Saturday, June 27, 2020

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl as a template for characters' desires

Sometimes we read a story that doesn’t quite hit the mark. Many readers can’t always articulate why it is that a story isn’t as satisfying as it should be, but as an editor, I can tell you that important milestones exist within every story (and every genre) that if they’re not quite ‘there’ then it means that the story falls flat.

I’d like to talk about heroic qualities, and touch on both inner and outer journeys for characters using a film that I’ve loved ever since it came out: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Yes, it’s somewhat silly, and flawed, but what I do believe the writers did well was articulate the main characters’ desires. Each also was the hero of their own story, and each story arc slotted seamlessly in with the others. And most importantly, this film highlights the importance of clearly articulating characters’ desire.

So, let’s go…

Elizabeth Swann is the daughter of Governor Swann, who is in charge of Port Royal. Even though she’s gently bred, she nonetheless yearns for adventure and is a plucky young woman who thinks on her feet. We discover a girl who’s grown up on stories of pirates, and who secretly harbours a desire to experience adventure. Yet she plays the dutiful daughter because that is what society demands. Her initial call to adventure is when as a child she protects the young Will Turner, who is rescued from a shipwreck, and who wears a cursed pirate medallion. She is brave in the face of danger, in sharp contrast to the damsels we often see in film who are the prize and not the ones who claim the prize. Yet she’s not afraid to wield her femininity as a weapon. She is even willing to offer herself up as a prize to Commodore Norrington in order to save the man she loves. Elizabeth shows us a character who despite her apparent vulnerability in a traditionally male-dominated society, is unafraid to give as good as she gets, despite her limitations. Her conflict arises between doing what is expected of her vs following her heart, which is represented in the choice that she makes in whether she will choose a life of security with Norrington or follow her passion and break with tradition by choosing an uncertain life with Turner. A note here on Governor Swann, who bucks the trend of the traditional patriarchal figure who enforces societal norms. He allows his daughter the choice at the end and is concerned for her happiness.

Will Turner is on the standard hero’s quest to find his father, yet his journey to uncover the truth of his past is not smooth. His call to adventure comes when his father sends him a gold medallion, and at a young age he journeys to the Caribbean to find his father. Unknown to him, his father is a ringleader in a pack of pirates fighting over cursed Aztec gold, and he’s been drawn into the heart of this very curse. Employed as a blacksmith’s apprentice with a knack for not only creating fine swords but being a fine swordsman himself, it is clear that he is enamoured with Elizabeth, although she is far about his social station, and theirs would be a most unsuitable match. If it were not for Elizabeth’s kidnapping by the pirates, who mistake her as the scion with the blood who will end their curse, and the fact that Jack Sparrow recognises Will as Bill “Bootstrap” Turner’s son, it is possible that his story would have remained with him crafting swords in Port Royal. Except Sparrow drags him into the adventure, and Will makes startling realisations that horrify him: he is the son of the notorious pirate. And with this he spends most of the film at war with this truth about himself – that there is this wilder side to his nature. He comes fully into himself when he acknowledges his nature, and instead of being the meek blacksmith’s apprentice, he becomes unafraid to take risks and take control of his destiny. While he doesn’t quite gain the closure he desires with regards to his father’s fate, he nonetheless has a better understanding of his place in the world.

Captain Jack Sparrow is perhaps the unluckiest pirate alive, and his existence is filled with one daring escape after the other. He fulfils that delightful grey area of the inveterate trickster who encapsulates both heroic and villainous qualities. Within the story arc of the films it is often through his actions that obstacles are thrown in the path of both protagonist and antagonist, and yet despite his self-serving ways that often are counterproductive to both himself and his allies, he still sets events in motion that are for the good. His desires are clear: he wants to reclaim his ship, the Black Pearl, and he will do anything to attain that goal. The Black Pearl is his prize, his freedom – which is more valuable than gold. It’s these desires of Sparrow that help drive the plot of the film forward and create tension that supports the journeys of Elizabeth, Will and Barbossa.

