Beloved

Beloved

Title: Beloved
Author: Toni Morrison
Publication date: 1987
Country/culture: African American

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

BelovedWhat’s it about?

Sethe is a slave who has escaped slavery and come to lead a new life in Ohio, a free state. However, her home is haunted by spirits, one of which is believed to be the ghost of her dead baby, known only by the name Beloved. As the novel unfolds, we discover more about the horrors that Sethe experienced back on the plantation – and those which continue to pursue her even now she is free.

What did I find out?

I discovered that, sometimes, you don’t realise how much a book is affecting you until you reach the very end and look back on what has just evolved in front of you. This was certainly the case with Beloved. I read the novel, taking it all in, stopping over certain passages to absorb their full impact and making sure I didn’t miss anything – and yet it was only right at the end, as I came to the closing chapters, that I was able to comprehend the sheer scale of Morrison’s achievement.

It’s very difficult to express how I feel about this story: it’s almost too complex to articulate with mere words. As I was reading, I found out that Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature: I’m not sure whether it was for this book, but I can only imagine that it must have played a significant part in the decision. It is a work of tremendous strength and compassion, forcing us to confront difficult questions, and yet also offering us hope for the future, both for ourselves as individuals and for the human race in general.

What do I now see differently?

As someone from, clearly, a very different background to the novel’s protagonist, I am very aware that there are certain subjects I am not equipped to write about. This has been a topic of some controversy recently, as it has been questioned whether any writer can authentically write (about) characters of wildly different backgrounds and experiences to their own.

On the one hand, we’re writers: getting under the skin of different people is what we do; and to some extent we have to do this, otherwise we’d only ever write our own biographies. For example, I’m not a man, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t include male characters in my novel. However, it has been questioned whether writers of, for example, a particular race can ever hope to fully understand a different race well enough to truly represent the lives of its people.

As far as I know, the themes I’m writing about (such as fear of difference, yearning for a life lost, etc) have resonance for the human race as a whole. However, perhaps because this is my first novel, I’m more naturally inclined to stick to what is familiar, and for me that means characters that are essentially Western. That said, it is a fantasy novel, so I’m also including characters that are dead, undead or supernatural: does this give me some leeway to experiment with the unfamiliar? My fae characters have a mishmash of names that I’ve drawn mainly from Norse or Celtic mythology, but my ghosts have an existence very similar to the one I’ve found described for ghosts in Mesopotamian religions. Is such a mashup acceptable? Does it add to the power of the story or detract from it? Will anyone other than myself find meaning in it?

Beloved has made me question whether my novel will have a reach (and engage interest) beyond the confines of the life I myself live; and, if not, whether that matters. Perhaps we can all only hope to articulate our own thoughts on our own world (inner or outer) – and then turn to other voices in order to find out about their worlds.

How will this inspire my writing?

I remember having particular trouble writing one passage in my book, as it was very different in style and tone to all the other scenes I’d written up to that point. It deals with the ethereal experience of one character’s soul flitting around the cosmos, looking for something to fix on to, and being open to connections with other spirits and creatures present in the void. I don’t think I’ve even described that very well – which shows how difficult it was writing the actual scene!

In order to express the fluid, incomprehensible nature of the experience, I’ve used very odd, erratic, disjointed language: not a linear narrative at all. I have no idea whether this will be accepted by readers as a natural way of articulating that episode in the story, or whether it will confuse the hell out of them. I was heartened, therefore, to discover a similar passage in Beloved, where the experience of the baby’s soul is described in a similar fashion: as it flits through what we assume is the spirit world, we’re not quite clear on what is happening, or where, or how, but we can tell who (or what) is involved, and we get a vague sense of what she is going through.

This has reassured me that odd passages like this won’t necessarily put off the reader. Obviously it remains to be seen whether I can find the skill to deliver my scene with the same impact as Morrison delivers hers in Beloved – but at least now I know it’s possible.

A musical interlude

At first I couldn’t imagine a song that would do this book justice. However, I was inspired to browse through the back catalogue of Nina Simone and came across this track – and it’s perfect in so many ways.

The Corsair

The Corsair

Title: The Corsair
Author: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud (English translation: Amira Nowaira)
Publication date: 2011
Country/culture: Qatar

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

The CorsairWhat’s it about?

In early 19th-century Arabia, British military forces are fighting the piracy that threatens international trade, and alliances are being sought – and broken – throughout the region. The legendary corsair, Erhama bin Jaber, plays a central role in the conflict, while his rebellious son forges an unlikely friendship with an English major. Personal betrayals mirror political intrigues, and the reader is left pondering the relative success of armed force versus mutual respect in the building of relationships.

What did I find out?

I discovered a great deal about the intricacies of politics and diplomacy. In the story, which is based on real-life events, there are many opposing forces who nevertheless agree to make alliances with each other for short- or long-term mutual benefit. Each agreement involves making certain sacrifices, and ground must be given to achieve the greater objective; losses must be weighed against gains in order to determine whether a good deal is being brokered.

