Alan Bennett: Smut

I never had Alan Bennett down as a writer of prose. An accomplished playwright, certainly. Something of a national treasure here in the UK, one could even argue.

My local library is fast becoming somewhere where I test out things that look interesting but might be from an author I’m not yet familiar with, so it’s a good way of making discoveries, both positive and negative, before committing to purchasing a book. In this case, it was not the author that was new but the genre he had chosen.

In both stories, the central characters are middle-aged women and both these women have sexual experiences which some would consider unconventional. Bennett writes not in the erotic style, but instead chooses to use specific language to infer what’s happening, rather than graphically depict it.

In an excerpt of an interview with Mark Lawson for the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/0/21870866), the writer reveals he could only have written this book until after his parents had died.

“You can’t write to the notion of what your parents of you,” he says. Which is good to bear in mind for me. I’ve thought from time to time about writing some erotica, but my mother would never forgive me. I suspect if I ever do, I shall use a pseudonym.

Certainly a literary lesson for me, this book. I shall look out for more of his work.

Paul Christopher: The Templar Conspiracy

I do love a good thriller, it must be said. And so do a lot of other people, it would seem after Dan Brown hit the bestseller list with The Da Vinci Code. 

Many have trampled in his footsteps and some have created works with, in my opinion, better plot lines and better characters, thereby making up altogether better stories. This is one of those stories.

I picked it up at my local library in Wellesbourne in Warwickshire – http://www.warwickshire.gov.uk/wellesbournelibrary. I liked the title, having been somewhat fascinated by the occult from my late teens when I found my mother’s copy of The Satanist by Dennis Wheatley sitting on a shelf at home. The whole Templar idea being drawn into events set in the present day was intriguing so I picked it up and brought it home.

The pace is good. Not so quick you find yourself out of breath before the end of the first chapter, which is good. I think, as a writer, it must be difficult to maintain a pace like that throughout a novel, which must be difficult.

Instead, the author here has measured events such that they seem to hot up at just the right times. An enjoyable read to the very last page.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat, Pray, Love

Every now and then, you come across a book which, quite literally, changes your life. Maybe not a huge shift but it does make you see things differently. It gives you a new perspective, perhaps. This is one such book.

As a result I now have a new favourite author: Elizabeth Gilbert. This woman is amazing! I first heard of her through a YouTube video where she was giving a wonderful talk about the elusive nature of the creative genius. I was completely hooked and wanted to read her work instantly. So, off I went and bought this book.

I found it, eventually, in the travel section at Waterstones. Having now read the book, I can only surmise that the person who put it there has not, for this is not a travel guide at all.

Instead, this is an intrepid journey of a different kind. Ms Gilbert chooses to share with us the trauma of her divorce and the subsequent quagmire of depression which leaves her a mere shadow of her former self. She then sets off on a trip during which she travels into the depths of her soul to discover true happiness.

Having been through a divorce myself, there was a great deal in this book which I could relate to. I never had the courage myself to deal with it in quite the same way as this lady has done, and I applaud her bravery.

This is a book that will move you to tears, both in happiness and sadness. I loved it so much that I went out and bought the sequel the day after I finished it, and read that in two days flat!

Lesley Glaister: Chosen

I have to say, this is a compelling read from start to finish.

The story starts with Dodie, a young unmarried mother with a clinically depressed mother and a history of post-natal depression herself. Her brother, who still lives with their mother, takes off to America to join what turns out to be a religious cult so Dodie leaves her partner and baby behind to bring him home. What she discovers when she gets there sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

I love it when a book evokes strong emotions inside me. Often, they are feelings of sadness or happiness. Occasionally, like this book, I get angry at the characters. “Why doesn’t she just leave?” I found myself screaming.” How can she be so stupid?”

What this means is that the author has created strong characters who I can identify with. I am now taking time to learn from these authors so I can employ their techniques myself when I write stories.

The story then switches to another point of view; that of Melanie, Dodie’s long-lost aunt. Her story collides with Dodie’s in such a way that neither of them will ever be quite the same again.

