After a weekend in which Emma and I completed another 12 mile training walk I’ve used up a couple of last days of annual leave to make a nice 4 day weekend, and some genuine me time to get back to the novel. I’ve spent most of the last three days outdoors on the patio, writing, and reading, before heading indoors in the evening to watch some more Olympics.
If 13 Treasures was the story that brought Michelle Harrison to us as a storyteller, and Unrest was the book to show how powerful, scary, and disturbing a storyteller she could be, then her latest novel, The Other Alice, is the book that shows she has truly come of age.
I loved the sneaky references to her 13 Treasures series, during a story that kept you guessing right to the end. There might be no fairies in this, Michelle Harrison’s sixth book, but it is a world in which fairies and fairy magic could exist. Indeed a writer who has their world’s come real, and and a musician who can lure people in with his music owe much to the ballads of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, and the fairy magic thereof.
If I could have rated this book 6 or 7, or even 10 stars I would, and I feel sure that this story will become one of my treasured favourites to read, and re-read, again and again. Magic.
Mark Haddon writes honest, often uncomfortable, but faultlessly accurate portrayals of how human nature is. This collection of short stories is no different. However anthologies of short stories are by their very nature a rattlebag and miscellany of ideas, styles and success, and this collection is no different.
Where it works, it works brilliantly. The title story, The Pier Falls is outstanding in its conception and delivery, and other stand-out stories: Bunny, Breathe, and The Weir are all really powerful. The others for me, didn’t work so well, but even if these were the only four stories you read it would still be a worthwhile investment.
These are dark, almost-twisted stories, that focus on death, dying, grief, and loss. They are powerful and immediated, and, like all Haddon’s books, leave you feeling just a bit awkward about yourself.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this book – the autobiography of a young woman struggling to overcome her alcholism. Within the first few pages I was proved wrong. This is a beautiful, poignant, funny, and thought-provoking story that moves between city life in London to island ways on Orkney like the sucking sea on the distant shore.
It’s the story of how nature and a simpler way of life can reconnect with what is important; a story that captures that feeling that lots of us who grow up in out-of-the-way places have at times during our lives. We might strive to leave the place but only We are allowed to criticise it.
You don’t have to know Orkney to be able to picture the environment that Amy Liptrop finds herself suddently back in, making sense of her life. With evocative descriptions of landscape, forna, and flora, I fear that by reading The Outrun I am going to have to travel to the Orkney Islands.
Amy’s story is not always an easy read, weaving her alcoholism with her father’s mental illness, but it is inspiring and uplifting too with well-observed insights into human nature. I chanced on this book in a local bookshop having heard nothing of it before, but I am so, so glad to have discovered such an engaging read.
For anyone who has read the first book in the Project Trilogy, The Spider in the Corner of the Room (now Subject 375), it is not a surprise if this is the very next book that you read. For me, the finishing of one, dove-tailed with the publishing of this and like this, the story follows straight on from where the first installment leaves us.
This is a fast-paced, explosive, thriller never lets up as it flits between a recent past and an uncertain future. Dr Maria Martinez might have thought that she had escaped from the twin threats of MI5 and the mysterious Project, but as she continues to piece together the mysteries of her life to discover that she has not been more in danger.
Maria has been lied to – all her life. She also is a high-functioning adult with aspergers and she really can’t deal with lies. Hers is a world where truth is everything, and when she is robbed of that it only serves to confuse her.
Nikki Owen succeeds in bringing a main character with aspergers into our lives, and as both a writer and reader with aspergers I know how hard a thing this is to do successfully. Whilst at times I find Maria’s own dialogue around a condition a little too self-aware, the theme works best in the narrative description of Maria’s journey as you find yourself plunged into a world which seems only out to confuse and baffle you as the lies keep mounting up right to the very end.
This is a stunningly written memoir from one of the finest wildlife presenters and naturalists working today. This is a book that flits forwards and back through memory, mixing encounters with wildlife, music, and childhood angst in a story that reads at times like a novel. The words are at times poetic, lyrical, and at all times honest. Anyone familiar with Chris’ presenting style can hear his distinctive voice in the words.
