Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Good Books and Country Pubs in England

I’m back! I was in England these past two weeks researching NOT CRICKET and another novel in the works. After living in Oxford last year, it felt like coming home. We stayed with my husband’s family in Oxfordshire. I hear it rained for days on end in the USA, but the skies were mostly blue in England. That must be a first.

I met fellow blogger and friend, Bee, for lunch at the King William IV Pub in Hailey.

It couldn’t have been more scenic: a sunny hilltop overlooking a sheep farm at the end of a dirt road. This is actually the view from a picnic bench:

Sundays are barbecue days. Bee, a native Texan who now lives in England, was happy to tuck into tasty ribs and potato salad. I had Coronation Chicken and assorted salads. It was reasonably priced, and the setting was picture perfect. A kid friendly place too, although we left our kids and English husbands at home.

On a cooler day, it would have been cozy inside. After lunch, Bee and I walked along country lanes and through woods and fields, where we lost the path. We were so caught up in conversation, it hardly mattered. Bee posted her pub photos with a poem.

After our walk, we drove to The Swan at Streatley for cream tea. I didn't even have to ask Bee to pull over so we could photograph the Wizard of Oz like field of poppies (opening shot.)

The Swan's outdoor seating on the Thames was ideal, but the scones were overpriced and stale. A better choice would have been a pint of bitter (beer) or a Pimm’s on tap (a traditional English cocktail of fresh mint, fruits and liquor mixed with fizzy lemonade.) True to its name, swans swam by for a visit.

Like me, Bee is obsessed with books and bookstores. She recommended the Albion Beatnik in Jericho, just down the road from Oxford University Press. Although this quirky shop only just opened in November 2008, it felt like it had been in Oxford for decades. I went to visit it and 4 other bookstores in Oxford.

My favorite bookstore is still the library-sized Blackwell Bookshop.

I stepped into Waterstone’s to check out Girl Friday, the UK version of Jane Green’s latest novel. There was a huge poster on the shop window, advertising its release. I’m not quite sure why there are little white dogs on the cover since none feature in the story.

I prefer the American cover of Jane’s novel. They even have different titles. I’ll show a bunch more of UK versus American covers for the fun of it.

When it started raining, we jumped into Borders, and I laughed over the UK cover of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. It shows the back of a slim, young woman in a ball gown even though the novel is set in coastal Maine and the protagonist is a large, elderly woman with no fashion sense.

The American cover of Olive Kitteridge fits the content better, although it looks dull. Don’t let the lame covers fool you. The interlocking stories in this novel are perfect, except for one dud, “Criminal.” The style is understated but evocative, chock full of perfect sentences and images. Here’s one gem from “Pharmacy:”

“A block of winter sun was splayed across the glass of the cosmetics shelf; a strip of wooden floor shone like honey.”

This novel by stories revolves around one central character who is as offensive as she is appealing. Olive is prejudiced towards Jews and daughter-in-laws, but she was also a special teacher who made the difference for many students. Love her or hate her, you’ll still adore this 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning book.

Even though I was traveling with a heavy suitcase full of books, I couldn’t resist buying Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie, highly recommended by dovegreyreader scribbles. I fell in love with the gorgeous UK cover and the story was captivating and original. Shamsie covers the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in Japan and partition in India before moving the narrative to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan. The writing is beautiful, but the transitions between eras are choppy. It might have worked better as a series of historical novels as opposed to one globe trotting book.

I loved the protagonist Hiroko, a gutsy Japanese woman who wears linen trousers instead of kimonos. She completely defies all western stereotypes of Japanese women (even if the American cover on the right does not.)

Unfortunately I could not finish the book. On page 215 Burnt Shadows skipped back to page 140, missing 50 pages. I was on an airplane home and couldn’t exchange it at Blackwell’s. My worst nightmare. Honestly, running out of reading material worries me more than crashing or hijacking.

