Review: Northanger Abbey

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I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen. I have read all her novels and even part of her early works. However, I purposely delayed reading Northanger Abbey until I’d read The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. I’m glad I did, but I don’t necessarily recommend it.

Review

Northanger Abbey is Austen’s funniest novel. In addition to her typical satire is a critic on the writing trends of the time, some of which are still pretty relevant today. Behold:

This brief account of the family is intended to supersede the necessity of a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself, of her past adventures and sufferings, which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters; in which the worthlessness of lords and attornies might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before, be minutely repeated.

Or how less backstory is more story; a sound advice even today. Or even how to skip the boring parts. I found this especially funny since in The Mysteries of Udolpho, right before Emily makes a new friend, the reader is introduced to the new friend’s complete background story.

As a language professional who believes in plain language, I also especially enjoyed this gem:

“I do not understand you.” [said Catherine]
“Then we are on very unequal terms, for I understand you perfectly well.” [said Mr Tilney]
“Me?—yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.”
“Bravo!—an excellent satire on modern language.”

Mr Henry Tilney is one of Austen’s wittiest character and is now my favourite among the male leads. Catherine Morland is not my favourite female lead, but she plays her part well and is likeable enough.

I ADORED the dialogues in this book; I admire how Jane Austen can make a character say something, and the reader understand something completely different. I need to practice that skill…

While Northanger Abbey lacks the refinement of Austen’s later work (I’m thinking about Persuasion and Mansfield Park), this book has all the energy and wit of her early works.

My current ranking of Austen’s novels would be the following:

  1. Pride and Prejudice (10/10)
  2. Emma (10/10)
  3. Persuasion (10/10)
  4. Northanger Abbey (9/10)
  5. Mansfield Park (9/10)
  6. Sense and Sensibility (8/10)
  7. Lady Susan (6.5/10)

I’ll have to reread Sense and Sensibility though; I was a teenager when I read it and I didn’t yet fully appreciate Jane Austen’s skills. Also, Northanger Abbey is above Mansfield Park purely because the former is funny while the latter is pretty dark.

By the way, the 2007 Masterpiece adaptation starring Felicity Jones and J.J. Feild (♥) is good enough, but it doesn’t do justice to the novel. Read the book.

Northanger Abbey movie
Henry Tilney (J.J. Feild) and Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones)

Rating: 9/10

Who would I recommend this to? Austen’s fans, obviously; lovers of satires and parodies; fans of Brooding YA Hero on Twitter with a penchant for historical romance; and everyone who loves a sweet romance between a Miss Naive and a Mr Niceguy.

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Review: Outlining Your Novel

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I’ve already written about K.M. Weiland, saying how impressed I was with the free learning material she offered. Among the books she has for sale, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success is the first I bought. It’s one of my best investments ever. This 187-page book is my new bible.

I’ve struggled a lot with outlining in the past. My attempts at pantsing all ended with two or three elegant chapters, abandoned when structural issues or plot holes craters came in the way. My first attempts at outlining were not very successful either. I didn’t know how to do it properly. I half-pantsed, half-outlined my first complete novel, and as a result, I had to re-outline it and rewrite half of it from scratch. I don’t mind; I enjoyed the learning process and I’m confident that, once I’m done, the result will be as great as I could expect for a first novel. But Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success made me confident I can do it right next time and not waste so many hours fixing the mess.

Review

As usual, I’ve enjoyed Weiland’s voice: the writing it tight and to the point, with a pinch of humour. It’s pleasant to read. It’s also well structured, with handy checklists at the end of each chapter. There are a few typos, like words broken off by hyphens in the middle of a line, but nothing awful.

The book covers everything, from brainstorming to character development to setting, with examples from famous books or movies. It brushes lightly on story structure, but if you struggle with it, you can always get Structuring Your Novel from the same author. There are also interviews with other writers on their outlining processes, which I thought was a nice touch; some resonated with me a lot, other… not so much. That’s okay; it means the approaches to outlining are varied and there’s something for everyone.

I loved that the author takes you by the hand and tells you exactly how to outline the way she does. You couldn’t wish for a more comprehensive approach. Some writers might prefer a less lengthy process, but my control-freak self will have a lot of fun with it.

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What my copy of the book looks like now

I didn’t just read the book from cover to cover; I worked my way through it over three months to re-outline my novel for the rewrite. I added self-stick tabs at all the important places and even savagely highlighted important passages. For a “new” book, one that’s still at the stage of idea in my mind, it would take longer. If you get the book, I encourage you to do the same. Take your time with it. Enjoy it.

There is an accompanying workbook, which I haven’t bought yet – I prefer working on loose leaves in binders over anything else. However, I got the free sample from Amazon and it does add a bit to the content of the main book, with infographics, so I might get it later.

