Category Archives: Reading

Chapter One

It seems very appropriate for the beginning of the year to be discussing how to write the opening chapter of a novel.  I always imagine a new year as turning over the first page of a book – the adventure is all before us and anything could happen!  And something nice already has happened, as I was honoured yesterday to attend the New Year’s meeting of Harpenden Writers to set their in-house competition entitled ‘Chapter One’.

The first chapter is a real challenge for any writer.  It is as important as the climax of the book – even more so, because it has so many other jobs to do.  As well as introducing characters, setting, the style of the author and the bones of the plot, the opening chapter also needs to perform a double wow – hooking the reader and also attracting the attention of agents and publishers.  No wonder it can be so hard to write.

What are considered the greatest opening chapters in literature?  It’s a hard list to make, but after sifting through my own choices, various opinions on the internet (most of which are based mainly on the first line) and suggestions from the Harpenden Writers, I’d suggest the following top ten in no particular order:

  • The Colour Purple by Alice Walker
    Celie is raped by her step-father.  She relates the tale in her own matter of fact way.  If this is what happens on page one then things are going to be tough for her and for us as readers.
  • Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
    A fatal ballooning accident kickstarts an obsessive relationship.  Killer opening which some believe the rest of the book never quite matches up to.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
    Mrs Bennet tries to persuade Mr Bennet to visit the new young bachelor in town and get him to marry one of her daughters.  Deceptively simple, perfectly pitched.
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
    A man sells his wife at a country auction.  Great example of a cataclysmic event which creates a stomping good plot.
  • The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
    Nick has dinner with Tom and Daisy and hears of the existence of Gatsby.  Eloquent, elegant, understated.
  • 1984 by George Orwell
    The clock strikes thirteen and Winston Smith is living another day under the boot of Big Brother.  An immediate plunge into another world that is terrifyingly possible.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
    Huck’s unique voice pulls us straight into his story.  After sketching out his new life with the Widow Douglas he is off for more mischief with Tom.
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
    ‘I am Born’ – the first chapter does exactly what it says on the tin.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
    Starts as it means to go on – bleak, uncompromising, sad almost beyond words.  Line breaks indicate changes – there are no chapters because the normal divisions of time have disintegrated with civilisation.
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
    One page of gob-smacking prose which raises horrifying questions we simply have to know the answers to.

To help us identify what makes a great opening chapter, we examined the beginning of Pride and Prejudice.  Giant hailstones rained down with a deafening clatter as I attempted to read aloud from my Kindle and I just hope it wasn’t divine intervention engineered by Jane Austen in response to my portrayal of Mrs Bennet!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first line by itself is in possession of every quality an opening chapter needs: the characters (single, rich man); the plot (fortune hunters are after him); the style (dry, arch) and the hook (so who will catch him).  Few but Austen could pull this off in one line.

The rest of the chapter deftly places us at the heart of the story by showcasing Austen’s brilliant characterisation.  We are introduced to Mr and Mrs Bennet and we understand their relationship and the inequality of their marriage.  He has become a long-suffering husband who is reduced to scoring victories through quiet sarcasm, which she is a nag, a gossip and a social climber.  Nevertheless, Austen loves them and we can see that in her affectionate treatment of their foibles.  Impressively Austen also manages to introduce through the Bennets’ conversation no less than ten other characters!  Of course we hear about the impressive Bingley and his four or five thousand a year, but we also learn that the Bennets have five grown up daughters, we hear the names and main character traits of three of them, we know which ones each parent prefers and we even have the first mention of Sir William and Lady Lucas as a rival family the Bennets need to keep up with.  There’s also a couple of side characters thrown into to the gossipy mix.  All this is done in so natural and deft a way that we happily throw ourselves into chapter two with a good basic knowledge of and fondness for the family.

We also have the bones of the plot in place: Mrs Bennet needs to marry off her daughters and she needs to act quickly before anyone else can pinch the best prize.  We don’t know yet about the Bennet estate being entailed away on the nearest male heir but we do sense that the family needs outside help if it is to survive in the manner to which it is accustomed, and that there are various cumbersome social barriers that need to be broken through before this can be achieved.

