TBR Challenge – The Shipping News – Annie Proulx

Genre: Literary fiction, Masculinity

Narrative Style: Third person from varying points of view

Rating: 5/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1993

Synopsis: When Quoyle’s unfaithful wife meets her end in a car crash, he decides to move back to Newfoundland where his family were originally from with his two daughters and an old aunt. Here he starts his life anew, writing the Shipping News for a local paper and discovering that love doesn’t need to involve pain.

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader. 

Time on Shelf: Not entirely sure. But some time after Brokeback mountain came out, I read the short story collection that Brokeback Mountain came from and then bought this not long after that. 

This is one of those books where I was so glad to have read it. Why did I wait so long to do so? Actually, I know the answer to that one. The title, The Shipping News, really put me off. I had expectations that it would be about shipping and different types of boat. It was nothing like that.

It is quite slow paced, seemingly matching the life of the Newfoundlanders. Everyday life is captured successfully and if that sounds tedious, it really isn’t. The novel is populated with strange and interesting characters who don’t always behave in expected ways. It is more a series of small happenings, than one over-arching plot line.

Quoyle – the main character – is really quite hopeless. He loves his two-timing wife despite her infidelities because that is what he believes love should be like. He almost misses a second chance at love with Wavey because it looks different to this model. He is moved by the forces of life and death, seemingly doing little of his own volition – at least, at first. But for all that, it is easy to empathise with him, left with two unruly daughters and a large house that is falling to pieces.

There are a lot of supporting characters, all of whom seem to have absurd names such as Tert Card, Petal Bear and Nutbeam. All have some bearing on Quoyle’s life, be it at the paper where he writes the Shipping News, The Gammy Bird, or in the small town where he resides. By the end of the novel, Quoyle has a satisfying job, friends and the possibility of love with Wavey. In some ways, this novel has the hallmarks of a bildungsroman except that Quoyle is a grown man at the beginning.

Proulx has an interesting prose style. There are lots of short, incomplete sentences which I can imagine some would find annoying but which I quite liked. The style is clipped, straight forward and I found it easy to read. There is some depressing imagery. After all, this book describes some bleak locations. But it wasn’t heavy going and it fitted the mood of the novel, particularly in the first half.

So I would say to anyone who has this sitting on their shelf – don’t let it languish there. This is definitely a worthwhile read.

Well, I failed to finish a book – why does that feel so bad?

First of all, I hate not finishing a book. It’s a horrible thing to do because for all you know, you may be missing a wonderful read later on. It may be hard in the beginning but there may be rewards later. So I don’t give up easily. I struggled with parts of War and Peace but I was certain that the pay off would be worth it and it was. That’s the thing if you struggle on – generally, it feels worth it because if nothing else, you got to the end.

Also, it is hard to know when to let go. How far in do you need to be before you know that nothing is going to change for you? It’s a difficult one. Too soon and you’d definitely have regrets and wonders; too far in and you might as well finish it. This time I was about a quarter of the way in. Seemed like far enough that I’d know.

The book in question was The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey and it was one of my books for the TBR challenge. (So now I have to read one of my alternates. The Shipping News by Annie Prouix, if anyone’s interested.) I’d read Peter Carey – Bliss and The True History of the Kelly Gang – and enjoyed his writing before. But this, I just couldn’t get to grips with it. I was avoiding reading it – always a good sign that you need to abandon a book.

I appreciate that this book is quite the feat of writing. Carey has invented an entire new country, along with that country’s language. The novel revolves around a group of actors after the birth of Tristan – a very unusual boy. He wants to be an actor but no one else wants that for him; in fact they suggest it is impossible for him, given his deformities.

There are lots of quirky characters – none of which seem quite believable. The plot is based on the rivalry between Efica and Voorstand (for Efica read Australia and Voorstand maybe England or America) and the different cultural and political systems. Some of which was very clever but it didn’t move me and I found myself zoning out when I was reading it.

So there we are – an unfinished book. I feel guilty for not finishing  – which I’m aware is slightly ridiculous. But at the end of the day, life’s too short for bad books. Although to be fair, this isn’t bad, just not to my taste.

 

TBR Challenge 2019: The Plague by Albert Camus

Genre: Disease, Allegory, Classics

Narrative Style: First person but which gives the points of view of lots of other characters

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1947

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: In the town of Oran in North Africa, the rats are starting to die in unprecedented numbers. The locals start to panic. Then people start to die from a unexplained fever. At first the authorities do not believe what the doctor knows, this is a return of the bubonic plague. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2019 – Time on Shelf – about five years.

