So many books, so few stars

We’ve all seen it. A book we’ve loved that may have good reviews, but the reviewer hasn’t awarded many stars, which to the writer is confusing. Perhaps this is a question of personal semantics. I have my marking system for books. Five stars is for an outstanding read. It’s one of those I wish I had written myself. Four stars is for a book I’ve found exceptional. It could have been something about a character or the plot, but something in the book has made me remember it. I usually say it’s haunting. Then, where most people would think three stars is a mediocre title, I apply it to all the other good books I’ve read; the books I’ve truly loved and that will stay in my house, and I think worth anybody’s time of day. A three star review can feel like a letdown but truly it’s a decent rating. Two stars is for something I may keep but probably never read again. It’s one of those ‘if you’ve nothing better to do’ categories. One star I seldom apply because if a book is that unsatisfying I’ll likely never mention it.

Some sites, like Goodreads, have a recommended meaning for their ratings (there three stars is a perfectly decent score), and that can help, but I believe we all mark books based on personal expectations. This means the ‘score’ may not accurately reflect content.

I seldom give bad reviews for two reasons. One, I know how I would feel if it were me and two, I’m always aware that what I dislike someone else may well love. It’s all opinion. As a writer, I think sometimes it’s best to be careful what you say, but we all know there are some deplorable books out. Many on bestseller lists. I’m sorry to say publishing (especially in digital form) has opened doors for many good writers who may not otherwise have a chance, but many unscrupulous individuals have also seized the opportunity to set up as publishers and will take any standard of work to market.

This isn’t always the fault of the inexperienced author. Whether a person has the ability to write or not, without the right guidance they may never realise the difference between genuine talent and a gift that needs nurturing, though the truth is all writers need cultivating. An unscrupulous publisher will heap praise on the unsuspecting where it’s not warranted, and how is the writer to know? Please, as a reader or writer, one bad experience must not discourage, deter, or dishearten. There are reputable publishers out there, and there are excellent authors. Many of these books are as good as anything in print, maybe better. The format doesn’t change the quality of the work. Only the publisher does. When I give a review, I seldom award stars unless it’s where I must. I say what I think of a book and why.

November Update 2018

OUT AND ABOUT:

Been to a few shops, garden centres, and craft fairs this month. Watched a Christmas light switch-on and a surprisingly decent firework display put on by a small town.

TELEVISION:

Finished watching Touch with Kiefer Sutherland, a series that only ran for two seasons. Admittedly, this story of an autistic boy who sees patterns in numbers connecting people and events, supposedly being one of 36 special and important individuals took time to get started but they cancelled it after it got interesting. I think it could have run for a third season. It’s intellectual and may be too intelligent to make it a commercial property. Viewers needed to stick with this awhile and the viewing numbers dropped off drastically after the first episode or two. A pity because it did have much going for it. The more action based plot developed likely as an effort to save it.

Following this we jumped back in to continue watching Ray Donovan, a series we’ve not seen since the end of season 2. Violent owing to the story, I’m unsure whether the series has got better or the ability to stream it and binge watch without adverts has made the difference, but we’re enjoying this more than we did previously. It is definitely a show made for Liev Schreiber.

READING:

I eased away from horror for this month, although The Chalk Man, by C.J.Tudor is termed as such.  A book I thought might be more paranormal horror but is fitting in the thriller market, but has a good touch of creepiness. I enjoyed this book in the main for the way it’s plotted out, it’s never-ending cliffhangers and slow reveal.

I began The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, a huge book I’ve had awhile and it will take me ages to get through this owing to the way I intend to read it. Very much a book I intend to dip in and out of over several months so I’ve only completed the first 100 pages, the section of poetry. Many hidden gems here though I have to say the reason his most loved and best-known poem is The Raven shines out. The cadence and emotional response it invokes never ceases to impress. Hoping there’ll be many gems and new tales to discover in the story section of the book.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry is a well-written book, with well-plotted layers and subtext. Alas, it’s not cohesive enough, maybe owing to the omnipresent head-hopping style. On occasion, I forgot I was reading a book set in 1893. It’s worse fault, though, is the likely error of the marketing department. The blurb promises one thing, the book another. Readers expect a developing romance wrapped around a mystery. The ‘Serpent’ of the title is a creature not so much myth as misunderstood. It is often figurative, a metaphor, subtext…which might be fine if readers were not led to believe otherwise. As for the romance, I had patience for that until around 60 pages from the end when my emotions turned to exasperation and disgust. I so wanted to say I loved this book but have to settle for liking it. The true heroine of the book reads, to me, as Stella and that’s a stretch. The writer may tell the story he or she wants, of course, and it’s true that humans are imperfect. Again, I sense that the marketing of this novel leads one to expect something it’s not and so does the author and novel no favours. This is not a mystery, and not a romance. It’s a set of characters and a slice of their shared histories.

