Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird & Fulfilling Fiction

Lesson for the week - don't say you'll write something tomorrow unless you're actually going to! I made a promise to get my thoughts out on To Kill a Mocking bird on Boxing day and of course I didn't. I wonder, when we promise to do something does it make us less inclined to actually do it?! Anyway, here it goes now...

The wonderful Savidge Reads bought me a
charity-shop copy of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Not only did it have a beautiful cover with endearingly well-thumbed pages, what was inside was pure, unadulterated, good for the mind-and-soul literature. What am I going on about? To try and explain, here's my check list for really fulfilling fiction:
  • It has to be an eye-opener - It's great to feel as if what you're reading is really 'worth it', that it has substance and you're going to take something new in. Harper Lee's portrait of Alabama in the 1930's is made so vivid in the way that it's described and whether it's Scout, Jem and Dill spying on 'Boo' Radley, the dramatic court case, or a cut-the-atmosphere-with a knife lunch congregation of southern ladies, Lee has something to say. The trial of Tom Robinson in particular is such a brilliant plot device for her commentary on racism in the Deep South.
  • It's got to have a great plot - I found the way the plot was constructed unusual and original. A slow-burner to begin with, Lee spends a good few chapters, setting the scene with the children's antics and school life. Then the court scenes are almost in the middle of the book - a point of high tension, that left me wondering 'is it finished now then?'. I wasn't quite prepared for the dramatic ending, which was so successful in tying up the storyline. It was very 'neat' in the way that it followed through with a moral conclusion, but I found it an effective contrivance.
  • I want to be moved - Ok, so it didn't make me cry (heartless wench that I am), but I was moved by the plight of Tom Robinson, and Atticus' bravery in defending him. That it was all described through the eyes of a child meant that people's actions seemed even more black and white and therefore so much more unjust when prejudices won over simple reason.
  • It's got to be real - (I feel like breaking into Cheryl Lynn's disco classic, but I won't or the man on the train beside me might think I'm crazy!). Lee has a gift for painting pictures with her words. You genuinely feel as if you are looking right in on the mixed-up Southern community and witnessing the injustice and the contradictions of the situation. And with some exceptions (Tom Robinson and the Ewells are perhaps too stereotypical and simplistically portrayed), some of the characters have got such defined personalities (particularly Scout, and Miss Maudie) you feel as if you know them.
To Kill a Mockingbird ticked all these boxes and it made me wonder why I hadn't read this bit of literary heaven earlier! In fact now I fancy reading a bit more about the author herself (which is unusual for me as I never read biographies) after bumping into this mention of I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields, when I was searching for an image of my particular edition. I've also been inspired to read Truman Capote's In Cold Bloodwhich I guess will just have to go on my huge 'to-read' pile!!

Going back to the novel, one of the things that I found interesting was the way in which the little family of Scout, Jem and Atticus functions. You get a sense that though the family is well respected, they are regarded as a little odd. Having lost her mother, Scout and her little brother are brought up by her father on their own, with help from their maid, Calpurnia (and later on their Aunt too). Scout and Jem live a free childhood, always getting up to mischief. This is frowned upon by community members like their Aunt Alexandra who disapproves of Scout's tomboy appearance and Mrs Dubose.

The relationship that the children in the book have with their father reminded me of how my parents
used to talk to me almost as a grown-up when I was little and that I called them by their first names, a bit like the children in the novel call their father 'Atticus'. Another thing I identified with was that my parents were always very open with me.

In the novel, there is some disapproval because Scout sits in on the court case which involves a girl who claims to have been raped. Scout is able to make her own quite mature judgements about the situation because she was able to ask her father what 'rape' meant and have it explained to her frankly. The children are outspoken, and adventurous as a result of their unusual upbringing.

I don't necesarily think that parents should share everything with their children, but I suppose I appreciated the idea that a willingness to be honest with children means that they are able to handle important information better and to understand the consequences of their own actions,
making them thoughtful and aware of others.

There's so much to say about this book, I could go on, but after all that thinking its time to stop and get a cup of tea and get absorbed in Anna Karenina...

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Christmas Day Ponderings

It's Christmas and it seems like its the first day in ages I've been able to sit down and blog. It'll be a quickie though I think as cooking a first-class turkey has knocked the stuffing out of me - sorry, pun intended.

