Thursday, May 31, 2012

For Review: The Sorrows of Young Werther ~ Goethe

The 18th century is a weird one, all that Romanticism. It's never been something that's floated my boat, to be honest. But sometimes I'm quite happy to read a bit of melodrama. The Sorrows of Young Werther surround his unrequited love for the graceful beauty Lotte. She's betrothed to someone else, a good guy called Albert, and her unattainability tries him crazy.

Which, really, is a shame. Werther is a bit OTT with his exclamations of love, maybe a little too fervent, but I liked him better than Lotte. She seemed, to me, to be one of those woman who are very beautiful, and can get very well what they want because of that. Lotte knows this too, and she didn't strike me as hot stuff. I don't know if I've got the wrong end of the romantic stick, but she didn't seem worth going mad over.

Werther's story is told through a series of his letters, and then with a note from the 'editor' to the reader. The writing is sentimental, highfalutin, and loaded with exclamation marks. Maybe it's Werther and his passions, but it was a little too much at times. Despite that, The Sorrows of Young Werther was an interesting take on the tale of unrequited love.

Romantic (with a capital R) as it was, there were some beautiful lines in there:'s flowers are mere apparitions! How many of them fade away without leaving a trace, how few of them set as fruit, and how few of those fruits ripen! (55)
 Man needs but few clods of earth to base his happiness upon, less to cover his final rest. (77)

Monday, May 28, 2012

For Review: A Prayer for Owen Meany ~ John Irving

Sometimes I finish a book and I just want to gush; I have the hugest desire to tell the entire world what a wonderful work of fiction I've just read. When I finished A Prayer for Owen Meany I had to stop crying first. The ending was inevitable and the clues are there throughout the novel, but it was beyond beautiful and sad. Just sublime. So the crying had to stop, and then the aching in my heart whenever I thought about this detail or that detail. If I had wanted to, I could've written a long review just saying over and over again how brilliant this book is. But that's no justice. Probably, this review will still struggle to be completely free of those overriding feelings of WOW, but that's just how the book goes.

Owen Meany is eleven years old when he hits a baseball that kills his best friend's mother. That's not even spoiling any plot - that's just the start. Johnny Wheelwright narrates the story of his life, how he deals with his mother's death, and what becomes of his friendship with Owen Meany. But where to begin with this? What to say?

Johnny is much older as he recalls his story, with all of the power of hindsight and reflection. He's conscious of himself as a narrator, and lightly comments on parts of the story that will be given further clarification later. But then, there are things that he doesn't dwell on, and those are the strongest moments. Everything mentioned or described is deliberate. At points I wondered why he spent paragraphs upon paragraphs explaining one thing or the other, such as the diamond wheel at Owen Meany's granite shop, and then comes the revelation, the realisation of why it was important in the first place.

No coincidence. Owen Meany doesn't believe in coincidence, not even that he was the cause of Johnny's mother's death. Because Owen believes that he is working under God's will, that he is His instrument for some greater good. Yet he's a small boy, a dwarfish teen, and his dialogue is presented IN CAPITAL LETTERS BECAUSE THERE'S A PROBLEM WITH HIS VOICE THAT MAKES HIM SOUND LIKE HE'S ALWAYS SCREAMING AND IT MIRRORS HOW IRRITATING HIS VOICE IS BUT EMPHASISES EVERYTHING HE SAYS. Owen knows his fate, but doesn't share it with Johnny, and the reader shares the anxiety and frustration of needing know, but never fully finding out until the last possible moment. And what a moment. Deep breath.

A Prayer for Owen Meany moved me. Completely and utterly. It's a battle of faith and love, and it appeals to all my own ideas of faith and belief. And in a background of 50s and 60s New Hampshire. My knowledge of America during those times was reasonably minimal, but there's a whole world of political goings on happening behind the scenes. It's a book of big and small, the little details and the big picture, and it encompasses so much, but Irving is never ugly with it, never blatant or pushy, despite the claims some characters make. That, and John Wheelwright refers to Thomas Hardy, and often, which is always a huge turn on. More than all of this is how humble the story is - just two boys who are best friends, both struck with tragedy and forced to grow up, to move on.

