Birdbrain by Virginia Arthur

Author: Virginia Arthur
Publisher: Ecological Outreach Services [Self] (2013)
Number of Pages: 595
How long it took me to read: 3 weeks
Where I got this book: Uncustomary Book Submission
ISBN: 978-1-4675-9099-0

Like a Moth to a Flame

Despite the cover of this book, with its slim female model bending forward in a low-topped, sleeveless blouse, being as suggestive as that of a Jilly Cooper, the synopsis promised ecology, adventure and humour—a promise I found it very easy to get behind (it really was nothing to do with the mismatched cover, honestly). After reading more about the author, how so much of her life had gone into writing this story (literally, considering its semi-autobiographical status), and trying to get it published, I felt an instant kinship with her. For years I had also tried to shape my feelings for humanity’s volatile relationship with its environment into a novel, before taking the decision to channel the four drafts (comprising over 400,000 words and I-don’t-even-want-to-guess-at-how-many hours of my life) into a much tighter, and hopefully more accomplished, screenplay. I had to read Birdbrain. I owed it to the author, to the subject matter and to all those people who had read my own (extremely unpolished and over-indulgent) magnum opus.

Favorite Five

My favorite 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “There is no greater high than the high after someone you are inextricably attached to, dies. This high is most pronounced when you are new with death. The more sudden the death, the greater the high. It completely alters every cell in the body.” (p.264)

4. “She touched the bark of each tree as she passed, as if saying goodbye to a friend. She knew these trees now. They were no different to her than any other friend but unlike human friends, their lives were not protected.” (p.415)

3. “…and somewhere that morning was a human family who would one day relocate from some place else to start their ‘new’ lives on the transformed, flattened land, not really caring or even thinking about everything that was killed so they could start their ‘new life’.” (p.472)

2. “Ellie fell silent suddenly remembering Kate’s warning that all the environmental laws piled into one big pile don’t save much and most of what biologists did anymore was just ‘document the decline’. ‘We just record what’s there before it all goes extinct. It’s a wonderful job. You’ll love it.’ ” (p.373)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “She had walked along this creek so many times and never seen! Never seen! Surely the yellowthroat sang and she was oblivious. What a crime of life, to miss these precious things of nature!” (p.226)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Third person point-of-view is an interesting choice for a semi-autobiographical work. Perhaps it is an attempt to avoid sounding too autobiographical. When switched to first-person, the early chapters of this book could easily, at times, be mistaken for a diary. Where else would you find such honest but artless phrases as ‘strange, nice people’ or heavy-handed declarations of imagery like ‘Birds–Flight–Freedom!’ There is no intentional artistry to the writing, just a simple capturing of events and speech from one character’s perspective. This is not characterisation, either—we’re led to believe that the main character is, because of her intelligence, somewhat at odds with other people in her life. But the use of this simple language is not a huge problem, or even a rarity in modern books. I just needed to recognise the territory I was in and adjust my expectations accordingly. Being a middle-aged Englishman, I do not slot easily into the target demographic of US women’s writing. Not without a decent shave, anyway. With my expectations calibrated, and an emergency razor close at hand, I allow myself to sink into what promises to be an easy-going, lightly entertaining narrative, and head off into the sunset with the heroine, Ellie.

“The problem is, my journey is frequently obstructed by niggling interruptions. Confusing sentence structure, misleading grammar, split infinitives, disorienting tense changes and misuses of punctuation are constant potholes in the narrative road. There’s a clear lack of editing here, which is to be expected for a self-published book, and wouldn’t be such a big deal if it didn’t confuse the meaning (or if it was being used for a particular intentional effect). But often, I have to read sentences at least twice to ascertain their meaning, because a missing speech mark or misplaced question mark has obscured it the first time. These are small errors—nothing that a prudent and objective editor couldn’t easily fix—but they occur regularly enough to break my immersion in the story, and that’s a shame, because this tale of a young woman breaking free from her zombified husband to find signs of life in the outside world is otherwise engaging and amusing.