WRITING:

Not much to tell you this month. I’ve been working on an as yet unofficial commissioned title and it’s one case of the nearer I get to The End the further away it feels.

Such Rich Prose

With the gift-giving season fast approaching, I couldn’t help but think back on some of my childhood reads, which was my favourite type of gift to receive. I’ve never had a child in my life I haven’t given books to.

A few years ago I read The Owl Service by Alan Garner owing to a recommendation. I cannot say I found the writing charming and yet it has a haunting, surreal quality that makes for a memorable read. It’s supposed to be a children’s book but I can’t think of a reason apart from the adage in the publishing world that if the main character is a child, then it is a book for children. Publishers seem to think if the lead is a child, it will hold no interest for adults. The worldwide phenomenon of a certain wizard has turned this concept on the head. Whether you love or loathe the particular boy lead in question, I think this is a good thing. There are many books out there that cross the barrier between child and adult readers and I for one am not too proud to admit reading the occasional children’s book. I cannot imagine the inability to enjoy a pleasant afternoon revisiting some of my old favourite characters in their adventures. I have a quote on my website by C.S.Lewis: No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.

When I young, my reading material was Pooh and then Enid Blyton’s Mr Meddles Muddles, Mr Pinkwhistle or Mr Twiddle. I was also fond of her Wishing Chair series and to this day I own a copy of Mr Galliano’s Circus (although I used to call him Mr Galeeno as I couldn’t get my tongue around the pronunciation). I wanted to be young Jimmy Brown and run away to the circus. In a more enlightened time and as an adult I couldn’t imagine anything worse (I am not a supporter of animal circuses) but I understand it was the running away on an ‘adventure’ part I loved so well. In the Moomins books, I wanted to be Snuffkin and share his love of travelling. From there I went on to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory although I always preferred The Great Glass Elevator. Yes, there is a second book! I adored the Vermicious Knids far more than the Oompa-Loompas.

There was no stopping me. I loved The Water Babies because it touched my sense of fair play. Every child should hear of Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby or Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid. One Hundred and One Dalmatians a Disney film? I read the book by Dodie Smith and progressed to the sequel. Yes, once again there is a follow-up people seldom hear of called The Starlight Barking. Likewise, I read Bambi the book by Felix Salten and you’ll never see that story the same way again. As a child I lent it to an aunt and insisted she read it. After much nagging she (begrudgingly) sat down one day and only stopped when she realised it had grown too dark to see. She was that lost in the story.

Then it was Ballet Shoes and What Katy Did. My most unusual children’s book has got to be Snowflake by Paul Gallico. Mine is tatty, gone orange and lost its cover, though I can remember the cover to this day: pale blue and white with a white snowflake with a child’s face in the centre. Snowflake is ‘born’, falls in love with ‘Raindrop’, goes on a journey and at last returns to her creator. It’s the first book that made my heart ache.

Later came Oscar Wilde. His Happy Prince story made me sob. Once I was old enough, we started on the classics. It’s amazing in this day that classic literature is often termed as stuffy. Maybe it’s the classic moniker that has done the harm. They weren’t classics when I was young; they were just books. I started with Heidi but was soon on to Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. These were my world. They were my friends. They never failed me, and took me adventuring with them. It’s a sad world where children don’t read these books today.

Then it was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — the name of the creature’s creator, not the ‘monster’ when the whole point of the book is the true monsters are the man who created him, and the society who hounds him. This so-called horror story isn’t only that. It’s a morality lesson. At once I fell into the richness of the language, some of which may seem superfluous in this modern age but even in Mary Shelley’s introduction doesn’t “Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest” much more engrossing than “We talked well into the night before we went to bed”?

One of my favourite works is the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake, for the involved story, the characters, and, most of all, owing to its rich language. I’ve enticed people to watch the BBC series but even though they often love the story, it disinclines them toward the book. I feel it’s a pity that children are often no longer raised on such rich prose. Not only are they missing out on such imaginative stories, one can’t help speculating whether it would do wonders for their verbal skills and their ability to communicate.

News August 2018

Hi Everyone!
Yes, I know it’s September. I should have posted this last week, but I’m slightly late as we were away visiting family.

