Saturday, 24 July 2010

Review: Author Jack Ketchum

Hi all!

I've spent a happy few hours reading two books by Jack Ketchum, an author I'd heard much about but never read before.

The books are: Off Season and The Girl Next Door. Both are horror. Neither are for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. By the way, the version of Off Season is not the neutered one that Ballantine Books produced in the 1980s but the revised and partially recovered one that Ketchum produced much later. So if you've read the earlier version (apparently) the later one is much, much nastier.

Unlike Twilight, which I guess most people have read by now, Ketchum might be a new name. I suppose not many have read his works. So I will try very hard to avoid spoilers.

Off Season

This is certainly one of the goriest, most violent works I have ever read. And yet, none of the gore and violence is gratuitous. It's there because it needs to be. Written in 3rd person limited POV, that shifts often (sometimes confusingly), it's a story that offers scant rays of hope and goodness. The predominant feeling is bleak, savage and dark. From a kick-ass start, it maintains a fast-paced writing style, flowing natural dialogue, good characterization, frequent dizzying blows to our expectations throughout, and ends in a chilling and thrilling climax. This book kept me going non-stop. It gives several nods to other icons of horror such as Romero's Night of the Living Dead, and is similar in style, perhaps, to some of James Herbert's more misanthropic works, but its style - I have come to discover - is uniquely Ketchum's own.

I give it an unhesitating 4 stars.

The Girl Next Door

This is in many ways totally diferent to Off Season. We start with an idyllic country scene, young boy in the 1950's playing in a stream, hunting crayfish. Reminiscent of Stephen King in IT.

Told throughout from the point of view of this twelve-year-old, the story takes us through a gradually intensifying maelstrom of horror, made much worse by the sheer prosaicness of the setting. We join in the creeping paralysis and helplessness that besets our protagonist; unwilling yet fascinated voyeurs with him in the flow of events. Reminiscent perhaps of A Simple Plan in its portrayal of the banality and lack of imagination shown by evil.

This one disturbed me more, because it could happen to the girl next door (if there were a girl next door).

Another 4 stars.


Neither book has the slightest trace of the supernatural or paranormal in it. Both portray, unflinchingly, the evil that man can do to fellow man.

But the greatest similarity is this: both books depict creatures of human shape, human DNA, human ancestry that walk among us, yet are stranger and more alien than the amoeba. Human they look, but they do not share anything in common with us apart from physical shape - no emotion, no compassion, no fellow feeling. They aren't humane beings, and they barely deserve the title of human beings.

All done without recourse to magic, soul-stealing or any other typical mechanism of much horror fare.

These are both books I'll read again. And probably again.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Book Review - Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

OK, I was the last person on the planet to read Twilight. I hadn't read any of the other three books in the Edward/Bella series. I haven't seen the films, or even trailers for the films.

How? Just lucky, I guess.

All I knew about Twilight was that young girls raved over it, anyone over the age of thirty hated it, those blessed (or cursed) with even minimal amounts of testosterone became nauseous in its presence, and vampire afficionados spat garlic and holy water when any mention was made of sparkly vampires.

So, last weekend, since my daughter has the complete set, I read Twilight with a relatively open mind.

Possible spoilers
Let me start on a positive note. I liked Stephenie Meyer's style of writing - fast, easy, page-turning stuff. But then I also like Dan Brown's writing style for the same reasons. And James Patterson. All three have accessible, smooth prose and, generally speaking, fairly natural and believable dialogue.

Back to Stephenie.

So, I liked the style. I'm afraid that's almost it for the good points.

Now for the rest.

Our main character is a teenage girl (Bella). Shallow, self-obsessed and totally absorbed in trivia. Never mind global famine or war in Afghanistan. She worries about what her new friends will think of her, and does that green go with her eyes.

Oh, and she falls like so totally in love with a vampire in the space of two weeks or so.

This vampire has nothing going for him except for being inhumanly beautiful, amazingly fast, unbelievably strong, rich and, presumably, never belching or farting. Well, he doesn't eat, does he? Oh, and he saves her life three times.

See? The girl is shallow, like I said. Nothing about his personality, mind, world view or plans for the future. In fact, all the characters are shallow, veering from furious to placid in the space of two sentences - which is always the sign of poor characterization. Real people, and real vampires, hold grudges. They harbour festering resentments. They are slow to change their opinions. Not in teen-girl world, obviously.

