Thursday, March 26, 2015
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 Amazon.com 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.
Friday, March 20, 2015
This is one of those posts that may mean little to my overseas readers, put perhaps they will understand its relevance if they read through to the end.
Yesterday a former prime minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser, died at the age of eighty-four. In the middle of the nineteen seventies, Fraser was a key mover in a political event that rocked Australia. In 1972, after decades of right wing Australian governments, a reformist Labor (this is how the Australian Labor Party spells it) government was elected under the leadership of prime minister, Gough Whitlam (who died last year). In hindsight it can be seen that this government tried to do too much too quickly, and that some of its measures were unwise. Nevertheless, to a fifteen-year-old, just becoming politically aware, this signalled the dawning of a new age.
Over time this government managed to get itself into a mess and, in 1975, the upper house of parliament (here called the Senate) blocked supply, making it very difficult for Whitlam to govern. Eventually, the Governor-General stepped in, dismissed the government, and set up Malcolm Fraser and his Liberal Party as the caretaker government, until an election could be hastily arranged. Malcolm Fraser won this election very convincingly.
This Governor-General... Who was he? In our archaic political system he is the Queen’s representative—that’s the monarch of the United Kingdom, of course. In many ways he is like the president of a country in which that role is largely ceremonial—who nevertheless officially appoints (and can dismiss) the government.
At the time, to a raving red like myself, the dismissal of Whitlam was like a coup, and it remains forever engraved in the nation’s memory: 11 December 1975, now Remembrance Day for another reason. The election following this dismissal was the first at which I was old enough to vote. This is all very memorable for me for so many reasons.
Over the years, Malcolm Fraser established himself as an elder statesman in world politics. He was a champion of civil rights, and particularly of refugees. I came to admire him. Later in life, he left the Liberal Party, following the election to the party’s leadership of Tony Abbott (our current Prime Minister).
Recently I posted on Facebook that Malcolm Fraser had ‘seen the error of his ways’ in later years. I am pleased to be corrected by those who knew him personally, and by those with greater insight into Australia’s political history. For you see, it wasn’t Malcolm Fraser who changed. He had been an advocate for human rights even in his earlier years. He had never moved to the left. What actually happened was that the Australian political ‘centre’ moved so far to the right in ensuing years that Malcolm Fraser now appeared as a ‘radical lefty’, left even of the Labor Party. To my overseas readers, it would be as though Reagan was suddenly considered too left wing for the Democrats (let alone the Republicans), or Thatcher too left wing for the British Labour (yes, they spell it correctly) Party (let alone the Conservative Party).
Fraser left the Liberal Party because, he said, they were no longer the liberal party but the conservative party. There is no meaningful sense in which today’s Liberal Party is ‘liberal’, even to the extent that they are the champions of civil liberties vis-a-vis government: Witness the draconian laws they continue to introduce in the name of ‘security’; witness their opposition to gay marriage. The party is socially and economically conservative, and in no sense liberal. At least the British Conservative Party is honest about this, although it seems to me, as a distant observer, that the British ‘conservative’ government is progressive compared to ours.
From a broader historical and political perspective it is astonishing that many people in Australia today (including myself) can regard Malcolm Fraser as a closet lefty. Where does that leave us today? I dread to think.
Sunday, March 15, 2015
Many would probably struggle to understand this question. What other possible reason could there be for reading a novel? It seems to be the case today that a brilliantly written book will not sell if it is not also entertaining.
I suppose it all depends on how broad is your definition of entertainment, but I suspect that for most people it is quite narrow. Entertainment, says the Macquarie Dictionary, refers to ‘something affording diversion or amusement.’ For a book to entertain it has to make the reader laugh or excite her; it has to keep him on the edge of his seat. Entertainment is about escapism. The need to escape is widespread these days, and why would that surprise us?
So where does this leave literature that confronts, moves, or even distresses the reader? Apart from some science fiction and fantasy novels, which I have usually read for entertainment, the book I have probably read most often over the years—one I have returned to at different stages in my development—is Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence. Is this an entertaining book? Almost certainly not. I read it and wrestle with it. I sometimes want to murder the lead male character, Paul, and am often not much more positively inclined towards one of the female leads, Miriam. I lose myself in the language, and I find myself struggling with the philosophy and ethics that the novel embodies.
