Saturday, 30 July 2011

Holiday review - Before I Go To Sleep

One book read! One beach visited! One jungle trekked through! One surprise bathtime roach killed! The holiday proceeds apace.

Before I Go To Sleep was an excellent aeroplane book. I am a nervous flyer, and I have fundamental issues with being a very great distance from the ground in a yawing, bouncing death machine that does not supply its passengers with parachutes as standard. Therefore the fact that (even though I'd guessed its twist) I was too busy reading the final chapter of Before I Go To Sleep to notice we were landing says a lot about how very exciting it was. 

Before I Go To Sleep turned out to be the neatest, best sort of thriller, one that’s not ridiculously grim or mindbogglingly complicated, just filled with the subtle, creepy sense that Something is Very Wrong. 

It tells the story of mysterious amnesiac Christine, who wakes up every morning with all her memories from the previous day (and the previous twenty years of her life) completely wiped away. She doesn’t recognise her house, or her husband, or even her own face in the mirror. It’s the sort of ghoulish, naughtily interesting story that you shouldn’t want to hear all about (except of course you do); something straight out of one of those cornershop magazines that run articles like Too Fat To Go To My Own Wedding and My Secret Love Twins – But Their ‘Father’ Is Another Woman! 

Actually, though, despite its premise, Before I Go To Sleep manages to walk the line between being either too gossip-magazine silly or just plain boring – since most of the book is the journal Christine keeps, it could very easily have devolved into something like:

Woke up. Don’t know who I am. Read yesterday’s journal entry. Re-learned all the things I learned yesterday. Processed them. Felt confused. Went to sleep.

Woke up. Don’t know who I am. Read yesterday’s journal entry. Re-learned all the things I learned yesterday. Processed them. Felt confused, suspicious. Will I ever be a whole person? Went to sleep.

Woke up. Don’t know who I am. Read yesterday’s journal entry. Re-learned all the things I learned yesterday. Processed them. Felt confused. Has this all happened before? Went to sleep.

All credit to S J Watson that (most of the time at least) it doesn't.

Extra information about how Christine became the way she is gets teased out as you move through the story, and the more you learn about it, the more certain you are that Christine needs to get the hell out of dodge ASAP. Of course, because this is a thriller, she doesn’t, and so you're forced to tear through the book as quickly as possible to make sure that poor Christine manages to avoid the sticky end that you can tell is coming for her. There are some great oh, shit! moments along the way, and it all builds up into a finale that's mad exciting even if, as I did, you sort of guess what's really going on.

Nice stuff, and perfect holiday reading.
3 stars.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Holiday Reads

On Monday I shall be getting on a plane and going on holiday, which in my family means going to visit as many relations as possible in three weeks or less. Clearly I need literary backup to get through this difficult endeavor, and clearly I need to share my choices with you.

Without further ado, therefore, let me introduce you to my holiday reading.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. 
Insanely excited about this one. One of the guys I work with (blessed be his name for this) managed to score me the proof copy so I get to read it months before everyone else. I have only the vaguest idea what it's going to be about and I don't much care. Smug and excited.

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood
I've been saving this one up for a while. I hear it's about childhood bullying, so maybe not such a great holiday choice, but I'd happily read Margaret Atwood's commentary on the drying of paint. She is my hero.

Ngaio Marsh Collection 5
A bit of old-fashioned crime is obviously necessary in any holiday situation, and it's three books in one so more murder for my money. I am expecting great silliness and a lot of theatrical talk. And murder.

Before I Go To Sleep - S J Watson
My trashy aeroplane book. The description makes it sound like 50 First Dates, if 50 First Dates was a grim thriller rather than a crap romantic comedy. This is going to be good.

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
I like fairy tales, I like tigers, I hear there's a vampire in it and Tea Obreht looks exactly like my friend Sarah. Obviously I have to read this book.

The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse
Apparently this is science fiction! I never knew. People keep telling me it's really good, anyway, and this cover is great (Vintage Publishing, I love you, let me come work for you and I will be happy for ever). It's also one of the 1001 Books, and I recently made a rash agreement with some friends to get 50% through the list by the time I turn 28. I'm 23 (and a half) now. I need to get my ass in gear. So I bought this book.

