A ray of sunshine

Reading an author you like, and being disappointed by their latest offering, is pretty crushing. A new book from an old favourite is like a special pudding at the end of a meal. Having a hot chocolate made with full fat milk, topped with whipped cream and marshmallows melting into the froth. It is something I really look forward to, and this week both Karin Slaughter (Pieces of Her) and Lisa Jewell (Watching You) have let me down.

Slaughter, I’m going to forgive, mainly because the rest of her work is consistently of a high standard. Pieces of Her, about a mother having rather surprising secrets, is sloppy, unbelievable and not terribly interesting. Andrea, the heroine, is dull and uninspiring. The bizarre romance Slaughter tries to inject falls flat. Her other standalone novels, those outwith the Grant County stories, are brilliant – The Good Daughter being a case in point – so I won’t hesitate to pick up the next one she writes.

Lisa Jewell, however, is another matter. Jewell is like my big writer sister. She’s the only “chick lit” author I like; she’s got brains, emotional intelligence, and knows how to make a big story out of not very much. She knows how to write characters who you understand, who live just round the corner, who you see on the bus and on the next table at Starbucks. Her simple stories are much more complex than they first appear, just like real people.

So why has she started going down the thriller route? One of those which are inevitably marketed with the “… twist you won’t see coming!!!!” on the blurb? It’s disappointing. Jewell’s thrillers don’t thrill, they just annoy. I am not interested in who killed the corpse alluded to throughout the book; the sections of police interview fail to convince; what I want to know is more about the relationship between Joey and her brother Jack, how the dysfunctional Fitzwilliam family fits together, why Jenna’s mum has started losing her marbles. The little minutiae of life which Jewel makes so fascinating are discarded for the Big Mystery and it’s enough to make a grown man weep (I cry pretty easily). This is now the third thriller and I keep reading her latest, hoping that she’ll have gone back to the style she does better than anyone else. But each time I am disappointed and I don’t know if I will dare pick up the next one.

Thank heavens then for Gillian Flynn. Having devoured Sharp Objects on TV – the only TV series I have finished and immediately started watching again – I read the book in one morning. I got out of bed 2 hours later than I should have done because I didn’t want to stop. This was her debut novel, and is accomplished, sinister and fabulous. This was the hot chocolate; not just with whipped cream and marshmallows, but a load of cocoa sprinkled on top. Top marks.

Next on my To Read pile is the new Ann Cleeves: Wild Fire. I have just finished Raven Black, the first in her Shetland series, and enjoyed it. I’ve got that hot chocolate feeling again. Let’s hope it’s made with full fat milk rather than water – that’s as big a let-down as some of these books.

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You Are What You Read

I made a decision while in Greece this year which was to stop reading horrible stuff. Spooky stuff is still in – horror is out. There is a big difference.

I got my annual free Kindle Unlimited pass and every year I remind myself these things are free for a reason. The occasional good title sneaks in – Mark Edwards isn’t an amazing author, but his dark little stories show originality and I keep going back for more (Follow Me Home was the one everyone went mad for, but The Magpies deserves fans too). The Hangman’s Daughter series by Oliver Posztch, about his ancestor who was a hangman in medieval Germany, is again not astounding authorship but is nonetheless enjoyable. I also got some free horror, one of which was “beautiful” horror stories – and they weren’t beautiful. There is no beauty in dredging up the very worst of what humanity is capable of and feeding your brain with it.

I lay in a splash of sticky golden sun on a boat which rocked lazily from side to side. I was in the company of some of my favourite people. If I looked to the left the Mediterranean sea sparkled, inviting me to jump in and cool my tight, salty skin. On my right rose my favourite place in the whole world, a green and purple island.

This is what I could have been looking at.

And I was reading about – a girl who got her mother killed by Nazis in Auschwitz. Someone’s mouth being sewn up. A man turning into a giant penis (yes, really).

I stopped reading and removed the book from my device along with the others of a similar ilk. If your body is poisoned by eating toxic rubbish, what’s it doing to your mind?

