Review: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

I decided I had to read this book which is considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century.  It is written by Carson McCullers, who was born in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, the oldest of three children of Lamar Smith, a jeweller of French Huguenot descent, and Marguerite Waters.  As a child, she was encouraged both to play the piano and to write stories.  At the age of seventeen she went to New York City to study music at Julliard School of Music, but she lost her enrolment money on the subway.  She returned to Columbus temporarily to recover from rheumatic fever.  Back in New York, she studied writing and produced her first piece of writing.  She married Reeves McCullers, and ex-soldier and aspiring writer in 1937.  In 1940, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published to considerable critical acclaim.  She went on to write three more novels, several plays and short stories.  She divorced Reeves in 1941 and remarried him in 1945.  In the interim, she fell in love with several women, including Gypsy Rose Lee, but, reportedly, her attempts to have sex with any of them came to naught.  Reeves committed suicide in 1953, having failed in his aim to persuade his wife to commit suicide with him.  Carson McCullers was an alcoholic who suffered from strokes; she was paralysed on her left side from the age of 31 and died at the age of 50 in Nyack, NY.  Her writing style is described as Southern Gothic.

Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, originally titled The Mute, takes its name from the poem The Lonely Heart by William Sharp: “Deep Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still, But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.”

The novel has six main characters: John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos who are both deaf mutes and close friends.  Spiros is hospitalised when his mental health deteriorates.  Singer stays in the small mill town in Georgia, where he works as a silver engraver in the 1930’s,  There are also Mick Kelly, a tomboyish girl who loves music and dreams of owning a piano, but, out of necessity, has to work at Woolworths; Dr Benedict Copeland, an old black doctor who is filled with anger at the plight of blacks in the South; Biff Brannon, the observant owner of a twenty-four hour diner; and Jake Blount, an alcoholic, violent labour organiser.  Each of these latter four is attracted to John Singer by his placid demeanour and his apparent sympathy with their individual angst.  The well-drawn characters suffer from loneliness which McCullers interprets with deep empathy.

When the book was first published, it was unusual for a young author to write with such effective sympathy about those who are rejected, forgotten, mistreated or oppressed.  She also highlights the oppressive race relations in the South in the 1930’s.

For me, however, the book moves at too slow a pace, and while this largely matches the pace of the setting, I found myself losing interest now and then.  The characters, the setting and the emotions are very real; the writing is excellent, if only it moved a little faster.

Changes in Book Publishing

There is a post on The Idea Logic blog about the seven changes that are coming in publishing over the next several years.   The Idea Logic Company is the creation of Mike Shatzkin who, according to his website, is “a widely-acknowledged thought leader about digital change in the book publishing industry.  In his nearly 50 years in publishing, he has played almost all the roles: bookseller, author, agent, production director, sales and marketing director, and, for the past 30 years, consultant.”

Mike Shatzkin

Mr Shatzkin begins by describing the evolution which has already taken place in publishing, beginning when a publisher needed to own a substantial infrastructure to deliver printed books to thousands of retail locations. “Now more than half the book sales and an even greater amount of the “discovery” takes place online and a lot of the discovery and a lion’s share of the purchases happen at a single account: Amazon. You don’t need a big organization to cover a single account nor a big infrastructure to service it. The other half of the sales in the US, and sales around the world, are now facilitated by another single account, Ingram Content Group.  Ingram provides every component of the fixed-cost infrastructure that any book publisher requires and, in fact, provides all or any part of that infrastructure to an ever-growing number of publishers. . . . All the things that publishers do that don’t require a big infrastructure: finding and developing books, editing them, designing them, and marketing them (increasingly using digital opportunities to talk directly to consumers) can be delivered by a vast network of freelancers and small company service providers.”

Mr Shatzkin continues with his predictions which are excerpted below:

“1. Sales will continue to move to online. The movement of book sales from physical stores to online has been unabated since Amazon began. There is no reason for it to stop. Books have a ton of characteristics that make them perfect for online shopping. You want to shop from a full selection no store has.

2. The other big general online retailers will be Amazon’s biggest competitors for book sales. So far, Amazon has been about the only beneficiary of the shift to online buying. That may be changing. Other big retailing brands like Walmart and Costco have built robust online businesses. Ingram now enables them to carry a full line of books as well.