 A Handful of Dust - Evelyn Waugh
Another 1001 Books selection, picked on the basis that a) it was sitting on my mother's bookshelf b) it is quite thin and light and c) I very much like Evelyn Waugh, although Brideshead Revisited does make me concerned about dating a Catholic, in case he experiences a sudden return to the faith and renounces me for a purer, better life. This ones sounds depressing too. Oh well.

Hopefully that should see me through six (!) long-haul flights (the Redbreastedbirds are a very transatlantic family, we never settle less than two timezones away from each other if we can help it) and many crowded family gatherings.

We shall see, though. I read fast.

Friday, 22 July 2011

In which I make the case for Wilkie Collins (and also review No Name)

There's an assumption that a lot of people have that The Classics (by which they generally mean large books published before 1914, at which point war broke out, modernism was discovered and everything went very thin and meaningful) are boring. While I have to admit that this is not an entirely wrong assumption in specific cases - writers like Dickens were paid by the word, and it shows - it is most certainly not true at all times, and never less so than in the works of Wilkie Collins.

The Victorians liked their fiction COMPLEX, and most things produced in the latter half of the 19th century are mad long convoluted kitchen-sink soap operas full of marriage and surprise deaths and tragic blonde orphans. This is not a bad concept, necessarily, but it can drag, and trying to hold the complicated emotional issues of five families in your head at once does tend to unfairly tax your powers of memory.

Sensation fiction, however, which is the stuff that Wilkie Collins wrote (a breed of pre-crime-novel that was insanely popular in the 1860s and 70s - imagine it as the Scandinavian thriller of its day) solves this knotty problem by taking the general concept, trimming down the cast size, removing all the dull bits about toil and poverty and making sure that every single one of the many, many things that happen are INSANELY EXCITING. Murder! Wasting diseases! Divorce! Infidelity! Bigamy! Illegitimacy! Robbery! Infamy! Tragedy! Foreigners! (Note that the Tragedy usually comes from the Foreigners, who are always Evil. There is also a general tendency to Capitalise Random Words to show how very, very Sensational they are). The pure and unashamed point of sensation fiction is to be incredibly entertaining, via lots of delicious Dastardly Plots and Wicked Women and Vast Fortunes which are always In Danger from the (Foreign) Forces of Evil, and because of this Wilkie Collins's books are all insanely fun to read. They're also, helpfully, quite easy to get through - you don't have to struggle with ridiculous word choices or complex flights of fancy. Booker Prize hopefuls they are not, and they are all the better for it.

The most famous Wilkie Collins, and the one that you should definitely start with if you haven't come across him before, is The Woman in White. Its fabulous plot revolves around forced marriage but also manages to involve insanity, mistaken identity, an obsession with white dresses, a cunning murder plot and an Italian with a villainous love for small animals, and it features one of the greatest female characters to emerge from 19th century literature. Marion Halcombe has a keen journalistic instinct and a small and delightful moustache, and she could crush 99% of Dickens's heroines to death with the force of her mind. I've never been able to work out why Walter decides he wants to marry Marion's sister, rather than Marion herself - I would personally marry the hell out of Marion, moustache or no moustache. But then I suppose that I am not a Victorian man.

No Name, which Wilkie Collins wrote in 1862, straight after The Woman in White, has its fair share of forced marriage and mistaken identity too, but mainly revolves around illegitimacy and the rather insane Victorian laws on the subject. This was a topic that he clearly felt very strongly about, since his rather racy personal life meant that he had had quite a few not strictly legal children of his own. The basic plot of No Name is as follows.

After the unexpected death of their parents, the Vanstone sisters discover that they are illegitimate, and therefore under English law cannot inherit any of their considerable fortune. Despised and cast out (of course) by a cruel uncle, they must fend for themselves. This causes Norah (the boring one) to nobly go forth and become a governess, and Magdalen (the heroine) to completely lose her mind and decide to take her revenge on her wicked relatives by marrying as many of them as possible and taking them for all the dough she can. Her nemesis, as she tries to carry out her plans, is the Evil housekeeper employed by her Evil uncle. You can tell she is evil because a) she is Foreign, and b) she keeps a toad in a tank. Wilkie Collins was obviously very much against small pets, especially when owned by Foreigners.

