Good writing

I’ve been a member of the same book group for more than twenty years. We’re a small group of women who enjoy reading and we have quite different tastes which is a good thing.

I often tell people that although we like very different kinds of books, we all appreciate good writing. But recently someone asked me what I mean when I say that something is ‘well written’.  Isn’t this purely subjective? A matter of opinion?

Well, yes and no.

A book can be well written, but boring. It can be well written, but too slow or the characters can be really unlikeable. (See my previous post for my thoughts on unlikeable characters).

Here’s a few things that I think contribute to good writing.

Well crafted sentences are always appreciated. I like it when I don’t have to read a sentence more than once to figure out what it means. If I do read a sentence twice, it’s usually because I’ve enjoyed it so much that I want to read it again.

I like writing that is honest but graceful. I like lyrical writing, but I dislike long descriptive passages and tend to skip over them if they are too long. I like the story to move along at a fairly brisk pace.

I like the characters to be complex and multi-dimensional (just like in real life). It’s great when characters have a range of emotions, or mixed feelings. I like to understand their motivations, their fears, their secret desires.

A couple of years ago my book group read an excellent book by Stephanie Bishop, a West Australian author called “The Other Side of the World”.  Set in England, Australia and India in the early 1960s, it was described by the New York times Book Review as an exquisite meditation on motherhood, marriage, and the meaning of home. For me, this is the kind of book that encapsulates what I like best in books. Strong themes, strong characters and lots of thought provoking questions that we couldn’t really answer in our book group, but we enjoyed discussing.

And yes, we thought it was well-written, whatever that means.

My best reads in 2018

person holding book from shelf

Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

I love this time of the year. Not only do I get to have a holiday, but I also get to read all of the “best books of 2018” posts to see what great books I might have missed. I love to read what the various book sellers,  reviewers  and other bloggers have chosen as their favourites for the year and what they think will be worth reading in the coming year. As a regular library goer I like to make a note of the most anticipated books and then wait until they hit the library shelves. (Call me a cheapskate, but it works for me).

Last year I mentioned that I had only read a couple of dozen books when other readers seemed to have read 80+, so this year I decided to keep a list. There are about 24 books on the list again this year, which equates to two per month. The list doesn’t include books I abandoned, either because they were boring or because the main character was totally unlikeable. I like my protagonists to be flawed but generally decent people, otherwise I tend not to care what happens to them.

Top picks for 2018 (all with flawed characters)

Behold the dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. This book is about two Cameroonian migrants, Jenda and Neni,  who are trying to live the American Dream. Whilst waiting for the results of their application for asylum, Jenda gets a job as a driver for a Wall St banker (Clarke), while his wife Neni works as domestic for Clarke’s wife. Their lives are compared, but neither family is painted as perfect. Set in 2008, just prior to the Lehmann Bros debacle, this is a complex book about money, privilege and happiness. Highly recommended. If I had a star system, this would get lots of stars!

Little fires everywhere by Celeste Ng. I loved this book about a dysfunctional family living in Shaker Heights, Ohio. This is a book about motherhood, secrets, art and identity and caused a lot of discussion at my book group. What I especially liked about this book was that each of the characters had their own view of the world and their own reasons for taking the actions that they did. It’s a very even-handed book, you could really understand where everyone was coming from.

Still life with bread crumbs by Anna Quindlen. This is a highly enjoyable read, reminiscent of an upmarket Elizabeth Berg novel. This review describes this book as “comfort food” and I think that’s fair comment. It’s an easy read about a middle-aged photographer trying to re-invent herself after a downturn in her economic situation.

This is how it always is by Laurie Frankel was the book on everyone’s “must read” list this time last year. It’s about a family who’s little boy Claude decides that he wants to be a girl. I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy this book, as I thought it might be too confronting, but it’s an excellent read. The book is about a regular family facing a difficult situation. I especially liked the fact that they make mistakes (just like in real life) but they essentially love their child and just want him/her to be happy.

These are my favourites. What was your best read in 2018?

