Category Archives: Bookends

10 literary mothers – the good, the bad and the ugly

It’s Mothering Day in the UK today – or to give it its secular name, Mother’s Day. A day when we are asked to show our appreciation for the women who brought us into the world. Mothers in books, just as they do in real life, come in all shapes and sizes. Some epitomise wisdom; love and thoughtfulness; others, well shall we say, reflect less desirable qualities.

To mark this day here’s a list of the good, the bad and the decidedly horrid mothers in literature.

Role model mothers

Mrs March: Little Women by Louisa M Alcott

Idealised motherhood as seen in this 1949 film version of Little Women

If you’re looking for a vision of maternal perfection, look no further than Mrs March (also known as Marmee) in Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. She’s left to look after the home and her four daughters while her husband goes off to provide religious comfort to troops in the American civil war. Using a mixture of common sense and homilies she nurtures the girls to adulthood and encouraging them to be fine, upstanding young women of whom their father would be proud. The saccharine levels in this novel are at maximum setting but if you can get beyond that, it’s easy to appreciate a woman for whom there can be “no greater happiness” than to see her daughters happy and fulfilled in life.

 

 

Helen Graham: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

The obstacles Mrs March had to overcome to realise her dreams for her daughters, are as nothing compared to the obstacles facing Helen Graham, the mother figure in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Her escape fromArthur Huntingdon, her womanising, alcoholic husband, wasn’t simply going against every standard of behaviour at the time, it was illegal. Bronte’s first readers would have been well aware that Helen, as a married woman had no independent existence in English law. She had no right to enter into contracts unless under her husband’s name; no right to sue for divorce and no rights over the control and custody of her children. When Helen thus decides to leave her husband to protect her son from his father’s corrupting influence, she exposes herself to the threat of arrest as a kidnapper.

Ma: Room by Emma Donoghue

Protection of  her son is also foremost in the mind of the mother in Emma Donoghue’s Room. Ma lives in a small space with five-year old Jack, the child born from repeated rape by her abductor. All Jack has ever known is Ma and Room; he has no concept of the world outside except what comes via their television set. It takes every ounce of courage and resourcefulness to protect and nurture her son, making the best of  the limited resources at her disposal.

Questionable behaviour

Paula Hook: Tomorrow by Graham Swift

Late at night a mother mentally rehearses a conversation that will take place the following morning when her husband will reveal a secret that’s been kept hidden for sixteen years. Paula traces the history of her marriage, from the time when as students in Sussex she first met the biology student Mike. She holds nothing back – tomorrow will be a revelation that might destroy their family so she believes her children need a full understanding of the background. Her marriage has been a very physical relationship she imagines telling 16-year-old Nick and Kate. And then goes onto provide the kind of details  I suspect most teenagers simply don’t want to know about their mother.

Mrs Bennet: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Alison Steadman as Mrs Bennet in BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice

Austen portrays Mrs B as “a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper”. She’s made a comic figure, a gossip who has a habit of putting her foot (or in her case her mouth) in it to the detriment of her elder daughter’s hopes of marrying an eminently desirable wealthy young man. But despite her flaws, it’s difficult to be too harsh on this woman. Her actions, as crass as they are on times, are driven by economic necessity.  She has five daughters and lives in an age where, if they do not secure a good marriage, they will be reduced to earning their own income as seamstresses or governesses.  Faced with that precarious existence, even marriage to a scoundrel like George Wickham is better than spinsterhood in her eyes.

Lady Arabella Gresham: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope

Another mother who plots and schemes to get her offspring married. Lady Gresham is married to a squire whose estate is in a precarious state so it’s imperative that the heir Frank Gresham, marries a wealthy woman. It matters not to his mother that his heart is set on a sweet young lady from the village. She will do everything possible to see that Frank comes to his senses and puts his own family’s needs ahead of his own interests. This is a woman who risks alienating her son, her husband, her medical adviser as a result of her determination.
Emma Bovary: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Does Emma deserve sympathy or condemnation? Is she simply a hopeless romantic who yearns to escape marriage to one of the dullest men on earth? Or a manipulative little minx who runs up debts because she can’t stop spending money on frivolities?  Whichever way you choose to look at Emma’s character, the reality is that her frustrations with the banalities and emptiness of her provincial life  have a long term impact on her daughter Berthe. Left an orphan, the young girl is taken into the care of her grandmother. But when she in turn dies, Berthe is despatched to live with an impoverished aunt who forces her to work in a cotton mill; exactly the kind of life Emma was desperate to avoid.

Beyond redemption? 


‘The Mother’: Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Pity the girl who has this woman for a mother. Ostensibly a devout woman of her fundamentalist religious community, this is a woman whose zeal disguises a lack of compassion and goodness. Having adopted Jess she plans to make her a servant of God. But when the girl doesn’t conform to the required behaviour is locked in her room without food and subjected to physical assault. Later when the girl discovers she is a lesbian she is publicly condemned by her mother and forced to go through two lengthy exorcisms.

