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Vidya’s blog

Reading a Novel – End of Winter Break

You know you’ve taken a self-imposed deadline seriously when you start cramming the night before it ends! Caught myself trying to finish A Murderous Procession, one of the books I had committed to read during the winter break. Fell asleep before I finished but with only 20 pages to go I am going to indulge in some creative accounting.

So here’s the tally –

Books Finished:

Gorky Park: Brilliant book, but I don’t think I will be seeking out the further adventures of Arkady Renko any time soon, mostly because they are really long and I am afraid my attention span has permanently shortened. However, a good choice for the next vacation when there’s plenty of time on my hands.

The Boy in the Suitcase: This Danish thriller turned out to be quite engrossing, with a heroine who gets involved with domestic violence and child custody cases as a social worker. Lena Kaaberbol and Agnette Friis co-wrote this book, the beginning of a series, and it is a page turner. Nina Borg, the heroine, is a very flawed character, (of course!) prone to panic and flight, but she is also very tenacious and appealing.

Shanghai Girls: This is the least favorite Lisa See novel for me. I loved Snowflower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, but I just could not connect with the two Shanghai sisters whose upper middle class lives in China get uprooted violently and make way for a future in San Francisco’s Chinatown. For those who enjoy historical fiction based in the orient, I recommend Laura Joh Rowland’s samurai thrillers.

Matched: I can see now why Ally Condie’s novel got such rave reviews and fan devotion; there’s teen romance, dystopian intrigue, and well-developed characters. Condi is quite a gifted writer, so the similarity of Matched’s central premise of teen-heroine-battling-adults-who-think-they-know-best to other trilogies like The Hunger Games doesn’t grate. Still, I don’t think I will pick up the sequel Crossed..there’s only so much teen angst I can deal with. Condi’s book reads a little overwrought to me, but maybe that’s just professional jealousy talking!

Beta: Another dystopian YA novel, also primed for a sequel! I sense a formula here  – teen girl lives a blissful life in futuristic utopia till she discovers all is not as it seems. She then leads a band of rebels to win a precarious freedom. The tragedy is that my own proposed novel had a pretty similar trope, so now I have the unpleasant choice of continuing with a theme that has been and continues to be used ad nauseum, or ditch the whole project and begin afresh. Sheesh. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed Beta, and thought it a better written novel than Matched, possibly for older teens, since there are themes of sexual harassment, rape and pregnancy for our 16/17-year old protagonist. Great dialogue, just great.

Death in August: Now this was the sorbet to cleanse the palate between all those misery-laden teen novels. Inspector Bordelli leads a police station of misfits in 1960s Florence as they bumble and stumble their way to solving a local crime. Refreshing and light.

A Murderous Procession: I know I was planning to save this delectable treat for a rainy day, but there were plenty of those in the last couple of weeks. Plus I discovered a book I had forgotten I bought called The Midwife of Venice, so I have another truffle tucked away. Of the three Ariana Franklin books I have read, this one is my least favorite, because of a serial killer character who is uncomfortably reminiscent of psychos in modern thrillers that authors like John Sanford and Jonathan Kellerman churn out every year.

Blackberry Winter: This novel by Sarah Jio was probably my least favorite.  A decent premise of congruent events that take place across two unseasonal snowstorms in May several years apart, but the plot is just too neat and tidy. Again, slightly overwrought writing; I guess I like my philosophizing on the acerbic side.

Books Unfinished:

Oil on Water: Helon Habila’s book is really interesting and well written but I just couldn’t bring myself to finish it for an odd reason – the dialogues are not enclosed in quotation marks. Instead they are marked by a dash at the beginning, and this method just puts me off. I’m growing old, groan!

The Search for Wondla: Only read the first chapter so far, but this is a book I plan to complete. I think this is a must read for authors planning to write kidlit.

Books I Never Got to and Never Will:

Steve Jobs: The moment has passed.

813: This book will stay on my Kindle forever as a reminder that there are plenty of classics available for free online, but just as I don’t think I will ever get to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, this is another book doomed to remain unread.

Garlic Ballads: Sorry Mr. Mo Yan, but Nobel Prize or not, this book is just too depressing for me. Who knows, there may be a moment in the future when I come across this book in a nice large type and in a nicer frame of mind, but for the moment, life is short and there are too many other books ahead in the queue.

I never did get to my friend’s Dropbox of goodies about good kid lit, but it is the very next thing I am going to read.

