Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Writing Wednesday: Two duds

I feel it may be seen as a bit of a cheat to review books on Writing Wednesday. Surely this should be about the art and craft and process of writing and publishing? Yet the best way to find your voice, to improve your writing, is to read others. It is preferable to read books of high quality: even within what may be viewed as low-grade books or commercial genres there is good and bad writing, excellent and appalling storylines, excitement and dullness.

Now I am into the editing phase of my book I am much more critical of author's writing, looking at the style, the number of adverts, the 'show, don't tell' approach, the cleverness of their use of language. So it is a shame that I am going to slam the latest two books my book club has read.

The first was When I lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant. This novel won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 (controversially, and ahead of Zadie Smith's White Teeth, which I have also read and loved!) It is set in 1946 Palestine, as the Jews displaced from across Europe after the Second World War seek to establish their homeland. Eva, aged 19 at the start of the book, travels from London, falls in love and experiences first hand the violent struggle for freedom.

There were lots of things I didn't like about the book. Overall I struggled to find a story: a beginning, middle and end. I didn't empathise with Evelyn at all and the story (such as it was) petered out in the final chapters. I felt there was a lot of unreal dialogue, where the history of the place and the people was set out. Getting facts into novels, particularly historical ones, is difficult to do without being clumsy. At times it felt more like a textbook, teaching me the politics rather than engaging me with characters. It is not a time, place or location that I knew a lot about but I'm afraid it didn't entice me to find out more. I was just grateful to put the book down.

The second book I've read is The Widow's Tale by Mick Jackson. It is about a woman who runs out of her house one morning and drives to the Norfolk coast. Renting a cottage she hides away, contemplating life without her husband. The cover includes positive reviews (obviously) including one from the Sunday Times which states: 'A wonderfully observant character portrait that veers between the side-splitting and the heart-breaking.'

To me the biggest disappointment was that it wasn't funny. If it is billed as hilarious then I expect to laugh, frequently, and, whilst the odd sentence amused me, it was really quite a depressing story about a 63-year-old woman who has gone off the rails. I don't think the writer fully understood how a woman that age and class might truly feel and react. I recognise that everyone grieves differently and just because I don't think I would be anywhere close to behaving like that doesn't mean that another person wouldn't have a different reaction. Still, it didn't ring true, which kills the character who is also the 'author' of the book. Mick Jackson is male and I felt he didn't get a woman's voice into the main protagonist. The writing was readable but not scintillating and the conclusion was unremarkable.

It is a shame to read two poor books in a row, but I have still learnt from them. Hopefully noticing their bad points will help to improve my writing in the future.

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