Thursday, September 5, 2013

My current status is AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGHHHHHHH

I have five million things I should be doing RIGHT NOW.

So I'm blogging instead.

Oh wait, I can't stand the dryer beeping one more time.

One hour later...

Wait, the thing's beeping again...

Five minutes later...

And in the meantime I've done various household chores, fielded emails (some from other people who also evidently have too much on their plates and aren't being very competent as a result; trying to see the irony of getting annoyed with them...), talked through a minor job issue with Orangina, and sometimes just sat in front of my computer and worried.

Nothing's wrong, exactly. The problems in my life are decidedly of the first-world variety, and I remind myself of this constantly. Among other things we've had some improvements made to our house, with attendant comings and goings of men who drop things and make little messes and borrow household implements that are never quite the same again afterwards, and these are GOOD contractors...I think it's the absence of female supervision that's the problem.

And Wasabi is back at college after a wonderful few months in London, and Orangina has a job, and both of them are suddenly becoming much more self-sufficient and confident in their ability to interact with the adult world. I no longer have teenagers! My children are young women who make their own decisions! But they are, naturally enough, still at the stage where they solicit help and advice from the parent birds, and I'm certainly a whole lot more involved in their lives than my parents were at this stage. In Orangina's case, of course, this involvement is a lifelong business, but even here I count my blessings as we are definitely at the favored end of the intellectual/developmental disability spectrum.

And the list goes on, including the fact that I'm rewriting the sequel to The House of Closed Doors...and I'm feeling a little overloaded, by big things and small. Wrapping around all this is the undeniable fact that our lives are changing and we are starting to feel our way toward a different future. For the last twenty years our days have been dominated by the issues of raising children; schools have been a resource, a source of structure, but also a kind of benevolent dictatorship stipulating where we live, when we take a vacation and what time is bedtime. NOW we are free to make some radical changes, and I find myself itching to make them before we become too old and constrained by ill health or enforced retirement.

Somewhere around the New Year I made a 2013 checklist of things I wanted to achieve. Not, by any means, resolutions, just a reminder of what was on my mind during the quieter, more reflective post-Christmas period. I didn't anticipate a two-month-long stay in the UK at that point, nor that Orangina would get a job so quickly, so I think I can congratulate myself on having achieved six of the thirty or so items I started with. And looking at the ones I HAVEN'T achieved, and seeing which are still the most important to me, is a useful exercise.

And I need to make another list, of all the things I need to do right now, big and small. When I feel like AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGHHHH there are three things that help: writing about it (as I'm doing now), cleaning up my desk (because things get messy when I'm overloaded and then I get stressed about the mess, which makes things worse) and making a master list to guide me through what needs to be done. The way things are at the moment, the items on the list sometimes get swamped by another wave of must-dos, but just having the list calms me down and makes me feel more in control. It gets rid of that completely overwhelmed feeling that verges on a panic attack; a state of mind where I pretty much grind to a halt, and which is usually caused by having nothing I HAVE to do right now but many, many things I SHOULD be doing. Does that make sense?

And, I miss blogging. When I'm swamped, of course, I neglect social media and blogging as not being "vital", but in some ways they are. In the same way that over and above all other things, I try to exercise and eat right (training for a 20K, y'all! Ran five miles yesterday!), I should consider blogging as the essential outlet for my thoughts, a sort of public Pensieve. It's all too easy, when you have plenty of practical and urgent things to do, to neglect the business of putting your thoughts in order, and come to think of it I've spent very little time thinking lately because I've been doing in order just to get through my day without neglecting something that has a deadline attached to it.

I began this post running round like a squirrel trying to do ten things at once, didn't I? Isn't it interesting that studies now show that multitasking is not nearly as useful as we think? And now I feel slightly calmer, in a still-a-bit-frazzled kind of way.

Of course YOU don't really need to know all of this, and if you'd read this far, thanks for caring. You may have far, far worse problems than I do, and think I'm being a whiney cow. You may think that I'm doing this all wrong, and that if I just [insert solution here] I would be fine. You may think I should be caring about [insert world crisis here] instead (although, personally, I think that causes are a form of hiding for many people).

So, a question: what exactly DO you do when you're overwhelmed?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A review of Dan Brown's Inferno, with few apologies to the author*

*but copious thanks to renowned critic and journalist Michael Deacon, whose article inspired me to write a parody review, not that it isn't like shooting fish in a barrel.


Inferno (Robert Langdon, #4)Inferno by Dan Brown
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

CHAPTER 1

Obscure reviewer Jane Steen sat in her modest study in cozy suburban Illinois and stared with horror at the object she held in her hands. Measuring nine-and-a-half by six-and-a-quarter by one-and-a-half inches, the object was encased in a shiny substance the overweight reviewer knew to be plastic.

A book of some kind.

To the little known reader’s brilliant mind and eidetic memory, identifying the book was a simple task. The labels affixed to the spine proclaimed its origin: the library. It was adorned with the terrifying profile of a red-cheeked man in a red cap and red cloak, surmounted by a series of concentric circles.

Red . . . The color of blood. And those circle things look like a target.

The reviewer’s hands trembled as her fingers traced the bold lettering on the book’s cover. “DAN BROWN . . . INFERNO.”

I have to review this?!

The reviewer knew that Dan Brown (born June 22, 1964) is an American author of thriller fiction who is best known for the 2003 bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code. Brown's novels are treasure hunts set in a 24-hour period, and feature the recurring themes of cryptography, keys, symbols, codes, and conspiracy theories. His books have been translated into 52 languages, and as of 2012, sold over 200 million copies. Two of them, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, have been adapted into films.

I copied that straight out of Wikipedia.

CHAPTER 2

I am holding Inferno by Dan Brown and I have to review it, the plump, somewhat scruffily dressed, middle-aged woman recapped. Terror made her nauseous, but she bravely looked at her Goodreads updates to refresh her memory, reading the scathing comments she had left only days ago on the popular readers’ Web site.

Dan Brown is going to kill me!

The female reviewer recalled that Dan Brown is currently the twentieth highest selling author of all time and with only six books, he has achieved these sales writing fewer books than anyone above him on the list. The Robert Langdon series is currently the seventh highest selling series of all time.

Like Dan Brown, I do most of my research on the Web. Not the Internet. Dan Brown likes to talk about the Web. It sounds more . . . spidery.

The married reviewer felt an instant spark of attraction toward the sandy-haired author, who always seems to be wearing a tweed jacket in his photo shoots.

Could he be Robert Langdon in disguise?

CHAPTER 3

Overreacting wildly, the obscure critic overreacted for a few minutes, then got a grip on herself and scanned her updates. She noted that renowned author Dan Brown tends to get his tenses confused, loves to put identifiers in front of his characters’ names, and is inordinately fond of ellipses and loud punctuation such as exclamation points, question marks and interrobangs.

Why is that?!

Oh yes, and he loves italics, which pop up all over the place, not always readily identifiable with one particular character.

CHAPTER 4

The practically unknown reviewer picked up her copy of Inferno by Dan Brown, scanning its mysterious cover with the picture of the sage she now knew to be internationally famous poet Dante (c. 1265–1321), who was a major Italian poet of the Middle Ages. His Divine Comedy, originally called La Comedia and later called Divina by Boccaccio, is widely considered the greatest literary work composed in the Italian language and a masterpiece of world literature.

Gad, I love Wikipedia.

She remembered that bestselling author Dan Brown frequently recaps the previous action near the beginning of a chapter, and that his bestselling prose is scattered with information dumps so densely constituted that they resemble the excreta of the famed Friesian horse, a creature mentioned in the bestselling novel Inferno.

The reviewer’s eidetic memory roamed over the plot. She recalled that Robert Langdon, granite-jawed Harvard professor of symbology and art historian specializing in iconography, wakes up in Florence to find that he remembers nothing, people are apparently trying to kill him, and he is carrying a suggestively shaped container that contains a mysterious object. He is helped by pretty blonde ponytailed genius-IQd Sienna Brooks, who has the hots for him. And his confused memories recall a mysterious silver-haired attractive older woman who wants him to seek and find, and who undoubtedly will have the hots for him too.

Meanwhile, on the mysterious ship The Mendacium, facilitator Knowlton has just watched a video that is more terrifying than the most terrifying thing you can possibly imagine.

