They say if you want to write you have to read. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to make time to read more this year. Thanks to our local library, which has a good English books section, my trusty Kindle and friends with whom I exchange books, I’m pleased that I can tick this one off the list.
A French friend records all the books she has read with a comment about each one. This struck me as an excellent idea. I had only a hazy recollection of some of the books I had read this year and have discovered many new – to me – authors, so I decided to record them and my thoughts about them. I have probably forgotten some but I found it useful to consider why I liked certain books and not others and in what ways they have influenced me – positively or negatively.
As a writer, you analyse not only a novel’s entertainment value but also the way in which it’s written: use of language; point of view; plot devices; dialogue; showing not telling, etc. And it surprises me to see that some successful authors lard their prose with adverbs or stuff it with odd similes. I’ve just finished Adam Thorpe’s Between Each Breath. Overall, I enjoyed it and he writes well. But occasionally he goes off-piste. For example, he describes a newspaper pushed through the letterbox as, “Thick as a loin of venison.” That one didn’t do it for me. Conversely, Andrew Taylor successfully sustains period language throughout The American Boy, set around 1820. This prompted me to write in period language a short story set in Victorian times.
I have also found it interesting to compare different works by the same author. For example, Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby was disturbing but compelling. But A Week in December, about a group of people in contemporary London who are loosely connected, was a disappointment. It uses some tired plot devices like describing at the start all the invitees to a dinner party, who then feature in the story. I didn’t find the characters, or the relationships between them, convincing. Did the same author really write these novels?
Some books prompt you to take a fresh look at the world or introduce you to something you knew little about. Before reading Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (a memoir) I would have struggled to fill a postage stamp with what I knew about modern China. Similarly, the main character in Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists was embittered and not always a reliable witness but the book opens a window onto Malaya and events during World War II.
So, even if some books disappoint, you still learn from them all. I have abandoned only one this year: Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton, a novel about a village from the 17th century to the present day. Although the critics highly acclaimed it when it appeared in 1992, I found the extensive passages in dialect maddeningly hard work and had to give up.
Which books have influenced you this year and in what ways?