Saturday, 5 May 2012

A Simon Cowell Kind of 10/10

It takes a helluva book to score a 10/10 in my Reading Journal (so clearly, yes, I am a hard taskmaster, just like Mr Cowell!) – most reads get a 7 ½, 8, 8 and various fractions, 9, and the almost-made-it 9 ½. I started keeping a Reading Journal back in November 2007, at the behest of my then English Literature PGCE mentor, who suggested doing so with each class we taught (secondary school teaching soon sapped my creative streak and I realised that I did not suit it and it did not suit me – so we parted amicable ways! However, I take my hat off to those who teach – it is an admirable and honourable vocation, though way too red-tape-filled here in the UK.  But anyhoo...!)  

So what exactly does it take for a story to score 10/10 from me?

A story has to be excellently, consummately written, with controlled and beautiful language – I do so love imagery and metaphor but it has to fit the narrative (and not be ‘purple’ – too many adjectives and general over-cooking of the word-type pie – or ‘flowery’ – fancy words or phrases which are meant to be ‘pretty’, but are just clunky and clumsy, causing one to grimace in one’s reading. Ugh).

Plot must be well-handled and cleverly wrought with effective pacing (this doesn’t always mean the story has to romp along, but that each scene must be of its own right length and speed – and this deft handling is harder to construct than would first appear). The narrative must flow and not jar and disrupt the reading (unless this is done for a specific Purpose – and if so, this style will most likely only occur a couple of times in the book).

Above all of this for me, though, is characterisation. Characters need to be people, with quirks and flaws and best bits, just like you and me; they must be rounded (3D not flat), and they must develop – or we, the Reader, must see a development even if they do not. If they do not breathe and interact with each other and me, then the Author’s world is not real and I. Do. Not. Care. And that is the point at which I’ll stop reading.

Overall then, a 10/10 book might not have all of the above in equal quantities, but it must have a strong Voice of its own; it must create a moment that I have to pause for, in admiring and thinking about it. It must strike me with its emotion, poetry and power. It must challenge me, revive me and, most importantly, transport me into a world I’d fight for over this one, time and again.

Phew – that’s quite a tall order, isn’t it, and I’m not any kind of proper literature critic! But I know the elements that make a book authentic for me, whichever way I turn it over or shake it up. Sometimes I can forgive flaws or mistakes or lesser bits if the overall effect is strong and evocative...but the score will be a fraction of a point beneath a 10. I guess that, just like Simon Cowell, I reward the real deal, not the false hope – but I do like to note promise; to look out for future books by a particular writer and see their potential grow in their later stories.

Since I started my Reading Journal 4 years ago, only 15 out of the 192 books I’ve read have scored a 10/10 – and to satisfy your curiosity, I’ve listed these below!

Making number 16 on this list is ‘The Unseen’ by Katherine Webb. I LOVED this book, and it deservedly scores its 10...but my enthusiasm in discussing it might spoil a few plot surprises for you (!), so, instead, here’s Waterstone’s synopsis and link:

England, 1911. The Reverend Albert Canning, a vicar with a passion for spiritualism, leads a happy existence with his naive wife Hester in a sleepy Berkshire village. As summer dawns, their quiet lives are changed for ever by two new arrivals. First comes Cat, the new maid: a free-spirited and disaffected young woman sent down from London after entanglements with the law. Cat quickly finds a place for herself in the secret underbelly of local society as she plots her escape. Then comes Robin Durrant, a leading expert in the occult, enticed by tales of elemental beings in the water meadows nearby. A young man of magnetic charm and beauty, Robin soon becomes an object of fascination and desire. During a long spell of oppressive summer heat, the rectory at Cold Ash Holt becomes charged with ambition, love and jealousy; a mixture of emotions so powerful that it leads, ultimately, to murder.

There is so much more to it than this, so many more layers and events and emotions – but I can’t ruin it for you! All I'll say is that I identified so very, very much with Cat’s need to live her life on her own terms, and her character will stay with me for a long time.

Now, you may read this novel and not like Cat or Hester or Leah, the main characters; you may not appreciate the nimble, fresh and beautiful (yet never precious) language; and you may not enjoy the (very well handled) two time-frames plot...but you will think. You will look at your life and re-evaluate the freedoms you have (especially as a woman). Thinking – that’s what the best literature makes you do, if you ask me.

And if that’s not your experience...well, let me know and we’ll debate it! Let me see if I can’t convince you, after all...

                                    The 10/10-ers:

1.      ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ – John Boyne

2.      ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ – Margaret Attwood

3.      ‘Noughts and Crosses’ – Malorie Blackman

4.      ‘The Sculptress’ – Minette Walters

5.      ‘Count Karlstein’ – Philip Pullman

6.      ‘Ways to Live Forever’ – Sally Nicholls

7.      ‘Dark Fire’ – C J Sansom

8.      ‘Kaspar Prince of Cats’ – Michael Morpurgo

9.      ‘Just One More Thing: Stories From My Life’ – Peter Falk

10.  ‘Sovereign’ – C J Sansom

11.  ‘Holes’ – Louis Sachar

12.  ‘The Forgotten Garden’ – Kate Morton

13.  ‘Audrey: Her Real Story’ – Alexander Walker

14.  ‘Heartstone’ – C J Sansom

15.  ‘A Gathering Light’ – Jennifer Donnelly

16.  ‘The Unseen’ – Katherine Webb

1 comment:

  1. Fab to see Sansom on there but I guessed he would be! Must borrow Katherine Webb especially as it earns such high recommendation! Not long back form Daggers but having a quick peek on here. Zo xx


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