Archive for the ‘reading’ Category
According to Goodreads, I read 61 books in 2012. When I came to choose my favourites of the year, I noticed that they all had one thing in common: they surprised me. With all of these books I remember reading them obsessively, usually in two or three days, not knowing what was going to come next, and hardly able to wait.
This is the way I used to read when I was younger, before two degrees in literature, ten years of teaching it, and several years of writing novels. I used to get fully caught up in the story, not being able to guess what came next. One of the down sides of understanding how stories work is that you can usually predict how a novel is going to end. You see the gun in chapter one and you know it’s going to fired by the end. You see the heroine hesitating between two men and you know before she does which one she’ll end up with. You’re fed a seeming irrelevant fact or introduced to a character who doesn’t immediately fit into the story and you start to try to figure out why that fact or that person has been introduced.
This isn’t a criticism or a complaint. I’m sure my own books are equally predictable, especially if you know how I think. And there’s a lot of pleasure in reading a well-written predictable book. You can relax, you know you’re in good hands, you know everything will turn out just as it should. Sometimes the predictability of the plot is a positive strength, for example when you know two characters are perfect for each other and you want to enjoy their journey in getting together. Or when you see something horrible happening and you know it’s inevitable, and the inevitability makes the book more emotional, more effective. This year I really enjoyed Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You, for example, even though I could guess what was going to happen. In fact the ending was so inevitable, so entirely logical and necessary, that I would have been seriously pissed off with Jojo if she hadn’t followed it through. No other ending would have been right, and her skill lay in making the inevitable seem not heartless and cruel, but life-affirming.
But these books kept me glued to my seat, dying to know what was going to happen next.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (children’s/YA fiction)
Complicated, dark, emotional, unflinching, beautifully-written book about loss, fear and strength. I actually knew how this book would end as soon as I picked it up; it’s one of those inevitable, tragic endings, and it needs to be for the book to work. But I was surprised by what happens in the middle. Ness takes some well-worn tropes and traditions from children’s fiction and folk fairy tales (absent parent, bullying at school, a monster seen only by a child, evil step/grandmother, fables) and turns them around to create a morally complex story.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (thriller)
A complex, gritty, character-driven thriller with two unreliable narrators and an ending which truly surprised me. It’s one of those books you finish and then have to go back to the beginning to read again, to figure out what exactly was happening. I can’t say any more because I don’t want to spoil it.
When We Were the Kennedys by Monica Wood (memoir)
Well, I sort of did know how this one would turn out; the author’s sister (who features in the book) was my English teacher in high school, and she married our former next-door neighbour, and the book is set across the river from where I grew up. It’s the story of a family in 1960s Maine whose father dies, and how the family deals with their grief. It’s also the story of a town and an industry, tracing the boom and decline of the Maine paper industry and the towns that depend on it. I know stories like this, and people like this, and my own history is reflected in the book’s pages. But the writing was so rich and surprising; the emotions so deep and unexpected in how they evolved; I was ambushed by tears and laughter all the way through.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (novel)
Reading the back of this book, I thought it was going to be a retelling of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And it is, sort of: it’s about a female doctor who goes into the Amazon rainforest to find an elusive scientist who has cut herself off from the world. But it’s so rich, so exciting, and the ending is both surprising and inevitable, which is a hard trick to pull off. Not a retelling so much as a riff on some of the same themes from a female point of view, adding science fiction, classical allusion, and good old-fashioned adventure. As a mother, I was touched by the exploration of different types of parenthood. A wonderful novel.
Although I loved being surprised this year, I also loved good old comfort reading. I reread several James Herriott books, which I still have memorised from when I was thirteen. I reread Georgette Heyer, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King and Susan Cooper. In rereading, knowing what’s going to happen is a huge part of the pleasure, especially with books you haven’t read since you were a teenager. I read a few books with the hero-or-antihero-sacrifices-himself-for-others theme; I love this theme and it’s actually better to read these books knowing the ending, because you can appreciate Sydney Carton, or Cyrano de Bergerac, or Johnny Smith (from The Dead Zone) even more.
Do you have any suggestions for books that surprised you, or which you loved even more because they were predictable?
Today is Shakespeare’s birthday and it’s also World Book Night.
Last year, I gave away 50 copies of Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes at my local hospice and hospital. I loved being able to share one of my favourite feel-good books with women who might need a bit of escape in their lives.
