Writing Superstardom

Congratulations to Richard Flanagan, the winner of the Booker Prize 2014 for his novel, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep South’. I have yet to read it, but fully intend to, not just because the judges were unanimous in their praise for the book but because I like to think the act of reading such an acclaimed and feted novel is a piece of research. Maybe there is a remote chance I will be able to uncover the secret of writing superb and successful prose by reading it.
When casting around for something new to load on to my Kindle I often turn to the long or shortlisted books that are in the race for a prize. I learned some time ago that Amazon reviews are not to be trusted [with the exception, of course of my own reviews]. I have posted before about the ghastly mistakes I’ve made-most notably in the case of the tedious ‘One Day’, a predictable rom-com set in the eighties [not a thrilling decade]. The book prize method of selecting reading matter is not always reliable and needs backing up with additional reviews, generally from a respected newspaper.
The only 2014 Booker contender I have read so far is American writer Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘We are all Completely Beside Ourselves’, a story which captivated me for a number of reasons. It is both laugh-out-loud funny and tear provokingly tragic. The subject matter-the tale of a child growing up with a chimpanzee as not only a sibling but a ‘twin’ is unusual and compelling. The book raised many issues including parental, children’s and animal rights. It is certainly a book I would have been proud to have written.
There was something of a shumuncous regarding the opening of the Booker prize to anyone who writes in English. I can see that widening the field does increase the competition, but perhaps it also leads to more diversity. As time goes on it becomes harder to find new subject matter. It is accepted that there are only seven basic story lines and that each and every tale is based on one of them.
The two world wars have spawned an explosion of literature both fiction and fact, much of which is very good-[Helen Dunmore, Sebastian Faulkes] and so any further foray into war territory must necessarily attack from a new angle. I gather Richard Flanagan’s novel is inspired by his father’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war. It is the author’s sixth novel and one that took him twelve years to write, a fact I find most heartening given that my novel 2 is stubbornly resistant to progress!
I wonder how winner Richard is feeling-beyond the euphoria of victory of course. There could be an element of pressure, I imagine, as once the excitement recedes the pressure must surely mount to produce another blockbuster, Hilary Mantel style!

Advertisements

TMTE than TOWIE…

               Here in the UK where get our share of reality TV the creative whizzes behind the shows display no signs at all that they are running out of ideas. One such programme is a day-to-day look at life in the county of Essex, a county that has gained itself quite a reputation during the last fifteen years or so, for its characterful populace and their antics.

                I must confess I am not a follower of ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and that all of my knowledge of said show has been gleaned from reading reviews or catching glimpses of the ‘slebs’ in glossy magazines whilst waiting for appointments [as explained in previous posts], but I’m guessing that fans of the programme could be forgiven for thinking that all there is to Essex is London overspill towns, spray tans, vajazzles and estuary vowels [for the uninitiated-Essex edges itself around the mouth of the Thames as it joins the North Sea and the inhabitants speak in a distinctive, unmistakeable accent]. It is easy to gain a preconceived idea of a place.

                I consider myself, as far as the UK is concerned, to be a South Wester-that is to say I was born in the South West I’ve spent most of my life living there, however I did spend some significant periods of my childhood living in both East Anglia [North Norfolk] and Kent, and although I know and recall both of these areas well I knew nothing of Essex until this week, when we journeyed Eastwards to rectify this gaping void of ignorance.

                Of course I was well aware that besides the sprawling conurbations of Basildon and Romford there were whole tracts of beautiful countryside, swathes of marshes teeming with wildlife, charming coastal towns and quaint villages and I have not been disappointed. We made first for Mersea Island in the south-an island only in that a wide, muddy causeway separates it from the ‘mainland’, given over largely to holiday parks, but also home to manicured villages with black, clapperboard houses with voluptuous gardens, village duck-ponds and wonderful pubs. We visited the Oyster Bar, indulging in an enormous sharing platter of crab, prawns, mussels, cockles, smoked salmon, smoked haddock and of course, oysters-accompanied by a Guiness [Husband] and a chilled white wine [me].

                Colchester, towards the East boasts the reputation of being the earliest recorded town in the country, although here my expectations were a little dashed. It is a handsome town, with some fine buildings but not spectacular. It has a modest, well-tended castle but I suspect all vestiges of antiquity were thrashed out of it long ago to make way for the ubiquitous likes of H&M, Marks and Spencer, Greggs and Tesco Express.             

                On again then to the East coast beyond Colchester, where were truly in the depths of the countryside, but near to the ports of Harwich and Felixstowe [across the water to the North in Suffolk]. It is an exemplary scene of rural England. So much for preconceptions-and all about three hours away!

 

 

It’s all about the Story

                We have made good our escape from windy, waterlogged England and are making for [hopefully] warmer, drier lands to the South.

