Poetry and me

It was World Poetry Day this week. I’ve always had a troubled relationship with poetry. Where does it fit? Do you curl up and read a volume of poems the way you do with a novel? Is it possible to get lost in it, in the characters, the situations, the way you do with a novel?

Looking at this, I have decided school was the place that turned me off poetry. I know some people hate books because they had to read them at school but for me this was always the opposite – I love Hamlet because I had to study it, ditto Pride and Prejudice. But I feel that school did succeed in putting me off poems. And mainly my grammar school, where I took my GCSEs and A Levels. Our third year teacher taught us Sylvia Plath’s poems while clearly hating Plath himself, and told us (a room full of girls) that everything she wrote was the result of a hysterical fixation with her father. Our first set text at A Level was WH Auden, a poet I have much respect for now I don’t have to write critical analysis of his writing any more. I discovered that many of his poems were wonderful, full of lyricism and insight, but many more so difficult. The latter were, of course, the ones the essays were to be written on. My A level grade was two lower than predicted, making it harder to get into university, and my grandmother heard this and said, ‘oh Susie, I thought you were good at English!’ I’m not wholly blaming Auden but he didn’t help.

Yet, away from school, poems I remember from childhood have positive memories. My family loved Milne, Lear and other nonsense – I wanted to read Sonia Spell at my grandfather’s funeral. I always refer to black beetles as ‘Alexander’ and can still quote The King’s Breakfast to my daughter which makes her laugh.

As an adult, I encountered some lovely poems while reading novels. My favourite poem, ‘Autumn Journal’ by Louis Macneice, was featured in a Rosamunde Pilcher novel, where the scene when Antony Hopkins reads ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ in the film version of 84 Charing Cross Road would always make you love that one.

On September 11 2001, I was in the audience for Radio 4’s book club programme. My reading group had applied to attend and we’d been assigned poetry with Wendy Cope. This was possibly the first time I had seriously read and examined poems since school, and could think of nothing to say or contribute to the discussion in the audience. What I do remember was the early news of the planes hitting while we were on the train going down to London, standing in the lobby of Broadcasting House watching the screens and comforting an America reading group member, being told that BH was at heightened security and being escorted round the building, seeing BBC employees gathering round TV screens talking in low voices. The book club presenter, the lovely Jim Naughtie, had his passport and suitcase sent ahead to Heathrow in case he could fly out to report from New York, and had theories about what was going on. But for two hours we sat and talked about poetry with Wendy Cope who was charming. It seemed a surreal experience. Against BBC regulations I kept my security pass because it had the date stamped on it. I wonder where that is…

Recently, however, I’ve been coming across poetry more and more. Following many bookish people as I do on social media, you come across a lot of posts that quote poems and many of them have stopped me and made me think.

I then read this blog post from Claire King. Her point about having to make time to read, schedule it in some way, is a good one. I do have to do this. But with so much going on, it’s hard to carve out big chunks of time. Perhaps poetry is the answer. The skill of expressing so much in so few words also appeals to me, though you’d never know it from this blog post.

With this in mind, I went to seek out some poetry today. The library had very little. The bookshop selection was much better, once you got past the anthologies, which I dislike as a whole – they make it all so twee. “Poems that make men cry” is a dreadful idea. And the idea of poetry as a literary version of Classic FM’s ‘Smooth classics at 7’ programme, where all your stress is soothed away strikes me as doing the genre a disservice. So it was to the shelves of poets I went and where I realised the depth of my ignorance. They had sold out of Derek Walcott, following his death last week, unsurprisingly, so I went for James Fenton, having heard a discussion about his poetry collection ‘Yellow Tulips’ on Radio 4’s a Good Read. A selection from a female author was harder – our poetry scene seems dominated by Pam Ayres (no disrespect Pam but I’m not sure you’re what I need right now) and Wendy Cope again – I still have my signed BBC copies. So I had to go on instinct and have come away with Emily Berry ‘Stranger Baby’.

I shall update you on how I get on. But if you have any recommendations, please send them my way.

Competition time! Win an author’s kit

I’m celebrating. And to have you join in my celebrations I’m giving away everything you need to be a writer. Everything, except the sheer bloody mindedness, which I’m afraid you’ll have to cultivate yourself.