 

Corinne Dollanganger: Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews 

Few readers get to the end of this novel viewing Mrs Corrine Dollanganger as anything but a horror figure. Ok so she is left in debt when her husband, the father of her four children, is killed in a car accident. Understandable that, with no skills of her own to help her get a job, she moves in with her estranged wealthy parents. But when her mother Olivia, insists the children must be hidden from their grandfather, and confines them to an attic wouldn’t you think any self-respecting mother would say no way? Not Corinne. But then what mother would abandon her children for weeks and then poisons them so she can keep her inheritance.?  And what kind of grandmother is this that no only colludes in this horrific behaviour, but is one of the main perpetrators?

Medea: Medea by Euripides

If only Corinne and Olivia were the worst models of motherhood it would be possible to imagine. But we have only to look back a few centuries to find a figure of equally horrific proportions. I wonder if William Congreve had Medea in mind when he wrote:

“Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.” (The Mourning Bride)

When Medea discovers her husband Jason has abandoned her for a younger model, she unleashes her fury on his new bride, sending her a dress soaked in poison. Jason reproaches her but she’s having none of it and in revenge kills their two sons. Medea’s rationale is that when a woman “is wronged in the matter of love, no other soul can hold so many thoughts of blood.”  Now you’d think this would be the kind of behaviour guaranteed to make the Gods extremely angry with her. What they actually do is to send a chariot to pick her and and transport her to a new life in Athens. I wonder what the Greeks in the audience thought of this benevolent outcome?

 

The Best of the Booker winners

I’ve never met Joslyn except through her blog Chronic Bibliophilia. Her home is in Massachusetts, USA. Mine is in Wales, UK. Thousands of miles separate us physically but we are united by one thing – our interest in the novels that win what’s considered one of the most prestigious prizes in the literary world: The Booker Prize. Over the last few years each of us has been reading through the list of winners.

Which of these are our favourites – we asked each other that question and came up with vastly different answers. Here we chat about the progress we’ve made and pick our top 3 titles from the winners we’ve read so far.

Joslyn’s Top 3 Booker winners

JosylnJoslyn @Chronic Bibliophilia

Born and raised in the US, my lifelong bibliophila was initially heavily biased towards American works, a bias imposed by convenience rather than ideology. As I child, I aspired to read all of the Newbery Medal winners – awarded annually for the most distinguished American children’s book. Though that project didn’t survive adolescence, in my early adulthood I found myself formulating a similar goal – to read all of the Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction. Again, this was a prestigious list of feted works by Americans. When I actually completed the Pulitzer project in 2012, I felt compelled to expand my reading horizons and to take on a new challenge. Two UK-led prizes – the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize – shimmered in front of me like irresistible bait. I was hooked. Within a few years, I finished these prize lists, as well.

To my mind the Booker’s Prize list is one list that is particularly fraught with inconsistencies – stocked equally with exquisite masterpieces and near misses. Though there are a number of award winners which were quickly read and forgotten, however, some of the finest works on this list remain among the top books I’ve read. 

Booker top 3

Selecting the creme de la creme was a painful process, but eventually I arrived at what, for now at least, are my top three Booker Prize winners – “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “Possession” by A.S. Byatt, and “The Bone People” by Keri Hulme.

“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

In “Life of Pi”, Yann Martel spins an engaging story, an epic reminiscent of the Odyssey for its magic and mystery. Pi, a young Indian boy, is lost at sea after the cargo ship upon which he, his family, and their zoo animals, were attempting to emigrate, sinks. Pi valiantly finds his way to the one and only lifeboat, but soon he realizes that he is not alone. Far from bringing him comfort, his newly discovered companions put him in even graver danger. This story is full of bigger-than-life events and, as a reader, I willingly suspended disbelief early on, finding myself taking for granted the possibilities (and impossibilities) laid out throughout the tale.

“The Bone People” by Keri Hulme

1985’s winner, “The Bone People”, also has its mystical moments as it explores the intersection of a dwindling Maori culture and the crush of modernity. Kerewin is a misanthrope, shut off in an odd cottage of her own making, eschewing any interaction with the outside world. Her peace, self-torturous though it seems, is interrupted when a young mute boy finds his way into her home and gradually into her steely heart. Keri Hulme has written what I suspect is a partly autobiographical story of isolation, culture, and the definition of family. The main characters are troubling and troubled, finding themselves and each other in a complicated world. The storytelling is beautiful, painful, and heart-stopping

“Possession” by A.S. Byatt

The book nerd and researcher in me was immediately tantalized by this book. “Possession” tells the story of two literary scholars who discover and dissect letters between two tragic latter-day poets. It is part mystery, part scholarship, part romance, crafted in intricate and dazzling measure, woven like a centuries-old tapestry full of impossible detail and discovery. Byatt explores the interplay between passion and ambition, desire and drive. I was astounded by how good this book was. The experience was visceral, the story deeply moving.

