Monday, June 01, 2009

WHAT MAKES A NOVEL FEEL RIGHT?



The last book I reviewed here was excellent The Sardine Deception by Leif Davidsen and since then I have read two books I was given by the generous Karen Meek to review for Euro Crime.

Book A, was written by an award winning author whose work I had read previously and enjoyed. The subject looked promising......

Book B, had a smaller font than I would find comfortable to read and was by a former British television journalist I had never read before and looked very long. The subject looked like it would be better handled by a local writer. I was on the point of posting Book B back to Karen, but didn't.......

What makes us enjoy one book and find another a complete waste of time? 

For me if the story is set in the past the book has to feel right and have the correct ambience for the period. The characters have to speak, think, and act in a believable way.
I have a book on my shelf that I haven't got round to reading yet entitled Arc of Justice, by Kevin Boyle a professor of history at Ohio Sate University. 
I quote from the authors notes; "readers of early drafts told me that seeing African American in the text jarred them out of the story so I substituted terms common in the 1920s". 
He goes on to rightly apologise and say he means no disrespect for using these terms, but they are essential to set the story in the correct period. 

My point is that some writers have the skill to put you right into the action and with others either the narrative or the dialogue jars you out of the story. Book A jarred while Book B was right on target. 

Do we as bloggers just fall into line and accept that someone is a prize winner and therefore we can't be critical of their books?
If so what is the point of blogging? Authors do go off the boil and become infatuated with literary style or their characters to a point where they lose the plot. 

I have started reading Andrew Taylor's Bleeding Heart Square, and am finding it difficult to get into the story. The author creates a group of Dickensian characters that just don't seem to fit into the London of 1934 and are quaintly Victorian. You need more than a mention of Oswald Mosley to create the right period feel, while I have a suspicion that the Dickens feel is deliberate and I find it mildly annoying.

But then I am only on page 114 so I am very interested in whether the narrative style is going to change or whether the Mid Victorian feel of the story will continue ignoring the fact that the setting is 1934. 

Is Bleeding Heart Square intended simply as a pastiche of Charles Dickens, or Wilkie Collins

10 Comments:

Blogger Rahul said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:36 PM  
OpenID maxine said...

I'm intrigued to know the identity of books A and B! And I am also interested in your take so far on Bleeding Heart Square. I believe that CFR is a fan so maybe she will pop in and answer your question.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Bernadette in Australia said...

I too will be curious to know the identities of books A and B

I concur with your thoughts on how historical settings have to be 'just right'. I just slogged through a perfectly awful historical mystery (Deanna Raybourn's SILENT IN THE GRAVE) and one of the (many) things I didn't like was the utterly incredible modern sensibilities displayed by all and sundry (oh and for the record even though everyone else reviewed the book positively and the thing had won several awards I was pretty criticial in my review). Someone who I thought did get it right was Tom Rob Smith with CHILD 44 - he could have downplayed the violence and imperonal nature of the state of 1950's Russia but he depicted things as I understand they were. I think historical fiction looks like the easy route for some writers but I imagine it's one of the hardest things to do properly.

The other issue you raise - using contemporary terms rather than modern ones - used to be a major debate point in my previous career. I used to be an archivist and when we prepared indexes, guides and exhibitions relating to the historical records we would generally use the terms that were recorded. As you might imagine government bureaucrats used to write some pretty awful things about prisoners, inhabitants of insane asylums and indigenous people. Reaction whenever we used those contemporary terms in our work usually ran to about 60/40 with people who thought we were being offensive and people who understood.

8:00 PM  
Blogger Kerrie said...

I'm glad you wrote this post Norman. I was thinking of a post along similar lines and will probably go ahaed with that tonight.
I basically think that when you attempt to put crime fiction into a historical setting, you are introducing another element where a lot of things can go wrong.

Does your reader have to generally enjoy history as well as crime fiction? I think so. There is the danger that a reader will dislike the book for the same reason that they wouldn't actually read historical fiction without the crime fiction element, or they wouldn't read "straight" history as in non-fiction.

1:31 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Rahul sorry I am too busy with other things to get involved with other blogs.

4:14 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Bernadette, thanks for your comment. The experience of putting up a less than flattering review and finding everyone else thinks the book is marvelous has happened to me in the past. But when real readers [as opposed to professional or publisher inspired] reviews appeared they agreed with me.
I have Child 44 on my TBR pile and am encouraged to read it now, or when I get through some of the current crop.
As late as the 1980s even some medical staff were using outdated terms like mongol for people with Down's syndrome so we can't blame the people of the past too much, their attitudes were the result of their education or lack of it. I do love the use of the term "indigenous people" it sounds so respectful.

4:29 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks very much Kerrie. I always worry when I post something slightly negative that I am going to annoy someone so it is nice to get positive feedback.
I love history and crime fiction but I think some historical crime fiction set in the 1930s and 1940s is so good it would encourage people to read history; for example Philip Kerr, Alan Furst, John Lawton, Marek Krajewski, Rebecca Cantrell and Hans Fallada.

I hope Bleeding Heart Square will revert to a 1930s style because introducing a third factor beyond history and crime [the Dickensian plot and characters] doesn't feel right to me.

4:43 AM  
Blogger Kerrie said...

Thanks for those authors Norman. They are not ones that I am familar with - more books/authors to check

4:48 AM  
Blogger crimeficreader said...

Hi Norm,

I am guessing book B might be the latest from G F Newman, but I suspect I am wrong because of the font size!

Bernadette makes an interesting comment on the Raybourn novel. I tried this one. It had been lauded across the blogs and had a good start, but it failed to grip me. It had an air of lack of seriousness in respect of the time period for me.

Your perception that Taylor’s BHS is more Victorian than 1930s surprises me due to the way he does his research. He has said that he concentrates on factual accounts of the time, in the press etc., to get the dialogue right etc. You ask if he will refer to a 1930s style, but would this not be jarring in itself, if the style of the novel changed part of the way through? (It doesn’t.)

My introduction to Andrew’s books came through his superb 1950s Lydmouth series and that is where I’d suggest new readers start. He certainly has a unique voice and changes style with his different strands of novels and standalones. I enjoyed BHS, but do not think it’s his best. I’m now looking forward to his next Lydmouth.

Cheers,

R

4:57 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Hi CFR

I think the pace, plot and characters of BHS are very Victorian in my opinion.

BHS could easily apart from brief mentions of the motor cars and fascism be set in 1860, and the plot [so far] and characters such as Fimberry and Serridge are very Dickensian.
Just my opinion. I will post further when I have finished the book.
cheers N

5:34 AM  

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