READING:

The Bullet Trick, Louise Walsh
I’ve read one of Louise Walsh’s books before (though the title escapes me) upon recommendation. I recall not being taken with it. This book I enjoyed more. The writing is slick and I like the way the story jumps back and forth between settings and time. The big reveal, not so big, but an enjoyable, cosy thriller. One I liked for the writing and presentation more than the plot.

In the Place of Fallen Leaves, Tim Pears
Felt myself falling into this story almost right away, certainly by the start of the second chapter. The writing is lyrical, creating images and imparting information in an intricate weave. It’s a book without a plot, though, more a memoir in tone than a story, an exposition of events over a long, hot summer in Devon, at times grave, others times sad and humorous. Not one to speed through.

The Girl Next Door, Jack Ketchum
This book is hard to review objectively. On the one hand, it borders the type of horror termed as torture porn. On the other, and in a part precisely for that reason, I’m sure it does what it intends to do. It provokes emotion and, I hope, for most people, in the right way, making the reader uneasy and restless. Ultimately, I wasn’t able to forgive anyone, not even the protagonist. There’s something voyeuristic in the reading, speaking to the part that wants to put the book down. Yet, like watching a train wreck, another part of the human soul/nature wants to discover the outcome. Wants justice. Retribution. Wants to be able to ‘do something’, to act, particularly as this is based on a true story—the book’s real saving grace as it highlights the plight of all abused children, spiking the guilty nerve of anyone who doesn’t want to get involved. The book is confrontational and unsettling in so many ways that it questions the causes behind my very dislike. The book is terrible, and in that possibly achieves its purpose, making of the book a conundrum both excellent and dreadful. It’s a repulsive grim read that’s hard to turn away from or dismiss, though I’m positive not everyone who reads this will have the same experience as I did. I do not like this book, but that’s okay—I shouldn’t—but I do appreciate it as a job well done: vile but emotive because of that.

FILMS:

If you’ve ever seen Tarantino’s work you know you’ve got to have a stomach for violence but one of his less violent and surprising films was The Hateful Eight. There are a few graphic shootings but most of the film comprises long drawn-out conversations. We found it interesting, surprised how fast an almost 3 hour film passed, but I can see where it will send many to sleep.

Been catching up on Doc Martin, a series I’ve always liked, but I don’t get what the creators are trying to do with the character in season 7 with the dog story.

SPOILER: Even if it would be a part of the character’s mental condition, this is fiction and even if they turn it around, it can never be forgotten or forgiven. When he was merely irritated with the dog, it was mildly funny. When he dumped the animal at the side of the road, it became more questionable. When he tried to kill it, game over. Way to go making me hate the character. If I were his wife, Louisa, it would be instant divorce. I’ll stick with the series but this story line has made me dislike the MC and even the inhabitants of the village as no one seems to want this poor homeless dog. Saying that, end of Season 8 (9 will be out next year and is the last), has the best line possible.

WRITING:

I’ve already mention in another blog post that I made the difficult decision to remove some of my titles from circulation.

I also returned the galley proof of A Not So Hollow Heart and received the cover. Amazingly, there were no errors though there is one issue where house-style has determined the use of US punctuation in an otherwise UK setting, UK characters, UK spelling and punctuation book.

And lastly…I have something I want to tell you but can’t…yet. It may not happen and if it doesn’t, I’ll no doubt just let you know ‘no joy’. I’m terrified to even mention it.

Until the end of the month…Happy Reading!
Sharon x

Update June/July Part 2

Books read…

I discovered Adam Nevill this year, a horror writer not afraid of using more than a few words from the dictionary. I’ve read two of his books: The Ritual (back in March), and Banquet of the Damned (in June). The Ritual is a book of two halves. I so wanted to give it 5 stars, but I preferred the first half of the book to the second, and, although I’m unsure what might have been a better conclusion, the end felt a little abrupt. What I love about this book is the atmosphere the author creates capturing my interest in a way many books of this type have failed and making him an author I want to read regularly. I imagine some readers may like to know the characters a tad more—that occurred to me on some level—but in a horror story it’s not always necessary to know these men are little more than regular guys doing their best to get by in their average lives and who don’t deserve the situation thrust upon them. A wonderfully atmospheric lost in the woods horror story.

