reading

In which I have read some books

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

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

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

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

Falling by Julie Cohen

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

 

Please Release Me – Rhoda Baxter

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

 

We Are All Made of Stars – Rowan Coleman

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

 

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

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

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

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

52 Weeks: 52 Books – July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

52 Weeks: 52 Books – May

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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!

 

In which I participate in a Lovely Blog Hop

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Last week I was tagged by Berni Stevens to take part in the Lovely Blog Hop. Normally I’m not very good at participating in blog hops. They involve remembering to post on an agreed day and only talking about the subject at hand, neither of which are my special blogging skills. In this case though, the blog hop is officially Lovely, and everyone likes Loveliness, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. It’s all about the Lovely things that have made me the person, and the writer, I am now. Aw.

So here are my thoughts on a number of areas of potential Loveliness.

First Memory

Now my first clear memory is very specific, but not particularly lovely. It’s of a family holiday in Oban where it rained a lot and, having walked boldly into town, my mum and dad decided to get a taxi back to our accommodation because of the downpour. I have a very distinct memory of the taxi driver being a middle-aged slightly balding ginger man – picture a Scottish Neil Kinnock with a taxi. So there you go – not a particularly lovely or unlovely memory, but true so it’ll have to do.

 

Books

An excellent heading for loveliness. I don’t remember ever not loving reading. Right from nursery school when that cat first sat on the mat, I think I was hooked. Although looking back now, the story of the cat lacks narrative drive. Why is it sitting on the mat? What impact does the mat have on the cat’s character arc? These things are never properly explored.

From then on I loved Winnie-the-Pooh, and later Enid Blyton – I always loved her boarding school books, whereas my sister was addicted to the ones where groups of small children catch smugglers. Then it was Sweet Valley High and Terry Pratchett, and then all the other books. All of them. So many books. So little time. Feels overwhelmed. Crawls back under duvet (with a book).

 

Libraries

The two formative libraries of my childhood were The Main Library in town where you would go with Mummy, and Scalby Library which my sister and I were allowed to go to on our own because it was nearer, and also, on the way to Grandma’s house. The Main Library had a children’s section that I remember as being massive. It almost certainly wasn’t. I suspect it was just a fairly normal sized room, but as Terry Pratchett fans know, books distort space and time, so that was probably what made it seem bigger.

Scalby Library was mainly notable for not having a public toilet, which for children who’ve walked there without adult supervision, could turn out to be problematic. On one occasion my sister, who was about 16 at the time, desperately needed to pee and persuaded the staff to let her go to their toilet by claiming that her little sister needed to go and might wet herself. I was 11. I did not need to go. This was most unscrupulous behaviour.

 

What’s your passion?

Writing (covered below). And reading (covered above). And education (covered below). And baking (not covered anywhere else, but it is an excellent way to achieve cake and so is therefore very lovely).

 

Learning

I love learning. Knowing more stuff is always excellent, and realising how little you know at the moment is excellent too, because it encourages humility and listening to other people, both of which are very very Lovely Things.

I think I’ve always loved learning, but I didn’t always love school. Secondary school, in particular, was fairly horrible, but I adored university so much that I went back and did an MA, and then a second BA, and then a teaching qualification. If tuition fees weren’t so prohibitively high I’d do another degree in a heartbeat. I fancy Law. Or maybe Politics. Or PPE. Or…

 

Writing

My earliest memory of writing was deciding, with a friend from school, that we were going to write, and star in, a satirical play about two rebellious schoolgirls who join a children’s choir. I definitely remember that we thought this play was going to be hilarious and would, almost certainly, change the world. We were about 10, and I don’t think we got past arguing over names for our characters.

So there you go – the important writing skills of a) having an idea and b) getting hung up on some tiny detail of the idea and never actually writing any words, were developed at a young age and have served me well ever since.

