Book Review — Ship of the Line

It’s clear to me now:  reading C. S. Forester’s series of Horatio Hornblower novels in the wrong order is not the way to go.  After reading Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1st in chronological order, 6th one written in the series) some time ago, I just finished Ship of the Line (8th chronological, 2nd one written).

I listened to the Books on Tape version of the book, narrated by Geoffrey Howard.  This novel features Horatio as captain of the 74-gun HMS Sutherland.  He is shown as being more in love with Lady Barbara Wellesley, wife of Rear Admiral Leighton, than his own wife Maria.  He struggles to find enough sailors to man his crew and is forced to settle for untrained ruffians.  Once his ship is fully manned, he conducts a series of attacks to harass the French forces on coast of Spain.  He chaffs under the incompetent leadership of his squadron commander, Admiral Leighton.

If you know little about the British Navy of the early 1800s before reading the book, you’ll feel like an expert afterward.  Forester gives just the right amount of detail for a reader to picture the scene without getting bored.  There is also so much to admire in Hornblower himself.  His strengths (bravery, audacity, cleverness) make him the perfect naval hero, while his weaknesses (jealousy, tone-deafness, and obsessive self-criticism) don’t detract from his professional life.  If, like me, you skip from Hornblower as a midshipman to Hornblower as captain, you’ll marvel at his maturity and the traits he’s taken on.  Geoffrey Howard did a fine job with the book’s narration.

I wish I’d read these books while I served in the U.S. Navy.  Actually I couldn’t have, for I served during Hornblower’s time period, long before Forester even wrote the books.  Seriously, all Navy personnel can learn much from Hornblower’s decision-making methods, his boldness, his tactfulness, and his leadership style.

There were things I didn’t like, however.  Hornblower’s jealousy, his secret love of Lady Barbara, and his disdain for his own wife were off-putting.  Hard to maintain sympathy for a protagonist like that.  I was dissatisfied by the book’s ending.  Without spoiling it for you, let me say this was more like a long chapter in a huge book than an integrated novel in its own right.  The ending of a book ought to resolve the main conflict in some way.  This book’s ending seemed to resolve nothing.  But it did set things up for the next novel.

Using my world-famous seahorse rating system, I give Ship of the Line four seahorses.  I enjoyed it a lot, and you will too.  For these nautical stories, you should just take my word for it because, after all, I’m–

                                                                           Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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Hurrah, Hurrah, Hurrah for Steampunk!

You may have heard the term ‘steampunk,’ a word I’ve used in several blog posts. Perhaps you’re wondering what it means.  The word sounds vaguely repulsive with that ‘punk’ part, as if it’s something distasteful you’d want no part of.

At first the term referred only to a genre of literature where stories take place in a time or setting where the primary technology is steam power.  The word arose when science fiction author K.W. Jeter sought a term to apply to novels then being written which seemed to have branched out from science fiction into their own subgenre.  In a letter printed in the science fiction magazine “Locus” in April 1987, he proposed the term ‘steampunk’ taking a cue from another genre called ‘cyberpunk.’

Since cyberpunk is dark and gritty, very dystopian in outlook, some assumed steampunk should be the same way.  Many consider a story isn’t steampunk unless it not only takes place in a steam-powered society, but also uses the seamy side of that society to make a corresponding point about some weakness in our own.  That would be the ‘punk’ part.

However, an interesting thing happened after that airship left the station.  It seemed these authors had tapped into something deeper and much stronger.  Steampunk became a style, a philosophy, a way of life.  Readers loved the steam, not the punk.  It took off in popularity, capturing people’s imagination in interesting ways.  Search on the web for steampunk images and you’ll see what I mean.  People enjoy dressing in steampunk style and inventing steampunk gadgets.  (Pictures are from photobucket.com)

Consider the major fictional genres:  Action-adventure, Crime, Detective, Fantasy, Horror, Inspirational, Mystery, Romance, Science fiction, and Western.  Of these, only Western and Fantasy come complete with ready-made ‘worlds,’ and unique styles of dress.  In all the others, the author must describe her world in some detail.  With steampunk (a subgenre of science fiction), and with Western and Fantasy, all of that comes built in.

