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Everybody’s talking about… Bolivian migrant cats (coming over here stealing our mice).

A political spat broke out this week between Home Secretary, Teresa May and Justice Minister, Ken Clarke, of the sort that traditionally crop up between members of opposing political parties. In her party conference speech, May cited a case of a Bolivian man who successfully appealed against his planned deportation, apparently, on the grounds that he owned a cat in the UK, as evidence of the negative effects of the Human Rights Act. Clarke quickly took issue with this account, as did the solicitor who represented the individual in question.

There are problems with May’s interpretation of events, and they are twofold. Firstly, the cat was never central to the man’s right to stay in the UK, and, secondly, neither was the Human Rights Act. The decision to allow the man to stay in the UK was based on the Home Office’s own policy, not on any wider human rights legislation.

Now I could expend many paragraphs here explaining why the Human Rights Act is actually on balance a jolly good thing, and how if it does force judges to act in a slightly counter-intuitive way in some cases then that’s sort of the point. But you are intelligent people and you have access to the whole interweb and plenty of people have spent many valuable words discussing that very point on other cul-de-sacs off of the modern Information Superhighway. You have Google – you know what to do if you want to read about that.

I’m more interested, today, in the political rhetoric that leads to these sorts of Westminster playground scraps. Politicians from all over the spectrum have form in this area. Back in 1992 Labour produced a Party Election Broadcast designed to attack the Tories record on the NHS, by comparing the treatment of two patients with ear disorders in NHS and private care. It quickly came out that the broadcast had been based on the case of a specific child, and what became known as the War of Jennifer’s Ear broke out. The child’s grandfather was a Tory supporter and provided information about the case to the Conservative Party, who used it to suggest the Labour had distorted the facts of the case of political gain. Then Robin Cook and Virginia Bottomley (Gosh, was she really 20 years ago? Now I feel old) hit each other with big sticks for a bit until it was time to go home for tea. Or something to that effect.

In 2002, the case of the elderly Rose Addis became another massive political storm in a tiny wee espresso cup, when allegations were made, initially by her family, and later by Conservative MPs, about her treatment in an NHS hospital. That particular spat ended up with statements being issued by politicians, and by family members, and staff of the hospital involved. Mrs Addis was accused of being unco-operative with staff. The hospital were accused of providing inadequate care. It all got very “He said..” “She said…” and it remains all but impossible to sort the facts from the narrative ten years on.

And here’s the problem. Politicians know, as do advertisers, public relations experts and creative writing teachers, that people like stories. We respond to narrative, to characters, to goodies and baddies, much more intensely than we respond to data and graphs and detailed factual information.

So a politician trying to make a point wants to tell us a story, not deliver a lecture. And to a degree, that’s ok. Part of the politician’s job is to persuade us that they are right about what the problems are and that their solutions to those problems are the best available. And, like their readers and viewers, media outlets like a story too. They like a narrrative and a character, because they know that will interest their audience much more than a data table. But anecdote isn’t evidence, and individual stories are open to interpretation. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s suspicious immigrant is another’s desperate asylum seeker.

Even those closest to an individual, especially those closest to an individual, will have their own views on a situation. So Jennifer’s grandfather clearly didn’t believe that her treatment reflected badly on the then Tory government. Other members of her family, including those who initially wrote to MP Robin Cook about the case, apparently did. Once something becomes a story, the storyteller decides how to tell it. They decide who the hero is. They decide who should be the villain. Stories aren’t based on facts. They’re based on narrative and character, and those are all created in the telling.  

So telling stories is a great way to engage people, to inspire and to persuade. But it’s not a great way to make public policy. Facts are too easily distorted, accidentally mislaid or purposefully obscured. Evidence, not narrative, should be at the centre of policy making, and evidence means data, information from a wide range of sources, carefully analysed and interpreted, not one example which may or may not be typical, and may or may not be accurately told.

Happily, one of the joys of the modern Information Superhighway (how many times do you think I have to use that phrase to bring it back into regular parlance?) is that a lot of that data is out there and we can access it. The downside of that is that we can fall into information overload and end up with lots of data but no knowledge. So it’s cheering to know that there are some lovely interweb bunnies out there doing some of the sifting for us. I’m particularly fond of the following:

Channel 4’s factcheck blog: http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/

NHS Behind the Headlines: http://www.nhs.uk/news/Pages/NewsIndex.aspx

Michael Blastland’s Go Figure column (BBC): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14748007

And so ends today’s thinking. If you like, you can of course subscribe either by email or via Networked Blogs. There are lovely links just over there to your right to help you. And you can comment too, just down there, using your clever typing fingers. Jolly good.

