Like riding a bike…

 

Schifanoia

Thanks to Ali Smith and her beautiful, intelligent, ground-breaking, startlingly simple complex How to be Both, I am in Ferrara. Somewhere I had never heard of before I read this book. When I saw Ali Smith at the Cheltenham Literary Festival she encouraged everyone to go to Ferrara and see the Palazzo Schifanoia frescos before they disappeared. That was the same night that she talked about how she had made herself ill by not writing, and that made me cry, and I went to get my copy of How to be Both signed by her, and I cried again in front of everyone explaining how she had spoken what was hidden deep in the reddest bits of my heart under yellow layers of visceral fat, and she came round from behind the desk and hugged me.

I wrote to her some months later thanking her for her kindness, and got a lovely note back. This evening  I wrote her a postcard tellng her she had brought me to Ferrara, to the frescoes, to the richest most beautiful art I have ever seen, and how I sat in a restaurant and started writing a book – and then stopped and started planning it. Something I haven’t really done before.

Travelling alone is exciting. Unnerving. Exhilarating. Freeing. Above all, it is a recipe for getting lost if you have my complete inability to read maps. It must be some sort of dyslexia with directions; I find them impossible to take in. I listen politely and my eyebrows raise in grateful comprehension but my eyes glaze over. Then the person goes on their way, pleased to have helped me, and I stay still, as lost as I ever was, but now raging at myself because of this failing. The “15 minute” walk to my hotel took an hour. Someone kindly asked me if I was lost and I blithely replied I was fine, smacking myself across the face with the hopeless map once he had gone on his way. I hauled my suitcase up and down cobbled streets, loathing everyone who was ambling or trotting or jogging or cycling because they all knew exactly where they were going.

The following day I set off to view the frescoes and I dressed carefully, as if I were going to an assignation with a lover (I imagine, having never had one. OK so I’ve had a couple of dates so I felt like I was going on a date: putting lipstick on, choosing a fitted shirt rather than the casual top I had originally flung on). It took me half an hour to walk there, and that delicious pre-date anticipation was with me as I climbed the stairs – stairs which led to a surprisingly small room, a room designed to ‘alleviate boredom’ (a translation of Schifanoia). Two walls of frescoes have been destroyed, and the beauty of those which remain emphasises this loss. They are simply extraordinary. The rich velvet blue of the background; the minute detail of a crowd of ducks; the vivid imagination which went into the designs; the utterly human faces. I greeted the full-lipped, androgynous beauty of Ali Smith’s Francesco/Francesca del Cossa like an old friend; a haughty looking youth whose snooty expression made me laugh out loud; I regarded the genial Bose with one eyebrow raised remembering Francesca’s view of him. I felt the heat of the furious Gemini twins as they wrestled with each other; I envied a benevolent woman her clear-eyed beauty. I could drink from these pictures all day, like Joni Mitchell’s “a case of you”.

But Ferrara has more to offer me. Reluctantly I drag myself away to explore further. The mellow-stoned city is so full of art, history, architecture, all to be enjoyed, that I feel as if I will burst from the desire to see it all.  I proceed from one place to another, not noticing how much my feet hurt, how much my poor knee has seized up, until I finally sit down in a cafe. Then I find it hard to stand up again. It’s cold; I am dressed for the sun which teased me for the first half hour of my walk and then hid itself for the rest of the day. I dive into a lingerie shop, ignoring the delicate lace bras and thongs made for women half my size, and pounce on a functional, utterly unsexy vest. Putting it on is delicious. I buy a cardigan too. Wearing both is of some comfort to my icy frame but my feet, in open-toe sandals, showing off my ‘hot chilli’ pedicure, cannot be comforted this way. As I get more and more lost, the whale-grey sky swells with rain, and bursts just when I am trying to decide whether to go left or right down a medieval cobbled street. I swear profusely and go straight on out of sheer pique. Ironically that turns out to be the right way.  I see the sign for my hotel and, trembling and soaked, burst through the door, gasping for a cup of tea in the life-or-death manner only the English can. The kettle provided is the slowest kettle IN THE WORLD and I am so cold I find it hard to hold the mug. I have a long, hot shower, feeling the strength return to my fingers and joints, but not my feet. I fill the bidet with warm water, balance precariously on the edge of the loo and soak my feet until they have thawed out. It’s the first time I have used a bidet. It’s probably the first time the bidet has been used as a foot spa, so a new experience for us both.