Alliances are sometimes instigated by threat of force, and sometimes by genuine mutual concern. Some are broken as soon as one party has achieved what it wants; others are never intended to be kept at all; and there is a recurring theme of mistrust throughout the novel, as each side accuses the others of breaking promises and betraying commitments. A rare few alliances stay the distance.

The need for diplomacy within and between societies and nations has not left us; diplomats are the unsung heroes of peace, teasing out the non-negotiable from the ‘nice to have’ and aiming for a harmonious outcome. That we still suffer conflict on a global scale indicates just how difficult this process is, and The Corsair illustrates this perfectly.

What do I now see differently?

The characters of Erhama bin Jaber and Captain Loch are presented as a striking contrast between two approaches to decision making. Bin Jaber says, ‘I envy people who can forget the past or change their decisions according to circumstances. Unfortunately I can’t.’ Conversely, Loch is portrayed as someone who has no problem changing his mind about a decision whenever circumstances alter or a plan goes awry; it almost seems as if he thrives on change: ‘Loch was happiest when devising a strategy.’

This ability to think on the hoof and constantly re-evaluate strategy reminded me of my own inclinations in this area. I am naturally a ‘big picture’ person; I can see very clearly what I want my end result to be in any project – but this does not mean I am ignorant of the detail required to get me there. On the contrary, as a bit of a control freak, I have a tendency to get bogged down in the detail and struggle to make noticeable progress toward my end goal, even when I can see it dangling there, enticingly, ahead of me.

I struggle because, unlike Loch, I am not very good at delegating, or asking for help. I frequently feel the need to do everything myself, and when my plans and dreams are as big as they are, this turns an exciting challenge into an insuperably difficult task. Reading this novel has reminded me that I need to get my act together and start asking for help more often.

How will this inspire my writing?

The action of The Corsair takes place in a world of political intrigue and diplomatic virtuosity, as described above; men are shown to make decisions and pursue allegiances based on cold, hard concepts such as trade and power. My own novel currently does not give much thought to the political infrastructure of the world I am writing about, and I’m now thinking I need to pay more attention to this aspect.

Even though most of the action in my novel takes place in the ‘Otherworld’ – the supernatural home of ghosts, fae, vampires etc – my characters still occupy positions and fulfil roles that determine their place in the ‘pecking order’ of this society. Vampires are the aristocrats, zombies are the labourers, other characters and species fit into a variety of roles. All of this screams ‘class issues’, at the very least, and I’m not unaware of the risk of potential stereotyping.

So, while I do make reference to the differences between the characters and their perceived status – and the story will certainly feature some clashes and their resolutions – I need to consider whether I should be addressing this more overtly. This will involve deciding how much to include and how much is merely unnecessary back story; I don’t want to bore people with irrelevant facts, but want to ensure readers fully grasp the way this society works. I’m hoping that I will have fun figuring this out.

A musical interlude

Although this song features ships as a metaphor rather than as real physical entities, the lyrics fit neatly with some of the themes raised in The Corsair, i.e. the pursuit of money and power over peace, love and understanding.

Skraelings

Skraelings

Title: Skraelings
Author: Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley
Publication date: 2014
Country/culture: Arctic/Inuit

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

SkraelingsWhat’s it about?

A nomadic Inuit hunter, Kannujaq, happens upon a camp of the Tuniit people, who are under attack from fierce, bearded warriors from over the sea. Kannujaq must discover the camp’s history in order to help the people defend themselves; but in doing so, he learns that the invaders’ motives might not be quite as they first appear.

What did I find out?

One of the book’s central characters is a young shaman boy, Siku, and I discovered a great deal about the different ways in which shamans lived and worked in that society. Because Siku is young, he is believed to have greater strength and be more connected to the Land (Nuna) than adult shamans; this makes him particularly special. We see him living alone, in relative privacy compared to the other camp members who inhabit large family dwellings; this is partly due to their fear and partly so that he has space to work his magic. As the story progesses, we discover that his mother is a shaman too.

I will be featuring shamans (of a sort) in my own novel, so this has been a fascinating study for me. The book has highlighted aspects of shamanism in this particular society, which I will compare with its practice in other cultures, and which I will take into consideration when planning my own characters. I am at the point in my writing where shamans are about to come to the fore, so this is very timely.

What do I now see differently?

The story of Skraelings is told by narrators who occasionally speak to us directly, commenting on the events taking place. Right at the start of the book, they highlight the differences between our world and that of Kannujaq: this is a story set in the old Arctic, over a thousand years ago, and they take pains to point out that things that seem perfectly normal to us would have felt very strange, if not incomprehensible, to Kannujaq.

