Saturday, 1 February 2014

My January Book Non-Reviews

When you read, does an annoying voice in your head give commentary?  One part of my brain simply reads and enjoys (or doesn’t enjoy).  Another part breaks down why the book works or doesn’t work for me, and how applicable this is to my writing. 

Here’s the background music for my January’s reading.  Not reviews, but things I learned while reading the following books.

Beautiful Child by Emma Tennant
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
The Detective’s Daughter by Lesley Thomson  
The Dying Hours by Mark Billingham

Two books have patiently waited on my shelf because they were connected to classic literature – Beautiful Child by Emma Tennant and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.  The postponement in both cases was unnecessary and regretable as both these books (as does Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard) have great prose.  In fact, the first chapter of The Hours (which describes Virginia Woolf’s death) is so excellent, I put the book down and didn’t go back to it for months. 

Do you ever do that?  A book is so well written, I can’t risk being disappointed if it doesn’t keep its promise from start to finish.  I needn’t have worried.  Cunningham has a wonderful pacing and turns sentences into stand alone works of art.  He reminded me that a writer must read and continue to read really good writing to nudge us forward in our craft.

Tennant’s voice is a different kind of good.  She writes with a familiar tone, as if I were the narrator’s long time friend with whom scandalous observations could be made in confidence.  Liberating, is how I thought of it.  A courageous voice that says, this is how you jump off buildings and fly.

I do find fault with Tennant’s over use of humour, such as the ever changing nicknames for the characters.  A tutor once warned me about this in my own writing, and I found it difficult to gauge when enough was enough.  Meeting this same flaw in Tennant’s book was an Aha moment for me.  I think I’ll more easily season delicately with my own humour because of this.

Beautiful Child is meant to be scary and for me, was.  In fact, I had to parcel the book out so I could sleep at night (but I'm a wimp).  However, the narrator has an intense experience later in the book and when reading it, I felt distanced from what should have been the most powerful passage so far.  Can you imagine the let down?

The frightening aspects of the scene were written as visual distortions.  I’m not a visual person, even have difficulty mentally visualising, so distorting vision isn’t that frightening to me.  The way the human brain processes information differs among people and for a writer to effectively communicate with a  wider range of readers, we should educate ourselves on those differences.  While I don’t claim to be an expert on the brain, remember the writing tutors who’ve told you to be aware of all five senses.  It’s a great place to start, if you want to pull more readers into your narrative.

Then Louise Doughty.  The book has a great concept, and her writing is seductive, her prose makes continuing to read an imperative like continuing to read, and kept me interested in people I didn’t particularly like (both main characters). 

For the first three quarters of the book, her pacing is organic, but unfortunately falls apart near the end, as though she doesn’t know how to stop writing.  I skimmed passages that seemed to come from nowhere and kept thinking, where’s her editor?  Why didn’t someone help her fix this?  Apple Tree Yard warned me that whatever standard I've set in the beginning of the book, I have to keep it up to the bitter end.

Interestingly, Doughty lost more than her pacing in the latter part of the book.  She puts a big effort into an intelligent concept, then reached out for a gimmicky ending by doing a Gotcha!  For me, that type of thing breaks the contract between reader and writer, because doing an abrupt and unanticipated about-face is only for the purpose of fooling me.  A writer as gifted as Doughty could’ve come up with a clever twist, and I would’ve admired that.

One last complaint about Apple Tree Yard.  The narration is coloured with science, which for the most part is done well, but then enter stage left, the psychologist.  Trying hard here to avoid spoilers, I’ll say that both technically and for continuity purposes, her psychology is unbelievable to anyone in the field and perhaps to readers who don’t have psych degrees and who haven’t been expert witnesses.  Big red flag here to all of us – don’t skimp on your research.  Have everything checked and rechecked by people in the field you’re writing about or risk blowing the illusion for a certain percentage of your readers.

So then I read two not-so-well written books, The Detective’s Daughter by Lesley Thomson and Mark Billingham’s The Dying Hours.  Billingham himself is a lovely guy, but not a writer I’d take notes from.  The crime genre is irresistible to me, like those nights you pull out a bag of crisps and eat the whole thing, only to wonder what craziness took hold of you.  That itch scratched, I won’t go back to Billingham for a long time.

But The Detective’s Daughter is billed as intelligent crime writing.  Although her concept intrigues, both her writing and characterisation fall short.  Again, I wondered about who edited this book, because it reads like an early draft rather than a finished product; there’s also several typos in the printed version. 

Along the same vein, Thomson’s narrative, in some instances, reads like the notes taken from her research, rather than prose.  I’ve done this myself, forget to dress up the research into a story, into fiction.  No matter how interesting we find our own research, reporting it isn’t the purpose of the novel.  You sneak it into the story, like the conniving person that a writer has to be.

The book also reads as if Thomson were beating several drums at once, and not in rhythm.  As a writer who has multiple themes going in my work, I know this is a tricky thing, and not one I always do well.  But no matter how strong our passion for a social injustice, it has to be distilled into art.  Fiction first and foremost is to make us believe a lie.  Whatever social change comes of it is secondary. 

So that’s January’s fiction reading and I learned something from all five of them.  If you’ve read any of these books, let’s discuss them.  

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