Monday, 21 November 2011

Book Review: 'The Secret of Chimneys' by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie, one of the greatest mystery writers of all time - some would say the greatest - was one author whose works I found too creepy to read when I was a kid. (I have to blame this on my sis; she used to feed me Christie's stories when we were alone in our room at night with the lights turned off etc - and when images of dead bodies and children being murdered while bobbing for apples can be quite traumatising and scar one for life:D)

Anyway, when my interest in Agatha Christie was rekindled some time back, I found myself picking up The Secret of Chimneys  as a starting point, wondering what I would find inside. I expected lots of crime and dark shadows, villains and knives.

I wasn't disappointed.

Christie works these elements as only the best storytellers can. What got me hooked though was the addictive narrative, the humourous, witty turn of the tale following Anthony Cade's footsteps as he assumes the identity of a friend to deliver the memoirs of a foreign Count to London publishers.

That manuscript... It caused such a stir before it was even published that I felt a bit jealous of the Count:)

You see, every political party from the small European nation of Herzoslovakia wants to get their hands on the Count's memoirs, afraid of the secrets that would be revealed by it. As a result, the story becomes a delighfully sinister (yes, I too never thought those two words could ever go together:D) romp through London and then to the English countryside and Chimneys mansion, complete with political intrigue every step of the way.

There are attempted (and successful) assasinations, little gibes at Sherlock Holmes (I could almost see a sardonic smile on Agatha Christie's lips as she put those in) and, of course, intriguing personalities that Christie flushes out so very well.

The characters in the story are very much what makes the book so interesting, so I won't go into too much detail here for fear of spoiling anyone's experience of it:) Let me just say that Anthony Cade was witty and amusing, Virginia entrancing, and Superintendent Battle became an unexpectedly pleasant surprise of a character (no doubt meant to be yet another dig at detectives with the personalities of Sherlock Holmes).

A mention has to go to Chimneys' owner, the ninth Marquis of Caterham. I couldn't help feeling sorry for the beleagured fellow as he reluctantly allows foreign office minister George Lomax to bully him into using Chimneys once again as a base from which to support the cause of British hegemony in Europe.

At the end of it all, The Secret of Chimneys was a really addictive book. I just kept turning to the next page, and laughing out loud when I least expected to. That's the best kind of book there is, don't you think?

I understand now why Agatha Christie's stories are still in print, and voraciously read, after all this time. They're entertaining, witty and atmospheric; who wouldn't want to read something which packs such an enjoyable punch, especially on a dark and stormy kind of day (or night)...

Chimneys has been a cool introduction (re-introduction, really) to Christie's writing. I have to say I'm encouraged to read more of her work now, so it's on to The Secret Adversary for me!

I hope you enjoyed this short review:)

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Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Don't Let Confusion's Illusion Win The Fight

If there’s one thing that should be feared, it is one of fear’s roots: confusion.

It’s quite a pleasant-sounding word. It even seems somewhat bashful in nature.

But it's misleading to define confusion in such simplistic terms.

It can be a powerful foe, especially when it comes to those with the potential to change the world. Some illustrative examples come to mind.

The confident writer reads extremely scathing reviews, believing them to be the truth. Of course, this would clash with the writer’s own imaginative vision, causing confusion. The writer dare not write anything else because he or she is afraid that future works would also not be met with success. Thus ends a possibly flourishing career.

This could well have been the story of Robert Browning, Rudyard Kipling, J.R.R.Tolkien and many others, if they had chosen to water the seeds of confusion.

A bright young person completes his or her tasks in very strange ways. His/her ways work extremely well, but they are unusual, and generally shunned by society. Society’s fear of the unknown seeps into our young person, who feels confused and upset at what he or she now sees as 'strangeness'. This person now begins to do things in the ‘normal’ way, and does not give in to his or her very real impulses to create and invent.

How many of you see this as the possible end to the genius of Einstein, Van Gogh, and countless other brilliant minds?

Couldn’t there have been an equally premature ending to the stories of Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Ghandi, and Florence Nightingale? Yes, these stories could have ended before they had begun. Instead, we have an Africa freed from apartheid (officially, at least), the end of black slavery, a non-violent sight of independence, and a healing dedication to nursing.

