Archive | July 2011

Things I have liked this week

Economics

Deficits are a girl’s best friend. Or, running a country is not the same as balancing a household budget. Take that, free marketeers! Via Ms Magazine.

Writing

The picture at this blog shows exactly why reading is important. I’m also going to take on her comments about identifying my writing strengths.  
Astronomy Picture of the Day!
A starry night over Dubai. Or not, because of the light pollution. But the photographic effect is still pretty cool.

A Read of A Dance with Dragons – Part 4

Chapter 3 – Jon

Jon is dreaming that he is Ghost. As Ghost he knows where the other direwolves of the pack that are still alive are. He can sense Nymeria and ShaggyDog. He knows Summer is still alive but can’t sense him. When Jon wakes up, we see his side of the story about why he sends Aemon and Mance’s son away with Sam.

Stannis wants something from Jon. Melisandre has been questioning the wildlings. Jon has a tricky decision to make. As he crosses the courtyard of Castle Black, he is accosted by one of Stannis’ knights who wants to challenge him. The knight calls him a coward when he declines. Stannis has sent ravens to the Northern Lords but only Karstark has declared for him. Stannis wants all the castles along the wall so that he settle them on his lords and followers. Jon won’t give them up so he threatens him.

Jon returns to his chambers and Melisandre accompanies him. She seems to generate her own heat. Melisandre tells Jon she can help him, tells him to beware the enemies that pretend to be friends. She closes with Ygritte’s words, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

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I was surprised to see Sam still at the Wall but, of course, ADWD runs in parallel with AFOC (sort of) and Sam hasn’t left yet. Silly me. And Stannis, once you start threatening people, you’ve lost the argument.

Jon really is Eddard’s son (even if not biologically). He has the bent to do the right thing and an appreciation that it will often be very hard to work out what that might be. He wants to be just but he doesn’t want to be harsh like Stannis. And he’s not afraid to speak truth to power. So how will he keep and hold what he’s got when everyone wants to take it away from him?

I think Jon’s experiences of ruling the Wall are in parallel with Dany, Tyrion and Cersei. He seems to be handling things well, like Dany.

100 Books in 2011 Challenge: The Auschwitz Violin

This one raises an interesting question: is it ok to not like a book on this subject? The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Àngels Anglada, trans. Martha Tennent, is the story of a violin maker interned in Auschwitz who is ordered to make a violin for the camp Commander. He does this amid the starvation and terror of life in the concentration camps.

This is a novella, or at around 25,000 words, a long short story. Looking at it as a short story makes the structure make a bit more sense. What I missed in this book was depth. Life in the concentration camps was horrific and I’ve read a few thing dealing with that subject. Yet it doesn’t come across here. I get the sense that the horror is being skated over. Maybe that’s a matter of taste – I do, after all, like visceral writing. Or maybe it’s an issue of courage. Perhaps the author didn’t want to commit to describing the conditions in Auschwitz in gory detail. I can see how that can seem gratuitous. Unfortunately, for me, that made it hard to connect to the fortitude of the protagonist. It didn’t seem like that much of an heroic struggle because the impact of the environment wasn’t fully brought out.

The writing itself is good and the story has great potential. I just found myself questioning the choices of the author about the structure of the story and what she chose to show. All the way through, I was thinking that I might have done it differently.

So, this book didn’t really do it for me. I felt distanced from the story by the technique. I’d read this story if it was re-written by someone else. And yet I feel a bit uncomfortable saying that I didn’t like the book because of the subject matter. If you like literary fiction, and don’t like horror, then this may be for you. It was a bit too sanitised for my taste.

A Read of A Dance with Dragons – Part 3

Chapter 2 – Daenerys

Daenerys’ people are being killed in the streets. Grey Worm brings her the body of an Unsullied killed on the way to a brothel by the Sons of the Harpy. The cities she defeated are turning bad in different ways and the good she has tried to do is all going wrong. Daenerys is trying to learn how to do better.

