Reading & other reviews

In which I have read some books

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Hello. I’m here at the blogface, peering hazily at the date on my last post and blowing a layer of dust off my keyboard (because obviously I have a special blogging keyboard which isn’t used for any other activities). It has been too long fair blog readers. Apologies, and with no further ado, let’s get some blog posting done.

As it’s getting near to Christmas and the end of the year and all that sort of stuff I thought you might like an end of year book review sort of thing. It’s a post that would be very timely if these were all books published during 2016, but they’re not. They’re books I just happen to have read during 2016. Ah well, I’m sure we can all agree to go with the flow a bit on that one.

Anyway I’ve read lots of things this year. Here are some of my favourites that I would heartily recommend to you all… I will acknowledge that a lot of these are by writers I know. That’s a problem if you’re an author, particularly if you’re involved in organisations like the RNA or Society of Authors – you tend to meet a lot of writers. All of these are books I genuinely enjoyed though – trust me; I have very honest blogging fingers.

S0, without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my super-short bite-sized books of 2016 reviews…

Falling by Julie Cohen

This *might* be my book of the year, if I don’t become distracted by one of the other books further down the list. The characterisation is incredible – the story follows three generations of women and they’re all beautifully drawn. I fell especially in love with Honor, the grandmother, and Lydia, the teenage daughter. They both felt like characters I haven’t seen a gazillion times before in commerical fiction. It’s really a very good book indeed.

 

Please Release Me – Rhoda Baxter

This is a book where you start off reading and you’re thinking ‘Ok, I get what sort of book this is…’ and then all of a sudden it takes a fantastic turn and you’re reading something quite different and quite unique. It’s funny and clever and I sort of don’t want to describe the story too much because I don’t want to spoil it, but Sally and Grace are fantastic main characters, and the plot is wonderfully not-average.

 

We Are All Made of Stars – Rowan Coleman

I cried. A lot. A lot of the action of this one is set in a hospice and you get glimpses of the different patients’ lives, stories and regrets. It’s beautifully written and the main plot strands are fantastic, but it’s the glimpses of those different lives that tips this from being good to great for me. It’s a wonderful book, but make sure you have tissues to hand before you start reading.

 

I Don’t Want To Talk About It – Jane Lovering

It was the setting and the theme of this book that got me really excited. Essentially, and without veering into spoilers, it’s a rom-com about loss. I firmly believe that comedy is a completely appropriate way of dealing with big, dark, horrible things – it’s possible that I watched too many episodes of M*A*S*H at a formative age – and this book does that beautifully. And it’s set in Yorkshire as many of the best things are.

So there’s a smattering of my reading this year – I also very much enjoyed Little Girl Lost by my writing/tutoring partner-in-crime, Janet Gover, and a little-hyped tome, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling. That’s the book of the play scripts that serve as a sequel to the Harry Potter book series. I’m not sure why they chose to do it as a play this time – I can only assume that the original books didn’t do that well. Yes. That’s almost certainly probably it. I know some readers struggled with the script format, and obviously it’s conceived to be watched rather than read, but if the budget doesn’t run to a trip to the West End then I’d say the book is well worth reading.

Apart from Harry Potter, my reading this year does seem to have been very ‘commercial women’s fiction’ dominated. So please leave any recommendations for next year’s reading, particularly stuff in other genres, in the comments…

In which I have been to Edinburgh (again)

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Another August, another trip to Edinburgh to view many forms of entertainment. I went to the Edinburgh fringe for the first time two years ago, and again last year, and I now basically consider Edinburgh during August to be my spiritual home. It’s full of comedians and fire-eaters and artists and places that are prepared to sell you a chocolate and banana crepe. And I like all those things. Very much.*

We were in Edinburgh for about 4 and a half days this time and packed in 23 shows. They were… Andrew Doyle, Mark Steele, Extreme Broadcasting, Mitch Benn. Thrones!, Wendy Wason, Shappi Khorsandi,  Pippa Evans, Matt Forde, Showstoppers, Jess Robinson, Austentatious, Ed Gamble, Katy Brand, Sarah Kendall, Mark Watson, Set List, Crosstentatious, Kirsty Newton, Funny for a Grrrl, Cambridge Footlights, Mary Lunn Rajskub, and Shitfaced Shakespeare.

