Tag Archives: Novel

Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Hello Readers,

Last week, I finished reading ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed, and since then I have been organizing the review notes that I had typed into my phone whilst I read the book. The review notes were typed mainly on my commute to work, with my phone rested on the opened book. I was switching from reading to typing, which proved to be tricky in those moments when I had no seat, and the train had me rocking me back and forth!

In the past, I have had the tendency to over-analyse books whilst reading them, and this has been due to me wanting to untangle, discover and capture every writing element that I possibly can from the book. Although this process has taught me to better understand writing, I also think that it has slowed my reading, which in turn, has gone on to impact my annual reading goals. So this year, I am going to attempt to analyse a book ‘naturally’, rather than force the process. But, this will require me to have my sixth sense ‘open all hours’, and it will require me to capture those important messages when they magically emerge. During this sixth-sense process, I will look to capture emotional triggers, theme, symbolism, notable progressions in plot, character changes, description etc. And as always, I will include these discoveries in my reviews, to share with my readers, and other writers.

Before I begin my review of Wild, I would like to highlight to any new readers that might be reading, that I analyse and review books from a writing perspective (not from a synopsis step-by-step perspective). My reviews will certainly contain spoilers, (including elements of plot) so please bear this in mind if you plan to read the book, or watch the movie. But please do revisit once you have experienced it with your own eyes.

In a nutshell – Wild is about a young girl called Cheryl Strayed, who decides to backpack along the Pacific Crest Trail, in America, following the devastating loss of her Mother, the breakdown of her family, and the crumbling of her marriage. It is a non-fiction book, and Cheryl Strayed, is the author and main character in the book.

I have always had a fondness for books with an ‘adventure’ plot – plots where a character decides to embark on a journey, either for the purpose of escape and self-discovery, or because they are intrigued and excited by unknown lands. I have read some breath-taking books that contain such story-lines – The Backpacker by John Harris, The Beach by Alex Garland, Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. These are books that have certainly opened my senses, and have taught me more about the world we live in. These books have also managed to rekindle the child in me – the child that desired adventure – the child that had spent countless summer holidays riding her bike with her younger sister (and pet Chihuahuas) in parks, woods and streets, seeking an imaginary world far beyond the one we knew.

Wild is written in the first-person point-of-view. The first-person point-of-view creates the closest protagonist-reader connection. It is certainly the best choice of perspective for this book, and any book where focus needs to be placed on the main character and his/her perspective of the world within the story (and where less focus needs to be placed on the perspectives and thoughts of other characters).

Backstory is introduced mostly when Cheryl’s memory is triggered by an event or situation in the present that directly links to an event or situation in her past. I haven’t noted this connection with any other book that I have read until now, so it is certainly an exciting discovery. One example of the present-to-past connection is when Cheryl touches the image of her own horse tattoo. The image of the horse directs her thoughts to her Mother, and allows Cheryl to describe her Mother’s desire for owning and riding a horse, and her life with a horse that she had come to own later on. This connection allows the writer to introduce deceased and past characters that are no longer a physical part of the character’s life, but are yet still very much alive and breathing in his/her mind. During this process, the writer has the chance to choose the best scenes in which to capture the personality of that character, and the reasons for their part in the story. During the present-to-past scenes, we get to witness Cheryl’s childhood – scenes that include her Mother, Father and Step-Father and siblings, as well as her more recent-past, romantic relationships. These scenes contribute to the various themes in the story, which help to build on the reader’s emotional response at the end. These past scenes slowly teach us to understand Cheryl’s history, and why she came to journey the Pacific Crest Trail.

In the early part of the story, we see Cheryl prepare her backpack with various essential and non-essential items. As writers, we must ensure that an item we introduce in the early part of a story is introduced in the later part of the story. This is an essential element in writing. One of the items that Cheryl introduces early on, whilst packing, is a whistle – and later we witness her blow the whistle to deter animals. Cheryl decided to name her backpack Monster, due to its heaviness and burden (symbolic of carrying a load), and she learned key lessons along the way. Characters informed her that certain items were not required for the journey and were only weighing her down. Cheryl had also carried books with her, and so she learned to rip and burn the pages of books that she had read at night (in her tent). A list of books burned and those not burned are listed at the end of the book, which is quite fascinating. It is from these books that we are informed of other writers and poets that inspired her.