Why did steampunk become so popular?  Here are some possible reasons:

  • We can still relate to the time period.  It wasn’t so long ago.
  • It celebrates the last time in history when people held a purely positive outlook on technology.  It was a time of unalloyed optimism about science; everyone knew science would make life better.  It was a time before the Titanic, before World War I, and well before nuclear weapons.  Technology had no dark side.
  • The technology is elegant, appealing to the eye.  It has a delicate craftsmanship to it, and delightful metallic curves.  Aesthetic beauty is a recognized part of it, an aspect of its very purpose.
  • Steampunk technology is understandable by the common man, and tangible to the senses.  You can see the exposed gears, the pistons.  You can watch the motion and hear the steam hissing.  It isn’t esoteric like today, beyond explanation, hidden away inside black boxes.
  • Steampunk appeals to both women and men.  I don’t know exactly why, but each gender finds aspects of steampunk to enjoy.  The clothes may have something to do with that; perhaps our casual-dress age looks back with fondness on all that Victorian formality.  Part of it may be social; those were the times when women first began to realize the exciting potential for more equal rights; the early glimmerings of the social upheavals we’re still adjusting to today.
  • To carry that last idea further, perhaps steampunk appeals to us because social roles were so rigid then.  As we struggle today to understand the new chaos of gender relationships, steampunk harkens to a time when those roles were fixed and well-understood.  Perhaps we feel superior to the people of those times, but just maybe something inside us longs to know, with their certainty, where we belong.

In the ‘Stories’ part of this website, you’ll see I’ve written a few steampunk short stories myself.  (I couldn’t resist the personal plug there.)  If you’re still not certain whether you’d like steampunk, read some steampunk stories, watch some steampunk movies, make some brass goggles and try them on.  You might find you like the whole milieu enough to go to a steampunk convention.  Pretty soon you might be giving three cheers for steampunk, along with–

                                                                             Poseidon’s Scribe

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Book Review — The Lost Goddess

I just finished reading The Lost Goddess, by Tom Knox.  I listened to the Recorded Books version on audiotape, narrated by Christopher Evan Welch.  This is the first book I’ve read by Knox.  From the blurb, it promised to be an interesting historical thriller.  I’d say it delivered.

The book follows the lives of two people whose paths are destined to connect.  Julia Kerrigan is an American archaeologist digging at a site in a French cave.  Jake Thurby is a British photographer trying to snap money-making pictures in Southeast Asia.  The novel alternates point-of-view between these characters throughout.

The novel is exciting, gritty, and packed with mystery and adventure.  The scene-setting is very good, especially the detailed descriptions of Cambodia and Laos.  The author really puts you right there, close to both the beauty and the ugliness.  I see by his website that he conducted considerable research on that region.  I thought the Julia character was well drawn; she seemed strong and had believable motivations.  There’s some interesting sexual tension, though not between Julia and Jake, but this is no romance.  The secret mystery of the book is compelling and fascinating; a great weaving together of some historical facts into a grand and fairly believable theory.  I won’t spoil anything for you, but you won’t put it all together until near the end.  Some readers might find the mystery’s explanation morally objectionable, but I’d encourage them to lighten up and remember this is a work of fiction.

On the negative side, I found the title a bit of a misnomer.  Oddly, the book is sold under a different (and better) title in the United Kingdom — Bible of the Dead.  While I said Julia was a strong character, Jake is not.  He seems almost pathetic and stupid at times, always asking for explanations, seemingly swept along by events.  Not the kind of character I care much about.  Normally I have kind things to say about the narrator readers of audio books, and it’s not a bad performance by Mr. Welch.  It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to tell that he’s speaking in Jake’s voice when Jake is speaking.  The book’s ending seems to drag on a bit long.

Although I’m giving the book a rating of three seahorses according to my unique seahorse rating system, I recommend the book to lovers of mystery-adventure books set in exotic locales.  Those readers will really enjoy The Lost Goddess.  I enjoyed it, but I can only speak for–

                                                                                  Poseidon’s Scribe

 

 

 

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Being Prolific — Is That the Secret?

