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…

In which I tell you what I did on my holidays (part 2)

Yesterday I kicked off The Awesome Week of Daily Blogging (as I’m now totally terming it) with part 1 of my exciting adventures on holiday. So by the laws of numbers and counting and that, welcome to part 2 in which I will do some actual recommending and reviewing of a tiny percentage of the tiny percentage of Edinburgh Fringe shows I managed to see last week. In order to do this I shall split all 19 shows that I saw into entirely arbitrary (and probably poorly conceived) categories and declare a winner in each section. The Some Random Woman’s Blog Awards – trust me; all the acts at the fringe will be talking about them. Probably.

Category 1: Sketch Comedy

Contenders: Cambridge Footlights, The Reduced Shakespeare Company

Only two contenders in this section, and one of them isn’t really sketch comedy because it had a sort of over arching narrative, but these aren’t the sort of details that I’m going to let hold me back. It’s a tough one to call. I love the Reduced Shakespeare Company – their Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) is a thing of comic wonder, but this show, The Complete History of Comedy, lacked the same level of tightness and precision, despite a few very funny moments.

Cambridge Footlights I felt a bit sorry for – at least as sorry as you can feel for high-achieving, talented people who are half your age. The knowledge that you’re part of the group where Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Robert Webb, David Mitchell, Richard Ayeode etc. etc. started out must carry with it a certain amount of pressure. And to be honest, their fringe show, ‘Real Feelings,’ did follow Mitchell and Webb’s edict about sketch shows being hit and miss, but the hits were proper, big, guffaw-out-loud hits, so for that reason my first category winner is….. Cambridge Footlights.

 

Category 2: Stand-up Comedy but with some sort of additional element eg. characters, songs or a talking monkey

Contenders: Mitch Benn, Pippa Evans, Nina Conti, Cal Wilson

Now I did admit that the categories were likely to be poorly conceived. And indeed they are. I’m not at all convinced that these four acts are really comparable, but I’ve come this far, so I’m ploughing on.

The second problem with this category is that I basically loved them all. This is great from an audience-member perspective, but really bad from the point of view of writing insightful reviews, and even worse if you’re trying to pick a favourite.

Mitch Benn’s show is all about skepticism with songs. Pippa Evans talks (and sings) about trying to work out who she is. Cal Wilson explores a similar theme with character comedy based around how she might have turned out if she’d made different choices in life. And Nina Conti has a talking monkey. But her show is so much more than a woman with a talking monkey. She does a terrifying amount of audience participation – if you’re the sort who gets nervous when a comedian starts chatting to the people in the front row, then wait for the DVD. And it’s all hysterical, and it messes with your head. You know she’s a ventriloquist, so you know that all the words are hers, but you reach a point where you genuinely believe she’s surprised by what’s apparently being said to her. And it’s hysterically funny. I mentioned that already, didn’t I? Anyway, out of four fantastic shows, the winner, for pure nearly-wetting-self can’t stop laughingness is…. Nina Conti.

 

Category 3: Improvisation

Contenders: What does the title matter anyway?, Set List

What does the title matter anyway? is the Edinburgh Fringe show not in anyway based on the popular TV show ‘Whose line is it anyway?’ whilst being hosted by the same person, featuring the same cast and involving the same games. Apart from that it is absolutely definitely completely different in every way. And very funny it was too. Josie Lawrence stole the show with her ability to improvise songs at the drop of a hat, but the whole thing was really jolly good. Just like I remember it from the telly, had it been on the telly, which, for legal reasons, I’ll just reiterate, it definitely wasn’t.

Set List is ‘comedy without a safety net.’ Comedians turn up with no prepared material and have to improvise a set based on phrases, words and acronyms that pop up on a screen at the side of the stage. It was a fascinating show from a writer’s perspective as you got to see the creative process happen (or not) right in front of you. The were six comedians performing on the night we went and, as you’d probably expect, it was a mixed bag. Those who nailed it, notably Cal Wilson, properly nailed it, but overall the quality was patchy, and for that reason the winner is… What does the title matter anyway?

 

Category 4: Other Stuff

Contenders: And the Goat Remained a Goat, Tanya Byron, I Killed Rasputin

OK, so I accept the categorisation has really broken down. Now I’m comparing a cabaret show about a early twentieth century ghosthunter, a talk about young people and mental health from an eminent clinical psychologist, and a stage play about a Russian assassination. All righty then.