3. The bifurcated book market will continue. There is a whole digital-first publishing world, spawned by self-publishers, that offers (mostly) genre fiction at prices commercial publishers can’t match: $4.99 and under. The net result has been that commercial publishers are finding it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to compete in the genre fiction market of customers who measure their reading in books-consumed-per-week.

4. Publishers will progressively shed overheads for service providers. As the commercial publishing business shrinks because of reduced shelf space and increased competition from publishers enabled by the new circumstances, the big publishers will find it increasingly difficult to support their overheads.  We’ll see the number of sales forces calling on bookstores and the number of warehouses shipping to them decline progressively in the next few years.

5. Big publishers will see an ever-growing share of their own sales from their backlist. While it is getting increasingly difficult for publishers to successfully launch new books, there are new opportunities appearing on the radar every day for titles on the backlist. This is true both because digital information sources find and publicize books regardless of their age and because publishers don’t need to position inventory in stores to make them accessible to the public.

6. Amazon Publishing will continue to make inroads signing big authors; only a ruling from courts could eventually stop them. When Amazon launched their book publishing program ten years ago, they probably had about half the market share they have now. Big authors want to reach the whole public, and when indie and chain bookstores combined to effectively boycott Amazon titles, it meant large parts of the consumer base were hard for them to reach.  From here it looks like Amazon exploits an unfair advantage, being the biggest retailer competing with their suppliers for customers that Amazon owns. But for that to matter, it has to be a court’s opinion, not just mine. Perhaps as the effect of the current market circumstances on competition become clearer, a court will see it that way.

7. “Entity self-publishing” will increase dramatically, presenting more challenges to commercial non-fiction publishing. The pieces are all in place for “publishing books” to become part of any big entity’s marketing strategy. You don’t need to own a book publisher to issue them any more than you need to own a newspaper or magazine to get a story out.  Over the next few years, we will see a tsunami of non-fiction publishing from capable entities much like the tsunami we have seen of genre fiction publishing direct from authors.”

All of this makes sense to me.

Master and Commander

I have long been addicted to Patrick O’Brian’s novels which featured Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin in tales of sea battles with French warships in the early nineteenth century.  There was an article in The Sunday Telegraph on November 3rd by Lewis Jones entitled “The Dark Story Behind ‘Master and Commander’, the first of O’Brian’s twenty novels.  I probably read all twenty, which were addictive to an ex-Navy officer like me, because of the incredibly realistic accounts of life aboard British warships during the Napoleonic era.  But more than that, Aubrey is a roast-beef British, dashing, but sometimes thoughtless character, accurately played by Russell Crowe in the film, and Maturin is an Irish-Catalan naturalist, doctor, and spy.  They are shipmates, friends, musicians, and adventurers in the series.  O’Brian had an amazing talent for concocting what looked like sure wins for Aubrey, which suddenly became disastrous, but from which Aubrey extracted a brilliant win over his French adversary.

The Telegraph article mentions some interesting facts about O’Brian, the author.  He was born in 1914 in Buckinghamshire; during the war, he worked in British intelligence with his second wife, Mary Tolstoy, who had been married to a Russian, Count Tolstoy.  After the war, he moved to the Catalan part of France where he spent decades writing, half a dozen novels, a biography of Picasso, numerous short stories and translations.  He had friendly reviews, but he wrote in obscurity and he was always broke.  In 1967, when O’Brian was at a low ebb, he received a letter from the American publisher, J B Lippencott, noting the C S Forester had died the previous year and that he, O’Brian, would be well qualified to fill the void left by Forester’s Hornblower series.  In 1969, Master and Commander was published.  By the 1990’s O’Brian was rich and famous, was appointed a CBE and the world wanted to know about him.  As an intensely private person, this irritated him considerably.   He was the eighth of nine children born to an English ‘pox doctor’ (venereologist) of German descent and an English woman of Irish descent.  He was ‘briefly’ educated at grammar schools.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of O’Brian’s biography is the speculation about how he acquired his naval knowledge.  In a 1994 essay, O’Brian himself said, “my particular friend Edward, who shared a tutor with me, had a cousin who possessed an ocean-going yacht, a converted square-rigged merchantman, that he used to crew with undergraduates and fair-sized boys, together with some real seamen, and sail far off into the Atlantic. The young are wonderfully resilient, and although I never became much of a topman, after a while I could hand, reef and steer without disgrace, which allowed more ambitious sailoring later on.”

