52 Weeks: 52 Books – March

We’re three months through the 52 Weeks: 52 Books reading extravaganza now, and after February’s glut of reading, the pace slowed a little during March, and I only read two books this month, and half of CJ Sansom’s Lamentation. In my defense, Lamentation is really long, and I’ve got it in hardback so it’s also really heavy, which means I can only hold it up to read for relatively short periods. Seriously it’s a massive great brick of a thing. I’m living in terror of dropping it on my face and breaking my nose.

Anyway, the books that I have read were:

Book 11: Katy Regan – The Story of You

Book 12: Terry Pratchett – Guards! Guards!

The Story of You is a women’s fiction/chick lit (nope – I still haven’t settled on a better term) novel about a community psychiatric nurse. It’s a proper page-turner. I absolutely whipped through it despite there being elements of the heroine’s behaviour that gave me severe range (seriously – patient confidentiality anyone??). It was a really interesting read in that I could write chapter and verse about the things that I didn’t think worked, but at no point did I ever think of putting the book down and walking away. There’s a lesson for writers there – if the story is utterly engrossing, you can basically do anything you like with the rest of the novel.

My second book for the month was an impulse read that I picked up the day after Terry Pratchett went for his walk with Death. I’ve loved Terry Pratchett since I was a teenager and am still in love with his work right through to today. He used an entirely imagined place to say very serious things about the real world, but without ever slipping into preaching or lecturing. Everything he wanted to say, was said through story. Guards! Guards! is the eighth Discworld novel, and the first to focus on Sam Vimes and the City Watch. The Watch are probably my favourite set of Discworld characters, although I do like Death, and the Witches, and well, the point is Discworld books are awesome. When Terry P’s death was announced via Twitter I was sad to a level that seemed kind of unbecoming over a man I’d never met. If you’ve never read any of his work, then you’ve got lots of be happy about – there are forty-one Discworld books, and further children’s books, and stand alone novels written alone and in collaboration with others. (Good Omens, written with Neil Gaiman is particularly brilliant.) Read one today.

So far as 52 Weeks: 52 Books goes, it has been a slow month. This partly because of the massiveness of Lamentation, but also because I’ve been doing edits on my soon-to-be-released novel for Choc Lit, which means that I’ve read that book three times during March, and I’ve probably got at least one more read through to go. I think editing and revising a manuscript probably puts the brakes on reading even more than actual writing does. Revising is all about holding the intricacies and the structure of a story in your head and mentally tweaking and adding and taking away until you feel like the whole thing hangs together. I find it incredibly difficult to do that whilst also giving attention to other stories.

So that was March. Come back in a month and we’ll find out how April goes – specifically whether I manage to finish Lamentation without doing myself an injury.

 

52 Weeks: 52 Books – February

The 52 Weeks: 52 Books project continues. I read four books in January and seem to have picked up the pace a bit in February, so here’s the rundown of my month in books:

Book 5: Dorothy L Sayers – Strong Poison

Book 6: Marian Keyes – The Woman Who Stole My Life

Book 7: Malcolm Gladwell – David & Goliath

Book 8: Stella Newman – Pear Shaped

Book 9: Sophie Ranald – It Would Be Wrong To Steal My Sister’s Boyfriend (wouldn’t it?)

Book 10: Dorothy Koomson – The Flavours of Love

So that’s a very impressive six books in four weeks – well 5 and a half books really as I started Strong Poison in January, but I’m still ahead of the curve and the whole 52 books in 52 weeks is looking entirely achievable at this point. However, although I’ve read A Lot during February, I’ve written very little, so  it looks like my old concern that when I write more I read less, might also be true in reverse as well. Hmmm…

Anyway, onto the specific books, I said at the outset that this wasn’t going to be a book review project, and it’s not, but I have quite a lot of thoughts about this month’s reading. I shall endeavour not to let those thoughts become too rambling. In fact, I shall actively organise them into a numbered list. (Readers of the rest of my blog will know how much I like a numbered list. A lot. That’s how much.)

