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.