Archive | September 2010

Thoughts on reading: For a Few Demons More

Before Charlaine Harris and Stephanie Meyer there was Kim Harrison and the Hallows series. The premise is that a virus wiped out about three-quarters of the human race, thus revealing the supernatural population. For a Few Demons More is the fifth (and so far final) in the series.

All the books in the series have had titles that are plays on Clint Eastwood movies, which I quite like, largely because I liked the movies. But it does set the mood of the books; that is action-orientated, maverick cop (sort of) and not to be taken too seriously. These books are fun and I enjoyed For a Few Demons More.

I don’t have much to say about the writing. Harrison is big on details which makes her world very convincing. She does sex scenes well, dialogue well and there’s absolutely loads of conflict. This was another first person narrator and I find the language did sometimes bother me. There were loads of cliches and naff metaphors which jolted me out of the story.

The plot in this book seemed to take a really long time to get going. I was a good quarter into the book until there was any development on the plot problem that was introduced at the start of the book. Much of it was spent on developments in the relationships between the main characters, which was engaging as these relationships are full of conflict, but leads me on to another thought. It didn’t feel like a final book in the series, but that’s what the website implies.

Kim Harrison’s books are fun, easy to read and I will read more. Even if they annoy me just a little bit. I like them about the same as Charlaine Harris and more than Stephanie Meyer.

Thoughts on reading: Lords of the North

Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell has Vikings in it, so it is automatically brilliant. Also, Cornwell is one of my favourite authors.

One thing that characterizes Cornwell’s writing is a tendency to end a scene or chapter with a snappy short sentence. For example ‘The gods were not happy.’ Sometimes it’s a cliffhanger, sometimes it’s foreshadowing and sometimes it adds drama. It serves to drive the story forward and makes his books hard to put down!

This is written in first person POV. It seems like I’m reading a lot that’s in the first person lately. I don’t know if that’s coincidence or a trend. In this case, the main character is an old man telling the story of his youth. The voice is very strong. It’s confident and self-assured, and well suited to the character. What is different to many first person narrator’s is that there isn’t that much internal monologue or exposition. The story is largely told through scenes with solid description and great action. What internal monologue there is, is very effectively used to show character.

I really enjoyed this and Cornwell has a style of writing that I particularly enjoy.

The books we should have read…

I do like lists. From the Huffington Post, here’s a list of books that apparently people claim to have read but haven’t.

The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer – I read the Knight’s Tale at school, and it’s on book mountain, but I haven’t read any more tales.

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville – nope. Maybe I should add it to the list.

Ulysses by James Joyce – nope. Probably won’t either.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – nope. The excessive sentimentality of the films put me off.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie – no. It’s on book mountain so I probably will.

Moby Dick by Hermann Melville – why yes. Lots of lists of whales.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking – yes, I have. And I understood some of it.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – um no, never heard of it.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco – no. Saw the movie.

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust – no. But I really feel I should.

Don Quixote by Cervantes – no. It’s on book mountain.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner – no. I might though; I really like the title.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoi – no, but it is on book mountain, so one day I will.

Two for me then. What about you?

Thoughts on reading: Virgin Slave, Barbarian King

Oh goddess, it’s so embarrassing. I hate reading these things. But, following a workshop on the challenges of writing for Mills & Boon, there are several of them on book mountain. I’m perfectly prepared to believe that writing formulaic romance requires considerable skill and discipline. The second Mills & Boon I’ve read since the workshop has provided little evidence.

It’s ok. It’s way better than the first. There is description as well as inner monologue and there is a pleasing symmetry in the protagonists journey which makes the patriarchy marginally easier to swallow. It has Goths; not quite Vikings but close enough. Other than that, it has little to commend it.

It did make me think about the dynamic of love stories, though. Protagonist 1 meets Protagonist 2 and finds them horrible/infuriating yet attractive. Protag 2 feels the same. Yet, they can’t just enjoy each other. No, instead they must be convinced that it would be wrong to love each other and very angry about what they are feeling. Why? What sort of relationships are like that? Not healthy ones, for sure. Mixing love up with shame and anger is not a cocktail I want to drink. But there’d be no story if there were no conflict, would there? If the conflict were external, it would become a different type of story like a quest or an adventure. To keep it a romance the conflict must be internal, fueled by misunderstanding and insecurity. And that’s why they follow this pattern. If they don’t, it’s not a story. So, I learned something from reading Virgin Slave, Barbarian King by Louise Allen.

