Book review time

#blogjune has been spotty, but I have at least gotten some ideas that I want to write about. So, as long as I actually write them, it’s not been a waste.

I have tried to review every book that I’ve read this year, even if it’s only a line or two. Not that I’ve managed that, either.

Treachery at Lancaster Gate (Charlotte & Thomas Pitt, #31)Treachery at Lancaster Gate by Anne Perry

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

An interesting story – five police officers are given a tip-off about a possible opium deal. Rushing to the house, a bomb explodes, killing two and grievously wounding the other three. The bomber seems to be an addict revenging himself on behalf of a friend he believed falsely accused and hanged for the shooting of a bystander in an arrest gone wrong.

A fundamentally interesting story about possible police corruption (with strong modern resonances) is marred by Pitt’s long internal monologues. The dialogue, replete with an excess of exclamation marks and a tendency for characters to have ‘exclaimed’ rather than rely on the old ‘he said/she said), tended to come across as a preachy tirade. Consequently, the story felt poorly paced.

This was especially evident at the denouement – which look place in the courtroom – at which point the story ended. There was no sense of how the characters might react to how the events unfolded, nothing to tie the story up.

Fans of the series may also be disappointed that some of the characters that were more central in previous stories are reduced to cameo performances. This is the bare bones of an interesting story that felt rushed to meet deadlines.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

Audio books and reading #blogjune

So, apart from semantics, is listening to an audiobook the same as reading? The question is only important to me because I set myself a Goodreads target each year, and some of those are audiobooks. Given that I do about 15-16 hours of commuting per week, at also means a lot less time to kick back and read with my eyes.

As you might expect reading with the eyes affects the brain slightly differently to reading with one’s ears. According to Eric Jaffe, we are more easily distracted when we listen. Indeed, it seems that if you’re eye-reading, you concentrate better when you read out aloud. I don’t especially like ear-reading while doing other things so that I don’t get distracted. This includes driving in traffic – I’d much rather listen to the radio.  Most of my driving is on country roads with little traffic, so really it’s a case of watching out for the odd kangaroo.

I had a cassette recorder as a kid and can remember borrowing things like Kipling’s Just So Stories, plugging in an ear jack, and listening away after it was time to turn out the lights. So I find something quite comforting in being read to. And, while eye-reading lets you imagine speech, intonation, and so on, a masterful reader can spice things up wonderfully.

And our stories once were told orally. These guys have a short podcast on what the differences between ear-reading and eye-reading, and why the former isn’t a short-cut.

 

Tonight I start first-time ear-reading of an old favourite.

 

 

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Burial RitesBurial Rites by Hannah Kent
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In January 1830, Agnes Magnúsdóttir became the last person executed in Iceland. She was accused, along with Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir, of the murder of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson (the former her employer) in March 1828. Of the three, only Agnes and Fridrik were executed. Sigrídur’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in Copenhagen. It was presumed that her youthfulness made her suggestible and thus influenced by the others.This story is of her final months with the family of District Officer Jón Jónsson.

Kent’s prose is sparse, befitting the setting. The District Commissioner and one of his servants are distinguished simply by their coats; ‘bright red’ for the former, and ‘worn’ for the latter. One can readily imagine the fierce winds whipping across the skins used to cover windows.

Written alternately in the third and first persons, some readers might feel some disorientation moving between modes. But it is well handled in Kent’s deft prose. Reading Burial Rites gives you the sense of a writer in command of their craft. This impression is confirmed by the research that the author has undertaken. While the work is obviously an imagining of Agnes’ thoughts (and of what really happened), it is clear that much research has informed the writer’s views. What I also found particularly impressive was that, though there was a lot of knowledge behind the writing, the writing never became a display tableau for it.

In general, the characters are well drawn. The District Commissioner is not simply keen for the executions to serve as a deterrent to the district’s peasants (though he is certainly that). He expresses a desire for the islanders to share the modernisation enjoyed in Denmark, for example by having glass windows. The Assistant Priest’s attraction to his charge is deftly drawn. If I were to level one criticism, it would simply be that we don’t feel the antagonism towards Agnes felt by most of the Jónsson family (in particular). While we slowly see the relationships between them thaw, we don’t feel the revelation that they did. Instead, we feel that she cannot be guilty of murder, and simply await the truth to be revealed.

What we have here is a wonderfully told story of a woman whose own was ignored. Though I have only given it 4 stars, it deserves 4.9 out of 5. It is a story that you should hear.

View all my reviews

Why our future depends on libraries.

An absolutely brilliant lecture by one of my favourite writers, delivered to The Reading Agency earlier in October. You can read an edited version here.

One thing that it reinforces for me the is link between imagination and creativity. If creative problem solving is going to remain important, then everything that we do to foster imagination is important.