But, in 1995, the venture capitalist, Thomas Perkins, offered O’Brian a two-week cruise aboard his then sailing yacht, a 154 ft ketch.  He later said, “his knowledge of the practical aspects of sailing seemed, amazingly, almost nil” and “…he seemed to have no feeling for the wind and the course, and frequently I had to intervene to prevent a full standing gybe. I began to suspect that his autobiographical references to his months at sea as a youth were fanciful.”

In any event his tales of seamanship and combat at sea are remarkably realistic and entertaining.  Patrick O’Brian died in 2000.

Creative Writing Classes

I have decided to take two courses on creative writing at City Academy in London.  One is a full week, full day (10-5) class in advanced creative writing.  In addition to providing the students with a sharper writing tool kit, it covers the specific skills of novel writing, script writing (film or television) and play writing.  There is a good deal of emphasis on creative techniques and structure.  There were four instructors on this course, all of them freelance writers, some of them take commissions from the BBC and one is a children’s book writer.  All of us (six) on this course were impressed with both the knowledge of the tutors and their skills in transferring the knowledge to us.  We completed many specific writing assignments in class, ranging from five to twenty minutes, and we would read out our work to the class.

The other class is on Wednesday evenings from 6:30 to 9:00 for six weeks.  This course is taught by the head of the creative writing department, who is script writer for Casualty on BBC1.  As such, he has a flair for drama.  This course is designed to help students progress or design a piece of creative writing.  There are five students in this course; I am the only male (aside from the tutor).  One woman in her early 30’s has finished writing a middle grade children’s book about a child who is disappointed in her own achievements.  A woman in her 50’s has a musical which has been performed somewhere locally and involves repercussions from Vietnam.  These two are making final corrections.  A woman in her late late 30’s has some ideas for a novel about two female friends, one of whom has a father who has strangely reappeared.  And the other student, in her 20’s, is trying to develop ideas for a novel.  And I am there with a completed manuscript about a man who is preoccupied with fears of his death.  Agents say it is well written, it has three good reviews, but nobody has said ‘yes’, and one agent said that in needs more intensity.

So I outlined the novel last Wednesday, including the concern about intensity.  I also presented my list of ideas for ramping up the intensity.  Almost immediately, the tutor said, why don’t you make the relationship between the protagonist and his grandniece the centerpiece of the novel, having them tell the story rather than the protagonist alone.  At first, I thought, Oh, God another rewrite!, but then it began to make sense.  The current structure of the novel is around a timeline which tends to dilute the intensity of the relationships.  But, if the two narrators cover and debate each of the relationships in depth, in series, it will be much more intense.

So next Wednesday, I’ve been asked to bring a revised outline to the class.  What this involves is taking all the events of each relationship, and grouping them together sequentially, rather than allowing them to be strung out along the time line.

This will, of course involve some re-writing, some new material and deleting some existing material.  But I’m looking forward to it.

Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

As a particular fan of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and other pieces by Mark Twain, I thought that this would be a particularly good book to which to listen, so I down loaded it from Audible and my wife and I started listening to it.  She lost interest almost immediately, but I carried on to the bitter end.

Mark Twain was the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clements, (1835-1910), an American writer humorist, entrepreneur, publisher and lecturer.  His obituary in the New York Times, called him “the greatest humorist this country has produced”, and his The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has often been called “The Great American Novel”.  He worked as a miner in California and as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River.  His pen name is the call of the leadsman on a riverboat reporting two fathoms beneath the keel of the boat – a safe depth of water.

Mark Twain

A Connecticut Yankee begins with the protagonist, Hank Morgan, wakes up after being hit on the head in early medieval England near Camelot, the mythical King Arthur’s kingdom, in an environment of chivalry, knighthood, slavery, serfdom, domination of the Catholic Church, and an autocratic ruling class.  Hank competes with Merlin, King Arthur’s great sorcerer, using nineteenth century technology to win the kings favour and become ‘The Boss’, the second most powerful man in the kingdom.  Secretly, Hank introduces gun powder, the telephone, hydraulic pumps, electricity, etc. behind the scenes in Camelot.  The average citizen of Camelot is depicted as a gullible illiterate, ready to believe the most improbable presentations.  Knights are hardly chivalrous, kings are tyrants and magic is everywhere.  Hank is challenged to joust with various knights and he defeats several by lassoing them, and the rest by shooting them with a pistol.   Eventually the church causes a revolt against Hank which results in a war of knights with swords and spears against Gatling guns and electrified fences, where the victors, except Hank, succumb to disease; Merlin puts Hank under a spell for 1300 years and then is electrocuted.

