Saturday, April 11, 2015

Review: The Meeting Point, by Lucy Caldwell

I know what it is like to be a keen young deacon in the Anglican Church. I also know what it is like when your faith slowly withers and dies, losing all relevance. Euan is a young Anglican deacon from Ireland, who accepts a brief posting to the Anglican community of Bahrain, with his wife Ruth and their young daughter Anna. This is shortly before the outbreak of the Second Gulf War.

When Ruth discovers that her husband has not revealed the full extent of his mission, she finds herself—emotionally at least—all but alone in Bahrain, and her faith begins to crumble. She meets a troubled young teenager, Noor, who has moved from England to Bahrain with her Muslim father, following a serious incident at her school. Noor becomes involved with Ruth and her husband, looking after young Anna at every opportunity. Ruth also meets Noor’s cousin, Farid, nineteen years old.

The story is told exclusively from the intimate point of view of Ruth and Noor. Other characters come and go, but none take centre stage. Everything is viewed and lived through the eyes of Ruth and Noor. This is their emotional, spiritual and psychological journey.

Those who are looking for action and adventure should not turn to this book. There is tension and even suspense here, but the essential story takes place inside the minds of these two characters. What happens is much less important than their response to it. There is surprisingly little external dialogue here, but a great deal of internal dialogue and introspection. This will not appeal to everyone. Some readers may become irritated with these characters, perhaps Ruth in particular, because of their poor judgement and questionable decisions. Nevertheless I felt that there was some real honesty and insight here.

There are some grammatical issues that I thought the editors at Faber and Faber might have addressed. I am used to seeing such things in self-published books—comma splices, mismatched subject and verb, misplaced commas—but I would have expected a more exacting standard here. The author also slips sometimes between past and future tenses. I can understand why for literary reasons an author might decide to adopt the present tense at times—to create a particular sense of immediacy perhaps—but the reasons here were not immediately obvious.

I found the ending satisfactory, with loose ends tied up. I was particularly interested in how Ruth’s character and spirituality developed. While at times I thought it might develop into such, this was not an apology for Anglicanism or any other version of the Christian faith. Again there was a certain truth and honesty here.

Some will simply be bored with this book. I enjoyed it, even though the introspection may at times be a little overdone. I also enjoyed it—perhaps—because I had a view from the inside. I give this four stars.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Busy or Productive?

For a time I worked for a community organisation, providing support for the long-term unemployed. These were usually people dealing with a multitude of issues: psychiatric and other health and/or substance abuse issues; domestic violence; restricted educational opportunities. What exactly I was supposed to do to help them was never quite clear. An hour’s chat, once every month or so—if they turned up for their appointments—achieved little. Often they didn’t turn up; and, let’s face it, beyond meeting the requirements for their welfare payment, what incentive did they have?

What struck me was how busy these people were. This was often their excuse for not attending their appointments: they just had so much to do! Quite how they managed to be so busy—always with no paid work, usually with no educational commitments, and often with no family commitments either—remained a mystery. There was I in my office, awaiting people who didn’t show, twiddling my thumbs, wishing desperately that I was as busy as my clients appeared to be.

This appearance of busyness is one I have encountered in many places and circumstances over the years. There were my fellow workers in that establishment, for example. I know they had just as much difficulty encouraging their clients to attend appointments as I did, but talk to them and they were always quick to tell you how busy they were.

When I was a clergyman I would often struggle to fill my time productively. I was, therefore, filled with guilt and a sense of inadequacy when confronted with the apparent busyness of my colleagues. What was I not doing that they were? Was I simply more efficient than they were, completing all the necessary work in much less time? Was I overlooking some important duties? Or were they really far less busy than they would have me believe?

The truth is probably a mixture of these things. Some things I probably didn’t do as a curate or as a chaplain that I was expected to do. I didn’t, for instance, visit every day the same people that I had visited the day before, who showed no interest in my visits; or who would tell me the same stories again. I didn’t stand around for hours in the nurses’ station ‘networking’ with staff, building ‘relationships’ with them—in fact gossiping and distracting them from their duties. I didn’t always attend the seemingly endless sequence of vital committee meetings. I didn’t always spend enough time writing reports that no one would read.

Also I have always been very efficient. I have always been able to spend half an hour on a task that might take someone else two hours. I was never inclined to extend this half hour by engaging in a very important, hour-long telephone conversation with a colleague—more ‘networking’ I failed to do. The problem with this efficiency is that it has often left me bored, at a loose end. What do I do now? The secret, I have learned from others, is, apparently, to create work. ‘I really must re-organise that filing cabinet that I re-organised last week.’ ‘I really should visit Mrs Smith again, because she seemed a little down at the service last week—and she makes lovely pumpkin scones.’ ‘I should form a committee to make sure that all our other committees are functioning efficiently.’