Where I muse on chick lit, writing and accepting feedback

There’s a bit of a rumpus in chick lit world at the moment. Earlier in September the author, Polly Courtney, publicly dumped her publisher, Harper Collins, ostensibly for marketing her books with what she felt were misleadingly chick lit-ish covers. She explains in her own words more fully here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/16/chick-lit-womens-fiction

This was closely followed by a flurry of news stories detailing the fall-off in chick lit sales (for example http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/have-we-fallen-out-of-love-with-chick-lit-2361445.html), and topped off by this delightfully reasonably headlined piece by Harriet Walker in the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/harriet-walker-saccharine-silage-that-fails-women-2361506.html

Obviously, what this debate needs is another random internet opinion, so here we go. To start off in any sort of half intelligent debate, it’s important to agree about what your terminology actually means. Doing so can avoid a lot of unneccessary bickering over stuff it turns out everyone actually agrees about. So what do we mean by chick lit?

Probably most of us who frequent bookshops or spend inordinate numbers of hours browsing on Amazon can bring a picture into our minds of what we perceive as a classic chick lit novel. You’re probably picturing a pink, or predominantly pastel coloured, cover with sparkly writing and a semi-cartoonish picture of a woman wearing shoes. Alternatively, you might be picturing one of those stylised photo covers showing just a woman’s legs, or a pair of hands entwined. But that’s just the cover. What makes a story chick lit?

Again, the classic understanding would probably suggest that we’re talking about a youngish single-ish female protagonist, a plot that’s heavy on romance, a contemporary setting, a good dash of humour, and usually a story that involves some sort of self-discovery or self-development on the part of the heroine. So let’s look at a couple of those writers that the Independent cites as being emblematic of the fall-off in chick lit sales. Do they match that template?

We’ll start with Dorothy Koomson. I would suggest that Koomson’s early work fits well into that classic chick lit template. The Chocolate Run, for example is a story laced with humour and centred around a heroine learning to trust rather than run in a developing relationship. But Koomson’s work has shifted and developed over time. Her more recent novels, notably The Ice-cream Girls (which is fabulous – you should all definitely read it) would probably be better described as psychological thrillers. The cover art, though, remains stylised and heavy on the pastels.

Marian Keyes is another interesting author. Often described as one of the first chick lit writers, she has been seen as one of the big players in the genre for over 15 years. Her work is certainly funny, and generally follows female protagonists. However, in a number of her novels, for example This Charming Man  or Rachel’s Holiday, any romance is a secondary plot, while the story’s main focus is on an issue such as addiction or domestic abuse.

So, it looks like it’s actually kind of tricky to define what we mean by chick lit, and that’s before we even start to try to unpick the broader term used by some booksellers, “Women’s Fiction.” What is, perhaps,even more fascinating is the level of vitriol towards what is perceived as light entertainment aimed at women. You don’t generally see a lot of newspaper opinion pieces arguing that the wide availability of action thriller novels has stunted male intellectual development, so it makes me uneasy that female writers are expected to in some way represent their whole gender.

There are essentially only two types of book that matter to me as a reader or writer. There are good books, and there are lousy books. There are lousy books in most genres, and chick lit is by no means exempt from the lazy and the formulaic, but there is also some really classy and interesting work out there. (I’m particularly liking Sarra Manning at the minute). Being light, being funny, and being by and about a woman, does not make your story intrinsically inferior. Suggesting that it does was daft when people did it about Jane Austen and it’s still daft now.

Which shouldn’t be taken to imply that I have no issues with the way that fiction by women, and about women, is sold and marketed at the moment. Here I can only write from my own prejudices and opinions, so please jump into the comments and argue with me if you don’t agree.

About 3 months ago, I attended a talk by a editor from a very large mainstream publisher of popular fiction, who said that they were looking for chick lit that was lighter, frothier and more escapist. That made my heart sink a little. There is absolutely a place for those books, and for writers and readers who love those books, but looking at writers like Marian Keyes, tells us that in the past chick lit was a much broader church. It does worry me slightly that publishers aren’t seeing a place for more issue-led or just slightly edgier romantic comedy. And it’s also concerning that books like Dorothy Koomson’s more recent work might be being marketed in such a way that is making it harder for them to reach the widest possible potential readership. The pastel cover will attract Koomson’s existing readers who recognise her “brand” but will it encourage regular readers of crime and thriller novels to give her work a go?