Predictably, lots of lovely shenanigans ensue, with Magdalen trying to con her wicked relations, the evil housekeeper trying to con Magdalen and Norah  popping up well-meaningly from time to time to thwart all Magdalen's cunning plans by mistake. It's all very tense and exciting, and I can't imagine how Collins's original readers coped during the months and months it took to be serialised. I assume there were many people whose dying thoughts were along the lines of "I may be leaving my wife and child destitute and forced to choose between starvation and prostitution, but at least THEY'LL get to find out how No Name finishes. Damn those lucky sods."

It all, actually, peters out into a rather piddly and saccharine ending (I really don't think I'm spoiling anything much if I tell you that Good Ultimately Triumphs), but I enjoyed the whole thing up until that point so much that I tend to forgive it its conclusion. After all, it wouldn't be a proper Victorian novel without a bit of ridiculous sentimentality and a fainting fit or two.  

No Name gets a solid 3.5 stars.

In conclusion, sensation fiction is really bloody good, and I think that everyone should read much more of it. Don't expect it to blow your mind with its truthful portrayal of the human condition, and do expect there to be moments where you stop, put down the book and think, well, that's bloody stupid, but definitely do expect to have a good time. Because you will.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Classic review - Villette

For the last few weeks I have been interning Monday to Friday at a publisher's, and then working Saturdays at the book shop. Which has been totally fine, and perfectly easy to cope with, except that from time to time I find myself forgetting things, like how to spell hat, or where my email is, or what someone said to me five minutes before.

I have also been reading Villette by Charlotte Bronte. I'd been putting off reading this book for approximately ten years, in case it turned out to be awful and forced me to hate Charlotte Bronte, but I finally decided last week to stop being such a wuss and get on with it. So now I can finally claim to be a person who really does love Charlotte Bronte, since I have read not one but a whole two of her books.

The first thing to say is that it turns out that Villette is not an ideal book for dipping in and out of at random intervals while you wait for your next bus. I got into grown-up books via a lot of blockbuster 19th century novels, so they were all I knew to begin with, and for a long time I couldn't understand why people complained that they were difficult to read. Now I realise, though, that the complainers may have had something. Being able to read books from different time periods is a bit like tuning your ear to a foreign language - it's all about expectation and what you're used to. Villette was the first Victorian book I read after months of almost exclusively late-20th Century stuff, and it took me about eighty pages before its word choice stopped being nearly incomprehensible. Irids? Gloaming? Massy? These must all be nonsense words inserted to make me feel stupid! Complainers, I'm sorry. I finally understand what you mean.

I'd forgotten how much Bronte can write like she's just vomited up a Bible - and also how obscenely annoying it is when the notes at the back just give you chapter and verse of what she's referring to, rather than explaining the reference itself. As though I'm going to see 'Job 3:19' and be instantly enlightened - Job 3:19! My favourite part of Job! What a totally apt reference, Charlotte! I'm fairly sure it's all a ploy by the editor to show you that there are some things that you don't know that he totally does. Things like this are why I suspect most scholarly editors of being assholes.

But anyway, to the book itself. I discovered when I actually read Villette as opposed to thinking about reading it that a lot of things I'd been assuming about it weren't right at all. Most importantly, its title does not, in fact, refer to a person in any way, shape or form. It’s a town. Of course it bloody is. Villette, after all, means little town in French, and it turns out that Villette is all about (French-speaking) Belgium. Charlotte Bronte spent a lot of time being a schoolmistress in Belgium (and falling hopelessly in love with a married schoolmaster there), and she has a very low and rude opinion of the country as a result. Nothing like a bit of healthy xenophobia to increase a book's fun.

Villette turns out to be, in essence, Jane Eyre Goes To Belgium. If you've read Charlotte Bronte's greatest hit you will feel a strong sense of deja vu during Villette, since both novels are pretty much just the marriage plot, gone Gothic, and both can be summed up pretty much as follows:

Chilly, cerebral and faintly unattractive female with a fondness for grey dresses (*resemblance to C. Bronte entirely accidental) lacks fortune; goes in search of it; takes up teaching position; suffers Gothic hardships; meets short dark unhandsome man; undergoes extreme verbal abuse at his hands; is unaccountably aroused by said abuse; overcomes difficulties to win him; reader, she married him.