Would you like to win: coffee, biscuits, writing maps, notebooks and pen? You would? Great, read on.

Your prizeYour ultimate writer’s kit includes:

Four Writing Maps! Containing prompts, illustrations and suggested reading on a theme, these pocket sized beauties are perfect for when you need a bit of inspiration. Each map has at least 12 prompts and these can be used anywhere, in groups or alone, and can give you an idea to transform your surroundings, observations and memories into stories. In your prize are: The Writing Over the Top Map, Writing with Fabulous Trees Map, Writing People Map and My Writing Life Map

Two pocket/ handbag sized lined notebooks, just perfect to carry around for when you need to jot something down

A Pilot G-Tec C4 pen, in a fetching coppery brown colour

A bag of freshly roasted coffee from Nottingham’s own Roasting House, to bring on that period of intense productivity we all need once in a while

A box of superior Elsa’s Story lemon butter cookies to munch while editing

How to enter

You have a number of different ways to enter the competition and each one will give you extra chances to win.

  1. Follow this blog and leave a comment below
  2. Follow my Facebook page and leave a greeting on my wall
  3. Follow me on Twitter and RT my pinned tweet for this competition

The competition will close on 31 March and the winner will be announced on 2 April.

*Open to UK and RoI residents only

Review: A Life Between Us by Louise Walters

I came to the second novel by Louise Walters with some anticipation, having enjoyed her debut Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase very much. This second book is being self-published by Walters, an act of independence to be admired.

A Life Between Us is set in the present day and features Tina, a lonely housewife, avid reader, compulsive overeater and bereaved twin. Tina is still grieving – her twin Meg, we know, died in childhood in an incident that Tina blames herself for. When Meg asks Tina to avenge her, we are plunged back into the past and the story of Tina’s aunt Lucia.

The narrative switches between the past, as we begin to find out more about Lucia, and the present, as Tina starts to follow her husband’s advice to get out more, joins a reading group and makes a friend.

Walters has written of a lovely, engaging, ordinary woman who has very little idea of how she is struggling, and her hapless husband who is equally stuck in different ways. (I mean it as a good thing when I describe Tina as ordinary – the kind of person we could all meet.) Walters is excellent at portraying an isolated woman, as she showed in her debut novel, and here she describes Tina’s attempts to make sense of her world with a strong sense of pathos. She has also written a real *SPOILER ALERT – KIND OF* nasty piece of work in Lucia, someone whose first scene as a child displays some of the mean spirit she will continue throughout. The mean streak is not really explained, as some authors might do, and this is refreshing. She just is.

This is less a whodunnit, despite Meg’s urging for revenge, and more an examination of how we deal with grief and loss. A confident and assured novel.

A Life Between Us is published on 27 March by Troubador Press. You can buy a copy here. 

February reading

A short month but not bad for reading.

The Good Muslim – Tahmima Anam

I read Anam’s debut years ago as part of the judging group for the Guardian First book Award and then had the pleasure of talking to her at a publisher’s dinner a few months later. She was a lovely, very neat person – I remember thinking how ‘together’ she was considering the whirlwind that her first book had been for her. Having made such an impression on me, I completely didn’t realise that this was a sequel until halfway through. Like the first, this features a strong Bangladeshi woman as the main character, this time Rehana’s daughter Maya. I really enjoyed this despite knowing nothing about the politics and history it described (a quick stop in Wikipedia needed). Maya and Rehana are very realistic characters, likeable but flawed, rushing into mistakes and meaning well. I’ve just bought the third book in the series and am looking forward to seeing what happens to them all next.

What a Way to Go – Julia Forster

A lovely trip back to the Eighties for us kids who grew up about the same time. I recognised a lot of the references and a couple of them had me going “oh my god yes!” in sympathy (hint: French toilets.) The story is a little rambling but charming and the protagonist – 12-year old Harper – is such a sweetie that you want to spend a lot of time with her. The story concerns her parents’ divorce and subsequent relationship and financial woes – so far, so run of the mill perhaps but the writing and the point of view is what makes the difference here. Really enjoyable read.

