Carry on, Jeeves – a book review

Carry on, Jeeves – a book review

Wotcher, lovely people!

So this is the first in what will hopefully turn into a series of book/movie/tv series reviews. I’m thinking this could be a good exercise for me while giving you entertainment suggestions for your lazy Sunday afternoons. Win-win, right? Right! So let’s start. This is an oldie. I wrote this as part of my Master’s degree, back in 2013, but don’t you know, I think it holds up pretty nicely. I hope it’s as fun to read as it was to write.

Enjoy! Or not. You do you.


 

When endeavouring to comment upon the work of Mr P.G. Wodehouse, one must wander around the superlative shop with an eye out for discount offers. Now I don’t want to seem over-enthusiastic or anything, but I will go so far as to say that there is a decent chance the chap might be the most talented wordsmith I have ever had the good fortune to read. He’s got it, don’t you know.

Should you chance to open the collection of short stories titled Carry On, Jeeves, the first in a remarkable series, you will meet characters so alive with clumsiness and colourful expressions that they will have you spout out nonsense like “this guy is so improbably absurd that he must be real”. Bertie Wooster will entertain you with some delightful anecdotes from his eccentric life, all of which involve a “kind of darkish sort of respectful Johnnie” of a manservant called Jeeves, who quietly shuffles into his life one day and just as quietly takes over the household. About Jeeves, what can I say? The first thing you learn about him is that “the man’s a genius”. These credentials make him the person to ask when, say, you want to get rid of a manuscript you stole, or need to make a young lady understand that your friend is desperately smitten. Jeeves will always come up with a cunning plan to solve the whole thing, and still manage to get his way every single time. If Jeeves doesn’t like your tie, then by Jove you’ll have thrown it away by the end of the week.

Now Mr Wooster, in his own words “an optimist” and “all for rational enjoyment and so forth”, is the ideal narrator. He will have you laughing your lungs out without even trying to make any jokes. In fact, he probably wouldn’t understand why you are not taking him seriously. He will address you directly with a clear “you know” and yet never will you feel like his voice is forced upon you, nor will these addresses ever get in the way of the story moving forward. For Carry On, Jeeves is first and foremost an utterly enjoyable read.

When I picked it up to write a few words about it, I found I could not put it down, although I’d already read it and, in fact, knew it inside out and upside down. P.G. Wodehouse has this way of sucking you in and keeping you hooked. And I don’t mean in a suspense-y Dan Brown-y way. You keep reading because of the writing (as it should be with every book, let’s just put that out there). If you’ve read as much as four books – well, let’s say five, one doesn’t like to boast – you will know a master storyteller when you see one. It doesn’t take an amazing, knows-all-Proust-by-heart-and-in-French-too, reader to recognize that Mr Wodehouse knows what he’s doing. Every story feels controlled from the first word to the last, neatly tied up in a simple but solid little knot. And on top of all that, it’s dashed clever. There is a good chance that reading Wodehouse will improve your vocabulary. Looking for a new way to call your auntie? How about “old flesh and blood”? Or maybe you want to compliment your friends on their superior intellect? Try “from the collar upward you stand alone”. I guarantee you will make an impression.

What I mean to say is: how often do you find light reading that’s also great literature?

When you consider just how cheap the good old Penguin edition is – and even when you don’t consider it, come to that – there is really no excuse for you not to have Jeeves on your bookshelf. Believe me, he is the kind of man you want around the house.

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Character creation: basics

It is my belief, but not mine alone, that a story’s most important advocates are its characters. The fictitious people make the fictitious world, so let us take a look at the basics of character building.

There should be a good reason for the presence of each and every one of your characters. A character can serve a multitude of purposes. Maybe he is holding back vital information. Maybe her story arc mirrors the protagonist’s for contrast. Maybe he will try to help but end up causing trouble.

Which brings us to guideline number two. Nobody is perfect. Perfect is boring, and happy people don’t make for good stories. Make your characters human. The best flaws are relevant to the story. A randomly near-sighted character is not as interesting as one who needs to win an archery competition. What if your leader has a beta personality? What if your soldier can’t stand the sight of blood?

However, there is a fine line between “she’s an idiot, I want to kick her” and “I’ll read something else”. In the first instance, the reader is still engaged. Do not allow your audience to give up on the protagonist. It’s okay to be an idiot if you’re brave. It’s okay to be snarky if you have a good heart. Walk the line.

With these very basic tips at your disposal, go forth, my friend, and remember: a good character can save a bad plot. A good plot cannot save a bad character.

