Monthly Assembly of Happenings: November 2015

Leading on from October’s example, here’s what I got up to in November:

  1. NaNoWriMo. I’ll get this one out of the way early because, simply put, I might as well not have done it. After a 3,000 word start on day 1, I did a few hundred words here and there across the month, working on various new ideas. Primarily, as you’re about to see, my month was taken over by my new job. Fitting writing in is something I’m still working on, primarily stalled by my search for the next big idea to work on.
  2. I’ve had more form rejections on Homecoming and the agent who requested a refurbished resubmission passed on it. She said she wants to see my future work, though, so not all bad! I still have a load of unanswered submissions so I’m going to leave them stirring and stall the submitting until I get going on my next book, which is more important.
  3. Work. Work. Work. I passed the two week classroom section of training, being the only one to get 100%, which gave me huge confidence.
  4. Next we had a two week practical training in “grad bay” – basically we were doing full work, full hours, but we were allowed to run for help every five seconds without being given out to. Got through those two weeks in what was a steep learning curve and now I’m working as a full employee – eep!
  5. Very little reading, even less writing. I’m tired after work and I stare at a screen all day, so my eyes aren’t up for reading much. Trying to work on that. Also sifting through my many ideas to find a novel idea that excites me. I’m dying to write one, I just need the excitement of an idea.
  6. Graduation! I nearly forgot this one because I didn’t go to it – I had work, but I didn’t particularly want to go either as I graduated last year too. I now officially have an MA in Creative Writing and am out of the education system. I’m a big boy!

So as you can see, not the most exciting of months. Working 5 days a week is time and energy consuming, but I’m enjoying the work and in a great mood. It’s all a matter of time before the right idea snaps into place and the writing takes off. Only a matter of time…

My Book Review Scoring Explained!

Recently, my score and review of Asking For It led to me feeling like my scoring system should be explained. Here it is in a nutshell.

I have a spreadsheet in Excel which I keep track of every book I read. I started this back in 2014 in a way to motivate myself to read more. Taking advantage of my need to always compete, particularly with my own previous bests, this has already worked to make me read more year upon year. Two years so far, to be precise…

Each book ranked in 5 categories:

  1. Plot – The strength of both the story’s tale and the ideas it explores. This is a combination of entertainment and how much a book makes me think/react. This is probably the strongest indicator of if I like a book or not.
  2. Tempo – If a book is to slow, it loses marks. If it’s too fast, I lose marks. If I lose interest, it loses marks. Most books score quite well here, it’s only the glaringly poor-tempo books that get hit.
  3. Character – From the strengths of characters to the narrator’s voice, this is where the cast gets scrutinized. Most books get good marks, few books get great marks.
  4. Writing – The actual strength of the writing and whether I think it fits neatly with the rest of  the book. Easily the most subjective. I’m a sucker for a well picked word that reflects the whole book (check Frankenstein out!), whereas constant metaphors and similes get on my nerves.
  5. Ending – Did it wrap up? Did I close the book and go “Wow!” or close it and shrug my shoulders? Sadly, it’s more often the latter. Endings are tough and I’m hard to please, but I’m a firm believer that a bad ending undoes all the hard work of any piece of fiction.

For each category I give a mark out of 10, always a whole number*. Then it’s a simple matter of totting it up as x/5 and converting to a percentage. Yay maths!

I make sure to never look at previous books when doing the scoring. I don’t weigh books against each other. This means that the scores for Writing, as an example, can fluctuate within a series. Similarly, sometimes characters are portrayed better in one book of a series, while they are quite two-dimensional in the next. It makes reviewing series particularly interesting! (And I’ll be doing that soon, once I read the final three books in Darren Shan’s Vampire Saga.

*The exception to this is non-fiction. I don’t give a mark for Character for non-fiction, so the other four categories go from a maximum of 10 to a maximum of 12.5 – YAY MATHS AGAIN!!!

And that is my system. It’s primarily used so I can go back and at a glance see what I enjoyed and what I didn’t. It makes it handy for when I want to re-read something, or when I want to read something I didn’t enjoy. Both are handy exercises as a writer.

While I know you guys probably don’t care much for my system, I’m mainly putting it up to clarify why some reviews may conflict their score. My reviews don’t go in-depth, purely because I believe you should read a book and interpret it yourself. I try to do as little interpretation as possible for you guys. In saying that, I hope the reviews give a broad idea of what the books are about and are of some use, whether it’s warning of books to avoid or showing you books you might like.

