In which I belatedly think about World Book Day

World Book Day! Of course. That’s what I should have blogged about last week. I sat in my little purple office thinking, “What should I blog about?” and ended up on poverty and social mobility which was fine, albeit a bit ranty, but it actually was World Book Day, and I am a wannabe writer and non-wannabe reader. It was obvious, and I missed it. Sorry.

So what we’re all going to do now, is agree to pretend that it’s still World Book Day and I’m entirely punctually blogging on the topic of the day. I’ll give you a moment, if you wish, to pop off and change into whatever you were wearing last Thursday for added verisimilitude.

Are you ready? Then I shall begin. Well, World Book Day, eh? What is there to say? Actually what is there to say? Something book-related I suppose. Judging from the photos adorning my mummy-friends’ facebook and twitter feeds it would appear that going to school dressed as a fictional character is a big World Book Day thing. So let’s start with that. Which character would you dress up as, if you weren’t one of those responsible adults with a job where turning up in Hogwarts’ robes makes colleagues walk the long way around the office to avoid your desk?

It’s a tricky one. Lots of my favourite fictional characters are from contempory fiction which doesn’t really lend itself to playing dress-up. If the character you’re dressing up as is from the same age group and time period as you, there’s a risk no-one will notice that you’re in costume, which has some advantages in the workplace but is not really In The Spirit Of The Thing.

Children’s books probably provide a richer seam for quality costume work, tending as they do, to be heavily people by Wizards,Vampires,Pirates, Talking animals and the like. I think I could rock a Worst Witch costume, and I was very fond of her as a child. In our younger days, my sister and I did bear more than a passing resemblance to Beverly Cleary’s utterly brillant Beezus and Ramona so that’s an option (and no, I’m not offering you a picture of our younger selves for comparison.)

Beezus_and_Ramona

Fantasy fiction must also provide good dressing up opportunities. Terry Pratchett gives you exciting options of wizards, witches, vampires, policemen, vampire policemen and trolls. A troll suit might be tricky to build though, so maybe not.

I think my fantasy dress-up pick at the end of the day is going to be a bit of a classic. I’m going to go Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre

Now I know she’s billed as being a bit plain, which isn’t ideal for dress-up, but I don’t think I can bring myself to abandon Jane for one of those flightly Austen heroines just in the name of prettier hair. Jane it has to be. Sensibly attired, unflatteringly centre-parted but resourceful and intelligent. Go Jane! Go Jane!

So what about you? Remembering  that it’s still last Thursday, who will you be dressing up as for school today?

In which I consider Jesus and the Doctor (in a wholly TV/theatre non-blasphemous reviewing sense)

This weekend I experienced two exciting things. Two whole exciting things. The exciting things, one could say, were twofold. Exciting things transpired in an even number of occurrences greater than one but no more than three. The aforementioned two things were as follows:

1. Jesus Christ Superstar at the Manchester Arena

2. Doctor Who

By now all readers should either be mentally singing “Jesus Christ! Superstar! Do you think you’re what they say you are?” or “Dum-de-dum, dum-de-dum, dum-de-dum, durrrrrr,” or some sort of weird mash-up of the two. I hope this is bringing you pleasure. So here are some little reviews of these two exciting things. (If you’ve not seen Doctor Who – The Angels Take Manhattan, be warned – there may be spoilers).

1. Jesus Christ Superstar

So this is one of those big Andrew Lloyd Webber musical productions where they cast the main character by the medium of a tv picking programme. It wsan’t a vintage picking programme. Previous ALW franchises have been super-low budget and high camp BBC productions presented by Graham Norton and replete with timeslot inappropriate smuttiness and extensive taking of the piss out of The Lord (that’s Lord Lloyd Webber, not The actual Lord). The Jesus picking was done on ITV, presented by Amanda Holden, with all the lack of irony and shiny shiny stage sets that that implies.

Anyway, it doesn’t really matter, because the part they were picking a performer for was Jesus, and, despite the title, Jesus ain’t the main character in this show. Judas is. Jesus, in the first half particularly, is a tad whiny and self-involved, and you can kind of see why Judas would want to hand him over to the authorities. Apart from hitting a couple of truly excruciatingly high notes, Jesus mainly just has to wander around looking alternately pretty and then tortured.

Which brings me onto the high points of this production. First up, Tim Minchin as Judas Iscariot. Now I slightly love Tim Minchin – he made it onto my desert island last Christmas, and his was definitely that stand out performance of the show. Yay, yay, and thrice yay to Mr Minchin.

The other, slightly surprising, high point was Chris Moyles as King Herod. Herod only really has one scene and one song, and it’s a funny song, so it’s kind of a tricky role to mess up, but Moyles excelled. The staging of Herod’s court as a TV talk show worked, and Moyles nailed the Jeremy Kyle with a hint of Saturday night vibe perfectly.

