Mount! Review

Mount!Mount! by Jilly Cooper
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Contains spoilers!
If anyone ever tells you the difference between self-published books and traditionally published book is editing – refer them to the new Jilly Cooper novel.

My sisters and I all read the Jilly Cooper books when we were teenagers – Imogen, Prudence, Bella et al. We loved Riders, Rivals, Polo and The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous.

Then, every few years more of the big bonkbusters came out – Wicked, Apassionata and more. Each book got progressively worse, but we kept reading them in the hope the old Cooper magic would come back.

As I got older, I started to find the politics in the books disturbing. Racial stereotypes abounded, and people who were left-wing or concerned about the environment were always portrayed as baddies – paedophiles in one book. A woman’s first loyalty was always to a man, never to her friends or even her children.

I bought Mount! to read while on holiday at the end of last year. It’s the kind of book that would never get you a book deal if you didn’t have the name and following already. Anyone giving feedback would say there are far too many characters – Jilly’s list of animals in the book goes on for several pages, for example.

It’s a cute Jilly thing to include mention of just about every character she’s ever created, but that obviously increases with every book you write. Mount is bursting at the seams with too many characters, and plot lines for so many of them.

Why didn’t an editor tell her to trim the numbers back?

I don’t mind silly plots, but a whole lot of them together makes a very bad book. I don’t mind an infidelity plotline either, but this isn’t the place for it. Cooper’s books are aimed at a mainly female audience, so why create an unsympathetic main female character who sleeps with her good friend’s husband?

There is a lot of detail about horse breeding and racing – too much. When you have detail instead of a plot, a book doesn’t work. Cooper’s acknowledgement at the end of the book is the longest thank-you note I’ve ever read. Clearly, she felt duty-bound to write about everything she discovered. A good writer or editor should make ruthless decisions about what to ditch.

Cooper always kept Rupert Campbell-Black, her hero of Riders and Rivals, faithful to his wife, Taggie. Given that he was such a playboy, that often felt unrealistic to me, but she was consistent with it. In Mount, RCB is unfaithful to Taggie – a mistake, I believe. Why change that now? It doesn’t feel like a thought-out plot line, more something thrown in randomly to add excitement.

Mount seems like a book that wasn’t read by beta readers, never mind an editor. It feels like a cynical publishing exercise – put out a book by a big name because it will sell regardless. Did anyone at Curtis Brown or Transworld Publishers do anything to this book, apart from proof-reading it?

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Storyworks Monthly Issue One: A Review

Storyworks Monthly #1Storyworks Monthly #1 by Stephen J Carter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Storyworks Monthly is an ambitious work. The author states at the outset that he wants to offer a cross-section of his writing, fiction and non-fiction, in multiple genres and story lengths. He’s modelled it on Smith’s Monthly and notes with amazement (as do I) that pulp fiction writers often produced upwards of one million words a year.
Storyworks Monthly is a collection of well-written and well-crafted short stories, novellas and the first part of a science fiction novel. The novella, Ship of Remnants, was far and away my favourite. The pacing was superb and I hope the author takes this story further, developing it into a full-length novel. There’s plenty of scope for that. There was also story about a retired Roman general that I enjoyed. Again, I felt this was a story and a character I wanted to know more about.
Stephen concludes with advice about writing, which is very useful for the aspiring novelist. He concentrates on how to structure a plot, starting with what you do at the beginning and taking popular films as his examples.
All and all an interesting and informative read.
Please note: I received a review copy.

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The Source – A Review

The SourceThe Source by James A. Michener
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Set aside plenty of time for this read – it’s a lengthy tome. But you’ll be glad you did put in the effort.

I love this book. I use the present tense because I’ve just read it for the third time and I anticipate I’ll read it again and again. My first reading was when my grandmother bought it for me not long after I returned from a stint on a kibbutz. The second time was when someone bought the book for me after I lost the original – I gave it to someone and they never gave it back, don’t you just hate that?. And now I’ve re-read it for the third time.

The Source is a hugely ambitious novel, taking in the history of civilisation and religion. It starts with a fictional archaeological dig and it takes the form of a series of short stories related to each layer of the dig interspersed with what is going on in the present day. Primarily, it’s about Judaism, but it also includes the birth of Christianity and Islam (and all the schisms in between).

If you love history and you find religion fascinating, you’ll love this book. I’m an atheist, but the explanations at the beginning for why a group of people might have started to believe in some kind of greater being were wonderful. All through the book, you see the various religious, political, cultural and societal issues emerge, and their contribution to what happens next.

It’s also darn good story-telling. Each of the short stories that take place years apart (in some cases thousands of years) is actually quite a long short story, but I found myself wanting to read on every time, even though I knew what was going to happen because I was reading the book for the third time.