“Harder to ignore are the sudden shifts in viewpoint. This is clearly Ellie’s story, her perspective, and most of the time the narrative respects that. Then, all of a sudden, and often for just a sentence or a paragraph, we leap unexpectedly out of her head and into that of a secondary or tertiary character—at one point, even that of her dog. By all means switch POV between chapters, if the narrative demands it, but when there is so clearly a single protagonist to follow, what does such head-hopping achieve other than dizzying the reader and breaking their immersion? Oh, and adverbs in speech tags? (He asked, witheringly). No, thank you. A writer must be capable of expressing a character’s tone using dialogue and context alone if they want to avoid patronising (where the adverb confirms the dialogue) or confusing (if it should appear to contradict it) their readers.

“It says a lot that, despite these criticisms, I want to keep reading this book. There is something impossibly charming and affirming about the story that keeps pulling me through its rougher patches. This story of a young woman slowly prising herself free from a dead marriage and discovering the Earth come to life around her in ways that she had never expected, is the eternal experience of a brightening morning after dark, moribund night. It reflects my own up and down relationship with the book itself: the mechanical dissonance versus the emotional intelligence. It’s also the kind of tale rarely told in environmentally-focussed books: more a celebration of what surrounds us than a mourning for what we have destroyed.

“Of course, that couldn’t last forever. Where there’s a heart, heartache will eventually follow. Again, this applies as much to my relationship with the book as to the narrative itself. The writing here is throwing all my old flaws in my face, mirroring the faults I recognised on reading back my own abandoned novel. In particular, an irritating preachiness and a determination to show off the writer’s own research. A mouth full of candy floss, tainted with the bloodied crust of environmentalism. I can get behind the ethics here, but not the delivery—not having suffered it at my own hands! It is always the faults we share that we despise most in others. The main character’s more whiny moments will only preach to converted readers, those who already share her environmental conscience, but such people are not likely to gain anything new from the book’s lessons. Those who do not already share Ellie’s drive are more likely to be put off by it, rather than won over. It is a difficult balance to strike, convincing an audience who does not care about a subject that they should. I understand the passion here, the desperate loneliness that comes from feeling something so strongly, and the need to convince others to understand—particularly those who don’t care that they are causing such damage. I appreciate that sense of loyalty to the subject, the victims, that demands the writer pours every ounce of the passion they feel into their story. But often less is more, and when a writer allows those emotions to overpower the needs of the story, (in the belief that readers are then bound to feel them), it is an assumption that can backfire terribly and drive readers away. Where this story could excel and find an audience is through the surface tale of a young woman attempting to find life in the aftermath of death—of her marriage, her lifestyle, even the literal death of another character—and then discovering that even the life she finds has been brought to the threshold of death. This is the primal pattern of the themes in Birdbrain—from death, to life, to death, how do we sustain hope? It would benefit from a little more faith in its themes, more subtle use of imagery, and less reliance on overwrought ministrations.”

“It’s easy to write a book: just add one word after another until at least 50,000 of them have gathered together. Writing a story is a different matter, and writing a story that engages the reader throughout its length is a further giant leap. How many people, having never cooked, would start throwing ingredients together without reference to a recipe? I agree with John Yorke, that basic story structure comes from a primal place within us; that any human being is capable, in a few sentences, of crafting an engaging story structure. It is as unconscious as breathing—but would anyone expect to master the didgeridoo on their first attempt, just because they know how to breathe? Likewise, in a story over 50,000 words long, any writer, no matter how experienced, is going to run into problems. Identifying those problems can be hard enough, let alone knowing what to do about them.”

“In a semi-autobiographical work, it can be too tempting for the writer to cling to reality at the cost of the narrative. Once they reveal that their story is semi-autobiographical, the reader will forever trying to spot where this might have happened. This admission can impact on immersion as much as any confusing syntax or misplaced punctuation mark. While reading Birdbrain, I often find myself wondering how many of its incidents that are non-dramatic (i.e. that do not use conflict to advance the narrative or character arc in any way) and are there simply a part of the story because they happened in real life. Even if that isn’t the case, I still spend reading time wondering about this rather than being involved in the story.”

