Category Archives: books

Do we really expect so little?

cartoon-monkey-scratching-his-head-02I haven’t been doing a lot of writing this year, a lot of reading yes, but very little writing. I am very deadline driven and since I’ve had no fiction writing classes this year my writing has taken a bit of a backseat. It hasn’t been a bad thing – I have read more books this year than I have in donkey ages, and since I really do believe that the more good stuff you read the more good stuff you will write, my year has been far from wasted.

However, I do need to write more so I joined an online critique group. The premise is actually really good. You earn ‘credits’ by reading and commenting (constructively) on other people’s work and once you have accrued enough credits you can upload your own piece for others to critique. I mainly joined to give me motivation to work on my novel (I hate saying that, it sounds so snobby, but I’m trying to be less weirded out about it) which I have been ignoring for quiet sometime. I joined a couple of months ago, critiqued some work, uploaded the first chapter of my novel, and then waited with a healthy mix of anticipation and excitement for the critiques to roll in.

On the whole I’ve found the community in this group really lovely – polite and professional. Some of the comments I’ve received have been extremely useful, some very flattering, and some a bit random. Rather what you would anticipate from any writers group that is primarily made up of amateur writers. However, one comment got me wondering about what we as writers expect from our readers.

To offer a little background – the main character in my novel is Kathryn. She is a mid-twenties English woman who is the product of an affair and was raised by her single mum. She is a very ‘detached’ person – detached from her family, detached (as in doesn’t take responsibility for) from some questionable behavior in her past, detached from any real purpose in her life. She ends up living in Arizona married to an older man, and with a step child who she is only 13ish years her younger. In the first chapter you are introduced to Kathryn at this point in her life, then an event happens that shakes her up, and sets in motion her finally taking responsibility for herself and her life. The Event happens at the end of chapter one, and I strongly believe that I need to use the bulk of chapter one to make the reader invested in the characters so that they themselves are affected when The Event occurs. Of course, this means chapter one is fairly non-eventful until the very end. But, non-eventful doesn’t mean not engaging – at least I hope!

One critique I received was positive about my writing style and the topic of the story but (and I’m paraphrasing here) that today’s reader wouldn’t be prepared to read for a whole seven minutes before The Event happened, and that because of movies/computer games etcetera they need faster gratification. Really? Seven minutes? Really? Do we expect so little of our readers these days? I’m not saying that the critiquer is incorrect – in fact he probably speaks a lot of truth but it saddens me to think that he may be right. Of course, it depends on who the reader is.

I love books that embrace language and character. I’m not plot driven so I can be very forgiving of a novel’s plot if the language wraps itself around me in a luscious hug, or if the characters are so well painted that they feel like people I’ve known my whole life. What I can’t read are plot driven books which give no consideration to language or character development – which rules out most ‘best sellers’, let’s be frank. But of course, it is a balance. The indulgence of language can ramble on for too long, and the character description can get way too detailed (I’m looking at you on both fronts, Victor Hugo!!)

One of the best books I’ve read recently is Trumpet by Jackie Kay, and it does a wonderful job of balancing the two worlds. There is plot though would probably be deemed ‘slow’ as there isn’t any action within the timeframe of the novel. It centers around a secret about the main character, Millie’s husband that becomes uncovered after his death (he dies before the novel starts). Kay then uses the rest of the novel to delve into how the reveal effects Millie and several other characters connected to Millie, including her son. But, nothing else happens as such, it is just a gorgeous book about how people cope when life slaps them in the face.  However, it is certainly not a best seller – it was first published in 1998 and even in Kay’s native country, Scotland, it isn’t widely known.

Thus, as a writer, I need to decide who I want to write for. Am I writing for the best seller market that is swamped by high-action, straightforwardly-written stories that feed into this need for inpatient reading? Or do I write for the reader like me that will hang with a story as we weasel the plot out while reveling in the world the author creates with their words? I know this makes me sound snotty about ‘plot driven’ novels and I don’t mean to be that way at all – indeed these are the books that I will sit up all night and devour in one sitting, but they are typically not the ones I remember after a few months have past.

