Monthly Archives: August 2006

Utterly fabulous: The boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne (2006)

book cover
I hesitated before I tagged this as historical, because I’m not sure that it is. It describes itself as ‘a fable’ and I think that is probably correct. It is also one with a very strong message. I’m reluctant to dilute the force of that message by giving away too much information about the plot of the book, which makes writing a review of it very difficult.

Even the blurb gives little away:

Usually we give some clues about the book on the jacket, but in this case, we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about.

I think they are right. I only had a vague idea about the subject matter prior to reading, but even then it coloured how I approached the novel. Sadly adult readers are far less likely to come to the novel with little understanding of the subject, so in a sense that is where the book falls down, because it is inevitable that over time, readers will know what the subject is.

The hero of the book is a nine year old boy called Bruno, although as the blurb points out, this is not a story for nine year olds, and I think most nine year olds would find the story disturbing. Bruno lives with his family – an elder sister who is a Hopeless Case, his mother and his father – who has a Really Important Job. He’s a very naïve boy. On reading the book, my adult sensibilities felt that Bruno is really far too naïve to be credible, that surely any child would have been more aware of what was going on. But then I think it’s part of the narrative – a story of “innocence walking into darkness” – that wouldn’t work if Bruno was a more knowing child, a story of friendship, and of a horrible disastrous loss.

Written from Bruno’s POV, with only the occasional slip into someone else’s head, the voice of the narrative is firmly that of a nine year old. Bruno’s concerns are those of children – he observes only those things children observe, and if he seems to lack curiosity, again I think that is necessary for the story to work. And it does work. Horribly.

This is not a novel for the historical nitpicker, but I did nevertheless pick up one minor error.

I won’t say I enjoyed it – the experience was too wrenching, but it is extremely well written and I read it at a sitting. I would however, thoroughly recommend it.

I was curious as to what other reviewers had to say about it. Be warned, there will be spoilers if you follow the links.

This reviewer had the following interesting opening to his discussion.

“It’s important – crucially important – not to lose sight of the dual function of historical fiction. It is not its sole preserve to document historically accurate fact – that position is held, to lesser or greater degrees, by history books. Historical fiction aims to make an artistic statement brought into rapid relief alongside the backdrop of history. It’s indisputable value then is that it triggers within readers a shift in perspective.”

Others were less positive:

The Telegraph: “There is something exploitative about this book.”

The Observer: “But after reading, I felt ambivalent. [This] subject insists on respect, precludes criticism, prefers silence. It will be interesting to see what children make of it. One thing is clear: this book will not go gently into any good night.”

And some just hated it: “To set an admittedly important message in this hideous, historical context [ ] is one of the worst lapses of taste to have emerged since Carlo Bellini’s film, “Life is Beautiful”. [The subject matter is] hardly the appropriate vehicle to use for a fable, however heartfelt its moral. The author [ ] has in fact merely produced a cheap, shallow little book.”

See what you make of it.

Popular history

Another visit to the Book Festival, this time to hear Max Arthur (of the Forgotten Voices series) and Richard Holmes (Tommy etc). Both were excellent speakers, but it was a shame there were so few people at Arthur’s session, whereas Holmes was a sell out. I suspect this was because the schools are now back and Arthur was on during the day while Holmes was on at 18.30.

Arthur was promoting his new book, Lost Voices of the Edwardians, and it sounds a useful book to read for anyone researching the Great War, as this is the generation that went to war. He said the book arose out of his previous book, The Last Post, which was a series of interviews with the then last surviving veterans, and he thought it would be useful to do a book on their background. Society has changed a lot in the intervening century and he hoped to provide some insights into the sort of people who happily volunteered in 1914. We tend, as a society, I think, to have a very rose-tinted view of the Edwardian period. It’s all Upstairs Downstairs (which incidentally I re-watched on DVD recently, and still loved) and croquet on the lawn, not the grinding poverty described by Arthur’s respondents in his book. Even television such as the 1900 House a few years ago, and its country house follow-up, or others such as the Victorian Kitchen, failed to capture the experience of most people. Grinding poverty doesn’t make attractive television I suppose.