Dan Brown is fond of making his characters react with terror in the hope that the reader will also be terrified?

What is this book?!


CHAPTER 5

“Ah yes!” the clinically obese woman derided, not knowing that “deride” must have an object. She recalled that most of the plot of Inferno consisted of Langdon and Sienna running around famous tourist spots finding clues, while being chased by a leather-clad woman who turns out to be superfluous to the plot, a bleeding strangely dressed man who also, honestly, didn’t have much of a role except to increase dramatic tension, and some black-clad soldiers who weren’t really necessary either, except that they get to do all the dirty work like good little minions. As they pass various monuments, Langdon recalls large indigestible lumps of architectural and historical detail.

As the story lumbers to its end it picks up speed, with one quite nice bit of misdirection but otherwise the usual thriller fare of all the important stuff being packed into the last few pages so that the reader feels like a lot went on.

And then there was the ending . . .

CHAPTER 6

“I was outraged,” the reviewer recalled, outraged. How could everyone suddenly decide that the Evil Plan may, in fact, be a Jolly Good Thing? Why was the Evil Villain’s Number One not banged up in jail but instead allowed to work for the good guys?

And didn’t Dan Brown think through what he was proposing as Quite A Good Thing, Really?!

The reviewer ran her hands over the shiny cover of the bestselling novel Inferno by Dan Brown. She recalled that Langdon rides off smugly into the sunset of a brand new world without any thought for the social, economic, and religious consequences of what just happened. Not to mention the fact that a small bunch of white people take it upon themselves to re-engineer the fate of mankind without consulting the rest of the world.

And that’s supposed to be OK because they’re white, rich, and brilliant.

CHAPTER 7

The overweight woman gnashed her teeth dramatically and then, like renowned professor of symbology Robert Langdon, decided to settle down with a good book. Sensing it was time to wrap up her interminable review, there was one thought that still haunted her.

Dan Brown knows exactly what he’s doing.

The frequent recaps so the reader doesn’t lose his way . . . the italics that also serve as simplified reminders of what’s going on . . . the way the action takes place in tourist spots that are easily visited and quite easy to research . . . the very short chapters . . . the dropping of brand names . . .

He’s manipulating the Baby Boomers!?!

The reviewer realized that for an audience accustomed to a diet of CSI and the Discovery Channel, Dan Brown’s storytelling style is accessible and informative. Used to being given the potted version of history by talking heads as the camera zooms around in a dizzying series of filler shots, the average reader of Brown’s books will sink into a TV-induced-like stupor and, instead of thinking about the plot or the writing, will simply enjoy the experience and come back for more.

And that, thought the reviewer, is why Dan Brown is the novelist of the future.

Sensing it was time, really, to revert to a state of denial before that last thought took hold in her brain, the reviewer took one last look at the cover of the bestselling novel Inferno and sighed.

I can return it to the library and forget this ever happened . . .

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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Book review: The White Forest by Adam McOmber

The White ForestThe White Forest by Adam McOmber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Where I got the book: I was offered a free review copy by Simon & Schuster in return for an honest review. Touchstone, the publisher of The White Forest, is a S&S imprint.

***SPOILER ALERT*** I’ve tried very hard not to give the story away, but hints of it may show through in this very long review. I’m really writing for those who have already read the book and want to know what others think about it. So if you’re here because you’re wondering whether to read this novel, you might want to read it first and then come back.

A word about my rating: In many respects, I dislike the star rating system for books. This is one of those moments when trying to rate a book turns my brain into a pretzel as I weigh up the writer’s ability to use prose to create an atmosphere, his fundamental writing skills seen as an art rather than a precise science, whether I found the story’s premise convincing or not AND whether another type of reader, looking for different things in a novel, would either love or hate this book. The White Forest gets four stars because while I had serious issues with some aspects of it, to be fair as a reviewer I have to give the writer credit for the other elements.

The story: Jane leads an isolated life on Hampstead Heath, a wild area of north London. Since the death of her mother when Jane was six, Jane has experienced inanimate objects as animate beings that give off sound, colors, lights, even memories. She can transfer the sensations she feels to other people by touch, and mute their effect on herself by remaining grounded in the natural world (notably by wearing flowers tied to her wrist). Her abilities isolate her from other people—who naturally fear them—and her only friends are Maddy, another of society’s outcasts because she is the daughter of a medium and a disgraced daguerrotype artist, and Nathan, the object of both girls’ yearning. Maddy fears Jane’s “ability” and is jealous of the hold it has over Nathan, who sees Jane as a way to reach an otherworldly place they call the Empyrean. When Nathan disappears into a cult society to which his search for the Empyrean has led him, Maddy and Jane work to bring him back, both together and in competition.

What I liked about the novel: To begin with, it was well-written—good dialogue, vivid descriptions, nice pacing and so on. I noted a couple of spelling/grammar snafus in passing (like someone being in the “throws” of some sort of dilemma) but these days that’s usually due to overworked, short-staffed editing departments. And the writing had depth to it; I found myself caught up in wondering if Jane was a reliable narrator or a deluded hysteric (bring on the hysterical Victorian ladies!) and transfixed by the sexual imagery of Jane as the doorway (something to be opened and explored), the stag, the hole in the tree, the red dress, the animals in the white forest…toward the end I began to see the story as an allegory of sexual frustration, a woman taking power over the physical world in a desperate effort to reach fulfillment. And there was the more overt theme of the imbalance of the male power of technology with the female power of the natural world; all very interesting and thought-provoking, although I struggled to find a structure to the narrative that would make it clear what the author thought about these matters. Possibly—since this is a debut novel—the inchoate impression I received is due to the author grasping for half-formed themes that will be worked out in later writings. Given the amount of vapid fluff that makes up about 80% of novel writing, I should be glad to see a writer with some ballast in his brainbox, right?

Where I had issues: Early on in this novel I began to wonder which decade of the Victorian era we were in. Those who follow my reviews may know that I’m not generally a stickler for historical accuracy and will accept that an author may, for the sake of the story, alter an event or a place from time to time. In my own writing I like to invent locations, and I love the world-building elements in the fantasy sub-genres when done right. I was tickled to death, for example, when in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter the reason given for Lincoln’s determination to win over the Confederacy was that those darn Southerners were EVUL VAMPIRES. The preposterousness of the premise made it obvious that the filmmakers had little regard for the historical record and therefore I could sit back and enjoy the movie without a care in the world about accuracy (although others do care, and the list of goofs for this movie on IMDb makes entertaining reading).

So why did The White Forest turn me into the History Police? It began, as I said above, because I started to wonder when, exactly, this story was unfolding. Chapter 1 is subheaded, unhelpfully or is it teasingly? “Hampstead Heath, 18—“ and much of the tone of the story seemed to indicate that it was set in the very late 19th century, after 1885, say. References to, for example, dream theory and the New Woman sounded very fin-de-siècle.

Flipping to the Author’s Note revealed only that he admitted to not moving the Crystal Palace to its post-1854 location, but nothing else. So what was niggling at me? Then I realized that Nathan had just returned from the Crimean War, dating the novel to around 1857—and that pretty much all other checkable references were therefore anachronistic (see my updates for details). Including the snortable fact that Inspector Vidocq, who comes to London to investigate Nathan’s disappearance, died in 1857 so must in fact have been a zombie detective, not a bad idea when I come to think of it: Sherlock Holmes, Zombie Sleuth might be a worthy contribution to the recent spate of mashups aimed at bored kids who despise history and literature anyway. Can’t be much worse than the Robert Downey Jr. version. Harrumph.

But I digress, and heaven knows this review is long enough without the digressions. At some point while I was merrily pointing out the anachronisms on Goodreads the author contacted me and cheerfully admitted that he was playing with the historical record. And yes, I knew going in that this was supposed to be a Gothic fantasy novel. I felt that a fantasy reader looking purely for the thrill of strange theories and weird happenings might have no problem with the anachronisms, and actually I’d rather like comments from readers with a taste for fantasy based in the past—what bookfriend Ashley called "...historically-influenced fantasy as opposed to simply fiction set in an historical period with some small fantastical elements."