The novel is a satire of the romanticised views of chivalry in the middle ages; it is also an attack on the mysticism and the controlling nature of the Roman Catholic Church of the time.  The concept of time travel as a sub-genre of science fiction is significant in that it was followed almost immediately by several other novels.

I found the novel boring, probably because I have no romantic notions of knighthood and chivalry or misconceptions about the role of the Church which require correction.   There is one passage which lists just the names of a large number of knights.  I found it beyond credibility that a single nineteenth century engineer could build a ‘modern’ infrastructure in the iron age in only a few years.  Twain also mistakenly refers to steel armour well before it was invented.  Apparently Twain had a falling out with Sir Walter Scott who wrote romantic novels about chivalry and on whom he blamed the start of the American Civil War for Scott’s promotion of distinctive titles.  The story seems to have no unifying plot, but meanders from one set of circumstances to another at the whim of Hank Morgan.   The characters are largely one-dimensional, with the exception of ‘Sandy’ (Demoiselle Alisande a la Carteloise).  I found myself asking repeatedly, “What’s the point?”

Forget about the Connecticut Yankee; go with Huckleberry Finn.

 

Writing Seminar/Workshop

Last Saturday, I attended one-day seminar/workshop put on at the Cambridge Writing Retreat on the subject of ‘What Does Show Not Tell’ Actually Mean?  The instructor was Emma Sweeney, a novelist and literary instructor, who was both knowledgeable and interested in the development of the four writers attending.  Aside from me, there were three female writers: two novelists and a flash fiction writer.  The particular seminar I attended is part of a novel writing course put on by the Cambridge Writing Retreat over the course of a year, and the Retreat is the brainchild of Gaynor Clements, a poet with an MA in creative writing; it is put on in her attractive and spacious farmhouse.

The day started with Emma defining the terms.  Both Showing and Telling relate to what is in a character’s mind: feelings or thoughts.  Showing is accessing the world through our senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch.  Showing is describing a character’s reaction to one or more of the five senses to give the reader a clue of what they may be feeling or their attitude.  Telling describes the character’s thoughts or feelings directly.  Showing a close interaction – as for example, smelling a rose – can be quite powerful but can feel claustrophobic; showing a distant interaction tends to keep the reader at arms length. The literary preference is to use showing as much as possible, as this engages the reader in sensing the direction of the narrative, rather that being told the direction of the narrative.  Telling is best used when the author wishes to throw doubt on what a character has previously done or said; that is, to suggest that the character may be changing his/her mind.   If we are describing an emotion through telling, it is best to anchor it in an analogy or image.

Our first exercise was to go out into the garden and try to experience something close and distant with sight, smell and hearing; we were also asked to experience something close with touch and taste.  As the farmhouse garden has many herbs, flowers, shrubs and trees as well as chickens, dogs, sheep, birds and interesting vistas, this was not a difficult task.

We were then asked to write a scene in which one of our characters does something out of character using action, gesture, dialogue and a description of the setting.  This took forty minutes, during which time Emma spoke one-on-one for twenty minutes with two of the other participants about the status or their writing and any concerns or obstacles they were facing.  The two of us who had completed our scenes read them out for discussion.

When setting a general scene, it is good practice to follow it up with a more specific, detailed scene.

After lunch, we began to read and discuss excerpts as follows:

  • Hills Like White Elephants, by Ernest Hemingway.  This short story is almost all show and very little tell; the reader’s mind has to work to keep up with the narrative.
  • Notes on a Scandal,  by Zoe Heller.  The excerpt uses Tell to cast doubt on the protagonist’s version of events.
  • Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro.  The beginning of Chapter 4 is used to raise a number of questions to keep the reader’s interest.
  • The Web of Belonging, by Stevie Davies.  The excerpt uses an unusual words and layout to express the conflict a character is feeling

Our last exercise was to write a scene in which a character has an epiphany, starting with the external world, moving to the character’s mind, and concluding in the external world.  I had a plan for this one, but didn’t complete it because I had twenty minutes with Emma.  We talked about my concerns: creating more tension in the narrative and being less kind to characters.

