The trouble with twins

Cover of Her Fearful SymmetryI am not a big fan of books that feature twins. Now read that sentence again carefully before you get all huffy. In fact, I love the few twins I have met; it is the use of twins as a plot device of which I am suspicious.

And what a lot of books fall back on twinniness. Have a look at this library list of 212 adult novels which feature twins. Here’s what I don’t like about twinny books:

  • I disdain books where the second twin is sprung on me near the end of the story and is the one who actually committed the murder/ theft/ betrayal – take your pick.
  • I am bored by books where the twins look exactly alike but behave completely differently, one all sweetness and light and the other a nasty piece of work.
  • I hate the deception played out in novels where the twins trick people through posing as one another.

Cover of SisterlandYet I have read some very good twin themed books:

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger involves not one but two sets of twins. Set in London opposite Highgate Cemetery, it becomes unforgettably creepy. Life After Death takes on a whole new slant in this very good read.

Sisterland is a novel by Curtis Sittenfeld. It stars two identical looking twins who aren’t at all alike. One of them has psychic powers that enable her to predict an earthquake in their hometown area. It could have been an awful book, but Sittenfeld is a very accomplished novelist – you are safe in her hands.

Christopher Bohjalian gives us The Night Strangers. It features twins, an old house, a plane crash that killed 39 people, an unhinged pilot father and a coven of strange ladies in the nearby village.

And then Cover of The Night Strangersthere is The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Karen recently reviewed this excellent book – have a look at her blog post. Suffice it to say that this is one of the few books that I have read twice – in my entire life. It is that good.

If you’ve read this far hoping for help with breastfeeding your newborn twins, getting them to sleep at the same time or dilemmas around developing their little identities – there is loads of stuff for you as well. And if you are a creative mum of twins who lives in a crumbling Victorian mansion (preferably on a moor) and have named your girls Violet and Carmine – give serious consideration to writing a book. You’ve got all the right ingredients!

Does anyone out there feel the same as I do about twinny books, or am I about to be shot down by flaming double-barrelled guns?

The Thirteenth Tale

Cover of The Thirteenth TaleRecently, I have found that my book choices have been a little disappointing – in fact I could categorically state that they have not captured my imagination at all! A sad state of affairs. But that was before I came across The Thirteenth Tale… During my short Christmas holiday I spent any free time actively seeking out a quiet ‘nook or cranny’ where I could sit down and catch up with the action going on at Angelfield House

the imposing home of the March family – fascinating, manipulative Isabelle, Charlie, her brutal and dangerous brother, and the wild, untamed twins

YES, a Gothic mystery that has got me page-turning with great speed. Oh, I love a good Gothic novel – Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, and Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black to name but a few.

Cover of Bellman & BlackWritten by Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale has received a 4-star-rating in our catalogue and has elicited around 60+ positive comments by readers. I’ve started to look at ratings and comments in earnest, although I like to think that I am not swayed too much by opinion – I don’t want to miss something that I might enjoy. Setterfield’s latest offering, Bellman & Black, sounds promising and I might be persuaded to give it a whirl.

What ‘haunting’ reads would you recommend? And, tell me, do you read the comments in the catalogue? If so, do you let them guide your selections?

Beyond The Veil: Historical Ghost Stories – WORD Christchurch

Book cover of The Thirteenth TaleWas anyone else frustrated that the ghost was always really just the Janitor in Scooby-Doo? Diane Setterfield, author of gothic suspense books The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman & Black was. Today in her own writing she feels that she is doing injustice to real human experience if she explains all the spooky stuff away in the end.

Diane, Rosetta Allan, author of New Zealand Victorian ghost story Purgatory and Coral Atkinson, author of Lyttelton interwar spiritualism story Passing Through joined Liam McIlvanney to discuss all things historically ghostly as part of WORD Christchurch.

Real-life events inspired Rosetta and Coral to tackle historical subjects. Coral grew up surrounded by her father’s collection of historic swords and today feels that things from the past help her to write about it. She gathers photos, archival sources and objects from the era she is writing  to illuminate scenes and eras, sometimes basing scenes from her novels on old photographs. Coral is ever trying to avoid the ‘rock in the river’ when it comes to using all this historical detail though. All the authors agreed that historical accuracy shouldn’t take readers out of the story, but needs to be seamlessly worked in.