So can a Gothic story ignore the rules of historical fiction? The best quote I could find about Gothic novels was by critic Ellen Moers, who said, “But what I mean -- or anyone else means -- by "the Gothic" is not so easily stated except that it has to do with fear. In Gothic writings fantasy predominates over reality, the strange over the commonplace, and the supernatural over the natural, with one definite auctorial intent: to scare.” I have read very little by H.P. Lovecraft (to be honest, I can’t stand Cthulhu) but I did recognize this novel as Lovecraftian, “a sub-genre of horror fiction which emphasizes the cosmic horror of the unknown (in some cases, unknowable) over gore or other elements of shock, though these may still be present.” So we’re talking about writing in which the emphasis is on creating a certain atmosphere and eliciting chills by putting the reader imaginatively in touch with a supernatural world, and The White Forest does this pretty well.

On the other hand, this novel is packaged so as to attract the historical fiction reader, although the cover of my copy—a Blair Witchy “trees in the night” design—is less overtly HF than the original back-view-of-Victorian-chick motif. And indeed it first came to my attention because it was being added to the lists of HF readers. Now, the readers of historical fiction tend to expect a certain level of trust in their authors; they want to feel that said authors have at least tried to locate their story within a certain historical framework and gone to some effort to ensure, if not “accuracy” (a slippery word when applied to history—for example, the discovery of the Mary Rose in England radically changed many ideas about life in Tudor times), at least plausibility. The debate about historical accuracy in fiction just never dies, as the recent flood of writing about the televised version of Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War books shows, and I’m constantly coming across great writing about where fact ends and imagination begins and how genres such as steampunk deliberately manipulate the past to the delight of readers.

Some readers get extremely upset about novelists altering history to suit their own purposes, especially when they imbue real historical people with traits—often negative—that readers do not think they had COUGHCOUGHPHILIPPAGREGORY. While writing this review I followed a Facebook thread about how casual (i.e. historically uninformed—HF readers tend to be smug about this) viewers of Gregory’s series now believe Edward of Lancaster was a rapist and this is WRONG! The past, many readers feel, is not the novelist’s private playground; these were real people who lived and died, sometimes horribly, and did or did not love their wives—they are, in fact, us, and how would we feel if a novelist misrepresented us in all our glorious complexity? So the argument goes that any writer who attempts to set his or her work in a defined historical era must try to be true to that era’s history and the psychological makeup of its people.

So when a writer like McOmber begins to play around with the historical timeline, some readers may be incensed. For many of the HF readers I know, anachronisms are a dealbreaker. So my next thought is, can the same be said of the readers of literary fiction? Because The White Forest could also be dropped into that bookshelf due to the quality of the writing and its themes AND the fact that it doesn’t fit perfectly with either historical fiction or fantasy. I find myself wondering if the new cover (and the fact that it has a reading group guide) is an attempt to push the novel in that direction.

I feel I’ve spent way more time on this novel than I really should, but it has certainly raised some interesting questions. Reading being the incredibly subjective art that it is, many of those questions will never receive satisfactory answers, and I’m the last person to suggest that writers should be bound and gagged by a set of rules. In particular, I want to see new writers explore and struggle, and I think that’s what I’m seeing here. Some writers decide they are going to write in a specific genre, learn the rules of that genre thoroughly and then apply them rigorously. That’s a pretty quick way to commercial success if you also have some talent, but to my mind it’s not doing the craft of writing—or the writer—any favors. I read many, many, many HF books where the writer has applied the “formula”—beats, acts, layering, short sentences, blah blah blah—with greater or lesser success, but somehow that formula always shows through like black paint under white. I have a great deal of time for writers who write what they want to, and damn the consequences. I will therefore be looking out for what McOmber does next.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Book Review: A Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard

A Lifetime BurningA Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

***SPOILER ALERT***

Where I got the book: this is one of those rare occasions where I requested a copy from the author because I became intrigued about her writing.

I’ve been mulling over whether to include spoilers or not, but I think I’ll have to if I’m going to discuss the story properly. The blurb makes the novel sound like it’s a family story and so it is, told in a non-linear style over a sixty-year period. It’s the story of Flora Dunbar, her twin brother Rory, and their family through three generations, interestingly framed in a beyond-the-grave narration by Flora’s—ghost? Tortured soul? There’s a whole book club discussion in just that one point.

As children, Flora and Rory are emotionally close, to the point that separation causes them anguish. As they grow up Rory’s extraordinary talent as a pianist takes him to places where Flora can’t go. She marries Hugh, a widowed vicar (this is the early 1960s so Flora’s view of her career options is excusably limited) while Rory marries Grace, a fellow musician.

Neither marriage is particularly happy. Flora and Rory’s adult relationship is twisted and tormented by a physical attraction toward each other that is made apparent to the reader early on. Flora copes by drinking; Rory has his music; but you just KNOW where I’m going with this, don’t you. Yep.

And this is where I have to say that I admire the way Linda Gillard deals with the subject of incest. All good novels have a “what-if?” at their core, and A Lifetime Burning asks: what if love—in all its manifestations, emotional and physical—is forbidden by morality, religion and law but still undeniably there? What does it do to the people involved? She flanks the story of Rory and Flora with two other instances of incest (the Dunbars are quite the close family) which have different outcomes, both equally bleak. And she handles the topic with grace: without glamorizing it, without condemning or condoning, with an understanding of the depth of love involved and the corresponding depth of pain.

I described this novel to a friend and she remarked that she wouldn’t even read such a book because the subject-matter would make her feel as if she needed a shower. I understood her squeamishness: if A Lifetime Burning had glamorized the situation or tried to make it sexy or anything like that, I would have felt the same. But Gillard focuses on the consequences of Flora and Rory’s obsessive relationship and its destructive nature; there’s nothing glamorized about it. Sex is far from being the focus of the novel, although several of the characters crave a sexual relationship for the intimacy and warmth it brings. The one—memorable—sex scene that I recall is beautifully written to bring out Flora’s role as the victim of her desires and Rory’s as her tortured manipulator.

The writing is fantastic; Gillard is particularly good at dialogue and balances it beautifully with narrative scenes. Having recently read Life After Life, also a literary novel concerning a family told in a non-linear style, I couldn’t help noticing that I cared a whole lot more about the characters in A Lifetime Burning—the emotion that I felt the much-touted litfic “best novel of the century” lacked was right here, in a novel that’s every bit as good as Kate Atkinson’s. I particularly liked Hugh, the still center of the novel who is, in the long run, able to deal with his own desires and emotions in a non-destructive way.

I do relish writers who tackle the hard stuff of life without making a big song and dance about it. I enjoyed this read very much and would recommend it to anyone who likes literary fiction and who appreciates that writers get to think the unthinkable so that we can experience the repercussions within the space of our own heads, with no harm to anyone.

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Friday, July 5, 2013

Book review: The Nine Fold Heaven by Mingmei Yip

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Come along with an ex-spy as she returns to Shanghai where she’s a wanted woman – but she has to search for her baby and her lost lover. Is her baby really alive? Will she be able to find her lover? Can she elude the police long enough to find them? Learn much more about Nine Fold Heaven and Mingmei Yip at http://www.mingmeiyip.com and get your copy of this exciting and exotic novel at http://www.amazon.com/The-Nine-Fold-Heaven-Mingmei/dp/0758273541/
Nine Fold Heaven is part of a series about Camilla the songbird and female spy – you can also read Skeleton Women, the first book about Camilla. http://www.amazon.com/Skeleton-Women-Mingmei-Yip/dp/B00D9TPPCW

The era of this novel is pre-revolutionary China; the action switches between Hong Kong, where Camilla is hiding out, and her former home, Shanghai. In a world ruled by rich, ruthless mobsters, women have little value and Camilla has learned to be heartless to survive. I think that has to be the key to Camilla, whom I had a bit of trouble liking as she appears unable to remain faithful to one man at a time. There is an element of romance in the story--Camilla is desperate to recover her lover Jinying and their son Jinjin, both of whom may be dead--but as a counterpoint to the great love of her life she also leads on American ambassador Edward Miller and re-involves herself with the gangster Gao, who was her lover in Skeleton Women

I haven't read Skeleton Women but I can quite easily accept that the involvement with Gao predated or was simultaneous with the relationship with Jinying, while Camilla's seduction of Edward, a newly introduced character, is a matter of expediency. But the expediency angle is one of my problems with Camilla, who has a tendency just to let things happen to her as she wanders between Shanghai and Hong Kong with what is supposed to be the tenacious aim of finding out whether her baby and his father are alive and recovering them if they are. If Yip is exploring whether a woman can love three men at the same time (really two, because Edward simply disappears from the scene after a while) I would have liked to have seen more conflict around this point; otherwise, what precisely is the role of the extraneous men other than to push the plot along? Or are they simply part of the cast of secondary characters, in which case why do they all have to fall for Camilla?

