In which I reread an old classic

I’m currently rereading Emily Bronte’s masterpiece, Wuthering Heights. It’s probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve read the book – the first was when I was about 17, and the most recent was seven or eight years ago when I read it as part of my Creative Writing degree course. Having read it so many times and studied it at university I would have said, with confidence, that Wuthering Heights was a novel I knew pretty well, but here’s a newsflash from the current rereading: it’s absolutely nothing like I remember it. There are whole sections that I don’t remember at all, and some of the bits I thought I did remember are quite quite different from how I remembered them. This is odd, because it’s, obviously, still the same book. In fact, in this case, it’s physically, literally, actually the same book that I’ve read before, but the experience of reading it is completely different.

I think there are reasons for this, and I don’t think any of them are that aliens have come to earth and rewritten bits of Wuthering Heights, which is a shame, because that would have made an awesome blog post.

The non-alien related reasons are twofold:

1. I’ve changed

Well given that the book hasn’t changed, that leaves the reader as the only remaining variable, so if the thing I’m looking at isn’t different, but the experience of looking is, then that must be down to me. The things I’m picking up on during this reading are far more to do with the characters and far less to do with the brooding atmosphere and oppressive moor. This might be because I’ve moved on as a writer since I last read the book, and am currently fixated by character in terms of how I plot and revise my own writing. I’m noticing, for the first time, how complex, and essentially unpleasant, the minor characters are. Joseph, Nellie Dean, Mr Lockwood are all astonishingly self-involved in their own different ways.

I’m also noticing how dated the prose style is, and how slow the opening chapters are, which I don’t remember picking up on before. I’m actually quite impressed with my seventeen-year-old self for sticking with it. Again – that’s the writer in me coming through, and noticing deviations from the contemporary received wisdom about how to start and pace a novel.

It’s not the first time I’ve had a book change in front of me on rereading. I started Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day about eight times and couldn’t get past the first chapter, until one random day when I sat down and read about two-thirds of the book in one sitting. The book hadn’t changed, but something about my mood on that one given day married with the story and away we went together.

2. Some novels end up bigger than the novel itself

Wuthering Heights is the poster book for novels that exist in the public imagination in a completely different form from how the are on the page. Wuthering Heights has been adapted and retold in films, on TV, in musicals (thanks for that Cliff), and nearly all the retellings underplay the bleakness of the original novel. Somehow that perception of Wuthering Heights as a romantic story of star-crossed lovers on a windswept, but ultimately picturesque, moor, seeps into our consciousness, even if we’ve read the actual book and know it isn’t really like that. The idea of Heathcliff and Cathy as a slightly more consumptive Romeo and Juliet is stuck in our collective memories, even if none of us actually remember where it came from.

So there you go. Wuthering Heights – it’s not at all how you think you remember it. After this I shall be going to see Romeo and Juliet again with fingers crossed that I might have misremembered that ending. In the meantime, feel free to chat to me in the comments. What do you think of Wuthering Heights? Are there any books that have surprised you on rereading, or have turned out to be completely different from your expectations?

And finally, a quick reminder that my new Christmas Kisses novella, Cora’s Christmas Kiss, is out now for kindle.

In which I have read some books

I’ve always loved reading, but since I started writing fiction my reading has changed. There have been periods where I’ve found it really difficult to get into reading any sort of novel, but recently I’ve been on a bit of a reading binge. Hence, I have some book reviews to share. Because I like an arbitrary theme today’s reviews are all in the ‘commercial women’s fiction’ genre also known as ‘fiction.’ (You can catch up on me being ranty about genre names back here.)

1. Dear Thing – Julie Cohen

I know Julie Cohen via the RNA and Julie’s fabulous creative writing tutoring, but it’s unbiased reviews only here so I’m putting the fact that she’s lovely in real-life out of my mind and focusing on the stories. This is the first of two of her novels that are going to turn up in this post. That in itself has to be a good sign because it demonstrates that having read one book by the author I wanted to go straight on and read another. Dear Thing is a story about Claire and Ben, a couple who are desperate for a baby and have been through years of trying and fertility treatments. Ben’s best friend is Romily, who already has a child of her own and figures that carrying a child for her friends won’t be that big a deal.