Kannujaq, then, is presented to us as a strange, alien character – and yet we are clearly meant to see the world from his perspective as he encounters a people who are equally strange and alien to him. That we are able to identify with Kannujaq is down to the writers’ skill in describing his perspectives, thoughts and feelings; and by the end of the story, we even feel that we know the Tuniit and the invaders from over the sea. The strangers are no longer strange.

As my novel features characters who are also ‘strange’ (vampires, werewolves, ghosts etc), this is a particularly useful lesson to learn: I will need to ensure I focus on their humanity as much as (if not more than) what makes them different.

How will this inspire my writing?

In some way, everything I’ve written about above is either inspiration or learning for my writing: facts about shamanism; how to depict sympathetic strangers. But I had one more, completely separate, lightbulb moment. The book reminded me of an idea I had a few years ago for a (different) story, set in the frozen wastes and featuring a camp of people with their own peculiar customs. As with my novel, this story teeters on the boundary between medical science and fantasy, but whereas the novel falls definitively under the heading ‘fantasy’, I think this other story will remain deliberately vague. Or perhaps it’s sci-fi rather than fantasy?

I know that I’m also being deliberately vague in this description of it: that’s because it’s not fully formed. I started to develop it a bit more last year when I was attending a local playwriting group; so to some extent it has evolved in my head as a dramatic production. However, as I do want to write more short stories (see earlier posts!), this is a helpful reminder of one idea that it’s perhaps time to take out and dust down: in whatever format it chooses to emerge…

A musical interlude

I was initially tempted to assign People Are Strange by The Doors to this book, but then I remembered that I’d allocated it, retrospectively, to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow from year 1 (you’ll see this if you’ve bought the book: the music tracks are in an appendix). So I had to find something else.

Given the short space of time I’d allowed myself for this blog post, my subconscious hasn’t had its usual freedom to noodle around and make connections, so I’m not entirely happy with this choice – but it will do. The ‘Big Country’ in this song does at least give me a sense of the Arctic wastes and Kannujaq’s wanderings, even if the country in question is probably Scotland rather than Canada.

Midnight’s Children

Midnight's Children

Title: Midnight’s Children
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publication date: 1981
Country/culture: India/Pakistan

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

Midnight's ChildrenWhat’s it about?

Saleem Sinai is born at the very moment India gains its independence, and later finds himself gifted with extraordinary telepathic powers. He perceives his own life as inextricably intertwined with that of his country, and we see their stories develop in parallel as the young country and the young boy begin to find their purpose and their way in the world.

What did I find out?

I started to read this book on a warm afternoon, sitting outside in my garden with a glass of cold lemon by my side and the sun toasting my back. As I read on through pages describing life in India – a hot country – it felt somehow appropriate to be absorbing this story in such weather. Obviously there is a vast difference between British heat (especially in April) and Indian heat, but it was a gentle reminder that appreciation of a book can be enhanced by one’s reading environment.

The books on my list for this year have been selected from around the globe, and I have tried to alternate longer books and shorter ones; I’ve not actively attempted to fit them in at a time of year when the weather suits the country of origin of the work. This would probably put too many limitations on what is already a big scheduling issue for me (and not least because the British weather is so unpredictable). However, it’s something I will bear in mind for the future.

What do I now see differently?

Midnight’s Children is undeniably a work of literary fiction, a genre I don’t usually gravitate towards – but it also has a strong element of magical realism, in the depiction of the special powers and abilities of the ‘midnight children’, from telepathy to time travel to sorcery, and more. This perhaps shifted the novel into territory I am more familiar with, thus making it a slightly easier prospect than it otherwise might have been (not least because, at over 600 pages, this is the longest book on my list this year).

I realised (or was reminded) that ‘genre’, while sometimes a helpful concept (particularly in libraries and bookshops, where items have to be shelved in a single physical location), is also an artificial construct. Books can happily overlap genres without necessarily confusing the reader; indeed, it is perhaps by insisting on a label in the first place that we throw up barriers where none need be. Magical realism, to my mind, is a form of fantasy; and while fantasy is sometimes looked down on by readers of literary fiction, the fantastical elements of this novel intrigued me and made me pick it up – thus introducing me to a work I would probably never have considered otherwise.

This is a reassuring realisation, and I’ve decided not to worry (yet) about what genre my novel fits into (supernatural? paranormal? fantasy? horror? medical? thriller?) and just write the thing. The time for finding readers will come later.

How will this inspire my writing?

Midnight’s Children is an incredible tale, interweaving personal stories with national ones and layering themes, leitmotifs and imagery with supreme skill. This can only be something to aspire to! The length of the book, the period of time it covers and the subject matter make the intertwining of recurring elements particularly compelling, but I think that even shorter, less ambitious books can learn from it. I am only 26,000 words into my own novel, but I’ve already made a start at using imagery in my presentation of certain characters, as a kind of shorthand to illustrate their lives and relationships.