There’s a healer who loves to heal, preacher who loves to preach, teacher who loves to teach, and student who loves to learn among us, all around us and - perhaps most importantly - in us. There is also the capacity for great confusion in clashing values, cultures, perspectives and priorities.

Let us not forget that giving in to confusion means giving in to an illusion. It saps us of the energy and might to do what we know in are hearts to be right (and I’m not condoning here the actions of suicide bombers and the like). And it dilutes our power to fulfil our potential as beings of creative change.

Don’t let an illusion rob you of the reality that this life could be. Confusion simply isn't worth the claims it makes. Staying focused on your dreams and passions is a far more powerful bet.

After all, dreams have only ever been able to come true for those who believe in them:)

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Thursday, 10 November 2011

Live long and prosper, to all:)

Kirk and Spock off to uncharted worlds in search of excitement, adventure... alien sleepovers...:)

How can anyone not know what I speak of?

Yes, of course, the wonderful series that is Star Trek:)
(I'd better qualify that this post will only deal with the original Star Trek series)

Publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy and
William Shatner as Mr. Spock and
Captain Kirk.

Well, how on earth can I possibly summarise such an excellent, excellent series in a single post? I guess I'll begin by saying that Star Trek is a science-fiction feast for anyone who's remotely discovery-inclined.

The series is premised on fascinating journeys by the crew of the Starship Enterprise into previously unexplored galaxies, searching for anything and everything that exists out there.

And if the plot isn't enough to make one salivate (remember, it was the first of its kind; Star Wars came just a bit later), the characters are brilliant.

Publicity photo of
William Shatner as
Captain Kirk.

First off, there's the Captain of the Starship Enterprise, Captain James Tiberius Kirk.

The original Kirk, played by William Shatner, was brash, impetuous, entirely woman-ogling, and always humorous; oh, and he could kick some mean alien and human butt when he had to.

Kirk's charm lies I think in how human he is, not too smart, not too dumb, and above all, a fine counterpoint to his second in command, Spock.

Leonard Nimoy speaking at his
panel at Emerald City Comicon
March 13, 2010, taken by Kelly Walker
(from Wikimedia Commons)

Ah, what can one say about Spock? The First Officer of the Enterprise, he's by far my favourite character in the whole series, played beyond excellence by Leonard Nimoy.

With pointy ears and a logical disposition, Spock is a mixed Vulcan-human who looks remarkably like an elf (the Lord of the Rings kind) lost in space; an elf with a phaser instead of a bow and arrow, and an uncomfortable suit instead of uncomfortable LOTR elf clothes:D.

Spock's attraction lies in his unthinking elegance, his faithfulness to logic, and his constant struggle to live up to his logical Vulcan ideals despite his capacity for human emotion, something brought out most of the time by Kirk's obvious influence on him. Being half human and half Vulcan left Spock some scars, carefully and logically supressed. But it's Spock's traumatic past and unusual roots that ultimately help him to mix logic and emotion together whenever it's necessary (read: whenever it suits him and saves Kirk/the Enterprise).

There is an endearing sweetness to Spock, a sweetness that somehow contradicts not at all with his enigmatic expressions, incredible strength, the Vulcan mind meld and, of course, the split finger salute that I am now programmed for life with ('Live long and prosper' is equal to 'May the Force be With You' in my mind).

Hmmmm, this post is getting too focused on my favourite character, isn't it? Okay then, on to the others ...

Walter Koenig played the Russian officer Pavel Chekov, no doubt a chracter introduced (during the Cold War) to signify a united world on Earth, where the US and Russia now work side by side to explore the world outside this planet.

Hmmm, speaking of unity, I've always found it particularly cool that Star Trek helped to shatter both racial and gender boundaries for American TV. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, was one of the first black characters on American TV, and one of the first black women on American TV. And of course, she and Kirk shared TV's first interracial kiss.

Right, I can only make a mention now of the ship's Dr McCoy/Bones (played by DeForest Kelley). He was Spock's main nemesis on the ship, and his presence made Star Trek reruns so worth watching.... simply to witness the many humorous, sarcasm-filled conversations between these two characters.

