#SecondThoughts: Operation Mincemeat

Last year saw the release of the film Operation Mincemeat, staring Colin Firth in the role of Ewen Montagu (of who, more later). For those who’ve read – and enjoyed – the book Operation Mincemeat: The true spy story that changed the course of World War II, there may be some disappointment.

As is often the way with films, they make it all about the people involved – the (at the very least emotional) affair between married Montagu and a female colleague, the transvestite spymaster, Ian Fleming (later author of James Bond) in his role as assistant to the director of naval intelligence and, well…. you get the picture I’m sure.

Whereas the true strength of the story is the intelligence work and the success of the deception. The deception? Right, yes, better get to that – the whole shenanigan was to persuade Hitler and the German High Command that the Allies would be invading Greece and not Sicily, so they would move their defensive forces and thereby give the invasion (of Sicily) a greater chance for success.

For those who don’t know the story, a suitable dead body is acquired, a detailed false identity is created, it’s dressed in uniform and has papers planted on it suggesting that the site of the invasion – which everyone knows is going to happen – will be Greece. The dead body is then put into the sea to be found by Spanish fishermen, to be passed onto their neutral but fascist’s regime’s forces, who will alert their good friends the Nazis. The deception works, and the rest – as they say – is history.

But….

Although Ben Mackintyre’s book was a bestseller, the story first came to light in 1950. Duff Cooper, a former cabinet minister who was read into the details of Operation Mincemeat, published a fictional work called Operation Heartbreak, which included the plot device of a dead body. The British secret services decide they must publish their version of the story, and Ewen Montagu (the man Colin Firth plays in the film) is given the go ahead to write the story. In 1953, his book The Man Who Never Was is published. And in 1956, Ronald Neame makes a film of the same named, based on Montagu’s book.

So….

Both Mackintyre’s book and the film of the same name, are simply repeating the story told some 60 years earlier.

In full disclosure, I have to admit not having read Montagu’s book, nor having seen Neame’s film – so cannot draw any conclusions. By drawing attention to the fact that they’re modern do-overs, I’m not suggesting that one or other is better or worse. What’s certain is it’s a jolly good tale, and I’m rather inclined to look out not only the book in order to hear the story from the horse’s mouth (so to speak), but also the Neame film to see how they handled it.

PostScript: I see that a musical of the story will be shown in London’s West End in 2023. It’s been described as a ‘macabre musical comedy’ and an ‘accelerated farce’. I’m not sure quite how I feel about that prospect.

© Debra Carey, 2022

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#SecondThoughts: Booker Prize Readathon 2022 – the Conclusion

I know I said I’d be back at the start of October…. but then Himself booked us a holiday. Not my usual sort of holiday where at least half the time is spent holed up somewhere cosy with book in hand, but one where every minute of every day is filled with stuff to see and do. So, realising that I was never going to make it, I decided to schedule a different post for October.

First then, my reaction to the shortlist announcement: I’m delighted to see Trees made it through, and to see Oh William! there too (if surprised), while even more surprised by the lack of After Sappho (in particular) and Trust. I was aware The Colony had quite the buzz about it, and managed to squeeze it in just before the shortlist announcement. I’ll admit that certain aspects of it felt like a Booker book, but overall I’m content it didn’t get through. I’m rather pleased to find many books I’ve yet to read have made it through to the short-list, so onward! 😀

Although the prize-winner will have been announced by the time this post gets published, I will honestly tell you my choice for the prize, regardless of outcome. On then to reviewing the remaining candidates…

The Colony – Audrey Magee

Lloyd, an English painter, travels in some considerable level of comfort to a small island off the west coast of Ireland, determined to paint the cliffs ever since he read about them. His peace is disturbed by a Masson, a Frenchman studying language, who is fiercely protection of the purity of language and the life of the few inhabitants. Descriptions of daily life on the island are punctuated with short reports of the killings during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Clearly a metaphor for colonialism, and how the Irish were (and a suggestion that they always will be) betrayed by the English.

