Friday, December 28, 2012

Films of the 70s: Part One

It's possible I may have been drinking on Christmas Eve. While holding forth on movies, I was challenged to back up my claim that there are 20 really great classic films from the 70s or possibly that there were 20 totally seminal films, or 20 really interesting films that cast light on what this whole cinema thing was about. So I went home, had Christmas, and some days later, having forgotten the exact criteria but knowing the number (20) I sat down with Wikipedia's List of Films released in the 1970s and made a long list of great, classic, interesting and other films that amused me to add to the list. I then had a quick glance down spotting actors and directors that immediately sprung to mind.

I first noticed that I didn't have any women in my directors and actors of the 70s, which is partially the 70s fault, but mostly mine. Barring time travel, the 70s can't put that right, but I can in a later post. However I straight away had two directors I had things to say about even if they're both men.

Mel Brooks

So what did Mel Brooks do in the 70s? He made some spoofs of venerable film genres, Blazing Saddles (Westerns) and Young Frankenstein (Old Monster movies) and two less famous Silent Movie (Silent Movies) and High Anxiety (Suspense Thrillers of the type Hitchcock was a master of). Apart from being pretty funny, what else ties these together? Part of it is the films' explicit knowledge that they are films and, as well as being spoofs, are still part of the tradition of these genres. In Blazing Saddles in particular, there is the awareness that it's being made 1974 and the implicit racism of the Western should be noted, in part because the consequences are still being played out in America. This, of course, is what gives the jokes their bite.

So my first film from the 70s: Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks continued to make spoofs and continued to hit and miss with them. Spoofs are being made even now, most notably by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. The comparison is not flattering for either Brooks or Friedberg and Seltzer. However as Blazing Saddles etc. were clear inspirations for later if worse attempts, I'm going to call  that innovative comedy with a lasting effect on cinema, along with being a self aware commentary on an existing genre.

Robert Altman

Back in 1970 there was another film that used comedy to satirise current events; MASH, set in a Korean War Army hospital that tapped into the growing American ambivalence to the war in Vietnam. It's director, Robert Altman, went on to develop a distinctive style which included:

- following the stories of several characters;
- naturalistic dialogue with characters talking over each other;
- not spelling out all the details requiring the audience to firstly pay attention and then infer things that were not seen or described ;
- allowing actors to improvise widely, which attracted many notable actors to his productions. 

Nashville (1975), set in the country music capital over several days, following various people involved in the country and gospel music business(es) from naive wannabes new in town, through up and coming stars, to old stars and to a beloved singer recovering from a burn accident, mixed in with fans, a British documentary maker and a political organiser for a third party candidate for the 1976 Presidential election. Wikipedia lists 25 characters, which just might be too many; Altman somehow keeps the film together throughout the craziness that ensues as all these people interact deliberately or accidentally. Every one of them has their moment and story and the finale combines tragedy, triumph, violence and gospel music that feels satisfying even though we leave most of the characters dangling. A unique film in which the actors mostly wrote their own songs; in fact Keith Carradine won the Oscar for Best Song.

Altman continued making films until he died in 2006; notable from his later career was Gosford Park, the inspiration for Downton Abbey.

Two down, eighteen to go. What comes next? Does Shaft make the top 20? Or Starcrash? Were there any female directors in the 1970s? Answers soon, when I've written them!

Sunday, December 02, 2012

I Read Dickens: Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit is big novel named after a small woman. It is about family, debt, bureaucracy, parasitism in public service, social standing and it's relationship to money, imprisonment, fraud, women who hate men, and, of course, love. It ranges over England, France and Italy. A few exotic elements of the European countries are introduced but mostly we are involved in English society, from the lowest (the debtors prison) to the highest (Peers and the great government institution of the Circumlocution Office).

Amy Dorrit, called little Dorrit due to her being small and having an elder sister, Fanny, is born in Marshalsea debtors prison. She is devoted to her father's - an inmate -  well-being. Later the family fortune is restored and Mr Dorrit becomes very eager to conceal their history of poverty. He insists on servants doing what she previously did for him. In case it's not clear, this is Dickens pointing out that money don't buy class, no sir, and insisting on respect hurts those who love you. Noticeably it makes respectable society respect him. Heh.

One character has a useful invention. To get it patented and in service to the country he applies to the Circumlocution Office. After years and expenditure, they tell him that the previous decision cannot be reversed. He tells them that there was no previous decision. They tell him to start again. There is some decent satire going on here. Thankfully reforms to the British Government mean this kind of thing doesn't happen any more. No, not at all. Never.

There's a lot going on here. I liked it quite a bit. The mysterious inheritance twist so beloved of Dickens I can for once believe to have been kept a secret, mainly because it is so convoluted and strange that trying to explain it to the following generation would have been extremely difficult. The fraud is not explained as clearly as in Martin Chuzzlewitt, and is a familiar twist on the one committed there, but still of interest.

Read This: For satire on society and bureaucracy, along with proper villains, noble self-sacrificing heroes, some Dickens women who make decisions to take action rather than having it forced on them, as well as the usual soap-operary twists and turns.
Don't Read This: My usual Dickens caveats - long, windy, old-fashioned prose; many characters defined entirely by two or three characteristics; melodramatic twists and turns. If these aren't your bag, shop elsewhere.
Available Online: A number of places including here.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Mountains Novel: Villains

Last year's NaNoWriMo novel is an complex mess of travel, storytelling, fighting and swears. I honestly don't know why I haven't tried to sell it![1] Anyway, November has rolled around so it's time to have another go. I've been a little more organised this year, with outlines and characters done in advance and nearly finished.  Having forced out 1700 words of story this morning, here's 3 villains, defined in the simplest storytelling terms: What do they want; Why can't they have it; and Why do we care?

Our Villains as the Story Opens

The Garnet Prince

What he wants: To be King of the World. To Marry the Princess. To be Respected and Feared by All

Why he can’t  have it: The High Kingdom controls the passes. The Princess doesn’t want to marry him; the King doesn’t want her to marry him; the King wants the Prince (his son) to succeed him; even the Vizier doesn’t want the Garnet Prince to succeed, though he’s willing to make concessions and make it look like he does in order to further his own nefarious schemes.

Why we care about the Garnet Prince: Show don’t Tell is advice they give you. Well, stuff that, I’m keeping him off-screen (off-page) and just have people tell you how cool/scary/dangerous/badass he is. There will be contradictory details. The most reliable witnesses will have the most outrageous stories.

The Vizier

What he wants: To be the power in the High Kingdom. To influence the King. To make the Prince dependent on him. To put his family into the offices of the kingdom

Why he can’t have it: The King is not quite past it. The Prince is hot headed. The Princess is smart and strong willed. The other nobles, especially the army officers, have too much influence on the institutions of the kingdom.

Why we care about the Vizier: He’s the Vizier! He has a magnificent turban, a goatee beard and moustache. He’s scheming and evil! But wait. He’s ALSO the man who makes the Kingdom work, who stamps out corruption when it gets out of hand, who turns the King’s whims into well thought out plans, who acts to make the Kingdom stronger.

Dead a Hundred Years

What he wants: What he wanted when he was alive: to be King. Also, he, like all the dead, has an unreasonable hatred for the living.

Why he can’t have it: He’s been dead a hundred years. Also there’s a King, a Prince, a Princess in the line of succession; also a Vizier standing in the way of any potential rulers; finally the Garnet Prince will annex the High Kingdom if everything fall apart.

Why we care: He's been dead a hundred years. Also unreasonable hatred of the living. What's not to like?

[1] Not serious.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Bond Music: Dr No

In belated tribute to Skyfall, which everyone and their Mum has seen although I haven't here are some thoughts on the most important bit of the Bond Films - the music. The opening sequence of Dr No.

This is the first Bond film and so the first time this music gets used. Things to note:
- The twiddly bit at the start of the main theme which is soon[1] lost, followed by a shot and the big band jazziness of that now over-familiar music. I don't know if I can ever recreate the feelings, which included shock and excitement, the first time I heard it. (It would have been a Roger Moore film, not this one)
- The weird, almost psychedelic dotty credits, and the way Dr No jumps around the screen. Crazy.
- Then it goes all bongo dance party! It says this film is going to the Caribbean.
- And a third change, to the pop-calypso Three Blind Mice, which moves us neatly into the first scene of the film (unless my memory of it is wrong).

What to make of it? It's a bit of a mess frankly - three perfectly good pieces of music, all of which would do fine to introduce the film, but just jammed together like me DJing. Still, this is par for the course, and I really like all those dots running around the screen like some kind of out of control computer program.

Also, Under the Mango Tree

More Calypso. They really wanted to use the music to localise us in this film. On an unrelated note, see the stunt sequence from 1.35 to 2.05. Connery and Andress run along a pier past a couple of dozen extras, climb down to the boat, have a brief fight with the guys on it, untie it and sail it away, all in one shot. Pretty cool!

Sadly I have less to say than I thought. Maybe I'll do better with From Russia With Love.

[1] Soon as in next year's From Russia With Love unless I'm mistaken

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

I Read Dickens: Christmas Stories

Hey haven't we been here before? I check and yes, I've already reviewed a collection of Dickens Christmas Stories back in June. But these are different Christmas Stories. It's like Christmas comes every year, and every year Dickens wrote something for the various publications he was involved with at different times! So what have we got?

In this edition some stories are frustrating, due to them being collaborations with other writers, and the chapters by the other writers are missing. In four cases we get Dickens start, and Dickens end and the middle is missing. The general shape of the middle is obvious, but a few details niggle at me. Not enough to make me go and search out full versions though. I can't recommend these.

We have a ghost story, which is not especially good. There's a slightly over sweet story about an orphan bringing people together into a makeshift family. There's some misunderstandings leading to people having adventures. And there's a funny but overlong comparison of railway buffet rooms in England and France, the latter of which "...there were - I do not exaggerate - actually eatable things to eat."  This, of course, from the point of view of the Mugby Junction refreshment room staff.

