wordzly

The world of words, reading and writing

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

Spring Reading Catalogue

Spring (or Autumn, for any northerners) is almost here, and with it comes an exciting array of new books sure to excite and entertain. It seems as if an infinite supply of new books are being written every day on an equally infinite number of topics. Just over half of those are vampire novels. But regardless of your reading style, you are bound to find something you love. Of course, you don’t have the time to sift through every new book looking for the one that will capture your heart. You’re far too busy! You have a life to live! Fortunately, I do not, and so having obtained a sneak glimpse of some of the new exciting books coming our way I want to share them with you. Will you find your new favourite? (Click on links for a sneak peek inside each book!)

The Big Book of Dermabrasion

A great coffee table book  that’s always on hand for lazy Sunday afternoons or as a conversation starter at small fondue parties. The Big Book of Dermabrasion makes a great belated gift for Mother’s Day, or why not just treat yourself?

Philosophical Musings of Willow Smith

Celebrity autobiographies are unavoidable but few are written with such insight and clarity as Willow Smith’s. Reflecting on her many years in the entertainment industry, Smith’s work is poignant and witty as she delves into the psychology behind pop stardom, teen idols, Carly Rae Jepsen and ending world poverty.

How to Tell if Your Child is Mexican

All parenting books seem to churn out the same useless information, but here we have a parenting book that’s not afraid to face facts and tell it how it is. How to Tell if Your Child is Mexican is a great read for first-time parents or really any parent who wants to brush up on their parenting skills. Written by renowned child psychologist and hardcore fundamentalist John A. Flapjack, How to Tell if Your Child is Mexican covers those curly questions parents are too afraid to ask. What if my child is Mexican? How will I cope? Where can I seek help? Do I qualify for welfare? We all can learn a lot from this book.

Ayn Rand Rates the Sexiness of Pokémon

Ayn Rand is one of literature’s finest writers, and once again she delivers a book of crisp prose, beautiful storytelling and real depth. Exploring new ground, Rand brings her trademark style to the world of Pokémon. If you have ever asked yourself is Ludicolo sexier than Chansey, then this book has the answer. This is THE definitive list of sexiest Pokémon. How will your favourite stack up?

50 Shades of Twilights

Another brilliant and original addition to the tween vampire romance genre. 50 Shades of Twilights captures modern youth culture with devastating beauty and truth. Every girl will immediately fall in love with the burgeoning romance of Krystal and Rothbart. What a beautiful book. I wept for days.

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Words We’re Saying Wrong

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” – Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (And what Alice found there)

Previously I wrote about common phrases and sayings that a lot of people misuse. Well, I now bring to you words that have been bastardised so much most people no longer realise their proper meaning.

Fortuitous

Most people describe something fortuitous as being lucky or fortunate. In fact, most people would presume it is derived from ‘fortunate’. Fortuitous is actually derived from the Latin word ‘forte’ meaning ‘by chance’. Thus, fortuitous actually refers to something that has happened by chance or accident.

Nemesis

The misuse of nemesis particularly irks me because Agatha Christie has a book titled Nemesis in which the proper meaning of the word is applied. People nowadays use nemesis as synonymous with enemy. You would undoubtedly have heard people describe someone as their nemesis who they disliked or were in competition with. But the word actually derives from Nemesis, the Greek goddess of justice and retribution. Its formal meaning is a deserved punishment or defeat that is unavoidable. Basically, it stands for retributive justice. It wasn’t until the 20th century that it became associated with a person or event that brings about someone’s downfall. Still, this meaning has little to do with an enemy.

Disinterested

‘Disinterested’ is very often confused with ‘uninterested’. While there is only a matter of different prefixes there is a fairly considerable difference in meaning. Most people would think disinterested to refer to boredom or lack of interest in something. This is actually the meaning of uninterested. Disinterested means impartial or free from bias. So if someone is disinterested, they have no stake in the matter. Thus, they have no interests to protect.

Anxious

Much like the disinterested/uninterested distinction, people often confuse ‘anxious’ with ‘nervous’. However, ‘nervous’ is usually confined to negative states of worry whereas ‘anxious’ can be a positive or negative mood state. another subtle difference is that ‘anxious’ implies anticipation of something whereas ‘nervous’ does not. For example, if you were nervous about an overseas trip it might be because you are scared of flying or travelling long distances. If you were anxious, however, you might be anxious about flying but you might also be anxious to leave now because you are excited for your trip. This way, anxious can be similar to eager.

