When she was about six or seven, my youngest niece was obsessed with old books. Too young to articulate what drew her to them, she would spend a quiet hour when she came to visit turning the pages of an antique volume of poetry. Thinking she might prefer something more suited to her reading age and, admittedly, anxious to preserve my small collection of old books, I offered her a modern anthology of the work of Hilaire Belloc, which she vehemently rejected. Ten years on, I wonder if she’d be the ideal reader of Thomas Maloney’s debut novel, which I received courtesy of the publisher, Scribe.
I must confess I’m rather suspicious of the word brave. On the one hand, the term is overused, especially when referring to endurance in the face of tragedy. (Is it brave not to succumb when your life is threatened or is the human drive for survival? Do we call people brave to avoid having to empathise fully with the enormity of their trauma or to deny their despair?) On the other hand, I think bravery, even when applied to cases in which the person has a genuine choice whether to act, is overrated. Sure, if I were drowning I’d be grateful to anyone who dived in and rescued me, but if a stranger were in the same situation I’d rather my loved ones didn’t risk their own lives to save them. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up these two novels with the b-word in the title. Read on to see whether the characters’ bravery convinced me. (Incidentally, I wasn’t aware when I decided to pair them based solely on the titles that both are partly influenced by the author’s grandfather’s experience in the Second World War, and both featuring the ordeal of hunger.)
As I’ve mentioned before, I was surprised when a literary agent who turned down my debut novel did so because the sample I’d sent her was written in the first person present tense. But if you read for a living, being familiar with your preferences and prejudices can save a lot of time. After all, we can’t all appreciate the same thing. Reading for reviews is helping me clarify my own likes and dislikes although, despite the title of this post, a sense of accountability to publishers who’ve provided me a free copy and a belief in the value of diversity will see me rarely abandoning a book. (I think I ditched three out of well over 100 books I read last year.) But since “11 reasons I don’t want to read your book” has a nasty ring to it, for the purposes of this post I’m extending the definition of “abandon” to encompass books I’m not even tempted to start. Practical or blinkered, considered or arbitrary, undoubtedly contradictory, in reverse order of annoyingness, these are my 11 reasons I won’t give a novel my time.
I could point out that a difficult childhood is not uncommon but, in my head, I’m already somewhere else. It won’t make me feel any better to correct his misapprehension. I concentrate on making the right non-verbals and wait for my discomfort to pass.
Last year, I set out to read 60 books and read 96. This year, I set a target of 100 books, and read 120. This suggests I’m reading more each year and making more accurate predictions. Of course, it’s not a competition, even against myself, but I do like figures. And, daft as it seems, I do like producing an annual report!
As I rarely, if ever, watch sport, I was surprised how involved I got in the London Olympics. How could I not be moved by such a display of determination and athleticism? But it was the Paralympics I enjoyed the most (despite the slightly inferior TV coverage). Alongside the awe at the athletes’ prowess, were the stories, implicit or explicit, of adversity overcome. On top of that, the games afforded a rare opportunity to look properly at disabled bodies and, with the somewhat complex rating system, to be curious about them without fear of causing offence.
So, you’re midway through composing a blog post when, in a flash of inspiration, you hit on the very book that will nail the point you want to make. You scuttle off to your “library”, zeroing in on the shelf where – however eccentric your filing system¹ – you know it will be waiting for you. Except that it isn’t and, you now remember, it did a flit some time back. You lent it to a trusted friend – his/her exact identity lost in the mists of time – and it’s never been returned.
It’s happened to me a couple of times in recent months. The book in question was one of my favourite novels, namely – I kid you not – Never Let Me Go². I should’ve taken more notice because I’m bereft without it. I want to break into friends’ houses at the dead of night and go rummaging through their possessions till I find it. I’ve asked around of course, but no-one has fessed up.
It’s been another hectic week on the blog tour: sharing the novels that have helped me find a mind of my own with Urszula Humienik; examining how contemporary novels feature scientific research with Gargi Mehra; talking attachment with Safia Moore stemming from my character’s difficulty in “telling a story about when you were a little girl”; confessing and commiserating with Clare O’Dea regarding our shared difficulty in articulating what our novel’s about; to come to port on Friday with Lori Schafer to address the question of how much my novel might be autobiographical.
