Review of ‘My Antonia’ by Willa Catha

Available from Amazon.

Apparently ‘My Antonia’ is one of the staples of the American school English literature syllabus.  If so, good on them.  Much better than the tripe my very right-on English teachers got me to read – mainly Dylan Thomas and D H Lawrence.  I hated them then and I haven’t looked at their work since.  As I have said in a previous post, I read the nineteenth century classics in my twenties whilst commuting on trains up and down to London – but, Dear Reader, I didn’t come across Willa at that time, more’s the pity.

‘My Antonia’ is supposed to be the reminiscence of New York lawyer, Jim Burden, of his days as pioneer in Nebraska, Willa’s favourite stamping ground. The story starts with Jim and new immigrant, Antonia, as children, attempting, with their families, to make a living on the barren, uncultivated land, where the red grass grew. They learned to survive the harsh winters, although Antonia’s poor father, a delicate musician from ‘the old country’, did not see out even one. The story spans several decades as the children grow up, enjoying life as teenagers in the small frontier town of Black Hawk and Jim moving on to the big cities to university and to practise law.

Red grass, NebraskaWilla Catha’s work is always charming and innocent and the people so sweet and gentle that you wish that you lived amongst them, despite the harsh conditions. This is a very old fashioned work, which meanders circuitously through the years, with little or no plot except that of young people growing up and taming the harsh, virgin land. Loose ends abound. Antonia’s mother was clearly demanding and difficult, and the reader might expect her disagreeable character to affect the course of the story in some way, but she just fades from the pages. The same happens with her domineering brother Ambrosch, and Krajieck who overcharged her family for their land and the cave they lived in. Characters move in and move out, mirroring the structure of real life, more than a novel. Towards the end of the book, Larry Donovan figures largely in Antonia’s life but is probably mentioned less than half a dozen times. The writer, who appears in the first chapter only, doesn’t like Jim’s wife, but this theme isn’t developed either.

It is unclear who is the main character. The title would predicate Antonia herself and certainly she features largely, but Jim tells the story in the first person, with large portions of it to do solely with Jim himself and other characters, without Antonia. The relationship between Antonia and Jim is an enigma not properly resolved; at first playmates, then good friends, although they both had many other friends – lovers, never.

If ‘My Antonia’ had been taken to a modern writers’ workshop, it would’ve been torn to shreds by so-called experts, but yet, Dear Reader, I felt more in tune with the characters in this book, more involved and generally more interested, than in anything that written to the ‘rules’ we writers have to abide by now.

So would I recommend ‘My Antonia’. Yes, definitely.

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Review of ‘Fatal Act (A Geraldine Steel Mystery)’ by Leigh Russell

Available from No Exit Press and Amazon.

This iFront cover of 'Fatal Act' by Leigh Russells the sixth in the Geraldine Steel series.  Geraldine has now moved to a new job as an inspector in the Homicide Assessment Team with the (London) Metropolitan Police, and now reports to Chief Inspector Reg Milton, who she hasn’t yet got the measure of.   This book is set firmly in the world of theatre and acting, the characters including: a successful, glamorous but petulant actress; a driven, wannabe actress; students at drama school; a set designer.  The ‘Fatal Acts’ all concern people associated with casting director, Piers Trevelyan – a stereotypical casting director who bonks everything female, although many of his bits of skirt seek out him and his casting couch as a means of  advancing their acting careers.    The three murders are gruesome, and enigmatic, because the murderer seems to be able disappear from the scene, and CCTV cameras, as if by magic.  Everything seems to point very directly to Piers as the perpetrator – too directly, Geraldine thinks.  ‘Don’t be blinded by this man’s attractions’, said Reg Milton.  (If someone had said that to me, I would have committed a ‘fatal act’ on him, although Reg is not the main mcp here.)

Reg Milton is an interesting, but not altogether likeable, character.  (He) had a tendency to regard questions as a challenge to his authority.’  ‘He was more comfortable issuing orders.’  ‘Yet he had a ‘reputation for running successful investigations.’  Towards the end of the book, Reg gives Geraldine a – richly deserved – roasting for putting a colleague (Sam Haley) in danger.   (Ruth Rendell’s) Reg Wexford and Mike Burden and (Alexander McCall Smith’s) Mma Ramotswe with Mma Makutsi have cosy relationships.   (H E Birley’s) Wycliffe always worked within a cohesive team.  Inspector Kate Miskin fawns over (P D James’s) Adam Dalgliesh – rather irritatingly so, imo.  Geraldine’s relationship with Reg Milton will no doubt smoulder for books to come.