My main quibble with the show wasn’t the performances, it was the staging. This show is being presented as an arena tour, which Lloyd Webber insists is consistent with his original artistic intention in writing a rock piece. But actually this show felt like a theatre show transplanted to an arena. The staging was super-traditional proscenium arch style, with hardly any use made of the space available. Because the production adopted a straight stage at the front format, some of the sight lines for the audience at the sides of the venue were terrible. I like the idea of doing a rock musical in a rock venue, but if you do, why waste all that lovely space and flexibility by staging it like a theatre production? Sadly, the staging did let the production down, as it felt slightly like it was neither an intimate theatre show or a big arena extravaganza.

Overall, good idea, some great performances, but a bit more focus needed on the staging and the production really produce Wow moments in a large arena.

 

2. Doctor Who – “The Angels Take Manhattan” (FINAL WARNING – risk of spoilers if you’ve not seen the episode).

Ooooh! Doctor Who! The Weeping Angels (by far the best baddie of the New Who era) are back! River Song (who I want to be when I grow up) is back! Amy and Rory are going! This may all be too much to cope with.

And it was. It was all too much to cope with. I think I started crying when Old Rory died and pretty much didn’t stop until after the picture of Clara/Oswin/Whoever-in-space-and-time-she-turns-out-to-be in the Christmas special preview. This was my favourite sort of Doctor Who episode – small in scale, focussed on the details of the scariness. Rory desperately lighting matches in the cellar, the Doctor running across New York to find the last page, River snapping her own wrist in preference to letting the Doctor down.

And Amy and Rory are gone forever. Or are they? Nothing is really forever in sci-fi, but I hope (although I’m a fan of both characters, especially lovely gentle surprised-by-his-own-heroism Rory) that they don’t make the, apparently increasingly obligatory, end of season reappearances. It’s darker, more interesting, if the Doctor (or indeed any hero character) has some situations, some problems, that they can’t just wave a sonic screwdriver at and resolve before the credits roll.

 

So those were the weekend’s two exciting things. How about you? What exciting things do you have to tell us about?

In which I consider sock puppetry and the pitfalls of online promotion

Firstly, dear reader, an apology. It is, I can’t help but notice, Tuesday. I did promise you that I would deliver you a weekly musing every Monday. I have failed. I prostrate myself before you and implore your forgiveness. Am I forgiven? Jolly good. Let’s all move on.

So, there’s has been a small furore (a furorette?) of late about writerly types massaging and faking their online reviews. Proper successful writers, most notably (but not uniquely) RJ Ellory, have been caught hiding behind anonymous online usernames in order to  big up their own books and slag off rivals in Amazon reviews and online forums.  It also turns out that John Locke’s “How I Sold 1 Million E-books in 5 Months” failed to detail his technique of paying for positive reviews. Ooops. Now clearly neither of those things are really on. But what is on when it comes to online promo? Where, ladies and gents, is the line?

If I hop over to twitter right now, 5 out of the first 15 tweets in my feed are people providing me with links to where I can buy their book, download their book or read a review of their book. And that’s a much lower percentage than it would be at other times of the day. Now clearly a bit of tweeting of links to stuff is fine. If people follow you on twitter I think it’s fair to assume they might be interested in other stuff you’ve written or produced. I’m a guilty party, as I always tweet and facebook the link to this blog when there’s a new post. I think, equally clearly, those people who use social media like twitter for nothing but direct promo are annoying and should expect to be unfollowed pretty quickly. Constant promo is deeply tiresome and makes all the lovely interesting people on twitter disappear off the bottom of your feed before you’ve had chance to see what they’re up to. Having said that, even aggressive and excessive direct twitter promotion is an irritant rather than an act of fraud.

But what about tweeting a link to the amazon page for your book and asking people to post a review? If someone tweets a writer to tell them they’ve enjoyed a book, is it ok to ask them to repeat that view on amazon? What if the reader doesn’t contact the writer directly, but the writer seeks them out and asks for a positive review? What if a reader writes a positive blog review, entirely of their own free will and volition? A review on a tiny personal blog isn’t going to do much to help a writer’s sales – what’s wrong with copying and pasting those positive comments into an amazon review? You’d simply be repeating a reader’s genuine thoughts, albeit under an amazon profile not of their creating.

An underlying issue here is one of markets. For new writers starting out, particularly for independent self-published writers, amazon is the key selling place. Getting books into real world book stores is hard, and there are less and less of them to choose from. Waterstones, WHSmiths and the supermarkets dominate real world book sales and, limited by shelf space, carry a vastly smaller range of titles than online sellers, and in the UK, at present, one online seller dominates them all. The drive to promote your book on amazon, to post good reviews, to boost your search position feels close to irresistible.

In addition to that, one of the big messages that new and aspiring writers hear from every turn at present, is that you must have an online presence. You must promote yourself and your wares. In this bookselling context it’s easy to see how the anonymity of online communications can tempt people to do things they’d never consider in a real world conversation. It’s tricky when talking to someone face to face about your book to nip out of the room, pop back in with a different hat on and pretend to be an enraptured reader of the tome. It’s also quite awkward to stand in front of someone and repeat the phrase “Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book” at 3 minute intervals, but online, people don’t always recognise that they’re doing just that and it’s, frankly, a bit creepy-weird.