It really is Jane Eyre, only not quite so satisfying, mainly because M. Paul, the Mr. Rochester substitute, is such a very unpleasant little man. Mr Rochester may be mean, but he is never less than dishy, whereas M. Paul, for the first three-quarters of the novel at least, is mean without any mitigating circumstances at all. His favourite pastime is cornering Lucy and being rude to her, but he does also take pleasure in grabbing her and dragging her about a bit when he wants to make her feel especially cherished.  

Villette does confirm for me the really disturbing emotional issues the Brontes had about men: most of the conversations that Lucy and M. Paul have are just screeds of verbal abuse, which is viewed in the book somewhat along the lines of sexy talk. Paul spends all his time telling Lucy to stop being so clever and independent and also not to dress like such a slut, please, and she loves it. This is the sort of thing that makes me so sure that Charlotte and co. would have been super in love with the whole concept of Twilight. They wouldn't just have read the books, they'd have queued up for the midnight showings of all the films, wearing t-shirts that said TEAM EDWARD and crying. But despite all that, I did - extremely grudgingly - fall for Lucy and M. Paul's relationship by the end of the novel. It's so nice to have a romance between two book characters that isn't solely based on a mutual recognition of hotness and/or the man's possession of many acres of rolling landscape. That doesn't say much for my feminist credentials, I guess, but I don't think there's anything wrong with a bit of pragmatism from time to time.

Another thing that Villette confirmed for me is that Charlotte Bronte really was someone who, shall we say, had an extremely full mental landscape. There's an awful lot of heavy-handed emotional metaphor about angels of death and heavenly clouds and dark waters of the soul, all described in ways that left me somewhat concerned about how far their author believed in them as actual physical things that you might go out and see, like a tree or the shop on the corner. I can fully believe that Charlotte Bronte might come in from an afternoon's ramble on the moors and say, "I had a lovely walk. I saw two rabbits and the gorse was in bloom and then I turned a corner and there was the Angel of the Lord, standing at the top of a hill in his empyrean robes and flashing his massy eyes upon my face."

It does at least mean, though, that when Charlotte Bronte gets going she's great at description. My favourite scene in the novel - and possibly my favourite scene in anything I've read for quite a while - happens towards the end of the story. Someone slips Lucy some opium to make her sleep, it fails, she trips balls, goes outside and ends up at a carnival in the middle of the night. The whole thing reads like a Victorian Gatsby's Party, all flashing colours and manic laughter and faceless revellers menacing Lucy from all sides. Apparently, Charlotte prepared for this scene, not by taking drugs or going to an actual party, but by sitting in a chair and thinking very hard about what it would be like to be on opium. I do feel like Charlotte may not have been the easiest woman to get on with, in person, but stories like this make me seriously appreciative of her style.

I read Jane Eyre for the first time when I was twelve, just after I went through all the Jane Austen novels. I thought they were fine, but lacking in a certain something, plot-wise, and so Jane Eyre was pretty much a revelation unto my soul. Before Jane Eyre I thought that all books for adults were going to be like Jane Austen - full of people being polite and having nuanced emotions - but here was someone writing about INSANE VAMPIRE WOMEN IN ATTICS ON FIRE, and I decided then and there that growing up was going to be all right after all. Villette may not be quite as much of a shameless Goth-fest as Jane Eyre is, but it's still reassuringly full of random Gothic touches, all of which are pretty obviously jammed into the narrative for no better reason than Charlotte Bronte thought it would be cool. I like a woman who can sit down at her desk, realise that the scene in front of her is boring, and decide that what it needs right now is MORE GHOST NUNS. That's actually how the nun appears in the story, by the way - as THE NUN. She's so awesome that she needs capital letters.

So, as perhaps you may have guessed, I liked this book. Maybe I didn't love it with the mad religious fervour with which I love Jane Eyre - but then again, were I to review Jane Eyre here I would have to give it about a million embarrassingly emotional book-of-my-life stars, so nothing's ever going to quite compare. This, though, gets a friendly

4 stars.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Alice Day

Come to my arms, my beamish readers, and listen well, for tomorrow (for reasons best known to itself, but probably involving the tourist season) Oxford celebrates Alice Day.