‘I Killed Rasputin’ is a play by Richard Herring about Felix Yusopov, one of the conspirators involved in Rasputin’s murder. It’s an interesting subject and an interesting, and surprisingly funny, play, with some excellent performances, but for me it was just a little bit too uneven in terms of the tone. In places I felt like Herring needed to trust his audience more. There was a slight tendency to overtell. The play ran to 1 hr 20 minutes, rather than the usual 1 hr fringe slot. Editing it down to an hour and reining in the overtelling would have been an improvement I suspect.

So that leaves two contenders – Tanya Byron’s interesting, knowledgeable, and refreshingly opinionated talk vs. a deeply weird music/magic show about a ghost hunter from Richard Wiseman and The Creative Martyrs. Professor Byron was fascinating but this is the fringe and I think it’s important that we recognise the importance of weirdness to the whole proceeding. So for weirdness, and for my single favourite funny line of the whole fringe (which I’m not telling you, because out of context it makes zero sense), and for including a talking mongoose, the winner is…  And the Goat Remained a Goat.

 

Category 5: Stand-up Comedy

Contenders: Bob Graham, Danny Bhoy, Lucy Porter, Shappi Khorsandi, Sara Pascoe, Susan Calman, Tom Stade, Andrew Maxwell

A big old category to finish with, and a really hard one to call. I think six of the eight comedians in the list are definitely in the running, so let’s be cruel and deal with the other two first. Bob Graham had some nice material in his set, but nothing that really set the room alight. Sorry Bob – you were perfectly decent but you’ve found yourself in a tough group. Tom Stade is also out of the running. Ultimately comedy is subjective. There were people at his show laughing their little hearts out, but it didn’t do anything for me, and this is my little corner of the internet where my word is law, so he’s out too.

Which leaves us with six, which is still way way too many, but they were all excellent. Seriously, if you’re in Edinburgh over the next couple of weeks and you get the chance, seeing any of those six is well worth the cost of a ticket. They’re all very very funny, and all have jokes or sections from their set that I keep replaying in my head and giggling to myself over. I’ve changed my mind about 48 times over who’s going to win this category, and it’s definitely down to Danny Bhoy or Shappi Khorsandi. Or Susan Calman. Or maybe Andrew Maxwell. Aaargh. It’s too hard. I’m just going to keep typing and hope my fingers pick one. And the winner is… Shappi Khorsandi. Probably. Definitely. But with honourable mentions to Danny Bhoy and Susan Calman. It was really really close.

 

So there you go. Overall I think I did ok. Nineteen shows, and only one that left me cold is a pretty decent hit rate, but these are my final Edinburgh Fringe recomendations. If you’re in Edinburgh and you want to see a slightly random, but very entertaining, cross section of stuff you should check out: The Cambridge Footlights, Nina Conti, And the Goat Remained a Goat, What does the title matter anwyay? and Shappi Khorsandi or Susan Calman, or Danny Bhoy, or maybe Sara Pascoe. Waaah. I’m just going to stop now. Bye bye.

 

In which I tell you what I did on my holidays (part 1)

Hello world. I’ve just got back from holidays, which is my excuse for the, otherwise inexcusable, lack of recent blogular action. This week that will be very much rectified with an unprecendented five blogposts in five days. Let the bugles be sounded and the batons be twirled in excitement, at least until about Wednesday when I will presumably become distracted from the whole endeavour.

Anyhow, let’s start as we mean to go on with not one, but two, posts about what I did on my holidays. First off I went to the Commonwealth Games where there was athletics and badminton and hockey and gymnastics and rugby sevens. Here’s an actual picture of actual Usain Bolt to prove I was there.

Usain Bolt (in the middle there, honest.)

Anyway, I’m not going to bang on too much about the Commonwealth Games. I like a bit of sport, and this was a very jolly bit of sport, but I’m guessing that those of you who are right-thinking enough to be interested will have watched it on telly for yourselves. Seeing the sport live is much the same but with a slightly poorer view and no red button for switching to iPlayer part way through.

What I am going to bang on about, however, is the Edinburgh Fringe which occupied week two of the holibobs period. I’ve never been to Edinburgh during festival season before and can only concede that that was a colossal error of judgement on my part. The fringe is awesome, and massive, and overwhelming, and weird. Really really weird in places.

Not a weird bit of fringe. An entirely normal bit of zoo.
Not a weird bit of fringe. An entirely normal bit of zoo.

