Message and Themes; What Are You Trying To Say?

When I was at school, English Literature was always my favourite subject. I was a total book-worm who dreamed of becoming an author, so you can kind of see why I adored English Literature. Reading books, talking about books and writing about books was my idea of heaven. Having said that, there was always one part of the subject that annoyed me at times. When analysing a text, the teacher would often ask us to think about what message the author was trying to get across. It was a question akin to the equally confusing one; what are the themes of the novel? I remember thinking, I bet the author didn’t know there was a message or a theme, or that we would try to work one out. I always considered that Shakespeare, Bronte and Steinbeck just wrote books because they had great ideas, great characters, and could string some pretty awesome sentences together.

But English Lit demands we find the messages and the themes, and yes, when you pick apart a text and analyse it within a classroom setting, you do tend to find them. But were they intended? I suppose I’m asking, did the author write the book with a theme or a message in mind? Or is it the reader who later determines what the potential messages are? I mean, did Steinbeck write Of Mice and Men because he had something to say about society or human nature? When I was a kid, I thought not. But it turns out I was wrong;

In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

John Steinbeck in his 1938 journal entry
I remember trying to distinguish the themes of the novel when I was at school. What seemed so obvious to the teacher, had to be pointed out to us. I haven’t read the book since then, but it is on my to-read list as part of a reading challenge I’m undertaking, where one of the books has to be one I read in school. But I think I will see things differently now.
Why? Because I am approaching my fourth decade and I’ve seen enough of life, love, people and society to know that Of Mice and Men is not ‘just a story’ as I once mistakenly believed. It’s a book about dreams and aspirations, loneliness and solitude and the author had plenty to say about all of these things. I am now the writer I hoped I would be, and writing books is a fascinating process, which involves the seed of an idea germinating into an intricate plot full of characters who become real to you and set up camp in your head. But more than that, writing is about what you want to say to the world.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately after I received feedback from a beta on my still unfinished novel Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature. One of the things she picked up on was the messages or themes of the book, and in particular, her observation that some of the characters had views very similar to my own. She felt this at times made the narrative somewhat preachy, or at least, it was in danger of heading in that direction.
I had to stop and think about what she meant. None of the characters are me, or based on me, or anyone I know. I plucked them up out of the thin air to build around the character and story of Elliot, who I really did know and believe in.
However, I have to admit that unintentionally, or at least sub-consciously, bits and pieces of the writer and the writer’s viewpoints seep into the writing. I knew what this book was about, and I knew from the beginning what I was trying to say, so as you can see, I have come a long way from my previous scepticism that books did not contain deliberate messages. On the contrary, I have had something to say in all of my books, and I think it very much depends on what is going on in my life at that time. For this book in particular, Elliot and his mother are like the two sides of me. One side is heartbroken and terrified about the state of our world and wants to withdraw from it all, while the other side is perpetually hopeful and joyful, determined to the best in everything.
So is this a good thing or a bad thing? I think my beta was right to point out the danger of appearing preachy in the narrative. I certainly don’t want my books to come across that way. I have to be sure it is the character’s viewpoint being explored, not the author’s. I have to be conscious of what is being portrayed as ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ So at the moment, I am going through the book again, with the beta’s notes beside me. Sometimes it just needs a tweak, some words rearranged or deleted. Sometimes I don’t need to do anything because I think the character truly believes in what they are saying, and in doing so is remaining true to character.
This brings me to another question, though. Do people pick up books looking for messages or themes? Do most readers notice them, even if they are supposed to be there? I suspect that what one reader picks up as a message or theme, is very different to anothers. Do readers want to be spoken to in this way? I don’t think many people pick up a book looking for clarity or persuasion. I think they pick up books looking for stories. And stories involve people and their messy human lives, and messy human lives contain messages, whether intentional or not. Because they are written by one person, created by one person, and whether they were totally aware of it or not at the time, that person had something to say.
So, what do you think? As a reader, do you choose a book because of the message it seems to be conveying? Do you notice the themes of a novel as you are reading it, or do they become obvious to you afterward? Do you ever feel like the writer is trying to tell you something about the world or about life? Does this every feel like you are being preached to?
And what about you writers? Do you know what you are trying to say before you start to write the book, or does the message reveal itself to you in time? Are you aware of any themes in your book, and again, are these intentional? Do you ever worry that you are trying too hard to get a message across?
Please feel free to join in the conversation!
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My 16 Best Books of 2016