No, wait - Edward Vampire is a tortured soul. We know he's tortured, because both he and the author tell us so, constantly. He is in torment, torn between killing the annoying whiny teenager and falling in love with her. He writhes on a knife edge. He oscillates between love and thirst.

Hmmm. Vampires aren't supposed to have a soul, are they?

Most of the vampires in this book have the same moral dilemma. Humans - frail, slow, blundering, short-lived, pathetic - friends or food? Social circle or herd? No wonder people, including our heroine, want to become vampires. Where's the downside?

The vampires - yes, plural. There is a family of these demi-gods going to school with our heroine. This school is set in Washington State. The cloudiest, wettest, most cloud-bound, fog-shrouded part of Washington State. Echoes of Thirty Days of Night.

Why there?

Because our vampires sparkle in the sunlight. It's the place in the USA with the least amount of sunlight per year. The author explains this sparkling as a mechanism to entice their prey closer.

OK, you can catch fish with something shiny. So if their prey (us, remember?) has the IQ of a mackerel, that's plausible. Oh, wait, teenage girls - yes, fair enough.

These vampires also play baseball. Score one for irony. No problem there.

Oh, and they don't hunt humans any more, because they've all sworn to be good vampires. Sometimes they slip, but not often. Well, yes... I suppose I could just about accept that.

When Bella first thinks Edward is a vampire, and then has it confirmed, her reaction is: 'OK, yeah, so, like nobody's perfect, yah? Look how handsome he is.' Where was the emotional trauma about falling in love with a blood-sucking creature of the night? An undead creature of limitless evil? Oh, sorry, I forgot, these are good vampires. They don't even have bad breath.

The trouble with the book, is that in five hundred pages, nothing much actually happens.

She falls in love, he saves her life, but it's all negligible in terms of visceral action or excitement. Even when a rival clan of 'bad' vampires hunts her, we have no real action. There is a hunt, the excitement builds, she is separated from her vamp protectors, she sacrifices herself for the sake of others. Yes! Action at last!

Er, sadly, no. The climax of the book, from my point of view, is totally missed because our protagonist passes out before most of the action occurs. I felt cheated.

And, if I had to read one more occurrence of ' crooked grin', 'sculpted chest', 'burning eyes' or 'compelling gaze' I was going to vomit.

The biggest problem of all?

Plot structure. There isn't one. There is no nemesis. A baddie is brought in 75% through the book, but he's an incidental plot mechanism enabling the author to further elaborate on the implausibly sudden, unbelievably intense love of girl and vamp. You can discount the Indian boy who also wants Bella, and is a werewolf, because he won't be revealed until Book Two or Three. Because there is no nemesis, we can have no major action. It's all Act One - set up stuff.

Of course, for commercial reasons, that may have been the intention all along. How many people bought the book only to find that, in order to gain satisfaction, they had to buy two or three more books afterwards?

So, my verdict?

If you're a teenage girl worried about surface appearances, peer pressure, the allure of 'bad boys' and very little else - 5 stars.

If you belong to the real human race - 2 stars.

But I do think that Stephenie identified and hit her target market perfectly. I have nothing but admiration for that. She can write well. She just needs a decent plot and some believable characters to bring out the best in her.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Software and aids for writing

Well, after another massive hiatus, almost fifteen weeks this time, service is resumed.

This post was inspired by a thread, of similar name, in the On Fiction Writing forum on Goodreads. Since it first appeared, I've spent a few hours trying out some of the software mentioned there, so you, Constant Readers, don't have to. Here are a few things I've discovered.

The non-electronic route

I still use some methods for planning and writing that don't (gasp, shock horror) depend on a steady supply of electricity. For example:
  • Plot outline - written, pencil, A4 writing pad
  • Scene outlines - 3 inch X 4 inch index cards, arranged in order
  • Character bio - pencil, A4 pad
  • Timeline - as above
I have even, when separated from PC or laptop, used A4 pads to actually write stuff - you know, the actual prose. Yes, it can still be done without a keyboard or an i-Pad.

In fact, most of my best stories come from just lying in the sun, bottle of beer to hand, writing stuff with a pencil. No worries about extension leads, glare on screens or any of that hi-tech nonsense.

But, since you have, at some point, to produce it electronically for printing or emailing to potential buyers, the sooner you start the digital process the better, I suppose.

The Electronic Route

Well, for research, obviously.

But also...

As some of you may have read before, I tend to write using MS Word 2000. I use a set of templates from the BBC Writers Room, ScriptSmart, which allow me to produce either novels or screenplays, American or British, without having to worry about word counts, font, paragraph format, scene breaks, slug lines and the like - the templates take care of all of that for me.