Read This: For completists really
Don't Read This: If you're already frustrated by Dickens better works

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"That's not destiny, that's a crazy scientist with a giant snake!"[1]

Watching Sinbad on Sky 1 I was idly considering how you'd make a Role Playing Campaign out of it. Musing on a Sinbad D&D hack I suddenly realised that this was the wrong way of looking at it. Sinbad is a Traveller[2] campaign transported into a fantasy version of the 9th Century Arabian Sea[3].

One of the classic Traveller campaign styles is to have the PCs on a starship and then fly about the place buying, selling, transporting, taking on odd jobs and going to weird planets to try and pay the running fees (including the mortgage, which I now find hilarious - we spend our time off work playing a game in which we scramble around to pay off the bank). The Providence in Sinbad doesn't have a mortgage[5] but several of the plots have revolved around lack of food, water and money to pay for supplies. In order to get hold of it... they sail from port to port doing odd jobs and encountering weird islands.

It's not a new thing to point out that the TV series that most looks like this style of Traveller campaign is Firefly - veterans on a trading ship doing subious work to keep it flying two steps ahead of the authorities. So I was busy comparing the details of Sinbad to Firefly when...

The passenger of the week explained that she had the secret of life and intended to make a new paradise of an uninhabited island. Sounds like the Genesis Device to me. But in that case...


[1] Spoilers!
[2] Traveller is a science fiction roleplaying game dating from the 70s and since gone through several revisions. Originally a generic game it has since become closely associated with it's official 3rd Imperium setting
[3] They're heading for Malta[4] next episode. I really hope that they just sail up with no explanation of how they got into the Mediterranean.
[4] Which is where it was filmed. I can't believe Malta will be doubling for itself!
[5] As far as they know! Their legal title to the ship is a little dubious.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I Read Dickens: A Child's History of England

1. Old History
This history is old school. It is about Kings and Queens, battles, dates, Bishops and Popes, nobles and laws. Occasionally a commoner becomes prominent to be named, and even more occasionally the common people as a group are mentioned, usually when they are being oppressed, or when laws are passed to stop oppressing them. A few times Dickens mentions technological advances, usually comparing them to the advanced infrastructure of his day (c.1850).

As a history of England, other countries make an appearance only when they impinge on our shores. The Pope, France, Spain and, especially, Scotland and Ireland, are regularly featured. I was pleased that Dickens gave quite a fair account of Canute and his successors; the Danish Kings seem to get short shrift in modern times.

As I said, it's an old school history about what kings did, rather than, say, an economic history about why they had those decisions to make and what the consequences were for the wider society. One reason why it's old school is, of course, that it was used as a textbook in old schools, apparently up to WW2 in some cases.

2. Think of the Children!
For Dickens, as a child's history, it must also be a moral history.  Dickens is not shy in declaring actions good or bad, and will then happily tell us that this makes the king (or queen) a bad person who did bad things or a bad person who did a few good things, usually forced to do so by parliament[1]. This includes some events which modern historians do not consider as cut and dried as Dickens does.

As a history for children there are a few events that are lightly glossed over. Not people being burned at the stake or being executed in horrific ways, that's educational. However some ladies are "insulted" and some king's favourites are "favourites" rather than favourites, if you know what I mean.

3. A History of Histories
You know, this was kind of interesting. I wouldn't go so far as to say that this book is the source of many historical stories that "everyone" knows, but Dickens' choice of which stories to tell, followed by the adoption of the book as a textbook, certainly seems to have influenced general knowledge of history in this country for nearly a hundred years. His occasional statement that he doesn't know some things but it seems likely to him gives the rest the stamp of truth, even for unproven and glossed over events.

I don't think I can recommend this as a history even as an introduction. As a historical curiosity though, it's amusing, moves along swiftly and not totally divorced from the facts.

Read This: If you're curious about old school history.
Don't Read This: If you're looking for unembroidered facts, or even a clear labelling and division of facts, analysis of facts, conclusion and opinion.

[1] He does approve of a few monarchs, but in general doesn't like most of them. Somehow he never draws the obvious conclusion from this.

Friday, August 24, 2012

I Read Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit

Both the theme and the plot of the novel is concerned with fraud and hypocrisy. The actual, technical frauds are generally pretty simple to explain. Mr Pecksniff, an architect, passes off the work of his students as his own. He also takes their fees, teaches them nothing and tell the world what a fine, upstanding, generous man he is, who unfortunately is blighted by ungrateful former students.

The Eden land fraud, in Dickens satirical version of America, is also simple. The land office shows a map of a bustling town out West* and sells you a prime plot for $150 dollars. You travel for several days upriver past such grand holes in the mud as New Thermopylae, to find that Eden is a swamp, and then you die of fever**.

The Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company is relatively straight forward in essence. It is a Ponzi scheme***, in which the early investors are paid from the premiums of later investors. There are a few flourishes that make it of interest. They offer loans, but then insist that the person getting the loan, and the two offering security for the loan, get policies; then having charged the maximum lawful interest they then charge for the bond, the secretary, the man who does enquiries. Their medical officer makes it clear that he is not a member of the company, so gets no benefit, but what a great opportunity it is. Also, they have very fine offices, and Montague Tiggs, or Tiggs Montague as may be, is a generous host and very active in talking up how rich he is and how his company is safe thanks to his large Indian estates acting as surety.

This links into the themes; that people who talk about their great moral probity may just be talking about their moral probity rather than doing some actual moral probing action.

Dickens turns a harsh, harsh eye on America. It is full of blowhards and ignorant people who nevertheless hold opinions and hold forth on them. The cities are filled with cheats and scoundrels, and the rest is wilderness. Slavery also takes a battering, juxtaposed with Americans, usually described as one of the most remarkable men in the country, talking about liberty, sometimes with violent threats. It is unsubtle and not as clever as Dickens' usual satire; the joke gets stale fairly quickly.

The satire of the Pecksniff's (Mr Pecksniff has named his daughters Charity and Mercy) is not exactly featherlight, but compared to the American chapters is at least well designed and moves the plot forward. As the family try to get in with Martin Chuzzlewit the elder, in the hope of becoming beneficiaries of his will, Mr Pecksniff strikes a disinterested pose in order to cut out everyone else. He mixes lies and truth to send everyone away from Chuzzlwit grand-père, then plots to marry his companion Mary, the very thing that he sent Chuzzlewit the younger away for. This is some pretty great hypocrisy.

Jonas Chuzzlewit, thinking everyone is dishonest, is naive in his roguery. When Tiggs/Montague explains the fraud of the Anglo-Bengalee etc. he then trusts him implicitly, never suspecting that Tiggs intends to blackmail him for his terrible crimes.

Meanwhile it all wraps up neatly, due to Chuzzlewit elder being more cunning than everyone else, in one of those annoying reveals that Dickens likes so much, but which seem cruel and arbitrary. All in all, enjoyable, if disjointed.

Read This: For some heavyhanded satire on America, and some interesting frauds
Don't Read This: For the usual Dickens reasons; longwinded Victorian prose, coincidences****, nonsense plots. Also domestic abuse in this one. Dickens does not approve.
More on Cons: The Ponzi scheme.
Online editions: One here from Australia.

* I need hardly tell you that the investors explain what a great opportunity it is, a bargain for the architects Chuzzlewit & Co.
** The surprising thing is that the township of Eden actually exists, although I suppose it's more difficult to get people to travel a week from civilisation if the boat captain has never heard of the place.
*** Although it predates Charles Ponzi. There are no new cons etc.
**** Many of the characters are members of an extended family, making some of the coincidences a bit more likely, as they have existing connections.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Abandoned Outline

Back last year I wrote a fantasy novel [1], which doesn't work for structural reasons. A heavy rewrite could probably solve that, but more importantly it has a problem in that our protagonists travel about for ill defined reasons to places where they can fight people and tell each other stories. If I was going to rewrite then I would do better to follow a tangent to my original story which will throw up an identifiable plot to follow earlier in the story and give the protagonists problems that deserve clever solutions and a more interesting climax. Hence I outlined and began Novel 2.0.

It's now a week later and I look at it, and it's fine[2] but I think I can make it cleverer and more interesting and weirder. So today's task, and probably for the rest of the week, is to take some elements from Novel 1.0, the outline of Novel 2.0 and other stuff that is just in my head and clever it up, give it some interest and weird it out.

While I'm at it, the outline is below. It is not self explanatory; it needs a character list, some geography exposition (maybe a map), and a couple of political infodumps to make sense of. By happy chance these are some of the things I will be writing weirded etc. up versions of as the week goes on.

Will I follow this story? I'm hoping that, at the very least, some good plot will drop out of my weirder, cleverer and more interesting people, places, situations and so forth; this may mean some minor changes or it may mean back to the blank page. Anyway, enough of this, time to weird up the Stennish[3]

[1] Currently enjoying the somewhat austere title Novel 1.0
[2] If the outline is tl;dr then it's In an empire shattered by a (now) dead general, man previously bodyguard to dead general comes out of retirement to be bodyguard to general's daughter who is having an arranged marriage to a barbarian warlord. Complications ensue.
[3] Current two word description: fantasy Huns.

Monday, July 30, 2012

I Read Dickens: The Uncommercial Traveller

(I am in the middle of a read of a set of Dickens that belonged to my Great Grandfather and now belong to my Mother. From scanning the spines it's pretty complete fiction-wise, and has some non-fiction; it may be his complete published works. We'll find out at the end when I compare it to someone else's list.)

The Uncommercial Traveller is a set of stories and reminiscences by Dickens in his character as an uncommercial traveller. As might be expected he travels about, but, rather than just being a tourist, he researches and interviews. It's like human interest journalism, except he changes the names (his home town of Chatham is referred to as Dullborough) to protect the innocent.

