My July reading

I got waylaid this month by a friend going to see the Harry Potter play so I started re-reading them all. (There’s no re-reading option on Goodreads so my reading challenge figures are wrong…) I’ll talk Harry at the end. Otherwise…

Rowan Coleman – We Are All Made of Stars

I wrote last month about how I’d stopped reading A Song for Issy Bradley because of the hospitalisation of my daughter after she choked on a grape and went into cardiac arrest. I haven’t yet been able to pick it up and went into a reading funk, not knowing what to dip into. Thank goodness for this book. I won a copy of this from Rowan Coleman’s Facebook page (along with a lovely silver star pendant and necklace) and had been saving it for the right time. We Are All Made of Stars is about Stella, a nurse at a hospice who writes letters for her patients so they can finally say what they want, to be read after their death. But Stella is married to an ex-soldier who is suffering severe PTSD and neither of them know what to do or how to move on.

You might think a book that brushes so close to death is not what a traumatised mum should be reading but I found this to be such a soothing balm to read. It’s a cliche to say something like this can be life-affirming but this is what I found in the book. Above all things, it’s a love story, or rather several love stories, including a lovely burgeoning relationship between two teens, and we also witness the love between patients and families, and among the patients together.

Some of the letters Stella writes are stories in themselves and I found myself thinking about what splendid spin offs they could make. All in all, this was an incredible comfort to me as I spent a week in some kind of limbo trying to drag myself back to real life. But aside from my personal life, this is a warm and generous book, full of the best that people can be.

William Boyd – Sweet Caress

This is one of Boyd’s epics. The ones that cover the life of one person, spanning a wide amount of time. His best known, and I think best book, that does this is Any Human Heart (fully recommended) but Sweet Caress is pretty entertaining too. The person in question is Amory Clay, a female photographer. We meet her while she is a teen at school where her traumatised father attempts to kill them both, all the way through to her last days in Scotland in the 1970s. In between, she becomes a society photographer, causes a scandal in pre-war Britain, goes to war, finds love and gets married.

I liked Amory but I felt as a character she was always a little distant, though I’m not sure why. She is not a wholly formed jump off the page character like Logan Mountstuart from Any Human Heart. Her family and friends are never fully formed either, and I wonder if this was because it was was written in the first person. Amory seemed aloof from others, and thus painted them as aloof from us.

Having said that, I love these kind of books with big sweeping world changes within, and how one person can tell a bigger story. This is not quite Boyd’s best but it’s on the right track.

Sue Perkins – Spectacles

I don’t often do biographies, and I rarely do celebs but I was staying with my mum and she had this to hand. I read it in two evenings. It’s very funny. I like having ridiculous feelings of kinship with someone I admire, so the fact that me and Sue have the same first names and birthdays in September both made me like her even more. Plus, we have a loose family connection through her speech therapist. Mostly, this is a funny affectionate look at Sue’s life and how her family, friends and lovers have kept her going. The stories about her parents are wonderful, I imagine quite exaggerated, but with the silly humour that always gives me the giggles.

Harry Potter (I’m currently on book 6)

I love how quickly I get absorbed by these books.

I hate how no one told JKR about Stephen King’s rule on words ending in ‘ly’. It’s the writing rule I try to stick to the most. The number of times Harry says something bitterly… make it stop!

My fondest bookselling memory, in fact, possibly my favourite work memory of all (apart from flashing my tattoo at Sir David Attenborough obvs), remains running the launch party for book seven at Nottingham Waterstone’s. Torrential rain, five times as many people as we were expecting, chaos, and the only person available to put our displays together was my sister who had come to volunteer for the night for fun. Everyone else was busy entertaining the customers. At 2am I stood in the pouring rain in a large black velvet witch’s hat yelling at a man that I was closing the shop and he was too late for his copy but he could come back at 7am when we reopened.

I have no idea what this says about me.

June reading list

A late posting this month – events have overtaken me. But here’s what I read last month.

Noonday – Pat Barker

The final part of Barker’s second war trilogy, ending in the Blitz and focusing mostly on the character of Elinor, estranged from her husband and in vague contact with Kit Neville. I wanted to finish it before I went to see Pat Barker speak one evening at the Nottingham Playhouse. I think I like the Noonday trilogy more than the Regeneration trilogy, though this might just be because of the length of time since I’ve read the Regeneration three. I enjoyed the slant on the later conflict, and the effect that it had on those who went through the first one is something I tried to examine in my book so to see it done by a master is awe inspiring and terrifying in equal measure.