The Ballroom – Anna Hope

Oh this is an amazing book. I’d heard good things about it and there it was on my bookshelf when the reading group suggested we read it. The story of three people – two inmates and a doctor – in a Yorkshire asylum in the early years of the Twentieth Century, this is beautiful. I don’t want to write too much in case I give anything away so instead, please know I could easily gush over it till you’re all bored .

We All Begin as Strangers – Harriet Cummings

I got a free review copy of this from NetGalley and therefore feel quite bad about not really enjoying very much. It has an intriguing premise but I felt the execution was lacking. Each part of the book is narrated by a different character and the idea is that we examine how well we can ever really know our neighbours. And that’s all fine, except the point of view of the secret protagonist only came in at the end and was the most interesting, so a little bit wasted. In my eyes anyway.

Postcards From the Edge – Carrie Fisher

I bought this while still mourning, and am pretty sure that I’d read it before but I remembered nothing. How I enjoyed it. Such bitchy voices! Such insecurity! So many digs that probably went way over my head! Suzanne Vale is a great protagonist – really flawed and occasionally dislikeable but you really root for her, certainly by the end. I loved it.

Eat Sweat Play – Anna Kessel

My vow to read one non-fiction book per month continues with this and I’ve barely finished reading it before I press it on my husband so he has an idea of ‘what we have to put up with.’ Kessel’s book is an examination of women in sport – how we should do it more, what we have to gain, the media, the male atmosphere of sport, the negative comments, images and attitudes of sporting bodies that have hampered women’s sporting achievements and participation for decades. It’s both eye opening and depressingly familiar – I read several bits nodding my head in recognition and welled up with anger at my PE teachers, midwives, acquaintances and any number of people when I realised the extent of prejudice, the size of the barriers we’re facing. Read it if you’re a parent, if you watch a spot of tennis in June, if you’re a hardcore fan and even if you couldn’t give a shit about sport – it gives a fascinating insight into a wider society issue.

On audiobooks

In a fit of enthusiasm, I told a work colleague last week that I was doing so well with my running that I would be working up to doing regular 10ks. (This is true, though I thought I’d give myself a few more weeks to make sure I’ve really nailed the 5k but still.)

Her advice was to download audiobooks to listen to while I run. Music will only get me so far, she advised. You need to get stuck into something to take your mind off the running and the boring bits.

I’m not good at audiobooks. Sometimes I listen to podcasts at work but that’s it. No stories. In my mind I think I equate them with radio drama which in general I dislike. But I can see her point and I thought I should probably try it out. But what to listen to? I don’t want to download something I already have in book form, much of which isn’t necessarily strong on plot. I also don’t want thrillers, mainly as I’m weedy and running alone while listening to creepy things will freak me out.

I’m a little wary of audiobooks also, as I run along the ring road which is pretty noisy with traffic. I may not hear very much – you don’t get that trouble with AC/DC. As a backup I’ve got the Hamilton soundtrack which combines story with song so I figured that might work for me.

But I’m open to audiobook suggestions so if anyone has anything they’d like to recommend please get in touch!

January reading

I read eight – eight! – books this month. As a result, I didn’t write much this month. Ah time. But this has been a rich reading month and a pleasure. Here’s what I thought. (The eighth review is the previous blog post)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

I’d not read any Gaiman before and on a whim last year following a social media post he made that I loved, I decided it was time to try his books. I was nervous as I’m not a big fantasy reader but this was excellent. I put it in the ‘Dark is Rising’ sequence style of story, just scary enough even as an adult but with some big themes and memorable characters. I loved it.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest – J. Ryan Stradal

This is a bit fluffy and more interesting to look at the narrative style than the story itself. It features Eva and tells her life from the point of view of several other characters. Eva is interested in food, a geek and an outcast. Her story, from her birth and abandonment by her mother, all the way through school and early relationships, to her starting a unique business is covered. She features as the PoV only once, so we learn about her and a whole cast of characters, all of whom interweave in and out of each other’s stories too. The planning behind this structure must have been impressive and so I was intrigued by this. The ending was, perhaps a little disappointing but more realistic for that.