Busyness fills our empty spaces, warding of boredom and, perhaps, a nagging sense that what we are doing is not really achieving very much. Busyness (we hope) increases our worth and value in the eyes of others.

Much more important than busyness, of course, is productivity. I use this term with reservations, because it is used by business and government to constantly demand that more be done for less. Despite this abuse of the term, I know what gives me the greatest satisfaction. I can have a very busy morning but achieve nothing. On the other hand, I can have a quiet morning and achieve much. If I have a really productive morning—perhaps I write a very good chapter, or manage to get a huge chunk of copy editing out of the way—I feel satisfied. I can have a very busy day and feel no satisfaction at all. If I have a productive morning, perhaps it is okay to spend the afternoon reading for pleasure, or listening to music, or walking on the beach, or watching the birds chase each other among the trees. I don’t need to fill the empty time with more busyness. And I don’t have to feel guilty for not doing so.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Tell me this, to show me something else.

I have written before in this blog about the much touted expression among writers: Show, don’t tell! (Here and here.) It is repeated so often, and is (or seems to be) such a key concept, that I constantly revisit it all the time in my own mind.

Anton Chekhov probably never wrote precisely these oft quoted words: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ Nevertheless, this probably represents a valid distillation of what he expressed in several places, and of the way he tried to write. So how might we actually do what Chekhov suggests?

Consider this:

It was very hot, and the sun was shining brightly. Tom walked outside.

Here the author provides the reader with three pieces of information: (1) it’s hot; (2) the sun is bright; and (3) Tom goes outside. The action here is Tom’s walking outside; the rest sets the scene and provides the background. However, the same information could be conveyed to the reader within the context of the action, like this:

Outside, Tom blinked against the brightness of the sun, sweat beading on his forehead.

This is now told from Tom’s point of view. This conveys to the reader Tom’s experience of the bright sunlight and the heat. There is no external narrator—as in the first version—describing the scene ‘objectively’. The same information is conveyed, but in a more existential way. The reader is not, momentarily, lifted out of the story and provided with some ‘facts’, as in the first version. Rather, the reader experiences the reality as Tom does.

Note that this is not simply a difference between showing and telling. Both are actually telling. In the first version the reader is told that it’s hot and the sun is bright. In the second version the reader is told that Tom blinks and sweats. But that ‘information’—the relating of that experience—lets the reader know indirectly that outside, the sun is bright and it’s hot. The writer tells us that Tom is sweating to show us that it’s hot. Most importantly, rather than just giving us the facts, he conveys the effects of the heat and the light on Tom. This keeps us inside Tom’s world.

Sometimes as a writer we will want to set the scene, before plunging the reader into the heart of the action, back into the lives of the characters. Bear in mind, though, that at this moment the reader becomes an observer, rather than a participant. If that is the effect you want to achieve, that’s fine. But if you really want to immerse the reader in the story you are telling, you will try to hide yourself, as the writer, as much as possible. You can say, ‘The driveway was lined with frangipani trees’; or you can say, ‘Tom was overwhelmed by the scent of frangipani as he walked along the tree-lined driveway.’

Tell the readers one thing to show them something else.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Imaginary Friend: A Tale.

When Tom was very young, his parents weren’t concerned about his imaginary friend. From the age of about two and a half, when he was starting to put together quite complex sentences, Tom would always chatter at night in his bedroom. When he was playing with his blocks or his Play-Doh or dressing and undressing his teddy bear—Ralph—Tom would hold intense conversations. Sometimes his parents would think he was talking to Ralph, but it soon became apparent that he wasn’t.

‘We should put a jumper on Ralph,’ he might say. Or, ‘No, that will make him too hot.’

Mr and Mrs Ellwood never directly confronted Tom about this. It was cute. He would grow out of it when he had some real friends.

Tom was a little frightened at night time, alone in his room, even with the door wedged open and the night light on. It comforted him to know that Foofoo was there to keep him company. He couldn’t remember when he first became aware of Foofoo, or how he learned his name. It was easy to express his feelings and ideas to Foofoo. He always understood. It was frustrating, sometimes, that his mummy and daddy couldn’t understand what he was saying. There was never that problem with Foofoo. Having someone beside him at night; having someone to protect him from whatever lived in the darkness; having someone who could understand him. Foofoo was all these things to Tom.

When Tom started at day care, and later at pre-school, Foofoo went with him. He would often rather talk with Foofoo—tucked away in a corner—than to the other children. He would turn to Foofoo when he sensed the disapproval of others, particularly the adults. Foofoo never judged him.

His parents were becoming a little concerned.

‘He will grow out of it,’ they were assured.

‘It’s harmless’, confirmed their priest.

‘I can’t remember having an invisible, imaginary friend like that. Can you, Emma?’ Mr Ellwood asked his wife.

‘No,’ she said, ‘but apparently it’s quite common. Maybe it’s something we forget when we grow older.’