What I'm most excited about at the moment is that it's a great time to really get my nose into some books. I've just finished Sophie Hannah's detective novel Point of Rescue, and I have to say she is fast becoming my favourite author for gripping page-turning reads. I suppose what I like about her writing is that it's quite unique in that it has a distinctly female voice or at interesting female characters - I enjoy this of course but I do wonder whether if this would turn off male writers. Although, my boyfriend picked up my copy of one of her earlier books - Little Face, and stormed through it. Then the other day I was reading Point of Rescue and went to make a cup of tea and the cheeky bugger picked it up and started reading, so I'm thinking that my concerns about her audience being limited are probably ill-founded!

I also recently read a more classic (of the modern variety) novel in the form of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and have been procrastinating about blogging about it probably because I thought there was so much to say and I didn't quite have the energy to do it justice yet. I'm starting to realise that I'm going to have to blog a bit more frequently - especially as a new-starter, I know its very bad form to blog sporadically! I think I may have to admit to myself that I can't be insightful every day but do my best to write a little more often and still be coherent. I am determined to get my thoughts out on To Kill a Mockingbird tomorrow though!

I am also going to embark on Anna Karenina tonight which I will be reading in tandem with fellow blogger, Savidge Reads. I am completely excited about this, to the extent that I went to the effort of hunting down thisparticularly attractive Folio Society copy because I didn't like any of the paperback covers that you get in the bookshops right now. I am hoping it lives up to the idea I have in my head of an enthralling and epic Christmas-read that Mr S and I can enjoy gossiping about together afterwards.

Right off, to get a cup of tea and read the first chapter of AK!

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Well that Explains it...

I have just done some 'Nora' research and discovered that in 2006 she was inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame, and that she is startlingly prolific having written more than 150 romance novels. This explains how a certain friend of mine who loves a Mills and Boone or two, knew exactly who she was when I mentioned I was reading 'this book with a fabulous cover and a super-dramatic plot'. Mystery solved!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Romantic Thrillers - What's the Formula?

I think I mentioned in my first post that I liked books with good covers. Well this predilection led me to pick up a novel which I guess falls into a sort of romance/thriller crossover genre - The Reef, by Nora Roberts. It was a particularly grey day in August, and on popping into an Oxfam shop in Penzance (of all places), I spotted a fabulous cover with palm trees and sparkling blue sea which promised tropical adventure. The battered pages suggested that it had been well loved, probably on a holiday somewhere, so I thought why not?!

I forgot about it for a couple of months and then thought I'd give it a go, fancying a break after reading a sequence of rather taxing novels. I discovered a page-turner of an adventure with glamorously-named leading characters 'Tate Beaumont' and ' James Lassiter' on the hunt for sunken treasure in the Caribbean. Roberts it seemed, had crafted something like Sunset Beach meets Indiana Jones - the perfect combination for my distracted mind! Which set me thinking...what are the key ingredients that make for a fun adventure novel like this? Well this is what I came up with:

Rule #1 - Set your book in an exotic, sunny location -

Lets face it, where's the romance in a wet weekend in Bognor Regis? I speak from experience! The beauty of a novel like the Reef is that it is set in paradise - our fantasy location. When the novelist transports us to far away shores, we imagine ourselves on holiday, at our most relaxed, bronzed and frisky - and we can believe that we too could find love and adventure on a Carribean island with lots of treasure to boot. I suppose you could argue that there's the English variety of romance so heartrendingly depicted in Graham Green's The End of The Affair. This suits a grey day on Hampstead Heath, and really is beautiful, but also is terribly complicated and painful. Then there's On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan - I don't want to give away the ending to anyone who hasn't read it but it's not exactly cheerful - I blame it on the weather! The rainy english climate doesn't exactly lend itself to dreamy leading men stripping off their tops all the time and frolicking in the sea - they'd catch a cold. Yes, yes, yes - we do have Colin Firth in that lake scene but I know that my boyfriend is far more likely to get his kit off on a hot sunny island and I'd rather be on a ship in the middle of the Carribean than smuggling peanuts in the North Sea.

Rule #2 - An element of mystery -

You know what clinched it for me when I saw this book? As well as the gold embossed serif font on the front, the blurb promised hidden... and get this... cursed treasure! "but one treasure has always eluded them: Angelique's Curse - a jeweled amulet heavy with history, dark with legend, and tainted with blood." Perhaps I've been spoiled by 80's adventure movies like Romancing the Stone and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I love a bit of mysterious treasure. Nora hooks you with the idea of a fascinating, priceless object that's got a dangerous side, and keeps you guessing if its power is real.