During her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl describes the changing scenery that she witnesses. It is in these moments that she gives the most beautiful and poetic sentences. As a writer, I believe that the best time to ‘play poet’ is when describing a setting. Cheryl describes the setting through her five senses. She describes trees and plants by their names, which definitely assists in creating good description. We know from the story that she came to know these trees and plants species either from her experience of living in her hometown of Minnesota, or from the guide books that she carries with her on her journey. This brings to mind ‘intelligence of the character’. As writers, we must ensure that the intelligence of our characters is accurately translated through their thought, knowledge and dialogue. We cannot expect a character to be informed about something if that something has never been experienced in their life. I believe it is a wonderful thing when a writer provides the reader with new, interesting, and factual information about the world we live in. It’s a gift from the author.

Conflict is a crucial writing element in any book. Without conflict, we have characters that are unchallenged, and able to reach their goal easily. As readers we want to see our characters stumble and fall, because it makes the victory in the end feel so much better. Also, as readers, we also want to learn from their difficult situations and understand what we would do if we were faced with a similar situation. On finishing a book, a reader should feel that they have been on that peak and trough journey along with the character, and that they too have learned from the experience.

Conflict exists in various forms within Wild. There are internal and external conflicts that challenge Cheryl’s journey – and these are all used to different degrees, from minor to life-threatening. From the outset, Cheryl questions her ability to walk the trail. But she continues, pushes forward, and finds comfort through her connection with nature and the universe, and through the encouraging words from characters that she meets along the way. The external conflicts and obstacles included; meeting / potentially meeting various dangerous animals such as mountain lions, rattlesnakes and bulls, encounters with strange men (as a female solo traveller), extreme weathers (that threatened her survival), a lack of supplies (water) which threatened her life, and external forces such as companies letting her down with deliveries (her new boots). During these scenes of desperation, the plot had me thinking, ‘Is she going to make the journey?’, ‘Will she be involved in a terrible incident, or even die?’ The suspense was great, and I was on the edge of my seat throughout wondering about her outcome. Internal conflict came mostly from Cheryl’s past, and with her having to deal with the emotions and trauma that arose from it.

Conflict also came from ‘trail’ information (dialogue) that was given to Cheryl via other characters. These were conflicts that would have impacted her future journey – conflicts such as heavy snow on the trail beyond, and wild fires happening nearby. I thought this added to the suspense of the story and boosted the ‘What will happen?’ question that was on my mind throughout reading. The information gave me a glimpse into the kinds of dangers that she was about to face ahead. At this point I was asking ‘Will she continue? The story was very powerful in capturing the past, the present and the future. I liked how the story lived in all three places in time.

As mentioned previously, Cheryl encounters numerous characters along her journey, ranging from fellow travellers to local people that live in the places she passes. Cheryl enters into dialogue with these characters, and it is through the other character’s speech that we see Cheryl from different perspectives. This really helps to round her character. Dialogue is a particularly strong method with which to illustrate other character perspectives on a particular character, especially when the story is in a first-person point-of-view. Cheryl meets and separates with several friends along the way. The friendship characters inform her about information on the trail, they give her tips on how to use backpacking equipment (such as an ice axe), they inform her on how she can lighten the backpack load, and they also provide her with words of wisdom, which helps to give her strength. Two characters give her spiritual mascots to take on her journey (a Bob Marley t-shirt and a Black Feather). The black feather acts as symbolism in the novel – meaning ‘renewal’. Cheryl also embarked on a 24-hour romance that highlighted her loneliness, and her weakness for men. It is something she disliked about herself, and by the end of the story we witness her change (as she doesn’t take up the offer of a date with a businessman she crosses paths with at the end of the book). Throughout the story, Cheryl opts to leave other characters in order to be alone, and I believe that it was in the moments in which she was alone that she was healing the most.

Throughout the journey, Cheryl reaches milestones, and we are told of them throughout the book. It is important to keep the reader on par with the time-frame of a story, and in this particular story the nautical miles covered was the most suitable form. We watch the days pass and the nights arrive, and this also acts as a great short-term time-frame. A day beginning and a day ending can form great frames for creating scenes. Milestones also helped her with her own journey because it was a way in which she could track her progress. The milestones also informed the reader of specific geographical places and the distances between them. Kennedy Meadows, known as the gateway to High Sierra, was one of Cheryl’s most anticipated milestones, and we really feel the distance involved in her reaching this particular point. As her journey progressed, we see how she began to connect with nature and how it helped to soothe her internal pain (pain from family, relationships, drug abuse) and external pain (ruined feet, sore hips). She grows stronger and stronger with each passing day, and her mind and body are changing for the better. Character change is such an important element in writing, and this book is a fine example of a character changing both internally and externally.