The Shore – Sara Taylor

A couple of years back I read ‘Winter’s Bone’, a novel set in the Ozarks, featuring a community hooked on drugs and the resulting poverty and violence. This is set in a similar place with similar issues but my goodness, does it kick ass! Revenge is indeed sweet. This is not a cheerful read, and in some places it may also come across as a bit melodramatic. That said, I raced through it.

Last Summer of Water Strider – Tim Lott

I wanted to like this. I enjoy his columns in the Saturday Guardian and I read another of his books a few years back and loved it. I found this shallow and trite by comparison, with disappointing characterisation and predictable plotting.

Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

The reading group choice this month and, despite Jane Eyre being my favourite novel of all time, I’d not read this. Perhaps because JE is my favourite; I’m not a fan of sequels/ prequels/ something done to originals I’m fond of (the exception being the sequels to Rebecca by Sally Beauman and Susan Hill). I found this confusing and was glad I knew the basic plot behind it. I liked the character of Antoinette/ Bertha, and the atmosphere was incredibly close and evocative. But it’s hard to follow and you still don’t trust anyone as a reliable narrator so I’m not sure you’re any the wiser as to the back story than when you started. Interesting.

The Song Collector – Natasha Solomons

I LOVED this. I couldn’t put it down! A lovely story about a grouchy old widower who starts to teach his troublesome grandson music. The story is interspersed with his memories of growing up a the youngest son of a fading minor aristocrat and the family’s struggle to keep their estate going, but with his memories of his wife, and how he met her. It was all very well done, with a lovely eye for detail and strong characterisation. Highly recommended.

A Song for Issy Bradley – Carys Bray

I confess I got halfway through this and had to put it down. I knew a book with the storyline it had was going to test me, and this month it cut too close to ome so I will return to it when I’m feeling a bit more equipped to cope. But I was finding the discussion of faith and the fractured marriage interesting so maybe in a few weeks…


Writing as catharsis

Do you view your writing as somehow cathartic? I’ve been pondering  this subject in the last few days. A lot of people use writing to deal with the world, especially though journalling or writing therapy. And some of those writing tip memes that you see flashed around the internet often talk of living life first, experiencing pain and frustration and emotions, in order to write better.

How does this manifest itself? I was thinking about this with relation to trauma. Without wishing to sound melodramatic, last week my 4-year old daughter choked on some food, went into cardiac arrest and had to be rushed to hospital where we stayed for two nights. She’s now absolutely fine, but I’ve had to take a few days to try and adjust. I feel very much like I was plucked up by fate’s fingers last week, spun round and round and flung back into my life with no time to take stock.
I’m normally introverted and work stuff out in my head first. I’m used to looking at situations and working out in my head how to describe them – for journals, blog posts or for any fiction I write. And I did the same last week. I watched her lying on the pavement, on the gurney, in the bed and thought about how I could share this in words. It occupied my mind while we waited by her bedside for her to wake. The blog post I wrote after the event was very matter of fact but since then, since that clear recitation of facts, I’ve been swimming in numbness.
I think it’s fairly standard to react to trauma in a different way to how you might deal with other things. But I do normally write for most other events, or through other events. Not for this. I went blank, forgot where I’d got to with the WIP sat on my computer, the notes, research, ideas and flashes that I was working on. I know, you’re thinking “it’s just too soon, it will come.” And you’re probably right.
The novel I’m currently querying contains a scene that was directly written from my experience of my father’s death. It’s taken me 21 years since the event to write something that wasn’t full of teenage angst and pain. I quite like the scene, the observations noted, the quiet emotion. (At least that’s what I hope is in there.)
It may well take me another 21 years before I write something about E’s experience last week. But I’d be interested to hear what you do to deal with real life events – in journals, blogs or fiction – or if you do nothing at all.