I shall be marking it by dressing up as Alice (I have the hair, it was inevitable) and handing out squishy and highly sugary cupcakes (I know this because I made them, I went a bit mad with the food dye too so they are wildly colourful) to children at the bookshop, but before I do that I wanted to take you on a magical mystery tour of the story behind Alice - because, little bats, it is a good'un.

Alice - the real Alice - and I actually grew up about 100 yards away from each other (give or take 100 years, but who's counting). Her father was Dean of Christ Church, and my father was Master of Pembroke (a much smaller and less impressive breed of animal, as colleges go, but nevertheless just across the road), so we both spent a lot of time playing by the river in Christ Church Meadow, and we both had our sleep patterns messed up by Tom Tower ringing 101 times at nine every night (I'm not making this up, this is the sort of impossibly mad and pointless tradition that could only be real in Oxford). But while I was generally left alone, free to hang off the top of Oxford city wall and throw bits of twig at passing tourists, poor Alice was constantly being pestered by a mad don who insisted on taking a lot of scantily-clad photos of her in her garden.

I'm not making that up either. Here is Alice Liddell, aged about seven, in a picture taken by Charles Lutwige Dodgson - which, of course, is the real name of Lewis Carroll. Whether he was actually a paedophile, or just very good at pretending to be one, is one of those things that Alice academics enjoy spending a lot of time arguing about, but at any rate Carroll is one of the long, long list of distinguished authors who would probably not pass a CRB check were one to be carried out today (See also Alighieri, Dante and Ruskin, John).

This definitely puts him on my own personal list of authors who were mad, but not in a good way (as distinct from authors who were mad in ways that I wish I had been there for, like Coleridge and the Mitfords). Working where I do, I have had a lot of experience of Oxford dons, and so I can say with reasonable certainty that he also smelt faintly odd and tended to get breakfast on his shirt and then forget about it. (This is, of course, very cruel to all the Oxford dons who are well-adjusted individuals. To all three of you, I apologise).

But despite all of that, I love the stuff that Lewis Carroll wrote. He's the absolute master of creating things that don't make any rational sense at all, but which your brain works out immediately. Jabberwocky, for example, has so few English words in it that it might as well be in another language, but all the same it's instantly understandable. Carroll's word games are just so beautifully clever, and funny about it too, that it absolutely makes sense that Alice has never gone out of fashion.

Oh, and in case you were wondering - that drawing from the beginning of my post is by Tove Jansson (she of Moomins fame). She illustrated the first-ever Finnish language translation of Alice, back in 1966, and for some odd reason it's taken someone until now to realise that they might make the English version sell rather well too. I think I nearly like them more than Tenniel, which is heresy but I can't help it. Here, at any rate, are a brace of Mock Turtles, to help you decide for yourself.

You're welcome.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Reviews - Lavinia, The Blue Book

The two books I'm reviewing today could, I've realised, make rather nice illustrations for a guide on How To Write A Good Romance. Lavinia would be in the 'books that manage to get it really quite right' part, and The Blue Book would be in the section called FOR GOD'S SAKE, JUST MAKE SURE YOURS DOESN'T TURN OUT LIKE THIS.


The Lost Books of the Odyssey obviously started me on a mini classics kick, because the next thing I read was Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin. This is a retelling not of the Odyssey but of the Aeneid (which is itself, actually, a sort of retelling of both the Odyssey and the Iliad, only with Roman gods instead of Greek ones. So this is all very meta).

I wasn't sure if I was going to like Lavinia, mostly because of its less-than naturally great subject matter - Aeneas, as heroes go, is a tiresome protagonist who spends half his time being excessively pious and the other half abandoning women; the second half of the Aeneid is by far the dullest part of it, all lists and stabbing; and Lavinia herself, as seen in the Aeneid, is possibly the dullest female character ever created, a bit of living furniture permanently set to 'obey'.