However, ScriptSmart for the novel or short story seems to have disappeared now, leaving only the screenplay versions. More worryingly, with later versions of Word in Office 2003 or Office 2007, the templates cause the document to lock up after perhaps twenty pages, leaving you unable to add any more. You either have to cut and paste into a new document or start another document for the rest of the story. So these templates are becoming less useful as time goes on.

You could of course create your own templates to do the same thing, from within whatever version of Office you have, but that requires a degree of specialist knowledge, and I'm trying to be broad based here.

I also use Excel spreadsheets to keep track of comments that critiquers use - aligning comments and suggestions with the particular scenes they refer to, so I can see at a glance who's said what about something.

So that's Microsoft Office.

Many people swear by Open Office and indeed, I have an installation of that on a USB memory stick, just in case I'm ever stuck somewhere with a PC and no MS Office in sight. It has perfectly good word processing and spreadsheet software, can import and export from and to all versions of MS Office, and can save things as PDF, which my version of MS Office can't. I could just as easily use Open Office as MS Office for routine stuff like writing. It even has a feature akin to the 'Track Changes' feature of Word, which would allow me to edit other people's stuff, or accept and reject changes that others have made to my works. It's called 'Changes' in Open Office.

But what about specialist software designed especially for novelists and scriptwriters?

OK, I'll discuss some here, but I will focus on Open Source software - for 'Open Source' read 'free'.

Write or Die

Write or Die is a program (install the desktop version in case your Internet connection goes down) that gives you a text editor. You set yourself a challenge, say 500 words in 15 minutes. Begin writing. If you haven't touched the keyboard for 15 seconds, pondering the exact word to use to show subtle nuance, the screen starts turning pink. You have perhaps 10 more seconds before the program plays a loud, really annoying sound. You have failed the challenge. If you don't complete your 500 words in 15 minutes, you get an even louder, even more annoying piece of music. If, on the other hand, you succeed, you get a nice little fanfare.

The point of this application is that it forces you to write. It's for producing first drafts, where, as we all know, the object is to slap your story down as fast as possible and to hell with the errors, repetitions and generally crap standard of writing. WoD can even be configured to disable the backspace key. It's an aide to productivity.

The Internet version, browser based, is free. The desktop version costs $10. I have found it has increased my output from 1000 words per hour to 1500 words per hour. No time for daydreams, or to roll a cigarette. Write or Die!

Drawbacks - yes. Produces text (.txt) output only. You can append your output to a text file, but at some point, you have to copy and paste to another processor to add format, font, italics and so on. But very good for its limited purpose - to get you to produce.


WordWeb is marvellous. When it's running in the background (the default is to have it start on PC startup), if you highlight a word in a document or a text file or a browser, and Ctrl-Right Click, it will tell you the meaning of the word, give you synonyms, types, adjectives, nouns, similar words and so on.

WordWeb is free.

Rough Draft

Another Open Source program. I've played with this and found a use for it.

When editing your own stuff, it would be quite handy if you could just scribble notes in the margins. Rough Draft allows you to do that. It will open up all sorts of Word Documents, Excel Spreadsheets, stuff from MS-Works (if that isn't a contradiction in terms), Rich text and ordinary text files, even Word Perfect Files. You can read them, and make notes in the margin. The notes are saved as an associated text file. It will work with, and format correctly, prose (stories, novels), screenplays and stage and radio plays. When you reopen the story, the notes are still there. Handy for research pointers and so on.

But, it will only save files as rich text (.rtf). OK, as a novelist, that's fine. You will have to eventually put the finished product into Word or equivalent for final formatting and error checking anyway. Very good for editing.


Remember what I said at the very beginning - about index cards and A4 pads and the like for research and outlines and characters and so on?

Well, Storybook does all that. You can create characters, locations, plot strands for each major character, assign a timeline, then just drag and drop your characters and locations into scenes, write scene dialogue and prose, assign scenes to chapters or acts...

It looks to be a very good, and free, tool for creating outlines and plot structures. It might also cut out those embarrassing errors when you've got the same character doing two things simultaneously a hundred miles apart...

But all this is saved in a proprietary format. So you'll need the application on all the other computers you use to be able to use it wherever you are.

So, if you want, try any of those, feel free. I do recommend them.

But I will still often resort to the most flexible, sophisticated method of all.

Brain, paper and pencil.

Next time - reviews - I'm going to start a series of them - new books and old classic books, alternating.

Till then - enjoy!