Captain Barbossa is more than just a one-dimensional villain who rubs his hands in glee. His desire is clear: he wishes to end the curse that sees him endure a shadowy, undead existence, where he is unable to enjoy life’s epicurean pleasures. All he wants is to be able to eat, drink and … well … do the other thing. He is surrounded by opulence, good food, drink, none of which he can taste. He is cursed to sail the Black Pearl through all eternity until he finds that last piece of Aztec gold, which happens to be in Elizabeth’s possession. He needs that medallion and with it spill the blood of Turner. It was through his own greed that he inadvertently sealed his fate when he and his cronies sent Bootstrap to Davy Jones’s locker. Now he has a chance to reclaim his mortality, and his greatest prize, thanks to Will and Elizabeth’s actions. Of course, hijinks ensue, and we end up with a dizzying array of double- and triple crosses.

Where Disney gets this right is that each character is the hero of their own story. If you had to write a book purely from the point of view of any one of these characters, you’d get a perfectly decent story that will no doubt have you at the edge of your seat. Put them all together and balance the tension just right, and you have a beloved, enduring swashbuckling adventure.

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is not perfect, and if you ask me, they should have ended at the third movie, but I do believe that we as authors can learn from how these characters’ desires drive them into conflict with each other as each seeks a prize that is unique to them.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Charlotte by Helen Moffett

Anyone who knows me will have a pretty good idea that Regency-era novels are possibly not quite on my radar, but I'm a firm believer of reading widely and reading outside of my chosen genres, so here goes. Charlotte by Helen Moffett is the sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice you didn't know you needed to read. But truth be told, I'd heard so much about darling Charlotte that I went and read Pride and Prejudice so that I'd be suitably prepared with all the back story in place.

I'll start by saying that P&P is an important book to read, and a clever one, because it sneakily delivers biting social critique for its time, and in that sense exists as a capsule reminding us how far we've come in terms of women's rights. Moffett takes up where Austen has left off, and instead of doing the expected, rather continues the story from the point of view of Charlotte Lucas, who is so easy to overlook otherwise yet who nevertheless also has a compelling story. While Mr Collins is the opinionated, somewhat buffoonish, brown-nosed idiot I absolutely loathed in P&P, Moffett does the last thing I expected – she redeems him.

The underlying theme of Charlotte is clear: it's about women not meekly accepting the conventions and expectations laid down by society, but bit by bit finding ways to subvert them and overcome them. This may be seen in how Charlotte deftly handles a matter of inheritance or how an absolutely delightful secondary character goes haring off on a most unsuitable adventure for gently bred women. Even if Moffett does, I feel, take a few more liberties with characters' actions than I think Austen would back in the day, the end result is still plausible and satisfying.

Not only has Moffett continue the storyline with her own, signature twist, but she's also preserved Austen's style of writing, which in itself is no mean feat. And while Moffett's own particular brand of poetry creeps out in key scenes this is in no way jarring. Moffett takes this opportunity to display her rare talent for evocative imagery that had me feel as though I were walking right there on the grounds of Pemberley.

I won't spoil anything further, but I'll urge anyone who's ever loved Pride and Prejudice to go and track down a copy of Charlotte. Moffett has certainly left enough tantalising breadcrumbs that may lead to further stories to follow on from this one.

Charlotte was exactly the comfort reading I needed to read the moment I tucked into it, and I savoured every page.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Author Spotlight: Marvel Chukwudi Pephel

Today I'm featuring prolific Nigerian writer Marvel Chukwudi Pephel for a quick Q&A.

ND: How does your environment and local culture inform your writing?

Marvel Chukwudi Pephel: Thanks for having me, Nerine Dorman. To say the least, I have always wanted to connect with you on the basis of your being a wonderful speculative fiction writer. To your question now: Well, it's obvious that one's environment can influence one's writing. But I don't set out to write an environment-influenced or culture-influenced piece. However, their latent influence cannot be denied. Being a Nigerian, I try to let some aspect of my local culture in; but this cannot be forced. At least, I have learnt this from my years of experience. I let my writings decide for themselves if they want to wear the cloak of my environment and it's local culture. Consequently, the effect is that not all my writings reek of my environment and local culture. So, if not for local names, it might be difficult to tell if the piece was written by an African (Nigerian in this case) or if it was written by a Westerner. And I think this is quite reasonable; for one's imagination should not be confined to the quarters of local culture or its environment thereof. So, in a nutshell, my environment and its local culture has no choking determining hands on the neck of my writing. My subconscious determines when my environment and its local culture should inform my writing; and how they do inform my writing when the situation necessitates it is by making me look at stories about my people that need to be told but which have somehow remained untold.