It's even more than usually impressive, therefore, that Le Guin has not only managed to create a book that you actually want to keep reading but to turn two annoying characters who, in the original, thoroughly deserve each other, into two nice people who you would seriously consider inviting over for dinner. Aeneas in Lavinia is a rather sweet over-analyser who desperately wants to look after everyone and do the right thing, and Lavinia herself is not dull at all, only quiet and thoughtful, a sensible person who makes difficult but good decisions. They very unironically do deserve each other here, and their relationship is unexpectedly lovely and romantic in the nicest sense of the word. Like all the best romances, their love is doomed (as always, it's a case of cruel fate) but Le Guin retells their story in such a cool, understated way that it never turns into silly cheap opera - Aeneas's death, when it happens, is genuinely affecting, even though you've been preparing for it almost all the way through the narrative.

The only problem with Lavinia is that it has a very odd central conceit - this Lavinia, we are repeatedly reminded, is not only telling her story as a historical figure, but as the character from Virgil's poem. She's both real and made up, and she knows it - she meets the dying Virgil in a dream and he tells her the plot of the Aeneid, from which she learns that she must meet and marry Aeneas and rule Lavinium with him until he dies. It's the oddest prophecy scene I've ever come across. The rest of the story is so clean and simply told that the whole reality/poetry concept seems oddly jammed in, and all Lavinia's existential pondering about whether or not she's fundamentally real or just the figment of someone else's imagination seems like something out of an entirely different novel.

Once you're past that, though, Lavinia is an absolute pearl among retellings, a confident, beautiful book that conveys its time and place perfectly and something that actually made me see the point of the story it's reworking. Which, as I've already said, is no mean feat.

4 stars

And now, for something completely different, we have The Blue Book by A L Kennedy, to be published in August. I read an advanced proof  of it, so bear in mind as always that what I'm reviewing isn't necessarily the finished version - everything subject to change, no guarantees of content or quality and so on.

So, this book. This book made me struggle. I picked up the proof because I heard it was about fake mediums, which, let's be honest, is a topic that's difficult not to find interesting. It's magic with a side of fakery and a nice (or nasty) bit of death to ogle at from a safe distance. That I didn't just hurl The Blue Book into the nearest abyss is largely a tribute to how damn interesting its subject matter is.

This is the kind of book that can't be experienced alone. It must be shared. "LISTEN TO THIS!" you want to cry, in the state of wild, delighted incredulity that comes only from the realisation (usually experienced when reading Mills and Boone romances) that an actual human being truly believes that the words you see before you are elegant and in no respect humorous ways to describe someone's naughty bits. It is a testament to how truly dreadful the sex scenes in The Blue Book are that I was actually moved to stop reading at one point and look up how one would go about nominating a book for the Bad Sex Awards. I want to go out and campaign on its behalf. Victory in 2011 must be its, for The Blue Book is not only bad but really smugly arch about its badness, proud of all the clever new ways it has thought up to make sex truly intellectually realistic.

Consider, if you will, the following word choices. Where others will only use the blandly descriptive word 'penis' to convey the presence of a male member, A L Kennedy has daringly considered the penis's very essence and given to the world the phrase
softesthardestlostestnakedest thing
Sex, in Kennedy-speak, becomes
chasing the cum
and a blowjob is
everything and sorry and angry and sorry and perfect and tongue and mouth and needs and take him in and keep and lose and keep and play and the first taste of almost and almost... and he's dancing and taste the dancing

My god, I'm exhausted just writing that out.

In fact, A L Kennedy's crimes against the English language are many and varied, and not only confined to descriptions of nudity. As a frequent swearer, I never thought I'd say it, but I became almost physically tired of seeing the word 'fucking' insinuating itself into at least every third sentence, appearing in the middle of otherwise unrelated words and phrases with all the subtlety and appositeness of a pair of light-up plastic breasts at a wake.

The Blue Book, by the way, is the story of Beth, ex-fake medium and owner of the sort of tedious, disjointed stream of consciousness that you might hear if you put a radio on scan, who gets on a cruise liner with one tall slender man and gets off it a week later with another. This other man just so happens to be her ex-partner in crime and One True Love, and the novel follows them as they tediously break up and make up and have strange, disjointed conversations and even stranger, more disjointed sexual encounters. (People in The Blue Book all talk like robots in the last stages of of running down, in weird little jerks and verbal tics. This makes you feel vaguely as though you are having encounters with a quite different species). Things happen, backstory is revealed and it all peters out in a damp fart of an ending in which you realise that you care not a bean for either of the two main characters. They really do deserve each other, the pointless sods.

