Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Eight in May

I read eight books in May.

A Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell
I read this before I went to Scandinavia for the first time – a visit to Copenhagen at the end of May. Helen Russell, a journalist on a glossy, London-based mag, gave up her job and moved to Denmark for a year when her husband got a job in ‘Lego-land’, a small town in rural Jutland, around thirty miles from the Danish capital. She decided to try and find out if Danes are as happy as they are reputed to be. And they are: she asked people she met from all walks of life to rate their happiness on a scale of one to ten and no one fell below eight despite – or maybe because of – those long dark winters. 

Living there as a non-native wasn’t all hygge but there were compensations not least pastry sampling (in the name of research of course). I decided to follow her example ...

 Then I read:

The Runaway Bridesmaid by Daisy James
After finding her own boyfriend and her sister in a compromising position just before the latter’s wedding ceremony Rosie swaps her Louboutins for Wellingtons and flies from bustling New York to sleepy Devon to the house she’s been left by her aunt. Great fun – and see Daisy James’ latest title Sunshine after the Rain whose cover I previewed here.

The Coffee Shop Book Club – various authors including Jojo Moyes, Ian Rankin, Tracy Chevalier, Jenny Colgan, Tessa Hadley and Val McDermid.

Christian Aid book sale. Short stories. I knew I hadn’t read the book before so couldn’t understand why the stories seemed familiar until I twigged – duh, the clue is on the cover – that they were first published in Woman & Home to which I had a subscription for a while.

I particularly liked As The Time Draws Near by Eowyn Ivey. Piper returns to Alaska to scatter the ashes of her daredevil father ‘Red’ Robertson. I really loved Ivey’s writing and look forward to reading her novel The Snow Child which has been on my Kindle for ages.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Read for book group. Becoming a vegetarian is apparently a very subversive act in South Korea and the fallout from one young woman making this decision is told here from three viewpoints (none of them hers). Several of the group admired some aspects of the writing but only one was very enthusiastic about the book … which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

I is for Innocent and O is for Outlaw by Sue Grafton

Yes, another Kinsey Milhone gumshoe blitz.

There was an interesting To the Reader note in O is for Outlaw which clarified the timeline of the books – or rather lack of timeline. The books: are sequential but Miss Milhone is caught up in a time warp and is currently living and working in the year 1986, without access to cell phones, the Internet, or other high-tech equipment … You’ll find few, if any references to current movies, fads, fashions or politics.

Famously, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series is written in ‘real time’. The plus side of this meant that Rankin could set books around topical subjects such as the G8 summit in Edinburgh; the downside of course was that Rebus got older and so eventually had to retire.

As Sue Grafton planned from the outset in the mid 80s to write twenty-six Kinsey Milhone books I guess she had to make an early decision about how she was going to handle time and thought she wouldn’t have wanted Kinsey to age too much (plus her lovely landlord Henry who’s in his 90s clearly would not survive a further twenty-six years however good his gene pool). Hats doffed to her for pulling this off so successfully.

Since I’ve read so many Kinseys on the trot I notice (from a writerly perspective) that when a character is mentioned for the first time, however minor they are, we are always told what they are wearing in some detail, maybe not a technique that would work for everybody but effective here. Observing clothes would be part of Kinsey’s quick summing up of a person perhaps because she is supremely uninterested in what she herself wears – jeans and a black turtleneck being her uniform.

A quick Google tells me that in the US a ‘sport coat’ is what we in the UK call a sports jacket – but it sounds much more dashing.

And courtesy of a rescheduled flight and an unexpected four-hour train journey I was able to – yes, let’s hear it for the Kindle – bring my monthly total to eight with these two corking books:

A dual time-line novel (a device this author has made her own I think). Each story had a connection with Red Hill Hall –in earlier times a family’s stately home and now a hotel. The parallels were cleverly done and I enjoyed both the historical and the contemporary strands.

Felicity at the Cross Hotel by Helena Fairfax
Of which I shall say nothing for the moment, except do go and buy it and look out for an interview with Helena Fairfax here in early July.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Meeting Hans Christian Andersen

I spent a most enjoyable few days in Copenhagen recently.

Like every tourist I was keen to see the Little Mermaid and that wish was fulfilled when I took a boat trip from the colourful harbour area. 

And like every tourist I was surprised at how small she was – and where she was. