I love reading and am not overly fussy as to genre. Literary, fantasy, crime – I’ve tried them all and generally found something or other to enjoy in each. Because of this, I decided to finally try a category that I’ve been thinking about for a while and which I have a feeling will have more than one incarnation. Which are the authors who waste our time? The ones whose books may appear attractive, who aspire to greatness, those who still manage to gather up quotations of praise for their book covers, but ultimately are they just like the Wizard of Oz, setting off steam behind a curtain and expecting us to be impressed – these are the authors who we need to be warned against. I’ve said before that the subtitle for this website could be Reading bad historical fiction so you don’t have to but with this Top Ten, I am attempting to point the way to better alternatives.
Dame Jacqueline Wilson
I’m sure she’s a very nice woman. I would credit some of her books with encouraging Cousin the Younger with reading as the pictures make the books more accessible but that was Nick Sharratt’s illustrations rather than her writing. It’s no coincidence that nobody ever reads her pre-Sharratt material – the two have become inextricably linked as a brand. I don’t like the way that she tries to tackle sensitive issues and then lacks the insight to provide a meaningful conclusion. Her The Suitcase Kid demonstrated that the Child of Divorce ended up having no other friends than their toy Sylvanian rabbit. Clean Break tackled much of the same material and was just insulting. Vicky Angel was drivel. Dustbin Baby was unnecessarily melodramatic, as was The Diary of Tracy Beaker – I would have no problem with the content if it was being explained appropriately. But it isn’t. And what irritates me more than anything is how Wilson’s arrogance has grown over the years – she makes smug references to newer characters watching Tracy Beaker on CBBC, she even gave herself a cameo as a writer (with her own Sharratt cartoon alter ego) where her Wise Words helped the character out of a tough spot. It’s misery porn for children – where grown ups read A Child Called It or Please Daddy No or whatever else is in the Painful Lives section of Waterstone’s this week, children are being given Jacqueline Wilson books, which really ratchets up the pain of these situations but offers no clues as to how one might go about tackling these issues. In short, it’s toxic – other than Double Act or Sleepovers, I actually feel uncomfortable about how children are set loose with her books as I think there’s too much potential for upset given how slap-dash her style is.
Alternative: Anne Fine
Much, much better. It really offends me that Wilson got the damehood and Fine did not. Fine also tackles some fairly tricky issues – divorce (Goggle Eyes, Step By Wicked Step, Alias Madame Doubtfire), depression (Up On Cloud Nine), family discord (The Book of the Banshee), gender discrimination (Bill’s New Frock) but she provides positive answers. The children of Step By Wicked Step recognise that no matter how irresponsible the behaviour of the grown ups in their lives, they themselves could take control by refusing to stoop to their level. In Goggle Eyes, Kitty explained that given time, she had become used to her once-loathed stepfather. In Up On Cloud Nine, Stol’s depressive episode is explained sensitively and humanely – he never becomes a caricature. The examples are endless. You finish an Anne Fine book with a positive feeling rather than a sad sigh at the state of the world – and more importantly, even as an adult, I can reread and feel as if I have learnt something whereas nothing will ever persuade me to pick up a Wilson again. Fine tackles topics at the right level for her readership but always with an intelligence and a sensitivity, never a desperate need to provoke.
This entry can come as no surprise to regular readers. I really liked The Other Boleyn Girl, I honestly did. But everything else has been a stinking waste of time. Her heroines are all simpering, giggling carbon copies of each other – with the possible exception of The Red Queen‘s Margaret Beaufort who Gregory transparently had no idea what to do with as that book is essentially an incoherent rant. Still, Gregory is only one of a host of incompetent historical novelists – she is not the only one who stumbles into anachronism and cliche but what truly singles her out is once more her own arrogance. Philippa Gregory hates the Tudors and wants everyone else to hate them too. I really don’t understand her vendetta, it’s so very strange. In her novels, she reiterates time and again that only an idiot would believe that Richard III killed his nephews – casually waving aside the fact that he had them in his custody at the time of their death and that one did not casually wander in and out of the Tower of London. Instead, the Tudors all become hulking, ugly, violent brutes who were the true perpetrators and who violently did to death the sweet, prancing, blonde flowers of the House of York. But then, Gregory goes on historical documentaries and says this all again as if it is fact, despite her own lack of qualifications. What makes it worse is that the world seems to have believed her – Richard III becomes the romantic misunderstood Plantagenet hero who was far too sensitive and noble to have done such a terrible deed and so he gets an elaborate reburial. It’s this kind of retrospective crow-barring, forcing history to fit the story in her head – this isn’t just bad writing (and it is bad writing, the last time I read one of her novels was when I had done my back in and needed a book with enough grammatical errors to annoy me and take my mind off the pain), this is propaganda of the same sort that was churned out in medieval England – we really ought be beyond this by now.
Instead: Anne O’Brien, Hilary Mantel, Rosemary Sutcliff
I could go on for hours about authors of good historical fiction. Rosemary Sutcliff is the author of The Eagle of the Ninth, an amazing novel about Roman Britain as well as a whole host of other stories ranging from Viking times to Arthurian. Hilary Mantel is just a flat out amazing author and her Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies breathe real life and flair into these figures of Tudor England, making them seem real in a way that they rarely do in historical fiction. But if you’re really after a romance – and if you’re trying to escape Philippa Gregory, then you probably are – then the author for you is most likely Anne O’Brien. Her writing is far more balanced (politically, psychologically, emotionally, narratively …) and her heroines are far more interesting. It’s not even that I demand a pro-Tudor novelist – her version of Richard in The Virgin Widow is very positive – but there is no bizarre agenda, you can simply read her books for pleasure and best of all, there’s no simpering. Her depiction of Katherine Swynford in The Scandalous Duchess is particularly lovely but even the more recent The Queen’s Choice has a high enjoyment factor.
I don’t feel the same need to apologise for including this lady on the list as recent television adaptations have implied that she was not a very nice woman. My mother banned me from reading any of her books when I was a child (she resented how much time she had wasted on her in her own youth, similar to my own feelings about Wilson) so reading ‘Noddy’ was, for me, an act of rebellion and a fairly ridiculous one as I realised even then that it just wasn’t very good. Mum relented when it came to Malory Towers, which I was set loose on when I was around ten. I read the whole series but with the detachment of an anthropologist – why were these characters so clunky? Why did they get so muddled and mixed-up, making basic continuity errors? And why – seriously, why – did they say the same thing at the start of every book: “You never wrote to me once during the holidays, you mean pig! And I wrote you pages!” Followed of course by something along the lines of how so-and-so must have spent the entire holiday under the water as they were very brown. There is also something strangely vicious about how much enjoyment Blyton seemed to take in any suffering the girls undergo. It’s not very nice. I contemplated being an editor after reading Malory Towers because I really felt that insufficient effort had gone in and I wanted to fix it.
Instead: C S Lewis, Noel Streatfeild, E Nesbit
I appreciate that Blyton has a wide canon of work so have tried to spread out my alternatives. If you are looking for stories of children having magical adventures, I heartily recommend either C.S. Lewis or E. Nesbit. There is Five Children And It as well as its ensuing sequels, or The Chronicles of Narnia – all of which feature high jinks that has both narrative continuity and the same jam and buns for tea aesthetic that draws so many people back to Blyton. Other E Nesbit works offer opportunities for ‘children solving mysteries’ with The Treasure Seekers and The Railway Children both being great fun but also written with care and effort and a genuine interest in its own characters. There is a distinctly different feel to a book where the author actually cares about her characters and it is not one that Blyton was ever able to summon up. I am also a huge Streatfeild fan, she also sends her child characters on adventures which they have to get out of without a great deal in the way of adult help but once more, her novels are carefully-plotted and her characters are properly fleshed-out. Basically – there are lots of options. Don’t go Blyton.
Look. I’m not trying to be a snob – this really isn’t what this list is about. But Twilight worries me. I would say that Fifty Shades unsettles me but I kind of get the ‘marry a rich guy’ fantasy even if Christian gives me the creeps. Twilight is different. Not only is the writing horrific – really horrific – but the central character is chasing after a boy who wants to kill her. And the reason why he wants to kill her is because he cares so much. Does that sound familiar as a thought process? It reminds me pretty much of the most common justification for domestic violence. What worries me most of all is that teenage girls are not only the prime demographic for Twilight (although I would allow that times have moved on and it’s probably old hat by now), but teenage girls are also the demographic most at risk of domestic violence. I don’t want to sound Mary Whitehouse-esque and hysterical but I really don’t like how fiction like this ‘normalises’ behaviour which is wholly unacceptable. The media has a big role to play in governing the expectations of young people about how they should be treated and the oeuvre of Ms Meyer is not good enough.
Instead: E Lockhart
I first read the Ruby Oliver books when I was twenty and I still felt that she taught me a lot – I actually think the same might be true even if I were to try the series for the first time now. Ruby’s best friend nicked her boyfriend and so Ruby started having panic attacks and had to start seeing a shrink. Via the medium of Dr Z’s advice, Ruby comes to recognise the patterns in her own behaviour which have been unhelpful (which we all have) and over the course of the quartet, she grows and becomes happier and forms better relationships. Lockhart is also a witty and intelligent writer who also has a gift for pathos which she demonstrates in We Were Liars. Basically, her books encourage young people to think for themselves and to make better choices moving forward and they’re well-written. Meyer fails on every single one of those points. And if that’s just not what you’re looking for, then at the very least sit down and watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer – this will convincingly show that no good comes of trying to date a vampire.
Far be it from me to speak ill of the first ever novelist. Except that I’m going to. Pamela is awful – jaw-droppingly so – and Clarissa is even worse. I’ve heard repeatedly about how Richardson apparently ‘understood’ women, how strange it was that a middle-aged man should be able to write so ‘convincingly’ in the voice of a sixteen year-old girl. I’m with Henry Fielding on this one – it’s not convincing, it’s just weird. In Pamela, Mr B_ hides in cupboards and jumps out at Pamela, another time he dresses up as a woman and gets into bed with her. It’s very much sexual coercion as imagined by a middle-aged man who never gave anybody any bother. I’m sure Samuel Richardson was a lovely man but just because he was the first of something doesn’t mean you need to head over and read his books.
Instead: Henry Fielding, Fanny Burney
I include Henry Fielding because he sends up Richardson at every opportunity but to be fair, he’s a pretty excellent novelist too – the only reason I haven’t finished Tom Jones was that I was reading it for a course and I ran out of time before the exam. I think that a better alternative here is Fanny Burney – if you’re in the mood to try a sample of the early English epistolary novel, she’s your woman. Evelina is terrific fun and its saintly heroine suffers just as much in her own way as Pamela but is significantly less ridiculous/suspicious. Reader, remember that there is always another way than Richardson.
I think that this is probably the author who makes me most angry. Well, not angry. Righteously indignant. The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is a piece of historical fiction that has zero bearing on history – John Boyne dreamt himself up a little fairy tale because he felt that the Holocaust wasn’t that sad so he would try and write a novel to make it so. And at no point did he consider how that might make light of the Holocaust experience. I will allow that it is nice of him to donate the proceeds of future sales of that book to helping Syria but when I saw he had a new book out, my skin crawled. It’s another war novel. Avoid. Avoid. Avoid. I could go on but I think my review says it all.
Instead: Judith Kerr
Judith Kerr actually was a Jewish refugee in World War II – she wrote the When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit trilogy when her son commented that The Sound of Music must seem like her life story. It is a fascinating child’s eye view of the war, with Anna and her family constantly trying to stay ahead of the Nazi onslaught. Kerr writes with the realism of the eyewitness – Anna’s first big grief of the conflict is the loss of her stuffed rabbit. Like Boyne’s Bruno, Anna is naive but unlike Bruno, she is not an idiot and she is aware of what is going on around her. She and her friends may start off thinking that Adolf Hitler looks a lot like Charlie Chaplin but they quickly realise that there is more to him. Similarly, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief deals with the Holocaust in a far more informed way. There is plenty of material out there that is better than Boyne. I would heartily recommend looking for that instead.
Alison Weir the historical novelist
I have never read a piece of fiction by Ms Weir that has done anything other than bore me to tears. The adjectives that spring to mind are: tiresome, repetitive, didactic and wooden. Dull. Yet for quite a while I kept coming back. And there was a reason for that.
