Monday, 9 July 2012

A Reading Quartet

After complaining last post that I’d been struggling with my reading, I found myself wandering into the library on my day off. I took my time (as I hadn’t done before!) scanning the titles and spent a good half-hour or so choosing, making sure I read the first page and not just the blurb... And away I came with three books, two of which I read last week and I’ve just begun the third – see, that’ll teach me to moan!

So, the first book was Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott, the story of a late academic’s potentially controversial book about Isaac Newton and alchemy, the woman who ghostwrites the final chapters and the deadly mystery she gets drawn into... Sounds right up my alley, particularly with excerpts of the Newton book being included in the narrative (this is a technique I love and affectionately call intertextuality, meaning other texts – pages of books, diaries, letters, either real or imaginary – appearing in the text; however, I’ve just looked up the term and found I’ve inadvertently skewed the definition! Intertextuality actually means “in literary theory, a text evaluated in terms of its explicit relation (e.g. by allusion) to other texts.” Oops! Underneath, though, is the word ‘intertexture’ meaning an “interwoven state”, which is what I intended! See, we learn new things every day...)

Anyhoo, Ghostwalk didn’t quite live up to my hopes, though I did enjoy it. The major issue for me was characterisation, as I didn’t care for any of the characters. Part of this is to do with style, for Stott writes in the first-person narrative of the ghostwriter and moves around from past to present, plus dipping into the 17th Century with regard to Newton and alchemy, yet there is a curious distance in the writing which keeps me from feeling as if I’m standing just behind the first-person narrator. Another part of this is that I just didn’t find the people in these pages likable, and so I wasn’t invested in them.

What kept me reading, then, I hear you cry, as you know I’m a chronic stop-reading-and-skip-forward-to-the-end – er when I get bored with a book! It was the writing that kept me interested, for Stott writes startling, involving and sometimes beautiful prose which often made me think anew about how I, as a writer, may describe things in the future. From a reader’s point of view, I tipped to the twist early on and didn’t find the resolution satisfying – but I am glad I read it and would recommend you give it a try.

Second up was Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You – and I really liked this one. I may be about to give too much away as I explain the plot, so feel free to skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know! Will is an extreme sports adventurer who is now a quadriplegic after suffering terribly injuries in a motorbike accident; Lou is the small-town girl with small-town ambitions who becomes his companion – and as they come to open up each other’s personalities, viewpoints and dreams, they fall in love. The problem is, Will wants the type of life he had before he was injured and he’s determined to do something about it – so can Lou change his mind?

While the plotline itself could be argued to be predictable without any surprises, the way Moyes leads us to the dénouement is thought-provoking, touching and warming (I cried buckets during the last third!). For me, this book had characterisation in spades; everyone is wonderfully drawn, with their flaws amusingly commented upon and their best bits celebrated. Here, the first-person narrative / character of Lou sidelines Moyes’ more literary writing (it wouldn’t have been authentic for Lou to speak in such a way, due to her personality), but the story makes up for this with its heartfelt content. Moyes doesn’t shy away from disability, its challenges and the often intolerant viewpoints of others, and for these reasons I think everyone should read this book – it’ll open your eyes and make you really think.

The third book from the library is The Blood Detective by Dan Waddell, which mixes genealogy with the investigation of a murder, leading us from the current crime back to a Victorian serial killer... I’m not far in yet but it’s good so far, and interests me because Waddell is primarily a non-fiction writer (this is his first novel), and wrote the accompanying book to BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are? Series, which I love! It’ll be good to see how he weaves the genealogy (which could be a dry study in, er, studying, and therefore bore the reader!) into the investigation. I’ll let you know...

Now, making up the Reading Quartet of my last week is The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid. I’d missed ITV’s Wire in the Blood TV series, which is based on some of McDermid’s books, and have just been introduced to it on DVD by a good friend (thanks, Sarah, ’cause I’d miss out on some brill TV without you!). I wanted to see what the novels were like, as though I’ve stepped away from reading grisly crime fiction (as it’s too, er, grisly for my weak stomach!), the TV show was fab – and I wasn’t disappointed. McDermid is a former journalist and her writing is intelligent, articulate and clever, as well as forming a shocking yet believable plot which is delivered with pace and feeling. Though the torture, mutilation and murder is disgusting, it is never sensationalised or gory for gory’s sake (which is the tone and treatment I hate). I sped through the book and will be reading the rest of the series, as well as a couple of McDermid’s stand-alone novels, as time goes on.

This Reading Quartet surprised me as I’ve been struggling with my lack of concentration of late, but I’m glad I read myself out of the scuffle and found good titles in the process! Now, let’s get the kettle on and get back to it...