The setting is quite starkly presented, but we do gather that this is a domestic scene and the beginning of the plot suggests the rest of the novel will probably stay in that sphere.  It is obviously historical and of its time period, and the family are of middling wealth – rich enough to be looking for husbands rather than jobs for their daughters, but poor enough to be somewhat desperate.

The chapter also introduces Austen’s style: conversational, arch, humorous, affectionate, fast-moving and deft.  We know what we are getting from the first line onwards: Austen’s voice is always true.

And finally, the hook.  Are we pulled in by this chapter?  Do we feel emotionally involved enough to continue?  All the elements have been expertly put in place, so that anyone who enjoys this sort of novel will feel compelled to continue.

So there we have it: a model first chapter.  We have the killer first line, the characters, the plot, the setting, the style and the hook, all done in an understated, efficiently brilliant way.  For a complete contrast see the opening chapter of Lolita.  And remember, if you want to analyse first chapters of classic literature most are now free on the internet, either through the Amazon Kindle store and other ebook retailers or through Project Guttenberg where you can read classics online or download them.

Good luck to the Harpenden Writers taking part in the Chapter One competition – I look forward to reading your entries and getting thoroughly hooked!

The Bother in Burmeon by SP Moss

The Bother in BurmeonOne of the perks of blogging about books is occasionally being sent free books to review.  I’ve made the decision that I won’t post any bad reviews, simply because the ethos of this site is to encourage aspiring writers like myself, so if I read a book I don’t like I simply don’t review it anymore.  I was thankful therefore to turn to the first page of The Bother in Burmeon by SP Moss and, after reading a few lines, rest reassured that I was in the hands of a good storyteller.

“The Bother in Burmeon” by SP Moss is an old fashioned adventure story about Billy Blake who travels back in time to the 1960s where he meets his grandad – Grandpop – and is whisked away on a hair-raising mission to topple a crazy dictator in tropical Burmeon.  The book features a tiger called Durga, a drug-crazed villain, Grandpop’s nemesis Featherstonehaugh (pronounced Fanshaw unless you want him to murder you), an array of impressive planes, several narrow escapes and a good deal of RAF banter.  Top hole old chap!

I read the book with my ten year old daughter who found it very exciting and was begging me to keep reading each night.  She gave it a 9 out of 10.  Her favourite part was when Billy and his new friend Radar went through the underground tunnel to rescue Durga.  She liked the clever ending too.

The book was a blast to read aloud.  I loved all the RAF speak and Grandpop’s lines leapt off the page.  The cars and planes of the period were described in loving detail but we would have appreciated a few line drawings within the text to bring them alive.  It’s quite hard to picture a Sunderland unless you’ve seen one, and although there is a very good website – www.burmeon.com – with pictures, you don’t tend to look at book websites while you are reading the book.  I also felt Billy should have missed home just a little bit more as sometimes I almost forgot he was out of his time – but I can appreciate that with all the adventures he has, his mind is fully occupied elsewhere!

I found the ending extremely touching and had to concentrate hard not to get too emotional while reading it aloud!  I could really feel Billy’s shock as he returns to the twenty-first century; SP Moss does a fantastic job of recreating both periods.  I can fully appreciate why this won the Earlyworks/Circaidy Gregory Press Novels for Children competition.  It’s a small press but they have produced a lovely looking book (line drawings would have been the icing on the cake).

UPDATE: a trailer for the book can be found on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ixmljOaiKI

Reading Dickens the Dickensian way

A Tale of Two Cities in All The Year RoundI’m very excited to be taking part in a venture initiated by the Victorian Studies Centre at the University of Leicester and Dickens’ Journals Online which starts at the end of this month.  To celebrate the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth, a group of readers will be enjoying A Tale of Two Cities in weekly instalments, the way it was originally published in the journal All The Year Round.  As we read we will be blogging about the experience at http://dickensataleoftwocities.wordpress.com/.

