To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara: A #SecondThoughts book review

Much of what is known of Yanagihara relates to her day job as editor-in-chief of T – the New York Times style magazine, although a little more was gleaned via the interviews which followed the success of what has been described as the cultural phenomenon of her second novel. Interviews which were necessary as the ‘about the author’ section of that novel simply reads “Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City”.


That cultural phenomenom was A Little Life. A book which divided people – a real Marmite book as we’d say here in the UK – people either adored it or hated it. I couldn’t blame those who hated it, for reading about self-harm and sexual abuse – especially the sexual abuse of a child – is not the way most people would chose to spend their time. It’s not how I’d chose to spend my time, yet I found it hard to put down. I am categorically not a fan of what is termed “misery memoirs” – avoiding them like the plague, yet I was blown away – absolutely convinced I’d read that year’s Booker winner. Sad to say, I was wrong.

At the time, I described it as the best book I’ve read for a long while, and I’ve not changed my mind nearly 7 years later. Despite the headlines being about his abuse and self-harm, the majority of the book tells the story of Jude’s adult relationships, where the focus is on friendship, love, kindness and acceptance.  But the big question it asks is whether the extent of a child’s suffering ever be healed by loving adult relationships? An emotional and moving tale, sad but beautiful, and one which brought me to tears more than once.  


I rarely pre-order books, but I did with Yanagihara’s next book To Paradise, rushing to finish what I was reading when it hit my Kindle on publication day. Written in three parts, each separated by 100 years, Parts 1 & 2 were full of promise.

Part 1 – set in the 1880s – is the story of rich and powerful family the Binghams, living in a grand house on Washington Square, New York, in a version of New York located in an enlightened group of states where the populace is free to partner with their preferred gender. The story focuses on indulged son David, torn between the nice man introduced to him with the aim of marriage, and the unsuitable man he falls in love with. Despite evidence that his lover is a fraudster, David chooses to follow him to California – located in the risky less enlightened states – to build a new life.

Part 2 – set in the 1980s – is the story of another David, a young Hawaiian paralegal in a relationship with a rich and powerful man called Charles, who now owns the house in Washington Square. This version of the 1980s also suffers from the impact of HIV/Aids – and the story of Charles and his friends living and dying, is played out against the story of David’s previous life and that of his estranged father in Hawaii.

Parts 1 and 2 only take up half the book, with Part 3 making up the significant portion. In Part 3, two stories are weaved together: Charlie, who survived a pandemic when a child, but was left with limited mental capacities by the medication which saved her life, and her grandfather Charles, seen via correspondence with his best friend some 50 years earlier. Set in the 2090s, Charlie and her husband live in a small apartment within the Washington Square house – once hers, now taken over by the state. In this dystopian future where harsh and brutal decisions were made to battle multiple pandemics, the government controls everything, up to and including choice of mate and fertility. Through Charles’s letters we see him drawn further away from scientist to government servant, and the impact that has on David – his son and Charlie’s father – an activist battling those choices. With a degree of inevitability, they come for Charles, so Charlie is left alone with the husband her grandfather selected for her. Unknown to her, Charles also begged his friend to get her out of New York and to safety – To Paradise.

Parts 1 and 2 flowed and worked well as standalone tales (which may or may not have been linked), but Part 3 felt more problematic, even as I read it. The story it told was a potentially powerful one, picking up many of the fears expressed during the current pandemic. But – and I hate to admit it – I skim read a lot of it, because the dystopian detail was so turgid and dense, it felt like we were being hit over the head with a sledgehammer to make sure we understood the point being made. I cried out for a damn good editor to have been let loose on it.

There were other oddities. The first being the use of the same names throughout. A hint perhaps to there being familial links – but it was never made clear, and so felt like a distraction. The second being that the idealised nature of the group of states was demonstrated by its widespread acceptance of sexual choice but, while that acceptance included Asian races, it still specifically excluded Blacks – and that left me wondering why, and what point, if any, was being made.

On a positive note, I really enjoyed learning about Hawaii – the life, the history, the art, the culture – and I got to wondering whether this had started out as a tale about Hawaii, and then got hijacked by the pandemic. If always intended as a pandemic tale, I shall mourn the book about Hawaii that I missed out on, for Yanagihara is surely well placed to have written one.

