Created using photograph by José Encarnação under terms of Creative Commons license
I think that this opening to Under Milk Wood, written as a play for voices by my country man Dylan Thomas, is one of the finest pieces of description in the English language. I wish I’d had room to add the next section about “Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrogered sea.” but then I wouldn’t have been able to fit in my favourite wordplay”sloeblack, slow black” so I had to cut it.
Dylan Thomas was born today in 1914, and you have to admit, he wrote some incredibly beautiful literature in his short life.
The article makes some interesting points about devaluing a respected brand to soothe a celebrity’s ego and you do have to wonder what the editor was thinking. Did Morrissey demand to have his autobiography published in the Penguin Classics series? Is the publication of Morrissey’s biography in the Penguin Classics some kind of stunt? Does it matter anyway?
Neither my colleague or I have read the Morrissey autobiography but it did lead to an interesting discussion about what can be considered a classic. I argued that a classic has to have gained some sort of critical praise from readers across a significant period of time, it’s not a label which can be instantly applied- in the same way that you can’t call a book which has yet to be released a bestseller. But that’s a pretty vague and fuzzy definition in itself.
WordPress has just notified me that today is the 3rd anniversary of The Book and Biscuit. I feel like we should have cake but the occassion has caught me unprepared, so for past cakes try here, here and here.
I started the blog to give myself something to do with all my free time when I finished teaching and to reach out to like minded book geeks, and while logically it makes sense that it’s been three years, it doesn’t really feel that long ago.
Thanks to all my followers old and new for sticking with me through redesigns and moves- your comments always make me smile and sometimes laugh out loud.
If anyone would like to get in touch with comments or ideas for the blog going forward, I can be reached at bookandbiscuit (at) hotmail (dot) co (dot) uk
Imagine that the earth’s rotation slowed, so that days gradually became longer. It might happen in minutes at first and you wouldn’t even notice, but what about when it started increasing in hours, twenty-five hours, twenty-seven hours, thirty hours… how would society cope?
The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel is said to have sparked a huge bidding war among publishers, and though there have been criticisms of both the science behind the slowing and elements of her writing style, you can see why it has generated such excitement. The prose is matter of fact and the narrative voice ideally suited to her eleven year old narrator Julia for whom the slowing is juxtaposed against her teenage concerns of being dumped by her best friend and having a crush on the remote Seth who by turns blows hot and cold. I found it particularly interesting as a piece of apocalyptic fiction as the focus is very much on how life goes on and mankind struggles to adapt, where they can, if they are able. As temperatures soar during days which last weeks in clock time and then plummet during the endless nights, weather becomes more violent and unpredictable, food becomes scarce. It’s easy to read as a warning about climate change with seabirds and marine life dying off first, but it doesn’t feel especially rammed down your throat.
I bought The Age of Miracles on a visit back in Wales a few weeks ago, when the days were getting longer but the weather was bad enough to convince you that we were still in the grip of winter. Reading it on the train back to Oxford was a really disconcerting experience, as the light evening contrasted against the miserable weather almost made me believe that the slowing really was occurring.
I’d certainly recommend this as a good read for anyone who enjoys young adult fiction, and I wouldn’t let the science behind the slowing bother you either. I saw a news broadcast on the BBC the other day which basically said that scientists still can’t explain or predict the movement of the jet stream, even though they’re working really, really hard.
Sometimes I think it’s good to accept that some things are still beyond our understanding.
Looking back through old posts I don’t think that I’ve said anything about Sophie Hannah, which is a massive oversight because I think she’s amazing. I’ve been feeling really sucky with a virus recently, so I decided to read Hurting Distance last night as I always enjoy her books. Chilling, compelling and genius once again… though I have to admit that I’m a bit embarrassed because I bought it for my boyfriend’s mother for her birthday before I read it. I knew it would be amazing, I just didn’t realise there would be a rape scene. You live you learn.
I started reading Sophie Hannah’s novels with The Point of Rescue so I’ve gotten the Zailer/Waterhouse narrative a little muddled, but even on the rare occasions that I’ve been able to predict elements of what is going to happen from information I’ve gleaned by reading the books in the wrong order, I’m still totally blown away by some plot twist and the final reveal. Her books are messed up. And I mean that as the highest compliment. Zailer and Waterhouse, brilliant but deeply flawed detectives who need each other more than they are willing to admit, are fantastic characters who give the books a narrative unity throughout the series. The crime stories are deliciously twisted, if you like thrillers then you have to read them.