Book cover of PurgatoryRosetta’s novel, Purgatory, was based on a piece of family history she first heard from her father, notorious for his tall-tales. When she found out the story was true, Rosetta was inspired to start work on Purgatory. During a visit to the site of the murders, Rosetta felt he presence of John and so he became the ‘hero’ of the story.

Condensing significant historical events into personal stories was a challenge that faced all the authors. Diane finds it helpful to come at big events “slightly slant-ways” and Rosetta always wants to “find the personal story” in larger things. Coral is mindful that her characters “represent hundreds of thousands of other people” and wanted to show that things “go on and on” with disasters and tragedies, they are not just forgotten once the era has ended.Book cover of Passing Through

The authors finished by citing some influential writers:

Beyond the veil: Historical ghost stories
Coral Atkinson, Rosetta Allen, and Diane Setterfield.

Morning tea for forty three: WORD Christchurch

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Diane Setterfield, Eleanor Catton and Roberta Smith

I had tea with Eleanor Catton and Diane Setterfield on Saturday morning at WORD. Well, myself and about forty other Book Discussion Scheme members, that is.

Morrin Rout hosted the event, armed with a long list of questions submitted by BDS convenors. I loved that the event kicked off with a chat about hairstyles – just like every book club I have ever belonged to! Diane’s was described as “artfully tousled” and Morrin’s as “strangely thatched.” Eleanor, her beautiful sleek long locks flowing down each side of her face, just smiled enigmatically.

Here’s how it went:

How has your background and upbringing influenced your writing?

Diane said she was the first person in her family to go to university. She had been a voracious reader as a child, but her family was unschooled. She always keeps her mother in mind as her sole reader. This gives her books a wide readership range.

Eleanor comes from a family of readers – there was no TV in her home. She credits her brother’s reaction to a short story she wrote when she was 7 or 8 years old with her writing rule: always to see your work as your detractors might see it.

How do you get into the minds of people who are not your age, gender or nationality?

Bellman and blackDiane (The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman and Black): It helps if you are a shy, quiet observer. Observation and listening make up seventy-five percent of the work. Always stretch a bit beyond what you believe you are capable of. The rest is a kind of magic.

The Luminaries is such a complex novel, how on earth did it come about?

Eleanor: I knew I wanted to write a historic novel about the West Coast gold rush (1864-1867). Overall it took me five years, and there were long periods of incubation in that time. I found a wonderful website called Solarium where you can see the exact position of the planets and the sun, moon and stars for any date in the past. For two weeks I studied the skies over Hokitika for the three year period in which I was was interested. In particular, I noticed Mercury (which represents trickery and deceit). So in a way, the story had been constellated for me. But it was a real headache to write and I have many, many folders in my computer under the heading Luminaries!

Where did you get your ideas for these two books?  What were your influences?

Diane: The Bellman and Black book began from listening to the radio (BBC Desert Island Discs, to be precise!) The radio is where all good books should start, in my opinion! Then I wanted to write a ghost story where a really robust character is haunted, but set it somewhere unscary. So the question becomes – is he mad or is he haunted? I was also fascinated by the vast London emporiums of mourning paraphernalia. Oh, and I always knew, from way back, that I would write about a character called William Bellman.

The LuminariesEleanor: Jung got me thinking about Astrology.

At what point in the writing of your book did you know what the title would be?

Eleanor: Right at the very start of the book I knew it would be called The Luminaries.

Diane: I only worked out the title right at the end!

What books are you reading now?

Eleanor: The Golden Bough – A Study in Magic and Religion

At this point I had a balancing meltdown with my muffin, my coffee, my notepad and pen and I missed Diane’s answer. If any reader who was at this event can remember Diane’s answer, or indeed can add any more information to this blog, just  comment below!

Because of the small number of invited guests (thanks Book Discussion Scheme), I felt more connected to these two authors than I would have done in a large packed venue. And, as a result,  I feel inspired  to read both The Luminaries and Bellman and Black. You can’t say better than that now can you?