Monday, 23 February 2015

Monday Musings: The To Be Read Pile

This meme is everywhere at the moment, but I borrowed it from Victoria at Eve's Alexandria.
1. How do you keep track of your TBR pile?
I am obsessively well-organised, so I have two distinct TBR piles. One (about 10 or so books) lives at my dad's house and consists of books that I cannot imagine reading in the next year or so, but still can't bring myself to give away. The second (15 books) lives with me and I'm constantly trying to make myself finally demolish it. Given what other bloggers have said on the matter, having only 25 books (plus a few on the Kindle, which don't really count) TBR seems incredibly few, but I hate having them hanging over me. My dream is to have zero books TBR so I will be totally justified in buying new books.
2. Is your TBR mostly print or ebook?
Print. I actually tend to read ebooks once I buy them.
3. How do you determine which book from your TBR to read next?
If I've promised to review a book on my blog, I always read those books first. At the moment, I'm prioritising books from my Mr B's Reading Year, because it's now finished, but I still have five or so of the books so kindly chosen for me to get through. If I have a free choice (which rarely happens, so I get very excited about it when it does) I will make a shortlist and read the openings of the books.
4. A book that’s been on your TBR the longest:
The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner, which I bought second-hand as an undergraduate (!) because I was interested in the wave of proto-feminist novels appearing in the 1880s and 1890s. This unfortunate novel has never even managed to graduate from my dad's-house-pile to my-house-pile.
5. A book you recently added to your TBR:
The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher.
6. A book that will soon be added to your TBR:
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. It won't be there for long!
7. Numbers of shelves used to house your TBR:
One. The pile in my dad's house is not worthy of a shelf and sits on the windowsill in my old bedroom.
8. On a scale of 1 to 10, how painful is it for your to discard will-never-be-read TBR books?
7. I don't like admitting failure, but I love getting rid of stuff, so my emotions are very conflicted.
9. A book on your TBR that basically everyone has read but you:
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.
10. Name your sources of powers– where do you get your books from?
Waterstone's Oxford, Blackwell's Oxford, Mr B's Bath, borrowed from family, evil Amazon for e-books.
11. A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read:
There aren't any, or they wouldn't be there. (The Northern Clemency doesn't count as I only acquired it yesterday, and will read it soon). I think this question cuts to the heart of my problem with my TBR pile. The book on it I'm most looking forward to reading is probably Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny, which I'm reviewing for Amazon Vine.
12. A book you’d recommend others add to their TBR shelves:
So many, but my most recent favourite is All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. I've also finally found one friend who agrees with me about how amazing it is!

13. Is your TBR a force for good in your life?
I think it's pretty obvious that I absolutely hate my TBR pile. In my ideal world, all my TBR books would have been read and I would never have more than two or three books waiting for me at the time. I don't think TBR piles are a bad thing - it does sound rather exciting to be able to browse your own unread library - but for me, they don't work. I miss re-reading, I miss choosing new books without feeling guilty, and few other undergraduate mistakes have stayed with me as long as The Story of an African Farm.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Monday Musings: A story within a story

Can this literary device ever work? I should make it clear from the start that I am not talking about:

1. Nesting or framing narratives: for example, in Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, where the narrator decides to tell us about the awful experiences he had at Eel Marsh House.
2. Two interlinked narratives about 'real' characters, even if they live in different time periods: for example, in AS Byatt's Possession, where one set of characters are researching the other set.
3. Fictional novels* that turn up within novels, but which are not extensively quoted from (if at all) and which serve as plot objects, not as stories. For example, the famous Necronomicon in the works of HP Lovecraft, or, to a lesser extent, the novels of AN Dyer in David Gilbert's & Sons.

*this is, for once, not a tautology. I am referring precisely to novels which do not exist in the real world - they are fictional fictions!