I take a bicycle into town to find somewhere to eat. I’ve found I am thinking too much – mainly about all the bad things I have ever done – and I have made a concerted effort to think about anything *but* myself. Characters have sprung into my head. A story has knocked on my door and is shyly peering around the frame, waiting for me to invite it in. I sit at a restaurant and write the opening pages – then stop, turn to the back of my nnotebook and start planning the story. I have never done this before and to give my story structure builds a little faith in it. I’ve tended to leave the story to my characters to tell, but that rarely works – the two books I wrote during my GCSEs were luck and also due to the fact that I wrote so much it was second nature to me. I didn’t have to work at it, then.   I’m out of practice now.

Riding a bike through Ferrara at first was frightening. I was scared of falling off (and of course I did, though fortunately not where anyone could see me). I was scared of being told off for going somewhere I shouldn’t. I was scared of colliding with someone who would insult me in rippling, florid words I couldn’t comprehend (probably just as well). But none of these things happened. Today I cycled nonstop and enjoyed it. I had forgotten how good it fels to have fresh air whorling into your ears. How quickly you can get somewhere. How if you go the wrong way you simply turn around and pedal quickly to find the right direction. I feel comfortable cycling now, although I haven’t done it in over 20 years. Writing is the same. I haven’t properly done it in so long. I’m rusty at it. In an article on writing I read, “You don’t do other things because you ae good at them. Swimming, running, drawing – you do these things because you enjoy them, not thinking whether you are good at them or not. Writing should be the same.” With that in mind, I have stopped writing thinking – does this work? Would people read this? Would someone publish it? – and have stopped thinking writing. I am merely doing. Like cycling, it takes practice. It’s nervewracking starting again, acknowledging the spiteful monkey whispering in your ear: you know that thing you did with no trouble at all when you were little? Well, you can’t do it anymore. You’ve lost the knack. You’re too old. It’s too late. But only by acknowledging that fear and attempting what you’re scared/longing to do will you find out if you are actually much, much better than you ever dreamed you could be.

Feel the fear and do it anyway. Hmm; not a bad title for a book.

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.

 

 

 

Read something which would look good if you were found dead in the middle of it

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Sudeley Castle from Belas Knapp

I think this is great advice, though I am ashamed to say I don’t always take it – The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood may not look as good in my cold, withered hand as Do No Harm but I’ve enjoyed each as much as the other. The first is a taut, graphic and surprisingly well-written thriller (I say surprisingly because the cover looks a little generic and substandard) and the second an equally graphic memoir of a brain surgeon. I could only read it in chunks. The advice comes from Novel Cure, a book I’ve been dipping in and out which prescribes a book for whatever the mood you’re in, whatever’s happened to you.

I started writing this post 13 days ago and am ashamed that it’s taken me this long to finish it off. But I’ve been busy – working and going to weddings and moreover actually reading so I haven’t had much time to write about reading. It’s been a literary roller-coaster as I’ve swooped to the exhilarating high you get of finding a book you fall in love with, and plummet to a disappointing low as the story you hoped would enrapture you leaves you cold. Top of the Big One was, of course, Night after Night by Phil Rickman, set in Winchcombe by Sudeley Castle. I evangelise about Rickman because I don’t think he’s lauded nearly enough for his carefully-plotted, dark stories. This book reunites us with Kelvyn Kite and the shaman Cindy as a TV company decide to screen a version of Big Brother in a haunted house. Taut, clever and utterly believable -there aren’t many supernatural writers who make you believe the story they tell could happen to you at any time. Reading the book prompted me to visit Sudeley the following week which was one of the most peaceful, relaxing, special days of my life. The castle is friendly, warm and beautiful with a feast of history and stunning gardens. It was bathed in shy sunlight when I spent the day there and I was mostly by myself which is just how I like to be, both walking through uneven corridors with panelling as dark and glossy as chocolate, or breathing in the healing aroma of the herb garden. After my visit to Sudeley I walked up to Belas Knapp, the Neolithic tomb which plays an important role in Rickman’s book. Books which read well are great; books which prompt you to do something and enrich your life are something else entirely.