Highly recommended!

Mario Puzo: Six Graves to Munich

I picked up this little book in my local library which I joined last week.

Puzo wrote this novel before The Godfather but the manuscript was lost for over forty years before it was finally published.

It tells the story of Michael Rogan, a secret agent during World War Two who was captured and tortured along with his pregnant wife.

The seven Nazis who tortured him presumed him dead after they shot him in the head (who wouldn’t?) but, in fact, he survived. Thanks to a metal plate in his skull and ten years of rehabilitation, he is seeking vengeance over the men who destroyed his own life and took that of his wife and unborn child.

After he finds and kills the first Nazi in Hamburg, he meets a prostitute by the name of Rosalie. She, too, has her inner demons to live with and they manage to support each other.

This is a well-written story with explicit descriptions of the murders and their effects on Rogan and his relationship with Rosalie. I was only sorry that it didn’t last longer.

Revisiting Children’s Favourites

One wonderful thing which has come from following my recent writing project, the Get Writing! Bootcamp is that the daily prompts opened up some wonderful memories of literature I read as a child.

As a child, I remember many happy afternoons spent at the local library choosing colourful books with stories which I can still picture today. (Mum, if you’re reading this, do you remember The Great Horse Chestnut Tree? We must have got that dozens of times!)

I also remember learning about Native Americans during my first year at primary school.  We learnt the wonderful poem The Song of Hiawatha by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and there was an afternoon where we dressed up to recite a shortened version of the poem to our parents. I remember my poor mother trying in vain to plait my hair like an Indian squaw and losing her temper with my stubborn straight locks!

On a family trip down to London one winter, I remember going to see a recital of Captain Beaky and his Band at some theatre or other. I had the book for several years afterwards. Goodness knows what happened to that.

During my recent house move, I found a present my mother bought me for my 5th birthday: Little Grey Rabbit’s Storybook by Alison Uttley. Another charming little book with great illustrations brought back some more wonderful memories.

Well, all this reminiscing got me thinking: what if I read some of these books again, now I’m much older? Would the stories be as wonderful now as I remember? How much has adulthood changed my perspective? Will I even be drawn to writing some children’s stories myself?

So, I have a new mission folks. I’m going on a shopping spree for some of my childhood favourites. My objective is to try and answer these questions and maybe discover something about children’s literature along the way.

Feel free to add your own comments and memories of your childhood reading experiences. It’s nice to share!

Sue Townsend: The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year

I don’t think there’s a Christmas I can think of where my mother hasn’t bought me at least one book. Some years there are several. They are carefully purchased throughout the year and kept in a cupboard or the back of a wardrobe until I visit during the festive season.

Occasionally, I get one a few months later with a comment such as “Oh, here’s the book I meant to give you at Christmas, but I’d forgotten where I put it, so here it is!” This was one such book, carefully wrapped and handed over in February!

I raised my eyebrows when I saw the author’s name.

“Is this the same Sue Townsend who wrote Adrian Mole all those years ago?”

“Yes, I think so,” my mum replied.

I was intrigued but in the middle of two books at the time already. Adding a third to the mix didn’t seem like the sensible thing to do. Instead, I put it to one side until such time as I was ready. I managed to finish it just the other day.

In the main, this is a funny book. Eva is fifty and has just sent her naive but extremely clever twins off to university, where they meet the infuriating Poppy who has huge social and emotional issues of her own.

This life-changing event is what tips Eva over the edge and she decides to go to bed, fully clothed for a little while to think. The ‘little while’ turns into days, weeks and months and, during this time, we learn a great deal about life in Eva’s household (and indeed her life in general) which she has faithfully tried to maintain to the best of her ability since her marriage.

Her assessment of the world from between her sheets as she slowly descends into mental illness is comically portrayed by the author and it’s not until the last couple of pages that you realise how ill she has become.

I was disappointed in the ending of this novel which is a shame as the rest of the book was engaging and funny with rich characters. I really wanted there to be a happy ending but it never comes. It felt as though there should have been more, as if the novel was somehow unfinished.