ND: What do you love best about poetry?

MCP: As a writer who started writing poetry first, I must say that (good) poetry is the foundation of wordly beauty. At an early age, I was exposed to various poets and various forms of poetry. There was Gwendolyn Brooks who wowed me with her poem "We Real Cool". There was Pablo Neruda who set my ambition on higher ground. There was Shakespeare who built worlds of impeccable beauty with his poetry. There was also Wole Soyinka who sat on a cliff in my mind and pointed me to the uncharted territories deep beneath the waters of poetry. I am grateful to all the poets that have affected me in one way or the other. Now, what I love best about poetry is the fact that it is an embodiment of compact beauty. Nothing beats the ability to express an idea in few words nor does anything beat the tingling sensation good poetry gives to the brain. Another good thing is that readers and writers of poetry lead happy lives when they choose to avoid their lives growing moss from the vicissitudes of life. Poetry helps in easy articulation, and I wonder if there is anything more satisfying than this on the intellectual scheme of things.

ND: How has your writing changed your life?

MCP: The truth about writing is that it is therapeutic. Well, my writing has changed my life as much as my life has changed my writing over time. Writing has opened my eyes to the many hidden treasures life has to offer, and has taught me that the more you write the more you care about the humanity of people. It has changed my life so much that I can stay calm when things are not going quite well; and don't we writers face a certain kind of uncertainty when we are at work on a project? If we can endure and persevere, sometimes for years, before finishing up a masterpiece then same endurance and perseverance can be applied to our individual lives. I think writing is an art that can only be practiced by the patient. No one in a hurry has ever produced a work worth reading. My life has also changed my writing. The fact is that my life has always revolved around the appreciation of nature and beauty, and this informs my writing to a large extent. And recently, this appreciation has been growing in exponential, epic proportions. Well, I was taking a walk the other day when I passed through a certain shop popular for its advertisement. This shop sells dogs. I love pets, but not dogs. But this particular Chihuahua sat in its kennel staring so cutely as I walked by; so cutely I felt it was tugging at my heartstrings. So palpable a tugging I returned for it the following day. And now, who's writing a short story featuring a chihuahua named Bliss? Me!

ND: Tell us about your speculative fiction; what are some of the themes that you uncover and elaborate on?

MCP: Speculative fiction is like a darling to me. It offers readers the chance to experience new worlds, which is quite important. In fact, my first fiction to be ever published is a speculative fiction titled "Girl, Blue Eyes, Boy". This particular story gave me quite a tough time. The first version was a mixture of sci-fi and fantasy, but it got rejected twice. It was my essay into fiction-writing, so I was quite sad and annoyed. But I didn't allow myself to be discouraged. Rather, I locked myself in my room and tried to see what was actually wrong with the story. I tried so hard till I fell asleep. A sleep I am quite indebted to; for every unnecessary bit of the story presented itself when I woke up. I quickly edited out the fantasy with satisfaction and sent out the story to Africanwriter.com. Within a short space of time, I received a response; and it turned out to be my first acceptance for fiction. Since then, I have written many more with themes ranging from space travel to alien attacks to time-travel to cybernetics to love and many more. My spec fic can be found on the African Speculative Fiction Society's database, which collects published works of speculative fiction written by Africans.

ND: If there was one thing your current self could tell your younger self, as a writer, what would that be?

MCP: Well, that would be a succinct advice: "It's normal to be uncertain. It is uncertainty that fans the flames of creativity. The progress might seem slow, but wishes can be horses for whoever has the magic of belief.

Marvel Chukwudi Pephel is a prolific Nigerian writer who writes poems, short stories and other things besides. His works have appeared in various media. His poetry was selected for the Best New African Poets 2016 Anthology and the Austrian Haiku Association's Lotosbl├╝te 2018. His short story was shortlisted for the 2019 Sevhage Short Story Prize. His poem titled "Ogene" appears on 10,000 socks printed in Sweden and to be distributed across the world. He is represented by Van Aggelen African Literary Agency. 

Here is a link to his most recent speculative fiction at Kalahari Review.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Instafrights: Short horror stories for the busy gentle(wo)man by John Loc

We don't often have long, uninterrupted stretches of time in which we can sink into a novel, so the aptly titled Instafrights: Short horror stories for the busy gentle(wo)man by John Loc is just right for those of you who want those little snippets of disquiet.