I have a very specific type of story in mind, one which perhaps explores the craft of writing and storytelling much more deeply than these earlier examples, but is extremely difficult - if not impossible - to pull off. These stories feature excerpts from novels that their own characters are writing - so they 'nest' one set of fictional characters inside another set, but not in the sense of a traditional framing narrative. For the purposes of this blog, I'm going to consider how this is tackled in Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, which I've recently re-read.

Fangirl focuses on eighteen-year-old Cath, who is reluctantly heading off to college with her twin sister Wren. Cath and Wren used to write Simon Snow (Harry Potter) fanfiction together, but for the last year or so, Cath has been pursuing this hobby on her own. For Cath, this means writing a novel-length story about the romance between Simon (Harry) and Baz (Draco); a romance that is never going to happen in the published book series, but which she wants to explore on her own terms. Throughout Fangirl, Rowell includes excerpts from both the original Simon Snow book series, and Cath's fanfiction, including some fanfiction that she wrote in collaboration with Wren. Reading reviews of this novel, this device does not seem to have worked for the majority of readers, even those who liked the book. Personally, while I didn't mind reading the excerpts, I felt that they added almost nothing to the story, and this is coming from someone who actually wrote some Harry Potter fanfiction between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, so I could understand where Cath is coming from. (These works of genius are archived here.)

There is actually Simon Snow fanart.
So why did these excerpts hinder Fangirl? There are a number of obvious problems with the way Rowell uses them:

1. While there are some discernible differences between the style of the 'real' Simon Snow books and Cath's fanfiction, there are no differences at all between the stories Cath wrote at a younger age, the stories she wrote with Wren (even though we are explicitly told that Cath is good at dialogue, Wren at action) and the fanfiction she writes now. This misses an important opportunity to say something about Cath's development as a writer.
2. The Simon Snow excerpts are totally irrelevant to the story, while Cath's excerpts are often trying to say something a little too obvious about how her real-life experiences are expressed in her writing. (Indeed, the story falls down too heavily for my liking on the idea that real-life experiences need to inform your writing if it is going to be any good). Rowell is stuck between a rock and a hard place; irrelevant excerpts are irrelevant, whereas the ones that link to Cath's real experiences seem like they are telling the reader what to think.
3. The excerpts are not dynamic. We don't get to see how Cath wrote them, even in a series of scenes where she reads out one story to her boyfriend, Levi. I think this would be the biggest improvement - if we got to see Cath editing and changing things, or even commenting retrospectively on her work, they would serve more of a purpose, as we would see how she works as a writer.
The fictional Simon Snow series.

However, although I feel Rowell could have tackled this issues within Fangirl, there's a fundamental problem with this type of story within a story that I'm not sure she could overcome. The reviews of Fangirl continuously come back to the same issue: why should I care about these fictional characters? At one level, this is a bizarre criticism; Cath, Wren and Levi are also fictional, as these readers very well know. But at another level, these objections (which I share, to some extent) tap into something very fundamental. They suggest that Fangirl, and books like it, break the fourth wall, and that the reader is simply never able to invest as deeply in characters that are explicitly made-up. Does this mean that it's impossible to deal with a nested story? I'd like to think not, but I'm struggling to think of a counter-example (I don't think Cloud Atlas counts.)

There's a final twist in the Fangirl story. Rainbow Rowell recently announced that she is actually going to write the love story of Simon and Baz. The question is, will readers be able to connect with these fictional characters - which are explicitly modelled on Harry Potter? Much as I want to read Ampersand and other fictional novels, I think it's a risky idea. Perhaps the key to creating a successful fictional series is to say as little about it as you can.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Their children will inherit the earth...

