I'm delighted to welcome my friend Ellis Shuman to my blog today. Ellis is the author of the gripping suspense novel 'Valley of Thracians' as well as a collection of short stories entitled 'The Virtual Kibbutz'. He also writes a popular blog, where he posts book reviews, articles about Israel, Bulgaria, and anything else he fancies. You can find it here. https://ellisshuman.blogspot.com/
Reading one of Ellis's posts got me thinking. Which is the better medium for e-books, a dedicated e-reader or a tablet? Me, I love my basic Kindle. The battery life is amazing; I can go weeks between recharges, despite using the device most days. I also love e-ink; I can read my Kindle in bright sunshine, whereas the shiny screens on tablets render that difficult. Kindle Paperwhites also have a backlight facility, which enables readers to use their devices in the dark, and are also waterproof. Once my basic model stops working, I'll upgrade to a Paperwhite.
I also like the fact that I can't access the Internet. Sure, my Kindle is wi-fi enabled, allowing me to browse Amazon for new books, but that's as far as it goes. For me, the fact I can't access Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads or any other of my favourite websites, is great. I can lose myself for hours in social media!
Ellis prefers to read via a tablet
Ellis has a different take on the subject. 'I don't own a Kindle,' he says. 'I am a late adapter, if I adapt to a new technology at all. I have recently considered purchasing a Kindle, but feared that I would be falling behind the times with a single purpose device. In the end, I've elected to buy a tablet, giving me a handheld unit that will enable me to read digital books comfortably, as well as interact with the Internet when I see fit to do so.'
I mentioned above how my Nook allows me to read in the dark. Ellis, of course, can do that as well with his tablet. The rest of this post is given over to him; he's written an article about why he enjoys reading digital books in bed at night. Seems his wife prefers the more traditional paperback, though! Over to you, Ellis.
Reading in the dark - 'Lights out!'
When I was a young boy, this parental request meant an end to my nightly reading adventures, whether they be solving mysteries with the Hardy Boys or traveling 20,000 leagues under the sea with Jules Verne. In those days, I was obedient to a fault. The lights in my bedroom invariably went out at chapter's end. I never read books by flashlight because I could barely breathe under the covers. Four decades later and my reading preferences and habits have changed. Now, the words "Lights out" declared in my conjugal bedroom signal a start to the night's literary activities. My wife and I fire up our tablets, turn off the lights, and start reading in the dark. While my wife reads a family drama set against the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium, I read fiction as well as non-fiction, having selected recently published titles that will not only give me pleasure but which I will also review for my blog.
Books delivered seamlessly and instantly
I was the first in our household to purchase a tablet, not for its Internet connectivity or for the ability to play games and watch videos on a handheld screen, but purely for the joy of reading digital books. While I appreciate the look and feel of flipping through the physical pages of a paperback, I also find pleasure in selecting a title to read, clicking a button, and having that book delivered seamlessly and instantly to my tablet. As a book reviewer, I frequently bookmark passages that I will consider quoting or paraphrasing in my reviews. This function is not available when I'm reading an advance reader copy (ARC) of a new book received in PDF format. Just the other day, my wife asked me how I keep track of passages to include in my reviews when reading a hard copy of a book. I realized that reviews of those books rely on my often faulty memory, rather than my leaving paper notes between the pages.
Some of the books I've recently reviewed have been quite good and I gladly recommended them to my wife. This was a bit difficult when we were a one-tablet family and I was the only one reading in the dark. My wife purchased her own tablet and some of the ebooks I received made their virtual way into her hands as well. My wife hasn't totally warmed to reading digital copies of books. "What percentage are you up to?" I sometimes ask her, comparing how far each of us are in our respective reads at the end of the night. My wife doesn't see any benefit in a note informing her that she is three minutes away from the end of the chapter. She would much prefer to skim ahead through physical pages to determine when she plans to put down her book for the night.