All in all, they're a mixture of fairly slight pieces, one of which is a very bad dinner at a (Kentish?) seaside town in an inn called the Temeraire, and the more serious ones which are generally about issues that have been resolved sometime in the last 140 years. Some of them were entertaining, some were interesting, most of them piled detail on detail to make their case, which is fine if a bit slow. Again I'd suggest this for completists, although some have historical interest as well. Dating from the last decade of Dickens' life, they are all pretty well polished.

Read This: Dickens fans will find out some interesting things - his love of walks, his insomnia, his passion for finding out details of places, especially London. There's a bit there for people interested in Victorian History.
Don't Read This: If the verbose Victorian style does nothing for you, or if the melodramatic discussion of tragedy or the lengthy domestic comedy of the period is not of interest.
Available Online: Here amongst other places.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Beginning is a Very Delicate Time

Here's an assignment we had to do for the Creative Writing Class: Take two pieces, one published, one by us, and rewrite the start to try and hook us in. After some false starts (I looked through Jim's book of H P Lovecraft short stories and EVERY SINGLE ONE WAS EXCELLENT) I went for the start of Ian Fleming's The Man With The Golden Gun.

The Secret Service holds much that is kept secret even from very senior officers in the organisation. Only M and his Chief of Staff know absolutely everything there is to know. The latter is responsible for keeping the Top Secret record known as ‘The War Book’ so that, in the event of the death of both of them, the whole story, apart from what is available to individual Sections and Stations, would be available to their successors.
-Ian Fleming, The Man With The Golden Gun

There are secrets so important to the Secret Service that only M and his Chief of Staff know them. Even very senior officers are not aware of all the contents of ‘The War Book’, the record kept so that, in the event of the death of both them, the whole story would be known to their successors.

Obviously this is just an edit, a tightening. It is my personal opinion that Fleming's pedantic attention to detail helps to ground the crazy ridiculous nonsense that Bond gets involved in. However, the story needs to get up some momentum before grinding away at this stuff. In other words my opening really ought to have been:
James Bond had been Missing in Action for a year before he telephoned Secret Service Headquarters.
or even
James Bond had returned from the dead.
before going into the details of what happens when you try to contact the public face of the Secret Service.

By the way The Man With The Golden Gun, Fleming's last Bond novel, is not great, but it is hilarious in parts. I honestly didn't think I could top my novel interpretation of Diamonds are Forever (In Two Parts) but the actual text of the psychologists report on Scaramanga is very funny, partly deliberately and partly not. I will return to this.

Onwards. Back in March I wrote a poem which I modestly called Genius.
I make a wish and know what will happen
In their own time things will come true, or not
We will only find out when now is then
The past is full of things that I forgot

In their own time things will come true, or not
My memories made of regrets and mistakes
The past is full of things that I forgot
I must hope that this time it's not a fake

My memories made of regrets and mistakes
I try to speak but my vocal cords cramp
I must hope that this time it's not a fake
Hands trembling I reach out and rub the lamp

I try to speak but my vocal cords cramp
We will only find out when now is then
Hands trembling I reach out and rub the lamp
I make a wish and know what will happen
I rewrote the start. Which knocked on to rewriting half the damn poem.
Make a wish not knowing what will happen
Things not true now will become so in time
Not sure of the what, but certain of when
My memory has no reason or rhyme

Things not true now will become so in time
The past has only regrets and mistakes
My memory has no reason or rhyme
I must hope that this time it's not a fake

The past has only regrets and mistakes
When I try to speak my vocal cords cramp
I must hope that this time it's not a fake
Hands trembling, I reach out and rub the lamp

When I try to speak my vocal cords cramp
Not sure of the what, but certain of when
Hands trembling I reach out and rub the lamp
Make a wish not knowing what will happen
This was considered by the class to be less successful; the lack of an "I" at the start defuses all the power. See, I prefer that the lamp rubber[1] not know what will happen, but others seem to think that is less important than identifying that this is something someone is doing rather than a general intention or instruction. Duly noted! Here's an attempt to preserve a. the scan, b. the I, and c. the line "When I try to speak my vocal cords cramp[2];
I make a wish not knowing what happens
Things not true now will become so in time
Not sure of the what, but certain of when
My memory has no reason or rhyme

Things not true now will become so in time
The past has only regrets and mistakes
My memory has no reason or rhyme
I must hope that this time it's not a fake

The past has only regrets and mistakes
When I try to speak my vocal cords cramp
I must hope that this time it's not a fake
Hands trembling, I reach out and rub the lamp

When I try to speak my vocal cords cramp
Not sure of the what, but certain of when
Hands trembling I reach out and rub the lamp
I make a wish, not knowing what happens
Reason and rhyme was not liked by some as it's a cliche, but I do. I think that the tutor's point that reworking prose usually improves it, but reworking poetry is more mixed in results was a wise one.

[1] Obviously the double entendre was pointed out. Poetry criticism should only be done by people with clean minds!
[2] Rub the lamp and vocal cords cramp are the two fragments that I built the poem around. Of course now I re-read and wonder if they could go the other way around.
I make a wish not knowing what happens
Things not true now will become so in time
Not sure of the what, but certain of when
My memory has no reason or rhyme

Things not true now will become so in time
The past has only regrets and mistakes
My memory has no reason or rhyme
I must hope that this time it's not a fake

The past has only regrets and mistakes
Hands trembling, I reach out and rub the lamp
I must hope that this time it's not a fake
When I try to speak my vocal cords cramp

Hands trembling, I reach out and rub the lamp
Not sure of the what, but certain of when
When I try to speak my vocal cords cramp
I make a wish, not knowing what happens
Originally the lamp went at the end of the third verse as that's the last new line in a pantun, so the last chance to change the poem. Since my go-to literary technique is the last minute twist I've focused on that as the revelation of what the pantun is about. Of course what this is about isn't actually rubbing a lamp, but fear, tension, uncertainty and fate, so the vocal cords cramping is just as good there.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Write What You Know: Feudalism Revisited

I'm taking a look at the unsatisfying NaNoWriMo fantasy novel I wrote last year. As part of that I have a few things to think about, some old, some new, and I'm doing some of it in public, here. So last December amongst other things I had this to say about feudalism: "In a feudal setting the greatest crime is to betray your lord."

Let's be clear on this; chivalry and honour are the bright cover on power coming from a naked sword. Nevertheless, that cover is important. One does not simply betray an oath. One works around it, obeys the word, not the spirit, blames it on someone else, claims one was under duress and gets the Pope to absolve you of it. You try your best to avoid giving it, negotiate the wording, bribe someone to interfere with the proceedings. You pretend ignorance, make excuses about the weather and the harvest, say you would have fulfilled your obligations, but... You don't flat out break the oath. Oathbreakers are accursed and damned. If you don't keep your oath, even in the breach, why would anyone take oath with you?

But what feudalism is really about is an exchange of land for service. The king grants land to his lords, who pay his taxes[1] and call up armies when he needs them. The oath is just the vehicle for this exchange. All the rest of it - powers of justice, decentralised authority, monopolies, rights to tolls, fish, hunt, graze etc. is about what you can do to run your land. So importantly, when we have the feudal system and oaths, we have chivalry, but we also have lawyers.

[1] This is more complex than it sounds. There are of course, regular taxes, tolls, dues etc. but to pay for wars and so forth, the King will often have to declare a tax at the very same time that his vassals are taking the most productive workers out of the fields to form an army. Not surprisingly this is unpopular at the best of times, and during the feudal period it was never the best of times. Worse than that; taxing income was not the usual way things were done, what with it mostly not being a cash economy, and dependent on the harvest(s). Instead a proportion of your wealth is what was taxed. Peasants, of course, don't own anything, so they don't have to pay a lot. Lords, who actually own stuff, do. However, you don't get to be a lord with lots of stuff by giving it away, so you get it back by squeezing the peasants, which is why they don't have much stuff in the first place.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I Read Books: The Old Curiosity Shop

Correspondence between yr humble scribe and Charles Dickens:



I have recently finished reading your novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, which was originally serialised in the publication Master Humphrey's Clock. I wish to congratulate you on your excellent depiction of attempting to deal with a relative with a gambling addiction, and your entertaining story of dealing with a man addicted to being a d---. I must also admire your craft in creating such a sensation in the public over the fate of Little Nell.

However, if I have one criticism, it is this; that the novel is distinctly lacking in badassery. If you could correct this in your next novel, which I believe will be serialised under the title Barnaby Rudge, you will have proved yourself not only the most Popular, but also one of the Greatest men of letters in the English language.

Yours Faithfully,

Neil W---




Thank you for your kind words regarding my recent work, which you have certainly read and commented on in a timely manner. Unfortunately due to the confusion in the date and the unsuitable language I will not be able to publish your letter.

I am unfamiliar with the word "badassery". In attempting to puzzle over it's meaning, I have broken it down. As for "bad", there are certainly several "bad" characters in the novel, notably Daniel Quilp, possibly the most repulsive of my creations. The word "ass" is more of a puzzle; a notable quadruped makes several appearances, but he is clearly defined as a pony. In addition, he is not so much bad as irascible. If you refer to the word metaphorically, then, again, Mr Quilp could well be an a--.

I will leave you with one final thought; as you are no doubt aware many people including close and dear friends of mine expressed an opinion on their desired ending of The Old Curiosity Shop before it's conclusion. In the end I followed my own advice, as I intend to with future works.

Yours Faithfully,

Charles Dickens.


For more of my Dickens reviews, most of which are more useful than this one, click here.
To read The Old Curiosity Shop online, click here.

