Archive | June 2010

Thoughts on reading: The Hard Way

Plot. I have issues with plot. I have a mental block when it comes to getting my characters from one big event to another via smaller events. Perhaps it’s just a confusion, a lack of being able to see the big picture, and the plot really is there and I just can’t see it. If it is there, it won’t be because I did it deliberately.

With this in mind, I picked up The Hard Way by Lee Child. It’s heavy on plot, one of those thrillers that’s all plot and not much else. In actual fact, it’s more of a detective novel with the emphasis on gathering the little clues and interpreting them to fnd out what really happened. The ending is sufficiently explosive with Jack Reacher dispatching the bad guys at a breakneck pace that makes it rather exciting.

Characterisation is on the light side. This is the second Jack Reacher novel I’ve read and I don’t think I know him any better than I did after reading the first one. The rest of the characters are fairly thin. The bad guys are bad and several of the seven-man crew have only names and a couple of physical features to describe them. Reacher hooks up with an ex-FBI agent turned PI, who is a woman in her fifties given an active role and is the love interest, so kudos to Lee Child for a positive, powerful representation of an older woman. Unfortunately, her role is limited to being a foil for Reacher and at the end she is tied up waiting to be rescued.

It is good to see that there isn’t a high body count amongst the female characters, and a theme of strong sisters fighting for their families runs through the book. It is done rather unsubtly but is a nice touch in a genre that is often misogynistic. There is also a drop of social commentary on the privatisation of the defence and security industries. It’s not great literature, but it is fun and is better than several thrillers I’ve read recently.

In non-fiction I turned for help to The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman. I got this because it was mentioned by a panelist at alt.fiction 2010 and I have been worrying about plot lately. It has some useful suggestions in it and a couple of things I hadn’t read before, so it was worth it’s purchase. What I didn’t like was the highly gendered use of pronouns when talking about characterisation techniques. At the beginning, Lukeman says he will use he as a generic term, which is lazy at best, but ok. Except that’s not what he does. He sometimes uses he and sometimes uses she. If he had just alternated that would have been ok, but he doesn’t. He only uses she when talking about things that are associated with women in traditional gender stereotypes and never uses she outside of talking about children, attractiveness and domesticity. Grating, and enough to spoil the book, especially as it was written in 2001.

Thoughts on reading: One Day

Book club time! This month we read One Day by David Nicholls. It’s mainstream fiction of the Nick Hornby type.

I don’t really know what to say about this. The writing was amazing. It was so deft, assured and done with such a light touch that I was left feeling very disappointed that this talent was wasted on such a dull story. Nicholls is a great writer. One Day is not a great book.

I quite like the concept of it. One Day tells the story of a twenty year relationship via one day (the same day) per year. Again, Nicholls ability to sketch the characters in a couple of scenes that show a year’s worth of growth and change, without info dump or exposition, is exceptional. But the story is a fairly pedestrian romance between two characters that aren’t very interesting or likeable. I spent the book wishing Nicholls was writing sci-fi or fantasy.

The end of the book was also disappointing. One of the characters dies. It’s really abrupt and there’s no foreshadowing, which could be interpreted as an admirable commitment to realism or as the only way to avoid the dreary slide into domesticity that seemed so inevitable. I’m going for the latter. Give it a miss, unless you want to admire the technical skill.

Thoughts on reading: The Broken Sword

So, I’m making my way through the Fantasy Masterworks series – this is going to take some time, bear with me – and lately I read The Broken Sword by the prolific Poul Anderson. It’s number 32 of 50; obviously I’m not doing this in order. For the record I’ve already read numbers 13, 17, and 22.

The Broken Sword is inspired by Norse myths and is set amongst Vikings, elves, trolls, Aesir and Jotuns. The writing style is brilliantly archaic. There were a couple of points where I thought Anderson was making words up and he’s certainly not shy of turning nouns into adjectives or verbs. Every word works to create the rhythm and feeling of myth. The words are strange and alien which is fitting for a story set in a strange and alien world.

I don’t think the plot was lifted directly from myth but it follows a familiar path to its tragic end. Despite the unusual language I found this an easy read and the pace was quite fast. Characterisation was done with quite a broad brush, with more tell than show, but in this case I feel that was dictated by the constraints of the style. Because it was told as myth, then characters were described as mythological characters – many of whom would be familiar from other tales in the Norse mythology.

I really enjoyed this and it is very different from contemporary fantasy. Worth a read.

Thoughts on reading: Club Dead

The Book People come to where I work and sometimes you can gets lots of books for little money. The last time they had eight Sookie Stackhouse novels for a tenner. Even taking off the two I’ve already bought, it was still a bargain, so here I am, reading more pulp fiction.