My view: As another reviewer commented, there was a lot of mundane descriptions of tea and rabbit snaring, before we got to the heart of the matter. I found out it hadn’t made it through to the shortlist as I was reading, and had very mixed feelings about its winning credentials anyway.

Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan

Another Irish book, but with a totally different feel. Short in length, but long on restrained emotion. Bill – a hardworking family man – discovers one of what we now know as the Magdalene laundries in his town. The son of a woman whose employer supported her and provided them both with home, employment and education after she fell pregnant outside of marriage – Bill’s personal conflict is played out against a town allowing the Church to tell them how to live and who to judge.

My view: Simply beautiful. Moving without being maudlin. The perfect depiction of how the Church got away their behaviour until just a few decades ago. I would love to see this win, but I suspect – sadly – it will not.

Nightcrawling – Leila Mottley

Kiara – a 17 year-old black girl, living from hand-to-mouth, with her older brother Marcus who dreams of making it big as a rap artist. Meanwhile, Kiara gets her young neighbour to school, makes sure he’s cared for when his mother’s out of it or plain not there, and tries to get the rent paid. One night she drunkenly gets handsomely paid after having hasty sex outside a bar, which leads to a life she never wanted. Caught by the cops, she becomes yet one more young girl using her body to pay the bills, except the cops often don’t pay her. Then a cop kills himself, leaving behind a confession but, although it goes to grand jury, it never gets to trial.

My view: Based on a true story, this tale is both shocking and far too easy to believe. A powerful tale about living in poverty and the corruption of authority, told in an authentic first person voice. Well worthy of it’s place on the shortlist, but not the winner for me.

Treacle Walker – Alan Garner

Even shorter than Small Things Like These, this tale blends real life, folklore, the concept of time and comic books. Joe Coppock meets Treacle Walker, a rag and bone man, gets a magic cream for his lazy eye and starts to see things differently. The language throughout is unusual – suggestions I’ve read are that its colloquial and local to Cheshire where the author lives – but for me they were simply nonsense words which added nothing to the experience. Maybe if it had been longer, I’d have got my ear attuned….

My view: I’m afraid this one didn’t do it for me at all. I neither understood it, nor found it charming – simply odd and perplexing. I suspect knowing about folklore would help immeasurably in understanding, and in finding pleasure in it. That said, the judges valued enough to put it on the shortlist and it’s certainly unusual enough to be a winner – if not my choice for the prize.

Glory – NoViolet Bulawayo

A blend of Animal Farm and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe were my first thoughts. This is a tale of a nation who, having overthrown their colonial rulers, ended up with one of their own – a tyrant who fixed elections, and used extreme violence and brutality to remain in power. Finally he too is ousted, when his evident dementia emboldens his wife to make a play for power – and in this most patriarchal of continents, that cannot be tolerated. Except in the the age old way of Africa – it turns out to be same story, different cast.

My view: Although the language positively vibrated with authenticity, I really struggled reading this one. While the subject matter isn’t an easy one, it wasn’t that. Maybe it’s the Titanic effect – when you know it’s not going to end well, no matter how much you hope. And those of us who love Africa do always have hope. All that said, it didn’t feel it had that X-factor winning ingredient to me.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida – Shehan Karunatilaka

Imagine finding yourself in some sort of processing centre where they keep insisting that you’ve died, despite you having no memory whatsoever of your death. Sure, you’re a photographer who takes pictures of the conflict ravaging your country, and you have a secret stash of dynamite shots which no-one knows about, so there’s plenty of candidates for who might have done the deed. You also learn that you have to decide what to do next within 7 moons, or be left to wander forever as a ghost or ghoul or some other afterlife being. You’re determined to get that secret stash out in public, and to find out how your life ended. As all this is taking place in Sri Lanka during a particularly unlovely time in its history, you probably don’t expect to find humour – dark to be sure – but humour nevertheless.