I also decided to follow Nicola Morgan’s idea about a complementary World Book Night. I bought a copy of a book from an independent book shop, and gave it away. I bought a copy of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany from WordPlay in Caversham, and left it for anyone who wanted it in Picnic Cafe, in Reading.
This year, I bought a copy of Veronica Henry‘s Marriage and Other Games from Jaffé and Neale bookshop in Chipping Norton, where I was for the Chipping Norton Literary Festival (of which more later). Yesterday I left it on an unoccupied stool in The Lyndhurst pub in Reading, where the Rock God and I were enjoying a gorgeous Sunday lunch and board games with the Fecklet.
If you’re very lucky it might still be there…run, go have a look! And enjoy.
Are you doing anything?
I’m having quite a pleasant day today. My first task this morning is to write the acknowledgements for my next novel, which I now know will be called THE SUMMER OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. I know that some people don’t like acknowledgements, but I love them. I always, always read them in books. It makes me feel like I have a little glimpse into the author’s life and the sort of thing she did to produce the book.
Anyway, for me, it’s fun because I did quite a bit of research for this book and I had a really good time doing it, and writing the acknowledgements makes me remember.
This afternoon, I’m going up to London to Headline for a fun meeting with some book bloggers. I think this is fantastic. Book bloggers are really valuable for us authors, because they create that holy grail that we all want: word of mouth. They love to chat about books and reading (and quite often writing too), and since they do all of this usually in their spare time, it’s all motivated by a pure love of reading. When you find a book blogger who has the same taste as you, it’s like finding a treasure trove of book recommendations; I’ve picked up quite a few books after seeing them on Chick Lit Reviews or High Heels and Book Deals, and I love talking comics with Liz from My Favourite Books.
So it’s a day of thanks for me—all the people who helped me with my research, and to fellow readers. Plus, I get to slap on a dress and some nice shoes. Result!
Do you have a favourite book blogger, whose recommendations you follow?
I’ve been on the phone and email today confirming things for World Book Night. As I mentioned earlier, as part of a scheme to give out one million free books in the UK, I’ve been chosen to give out 48 copies of RACHEL’S HOLIDAY by Marian Keyes, which is one of my favourite books ever.
I’ll probably come back to this later and talk about it more, but when I saw that RACHEL’S HOLIDAY was one of the books on the list for World Book Night, I immediately applied to be a giver. See, I think it’s a marvellous book. But I also think that it’s a good example of what women’s commercial fiction can do. It’s an effortless read which is also emotional, a happy ending that can give hope, funny and sad and true. It’s a few hours of escape, a step into someone else’s life and feelings. (And it has hero Luke Costello, who is one of the sexiest men ever to wear leather trousers.)
And I started thinking about the times in my life that I’ve needed an escape like that. I thought about lying in bed in the Royal Berkshire Hospital, having lost a pregnancy, reading romance novel after romance novel. I thought about sitting on the plane to see my dying grandmother, reading another Keyes novel. I thought about times I’ve been tired, sick, stressed out, sad. When feelgood books have been my best friends.
I wanted to give a few hours’ escape to people who could use it.
Today I’ve had it confirmed that I’m allowed to give out books at the ward in the Royal Berkshire Hospital where I was treated for my own miscarriage. I’ve also been given permission to give out books at the Duchess of Kent House hospice, where a friend and fellow writer spent his last days. I’ve also been in touch with Reading Libraries (who are also giving out books and holding events for reading groups), and local media to try to get coverage of the event.
I’m getting pretty excited. Will keep you updated.
I’m a bit late on this one, but I did a draft post and forgot about it. Der. Anyway, I read some great books in 2010. I’ve been trying to use the library as much as possible, which means I’ve tried a lot of books that I wouldn’t normally pick up. I’ve discovered some authors I want to read more of, like historical novelist Karen Maitland, and started some series that I’m looking forward to, like the Angel books by Lee Weatherly. I also got completely addicted to the Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay.
These are five of the ones that were my favourites, though, off the top of my head.
The Girls by Lori Lansens
I read this book for the book group that my ambitious and energetic neighbour, Gemma, started up (well, really, it’s more of a drinking group than a book group, but we do read the books too). I absolutely loved it. It’s the story of a pair of conjoined twins, joined at the head, told from their separate points of view, and it is lyrical, touching, funny, clever, beautiful, and sad. It’s probably the best book I read all year—it’s so well crafted and moving.