Hope everyone had a great winter break and lots of lovely books to read around the fire on snowy days. Here’s to another year of happy reading.

Reading a Novel – Winter Break!

Dec 24 2012

Now that the kids are home for the winter break, not much writing is going to get done, so I’ve decided to use the time to read, read, read. After all, unlike writing, reading can be done in 10 minute snatches, and that’s the kind of leisure time I anticipate during the holidays if I’m to be a good mom and not let the kids veg out on TV the whole day. Plus, I figure it will be good for my plot to sit for a couple of weeks and see if any good bacteria grow.

Here is my reading list for the vacation –

On my Kindle: Discovering the Overdrive website where I can borrow ebooks from my local library has been one of the biggest thrills recently. The most recent titles are, of course, not available, but even a voracious reader like I have found several treasures.

Gorky Park: I can’t believe I haven’t read this wickedly satirical police procedural by Martin Cruz Smith before. Set in post World War communist Soviet Union, the book’s take on corruption and petty power plays still feels fresh and relevant.

Steve Jobs: The biography by Walter Isaacs has been lying unread for a while, but I think I will get to it while relaxing in Puerto Rico, where the family is going for a week next week.

Oil on Water: This novel by Helon Habila is another literary murder mystery set in the Nigerian Delta (you can tell what my favorite genre is by now, can’t you?) Reading about an environment devastated by oil production is very sad and depressing, but the book is beautifully written. We know so little about the impact of modern colonization in Africa, a corporate colonization that is taking place with the complicity of native rulers, and this book is a real eye-opener.

The Snowman: Jo Nesbo books ( thrillers again!) are surprisingly easily available on Overdrive. Harry Hole, his detective, is a recovering alcohlic with the kind of damaged life favored by Nordic writers.

The Boy in the Suitcase: Another example of Nordic noir by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnette Friis… a new author for me, so I’m excited to find out how she compares to her peers.

Shanghai Girls: Even though Lisa See’s books are all set in the Orient, the stories are amazingly different. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a charming story of friendship between two girls in nineteenth-century China; Peony in Love is a weird and weirdly entertaining ghost story set in the 17th century, and Shanghai Girls is about two sisters who come to America in the early years of the Depression. Of the three, I think I enjoyed Shanghai Girls the least, perhaps because some of the mystical and lyrical elements of See’s previous novels were missing here.

813: A tale of Arsene Lupin, gentleman thief, this classic my Maurice LeBlanc is one of the many free Kindle books available.

In my library bag: Despite having so many books on my Kindle, my greed always gets the better of me when I go to my local library. This time I decided to check out a couple of kidlit novels as well; jopefully, I’ll get some inspiration towards my own novel.

Matched: This sci-fi YA novel by Ally Condie is the first of a trilogy that is sweeping the imagination of teen girls right now. I thought I would see what the fuss is all about.

The Search for Wondla: Another sci-fi novel for middle graders, Tony DiTerlizzi’s creation is attention grabbing from the first paragraph – what a wonderful imagination. It is almost enough to give prospective writers the heebie-jeebies about the quality of their work.

Beta: Random pick from the fantasy/sci-fi shelf at the library. This novel by Rachel Cohn is prompting me to consider setting my own fantasy novel in an alternate planet, so as not to get bogged down by reality.

Death in August: A police procedural set in Florence by Marco Vichhi that I picked up because the font was nice and I liked the style of what I read while browsing

On my nightstand –

A Murderous Procession: This book by Ariana Franklin is the little piece of gourmet chocolate that you save for a special day; I just love, love, love the Mistress of the Art of Death series about a female physician from Salerno who is forced to pretend to be the assistant of her servant to practice her skills during the reign of King Henry II.

The Garlic Ballads: This depressing story about grinding poverty in the Chinese countryside is, perhaps, one of Nobel Laureate Mo Yan’s most readable books, but I cannot seem to get past the first few pages – it is so grim and unredemptive.

Well, there you have it. Hopefully, these books will inspire me rather than deter, and embolden, not discourage. Share your favorite reads of the holidays in the commenst and see you all in the New Year. Happy Holidays!

UPDATE: My friend and writer Jeanne Fredrisen has given me a (Drop)box of tips and pointers on writing kidlit. Also part of my reading list for the break. Thanks Jeanne!


Writing a Novel – Day 15

Dec 21, 2012

Since the world didn’t end today, I guess I have no choice but to continue with the book.