It's always a delight when you find a book that you want to share with everyone in the whole world ever. I want everyone to read this and to feel the same things that I felt with it. It was thoughtful, tender, funny, bittersweet, sweet, heartbreaking, and just a fantastically clever piece of work. Days after finishing A Prayer For Owen Meany and I'm still recalling details, the things people said and did, all that made a difference to someone else, subtle or huge. Reviewers talk about books that 'stay with you', but this is serious, and I love it.

Friday, May 25, 2012

For Review: The Painted Bridge ~ Wendy Wallace

Women in the Victorian age didn't always have the best time of it; lives restricted by their gender and class. If a husband thought his wife was crazy, cheating on him, or maybe just a bit boring, then he could send her to asylum for a fee. Ostensibly, many women endured a lot of hardship and torture at these places, and really, as far as my tastes go, that's a brilliant idea for a novel.

The Painted Bridge follows the story of Anna Palmer, whose husband sends her away on the grounds of hysteria. She's sure, like many women were, that she isn't supposed to be there, but she's quite powerless to find a means of escape. While at Lake House, Anna forms various relationships with the other inmates, the maids, and the people who are keeping her there. Wallace's descriptions of the inmates, including Anna, are quite interesting, in that there's always questions of who is there and why, and who actually does belong there. Madness is a favourite theme of mine, and I enjoyed the ambivalent nature of the characters; inmates more sane than outsiders, and vice versa. Lucas St Clair is physician who, during the course of the novel, is aiming to use photography as a means of deciphering madness - can a person tell just by looking who is crazy and who isn't?

St Clair was a refreshing character, very different from the stuffy horribleness of the other males in the book, and he forms a sort of friendship with Anna: she's convinced that his photographs of her will be her key to leaving Lake House. There was an attraction between them, odd though it was, and it did begin to concern me. The Painted Bridge looked, at points, like it was going to go down some very predictable and inane routes. Fortunately, it saved itself, with little twists here and there.

In all, it was an interesting read. There was some intriguing movements of plot, and gentle reminders of Victorian sensiblities. There were a lot of characters, and not enough time to feel invested in all of them, even if they did all have their own little subplots. The Painted Bridge was the kind of book that you have to read quickly to be sure that Anna achieves the sense of peace and justice she deserves. A page-turner, and quite good fun.

I've been taking part in The Painted Bridge book blog tour. Check out this post to read about how Wendy Wallace created her characters.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Painted Bridge Book Blog Tour

Madness, in the Victorian era, wasn't taken gently. The term 'madwoman in the attic' came about from Mr Rochester's harsh treatment of his wife in Jane Eyre; in a time where women had no power, men could do what they would with women who they thought were lunatics.

In The Painted Bridge, Anna Palmer is admitted to an asylum by her husband, who claims she has been showing signs of hysteria. She is desperate to escape treatment in such a place, and along the way meets many characters, some friend, some foe.

As a writer myself, I'm always interested in the 'behind the scenes' of a novel, and author Wendy Wallace agreed to write a little something for Subtle Melodrama Book Reviews about the process of creating the characters in The Painted Bridge:

It is an interesting question, how one creates characters. In The Painted Bridge, the names were the starting point. I wrote a synopsis before I began the novel, of about 2,000 words. At that point, the names had to work to signal the characters.

The heroine Anna Palmer is named partly for the way the words sound – to me they sound open, like a wave on the sea, partly-formed. Anna is from the coast, pre-occupied with the perils of the sea, and at the beginning of the novel is rather naive.

Emmeline Abse has a French first name, chosen before I’d realised her love of all things French. Fanny Makepeace, the matron at the asylum, is more of a strife- maker but acquired her surname by a marriage that didn’t last and kept the ill- fitting name. Querios Abse is an awkward-sounding, peculiar name, as is the man.

Martha Lovely, Anna Palmer’s keeper while she is in the madhouse, is one of my favourite characters and all her loveliness is on the inside and not immediately apparent. A poor woman, she is afflicted by chilblains from the work she does and scarred from smallpox as a child.

Throughout the writing of The Painted Bridge I collected pictures – postcards mainly – that related to the people in the story. I had at least ten paintings and photographs of youngish women, none of whom were 24-year-old Anna Palmer exactly, but all of whom had something about them that I associated with her.