In May I read…

This has been a good reading month, an interesting and absorbing reading month. Here’s my review:

Shamim Sarif – Despite the Falling Snow I only realised when I got this home that it’s a film cover; I picked it up because it sounded intriguing. A spy-love story from Krushchev’s time, interspersed with some modern day reminiscences, just my cup of tea. And on finishing it, I realised I’d read Sarif before – her marvellous book The World Unseen. I liked this, though perhaps the language was at times a little too flowery for my liking. I spotted the ‘twist’ fairly early on, so early that perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be a twist? but this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book which sheds light on an unknown era and a time that perhaps isn’t examined very much these days. I also liked the main character Alex and his niece, though I remember thinking some of the other supporting characters were a bit odd?

Sarah Winman – A Year of Marvellous Ways Marvellous Ways is an old lady, a recluse who lives in a caravan in 1940s Cornwall. It was always going to be important to have this set in the past as the magical reclusive element probably wouldn’t have worked otherwise. We live in distinctly un-fairytale lands these days and are the poorer for it. Anyway, this is a sweet enchanting tale about connecting with each other, myths, mermaids, a good sourdough starter and of course love. I’m wary of magical realism but when it works, it’s a lovely genre.

Sarra Manning – After the Last Dance

I really wanted to like this but I struggled to be bothered about anyone in it, especially the modern part of the story. I’ve not put my finger on why it didn’t work for me so I won’t go into too much detail. Give it a try, it might just be me.

Carson McCullers – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

My reading group’s choice for this month was something I’ve wanted to read for a long time and not got round to. I started out really enjoying it – the observations and carefully crafted stories of a group of poor, dispossessed people in Deep South America were really absorbing. For those of you who don’t know, the story involves a deaf mute man who lives and works in a small town and somehow becomes a confidant to a range of people, all of whom project their own ideas onto him. This is largely because he gives very little back except smiles and hospitality. He can lip read and write notes but communicates little. The only time we see him care about something is his fellow deaf mute friend, who is an unstable alcoholic and is eventually taken to a care home. The ending is where the book fell down for me – I didn’t feel it was true to the character and had to ask if I had projected what I wanted onto the character as well and if this was done on purpose by McCullers, or was it just an oddity?

Maggie O’Farrell – This Must Be The Place

I wasn’t going to buy this in hardback until I saw it and couldn’t resist. It came on holiday with me last week and I’ve not really stopped thinking about it since. I’m sorely tempted to pick it up and re-read it immediately because I loved it so much and I fear that by racing through it I missed so much, and because I’m not ready to read something else yet. In basic terms, this is the story of a marriage, about two people and their relationships – with others, with each other and with their children. It features stories and perspectives from many characters, and there are a number of experimental chapters – one is written purely in the second person which is always brave – and another moves the plot along purely by pictures and captions of an auction lot. Experimental things worry me but this all worked, it all hung together beautifully partly because of the quality of O’Farrell’s prose and because somehow she’s got this invisible thread pulling it in. The other thing to say is that the characters were so well drawn – both the main protagonists are flawed and at times downright unlikeable but of course all the more real. Even the people who appeared in the book for no longer than a chapter (especially Rosalind who I liked very much and would love to know what happened to her next. I hope she had a ball, whatever it was) were well fleshed out. It’s a book that sparked all kinds of thoughts, ideas, and emotions in me as I read. In short, I loved it.

April reads

It seems a long month. But a nice range of books this month. I even ventured briefly into non-fiction.

The Year of Living Danishly – Helen Russell

After so many war books last month I couldn’t face something serious to start the month so I decided to read about Denmark instead. This is an Englishwoman abroad, as Helen Russell’s husband lands his dream job at Lego. She is a magazine writer living a hectic life and they are trying to conceive a baby. I found this quite interesting, partly as I’d like to go to Denmark, but also because I’m nosy about other people’s lives, but my god she was whiny! She expressed surprise that living in a different country was indeed different to living in London and didn’t seem to let up at all. Even a year living in a warm house by the sea was something she complained about. Eventually, thank god, she relaxes and seems to adjust, but there must be better ways of writing about Denmark than this.

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

I always forget how difficult I find Atkinson’s books to get into. It always takes me a while to remember why I like her. This has been lauded, but I didn’t like it as much as the last one (and I found the last one tough too, probably because of the amount of child death in the first 50 pages…) The parts about Bomber Command are masterful and absorbing to read – the interview with Atkinson at the end states that this was her focus – but the other parts are interesting, if nothing else. The generational gap is well observed, but the daughter character is utterly ghastly and so when the ‘twist’ comes, it’s not as gut wrenching as when McEwan did the same thing in Atonement. (That’s the closest I can come to a spoiler.)