Scan

Scan is the opposite of skim and yet these days they seem to be used fairly interchangeably. To scan something means to look at it closely and thoroughly. Alternatively, to skim something means to look over it briefly. Looking at how else the words are used shows this difference. If something skims over the water, it does so lightly and rapidly. A computer scanner reads the entire page and records it exactly.

Literally

Most people actually seem to know the difference between literally and figuratively, and yet ‘literally’ is still used as a hyperbolic exaggeration. When somebody proclaims it to be “literally raining cats and dogs” they of course don’t mean it to be actually raining cats and dogs. What they mean is ‘figuratively’. Literally is not a synonym for ‘really’ but means ‘in actual sense’.

Although, this meaning is still divergent from the original meaning of ‘word for word’. ‘literally’ used to only apply to instances where something had been copied out word for word or letter for letter. It had no application for non-literary situations. So when we chastise people for not using ‘literally’ to mean ‘actually’ we are also failing to use the word in its original sense. Literally!

Irregardless

I also need a special mention for ‘irregardless’. This must be the most commonly misused word of all time because it is (literally!) not a word! People use ‘irregardless’ to mean ‘regardless’. So why use ‘irregardless’ then? The suffix ‘less’ at the end of ‘regard’ means without regard to, so adding the prefix ‘ir’ to regardless negates the suffix. It’s just one of those bizarre mistakes people make and that somehow catch on.

If You Go Down To The Woods

As I said before, I really like horror stories. My favourite ones are short and (not so) sweet. Ones that lead you along a path, perhaps a path you think you’ve walked many times before, except you soon discover you’re heading in a very different direction to what you thought, and maybe – just maybe – someone else is walking that same path.

What I’ve posted here is a short little piece I wrote that will hopefully unsettle and entertain. I thought of it as I was walking through the woods alone – or at least I hope so.

                                                               

The young girl made her way through the thick undergrowth. It was not yet dusk, but the sun would disappear quickly behind the densely packed trees. There is a sort of amplified silence that resonates through woods. All outside noise is cut off so that the only remaining sound is the woods itself. That’s why the sudden crashing to the side of her startled the girl so much. Animals know the danger of making such noise; this was no animal. She spun around as a man emerged from the foliage.

Surprise flashed across his face but was almost instantly replaced with a warm smile.

“Hello little lady.”

The man’s hands were dirty. He was carrying a shovel. The girl wondered what he was doing out here.

He spoke again, “What’s your name?”

“Goldilocks.”

The man laughed at this. “Well, I guess that makes me Papa Bear.” He smiled widely. “What’s a girl as young as you doing here all by yourself?”

“Looking for my friend Janie.”

“Well I can help you look for her.” He grabbed hold of her hand. “Where’s little Janie likely to be hiding?”

The girl looked sad. “She’s not hiding. She’s missing. Me and Janie used to play in the woods together. But last week she didn’t come back.”

“The woods can be a dangerous place for a little girl. Don’t worry, though. I’ll take good care of you.” Again he smiled that big smile of his.

The man began to lead the young girl further into the woods. Hand in hand, they walked on until the trees towering above them entirely blocked out the sky. The girl shivered.

“Poor little thing. You’ll catch your death.” They both stopped as the man lay down the shovel. He took off his jacket and helped the girl into it. He gave her shoulders a gentle rub. “Do you want to know a story about these woods? Bad things happen in here. That’s what I heard. There was once a little girl who was walking through here all alone. It had gotten so dark that she couldn’t find her way back home. Luckily for her, she found a nice man in the woods.”

“Lucky for her”, the girl said.

“Lucky for both of them. He was able to take her back to his house – his little gingerbread house – all alone in the woods.”

“That sounds nice”, the girl said. “What happened next?”

“Unfortunately, the girl was naughty. She wasn’t grateful to the man for saving her. She ran off, back into the woods. That night, the little girl died, all alone in the woods. No one ever saw her again.”

“How do you know she died if she was never found?” the girl asked.

The man leant down, drawing his face close to the girl’s. “Someone has to know, don’t they?”

