Bookclubs look at the characters…

March 23, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Posted in Book Club Ideas | Leave a comment
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Look at the characters


1.       Characterisation- is it done well? The more a reader knows a character the increased chance for success there is for character and plot development.

2.       Many novels now focus on characters rather than plot developments as a literary technique to drive novels – does the novel you’re reading do this?

3.       If a character is underdeveloped the author may lean too heavily on stereotypes and archetypes, this is lazy writing, if a book is not holding your interest there is probably a reason for this, examine the characters.

4.       A rich character can be iconic and by virtue can refer to a different era, location, ideology, way of life, value system etc.

5.       How do you enjoy getting to know a character by being told through the narrative what they are like or seeing how a character behaves and develops in different situations?

What to look for in a memoir…

February 4, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Posted in Biography | 1 Comment
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I would as a reader generally shy away from reading memoirs and biographies as often even the most interesting stories are so heavily grounded in narrative they become disengaging. Candia McWilliams memoir ‘What to Look for in Winter’ is movingly different. She sets the narrative of her suffering at the loss of her sight against the often tragic but beguiling story of her life producing a well paced and plotted memoir.

McWilliams was judging the Booker Prize in 2006 when she first began to lose her sight and when we meet her in the book she is Cambridge educated, part of the English aristocracy has been married twice  once to an Earl and emerged out of these relationships with three children and a wicked drinking problem.

I believe in person there is an other worldliness quality about McWilliams and a striking beauty , the same can be said about her writing. Her memoir has a detached tone when describing her experiences which mirrors McWilliams own withdrawal from the world. Throughout her life she gains and loses many things; husbands, homes, health, self respect….she probes each experience with her beautiful literary eye pulling together the sense of her life with the aid of a Cambridge inspired vocabulary.Her strong sense of self is paraded out through confident prose and language, meaning becomes jewelled in language. In one particularly beautiful scene McWilliams daughter asks here why she likes the royal family and her explanation encapsulates the ideology of the royal family with a very clever perspective.

Her experiences at times are physical (the loss and re-gain of her sight, horrific battles with alcohol), at times they are heavily emotional self-destructive, ugly, romantic, poignant but the eye with which McWilliams looks at her own life with is so probing that all these experiences and battles with herself are beautiful because they are self aware.

It is with deep self-awareness this memoir is written and that’s what sets it apart from the others. That and the extraordinary life McWilliams has so far led. One reviewer of McWilliams describes her like ‘a northern princess gazing  out of a cold castle onto icicles and pale eyed wolves’ and this is truly apt.

Haiku: Candia’s language, shiny diamonds in the dark, luminescent life.

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‘….lyrical beauty and ethical depth….’

November 2, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Posted in Great for Book Clubs, Middle Weight Fiction | Leave a comment

In 1995 Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”. I suddenly remembered this when thinking of ways of describing Anne Tyler’s fiction. Anne’s fiction similarly addresses everyday issues and occurences in the course of her characters lives. Far from being mundane her work addresses the mystic nature of these occurences and the complex and rich emotional situations that compliment them.

Anne is as unassuming as her prose which many reviews of her lately are claiming is responsible for her being lesser known than her contemporaries like John Updike. She has been nominated for the Pulitzer prize twice and has won it once in 1989 for her novel ‘Breathing Lessons’ but the media shy American author from Baltimore hasn’t done a book tour nor given a face to face interview since 1977.

Anne Tyler eighteenth novel ‘Noah’s Compass’ is receiving rave reviews. It is not fair of me to ask what is ‘Noah’s Compass’ about it is much more purposeful to ask what does it address. Other authors write books about the same things as Anne but Anne’s skills as an author explore these ideas in an ethical and deep way using minimal but deftly executed prose. The cover of this book I feel is inappropriate as it suggest a pretty light yarn which is not what she delivers.

‘Noah’s Compass’  addresses the problem of memory loss in older age through the story of Liam Pennywell a sixty year old man who has just lost his teaching post and through an unfortunate incident faces down the onset of memory loss. His life is an ordered and minimalist one. Widowed once and divorced once Liam lives a sparse and often detached life at stages. The distress of his sudden memory loss colours his relations with his family and his outlook on life. He is a man with very little to lose and very little he is able to achieve. Anne’s writing skills explore this intimately and you learn how appropriate the title of the book becomes when you encounter it’s use in the story.

A very fine piece of writing in a very fine body of work from an unsung hero of fiction.

Haiku; A light lit cover, in stark contrast with deftly, executed prose

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The prose road is the road less travelled

October 8, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Posted in Award winners, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | Leave a comment

Howard Jacobson ‘The Finkler Question’ Bloomsbury August 2010

Howard Jacobson’s ‘The Finkler Question’ has won this year’s Man Booker Prize.  However reading it didn’t change my decision to have firmly backed Damon Galgut’s ‘In a Strange Room’ for the prize although the two books are very different types of novels. What is likeable about ‘The Finkler Question’ is that it is a very dark comedy, something which is so rare in fiction and it is also a remarkable piece of prose writing whose plot allows Jacobson to explore many interesting ideas.

The book hinges itself on the dynamics of Sam Finkler’s friendships with two other men, Julian Tresolve a former BBC worker whose life and career appear to have suffered from his disgruntled world views and values and his inability to commit to people and long term projects and also with Libor Secivk an elderly Jewish widower. Finkler himself is a philosopher and television producer and philosophical musings are resonant in Jacobson’s writing style.

One evening Tresolve is attacked and his pride and values are disturbed when he realises 1. his attacker is a woman and 2. when he believes she slurred the words ‘you Jew’ when robbing him of his valuables. The novel then begins to meditate on ideas of anti Semitism and the Israeli – Palestine conflict with his friend Libor taking over the narrative for a large part of the book musing what it has been like for him to be Jewish in the21st Century.

