Hazel McHaffie

book reviews

What’s in a name?

Today’s post emerges from two people who share a name and whose actions have impinged upon my life as a writer.

The first is Marcel Proust, said to be one of the greatest French authors of the 20th Century. OK, he died in 1922, when my mother was 2 years old – so why is he affecting me in 2017?

Well, one of my pet hates is people who endlessly trumpet their own success or brilliance. It happens sometimes on social media, but at least then you usually know who the guilty party is and can assess/dismiss their accolades for what they’re worth. It’s a different matter when they do it incognito. Over the years, various people – reporters, other authors – have exposed writers for faking reviews of their own books and there’s widespread condemnation for such practices.

So it’s something of a paradox that big money is being made out of fraud that predates electronic communication and computers. But so it is. Letters Proust wrote to his editor have recently come to light which show that he employed his legendary literary skill to write superlative reviews of his own novels – really over-the-top, immodest attributions, I mean; comparing himself favourably to Charles Dickens – which were then published under other names or anonymously. And what’s more, his publisher was complicit in this practice.

The letters were discovered in a rare early copy of one of his books – whoops! But those same letters are now themselves going under the hammer at the end of this month and are expected to realise a handsome sum – and I’m talking hundreds of thousands of pounds here! Of course, it’s only because Proust’s work is so highly respected that there’s such a stooshie but still …

What a weirdly convoluted world we live in. I may be (I am!) too backward in coming forward where my own books are concerned, but my conscience is more at ease with that than it ever could be with indecent or unsavoury or unethical promotion.

The second Marcel is actually Marcelle: Marcelle Bernstein. Heard of her? Probably not  – although she’s a woman of distinction with several awards under her belt. And I’m sure she has never stooped to boost her own profile by anything so ill-judged as Proust. I mention her for quite a different reason. I loved her book Sacred and Profane when I read it years ago, but until this week I’d never got around to reading anything else she’s written. When Body and Soul came to the top of my tbr pile, of course, the shared name struck me as an interesting coincidence.

The author, Bernstein, herself has actually lived in a Carmellite convent as part of her research for a documentary about the life of the religious, and she can write about the inner turmoils as well as the outer deprivations with some authority and understanding. So perhaps it’s not surprising that both Sacred and Profane and Body and Soul are set in nunneries.

I’ve reviewed Sacred and Profane (1995) elsewhere so I’ll limit my comments to Body and Soul (1991) which I’ve just finished reading. Perhaps my expectations were too high but I confess I was disappointed this time around. Sister Gabriel (Anna in the outside world) is in her early thirties and struggling with her vows after 13 years in a closed contemplative order in Wales. Her inner anguish is exposed to greater scrutiny when her brother Simon commits suicide leaving behind a pregnant wife, two small boys, a stack of debts, and a failing woollen mill. Anna is given a rather begrudging dispensation to go out into the outside world to help her distraught sister-in-law, and suddenly she’s aware of how much isolation and seclusion from temptation have been protecting her from her own wants and needs. ‘The habit had been a medieval chrysalis, protecting her from the twentieth century. It had given her a version of herself she could no longer accept: too passive, too patient, negative.’

Once outside, this rather stern, solitary, sheltered woman falls prey to many a worldly emotion and lure. For me, I must confess, the plot was too thin, I didn’t care enough about the characters, and worse, Anna’s fall from grace simply didn’t ring true. Would a shy inhibited puritan with so many sexual hangups and taboos really submit so easily to the gropings of assorted men she’d just met? Would she abandon so many of her customary ingrained habits and adopt hitherto shunned and despised practices? I think not. So for me, this book was perfectly readable, but not believable or memorable.

Why then do I mention it? Because it reinforces the fact that reading is subjective, that an author will probably not please all the people all the time, that research only takes a novelist so far, and that one can never rest on one’s laurels in this business. Even a book loved decades ago might not appeal where the same reader is today. All important lessons for me as a writer and my own most severe critic.

 

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Final changes and additions

I’m at the stage with Inside of Me where we’re waiting for reviews and final comments to come in before the whole package can be put together. It would be all too easy to champ at the bit but I’m using the time to catch up with a hotch-potch of jobs. One of those is checking out ‘the competition’ – aka reading other novels that fall into the ‘medical ethical’ bracket.

Two books overlap very directly with my own.

Dear ThingDear Thing by Julie Cohen is about surrogate pregnancy – like my Double Trouble Double Troublepublished six years earlier; although I hasten to add I’m not suggesting Cohen plagiarised my ideas! Indeed, her book became a Summer Book Club choice with Richard and Judy in 2014.