Geraldine is a Janey-no-mates, with nothing to do and nobody to see when she has time off, but her friendship with (female) Sergeant Sam Haley showed her friendly side, even though, as the Inspector, she assumes the upper hand.  The reader also gets to renew acquaintance with Geraldine’s former Sergeant, Ian Peterson; I understand from Leigh’s website that she is currently working on a spin-off series about Ian.  Maybe that is why Geraldine had to move from Kent to London?  More creepy was Geraldine’s relationship with Nick Williams:  a sexist (‘Why don’t I go in?  Surely this is a job for a man.  You said yourself he could be dangerous-‘), an alleged wife-beater and known for unfunny anti-women jokes – Leigh hardly sells Nick to us, even though he is the one who saves the investigation, and Geraldine, and Sam.   This relationship will also, no doubt, develop in future books.  Geraldine is her name – Steel – but Leigh lends her vulnerability by occasionally letting her get things wrong.

Crime fiction requires a thorough technical knowledge of how the police work, their procedures and how they interact with each other.  It also requires a tighter plot structure than other genres, although the plot is always the same one, more or less.  Without this technical knowledge, it is impossible to write plausible crime fiction – although some writers have tried.  (Wince, wince.)  I myself have never dared to write crime fiction, although it is probably my favourite genre to read.  I sometimes wonder if there is a gap in the market for a crime series featuring a cyber forensics expert, but, although I teach computing, I’m deterred by the amount of police research I would have to do.

So, Dear Reader, do I recommend ‘Fatal Act’?  Yes, of course.  If you like crime writing, you’ll enjoy ‘Fatal Act’.

(Image reproduced with permission of the author of the book.)

Review of ‘Men I’ve Loved Before’ by Adele Parks

Available from Amazon, although originally published by Headline.  This is the latest of ten books written by Adele, who was formerly at Penguin, but she has just moved to Headline.  The title warns us immediately that we are entering the raunchy world of chicklit, as chick as chick can be.  As I’m not a great fan of chicklit, I’m not the best person to write this review.

The story concerns Natalie, happily married to Neil, enjoying her managerial job in a pharmaceutical company, lots of sex, shopping and a drink-fueled party life in London. Stork carrying baby. Natalie is emphatic that she doesn’t want babies, but – surprise, surprise – at the age of thirty-five Neil’s biological clock doesn’t just tick but strikes very loudly.  Unable to deflect him, even though she clearly ‘wears the trousers’ in their marriage, Natalie contacts most of her ex-es – rather like Rob Gordon in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.  However, the plot comes round full circle when she realises that she parted company from all of them for good reason and that Neil really is her One.   Neil, meanwhile, has become over-chummy with a stripper.  By this time, the reader has come to believe firmly in Natalie and Neil as an item, albeit with a massive elephant in the uxorious living room.   This is the point where the story really takes off – so much more interesting than tired ex-boyfriends.  It was an ambitious plot, tackling a subject close to the hearts of many thirtysomething women.  I did guess how it would end, however, although not perhaps exactly the manner in which the particular ending happened.

Adele contains the novel within six months in time (August to January) and her major characters to a group of six friends, the stripper, Neil’s brother and sister-in-law and Natalie’s mother.   All the characters were distinct and vividly described; you would have no difficulty working out who was speaking or doing, Ali or Jen, Tim or Karl.  However, in places I found some of them to be too over-drawn – too chicklit, too Bridget Jones – to be totally believable.  Neil was the character Adele most got into, weak but driven, and dominated by a stronger woman.  I didn’t warm to mc Natalie; she was cold, self-seeking, managing, used to having her own way and not once during the course of the novel did she show any concern for any other character.   She was supposed to be working in pharmaceuticals because she cared about health in the Third World, but I didn’t feel that Natalie was out to save the world, more that she was motivated by ambition and career.  I believe that Adele wrote Natalie that way deliberately, because her readership want hard, feisty woman.

So, Dear Reader, would I recommend you read ‘Men I Have Loved Before’?  It was a fine example of its genre – lots of sex, relationships, hunky men and partying, but not for me.

(Image from flickr.com)

‘Reading is Becoming a Minority Pursuit’, warns Ruth Rendell

'The Reader' by Flagonard So said crime author, Ruth Rendell, on Radio 4’s programme Front Row.  According to reports in the Daily Telegraph today, she has had a ‘dawning realisation’  that reading for pleasure is no longer an ‘everyday pastime for most people’.  Sadly, she’s all too right.