An entertaining read, all the same. Especially if you’re a Sue Townsend fan.

 

Writing Bootcamp Progress

For those of you following my writing progress carefully, you will remember that after the completion of my college course, I subscribed to an online ‘Bootcamp’ called Get Writing!

Since we’re now fully entrenched in week two of the course, I thought I’d update you with some progress.

Each day, there are writing prompts. They started off at just 5 minutes; this week, we’ve progressed to 10 minute slots of time. On the whole, I’ve found them a great deal of fun, and I usually manage 300+ words of free writing, which is great.

There are also weekly exercises which consist of entering ideas into our Inspiration Notebooks and using the motivational tools that the tutor has introduced throughout the week.

Apparently, by the end of the 4-week course, we will have completed a short story, which I’m really excited about.

Aside from following the writing prompts on the course, I’m shaping ideas for some short stories in my head. I’m also thinking it’s about time I started getting some of these onto paper and getting them finished and ready for submission to magazines.

My subscription to Writing Magazine is helping hugely in this regard. My first edition arrived in the post towards the end of last week and I’ve been dipping into it now and then. Imagine my delight when I saw classified adverts asking for short story submissions into magazines and publishing houses.

Watch this space for news of my first acceptance.

Stephen King: On Writing

I was never a fan of Mr King until recently. I seem to have been under the impression that he only ever wrote horrific stories that would give me nightmares for months.

It would seem that this is just not true, as my previous post here will testify.

On Writing has almost spiritual significance for me. My partner bought me a copy as I first became interested in writing and instructed me to read it. Since I hold his advice in very high regard (usually!), I set aside a weekend and read it from cover to cover.

It has proved informative and entertaining in equal measure, telling the story of the author’s life and offering some wonderful advice about The Craft, as he calls it. In fact, it’s how I’ve come to refer to my writing too, and also where the inspiration for this blog came from (see my first post here).

For anyone even considering writing, or for anyone who enjoys Stephen King generally, I’d highly recommend this book. Actually, even if you’re not a fan of his, I’d get it anyway. It’s not his usual fare, although the writing is very much his own style.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it changed my life!

Paul Sussman: The Labyrinth of Osiris

I spotted this is Tesco, of all places. Not my favourite place for novel browsing, I must admit, but there we go. I was drawn by the title, as I’m a big fan of ancient Egyptian mythology and history.

The story is well planned, and although it flits around quite a bit from place to place, this is essential to the storyline and doesn’t detract too much from the action.

I also like the fact that the author has helpfully included a glossary to explain the Hebrew and Arabic words which frequently appear in the text.

The two central characters, Ariel Ben-Roi and Yusuf Khalifa, are well thought through and their relationship is intriguing. The fact that one is an Israeli Jew and the other an Egyptian Muslim adds extra religious, cultural and political dimensions to the story.

A great read, and also a great shame that this was the last work from this author as he died suddenly after publication. I may well have to dig out his earlier work…

Goodreads.com

Calling all Social Networkers! If you like reading, this is for you…

I was directed towards this wonderful little site a few months ago by my partner. Basically, it’s like Facebook for people who are active readers.

Simply create yourself a profile, add a few of your favourite books, and away you go. You can share your reading preferences with friends, rate the books you read and even add full-scale reviews.

You can join groups, take quizzes, and there’s even a creative writing section where authors leave their stories.

Enjoy!

http://www.goodreads.com/

 

Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending

Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2011, I spotted this during a refreshment stop at Warwick Services on the M40. (See how easily I get distracted by books?!)

The author writes in the first person, narrating the thoughts and memories of a retired man reflecting on his childhood and young adult life.

He creates tension without the use of action throughout the first half of the book. Instead, he cleverly uses the character’s memories to convey clues as to what happens next.

In this case, a solicitor’s letter is the catalyst to a chain of events which makes our character relive moments of his past.

This is a novel which covers a huge range of emotions: teenage angst, first love, jealousy, bereavement and, in the end, remorse and regret for the daft things we do when we’re young.