This brief collection of interlinked short stories, set in colonial New Zealand, around Christchurch, is linked not only by character but by theme; children lost and found, dead and alive, grown-up or in infancy. While one woman hopes for pregnancy, we discover the darker side of nineteenth-century childbirth in the premises of a baby farmer, taking in unwanted, illegitimate infants who are condemned to a gradual death through neglect and drugging. In another story, a remarried woman realises, too late, that as her daughter has grown into adolescence, she has grown away from her, and she has not been able to protect her. Rebecca Burns's writing style is clear, direct and compelling, and these stories are consistently readable. They perhaps err on the side of too little historical and geographical detail - while I liked the fact that they are stripped back to basics (unlike much historical fiction, which labours under the weight of its own research) occasionally I felt as if the Christchurch landscape might have been more vividly conveyed. However, Burns uses telling details well, and cleverly links these stories through particular objects as well as characters; the lamp with coloured glass that brightens up a prostitute's room is one good example.

Voice was something that I thought a lot about while reading these stories, which are all told in a different third-person perspective. On one level, the characters' voices are very similar, regardless of their differences of gender and situation. On another level, however, this consistency of tone contributes to the calmly hypnotic quality of the book, whereas jarringly different voices might have shaken the reader out of its spell. Overall, therefore, I felt that Burns had made the right decision in order to tell the narratives she wanted to tell. I'm afraid, however, that I was disappointed by the final contribution in the book, a story written by Maori writer Shelly Davies from the point of view of Haimona, a Maori man who provides a different perspective to the conflicts between white men and white women that we have seen played out over the preceding pages. I loved the idea of providing a counterpoint of this kind, and was very much looking forward to reading Davies's story. Unfortunately, to me, it read very similarly to the earlier stories in the book, just at the moment when a break with the unity of style provided by Burns would have worked well. Rather than interrupting and questioning these narratives, Haimona's narration seemed to add much less than it might have done, although it was still an interesting read. Nevertheless, The Settling Earth is a strong collection that may appeal even to those who don't think that they like reading short stories, and I would definitely recommend it.

I received a free review copy of this book from the author via NetGalley.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Monday Musings: Is historical accuracy important in fiction?

I've recently been thinking a lot about the question of historical accuracy in fiction again. As an historian, it's unsurprising that this question frequently pops into my mind. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that I have no especially strong opinions on it. This blog post, from the historian Catherine Fletcher, who was an historical adviser on the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall, is a thought-provoking read, and I agree with almost all of it. Precisely because I'm an historian, I'm unsure about the value of 'historical accuracy' in TV, film or novels. Firstly, I think one has to guard against seeing things from an 'expert' point of view - which is why I rarely criticise historical novels for making factual mistakes. Basic details that I know are wrong are unlikely to be noticed by the general public, and when it comes down to it, historical novels are not written primarily for an audience of historians. Secondly, and ironically, though, because I am an historian I often feel very uncertain whether the 'factual mistake' I have discovered is indeed an error or not, because - as Fletcher points out - evidence from the past is so individual, scattered and difficult to set in stone. Viewers of Downton Abbey, for example, love to criticise the show for various historical howlers, and there have been some pretty egregious examples. But it's very easy to say "Nobody in 1920 would ever say..." and very difficult to prove it. Absolutely nobody? Are you sure? 

Thirdly, although obvious errors can jolt the reader out of a story, perfect historical accuracy can do the same thing. I remember hearing Susanna Clarke talk about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which opens with a scene set in York Cathedral. She'd received lots of annoyed letters from readers pointing out that York Cathedral is always known as York Minster. And so it is - except for the precise period in the eighteenth century when her book is set. She was really caught between a rock and a hard place. Fletcher points out a similar example in her post - Tudor tapestries are portrayed as faded in Wolf Hall, even though they would have been bright and newly-made, because seeing them in gaudy colours might have confused the audience.