Cheryl witnessed her own physical change, in the form of a mirror. She glimpses a look at her new athletic frame, and she wonders how Greg (her 24 hour romance) will view her. She also experiences her own change in taste for food and drink, and she caves into luxuries such as Snapple lemonade and ice-cream. She turns to foods that she would never have been drawn to in her previous life. When she hears music for the first time in days (whilst being picked up in a truck), she realizes how much she had taken the sounds for granted. Cheryl is aware that she is changing, and the reader is given examples through several of the senses.

At the end of the book, she feels the desire to touch the Bridge of the Gods, the final part of the trail – this is the finishing moment – like the breaking of the tape after running a marathon. During the trail, she often contemplated where she would live afterwards, and regularly mentioned that she would move to Portland with a friend. She does just this, and manages to write this very book, both in Portland, and in other locations.

Cheryl tells us how she would never have known that she would be married with children, that she would have tracked down friends from the trail. This is definitely information that the reader would have wanted to know. Because the book was about healing and finding strength, we would have felt cheated without it. As writers, we should always be asking ourselves whether we are including everything that we need to within our writing. We should ask ourselves, ‘Will the reader have any remaining questions once they have finished the book?’

Lastly, there is one powerful sentence that Cheryl mentions in the book, and for me it summarizes the entire novel perfectly.

“It was the idea of not doing it that scared me.”

Wild was an inspiring and exciting read, and it is certainly a story that will stay in my mind (along with all of the other wonderful adventure stories that I am grateful to have discovered in my life).

Until next time,

Happy reading and writing!

Donna x

@alittlebirdtweets2016

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My 2016 Reading List

Hello Readers,

Firstly, I would like to wish all of my fellow blogger friends a happy and creative 2016. Let’s hope it is a successful one for us!

In 2015, I read 13 books out of a planned 36 books, which wasn’t a huge achievement, and is certainly something that I aim to make up for in 2016.

The low reading number was mostly due to other life commitments, and also due to a year of meeting and staying with ‘bad books’. By ‘bad books’, I mean those books that spark your interest several chapters in, but then curve-off in interest, thereafter. For me, the ‘curve-off’ has been mostly due to the plot either become boring, or me not caring enough about the developments or outcome of the main character. In these ‘curve-off’ moments, I have found my mind wandering over to grocery lists or gliding through social media newsfeeds. But even so, I forced myself to stay with the books. A regret. But certainly a learning curve.

*Please note that I use the term ‘bad books’ for personal use only. I am aware that although I might not enjoy the books, it doesn’t necessarily make them ‘bad books’ in the wider universe.

But this bad book situation we all find ourselves in from time to time, creates a tricky dilemma for us as readers. Should we abandon a book, or should we stay with it? I guess the best way to answer this, is to ask ourselves, ‘Are we reading for the pleasure, or are we reading in order to develop our writing skills?’ If we are reading for the pleasure, then I’d advise abandoning a bad book. But for honing our writing skills, then I’d advise staying with it. They can colour your world and shape your skills as a writer.

For me, there have been many reasons for staying with a bad book. The first reason has partly been for achievement purposes – for getting my book count in. I felt that after investing time in several chapters of a book, that it would be a waste not to capture that time spent reading. This is plain awful.

Sometimes the reason has been due to wanting to know if the character makes it through, or finding out whodunnit? This is a great example of when an author has created a marvellous main character, but has lagged on the plot. But as a writer, this also tells me that creating great, rounded, characters for readers is a highly important aspect of writing. It means that a reader (including myself) is willing to stay with a book even with a lousy plot.

Sometimes, I have decided to stay with a bad book long after that ‘curve-off’ moment, in order to identify the elements that I dislike in the book; so that I don’t adopt them in my own work.

I have always been aware of, and believe in, the concept, ‘bad books can teach you as much as the good books, when it comes to developing writing skills.’ But I do believe that the ‘reading for writing’ direction can really put a damper on reading books for pure pleasure. So this year I am going to read for the pleasure! I am going to crush my curiosity over character outcomes, and I will remind myself, that spending time on ‘bad books’ is time lost on ‘good books’. But hopefully, I will still identify little ‘dislikes’ even in those good books. Because my favourite saying is, ‘the sweet ain’t as sweet without the sour.’

I will be writing reviews on every good book that I read this year. How will I develop these reviews? Well rather than analyse writing continually as I read (as I have done in the past), this year I am going to capture those magical moments and natural realisations whilst reading, and jot them down in my notebook.

Moments such as when you stumble on a perfectly constructed sentence, a beautiful word, stunning symbolism, or a descriptive setting that has the power to transport you there. This year, I am going to let my heart take the lead and allow my analytical mind to rest.