An intriguing read, for sure. I look forward to more of this author’s work.

James Bowen: A Street Cat Named Bob

Well, it was about time that I mentioned a cat book!

My mum bought me this for my birthday last year, knowing that I’m mad about all things feline. This was no exception.

A Street Cat Named Bob  is a lovely heart-warming tale about homelessness on the streets of London and about how caring for someone (or something) else can help to draw out the best in everyone.

There are some frank and open insights into the author’s personal circumstances and how he came to be on the streets in the first place.

It’s not a book that will change your view of life, but it’s entertaining all the same, especially those of us who have feline friends.

Stephen King: 11.22.63

Apologies for anyone who’s following who’s wondering why I haven’t posted in 4 days; I’ve been on a reading rampage, and this book by Stephen King is the reason.

The book starts in 2011, but the action takes place mostly in the period 1958-1963. A portal is discovered in the back room of a diner which transports the narrator, on each visit, back to 1958.

The mission the young teacher undertakes is to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He spends a lot of time almost as a secret agent, following Lee Harvey Oswald and bugging his home for evidence that he was, in fact, acting alone on that fateful day. The methods he uses to achieve this are inspired, given the lack of Wi-Fi, computer surveillance and other gadgets which the likes of the CIA would take for granted nowadays.

If you’re a fan of the conspiracy theories and you’re hoping to find some whisper of evidence that Oswald was coerced or had help, or even wasn’t there at all, look elsewhere. This book will not fulfil your fantasies.

It is, however, an exceptionally well-written story about a time before mobile phones when people could leave their doors unlocked when they went to bed at night. It’s also a wonderful love story about soul-mates who come from different times.

I’m not usually a Stephen King fan but this is the third novel I’ve read now. I may be changing my mind…

Jasper Fforde: The Eyre Affair

My partner introduced me to this book shortly after he moved in. I spotted the brightly coloured tome sitting on the shelf and was drawn by the title.

“Just read it,” he said. “You’ll love it!”

At any given time, there’s at least two dozen books on my Must Read List, so I’m staggered I’ve managed to read this one so soon.

The story takes places in a hilarious dystopian future with some echoes of Orwell’s 1984. The heroine, one Thursday Next, works for Literatec. They are one of the many branches of the police, who seem to govern almost every aspect of society. Among the ‘crimes’ she investigates are missing characters from well-known novels, in particular, the title character from Jane Eyre.

Those familiar with the story will remember Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel is written entirely in the first person. Upon Jane’s kidnap from the story, therefore, the pages of every copy of the book in existence become blank which causes a public outcry.

What follows is a romp through this strange reality, interspersed with periods of time inside the action of the book. Indeed, one of the best scenes takes place at Thornfield Hall, Edward Rochester’s English country residence, during the fire which kills his first wife, Bertha.

It’s an incredibly clever story and the first in a series, so I guess I shall be looking for the next one shortly…

Peter Berresford Ellis

Another visit to the local library brought a whole series of books to my attention a year or so ago.

The author writes his Sister Fidelma series as Peter Tremayne and he comes from Coventry in Warwickshire. His mother was of an old Saxon family in Sussex; his father hailed from County Cork in Ireland.

The two main characters in the Sister Fidelma mysteries are the protagonist, Sister Fidelma herself and her partner, Brother Eadulf. They mirror his own family very nicely.

Fidelma is a Celtic nun born in what was the old kingdom of Munster around the seventh century AD. She is also a qualified dalaigh, an advocate of the ancient law courts in Ireland, so she can assert legal authority over the people she meets where necessary. She often does, too, to great effect.

Brother Eadulf, her partner and eventually husband, is a Saxon monk. He often provides key advice to Fidelma as she solves each mystery and saves her life on more than one occasion. They make a wonderful partnership, both personally and professionally.

The author weaves huge elements of history into the novels, often about the role of nuns in the Church at that period of time in history. In Ireland they followed their own interpretation of Catholic teaching and it was not uncommon for members of the clergy to be married and have their own families, as Fidelma and Eadulf eventually do.

