Reading Like A Writer, Francine Prose
How lucky do you gotta be to have a name like that when you’re an author? Honestly, I hope it’s not a penname — it’s just too perfect.
The book, however… Well, I was hopeful when I read the first chapter. It talks about the value of close-reading, which I’m very much agreed with. I was taught close-reading by Professor Martin Coyle, and especially when it came to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it was revelatory. There’s so much there if you just focus deeply on the words of a text — references, clues, imagery, that you just might not register if you read fast. And I agree with Prose’s fears that literature is being taught as a mass of conflicting theories, to the exclusion of really understanding the nuts and bolts. While I am a new historicist, new/practical criticism has always been a huge help to me — and it continues to be so, even in understanding scientific writing.
If you’re interested in that kind of reading, though, I’d recommend Martin Coyle and John Peck’s Practical Criticism and Peck’s How to Study a Poet. You can also pretty much teach yourself by just looking hard at a poem — circle things that seem significant, underline, draw maps of how it works… You’ll likely see the value of it pretty quickly if it’s a way of thinking that will work for you. (And, bonus, both books are especially good if you want to learn how to communicate what you find via close-reading.)
However. The rest of the book mostly consists of extracts of what Prose has decided is “good writing”, almost all of it from very literary examples, and then her discussion of it. To me, this isn’t the way to learn how to read like a writer — if that is what this technique achieves — but just the way to learn how one writer reads. Not quite the same thing. It’s also notable that there’s no sign of genre fiction in here at all. Ms Prose, I do suggest you pick up some fine genre stylists; perhaps Ursula Le Guin? You might get a whole new education.
This Rough Magic, Mary Stewart
If you know Mary Stewart’s work, you know what to expect from this one — which is entirely why rereading her books is comfort reading for me, of course. It has danger, a plucky heroine, a mystery involving smuggling and, possibly, murder… and a handsome young man with whom, of course, the heroine falls utterly in love. Not without some rocky bits along the way, including not being entirely sure which one of the potential love interests is actually a bad guy.
The bad guy in this book gives me chills at times, in his utter amoral self-absorption. There are moments when you think he might be decent, but no. Still, I find the heroine’s relationship with both men delightful — she stands up for herself, gives as good as she gets, and weighs the evidence to come to a logical conclusion. No “but he seemed so nice” from this lady.
In terms of the usual sense of place and atmosphere you get with Stewart’s books, this one isn’t the best: it’s set on Corfu, and there are a couple of scenes early in the book which really do work. At other times, the condescension to the locals is just a bit too much, even allowing for the work as a product of its time.
Best character: the dolphin, of course.
Solidly enjoyable, featuring one of Stewart’s more resourceful heroines.
Yep, it’s happened! That rare, rare week where I actually don’t have any new books to show off, and instead show off the books I’ve read this week in pride of place.
Books finished this week:
Not a bad week, though the last day or two have been completely taken up by starting to play the new Mass Effect game! A sneak peek at ratings…
-Four stars to… Medical Frontiers and Urn Burial.
-Three stars to… What is Life?, Relativity: Einstein’s Mind-bending Universe, and Virolution.
Reviews posted this week:
–Mesopotamia, by Gwendolyn Leick. Aspects of this gave me the feeling the author was speculating wildly without really having any proof, so I actually bailed and never finished it. 1/5 stars
–Temeraire, by Naomi Novik. A reread, but I’d forgotten how fun it is! Dragons! Adventure! War! Alternate history! The rest of the series gets less awesome, I hear, but this installment is great. 4/5 stars
–On Basilisk Station, by David Weber. I found myself noticing the flaws more this time, but I still really enjoyed the reread. 4/5 stars
–Rolling in the Deep, by Mira Grant. Fun, but I feel like it was a little underdeveloped and thus predictable. Nice format, though. 3/5 stars
–Natural Histories, by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss. A little unstructured for my tastes, but some interesting stuff. 3/5 stars
–Final Girls, by Mira Grant. This one got under my skin; interesting concept, and the emotional side worked for me. 4/5 stars
–p53: The Gene that Cracked the Cancer Code, by Sue Armstrong. Fascinating topic, and really readable. If you’re scared of cancer, but curiosity is your antidote, this definitely satisfied mine. 4/5 stars
–Top Ten Tuesday: Read In One Sitting. Some of these are pretty long, but they had me hooked.