For Banquet of the Damned, I easily understand why this book receives mixed reviews, and it’s purely owing to stylistic preference. I sank into a rich vocabulary and longer sentences so often lacking in modern fiction. I don’t want to use the term literary as it carries an unfortunate modern-day connotation of dusty libraries and mildewed books written by notaries of a by-gone age (a sad view of the classics that were part of my childhood reading and nowadays occasionally termed ‘too difficult’). This definitely isn’t that, but one can say this book is a more stylish horror. Another way to describe it: I can imagine a few editors returning the manuscript circling the occasional sentence as purple prose. Thank goodness the publisher ignored them if they did. The carefully chosen style to weaves a delightfully successful spell on any reader able to appreciate the opulent seductive description spiced with the ‘creep’ factor; the sense that something is coming and might be present on the next turn of a page. This seems to be where Adam Nevill excels.

The Night Clock, Paul Meloy. First, I have to say I like this book. I need to say so because it may not be obvious. Paul Meloy’s imagination packs a punch. Unfortunately, the story is vastly superior to its execution. On a purely grammatical basis there are so many instances of ‘it, was, and were’ sentences to bog the story and make it drag. I took way too long to finish this. The book suffers too much tell instead of show (too many instances of the type such as ‘he was standing’ required the simple improvement of ‘stood’), and I’m unsure if the writer has any real understanding of tenses or tried to be artistic in the use. Again, I can see a few people complaining over the ‘purple prose’, though that doesn’t always bother me if used well. There’s a greater book here and fantastic ideas that sadly do not gel in this length of a novel. I wanted to know more of the characters and to care for them. The various threads read more as perplexing even unnecessary tangents though mostly draw together, but left me feeling the narrative strove to be clever instead of engaging. Instead, the promised level of threat never manifests and I didn’t much care whether anyone survived by the conclusion. Which is a pity, as this visionary setting promised much and had me enthralled. I love the overlapping story threads and blending of genres.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King, proves what I’ve always said, that King is labelled wrongly as a horror writer. He’s a storyteller. I can see where this collection may be labelled as self-indulgent but then, as a storyteller, he no doubt wants to share these tales and has earned some forbearance. Not that there’s no other reason to read this collection. I liked it. I didn’t adore it, but a number of stories I liked more than others, a few I loved, and there were none I hated so I’ve given the book 4 stars where I might prefer to give it 3.5. Short story collections are books I dip in and out of and often take me weeks, even months, to complete, while I soar through novels; but I found King’s writing so familiar and familiarly ‘comfortable’, I finished the book off without setting it aside. A portion of these stories are a tad silly, others fun, some questioning…I won’t say any are scary but then I’m seldom scared by King’s work, by anyone’s, so I’m not singling him out in that regard. As a ‘constant reader’ adding this to my bookshelves was a no-brainer and while it’s not the best of his work, I wasn’t disappointed.

Writing-wise…

I contracted the re-release of A Not So Hollow Heart with JMS Books, this version edited and lengthened. The only real complaint I had from critics was that they wished it were longer…so now it is where I felt it needed it, though I’m uncertain it’s a length to satisfy readers. Yes, there’s always more to fledge out, to explore characters deeper, but there’s a point where all the information needed to ‘tell the tale’ is on the page. I’ve tried to deepen characterisation.

I’ve also been contacted to work on another project…I can only say ‘sci-fi’ related, but there’s no way I can know if anything will come of that at this point. Had a bad feel moment when doing research for a disaster, natural or otherwise, where people died. Had a ‘not enough casualties for my purposes’ moment. I’m not a terrible person, just a writer, honest.

Speaking of writing…when a reviewer drops in words like ‘rips you up’ and ‘grab a box of tissues’ I know I’ve done something right. A jaw drop moment for Flowers for the Gardener. I put much thought into this book and the reviewer is spot on that I wanted to show life is short and what comes from poor communication and assumptions, which is what many arguments (particularly those between family and friends) are. The reader is crying and I’m left smiling. Such is the life of a writer.

Book Review: Flowers for the Gardener by Sharon Maria Bidwell

To Read or Not to Read

When I mention my To-Be-Read-Mountain, few are surprised. Not only do I buy more books per year than I can usually read, I inherited a good 500 books from my father a few years ago. That’s 500 I kept, discounting those I gave away to friends and charity. He had many genres, including fantasies I’ve longed to read, series of which I’d never heard. A few trilogies had the first book only, or book one and two with the third missing so I went searching to complete those that interested me. These amounted to a great many novels, adding to an existing large collection. My bookshelves ‘double up’.

I’m always amazed by people’s reactions, ‘Wow, books’. Makes me think of the little green men from Toy Story all going ‘Oooooooohhhhhhh.’ With me I can spend an hour or so in someone’s home wondering ‘what’s wrong with this picture?’ before I realise, there are no books. A house without books, to me, isn’t a home.