After my weekend in a virtual California, I’m heading northward today to join lead buckaroo, Charli Mills on her fabulous Carrot Ranch in Idaho. She’d already set my place at the table with this lovely introduction on her blog. I’m heading back to the UK for the rest of the week, stopping off first with novelist and psychologist Voula Grand, who was the first to feature in my series Psychologists Write, to explore a shared interest in transgenerational trauma, both on and off the page. Then it’s a second guest post (the first, on Day One of the tour, being on debuting as an older author) with my publishers, Inspired Quill, to reveal my responses to the thoughtful questions put to me by one of the team, Hannah Drury. With all this travelling I wonder if I’ll have time to tidy up before Thursday, when I’ll be showing everyone around my Writers’ Room, courtesy of novelist, former prison governor and Costa Short Story Award winner, Avril Joy. Friday, I’ll be hot-footing it to London to join novelist, blogging addict and reader of an early version of Sugar and Snails, Geoff LePard, for a post on how walking facilitates my writing with, hopefully, a few photographs of the walk that features in my novel. (Yikes, did he realise that’s the day he launches his second novel, My Father and Other Liars, or is his attention to me an excuse to avoid a launch party?)
A novella about the pleasures of reading aloud and being read to demands a review in the same vein. And an audio review gives me the opportunity to get in some much-needed practice in performance – not to mention the chance for another fiddle with YouTube – in preparation for reading in public from my own novel. My review takes just under eight minutes. However, if you prefer to read it for yourself, you can download a print version below. Your feedback on any aspect of the content or its delivery will be much appreciated.
I’ve been asked twice now about my approach to reading for reviews and, grateful for that interest, I’ve given it a little more serious thought. Coincidentally, after almost a year of regular book blogging, I’m probably in need of some kind of policy; until I develop something more formal, this post will have to stand for that. While it might appear somewhat back to front, it makes more sense to me to begin by outlining what I’m trying to achieve followed by how I go about it. Your feedback, as ever, would be much appreciated.
As some of my reviews will testify (e.g. My Real Children; Indigo; Hidden Knowledge), I can feel disorientated when a novel fails to unfold according to my expectations. But isn’t that often the case initially when we come to read fiction? Unless it’s ploddingly formulaic there’s an interval, before we settle into both story and style, when we don’t know where we are. Part of the pleasure of opening a new book is that sense that, despite the clues from title, cover and blurb, it could lead us somewhere new. But, as I’ve intimated time and again in my reviews, there needs to be balance between novelty and familiarity, and each of us have our own preferences for where we position ourselves between them.
Completing the initial round of my publisher’s edits for my forthcoming novel, Sugar and Snails, I’m reminded of the potential for disorientation I’ve built into the story. My narrator, Diana, has a secret she is unable to share with the reader initially; when you get it, you might look back on what she’s previously told you in a new light. I have to hope I’ve hit a reasonable balance between surprise and security, but I know it won’t work for all.
Andrew appears to be particularly accident prone, everywhere he goes he brings disaster, especially to those he loves. After one marriage has ended in divorce and the death of a baby, his second has left him as the hapless father of a motherless baby girl. In a purported conversation with his therapist, he reviews his life story, and the extent of his responsibility for the tragedies that have occurred.
Andrew is a “cognitive scientist” with a strong belief in the impact of brain biology on our actions as opposed to the more nebulous mind. Although not necessarily a likeable character, his voice is lively and appealing. At first the novel comes across as a parody of therapy, with the therapist’s questions and largely unhelpful interjections generally ignored. But as the novel progresses, we find ourselves embroiled in a far darker story of not only the wrongs unwittingly triggered by this one individual, but, via Andrew’s college-day friendship with a war-mongering president, of political shenanigans of the worst kind. By the end of the novel the dreams, “soundless voices” and speculation about how far studies of the human brain can take us, that have preoccupied Andrew from the early pages, and even the identity of the seemingly neutral therapist take on a more sinister significance, in which his only note of hope is in the science supposedly underlying his experience, along with his insistence on his inability to feel.
Ever since I’ve been writing seriously, I’ve made a list of the novels I’ve read across the year, highlighting those that particularly impressed me. Halfway through 2013, I was seduced by the lovely book-cover icons on Goodreads into doing it electronically. At the beginning of this year, they invited members (?) to register for a reading challenge. Although I don’t need a challenge to motivate me to read, I signed up on the basis that their software could calculate my reading total more rapidly than I could. I set my target at 60 books, this being a rough average of the numbers read in recent years.
My Dear Readers,
I know that a novel written in the form of letters is known as an epistolary novel, but is there a word for a novel that starts with an intriguing letter and then goes on to portray the lives of the letter writer and its intended recipient? I’m asking because two novels I read recently followed that format and I’d like to tell you a little about them.
I’d love to hear your views and, if you do wish to reply, you can do so in the comments box below.
