Friday, 6 January 2012

Friday Flash - Spot the Mistake

The Duke of Finchall sat on the wide stone steps, his chin resting in his palm. A handbill advertising the Ninth Brazenaar Companion Competition dangled from his other hand. The Duke watched his faithful companion scamper around the courtyard, claws scraping against worn stone.

“My lord, may I offer you a drink?”

The Duke looked up. His squire, Rivar, stood behind him, caught in a low bow. A serving girl stood behind the squire, bearing a steaming flagon on a silver tray. The Duke looked at the flagon, and back at Spot. Visions of the trophy, once again out of the Duke's grasp, danced before his eyes.

“I'm not thirsty,” he replied.

“Very well, my lord. Can I interest you in something else?”

“Have you got the competition trophy lying around somewhere?” asked the Duke. He thought of his neighbour, Baron Darkrown. The Baron didn't need yet another piece of silverware to add to his impressive collection. I don’t even have a collection, thought the Duke.

“Alas, I do not.”

The Duke turned around in time to see the squire dismiss the serving girl.

“I thought we might win this year, Rivar,” said the Duke when the girl was out of earshot.

“As did we all, my lord. But I am quite sure that Spot did not intend to urinate on the Chief Judge.”

“No, I'm sure he didn't. But he did it all the same,” replied the Duke.

“And I am sure he did not mean to start a fight with the other competitors. He was merely full of excitement at leaving the castle." The squire stole a glance at Spot, now pouncing at dancing shadows in the corner.

“You are probably correct, yet do it he did.”

“And if I am honest, I would venture that Spot also did not mean to devour the Adjudicator.”

The Duke shrugged in reply, and gazed across the courtyard. Spot snapped at a butterfly that veered too close to his head. A kitchen boy inched around the edge of the yard, eager to avoid Spot's lashing tail.

“Spot? Here, boy.”

The Duke whistled and snapped his fingers. The rare Gudmundian Spotted Dragon whipped around and lumbered across the courtyard towards his master. Spot lowered his massive head and allowed the Duke to scratch behind his horns. The dragon thumped his hind leg in appreciation. The Duke sighed.

As much as he loved his companion, he couldn’t help but wish his mother had given him a puppy.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

[Book Review] The Little Stranger

I picked up The Little Stranger by chance, since it was only £2 in HMV. The fact it's a ghost story naturally caught my eye, and the fact it's set in a crumbling old house in the 1940s was a bonus. Written by Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger was published in 2009, and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The story is narrated by Dr Faraday, a Warwickshire doctor called to attend a sick maid at Hundreds Hall, the dilapidated country seat of the Ayres family. The family are almost destitute, ruined by the social changes wrought by the Second World War, and Dr Faraday soon finds himself becoming a family friend. We're given an inkling that all is not well early on, when the sick maid complains of how creepy she finds the house.

Dr Faraday reminds me a lot of Stevens, the uptight butler narrator of The Remains of the Day. He's caught in his own internal class struggle, fighting against his working class upbringing as he seeks to ingratiate himself with the failing aristocratic Ayres family. He also reveals a lot about himself through his careless asides, and most of the time it becomes blatantly obvious what is going on, without Faraday being at all aware of it. I lost count of the number of times I cringed on his behalf.

It's a strange book in that things don't really get going until page 141 or so, and it was more a vague sense of interest in the mundane activities of the family that kept me reading. By page 141, the famous pacing finally kicked in and I found it truly gripping reading. I'd speed through whole chapters at a time, squeezing in reading time wherever I found five minutes. Waters builds up the tension surrounding the haunting, all the while keeping Faraday as the voice of reason, making the reader decide for themselves whether the house is haunted or not.

I wouldn't necessarily label The Little Stranger as a ghost story per se, but I would label it as a supernatural thriller, or perhaps a psychological chiller. Waters captures 1940s speech patterns, and while some of her descriptive passages border on unnecessary, when she really hits her stride, they paint the picture of an old house caught between its glory days and decay, inhabited by shades of their former selves. Perhaps the house is haunted after all - if only by its owners.