Yanagihara describes Hawaii as the ‘imaginary homeland’ for all Asian Americans. She has lived there, and her parents met there – her father a native of Hawaii, her mother brought up there after her birth in Seoul. Both parents are creative (they were illustrators when they met) but her father is also a haematologist, and the family travelled across the US with his work. Literature, design, art, culture – these are loves she inherited from her parents.

Parts 1 and 2 felt well on their way to 5 stars, until Part 3 hit. I’ve vacillated between 3 and 4 for the book, ending up on 4. I feel my expectations were set exceptionally high by her previous book, and I’d have probably given this a 4 if written by an author new to me. But, to be honest, I’m still vacillating….


© Debra Carey, 2022

#SecondThoughts: Describing characters – the shallow stuff

I’ve recently read a number of discussions on general blogs about the type of books people prefer to read. While the split between character-driven and plot-driven plays a part in any such discussion I noticed that, even within the preference for character-driven, there appears to be a quite significant split between those who enjoy lots of rich detail and those who do not – with a surprising number preferring the “just get on with it” option.

Assuming, for now, that I’d be writing in third person or using a narrator, let’s talk about the shallow stuff – describing how my characters look.

How much detail to provide?

I started by asking myself what were the benefits of giving the full head-to-toe description? The obvious answer being that the mental picture my readers form will be the one I’ve drawn. From there I moved to how I might provide that description? A character such as like Pride & Prejudice‘s Mr Collins could prove a useful medium, being much inclined to dull discourses filled with mundane details. But as we don’t all have the sharp wit and deft touch of Miss Austen, there’s a need to remain mindful of the reader’s potential for being turned off by too long a descriptive passage. Clearly, this can be exacerbated where there’s a need to introduce a whole raft of characters at once as, if the same level of detailed description is applied to them all, I can see it proving overwhelming to the reader. And if I accept that many a reader is frustrated by being forced to wade through a lot of descriptive detail instead of getting on with the story, there’s a worry they may decide my book isn’t for them.

Perhaps then, a brief snapshot is the way to go? Enough to give my reader an idea of who everyone is, with more meat being put on the bones later, as and when it would be useful or relevant to the story or plot line.

Even though I struggle to see a scenario when this would be the case in a story I would write – I can see that if how the main character looks is vital to the story, opting for the head-to-toe descriptive option immediately they appear in the manuscript might be a good way forward (with other characters getting the brief snapshot treatment until otherwise necessary). One additional benefit of the single big brain dump when the character first appears, is I can then forget about the subject for the rest of the manuscript 😉

Returning to the concept that there’s a line to be drawn between enough and snooze in descriptive detail…. what other questions can I ask in order to ensure I stay the right side of that line?

When, why and where do you do it?

The first when question I had was whether to go for the full works immediately characters appear in the manuscript, or via drip-feed throughout. But, as I’ve already covered that under how above, I realised that further facts had to be established in order to decide my answer. Key to this is why the descriptive information is being provided -whether purely for background, or because it is relevant to the plotline. If the former, you can slip it in wherever it feels natural and comfortable but, if the latter, then the timing is key. To add one more question to this section, the where to do it could depend on whether it’s relevant to test my reader’s skills of observation. In most genres, I’d be inclined to leave it in plain sight, whereas with a crime/mystery/thriller tale, there could be a value (or simply just an inclination) to disguise it alongside a bright red herring or a shiny McGuffin or two.

What might you leave out…. and why?

Moving on from what distractions I might add, I’m wondering if what I might choose to leave out could be as relevant. As with everything, I guess the question remains, what would be my purpose?

My final question is what happens if I write in the first person? How does my reader get a description then? Do I remain the only character undescribed, or should I use some device to get the job done?

What do you advise?


© Debra Carey, 2022

The Documents in the Case: a #SecondThoughts book review

I’ve recently fallen in love with going to the library again.  The TBR pile is teetering, and most of the books that I’ve bought recently have been to do with aspects of writing, or of engineering, as I try to bring both my text book on materials characterisation and the shared novel with Debs to a successful conclusion (and start thinking about the next projects…).  But I can just about justify getting books out of the library, although I may be in danger of developing an L-TBR pile… The problem*, of course, with going to the library is that one way or another, you end up browsing.  Either it is deliberate as you attempt to take stock of what is new, or you are deliberately looking for something specific – which is not there – and you end up tripping over something else that grabs your attention.

*I use the term in a loose sense: it is not a problem per se, but there are a range of difficulties that can arise.

