Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.* At least not in Nottingham. But as I drove up the M1 the rain cleared and a sliver of blue sky appeared through the clouds.

I was on my way to Haworth, or to the Bronte Festival of Women’s writing, put on by the Bronte Parsonage Museum and sponsored by Mslexia magazine. Both my workshops were held at Ponden Hall, reportedly the inspiration for Thurshcross Grange in Wuthering Heights. My plan was:

  • Arrive with half an hour to spare and amble around the moors briefly
  • Workshop 1
  • Hotfoot it to the Parsonage for a look around
  • Workshop 2
  • Dinner in pub
  • Evening talk
  • Drive home

It was possible. In reality…

2016-09-10-14-23-36The journey was going fine and with half an hour to go I had 3.5 miles on the sat nav. Then it recalculated and suddenly added 11 miles to the route on a whim. I only realised this when it had taken me out on a single road across the moors (v bleak, v Bronte) for 5 or so miles. It got so far, turned a u-turn and sent me back the way I’d come. Bloody machine.

I parked, flustered and was shown in, not the last but it was only once I sat at the table that I realised I had no idea which workshop this was.

It turned out to be Writing a Synopsis with Debbie Taylor, editor of Mslexia and resplendent in scarves, a jeweled necklace and glasses on a string. I could never pull of that look.

2016-09-10-14-09-10Being a querying author I have a synopsis but this workshop made it clear mine is not specific enough. I also think I need to change the focus of my elevator pitch, I’ve led with the wrong character and it’s confusing. The workshop was very good and thought provoking but its major flaw was that it overran. By an hour. Partly because there were 13 people who all had feedback and discussion, and partly from the time it took to eat the cake on offer. But an hour! So my plans to see the Parsonage were scuppered – too stressful to get there, park, buy a ticket and race round taking in nothing. 2016-09-10-14-16-11So I went for a walk instead. Ponden Hall is by a reservoir, in a valley and up a rough track in the middle of the moors. Horses grazed, cows made alarming high pitched mooing noises and the river trickled through. On my return climb I stopped to peep over the wall as Cathy and Heathcliff did as children.

Ponden Hall itself is lovely,it’s a family home run as a bed and breakfast and if you get a chance to stay there, you really should. I recommend it, if only for the lemon cake which was SUPERB. The building itself is all thick walls, large fireplaces and intriguing corridors and lintels. I was sorely tempted to poke about and explore but managed to restrain myself. 2016-09-10-12-21-54 2016-09-10-12-21-35

The day had turned very pleasant and I was seized with a desire to sack off the second workshop and walk to the Parsonage but it would have been a waste of a ticket and there’s always something to learn.

Jane Rogers took the second workshop on writing an arresting first page, and was as thought provoking as the first workshop, though more disciplined on timings (no cake which may have helped).

2016-09-10-17-26-07Afterwards I parked at the Parsonage, knowing I’d missed last entry but hoped at least the shop was open. Alas no. Not even a postcard for my mum. The church, where they’re mostly all buried, was also closed and a wedding party were eating in the schoolroom and hall where Charlotte got married. I walked the streets instead and found a pub for dinner.

The evening talk was hosted by Tracy Chevalier as part of her tenure for the Bronte200 project, and she interviewed two further authors Jessie Burton and Grace McCleen about their novels, both of which feature miniature scenes, and the links and significance of the Bronte’s miniature works, especially the tiny books they produced. There was a small but appreciative, and I think quite scholarly, audience.
2016-09-10-19-00-59 2016-09-10-19-01-04I drove home and got home just before 11. It was quite a way but I have a strong yearning to return before the Charlotte exhibitions finish. The setting on Saturday was wonderful but it felt more Emily and it’s Charlotte I love most. A combined trip to Haworth and to the Railway Children’s station at Oakworth may be just the thing for a family outing.

*Apologies to Charlotte Bronte but I couldn’t resist this opening.

 

August reads

I had the luxury of reading an entire book in a weekend this month – something that never happens usually. It was due to a combination of Bank Holiday at my in-law’s house, losing the knitting pattern I was working on and nothing on the TV. What bliss. Otherwise the month was as usual – catching reading time when I could around work and childcare.

Judy Blume – In the Unlikely Event

There was a moment when I started reading this that I was staying at my mother’s house. There’s really nothing like reading a Judy Blume book in the house where you grew up to make you realise you haven’t moved on in the past 25 years at all… Anyway, this is one of Judy’s books for adults and the one she said she always wanted to write. It brings to the page an incident from her childhood, where her town witnessed three plane crashes into the town over a matter of months. The book’s narrative is spread over a number of different points of view, though many of them from young teenage girls, and this does give the reader the sense that they’re reading a YA novel. It’s none the poorer for it, and Blume’s great talent has always been to bring the pain and confusion of being a teenage girl to life. It’s no different here. There is an impending sense of doom as the narrative changes to the passengers climbing on a plane for a journey but the impact of the crashes is somehow dulled. I felt this was lacking something, but I can’t tell you what it was. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable enough read, and I did feel reunited with an old friend.

Alexandra Heminsley – Running Like a Girl

Having just started running seriously again, I picked this up for a bit of inspiration. It’s a light hearted way of looking at running by someone who’s run quite a few marathons – and her journey to that point. She also covers the parts that other running narratives may not tell you – about sports bras, what to do if you need a poo while running and how to deal with crippling self doubt. It’s fun and inspirational, and I both laughed and cried while reading it.

