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Book review: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

 

This is a review of the book The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, which follows the life of nineteenth-century botanist Alma Whittaker.

As one of the few women of my demographic who has not read (nor seen) Eat Pray Love, I came at this book with no preconceived ideas about it or its author. Instead, I approached it with the enthusiasm of someone who is given a book by a person who knows them, with the hope it would be a good read. And I was not disappointed.

Gilbert’s tale is told with sufficient detail and background that I wasn’t sure for a long time whether its protagonist, Alma Whittaker, was a real historical figure or not. The information about her father is just wild enough to be true, especially considering his background, and the details of her early life and the characters of her mother and father are so well developed that it was really a toss-up for a long time as to whether this was a biography or a novel. (Of course, a simple Google search would have been enough to stem that debate, but to be honest it was one I rather enjoyed having with myself. It made the story that much more interesting.)

Alma Whittaker is herself an interesting character. Given the background Gilbert provides her with, it is unlikely she would have been anything else, but even that conclusion is testament to the quality of the narrative. We are told the story through Alma’s eyes, with her prejudices, beliefs and opinions sprinkled liberally throughout, but they make the story more compelling, not less. The arrival of her sister Prudence is stated with the bluntness of an eleven year old who had hitherto been the only child; her discovery later of the outcome of some of Prudence’s decisions means that not only she, but the reader, must delve back to reconsider the sisters’ behaviour in light of this new information. As we see through Alma’s eyes, we are forced to realise the limitations that perspective contains.

Other characters, too, are fascinating for both what they offer and what they cannot. The Dutch housekeeper Hanneke de Groot is a font of information – but only if you know how to ask for it. Alma’s father, Henry, is notable for his wide knowledge and fine acquisitions, but also for his lack of empathy and tenderness. Ambrose Pike, the artist who comes to stay at the Whittaker house, White Acre, is someone who can offer Alma what she wants, but not what she needs. And Prudence, who is to Alma little more than a footnote, is capable of much greater strength and self sacrifice than not only Alma believes, but also than of Alma herself.

Running parallel to the study in characters and their strengths and weaknesses (though not necessarily delving into character studies, so to speak) is the scientific narrative of biology in the 1800s. Alma chooses to study mosses, partly because she needs something to occupy her scientific mind while acting as the matron of her father’s house, and partly because they are convenient in that she does not need to leave the property to do so. Her deductions, however, are more far-reaching than even she could have conceived. She may need to travel to reach their conclusion, but the years at White Acre with her mosses stand her in excellent stead for the research to come.

The way Gilbert links Alma’s study with the wider scientific world of the 1800s is cleverly done, and so seamless it is, again, hard to differentiate this work from biography. Sure, Alma Whittaker is a fictional character, but that doesn’t make her presence in this world any less fascinating. In fact, I was almost wishing by the end that she had existed, as it would have added an extra dimension to the scientific activity of the era.

The Signature of All Things is, all told, a very cleverly written story about a character and situation so complex it almost seems incredible they have been invented. The narrative is smooth and the story compelling. All told, I can heartily recommend this book as a worthwhile and fascinating addition to any library.

 

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The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published by Bloomsbury
513 pages
Available as hardcover, paperback and e-book

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Writers’ Week, Adelaide style

writers week 1

Adelaide Writers’ Week (photo by me)

This week is Writers’ Week in my home town of Adelaide, part of the annual Adelaide Festival of Arts. It’s a week I always take off work so I can make the most of the opportunity it offers – surrounding myself with people who love reading and writing, and hearing straight from the authors’ mouths what makes them tick, where their ideas come from and how they turn those ideas into the books on offer in the book tent.

It’s autumn in Australia and this week the weather is fine and ranging from 24-34 degrees Celsius (75-93 Fahrenheit), which can be a little warm on the hotter days but there is plenty of shade to be had. And people are making the most of it – I’ve not been to other writers’ festivals but we do seem to be bursting at the seams here at times. Most of the authors offer book signings after their sessions and if you try to get into the book tent between sittings you’re fighting a hundred other people to find what you’re looking for. And you know what? It’s fantastic. While  I was lining up to meet Elizabeth Gilbert yesterday I found myself in conversation with a bookseller from Queensland who had come down for the week to see what all the fuss was about; the family days on the weekend were packed out with kids dying to hear Mem Fox or Andy Griffiths read their works aloud (and can I say there is very little more satisfying than seeing a hundred eight year olds with piles of well-thumbed books, hoping to meet the author); Hannah Kent was still signing copies of Burial Rites a good 45 minutes after her session ended; and Alexander McCall Smith was seen wandering around enjoying the atmosphere before his first session today. Yes, we have an embarrassment of riches here this week, and the best part is it’s all free. So everyone can come and enjoy a session under the trees, listening to some of the best authors the world has to offer.