Friday, July 13, 2012

You And Me Could Write A Bad Romance

So our Creative Writing Class spent the last two lessons on the romance genre. Obviously this degenerated into a discussion of pornography and Fifty Shades of Grey, slightly hampered by the fact that only two of us had read any of Ms James work that wasn't a selection. But that's not important. What everyone is dying to find out is what I find romantic. This question is not really answered here in this tripley titled piece:

Withdrawal Method
Caution and Precaution
Girl Trouble

It was a perfect summer’s day at the beach. The slight breeze didn’t disturb the sand and carried the salt smell of the sea to me. The blazing sun beat down on my back. I lay on the towel and waited.

“Gwendolyn, I... I built you a castle.”

I rolled over. It was impressive. Simon had made it nearly waist high, with a central keep and a dozen surrounding towers. It was decorated with flags and seashells. As I watched, he swung his spade, breaking a dam and water flowed into the moat.

“I built it because it’s a castle. For you. You’re, you’re my princess, and when we’re together it’s like a fairytale.”

He stopped for a moment. I looked at his thin figure, not shown to his best advantage in swimming trunks. He was just what I wanted, he did what he was told and had a good car. His only flaw was never getting to the point.

“Gwendolyn, I’ve been thinking about what you said. And, and I have an answer for you.”

Well at last! I’d made my proposal hours ago. I know girls shouldn’t take the lead in this kind of thing, but honestly, we’d never get anywhere if I had to wait for him. I sat up, took off my sunglasses and stared up at him, my eyes bright with anticipation.

“Gwendolyn, I... GACK!” The castle collapsed and sand sprayed across Simon’s face, into his eyes and mouth.

A tall, laughing, dark haired figure appeared in the ruins of the sandcastle. “How d’ya like that, bozo?” he said.

Simon wiped his face and put his glasses back on. “I, you... what do you...?”

The arrival stepped closer, towering a head taller, his powerful tanned torso contrasting with Simon’s pale skin. “Something to say shrimpy? I didn’t think so.” He turned to me.

“Hey gorgeous. How about we make like a tree and leave.”

I looked him up and down. “Do you have a car?” I asked.

“Like you wouldn’t believe.”

I stood up, brushed the sand from my long legs. I pulled my summer dress on over my bikini, adjusting the bodice over the bow on the front, pulled my golden hair back into a ponytail then picked up my bag. “Okay, let’s go.”

“But Gwendolyn!”

I looked down at Simon. “Sorry baby. But I think this guy can give me everything I want.”


In Joey’s red convertible we raced down the coast road. He drove fast and aggressively, watching me from the corner of his eye to see how I reacted. I was a little nervous.

“I think you should cool it a little Joey.”

“I don’t know what that dweeb did in his car, but this is how a man drives.”

“I know and I like it. But the cops sometimes wait out on the edge of town to catch speeders. I don’t want you to get in trouble, not when we’re only just getting started.”

He grinned at me, and eased off, so that we hit town at the speed limit.

“Can we go by the bank? I need to do something there, before it closes for the day. After that I’m totally free.”

“Sure baby,” he said, and pulled in right across the street. I checked my reflection in the vanity mirror, added a touch of lipstick.

“Wait right here,” I said. “I won’t be long.”

Smoke and flames followed me as I ran out of the bank. I threw the bag in the car and jumped in after it. Joey looked at me in shock. “What the hell happened Gwen?”

I smiled, white teeth between scarlet lips. “I had to make a withdrawal.” I pointed the gun at him. “I think you’d better drive.”

Sirens screaming behind us, we raced down the highway. I ran my fingers over his strong, manly hands that clutched white knuckled at the steering wheel. Looking at the blood stained banknotes that had fallen out of the bag I snuggled up to him, pressing myself against his chest, and kissed his strained, grimacing face.

“You know, I think this could be the start of a beautiful fucking partnership."
Official Soundtrack[1]:

Well, the first thing is that I have taken a lot of cliched genre-romance elements[2] and given them a twist, but I have twisted them so far that this is no longer romance. Secondly, I tried it with family friendly language, but the last section isn't as strong without the fucking. It has to be that word because by placing it out of usual adjectival order, after the beautiful, it implies both it's literal and metaphorical meaning. As was pointed out, in a film if we were using obscenity, then Joey would probably swear like a one eyed carpenter, or maybe a fishwife.

My use of first person was criticised. Mills and Boon, it seems, insist on a third person voice which influences the rest of the romance genre. By using first person I am hinting something is up. Interesting as I went for first person in order to make the surprise at the change stronger[3].

Several hints earlier make it clear that Gwen is very self-centred, making the twist more plausible, which was admired. The word "bodice", and the phrase "strong, manly hands" were suggested by my brother, who also had a couple of comments on the first draft. I may have used them in the rewrite, can't remember. I have juiced up the ending; previously the bank wasn't on fire and the money wasn't bloodstained. If I'm going with both real and preceived romance cliches, I should go with some crime and thriller ones.

[1] The actual song in my head while writing this was Guns 'n' Roses Sweet Child of Mine. Because we all want it, here's that very song being played on electric harp by twins.
[2] Some so cliched that they don't appear any more.
[3] One suggestion was that I went for first person because I want to be a woman. Well, you know, it's like Spain. I'd go there on holiday, but I wouldn't want to live there.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I Read Books: Moon Over Soho

1. The Preface, which is all about ME: This is a sequel to Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch, which I wrote a fair, restrained and generally positive review of back in January. I went out and bought Moon Over Soho and failed to review it for no very good reason. To celebrate the publication of the third book in the series I'm now going to talk about the second. IT MAKES SENSE TO ME.

2. The Premise, which is recycled from the first review: Our hero, Peter Grant, is a copper, a member of the Metropolitan Police Service. Having completed his two years probation he doesn't quite have the aptitude to be a thief-taker and is being considered for the Case Progression Unit (the department that deals with the paperwork). However he gets involved in a case with supernatural aspects and becomes an apprentice wizard. After the fall out of the end of Rivers of London he now works full time keeping the Queen's Peace amongst the uncanny and unusual.

3. The Mystery, which comes in three parts: There are mysterious deaths of Jazzmen, which is of especial interest to Peter as he is the son of London's least successful jazz legend. There is the case of the vagina dentata[1], which is foreshadowed in Rivers of London. Finally there's some other weirdness going down, which is a bit complex and spoilery. In addition Peter is up against Lady Ty, incarnate goddess of one of the Thames tributaries, who wants to put the policing of the supernatural on a more modern and professional footing, under her guidance of course.

4. The Backstory, which is of some interest: To spoil; once upon a time England and Europe had a number of thriving magical traditions. Then WW2 came along. The Nazis co-opted or killed the magicians of occupied Europe, and there was an apocalyptic battle in 1945 that wiped out most of the magicians on both sides. After this, there was no one left to run the magic school in England[2], and most of the survivors sank into the background[3]. Until now, when the magic is making a comeback.

5. The Humour, and also the conflict: Magic is (mostly) old school. Policing is an uneasy balance of old school and new school. Peter, of mixed race, is unhappy when his boss (born circa 1900) refers to the bad guys as 'Black Magicians', and suggests 'Ethically Challenged Magical Practitioners'. Magic also tends to break technology, leading to Peter to improvise some useful nonsense about an EMP. "What's an EMP?" asks his boss.

6. The Horror, of which there is sufficient: One of the characters was quite savagely injured at the end of Rivers of London. She only appears on page when Peter goes to see her, when it's heart wrenchingly tragic, but as she's convalescing - read bored - she's quite present, and still pretty sarcastic, in text and email. This is generally how the book handles these elements - light hearted and with humour, but not backing away from how terrible the events are. The work the black... I mean, the ethically challenged magical practitioners, operating without the moral code of Peter and his boss, have, and continue to do some very nasty things.

7. The Wrapup, in which I say whatever I couldn't shoehorn into one of the other sections, then repeat myself: Without intending to, Peter is clearly recruiting a new generation of wizards and auxiliaries. This is good, to help keep the series fresh, and possibly expand the scope. Aaronovitch, a former TV writer, seems to be putting together a larger cast of recurring characters, or perhaps he's simply putting in all the bits he likes but jettisoned from the first book to strip it back to stand alone. Who knows? I mean, until I (or you) read the next book. Or we could ask him I suppose. So anyway, 21st century meets policing, which combines IT data and forensic science with old fashioned boots on the street/ kicking in doors/ up the arse, meets magic, which has been in stasis since 1945. What's not to like?

Read This: If you liked the first one. Also if you like urban fantasy, London, police procedurals and all that stuff.
Don't Read This: If you don't read books. Also if all the stuff in the Read This bores you to death.
Also: The third book, Whispers Underground, is out now in hardback.

[1] Don't look this up at work. Or if you have castration anxieties.
[2] Which Peter refers to as "Hogwarts".
[3] We meet the archivist, answering the question of who reads the reports that the magic police write.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Horror 2: Mathematics

As noted yesterday, I had written a perfectly good horror story, but didn't present it at the first class, as we only had time for half the class and I was in Group A[1] who had gone first the previous time we split in two. Then on the Wednesday I got an interview for a Maths teacher training job, part of which was to give a 20 minute lesson on Prime Factor Decomposition. So I sat down and wrote a lesson plan, and when I was done I had this story in my head[2].

Prime Factor Decomposition

The white painted walls of the maths room looked very tall and were bare from head height to the windows by the ceiling. It was a perfect cube. Mark had found that out during a lesson when they measured everything. It seemed appropriate for the room to be a regular geometric shape, although they said it was just the way it had ended up when they turned the old gym into four classrooms after the accident.

“Prime factor decomposition,” said Miss Anderson. “We know what prime numbers are – yes we do Jack, don’t make that face – and factors are numbers that divide exactly into another number. Decomposition means to break down, so what we’re doing is breaking numbers down into the prime numbers that make them up.”

“Miss, why are we doing this?”

“You mean other than that it’ll be in your GCSE exam?” Every time she was sarcastic, her Australian accent got harsher. Mark wondered if she knew that. His mind drifted away from the room for a moment.

“... every integer – that’s whole number Billie – is made up of prime numbers. It’s axiomatic. Which means it has to be the case for maths to make sense.”