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Grotesques at St Mary’s Church, Sudeley Castle

Longbourn by Jo Baker was also very believable – Pride and Prejudice from the eyes of the servants. I actually preferred it to the original, which I know is blasphemy, so don’t tell anyone I said that. I went back to The Other Side in The Mistletoe Bride by Kate Mosse, a collection of ghost stories as delicate as handmade lace.

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams was anything but delicate – packing a punch from the very first page with its strong description of the buffalo-skin trade in the West. I found it exhausting to read but am glad I did so. Less so with What She Left by T R Richmond, in which a dead girl is brought to life through her emails, texts and Facebook posts, and those of her friends, while one acquaintance narrates using good old-fashioned letters. The format of the book is more interesting than the plot itself. How to be Both by Ali Smith is another book in a hugely original format, about both a 15th century painter and a teenage girl 500 years later. The best way of describing the book is to say the first half is written as one would paint – in dabs and swirls, not really coherent until you take a step back and look at it in its frame as a whole, and realise it all makes sense. Fabulous, epic writing.

No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary was a surprisingly good detective story about two young boys who are found in an underground bunker. It was above all very sad, which you don’t often get in detective stories. The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen was also very sad, but left me oddly untouched. The story of a Jehovah’s Witness family struggling increasingly with an unsympathetic world and an unsympathetic God should perhaps have affected me more than it did. I enjoyed Flora by Gail Godwin a lot more: about another disturbed young girl. This was a sort of twisted Turn of the Screw told from the point of view of the child, and was a satisfying read.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin was anything but satisfying. I felt rather underwhelmed by the story of Nora regathering her life after her husband dies, and didn’t really care much about any of the characters. I felt like I’d had a very bland unsatisfying meal in a restaurant everyone else raves about. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig cleaned my reading palate. I recommend for anyone who suffers from depression, or who just feels a bit low. I finished it and felt like I’d had a comforting hug from an old friend.

The Crooked House by Christobel Kent was another detective story about a young girl who lost her entire family in a horrific night of violence. It started off well and then disintegrated, as one more person stared into the distance without speaking or trailed off a sentence which really should have been finished. I wouldn’t allow anyone to get away with that in real life, so putting up with it in a book was not easy.

Initially I enjoyed A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, but it palled about half way through, and stopped being funny. I was sick of hearing about Ignatius’s valve. Imperium by Robert Harris was the opposite:  a story of Cicero told by his slave, it was initially hard to get into, but suddenly I found myself enjoyed it immensely so I’m glad I stuck with it. My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates, based on the JonBenet Ramsey case, was appalling and addictive reading all the way through.

I went into the world of autobiography with The Lives & Loves of a She-Devil by Graham Norton, and Still Standing: The Savage Years by Paul O’Grady, both of which were hugely entertaining and well-written (you wouldn’t expect anything else from these Greats though). I promised I’d let you know what I thought of John Cleese’s autobiography, and I’ve kept you hanging for months … in fact you might actually have read it yourself in the meantime! But if you haven’t, I would say I felt a little disappointed by it. It was quite well-written but a little fleshless, I thought. I’m sure he’ll be gutted to read that, so I’m not tagging him.

The Cove by Ron Rash about a family of misfits post-war and Ladies of the House about another house of misfits by Molly McGrann were both OK reads, but nothing particularly special. Neither was The Marriage Game by Alison Weir about Elizabeth 1 and Robert Dudley. I felt this was very poorly written and disjointed, which is unusual as I normally like her stuff. Again, blasphemy: The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell wasn’t her best either. It was OK, but nothing special. I feel bad writing this as the great lady has only been gone a week and she is an utter tour de force in literature. Everyone’s entitled to an off-day and I have another of hers on my bookshelf beckoning to me so I’ll make up for this review next week. After all it’s only one person’s opinion and why should mine – or indeed, anyone’s – matter more than someone else’s? Don’t ever be put off reading a book just because someone else didn’t rate it.

I will write less, but more often, in future. So that’s good or bad news, depending on your opinion.

On the Beach – Reading List

Seeing as the idea for this blog was commenced on holiday in Greece this year when I thought, I really ought to start a reading blog, I really ought to write a brief synopsis of the books I read on holiday.  So here you go. This is especially for Clare who asked for a reading list!

Jubilee by Shelley Harris

This book was quite interesting, but didn’t really grip me. The scenes where one young character is abused are very distressing and well-written though.