Take A Chance on Me by Jill Mansell
How does she do it? HOW DOES SHE DO IT?? I’ve read a lot of Jill’s books now and every single one of them is effortlessly entertaining, funny and true. Like a perfect weekend between two paperback covers.
The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes
I’d been putting off reading this for ages because I thought it would depress me. Marian is so, so, so, so, so, so good. She is the person who made me want to write commercial women’s fiction. So when she has a new book out, I circle it warily, with equal feelings of desire and fear. I know I’ll love it. I always do. I really want to read it. But I also know that it will probably make me feel inadequate and jealous as hell. It’s like having a hugely talented best friend who you’re really pleased for, really, but when you stand next to her, you can’t help but feel like a tiny pale shadow. Anyway, I overcame my craven feelings and bought the book and read it, nonstop, for two days, and then kicked myself for not having read it the minute it came out in hardback. I loved it. A lot. It even had the dog’s point of view in it which is a big warning NO sign for me usually, and I did not care. Marian, you are a goddess and I will never be afraid of reading your books again.
The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
This was research—my latest heroine is an enormous Heyer fan, and I needed to get into her head—but I fell in love with this book and read it twice in one year, which is something I never do. I love Heyer, and there’s something special about Sophy. I think it’s because she’s the master of her own universe. And she carries a little pistol in her muff.
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
I’d looked forward to this book for months. I absolutely adored the first two books in the trilogy—The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. They were pretty much my best reads of 2009, and I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to Katniss and her love triangle with Gale and Peeta. So I reread the first books before I read the third. To a great extent, I was disappointed in Mockingjay, to tell the truth. But I was sort of honestly disappointed. I could see why it had to happen this way. Collins had set up such big issues in her first two books, her world-building was so complete and vital, that she had little choice but to spend the last book in the trilogy dealing with them. Basically, books 1 and 2 foreshadow and start a war, and book 3 is about the war. And in a war, the big things are more important than the individuals. While the first two books focus relentlessly on Katniss and what she does, in the third book, she’s necessarily pretty inactive. (I had this same problem with Steig Larsson’s third Milennium book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, where Lisbeth Salander is in a hospital bed for about half the book while the big world works out its complexities around her.) However. The love story is so sad and yet so right, that I sat in the bath that had gone cold and read the last few pages over and over and over and sobbed, literally sobbed. And that’s the sign of a good book, regardless of its faults.
There were lots of other really good books that I read for the first time this year—Mariana by Susanna Kearsley, and From Hell by Alan Moore, and Room by Emma Donoghue, to name a few. 2010 was a good reading year.
What stood out for you?
Being a writer has all kinds of odd side effects. Aside from the obvious ones—bad back, bad neck, bad hands, spreading butt, an inability to carry on a normal conversation about television or recognise real people in the street—there’s an interesting side effect when you set one of your stories in a real-life place.
This morning I’m going into Reading to do some Christmas shopping, and for the past three years, I haven’t been able to do that without thinking of the scene in One Night Stand where my pregnant heroine goes Christmas shopping in Reading. She says:
Reading was hell at Christmastime. Hundreds and thousands and millions of people all descending on the town centre to do their shopping, queues of traffic clogging up the roads, and car parks practically bulging at the sides.
I didn’t have to drive to get to the high street, but I did have to squeeze my way through crowds of screaming children and grumpy shoppers whenever I walked into a shop, a task made even more unpleasant by my growing belly, threatened by other people’s sharp elbows and unwieldy shopping bags. At one point I had to leap backwards to keep my foetus from being stabbed by a man carrying a fake Christmas tree.
I’m not pregnant, and I have a bit more Christmassy cheer than grumpy Eleanor, but Reading really does get that crowded at Christmas, and when I negotiate the crowds with my shopping bags, I always have to smile. Because I’m not only living my real life, but I’m remembering my characters as if they’re friends, and living their memories too.
I’ve set at least parts of four of my novels in Reading, so this sort of double-life happens to me quite often. It’s as if my imaginary landscape is overlaid on my real one. Last week I wrote a short story set at Mad House, which is the local soft-play area, and I went there yesterday for a birthday party. I kept on expecting to see one of the characters there. (Of course this probably was exacerbated by my hangover, which meant I’d hardly have been surprised if slavering zombies had erupted from the ball pit, but let’s gently skim over that part…)
I had the sort of fictional equivalent last month, when I read the wonderful Mariana by Susanna Kearsley. She’s set the story in a fictional Avebury. Now, I set Getting Away With It in a fictional Avebury, too. And I’ve been to the real Avebury many, many times. Reading the book, I kept on getting this sort of double deja-vu. It was really fun.