Rule #3 - All good characters are American. Baddies are European -

This is surely one of the key tenets of any thriller - whether it be Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs or James Bond's arch-enemy Blofeld. Ms Roberts outdoes herself with leading evildoer Silas Van Dyke who has a "European" accent and to cap it of has a bit of French totty who turns out to be a complete uber-bitch in complete contrast to the peppy, feisty Tate "Red" Beaumont.

Rule #4 - A "Shocking" Twist -

Every thriller has to have that moment, about a chapter from the end of the book when you're lulled into a false sense of security and then hit with a short-lived come-back by the bad guy who attempts to spoil everything with a last minute hijack of the happy family scene. I have to say, I almost didn't see this one coming until I reached what seemed to be something of a cheerful conclusion and then noticed I had a good 20 pages left - silly me!

Rule #5 - The Classic Happy Ending -

Secretly, we all love a happy ending and we want to see the baddie and his evil henchmen brought to justice, riches and love for our leading stars, and hard-won happiness for those that have fallen off the wagon or simply been led down the wrong path. It's quite amazing how quickly after the suspensful final twist, a skilled author can bring all these threads together and leave you with a nice warm glow.

I can poke fun, but I picked up this novel exactly because I thought it would be formulaic. And yes, it did follow certain patterns and had a cast that would make stilton look un-cheesy by comparison, but if it had been a bad novel I would have just put it down. Instead I was gripped! I may have expected a happy ending, but Roberts' knack was that she got me there with a real knack for storytelling... via palm trees and tropical sunsets.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

On Indecision and Happy New Beginnings

Just a few months ago, I was going through a tricky patch in my professional life. I found I was being put in a situation that I felt uncomfortable in. You see I'm a manager (or was) of a team of lovely staff, and my boss had started pushing me to look at my 'team structure'. Warning bells went off in my head and I started to panic...I felt protective of my team and compelled to defend the qualities of each individual, because they were all smart, brilliant people.
What I didn't realise was that I was making the whole thing more convoluted and painful (mostly for myself at the time) than it needed to be. My emotional involvement with the situation was clouding my ability to make decisions. I was all in a tangle, and I couldn't pick a direction so I was stuck, and no-one was benefiting from the situation. At the time, I remember comparing myself to a character from a book that my parents used to read to me when I was a little girl.

On my fourth birthday I was given a book that became very precious to me - Terry Jones' Fairy Tales - a collection of original short stories with beautiful, lavish illustrations by Michael Foreman. Terry Jones is of course better known for being a member of the Monty Python team, but apparantly he also knows how to spin a good yarn for children! The book was also rather special because the person who gave it to me added their own illustration and a short (rather gruesome) story all about me!

Of course when I was little I just enjoyed the stories in their own right. However traditionally, fairy tales have a moral behind them, and I find myself thinking back quite frequently to the little lessons that were hidden behind the magical lines.

The straight way's short, but the long way's pretty...

So in my dilemma, I started thinking about one of the stories in particular - Katy Make-sure. The name says it all really! Katy Make-sure was a little girl who couldn't make up her mind. In the story, Katy is out for a walk in the woods when she bumps into a goblin who offers her the once in a lifetime chance to visit Goblin City and get a reward (for finding his lost shoe). But the problem comes when she asks how to get there, and the little man replies:

Short or long to Goblin City?
The straight way's short,
But the long way's pretty!

Katy can't decide which is the best way to go - the long or the short way - and each time she asks the goblin for advice, he simply repeats himself and she gets more confused! Eventually after she's asked his advice over and over she asks "How can I be sure i'll like it whichever way we go?" The goblin finally becomes impatient and disappears, leaving Katy all alone, and she never does get to visit Goblin City in the end poor thing!

But isn't it all too easy too caught up in trying to 'make sure' a decision is the right one? Especially when it's an important choice and the consequences are an unknown quantity, we can sometimes spend too much energy worrying and not enough finding a solution to the problem. Our uncertainty paralyses us and we become like Hamlet, a victim of our own inaction. It can be comforting to be indecisive, but what if we were to be brave... start down the long pretty road, or just get there quickly instead of dithering around. Maybe we'll make some wrong choices and we might get burned, but we can only make the best decision we can at the time and learn from our mistakes, arriving our destination a little wiser. Perhaps what prevents us is that don't want to get to our destination...but even then, does standing still help?