About Chronic Bibliophilia

For as far back as I can remember, reading has been more than a past time for me. Reading is breakfast; it is a hot shower; it is sleep on the perfect pillow. Sure, I could go a day without it. But why on earth would I? Chronic Bibliophilia chronicles my journey as I endeavor to become a ridiculously well-read human being. This blog provides reflections, reviews, and recommendations from a reading list focused on supporting and highlighting the voices that continue to face suppression. I believe that this project has changed not just what I read, but how I read and how I think. I hope you’ll join me on my literary odyssey. Click here to visit Chronic Bibliophilia and to sign up to follow the blog.

Karen @BookerTalk.com 

BookerTalkI’m from Wales which for those of you who are geographically challenged, is a country within the UK. I’m one of those people that helps keep the publishing industry afloat since I simply cannot resist buying books. I’ve  been like this ever since I was a child, saving up my pocket money just so I could by the latest Enid Blyton. Naturally my tastes have evolved since then … My adventures in the world of the Booker prize started just over five years ago. I’m not exactly sure what triggered the idea – probably I’d just heard something on the radio about the latest winner – but I started to think about the whole question of why some novels are deemed ‘better’ than others. Maybe, I thought, if I read all the winners of one of the most prestigious literary prizes, I might find the answer. Although I’ve now read 39 of the winners the answer is still proving elusive.

Reaction to Joslyn’s choices

It’s been fascinating to see how different Joslyn’s choices are from my own. I enjoyed Life of Pi, far more than I expected to given that relies on magical realism which not my favourite technique. I didn’t rate it as highly as Joslyn does however – it’s  currently ranked at number 13 on my list of the Booker titles I’ve read. Possession trails a long way behind at number 31 in my list. I appreciated A. S Byatt’s ability to weave the Victorian era and the contemporary period stories together but looking back at my review I see that I didn’t find the characters very convincing and the poetry I found tedious. The Bone People, is currently ranking at number 28 in my list. I would have ranked it higher if Keri Hulme hadn’t gone and introduced a set of mystical creatures right towards the end. It spoiled what was otherwise an intriguing novel that kept me engaged even if sometimes I wasn’t sure what I was reading.

Karen’s Top 3 Booker winners

Favourite top 3 Booker winners copy

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

The winner in 2012, this is the follow up to her 2009 Booker winning novel Wolf Hall, a novel which broke the mold in terms of historical fiction. Mantel was by no means the first author to write a fictionalised biography of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s right hand man. What made Wolf Hall novel so distinctive was how Mantel went behind the mask of Cromwell’s actions and into his head, revealing the complexity of his character and what it takes to navigate the treacherous waters of the King’s court. Bring Up the Bodies takes us further by  showing how Cromwell has to decide if he is willing to do whatever is necessary to serve the King even if that means putting integrity and honesty to one side.

It’s a stunning novel from a writer at the top of her game.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Given the fact this is a novel set against a backdrop of the notorious death railway in Burma, I was expecting it to be an uncomfortable read. But this is a novel that ranges far beyond savagery and survival to ask profound questions about culpability and forgiveness. Its central character is an army surgeon who is damaged by his experience as a prisoner of war. Rather than make the Japanese camp commanders a one dimensional portrait of evil, Flanagan gives them a voice that recognises their helplessness to act according to their own sense of humanity in the face of orders from their Emperor. It’s a haunting story that well deserved to win the prize in 2014

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

This novel, the Booker winner in 1992, is a beautifully paced tale of four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war. One is a man burned beyond recognition during the North African campaign of World War 2; a Canadian Army nurse who is traumatised by what she has witnessed in the conflict, a Sikh British Army sapper and a thief. They come together in the bomb-damaged ruins of an Italian monastery, hoping to heal their wounds and repair emotional scars. What I loved about this novel was how Ondaatje wraps multiple themes, of identity and nationality, of belonging and isolation, into a relatively short book.

Joslyn’s reaction to Karen’s choices

I, too, found Mantel’s Booker winners riveting. Both works are weighty and complex, but remarkably approachable – no small feat for a collective 1000 pages set in the 1500s. Haunting is exactly the right word to describe The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This book is chilling and devastating in a way that I did find a bit uncomfortable, but appropriately so. Flanagan tells his story in raw detail, offering the reader no quarter and no chance to avoid its intended impact. A brutal read, but an absolutely worthy one. I am a fan of Ondaatje’s works, though I preferred his In the Skin of a Lion, which explores many of the same themes. Where The English Patient fell a bit short for me was in its ability to elicit emotion; the narrative was cast in a ‘romantic’ haze that felt a bit …lacking. In spite of that criticism, Ondaatje’s beautiful and deliberate storytelling are on full display in this novel.

What do you think of our choices?

If you’ve read any of the six titles we picked, what did you think of them? Would you rate them as highly as we did? Are there other Booker winners that you would put in your list of top 3?

