Back in April, I posted an update of what I’ve been reading recently. Here are another few books to add to the list.
My reading tastes since April can been best described as being ’all over the place.’ As you will see.
Last time I posted about books, I was reading Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman, which my husband Simon described as ‘glorified fanfiction.’ Rebecca’s Tale is best described as a prequel to Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 book Rebecca which is still frequently to be found in the lists of people’s favourite books of all time. I only read Rebecca for the first time last year; but immediately fell in love with it and with the Alfred Hitchcock film version – which I have a horrible feeling someone’s going to think it’ll be a good idea to re-make soon – heaven forbid. It took a while to get into Rebecca’s Tale and I read it over an extended period of time; but when it came together and finally caught my attention, it did a very good job of imagining what Maxim de Winter’s first wife was all about. It told the story through the eyes of those who were connected in some way with the family or the case surrounding her death. But my husband’s comment about this being glorified fan fiction is an interesting one. When does it stop being fanfiction and become something legitimate in it’s own right? More of that, later.
My daughter’s currently in Year 10 and as such, for English Literature, one of her set texts is Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Again, a classic book that I’ve missed along the way and so this opportunity to support my daughter’s studies by reading it as well, couldn’t be missed. It’s a slim book and I zipped through it. It’s the first Steinbeck I’ve read and I found it an uncompromising read - which I liked. Uncompromising is a theme that’s cropped up again and again these last few months. I made short work of reading it, but daughter is not the slightest bit inclined towards it – even though she’s the one who’ll be writing the essay come exam time .
I too shared a complete ambivalence to the classics at her age; a situation that didn’t rectify itself until my late teens. I don’t know if it’s right to read some classic books at so young an age. I think you benefit from having been around the block a few times before you start tackling things like Steinbeck. Although this does not for one minute mean that I support the idea of getting them to write essays on Harry Potter at GCSE; just that not everyone’s going to ‘get’ the classic so early. For some of us, the joy of reading the classics appears later, or not at all. That being said, daughter repeatedly makes short work of Agatha Christie – which I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole as it’s ‘not my thing’. She’s into death, crime and murder. Oh lovely…
Next up was a forray back into children’s fiction and the first two books in Helen Dunmore’s mangificent Ingo series: Ingo and The Tide Knot. I’m not remotely interested whether or not something is a ‘children’s book’, I believe good fiction is good fiction whether it’s written for children or for adults and Helen Dunmore is a class act in both. If you’re looking for a good book for girls aged 9-12 (ish) then the Ingo series is worth a go. Set in Cornwall, it focuses on a brother and sister who discover they are part Mer and can be as much part of the sea (Ingo) as they can the land. It’s a great story and beautifully, beautifully written. Helen Dunmore is one of those writers that makes me read and say ‘I want to write as well as that.’
OK, now this is the ‘insanely proud’ paragraph. As I said before, books about crime, death and murder really aren’t my thing, but I do make exceptions – for things I have to read for book group and books by friends. In this category appears Exit Stage Left by Adam Coft, who, when it comes to self-publishing, is an example to follow. This is Adam’s third book and the first to feature his amateur detective Kempston Hardwick. Yes, those people reading this in Bedfordshire will know that there is a village of the same name not a million miles away from Ampthill. Now most self-publishers haven’t got promotions worked out yet, but Adam has. You can read more about it HERE, but this photograph sums it right up:
Appearing in the category of ‘things you have to read for bookgroup which you know is why you go to book group in the first place – because you read the same old type of thing otherwise – but would really have rather missed this one:’ P D James Death in Holy Orders. Oh ye gods, get to the point woman! Ok, so it wasn’t terrible. I didn’t give up on it and I did want to find out whodunnit, but did we have to have such a lot of exposition? Actually, it’s possible that this was ‘just me’ in this case; because I know a bit about High Anglican rituals and symbolism and I don’t need someone to spell it out for me. However, someone not familiar with it all, will probably need it explaining – and then come to the same conclusion as me: What the…? Death in Holy Orders didn’t make me want to read another P D James book or revert back to Anglicanism. Interestingly, she too has just published a sequel to a classic book. In this case she takes the story of Pride and Prejudice on with Death at Pemberley. Again, is this glorified fan fiction or a legitimate story? What is the difference between the two? Is what P D James has done any different to what E L James has done with her Fifty Shades of Grey series?
At this point, my reading seemed to go a bit mad and the next five books are an example of how eclectic things have been.
Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo. Bought under the pretty man on the cover policy that I operate (see previous blog post), BUT, this one yielded an utter, utter gem! I would never have picked this book up in a million years but I am so glad that I did because it was an absolute revelation. Stunningly weird and stunningly written, this is pared-back uncompromising modern fiction at its finest. The character of Eric Packer is quite the most incredible creation and I got to the end having no idea if I remotely liked him, but not really caring at all, because of the complete head trip he’d just taken me on. I’m not sure if I could stand to watch the film (take note of my use of the word uncompromising), but please read the book, your brain cells will love you forever.
So, what do you follow the tale of an uncompromising megalomaniac with? That’s right Jane Austen’s Persuasion. My brain struggled with chapter one of this book. Mainly because it was having difficulty time-shifting back 200 years in 5 minutes. Anyway, this was one of the few Jane Austen books I haven’t read before and will be what we’re discussing at bookgroup next month. It took a while to grow on me, but I found Persuasion to be a polished, age old story of boy meets girl, boy proposes to girl, girl gets talked out of it, both spend eight years moping about and then boy meets girl again. If you like that sort of thing; then this is definitely a book to knock yourself out on. And indeed, one of the characters does exactly that – which made me snort with laughter. I’m not entirely sure it’s what Jane Austen was intending my reaction to be, but it provided an unexpected comedy moment, that’s for sure.
And back to the uncompromising megalomanic - with many unexpected comedy moments:
E L James: Fifty Shades of Grey / Fifty Shades Darker / Fifty Shades Freed. Yes, I’ve read all three and I really don’t care what you think of me for doing it. As an aspiring writer who writes fan fiction herself; to have someone change the character names on theirs and get it to go global, is going to pique my interest no end. We all know by now that Christian Grey is modelled on Edward Cullen from the Twilight series and that Anastasia Steele is supposed to be Bella, albeit in a different setting.
The first book is… laughably tiresome – you can set your watch by Anastasia’s internal explosions. Oh they’re at it again… same old same old… yawn. However, in Darker and Freed there was a plotline and a story that hooked me. Christian Grey’s an interesting, if slightly hackneyed construct; but yes, he got under my skin and I wanted to know what his problem was. It happens – I wrote Aurora Starlight * for that very same reason, when my character Daniel from Aurora just wouldn’t get out of my head.
In Fifty Shades… I still wanted to slap Anastasia/Bella, but in this case at least she’d slap back -or worse. It all got a bit cloying at the end (think last 20 minutes of LOTR:Return of the King) but by and large, Darker and Freed were worth ploughing through the half a tonne of condoms in book 1. Others will disagree, I know. Some love it, some hate it and some fell asleep halfway through. I did snigger at the funny emails though, I liked those.
What exactly we are to make of this emerging fashion for publishing things based on other people’s work? I don’t really know and to some extent I feel uncomfortable with it. Firstly on the basis of plagiarism but also of quality. Books coming out of a publishing house should have been through a rigorous editing process. I don’t feel that Fifty Shades did.
Publishing fanfiction certainly throws up questions about writer’s ethics. If you’ve read the Twilight series, then you can’t fail to miss the parallels between the two in Fifty Shades…. This is intentional, this is what fan fiction essentially is. This is what I and the many many, many other writers on FanFiction.Net are doing. Unlike E L James I’m, not doing it for money, but in essence I’m doing exactly the same thing: Using characters that someone else created. But when does it stop being fan fiction and when does it become legitimate? Does taking the story on when the author is dead make it better? Is plagiarising Jane Austen better than doing it to Stephenie Meyer, or any other author’s work. I haven’t checked, but I bet there’s already Fifty Shades FanFiction – how does E L James feel about that? I’m sure she’s not in the slightest bit bothered, not now she has she has a payday the size of East Anglia to look forward to. I’d be interested in your comments.
Would I pick up something original that E L James writes? Yes, why not. Because there’s a fabulous world of the written word out there and I for one am not going to be sniffy about it. Just because you start out in fan fiction – or even end up in fan fiction (a la P D James), matters not one bit; we’re all here for one thing: To write and read stories. Let the lawyers sort of the legal minefield that is inevitably going to happen; but in the meantime here’s another point of view:
Christopher Booker says there are only seven basic plots: Overcoming the monster, rags to riches, The quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth. So, to (conveniently) nick something from somewhere else – Battlestar Galactica I think - ‘All this has happened before and all this will happen again.’ By that measure every story told has already been told a million times before and every author since the first in that category is guilty of plagiarism to some degree; so whether you call your hero Edward, Christian or Darcy is a moot point. You’re telling the same thing over and over again.
Would love to hear your comments.
* Oh, and if you’re in the least bit interested. My fanfiction is HERE. I am as guilty as E L James of not self-editing enough in part 1. Parts 2 and 3 I knew what I was doing more.