Archive | February 2011

100 Books in 2011 review: Stet

I’m sticking to my policy of not reviewing non-fiction even though many of the 100 books I’ll read this year will be non-fiction. I’m making an exception for Stet by Diana Athill because it was the February choice for my book club.

It is a memoir by someone who worked as an editor all her life. The book is in two halves. The first is a potted history of the author and the second is a series of vignettes about some of the authors with whom she worked. Those authors are Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, V. S. Naipaul and Molly Keane.

I was quite excited about reading this. I’m not really interested in memoirs and biographies, but I thought that reading about someone who worked with words would be different. I was looking forward to an exploration of the art of editing.

That’s not what this book is about. Part one is a charmingly written precis of Athill’s life. It’s a long life and there is only a hundred and twenty eight pages to cover it. Which means that there is not much depth. Athill talks about how she became an editor, her relationships with her colleagues, the development of the publishing company she worked with and its eventual decline. She doesn’t really talk about editing except to say that some writers need more work than others. At only one point is there a sense that she helped to create a book and that was a book about Myra Hindley that the author found psychologically difficult. It was disappointing for me that Athill didn’t spend more time talking about the art of editing.

The authors in the second half of the book are mostly unknown to me. I read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and loved it, but I’ve read nothing else of hers. I read A House for Mr Biswas by V. S. Naipaul and hated it, but again, I’ve not read anything else. The others I know nothing of. I find that I don’t really want to know too much about artists, whether they are writers, actors, musicians or any other kind. If you enjoy someone’s work, you kind of have a fantasy about who they are. I tend to imagine that the authors I like are terribly clever, erudite, cultured and suave, with liberal, progressive politics. And of course, they’re not always like that. Surprisingly, they’re human and ordinary. Being a fantasist, I find that reality doesn’t live up to what I can imagine – perhaps that’s why I love speculative fiction!

So, I slogged through the vignettes. Like the first part of the book, they were charmingly written and lacking depth. I found the whole thing just dull. In fact I was so bored I skipped the book club meeting because I couldn’t face talking about this book for an hour.

Respecting the art of writing

Over the years I’ve been involved in writing groups I’ve found myself in conversations about how much technique matters. It appears there are two schools of thought.

On one side are those who think it doesn’t matter much. They argue that worrying about correct spelling and formatting kills the creative flow and it’s much more important to get the story out. Punctuation and other such tedious matters can be sorted out by the editor/agent you will definitely get once you’ve finished your novel.

The other school believes technique does matter. If you don’t master the basics of technique and present your work in a professional manner, it won’t even get looked at. No-one will be able to enjoy the genius of your story if they have to read every sentence three times to work out what you mean.

I’m on the side of technique. I care very much about the correct use of commas. I think understanding sentence structure helps you make your point clearly. There are twenty eight books on my shelf on the subject of writing and there were some I read that I chose not to keep. I read blogs on writing. I critique other people’s work so that I can improve my own. I read as many novels as I can and try to analyse the technique, although sometimes I forget if I’m enjoying the story. Some of the most fun I can have is talking about books and writing.

For me, technique supports storytelling. The two are intertwined. The most beautiful, perfectly executed writing can’t make me enjoy a story I don’t like, but I can appreciate the craft. The most interesting story can, however, be lost under poor writing. I’m not really talking about the odd spelling mistake or confusing you’re and your; these are small things that don’t interfere with understanding what the writer meant. More confusing is random placement of commas, running dialogue in with narrative, malapropisms, and poor paragraphing. Short sentences that start with the same words nearly all the time get boring, no matter how much I liked the idea of the story.

When you’re writing your first draft, it doesn’t matter. Just get the words down. Worrying about presentation at that stage isn’t productive. But when you rewrite technique is what will make your story come alive. Knowing how to finesse your words will get your great story noticed.

I think, in life generally, how you do what you do matters as much as what you do. Attention to detail makes a difference to the result. That’s what makes something great as opposed to good. I do agree that perfectionism can be used as procrastination and my working life has taught me that a perfect product not delivered on time (or at all) is not perfect. Getting the task done is more important in some circumstances. So, I’m a recovering perfectionist learning to love good enough. Caring about technique doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a perfectionist; it means you want to do the best job on your story that you can. Good enough doesn’t mean ‘oh whatever, that’ll do’; it means the best you can achieve in the time you have.

And I think I’ve always found it hard to express what I feel about how technique supports and enables storytelling. So when I read Editors on Editing: Respect Your Art on Women’s Memoirs, I thought that is exactly what I mean. Sloppy technique shows a lack of respect for your art. Writing technique is the equivalent of stretching your canvass and choosing the right thread and needles.

100 Books in 2011 review: Free Fall

I bought Free Fall by Robert Crais in a book buying addiction frenzy in Asda. They were selling a ton of books for a pound each. How am I supposed to not buy books if they do that??

Anyway, I was in the mood for easy-going fluff, and I have a book target to meet, so this seemed like a quick win.

This is an Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novel. A young woman thinks her policeman fiance is in trouble. It turns out to be much more trouble than anyone bargained for involving blackmail and murder.

It’s fun, easy reading. Cole and Pike are more likeable than some of their ilk (yeah, Jack Reacher, I mean you). They are not complex characters but neither are they flat and stereotypical. Some of the supporting characters get well fleshed out as well. Others don’t, notably the villains. The plot cracks along at a good pace and there are one or two nice thoughtful moments. It’s entertaining and if you’re looking for a light read, you could do worse than this.

100 Books in 2011 review: The Number of the Beast

The Number of the Beast by Robert A. Heinlein is one of his later novels (published in 1980) and is not just a story.

