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After a couple of years of listening to people moan about how terrible The Twilight Saga was, I caved last year and borrowed my sister’s copy of the first novel. I read it within 24 hours, ostensibly to that nobody needed to see me reading it in public. I was interested in why it was so popular, when people said the writing was so bad.

So, I read it cover-to-cover in a very short space of time, and yes, it’s full of cliché and awkward sentences, the protagonist is irritatingly self-obsessed, completely stupid, moany and selfish… and most of the criticism you’ve heard about the books is probably true.

BUT… I read the second book. And then I watched the first two films. And I read the online pdf of Midnight Sun. And, next time I go home, I will probably borrow the third book from my sister. And I know exactly why.

Stephanie Meyer has demonstrated a couple of things to me. One is that a fantastic idea sometimes trumps excellent writing. Another is that people absolutely relish a story of forbidden love. As an example, here is a little summary of why I enjoyed the first two books:

Bella and Edward love each other but aren’t able to act upon it (unrequited love – tick, unresolved sexual tension – triple tick). When they’re finally able to start a relationship, things happen which get in the way (barriers to love – tick). Edward spends a lot of time trying to resist temptation, and eventually abandons Bella, so they’re both unhappy (more unrequited love). Jacob comes along (yet more unrequited love, AND a liberal dash of will-they-won’t-they). At the same time as all this is happening, Bella keeps getting herself into stupid situations, and Edward has to come and rescue her (damsel in distress, heroic Byronic hero unashamedly inspired by Mr Darcy).

I mean… come on! Meyer’s a genius. If I want something mindless, romantic and comforting to read or watch, I would probably consider The Twilight Saga.  She’s cornered the market on modern romance novels by putting everything we could possibly dream of into the books.

And although people are still criticising the books (often rightfully), there is a slow trickle of articles heading the other way. An article in the Guardian today suggests that some of the criticism of the novels is unfounded, and one of my favourite writing websites, The Blood-Red Pencil, has a blog post about how we can learn from techniques in Meyer’s writing, and which says everything I’ve tried to say here a little bit clearer.

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E-Reader? No, Thank You.

… I’ve always been a bit sniffy about e-readers. I understand that they’re convenient, and slick, and ‘just-like-reading-off-the-page’, and ‘you-can-store-a-whole-library-in-here’, etc. But, to be frightfully honest, I just don’t care how great they are.

I can fit a book in my handbag, and if a book won’t fit, I jollywell buy a new handbag.

No one can write a message inside the front cover of an e-book. You’re not going to pick up a second-hand copy of an e-book to find ‘I saw this book and thought of you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did’ or even ‘Happy Mothers’ Day 1997, love Catherine’.

In fact, will the days of buying a book as a present be over? Electronic books certainly would hamper such a kind gift. After all, it’s rare that someone buys a downloadable music album as a present.

There won’t be any underlining, or folded corners of pages. And the more risqué e-books will never fall open at the most exciting pages.

E-books don’t smell like the back of an old person’s wardrobe. I can’t pick up an e-book and breathe it in, and sigh with pleasure.

If you drop a book in the bath, its pages curl but you can still read it once it dries. Drop an e-reader in the bath and that’s an awfully expensive bathing experience.

Similarly, if you lose a book, or leave it on a train, it’s not the end of the world. An e-reader on the other hand, is a whole new experience.

How many times has someone said “I must lend you this book! You’ll just love it.”? Last week I lent a friend a copy of Revolutionary Road, and am genuinely excited to hear his opinions of it when he hands it back. I doubt an e-book is so easy to share.

Bookcrossing. This is magical. Can’t do that with an e-reader.

I like to see how many pages I’ve read, how many I have yet to read.

I like people to see the book I’m reading and talk to me about it if they have opinions. I want to smile at someone on the train and say “I’ve read that, too. Are you enjoying it?”

I just love books, OK? As objects, they’re beautiful. A e-reader stops a book being an object and turns it into a file. It no longer has a cover, or individual pages. It no longer really exists. If I ever write  a novel, I want to produce something I can hold in my hands, and feel the achievement of what I have accomplished.

I don’t want an e-reader.