“These comments might appear harsh, but they are not by any means aimed squarely at the author of this book. They are just as much aimed at myself, as a reminder of what story is and how it works. Now that I’ve finished reading Birdbrain, I realise they are far from a balanced representation of my time with it. The body of the story might be scarred and pitted, but inside, its spirit is aflame with vitality. It contains the basis of a solid narrative structure: woman wants freedom, woman discovers life, woman realises life is still corrupted by death. But this structure needs digging out, and restoring to its full potential. Large chunks of the imaginative rockface still cling to it. For instance, once the story has reached its satisfactory conclusion, and the fulfilment of its themes, over twenty-pages of ‘after words’ weigh heavily, and unnecessarily, on it, in case you were wondering what happened to the main character for the rest of their life.

“To the author of this book, (and to any author who can’t get their book ‘out there’ but equally cannot bear to let it go), I’ll say this: don’t stop trying, but don’t ever believe you’re finished. This story affected me, but it would have affected me a lot more had it been properly edited, polished and cut; had it displayed an understanding of what makes us engage with story and what prevents us from engaging. Read more fiction. Watch more films. Learn about Aristotle and dramatic theory. Pick up some modern theory. There’s no magic formula, but centuries of literary study are available. Find more readers—not just friends and family but other writers, too. Get their opinions. Everyone will pick up on different aspects, but if your readers are experienced enough, you’ll find many of them saying the same things. Work on these things. Redraft, redraft, redraft. Edit, edit, edit. Squeeze out character definitions until your mind bleeds. Then work through it all again. When you think it’s finished, it won’t be. When enough other people read it and think it’s finished…it’s still not finished. But it might be as close to finished as it ever needs to be.”

Gareth Long

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  1. …and there my beloved indie author colleagues and beloved readers of indie creations–you have it.

    Exquisite proof.

    By the time I sent my infamous now defunk draft to UCBR, this scenario had already played out with two other reviewers (“we understand it’s not mass production fiction. A draft is fine. Send it along. We’re intrigued.”) so I was doubly if not Tripoli interested in acquiring a review that would not, once again, go realing off into that now almost boiler plate maternal if not somewhat condescending diatribe regarding editing your work, etc. etc. etc. (And ok. Yes, yes, yes. I will! Send me a check for $50,000 so I can quit my multiple day jobs to pay my bills and I will GLADLY edit my little heart out to make you happy. Please make checks out to…”).

    Below is an excerpt from the information sheet I included with all the draft print copy books I sent to reviewers (paid for out of pocket). This is in addition to multiple emails sent to UCBR which I still have.

    “Kind Reviewer,
    Enclosed is a final proof (i.e. a few minor things may change but you’ll get the point) of my self-published novel, Birdbrain. This novel was in the works for 14 years. It is based on my experiences as a field biologist for the past two decades. It started out as a journal of my experiences then morphed into a novel that I had tremendous fun with. I hope you do too.”

    Now on to this review. Alas. There is no story in the review. It lacks any mention of major components of the book: the road trip to the western U.S., jumbo yuppie cowboys and bulldozers, the hazards of gumbies and hoo doos in an approaching blizzard (let’s face it, we’ve all been there), losing old dogs in said blizzards, Ed Abbey and Vine Deloria, Joni Mitchell and K.D. Lang; The Talking Heads. (C’mon, not even one mention of the Talking Heads?).

    Fellow Indie Authors and Readers of Indie Authors (yes, in caps; deal with it), I beseach you–did this reviewer in fact read my book or as with the previous too, was he so keen on sermon-izing to yet another indie infidel, he rushed past the story itself? What a tragedy (and in fact, a comedy). Then, of course, the patronizing goes personal when he assumes I know nothing of real literature of which I am an avid reader and have been my whole life. (If nothing else, check my website dude! Takes 30 seconds).

    Thus, my warning posted previously stands:

    Indie Authors, take heade! Never Wyther!

    Continue to try to do your best against all phenomenal odds but also, protect your creation.

    Now on to the reviewers: despite disingenuous reviewers, I still want to thank UCBR for taking the time to review, unfortunately, not my story, but my text. (These are not the same thing). The text is still not perfect (see my website for who to make the check out to if you really want me to make it perfect; I will). Reviewers, if you read, you will see stories produced from the heart of the indie author–not ones crafted by marketing professionals, corporate publishers, politics, and publicists…you will find STORIES in all their audacious genuineness; and in the ridiculously contrived world we all live in now, is this not a good thing?