Thought 1: Reading too close to what you’re writing is tricksy

This month’s reading included books by Stella Newman and Sophie Ranald – both up and coming writers on the less cutesy end of chick lit, and both are decent books with lots and lots of positive reviews. I liked a lot about both books and read them both quite quickly, but found myself completely unable to switch off my inner editor. I was reading with two levels of thought going on. Level one was my brain taking in what was actually happening in the book. Level two was a constant narrative of… ‘Oooh, she’s used present perfect continuous there… why’s she done that? Would it be better in past perfect? How would that work?…. Oh, I see, she’s using the food as a motif for… does that work? Is it a bit heavy handed? Maybe not. It needs to be clear, but… Interesting – this heroine isn’t that sympathetic. My heroine-in-progress might be a bit unsympathetic. Is that a problem? How’s she dealt with it here?…’ All of which is a little bit distracting from just reading the sodding book.

I’ve blogged before about the ways in which writing can break the enjoyment of reading, and part of the aim of 52 Weeks: 52 Books is to try to work through that problem. I think that – at least for books in my own genre – I’ve still got a bit of a way to go.

 

Thought 2: Reading books you don’t expect to like can be awesome

My first book this month was Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers, first published in 1930. This is the fifth book in the Lord Peter Wimsey detective series, and was recommended to me by my crime-fiction obsessed sister because it’s the first where Harriet Vane, Wimsey’s ongoing love interest, appears. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this half as much as I did. I was expecting it to be old-fashioned and just not my sort of thing at all, but actually it was really fun. Some of the language is a bit antiquated, but I suspect there was a bit of an element of pastiche going on there even when it was written, and it’s very clever and, in places, very funny. Harriet particularly, generally believed to have been based on Sayers herself, is a fantastically modern character.

I’m going to mark Strong Poison as a big success for the whole 52 Weeks: 52 Books concept. It’s a book I wouldn’t normally read, but I really enjoyed it, and would definitely read more Lord Peter Wimsey books in the future. Hurrah.

 

Thought 3: Non-fiction rocks

There are readers out there who religiously only read fiction, or only read non-fiction. These people are wrong-headed. I’m absolutely a fiction girl at heart, but a bit of well-written non-fiction thrown into the mix is always good, and snobbery against either form is stupid.

So, if you’re looking for some well-written non-fiction then Malcolm Gladwell is a pretty good place to start. David & Goliath is all about underdogs and situations in which an apparent underdog actually has a substantial advantage. It touches on the American civil rights movement, guerrilla warfare, basketball tactics, and medical research. Properly interesting stuff.

 

I have lots of other thoughts (including ‘Marian Keyes rocks’ which is a general background sort of thought I have most of the time, and ‘Oooh, Dorothy Koomson has sort of switched genres a couple of times – it can be done…’) but I think that’s probably enough rambling about reading for one blog post.  So feel free to join in in the commenting area. What have you been reading during February? Have you read any of the books listed- what were your thoughts? And anything else vaguely reading related… off you go.

 

And if you’d like to add the odd Alison May tome to your own To Read pile you can do that here.

In which I obligingly try to generate an opinion on the topics of the day

So, as has been discussed before on these very pages, I am a feminist. I’m also quite interested in politics, and I write romantic comedies for a living. This means that, according the the memo that is sent out to bloggers each week by the nice people who run the Internet*, this week I am required to have opinions about both Harriet Harman’s Pink Lady Bus and Fifty Shades of Grey. This is a bit of a bind, because quite enough opinions have been expressed already about both these things, but the people who run the Internet are very clear in their expectations, so I’ll do the best I can.

Let’s start with Fifty Shades of Grey. Is it erotic? Is it glamourising abuse? Does it misrepresent BDSM? I have no idea. I haven’t read it. I haven’t seen the movie either. I have, however, had this conversation lots of times:

Random person: ‘So what do you write?’

Me: ‘Romance novels mainly.’

RP: ‘Like Fifty Shades of Grey?’

Me: ‘Not really… Mine are a bit more down to earth.’

RP: ‘Oh. You should write something like Fifty Shades of Grey. Then you’d be rich.’

More recently I’ve had this conversation a few times too:

Random person**: ‘What do you think of this Fifty Shades of Grey?’

Me: ‘I don’t know. I haven’t read it.’

RP: ‘Why not?’

