Tag Archives: reading

Reading Roundup!

I spend a lot of time talking about fiction on this blog but it’s just occurred to me that I don’t actually say much about what I’m reading.

Time to fix that!

giphy paddington
That’ll do it. (image: giphy.com)

A quick note about my reading habits before we jump in. As some of you may know I work in publishing, so I end up having to read a lot of books and submissions as a part of my job. Sometimes this feels like work, and sometimes it doesn’t. I read during my commute (public transport FTW), evenings and weekends, but I also listen to audiobooks a lot too, so I’m often following the thread of a story while I’m cleaning, cooking or writing up my Russian notes. I’ll read most kinds of fiction but for non-fiction, I tend to stick to popular history.

Basically, I eat books.

So here’s a short list of some books that have really stuck with me over the past few months. There’s no real timeframe because I’m a dangerous maverick. Here’s what I’ve been eating recently:

 

The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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image: waterstones.com

Set in Medieval Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of Vasya, a young girl who can see the creatures of Russian folklore. A couple of strange figures watch over her as she grows up, and while she gets into a few scrapes this is by and large fine until a priest shows up. With a sinister being in the forest starting to wake up, and with the priest telling the villagers not to believe in superstition, the tension ratchets up until it all comes crashing together.

Holy Hell, do I love this book.

The scene-setting is fantastic. There’s so many little details that bring the setting to life, from the food the characters eat to the names they call each other. It’s a retelling of a traditional Russian fairy tale which pulls off a very difficult balancing act: keeping the elements of a fairy tale while giving its characters distinct personality. Also, it has some really interesting stuff to say about gender roles and the clash between traditional beliefs and organised religion, and I am 100% here for all of them. I’ve also read the sequel, but as that only came out at the end of last month I’m trying not to spoil it, even though I’m holding in a lot of feelings and a really excellent joke.

 

The Good People by Hannah Kent

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image: panmacmillan.com

This one is set in pre-Famine Ireland, and it tells the story of three women in a remote Irish village who is suspected of being a changeling. There’s Nora, the child’s recently-widowed grandmother, who can’t come to terms with her husband’s recent death or her grandson’s behaviour. There’s Mary, a young maidservant very far from home. And there’s Nance, a wise woman who lives at the edge of the woods, who the villagers believe can cure illness and perform magic.

Now I haven’t finished this one yet, but I absolutely love it. Again, the scene-setting is great – Kent does an excellent job of modifying her characters’ speech patterns to make it clear that they’re speaking Irish, not English. Apparently it’s also based on a true story, but I haven’t looked this up yet because I’m trying to avoid two hundred-year-old spoilers. It’s brilliantly creepy and very well-written – just what you want on a cold winter’s night.

 

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

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image: goodreads.com

If We Were Villains kicks off when a former theatre kid – Oliver Marks – is released from prison, after serving time for a murder he might or might not have committed. We then flash back to Oliver’s time at an elite university, where we meet his theatre kid friends, including the one who’s eventually going to get murdered. Tensions rise and there’s a mysterious incident that leaves one of Oliver’s friends dead. Only one question remains – was it murder?

I’m not sure if this one is technically cheating because this is something I had to read for work BUT I LOVE IT YOU GUYS. It’s just great. I love the way the author incorporates plays into the text and the characterisation is excellent. I didn’t go to a fancy theatre school but I’m pretty sure that I’ve met every single one of Oliver’s theatre crew. I’ve read this book three times now and it won’t be long before the fourth.

 

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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image: amazon.com

This is another one I had to read for work but damn is it good. Set in a fictional analogue of Weimar-era Germany, the plot follows three people – Cyril, a spy, Ari, a nightclub singer/smuggler and Cordelia, a stripper – as they try to navigate their way through life amidst the rise of what are basically Nazis. The rising tide of fascism threatens to engulf them all (particularly Ari and Cyril, who are in a gay relationship) and each character is forced to make a difficult choice – co-operation or sabotage.

This one took a while to get going. For the first half to two-thirds I was enjoying it, but not raving about it to all my friends. Then the last one hundred pages happened and I was swept away on a tide of feelings because I JUST WANT THEM TO BE HAPPY DAMMIT and now I’m counting off the days until the sequel is released. Also, it was really refreshing to read a novel where homosexual and polyamorous relationships are just an ordinary feature of life, rather than A Thing That Must Be Explained To The Reader.