The basic plotline is two couples in a time machine travelling through a series of universes, more or less similar to our own, alternately running from and chasing the villains that tried to kill them at the start of the story.

But what it really is, is a homage to 1930s pulp science fiction. The style is dated and the characters are Heinlein usual combination of intellectual brilliance, excessive heteronormative sexuality and stereotypical gender norms. Interestingly, Heinlein spends some time exploring the unconscious ways in which men undermine women’s assertion of equal rights and self-determination while believing that they are being supportive. It is surprisingly insightful, given Heinlein’s justified reputation for reactionary thinking.

The book is full of in-jokes, most of which I didn’t get, not being steeped in the fiction which the book is paying homage to. I liked the concept of fictons – that somewhere in the multiverse any fictional world thought of pops into existence. That would be cool. Of course, Lilliput, Barsoom, Oz and Wonderland wouldn’t be the worlds I’d choose to visit but there you go.

I hated the ending where Heinlein brings all his characters together for a big, self-congratulatory conference. This is strictly one for the fans.

So, if you could visit any fictional world/universe where would you choose to go? I’d go to Sunnydale, Westeros and the Culture.

100 Books in 2011 review: Forbidden Magic

I love the idea of paranormal romances. Erotic romance combined with fantasy sounds like something I could really enjoy. What could go wrong?

Forbidden Magic by Cheyenne McGray is the first of a series. A witch who works with law enforcement to solve mystical crimes discovers that a coven of black warlocks is planning to summon people-eating demons to earth. Failing to convince her coven to summon the Tuatha D’anann, she does it on her own, but only one of them comes. Her coven is attacked by the demons and then she and her warrior ally convince the rest of the Tuatha D’anann to come to fight the demons.

You know, it sounds promising and I’m always up for a bit of silliness in plot terms, so long as it’s well-written silliness. And that’s what could go wrong. The characters are pretty stereotypical. Aside from the witch Silver, and her Tuatha D’anann lover Hawk, the characters are flat and boring. The members of the Tuatha D’anann party, the law enforcement team, and the coven, are just names with the odd bit of description attached. There is no personalisation and no individualisation.

Romance writing is different in that the focus is on the development of the central relationship and on the sex scenes. But for me, the relationship in this case didn’t feel convincing. The sex scenes did the job they’re supposed to do. They were ok but not great. And I was rather disappointed by the kinky sex only being allocated to the evil characters – the kind of sex you have doesn’t say anything about character and it’s not good writing to rely on such obvious tropes.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to recommend about this one. Anyone got any recommendations for really good paranormal romances?  

7 random facts about me

Via KLo, whose stories were lovely.

1. I’m a Raqs Sharqi dancer.
I’ve always thought belly dance was beautiful and wanted to try it. Five or six years ago I went to a raqs sharqi class because it was the nearest thing to belly dance in my area. And I fell in love with it. I haven’t been dancing much for the last couple of years as I’ve been ill and not physically up to it but I do still dance around the house occasionally. Last Saturday night I went to concert of tribal fusion belly dance and raqs sharqi concert and had so much fun. There was an hour of free dancing afterwards and a bazaar of pretty, shiny things.

2. I like sprouts.
They’re an acquired taste, but I love the brassica family of vegetables in general and sprouts are yummy. However, I don’t like the whole roast dinner thing as it has too many other things I don’t like such as stuffing, yorkshire puddings and roast potatoes. I’m not keen on beef or pork either.

3. My first crush was on Basil Brush.
I was four and I’ve had appalling taste in men ever since!
4. I want to live in a castle.

I want stone floors (with underfloor heating, obvs), tapestries, ramparts and vast oak tables. I want red velvet curtains from floor to ceiling and iron chanderliers and a four poster bed to sleep in. It would be even better if it were one of those with wooden panels between the posts, so I could essentially sleep in a box.

5. I’m currently addicted to reality TV.
It started with Strictly Come Dancing and The Apprentice. It’s getting out of control and I’m not sure what it is that’s so compelling (although partly I think it’s because there’s little else to watch). So, while I’m writing this I’m watching Tool Academy. I can’t get enough of America’s Next Top Model. And Dancing on Ice, or Got to Dance. I have ordered a book from Amazon that will explain to me what is going on.

6. I have a teddy bear that is 35 years old.
I was given a bear when I was six months old that went with me everywhere. It has been through the washing machine loads and is still in good condition. It’s called Smokey and I still take it to bed when I’m feeling sorry for myself.

7. This is my idea of male physical beauty.

🙂 Which of course says nothing about personality or connection. It’s just what I like to look at. 🙂

You know the drill…

100 Books in 2011 review: Philaster

OK, this was a bit of cheat. I wanted to read something short to help meet the 100 books goal. So I found a little book called Philaster by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. I’ve had this for about fifteen years (it was my grandparents’ originally) and never read it. The edition I have was published in 1898 and is really cute.

It is a play. It is about love, mistaken identity and inheritance. Philaster is the diposessed heir to the throne, in love with the daughter of the usurper who is supposed to marry someone else. The young boy they use as a go between is really the daughter of another lord who is in love with Philaster.

This was fairly light. It’s all about dialogue and there’s almost no worldbuilding. I don’t read a lot of plays and when you watch them you have all the visual elements to fill in a lot. So it feels like there’s not a lot to talk about. I did like it, the dialogue fairly cracked along despite the fact that it’s early 17th century English.

What I particularly noted was that the dialogue conveys a lot of passion. This is an emotional drama and it was useful and instructive to look at how that was achieved. The words put in the characters mouths, the choice of metaphor and the use of repetition all built up intense conversations.