It’s also interesting, I think, to look at another standout successful romance novel of recent years, this time by a male writer. David Nicholls’ One Day was a huge hit with readers, and spawned the obligatory bestseller’s movie. The book was published under a very gender-neutral orange and cream cover, the colours and artwork being striking but very un-girly. My guess it that the same book, by a female writer, would have been marketed quite differently, in a manner that could have alienated a potential wider audience, including a lot male readers.

And this brings me onto my own writing. Now I don’t normally blog about writing. I do have a slight sense that writing about writing is a tad on the self-indulgent side, which given that in this sentence I’m now writing about writing about writing, probably means I’m about to drown in a torrent of my own self-importance. Moving on…

I have just received my feedback report from the RNA New Writers Scheme on the current draft of my first novel, which would probably fall under the broad heading of “chick lit”. There were some really positive comments, and some really useful feedback about plot and pacing which has got my head buzzing with rewrite ideas. I am, though, unsure whether those ideas will ever make it into the manuscript, as there are elements to the book, which I’m starting to feel are too fundamental to change, but really weaken the chances of interesting an agent or publisher in the finished manuscript.

For example, the story is told from the point of view of four different first person narrators, a technique which I now realise was quite ambitious for a first novel! I also now realise that a lot of readers (and writers) just don’t like first person narration. So do I rewrite the whole thing in the third person, as my feedback report suggests? I’m unenthusiastic about the idea at the moment, partly just because that’s a massive job, but also because I, personally, really like the different narrative voices, and do I really want to end up with a novel that I don’t like as much?

So, what to do next? Redraft using the feedback on pacing/plotting but leave the narrative style alone, accepting that the chances of publication in that form are beyond super-super-super-slim? Redraft fully into a third person narrative, and risk losing part of what I love in the manuscript? Or just chalk this down as novel writing attempt number 1 and move onto something else? At the moment that last option seems to be beckoning. I have an idea for novel number 2 which is buzzing at my brain, but would that be “giving up” too easily? Would it be better to do another redraft of number 1 and try to follow through with that piece of work? Decisions. Decisions. Comments about chick lit and suggestions on the writing both welcome – do you always take all feedback on board, or do you make decisions about when to accept feedback points and when to stick to your guns? And when do you walk away from a work-in-progress?

If I could be anyone, I’d be..

In honour of (and blatant advertising for) the rather lovely Talli Roland’s new novel Watching Willow Watts being launched today, I’m hopping on the “If I could be anyone..” bandwagon. In the story Willow attracts public attention by impersonating Marilyn Monroe, so today bloggers all over the Interweb are considering who they would be if they could be anyone at all.

So who would I be? Well, the honest answer is, probably that I’d just be me. I live what is, all things considered, a pretty charmed life. But that’s boringly well-balanced as well as boringly boring, so putting that to one side, who would I like to have a go at being, just as an alternative? I’d like to pretend that this was a tricky choice and that I considered a wide range of beautiful, intelligent and worthy people, but I so didn’t. There was only ever one choice.

River Song.

Alex Kingston as River Song

River Song is just brilliant. She’s got that hair. She’s intelligent. She’s foxy. She’s fearless and she gets to snog the Doctor. What’s not to love?

And ok, so River is currently in prison for murder, but she is not the sort to let that get her down, so I don’t think we should either. I do know, just for the record, that River Song is a fictional character, but actually that just gives me more reasons to love her (and to love Steven Moffat for inventing her). She’s a independent-minded action heroine, who isn’t size 0 or aged about 17, and she’s on mainstream British TV. Again, if you put aside the murdering, she’s a top class gold starred role model for little girls everywhere. Yay River Song!

Ooooh… you remember all that gubbins about three paragraphs ago about how I could only think of one possible choice, well I’ve thought of someone else. All of a sudden this game is hard. Ok, I’m going to have to award a runners-up prize.

In a very close 2nd place… Elizabeth I!

Miranda Richardson as Queenie

Now I don’t mean actual Queen Elizabeth I. She was forever having to worry about cousins plotting against her and Spaniards trying to invade. That all sounds a bit of a bother. I mean Queenie as played by Miranda Richardson in Blackadder series 2. The screwing up of her face if she thought she might not get her own way. The “Off with his head” in the tone of a sulky toddler. The occasional bursts of random flirtaciousness. I think I might pretty much be modelling my personality on Queenie. I find it very disheartening that I’m hardly ever allowed to have anyone executed.