My novel won’t reach the dizzying heights of Midnight’s Children, but I’ll certainly be taking a deeper look at how I use themes and imagery to underscore key parts of the story.

A musical interlude

Although this song doesn’t exactly reflect Saleem’s specific narrative, I feel that there are enough similarities between its content and his experiences to at least make it worthy of a ‘Discuss!’ essay question. You may discuss if you like – or just listen.

That Deadman Dance

That Deadman Dance

Title: That Deadman Dance
Author: Kim Scott
Publication date: 2010
Country/culture: Western Australia/Aborigine

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

What’s it about?That Deadman Dance

Bobby Wabalanginy is a young Aboriginal boy living in Western Australia in the early 19th century. As European settlers and American whalers come to colonise and trade in the area, Bobby makes friends with everyone and tries to build bridges between the groups. However, the force of history is not on his side: problems begin to occur between the different cultures, and Bobby must make a choice between his ancestry and his future.

What did I find out?

All of the books I’ve read so far this year have been told in a straight chronological line: the earliest events are narrated first, and the rest of the story then develops as it happens. In The House of the Spirits and Shark Dialogues, the period of narration is decades rather than weeks, and references are made at earlier time points to events that will unfold later on, but the books’ narratives are still essentially linear.

That Deadman Dance is the first story I’ve read this year that hops back and forth in time. It begins with the period 1833-35, then skips back to 1826-30, then forward to 1836-38 and 1841-44; it also features occasional glimpses of Bobby as an old man in the future, entertaining tourists with the stories relayed in the novel.

This rang bells with me, as in the novel I’m writing, I seem to be skipping back in time a lot myself, mainly to tell characters’ back stories. I’m not sure whether these count as flashbacks, or whether they fit comfortably into the ‘current day’ narrative, but I have been worrying that it might not be a good technique to use. However, this is the way the story seems to want to be told at the moment, so I’m running with it!

I guess I’ll find out whether it works when I’ve finished the first draft and read it back – but at least That Deadman Dance has reassured me that hopping to and fro in time is not, of itself, a bad thing. I’m keeping my fingers crossed…

What do I now see differently?

Again I’m harking back to the previous books I’ve read for the Book Diaries this year. This is the sixth – and it occurred to me as I read it that four out of these six feature the sea as a key element in the story.

In Lagoon, aliens land off the coast of Nigeria; Cold Storage, Alaska is set in a fishing community (with some scenes also on a cruise liner); and Shark Dialogues takes place primarily on the islands of Hawaii, its very title evoking the sea creatures that play a crucial role in the main characters’ lives. That Deadman Dance is set on the coast of Western Australia, where the indigenous people look out from their harbour to the great beyond – from where the colonisers come to disrupt their lives.

It may be because last year’s books – 20th century classics – turned out to be predominantly American that I’m noticing this shift. The United States is such a huge country that the vast majority of it is nowhere near a coastline – and so we perhaps can’t expect its writing, as a whole, to necessarily have a close connection with the ocean.

I live in an island country, however, and we are used to the sea featuring in our lives almost daily, whether we live near the coast or not. Bad weather warnings, bank holidays, offshore wind farms… all these help to make up the fabric of life in the UK, and I don’t think I realised how much I’d missed the sea until I noticed it cropping up regularly again in my reading. I now need to consider whether it has a part to play in my own novel…

How will this inspire my writing?

The Noongar people in the book have – like many other indigenous cultures – an oral storytelling tradition. While Bobby does make some progress in reading and writing, his primary method of communicating stories is through performance: talking, singing, dancing. This reminded me that writing is not the only means I have at my disposal for getting my ideas across.

I used to belong to an amateur dramatics group, but quit so that I could spend more time writing. I don’t regret this for an instant, but I did always feel at home on the stage – so I’m now wondering whether there are ways in which I can combine my own writing with performance, to make full use of all my talents (such as they are!).

One possibility that springs to mind is our local poetry open mic night, Voicebox. I used to attend this regularly, albeit to listen rather than contribute, but I haven’t been for ages. It may be time to start going again – and not just to listen to the other performers. I need to have a serious think about what I could write – and perform – here myself.

I’ve also been considering recording audios of performance for this very website. This is only a vague plan, so it’s not likely to come to fruition any time soon – but it is now afresh on my radar.

A musical interlude

I know this song has nothing to do with dance in Indigenous Australian culture, but the vibe of the song and its lyrics still resonates: the insistence on dancing to your own beat, in the face of intrusion and criticism by others, seems highly relevant to Bobby Wabalanginy’s situation. 

