Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

I think I am the type of person who needs to do something thoroughly and properly, otherwise I risk giving up halfway through. It’s why I have dozens of notebooks with only the first five pages filled in, because I decided my handwriting wasn’t neat enough, and suddenly that notebook isn’t good enough to write in anymore (oh dear). It’s why I take great care when choosing a pen from a stationer, and why it’s very important that my desk is tidy, otherwise I won’t sit at it (just realised why I haven’t sat at my desk for about two months).

A couple of months ago I got a spark of an idea for a novel, and after writing everything down in a vague semblance of chapter plans and character profiles, I realised I had no idea where to start. I knew I needed to begin it properly, otherwise I wouldn’t get anywhere. So I got in touch with a writerly friend of mine and asked if he had any recommendations for books about structuring and planning a novel. The next time I saw him, he handed me a copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. I was a little bit perplexed, and it sat on my desk (which, yes, was messy) for a long time, until I realised that I would have to return the book before I move to Edinburgh, and I was spurred into action.

The book is great. Field breaks down the process of writing a screenplay into manageable chunks. He quantifies everything (suggesting how many pages of character biography to write, etc), which works for me as perspective like that helps me understand and stops me getting demotivated.

You’re encouraged to describe your screenplay in one sentence (“A PERSON, in a PLACE, doing a THING”) before you begin writing or planning, and then you slowly build the foundations of your idea until your main character has a context and a history, and a mapped trajectory of character development through your screenplay. Unlike Stephen King in On Writing, Field suggests you must know your ending before you even plan your beginning. He repeats the important messages (“Action is character”) until you’re a little bored, but that’s the way those messages will stick in your head.

Yes, it is a book about writing a screenplay, and some of the guidance isn’t entirely relevant to a novel. Field presents the structure of a screenplay as completely formulaic, with Act One taking place from pages 1-30, Act 2 pages 31-90, and so on, but if you’re using this book as a basis from which to plot a novel, that formula could offer a valuable guide which may point you in the right direction, but which shouldn’t constrain you to a great extent.

It’s important to remember that film and novels are different mediums, so the rules will never be entirely applicable across the board, but I did really enjoy this book and I think it offers bottom-up ideas and foundations which can be applied to many forms of writing. I would recommend it.

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This is my second review in the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge. For the first review, of Matt Beaumont’s E Squared, click here.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Sallinger, ‘Sweet Valley High as written by George Eliot’, Silvia Plath… Dead Poet’s Society… Clueless… The OC.

Not a list of my favourite things, but a combination of the comparisons plastered all over the front cover, back cover, and inside pages of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. Opinions of reviewers from The New Yorker, The Observer, The Independent on Sunday… and I thought the book sounded really interesting.

Prep is the story of 14-year-old Lee Fiora, a scholarship girl at a rich boarding school in the United States. Like most 14-year olds, she wants to fit in with the crowd, be popular, and get noticed by boys. And… well, that’s about it, really.

My first impressions were mixed: the first-person narrative suggested a self-centred and slightly dull character, but I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, sensing a slight oddity of character reminiscent of Joanne Harris’ Gentlemen and Players. There was a sense of imminent tension and suspicion which promised a lot. Perhaps she’ll turn out to be some kind of sociopath, I thought to myself. Now that would be exciting.

By page sixty, I’d written in my notes: “But is this tension realised? Revisit this: at the moment it seems a bit directionless. Something big has to happen so otherwise I will be disappointed.”

But Lee is a boring character with absolutely no personality. Her opinions are based on class, race, appearance and wealth: she assumes that attending an expensive school will make her happy, and can’t comprehend why the richer pupils aren’t happy, or popular, when they’re so wealthy. Surely everyone would want to be their friend because they’re rich and they have long blonde hair? Eurgh.

By page 130, I was bored and frustrated. Absolutely nothing had happened, except for a few short scenes which didn’t seem to be building up into any kind of climax or incident. The only tension was created by my expectations: expectations which were fuelled by my experiences of reading other, conventionally structured books which used tension, action, character, and story to fuel the narrative. I couldn’t envisage how the book would climax or even stutter to a boring, deflated end. In my notes, I wrote: “Either this is building up to something elaborate, created from all the tiny threads of story, or it’s frustratingly badly structured. Even if it is building up to something, I should be engaged by now.”