The opening section aside, it's well-written and a truly enjoyable read.

Four blunt pencils out of five!

Monday, 2 January 2012

Photo Prompt 66

New prompt available!

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The 66th prompt is Red Tunnel.

Red Tunnel

All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr. You can also buy my prints from Deviantart. 20% of all proceeds go to charity - the other 80% go towards my PhD fees!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

A New Year Dawns

It is now New Year's Day, the first day of yet another new year, albeit one with the added bonus of an extra day. Of course, if you believe the conspiracy theorists, one extra day won't make up for losing most of the year due to catastrophe, but I tend not to subscribe to the peculiar cultural phenomenon of conspiracy theories. Therefore, the obligatory 'New Year' post beckons. It's almost de rigeur if you have your own blog to witter on about the new year at some point, with some devoted to ill-thought out resolutions, others dedicated to where the word 'January' comes from, and yet more considering torn between a discussion of what went on in 2011, and what they hope will happen in 2012. With that in mind, I thought long and hard about the content of this post, and I didn't particularly want to roll out a list of "this is what I did in 2011". It would be fairly straightforward, and look something like this;
  • Got accepted onto a PhD programme, and began work on said PhD.
  • Quit my job as an office manager in London and moved back home to the North East.
  • Got another job teaching graphic design software on a part time basis.
  • Had a book published, and had stories appear elsewhere.
  • Took up ghost hunting.
  • Started up my own email newsletter (subscribe here, if you want)
Dull, huh? Instead of doing that, but on a grander scale,  I decided to have a look at what I wrote at the start of 2011. It turns out that in my New Year post, I chose three words that I wanted to use to 'signify' the coming year. I chose Acceptance, Create, and Silence. Now, considering I had several stories published (both online and in print) and my pulp Western novella, The Guns of Retribution, was picked up and published by Pulp Press, then I guess you could say that superficially, I did quite well with Acceptance. However, I'm still utterly incapable of accepting certain things, both about myself and the human race, so I think that my mark for Acceptance should probably be "Good effort, could try harder." As for Create...well, that one is a no-brainer - I created stuff all year long, be it stories, knitting projects, digital artwork, etc. So that's a big green tick in that box. As for Silence, I didn't spend much time doing nothing, and I spent the latter part of the year running too close to burn out for my liking, so again, big 'Fail' for me on that front.

But I think I'd like to do the same again for 2012. I'll no doubt forget all about the endeavour by the end of the week, but at least I've made the effort, yes? So what three words will I choose that I hope will sum up my coming year?

I think anyone who's followed me on Twitter knows I have my 'off' days, and yes, I do have days when I consider throwing in the towel. But that runs so far counter to my stubborn streak that it borders on uncharacteristic, so I'm choosing Perseverance. No matter how many bad reviews I get, no matter how many times a story just won't come together, I'll keep going, even if it means putting a work to one side for a while and coming back to it later. I will just keep going.

For someone so grounded in practicality, I can be terribly flighty, skipping from one project to another. I think it's the illusion that the more things I have on the go, the more I'm getting done, but all I'm really doing is using one thing to procrastinate so I don't have to do another. I need to start committing to what I'm doing, so if I decide to spend an hour reading a text for my PhD, then that's what I'll do - I can check Twitter or play Warcraft when that hour is up. Likewise I need to stop starting a project, only to start world building for the next one before I'm even halfway through. One at a time, please.

Silence didn't work for me last year, but I'm taking a different tack this year. I tend to overreact to things I think are going to be more problematic than they turn out to be, and I find it difficult to sit and relax. Naturally that makes it difficult to get anything done if I'm constantly wound up, so I intend to build a short portion of relaxation time into my life. Whether that's playing video games, listening to Mozart, or simply reading a good book, it's a time to let my brain unwind and my batteries recharge.

Anyone else got any words they want to use for 2012?