Now I’m not going to review 23 shows. That would be a very long blogpost. For the completists amongst you though here’s a picture of the official Edinburgh 2016 Napkin of Record that shows my score for every show and EngineerBoy’s score as well for good measure. I had assumed that all fringe attendees maintained an official Napkin of Record but we showed ours to a random bloke we met on the last day and he reacted as if it was a bit odd. He was, of course, mistaken. The Napkin of Record is special and good and definitely normal.

Edinburgh 2016 Napkin of Record

As you can see there were no total duffers in this year’s selection. There were three perfect 10s (or technically perfect 20s) amongst the standup comedians – Shappi Khorsandi, Mark Watson and Ed Gamble. All three were fantastic. I’ve seen Shappi Khorsandi and Mark Watson live before and both were every bit as good as expected. Ed Gamble gets a hint of a bonus mark for being slightly less of a known quantity and being entirely brilliant with a set that was definitely absolutely not solely about cauliflower. Overall though I’d say Mark Watson was the best standup we saw this year. Go and see him if you get chance. He’s very funny indeed.

The other perfect 20s were for Austentatious and Showstoppers. Both are sort of fringe institutions and both are entirely made up on the spot. Showstoppers is an improvised musical set in a location of the audience’s choosing and featuring songs in styles called out by the audience. Austentatious is a play in the style of Jane Austen improvised in response to a title picked at random from those suggested by the audience. Both are brilliant. EngineerBoy reckoned he slightly preferred Austentatious – indeed we liked them so much we went back later the same day to see them do it all again with women dressed as men and vice versa. Despite that I’m refusing to separate these two. They are both brilliant and you should all go and see them both, possibly many many times. That’s the beauty of improvised shows – you can just keep going back. Both have shows coming up around the country after Edinburgh so you can all go. Lucky lucky you.

I feel that Mitch Benn, Matt Forde, Pippa Evans and Sarah Kendall can rightly feel a little hard done by amongst the comedians, as can the casts of Thrones! and Shitfaced Shakespeare. They all scored in the 9 to 9.5 range and could easily have been 10s if the chairs had been more comfortable or the blood-alcohol level more amenable to not needing to pee during their shows. All very very good indeed.

Shitfaced Shakespeare deserve a special honourable mention. The concept is simple; it’s a Shakespeare play (this year it’s Measure for Measure) but one random member of the cast spends the 4 hours before the performance getting completely hammered. The results are v funny, unless you’re the person in the front row who’s made to hold the emergency bucket. In that case I imagine it’s quite nerve-wracking. In the performance we saw the drunk performer had a really quite endearing tendency to correct her colleagues and make them do bits again if she thought they hadn’t gone right. She also kept explaining what she was supposed to be doing to the audience, and did a lovely monologue in the middle – entirely unrelated to the play – about contraceptive choices. Very very daft but very very funny.

So that was our Edinburgh Fringe 2016. There were at least another 100 shows we could have seen quite happily and I really want to go back already. *sigh*

 

* Apart from fire-eaters to be honest. They make me a tiny bit nervous.

In which it is Christmas and there are even more kisses

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*Clears throat in preparation for grand announcement*

Ladies and Gentledudes, please be most excitable for the great and wondrous news

*small drumroll*

I have a new book out!

Ok, so it’s not that great and wondrous. I’m a writer the having a new book out is very much to be expected, but still, I spend a lot of time at home staring at a blank page. This is what passes for excitement in my world.

Jessica’s Christmas Kiss, the third in the Christmas Kisses series is available to order from today, and will be out in the world and potentially winging it’s way to a kindle (or kindle app) near you from Saturday.

It has a gorgeous Christmassy cover (courtesy of the very clever Berni Stevens).

Jessica Cover

And here’s what it’s all about…

Real Christmas miracles only ever happen in the movies – don’t they?

When Jessica was fifteen, she shared the perfect kiss with a mystery boy at a Christmas party. It might have only lasted a moment, and the boy might have disappeared shortly afterwards but, to Jessica, it was just a little bit magic.

Fourteen years later, and Jessica is faced with a less than magical Christmas after uncovering her husband’s secret affair. And, whilst she wouldn’t admit it, she sometimes finds herself thinking about that perfect Christmas kiss, back when her life still seemed full of hope and possibility.