Time to go to sleep
There are other things you just have to get used to when reading via tablet, whether it's the size of the font, the way you hold the device, and how to swish your finger to turn the pages. It's not the same experience as reading a paperback, that's for sure. But, there is one thing that my wife and I both experience at the end of the night, and it doesn't matter if we're reading a physical book, or a digital one on our tablet. When our eyes become tired, we end up reading the same sentence over and over, not comprehending the text or remembering what we've just read. It's time to shut down the tablet for the night, extinguishing the small light of its screen. At that point, the words "Lights out!" signal, just like they did in childhood, that it's time to stop reading and go to sleep.
More about Ellis Shuman
Ellis Shuman was born in the United States but moved to Israel as a teenager. He served in the Israeli army, was a founding member of a kibbutz, and now lives outside Jerusalem. For two years, 2009-2010, Ellis and his wife lived in Sofia, Bulgaria. Ellis writes frequently about Bulgaria, Israel, books, travel, and other interesting things on his blog, which you can find at https://ellisshuman.blogspot.com/
And about his books, starting with The Burgas Affair
She’s an Israeli data analyst. He’s a headstrong Bulgarian detective. Together they must track down those responsible for a horrific bombing.
In the wake of a deadly terrorist attack at Burgas Airport in Bulgaria, Israeli and Bulgarian intelligence agencies launch a joint investigation. Detective Boyko Stanchev on the police task force teams up with Ayala Navon, a young Israeli intelligence analyst on her first overseas assignment.
The two must establish whether the terrorists were assisted by a Bulgarian crime organization in laying the groundwork for the attack.
It should be a routine investigation, but shadows of the past keep interfering.
Boyko’s interactions with a crime boss pursuing a vendetta against him threaten to throw him off track. Ayala’s pursuit of the terrorists and their accomplices brings up painful memories of a family tragedy.
Boyko and Ayala form a shaky alliance, one that evolves into growing cooperation and affection as they desperately race against time to uncover who was behind the Burgas bombing.
The Burgas Affair is a fictional account of the aftermath of a very real terrorist attack. On July 18, 2012, a deadly explosive rocked a tourist bus at Burgas Airport, killing five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver. The terrorists responsible for this murderous attack have never been brought to justice.
Valley of Thracians
A Peace Corps volunteer has gone missing in Bulgaria and everyone assumes he is dead, everyone except his grandfather, who refuses to give up hope. Retired literature professor Simon Matthews launches a desperate search only to be lured into a bizarre quest to retrieve a stolen Thracian artefact—a unique object of immense value others will stop at nothing to recover. Matthews travels through a Balkan landscape dotted with ancient tombs and fortresses, unaware that his grandson has been confined to an isolated mountain cabin, slowly recovering from a severe head injury. Nothing can be taken at face value, as the woman assisting Matthews in his quest and the nurse caring for his injured grandson may have ulterior motives in helping the two reunite. Even when Matthews succeeds in joining up with his grandson, departure from Bulgaria is only possible if the missing relic can be found.
The Virtual Kibbutz
In this debut collection of stories, the author introduces you to kibbutz residents challenged with adapting to new realities. Along the way you'll see how kibbutzniks face up to the violence of the Intifada, cope with the Internet, and struggle to have more control over their lives.
Marriage can be a killer...
'Gone Girl' is Gillian Flynn's third novel, a dark, disturbing tale of dysfunctional relationships. It's as fine a portrayal of a psychopathic character as you're ever likely to read. To quote from the back blurb:
'Who are you? What have we done to each other?
These are the questions Nick Dunne finds himself asking on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, when his wife Amy suddenly disappears. The police suspect Nick. Amy's friends reveal that she was afraid of him, that she kept secrets from him. He swears it isn't true. A police examination of his computer shows strange searches. He says they weren't made by him. And then there are the persistent calls on his mobile phone.
So what did happen to Nick's beautiful wife?'
