Saturday, January 29, 2011

birthday sisters

The Good Daughters, by Joyce Maynard, is a story of two girls from New Hampshire who were born on the same day to very different families - 'birthday sisters', says one of their mothers. The book follows Ruth Plank, the daughter of a farmer, and Dana Dickerson, daughter of an artist and an unreliable optimist, through their lives and through their relationships, which diverge, intertwine, back and forth. They are very different women, but they share a sense of displacement in their families. This book chronicles their gradual journey to an understanding of their roots.

Warning: This review will not contain spoilers, but it necessarily hints at the direction of the novel.

This is a very readable book. It's written fluently and well. It is nice, unpretentious writing. It has no moments of brilliance, to be honest, but perhaps more importantly, it doesn't have any moments that grind against the reader's ears. The story switches between its two narrators often, and builds up some momentum, giving it a pace that is easy to get caught up in. It is the sort of book which could be a good beach-read for many, many people. It's not a BAD book, and for this reason, I don't want to be too mean...


I just didn't really enjoy it. I wish I could say that I did, but it never really grabbed me.

These are the reasons:

1. The story meanders along through fifty or sixty years of Ruth and Dana's lives, working itself slowly towards a big, shocking denouément which would be completely satisfactory - if it weren't for the fact that it was obvious right from the beginning of the novel what the shocking hidden truth is.
It's probable that Maynard intended this. I can recognise that. But I still think this doesn't work well. The foreshadowing is too overwhelming; there is nothing to look forward to.

2. For some reason, Ruth was much more interesting as a narrator than Dana. I feel that this shouldn't be the case, when the narration is shared between them equally.

3. The ending, after the denouément, seems way too neat, and so it is a little disappointing after all the untidiness of their lives up to that point.

4. Sex, or coming to terms with sexuality, is a constant feature of the novel, but it mostly seems to feature in a very derivative way. There were a couple of lines in particular which, unfortunately, made me giggle, because they were so similar to Mills and Boon. I don't think that was the effect she was going for.

5. A large number of the characters are irreparably tainted by cliché. Including the narrators, especially Dana.

6. Finally, as a reader who has grown up in a complicated family and knows that blood ties aren't always the be-all-and-end-all of getting along together or loving each other, I couldn't help being annoyed by the implications of Maynard's presentation of the two families in the story. I can't say more without ruining the plot, but I wish she had thought through the relationships she writes about a little more carefully. They didn't need to be so black and white.

To sum up - this is not a bad book. I think a lot of people would enjoy it. If you enjoy Jodi Picoult or writers like her, you would probably like this. I just can't summon up any enthusiasm about it myself. My verdict: one and a half stars.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


In 2007, I wrote a blog post about five books that were meaningful to me. Some have changed. Some remain the same. I want to have a re-run because I like making lists and analysing myself. That's honesty for you.

1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. Persuasion, by Jane Austen
3. The short stories of Katherine Mansfield
4. The short stories of Roald Dahl
5. The Ordinary Princess, by M. M. Kaye

The funny thing is, things have changed.

Some things remain the same. Jane Austen retains her position at the head. I just can't decide which particular book I'm going to honour, and I'm not sure if I need to. I love her. I can't explain why. The closest I can come is an explanation which I have used before. Here it is again. When I read Jane Austen's novels, I feel like I can sense her, the narrator, sitting just behind the text and enjoying what she is writing. It's as if she is living on in her writing. I never get the same feeling with other authors. Her perspective is so unique. I love that at first glance her novels seem like just another rom-com, but in fact they are so much more. She shows so much more restraint than any other author I have read. She had no pretensions. She was just interested in people, and she wrote about them. I am absolutely sure that she herself was as charming and interesting as her heroines.

A small anecdote: When I was exploring the National Portrait Gallery in London, I bumped into the tiny miniature of her, almost by accident, I almost burst into tears. The fact that the only existing picture of her was this tiny little miniature, surrounded by all this grandeur, these kings and leaders and their pride, seemed to sum up everything I love about her. Does anyone understand what I'm going on about here or is this completely oblique?

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, is connected in some ways with the reasons I love Jane Austen. CB herself did not think much of Austen's work, but in a century of male authors writing about either frail little women who need a hero or villainous temptresses, I love the strong women they wrote about. Jane Eyre is one of the most wonderful characters of literature, for me.