Whatever you get from my reviews, thank you for reading and I hope you keep coming back for more!

Review: Asking For It by Louise O’Neill (74%)

I’m going to preface this review with this fact: The scores I give in my book reviews are based on a rigid system – a system I’ll be posting about to further explain over the next few days. The scores are aimed to give a general feel for a book, not its overall quality. As you’ll see in this review, Asking For It is much more than a 74% book in terms of importance and power. Sadly, in my rigid scoring system, it’s limited to 74%.

I always knew I’d read a book and the score wouldn’t reflect my enjoyment of it. Asking For It has been the book to do that and it is a testament to how good it is as a book. Now that that’s out of the way, onto the review!

Asking For It is the second novel from Irish author Louise O’Neill, a young and promising talent who I had the good fortune of meeting last year. The book takes on rape culture in a direct and honest approach. O’Neill tackles society’s standing on rape and how it is viewed, particularly in small communities. Asking For It is set in a small town in Ireland and between that, the protagonist’s school and the claustrophobic world of social media, the uncomfortable truth about communal thinking is brought to the forefront.

The biggest strengths in Asking For It are not how it deals with the subject of rape, however. Self-identity, depression, anxiety and many more common mental health issues are addressed and it is this drives Asking For It forward emotionally. The situation is extreme and an important one, yet the more common topics of mental health keep the book open and approachable. The balance keeps the reader engaged, while keeping the focus on rape culture and the effects it has on victims of rape. (Are they victims? One of many questions raised.) As someone who has not experienced rape and, to my knowledge, does not know anyone who has, O’Neill did a fantastic job in making the topic resonate with me. I did not need to understand the trauma of rape to understand the trauma of the protagonist.

[This is the first book in a long time that moved me anywhere near the amount that Frankenstein – my all time favourite – gets at my emotions.]

Unfortunately, while Asking For It is an important book I’d recommend to everyone – teenagers as much as adults – the writing itself has some things that disappointed me:

  • The characters were, for the most part, bland caricatures. The wealthy family with the snobbish mother and disappointing child. The nice guy who is the right choice, but gets abused. Even Emma, who is the narrator of the story, only held interest to such a point. Had it not been for the impact of the plot, I’d have set the book aside. Asking For It will be on my mind for a long time. It’s characters, not so much.
  • There’s a fine balance between effective repetition and annoying repetition. I’m still not 100% sure where I stand on the repetitive phrases in this book – bitch, skank, whore, slut. At times it felt overdone.
  • The ending, which I don’t want to reveal too much about, was disappointing. While I wasn’t a fan of the ending, I’d have accepted it for its importance, had it not been so rushed. With about 20 pages to go, Emma makes a u-turn without much build up to it. As a result, the ‘twist’ in her thinking feels forced and, seeing as the book ends soon after, it felt like the novel had simply ran out of legs.

But don’t let all that hinder your desires to pick up this book. While these three points held the book back in my eyes, I can easily see arguments against them. If this were a college essay, I’d be able to hold a very in-depth debate with myself over those points. They are very much opinions on the stylistic choices and, unfortunately for me, they are points I know my fiancé will smack me over the head for thinking.

Asking For It is a fantastic book overall and despite being branded as a young adult writer, Louise O’Neill’s books are just as suitable for adults. I’d urge you to pick this one up and if fancy a good ol’ dystopian, her first novel  Only Ever Yours (review coming soon!) is also a great read.

Monthly Assembly of Happenings: October 2015

Ever since pairing back the blog, I haven’t posted very much. I’m reading a lot more than the number of book reviews suggest, I just get lazy with posting. I don’t want to clog the blog, though. I like the cleaner look and aim to keep this minimalist style.

In saying that, I’m going to start a new tradition. At the end of every month, I’ll do a post about what I’ve been up to that month, as well as a few targets for the next month. (As you’ll see from this post, I’ve started a job and it’s taken over a bit, so that’s why this is being posted mid-November!)

So, without further ado…

  1. The job hunt continued and I did a very promising interview. I got the job and I’m currently heading into my second week of a four week training/induction. It’s a good ol’ call centre and while it’s not exactly interesting, it’s nice to have money again.
  2. I decided I’ll be doing NaNoWriMo in November with what I’m describing as a LitSciFi novel. I’ve no intention to get this published – it’s a training exercise to test and improve my skills.
  3. I finally started sending my novel back out to agents. I’m still waiting to hear back from one, who wanted a resubmission after a few changes, so fingers crossed. I figured I’d quit waiting around for her reply and get it moving. I’ve already gotten one rejection back, woohoo!
  4. I was on a family holiday in Gran Canaria which was as relaxing as it was sunny. (It was very, very sunny.)
  5. I turned 23 and feel all the wiser. Provided this interview leads to a job, I’m on track for my “To do by 25” goals! (Move out, married, pursuing publication/already published.)
  6. Contradicting the opening paragraph to this post, my reading slowed down ever since the holiday. I’ve only just got back into the rhythm of it and me oh my, I sure did miss it.

