We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

cover“Skip the beginning. Start in the middle,” is the advice our talkative narrator recieves from her father as a child. So she does. She starts her story from the middle, in part because the beginning is just too painful. In part, because we’ve only just met, and Rosemary doesn’t usually tell strangers about her family.

The not-beginning of this story starts as Rosemary goes to college in California. Trying to get as far away from her weird family as possible, she heads to college in the last place her estranged brother (now wanted by the FBI for crimes committed in the name of the Animal Rights Movement) was seen. He isn’t the first sibling she’s lost. Her twin, Fern, is also gone. And Rosemary is vaguely aware that it’s her fault, though she can’t quite recall what she did.

Fowler’s story is funny and heartbreaking. Every page is filled with beautiful prose. She explores the breakdown of a family that has been torn apart by grief. Rosemary’s father, a now disgraced psychologist, takes to drinking. Her mother is broken by the actual loss of one child, and the effective loss of another. Rosemary is left behind, trying to work out who she is without her sister.

The controversial identity of Rosemary’s sister – the secret she is so desperate to keep – is only revealed a third of the way through. It is deftly done, and forces you to confront the same assumptions about family that Rosemary has dealt with her entire life. It’s a story about sameness and difference. It’s about how we know each other. It’s about what constitutes a family.

Read it with a box of tissues, because never will a story about one sister giving another a red poker chip cause you so many tears.

The Girl With All The Gifts, Mike Carey

9780316278157Even though stories about zombies (along with their blood-sucking supernatural counterparts) have seemingly been told to death (har har), Carey has created a unique and thrilling story in his newest novel.

Unlike most stories in the genre, Carey doesn’t focus on either the outbreak or the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse. Instead, it’s set years and years after the fall of civilisation. The last remaining humans are desperately trying to hold on to the last hope they have of finding any sort of cure: a classroom of unusual undead children, and a second-rate scientist.

The main character is a sweet and endearing little girl called Melanie. She loves books, enjoys school, and has a favourite teacher called Miss Justineau. She’s also a tiny little flesh hungry zombie, who gets locked up in a cell alongside her classmates once school’s over. But that won’t stop you from loving her.

Every now and then one of Melanie’s friends gets taken away, and never returns. She doesn’t know what happens to them. And then there’s also Sergeant Parks and Doctor Caroline Caldwell to contend with. Dealing with them varies from awkward to life-threatening. When the secret underground base where Melanie and her classmates are held comes under attack, Parks, Caldwell, and Justineau are forced to venture out beyond the gate into the very scary, very real, post-apocalyptic world – with Melanie in tow.

Carey is a smart and adept storyteller. His extensive experience in comic books lends a gritty texture to the narrative. The strong characters, worldbuilding, and both Melanie and Miss Justineau’s emotional journey culminate in a surprising and compelling trifecta that explores what the world is like as a broken and hopeless place. He delves into the implications of inadequately preparing our youth for the real world, and yet the burden of responsibility we place on them for the future of it.

Broken Monsters, Lauren Beukes

Broken MonstersBroken Monsters is a serial killer story. But it’s not like one that you’re used to. It’s pretty obvious from the outset who the killer is. There’s no big reveal in the last few pages; Beukes doesn’t keep you guessing. Here’s the thing: that takes nothing away from the story. Part of the horror is your front row seat to the killer’s unravelling mind.

Much like in her last novel, Broken Monsters incorporates the voices of characters from all sides of the story. We follow a passionate detective investigating a horrific murder, her daughter, a failed writer, a homeless man, and a disturbed artist. As the story unfolds we discover how each of these characters are connected to the strange series of killings in Detroit. And Beukes continues to deconstruct the idea of the serial killer as genius, portrayed so often in the genre. He’s nothing of the sort. He’s crazed and possessed, and he’s a failure in so many respects: as a father-figure, partner, and artist.

This brings us to the broken monsters at the core of the tale. While the murderer is the obvious choice for the broken monster, he’s driven by a ‘dream’ which is a monster of its own. And then there are his creations, and the other major and minor characters who, to varying degrees, are broken monsters too.