If you are intrigued and fancy joining in, the first read begins on 30 April exactly as it did when the first instalment of A Tale of Two Cities appeared on 30 April 1859.  To request an invitation, visit http://dickensataleoftwocities.wordpress.com/about/ for details.

I loved reading Oliver Twist and David Copperfield recently and have a great affection for Great Expectations which we studied at school for both O level and A level (strangely but conveniently – perhaps the examiners ran out of inspiration that year), but A Tale of Two Cities is one of a number of Dickens’ books that I have never got around to reading and it will be fascinating to experience it in its original format.  I should really confess as well that I tried to read The Pickwick Papers but failed…  I love Dickens’ humour as light relief in his serious works but the full-on comedy just didn’t work for me.  Sorry, Chaz!

My Christmas reading pile

xmas readingI thought I’d take this photo of the books I got for Christmas sitting on my bedside shelf. I’ve read some of them but they looked so nice sitting there, all lovely and inky and wordy…  Am I in danger of fetishising my paper books now I’m a Kindle owner?  Oh yes…

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay

Just started dipping into this one.  It’s written in an accessible style whilst still retaining a huge amount of detail and respect for the work that went on at Bletchley.

Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler

I love reading anything about the Brontes, and this novel plunges you into the mind of Charlotte Bronte as she writes her masterpiece.  It’s beautifully written, almost poetic at times, but I found myself wishing she’d delved further into the complete family background rather than just concentrating on the progress of one novel, even though that was the point of the book.  Fleeting glimpses of Emily, Ann and Branwell were just too tantalising.

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks

A triumphant return to space opera from the fantastically depraved mind of Mr Banks.  Pure enjoyment and awe all round.   (And nobody uses the f word better.)

Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James

I love the recent craze for return visits to Jane Austen’s creations and was sure I’d be in safe hands with PD James.  She uses the settings well and I enjoyed the references to characters in the other books, eg Willoughby takes a position working for Mr Eliot from Persuasion.  But I felt the novel lacked emotional substance; the murder victim is a minor character, and does anyone really feel sorry for Willoughby any more?  Darcy and Elizabeth, who should light up every page, seemed shadows of their former selves.

Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

Imagine Jodi Piccoult crossed with Linwood Barclay and you have Rosamund Lupton – emotionally searing, dramatic, completely compelling; this was a book I couldn’t put down.  (Thanks to my Secret Santa!)  Have made a note to read her first novel Sister.

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

I haven’t started this one yet but I’m looking forward to getting on the back of that turtle!

Hope you are enjoying your Christmas reading too.

I want to live in a Ffordian world!

Jasper Fforde is a true original, and luckily for his fans a prolific one too.  He has been compared to Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and Monty Python.  He is fiendishly clever with a wicked sense of humour and a love of puns, slapstick and absurdities.  His books are laugh-out-loud funny but with characters you can really fall for (who doesn’t adore Thursday’s lovely husband Landen, want to be friends with Spike the relaxed vampire killer, or covert a clockwork butler called Sprockett?).  Inventions and crazy ideas just spill off the pages and every book is an absolute delight.  I won’t beat about the bush any longer – I’m a fan!  Or should I say, Ffan.

In case you are new to Fforde, he writes in four different strands.  The Thursday Next novels – drama and crime in and out of a world of books and an alternative Swindon; the Nursery Crime series – a spin off from Thursday Next concentrating on the nursery rhyme area of the BookWorld; the Last DragonSlayer books (junior Fforde fantasy) and, strangest and most wonderful of all, Shades of Grey, which I can’t even begin to attempt to describe and need to read again at least three times.  To get a flavour of this bizzarre universe, visit the author’s website at www.jasperfforde.com.