Karl Over Knausgaard – A Death in the Family

This was my own suggestion to my reading group this month and I’d like to apologise to them for suggesting it. I wanted to see what the hype was about. I have no idea, having read it, what the hype is about. I was reading an article earlier in the month about the old argument that women’s stories, about love and families, for example the Blume above, are often seen as ‘women’s lit’ where men writing on the same subjects will be seen as ‘literature.’ There is nothing to demonstrate this better than this piece of self indulgent tosh. When it comes down to it, so many stories about white middle class straight boys are the same – all about drinking and how long it took them to get their hand up a girl’s jumper. This was the same with extra waffle, and a few things about his dad. Later, we discover he has cast his dad off for his alcoholism and then his father dies, having drunk himself to death. (Or did he? There’s a slight mystery about the circumstances of death but god forbid Knausgaard actually tells us this bit) Then Karl and his brother return to the fmaily home to clear it up as it’s become a pigsty, with rotting crap everywhere and their senile grandmother living in the detritus. This bit was actually quite interesting but it added nothing to the character development of the narrator, Karl Ove. This has been feted as literature that blurs the boundaries between fiction and autobiography but if I was going to fictionalise my life, I’d do something ot make it a bit more interesting. And insightful.

Katherine McMahon – The Girl in the Picture

This was the second in a series, apparently, although it didn’t matter if you hadn’t read the first, which I hadn’t. Set in 1926, the heroine is one of the few female lawyers in London and therefore, you’d think, quite feisty. The story concerns two cases she takes on, one about a bunch of toffs and the other a poor family torn apart by domestic abuse. In the background, the heroine’s persona life suffers as her grandmother dies, a close friend and relative moves to France and her boss proposes marriage just as her old lover returns to town. So a lot going on. It was all quite enjoyable, except… the heroine was dreadfully passive. For someone who had fought to get herself such a prominent groundbreaking job she just sat back and let people dictate to her a lot. It all got on my nerves rather.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan – Harmless Like You

I couldn’t resist this debut novel having seen reviews on Twitter and I’m glad it was as deftly written as they suggested. The main story is of Yuki, a Japanese-American girl who decides not to return with her parents to Japan but stays in New York with friends. This is the late Sixties, and Yuki’s story is one of loneliness, isolation and, despite it not being overtly spelt out, racism. As a result, she spends far too long in an abusive relationship and struggles to be taken seriously as an artist. In the present day, we find Jay whose father has just died and left his house to Jay’s mother, Yuki, who left them when Jay was a baby. Jay must go and find her, now living in Berlin, and confront her. Jay was a self centred over grown child, in my view, though it could be that I just have issues with people who like cats as much as he did. But Yuki was far more interesting and despite needing to be shaken out of her torpor at times, the reader can at least see why she feels so stuck and so alone, so powerless, and feels for her. This is a really assured debut and I’m really quite jealous.

Word up

The Oxford English Dictionary is asking for people the world over to vote for their most disliked word. It’s an interesting exercise as I imagine more people will be able to come together over what they don’t like than what they do. But after thinking and discussing this a little, I think people select words they don’t like for broader reasons than for words they do like.

Here. OED have already put forward some frontrunners. ‘Moist’ is one. In New Zealand, ‘phlegm’ is another. I don’t mind either but it’s clear they are disliked because of the wider context they’re used in. OED predict ‘cancer’ will be up there, for obvious reasons.

I examined my own disliked words. Aside from corporate jargon (action as a verb, going forward and so on) I cited ‘awesome’, ‘guys’, ‘zeitgeist’, and ‘gifting’. I immediately offended a friend who uses three of those regularly. But when I explained my reasons, it was clear it wasn’t the words that was the problem, it was the context I objected to.

‘Awesome’ is overused and overwhelmingly signals a state of mind I cannot get on with. It often sounds false to me, a marketing trick. The Lego movie made this point well for me. Everything was not awesome.

‘Guys’ is something you often hear when being herded in a crowd, security guards at gigs, people asking you to queue differently. It’s chummy. It’s used when they want to appear approachable but firm. It’s like those adverts where they encourage you to find out more about the product by calling their salesperson, who only has a first name and mobile number. They think it’s informal and friendly. I’m an introvert and I will barely call people I know on their mobile. There is no way I’ll call a complete stranger and call them by their first name on their mobile. Referring to me as ‘guys’ is part of this. I think it’s also my middle aged curmudgeonliness that dislikes it. My offended friend is younger than me, and nicer.

‘Zeitgeist’ I only dislike because a colleague I disliked in a previous job used it a lot in an attempt to appear more intellectual than he really was. It’s a good word. He was a wanker.

‘Gifting’ is a corporate hangover from working at Waterstone’s. The early gifting period, they said, or as normal people know it, October.

Conversely when I thought of words I do like, I like them in the main because of the way they sound. ‘Twilight’, ‘beguiling’, ‘haberdashery’. They all sound beautiful. There is no word I like because of its context and none that I dislike because of the sound.

It’s our usage that we dislike, the context and meaning. Liking things gives us more luxury to listen without the baggage. Or it does for me, anyway.

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!