"This kitchen is like a kindergarten!"
Mrs Patmore brushes up on her
 Montessori method.
Of course, I'm not arguing that writers of historical novels (or producers of film and TV) should simply throw caution to the winds and write exactly what they want to, unless it is made clear that is explicitly what they are doing (A Knight's Tale!). But my main gripe with historical fiction is when it fails to capture the spirit and thought of the time in which it is set, rather than getting small details like words and tapestries wrong, although of course a multiplicity of such errors does add up to affect the atmosphere of the film or text. When historical fiction changes the details of what has happened in the past, or inserts heroes or heroines with obviously modern views into the narrative to be appalled at how backward their contemporaries are, it becomes clear that the writer or director is only interested in using historical settings as colourful backdrops. Not only does it violate the reality of the past, but it raises the question: why write an historical novel at all? If you are not going to challenge readers' pre-conceptions by immersing them in a different mindset, and making it clear that everyone's views are conditioned by the context of their times, why write in the first place? I become very impatient with films like Made In Dagenham and 12 Years A Slave (although the latter had some thought-provoking moments) that allow the modern audience to sit back and relax, comfortable in the knowledge of their moral superiority. I don't mind if the curtains or the soap are wrong, or if you've used the idea of a 'learning curve' or a 'kindergarten' long before these terms would have come into common usage*; but please justify why you even wanted to set your story in the past.

*thanks to Downton Abbey for these examples. It's important to point out that these terms were both current in the 1920s, but it does stretch credibility to believe that Tom the ex-chauffeur would have a close working knowledge of cutting-edge educational psychology, or Mrs Patmore the cook of modern child-centred educational experiments. However, these characters may have secret lives that have not yet been revealed to us...

Friday, 6 February 2015

Laura Rereading: 'A power that comes with knowing'

Me, aged five/six.
I've recently been re-reading some of the fantasy novels of my early childhood. I was a very precocious reader, so my mother had the unenviable task of finding novels that were long and complex enough to hold my attention for some time, but were not unsuitable for, or incomprehensible to, a six-, seven-, or eight-year-old reader. Once I hit the eight- to twelve-year-old age-group, I was happy to read books that were more solidly aimed at children my age, so the issue largely disappeared - but as a younger child, it did mean that I ended up reading novels that often went over my head. Nevertheless, re-reading the books from these years that still give me pleasure today has also made me realise how much I understood of them even at a very early age, and how much children do understand, even when it is surrounded by concepts that are really too big for them. There are parts of these novels that I respond very differently to, but other parts to which my response hasn't changed since I first read them. In chronological order, then...

I've always loved the cover art for
these books, and its accurate depiction
of details from the text. The same artists
drew the covers for Garth Nix's Sabriel,
Lirael and Abhorsen.
Age six: Wise Child, Monica Furlong

This absorbing and delightful novel tells the story of the orphaned Wise Child, who lives on a remote Scottish island, and who is taken in by the 'village witch', Juniper. However, Juniper's life does not contain the dramatic spells, curses and blood sacrifices that Wise Child fears. Instead, it is full of a very everyday magic, as Juniper lives in harmony with the things around her and listens to what her normal experiences have to say. Indeed, this exchange between the pair probably sums up the novel as a whole: "I thought if you were educated you didn't have to do boring things," Wise Child complains, having become tired of the round of chores. "There are people who think like that. Such a pity. Boredom is so valuable," Juniper replies. Similarly, when Wise Child complains again of dullness, Juniper tells her "I think the dull bits are often the best... Too much excitement is very distracting. You just need it now and then to give you something to feed off." Wise Child is not a boring novel by any means, but it is a quiet one. While a plot about the danger that surrounds Wise Child and Juniper gradually builds throughout the novel, the bits of it that I liked best both as an adult and as a child concern the way that Wise Child and Juniper learn to live together, and how Wise Child gradually realises that becoming a doran, like Juniper, is not about being special, important or clever, but about being willing to listen and learn. It's a story that still speaks to me in so many ways, and as a child, I do think I responded to this message as well as to the bits of the story that I most vividly remember from childhood, like the details of Juniper's cozy house, and the horrible paintings of sacrifices that Wise Child discovers in a network of caves underneath. The most interesting thing about re-reading this book, of course, is the move from identifying more with Wise Child to identifying more with Juniper.