So that’s who I’d be. And now I’m away to fret slightly about why I don’t idolise any real people. Why don’t you hop over here and see about downloading lovely Talli’s lovely book?

What I did on my weekend mini-break

After the unprecedented blogging success of my post about my holidays (it got three whole comments), I’ve decided to see if I can repeat the trick. Obviously, in the true spirit of sequels, this post will be not quite as interesting, and feel disappointingly lacking in originality.

So here we go – what I did on my weekend mini-break in London Town, ranked in reverse order of fun-itude! We saw 3 shows  and did 3 museums, so read on to find out which were charttoppers and which fell flat. Feel free to play some Top of the Pops style chart rundown background music in your head to get you in the mood.

 

6. Wicked – the Musical

This is the musical based on the Good and Wicked Witch characters from The Wizard of Oz. The basic idea is that the story is retold from the Wicked Witch’s point of view, and the show makes us consider who actually decides that one person is Good and another Wicked, and whether we might take a different view if we heard the other side of the story. It’s a clever and interesting idea, and the show had absolutely stellar reviews both on Broadway and the West End, so it might be a surprise to see this coming in in bottom place on my weekend chart. Unfortunately, for me (and much beloved accompanying husband),  it was just a bit meh. Very ballad heavy, lacking in memorable tunes (Defying Gravity excepted), and the stage set, whilst aesthetically impressive didn’t really contribute much to the performance. Add to that some pretty ropey diction from the performers, which undermined the impact of a lot of the songs, and the overall experience was never more than ok. Worth seeing if someone springs you a free (or very heavily discounted) ticket. We had £55 tickets, discounted to £30 and still felt like it wasn’t worth the money.

 

5. The Science Museum

A museum of highs and lows. Highs – being free, LaunchPad (the kid’s bit with lots of stuff to play with), the space gallery. Lows – the history of medicine galleries and the history of maths/computing gallery – both suffer from very dry, old-fashioned displays. The major low though seemed to be the lack of science. Lots of the museum is taken up with objects which are never really linked together into a story of scientific progress or endeavour. It’s just big rooms of stuff.  I also docked big points for them calling themselves the Science Museum and having a display about homeopathy that at no point mentions how there’s no reliable scientific evidence of anything beyond a placebo effect from homeopathic treatment. Just an asterix and a footnote saying “Of course, this is bollocks” would have sufficed. It’s the SCIENCE Museum, not the RANDOM THINGS SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE Museum. Tsk.

 

4. Tate Modern

Another mix of highs and lows. Highs – being free (sensing a theme at all??), and some individual works, particularly some of the Picassos, the Alberto Giacometti sculptures, a Jackson Pollack and a Kandinsky painting which was my personal favourite. Lows – the feeling that I must be a bit thick cos I don’t really understand most of the art. Yes, I see that you’ve cut out some red paper. I totally get that you’ve stuck it to the wall. Yup, you have stuck it to the wall in quite a nice pattern. I can read on the little explanation card that this can be seen as a comment on the nature of materials and disposability, but I’m not really feeling it. Now, I’m not going to just diss Modern Art. I completely accept that some people get something from these installations that I don’t. But I still don’t.

 

3. The Globe Theatre Tour & Exhibition

Lovely tour guide who was super-enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Beautiful theatre. Interesting exhibition, which felt just the right size for the information being communicated. (Science museum take note – no endless cabinets of loosely associated objects here). Would have liked a little bit more time to see some of the live demonstrations (sword-fighting, costume making etc) that were going on, but I can’t really blame the exhibition for us not allowing enough time.

 

2. We Will Rock You

The surprise hit of the weekend. We bought tickets to this because we wandered along to the late tickets booth in Leicester Square on Saturday morning and this was what they had. It’s the Ben Elton scripted musical based on the music of Queen. The basic premise is that 300 years in the future rock music has been banned in favour of computer generated homogenised pop. Our hero and heroine are two teenagers who go on a quest to rediscover the old music and reinvent rock. It’s a terrible premise. Every rational expectation is that this show should be awful, but somehow it’s kind of briliant. I think there are basically three reasons it works despite itself. Firstly, Ben Elton’s script embraces the lunacy of the premise, makes lots of jokes about it and then cheerfully steamrollers through. The sheer gusto is hard to resist. Secondly, the familiarity of the music gives an instant feeling of audience involvement and engagement. Thirdly, the performances and production values were generally excellent throughout, and this was in a performance where three of the main characters were being played by understudies. Fully expected to hate this. Didn’t. Pretty much loved it. It was sort of the opposite of Wicked which has a good idea, poorly executed. This was a terrible idea, somehow elevated into a really very good show.