At times, the archaeological dig pieces feel a little heavy-handed, two of the main characters basically serve as mouthpieces for two different peoples. But the extended end piece pulls everything together terrifically. The book was published in the mid-1960s, and there are several predictions in it about what will happen in the future. See if you agree with what Michener’s characters predict…

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Review of Thornfield Hall

Thornfield HallThornfield Hall by Jane Stubbs
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. I was apprehensive at first, as I read Jo Baker’s Longbourn last year, a book that shared the same premises. The two books take classical stories and re-tell them from the viewpoint of the servants, Thornfield Hall is based on Jane Eyre, and Longbourn on Pride and Prejudice. As Jo Baker had already done it so well, I didn’t think Jane Stubbs would be able to match her book.

The books were only published three months apart, which seems to suggest both authors thought up the idea at the same time.

But back to Thornfield Hall. The narrator is the housekeeper, Alice Fairfax – herself a member of the gentry according to her mother’s strict specifications, who is forced into servitude through poverty. Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester are no longer main characters and instead the under classes shine. The Brontes used genteel poverty as a theme in their books, and frequently highlighted the limited choices available to women. Stubbs does the same with Alice Fairfax, neatly noting Jane Eyre’s own prejudices and snobbery towards her.

Bertha – the madwoman in the attic – is presented very sympathetically in this interpretation, as is her nurse Grace Poole. Jane Stubbs suggests a plausible and witty interpretation of what actually happened when Thornfield House burned down. She also gives Rochester a less than sympathetic character, particularly relating to his behaviour in the West Indies.

The ending felt very satisfying. The good received their just rewards – not just Jane Eyre, and the servants managed to get one over their masters. Excellent stuff.

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The Wave Singer, by Greg Michaelson

The Wave SingerThe Wave Singer by Greg Michaelson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Wave Singer isn’t a book I wouldn’t usually read, but a quarter of the way through I started to really enjoy what I was reading. To use the cliché, I was grateful that I had been pushed out of my comfort zone. I always think the ultimate compliment or a book is how quickly one reads it and I read this book in three days – really, it would have been much sooner if I hadn’t been working.

I loved the starkness of the language and its simplicity. I felt that the author was giving the reader lots of scope for their own imagination. The setting of the book isn’t made clear, except that it is probably a post-apocalyptic east coast of Scotland – and the thought of an abandoned Edinburgh was intriguing.

I liked the individual explanations for the characters and the religious analogy. I also appreciated the little domestic touches which I thought really brought the life of people living in this world to life. Not having the ingredients to make curries for example, or not keeping pets.

The story moves along at a reasonable pace and the explanations given fit with what you have learned so far. It’s an interesting and satisfying read.

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You can buy The Wave Singer on Amazon.

The Outcast, by Sadie Jones

The OutcastThe Outcast by Sadie Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought this was an astonishing book – a debut novel too, no less. I found it in my local library, put off reading it for a while, took it up one evening and then couldn’t put the book down. I read it in one night.

The book tells the story of Lewis Aldridge, starting with his release from prison in 1957 at the age of 27. It then backtracks to the end of the Second World War when Lewis’s father returns from the war, interrupting the cosy life he and his mother have made together without him. Tragedy strikes and father and son are unable to help each other through it.

Lewis is a deeply flawed protagonist, but the author deals sympathetically with him at all times – and with most of the other characters who surround him. You feel as if the author really wanted to explain why people act in certain ways and why they are unable to rectify situations.

The portrayal of 1940s and 1950s English life seems very vivid and realistic and it’s an interesting exploration of social mores and how they constricted people’s lives. The writing is beautiful and the ending satisfying.

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The Beauty Myth – Review

The Beauty MythThe Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been aware of this book for a long time, but I’ve only just got round to reading it and I wish I’d read it years ago.

Wolf puts across many thoughtful and considerate arguments for why the beauty myth exists and its use to control women in society. Beauty, she argues, has taken the place of what religion used to do and it’s an insidious and powerful tool of oppression. Without the enforced obsession with the appearance (and the projected image is impossible for most women to achieve, and certainly to continue to achieve), how much more would women do, Wolf argues, how powerful would they be?

If you’re not convinced by the arguments that dieting doesn’t work (it almost always results in disordered eating and it ruins the metabolism), then be convinced by Wolf’s political arguments against dieting –

“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

And definitely be convinced by her arguments against the cosmetic surgery industry.

“Whatever is deeply, essentially female – the life in a woman’s expression, the feel of her flesh, the shape of her breasts, the transformations after childbirth of her skin – is being reclassified as ugly, and ugliness as disease. These qualities are about an intensification of female power, which explains why they are being recast as a diminution of power. At least a third of a woman’s life is marked with aging; about a third of her body is made of fat. Both symbols are being transformed into operable condition so that women will only feel healthy if we are two thirds of the women we could be. How can an ‘ideal’ be about women if it is defined as how much of a female sexual characteristic does not exist on the woman’s body, and how much of a female life does not show on her face?”

