Category Archives: Uncategorized

May’s reading

An Inheritance – Diane Simmons

This is an excellent novella in flash, a series of short stories that link to tell the story of seventy years and four generations of a single family. As you’d expect for a flash piece, it demonstrates really tight writing and Simmons can really paint a picture with few words.

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

My work reading group chose this to read – a novel about a pandemic, nice timing – and yet I found it strangely comforting. It is a hopeful book anyway, the idea of a theatre company travelling around a ravaged America performing Shakespeare couldn’t be anything but, and yet the parts where the disease starts to take hold were also interesting to read. It was worse than we had outside the walls and that too, was comforting in a weird way. Mandel was lauded for this when it was published and rightly so. Very enjoyable.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

I love Maggie’s writing. And her books. This was a departure from her usual style – into historical fiction – and although I often say I don’t like historical fiction, it isn’t true. The story of Shakespeare’s son who died and inspired his father’s greatest play – O’Farrell takes the scant facts we know of Shakespeare and runs with them. She restores Anne Hathaway to prominence in WS’s life and Anne is the main character here, a wife and mother grieving and confused by her family’s tragedy. This is heart in the mouth kind of writing, and insightful on grief, loss and love. One of this year’s best.

High Wages – Dorothy Whipple

I was recommended Whipple by a friend and, given that she lived and wrote in Nottingham, I was keen to read her. This is great stuff, a really enjoyable tale of a working class shopgirl trying to make her way in inter-war years, and navigating work, old fashioned employers and confused swains.

Dear Emmie Blue – Lia Louis

I read an advance copy of this, by my Twitter pal Lia, and I loved it. I don’t read a lot of what I believe is called ‘chick lit’ type books but Lia’s writing is so fun and assured that I make exceptions. Emmie, aged 16, releases a balloon with her name and email address on and hopes that a fabulous person finds it. That person is Lucas, in France, and they become best friends. Now, many years later, Emmie has realised she is in love with Lucas but he is about to get married to someone else. The book is about destiny thwarted, sustainable friendships and Jon Bon Jovi, the characters are dear flawed sillies and the writing makes you race through the book as fast as you can.

The Birdwatcher – William Shaw

I picked this up because my hubbie is a birder and it’s set in Kent where I grew up. It’s a crime thriller, the first in a series with a new detective and yet the focus of the book is not on the detective but on her partner, an old grizzled cop (aren’t they all?) whose neighbour is found brutally killed, and his death leads them down a path of trafficking, drugs and dark secrets. A light read.

June reading round up

I’m a bit late to July but I get there eventually. So, how is reading developing for you under this strange in-between time from lockdown into that already hackneyed phrase ‘new normal’? I felt like June’s reading was nearly back to normal, but looking at the list, it wasn’t really. But I tell you what does work if you’re still struggling with reading – rereading! Yes, two books this month have been old favourites and they did give me a boost. I have also resurrected this year’s ambition to read those books that have been sitting for years on my shelves and cleared not one but three this month. So not bad going really.

Leo Days – Patricia Wendorf

This is a re-read and, I think, well out of print. My copy is a battered second hand book and I know nothing of the author but the book is a slim account of Ruth , one of those well meaning liberal types who volunteer somewhere to help the less fortunate because she can afford to. And then her husband leaves her, having had an affair with her sister, embezzled all the money from her father’s business and naffed off to avoid the consequences. So she has to move down to the part of town where she’s been volunteering and discovers what it’s like to live with the hoi polloi. It is naive and dated in some things, but I am still rather fond of it and it has some relevant insight into how we treat others that is timeless.

Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

A ‘did not finish’ I’m afraid, despite the rave reviews. It was alright, the writing was good but I just didn’t really get on with it. I did wonder if it was part of the continual lockdown reading issue and in another time I might like it. I don’t know.

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

Here’s my other re-read of the month. And what can we say about it that hasn’t already been said? Nothing, but it was an enormous comfort to me. Such dialogue! Such wit! Such cads in uniform and bitchy Bingley sisters and ghastly clergymen and their snotty patrons and silly younger sisters!

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

This has sat on the shelf for a few years and I thought it was time to get it down. It’s a cracking book, really assured deft storytelling and covering such a range of emotion. Set in Nigeria just before, during and after the Biafran War, we follow the fortunes of two sisters, their partners and friends, and their servants through the bid for independence and the shocking war and suffering that followed. Like many I suspect, I knew nothing of this part of history and Adiche really makes it leap off the page. Recommended.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

Another book that has been taking up space on the shelves for a while. At 800+ pages, it is a monster. And having finished it, I’m still unsure about it. The early section in New York is very good. And then it wanders to Las Vegas and got less interesting before returning to New York and a strange ending. I don’t know. The first few pages are well written but ambling, then it really takes off and then she ambles again. I really feel like her editors should be firmer. And yet, actually the plot was the least interesting thing about it so do we want it firmed up?