I’m not going to tell you what those books were. You don’t need to know and the authors, who are utterly entitled to write whatever the hell they want, don’t need to know that they made me feel ill. Here are the books which I really, really enjoyed and which I think you SHOULD know about.

A Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration England – Ian Mortimer
Entertaining, fascinating and a most enjoyable read. The others in this series have been ordered from the library.

Larry’s Party – Carol Shields
An extraordinary book about an ordinary man. Shields takes the minutiae of a man’s life and creates a life from it. I loved it.

The Habit of Murder – Susannah Gregory
Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew series is great fun. Fascinating from a historical point of view, it’s also funny, touching and bloody well written. If you haven’t read about this medieval monk, get into the habit. Arf, arf.

Day of the Dead – Nicci French
A fantastic end to the Frieda Klein series. When these books started I wasn’t keen, but Frieda has grown on me and the taut, well-plotted stories are spell-binding. To all those churning out trashy “a story with a twist you’ll NEVER SEE COMING” nonsense: this is how it should be done. Nicci French (aka Nicci Gerrard and David French) very rarely let you down. If you can’t do it like them, don’t bother.

The Outsider – Stephen King
King has no equal, not only in his imagination but also in his observations on humanity and his ear for dialogue. I’m pleased to see the return of the Finders Keepers detectives. King’s supernatural horror may not sit entirely comfortably with the detective genre, but it’s still far superior to most of the stuff out there…

The Killing Habit – Mark Billingham
… although Billingham is probably one step ahead of King in this particular style. This was another Thorne novel which throws up so many red herrings it was in danger of smelling. Great work. (I’ve just realised that Billingham and Gregory almost share a title!)

There are a lot of dark books here, but nothing I’d call horrible. Horrible is cheap, nasty and unrefined. Horrible is designed to shock and sicken, creating violent visceral reactions rather than gently building up disturbance. Not all horror is horrible, and those who dismiss it as such do it a disservice – but I have to admit most horrible stuff can be found on the Horror shelf. Browse it if you want to, pick up anything that looks fascinating, but tread carefully; choose your titles wisely. The worst will not leave you, and life is short; we should only have worthy companions for it.

P.S. Today is National Read a Book day. So go on! Read one and tell me if you ever find one you liked as a result of my blog. Someone did that recently and her kind message sparked this entry.

For Love of a Horse Book

I am not a horsey person. I have never had a horse, nor a pony – unless My Little Pony counts (my first was Blossom). When I was in hospital with appendicitis aged 9 my grandparents brought me two books by Patricia Leitch, someone I had never heard of, and this sparked my love of the Jinny books. Night of the Red Horse is the most supernatural of the stories which got my attention straight away. Once I finished the books I then wrote my own version, which were pretty hopeless as I knew nothing about horses. My heroine was called Jenny – fortunately I got more original as I got older.

I stumbled over this very book a few months ago as I was clearing out my old bedroom, and decided to collect the whole series again. As is my wont, I became obsessed by getting all the books in the same cover I had in my childhood. This wasn’t easy – of course !- the late 1980 Armada edition was rare. I scoured eBay, Abebooks and charity shops (a mistake, as I never found a Jinny book but I did find another book I wanted to buy – always!). Some sellers online told me rather snittily that they didn’t have time nor resources to find out which edition they had for sale and I would just be allocated one when I paid. As any serious book collector knows, the edition of the book is vital and I’m not sure someone who doesn’t understand books should be selling them!

My patience paid off, although it did include having a book sent over from South Africa (fortunately a friend in SA is coming over to the UK soon and was able to act as a carrier pigeon). I now have all 12 of my Jinny books again – including 2 individual copies of the double-book compendium I was originally given.

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Jinny is an 11 year old whose family move to the Scottish highlands from a grey city. On their way to Scotland the family see a circus and Jinny is entranced by an Arabian horse named Yasmin. When Yasmin escapes across the moors, Jinny makes it her mission to find her and keep her safe – never to tame her, as her wildness is what Jinny loves most about her.

