Wednesday, 31 March 2010


Target by Simon Kernick is an easy read. It's a fast-paced thriller and is fairly typical of the genre. There were a few noteworthy things about it.

Firstly, loads of people died. I know it was a thriller about a psychotic hitman, but still. It did feel like there was a bit of red-shirt syndrome going on; any new character introduced was likely to be dead shortly.

Secondly, there were only two female characters, one of which was the kidnap victim and who never gets any screentime. The other was a detective who start off with a good role, gets kidnapped and it seems like she's waiting to be rescued. In the end, she rescues herself which I was happy to see but for a long while she was taken out of the story. Also the violence against the two female characters was depressingly sexualised.

And lastly, the author killed off the first person narrator. He's not the only POV character and I question the use of both first and third person POVs in the novel; it's somewhat disjointed. This was a surprise and I found it a brave move. It was thoughtprovoking but I'm not sure how I feel about it. The fact that the antagonist had killed so many characters by this point did contribute to a response of 'oh really, another killing?'

Anyway, it was ok. Problematic in places and patchy technique, but good in the things that make a good thriller. I might pick up another of Kernick's books next time I'm looking for brain candy floss.

Then I read Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders which is the biography of a fourteenth century mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood. It was less biography than an exploration of a moment in time hung around the structure of one man's life. It was fascinating.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Vile Bodies

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh is a delight. It follows the activities of the 'it' crowd in the late nineteen-twenties. They are the sons and daughters of the rich and famous. It's funny and in places it's tragic. In contrast to The Left Hand of Darkness, the writing was quite terse and restrained, but it was equally powerful. I liked it and will definitely read more Waugh.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Left Hand of Darkness

I put The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin up for my book club to read. There was a point before I'd read it where I was getting worried that it would be really hard going, because two people had given up on it only a few pages in.

But I have two hours of commute and I was determined to see it through to the end. As I am quite interested in gender representations in literature and keen to avoid problematic stereotypes in my own writing, I felt that this was an important book to read. Le Guin sends a male protagonist, Genly Ai, as an ambassador to a world in which people are not defined by gender. Each person has a monthly cycle in which they are sexually active for about a quarter of the time and pairings change into male/female pairings depending on the interaction of hormones between them. Every person will be male sometimes and every person will be female sometimes. Every person will be both father and mother.

The first third of the book is hard going. There is fantastic depth to Le Guin's worldbuilding and there's a lot to take in. The narrator of this section, Genly Ai, is also highly unreliable, although that doesn't become clear until later in the book. While reading it I was disturbed by the judgements Ai was making, in particular the negative qualities he clearly identified with the female. The book was written in the late sixties and reflects a very stark correlation of masculinity and positivity. I'd like to think that is less true today, but perhaps it's just less boldly stated.

Anyway, the world that Ai is visiting is split into nations and there comes a point at which Ai goes to another nation. Here the book changes. Another character, Estraven, becomes a POV character. Through Estraven's eyes we see things differently and realise just how unreliable Ai is as a narrator. The pace of the story picks up and in the last half is quite the adventure story.

I was awed by Le Guin's worldbuilding. Her world is worked up from the bottom meaning that everything is different and new and we can't make any assumptions. After having read so many fantasies lately where the worldbuilding has been quite superficial, this was both inspiring and intimidating! The writing is wonderful; I really enjoyed the lush, detailed language. The characterisation is subtle and effective. If was going to make any criticism it would be that the various voices could be more differentiated, but it's a tiny point. The Left Hand of Darkness is amazing; go and read it now.

For non-fiction I read A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage, which looks at beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola and their impact on society. It was entertaining, easy to read, and offered a unique way of looking at history. I learnt stuff I didn't know before which is really what I'm looking for.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Plotting with the Snowflake Method

Yesterday I spent the day on the work-in-progress which now, for the first time ever, has an ending. It also has a new front-runner for the title.

I've been writing quite a bit of new material and had reached a point where I needed to get organised and put all my stuff in order. As I've mentioned before, the fact that I struggle to plan stories bothers me. I'm a planner. I like planning for things and I feel much happier if I know I'm prepared. I enjoy planning so much that sometimes I plan things I've no intention of actually doing. But I can't plan a story. Maybe it comes from a totally different place in my brain. However, writing by the seat of my pants leaves me with a pile of material that is overwhelming and then I don't know where to go next.

So yesterday I decided to get myself sorted out and that meant googling a method of plotting. How do you do a plot? What does that look like? No idea. The first link I clicked on was the Snowflake Method, which I had heard of before, and came with quite detailed instructions. I spent the day writing several summaries, first generally and then for each of my three main characters. Clearly articulating in this way really helped and in the course of doing it I discovered what the ending of the novel needs to be.

This is no small matter. From the start I've had no idea how it would end. There have always been options and at some point I narrowed it down to three possible endings. Naturally, the right and perfect ending that I found today is not one of those three options. I feel like lots of things have slid into place today. As added bonuses I have another idea for the title (I find titles so hard to come up with) and I have a good basis for a query letter when the time comes.