Me: ‘It’s just didn’t really fancy it.’

RP: ‘Well that’s not fair. You shouldn’t decide you don’t like something until you’ve tried it.’

Me: ‘But… I said I didn’t know… I… er…. but….’

In the first conversation, Random Person is just doing the current variation on the conversation had by writers across the world throughout time. Ten years ago we were all being told we should write something about a wizard school. I have no doubt that writers who were contemporaries of St Paul were regularly told that they should ‘write some like letters to churches and that.’

In the second conversation though, Random Person, is being properly stupid. Of course it’s fine to just not fancy reading something. There are things in life about which it is appropriate to feel guilty about not caring more. It is entirely right and proper to have a pang of guilt when you drop your eyes to the floor and hurry past a Big Issue seller or a charity collection jar. The feelings of inadequacy when you donate £10 to a DEC appeal are appropriate feelings of inadequacy. Not reading a book, or seeing a movie, because you just don’t really want to is fine. So there you go – Fifty Shades of Grey – haven’t read it, haven’t seen it, have suspicion that neither liking nor disliking it makes you an intrinsically better person.

So, onto the Labour Party’s Lovely Pink Lady Bus. The essentials of this story are that Harriet Harman and other high up female Labour MPs are trying to engage directly with female voters by touring the country in a minibus with ‘Woman to Woman’ written on the side. This has caused lots of people to send slightly miffed sounding tweets about how this is patronising to women, and caused lots of Labour people to give interviews where they describe the bus as cerise or magenta or created by a fairy godmother from a pumpkin – really anything so long as it’s not pink.

My gut reaction is to agree with the miffed tweeters. Yup, having a special Lady Bus where I can discuss my special Lady Concerns with special Lady MPs is deeply patronising. Generally this sort of segregation into ‘Lady Concerns’ and ‘Manly Concerns’ is patronising to both genders. Lots of women care about stuff outside their front door, and plenty of men care about what goes on inside.

But, as with Fifty Shades of Grey, I’m not really the target audience for Harriet’s lovely magenta bus. I’m already going to vote, and I’m a politics nerd so there’s a high chance that I’m already fairly decided on who I’m going to vote for. The target is women who aren’t fully decided, or more particularly, women who might not vote at all. In 2010 the turnout amongst women was slightly lower than amongst men, but women were slightly more likely then men to vote Labour rather than Conservative. Against that background it’s pretty obvious that engaging female potential voters is going to be important for Labour’s chances in May. If you look at the demographics by social class as well as gender, we see that DE (semi-skilled, unskilled or non-working) women are the group most likely to vote Labour but least likely to vote. Those are the women that Labour need to reach. So I’m torn on the issue of the Cerise Lady Bus. Part of me really hopes it doesn’t work, because it is hugely condescending, but part of me hopes it does work, because the women that Labour should be trying to focus on are a part of our society whose voices aren’t frequently heard.

So there you go – two issues on which I’m required to have an opinon and I sort of failed at both. Apologies.

 

*They’re lovely. A married couple called Duncan and Shirley. They have a bungalow near St Albans.

** Makes mental note: I really ought to learn my friends’ names.

52 Weeks: 52 Books – January

So it’s the end of month one in the great year of reading many books. Here’s how it’s going so far. I  steamed through Book 1: Mhairi McFarlane’s It’s Not You, It’s Me in the first couple of days of the year, and I’ve followed that up with:

Book 2: Terry Pratchett – Raising Steam

Book 3: Veronica Henry –  A Night on the Orient Express

Book 4: Adele Parks – Larger than Life

I’m not going to do reviews on all 52 of the year’s books because a) life is short, and b) the whole idea of 52 weeks: 52 books is to rediscover a love of reading, not to add a whole new level of it feeling like a chore, but I do totally reserve the right to review the ones I feel like reviewing and offer general musings on the whole reading endeavour.

So, my favourite book from this crop was  A Night on the Orient Express which I devoured in less than 24 hours. It was all the things I like best in a book – uplifting but with depth and interest. The novel follows five distinct storylines, linked by the setting of the Orient Express. I love a good multiple protagonist story but, even in the best, you often find that there are some storylines you could happily skip over to get to the better bits. That wasn’t the case this time, and, even better, Veronica Henry has written loads of books, so I get the additional joy of discovering an author I’ve never read before who has a back catalogue I can now start working my way through. Yippee!