Animal Farm, by George Orwell, is another book that is meaningful for me now. I thought about this when I wrote a blog post a while ago on retracing my steps - and I've realised that reading Animal Farm in fifth form English at school was a huge turning point for me, even if I didn't realise it at the time. It was where I was first intrigued by the bizarre, depressing history of Communism in Russia. It turns out I was lucky to get my first glimpse through Orwell's perceptive eyes, as so much has been said about the Soviet Union which is horrifically tainted - and the fact that is an allegory of sorts, and not even a perfect one, possibly helped.

Winter of Fire, by Sherryl Jordan, makes the list now. This is a YA novel by a Kiwi author which we were told to read in school when I was 12, because the author was coming to visit. It turned out to be a fantastic book, and I met my first real live author. I managed to impress her, somehow, with my hand-raising-and-question-asking technique, and when my teacher told her later that I wanted to be an author when I grew up, she wrote me a little card encouraging me to follow this dream. I've always been grateful to her for this, and it had a huge impact on me. So her book has a special place in my heart.

I will always love C. S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles.

And, finally, The Ordinary Princess, by M. M. Kaye, still makes the cut. I have tried to introduce my nieces to this book, because at this stage they are still buying into the Disney perfect-happy-ever-after, you-must-be-beautiful-and-enjoy-cleaning princess stories. So far, I have only received agitated questions: "But when are they going to get married?!" I persevere regardless.

It's not that the other books are no longer meaningful to me. They don't live in my consciousness in quite the same way, though.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

history versus story

As I approach the end of my MA, I start to wonder about what it will be like when I have the time and energy to write fiction again.

I've been writing history for so long now that I suspect it has completely changed the way I approach creative writing. Maybe in some ways for the better. I've had to learn to be more concise. But I definitely think my writing will be a lot more ... dry at first. I try to write history in an attractive way, but I definitely have an academic style, and it will be strange to start breaking rules again. I just hope I can overcome what has been drummed into me by academics for the past six years.

But something that I will be fascinated to find out is whether doing a MA will have helped me overcome my aversion to writing an extended piece of work. I've planned, and planned, and planned. I've researched. I've rewritten. I've learned the value of simply trying to get an idea down, without worrying too much about the prose at first. And I will come out at the end of it all with a piece of writing that is over 50,000 words long - longer than any original writing I've ever done before.

Is it different, though? A thesis has the benefit of being based around facts, and so all your material is there to work with. It has the difficulty that if something isn't working in the way you structure it, you still need to base it around those facts. Writing a novel, on the other hand, has the benefit that you are the Boss. If things aren't working - you make something up. Its difficulty, however, is that everything in it is supposed to magically appear from your imagination. And what if I find that all my hard work has been completely useless when it comes to sitting down and trying to write a novel?

Maybe the elusive answer is this: to write a historical novel.


Wordle: Armchair of a Bookologist

Forgive me - I know this is nothing exciting - I'm just quite amused by the number of times I apparently said "metal-thingy" on this blog! I'm evidently a literary genius.

Monday, January 17, 2011


I am on the staff for literature magazine Halfway Down the Stairs, so this post will be a shameless use of this space for HDtS-promotion!

1. You should visit it. I really think it's worth reading.

2. You should submit your own work, if you are a writing type of person. See our submissions page for guidelines. Our next issue is "Haunted" - plenty of scope for creativity! - and it comes out on March 1. Deadline for submissions is February 15.

3. If you are a poet, a fan of poetry, or know someone who is - we are looking for a new poetry editor!
This is a volunteer position which requires processing of poetry submissions, and contribution to the 'zine at least twice a year in any genre. It will also probably involve critiquing within the editorial team of personal work. Applications should be sent to inquiries at halfwaydownthestairs dot net, containing at least three examples of your work (at least two of which must be poetry). Previous publication is not necessary (though a bonus).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

his family ... and other animals

I have just finished reading Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals. It's one of those books that I'm delighted to discover now, but really should have come across earlier. Has anyone else coming across this blog read it?

Gerald Durrell
was an English (though Indian-born) naturalist and conservationist who also wrote books about his exploits. I've never even considered reading books about animals before, but that was before I realised how much fruit for story-telling they provided him. This particular book is about the five years he spent with his slightly unconventional family on the Greek island of Corfu in the 1930s, from the age of ten.

It feels like cheating to be able to write a book about your childhood years in Corfu, in a way. Durrell has so much to work with, simply by virtue of living in an absolutely beautiful location, with fascinating wildlife, and interesting people. It also feels like cheating to have such a wonderfully eclectic family, and to have such serendipity in encountering the most unusual variety of people outside the family. But at the same time I get the distinctive idea that Durrell is one of those people who could find interesting things anywhere, and, even if they happen to be swamp-delling reptiles or generous wife-killers, endear them to all his readers.