So maybe that’s the rule – if it would be creepy weird in person, it’s probably creepy weird online. And, unless you’re trying to sell some sort of gothic fantasy horror, creepy weird is probably not the image you’re trying to create. So what do you think? Have you seen any examples of online promo that made you feel a tad discomforted? Do you pay any heed to amazon reviews and blog comments on books? Do you have any other thoughts on any subject at all? Please share…

In which I embrace a life of crime

A long time ago, but right here in this particular galaxy, on this particular blog, I extolled the virtues of reading widely. This was a good and clever thought, and one that, quite correctly, prompted my even gooder and cleverer sibling to point out that for all my wise words, I very rarely read crime fiction.

In order to redress this balance she, and my good friend Holly, prescribed a literary diet of psychological thrills and physiological gore, the opening courses of which I have now consumed and will review forthwith for your blog reading pleasure and enlightenment.

In reverse order my top three recent crime reads were:

 

3. Ruth Dugdall, The Woman Before Me

This novel won the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award prior to being published, and for a first novel, it’s an accomplished book. Dugdall’s main characters are a probation officer tasked with assessing prisoners’ suitability for release, and the prisoner she is assessing, currently incarcerated for killing a friend’s baby.

The idea of prison setting  means that the crime story unfolds in flashback and through diary entries and probation interviews, rather than in present narrative. Generally, this sort of overly complicated narrative structure floats my boat, and the idea of the probation officer as detective, piecing together the past after the whole investigative and judicial process is, apparently, over, is an interesting one.

I have a couple of small quibbles. The book concentrates heavily on the prisoner’s psychological state, which, although well-written, I could have lived with a bit less of. I would also have preferred to see the reveals of what actually happened in the past drip-fed more slowly through the story. There’s one big surprise held back for the ending, but, apart from that , I felt like I knew pretty much what had happened from about a third of the way through. Holding a few more plot details back might have added to the suspense in the story and pushed this book even further up my chart.

 

2. Michael Robotham, Shattered

Joseph O’Loughlin, the detective character in Shattered, is a psychologist who starts the story failing to dissuade a woman from throwing herself off the Clifton Suspension Bridge. This apparent suicide sets the tone for the rest of the story. When is suicide not suicide at all?

For me this book did manage to balance the internal character exploration and the external plot. Joseph is a Parkinson’s Disease sufferer and we see his inability to apply his psychological insight to his own attitude to life, his body and his disease. We also get an, unusually well-handled, take on the traditional detective’s dysfunctional homelife. But what really keeps this story ticking along is the suicide/murder plot itself. It’s well-paced and in places it’s properly scary.

Minor criticism – perhaps the closing couple of chapters when the threat (slightly predictably) moves closer to Joseph’s personal life aren’t as well handled as the rest of the story, but overall, I genuinely enjoyed reading this one.

 

1. Dissolution/Dark Fire, CJ Sansom

So I’m cheating a tiny bit by having a joint number one, but these stories form part of the same series, by the same author, featuring the same lead character, so I think it’s allowed.

This is crime meets historical fiction. The setting is England under the rule of Henry VIII, which makes these book a tough sell for me. I generally avoid historical fiction set in the 16th Century as that was  my specialist subject at university, which leads to a certain tenseness about tiny historical inaccuracies.

However, I loved both these books. The period setting felt real (and feeling real is so much more important than being insanely detailed).  The stories follow a detective plot; in this case our detective is a lawyer under the patronage of Thomas Cromwell. The first novel centres around a murder at a monastery during the process of dissolution. The second entwines the killing of a child of a wealthy family with the political plot to bring down Cromwell. In both Sansom builds engaging plots around known events without completely throwing out the historical reality to accomodate the story.

These are big thick meaty books which you can dive into feeling confident that you’re going to be absorbed into a story. And there are more in the series, so the enjoyment isn’t over yet.

 

Overall, I seem to like crime fiction best when it’s driven by plot, rather than focussing on the psychology of the criminal mind. I also prefer my gore kept under control, but I am known to be a tad squeamish about these things. To put it bluntly I’m a fainter. I’ve fainted at blood tests, at other people getting their ears peirced, and, indeed, at child-friendly Christmas theatre productions. (Yes. All those things are genuinely true.) I don’t really want to add “reading novels” to my list of activities that are high-risk for loss of consciousness.

Come back later in the week when I’ll be getting all Lenten and talking about abstinence (unless something else interests me more in the meantime). And, as ever, comment, subscribe, follow me on twitter, or, if you prefer, just go read something.

Where I get all sci-fi and fantasyish and do a bit of reviewing.

Sometime ago I commented on this very blog that I’m in favour of doing what every teacher I’ve ever had advised and reading widely. I think I said it here. I definitely said it though, and it was definitely right-headed thinking when I did say it.