However, back to my first chapter. Although I don’t agree with the gentleman that I need to get to The Event in the first paragraph, I also don’t believe my first chapter is ‘right’ yet. I need to take on board a little of his sense that I need more conflict/foreshadowing or the like earlier in the chapter to hook the readers, but without sacrificing my integrity for my own love of language.

Waiting Room of Books

My dear friend Eleanor, who blogs at Stitches and Seeds, wrote a wonderfully delightful post late last year about her ‘waiting room of books’ – or more commonly referred to as the pile of books we all have sitting beside our bed patiently waiting their turn to be read. Eleanor introduced us to each of her books as if they are friends and explained why they are hanging out in the waiting room – it made for a charming read, and I’m now going to steal her idea!

So, without further ado here is my current waiting room …

DSC_0633

Let us start at one end …

DSC_0628

My Prudent Advice: Bought for me by mother right before I became a mother, she is a beautiful book in which I’m suppose to write my own ‘prudent advice’ on different subject matters for my own daughter to read when she is of age. As soon as I find my ‘prudent advice’ I will endeavor to fill her out!

The Tilted World: One of my most favourite reads in the last couple of years has been Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin and so I went out to find more of his work. I ordered Tilted World simply cause she is written by Tom – I want to get to her soon and lose my self in the beautiful language that I know she has within.

The Selected Levis: Poetry is the cool, artistic kid who is effortlessly gorgeous in an oversized Nirvana T, ripped jeans, and a slouch-hat even though it is sunny and 70F. She is the kid I’ve always wanted to hang out with but never felt creative enough. She is my girl crush. I’ve been taking tentative steps to introduce myself to her – forced to by her being required reading – and it is going ok. But, baby steps. I’ll keep flickering through Selected Levis to read her from one of the greats, and hope that by the end we’ll be firm friends & some of her artistic mojo will rub off on me!

The Silver Linings: Bought for $1 at the library sale, she has been lurking in the waiting room for a while now. She seems quiet content just kicking it, patiently waiting her turn. I suspect she is going to have to wait for a while yet cause if I’m honest she was only bought cause she was $1, and I’m not sure how committed I am to actually reading her.

Seating Arrangements: I throughly enjoyed Seating Arrangements’ sister, Astonish Me, largely because she is set in the world of professional ballet and once upon a time I had, extremely unrealistic, aspirations to be a ballerina (and perhaps rather embarrassingly I had aspirations when I was much older than the typical three-year-old girl). I have started Seating Arrangements and I’m afraid she didn’t capture me straight-away, but I have hope that she will when I give her another chance.

DSC_0627

Beautiful Ruins: Bought her when she was highly recommended by a very learned friend on Facebook AND she is partly set in the Edinburgh Fringe – which is extremely dear to my heart. I got half way through her, and I was loving her, but I dwindled in my commitment and she remains only half read. I will return to her soon – she won’t be in the lounge for too much longer.

Moth Smoke: Her author wrote one of those books that I’ve not been able to forget since I read it, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and I picked her up as I wanted to see what else her author could offer me. I hate to say but, she is another book that has been half read then popped back into the waiting room – she wasn’t ‘bad’ but she wasn’t her sister either and I couldn’t quite get over my expectations for her. Perhaps when I’ve distanced myself from her sister a little more I can have a truer relationship with her.

Straight Man & That Old Cape Magic: These sisters were bought when I discovered their author was heading to my university to give a talk. I try to at least read some of the work of the authors I go to see speak, so I hopped on the intertubes and ordered this pair (cause if you haven’t realized by now, I am incapable of buying one book if I can buy two.) My toddler got sick and so, in the end, I wasn’t able to go hear their author speak, and these two remained untouched. Straight Man has been highly recommend to me by someone who is much better read than I, so I will get to her … but her sister … I fear she might be relegated from the waiting room to the living room bookshelves soon, and returned to in a few years time.