Is this entertainment? Certainly not according to the dictionary definition. It is a much more profound and lasting experience than is suggested by the word ‘entertainment’.
More recently I read The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. Was that entertaining? Surprisingly, at times it was. But it was also much, much more than that.
I am the same when it comes to movies. Of course, I will sometimes go to the cinema to be entertained. It’s more and more difficult not to, these days, since that seems the primary aim of movie makers. But the movies that have been most memorable for me have not necessarily been entertaining, in any sense of the word that I could imagine. Think of Sophie’s Choice. It’s not entertaining, but it is gut-wrenchingly moving, challenging and memorable.
I don’t mind when a book is entertaining. It is quite possible for a book to be both entertaining and something much more. What I look for in a book is something that makes me think, that moves me, that leaves a lasting impression, that may even be life changing. Writing and reading are about far more important things than entertainment, although they can be about that too.
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
Well, I’ve had my smartphone now for over two years, and I remain completely unconverted. It remains an expensive piece of not very much, which sits beside me on the desk, or is tucked away in my back pocket when I am out.
Since I moved into rental accommodation I decided not to have a land line (except for the internet), so my smartphone is now my only phone, and it occasionally gets used as such. For the rest, I have texted occasionally; a few times I have used it to browse the internet, because I was too lazy to walk over to the computer, which is rarely more than a few feet away; I have used it to do my banking, which, again, I could have easily done on the computer. So a few times it has saved me the terrible effort of having to stand up from the couch and walk the four or five feet to my desk. For this privilege I pay how much a month?
As for the rest of the wonderful things people apparently do with their phones... Clearly none of them interest me. I have tried a few apps. They invariably sit there unused, taking up unneeded space on my hard drive.
Obviously I don’t live in the same world as those people who (apparently) consider their smartphone an invaluable asset, something that has changed their lives, and something they could not manage without.
When I buy a new phone I would happily replace it with a dumb one. Except that’s probably not even possible anymore.
There was a time, when I was a wee tacker, that I thought a ghostwriter was someone who... well... wrote ghost stories. Or was a ghost who wrote. Now I am older and wiser. Now I understand that a ghostwriter is the invisible (and scary?) figure that stands behind the purported author of a book. Because, you see, that great writer Elmer Dudd, who is there in the bookstore signing copies of his latest tome, didn’t actually write it. He can, in fact, barely sign his name. (What we don’t realise is that there is ghostsigner under the table doing it for him.)
I was thinking of making another late-life career change. I thought I might become a great painter (the artist type, not the home-decorator type). I’ll just hire a ghostpainter and, before long, everyone will know me as the great artist I’m not.
I have no problem if our friend Elmer Dudd wants to write his autobiography, but realises he’s not that great with
wuds wirds... er, words. That’s fine: My Life as a Dudd (as told to...) works
for me. But for Elmer to pretend he wrote it... Is it just me, or is that not a
Then there are the ‘brand’ names. Hmmm, is this a genuine Tom Clancy novel, or should we attribute it to the ‘school’ of Tom Clancy? If I actually read Tom Clancy novels I might feel a little cheated to find out that Hermione Berkrumpah actually wrote the latest ‘Tom Clancy’ novel I just downloaded to my Kindle. Nothing at all against Ms Berkrumpah. No doubt she is an outstanding author in her own right.
At least Virginia Andrews has been dead long enough for most of us to have cottoned on to the fact that many of the books with her name blazoned across the top were not actually written by her. Or is she a real ghostwriter?
Next week I thought I might become a brain surgeon... or an astronaut.
Saturday, March 7, 2015
Once upon a time, women used to object to the exploitation of women in the media, to the sexual objectification of women to promote goods and services. Perhaps they still do. At least, I hope so. But has this actually achieved anything? Is there any less exploitation of women for this purpose than there ever was? Not so that you would notice.
Instead, what we see more and more nowadays is the sexual objectification of men for the same purpose. I would never claim that this is as widespread as the exploitation of women, but it is on the increase.
So what is happening here? Is this the result that the feminist movement, seeking to put an end to the sexual objectification of women, wanted to achieve? Is this the ‘equality’ feminism sought? There is no less sexual objectification of women in the media today than twenty, thirty, forty years ago. There is probably more. And now we have the sexual objectification of men too.