Should you aim to be prolific?  To be prolific as a writer means to be highly productive, to write a lot, and (one hopes) to be published a lot.  Should that be your goal? If so, what is the key to being prolific?

The ultimate aims of writers vary, but a short list of such goals could include:

  1. I want to be a famous writer, popular in my own time.
  2. I want my books to be remembered through the ages.
  3. I just have an inner need to tell a story.
  4. I want to maximize my financial earnings.
  5. I want to publish as many books as possible.
  6. I seek a combination of some of the above goals.

I was tempted to set up a graph with high quantity (being prolific) at one end and high quality at the other, and plot each goal on the graph.  For example, you might think goals 1 and 2 have to do with quality, while goals 4 and 5 are more concerned with quantity.  Such an analysis would have told you whether to churn out a lot of words, or self-edit like crazy to ensure each book is perfect.

Here’s the problem.  As Joseph Stalin was supposed to have said, (even an evil dictator can utter one true statement) “Quantity has a quality all its own.”  In a previous post, I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell’s theory about becoming a genius in any particular field.  One element of that was practicing for 10,000 hours.  That implies quantity is a necessary step to quality.  To write well, you must first write a lot.

There are different ways to spend that 10,000 hours of practice, of course.  As I implied above, you might write your first draft, then do just enough editing to send it off and sell a mediocre story, then move on to the next one.  Or you could refine and polish every word, as a poet does, going over and over your story until you achieve earthly perfection.  At the end of that process, you might have a book that could satisfy goals 1 or 2 or both.

There’s a list of prolific writers and one of my favorites–Dr. Isaac Asimov–is on that list.  He’s not at the top, though.  That honor belongs to María del Socorro Tellado López, who wrote mostly under the name Corín Tellado.  She lived from 1927-2009 and wrote over 4,000 novellas.

If you hope to surpass her record, you’d better get busy.

Let’s examine the productivity of Corín Tellado.  She sold her first novel in 1946, when she was about 19.  Her publishing house contracted with her to write a novella every week.  When I read that, I thought, “Okay, I could see having a very organized schedule that results in a novella each week.”  But look closer at the numbers.  Say she wrote continually from 1946 until her death in 2009, a period of about 63 years, or roughly 3,276 weeks.  Only 3,276 weeks, and yet she wrote over 4,000 novellas.  She was cranking out a novella, on average, every 5.7 days.

Corín Tellado is the extreme example of being prolific.  You probably won’t go that far, but imagine the discipline required, the organizational and time-management skills, the need to fill all available time with writing.  Not to mention the necessity to dream up numerous plotlines and characters.  These are the keys to being a prolific writer.

Whatever your goals as a writer, whether you aim for quantity or quality, I think you’re still going to need (or at least aim for) the skills and attributes of a prolific writer.  Do you agree or disagree?  Leave me a comment.  But keep it short; I’m a busy man and have to finish my next novella in 5.7 days, or I’m not–

                                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

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The Iron-Clad Discipline of Writing

Many years ago, I attended one of our nation’s service academies.  When, during a meal, one of the upperclassmen heard some unnecessary talking at the table by an underclassman, he would ask, “Mr. —–, how’s the discipline at that end of the table?”  The only correct answer was to bang your fist on the table and shout, “Iron-clad, sir!”  Discipline is a vital attribute of military service; is it also important in writing?

This excellent blog post by Jocelyn K. Glei explores the whole idea of discipline, including a fascinating psychological test for it, the Marshmallow Test.  Researchers took four-year-old kids and showed them a marshmallow and said they could eat it now, or wait fifteen minutes and they’d be given two.  All the kids wanted to wait, but not all could.   Years later when they were in high school, the children who’d waited for two marshmallows at age four still demonstrated more disciplined behavior.

The website also provides a simple twelve-question quiz you can take to measure your own discipline.  The article calls the quality ‘grit,’ but they mean that same tenacity and perseverance I’m talking about.  It produces results ranging from 1.0 (undisciplined) to 5.0 (very disciplined).