My non-fiction was more edifying. I read the Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus and it was life-changing. The main essay is Camus’ thoughts on how one can respond to the absurdity of a godless world. Surprisingly uplifting.

Thoughts on reading: The Turn of the Screw

Last year, there was a television adaptation of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and thus there followed much discussion of its horror and psychological twists. Well, what more reason do you need to read a book?

I struggled with the language. This was a surprise. I read the odd classic and although it takes a few pages to get into the rhythm of the writing, usually I find that it is perfectly clear once you get used to it. Perhaps it’s because the classics I tend to read are by English authors – Dickens, Hardy, Austen – and James is American. I wondered if the reason I was finding it hard to get to grips with was because it was an American classic and the language was subtly different to English literature of the same era.

What I found really frustrating was that I didn’t know what was going on. Things weren’t spelt out. There were coded references to socially unacceptable behaviour, which to me could have meant all sorts of horrors. Some people find that leaving things to the imagination makes it more scary. Not me. I can imagine a lot of things and not being able to choose which is the thing being described (because there aren’t enough clues to nail it down to one thing) is frustrating. It certainly underlines my belief that detail is what convinces in fiction. For me, the horror was reduced by the vagueness and ambiguity, not increased.

My non-fiction book was Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan. It was excellent, full of good advice, good examples and lots of things to try out in my work-in-progress.

Thoughts on reading: Whit

Whit by Iain Banks has been on book mountain for a while. Years in fact. I was put off Iain Banks’ mainstream fiction by not being able to get through A Song of Stone.

It’s a slow start and I only stuck with it because this is my work. If I was reading for entertainment, I probably would have put it down well before I got halfway through. Not that there’s anything wrong with it – Banks is a fine writer. It’s just that the story wasn’t compelling. I know what I like; vikings, vampires, adventure and sex. There was none of that. It was a story of a insular community and their relation with the outside world and it wasn’t that interesting to me. Until about halfway through. Then it becomes clear that certain people are up to no good and there is a bit of a mystery at the centre of the story.

So, the second half of the book is better, but I don’t think I liked it that much. Which is not really the point as we’re here to talk about the writing. The main thing I noticed about this book was the worldbuilding, perhaps because I don’t expect it to be so obvious in mainstream fiction. Banks is describing the world of a group of people who live in a way that makes them quite alien to ‘normal’ people. He carries this off well. It is in the first person and the (sole) POV character, Isis, is completely invested in her way of life. She is special in this world, the very opposite of an outcast, and it takes several large event to make her start questioning the status quo. The worldbuilding takes place via Isis, and as she’s not an outsider, Banks has the discipline to convey her total acceptance of her world. It is the outside world, the contemporary world, that is portrayed as strange. Her strangeness, the weirdness of her world is shown to us by her skewed interpretation of the people and events around her. It was a skillful demonstration of worldbuilding that brought the reader into the world, rather than leaving them watching from the edges.

The other element of note is almost the flipside of the first. Choosing a protagonist who is at the centre of her world, with high status, who feels loved and accepted, enabled excellent worldbuilding. But it also meant that shaking that belief in the goodness and rightness of the worldbuilding would take some significant events and that had to be done convincingly. I feel that contributed to the slow pace of the unfolding of the plot. Banks spent the first half of the book building Isis and her world up and then the second half tearing it down. I think I would have prefered more foreshadowing than Banks gave us.

In non-fiction, I read The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton. I thought it would be about how humans are biologically wired for faith, but is actually more about how beliefs affect the science of biology. Some interesting ideas, if not a totally convincing theory.

Learning from reading

A lot of the posts on this blog are about the books I’ve read and what I’m learning from them. But it would be true to say that I don’t do this in any systematic way, other than thinking about it and making some vague notes on this blog.

Then I read a post on the blog on learning from the masters. The idea is that you fold up the pages where a passage strikes you as being particularly effective. Simple, no? Except I’ve always believed that writing on books is sacrilege, and while I’ll fold down a little corner to mark my place and break a spine to read it more easily, the idea of folding over half a page seems less like turning a small corner and more like scibbling notes. Of course, when I write it out like this it sounds like the nonsense it is. So, folding up the pages is on.

The next steps are to transfer the passages that you marked into a dedicated notebook, then analyse them and look for patterns. So that’s what I’ll be doing. I’ve got a couple of books marked up already and just waiting for transfer into a notebook. What do you think?