 

 

Put down that book

Put down that book

Wotcher!

So it’s been a while, hasn’t it? How have you been? Recently settled back into my little Canadian dwelling after a long, wonderful and exhausting trip to Europe, it seems to me that this rainy day is perfect for a new blog post.

Shall we talk a bit about writing? I’d like that.

Now, I love a good book. One of my favourite activities is to wander around Waterstones and pluck random novels from the shelves. Every reader has their own little ritual for picking a book. Some will look at the blurb on the back. Some go for prize-winning works. Some get recommendations from friends. Maybe some of you like to judge them by their covers, shame on you.

Here’s my personal method, feel free to test it.

First I look at the blurb. Is it snappy? Is the plot appealing to me? Good. Then I open it at page one and read the first two or three paragraphs. If I find myself reading the whole page and then some, that book is mine!

Finally I open it somewhere in the middle and once again, read a few paragraphs. This is because the opening of a novel is not always reflective of the entirety of the writing. Is the dialogue any good? How does the style hold throughout? This is important because there are quite a few, shall we say, grammatical choices that will make me put down a book and never ever ever ever pick it up again.

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Let us review some of those, because why the hell not?

Bland narration

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There is a stereotype in the writing world that first person is for young adults. There are first person young adult novels, absolutely, of course, sure. But there is also Irvine Welsh. Present tense storytelling suffers from the same stereotype. But once again, give Irvine Welsh a try. His are some pretty fucking brilliant first person, present tense novels.

But.

More often than not you open a first person novel and it feels like the usual third person narrator is for some reason speaking in first person. You cannot, repeat, cannot approach a first person narrative in the same way you would a third person narrative. They are completely different and require two very different states of mind from the author. When you are writing in first person, your narrator isn’t some mystical entity (unless it is). It’s a person. A living, breathing human being (unless it’s not).

You need to be an actor. You are the character. You’re a fifty-year-old working-class lorry driver with a kind heart and simple style. Would you describe your partner like a painter would describe a sunset? Doubtful. You are brushing your teeth after a long day at work. Would you stop and describe your wavy dark hair and piercing green eyes in front of the bathroom mirror? No, you would not.

Besides, it is so much fun to just be a character, act like them, talk like them. Go ahead and enjoy it. If you do, there’s a good chance your readers will too.

 

Over-the-top punctuation

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Ellipsis followed by exclamation mark does not… create surprise! It is not… punchy! Mainly, it’s just… aggravating!

That is not how you create suspense in a scene. Don’t you see how it doesn’t make any sense? Suspense should build through content and emotions. This is a gimmick. Get rid of it.

Please also get rid of this!! And how about leaving this in the trash?! In fact, even a single exclamation point, used by a third person narrator, is cringe-worthy. “Then he discovered that, standing next to her, was his father!” Why are you attracting attention to yourself? You are not a character, you are not part of this story, make yourself scarce, for God’s sakes!!

Here’s a confession. I put down The Catcher in the Rye and never took it up again. Want to know why? Because it kept telling me how to pronounce every single sentence. Italics are acceptable if, and I would argue only if, the sentence could mean two different things, depending on the inflection. Otherwise, keep your italics for titles and foreign language words.

Yes, style is important. Yes, experimenting is fine. But please do make sure it actually improves the immersion. Stories are meant to be captivating, to draw you in. Aggressive punctuation pulls you out. Just do the math.

 

Forced feelings

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Okay so I’m just going to come out and say it. Twilight. The Twilight series is a great example of that, but it is not the only one.

You’ve seen this happen. The main girl and the main guy are madly in love and you can’t for the life of you figure out why. “But Gwen, love just happens, there is no why!” Shut it, stop, don’t. People who don’t have fun together, don’t laugh together, don’t share deep thoughts, don’t allow themselves to be silly in front of each other, people who don’t like each other are not in a strong forever relationship. If they hadn’t tragically and stupidly died, I would have given Romeo and Juliet about a month together. Love at first sight? Please. I think what you mean is lust at first sight. And you can’t write a good romance on lust alone. When I read about a romance, I want to be reading about a friendship.

This also goes for other feelings. Hate. Jealousy. Guilt. Shame. Don’t force your characters to feel things because you want them to. Create the believable circumstances in which they will organically come to feel the feels. They will thank you for it. Or they won’t. Don’t pressure them.

 

So here you have a nice little top three of what will make me put down a book. What are your personal pet peeves? How about sharing with the rest of the group?

Laters!

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