In a digital society where our performance of personhood is spread over so many facets of in-person and online interaction, we are all broken. We try to construct ourselves inwardly and outwardly according to how we want to be in the world, and how we want to be perceived in it.

One of the problems about writing about the internet and its role in our lives is that one can easily cross the line into “trying too hard”. Beukes toes that line expertly: cringeworthily naming a pet NyanCat, but then redeeming herself with a comment on the fleeting nature of memes, and later, making a hilarious joke about rainbow poop.

My one complaint is the finale: it didn’t fit for me. Detective Versado’s daughter’s ability to see as Clayton sees seems sudden, and out of character. Her ability to step into other characters becomes a far more central gift than it has been throughout the story. And the paranormal element, which up until then had seemed more a part of Clayton’s madness, was suddenly real. It’s not that I’m not a fan of the paranormal, just that if the dream is real, and it chose Clayton, then he becomes special, and that contradicts Beukes so-far fantastic portrayal of murdery madness.

That said, it’s a compelling read, with an astonishing attention to detail in the writing that makes the setting really come alive. Lauren’s books notoriously defy genre-boxing. This one ends up as a mash-up of cop drama, Hard Candy, and American Gods.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Pulitzers-ArtsTartt’s Pulitzer winning third novel has been the centre of a bit of a literary tut-tutting. Readers love it, literary critics think it’s Harry Potter for adults — because that’s the worst insult they can think of. If someone said that about I book I’d written, I’d dance naked in the street, and then buy a yacht. I’m pretty sure that’s what Donna Tartt did, too. Because the high opinion of critics doesn’t buy a French Riviera holiday, I can tell you.

At the age of 13, Theo loses his mother to a terrorist attack  and acquires a stolen artwork. Both haunt his formative years, and lead to innumerable bad decisions which spiral into a drug-addled adulthood. I’m a big fan of bad decisions, they make for entertaining reading.

Tartt moves us through the narrative from Amsterdam, to New York, to Las Vegas. The drug-hazed, desert wandering, Vegas scenes were the most compelling for me — coupled with the relationship that Theo builds with Boris. I liked Boris a lot. Hobie too, though he was too nice. Speaking of nice: the ending is too good to be true. Yes, there are some bittersweet notes in there, but if we’re being honest, they’re mostly sweet. Call me sadistic, but I’d have liked Theo to suffer a bit more in the end. And no, don’t give me that ‘hasn’t he suffered enough’ crap. He has not.

In short, I enjoyed it. And the story has stuck with me — especially the phrase “what the motherfuck”, which I keep trying to find a way to use in casual conversation. The occasion has not yet arisen.

I doubt I’ll ever read it again, the book is just too long. By the end I was ready to move on to other things. I am keen to read her first novel, The Secret History, because no matter what the haters say about The Goldfinch, they all agree that that one is sublime.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

ocean-at-the-end-of-the-lane_305When you return to a childhood home, the first thing that becomes apparent is how small everything seems. Such is the case with Lettie Hempstock’s pond on their property at the end of the lane: it used to be the ocean.

Returning to his childhood town after a death in the family, our narrator finds himself drawn to the pond in the unconscious way that memory directs you when you stop thinking about where you want to go. But looking out over the pond calls back long forgotten events. Magic seeps out.

The story is about his lonely seven year-old self, and the curious friendship he strikes up with Lettie Hempstock. A lodger’s suicide draws the darkness out of the shadows, and manifests in the form of an evil nanny who tears his family up from the inside. Only eleven year-old Lettie can help him overcome her, with the help of her powerful mother and grandmother, and the ocean at the end of the lane.

Seen through the eyes of a seven year-old, the events of the story are ballooned and shifted, a childhood nightmare dreamscape in which strange occurrences can only be magic. It is frightening and horrific in a way that only fairytales can be. And captures one’s imagination in the way that fairytales do. Neil Gaiman is one of my very favourite writers and humans. This book is nothing short of magical.

I love the fact that this is not the first mention of the Hempstocks in a Gaiman book. Before reading this one, I read The Graveyard Book, where the young protagonist befriends the ghost of a witch called Liza Hempstock. There’s also a Daisy Hempstock in his novel Stardust. I love the idea of the story of a family history being recognised through the stories of other people across multiple novels. I also love the face that Gaiman’s hometown of Portsmouth named a road ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’, and it runs right to the sea (or at least, to the English Channel).

