Tag Archives: language

Review: ‘This Family of Things’ by Alison Jameson

Bird Keegan, a lonely farmer, and his two sisters have lived an isolated existence in the same community their whole lives but when Midge O’Connor – a young woman abused by her drunken father – appears, his world is disrupted beyond his wildest imagination. By taking in Midge, Bird is mocked by his sisters and neighbours. Despite bringing one another consolation, the pair’s relationship is thrown into doubt by the influence of others.

Alison Jameson’s prose captures the reader’s attention with this story of love and redemption. The lives of the three siblings are explored with sensitivity. The isolation and misery are represented skillfully. Jameson’s writing features some very powerful imagery as well as excellent descriptions. I could really imagine the setting thanks to the author’s florid language. The multi-layered characters are examined in a thoughtful manner.

Fans of Kate Kerrigan will like ‘This Family of Things.

Vic x

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Review: ‘Block 46’ by Johana Gustawsson

The mutilated corpse of a jewellery designer is discovered in a harbour in a Swedish marina while a young boy’s body is found in London with similar wounds around the same time. Emily Roy, a Canadian profiler on loan to Scotland Yard, begins to investigate the case alongside French true crime writer Alexis Castells. As the story continues, Roy and Castells uncover evidence to suggest that there may be a link between these murders and the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

Written by Johana Gustawsson, and translated into English by Maxim Jakubowski, Block 46 is a tense thriller which unravels slowly but masterfully. The chapters are choppy and keep the plot moving along nicely. The language used throughout the book is beautiful which juxtaposes the violence of the murders well.

The plot is utterly intriguing and I can see how the partnership of Roy and Castells could be turned into a successful series – there are plenty of narrative strands that could be explored further.

When I saw Johana Gustawsson talk about Block 46 at Newcastle Noir, I saw that the subject had deeply affected her and I couldn’t wait to read this book. The fact that Gustawsson has weaved present-day narratives with an historical element makes this a really unique novel. A must-read.

Vic x

Guest Post: Martyn Taylor on Ghosts

Today on the blog, writer Martyn Taylor is on the blog to talk about ghosts. Martyn read at the inaugural North East Noir at the Bar in Newcastle in June and since then has been a regular at Elementary Writers workshops. 

You can join Martyn and other members of Elementary Writers for original ghost stories and poetry on Saturday, 5th November at Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade’s Watch House for ‘After Dark’. Email Sam.Levy@tvlb.org to book your seats. 

Thanks to Martyn for this very interesting post. 

Vic x

after-dark

Martyn Taylor on Ghosts.

I make no bones about it.  I am a Shakespeare fan.  As far as I am concerned, anything that needs to be said about the human condition has already been said, by him, and better than we can ever hope to do (not that it will ever stop us trying). The English language is packed with aphorisms taken from his writing.  The one that concerns me here is ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy’ (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5). Hamlet is, of course, talking about the ghost of his father, but to me this simple statement applies to everything, our lives, our society, our planet, our universe.  The more we discover, the more we realise there is yet to discover.  In an effectively infinite universe, as we understand it today, we humans have hardly scratched the surface much less dug down to deep and meaningful levels.

Hamlet spoke of a ghost.  Ghosts, so far as I can tell, are universal in human societies, at least until recently.  Let me say that I do not believe in ghosts.  In scientific terms they are like a faster than light drive, something devoutly to be wished but beyond our comprehension now.  That statement may not apply next week.  But I do not believe in ghosts, which is not to say there may not be echoes of individual human spirits that persist after physical death, possibly even the spirits of societies.  I have not been presented with any evidence that convinces me about this the way evidence about gravity and quarks does.

Yet I have ‘met’ two ‘ghosts’.

One was at our local church on Easter Sunday several years ago.  When the time came to offer a sign of peace, a young girl in the pew in front turned around and smiled at me.  I knew instantly she was our daughter, Lucy, who was stillborn.  I heard her say ‘Be at peace, I am’.  My heart hasn’t broken over her death since then.  Now I know there are all sorts of psychological explanations.  I may well have imagined her just to fulfil the wish that had tormented me for fourteen years and more.  Nobody else in our party saw her.  I suspect most ghostly encounters have their genesis in such need, and I have not sought any further contact – I talk to myself more than enough anyway – unlike my mother and her sister, both of whom frequented spiritualist churches, somewhere you will need wild horses to get me.

The other encounter was completely different.  It was the day of my elder brother’s wedding, which was being held from our house rather than Amanda’s parents’ (I had no idea of the reasons then and am not going to rehearse them here).  It was just before tea time and while the grown-ups were doing whatever it was grown-ups did, I was kicking a ball against the garage door.  A middle-aged man came in through the front gate.  Even I could tell that the suit he wore under the tightly belted gabardine raincoat was old-fashioned (what I later came to know was a Demob Suit).  This was late summer, and nobody needed to wear a raincoat.  He was tallish with thinning fair hair and an almost invisible Clark Gable moustache.  I had no idea who he was and had never seen him before.