Someone at a Distance – Dorothy Whipple

Having enjoyed the last Whipple so much (last month) I leapt straight into another and found it less enjoyable. It’s the story of a nasty grasping French girl who becomes a companion to an old English woman, to avoid watching her old lover get married to someone else, wins the old lady’s affection, an inheritance, and then sets out to seduce the old lady’s son, a previously happily married man. So a family is broken up and everyone is just quite tedious and dull about it. It is well done, the writing is sharp and Whipple is scathing about most of the characters but I just didn’t sympathise with any of them.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo Lodge

The last book that has sat on the shelves for a while, the rise of the BLM movement prompted me to read this. It’s surprisingly easy to read, and I raced through it, and it’s also thought provoking. Lodge’s style of ‘personal experience leading to social history’ is a modern one and allows the reader to also reflect how they may have added to a situation or how they could react in the future. It also makes the book accessible and it’s understandable that there is currently a campaign to get it introduced in schools. My A level sociology course could have done with this kind of thing.

The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by LD Lapinski

The happiest of book birthdays to my pal LD Lapinksi, whose first book The Strangeworlds Travel Agency is published today! I’m so pleased to be able to share a review of the book with you and order you to rush (online) to buy it.2020-04-28 10.35.52

“There have always been places in our world where magic gathers.”

It’s a good opening line, yes? Intriguing enough to get you looking about you to spot such a place, yet knowing enough to make you realise you haven’t a prayer of finding one.

The Strangeworlds Travel Agency is the first in a trilogy of world jumping adventures of Flick Hudson, who discovers a strange shop in the small town she and her family have moved to. Here is the description of the shop from the book. I love this:

“The Strangeworlds Travel Agency was very much like a magical shop should be.

The leaded windows were dirty and cracked. There was peeling paint on the front door and it hardly ever seemed to be open. However, there was one element of the shop that refused to fade into the background: the sign over the window. It was always clearly painted, in silky gold letters embellished with black against a ruby-red background. There was a globe at the beginning of the sign and another at the end.”

I love how this starts off sounding like Black Books but moves quickly to something much more exciting and classy. Inside the shop are suitcases that are the portals to other worlds. But this isn’t just a Faraway Tree kind of ‘flitting through things for fun’ kind of series, these worlds are connected and there is trouble afoot. For the guardian of the agency, Jonathan Mercator, is looking for his father, a world jumper who has gone missing. When Flick and Jonathan join forces to try and find him, they find a whole lot more mischief and magic waiting for them…

I was excited to read this because I have knitted socks for the author and, as everybody knows, this is the basis for an excellent relationship. Seriously, though, I love what she’s already achieved with this, the first book in the series. The details of each world are delightful, packed with humour and observation but there is a serious tone and messages for our world that resonate without being preachy. In Flick, we have a great main character that is brave and adventurous, but also loving and occasionally self-doubting and, as such, she feels real – a real person acting as we might.

I really enjoyed this but my daughter (aged 7) heard the opening description of the book above as read by LD herself on Youtube last week, and her mouth dropped open with excitement. She has excellent reading taste, so if you don’t take my word for what a great book this is, take hers.

You can buy The Strangeworlds Travel Agency at all good bookshops that are currently offering mail order (and many of them are – why not buy independent?)

Word up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April reads

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

The Year of Living Danishly – Helen Russell

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

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

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

The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd

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

On Helwig Street – Richard Russo

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

Summer of 76 – Isabel Ashdown

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

American Housewife – Helen Ellis

Like the look of this one.

The Writes of Woman

The women of American Housewife tell their stories in tales that range from between a page and forty pages in length. Some, anonymously, tell us about themselves:

I shred cheese. I berate a pickle jar. I pump the salad spinner like a CPR dummy. I strangle defrosted spinach and soak things in brandy. I casserole. I pinwheel. I toothpick. I bacon. I iron a tablecloth and think about eating lint from the dryer, but then think better of that because I am sane.

Others give instructions about the ‘Southern Lady Code’, ‘How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady and ‘How to Be a Patron of the Arts’, the latter seemingly a guide to Ellis herself as much as to the reader.

The first real gem in the collection, ‘The Wainscotting War’, is told entirely through emails between two neighbours in an apartment building. Beginning with passive-aggressive lines: I’ve returned your basket…

View original post 364 more words

Street scene – for Write Around Town

This is an exercise in preparation for the Write Around Town online writing course which I have just embarked on. Draw a map of any street you know well and then write about it. 