 

1. Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe Theatre

The standout event of the weekend, and the reason for the whole trip. I’d never been to a play at the Globe before. If you haven’t either, then you really should. Standing tickets for the yard immediately in front of the stage are only a fiver. That’s cheaper than the cinema and you have the possibility of being hugged, jostled, and spat on by the actors. The Globe experience is unlike a modern indoor theatre. The audience are much more open to distractions from outside the play, and the actors have to be completely engaged with the audience and the wider environment to keep the audience within the story.

The play itself, Much Ado About Nothing, is one of my favourite plays (so much so that I’ve based on novel on it), and this was a brilliant production. The scene stealing characters in Much Ado are always Benedick and Beatrice – if you get those two characters right, you’ve generally got a pretty good production, and this production got them both bang on. I was particularly impressed with how well all the actors played the comedy in the play. Comedy in Shakespeare is tricky with modern audiences. There’s a lot of wordplay, much of which doesn’t quite survive the jump across 400 years of development of English. This production played both the language and the physical comedy beautifully.

 

So to conclude, I think I’ve decided, through the method of gallivanting around our rather brilliant capital for three days, that I really am a very word-oriented girl. I’m not really moved by music when I can’t hear the words (Wicked). I’m not that interested in physical objects if I don’t have a sense of their narrative (Science Museum). I don’t really respond to a lot of visual art until I’ve read the card that tells me what to think (Tate Modern). I do very much like a good communicative tour guide (Globe Exhibition), a song I know the words too (We Will Rock You), and a bit of 400 year old romantic wordplay (Much Ado About Nothing).

Come back later in the week (or you know, maybe the week after) when I shall be thinking more random thoughts about things. In fact, why not click on the lovely “Subscribe” link up at the top of the page and I believe you’ll get a rather charming little email notification whenever I actually get around to thinking something new.

Things that make me go Grrrrr… No. 1 David Starkey

As promised yesterday (https://alisonmay.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/what-i-read-on-my-holidays/) here is my blog post in which I attempt to make a coherent intelligent link between David Starkey acting like a stupid person and Carol Vorderman reporting on the teaching of maths in school. Here we go.

David Starkey, like pretty much anyone else in the UK who is prepared to generate an opinion on short notice, has been pontificating about the causes of the recent riots and looting across English cities. For reasons, which we will come to, I don’t really want to generate him more noteriety by encouraging you to watch his appearance on Newsnight, but for other reasons, which are also coming, I don’t feel I can rant about his comments without letting you view my primary source material for yourselves, so here’s the iplayer link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b013h14z/Newsnight_12_08_2011/ The bit I’m talking about starts about 13 minutes in.

In his comments on the riots, Starkey opens by referencing Enoch Powell’s famous Rivers of Blood speech, and then comments that “the whites have become black”, before continuing to note that some black people (Starkey cites MP David Lammy) sound white.  After announcing that “the whites have become black”, Starkey goes onto claim that “a particular sort of violent nihilistic gangser culture has become the fashion.” This equating of “black” with “violent” and “nihilistic”, and whiteness with well-spoken respectability, has, not surprisingly, caused some controversy to ensue.

Starkey has form in this area. He has previously described himself as an “all-purpose media tart”, and courted press attention by, amongst other things, describing Scotland, Ireland and Wales as “feeble little” countries on BBC Question Time, and complaining vociferously (and to coincide with his own book being published) about the “feminising” of history. Controversy makes column inches and increases viewing figures, and David Starkey is frequently happy to oblige.

And that’s a problem, particularly with David Starkey, because he doesn’t appear on Newsnight or Question Time captioned as an “all-purpose media tart”, but rather as an “Historian.” That means that Starkey is playing the role of the academic to put across viewpoints which are deeply unacademic. Good academic historians are led by evidence. To draw conclusions evidence should be reliable, read in context and verifyable against other data or documents from the period in question. When pushed by other contributors to cite the evidence for his views in the Newsnight debate, Starkey falls back on a single text message. Really? One text? That’s all you’ve got?