Rating: 9.5/10

Who would I recommend this to? Every fiction writer should read this, whether they’re just starting out or a bit more experienced. Even pantsers could enjoy it and learn from it. I have no doubt it will make me able to write strong stories faster, and that it can do the same for you.

 

Review: The Summer Tree (The Fionavar Tapestry #1)

Context
In high school, I read almost exclusively fantasy, the few exceptions being either in the Freaky Stories collection or written by Jane Austen. Yet, I managed to ignore the existence of Canada’s own Guy Gavriel Kay until cégep, by which time my to-read list had already blown out of proportions. Even when my mother found the whole Fionavar Tapestry trilogy for something like a buck a piece, I didn’t start reading right away. It was a fantasy short story contest, which I ended up not even doing, that got me started… and addicted.

The Summer Tree

Review
It’s been a long time since a book captivated me this much. Every time I wasn’t reading, I’d wish I was. I stayed up late because I was unable to stop reading. It made me remember why I used to love reading fantasy so much, although it also reminded me of some of the things that ended up boring me out of fantasy novels…

I read the French translation, so I couldn’t talk about the language. However, there is one writing device that ended up getting on my nerves because I felt it was over-used: that technique where you make something surprising happen and then explain how the situation came to this. I don’t hate the technique per say; it can be super interesting and effective. But everything is better in moderation. I don’t know if a non-writer would notice it though.

The world of Fionavar is strongly inspired by The Lord of the Rings (with maybe some Narnia?), which in many other books made me roll my eyes, but The Summer Tree brings enough new elements (paganism-inspired gods, for example) and is of sufficient general quality that I didn’t mind too much. What I did mind a bit was the weird names in seemingly another language while everybody in Fionavar was speaking English. It’s one of those things that Tolkien did well, but that his “copycats” should drop. That’s a minor thing, though.

The characters are interesting enough, the guys especially. One of them, my favourite, the one I identified the most with, felt more “alive” than most fantasy characters. The girls… meh. Maybe other girls could relate to them; I couldn’t. But that’s often the case, especially with girls-written-by-male-author. In the second volume (yes, I couldn’t wait to start the next book in the trilogy), one of the female characters becomes much more interesting though.

The book was written in the 80s and… it smells of the 80s, too. The mindset, the preoccupations, that kind of things. It was also the rise of feminism and sexual liberation… consequently, in Fionavar, guys seem unable to spend a single night alone in their beds: girls won’t leave them alone. Such girls typically don’t even have names and none of them ever gets the guy to think they might want to start a relationship with them (in a few instances, the guy even thinks about starting a relationship with another girl the very next day!). It sounds like a second-rate porn trope. The redeeming points here are that said scenes are non-explicit and typically span on over a paragraph each. Not so bad as to make me hate the book or author, but annoying enough for me to lower my rating by 0.5 points.

Just like The Lord of the Rings, the book can’t stand alone. There is “some sort of ending”, but of the type that feels like “here ends the first act” more than “here could have ended the story if the writer hadn’t felt like writing a sequel”. Its structure is, again, similar to that of The Lord of the Rings: when the characters get separated, you first follow one party, and then the next. And boy do you want to follow and see where it leads!

Rating: 8/10

Who would I recommend this to? Adult or young adult fans of fantasy, especially non-writing men or boys. Although, outside from the great classics by Tolkien and CS Lewis and the like, I’d sooner recommend Robin Hobb’s The Farseer Trilogy. I might need to reread that one so I can properly critic it.

Review: Negociating with the Dead

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In my first creative writing class, three books on writing were recommended to the students: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (click to read my review of it); Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood; and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Having read and loved The Handmaid’s Tale, I figured I absolutely needed to read Margaret Atwood’s non-fiction book on writing.

Review
Negotiating with the Dead is unlike any other books on writing that I have read in the past. I couldn’t describe it better than Atwood herself:

. . . what I had in mind was a grand scheme in which I would examine the various self-images – the job descriptions, if you like – that writers have constructed for themselves over the years.

It reads like a university-level book assigned for a literature course, which isn’t really surprising since it derives from lectures she gave at the University of Cambridge. The tone is rather formal (though sometimes witty), the language is recherché (sometimes even obscure for a speaker of English as a second language), the subjects explored are highly philosophical and of very little concrete use. However, the lack of concrete use does not equate with the lack of value. I enjoyed the autobiographical bits which, though interesting on their own, also explained Margaret Atwood’s style and her choices of subjects and themes as a bonus.

Margaret_Atwood_2015Born in 1939, Atwood has grown up in a Canada that’s very different from the one I know. As a result, some of the matters she explored felt outdated (e.g., I’ve never felt any less likely to succeed or be respected as a writer because I’m a woman – the prospects seemed equally bleak for both sexes). Most matters, however, remain true: I especially resonated with her chapters on the duplicity of the writer (how the writer seems to be a different entity than its human host… hello, persona), the Great God Pen (how easy it is to neglect oneself in favour of one’s art) and temptation (the correlation – or lack thereof – between the artistic value of a work, it’s popular success, and whether its author “did it for the money”).