This was an interesting rather than an enjoyable read. Camus is a clever observer of human frailties and the descriptions of the various reactions to first, the plague and then, the quarantining of the town, seem apt and still have resonance today. However, the characters felt a little flat, a little too of a type to have real emotional resonance.

There are many ways of reading this novel. At first glance, it is merely the story of a town fighting for its life, going through various stages of reaction to an emergency. Various battles are fought at an interpersonal level. Then there are the sociological elements such as Doctor Rieux’s fight with the authorities to have the plague taken seriously and his willingness to sacrifice his own life to treat those that are sick. There is the priest who preaches that the plague is God’s punishment. Finally, there are allegorical elements as to what the plague represents. As this was written in 1947, the Nazi threat would likely be high in Camus’ mind. At the end of the novel, when the plague has retreated, many return to their lives confident that it will never return. Rieux knows better and that it will return when the circumstances are once again correct. If that is not a moral for our current times, I don’t know what is.

Camus’ style is readable and the novel is clever but I stayed detached. It felt like what it is, an allegorical tale, with characters serving that purpose rather than developing in their own right.

Works in Progress – Some Twitter Queries Answered

Finally, I am keeping my promise of being more involved on Twitter. I don’t know why it makes me so nervous – perhaps because I’m not a naturally sociable person and Twitter seems a bit like going up to strangers and tapping them on the shoulder. I’m getting used to it though and have been answering questions from fellow writers quite happily. However, I do find some questions hard to answer so I’m going to detail my difficulties in this post.

What genre do you write in? I realise that this should be a straightforward issue. And with Choose Yr Future it is relatively straightforward as it is a dystopia. However, new projects are not (mostly anyway). They are about often relationships and love but definitely too dark to be traditional romance. They are often about violence but are not crime fiction. I suppose you might say they are psychological but I’m not sure they would fit the idea of a thriller. I would say they are literary fiction but that is quite a broad church and doesn’t really narrow it down any.

Any questions relating to my WIP. The problem with this is that now that Choose Yr Future is finished and being polished, it is no longer a WIP. I’m yet to decide what comes next. I’m flitting between a number of things at the minute. Hopefully one will become pressing and I won’t be forever writing 4 or 5 different books. (That is what happened last time. Choose Yr Future just became the most interesting. It wasn’t the oldest or the newest.) Here is a list of the possibilities:

Surface Details – A family is thrown into turmoil when the mother suddenly disappears. While trying to find out what has happened they stumble upon many secrets. MC – Karen, Adam, Jenny and Nate Murrow.

The Practise of Deception – A year in the life of a group of friends and lovers looking at the lies that they tell each other. MC – Matt Murphy, Martyn Wilson and Steph Wilkinson

The Meaning of Sickness – A gay teenager stabs the girl who has been bullying him but she has struggles of her own with anorexia. MC – Dan Hughes, Carol Mitchell, Lee Stratham

Scars – Religious intolerance forces a teenager to run away from home. MC – Sebastian Tilling, Blake O’Sullivan

The Box – A dystopia looking at gene selection and creating designer babies – MC – Jake and Heather.

Not to mention the many ideas and notes that are awaiting attention.

Protagonist V Antagonist – Often Twitter asks what is your villain like. Maybe it is because I don’t write genre fiction but I don’t have obvious villains. Some characters are less good than others. Some are downright horrible. But they all have reasons for their behaviour and I try to make sure that they are not 100% bad. Similarly, the supposed good guys are not 100% good.

 

TBR Challenge – Powder – Kevin Sampson

Genre: Music, Masculinity

Narrative Style: Third person from various perspectives

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1999

Format: paperback

Synopsis: Keva McCluskey, lead singer with the unknown Liverpool band, The Grams, wants nothing more than the fame and success he feels are his due. When he meets Guy de Burnet, of newly formed Rehab records, he realises that his dreams may be about to come true. Will fellow band mates and manager, Wheezer, be a help or a hindrance on the way to the top. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2019

Time on Shelf: My husband bought this at the time. He read it and really enjoyed it. I didn’t get round to it. So twenty years after he recommended it, I finally read it. No wonder he doesn’t often recommend a book for me to read.

I really wasn’t sure what to rate this book. There were some things I really enjoyed about it but also some things I really didn’t. However, it is generally quite well written and I did feel compelled to read on so I guess the good points won out.

What I really liked about this was the way it reminded me of the nineties and of the music scene then – a time when I was very enthusiastic about music and a time before The X factor and all those talent shows. There is a genuine love of music behind this novel. It also seems like I would imagine it is like when a band first takes off with all the madness of touring and recording. Sampson has long been involved in the music industry – as a journalist and a manager – so the novel has an air of authenticity.