Another is that when you have a glut of information, you need guides to help you find what you need. Simply making something available, while important, isn’t sufficient.

#blogjune – Goodreads Challenge 13/65 – Stephen King, ‘On Writing: a memoir of the craft’

I read this some months ago, but hey, I’m already way behind with my reviews. What really struck me was that:

1) he came across as a thoroughly decent human being

2) he was candid about his issues with alcohol and the effects it had on those around him

3) his dedication to his craft. The image of his rejection slips stuck on the nail, which became a spike because there were so many of them, is still very vivid for me.

If you’re even vaguely interested in writing, read it.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve never read anything by Stephen King, nor seen any of the movies based on his books. Not that I ever thought that there was necessarily anything wrong with his work. I’d simply not ever been interested in horror as a movie genre. I read it just fine, but on the screen, thank you but no. And that prejudice probably prompted me to not pick up one of his books. So when his On Writing was enthusiastically recommended to our writing class earlier this month, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was a fascinating story on the making of a writer.

On writing; a memoir of the craft is part biography and part ‘this is how I do it folks – maybe it’ll work for you’. He lets his life story do his work. His journey in perfecting his craft was not a smooth one. Maybe the best craftspeople are forged through adversity. King’s father left the family when King was two years old. His mother worked at a variety of jobs but financial hardship was an ever present reality. Leaving high school, he worked in a fabric mill, and after he qualified as a teacher spent time working as a laundry labourer while looking or teaching work. On the way he married Tabitha Spruce (who he met in the library stacks at the University of Maine). He wrote that, “[f]from a financial point of view, two kids were probably two too many for college grads working in a laundry and the second shift at Dunkin’ Donuts” (p. 71). His first two published novels were written in the laundry room of the large trailer that they were living in (p. 177). So when King talks about what’s necessary for a writer to become good at their craft, he talks with the authority of one who has had to do it tough himself.

On the way King deals with the questions all writers get asked at some point. Quite early on, he makes it clear that ‘there is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere… (p. 29)’. He then describes process of coming up with the central idea for one of his early short stories, which he got when his mother was licking the type of shop coupon stamps that disappeared by the 1970s. These turned her tongue green. He thought how nice it would be if you could make them yourself, and a story was born.

Writing was a passion for him from early on. He wrote for a mimeographed newspaper that older brother Dave produced in high school. When he produced his own newspaper (as it turned out it ran for one issue), he learned that you have to be careful when you write about real people. Lampooning an unpopular teacher landed him a couple of weeks’ suspension.

But out of that incident came his first paid writing job, as a sports writer with the local newspaper. Not that King knew much about sports, but being willing to learn to get the gig is something else that a good writer should cultivate. The editor “taught me more than any [English Literature class], and in no more than ten minutes (p. 54)”. His editor said that “when you write a story, you’re telling the story… [when] you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story (p. 56)”.

If there are two central issues that King returns to, the first is the need for persistence. When he received his first rejection notice, he stuck it on a nail stuck in his bedroom wall. But,

By the time I was fourteen… the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen I’d begin to get rejection slips with hand-written notes a little more encouraging… ‘This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again.’ (p. 34).

The second central issue is that if you want to be any good you have to spend time at it. There are no short-cuts dangled in front of our eyes. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot (p. 164).” He goes on;

“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on, Every book that you pick up has its own lesson or lesson, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.”

Why so many books? ‘The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing… [constant] reading will pull you into a place where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness” (p. 171).

What constitutes ‘a lot’ of reading and writing? ‘The sort of strenuous reading writing program advocate – four to six hours a day, every day – will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them.. (p. 171). That’s twenty eight to forty two hours a week, folks – about a full working week. Well, I don’t much like watching TV anyway. Helpfully, he gives aspirants hints on where to read (though you probably won’t need these). He takes books everywhere (a writer after my own heart). “The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows” (p. 168) So movie lounges, checkout lines, the toilet, on your way to work are all fair game. At the time of writing he listened to between six and a dozen audio titles each year.

As you’d expect from a successful writer taking about writing, there is a wealth of ideas to savour. He describes the sort of toolbox that a writer needs. Like a toolbox, the tools you use most are at the top. “The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary (p. 125).”Good rich vocabulary can produce a good heart prose, and he gives some fine examples from Lovecraft and Cormac McCarthy. But simplicity has its own virtues, and he gives us his favourite simple passages from Hemingway, Sturgeon and Steinbeck

Next is grammar. “Take a noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence (p. 134).” A writer needs to know why some things work and others don’t. But it’s not enough to simply say avoid the passive voice, because your writing will be the stronger for it. King re-writes some sentences from passive to active so that we see what he means. More helpfully, he gives us his opinion of why people use it anyway:

I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England… I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice also lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty (p. 136-137).