Here is the list of 13 books that I read in 2015…

Life Expectancy – Dean Koontz, Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell, The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton, The Book of You – Claire Kendal, Daughter – Jane Shemilt, The Little Old Lady Who Broke all the Rules – Carolina Ingelman-Sunberg, Never Tell – Claire Seeber, The Hobbit – J.R.R.Tolkien, Death on the Nile – Agatha Christie, Fiction Writer’s Handbook – Nancy Smith, The Memory Game – Nicci French, A Place of Secrets – Rachel Hore, The Scold’s Bridle – Minette Walters.

Here is the list of the 44 books that I plan to read in 2016. I have taken some books from previous lists, and some books are brand new and in the book charts. As the year goes on, some books may be added or replaced with new releases or old classics. Also, Richard & Judy are always an inspiration with the development of my reading lists, so I highly recommend you visit their book club.

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller

The Quality of Silence – Rosamund Lupton

The Girl in the Red Coat – Kate Hamer

Disclaimer – Renee Knight

The Versions of Us – Laura Barnett

Revolution – Russell Brand

On Writing Horror – Mort Castle

Writing – The Horror Movie – Marc Blake and Sara Bailey

The Girl in the Photograph – Kate Riordan

Vanish – Tess Gerritsen

Eyes of a Child – Richard North Patterson

The Kind Worth Killing – Peter Swanson

Us – David Nicholls

Velocity – Dean Koontz

The Husband – Dean Koontz

I Let You Go – Clare Mackintosh

The Year I Met You – Cecelia Ahern

Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

Cilla – 1943 – 2015

Edie – An American Biography – Jean Stein

The Skeleton Cupboard – Tanya Byron

Want You Dead – Peter James

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

The Doll Maker – Richard Montanari

The Killing Room – Richard Montanari

We Need to talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

Never Knowing – Chevy Stevens

Trafficked – Sophie Hayes

Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty

A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth

Everything’s Eventual – Stephen King

Songbird – Josephine Cox

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff – Richard Carison

Tapping The Source – William Gladstone

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

The Orphan – Christopher Ransom

No Time For Goodbye – Linwood Barclay

The Dice Man – Luke Rhinehart

Nightmares and Dreamscapes – Stephen King

The Host – Stephanie Meyer

Black Eyed Susans – Julia Heaberlin

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

So there it is! I really am going to push myself very hard to read these books, this year. Several of these books have been sitting on my book shelf for years. At some point, some where, they had triggered my interest in buying them, and there is a definite sadness in letting the years go by, where they collect dust. It’s time to open those pages and bring the characters to life!

Until next time, I say goodbye.

Best Wishes,

Donna x

@alittlebirdtweets2016

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Book Review: The Memory Game by Nicci French

Hello Readers,

Last week I finished reading the psychological-thriller, The Memory Game, by Nicci French.

The following review focuses on the book from a writing perspective, with less focus on the sequence of events/plot. Please note, there will be spoilers.

Before I begin the review, I’d like to mention that one of the first books that really moved me as a reader (and actually made me want to write my own novel) was the psychological-thriller called Beneath the Skin, by Nicci French. I had immediately been drawn to the dark and frightening ‘stalker’ plot, the closeness of the first-person point of view, and the ‘zoomed-in’ attention to detail in description – it had me gripped! This book had inspired me to read more Nicci French books, such as Safe House and The Red Room. However, although I enjoyed reading these books, they never did have that packing punch that Beneath the Skin had delivered to me.

This led my mind to think about something completely different – why does a book become a bestselling book or even a classic? May be there is some kind of universal magic that bonds us all. For me, Beneath the Skin would have to be a Nicci French classic – but then is it a universal book, would it speak out to us all? This is something we can all consider in our own writing if we are aiming for the bestseller lists. We have to dream big!

The Memory Game is Nicci French’s first novel, which was released in 1998 – and this is clearly evident from the writing. It is full of old-fashioned dialogue and slow-paced writing which I found rather author-lazy and off-putting to read. When we think of thrillers we think of fast-paced, edge-of-our-seat, twisting plot-lines – but this book was very much the opposite. The beginning was long-drawn out, and introduced too many characters at once, leaving me confused, annoyed and foot-tappingly anxious. I understand that the practice of introducing characters can be a useful tool when we want to create a murder-mystery set-up (such as in Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie) but it does not work in this book. The big cast of characters caused me to focus on the ‘family tree’, which is one of my big pet hates in fiction. The character’s should be weaved in effortlessly, and introduced to us in a way in which we will remember them and how they are related. In this book it was a case of ‘who is this character again?’ It was made even more irritating due to the fact that some of the characters did not play any real part in the plot – they could have been axed without any real effect – this is a big flaw in novel writing. Writing books constantly tell us to axe characters that are merely just extras or side props with no purpose. Even a minor character needs to push the plot forward in some way – whether it’s by them prompting a plot action, or through dialogue with the main character (to show another side to the main character) etc. There is also a big risk of losing a reader for good when the author does not set up an emotional lead character bond early on. I find that readers do not want numerous characters that we only get to know on a superficial level. You will find that the only time this method works best is in the plot-driven ‘who-dunnit’ mystery or suspense novel – where the big question is raised, and our intrigue is held. I have come to learn that we must fall in love with our characters early on – we must have an emotional attachment, or a similarity with which we can relate in order for us to care and read on. Unfortunately, this book and it’s characters left me bored. So why did I finish it? Well I have gathered that you can learn a lot from books you dislike and learn all of the sins and bad habits that you would never want to include in your own writing.