Obviously the emotional realities of surrogacy turn out quite differently from what Romily imagined. In plot terms some of what goes on in Dear Thing is very much what you’d expect, but it’s grounded so deeply in the emotions of the characters that I don’t see that as a negative in this case. I particularly liked that this is a book that depicts fundamentally good-hearted people who, under emotional pressure, don’t always behave perfectly. I also very much liked the emotional conflict that Ben experienced – in some stories about parenthood the fathers are somewhat sidelined characters, so it was good to see both Ben and the father of Romily’s own child given a bit of depth.

My only reservation was that, perhaps, the very ending of the book resolved Romily’s story slightly too neatly, but that’s very much a personal preference thing; I always want stories to go darker and more complicated.

I don’t really do star ratings for books very comfortably – I always end up wanting to give scores like 4.82 stars, but I would definitely recommend this one.

 

2. Where Love Lies – Julie Cohen (again)

I did warn you that she was going to crop up again, so  no apologies for that. I won a copy of Julie’s latest book in an online comp from the author, and very lovely and shiny it was too. On paper the subject matter for this one intrigued me more than Dear Thing, being very much a non-baby person. Felicity is married to Quinn and living what many people would see as a perfect life, but something doesn’t feel right, and she finds herself drawn further and further away from Quinn and deeper into her past, and the more time she spends there, the more blissful it feels.

I’m not going to give away what’s actually going on with Felicity, but I was intrigued by her conflict throughout the story. Is it better to live in the here and now – problems, uncertainties and all – or would you take the option of living in a blissful dream? Where Love Lies is evocatively written and all the viewpoint characters are interesting in their own right. Part of me wishes that the author had held back what was actually happening to Felicity a bit more in the earlier sections of the story, as I did enjoy the uncertainty about what Felicity was feeling and why, but the bottom line is this – I absolutely rattled through reading this book, picking it up and whizzing through chapters when I was supposed to be doing other things, and making myself sleepy through my reluctance to put it down last thing at night, so that’s a big win.

 

3. The Sea SistersLucy Clarke

This was Lucy Clarke’s debut novel, and it’s the sort of debut that makes the rest of us feel deeply inadequate. It’s the story of Katie and Mia – two sisters whose relationship has been strained since the death of the mother. Mia is a free spirit, fearless and impulsive, whereas Katie is the responsible one, always taking care of her younger sibling. When Mia disappears, Katie is drawn into her sister’s world as she retraces Mia’s last journey to try to find out what happened to her little sister.

It’s high praise indeed for me to say that this book reminded my of Emily Barr. Emily Barr is one of my favourite writers, and has an incredible ability to evoke places and atmospheres. Clarke has the same gift and the contrast between Katie’s rather ordered normality, and the places she visits on her travels in search of the truth about her sister is tangible for the reader. The relationship between the sisters also feels real, and seeing both of the characters’ impressions of the other works well. As including one quibble seems to be customary – I would like to have seen Katie’s relationship with Finn fleshed out a little more, as I think this would have heightened the sense of conflict in that part of the story. That’s a minor point though. The key relationship in this story is the one between the sisters, and that sings out loud and true from the pages. Another page-turner. Highly recommended.

 

So three books I really liked. You could go read them if you wanted. You could also offer me some recommendations down in the comments…

In which I read a Bad Book

It is one of the small sadnesses of writing fiction, that doing so can break the pleasure of reading. It’s like being a magician at a magic show. You can be impressed at the skill on display. You can feel professional respect for the fellow conjurer on the stage, but if you can see too much of the craft you don’t actually get the thrill of feeling the magic. Occasionally, a book comes along that’s so good, or so far outside your own writing experience, or both, that it forces you to switch off your analytical writing brain and just enjoy the story, but a lot of the time you find yourself thinking, “Oh. Very good. I see what you did there, ” rather than just “Wow!”

Occasionally the opposite happens. A book so bad comes along that rather than thinking “Wow,” or “I see how that works,” you just think “How?” How did this get past an editor? How did this get published in its current form? Just how? I am currently reading just such a book, and, rather churlishly you might think, I’m not going to tell you what it is. There are reasons. Firstly, any book review is subjective and I resolved when I started this blog that I would only post reviews that were at least 51% positive. Secondly, I’m a member of more than one professional organisation for authors. I meet other writers. I’m also English and middle-class and therefore prepared to do pretty much anything to avoid potential future confrontation or social discomfort.