In Meereen, Daenerys holds an audience of supplicants, a mixture of nobles and former slaves. Everyone wants compensation for something. The nobles want restitution of their property and privileges taken when the slaves rose up. The former slaves want compensation for the things done to them when they were slaves. And some farmers want compensation for the livestock her dragons are eating.

Daenerys tries to be fair, but it is hard to work out what is the right thing to do and her gold is not limitless. Her principles are sorely tried by expediency and the advice she gets is rarely that helpful. Her crown weighs heavily on her head, both literally and metaphorically. She pays for the livestock that the dragons have eaten and all but one of the farmers leave. She asks the one remaining to speak and he spills the bones of a child in front of her.

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This is the chapter that was included at the end of AFOC, so nothing new here. What struck me was the parallel between Dany and Tyrion at this point. Both have used their power to try to do good and things turned bad – people are ungrateful and they seem to be making things worse in some ways. The difference is in the way they respond. Dany seems to be trying hard to understand what she can do differently, while Tyrion becomes bitter and disillusioned when he doesn’t get the love of the people. There is also an obvious parallel with Cersei, who grasps for tighter and tighter control when things don’t go her way, using terror without understanding that it will undo her. Dany wins this competition hands down. People are ungrateful, petty, self-interested and greedy. Dany seems to be dealing with this better than Tyrion, but maybe that’s because she didn’t have those illusions in the first place. Compared with Cersei, she’s better and brighter. On a writing note, it’s really interesting to recall from AFOC how Martin manages to convey Cersei’s limited intellectual capacity.

So, of course, dragons are not just cute, magical creatures who make everything better and will save the world from ice zombies, they are predators. Perhaps this is why they got stuck in the Dragonpit on Rhaenys’ Hill. We’ve got the point that ice must not win because it will destroy the world, but maybe fire shouldn’t win either as it will also consume the world.

A Read of A Dance with Dragons – Part 2

Chapter 1 – Tyrion

Tyrion is on a boat bound for the free cities; he’s drunk and feeling very sorry for himself. When the ship makes port, Tyrion is stuffed inside a wine cask and delivered to Magister Illyrio Mopatis, the man responsible for selling Danaerys to Khal Drogo. Tyrion feels sorry for himself. Illyrio has to go out on magisterial duties and so Tyrion wanders about the mansion, drinking, and rambling to servants he believes don’t understand him. The rambling concerns his future and what he might do with it. He falls down drunk, sees some mushrooms, picks them and puts them in his pocket. He thinks they might be poisonous.

Later he dines with Illyrio and his appetite for food is re-stimulated by the feast laid out before him. Illyrio makes reference to ‘the king’ but Tyrion doesn’t appear to pick up on it. During the feast, mushrooms in garlic butter are served. Tyrion goes to take one but falters when he remembers the mushrooms he picked earlier. He offers the plate to Illyrio who insists that he goes first. Tyrion believes he is being offered poison. Illyrio asks him if that isn’t what he wants. The servants understood his rambling better than he thought. Instinctively, Tyrion doesn’t want to die, but realises he doesn’t know what he will do with the rest of his life. The magister talks about going east so that Tyrion can return to Westeros with the three-headed dragon.

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Oh hai, Tyrion, where’ve you been? You know, in some respects Tyrion is very naive. He is prone to dwelling on the past and now he has more to torment himself with. His experience in King’s Landing has revealed the truth about his family and it’s a blow. And really, it’s not like he thought his family was great. He already thought that his experience was pretty shit, and then to find out that it was worse, well that sucks.

I think that Tyrion has had a lot of his sense of identity stripped away from him and the worst of his character is at the surface at the moment. He’s soft-hearted and protecting himself behind bitterness. A lot of the commenters on the fan blogs seem to be willing Tyrion to hook up with Dany – I guess on the basis that you always want your favourite characters to get together – but I’m not sure that’s how this is going to pan out. And why does Illyrio want to help Tyrion? What’s he getting out of this?