Luckily I was traveling with a backup novel, Testimony by Anita Shreve (American cover left is similar to UK cover below right.) This highly readable novel was perfect plane fare. It opens with a disturbing scene: a 14-year-old girl at a prep school is caught on tape having sexual relations with three boy students who are 4-5 years older than her. In the state of Vermont this is legally considered sexual assault. The story, however, is morally ambiguous.

Shreve’s Testimony is told in multiple voices like a Jodi Picoult novel. The child in crisis theme also felt more Jodi Picoult than Anita Shreve. At the back was an interesting interview of Shreve in which she called teenaged drinking and alcoholism “an epidemic.” Testimony is a warning, one worth listening to. Shreve avoids sounding preachy in her page turner novel.

On the plane ride to England, I read a much lighter but equally engrossing novel. I had bought The Truth About Forever for my daughter to read, but she was still engrossed in Harry Potter. Many of her friends had recommended the author Sarah Dessen, and I can see why. Dessen writes very well and is true to the teenaged experience of self-discovery (American cover left, cool UK cover below right.)

The Truth About Forever is about a 17-year-old girl who tries to be the perfect daughter after her father died. All comes unhinged when Macy takes a summer job catering and meets a flawed young man. Wes is a talented artist and former juvenile delinquent. Through chaos and passion, Macy learns how to live again. I’d recommend this young adult novel for girls aged 11-17, and their moms too.

Speaking of mothers, my mother sent me the perfect book to read on my English vacation. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows currently #1 on the NYT bestseller list for paperback trade fiction. It deserves it. Both my mother and my mother-in-law loved this 1940s era novel.

I don’t usually like books written in letters, and I’ve read too many World War II books already. Still, I fell in love with the Potato book (the title is too long to remember.) It made me laugh and cry. The writing, characters and story were all top notch. Plus it was lightweight and easy to read in bits. The covers are the same in both countries, but the quality of the paper is better in the American version.

Yes, I'm a compulsive bookaholic. On my journey I bought 5 more books.

Like the lupins, your comments on my last post were a warm welcome home to Maine. Thank you! I have a bunch of work things I have to do today, but I'll be back online tomorrow to respond to comments and to visit blogs. I'm looking forward to catching up with you.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Favorite Books

hard at work on a book review
photo by my daughter

I don’t usually do memes, but this one I couldn’t resist. From the Desk of Bee Drunken posted a list of her favorite books and asked me to do the same. Bee and I first connected through a favorite author, Lionel Shriver. I have loved so many books; it was hard to choose. I’ve limited myself to 10 per category. Many of these novels have inspired my own writing.

The “childhood favorites” are the authors I read and re-read during my childhood. I love Roald Dahl now but found him too scary as a child. I remember the thrill of Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising Sequence coming out, like this generation’s Harry Potter. There are many new YA authors I’m only just discovering with my daughter. Another post….

A fun category was “comfort reading” which are the books I’ve returned to over the years. My mother read me Jonathan Livingston Seagull as a bedtime story, and it was one of the first books I read by myself. I’ve revisited it over the decades. Leaving the flock to fly farther and faster but sometimes crashing in the sea is a good metaphor for writing and revising novels. There are no limits.

Even more amazing than hatching an egg, Horton survived 3 generations of my family.

Childhood Favorites
Dr. Seuss
C. S. Lewis
E. B. White
Judy Bloom
Susan Cooper
Walter Farley
L. Frank Baum
Madeline L’Engle
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Lucy Maud Montgomery

Comfort Reading
T.S. Eliot
Robert Frost
Tracy Kidder
James Harriot
P.G. Wodehouse
William Shakespeare
The Blue Jay’s Dance by Louise Erdrich
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Favorite Novels
Midwives by Chris Bohjalian
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
The Cider House Rules by John Irving
The House of Spirits by Isabelle Allende
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Unforgettable Literary Heroines
Nancy Drew
Bridget Jones
Hedda Gabler
Scarlett O’Hara
Daisy Buchanan
Ayla (Clan of the Cave Bear)
Rosalind (As You Like It)
Sethe (Beloved)