Have you had an experience like that lately—experiencing a real place through the lens of your, or someone else’s, fiction?
Sign up for the 2011 Stephen King reading challenge on Book Chick City and indulge your love for prolific best-selling story tellers from Maine. His grandmother lived next to my aunt, you know. Apparently Pet Semetary was set in her back yard. Really. My aunt never saw any zombie cats, though.
You can win a copy of every Little Black Dress novel published in 2010 (including, ahem, Nina Jones and the Temple of Gloom) on Chick Lit Reviews.
For the past few days, I’ve been enjoying compiling an Amazon wish list, just in case someone, y’know, wants to buy me books for Christmas. So far I’ve put on some Georgette Heyer, some Marion Keyes and the last two Dexter novels, which isn’t a lot, but I don’t want to be too overwhelming. Oh, who am I kidding? I haven’t put more on the list because I got interrupted by my kid, who for some reason wants me to play with him every once in a while.
What books do you want for Christmas? Or indeed, Hanukah, though you’ll have to hurry if it’s for Hanukah, because it’s nearly over already.
I’m putting together a reading list for my Writing Women’s Commercial Fiction course, and though I’m choosing three or four books myself as course material, I’m thinking of including a secondary list of recommendations from writing professionals and keen readers.
Can you help me out? What’s the best commercial women’s fiction title you’ve read this year?
It can be a romance, saga, chick lit, historical, blockbuster…whatever area of commercial women’s fiction you prefer.
I’ve got a few criteria—I’d like it to be something published in the UK market, and I’d like it to be quite recent.
Leave your recommendation in the comments, or you can email it to me, or tweet it, or Facebook it…whatever you like. Tell your friends. Tell your mum. Tell your dog…oh, wait, dogs don’t read.
I’m reading a book called The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes. I picked it up because, let’s face it, I have The Fear. There are crows permanently camped outside my window, telling ghost stories and making s’mores and having a grand old time. So I thought this book might have a little magic formula for making me more fearless.
It doesn’t. It talks about why writers are afraid to write—for example, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of exposure as a fraud, fear of exposing too much of their faults and inner feelings, fear of what writing can do to one’s family and life. It mentions why fear can be a good thing for your writing—how it’s a sign that you’re being truthful and challenging yourself, how you can use the intense emotion of fear and channel it into your writing. And it talks about how writers write despite their fear—by following rituals, by making a dirty draft, by having deadlines, by developing friendships with other writers.
None of it is particularly new stuff. In fact, I found myself nodding in recognition when I read a lot of it. But it’s one of the best books on writing I’ve ever read, and I’ll recommend it to others, precisely because it is familiar. Because it gives me this message:
Fear is normal. Keyes says, and in italics, too: “If you’re not scared, you’re not writing.”
To me, that’s liberating. In a sort of annoying way, of course, because fear is not something you want to voluntarily put yourself through, it’s actually pretty damn awful, and I am not a pleasant person to be with when my only thoughts, running over and over through my brain, are This book is crap, I can’t write, the story is the same as my last book, my editor will hate it, I suck, nobody’s going to buy it, what if I’ve got too much in there what if I haven’t got enough, it’s crap, how do I fix it… Ad infinitum.
Keyes’s message is that courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s carrying on despite fear. Maybe even because of fear.
He teaches creative writing and he says, quite interestingly, that the main purpose of creative writing courses isn’t to teach skills, so much as to give the students courage. That’s something I’ll be thinking about when I lead the Cornerstones women’s fiction writing course next month.
He talks about how writers can be nightmares to live with—grouchy, surly, selfish, full of anxiety. When I was reading that chapter, I turned to my husband and said, “You should read this book—he says all writers are miserable like me, I’m normal!”
“It’s supposed to comfort me that there are more like you?” he grumbled.
I’ll try to find time to post some of the interesting examples from the book of how writers cope with fear. Meanwhile…are you a nightmare to live with, too? And have your crows actually started singing “Kumbya” outside that damn window yet?