Researching in detail the kind of clothes they wore made the characters more real for me. Vincent Palmer’s long black coat and dignitaries’ hat, with cords from brim to crown, are like an actor’s costume and Vincent is to some degree an impersonator - of himself. The sound of Lovely’s clogs approaching down wooden corridors is one of the aural motifs.

Catherine Abse is a minor character, introduced initially reading aloud from a book of poetry by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Catherine’s passion for the long poem Aurora Leigh showed her dreams of a future very different from her fifteen-year-old present. If the inner life of a character can be discerned, the rest can follow easily I think.

None of my characters arrived fully formed in the first draft. All of them were built up in quite a painstaking way, so that with each successive draft it became more possible to know with certainty what they would and would not feel and say or do in different circumstances.

I got to know the characters as you would get to know people in life – by spending time with them, listening to them, observing their pre-occupations and mannerisms. They are not the same people in the finished book as they were when I first brought them on to the page. By the end, I felt a lot of affection for all of them, including the awful ones. Ultimately, characters must all come from the writer’s own personal ragbag and treasure store.

Many thanks to Wendy Wallace for her guest post.

My review of The Painted Bridge will be posted in the next day or two - so watch this space.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Big Intellectual Book

Last week, someone who I had never had a conversation with, who had never seen me with a book in my hand said to me:

Oh, I thought I'd see you reading some big intellectual book.

At the time, I was skimming through some glossy magazine that came free with a newspaper, just in case there were any pictures of pretty handbags. There weren't, so I got my book out my bag.

The observation amused me immensely.

...and this is the point where I was going to make some vaguely amusing joke about how I must have 'I read books' tattooed to my forehead. It's not funny, because in actual fact my name badge at work says 'I like reading'. At work we all have something about ourselves on our name badges in a bid to make us all feel more like individuals. I do like reading, obviously, but I half wondered if it would make people realise that I am actually literate, therefore not stupid, therefore stop being incredibly rude to me. So far, this hasn't worked. It has, however, been noted by one customer to be 'cute.'

My name badge isn't the point.

This is:

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

National Flash Fiction Day

Happy National Flash Fiction Day!

Isn't that exciting? It is! But what even is flash fiction?

As far as the submission guidelines I've seen are concerned, flash fiction is prose that is less than 500 words. Or, for some, anything less than 1000. So it's a short short story.

Not many of my friends are readers, but when I can offer them a story that takes five minutes to read, then they're usually happier to give it a try. The short story does that for people - makes fictional feasible - but there's no excuse not to read some flash!

Tonight I'll be reading at a Flash Fiction Day event here in Edinburgh - whee! Less than 500 words to tell the tale of a summer romance.

For more info on the short short and some great pieces of flash fiction, check out the National Flash Fiction Day website.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Teaser Tuesday: 15 May

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice - not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
- A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

How's that for an opening line? Pow!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

You Don't Exist But I Love You Anyway

I have a bad habit of feeling too deeply for fictional characters. Probably, most avid readers do. But I'm not kidding. Not even a little bit. It's the characters that turn me off or on when it comes to a book, and if you ask me what I think about a read, chances are it'll begin with loving or hating a character.

This week's book blog hop is asking a tough question: 
Who is your favorite book character? I’ll give you a maximum of two choices, but they have to be from different genres.

Hmmph. Two characters is by no means, of course, an exhaustive list. But here are my choices:

Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. Delicious. From Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. A couple of years ago I did a feature of my favourite fictional characters, and I said this:
Despite his apparent cruelty and a cold facade, there's something just so endearing about Raskolnikov. Perhaps it's his self-conviction that is so obviously flawed - I just want to give him a great big hug.

Patrick Bateman, of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. Patrick Bateman is such an intense character, and easily one of my favourite characters in literary history. Ever. He's the epitome of everything that I hate about the world - materialism, consumerism, prejudice, greed, vanity and he's completely and utterly immoral in every way. And yet, I can't help but love him, if even just for how insanely clever he is. And, if you like, you can read more about how I love him here.

Two literary bad boys, two very different worlds.

Monday, May 07, 2012

For Review: Fahrenheit 451 ~ Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury says it himself in the introduction to my 50th anniversary copy - 'What new is to be said about Fahrenheit 451?' Everything's been said, and then some. So probably, by the time you get to this review, you'll know the drill already.