The Greatest Novels from Wales?

great-welsh-novelsToday, March 1, marks St David’s Day in Wales, the date when people of Welsh origin celebrate the life of our patron saint, St David, and Welsh culture in general. Today you can expect to see many people walking around with a daffodil or leek (both national emblems) pinned to their clothes. Schools often mark the event with an assembly during which the children sing traditional Welsh songs though the custom of wearing the traditional costume seems largely to be dying out.

I thought I would mark the occasion by taking a look at a question which is doing the rounds among the literary circle here.  In 2014 the Wales Arts Review magazine asked readers the question: Which is the Greatest Welsh Novel?. Not an easy question to answer – probably as difficult as defining The Great American Novel. But they’ve persisted, asking contributors for their recommendations and publishing articles on what are considered to be the finest literary works in the history of wales. 

Below is the list of nominations – the links point to an essay on the Wales Arts Review. Of these titles the most famous name is that of Roald Dahl though probably Fantastic Mr Fox wouldn’t be considered his most outstanding work. I’ve read just two of these novels: On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin which I thought was stunning and The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis which I read as part of my Booker Prize project and enjoyed in part.  I’ve heard of some of the other writers even if I’ve not experienced their works personally – people like Diana Wynne Jones, Emyr Humphries and Lewis Jones. But others are complete mysteries. I’ll explore some of these as part of my plan to read more literature from my home country – you can see some of what I’ve read to date over on my Authors from Wales page. 

Greatest Welsh Novel Contenders

  1. The Valley, The City, The Village by Glyn Jones
  2. Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve by Dannie Abse
  3. The Withered Root by Rhys Davies
  4. On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
  5. Cwmardy & We Live by Lewis Jones
  6. Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds
  7. Gold by Dan Rhodes
  8. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
  9. The Genre of Silence by Duncan Bush
  10. The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price
  11. So Long, Hector Bebb by Ron Berry
  12. The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
  13. Downriver by Iain Sinclair
  14. The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis
  15. The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi
  16. In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl by Rachel Trezise
  17. Awakening by Stevie Davies
  18. Un Nos Ola Leuad by Caradog Prichard   (translates as One Moonlit Night)
  19. Shifts by Christopher Meredith
  20. Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl
  21. Submarine by Joe Dunthorne
  22. A Toy Epic by Emyr Humphreys
  23. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The winner, chosen by a panel of literary experts and authors and a public poll, was Un Nos Ola Leuad (One Moonlit Night) by Caradog Prichard – the only Welsh language novel to be nominated. Published in 1961, One Moonlit Night is the story of a young man’s education and growth to adult hood in the slate mining area of north west Wales – Caradog Prichard’s home territory. Announcing the result of the poll, one of the panel members compared the novel to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in its use of magical realism.

Further resources

Announcement of The Greatest Welsh Novel

Description of One Moonlit Night by Publishers Weekly

Authors from Wales page on booker.com

Wales Arts Review

 

 

 

 

 

Booker Prize Project – the end in sight

Booker prize finish line

Approaching the finishing line

Five years ago I embarked on a project to read all the Booker Prize winners since the inception of the prize in 1969. I’d already read a number of them like The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. Though I didn’t set myself any deadline I thought, with a little effort, I’d be done in two years. Well clearly that never happened. I am however in the homeward straight now with just 11 titles remaining to be read. Until now I’ve purposefully avoided reading the winners in date order – and I don’t plan to do that for the final batch. I am however pontificating whether to reserve to the very end, one book that has been universally praised so I end on a high note.

Here’s what I have still to read: (I’m discounting the 2016 winner since I have to stop somewhere).

Winners 21st century 

2015A History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)
2010 – The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)
2004 – The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst)
2003 – Vernon God Little (D.B. C Pierre)
2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang (Peter Carey)

Winners 20th century 
1997 – The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)
1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)
1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)
1992 – Sacred Hunger (Barry Unsworth)
1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)
1972 – G. (John Berger)

 The ones I am least looking forward to are  How Late It Was, How Late  by James Kelman and  A History of Seven Killings by Marlon James purely because contain a high quota of local dialect – working class Scottish dialect in the case of Kelman and Jamaican dialect in the case of Marlon James).

My question to you good people is – what should I read next? Of the remaining 11 titles there is nothing that is really calling out strongly ‘read me next’. I’m tempted by The Finkler Question since I dipped into it last year and enjoyed what I found (though I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea). I also embarked on The Conservationist but found that hard to get into so put to one side for now.

Out of my remaining list are there any you would recommend? Anything you’ve read that was a stand out novel for you? Conversely are there any on this list that you’d suggest leaving until last?

5 lessons in book blogging

fifth-birthday

A significant milestone this week – the fifth anniversary of this blog. And a chance to look back over the last few years and appreciate just how far I’ve progressed. Not that I am claiming to be an expert now ; in fact I still feel I am wearing my ‘learner’ plates; but  I’ve definitely made progress. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the five-year journey….