EngineerBoy and I took a day off midweek to go to the zoo and watch Bake-Off, but still managed to fit nineteen shows into the remaining five days in Edinburgh. We probably could have done more, but not without being reduced to jibbering, entertainment-overwhelmed shells of human beings. We tried to work out how many shows were on at the fringe in total and gave up. There are over 400 fringe venues, many of which house multiple performance rooms, which each host shows throughout the day from morning until well after any sane person is all tucked up in sleepy land. We didn’t even scratch the top layer of the outermost bit of surface.

What we did manage to see was *deep breath*: Bob Graham, Danny Bhoy, Lucy Porter, Mitch Benn. Richard Wiseman & the Creative Martyrs in ‘And the Goat Remained a Goat,’ Shappi Khorsandi, the Cambridge Footlights, Nina Conti, Sara Pascoe, the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete History of Comedy, Susan Calman, What Does the Title Matter Anyway? (a show that bore no resemblance at all the TV show ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’), Set List, Tanya Byron, Nicola McAuliffe in ‘I Killed Rasputin,’ Cal Wilson, Tom Stade, and Andrew Maxwell. And most of them were brilliant. Only one was awful. If you come back tomorrow I shall be splitting all of them into entirely arbitrary categories, one of which will almost certainly be called ‘Other Stuff,’ and recommending my favourites.

In the meantime, as ever, if you want to read more by me, I have books. You can do buying of them here.

In which it is June and a number of occurrences occur

So the blogging every Friday without fail is going terribly well, don’t you agree? Apart from that today is Monday, but I think we can all agree that Monday is very nearly Friday give or take the odd weekend.

Anyhoo, this particularly Monday is also the 30th June, so I thought I would tell you about a number of things that have occurred this month. Hardcore readers, who’ve been with us since the beginning of blogtime, will recall that I do like a bit of a summer festival, not those loud, modern-musicky festivals that involve camping and reading preparatory Guardian articles about festival fashion, but rather those more safely middle-aged festivals where it’s considered acceptable to stop between events and have a nice warming hot chocolate and possibly a scone. This month I have attended two festivals of the latter sort, and one actual gig in an actual field to which I wore actual wellingtons. I shall relay my thoughts on all three forthwith.

1. Cheltenham Science Festival

The good people of Cheltenham are pretty much prepared to have a festival for anything. Jazz, literature, music, horse racing – they really don’t care – if you can put up a marquee and print a brochure, they’re totally up for it. The first week in June is the annual science festival, at which I took in talks and panels on the genetics of intelligence, animal communication, war and medicine, the maths of The Simpsons, animal senses, quantum mechanics, and saw somebody whacking ping pong balls with a chocolate hammer, all of which was quite interesting. It’s also very jolly to be at events about things I know nothing about, because new knowledge is always exciting. Did you know, for example, that there’s a sort of snake that has infra-red sensor things that mean it can spot a bat flying over head in pitch darkness and grab the aforementioned bat out of the air for its dinner? I did not know that, but now I do. Hurrah for knowing more stuff.

 

2. Worcestershire LitFest & Fringe

Worcestershire LitFest is in its 4th year, but this was my first time involved with the organisation. I hosted four events – a rather lovely author panel with equally lovely cake, and three novel writing workshops.

Me, Sue Moorcroft, Liz Harris and Christina Courtenay
Me, Sue Moorcroft, Liz Harris and Christina Courtenay

Teaching writing workshops is always fun – it’s pretty much one of my favourite things to do, and I’ve not taught for a while so it was top fun to get back into it with a brand new group of students. Hopefully they enjoyed themselves at least half as much as I did, and weren’t too freaked out by the woman at the front of the room wittering on about Prince Charming and necrophilia. (Yes – they were part of the same conversation, but they were totally related to the point of the lesson. Totally. Sort of. A bit.)

Asides from leading those events I also got to attend a couple of others. My personal highlight was seeing Lou Morgan at 42-Worcester talk about her writing and particularly about writing YA. She was interesting and funny. Yay her!

 

3. Deacon Blue in a forest to which I wore actual wellingtons, but also took a garden chair to sit on like an old person might.

Now the young whipper snappers amongst you are now furrowing your perfectly wrinkle-free brows and asking ‘Who are Deacon Blue?’ Well they were big in the late 80s and early 90s and, I can now attest, are rather marvellous live. Your lack of knowledge probably means that you’re not even aware that if you ever have sufficient money in your kitty to buy a dinghy the only right and proper thing to call her would be Dig-ni-ty (which you would sing loudly and with gusto.) Trust me young people, your lives are poorer for this lack of knowledge.

