June reading round up

As I type, I’m still wearing jumpers and feeling a bit nippy. Where did the sun go? This month I did get to sit in the garden reading for, ooh, a couple of days? But it is still pretty grey out there at the moment – fingers crossed for next month.

Reading this month has been mostly positive with a couple of crashing disappointments. Let’s see:

Learning to Talk to Plants – Mata Orriols

Orriols is a Spanish author and this is set in Barcelona, translated from the original Spanish. I enjoyed it – it’s a low key story of a woman who is widowed young, but her feelings of her husband’s death are complicated by the fact that the day he died, he told her that he was leaving her for another woman. Only one or two of their friends are aware of this so she is treated as someone with very pure grief, when actually she is wrestling with a mix of emotions. Frankly I felt her to still be far too nice to her dead husband but there you go. The title is a reference to her husband’s plants on their flat balcony, which she neglects and then decides to tend.

Still Life – Sarah Winman

This is a beautiful book. I had been looking forward to its release, as I loved all her past novels, especially the most recent Tin Man. Still Life is a quiet meandering ensemble novel, with some low key plot and a wide cast of characters. Set mostly in Florence, with mostly English characters, it opens in the Second World War with the main character Ulysses, a gentle globe maker turned soldier, taking academic art historian Evelyn to try to save paintings from destruction in a German retreat. Following the war, they both go their separate ways but are destined to get back together at some point and the novel follows their lives and loves over the next two decades or so. It’s a lovely engrossing book, and one that definitely deserves to be read in a sunny garden. It does feel these days that there are a lot of books out there that have been asked by publishers to crowbar some major plotting into a story that doesn’t really need it (see below, also The Goldfinch) but this one has been allowed to stand with basic plotting. The characters drive the plot and thank goodness for that. If you are interested in people and how they interact, how they mix with each other and how they live their lives, then this is a great example of a book that lets you spy and listen in. The city of Florence also has a clear character part and it also tips a knowing hat to EM Forster, especially A Room With A View. I loved this, and it deserves to do incredibly well.

The Devil and the Dark Water – Stuart Turton

In a bit of a funk following some non-fiction and general book hangover from Still Life, I picked this up. It came as part of my book subscription from Bookish (indie booksellers) who send a paperback every month. I wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise. Turton wrote the incredibly complicated crime time travel hit The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle which I enjoyed as a bit of confusing fluff, but this hit me at just the right time and was just the thing. It’s an historical supernatural ghost-ish type story – although it makes a point that it is not meant to be an accurate historical novel, nor does it really have ghosts. However, it is a rollicking read – an absorbing fun read and absolutely plot driven. Essentially, if you’re going to do a plot-based novel then this is the way to do it.

Small Pleasures – Clare Chambers

Continuing the theme of plots hammered into character-based novels, this was my reading group choice this month and I started off enjoying it very much. The characterisation was excellent, and the writing is really good. In this light, it’s unsurprising that she was longlisted for The Women’s Prize. BUT, at some point she must have remembered she needed to tie up the storylines and sadly chose incredibly lazy solutions involving quite tired tropes about LGBT characters and also characters with mental illnesses. Not to mention the terrible terrible final chapter. Such a shame.

Mrs Narwhal’s Diary – SJ Norbury

Thank goodness, then for this! Published by tiny indie press Louise Walters Books, Mrs Narwhal’s Diary is an updated I Capture the Castle as told by a middle aged Woman and Home reader. And it’s none the worse for any of that. Mr Narwhal, burdened with an ancestral home to manage but no interest in managing it, leaves and the resulting burden shifts to his wife who has started writing a diary to keep track of her feelings. A ruined castle, financial woes and a character called Rose with love-interest issues, you see why I thought of the Dodie Smith book? But it’s charming and a light read. Do please buy it direct from Louise Walters who needs all the love.

These Towers Will One Day Slip Into the Sea – Gary Budden

I helped to crowdfund this, an odd but beautiful little book about Reculver in Kent. It’s an area, near Herne Bay, where I used to visit as a child for holidays and where we often go to the coast when we return to visit. Reculver is excellent for finding fossilised sharks teeth, and has plenty of rock pools and fun for the children. This is a fictionalised essay-treatise thing, hard to categorise, which looks at the history of the area from the Roman and Anglo-Saxon times to the present and of the people there. It has lovely illustrations by Maxim Griffin and has been a bit of a labour of love, judging by the crowdfunding emails I used to get from the author. We need more odd but lovely little books like this.

Everyone is Still Alive – Cathy Rentzenbrink

I received a review copy of this on Netgalley and wanted to like it so much. I like Cathy Rentzenbrink’s other books – non-fiction – of grief, bereavement and finding solace in books. This novel is very well written and will absolutely appeal to huge numbers of people but not me, sadly. If you like Motherland on the BBC this is right up your street – all about ghastly middle class parents and Rentzenbrink has good points to make about it all. But the modern attitude to competitive parenting makes me want to hack my hands off and I cannot bear it, even in comedy form. You may all love it. She is a good writer.

Square Haunting – Francesca Wade

When asked if I could time travel, where would I go, I usually reply 1950s New York but this book has made me add inter-war London to that list too. Square Haunting takes its title and inspiration from a Virginia Woolf essay. Woolf was very fond of walking the London streets, finding much to love and be inspired by, and the ghost of her runs throughout this study. Wade explores the lives and work of five women who all lived in Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury in some of the inter-war years. They do not all know each other, they do not all meet or talk together – it is merely a coincidence that they were there at some point in those twenty years or so. But each used her time there to explore in both personal and professional lives, what women could do, what they could say and how they could influence or make changes. The result is a fascinating book of thoughts and boundary pushing, of love and destructive relationships and support and big ideas. Excellent.