Art Deco in Napier

We are still travelling around New Zealand and in the last few days we stayed in a lovely seaside town called Napier. Unfortunately the weather while we were there was really dreadful. The sea, normally a brilliant blue, was brown and muddy looking. It had a wild and primal look which totally suited the photos we saw in the wonderful museum and library which told the story of the town’s destruction and subsequent rebuilding in the early 1930s.

The town of Napier was almost totally destroyed in an earthquake and the people who survived the event were left with only the clothes they were wearing. The earthquake was followed by a tsunami which only added to the death toll as many people had gone to the beachfront thinking that they would be safe there.

In the aftermath, a decision was taken to completely rebuild the town in the Art Deco style which was popular at the time. As a result there are many beautiful buildings and the Art Deco theme is repeated everywhere, including the street signs. In the museum we also enjoyed a lovely exhibition of teapots and cups, many of which reinforced the Art Deco theme.

A public convenience

I am currently in New Zealand doing a fantastic road trip with my husband. Today we stopped by the most amazing toilet block in the world. It was designed by a famous Austrian artist, Frederick Hundertwasser who lived in NZ for some years.

Little did he know that his toilet block would attract thousands of international visitors and put the tiny town of Kawakawa on the map.

The intricate design is very colourful and different. It’s surely the most popular public convenience in New Zealand, if not the world.

Three words

What three words would you use to describe yourself? It’s a hard question, don’t you think?

At a recent job interview my daughter was asked to describe herself in just three words. I don’t think she was given any time to think about it, but her description of herself was interesting. She described herself as bossy, efficient and collaborative, all of which are true, but if she’d had a bit more time she could easily have added smart, funny, beautiful and kind, and these things would have been true as well.

I thought this might be a useful exercise for my team at work but when I broached the idea they misunderstood and thought I was asking them to describe me in three words. I was dismayed to find that the first thing they thought of to describe me was “grammar nazi”.

No, no, no! This is not how I want people to think of me. I like writing and I’m really interested in words and language, but heavens above, I’m not a grammar nazi. Perhaps they didn’t read my previous post where I made if perfectly clear that it’s not my aim in life to be a grammar snob.

Having said that I really enjoyed reading this post by Ann Handley, author of Everybody Writes. There are some excellent links in this post if you’re interested in improving your writing skills. She also addresses, but doesn’t really answer the question of why we are so delighted to be able to point out other people’s mistakes. Perhaps this is just part of human nature?

I can’t quite decide on the three words I’d use to describe myself. I like to think that I’m collaborative, thoughtful (in the sense of being a person who thinks a lot, rather than being a lovely thoughtful person). I like to think that I’m loyal and supportive as these are qualities that I value in other people, but I’d be interested to know what three words you’d choose to describe yourself?

Don’t judge me

Do you ever worry about people judging you because of your reading choices? I’m ashamed to say I do.

Last week I was in the middle of a pretty intense workshop when we decided to take a short lunch break. The workshop facilitator wanted to pop out and get a coffee so I thought I’d take the chance to get a bit of fresh air and pick up some books from the library. I’d reserved them during the holidays but forgotten what they were, so when I arrived I was a bit surprised to find that they were definitely holiday reads (very light thrillers) and I wondered briefly if I should take them back to my desk and chuck them in a drawer or take them back into the workshop and have the inevitable conversation which starts with “so what are you reading?”.

I decided to take them with me but somewhat embarrassingly, I found myself mumbling about this not being indicative of my usual reading fare (as if anyone cares). The facilitator, lovely woman that she is, said kindly, “I’m not judging you” but this made me wonder how much we judge people by their reading choices and more importantly how much we judge ourselves.

I never try to make people think that I’m a literary kind of person, but I do read a lot and people often ask me what I’m reading. At any one time that could range from thrillers to literary fiction to memoirs to self-help books. I read most genres except perhaps horror and fantasy books. I’m a pretty fussy reader unless I’m stuck in an airport in which case I’ll probably read anything, or if it’s the holidays and then I’m allowed to read whatever I like. It’s part of the holiday splurge and something I rather enjoy. Good food, lots of nice wine and some unchallenging books. Lovely!

I’ll get back to something more nourishing soon.