In that spirit I tend to read a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, and of different genres of fiction. Recently, though, I seem to have been stuck on a bit of a sci-fi/fantasy roll, and so I thought, “Hey!” (Yes, I actually thought “Hey!” with the exclamation mark and everything) “Why don’t I write a sci-fi/fantasy themed book review blogpost?” And I could think of no good reason why not, and there are no responsible adults around to stop me, so here it is.

Generally, I can swing either way on sci-fi and fantasy. I’m properly quite addicted to Terry Pratchett (to the point of wondering whether there’s a boxed set of all the Discworld novels that I could pass off as a single volume if I’m ever on Desert Island Discs). On the opposite end of the scale I don’t think I’d manage to finish Lord of the Rings even if I was marooned on a desert island and it was the only book. Doctor Who, I have adored since Peter Davidson’s incumbency. Star Wars (whisper it quietly so as to avoid actual physical violence) I can pretty much take or leave. Obviously, I’m talking original trilogy here. The prequels serve no purpose at all beyond providing an emergency Ewan McGregor fix and there are better ways to get that (Moulin Rouge, A Life Less Ordinary & Shallow Grave would be my picks). Even with the originals, I see that they’re culturally iconic, but I’ve watched them all, right through once in the cinema. I’d have no actual hard objection to seeing them again, but it wouldn’t obviously enhance my life.

So that’s where I stand on fantasy and sci-fi generally. Love some. Hate some. Tolerate others. Before I descend into separating all fantasy into Howard from Fresh Meat – if you’re not watching it, you should – style Good and Bad lists (Buffy=Good, Heroes series 1=Good, Rest of Heroes=Bad etc.), lets move onto some actual reviewing.

I’ve read three books with a fantasy vibe lately: The Untied Kingdom by Kate Johnson, Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde and American Gods by Neil Gaiman. They’re probably all more fantasy than sci-fi, but I don’t really have the mental energy to debate the difference. I could term them speculative fiction, but that sounds a tad unnecessarily wordy. Let’s just call them books and be done with it.

 

First up – Kate Johnson’s The Untied Kingdom

This novel is essentially a fantasy romance. The plot hangs off a regular girl from contempory Britain slipping through a crack in time and space and finding herself in an alternate version of reality, where the country is economically and technologically backward and in the midst of a civil war.

Judging from the acknowledgements, Johnson’s a bit of a fantasy fan herself, as she credits Terry Pratchett and Joss Whedon amongst her inspirations. There’s certainly more than a little bit of Discworld’s Sam Vimes about her male lead, and a big dollop of Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic Wars hero, Richard Sharpe. Nothing wrong with that – both are good templates for the tough working class boy made good character at the centre of this story.

I applaud the writer’s ambition. There’s a lot of advice given to writers about what you can and can’t do within a genre. Romance is a genre seen as being aimed squarely at women. Sci-fi has more of a teenage boy reputation. Putting the two together takes nerve, and it’s a risk which is largely sucessful. If anything I’d have liked a bit more of the alternate reality woven in around the central romance plot, but it’s a good read, and it’s brilliant to find a contemperary romance that feels original and has such an interesting premise. This novel is also one that demands a sequel. Without giving away the ending, I really do want to know what these characters do next.

 

Second up, Jasper Fforde and Shades of Grey.

Fforde is one of the big hitters in the comic fantasy market. He’s the author behind the successful Nursery Crimes and Thursday Next series. Shades of Grey is the first in a potential new series, and is based around the premise that people can only see certain colours, and colour perception is attribute around which society is organised. Good writing should engage a reader’s senses, so writing about characters who don’t perceive the world the way the reader does is hard. Two thumbs way way up to Fforde for absolutely pulling this off. Rather than alienating the reader from the characters, their world feels immediate and real.

In a sense this novel is 1984 with an magnified sense of the absurd. You have a dystopian society, an everyman protagonist who is starting to doubt the society he’s living in, and perhaps the beginnings of a relationship with a more rebellious politically aware woman. It’s intended to be the first in a series, and I think it’s probably the first time since the blessed JK hung up her Hogwarts quill that I’ve finished a book feeling bereft at the wait for the next installment. For me Fforde’s earlier series took a little while to warm up – the later books are much better than the earlier ones. This time he’s hit the ground running. Loved this book.

 

And finally, in my little fantasy reading phase, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Gaiman himself is a bit of a god in the sci-fi/fantasy world, and he’s done some truly fabulous stuff. His Doctor Who ep in the last season was a stand out, and Good Omens (co-written with Sir Terry of Pratchett) is a proper pageturner. The premise of American Gods is intriguing – people from all over the globe populated America, so what happened to the gods they brought with them? Have those gods survived and what has been lost in translation to their new home? And how will they respond to the new “religions” of modern life?