Gaudy Night – Dorothy L Sayers

One of the women in Square Haunting was Dorothy L Sayers, who I knew very little about but who sounded so interesting. So I bought this, regarded as one of her best novels, featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but rather centered on her female character from the series (and potentially more interesting than Lord Peter who I was nonplussed by tbh) Harriet Vane. As a crime novel today, Gaudy Night would be cut right down as it is padded by a hell of a lot of conversations and extra details – it’s a long slog. But the crimes themselves are of a period piece that actually do speak to modern day issues – a poison pen writer who trashes people’s reputations and belongings, and nearly drives one character to suicide through the vile nastiness in the letters that plays on mental ill health issues. Having read Square Haunting, it was also helpful to remember what Sayers was interested in as the extra parts cover some of her larger themes.

This is How We Come Back Stronger – various (ed: Feminist Book Society)

This is a book of essays created during the pandemic which asked prominent feminists about their lockdown, the impact of Covid on feminism and what we can do to help recover. It is very definitely intersectional and wide ranging and the strongest message that comes out is just that we have to listen to each other, leave that ladder up and be more humble and willing to be a community. There are a lot of experiences in here that speak to areas I know little about – and the book’s main selling point is how accessible it makes those experiences – so you learn a lot about what is like for black women, for LGBT women, for Muslim women and all the ways we intersect. It’s an important book to read to highlight our differences and to make sure that we are open to other people’s experiences.

Moments of Pleasure

I went to the cinema this month! For the first time since February 2020. Aren’t the seats nice and wide and comfy? Isn’t it great to be able to walk into my local indie cinema and have a cup of tea in their new refurbished bar before the film? It was an aspect of normality that was worth waiting for. We watched In The Heights, which I loved as a fresh piece of positive loveliness.

In a tribute to Eric Carle, we bought a set of caterpillars to grow – which was something we did a couple of times last year as part of our home schooling extra curricular activities. Today I will be releasing our butterflies but it’s been as much fun watching them develop from hungry little caterpillars into beautiful butterflies.

And finally, Mr Barsby has been bringing home bunches of peonies this month to have as cut flowers in the house. Blowsy, brassy flowers, peonies just don’t care. As showy and frilly as a bride in a badly-advised dress, I am rather fond of them. In your face, other cut flowers!

May reading round up

Somehow I’ve only read six full books this month, though I read a bit of an advance copy of another and am making my way slowly through two large non-fiction books as well. And it was my daughter’s birthday (more to think about and organise, even without a party) and I also did three writing courses online so it’s not been all wasted time. But on the whole, my reading this month has been a pleasure – some cracking books this month.

A Wild and Precious Life (ed: Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert)

This is an anthology of recovery stories – crowd funded and published by Unbound. It was begun as a writing project in a centre that supported addicts in London, and the editors above who ran the sessions put a call out for recovery pieces from the public as well as featuring pieces by some of the addicts they were working with. The pieces within are not just about addiction but cover a lot of other kinds of recovery as well, however, this also has some of the best writing I have found on addiction. I tend to regard addiction stories with caution, as so many can be repetitive and dull. These are not. They don’t preach or boast, they simply tell it as it is and they do so with great power. It deserves to be widely read, there is much of human nature laid bare here.

In the End It Was All About Love – Musa Okwonga

This is terrific. A very short 98 pages, and I pre-ordered the limited edition cover (number 26) so each one had a different stripe pattern on it. This is a part novel, part auto-biography, part love letter, part examination of race and identity and father-son relationships and love. It’s written in the second person, which is both unusual and hard to pull off. And finally, it is part poem. If I read this description I would think, “Dear God, no,” but honestly, it’s a wonderful book. I had to read it slowly, putting it down after each section to digest and think about before I could go on. Okwonga is a black British writer who lives in Berlin, and is the author of the book about being a black pupil at Eton which you may have heard about recently. He also hosts a football podcast and has a wonderful full laugh. This is the story of an unnamed protagonist (with many similarities to the author) and his exploration of himself, of how others see him, of how he thinks and grieves for his father. It’s hard to get across what it is about, and how many pages I marked because the writing or the insight was astonishing and I wanted to retain it – only please do read it and see for yourself how amazing it is. I loved it.

The Stranding – Kate Sawyer

This is due to be published next month and is Sawyer’s debut novel. I got an advance copy on Netgalley and was surprised when it was not what I expected from the description. Fortunately, I thought it was better than the description – it had more depth and nuance of feeling and covered much more time that I was expecting also.

The Stranding opens with Ruth, travelling in New Zealand, finding a beached whale dying on the sand. At its side she meets Nik, and they both climb inside the whale to escape what we can only assume is a nuclear explosion. We soon find that the majority of the world has been wiped out (we never know the details and the book is the stronger for it) and that Ruth and Nik are likely some of the only people left. Their story, of survival and resilience, is told along with the parallel story of Ruth’s life back in London and how she made the decision to go travelling in the first place. The relationship between the two is real and subtly drawn, and in direct contrast to the toxicity of Ruth’s relationship with her awful boyfriend in London. I thought this was a strong debut, with real insight into human character and will look forward to reading more.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

This was a reread for my reading group. I read it last year, just after I got my reading mojo back after the early days of the pandemic took it away completely and I wasn’t sure if I’d taken it all in then, but I did love it. So a reread was in order and I loved it this time too. O’Farrell is one of my favourite living authors and this is so powerful and personal and insightful. I loved the historical perspective she offers and how she approached the book, forcing us to think twice about what we’ve been told about England’s greatest poet. Worth all the accolades, I think.