In order to compile my list of the best books I’ve read in 2016, I sat back and thought about the books that have had the biggest impact on me. I quickly wrote down all the ones that came to mind, and so here they all are. I have also included how I came across each book, ie was it recommended to me, was I sent it and so on. I thought this might be useful! I have read so many books this year, and it is simply impossible to list them all, so I have tried to pick books here that are the sort of thing I generally look for when reading.I have not listed them in order of preference, they are simply listed in the order they came to mind. However, there is one book that stood out above all the others for me personally, one book that I can safely say is the best book I have read in 2016 and this is listed as Number One. Enjoy.

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  1. The Improbable Wonders Of Moojie Littleman by Robin Gregory is an absolutely beautiful book and very unique. It had me smiling from start to finish, contains fabulously flawed and addictive characters and provides a great big splash of the hope and positivity we all so desperately need right now. I’ve actually lost track of the amount of awards this book has won, so I’ve added a link here . I’ve also got to mention that Robin provided me with a wonderful interview you can read here and she is a thoroughly lovely person!
  2. No Dogs Or Indians by Lisa Hare is  a book I read purely by accident. I’m one of the reviewers for Underground Book Reviews, where authors pick reviewers based on their reading preferences. I was sent this book by accident, as it was not on my list, but was advised to read it anyway as it’s been nominated as one of the books of the year. It sounded interesting so I dived right in and came out with tears running down my face. One of the best books I’ve read in ages, and again, very unique, beautiful in its themes and messages, and one that will stay with me for a very long time. Get it!!
  3. A Necessary Act by Tony Wirt is a book I did choose to read for Underground Book Reviews, and I nominated it for a top pick and book of the year, it was that good. The plot revolves around a really interesting question; if you were utterly convinced a fellow schoolmate was well on the way to becoming a serial killer, would you do anything to stop him? The book puts its teen characters in this predicament and ends with a twist I never saw coming. Tense, horrific, unputdownable!
  4. The Many by Wyl Menmuir is probably one of the most controversial books on my list. By that I mean, it has the most mixed reviews I’ve ever come across! From glowing five stars to downright grumpy one stars, it seems this is a love it or hate it or plain just don’t get it kind of book! I first heard about it on my Facebook timeline as it had been longlisted for the Booker prize which was quite an achievement for a debut novel signed to a small press. I then came across the author in a magazine I receive for being a NAWE member (National Association of Writers In Education) I was so inspired by his article about independent writing spaces in school I contacted Wyl and thanks to his advice, I will hopefully be diving into my first school project next year with my business Chasing Driftwood Writing Group. But anyway, back to the book! Haunting, surreal, dark and claustrophobic are just some of the words that spring to mind. Eerily silent and with an ending that quite literally punched me in the gut. If you are looking for something unique to read, something that has divided opinion quite wildly, then this is the book!
  5. L-2011 by Mark Gillespie is written by a fellow indie author I’ve followed for a while. I loved the idea of this speculative fiction novel; what if the London riots in 2011 had not ended? What if the riots had gone on and on? In this gritty coming of age drama, Mark introduces us to some memorable and believable characters in this book which is the first in the series. The second book Mr Apocalypse is not now and is on my to-read list as I can’t wait to find out what happens next.
