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Archive for the tag “Year of Reading”

Shattered Anzacs and Broken Promises

Mid-way through the year, I realise my pledge to read 52 books in this Year of Reading may have been a bit of an over-estimation on my part. Hey, I know what went wrong, I should have aimed for shorter books. All the ones I’m reading are hundreds of pages long. So from now on, I’m going to leave off the number of books I’m up to and just enjoy the reading.

I’m back into reading the era I’m about to write again for my new historical novel, set during and post WW1. I’m not usually one for war movies or books depicting the grit and gore of battles. My passion lies in the personal, emotional and psychological journeys of my characters, living through those times, but for me to understand how they think, feel and react I must read the books. Some are harsh; so is war. The more I read, the more I cannot believe that WW1 is not a key focus in our education system. Before I began researching four years ago, you could have grown crops of wheat to feed whole suburbs in the gaps in my knowledge. I still have so much to learn, as evidenced in my research trip, but I’m engrossed and passionate about the people and the time enough to set and write another historical saga in the same era as my previous novel. Plus I really need to write and learn more in order to understand what went on and what it was for.

Shattered Anzacs living with the scars of war by Marina Larsson

Historian and author Marina Larsson explores the impact of war disability on the lives of soldiers and those of their families upon their return from WW1. Larsson comprehensively details the effects and attitudes of society, the government, and real families utilising interviews with the offspring of returned soldiers of WW1. Larsson’s text is accessible and highly readable, despite the incredible breadth of her research. The text explores the effects of having a soldier living in the household with an ongoing disability, often a “nervy” and “changed” man. It further addresses the  financial and physical effects and impact on disabled WW1 returned soldiers’ employment prospects.  I highly recommend this excellent resource for anyone writing on the experience and legacy of war.

University of New South Wales Press, Sydney 2009

ISBN: 9781921410550

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

The strength of Birdsong is Faulk’s authentic battle scene descriptions and their shocking psychological effects on the men fighting. He takes you into the trenches and onto the battlefield. And he doesn’t let you escape a single moment of the unrelenting battle morning where tens of thousands went over top to be mown down, caught on the wire or tripped up in the bodies of their mates.  Events in the past are described in captivating detail – as if it’s happening now. The character progression of the main character, Stephen Wraysford, an initially selfish young man who seduces his host’s wife and whom appears to care about nothing and no one, is riveting. Alternating viewpoints enable a steady progression in Wraysford’s mental deterioration and those of his men.

I enjoyed “most” of Birdsong. Except for the modern day viewpoint of Wraysford’s grand-daughter, which to me added nothing to the story. The character Elizabeth discovers/reveals nothing that couldn’t have been shown in “real” story time. The writing in this section also dragged the reader out of the atmosphere of the story and read as pure telling. The book does tend to “tell” a lot but the power of the battlefields prose kept me turning the page. It is a searingly authentic look at what our male ancestors went through and why these men were never the same.

Random House

Epub ISBN: 9781407052564 (Vintage 1994)

An Incredible Crossing – Caleb’s

I can well understand why Caleb’s Crossing, by multi-award winning author Geraldine Brooks, won a Pulitzer Prize. As a lover of historical fiction, I marvel at Brooks’ reconstruction of the language of the 1600s and the depth of her research woven seamlessly into this story.  Caleb’s Crossing is based on the true story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a Wampanoag (Wôpanâak) Native American Indian, who “converts” to Calvinism and departs his people to live with the puritan Mayfield family in 1665. Told through the voice of their twelve-year-old daughter, Bethia, over several years, it traces Caleb’s path through his early study under the tutelage of Minister Mayfield to his graduation from Harvard University at a time when his education was an experiment to some on whether “salvages” could be educated. Caleb exceeded all expectations as did his fellows.

Bethia’s voice rings absolutely authentic. Though I have no prior knowledge of the era or speech of the time or location, the author instils the reader with complete trust she has done her research.

A wonderful read; delightful prose despite a devastatingly sad ending – not from the horrors one might envisage. Thoroughly recommended.

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks – Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

ISBN 978 0 0073 3353 0  Fourth Estate Harper Collins 2011

The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham is said to be a gothic novel. I’m not sure what that means but I did enjoy this rather uncomfortable read. I loved Tilly, the main character, and her calm acceptance and way with her nutty mother. Some truly torrid and horrid characters live within the pages who left me desperate on seeing their comeuppance. The Dressmaker is a dark tale of the clique, small-mindedness of some small country towns and a fascinating look behind closed doors of what I hope were some exaggerated personalities.

When Tilly Dunnage returns to Dungatar and her “mad old” mother, the locals maintain the rage that banished Tilly decades earlier. They think nothing of using her skills as a talented dressmaker though and for a time it seems Tilly may have been accepted back into the fold. Deliciously wicked, but I’m not so sure the ending was entirely credible. I recommend The Dressmaker as a good read that never lets you get complacent and keeps you reading with some excellent, sometimes heartbreaking, plot twists.