Dave Barry
Woody Allen
David Sedaris

Books on Writing
On Writing by Stephen King
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Elements of Style by William Strunk & E.B. White

Most Memorable Novel I read in
2009: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (YA)
2008: The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly
2007: The Post Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
2006: Intuition by Allegra Goodman
2005: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
2004: Empire Falls by Richard Russo
2003: Bel Canto by Anne Patchett
2002: The Secret History by Donna Tart
2001: Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
2000: Moo by Jane Smiley
1999: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Book I'm reading now: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Note: I'm taking a week off from blogging.
Next post: Wednesday June 24.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dune Road by Jane Green: Review & Interview

Dune Road is titled Girl Friday in the U.K .
(June 11 & 16, 2009 release)

Last fall author Jane Green and I partnered up to nag each other to write and to celebrate progress, like two friends training for a marathon. Creative writing is tough. You sit alone with only your imagination for company. As a working mother, there are always competing claims on your time.

Like Kit, the protagonist of Dune Road, Jane was recently divorced and juggling work with raising her children. What made Dune Road hard to write also made it good. Kit feels real. Here we have a single mother going through a rough transition and an ex-husband who isn’t letting go. Kit has to rework her friendships in a coupled community and reenter the dating scene in middle age.

Kit craves romance, but she also needs financial independence. She finds work as an assistant/Girl Friday for a reclusive bestseller author with a troubled past. Robert McClore writes suspense thrillers but otherwise sounds a bit like a male version of Jane Green. This double entendre is caught on paper:

"As a writer Robert often puts his own life into his books, often without realizing it…."

Anyone who followed Jane’s blog will have witnessed how life becomes material. For example, last Christmas Jane blogged about over-the-top decorations, which then appeared in Dune Road. Fictional Highfield, Connecticut sounds very similar to the posh suburb that Jane, an expat Brit, now calls home. Dune Road is not a memoir dressed up as fiction, but it is a novel that springs from life experience. This makes it ring true.

Dune Road also feels real for its backdrop of current events. Usually a novel takes more than a year to write (I’m still working on mine) and then takes another 6-18 months to go from a completed manuscript to a published book. Jane writes at lightening speed, and her publisher, Penguin, has performed a miracle in getting this book out in June, only 3 months after it was completed. Dune Road may be the first novel set in the post stock market crash world. It is very much a book of our times where even the wealthy are not immune to reversals of fortune.

For me the most interesting parts of Dune Road were the descriptions of writing from the author Robert McClore’s perspective:

"Never has a book been easier to write. It is as if he is writing on auto-pilot, the words flowing from his fingertips in a way they haven’t since –well, probably since his first novel.

"Writing was so creative back then, but of late it has felt more and more like a business. He has contracts to fulfill, books to write: one book a year, whether inspiration strikes or not.

"It has become a job, and one that he is starting to find dull.

"The business of outlining, of researching, of sifting through to decide which bits are relevant and which bits are not, used to fill him with passion.

"The moment when characters you thought were pivotal suddenly become irrelevant, when others, supposed to have been bit parts, end up driving the plot, taking over the book, filled him with pleasure."

It filled me with pleasure to read a well-crafted novel that captured both the art of writing and the challenges of balancing career and family. You won’t find beautiful blocks of prose in Dune Road. Jane employs the understated style of a former journalist in which simple writing facilitates the story telling.

Jane's focus is on relationships: family, friends, lovers and colleagues. Her work is a fine example of commercial women's fiction with many strong female characters of all ages. Tracy, the yoga instructor with a murky past, was especially fun. Jane is at her best when employing character-driven narrative. She weaves together multiple plot lines seamlessly.

Dune Road isn’t flawless. The Annabel plot line seemed unnecessary and took attention away from the mystery plot. I would have rather heard more about Robert McClore, the most intriguing character. We eavesdrop on his thoughts and memories, but Robert rarely says or does anything. The characters and their interwoven relationships worked better than the mystery itself.

