52 Weeks:52 Books – August & September

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.

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

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

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.

 

52 Weeks: 52 Books – June

I’ve reached the halfway point in the 52 Weeks:52 books challenge in terms of time, but I’m still well short of halfway in terms of books read. July and August really need to be months of Awesome Readingness to get me back on track. During June I read

Book 18: Sarah Rayner – The Two Week Wait

Book 19: Clare Mackintosh – I Let You Go

I also strongly feel that I read something else, but I can’t remember what it was so I can’t get the points for it. Given that I’m seven books behind schedule this is deeply frustrating, but I’ve rifled through the book shelves and bedside table and scrolled through my kindle and I can’t work out what it might have been. Clearly, I’ve either made the whole experience up, or it was a seriously unmemorable read.

Both the books I do remember reading covered big emotive subjects. The Two Week Wait is about infertility and IVF and looks at egg and sperm donors. I Let You Go looks at the aftermath of the death of a child in a hit and run incident. As a writer I firmly believe that emotion is everything. You can have all the whizzy bangy plot in the world going on, and all the amusing japes you can think of, if the main characters’ emotional stories aren’t right the whole thing ends up feeling a little bit flat.

For me that was exactly what Clare Mackintosh gets right in I Let You Go. A lot of the reviews I’ve seen have focused on the twisty-turny plotting, but to be honest that wasn’t the thing that I fell in love with in this book. It’s beautifully done and works very well, but the thing that drew me in was the emotional story, and the way in which all the major characters are nuanced and flawed. Nobody is 100% good or 100% bad. With the most repellent character in the story Mackintosh uses a first person narrative voice to put you inside the character’s view of the world. It’s chilling, but makes him three-dimensional in a way that viewing him from the outside might not. I Let You Go is already a massive bestseller, and deservedly so – if you haven’t read it already I heartily recommend it, with only a small hint of insane depression about how this is Clare Mackintosh’s debut. First books really shouldn’t be this good; it’s terribly discouraging for the rest of us.

Even though I only read (or at least only remember) two books this month, I think the books I have read have reignited my enthusiasm for the 52 Weeks: 52 Books project. Part of the idea, in addition to rediscovering the reading joy, was that good writers need to read, and this month I’ve definitely felt as though the reading was feeding into my writing brain, rather than distracting from writing, which is excellent. So now I just need to read 11 books in July to get back on schedule. Eeeek.

Feel free to tell us what you’re reading in the comments, and if you’re stuck for a book then this is a jolly good place to start.

52 Weeks: 52 Books – May

So I’ve made it to the end of month 5 in my 52 Weeks: 52 Books challenge. By now I should be up to 21 or 22 books. Hmmm… During May I read

Book 16: Zadie Smith – The Autograph Man

Book 17: Adele Parks – The State We’re In

So I think we can say that I am now very definitely behind schedule. What I seem to have proved, as if I didn’t know it already, is that writing a lot and reading a lot are mutually exclusive. During May I did the final edit of my new book, Midsummer Dreams, and wrote about 30k on my next book. Reading fiction just seems to be too much story to hold in my head when I deep in working on a book, or in the case two books. Maybe this is the sort of period where I’d be better off trying some non-fiction.

Anyway, looking at the books I actually read, I don’t have very much to say, which is a problem given the whole nature of blogging – I really am supposed to have stuff to say, but I talked about The Autograph Man quite a lot in my April review, and the only bit of the Adele Parks’ novel I have proper thoughts about is the ending. Unfortunately the book comes with a note from the publisher begging readers not to discuss the ending, so that’s a tad awkward. What I can say about The State We’re In is that the story, characterisation and atmosphere are excellent, especially once the hero and heroine meet up and are together on the page. And the ending – which I’m going to be good about and not give away – gave me rage. Proper, how very dare she, rage. A quick squizz through the online reviews suggests that it’s a love or hate ending. It definitely packs an emotional punch, but whether that’s from the story or from exasperation with the writer seems to divide opinion. Putting aside the ending – which I really can’t talk about anymore for fear of crack agents from the publisher storming the building – the rest of the book is very well done indeed.

All of which is fine and dandy, but doesn’t really make me feel like I’m getting any closer to cracking the conundrum of how you make time and brainspace to read a lot when you also need or want to write a lot. Still seven months to go though… onward!

 

52 Weeks: 52 Books – April

It’s election day, so after three days of politically oriented blogging (one, two, three), I shall stop wittering on about political nerdery issues and refocus on the important stuff in life: Books. Please stick around and read on. Assuming you’ve already voted. If not, go do that first. I’m now four months into my 52 Weeks: 52 Books challenge, and here’s what I read during April.

Book 13: CJ Samson – Lamentation

Book 14: Alexander McCall Smith – The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Book 15: Alice Peterson – By My Side

And I’m currently stalled on Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, which is bad, because to stay on target I really should have finished another book by now. All of this month’s books had strengths and weaknesses for me. My favourite was Lamentation. I’m a big CJ Sansom fan, and I particularly like the Shardlake series, to which this is the most recent addition. My only qualm here was that it’s a bit overlong. It’s still a very good book, but a slightly more aggressive edit in the first two thirds wouldn’t have done it any harm at all.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I’d never read any of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency books until this month. I’m not really sure how I managed that. There are at least 78000 of them, so I’m not at all clear how they managed to pass me by. This one, the first in the series, was exactly as I’d imagined it would be. Gentle, soothing, beautifully written, the book equivalent of slipping into a nice warm bath. Jolly good.

My main reflection for this month though, comes not from the books I read, but from the book I’m stalled on. Again, I’m realising just how much I like story. The Autograph Man is beautifully written, but I’m just gasping for something to happen that propels things forward. I suspect it’s going to be one of those books about how ultimately nothing and nobody ever changes, which is perfectly fine as a philosophical viewpoint, but just a little bit dull as a reader. I don’t think that’s always the case. I think you can go lighter on plot if you have amazing characters – I think some of Zadie Smith’s other work probably demonstrates that – but in this one I’m not finding the main character particularly engaging, so I’m really missing having a riveting plot to drag me along. I suspect that’s partly to do with where my brain is in writing terms. I’m in the first third of writing my next book, so my brain is holding all the potential characters and stories for that book, and I’ve also read my next book for editing again, and read a complete manuscript for a critique client this month. With all of that in my brain I think I do need to books I’m reading to really grab me by the scruff of the neck. So my current quandary is whether to ditch The Autograph Man or whether to plough on. Normally I only ditch a book if I get to page 100 and I’m not feeling it. I’m past page 100 with this one, but it’s slow going. Is it better to read on or to admit defeat? I’m undecided.