On the other hand, I found myself thinking, Camilla's seemingly aimless encounters could have something to do with the Buddhist version of karma, a theme that pervades the novel. The tone is set when Camilla visits a temple in Hong Kong at the beginning of the book and consults a fortune-teller about her forthcoming search for her lover and son. He tells her "Let the wind steer your boat, move forward, have no fear" and that's pretty much what she does.

One of the more entertaining aspects of this novel is the superstitious nature of the Chinese. Camilla both participates in this superstitious behavior and manipulates it, often showing a wary detachment in her attitude toward superstition that may, I suspect, mirror the feelings of an author who is comfortable in both the Asian and the Western worlds. 

In other respects, this is a very Chinese book. Even the writing style and punctuation often seem to come more from the Chinese language than English. This can be both fascinating and distracting, depending on where you stand as a reader. The plot's dependence on coincidence is also a novelistic device rarely used in the West these days but again, consistent with the novel's themes of karma and luck. 

If you're looking for a fast-moving story that immerses the reader in an exotic setting, you'll be happy. The Nine Fold Heaven certainly led me into a deeper understanding of the lives of women in a place and time where women only have two weapons: their beauty--while it lasts--and their respectability--if they are able to use their beauty to attain the status of a married woman. I suspect that Camilla's struggle to find her faithful lover and her son have as much to do with clawing herself up to a higher status in society as with devoted love, although she does not seem to have that insight about herself.

I spotted a couple of anachronisms: plastic cars in the hands of a child and a portable radio do not belong to the 1930s. There was not a great deal of specific detail to tie me into the 1930s, but I did enjoy the sense of a chaotic, decadent underworld where the struggle to survive and thrive is a game of chance played by powerful men and devious women, life has little value but reincarnation is forever, and superstition and luck can make or break the players.

About Mingmei Yip

Mingmei Yip has been writing and publishing since she was fourteen years old and now she has twelve books to her credit. Her five novels are published by Kensington Books and her two children’s books are published by Tuttle Publishing.

Mingmei is also a renowned qin (ancient string instrument) musician, calligrapher and painter. In Hong Kong, she was a columnist for seven major newspapers. She has appeared on over sixty TV and radio programs in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and the US. Visit Mingmei at: www.mingmeiyip.com

Friday, June 28, 2013

Houston, we have a problem.... When a rewrite seems inevitable

Photo credit: pale on Stock.Xchng

One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13, because something great happened out of something going very wrong. Faced with the possibility of human tragedy, NASA drew on all of its resources to solve the situation: no panic or histrionics, just a bunch of experts who analyzed what went wrong, calculated what it meant to the mission and strategized how to rejig some pretty complicated equipment in order to turn failure into success.

See the guys on this sailboat? The craft broke its moorings in a storm and they're quietly going about the task of getting it afloat again (although how they can be so calm with the sea at that angle I DON'T KNOW.) They're analyzing the situation, assessing the damage and coming up with a strategy to achieve 100% flotation in the near future.

Is a theme emerging yet?

See, I've been working on the sequel to The House of Closed Doors for a while, and something's not right. It's like that little rattle in your car's engine that you're trying to ignore because you KNOW, you just KNOW, that at some point that little rattle is going to morph into one of those visits to the garage where the service guy beckons you out of the waiting room to talk to you privately (around here that means a bill in excess of $1,000). This is known as Jane Goes to the Shop or They See Me Coming And Rub Their Hands.

After a couple of revisions (I love the way I say that, so airily as if it didn't mean hundreds of hours of staring at a screen) I finally sent the draft to my beta readers* in the hope that they'd tell me that everything's all right. But deep down inside I just knew they were going to (metaphorically) beckon me over to a quiet spot and say "Jane, your story needs fixing. And it's gonna be expensive."

With only two drafts on their way back to me, I already know I'm in trouble. It's a horrible sinking feeling to know that the book that has taken me two years to get even close to ready ISN'T READY.  I want it to be ready. I want to be able to write Book 3 in peace. I've already, in a sense, let go of Book 2 and I'm in another zone, researching for Book 3 and all excited about it.

And yet, of course, I don't want to give my readers a story I'm not happy with. So the question is becoming not whether I rewrite, but how much. And I've never done this before. So as I wait for the rest of my betas to send the manuscript back, I am girding my loins.

Where do I start? Well, look at the people in my two examples above. The first thing you do when a situation goes pear-shaped is to analyze it. Being geeky me, I have sweetened this particular sour apple with some new software, to wit Scapple, a brainstorming app that synchronizes with Scrivener, my beloved novel-creating tool. I'm not quite sure how I'll proceed, but I think I'll start by throwing down all the NICE things my betas say, to see what's working. Then I'll make a note of all the places where my readers are having trouble with the story. This should give me an indication, at least, of how bad the situation is.

The next step, I presume, will be to calculate the extent of the disaster. What can I save? How long will the rewrite take? Do I have to do any new research first?

Once I know the basics, it'll be time to get creative. There's a scene in Apollo 13 where someone empties onto a table (or floor? I haven't watched the movie in a while) a whole load of assorted stuff that replicates what the Apollo 13 crew have at their disposal, and the engineers have to come up with a doohickey that'll solve a particular problem using only that stuff. Outlining a rewritten draft will require similar skills, but I'm really hoping the end result will be a gleaming machine rather than the duct-taped-together doohickey of Apollo 13.

And then, finally, I'll write. And then go through the entire editing process AGAIN. If I can't get a whole lot closer to that satisfied feeling that goes with having written a decent novel, I may seek professional help at this editing stage.

While I'm waiting for all the beta copies to come back, I'm going to do a little preparation in the form of reading a craft book or two. I have one on hand that I haven't read, and a whole list on Goodreads. With any luck I'll pick up a new idea or two about plot or characterization that will point to a missing link somewhere in the draft.

Betcha thought self-publishing wasn't hard work, huh? Think again.

The one step I don't want to take is to despair, although naturally I have my moments when I just want to give up (three o'clock in the morning, anyone?) I know that all this hard work will result in a better book, and that my readers (and my characters, of whom I've grown rather fond) deserve the best I can do for them.

For the writers among you: have you ever faced a substantial rewrite? For the readers: which book do you wish the author had been forced to rewrite?


*Long-suffering readers willing to plow through an earlier draft of a novel and tell us how bad it is. Manna in the desert that is self-publishing. Many so-called bestsellers are as bad as they are because publishers tend to skip this vital step.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Conference time, not stalking Diana Gabaldon and some unexciting sex

Photo: writer/actor/fight director David Blixt teaching us how to step, stab and twirl. The light fittings suffered. Out of the three sword-wielding ladies, I'm the one on the left, sort of in the background because I was trying to work out which way to twirl. Photo credit: Patricia Bracewell, whose book I bought and will review in the fullness of time.

Hi guys, I'm back! Did you miss me? The time has really flown since I came back from Europe with the flu, was sick for over a month (no kidding, and THEN I got ANOTHER cold!) and still feel like I'm running to stay in the same place à la Red Queen. Somehow, though, I managed to get Book 2 of the House of Closed Doors series to my beta readers and started researching Book 3, so not all is lost.

And then June arrived, which means not only Special Olympics summer games for me and Orangina but also the Historical Novel Society conference, which this year happened in St. Petersburg, Florida. For me the highlights included meeting Audra Friend, the Unabridged Chick (we're frequently to be found in the same Goodreads discussions), a swordplay workshop with David Blixt because even though there are not nearly enough swords in the 19th century my martial arts fetish has me drooling over any blade and there were LOTS, and returning with a very restrained but interesting pile of books, mostly freebies that actually look pretty enticing.

