Hit or Miss?

What is that causes us to warm to a book or not? Why do we like one and not another? Why do we like parts of a book but not all of it? I am having trouble answering all these questions. When someone recommends a book to me I long to love it as they have done but life isn’t like that. I’d heard people waxing lyrical about “Drowning Ruth” but it all sounded a bit weird so I stuck my fingers in my ears and sang “la la la I’m not listening”

Friends and relations noticing I was back in a reading phase tossed titles at me hoping they could get me back in the reading chair permanently. My “baby” sister had just finished “Notes from an Exhibition” and was sure I would love it too. It’s set mainly in Cornwall, has a female artist as one of the main characters with huge dollops of family life, one member of the family at a time looking back. I remember seeing the author’s name on the cover “Patrick Gale” and thinking, “oh, it’s by a man”. Did that influence me? Would it have been better if I didn’t know? I thought that I had immediately sensed a different way of writing. It felt like reportage. Like “best-seller speak”, like those airport books that MDB (My Dearly Beloved) picks up when he is away from home. They are efficiently written and make you have your kit bag all packed and ready for the route march to the end of the book.


“But she was awake and her brain was fizzing in a way that would have had Jack Trescothick testing her blood and reviewing her prescription had he known.”




So let me think carefully. I pick up the Gale book and turn to the beginning and read the first page. As I do that, in my head I am writing about me doing just that. Bingo! I’ve got it, possibly. I would have written my actions in the first person and the book is actually written in the third person, so it is reportage. Someone else is doing the telling even though that telling is concentrated on one person. Quickly I cast my mind back to “Drowning Ruth”. Yes, of course, that was in the first person. I remember being mildly annoyed that when the person telling events changed it had a heading of “Amanda” or “Ruth”. I compare it to the book that my baby sister is writing and  which also swaps from one protagonist to another but manages quite well without signposting the fact. I’ll have to have a look at books I have read and enjoyed and books that I didn’t enjoy quite so much to see if a pattern emerges. On the train home tonight I read more of “Notes from ..” This time a description of an insignificant character,



“She was slight and almost oriental-looking, with very straight dark hair that swung forward across her face whenever she looked down. She had shrugged off her suede coat to reveal a neat subfusc outfit like a woman barrister’s on television. Her silk blouse was undone one button further than she probably realized so that one cup of her bra kept moving in and out of view.”



Now that’s definitely NOT my sort of book but as if to emphasise the point it became even worse:


“When he woke thirsty a few hours later and stumbled to the bathroom for a drink, he found his cock and balls were aching from use in a way he had last experienced in the first solitary frenzies of adolescence.”



Would a woman have written that? Would she have bothered? After that I need something more innocent to decontaminate my reading area. When I started blogging today I intended to write about “The Battle for Gullywith”. Bloomsbury kindly sent me a proof copy of this and so I feel duty bound to attempt to review it. The problem is that although I had devoured the opening chapters that were posted on Susan Hill’s website I find that I am not running out telling all and sundry to read it. First of all it is a children’s book so perhaps it has to be read in a different way. Personally I don’t think that is the case because I am perfectly eager to be caught up events and taken off to impossible places. At least, that’s what I tell myself but when I think of everything I enjoyed as a child maybe I really do like my feet firmly on this earth. It doesn’t have to be my usual place on this earth. I can happily move in with the Railway Children, Pollyana or the March sisters and pitch camp with the Swallows & Amazons. I also have no objection to time-travelling but I suspect that I have a preference for ordinary life when I live in the past or flit from one time to another. I don’t mind there being one or two people visiting from another place or time but I had trouble with accepting those very tortoises in the Battle with Gullywith that DoveGreyReader enthused over. I suspect that I may become jittery when too many things don’t line up.


I have nothing against tortoises. When I was young we had Tommy who appeared to enjoy being carried around the garden by our dog and my next-door neighbours still have two elderly specimens who race up and down parallel to our fence and disturb the silence of our garden when spring comes and the sap rises and their shells crash one against the other. However, I couldn’t cope with the multitude of these creatures in Gullywith. I kept hearing a little voice saying “they are not an indigenous species”. Have I grown up so much that details like that ruin my enjoyment of a jolly good story? I wouldn’t have minded if they were mythical creatures like dragons or griffins or phoenixes or even psammeads but every time they blinked their beady eyes at me that little voice niggled away.


The Battle for Gullywith began with Olly, a ten year old boy moving from a perfectly good home in London to a falling down, out of the way ruin of a house. When he encounters a dog and tomboyish girl of course I knew they would become great friends but I was not prepared for the amazing locations that would be visited and events that would ensue. I had difficulty with this split between the real world and the “other” that happened, usually at night. Perhaps I can’t cope with fantasy. I never even attempted Lord of the Rings and dismissed The Hobbit with hardly even a cursory glance. I enjoyed books where amazing things happened but those amazing things were timeshifts or the ability to move into a parallel but just as ordinary world. In Toms’s Midnight Garden, when an old clock strikes thirteen Tom is able to slip from his time into the past but the place is the same, a real place, the garden as it was rather than as it is now. Moondial by Helen Cresswell uses a similar device to transport children back to a prior age. 


Maybe I just haven’t got a big enough imagination to deal with these leaps into other worlds  within our world. That’s probably why Lord of the Rings et al never grabbed me. I only ever managed the first Harry Potter. I’m sure that there will be many eager imaginative children out there who  will  totally immerse themselves in the  two worlds of  Olly  & unusual  friend KK but  I’ll stick to simple time shifts in my children’s  books and please don’t  make my adult books too adult.


4 Responses to “Hit or Miss?”

  1. Harriet Says:

    Gosh — this is a fascinating post with so much in it! I have the BforG by my bed and am about to start reading it — like you I liked the first chapters — and am rather into children’s lit at the moment so we’ll see. I also tend to shy away when I see a man’s name on the cover though have just read the most wonderful book by William Maxwell…Of course men can write good books (and women can write bad ones) but given the choice I’ll always go for a female author.

  2. callmemadam Says:

    I’m half way through Notes from an Exhibition right now. I can see why the particular descriptions you mention irritated you but I find Gale’s writing pretty good. Love him or hate him, he’s certainly getting a lot of blog space at the moment.

    Interesting what you say about children’s books. I’m a real life type, myself. There’s very little fantasy I enjoy, although I like a time-slip story. Give me a family story written in the 1940s and I’m usually happy. Amongst modern writers for children my favourites are probably Hilary (The Exiles, Saffy’s Angel) McKay, Jean Ure and Jacqueline Wilson. Oh! They’re all women!

  3. Simon Says:

    My copy of Gullywith still hasn’t arrived… *glum face*

    I’ll have to start thinking of titles to throw at you! Though having read a lot of the bloggers vs. lit critics debate recently, I keep wondering about the pitfalls I’m wandering into. How’s that for multiple use of wondering/wandering?

  4. Simon Says:

    just realised, for some reason, my previous blog link (on my name ‘Simon’) was linked to go to a mid-January entry… how strange…

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