I’ve been trying to read a lot, especially by using the library as much as possible. I have a routine at the library lately.* I tend to gravitate toward the new releases shelves, picking out women’s and other commercial fiction. I have to ration myself on these new books, though, because they’re limited to a week’s loan and I spend too much time working and taking care of Fecklet to read several books in one week. If I don’t find anything there that appeals, I check out the general fiction, then maybe the graphic novels and fantasy (DH and I are on a Neil Gaiman glom), or maybe the thrillers (I’ve got a couple of Val McDermids to catch up on).
The last book I picked up though was a historical—Sophia’s Secret by Susanna Kearsley. I had dinner with Susanna back in February, though I didn’t know who she was, or that she’d been one of the finalists for the Romantic Novel of the Year award. (And I was, er, drunk. Sorry, Susanna.)
I don’t normally read historicals, that is, unless they’re written by someone I know. I just never think to read them. My own knowledge of history is sketchy and I just don’t feel like I’m bringing much to the table, I guess.
But every time I read one, I find myself enjoying it—not in spite of the historical aspect, but because of it. Especially if the characters are caught up in big historical events where the stakes are much higher. In a contemporary novel, a heroine might run the risk of not getting the job and life she wants, or finding love, or getting herself out of some mess or another. In a historical, the heroine might run the risk of being killed for treason, of ruining her reputation forever, of having her loved ones taken from her. And running behind this lies the fate of the country and the course of history. Excellent stuff.
Habits are hard to break, so I’m not certain I’ll gravitate toward the historical fiction aisle as a habit, but I’m glad I’m dipping in.
Have you discovered, or re-discovered, any reading that’s outside your habit recently?
*It goes without saying that the first thing we do at the library is go to the children’s section so that Fecklet can run around, look at the books, talk about the fish painted on the wall, play with the computer and generally be much noisier than one is supposed to be in a library. After that I have roughly eight minutes to select the books I’d like to read before he gets bored.
I’ve just discovered a sure-fire way of telling whether I can be bothered to finish reading a book:
Get the said book from the library and read till about page 75, when I notice several short dark hairs caught between the pages. Brush the hairs off and read the rest of the page, turn the page, see more hairs. Look forward in the book; there are hairs everywhere. Gross.
Is the story worth de-hairing the book? Or do I put the book down with distaste, continue no further and take it back to the library?
In this case, it was the latter. I just didn’t care about the story enough to deal with someone else’s hair, and to think about why so much of it is in the book. Reading at the hairdressers? Alopecia? Or a (shudder) pubic trimming session?
So it’s going back.
Though I’ve just had a horrible thought: what if the librarians think that’s my hair in there?
Well, we’re on the fourth day of Fecklet not being well. He’s got some sort of tummy bug, and though he’s over the fever now and he’s having some cheerful moments, his appetite isn’t good and he’ll suddenly turn from cheerful to crying and needing cuddles. I’ve definitely noticed a pattern, in that he feels much better after eating something and then has a dip, so I’m trying to make him eat little and often.
Anyway, this morning we baked a cake to prolong a cheerful moment. He loves dumping ingredients in a bowl and mixing. We made an eggless cocoa cake, and then after we’d licked the bowl we decided the pan was too big for the cake so we made half an invented recipe of eggless orange cake and marbled it through. The batter tasted wonderful and it smelled great in the oven. The finished cake is pretty lopsided (I think the orange batter rose more as the OJ reacted with the baking soda) but I’ll slap some frosting on it and it will do wonders to cheer us up this afternoon, I’m sure.
And I also just had a brainstorm and remembered the carrier bag full of plastic dinosaurs I bought from the charity shop and was saving for a rainy day. Fecklet is now obsessed with dinosaurs, and I do believe that even though it’s sunny outside, this might be a metaphorical rainy day.
All of this means I’ve had very little time to write, though I did finish a chapter last night and now have to find out what happens next. I’ve just read Getting Rid of Matthew by Jane Fallon and am now reading The Beach House by Jane Green (I obviously had a subconscious thing about Janes when I visited the library) and the thing that gets me is how effortless their stories feel when you’re reading them. Like the Janes never had to rack their brains to find out what’s going to happen next in their books in between changing really disgusting nappies, doing endless laundry and calming down a red-faced two-year-old. Obviously for the Janes, the stories flow beautifully from their fingers, with nary a crow or a moment of grossness to deter them, and immediately become best-sellers.
Or maybe, just maybe, they have to scrape it and work it and shoo away crows as much as I do, and it just comes out seeming effortless because it’s taken so much effort. (And possibly cake and dinosaurs too.)