There weren't many downsides apart from not getting enough sleep Saturday night (see below) and having to leave abruptly just as C.W. Gortner's speech was getting interesting. Food additive intolerances can be a real nuisance at conferences.

And I only bumped into Diana Gabaldon in the loo once which was a relief because at last year's London conference it seemed to happen every time I was in there. Which opened up the terrifying prospect of blurting out why I was in there so often, thus replacing my image as a creepy stalker with the even worse image of a compulsive oversharer, or asking DG why SHE was in there so often, and I can't think which would be worse.

There's a strange otherworldliness about encountering big-name authors at conferences when you're a complete unknown yourself. On the one hand you're colleagues because you both face the same issues when you're writing, but on the other hand it's all too easy to start fangirling when brought up face to face with the éminences of the fiction world because, let's face it, their books are usually on your shelves. You want to treat them like fellow human beings but you'd also really like to get into a conversation about their books and they really don't want to because EVERYONE wants to talk about their books. So you end up saying banal or creepy or faintly insulting things instead, at least I do. I need to think up a Brilliant Witticism to be used in the presence of famous authors and just stick to it.

I did experience a bizarre episode when I was having a nice chat with someone and a Famous Author (not DG) butted RIGHT in and clearly expected me to go away stat. Being pigheaded about this sort of thing, I deliberately hung around and butted into the ensuing conversation (from which FA was pointedly excluding me) precisely three times (a butting rebuttal?) before leaving. Petty? Probably. But satisfying.

I had great hopes for the late-night sex scene reading on Saturday night, and was crushingly disappointed. Last year I registered too late to get into the Saturday banquet and had to watch the video of a hilarious reading involving Diana Gabaldon, Bernard Cornwell and Gillian Bagwell. So I was all fired up and quite surprised at how many people left before the reading started. Are we all too middle-aged for this, I thought?

But by the time three or four people had read, I most definitely wasn't in the mood. Perhaps I had a headache or would rather read a good book :D, but what was lacking this time was the humor. Except for one wonderful reading involving a prostitute, a nonagenarian, and an apple (don't even ask) I was, to be honest, bored. I'm not overly fond of sex in books, preferring erotic subtlety to the onslaught of body parts and fluids, but the exception is when it's funny, by intention or otherwise. The authors who read mostly seemed to be taking themselves seriously: MISTAKE! I left before the session ended.

One thing I did take away from HNS 2013 was how hard HF writers work to convey their historical period. It's been a kick in the pants to this 'ere rather lazy researcher, and I am taking steps to remedy the situation. More about that later.

In the meantime, back to work. Do you go to conferences? Why or why not?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Indie Book Review: A White Room by Stephanie Carroll

A White RoomA White Room by Stephanie Carroll
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where I got the book: review copy supplied by the author.

AHA!

I knew the day would come when I could say this.

There's self-published historical fiction out there that's more interesting than the traditionally published offerings, and just as well presented.

So what's A White Room about? Emeline Evans' greatest desire is to help people. She returns from college (in 1900 college is pretty advanced for a female) wishing to become a nurse, but she knows her father's going to be difficult to convince. Before she can make the ask he dies, leaving Emeline's family destitute, so she takes the obvious course; she marries into a nearby family who have the means to support her mother and siblings.

Her new married life takes her to Labellum, Missouri, where Emeline is expected to take care of the house while her lawyer husband works on some case she doesn't understand because nobody bothers to inform her. Between the domestic drudgery of a wife with almost no servants, the horrors of socializing with the small town's leading ladies (who are neither charitable nor kind), getting the cold shoulder from a husband who seems to care nothing for her, and guilt, is it surprising that Emeline begins to see her house as populated by weirdly alive furniture and strange people inside the shut-up rooms? Feminine hysteria is the obvious cause for those around her, but Emeline finds her own way out of the burden that past and present have placed on her mind.

"Predictable" is not the word for this novel. I never knew quite where it was going to take me, and I loved that. Even when Emeline does something highly controversial that some readers are going to have trouble with, but which hits right at the heart of the subject of the bondage in which nineteenth-century women found themselves. Behind the long dresses and the Victorian ideals of the angel of the hearth, the sweet little mother of Dickens' imagining and the competent housewife in the Mrs. Beeton mold lay a separation of gender roles so complete that at one point we see a bereaved father completely unable to care for his children as he has never had to learn how. We see an isolation of the roles of husband and wife so total that Emeline has to act scandalously before she can even get an inkling as to what her husband does. The constraints on Emeline's life are chillingly imaged in the wonderfully creepy house, with a pink room that pulsates like a digesting stomach and a Beast in the attic. Definitely some Woman in Black moments (the movie rather than the novella) that would translate well to film.

The resolution to the story is perhaps a little slick, but I couldn't help cheering Emeline on in her quest to regain the sense of self that she loses in her self-sacrificing marriage. Altogether a very satisfying read, and a solid debut for Carroll. The book's editing and design also deserve a mention; nine and a half out of ten readers won't be able to tell it's self-published, I'd put money on that. Nicely done.

View all my reviews

Friday, May 3, 2013

Indie Book Review: Tell a Thousand Lies by Rasana Atreya

Tell A Thousand LiesTell A Thousand Lies by Rasana Atreya
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where I got the book: copy supplied by author.

Whoops! This was supposed to be my April indie review but yeah, I got a bit behind. This was one of those occasions where an author cold-pitches me and I'm immediately intrigued by the setup, but I had NO IDEA of the directions this novel was going to go in. It starts quietly: because Pullamma's dark-skinned and tall and therefore not attractive by the standards of her corner of rural India, she is allowed to be present at her sister's bride-viewing party (she won't distract the future bridegroom's attention from her sister). So straightaway you have this sketch of what life is (was?) like for a woman without dowry or beauty: pretty bleak. I loved the way Atreya put me straight into India; unfortunately I've never visited the country but I got a vivid picture of the scene, the attitudes of the villagers, Pullamma's own drily humorous resignation to her lot. And all this in flawless English that wasn't any the less Indian for being correct.

So I wasn't expecting the stranger who throws himself at Pullamma's feet, a dead child in his arms...

Which neatly introduces the second theme, that of superstition. Pretty interesting, because I was sure at the outset that it would be Pullamma's dark skin (equating to unattractiveness) that would limit her options as a woman, but in fact it's the superstitious gullibility of the villagers that both traps and frees her. Pullamma's newfound status as a goddess makes her, for the first time in her life, useful, but unfortunately the man she's useful to is the unrelievedly evil Kondal Rao who exploits her for his political aims. The drastic action that she's forced to take to escape Rao's influence frees her from the limitations she's imposed upon herself, while causing her heartbreak worthy of Bollywood drama at its best.

And that's how I ended up seeing it: as a Bollywood story, full of improbable coincidences and tragic sobs. The melodrama lessens its effectiveness as a novel from a Western viewpoint but wow, what a story. I'd love to see it made into a movie.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A bit of doggerel, and how I ended up writing about Amazon/Goodreads after all

I'm back in the States, dear Reader, and if it weren't for the fact that I caught the flu on the way back and am still sick, I might be doing something sensible like a proper blog post about marketing or the Amazon purchase of Goodreads.

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Oh OK no, I can't possibly write about Amazon buying Goodreads. My feelings about that are so complicated they defeat expression, and besides, what do I know about big business? Instead I will relate to you my communications of today's date with another Amazon victim partner, The Book Depository. For a while this really rather lovely UK-based site had the edge over Amazon, because they offered free shipping with no minimum purchase--still an excellent option if you haven't succumbed to Prime or live in a place where Prime is not available.

Amazon bought The Book Depository in 2011, and since then...um...nothing seems to have changed. And this may be what happens with Goodreads, you know. Nothing. All good, right?

Hold that thought while I tell you what I've been doing instead of PROPER writing. I got an email from The Book Depository which contained this little poem:


And it prompted me to write this reply:

Dear Book Depository, don't be sad.
You haven't done anything bad!
Let me my buying habits explain
And spare you guys the dreadful pain
Of thinking you have injured me
When it's my fault; thing is, you see
A few years back I began to post
Reviews online, and it was most
Satisfactory to see how folks
Loved my opinions and little jokes.
It also brought me many books
From publishers via LibraryThing,
And emails (this rhyme won't scan) asking
If I could possibly take a look
At this or that GREAT indie book.