I adore these type of historical stories, especially when they’re well researched. Highly recommended.

Christian Cameron

I came across Mr Cameron’s work in my local library; the series I became interested in starts with a novel called Tyrant.

It takes place during the time of Alexander the Great and among the peoples he was busy conquering.

The central character, Kineas, is one of Alexander’s most highly regarded Generals. However, when he returns to his home of Athens, he finds the veterans of these wars are being sent into exile. He becomes a mercenary, and along with his trusted band of soldiers, becomes embroiled in a tactical battle for survival, in the process finding himself an enemy of Alexander.

I really couldn’t put this one down, and I can say the same for the second and third in the series. The fourth and fifth are very high on my To Read list.

The research Mr Cameron puts into his work is certainly above and beyond the call of duty, as it were. He is a lifelong reenactor, both of the ancient and medieval worlds. Fascinating.

Penelope Fitzgerald: Human Voices

I have recently finished “Human Voices” by Penelope Fitzgerald. It’s a comedy of sorts, written from inside the BBC during the Second World War. Not my usual fare to be honest, but it does one good to branch out occasionally, does it not?

The characters seem a little exaggerated but then, having never worked in TV, perhaps I’m not the best judge of that. I love, for example, how the author describes one character going off in a huff because their carefully planned programme had to be canned because it didn’t give the right message to the public. I guess at that time, absolutely everything had to be considered within the context that Hitler was about to land on British shores at any moment. A programme that might challenge the current mood of solidarity was probably not considered suitable broadcast material.

One wonders how we would react to a similar situation in 2012, over seventy years later.

Would the BBC once again step into the breach and do their duty by providing the nation with uplifting and motivational programming?

How do the recent scandals within (and without) the Corporation change our view of the BBC as an organisation?

And what of us, the licence-paying public? How have we changed in the last seventy years?

It’s often remarked how the community spirit has left us these days, particularly in urban areas where most of us have barely even laid eyes on our neighbours, much less have had a conversation with them. Would we somehow draw together in a time of crisis and help each other, as our ancestors did? I’d like to think so.

I welcome your thoughts…

T. S. Learner

I have recently finished reading the second novel by thriller writer T. S Learner called The Map. As in her first, Sphinx, it’s a hair-raising journey of endurance and personal development for the central character and the historical elements of the story are wonderfully well-researched. I discovered exactly how well-researched when I visited her website http://www.tslearner.co.uk/.

She travels all over the world to learn about ethnic cultures and glean information which she can weave into her stories. She is currently working on a new novel (working title Dynasty) which is set in Zurich and involves the Swiss Roma community. So, off she went to Switzerland to meet some members of the  Roma, as well as a German-Swiss watch designer and a university lecturer. Sounds like a great novel. I can’t wait until it’s published.

I wonder how much travelling I’ll be able to do during the course of writing?

Sarah Rayner: One Moment, One Morning

The other day I finished reading an amazing novel. It’s one of those which had been sat on my bookshelf for some months, since I moved house back in April. However, it had never made it’s way off the shelf again for some reason. Instead, it sat there in hope, collecting dust.

Last week I decided I was spending far too much money on new books without ever having finished those I already had. So, I made a commitment to myself. For every new book I purchase, I must read one of my existing books first.

The book I chose was called “One Moment, One Morning” by Sarah Rayner. I read the back page. It said something about a train journey, three different passengers and their experiences. It sounded harmless enough. A bit of light reading, I thought. So, I grabbed a bookmark and started.

To say it was an emotional rollercoaster is not an exaggeration. I think the tears might have started before I finished the first chapter. I won’t give away any spoilers, but it’s a harrowing story about a personal tragedy, seen through the eyes of three very different female characters

I was very much captured by the author’s beautiful style. I could really feel the desolation of one particular character and how she comes to terms with her loss.

Let’s just say I would dearly love to be able to capture the same emotions in my readers when I write. Something to aim for, I guess.