Jinny’s passion for Yasmin – whom she renames Shantih – and her determination to win her over – is the main theme running through the series but even if you really don’t like horses you will still find these books engrossing. There are 12 of these books – written for children, ostensibly, but in my view they are much deeper and darker than mere pony stories. They deal with relationships, family, bravery, tolerance, and the various traumas of growing up. In my view Patricia Leitch was right to finish the series at book 12, rather than drag it out indefinitely like the Sweet Valley books (another series I avidly collected). Jinny’s burgeoning self-knowledge would have torn her away from her symbiotic relationship with Shantih and the magic of the Celts. Another joy of the books now is reading Jinny’s innocence through my adult eyes; her frustrations, fears and failures are all too easy to remember as my own.

These books are now republished by Catnip, if you want sparkling new copies – but I found mine on Amazon, eBay, Abebooks and through these sites:

www.childrensbookshop.com

www.clhawley.co.uk

There’s a real joy in stumbling upon and making a connection with independent booksellers. When I next go on one of my little jaunts, I think it will be to Hay-on-Wye: the kingdom of books.

I also stumbled upon The Grapes of Wrath. How have I misssed Steinbeck until now? (Of Mice and Men is a much shorter piece) What an incredible book. I lived it. I could smell the heat of that dreadful summer, feel the pangs of hunger the Boads learned to live with. The ending for me was not redemption so much as utter despair – but did I read it wrongly? Was there some hope for the future in Rosasharn’s action of mercy?

I also read the new Lisa Jewell – Then She Was Gone. BAH! I love Lisa’s warm, perfectly observed, extraordinary story of ordinary people and ordinary lives. I don’t want a psychological thriller from my ‘big sister’ author. The book is as perfectly written as always – Jewell gets emotion, sensation and dialogue spot on in her own inimitable style – but the plot is melodramatic and even I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for the length of it.

Birdcage Walk, Helen Dunmore’s last, did not hold me. It’s beautifully written as always enough but dragged – there’s only so long one can care about a builder slowly going bankrupt against the background of the French Revolution. I feel bad about being disappointed by this, and have ordered The Lie, which in my mind should be her last book and is a much more fitting epitaph.

And – because I have never read it – I tracked down Rosemary’s Baby from my library. Fabulous stuff, with much more depth than you would expect; and above all, a real chill which went from the top of my spine right down to the very tips of my toes. I love that chill as much now as I loved it nearly 30 years ago, prostrate in my hospital bed, reading about the Red Horse haunting Jinny Manders.

Mourning Helen

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I was deeply saddened to read of the death of Helen Dunmore earlier this week. The loss of one of my favourite wriiters haunts me: I can’t quite believe that there will never be another book from her.

I came across Helen Dunmore when I read Burning Bright aged about 16-17. The assured delicacy of the prose, when compared to its subject matter, jolted and intrigued me. Dunmore’s words were like a cool, clear glass of water on a hot day. Her stories of love, desire, danger, revenge and things done wrong pull you in as relentlessly as the tide in Zennor, the setting of her first book.

When I read of Dunmore’s illness a couple of months ago there was no confirmation that it was terminal. I put a reminder in my diary to send her a letter, wishing her strength and telling her how her writing had affected me. I sent this letter finally about three weeks ago and I really hope she got it, and knew what an impact she has had on me and on so many other readers.

If you haven’t read Helen Dunmore, Zennor in Darkness. Mourning Ruby is startling in its raw and paradoxically beautiful depiction of grief. The Lie, published during the centenary of World War 1, is gut-punchingly powerful. Burning Bright is sheer poetry. Your Blue Eyed Boy and Talking to the Dead are darker tales of people not always being quite as we’d like them to be.

She wrote this poem before her death. If you haven’t read Helen Dunmore, this must tempt you into doing so.

Hold out your arms

Death, hold out your arms for me
Embrace me
Give me your motherly caress,
Through all this suffering
You have not forgotten me.