Book 9

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham 2000

Duffy & Snellgrove ISBN: 1875989706

Year of Wonders

How do I talk about a book without gushing adjectives when my cheeks are glowing with writerly admiration and, in equal, turning green with writer envy?  A hard call when I’ve just read what’s now up there as one of my favourite books ever.

Geraldine Brooks Year of Wonders is an historical fiction tale, based on a true story, of a Derbyshire village who elect to quarantine themselves and their plague in the Spring of 1666 and spend a year cut off from the world. The writing is beautiful prose and evokes a strong sense of authenticity.  For me, it’s a page turner that reached a very satisfying twist of an ending. However, I do need to add that I (along with others, it seems on Goodreads) did qualm  over the epilogue, which took the story out of the world of the village to a happily ever after that I was not sure could or would have been possible for such a young, ignorant, unworldly girl of the day.  However, I deeply admired the writing, the storytelling and the wonderful drawing together of the plot threads to a powerful and unexpected resolution that I won’t spoil here by telling. The voice captivated me and I found the book in my hands at every opportunity for the two days it took to read it. A “must read” for anyone who loves history and place.

Book 8

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks 2008

Harper Perennial  ISBN: 978 1 84115 458 9

Never poke a writer (or a Mama Bird)

This time last year I made a vow – after discovering a tiny baby bird alive but flopped on our back deck with a bleeding cut on its back – that if Mrs Pigeon showed any sign of setting up house this year, I would wave her off sans hésitation. I had no wish to repeat that worry or ensuing mercy dash to the vet. I never rang to enquire after the baby’s health but chose instead to believe that she pulled through and grew up to rear a family of her own.

But when the day came a few weeks ago that Mrs Pigeon flitted and fluttered around my deck, carrying twigs and fluff and the usual building blocks of a pigeon home, I couldn’t bring myself to stop her. What if she was ready to nest and I upset the process and as a result another chick was lost? The dilemma was momentary and I gritted my teeth, hoping for windless days and no premature barrelling overboard this time.

We’ve watched and listened while Mrs Pigeon cooed and sat, sat and cooed until finally, after her comings and goings recommenced, we got to see a little head poking up yesterday and one eye peeping over the top of the nest. A short time later when I went out with my camera, Mama bird had returned and so I asked hubby if he could climb the ladder and take her picture. To my absolute horror, he ventured too close, (we have zoom Mr B, 10x zoom!), and Mrs Pigeon panicked. She flew out of the nest, under the pergola, crashed into both windows before flying away into the treetops. I’m not sure who got more of a shock, her or us, and I was bereft fearing she may not return and what would happen to baby bird then?

Thank goodness, an hour after we slunk inside, out of sight, she returned. This morning, she is cooing and peaceful and I assume that means baby bird is too.

Baby birds are as fragile as new stories and Mama birds as flighty as any writer of a new work. Don’t poke the nest or creep too close. Any interference or perceived danger can send the writer fleeing, project abandoned and all the promise of that new work doomed without persistent warmth, heart and gentle coaxing. It may never take wing at all without a long gestation, application, and a writer willing to stick around long enough for it to be ready to throw it out of the nest.

Yesterday’s episode is a reminder to me too not share too much of my new WIP at this very early, fragile stage. Sometimes interested others can poke the writer’s nest without intending to and we can be such a flighty bunch. I have great hopes and plans to stick around, but I also have a feeling I’ll be nesting and sitting here a lot longer than Mrs Pigeon.

Do you share your WIP? Talk about it? Discuss it with family, friends or the postman?

My Year of Reading Challenge

Book 6

In the Human Night by Peter Bakowski 1995 (2000)

I love Peter Bakowski’s poetry. I can actually understand it and with its varied and recognisable subjects, refrigerators, mountains, clocks and kings, it speaks to me. So many gorgeous lines like “back under the axe of being alone: hearts eaten by banknotes: In your arms I find puddles, xylophones and all my chains turned into skipping rope”.

 Hale & Iremonger ISBN: 978 0 86806 539 0

Book 7

 We Don’t Know We Don’t Know by Nick Lantz 2010 

My daughter introduced me to the poetry of Nick Lantz. I found much to love in his lines but my favourite poem has to be Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake, an amazing poem on Alzheimer’s that resonated keenly with me. You can read it by clicking this link http://www.gulfcoastmag.org/index.php?n=2&s=943.

Graywolf Press MN ISBN: 978 1 55597 552 4

A Novel Letter

I’ve been told many times that I write a good letter. Well at least I was told so back in the days when the fine art existed and we weren’t all reduced to the short speak of emails. I’ve always liked reading letters in books, but books written solely in letters? I’m not so sure they always work.