My view: When I first opened it, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, so it ended up being the final book I read. But, on my second try, I was immediately engaged. I quickly found myself racing along with Maali, becoming involved, rooting for him and for Jaki (I always suspected that DD was too much a chip off the parental block). I felt it had decided winning potential, even though I didn’t get long to think about it, having finished it right up against the deadline of the winner being announced.

Maps of our Spectacular Bodies – Maddie Mortimer

When I say the previous book was the last one, I mean the last one I read before the prize winner was announced. Unfortunately, this long-lister didn’t make it through to the short-list, and I’m afraid I never made the time to read it.

I like the concept, so will probably get to read it sometime – especially as it’s already on my Kindle. But it remaining unread, means I did not complete my Readathon this year.


My favourite this year was Small Things like These; indeed it was the only book I gave the full 5-stars to. That said, there was a lot else going on in my world, which probably kept me from fully engaged. Or perhaps I’ve finally reached the end of my Booker love affair?

As to my choice for the prize – I felt torn between the eventual winner The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida and The Trees, although I suspected it might turn out to be Treacle Walker.

So there you have it. I don’t think I’ll do another one of these for a while – but never say never eh? 😉

© Debra Carey, 2022

#SecondThoughts: What’s the best use of a writer’s time – a blog or Twitter?

The social media platform of choice for writerly me is Twitter. My co-host and writing partner here persuaded me some years back that it’s the best place to be because of the lively & supportive writing community. Nevertheless, my preference remained the writing of blog posts. I’d not given the subject much thought since, until I saw this question asked…

It clear that Twitter has a lively & supporting writing community but, because I don’t spend much (if any) time myself on Twitter, my own experience is not one of engagement. So much so, that when a writer responded on the subject of a recent blog post I’d auto-shared, I experienced quite the moment or two of total blankness before I made the connection, and could engage back in conversation.

This question made me give thought to my practice of using WordPress’s auto-post facility to link to Twitter. Silly really, for all I’m doing is shouting into a void unless I also take the time to engage with other Twitter users.

Worse, although I’ve been putting considerable time and effort into creating blog content, I’ve also committed the sin of not spending time building this blog’s audience by engaging with any degree of consistency with other writing or reading community bloggers either.

It’s all down to a lack of time. I’m no different to other writerly Twitter users or bloggers in that I have a “day job” (or in my case, two day jobs – one to pay the bills, the other a passion project in the building). There’s the usual personal stuff – my other half, my wonderful grown-up daughter and her two fabulous children, an elderly parent, siblings and friends, with the other big calls on my time and energy being photography and a prodigious reading habit. And with all that going on, what’s become clear is that the best use of this writer’s time is to be less scatter-gun in approach and to focus more on building connection.

As a result, my co-host and I decided earlier this year to slim back our output here to free up more time to engage. We no longer provide a monthly #FlashFiction prompt as, until we do more engaging and connection, they were largely going unseen, and we’ve gone from weekly posts on different themes selected from the categories of #SecondThoughts, #WritersResources, #ReadersResources, #IndieSpotlight and #ShortStory, to one monthly post on any one category.

In addition, each month I write a post as a member of the Insecure Writers Support Group. The first reason is that I find the optional questions a useful self-reflection exercise, and the second is the ready-made community of writers to engage with and learn from.

So, my answer to the question of whether the best use of this writer’s time is Twitter or to blog is that neither will work unless combined with time spent building connections – because ‘if you build it they will come’ only worked in Field of Dreams.

© Debra Carey, 2022

#SecondThoughts: Booker Prize Readathon 2022

From it’s conception in 1969, the Prize was awarded to books written in English and published in the United Kingdom & Ireland. But… only writers who were citizens of the British Commonwealth, Ireland, South Africa (and Zimbabwe was later added) were eligible to receive the Prize. This last fact was what drew me to the Booker, having been born and brought up in India and West Africa. Sadly, the original flavour of a Booker list changed in 2014 when they widened eligibility to any novel written in England, thereby including those written by US citizens (and others).