In a nutshell: Romily is a scientist and single Mum with a precociously clever daughter. Ben and Claire are her best friends but they’re unable to have a child of their own, so Romily offers to carry a baby for them and they arrange the logistics of this transaction privately between them. But no one has bargained on the unravelling of relationships and emotions. Hmmm. Very similar plot line to mine then.

Elizabeth is MissingElizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey was recommended to me by someone who’d also read my Remember Remember. Again it came out long after mine – seven years this time. Costa Book Award And again it won a prestigious prize – the Costa First Novel Award 2014.

In a nutshell: Maud is struggling with dementia and searching for her friend Elizabeth. She is haunted by unresolved issues from her past. The bewilderment and confusion of the dementing mind are beautifully captured, and important truths are dotted into the account of Maud’s thinking and stumbling through life. Remember RememberFor example, she loves being teased; it makes her ‘feel human’; the other person is assuming she’s ‘intelligent enough to get a joke.’ Worth remembering.

I’ve now finished both. Verdict? Enjoyable reads, although neither achieved a 5 star rating for me. The overlaps with my books are noteworthy, so I’m glad I wrote mine first. It’s an abiding concern with me that another publication will come out ahead of mine that makes it look as if I stole someone else’s ideas! Partly fuelled of course by a heightened awareness of a topic which means you see it everywhere. On the other hand, I’m delighted to find such thought-provoking books are receiving real recognition.

Nicola MorganAll this reading feels like a great indulgence, so it was heartening to hear prolific author, Nicola Morgan, (at a Blackwells Bookshop author-event last week) describe reading novels as an essential part of stress reduction, and not the luxury or guilty pleasure it’s sometimes portrayed as – she calls it ‘readaxation’! And she should know: she’s an expert on the brain and coping with stress. I shall sink back into my upholstered chair and allow the healthy hormones to do their work as I turn the pages …

Oh, and by the way, click here for an interesting clip about the value of reading aside from relaxation.

 

 

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Reviewing

What makes a good review?

I suspect an author would have a rather different take on this from a dispassionate reader – especially if their own book was under scrutiny. So I was interested in the blog of Simon Thomas on this subject. No, no no, not the politician, not the footballer, nor even the TV presenter – no, I mean Simon Thomas, blogger, of Stuck in a Book fame. On 12 June he wrote:

I’ve seen many bloggers work out their own approach to reviewing books, covering all aspects – from whether or not you ought to say where you got a book, to whether or not negative reviews should feature at all on a blog.  Some bloggers (wisely) just outline their own preferences – others, at the shoutier end of the blogosphere which I frequent very seldom and to which none of you belong, lay down the law for all bloggers.  I’m not going to attempt to do either, but today I stumbled across John Updike’s criteria for writing a review (which first appeared in the introduction to his essay collection Picking Up The Pieces in 1975) and I thought it was very interesting, and maybe even very sensible… what do you think?

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s œuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never … try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.’

Now, Stuck in a Book’s own reviews are delightful to read. Simon comes across as fair and kindly, discerning but not arrogant. Remember RememberAnd I had a lovely friendly exchange with him some time ago when he reviewed my own Remember Remember. He readily admits that he has certain ‘blocks’ or idiosyncratic tastes – like his aversion to several high-profile male characters in the classics (Mr Rochester, Mr. Knightley, Heathcliff) for instance. Imagine!

So do I agree with these views on reviewing?

Well, let’s look at the six points first. Basically, yes … for serious review-bloggers. It’s the kind of yardstick I’d like critics to use when judging my books.  And I specially approve of the bits about not giving away the plot (a pet hate), and treating the author with respect, and not complaining because he/she wrote the book he/she did and not the one you wanted to read.

Will I change my own reviews? Probably not, although I might just add more quotations from the texts in future. OK, OK. I can already hear several of my regular followers groaning. Short and snappy, they cry. And I know they’d hate lots of secondhand quoting. So fear not, I’ll be circumspect.

And I think I can afford to take this line because my blog is not principally a review-blog. My comments are designed to draw attention to the things I’m reading as a writer; things that are influencing me in some way. Quotes that give a flavour of the author’s style, or that emphasize important points they make, are legitimate in that context. I leave the longer more thorough critiques to luminaries like Dovegreyreader or Cornflower or Stuck in a Book himself who all do it so well. If you haven’t visited them I recommend you do.

 

 

 

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