The young girl smiled as she swung the shovel into the side of the man’s head. “Your stories are so good. I think you’ll make a great friend for Janie.”

The girl whistled to herself as she began to dig a hole.

Agatha Christie: 5 Novels that were Almost Perfect

I love Agatha Christie. I may have made that clear from my numerous mentions of her work throughout my postings. She wrote a great number of mystery novels throughout her career and there exists a list of staple classics that people associate with her.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Murder on the Orient Express

And then There Were None

Death on The Nile

Five Little Pigs

Evil under the Sun

These are almost unanimously voted as her greatest novels: works of pure ingenuity. But I have my own list: a list of works almost as brilliant but fail to be deemed ‘classic’ due to one or two small failings. Below I’ve compiled my list of what could have been Christie’s best works, and what’s stopping them from being so.

Three Act Tragedy

How to fix it: Make the motive solvable.

This is one of the most original of Christie’s works. It features not one but two unique motives for murder, a very clever plot, a cast of interesting characters, and yet this is all let down by the ridiculous reveal of the murderer’s motive. There is simply no reason for suspecting the murderer because there is no way of discovering the motive. The motive itself isn’t awful (it’s certainly not one of the best) but it relies on the existence of a character that wasn’t mentioned until the reveal of the murderer. Even worse is that Poirot withheld this information from the reader: a big no-no in detective fiction. If Christie had given even the tiniest clue as to the motive, this could easily have found itself on the above list of works. But instead it finds itself here.

An extra point for those who know the ending: (Warning! SPOILERS! If you don’t want details revealed skip to the next title.)

With Mrs De Rushbridger (the third victim) being in a sanatorium, it would have made much more sense for her to be Sir Charles’ wife. It could then have been written to include some possible detail that would link her to Sir Charles, rather than the never-before-mentioned Gladys Mugg.

Dead Man’s Folly

How to fix it: Cut the conversation.

Christie wrote this novel in 1956, when her knack for plotting had not yet begun to slip but perhaps her writing had. The plotting is quite brilliant, quite original and quite-well executed, except that it is totally lost amongst the banality of the investigation. Poirot becomes bogged down in lengthy interrogation with the characters, of who provide scant important details and many unnecessary ones. There is also too much focus on unsavoury and unlikely motives for the murder. Due to the young age of the victim (unusual in Christie’s work) the investigators involved continually push the angle of the murder being sexually motivated, which is far too tawdry for a Christie. No reader actually believes it was a sex-crazed lunatic so stop bringing it up. (The same goes for Evil Under the Sun, where Poirot proposes for the entire novel that two of the only four possibilities for the murder was that it was either perpetrated by a gang of smugglers or a ‘religious lunatic’. Murders in detective novels are never committed by outsiders!)

The Hollow

How to fix it: Remove Poirot.

As shocking as it sounds, this novel would have worked far better without her famous Belgian detective. Indeed, her play adaptation removed him and was far better from it. His inclusion is unbelievable. Poirot, the fastidious man who hates dirt and uncleanliness has moved to the country next door to where a murder is to take place. He also has little to do. The book focuses much less on the mystery element than the majority of books written at the same type and subsequently has little detective work for Poirot to do. As a detective novel it is fairly weak but as a novel in its own right it is one of Christie’s best. The novel would work far better as a psychological analysis of people affected by murder than as a whodunit.

(Warning! Possible Spoiler!)

Also, the murderer is one of the most sympathetic Christie has ever written and Poirot effectively killing them at the end is quite jarring and very out-of-character.

Murder in Mesopotamia

How to fix it: Change the motive

This book is technically flawless. It works brilliantly as a plot but as a novel it begins to fall apart. The problem lies in the reveal of the murderer’s true identity. It is just totally unbelievable for the character to have gone unnoticed for so long. A simple change of motive would have made the fake identity unnecessary and thus credible.

The second problem is how the murder is conducted. Again, as a bare plot it is genius, but totally unrealistic. There are too many possibilities for error and it unbelievable that a person would ever plan to commit murder in this way.

(Warning! SPOILERS!)

The murderer relies on the victim holding their head out a window to be bludgeoned to death. The victim then seems to defy physics by being knocked back through the window and into their room rather than slumping over the window. It is then vital to the murderer’s alibi that no one discovers the body for over an hour. And there is apparently no blood spatter anywhere near the window. Why would a person ever plan a murder like this? Egad!