The shorter memories are grouped together into a eight sections that each conclude with reports from later visits to the counsellor. Even the concluding Acknowledgments to the book are part of the story of this fascinating, emotive, heart-rending tale of growing up on the outside of ‘the norm’. For anyone interested in the ‘difference’ in all of us this is a must-read.
From the very beginning to the very last page this book is the making of a modern classic – a My Family and Other Animals for the new generation.
This small book is an amuse-bouche to Hugh and Mirabel Cecil’s 2012 book, In Search of Rex Whistler, the publication of which coincided with a fantastic exhibition at the Salisbury Museum that I was fortunate enough to see.
This book focuses more on the Cecil’s family’s personal connection to Rex Whistler and his brother Lawrence. A small book it may be, but it makes for a perfect companion to their earlier, major retrospective, or Lawrence Whistler’s own, The Laughter and the Urn and provides us with a complimentary take Rex Whistler’s short but fascinating life and work.
It wasn’t until I started to read this novella that I realised it was the fifth part in J.F. Penn’s Arkane series. Not that this matters as it is a standalone story in its own right. I was attracted to it my the mix of Norse mythology, Vikings, and the present day, and it did not disapoint.
Day of the Vikings is a fast-paced, enjoyable romp (the author’s own confession) that made me with think of Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth if with more blood, guts, and gore. Some scenes are not for the faint-hearted, much like Game of Thrones, but none of it is gratuitous with it all having a place in the story.
If anything, my own criticism with Penn’s story is that, with its clever plot, sharp writing, and fast-pace, I actually wanted more … lots more. Ragnarok is a big event in the Viking calendar – the biggest you could say – and this could have an been an epic of a story to match that bigness. As it is, it remains a small, and perfectly – formed story.
I was recently fortunate enough to share a platform with Nikki Owen at the Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival. As well reading from our books, we both appeared on a panel discussion concerning writing about or with ‘difference’. I am a writer with aspergers, who’s characters are often similarly affected. Nikki’s Subject 375 is a woman – a doctor – with Aspergers convicted of killing a Catholic priest.
She’s also a former member of the sinister Project, and much of the book is made up of layers or dream, reality, and alternate-reality which leaves you grappling, just as Maria does, with the truth about who she really is and why she is in prison and in fear of her life from different government and non-governmental organisations.
The Spider in the Corner of the Room is the original title for what is now published as Subject 375. For me, the story really came alive when you discover the identity (and existence of) Subject 375. Things start to get clearer, and fast-paced. Not that the preceding novel doesn’t clevery illustrate what its like for someone with Aspergers to face being in prison (and life in general. In a world of Too Much Information (#AustismTMI) this really does work to show how different people see the world, and maybe realise the difference in all of us.
I love doorways. Always have. Based my A-Level art piece on doorways…
I said I liked doorways, didn’t I? They always lead somewhere…
Who would have thought there would be a lake on the other side of a doorway in a city centre?
Doorways are just great, aren’t they? Love them!
If the lake wasn’t enough, how about a world where there’s a whole cricket pitch on the other side of a college wall in the middle of a city?!
Windows are cool, too…
Doorways though. They always lead somewhere…
Yesterday, after finishing our epic 12½ mile walk, Emma and I went with Helen, Nick and Lily for lunch at the new Wee Bookshop and Cafe in Chinnor. It’s purpose is to raise money and awareness for bladder cancer but it is the most perfect kind of place. Inexpensively priced paninis and sandwiches, and teas and cakes can be enjoyed at tables amongst bright surroundings and surrounded by secondhand books. What’s more, if you position yourself right at the table (as I did) you can peruse many of the shelves from the comfort of your seat! Perfect!
There’s even a steam train that runs round the top of all the bookshelves. This place would truly make a fine location for a local book club to meet, or for a writer’s group to hold meetings.