Lesson 1: Avoid the ‘Build it and they will come’ mentality: I was disappointed in the first year that my posts didn’t attract many viewers or comments. I would look at other blogs and get envious at the response their content attracted. It took a while for the penny to drop that the world wasn’t exactly waiting with breathless anticipation for my thoughts on a Booker prize-winning novel. In other words that I couldn’t just publish something and expect everyone to rush to read and comment.  I’d have to work at it; I would need to engage more myself with other bloggers. It wasn’t until I began connecting with other bloggers, commenting on their posts and joining a few challenges, that things began to change.

Lesson 2: Add new content regularly: One of the questions most commonly asked of blog experts is “how often should I post new content’.  Not surprisingly the answer is usually “it depends.” By which they mean it depends on how much you have to say about your particular topic and what you think is your readers’ appetite for hearing from you. I’ve seen some blogs – usually ones which review products like cameras or software, which are updated everyday and sometimes even more than once a day. Equally I’ve come across blogs which just get updated once a month. The more common approach it seems is to go for three or four new pieces a week. When I first started I knew nothing about these best practices. I just posted when I had something to say – which was essentially once a week. But over time that’s changed. I no longer have to scratch my head to think of subjectsI want to write about and actually have a list of potential topics that I keep updating when new ideas come to mind (usually at the most inconvenient times like when I am driving and its too dangerous to start searching for pen and paper).  Even so I’m also conscious that it’s easy to overdo the content and irritate readers who are busy people and don’t have time to read multiple postings from me. Nor frankly do I have the time to do much more right now. Ideally I go for three posts a week but if some weeks that goes down to two, I can’t imagine anyone will cry.

Lesson 3: A blog is not just for Christmas. I’m sure you’ve seen ads with the slogan “a dog isn’t just for Christmas” aimed at people who bow to pressure from their kids to buy a puppy only to find the novelty wears off after a few weeks. But the poor animal still needs feeding, walking, cleaning etc. And so it is with a blog. It needs regular nourishment in the form of new content. If  needs to feel love through regular interaction; acknowledgements that people have taken the time and trouble to leave a comment so you should respond accordingly. And it needs regular maintenance – checking web links are still active for example, and archives are up to date. The key lesson for me in recent years is just how much time it all takes – and that doesn’t include the time to check out other people’s blogs and comment on their content…..

Lesson 4: Find your own voice. I mentioned last week that I’ve been doing some spring cleaning on the site (you can find that post here), visiting some old content and doing a refresh. Reading again those posts from five years ago has been a salutory experience. They were well written in the sense that were grammatical. But oh so dull and worthy. They don’t sound like me at all. Maybe some people right from the off have a unique style that reflects their personality but for me it’s taken a while to stop sounding like a professor and more like someone you could have a chat with about books. There’s a long way to go yet to achieve the tone I’d like but at least I no longer cringe when I read my posts.

Lesson 5: Stick to what you love

Creating the blog marked my entry into an entirely new world, one which had its own vocabulary. Readathon, meme, TBR: all foreign concepts to me. Fortunately there were a few kind people around who took pity on me and explained the new jargon. I must admit I got carried away for a time, joining multiple challenges and latching on to every new idea that came my way. It was fun initially but then began to feel that the blog was no longer my  space, it was being driven not by me but by the need to keep up with external events. Instead of writing what I wanted to write about I was answering prompts from challenges and readathons etc. Gradually I’ve been weaning myself off these. I still do a few memes like the Sunday Salon, Top Ten Tuesday and Six Degrees of Separation but only when I feel like doing them not because I am slavishly pedalling away on a treadmill. If a particular prompt doesn’t interest me then I let it go. In short I will do only what I enjoy doing.

And the future?

There is still so much about blogging I don’t understand (like HTML) and many best practices  I have yet to put into use like search engine optimisation. I’m also still vacillating on whether to go for a self hosted site to give even more flexibility in how the blog looks. So plenty for me to focus on for the next five years.

What lessons have you learned while blogging?

Whether you’ve been blogging for 1 year, or 5 or 10, I’m confident you’ve learned some lessons along the way. So do share via the comments option – what’s been your biggest learning experience? What do you want to learn next?

Love between the book covers

love-between-the-coversIt being Valentine’s Day today, the theme for Top Ten Tuesday hosted by the Broke and Bookish is naturally love. It’s an emotion which comes in many guises. Here’s a list of ten different depictions of love in fiction that I’ve enjoyed over the years. Links are to my reviews where the book is one I’ve read in the last five years.

Young love: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.  Adolescent/teenage love is the mainstay of a lot of young adult fiction but that’s not a genre I read. So my choice is from the pen of a man whose ability to tap into human emotions would be difficult to surpass. Romeo and Juliet is probably the most famous love story in the English literary tradition. It’s a play about intense passion where love is a violent, ecstatic, overpowering force that supersedes all other values, loyalties, and emotions.