The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd

This month’s reading group choice was a chance to delve into someone else’s history for a while, and so we leap straight into slave-holding South Carolina. An eleven-year old girl Sarah is given a slave for her birthday and immediately tries to free her. When this fails, she teaches her to read instead, ensuring that the two women will always be joined despite the separations and trials that the years bring. This is the fictionalised story of Sarah Grimke, an abolitionist, and is told in alternate chapters with the completely fictional life of her slave Hetty. I enjoyed the slave chapters more, mainly as Sarah’s character seemed flittery and annoying.It may also be my liberal squeamishness but I dislike these ‘white people discover how awful slavery was’ books (The Help was another.) Having said all that, it’s pretty good.

On Helwig Street – Richard Russo

Russo is one of my favourite authors of all time so this tale of growing up with a mother who was mentally unstable is fascinating, if only to try and spot where his influences and ideas come from. But my goodness, it’s also a hard read. It’s partly because his mother is, I think, mostly undiagnosed for most of her life, so had she been born later, there may have been more help available for her. And you also see how much of a toll looking after her is on Russo and his family. You do also get to examine the power of memory, or not, and again, being a bit nosy, I like to find out more about someone I admire so much.

Summer of 76 – Isabel Ashdown

After the Second World War, slavery and mental illness, some light reading was required and this did the job. Summer of 76 features the heatwave, swinging and some teenagers stuck on the Isle of Wight. In some places I felt it could have done with a spot of editing, but on the whole it’s a nice beach read type book.

In March I read…

The return of the monthly reading round-up. And I must say, aside from the first book, this month’s reading all appears to be themed around childbirth, pregnancy, and the consequences of both. This month I read:

Melissa – Jonathan Taylor

I reviewed this earlier on the blog so I won’t repeat it here but if you’d like to read it, please head back to this page.

Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase – Louise Walters

A dual tale where a modern day bookseller who likes to keep the things she finds in second hand books – letters, shopping lists, ephemera – tries to track down the truth about her grandmother, the Mrs Sinclair of the title. An intriguing letter sets her off on a trail of wartime romance, secrets and lost babies. This was a nice enough read for those of us who enjoy books, books about booksellers, wartime stories, and heroes bearing gramophones.

South Riding – Winifred Holtby

Oh how I loved this. I wasn’t expecting to. I only knew of it via having read Testament of Youth a couple of years back and, despite knowing Holtby was more successful as a novelist than Vera Brittain, was dreadfully worried that it would be as hard going as Testament of Youth was to read. It’s fresh, sparkling, still relevant, and full of lovely observations and descriptions. If you want to know just how awful life without a welfare state or NHS was, less than 80 years ago, look no further. A tale of a small Yorkshire town, and the local councillors trying to do their best by the citizens while perhaps serving their own interests; a tale of a spirited schoolmistress and her efforts to raise educational achievement of girls; a tale of a foolish pigheaded man and his stupid pride; and finally a tale of the incredible harm done to women through childbearing. Fine in detail, enormous in scope.

The Lives of Women – Christine Dwyer Hickey

I knew nothing of Christine Dwyer Hickey and so had no idea she was Irish or that this was set in Ireland until I was about two-thirds of the way through. Before then, I was confused about the setting. Another dual narrative running between modern day and the past, this is the story of Elaine, who returns home after her mother’s death to look after her father for a while. Why has Elaine been banished for so many years and what happened for her parents to send her away? If you return to the theme mentioned above, think about Ireland in the 1970s (and in fact today) you’ll start to get more of a clue. I didn’t find this easy to get into, and the author doesn’t give you everything so there are some facts you never find out.

The Other Mrs Walker – Mary Paulson Ellis

Hey, another dual narrative! And another wartime mystery to be solved (or not). This was much darker than Mrs Sinclair, featuring skulduggery and shady dealings. The main character, Margaret, is not the easiest person to like – fleeing her life in London following her life crashing down about her ears, and I wasn’t totally lacking in sympathy for her mother who didn’t look thrilled to see her turn up on her doorstep. Penniless and camped out in the box room, Margaret takes a job tracking down some details of unknown dead people who are clogging up Edinburgh’s morgue system. (A part of me wants a sequel where she runs into Rebus) So she starts to track down the life of Mrs Walker, an old lady found dead in a puddle of whiskey, while trying to reconcile herself to her new life. I enjoyed this very much, despite Margaret being such a wet lettuce.

