Reading & other reviews
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any writer in possession of a wish to get better at writering must also be in want of some awesome writers to read. It’s a bit of a cliche to say that in order to get good at writing you need to read a lot. But it’s also completely true. Unfortunately, it can also be equally true that the more immersed in writing as a craft you become the harder it is to disengage writer-brain and just fall in love with a story. There are some writers whose books reliably creep past my inner editor and make me love reading again, and so I thought a little blog feature celebrating those people might be a very lovely thing to do.
So the first author I want to sing the praises of is… Natasha Solomons. I bought Natasha Solomons’ first novel Mr Rosenblum’s List when it first came out but for reasons of massive To Read pile I didn’t sit down to read it for years after I bought it. And it was a treat. It’s amusing and easy to read, which sounds like damning with faint praise, but easy to read is often really hard to write. It can take a huge amount of effort to make something look truly effortless.
The joy of leaving Mr Rosenblum’s List languishing on the To Read pile for so long was that by the time I got to it Solomons had another two (and now three, soon to be four) books out. I ration my reading of Natasha Solomons’ books. I could devour them all, one after another, over a single long weekend, but instead I make myself wait until a moment when I really need to lose myself in something beautiful. And then I pick out the next one from the To Read pile.
And she always pulls me into the story. Her books tend to focus on family and relationships, often examining how one difference in character, or one decision, or one sacrifice can echo through the years of a character’s life. She writes characters and places beautifully. But it’s not the themes or the story, or the characters, or the settings, that so reliably pulls me in to her writing. It’s the writing itself.
In On Writing Stephen King quotes Amy Tan as noting that nobody ever asks commercial fiction writers about the language. It’s a question that’s reserved for the Rushdies and the Amises of the literary world. But language matters in all fiction. Language can create a tense, jittery dystopia or a warm, inviting world. Language can be made to work really had to show the reader what is happening on the surface and what is hidden underneath. And Solomons uses language exquisitely – her prose wraps around you and pulls you into the world she’s creating. You can touch the stonework and smell the flowers. You can hear the different rhythms of speech between two brothers grown together and then separated by education and experience. I’m in love with her writing.
Read this author to: get swept away by the writing
Is Heathcliff a romantic hero? He’s dark and brooding and he dominates Wuthering Heights even during the long sections where he’s not on the page. And wherever two or three romantic authors are gathered in one place, his romantic hero status is a topic that’s highly likely to come up for discussion. And it’s one where I’ve always been firmly on the ‘Hell, no!’ side of the argument.
Team Romantic-Heathcliff will argue, quite rightly, that he is horribly mistreated and ostracized as a child and his adult anger is firmly rooted in a childhood of neglect and abuse. They’ll point out that Cathy is just as much at fault for the horrendous omnishambles of their relationship as Heathcliff. They’ll point out that he always puts Cathy on a pedestal and idealizes her throughout the story. And they’ll be right. They’ll generally go a bit quiet when we get onto discussing the whole ‘digging up her corpse’ thing, which even for the most ardent Heathcliff fan is tricky to sell, but generally all the points above are entirely correct.
But I still can’t see Heathcliff as a romantic, or heroic, figure. And it’s not because of how he treats Cathy. It’s because of how he treats everyone else, and specifically how he treats Isabella. Without over-spoilering either Wuthering Heights or The Heights, let me gently remind you that Cathy isn’t Heathcliff’s only romantic entanglement. He also gets involved with Isabella Linton – when I reread Wuthering Heights before starting writing on The Heights, Isabella was the character that most resonated with me. Heathcliff doesn’t love Isabella. He doesn’t care about her at all actually.
And I think you can judge people by how they treat those they’re not emotionally invested in. I am completely comfortable with judging people in real-life based on how they talk to waiters and shop assistants. And so far as Heathcliff is concerned Isabella’s physical and emotional wellbeing is about as important to him as that of a waitress who once handed him a coffee and was never seen again. And he treats her horrendously – he brutalizes her – which can’t be excused because she’s not the love of his life. Excusing Heathcliff’s treatment of Isabella by claiming that he treats Cathy better is in the same territory as defending a serial killer cos he was nice to his mum. I mean great for the mum and everything, but even she would probably have preferred the ‘not murdering’ option.