Moving on... George Takei played Hikaru Sulu, a representation of Asia and Asians in the crew. Reading up on Sulu's character, I discovered an explanation of how his surname was arrived at by Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry - seems Roddenberry wanted to represent the whole of Asia in Sulu's character, and (looking at a map) noticed that the waters of the Sulu Sea touched all shores of Asia. Am unsure whether this geographical tidbit is true technically, but it's still an inspiring way to find a name methinks.

Lastly, who can forget Scotty (full name Montgomery Scott, played by James Doohan), the ship's aptly/strangely named engineer (apt/strange because he actually was Scottish, with a Scottish accent to boot hmmmm).

There's nothing much to add, I think. Star Trek was one of the most visually, intellectually and emotionally satisfying rides on TV, if one could suspend disbelief at the thought of pointy-eared aliens and warp speed, something I managed to do with no effort at all. The show was simply brilliant in so many little ways that many people would be unaware of perhaps until they start thinking of the world as a kind of universe to be explored with our very own danger-courting starships

Man, I loved - still adore - Star Trek so, so much, despite having apparently 'grown up' as they say. Can't thank Gene Roddenberry enough for creating a series which feeds the mind and heart so generously.

I'm just glad that most of the follow-up series' and movies - though unable to top the original series, in my mind - have for the most part given a realistic, believable take on an imaginative world beloved by so many, and done justice to the spirit that Star Trek embodied: the enthusiasm and courage to go where no man has gone before.

Live long and prosper, all:)

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Monday, 7 November 2011

Procrastination - The Thief of Time

As I sit here writing this blog post, I'm painfully aware of trying not to outline a presentation I'm giving very soon.

It's a horrible feeling in my bones right now - knowing I have to write it, but knowing I just really, really don't want to. I'd do almost anything to avoid knuckling down to that presentation outline. Almost anything. Really. I'm not kidding here.

Sigh, eventually, I'll write it, of course. I always do catch up to my sense of responsibility no matter how much I try to flee its smirking presence. In fact, I do my best work under pressure.

But why then do I indulge in such procrastination? Why am I always late for every appointment? Why do I hate the bare idea of 9-5 jobs, let alone the real thing, and end up smilingly late for work on most days (I still deliver a stellar work performance though, for any prospective employers reading this:D)?

Hmmm, I really don't know why I delay things so much.

Someone once told me that procrastination is a thief of time. I'd never looked at it that way before. I guess I've always seen my time as my own, as belonging to me, copyrighted by my goodself, merely lent out or licensed to employers, friends, family, as and when necessary:)

Right now though, it feels like me delaying my responsibilities through aimlessly surfing the net, or prolonging dying conversations = me perversely giving away my free time to that thief called 'procrastination'!

Hmmmm, I suppose that writing this post is another form of procrastination, isn't it?:) Ye Gods, this is a difficult habit to break.

Maybe if I keep reminding myself that procrastination is trying to master my nature, it will be easier for this rebellious individual to allow her aversion to authority to kick in and rescue her from such thievery.

Hmmmm, I have to get to that presentation... I really, really have to.

Time is so precious... So easily stolen... I have to guard it well...

What was I talking about again? Oh yes, that dreaded presentation...

I'd better get started.

Yup, I will, I will... In just a minute.

Ah, well... I'm sure I can fit in a short visit to some favourite online worlds first:)

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Saturday, 5 November 2011

Battling the Crutchword Curse

It's one of those things we do without thinking. Awkward silences bring forth um's and ah's, followed by crutchwords that pepper everyday conversations in an effort to fill the gaps in our vocabulary. My pet crutchwords tend to revolve around connectors relating to time - 'after a moment', 'then', 'and then'...

But, yes, I'm sure my use of crutchwords spans a wider range than this in reality:)

Unfortunately, writing - like speech - is often infected by this very same malady: the curse of the crutchwords.

Hmmmm, 'curse'. Strong word, that. But they really are a bit of a curse, aren't they? I mean, though crutchwords oil the wheels (a bit like comfort food ha), they always seem to result in lazy dialogue. Especially on paper.

Crutchwords can make a passage turn boring in the blink of an eye. The same words repeated every so often is the perfect recipe for stale writing.

Stale writing... Every writer shudders at the thought.

The thing is, writing - good writing - is crafted. It's really not everyday dialogue.