And THEN every last scribe
(Including me) started to bribe
Readers to download freebies many,
Onto our Kindles, Nooks and any
Other convenient e-location
So as reading's my vocation
I naturally grabbed my fill
And got enough to read until
Hell freezes over; and what's more,
The cost of sending to my door
Any book I wanted to buy
Used to mean I'd have to try
To buy a bunch of books at once
And given I'm no shopping dunce
BookDepository's free shipping
Stopped me from always nipping
Over to Amazon; but just in time
They bought YOU and started Prime
And now, alas! the arrow'd smile
Smirks all too often in the pile
Of bills that represent my reading,
And all the while your hearts are bleeding.

What can I say? I'm just a traitor
Lured by Amazon, that hungry 'gator.
I've got so many books to read
As explained above, that I hardly need
Another page; (which didn't prevent me
From applying--when you sent me
An email that boosted my esteem--
To join the BookDepository review team!)

But I still love ya; and to prove it
I've spent my voucher on a book, to wit
A history tome; you may rejoice
But now I must tell you that my choice
Was kindness merely; ah, if my pockets were deeper!
Amazon's got it for five dollars cheaper.

Always fun to write a bit of doggerel, but by the time I got round to buying the book I really DID buy just to show BD that I still love them, I realized some things:

- Amazon's purchase of BD tainted its indie status. When I look at its site or read its emails, the fact that it belongs to Amazon is always in my head, and I see my dollars as going, ultimately, to Amazon. I could be wrong about that; I have no idea what the financial arrangements were when the buyout happened. But while I can be loyal to a completely independent bookstore and tolerate slightly higher prices for the sake of that independence, there doesn't seem to be any point in paying substantially more to an Amazon company when I can get books from the mother ship for less.
- It seems to me that the price point for the same book on BD and Amazon used to be pretty close. But now...wow...I was looking up books to buy and comparing prices, and I'm seeing a $5-8 difference. Even with free shipping, BD's losing its edge.
- I haven't seen much change or innovation in the BD product over the last couple of years. They remain a bookseller, nice, ordinary and safe...possibly a happy haven for customers who don't want emails suggesting purchases of electronics or moisturizer. And yet...there's a REASON why stores like Target and Wal-Mart take up enormous slices of real estate in my local shopping malls. Most of us, however much we like to protest against it, rather like being tempted by that bar of chocolate or cute little t-shirt. Amazon is innovating; Book Depository is stagnating.
- And then I took a look at BD's audiobooks (the only thing they sell bar print books) and noted, with a small sob, that most of their Editor's Picks were "currently unavailable" and that, while their prices seemed pretty good (worth another look, methinks) the dread "currently unavailable" sticker  was to be seen on all too many products. Whereas "oh, Amazon'll have it" has pretty much become a byword in my family.

Tainted status, higher prices, stagnation and low inventory...oh, this is turning out to be a MUCH sadder post than I meant it to be. And I should remind you at this point that I'm not in the camp of those who believe Amazon is the Evil Empire. I admire what they've done for the consumer, and I'm happy to self-publish with them, although not exclusively. 

But here's what I'm seeing. You buy a competitor that has scads of fans in an important area of your business niche, fans who are there because the competitor has done things right. You buy them because otherwise, someone else with deep pockets may buy them and inject into them the only thing they need to become THE place where the bookish gather: cash. And then, you leave them alone. You don't fix the problems that prevent them from becoming great; you keep them as they are, with "well, that's what the users want" as your excuse. You mine their sales data and pick the brains of their top people, naturally, because that's the marrow in the bone, but now that you own them you know that those brilliant, obsessed people can't innovate AGAINST you.

Am I wrong? I'm thinking of Amazon's other great book-related buy, Audible.com, whose offering seems to have improved dramatically since the buyout. Their iPad/iPhone app is superb, their website is smooth, and the Whispersync for Voice and Immersion Reading products that have sprung from the Amazon-Audible relationship may be the start of a revolution in the way we read.

That's what I HOPE is going to happen with Goodreads. Most of you on Goodreads, where this blog gets more comments than on my site (and what's up with THAT?) are probably hoping the opposite, and that Amazon will leave Goodreads alone to be what it is. But be careful what you wish for, dear Reader. Think about The Book Depository.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Nowhere to hide, or Henry James meets Picasso's owl

I'm spending two weeks at a house party in the South of France. I'd like to pretend I do this all the time because it makes me feel like Henry James (who DID do this sort of thing a lot) but alas, such opportunities occur with extreme rarity which is why I didn't feel I could pass up this one.

Before I flew down to Europe's warmer end I was up in England, where I've had several weeks with family getting to grips with the issues that inevitably result when your parents live to a ripe age and the change in family dynamics these concerns involve. My trip coincided with the funeral of a favorite aunt (who lived a full, happy life) and I caught up with relatives I haven't seen for YEARS - so altogether my longest stay in England since, wow, somewhere in the 80s has been a positive experience.

Orangina has been with me the whole time, of course, as my role as caregiver doesn't come with much vacation time (not until Felsted retires at any rate) so what I haven't had is solitude.

And that's kind of hard on me as I'm used to regular time alone. I've been sitting here in this villa (with two young musicians rehearsing six feet away from me, which doesn't bother me a bit because they're not talking to ME) staring at this screen for the last half hour. I'm trying to encapsulate my thoughts about my need for solitude without sounding whiny and ungrateful because I'm really happy to be in this part of the world. The mimosa's in bloom, I can see green palm trees instead of the brown and white flatness of snowy Illinois, and while we were waiting for our hostess to turn up earlier my distant view was of snow-capped mountains. When I'm back home staring at the four walls of my office, no longer able to escape the accusing eye of my whiteboard with its list of things I'm not doing, I will see that view in my mind's eye and sigh.

Yet my current mood is that of wanting to retreat to my little corner and shut the door. And I think it's just because my brain's full and I haven't had a chance to process all the new thoughts and impressions I've been picking up; and I do that kind of processing best by myself. Are you like that?

I don't think this is an uncommon dilemma for a writer. Creativity is fed by two streams: one is outside impressions that spark new or dormant areas of your brain, and the other is that inner life that's practically impossible to describe to someone else. Of course as a twenty-first-century writer I can get the outside impressions through the medium of the internet, but no electronic medium can replace real life. I could take a video of this room to show you, but how can I communicate the whole of it? The tick of the overly ornate and most definitely too loud longcase clock, the liquid song of blackbirds triumphing over the coo-coo-coo of some kind of wood pigeon outside, the way the view through the glass-encased porch changes when the sun comes out, the smells left over from breakfast and those announcing dinner, the movements of the musicians who are taking a break now--these are my momentary realities and are utterly irreproducible except in my future memory. Today's experiences are rare and wonderful and, I hope, will feed tomorrow's writing; but they impede today's writing precisely because they're NOT the everyday view of my office, whiteboard, goldfish, piles of unread books and (yuck) paperwork not yet done. It's the very sameness of my everyday surroundings that drive me into my head and that's where the magic happens, where the stories start writing themselves...

About three days ago I was at the Picasso museum in Antibes, which is in the building where Picasso had his studio just after WWII. The views from the window are the sea, the mountains, the sparkling sunlight...and I found myself wondering how it could be that Picasso, with that view right there, could possibly achieve art that was so completely focused on his inner life. But now--having had this comparatively solitary space to process what's bugging ME--I'm starting to imagine him in a place that's permanently untidy with paint and canvases everywhere, smelling of turpentine, probably way too hot in summer and shivery cold in winter, with a dirty mattress for a bed (and I know it was like that because there are a series of photos of his studio on the walls.) In that space the artist hid from the outside realities (wife and kids, food, friends, that sea, those mountains...) and deconstructed them into his inner reality so that he could put that interior truth on canvas.

Take the owl, for instance. Picasso had a pet owl, did you know that? I didn't until this week because I don't know a whole lot about art. The owl turns up continually in his work, including my favorite from the museum, a brownish-yellow egg-shaped clay sculpture incised to suggest wings and an owl's markings with a wonderfully childlike beak and eyes stuck on. To me that big egg suggested not just the exterior appearance of the owl but its whole existence from egg to bird right through to the memory of owl that would have remained (was going to remain?) in Picasso's mind after the bird's death and his knowledge that after his death people like me would be standing in a museum looking at the sculpture and seeing that it's egg-shaped.