Today is May Day, it’s also National Dawn Chorus Day, and both Emma and I need to do another section of The Ridgeway as training for our Stonehenge Trek in September. So, for some reason best known to ourselves we decided to get up at 3am to have breakfast, feed the cats, and leave the house by 4 o’clock(!). By 5.02am we had parked the car at Wendover Station and were setting off pre-dawn (just) on the start of our 12.5 mile walk of the Ridgeway to Chinnor.
Striking straight up from the station, we reached the monument on Coombe Hill just as the sun broke over the hills and onto the Oxfordshire plain, and the birds were in full song. On the steps of the monument we sat and ate a bacon sandwich, listened to the birds, and watched the sunrise. There was not a single other soul in sight. It was blissful and perfect.
Only one mile into our walk, we continued on our way, across the hill through bluebell woods and down into the valley in front of Chequers (with the CCTV cameras that follow you…) and up again round the front of Pulpit Hill. It took until the halfway point as we came down to the back of Princes Risborough before we saw the first other person our walk.
By the time we reached Bledlow we were still at a time when most people (it being a Sunday) would not yet have had their breakfast. I imagined people inside the houses we passed just opening the Sunday papers and pushing down the plungers on their cafetieres, and we were nearing the end of our walk. It was such a good feeling.
We reached Chinnor Post Office just before half past ten, and were ready for a nice sit down at Emma’s sister’s house. They were primed to give us a lift back to our car.
On 3 September 2016, Emma and I will be walking the 26 mile Stonehenge Trek in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society. Neither of us have ever attempted anything like this, so it would be great if you would like to sponsor us for this great cause, and inspire us on our way!
Back in the earlier days of the internet, in the years that came before the juggernaut that is Facebook (other social networks are available), The Internet felt more like a community than it does now. What? I hear you cry. What can be more community-like than Facebook? Let me tell you…
Before Facebook, before this incarnation of my online journal, I like many millions of people would post daily (sometimes hourly!) ramblings of our thoughts and lives. It was the Facebook of its day.
But there was a difference
LiveJournal was a blogging site. Yes, it was sometimes – sometimes often – used for snappy or cryptic one-liners or howlings of despair when emotions were running high or spirits were low, but these would always be followed up by something more substantial. You could also post these often person ‘journal entries’ to any number of ‘friends filters’ (or indeed completely private) quickly and easily allowing you to control exactly who can see and comment on what you write.
Facebook also allows you to do this too, I hear you cry! Yes, yes it does. Well, it doesn’t allow you to screen-before-posting comments, choose who out of your friends can comment (or comment without being screened first), or prohibit comments entirely.
It’s not my platform
The Intricacies of how and where you can comment are niggling details, as our the friends filters. The big thing is that Facebook (or Twitter, or Instagram… amongst others…) is not My (or Your) platform. You are tied into how the new age of social media sites look, feel and behave. Facebook in particular chooses what to show you and then shows it to you how it wants to show it to. LiveJournal may not have been more your own website but you could personalise the look of every page exactly as you wanted it to, and to some degree embed it in in your own website, and you controlled exactly what you wanted to see. And it was easy to do all of that. When your friends or contacts commented on your posts the comments stayed on your journal, together, forever.
Those were the heydays of LiveJournal, it was the place to be, but it was only for a subset of people. Most people seemed not to be introduced in putting their voices online… Until Facebook. I think its fair to say that the big growth period for Facebook was between 2007 and 2009. Suddenly everyone wanted to share everything and instead of doing it in a safe arena where you could control what you shared with whom, they all wanted to do it an environment controlled by the website and in many cases in public or semi-public.
We’ve reached a point now where people blog here and there and everywhere and share it on Facebook and Twitter, and then the conversation takes place on Facebook and Twitter and not with the original post. This is fine, you might say, the converstation is still being had… It’s not okay though. People are not following my blog for my blog, they’re not enagaging with the post where it was posted. They’re seeing these posts on their social media stream if their social media stream decides to show it in amongst the cat videos, the moaning about Mondays, and the cute cat videos.
I’m not convinced that people are even reading the posts behind the link, but rather just liking and sharing based on what we expect it to say. I observed this disengagement on the bus last year, and wrote a poem about it.