Even though the first few drafts of a work might feel like an ordinary conversation, depicting plot, character and voice on paper is very much a conscious task. Whether in terms of word choice, emotive limits, or any number of a million little things that make us tweak and jab, worry and erase, write and write and write - writing is so blatantly a craft.

Crafting involves shaping, exploring - sometimes breaking boundaries - but consciously so. In this conscious effort to craft however, a scene in one's head, so beautifully created and held, can be diluted painfully in translation.

Words used to compose the picture of one's story - the 'right', most accurate, words - are often woefully absent in one's mind just when you need them the most.

The writing process can then become one of desperation (for some) in balancing perception with execution.

This is the moment when most writers find themselves relying on crutchwords. They get you through difficult passages before you forget important elements of your mental image; you get at least the basics of your imaginative vision down before it's gone forever.

So, why worry about crutchwords at all? They seem to be a pretty serviceable tool, hmmm? Why are they such a plague in writerly minds?

The problem is, many writers aren't aware they're using crutchwords. I know I'm not. I definitely can't sieve them out of my work right from the beginning, not when my piece is still being formed, still being grown and layered in my mind. Even after a first draft is written, obvious deficiencies can easily escape me.

Maybe my imagination is still brilliant at this point with the image I've tried to depict. Unlike a first time reader of the story, maybe I'm engaged too strongly in the imaginative world underlying the story to detect its obvious flaws.

I guess that's why perfecting and re-perfecting the drafts of a work is so important to writers like me. The need to redraft often, polish often, is perhaps a need that will diminish in intensity the more experienced one is at the craft of writing. But until one reaches that 'higher' level of experience, it's probably beneficial to let a piece of writing - like wine - breathe before you visit it once more.

What I know for certain is, leaving my writing untouched for a week at least almost always guarantees me seeing it with new eyes. At this point, I can easily spot crutchwords that would have been invisible to me before.

Hmmm, how shall I conclude this post? I started out by seeing crutchwords as a curse, something which makes a writer's masterpiece flawed and terrifyingly monotonous. But I think that's only half the story.

After all, crutchwords don't pretend to be anything they're not, do they? ... Just a shoulder to happily lean on until one's writing legs have worked out their kinks.

I suppose, at their most basic level, crutchwords are merely a symptom of a larger problem: unpolished writing.

But, you know, the great thing about recognising the symptoms of a problem is, it becomes so much more solve-able than when you didn't know it existed:)

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Friday, 4 November 2011

Book Review: 'Lolita' by Vladimir Nabokov

When I finally picked up Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, it was for two reasons.

I'd been curious about the controversy surrounding the story for the longest time, one which centred on the book's plot:  a middle-aged man's attraction to a sexually precocious 12 year old girl.

My second reason was a passage from Lolita that I'd come across in a book on writing tools; a passage that was written so beautifully, so economically, so evocatively, so damn well in fact, that it piqued my interest and made me wish to discover more of the voice Nabokov had created in this infamous story.

I guess this is where I quote the passage that caught my eye in the first place. I wonder if it will grab you and never let go the way it did me.

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita."

These lines set the stage for protagonist Humbert Humbert's unhealthy obsession with 12 year old Dolores Haze, to whom he affectionately *shuddering with distaste here* awards the pet name 'Lolita'.

Soon, we are introduced quite intimately to the desperate, near-monochromatic world of seduction, corruption and self-indulgence that makes up Humbert Humbert's entire world view. And we are made to watch with a kind of horrified fascination as his sometimes hilarious methods to obtain the object of his infatuation come closer and closer to success.

Humbert Humbert's ruthless manouvering into Lolita's life (to the point of becoming her stepfather) and the subsequent swift unravelling of her world - and his - occurs with a deft, graceful hand.

But what surprised me most about Lolita was the sheer honesty in Nabokov's writing.

Nabokov isn't pulling any punches here. There is no pretence. This story is blatantly about the sexual attraction felt by a man for a child.

Yet, Nabokov handles his tale with the touch of a master. There is no explicit erotica, not in the modern sense of the word anyway; matters which occur under the sheets are hinted at more than painted in excruciating detail.

It's the emotional pain of the participatants in this tragic travesty of familial life that is so well drawn out. The  pain of innocence betrayed is breaking at the seams throughout the book. This, if anything, is what can make Lolita such a difficult book to read; it's impossible to remain removed from the plight of Nabokov's remarkable characters.