We also tend to think that the Great War acted as this huge fault line in society, creating a barrier between the “golden” Edwardian period and the flapper-filled twenties. However, one of the points Arthur made, was that there wasn’t a huge difference in the experience of most people between say the late Victorian period and the nineteen twenties, and he gave a plug for a future book covering that latter decade. There were changes, certainly, but they were not perhaps as far-reaching as we generally believe they were.

Holmes, who admitted to wearing two hats, that or military historian and member of the armed forces, asserted that he had not wanted to write his current book, Dusty Warriors, about the experience of a battalion serving in Iraq a couple of years ago. It had come about as a result of the regiment of which he is Lt Col, having one of its battalions posted to Iraq. This was less interesting for me in a historical sense, although the politics of it were fascinating. Holmes kept having to steer a course between what he could say, as a member of the armed forces, and what he wanted to say as a historian, and there were some questions he refused to answer. What did come over, however, were the attitudes and behaviour of the soldiers, whose average age after all, was only twenty. They seemed very similar to those described in Tommy, which was interesting. What was even more interesting from the point of view of my current writing project was a brief discussion about preventing post traumatic stress disorder.

The audience were almost equally interesting, there being large numbers of bristling moustaches, and fearfully pukka accents, although in response to a question, Holmes did say that the army was much less class ridden than previously and commissioning from the ranks was fairly common.

All in all, two fascinating speakers well worth seeing.

The genre that dare not speak its name?

I attended a most interesting talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival the other day. It formed part of a strand named The Writing Business, and concerned romance fiction. Other talks in the strand focus on science fiction & fantasy, writing for children etc. The talk was given by Eileen Ramsay, a Scottish romance writer of whom I hadn’t previously heard, but then I read very little contemporary romance. She began by reading some extracts from a number of clearly romance novels and asked the audience if anyone could identify which books they were from. The quality of the writing varied, the purpleness of the prose varied, but they all involved a love story of some description. It turned out she had read us extracts from a modern literary novel, modern chicklit, great European literature (Anna Karenina), great English literature (Jane Austen), ‘classic fiction’ (DK Broster), and finished with some modern Mills & Boon. In simply listening to the extracts there was really no way of telling which was which. There are good books and bad books everywhere.

She made her point by showing us one of the new controversial covers that Headline are publishing Jane Austen in, and comparing it with the cover of a popular chicklit writer. Headline have taken a very calculated decision in using this style, in an attempt to make Austen appeal to readers who might never go anywhere near her. The packaging of a book is all about saying to readers, you like soppy love stories, then this book is suitable for you, you like serious fiction, then this book is suitable for you. I don’t necessarily disagree with this, provided the packaging does not exclude readers, which I think it does. For example, I look at the pink, girly covers of much chicklit and shudder, even though there could well be books in there that I might enjoy.

You can see what I mean here:

Ramsay then went on to ask why it was that unlike, say literary novels, which are judged on their own merits, romantic novels are judged as a group, by the worst representatives of that group. This Mills & Boon novel is poorly written crap, ergo, all romance novels are poorly written crap. It would be like saying, this literary novel is pretentious, incomprehensible drivel, ergo, all literary novels are pretentious, incomprehensible drivel. Not all genres are treated in this way; crime isn’t. Crime novels are judged on their own merits not as a category. Ramsay asserted that romance is the only genre that is treated in this way, but I think SF&F also suffers from this type of assessment, although perhaps not so much as formerly, and horror and westerns certainly do. I would agree, however, that romance fiction seems to be treated particularly badly in this regard.

It was an interesting discussion, although I fear, Ramsay was preaching largely to the converted as there were many romance writers in the audience. I think part of the problem is that much romance writing is very definitely written to a formula, and there seems to be an assumption among critics that this type of writing is, of necessity, bad. But I don’t that this is true; the underlying plot may be desperately formulaic, but the quality of writing can surely transcend this.

Although Ramsay never articulated the point, I did get the impression that there was an underlying assumption that this judgement of romance = bad, is because it is largely written by and for women. However if we look at the other genres I mentioned this argument becomes less easy to sustain.