“Maths doesn’t make sense,” said Jenny in what she thought was a mutter.

“Making sense is the very thing that mathematicians have been working on for hundreds of years. If I have one pen and another pen then I have two pens. We can see that. But if we take the pens away, and just write 1 + 1 = 2, does that actually mean anything? Can we prove it logically, or is it just an improvisation, a coincidental observation? If I can’t prove it then one day I might take one pen, add another pen and end up with three pens. Then all of maths would need to be worked out again.”

“So you could have... maybe ... a four sided triangle?” said Gwen.

“Or a cube with 9 corners,” said Jack.

“Vertexes. No, vertices[3],” said Mark.

“That’s silly,” said Jenny.

“Don’t shout out,” said Miss Anderson. “Also it’s not just silly. It’s insane.
“If maths changed then the whole universe could transform itself. We measure everything with numbers. We wouldn’t know how many or much of anything there was. Time and space would change unpredictably. What we know – what we think we know – would be wrong and the world would seem to be a psychotic nightmare.

“But we’ve got distracted from the lesson. Find the prime factors of the numbers on the board.”

The class settled down to the problems. Miss Anderson walked up a row and stopped at a desk with exercise book and pen but no pupil.

“Where’s Jeffrey? I must have sent him to pupil services half an hour ago.”

Mark realised that he couldn’t remember Jeff going through the door. He did the thing with his eyes and looked into the ninth vertex of the room. He could see Jeff’s tortured face amongst the uncountable bones and bodies crammed into that space.

“I don’t think he’s coming back miss.”

(3 x 3 x 3 x 19 = 513 words)
I told the class the story behind the story and the tutor said she was glad something came out of lesson planning. This is, at it's heart, an old fashioned science fiction story with the science in this case being maths. It's also a bit of an homage to parodies of the Twilight Zone and the Outer Limits, where everything suddenly turns out to be completely nuts.

Although loosely based on my lesson plan, Miss Anderson deviates from it by talking about some of the philosophical underpinnings of mathematics. Bertrand Russell attempted to prove from rigorous logical axioms that 1 + 1 = 2, and thought he'd cracked it, but as it turned out he needed to use between one and three axioms[4] that couldn't themselves be proven. Of course, you can prove them if you take some other axioms, but as it turns out these axioms also cannot be proven without yet more... Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem proved that any logical system complete enough to handle arithmetic would always have unprovable axioms as part of it. Thank goodness Miss Anderson stops before she gets that far. Anyway, my point is that the story is mathematical-philosophically sound and you can't prove otherwise.

Some of this is based on real experience. As far as I know there is no classroom that is a perfect cube. The old gym being split into four classrooms is true, but there was no accident; it was because another building was being refurbished and so not able to be used for a term. Miss Anderson is borrowed from the largest shared universe of them all, real life, although she doesn't get distracted in this way in class, has acquired a fictional name and never lost a pupil into another dimension. If you're reading this, sorry Miss.

So the (creative writing) class enjoyed this. One of them wasn't 100% clear that verticies are the corners of 3D shapes. Do I need to re-write that part? I explain what prime factor decomposition is, get into the philosophical underpinnings of mathematics and put a twist in at the end all in 513 words which is pretty ambitious I have to say. Maybe I didn't quite get there on 3 dimensional geometry but I'm okay with that. The prime factor decomposition of the word count at the end amused most people.

One class member showed it to his 14 year old daughter who then showed it to some of her friends[5]. They liked it. The "uncountable bones and bodies" bit of ramming a joke against the horror was enjoyed by teenagers. Who would have thought! The main criticism from them was that you don't really get to know the characters. Well, hell, 513 words, two or three mathematical concepts to lead up to all of reality being broken and mass death. I'm sorry my character development isn't all there[6].

Finally, I didn't - couldn't? - write about something that actually horrifies me. So, like yesterday, I've combined things that concern and disgust me, and sidle up towards my fears without ever getting too deep in.

[1] A... for Anguish!
[2] Well... sort of. In fact I'd got the call on the Wednesday morning just as I was heading out and got email confirmation later that day. Being busy all day, I briefly revised Prime Factor Decomposition, went to bed and had crazy mathematical dreams. While eating breakfast I thought of all the things that could go wrong in a lesson. "That's a real horror story," I joked to myself. THEN I sat down to write the lesson plan.
[3] What the hell blogger? Your spellcheck wants to insist on vertexes as the plural of verticies? Both are actually okay!
[4] How many depends on which criticism I'm following at that moment.
[5] The prime factor decomposition lesson was for Year 9, who are 13-14 year olds, mostly 14 at this time of year.
[6] The word limit - 700 words - is pretty tough. My tendency to hammer home the story with a twist or revelation in the last paragraph, sentence or word means I am unwilling to just give the first part, so I wrote this as stripped down as I could, which I think has worked just fine, but does mean something has to give. In this case, we get a description of the classroom, a few clues about characters, but you have to fill in the class yourself. Hopefully most people reading this have been to school, or at least seen a school on television, so can fill in the blanks.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Horror 1: Celestial Mechanics and Tidal Forces

Introduction: The task from my Creative Writing class was to write a horror story of 700 words or less. As an additional challenge, or for those lacking inspiration, we could try and use the character we created earlier in the term. So I went away, and thought about what would happen if or when Lady Jane caught up with Heinrich von Schneemann and wrote it. It will make more sense if you read the linked stuff above.

However for these longer pieces only half the class present each lesson, and I was in the second group. Between lessons I had a new idea, wrote that, and decided I would let the others look at the second one. So for the first time ever I present:

Out of His Depth

Heinrich von Schneemann opened the door with difficulty and peered down the dark stairs. He couldn’t see to the bottom, but could hear water whispering. He flicked the switch outside the door and an electric light illuminated the room.

The air was damp with a slight breeze, with a faint hint of the marsh. Small dark shapes scattered across the floor, away from the light. When he reached the bottom the shimmering wet mirror of the floor rippled under his feet. He only just avoided soaking his patent leather shoe in a puddle.

The far side of the room was fully underwater, and the rough stone wall was pierced by a tunnel. Peering through a metal grate he thought he could see the full moon reflected on the river.

 “Good evening Mr von Schneemann. This is a curious room, isn’t it?”

Schneemann whirled around. At the top of the stairs stood Lady Jane. She had changed out of her dinner dress and was now in a sensibly cut dark blue suit with dull black boots. She held a handbag loosely in her hand.

“At high tide the water fills the room up to the top step. At low tide it used to be accessible by water before the tunnel was blocked. The door is, if not concealed, quite discrete. It is also thick and plated with iron on the inside, although that may be to keep rats from gnawing it rather than to muffle any sound. I do believe that General MacTavish’s ancestors may, shockingly, have used this hidden dock for smuggling.”

Her hard eyes belied her casual tone.

“Lady Glenshire. I did not expect to see you here.”

“No, you intended to meet the very foolish Ellen Conquest. She blabbed to her best friend, a slightly more sensible young lady, who is my protégé. It was a simple matter to substitute my note.”

Schneemann started towards the stairs. “Lady Glenshire, there has been a misunderstanding...”

Lady Jane produced from her bag a metallic object that shone in the electric light. “This is the Mark IV Webley revolver I carried during the Boxer Rebellion. As further misunderstandings would be unfortunate, let us simply take it as read that you have flattered, lied and blackmailed yourself into a position to destroy the Conquest family.”

“In my time in London society I have learned many things, my lady. About your husband for example.”

“His affairs are of no concern to me.”

Schneemann exploded. “Gottverdammt Englisch Schweinhund! You don’t know. What those people have done. To my mother. To me!”

“I know that your mother was made a scapegoat and disowned by her guardian, Sir John Conquest. That she fled the country and after some indignities became the mistress of Graf von Schneemann. That instead of being a scion of an influential English or noble German family you have been forced to seek your fortune around the world.

“I also know that in the name of avenging the injustice done to one naive young woman you plan to ruin another innocent young woman. I do not intend to permit that.”
Hearing the tragedy of his life so bluntly explained seemed to drain the energy from Schneemann.

“You have style, Mr von Schneemann, and if you had confined your attention to those responsible for your mother’s disgrace – and perhaps the footwear of ladies with more pairs of boots than sense – I might have been inclined to let events take their course. As it is however, this is goodbye.”

After turning and removing the key from the door Lady Jane stepped over to a rough table to scribble a note. Hearing a noise, she whirled, reaching into her bag.
“Jenkins! What are you doing out here?”

The hulking man servant bowed his head. “Miss Bedford insisted I remain close at hand my lady.”

“How sensible of her. I shall go and reassure her that all is well. Could you find an envelope for this, and put it in the post for Inspector Foxworthy, Scotland Yard?”

“I can go to the telegram office, my lady.”

“No, the morning is soon enough,” said Lady Jane. She walked to the wall and flicked off a switch. “There’s no hurry.”

Technical Notes: This is the version I edited down to 701 words from an original of 809. I have the 2nd draft of 744 words, but I thought I'd go with this one that I've stripped to the bone and polished to a fine sheen - the version I would have presented in class.

There is a problem with this scenario. I really want it to be a spring tide - higher than normal. Spring tides occur at[1] the full moon. For reasons of celestial mechanics and gravitational dynamics, at full moon high tide would be around midnight and noon, with low tide at six in the morning and evening.

The logic of the story means it should take place late at night, probably at midnight. The set up for the room requires that it should be low water when Schneemann enters, with the tide coming in over the next few hours, so he should enter at six in the evening, when everyone will be dressing for dinner, but that doesn't really work, or six in the morning which is kind of late for an Edwardian country weekend.

My solution is to assume that General MacTavish's house is on a river with a large tidal range that eventually has an estuary on the east coast. Such rivers in England have their tides later as the water has to move out of the Atlantic and up the Channel or down the North Sea and all the way upstream. The Thames would probably do, but someone has stuck London where I want a country house set in a lonely marsh.