  6. The Unwind dystology by Neal Shusterman will go down as the most disturbing series I have read this year. If you are at all into The Hunger Games, Divergent or The Maze Runner books, then you simply have to dive into this YA series, as it is so much better! It’s taken me all year to read the four books, partly because I have so many other things to read, and partly because they get under my skin too badly and I just need a break between reading them! This series takes us to a not too distant future after a civil war in America led to a new law being written where parents can retrospectively abort their children between the ages of 13 and 18. They are not technically killed though. Every single part of them is harvested (while they are fully conscious) to be donated to people who need them. Quite horrifically, troublesome teens body parts have become a very valuable commodity. The most genius part of book one is how the author makes you wait until nearly the end of the book to show you what actually happens during unwinding. All the way through you are thinking about it and trying not to think about it, and the tension becomes unbearable. Just finished book four today and I’m really excited to hear they’re being made into films. But read them first, please!
  7. Daydreams and Devils by the brilliant Robert Cowan is a book I selected to read for Underground Book Reviews. I was attracted by the storyline of gangsters and bands and was not let down in the slightest. It was another of my top picks of the year for UBR and I currently have another of Robert’s books on my to read list. This book ticked every box for me; great characters, believable dialogue, fast paced, edgy, coming of age and with an awesome musical soundtrack. I was one happy reader from start to finish and Robert is a terrific reader I am very happy I discovered in 2016
  8. The Leaving by Tara Altebrando is a book I noted down when it came up on a best YA books list. I bought it for my daughter and we both really enjoyed it. The plot revolves around six five year olds who went missing eleven years ago. Out of the blue five of them have now returned. What I liked about this mystery novel was how each chapter was from a different characters viewpoint but in the third person. Each chapter had a very different voice and was written differently, even set out and formatted differently to the others. Very spooky with plenty of twists and turns, I think anyone would enjoy this!
  9. Far Cry From The Turquoise Room by the amazing (and still my favourite indie author) Kate Rigby is a great example of Kate’s work, which is often edgy, gritty and retro. I love her style and her characters who you just want to take home. In this story a young Asian girl feels shunned by her charismatic father after the death of her sister and ends up running away. Kate covers so many hard hitting subjects in this book, and always in a tender, humorous and realistic manner. I’m working my way through her books and always relish getting my hands on the next one!
  10. Chance by Peter Dudgeon was recommended to me by a friend. It’s about a killer who picks his victims by random chance and 9-year-old Cassie who is able to see into the future when someone is about to be hurt. Being in close proximity to both the killer and some of his potential victims allows Cassie a disturbing glimpse into his warped mind and she soon realises the police are on the wrong track completely. Brilliantly written, tense and gripping, you won’t be able to put it down. There is also a sequel which is on my to-read list, and Peter Dudgeon is another author I’m very glad I discovered this year!
  11. Nightfall by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski is another book I read after my teenager had her hands on it. She picked it up in the book shop one day and after reading the blurb I couldn’t wait for her to finish so I could start. It’s an eerie YA dystopian set on a mysterious island , where it is daylight for fourteen years followed by nightfall for fourteen years. During the nightfall the islanders pack up and leave the island and do not return until the next daylight. The main characters Marin and Kana are brother and sister and they miss their boat off the island when they go in search of their best friend Line, who is missing. When reunited, the three teens have to face the darkness as it begins to fall, knowing they are trapped on the island for fourteen years, but worse than that, they soon realise they are not alone. Loved this from start to finish! So well written, steadily paced, so much is held back until you need it, which makes you just keep turning the pages.