(As an aside, this is Australia’s ONLY free literary festival. If you are interested in helping it stay free, then please buy some books from the book tent on site, or if you are not in Adelaide (which I expect is most of you) then please consider making a purchase or two at the online e-book retailer associated with the event, which can be found here. Funds raised from book sales are what enables the Festival to continue to offer this event at no cost.)

The west stage

The west stage

I’ll be able to offer more commentary on it next time because I’ll have seen more of the sessions by then, but in the meantime I urge anyone reading this, who has a writers’ festival anywhere near them during the year, to go check it out. It’s fascinating, it’s eye-opening, and you may just discover a new favourite author or two. :)

 

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Book review: Constance, by Patrick McGrath

 

Constance, by Patrick McGrath

Constance, by Patrick McGrath

Constance is an intriguing story of a young woman and her much older husband in 1960s Manhattan. Constance, the titular character, is haunted, aloof and intriguing; Sidney, her academic husband, is a divorced father of one who is still trying to find his niche.

The book is well written and draws you in; however, the fact both characters’ stories are told in the first person, with no real distinction in style between them, is a little unclear at first. While it is fascinating to read the points of view of both characters, I cannot help but wonder what would have been lost by telling it in third person, because it could have kept the limited narrative style while avoiding any confusion. The other thing that bothered me was the absence of inverted commas for speech, with dialogue indicated only by dashes. I’ve seen this a few times and it appears a modern way of doing it, but it does take some getting used to. But then again, maybe that’s just me.

The story is about two things – Constance’s need to work out where she fits, both in her husband’s life (littered with fellow academics, students, and the ex-wife and pre-pubescent son), and in that of her family, which consists of a father she resents and a significantly younger sister for whom she feels responsible. That her choices and actions can have a negative impact on her sister’s life seems to escape her; that she has any impact whatsoever on her father is also beyond her comprehension. For much of the story she is not only happy to but insistent on playing the victim, a fact which draws her wrath when her husband dares raise it with her.

Sidney, on the other hand, seems oblivious to the fact he is playing with fire when he feels an affinity and connection with Constance’s reviled father and occasionally takes his side against Constance’s. In this way he fits the stereotype of the absent-minded professor who knows everything there is to know about his chosen subject but nothing about human interactions or behaviour. He is able to offer clinical diagnoses of Constance, but seems unable to put these into a human context and deal with her in an appropriate manner; it is unsurprising that he succeeds only in driving her away.

Of course, this is a love story – or a romance, if you go with the definition that a love story has a sad ending and a romance a happy one – and our principal couple can find a way to connect in the end, even if they suffer many trials and tribulations on the way. In that sense it is masterfully told, because for much of the narrative it is hard for the reader to see any way out of this, yet when the story ends it feels like it could not have gone any other way. In another sense, though, the fact the characters are not particularly likeable and are far more frustrating than anything else means it is difficult to engage with the story. This was one I finished because I felt like I should, rather than having a need to know what happened next. From that perspective, it was not told masterfully at all.

Overall, Constance is the paradox of a brilliantly-written book which gives the impression it could have been better. It has all the ingredients of a great novel – deep and complicated characters, intriguing narrative, twists and turns, human suffering and resolution – but without more engaging characters, it seems to fall just short of its potential. I feel it could well become a classic in its own right; however, for an engaging read, I would be more likely to pick up something else.

 

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Constance, by Patrick McGrath
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
244 pages (paperback)
Available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and ebook

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Feedback, glorious feedback

 

Photo from Girl with computer emerging technologies social media by Walton LaVonda, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Girl with computer emerging technologies social media by Walton LaVonda, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

 

Today is a big day for me. Today, for the first time, I read the first feedback I have received for my completed novel draft.

Okay, I admit it, I received said feedback weeks ago. However, what with the Christmas rush, holidays, kids running around my feet and a very real fear of what the document said, I put off reading it. It was from someone whose point of view matters to me and who is in the novel’s target audience. I was terrified they would say they hated it.

Today, though, I forced myself. Found the email. Opened the document. (Okay, I’d opened it before now, and given it a quick glance. But that was it.) And read the whole thing through, word by word. And do you know what? They didn’t hate it.

Sure, they picked out a few things that need working on. Some, I already knew about (or suspected). Some I hadn’t realised were weak spots. But they also pointed out a few things they really did like, and which they thought worked well. That, my friends, was amazing to read. Yes I’ve had reviews before, but this is the first novel I’ve ever thought of trying to get published, so it felt more important.