Instead: Alison Weir the historian
As a writer of historical biography, I think that Alison Weir is amazing. I am genuinely confused by the fact that her non-fiction writing can leave me genuinely moved on an emotional level while her fiction only has the power to irritate. Weir’s trademark tactic is to chase the household accounts for her subjects; getting to know their patterns of spending reveals secrets to their lives and behaviour and although perhaps her writing hovers around supposition in places, many of her points are very compelling. This is popular history at is very, very best – I think perhaps this is both Weir’s gift and also her curse as a novelist – she has a knack of revealing personality through facts but this does not translate into story-telling. It is interesting though as so many people are wary of the non-fiction shelf yet there are so many able writers in that genre, people who are able to disseminate the information with just as striking an effect. Don’t fear non-fiction, sometimes it’s exactly what you’re looking for.
This photo may seem designed to show Ian Fleming in a particularly awful light but a brief search of Google revealed that this does seem to be his natural facial expression. Basically, he was a creep and this leaks into writing and when I say leak, I mean floods. His utter contempt for the female ‘characters’ (they’re not characters, their only function is to be provide sex when asked), his blithe disregard for the concept of sexual consent, the overall disdainful tone – it’s revolting. He’s the creepy man at the party who insists on standing too close – I didn’t just dislike his writing, I wanted to escape it and I will never read anything by him again. The interesting thing is that when I talk to other people about this highly visceral reaction, everyone made grunts of agreement. It wasn’t just me. Ian Fleming really is awful. Please, spread the word – stay away!
Instead: John Le Carre
I liked A Delicate Truth, I enjoyed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – there is far more of an understanding of human emotion. I understand the appeal of the dynamo Bond figure and perhaps George Smiley and co do not offer the same experience. But, seriously? There’s lots of alternatives. Stick on a Bourne film if you must – or even watch Bond onscreen as he’s less unbearable than he is on the page. But the point I want to make is that there is non-misogynistic spy fiction out there and I can’t believe that even in the 1950s people failed to notice the utter nastiness at the core of Fleming’s work.
Louisa Young obviously has grand plans for her series, which begins with My Dear I Wanted To Tell You and continues with The Heroes’ Welcome – I would be very surprised if she didn’t come back to it with a third volume. It’s just not that interesting. Her characters are bland, her plot points are cliched and her development is unrealistic. The whole family saga across the twentieth century thing has been done repeatedly and Louisa Young brings nothing new – there is something so robotic about her writing though – when I tried to enjoy Lionboy, although it had all of the ingredients for an interesting story, somehow it just wasn’t. I have always come to Young’s books with a eagerness to like them, the subject matter seems up my street but I always end up feeling as though the point has been missed. She is like several authors whose writing I have enjoyed but she fails to measure up.
Instead: Elizabeth Jane Howard
I could put Rosamund Pilcher in this category too as I really liked Coming Home but the author I truly adore has to be Elizabeth Jane Howard. Although I may have had my reservations about All Change, she did write that in the final months of her life – as a general rule, she was a phenomenal writer who could manage a huge cast of characters with skill and aplomb. There was a kind of poetry to how she manoeuvred the players, guiding them through the plot until they came to rest with ends that always seemed somehow incredibly fitting. It is not that her writing ever seems predictable but rather that there is the sense that the characters’ own actions had wrought their fate and it could never have ended any other way. Louisa Young’s work feels like a badly-fitting jigsaw but Howard is always seamless.
I listened to the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of PS I Love You several years before I read the real thing. It’s not a bad yarn in theory although the BBC managed to put together a more interesting ending. The issue isn’t the plot. It’s the writing. The style reminded me more than anything of Milly-Molly-Mandy, a series written for six year-olds. Aherne is the only writer – other than those who write for the 5-8 year-old bracket – who ever has her characters speak ‘together’ (e.g. “Ooh, he’s getting cryptic,” said John and Sharon together). I actually got out a biro to try and improve some of the prose but had to stop myself as it was my Grandma’s book. From flicking through further books, Aherne hasn’t bothered trying to raise her game either. There are better authors out there. Pick one.
Instead: Anybody with an editor
Enough said. She really should consider hiring someone.