The author supports her exploration of “being a writer” with a multitude of extracts from classic works, which contributed to that feeling of it being assigned for a literature course; it also resulted in my despairing at the sudden explosion of my want-to-read list.

At first sight, there is no recognizable structure. I kept on waiting for “the point” of the book, but after I finished it I realized the musings were it. Where Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, felt like a mentor giving her good friend the reader advice on how to deal with “the condition of being a writer” and how not to bang their head against the wall or commit suicide, Margaret Atwood feels like a university professor philosophizing about said condition, observing that it does bring its share of pain:

The suffering will come whether you like it or not. Suffering is a result of writing, rather than a cause. Publishing is like being put on trial.

She asks a lot of questions, most of which remain unanswered like all philosophical matters.

Rating: 8/10

Who would I recommend this to? Writers, especially older, more experienced ones. If you love history and philosophy, that’s a plus. I’d recommend staying away from it if, as a general rule, you dislike the way philosophers talk or if you’re looking for a book that will be useful to you as a writer.

Review: How to Make a Living with Your Writing: Books, Blogging and More

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I have first heard of Joanna Penn through Twitter, then found her podcast on a list of podcasts for writers. From there, it wasn’t long before her non-fiction books caught my attention. Two weeks ago, ready to take my writing career more seriously, I finally bought How to Make a Living with Your Writing: Books, Blogging and More.

Joanna Penn is an independent author claiming to make a multi-six-figure income, and considering she makes almost 20k a year just on Patreon, I have no doubt she’s telling the truth.

Review
The book is written in a tight, conversational language, which I always like in non-fiction books. In the introduction,  Joanna Penn briefly explains how she became a full-time author. I identified with her a little, despite our different personalities, and was motivated by her success story. A few years ago, getting a book published seemed next to impossible to me, let alone making any money with it; now, even making a living with it seems possible.

In part 1, she discusses traditional publishing, self-publishing and independent publishing. That changed my point of view on both traditional and independent publishing: I have stopped idealizing traditional publishing and now see indie publishing as an equally good option, depending on the book and my goals for it. There is also valuable information on what to look for when reviewing a traditional book deal.

How to Make a Living with your Writing companion coverIn part 2, she talks more about her other streams of income, for you see: only 50% of her income comes from actual books sales. The rest comes from affiliate commissions, course sales, professional speaking, consulting and podcast sponsorship. There is also some information on marketing.

The last part of the book gives pointers to plan your writing career and make your first few bucks with your writing. That was my favourite part because it made me feel able to create a solid career plan – I’m getting on it as soon as this post is published. There is a separate paper-only companion workbook. I’ll tell you all about it later: I should get my own copy in about two weeks.

I wish the book had been longer and more detailed. However, all through the book, there are links to additional information (mostly free), which I’m sure will be useful. There are also multiple book recommendations.

Another thing I loooved is how this book teaches by example: it provides great value for the reader while also promoting all of the writer’s other products! It sounds like a good marketing strategy to me!

Author20Blueprint_coverIf you’d like to know what you can expect before you purchase anything, I recommend downloading a free sample through your favourite ebook retailer or signing up to her mailing list to get her free book Author 2.0 Blueprint. I am currently reading it myself and I find it very interesting. The author also has a free thriller for sale through her fiction website.

Rating: 8/10

Who would I recommend this to? Every writer who wants to make it pro, especially if they’re considering the indie path. It’s short and fairly inexpensive and offers great value.

Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho

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I happened to catch the end of the movie adaptation of Northanger Abbey a year or two ago, in which The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe was mentioned. I am a big fan of Jane Austen’s, so Northanger Abbey had already been on my to-read list for a while, but if it was going to poke fun at Radcliffe’s book, I wanted to be in on the joke. Of course, reading a 672 pages novel only to better enjoy a 254 pages novel might seem a bit excessive to some but, I guess it testifies to how much I love Jane Austen’s wit.

Review
This novel was one of the first book written by a woman for women–it had a huge success in its time and was accordingly disdained by men who thought it was too sentimental. I would have loved to contradict them, but sadly… it really is excessively sentimental.

People keep shedding tears at the sight of gorgeous landscapes, of which there were too many descriptions. I do love a good landscape description, I loved Tolkien’s, but here they were too numerous, too much alike and too little important to the story to hold my interest.

The characters were not very believable. They made me think more of Molière’s caricatured characters than actual human beings, without being as funny or satirical. There were excessive backstories for characters who weren’t even very important, which contributed to the excessive sentimentality. Also… the main character is arguably a Mary Sue.