                In preparation for this first jaunt of 2014 I loaded up my e-reader with some novels I’ve missed, some I was seduced by, having read reviews [though not Amazon’s-having been fooled more than once before] and some I feel it my duty to read.

                The first book is one that surprised me by its 99pence price tag, since it is the book from which the current blockbusting, award winning, sweep-the-board movie was made from-‘Twelve Years a Slave’.

                Now I have yet to see this film, and I’ve no doubt I will, but in my view films rarely match up to their book form. Although I am less than 25% through the story, ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ has gripped me and held me in its absorbing clutches. Solomon Northup’s account of his capture and subsequent subjection as a slave is both dignified and moving. He recounts the horrors that he and his fellow slaves endure in a measured, matter of fact narrative. Some of his descriptions are particularly moving, such as his account of the people of the Indian village celebrating with their visitors, enjoying a meal and dancing around a camp fire accompanied by music played on a fiddle [Solomon is himself a fiddle player]. He is captivated by the scene, whilst not once pointing out the irony of their freedom against his captivity.

                There is much to be said for personal accounts of horrific events in history. They tug our emotions more than facts. We all know of the dreadful horrors wrought on so many during the war, but Anne Franck’s diary story, documenting her life and including domestic trivia, teenage angst and family squabbles brings to life the awful reality of the events. It is the story of an ordinary family, one that we can relate to. How much more poignant than factual accounts!

                At school we were taught the dry, fusty dates and facts of history; the reigns of Kings and Queens or the politics behind the wars. If we’d have been given the personal stories behind the events I think we’d have been more interested-interested enough, perhaps to have ceased the passing round of a particularly smutty and sexually explicit paperback that some miscreant had purloined and divided into lesson-sized portions.

What would Solomon make of all the Oscar hullabaloo, I wonder. After all, the success of the film relies entirely on his story, whatever the performances and direction were like.

                We have reached the South of France, where the early March weather is already warm enough during the day to bring a blush of heat to the skin, though plummeting sharply at night. We cycled 25 miles up and down the Canal du Midi in glorious, unbridled sunshine without a cloud, the vineyards laid in neat rows ready to come into leaf. Along the side of the canal those who’ve made their houseboat homes in Dutch barges are busy spring cleaning and sprucing up. Spring must surely be the nicest season, with a promise of long, warm days to come.

                

The Fickle Art of Reviewing

                How wearying it is that reviewing has become such a cynical marketing ploy, instead of the useful consumer tool it was invented to be. It is no surprise, these days, to learn that companies such as publishers and tour operators are prepared to pay vast sums to get positive evaluations, but saddening all the same, that large conglomerations see us, the consumers, as so easily manipulated.

                I was ‘stung’ a couple of times myself when trawling through the cyber aisles on Amazon. I was seduced into buying ‘One Day’, a shallow rom-com [never a favourite genre of mine], which was eulogised about by hundreds of gushing reviewers. I did, at least manage to get to the predictable end of the book. Then there was ‘Shantaram’, which also achieved massive acclaim, and which I assumed would be more my style-it concerning travel in exotic locations, and which I deleted after less than two chapters. I also vented my spleen by writing my own vitriolic review of this egocentric and tedious story.

                None of this, of course applies to my own, lowly and self-published contribution to Amazon, my debut novel, ‘The Year of Familiar Strangers’ [by writer Jane Deans]! The book has managed to elicit two reviews so far, contributed by such acquaintances as I have persuaded to press finger to keyboard following their purchase. Between them they have bought it three and a half stars, hardly meteoric acclaim, but nevertheless respectable for a first go. Verbal feedback, however, has been startlingly gratifying. In another life, where I’d have begun to write novels in my youth, I might even have achieved the limitless wealth that could have bought me hundreds of rave reviews. Who knows?

                I get through a number of fiction novels each year, though I no longer look to Amazon to suggest the selection. It is tricky, as an innocent consumer, to know where to look for a good read. How can you be sure to get unbiased opinion? I go, often to book prize long-lists, which can be a reasonable guide; not so my recent purchase, the Booker choice of Richard House’s ‘The Kills’, which I found incoherent, confusing, boring and frustrating. I had more luck with Christine McKenna’s ‘The Misremembered Man’-a quick, light, amusing read with stereotypical characters but plenty of comedic, Irish, homespun philosophy.

                But I suspect my ‘big reading hit’ of the year will be the current occupant of my Kindle screen; A M Homes’ ‘May We Be Forgiven’, which has started explosively, a stonking rollercoaster of a story, darkly, bleakly comic in its exploration of a dysfunctional American family. It was an Orange prize winner, but gets mixed reviews, although I very much doubt anyone was paid to write them!