A little while ago, I wrote a review of ‘The Appeal’.  If you read the post, you’ll recall that I spotted it in the library and picked it up because I’d heard a lot about it.  The conceit that provides the structure to the story is that it is formed from a selection of emails that have been made available to two pupils of a barrister.  He wants them to review the documents and come to a conclusion as to whether or not the right person was arrested for a crime.  In my review, I likened it to the earlier book ‘The Documents in the Case’ by Dorothy L Sayers.  I also mentioned that whilst I’d heard of it, and whilst I’ve read several of her Lord Peter Wimsey stories, I’d not read this one.  Back in the library, looking for something else, I spotted the Documents in Case, and the Appeal still relatively fresh in my mind I thought that I would give this a go.

Sayers is perhaps best known for her detective fiction, although she did a lot more than this, and in her detective fiction, she is best known for Lord Peter Wimsey.  Her record in this regard might owe something to her status as a founder member of the Detection Club, an organisation that probably deserves a post of its own.  (The English Heritage Blue Plaque outside a former residence probably doesn’t help either, labelling her as a ‘detective novelist’).  Together with some of the brightest stars of the Golden Age of detective fiction, Sayers set out to refine the genre, and having done so to experiment with it.  For example, a group of members wrote a joint detective story, each taking responsibility for a chapter, and then passing it along to the next person, who must build the story in such a way as to incorporate all clues (either proving or debunking them).  Each contributor also wrote their own solution to the crime, which remained sealed until the mystery was complete; these solutions were included in the book, for the general reader.

What I hadn’t realised until now is that Documents is itself an example of a shared piece of writing, the co-author being Robert Eustace (a pseudonym for Dr Eustace Barton, who also wrote medic-legal fiction).  The epistolatory novel was not invented by Sayers, but this is certainly a piece of experimental writing on her part, a departure from the formula she was developing with Lord Peter.  It is interesting to note that she herself was unhappy with the final form of the book.  Coming to it as a Lord Peter fan, I have to say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected.  It lacks a great deal of the humour to be found in Lord Peter’s adventures.  Then, too, I felt that some of the material presented was something of a cheat: the documents collected are various, but several represent quite lengthy statements from some of the involved parties, solicited by the son of the deceased, who is attempting to determine if his father has been murdered.

On that basis, I don’t think I can offer a general recommendation to hurry out and get a copy.  Still, if you happen to be interested in detective fiction and are looking for something a bit different, or if you happen to stumble across it in a library whilst browsing for something else, it’s probably worth a couple of hours of your time.

Have you read Documents in the Case?  Would you recommend it – or not?  What’s the most unusual detective fiction you’ve read?

©David Jesson, 2022

#FF Prompt: The Story – Paranoia

The Long Straight Road

“I don’t wait to sit in here anymore. I don’t like being spied on by everyone going past.”

Two large red spots had appeared on Rebecca’s cheeks – yet Jim ploughed on.

“But it’s what we agreed. You’d have the front sun room, and I’d get the one at the back to use for my office.”

“No Jim, you agreed. The back room was the one you wanted, because it was quieter without the sound of traffic, and you could avoid interruptions from anyone coming to the door. You just assumed that I’d agree, because I always do. But I don’t like it, I really, really don’t. I hate it in fact! Why don’t you give it a try and see how you like living in the village fishbowl?”

This time, there’d been a worryingly high pitch in Rebecca’s voice, far higher than her normal register – yet all Jim gave in return was a sigh. Without another word, Rebecca left the room. Shortly afterwards, there was the muffled sound of a door’s bang somewhere upstairs.

Jim wondered what on earth was going on with Rebecca. Normally so calm and measured, this wasn’t like her at all. With a shrug, Jim went back to his office where he heard the extension give a reassuring “ting”. Thank goodness, he thought, she’d be calling one of her friends so he could get on with some work.

Rebecca had seemed better at dinner, and even checked the details of his next trip to the London office. They’d passed their usual evening in front of the TV, and Jim hoped it was just a blip in their otherwise quiet and peaceful life.

A week later, Rebecca dropped Jim at the station, where he caught the early train to London. Jim called out a farewell as he left: “See you at six!”

And at six, there she was, waiting in the usual spot. But as soon as they pulled into the driveway, Jim could see something was amiss. The front sun room was…. wrong. Going in, he’d gasped aloud, for Rebecca’s sun room was now filled with the furniture from his office. As he turned to rail at Rebecca, he saw instead her friend Jenny in the doorway, hands on her hips, and with a look that dared him to say the wrong thing. Seeing which way this was going, Jim decided to accept things for now, and prove to Rebecca that there was nothing wrong.