But she never would have guessed that the boy she kissed in the kitchen all those years ago might still think about her too …

So, in conclusion… New book! Yay! Please feel most very welcome and encouraged to buy, read, and, I hope, enjoy.

52 Weeks:52 Books – August & September

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Months 8 and 9 of the 52 books challenge are getting rolled together, which frankly is going to make September look a lot better than it actually was. In reality I’ve read one book during September and, at the time of writing I haven’t technically quite finished that one, but I very nearly almost have so I’m counting it, which means that the books I can now tick off the To Read list are:

Book 22: Alan Cumming – Not My Father’s Son

Book 23: Emily Barr – The First Wife

Book 24: Danny Wallace – Who is Tom Ditto?

Book 25: Jo Thomas – The Oyster Catcher

Which means that I’m only one book off the halfway point, and it’s only 3/4 of the way through the year. Hmmm. Ah well, maybe 52 weeks: 33 Books would have been more realistic but not such a good title, so what can you do? I guess at this stage the best thing is to just embrace inevitable failure, keep reading and then try the whole endeavour again in 2016.

As for the books I’ve read recently, they were a good bunch. Alan Cumming’s memoir was probably the standout. It’s not a standard celebrity autobiography. It’s a memoir of an abusive childhood, interwoven with the story of his grandfather which came to light when Cumming went on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and the story of a personal shock he was dealing with in the here and now while filming the episode. It’s incredibly well-written, with real warmth and self-awareness.

As for the others, The Oyster Catcher has a great hero – great enough that I can just about forgive it for beating Sweet Nothing to the Joan Hessayon Award in 2014. Emily Barr is always awesome, and The First Wife is probably one of my favourites of hers that I’ve read so far. And I also enjoyed Who Is Tom Ditto? I wasn’t 100% sold on Danny Wallace’s first novel, Charlotte Street; the premise felt a bit contrived and a bit thin to support the weight of the story, but Who Is Tom Ditto? is richer and more intriguing.

The idea of throwing myself headlong into reading this year was originally all about the idea that reading makes writers better. I have no doubt that that’s true, but what is even more true, for me at least, is that writing makes readers worse. I still suffer from seeing the technique over and above the story. So how do any other writers out there fare? Does writing affect how or what you read?

In which I tell you what I did on my holiday. With graphs.

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I’ve just got home from my holidays. I went to Scotland – first to the highlands where there are red squirrels and pine martens and reindeer and dolphins, and second to Edinburgh where there is much festivalication and fringesomeness. And, as I did last year, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the Edinburgh Fringe shows we saw, along with some recommendations. And I thought I’d use graphs.*

So let’s start with the rundown of which shows EngineerBoy and myself managed to get along to:

What we saw

So that’s quite a mix. Shall we have a look at precisely what sort of a mix. Yes. Yes. We shall.

What did we see.png

So that shows a bit of a bias towards stand-up comedy, which becomes more marked if you factor in the ‘Comedy +’ events. But comedy is marvellous, and we got in some talks by proper scientists with Professor in front of their names as well, so it’s all good.

So, I hear you ask, how did you rate the shows you saw? Well, gentle reader, I rated them like this:

My scores

My top scorers there are the impressively eclectic pairing of the Festival of the Spoken Nerd and Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. Both of those shows were fantastic. The first is Helen Arney, Steve Mould and Matt Parker who do comedy about science and maths, and set fire to stuff. The second is an entirely improvised musical. One of them included an entirely brilliant pastiche of a song from Wicked! and it’s not the one you’d expect.

But, I hear you mutter, that’s a only one person’s opinion. Can’t you find some way to broaden your data set? Well yes. I can. As mentioned above, I took EngineerBoy to Edinburgh with me for this very purpose. Here are his scores:

EngineerBoy's scores

It’s no surprise that EngineerBoy also liked the Spoken Nerds. He wore his ‘Stand back – I’m going to try science’ t-shirt most of the time we were in Edinburgh so going to see the nerds was really a trip to his personal EngineerBoy happy place. He also gave perfect scores to Andrew Maxwell and Alex Horne. Andrew Maxwell probably suffered slightly on my list because he was one of my favourite acts of the fringe last year, and so expectations were very very high. He was very very good, but I expected him to be, so didn’t have the thrill you get when a performer exceeds expectations. That was probably deeply unfair scoring on my part, but it’s my blog, so tough.