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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image: goodreads.com

What can I say about The Power that hasn’t already been said? Not much. It’s great. Since this book has been everywhere for most of last year I won’t go into detail on the plot, but for those of you that haven’t read it it’s set in a world where women suddenly develop the power to electrocute people.

This is a really excellent book. I could not put it down and there were some moments where I meant that literally. There was more than one moment where I was reading on a platform and ended up missing a train. It’s very well-written, has all kinds of interesting stuff to say about gender and all the characters have distinct voices. A couple of plot points really stuck with me. I read one scene and went to bed, thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, woke up at 3am thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, and was still thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’ the next morning. It was incredible.

 

And there you have it! A short list of stuff I’ve read recently that has stayed with me for one reason or another. Ta-dah. Feel free to discuss in the comments (and leave suggestions if you want, I always like recommendations) but please do tag up your spoilers. I’m only halfway through The Good People.

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Strong Female Characters: What I Learned

Hey guys! I’ve returned to the blogosphere. Here’s what I’ve been doing for the past few months:

  • Reading
  • Learning Russian
  • Making a fool of myself at various social occasions
  • A little bit of writing of my own
  • Eating pizza

And absolutely nothing else that was not included on that list.

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The rest of the time I just sat around like this. (image: memey.com)

But now that the Strong Female Characters series is over, I’ve had an opportunity to think about what I’ve learned in writing the posts. That’s just as well – if, after a hundred-post series that lasted over two years, I’d learned nothing, then there’d be something wrong. Maintaining the series taught me a lot about reading, writing and thinking critically, and this seems as good a time as any to put it all down.

Because I’m a sucker for a consistent format, here’s ten things I learned while working on the series:

 

  1. Writing is hard

This one feels like it should be a no-brainer, but it’s at the top of the list for a reason. Writing is bloody difficult. It took me a lot of effort to lay out my thoughts on each character in a vaguely comprehensible manner, and I didn’t even come up with the characters in the first place. A lot of hard work went into the characters I looked at, whether they passed or failed, and you have to respect that.

 

  1. Criticism can be a positive experience

Writing the blog series gave me a set of criteria that I had to look for in every single character, which covered most a range of different literary skills. I can tell you with absolute certainty that this has made me a better writer. Looking at fiction critically has been a real help and it’s given me a whole new perspective on things. It also gives me a chance to re-examine stories I really enjoy and has introduced me to completely new things. It’s actually pretty fun!

 

  1. Planning is key

At least five of the blog posts went live when I was out of the country. Loads more went live when I was stuck on a train in the middle of nowhere. I could never have stuck to any kind of schedule if I just made them all up on the spot. A normal post took a couple of hours to write, and maybe one more to lay out properly. I often had to work several weeks in advance, particularly if I was working with a comparison post, and I often tried to look ahead to see if there were any trends I could try and jump onto (but most of the time that didn’t work). I started preparing for the Anastasia Steele post in October – ten weeks before it actually went live.

 

  1. Peppermint tea can get you through just about anything

See above. Also works for indigestion, heartbreak, work-stress and minor natural disasters.

 

  1. There is such a thing as too much choice

It was really, really hard to choose who to talk about. There were so many characters that I still wanted to look at when I ended the series – the running list I kept alongside the posts has over forty characters on it. I tried to choose characters that I thought were relevant, interesting and meant something to people, but there’s loads of them that I missed.

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It would’ve been so perfect… (image: abc.net.au)

 

  1. Context is hugely important

This can have such a big effect on how a story and a character are received. The time and place in which a story is written can radically change how we examine its characters – just look at Lizzie Bennet and Jane Eyre. Every time I wrote about a historical character I had to brush off my researcher skills, because it’s just such a big part of how characters are received. This goes for so many other aspects of the posts – including agency, stereotypes and characters’ beliefs, to name a few – because when a character hasn’t been properly fleshed out, the reader often has to fill in the blanks themselves.

 

  1. Never try and write a blog post while cooking your dinner

Something will burn. Unless it’s soup, soup is probably fine.

