Tuesday, 17 March 2009

News and reviews

Today I'm posting a sort-of book review that is part of one of those blog tour thingeys. It's Fiona Robyn's book 'The Letters'...and I'll get to it in a minute...first a couple of bits and pieces.

Firstly I must thank Dominic Rivron for his great tune for 'Before I drop' (see last post). When we've got enough for an album we'll let you know!

Secondly the night in Dundee at the Apex hotel on Sunday was a real experience – there was so much to do for a start. What with compering what was a very busy night with lots of different musical performers (and quite a few spontaneous changes to the programme!), reading some poems (I got 8 in altogether...a mixture of styles and subject matters and sizes...), making sure I got all the announcements and information right, managing the raffle...plus enjoying the music...I was pretty worn out by the time it was all over. Still it was a brilliant night and thousands of pounds were raised for Medical Aid for Palestinians. On a personal note I got to hear Sheena Wellington sing for the first time (and I loved her own songs especially - I didn't know she was a songwriter as well as a singer). I also got to introduce Michael Marra (and not mess it up!) and to read poems in front of probably the biggest audience I've faced (about 250 people)...so it was all pretty exciting. I know size isn't everything (audience-wise) but it does change your mindset a little to begin with when you look out and see quite so many faces looking back! I was a little nervous to begin with but at the end of the day they weren't there for me (they were there for the cause or for Michael Marra or both) so even if I had messed up...what would it have mattered anyway! I read the 'Before I drop' (as a poem) and mentioned the song to the excellent women's choir Loadsaweeminsingin (who were performing on the night too). I would just love it if they would sing it – they are so fantastic and put so much energy and positivity into everything they do.

But now...on with the blog tour...

I first came across the writer Fiona Robyn via one of her blogs – A Handful of Stones (and I think I came to that blog via poet Juliet Wilson). Then a little while back I saw Fiona had a novel coming out and I offered her a book swap. Swap we did and here is my kind-of a, sort-of a review of Fiona's book 'The Letters' (I don't do newspaper-ready reviews any more...no more neat and tidy packages tied up with string from me...bring on the rambling, wandering pondering affairs...).


OK...well..if I'm going to be honest (and honesty is practically my middle name...) my first thought when the book arrived and I saw the cover was 'oh no – it's one of those books...'. Here's the cover:

I'm not saying it's hideous or anything but I suppose I am saying that I don't often read books with covers like this (I do sometimes but it's usually when I'm ill or something and even then it usually ends with me thinking 'bloody hell, that's hours of my life I won't get back!). Let's look at it again...a slim, model-like mysterious (headless!) woman in a long red dress that is blowing in the wind...Eek! A lady in red! I wondered...was this going to be a cheesey romance? Or a 'book for the beach' (and therefore fairly useless for me as I don't do beach holidays...I should explain...we live near the beach anyway, plus flying and crowds make me twitchy). So I panicked (a little). What would I say to the no doubt charming Fiona about her book if it was a...beach read? “It's really not my kind of thing”? The infamous “not my cup of tea”? Still, the book was already here in my house, ready to read...I'd best give it a chance. I do say I like to try all kinds of writing...

So I read it. And phew! Double phew! Triple phew with some extra phews on for good measure. Because I really enjoyed it and it's an interesting, well-written, thoughtful book. I can only think that the (for me) fairly wishy-washy cover is a ploy to get lots of women who do like romantic novels and beach novels to pick it up in bookshops (or supermarkets or airports...) and thereby enter a far more interesting written world than the one that lassie on the cover might suggest. Phew again.

So, now that's all out of the way...what did I enjoy about 'The Letters'? That's a tricky one but only because 'The Letters' is one of those novels where some of its best features are surprises and I really don't want to spoil anything for potential readers. All I will say is Рthe characters are strong and varied and totally clich̩ free, the story is unpredictable (a major plus!), the writing is poetic and carefully detailed and the book definitely has that must-keep-reading factor (unputdownability?). I read it in two days...and I would have read it in one night if I didn't have a family to organise and, oh you know, stuff to do. I passed it on to a friend who also really enjoyed it and we will pass it on to others too. All those friends are women, so far, because I'm not sure how many male friends I would pass it on to in all honesty. That's another tricky subject (books about motherhood and relationships and families) because whilst there is no good reason why men shouldn't read books like this by women (hell, men and women both read 'Anna Karenina' and 'Madame Bovary' Рclassic books about relationships and families...) it is still one of those things that doesn't quite work both ways, don't you think? It's a huge subject (and one I'm not sure I should open up right here, right now) but one thing I do know...that cover may help some women to pick up the book (girlier women than me, obviously...) but it definitely won't entice any men to do so. Maybe the publishers and author decided that men wouldn't read the book anyway so it wasn't an issue. Or maybe I'm way off. Any thoughts?