Remember… no new books were obtained. I resisted! Instead, we’re celebrating what I managed to read. <3
How’s everyone been doing?
p53: The Gene that Cracked the Cancer Code, Sue Armstrong
This is a good survey of the study of the p53 gene: one gene which turns out to have quite a bit influence on whether or not cancer develops in the body. It features some science, some history, some characters, and generally clear explanations of exactly how the science all works. It’s evident that it’s written by a journalist and not an expert, but that’s usually the perfect level for a casual reader anyway.
Now, if you don’t find cancer and how it progresses interesting, this will probably be lost on you. But if you have any interest, the background covered here is quite important to understanding cancer as a disease. It covers stuff like the “two hits” theory, why some children can be born with cancer, etc, etc. Enjoyable might be the wrong word for it, but I found it easy to read and informative.
Final Girls, Mira Grant
Received to review via Netgalley; release date 30th April 2017
This seems to be the year of Mira Grant aka Seanan McGuire, for me. I started the year with Rolling in the Deep, and I’ve read a couple of other Mira Grant and Seanan McGuire books since. Final Girls is what you’d expect of the Mira Grant half of the persona: a little horrifying, psychological, more towards the realistic speculative fiction end. This one examines the idea of a system that drugs people into receptivity, puts them into a simulated situation, and thus fixes their hangups and flaws. Sisters who hate each other can become friends, and lasting friendships can be forged based on fictional scenarios of blood and sacrifice and horror. It doesn’t even have to be that realistic: it just has to feel real.
One of the main characters, Esther, is sceptical about the truth of all this. It seems too good to be true, especially since her life was severely impacted by the false conclusions of people who went through regression therapy. As you’d expect, things go wrong.
Grant/McGuire’s writing is as good as usual, and the conclusion to the plot comes as a bittersweet surprise. Something is salvaged from the situation, but there’s a lot of damage along the way. Because it’s a novella, it doesn’t do more than hint at the long-term effects of the technology it explores. Instead, we experience it, its failures and its saving graces, through the characters. It works well.
Natural Histories, Brett Westwood, Stephen Moss
If you’re pretty well versed in natural history and biology, this book won’t hold many surprises for you — though it might have a few titbits you’re unaware of. It’s certainly very readable, and the cover design is pretty darn awesome. And slightly creepy, in that way which things of nature can be. (I mean, have you ever seen a rabbit’s skull? Erk.)
It might be more enjoyable if read alongside or as a recap for the radio programme it was based on. As it is, it seems to hop around the animal kingdom rather randomly.
This may sound like damning with faint praise, but it’s just that the book isn’t really a good fit for me. And it did hold a few surprises.
Rolling in the Deep, Mira Grant
Rolling in the Deep is a documentary/found footage type story with a fairly predictable ending. Scientists, performers and television personalities go on a ship to find evidence of mermaids, with the scientists mostly using the opportunity to get some real work done without needing to charter the ship themselves. Everyone starts out sceptical, and the whole affair is rather cynical. The performers include professional mermaids — people who don mermaid outfits and swim in the sea to make it look like they really have found mermaids… or have they? Etc.
Naturally, this is a Mira Grant story and so things go wrong. The experiments disturb something real in the deep, and in the usual way of humans meeting other races, they cause harm. Cue the horror movie ending, and the later rediscovery of the empty, drifting ship… with some footage of the attacks intact. And of course, people ask if it’s real or not…
It’s a fun format and the story works well; it gets off to a bit of a slow start, which might disappoint horror fans. There’s a few too many characters in the space to really get attached to any of them, though one or two show promise. Not my favourite of Grant’s novellas, but definitely a good read.