One text message isn’t enough for a conclusion. Without a transcript of other texts sent by the same person in the same time period it’s not really enough to draw academic conclusions about that one person’s attitudes, style of language etc. It doesn’t get you close to the causes of a disparate event, involving hundreds of people across multiple cities. The galling thing is that Starkey knows that. He has a Phd in History. He has had a proper academic training in the handling of evidence. He is not, looking at his qualifications, a stupid man, but he appears to be a man prepared to say stupid things for attention.

A proper academic response to the riots, at this point in time, would probably start, “Well, it’s complicated..” and finish with something about “proper analysis of data from police, courts etc.” And that wouldn’t make particularly interesting television. It also wouldn’t make particularly pithy or headline grabbing public policy. It might, in the longer term, get us to a point where we understood a little bit about what actually happened last week, and what steps might be taken to minimise the risk, and effects, of a recurrence.

And that’s how I get to Carol Vordeman. (Stay with me here people – it will make sense.) The Conservative Party’s Carol Vordeman-led Maths Task Force, reported it’s conclusions earlier this month. The conclusions included suggestions such as making the study of Maths compulsory until age 18, and scrapping the Maths SAT test.

Now, I don’t want to be rude about Ms Vordeman. I have no reason to doubt her personal commitment to the improvement of standards of numeracy across the country. However, I do doubt the motivations of the Tory leadership in appointing her to lead their Maths Task Force. It seems to suggest that there was no-one available in the UK who has more relevant knowledge for this role than the lady who used to do the sums on Countdown. There are, we must logically conclude, no mathmaticians with a specialism in maths-education, no current or former teachers with ideas for reform and improvement in their specialist subject. It sounds unlikely, but why else would Vordeman have been appointed, other than that she was objectively the most qualified person for the job? It can’t possibly be because she is a media friendly face, recognisable to middle-England, and guaranteed a friendly spot on the Daybreak sofa to explain her Task Force’s reforms.

Together these two, not obviously related, news events worry me. Controversy is preferred to consideration; celebrity preferred to expertise. There isn’t a place in the news media or in political debate for those of us whose natural instinct is to think for a while before drawing conclusions. Media moves too quickly. Policies are required to be pithy, headline grabbing and immediate. Thoughtfulness is discouraged, and without thoughtfulness, I think, it’s impossible to achieve understanding. Without understanding a situation how can you draw conclusions, make decisions and plan for the future? Personally, I just don’t think you can.

Finally, just so you can check my sources, in a properly transparent “academic” way, here are some sites that relate to what I’ve written above:

Profile of David Starkey: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article4837679.ece

David Starkey on Question Time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXd5KiKWtVA

David Starkey on feminising history: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/5077505/History-has-been-feminised-says-David-Starkey-as-he-launches-Henry-VIII-series.html

Carol Vordeman on maths in schools: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14437665

And also worth a read is Starkey’s fellow Newsnight guest, Dreda Say Mitchell’s take on the whole affair: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/14/david-starkey-ethnic-year-zero

And even more finally, I haven’t written a blog explicitly about the recent riots. Mainly that was because there seemed to be an awful lot of opinion already out there, and also because all I really had to say was, “Well, it’s complicated…” but here are a couple of the more considered views I’ve read on the matter:

Peter Oborne in the Telegraph: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/peteroborne/100100708/the-moral-decay-of-our-society-is-as-bad-at-the-top-as-the-bottom/

Kevin Sampson in the Guardian (the only writer I’ve seen acknowledge that rioting can be kinda fun for the participants): http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/10/liverpool-riots-mob-mayhem?INTCMP=SRCH

What I read on my holidays…

Ok, so this is two weeks later than planned, but here it is, holiday related blogpost no.2 (if you missed number 1 it’s here: http://wp.me/p1sVoH-T) – What I read on my holidays.

I read 11 books on holiday, which for a 16 night trip is a little slow, but it was a going-out-doing-stuff holiday rather than a sitting-by-the-pool holiday so that’s ok. It was still 3 books more than I packed, so involved scavenging from husband’s bookpile and wandering the streets looking for an English-language book shop (which is now pretty much a traditional part of all our holidays).

The books were, in no particular order:

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Them by Jon Ronson

Funny Valentine by Amy Jenkins

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

This Year It Will Be Different by Maeve Binchy

Mini Shopohlic by Sophie Kinsella

And I can’t even remember what the 11th book was. I know I bought it at the St Richard’s Hospice book shop, but I have no recollection of the title, author or content. Clearly, not one that made a big impression.