Can a TV tie-in change your reading?

I’ve just finished reading South Riding by Winifred Holtby. I loved it and raced through all 525 pages at breakneck speed. It was a reading group choice and wasn’t in stock at Waterstone’s when I went to buy it. The girl behind the counter placed an order for me but when it arrived it was the TV tie in cover.

I hate TV tie ins. This is partly snobbery. I don’t want people to assume I’m reading the book because I watched it on TV first. In this case I didn’t watch it at all. Though obviously I’d like to see it now. But I’m also a fan of celebrating cover art and TV tie ins are pretty derivative.

But there’s a third reason. Reading South Riding it was screamingly obvious to me that the character of Robert Carne should be played by David Morrissey. For those of you who may not have read it, Carne is an isolated man, driven by duty, haunted by past passions and with a history of violence, but striving to be a decent man and to uphold standards. To me, that says David Morrissey. But would I have thought that had David Morrissey not been pictured on the front cover of my book? There is now no way for me to find out. That picture has coloured how I saw the character.

Discussing this on Twitter, I find this has happened for others too. Two friends mention their copies of War and Peace with Anthony Hopkins on the front as Pierre.

Now, understand me, I’m not talking about watching the TV series and then reading the book. That will definitely make a difference to your reading. I’ve not yet read Wolf Hall or Bringing Up the Bodies but there’s no way I will get through them now without thinking of Mark Rylance. I found having watched the recent film version of Tinker Tailor to be invaluable in remembering who everyone was when I read the book. No, what I’m talking about here is only the book cover. Your perception of a character altered by your perception of the person portraying them on screen.

I’m so keen to avoid TV tie ins that this isn’t usually an issue for me. The only time I’ve read a TV tie in version before watching the programme was when Our Mutual Friend was about to be screened and I was desperate to read it before the series started. (You try racing through 900 pages of Dickens – it’s not easy.) As a teen who’d not read a lot of Dickens before I was incredibly grateful to the pictures to help me through the book.

So I guess my questions are: have you ever been affected by the cover of a book? Are TV tie ins, providing faces, helping readers get through colossal classics? Answers below please!

Review: Melissa by Jonathan Taylor

It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the Melissa of the title dies at the beginning of the book – everything that follows is a result of this tragic occurrence. As she does so, all her neighbours experience a musical hallucination – most find it beautiful if perplexing, only a few dislike it.

The novel is apparently based on a true story, though one I’ve not heard of, and the early part of the book reads as a factual account by scholars and media reports. Once the hallucination and its after effects are dealt with, then the novel is a straightforward third person narrative. For we’ve only just begun.

What happens next? What happens to a family when its youngest member dies? What happens to a community when you share an event but can’t explain it? These are the questions Taylor wishes to explore and the result is a frank, sometimes dreadfully sad, exploration of the devastation wrought by grief.

Taylor’s writing style did at times perplex me, I will admit. He is clearly a well-read man, with a well-researched book. A lot of that research makes its way quite obviously into the book. If you ever wanted to know how a disease like leukaemia can progress then you can find it here, and somehow the progress of the disease is told in a way that moves the story on. Perhaps less successful are the music references, and the passages about physics but I admire that they’re there at all – its not everyone who can sound knowledgeable and everyday about some of these things, even if I didn’t understand anything about them.

As you may expect, the characters are the strongest part of ‘Melissa.’ And rarely (in my reading experience) he writes women well. The two main female characters, Melissa’s mother and half-sister, were sympathetic yet complicated. Even the tabloid ‘escort’ across the road, while not a particularly sympathetic character, did have a distinctive voice that sounded authentic. Melissa’s father, Harry, was perhaps the best character in that his pain and total confusion and denial was heartbreaking to witness.

So to sum up, I thought Melissa was an intriguing, at times heartbreaking, read. It was at times scathing about modern life, at times brave about the human condition. It’s well worth a read, enjoyable and engaging.

Melissa by Jonathan Taylor is available to buy now from Salt Publishing, priced £8.99

*Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of Melissa by Jonathan Taylor to review. This review is also on Goodreads.

Writing East Midlands conference

I spent Saturday in Loughborough. Not words I’m usually happy to utter but this was different – I attended Writing East Midlands’ Writers’ Conference at Loughborough University.