The aim of my Readathon has been to read all the longlisted books, completing them by the time the eventual winner is announced. In previous years, if I’d not read a book at the time the shortlist was announced and it wasn’t included, it didn’t get read. Last year, I managed to get to the shortlist’s announcement with only two being unread. As one was by an author I knew I would read regardless (and went on to become my personal winner), there was only one more book to read, which made it easy to achieve the clear sweep. Fortunately, it was a good read too 😉

I wasn’t sure until the last minute whether I was going to give it another go this year, as there’s a number of aspects involved in making the final decision:

  1. how much else is going on in my life?
  2. how much time can I find for reading?
  3. how many of the books are available at the time the longlist is announced?
  4. how many lengthy tomes are on the list?
  5. how reasonably priced are they on Amazon (I’m a Kindle reader)?
  1. The answer is lots… and yet, here I am, drawn inexorably to Bookers 😉
  2. I’m squeezing it in – in bits & pieces, here & there – and am surprising myself at my progress.
  3. All the books were available for download at the time of writing (early August).
  4. None over 500 pages long, one only 133 pages, another even shorter at 73 pages 🙂
  5. All have been generously discounted 😀

On then to my reviews…

Oh William – Elizabeth Strout

I’m one of the few people who preferred Lucy Barton to Olive Kitteridge, so this was getting read regardless of it’s appearance on the list. Lucy’s voice is strong throughout this tale of her post-divorce relationship with her first husband. Despite Lucy grieving the death of her second husband, everyone – including her – seem to feel a need to take care and/or and feel pity for William when he uncovers an old family secret and loses his second wife at the same time. Beautifully written and a sharply observed depiction of relationship dynamics.

My view: unlikely to be the winner, nor even make it to the shortlist, although – as ever – that’s dependant on the strength of the other candidates. But I liked it!

Trust – Hernan Diaz

An interesting read. The second section nearly lost me and, were it not on the longlist, I’d possibly have stopped reading. That said, I’m glad I ploughed on, as subsequent sections made completing the book entirely worthwhile. In essence, the tale of a successful & wealthy man who hires someone to write his memoirs in order to correct a salacious tale which everyone knows is based on him and his wife. He fusses about the incorrect depiction of his wife’s death – said to be following treatment for a mental illness, when it was in fact cancer. Except it turns out he’s hiding something else entirely.

My view: it’s clever, and the format could well appeal to the judges. It’s not getting five stars from me as that second section was unnecessarily turgid, and took from the overall book. Nevertheless, it has shortlist written all over it.

The Trees – Percival Everett

This was shaping up to be my first 5 star read, until it got all wish-fulfilment about an uprising in the Donald Trump era. A fascinating story of murder in a small town Mississippi, where an unpleasant racist is found brutally murdered with a body of a dead black man alongside him – a black man who bears a striking resemblance to Emmett Till. When the black man’s body disappears and then re-appears at the site of a second racist’s murder, the case is pushed on up the chain of command. A couple of special agents are despatched to investigate – and they, plus the FBI agent who’s later sent to investigate the rash of copy-cat murders which then follow – are all black. Oh & did I mention the humour… yes, despite the subject.

My view: This is a fascinating idea and the judges may not care as much I did about the closing chapters – I hope so. I’d be surprised not to see it on the shortlist.

Case Study – Graeme Macrae Burnet

Burnet has written a similar is-it-real-or-is-it-fiction book to his previous Booker contender. Collins Braithwaite – a trendy therapist with a highly inflated sense of self and a long-running feud with the well-known psychiatrist R D Laing, is at the centre of the tale of Veronica, who believes her sister (although not much loved by her) committed suicide after a number of sessions with the great man. Burnet weaves Veronica’s ‘found notebooks’ with his own notes on the great man’s back story – childhood, Oxford university, London, and final return to his childhood home in Darlington.

