A month or two ago I was at the paperback launch in Bath of Kissing Mr. Wrong by local writer Sarah Duncan but only got round to reading it last week when it was a welcome distraction from the grim realities of jury service. But although this is a light read, it certainly isn’t frivolous, and as ever, Sarah brings real depth to her characters and the story as a whole. In KMW, Lu is a thirty something illustrator who is determined not to get mixed up in relationship that involves baggage, until despite herself, she falls for warm and wonderful Nick – divorced with two kids. She puts her doubts aside only for them to gang up on her when she gets it wrong over the disciplining of his two sons. She runs back to her ‘perfect’ man, handsome smoothie Marcus, only to find that the no-strings attachment she thought she wanted has now lost its charm.
This is a simple love story but, as always, Sarah Duncan gives it something extra. All the characters are convincing, from Lu’s hippy-dippy Mum Pixie, who in the end confesses to mistakes of her own, to her Grandma’s feisty terrier Scottie, who, as it turns out, has a crucial role to play in Lu’s love life!
There are also weighty themes of war (Lu is researching family history involving the grim realities of WW1) and the importance of family ties. It’s only when Lu acknowledges her own vulnerability and starts to mend fences with her parents that she can sort out her matters of the heart.
Sarah’s launch parties are just as much fun as the books. Roll on the next one!
What makes a book stand out from the crowd? Agents tell us they are looking for ‘good stories well told’. But in an age when everyone wants to write and very many can, being good simply isn’t enough. You actually have to be brilliant.
So what constitutes brilliance exactly? In revamping a novel regarded as ‘too quiet’, Catherine Czerkawska on her Wordarts blog (itself an object lesson in how hard even established writers have to work for recognition) concludes that the key to success is a stonking great story, and I’m sure she’s right. Certainly most of the first novels I have seen lately have a premise or a storyline that’s just a bit out of the ordinary.
On another of my favourite blogs, Sarah Duncan actually gives us 10 ways to stand out. Of these my favourite is ‘pzazz’ , i.e. “phrases, metaphors, nifty dialogue, cunning transitions, description etc” which really shine out and draw the reader’s (or agent’s) attention. The really interesting thing is that Sarah aims to get five of these on every page. Yes, five on every page. Wow! No wonder her romances never feel run-of-mill.
My latest read is another excellent example of this. The setting and characters in Major Pettigrew could easily feel bland, and despite plenty of action I occasionally felt my attention waning, but if I ever thought of laying the book aside, there was always some little nugget of gold (a truly memorable simile or one of the Major’s hilarious observations) to get me interested again.
That’s it then. Stonking story and sparkling prose. For a book to ne noticed it needs to be not just polished but encrusted with diamonds. If it were a cake, it would have to be well mixed, perfectly cooked and stuffed to the hilt with cherries, nuts, and chunks of rich dark chocolate.
Plain cake is not an option.
Our writing group is expecting a guest this week: local author and poet Lucy English. I confess I hadn’t read anything by Lucy until this week when I scuttled down to our local library just in time to pick up a copy of Our Dancing Days. This is a short but satisfying read set in that period of the seventies when hippiedom was at its height. It’s evocative of its era without being overly nostalgic and convincingly conveys the highs and lows of rural life as a group of friends live out their dream in a damp and crumbling manor house in Norfolk. The characters are great. I particularly liked eternal (and maddening) schoolboy Don. I would like to have known a bit more about lumpy and ineffectual Helen and why she had sunk so low, but there was no denying she was a recognisable type. When the heroine Tessa visits the house many years afterwards we see how the dream came crashing down, but the ending has just the right note of peaceful resolution. On a dark winter’s evening this book had just the right balance of joyful escapism and grim reality and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Sarah Duncan is another local writer who, as my first writing teacher, has always been a source of inspiration. It’s a while now since I took her ten week writing course and I’m glad to see she is now blogging a lot of the memorable advice she gave us then. I especially like her ‘Lift Test’ and am hastily entering into conversations with my current cast of characters to see how they measure up. Sarah’s latest novel Single to Rome is out this week. It sounds like another good antidote to winter blues. I’d love to go to the launch party, but annoyingly it’s the night of Lucy’s visit.
Our golfing tour in Scotland (report and pics to follow) didn’t leave a lot of time for reading, but I did get round at last to Sarah Duncan’s Another Woman’s Husband which I bought at the book launch back in May. Despite the racy cover and a review in the Telegraph that labelled it ‘chick lit’ this is firmly in the territory of female mid-life crisis done with a light but also serious touch. I particularly like the break up of her parents’ marriage as the catalyst for our heroine’s vulnerability and the use of her own romantic past as a foreshadowing of problems to come. If the men in the story are less than riveting, this probably comes with the territory, and the ups and downs of an unashamedly domestic drama all ring true, with Becca’s warmth, humour and bravery carrying us through. Despite an opening scene in which I felt a bit overwhelmed by party food, the writing is a delight, and I was more than satisfied by the well-paced ending which kept a few tricks up its sleeve. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say this is the first time I’ve shed a tear over the death of a hamster!