Read an excerpt here.

The Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick

silver-liningsI am a strong believer in the whole book before the movie thing. Mostly, because I like to see different modes of storytelling in action, but also because I enjoy seeing what choices the writer (of the screenplay) makes in adapting a story (my favorite example of this is in Game of Thrones, where I think they make excellent changes for the improvement of the narrative).

I am also a recent convert to the Google Books app on my phone, which I just so happened to be perusing yesterday when I happened across Matthew Quick’s Silver Linings Playbook. I’ve been meaning to watch the movie for a while now (Jennifer Lawrence, enough said), and so one thing lead to another.

Silver Linings Playbook is narrated by Pat, whose mission is to reunite with his estranged wife after his release from a mental institution. In the process he strikes up a friendship with a widowed dancer, struggling with her own mental stability since the death of her husband. While that synopsis is true of the novel and the film, there are significant divergences. Everything from Pat’s last name to his relationship with his father is altered on the screen, along with some pretty significant plot points. One of the disappointments of the film for me was the loss of some of the quirkiness and warmth of Doctor Patel, who was one of the best characters in the novel. But I found the other characters to be more real than their novel counterparts.

Overall it’s a quick read, and it’s sweet, but there are a lot of niggly things for me. Pat’s references to “apart time” and “the bad place” seem childish and regressive. Sure, he had a psychotic break, but his vocabulary didn’t ring true for me. I was also often bored by the lengthy descriptions of football matches, which I found myself skipping past. Though, this was made up for by some memorable and amusing scenes. It’s a sentimental tale about romance and the road to recovery: love against all odds, hopefulness in the face of despair, and all that — I guess you got that from the title though, right?

Read an excerpt here.

White Teeth, Zadie Smith

white-teeth

White Teeth teases out the tangled lives of two immigrant families, one from Bangladesh and the other from Jamacia — every member of which is trying to find a way to belong. Both have second generation children, who straddle the boundaries between the country of their birth and that of their origin. From failed suicides to spectacularly foiled political protests, the book covers variously the impending end of the world, and the future of one small mouse.

The dialogue is perfect. The narrative is witty. And the ending, while acknowledged as the only potential shortfall of the book (for being “too pat”), gave off the sense of history coming full circle, closing in on itself, running along the same well worn path.

Zadie Smith wrote the novel at 24, between studying for finals at Cambridge. Do you hate her enough yet? Even she has mused that one shouldn’t write a novel that young. A review in the literary magazine Butterfly read: “This kind of precocity in so young a writer has one half of the audience standing to applaud and the other half wishing, as with child performers of the past (Shirley Temple, Bonnie Langford et al), she would just stay still and shut up. White Teeth is the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old.” The review, according to Sam Wallace at the Daily Telegraph, was written by Smith herself.

You can see the locations from the book on the Londonist.

The Passage, Justin Cronin

The-Passage-UKIt’s not often that when I finish reading a book I pass it on to someone else. That’s because I’m a jealous book owner. I may dearly love you, but I don’t want your sweaty fingers on my uncracked spines, thankyouverymuch. So, this occasion is a special one, because I’ve passed this book on to a friend.

The Passage is the first in a series of books by Justin Cronin. An Amazonian virus is weaponised by the US army, and a viral infection leads to an outbreak of vampirism. A few pocketed human colonies remain, guarded at night by the lights around their towering walls. But what will happen if the batteries fail? What happens when the lights go out?

Well, basically everyone will die. That’s kind of the point, right? Enter unlikely hero and cohorts, plus mysterious human girl who can walk beyond the walls. We know where she comes from, but the characters have to find that out for themselves by taking a trip back to where it all began.

Cronin’s story is told in two time-streams, one is in the form of academic research presented at conference in far future Australia, the other is from the point of view of the characters as the shit hits the fan. There’s a lot of genre blending as well, with the narrative incorporating elements of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and dystopia. It’s twisty and gripping, and will have you calling in sick on Monday morning just so you can finish it.