The good news is that yesterday was an incredibly productive day; wrote the synopsis for the new project, which included background, setting, characters and a chapter by chapter breakdown. Also, I think this is a story I can share with my daughter at an early stage so she can tell me if it catches her fancy.

The bad news is manifold, and almost all of it has to do with uncertainty and inexperience. First, I ended up with eight chapters before the book took a natural break. It seems there’s at least a Part 2, if not a Part 3, waiting in the wings. So are eight chapters enough? I need to look over a few pre-teen books to see what kind of template is appropriate for this age.

Second, now that I have a plan, I feel the crushing need for someone experienced to look over the project and tell me if it is worth continuing. Here’s where I wish I was good friends with another kid-lit writer or publisher who could advise me. I consider myself a good judge and editor for other writers out there, but I cannot be objective about my own work. Anyone out there want to swap stories?

I think I will proceed with the story, but look seriously for writers’ workshops, classes and groups in the area.

Writing a Novel – Day 14

Dec 20 2012

I’m embarrassed to say that I did not get a word written towards the book yesterday. Lots of errands and just a disinclination to write – I’m going to ascribe it to the grieving process 🙂

Today, instead of starting the first chapter, I plan to write a synopsis of the book. I’m thinking that putting my idea down in concrete terms will help me evaluate whether there is merit to it. Perhaps I should have done that from the get-go, but, what can I say, you write and learn.

Writing a Novel – Day 13

Dec 19

The novel is dead. Long live the novel.

After much heartbreak, I’ve decided to completely rewrite the story, which means giving up every one of the painstakingly written 7000 words. Just the idea of it was so exhausting that I feel asleep during my rethink session (Note: Thinking and sleeping can look disturbingly similar) but I ended up with a much better plot before I did. This one seems to have everything the last one did not – a strong central conflict, a theme that stays much closer to my initial inspiration, and a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Now comes the hard part of beginning afresh. If I didn’t have this self-imposed writing schedule, I would find it so easy to give up, especially since there are days when there are a number of chores to be done and there’s an article for India Currents that I really should begin working on.

Luckily, the character of the heroine hasn’t changed much in this new iteration, so she continues to live in my mind. All the other characters have been scrapped, including one I really loved in the last version. I think one of the biggest temptations for a writer is to preserve the character and write the story around him or her but I think this particular one deserves a different home.

Writing a Novel – Day 12

Dec 18 2012

Sitting down to think exclusively about one’s book is like meditating for the novice; the mind constantly wanders. Never having been good at meditation, I found the process of recreating the book’s plot extremely difficult. Finally, I gave up and went looking for the notebook where I had jotted down a tentative outline for the novel – and discovered that I had completely veered off course. The original plot had much more drama and conflict in it, and reading literature had completely diluted my writing.

So it is back to the drawing board now. After much thought, I rewrote the first chapter yesterday…not as much of an issue since the first chapter was all action to set up the plot. But now comes the hard part – cutting out nearly all of the rest of it. It is going to be painful. I’ve already started a new version of the book, opening a new file so I can remember I had got to 7000 words in the first try. But I am not going to proceed any further on the computer till I am absolutely clear about the plot from start to finish.

For now, it’s just me and my trusty notebook and pencil. I have a vague idea of where my story is going, but I want to get a lot of the structure down before I resume typing.

Writing a Novel – Day 11

Dec 17 2012

Had a conversation about the book with a friend over the weekend. It was not easy since I was reluctant to share the plot of the book (less out of secrecy than lack of conviction) but I realized that I am really unhappy about the lack of conflict in the book. As it stands, the book reads mushy to me, and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, kids’ books need a clear demarcation of right and wrong, good and evil. And I am not a writer of Henning Mankell’s caliber that I can write a meandering Kurt Wallander novel where several pages are devoted to the protagonist’s inner struggles and you can reach the end of the book without tying all the loose ends together. (Fans may have deduced that I have just finished reading “The Troubled Man” where -SPOILER ALERT- Mankell decides to end the series by giving Wallander Alzheimers.)

So this morning is going to be spent entirely in Internet-free reflection. Why couldn’t I have done that over the weekend, you ask? Nah, the weekend was for hiking, caroling, and watching the amazing Niners game (amazing since we won, depressing if we hadn’t).

The house is quiet, the dog is next to me, and I’m all set to work the plot around in my head and see if I can salvage something from the 6000 words written so far or if I have to scrap everything and start over. But first I have to figure out the central conflict.

Off to think. More tomorrow.