I must be honest and say I found this book to be quite difficult. The prose road in fiction for me is definitely the one less travelled in my reading. The novel’s concepts are very interesting but heavily ideological, Jacobson’s writing voice is strong but heavily philosophical and these elements compounded together to make the novel more challenging than enjoyable.

Haiuk; Ideology, heavy literary prose, study the story.

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A wonderful thinly veiled disguise…….

September 23, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Posted in Great for Book Clubs, Middle Weight Fiction | Leave a comment
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Curtis Sittenfeld, ‘An American Wife’ Random House, August 2009.

This is the best page turner I have read in a very long time. At a whopping 558 pages  Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel ‘American Wife’ is a monster of a story but one that is so enthralling it will have you turning the page every few minutes.  ‘American Wife’ is the fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bush and it seems to be a thinly veiled disguise at that. How this novel made it out of the legal deparment of Random House I have no idea…..

The narrative is carried along by some very important life markers in the leading lady’s youth which I will not spoil by revealing. They are used to perfection in the narrative dynamic as the book progresses over it’s almost 600 pages. A technique some modern literary authors could take note of. ..

‘Alice Blackwell’, the novels leading lady, grows up in a middle class family who are highly moral, well educated, family orientated and good people who are somewhat conservative in their take on life. Alice is the most likeable character full of grace and dignity in her conduct. She trains as a librarian, as we know Laua Bush did, and is liberal and open minded so much so she was a democrat somthinga lot of us did not know.

How does she come to marry her husband the most nortorious Republican of all time? Well this is a romantic love story above all and one that also respects the institution of marriage as something that requires commitment and work. An examination of a private and public life lived simultaneously ‘American Wife’ is a fantastic epic yarn.

Haiku; Behind Presidents, often stand quiet women, step foreward Laura Bush.

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We are duplicitous beings capable of magnificant levels of self delusion

May 7, 2010 at 7:52 pm | Posted in Great for Book Clubs, Short Stories | 1 Comment
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Maile Meloy ‘Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It’ Canongate, April 2010

We are duplicitous beings capable of magnificent levels of self delusion. Whoever thought this could be an affirming idea in fiction? Maile Meloy did…………………..

In Maile Meloy’s collection of short stories ‘Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It’ there is solid and deep storytelling. Many of the books reviewed on this site have that so how can this book be different? Because boy, is this a clever book. Its title ‘Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It’ is the common thread that underscores each story making the most different of characters have a universe in common.

No matter how morally out of control a situation, or event, in Maile’s stories gets, the basic premise they all share is that although the two ways a character wants a situation to go are  impossible, they all share the same strong desire to have it both ways.

An unfaithful husband on the inevitable cusp of being caught red-handed still convinces himself he can get away with his duplicity if he just behaves obsessively like normal. Two warring brothers forced on a family holiday by their wives ends invariably in disaster but with each of the brothers wishing to repeat the holiday again the next year in the deluded belief it will be different!

Delusion, duplicity and grandiose self deception confirm happily in these stories that we are human and it is ok to want the irrational…especially as the rational side of ourselves knows it is never going to happen! It is fascinating reading! The stories are full of such normal people, people out of work, people on holidays, children, hitchhikers, teenagers and pets. The normality makes the characters and their desires very easily conceivable.

It is the human truth and desire that Maile carves out that is so clever and frightening. No matter how unreasonable your expectations or deluded beliefs, it is explainable by the condition we all suffer of being human. The collection is well balanced, with poignant, tender and melancholy stories and some very funny ones too. In the stories power changes hands like a game of tennis and you also won’t judge any of the characters for their very poor decisions because if you do you will be judging yourself.

For a few days after finishing the book I was left with the image from one story of a child who wanted a puppy so badly, but was allergic to dogs. She brought one home covering her face and throat with a bandana and with socks on her hands to prevent a violent allergic reaction happily thinking she could live the rest of her life like this! Maile’s affirmation that we are capable of capable of the most grandiose of self delusion is one of the strongest affirmations of what it is to be human and feel alive…….want the irrational….believe with all your might it can happen….while all the time knowing it never will!

Haiku; Short stories distill, the absurdity of life, novels dance around.

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Is romantic Ireland dead and gone?..not with the click of your mouse

March 8, 2010 at 8:52 pm | Posted in Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | 5 Comments
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‘Fishing in Beirut’ Steven Callaghan, Blue Press, September 2010.

Whoever said Irish writing and the Irish Publishing industry is in decline hasn’t read Fishing in Beirut. I say this for two reasons. 1. Steven Callaghan is a super brand new Irish voice in writing and 2. This novel is being published, serialized, online. Fishing in Beirut is an ambitious novel which delivers on many levels and the serialization of this story, online, is one of the most original ways I have encountered a novel.  It is the story of five modern characters living in Paris. It has tangible descriptions of Paris, iconic landmarks we all know mixed in with gritty characters that reveal, through their stories, the underbelly of Parisian life that also exists. It is made up of short scenes, beautiful and sometimes poignant literary sentences that you will want to linger over. Each scene and character portrait is full of promise and you feel a culmination building the deeper you go into the novel. Callaghan’s writing is a reward in itself but is balanced with very humanly drawn out characters which makes this literary debut also a compelling page turner. What I especially loved about this novel was the Hemmingway reminiscent food descriptions which often made me hungry. With a new scene released every day I have found myself eagerly logging on. Forget the e-reader or the kindle; online publishing is clearly where it’s at. If this novel is heralding in a new era in contemporary Irish literary fiction, I for one am in. Is romantic Ireland dead and gone? No way…not with the click of your mouse!

Haiku; One Irish author, Five characters in Paris, fantastic debut

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