Anyway, this book is a mainstream published book by a successful “Sunday Times bestselling” author. It’s not a debut. It’s not a poorly edited self-published tome by an enthusiastic newbie to the writing game. Looking at it’s Amazon reviews, it’s a book some people have loved. As I said, my opinion is entirely subjective. However, what I don’t think is subjective is that this book almost certainly wouldn’t have attracted the attention of a publisher or agent if it was a debut. It commits many of the sins that newbie writers pay good money to conference organisers, creative writing teachers and writing consultancies to be warned against. The setup for the story is long, so long, too long, taking up about a third of the book. Then about halfway through the style of the story changes so you’re not reading the sort of book you thought you were at all. The writer headhops – jumps between the points of view of different characters – abruptly and without obvious reason. Headhopping isn’t a writing sin because it’s inelegant; it’s because it’s really confusing for the reader, and as a reader, in this case, I was really confused.

And in a sense, so what? A debut novel doesn’t just have to be as good as the general malaise of stuff out there in your genre. It has to stand out. I know plenty of talented writers who had novels rejected not because they weren’t good, but because they weren’t stand out enough to be a debut novel. Some of those “not good enough for a debut” books were then published very successfully as novel 2, 3 or 4.

I wonder though whether there’s a point of success where quality control ceases to be a consideration. Reading this book, my natural urge, as a writer, is to get a pen and a notepad and start to make editing and revision notes. It feels like an unedited draft, rather than a finished novel. More than anything I’m confused by that. I don’t understand how the novel got through an editing process in its current form. Maybe the writer is at a level of success where the publisher reckons their work will sell regardless. Maybe the writer knows it ain’t a great book, but was pressured by contractual and commercial obligations to put it out. I don’t know. Lack of editing though, is one of the criticisms used by mainstream publishers to bash the self-publishing sector. Sometimes that criticism is justified, but as a criticism of a whole sector of an industry it’s too much of a generalisation, especially when the big publishing houses are putting out their own, albeit possibly smaller, share of poorly edited material.

So that’s my confusion for this week. Feel free to chat about bookly things in the comments – particularly bad books, poorly edited books, books you wanted to chuck across the room. Off you go.

 

In which I think about settling down with a good book

Ahoy there and apologies for blogging tardiness. Unfortunately people keep luring me away from my nice safe sofa-laptop bubble by trying to give me money to teach people stuff, which is tiresome, but does lead to having money to buy things, which is nice.

Anyhow, you find me, dear readerist, in a time of great trauma, because, right at the moment, I don’t really have a book on the go.

Now some of you probably won’t appreciate why that’s traumatic. Some of you will be the sorts of people who dip in and out of a book as the mood takes them, and have no more emotional attachment to the idea of reading that they would to a passable movie or the end of a series of Grand Designs (although, I’m not sure series of Grand Designs ever actually end, they just morph without warning into repeats of older episodes). Anyhow, we are a very egalitarian and open-minded blog here. We welcome all sorts of people, regardless of race, gender or preference in flavour of fruit pastel. So you people who aren’t fully fledged Book Types are welcome along with everyone else. I do, however, reserve the right to give you very slightly suspicious glances from time to time, and pop a plastic cover down before I let you sit on the good chairs.

Part of the reason I am without book at the present time, is that I am in the midst of working through the plot for a new novel idea. When I’m deep in a first draft or in working through initial plot ideas, I quite often find that my reading tails off a bit. It’s as if my brain can only be fully immersed in one story at a time. For the same reason, I think, I only ever have one book on the go at any given moment. Some people can deal with more than one. EngineerBoy often has an “upstairs” and a “downstairs” book in progress at the same time. This causes me to peer at him suspiciously quite a lot, and occasionally look at bungalows on estate agency websites as a last resort to break him out of this bizarre and worrying habit.

Right now though, I need a book to read. I’m starting to get a bit twitchy for lack of book. It needs to be absorbing enough for me to get into easily but not so mentally taxing that it interferes with writer brain doing its important story development, and also not so light and frothy that I my brain isn’t engaged at all. It can be fiction or non-fiction. It might even be something that’s already on my not-as-big-as-it-sometimes-is To Read pile, all of which look interesting, but none of which are screaming “Read me now!” in a sufficiently loud voice.

to read pile

So please help me out with suggestions. What books have you properly loved recently and why? And, any writers out there, can you read and write alongside one another or are they just mutually exclusive activities?

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?

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.