This is not a destination street. It’s an “on the way to somewhere else” street. Leading from the Market Square, the centre of town, the focus of the city and down to the destination shopping streets how could it fare in the face of old ladies wanting Marks, the young after bargains in Topshop and H&M? It wasn’t always like this, but then the men’s clothing store moved premises, the bookshop closed and the record emporium went into administration. Opportunity and convenience took their place, leaving perhaps one shop that people make a beeline for but the rest sit, hoping to attract with window offers, impulse buys and luck. Their windows reflect this. Browse the holiday deals, the latest house on the market, the special offers on bags, purses, necklaces, watches.

The girl handing out flyers for the beauty treatments knows this. She’s not putting much effort into her role, standing passively, not smiling in case it cracks her foundation, not talking to people as they go by, just pushing the flyer out in front of her in case they take pity and grab it. I bet she didn’t think this task would take so long.

The passers-by are diverse, young and old, workers at lunch, shoppers, students, retirees, young mums. Some take a leaflet, glance at it and shove it in their handbags. No one litters, they’re too polite. Later some of them may recycle or the leaflet will live in the depths of their bag, softening at the creases, gathering crumbs and fraying until they pull it out one day, not remembering how it got there.

The pavement is wide and interspersed with trees. A few are losing their leaves and scattering them on the ground but not many. It’s early yet, many leaves are still green. Look up and you get a contrast in architectural styles – on one side, an attractive row of (possibly Georgian?) buildings housing offices, on the other a Sixties behemoth dropped in to obliterate the old Moot Hall that once stood there. The window frames of the behemoth sport pigeon spikes, collecting dust and leaves. The pigeons are unperturbed, trying their luck below instead, pecking between the slabs and stones. Sandwich boards and street furniture line the pavement sides, flower arrangements left over from the summer sit alongside benches where older people have a rest and workers grab a sandwich before returning to their air conditioned desks. The phone booth is rarely used.

The road is closed to traffic except taxis. Once in a while you get a lost soul, having taken a wrong turn, peering at the signs from behind their steering wheel, or someone defiant in grabbing a shortcut, impatient at the zebra crossing. The taxis line the side of the road, black beetles with drivers slumped over a red top while they wait, or taking turns to pop into the back of each other’s cabs for a chat.

I know this street. I watch it as I sit with my Americano, having been greeted as a regular by the barista, and I sit and scribble for a while each lunchtime. I like its transient feel, the constant foot traffic, the attempts to brighten it. Things could happen here.

Diary entry: a rainy Monday morning

The bus is late and the heavens, not content with soaking us for the last three days, have yet more rain to offer. I don’t usually work Mondays but I have non-negotiable training today and a trip to Birmingham awaits. When it turns up, the damp bodies and gloomy atmosphere make the crowding seem worse. I head upstairs, inadvertently step on someone’s foot (he apologises, as do I) and stand staring at a man who reluctantly moves his bag from the seat so I can sit down.

I left them behind at home, safe and dry in the warmth and light. As we pull away I am engulfed by a feeling of longing for them both. I wonder how mad he would think I was if I called him up, 10 minutes after I left the house, to tell him I missed them?

I walk fast to the railway station, marvelling at the number of women who thought it was sensible to wear ballet pumps or canvas shoes this morning. A generation with trench foot. Or perhaps they have webbed feet and don’t notice.

The train is blessedly not crowded. We scatter, one person per table, per duo of seats, and enjoy a feeling of relief that we’ve made it on time and can now relax for 90 minutes. But our reveries are interrupted by tinny music from a phone, no earphones. I look up, British to the core, glare my annoyance and go back to my reading. I look up again, a woman is also looking. She gets up and walks down the carriage.

She starts politely: “is that your phone ringing?”

“It’s music,” he says.

“Do you have headphones?” She continues.

“Why?”

“Well, it’s annoying.”

“What?” She suddenly looks very alone standing there and I am conscious that she is wearing a headscarf. For some reason I get nervous that something is about to kick off. I rise above my usual timidity and pop my head up.

“It is a distraction,” I say.

“Oh right,” he replies and turns the phone off. She sits down and I turn to smile at her and offer my thanks.

The view from the window does nothing to alleviate my feelings of separation from my girl. We pass a farm with a large flock of geese, grazing on the lawn. She’d love to see them. A woman leads a horse out to a paddock and birds fly overhead, forming a net rippling across the clouds.

 

Writing advice often mentions keeping a diary. This will be an occasional entry on this blog.