I think I should say at this point that there are no characters I dislike in this series. Obviously I have my favourites, but all the characters are sympathetic to some degree. Yes, even Cersei.

100 Books in 2011 Challenge: The Prodigal Daughter

Jeffrey Archer is an easy target. He’s a best-selling author that a lot of people think is a dreadful writer. So, given that I read in order to improve my writing skills, it seems to make sense that I should read some of those novels and authors that are widely considered to be bad. I can see why they are bad and learn from that. In some cases, they actually aren’t bad, they’re just popular and successful.

In the case of The Prodigal Daughter by Jeffrey Archer, it was bad. It was bad enough to make me angry. It spans about sixty years and is the story of a woman who inherits a massive hotel chain and then becomes president of the USA (whoops, spoilers).

Archer starts with her birth, then shows selected highlights from her childhood, educational career, she runs away to marry the son of her father’s sworn enemy and builds up her own really successful chain of high-end designer clothes stores, her father dies and she inherits his hotel chain, she runs that for a while until she gets bored and then goes into politics.

For the first two thirds of the book my problem was the style of telling the story. Given that there is so much time to cover there has to be a lot of narrative, interspersed with scenes of pivotal events. The narrative is often clumsy and expository. There’s an awful lot of telling and it’s not handled well. The scenes don’t really show the protagonist’s character (which is what they are meant to do) rather Archer tells us and doesn’t match his action with what he’s trying to get across. The dialogue is clunky. The protagonist is not very likable, mainly because she’s perfect and everything just falls into her lap. She has a couple of ‘set-backs’ but they’re not real reversals or challenges, just opportunities for Archer to show that she’s even more perfect than he’d already told us.

I had mixed reactions to the last part of the book. To start with, I felt more positive about it. This is the part of the book where she’s entered politics and is trying to get a seat in Congress, then campaigns for the Senate and then to be the Democratic party nomination for President. It also covers her transformation from dove to hawk which is irritating and feels like polemic. However, it is a detailed and interesting look at the American electoral process and is more action-orientated than much of the rest of the book. There are moments of tension, even though you know the protagonist is going to win everything eventually because she always does. Then as she campaigns for the Democratic Party nomination, she gets well and truly screwed over by her opponent. It’s probably the best bit of the book. She becomes the Vice-President, with a promise that he will step down after one term and support her. Once he has the presidency he sidelines her in favour of his former running mate, now Secretary of State. Then there is a nuclear missile crisis. The President is visiting his mistress and is uncontactable and the Secretary of State crumbles under the pressure. Our protagonist saves the day and is a big hero. Then the President announces he is stepping down and publicly gives his support to the Secretary of State.

That’s not quite the end and I wouldn’t normally describe the plot in such detail, but it brings me to the point that offended me most about this book. At this point, I thought, wow, she’s really going to have to fight for this, that’ll be good. But wait, there’s only a few pages left. What’s going to happen? What happens is a deus ex machina. The President dies of a heart attack and our protagonist automatically becomes President. The End. What, Archer, you couldn’t be bothered to write any more? You’d made your word count so you decided just to leave it there? Rubbish.

This, I think, is a perfect example of a writing breaking their promise to a reader. Not only was the book badly written and quite boring for most of it, but at the end, Archer cheats. He cheats the reader and he cheats his main character. Avoid like the plague. And I still don’t understand how he’s managed to sell so many books.

A Read of A Dance with Dragons – Part 1

Prologue

A warg is hunting in the snow beyond the Wall with two other wolves. They find a small group of people; two men and a woman with a baby. The wolves attack, kill and eat the people.