Having discovered Hannah’s novels, I moved on to her short stories which are some of the best I’ve ever read. I read The Octopus Nest (from The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets) with my A-level students when I was still teaching and it was brilliant hearing the gasps. I really believe it takes more skill to write a good short story than it does to write a good novel, and Sophie Hannah is a modern master of the genre.
Anyway, that’s enough fangirling from me. I’ll be off to buy The Carrier tomorrow.
If The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in A Ship of Her Own Making is to be compared to The Wizard of Oz for its tale of astounding journeys, unlikely friendships and a plucky heroine standing up to a sinister figurehead, then The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led The Revels There must be compared to Alice Through The Looking Glass.
Returning to Fairyland, September finds that the magic is bleeding away as shadows fall away from their owners and seep into the dark realms of fairyland below. Being a plucky lady, September is forced to investigate and finds herself in a strange land of anarchy and mischief, accompanied by the shadows of A-through-L and Saturday who, while looking a lot like her friends, aren’t quite the friends that September remembers.
Another plucky, darkly amusing novel from Catherynne M Valente. I can’t wait to read the final instalment of the trilogy.
Game of Thrones cover re-branded as commercial women’s fiction
I was really interested to see the backlash against mainstream publishers who package fiction by women as commercial, women’s interest fiction in saccharine pink covers while promoting fiction on similar subjects by men as literary fiction, even though the writing is of the same quality covering similar themes.
Maureen Johnson lead the charge, asking her twitter followers to create covers for books by famous male author which flipped the author’s gender and thus rendered the writing “commercial” rather than “literary” in the eyes of many publishers. You can see some of the best results here.
I think Jodi Picoult expressed the stupidity of the double standard perfectly in this tweet:
I came across this story after reading a tweet by Marina Fiorato who wrote The Venetian Contract which had a similar cover positioning issue that I commented on when I reviewed the book. The Guardian picked up the story and discusses some other worrying decisions that publishers have made when designing book covers here.
What’s the worst cover design issue that you’ve come across?
I’ve just finished reading The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw which was one of the books I was given for Christmas and I’m in two minds about it.
On the one hand it’s an impressive debut novel with characterisation which grips and shakes you as it touches on the lives of a diverse group of people who are connected by their experiences in an metaphorically incestuous community on the remote island of St Hauda’s Land.
On the other, the narrative weaves these stories together as if they should lead the reader somewhere and I don’t see the point in a red herring outside of crime fiction. For me, they only detract from the story being told here. It’s as if Shaw hasn’t decided whether he’s writing a fairytale or a story which contains magic realism. It might seem trivial, irrelevant even, but to me they are very different genres and while I’m in favour of a little generic cross dressing, I think that these genres can’t be fairly combined without creating a story which isn’t entirely satisfactory.
If we take Ida’s feet as the main story and bring with that the associated stories of Midas’ father, Henry Fuwa and Midas’ mother, Carl Maulsen and his obsession with Freya… good, you’ve got a great story and it’s worth reading the book for this. But then you look at the extra touches that have been thrown in and they become red herrings which, if the story was a fairytale, should lead to resolution and, if it is intended as magic realism, begin to look like little more than creative conceits. What, for example, is the point of the constant references to the creature which turns everything it looks at white? What is the point of Midas’ father’s letter? By the time I finished the book, I felt underwhelmed by what should have been a really moving conclusion because I was still waiting to see why the author had devoted so much attention to writing about these details which were never revisited.
In addition to that, I think the book as a whole could have done with a harder edit. The language is more flowery than is generally fashionable these days, leading to passages such as this which made me roll my eyes:
“Overnight the head of a fat old rose in Catherine’s had shed petals like burnt bits of ribbon into a glass vase. Midas stared sadly at the warped red planets in the water’s cosmos and thought of Ida’s legs.”
I can’t believe that got past an editor without a request to slash either the simile or the metaphor. But worse for me was the inclusion of occasional mistakes which should have been picked up by anyone who read the final draft of the book. For example, on page 81 of my copy, Denver is described as “a mouse-haired seven-year-old with a grin full of disorganized teeth” then on page 82 as “an earnest child with a whizz of ginger hair, eyes too big for her freckled face and newly grown adult teeth overlapping like a hand of cards”. Why do we have the double description of her teeth, let alone the conflicting descriptions of her hair colour only a page apart?
This will seem very petty, but the litter of awkwardly flowery language and silly oversights, coupled with unnecessary red herrings and plot holes really did detract from my enjoyment of what was otherwise a really imaginative story with great potential.