The book was published in 1990 and I found it rather depressing that many of situations she describes and ruminates on have worsened. Facilitated by the internet, for example, the preoccupation with appearance and looks is worse than ever in my opinion while the growth in the cosmetic surgery industry continues at a frightening rate. It’s completely debilitating for women everywhere.

Having said that, the book is really worth your while reading. The majority of women will recognise the situations Wolf describes. The text is easy to read and absorb, and the book allows you to equip yourself with knowledge. I felt as I had known a lot of what Wolf describes, but her elaboration made it clearer and brighter, and knowing what is behind the beauty myth makes it a lot less powerful for me, which can only be a good thing.

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Life Changing? Let’s Go the Whole Hog

ImageAnd so…less than ten weeks before I’m due to get married, an event not known for its positive effects on a couple’s finances, I drop a bombshell on beloved.

“I want to give up work.”

I want to write, read, blog and bake – and find a way of making it pay. Blame it on too many years reading women’s magazines (especially the kind that feature all those women jacking in jobs to create their own businesses/work for themselves), blame it on too much time spent on blogs which all promote the idea of Living Your Dream…

…blame it on too many self-help books, but yes I’m Feeling the Fear and Doing it Anyway, Ending the Struggle and Dancing with Life (!) and Stopping Talking Starting Doing*. Leaps of faith aplenty.

Those who urge caution might point out that writing on the side is do-able with a career and a far less risky strategy to take, but with enough savings put by to see me through several months I’ve decided I might as well try this properly.

My initial thoughts are – Yay! No more commute! Yay! I’ll go for a run or walk every morning (and be super fit in time for the wedding hey hey)! Yay! I’ll bake my way through every single cake recipe I own! Yay! I will buy a fitness ball and sit in front of my laptop tapping away on a keyboard and exercising my abs at the same time! Yay! I can see my mum and sisters so often!

You will note, dear reader, the thoughts focus more on not working, than working. Hmm.

The book that is in me may be half-way written, but there are an awful lots of stages between writing a book and seeing it in WH Smith (oh, if only). The path to obscurity (littered with the bodies of many) beckons…but I finally decided that fear of not trying outweighed fear of failure so here goes.

 

*Apologies. I have rendered these titles incorrectly to fit.

**I also apportion blame to Susan Cain. Her book encourages those of an introverted nature to think they can do just about anything, instead of worrying that natural shyness and lack of pushiness will hold them back.

***Re the picture of Freddie above, no reason for it. I just fancied adding a pic of my pampered pet.

For Want of Witty Wedding Words

Och, where’s the muse when you want her? She’s sadly not been at my beck and call the last week or so.

I kept trying to think up wedding-related topics and the wise, witty words that might accompany them. I came up with… a big, fat nothing. Woe! I also got caught up in a great book* and the priority of my free time was reading. The minutes left after that I felt I should devote to my fiancé to maintain harmonious domestic relations and ensure there WILL indeed be a wedding in May of next year.

The muse still isn’t in the nearby vicinity so I thought I’d post a rather prosaic progress update.

Venue: booked and non-refundable** deposit paid (New Lanark Mill Hotel).

Registrar: booked and non-refundable deposit paid.

Photographer: booked and non-refundable deposit paid (James Solly Photography).

Dress: no. Do I need to panic about this? I just tend to change my mind a lot and thought if I bought something too early, I’d see at least 10 better options after that.

Guest list: drawn up with my fiancé after we’d had a glass or two of wine (we were filled with bonhomie). Still needs finalised and er… possibly edited. Other names keep drifting in and out of my consciousness, accompanied by an internal shriek of alarm.

Invites: my talented brother-in-law (he created the lovely header above) is kindly doing these for me. I’m emailing them out to save money.

Wedding cake: I’m making this myself. The logistics of this exercise are beginning to bother me, though. How will I transport it, how will I decorate it, if I make it too far in advance will it go mouldy and give my guests food poisoning, when will I make it so that I’m not decorating the b*****y thing the night before I get married? Perhaps best to stick to the cheese cake idea (literally, a ‘cake’ made from rounds of cheese; the Atkins solution to wedding cake).

There is progress of sorts on other things – diet coke desertion. I used to drink two litres of the stuff every day. I stopped drinking it for just over two weeks, then caved and am now drinking one bottle a day. Oh, it’s such a lovely, lovely treat…

Reducing resting heart beat rate to 60 per minute (bid to do lots of cardio and be slimline bride). I just counted it; 72Bpm – after many spin classes and many circuit classes (and a few tears). A wee bit of work still needed on this then!

 

*Diana Gabaldon: The Voyager. I love it when you discover a writer you love and then find out that they are prolific.

**Something very, very scary about the words ‘non-refundable deposit’.