We saw Alex Horne performing his Monsieur Butterfly show in which he… well he sort of… well it involves…. erm… well you should definitely go and see it if you get the chance. It was brilliant. Weird. But brilliant.

I notice, looking back at my scores, that I gave Alex Horne 9.5, whereas EngineerBoy didn’t give any half points at all. This smacks of weak-mindedness and a lack of decisiveness on my part. If I’d stuck to a whole integer scoring system Alex Horne may well have snuck a perfect 10 from me too. I’ve given quite a few half points actually. I’m disappointed in myself. If half points suggest indecisiveness here’s how indecisive I am:

My decisiveness

Anyway, I digressed. I imagine that what you’d really like to see now is the cumulative scores from both judges ranked from worst to best. At least I hope that’s what you’d like to see, because that’s what you’re going to get. Here it is:

Final Scores

So there you go. The Festival of the Spoken Nerd are officially and indisputably the best show of the fringe 2015. Good to have that cleared up.

A quick mention as well for the two acts tied in fifth place on the overall chart. Matt Forde is a political comedian and impressionist who does a hysterical Ed Miliband impression – see him now before we all forget who Ed Miliband is. And Nathan Caton was probably the act who most exceeded expectations, I’ve seen/heard him a couple of times on TV and radio and thought he was ok, but live he was very good indeed – relaxed, consistently funny and with a particular point of view that differentiated him from the mass of stand-ups we saw over the four days at the fringe.

There’s also a couple of acts on there that I think can feel a bit hard done by to not make the top 5 – Jess Robinson probably really deserved a 9 from me for her impression of Nicki Minaj singing nursery rhymes alone, and Richard Wiseman deserved more than an 8 from EngineerBoy but he’s a tough judge, and I’m just reporting the results – it would be Very Wrong for me to go about changing his scores just because he hasn’t done them right.**

So that’s my experience of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe in graphs (with thanks to the Festival of the Spoken Nerd for graphly inspiration.)

And as ever now you finished being blogged at, you could consider buying a book. Sweet Nothing is out in paperback now you know, and it involves comedy, romance and maths, so is potentially pleasing to nerds and non-nerds alike.

*Technically mainly charts. Yes. I know.

** ‘Right’ – ie. how I think they should have been.

In which we have a winner

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Yesterday was Awesome Birthday Giveaway Day and now it’s time to announce the winner of a signed copy of Sweet Nothing and lots of other lovely Sweet Nothing and Midsummer Dreams book swag.

Sweet Nothing pb giveaway

This was the question:

Add a comment below, telling me which Shakespeare play you’d most like to read a contemporary adaptation of and why? I’ve done Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Which play would you like to see as book 3 in the 21st Century Bard series?

There were were 25 entries and picking a winner was really hard, so before I announce the winner, here are some honourable mentions for those comments that didn’t quite make it to the top of the podium but made me smile.

Gill Stewart made a good bid for glory by suggesting a play that would give me an excuse for a holiday: “The Tempest, it has to be The Tempest. I was first drawn to read the play by Mary Stewart’s brilliant novel This Rough Magic which refers to it constantly. Recently visited Corfu, re-read This Rough Magic and then had to re-read The Tempest too! You can do it Alison – and it would defnitely require a visit to Greece.” Tempting, but not quite a winner I’m afraid.

John Jackson went as far as coming up with a modern title for his suggestion, which always helps. I’m terrible at titles! “As You Like It – retitled as “Whatever!””

Christine Stovell and Janet Gover had the same suggestion – The Scottish Play, and it’s certainly one of my favourite plays, but not really ideal for a rom com makeover!

There were a couple of votes for Measure for Measure, but Callydcfc gets a special mention for having a most excellent reason: “Measure for Measure. It’s got nuns in it. Who doesn’t love a good nun story?” Who indeed?

And my final honourable mention goes to Ros Gemmell who came within a hair’s breadth of the prize, and actually suggested the same play as the winner – The Taming of the Shrew.