With all best wishes,
Surely this is every book lover’s dream? Roberta works in one of those idyllic old-fashioned bookshops owned, not by some faceless conglomerate, but by a true aficionado of the printed word, the laid-back Philip Old. She rearranges the shelves, serves the occasional customer, dust books, and collects the letters, postcards and till receipts she finds between the pages. These serve as epigraphs for the chapters comprising the contemporary strand of the novel.
The first is a letter from Jan Pietrykowski, written in 1941, ending his relationship with Dorothea because he disapproves of something she’s done. Roberta has found this letter in an old suitcase belonging to her hundred-and-ten-year-old grandmother, Dorothea, now residing in a nursing home. She’s never heard of Mrs D Sinclair, whose name is inscribed in the suitcase, but Jan Pietrykowski is her paternal grandfather, dead before Roberta’s father was born. Otherwise the letter makes little sense to the reader, or to Roberta, especially as it contradicts what she’s been told about the family narrative. It takes the rest of the novel for her to come anywhere near to approaching the truth.
Do you ever ponder your dependence on the modern world and wonder how you’d adapt if it came to an abrupt end? My ability to grow my own food, knock up a functional mortise and tenon joint and navigate across country on foot might provide me a modicum of security, but I’d be useless without my glasses to see where I was going and clueless at working out how to make electricity from scratch. And who knows, until we find ourselves in a situation that demands it, whether we have the mental and physical capacity to kill another human being to save our own skins?
I don’t know if it’s surviving trauma that evokes such apocalyptic philosophising or whether it’s integral to the human condition. There’s certainly an attraction in the theme for writers of fiction; I’ve just counted seven novels on my bookshelves that speculate on the impact on human society of devastating global pandemics or massive climate change. You might have even more, so how do I persuade you that Station Eleven is the one you really must read?
I received my proof copy several months prior to publication and, although I was interested in the premise, I wasn’t in a great hurry to read it, perhaps put off by the hype. It’s described as perfect for fans of Hugh Howey, who I’ve never read, and Margaret Atwood, who I have, a lot. I can detect the similarities to The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake, both books I loved, but I’m not a fan of fanfiction. In a fair world, where writing was judged on its merits, Emily St John Mandel wouldn’t need to be compared with the literary greats. She is an excellent writer in her own rights. More fool me for not picking it up sooner.
I’m ambivalent about school. On a personal level, I achieved good outcomes from my long ago schooldays, but this was more by dint of my capacity for obedience than any genuine nurturing of my intellect and creativity. (I’m always pleasantly surprised when children these days claim to enjoy school.) On a political level, the view that mass education can be used to weaken working-class culture sits alongside the genuine enthusiasm for learning I’ve witnessed in places where a school place can’t be taken for granted.
How does this translate into my reading and writing? As a child, I lapped up Enid Blyton’s boarding school stories, although the settings were worlds away from my own experience. The junior equivalent of the country-house genre, St Clare’s, Malory Towers and the like served merely as the backdrop for schoolgirl adventures. And that’s the thing with school stories, the experience is so near universal, it’s difficult to untangle the school aspect from the fact of being a child. When I wrote my bite-size memoir, School at Seven, it was more about friendship betrayed than education. Of my short fiction, school provides the setting for the hormone-heavy story of adolescence, Kinky Norm, and frames the parent-child conflict in both Jessica’s Navel and Elementary Mechanics. The epistolary Bathroom Suite is more about inequality than school refusal.
The last time the husband and I went on holiday we came home a day early, and enjoyed ourselves an awful lot more pottering around the garden than we would have done looking for more touristy things to fill the time. The thatched-roofed cottage I’d booked in a chocolate-box Dorset village had a wall-full of Penguins, but the latticed windows alongside the narrow cobbled street made for a sombre interior, far from ideal for curling up with a book. Since then, we’ve managed a couple of weekends away but I don’t think either of us will be dreadfully disappointed if we never go on holiday again. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading about other people’s holidays, especially when they don’t go completely to plan.
Jenn has been having a marvellous holiday on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca with her husband, Greg. But her fifteen-year-old stepdaughter, Emma, will be joining them shortly, with unsuitable boyfriend, Nathan, in tow. Their arrival changes everything, although not quite in the way she expected. Jenn finds herself seduced by Nathan’s youth and sensuality and, amid thunderstorms and searing heat, risks, not only her marriage, but her sense of herself.
There’d been a fair amount of media hype about The Lemon Grove, so I was surprised when I didn’t warm to it as readily as I had to another Mallorca-set villa-holiday novel, The Vacationers. The writing was competent:
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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