The Snowflake Method has been very helpful. I don't think I could do it cold. Yesterday I was able to say what my characters wanted, were motivated by, and what got in their way only because I've spent so much time writing about them. But this hybrid of planning and seat of the pants writing seems to be working itself out. I only hope the next one doesn't take as long.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Priestess of the White

Priestess of the White by Trudi Canavan is not a small book. It's the first part of a trilogy and is a massive 650 pages. The first hundred or so of these pages made me feel that finishing it would be a chore. It didn't turn out to be, but I can't say it turned into a real page turner either.

Priestess of the White is an epic tale of religious war between the good White and the evil Black sorcerors from the south. Problematic. I tried very hard not to draw conclusions about who was supposed to be good and evil, but in the end I was left with the idea that the author was deliberately employing stereotypical symbolism. White equals good, kind, just, true and right. Black equals evil, trickery, cruelty, lies and wrongness. These days I'm not comfortable with these racist constructions.

Compounding this are the inevitable religious parallels. Again through the use of familiar symbolism White is associated with christianity (good) and Black with paganism (evil).

I don't know if this was deliberate on the part of the author or whether this was a case of lazy worldbuilding. Much fantasy is based on historial societies and transfers the insitutions, economics and social dynamics wholesale. Done well (e.g. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch) this can provide a solid base for a recognisable and believable world. I think that a lot of care needs to be taken that the fantasy world is more than a thin veneer.

Done badly, it becomes hard for the reader to immerse themselves in the fantasy world. I was wondering if it was meant to be allegory and thinking that if it was, it wasn't clear what Canavan was trying to say.

Characterisation was okay, in some respects quite superficial but better than some stuff I've read recently. The same goes for the writing. It was unsophisticated but not the worst I've read lately. It did pick up as the story got going. By and large, Canavan avoided big chunks of exposition, which was nice. Overall, I felt that it lacked depth and in a book of this length that's a real problem.

I think I will read the rest of the trilogy at some point because there were some ambiguities in the ending that suggest that Canavan is preparing to subvert and confound the assumptions she's set up. I would really like to see that.

The non-fiction interlude was Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour that Changed the World by Simon Garfield. This was fascinating, full of lots of interesting things to know and less of a biography than an exploration the impact of the discovery of synthetic colour.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Eleven Hours

Eleven Hours by Paullina Simons was my second pull from the book drop at the office. There was no non-fiction interlude between this and City of Beasts as I wasn't organised enough. The book drop doesn't contain vast amounts of books that I would jump at reading, so I just went for something lightweight and entertaining to tide me over until I got home to the collection of books that I desperately want to read. On the surface, Eleven Hours appeared to be a pretty standard thriller, heavy on plot, fast-paced, simple writing.

What a delightful surprise this book was. It is a fast paced, plot-heavy thriller and it is so much more. The characterisation was extremely skillfully done. The main character, Didi, endures an eleven hour abduction. I didn't like her much, but she was very real to me and behaved in exactly the way I thought such a woman would. Even down to the extent that when she was being taken from the car park with threats of violence she never actually said no. Because many women can't and don't say no.

Another main character was presented to us with a single mention of his race. I mention this because often it seems that the defining characteristic of black characters in books written by white authors is that they are black and the adjective is used constantly. It is a measure of how impressed I was by the writing in this book that I was disappointed when this character was introduced as 'a black man' and so I subsequently was alert for how many times that was used as an adjective. I was pleased to note that it wasn't.

I was also pleased with the ending. Although Didi's husband and an FBI agent are chasing after her to rescue her, ultimately Didi rescues herself and then gives birth unaided. Her efforts are nothing short of heroic and even though she is so passive in nature, Simons' writing is utterly convincing. I really enjoyed this.

This time I was prepared and my non-fiction interlude was The Work we are Born to Do by Nick Williams. This was lent to me by a friend years ago and I have often thought that I shouldn't have kept it so long. Well, I'm glad I did because I gained a lot from reading it.

Friday, 5 March 2010

City of Beasts

I haven't read Harry Potter. Sometimes it seems like I'm the only adult in the world that hasn't and the reason is that I'm not a child and therefore I don't read children's literature. Plus, I have an uncontrollable contrarian streak that prevents me from partaking in mass cultural crazes, which is why I don't have an ipod either.

Any how, sometimes it is really hard to tell what is YA and what isn't, especially if you're not in a bookshop where they've conveniently categorised everything for you. At my office there's a book drop where people can pick up and leave books. Handy when I unexpectedly finish a book on the way in and then have nothing left to read on my hour and a half commute home.

The first book I pulled out of the book drop was City of Beasts by Isabel Allende. On the whole, I enjoyed it very much but I found it took a while to get going. There's a fair bit of exposition at the beginning and the language often feels a little stilted. Once into it, it's a very engaging tale of a young boy travelling with his grandmother to the Amazon jungle and discovering a magical, strange city of beasts. It is quite fantastical and does raise the question about where the boundary between fantasy and magical realism lies. The structure is mythic and it has an old-fashioned feel about it - but in a way that is charming rather than patronising.

I googled the book because it's been a few weeks between reading it and getting round to posting here, and I discovered that this is Allende's first YA novel and that there are two sequels. I don't think I'll make an effort to read the sequels but I would certainly recommend it for teenagers.