I laughed out loud for a high percentage of this book. It's full of hilarious moments, brought to the page either by Durrell's family/friends or by animals or by Durrell's family's encounters with his animals. When I wasn't giggling, I was fascinated by the wildlife a teenaged Durrell dug up in various swamps or stumps or seas. Or I was bowled over by his descriptions of Corfu. One particular image stands out: swimming in the sea, at night, with porpoises - the sea so full of phosphoresence that the porpoises shone as they swum underneath or beside him, and the water they splashed sparkling like little diamonds.

I did get bogged down a bit in the descriptive passages at times. But as a whole this book is something lovely to read. A slice of chocolate cake, as books go. I give it three and a half stars.

Monday, January 10, 2011

bookmark the second

I've already done what I threatened. This is how I made a pretty bookmark!

1 metre beading wire
1 particularly pretty Venetian glass bead
1 tube of other beads in complementary colours

Also some tiny metal bead-thingys (I'm sure there's a name for them but I can't remember it). You will need four for this bookmark.
Some pliers to squash them with, to hold the beads in place:

Cut the piece of wire to your desired specifications. It should be roughly long enough to sit in place in a book with beaded sections hanging out on either side.

Scrutinise your beads.
Think hard.
Start creating!
Once you have a short chain of beads that you are happy with, squeeze in place another metal-thingy to stop the beads from slithering up and down the wire.
Place the bookmark in a normally-sized book. At the other end of the wire, squeeze on another metal-thingy (I really need a better name for this) for the next little chain of beads.
Then start threading again! I made the second chain slightly shorter and used slightly smaller beads than the other one, but it's completely up to you.

When finished, squeeze on the last metal-thingy, and cut the wire off at the ends.

I christen thee, o bookmark .... any ideas???? 'Helga' is running through my head and blanking out any other possible names, so I'm going to need some help.

** I bought the beads and other materials at Beadz Unlimited, an awesome beads shop at the Christchurch Arts Centre (awesome even though they have, for some reason, decided it was a good idea to sell an earthquake-ravaged house as a charm bracelet bead). If you're ever in town you should definitely have a look. **

Friday, January 7, 2011

catching up with modernity

For the last few years, I have slightly disapproved of the rise of the e-book.

I had a list of reasons for this:
i. Books are pretty. On a shelf, they add colour to a room.
ii. Books last. There's something nice about this. You can get an author to sign your book, you can sell first editions at ridiculously huge prices further down the line, you can write your own messages in the cover, you can buy secondhand books.
iii. There's something about the feeling of a book in your hand that I would be sad to lose.
iv. Books aren't hard on your eyes like screens can be.
v. I am secretly quite reactionary.

This week, however, I've been in the process of swapping rooms with one of my flatmates. I was at the west end of the house, now I am at the east. The process is still not over. And the process has shown me that I have a ridiculously huge bookshelf.

It's quite light for its size but, once turned on its side, it's extremely difficult to manoeuvre, and you start to notice how BIG it is. It is also full of books. They are currently cluttering up our lounge AND an empty bedroom, along with all the books I don't have room for in my bookcase so have stored in cardboard boxes. It wasn't until I had to physically carry them around with me that I realised how many books I do have.

Kindles, iPads, etc. - looking much more attractive right now!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

merry Christmas to me

For Christmas, my flatmate gave me this little bookmark, which she bought at a craft fair. It's made of brightly-coloured, large beads, threaded (and held in place) on an elastic which hooks around the book holding your place.

At first I was a little doubtful because I don't use bookmarks usually. Instead, I just throw in an old receipt or something, because, when I lose it, it won't matter. But now I am sold! I love bookmarks! They're pretty! Especially bookmarks like this, which are practical and don't mess up the book or get squashed or lost easily, et cetera.

It actually looks pretty simple to make, and so I started wondering if there were equally pretty bookmark ideas out there? Internet search engine, here I come. Of course, I had to wade through a whole bunch of "easy bookmark for kids" websites, but here are a couple of pages that have some gorgeous ideas, some of which I plan to try:

This was the best of the webpages - it links to 38 different bookmark ideas, with photos, and they all look very pretty and very polished but also achievable:

If you can do tatting (I have no idea what it is but assume it's something like crochet, which I can't do!), this is quite a pretty bookmark:

And I quite liked this idea for a beaded bookmark. Don't be put off by the phrase "teen crafts":

The best of British luck to you! I will keep you posted on my own attempts at bookmark creation.