I have just finished reading One of Our Thursdays is Missing, the latest adventure of Thursday Next.  In this episode, the real Thursday is missing.  However there are several more.  A series of books based on Thursday’s adventures means that there is also a written Thursday who lives in the BookWorld.   Unlike her namesake, this Thursday is meek and peaceful and only wants to live in her book and entertain the few readers that still bother to drop in.  But events force her into action.  Together with the clockwork Butler and expert cocktail maker Sprockett, the treehugging Thursday must search the Bookworld and the Realworld to find Thursday in time to attend the Council of Genres’ peacetalks with Racy Novel.   A great delight for me in this novel was the remaking of the BookWorld into an island, as you can see in the picture below (click on it to enlarge).  Thursday’s trip up the Metaphoric River on a paddle steamer was a highlight.  I love the Blyton island, Mervyn Peake and Clowns, which is on the border of comedy and horror.  And if you look carefully you can see NaNoWriMo just above the Un-Genred Zone.  Thanks to Jasper for allowing the map to be freely reproduced.  If you want to explore Fiction Island, just jump into the Thursday Next books.  I’ll see you in Speculative Fantasy, North of SF, East of Dickens.

Fiction Island

Fforde's Fiction Island

Shelfari

I’ve just stumbled across Shelfari, a new social networking community based around a virtual bookshelf where you can record the books you have read and are planning to read.  You can rate them, review them, join groups and discuss them.  I’m not sure if I can keep up with yet another social network – I’ve not even tackled Twitter yet – but I’ve been thinking  for some time that I wish I’d made a written record of every book I’d ever read (I know, anal aren’t I?) and now I can!  Selecting books through a search bar and marking them as Reading Now, Read, or Planning to Read produces a lovely little graphic like this which you can make appear on your blog:

book shelf

Unfortunately, because WordPress prevent users from inserting Java Script into their blogs, we WordPressians can’t display the full graphic, only a text list.  I’m hoping that will be rectified eventually.  Apparently there is a way to force WordPress to use Java but I can’t get my head round the science.

I’m planning now to record every book I read, tagging them by year read.  And if I see a book I’ve read in the past I’ll add that too.  Being  a Kindle user it will be nice to see books on my bookcase, even if they are virtual ones.

Shelfari can be found at www.shelfari.com.

Review of Skin Hunger and Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey

Skin HungerKathleen Duey’s Resurrection of Magic series begins with Skin Hunger, followed by the current book in the trilogy, Sacred Scars.  I came across Skin Hunger, almost by accident, as part of a sale in a book catalogue.  I was attracted by the title and the arresting cover art, but that was all I knew about the book.

The trilogy is concerned with the teaching of magic.  Many generations ago, magic was common and controlled by magicians, who were both feared and courted for their great powers.  A series of revolutions drove magic underground or into the folk songs sung by peasants, mere superstition.  The mysterious Somiss is determined to bring magic back, but in doing so he conducts evil experiments, unwillingly aided by his companion/slave Franklin.  The narrator of the story is Sadima, a goodhearted farm girl who has the power to communicate with animals and runs away to follow Franklin.  Sadmina is brave and strong but she cannot persuade Franklin to leave Somiss and so they both reluctantly help him, always planning on a way of escaping and taking the magic somewhere it can be used for good.

Sadmina’s chapters are alternated with those of another voice, Hahp, written in the first person.  Hahp lives hundreds of years after Sadmina’s story.  He has been forcably enrolled in a magicians’ school, run by two wizards called… Somiss and Franklin.  Hahp and his companions ensure the most unimaginable cruelty as part of their training, and they are told that only one – or none – will leave.

If you are thinking of a magicians’ school in the Hogwarts vein, think again.  Imagine Hogwarts where all the teachers are Voldemorts, all of the students potential Malfoys.  Imagine no light, no food, no water unless you pass your next test.  Kathleen Duey’s narrative is full of surprises.  Just when you think things can’t get any worse for Hahp and the other boys, they do.  Just when you think you know what to expect, everything changes.  I found Hahp’s chapters the most compelling because there were so many questions I wanted to find the answers to, just like the narrator himself.