Elephants Can Remember

How to fix it: Write it 30 years earlier.

Elephants Can Remember is one of the last books Christie wrote, and while her grip began to slacken towards the end of her career, Elephants Can Remember is uncharacteristically clever and original. In it, she makes a final and original reworking of the love triangle theme that she used for some of her greatest novels. It is also well-clued and solvable: a rare feat amongst her later works. The problem lies with the writing. Christie was 82 at the time of writing and the writing is rather slack. Similar to Dead Man’s Folly, characters waffle on about irrelevancies for much of the book. Details are hazy and often confused. The death being investigated is sometimes said to have happened ten years ago, other times it is fifteen or twenty.

It is also irritatingly unbelievable that all along there was one character who knew exactly what happened. They are brought in at the end to confirm Poirot’s theory but after the reader has had to sit through so much unnecessary questioning of people who knew nothing why was this the last person they asked?

How Horror Works

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…

– ‘Knock’, Frederick Brown

 

It’s fun to be scared. Haunted Houses, Halloween, scary movies and Stephen King: all terrifying (Ok, perhaps not Stephen King himself, I’m talking about his books.) and all gloriously entertaining.

Horror novels aren’t considered ‘high art’ by literary critics, more of a cheap thrill. And what’s wrong with that? But I think there’s more to the horror novel than cheap thrills. Something is going on that accounts for its enduring popularity. (Something sinister? Dun dun dunnn!!)

They evoke this very powerful, very visceral and primal emotion of fear. Fear is universal: everyone experiences it. What is so terrifying about a set of pointed fangs, glowing red eyes and sunken pale skin that they are able to evoke such a fear in people regardless of age or ethnicity?

There is a certain exhilaration that fear brings. It’s like adrenalin. When you feel fear your instinct kicks in. Fear raises your senses: you’re suddenly attuned to every infinitesimal detail of your surroundings. A sudden movement or noise captures your undivided attention.

Compare it to why people enjoy rollercoasters so much, and why they love to scream the whole way through it. Like a rollercoaster, the horror novel provides a safe fear: one we’re in control of. We choose to take it on and we feel that rush throughout and then come out the other end exhilarated that we’ve conquered the fear.

I think that’s why we love horror novels so much. They test us. Test our limits. Just when we think we can’t handle anymore, there comes a far more terrifying scene. We’re terrified, and yet we get through it. We haven’t let the fear overwhelm us. We’ve experienced it and overcome it.

Not so scary after all, is it?

How to Solve a Murder Mystery Without the Clues

‘It was you,’ Inspector Flimsy said dramatically, ‘Lady Melchett!’

‘No it wasn’t!’

‘Damn it!’

I love a good murder mystery. Not only do you get an engaging story but you get a fun intellectual puzzle thrown in as well. What a bargain! In saying that, I don’t often solve the mystery. But that’s the point. The author doesn’t want you to actually solve it, only have the illusion that you could have if you’d been a little less dunder-headed. But never fear! My years of research have given me a great insight. Sure, the clues they provide are far too cryptic for anyone to actually decipher, but we don’t need them. Because in providing clues, the author is really providing you the answer. Not in the clues themselves but in how they are placed. I am going to show you how to solve a murder mystery novel without using any of the clues, only by using the novel itself.

The Characters

Just looking at the characters that might have done it, we already start to formulate an idea. Of course there’s the ‘least likely suspect’ trope but now that everyone’s aware of that, what constitutes the least likely suspect? If everyone suspects the least likely suspect doesn’t that make them the most likely? On the other hand, no one really suspects the most likely suspect (too obvious!) so do they actually become the least likely suspect? Then does that mean they’re again the most likely suspect? Never mind all that, let’s move on to my character clues’.

One-off suspicions will never apply to the actual murderer

This is a way of sharing the suspicion around. Authors don’t want you to actually suspect the murderer so they’ll never explicitly state a clue that helped the detective solve it in the end.

If the detective finds somebody’s glasses at the scene of the crime then that person didn’t do it. It’s just too obvious and way too disappointing if what led you to the murderer was simply the fact that they left something of theirs at the crime scene.