Should We Fall Behind – Sharon Duggal

This was recently featured on the BBC2 book programme Between the Covers which I wanted to like but found rather fluffy and with too many guests not saying enough about each book. I managed to read Duggal’s book in time for the programme and was glad that I had done so because they swept quite briefly over it, when really it deserves more. Should We Fall Behind is published by indie publisher Bluemoose Books, and is the story of homeless man Jimmy Noone (no one), living on the streets where he makes friends with Betwa. When Betwa goes missing Jimmy looks for her and winds up on Shifnal Road, with its range of residents, each with their own problems. The lives intertwine as Jimmy becomes the means for them all to come entangled – it’s a compelling ensemble piece that gives life and depth to the stories you see everyday around you. You know the saying about being kind to people because you don’t know what they’re going through? This is essentially it in book form but without sounding so trite. It’s an excellent portrayal of ordinary people and the hidden richness of their lives. Buy it.

Getting Colder – Amanda Coe

This had been sitting on the shelf for ages and I’m not going to say much about it as I didn’t really rate it much. It wasn’t badly written, it just did nothing for me.

Moments of Pleasure

I hugged my mum this month – the first time for 8 months that I’ve seen her and my sister in the flesh. There was a lot of cake, hysterical laughter, cricket in the park and a general catch up. If travelling could only be made easier – I really feel that science could have sorted teleportation by now.

I really enjoyed Nomadland (available to stream on Disney+) though I love Frances McDormand in practically everything so I was always going to enjoy this. Such a bleak shot of the system chewing people up and spitting them out, but them still finding some kind of connection where they could. People can be brilliant, resilient, with such depths.

I know the fuss has been about going back to pubs and bars, but my goodness isn’t it great to sit and work in a coffee shop again? To hear the clanking as the barista gets to work, and to smell the croissants baking out the back. Such a joy. I have not yet been to a pub or bar but caffeine indoors, oh yes.

Writing and working

I’ve been feeling quite positive about my writing recently. It’s not that I feel I’ve produced wonderful quality work – far from it – but just that I have been producing anything at all. This last year has been for me, as I’m sure it’s been for so many, a challenge – in terms of finding head space and strong routines in which to write, as well as any external stimuli for creative flow. Head space was especially challenging.

Being a writer with a full time job can be quite tough at the best of times, which this hasn’t been. You have to focus at the end of the working day, or before the working day, but either way you end up tired. You have to fit the writing into your day in a way that is rewarding and productive. I have tried getting up early, or at least setting the alarm early, but I’m not a natural morning person and unless I can go somewhere silent and undisturbed to write (we don’t have the room for an office or writing room) then I’m likely to stay in bed. So I tend to write in the evenings instead, once everyone is in bed and there’s only so much I can do.

Working from home for the day job has further disrupted this routine, not because I’ve been working longer but because I need to do creative work in a different physical space to my day job. So the desk is out. I’ve also had to make sure I’m making the most of gaps in my day to change my focus and practice small wins. A lunchtime walk in the park, a ten minute journal session over a hot drink standing in the kitchen, small stints of writing in the evening when they’re all in bed. On Saturdays I have two hours to myself (which I will soon spend holed up in a coffee shop). And I’ve put social media limits in, just a comment here or there, an occasional photo, but that’s it.

In some ways, finding this routine has felt very much like starting from scratch. But it also feels like it’s working. I’ve submitted a few things – a competition here, a call for certain pieces there – and I’ve been journalling ideas and themes, mostly by hand. But it all feels hopeful, helpful. Ideas are fermenting, and coming out on the page.

Here are my tips for finding a writing routine around your day job and other responsibilities:

  • Find your routines and stick to them
  • Can you herald the start of your writing time with a ritual of some kind? A piece of music, lighting a candle, a brief walk? The body and brain start to associate this with a change in focus and can adjust quicker if this is incorporated into your routine
  • Short bursts of activity are better than nothing at all, and can still allow your brain to make connections and ideas in your down time
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t write every day. If you can’t, you can’t. Writing regularly is the thing.
  • Try to write somewhere different to where you work
  • Get some fresh air and exercise every day
  • Eat well
  • Make sure you have a notebook handy for when you stumble across that missing plot point while you’re doing something completely different from writing. I regularly figure out writing problems when brushing my teeth in the evenings and many a night ends with me sat at the top of the stairs scribbling it all down, soundtracked by deep breathing from both bedrooms.
  • Social media is not a writing companion. Put a little time aside to check in but that’s it. Or cut it out for a period altogether. Either way, switch it off.

Just doing it feels like a win for me right now. It’s been such a rough year and I was mentally yelling at myself for not producing much work, forgetting that I’ve been working really hard at the day job and home schooling and generally worrying about the impending death of all my nearest and dearest. Like the writing was the main issue.

None of the above are anything new or revelatory, I know. But it’s easy to see others being published and wonder what you’re doing wrong. Nothing. If you’re writing, that’s good. For some, that may be enough. Keep at it and be kind to yourself.

April reading round up

April has been a reading month. I mean a lot of reading. Though in the last week I’ve barely touched a book so crammed it all in early. I had a week off work which helped. Anyway, this is what I read this month!

Books among the tulips

This Lovely City – Louise Hare

Oh I loved this. It’s set in London and features a group of black men who came to England during the Windrush time and how they try to settle for work and family within the city. It’s a love story between Lawrie, a postal worker, and his neighbour Evie, and how they get entangled in a tragic discovery. I thought this was brilliantly written, and really liked how it brings a whole scale of racist actions to life – from blatant attacks to micro aggressions – and the effect these have on someone who is just trying to have a normal life. This is Hare’s first book and she’s clearly a great new writing talent.

The Most Fun We Ever Had – Claire Lombardo

No idea where the title came from as I couldn’t finish it, or even get very far but this should be a life lesson – that if a book has recommendations that compare it to Jonathan Franzen then I need to put it down and not bother (I never finished a Franzen book either). Anyway, if whining rich white Americans is your thing, perhaps this would work but I thought they were weird as all that and wasn’t interested.