Nicci French has a terrible habit of giving her characters food and drink addictions – and she throws these over us like confetti when it is really of no importance. In this book it tends to happen in those moments when we are plot focused, wanting answers and actions – and all we are given is a character’s burning desire for a skinny mocha or latte, whilst they suck on a yellowing Marlboro. The character habits are repeated too much in this book, and the habits only really needed to be hinted at once or twice to give us an idea of the lead character’s personality. Readers are intelligent and will remember the habit the first time around. Repetition such as this can also show us that a book may have surpassed several, crucial, editing stages. If any one happened to re-read this book, then these flaws would have been clearly evident and likely been removed.

Personally, I love psychological fiction and traumatised characters, because it is in these types of characters that we learn about the darker sides of humanity; we learn how the weakest of characters can pull through a nightmare situation. The most interesting part of the book happened to hit on the area of psychology – with the psychotherapist and the lead character undertaking sessions, in an attempt to get the character to face her problems (the trauma of her missing school friend – who is later found dead – and the murderer having been a family member – ending spoiler!). The psychotherapist prompts the main character to talk out her feelings while all along we are wondering if she is hiding something that is the bigger answer to the bigger question in the book – what happened to Natalie?

I was very disappointed with this book and found it boring to read. I don’t like to put works of fiction down, because I do admire any one who manages to write even one novel in their lifetime, however this book just wasn’t cutting it for me. However, there are some good reviews of this book on Goodreads, and one person’s hate is another person’s love! So please don’t let my judgement put you off reading the book. Nicci French (wife/husband pseudonym) is an excellent writer, and we must consider the fact that this is their first novel.

Ironically, even though this is one of the worst books I have read, one of my favourite books (as mentioned above) happens to be ‘Beneath the Skin’, and I highly recommend this book to readers who love a psychological-thriller. It takes pride of place on my bookshelf.

Until next time,

Thanks for reading,
Donna x

@alittlebirdtweets2015

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Book Review: Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz

Hello Readers,

This week, I finished reading the suspense-thriller/horror novel, ‘Life Expectancy’, by Dean Koontz.

The following review is written from a writing perspective. Rather than describe the plot-line in detail, I will be highlighting key areas of the book that particularly drew my attention as a writer. Please note that there will be spoilers.

A brief blurb of the book goes something like this; Jimmy Tock is born on the same night (in the same hospital) that his Grandfather dies. In his dying words (over a thunder and lightning storm) the Grandfather leaves his own son (Jimmy’s Father) five bad predictions that will occur on particular dates in Jimmy’s life.

When we read the blurb on the back of the book, we are told that there will be five predictions, but not what they are. This is a perfect example of ‘the power of a hook in a blurb’. When we discover that there are five predictions but not what they are, our curiosity is sparked and we are held in a grip wanting to know more. The main reason for a hook is to raise questions inside a readers mind (the what, where, why) and to push them on to read further. The blurb’s hook leaves us asking several questions that we want answers to, for instance; What are the five predictions? Where do these predictions occur? Why does it happen, and why does it happen to Jimmy Tock? And ultimately, will Jimmy survive these five terrible predictions?

The book is written in first person, from the viewpoint of Jimmy Tock. The first person tense has an immediate connection with the reader; enabling us to step into the protagonist’s shoes and experience their world through the five senses. I personally loved the ‘voice’ of Jimmy – a guy who has a slight complex about his physical appearance (and talks about it to us) yet is strong-minded – in general. I have often read that a main character (hero or villain) should be capable of dealing with all of the obstacles that you place in his path – that they should be able to fight all conflicts to the bitter end – even if in the end they win or lose. I have also read that a main character should not be completely perfect and that they should have at least one flaw – one that he has to face and fight on a more personal level. If we analyse the profile of Jimmy Tock, we get a real-life, everyday guy with an unusual, personal flaw -but one that is used for a very different reason in this book (I won’t give the flaw away!).