Have you read this book? How did you feel about these points?
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you may have found me banging on about my girl crush on Scarlett Thomas. I had a brief wobble over Our Tragic Universe but, after reading Monkeys with Typewriters, I am fully back on board with declaring her a genius. I started reading towards the tail end of October and 37 pages in (when I learned that The Matrix is a retelling of Plato’s Cave) I decided that I couldn’t even think of attempting NaNoWriMo without finishing the book.
If you’re a writing enthusiast, reading enthusiast or have a crush on Scarlett Thomas, then I recommend you read it too.
Though by night Thomas is a pretty clever author who writes really interesting books, by day she is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Kent University and I have to say, her teaching experience really comes across in the text. Not only does she pitch her tone really well for the novice writer- engaging, encouraging and constructive, but she includes a lot of practical advice that I hadn’t read in any other books which profess to help you write better. And I have to say, I’ve read quite extensively in this area- from text books for Open University writing courses to books aimed at a general readership in the trade market, I have dipped into a lot of books attempting to inhabit this niche. I can honestly say, to use a £50 pound cliché (you’ll have to read the book) that Thomas’ blows them out of the water.
Where most books will focus on picking a subject and target readership or describing a banana in a truly novel way, Thomas’ book gets down to the nitty gritty of why some plots work and some plots just don’t. Though the latter half of the book does examine sentence level writing, characterisation and the writing process, the first half of the book is entirely devoted to narrative- exploring structure, cause and effect, basic plots and narrative styles showing how well constructive stories get the reader’s attention and poorly constructed stories lose both their interest and sympathy. What I especially liked about this was how clearly this was explained and how carefully it was illustrated through the examples chosen. I never felt that I was being patronised, Thomas’ tone may be friendly, but the book is well grounded in grown up land with references to Aristotle, Chekhov, Propp and Stanislavski. I found the discussion of Stanislavski’s system especially interesting, as I’ve always thought that his methods were only really of relevance in theatre studies and the dramatic arts, but really it makes total sense that understanding what he says about finding the emotional truth would equally apply to a writer… It all sounds very simple, but that’s the genius of this book. It helps you understand and makes you see where you haven’t exactly been going wrong, but haven’t excelled yourself either.
I’ve been reading sections aloud to my friends and family for a while now. I also impressed my colleagues when we were talking about Plato’s Cave and I was able to explain how The Matrix is basically the same story.
If you do want to read an alternative view, I follow The Guardian on Twitter, and a pretty wanky review from Leo Benedictus (no, I hadn’t heard of him either)popped up in my twitter feed shortly before I started the book. In it, the reviewer questions who the book is for (well, novice writers… anyone wanting to improve their writing or starting writing for the first time with little formal training…)and questions what he’ll get from it. But as he is a published author (I sometimes wonder if super snipey reviews are there to promote one’s own work rather than discuss that of others…) I hardly think he’s the target market. Either way, I think he’s totally missed the point.
I would have recommended this to my A-level students when teaching, and I wish I had read it when I was doing my OU course. It is certainly something that I will continue to refer to whenever I dabble with writing again.
If you read this book and fancy joining me in my appreciation of Ms Thomas, I recommend you also check out PopCo(it actually got me interested in maths) and The End of Mr Y.
The task of choosing a favourite book is daunting because there are so many books I love and look to for inspiration. But Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is the novel I reach for whenever I feel my prose turning stale and predictable. It is the most haunting story written in the most beautiful language. There are two sentences in this book, which to me sums up the appeal of the novel: “It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret.” Every time I finish reading this book, I feel as though I have visited a magic place that will continue to enchant me no matter how many times I visit, even as it stays wholly mysterious.
Rhys’s novel functions as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I read Jane Eyre many years before Sargasso Sea and even then the “mad woman in the attic” fascinated me. In Sargasso Sea the destructive lunatic in Bronte’s novel is revealed as the beautiful, vulnerable and yes — mentally fragile — Antoinette Cosway, who descends into madness as her relationship with Mr. Rochester disintegrates. It is a book that deals with themes of racial inequality, displacement and the toxic attraction between one man and the woman he desires, even as he is repelled by the very sensuality of her nature, which captivated him in the first place. A stunning read.
Visit Natasha at her website (which has one of the coolest front pages I’ve seen in a long time) or on her Facebook page. I’ve said it before, but if you’re interested in reading supernatural fiction with a grown up edge, a good starting point is Natasha’s Season of the Witch. I’m also looking forward to reading Dark Prayer.