Other specific advice covers adverbs (hint – don’t trust them). This is especially so in dialogue, where the best form of dialogue attribution is said. All writers slip into it sometimes, either timidly, or because of the onrushing deadline, but he reminds us that if we’ve told our story well enough, the reader will know to read that dialogue exasperatingly (p. 143).

There is a core simplicity in the English language… but it’s a slippery core. All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine (p. 144).

As we delve deeper into King’s toolbox, we come to the paragraph, which he argues is the basic unit of writing. It’s ‘the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words” (p. 152). The paragraph structure tells us something about a work;
You can tell without even reading if the book you’ve chosen is apt to be easy or hard, right? Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs – including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long – and lots of white space… Hard books, full of ideas, narration, or description, have a stouter look. A packed look. Paragraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent. (p. 145)

How those paragraphs come together depend the way you want to use narration, description and dialogue (the three parts of a story – p. 187) to bring it to life. Plot is by and large not part of King’s universe;

I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless…; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible… I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much write themselves (p. 188).

And more:

The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. (p. 190)

And to make sure that we get it;

Please remember… that there is a huge difference between story and plot. Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest. (p. 197)

I really recommend doing the exercise that he gives us soon after this passage.

King told us earlier how much reading and writing we should do each day. How much writing is that. He tells the (probably) apocryphal story of James Joyce. Joyce seemed to be struggling to get his words onto paper;

‘How many words did you get today?’ the friend pursued.
Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled face down on his desk):

‘Seven.’

‘Seven? But James… that’s good, at least for you!’

‘Yes,’ Joyce said, finally looking up. ‘I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!’ (p. 172)

More helpfully, King tells us that he likes to get ten pages a day, which is about 2000 words, which is a good-ish length for a book in three months (p. 176). Sometimes those pages get done before lunch, sometimes in the afternoon, and occasionally around teatime (p. 176). To manage your goal (perhaps begin with 1000 words a day), you need one thing: a door that you are willing to shut (p. 178). By the time you get to your second draft, you should be looking at cutting your work by around 10% (p. 246). So if you’re looking at a 200 page work, your first draft needs to be around 220 pages.

This was simply a joy to read. The advice is invaluable, but it was told by someone who was, quite simply so very likeable. When he was writing this book, he struck by a truck while out walking, It made it a hard book to write. Perhaps his candid discussion of his struggle with alcohol did as well. His descriptions of family and friends are lovingly drawn. He comes across as a nice guy. Not because of how he describes himself, but because of the way he describes those around him.

Of course, being a successful writer, we learn about the path that led to the publication of Carrie, his first novel. His family were, if not on the streets, at least living close to Penury Road. I wanted him to get a big fat cheque, as much for Tabitha’s sake as his. The discussion of Carrie’s gestation is itself fascinating, and you should read it for yourselves.

You should borrow or buy a copy of this and read it. Right now. But before you do, I’ll leave you with Stephen finding out that his agent had sold the paperback rights. It was worth $400 000, of which Stephen would get half. In 1973, that was an enormous sum of money (and it’s still not a shabby sum today). He tried unsuccessfully to call his wife with the news. On his way home, he bought her a Mother’s Day present – a hair dryer.

“When I got back home she was in the kitchen, unpacking the baby bags and singing along with the radio. I gave her the hair dryer. She looked at it as if she’d never seen one before. ‘What’s this for?’ she asked.

I took her by the shoulders. I told her about the paperback sale. She didn’t appear to understand. I told her again. Tabby looked over my shoulder at our shitty little four-room apartment, just as I had, and began to cry.” (p. 95)

At that point, so did I.

View all my reviews

Goodreads Challenge 2014: 11/65

This is one of the finest historical novels that I’ve ever read. It was an utter joy. That is all.

Good reading, folks!

AugustusAugustus by John Edward Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a remarkable piece of fiction. It is told as a series of epistles that chronicle the career of Octavius Caesar. Friends and enemies, admirers and detractors, write letters and pen memoirs that give their take on his career. The effect is that the character of Augustus in the shadows between these letters. It’s rather like creating a portrait by putting sticky notes in close formation on a wall and spraying with paint. The portrait is what’s left when you remove the notes.

It also means that Williams can’t fall into the trap of telling us what the character is feeling. He *must* show us. At best, we can be told what the main character says. It also adds a layer between the reader and the action which gives just the right touch of remoteness. It does not feel contemporary, but not because it’s unnecessarily archaic in style.