But what more can I give you without giving too much plot away? The book has two time zones...one present and one back in 1959...and the stories from both are very well woven together. I loved the way Fiona dropped in lots of little references to stones ('stone' must be her favourite word I think) and I admired the way she made her central character really quite selfish and annoying at times. Overall I''d say this book has an awful lot that makes it worth reading and I would recommend it for sure. Yes, unreservedly I would say read it...and whether you read it on a train, a plane, a bus, a beach, or in the bath...well, that's really up to you.



deemikay said...

The cover does sort of scream "I am a book for women".

Why men don't read these sort of books is an odd thing... there was a blog at the guardian last week asking what we'd think of, say, Georgette Orwell's 1984, Dennis Lessing's Golden Notebook or John Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Is it all just a marketing thing? Wouldn't it be nice if all authors used non-gender specific nom de plumes?

(Word verification was missmaster! There's a thing...)

Rachel Fox said...

I didn't see that piece you mention. I like the idea of John Austen though...and as for Georgette Orwell...excellent!

There is a lot in the Kate Clanchy interview in Horizon Review just now about the gender issue and writing (poetry particularly in her case). It's a complicated one! Some very interesting words from Carol Ann Duffy in that interview though and well worth a read...whatever your views on the subject.

As for marketing...while I know it has its job to do in some ways my time in that world made me see it very much from the Bill Hicks standpoint. May have to see if that routine is on youtube and post it some time.


Anonymous said...

Tut, judging a book by its over? That's my remit, back off woman. :)

That book deemikay mentioned 'John Austen's Pride and Prejudice.' sounds like a bit of a rip off, what's the cover like, I wonder? :)

I couldn't read this book out in public on account of the cover but I could hide it in a copy of 'Loaded' I suppose. Well reviewed mate.

deemikay said...

An interesting thing is that I can't remember the last time I read a novel by a woman. But I read lots and lots of female poets.

(That may just be due to the fact that I don't read many novels these days.)

I like to think that gender politics has no influence on what I read, but I can't guarantee that deep down there's not a part of me that says "I prefer books written by men".

My nephews are at the "pink's for girls!" stage... am I just a grown-up-version of that?

deemikay said...

Ken: I may have to make the cover... ;)

Rachel Fox said...

Ken - we all judge unknown books by covers (and titles) don't we? At least a little bit. If the book has been recommended in some way (so we have other information that allows us to see past the cover) then it's different but if not...what else are we to do? No-one can read every book in the world!

I know I spent a LOT of time choosing my title! Slightly less on the cover because I had the print of the artwork on my bedroom wall and knew all along that's what I wanted to use (for many reasons). So I asked my friend (who made it) and luckily she said yes! I probably could have spent longer considering fonts...but I didn't. Unlike some of you my tastes in font are fairly simple and undeveloped.

And David - on some level I think I do try to read an equal balance of work written by men and women. It's not very scientific or anything but I think I probably do do that...somehow.


Rachel Fox said...

The Bill Hicks thing I'm on about is here...it contains A LOT of swearing!

Bill Hicks on marketing

I don't like all his stuff...saw him live once and found his routine on Mandy Smith (she married one of the Stones) really stomach-churning (she was just a daft young girl...she didn't really need that level of punishment I don't think). I think this excerpt is fantastic though. It was used by the band Fila Brazillia on their album 'Maim that tune'.


deemikay said...

Bah! Along with external e-mail, youtube is another one of those things we can't get at work. :(

I shall watch later.

My knowledge of BH is quite limited. But I do know about the swearing.

Rachel Fox said...

Oh yes he's very good at swearing.

Kat Mortensen said...

First of all, well done on your reading to 250 people. That must have been amazing! It sounds like you had a fantastic evening -- and for a good cause as well.

