Books Now!

News and reviews from around the corner to across the world


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FESTIVE FOLLIES and FOND FAREWELLS….

BOOKS NOW! will be going on vacation until mid-January, but I wanted to wish everyone Happy Holidays and a wonderful 2014 before I fly off.

Thank you for supporting this blog and for your interest in all things literary. From humble beginnings in April 2013, Books Now! has grown to a readership of over 400, which is fantastic and very gratifying. I can’t wait to see what next year has in store. In the meantime, here are a few gift ideas if you’re still stuck for the book lovers in your life…..

tshirt

Out of Print is a 27-year-old clothing company that sells t-shirts featuring vintage book covers, from Origin of the Species to Lolita. What makes this company special is that for every t-shirt sold, they donate a book to a community in need.

scent

 In the Library scent (I kid you not…..) The description reads: “In the Library is a warm blend of English Novel, Russian & Moroccan Leather Bindings, Worn Cloth and a hint of Wood Polish.”

board game

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night Board Game. Each card gives you the opening lines to a famous novel, and you must identify the name of the book. It’s suited for all levels of literature lovers.

Book Cake

Book Cake for the sweet toothed.

coaster

Tile Coaster for procrastinators.

And finally……

book thongs

Book thongs/flip-flops –  never go anywhere without taking your books with you.

Be safe and I’ll see you in the New Year…….

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An ever-turning wheel – Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life

 

 

 

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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday     $27.99

Life After Life was published early in the year and is a book I have intended to read for a while. And as we approach the end of 2013, it seems appropriate to review a book which comments on death and rebirth, offering alternate slices of life and a “Sliding Doors” approach to narrative and character. It’s especially meaningful to me, as I’ve just written a play in which six diverse characters confront their mortality and attitudes to death in very different ways.

Most books have a composite set of characters at their centre. And even if the novel progresses through flashbacks, jumbled juxtaposition of time frames or mixed points of view, there is usually some kind of progression in which we view them holistically.

Atkinson turns traditional story-telling on its head. Her heroine Ursula Todd (interestingly, ‘tot’ is the German word for ‘dead’) dies over and over again. First, she’s a baby in 1910, strangled with her mother’s umbilical cord one freezing winter’s night; we then see her as a toddler when she dies again, victim of a freak accident. A few years later Ursula is resurrected, but drowns helplessly on a family seaside trip; she succumbs to the great Spanish ‘flu pandemic of 1918. Other incarnations see her murdered by a psychotic husband and killed in the London blitz of 1942.

Her lives riff and intertwine like musical variations on a theme, and indeed the novel has a jazzy, improvised feel with leitmotifs abounding – many chapters end with the words “darkness fell”. Snow provides the silent background for both death and rebirth.  In one life, the teenage Ursula is raped, becomes pregnant to her brother’s American friend and undergoes a backstreet abortion; yet in another life, a bashful kiss is her only physical interaction. One episode’s full stop is another episode’s near-miss or ellipsis.

In each of her lives Ursula grows a little older, before succumbing to the next, inevitable, conclusion. This drives the novel forward and delivers surprise after surprise. Some are harder to swallow than others –  in one of her many existences, Ursula befriends Eva Braun in Germany and then assassinates Hitler in a Berlin café.  We last see Ursula in the 1960s – as such, the novel sweeps panoramically through much of the 20th century, tackling the shifts of political and social change.

The one stable element is the family home, Fox Corner, an idealised portrait of British upper middle class life. It is a sanctuary, a still point in a turning world that threatens with danger and unpredictability. Atkinson, who won the Whitbread for her early novel Behind the Scenes in the Museum and is well-known for her crime novels, Case Histories, writes with elegance and restraint, capturing the domestic flavours of everyday life as well as the tragedies of war. A poached egg is “a sickly jellyfish deposited on toast to die”. Ursula lives through the London bombings, as a fire warden, and in the morgues is sickened by the “macabre jigsaw” of limbs and torsos, “the crushed fragments of human lives, never to be whole again.” Ursula in each life lived, is also attempting to reach some kind of wholeness.

The alternate endings, both happy and sad, allow the reader to contemplate Ursula’s fate through diversely refracted lights. This is exciting, innovative, and takes storytelling into a fresh medium of possibility.  Less satisfactory is Atkinson’s attempts to explain the rationale for this process. At one point Ursula’s mother, frustrated at her daughter’s strange behaviour and frequent flashes of déjà-vu, trots her off to a psychiatrist, Dr Kellet. Subsequent discussions between doctor and patient about reincarnation, Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, and whether it’s possible to live your life again and again “until you get it right” appear forced, as if justifying the novel’s structure and narrative drive.

Readers invariably care for the characters they get to know and worry about what happens to them. The question has to be asked whether readers  empathise with a heroine whose life paths constantly morph into different realities. It’s to Kate Atkinson’s credit and a tribute to her skill as a writer that we believe completely in Ursula, life after life.


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Into the Lion’s Den (2): Why do Writers Write?