Obviously a certain amount of discipline is necessary to be a writer.  Something has to keep you in that chair, churning out words for hours on end.  There will come times when you’d prefer to be doing something else.  Authors joke about it often, that realization that a library book needs returning, or the floor under the bed needs cleaning, or the lawn needs mowing.  Anything other than writing.

I believe a lack of discipline may be the thing that discourages people from writing, more so than any other reason.  People will say things such as, “I could never write a novel.  I don’t know where writers get their ideas.”  But just about everyone has a story to tell.  Ideas aren’t the problem, in my view.  It’s the thought of devoting long hours alone to the task of generating the words, the paragraphs, the scenes.  The duration of the effort seems daunting.

That’s why, as the saying goes, writing a novel is a one-day event.  As in, “one day, I’m going to write a novel.”

So I do think a certain amount of doggedness is necessary, if only to get you through those tough times when the words won’t flow.  There must be some recognition of the value of delayed gratification; otherwise it would be too easy to just stop writing.

When I set out to blog about this topic, I assumed a writer couldn’t get too much discipline, that it was an attribute a writer needed in full measure.  Then I got to thinking about people with extreme discipline–people who never, ever give up.  They will pursue a project to completion with single-minded devotion, not letting anything get in their way.  Again, the way I’ve described it still may sound like a desirable trait, but consider there may be a certain lack of adaptability in extremely disciplined people.  They might not be so willing to abandon a course of action even if the situation changes.

For you as a writer, a story might not be working at all.  Try as you might, it’s not coming together.  Or perhaps the story you were writing would have been based on some real-life situation remaining unchanged, but it changed.  For example, your story might have been based on the continued existence of some famous person who then died while you were writing the story.

In such cases, a certain degree of flexibility might be more important than a 5.0 rating of discipline.  I’m not saying disciplined people always lack adaptability; the words aren’t antonyms.  I’m just saying both attributes are important to writers.

You might disagree with me.  That’s what the ‘leave a comment’ thing below is for.  For those of you dying of curiosity, my grit rating on the quiz was 3.92.  You might also be asking, “Mr. Poseidon’s Scribe, how’s discipline at that end of the internet?”  Bang!  Iron-clad, sir!”  At least, that’s the response from–

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

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Book Review – Behemoth

I enjoy a good steampunk novel.  Two years ago I read Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, and it was high time to read the next book in the series.

That book is Behemoth, and I listened to the CD version put out by Recorded Books and read by Alan Cumming.  This series is aimed at the young adult market, grade 7 and up, and should appeal to either young girls or boys.

Whether you start the series by reading the first book or the second, Westerfeld transports you right into his world, and it’s different.  Some of the World War I setting is the same as our world’s history–the countries are involved in the war, languages and accents, etc.  However, in Westerfeld’s world, the main technologies of the 19th Century have evolved into two distinct branches.  Some countries chose one path, some the other, and some a mix of both.  One branch is mechanized, and includes the technologies of steam, gears, and even walking machines.  This is termed “clanker” technology and is represented by Germany and Austria-Hungary.  The other branch is the manipulation of DNA to form animals into creatures designed to be useful to man, including “message lizards” that can parrot human speech, and even living airships.  These are the Darwinists and are represented by the United Kingdom and Russia.  Other countries such as the U.S. and the Ottoman Empire employ mixtures of both branches.

Deryn is a young British girl who has chosen to disguise herself as a boy named Dylan and serve as a midshipman within the British airship Leviathan.  She is in constant fear of being found out.  Alek is a prince, legal heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, but he cannot claim the throne yet and is driven into hiding from the Germans who want to kill him, as they did his father.  Where Leviathan chronicled the separate adventures of the two teenagers, only having them meet near the end, in Behemoth, the two are together for much of the book when the airship arrives in Istanbul, giving a chance for their relationship to start to mature.