Age seven: Juniper, Monica Furlong

I was not impressed with receiving this as a present as a seven-year-old one Christmas; I'd been hoping for various elaborate dolls, and my diary flatly states that my most disappointing Christmas present was 'Juneprer'. Ironically, it was the only one that I can still enjoy twenty-one years later. Both as a child and as an adult, I like this prequel to Wise Child even more than the original novel. It deals with Juniper's early life in Cornwall and her training as a doran under the strict Euny. Unlike Wise Child, which shows how a neglected child thrives under good care, Juniper focuses on how an adolescent who has always lived in luxury copes when she has to deal with hunger and poverty. Wise Child and Juniper teach similar messages about 'the power that comes with knowing',  but this prequel is much more focused on sacrifice and austerity, suggesting that some degree of discomfort is necessary if we are to connect with our true selves. (I wasn't surprised to find out that Monica Furlong wrote a series of biographies of monks and other spiritual figures for adults; there's definitely a hint of a monastic regime in Juniper, although in a very different context). As in Wise Child, I find Juniper less engaging when the plot hots up at the end and Juniper has to save her kingdom from peril. However, this leads me to a tangent about how children read books; in Tamora Pierce's Alanna: The First Adventure, Alanna similarly discovers a sorcerous threat to her kingdom. As a child, all these stories blended into one for me, and in a way I think I felt that they were all happening in the same place and time, even though Pierce's Tortall is clearly very different from Furlong's Cornwall. (I remember feeling VERY baffled when a little girl in a series of books whose name I have forgotten managed to read the Betsy-Tacy books; in my head, these books and the Betsy-Tacy series were at the same level of reality, so a girl in one lot of books shouldn't be reading about girls in another set of books; she should be playing with them!)

I know that this started as a trilogy and
is now a quintet(?) but I grew up with
the quartet, in this omnibus edition!
Age eight: The Earthsea Quartet, Ursula Le Guin

Speaking of books that blend into each other, I spent a long time feeling that Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown, which I read at a similar age, took place in the Earthsea universe - perhaps because of the dragons. This famous fantasy series envisions a world where wizards are able to wield power via the mastery of the true names of things, but also a world where magic is woven into the very fabric of the universe. There are certainly similarities with the magic system here and the less-defined power of the dorans in the Furlong books. While Furlong relies less on naming, Ged's education at Roke certainly emphasises that it is the awareness of how little power you have that brings you any power at all - that magic is not about bangs and explosions, but living in the right relationship to the world around you. By far my favourite of the quartet, both as a child and an adult, was The Tombs of Atuan. As a child, I was fascinated by the closed world of a religious order that it depicts, and the lonely existence of Arha, chosen at birth to be its high priestess. I had a similar response as an adult, but also appreciated the complexity with which Arha's character is drawn, and her relationships with a range of characters within her small community, from the light-hearted novice Penthe to her eunuch servant, Manaan. Ged comes to rescue Arha from her imprisonment and gives her a true name, Tenar, but there is something about the world she lives in that I still find compelling. On the whole, I don't hold the Earthsea novels in as much affection as the Furlong books. They lack the quiet but gripping power of Furlong's narratives, and while the world they depict is richer and more complex, the omniscient narration is distancing, holding the reader at one remove from the characters. However, I was surprised by how much I now appreciate Tehanu, the fourth book of the quartet, and the one that I never finished as a child. It's unsurprising that I didn't - the subtlety of the writing still requires careful and perceptive reading as an adult. Interestingly, Tehanu moves away from the grand narratives of the earlier novels to become something that is more akin to Juniper and Wise Child; a smaller story about a woman with 'ordinary fears' who can nonetheless talk to dragons, and - more impressive - help to heal a broken child.

What books did others read when they first became confident readers? What did you think of them, and is it the same as what you think of them now?