The Quiet American

The Quiet American

Title: The Quiet American
Author: Graham Greene
Publication date: 1955
Genre: Historical fiction

What’s it about?The Quiet American

Thomas Fowler, an English reporter in Vietnam during the First Indochina War, meets Alden Pyle, an idealistic American. Pyle’s views and beliefs gradually infiltrate Fowler’s world, causing distress and destruction in not only his professional but also his personal life.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was from the university library again. And thereby hangs a tale…

I discovered an inscription on the title page: the name of someone I knew. After showing her a screenshot of the page in question, it transpired that although it was indeed her writing, she couldn’t understand how the book came to be in the possession of the library, as she still owned her own copy…

At the time of writing this mystery is yet to be solved!

What did I learn from it?

As this was yet another novel set firmly in a historical period, specifically a war setting, I gained more insights into the time in question. I am relatively familiar with fictional representations of the Vietnam War, i.e. the later conflict against the Americans, but was unaware until last week of the details of this earlier war.

The narrator of the novel, Thomas Fowler, is an English journalist based in Saigon. As the English were officially neutral during this conflict, this in theory makes his narrative objective. (His personal issues are another matter entirely…) We see from an outsider’s perspective just how the young American, Pyle, interprets and reacts to the troubles at hand – potentially setting the scene for the later war.

I always enjoyed studying history at school, even though this was in the days when learning texts and regurgitating them for exams was the approved method: in other words, kings and queens, battles and rebellions, facts and dates etc. These days I understand that original sources and the viewpoint of ‘the person on the street’ are more likely to find their way onto the curriculum. I imagine that a novel such as this would not feel out of place if it were designated ‘required reading’. Well, except that it’s fictional…

How did it make me see the world differently?

A prevalent theme in the book is that of choosing whether to take sides in a conflict – especially one that is not directly any of one’s business. Fowler has, up until now, followed a personal policy of isolationism; being politically neutral, he attempts not to involve himself in any debates around who is in the right and who is in the wrong; he is, as he frequently points out, merely a reporter. However, as Pyle’s actions become more and more intrusive, Fowler finds himself unable to remain unbiased any longer – and eventually takes steps that will have as much impact as Pyle’s own machinations.

This resonated loudly with me, as I am a natural introvert and, by default, choose not to take part in many social engagements and interactions; I often prefer to observe from the sidelines. But I am also aware that connecting with others is part of what it means to be human; or at least, what it means to belong to a civilised society. This is a theme I have touched on in several blog posts recently, so it’s perhaps no surprise that it is rearing its head again here.

So I am, yet again, finding myself pondering whether it is healthy to isolate myself as much as I do. Does it conserve my energies, or does it get me into antisocial habits? I think that this is a question to which there are no easy answers, and one I will be mulling over for some time to come. It may be that I need to limit the number of times that I socialise, or restrict the types of engagement I take part in, or simply schedule in adequate downtime and go to as many social occasions as I want. I’m not sure yet. What I do know is that, like it or not, I can’t just shut myself away in my cave and pretend that the outside world doesn’t exist. I need to interact with it – my problem is how to do this without exhausting myself.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Two things:

  1. I’ve realised that I really enjoy reading stories in historical settings, as much for the history as for the stories. I’m therefore going to make an active effort to read more historical writing. As this is going to be in my ‘spare reading time’ between Book Diaries books, there may not be much time to devote to it – but I need to try. I have at least two historical novels lined up on my bookshelves, waiting for me to delve into their pages, and I can’t begin to count the factual books I’ve come across over the years that have made their way onto my mental ‘to-read’ list. So, before the year is up, I’m committing to reading at least one historical book.
  2. The issue of engaging with the world and doing things for other people, as much as looking after myself, has struck a real chord. And I have an idea for something that I could do that nurtures both needs. I’m hesitant to articulate it in too much detail just yet, as I haven’t quite worked out whether it’s going to inspire me or exhaust me, but I will say that I have something on the back burner. Due to work pressures, it’s unlikely that it’ll happen in time for my 3-month update, but do keep an eye on my website and Facebook page, as I’ll be talking about it there when I finally do get going…

A musical interlude

I got a bit stumped on this one for a while. Nothing immediately sprang to mind, and I didn’t really want to post one of the many songs about the Vietnam War, as they tend to be about the second one involving the Americans – and although this book is indeed about an American, the vibe wasn’t quite right.

So I decided to formally hand this one over to my trusty subconscious. I stopped thinking about it, went down to the kitchen to cook dinner, and lo and behold! within a matter of minutes I had it: My Best Friend’s Girl by the Cars. Nothing to do with war, but as the book is as much about the personal conflict between the two men, I feel it fits the bill. Plus I love it, so that’s a bonus!

The Three Musketeers

The Three Musketeers

Title: The Three Musketeers (original title Les Trois Mousquetaires)
Author: Alexandre Dumas, translated by various
Publication date: 1844
Genre: Historical fiction; adventure; political thriller

What’s it about?The Three Musketeers

The young D’Artagnan sets out for Paris with dreams of making his fortune and joining the King’s Musketeers. He quickly becomes firm friends with the Three Musketeers of the title – Athos, Porthos and Aramis – and the four of them embark on a series of adventures that brings them into conflict with the King’s advisor Cardinal Richelieu.