For me Isabella is the real heroine of Wuthering Heights and she’s a heroine for the #MeToo world we live in now. She’s the only character in the story who clearly recognises the abusive nature of her situation and takes definite steps to change it. If you come to Wuthering Heights looking for heroism, I don’t think Heathcliff has much to offer you. Isabella on the other hand is heroic. She tries to change her situation and she tries to protect her child. Whether she’s successful or not is something you’ll just have to read a book to find out…
Two hundred years since Emily Brontë’s birth comes The Heights: a modern re-telling of Wuthering Heights set in 1980s Yorkshire.
A grim discovery brings DCI Lockwood to Gimmerton’s Heights Estate – a bleak patch of Yorkshire he thought he’d left behind for good. There, he must do the unthinkable, and ask questions about the notorious Earnshaw family.
Decades may have passed since Maggie closed the pits and the Earnshaws ran riot – but old wounds remain raw. And, against his better judgement, DCI Lockwood is soon drawn into a story.
A story of an untameable boy, terrible rage, and two families ripped apart. A story of passion, obsession, and dark acts of revenge. And of beautiful Cathy Earnshaw – who now lies buried under cold white marble in the shadow of the moors.
My excellent writing chum Rhoda Baxter has a shiny new book out today. Here’s what it’s all about: Grown up tomboy Olivia doesn’t need a man to complete her. Judging by her absent father, men aren’t that reliable anyway. She’s got a successful career, good friends and can evict spiders from the bath herself, so she doesn’t need to settle down, thanks.
Walter’s ex is moving his daughter to America and Walter feels like he’s losing his family. When his friend-with-benefits, Olivia, discovers she’s pregnant by her douchebag ex, Walter sees the perfect chance to be part of a family with a woman he loves. But how can Walter persuade the most independent woman he’s ever met to accept his help, let alone his heart?
Girl In Trouble is the third book in the award nominated Smart Girls series by Rhoda Baxter. If you like charming heroes, alpha heroines and sparkling dialogue, you’ll love this series. Ideal for fans of Sarah Morgan, Lindsey Kelk or Meg Cabot’s Boy books. Buy now and meet your new favourite heroine today.
So obviously you should all run along and buy it. Off you go (and then come back and read the rest of my witterings).
*Looks at a picture of Rhoda’s lovely cover to pass the time*
OK. Hopefully you’ve all done your buying and are back now for the wittering. Rhoda has thoughtfully handed out prompts to steer the book-celebratory blogging. Which is good. At the very least it should stop me from becoming distracted and talking about cheese. Mmmmmm cheese.
So here goes:
In Girl in Trouble the characters experience changes that they thing are bad, but turn out to be positive. Have you ever had a blessing in disguise?
Erm. Probably. *thinks hard*
It’s easy to think that probably change is bad. Favourite restaurants declaring a New Menu is always, absolutely and without exception bad. Pretty much all forms of political upheaval at the moment seem to tend towards the horrendous, horrible, terrible nightmare end of the spectrum. My favourite boots have a hole in – I am already pretty much 100% sure that whatever new boots I end up with will not be as good.
But current perfect favourite new boots were once the replacement for previous perfect favourite boots. Favourite burger place closing and being replaced by a plethora of trendy hipster* burger places, can lead to the perfection of the perfect burger in one’s own kitchen. And America electing an orange-skinned idiot show that…. No, sorry. On that one I’ve got nothing.
What is definitely true though is that change will happen. Old things break and fade away. Some of them we miss; some we’re delighted to see the back of. And that can be a useful thought to hold onto on days when everything just seems a bit too miserablist. This too shall pass, as a wise person once said.** And sometimes the really great things from the past come back and they’re better because you’ve had time to miss them. The Paddington movie, ballroom dancing on telly, actual left-wing politics – all things we might have thought we’d left behind, and all back retooled and reworked for the 21st Century. Now we just need to add simple burgers (bun, burger, slice of tomato, sad piece of lettuce, cheese, bacon maybe if you’re feeling fancy) to that list and life truly will be good again.
In the meantime, go read Girl in Trouble. There’s a good sausage.