  12. The Recital by Kyle V. Hiller is another book I chose to read and review for Underground Book Reviews. I was intrigued by the storyline which promised contemporary issues wrapped up in magic realism. The story is told in the first person from the wonderful Edith, a 12 year old girl I quite quickly fell in love with. Edith has a few troubles on her plate. She hasn’t grown in a year, she is in love with a boy who is dating her arch enemy and her family life is about to be shattered. On top of all of that she has just found out she is a witch who needs to learn to control her powers (which, by the way, can have quite horrific results for anyone who is in the wrong place at the wrong time!) As Edith staggers awkwardly from one disaster to the next, an intriging and unique story unfolds, involving magic and spells, as well as coming of age, bullying and sexuality. Put a smile on my face from start to finish and I will definitely be reading more from this author!
  13. Those Who Wander (All That Glitters Book 1) by Shalaena Medford is a fast-paced steampunk YA novel which involves pirates, maps, and a stolen zeppelin. In many ways an action-packed steampunk adventure, but also a coming of age tale, in which main character Song has to let go of the past and construct a new, true version of herself, this book is a journey in many ways. I felt like I was on the journey with her, both the physical and the emotional one. Extremely visual, I could see this making an awesome movie! I was very impressed and will definitely be buying book two when it is released. Anyone who likes steampunk, action, adventure, fantasy or sci-fi will love this! I came across this book as I follow Shalaena on social media.
  14. The Soul Bazaar by Anthony Morgan Clark is a uniquely crafted and captivating collection of dark stories, which will have both a physical and emotional effect on the reader. From the title story The Soul Bazaar, which introduces a chilling trader of souls, who wears only red, to post-apocalyptic disease and violence in After The Disease Part One and Two, this is a rollercoaster ride of horror and uneasy feeling. Wake, the story of a man enduring a life-saving transplant, will stay with me for some time to come. As will Bes, a glimpse into the troubled mind of a dangerous individual and his imaginary friend. The author has the unique ability to make your stomach cramp with the tension he builds, and the language used to convey the horror his characters live through is just perfect. A disturbing and spine chilling read, highly recommended. I came across this book as I follow Anthony on social media.
  15. Spine Chillers: Hair-Raising Tales Book One by Q.L Pearce is a book fans of Goosebumps will really enjoy.  I was sent this book for free in return for an honest review. (Plus, look out for an exclusive interview with Q.L Pearce in the New Year here on my blog!) Each one is guaranteed to offer the reader a dark and bumpy ride into the unknown and leave you with your jaw hanging open. I enjoyed all of these stories but got a particular kick out of Hale Hallow Woods, a tale of ghostly revenge, Seaworthy, a creepy pirate themed adventure, and my firm favourite, The Healer. The twist in The Healer is one I did not see coming and have been unable to stop thinking about ever since. This is a flawless collection of spine chilling tales and I very much look forward to the next instalment.
  16. The Giver by Lois Lowry is a book I had been meaning to read for a very long time. When I finally got around to it, I was not disappointed in the slightest. I was enchanted, disturbed, touched and intrigued. You probably all know the plot, but for those who don’t, 12 year old Jonas lives in a seemingly perfect, pain free world where children are assigned to their parents, just as spouses are perfectly matched and employment is dealt out depending on personality and skills. The system works. no one feels pain and everyone is content. But when Jonas goes up to receive his position he is told he is to become the next Receiver of Memory. His training starts right away with an old man known as the Giver, and Jonas soon discovers the disturbing truth about his utopian world. A trail blazer in the genre of dystopian fiction, this book is simply breathtaking. I quickly ordered the entire quartet and read them one after the other. (My daughter is getting them all for Christmas and I really can’t wait for her to read them so we can talk about them lots and lots!)