I don’t blame feminism for this at all. But I do think that no feminist should celebrate this. It’s a bizarre victory, if it’s a victory at all. It’s as if we lived in a society in which women (and only women) were held as slaves—some might say we do, indeed, live in such a society. Women in this society, free women and slaves alike—and even some men—rise up to protest this gross injustice. They win equality! Now men can be kept as slaves too.
I would have thought that the sexual objectification of any person, male or female, to sell some crappy product, is offensive. Not because it is sexual per se, but because it is exploitative. It exploits both the person used to promote the product and the person buying it. But then, when did ethics ever count for anything in advertising?
Some women perhaps savour the sweet taste of revenge when seeing men exploited in this way. Fair enough. Who can blame them? Perhaps the female slaves in our imagined society also rub their hands together with glee at seeing men now enslaved alongside them. Tomorrow, though, they will still wake up as slaves.
Thursday, March 5, 2015
It seems to be an American habit, but perhaps not exclusively—American habits have a way of colonising other cultures, do they not?—to say of someone that he ‘got off of his horse’... or the chair or the bed or the train... ‘That’s an ill phrase, a vile phrase,’ Pollonius might say.
First of all, it’s not necessary to say ‘off of’. ‘He stepped off of the ladder’ tells us no more than ‘He stepped off the ladder’. But, secondly, can’t we be a little more imaginative than this? There is a perfectly good expression for ‘getting off of a horse’: ‘He dismounted’. I can say, ‘He stepped off [of] the ladder’, or I can say, ‘He climbed down’ (assuming we already know he is up there). No manuscript I ever edit will retain the phrase ‘off of’ when I return it to the author.
Then there is ‘out of’. ‘He took the watch out of his pocket’ may seem like a perfectly simple and natural thing to say. But why use two words when one will suffice? ‘He took the watch from his pocket.’
There are a few others I could toss in. ‘He stood up...’ Is there any other way to stand than up? ‘He sat down...’ Ditto. ‘He stood.’ ‘He sat.’ ‘The expression on his face...’ Where else is an expression likely to be? ‘His expression.’
I suspect the issue here is that we often write as we speak. When we speak the words are jumping out of... er, from... our mouths as soon as we think them. They are, indeed, unedited. This is sometimes fine for writing dialogue, but not, generally, the narrative which surrounds it. Even in dialogue it can become so ‘naturalistic’ as to be unreadable. When we write we have time to think of a better word. We can erase the mistakes, edit out the hesitations. We can take the time to use the correct grammar. I never send an unedited email, or even an unedited text message or tweet. That’s not to say that I always edit them well!
Even in dialogue, or in a first person narrative, there is an art to creating a naturalistic feel which is, in fact, highly crafted and artificial. In writing we represent and evoke, rather than seeking to reproduce stark reality.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
I grew up reading the classics of fantasy and science fiction, and these genres have always been dear to my heart. In recent years, however, I have come to despair at the overblown and bloated thing that fantasy (in particular) has become. It is a pleasure, then, to read and review an SF/F novel that avoids many of the pitfalls into which fantasy is prone to fall.
Keepers of the Dawn, the first volume in Herb J Smith’s Dawn Cycle series is every bit the epic SF/F novel, at around 668 pages in the paperback version. It is set in what (it quickly becomes apparent) is some kind of post-apocalyptic, future earth. The precise nature of the catastrophe that overwhelmed the earth some two thousand years earlier remains unclear. We are introduced into a society populated by the Penitents and the Viles, two offshoots of the human race long at war with one another. The Penitent world is dominated by a Church led by a Popess. The Vile world is united into a Kalifai by a Vile called Rue-A-Kai, who has the ability to transfer his spirit from body to body: as one body wears out he claims another, using a powerful Stone. The Viles are all severely mutated, although it is clear that the Penitent peoples are also not entirely free of mutation. Both peoples of this world participate in the ‘ether’, via which they are able to communicate mentally with others.
The Penitents of this world have for two millennia kept the Viles contained within a particular section of the world, a kind of badlands. Rue-A-Kai has united the Kalifain people in their attempts to break out of this confinement.