However, once Tom started school, they had reason to worry. Sometimes Tom didn’t listen to the teachers.

‘He is off somewhere else,’ the teachers would say on parent/teacher nights.

One day, when Tom was six years old, he stole a candy bar from the supermarket shelf.

‘Foofoo was hungry,’ he explained to his distraught parents.

So they talked to Tom, then. They took him to see the priest. They took him to counselling.

Tom wasn’t silly. Tom knew that Foofoo wasn’t there the way other people were there. It was just that sometimes the real world and real people were too difficult to deal with, so he would turn to Foofoo.

Lately, though, he hadn’t been scared of a night time. He was beginning to learn how to deal with the people and tasks around him, and Foofoo came to him less and less often. Even when he stole the candy bar, he knew, deep down—indeed, not so very deep down—that he was the one who wanted it, not Foofoo.

For a while longer, Foofoo was handy to have around. His imaginary friend brought him some attention. He provided him with an excuse from time to time. But pretty soon, football and video games drew his focus away from Foofoo. He began to forget him.

His parents were pleased to see him at the video game consul, or on the football field, rather than talking quietly in a corner to someone who wasn’t there.

Tom began the—sometimes exciting, sometimes terrifying—process of growing up, and dealing with the real world around him.

It was about two years later when Tom, who would have been eight or nine years old, thought about Foofoo during an Easter service. He wasn’t sure why he thought of him then. The memory amused and embarrassed him a little. As he was walking home with his parents after the service, he raised the matter of Foofoo with them.

‘Do you remember,’ he said, ‘my imaginary friend Foofoo?’

Mr and Mrs Ellwood shared a look and laughed a little nervously. What would they do if Foofoo returned?

‘Yes, Tom, we remember.’

He laughed at their worried expressions. ‘It’s OK. He’s not back or anything. It was a bit silly, I know.’

‘Not silly, Tom,’ assured his mother. ‘It was just something you needed as a child, I guess.’

‘Yeah. I used to be real scared sometimes... and lonely.’

‘We all are sometimes.’ His father laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘But you grew out of it.’

‘Yeah.’ Tom thought for a while. He wasn’t really sure how to ask the next question. It had been on his mind during the service. ‘Dad?’

‘What is it, Tom?’

‘I was wondering... I was wondering, why do you and Mum and Fr O’Farrell...’ Struggling, he decided to try a different tack. ‘Dad, Mum, I don’t think I want to come to church anymore.’

‘Oh Tom, why not?’ Mrs Ellwood glanced again at her husband, perhaps wishing that he would deal with this one.

‘Well, Mum, you know, you and Dad—and Fr O’Farrell... You might need God, I guess, but I don’t. I don’t think I need an imaginary friend at all anymore.’

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The in-between bits

I am still struggling at the moment with my own fictional writing. I have started several manuscripts—some are now up to twenty thousand words—but I keep getting stuck. It is ideas where I am struggling—knowing just what to write. When I have the idea I think I write it fairly well.

There is, however, one place where I struggle with how to write, as well as what to write, although they overlap to some extent. I struggle with how to write the in-between bits.

I often have some great scenes in my mind. Perhaps there will be a murder or a rape or an accident; perhaps there will be a significant meeting or parting. Several of these will constitute the key points of the narrative, from which everything else hangs. The question is, how to get from the meeting in chapter one, to the parting in chapter four. Something has to happen in between, the less exciting, more mundane moments. Some writers (as well as those who teach writing—and many publishers, apparently) seem to think it is necessary to move from one big event to the next, that there can be no let up in the action. And each big event—each explosion—has to be bigger than the last. This—some believe—is what is necessary to hold the reader’s interest.

I don’t share that view. I like quieter moments between the highlights. But writing them so that they are interesting is extremely difficult, which is perhaps why many writers just don’t try. On the other hand, some writers don’t know how to apply filters. They report every conversation, and describe every meal and bowel movement. Knowing which in-between bits to write, and how to write them so that the reader doesn’t doze off, is a real challenge. It’s here that I often come unstuck. I have a great scene, A, and a gobsmackingly brilliant scene, F, but between A and F have to be the slightly more mundane and less exciting scenes b, c, d and e. They are much more difficult to write.

These are the moments when, hopefully, the reader will gain some insights into the characters—their histories, personalities and motivation. Perhaps there is the opportunity to illustrate some social history of the day. Perhaps there is time to draw a brief but interesting portrait of a minor character. The really, really good writers know how to make the mundane interesting.

I pretty sure I’m not there yet.

Review: Ten for the Devil by Deborah Mitton

This is the first book in a series that the author entitles A Murder of Crows. It spans the middle of the nineteenth century, from a village in England to St John in New Brunswick, Canada.