A sharply written portrait of a psychopath
The first half of the story is narrated from the present-day viewpoint of Nick, under suspicion from the police, spliced with Amy's historical account of their relationship taken from her diary. We see how incidents from Nick's point of view take on a very different twist when told by Amy. Her journal entries show her growing disappointment with Nick's emotional reticence, ending with her revealing that she wants a gun to protect herself from him. There are doubts woven into the first half of the book, however. Nick is clearly no angel, being shallow and self-absorbed, but is he warped enough to murder his wife? On their wedding anniversary?
Maybe not. After all, the beautiful and brilliant Amy has attracted unwanted attention in the past, from a copycat schoolgirl friend to the stalker-like obsession of her ex-boyfriend. Could someone from her past be responsible for her disappearance?
'Gone Girl' is sharply written, with language designed to stimulate all the senses. 'The smell of salt and factory-farm meat floating on the warm breezes'. 'Snow like sugar clouds'. Noelle Hawthorne's triplets trail behind her like a kite; Maureen Dunne's knitting needles click-clack while she 'talks in her contented-cat voice, all deep, sleepy purr'. Flynn paints vivid word pictures as she hustles the narrative along, her pace relentless.
My only criticism of the book is one echoed by other reviews I've read - the ending didn't sit well with me. Such a high-tension novel would, I think, be better served by a different finale, although I won't say what or why as I don't want to be a plot-spoiler! Other than that, though, 'Gone Girl' is a tremendous read, one I thoroughly enjoyed.
Other novels by Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn's first novel was 'Sharp Objects', which won a Crime Writer's Association Dagger Award. The book tells the story of reporter Camille Preaker, who searches for the truth behind the murders of two pre-teen girls whilst confronting her own tragic past. Whilst doing so, she finds herself identifying with the young victims - maybe too strongly...
Flynn's second novel is 'Dark Places', in which the thoroughly unlikable character of Libby Day earns money by selling details of the slaughter of her mother and two sisters, a crime that took place when she was still a child. Her brother, Ben, was imprisoned for the murder, but clues soon surface to show he may have been wrongly convicted. How reliable are Libby's memories? And if Ben wasn't the killer, then maybe his sister poking around in the past might prove dangerous...
More about Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn was born in Kansas City, Missouri, with a great deal of her childhood being given over to reading and watching movies. She studied English and journalism at the University of Kansas. Eventually she moved to New York City, with a ten-year stint writing for Entertainment Weekly . She has also worked as a TV critic. She now lives in Chicago with her husband, their son, and a giant black cat named Roy. You can find out more via her website, www.gillian-flynn.com.
Have you read 'Gone Girl'?
If so, let me know what you thought of it! What did you think of Amy and Nick? Did you see the plot twists coming? How was the ending for you - did you think it fitted what went before? Leave a comment for me!
Today's post is a collaboration between myself and my novelist friend Jerry Byrum. Welcome to my blog, Jerry! Together we’re going to examine how author gender affects reader perception.
Personally, I don’t care whether men or women write the novels I read. What does it matter, so long as they provide great content? To me, gender, when it comes to authors, is as relevant as hair colour or shoe size; it simply doesn’t matter. I’ve never agreed with the Mars/Venus approach, preferring a philosophy of life that emphasises similarities instead of differences. I’m betting, however, that if you’re someone who views the world in terms of male/female dichotomies, you’re likely to have a strong preference for either male or female writers. Fair enough if you choose male authors because you enjoy spy thrillers, or female ones because romance is your thing. There's no denying men and women dominate certain genres. What's more suspect is when people won't read espionage novels if they're written by a woman, such as Gale Lynds, or romances when penned by male authors, such as my friend Jerry Byrum.
Stereotyped gender attitudes definitely exist towards novelists. When I told a friend I’d completed my first novel, his first question was ‘Is it a romance?’ Then there’s the time I told somebody I intended to write novels. ‘What sort?’ she enquired. ‘Children’s books?’ This person knew children don’t feature in my life. So why the presumption I’d write fiction for them?