Although the story – and the world in which it is set – is a very masculine one, characters such as Constance Bonacieux, Milady de Winter and the Queen of France play no less important a role than do our heroes. The plot is chock full of intrigue, deception and political manoeuvring; but also love, honour and loyalty.

Some of the good end happily, some unhappily; the same is true of the bad: this is not a sugar-coated romance with an all-round happy ending. It is a real swashbuckler of an adventure, with enough politics thrown in to engage those with an interest in the historical developments of the time.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

Like The Origin of Species, this came from the collection on my late grandmother’s bookshelves. It has a lovely, musty, old-book smell, which added considerably to my pleasure in reading it.

What did I learn from it?

I learned a lot about the political history of the period in which the novel is set: 17th-century France at the time of Louis XIII. One of the key plot twists even works the fictional story of the Musketeers into a real event (which I won’t reveal for fear of spoilers!). I was so fascinated by this that I had to go and look up the details of the historical event, to see which parts Dumas had invented and which were fact.

I also made some more observations about the ways in which stories are adapted for other purposes. As I myself have been involved in adapting a classic novel for the stage, it was interesting to see how the plot of this one book has been modified to suit the framework of the recent TV series The Musketeers. Some of the events in the novel are very conclusive (i.e. people die), so it’s clear that the story has been tweaked so that characters who might prove to be popular can continue to draw the TV crowds.

(Obviously the story has been through a number of dramatic adaptations. Have you read the book and want to comment on its treatment in film and TV? Please share below – I would love to know what you think!)

How did it make me see the world differently?

My sense of feminism got a real workout when observing the character of Milady. Although at first it was pleasing to see a female character play such a dominant, active role in such a masculine story, I couldn’t help but wonder whether (spoilers!) her ‘bad end’ was an indication that any woman who steps beyond the bounds of traditional feminine decency will be duly punished.

I’m still not entirely sure, but the extraordinary detail with which Dumas describes Milady’s many crimes does make me incline to believe her a true villain. She portrays herself as a victim when she isn’t one, and although it could be said that her original position in society left her with no option other than to commit crimes just to get by, I’m not convinced. Her offences are against other women as much as men, and she is motivated by greed and revenge rather than by a desire for right and liberty.

If nothing else, her part of the story has helped me become freshly aware of the difficulties women still face in the world, especially the male-dominated parts of it. Action needs to be taken – but precisely what form that action should take is still debated to this day.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

One of the overwhelming messages of this book is the importance of standing up for what you believe in, no matter how much antagonism or enmity this awakens in others. It was brought home to me after I finished the book just how difficult this can be. Last weekend I shared on Facebook some thoughts on the political situation in the UK – and was stunned by the level of vitriolic comments this attracted from a very small number of acquaintances.

My reaction at the time was to ignore this, deeming the comments unworthy of a response (in Musketeers’ terms, not worthy of a duel). However, afterwards, I felt disturbed by my lack of action: should I have stated publicly that I found them unacceptable? My usual boundary for deleting comments is if they sink to the level of personal insults – and these didn’t stoop quite that low. They weren’t duel-worthy: just unpleasant and unconstructive. But my lack of input – i.e. allowing them to remain on my timeline – left a nasty taste in my mouth.

I realised that, although I am not scared off voicing my opinions by a few naysayers, it is exhausting having to spend time dealing with the fallout. There are some people who will never agree with what I say, and although I am happy for them to express their own views in their own space (indeed, I rely on having access to other perspectives so that I can constantly measure mine against them and see whether I agree), I do not wish to expend energy having to deal with them, unasked for, in my space.

What I have therefore already done – possibly the first time I’ve made a change even before writing the post – is to unfriend these people on Facebook. I won’t actively avoid them in real life, as it’s conceivable I could have a meaningful discussion with them there – but I will not engage in unproductive to-ing and fro-ing on comment threads. I will instead use my online presence to build up relationships with people who are amenable to my views – and who, I hope, will help me to share them more widely. And if these views reach anyone who feels the same way, but who is feeling bullied into keeping quiet by similar loud critics, I hope they will realise that they are not alone.

I am not a fighter, like the Musketeers. I am not a politician, like Cardinal Richelieu. I do not like conflict, and I do not enjoy manipulation. All I can do is share what I believe, in the hope that my constancy, positivity and determination will ultimately make waves. The changes I may be able to effect may be small – but that does not make them any less worthwhile.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!

Les Misérables

Les Miserables

Title: Les MisérablesBook Challenge
Author: Victor Hugo
Publication date: 1862
Genre: Epic; historical fiction

What’s it about?Les Miserables

The peasant Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, and the novel follows the subsequent fall and rise of his fortunes and experiences in the impoverished and criminal underbelly of Parisian society.