So out of the ten that impinged enough for me to recall them two weeks later, what do we think? I’m quite pleased with the mix. A bit of a preponderance of chicklit, but also one collection of short stories, one blokelit, one crime/psychological thriller, a couple of “grown-up” literary prize winners, and two non-fiction (or Real Books as much beloved husband terms them). No sci-fi or fantasy, but I’ve got a Jasper Fforde and a Neil Gaiman on my to-read pile, so I’ll excuse it.

That’s my first reccomendation then. Not a particular book, more an approach to books – read widely. A lot of readers I talk to get quite hung up on particular genres – “I don’t like crime” “I can’t stand romance” “I only read non-fiction. Made up stories are a waste of time”. And I do the same. I’m not a big crime reader. This is silly of me though. There are really only two meaningful genre categories – good books and bad books. Seek out the good books, regardless of genre or amount of blood on the cover. It’s totally cool to have personal preferences and favourites, but if you only read stuff you already know you’re going to like, you never get surprised, and being surprised by a story or a writer is one of the great pleasures of reading. So off you all go and read a book you’re not sure you’re going to like.

Wait. Wait. Come back. You can do the reading thing in a minute. Turns out, I haven’t finished. I have neither the time or the energy to review 10 books in full (only 10 – really bugging me now that I can’t remember no. 11), so I’m just going to give you the edited version.

Happily none of the books I read were terrible, but some were much much better than others, so here’s my top and bottom picks from the list.

The Top Three:

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

This is a great holiday read. Easy to read, funny, fast-paced but doesn’t make you feel like your brain is atrophying while you’re reading it. What Manning has done is taken a classic romance plot – rich, powerful, older guy meets younger slightly lost woman and a whole indecent proposal thing ensues – and made it feel modern. Even more impressively she’s managed to make both characters sympathetic, so her slightly lost heroine never feels pathetic, and her older guy, whilst deeply manipulative and occasionally really unpleasant, is also vulnerable and surprisingly sexy. Probably my personal favourite read of the whole trip.

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

A book to read with your jaw on the floor in incredulity whilst all your worst suspicions about the inner workings of the British media are confirmed and exceeded. A lot of writers and commentators currently do a really good job of satirising and unpicking the worst misrepresentations that crop up in the media. Charlie Brooker and Ben Goldacre both spring immediately to mind, but, for me, this book, with it’s level of detail and specific examples, is the one to read if you are at all concerned about the impact of bad media on society as a whole. I could write a whole blog just about this subject but instead I’ll say read this book or check out the author’s website: www.flatearthnews.net

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

This book won the Booker Prize in 2008 and whilst the Booker judges have a slightly patchy record at picking books that actually qualify as being readable, this is a corker. It’s a a first person narrative, written from the point of view of a Bangalore entrepreneur, who styles himself the White Tiger. He’s a fascinating lead character, full of humour and a good dollop of moral ambiguity, and there’s enough plot in there to make this a character study that also makes the grade as a page-turner.

And two that I didn’t like so much…

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Hannah started her career as a poet, before moving into crime fiction. I believe this was her first novel, and it’s not a stinker by any means. The story centres around a woman who comes home and realises that the baby in the crib is not her child. You spend most of the book not sure whether her baby really has been abducted, or whether the lead character is insane, or whether there’s another explanation entirely. The story is told in two different timeframes with two narrators and the two narratives converge at the end of the book. It’s structurally interesting. The plot idea is sound and the method of telling is potentially effective. Ultimately, I just wasn’t feeling it. I think for this story to really work you have to engage emotionally with the main character and you have to care about what’s happened to the baby, and the writer just didn’t quite do enough to get me there. Close, but no cigar.

Mini Shopoholic by Sophie Kinsella

This is the latest book in the mega-successful shopoholic series. In a way I can’t complain about it, because you know buying a book in a series like this that you’re going to get exactly what it says on the tin, but actually that’s the source of my first problem. You get exactly what it says on the tin, and nothing more. Even within a series of novels, it’s great to be wrong-footed occasionally. The incomparable Sir Terry of Pratchett has written 38 Discworld novels, with the 39th due later this year, and at their best (see Night Watch or Monstrous Regiment) they can still push the series into new directions. Mini Shopoholic doesn’t seem to have any such ambitions. It is just another shopoholic novel; there’s nothing to make it stand out and sing on it’s own merits. My second qualm follows on from that thought and is about the story itself . There doesn’t seem to be a quite enough plot to sustain a whole book. Luke is quite busy at work. Becki organises a party. Minnie is a bit naughty. That’s pretty much it. The most interesting development, the involvement of Luke’s mum in the story, feels like a preparation for a future book, rather than an intrinsic part of this one. Personally, I think that, even within a series, each novel has to stand up on it’s own as a standalone story, and I’m not quite convinced this one does.