When Books Make Me Angry…

I love reading. I am a proud book worm and always have been. I read a lot of books, sometimes averaging two a week. I put one down and pick the next one straight up. I read books I’ve stumbled across myself, books I’ve been recommended, books I’ve been sent, and books I’ve chosen to read and review for UBR. I don’t think of myself as a picky reader, although I generally try to stay away from romance and most sci-fi, and I have never felt enticed to pick up erotica. Apart from that, I will pretty much give anything a go, although as you all know, what I am always looking for is the character

Anyway, books make me happy, reading makes me happy. Words make me happy, as do made-up worlds and wonderful characters and plots. But sometimes, just sometimes, the opposite happens and books make me angry. Really angry. Want to know why? Then read on for a list of my pet peeves when reading a book…

  1. Telling rather than showing. I find this so annoying. I am not stupid. I do not need to be told things I can work out for myself. I do not need to be given a character’s whole back story in one go, or a giant list of their general opinions, or their inner thought processes. I want the character to do this for me! Not the author. I do actually start to feel quite angry when an author tells me things I would like to have gathered for myself. I might need the author to give me a brief description of the characters physical attributes, but I don’t need the narrative to tell me if they are bossy, dominant, paranoid or selfish. I can work that out for myself by the way they behave and speak and interact with others. I also really, really don’t need to know their entire life story thanks. Just the parts that are relevant and not all in one go!
  2. Info-dumping. This is linked to the above. When an author dumps a whole load of information on you, basically because they can’t work out a suitable way for the characters or the plot to explain something to the reader. So they will explain it for you, very nicely, over several pages, without dialogue or interaction between said characters, until you start skipping bits and nearly die of boredom. This probably makes me angrier than anything else. Please, if there is a lot of information to get out, think up other ways to do it! Spread it out, get the characters and the plot to help ease the load, take your time, be clever, be patient, leave clues. If you try to get out a load of information all in one go, whether it’s technical stuff you think is vital, or back story for a character, or history or whatever it is, the reader will get bogged down with it and bored and will more than likely forget it all anyway.
  3. Mixing tenses. I have come across this a few times lately, and sadly it has mostly been when reading indie books. I know it can get a bit confusing if you are writing in present tense, but the character is describing something that happened in the past but there really is no excuse for continuously getting this wrong. It might take a few more beta readers to pick up on mistakes like this. I can get over the odd mistake or typo, where the author has used the wrong tense by mistake, but if it is happening again and again throughout the book, it is worrying and confusing and basically makes me angry.
  4. Poor dialogue. One of my top peeves when reading. Lack of dialogue can also annoy me, but I’ll get over this if there is a reason for it, ie the characters don’t or can’t talk much. But if they talk a lot, and the dialogue is poor, I will get annoyed. Poor dialogue is obviously a matter of personal taste and opinion. I always ask myself, do people actually talk like this in real life? Also, is the dialogue fitting to the character? Is it also unique to the character? I recently read a great book with great characters, but I couldn’t help wincing a bit every time they spoke. They sounded too old for their ages and it made me question whether the author had spent any time around young people recently. I think dialogue needs to be researched like anything else. It needs attention. What they say, and how they say it and why they say it, need to be considered, otherwise, it can all start to feel a bit cringy.
  5. Unlikeable characters. By this, I mean I just don’t like them at all and don’t care what happens to them. This saddens me. Maybe the plot was a fantastic roller coaster of twists and turns. Maybe the writing was spectacular, the prose beautiful and the style unique. But for some reason, I didn’t get to know the characters, which meant I didn’t get to fall in love with them. For me, I need to feel like these people are worth me investing my time and thoughts in. They might not be perfect, they might even be totally evil, that’s fine, but I have to feel like I am on a journey with them. Even if they are despicable, I have to have some amount of empathy for them and their actions. They need to go on some kind of journey which sees them develop, for me to properly care. I feel robbed when this does not happen!
  6. Sex scenes. Call me a prude, I don’t care. I don’t like sex scenes. I don’t like reading detailed accounts of how the characters get it on. I don’t mind them getting it on, and if they do get it on, I obviously want to know. I might even be really hoping they get it on, but I don’t need to have explained to me in graphic detail, which is why I avoid romance and erotica. I just find those kinds of scenes boring. I want to skip over them and get back to the story. What makes me really angry is when books that are not marketed as romance or erotica, throw in really graphic sex scenes. It’s not what I’m looking for when reading, so to find it by surprise is quite off-putting. I’m not a total prude, I don’t mind romantic scenes if they are done well and if they add to the development of the characters and the plot. I don’t mind a bit of kissing or fondling, I’ve even written a few scenes like this into some of my books. Undoubtedly, love and sex creep into human stories and we can’t avoid it. I just personally don’t want or need a graphic description of the sex acts that go on for pages and pages…Yawn.

Now, what about you? I know these are all very personal peeves. I know that some people get really angry with first person narration! (No way!!) And some people hate too much dialogue. We’re all different readers, and we all have our preferences. I’d love to hear your thoughts! What makes you angry when reading?