*Trendiness has no place in relation to burgers. Some things exist beyond fashion. Having a trendy burger is like having a trendy roof. It just makes no sense to anyone attempting to claim any level of sanity.
** A wise Persian person apparently according to Wikipedia. Who knew?
This year we saw 30 shows in six and half days. As always, there was a neatly worked out official record of the events, which only has a small to moderate greasy stain on it.
And as there are still 5 days of the fringe left, I thought I’d offer some reviews and recommendations, and to do this I’ve broken down the shows we saw into arbitrary and essentially meaningless categories. They really are senseless categories. Some things appear twice. At least one show doesn’t appear at all. It really hasn’t quite worked out. Anyway, here we go…
Shortlist – Showstopper!, Into the Woods, Baby Wants Candy
Straight away we see the insanity of the categorisations, because two of these shows, Showstopper! and Baby Wants Candy, are musicals wholly improvised by the cast and band on the spot, whilst the third was written in advance by Stephen Sondheim, who presumably was sitting down in a room with thinking time and the ability to cross stuff out and try again. Already it’s not a level playing field.
Judging them just on their merits as musicals then, fairly unsurprisingly Into the Woods is the category winner. And it’s actually a very good production – really strong performances in terms of both acting and vocals, and it whipped along a nice clip. I love Into the Woods, but the second half can drag a little bit. Here it didn’t. Definitely worth going to see.
Honorable mentions nonetheless for Showstopper! and Baby Wants Candy. I really enjoyed them both. I’ve seen Showstopper! twice before, whereas I was a Baby Wants Candy newbie. Both are hysterical and the musical and lyrical talent to improvise a whole 1 hour musical is jawdropping. For me the Showstopper! cast have a little bit more range and precision in their adoption of different musical theatre styles, so if you’re living the sort of hellish existence where you only have time to see one improvised musical, that’s the one I’d go for.
Shortlist – Showstopper!, Austentatious, Rhapsodes, Baby Wants Candy, Folie a Deux
So now Showstopper! and Baby Wants Candy appear again. These categories really are a mess, aren’t they? And we’ve already established that I liked Showstopper! the best of those two, so unfortunately that means Baby Wants Candy are out of the running in this category too.
The other three shows in the bracket are: Austentatious – a whole improvised play in the style of Jane Austen; Rhapsodes – Shakespeare/poetry based improvisation (which is way way funnier than that makes it sound); and Folie a Deux, which is a two-person improvised sketch show sort of a jobby thing (also way funnier than that makes it sound). And these three are really hard to separate. For technical wonderment Rhapsodes are hard to beat – they improvise scenes and poems in the styles of Shakespeare, Pinter, Poe and Chaucer (again it’s way funnier than I’m making it sound). Folie a Deux’s show is surreal and funny and I left believing that one day I might grow up to be lacrosse champion of the world. Finally, Austentatious, improvise a play in the style of Jane Austen based on a title suggested at random by the audience. The day we saw them the title selected lumbered 90% of the cast with having to do the whole thing with Belfast accents, with varying levels of success, embarrassment and horror.
For me Austentatious just sneak this category, for pure number of laughs per minute combined with an almost coherent plot, but the Folie a Deux performers also perform with Austentatious, and the Rhapsodes team are also part of Showstopper! So in short Austentatious and Showstopper! are both brilliant – take any opportunity to see both or to see their members’ other shows.
Best Sketch Show
Shortlist – Cambridge Footlights, Oxford Revue, Ingrid Oliver, The Canon, Folie a Deux.
Ingrid Oliver is sort of a wild card here, because hers was a one-woman show rather than a classic sketch show, but she does different characters in different settings so I’m calling it a sketch show. (What’s that you say? These categories are insane? No. No. I think they’re fine…) The characterisations were spot on, particularly the sub-Katie Hopkins phone-in host and the Student Union President with the no-platforming dilemma.
Cambridge Footlights and Oxford Revue are both student shows. Unsurprisingly that means you get a bit less polish and in both shows, particularly Oxford Revue, my writer brain was itching to get my hands on their script and attack it vigorously with a red pen. There were some good ideas in both, but there were more laughs to be squeezed out of those ideas and there was some flab that could have been cut more vigorously.