So while it’s been an important month, I haven’t done very much! The seemingly endless search for a job was continuing to drain most of my enthusiasm and it was only after the interview that I picked myself back up. Now I’m trying to adjust to the early starts, long hours, exhaustion and little spare time. But that’s all for November’s post, so check back the end of the month for all the juicy gossip!

A book review or two hopefully to go up this week if the job allows it. Lots of studying needed for the training, unfortunately.

Review: Mr Holmes by Mitch Cullin (88%)

While I have only read a few of the Sherlock Holmes books, they’ve been some of my most enjoyable reads. I’m also fully aware that when I finally land full time employment, there’ll be a shelf just for it on my ever growing bookcases. Naturally, Mr Holmes was in important company.

It’s impossible to read this contemporary narrative without comparing it to Doyle’s classics. On one hand, it must still carry that Holmes and Watson feeling, while separating itself enough to allow Mitch Cullin to stamp his own name on the book. The last thing this novel needed to be was a fandom piece.

Well, fear not! It ticks all the boxes.

Cullin takes advantage of the setting, with Holmes in his ageing years, and uses it to isolate all of the familiar characters. Most notably is the absence of Dr. Watson. This novel focuses on the detective himself, eliminating the distractions and granting Cullin the freedom to mould the story around new characters.

Surprisingly, it is in these new characters where the beauty of the story truly lies. Mrs Munro, at first hiding in the background, develops into a complex and disturbing character. Roger is as lovely as he is curious and it to no surprise that he is modelled as the next great detective. The pair live with the now-retired Holmes and their’s is a tale of suffering and loss, as well as discovery and adventure. It reflects perfectly the morning and night or life and how the times can change quicker than expected.

Running parallel to this is a tale of Holmes and a man named Tamiki Umezaki. Most striking in these passages is the effects that ageing has on us and how, even into our dying years, certain memories – both fond and grudging – are still carried.

It is a novel charming and haunting. Cullin’s writing is a loyal portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, with an energy and vivacity that, ironically, rebirths the character in his final years. The plot itself is a slow burner, lacking the action and criminality of Doyle’s works. If you’ve come here for a detective story, guess again. If you’ve come here for Sherlock Holmes himself, you’ll love it.

At times I was moved to tears, others I was filled with warm smiles. A profound, gentle roller coaster of emotions that deserves experiencing, whether a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation or not!

Review: The Wind Singer by William Nicholson (68%)

Everyone has certain ‘milestone’ books in their lives. They’re the first book they ever read, the first book that made them cry, the first book that made them laugh, and so on. The Wind Singer was a major book in my childhood. It was the first fantasy book I ever read and it’s the book that made me want to write novels. So, when I found it in a second hand store, I pounced.

The Wind Singer is the first book in a trilogy by William Nicholson, aimed at children. I always find it fascinating to read children’s books as an adult, particularly ones I read when I was young. Now, with more experience and awareness, I could see where the book could have been stronger and what kept it from being more renowned. As a child, I was oblivious to it all.

I’ll start with the negatives, which are few and mostly irksome from a technical standpoint. Both the narration and the dialogue is very British. While this is less jarring in the narration, as it takes a fairy tale approach, it really stunts the dialogue. Seeing as this is a fantasy world with many races and societies, it’s strange to have such familiar phrases used. This is, however, offset by the people using their own swear words which are still kid friendly. “Pompa, pompaprune!” The clash of familiar terms and made up, creative ones is very clashing and makes it a little difficult to fully immerse in the world. Adding to this, the two main characters often sound a lot older in their speech than they actually are.

The ending of the novel is very abrupt and, although effective, could have been fleshed out somewhat. It’s a very fast paced book with plenty to tell in just over 300 pages and it’s a real achievement to fit so much in with such short space, yet still doing justice to all of the creations. Unfortunately, it was a case of so close but so far for the ending. An extra chapter, maybe, or even a few pages, that’s all it needed to wrap it up and clarify a few answers. For a novel with such innovation and creativity, it raises a lot of questions with a lack of answers. In some places, this left it an unsatisfying end.