The world inhabited by these people is only part of the entire earth. It is bounded on each side by powerful fields of energy known as the Teeth. Religious belief holds that Paradise lies beyond these Teeth, and that both the Viles and Penitents have been excluded from Paradise by a divine being, a Nameless One, as punishment for past sins. One day a Saviour will appear to bring down the Teeth and admit people once again to Paradise. The Viles and the Penitents adhere to different religious interpretations, but there are many commonalities among their beliefs. That there are reflections here of the religious divisions in our own contemporary reality is apparent, but this not laboured too much.
Into this world is born Bartu, the son of a blacksmith in a small village. Bartu is a ‘mishappen’, one born amongst the Penitents who nevertheless has some kind of mutation. Bartu’s physical mutation is emerald eyes, but his other mutation is far more serious: he is a mental deaf-mute. He is heir, via his father, of a secret tradition among the Penitents: his family is committed to protecting the Book of Ancient Power, which ultimately will have a role to play in the redemption of the Penitents. Rue-A-Kai longs to seize this book which, together with the Powerstone in his possession, an ancient prophecy claims can be used to break through the Teeth.
Eventually, circumstances force Bartu on a quest to save the Book and defeat Rue-A-Kai. On this quest he is joined by Penu-Um-Brah, a Vile and former key figure in Rue-A-Kai’s forces, Braxon, a Prince of one of the five kingdoms of the Penitent world, his advisor, Volar, a renegade wizard called Zandow, and Zandow’s enigmatic foster child, Shadow.
I begin my assessment of this book with some negative praise. I will mention some of the things the author does not do.
Although there are minor characters and occasionally other narrative streams, the author invests most of his time and energy into the characters just mentioned. The reader is not overwhelmed by a plethora of voices, or lost in a bewildering array of parallel narrative streams. You do not struggle to remember who that character is, who was last encountered a hundred or more pages ago. You do not drown in the points of view of a hundred minor characters who play no real role in the story, and may never appear again. The narrative is disciplined and constrained.
The author does not drag the reader through every single conversation in which every single character participates. He does not force us to share every meal and every random thought. It does not take the characters one hundred pages to undertake a journey of a few miles. The author knows how to focus on what is important. At times, years—yes years—pass by in just a few sentences. Again, this is about being focussed and disciplined.
There are battles scenes here, but these are largely sketched out in an impressionistic style, occasionally zooming in on a key conflict. Mercifully, they do not stretch on for page after page of mind-numbing maiming and beheading.
There is political intrigue; there are religious and social systems to be explained. This is done sparingly, on a need-to-know basis. This in no way detracts from the understanding the reader has of this world, or his/her involvement with it.
On a more positive note, the story is engaging, intriguing, and fascinating. The admixture of science fiction and fantasy is not new. However, I found myself hanging on the hints about the world of the Ancients, and about the remnants of that world that persist into the present. The reader quickly understands what the Book of Ancient Power actually is or, at least, what it closely resembles. It is not difficult to work out what the Mountain of Titans is. My one criticism here is that the author occasionally labours over these descriptions past the point at which the reader has ‘got it’. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see the characters struggling to understand these things, and their own interpretations are often engaging.
The characters are all well-developed and multi-dimensional, with complex and fleshed-out back stories. There are no simple goodies and baddies here, except perhaps Rue-A-Kai, who is unrelentingly evil. However, he provides background for the narrative, and rarely assumes the role of an active, present character. The relationships are also complex and realistic. The love relationship that develops here bears no resemblance to the romantic, dewy-eyed, naive romances that often characterise fantasy.
There was one point in the narrative, about three quarters of the way through, when I felt it became bogged down. The action virtually ceases and for a time there is little but conversation, planning and the characters’ ruminations. This provides some additional back story and explains more about the world, but much of this I felt was redundant. This is in contrast with the scene at the end of the book when the magician Zandow is filling in some of the missing pieces. This conversation comes to life, and quenches the reader’s thirst.
Finally, this story comes to a satisfying resolution. Yes, there is clearly more to come. But the reader is not forced to wait years for the next volume in order to find out what happens. There is no cliff hanger here, although there is plenty to whet the reader's appetite about what is to come. There are many unanswered questions about the nature of this world and its future, but I felt satisfied at the end that I had read a complete story.
I have no hesitation giving this four stars.