Monday, June 13, 2011

Bright and Distant Shores

Over the last two weeks, I have been reading 'Bright and Distant Shores' by Dominic Smith. It is a new novel by an Australian author, though he now lives in the USA, I understand. I won the book in a competition, from the publisher Allen and Unwin. With all the rain we have had in Sydney this long weekend, it was a perfect opportunity to sit and read, and do nothing else - so I finally finished this book.
   About a young man who gets commissioned to take a ship through the pacific islands to acquire weaponry and artefacts for a rich insurance magnate who wanted to add something special to the new building that he had built (briefly the world's tallest building).

   It is very well researched, and the writing flows very well. However, I'm left feeling unsatisfied. What was the plot? There wasn't really one - there were no peaks of the classic three-act structure. There was no building to a climax, and there was no resolution. Or if there were plot points, they were too subtle. Maybe Dominic Smith was aiming for a picaresque structure, since the novel mainly followed Owen Graves through his trip on the Lady Cullion. There were some episodes, though none of them really peaked. Owen's position moved from poor to rich, and from having itchy feet to happily settling into family life. I'm just not sure that I understand the point of the story, other than learning some historical information.
   Although the reader follows Own Graves through 500 pages of novel, his character still isn't clear. He's a rather flat character, and I'm not sure that his personality is strong enough that the reader would know what he would do in any particular situation. He's portrayed as a loner, but then he has some kind of natural authority amoung the sailors and other working-class men. He is a fairly poor negotiator, and yet the captain of the ship is convinced by his arguments on a number of occasions. He doesn't seem to fit in with anyone, and he also has some sense of protecting those weaker than him (although I consider him to be relatively weak himself). The reader doesn't get much insight through his thoughts, except about his fiancee, Adelaide.
   The redeeming character in this story is the native islander, Argus. Although there were some discrepancies in his character as well (he was very effeminate, though could lead a group of native warriors to kill the English pirates terrorising their island), he was far more substantial. I felt that Argus should have had a good ending, whilst I didn't care so much about the other characters who did get the good ending.
   Jethro, the 'foppish' son of the magnate who comes on the expedition, was unconvincing. He was always erratic, and I couldn't see his behaviour getting worse throughout the novel, except that the other characters seemed to be noticing that he was going crazy.
   Otherwise, the pace was good, the writing was very smooth and easy to read. There wasn't too much jumping around between character view points - whole chapters tended to be from a particular point of view. The historical information was also great - I enjoy learning something when I read, and I certainly did learn about Chicago in the 1890s, about seafaring in the same period, and also a fair bit information about how science was approached at the time.
   Should I start rating what I read? In this case, I would give this book three our of five stars.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

You-Me-I-You in the Cafeteria

I did another writing exercise this week, to get the creative juices following. This exercise was suggested by Clyde Edgerton, in my 'Now Write!' book. The exercise is designed to get me thinking from a point of view that is not as easy for me. It's very easy to write from a point of view that is similar to your own - or is your own. In this exercise, Clyde suggests to think of someone you dislike, then imagine that you walk into a cafeteria for lunch and that persons is there. After writing from your own point of view, then turn it around and write from the other person's point of view - get into their head. Here's what I came up with:

My point of view:
   I stretched out my stride as I made my way up the hill. My heels clicked on the concrete footpath and my skirt swished around my knees. It was lunch time, and I was looking forward to a large plate of pesto fettucini at Bella's cafe.
   Reaching the antique green door, I pressed my shoulder against the wood to open the heavy weight. As usual, Bella's was toasty warm, with a wood fire blazing in the heater.
   As I uncoiled my scarf from my neck, I glanced around at the other customers. A couple of middle-aged women sat to the left of the doorway, their elbows on the table as they leaned towards each other. An older man sat at the bench set in the front window, a magazine spread out beside his bowl of soup. A young couple sat far down the back of the dining area. They were quietly smiling at each other, holding hands on the table as they waited for their meals. The final person sat his his back against the double brick wall, nestled behind a small table beside the heater. He had a newspaper spread out in front of him, and his toasted sandwich on a chair beside him, to make space for the broadsheet. It was Simon Wagstaff. 
   My breath caught in my chest, and I nearly groaned and rolled my eyes. Now I wouldn't be able to just relax and enjoy my lunch. I was already tense, just from seeing him, and I practically tiptoed to the counter to order my pesto fettucini, in the hope that Simon wouldn't notice me.
   He was the most arrogant, misogynistic, asshole that I had ever met.
   After I ordered, I chose a table near the young couple, so the direct line of sight to Simon was partially obstructed by the barista's coffee machine.
   When my meal came, I forgot for a while that Simon was in the room, I was enjoying the pasta that much. Then Simon approached the register to pay, just as I was slowing down from shovelling the food into my mouth to savouring each mouthful. He briefly smiled and nodded in my direction, acknowledging me.
   Don't come over, don't come over, don't come over, I prayed as he received his change from the waitress. He turned and walked out of the cafe, the bell jingling happily behind him.

Simon's point of view:
   I really didn't want to go back to work, so I was taking a long lunch break at Bella's, reading The Age and eating my toastie slowly. The place was practically empty, and so warm that I was soon drowsy. 
   The bell on the door jingled, and I briefly glanced up to see Jacqui standing in the doorway, unwinding her scarf. The wife of one of my colleagues, I had come across this confident professional young woman a few times before. She was younger than me, but she made me feel like a child. She was unlike most of the women that I usually dealt with, and she didn't react to my charm like other woman did. In fact, I thought she was attracted to me, and hated it.
   I pretended to keep reading my paper, ignoring her. I sensed her go rigid when she noticed me, and then listened to her clipped walk across the tiles to the counter.
   I almost grinned to myself at her discomfort. I knew she wasn't up-herself, because I had seen her interact with all sorts of people. She fascinated me, and I watched her surreptitiously whenever I had the chance.
   She chose a table where she wouldn't have to look at me, and I was extremely conscious that she hadn't at least said 'hello'. If she had said 'hello', I might have decided immediately to leave her alone. But as it was, for the rest of my lunch I thought about going over and sitting with her, just to annoy her. I knew she would already be sitting and hoping that I wouldn't say or do anything.
   In the end, I decided to leave her in peace. I paid and left with barely a nod in her direction. She gave me a faint smile, and I couldn't wait to see and torment her again.