Around page 260, I closed the book and gave up. I don’t know whether Lee Fiora turned out to be an interesting character, or whether anything remotely interesting happened in the remaining 200 pages. Even if it did, the wait was too long.

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This is my first review in the Summer Reading Challenge from Between the Lines.

The novel takes place in January 2009, and centres on the employees of an advertising agency, Meerkat360. The company is a menagerie of madness, power games and magnified corporate ridiculousness. Any reader who has worked in an office will recognise the employees at Meerkat360: Harvey Harvey, deranged and socially inept, and ‘so polite he replies to spam’; Liam, desperately trying to get his girlfriend back and wallowing in a pit of debt; Milton Keane, desperate to get on BB10 and ‘so totally not gay, really’; Caroline Zitter, perpetually absent due to self-improvement conferences; Ted Berry, creative director (‘Mc Ideas’), so pretentious he believes that the creative team should have a ‘hairdresser in residence’; and David ‘The Man’ Crutton, whose children are running wild, and the whole world is conspiring against him.

A lot happens, and it’s all a bit nuts. From run-of-the-mill office stationery stealing and broken spam filters, down to Margaret Thatcher perfume and rampaging coked-up pitbulls, it’s all there in E Squared. Each character (and there are many) is vibrant and well-drawn, with a very distinct personality. Each character’s individual plot line is interwoven into a complicated but amazingly easy-to-follow structure.

Like it or not, online communication is inescapable, especially in this book. E Squared by Matt Beaumont is a novel constructed entirely of modern communication forms: texts, emails, blogs and online chat. This is an original format, which is engaging and entertaining throughout, but it does have some drawbacks. The reader never sees immediate action take place, and by necessity is always ‘told’ and not ‘shown’ what has happened. The punchy and sharp nature of emails and texts means that towards the middle of the novel I felt a bit bludgeoned over the head with a computer. Although the short, punchy emails were realistic and did advance the plot, the reader in me wanted some chunky prose to get my teeth into. The blog posts were a welcome insight, and offered an opportunity to provide further insight into the characters (along with some continuous prose), but unfortunately this wasn’t used to its full potential. On the other hand, the use of emails and texts did provide an excellent insight into the minds of the characters, and the attention to detail (forgotten subject lines when emails have been rushed, for instance) was impressive.

There are some very funny moments. David Crutton and his wife refusing to communicate directly with each other, choosing instead to use their PAs as intermediaries. Harvey Harvey replying to all of his spam, terribly concerned about Comfort the Nigerian girl with millions of dollars to deposit in a UK bank account. For me, though, these subtler amusing moments were my favourites, and were occasionally overshadowed by the more outrageous events: loan shark gangsters shooting each other, the Serbian employee offering to torture potential stationery thieves for a confession, and an employee with a fear of flying being detained in Guantanamo Bay for suspected terrorism.

All in all, it was a very entertaining read, and a nice satire of modern office environments. It’s not as rib-splittingly hilarious as the blurbs on the book cover promise, but it is amusing. I would give it 7/10.

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Reviewing: Yes or No?

By chance, I found this on Twitter:

Bree Despain goes on to explain:

This discussion is quite timely, as I’ve just posted about reviewing books. As is probably clear from the content of this blog, I am indeed an ‘aspiring author’, and my interests don’t just lie with my own work. I like to read, all the time. I like to think about others’ writing as well as my own, and I enjoy analysing it: why the writing works, and (if necessary) why it doesn’t.

I won’t be setting out to write negative reviews, but if I don’t like a book for any reason, I would say so. And I would analyse why I don’t like it, and maybe even how it could be improved. I will try to be as fair and measured as possible, and I must emphasise that a review is only the opinion of one person. For every one person who doesn’t like  a book, there will be twenty who do.

So, I don’t intend making any enemies or hindering my own prospects, but I would like to be able to review books if I want to. What does everyone else think?

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I’m going to be doing the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge: reading four books and posting the reviews on this blog. So here’s a question: what do you think makes a good book review?

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