My view: As with Burnet’s previous work, this was intriguing and gripping in many ways and yet… for me, remained unsatisfactory. Will it make it onto the next stage? I’m unconvinced – much depends on the quality of the remaining candidates.

Booth – Karen Joy Fowler

I’ll be honest, I really didn’t like Fowler’s previously shortlisted work We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, so I approached this with trepidation. Without cause I have to admit, as I very much enjoyed this tale about the family of Abraham Lincoln’s killer. The family’s story is told via rotating POVs – John has 5 siblings who reach adulthood (and several who do not). His father is a famed Shakespearean actor, who deserted his first wife and son to run away to America with the beauty who became mother to John and the rest of the Booth clan. The family is filled with characters, quoting Shakespeare to one another in everyday speech. John is the family favourite and the only one who involves himself in politics, becoming an avid supporter of the South, despite not joining the fighting forces. He drops the name Booth in an attempt to be his own man in a career on the stage, his elder brother having followed his father there successfully – unfortunately those selling the tickets preferred to include it, which is how he came to be known as John Wilkes Booth – with his fame outstripping them all.

My view: I’m conflicted. This is a really good read, but I’m uncertain of its prize winning potential. It’s certainly a great story and a most entertaining piece of historical writing to boot. I’d like to think it would – at the very least – make the shortlist.

After Sappho – Selby Wynn Schwartz

How to describe this? Snippets of tales, some from well-known women such as Virginia Wolfe, Vita Sackville-West, Isadora Duncan and Sarah Bernhardt – others from people I’d never previously encountered such as Lina Poletti and Natalie Barney. The tales they tell are that of woman’s struggle to be more than a possession passed from father to husband, the struggle for freedom to think and express their thoughts and desires as men do, the fight for the right to their independence in law. At first confusing and fragmented, bit by bit this builds into something powerful and disturbing, reminding us just how much there is to be lost in the current backlash against women’s rights.

My view: I struggled with this at first, wondering when the coherent narrative would appear. That never happened, but it mattered not – for I came to appreciate the value of its form. A shortlist shoe-in, with strong winning potential – in my opinion.

Do join me on October 2nd, when I wrap up my #SecondThoughts on attempting the Booker Prize Readathon, with my reviews on the remaining candidates, and who I think will be a winner in 2022.

Have you read any of the candidates? Do you think any of them is a potential winner?


© Debra Carey, 2022

#SecondThoughts: From Ruritania With Love

Recently I’ve been listening to some of the early Ellery Queen novels – but that, perhaps, is another blog post.  I’m currently on “The Egyptian Cross Mystery”, the fourth in the series, which has very little to do with Egypt, but a fair amount to do with Central Europe, specifically the Balkans.  To begin with, the references to Central Europe are rather tentative, and I did wonder whether we were going to be ‘treated’ to a fictional nation – but that is not the style of Ellery Queen.

Still, it got me thinking about Ruritania, and whether there is still a place for Ruritania in modern writing.  If Ruritanian Romances could be said to have had a Golden Age, in the same way as Detective fiction, s.f., and comics, then it probably started around 1894 with the publication of the definitive Ruritanian Romance, “The Prisoner of Zenda”, and petered out sometime in the mid-20th century.  The Second World War, together with the subsequent seismic changes in European politics, made small fictional states headed by an ancient royalty at risk from a rotten usurper largely superfluous.  Other issues were at the forefront of peoples’ minds.

Like any genre, there are certain expectations, and also variations whereby we can place an outlier within the grouping, even if it requires a little shoehorning.  Romance in this setting does not, of course, mean a Mills & Boon style story, but one of adventure, chivalry, and a certain idealisation of the world and how it should work.  In this respect the Ruritanian Romances are descended from the Mediæval romances of Arthur, Charlemagne, and other courtly, questing knights.  Examples of some outliers, that help give us the boundaries to the genre, include “King Ottokar’s Sceptre”, the Tintin story set in Syldavia, and the classic Marx Brothers’ film “Duck Soup” set in Freedonia. 