 

So that was June. I trust you all had an equally pleasant month.

 

And before I go, a quick reminder that Sweet Nothing is currently 99p for kindle. That offer either finishes today or next Monday (I’m not 100% clear on how Amazon monthly deals work!) so if you want it, go get it now. Off you go….  For those of you who are still here, if you think you’d be interested in writing workshops where the tutor witters on about Prince Charming and necrophilia in between dispensing great wisdom then please get in touch and I’ll add you to my mailing list.

In which I am Truly, Madly, Deeply excited about publication day

Truly Madly Deeply

Today is publication day for Truly, Madly, Deeply an anthology of short stories all written by RNA members. I’m absolutely delighted, over the moon, bursting with pride, and a range of other cliches besides, to have a story, Feel The Fear, included in the anthology. And so, along with a whole lot of other authors I’m blogging today about the inspiration for my story.

Feel The Fear is a story about a girl, a boy and a great and fearsome beast. You’ll have to buy Truly, Madly, Deeply to find out which of those three ends up with which. It’s a story I wrote originally fo

r a competition, a competition that I won, and for which I was given a little cup, a fact that I hardly bang on about at all. The brief for the competition was to ‘Write a short story featuring an animal.’ I considered a range of animals – dogs, cats, baby orang-utans, wild salmon, and hummingbirds (which are after all the five main sorts of animal) – before deciding on the great and fearsome beast.

But actually, cool though the beast is, that’s not actually what the story is about. The story is about fear. And that’s often the way. You can describe what a story’s about by describing who’s in it and what they do, or you can talk about what it’s really about. The theme, if you want to get all highfalutin about it.

‘So what’s your play about Mr Shakespeare?’

‘Well there’s this boy and he loves this girl, but then he sees this other girl at a party and there’s a bit of flirting on a balcony, but then it turns out she’s the daughter of his arch-enemy, which is awkward, but he, like, really really likes her. But then he murders her cousin which makes it, like, double awkward. And then there’s some business with a priest and some potions, and the boy thinks the girl – the second girl, not the first, she actually wasn’t that important at all, sorry – anyway he thinks the second girl’s dead, but she’s not, and then he is dead. And then even though she wasn’t dead, in the end she is.’

‘Er, thanks but no thanks Mr Shakespeare.’

Take 2:

‘What’s your play about Mr Shakespeare?’

‘Love. Doomed love.’

And so you see I’ve digressed from talking about Truly, Madly, Deeply and ended up on Romeo & Juliet, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Rom and Jules would score high points on the True/Mad/Deep scale, I’m sure, especially the ‘Mad’ bit. I mean, if you like a girl, don’t murder her cousin. It’s just bad manners.

Anyway. Truly, Madly, Deeply is out today featuring great stories and at least one fearsome beast. You can buy it in paperback here, or you can buy the ebook edition, which has 11 extra stories, here.

We’ve also got a handful of copies of the paperback to give away, so why not enter here.

Finally, look out on twitter for the #TrulyMadlyDeeply hashtag where there’ll be links to lots more author blogposts about the anthology, and come join us at our virtual launch party on facebook for virtual champagne and fun and games all day. I’m hosting the afternoon session between 1pm and 5pm, and Laura E James will be there all morning, and Rhoda Baxter takes over hosting duties for the evening.

Truly Madly Deeply eBook cover

In which I read a Bad Book

It is one of the small sadnesses of writing fiction, that doing so can break the pleasure of reading. It’s like being a magician at a magic show. You can be impressed at the skill on display. You can feel professional respect for the fellow conjurer on the stage, but if you can see too much of the craft you don’t actually get the thrill of feeling the magic. Occasionally, a book comes along that’s so good, or so far outside your own writing experience, or both, that it forces you to switch off your analytical writing brain and just enjoy the story, but a lot of the time you find yourself thinking, “Oh. Very good. I see what you did there, ” rather than just “Wow!”

Occasionally the opposite happens. A book so bad comes along that rather than thinking “Wow,” or “I see how that works,” you just think “How?” How did this get past an editor? How did this get published in its current form? Just how? I am currently reading just such a book, and, rather churlishly you might think, I’m not going to tell you what it is. There are reasons. Firstly, any book review is subjective and I resolved when I started this blog that I would only post reviews that were at least 51% positive. Secondly, I’m a member of more than one professional organisation for authors. I meet other writers. I’m also English and middle-class and therefore prepared to do pretty much anything to avoid potential future confrontation or social discomfort.