‘Do the Taylors live here?’ he asked.  I nodded.  Just then the ball rolled off the garage roof and began to bounce towards some flowers.  I turned to catch it, not wanting to risk Mam’s displeasure. When I turned back, he was gone.  The only sign he had ever been there was that the front gate was open.  Mam was most particular about the front gate being kept closed at all times.  Eventually I got bored and hungry, and went inside.  After a while, I had to tell my story.  As I described the man all the colour left Auntie Lilian’s face.  When I was finished she produced a cracked and crazed black and white photo from her handbag.  Was that the man?  Yes, it was.  The man was her husband, Bert, who had been dead a good decade and whom I had never met, or if I had met him I had no memory of it because I would have been about three at the time of his death.  Tea was rapidly served after that and nobody made any mention of the encounter to me ever again.

As I say, I have a ready explanation for my encounter with Lucy.  I’m too imaginative for my own good.  As for my encounter with Uncle Bert… well, there may have been subconscious triggers but I have not found them yet.  I cannot explain it.  The rationalist in me would like a rational explanation for it while the writer in me wants it to be what it seemed to be.

Which brings me back to Shakespeare, and there being more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in any of our philosophies never mind a courtier called Horatio in Denmark’s medieval royal palace.  And we do so like our ghost stories, don’t we?

 

Guest Post: Patrick Kelly on An Editorial Question

As an editor, I often remark upon the lack of variation in writers’ language in order to help them improve their work. Today on the blog, we have writer Patrick Kelly on the blog to explore an interesting editorial conundrum: the use of the very ‘to be’. I hope you enjoy his insight into this issue. 

Vic x

Patrick Kelly

 

To Be or NOT to Be: An Editorial Question

By Patrick Kelly

No magic trick will improve your manuscript—it takes hours of hard work. But I’ll share with you the next best thing. My editor once gave me this feedback:

On this next pass you might also watch “it was” lead-ins—there are a lot of them, and it’s not the strongest prose choice. You might check for “to be” verbs overall (“were” “are” “is” “was”).

Oh dear: time to go to work.

Using Microsoft’s Find/Replace function to count specific words I found 3,866 instances of the verb to be in my manuscript. (Details in table below. Hint: don’t forget the contractions.)

Next I scanned every sentence for forms of to be. Many times, after a minute of thought, I found a better way to craft the prose. It took fifty hours for me to perform the Not to be edit pass, and the revisions came in many forms: change passive to active, rearrange words, etc. Heck, a few times I deleted the sentence altogether.

You’ve probably already heard that you should avoid using the passive voice.

Passive: The ball was thrown by Bob.

Active: Bob threw the ball.

Note: Microsoft Word will coach you to rephrase passive sentences with a green squiggly underline.

The next example removes four instances of to be in three steps:

There was a dog that was quick and was brown and was running up the hill.

This sentence is grammatically correct according to MS Word, but yikes! We can all do better than this. Start by placing two adjectives in front of the noun they modify:

There was a quick, brown dog that was running up the hill.

The verb “running” tells the reader the dog was quick, so we can cut that adjective. I suggest you perform a dedicated search of your work for instances of “there was.” Try to eliminate every one.

A brown dog was running up the hill.

 Occasionally, because of other events in the story, you need the words was running, but often you don’t.

A brown dog ran up the hill. 

Voila!

 

Here’s a short passage from my manuscript that shows some detailed changes I made with the Not to be pass.

Original version:

The houses were small, less than a thousand square feet. Streetlights were rare. There was no cultivated grass on the lawns, only the weeds that survived on their own. The trees were stubby, the bushes unkempt. Some of the homes were well maintained, with fresh paint and bright lighting, but most yards were littered with random items: old bikes, abandoned cars on cinder blocks, plastic chairs.

The verb to be occurs six times in that passage. In my first pass, I eliminated all six. On a subsequent pass, I added two instances back.

Final version:

Small houses, less than a thousand square feet, lined the sides of the road. A few streetlights struggled against the darkness. The lawns had no cultivated grass, only stubby trees, unkempt bushes, and weeds that survived on their own. Some of the homes were well maintained with fresh paint and bright lighting, but most yards were littered with random items: old bikes, abandoned cars on cinder blocks, plastic chairs.

After the full Not to be edit pass, I did a recount of various forms of to be in my manuscript and found I had eliminated over fourteen hundred instances. This table provides the details:

 

Specific Form             Before             After               Decrease

Was                             1322                480                  842

Were                            332                  129                  203

Am                                  8                      7                      1

Are                              254                  210                    44

Is                                 285                  222                    63

Be                                264                  181                    83

Being                             18                      9                      9

Been                              97                    53                    44

‘m                                230                  202                    28

‘re                                203                  165                    38

isn’t                               10                      6                      4

‘s                                 843                  772                    71

Totals                          3866                2436                1430

 

Try this yourself and compare your results to mine. Hey, post them in the comments.

I hope you write often, write well, and earn faithful readers.

Hill Country Siren

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Patrick Kelly holds a BA in software engineering from the University of Virginia and an MBA in finance from Carnegie Mellon University. He served as Chief Financial Officer for six different companies before beginning his career as an author of the Joe Robbins Financial Thriller series, including the novels Hill Country Greed, Hill Country Rage, and his latest release, Hill Country Siren. Patrick resides in Austin, Texas, with his wife and family.