Young, vulnerable and precocious Lolita is gradually stripped of her freedom and innocence through choices quite beyond her control. And - in the saddest way - though it is impossible to sympathise with Humbert Humbert, there is definitely a sickening sense of fury and horror at being faced with the existence of this damned, selfish and utterly weak-minded personality who is so enslaved to his desires that he doesn't hesitate to wreck the lives of those too powerless to defend themselves from him.

Vivid and elegant prose aside, Nabokov's grasp on the dynamics of the human personality, his sensitivity to nuances of abuse, manipulation and deception that are often ignored, misunderstood or - sadly - left unvoiced by victims and onlookers alike, and his courage to tackle a subject that was taboo for reasons that are truly beyond me (shouldn't the protection of the defenseless be a priority over issues of potentially erotic subject matter?) has been eye-opening to me.

As a writer, and as an individual, I feel a renewed responsibility to speak for those who don't have a voice to fight for their freedom from abusive situations/relationships.

Lolita's storyline is one of perversity, yes, but it is a perversity which not only reveals the unreliability of the source of the story, Humbert Humbert, but also society's wilful turning of a blind eye to matters that disturb its clean and shiny persona.

Issues concerning the lack of care/protection of children is woven into the entire story in tiny, veiled glimpses, both in terms of Lolita's youthful confusion and heart-breaking need for a truly loving family, and in Humbert Humbert's clearly predatory attempts to make her his own.

At the end of the book, we are left to wonder: where was the rest of the world as this single individual systematically betrayed a child's trust in the most dissolute way under our very eyes?

Suffice to say, Lolita has surpassed both my curiosity and my expectations. Disturbing, thought-provoking, so well-written I couldn't put it down... Lolita is one of very few books that has succeeded in turning the story of a monster and victim into a subtle, personal lens on the way our world works to hide uncomfortable truths.

A subject that is so very distasteful is infused with authenticity, truth and a subtle undercurrent of blame towards those who take the innocence and care of children for granted despite the existence of predatory, diseased minds among us.

I've come to the conclusion now that Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is one of the best books I've ever read. Chilling, and written with power and perception, this is Lolita. If the subject is within your comfort zone - or maybe even if it isn't - do give Lolita a read. I'm certain it will be a book you'll never forget.

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Thursday, 3 November 2011

It's NaNoWriMo time!

National Novel Writing Month 2011 has just begun!... Well, earlier this week anyway:) I'm finding the whole thing quite exciting. I've never participated in NaNoWriMo before. For one reason or another, I just never felt attracted to the concept.

Write 50,000 words of a novel in a month, and you win NaNoWriMo!

No emphasis on 'quality', genre, verification of whether you're cheating or not...

Yes, it seems quite superficial, doesn't it?... Except when you think of those two small things we call Freedom and Entertainment:)

Not to mention the impetus to utterly destroy the awful impulse to procrastinate *shudder* that so many of us writers suffer from ugh!

This year, I find myself flirting with NaNoWriMo - maybe even going on a first date with it (haven't registered on the site yet, but the wheels are definitely turnin' in that direction!)... The more I think about it, I can see why the idea is infectious to writers of all stripes. NaNoWriMo's basic philosophy is creative at the most visceral, genuine level. Namely: Get your butt in the chair and write.

Yes, it requires discipline. Yes, focus is a must. But, well, it's so damn fun, isn't it?

You're not writing with the goal of publication. You're not writing to illuminate the human condition. You're not trying to be original. You're not even trying to entertain.

You're just trying to write.

And, hey, if your book happens to create the germ of an idea for NaNoWriMo success stories - such as the novel 'Water For Elephants' by Sara Gruen - who's to complain?:)

Right now, nothing sounds more attractive to me than NaNoWriMo. It really does take all the pressure away, and channel it into a crazy race to cross the 50,000 word finish line in 30 days. No mean feat that.

And, hey, if I do cheat a bit and apply the NaNoWriMo spirit to a fun novel I've already begun but been procrastinating with for ages now... Hmmmm, it's gonna be a marriage made in heaven, don't you think?;D

Ah, November's going to be a very interesting month. I really can't wait to hit that 50,000 word mark.

Here's to everyone who's getting plugged into the spirit of NaNoWriMo 2011!

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