It hasn’t been entirely reading plain sailing this month though. I started, but abandoned JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, for reasons that I think are only about 15% the fault of the book. The Casual Vacancy is another multiple narrator story, which introduces lots of characters very quickly. I think that would have been fine if I’d had a free hour for my first reading session on the book, but I ended up reading ten minutes here and there and forgetting who everyone was, a problem that was made worse by the fact that I was reading on my kindle. I love my kindle, but it is much harder to flick back and remind yourself who’s who on an ereader than in a paper book. Then I got sick with Weird Hacking Cough Disease* which was primarily eased by sitting in the bath, and used the ‘I don’t want to take my kindle in the bath’ excuse to abandon The Casual Vacancy, in favour of Adele Parks, who better satisfied the ‘I’m poorly – I need something fun to read’ impulse anyway. I suspect that over the year we may discover that I am generally more likely to abandon a book on kindle than on paper, which will be a mildly interesting thing to learn. This has also left me with a quandary about whether to go back to The Casual Vacancy. As I say I suspect the abandonment was more about my fuzzy poorly-girl brain than the book itself, but I’ve just found out that there’s a TV adaptation coming up in a couple of weeks. Given that I probably will watch the TV version, do I really want to read the book straight before it, or would it be better to leave the book until later in the year?

Anyway, I’m now onto February’s reading, kicked off with Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers. I’m not generally a crime girl, but part of the idea of 52 Books is to read as widely as possible, and January has been quite commercial women’s fiction** heavy. Strong Poison was a recommendation from my senior sibling who definitely is a crime girl (fictional crime only – she hardly ever does an actual murder), and I’m quite enjoying it, but technically it’s a February book, so more on that next time.

 

* Definitely its proper medical name

** Hate that term. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it.

In which I reread an old classic

I’m currently rereading Emily Bronte’s masterpiece, Wuthering Heights. It’s probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve read the book – the first was when I was about 17, and the most recent was seven or eight years ago when I read it as part of my Creative Writing degree course. Having read it so many times and studied it at university I would have said, with confidence, that Wuthering Heights was a novel I knew pretty well, but here’s a newsflash from the current rereading: it’s absolutely nothing like I remember it. There are whole sections that I don’t remember at all, and some of the bits I thought I did remember are quite quite different from how I remembered them. This is odd, because it’s, obviously, still the same book. In fact, in this case, it’s physically, literally, actually the same book that I’ve read before, but the experience of reading it is completely different.

I think there are reasons for this, and I don’t think any of them are that aliens have come to earth and rewritten bits of Wuthering Heights, which is a shame, because that would have made an awesome blog post.

The non-alien related reasons are twofold:

1. I’ve changed

Well given that the book hasn’t changed, that leaves the reader as the only remaining variable, so if the thing I’m looking at isn’t different, but the experience of looking is, then that must be down to me. The things I’m picking up on during this reading are far more to do with the characters and far less to do with the brooding atmosphere and oppressive moor. This might be because I’ve moved on as a writer since I last read the book, and am currently fixated by character in terms of how I plot and revise my own writing. I’m noticing, for the first time, how complex, and essentially unpleasant, the minor characters are. Joseph, Nellie Dean, Mr Lockwood are all astonishingly self-involved in their own different ways.

I’m also noticing how dated the prose style is, and how slow the opening chapters are, which I don’t remember picking up on before. I’m actually quite impressed with my seventeen-year-old self for sticking with it. Again – that’s the writer in me coming through, and noticing deviations from the contemporary received wisdom about how to start and pace a novel.

It’s not the first time I’ve had a book change in front of me on rereading. I started Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day about eight times and couldn’t get past the first chapter, until one random day when I sat down and read about two-thirds of the book in one sitting. The book hadn’t changed, but something about my mood on that one given day married with the story and away we went together.