Engaging the disengaged?
So as authors we have our author platform that we have spent hours over designing and tweaking and looking just right. We have our homepage and our call to action, we have our books, our blog, some nice little extras, and our newsletter sign up, but how do we actually get people to see it? Once you get some visibility, you can use that visibility to build more, but when your visibility is precisely you and your cat who is draped across your laptop morning, noon, and night, how do you put your author platform in front people?
Short of crafting your social media posts in the form of annoying, spammy clickbait how do you engage your readers to actually click the link, read, enjoy, comment, and share when for the most part they are scanning their social networks on their phone, and swiping down, liking this and liking that, and moving on?
What are your experiences of building your platform and making it actually visable to people who might be interested outside your own personal sphere of influence? Comment below with your thoughts…
I was priviledged to sit on a panel discussing ‘difference’ in fiction at the Hawkesbury Upton with the authors of this book, Jess Hiles and Jo Allmond, and they were both truly inspirational people. However, that is not why I’m writing this review…
Who doesn’t love fairies? Everybody loves fairies. And fairies with attitude are the best things ever. I remember seeing an RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which featured fairies with hob-nailed boots on and climbing scaffolding. it was brilliant. Jess, in the story is similar – she’s a fairy with attitude – a Goth fairy – a fairy who’s different from all the rest. And she’s punnished by the other fairies and the creatures she meets for her difference.
Jess, the author, probably says it best in a note at the end of this short, entertaining, story with an important and strong message. She says about her story, “I hope it helps people to know what it is like to be like me and my friends. I am looking forward to going out and reading my story. I want to thank people who helped me.”
Yesterday I ventured through many equisitely pretty villages (including Eastington, Addsworth, Bibury, Bamsley, and not forgetting the town of Tetbury) to the very other side of The Cotswolds to participate, as an author, in the second annual Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival. The Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival is different to the big literary festivals in Hay, Cheltenham, or Oxford. There are no celebrity authors (although there are a smattering of NYTimes and Amazon bestselling authors mingling with the best of us) and no ticket prices. Everyone gives their time for the love of what we do: the book.
I’ve only ever given reading’s twice before, once in an Oxfam Bookshop one evening, and once during Blackwell’s Oxford ‘Books are my Bag’ celebration. A literary festival was an altogether different kind of prospect and one that, as I set out early on a bright, sunny Spring Saturday, I was nervous beyond nervous about doing it.
The festival was declared opened from the steps of the mobile library by festival organiser, Debbie Young and BBC Radio Somerset’s Breakfast Show presenter, Claire Carter…
From the start it was clear that this was a warm and friendly festival by and for people who love books; a festival where traditionally published authors mix seemlessly with Indie Authors their fans and new fans. Beginning in The Fox Inn, I watched the first panel discussion of the day on ‘Writing what you know – or Not!’ partly because I wanted to see how it was go. Then I relaxed in what I shall call ‘the illustration lounge’ where I talked to printmaker Arthur J. Penn, and caught up with some other friends including the Hero for all Indie Authors, the always inspirational (and helpful too!) Joanna Penn.
And then it was time for me to pluck up my courage and head around to the Methodist Chapel for the first contemporary fiction readings, of which I was to contribute. Our chair introduced us each in turn, and when it came to me I read the prologue from my current work in progress, The Imaginary Wife, the sequel to Mr Tumnal. It went well, and seemed to go down well and I was even able to contribute nicely to the audience Q&A that followed. It went so much better than either of my other two readings I’ve given. On St George’s Day, it seems fitting that I have slayed that particular dragon.
After the reading, I moved with all the other authors and audience to the Methodist Hall which was the Festival Bookshop and Cafe for lunch, and networking. And then, it was back to The Fox Inn to take part in the panel discussion, led by Dr Sarah Brown, a Clinical Psychologist for a charity called Sparkle, on the subject of ‘The Challenge of Writing About Difference’. It definitely proved a popular topic, with a packed out back room in the The Fox (in the after-lunch slot too!) watching a panel of writers affected by or writing about characters with disabilities.