Character: Schneemann's backstory was always something along these lines. He is not just a shoe obsessed conman, but bent on revenge. His slightly camp, war-comic style German swearing was previously admired by one of the class, whose mother is German, so I put a bit more in here.

The question of what would happen if Lady Jane came up against Heinrich von Schneemann came up as an aside in class. Clearly no one would go home happy. I had in mind a classic superhero meet-fight-team up, but the idea of horror, along with Lady Jane's amorality in True Crime, had her lock him in a flooding room.

Your interpretation of what happens next is as good as mine, but I reckon he doesn't drown, and even with the efficiency of the Edwardian Postal service Lady Jane probably has a good eighteen hours to force her own resolution on the responsible members of the Conquest family. They will not enjoy the experience. After that, Schneemann may go to jail, or it could be that Lady Jane has need of a man of action with a subtle mind dealing with her business interests in China or India...

[1] Or slightly after.

Friday, July 06, 2012

I Read Books: The Lost Fleet: Beyond The Frontier: Invincible

1. Covers.
So here we are, again reading a Jack Campbell space opera and again having a pop at the cover. And why not? Even the author has a go in this one.
He felt himself smiling. "Can you at least avoid calling me Black Jack while you're making your money by selling the story of our time together?"

Tanya shook her head. "Nope. I'm sure marketing will insist on it. I can just imagine the kind of book cover they'll insist on. Some really heroic pose by you doing something you never did, probably. Maybe in battle armor. With a gun."
- Invincible page 318

Hmm. The UK cover of Invincible has spaceships shooting at each other overlaid with targeting marks, which does better represent the contents of the book, although Geary sitting and thinking or having a meeting with a small group might actually be best, assuming Titan books didn't actually want to sell any copies. Other countries covers are interesting; Poland goes from baroque Warhammer 40K style armour, through 80s action hero singlet, to dystopian police state riot gear. Some change in art direction there.

The ship mentioned in the title is both thematically and literally referenced; possibly the most strongly used title in the story since Dauntless.

2. Quibbles. Also Spoilers.
Seriously man. Seriously. Geary and Desjani are married and in the same chain of command (Geary as Commanding Admiral, Desjani as his Flag Captain). This is acceptable. Sexual contact between them is against regulations. I would have thought the emotional relationship would be more destabilising - the conflict between marital relationship and the military one, as well as the difficulty of having to order someone you love into danger[1]. Something is screwed up[2] here. Of course, as becomes clear, Fleet Headquarters and the Alliance are screwed up.

3. Aliens. More Quibbles. More Spoilers.
So at the end of The Lost Fleet: Beyond The Frontier: Dreadnought the fleet is lost again; having crossed through several systems of the Enigma race who have done their very best to remain mysterious, they ended up trapped in another star system inhabited by another alien race.

This race, eventually known as the Kicks, are classic uncommunicative killing machine aliens. With, of course, the twist that they are herbivore herd animals, that look like metre tall teddy bear cows. As herbivores, they don't negotiate with carnivores, they form a phalanx and run them underfoot.

The alien expert's analysis and Geary's inspiration for fighting them seems just a touch pat. They're herbivores, so they stampede and charge. Still, my argument, that the way we fight is based on our enemies[3], seems to have been anticipated; the situation that the Kicks live in would not tend for them to innovate.

In general the alien analysis and communication takes place off page. Partly this is due to Geary's developing confidence in delegating, partly due to the fact that the details of translation, important as they are, are less interesting than the content of the message.

The other aliens in the novel work okay - the enigmas continue mysterious but malignant, the other race adaptable and elegant, although curiously lacking in one particular common item[4].

4. Endings and Sequels.
 Campbell's next novel gives us the story of what happens in the Syndic worlds following the end of the war. Are we slightly spoilered, or just teased by the end of Invincible? Only one way to find out I guess. Or perhaps wait until October for The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight.

Campbell[5] assures us that there will be more Lost Fleet novels. Geary is running towards a dangerous selection of conspiracies, many aimed at him, some at those around him and even more worryingly, others acting in his name. Can he return his fleet with honour and convince those who fear him to just stop without any shooting? Can he even sacrifice himself without becoming a martyr and causing the very civil war he wants to avoid? Geary and the series is at his best on the bridge of a starship, but a close second is navigating the shoals of honour and duty. Campbell might just pull off the best novel in the series. If he does, we all win. If he doesn't I'll bake a cake in the shape of the book and eat it, so I win, and maybe I'll put pictures up here so you can enjoy it too[6].

[1] By banning shipmates from having sex, you run the danger on board relationships will be hidden and become abusive. This may be an acceptable trade-off for a difficult situation.
[2] Or not, as the case may be.
[3] Or our perception of our enemies.
[4] Due to the continuing equipment failures on the fleet, I suspect that half the ships are being held together by that commodity.
[5] In his guise as Hemry.
[6] I wasn't sure how to end this, so just riffed off eating the book for a bit.

Friday, June 29, 2012

So This Just Popped Into My Head

"If anyone knows any reason why these two should not be married, let them speak now."

There was silence.

Damn it, though the bride, and married the man she loved second best in all the world.

Afterword: I have not the least clue where this came from, but it's a pretty good hook, or possibly a fine ending.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

I Read Dickens: Reprinted Pieces

In the back of  of the volume which contains Dickens' Christmas Stories are his reprinted pieces, a compilation of stories, fables, political commentary, satire, straight reportage and delirious mixtures of the previous. Most interesting are his interviews with detectives, as they tell stories about crimes they have detected. His report on a night following a policeman and heading up and down the Thames on a police boat is also fascinating.

Less so are his overly extended political satire. Most successful is probably his story of how a man got a patent, which involves passing documents back and forth through a dozen offices with each one charging a fee or two or three. A fable about Prince Bull who is constantly having trouble with his red-cloaked godmother Tape is mildly amusing until we realise that this is about the Crimean War.

There's a few cute or clever ideas amongst the rest of the stories, but for the most part it's for completists and victoriana enthusiasts.

Read This: The police pieces, especially The Detective Police are of interest; for the rest only if you really love Dickens.
Don't Read This: If outdated satire, police procedure and slighter stories aren't your bag.
In Addition: His review of the cattle markets and abattoirs of Paris is awkwardly framed in the claims of a London councilman opposing reform of Smithfield market; he tries to take seriously the claim that copying the French is wrong because they eat frogs and wear clogs rather eat beef and wear leather, but can't sustain it. It is an interesting failure called A Monument of French Folly.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

I Read Books: Dickens' Christmas Stories

On with my surprisingly thorough read of Dickens' published works, and to celebrate the super long June Bank Holiday I've read his Christmas books. First, most famously, and best is A Christmas Carol. Spoilers ensue, although it's been published for 168 years, it's not long, you can find it online, and it's been made into films many times, so really you have no excuse.

Miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former partner[1], who warns him that three more ghosts will turn up. They proceed to do so, showing Scrooge the true meaning of Christmas, which it seems is to eat, drink, have fun and spend your money in the most flamboyant and conspicuous way possible. Scrooge finds this much more fun than being miserly and bitter, as his money isn't doing him much good anyway, so it's kind of a win-win. One interesting point is that Dickens goes out of his way to make us sure that Marley really is dead, and so really is a ghost; this is one of the starts of the modern ghost-as-speaking-character thing. Dickens is already co-credited with the modern detective novel. Is there no end to his influence[2]?

Next is The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In. In this story Trotty Veck, a courier, has to pass some messages around the worthies of the district. These people have a very low opinion of the poor[3], causing him to lose faith in people and the future. Then he hears the bells chime, climbs the tower and there is informed by the goblin attendants of the bells that his loss of faith caused him to fall, and show him the future results of this, which are universally bad. Trotty then wakes, the bells chime for New Years Day and his daughter gets married. This is not as successful story-wise as A Christmas Carol, probably because although Trotty's sin (despair) is much the same as Scrooge's, Scrooge's worst enemy is himself, whilst the establishment is all against Trotty and the hope he's given is less all encompassing. Scrooge saves his soul, and Trotty saves his, and probably a whole bunch of others as well, but it all feels on a much smaller scale. On Boxing Day Scrooge can spend money and make everyone happy; on 2 January Trotty and family will go back to work, slightly better people. All in all too realistic an ending[4].

The Cricket on the Hearth comes next. John Peerybingle lives with his wife, baby, clumsy comic-relief nurse and a cricket that acts as a guardian angel to the family. He is a carrier, and during the Christmas season delivers a bunch of stuff including an old deaf bloke and a wedding cake to a toymaker who will be marrying a young friend of Peerybingle's wife. The old deaf bloke turns out to be a young guy in disguise, and in a sit-com style misunderstanding, Peerybingle's wife appears to concealing this and is having some kind of affair. Up all night by the hearth, Peerybingle initially feels murderous, but under the influence of the cricket decides to be gracious and just turn her out[5]. Then it turns out the young guy is actually the fiancee of the wife's friend, thought dead in South America. They get married, and the toymaker initially somewhat nonplussed sends the cake, as he doesn't need it, then, thanks to the True Spirit of Christmas joins them and becomes much happier. This is good clean Dickens-lite fun - everyone redeemed, last minute weddings, people returned from the dead. I quite liked it.

I continue to be puzzled by The Battle of Life. The title refers to a great battle that took place where the events of the story take place and it has had an effect ever since[6]. There are two sisters, and one is due to be married, but then appears to elope. Six years go by and the other sister falls in love with and marries the fiance. Various other characters have moved on and generally improved their position, then the other sister returns to reveal that she actually went to her aunts to get out of the way of her sister. Then there's an ending, which is happy? Like the previous one, this kind of sit-com situation would be much more quickly and easily resolved if they talked to each other. Especially the sisters, who are supposed to be close.