I did struggle to get into this book – it’s not that I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s a Big Book. I think it is one to take on holiday or on a long train journey – somewhere where you’re going to be able to settle down and read for a couple of hours at a time. It’s one that you need to read your way into. It took me a while to get going with, I think, because I was pushed for time and reading only a few pages at a go.

We do also need to talk about the length. The edition I have is labelled “Author’s Preferred Text” – words which I naturally greet with the same trepidation as the phrase “Director’s Cut.” Sure – it could mean that the evil corporate sales people bowdlerised your work and you’ve now been able to restore the fully glory of your artistic vision. More often I just think that writers and directors need to know when to step away from the thing they’re working on and move on. Anyway. Gaiman acknowledges that this edition is 12000 words longer than the originally published version. I haven’t done a comparison, so I don’t know which words were added, but my feeling is that this book is slightly longer than it needs to be. So, I would recommend this book, but I would probably suggest seeking out the shorter original text and saving it for a day when you can really settle down with it and immerse your brain in Gaiman’s world.

So that is what I have been reading of late. Next up I’m going into a Crime phase (reading, not doing). It was quite rightly pointed out to me, by my very wise senior sibling, that for all my “Read widely” waffle I very rarely read crime fiction. To right this wrong, she has also provided me with a shelf of crime fiction to get my teeth into. CJ Sansom, Minette Walters, Harlan Coben and Michael Rowbotham here I come.

Where I muse on chick lit, writing and accepting feedback

There’s a bit of a rumpus in chick lit world at the moment. Earlier in September the author, Polly Courtney, publicly dumped her publisher, Harper Collins, ostensibly for marketing her books with what she felt were misleadingly chick lit-ish covers. She explains in her own words more fully here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/16/chick-lit-womens-fiction

This was closely followed by a flurry of news stories detailing the fall-off in chick lit sales (for example http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/have-we-fallen-out-of-love-with-chick-lit-2361445.html), and topped off by this delightfully reasonably headlined piece by Harriet Walker in the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/harriet-walker-saccharine-silage-that-fails-women-2361506.html

Obviously, what this debate needs is another random internet opinion, so here we go. To start off in any sort of half intelligent debate, it’s important to agree about what your terminology actually means. Doing so can avoid a lot of unneccessary bickering over stuff it turns out everyone actually agrees about. So what do we mean by chick lit?

Probably most of us who frequent bookshops or spend inordinate numbers of hours browsing on Amazon can bring a picture into our minds of what we perceive as a classic chick lit novel. You’re probably picturing a pink, or predominantly pastel coloured, cover with sparkly writing and a semi-cartoonish picture of a woman wearing shoes. Alternatively, you might be picturing one of those stylised photo covers showing just a woman’s legs, or a pair of hands entwined. But that’s just the cover. What makes a story chick lit?

Again, the classic understanding would probably suggest that we’re talking about a youngish single-ish female protagonist, a plot that’s heavy on romance, a contemporary setting, a good dash of humour, and usually a story that involves some sort of self-discovery or self-development on the part of the heroine. So let’s look at a couple of those writers that the Independent cites as being emblematic of the fall-off in chick lit sales. Do they match that template?

We’ll start with Dorothy Koomson. I would suggest that Koomson’s early work fits well into that classic chick lit template. The Chocolate Run, for example is a story laced with humour and centred around a heroine learning to trust rather than run in a developing relationship. But Koomson’s work has shifted and developed over time. Her more recent novels, notably The Ice-cream Girls (which is fabulous – you should all definitely read it) would probably be better described as psychological thrillers. The cover art, though, remains stylised and heavy on the pastels.

Marian Keyes is another interesting author. Often described as one of the first chick lit writers, she has been seen as one of the big players in the genre for over 15 years. Her work is certainly funny, and generally follows female protagonists. However, in a number of her novels, for example This Charming Man  or Rachel’s Holiday, any romance is a secondary plot, while the story’s main focus is on an issue such as addiction or domestic abuse.

So, it looks like it’s actually kind of tricky to define what we mean by chick lit, and that’s before we even start to try to unpick the broader term used by some booksellers, “Women’s Fiction.” What is, perhaps,even more fascinating is the level of vitriol towards what is perceived as light entertainment aimed at women. You don’t generally see a lot of newspaper opinion pieces arguing that the wide availability of action thriller novels has stunted male intellectual development, so it makes me uneasy that female writers are expected to in some way represent their whole gender.

There are essentially only two types of book that matter to me as a reader or writer. There are good books, and there are lousy books. There are lousy books in most genres, and chick lit is by no means exempt from the lazy and the formulaic, but there is also some really classy and interesting work out there. (I’m particularly liking Sarra Manning at the minute). Being light, being funny, and being by and about a woman, does not make your story intrinsically inferior. Suggesting that it does was daft when people did it about Jane Austen and it’s still daft now.

Which shouldn’t be taken to imply that I have no issues with the way that fiction by women, and about women, is sold and marketed at the moment. Here I can only write from my own prejudices and opinions, so please jump into the comments and argue with me if you don’t agree.