I can't help feeling as though A L Kennedy has taken something that is conceptually a rather good idea and absolutely mangled it in her desperate urge to be very clever all the time. She absolutely wraps herself in knots trying to describe the world in COMPLETELY NEW AND FASCINATING WAYS, and it never quite works out. About a third of The Blue Book, for example, is written in the second person, directly addressing the reader, which is an incredibly difficult literary trick to get right. I can see what she was going for - recreating the universalised 'personal' patter that fake mediums use - but the problem is that Kennedy can't quite make it work. She repeatedly gets too precise, and instead of feeling like she knows what you're thinking, you realise that she's got no idea at all. It all stinks a bit of desperation, and that isn't really the main emotion you ought to be having when you're reading a novel.

As I said, I did finish The Blue Book, but out of a sense of masochistic fascination with its pure badness rather than anything else. It's certainly not something I'd want any other person to have to suffer though - except, that is, for the sex scenes. You should all read those sex scenes and weep.

2 stars.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

How Not To Write A Book

Last Sunday I finished the second draft of the book I've been working on since November (the first draft was unusual in that it broke off mid-sentence halfway through a scene, without resolving any of the plot, so what I actually mean is that I finished writing the book).

For about two seconds, I felt quite pleased with myself.

Then I realised that, even though this experience has (necessarily) turned me into a person who can write an entire book, beginning, middle and end, it has not had any other magical effect on my character - I am still someone who can spend an entire week sleeping without a pillowcase rather than go down one flight of stairs to pick out a new one, and it still takes me five days to write an email six words long, and I spent the next two days sulking about my ineffectiveness and general lack of purpose.

But anyway, since I now have real-life experience of sitting on my own a lot and stringing a foolish amount of words together, (so many, by the way, that the print-out of my manuscript doesn't fit in the ringbinder I bought for it. Oops.) I have decided to share my dubious wisdom with you, in case you want to do the same, and in the hopes that you won't do any of the damn stupid things that I have along the way. You will, of course, because that is how human beings work, but at least you might now do them in a subtly different way. That's the dream.


Robin's How Not To Write A Book

1. Don't do NaNoWriMo

No, seriously. Don't do it. Just don't. You may think it's a wonderful artsy crafty special lovely idea but the truth is that it is beyond the powers of human endurance to conceive of and write anything even vaguely meaningful in less than 30 days. Yes, Jack Kerouac did write On The Road in three manic coffee-fuelled weeks, but he spent the eight years previous to that living with his material, so he was not just spewing brilliance out of a void.

Last year, I actually managed to win NaNoWriMo, proving that writing 50000 words in one month is indeed physically possible, but when I looked back over what I had written afterwards I discovered that the words I had written were the intellectual equivalent of drool. They made no sense. I was rushing so much that most of my characters did not have either names or personalities, weeks had eight days, plot lines vanished mysteriously and then reappeared again as something completely different, and floating up between every line of text were invisible words that read OH MY GOD I'M RUNNING OUT OF TIME, WHAT AM I EVEN DOING, THIS IS SO AWFUL THAT I WANT TO BE SICK ALL OVER IT.

NaNoWriMo is a very nice idea that, I think, is horribly misused by 99% of the people who do it. It's very useful as a way of learning just how much time you really do have to spend sitting in front of your computer screen to achieve a novel, and of how many words you can actually write in a day if you stop being such a whiny procrastinator, but as a medium for actually writing a book it's awful.

What it should be used for is a jumping-off point for your novel, a way of spitting out all your random thoughts onto a page without the stress of having to create a coherent story for them. If I ever do take part in NaNo again, I think I'd use it as a sort of pre-book warm up: 50000 words of different characters' backstory, maybe, random scenes, place descriptions, world-building and so on, so that when I do begin to write the book for real I've got a useful basis to build on. What I am NEVER GOING TO DO AGAIN is try to write an actual BOOK in A MONTH. Because, dear readers, IT DOES NOT WORK.

That is all.

2. Take Notes

Draw maps of your locations to avoid characters walking out of rooms through windows, or spending time in rooms that shouldn't exist at all, or seeing straight through walls like Superman (unless they are Superman; I don't know your brain).