An epistolary novel is one written in letters, emails or diary entries. It can come through one or multiple viewpoints. Though the form originated well before, the genre only became popular with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela 1740 and Clarissa 1748 and continued to gain an avid readership up to the nineteenth century. I found myself checking out the background and popularity of epistolary novels after reading my latest Year of Reading challenge, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. There is much to like about Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ story set in post-WWII London and the Channel Island of Guernsey, featuring a fascinating backstory of the years the island was occupied  by the Germans during the Second World War. I’d not known previously that any part of England was occupied, so I gobbled up the history and wartime setting. TGL&PPPS is the story of writer Juliet Ashton who receives a letter from island resident Dawsey Adams and becomes intrigued with his tales of the occupation. Over time, she sets up a correspondence with other members of the GL&PPP society too with a view to writing an article on their experiences and eventually she visits the island to meet them.

I found the islanders’ wartime stories fascinating, particularly that of Elizabeth McKenna, and it is her arrest, deportation, and incarceration in a German prison camp that I believe drives the narrative tension in the story. The book worked on several levels for me including the historical aspects and setting, the authenticity and intimacy of a “lived” experience. The epistolary form works well to tell the war years’ backstory, a narrative that lived for me more vividly than the foreground story. One third of the way through the book, I found myself not as engaged and really wanting it to transform into prose. This set me to wondering; why wasn’t the story working for me when the book is so hugely popular? They’re even making a film next year with Kate Winslet starring as Juliet Ashton and directed by Kenneth Brannagh.

The Goodreads website features multiple reviews, overwhelmingly four/five stars and glowing: “Charming, lovely, delightful, great characters”. But a vocal polar response  exists too: “no voice, no plot, shallow characters.” I found myself agreeing with certain aspects of both. Yes, it’s got a great (potential) line-up of characters, an incredible (back) story, setting and promise, but the authenticity got lost somewhat because the letter writers’ voices did not differentiate enough to me and the reader could only see the one dimension of the letter writer’s point-of-view. I loved the part of the story that told of the occupation. The characters came to life during those sections. It was the protagonist, Juliet’s story that unravelled for me, or rather her love story. The set up was that she corresponds first with Dawsey, a tall, silent type. Little is revealed of Dawsey in his letters, so the reader can’t wait to meet him when Juliet travels to Guernsey. The anticipation is all there, except that for the rest of the novel, we are told about Dawsey, that he’s there, but we never hear direct from him. We miss all the nuances of dialogue and direct speech. The interaction between the pair is not explored and the excuse for the lack of interaction is attributed to Dawsey being so quiet. He was so quiet in the end that he failed to exist for me. His invisibility rendered the relationship incredible. (Dialogue is non-existent too, and reported dialogue  rare and brief.) The absence of letters from Dawsey in the latter half of the book means that his responses and attitudes are told rather than shown. I simply stopped seeing him as more than a shadowy figure on the page.
Words make up only 7% of communication. Tone of voice makes 38% and body language 55%. 

Words,tone and body language are things we show in prose writing. In letters, diary entries, telegrams, we lose opportunities to show the character’s physical responses, actions, body language or tone, unless we TELL. Or maybe that’s another crafting technique I need to investigate.

I think the biggest problem for me in the epistolary novel is that all the action occurs off-stage. Usually that’s a big no-no in novel but it seems inevitable in the epistolary form. I’m no expert though, so I did a little Googling and reading up to discover the pros and cons of writing novel in epistolary form.

Here’s a few findings and summations:

Epistolary novel Pros:

  • Easy way to compose a novel for a beginner
  • Manageable chunks – written one by one build into a whole story
  • Authenticity and brevity
  • All attention is on characters (this could be a con too if you lose connection to or miss out on building dramatic intensity in the story)
  • Glimpse different characters’ lives intimately
  • No viewpoint problems
  • Opportunity to share multiple viewpoints

Epistolary novel Cons:

  • No dialogue, miss the nuances of interactions
  • Hard to get to know characters in relationship context
  • Hard to show variances in characterisation unless done well
  • Can become narrowly focused
  • Difficult to show intimate moments i.e. sex (who writes to anyone about their sex life and, really, do we want to correspond with those that do?)
  • Action occurs off-stage leading to loss of dramatic immediacy
  • Never witness anything directly
  • Can result in lack of character variation – need to really mix up letter styles and voices
  • Not every character’s thoughts may interest the reader
  • POV can colour reader’s perspective (I can see this could work equally as a deliberate pro/device)

Maybe it all comes down to how well an author masters the form. I don’t think it’s a medium I could sustain throughout a novel-length, but I certainly found myself interested to analyse it from a critical point-of-view. And that can be the death of reading for pure enjoyment for writers. We tend to look at aspects a normal reader wouldn’t think twice about it. I thought I’d finish with a short list of epistolary novels across the centuries. Their popularity may be said to have waned a bit over the last couple of centuries but judging by the huge success of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and others such as We Need to Talk about Kevin and Bridget Jones Diary it holds a captive audience still.

