One of the things I’ve been meaning to do with this blog is write more reviews. I’ve read a handful of great books over the last few years, all of which deserved to have some written in their praise, but I typically ended up leaving it too late; to the point where all I could really recall was “Oh, I really liked that book!” In an effort to avoid making that same mistake this year, here’s a few words about a book I finished the other day.
It might surprise you to learn, given my quite obvious efforts to get something of a writing habit going, that I’m an absolutely terrible reader. I’ll start reading a book, get distracted, then leave it unfinished. Or I’ll rip through a book, love it, then get distracted and fail to read anything else for months.
I’ve made various efforts over the past few years to remedy this, but without much success. What I decided for this year was to just take it one book at a time. The other week I made the decision that I wasn’t going to bother going back to the various books I was halfway through, not was I going to slip comfortably into another Stephen King book. Instead I’d pick something new, something that had a good chance of keeping me enthralled, and read the bastard until it was finished.
Oh boy, did I make the right choice with The Girl With All The Gifts!
The book had come to my attention for two reasons: it came up it an io9 list of best books of last year, and Joss Whedon had written about how great it was. The other thing it had in its favour was that it was really cheap on Amazon last week (and might still be). The goal was to buy it, start reading it, not get distracted by reading anything else at bedtime, then hopefully I’d get to the end.
Ultimately it only took me five days to finish it (and I loved every moment). Considering I can take months, literally, to finish books sometimes, this was an excellent outcome. Most significantly, it was something I looked forward to reading each night, rather than something that felt like an obligation. It was great to get that love of reading back, and I only hope it stays.
The more interesting stuff …
But you probably want to find out a bit more about the book. Well, I’m not going to tell you anything about it. The reason is that I went into it knowing very little about the plot, virtually nothing in fact, and it really added to those early chapters. If you can manage to come to the book completely cold, it’ll be a much better experience (though it won’t, by any means, be ruined if you do know the story ahead of time).
What I will do is mention a couple of points I took away from the book as a writer.
The first is one of my favourite narrative devices: things are not what they seem. Admittedly it’s not hard to figure out what’s really happening, and Carey certainly doesn’t treat his readers like fools, but you need see things from a couple of different characters’ perspectives before you start to get the whole picture.
And that takes us to the second point: different people see things in different ways. This offers some useful storytelling tricks, if you’ve got the right kind of story. Where one character sees a threat, another may see an opportunity. The same character, performing the same action, may seem heartless in one context, but noble in another. This gives numerous opportunities for dramatic tension, for creating rich characters, and for keeping the reader guessing.
Building from that, the third point is: just as your opinion of a character can change, so can the relationships between them. One character may start off in complete opposition to another, but just as changing events enable a writer to expose different facets of their characters to their readers, it also allows for the way those characters interact with one another to change. Do it too much and your characters might seem flighty, unreliable and annoying; do it right (as Carey does) and you have a story that motors on as much through the dynamics of its characters as through its plot.
Anyway, it’s an excellent read. Go and treat yourself!