You are the bearded iris that bakes its rhizomes
Beside the wall,
Your scent flushes with loveliness,
Sherbet, pure iris
Lovely and intricate.

I am the child who stands by the wall
Not much taller than the iris.
The sun covers me
The day waits for me
In my funny dress.

Death, you heap into my arms
A basket of unripe damsons
Red crisscross straps that button behind me.
I don’t know about school,
My knowledge is for papery bud covers
Tall stems and brown
Bees touching here and there, delicately
Before a swerve to the sun.

Death stoops over me
Her long skirts slide,
She knows I am shy.
Even the puffed sleeves on my white blouse
Embarrass me,
She will pick me up and hold me
So no one can see me,
I will scrub my hair into hers.

There, the iris increases
Note by note
As the wall gives back heat.
Death, there’s no need to ask:
A mother will always lift a child
As a rhizome
Must lift up a flower
So you settle me
My arms twining,
Thighs gripping your hips
Where the swell of you is.

As you push back my hair
– Which could do with a comb
But never mind –
You murmur
‘We’re nearly there.’

 

I am still on the library waiting list for Birdcage Walk, her final book. When I get paid I’m going to stop waiting, and buy it. Right now I am going to start rereading the books I do have in all their elegant, searing, fine-boned beauty, and cry a little more.

Captured by Candlelight

I indulged a great deal this Christmas. Possibly because last year it took all my strength to put one foot in front of the other, so I made up for it. Elton John tells us to step into Christmas, but I plunged headfirst into it, and came up smelling of cinnamon and cloves, covered in glitter which I can’t bring myself to wash off.

The title of this particular post is a perfume by 4160 Tuesdays – check it out.

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His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet wasn’t exactly festive reading, but it was an astonishing novel worthy of its place in the Booker list. It comprises of witness statements, a memoir from a jailed man, and other documents which the author apparently stumbled upon when looking up his family history. I am rather embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realise it wasn’t true at first, but the fact that it is fiction does not stop it being a powerful lesson on truth.

I was a few months late with Ali Smith’s Autumn but this was another wonderful read: deceptively light and gentle, with a great depth and tenderness interweaved through the story like gold thread through a tapestry. It’s about the relationship between Daniel Gluck, aged 101, and Elisabeth Demand, aged 30. But it’s also about artist Pauline Boty, who I immediately Googled once I’d finished.

The Tempest comes to life in Margaret Attwood’s latest, the Chinese-box narrative Hag-seed. The story is retold as a retired theatre director helps men in a prison put on their own version of the play. Spell-binding.

Continuing my investigation into new publications by some of my regular authors I enjoyed The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland. As always, her historical detail is both fascinating and sickening (the detail of how regular-sized babies are made into dwarves is particularly horrific). Not one to be read if one is of a sensitive disposition!

And then to Christmas reading; Silent Nights and Murder Under The Christmas Tree (anthologies of Christmas mysteries), The Mistletoe Murder, four great new stories by P D James, and The Children of Green Knowe which anyone who has ever been a child should read. The best by far though was Mark Forsyth’s A Christmas Cornucopia which tells you anything you ever needed to know about Christmas and a load of other stuff. Not only is it fascinating, it’s really, really well-written, and you could read it any time of the year, not just Christmas.

Inhaling all these words means that you have to exhale at some point, and I did yesterday – 2 hours of writing. It made me very happy. A good way to end the old year, and to welcome in the new one.

I wish anyone who’s taken the trouble to read this a very, very happy new year.

 

 

 

The Final Word

I have spent the entire time since my last post reading this book.

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Hefty tome, isn’t it? I was reading it in the local fish & chips shop as I waited for my order and a gentleman commented “That looks like light reading.” Indeed – over 3lbs of it, sir.

David Cesarani died months before Final Solution was published. To my mind this is the definitive work for not only those who want to study the Holocaust and the rise of anti-Semitism but also the psychology of us all: how quickly humans can turn on their brethren. How easily we transform from the epitome of civility into creatures more bestial than animals.