It's always better when each character has only one name, rather than two or three entirely different ones depending on which scene they are in. Similarly, siblings should share the same surname and entirely unrelated people should not. Endeavour to avoid this by making extensive notes about each of your characters before you begin to write your story.

If you do put down a detail in your story, such as someone's birthday or their hair colour or their uncle's name, make a note of it in your notebook (if you don't have a notebook, you should). Otherwise you'll inevitably forget it and once you've forgotten it it's a hellish faff to trawl through all bajillion pages of your magnum opus to find the one small word you need.

Assume you are stupid and make notes accordingly. Then make more notes. Then make notes about your notes. Notes, in case you have not realised, are really quite useful things.

3. Check Your Details

See above, really. Are your characters listening to their iPods in 1960? Is Tony Blair following a policy of appeasement against Napoleon in the 1930s? Have you given your Victorian servant girl a lifesaving liver transplant? If any of these things are so, you may have a problem.

Read your manuscipt, then read it again, and then read it once more to make sure, and then give it to someone else to read. You will keep on finding mistakes, which will be dispiriting, but at least you will have found them, which is far better than the alternative.

And following on from that:

4. Do Your Research

Always a rather good idea. It's probably better not to do what I did, which was write most of the book and then do the research, at which point I realised that I'd made quite a few really big historical mistakes. Don't do that. Research first! Take notes! Read the notes! Use the notes!

No but seriously. NOTES ARE GOLDEN.

5. Keep Writing (Long Scenes Are Long)

You will not believe how long it takes to write a book. No, really - it's almost impossible to conceive of it. It's like trying to imagine the universe, you just can't do it properly. Sure, you may be able to imagine beginning your book, and then finishing it some time later, and you will be dimly aware that time will pass between those two events, but the reality of the hours and hours you will spend just writing down word after word after word - it's mindblowing. It's probably sublime.

There you are, sitting there, and you begin to write a scene. And you write, and you write, and the scene keeps going, and you write and you write, and the scene keeps going and going, and then you begin to wonder if the scene will ever be done, or whether it will just carry on into eternity - you imagine yourself writing and writing while the world ends and Earth is swallowed up in fire and in water and the last trump sounds and the Beast rises from the Pit and there you'll be, still writing the same scene. You naturally worry that your potential readers may have shrivelled up and died before the end of this particular scene, out of sheer boredom and despair - and then you check how much you've written and see that in five hours you've managed 452 words.

But do not worry, dear potential writer. At some point between here and eternity, you will indeed finish writing your scene, and then you will finish writing your entire book, and then you will feel really weird about it and wonder where your purpose in life has gone.

At this point you should begin writing another book.

6. Retype Your First Draft

By far the most useful piece of advice anyone gave me during the writing of this book actually sprang from a misunderstanding, as all the best bits of advice tend to do. After I had finished my NaNo draft I was about ready to pull a Bulgakov and just feck the damn thing onto the nearest open fire, since it seemed so totally and irredeemably horrid.

Then my friend suggested that I take my first draft and type the whole thing out in a different document, making changes as I went. What she meant, it turned out later, was that I put two document windows up next to each other on my computer screen and do it all from there, but what I actually did was print out my manuscript and type from that into a new file. It felt, comfortingly, as though I was writing an entirely new book, and it made me feel free to alter plot and content at will, safe in the knowledge that I didn't have to keep any of the bits that were crap.

I think there's really something in doing something like this: it's very easy to start thinking that everything you write is unrepeatable genius that needs to be preserved like the Rosetta Stone when in fact about 70% of your output is shitty and strongly in need of deletion. If you wait a bit and then read over what you've written it's easier to work out which is which, and when you're retyping, removing whole scenes feels less painful and more like you're just naturally making your story better. Which you are.

7. Get It Published

I'm totally joking here. I have no idea how to get a book published, though I gather it's something that people do manage sometimes. If you know how to attain this marvellous Holy Grail please do share your wisdom with me. At the moment I've never got further than the Finishing The Book stage - after that, any additional effort seems just far too difficult. What do you mean? I have to do more things now? What am I, a wizard? For god's sake, I can't even put a new pillowcase on my bed.