m looking for feedback from readers to see if it is worth publishing.

So it needs the effort of reading at least the first chapter, and saying “Yecch! I couldn’t take it any more”, or else reading the whole thing, and pointing out holes in the plot, or inconsistencies in the narrative, or things that the characters say or do that you don’t understand, and so on.

I hope you won’t find it too boring. One of my two readers so far (a retired Anglican bishop in England) responded

I have read the story with great enthusiasm and non-stop. I was gripped with the plot from the first pages and stayed with it throughout – very compelling reading! I really enjoyed meeting with all the characters who you have portrayed with great skill, you get to know them as individuals and then you have a love or hate relationship with them. It is very very readable and you get caught up with each of the characters and go along with them on their journeys.

I’ve left out his more specific criticisms because I hope to get those from people who have simply read the text, not influenced too much by what others have said.

Anyway, if you are willing to give it a go, please e-mail me a request at (or any of my other e-mail addresses if you know them — see my contact page), and I will send you a copy of the latest draft in PDF format, which you can print out or read on screen as you prefer.

You don’t have to be a fan of Charles Williams to do this, but if you are, any comparisons, favourable or unfavourable, with the novels of Charles Williams will be welcome.

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