The House by the Lake – Thomas Harding

Every year I vow to read more non-fiction. This is this year’s first attempt and I was so keen to read it I bought two copies by mistake. A social history of one house and its owners, the book tells the story of twentieth-century Germany as well. The house’s owners were once wealthy and sold off parts of their estate. The author’s grandmother, whose Jewish family bought the house before the Second World War, had fond memories of her childhood there and always regarded it as her home. Her family fled and left it behind, and it fell to be shared by others, including, later, a Stasi informant. Harding’s quest to renovate the house, now in disrepair, and have it listed as something of historical importance is the story that frames the book and it is a great way of covering such a rich and varied but traumatic history. A really enjoyable read.

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

This is a timeless book. The only clue to the timing was the references to soldiers in Afghanistan, other than that, this could have been any time in the last 50 years.
It’s lovely prose, mature and poetic, full of beauty and violence. The book starts strongly, with a boating accident that shapes the whole story, and then steps back as the characters survey the wreckage.

So many books with male characters stay away from full on emotional scenes that this felt very different, almost daring in the breadth of subject matter and how it was handled. The only thing that spoiled it was a number of typos scattered through the book. Some of them the kind of thing you miss when you do a spellcheck – quite instead of quiet and so on, but there were enough of them to notice and it’s a real shame. With a such a beautiful cover, and the look and feel of the book being such quality – to match the writing, I do feel the publishers did Melrose a disservice with their lack of attention to detail.

March – Geraldine Brooks

This was my reading group’s choice this month, following from our reading of Little Women last month. I have read other Civil War books and felt this was lacking and a little cliched. But it was the characters that let it down the most. Brooks wisely does very little with the things we know from Little Women, but tries to tell us about why Mr March went to war and what he learned while he was there. She also tries to fill in a bit about Marmee’s background. In the notes following the book, she admits to not really liking Marmee very much and this clearly comes through. By focusing on Marmee’s one known flaw, her quick temper, she has tried to make a spirited girl who is tamed by a good man, but in reality she writes Marmee as rude half the time, which I think is wrong. And Mr March! Good lord, need he have been so boring? I am often wary of sequels or related books to classics in case they spoil the original for me but in this case I felt she was so far off the mark it didn’t matter. A pity.

Everybody’s Fool – Richard Russo

My love for Richard Russo knows no bounds and this sequel to my favourite Nobody’s Fool was a slow burning treat. Perhaps less obviously funny than its predecessor, it starts slowly with the main focus not on Sully, the anti-hero of Nobody’s Fool, but on his nemesis Officer Raymer who is now Police Chief of Bath. Ten years have passed since the first book and two of the best characters have died. Their absence is felt, both by the characters and by the reader. But as Russo gets into his swing, and Sully pops up more and more, the old chaos comes to the fore. This is as good a book as Russo has written in some time, having gone a bit off the boil with the last couple of novels. A perfect read for these crappy times and crappy weather to match. Snuggle down and enjoy.

The Good Immigrant – Nikesh Shukla (ed)

The Good Immigrant was crowdfunded after an idea by Nikesh Shukla following a comment on a website (don’t read below the line folks!) A collection of 21 essays by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers in Britain, this simply tells their stories. While there is anger in the book, there is no obvious finger pointing and instead the writers let their experiences make their point. What a bloody mess of a country we are. Being a quinoa-eating, Guardian-reading bleeding heart liberal, I was immediately struck with horror at such tales though of course, not all of it was news to me. But I learned a lot, thought about a lot more and resolved to try and make sure I can do whatever I can to make us all kinder to each other. It’s more important than ever now that we make time to read stories of those people we share this little island with. Start with this. It’s a really good book.

Review: How to be a Grown Up

I should start this review with a disclaimer: I am NOT the target demographic for this book. I’m way too old. However, I’m (just) young enough to remember the heady terrifying years of my twenties and now that’s thankfully all behind me, I can sit back and read this with an air of relaxation.

How to be a Grown Up is a positive manual for twenty-somethings navigating their way in the world. While it’s easy for the rest of us to mutter and talk about how there are worse things going on in the world these days, take a moment to think back and remember how important your problems seemed when you were 24. You’re finding your feet in an uncertain world and, let’s face it, the current crop of young people face a precarious situation in employment and housing. So a handbook on how to deal with relationships, parents, jobs, friends and so on would be pretty useful. I think I’d have benefited from this.