It was a cold grey morning as we arrived and troughed down the refreshments, all clutching our cream and blue goody bags and piling into the auditorium. I had no idea what to expect really, though I’d picked seminars to attend and things to find out about. I had thought about coming along last year but felt fraudulent without a completed manuscript so I didn’t. This year I felt more like a writer with a finished, albeit unpublished, product.

Author Judith Allnatt welcomed us to the conference and then Mike Gayle gave the first keynote address. I worked in a branch of Waterstone’s when Gayle’s first few books came out and I remember their distinctive bright covers and how they got put second place to the unfathomable phenomenon that was Tony Parsons’ early novels. Having now seen both men speak, I can only fervently wish that Gayle continues to do great things – he was very funny, self-deprecating and gave good advice. (Incidentally, MG told us that reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles was one of the seminal experiences that encouraged him to be a writer. Sometimes you read those hand-wringing articles about boys not reading and how they need different books, and then you hear something like that. How amazing.) Anyway, his advice was: read a lot. And as well as the classics, read terrible books for confidence that you can do better. Finish your first draft! Don’t edit when you hit the 30,000 word mark – “Some authors aren’t the best writers n the world but they’re the people who finished the thing they were writing.” And be steely. It’s the last one I need help with the most.

I stayed in the theatre for the next two sessions – the writer at work, and the authentic voice. These were panel sessions with authors discussing a certain topic – The Writer at Work: What Happens to the Day Job? touched on the topical subject of how much you do for free to gain exposure. All the panel urged us to do something for free to build a bod of work but on the whole the subject is a massive grey area that I feel deserves a conference all its own. The Authentic Voice, and the panel session I took after lunch – Research for Writers – felt linked and I enjoyed both of them but will blog separately about my reactions and thoughts about the subjects.

Following coffee I had my agent one-to-one. A series of slots were available to delegates for one to ones with agents and with authors – depending on how far you were with your writing. You had to apply by sending in a few chapters and a synopsis, which were judged by two readers and then awarded a slot according to what they thought. The agent read what you wrote and gave you feedback. I spotted the agent I was seeing having tea during the coffee break and inexplicably had a panic attack. DO NOT DO THIS (see above note for steeliness). These are not meant to be intimidating, they are an opportunity for useful feedback. I had a friend send helpful tweets until I got it together. In the event, the session was useful. There was one point of clarity I should fix in the opening chapters, he said, but otherwise it was well written. He gave some pointers as to who I could try, we discussed the term “commercial women’s fiction” as opposed to “commercial fiction” and the term “saga.” I was slightly distracted spotting some of my university textbooks on a shelf above his head but in general it went well.

And then I popped back to catch much of Carole Blake’s talk. Carole is a legend in literary agent circles and her frank, funny advice was shot through with experience and straight talking. She passed on tips for authors in finding and maintaining a relationship with an agent as well as with a publicist and publisher which were useful, and she took questions. Interestingly, in the “should you work for free” debate she advised at least finding out how much magazines charge for a page advert and trying to get at least that much from them. Like I said, a topic worthy of further discussion.

The final keynote speech was from Sophie Hannah, who passed on advice that you shouldn’t take, or not take in the spirit that it was intended. She too was very funny, and in her line “I’d been through childbirth (5 days!) and now felt I had a harrowing life experience to write crime fiction.” Respect.

So what did I learn? That I’m still rubbish at networking, that I need to stop panicking about my writing, that other people are impressed about those of us who write with jobs and small children, and that sometimes you are going to need to drop your agent. This last piece of advice came across several times throughout the day and may have been concerning to those of us agent-less authors. But we’ll get there. I also learned that I felt more like a writer than I had previously. It’s a state of mind, and the fact that there are so many ‘inspirational’ quotes telling you about being a writer suggests that no one feels completely clear on it. But listening to others talking, I started to think about my own ‘writing journey’ and realised that I knew about these things too.

I should end by thanking Writing East Midlands for putting on the conference, which I did enjoy very much, and for granting me an agent one to one. And now I need to go and polish that manuscript and research my agents…

February reads

A short month and two books to read for reading group this month means I only read four books this month.