In their first meeting we see all the wonder and yet doubts of early love:

Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay,’
And I will take thy word: yet if thou swear’st,
Thou mayst prove false; at lovers’ perjuries
Then say, Jove laughs. O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully:
Or if thou think’st I am too quickly won,
I’ll frown and be perverse an say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo:

But Shakespeare doesn’t give us a hearts and flowers, happy ever after version of love, but the kind where love overpowers all other considerations and sets the participants against the world – in the course of the play, the young lovers are driven to defy their families, friends and their ruler.

Mature love: Anthony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare.  Passion isn’t confined to the youngsters, nor does love get any easier with age. In Anthony and Cleopatra Shakespeare shows the two principal characters at war with each other and with themselves. Throughout the play emotion is constantly in battle with reason. In their first exchange the two argue whether their love can be put into words or does it transcend reason.

CLEOPATRA: If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
ANTONY: There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.
CLEOPATRA: I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved.
ANTONY: Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.

Anthony may be a military hero and an esteemed statesman but he cannot help be swept along by the force of Cleopatra’s character, even at the cost of his cherished honour and, ultimately, his life.

Jealous love: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. Greene is a master of storytelling involving tortured souls. In this moving tale of adultery and its aftermath, Maurice Bendrix, falls in love with his neighbour’s wife, Sarah. She suddenly breaks off the affair, leaving him wracked with anger and jealousy that she continues to live with her husband.  The reason for her actions becomes apparent only later in the novel. It’s a superb and compelling portrait of an illicit love affair that one person cannot accept is over.

Unrequited love: Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. I challenge anyone to read this and not feel desperately sorry for Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting. They are young, newly-wedded and are on their honeymoon. But their first night together goes disastrously wrong. They try to reconcile but angry words are exchanged from which there seems no way back.

Thawrted love: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.  Charles Ryder, who narrates this novel, comes from a wealthy but emotionally bankrupt family. Befriended at Oxford by the wealthy Lord Sebastian Flyte, Charles is introduced to an eccentric set of friends, to Sebastian’s socialite sister Julia and their ancestral home at Brideshead Castle. Years later Julia and Charles, now both married, embark on an affair and plan to marry. But Julia suddenly realises she cannot turn her back on her strict Catholic upbringing. To marry Charles would be a sin so she abandons him. Charles, who has always struck me as a bit of a cold fish, is forced to confront his emotions.

Parental love: Silas Marner by George Eliot. You can find a multitude of books on the theme of motherly love but not as many featuring paternal love. In Eliot’s novel, the weaver Silas Marner is thrown out of his Calvinist community having been (falsely) accused of stealing their funds.  He makes his new home in the village of Raveloe, becoming a recluse who devotes himself entirely to his weaving and to hoarding money. His life changes when a small child finds her way to his door in a snowstorm. Silas keeps her and raises her as his daughter. Through the strong bond he forms with the girl, he finds a place in the rural society and a new purpose in life.

Destructive loveMedea by Euripedes. A more perfect example of ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ it would be hard to find than Medea. Abandoned by her husband who fancies a younger model, she plots revenge. Does she throw all his clothes out of the window? Stalk him? Send notes to his new wife telling her what he’s really like? No, all too easy for this tempestuous woman.  Poison and the dagger are her weapons of choice and she’s not afraid to use them even if it means innocent people must also die.

Female love: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I had no idea what this novel was about when my mother recommended it as a novel her book club had enjoyed. I’ve never met her book club chums but I imagined them as ladies in their seventies whose reading tastes would be conservative. Once I realised that it featured a hot-blooded love affair between two women, I had to completely revise my thinking.

Obsessional love: The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch.  This a great example of what can happen when you believe – mistakenly -that someone loves you. Charles Arrowby retires from his glittering theatrical career, to a house on the coast. He discovers that opne of his first girlfriends lives in the nearby village. He gets the idea that she still loves him and needs to be rescued from her unhappy marriage despite the fact she doesn’t give him any indication she is either unhappy or in love with Charles. But he is not a man to give up once he gets an idea in his head so sets about kidnapping her.  It’s an ill-thought out plan that crumbles but not before damage is done.

Murderous loveThérèse  Raquin by Emile Zola.  Zola’s heroine is unhappily married to a sickly and selfish railway worker when she embarks on a turbulent and sordidly passionate affair with one of friends. The two lovers plot to kill the husband. But what thought was the solution to the problem, proves to be just the start of a nightmare. Haunted by the memory of the murder they suffer hallucinations of the dead man, seeing him in their bedroom every night, preventing them from touching each other and quickly driving them insane.

 

 

Spring-cleaning the blogsite

springcleaningI know officially we are still in winter in the northern hemisphere so it might be a little premature to think about spring-cleaning. And indeed I’m nowhere ready to throw open all doors and windows into the house to let in the clean air which was my grandmother’s preparation for cleaning the house top to bottom. It’s far too cold right now for that kind of malarkey.  But with the fifth anniversary of this blog imminent it feels the right time to do a bit of a dust and polish of the site. I’ve also been goaded into action by some tips shared via a podcast I follow called Pro-Blogger which has some useful advice on how to make your blog more effective.