I started reading this book before I went on holiday and I had to hand it back to the library (a) because someone else wanted it, (b) because it was way too heavy to take with me and (c) because I needed a break from the horrendous truth of what people can do to other people. I am glad I have finished it though. It is immensely readable, even though the subject matter is such agony. It is painstakingly researched and no sin is left uncovered. It was as difficult to read as you can imagine and more so. In some paragraphs my eyes skidded away from the text and on others they were hooked onto words as if on barbed wire, unable to believe what they were seeing. At one point I had to put the book down and do something else because I couldn’t take what I was reading – but I always returned to it. If people suffered unimaginable cruelties the least I could do was read about it, and bear witness to it.

Thank you, Professor Cesarani. Rest in peace; God knows you deserve to.

Coming up next:

Mount! by Jilly Cooper. My copy arrived 2 weeks ago and I was desperate to start it but I needed to finish Final Solution first. I wrote to Jilly to inform and she promised she understands!

Sumer is icumin in…

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The Wicker Man

…and then it icumined out again. Still, nice when it lasted wasn’t it. I spent most of it (all 1.5 days) lying in my parents’ garden in a bikini reading. In the early evening the sun dropped behind the massive tree dad is always muttering about chopping down, but there was still muted gold light on the hill behind our house so I walked up the Park and sat on the road amongst the sheep. The tarmac had trapped the heat so it was like sitting on a gentle Aga. (Last time I sat on a not so gentle Aga I wound up burning my bottom and it’s not as funny as it sounds.)

SO what was I reading? I know at least one person knows because she asked me to write my blog again which was very gratifying – thank you!

The first was What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. A rather odd but enjoyable collection of stories, some of which left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth like liquorice. (Apart from I bloody hate liquorice.) Then I read Emma Donoghue’s new short story collection, Astray. I think Donoghue is one of the most versatile talented authors on this planet: she writes in different styles depending on her mood/subject and while some people frown on that I think it’s a real art.  When I was sixteen I wrote to an agent who told me that I couldn’t write in different voices and that each author has to have their one recongisable vein or they risk disappointing their reader, but I disagree: I look forward to every book by Donoghue, and you couldn’t find more different novels than, say, Room and Slammerkin.

I’m afraid I also committed my cardinal sin of not-Magnus-Magnussing, and giving up on a book. This was Communion Town, another short story collection: not a bad book at all, just not my style. The stories started going into oddness and parallel-dimension-wise, and this isn’t my cup of tea at all. They were well written but I found myself losing patience with them and besides which I was DESPERATE to open the new Mo Hayder: Poppet.

Mo Hayder is a spine-chilling and very distinct horror writer. You need a strong stomach when you read her stuff (I think Tokyo is the ‘worst’) but you also need a brain, and that’s not always required when reading horror! Poppet was fiercely original, a bit sickening and very more-ish like eating something you shouldn’t. (Reminds me of when I was doing the housework and wound up eating seven – count’em! – marshmallow snowballs in 1 hour.)

I also discovered the author Rupert Thomson. His new novel Secrecy is so lush and rich I didn’t know whether to gobble it up or roll in it. In the end I just read it, which is the proper thing to do with books. It was like a peepshow in which you got to look at 17th century Italy through a rather grimy hole: the story of a young sculpter forced to his home accused of crime he did not commit and landing in even more trouble in Florence. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Finally, I’ve just finished Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. She’s another author who isn’t afraid to write in a different style and this novel echoes her fiercely original and readable debut Behind The Scenes at the Museum. It examines the tiny moments in our lives which act as pivots and how something seemingly slight can drastically alter not just our futures, but those of others as well. The plot stumbles at points, but not enough to put you off; and when it got to the denouement I said “Oh!” out loud which doesn’t happen very often.

I think when a character raps on your mind’s window and goes “Oi!” there’s notlightoftheworld much you can do about it, and if you decide that character/story/idea won’t fit with what people expect of you you risk turning down a gift. Everything I’ve written has not come from me but from that tentative knock, kind of like a bastardised Light of the World (sorry Mr Hunt I do really love that painting). My literary-so-called-life and its rat-a-tat-tats consists of:

– My first ever book written aged 8: Keri Part 1. I never got to part 2. Keri and her elder sister Lucy lived in 1988 but wore crinolines and parasols (I was reading Little Women).