We had on the panel a mother and daughter writing team who have used children’s fiction to campaign for better understanding of people who are different, in a subtle but very effective and memorable way.
I want to tell people what it is like to be disabled and that it is ok to talk to me. I want to help others like me to go for their dream. I have got more confident and I like meeting different people and making people laugh. I tell people to never give up you can do it!
Jess Hiles, co-author of Jess and the Goth Fairy
We also had the author of very successful children’s novel has as its hero a boy with a serious and debilitating skin condition but which doesn’t hold him back, a thriller-writer whose heroine has high-functioning autism, an author with Aspergers writing stories about characters who are different to the norm, a poet who took up writing poetry to deal with her son’s autism, and a performance poet who has written and campaigned about mental health.
What followed was a lively, engaging, upbeat discussion, often personal, about all of the above. The personal nature of the discussion was particularly felt by the audience and I think we all came away having learnt something new from it.
We have a responsibility to all of our readers never to engage in disability tourism, never to use disability as a means to create an angle or just to move on the plot
Dan Holloway, poet, novelist, publisher, commentator
Dan hits on it brilliantly here, saying so concisely what I might struggle to put into words about how I write about autism. Aspergers is on the mild end of the autism spectrum and and I am on the mild end of Aspergers, and that can bring its own difficulties. Autism is a ‘hidden’ condition, but the affects of it can be all too visible. But for some their ‘meltdowns’ can be themselves completely internal to our heads but it doesn’t mean that they don’t at times go through through the same turmoil of overload. This is then my motivation for wanting people to be more aware of this particular ‘difference’, but I could never do it as an issue-led story. I want to write stories where people of difference inhabit the stories not because of their condition but in spite of it. The story has to come first.
It was a pleasure and privilege to be on the panel with so many great writers and knowledgeable, thoughtful people – I almost felt like I shouldn’t be there myself. There were some great questions from the audience too which only helped to make it a truly memorable session.
The festival was brought to a close a little after 5 o’clock by Hawkesbury Upton resident Michael MacMahon’s performance of Prospero’s Speech from The Tempest – an appropriate choice for the #Shakespeare400 Deathiversary celebrations.
Were you at Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival? What were your highlights of the day?
When I first heard about Frances Hardinge’s books I went to my local bookshop determined to find this, her debut, novel. They didn’t have it and so I bought one of her later books, the disturbing and scary Cuckoo Song. I am glad, because it led me on to reading other stand-out stories like A Face Like Glass and the Costa award-winning The Lie Tree.
I had difficulty getting involved in Fly By Night and Mosca Mye’s story. There is evidence of Frances Hardinge’s ‘altered reality’ that runs through all her books but I feel that it has not developed here into the excellence that her later stories have begun.
I am so glad that my local bookshop did not have this book in stock back then, because I might well not have moved on to her other books which are all unquestionably, true, modern classics. This is an entertaining romp of a yarn but one that leaves me somewhat unsatisfied.
I’ve had an interesting reminder this week about the curse of Facebook and where it fails in life today. Last week I had a problem with my email on my laptop which for a while left me unable to access my entire archive of messages. In the process of sorting it out, I was also discovering the joys of What’s App. Until then I communicated with precisely two people in this medium, however over the weekend I was having quite lengthy novel-related discussions with a friend. In passing I was also noticing the various other contacts who were using What’s App, including a good friend I had year’s ago at work who I had since lost contact with…
I fired off a quick message to them, half-expecting a bemused of who is this from the new owner of that mobile number… but no, its still Clare! A brief What’s App conversation later and I decide that I need to take the conversation off What’s App and onto email for a proper catchup.
Later that evening, after I successfully got reunited with all my email I sent a long, substantial email of catching up. Then this morning I got an equally long, and full reply. It’s the kind of exchange that I’ve not had with friends since circa 2006/7. Back then, email was the saviour of The Letter, with proper exchanges of content. Since then and the rise and rise of Facebook (and others) we’ve never been in more contact with our friends (or at least our social media enabled friends). The thing is, when you are in such constant contact with so many friends its all too easy to forget the others. And even those who are on social media the exchanges are limited to bitesize messages locked away in a third party online database.