About 3 months ago, I attended a talk by a editor from a very large mainstream publisher of popular fiction, who said that they were looking for chick lit that was lighter, frothier and more escapist. That made my heart sink a little. There is absolutely a place for those books, and for writers and readers who love those books, but looking at writers like Marian Keyes, tells us that in the past chick lit was a much broader church. It does worry me slightly that publishers aren’t seeing a place for more issue-led or just slightly edgier romantic comedy. And it’s also concerning that books like Dorothy Koomson’s more recent work might be being marketed in such a way that is making it harder for them to reach the widest possible potential readership. The pastel cover will attract Koomson’s existing readers who recognise her “brand” but will it encourage regular readers of crime and thriller novels to give her work a go?

It’s also interesting, I think, to look at another standout successful romance novel of recent years, this time by a male writer. David Nicholls’ One Day was a huge hit with readers, and spawned the obligatory bestseller’s movie. The book was published under a very gender-neutral orange and cream cover, the colours and artwork being striking but very un-girly. My guess it that the same book, by a female writer, would have been marketed quite differently, in a manner that could have alienated a potential wider audience, including a lot male readers.

And this brings me onto my own writing. Now I don’t normally blog about writing. I do have a slight sense that writing about writing is a tad on the self-indulgent side, which given that in this sentence I’m now writing about writing about writing, probably means I’m about to drown in a torrent of my own self-importance. Moving on…

I have just received my feedback report from the RNA New Writers Scheme on the current draft of my first novel, which would probably fall under the broad heading of “chick lit”. There were some really positive comments, and some really useful feedback about plot and pacing which has got my head buzzing with rewrite ideas. I am, though, unsure whether those ideas will ever make it into the manuscript, as there are elements to the book, which I’m starting to feel are too fundamental to change, but really weaken the chances of interesting an agent or publisher in the finished manuscript.

For example, the story is told from the point of view of four different first person narrators, a technique which I now realise was quite ambitious for a first novel! I also now realise that a lot of readers (and writers) just don’t like first person narration. So do I rewrite the whole thing in the third person, as my feedback report suggests? I’m unenthusiastic about the idea at the moment, partly just because that’s a massive job, but also because I, personally, really like the different narrative voices, and do I really want to end up with a novel that I don’t like as much?

So, what to do next? Redraft using the feedback on pacing/plotting but leave the narrative style alone, accepting that the chances of publication in that form are beyond super-super-super-slim? Redraft fully into a third person narrative, and risk losing part of what I love in the manuscript? Or just chalk this down as novel writing attempt number 1 and move onto something else? At the moment that last option seems to be beckoning. I have an idea for novel number 2 which is buzzing at my brain, but would that be “giving up” too easily? Would it be better to do another redraft of number 1 and try to follow through with that piece of work? Decisions. Decisions. Comments about chick lit and suggestions on the writing both welcome – do you always take all feedback on board, or do you make decisions about when to accept feedback points and when to stick to your guns? And when do you walk away from a work-in-progress?

What I read on my holidays…

Ok, so this is two weeks later than planned, but here it is, holiday related blogpost no.2 (if you missed number 1 it’s here: http://wp.me/p1sVoH-T) – What I read on my holidays.

I read 11 books on holiday, which for a 16 night trip is a little slow, but it was a going-out-doing-stuff holiday rather than a sitting-by-the-pool holiday so that’s ok. It was still 3 books more than I packed, so involved scavenging from husband’s bookpile and wandering the streets looking for an English-language book shop (which is now pretty much a traditional part of all our holidays).

The books were, in no particular order:

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Them by Jon Ronson

Funny Valentine by Amy Jenkins

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

This Year It Will Be Different by Maeve Binchy

Mini Shopohlic by Sophie Kinsella

And I can’t even remember what the 11th book was. I know I bought it at the St Richard’s Hospice book shop, but I have no recollection of the title, author or content. Clearly, not one that made a big impression.

So out of the ten that impinged enough for me to recall them two weeks later, what do we think? I’m quite pleased with the mix. A bit of a preponderance of chicklit, but also one collection of short stories, one blokelit, one crime/psychological thriller, a couple of “grown-up” literary prize winners, and two non-fiction (or Real Books as much beloved husband terms them). No sci-fi or fantasy, but I’ve got a Jasper Fforde and a Neil Gaiman on my to-read pile, so I’ll excuse it.

That’s my first reccomendation then. Not a particular book, more an approach to books – read widely. A lot of readers I talk to get quite hung up on particular genres – “I don’t like crime” “I can’t stand romance” “I only read non-fiction. Made up stories are a waste of time”. And I do the same. I’m not a big crime reader. This is silly of me though. There are really only two meaningful genre categories – good books and bad books. Seek out the good books, regardless of genre or amount of blood on the cover. It’s totally cool to have personal preferences and favourites, but if you only read stuff you already know you’re going to like, you never get surprised, and being surprised by a story or a writer is one of the great pleasures of reading. So off you all go and read a book you’re not sure you’re going to like.