2. Some novels end up bigger than the novel itself

Wuthering Heights is the poster book for novels that exist in the public imagination in a completely different form from how the are on the page. Wuthering Heights has been adapted and retold in films, on TV, in musicals (thanks for that Cliff), and nearly all the retellings underplay the bleakness of the original novel. Somehow that perception of Wuthering Heights as a romantic story of star-crossed lovers on a windswept, but ultimately picturesque, moor, seeps into our consciousness, even if we’ve read the actual book and know it isn’t really like that. The idea of Heathcliff and Cathy as a slightly more consumptive Romeo and Juliet is stuck in our collective memories, even if none of us actually remember where it came from.

So there you go. Wuthering Heights – it’s not at all how you think you remember it. After this I shall be going to see Romeo and Juliet again with fingers crossed that I might have misremembered that ending. In the meantime, feel free to chat to me in the comments. What do you think of Wuthering Heights? Are there any books that have surprised you on rereading, or have turned out to be completely different from your expectations?

And finally, a quick reminder that my new Christmas Kisses novella, Cora’s Christmas Kiss, is out now for kindle.

In which things are published, or almost nearly imminently published

Some time has passed since my last blog post. Traditionally at this point I offer some sort of excuse or random self-flagellation for my failure in this area. Today I’m going to go down the excuse route. You see, there was this dog and it ate my homework right off the computer screen, or possibly it was a magpie and  it stole my keyboard’s unusually shiny semi-colon key, and I do like a semi-colon so that was very limiting, or maybe I became briefly obsessed with watching old episodes of The Biggest Loser on youtube even though it is unquestionably terrible for my soul and wasn’t able to write blogpost because of all the time that took up. At least one of those things is true. Or possibly all. Anyhow I’m back now. Let’s get on.

This week I shall mainly be sharing news of recent and upcoming publications for they are cropping up all over the place and there is much excitement chez Alison.

I’m going to kick off with a short story anthology I’m super-proud to be involved with. The Write Romantics who are either a single multi-headed romance writing creature from another dimension, or a group of lovely individual romance writers who blog together and support one another (it’s definitely one of those) have put together a short story anthology in aid of The Cystic Fibrosis Trust and The Teenage Cancer Trust. I was terribly flattered to be asked to contribute a story, and I pretty much will do anything if sufficient flattery is offered. My story is ‘The Handsome Stranger’, and like all the stories included, it’s has a vaguely wintery or festive theme.

Winter Tales cover

The anthology, ‘Winter Tales’, is available to pre-order for kindle now and will be available in paperback later this month. You can also join the Write Romantics at their online launch party this Saturday (8th Nov 1pm-3pm) where there will be competitions and much virtual wine drunk, and possibly real wine, but you’ll need to provide that for yourself.

Secondly, two more short story anthologies. It’s a little bit late in the day, but if some of you want an excuse to keep hold of your pumpkins (oddly not a euphemism) a little bit longer, you can still download or order the Halloween anthology, Hocus Pocus ’14, that I was involved in back in October. My story, Haunted House, is about a young divorcee, Melly, her best friend, Max, and an interfering old man called Ebenezer. As it’s a Halloween story, at least one of those three is, unfortunately, dead.

The final short story anthology I want to tell you about is Kisses and Cupcakes, from my publisher, Choc Lit, which features short stories and fantastic recipes from eighteen Choc Lit authors, including my good self. My story is ‘Imperfect Timing’ and it features a couple of characters that you might get to meet again next year. Possibly… I’ve also included the most awesome cupcake recipe in the whole wide world. Kisses and Cupcakes is available to download now.

Kisses & Cupcakes

And finally… drumroll please… my second Christmas Kiss novella is nearly ready to be launched onto an unsuspecting world. Cora’s Christmas Kiss is going through its final tweaks and edits at the moment. We’re finalising the cover design, and it should be available to order very soon indeed. Squeeee! In the meantime I recommend that you all prepare yourselves fully by downloading book 1, Holly’s Christmas Kiss, forthwith.

Holly's Christmas Kiss

*takes a deep breath* So there you go. That’s all my publication news at the moment. And with that I shall stop thinking about books that are already written and turn my attention back to the books that are yet to come.