The no-cry sleep solution: I have a three-year old. She is like me – she likes ‘company’ when she is drifting off to sleep. I have crap I need to do so can’t sit for hours while she winds down. She is now ‘going to sleep like a big girl’ by herself but if I had taken this gal out of the waiting room and actually read her, perhaps we would have got to this point a couple of years ago!!!

The Falling Sky: This lady’s author has a similar path to me – PhD astronomer who left research to undertake her creative writing degree – except Pippa is further down the path and is a fully-fledged, published author. Falling Sky is a novel set in the world of the professional astronomy, which makes her pretty unusual. I’m excited to get time to sit with her and get to know both her, and her author, better.

The Clean House & other plays: My dear friend & neighbour, Brooke, has a ‘little free library’, and one Sunday morning I found this gem sitting waiting for me – as if it were fate. I’ve read Clean House but she is still in the waiting room as I need to find the time to read the other plays she has to offer. Soon though.

In the Time of Butterflies: A year or so ago I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in which the legend of the Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic make a cameo appearance. Their story stuck with me and led me to discovering Butterflies – in which her author tells the tale of the ill-fated sisters. I’ve read so many wonderful reviews of her, I’m eager to get to her.

Are We Lucky Yet: A collection of short stories written by my professor/friend/mentor Jane Bradley. This little book really should be promoted from the waiting room to the bedside table – she will be a wonderful little respite from this semester’s required reading. Off to do that now!

Americanah: I fell in love with Americanah’s author when I read her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus. Americanah sings to me as it features an immigrant on American soil. I want to read her, I really do, but she 608 pages long – she is a commitment and I’ve yet to muster up the resolve – once I start her I won’t want to stop.

Things Fall Apart: Bought when I read an interview with Adichie and learned the author, a fellow Nigerian, had inspired Adichie to write. Things Fall Apart is on my hit list – she isn’t just loitering – she has places to go and she’ll be moving soon.

Faulks on Fiction: Sebastian Faulks – author extraordinaire – wrote this gem which has the subtitle: Great British Characters and the Secret Life of the Novel … doesn’t that just make her sound amazing? She has been lurking for a while but once I’ve cleared some other non-fiction that is on my bedside table she’ll be coming to join me for some bedtime sojourns.

DSC_0626

Salvation on Sand Mountain: She is required reading for my non-fiction workshop, and just between you and me, she isn’t a book I would have picked up under my own steam. But, she and I powered through 120 pages yesterday, and I’m hooked. My knowledge of snake-handling churches of the American south is increasing in leaps and bounds!

Caucasia: Another required reading, but this time I would have certainly picked her up if I were to have meet her randomly in the book store. Getting started on her tonight – can’t wait.

White Boy Shuffle: The last required reading for my African-American lit class, but as it would happen White Boy has been lurking on the living room book shelves for many years – untouched and unloved. Now is her time! Well, after Caucasia and three other books that I have to finish first!

Down By the River: The last required reading for my non-fiction workshop – again, not sure I would have had a meaningful encounter with her if she wasn’t on my ‘must buy for class’ list – time will tell if she and I get on, or not.

Instructions for a Heatwave: The other week I was having a rubbishy day and I had a 20% voucher for Barnes & Noble in hand – so in order to cheer myself up a little I went on a on-line shopping sesh – but not before I asked a couple of super-duper-reading-girlfriends what to buy. This little lady was what was recommended in record fast time. Looking forward to curling up with her soon.

Sunset Song: Along with my aforementioned super-duper-reading-girlfriends, I am undertaking a reading challenge this year which involves checking off books that fall into certain categories. One such category is ‘should have read at school’ – Sunset Song is the book I’ve picked for this. It’s not like I was suppose to read her in English Higher class but got lazy – instead she was a book that other classes were assigned but mine wasn’t. She is from a different era so may not be the quickest of reads, but I’m so looking forward to immersing myself in my home again, and reveling in all that I miss.

Between the World and Me: Desperate to read this gal but waiting for the perfect day where I can clear enough of my ‘stuff’ (and by stuff I mean daughter and husband!) out of the way and read her in one sitting.