Jimmy is capable of battling out his conflicts both internally and externally, and he changes and gets strongers as the book progresses. Of course, although he ultimately gets stronger, we do have to see his efforts waver along the plot line in order to keep the reader tense – and guessing. It is essential that we see him fall and rise at his own efforts – and that he used all he had to reach the end. We should adopt this process with every character we design.

I also think that Jimmy ‘shined’ as a character because of his impeccable sense of humour. When I look more closely at the entire chemistry of the book, I see a strong fusion of horror and humour. This dark/light is a fantastic combination because it ensures that we are not trodden down in darkness and depression for pages on end. The humour brings us to laugh (even in the darkness moments) with the characters.

It is often said that it is a crime for the author to ‘step into a narrative with his own opinions’, and I agree. But should an author want to air an opinion in their novel (politics, religion, law etc) then they can learn a lot from Dean Koontz and his method. I am not saying that all of the views in his books are ones that he believes and airs, but as a reader I have analysed that it often seems to be the case in places. I think that this can be a good thing when done correctly because it adds a personal touch without spelling it out. So how does Dean do this? Well his views get injected through his characters and their dialogue. The dialogue of one character may contain an author’s personal view of something happening in the world – or it may contain a humorous line that the author has always told in his own life. This is where we get into the territory of ‘how real or fictional are your characters?’ I believe that most authors, when sketching out characters, will use a mixture of both real and imagined personalities in order to create new and unique characters. I have often wondered how much of the author is in a character – in the many of the characters I have come to meet in books. In the case of Jimmy Tock, I believe that he contains a lot of Dean Koontz’s sense of humour – which I must say is impeccable!

I am not sure if any of you have heard of the quote ‘all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl’ by Jean Luc-Godard (a French Film Director) but I believe this quote rings true for almost any film and any horror/thriller book. It certainly rings true for this book, where there are numerous guns and gunshots – which also occur around an attractive female character, that later becomes the wife of Jimmy Tock. I suppose what the gun and girl quote is really saying to us is that a story isn’t a story without a gun (symbol for conflict) and a girl (symbol of romance) as such. That without conflict we have no story, that without love we are missing a key part of our souls – that together they fuse a Universal idea. Both these elements combine love, excitement, danger and romance – and what is more exciting than that? Nothing. Knowing that this book contains what I consider to be two essential themes in fiction, tells me that Dean is a master of his craft – that he has studied and mastered the mechanics of writing and his specific genres. This allows him to go that extra mile with his trade-mark sense of humour.

Lastly, even though this book was made up of many pages, the tightness and suspense of plot, the interesting characters, and those five predictions made me read on to the end! I am usually a medium-paced reader, but with this book I was flying through! That’s a good sign.

I recommend this book to readers who love a fast-paced suspense thriller/horror – and those who like a dry and wicked sense of humour mixed in. When I read the last page I was sad that I would never live with these characters again – that their journey’s had ended. If a writer can inject a character or two into a reader for life then they have done their job well. That’s why we remember and love the classics – it’s all about the characters. I still find myself repeating some of Dean’s creative character names from this book, just because they sound so good on the tongue! Punchinello, Konrad Beezo… Amazing!

Until next time,

Thanks for reading!

Donna x

@alittlebirdtweets2015

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Book Review – Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

Hello Readers,

This week, I finished reading ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’, by Maggie O’Farrell.

The review below contains my thoughts on the book from a writing perspective. Please note that there will be spoilers.

The title of the book ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’, and its cover design, were the first things that made me pull the book off the shelf (in a charity shop in my home town). I admit that sometimes I am guilty of judging a book by it’s cover, but I do believe that a book title and cover design, which have both evolved together beautifully in modern times, play a powerful part in informing us of the genre of a book and what we are to expect from it. I believe the cover design should be a big bay-window into the world of a story; illuminating theme, plot, mood and feeling. For instance, a key chain hanging from the back of a chair, might indicate to the reader that there is a deep-set mystery in a house that needs to be unlocked. A bridge over stormy waters might indicate that there is a dangerous, suspenseful adventure to endure, across continents. I have always been intrigued by cover design. When I finally finish writing my first novel, I will hope to have had some input into the cover design – to ensure that it is giving the reader a precise visual story into the world of my novel.