Miss Benson’s Beetle – Rachel Joyce

Loved this, in what is likely to be Joyce’s best book yet. She writes loneliness and isolation so well, and yet this is not a lonely or sad book. Instead it details the blossoming of a friendship and of a life and is written as a girl’s own adventure, including all the tropes of the boy’s own genre but in reverse. It’s splendid fun and I’ve been waiting for the paperback for so long but it was worth the wait. Miss Margery Benson jacks in her soulless teaching job in the 1950s and goes off to fulfill a lifetime ambition – to find an as yet undiscovered beetle. Advertising for an assistant, she finds she is travelling with Enid Pretty, a pink suited, high heeled extroverted cupcake of a woman who should be the last person you would expect to travel to the jungles of South Pacific islands. But Enid has a secret and Miss Benson needs help. It’s an unlikely friendship but I thought it was fantastic.

Listening Still – Ann Griffith

I really liked the quiet poignancy of Anne Griffin’s first book and was delighted to find a cameo appearance by the protagonist of When All is Said in Listening Still. Listening Still is the story of Jeanie, who works in her family’s undertaking business. Jeanie can talk to the dead. She take their last confessions, their messages and regrets and requests. But the rest of her life is falling apart. Her marriage is rocky (for the record, I thought her husband was a whiny petulant type who was lacking in empathy but never seemed actively unpleasant – masterful stroke of characterisation) and her parents have decided to have retire early and up sticks to the seaside, leaving her and her husband to run the business with her aunt. The book tells of how Jeanie grew up with this gift, how she had a grand passion and a close circle of friends and most of all, it tells of the burden she carries by listening and talking to the dead. This is a great concept for a novel and I thought Griffin really carried off the ‘supernatural’ element of this well, never allowing it to become fantastic or silly. This is another quiet triumph for Griffin, who can tell deep truths about unknown lives with charm and insight. Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy.

A Woman is No Man – Etaf Rum

A book set among Palestinian families settling in Brooklyn and how the women are treated in these close knit Muslim communities. The story centres on Isra, a shy woman sent from Palestine to be married , and how she tries to please her husband’s overbearing mother Fareen, and fit in with the rest of his family. Years later, we see Isra’s daughter Deya having similar battles with Fareen to avoid being married off – but there is no sign of Isra. The truth about what happened to her, and how Deya can have a different life is what drives the book – incredibly sad but fascinating look into another culture.

David and Ameena – Ali Rauf

The second book this month about immigrant families in New York – this time a love story between a Jewish chap and a Mancunian Muslim girl. I found him quite annoying tbh, but otherwise this was interesting without being entirely emotionally engaging.

Love Letters – Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West

The title is a misnomer, to be honest, as these are letters and diary entries for the whole length of the Vita and Virginia’s relationship, which was not always that of lovers, but I imagine “Close friends who were once lovers and also had a business relationship letters” doesn’t really work as a title. Anyway, while I had read some of these before, putting them in a book together makes it comes across as much more of a story – Woolf wrote to so many people and had so many visitors that her diaries and letters volumes are jam packed. These are quite lovely, and made me feel very affectionate towards them both.

Reader, I Married Him – ed. Tracy Chevalier

These are short stories inspired by Jane Eyre, or at least by the line from Jane Eyre used as the collection’s title, but in truth, there seemed little to link them well and it was a rather odd collection. Not badly written and there are some great writers here but I didn’t really get the concept well and it all fell rather flat.

There was Still Love – Favel Parrett

I can’t remember who or what recommended this but I’m so glad I found it. It’s a quiet book where little happens but is rather beautiful and has much to say about unseen lives that nevertheless witness moments from history. There Was Still Love features a Czech family, including twin girls, one of whom is sent away to escape the war (the family could only afford the ticket to send one girl away) and the other who stayed in Prague. The ramifications for them and the rest of their family are explored in slow steady detail here and its rather lovely.

The Ends of the Earth – Abbie Greaves

Another book I picked up via Netgalley as an advance read and I got through it quite quickly – I read faster on the ereader app than in an actual book. Mary sits each evening in a tube station with a sign reading ‘Come home Jim’ and has done for the last seven years. Why? Her friends set about trying to find out. It is a shame, then, that the reason is really very poor.

Crossroads – Mark Radcliffe

A music book that explores moments where musicians reached a crossroads to make a change in their career that went splendidly well for them and for music in general. Mark Radcliffe reached a similar crossroads in his life, following cancer treatment and a milestone birthday, so he decided to loosely use that as a theme to talk about things he really likes, and throws in tons of dad jokes too. A fun read.

You, Me and the Sea – Elizabeth Haynes

I really wanted to like this and still quite can’t put my finger on why I didn’t. It is about Kate who has made a series of ‘”fuck ups” and decides to take a temporary job on a remote Scottish island looking after a birdwatching holiday retreat. Also on the island is the lighthousekeeper Fraser, a large man with a tragic past that has followed him to the island (though to reveal more would spoil the plot, but I did guess it anyway). I think it would have been better had it been at least 100 pages shorter – there’s a lot of introspection on Kate’s fuck ups and Fraser’s bad dreams – and Kate could have been less annoying, perhaps if she didn’t try to base her whole self around being one of those women that can’t exist without a man. Whatever it was that I didn’t like – length, characters, fewer descriptions of puffins than expected – I did at least keep reading to the end.

Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luselli

This was the book group choice for the month – and my pick too. I chose it because of the fuss surrounding American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (which I also read and thought was very badly written tosh) – Lost Children Archive was on a list of alternatives people might like to read if they wanted to find out more about the Mexican border crisis from more authentic authors. But this is barely a book about the Mexican border crisis and instead a quite dull essay on the disintegrating marriage between two very strange people as they drive across America with their children. I think somewhere in there may have been the point that she was trying to make about families, connection, about how we treat each other – and there was a tenuous attempt at creating a parallel between the border crisis and the eradication of Native Americans which was quite clumsy. Weirdly, in the middle of the book, I came across a single paragraph which was all about how we experience time differently and, while she wasn’t writing about the pandemic, it made so much sense to me and really resonated, and then it went back to the self indulgent nonsense it had been before. I need to apologise to the reading group. This was a disappointment. If anyone has any good recommendations about the border crisis then I’m still interested…

Moments of Pleasure

We loved Queen of Katwe which was on BBC iplayer this month – a film about a Ugandan chess champion. And with the easing of lockdown restrictions, we also made it to a National Trust shop and stocked up on their superior blood orange curd which has been gracing my daily toast – it is a thing of joy. On the whole, my forays into the city have so far been fun enough to stimulate by listening to other people gathering and enjoying the atmosphere, but then I’ve been glad to come home away from them all. So obviously the best moment of pleasure this month for any reading fan has been going into bookshops again. I came home with a lovely new pile of things to read from both the shops in town.


How are you doing after the first week of lockdown easing? It’s been the Easter school holidays here and I’ve taken the week off work in order to be with my daughter E so I’m writing this sitting in the Market Square, waiting for her to come out of dancing class. It’s a warm day and the atmosphere in town is bright and cheerful. People are sitting at pavement tables, queueing for miles outside Primark and bustling about.

One of the things I’ve been conscious of in the last year is the lack of stimulation when it comes to writing. Others have spoken of a lack of focus during lockdown and that we need the interaction in order to write, keep the juices flowing. It’s strange, because there have been so many times in the last year where I’ve wanted a ‘Room of One’s Own’ to write in, to close the door and concentrate and yet, when it came to getting some work done once E was back in the school, I’ve not been able to focus in the way I would have hoped.

Sitting here, I can hear general chatter, skateboarders practising jumps and moves, the passing of trams and the cooing of horny pigeons. It provides a writing stimulation that simply hasn’t been there for so long.

I sat and wrote a tortured 1500 words this week while E did some baking in the kitchen. At times, there was a whole five minutes max between interruptions. In many ways, I really envy those people who tell you that you have to fit writing in to wherever you are, that they can grab five minutes at the kitchen table or wherever. In that time, if I can manage to remember what I’m trying to say I’m doing really well. At my best I can manage 2,000 words max in a good session but at the moment that seems a massive target. A silent sterile atmosphere is a struggle too. Maggie O’Farrell said on Desert Island Discs recently that she HAS to write in absolute silence and that even a machinery hum is too much. I couldn’t do that – I like the comforting companionship of a ticking clock at the very least.

Thank goodness then, for YouTubers and ASMR guys. My most productive periods come when I’m without interruptions but soundtracked by YouTube videos of coffee shop sounds. The Room of My Own needs to sound like a branch of Caffe Nero for it to have any effect on my concentration. Maybe you use something else: there are all kinds of white noise videos, rain falling or beach sounds. Back when I worked in an office, I often had my headphones on during the day because there were so many people nearby that I couldn’t concentrate with all the stimulation. Having just one podcast on in the background gave my brain a single thing to block out.

As we head into the latest attempt at a post-pandemic life, I need to work out how best to fit this into my writing routine. Or indeed adapt working from home and general home life to embrace a writing routine. Sometimes virtual writing retreats or sprints have helped me focus but so many of these seem to take place first thing in the morning, usually when I’m doing the school run. I may have to start setting my own time aside, headphones on, to pretend I’m back in the coffee shop once again, even if I’m sitting at the kitchen table.

I’d really like to hear how you write – do you write in silence? Has it been harder to write during lockdown?

March reading round up

Was it just me or did March feel like about three months long? And it was such an up and down month too, with the anniversary of lockdown casting a shadow over everything and finishing with this glorious spring weather. Still, here is what I read this month:

The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne

The month didn’t start well. This has sat on the shelf for months and I thought I should get it done with but I don’t know if it was the book or me but it didn’t work for me at all. I’ve read Boyne in the past and found him to be patchy – one book I thought was good, another I thought was poor. I know a lot of people who like this one and I still can’t put my finger on why it didn’t work for me. But it was a dnf.

What She’s Having – a Dear Damsels Anthology

A relief then, to turn to this – an anthology of women writing about food. This is lovely and I cannot tell you what a glorious change it was to read about women and food without any mention of diet or body loathing or calories or any of that shit. Every woman I know has been on a diet at one (or more likely many) point in their life and we are so tuned to worrying about what we eat that this collection genuinely feels fresh and exciting because it doesn’t talk about that. Instead we get a lot of food memories, a lot of family and a lot of love. It reminded me of the recent Daunt books anthology In the Kitchen which I equally enjoyed.

Brother of the More Famous Jack – Barbara Trapido

This was my re-read this month, which I picked up when I was feeling low. It’s one of my favourite books of all time and I feel I should soon get myself a new copy as mine is showing signs of wear (but is signed by the author who once visited the bookshop where I worked and took me out to dinner at a fancy Nottingham restaurant and shocked all the posh diners by talking loudly about Martin Amis and scenes of masturbation. I dislike Amis but love Barbara Trapido.) I had forgotten quite how un-PC it is and how much I love all the characters despite that. A comfort and a joy.

A Tomb with a View – Peter Ross

My in-laws bought me this for Christmas and it’s a fascinating read. Ross lives overlooking a graveyard and goes wandering around the country and to Ireland, to find out more about some of the best known graveyards and the stories behind them. Often the stories are of lesser known mortals, even the chapter about Highgate, and how they came to be designed, how they are used and who they contain are to be found in this book. There were only two things wrong with it: that he didn’t visit Nottingham’s Rock Cemetery, and that there weren’t more pictures.