Wait. Wait. Come back. You can do the reading thing in a minute. Turns out, I haven’t finished. I have neither the time or the energy to review 10 books in full (only 10 – really bugging me now that I can’t remember no. 11), so I’m just going to give you the edited version.

Happily none of the books I read were terrible, but some were much much better than others, so here’s my top and bottom picks from the list.

The Top Three:

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

This is a great holiday read. Easy to read, funny, fast-paced but doesn’t make you feel like your brain is atrophying while you’re reading it. What Manning has done is taken a classic romance plot – rich, powerful, older guy meets younger slightly lost woman and a whole indecent proposal thing ensues – and made it feel modern. Even more impressively she’s managed to make both characters sympathetic, so her slightly lost heroine never feels pathetic, and her older guy, whilst deeply manipulative and occasionally really unpleasant, is also vulnerable and surprisingly sexy. Probably my personal favourite read of the whole trip.

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

A book to read with your jaw on the floor in incredulity whilst all your worst suspicions about the inner workings of the British media are confirmed and exceeded. A lot of writers and commentators currently do a really good job of satirising and unpicking the worst misrepresentations that crop up in the media. Charlie Brooker and Ben Goldacre both spring immediately to mind, but, for me, this book, with it’s level of detail and specific examples, is the one to read if you are at all concerned about the impact of bad media on society as a whole. I could write a whole blog just about this subject but instead I’ll say read this book or check out the author’s website: www.flatearthnews.net

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

This book won the Booker Prize in 2008 and whilst the Booker judges have a slightly patchy record at picking books that actually qualify as being readable, this is a corker. It’s a a first person narrative, written from the point of view of a Bangalore entrepreneur, who styles himself the White Tiger. He’s a fascinating lead character, full of humour and a good dollop of moral ambiguity, and there’s enough plot in there to make this a character study that also makes the grade as a page-turner.

And two that I didn’t like so much…

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Hannah started her career as a poet, before moving into crime fiction. I believe this was her first novel, and it’s not a stinker by any means. The story centres around a woman who comes home and realises that the baby in the crib is not her child. You spend most of the book not sure whether her baby really has been abducted, or whether the lead character is insane, or whether there’s another explanation entirely. The story is told in two different timeframes with two narrators and the two narratives converge at the end of the book. It’s structurally interesting. The plot idea is sound and the method of telling is potentially effective. Ultimately, I just wasn’t feeling it. I think for this story to really work you have to engage emotionally with the main character and you have to care about what’s happened to the baby, and the writer just didn’t quite do enough to get me there. Close, but no cigar.

Mini Shopoholic by Sophie Kinsella

This is the latest book in the mega-successful shopoholic series. In a way I can’t complain about it, because you know buying a book in a series like this that you’re going to get exactly what it says on the tin, but actually that’s the source of my first problem. You get exactly what it says on the tin, and nothing more. Even within a series of novels, it’s great to be wrong-footed occasionally. The incomparable Sir Terry of Pratchett has written 38 Discworld novels, with the 39th due later this year, and at their best (see Night Watch or Monstrous Regiment) they can still push the series into new directions. Mini Shopoholic doesn’t seem to have any such ambitions. It is just another shopoholic novel; there’s nothing to make it stand out and sing on it’s own merits. My second qualm follows on from that thought and is about the story itself . There doesn’t seem to be a quite enough plot to sustain a whole book. Luke is quite busy at work. Becki organises a party. Minnie is a bit naughty. That’s pretty much it. The most interesting development, the involvement of Luke’s mum in the story, feels like a preparation for a future book, rather than an intrinsic part of this one. Personally, I think that, even within a series, each novel has to stand up on it’s own as a standalone story, and I’m not quite convinced this one does.

So there you have the books I read on holiday. Some I’d heartily recommend (and for the record Half of a Yellow Sun and Them only narrowly missed out on places in the favourites list), and a couple I wasn’t so taken with. Feel free to comment if you’ve read any of the above, or if you have any book recommendations for me. My to read pile is almost down into single figures and I’m starting to get twitchy!

Come back tomorrow (well, you know, maybe not actually tomorrow…) when I will be attempting to draw a coherent argument about stuff that encompasses Carol Vorderman making recomendations for maths teachers and David Starkey thinking the white kids talk like the black kids. It’s going to be an absolute ball.

And I’ve just remembered book number 11 – Jojo Moyes’ The Peacock Emporium. Pretty good, but not up to the standard of my favourite Moyes’ novel which I reviewed here: http://wp.me/p1sVoH-k  Oh, it’s a relief to have remembered though.

Goodbye.

Another review… The Last Letter from your Lover

Well, three posts in, this seems to be turning into a reviews blog, which wasn’t really what I was intending, but these are the thoughts that are popping into my brain, so I’m going to go with the flow for the time being. Although, that in no way implies the adoption of a definite theme – I totally reserve the right to mainly be thinking about Marmite by this time tomorrow.