The day gave me just the ammunition I needed to defeat the mystery of Show vs Tell.

 

Breaking Grammar Rules

The Digital Reader had a piece on their website entitled: “Infographic: 15 Grammar Rules You Learned in School That You Can Break With Impunity”

 

I’ve picked out some of the more interesting ones below.

  1. Never end a sentence with a preposition:  This one is from the ark and is probably the most broken rule because of how formal sentences become when the rule is followed.  For example: “From where do you come?”
  2. Know the difference between who and whom:  Who refers to the subject of the sentence and whom refers to the object.  In colloquial speech, it is common, but incorrect to ask; “Who did you invite?”
  3. Never describe a singular noun with a plural pronoun: An exception could be, “Somebody left their hat on the train” – when the gender of the somebody is unknown.
  4. Use the correct verbal agreement for a collective noun:  Collective nouns describe groups of things acting as a single identity: swarms of bees; teams of people – “The team is going out to lunch”.  “None of us is invited to the wedding.”  Right but sounds wrong.
  5. Do not split infinitives: Infinitives are verbs in their most basic form, usually preceded by to.  But the following is OK: “She tried to quickly think of an awesome sentence.”
  6. Avoid vague pronouns:  For example: “When Jess picked up her baby sister, she was so happy.”  Was it Jess or here sister who was made happy?
  7. Use That and Which correctly:  That and Which are both relative pronouns that introduce clauses; the difference being That introduces a non-specific clause, and Which introduces a specific clause.  A specific clause specifies the identity of the noun to which it refers; a non-specific clause only provides more information.
  8. Use the correct personal pronoun:  Me, myself and I all describe oneself but cannot be used interchangeably.  I is the subject of the sentence; me is the object.  Myself is a reflexive pronoun when the subject and the object are the same.  Example: “Sue smiled at herself in the mirror.”
  9. Use Farther for physical distance and Further for figurative distance:  Example:  “We had run farther today to catch up with out teammates who were further along in the training schedule.”
  10. Use Fewer and Less correctly:  Fewer is an adjective used to quantify nouns that can be counted; whereas Less is an adjective used to quantify intangible nouns that can’t be counted.  Example@ “Fewer coins, but less money.”
  11. Into is directional, In To is a verb phrase:  Example: “Breaking into the museum” should be written as “Breaking in to the museum.”

And three rules that should never be broken:

  1. Apostrophes:  Apostrophes show possession and contractions and that’s all!
  2. Affect vs Effect:  Affect is a verb; Effect is a noun.
  3. Don’t make us new words, unless your name is Shakespeare.  Some linguists believe that English has up to 300,000 distinctly usable words.

Review: Me Before You

My wife and I listened to this audio book on our way back to London from Sicily.  I had selected it because I thought my wife would like it, and because its author, Jojo Moyes, contributed a lot of money to a program to help illiterate adults to read.  (My way of saying ‘thank you’!)

Jojo Moyes was born in 1969 on Maidstone, England.  She attended Royal Holloway, University of London and City University for a post graduate course in journalism.  She worked for The Independent newspaper for about ten years.  She wrote three manuscripts of novels that were all rejected.  With one child and another on the way, she was writing her fourth novel, which she decided would be her last if it were rejected.  Wikipedia says. “After submitting the first three chapters of her fourth book to various publishers, six of them began a bidding war for the rights.  Moyes became a full-time novelist in 2002, when her first book Sheltering Rain was published. She continues to write articles for The Daily Telegraph.  Moyes’ publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, did not take up the novel Me Before You and Moyes sold it to Penguin.”  It has sold fourteen million copies world-wide, went to number one in nine countries, and reinvigorated her back catalogue resulting in three of her novels being on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time.  Moyes would later write two sequels starring Louisa Clark, the protagonist of Me Before YouAfter You in 2015 and Still Me in 2018.  “Moyes lives on a farm in Essex with her husband, journalist Charles Arthur, and their three children.  She enjoys riding her ex-racehorse, Brian, as well as tending to the numerous animals on her family’s farm, including Nanook, or ‘BigDog’, a rescued 58 kg female Pyrenean mountain dog.”