The second book The Twelve (the significance of which I’ll leave for you to find out) is out already, and the final installment The City of Mirrors will be out next year.

Another thing that I find incredibly exciting is that Ridley Scott has purchased the film rights. I mean, if that’s not a commendation, then I don’t know what is, friends.

Writing for Young Adults (with Sarah Lotz, Sally Partridge and Cat Hellison)

As part of Open Book 2013, Cape Town’s YA author-contingent (Sally Partridge, Sarah Lotz and Cat Hellison) hosted a YA writer’s masterclass. They shared their tips on general ass-kickery and gave a basic intro to writing YA, covering:

1. Characters
2. Dialogue
3. Plot
4. Pace
5. Setting, and
6. Point of View

Characters

YA Characters are usually between 12 and 18 years old. They are conflicted and emotional, they are usually exceptional in some way, they are real and horny and angry, they are secretive, they are self-consciousness. In short, they are believable, true-to-life teenagers.

There are three aspects to a believable character:
1. What they are on the outside: Be they son, daughter, nephew, rich or poor, whether they are dating someone, and what they look like, it’s important that they suit your setting.
2. What they are in the inside: As Chuck Wendig says “Teenagers aren’t fully cooked yet”. They are still working out their shit. What’s their emotional condition? Are they shy? Agressive? Get inside their head, and answer their questions as you go.
3. Their backstory: What happened in the 15 years before the story started — bring this in, but don’t get lost in it.

But, when you use these aspects you need to show and not tell. Say less. You can be quite subtle, and still actually tell your reader a lot. Don’t describe your character in detail, and don’t have them look in the mirror.
“Oh please don’t have them look into the mirror”, Cat says.
“Why?”, someone asks.
“It’s lazy.”
The same goes for dreams, or waking up to an alarm. The writer is looking for a place to start, so they start where it’s easy. It’s boring.

At this point Sally shows us her book of characters. It looks like a 10 year old’s cut and paste journal, with pictures and descriptions of her characters. Cat says that she keeps a private wiki (on zimwiki) of all her characters and their secrets.

You need to think of your characters as heroes, they say. A lot of IRL teenagers are passive. But your characters should not be passive (mostly). They are the heroes of their story. Let them face adversity and find their bravery. They need to be aspirational. Twilight breaks these rules. Bella is a very passive character, she’s mousey, she runs away from her problems, and the action happens to her — she never saves herself. But this makes her a character that teenagers can relate to, and the wish fulfilment angle of her meeting her soulmate is what makes it work.

Often in YA the storyline is not about saving the world. It’s closer to home. The stakes are personal. it’s about the character’s friends and family.

When it comes to secondary characters, you need to think about the backstories of each characters, but not put it all on the page. “Unless you’re Steven King, you probably can’t pull it off”, Cat says.

Adults are a tricky subject in YA. They exist on the peripheries, but they are mostly absent. If they were there, your characters wouldn’t be able to do what they want to do. So you make them go away. If you know what I mean.

Dialogue

It should be conversational and natural. Keep contractions in mind, and read it out loud to test it out on the tongue. Don’t always use the correct grammar.

Plot

“Where do you get your ideas?” Sarah asks us. Everywhere. Newspapers, songs, other books, TV. You need to absorb the world. Sometimes you can start with a social issue, or theme, that you want to target. You get an idea. Now you need a story.

What’s the difference between plot and story? Plot is the step-by-step of what’s happening to the character. It’s their physical journey. Plot is action. And if you feel like your story is dragging, add more of it. “And when I say action, I mean action”, Sarah says.

“But zombies and lesbian-ninjas does not a story make”, Sarah says.
“Well…”, says Cat, “It does in some places on the internet.”

The story is their emotional development. Focus on the character arc and the character’s motivation. What is in her way? What are the stakes? What if she does this? What if it backfires?
What does your character want and why can’t she get it? Put this in your first chapter. If you do, New York editors will look at your work. If not: slush pile.

Then, you have the big romance angle. Usually because this is the time in their lives when your characters are discovering what’s in their pants. But you don’t have to add a romance.