I also preferred the Nantucket Island setting of The Beach House, Jane’s last novel, to the moneyed suburbs of Dune Road, but that’s just me. Some women are scared of big cities or the wilderness. I’m suburbaphobic.

I still enjoyed Dune Road very much and will happily grab another Jane Green novel when I head to the beach or board a plane. Reading her books is like traveling with a chatty girlfriend who knows how to make you laugh. Dune Road is classic Jane Green with a touch of mystery.

Jane's personal story has a happy ending. In March Jane finished her 11th novel and married Ian Warburg, creating a "Brady Bunch family" with her 4 children and his 2 children. Jane will still publish as Jane Green but has changed her name to Jane Green Warburg.

Photo of Jane Green Warburg by Tracy Ketcher


Sarah Laurence: What is special about Dune Road/Girl Friday? How is it different from your other novels?

Jane Green Warburg: This was my first attempt at a mystery, and it felt very different to write it – far more plot driven, and far more complex. Ultimately, I think I probably prefer my character-driven novels, but I’m glad I wrote this, although it won’t, as I had planned, be the first in a series of three. One was enough…

SL: Do you have a Girl Friday? Does she assist you in a similar way as described in your novel?

JGW: I do. I have my wonderful Sparkly Assistant, Elise. I could not live the life I do without her, because I am the most hopelessly disorganized person on the planet, mostly, I suspect, because I spend vast amounts of time inside my head. She does all the things Kit does, and so much more, besides.

SL: What are your sources of inspiration? How do you start?

JGW: I always have an idea of the theme, and then I spend time on the characters, because once I have the characters right, they have a tendency to tell their own stories. I will plot the book in thirds, because generally, by the time I finish the first third, the story will have changed entirely.

SL: Who are your favorite authors? Which ones have influenced your writing?

JGW: I love Dani Shapiro, Ann Patchett, Armistead Maupin, Jonathan Tropper. I’m not sure that authors as such have influenced my writing. I try to stay true to my own voice, because it is generally hard to remain consistent for an entire book in a voice that is not your own, or that is trying to be like someone else.

SL: Have blogging and twitter affected your writing? Which blogs do you follow?

JGW: They only affect my writing in that I spend an inordinate amount of time on them. Blogging is wonderful, and time-consuming. It is gratifying to have an outlet to write about things that you may have strong opinions about, but difficult to think of subjects about which to have strong opinions on a daily basis… I adore Twitter though, love the quickness of it, and that it enables me to stay connected without too much thought. I don’t follow any blogs religiously, but when I have spare time, will browse around and find things I like, although my secret shame are the gossip blogs…

SL: What is different in writing for an American vs. U.K. audience and how do you bridge the gap?

JGW: I probably write more for an American audience these days, and I suspect my books are far more ‘touchy-feely’ than they would have been had I remained in England. We English tend to be a little more sarcastic and self-deprecating, and I have definitely lost that edginess living here eight years. When I go back and flick through Straight Talking, my first novel, I can hardly believe I wrote it. Of course the language is different too, as you, my friend, rightly pointed out: petrol instead of gas, etc etc. Mistakes that weren’t picked up for the first edition, but will be changed for the second!

SL: What is your next project?

JGW: The Practice Marriage has already started gestating. I am starting to make notes about my characters – three sisters, and I am excited.

SL: If you could be anything other than an author, what would you be?

JGW: I am obsessed with all things creative to do with the home. I could have been a chef, a gardener, an interior designer…

Sarah Laurence and Jane Green Warburg

Blog Watch:
Recent Jane Green Warburg interviews are at Laura Reviews, at All the Best and at No other book reviews have been posted yet. If you review Dune Road/Girl Friday, come back and leave a comment with the URL. Be sure to visit other book review club posts from the link button below.

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@Barrie Summy