The cover for Instructions for a Heatwave depicts a still-life table setting situated in front of a window; with a light fabric curtain blowing in the breeze. Through the open window we see white clouds on a backdrop of light blue sky. Words that summarize this setting are pastel-stripes, sun, summer, heat, domestic setting and home. This cover summarizes the book perfectly because the setting takes place in London, in 1976, when a very long and uncomfortable heatwave had occurred. Having read this on the back of the cover, I have a very good reason to believe that I might not have actually chosen the book after all; but that the book had chosen me! The very reason for this, is that my Mum had been pregnant with me in that very summer of 1976, and she has often recounted how tiring and uncomfortable that very summer was carrying me around, under her cotton Seventie’s dresses! This book had an immediate personal affect on me, even if it was only because of the time and setting. I was intrigued to know more – to get insight into a time and a world, when I had not yet seen daylight.

Throughout the book, the reader is placed amidst the tremendous heat, beside the characters, inside their houses. To summarize the story, it is one of family, and the chemistry between that family, through a moving event in their lives.

The story begins with a Mother, a Wife, carrying out a domestic action in the kitchen. We are then introduced to a Father, the Husband, who decides to go to the shop that morning (as he usually does) but doesn’t return. The author then holds the suspense of the disappearance, by introducing us to the three siblings and their worlds. We enter their homes, their lives, meet their partners and their children. And here we learn how siblings can turn out to be very different; even when they have derived from the same close-knit family such as this one. The Mother and Father, unsurprisingly, have had a powerful impact on their children, throughout their lives. The author writes so authentically about this family’s chemistry, that at times it mirrored my own family! We see the arguments, the psychological mind-games, the care, the ‘not-talking’, the laughs, the bonds, the knowing of each other inside-and-out. This book is family-drama writing at it’s best.

In this story, we have siblings that embrace the Irish Catholic family traditions – such as wanting a loving and caring family of their own. And we have siblings that tend to knock the tradition sideways and tell us that we live in modern times and old beliefs are no longer valid – as in when we see the younger sibling ‘Aoife’ (Eve) moving away from her family and home. I had a strong sense of the Mother psychologically struggling to try to keep the Irish traditions valid in her children – whilst they are up against a new, evolving, modern world in which they are living.

You could say that although the theme of this book is about a missing person, it doesn’t entirely focus on this part at all. It is not really an investigation into how the Father disappeared, or where he is; but it is how a family are brought together and how they deal with such an awful event in their lives (and how they are going to solve it). We have the characters search their homes for clues of his disappearance, but there is no sense of urgency, no police or search teams.

As the book goes on, we learn that the Mother had told her children lies and had held the lie for many years. And these lies were (from my perspective) an attempt to keep the Irish tradition alive – for a Mother and Father to set a perfect example for their children.

But in all of this, we realise that lies cause damage and although humans are capable of forgiving, it is in the forgetting that we have trouble. There is no doubt that these lies had a negative affect on the children, but at the same time, we understand why the Mother may have hidden the truth through the pressure of religion and tradition at that time. We understand that there may have never been a right moment for her to speak the truth – and so the lie had festered – until one fine day it had been revealed to all. At the same time that these lies are revealed, so are other family-related issues in the past that appear on the Father’s side; and this leads us to the very reason as to why the Father had disappeared.

I found myself tearful at times when I read certain paragraphs in the book; that spoke of the childhood memories. It reminded me of my own family – my Uncles, Aunts, Nans, Grandads, Mum, Dad, and my three Sisters – and all the great times we have enjoyed and still speak about to this day. Isn’t it ironic that sadness exists in happy memories? I think that there is a certain sadness in time moving forward – and this story is very powerful in bringing that concept to light.

This story shows us how parents and our own childhood have a profound impact on our adult lives, in our thought processes, in our beliefs, and in our actions. On a darker note, we also learn how we are all capable of lying to protect loved ones; sometimes even to set good examples, become good role models.

At the end of the book, we learn that even after the character’s became aware of the lies, they were still able to forgive each other – because they are family. Learning to forgive, might possibly be one of the most important things that we can all learn in life.

At the end of the book, the Father returns – having dealt with certain problems in his life that happened long before he had met his Wife. It appears that it may have been important for the author to have the Father deal with his own problems away from his family, and for the Mother and siblings to deal with theirs, together. May be the separation was a powerful contrast to the pulling together of family in the end.

Looking at the book, as a whole, we feel like we have dropped in on this family’s life for a short but important moment in time; just like we would with a soap opera. We have confidence that when the Father walks through the door again, that their lives will continue – even though the chemistry and opinions between them may have changed. This tells a perfect story of life-continuing and getting through it’s ups and downs. We have faith that this family will stick together through thick and thin.

This was a great book to read about family. I must admit that this review was a huge challenge to write – partly because it is far from the genres I know well, partly because it was so tightly woven and cleverly written, and partly because I had to think more deeply about the life-themes in this book.

This book was unlike any other book I have read; where I could pick out certain obvious plot points, clever twist workings, character changes etc. Everything in this book seemed to meld into one fine, natural, roll of fabric that was hard to pucker. This is why I had no choice but to focus on the themes.