Because this is the internet (I'm writing straight to Blogger which, when I come to think about it, is an interior/exterior space in itself with its dull gray-and-white blahness, a preparation for connection with a much wider world) I was hoping I could put up a picture of the egg/owl. But the only one I can find would get me into copyright trouble if I reproduced it, so I won't and you'll have to build the picture in your own mind from my words, which are themselves the representation of something I saw with my own eyes, a something that was an abstract representation of a reality that was tied to a certain time and place. And now for me that reality lives in my memory...

BRAIN OVERLOAD REBOOT REBOOT REBOOT...

And weirdly enough, the feeling of frustration about not getting any time alone that was crushing me when I sat down to this post has dissipated into thoughts about Picasso's owl because I've managed to get out of my exterior surroundings and go hide in my brain. I just realized I haven't noticed the tick of the clock for the last hour or so. This feeling is not going to survive the onslaught of the return of the rest of the party from their shopping trip and one of my ears is open for their voices, but somehow the act of writing has turned a whine into a victory.

I know for certain that I've mentioned a Henry James story I've heard of but never been able to find, where a writer socializes (at a house party, I rather think) on a terrace while behind the closed shutters of the house, a shadowy figure scribbles in a lonely room. I've looked for this story for years, and I'm beginning to wonder whether I didn't imagine reading about it. I'm beginning to think, in fact, that it only exists in my own head, and that this means that I have to write it. And that Picasso's owl now needs to be in it (perhaps in another form as I'm not sure I want to write about Picasso) because that was the ingredient missing from my thinking-picture; the real deconstructed into the abstract.

As I was writing that last sentence yesterday the rest of the house party returned, bustle ensued and I could no longer think writerly thoughts...but the whole process of writing this post really cleared the junk out of my brainbox. If you stuck with me so far (and if you did, WELL DONE because this post got a bit long), I'd love to hear your thoughts about the creative process, solitude vs. real life and all the rest!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Do tenses make you tense? A reviewer's Point of View

I'm writing the House of Closed Doors series in the first person past tense, because I like the format where the protagonist tells his or her story and because this particular tale seemed to ask for first person past. But this style of storytelling always begs the question: where and when is the narrator while he/she’s telling the tale?

Older novels got round this problem by encasing a tale in a tale (“Mary sat down by the fireplace and began to speak…”) or by wrapping up the story as a letter or discovered document. At the time of writing I’m reading The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, which adopts the frequently encountered 19th-century technique of getting several characters to tell their own story, one at a time, in this case in chronological order.

But most novels written in the 20th century and beyond just leave the question of the narrator’s current time and age hanging, assuming that you don’t really care because you’re just looking for a good story—and seeing events through the protagonist’s eyes lends a certain immediacy to the scene, even if it does impose limitations. It can be hard to keep a first person narrative going over the span of several books; for example, in Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books, she eventually has to introduce an alternate first person POV in the shape of Amelia’s son Ramses as Amelia can’t possibly be involved in both the main murder mystery and the historically-inspired subplot that begins to develop around Ramses and other younger-generation characters. Most first-person series that I’ve read have to introduce another POV by around book five.

And supposing the main character is injured or stuck in a snowdrift or otherwise unable to access the action that you want to describe? AAAAGH you have to fall back on secondary descriptions or, horrors, letters, and there’s your immediacy blown right out of the water. First person narratives are tricky that way, not to mention the perennial problem that people rarely describe to everyone what they look like and you STILL, despite all the mocking this engenders in bookish circles, get writers who have their protagonist look in the mirror in Chapter One.

Then, of course, there’s the trendy first person present tense (think The Hunger Games) which really plunges you, the reader, deep into the action because, logically, the protagonist has NO IDEA what’s going to happen next and you have to live the story alongside her. First person present tense is risky as some readers find it deeply annoying. Why? I’m not sure, but they do. I’ve seen dislike of—and even rage against—the present tense expressed in many reviews.

Personally I’m becoming rather fond of the Hilary Mantel-style third person present tense, but it could easily begin to grate on me if too many people use it. Mantel was derided for the plethora of “he” pronouns in Wolf Hall (yes, I did some deriding, but very gently) and solved the problem in Bring Up the Bodies by the repetitive use of “he, Cromwell,” which may be an efficient solution but is hardly an elegant one.

It’s no wonder that so many writers fall back on the good old third person past tense. Not many of today’s novelists put the classic omniscient narrator on the payroll, that guy who knows everyone’s secrets and has a breezy tendency to make comments and foreshadow events (“Little did he know what lay behind the green curtain…”) It’s too, well, stagey, a little phony, not authentic enough for the 21st-century mind.

When it comes to third person past tense I generally enjoy the alternate-point-of-view technique where each chapter (or, sometimes, scene) is seen through the eyes of one of a limited number of protagonists or even antagonists. Great for thriller writers who like their evil villain to be closing in on the hero WHO DOESN’T KNOW HE’S THERE LOOK OUT NATHAN! And when you have Chapter One in the female POV and Chapter Two in the male, you can be pretty sure that there’s going to be romance in the air. Unless one of them is evil. And even then.

What drives me completely round the bend is the tendency of SO many authors to just jump in and out of people’s heads with no warning. I just can’t tell you how many novels I read where the author indulges in serious head-hopping; in fact, I’ve pretty much given up going on about it in my reviews because it’s so widespread that I don’t honestly believe most readers notice, and I feel like I’m being Miss Picky Pick-Pick to complain about it so often.

The worst manifestation of this horror is the writer who keeps us in one POV for much of the time but will leap into someone else’s head for just a line or two whenever it suits her. Here’s a made-up example:

Simon [so Simon is the main character through whose eyes we’ve been seeing the story] could see that Jeffrey was starting to lose his cool. “Did you honestly think I wouldn’t find out?” he snapped. 
Jeffrey felt a hot wave of embarrassment rush to his head. Why did Simon have to be so judgmental? “I—I only wear those clothes on weekends.” Sweat pooled between his shoulder blades. 
Now I’ve got him, thought Simon. “But Charlene saw you in your high heels on Wednesday night…” 

And then we continue in Simon’s head until the next time the author decides to head-hop for a moment. Why do I get so bent out of shape about this? As I just said, it’s commonly encountered. In fact in the majority of 21st-century novels I read the POV flops around like a fish on the beach, one moment omniscient, next moment limited, then deep deep deep in the character’s psyche.

It gets my goat, I suppose, because it’s inelegant. Messy, like a room strewn with unwashed cardigans. I’d rather have Mantel and her “he, Cromwell” any day. Generally speaking, REALLY good writers have their tenses and points of view under control, and it’s one of the factors that separate the sheep from the goats. Like, y’know, there’s been some editing done. Actual editing of the old-fashioned intelligent kind. It’s getting rarer.

Of course writing being what it is, rules are made to be broken and some of my favorite scribblers get away with an undisciplined approach to POV and even, occasionally, tenses. The POV-switcher who springs to mind is Dorothy L. Sayers, and I have to say I re-read her books several times before noticing the head-hopping. I was enjoying myself too much to nitpick!

So c’mon, writers and readers alike: where do you stand? Are you a fan of first person present tense? Or do you love the Dickensian, mocking know-it-all commentator who hands you every character’s little foibles on a silver salver? What makes you throw a book across the room? What is your position on Mantel? (Every reader should have one, darling, it’s this year’s latest accessory.)

Photo credit: coolchrisc on Stock.Xchng

Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review: Ripples in the Sand by Helen Hollick

I might have mentioned before that I've decided to review one self-published/assisted self-published/small press book a month as a deliberate policy because, although as a reader I really don't care where my books come from, as a writer I'm well aware that self-published and indie press writing needs both more exposure and, let's face it, more constructive criticism. I'm happy to supply both if I like the sound of the book.

This month's offering is part of Helen Hollick's blog tour for her latest in the Sea Witch Voyages series, a novel entitled Ripples in the Sand. As you'll see from my review this novel takes me into some unfamiliar waters, both in terms of the historical era and also because it incorporates supernatural elements into what could easily be a straightforward historical. According to her website Hollick's a seasoned author with more than a dozen books in publication, and the Sea Witch series was a bit of a departure from her usual interests; but I can see a common thread in that Hollick evidently has a penchant for Big Stories. So what did I think of the book?

