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 it is June and a number of occurrences occur

So the blogging every Friday without fail is going terribly well, don’t you agree? Apart from that today is Monday, but I think we can all agree that Monday is very nearly Friday give or take the odd weekend.

Anyhoo, this particularly Monday is also the 30th June, so I thought I would tell you about a number of things that have occurred this month. Hardcore readers, who’ve been with us since the beginning of blogtime, will recall that I do like a bit of a summer festival, not those loud, modern-musicky festivals that involve camping and reading preparatory Guardian articles about festival fashion, but rather those more safely middle-aged festivals where it’s considered acceptable to stop between events and have a nice warming hot chocolate and possibly a scone. This month I have attended two festivals of the latter sort, and one actual gig in an actual field to which I wore actual wellingtons. I shall relay my thoughts on all three forthwith.

1. Cheltenham Science Festival

The good people of Cheltenham are pretty much prepared to have a festival for anything. Jazz, literature, music, horse racing – they really don’t care – if you can put up a marquee and print a brochure, they’re totally up for it. The first week in June is the annual science festival, at which I took in talks and panels on the genetics of intelligence, animal communication, war and medicine, the maths of The Simpsons, animal senses, quantum mechanics, and saw somebody whacking ping pong balls with a chocolate hammer, all of which was quite interesting. It’s also very jolly to be at events about things I know nothing about, because new knowledge is always exciting. Did you know, for example, that there’s a sort of snake that has infra-red sensor things that mean it can spot a bat flying over head in pitch darkness and grab the aforementioned bat out of the air for its dinner? I did not know that, but now I do. Hurrah for knowing more stuff.

 

2. Worcestershire LitFest & Fringe

Worcestershire LitFest is in its 4th year, but this was my first time involved with the organisation. I hosted four events – a rather lovely author panel with equally lovely cake, and three novel writing workshops.

Me, Sue Moorcroft, Liz Harris and Christina Courtenay
Me, Sue Moorcroft, Liz Harris and Christina Courtenay

Teaching writing workshops is always fun – it’s pretty much one of my favourite things to do, and I’ve not taught for a while so it was top fun to get back into it with a brand new group of students. Hopefully they enjoyed themselves at least half as much as I did, and weren’t too freaked out by the woman at the front of the room wittering on about Prince Charming and necrophilia. (Yes – they were part of the same conversation, but they were totally related to the point of the lesson. Totally. Sort of. A bit.)

Asides from leading those events I also got to attend a couple of others. My personal highlight was seeing Lou Morgan at 42-Worcester talk about her writing and particularly about writing YA. She was interesting and funny. Yay her!

 

3. Deacon Blue in a forest to which I wore actual wellingtons, but also took a garden chair to sit on like an old person might.

Now the young whipper snappers amongst you are now furrowing your perfectly wrinkle-free brows and asking ‘Who are Deacon Blue?’ Well they were big in the late 80s and early 90s and, I can now attest, are rather marvellous live. Your lack of knowledge probably means that you’re not even aware that if you ever have sufficient money in your kitty to buy a dinghy the only right and proper thing to call her would be Dig-ni-ty (which you would sing loudly and with gusto.) Trust me young people, your lives are poorer for this lack of knowledge.

 

So that was June. I trust you all had an equally pleasant month.

 

And before I go, a quick reminder that Sweet Nothing is currently 99p for kindle. That offer either finishes today or next Monday (I’m not 100% clear on how Amazon monthly deals work!) so if you want it, go get it now. Off you go….  For those of you who are still here, if you think you’d be interested in writing workshops where the tutor witters on about Prince Charming and necrophilia in between dispensing great wisdom then please get in touch and I’ll add you to my mailing list.

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.

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.