Once you move past the above, though, you’re left with a colourful and imaginative adventure. The trio of children – Kestrel, Bowman and Mumpo – are on a quest to retrieve the voice of the Wind Singer, a powerful and mythical structure that can ward of the impending army of the Zars. Their adventure is exciting, dangerous, educational and at times, downright creepy. One of the constant presences is an army of “old children”, terrifying creations that sap your energy upon touch and turn you into one of them. They’re like zombies, but less aggressive, and their passivity adds to the terror. They are something that haunted my childhood and re-reading the book now, they still gave me chills.

This is a novel that can really unlock the reader’s imagination, with every location having its own rules and ideas. Everything has a history and a meaning, most of which the characters learn about as they go on. It is as exciting as it is interesting.

On top of all that, it patches a moral and philosophical punch that is as poignant now as it was in my childhood. It is a classic tale of repressive governments and restrictive societies, with a particular focus on critiquing the current education and examination systems. It raises questions that should be raised and now, more than ten years since its publication, they are questions that are still raised and not satisfyingly answered. Most importantly, the book does not aim to provide an answer. Nicholson is clearly not at ease with the current systems, but he acknowledges their uses and suggests that, at the very least, we consider alternatives.

The Wind Singer is an interesting and engaging read for children and adults. However, it is maybe more fitting as a children’s book and not one of those occasions where it is as good, or better, for adult readers. Still, I would highly recommend it for all children and even for parents to read with them. It is an important reminder to always question things and to never accept things for the way they are.

Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliver (59%)

“The most dangerous sicknesses are those that make us believe we are well.” – Proverb 42, The Book of Shhh

In Delirium, love is a disease. This is a dystopian novel for young adults set in near-future America, where teenagers undergo an operation to remove their ability to love. The logic behind this is that love makes people do stupid, dangerous things. It compromises our reasoning. Anyone who has ever been in love will know that this is in fact true – love makes us experience heightened emotions and pushes us out of our comfort zone. In that sense, Delirium‘s corrupt and dark world is based on logical reasoning. It’s a clever, disturbing fact that cannot be avoided while reading it. The darkness, the corruption and the oppression, they’re all there for somewhat reasonable purposes.

It is obvious that Lauren Oliver spent a lot of time and care in crafting her world. Every chapter opens with a quote like the one above. The Book of Shhh is essentially a rulebook for healthy and appropriate living, from which quotes are used. There’s also playground nursery rhymes, old sayings and quotes from other governmental documents, each of which both frames the chapter ahead and adds to the depth of this crafted reality. It is arguably the biggest strength of this book, but unfortunately it’s a strength that isn’t carried throughout the story.

The world is there. The oppression is there. The risk and reality is there. Unfortunately, a beige story and forgettable characters weaken this novel by a huge amount. The protagonist, a so-so teenage girl, is the typical YA heroine. Her BFF is pretty, popular and rich. Her love interest is mysterious and, you guessed it, a bit rebellious. Of course, he has great hair. Sadly, nothing about these characters stood out enough to make me care. Sure, Lena (the main character) has a tough life and tough decisions to make, but I didn’t particularly care. When she recognises all the corruption around her, which she always really knew existed, it wasn’t enlightening. I thought: “About time you woke up!”

A lot of this comes down to the pace, too. Of the 400 pages in the book, the first 250 are mostly about building relationships. Then, when it starts to build up a bit of action and proper tension, there’s more relationship developments. Eventually, Lena finds herself backed into a corner with no way out, until the gorgeous hair and often-stroked-chest (I think there’s a character in there somewhere) saves the day in a fast paced, explosive ending. It’s a good ending. A great ending, actually. Unfortunately, I didn’t care about the characters by the end of it, so I swept their tragedies under the carpet and barely batted an eyelash at their victories.

The writing itself is layered with metaphors, similes and endless imagery. While some people enjoy this, it felt incredibly overdone and grated with me. I love good imagery but too many comparisons put me to sleep.

Basically, it’s a book that ticks all the wrong boxes for me. I read it on recommendation from my fiancé, who I found crying many nights over it and its sequels (oh yes, it’s a classic YA trilogy!). Reading it, I could see the appeal. I could see the parts where I should have cried and noticed when I should have rejoiced. It just didn’t do it for me. Thus, I’m declaring this a Marmite Book – you’ll either love it or hate it!

But, despite the mediocre score, I’d recommend it if you’re into YA dystopians. If it works for you, it’ll work a hell of a lot.