Intertwined with Jean’s story are the tales of many other characters, from priests to prostitutes, lawmen to lovers, and rogues to rebels. Fantine, Javert, Cosette, Thenardier, Marius… these are merely the most well known. There are many more.

The action covers the period of French history from 1815 to 1832, and running alongside the labyrinthine plot are Hugo’s observations on a vast array of topics such as religion, politics, education, revolution, philosophy, justice, family, love, and Paris.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

Due to lack of time I’m afraid I simply downloaded this one, for free, to my Kindle app.

At the start of the year I’d had grand hopes of reading the French books on my list in the original French, to revive my skills in that language. But given that it took me every spare moment I had over the fortnight to read the English version, I’m very glad I didn’t pursue my original aim…

What did I learn from it?

As is becoming more the case now that I’m reading older novels that are very much rooted in the history of their period, I learned a lot about nineteenth-century France – not to mention the geography of Paris. How much detail will stick over time, I’m not sure, but at least now I have an awareness of lives and experiences I knew nothing about two weeks ago.

I’ve also learned – again – a lot about my own life and my way of experiencing the world.

Because I didn’t plan ahead, I didn’t twig until the last minute that two weeks was going to be quite tight for a novel the length of Les Mis. Consequently, in order to meet my deadline, I found myself having to spend practically every waking moment (that wasn’t dedicated to work) ploughing through it.

Whilst I ultimately achieved my goal, this preoccupation prevented me from making much progress on any other projects; and I realised that devoting myself to one activity at the expense of everything else (except work) was really quite exhausting.

Well, not quite ‘at the expense of everything else’. During that fortnight we also, as a family, had to deal with the loss of my grandmother. While this was not entirely unexpected – she’d reached the ripe old age of 101 – it was nevertheless a sad and emotional time. Work can occasionally be postponed; creative projects almost always can; but grieving must occupy its righful place and time.

And so, as I was spending my spare moments reading about fictional characters’ experience of life, love, family, legacy and death, I was at the same time facing these very things in my own life. What would we remember about Grandma? What will people remember about me? Why do we suffer? Why do we bother? What – and who – is it all for? What is the meaning of life?

Heavy stuff. No wonder I was exhausted. And I concluded that, although I am capable of pushing myself to expend vast amounts of mental and emotional energy when required, it will eventually take its toll. Much as I would like to think I have superhuman strength, I do not: if I do not recoup that energy and take time out to recover from the demands placed on me, I will crash and burn.

Fortunately I now have a few days ‘off’. And so, rather than trying to push myself to catch up with everything that got sidelined during the last two weeks, I will instead use this time to breathe, rest up, and gradually return to my normal pace.

How did it make me see the world differently?

Les Misérables had a similar effect on me to The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps because they are both epic in scale, and deal with not only personal tales but also wider societal issues, they have instilled in me a greater awareness of the effect we, as individuals, can have on the development of civilisation.

It was particularly interesting to read Les Mis against the backdrop of the Labour leadership campaign here in the UK. The emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as a surprise frontrunner has brought to the fore a debate on the kinds of issues that would not be out of place in nineteenth-century Paris: poverty, austerity, hunger, protest, unity, personal responsibility…

Hugo’s asides on these subjects, and their resonance today, are a sharp reminder of just how cyclical society can be. Issues that it was once thought possible to deal with through the simple pursuit of ‘progress’ still raise their heads. How much has really changed?

Considered at the same time as the musings on life and death occasioned by my grandmother’s passing, I can say one thing. We can never stop pursuing what we believe in; we cannot assume the ‘fight for right’ will ever be over; we all have a responsibility to do what we think is necessary for the betterment of society.

Was Hugo an idealist? Probably. Overly optimistic about human behaviour? Almost certainly. But does this mean we should abandon our ideals and adopt a cynical view? Absolutely not. My grandparents were educators, a path also followed by my parents; I am neither an educator nor a parent, but I still have a responsibility to stand up for what I believe in and (to quote Gandhi) ‘be the change [I] wish to see in the world‘ – if only so that others who feel the same way can know they are not alone.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

My vow after reading Anna Karenina was to schedule my time better, in order to fit in my other creative projects. However, with a book as long as Les Misérables, this isn’t always an option. And while that’s probably the longest book I’m going to read this year, I can’t rule out unexpected life events dropping on me from a great height and throwing out all my best-laid plans.

So the attitude I must now strike is one of acceptance: of recognising that, although I have so much I want to do, I can’t do it all – at least, not yet. The year – and the book challenge – so far has been truly amazing for helping me get focused on what I want to achieve; but now I need to remember that I am not just here to work but also to live. If I try to rocket through the working day, taking no time to smell the flowers, I think I will be missing part of the point.

Les Misérables has been a salutary reminder of the power of doing good and standing up for your beliefs. However, when time is lacking, it’s a huge challenge to meet these self-imposed expectations. The past fortnight has taught me that, if I am to succeed in my aims, I must look after myself and not wear myself out. So, here’s hoping that ‘slow and steady wins the race’…

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!