I do hope I have given the book justice. If there are any elements of the book that you would like me to discuss or dig into further then please ask. Thank you for reading.

The next book review will be on a horror novel called ‘Life Expectancy’, by Dean Koontz; which I am three-quarters of the way through reading.

Until next time, happy reading, happy writing!

Love,

Donna x

@alittlebirdtweets2015

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Book Review – Never Tell by Claire Seeber

This week I finished reading a twisty thriller called Never Tell, by Claire Seeber. Here is my review, originally posted on Goodreads.com.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I thought the plot was cleverly weaved together and twisty, but I felt that the loose ends were too conveniently tied up, and some of the suspense went on for way too long, which was so frustrating that I found my foot was tapping with anxiety – as I just wanted to get through the pages and finish the book. I enjoy a plot that alternates problems and solutions, but this book just dragged on with the same problem throughout. On a more positive note, I enjoyed Claire’s writing, and I think she is very strong with regards to dialogue. I loved how she captured the nature of child speech! I also enjoyed the past storyline – the university years – the young Rose and Dalziel are great characters. A good, but often frustrating read, and I lots learned from a writing perspective.

@alittlebirdtweets2015

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Camp NaNoWriMo Winner 2014

Hello Readers,

I am a Camp NaNoWriMo April 2014 winner!

I achieved 50,709 words in 28 days, for the first draft of my first novel. The two extra days that I had left over, gave me the chance to format my writing into Microsoft Word, and put it through spelling and grammar checks.

I wrote scenes and chapters every day on my commute to work in Central London (which is one hour and fifteen minutes each way), using my Samsung Smart phone and a wonderful little app called Power Writer! I copied and pasted all of the writings into email, and then copied and pasted them from email into Microsoft Word. It was wonderful to see the number of pages in Microsoft Word build to 70. My novel looks like it is coming to life!

2014-Winner-Facebook-Profile

What next?

I shall be putting my wondrous first draft in a drawer for a few weeks (Stephen King’s advice in his memoir, On Writing). Then I intend to take it out and look at it with fresh eyes.

In the meantime…

I am looking to purchase the writing software ‘Scrivener’ . At this point in my novel, I feel that I need something to help me piece the scenes and chapters together into my intended outline (I was writing scenes and chapters every day in no particular plot order – which was more of an exciting process for me!). Scrivener enables a writer to arrange their thoughts, notes, ideas and research into cork-board format- and this can stir up new plot ideas and twists which you may have never had before.

Analysing and Studying…

Whilst my novel sits in a drawer, I am going to take some time to analyse and study some bestselling novels. As I read, I am going to  ask myself ‘Why has the writer chosen to write that particular sentence, scene, chapter? How does it move the plot forward?’ May be this will spark some new approaches to my own novel.

Rickmansworth Writer’s Group…

Today, I am attending the Rickmansworth Writer’s Group. I didn’t get a chance to write up the last meetings notes as I was so busy; but hopefully in the next two weeks I’ll be able to conjure up something inspirational about the world of writing.

Have a wondrous weekend!

Donna x

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What made me become a writer?

The writing seed was planted inside me one rainy Sunday in 2004, while I was relaxing and reading in my ridiculously-small-rented-room in South-East London. I had been browsing the book section of a Croydon charity shop the day before, and had been instantly grabbed by a beautifully dreary front cover, and a sinister title. The book was called ‘Beneath the Skin’ by Nicci French. I had read the premise, test-read a random page (as I always do after plucking a book from the shelf), and had carried it straight to the till.

That Sunday afternoon I had downed numerous cups of tea – the heat of the liquid had fused with the irresistible chill that the pages were breathing into me. I turned page, after page, after page, until I reached the end. My instant thought upon closing the cover was ‘I wish I had written this book.’ Actually, I might have even whispered it aloud into those four walls.

I had fallen asleep that night with the book, the characters whirling around in my mind. The fear, darkness, reality, and loneliness that the book had aroused in me, had had even more effect in the darkness of the night, under the glow of the moon. I knew I would never forget this book. It had created an itch in my heart.

The following day I had been at work. I had clicked Google in my lunch hour. And in the search bar I clicked ‘How to write a novel’.

My obsession had begun.

©2014.alittlebirdtweets

– – – –

An excerpt from Goodreads;

“When she laughs, she makes a pealing sound, like a doorbell. If I told her I loved her, she would laugh at me like that. She would think I was not serious. That is what women do. They turn what is serious and big into a small thing, a joke. Love is not a joke. It is a matter of life and death. One day, soon, she will understand that.”

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