Now to the book: This is a cover that would definitely put me off. Having said that, I read "Last Chance Saloon" by Marion Keyes and quite liked it, but I WAS sick at the time, come to think of it.

Your review, however definitely piques my curiosity and I would venture to open it and have a look for myself, but ordinarily...no way!

Fiona should be pleased with what you've had to say.


(Curiously, my verification is "scoustic". Is that an adjective for Liverpudlians?)

Rachel Fox said...

I was interested in Fiona's writing because I really like the Handful of Stones project and its whole philosophy. Getting away from distractions and crap and just concentrating on little details when you can...never does any harm, almost always does some good.


The Weaver of Grass said...

Shall read it before I pass comment - thanks for recommending it.

Rachel Fox said...

I was just thinking of you Weaver (as I ran water for dishes...not to do with the dishes...more to do with the fact that we're going to Yorkshire in April) and I thought how much you, of all my visitors, would like this book. It's on sale in all the big stores etc. and it's a paperback.

Marion McCready said...

Eight poems is a pretty good run! Well done you! I'm vaguely considering reading some poems on the open-mic night at stanza, any tips for a novice?

swiss said...

there should be no surprise that i'd be put off by a dodgy cover for all the many reasons it could be dodgy! lol

green ink said...

Sounds brilliant - I'll have to check it out.

And thank you for your post the other day on writers that have inspired you. I got the only Margaret Drabble book I could find at the library on Saturday, and have finished it already. It's definitely inspired me to keep going :)

Rachel Fox said...

Sorlil - I went to the open mic night years ago but it was before I knew anybody at all even remotely to do with anything poetry here and it was very crowded and you couldn't see anything from the back so I just left and went to the pub! So my advice if you want to read is go early and grab whoever is in charge.

As for reading in general - don't talk too fast (hard for me!), take deep breaths before you start, introduce well (if suitable), give your words time and space to be heard properly. If you think it is good enough to be heard it probably is and at least some people will recognise that.

And enjoy yourself.

Swiss - no maybe not one for you.

And Philippa - glad to have helped you find some books you can enjoy. I enjoy your blog!


Dave King said...

Remind me: why couldn't I be enticed by that cover? You'd be surprised by what I can be enticed by! Good review, though - I might even read the damn book!

Rachel Fox said...

I'm not saying it's not a cover that wouldn't attract some readers, Dave, just that it wouldn't ordinarily catch my attention in a positive way.
I think you should read it...I think you'll like it/find it interesting.

hope said...

Glad you had fun and did well!

Nice review and I agree...the cover would've made me keep walking. It's like those bodice ripper/Fabian covers...wouldn't catch me dead with one!

Perhaps you and Ken could make extra bucks coming up with "Cover covers" so you could read good books without people coming to the wrong conclusion. :)

Rachel Fox said...

It's deemikay who does the creative covers, Hope. Have you seen what he did with me and Shakespeare (and odd combination I know)?

Susan at Stony River said...

I avoid covers of headless wandering women too. A few years ago I had the opportunity to sit down with an editor of romances about writing for her, and I admitted I hadn't read many of the books: 'I just can't get past those titles and covers,' I said. She said that many writers and editors felt the same way, but that the final decision was the marketing department's--and what sells the book, is what the book will get. On one hand, who'd want to argue with sales? But still...

I'm glad you enjoyed the book! I'll keep an eye out for it.

Rachel Fox said...

Susan - did you go the Bill Hicks on marketing link a few comments above? Highly recommended.

jem said...

I really liked reading your review - as I shared quite a few of those same reservations about 'what will I do if I don't like this book, will I be honest and risk upsetting Fiona, or lie and say it was amazing'.

I agree as well about the cover, I would not have touched this if I saw it on a shelf, it was only knowing her and her background in the smallstone world that made me read it.

Oh, and I laughed at the image you conveyed of a headless lady in red - I'm thinking of Chris de Burgh meets American Psycho now!

Rachel Fox said...

Hi Jem and thanks for calling in!
It makes you wonder whether Fiona's publisher shouldn't put out 2 versions of this book a la Rowling (or even 3...but that's another issue...) - one for the beach-reads and one for the rest of us.

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Rachel Fox said...

That last comment seemed to be spam but if you are a real reader 'Ruth' and want to come back without the adverts for upgrades and life insurance...let me know.

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