I find it a shame that in 2019, there’s still such strong gender stereotyping. Women are clearly supposed to write soft, fluffy material, whilst men stick to hard action topics. Shouldn’t we be past this nonsense by now? Fair enough if the Bronte sisters had to write under male pseudonyms in Victorian England, but for gender still to matter in 2019? I don’t get it.
Initials have no gender bias
Other writers report similar issues. Author Joanna Penn writes thrillers using her initials J F Penn because she doesn’t want buyers to judge her work based on her gender. She writes in the Action Adventure category, one dominated by male writers. Her books contain violent scenes; one features a psychiatric patient being disembowelled. She’s received comments about how the reader thought a man must have written the book, or that they expected something more ‘delicate’. Joanna says on her blog: ‘The author’s gender shouldn’t impact the way the story is read so it’s best to make it a non-issue. Initials are neutral. They have no gender bias and I like that approach.’ So how do these prejudices operate when it comes to men?
Here’s where I step aside and let Jerry Byrum take the floor. I asked Jerry, as a male romance writer, to give us his take on the subject. Here’s what he had to say.
There is no sacred ground or ownership
The notion that women or men writers/authors are better at particular genres is almost as mythical as saying short people should only write about short people and the same for tall people. Or that only doctors who've had a dreaded disease are permitted to treat it. Men and women have successfully broken through all kinds of areas or endeavors traditionally reserved for the respective genders. In my view, neither has a monopoly on a particular genre. There is no sacred ground or ownership. Creativity, such as writing, takes place on a broad playing field, and it's okay to break the rigid rules and color outside the lines, or write in the margins and off the page. But what about writing romance? That shouldn't make a whit of difference. Even though real-time hetero romance fiction is composed of 50/50 male/female, the bias exists that only the female 50% can write better romance stories. That's hard for me to buy into. However, a piece of information that shows up regularly across the internet is that women writers write approximately 95-98% of all romances, leaving a single-digit percentage to male writers. That high percentage alone, though, does not confirm that women are better at writing romance than men.
So why don't more men write romance?
I believe that question takes us back to how we raise boys and girls in the home and culture/society. Boys and girls are usually directed into certain activities, and heavy emphasis is placed on "behaving" like a male or female. One of the criticisms often leveled at men who have written in the romance/erotic romance/erotica genres is that men writers tend to be rough-edged, abrasive, abrupt, or a combination in their writing of romance. Nicholas Sparks puts that argument to rest, and so does James Waller, of ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ fame. Both capture the "softer" edges of romance, and reflect well the female perspectives of their characters. Their works are immensely popular among women.
On the other hand, you've got Sandra Brown who writes edgy romance-suspense with a strong storyline, but with an impulsive romance angle. As well as a good dash of explicit description when things get intimate. Very popular with women.
The process of writing is gender neutral
Then we've got the current BDSM/"billionaire-bad-boy" trend now popular. Both sub-genres have received criticism that they foster a "harsher" portrayal of romance, and rough treatment of women. However, those bestsellers that have hit the New York Times and USA Today hallowed lists are authored not by men, but by women, and women readers drove those authors to the top of the lists. (There are deeper currents as to why the popularity exists, but I digress.)
So who writes better romance, men or women? I say both can write excellent romance, and have. If we as writers, male and female, take our craft seriously, we'll quickly realize the process of writing has no gender; it is gender neutral. Men and women writers are equally capable of learning how to be flexible with words as they capture the full dimension of their characters. I think it's fair to expect all writers to get inside the head of each of their characters, male and female. I don't think writers can hide behind the solitary advice of writing "what you know," but we should also feel free to write what we don't know, and with a bit of research and imagination no telling what wonderful stories we can share with readers. Fiction is our invitation to do that.
Thank you, Jerry!
