Debs and I met through a book club. It started with just three people, Brave New World, and a less than ideal venue…(we weren’t anticipating the dance class in the pub where we chose to meet). From the beginning we took it in turns to choose the book and we had a rule that the book needed to be one that none of us had read – the idea was that we wouldn’t have an emotional investment prior to the novel and wouldn’t be heartbroken when a much-loved favourite was ripped apart by others. When it came to my first turn to suggest a book, I couldn’t quite make up my mind, so I suggested a short list of three, and the others voted on this. By the time that Debs joined the club a few years later, we had a pretty established format of a short list of 5-8 books, sometimes with a theme. Incidentally, the book we were discussing at Debs’ first session was an unusually long one for us – This Thing of Darkness – but one that we all loved, an infrequent situation for us!
Some authors are so prolific that it is possible to circumvent our rules, whilst still maintaining (some of) the spirit. For example, I am a huge Pratchett fan, but had not read any of the Long Earth books when they turned up on one of Debs’ lists. This month we read Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell: we have a huge Cornwell fan in the group, but she’d not read this one. In fact, Cornwell, with only one or two others, is an author that has come up twice, the first book of his we read being The Last Kingdom. I’ve not seen the TV version of the Last Kingdom so I can’t comment on how it compares. I wasn’t a big fan of the book: it should have ticked a lot of boxes for me, but I think I just didn’t warm to the main character.
I was intrigued by the idea of Fools & Mortals, especially as the group had opted to read Bill Bryson’s brief biography of Shakespeare a few years ago. (We’ve been going for more than 15 years now, so we’ve covered a lot of territory). I’m out of practice in terms of writing reviews and so this is not really intended to be one. Elsewhere I’ve mentioned that I quite like Sarina Langer’s approach to reviewing, which is not so much as to offer a subjective star rating, but to pick up on the things that she likes and the things that she thought could be improved. One of the things that I have found myself doing more frequently as increase the time spent writing is to ask the question “what would I do differently, if I were writing this book?”.
Before we get to that, it is probably worth noting that (a) I did search for some reviews of the book, and the consensus seems to be that it is a 4* effort, and, (b) outside of Amazon (where, at the time of writing this post, there were 205 reviews) I’ve yet to find a compelling/reasoned negative review.
So what did I like? I liked the opening a great deal: I thought it was intriguing and sucked me in completely. (The Cornwell fan in the group thought it rather obvious, and didn’t like it. Ho hum. As an aside, the best meetings we’ve had are around books that split opinion). It was an excellent start and the epilogue echoes this to give the story a nice symmetry. I quite like the main character, who is very much of the time. He is not an anti-hero, but neither is he especially heroic – he is a self-confessed thief, but is a reliable narrator. I learned something, and I think that the things that I learned were even true in some respects!
I have two major, linked gripes. There is a plot, but it’s a bit thin, and as a consequence the book feels as though it has been padded: there are quite large chunks of Shakespeare’s works in the book and there is a great deal of repetition. Take ceruse, for example. Ceruse was the name for the paste made from white lead and vinegar that was used to whiten the skin. Unsurprisingly, given the book is set late in the Elizabethan period, ceruse is mentioned 11 times – perhaps the biggest surprise is that it is not mentioned more frequently. Sometimes things were added to the paste – Cornwell describes the property mistress of the acting troupe trying out various dyes to give a green hue to Puck’s make-up at the first presentation of a Midsummer Night’s Dream. The use of crushed pearls is also mentioned: in a theatrical setting it is used to make the skin sparkle slightly in the candlelight. We were reminded of the crushed pearls almost every single time, and I got a bit fed up with this being rehashed.
I think the plot felt thin because the book couldn’t really decide what it wanted to be. I was going to complain about the fact that there is very little ‘action’ (in this sense peril) until almost halfway through the book, but in thinking about it, this wasn’t necessarily the problem – the problem was that the action felt rather contrived.
What would I do differently? I was going to say “Nothing! I wouldn’t write this book!”, but that is perhaps being too flippant. The book did give me an idea, which I will make a note of and I might even revisit, which would require a reasonable amount of research, but might be quite fun; it does need time to mature. But if I were to take Fools and Mortals itself…hmmm….I think what could be quite fun is to reduce the book to novella length and then treat that as the first third of the book, the first Act. There are two other acts that could work well (and a scholar could probably find several others). Within my background reading, I found out that the Globe was built from the materials of another play house, called the Theatre, which was removed from its site following a dispute with the landlord, stored and then rebuilt. Also, we tend to forget that Shakespeare lived not only in the Elizabethan era, but also in the Jacobean. Managing this transition must have been fun…
So how about you? What things have you learned about your writing by reading other people’s work?