 

  1. Knowing where to stop is just as important as knowing how to begin

When I first came up with the idea of the series I pretty much pulled it out of my hat. I made up the test myself, picked whichever characters I felt like talking about and just went with it. As I’m sure you’ve picked up from the posts, it took me a while to get into the swing of things.

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Don’t worry, monkey, it’s a learning curve. (image: giphy.com)

But as much as I enjoyed it, it was a very time-consuming project and keeping it up meant I just didn’t have the time to do the things I really enjoyed. I wanted to stop from about the second half of 2016 onwards – but I didn’t just want to stop the series, I wanted to properly finish it. That’s why I kept going until post number 100 and why I chose such a terrible, terrible character to talk about. I didn’t want to keep going for the sake of it and end up resenting the whole project, but I did want to go out with a bang.

 

  1. Nothing is perfect…

If you look hard enough you’ll find a flaw in anything. A lot of this comes down to opinion, but usually there’s always something. Personally, I think this is a good thing – I don’t see any other way to become a more critical reader and writer if you aren’t willing to look for the flaws in things you enjoy.

 

  1. …and that’s okay.

I ended up failing loads of characters that I really like. Lizzie Bennet, Marion Ravenwood, Princess Leia, Peggy Carter, Morticia Addams, Harley Quinn…the list goes on (and on). But even though I had to pick apart the ways these characters weren’t as good as they could’ve been, that doesn’t mean I don’t like them any more. I really enjoyed looking at old favourites in a new way, even if they didn’t do as well as I hoped. It gave me a chance to think about them in a new light, and sometimes meant I discovered whole new things I liked about them that I just hadn’t thought about before. Despite its flaws, I still watch Beauty and the Beast pretty much every time I’m hungover, and that’s probably not going to stop any time soon.

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I still don’t know how to feel about this version though. (image: comingsoon.net)

 

So there you have it – ten things I learned from the Strong Female Characters series. Hopefully that’s shed some light on some of the behind-the-scenes stuff. I’ll be doing one more post to round off the series completely, where I talk about how the test works in more detail, but after that the series will be well and truly done with.

“So what’s next for Jo Writes Stuff?” I hear you cry.

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Just…just listen really carefully. (image: istockphoto.com)

Well, I still have a lot of feelings about fiction, so you can definitely expect some more vague ramblings about that. There’s no new series in the works just yet, but I definitely haven’t finished with the blogosphere. Watch this space!

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

The Problem with Strong Female Characters

It seems like I can’t go two steps without tripping over an ad for the latest instalment of The Hunger Games movie franchise. Granted, this may be because I still haven’t mastered the ability to avoid tripping over my own feet, but the point still stands. The Hunger Games is everywhere, and Jennifer Lawrence – playing the famously strong-willed heroine, Katniss Everdeen – scowls out from every poster with a determined look on her face.

Katniss's SRS BSNS face.
SRS BSNS. (image: screencrush.com)

This got me thinking. Since the book’s release, Katniss Everdeen has been widely acknowledged as a Strong Female Character. When critics point to examples of her strength, most of the evidence they present is based around the scenes that show Katniss kicking ass and taking names in the arena. This is by no means a trend that is limited to The Hunger Games – more often than not, the characters praised for being Strong Female Characters are the ones who can grind their enemies into paste.

But does this actually make them strong?

We live in a world where feminism is becoming more and more acceptable, and where writers, directors and artists are making more of a conscious effort to include women in their narratives. The easiest way to do this is to put a token woman in a team of male heroes – I’m looking at you, Avengers – and to make her really good at fighting.

This is not characterisation. We need more well-developed, realistic female characters in fiction, and martial arts skills are not a substitute for a personality.

So how many women in fiction are well-developed, well-rounded characters, and how many just have a really good right hook where their personality should be?

Well, I’m going to find out.

I’m going to be starting a weekly series of blog posts where I look at popular female characters in fiction and determine whether they’re really as developed and well-rounded as everyone says they are. To help with my analysis, I’ll be subjecting each character to the following questions:

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
  2. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
  3. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
  4. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
  5. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
  6. Does she develop over the course of the story?
  7. Does she have a weakness?
  8. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
  9. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
  10. How does she relate to other female characters?

If they get more than eight out of ten, they’ll have passed my test. If they don’t, I’m going to sit in the corner and cry.

Let’s get started. Katniss Everdeen, I’m coming for you.