So, another review, but a book this time: The Last Letter from your Lover by Jojo Moyes. This was the Romantic Novellists Association’s Romantic Novel of the Year at their Pure Passion Awards, and they were right. It’s a great book. Go out; buy it; read it. That is all.

Now anyone who is feeling in a hurry can depart at this point, having gleaned the central elements of the review. For the rest of you, here’s a bit more detail, and a (slightly belated) attempt at a bit of critical balance. The book is one of those wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey narratives with a present day bit and a historic bit, and a bit of a literary device with a newspaper and some letters to marry the two halves together. In the past, the story centres on Jennifer, suffering from amnesia after a car accident and, somewhat inconveniently, losing all recollection of her ongoing extra-marital affair. In the present, Ellie is a journalist who’s currently dating a married man. Both narratives have elements of classic romance, but also explore fidelity and, more to the point, infidelity.

I should state up front that I loved this book. It drew me in and made me laugh. It didn’t quite make me cry, but I’m a hard northern bird and it still came pretty damn close. I believed in the characters and I had to keep reading to find out what would happen to them. This should serve as a health warning on this review, because  it’s tricksy to critically analyse something you simply love. It’s like being asked to evaluate your own baby. Objectively, they may look a bit Gollum-y, but they’re still your baby and you (hopefully) love them despite, as well as because.

I think the love is more because than despite in this instance though. What I liked, more than anything, about this book was the intelligence of the storytelling. Very often romance stories are so tightly bound to the necessity of a happy ever after, that the jeopardy along the way doesn’t work – you know full well that Girl always ends up with Boy. It’s like watching the bit in Grand Designs when Kevin tells you it’ll never be finshed – we believed him in series 1, but now we know that he says that every week. The “Girl loses Boy” bit of most romance stories is much the same deal. This book manages to undermine those certainties, and is, in many ways, as much about the ends of affairs as their beginnings.

A lot of the plot and structural ideas are ones that have been seen before, such as the deployment of amnesia as a plot device, but here they’re just done better. The books feels like the Jojo Moyes crafted it, and cared for it, and kept tweaking and polishing until she achieved her just-right Goldilocks novel. At least I hope she did. If I hear that she wrote it all in one go without shifting out of first gear, then Moyes might actually manage to make me cry.

Source Code – Worth Doing Properly

So I went to see Source Code (shiny new Jake Gyllenhaal time-travel – sorry “time reassignment” – flick) last night, and it was… fine. Jake Gyllenhaal travels through time, into a dead guy’s memory, to try and identify a ruthless trainbomber before they strike again and obliterate the whole of Chicago with their big ol’ dirty bomb. And it was… fine. 

Here ends my review.

Here begins the small rant following on from said review. This film was simply…  fine. I was never bored (and I managed to have a little nap during Black Swan, so I do bore fairly easily), but the film was nowhere near as good as it should have been. The script sounded like a first draft, not a bad first draft, but not a finished, polished, honed, perfected piece of work. Many of the plot-holes could so easily have been ironed out during the editing process, if anyone had thought to try. The tension of finding the bomber could have been ratcheted up, by drawing out the characters on the train and making us wonder whodunnit, rather than rattling through a handful of unrelated false starts before walking right into the bomber with little or no preamble. The inate humour in Gyllenhaal’s character’s mini Groundhog Day could have given the whole film more variety in tone, if anyone had thought to suggest even a single joke.

The failure wasn’t in the premise. Clearly the premise – and specifically the “scientific” explanation of the premise, which can broadly be summarised as dead people remember the last 8 minutes of their lives, so if you find another recently dead person you can send them back into those 8 minutes to see what went on, is twaddle of the highest order. But a twaddley premise does not necessarily make for a twaddley film. The premise behind Back to the Future – if you hit 88 miles per hour you travel in time, cos of the flux thingummy; look stop asking questions, it just works– is twaddle, but the movie, itself, is a thing of near perfection.

The problem wasn’t in the budget either. The special effects looked good. Mr Gyllenhaal himself, presumably doesn’t come cheap. All those boxes were ticked perfectly adequately.

The problem with Source Code wasn’t the premise or the money, it was the lack of care and attention involved in making the actual film. It was a movie that felt like a flea-bitten kitten sheltering under a parked car from a storm – ultimately the kitten will retain an element of kitteny cuteness, but you can’t avoid the impression that nobody really loves it. This was an unloved kitten of a film. It seemed that nobody had bothered to lavish upon it anything beyond the level of care that was absolutely required to claim their paycheque. People decided that “fine” was good enough, and I paid money to watch the outcome, which ultimately means they were right.

And that makes me cross. Surely, if it’s worth spending the amounts of money studios lay out making films, it’s worth spending a little bit of creativity making them good. If you’re going to make something for other people to enjoy, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t make it as good as possible. And, sure, if you aim for greatness, you will very often fail, but you will end up with much better results than if you never aim for more than fine. “Good enough” just shouldn’t be good enough.