I Belong Here – Anita Sethi

This was an advance copy via Netgalley and is published at the end of April this year. Sethi, Manchester born and bred, from immigrant parents, is racially abused on a train while on her way to a book event. It is an event that unsettles her, for obvious reasons, and partly to calm herself she goes to walk the Pennine Way, to find ‘the backbone of Britain’ and explore her feelings and those of others towards people like her, non-white British folk. She talks about the rising level of racial hate crime, micro aggressions, and even recalls an encounter with Prince Charles where he reveals himself to be less than enlightened – a timely story given this month’s news headlines. This book has less walking in it than readers of other walking memoirs might like, but it explores interesting, relevant and important issues about what it means to be British and how we might all try to see who belongs here is wider than the narrow definitions reflected in the media.

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa

This month’s reading group choice and I started out enjoying it very much. It told the story of the residents of an island in Japan who find that many objects in their lives ‘disappear’, and once they do so, their memories alter so that they lose any idea of what those items are or how to use them. The Memory Police are in positions of power to take away anyone who does not forget the disappeared items, including the narrator’s mother. When the narrator’s editor finds himself in danger from the memory police she hides him so he will be safe. I began thinking this was a fascinating book, with a lot to say about collective memory and curation and control, but in the last third of the book I found myself wanting to know why – and this question was never answered. There was also a ludicrous plot twist which just annoyed me. So a mixed bag, but she is a very gifted writer – I enjoyed her style.

A Half-Baked Idea – Olivia Potts

This is a memoir of Olivia Potts, a promising barrister, who undergoes a serious breakdown after her mother’s death. So she decides to enrol in the Cordon Bleu cookery school in London and become a patisserie expert. As you do. I enjoyed this though there really is a point where I no longer cared about the finer points of French baking. Given the choice between mille feuille and an apple crumble, I’d take the crumble any day. Less precise but no less joyful.

Domestic Bliss and other Disaster – Jane Ions

This is the latest title from Bluemoose Books and a fun read. It features Sally, a middle aged MP’s wife who has, as the title suggests a number of domestic issues to deal with, including a son home from college and building rent free eco friendly accommodation in the driveway, a friend’s shifting love life and the wrath of the neighbours. I was reminded strongly of Alan Bennett when I read this, it has the same sense of humour and so refreshing to read something featuring a middle aged woman who is not smug but very relatable.

Supporting Cast – Kit de Waal

These short stories feature characters from Kit’s novels and now I feel compelled to go back and re-read those so I can put the two together properly. But as a writer, I love the idea of taking a character and writing them a story away from your main plot. Some of these are very short, some give you more context for the novels but all of them are skillfully written and give you a full portrait in just a few strokes.

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver and The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman

Two poetry books this month. I will read anything by Mary Oliver so this new edition of poems she wrote for the dogs in her life is a joy and a testament to the fact that they are the best of animals. Plus the illustrations are gorgeous. And The Hill We Climb is the poem Gorman read at President Biden’s inauguration, that fabulous performance that she gave. I bought a copy for myself and one for E to keep and take with her through life.

Moments of Pleasure

Hopefully by now you have heard the joyful piece of perfect pop ‘Only for Tonight’ by Pearl Charles – it has been stuck in my head on an almost constant loop for weeks but it’s such a life-affirming piece of wonder that if you haven’t heard it yet, you must go and find it now. It combines seventies influences with a modern attitude and is altogether wonderful.

I caught up with films on iplayer this month, including Carol starring Cate Blanchett which I’d not seen before and which featured the song No Other Love by Jo Stafford which is just lovely. The film was good too.

I also watched Edie, one of those films we do where British people do eccentric things in the face of adversity. In this case, Sheila Hancock’s character decides to climb a mountain in Scotland before she dies, because she’d not been able to climb it with her father and she had spent 30 years caring for her husband instead. I liked it because it was set in Lochinver, the town where we stayed in Scotland a few years ago and I recognised the setting, including the Suilven mountain which is quite distinctive. Anyway, she gets into all kinds of pickles but I was struck by what a cow her daughter was to her and how she had to share her triumph with someone else instead. I hope my mother knows that if she wants to do something batshit insane in her dotage then I am absolutely here to help her.

Finally this month, I found joy in going for a walk. For about three hours I walked the streets of Nottingham, nosing in people’s gardens and houses and enjoying the sunshine – I haven’t been anywhere except for a run a few times a week all year and this felt very different. The changed pace made all the difference and I came home much happier and worn out than I had been for ages.

Have a good month, everyone! Stay safe, and pick up your litter.

Writing for wellbeing: Journalling

Last week I was talking about free writing and writing by hand, and I guess the most popular and useful way of putting this into practice regularly is by journalling. Journalling seems to have come into its own recently – a few years back I don’t remember seeing as much about it but I suspect the pandemic may have put everyone into a state where they want to try and nurture their mental health as best they can.

It’s good to remember that journalling is not the same as writing a diary. You don’t have to record your day. Unless you want to, of course. But the danger of that is that it quickly becomes boring, or at least it has done for the last year:

Stayed at home

Worked from home

Walked round the park

Stayed at home

And so on.

The other danger of only writing your day is that you can spend a lot of time ranting and capturing a lot of negative feelings. So it’s important to try and write the joy too.

Journalling should be about capturing how you feel about things, so if you are keen to record your day then you can add this extra dimension to it. And journalling by hand allows you to connect your mind to the page, which can take all sorts of different forms. It can be all about capturing a moment, a scene, using all your senses; it can be about how you feel; it can be recording a memory or moment from the past. Or you can use prompts and see where they take you. The great thing about journalling suddenly being ‘the thing that people do’ is that there are loads of prompts out there at the moment.

And I shall be adding some more! Every Monday over on my Instagram site I’m posting a journalling prompt for you to try. See how you get on!

Prompts are a good way to help you start writing if you’re feeling a bit stuck but want to keep at free writing. You can use these to loosen up, a warm up exercise or just as an experiment and see where they take your thoughts. I know there have been days when I’ve looked at a prompt and thought, “oh what?” but given it a go and found all sorts of random things appear on the page. It can be fun, as well as beneficial.