The Canon is a literary-themed sketch show from ‘By No Mean Feat’. What they brought was the polish and the editing that Footlights and the Oxford Revue lacked in places. Their re-enactment of Romeo and Juliet to the Taylor Swift song was a highlight, as were their skits on Macbeth and 80 Days Around the World. This is a tight category between The Canon and Folie a Deux. The Canon obviously benefited from editing and rehearsal, so as with the musicals, we’re not comparing like with like. Folie a Deux were hysterically funny though. Aaargh… I can’t call it. The Canon and Folie a Deux are joint winners here.
Best solo comedy (with singing)
Shortlist – Jan Ravens, Mitch Benn, Michelle McManus, Pippa Evans, Tim Vine, Rachel Parris
Yeah – I’ve arbitrarily broken the solo comedy shows down into ‘with singing’ and ‘without singing’. And technically I’ve not even done that right. John Robins does do singing, but no instrument and no backing track so I didn’t count it. Random, but my blog, my rules.
Five of the acts here really impressed me – Jan Ravens, Mitch Benn, Michelle McManus, Pippa Evens and Rachel Parris (and those last two are Showstopper! and Austentatious performers respectively – see I told you there were good). Mitch Benn and Pippa Evans are, I think, the only two acts we’ve seen every time we’ve been to the fringe, which is a strong recommendation, but unfortunately it means that they are kind of known quantities which makes it hard for them to push into ‘wow factor’ category winner status. The act that most surprised me was Michelle McManus – she was a bit of a random pick, because it’s important to have some random picks in your fringe schedule – and she was joyful and self-deprecating and very very funny.
My category winner though is Jan Ravens. Her Difficult Woman show felt like a show from a performer really coming into her own and claiming centre stage. She’s helped, as an impressionist, by the unprecedented number of high-profile political women around at the moment, and she ‘does’ Teresa May, Diane Abbott and Nicola Sturgeon to good comic effect. On paper I don’t think she was the highest scorer in the category but her show stayed with me, so she sneaks the top spot.
Best solo comedy (without singing)
Shortlist – Kiri Pritchard-Mclean, Mark Watson, Tom Allen, Viv Groskop, Fred MacAulay, Shappi Khorsandi, James Acaster, Ellie Taylor, Ed Gamble, Neil Delamere, Mark Thomas, Matt Forde, Ingrid Oliver, John Robins
AKA the ‘everybody else’ category. Too many acts to go through them all, other than to say there was nobody I’d actively advise you to avoid. I loved many of these shows – Kiri Pritchard-Mclean, Tom Allen, Fred MacAulay, James Acaster, Mark Thomas and Matt Forde could all have been contenders, but it’s a crowded category, so I’ve got to be tough.
My even shorter shortlist then is Mark Watson, Shappi Khorsandi, Ed Gamble, Neil Delamere and John Robins. On paper Ed Gamble is the only perfect 20 there, so he should win. Worth noting that he was a perfect 20 last year as well, which on the greasy paper/napkin based scoring record is no mean feat. For me he’s a comedian you have to see live to get the full impression – on TV I think he’s good, but in the room he’s great.
Mark Watson and Shappi Khorsandi are two of my favourite stand-ups – I’ve seen them both multiple times before, and will see them again whenever possible, and neither of their shows this year disappointed at all. Shappi Khorsandi’s had the additional benefit of being about Lady Emma Hamilton who is one of my favourite historical figures.*
The two new performers (for me) were Neil Delamere and John Robins. Both of their shows have a personal dimension – Delamere talks about his father and the end of an era in their relationship, and Robins talks more literally about the actual end of a relationship. More personal/confessional stand-up shows can be horrendous. There’s a risk that it becomes an awkward navel-gazing self-indulgence. Both Delamere and Robins avoid that by remembering that it also has to be funny, and they are both very very funny.
I’m struggling to choose between these five acts but, again in direct contradiction of the scores of the greasy paper, I’m giving it to John Robins. The phrase ‘display lentils’ will forever be shorthand in our house for particular type of wanker.
*Stand by for that blog post in a slow week ‘In which I list my favourite historical figures…’
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…
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.
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.
*Clears throat in preparation for grand announcement*
Ladies and Gentledudes, please be most excitable for the great and wondrous news
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).
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.