I think I would come to the conclusion that while, in an ideal world, we should judge each book on its own merits, the stronger the formula about a way a book is written, the less easy it is to do this. And all books are, to some extent written to a formula. The way books are marketed does not help us make individual judgements, but I don’t see a way round that – we need labels to help us make a choice.

Playing around? A Game of Soldiers, Stephen Miller (2006)

A Game of Soldiers ,the debut novel of Canada- based scriptwriter and actor Stephen Miller is a superb historical thriller. Set in the Russia of 1913 it presents a believable, if conspiracy-based twist to the outbreak of the Great War. But then my knowledge of Russian society at that time is fairly limited, and doubtless someone more versed in the setting than I am would be able to pick up on any historical inaccuracies.

The protagonist is a government agent named Pyotr Ryzkhov, who works amidst the corrupt society of St Petersburg, keeping his head down and doing his best not to attract the wrong kind of attention. He fails in this aim when he is prompted to question the perfunctory investigation into and cover up of the murder of a child prostitute. As he starts to dig, those involved seem to be more and more influential until they include the Minister of Justice himself. Another murder then leads him to Serbia and involvement in the event at Sarajevo in June 1914.

This was a great read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In Ryzkhov Miller has created a sympathetic character – a man struggling to balance pragmatism with idealism, and whose failure threatens his life. I was interested to see that Miller is currently working on a sequel set after the war; I will certainly get hold of it when it comes out.

I was surprised not to find much in the way of reviews online but an expanded synopsis is available from the publisher.

Shamrocks & leprechauns: The Turf Cutter’s Donkey, Patricia Lynch (1934)

One summer, when I was a child, we stayed in a holiday cottage in Wales. There were some books in the cottage, one of which was a marvellous collection of Irish stories, full of magic silver mines, donkeys and market fairs. It has niggled me for years that I could remember neither the title nor the author, so didn’t have a hope of identifying it. Then recently, a friend suggested it might have been by Patricia Lynch. This sounded promising and I got hold of The Turf Cutter’s Donkey, her most famous book, but one which appears to be out of print. Sadly this wasn’t it, although I recognise both the writing style and the milieu in which the story is set. Lynch published rather a lot of books, so I’m not sure if I will ever manage to identify the one I’m looking for.

Written for a younger age group than the children’s books I have discussed previously, it’s interesting that it was written at around the same time. Lynch lived in both Ireland and England, but it’s unclear to me whether the primary audience for the book is Irish or British. There is, of course, none of that bombastic Britishness so prevalent in the likes of Violet Needham and other firmly British authors of that date. Also, I am thankfully not reminded of such later writers as Lillian Beckwith who spent years writing books patronising life in the Scottish Islands. If you have never read any of her stuff, I wouldn’t bother as it gives a peculiarly twee and Anglo-centric view of Highland life that induces a strong feeling of nausea. On the contrary, while the rural setting of The Turf Cutter’s Donkey is undoubtedly idealised, it seems to give a flavour of reality that is neither patronising nor twee, but sympathetic and matter of fact, and it was this that stuck in my mind for so many years.

I found the two main characters however, a brother and sister, rather tiresome, and I didn’t feel their characterisation was particularly strong. Other ‘non-magic’ characters such as the children’s parents seemed to be more part of the scenery than characters in their own right. Although, having said that, this is often the case with children’s adventure literature. For example, the mother in Swallows and Amazons is very much a background character. The magical characters were interesting, partly because I was not familiar with most of them – they all come from Irish folk tales, I understand.

Anyone interested in mid 20th century children’s literature should certainly read at least one of Lynch’s books – they give a different perspective to it.

A Pukka Sahib: Kim, Rudyard Kipling (1901)

It’s been many years since I have read any Kipling, and even then, I don’t know that I ever read very much more than The Jungle Book. But I recently came across a reading list of books read by a WW1 soldier that he had put at the end of his diary, and while Kim wasn’t on the list, a number of books by authors that I have been reading such as Ian Hay, John Buchan and Gene Stratton-Porter are, along with Jack London, and , Rider Haggard. Since a couple of books by Jack London are currently somewhere in Mount TBR, I thought it might be an idea to focus a bit more on literature read in the trenches. As well as all the other books I’m focussed on.