If you do find yourself delving deep into feelings or memories, it is important to remember that journalling is not the best place to explore everything. A lot of people use journals as a tool to deal with day to day mental health issues but you can stumble across quite serious issues, at which point please do consider getting extra help. However, as a way of getting out your daily, weekly, whatever frequency thoughts, a journal is a really useful tool.

The other great joy of journalling is that you can buy some lovely notebooks for the task. I tell myself this is part of the motivation to keep writing, but as you may know, I am a stationery addict. My preferred journals are usually A5 size, clothbound and with ribbon bookmarks. My current one also has gold sprayed edges.

You can also get some really good ones with prompts in at the moment. I really like the new Women’s Prize Journal, which celebrates 25 years of the Women’s Prize and has short pieces about each winning book as well as room for your own notes. A perfect volume for a reading journal perhaps?

London-based stationers Papier have teamed up with Gurls Talk, a mental health charity for girls of all kinds, to create a Reflections journal – I think this is aimed at young people and adults rather than children. But the great thing is that there are some good products on the market for children too. It’s one thing handing a lovely blank book to a child but they will soon lose direction. Journals for children allow them to direct their thoughts, extract positive lessons and reflect their feelings without the task being too arduous. E and I have been trying out children’s journals: we like the Happy Confident Me journal or the Happy Self journal, both of which have prompts, quotes and fun activities for children to start journalling and exploring their feelings in a safe way.

So tell me this, is there anything else out there that allows you to take a few quiet moments, make yourself feel better, get in tune with your thoughts AND allows, nay positively encourages, you to buy new notebooks? No, there isn’t. So don’t forget, drop by my Instagram on Mondays and try out the prompt I’ll put up each week, and see how you get on!

Happy journals!

Writing for Wellbeing: free writing

At work recently I’ve been running workshops about Reading and Writing for Wellbeing, an hour-long slot where we explore the concept of bibliotherapy in a basic sense to help you through your daily life. It’s been a while since I’ve done any training or development courses for anyone so it’s been a bit of a challenge for me, plus delivering them via MS Teams has been a further revelation. In short, if you’re sharing slides for people to look at, then you can’t see their faces so you have no idea how it’s going down with them. Plus, they were all very quiet. It’s a little unnerving, however they all assured me that they enjoyed the sessions.

The thing that has gone down the best has been the free writing. For those if you not familiar with free writing, you write non stop for a certain period of time – I give them 5 minutes but you shouldn’t go longer than 20 minutes – and you don’t stop. If you have nothing you can think of, you write I can’t think what to write. You don’t worry about spelling, grammar or making sense. And more importantly, you write by hand. I think it’s this part that has been the most revelatory for staff at work. Having spent the best part of a year at home, most of us working on laptops for online meetings, instant messaging, emails and report writing, then writing by hand for a longer period of time than a shopping list has been quite a novelty.

I think those of us around my age have an interesting relationship with writing by hand. I wrote all my school essays by hand, spending time having to try and make my handwriting neat enough to read. Arriving at university, the requirement to type essays was a culture shock and to start with I had to write them out by hand and then go to the library and type them onto the computers there. The idea of writing my thoughts straight onto the page was a very strange one. Sometime in the second year this clicked and I just typed straight onto the page. Much of my writing these days is straight onto the laptop. I really admire writers who type their first drafts on their phones, as I’m just too Gen X to manage typing with both hands the way the kids do…

But there is a place for writing by hand. This past year, where I have felt so stuck, I did scribble a lot by hand. I bought E a pack of school exercise books with paperback covers for her home-schooling work and then ‘borrowed’ one and it really helped unlock words for me. The size of the paper, the neat margins, the lined pages, all contributed to me spilling things out on to the page. And I’ve always kept a journal going, sometimes less regularly than other times, but always there to help unlock thoughts.

There are many advocates of writing by hand, even in these digital days, and recognise the power it has in helping you express yourself. (I recently enjoyed one of the biggies, Julia Cameron, talking on Viv Groskop’s podcast.) The act of writing it all down, from the heart through to the fingers, slows you down, allows you to connect your mind with your pen. It makes writing a physical thing, a kinaesthetic process, which can allow you to explore thoughts in a different way to when all you are concerned about is how many little red lines appear under the words on your Word document.

The great thing for many of my workshop attendees was that their perception of journaling was challenged. So many people see journaling as a chance to write down what you’ve done that day, or a space to rant about how awful the news is, but in looking at this as a free writing exercise and opening up the world to them, there was a new element to it. Some wrote about memories, about places they wanted to go when the pandemic is over, others wrote more generally. Some have contacted me afterwards to tell me how they have continued the practice.

If you fancy having a go, here are the basic rules:

Set a timer. No longer than 20 minutes.

Write all that time, anything that comes into your head. If there’s nothing to start with then write that.

Do not go back and start to edit until after the time is up.

Do not worry about spelling, grammar or if it makes sense.

Enjoy the feel of the pen and how it flows across your page.

Let me know how you get on!

Books from my Mother

For Mothers’ Day I thought I’d look at reading and mothers, or to be specific, how my mum is woven into my reading history. 

To start with there are the books she read to me, especially the ones she read to us over and over again. Beaky the Greedy Duck and Rapunzel, and for my sister, One Little Bee and Tootles the Taxi. If pressed I’m sure she can still recite them.

We had a bookshelf in our dining room that was in my eyeline as I ate at the table each night. On it sat a number of hardback children’s books that I love though I have no memory of reading them or having them read to me. These included Little Grey Rabbit stories, Winnie the Pooh, Milne’s poems and a volume of Nonsense Verse. These are stories I associate with home as a child: The Owl and the Pussycat, Alexander Beetle and a bit of butter for the royal slice of bread.