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday theme is “Read in one sitting”, and given that I am a fast reader, this is not too rare for me. So I’ll do my best to pick the cream of the crop…
- Vicious, by V.E. Schwab. I expected to read 50 pages and put it down to do something else. I did not.
- The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard. When I started it, my wife had just handed me my dinner and gone out to class. When I finished it, she was heading home from class and my dinner was cold.
- On Basilisk Station, by David Weber. Whatever faults this series may have, I sat in a cooling bath to read the whole of the first one in one go. And the books aren’t that short.
- Liar, by Justine Larbalestier. Man, it’s been ages since I read this, but I really didn’t stop when I was reading it. So satisfying.
- The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. If you feel like getting your heart ripped out, this isn’t a bad way to go.
- Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb. Or, more accurately, the first time I read it I tried to read it in one sitting, but I was 15 and my mother came and confiscated the book so I’d sleep.
- Among Others, by Jo Walton. And I never wanted it to end, either. I had the same experience with Farthing, but that felt less personal.
- Planetfall, by Emma Newman. I was even on my honeymoon at the time. Sorry, dear.
- The Grand Sophy, by Georgette Heyer. Heyer’s books are just funny and sweet and perfect when you’re in the right mood.
- The Winter Prince, by Elizabeth Wein. I don’t remember the plot of this very well, but I know I read all the books of the series in the space of two days. Not bad.
I can’t wait to see everyone else’s picks!
On Basilisk Station, David Weber
The first time I read On Basilisk Station, I actually gave it five stars despite the flaws — it just caught me up that much. And it’s proven to have the same grip on my sister, who has been ravenously tearing through the series, reading and rereading it for the sake of Honor and her treecat. This time, I wouldn’t go as far as giving it five stars, but it’s definitely still very enjoyable, for all that I was even more aware of the flaws.
First, the flaws: the didactic, digressive sections like the whole ten-page section which interrupted a high-speed space chase to explain the math and physics behind it. The fact that Honor can do basically no wrong. The wish fulfilment of the smart, empathic space cats. Etc.
But then there’s the fact that Honor just has a presence, somehow. She’s not depicted as a sexual object, but nor is she denigrated by anyone for not being so. She’s a capable, attractive, dedicated woman who loves her home, her service, her ship and her crew. She’s, well, honourable. And she leads by example, slowly gaining the confidence and love of her crew. You can understand her thought process and all her decisions, and it all makes sense. And the people around her make sense too: their grudges as much as their loyalty.
So, yep. Still flawed, still enthralling.
Temeraire, or His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik
I’ve read this before, quite a ways back, and always intended to visit it anew, and finish the series as well. Imyril’s reviews of the series (for example, this first one) had a big part in making someday now, and I’ve got to be grateful for that. Temeraire is a lot of fun, just as I remembered it to be. It’s the Napoleonic War… but with dragons! And with a whole alternate history around the dragon corps and their officers, along with an alternative culture. It works very well, and produces a rather epic adventure… which nonetheless has plenty of tender moments, as Laurence comes to understand and cherish the dragon who has changed his entire life.
Temeraire himself is just the best character: he likes to read, he’s very curious, he’s polite and protective and worries about all things Laurence — which results in rather funny scenes in which Laurence discovers his dragon has learnt about prostitutes, or things like that. The insatiable curiosity is both funny and, at times, touching.
And come on, if Temeraire weren’t a dragon, everyone would be calling his relationship with Laurence what it is: a bromance.
The reason this really works for me is that it doesn’t just add in dragons, and expect everything else to be more or less the same. Instead, the dragons have an effect on society and Novik worked out exactly where they, and their riders, would stand. And the other thing is, people don’t always get what they deserve, despite the temptation: there’s a horribly touching emotional arc involving one mistreated dragon, and it does not end the way you hope it will. Which makes it all feel more real, and like bad things can genuinely happen — a wise thing for a writer to establish when otherwise things might look just a bit too easy.
I’m looking forward to continuing the series, though I do recall I didn’t love the later books as much, however far I got with reading them.