I found the world-building aspects of Behemoth to be excellent, with plenty of details to make Westerfeld’s world believable and interesting.  Deryn’s language is peppered with expressions such as “Barking spiders!” to indicate surprise, “beasties” as a term for various Darwinist creations, and “gone pear-shaped” (an actual British idiom) meaning “gone wrong.”  There’s plenty of action in the book including aerial attacks, secret underwater missions, and a revolutionary overthrow of a sultan featuring mechanical walking machines. The book’s characters are multi-dimensioned and complex, not steampunk tropes.  Westerfeld never talks down to young readers, and the book includes an Afterward that separates real history from the alternative history of the novel.  I found the book’s ending satisfying, which can’t always be said for first or second books of trilogies.  Lastly, the narration by Alan Cumming is excellent; he makes it easy to distinguish the characters by their accents and tone.

The book is so good I am tempted to give it my highest rating.  However, I find the plot to be rather contrived.  Westerfeld is determined to have both characters join up with revolutionaries in Istanbul who are bent on overthrowing the Ottoman sultan.  Their reasons for doing so seem out of character in the case of both Alek and Deryn.  However, the target audience is unlikely to object to this and will accept the situation and read on.

I’ll give this novel a rating of four seahorses using my trademarked seahorse rating scheme.  Still, it is very close to five.  I strongly recommend it for teenage boys or girls, who will find it easy to identify with the struggles of the characters.  Alek and Deryn each want to be accepted, but they also yearn to discover their true selves; Westerfeld conveys these conflicts well.  That’s the assessment of–

                                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

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Hook ‘em, So You Can Reel ‘em In

How will you begin your next story?  The beginning, called the ‘hook,’ is important.  These days readers don’t have much time.  Other things like TV, video games, and the Internet compete with your story for their attention.  If your first sentence or paragraph doesn’t grab them, they’re on to doing something else.

Here are some examples of great hooks used in novels as chosen by the editors of American Book Review:

  • Call me Ishmael.  Moby-Dick, Herman Melville 
  • Marley was dead, to begin with.  A Christmas Carol,  Charles Dickens
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.  1984, George Orwell
  • You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  • Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.  The Trial, Franz Kafka
  • Mother died today.  The Stranger, Albert Camus
  • There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.  The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
  • He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.  The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
  • It was a pleasure to burn.  Fahrenheit 451,  Ray Bradbury
  • The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.  The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane

These beginnings work well for several reasons.  They give us an early idea what the story will be about.  They establish the tone of the story, and something about the attitude of the narrator’s voice.

But most of all they seize our attention and compel us to want to read more.  What gives them this quality?  It’s hard to find a common attribute just by looking at them.  They seem to appeal for different reasons.

Writer Darcy Pattison has grouped the different beginnings into categories.  This is helpful since one category might work better for the start of your story than another.  Knowing the category can give you a starting point for developing your hook.

Many of the beginnings in the list start with a sense of the ordinary, and then give the reader something that clashes or is jarring somehow.  We’re left with a puzzle, an oddity, a question that can only be resolved by reading further.  So read on we must.

Those without that twist added to the ordinary seem to possess a different quality.  They settle us in, set a mood, fluff up our pillow, put on some appropriate music.  We’re now comfortably in the story, transported to the author’s world right from the start, and now that we’re there we might as well read on to see what the place is like.

Each of these beginnings without exception is easy to read.  None have rare or difficult words to stumble over.  All have rhythm, and almost poetic brevity.  Not a word is wasted.

How do you write an opening like these?  Heck if I know; these are some of the best ever written.  Ask one of the world’s greatest authors.

With that task added to your to-do list, perhaps we could set our sights a bit lower for now.  How do you write an effective story beginning?  For one thing, it takes time and many trials.  The beginning is the hardest part to write, usually takes the longest, and usually involves the most revisions.  You might decide to skip the hook and come back to it later as the story evolves.  You might like to write a first version of the hook knowing you’ll revisit it over and over.  In any case, be prepared to spend the time and thought to craft it right.

To learn much more about how to write story hooks, read Hooked by Les Edgerton.  What an invaluable resource!

With regard to beginnings, we’ve reached the end.  Remember to check back at this site next week for further ramblings about writing by–

                                                                 Poseidon’s Scribe

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