It's been a pleasure having you on my blog. So what do readers think? Does the gender of a novelist influence you over whether to read their work? Do you expect women writers to be more ‘delicate’, as was said to Joanna Penn, and men more aggressive? Do you have a strong preference for either male or female writers, and if so, why? In which genres?
Or perhaps you're a writer who's encountered gender stereotypes when it comes to your work. Are you a male romance writer who find people expect guns and not roses from your fiction? Or are you like Joanna and me, surprising others with our choice of disembowelment and psychopaths as subject material? What do you think about novelists concealing their genders behind initials or pseudonyms? Leave a comment and let me know! Meanwhile, thanks for reading!
More about Jerry Byrum
Jerry Byrum is a native of North Carolina who now lives near Washington DC. He is a graduate of High Point University, and East Carolina University. After service in the U.S. Army, Jerry taught public school science six years, and served as science consultant four years. He enjoyed a 25-year career as a National Representative of the American Federation of Teachers, with assignments in more than 30 states. He is a member of the Romance Writers of America, and enjoys writing edgy contemporary romance, with strong female protagonists and other runaway characters usually on a mission to satisfy their passions.
For my fourth novel, 'The Second Captive', I adopted a two-part structure, together with a prologue and epilogue. Not particularly unusual, but it got me thinking. Just how weird and wacky can a novelist get with the way he/she constructs a novel? And are there any examples I could share with my blog readers? It turns out there are plenty. Here are five examples of novels that take a different approach to the classic chapter-by-chapter structure.
1. 'Dolores Claiborne' - Stephen King
'Dolores Claiborne' is a 1992 thriller by Stephen King, narrated by Dolores herself. The novel is unusual in that there are no chapters or other section breaks. Instead, the book is a single continuous piece of prose that reads like a monologue. It sounds strange, but it works. Here's a summary of the plot.
Dolores Claiborne is being interrogated by the police, under suspicion of murdering her wealthy employer, an elderly woman named Vera Donovan whom she has looked after for years. The two women had a difficult yet close relationship. Dolores is adamant that she is innocent; however, she does confess to killing her husband, Joe St. George, almost thirty years before, after finding out that he sexually molested their fourteen-year-old daughter. Dolores's confession develops into the story of her life, her troubled marriage, and her relationship with her employer. Along the way we also get glimpses into the personal lives of the police officers interrogating her, disclosed through Dolores's commentary, which demonstrates an astute grasp of human nature.
2. 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' - John Fowles
'The French Lieutenant's Woman', written by John Fowles in 1969, is a historical fiction novel. It's unusual in that the narrator intervenes throughout the novel and later becomes a character in it. Furthermore, he offers three different ways for the narrative to end. (No plot spoilers, I promise!) After the first ending, the narrator appears as a character sharing a railway compartment with the male protagonist. He tosses a coin to determine the order in which he will portray the other two possible endings, emphasising their equal plausibility. Here's a summary of the plot.
Sarah Woodruff, the 'Woman' of the title, also known as 'Tragedy', lives in Lyme Regis as a disgraced woman, supposedly abandoned by a French ship's officer named Varguennes who has returned to France and married. She spends a lot of time on The Cobb, a stone jetty where she stares out at the sea, thus increasing her mysterious reputation. One day, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman, his fiancée, see Sarah walking along the cliffside. Ernestina tells Charles something of Sarah's story, and he becomes curious about her. He has several more encounters with Sarah, and ends up falling in love with her. Returning from a journey to Ernestina's father, Charles has the choice of either returning to Ernestina or visiting Sarah. It's at this point that the first possible ending kicks in, triggering the appearance of the narrator in Charles's railway carriage and the other endings. Intriguing!
3. 'Slaughterhouse Five' - Kurt Vonnegut
The novel boasting the unwieldy title of 'Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death' was written in 1969 by Kurt Vonnegut. It's a satirical novel that's partly autobiographical, being based on Vonnegut's World War Two experiences, particularly the fire-bombing of Dresden. Its structure is unusual in that the story is told in a non-linear order and events become clear through various flashbacks (or time travel experiences) involving the narrator. He describes the stories of Billy Pilgrim, who believes himself to have been in an alien zoo and to experience time travel. Here's a summary of the plot.