Naturally, all this pressure was self-inflicted. We are all our own worst critics and we are convinced that every error we see will be magnified tenfold by others. The truth, though, is that this person who is in my target audience liked my story. Said they would read it again. Said the characters were real and vivid and engaging. And that the story flowed and – generally – worked. And that, my friends, is a huge load off my shoulders.

I still have some other betas who have not yet got back to me, and I’m okay with that. The Christmas period is one of the busiest for pretty much everyone and it can be hard to find time to spare to critique someone’s novel. This first one, though, is like manna from heaven. It means the novel isn’t crap, and I haven’t been wasting my time for the past couple of years. Sure, there are a few tweaks that need to be made, but overall it shows promise and potential. And that, I think, is the best Christmas present I could have received.

 

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A NaNo-ing I will go

nanowrimo.org

nanowrimo.org

It has only recently occurred to me that November will soon be upon us again, and that means NaNoWriMo is on its way.

I have had mixed success with NaNo. I’ve completed it twice and failed dismally (at Camp NaNo) once, and I generally avoid it unless I have something pressing that I want to get out. This year, due to my ignoring most things writerly, I had completely forgotten about it until I saw it referred to on a website that I look out for very different reasons. NaNo? Already? I checked my calendar and it is indeed only a few days away.

My first reaction was that I’d ignore it this year: I’ve finished my novel and the short story I wanted to write, and was thinking of taking a break. But then I thought about Novel #2, which has been festering in my mind for over a year now. I’ve got about 10K words written for it, but I’ve done exactly nothing with it for longer than I care to think about. I have, however, started dreaming about its characters again, which is a sign I should probably get back into it. So, with NaNo coming along, I have decided to do the obvious.

Yep, I’m signing up again. The whole kit and caboodle. Fifty thousand words in a month.

I have no idea if I’ll be able to do it. I don’t know if I have 50K words of this story in me at the moment. But I figure it’s worth a try. And if I do, the more I write then the more I’m likely to want to write, as delving into that world is likely to give me more ideas, more tangents, and more scope than I’m thinking about now. In other words, writing is cumulatively addictive, and there is no better way to get new ideas for a story than to immerse yourself in it.

Am I stupid? No. Over-reaching? Quite possibly. But hey, the fun is in the attempt, and who knows? I might actually do it. You never know until you try.

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O Blogger, Where Art Thou?

Yes, I know. It’s been several months since I posted, and then it was a book review. You’ve heard nothing from me in simply ages. Why? Well, I don’t really know. There are a number of reasons that come to mind, so I’m going to share them with you. Put your hand up if you can relate to any of them.

  1. Lack of material/time. I was finding that blogging twice a week was draining my mind of ideas and cutting into my writing time. I work almost full time and the pressure of coming up with material for two days each week, as well as trying to keep up with other blogs, comments on my blog, and the rest of it was leaving me with next to nothing for my creative writing.
  2. Competing priorities. Update my blog or spend time with my kids? They won’t remember having to muck around the house waiting for me to do my computer stuff, but they will remember me taking them to the zoo. Or the pool. Whatever.
  3. An overall sense of cutting out what was less important. This is an extension of #2. I blogged earlier in the year about cleaning out my cupboards at the same time as I was cleaning up my manuscript, and that attitude still stands. Things that were less important were jettisoned in favour of those items higher up the list. And maintaining my profile as a budding author, while important, felt less so than putting my life in order, spending time with kids (as above), and just generally getting myself in a position that I was happy with. You only get one shot at life so why waste it doing things you don’t want to do?

I know I could have just cut down on the blog frequency, but like a lot of people I suffer from procrastination, and there was also a very real fear that if I started it up again then I might drop back into old habits, which was what was draining me in the first place. And I was drained. I didn’t write a thing for two months, and nor did I do any editing. Nothing at all. My brain just needed a break from all that, and I obliged.

So, what’s changed now? Well, my novel is now at the point where I am happy to send it out to my beta readers for their feedback. I could tinker and fiddle till the cows come home but I don’t think that by myself I’m going to get it much better than it is now. It’s time for new eyes and new perspectives on it. So I’m sending it out for comment, and putting it down till Christmas at the earliest. Then in the new year I can take everyone’s ideas on board to improve it even further.

As such, I’m ready to get back into the world of writers. I won’t be blogging as frequently – once a week will do me, on Mondays like now, with the occasional interview or book review thrown in instead of commentary. It’s a scenario designed to keep me involved, yet help take the pressure off, and to give me more time to devote to novel #2, or the kids, or anything else that seems important at the time. One less post per week will help with my whole-of-life de-clutter that I’ve been undertaking for most of this year.