I'm not going to go into great depth with every story, otherwise I'll be here all day, but I enjoyed reading two or three of the stories at a time, then coming back later when I had a moment. Loc's writing style is engaging, with a subtle dark twist of humour that made me giggle every so often. He excels in subverting the everyday, walking that fine line between being deliberately mysterious and paying out just enough information to give a story its sting right at the end. Some tales are just a few paragraphs, but he has a few longer pieces of flash fiction near the end. Instafrights, as the name suggests, is a fun selection of little dark dabs of fiction.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Where the Veil is Thin: An Anthology of Faerie Tales edited by Cerece Rennie Murphy & Alana Joli Abbot

I'll admit upfront it was the cover that grabbed me when I chose Where the Veil is Thin: An Anthology of Faerie Tales edited by Cerece Rennie Murphy & Alana Joli Abbot. And it's been a while since I've reviewed an anthology of SFF stories, especially modern-day fairy tales, so why the hell not. As can be expected, this was a bit of a mixed bag for me, with some stories not quite hitting the mark for me, but overall a pleasing collection of tales.

"The Tooth Fairies: Quest for Tear Haven" by Glenn Parris is a somewhat grisly tale about why tooth fairies are so enamoured with collecting teeth. The story strives for a slightly gritty telling but left me feeling as a little let down. There were some quirky little characters with a somewhat sticky ending.

In "Glamour" by Grey Yuen, hardened cop Jack investigates what he initially sees as a celebrity murder, but with a twist, and leaves more mysteries than answers.

Seanan McGuire's "See a Fine Lady" is easily one of my favourite stories. And who among us who've ever been trapped in untenable work situations haven't fantasised about the weird spilling over and upending our everyday boredom. Here Frankie, who works in Target, has a day that rapidly turns strange when a woman rides a unicorn into her place of work – a unicorn only Frankie can see. Oh, did I mention the unicorn's name is Kevin?

"Or Perhaps Up" by CSE Cooney was another of my favourites – it has an entirely dream-like quality, dealing with concepts of loss, found family, and the spirits of the dead who reside in a sort of magical fae place. Cooney's prose is beautifully descriptive, and the story made me sad for all the right reasons.

"Don't Let Go" by Alana Joli Abbott had a bit more of an urban fantasy feel to it, about a student and her friends who have an extended stay in the Isle of Man, complete with an entanglement with the local fair folk and a clearly defined romance element. I did wonder how the human protagonists accepted the supernatural events so easily, but it was still a fun read.

We meet Rhenna, a fairy who gets by by stealing bodies in "The Loophole: A Story of Elsewhere" by L Penelope. The writing is gritty and tactile, and unashamedly grim in places, and follows the premise of a fairy's struggle to hold onto a stolen body. It feels more like a glimpse into an alternate reality rather than a finished story with a satisfying resolution.

"The Last Home of Master Tranquil Cloud" by Minsoo Kang is told in a standard fairy tale format, but it didn't really blow my hair back. I found myself skimming more often than not, so it's possibly just not for me.

"Your Two Better Halves" by Carlos Hernandez is a choose your own adventure, but as I was reviewing this in ebook format and there weren't any active links to skip pages, I passed on this story, mainly because I also really wasn't in the mood for the format. The writing also didn't engage me enough to put up with the endless paging backwards and forwards. I'm sure in print format this would not have annoyed me as much.

"Take Only Photos" by Shanna Swendson was quite fun, even if it peters out near the end. Our somewhat misanthropic narrator discovers that they have elves in their home, and a colleague helps them get to the bottom of the infestation.

"Old Twelvey Night" by Gwendolyn N Nix is lovely – a relationship between fae of opposing natures that takes a dark turn near the end. This story is strong, crisp and brings forth poetic imagery. Quite possibly one of the strongest in the anthology.

I admit I'm a sucker for selkie stories, but while "The Seal-Woman's Tale" by Aletha Kontis had some nice touches, it didn't quite hit the mark for me. Perhaps some of it lay in the trolls taking on an almost Tolkienesque orcish role, which felt a bit on the nose for me.

