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A Library Snapshot

I have been reading a mixture of books recently and many of them are too good not to share, so I’d like to dip into each one and give you a glimpse of what makes the books stand out in a crowded bookshelf. I haven’t finished all of them so these are just outlines and glimpses.

101 days            orkney       amity and sorrow    first-light-charles-baxter-paperback-cover-art     irish short story

A Hundred and One Days by Åsne Seierstad

Author Åsne Seierstad is a freelance journalist and who writes about everyday life in war zones. From her first hand experiences, she has written about Kabul, Baghdad and Grozny. I particularly enjoyed The Bookseller of Kabul, so I have finally picked up this gem, A Hundred and One Days, set in Baghdad during the US invasion of Iraq. I enjoy non-fiction and stories set in conflict areas so her books appeal to me. Seierstad focuses on the lives of Iraqi citizens, providing an insight into their days lived under the constant threat of attack, first from the Iraqi government and later from American bombs. She also describes in vivid detail the frustration felt by journalists in their attempts to sort truth from propadanda. The book looks at the ‘before,’ ‘during,’ and ‘after,’ of the war without casting moral judgement on the situation, and looks at everyday lives with a sharp understanding of human nature, a trait in her writing which I have enjoyed in her other books.

Orkney by Amy Sackville

Amy Sackville is a creative writing teacher at Kent University, and this is her second novel, set on a remote island in Orkney. It is a poetic and lyrical story of an unusual couple: a 61 year old literature professor and his pupil who is never actually named. The  book spans their fortnight honeymoon in this barren landscape and, as she spends an obsessive amount of time by the sea, he realises how little he knows her. We don’t know why his wife is so obsessed by the sea, but it has something to do with her father, who disappeared when she was young. The language of the book is beautiful and intriguing, and I couldn’t put it down.

Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley

Riley is a writer and a playwright. There is so much to say about her but I’ll save it for my upcoming author interview next week. Released on March 28, this book is shocking and gripping story of a mother who rescues her daughters from a cult, their father and a fire,  driving for days without sleep until they crash their car in rural Oklahoma. The girls, Amity and Sorrow, can’t imagine what the world holds outside their father’s polygamous compound. Rescue comes in the unlikely form of Bradley, a farmer grieving the loss of his wife. This is an unforgettable story which I was fortunate enough to receive as an advanced reader copy. I would recommend picking it up when it is released in the next few weeks. It has already had some wonderful reviews.

First Light by Charles Baxter

I discovered this out of print gem and managed to find a second hand copy. Charles Baxter’s short stories have appeared in the Best American Short Stories and in two of his own collections. This novel, his first, was supported by a Guggenheim Foundation grant. He takes us backwards through the lives of Hugh and Dorsey Welch who are brother and sister. We meet them as adults, while Hugh is a Buick salesman and Dorsey is an astrophysicist, and discover their dark and difficult pasts. The author traces their paths back to the day of Dorsey’s birth with an unusual subtlety. His opening paragraph includes this vivid description: ‘Hugh keeps both hands near the top of the steering wheel the way cautious men often do, and he does not turn to argue with her, not at first.’

The Grant Book of the Irish Short Story

I am reading both the Irish Short Story collection and the Best American Short Stories, but I wanted to focus on this collection in particular, edited by Anne Enright. Ireland has produced some of the world’s most celebrated short story writers and this, a collection of the best works of contemporary Irish short fiction writers, includes works by  Roddy Doyle, William Trevor, Colm Toibin and Kevin Barry. It  begins and ends with a road accident. The first, which proves fortuitous, involves an out-of-work labourer and a carload of nuns; the second – which is fatal – occurs when a mechanic decides to earn a few extra euros ferrying tourists to a shrine where a statue of Mary is said to weep. Between these two tales we meet a mother who finds her son suspected of abuse and we glimpse the consequences of Irish abortion law. The subjects are heavy and, sometimes dark, but the writing is tight and distinctive. My favourite story so far is John Banville’s Summer Voices. His book, The Sea, won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and his short story is carried off with the same elegance of style with phrases such as these: ‘The radiance of the summer afternoon wove shadows about him.’ The story follows a young boy and girl who discover a body in amongst an almost eerie description of the landscape.


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Plot, Characters, Homeland, and What You Need to Achieve to Keep Readers Engaged

Are you hooked on Homeland? Yes? Great, we’re on the same wavelength. No? Give it a go, I’m sure you’ll be waiting for the next episode as soon as you have watched just one. Try it and let me know what you think. There is a trailer at the end of the post. I love espionage and secret service dramas. I was hooked on Spooks, set in the UK and now Homeland, a US  TV series which was released in October 2011. I watched the latest episode last night and my final thoughts before I drifted off to sleep, and my first waking thoughts, were what makes it so gripping?

There are many good dramas, films, and books that will keep you wanting more – books that will keep you up all night, films that leave you glued to your seat long after the cinema has emptied, drama series that will leave you waiting for the next episode, but how and why does this happen? Like all of you, my life is full and busy, there isn’t much time to watch TV, get to the cinema often or read a book right through in one sitting. So it has to take a pretty good plot and compelling characters to make me want more. These are the two key elements of a good storyline. You can have a great plot with two-dimensional characters and the reader/viewer won’t engage or feel anything, apart from maybe the need to go and make a coffee. Similarly, you might have engaging characters but if nothing happens to them, then there is no tension or suspense, nothing to stay for, nothing to come back for.

I’ll fill you in quickly on the Homeland plot:

Homeland is an edge-of-your-seat thriller, following Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), an American soldier returned to the US from years of captivity in Iraq, and Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a Central Intelligence Agency operations officer who conducted an unauthorised operation in Iraq and is put on probation. She is warned that an American prisoner of war has been turned by al-Qaeda. She believes Brody is not an American Hero, but part of a sleeper cell planning a terrorist attack. The only person she can trust is Saul Berenson. The two must now work together to investigate Brody and prevent another terrorist attack on America. Homeland was named Best Drama Series at the Emmy Awards, with stars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis winning Lead Actress in a Drama Series, and Lead Actor in a Drama Series, respectively.  The series also won Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series and Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series.

So, what is it that has made the series so successful, and why am I taking up your time in sharing all of this? Because it is important to learn what makes  the viewer keep coming back, and what keeps people reading.

Good Plot

A story has to have some element of conflict – conflict of desires, conflict of interest, conflict between characters. Without it there is very little tension. Not all books are thriller/espionage/action adventure, but even in a romance or historical fiction novel you’ll find some good areas of conflict which propel the plot forwards and drive the action. In Homeland you never really know which side Nicholas Brody is on. There are moments when you believe he wants the best for the US government and the country, and times when he wants to support the terrorist group who he became entwined with during his years in prison. He has allegiances to both sides for various reasons. As the viewer, you never know what he really believes.

Compelling Characters 

Sol Stein, author of nine novels, poet, screenplay and TV drama script writer, and creative writing lecturer, has said this of characterisation – ‘When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.’ He says that we are driven through life by needs and wants, that these desires are the driving force of characters. If a character does not want something enough, the reader or viewer will have a difficult time getting behind them, and will lack the emotional experience that they are looking for. Carrie, in Homeland, is constantly trying to prove her belief that Brody has been turned and is a ‘threat to national security.’ It is this drive in her, despite the obstacles, that keeps you hooked. You want her to succeed.

What have you seen, read or written recently that builds tension? Do you have any examples of good plot or compelling characters?

I’m off to see Skyfall on Wednesday! Enjoy the Homeland trailer…