So yeah, that’s me. Sorry for the long blackout, but fear not, all is good. Oh, and if anyone reading this would like to have a look at my novel in a beta capacity, leave a comment or send me an email at Emily[dot]wheeler02[at]yahoo[dot]com. I’d love to hear from you.

 

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Book review: My Notorious Life by Madame X, by Kate Manning

My Notorious Life by Madame X, by Kate Manning

My Notorious Life by Madame X, by Kate Manning

“In the end, they celebrated. They bragged. They got me, finally, was their feeling. They said I would take my secrets to the grave.

 They should be so lucky.”

This is a review of the book My Notorious Life, by Kate Manning. It purports to be the journal of a midwife / female doctor in New York in the 1800s, who became notorious (as per the title) for her work on fertility and abortion.

I was given this book as an advance copy, to review before it is released by Bloomsbury in June 2013. (Got in just in time, right?) As such, my copy looks like the photo above, whereas the published version will have the title superimposed over the figure rather than the quote above. I apologise therefore for not having the published image to give you, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find on the bookshelves anyway, right?

And find it on the bookshelves you should. This is an absolutely fascinating historical novel, which chronicles the life of Axie Muldoon, aka Madame de Beausacq, and her experiences from being separated from her brother and sister via their adoption, to her education with the midwife who was unable to save her mother, to setting up a successful practice in “women’s medicine” with her husband Charlie. Anything which was seen to regulate conception was in those days illegal, and discussion of women’s reproductive systems was considered “obscene”, so Axie (or, as she was Christened, Ann) had to be very careful with the way she conducted her business.

The story is incredible. Short chapters and an engaging manner make it way too easy to keep reading way past bed time (“surely it’s not one o’clock in the morning already! I just went to bed!”) and, as Axie’s notoriety grows you become more and more convinced that things are too good to last. As, of course, they are. Madame de Beausacq become so reviled in the media that her clientele are too ashamed to admit they have used her services, and patients’ words are turned against them as the police struggle to find something they can convict her of. Yet, seen from the perspective of the twenty first century, what she is practicing is basic medical care, despite her lack of formal training. (It must be said, though, that some of the Republicans in America might be just as likely to go on a witch hunt for someone like her these days as the New York constabulary did back then. Maybe we haven’t evolved as much as I would like to think.)

Axie’s story is loosely based on the experiences of  Ann Trow Lowman, a midwife who practiced in New York City for approximately 40 years. Significant events from Lowman’s life are used, though they are (by admission of the author) moved around to make the story more compelling. In addition, Manning makes excellent use of real historical figures, such as Charles Loring Brace and Anthony Comstock, the latter of whom makes life extremely difficult for our heroine. All told it is gritty and realistic, and shows what life really was like 150 or so years ago, for city dwellers in America at least.

The novel is well written, tightly-plotted and very hard to put down. My only issue with it is the use of Axie’s grammatical foibles – while they add to the narrative, there are times when they feel forced and unnatural. Maybe it’s because they diminish somewhat as she matures so they are less common, but a couple of times they grated on me. Other than that, I can find nothing to criticise.  Read it. You’ll be glad you did.

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My Notorious Life by Madame X, by Kate Manning
434 pages (paperback)
Published by Bloomsbury in June 2013 as ebook and paperback

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Purging

English: Yard sale on Green Street in .

English: Yard sale on Green Street in . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I quite enjoy a good purge. Cleaning out the cupboards and donating ninety per cent of their contents to a local charity because you just don’t need it is cathartic, exhilerating and frees up vital storage space.

I’ve been doing this a bit at home lately. Only a little at a time, sure, but the church down the street, which has large garage sales every couple of months, is certainly reaping the benefits of my efforts. I’m also selling a few more valuable bits and pieces, in the hope that the spare cash they provide will help pay for an interstate trip for the whole family to attend a wedding later in the year. I’ve made a couple of hundred dollars so far and am hoping to both free up cupboard space and cash flow even more in coming weeks.

That’s all very nice, I hear you say, but what does it have to do with the writing life? Well, I say, plenty. Purging is very much a state of mind. It’s that part of the brain that hoarders can’t seem to access, and many of us only access sporadically. But we’re all guilty. Who among us hasn’t kept something because it was nice, or it might come in handy later on, only to come across it again two years later and wonder why on earth we have it? But, when the purging spirit takes hold, you can rid yourself of a lot. And the same is true in writing.