Jojo Moyes

Me Before You is a romantic novel, but it is also a tragedy on a serious, controversial subject: euthanasia.   The protagonist, Louisa Clark, aged 27, an attractive girl from a small, historic English town and an ordinary, lower middle class family, is laid off from her job working in a cafe and takes a job as a carer for a quadriplegic 35-year-old man, Will, who was injured in an accident, is wise, good-looking, worldly and was enormously successful in business.  He isn’t sure he wants to continue living in his present state.  There are many other characters: Louisa’s parents and sister, Will’s parents and sister, Louisa’s boyfriend, Will’s girlfriend, and a medical carer.  It is a long book: 512 pages, and the listening time is 16 hours.

The book is certainly addictive; it is difficult to put it down.  Apart from the first chapter which begins rather slowly, the book is electrified with wave after wave of emotional crises, all quite real and believable.  There are job crises, romantic crises, existential crises, financial crises, personal crises.  The dialogue and the scene-setting is very good indeed.  Also impressive is the medical research that Ms Moyes must have done to make this novel as believable as it is.  The central characters are all clearly defined, and their development is entirely credible.  The only criticism I can offer is that one becomes somewhat emotionally fatigued reading the novel.  Could it have been a little bit more memorable and effective if it had been a hundred pages shorter?

If you’re a reader who likes emotional roller coasters, this one is definitely for you!

Judging a Literary Award

The Reader Views Blog has an article by Sheri Hoyte, Managing Editor, regarding the process of scoring titles for the Reader Views Reviewers Choice Literary Awards.  Sheri Hoyte’s website says that she is an aspiring children’s picture book author.  “I worked in the corporate world for over thirty years, honing my business and professional writing skills until 2012, when my passion for stories called me home to Reader Views an online publicity company for authors. Over the next couple of years I read and reviewed books for Reader Views, becoming the editor and social media manager in 2014. I am now one of the managing editors.”

Sheri Hoyte

In the blog she says: “So what do judges look for when scoring a literary awards title? Much like reading with a writer’s hat on, reading with a judge’s hat takes a different focus. Following are the guidelines I use when judging a literary awards title:

·         Content.  Does the author’s voice convey a distinct and consistent style throughout?  Does the flow of the book draw the reader in at an appropriate pace?  Does the reader have a clear understanding of who the characters are in the story?

·         Presentation and Design.  There is nothing more distracting to a great story than editing and proofreading errors.  This is the easiest thing to fix or prevent in the first place.  I can tell within the first few pages whether or not a professional editor has been used.  An occasional typo won’t make or break the book, but consistent use of poor grammar will cost points in the presentation category.

·         Production Quality.   Is the cover attractive and appropriate for the genre and the story?  Yes, I know the cliché, but a dull and drab cover, or a noisy cover with hidden titles and too much information can be a turn off.  Does the binding fall apart when opening the book?  Is the paper quality adequate or just so-so?  I have a hard time concentrating on a story when the book I’m reading is falling apart or the pages are tearing because the paper is so thin.

·         Innovation.  To stand out in any genre, innovation is the key.  Is the subject matter original?  Does the author bring a fresh voice to the genre?   Are writing elements being used in interesting and creative ways?

·          Social Relevance and Enjoyment.  For fiction books: Is the book impactful on the community of the genre?  Is it reflective of important social issues? Is it highly entertaining and completely engrossing?  Would I re-read this book?  Was I left wanting more?

·         Resourcefulness.   For self-help, business, how-to, etc. type of books: Is the book easy to follow, clear and concise? Are credible sources noted? Does the author have credibility in the subject matter?

When I read a book, whether for pure enjoyment, to learn a new skill, expand my knowledge, or for a literary contest, I want to feel a connection to that book.  Fiction or non-fiction, humorous or biographical, when I’ve finished a book and it lingers in my mind for days – that is the sign of greatness.

Bad Book

You may remember that a had a recent post (September 1) on Why Do Bad Books Get Published?  I now have an example: The Tiger’s Prey, by “Wilbur Smith with Tom Harper”.  I bought in from the local bookstore here in Sicily, which has a rather limited English language shelf, because years ago I read Wilbur Smith’s When the Lion Feeds, his first novel (1964) which I thought was great story-telling.  By 2014 Smith had published 35 novels with sales of 120 million copies, 24 million of them in Italy.  He is now 86 years old.

In 2012, he moved his publishing to Harper Collins.  As part of his new deal, Smith would be writing select novels with co-writers, in addition to writing books on his own. In a press release Smith was quoted as saying: “For the past few years my fans have made it very clear that they would like to read my novels and revisit my family of characters faster than I can write them. For them, I am willing to make a change to my working methods so the stories in my head can reach the page more frequently.”  Smith’s Wikipedia page lists five co-writers; in the last five years he has only written one book in his own name.