However, this is also a very laddish book. And in that it is also very much of its time. At times it felt like an extended edition of Nuts. It is full of lewd sexual encounters. In fact, most of the women in this novel are little more than holes to be filled by the band. I’m not a prude and some of these encounters were amusing especially as guitarist, James Love gets more and more twisted in his needs. It just would have been nice for some of these women to be given a personality not just body parts.

There are some similarities between this novel and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. It is obviously aiming for a similar grittiness and honesty. And it is written in a similar style with little in the way of over-arching plot – more a series of vignettes about the band and the various hangers on. However, it lacks the emotional depth of Welsh’s novel. The characters are stereotypical and do not develop. I felt little for them and didn’t really care whether the band would survive or not. James Love is similar to Welsh’s Sick Boy but there is no hint of anything underneath his womanising so it all becomes dull and tawdry.

Still, it was amusing and it did make me nostalgic so I’m not sorry to have read it. It is quite a long read at 500 pages. Maybe if it had been shorter, I wouldn’t have got so impatient towards the end.

 

 

The Writing Process

So, I have finally done what I have been promising to do for the last twelve months. I have started getting more involved on Twitter. I have discovered many writers and have many books on my to-read list. What is most interesting about this is the way it is possible to discuss things with other like minded people. To be fair, one of the reasons I like writing is it is a solitary process. It suits my anti-social soul. But it is good to know that there are people out there who understand and who are interested in the way other writer’s work.

It has made me think about the way I work. I wish I could work in a linear way. I don’t mean the finished product, as such. Choose Yr Future is not told in straightforward chronological order. It moves between events just after the end of civilisation and what happened before. It also retraces events from the points of view of the different classes in society. That’s fine. That is what I want because it means not everything is revealed all at once. What I mean is the process of actually getting words on a page. Even if I were going to write a beginning, middle, end sort of story, there is little chance that it would be written in that order.

Even when I was at university, essays were written out of order and assembled later. This is very much the way I work when writing fiction. I have an overall plan, of course, at least in my head. But I have to hope that it will all fit together eventually and I have a recognisable whole. At the minute, as well as editing Choose Yr Future, I’m trying to work out what I have yet to write for another project which has holes all over the place. A large amount of it is typed up but an equally large amount is scattered about in various notebooks, along with many other half started projects. Pulling it all together is likely to take a long time.

I have problems with planning. I tend not to commit an overall plan to paper or screen. Part of me worries that if I plan too carefully, my creativity would be hampered. I would probably save myself the chore of moving chapters around until the order feels right if I was more organised in the first place.

It has been useful thinking about it. There are things that I could do to make life easier for myself. The creative process isn’t sacred. And as it is a process, it should be open to change. I’m unsure if I should abandon this WIP as being too complicated and start with an idea that is merely that. Then I could try and be more organised from the start. It sounds good but there is at least one part of my mind that is laughing hysterically at the very idea.

TBR Challenge – A Room With A View – E.M. Forster

Genre: Classics, Romance

Narrative Style: third person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1908

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Lucy is on holiday in Florence with her chaperone at the start of the novel. She is keen to experience life but is often hampered by the mores of the day and her conventional chaperone, Miss Bartlett. Her life is unbalanced when she meets the unconventional Emersons, particularly the son George. When she returns to England, her life no longer seems so straightforward. 

Reading Challenge – The 2019 TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf – about 5 years. This was inherited from my husband’s aunt. I felt I ought to read it rather than wanting to so I put it on the list to make sure that I did.

I definitely have mixed about A Room with a View. I liked it better than Where Angels fear to Tread which is the only other Forster I have read but I really didn’t like that so it’s not saying much. In a lot of ways, I feel about Forster like I feel about Austen. The writing is clever and sharp but ultimately doesn’t move me.

When I read Where Angels Fear to Tread, I thought I’d never met a writer who seemed so ill at ease with his own masculinity and that of other men. In this novel, it seemed that the unease could be extended to the whole human race. Forster observes his characters well but I felt he was removed from them. And as such, they seemed more like representations of certain ways of being rather than fully drawn characters.

The story itself is very simple. Lucy feels obliged to marry a man she does not love because he is from the right social class. She has to choose between him and the unconventional George, who works on the railways. Part of the problem is that we do not see that much of George so it is hard to understand exactly what it is that is so loveable about him.

I’m not a big fan of romance. And for all the social observation and cleverness that is all this is. It’s not a terrible book. It was pleasant to read, just not for me.