    Signed not wytheringly,

    Virginia Author, Arthur

    The End

  2. G M Long says:

    Dear Virginia

    I am very sorry that you feel this review was not appropriate to the book that you submitted.

    I have gone back through the copy that you sent, including the accompanying letter, and I’m afraid no mention is made anywhere that this was only a draft copy. Indeed, the inside cover bears an ISBN number and claims it is the 2nd edition. Therefore, I believed I was reviewing a final, published, version.

    Having said that, it is only possible to review the copy that is submitted, and even if I had known it was a draft, my comments would not have been any different, (save for expressing my hope that they would be taken on board for any final version).

    I can assure you that I did indeed read the book from cover to cover. I spent many hours of my life doing so, as well as taking notes and of course writing the review itself.

    I also believe that my comments were an even-handed reflection of my journey through the book. Any criticisms made were done so in the hope of helping you to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of the writing. This is the same means by which I have approached all my previous reviews, whether the books were unpublished, self-published or published through a third party – even those that are considered classics.

    I focused on editing because it is a vital skill for a writer, of extreme importance to reader engagement. It was also an area of this book that particularly prevented me from being able to engage with it as much as I had hoped.

    On a more specific note, I was not claiming that the line He asked, witheringly was text that appeared in your work. This was merely my own (admittedly arch) example of adverb use in speech tags. Had it been a direct quotation it would have been placed within quotation marks and accompanied by a page reference, like all the other direct quotes within the review.

    I hope that this addresses some of the concerns that you have about the review. I also wish you the best of luck with the book, and with your environmental work. I hope that the final version is one that you are happy with, and you believe is worthy of all the time and effort you undoubtedly put into it.


    G M Long

  3. Dear Readers, in the world of corporate or professional publishing, publishers send reviewers drafts or proofs prior to release of the final book. This is just how it is done.

    Do NOT do this with UCBR. Despite that I made this clear, you can see the review is on the editing, etc. when they knew they were reviewing a proof–thus, much of this review is wasted time. (Also the word “witheringly” is no where in the entire novel. Is this even a word?).

    In short, if you are self-publishing, do not send a draft/proof to UCBR even if they respond with “this is ok. We can still do the review.”

    Also be aware that some reviewers have contempt for indie authors even as they know publishing is not a level playing field. It’s who you know in this business (with talent bringing up the rear). If you are an indie author, I STRONGLY caution you to watch who you send your book to. It is absolutely ridiculous to pit an author with all the support of a king to the peasant who writes from midnight to dawn then goes off to work BUT reviewers do it. Call it cruel? Passive-aggressive? Contemptuous? Like throwing raw meat to lions (it’s SO easy to rip apart indie books, isn’t it?).

    Also, reviewers of indie books often do not read the entire book. The review is based on where they decided to skip and jump. They should disclose this but they don’t.

    I went back and read many reviews UCBR has done of indie authors (“this book needs editing and is in need of editing and needs editing and is in need of editing, blah, blah, blah) and yea, it probably does because one human being slaved away at it despite all odds you ______!

    Here’s an idea for UCBR! If you do not grasp the FUNDAMENTAL difference between the single person who has the courage to endeavor, to finish their book, follow their heart, and issue it with little funding, support, publicist, agent, etc. all the while WORKING their “day job” versus the author who has all the time, support (and $$$) they need then call yourself CUSTOMARY book reviews and stop doing reviews of indie books because we are the epitome of UNCUSTOMARY! (This is why I spent $40 and went through customs to send you my draft–your moniker!).

    Figure it out.

  4. Thank you for this review. I am honored however, the book that was sent to UBR for a review was a proof per the information sheet included. I also informed UBR of this multiple times via emails. As of January 2014, a revised edition was released. If you purchase this book, please insure it is the most recent version. Thank you again.

    Virginia Arthur, Author

  5. Teta Bombardieri says:

    How often we loose : “these precious things of nature” !

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