2012: My reading year or fiction vs. poetry vs. non-fiction vs. memoir

LargeWBatduskThe last week of the year or in my case, the last day of the year is often a time of looking back and saying what was the best book, the best photograph, the best film etc . My favourite photograph of 2012? Easy peasy. A quick scroll down my camera roll on my iphone and there we go – the image above, Warners Bay, Lake Macquarie at dusk. Last year’s was trees again – my current gravatar. My son took my favourite photo of my grandchild. My favourite film was the French film The Intouchables. My favourite book – well that’s an entirely different matter and one that I can’t make a quick response to.

Firstly though I thought I’d start by doing an update on my blog from October. It’s the one with a picture of 14 books on it.  The blog was entitled “What I’m Currently Reading”. I have since dispensed with most of the books, some summarily in the manner of a reader in a top publishing house with an enormous submissions pile -Singleton’s Mill being one of those. The White Peacock by D.H. Lawrence didn’t suit my purposes but from Sons and Lovers I was able to glean a line or two of discussion for one of my character’s – Clary, a young doctor and also enough details for my main character Phyllis to decide not to read it:

“Today Clary came to the main lounge where I was having afternoon tea armed with two books. He offered me Sons & Lovers. I opened the first page & came to the opening lines about Hell Row, colliers & gin pits, whatever they were. The book was dreary & long-winded by the looks of it.”

She choses the Buchan instead. I’m with her on that as I also decided not to read the Lawrence.  But here’s my review of The Thirty Nine Steps . Around the same time I officially abandoned Fifty Shades of Grey.

For insight into nurses’ lives during WWI and general conditions of Australian servicewomen caught in the frontlines, I would highly recommend Nightingales in the Mud by Marianne Barker. Although I only read the section on the Aussie girls in Serbia it seemed to me excellently researched and well written.

The River Baptists I thoroughly enjoyed and now have another Belinda Castles on my shelf to read . I also enjoyed Early One Morning, Robert Ryan’s very painstakingly researched book on two famous operatives of WWII. I really admired Jan Bennett’s book The Facing Island when I finally let myself settle between the pages and get used to the fact  that I was reading the words of a dying woman. However, I decided not to read the very much alive Ivana Lowell’s Why Not Say What Happened? memoir. Why? Now that’s a good question!

It seems I really don’t enjoy memoirs unless they are by a woman who has served in Serbia during WWI or an  elderly man from 200 years ago (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) and then they do get read! Why Not Say What Happened wasn’t set in Serbia so was dispensed as quickly as Singleton’s Mill – just not interested, although I thought I might be when I borrowed it. Reveries of the Solitary Walker on the other hand was a gem!

Moving through the pile, the Florence Scovel Shinn and the Dessaix essays are still on my bookshelf to read but during the last two blogs some other books have snuck in and demanded my attention and I’m very pleased they did; a book of poetry in particular beating a few of the fiction titles to the post. Peter Bakowski’s Beneath Our Armour is a wonderful example of simple, clear and precise poetry where every single word counts and after reading the collection I decided I definitely need to read more poetry to feed my fiction writing, if that makes sense.

The other four books that skipped the queue are:
Pandora’s Bottle by Joanne Sydney Lessner which I read on my iphone.
The Music of Chance by Paul Auster, a 1001 book that had to be read quickly for a BookCrossing virtual book bag.
The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples by Shirley Hazzard - an excellent book bought from Maclean’s bookshop at Hamilton.
And an Erotica anthology by Skive Magazine, lighthearted and a lot of fun unlike that other book!

So it seems I need to read more poetry, memoirs of Serbia beat other memoirs simply by subject matter. The non-fiction I choose to read depends pretty much entirely on the setting and time frame of my WIP and lastly fiction wins hands down! No suprises there, really. And my favourite book and most respected read of 2012?

Nikki Gemmell’s With My Body. Beautiful writing on a powerful theme! Highly recommended.

What I’m currently reading and/or am about to read or are on my bedside table.

Yes, I know it’s ridiculous but what can I say? And you haven’t seen my TBR (to be read) pile yet. I’m a bookcrosser – lakelady2282 at www.bookcrossing.com and things can get out of control. Goodreads – www.goodreads.com doesn’t help either. According to goodreads I am currently reading 8 books. Seven of those are pictured above and the eighth is Dracula which I began reading about two years ago whilst at work (at a job where there was nothing to do).

Wikisource http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikisource is wonderful for this. You open up the book on your computer screen, say The Scarlett Letter or Sense and Sensibility (making sure the chapter heading is not showing and it looks like you are reading some sort of detailed manual). Perfect! It’s how I read both the last two books.

As to the pile pictured above – well let’s see. I started The Facing Island by the historian  Jan Bassett ages ago. It is about WWI so it should be a priority to read but somehow I still haven’t got around to it. I know I will though.There’s With My Body by Nikki Gemmell which I keep interrupting to read other books, mainly because it’s too heavy to take to work (to read in my lunch break). And then as you will have spied by the familiar cover there is Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James which I have pretty much abandoned like a hell of a lot of other readers…evidently. I keep thinking I might get around to reading at least to the heavy BDSM section but always end up reading something else.