Daisy Buchanan is Grazia’s agony aunt, as well as having all kinds of experience writing for magazines and her writing style reads straight off their glossy pages. This makes it readable, funny and relatable. She’s written a friendly this-is-how-i-ballsed-this-up-learn-from-me kind of book, with the help of a few experts thrown in. Let’s face it, we all like those kind of stories don’t we? So reading this is like chatting with a friend you’ve not seen for a while and really gossiping and delving deep into each other’s mistakes.

Chapters include:

  • Confidence
  • Work
  • Loving your body
  • Sex
  • Clothes
  • Parents
  • Money
  • How to deal with mistakes, mental health issues and being sad

There are more. In between some of these are ‘A Few Words about…’ which contain advice on panic attacks, masturbation and, I found most importantly, how to wash your hair. This one is great advice which I have immediately started doing and am thrilled by the results. *tosses hair back in dramatic fashion*

Perhaps there is little that’s new here from what we have been reading in advice columns for years, but the tone is friendlier than many books often are. Buchanan is frank about mental health problems and body confidence issues, both of which seem to be mostly ignored in so many publications. Her advice is simple – learn to love yourself and the rest will follow. Easy to say. But the tone makes you believe you can do it. Even the subtitle of the book is encouraging ‘You’re Doing Fine and Let Me Tell You Why’ is basically – you’re not alone, we’ve all been there and know the way out attitude.

The light tone masks some of the serious subjects, and there’s a couple of things missing that perhaps she could cover in a future volume. (I know I’d have found something about recognising emotional abuse helpful when I was in my twenties.) But this is nit picking and on the whole, I thought this was a useful addition to the canon of advice lit out there. Buy it for the twenty-somethings or nearly twenty-somethings you know.

How to Be a Grown Up by Daisy Buchanan is published on 6 April 2017 by Headline Books. Thanks to Headline (and Georgina Moore) for the review copy.

To read: 2017

My ‘to read’ list currently looks like this:

20170122_210529

Every New Year I resolve to read more non-fiction, so am feeling pleased that I’ve already put a history book on my reads of January list. Four biographies on this list, a book of essays and a book about sport is a good start. I also resolved this year to read more diverse voices so have rushed out to buy Homegoing, and added the Anam and the Hamid to the list as a start, as well as The Good Immigrant. It’s not brilliant but it’s a start.

Last year my to read blog post contained at least six books which I didn’t read so technically I should add those to the list too. Once I’ve checked what they are.

This is just the start.

Best books of 2016

I have read 60 new books this year. That is, books that are new to me, not just books published this year. There have also been 9 re-reads. I’ve amazed myself in how much I’ve read this year – my challenge was to read 50 books and I thought I’d struggle.

As usual the number of women far outnumbers the male authors: 40 female authors against 20 men. The re-reads were all the Harry Potters, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Little Women so they outnumber men too.

Here, in a vague but not particular order, are my top 9. (Why 9? Why not?)

South Riding – Winifred Holtby

Oh what a wonderful book this is! A 1930s Middlemarch, but slightly easier to read (and god knows I love Middlemarch). In brief, it is the story of a schoolteacher who moves to a village in Yorkshire, only to find herself in the middle of land conflicts and a place experiencing the turbulence of a shifting world. The characters are spectacularly well drawn, the landscape as important as the people, and the humour a gift from a masterful but underrated writer. I must re read it very soon.

The Other Mrs Walker – Mary Paulson Ellis

This is a debut novel and I am jealous at Ellis’s skill in rendering such an intricate and mature story. A woman comes home to live with her mother and becomes a professional mourner, and part investigator as she is tasked to find out who the mysterious Mrs Walker was. Thanks to everyone on Twitter who went on about this until I was forced to buy it.

Crooked Heart – Lissa Evans

Another Twitter recommendation. A war story about an evacuee and the woman he ends up living with after his beloved godmother dies. The characters are so well drawn in this, I’m so looking forward to Evans’s next book, published in 2017.

This Must Be the Place – Maggie O’Farrell

BOOK OF THE YEAR. I finished reading this and immediately wanted to start it again. I loved this book. It’s so clever, the characters are believable and often unpleasant but you root for them so much, even when you want to scream at their actions.