The emails of old, and the example of these two ‘eLetters’ this week, stand as a reminder that only old fashioned email discourse can be where you can read and re-read, offline if necessary, messages of substance between friends and family. Well, email, and actual handwritten letters.
Looking at the average number of emails in my Inbox from the year’s 2001-2006, against 2007-2016, it is an alarming drop. People just don’t send emails anymore, and in exactly the same way that my grandmother bemoaned the loss of letters, I bemoan the loss of emails. The difference is that emails came to replace letters in a way that nothing has replaced the substantive and permanence of either email or letters. It makes me sad.
I heard the author talking about how the idea for this book came to her after imagining what a waste motorways were on cars, and how such wide, level, often-elevated roads would be so much more suited to riding along on bicycles. The idea struck a cord with me and drew in me to want to read this book…
It’s a disturbing, distopian vision of the future, one in which sees us living in a world that is trying to rebuild after the three-pronged attack of (man-induced) environmental collaspse, a deadly virus pandemic, and our over-reliance on technology. It’s a fantastic premise, delivered in an engaging, pag-turning style, but it does fail to deliver a satisfactory story in the end.
The Polanski’s live on their own in a deserted Birmingham, making good with their lives and either helped or hindered by regular drone-drops from an unseen government. We’re told that Brighton is where its at ‘after the floods’ but we don’t know why that is where the seat of power is. They do have internet communication, and their have been some technological advances in this bleak future, but it is more a lesson in how over-reliant we have become in other people providing us with the tools to live, and the information we need.
The story builds with an urgency to escape and and find safety but when it comes it is to more uncertainty and reliance on outside bodies, not the freedom of going it alone which I would have thought was the real goal? Maybe there is a sequel planned, although it is not directly hinted at here.
Rarely have I read a description of spaghetti junction that makes it sound so beautiful!
If the first half of my Easter holidays was a holiday-from-home with Emma, then I’ve wanted the second part (with the random extra holiday Tuesday that I get from day job working in the university) to be a bit more of a serious ‘writing week’.
And I have been writing lots, progressing the story on quite a bit. Or at least, I think I have progressed it on. Here, I hope that it’s natural to go between feelings of “I’ve got it” to “I’ve lost it” when writing The Sequel? I hear that it is.
War and Peace is one of those books that I think everyone thinks they ought to read, and probably means to read, but never gets round to it. I’ve had two failed attempts in the past – one was when I picked up one of the £1 ‘Wordsworths Classics’ editions that were all the rage in the early 90s but the paper was like grubby toilet paper and the type miniscule and we just didn’t get on. I had a more successful attempt circa. 1996 when I took on my Grandpa’s big, hardback Library Association copy. I got halfway through it and was enjoying it and I think only stopped because another book was published that I *had* to start reading immediately (it might have been one of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books…)
I have to say that unlike most books, this does benefit alot from having seen a TV adaptation of it recently. It certainly helps to keep track of the plethora of cast in it. The first part is slightly plodding I found, alternating between ‘peace’ scenes that I could follow, and ‘war’ scenes that you just had to get through. But thereafter the pace of the story picks up and carries you though. Occassionally you do find yourself getting a little bit confused but you have to just tether yourself to the Natasha/Pierre storyline and you will be fine.
Towards the end of the book Tolstoy does alternate the ‘story’ with almost essay-like histories of the real events that it is based around. This is particularly evident when you get to the Epilogue. I should say epilogues really, as there two. The first rounds off the Natasha/Pierre story perfectly, but then the second left me wishing I had skipped it. Whereas previously the history elements of the book were there to introduce story and counterbalance it, this second epilogue was almost an appendix in the detail it contained and was there to reflect on the actual events on which the book is based.
War and Peace is a seminal work of all time, and an engaging tale, and I am pleased to have finally read it.