"The Storyteller" by David Bowles is filled with wonder and magical realism, and at its heart it's about the interleaving of family myth and the archetypical role of the storyteller. So much to love about this one.

Maybe it's because I used to suffer a chronic skin condition, but "Summer Skin" by Zin E Rocklyn wasn't really my cuppa Joe. Creepy and nasty, and not for the faint of heart.

"Colt's Tooth" by Linda Robertson offers us a creepy riff on the tooth fairy myth, in this American West-themed tale that offers us a run-in with a barber of dubious nature. Also, if tooth violence isn't your jam, stay away from this story.

I do suspect that with this anthology, your mileage will vary, and the stories that I didn't like may well be more to your taste. Well, that's the whole point with anthologies – there's generally a little something of everything, and the editors have put together a fine selection.



Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Last Kingdom (The Last Kingdom #1) by Bernard Cornwell

I admit freely that I'm one of those readers who fell into Bernard Cornwell's writing courtesy of the Netflix series The Last Kingdom. Since I've blown my way through all four seasons, I've now turned to the books for my Uhtred fix, and boy oh boy, I'm happy to report I've been having a treat.

My biggest gripe is that I didn't start reading Cornwell sooner.

First off, the source material is rather different from the TV series. I understand that the screenwriters had to deviate (budgetary constraints, visual vs. verbal storytelling, etc). So there are differences, the biggest being that in book one, we have far more detail about how Uhtred serves King Alfred on the ships that they build to protect the coast from Danish incursion.

And also, the Uhtred in the books is, ahem, a little less squeaky clean than the one portrayed in the series. That doesn't bother me, because I think Cornwell has done an amazing job bringing this period of English history to life. As a narrator, Uhtred is an outsider, and having that perspective allows him a particularly fine position to comment on the culture of both the Danes and Saxons, and Cornwell weaves together an incredibly nuanced and detailed telling that has me completely hooked. I'm a happy reader, who's busy with the boxed set currently, and each chapter feels like I'm right back there in the old days, grime, glory, guts and all.

I know this is an uncharacteristically short review for me, but all I can say is that I'm a really happy reader on a complete buzz with Cornwell's writing. This dude is goooood. So very good. I need more.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Predators by Michaelbrent Collings

Predators by Michaelbrent Collings is one of those books I suspect would have done better as a live-action thriller on screen or a graphic novel rather than novel. I admit my interest was piqued when the author approached me to do the review, since I am an African and have done the whole 'African safari' thing. So I guess I'd be kinda in the know. And I get it – I don't often have this sort of novel set in Africa land on my desk.

This is survival horror, brutal and bloody. So if that's not your cuppa joe, step away from this book. This is not for you.

We kick the story off with a cast of characters, many of them women who have been damaged by the men in their lives, and they're all off on safari with all manner of dysfunction playing in the background. Except the safari doesn't quite go as planned, and the survivors end up being hunted down by a ravening pack of preternaturally vicious hyenas that made me wonder if these hyenas weren't perhaps demon possessed or something, because amateur conservationist that I am, I'm not hundreds sold on the idea of hyenas behaving quite the way they do in this book. But anyhow, this is a work of fiction, so I'm going to suspend disbelief. People die and the survivors are pushed to their physical and psychological limits. Gruesomely. Rescue isn't likely. The end.

I *get* that the author intended to show a bunch of women being strong in the face of adversity. I *get* that he did a lot of research to make this feel like an 'authentic' African experience. But as an African reader, the whole time I felt like this was a non-African author trying too hard to create an authentic experience for me as a reader, and it didn't quite hit the mark. Don't get me wrong, Collings is a strong writer, but it didn't quite hang together for me in Predators. Whether it was the lack of motivations for certain events that happened (like the catalyst for when things really go wrong at the start that's never truly explained) or for me what felt a bit like contrived back-stories for each woman whose life is defined by the fact that she is hard done by the men in her life, I remain lukewarm at best. If this had been a film, that focused on the act of survival and perhaps a sisterhood that grows out of adversity without dwelling on the demons of the past, this might've worked better for me. And also, just a note, from a technical aspect, this book had a bucketload of little typos – so a more thorough proofread could have helped.

This is not a bad book, just not quite my cuppa, and if survival horror is your thing, you're probably going to ignore the other aspects that didn't work for me.