Nicola Monaghan's news, events and general thoughts about life and writing.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Some book reviews...

How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman
The List by Tara Ison

I received How Not to Write a Novel direct from the publisher and the title put me off to begin with; I prefer to be told 'how to' do something, in general, than deal with negativity, but the book came with a note of recommendation from somebody I know and respect, and so I decided to read it. I have to say, I was very pleasantly surprised, and I laughed a lot.

The book's structured around the various aspects of novel writing, plot, character, style etc and full of amusing examples of how to get your work rejected. It's astute, sardonic and generally very witty. Sure, it has a slightly superior tone in places, but I think it mostly avoids that, and whispers in the reader's ear 'are you sure you're not doing this?' I'm sure that if everyone who thought about sending submissions to editors or agents read this book, they could save themselves a lot of time and postage money, and improve the quality of what gets called the 'slush pile'.

I didn't agree with everything the book said and I certainly haven't always followed all its rules. For example, it said that writing about a break up was certain to get your book rejected and, in a sense, both my novels have featured one. I've just read a really great book that takes a break up as it's central subject (see below) and do think that bad relationships are too good a source of material to avoid. But I saw plenty that made sense in this book - and it's definitely one I would have recommended to my students, when I had them.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read, and filled with useful information presented in a more compelling way than the usual dry tone of the 'how to get published' or 'how to write a novel' books I've read. Recommended.

The List by Tara Ison is another book I was lucky enough to get for free - one of the biggest perks of being a published writer. This one was sent by Alexis, my US editor. She does think of me when she sees books I might like and I always enjoy them so thanks Alexis! It's taken me a wee while to get around to this one because I've had so much else I've felt I needed to read over the past year or so. It took me a good while to get to this one, but I am glad I finally did.

It's beautifully written, really elegant prose and Ison uses some complex ideas and unusual metaphors to bring the language alive. It has a small cast of characters, but they are incredible vividly drawn.

The story is almost exclusively about a break up, which apparently breaks the rules, but perhaps this book gets away with it because it's so well done. It's very, very compelling, car crash stylie, so that you know what's coming a lot of the time and don't want to see but you can't look away. You get the feeling these two people could be perfect for each other, if they were prepared to let each other go their own way. Isabel, the obsessive career surgeon, has found the perfect contented house husband if she'd just lighten up and realise that not everyone has to 'contribute' in the way she feels the need to. Al could work a little harder at explaining himself, at making sure Isabel understands why he's so contented with life, but also communicating the way he really feels about her. But then, I'm not even sure he knows he isn't. Men, innit?

The story pulls you along at quite a pace, getting darker by the page, just my kind of fiction. It's one of the best I've read for ages. The only slight negative for me was the ending. I really thought she had it just right and that I had reached the end, but there were pages left. There's not much I can say without spoilers, except that the last chapter significantly lightened the ending, and not in a way I could believe or level with. I would have left this final bit out. But, then, that's me. I'm dark, as I keep reminding my husband.

Highly recommended.

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