This is not to say that Ruritania has been swallowed up completely.  It lives on, both for the benefit of jurists, who use it as an example, in a similar manner to ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’, as well as for the fiction writer looking for a relatively neutral setting for a story.  Simon Brett sends Blotto and Twinks off to Mitteleuropia in “…and the Ex-King’s Daughter”, for example, although this is a story set in the early 20th century.  “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is an era spanning story, and whilst the majority is set in pre-war Zubrowka, the implication of the framing story is that the country still exists now.

So perhaps Ruritania is alive and well, even if the Ruritanian Romance is dead.  It’s possible that it might make a comeback (Ruritanian vampires, anyone?) but the specific characteristics of the Romance – plots to do away with legitimate heirs, for good or ill, thwarted or abetted by chivalrous adventurers – are probably past their sell by date.  Today we tend to look for more realistic heroes, those who succeed despite character flaws, or who are in some way redeemed.

But if the Romance were to be revived, what might we look for?  What might be different?  A royal lineage could be replaced by a politically dynastic family, and the long lost twin/look-a-like has probably gone full circle, navigating the far reaches of passe.  (Androids and other s.f. approaches have also been done before, but there is always a new twist based on emerging science and technology…).  Perhaps, given the current climate (if you’ll forgive the pun), something with an Environmental focus would make a good plot.

What do you think?  Should we get a visa for Ruritania?  Or should we just leave it in the history books?

© David Jesson, 2022

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

#SecondThoughts: Avoid alliteration. Always.

Alphabetical Africa, by Walter Abish, is the kind of eccentric novel that you have to really work at – but it is incredibly clever. The first chapter is written using only words that begin with ‘a’. With every chapter, the next letter of the alphabet is added until the full alphabet is available; from that point though, letters are dropped until the last chapter returns to the same restriction as the first.

I’m not sure I’d want to have a go at writing something like that, but I think that most writers, at some point or another, enjoy having a go at something experimental. At the very least, there’s always something that is considered to be some kind of rule that you feel that you want to rebel against.

The thing about a lot of writing ‘rules’ is that people tend to focus on the sound bite and fail to look at the more nuanced case behind it. Eliminate adverbs, for example, is supposed to help you produce a cleaner form of writing. Using an adverb means that you should have used a stronger verb, they say. For myself, I think it’s a piece of advice that can help you in the editing phase, but you shouldn’t just take all the adverbs round the back and shoot them. Adverbs, if used sparingly, can be powerful, in a subtle kind of way. For example, ‘run’ is not a stronger verb to replace ‘walk quickly’. If you walk quickly, you’re walking with purpose; if you hurry, there’s possibly a certain nervous urgency to your action.

‘Avoid alliteration, always’ is a piece of advice that I’ve seen floating around for years. If Abish had followed this advice then there would be one less odd book for us to ponder over. Some might say that would be a good thing…

However, is the advice genuine? Or is it a joke? Alliteration is taught in schools, so why should we avoid it?

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be given a copy of Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon, which explores the etymology of a range of words, with each explanation following on from the last, and the last entry linking back to the first. For someone interested in words, and how they are related, the book is fascinating. On the basis of my enjoyment of the book, I put in a request for some of Forsyth’s other work, and so have recently been able to make a start on ‘The Elements of Eloquence’. The first chapter, as you might have guessed, is on alliteration.

Alliteration is one of the tools of rhetoric – the black art and subtle science of persuading people to your point of view by talking to them. As with many of the ‘rules’ around writing, the answer is not to avoid it always, but rather to deploy it for effect in the right places. Alliteration is a way of generating a certain rhythm to a piece, to hammer home a point. But. But. And again, but. It is all to easy to over-egg the pudding. It might be thought that Alphabetical Africa is far too much of a good thing, but Abish deliberately goes too far, and in so doing makes a point. If he’d done any less, then it would have reduced the impact of what he was attempting. Instead, by going the whole hog, the alliteration is a statement.