Empire by Jeremy Paxman

One of the best books I have read in a long time! Fascinating and v well written. I learned a lot from this which is written in Paxman’s intelligent yet user-friendly prose.

The case of Mary Bell by Gitta Sereny

Already blogged about this.

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

My first encounter with Wodehouse, and oh how I loved him. I laughed all day on the beach. Interestingly, my first ever gerbil was called Jeeves.

Porterhouse Blue : a Porterhouse chronicle by Tom Sharpe

Quite funny but not on Wodehouse’s scale. I felt that I ought to be ‘getting’ it a bit more than I was, like there was an in-joke I didn’t find terribly funny.

Deity – Stephen Dunne

While I wouldn’t put Steven Dunne up with Mark Billingham, he’s a gifted crime writer and DI Damen Brook is an agreeable and believable creation. The deaths of several homeless men seem initially unconnected with the sudden disappearance of some teenagers, but slowly horrifying details help Brook put two and two together, and the ending is really quite shocking – you don’t see it coming! Which is what I like most in a book. The plot staggers a little at times, and it does lose its way in the middle, but by the end of the book you are racing to read through. I enjoyed The Reaper, and would certainly read more by Steven Dunne.

The Guilty One – Lisa Ballantyne

The Guilty One is another story about a child killer of children, but its tone is absolutely original. Paul, the main character, is representing a young boy accused of murdering a peer. As court commences we go back into Paul’s past and see how he has been shaped by events in his own life.

Ballantyne has the rare gift of being able to give both adult and child utterly authentic voices. The characters are believable, and the plot taut and deep. I stayed up far past my bedtime to finish off the story and find out what happens to both the main protagonists. This is a book which will stay with you long after you have put it down. I thoroughly recommend it and look forward to reading more by this author.

The Falcons of Fire and Ice by Karen Maitland

For me Maitland has yet to top “The Company of Liars”, her first book, but the Falcons… is an improvement on “The Owl Killers” (her second), and her historical research and characters never fail to disappoint. As usual the story is full of mysticism and mystery. The supernatural is entwined with actual historical events (in this case the Spanish Inquisition and the horrific auto da fee), all the more powerful because belief in the supernatural was a lot stronger in the past.

This is the story of Isabela, who must must travel from Portugal to Iceland to find pure white falcons in order to save her father’s life (he, the Royal Falconer, is accused of killing those in his care). But members of the Spanish Inquisition are on their way to stop her, and the journey becomes fraught with peril for all involved with an unusual ending which I liked.

Maitland’s history is carefully researched and she brings the past to life, but the story doesn’t have quite the intensity of “Liars”. I enjoyed reading it but not to the extent that I couldn’t put it down. It’s a good book, but the author still has to regain the captivating magic of her first novel and unlike that I probably wouldn’t reread this one.

Stranded by Emily Barr

I haven’t read Emily Barr since “Backpack” and I really enjoyed that, so I looked forward to “Stranded”. It didn’t fail to deliver: well-written, with a strong background and good characters, it’s a highly readable if somewhat implausible story about a woman who following her divorce goes on holiday to Malaysia and is stranded (hence the title) with fellow holidaymakers on a deserted island.

The story twists and turns enjoyably and the characters are on the whole well-drawn, though one of the stories between the two Americans fails to convince, and the sub-plot doesn’t quite add up. (I’m trying not to say too much as I don’t want to give anything away.) Some of the plotting is clunky: one of the lines about a pivotal email plot (“who uses hotmail nowadays?”) feels forced and doesn’t make much sense. But don’t let these small flaws distract you, suspend your disbelief and enjoy. “Stranded” is a good holiday read (as long as you’re not in Malaysia).

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan

Jude Morgan has a gift for bringing shadowy people of the past to life, and The Secret Life is a real gem of a book, particularly for Shakespeare lovers but in fairness to anyone who enjoys a good read, particularly a historical one. Morgan writes from the viewpoint of both William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway, and brings them, their friends and family to life. I learned a lot about Shakespeare, and his family, that I had never known, and while of course this is a work of fiction and should not be taken as gospel, it’s still hugely enjoyable and informative.

She also gives us the history of many of his most famous plays, and their places in his life, giving them emotional context. You read not only about the man and his family but about his texts. I couldn’t wait to continue reading this book and will seek out more from this author.