Getting down to the actual plotting: Sarah uses a synopsis. A step-by-step of the entire plot. She starts with a short one, much like a blurb on the back. Writing a synopsis helps you figure out the plot holes. “Why can’t the people underground just use their phones to say ‘GET US OUT OF HERE’? I never thought of that!”, Sarah says.

Pace

When commenting on reading other peoples’ manuscripts, shara says that “the number one problem I find is complete wanky writing”. Pages of description in huge chunks should be left out. “Whole pages of ego wank writing”: Cut it, cut it, cut it.

Cat suggests that a great idea is to get someone you are not sleeping with to tell you
a) if they want to read on, and
b) where they got bored.

Other advice from Sarah included:
1. If its sagging, add more conflict or action.
2. The grabby-grabby needs to happen in the beginning, the middle, and the end. Narrative tension is important. Your first three chapters need to be the best ones.
3. Cliffhangers. Don’t do it.
4. Use dialogue. Break up the blocks of text.
5. You can cut from scene to scene. You don’t need pages of exposition inbetween.
6. try to avoid short chapters. “I get shat on a lot for that”, she says.

Setting

“I like to treat my setting as a character, and the character has a goal. It needs to be more than set-dressing”, says Cat. There is a difference between setting and worldbuilding. But both require research. Ask someone in the area to tell you what it’s really like. Bring all your senses into your book. Use details.

Don’t put too many references in the book. Especially in YA, because it dates your book. Similarly, don’t explain mechanics: “no one cares, just get to the story”.

Point of View

This last aspect is about narrative style. Most YA novels are written in the first person, present tense. That’s because it’s the style that most easily allows the reader to escape into the story. You can choose second or third person, past tense, present tense, or future tense.

We also chatted about length. 70-90 thousand words is usual. Local publishers look for 50 thousand and below.

I also learnt some new words! YAY!
Prognostications: the action of foretelling or prophesying future events (they noted that this was not a great idea, by the way).
Mary Sue: A passive character that the reader can project themselves on, in order to insert themselves into the story.
McGuffen: Object that helps the character achieve its goal. A horcrux, essentially.

Illustration by Kelly Lasserre.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum is told through the eyes of Ruby, and follows her and her family through important events in her life starting at her conception, through two world wars and many many family tragedies. It also flashes back to the lives of her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, providing a pretty conclusive family history. Essentially, it’s a book about people, and what makes and breaks a family.

This book is heartbreaking, and yet has an incredible sense of humour. The turn of phrase is often hilarious, and young Ruby’s observations of the world around her are of the “it’s funny ’cause it’s true” sort. I snorted more than once and read passages aloud to Jon. I can’t give you any examples, because that would be spoilers. And we know how Doctor Song feels about those. There is also a TWIST, though I did see that one coming. I watched too many episodes of Murder She Wrote when I was a kid. I can’t help it.

I only recently encountered Kate Atkinson’s work, and am really enjoying it*. Behind the Scenes at the Museum was her first book. I’m really looking forward to reading her new one Life After Life. I often stand in Exclusive Books stroking it, but I can’t decide if I want to buy it or Neil Gaiman’s new book The Ocean at the End of the Lane first. That said I also want to buy JK Rowling’s secret book, and another called Confessions of a Sociopath which also looks amazing. Why are books so expensive, and so beautiful?

*As an aside, I found that people usually say “I’m reading her”, as in “I recently encountered Kate Atkinson’s work and I’m really enjoying reading her”. Is this quite a literary or academic thing to say? I don’t like it. I say “it” because it is an it. It is a book. A book is a thing. It’s not actually even a book, it’s a story. It’s just in the form of a book. But is the story her? Or hers? I’m not sure. One thing I encountered while doing SSDA with my work friends, was that as I read each of their stories, I kept trying to find the bits of them in it. But then I think of my own story, and I don’t want them to try and find bits of me in it. When I re-read it it doesn’t even seem like a thing I wrote. Does anyone else feel like that? Maybe I’ve had too much sugar.**

**By the way, this Creamery icecream I’m eating is the bomb. I ordered it from Eat Out The Box, at like, quarter to ten, and they didn’t judge me, and they brought it straight to my door. That’s service.