Club Dead by Charlaine Harris is the third in the series. Like the others there is something compelling about it but I can’t put my finger on what. The writing is ok; it’s not great but worse gets published.

Sookie’s overwhelming attraction for the supernatural men around her is tiresome. She’s so special and different (undefinably, because it’s not about her telepathy for all them) that they just have to have her. Of course she says regular men find her unattractive but there aren’t actually any in the books. In Club Dead, Sookie is angry with Bill for cheating on her, but she doesn’t know that for sure, and she goes off to rescue him anyway. Along the way, she smooches with Eric and a werewolf without managing to pick up any understanding for Bill. Reversing the double standard doesn’t make it better.

I don’t think I can even read it as sex positive, because Sookie doesn’t have agency. She is at the mercy of passion, swept along by the force of male desire, unable to help herself. And that’s why it’s not sex positive. Sookie isn’t having these encounters because she is choosing them, she’s having them because she is unable to resist. Which just reinforces negative stereotypes about women and sex.

Of course, for all its many faults, it is a great story that is an easy read. And there is no doubt I will read the rest, probably soon. I’m not sure why I like them, and I feel slightly soiled, but I do like them. Can anyone explain it to me?

Non-fiction titles I’ve been reading are The Gods of the Celts by Miranda Green and Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body by Susan Bordo. Gods of the Celts was really interesting, if a little dry. The evidence is largely archaeological and the Celts didn’t leave behind any written explanation of their own, so inferences must be carefully done. It was fascinating and represented a take on religion that is different to the current dominant paradigm. Unbearable Weight was awesome. It is a collection of Bordo’s essays on feminism and the cultural aspects of eating disorders. Highly recommended and for a serious academic work, very accessible.

Words: Ruth

I use the word ruthless quite a bit and the other day I was wondering whether there was such a word as ruth, so that one could be absent of it. In one of those marvellously serendipitous coincidences a couple of days later my Word of the Day was ‘ruth’.

It means compassion or pity; sorrow or grief; or contrition, remorse. It’s a lovely word that deserves more use.

Thoughts on Reading: Confessor

Confessor is the last of a long cycle by Terry Goodkind. Once again, I haven’t read the others; it’s just something I found on my shelf.

I enjoyed the writing. There was extensive philosophical dialogue that was nicely handled. It made me realised that my characters tend to talk in short, clipped bursts, trading swifts sentences back and forth. I think I could mix it up a bit and include some longer bits.

Goodkind also uses a lot of interior monologue. It occasionally borders on info dump, if that term can be used for emotional/intellectual exploration. Again, something that needs expanding in my own writing and this offers a good example of how to do it.

On the other hand, it is quite a violent book – one of the themes is the use of violence and where it might be appropriate, in ‘just’ wars, for example – and quite a bit of the violence is sexualised. Goodkind appears to be making the point that violence against women is bad and is labouring it somewhat. What that does mean is that there are many female characters playing a variety of roles, which is good for representation of women.

So, I liked this. The writing was good and the ideas were thought provoking. I will go back and start at the beginning of the cycle.

In non-fiction, I read Buy-ology by Martin Lindstrom. It’s ok. I bought it thinking it would be quite heavyweight, but it wasn’t. It’s a good introduction to advertising techniques if that’s new to you.

Reflections on alt.fiction 2010

Wow, what a difference two years makes. I’ve just got back from alt.fiction 2010 and it was thought-provoking and inspiring.

I went to alt.fiction 2008 and it was a fun event. I met some people and learnt some things about writing and getting published, but it wasn’t such an amazing experience that I was keen to come back again. The organisation and sessions had an amateurism that doesn’t appeal to me. I have some experience in professional event organisation, which may make me harsher than others, and the little things are important to the overall impression of the day. We all have our quirks, right?

2009 didn’t happen. I know what the reasons were; I think it had to do with funding and logistical support. Given an extra year, and the fact that I have friends in Derby, I thought it would be fun to go again. I wasn’t expecting too much.

This time round both the organisation and panels were better. The event seemed smoother and there were plenty of helpful staff on hand to keep things under control. The panellists (many of whom were the same as 2008) stepped up to the smarter venue and better organisation. The disucssions were erudite and intelligent and I was inspired by the conversations. It reminded me that there’s nothing that’s more fun than talking about books and writing, especially specultative fiction.

I couldn’t attend every session. From what I did attend, this is what I’m taking away with me:

  • Writing can be a career. You have to decide what you want from it and treat it in the same way you would any other career.
  • A web presence is essential.
  • Chasing the market doesn’t work. Write what you need to write – the market will catch up with you.
  • I have so much reading to do…

I’m definitely going next year. Maybe by then I’ll have worked up the courage to talk to a publisher about my novel.