666 Charing Cross Road by Paul Magrs

I’m not normally terribly keen on books about fantasy, vampires, witches et al – no, I haven’t read Twilight! – but I found 666 Charing Cross Road funny, readable and original. When Liza Bathory (yes, you’ll recognise the name) discovers a mysterious booksheller in London she begins ordering from them, with disasterous results; while her niece Shelley who works in a museum finds one of the most unusual artefacts comes quite startlingly to life. Something has been unleashed by Liza’s parcel, but can its evil be contained?

The book is well-written and amusing, without losing its sinister edge. Another review describes it as “unclassifiable” and I’d agree with this. Original and quirky, this is a new voice in fantasy that I look forward to hearing from again.

There But For The – Ali Smith

I really love Ali Smith’s stories. They are small snippets of life, cleverly observed and don’t appear to be about very much, but you come away from them glad that you read them. I also read The First Person, another collection of stories, by her too. Good short stories are often harder to write than novels, I think. I know authors whose novels I have enjoyed (Joanne Harris, Emma Donoghue) whose stories disappointed me. Ali Smith is not one of these.

The Bryant and May books are all tremendous fun. They are detectives working in the Peculiar Crimes Unit, and anyone who knows me knows that peculiar crimes are my most favourite of crimes! I like Fowler’s odd, offbeat spooky stories. I also read Bryant and May on the Loose and White Corridor, and look forward to seeking the rest of the series out.
I read another Fowler novel, Breathe, which was good, but not as human and enjoyable as Bryant and May. There should be gaps in the paragraph now, but I have tried editing it 5 times and it won’t work, and I’m afraid I am losing my temper now, so I am going to leave it and you’ll just have to know I did my best.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence

I finally got around to this, the 50 Shades of its day; and found it rather uninteresting. I didn’t understand any of the characters, or warm to them, and I’m afraid Mellors have a moustache absolutely killed it for me. Frankly I thought the pair of lovers, with their little garlands of flowers, remarkably silly, and Lawrence really has no idea what sex is like for a woman because he is very inaccurate (sorry to my brother if you are reading this, just pretend you didn’t see that bit).

I did however think that the book raised interesting questions about relationships based on physical attraction and whether they have long-lasting foundations; the last paragraph of the book says quite a lot on that. I am not keen to seek out more Lawrence, though I fear that says more about me than it does about him.

The Turtle Boy by Kealan Patrick Burke

This is a very odd little book, and is right up my street. It’s the first in the Timothy Quinn series, about a young boy with a most extraordinary gift. He has no idea about it, though, when he and his friend Pete find an odd boy ‘feeding the turtles’ at the local pond. Oof, it’s giving me the heebies just writing it. I am looking forward to purchasing the rest of the series.

The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Potzsch

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. The hero of the story is the local hangman who’s (believe it or not) a jolly good sort, and you can’t help but warm to him, even as he’s preparing his instruments for torture. The translation is a little clunky at times, but the historical detail is fascinating and I’ve just ordered the second in the series.

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is one of my favourite authors, and another of those rare writers who captures both the art of the novel and the short story perfectly. This series of stories tells the story of a ‘red garden’ through the generations and has Hoffman’s trademark whimsy which strays just on the right side of sentimentality.

The Submission by Amy Waldman

An original and thought-provoking book about a group’s attempts to make a memorial for those lost in the 9/11 attack.  I consider this very well-written and winced on many pages, understanding where both sides of the argument regarding the winning entry were coming from.

The Mark of the Angel by Nancy Huston

A silent, secretive German woman enters into an illicit affair with a man who mends instruments. I’m sure there is much more that could be said about this book, but I didn’t find it interesting, and it left me cold. Not just the heroine Saffie’s reservation, and the fact that she and her husband get married for no reason whatsoever, but because I didn’t think the story went anywhere. It’s got good reviews on Amazon though, so pay no attention to me.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

The first Steinbeck I have read, and it made me cry on the beach just as Wooster made me laugh. Steinbeck is as clever with character and dialogue as Stephen King, who I think is a master of it. The story of the friends George and Lennie warms and breaks your heart simultaneously.

Now Clare, if you can’t find something you fancy in that lot, you can pay for me to go back to Greece and spend another fortnight doing nothing but read…