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Lucinda Crowden and Jacob Antolini at my reading of Muffins At the Death Café

On a day following the death of Nelson Mandela, when everything seems greyer and less substantial, I’m writing this post conscious that anything I produce may seem trivial and irrelevant. Yet it’s been a big week for me in many ways, and some of you have asked me how my reading went – and I’m happy to share.

I’m pretty sure all writers experience six degrees of separation when they hear their work read aloud: on the one hand, they know what’s coming next; on the other, the fact that the words they wrote are being articulated by someone else gives the text a degree of unreality. Did they actually write this? Where did it come from?

This is especially true of a play, when characters physicalise their existence on stage. An actor and director’s interpretation may be very different from how the writer envisaged the character to be, which can either create a grievous disconnect, or conversely throw a brilliant light onto the character and give the writer a whole new lead on motivation or even plot.

Workshops, such as the one my play Muffins At the Death Café was part of last week (only last week!!) are hugely useful opportunities for actors, director and writer to see what works, uncover new ways of staging, get rid of dead wood or stagnant passages, and re-evaluate the flow of the play. I arrived nervous, I left empowered.  Yes, there were areas I felt needed more exploring, some characters whose arc needed strengthening, some scene rejigging, some cutting, some expanding, but overall the play – plot, construct, character – worked. It was a living, breathing thing which I hoped the audience would respond  to at our Monday public reading.

At the same time, I started thinking about why I wrote this play, why writers write in general, and reproduce some interesting findings by Charles D Deguara, (cj @authorspromoter.com). One hundred writers were interviewed and asked, “why do you write?”

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15% of writers write as a way to express themselves

13% of writers write because they have to

13% of writers write to help others

11% of writers write to educate

8% of writers write because their imagination shows them unimagined worlds

6% of writers write to influence

6% of writers write because they were influenced by authors they read

10% of writers write because it’s therapeutic

5% of writers write because it’s a passion

3% of writers write primarily because it’s their job

2% of writers write primarily to entertain

2% of writers write to immortalise themselves or others, leaving a lasting mark on earth

2% of writers write for exposure and fame

2% of writers write because they were victims of circumstance

2% of writers write because of curiosity

Now, I can understand  many of these motivations – in particular the wish to influence (the basis of course for Sartre’s artiste engagé), the desire to leave your mark, the overwhelming need to write because it’s the itch you have to scratch and of course art as catharsis. But I also feel there the survey could have gone far deeper.

For example, George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Why I Write, examines the four underlying motives for writing: “sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose”. There’s an honesty here: let’s not forget that healthy dash of ego. Without it, you’d probably never put pen to paper. There has to be a fundamental conviction, despite the angst, that you have what it takes.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means”, says Joan Didion.  And that’s true too. The deeper you get into your characters, the more you understand what and why you’re writing. For Don de Lillo, writing “frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write …. mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.”  Writing as lifejacket – I haven’t got there yet. This is what separates full-time writers from those like me who squeeze in writing whenever they can. On my “aspirational” list.

For Truman Capote, writing is an aesthetic wonder. “To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” Making something beautiful, of course!  Isn’t that part of the drive – to get the words just right?

And then there’s screenwriter and lecturer Robert Mckee, whose seminal textbook “Story” is probably on every first year film student’s reading list. Writing for him imposes order on chaos. That’s something I really relate to. When I delve into characters, I can often make a lot more sense of their lives than I do of my own. Writing creates a structure to the equivocation of everyday life that defines purpose and meaning. And that’s essential.

But what surprised me most about this survey was that not one of the writers interviewed talked about the need to communicate a really good story! I found that almost unbelievable. Why would you write, unless you felt your yarn would reach out to people, touch them, force them to sit up, shock them, get them laughing, weeping, make them angry or motivated? Why would you write if you felt your story didn’t have wings?  “Those of us who write do it because there are stories inside us burning to get out”, says Isabel Allende. And the joy of sharing those stories is part of the motivation, too.

So back to my reading. How did it go?  Better than I could ever have hoped. What a wonderful, wonderful response!  I can’t tell you how gratified I am, as a writer, when audiences get your jokes, laugh in the right places, say your characters are totally believable, feel moved by their dilemmas, share their anxieties and tell you that the play has a storyline that resonates.

The Q&A session we held with the audience after the reading was invaluable, generating many ideas for my next draft, pointing out some highlights, a few inconsistencies, but overall re-iterating their positive reaction. It was just the kick of confidence I needed to swing back into the writing saddle and finish the second draft, which I hope to do over the Australian summer.

So to my marvellous actors, Lucinda Cowden, Jacob Antolini, Chloe Ng, Mason Gasowski, Donna DePalma, Aston Elliot, director Tammie Kite – thank you!  It was a joy to work with you, and I’m so grateful for your enthusiasm and excitement working on my new play.  All I can say is – watch this space!  Because now I can’t wait to get scribbling…..

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Chloe Ng at the Muffins At the Death Café reading