In which I have read some books

I’ve always loved reading, but since I started writing fiction my reading has changed. There have been periods where I’ve found it really difficult to get into reading any sort of novel, but recently I’ve been on a bit of a reading binge. Hence, I have some book reviews to share. Because I like an arbitrary theme today’s reviews are all in the ‘commercial women’s fiction’ genre also known as ‘fiction.’ (You can catch up on me being ranty about genre names back here.)

1. Dear Thing – Julie Cohen

I know Julie Cohen via the RNA and Julie’s fabulous creative writing tutoring, but it’s unbiased reviews only here so I’m putting the fact that she’s lovely in real-life out of my mind and focusing on the stories. This is the first of two of her novels that are going to turn up in this post. That in itself has to be a good sign because it demonstrates that having read one book by the author I wanted to go straight on and read another. Dear Thing is a story about Claire and Ben, a couple who are desperate for a baby and have been through years of trying and fertility treatments. Ben’s best friend is Romily, who already has a child of her own and figures that carrying a child for her friends won’t be that big a deal.

Obviously the emotional realities of surrogacy turn out quite differently from what Romily imagined. In plot terms some of what goes on in Dear Thing is very much what you’d expect, but it’s grounded so deeply in the emotions of the characters that I don’t see that as a negative in this case. I particularly liked that this is a book that depicts fundamentally good-hearted people who, under emotional pressure, don’t always behave perfectly. I also very much liked the emotional conflict that Ben experienced – in some stories about parenthood the fathers are somewhat sidelined characters, so it was good to see both Ben and the father of Romily’s own child given a bit of depth.

My only reservation was that, perhaps, the very ending of the book resolved Romily’s story slightly too neatly, but that’s very much a personal preference thing; I always want stories to go darker and more complicated.

I don’t really do star ratings for books very comfortably – I always end up wanting to give scores like 4.82 stars, but I would definitely recommend this one.

 

2. Where Love Lies – Julie Cohen (again)

I did warn you that she was going to crop up again, so  no apologies for that. I won a copy of Julie’s latest book in an online comp from the author, and very lovely and shiny it was too. On paper the subject matter for this one intrigued me more than Dear Thing, being very much a non-baby person. Felicity is married to Quinn and living what many people would see as a perfect life, but something doesn’t feel right, and she finds herself drawn further and further away from Quinn and deeper into her past, and the more time she spends there, the more blissful it feels.

I’m not going to give away what’s actually going on with Felicity, but I was intrigued by her conflict throughout the story. Is it better to live in the here and now – problems, uncertainties and all – or would you take the option of living in a blissful dream? Where Love Lies is evocatively written and all the viewpoint characters are interesting in their own right. Part of me wishes that the author had held back what was actually happening to Felicity a bit more in the earlier sections of the story, as I did enjoy the uncertainty about what Felicity was feeling and why, but the bottom line is this – I absolutely rattled through reading this book, picking it up and whizzing through chapters when I was supposed to be doing other things, and making myself sleepy through my reluctance to put it down last thing at night, so that’s a big win.

 

3. The Sea SistersLucy Clarke

This was Lucy Clarke’s debut novel, and it’s the sort of debut that makes the rest of us feel deeply inadequate. It’s the story of Katie and Mia – two sisters whose relationship has been strained since the death of the mother. Mia is a free spirit, fearless and impulsive, whereas Katie is the responsible one, always taking care of her younger sibling. When Mia disappears, Katie is drawn into her sister’s world as she retraces Mia’s last journey to try to find out what happened to her little sister.

It’s high praise indeed for me to say that this book reminded my of Emily Barr. Emily Barr is one of my favourite writers, and has an incredible ability to evoke places and atmospheres. Clarke has the same gift and the contrast between Katie’s rather ordered normality, and the places she visits on her travels in search of the truth about her sister is tangible for the reader. The relationship between the sisters also feels real, and seeing both of the characters’ impressions of the other works well. As including one quibble seems to be customary – I would like to have seen Katie’s relationship with Finn fleshed out a little more, as I think this would have heightened the sense of conflict in that part of the story. That’s a minor point though. The key relationship in this story is the one between the sisters, and that sings out loud and true from the pages. Another page-turner. Highly recommended.

 

So three books I really liked. You could go read them if you wanted. You could also offer me some recommendations down in the comments…