1984 – George Orwell and Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

It was a dystopian double bill for reading group this month, though I can’t remember why. One line of thinking was that people could manage two because we’d have read them before and therefore could skim read. Confession: I hadn’t read either of them before. Perhaps there’s an optimum age to read dystopia, perhaps when you’re still impressionable and open to ideas. Clearly someone jaded and disturbed by politics like me was no good, I was actively dreading reading them, nervous of having my worst fears about our society confirmed. Very few weeks go by without some kind of reference to 1984 especially, but BNW has some relevance too.

So what did I think? I’m not going to write a full critique of either here, there’s been a lot said about both by people far more astute than I. The first thing to say, and I think the most important, is how very readable they both are. The first time reader opens them with a sense of trepidation, of realising the weight of the reputation they come with but no one ever mentions how easily you race through them. Neither are very subtle, especially the Orwell, though I suppose if you’re writing a furious diatribe as a warning to society about a political system that will spread across half of Europe and beyond, perhaps subtlety isn’t the key. But I did feel like I was being hit over the head half the time.

As a group, many people who re-read BNW felt slightly disappointed by it, which perhaps comes back to my point about reading these things at a certain age. The disappointment was largely down to the lack of characterisation, we felt; Huxley seemed to be having some fun describing the society that other elements were perhaps a little neglected? Of the two, it felt more positive than 1984 (though that’s not difficult) and despite the dreadful treatment of women and the sad ending, there was little menace to it.

I think we were all pretty impressed by the amount that Orwell foresaw; in many ways well before his time and of course the novel’s influence cannot be overstated.

Crooked Heart – Lissa Evans

crooked heartAfter all that, I definitely needed something lighter! Which is not to say this is a fluffy book or one to be dismissed lightly. I LOVED this. It features two of the bizarrely well-matched real feeling characters I’ve read for a while without being kooky, which I find important. Ten year old Noel, orphaned and suffering following the death of his godmother and guardian Mattie, is packed off to St Albans as part of evacuation efforts in the Second World War. There he lodges with opportunist Vera Sedge whose scams to make money and provide for her feckless son and invalid mother are wearing thin. (Vera’s mother writes letters to Winston Churchill throughout the book, which are hilarious. Can we have a spin off short story please?) Vera sees Noel as a source of potential income but doesn’t count on how useful this bright boy is. Together they start trying to make a bit of cash, and end up trying to catch a rogue ARP warden who steals the possessions of a wealthy but vulnerable lady after she is carried off to hospital. There’s lots of lovely detail in this book but it is the dynamic between Vera and Noel that makes it a really great read. Vera especially is a woman whose circumstances have always conspired against her, making her appear morally lax. Rough diamonds are a cliche yet she really is. And Noel is a lovely bright little boy, aware that he is different to others but trying very hard not to let that affect him but to stay true to himself and to the memory of Mattie. Go and buy this, it’s really enjoyable.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

goats and sheepIt’s the summer of 1976 (the hot one) and a resident of a small claustrophobic cul de sac goes missing. Is she dead? Suicide? Murder? Two little girls, Grace and Tilly, decide to investigate by seeking out God. In going round the close they talk to the other residents and uncover more dark secrets than you can imagine. The title comes from seeing how other people describe themselves: are they goats – a bit wacky, a bit out of sync with others? Or are they sheep – following the herd, conventional. How do we judge people and what are the consequences? I went to hear Joanna Cannon talk about the book last Thursday at Waterstone’s and having heard her story clearly I am sick with envy. Ten months to write it (while working at a demanding job) and a book deal before it was published. What have I been doing with my time? Anyway, green eyes aside, I really enjoyed this book. The main narrative character, Grace, is a spirited but normal child, making mistakes, especially with how she deals with her best friend Tilly, and wandering around the close winkling secrets out from the adults without even realising it. While Grace’s perspective leads the tale, not all the chapters are from her point of view and that way we get to find out more. I wholeheartedly approve of this – books from just the child’s point of view have a tendency to miss out some of the detail I want to hear about (Room, and Our Endless Numbered Days suffered from this in my opinion.) The other characters are all so well written that with a bit of thought you can cast them and design the costumes they’ll need (I mean this as a good thing – it’s a very visual book.) And the food! Why oh why did anyone eat chocolates and soup in that heat? There may not have been much choice. It’s nostalgia of the best kind, a self indulgent laugh at how we used to live.

And that’s it for this month! Two thought provoking books I found better than I was hoping and two books I really enjoyed.