Also on the goodreads list is Early One Morning by Robert Ryan. The book is about SOE (Special Operations Executive) agents in WW2, a subject I’m really interested in and I should finish this book soon. Reveries of the Solitary Walker by Jean-Jacques Rousseau I began (before I finished any of the other seven) so I could send it out on the VBB (Virtual Book Bag) 1001 (1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die) being run by a lovely bookcrosser. There’s And So Forth an excellent collection of essays by the erudite Robert Dessaix (but I don’t always feel like reading essays so it’s still not finished). And lastly The Collected Wisdom of Florence Scovel Shinn which I dip into every now and then.

Now we come to the remainder of the books pictured. These are the ones I lugged home from Speers Point Library yesterday.I still need to research Australian nurses during the First World War so I borrowed Nightingales in the Mud by Marianne Barker. I am also currently trying to find a few books that my character Phyllis Summerville is reading and sharing with other passengers on board ship to England in September 1917. The 1001 book is useful for this. D H Lawrence is also very useful as I wanted a few risque books. The Rainbow seemed perfect until I found out it was banned for eleven years. I chose Sons and Lovers and his first novel The White Peacock (the small orange book, top of the right pile). I won’t use the latter. I’ll probably settle on Sons and Lovers for its shock value but I need to check this so will scan through the book. That’s three down of the second lot. I borrowed The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan because that’s the book Phyllis actually chooses to read instead of the Lawrence (so now I need to re-read it). When I chose the Buchan book from the stacks out the back I discovered Singleton’s Mill next to it by an Australian author Sinclair Buchan. (It’s the book on the top of the left pile.) I just might have to read this book too.

The River Baptists I especially ordered from the library after hearing Belinda Castles speak at This Is Not Art last weekend in Newcastle. I googled her name and found out that this book is set in the Hawkesbury River, a place I know and love from my teenage years when my parents owned a Halvorsen cruiser. I am really looking forward to reading this book. It is high on my list to be finished first but its tied with the other book that was on display at the library entitled Why Not Say What Happened? a memoir by Ivana Lowell. Who can resist “a heartbreaking account of a gifted woman, her brilliant but destructive parents, and a glamourous, aristocratic life that was laced with arsenic”?

Certainly not me! So there is the complete list of the books pictured above which pretty much exemplifies my life at present – researching WWI whilst being distracted by sex (as such), the glamourous life (the grass is greener) and generally taking too much on!! What more can I say, except reviews to follow… I hope.

The Bottom Line: Our characters are what they focus on.

It sounds simple of course but I really didn’t discover this until recently. To be more precise after I finished writing Crossing Paths: the BookCrossing Novel.  I decided (unwisely I now know) to use eight different points of view to tell the story. This was a challenge of course and one I think I met for the most part, except for one thing – two of my male characters were often confused with each other by my readers. I thought it was enough to differentiate them – one was gay, lived in Cornwall and was a new age writer; the other was in love with the main female character Jane, lived in Boston and was an antiquarian bookdealer. But ultimately they often appeared the same because their thoughts were both focused on Jane, worrying about her and trying to anticipate her next move. It also didn’t help that both men’s name started with J…

We learn of course by our mistakes and I am much more aware now, how important focus is. It doesn’t just dictate our character’s thoughts (and ours for that matter) but also how a character dresses, acts and treats others and ultimately dictates the course of the whole novel.

In Fifty Shades of Grey the main character’s focus is of course on the sexy but rather twisted Christian Grey. In the novel James labels her character Ana’s thoughts as sometimes “my inner goddess” or  “my subconcious”. These “other” voices occasionally clash with her general thoughts but for the most part Ana’s focus collectively remains on Grey’s delectable hips.

In Bernard Schlink’s The Weekend: A Novel it is hard to keep track of the characters at times but when we do move closer to them I noticed that Schlink had given them all different concerns; if they were focusing on the same thing ie their friend, a former terrorist released from prison after serving a long sentence – then they were depicted with varying viewpoints. Reading this novel was a real eye-opener for me in regards to differentiating characters.

I realise now too, how brilliant one of my long time favourite writers is at this. I remember in Rosamund Pilcher’s The Shellseekers, when we are introduced to Noel all he’s thinking about (I’m writing this from memory) is his clothes and the heating in his flat. And that’s all that is really important to this character because he’s totally self-absorbed.  Never mind that his mother is ill, material things are more important and this is all just in the first paragraph introducing him – a brilliant example of determining a character’s focus quickly. Pilcher can do this very artfully in her short stories in just a few lines and that’s why I love her!

I used to think that as long as you managed to get in a character’s physical description and emotional makeup, were careful how they spoke and dressed, then they would all appear different from each other. But of course that’s not necessarily true. I’ve learnt this lesson after years of hard work. It’s all so obvious now but the knowledge has come to me at a time when I actually can’t put it into practice! In my current novel I am unable to go into the mind of my character. We can only judge her by what she says and does. Her diaries tell us some things but the reader has to guess her focus.

As you can guess by this, I love to set myself challenges and I will report on my blog with what I’ve learnt from this exercise in the near future. In the meantime back to The Grey Silk Purse.