Anyway, this book is a mainstream published book by a successful “Sunday Times bestselling” author. It’s not a debut. It’s not a poorly edited self-published tome by an enthusiastic newbie to the writing game. Looking at it’s Amazon reviews, it’s a book some people have loved. As I said, my opinion is entirely subjective. However, what I don’t think is subjective is that this book almost certainly wouldn’t have attracted the attention of a publisher or agent if it was a debut. It commits many of the sins that newbie writers pay good money to conference organisers, creative writing teachers and writing consultancies to be warned against. The setup for the story is long, so long, too long, taking up about a third of the book. Then about halfway through the style of the story changes so you’re not reading the sort of book you thought you were at all. The writer headhops – jumps between the points of view of different characters – abruptly and without obvious reason. Headhopping isn’t a writing sin because it’s inelegant; it’s because it’s really confusing for the reader, and as a reader, in this case, I was really confused.

And in a sense, so what? A debut novel doesn’t just have to be as good as the general malaise of stuff out there in your genre. It has to stand out. I know plenty of talented writers who had novels rejected not because they weren’t good, but because they weren’t stand out enough to be a debut novel. Some of those “not good enough for a debut” books were then published very successfully as novel 2, 3 or 4.

I wonder though whether there’s a point of success where quality control ceases to be a consideration. Reading this book, my natural urge, as a writer, is to get a pen and a notepad and start to make editing and revision notes. It feels like an unedited draft, rather than a finished novel. More than anything I’m confused by that. I don’t understand how the novel got through an editing process in its current form. Maybe the writer is at a level of success where the publisher reckons their work will sell regardless. Maybe the writer knows it ain’t a great book, but was pressured by contractual and commercial obligations to put it out. I don’t know. Lack of editing though, is one of the criticisms used by mainstream publishers to bash the self-publishing sector. Sometimes that criticism is justified, but as a criticism of a whole sector of an industry it’s too much of a generalisation, especially when the big publishing houses are putting out their own, albeit possibly smaller, share of poorly edited material.

So that’s my confusion for this week. Feel free to chat about bookly things in the comments – particularly bad books, poorly edited books, books you wanted to chuck across the room. Off you go.

 

In which I think about settling down with a good book

Ahoy there and apologies for blogging tardiness. Unfortunately people keep luring me away from my nice safe sofa-laptop bubble by trying to give me money to teach people stuff, which is tiresome, but does lead to having money to buy things, which is nice.

Anyhow, you find me, dear readerist, in a time of great trauma, because, right at the moment, I don’t really have a book on the go.

Now some of you probably won’t appreciate why that’s traumatic. Some of you will be the sorts of people who dip in and out of a book as the mood takes them, and have no more emotional attachment to the idea of reading that they would to a passable movie or the end of a series of Grand Designs (although, I’m not sure series of Grand Designs ever actually end, they just morph without warning into repeats of older episodes). Anyhow, we are a very egalitarian and open-minded blog here. We welcome all sorts of people, regardless of race, gender or preference in flavour of fruit pastel. So you people who aren’t fully fledged Book Types are welcome along with everyone else. I do, however, reserve the right to give you very slightly suspicious glances from time to time, and pop a plastic cover down before I let you sit on the good chairs.

Part of the reason I am without book at the present time, is that I am in the midst of working through the plot for a new novel idea. When I’m deep in a first draft or in working through initial plot ideas, I quite often find that my reading tails off a bit. It’s as if my brain can only be fully immersed in one story at a time. For the same reason, I think, I only ever have one book on the go at any given moment. Some people can deal with more than one. EngineerBoy often has an “upstairs” and a “downstairs” book in progress at the same time. This causes me to peer at him suspiciously quite a lot, and occasionally look at bungalows on estate agency websites as a last resort to break him out of this bizarre and worrying habit.

Right now though, I need a book to read. I’m starting to get a bit twitchy for lack of book. It needs to be absorbing enough for me to get into easily but not so mentally taxing that it interferes with writer brain doing its important story development, and also not so light and frothy that I my brain isn’t engaged at all. It can be fiction or non-fiction. It might even be something that’s already on my not-as-big-as-it-sometimes-is To Read pile, all of which look interesting, but none of which are screaming “Read me now!” in a sufficiently loud voice.

to read pile

So please help me out with suggestions. What books have you properly loved recently and why? And, any writers out there, can you read and write alongside one another or are they just mutually exclusive activities?