The Light Between Oceans – ML Stedman

Oh. Devastating. Couldn’t put it down, knew it was going to end badly, wept buckets at the end. Won’t watch the film, it won’t do it justice.

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

I don’t often stray into fairytale land but I loved this retelling of Ransome’s Snow Child, set in pioneering Alaska. It held the right blend of mystique and reality, and again, the characters were fabulous. I especially liked that the main characters were older, childless, and had problems that seemed really believeable, even in modern times. I’m looking forward to reading Ivey’s new book.

We Are All Made of Stars – Rowan Coleman

I included this because it got my through a tough time earlier this year. It’s a sweet story of loss and grief, and love and being silly because you can.

Christmas Days – Jeanette Winterson

A combination of short stories and recipes with memoir, Christmas Days is the reading equivalent of a mince pie and glass of Bailey’s. It’s comforting, funny, poignant and, most of all, festive. I’m now adding this to my annual Christmassy reads, alongside Dickens and Little Women.

As You Wish – Cary Elwes

The memoir of an actor whose life was changed by a wonderful fairytale film. Everything about The Princess Bride is funny and makes me want to watch the film again, lip syncing the words, and all the behind the scenes stories in here were great. A humble thank you to the fans and the others who made this film the classic it is, Elwes is good company to read.

December reading

As You Wish – Cary Elwes

This is Westley’s take on the filming of The Princess Bride. If you don’t know The Princess Bride please go and read and watch it – the book and film script are both by William Goldman. This book is an affectionate look at the film that, Elwes admits, changed his life, and had such an effect on its fans. My sister was first in our family to see it and love it, and likes to think of it as ‘her’ film, but I love it too. There are lots of behind the scenes stories here, lots of anecdotes about how the film had an effect on all the cast (each member of cast and crew have little stand out stories to add in throughout) and an especially brilliant tale about Andre the Giant’s childhood involving Samuel Beckett which was quite the most wonderful thing I’ve read all year. Obviously, having finished reading I had to rewatch the film.

Little Women

Re reading an old favourite for Christmas reading group, and horrified to find someone doesn’t really like it? Devastating. But she’s right, it is sentimental. I love it anyway. When reading up some background for the group, I found that Jo March is possibly the character that most women readers identify with above all others – unscientific research but certainly true for me.

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Andy Miller

A light read. Andy Miller set himself a challenge to read 50 books on a list of his and his wife’s choosing. They were mostly classics, and also books that Andy had confessed erroneously to reading over the years. Who does this? I’ve not read Ulysses and don’t care. Anyway, since AM went to my university and worked in a bookshop I feel we have something in common, even if he does lie to people about his reading list. Unfortunately, he doesn’t like Pride and Prejudice and does like War and Peace so our reading choices are polar opposites.

I also couldn’t help notice that while there were fewer women than men on his list (always the case) he also chose not to discuss many of the books by women, just mentioning instead that he’d read them. I’m not saying this was done on purpose but it was depressing to notice anyway.(A lot of the others were on his blog written at the time, but it’s not all available in full now.)

However, a word of advice for him – if you like Middlemarch, you really must read South Riding by Winifred Holtby.

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey 

Oh this is lovely. A retelling of Arthur Ransome’s fairytale story of the Snow Child, set in pioneering Alaska. I liked everything about this – the characters, the setting, the lyrical prose and the poignant story. Ivey captures the magic of the story without sacrificing believability, and doesn’t go overboard with the mystical element so you can choose what exactly to believe. I didn’t want this to end, but also appreciated the version of the book which contained the Arthur Ransome story at the end.

Christmas Days -Jeanette Winterson

I bought this as a gift for my mum and then decided to keep it. I haven’t yet finished it as I’m pacing myself. This is 12 short stories with a Christmas theme, interspersed with 12 recipes and family anecdotes. It is all splendid. I particularly like how positive most of the stories are, there are few big twists or plot crazies, just tales of family and love and festiveness (and a few ghosts but that’s as Christmas should be.)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

I am reading this in between Winterson chapters. I’ve not read any Gaiman before but thought I’d branch out and try some. This is some more magic grounded in reality but with a hefty dose of scariness. I’m really enjoying it.