So there you have the books I read on holiday. Some I’d heartily recommend (and for the record Half of a Yellow Sun and Them only narrowly missed out on places in the favourites list), and a couple I wasn’t so taken with. Feel free to comment if you’ve read any of the above, or if you have any book recommendations for me. My to read pile is almost down into single figures and I’m starting to get twitchy!

Come back tomorrow (well, you know, maybe not actually tomorrow…) when I will be attempting to draw a coherent argument about stuff that encompasses Carol Vorderman making recomendations for maths teachers and David Starkey thinking the white kids talk like the black kids. It’s going to be an absolute ball.

And I’ve just remembered book number 11 – Jojo Moyes’ The Peacock Emporium. Pretty good, but not up to the standard of my favourite Moyes’ novel which I reviewed here: http://wp.me/p1sVoH-k  Oh, it’s a relief to have remembered though.

Goodbye.

What I learnt on my holidays

For my holidays I went to Switzerland. And in good, back to school, spirit I have written something about it. Here are the things I learnt on my holidays.

1. Bears can climb trees.

I saw one do it. Here: http://www.baerenpark-bern.ch/index.php?id=info&L=0  I also learnt that it is a bit unnerving to just be having a gentle stroll along the river bank, glance to your side and think, “Oh. Bears.”

2. If you are having heart-shaped balloons at your wedding, you should look at them from the top, just to be sure they don’t look like boobies.

The wedding party we saw on our last day in Switzerland had failed to do this. They had nipple balloons. How we laughed.

3. Western Europeans are totally over the whole bomb scare thing. Australians still find them quite exciting.

At Gare du Nord station, waiting to board the Eurostar back to the good ol’ UK, we were rudely interrupted by an announcement instructing us to evacuate the area due to a security alert. We should do this, the announcement said, in line with instructions from the station staff. The 300 or so people in the waiting area glanced around for some station staff to instruct us, saw none, and went back to reading their books. About ten minutes later the same announcement repeated. This time, a few people stood up, clearly feeling that they at least ought to show willing. Some station staff appeared, milled around a bit, and made no attempt to evacuate us. The people who’d stood up, now feeling they had foolishly overreacted to the risk of being blown limb from limb, tried to look as though they’d wanted to stand up anyway. Really, honestly, they were just stretching their legs. They sat down again. We all went back to reading our books. Another ten minutes or so passed, and then a medium-sized bang was heard from another part of the station. Not a “the whole place has blown up, run for your lives” bang, but not a “Oh dear, Jean Claude’s dropped another plate” sort of bang either. A medium bang. A controlled explosion sort of bang, you might say. This, at last, got a reaction from the waiting hoard. Several people looked around. A few went, “Oooh.” We all went back to reading our books. Another ten minutes or so passed and we were allowed to board our train.

On the train, we were seated across the aisle from a group of Australians, who were “doing Europe.” They seemed very pleased with the whole incident, and talked enthusiastically about how they must email home and tell everyone how they had survived a real European bomb scare. So there you go, slight risk of terrorism is apparently considered part of the modern authentic European tourist experience. Oh dear.

4. Swiss trains really do run on time.

And the station clocks pause slightly at the top of the minute. The second hand goes all the way around in about 57 seconds, pauses slightly at the top of the hour, before the minute hand clicks on and the second hand resumes it’s journey. You can watch the clock. See the minute hand click around. You then just have time to say, “We should be going now,” before the train pulls away. It’s very impressive.

5. Switzerland really is excruciatingly expensive.

People told me this before we went. It’s one of the things everyone knows about Switerland. Mountains, chocolate, cuckoo clocks, Nazi gold, very expensive. Basically the Swiss are rich. Their GDP is around $67000 per capita. The UK’s is around $35000 per capita. So there’s an awful lot more money floating around. This is a bit of a pain from a tourist point of view. You  have two choices. Either you don’t eat and only do free activities. Or you absolutely cane your credit cards and decide to worry about it later. Hmmm… yeah… about that… *shuffles feet a bit* There might need to be a tiny bit of belt tightening round these parts over the next couple of months.

So that’s what I learnt on my holidays. Try to only overspend within numbers the human brain can count up to, and look out for bears.

Come back for tomorrow for “What I read on my holidays…”