In which I am a bit randomly reviewy

Back in the day when this blog was a new and shiny thing, I used to post reviews quite often. They the things I reviewed had some sort of vague relationship to each other, like these which have a sci-fi vibe going on. Sadly, my cultural diet of late has lacked an overarching theme, so today’s return to reviewing is essentially my thoughts on three random and unrelated things. They’re not even all the same form of media. Oh well. Here we go – in no particular order.

1. You Had Me At Hello by Mhairi McFarlane

This one is A Book, and a very good book it is too. McFarlane won the Contemporary Romance category at this year’s RONA Awards, which is all very good and impressive, especially considering that this is a the writer’s first published novel.

What I really liked about this book was that it didn’t overwhelm me with cute. I like a good love story. I like a funny romantic comedy, but I don’t like my fictional romances too sweet and sickly. I’m not a hearts and flowers girl, and this isn’t a hearts and flowers book. It’s a book about people who love each other, but it has a realism to it, and the humour feels bedded into the characters rather than layered on as a writerly conceit. It reminded me, in tone, of early Marian Keyes (which is high high praise indeed).

My only real quibble came with the ending of the book, which, although inevitable – this is a romance after all, felt a little bit rushed and easy when it came. That’s a minor criticism though. Overall this one gets a big old thumbs up, and I’ll definitely be looking out for book number 2 from Mhairi McFarlane when it comes.

2. Matilda – The Musical  – Music & Lyrics by Tim Minchin, Book (in musical theatre terms) by Dennis Kelly, Actual Book what it is based on by Roald Dahl. Everyone clear on that? Good. Let’s move on.

So Roald Dahl plus Tim Minchin plus The Royal Shakespeare Company – what could possibly go wrong? Well on paper, quite a lot – can you add jazz hands to Roald Dahl and make his pre-teen macabre prose stage-musical ready? Can you make a musical where the bulk of the cast are small children without the whole thing being utterly sickly? Actually, yes. It turns out you can.

Matilda – The Musical started at the RSC and has now transferred to the West End and Broadway, picking up awards everywhere its been. I saw it earlier this month in London, and can confirm that all the plaudits are entirely deserved. The children in it are not annoying. The night we saw it, Matilda was played by Lara Wollington who was completely brilliant, and does the majority of the actorly heavy lifting in the show. Tim Minchin’s lyrics and tunes are fantastic. Some of the choreographed set pieces are incredible, particularly the sequence where the adult dancers in the show climb a structure that’s being constructed around them. The funny bits are actually funny, especially those centred around David Leonard as Miss Trunchbull.

Two weeks later I’m still finding myself singing bits from the show. If you get the chance, go see it. It’s very very good indeed.

3. Star Trek – Into Darkness

So I’ve read a book. I’ve seen a musical. Now I’m going to the modern cinematic picture house. This is the second film in JJ Abrams’ twenty first century Star Trek reboots, and I, for one, liked his first attempt very much. There are definitely some good things about this film. If you’re a casting director looking for “superior, intelligent, quite quite insane” you call Benedict Cumberbatch, and feel satisfied that you’ve done your job well.

There are other good things too. Zachary Quinto was good as Spock in the previous Star Trek outing. He’s still good now, although even he looks slightly confused as to why he’s dating Uhuru.

In places, Simon Pegg as Scotty is quite funny (once you’ve got past the accent). Unfortunately, he’s also clearly appearing in stylistically quite a different film from anyone else. There are lots of examples (Buffy and Doctor Who spring to mind most obviously) of successful sci-fi/fantasy mixing high drama and comedy successfully. Weirdly, in this film the “doing comedy” seems to have been allocated to one actor who ploughs a lonely parallel furrow to the rest of the action.

And what action it is. We run. We jump into a volcano. We shoot stuff. We blow  stuff up. We crash our spaceships. We run some more. Oh my word, how much we run. But that’s all action, which isn’t quite the same thing as drama. Plotwise, it’s a bit of a mess. The initial story idea of a lone terrorist wreaking revenge on the Federation is strong. Souping that up a bit with the bubbling under of the increasingly warm cold war with the Klingon Empire is interesting too. But at that point, we’ve probably got enough plot for one film. Unfortunately, that’s not the point at which this film stops. It feels like everyone in the writers’ room was allowed to contribute an idea, and the director didn’t have the heart to tell anyone that theirs wasn’t going to be included.