In the end, I took action - moved forward. Ultimately, my choices resulted in positive (if surprising) changes for my team, the company and for myself - including deciding to leave my job on my own terms instead of staying on for a sense of security. And the best thing is that I feel so much better for it. I found out that by taking action you can actually influence the destination you come to. Which is kind of wonderful, I think.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Empire Falls - Richard Russo

Today I feel i have been struggling against the tide a little at work. I find - and I'm pretty sure this is true of the majority of people - that identifying what tasks are most important and actually getting down to them can be a bit of a challenge. It is easier to procrastinate and do other less-useful things which give you a sense of superficial satisfaction, but don't actually get you any closer to your goal.

Why do we put things off? Is it because we don't really think that the end result will be that beneficial to us? Is it that we are afraid of not completing it to our own personal standards? Or, could it be that we don't truly know what it is that we want to achieve and why? And moreover, why - you may be wondering - am I rambling on about procrastination in a book blog?!

I mentioned a certain lady from Maine in my previous post. The lady I was referring to was a Mrs Whiting from the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. I read Empire Falls in August as part of readers group with friends, and although I enjoyed it once I'd finished it, I found it a little long-winded. Also, while Russo has a brilliant skill for developing his characters, I didn't empathise with most of them or the setting either. As a Brit, I don't really identify with the faded nostalgic glory of the small American mill town, that Russo depicted in his novel.

But one of the town's inhabitants, Mrs Whiting (and her demented cat) really tickled me. She was interesting for being such a strong and formidable character, and I remember thinking at the time of reading that despite the fact that she was a bitch of the first order, I could take something away from her methods!

In the novel, Mrs Whiting controls the little town of Empire Falls, and is a thorn in the side for Miles Roby, the manager of the Empire Grill who is too distracted by his failing family life to notice how suffocating her iron grip really is. Mrs Whiting, despite being an aged single lady with a disabled daughter, she always gets what she wants.

Firstly, she knows her own mind. This is in contrast to Miles who for most of the book seems unable to pursue even his own happiness leading him to putter and sputter along. Though he doesn't realise it, Mrs Whiting is a deadly succubus in his life and his resigned temperament simply makes easier for her to affect him.

Secondly, Mrs Whiting has a particular method of getting what she wants with a grim determination reminiscent of the kind of zombies from third rate horror movies. You know, those ones that don't always move very fast but always get their victims in the end. Her philosophy is to break down her goal into smaller tasks that are easier for her to undertake. And if she can't achieve those? She breaks them down into even smaller, more minute pieces. This makes her unstoppable.

So what did I take from that? Well I'm not saying I want to be a scary, calculating sort of person, but this reinforced something for me. I believe that if you know what you want and can identify the steps to move towards it, your goal becomes manageable, and therefore achievable. A note of caution though. Mrs Whiting's inflexibility and desire to control everything eventually leads to her undoing. Beware megalomania!

Right, I'm off to write my task list now and conquer the world...

Friday, 21 November 2008

Introductions and Insights

Let me introduce myself. I'm a twenty-something girl, living in London who loves books. Particularly novels, and particularly ones with nice covers which I know is naughty as it's supposed to be what's between the sheets...oops, I mean the pages that count.

Why I wanted to write about books -

Some books and certain characters, really make me want to wax-lyrical about them. Why? Because in their own little way they are life-changing - so that's why I wanted to start Novel Insights.

Novel insights is a place for me to share my ideas about novels, particularly fictional characters that have had an impact on my way of thinking.

Being inspired by fiction -

For me one of the beautiful things about fiction is that you almost always inadvertently learn something new at the same time as enjoying the story for it's own sake. For example, when I read The Kite Runner, a few months ago, I experienced a whole other culture and the intense, human drama of it all made me want to watch the news more - pay attention to what was going on in the world in a more active way. It was like Khaled Hosseini had used his moving words, exciting story and charming characters (well some of them were charming!) to fool me into opening my eyes a little more. I like learning something new, and I like it wrapped up in vivid, spellbinding prose like a gift.

So I want to share what I've learned from reading, not in a preachy way I hope, and maybe my thoughts will strike a chord with someone else or at least inspire them to read some fantastic stories.

Now, like Sheherazade, I'm going to attempt to be mysterious and give you a taster of what comes next. My next post will be about the character who sparked me to write Novel Insights - a certain formidable old lady from Maine. Can you guess who she might be? More about her next!