Purging is only good, really, when you’re in the editing stage. Ridding yourself of the unnecessary when you’re still trying to get the book written can be time consuming and take away some of the creative urge. Doing it when you’re editing, though, is what the whole thing is about. Don’t need it? Cut it. Doesn’t progress the plot? Cut it. Character not adding anything to the story? Cut him/her. I’ve got rid of about 15,000 words, two characters and a whole subplot so far, simply because they weren’t adding value to the manuscript. I’ve got some more purging to do, but this ruthlessness on multiple fronts is feeling good. Cleaner cupboards, cleaner prose and cleaner schedule. It’s a win-win situation.

Of course, not everyone finds it easy to be this ruthless. And this is why I recommend doing the purging on many levels at once. When you’re already in the mindset to clean up that space under the bed and just get rid of things you’re not using, why not get out the manuscript and have a hack at that as well? You’re already thinking in that way. Try to make the most of it!

So that’s me at the moment. Going through what makes up my life and just cutting out things I don’t need any more. It applies to a lot of things and, the way I’m going right now, I should be cleansed and clear in no time. (Sounds like an ad for a face-cleaning cream … maybe I should think about re-wording. Oh, heck. Why not just cut the whole sentence?) (See what I mean?) And it’s my recommendation to anyone who is having trouble with their editing. Don’t just edit your manuscript. Edit your whole life. You might be amazed what you can achieve.

 

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Book review: Mimi, by Lucy Ellmann

mimi

 

This is a review of the book Mimi, which tells the story of the relationship between Mimi and Harrison, two very different New Yorkers whose lives become irreparably intertwined.

The book is notable at first because it was written by a woman, but is told in first person from Harrison’s point of view. This isn’t hugely unusual, but I always find that writing from the perspective of the opposite gender certainly has its own challenges. That said, the author does a magnificent job of getting into the head of a middle aged man and showing us his catharses.

The characters in the book are also remarkably interesting. Mimi is larger than life and makes no apologies for it; Harrison is surprisingly pliable (or perhaps quite so not surprisingly, given his profession is plastic surgery and he therefore makes a living out of plying others); Harrison’s sister Bee is forthright and an excellent foil for him; Bubbles the cat is luxuriant and indulged; the ex-girlfriend Gertrude is ridiculous. Even the city of New York is almost a character in this tale, such is its presence in the narrative – which, again, surprised me given that the author’s biography has her residences in Illinois and England. All told it provides for a fascinating story of how these characters clash, interact and generally behave.

That being said, the novel is not without flaws. I wondered at the copious amounts of backstory in the first third of it; sure, some of it helps ground the characters (particularly Harrison) but much of it seemed unnecessary. It was almost like any random thought from the protagonist would be enough to propel the reader into ten or so pages of historical content which had little bearing on the story at hand. Much of it makes more sense once you reach the story’s conclusion, but even so I felt it could have been cut substantially and yet still had the same impact. This perhaps also had a bearing on my thought in the early chapters that a book supposed to be about the character Mimi had pretty much no appearances from her for a very long time. (It seems an easy enough equation: less backstory = more Mimi.) Once she appeared for good, of course, she was rarely absent from the page, whether in presence or thought, but it did feel like it took a longer time than usual to get there.

My other comment is more a musing than anything – when did the C word become so acceptable? When I was growing up it was almost taboo, and now every third book seems to have it in abundance. Sometimes I feel it’s just used for shock value, other times it’s making a political statement – but maybe I’m just getting old and prudish, and in general society it doesn’t have the impact it used to have. In any case it takes some getting used to, seeing it in print so regularly, and this book was no exception. I admit it was within character for Harrison to use it, but I still raised my eyebrows.

Finally, I would like to say that Mimi ends up a very different book from how it started. I dare say this is deliberate, and showcases Harrison’s changing thought processes admirably, but what started pretty much as a love story becomes very political by the end. Naturally Mimi herself has had a large role in this change, and therefore it is quite appropriate that the book is named after her, but again it took me by surprise a little. I suppose, in the end, it’s about the effect love has on a person, for better or worse, even when the beloved is not present. And it’s a journey of self discovery – a journey from the fake to the real, in many ways – by a man who wasn’t all bad to start with, but who has an epiphany which affects thousands of others.

All in all, Mimi is a well-told story with a number of unexpected twists and turns. Its characters are real, warts and all, and almost compel you to keep reading by their sheer vivacity. If you would like to read a craftily-constructed tale which explores people’s deepest insecurities and celebrates matriarchal solutions, then this is definitely a book for you.

 

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Mimi, by Lucy Ellmann
352 pages (paperback)
Published by Bloomsbury
Available on Amazon as ebook and paperback

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