I’m gradually working my way through all the 100-plus editions of the podcast. Some are not relevant because they are designed for people who want to monetise their site or have a self-hosted domain. But one piece of advice I’ve started to follow is about improving old content.

Darren, the guy behind Pro-Blogger says he has a weekly habit to revisit old posts and assess if they can be improved – maybe redirecting links to more recent content, adding new ones or updating the content with more current information.   His point is a few minutes spent on tweaks can mean readers get a better experience of the site. Plus each time you refresh the page, it is crawled by Google so you get more chance your site will be included in search engine results.

I’ve started with my posts from year one of the blog. What an eye-opener that has been. When I started back in 2012 I really didn’t know a) how to blog b)how to write a good review. So the early posts were very insubstantial. No links, no formatting of text to help guide readers around the page more easily, no photos to break up the text. These are all changes I’ve been making over the past week. I’ve also changed categories, tags and headings. Often I’m making small cosmetic changes such as ensuring consistency in the format and colour used for headings and book titles. I don’t want to alter the actual content unless I think a reader would get to the end of it and wonder why they bothered wasting their time. So with a few of them got more of an overhaul – like my first Booker prize title review The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens where I combined the review with some earlier published content about the author.

I’ll finish 2012 by the end of the week and then move onto the next 12 months. It’s something I can do easily in about 20 minutes per post and watch TV at the same time.

One positive thing has come out of this exercise – it’s shown me than in five years though I still consider myself to be still very much a learner, I have definitely improved.

How are your blogging skills?

Though I’ve learned a lot in the last five years there are still aspects of blogging that mystify me so I’ve been making a conscious effort to learn how to fix issues and some new techniques. What have you learned recently that has made a difference to your own blogging?

Taking a break

patient-careBooker Talk is going to be rather quiet for the next few weeks since I am going into hospital tomorrow for some rather extensive surgery. Even if there is a reliable Internet/WIFI connection in the hospital I don’t expect to be in the frame of mind or physical condition for blogging etc.

I had grand plans to write some blog posts in advance to keep you amused. But they never got beyond the planning stage. I’m sure you will manage perfectly fine without me however. I just wanted you to know in case you were wondering why I am not replying to your comments. I promise it’s not that I don’t love you any more. Normal service will resume soon I hope.

Why indie presses need your Amazon reviews

helpIn the five years since starting this blog I’ve posted reviews on Goodreads and Library Thing but I never gave much thought to putting them on Amazon. It’s not that I’ve consciously ignored that site or decided to make a stand over the way they allegedly use strong arm tactics to squeeze discounts from publishers and authors. It just never occurred to me that there was any real need to post reviews or comments there.

But then I got an email from an indie publishing company late last year which has caused me to rethink my approach with books I get via NetGalley. Anne from Le French Book www.lefrenchbook.com provided a reality check on the economics of book publishing and why, for small publishing houses Amazon reviews really do matter. Apparently publishers have to pay to get their books listed on NetGalley – they give these copies away in order to promote their authors. The reviews we put on our blogs don’t bring them any income however though they are important in word of mouth promotion.

On average, there are about 260 people who click to read our titles on Netgalley. If they actually all bought the title, we could pay our Netgalley subscription, but they get it free. If we actually got 260 (or even 200, or 150, or 100) reviews online, it would have a real impact on our sales. Amazon’s algorithm would do the work.

Despite an aversion to Amazon that I’ve noticed among some bloggers, the reality is that this is the site where visibility matters. This is still the biggest market place for potential buyers, they go there in their hundreds of thousands and they use reviews to help them make decisions on which books to buy. A handful of reviews per book,  simply isn’t enough for readers to start noticing – these publishing houses need well beyond 30 reviews for them to make the promotion efforts worthwhile and help them keep generating enough profit to bring out new books.

How we can help

The appeal from Le French Book is really simple. It’s just requires each of us to take these few steps:

  1. Visit the Amazon website page for the books we read on Netgalley.
  2. If you are able to buy it, the publisher would be extremely grateful
  3. Either way, leave an honest review of the book. Even just a few lines could make all the difference but of course a few paragraphs are even better one line or five.
  4. And a step that never occurred to me – if you are A UK, Canadian or Australian reader, don’t just put your review on the local version of Amazon. Cut and paste it to the  US page, too (that’s the one the publisher refers to when they try to book advertising and promotions).

Not difficult is it? It doesn’t take much time but when publishers are feeling the pinch it seems only fair for us to show our appreciation of the free copies we receive.

One other thing I’ve learned from this publisher is to avoid getting over enthusiastic when requesting books from NetGalley. I have too many sitting unread on the e-reader and for every one of those, there is a cost impact on the publisher. So from now I am going to request only those books I am committed to reading. And to make sure I upload the review to Amazon.