The same usually applies with motives. If somebody has an obvious motive for killing someone, it’s unlikely this will be the actual motive, even if that person does end up being the murderer. Focus on those who have seemingly no motive or those whose motive is very stock-standard. If somebody’s motive is that they’re the sole beneficiary of the dead person’s will, that’s not likely to be the reason why. It may be realistic in real life but in a novel, the reader expects more ingenuity than that.

Of course, the murderer may be suspected by the detective at one point. Pay attention to anyone who becomes too obvious. Disregard the explicit clues that point to them though. The author isn’t going to serve you up the murderer and the clues halfway through the novel. Look for other clues or other interpretations of the given clues to see if it still fits with the person. If all the evidence is stacked up against one person early on, usually that person will have been ‘framed’ and be cleared later on. Don’t stop suspecting them just because the detective does. Could the suspect have planted obvious clues that would be proved false so that the real evidence pointing to them would also be considered false?

Just How Suspicious?

A good author won’t concern themselves with the ‘least likely/most likely’. They’ll focus on trying to stop you ever suspecting the murderer. So rather than ‘least suspected’ it’s ‘never suspected’. Sometimes the ‘never suspected’ trope can backfire on the author. If they spend a lot of effort convincing you that one person could definitively not have committed the crime, then double your suspicions on that character. If a character was observed somewhere else at the time of the crime, incapacitated so that they couldn’t physically have done it, or somehow have some unimpeachable alibi, then they’ve done it.

If your detective doesn’t consider them a possible suspect or remarks that they couldn’t have done it, that person did it. Look for characters that are above suspicion: The investigators, the person who asked the detective to investigate, the person who insisted what everyone thought was an accident was really murder, the person someone’s trying to kill, the helpful but bumbling sidekick. If someone is above suspicion not based on evidence but simply because of their character or suspicion then it’s most likely them.

The Clues

You’ll never be given clues – at least not in their proper form

Of course you’re given clues, but not in their meaningful form. You’ve got to do some of the work yourself! Therefore, never judge a clue on face value. You need to think creatively as to how else the clue could be interpreted. When Poirot emphasises the importance of the calendar in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, it is not the calendar that’s important at all. Whilst the reader is considering the implications of whether the calendar had the wrong date or a particular date circled, its real importance is that the butler has to look at it up-close. The calendar establishes the butler’s poor eyesight, and then we can start to question whether he has mistaken one of the characters for someone else or an object for something else. Also consider Sherlock Holmes’s interest in ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time’. You may be confused because the dog seemingly did nothing curious. Then you begin to consider all the curious things that the dog may have done and what they mean. Of course, the dog didn’t do anything, and that’s important because usually the dog would do something, which points to who the perpetrator was.

The Narrative

This is more about the book itself then the actual plot. If you can solve what sort of book it is (what’s special about it) you can probably solve the murder.

Its reputation

Have critics lauded it as one of the most shocking endings of all time? Well what kind of ending would it have to be to constitute that? It’s obviously not going to be a plain-cut solution. Look at which characters would prove a shocking murderer. The detective’s assistant? The detective? Is the victim really dead?

Does it remind you of other books by the same author?

If an author uses a successful trick in one book, it’s easier to try to reuse that trick than come up with a new one. I’m not saying mystery writers are unoriginal hacks but they may look for ways to reinvent or remodel a past solution to provide a new one. When reading a book by an author you’re familiar with, look for variations on a theme. Agatha Christie often used the theme of the love triangle. This is when three people are involved in a complicated love affair. A loves B but B is in love with C. A and B were in love but now B and C are together. A and B are in love but C is capturing the attention of B. When you start to notice a recurring theme or similar plot, consider how you could fit the old plot or theme into the new novel. Two of Agatha Christie’s novels, Death on the Nile and Evil under the Sun, have the same relationship at the heart of the novel. A happy couple’s relationship is threatened by an interloper. In Death on the Nile, the interloper is an ex-lover, In Evil under the Sun, it is a shameless ‘man-eater’. Without trying to spoil either plot, the relationships revolve around the similar idea of not being the relationship that is suggested, although executed differently.

So these are some of the ways that you can get a kick-start in finding that pesky murderer without having to do any difficult clue-finding and interpreting. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to apply these rules to a book once you’ve already finished it and know who did it. But perhaps that’s for the better. Because sometimes it’s fun to just go along for the ride and let yourself be fooled.

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