Station Eleven: I have heard so many, many wonderful things about this book and I’m so eager to read her – in fact so eager to read her that I borrowed her donkey’s ages ago from a friend. And I’m not paying empty lip-service when I say I want to read her, I really do but you see, she is a hardback and every time I go to extract her from the waiting room and set her beside my bed I look at her longingly then think “but I’m going to have to hold her up.” Lame, I know. Utterly pathetic, even.

On Writing: I’m not a Stephen King fan per se, indeed, there is a high chance I’ve never read an entire book by him, but this book was recommended by a creative writing prof for all the great tips and hints contained in her. We’ve had a good few conversations – I just need to pour us a glass of wine one night, and finish up a few loose ends that we need to chat about.

Phew – did you make it all the way through with me? I’m equal parts impressed with your staying power and thinking you need to get out more! Seriously though, thank you for letting me introduce my waiting room of books to you. They are all loved books and will, one day, make it to the ‘read’ pile. But for now, I should probably buy some comfy seats for these ladies as some of them might have a bit of a wait yet …

DSC_0640

… and the current, actively reading pile!

When the book spoils the movie.

Warning: if you intend to read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn or indeed watch the movie adaptation then back away from this blog post now – do not pass Go, do not collect $200 – cause there are gonna be spoilers ahead!

When you are the owner of a toddler getting out to the cinema to watch a movie is a rare thing. In fact I have not crossed the threshold of a movie theatre since my daughter was born two years ago! Partly the reason it is so hard for us is that we live 700 miles from our nearest family members and MV5BMTk0MDQ3MzAzOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzU1NzE3MjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_so to arrange an adult-only night out really is a special occasion – more special than most movies. And, partly I’ve been so shattered over the last two years that staying awake for two-plus-hours in a dark, cosy cinema was just not a realistic expectation! However, late last year I saw the trailer for Gone Girl and for the first time in a long while I wanted to go to the cinema. The trailer promised a bunch of goodies that made me intrigued: good actors (Ben Affleck, yum!), mystery, director I like, cool looking cinematography, dark story line. And so we made a plan to go catch the movie not long after it was released – we even got as far as setting a date and drafting in a friend to baby sit. But it fell through at the last gasp.

But I consoled myself with the idea that I could now read the book before I saw the movie – something I think about doing a lot but rarely achieve. I had been wary about reading the book due to its overwhelming popularity but I got a deal on the Kindle edition and went for it. I finished reading it last month and was loathed to give it even a one-star review on Goodreads! It was a terrible, terrible book. I am baffled by its popularity. I liked the premise (wife disappears in suspicious circumstances and her husband is left to prove his innocence but surprise, it’s all a big scam by the wife to get revenge on her cheating husband) and I’m ok with the seriously unlikable characters (I mean, seriously unlikeable characters – wifey is a crazy with a capital C and hubby is just kinda pathetic) but I’m not ok with the shockingly bad writing. I plodded though the first half of the book muttering under my breath about the clunky first person narrative and the over-used gimmick of alternating chapters from his & her’s perspective. And then I hit half way and the big reveal happened – dum dum dum – she ain’t dead and she is a horrible person who has completely lied to the reader through a fabricated diary about the behaviour of her beloved.

But from there the book got more and more annoying. Honestly, I think if this story were in the hands of a better author it would have been great. Some aspects of what she weaved into the story were great (the I’m-pretending-I-love-you-but-I’m-really-just-framing-you treasure hunt, for example). The lengths which the wife went to orchestrate her return to her husband but still be ‘loved’ by the populace was scary but her believing that her husband honestly wanted her back rather than him just trying to prove his innocence did not ring true for me. It could be that I’m missing some nuances though – perhaps Flynn wanted to paint the husband as being utterly addicted to his psychopathic wife and his wife knew this even when it wasn’t clear to the reader. And this rational would actually help me buy the ending. But the writing was so poor … yada, yada, you get my gist!