 

Now it’s over to you  

Do you put reviews on Amazon? Will you consider doing so for books you get from indie publishers in the future?

2017 goals: my breakthrough to guaranteed success

A few days ago I was bemoaning the lack of progress on my 2016 goals. It’s now well into 2017 and high time I set my goals for this year – in an attempt not to repeat the same mistakes I’ve turned for guidance to some experts.

In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggested that the key to success is in regular and extensive practice. Whether you want to get your golf handicap into single figures, become a chess master or perfect your language skills, it takes effort. In Gladwell’s view success would require 10,000 hours of practice in your chosen discipline or task. To support his argument, Gladwell cited the Beatles, who amassed over 10,000 hours of playing time during their club days in Hamburg, and Bill Gates, who spent a similar amount of time on computer programming.

Sadly I don’t think even if I were to find that much time I think it a bit late for me to become the net computing guru, nor am I likely to top the music charts, become principal ballerina with the Royal Ballet or become the winner of the new-look Great British Bake Off. But Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is still a good piece of over-arching advice for anyone setting a goal: to make any progress requires time and effort. There is absolutely no point spending hours crafting a goal and then doing little to achieve it. If I’m not 100% committed, then it shouldn’t be a goal……

Another influence on this year’s plan is an article I found in Harvard Business Review written by Dorie Clark a marketing strategist and the author of Reinventing You – a guide to how you can identify and change your professional ‘brand’. Clark says two of the biggest mistake corporations – and individuals make – when goal setting are attempting to do too much at once and then trying to stick too rigidly to the plan.

clocks-1098080_1920Goal setting Tip 2 : use a shorter planning time frame 

Dorie Clerk’s advice is to build in more flexibility to goals on the basis that research by Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath shows that the best companies plan on a quarterly basis not annually. This shorter time frame means they can be more responsive to changes in their environment.

For individuals, says Clerk, it means that if part of the way through the year you discover your original goal is unworkable or you no longer have an interest in it, you don’t feel compelled to press on regardless. A goal that seems desirable at the beginning of the year like learning to play Mah Jong, or reading the entire sequence of A Dance to the Music of Time might seem like a terrible idea after four months. If you press on regardless it means you might miss out on an even more attractive opportunity that comes along later in the year.

goal_settingGoal setting Tip 2: Be realistic 
The other key mistake is to be too ambitious, spreading the energy over too many projects and activities. Many of us fall into this trap where the only way to manage all the activities is to keep a To Do list – and then end up frustrated because instead of crossing stuff off, the list just seems to grow … and grow…. and grow. We’re not alone – research by a others fail to generate meaningful accomplishments because they spread their energy too thin and attempt to accomplish too much at once. A startup called iDoneThis analyzed their users’ data and discovered that 41% of the to-do list  users created were never accomplished. Why? Too many items were included so the list looked overwhelming and there was little attempt at prioritisation. It was easy to knock off some things – ‘send email to xyz’  for example or ‘buy milk for tonight’ but by spending all the effort on the easy things, the harder, more rewarding activities simply never got done.
Understanding these two challenges helped me reach a decision on my 2017 goals. My mantra is encapsulated in this image….

enjoy-2017

 

Booker Talk’s 2017 Goals

Instead of creating an annual goal I am going for a six month plan. I’ll re-assess it at the end of June and decide on the plan for the remaining six months.  And instead of a long list of goals for each half-year, I am limiting myself to just two.

Goal 1: Relish the books I own but have not yet read

I’ve lost track of the number of blog posts I’ve seen over recent weeks about the ever-expanding size of people’s ‘to be read’ collections. Mine has grown enormously since I started this blog. It’s now around the 295 mark as a result of far too many indulgent purchases last year (69 I think) and there simply isn’t enough room left to stack them all.  I could see this as a problem but thats not the relationship I want with my books. So henceforth my TBR is re-named as ‘my library’ and I am going to make the most of it this year.

My goal is: Enjoy my library collection to the full by reading only these books for six months. 

Yes it does mean in effect a ban on buying anything new but it sounds much more positive stated this way doesn’t it? Especially since I’m the kind of person when told I can’t do something, I immediately want to begin doing that very thing. My get out clause is that I have the right to borrow from the public library if anything strongly takes my fancy but I will not be requesting anything from NetGalley for a while or succumbing to deals from publishers no matter how attractive.

Goal 2: Unleash my creativity on the blog

I’ll be coming up to the fifth anniversary of this blog next month and it’s time to up the stakes. I’m bored with the way I use images on the site – there isn’t often anything very unusual about them, just a basic cover image of whatever book I am reviewing for example or a photo of the author. There’s surely more I can do…

My goal is: Learn how to use Photoshop to create more compelling images. 

And there you have it – a plan that I think is so realistic I’m confident it will be successful.

Anyone feel like joining me in this new breakthrough with your own goals?

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