Sacred Scars

Skin Hunger was a fabulous book, but it took me a while to get around to reading the sequel, Sacred Scars.  One reason for this was that when I was out in bookshops I could never remember the name of the first book.  Skin Hunger is a great title, but it doesn’t actually bear much relation to the events in the book, or really seem to represent the book in any way.  When I got my Kindle I thought I would download the sequel, but it’s not available as an e-book.  Then recently I asked for the sequel in a London branch of Waterstone’s.  To my amazement it wasn’t stocked.  Finally I ordered the paper version through Amazon.

I am so glad I made the effort to continue with the trilogy.  I absolutely loved Sacred Scars, even more than Skin Hunger.  It continues both Sadima’s and Hahp’s stories, but again I was constantly surprised and amazed at the events that unfolded.  The backstory of the suppression of magic and the various uprisings I found a little confusing, even with the help of Hahp’s history book, and at the end I was unsure whether a betrayal had taken place or not.  Hopefully that will becoming clearer in book three.  As for the magician’s school in the underground caves, I am bursting to find out what the truth is behind the horrible ordeals.

According to Kathleen Duey’s blog she is currently writing the final book.  There are some fascinating snippets on the blog about where she is up to at the moment, the order that she writes the chapters in, and her inspirations.  I can’t wait.

I would recommend this book to young adults who enjoy gritty fantasy, as well as to any adult.  It reminded me a little of Trudi Canavan’s Magician trilogy but with an even darker edge.

Writer’s notes

What have I learned from these books that could help me as a writer?

  • Surprise – Duey constantly surprises her reader.  But not in a random way.  When the shocks happen, they feel right.
  • Deep emotion – all Duey’s characters are real and emotional.  Sadima and Hahp feel, and we feel with them.
  • World building – like Catherine Fisher in Incarceron, Duey deftly creates a world which feels completely real, even though it is alien to our own.
  • Questions – most good novels have a central question you read on in order to learn the answer to.  In Duey’s books I have so many questions I don’t know where to start!  I am fascinated to see how all these will resolve.  Questions keep you reading, but remember to tease your readers with some possible answers before you deliver the final shock!

Forgive me, Garth Nix!

Mister MondayI first came across Garth Nix when a friend recommended the amazing Abhorsen (also known as Old Kingdom) trilogy.  I was gripped by the terrifyingly real creation of an alternative world where the dead can walk into life and the living can visit Death, and enchanted with the wonderful Lireal, fearless Sabriel, Sam the reluctant prince, Mogget the cat who houses something terrifying within which stays dormant only when his collar is on, and the awful creatures that come up from the various Gates of Death.

After that I was desperate for more and so I bought Across the Wall, a collection of short stories set in the Old Kingdom, and The Ragwitch.  But I was so disappointed with The Ragwitch that I decided, rashly, that maybe Nix wasn’t for me after all.  His trilogy had been one of the best reads of my life but for some reason one slighly mediocre book had put me off forever.

Why was The Ragwitch so disappointing?  It was Nix’s first published novel, and was republished in 2005, presumably so the publishers could cash in on Nix’s huge success.  It’s a perfectly good book, with a creepy subject and interesting characters, but having read more recent Nix it is just not up to the same stunning standards I now expect.

Oh Garth, will you ever forgive me?  For I have now read Mister Monday and yet again I am hooked.

This is what Garth Nix does:  He creates a world which seems totally authentic and yet surprises you at every turn.  He invents wonderful, memorable characters.  He puts those characters through hell.  And he scares the pants off you.

As you probably know, Mister Monday is the first of a series of seven – the Keys to the Kingdom series, so I have six more amazing experiences waiting for me – a thrilling prospect.  I don’t deserve it really.  Forgive me Garth, I will never doubt you again!