The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain, the last of these has the most interesting idea at it's heart[7]. Redlaw is visited by a phantom twin who offers him the chance to forget all the pain and suffering in his life, and this will be contagious. Following this Redlaw, and everyone he comes into contact with, becomes a giant arsehole, because they have forgotten how bad things feel, and also as part of it, how their family and friends helped them in those times. Fortunately Milly Swidger, Redlaw's servant, is so completely and absolutely perfect a woman that she is immune and everything goes back to normal thanks to the True Spirit of Christmas, although everyone is chastened and less of an arse. That losing your memory of bad things makes you act badly is pretty clever.

Read This: A Christmas Carol is a classic. The others less so; The Battle of Life and The Chimes in particular can be skipped by anyone except Dickens completeists. They're all pretty short so take a chance on them if you like the sound.
Don't Read This: If the True Spirit of Christmas is already in your heart. Plus all the other stuff I wrote on previous Dickens novels about the style and random plot events.
Read Online: Links arranged on this page, as I'm too lazy to track down five links.

[1] Business partner. It's not quite that progressive.
[2] Apparently not, as Scrooge saying "I am as merry as a school-boy. A merry Christmas to everybody!" helped popularise the phrase 'Merry Christmas'. Bah, humbug.
"Divide the amount of tripe before mentioned, Alderman," said Mr Filer, "by the estimated number of existing widows and orphans, and the result will be one pennyweight of tripe to each. Not a grain is left for that man. Consequently, he's a robber."
Trotty was so shocked , that it gave him no concern to see the Alderman finish the tripe himself.
This is very poor political economy, and not Dickens' subtlest work.
[4] For a magically-real allegory.
[5] For all my irony, the difficulty and problems of divorce in the 1840s mean he is being gracious.
[6] Based on what happens, I can only assume that it makes people choose the most roundabout way to solve matters of honour and discretion.
[7] If only because time travelling ghosts are much more familiar to us thanks to the popularity of A Christmas Carol.

Friday, June 01, 2012

This Writing Is Criminal

Three weeks of update from my creative writing class. My excuse, such as it is, is that all three are linked, and the next one won't be. So let's get on!

Firstly we were given the task of creating a character based on three attributes that we pulled out of various envelopes; one a physical description, one a non-physical description and one an occupation, hobby or preference. Mine were Cheeky; Exotic and Wealthy Looking; and Passionate About Shoes. It was suggested that we try and keep them serious.

This is not based on anyone I know.

Heinrich von Schneemann

Heinrich von Schneemann arrived unheralded in London society one evening. Presumably he had an invitation to Lady Glenshire’s soiree – it was inconceivable that he could have got in without one – and he certainly livened it up. One moment it was the usual people with the usual gossip and the next he was there, resplendent in a white dinner jacket, his dark lustrous hair swept back to reveal a noble brow, pale eyes and a dagger of a nose. His cologne smelt of autumn, a dangerous scar marred his cheek and his voice was rich, dark and bitter as coffee.

“Shoes!” he said to Miss Fortesque-Gordon. “I must talk to you about your shoes.”

Within moments the usually serious and reserved girl was laughing merrily at his stories. An admiring circle formed around him that did not break up until carriages were announced. The evening was declared a great success, marred only by some confusion in the cloakroom.

Schneemann was to be found wherever the right people gathered. Young men were thrilled by his tales of adventure that hinted at exploits that might be frowned on by their parents. Young women were romanced by the mere sound of his voice and lost themselves in his pale eyes. Rumours abounded; he had fought slavers in the Sudan; he had discovered a silver mine in the Yukon; he was the natural son of the Kaiser.

It was inevitable that he would be asked his opinion of the curious theft of Lady Smith-Smythe’s wardrobe. “A most unusual crime, and a most unusual thief,” he said. “The hats, the dresses, the shawls and coats – all tailored to fit her ladyship’s... unique figure and useless to anyone else. But the footwear – boots of Moroccan leather, patent leather court shoes, and – oh! - the jewelled sandals – these could be sold, gifted or perhaps simply admired by a connoisseur.”

Schneemann himself was always perfectly shod. It was only later, after the events at Ascot, that his mysterious past, his passion for shoes and his easy way with ladies combined to make clear the full extent of his malice.
As can be seen I made him a villain. The class thought he was some kind of cheap conman, but I had in mind someone working towards their revenge. Time to beef up his threat!

Of course for the next week we had to take our serious character and write some comedy about them, preferably from their point of view.

The Greatest Thief In London

From the corner of his eye he sees her past the unclosed door. Her blond hair drawn on top of her head is decorated with roses, bringing out the colour of her faintly pink cheeks. In the electric light the strawberry and cream dress matches her complexion. He can hear her laugh, like a tiny silver bell ringing in an unexpected draft.

Heinrich von Schneemann drags his attention down to where Miss Bedford removes the most exquisite pair of boots he has ever seen in order to change into dancing shoes. His plans for the evening - the invitations to gather, the secrets to confirm, the miscreants to threaten - slip from his mind. "They gleam like dark jewels,” he thinks. “I must have them even if it costs me my revenge."

He watches as the boots are put into a pretty fabric covered box. It is labelled, and put away in the cupboard behind the cloakroom. He forms a plan.

Moments later he had gathered some supplies and approaches a footman with a package in hand. "Excuse me. I had brought this for Colonel Campbell, but it appears he has been detained. Could you keep it somewhere safe for me?" As expected his package is put into an identical box, labelled and added to the shelves in the cupboard.

After a brief furtive visit to one of the backrooms he joins the party, making his presence obvious. As the time approaches ten o'clock he manoeuvres his way towards the entrance. The clocks chime and the lights flicker and die.

They are quickly restored, but the mood of the party is broken. Schneemann is the first to arrive at the cloakroom. The footman hands him his hat, coat, gloves and the package.

Safely in his cab, Schneemann can hardly contain himself. A daring theft, under the noses of London society, conceived and executed in a mere thirty minutes. He opens the package.

"Gott in Himmel!" he cries. "I didn't go to all that trouble to steal these. What use do I have for Lady Fanshawe's priceless diamonds?"
First criticism is that I mention the word "package" too often. Also, what with some other members of the class using smut, innuendo and double entendres for comedy, the perfectly innocent phrase "...a footman with a package in hand" slipped out as something that bright 14 year olds might snigger at. The punchline was much admired.

No one spotted that the crime, as described, couldn't have ended as it did. Either Schneemann has a bumbling assistant[1] which would lead us down one path, or, and I favour this, in this upper-class Edwardian world people gossip about your country weekend if no daring jewel theft, murder, scandal or elopement takes place. So Schneemann's boot theft has accidentally got caught up in someone else's jewel theft.

I assume that Schneemann's package contains racy French novels, probably inscribed as the property of Duke of Mirkshire.

Lastly we began with some detection in class, in my case investigating a building then added a crime.

True Crime

“Come along, dear.”

Katie Bedford danced across a water filled wheel rut. “I don’t want to ruin my boots. I’ve been through three pairs this month already.”

The abandoned building loomed up from the muddy grass, the dark stone barely distinguishable from the mist. High above bare rafters showed where the roof had fallen in. Although it had finally stopped raining the air was full of moisture.

“Lady Jane, what’s so interesting about the ruins anyway? The house is called Stanworth Abbey. This must be the old abbey.”

Lady Jane turned around, one hand holding onto her hat, her elegant grey coat swirling about her. “An abbey? What about the windows?”

“What windows? Oh! There aren’t any. So this wasn’t an abbey. A fortress? A prison?”

“More likely a warehouse. Now come along. I promised your mother I’d look after you.”

Katie pouted. “I don’t need a chaperone for a country weekend with the McTavishes. I’m nineteen!”

“That’s exactly why you need someone to keep an eye on you my dear.”

The doorway was partially blocked. Peculiarly the wheel ruts they had followed lead straight there, then stopped. Lady Jane tapped her umbrella thoughtfully against her boot.

“There’s a gap. I can climb in,” said Katie, hitching up her skirt and preparing to do so. She paused a moment, then pushed and pulled at the bricks. The pile swung smoothly open.

“A secret door!” said Katie, wide eyed in excitement.

Lady Jane peered into the gloomy interior. Inside the door was a hurricane lamp on a table, which she lit with matches from her handbag. The two women could see several dozen wooden boxes and a small desk with a cardboard folder on it, all protected by a tarpaulin roof.

Katie found the lids were nailed down. Taking a crowbar from the ground she struggled to open a box for several minutes before discovering the trick of it. Inside were several bottles.

“Grand Vin de Chateau Latour, Premier Grand Cru Classé, 1899. It’s wine Lady Jane!”

“Hmm?” said Lady Jane, deeply absorbed in the contents of the folder. “Well of course. The stuff McTavish served last night was barely drinkable.”

“Someone has been stealing General McTavish’s wine, and selling it. No one can interfere with the wine cellar without the butler knowing about it. I thought he looked shifty. We should have the police lock him up.”

“What?” Lady Jane looked up in alarm at the mention of the police. “No, no. Firstly that would be a great scandal and your mother would never let me hear the end of it. Secondly, the replacing of McTavish’s claret could never have happened without his noticing. He served in the Scots Guards after all. Thirdly he has always lived beyond his means, so a little surreptitious wine dealing for undeclared profits is no surprise. The documents make it all clear.”

Katie was disappointed. “So he’s selling his own wine? That’s the mystery? I don’t even think it’s illegal.”

Lady Jane stared at the naive girl with pity. “Really my dear. Serving an inferior vintage is always a crime.”
I've rewritten the line that the class didn't like, because it annoys me now and is sloppy. Katie Bedford is, of course, the Miss Bedford whose boots Schneemann attempted to steal above in The Greatest Thief in London. Lady Jane is also Lady Glenshire who previously appeared as Carstair's client in The Case of the Purloined Pornography (Part 2 here. Both parts are Safe for Work, assuming that your work allows you to read rather silly detective stories).

