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Dear Authors – This Reader Wants More Courage, Complexity and Atmosphere

Dear Authors

I know I run the risk of sounding too much like Oliver Twist, but I’m definitely feeling hungry. Not the kind of hunger satisfied by food or drink of course, but the type that can only be assuaged by a knock out reading experience.

I’m tired with characters who find a new purpose in life by running a bookstore/cafe/restaurant. Find crime stories linked to childhood abuse or abuse against women increasingly distasteful. And have little patience with triple time-frame narratives that would work just as well as a single time frame.

Having told you what I’d prefer we didn’t see so much on bookshop shelves, I thought I’d give you a steer about what I’d like to see more of in fiction. Here are 10 books that are examples of the themes and styles I most enjoy reading. These novels, all of which I read in the last two years, would best satisfy my hunger for stellar fiction.

Courageous Women Fighting For A Future

I’d love to see more novels that portray young women who battle hardships and difficulties to achieve what they want from life. They’re often the most memorable characters, the people whose hands you want to hold as they journey through life, willing them to succeed.

The Girl With A Louding Voice by Abe Daré is a perfect example. Daré’s main character is Adunni, a young girl married off at 14 years old to a brute of a husband, then beaten and starved when she runs away and gets a job as a domestic servant. All she wants to finish her education and become a teacher but in Nigeria, the odds are stacked against her.

Thought-provoking Narratives, Rich In Issues

There are times when my brain is overworked or stress levels are rising, when all I want is a book that equals pure escapism (crime fiction usually does the trick).

In normal times however, my reading taste inclines more to novels that open my eyes to new perspectives and challenge me to think about an issue. These are the types of novels I tend to remember a long time after I’ve closed the last page.

I’m thinking of novels along the lines of The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet which explores the issue of identity and different ways in which this can be suppressed. The main thread is about twin sisters of colour, one of whom tries to ‘pass’ for white but there are parallels through other characters who change their gender with medical intervention or cross dressing.

Another novel that comes to mind in this category is The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa , a dark and disturbing novel which also tackles the question of identity. Set in a world controlled by a totalitarian regime, this slim work shows how memory and the ability to connect with objects from our past, is an essential human quality. Without it, there can be no soul.

Atmospheric Setting

If you could see your way to writing more narratives that have the ability to transport me to another place, that would be wonderful. I particularly love novels that describe a location and evoke its atmosphere so vividly I feel as if I’m walking its streets, sitting in its cafes and absorbing its smells for real.

One novel that does that brilliantly is 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak, an extraordinary tale of sex worker “Tequila Leila”, who as she lies dying in a rubbish bin on the outskirts of Istanbul, recalls the key phrases of her life. It’s very much a sensory journey; we smell the lemon, sugar and water that bubbles on on the stove of her childhood home and taste the strong cardamom coffee she drinks at the brothel in Istanbul. With the aid of a map at the beginning of the novel, we can trace her journey through the city to her final resting place at the Cemetery of the Companionless.

A very different narrative, but equally atmospheric, is Twelve Nights by Urs Faes. The first page plunges us into the heart of Germany’s Black Forest, as it introduces a man who walks through swirling snow towards a valley clothed in grey mist. Almost every page that follows adds to that image, taking us deeper and deeper into the forested valleys that seem closed off from the rest of the world.

Looking Back, Authentically

I loved historical fiction ever since I was in my first year of secondary school, particularly those novels set in World War 1 or in the 15th to 17th centuries. I’ve experienced plenty of duds along the way – far too many authors writing in this genre feel the need to stuff their narrative with all the research they undertook.

The best historical fiction writers have deep knowledge of the facts and the people of their chosen period, but they don’t insist on telling me this, they show it in the subtle use of language and rhythms of speech, and in depictions of rituals, attitudes and beliefs. The very very best, go way beyond this, bringing us characters who live and breathe and feel wholly human, rather than just holders of titles.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell does just this with a completely fresh perspective on one of the most celebrated figures from the Elizabethan era: William Shakespeare. From fragments of historical facts, she spins an imaginative tale about the way the Bard turned his grief at the death of his young son, into the tragedy of Hamlet.

O’Farrell’s novel is remarkable but when we come to The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel, I run out of adjectives to describe the brilliance of this novel. It’s the final part of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, a man of very lowly origins who grew to occupy the highest offices of the land under the patronage of King Henry VIII. I was wowed by both of the earlier novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but the final episode trumps even those.

Mantel isn’t telling us about Cromwell and the agility it takes to hold his critics at bay and keep the King’s favour. She seems to be Cromwell, inhabiting his thoughts so fully and drawing us along with her so it’s as if we are sitting inside his head and seeing events through his eyes. It’s a masterpiece that sets the bar high for all future historical novels.

Complex Relationships

My final appeal to all you authors is to get cracking on thoughtful, poignant narratives that show the complexities and messiness of family relationships.

I don’t much care for lovey-dovey relationship stuff or anything that publishers describe as “heart-warming” but – I’m not steering you towards the opposite end of the spectrum either. The Greeks captured the market with tales of completely dysfunctional families so I’m not looking for mothers who kill their children or kings murdered by their wives.

But messy relationships, rivalries, jealousies and betrayals – bring them on!

Ann Patchett gives a modern twist to the tradition of the wicked step-mother in The Dutch House. As soon as she sets foot in the gloriously-furnished Philadelphia house, she sets to work to undermine her newly-acquired son and daughter. Her big opportunity to get them out of her life completely comes when her husband dies. Banished from their childhood home and left out of an inheritance, they are drawn ever closer to each other.

Even more messy is the father and daughter relationship in The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan. In this exquisitely written tale, Flanagan shows the despair and pain at the heart of the tension between Bojan Buloh and his daughter Sonja. They are both grieving after his wife walked out of their home in Tasmania, leaving behind the three year old girl. As years pass their relationship gets steadily worse. The question is whether it has become so broken it can be repaired.

Obviously I don’t want all you authors feeling constrained or thinking you have to write to a formula but if you could just nudge your writing in these directions, I’d be dead chuffed. I’m sure you’ll rise to the challenge.

Waiting with breathless anticipation ….

Karen @BookerTalk

This post is my attempt at the topic for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by thatartsyreadergirl : “Books I Loved that Made Me Want More Books Like Them”. I’d love to get your recommendations for books that fit the categories I’ve used. I know I have hundreds of unread books already but that’s no reason to stop adding more titles to the wishlist. By the way, do you have particular themes or styles that you love and return to regularly?

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