The review

Being asked to review a book that’s in the middle of a series is always tricky, because the author knows the characters, her fans know the characters, and I, reviewer, do not. So it took me quite a while to get into Ripples in the Sand, despite an exciting first chapter that set up a number of complications: a risky merchant venture, an even more risky bit of smuggling on the side, a sick wife on board and a Navy frigate in pursuit, presumably not friendly pursuit.

And I found myself bemused by the witchy prologue: a conversation between Tiola, a white witch who also happens to be the aforementioned sick wife, and Tethys, the Sea Goddess who seems to be permanently in a bad mood. Over time I learned that Tethys wanted Jesamiah, through whose eyes much of the story is told, and was making Tiola sick as a result; rather unfortunate since Jesamiah was captain of the Sea Witch and therefore likely to spend most of his life at sea.

It was this impression of two characters whose lives were completely at odds that haunted me through the first half of the novel. They seemed to be eternally out of sync, with no physical relationship, two ships on completely different courses; Tiola preoccupied with some kind of witchy battle and Jesamiah concerned about his ship, his cargo, and his reluctant involvement in the trouble created by the Jacobites, supporter of the Pretender King, James, and enemies of the King who’s actually on the throne, George I.

The feeling that the two characters were leading separate lives increased when Jesamiah, on seeing Tiola giving a kiss to another man, threw a complete wobbly and bedded the next available woman. Huh? Isn’t Tiola his Twoo Luv?

And then somewhere about halfway, the witchy stuff started to make sense (or as much sense as witchy stuff ever does; I’m not a big fan of magical storylines) and, what’s more, I began to enjoy the Jesamiah plotline with its references to the political situation of the time (1719) with a not entirely popular Protestant king and a strong Catholic faction backing the return of James to the British throne. It’s a slice of British history that I haven’t read enough about, and I’m really starting to get interested in the 18th century as a less, shall we say, over-explored aspect of our recent past.

Where Hollick really excels, in my opinion, is in the battle and other action scenes, which were fast-paced and well plotted, believably gruesome without dwelling too lovingly on the less pleasant aspects of fighting. I’ll add to that her ability to weave a complex plot involving many players, with real history mixed in with invented characters. The supernatural plotline seemed to pale by comparison with the vividness of the main story.

As this was an ARC I don’t want to get into the writing, as I presume that the places I thought editing was necessary—more in the first half of the book than the second—were addressed. There were one or two points, especially where the moving about of the ship was concerned, when I felt Hollick was overly concerned to use her research rather than move the plot forward, but that’s a subjective matter; many readers love a thick layer of historical detail.

When it comes to rating I would probably go for about a 3.7, given that it’s difficult to judge a book in a series out of context. My highest scores go for the descriptions of the political situation of that time and place, the descriptions of the sea battles and the sheer pace of the better passages. If I’d read through the whole series and had time to warm to Jesamiah and Tiola I might have liked Ripples in the Sand more from the outset; they are not an immediately lovable pair, but they are certainly not boring.

If you're a Helen Hollick fan and you're looking for the next stop in the blog tour, it's chez Lou Graham. Thanks to SilverWood Books for inviting me to be a part of the tour, and if I'm going to go for another Hollick book it would almost certainly be Harold the King (UK title)/The Chosen King (US title) as it promises more lively action based on a complex historical situation.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Thank you to my new followers!

Well, what a lovely blog hop that was. 199 comments (198 in the thread, one by email) and about 70 new followers to love, which makes me go all gooooshy inside.

Random.org decided that the winner was #198,

ALLIE!

which made things wonderfully easy for me as I didn't even have to do any counting. I LOVE easy.

And so do you, apparently, as many commenters thanked me for the comments-only entry format.

And I found out that overall, JK Rowling is your favorite author. With Nora Roberts/JD Robb as second, was my impression. Hmmm, never read a Nora Roberts book. Maybe I should.

Anyway the winner has been notified and all is good so it just remains for me to say thank you, thank you, for participating and I hope some of you will stick around and discuss books, writing and Stuff in General with me.

Monday, February 4, 2013

It's GIVEAWAY time! Win a $30 Amazon gift card and more!

THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED. WINNER TO BE ANNOUNCED SOON!

I love this particular giveaway. Family friendly, aimed at booklovers, no tagging other people or memes or anything I actually have to think about. Just a post, on my blog, that gives goodies to one lucky reader and allows everybody access to a whole boatload of other bloggers who are ALSO giving stuff away. What's not to like? And all because I love my blog followers. And like getting comments :D

There is some work involved for you, Dear Reader. Yes, you have to go to the HUGE effort of scrolling past the enormous list of participating blogs to get to the comment form. I know, I know, your scrolling finger is going to be SO tired by the time you get there but it's so worth it.

And then you must gird up your loins and grit your teeth and clean your dentures and...

LEAVE A COMMENT.

That's it. No complicated forms or tweeting for a week or sending me a drop of your blood in a crystalline phial. Just leave me a comment with your preferred email address and tell me who your favorite author is (to weed out the spammers.) One comment per person, please. International entries are welcome.

The prize on my blog is a $30 Amazon gift card, to be sent to you by email because I'm leaving Felsted to man the fort and hopping (eh? eh? see what I did there?) over to England for a bit. After you've commented, hit the list below and discover what other gorgeous prizes are to be had.

If you can't comment for whatever reason, send me an email at keepgoingyoufool AT gmail DOT com and that will count as a comment in the order received. The blog hop runs from February 5 to 11, so I will be contacting the winner around the 12th (I'm traveling as I said, so be patient) and announcing said winner on my blog.

Many thanks to I Am a Reader Not a Writer and The Reader's Antidote for arranging the blog hop. Don't forget to go give them some love as well.

The list:


Friday, January 25, 2013

I shall call it . . . Waldo


So I finally caved and bought an iPad (just a 2, which has become the Toyota Camry of the gadget world: you know it's going to give value but nobody gets real excited about it except the driver).

Here's the weird thing; I'm getting the biggest kick out of tracking its progress toward me from China. I ordered it online because I wanted it engraved on the back (for free) and that, apparently, means I get it from Chengdu, which is not exactly plumb in the middle of China but certainly looks (to me) like it qualifies as Deepest Asia. I google-mapped it (although Street View isn't available) - it looks like what I'd imagine as typical New China, construction everywhere with hangovers from the Revolutionary era such as a ginormous Mao statue.

Yesterday it left Chengdu and traveled to Guangzhou, which is inland of Hong Kong. Guangzhou looks a bit more traditional than Chengdu - again, this is just an impression gained from Google Maps. It looks like one of those oriental cities in 1930s stories where anything--yes, Anything--can be bought and sold, and the hero dashes through warren-like streets to find the kidnapped girl.

Sometime overnight (times are a bit hazy on the tracking form) my little Apple parcel jumped over the ocean to Anchorage, Alaska, which looks (summer pictures, I presume) green and a bit remote, as if the rest of the world doesn't matter.

As I write it's in Memphis, TN. Is that the mighty Mississippi I see before me? And...OK, I'm not feeling very interested in Memphis. What is it about American cities that they all look so alike?

Point is, shopping is global. My gadget is coming a heck of a long way for its $399 price tag, when you think about it. I'm thinking about all the steps, the planes, trucks, trains and goodness knows what, and all the PEOPLE involved in getting that little white box to yours truly in the Chicago burbs. And the technology...think back to the first steps toward any sort of computing back in the 1800s, fast-forward to the first emergence of solid-state electronics, zoom up to the advent of mobile wireless devices and all this so that I can mess around with productivity apps.

You know, when I get that sucker (tomorrow? although I'll bet that the slowest part of the journey is the local part) I'm going to RESPECT it. Waldo, as it will now be called, is a miracle of human ingenuity on many different levels.

And you can bet that I'll be looking for productivity apps to keep my writing life up to geeky scratch. First one I'm going to try out is the much-vaunted Moleskine notebook app, which is free. Watch this space for a roundup of the fun things I'm going to find.

Photo credit: Vorarlberg at Stock.Xchng