Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Book Review-The Four Corners Of The Sky by Michael Malone

Annie Samantha Peregrine-Goode spent her early life dragged around motels by her ne’er-do-well father always one step ahead of his dubious associates as well as the police. On her seventh birthday, he drives her to his family home, Pilgrim’s Rest, now owned and lived in by his older sister Sam. He tells Annie that her birthday present is in the barn and drives away, leaving the bereft child to crawl into the seat of ‘The King of The Sky’ a Piper Warrior that has seen better days and dream of the time he will come back for her.

But Jack Peregrine doesn’t come back, although he apparently keeps in infrequent touch with his sister who always forgives him for his criminal ways and his neglect of his daughter.  Annie is brought up at Pilgrim’s Rest by Sam, and her friend, paediatrician Dr Clark Goode, the closest thing she has for parents.

As a tribute to her father whom she tries hard to hate unsuccessfully, Annie joins the navy and becomes one of their best test pilots.  She marries the only other pilot in the force better than her, but after finding him in the arms of another woman, instigates a divorce. On her twenty-sixth birthday, Annie returns to Pilgrim’s Rest just before a tornado hits, and receives a plea from her father. Jack is dying and he must see her again. He’s also in trouble, and she must fly ‘The King Of The Sky’ to St Louis, and bring the possessions he left behind with her; among which are a large emerald on a chain, money, bank cards, passports in various names and two combinations of numbers.

As a reader, I got to this point believing tough, independent, pragmatic Annie, who refused to even talk to Jack when he made a flying visit to Pilgrim’s Rest when she was seventeen, would tell him to go take a hike.  Not Annie, who may express her sense of abandonment and don’t-care attitude to anyone who will listen, but she has deeply buried insecurities she believes can be sorted out by her father alone. One being - who was her mother, known to her only by the name, ‘Claudette Colbert’ on her birth certificate. Where did he get the emerald, and a ruby he sent her when she was seventeen? And was there really ever a gold statue of the Virgin Mary rescued by her ancestor from a sunken ship?

Annie takes off for St Louis in the tail end of a hurricane in ‘The King of The Sky’ just after her soon- to- be-former husband arrives to win her back. Disloyally, Sam calls Brad to keep him apprised of Annie's movements – something she often does in an attempt to get them back together again.  I imagined Brad has no chance, but Annie is herself a paradox and maybe I’m completely wrong about that too.

To reveal more of the plot would spoil this intriguing story, but I would point out that on many levels it’s a good read that comes to a satisfactory conclusion.

On the other hand – there is a lot of padding - inserted to explain Annie’s dysfunctional family life before Sam and Clark took over, her aunt’s lesbian background and the failure of a long-term relationship which left Sam bereft. Clark’s two marriages are less complicated, as is his determination to be a conscientious parent to Annie, whom he loves to distraction.

The format of the writing can be frustrating, in that there are lengthy and frequent flashbacks in precise detail containing snippets of dialogue from old movies used as communication between Sam, Annie and Clark, domestic rituals, private jokes and accounts of what their two dogs are doing which tends to slow the pace of the plot. There is also the author’s habit of not using the character’s names, instead describing them as, ‘The tall man,’ [Clark] The grey-haired older woman, [Sam], the plump young woman, [Georgette], the cinnamon-skinned musician [Raffy] you get the picture.

There are so many plot devices–this novel resemble three episodes of the Gilmore Girls on speed -  If you can get to grips with the constant back-and-forth, readers will enjoy this chequered and sometimes chaotic account of an unconventional  family with secrets and a mystery where history does indeed play a major part.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Editing -Love It Or Hate It?

I Love Editing - Is she mad? do I hear you murmur? Editing is hard work and certainly not considered the fun part of writing a novel.
It is when you are a disorganised author.
I can read and reread a chapter ten times and still not see where the weak spots and clumsy phrasing are. But when a critiqued chapter or a corrected manuscript arrives, I cannot wait to examine the ambiguous, the weak and the plain wrong those red comment boxes point out. Then of course they are glaringly obvious and take no time at all to tweak into flowing prose - I hope!

Those tiny edits, sometimes no more than a question mark or a highlighted word, make me read specific passages with finite attention to detail and even if I don't always agree with the suggestions, I am able to recognise the need for improvement and can usually come up with one of my own. The disadvantage is, I start changing whole sections of formerly acceptable narrative - but I'm learning to focus - slowly.

Living with a novel for months gives an author a unique perspective of their character's motivation, but have they managed to convey that view in the novel? For instance, in a mystery, an editor/critiquer may point out that they expected the heroine's brother was the culprit, when the author wrote him as the good guy - and was disappointed when a character the editor/critiquer liked, turned out to be the villain.

Readers invest time and emotion in your characters and can feel misled, and thus let down - so it's up to the author to make the characters' motivation clear - and an editor to point out when it isn't.  - so I love mine.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Libelling The Dead?

I refer to the recent libel case lodged by the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien against Steve Hillard, the American author of self-published novel, Mirkwood, because he did not seek permission to make references to Tolkien in his novel.

Dana Celeste Robinson, of newly launched Knox Robinson Publishing says: “When I began this publishing house, I had no idea that the question of whether one could libel the dead was still moot........ coming from an academic background, I can attest that for those who research history, academic works are a mixture of fact and conjecture. Indeed, if we can no longer imagine how an historical figure may have made the decisions they made during their lifetimes or delve into the aspects (both good and bad) of their lives, then history as a discipline is dead.”

A ruling in the Tolkien case could set a precedent for or against an author’s rights to create fictional works involving real people, and the powers of an estate to control the use of names in works of fiction or historical accounts.

Carol Trow, an editor at Knox Robinson says: “Not being able to use people from history in books would damage the world of literature because recent history could not be written. No war films could be made, nor books written about it. No cowboy films could be shown, no courtroom dramas. That means no They Died With Their Boots On, no Inherit the Wind, no Valkyrie.”

Recently proposed changes to UK libel laws say proposed changes will ensure everyone the right to “speak freely and debate issues” without fear of libel actions, which have, according to UK Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, “Begun to have a chilling effect on scientific and academic debate and investigative journalism.”

The bill also seeks to end “libel tourism,” or the practice of suing individuals who do not live in the UK or an EU member state for libel in a British court. This bill could even put an end to the suit levied against Hillard by the Tolkien estate.

As an author who has recently completed a novel based on a real, if deceased, public figure, I shall watch the Tolkien case with interest and hope Kenneth Clarke’s bill finally sees the light of day – or I am not the only one who will henceforth be compelled to make up stories about non-existent characters in imagined worlds which bear no relation to any real person alive or dead!