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The Case for Fathers

“That fathers not only kill adventure but also stand in the way of self expression in a child is something that children’s writers have always understood.”

Really? According to Andrew Martin, a novelist who wrote and presented “Disappearing Dads: the curious case of absent fathers in fiction”. He wrote an accompanying blog post on the subject, which can be found here.

The essential message in both the programme and the blog is that fathers in fiction are often absent, and those who are present are either ineffectual layabouts or aggressive tyrants. There is a concentration on children’s literature and Dickens, with a vague mention of Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.

This programme really makes me sad. I don’t agree with a lot of what he says: Mr Bennett is not a terrible father, he just knows the futility of engaging with his wife and younger children, but if needed he will step in immediately, as he does when Mrs Bennett threatens not to speak to Lizzie if she doesn’t marry Mr Collins.

Strong father figures do exist in fiction, although they are admittedly less common than the previously mentioned types of fathers. Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (although he does go to war, he is strong and loving when he is present). I have tried desperately not to mention The Railway Children because just thinking about it makes me cry! But that’s all about a lovely Dad, who isn’t weak, and who is present throughout (if not in person, in the characters’ thoughts and deeds), as mentioned by DaveG in the comments on  the BBC blog. But Martin says: “[The children in The Railway Children] miss their father, but not much. His absence is compared to what happens when you stick your finger into dough: it made a deep impression but the impression does not last long.” He goes on to say, “With father back on the scene, the fun is over.”

And Martin’s programme seems unclear about the distinction between real-life fathers and fathers in fiction, which are very different things. Just because Dickens only wrote one novel with a present father (Dombey and Son), doesn’t mean that fathers in real life Victorian London weren’t present or fatherly. Martin fails to mention Joe Gargery of Great Expectations, a substitute father figure who really should be included if we’re talking about Dickens and fathers.

In the comments of the article, two people have mentioned Phillip Pullman, saying: “Mothers are also absent from most books. Was it Philip Pullman who said you first have to get rid of the parents?” And here is the key to the puzzle. Children’s literature, even examples cited by Martin himself, often relies on absent parents, not absent fathers. Adventures are constrained by parents, so frequently a protagonist is an orphan: Harry Potter, Oliver Twist, Pip… even James Bond is an orphan! The Pevensey children are evacuated in the Narnia books, and the Famous Five are always being independent in a lighthouse or similar. Removing the parents (or parent) is a device used by some writers to push the story along, to add some tension and adventure. But this is fiction, there are many, many exceptions, and it doesn’t and shouldn’t reflect on real life understanding of the role of fathers now or in the past.

So back to the quote (it’s about 19 minutes into the programme): “That fathers not only kill adventure but also stand in the way of self expression in a child is something that children’s writers have always understood.”

If he’s talking about real life, Martin cites no real life examples. If he’s talking about fiction, Martin should probably substitute the term ‘father’ with ‘parents’ for many books.

At the end, Martin says: “Fathers in fiction stifle a child’s inner life. But fathers in real life can help promote it.” I wish he’d said that throughout the programme.

What does everyone else think?

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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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Books Read 2009

January
The Magus by John Fowles
The New Confessions by William Boyd
Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
February
She by H. Ryder Haggard
Katherine by Anya Seton
March
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee
The Bolter by Frances Osborne
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barrie
The Outsider by Albert Camus
April
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman
May
Arthur and George by Julian Barnes
June
Howards End by E.M. Forster
Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert
A Man of Property by John Galsworthy
July
In Chancery by John Galsworthy
To Let by John Galsworthy
The White Monkey by John Galsworthy
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Jules et Jim by Henri-Pierre Roche
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
August
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Sleepless Moon by H.E. Bates
Elevent Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates
September
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
October
Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan
On Writing by Stephen King
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Saturday by Ian McEwan
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
November
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The Believers by Zoe Heller
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates
December
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

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The Original of Laura

Today marks the publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished work, The Original of Laura.

The problem is this: it was never published in Nabokov’s lifetime and he requested that it be destroyed after he died. Although the destruction of the manuscript seems like a terrible waste, should his dying wishes have been respected?

And, now that it is actually published anyway, we might as well read it, right?

I’m not sure. It seems disrespectful. What does everyone else think?

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