[1] One other, risky option would be to bribe, blackmail and/or threaten a servant.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

I Read Books: American Notes and Pictures of Italy

More Dickens, in this case non-fiction travelogues. American Notes gives some details of Dickens' visit to America and Canada in 1842; Pictures from Italy some of his impressions of his time travelling in France and Italy in 1844. In each case Dickens has minor adventures and tells us about the various methods of travel, which I found to be very interesting. Humorous characters of differing levels of comedy make an appearance, including, of course, Dickens himself, who we laugh at as well as with when he misunderstands some local situation.

In his trip to America, Dickens is interested in institutions and society. He visits hospitals, prisons, school, homes for the blind and disabled. Also newly built industrial towns, courts, government buildings. On his trip to the White House he meets the President[1]. He makes observations on all of these, approving of much, and criticising what he considers failures. Due to his celebrity status nearly everybody is happy to let him see everything he wants, the most obvious exception being when on a plantation the owner ignores his request to see the slaves eating dinner.

Slavery is Dickens main criticism of the country, and he takes on a few of the contemporary arguments for it. His list of runaway slaves, taken from the newspapers, has as distinguishing marks on nearly every one scars, brands and missing fingers and ears. How mysterious that they would run away.

Also criticised are the press, and the habit of chewing tobacco and spitting everywhere, except in the spittoon of course. This was a particular problem in the White House it seemed.

The travel is fascinating. The usual method of travelling from city to city appears to be to get on a steamboat, head up or down river to a railhead, or sometimes to where coaches will pick you up and take you on a very bad road to a railway station, ride the railroad to a river, get off and cross by ferry, get on another train, or possibly coach, and so on until you mostly get to where you're going. Each journey, and each stage of each journey, has it's own individual quirks to do with classes of travel, sleeping arrangements, food (lots of meat, even for a carnivorous English Victorian), drink (travelling through dry areas is a particular hardship) and connections.

Travel in Pictures from Italy is similarly difficult and important, but much less varied. Dickens mostly travels in his own coach on roads which vary from fair to bad. Every now and then he goes by steamship, and once there is a rail journey. This being before Italian unification, there are many borders to cross in his travels. Dickens is much less interested in the government and institutions of Italy - they're mostly bad - and more of a tourist looking at sights and events. He often gets up early and takes long walks to see things of interest.

There are a odd bits - seeing people on Good Friday going up a staircase on their knees[2] he says "I never, in my life, saw anything at once so ridiculous, and so unpleasant, as this sight - ridiculous in the absurd incidents inseparable from it; and unpleasant in its senseless and unmeaning degradation." This is a little disconcerting as earlier in the chapter he has been to see a public execution where a man was guillotined.

All in all these are interesting and well written travelogues of 1840s America and Italy; Dickens as travel writer has much the same strengths and flaws as Dickens the novelist.

Read This: For stories of 1840s America and Italy seen first hand.
Don't Read This: If you don't like Victorian prose, or aren't interested in America or Europe in the 19th Century, or prefer reading things that come to conclusions or have strong plots and themes rather than having some bloke just wandering about looking at stuff.
The Re-read: Click here to see the whole of it.
American Notes for General Circulation online. Pictures From Italy online.

[1] It's John Tyler, perhaps best known for being the first to succeed to the presidency after the death of the sitting president.
[2] This staircase being the one that Christ went up to be tried by Pontius Pilate.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I Read Books: A Tale of Two Cities

1. Dan Brown Eat Your Heart Out

My Dickens (re)-read has now reached A Tale of Two Cities, not just Dickens' bestselling book, not just history's bestselling novel, but according to the methodology adopted by the Wikipedia List of best-selling books page [1], the bestselling book ever. This is what it's all about people. Forget the characters, psychology, the foundations of the detective novel, the zany plots, the evocative descriptions, the campaigns for social justice. Dickens has sold 200 Megacopies of this one novel. You've got to respect that.

2. The Fellowship of the Best of Times

This will be more spoilery than my previous reviews, which I hope is okay for a 153 year-old out-of-copyright novel available from many good bookstores and for free on the internet[2] which has sold more copies than any other book. Anyway, compared to most of the Dickens novels I've read so far it has a much cleaner plot, smaller cast of characters, and, in fact, less pages and words. Could it's brevity be part of it's popularity? That and many other points are covered in this, the last in a series of essays on the top 10 bestselling books from that Wikipedia list I referred to earlier.

Anyway, we open on the road from London to Dover, where Mr Lorry is on his way to France. He meets with Lucy Manette and reveals that her father, Dr Manette, is not dead, but has been a prisoner in the Bastille for many years. He has been released, but has gone mad, obsessed with making shoes. They find him in the care of the Defarges, a husband and wife who were previously his servants, but are now wine shop owners and clandestine revolutionaries. Dr Manette initially doesn't recognise anything, but eventually compares Lucy to her (dead) mother and is convinced to journey with them to London.

3. A Tale of Two Towers

In part two we find ourselves at the treason trial of Charles Darnay at the Old Bailey. He has been framed, but is got off partly due to intervention of the self-loathing barrister Sydney Carton, who discredits some testimony by revealing himself to look almost identical to Darnay[3].

In Paris, a Marquis who is so posh that he needs four men to serve him his morning chocolate, runs down a child in his coach and tosses the father a coin. At his estate he meets his nephew, Darnay who is so ashamed of his families inhumanity as aristocrats, he has changed his name and moved to England. That night the Marquis is killed by the father. Sometime later the man is caught and hanged, above the village fountain which poisons the water.

Darnay returns to England and becomes the successful one of three suitors for Lucy Manette's hand. The other two are Darnay's barrister from the trial and his partner Sydney Carton[4], who promises to "embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you"[3]. Darnay reveals his family name to Dr Manette on the morning of the wedding which triggers a brief relapse, but Dr Manette soon recovers and Lorry and Miss Pross the housekeeper destroy the shoe making tools.

The Bastille is stormed with the Defarges in the lead. Following a comment of Dr Manette, M Defarge investigates One Hundred and Five North Tower. Meanwhile the Darnays have had a daughter (also a son who died) and have formed an extended family that includes Dr Manette, the bachelor Lorry, the housekeeper Miss Pross and (sometimes) Carton. Lorry is called to Paris to deal with the branch of the bank that he works for, because things have got a bit tricky what with the French Revolution. Then Darnay gets a letter from the agent/tax collector of his uncle who has been seized for being part of the ancien regime, although many years ago Darnay instructed him to only collect the Kings taxes, not rent or anything else.

4. The Return of the Worst of Times

Darnay goes to Paris to testify in favour of the agent but is arrested. Dr Manette, Lucy and family come to Paris to try and free him. As a skilled physician, former inmate of the Bastille, and friend of the influential Defarges, Dr Manette is greatly respected by the Republican authorities. However Darnay is nevertheless imprisoned for more than a year. He's finally tried, Manette gets him released and then he's arrested again that same day.

At the second trial Darnay is denounced as the new Marquis and Defarge reveals what he found in the Bastille - a manuscript written by Dr Manette that details the crimes of Darnay's father and uncle and that Manette was locked up to hide the truth. Darnay is sentenced to the Guillotine.

Carton then engineers an escape, taking the place of Darnay while forcing Darnay to take his carriage seat. In the end he finds redemption in the form of accepting his latent Christianity before being executed.

5. A Far Far Better Review

So we have secrets, conspiracy, a love story, legal dramas, redemption, rapid changes of fortune, unrequited love and sacrifice, not to mention Dickens' trademark concern for social justice - pay attention guys, because if you don't learn this lesson, the Terror could happen here too. Still bestselling book of all time? It's not that this is a bad novel - overwritten and melodramatic in that Dickensian/Victorian style as it is, it's still pretty cool - but it's no Bleak House or Great Expectations. Perhaps that's what makes it appealing - it's Dickens stripped down with a sleek plot and compact cast of characters. It's also a historical novel - of a period almost, but not quite out of living memory in 1859 when the book was published. It was late in Dickens career, when his reputation was unmatched in the world of English Letters. I don't know. I was expecting more somehow.

Read This: If you like to read Dickens, and want to see his version of a streamlined historical potboiler. Also if you like knitting.
Don't Read This: If you don't like 19th century fiction at all, or if your favourite part of Dickens are huge casts of wacky characters with funny names and convoluted subplots of dubious likelihood. Also not too many jokes in this one.
In Translation: There's a literalness to the translation of characters when they speak French. This is mostly fine, but sometimes a bit clunky.
Available online for free: All over the place, but here's Project Gutenberg.

[1] "This list is incomplete, since there are many books ... which are commonly cited as 'best-selling books' yet have no reliable sales figures."  "Religious books, especially The Bible, the Qur'an and the Bhagavad Gita are probably the most-printed books, but it is nearly impossible to find reliable sales figures for them. Print figures are missing or unreliable since these books are produced by many different and unrelated publishers. Furthermore, many copies of the Bible, the Qur'an and the Bhagavad Gita are printed and given away free, instead of being sold. The same goes for some political books..."
[2] If it's not okay, I suggest that you stop reading this post and complain in the comments. I will treat any such criticism with the respect it deserves.
[3] This is an important plot point.
[4] Carton, alcoholic and depressive, actually declares himself too dissipated to be considered, but, you know, if anyone could have saved him from his life of iniquity... Frankly that's not really the declaration you should make to a woman about to be married. Also, seriously, what is his problem? He's a good detail lawyer who wastes his talent as the partner of a brilliant trial lawyer? In some circles we call that a law firm. He drinks too much, but he seems pretty high functioning. If he has other sins, the hints are too subtle for my 21st century brain to pick them out. I can't help thinking that he needs some anti-depresseants, or possibly (and within the capabilities of an 18th century gentleman) just a change of scene, more exercise and a healthier diet with a minimal amount of booze.