A Carnival of Words

Typewriter

I feel I’ve stepped into new territory this past week. My home town, Wrexham, hosted its very own literary festival, the Carnival of Words, and I signed up to as many events as it was humanly possible for me to attend.

As an introvert I should stress that this wasn’t very many! I’ve come to realise, through trial and error, that going out too much severely depletes my resources, even when the events are enjoyable and inspiring – perhaps because they’re enjoyable and inspiring. I put myself out there, talk to lots of people, engage with the topic, and generally throw myself into the moment.

And then I get home and collapse on the sofa.

This was certainly the case last week. On Tuesday I attended a Poems and Pints night at our local Welsh pub, Saith Seren. The evening was ostensibly to celebrate 150 years of Wrexham Football Club, but the poems weren’t limited to the football theme. A range of poets with very different styles, writing in both Welsh and English, gave readings of their work, and I happily sat back and took it all in.

I don’t write much poetry myself, but I love going to the open mic nights in my town, as it’s a great way of meeting up with fellow creators. If you’re a struggling writer, sitting at home wondering why no-one understands you, then you could do worse than hunt down any such events taking place near you. It’s wonderfully refreshing to go out and talk to others in the same situation; it certainly makes me feel part of a community rather than feeling I’m trying to do everything in a vacuum.

This was, essentially, the best thing about the week for me: meeting up with other writers, not just to appreciate and learn about their work, but to join that community and be reminded that writing is a valid life choice. It’s a difficult, often lonely, pursuit, but knowing that others ‘get it’ makes a huge difference.

Thursday saw me attend some writers’ workshops at our public library. Sadly, the one on graphic novels I’d been looking forward to was cancelled. I don’t draw, but the idea of teaming up with an illustrator to create a graphic novel is one that really excites me. I love the concept of words and pictures working together to form a whole – so much potential, so many different options to play with…

So I was very pleased that the workshop on writing for children went ahead as planned! As with graphic novels, what appeals to me about writing a children’s book is the idea of mixing words and pictures to form something greater than either can do on their own. I have the grain of an idea for a book; and, rather wonderfully, while I was sitting in the workshop I started imagining how I could grow it further. I’m in my happy place when I’m just beginning to develop an idea, so this workshop was time very well spent for me.

I also attended a playwriting session, which was interesting as I’ve just co-written a stage version of Pride and Prejudice. Clearly, writing an adaptation is very different to writing an original script, but I came away with lots of ideas for new work – my only problem will be finding the time to fit them in around my other ongoing projects! Maybe a new play will have to wait a while…

The day was rounded off by an author networking event, and this was one of the highlights of the week for me. As I mentioned earlier, I got to meet up with other local writers and chat about their experiences of anything from finding collaborators to self publishing. We also discussed the possibility of seting up local writers’ groups in different genres, and organising another general writers’ event later in the year. I’m in touch with the organisers so I’ll be kept posted of any plans, and I’m looking forward to this very much.

On to the last day of the Carnival, and I attended not one but two events: ‘Whovian Happenings‘ on Saturday morning, and ‘Romans to Redcoats‘ in the afternoon. The former featured two writers of Doctor Who spin-off novels, and fired my imagination so much that I wanted to go away and start writing my own fan fiction there and then! I’m a massive Doctor Who fan, and have more ideas than I know what to do with – actually transforming any of them into a workable story will be the biggest challenge, but one I probably do need to set myself at some point…

The afternoon’s event was a 3½-hour historical fiction fest. Now, historical fiction isn’t something I’ve read a great deal of, but every time I hear about a book in this genre I want to pick it up and get stuck right in: the issue, as always, is one of time. However, as you’ll know if you read my book challenge, making time for reading is something I’m actively trying to get a grip on, so I treated myself to a few books from the Waterstones stall in the foyer, and will be scheduling in time for them in the near future!

And it was this last session that made perhaps the biggest difference to me as a writer. It was a fairly small-scale event, so I got to chat to some of the writers about their work, which meant that I got to know them as people rather than just ‘names’. And so, afterwards, when I was reviewing Facebook comments about the event, I saw that some of the authors were ‘friends’ with a mutual friend… and I took the brave step of sending them friend requests myself. And they accepted!

This may not seem like much, but it means that in my newsfeed I now see updates, not from people who are merely thinking about writing, or (like me) talking about the difficulties of making time for it, but from people who are actually getting on and doing it. And that is incredibly inspiring. To follow people who are talking about things that enthuse me, and to be able to interact with them on a normal human level… it makes everything seem possible, if only I work hard enough and dedicate myself to my projects and my dreams.

And that is what the Carnival of Words has done for me. It has changed my attitude from that of ‘aspiring writer’ to that of ‘writer’.

It all begins here…!