But now… *drum roll please*… it’s time to announce the winner. And, the winner, because I’m absolutely intrigued by the idea of gender flipping this particular play, is … Manda Jane Ward. Here’s her comment: “Taming of the Shrew…as its the only Shakespeare play I really enjoyed as Kiss Me Kate. Except with the reverse…have the man as the shrew and the woman using her moxy to get her man. Howard Keel was so gorgeous and manly.” And obviously additional points were awarded for use of the word ‘moxy.’

So congratulations Manda! Please contact me with your address and I’ll get your prize in the post to you. Thank you to everyone else who entered. It was a lovely way to celebrate my book (and actual) birthday.

The 21st Century Bard Series

Sweet Nothing is out now in ebook and paperback.

Would you risk everything for love?

Independent, straight-talking Trix Allen wouldn’t. She’s been in love once before and ended up with nothing. Now safely single, Trix is as far away from the saccharine-sweet world of hearts and flowers as it’s possible to be.

Ben Messina is the man who broke Trix’s heart. Now he’s successful the only thing rational Ben and free-spirited Trix see eye-to-eye on is the fact that falling in love isn’t part of the plan. But when Ben’s brother sets out to win the heart of Trix’s best friend, romance is very much in the air. Will Trix gamble everything on love and risk ending up with zero once again?

Sweet Nothing is a fresh and funny retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, set in the present day. 

And Midsummer Dreams is out now for kindle.

Four people. Four messy lives. One night that changes everything …
Emily is obsessed with ending her father’s new relationship – but is blind to the fact that her own is far from perfect.
Dominic has spent so long making other people happy that he’s hardly noticed he’s not happy himself.
Helen has loved the same man, unrequitedly, for ten years. Now she may have to face up to the fact that he will never be hers.
Alex has always played the field. But when he finally meets a girl he wants to commit to, she is just out of his reach.
At a midsummer wedding party, the bonds that tie the four friends together begin to unravel and show them that, sometimes, the sensible choice is not always the right one.

A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

52 Weeks: 52 Books – July

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Last month’s 52 Weeks: 52 Books update ended with the realisation that I needed to  read 11 books in July to get back on track. In reality I managed to read… 2. So that went well. The two I read were:

Book 20: Jane Wenham-Jones – 100 Ways To Fight The Flab and still have wine and chocolate

Book 21: Maggie O’Farrell – Instructions for a Heatwave

Instructions for a Heatwave is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read and never quite got around to. I’m glad I did, and I particularly enjoyed the second half of the story, but I did struggle to get into it. That seems to be a bit of a pattern. I race through the second half of books but it takes me a long time to get fully involved in the story. I’m wondering if that’s a side effect of being a writer – it just takes longer to get engaged with a story because of the amount of your brain that’s already full of the story that you’re working on yourself.

100 Ways to Fight the Flab was an interesting read. I don’t generally do diet books (and yes – I know that this isn’t technically a ‘diet book’ but, as the author acknowledges, all diet books say that!) I don’t really buy into anything at all to do with weight loss as an industry – the very notion makes me shudder, but Jane gave me a copy of her book at the RNA Conference this year, so I set out to read with an open mind. And I did read it. And it didn’t make me shudder. Jane’s basic premise is that joyless self-denial is not a workable long-term strategy, but there’s no one size fits all approach to weight loss or maintenance, so she offers a vast array of pick and mix (mmmm… pick and mix) tips and suggestions ranging from big lifestyle change stuff to tiny tweaks and tricks. Reading it definitely made me refocus on losing weight, and some of the tips – dark chocolate, 5:2, fanatical adherence to the pedometer – have filtered into my life or been reinforced where I was already doing them. Will reading this book make you thin if you have a lifelong problem with obesity? On its own, no, but if you’re already in the right frame of mind it could make the whole endeavour feel more manageable. Could it be helpful if you’re a healthy weight and need to maintain it, or need to lose 5-10lbs before the fatness situation gets out of hand? Yes. I think it probably could.

So those were July’s books. I’m now another two books behind schedule, so only need to get through 18 in August to catch up. Gulp!

In unrelated news, my own first novel, Sweet Nothing, is out in paperback this week. Those of you who are twitter peoples, keep an eye on @MsAlisonMay tomorrow for a chance to win a signed copy.