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Mr B's Reading Year, Six: A sugar-spun confection

When John's mother is suspected of witchcraft, she and her son are chased away from the small village where they live and forced to live wild in the woods. As they survive on chestnuts, berries, and what little game they can catch, she tells the boy about a complicated and delicious feast that is the birthright of those who live in the Vale. After his mother's death, John is taken on at the kitchens of the local manor, and soon begins to learn how to make food beyond his wildest dreams. But when his apprenticeship is interrupted by the English Civil War, and he is once again short of food, images of the promised feast return to him, alongside a longing for a woman whom he can never have. John Saturnall's Feast is a very endearing novel; although it gets off to a rather slow start, once John reaches the kitchens it rockets along, swallowing up years of his life in a few pages. I genuinely enjoyed reading his story, and inhabiting the world of complex below-stairs hierarchies, fiendishly-difficult recipes, and flirtations that Norfolk conjures. However - and perhaps because this novel took twelve years to write - you can too easily see the joins beneath the surface. While some chapters, scenes or sections feel fully-realised - the exuberance of John's early days in the kitchen, the horror of his experience at the Battle of Naseby, or his first encounter with his lover - others feel sketched in to fill in a gap, or to move the book along its very lengthy time-scale.

The handling of time, while a minor issue, summed up the problem with John Saturnall's Feast for me. The novel spans a period of more than thirty years - from 1632 to well after the Restoration - but Norfolk does not handle these time skips confidently enough for the reader to get a sense of time passing. When Cromwell was suddenly dead, for example, I felt totally disorientated, having thought we were still in the early 1650s. It struck me that for a reader who does not have a close working knowledge of the timeline of Charles I's reign, the civil wars, interregnum and Restoration, this novel would be even more confusing, as it rarely cites dates. Furthermore, Norfolk seems to forget that his characters will age past young adulthood. Gemma, a maid who was at least ten in 1632, is still being described as 'a young woman' in 1660 (clunkily and repetitively as well), even though she would surely be thirty-eight by that point, and not really 'young', especially by early modern standards. Similarly, Lady Lucretia, heiress to the manor, has only 'a few lines' on her forehead when she must be in her forties, even though John's hair is greying, and they are presented as being the same age. This might seem nitpicky, but it contributes to a general sense that you are all at sea with time in this book. The story feels as if it has been telescoped across a much longer timeline than it was written for, as if, in the Vale, time does not pass, while in the outside world it does.

Ironically, though, this fairy-tale chronology, if done a little more confidently, could have worked with the general feel of the novel, for John Saturnall's Feast, despite its close ties to well-known historical events, is not really a historical novel. It plays fast and loose with historical detail, not least the attitudes of the time - John is mixed-race, but nobody ever comments on the fact or demonstrates any especial prejudice towards him, and his love affair with the lady of the manor seems to largely be problematic because she is engaged to somebody else, although there are a few throwaway references to the idea that she can't marry 'a kitchen boy'. (Once again, we have the unconvincing suggestion that the English Civil War was the foundation of class equality...) Reading this novel as if it were a historical fantasy or even a children's book is much more satisfying, allowing you the chance to appreciate its strengths while minimising its weaknesses. To an extent, I liked the ramshackle feel of the story, the way in which characters were wheeled on and off stage as if they were puppets, the obvious interventions of the author in the narrative to create suspense or drama. It's good storytelling, if not great literature, and I was absorbed by it. It isn't a novel I would have read if Mr B's hadn't sent it as part of my Reading Year, but, despite its flaws, I'm glad I did.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

February schedule

Me enjoying a book, aged 2.
The blog has been a bit off again; I'm trying to tackle this by writing and scheduling posts well in advance. I have some Monday Musings lined up as well, but I haven't added those to the schedule in case I don't feel like musing that day. I'm also going to review John Saturnall's Feast at whatever time I manage to finish it.

Friday February 6th: Laura Rereading: The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin and Wise Child and Juniper by Monica Furlong

Friday February 13th: The Settling Earth by Rebecca Burns

Friday February 20th: Mr B's Reading Year, Seven: Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir

Friday February 27th: The Mouse Deer Kingdom by Chiew-Siah Tei