Williams divides the work into three books of very uneven length. The first covers his his rise to power, and the second his consolidation of it. Revealed like a mosaic laid by many hands, we see a man who seems most alive discussing philosophy and poetry. Yet he commanded the respect of Julius Caesar’s veteran legionaries and defeated those close to Caesar, as well as Caesar’s enemies. Williams deftly displays a talent for adopting multiple voices. We hear the Agrippa, the gruff soldier, Cicero the orator and jurist, and Augustus’ daughter, Julia.

Apart from a very brief Senate decree, we don’t hear the voice of Augustus at all until the final book. His letter, written from his yacht, while making his final voyage deeply reflective and philosophical. It is a voice weary from power, but resigned to its fate. We hear a voice that loved deeply and grieved frequently. It reminded me very much of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. There is no higher praise that I could give it.

This is quite simply a beautifully written piece. I loved every exquisite page. If you have no interest in the period, or in historical fiction in general, you may find that it doesn’t quite resonate with you. But persevere. I have a few pieces of fiction that I re-read every few years; The Lord of the Rings, The Dispossessed, Les Miserables. And now I have another.

View all my reviews

Goodreads Reading Challenge 10/65 – Dragonkeeper

This is also my first review for the year for the Australian Women’s Writers’ Challenge for this year. Huzzah! And I’ve almost read my second of these for the year as well. It’s not Tolkien, but it’s an excellent story with a very good female lead character. This is suitable for older children up to about 14 years, said the expert without kids. But, I did do Young Adult literature when I was at librarty school and, I have to say, it was far and away my favourite subject. Knocked cataloguing right into a cocked hat. And I loved cataloguing!

Really. I did.

Good reading, everybody 🙂

awwbadge_2014

– – – – – – – – – –

Dragon Keeper (Dragon Keeper, #1)Dragon Keeper by Carole Wilkinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In western literature, dragons are objects of terror that hoard treasure and breathe fire. There are exceptions, like the dragons in Ursula le Gun’s Earthsea series, and any Dungeons and Dragons player will know that there are dragons benign, and not all breathe fire. But the red fire-breather la Smaug think is usually our first picture.

So when I spotted a copy of Australian author Carole Wilkinson’s Dragonkeeper at the Goodwood library I made sure that it came home to visit. China also has a rich tradition of dragon lore that I’ve only encountered once before. It was a wonderful short story called Dragon…Ghost by M. Lucie Chin, published in the first issue of the long-defunct (but soon to be relaunched) Ares magazine.

Dragonkeeper is set in the 2nd century BC, during the Han dynasty. It tells the story of Ping, an 11-yar old girl who was sold into slavery by her parents. She is badly mistreated by her master, who is tasked with the care of the emperor’s dragons. These are also badly mistreated, and one dies. Ping eventually escapes with the last surviving dragon, Long Danzi (Long simply meaning dragon), and Hua, her pet rat. Also with them is a mysterious stone that Danzi was desperate to save. He must make the long journey to far-off Ocean to recover and Ping, with much reluctance, agrees to accompany him.

What Wilkinson has given us is a wonderfully told bildungsroman. It also sensitively explores the long effects of abuse upon Ping. She, illiterate and malnourished, is initially reluctant to escape her slavery. Though she desperately hates it, she knows no other life. The modicum of security it offers is some comfort for her. Later, when the reason for the title becomes evident, Danza reveals that he misread crucial signs because Ping is a girl.

I don’t know how well Dragonkeeper fits established Chinese dragon stories, but it is certainly evocative. Rather than roar, Chinese dragons gong. They have whiskers reminiscent of catfish and are mortally afraid of iron. Danza only communicates telepathically, so when she first hears his voice she’s not aware that she was ‘hearing’ a dragon.

It is not always an easy relationship. Given the task of looking after the dragon stone, Ping loses it to Diao, a dragon hunter. Dragon blood and organs are worth a lot of money because of their medicinal value. When Danzi learns that Ping has lost the stone, his anger is terrible;

‘Ping has failed’ he said over and over again. ‘Ping responsible for stone. Dragon stone comes first. Even before own safety.’

But Danza’s Confucian wisdom recognises Ping’s true worth, which is great indeed. She gains in confidence as the story progresses, though without bravado. Ping has to screw her courage up, which makes her the more worthy of praise.

Though it’s a book for older children, it isn’t a nice, safe book. Dragons are butchered, animal parts are sold and people die horribly. At one point, they come to a village that is suffering terribly from drought:

Fragments of their shouted conversation reached Ping on the wind.
‘…just a girl.’
‘Only Heaven…take life away.’
The woman was crying. Ping edged closer, trying to make out what it was they were talking about.
‘…a single life will be lost…’

In the end, Ping must confront her own desire for comfort and safety and make a decision. This is simply a wonderful and deservedly award winning book, suitable for readers from 10 to about 14. I’ve not read any of Carole Wilkinson’s works before. I’m looking forward very much to reading more.

View all my reviews