Still, I’m left asking can we have too much of a good thing? When having to move, yes, and I’ve carted this lot around twice in recent years. I’ve come to the time where I must be more selective of the books I keep, even purchase. Some writers are exempt from this rule—quite a list of them—will stay with me always. No one should be surprised when I say one of those authors is Terry Pratchett.

I’ve been listing him in my top five for more years than I can recall but it wasn’t until he died that it hit me what a long love-affair I’ve had with Rincewind, Death, The Luggage, The Librarian, Sam Vimes, and…well, that names a mere few, though I shouldn’t forget Rob Anybody, my favourite Nac Mac Feegle. Say hello, Rob. Don’t worry; he always looks that grumpy.

This may sound like gobbledegook to many but not to anyone who grasped the wonder of Terry’s satire. A friend once told me she’d read the first book (in her words: cute, about wizards) without getting that Terry Pratchett wrote satire, that the Discworld was our world, that the University was our government, the clacks system our postal service and so on. I’m not as surprised as I might be. Not many know Gulliver’s Travels was also an exercise in parody.

When Terry died, I was already experiencing a rough day during lasting stress. The universe bestowed another hammer blow. Is it possible to experience real grief when someone you’ve never met dies? Absolutely. I won’t be the only one to say so. When you’ve admired someone, their work, kept track for many years the loss is real. If nothing else ‘no more Discworld’ is a hard kick.

I’ll soon be picking up another of his books with the bittersweet knowledge I have about four titles to go and the fantasy books he wrote with Stephen Baxter. Yes, I’ve still a few of Terry’s books to read…and in there is a puzzle. Why haven’t I read them all?

Because I’ve so many writers I love and I like to be able to spend time with Terry’s books.

I wanted the stress to pass and to be settled before I dipped into the last of his titles. I wanted to feel relaxed while reading them.

I wanted to treasure them and also delayed because he’s gone from this world and once I read the last few titles, there will be no more.

This sounds ridiculous but I know many who were on the last book or two who said the same: once they finished those, there were no more to look forward to. It’s like closing a book, having found it so good, the desire is there to begin again. Given enough time I’ll do that too. Meanwhile to Terry, a man’s whose imagination the world was lucky to have, a heartfelt thank you!

A review: Banquet for the Damned

I’ve just finished my second dip into Adam Nevill’s writing, prompting me to review Banquet for the Damned. I couldn’t help wondering what drew me in so. Simply, a rich vocabulary — a style that elevates the horror genre with a more artistic approach.

One thing that has occasionally made me grit my teeth, has been having to dumb down. Editors say this in different ways but if told, ‘I’m not telling you to dumb down’ they are. Another way of expressing this is commercial fiction: short simple words, sentences, and paragraphs make for faster reading; readers can speed through books and hence purchase more.

Nothing wrong with this. Some genres or stories take to the fast pace with alacrity and even within a leisurely pace there is the need to play with the velocity, speeding up and slowing down to suit the suspense and relaxed segments of the plot.

Still, I was surprised to have people contact me praising my use of language, words, prose, narrative, style, and  expression for my book, A Very Private Haunting all amounting to the same thing and making me feel using a richer vocabulary isn’t frowned on by all as many would have us believe. A vocabulary I’ve often had to simplify to meet market demand, so you can imagine my delight when I stumbled over a writer I hadn’t read before who’s not afraid of opting for a more demanding word choice. If I tell you three of my favourite writers are Mervyn Peake, China Melville, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon, it should be no surprise I’m delighted to read an imaginative approach in one of my favourite genres.

I can see why this book will receive mixed reviews, and it’s owing to stylistic preference. On the first page, I sank into a rich vocabulary and longer sentences so often lacking in modern fiction. I don’t want to use the term literary as it carries an unfortunate modern-day connotation of dusty libraries and mildewed books written by notaries of a by-gone age (a sad view of the classics that were part of my childhood reading and nowadays periodically termed ‘too difficult’) and Nevill’s work isn’t like that, but one would have to say this is a more literary ‘style’ of horror.

Another way to describe it is I can see several editor’s returning the manuscript circling a few sentences as purple prose. Thank goodness the publisher ignored them if they did. The carefully chosen style weaves a successful spell on any reader able to appreciate the opulent seductive description spiced with the ‘creep’ factor; the sense that something is coming and might be present on the next turn of a page. This seems to be where Adam Nevill excels. I’ve read two of his titles so far but will check out more.