– A cartoon book about a dog called Woody Wellington, a flying spider called Tamoshanta, an owl called Mrs Miggs and a ‘groovy duck’ called Spike. I never got it published but  I made up a copy for Josie Russell, the sole survivor of a hammer attack on her family. The letter I got back from her father is one of my most prized posessions.

My Brother the Hero about Margery and her brother Mike and something to do with a football. I can’t remember why Mike was a hero, but he was.

– Seven Sisters: a 44 (at last count) chapter epic about seven sisters, oddly enough. The first time my naughty side came out. When I’m good, I’m very very good … but when I’m bad, you wouldn’t recognise me.

The Telephone Bird: the first proper book I finished. I got bored during my GCSEs and wrote it. The computer corrupted the file and I had to rewrite the whole thing. At the time I felt like one of my best friends had died, but the rewrite made it better. (Than ever? Well I was 16, what do you think?) I hope it’s not arrogant to occasionally dip into that and go “Man. That girl wasn’t half bad when she was young.”

A Makeless Maiden: the title is bizarre and nothing to do with the story, but it’s the second proper book I finished. I am still terribly fond of my awkward music teacher Elon and the eccentric Parrish family. I entered it for a competition a few years ago and got shortlisted for a bursary. It was very dull compared to all the other entries, I think. They were all about eighteenth-century-surrealism and finding oneself in remote corners of Scotland. Mine was about a guy who played the piano and blushed easily.

Those Are Pearls, which I wrote when I was about 18, about a girl whose mother is dying. I like this. (I like what I wrote not that her mother was dying.)

Tread Softly, Breathe Deeply – a collection of supernatural/odd stories some of which are very disturbing, particularly when you think a couple of them came from my dreams.

Mermaids in Satin – about a girl whose mum is a famous model or actress or something. Just a bit of meaningless tosh; the equivalent of a literary fling. Going nowhere and utterly meaningless, but fun.

That’s without counting other characters, stories and plots I’ve stumbled across, like walking through a ploughed field and turning up a Roman coin. I’m lucky in that I’ve still got 95% of everything I’ve ever written curling in spidery boxes in the garage but that’s where they sit, and whisper ever so often to me. I don’t know if I’m brave enough to dig them out – not because they will be rubbish but because they might be the best I’ll ever do. To quote Yeats:

There is grey in your hair.

Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath

When you are passing*

*They never DID IN THE FIRST PLACE, but it’s an allegory, okay?

Recently I was trying on dresses and worrying that a hemline was too short; that the back was too low; that I’m too old for sequins. Ten years ago (or maybe a few more *ahem*) I’d have been dressing to show off my cleavage, stomach, legs, bottom and back – all the same time if I could. Obviously one cannot dress like that at 33, but I wouldn’t really want to.

But I would like to write like I used to. I would like to get that feeling back of being utterly taken over by writing: when it’s all you think about, all you can do, when you sit at the computer and type without looking at the keyboard or thinking because the words are bypassing your brain and going right down your arm and spilling out through your fingers like quicksilver; because they’re not yours. After a bit you blink and look at the screen and know that what you’re reading is good because you can’t remember writing it.

Perhaps it’s time to let my writing self out again. I don’t know if I dare, any more than I dare wear this undeniably sexy but equally undeniably flashy silver dress hanging in my wardrobe. I’m frightened of looking stupid and being laughed at in both, and ultimately failing. I do think W. C. Fields was right when he said:

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.

But perhaps I’ve never really tried in the first place. Perhaps it takes longer than the timescale I set myself when I made a conscious decision to make writing my Thing. I was six when I read Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters; although Ashford published the book as an adult she was eight when she wrote it and I remember thinking “I’ve only got two years left”.

If my six-year-old self could see me now…