Billy Pilgrim is a disoriented, fatalistic, and ill-trained American soldier who refuses to fight in the Second World War. He is captured by the Germans and transported to Dresden where he and his fellow prisoners are housed in a disused slaughterhouse in Dresden. Their building is known as "Schlachthof-fünf" ("Slaughterhouse Five"). During the fire-bombing, the prisoners of war and their German guards hide in a cellar, causing them to be among the few survivors. After the war ends, Billy suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and is put into psychiatric care.
Once released, he marries a woman called Valencia Merble, and they have two children: a son, Robert, and a daughter named Barbara. Years later, on Barbara's wedding night, Billy is captured by an alien space ship and taken to a far-off planet, where he meets a porn star. She and Billy fall in love and have a child together. He is then sent back to Earth to relive past or future moments of his life. In 1968, Billy and a co-pilot are the only survivors of a plane crash. Whilst recovering, he shares a hospital room with a Harvard history professor. Billy talks about the bombing of Dresden, with the professor claiming it was justified. After Barbara takes him home, he sneaks out and drives to New York City. That evening he wanders around Times Square, visiting a bookstore featuring pornography, which brings back memories of his former love. Later, he guests on a radio show where he talks about his time-travels, culminating in being kicked out of the studio. He returns to his hotel room, falls asleep and time-travels back to 1945 Dresden, where the book ends.
4. 'Pale Fire' - Vladimir Nabokov
This novel, written in 1962, is unusual in that it's presented as a 999-line poem entitled "Pale Fire" by the fictional John Shade, with a foreword and lengthy commentary by an academic colleague of the poet, Charles Kinbote. Together these elements form a narrative in which both authors are central characters. The reader can chose to read 'Pale Fire' in the normal linear fashion, or by jumping between Kinbote's notes and Shade's poem. The interaction between Kinbote and Shade takes place in the fictitious town of New Wye, Appalachia, where they live close to each other. Kinbote writes his commentary in a tourist cabin in the equally fictitious western town of Cedarn, Utana.
Canto 1 of Shade's poem includes his early encounters with death and what he believes to be the supernatural. Canto 2 centres on his family and the apparent suicide of his daughter, Hazel. Number 3 focuses on Shade's search for knowledge about an afterlife, whilst 4 offers details regarding his daily life and his poetry, through which he attempts to understand the universe.
Kinbote acquires the manuscript, overseeing the poem's publication, telling readers that it lacks only line 1,000. In his role as co-narrator, he tells three stories, one being his own, especially his friendship with Shade. Kinbote's second story deals with King Charles II, "The Beloved," the deposed king of Zembla, claiming he inspired Shade to write the poem by recounting King Charles's escape to him. The final story is that of Gradus, an assassin dispatched by the new rulers of Zembla to kill the exiled King Charles. In the last note Kinbote makes, to the missing line 1000, he tells how Gradus killed Shade by mistake.
Isn't that all weird and wonderful?
5. 'The Unfortunates' - B S Johnson
B.S. Johnson's 1969 experimental novel 'The Unfortunates' consists of 27 unbound chapters in a box. The first and last chapters are specified but the other 25 can be read in any order. These range in length from a single paragraph to twelve pages.
The author explained this unusual structure by saying it was a better way of conveying the mind’s randomness than the imposed order of a bound book. Here's a summary of the plot.
A sports writer is sent to Nottingham on an assignment, only to find himself confronted by ghosts from his past. As he attempts to report an association football match, memories of his friend, a tragic victim of cancer, haunt his mind.
Let's hear from you!
As I mentioned above, this post is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unusually structured novels. What ones have you read that go beyond the norm in terms of structure? Perhaps you're a novelist yourself who's written a book that's a bit different. Leave me a comment and let me know!