I remember almost every passenger having a book when I commuted to London during the late 1970s and early 1980s;  the normal thing was that you started with your newspaper (then left it in your seat for someone else coming after you) and, when that ran out, you moved on to your paperback.  I made my way through all of Dickens’ novels on trains between my various homes in Surrey and my jobs in central London and in Kingston-upon-Thames; then I mopped up what I hadn’t read of the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Anthony Trolloppe.  Oh yes, Dear Reader, I was a sucker for the Victorians and still am.  During ‘The Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-79, waiting on cold platforms for delayed and cancelled trains, watching the rubbish piling up in the streets, I followed the fortunes of Jo, the street-sweeper, in ‘Bleak House’.  When I left work to have children, I read George Eliot’s ‘Romula’ at home on top of my bump, and Dorothy Sayers’ ‘Gaudy Night’ in the ante-natal ward on the evening before my daughter was born.  This is what we all did, although I do believe that commuters read more than other demographics.

So what went wrong?  If you get on to a train now, you will see passengers bent over tablets.  Although a minority will be using Kindles and other e-readers, everyone else will be  using social networks, playing computer games and watching YouTube videos.  In the 1960s, the Older Generation predicted that people would stop reading because they now had the Gogglebox, and maybe that did happen to a small extent, although, in my experience, the real ‘square eyes’ were those who would never read for pleasure anyway.   There was stigma attached to watching too much television.  Those who thought of themselves as  ‘cultured’ made a point of not owning a TV – like my uncle, who had to give in when he realised that my cousins were gaining a reputation for calling in on friends and neighbours just at the time when ‘Top of the Pops’ or ‘The Man From UNCLE’ was starting.  Owning an iPad or other tablet, however, is not regarded as ‘uncultured’.   In fact, even intellectuals have a sneaking respect for those geeks who play Black Ops all day.

The (mainly male) students I teach would never be seen with a paperback or an e-reader.  (We have a girl student who reads all the time, before class and even during, and, no, Dear Reader, I’ve never told her off for doing it.  I haven’t the heart to do so.)  If you give a certain sort of student a worksheet about how to use a software application, he will tell you he can’t read.  He will snigger as he says it, because real men don’t read.  Indeed, if he were required to enter the library, there would be a distinct danger that his balls would drop off.  Other kids just blag their way through.  One very gentle boy (not macho at all) told me, just before Christmas, that, for three years, he has looked only at the screen dumps on my worksheets and used them to work out what he should do.  I have to confess that, mostly, this particular guy gets it right.  In the IT profession, tutorials in how to use applications are, more and more, being given in video form, mostly on YouTube.   I find these almost impossible to follow, but younger people seem to prefer  them.  Are we losing the art of reading?  Are we expecting everything to be visual and pictorial?  I think we are.

So where does this leave us poor writers?  Not in a good place.  There is only one place for a Julian Fellowes.

If we had the inclination, we could design computer games.  This is probably the career path with the best prospects.  Apart from the most basic sort, computer games do include a storyline and (I’m told – by my students) that it’s getting involved in this storyline that is addictive.  So turn your skills to fantasy, sci fi, death and destruction.

Seeing as computer games have the greatest appeal for men, we could write for women – which is much easier if you are a woman, obviously.  Be aware, though, that the older end of the market – womags – are unfortunately in decline.  I understand (but don’t know because I’ve never had a womag hit) that they pay well, but getting a story accepted is a bit like winning the FA Cup.  Chicklit (written for younger women) seems to be on the up and up – this means you would have to write about sex.  Ugh.  Squirm.

You could write novels for older people (mostly women) who do read fiction.  Historical, crime AND historical crime are all great female favourites.  Older men seem to have a preference for non-fiction, so we might turn our attention to Books about The War, biography, and sporting heroes.

Did you see the three episodes of ‘Death Comes To Pemberley’ over Christmas?   I normally hate adaptations of anything but in this case beloved daughter and I agreed that the telly version was better than the book.  When I reviewed the written version this time last year, I think I commented that P D James got into Lydia Wickham (nee Bennett) better even than Jane Austen did and this was certainly reflected in the TV version.  Also the screenplay writers seemed to have included more of a storyline, and therefore more drama.

Dear Reader, you are clearly a rarity.  Happy New Year to you.  Hope you were given some nice books for Christmas and that you have read them already.  Let’s prove Ruth Rendell wrong, shall we?  (I’m sure she’d love that.)  And happy writing, to all my writing friends.