Review of ‘Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror’ by Chris Priestley

uncle montague's tales of terrorUncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley is a book I have had on my ‘to read’ list for a long time – so long, in fact, that there are now two more Tales of Terror in the series.  The book – aimed at 9-12 year olds though highly readable for anyone who doesn’t suffer from a nervous disposition – is a collection of short stories linked by a narrative which leads the reader through the book and into a final dreadful revelation about the storyteller, Uncle Montague himself.  The story is told from the point of view of Uncle Montague’s nephew Edgar, a sensible and rather sceptical boy who slowly becomes convinced of the truth of his uncle’s entertaining but disturbing stories.  Each tale is linked to a creepy artifact in Uncle Montague’s study, and the sense of menace builds up very nicely.  There is also a wonderfully scary trip to the toilet which reminded me of visiting the cobwebby downstairs loo at my grandparents’ house, although I didn’t have the pleasure of a rattling doorhandle (only when there was a queue).

The tales themselves work perfectly well as stand alone stories.  They are disturbing rather than terrifying (as a lily-livered adult and all round scaredycat, I believe I am susceptable to the same amount of fear as a nine year old child – I still hide under the duvet when I hear strange noises in the night!) but most are very gruesome and feature death, dismemberment and murder, sometimes of children, sometimes by children, so should be avoided by the squeamish.  But as the tension grew I was hoping for a big surprise at the end, something which would be even worse than the tales themselves.  The final revelation explains Uncle Montague’s situation, but, without giving away the plot, doesn’t involve Edgar as much as I had hoped and I was a little disappointed.

A very special part of this book is the amazing illustrations by David Roberts.  His line drawings are a pleasure to look at, even when they are illustrating some horrible subjects!  They are also included in the Kindle edition.

Writers’ notes

Priestley has definitely carved a niche for himself in children’s horror and he is able to conjure up a wonderfully creepy atmosphere in just a few phrases.  His technique of framing a series of short stories with a longer narrative is a rare one these days and makes the book easy to dip into while also building up the tension nicely.  His characters are ambiguous in terms of their morals and yet still sympathetic.  Priestley’s prose is traditional, literary and yet very accessible.

A note on the Kindle edition

I read this book on my Kindle and was pleased to see that the illustrations came out very well.  However, I do have a gripe with the punctuation.  Every section of speech that ends with a comma was written with an additional full stop at the end, like this:

“He tells me stories,.” he said.

I am very surprised that Bloomsbury can publish a book with this many errors in it, and I would be interested to know if the paper version also has the same mistakes.

Review of Coping With Chloe by Rosalie Warren

Coping With ChloeIt’s happened!  At last!  I’ve been sent my very first review copy of a book!  I received Coping With Chloe, due to be published on 21 March, from author Rosalie Warren yesterday.  It’s one of the first offerings from new children’s publisher Phoenix Yard, who are one of the publishers on my list who accept unsolicited manuscripts, and so I was very eager to read it.

Coping with Chloe is the story of a twin, or perhaps of two twins.  Chloe has died in a road accident and Anna is convinced Chloe now shares her body.  At first she is happy to have her twin with her, helping her with homework and looking out for her.  But after a while the experience becomes unpleasant as Chloe tries to dominate and gain the attention of Anna’s new friend Joe.

Anna’s experiences are ambiguous – the book may be read ‘straight’ or as an expression of Anna’s grief.  But although the story deals with some heavy issues – death, depression, physical abuse, the threat of sexual abuse – the author deals with the topics with a light, deft touch.  It’s not a traumatic read, and in fact has some very funny moments, mostly arising from the character of Anna who has a way of expressing herself that will be familiar to anyone who knows twelve year old girls.  I wouldn’t recommend it to a child who is bereaved as they may find the presence of Chloe a little frightening; it’s better read as a paranormal or ghost story.  The pace is fast and lively and would appeal to reluctant readers.  I especially loved the very recognisable school bully Lisa, Anna’s interaction with her father, and the subplot involving Joe which jerks Anna back into reality.

My only negative comment is that at one point Anna is followed by a man in a park who is a stereotype of the ‘dirty old man’ we tend to warn our children about.  It felt too hackneyed to be convincing.  The rest of the book I loved, and gobbled down in one greedy sitting.  Warren has a wonderfully light comic touch while being able to deal with real issues.  I look forward to reading more from her and from Phoenix Yard.

Note: an edited version of this review also appears on Amazon.