Varamyr Sixskins, one of Mance Rayder’s chiefs, and a big noise in the army of the King Beyond the Wall, lies dying alone in the snow. The wolves are what remains of the six animals he was previously linked with. We learn what happened to the wildling army after their defeat by Stannis. Some have gone on to Eastwatch to try to breach the Wall there. Others have gone to the sea to look for boats to take them away. Others are heading north again to the land of the Thenns, even though the Thenns joined Mance’s army to escape the ice zombie invasion of their lands. Many have scattered in small bands. Varamyr was with one such group which has been whittled down to him and one woman, who has gone hunting, leaving him dying of a knife wound to the side which he got while trying to steal a cloak.

Varamyr’s thoughts turn to his childhood and how he became a shape shifter, which conveys more information about the link between the Starks and their wolves. He remembers his mentor telling him about the times he shouldn’t link with animals, the types of animals not to join with and that it is an abomination to join with another person. Varamyr has done all these things. He goes out looking for the woman he was travelling with. As he finds her, he slips, causing his wound to rip open and he bleeds out. At this point, Varamyr tries to transfer his soul to the woman. She fights him and the fight causes her to kill herself, biting out her own tongue and clawing out her eyes. Varamyr’s soul finds his alpha wolf, from whose eyes he watches hundreds of ice zombies slowly marching south.

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Good start. Initially, I thought we were with Bran and that it was Summer eating the baby. So, the whole baby-eating scene was quite shocking. A paragraph later, I learn that the warg is Varamyr Sixskins. Who is awful. And I find myself quite relieved that it wasn’t Bran.

This chapter goes a long way to explaining the gift of shape shifting that the Starks seem to have with their direwolves. It’s something more accepted north of the Wall than in the South, where these talents have been stamped out. It also conveys that there are times when it’s just not right to do it. Wolves are somewhat accepting, but Varamyr also had a shadowcat, a bear and an eagle. The cat and the bear hated it and tried to fight him.

And just so we don’t forget, the Prologue rams home the theme of Winter is Coming. There are ice zombies and we should be scared. The writing is as good as ever, particularly as this chapter is essentially exposition told through a character study, and I’m totally gripped.

Things I’ve liked this week

Astronomy Picture of the Day
Atlantis’ last approach to the International Space Station. A view from the space station of the shuttle with the Bahamas in the background.

Pagan stuff
A silly little story that amused me – a Christian group opposed a meeting of Pagans and threatened a protest, but while loads of Pagans turned up, no Christians did. Via A Bad Witch’s Blog.

Writing stuff
A useful post on making the most of the feedback you get from critique groups and editors from the QueryTracker.net Blog.

100 Books in 2011 Challenge: The Captive Queen

I was so looking forward to The Captive Queen by Alison Weir. Although I haven’t read any of her novels before, I have read several of her historical biographies. I think Alison Weir writes non-fiction really well and I especially enjoyed her biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. That book was one I found particularly influential and I loved the character of Eleanor that she created from the patchy historical sources. So, a novel about that woman and informed by extensive research? Should be great, right?

Something went wrong. Partly it was in my expectations. Weir says in a note at the end of the book that what she was trying to do was portray the marriage of Eleanor and Henry II, one that was supposed to be an intense, passionate relationship and was very eventful. That’s not really the book I wanted to read. I wanted to read about Eleanor in full. Her marriage is important in her story but she spent a lot of time apart from Henry and there were many other significant relationships in her life. I wanted to see her as a stateswoman and those parts were glossed over. Frustrating, but not what it was intended to be about, so it’s not fair to criticise the lack of it.

The question thus becomes, did Weir do what she says she set out to do? I think that the writing is quite flawed. The balance of interior monologue to dialogue and action is tipped too far in favour of monologue. The interior voice isn’t that compelling and there were a number of times when I wondered if I was reading a Mills & Boon. Characterization is light and the relationships are not convincing. Dialogue is lacking and not that well done.

I have always held that a good non-fiction writer can write good fiction but this book proves it is not always true. It is a shame, because Weir is a great writer. I’d recommend you read all her non-fiction, but steer clear of the novels.