So who is Tom Harper, and how much of The Tiger’s Prey did he write?  The answer to the latter question is not in the public record.  The answer to the first question is that he is a novelist, “13 thrillers and historical adventures”, born (1977) and brought up in Germany, now living in York, England.

In the previous post, I said, “It’s also worth noting that many bestselling authors no longer write their books themselves and use ghostwriters (who might not have the same writing chops) so that the author can churn out more books.”

Could that be the case for The Tiger’s Prey?

This novel is set in Cape Town and India in the 18th century, and it focuses on a family of seafaring, English aristocrats.  There are plenty of adventures:

  • Tom Courtney wins a sea battle with pirates while being seriously out gunned and out manned.
  • The head of the East India Company sends a derelict boy, Francis, who is Tom’s nephew to kill Tom as revenge for Tom’s accidental killing of Francis’ father.
  • There is a battle between Tom and Francis in which several others are killed.
  • Christopher Courtney breaks with his father, Guy, who runs the Company office in Bombay and joins the crew of a trading ship.  (Guy and Tom are bad blood twin brothers)
  • Christopher is flogged by the captain, later kills him, steals the captain’s money box, sets fire to the ship, and goes ashore.
  • Christopher joins a Hindu warrior school.  He is on a mission when he rescues a woman on the road who is threatened with rape and kills her assailant.
  • The woman runs a band of brigands and he joins her band.
  • Francis joins Tom on a trading mission to India.
  • The ship that Tom, his wife Sarah and Francis are on is shipwrecked, and they are intercepted by the army of a local Indian ruler, but they find their way to a local Company fort.
  • Christopher and his female leader become lovers and steal a money chest belonging to the local ruler.
  • They are captured and imprisoned by the Rani, the local ruler.
  • Christopher is forced by the Rani to kill his lover; he takes a position in her army.
  • The Company chief at the fort falls out with the Rani, and sends a military mission to negotiate with her.
  • The mission is attacked, the chief is killed, and the survivors retreat to the fort.
  • The fort is attacked by the Rani’s men but Tom resists the siege until the Company rescues them.
  • Tom goes to Madras and finds that his wife, who left the fort early, has been taken by pirates, and held for ransom.
  • Christopher joins the pirate leader; Guy refuses to attack the pirate; Tom cannot steal the money to pay the ransom.
  • Tom finds a rajah who is willing to fight the pirate and gives Tom and Francis command.
  • The pirate castle is sieged successfully and the women freed.
  • Tom and Christopher fight and the latter jumps off the castle wall.
  • Tom gets a large portion of the pirate’s treasure and Christopher gets together with the widowed wife of the Company chief.

But it isn’t just one barely credible adventure after another, the book is full of brutal violence and some unloving, explicit, rather forceful sex.  Moreover, there is a complicated backstory about the Courtney family which adds to the credibility burden which the story bears.  The characters tend to be black or white, good or bad, with little depth or complexity.  And what motivates our hero, Tom?  It is mostly to recapture a precious family sword, which has been taken from him and falls into several evil hands.  The sword is described with typical hyperbole: “he had used it to send countless men to their deaths they so well deserved.  It was made from the finest Toledo steel, and the supple weight of the blade was perfectly balanced by the star sapphire in the pommel.”  One might ask, also, what the title of the book has to do with the story.  The only tigers in the story are either rugs or the subject of a hunt organised by the rajah; the hunt does nothing to advance the story.

There were several factual errors in the first few pages.  East Africa was mentioned as a leg of the slave trade with America and the Caribbean; it was West Africa.  During the first sea battle, a “brazier on an iron tripod” is brought out and used to heat the tip of a sword.  This is extremely unlikely.  The only heating on a wooden sailing ship was the in the cook’s galley, which was extinguished before battle for fear of fire.  The only exception would be to heat shot (in the galley).  There is also mention of an un-manned broadside.  To be un-manned, the powder in each gun would have to be lit by a long fuse, and since the burn time of 18th century fuses was highly variable, it was unlikely to be a effective broadside.

There are two areas where Mr Harper shines: his knowledge of 18th century seamanship and exotic Indian lore.

Give it a pass.