His desk faced out through the big picture windows, which gave him a nice view looking right down the long straight road that ran up to their house. That road then rounded the corner and on the village main street. Apart from the odd delivery, which Rebecca dealt with smoothly and swiftly, there were remarkably few disturbances in fact, so Jim thought he was going to win this disagreement hands down.

Except, whenever Jim looked up and out of the window, someone was walking towards their house and they would look right into his office. Jim didn’t know whether to ignore or acknowledge the walkers. He’d tried both, but never got any reaction – something he’d found odd to be honest. Unsettling even.

Summer and then Autumn came and went, and Winter was well on it’s way. The clocks having changed, it was dark more of the time, so Jim had the lights on in his office. Now the people walking along the road were hidden in the shadows and he couldn’t see who they were, but he knew his desk lamp put him into a spotlight. He started to pull the blinds, but it felt odd, not knowing who was out, yet knowing they would be looking in.

He stopped sleeping properly, and had taken to having an extra drink or two before bed to try and relax. Rebecca had tried to ask if anything was wrong, but he’d brushed her away. He decided to book an appointment to see a doctor in London, even though he felt foolish, but he didn’t want anyone in the village knowing his business. Hopefully he could get some sleeping pills and everything would return to normal. The problem he couldn’t avoid though was how much he was drinking – so much that the glass recycling box was positively overflowing, and he’d noticed that Rebecca barely touched a drop these days.

Unexpectedly, he’d broken down when describing what was happening to the doctor. He turned out to be someone who’d known Jim a long time – an old rugby friend in fact – so although it could’ve been awkward, he’d shown Jim genuine kindness. He’d sent him away with a prescription, and gave him the telephone number of a therapist. Jim had cried that night as he told Rebecca about it.

“My doctor said what I’d experienced was paranoia” she told him, “but it all stopped once I moved out of that sun room. I think we should regard that room as out of bounds for us both.”

“Or move house?” suggested Jim, surprised to realise that he meant it.

“Yes, let’s. It could explain why it was below market value.”

© Debra Carey, 2022


#IWSG: When a Book becomes a Film – who’s the Writer?

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. It’s an opportunity to talk about doubts and fears you have conquered. To discuss your struggles and triumphs and to offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling.


This month, I’m skipping the optional question because I finally caught up with Greta Gerwig’s film Little Women over the Easter break, and it caused me to ask the question: when a book becomes a film – who’s the writer?

In the opening sequence of the film, I saw the words written by Greta Gerwig flash up on my screen – and I was startled. Having previously worked in the film industry, I’d always understood that when adapting a book for screen, one would be credited for either the screenplay, the script, an adaptation, even a treatment, while including a nod to the writer of the original book upon which you’d based your screenplay/script/adaptation/treatment.

I got a further surprise when seeing that IMDB also gives Gerwig not only Directorial accreditation, but lists her as Writer – ahead of Louisa May Alcott.

Now, Little Women is a book I’ve long loved and, while I won’t claim to know it word-for-word, I have recently listened to sections of the audio book, so can state that entire sections of the film’s dialogue were identical to Alcott’s novel. As what Gerwig did was to tell the story with a feminist twist, surely this is but a treatment of the original novel – clever, but still just a treatment? I would not hesitate to credit her for writing the screenplay, but it doesn’t sit well with me for her to cast herself, or be cast. as The Writer.

What say you my fellow writers? Have the rules about adaptations to novels changed? Is there something I’m missing?

The awesome co-hosts this month are Kim Elliott, Melissa Maygrove, Chemist Ken, Lee Lowery, and Nancy Gideon!– do take a moment to visit them.


While you’re here, can I tempt you with a #FlashFiction prompt?

Every month, we run a different #FF prompt and this month it’s Paranoia.

If you’re inspired to give this a go, you can get full details here.


© Debra Carey, 2022

#FlashFiction Prompt: Paranoia

You can take this in any direction you’d like. Make it a self-deprecating tale poking fun at yourself, a piece of political satire, something dark and trippy – whatever form the inspiration strikes (with the usual proviso of not being NSFW).

Word count: anything from 500
Deadline: 8am GMT on Sunday 8th May 2022


If you can’t make this deadline, don’t forget you can use our #TortoiseFlashFiction page.

A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line – you retain the copyright.

One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.