So do you enjoy novels written in letters? Would you write one? Love to know your thoughts and favourites and what appeals or doesn’t about epistolary novels. Sorry this has turned into one of my typical epistles.  

A small selection of epistolary novels: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008) The Color Purple – Alice Walker (1982) We need to talk about Kevin – Lionel Shriver (2003) Clarissa –  Samuel Richardson (1748) Dracula – Bram Stoker – (1897) The Diary of Ann Frank – Ann Frank – (1947) Bridget Jones Diary – Helen Fielding (1996) Feeling Sorry for Celia – Jaclyn Moriaty (2002) The Screwtape Letters – CS Lewis (1942) Poor Folk – Fyodor Dostoevsky (1846) Herzog – Saul Bellow (1964) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte (1848)</div>

Book 5

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shafer and Annie Barrows

Allen & Unwin 2009 ISBN: 9781741758955

Some books do, Some books don’t

And when they don’t do it for you, do you keep reading? I do. But… Life is short. Too short to persist sometimes. Back into the year and the weeks are zinging past. I’m already beginning to panic over my challenge to read a book a week. I can see these mini review blogs will become more sporadic and more often lists, but for now, I’ll keep commenting on the books I am reading. The last one though saw me page skimming by the last quarter – and only in fairness to the challenge did I keep reading at all. Not sure I’m going to persist with books that “don’t” do it for me in future. So many books, so little time.

Week 3 Book 3

Once again this January, I participated in Month of Poetry hosted by the wonderful poet and organiser Kathryn Apel. In lazy holiday mode, I wasn’t sure I could live up to the promise of the Post a Day poets, so I registered for the Occasional Poetry pages. I thought for awhile that I fell a bit short in not writing a poem a day, but I was really pleased to finish the month with seventeen completed poems. Of course, they all need much refining, but I think a couple of them show actual promise.

Some days the words and ideas just flowed, others I needed a little prompting. Plus I wanted to get stuck into some poetry basics. So I read and worked through some of the exercises in Creating Poetry by Ron Pretty. I recommend this book for all beginner poets to learn forms, sound patterning, imagery and metaphor in poetry, and to tackle some inspiring exercises that act as great, creative launch pads. The book is totally accessible and highly readable, and inspired a couple of my favourite poems from the Month of Poetry.

Creating Poetry by Ron Pretty (Revised Edition) Five Islands Press (1987) 2001

Week 4 Book 4

Bestseller A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle was first published in 1989 and is the non-fiction account of the twelve months from when British expat Mayle and his wife moved into their impulse, holiday purchase to one year and many gastronomic delights later. Mayle details the four seasons, the antics and exhorts of their new neighbours, crossing the cultural divide, some humorous uninvited visitors, along with descriptions of the etiquette and elongation of French tradesman renovating their house. The detailed description that won me in the early pages, where I vicariously enjoyed the laid back lifestyle of French provincial life, tended to wear on me and turn repetitive by mid to late in the book. I know it was non-fiction, not fiction with a rising tension, but after charting a few unhurried months, I’m afraid each began to bleed into the next. Towards the end I found myself skimming pages.

I doubt the Provence of the late 80s, when Mayle first settled there, and the Provence of today are much similar, but I still hope to find some of those homey French cafes in small villages and some of the delightful French characters that pepper his book when I drop by. A tad elongated a read for me but it should grab those wishing to visit or relocate to Provence.

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle Penguin Books 1980 ISBN 9780141037257


A “Must Read” YA

Year of Reading: Week 2 Book 2

One book in particular has been crying out to be read from my TBR pile for twelve months. I’ve held off, but with the dread that someone or a casual word somewhere would give away the ending of a story and book that has come so highly recommended.

At last I’ve finally had the chance to read Six, Karen Tayleur’s brilliantly tense and riveting YA coming-of-age story.

One car

Five seatbelts

Six people

This out-take from the prologue, alongside the four line story rhyme introduction (each chapter features) There were six in the bed, and the little one said, ‘Roll over, roll over’ So they all rolled over and one fell out…suggested to me that only one character survives the car crash so hauntingly shown in aftermath within the prologue.

The tension builds as you come to know each of the six main characters, shown through both first and third-person viewpoints, and fret over who may or may not survive. I’m not giving anything away, except to say I was shocked and that the ending is inspired, brilliant, inescapable.

Six – a fantastic read, and read again book. Highly recommended.

Six – Karen Tayleur Published by Black Dog Books 2010       ISBN: 978 – 174203155 – 2

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