Guy Montag is a Fireman - he makes a living out of burning books, which are banned. But he's drawn to literature, and he begins to suspect that books aren't as scary or awful as his dystopian society makes out. So he challenges the ideas of the world that he's in, and the result leaves Montag running for his life.

The censorship debate continues even now, almost 60 years after Fahrenheit was first published, but there's so much of everything in books these days. What is more striking now, which wasn't even part of Bradbury's world, is the new deliberation of a book's place in the world. eBook sales, a fear of children who choose not to read, the 21st century has new ideas about literature, how it works, and how it doesn't. For that, Fahrenheit 451 still has questions worth considering. The themes at work are obvious, but it proves interesting for any reader - what revolutions and fights would we go through for the love of literature?

Bibliophile that I've always been, I really should have read this book ten years ago. But at the age of fifteen, I don't think I would have believed that in ten years time book shops would close, sales of actual bound books would slow, and people would read on little gadgets. Speculation in the world of books is going to be of interest for some time, and I look forward to reflecting on Fahrenheit 451 ten years from now, just to see how much closer we are.

Bradbury's style is perhaps not for everyone; it's inconsistent, but in consistence with Montag. The narration is very close to Montag's voice and, towards the end, his movements. There's sometimes a lot of words that don't say a lot of things, but it's so pretty to read that it's hardly an issue. Bradbury has a curious way of putting words together that though sometimes it seems weird, it does make sense. On page 25, Bradbury puts together two words that never in my whole reading life have I ever seen together, and the effect was just stunning: 'liquid melancholy'. The words sound just delicious in the mouth. Mmm.

Fahrenheit 451
is one of those books that often ends up in discussion, and everyone has something to contribute (even myself, and I'd never read it!). It's worth the while for all the speculation, but it was a fun read too, and that was the point.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

For Review: Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders ~ Gyles Brandreth

This was definitely a case of judging a book by its title. That, and it was super cheap. I wasn't sure how I would handle Oscar Wilde as a fictional character, but I was intrigued nonetheless. The Candlelight Murders part is bascially the plot.

One day, Oscar Wilde goes into a room and discovers a dead rent boy who has had his throat slit. The result is Mr Wilde trying to find killer with his friend Robert Sherard, who narrates the novel. Wilde is fortunate enough to also have Arthur Conan Doyle as a friend, and he also makes several appearances. And there we have the ingredients for a very twee murder mystery.

This isn't a genre I'm hugely aquainted with, but the Candlelight Murders was all murder, with no mystery. It was a kind of whodunnit, but really it could have been anyone. Not in a clever way, it was just that there were no interesting or mysterious facts about any of the characters that made me think Oooh, it might be him. Or oh, it's definitely that guy. Red herrings were blantantly red herrings, and had nothing to do with anything. Or maybe I just wasn't getting into it properly.

What interested me most was the romantic subplot and, more specifically, the nineteenth century ideas surrounding homosexuality. To Wilde it was a world that he knew, to Sherard not so much, and it was interesting to see him explore something so unknown to him. That's a hugely fascinating thread to choose, especially knowing how it affected Wilde in his later life, in a time and place where there was no such word as 'homosexual'.

But still, Oscar Wilde as a fictional character. I'm not sure how I feel about that. It's weird. He was an actual living human being, and yet being made to say things and do things. Sure, his connections were great, and his lifestyle means that Sherard can have access to all sorts of highs and lows of London life. But why not make an original character with a similar wit and charm? I don't know. I'm still uncomfortable with the idea of taking a dead person and giving them a life they never actually had. I've never met Oscar Wilde, but Brandreth does a reasonable job in assuming the character and personality of the man. But, like I say, I hesitate, because I don't know him, and neither does Brandreth. Huh. You can tell I don't read historical fiction, eh?

The Candlelight Murders was a nice read. And I use the word nice because I mean that it was 'nice'. The creepier, darker, elements that I wanted only surfaced very briefly towards the end. There's a whole series of this, but I think this one was enough for me. Cute, and quaint, and not a waste of a cosy afternoon. Personally, I think I'll stick to Oscar Wilde's own writings.