After finishing the book I was disinclined to watch the movie which annoyed me cause, well hello, did I mention Ben Affleck! But both the hubby and I needed a break from our daily sludge this weekend so we snuggled up in bed on Saturday night and rented it on our laptop. My honest opinion of the movie? Man, I wish I hadn’t read the book first!! It had all the elements that I would have enjoyed in a thriller if only I didn’t know everything single thing that was going to transpire before it did – it really kills the mystery! The whole movie just felt pedestrian as it slugged its way through the story. Rosamund Pike was excellent as the craaazzy wife and Ben (yes, as in Affleck) was reasonable although his version of the husband felt too ordinary of a man to want to stay married to a psychopath. The supporting roles were all really good except, in my humble opinion, Neil Patrick Harris who played the lamb-to-the-slaughter old friend of the wife. To me this character read so much more creepy and weird on the page than Harris played him and although the character is fundamental in the story he didn’t get enough screen time for me to care about him. My hubby hadn’t read the book before seeing the movie and it was cool to see his reactions to all the twists and turns but it just rubbed it in how much the film watching experience was spoiled by reading the book – grrrrr.

So, what is my take away? I guess three things: only read a book before seeing the movie if it isn’t a thriller that relies on surprise twists; or only read the book first if you know it is going to be a phenomenal book and you aren’t that fussed about seeing the movie; and listen to your gut that says for, whatever reason, don’t read a book – it’s going to suck no matter how popular it appears to be!

Accumulator of books.

My first love.

I aspire to being a book collector. I’m sure my husband would claim that I am already a book collector given the rate at which new books appear on our living room shelves, but it is far too grand a title for me. I’m more an accumulator of books. I have a condition, an addiction even. I have a need to own books. To me a house is not a home unless it has multiple bookshelves stacked high with books. I find any and all excuses to buy new books; I need them for class, it’s for my daughter, it was buy 3 for the price of 2, it wasn’t my fault. I smuggle books in to the house and stack them on the shelves before my husband gets home so they look like they’ve been there all along.

Simply put I have a problem but it is isn’t one I intend to find help for anytime soon. I suspect my magpie-like tendencies started as a young child. My parents home was always full of books, all sorts of books from cheap paper-back copies of every Agatha Christie ever written to beautiful hardbound editions of classics from the Folio Society that sat on the very top bookshelf to keep them out of reach of sticky fingers. My parents started buying and collecting books by the Folio Society in the 70s and have done so at scattered intervals ever since. My sister and I soon got folded into the ritual of getting one book each from the Folio Society as a Christmas present and we loved it. The books are works of art with original illustrations and love poured into every aspect of design from the covers to the fonts to the slipcases. For those of you who have yet to discover the joy of the Folio Society it is a small English publishing house that started in the late 1940s to produce “editions of the world’s great literature, in a format worthy of the contents, at a price within the reach of everyman” (- Charles Ede, founder of the Society). It is run as a club and as a member you commit to buying four, or more, volumes a year and so it is an investment. Unfortunately, at this current point in my life, it isn’t an investment we can justify. But, to my giddy excitement, not long after moving to Toledo and on our first trip to explore the nearby Ann Arbor I discovered a gem of a secondhand bookstore that always has a stack of beautifully nurtured Folio Society books. And so, as a treat whenever I am able, I get to sift through the stack and pick one to bring home with me.

But why blog about this now? Well there is a two-fold reason. Firstly, this is my version of standing up and saying “Hello, I’m Morag and I’m a book-oholic” and secondly, the intent behind this site and blog is to motivate me to write and to send writing out for consideration. And it is working! At the very last gasp I decided to submit a condensed version of an article I wrote on the history of the Folio Society to the Mill, the literary magazine of the University of Toledo. I haven’t heard yet if it was accepted, and I’ve just realized that in my rush to submit it before the deadline I forgot to format it correctly and so it will likely be rejected. But it almost doesn’t matter if it is published or not. By setting up this site I pushed writing to the front of my mind again and I found the time around my daughters crazy (non)sleep schedule to pull something together for submission. Now I just have to do that again, and again.