We’re also on an Enterprise where no-one is particularly good at their job, or even of above average intelligence. Strange woman just lied and faked her identity to get onto your top secret military mission? Why not put her in charge of the massive experimental weapons? Why not indeed? And I’m not even going to start on the scene where the same woman pops her clothes off in front of a senior office for no identifiable reason, other than to note that it gave me a flashback to Lost In Translation, where Scarlet Johansson spends a lot of the film being moody and thoughtful while looking out of a window, but always always finds a moment to take her trousers off first.

So, Star Trek Into Darkness overall would be a ‘could do better.’

And that is all for today. Have you read or seen any of the above? What did you think? Or do you have any other cultural excitements to recommend to the group? Take it away…

In which I think a lot about books and not so much about deceased Prime Ministers

So no blog post last week. Apologies once again – the need to earn money was continuing to get in the way of things I actually want to do. It’s probably for the best though. I’d have felt obliged to say something about the death of Baroness Thatcher/Maggie/The Iron Lady/Thatcher Thatcher Milk Snatcher (delete as you wish), and that would have been a struggle, because what is there to say? She used to be Prime Minster. Some people thought she was a marvellous Prime Minister. I wasn’t, personally, one of those people. But she stopped being Prime Minister 23 years ago, so while clearly her death is news, I suspect I’m not the only person in the country who’s struggling to see why it had four days of basically being the only news. So if I had blogged last week it would probably have said, “So Margaret Thatcher died. Hmmm. Well then.” And that would not have been an exciting blog for any of us.

So, what else is news? Well the shortlist for the Women’s prize for fiction has been announced. This is what used to be the Orange Prize, before the good people at Orange decided that people who can read are not part of their target market (I’m extrapolating here – I assume that’s what they decided). And it’s a fairly stonkingly impressive shortlist. Proper name authors like Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver and Kate Atkinson are in the mix to get beaten by the literary prize goliath that is Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies.  Obviously, these sorts of prizes are hugely subjective. One judging panel won’t necessarily agree with another, but the fact that Mantel won the Man Booker and the Costa Prize would suggest an unusual level of consensus at the moment.

I can’t really comment further than that, because, rather depressingly, I haven’t read any of the shortlist. I haven’t read Bring Up The Bodies because it’s part 2 of a trilogy and part 1 (Wolf Hall) is still sitting on my To Read pile, along with non-fiction books about drugs (pharmaceutical and street), quantum mechanics, and evolution, two autobiographies, and a whole shelf (more than a whole shelf – in places they’re stacked vertically) of assorted fiction. And that’s before we start on the virtual books waiting in my kindle. There are simply too many interesting books out there in the world.

I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I read quite widely. Fiction and non-fiction. Different genres. But increasingly I find that there are just too many books. I’ve already instigated my 100 pages rule – I’ll read the first 100 pages of anything I start. If I’m not gripped by then, I give up on it. But I’m still not keeping up with all the things I would like to read. And so I have a plan.

Firstly, can we all stop writing new stuff for maybe 12 months, just to give everyone a bit of time to catch up? Secondly, and this part makes me sad, I think I may have to accept that some of the books on the To Read pile are never going to get read. I never throw away books. Once they’re in, they are, traditionally, housed indefinitely in my (slightly overfull) bookshelves. I think that might have to change. Some books, the ones that actually will probably never get read and the ones that I’m never going to want to reread, might have to make the fateful journey to the Daisy Chain Benevolent Fund bookshop in the sky. (NOTE: not actually in the sky, just in the row of shops opposite the church and before the turning for Sainsburys).

This is a sad decision.  I love books. I love their sense of possibility. I love the potential for losing yourself and all your everyday stresses and being immersed in a different world. I love the opportunity for random learning. I don’t like sending them away, which is silly – I don’t feel the same about CDs or DVDs which involve just as much creativity and human endeavour, but books, to me, feel special.

So what about you dear reader? Are you a bibliophile hoarder like myself or a dispassionate “read once and pass on” type? Do you limit the size of your To Read pile or let it grow to the point where you may need to build it an extension? In other words, are any of you as daft about books as me, or am I a lone crazy person after all?