However, alliteration allowed to run amok, an attempt at Art, is usually amazingly atrocious and should not be accepted. What had not occurred to me before though, assuming alliteration must always use the same letter in a given sentence, is that the rhetorical ruse can be used usefully with different letters.

Ahem. The point, as ever, is that you can have too much of a good thing. Don’t avoid alliteration, but do use it sparingly. Save it for special occasions. Like any tool, learn to use it safely, for the right purpose, and it can add sparkle to your scribbles.

© David Jesson, 2022

#SecondThoughts: Causes or Passions colouring your writing

In my experience, it’s virtually impossible to prevent bits of yourself leaching into your writing, so why wouldn’t your causes or passions colour it too? As I see it, you can choose to make them the driving force of your story, or to simply be one aspect of it, or to form a background against which it’s told.

Let me start with an example of shared passion which colours our co-authored WIP The November Deadline, that of gender equality. It might be obvious why this would be a cause close to my heart, but it’s David whose the passionate STEMinist – advocating for greater opportunities and a more welcoming environment for women in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It’s no surprise, therefore, that he was drawn to the Dvergar for their matriarchal structure and skills in this area. The obvious bonus being it provided us with a methodology to showcase non-typical – for the era – female characters in our WIP. The contrast between our Dvergar characters and those who do met the historical norms of the era, allowed this disparity to be heightened without any need for drum banging in our writing.


Moving on then to focus on how I’ve seen this done beautifully in my reading.

The Wayfarer’s series from Becky Chambers (which I highly commend to you by the way) comprises a quartet of books – The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, Record of a Spaceborn Few and The Galaxy, and the Ground Within – and is an excellent series of space opera, where individuals from a wide range of planets are drawn together, to work, to love, and to live. It’s not an unrealistically utopian world for there are – of course – conflicts, some of the global type, but more of the inter-personal kind. What I’ve especially enjoyed is the depiction of variances in culture, belief systems, physical needs, attitudes to things such as parenting, and gender. In the final book of the quartet, we meet a mother and child from a people where it’s standard practice for children to be gender neutral until they reach a certain age, at which point they get to choose which gender path they will follow thereafter. With Trans issues being a rather combative subject at present, this gentle depiction of a different way of looking at gender identity was both interesting and enjoyable.

James Baldwin as both a black man and a gay man, has written passionately on both these subjects. His stories ring loud of authenticity, of pain and suffering, of wrongs being done to. But he does this by placing at the heart of his stories, characters – people – who you believe and are drawn to and care about, so that what they endure – and why – is drawn even more sharply into focus.

In a recent piece about queer literature, a blogger I follow highlighted a series they’d enjoyed reading, because there was a story and a plotline with gay characters, but that the sexual preference of the characters wasn’t the story. One of the commenters expressed his agreement, stating that this was a more accurate depiction of his own life experience, and therefore felt more authentic.

I’d like to close this musing with the following observations I ‘ve taken from an article I read in The Bookseller (do read the entire article as it’s both interesting and amusing). Penned by author and blogger Ellen Hawley, it explains that Hawley doesn’t limit herself to writing solely lesbian characters or storylines because “It’s a big world out there. I can’t write it all, but I won’t limit myself more than I have to.” But what most interested me was this statement: “I want my work to find its way into the lesbian community…. But it’s easier to reach into the community if I publish in the mainstream, than it is to reach the larger world by publishing within the community.” This aligns with my view that, if a cause is important to you, it needs to reach the widest community and not just those who agree with you – so using it to colour your story, rather than noisily banging away at a drum, could be the most effective method for an author to achieve that aim.


© Debra Carey, 2022 (for the blog & images)
© The Bookseller & Ellen Hawley (for the extracts)