The story opens with Michael McLaughlin, at thirty-one years of age a Chief Inspector with Scotland Yard, in St John on a fateful day. On June 20 1877, much of St John was burned down. Michael is there in pursuit of a criminal called Seth. He has personal reasons for pursuing Seth, as becomes apparent in the tale that follows.

The author takes us back through time to explain how Michael arrived at this point. She does so through several steps, and I enjoyed this process. I did think at one point that she took this process a little too far when she went back to tell the story of Michael’s father Peter’s best man at his wedding, Jonathan, and even back to Peter’s father and uncle. In the end, however I thought she handled this quite well. When she occasionally hopped from one time period to another, I did not find myself disoriented for more than an instant. She does not return the reader to the ‘present’ (St John, 1877) until the final chapters.

The back stories are interesting and complex, as are the characters which inhabit them. With the exception of Seth, each of the characters has a good and bad side. The darkness of Seth is perhaps overdone in contrast. Apart from the obvious fact that we know Michael will survive at least until 1877, the fate of many other characters is less certain, and I was sometimes surprised—in a positive way—that the author chose to kill off who she did.

Three things initially pleased me about the book. First, the story is not told in a straightforward linear fashion. Second the characters are mostly complex, even those who appear only briefly. And third, the writing is good, tinged with a hint of nineteenth century formality, but not overburdened with the pomposity and verbosity that some people mistake for this style.

Most of the story is told at quite a leisurely pace which is by no means dull or boring, but when the narrative returns to the ‘present’, the pace picks up. This in itself is not a bad thing, but it becomes somewhat chaotic at times and more difficult to follow. The fact that Michael pursues his own personal agenda while the city burns around him is difficult to understand and accept. It’s also difficult to understand how Seth comes from being a squire in a small village to... Well, I shouldn’t give too much away. Clearly there is more back story to be told, but I did find this discontinuity disconcerting. The story at this point has an entirely different ‘feel’ to that which it had earlier. It was not easy to see Seth as the same man.

On the more technical side, one anachronism jumped out at me: the mention, in 1877, of Sherlock Holmes, who made his first appearance in 1887. Others might detect additional anachronisms which escaped me. For about two thirds of the book there were very few typos, but these seemed to increase after this point. At the very least the author might want to correct ‘fish mongrels’ to ‘fish mongers’.

I did quite enjoy this, but more during the back story than in the ‘present’ of 1877. I was also disappointed that the story reached no resolution here. I realise this is part of a series, but it would have been nice to see some ‘endings’ here, while pointing ahead to things yet to come. Instead, the author deliberately creates some ‘cliff hangers’ during the last few pages. I just find this annoying.

All in all, I think this is worth 3.5 stars. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Why I will or won't review your book.

It may surprise people to learn what is important to me when reviewing a book—indeed, when deciding whether or not to review a book. If a book is brought to my attention, the first thing I do is go to the site and read a few pages of the sample. I don’t pay any attention to the cover, and only scant attention to the blurb, although the latter can provide clues about the genre and the context in which the few pages I will read need to be understood. I don’t look at other reviews, or even how many there are or what the average star rating is. Past experience has demonstrated to me that these things have little meaning or value.

So what will make me decide, first of all, to purchase the book with the intention of reviewing? It is, purely and simply, the quality of the writing. This is about more than just spelling and grammar, although that is certainly important. If sentences are clumsy or too wordy, if words are used inappropriately, if paragraphs are not well formed and clearly defined, I am unlikely to bother. If the grammar is correct yet there is no sign that the writer will use imaginative language; if there are no interesting turns of phrase, I am unlikely to bother. If the writer just writes down ‘what happens’ I am unlikely to bother. I don’t read a novel for information. I read it, yes, for the story, but even more for the flair with which it is told. I don’t expect genius, but the writing has to be at least competent, and preferably a little more. I have usually made up my mind after a page or two.

Of course, I am not in a position to choose the book on the basis of plot or character development. All I have to go on, when reading the sample, is the standard of the writing. If it’s not up to standard—the standard I expect, of course—I won’t be purchasing it, let alone reviewing it. That’s how important the quality of the writing is to me.

So if I download a book which has a reasonable standard of writing, it is already likely to get three stars. This can fall away if the plot is full of holes, the characters poorly developed, or there are atrocious anachronisms. It will rise if the story and characters are interesting, and rise even further if some of the writing is actually very good, and not just passable.

Perhaps this makes me a snob, but I don’t think so. We might all go along to our children’s concert at school, as they play violin in the orchestra. We will grimace behind our smiles and complement and encourage the young performers. But we are unlikely to buy an orchestral recording if the performers are playing the wrong notes or their timing is astray, no matter how great the piece of music itself might be. A great story poorly written is like a great symphony badly played.

The upshot of this is that if writers want me to review their books, they won’t get past first base if what I read in the sample preview is poorly written, no matter how good the story might be.