The writing style of the writer was a bit wordy and contained with too many useless commas. I do love commas, but one every five words or so is too much. Seriously, I’d love to know the actual comma per sentence ratio, it must be extraordinarily above average. Behold the following extract:

With some difficulty, Annette led her to the bed, which Emily examined with an eager, frenzied eye, before she lay down, and then, pointing, turned with shuddering emotion, to Annette, who, now more terrified, went towards the door, that she might bring one of the female servants to pass the night with them; but Emily, observing her going, called her by name, and then in the naturally soft and plaintive tone of her voice, begged, that she, too, would not forsake her.

This sentence is 82 words long and contains 19 commas and one semicolon. It could have been elegant, but as it is, I find it exhausting.

udolpho-illustrationHowever, the book is not all bad: the plot is quite interesting. It is a hybrid between a mystery novel and a romance novel, all very gothic and angsty. The main character is depressed, scared, horrified or crying most of the time. But when not interrupted by landscape descriptions, it still kept me wanting to turn the page and see what happens next. There are also a few good themes and associated morals, including a strong warning against superstitions, which I thought was somewhat avant-garde for the late 18th century.

In conclusion, while I do think there are some excellent elements in this book, I can also understand why it’s only ever mentioned nowadays as context for Northanger Abbey. I’m glad I read it because it does make Northanger Abbey funnier than it would have been otherwise, but I’m also glad to be done with it.

Rating: 5/10

Who would I recommend this to? Crazy fans of Jane Austen’s like myself, writers (alongside Northanger Abbey) and maybe history lovers.

Review: Bird by Bird

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If you’ve ever googled something like “books all writers should read”, you have most probably seen Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life at least once. This book doesn’t give precise advice on language and storytelling or how to make a living as a writer, but it gives some pointers as to how to deal with life as a writer – which probably helps in making it sound universally true. Like, on Twitter, I would hashtag this #writerslife, not #writingtips or #authorpreneur.

I happened to finish this book just before the beginning of my creative writing course, and was pleased to find it on the recommended reading list.

Review

First, let me say that this book is beautifully written. It is vibrant, poetic, witty, sad, true. It teaches by example. You’d think that’s a given with books on writing, but I know from experience that it’s not. Anne Lamott’s voice in the book is warm and honest, as if she had written the book for a friend or her son. It makes you feel like you’re talking to a friend over a cup of tea. There are a few references to Christianism, but not so much to bother non-Christians. I found every piece of advice to be sound and wise.

The book is divided into five parts. I had already figured out from experience most of what’s in the first part of the book, but I was glad to have some validation that I’m doing (and seeing) things the way a professional writer would. More experienced writers might find that there aren’t a lot of “new” ideas, but I didn’t mind. First because Lamott’s style is exquisite, secondly because there really aren’t any secrets to writing a book, and thirdly because the chapter on characters made me realize what was wrong with my protagonist.

The second part deals with the mindset. There are a few chapters that I thought most people, and not just writers or artists, could enjoy reading, including “Radio Station KFKD” (about those ugly thoughts that keep being broadcasted in our heads) and “Jealousy”. That last one almost shocked me at first, but then I realized I had experienced a similar feeling in my early 20s, just in a different context that didn’t have to do with writing – but very much to do with providing for myself. Despite all the wise precepts one attempts to abide by, it’s difficult to keep a cool head when survival is at stake.

The third part is about everything that can help a writer in times of need.  I love research and didn’t think I had much left to learn about it, but I had never thought of calling friends and family to have them talk to me about what they know. I especially loved the chapter “Letter”, which opens in the following way:

When you don’t know what else to do, when you’re really stuck and filled with despair and self-loathing and boredom, but you can’t just leave your work alone for a while and wait, you might try telling part of your history—part of a character’s history—in the form of a letter. The letter’s informality just might free you from the tyranny of perfectionism.

The fourth part is mostly about publication. I have no experience in the matter, but a lot of what Lamott says rang true. The chapter “Giving” made me cry, literally. Here’s another quote, from the beginning of that part because I love it and it seems there is “truth” written all over it:

Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems. Publication will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and it will probably not make you any richer.

The last part is a single chapter and wraps up the book, and it left me inspired and at peace.

RosieThis book made me feel the urge to read Anne Lamott’s fiction. She has also written several non-fiction books about faith: that’s not my cup of tea, but a classmate in my creative writing class who happens to be a minister for some Church in Ontario said she loved those.

Rating: 10/10

Who would I recommend this to? Writers, old and young, new and experienced. And for non-writers, definitely check out Anne Lamott’s others books: she has published several novels (I added Rosie to my to-read line-up) as well as non-fiction (I heard Hallelujah Anyway was accessible for less-convinced Christians).