Next the titles she passed onto me. Books I knew she loved, books I discovered when poking around the shelves at home. These include Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice and Jane Eyre. It’s funny, although we had books at home and both my parents had favourite authors, I don’t have any memories of them sitting reading, not at weekends or on holidays or anywhere. I do remember watching film and TV programmes with them both but not of us reading. 

I remember that she took me to the new village library when it opened. It was exciting, previously we had to make do with the mobile library or school library but here was a whole building full of books just down the road. I spent many an hour there after school and on Saturday mornings. She tells me now that she suspects it will not reopen after the pandemic, that the council will justify closing it. It’s tiny to me now but back then it was enormous and full of possibility. It was here that I found all sorts of companions, where my friends borrowed Judy Blume’s Forever so frequently that it was always in need of mending and the librarians never go the chance before another of us requested it. (Naively, I asked my mum what some of the expressions in Forever meant and she shrieked “What ARE you reading?” in horror. It was the last time I would talk to her about book content for a while…) 

Books I associate with my mother brings us to cookbooks. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and the Homepride of Home Baking are the two that I feel were used most, although does anyone still really use Mrs Beeton? I cannot recall any recipes from it. But I think as my mum is known for her cooking, especially cakes, she is associated quite widely with cookbooks. Certainly she has been given more than she can ever use. Delia’s Complete Cookery Course and of course, the Australian Woman’s Weekly book of birthday cakes. When my daughter was born, I bought a copy of this from ebay – it is a cracking example of fun things to with cakes that are impressive but in theory not difficult. For people with more skill in icing than me. 

These days, or those pre-pandemic days, we often swapped books. The occasional biography but mainly fiction. I shared Elizabeth Jane Howard, Lissa Evans and Joanna Cannon, she recommended Dawn French’s Dear Fatty and A Song for Jenny. She reads more cosy crime and chick lit than I do but there is a thread of things I can share with her. If we lived closer there would be a lot more. 

So I want to hear from you – what books do you associate with your mum? How have these woman shaped your reading and your reading experiences? 

Finding focus

How are you doing? It’s March already and I don’t know about you but this year feels utterly odd. Not wasted exactly, but time has a very different meaning these days.

My daughter has gone back to school today. She had that one day in January in school, but otherwise has been at home with me since 18 December. I’m sure many of you are in the same situation. It hasn’t been easy, in fact this lockdown has felt much harder for reasons I’ve not entirely been able to put my finger on. I remember in lockdown 1 getting up earlier to do yoga before the day began. This time round I’ve stayed in bed. I’ve not left the house as much. I’ve yelled at people and freaked out more.

Somewhere in there I’ve clearly considered that enough is enough. I bought a book, Growing Gills by Jessica Abel, in December. It’s for people who want to be creative but feel they are drowning in their day to day life. It was simultaneously perfect to look at during lockdown and also dreadful to consider during lockdown. Abel starts by getting you to make a time tracker so you can see how you use your time. And then use it better. Of course, I began the time tracker and a day later had to include home schooling in the tasks I tried to do daily. It was atypical of my usual day, but was also a clue to why I felt like I was drowning in everyday life.

I have been very lucky in having an only child in the house and one who has been diligent in schoolwork, and who also enjoys drawing and reading. She has allowed me to work with some degree of normality. But it has still been very difficult and I feel I’ve gained years of experience as a child psychologist as a result of these last few months.

And I’ve been lucky in that my day job allows me to work from home and my team and bosses have an understanding of working and home schooling. It’s good to remind yourself that you are privileged in many ways, but that mindset doesn’t always help you feel better. It’s ok to admit you’re struggling. Just because others might have it worse doesn’t invalidate your experience. But we make ourselves feel that way anyway.

Creatively, I have struggled. I have written things, mainly journal notes, stream of consciousness type dialogue pieces, or a children’s story we started together at Christmas. Nothing sustained, everything in bits. I have completed craft projects, following other people’s instructions so I don’t have to think too much but keep my hands busy. I have made good items. And I’ve managed to read a lot. I’ve not managed to sit through many TV programmes but books have worked for me, I think because I’ve needed to have quiet backgrounds when I’ve read which has helped my general wellbeing. In general though, I felt I was floundering.

So I decided to follow Abel’s advice. I worked through the book. It comes with a workbook to help support the process. And mostly the advice is sensible stuff. Do one thing at a time. Write down all your projects and ideas and prioritise them. Tidy up and sort stuff out.

I know, I know. It doesn’t sound revolutionary, does it? But sometimes you need reminding of things. You need a structure. And as it’s likely that I will be working at home for some time to come, I need to feel like I have control. So I’ve cleared things out. I have begun to finish online courses I’d signed up for. I’ve sorted my notebooks and desk. I’ve dusted things. Today I will have a sustained period of time alone to actually focus on my day job. Which is good and terrifying all at the same time. Good, because I can make a better concentrated fist of it and complete things better – meaning I don’t have to worry about them so much the rest of the time. And terrifying because I can’t remember now how I do focus on things. Why do you think I took on all those projects in the first place? To have something else to flit between.

This week is my transition and adjustment week. I’m hoping once I’ve got back into the swing of concentration and focus, of interrupted time, that I can start to plan. Set myself proper targets, word counts or chapters or a sustained project. I have a fresh planner waiting and piles of washi tape to help make it something I want to look at and work to.

Today though, I shall just be starting out. I have confidence in my daughter’s school, that they can help provide her with the atmosphere and support she has needed, that they have her best interests at heart. It doesn’t mean I can stop worrying altogether, just that I can share the burden wider and with professionals. And I have a to do list for work, to help me focus and cross off tasks at my day job.

If you, like me, are alone today and have sent your child to school then I wish you well. They will be ok, with time and love. They will catch up. They will adjust. You will have to remember who you are now you are you again and not teacher, parent, counsellor, entertainer and playmate. It’s ok to enjoy the silence. And it’s ok to learn how to focus again, slowly.