 

And that’s my Lovely Blog Hop Blogpost. Next week historical author Heather King will be taking up the baton on her own site and sharing her lovely thoughts and memories about what made her the writer she is today. You can also come back to this very blog right here next week to catch up on my 52 Weeks:52 Books progress with my update for March.

52 Weeks: 52 Books – January

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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 make some new New Year’s Resolutions

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So it’s New Year’s Resolution time again. Traditionally at this point in the year I tell you that I’m going to lose weight, get over my terror of driving and probably do some writing. That’s pretty much what I did at the start of 2014, and 2013, and 2012. This year I’m going to take a different approach. Well slightly different. I shall still definitely do much writing, but that’s kind of what I do now (hurrah!) so it doesn’t merit a whole resolution, and there’s no driving resolution this year either. That’s not because I’ve got over the fear completely, but I’ve managed to dial it down from a fullblown phobia to a strong dislike.

 

So my All* New Resolutions for 2015 are:

1. I will read more books.

Something very distressing has happened to me over the last few years. I’ve found myself reading less and less. There are reasons for this. Partly it’s to do with writing more, which a) fills up the bit of my brain where stories live with the story I’m writing, rather than the one I’m reading, and b) means that I read much more critically. It’s also partly to do with twitter and facebook and smartphones and the general proliferation of stuff that you can read on the train or while you’re waiting for a bus, without opening a book.

Recently this has started to change though. I’ve read three or four books recently that have really got under my skin, and the love of reading is slowly coming back. My goal for 2015 is to read at least 52 books. That’s a book a week. You probably all knew that, didn’t you? You probably also know how many minutes there are in an hour and how many paracetamol you’re allowed to take in 24 hours. That’s just the class of blog reader I attract.

Anyhow – 52 weeks: 52 books – that’s the plan. It can include fiction and non-fiction, but not books that I’m reading for work (either as specific novel research or for other paid work). If I’m organised I shall blog from time to time about how it’s going and what I’ve read. But I’ve never really been organised before so don’t get too invested in that part of the plan.

There is one other thing, before we move on from this little resolution, and it involves me stating a slightly inconvenient truth. Picture me looking all like Al Gore, only being a lady and doing a bit more awkward staring at the floor. The other reason my reading stalled, was that my To Be Read pile got too big. Overwhelmingly big. Big to the point where I couldn’t even begin to justify buying more books until I’d started to make a little bit of a dent in the existing TBR mountain. I’d stopped looking at the book mound as a potential source of excitement and joy, and started seeing a task that had to be worked through.

Now here’s the awkward bit – a lot of those books in the intimidating TBR pile had got there because they were written by somebody I know, not because they were books that I desperately wanted to read. The reality is that writers tend to know other writers, and we tend to be supportive types who want to buy each others’ books. And that’s lovely, but doing this too much left me in a position where I felt guilty about my failure to read all the books by all the lovely people I’d met. That has to stop. In 2015 I’m going to get tough. There’s no way I can read even all the new releases from writers I know either personally or via the modern interwebs, let alone making a start on all their back catalogues. From now on I buy books only if I want to read them, and if you’re a writer chum and I don’t read your book, I’m sorry. You’re still marvellous. Your book is probably marvellous too. It’s just that there is so little time, and so many books, and I just have to accept that I may not actually manage to get through them all.

 

2. I will get fitter

OK – this is totally a variation on all the previous years’ fitness/weight loss resolutions. But this year I totally have a specific plan. It goes like this.

I will eat 7 portions of fruit and veg every weekday.

I won’t eat cake/biscuits/chocolate during the week (apart from super special occasions. Like a birthday party, for example. ‘Tis churlish in the extreme to turn down birthday cake).

I will work out at least 4 times a week.

And from these three simple steps, great health and fitness shall flow. Probably. If I actually do them.

So there you go. Those are my resolutions for 2015. Obviously I shall achieve them both in full and everything shall be peachy.

*partially

In which I reread an old classic

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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.