I enjoyed Kim. The streetwise urchin is a common enough archetype, although Kim is light years away from the treacly sentiment of Michael O’Halloran, for example. We are not left at the end of Kim wondering how a child brought up on his wits has managed to learn that lying and stealing are wrong – Kim unrepentantly does both, and is no paragon, but is nevertheless most engaging.

In terms of plot, the novel takes the form of a coming of age tale, largely picaresque in nature, as Kim allies himself to a wandering Tibetan Lama’s search for enlightenment, and seeks the answer to the question of who he is. It is significant for its large cast of Indian characters who are largely sympathetic and well drawn, unlike similar characters in contemporary novels, and it probably does give a fairly accurate picture (if one bears the obvious biases in mind) of life in India at that time.

Kimball O’Hara, the orphan son of an Irish soldier of the Raj, is raising himself on the streets of Lahore, more at home in Punjabi than English, and terrified of being carted off to an orphanage. One day his path crosses that of Teshoo lama, and Kim finds himself swept up in the quest for enlightenment, acting as the lama’s chela or disciple, although in reality protecting the naïve Tibetan from the ravages of Indian opportunism. Along the way Kim runs into his father’s old regiment, which leads eventually to Kim’s recruitment as an intelligence agent. This part of the plot is very boy’s own, and of less interest, for me it was the journey through India that made the novel so good.

The only thing about it that really irritated me was the way Kipling chose to represent characters speaking Indian languages by the use of overtly archaic English forms – ‘thou art a wastrel’ and so forth. I’m not sure but that it was a convention of the time to do that, but it’s still unnecessary, and gets in the way of the story.

Other discussions of Kim

Kim, a master work of imperialism
Kim, conflict between imperial authority and colonial struggle
Kim, a book it’s wrong to love

Scribbling Hard

A lot of people want to write. A lot of people think they can write, as in the sense of producing fiction or non-fiction. (declaration of interest – I’m one of them) A lot of people think their writing deserves to be published.

But it’s not easy. And in our society where instant gratification of desires is becoming the norm, this can be a problem for our prospective authors. Despite the enormous number of books published every year, there are double, ten, a hundred times that number of people with completed manuscripts they want to see in print.

The situation is not helped by silly proverbs such as ‘everyone’s got a book in them’, or by the fact that these days most people have a computer, or access to one, which renders the production of said book significantly easier than say, thirty years ago. Before computers and word processing software, the production of multiple copies of a manuscript required a huge effort. Not so today: while the effort needed to produce the first copy remains the same, a click on the print icon can produce any number of other copies.

But despite this, few are successful in their quest, as editors such as Teresa Nielsen Hayden acknowledge. Some fall like ripe plums into the grasp of the scam publishers in the same way they have always done, except these days it needn’t cost them as much. The scam publishers have moved with the times and gone digital, tarring a whole technology with the epithet of vanity.

But while more people seek publication, it’s becoming harder to make a living from writing as publishers delete the mid-list and the only guarantee of publication is a former existence as a z-list celebrity. Perhaps there’s a link between the decrease in the ability of authors to make a living from their published work and the increase in size of the creative writing industry providing other work for them. But many writers whose sales have flat-lined must find it a godsend.

There are magazines, webzines, websites, subscription only web-based writing groups, forums and directories. A quick google will find correspondence courses, web courses, college courses, residential courses, short courses, long courses, weekly courses, writing weekends, courses in France, in Greece, in Italy, not to forget academic courses – MAs, MLitts and Phds. And none of them guarantee anything except how to become a better writer. Thirty years ago the only university in the UK that offered an MA in Creative Writing was East Anglia. Today no university worth its External Subject Review fails to offer such a cash cow, because they’re not cheap.

This industry has grown up to meet a demand, but I do wonder how many of the people who attend these courses and are subsequently published, would have achieved publication anyway. There’s no way to tell.

And I haven’t even mentioned the library’s worth of volumes published on the subject of getting published or how to write: how to write romance, screenplays and crime: how to construct your plot, devise your characters, sell your bestseller, and if all else fails, publish yourself.

I don’t know whether to be depressed or encouraged.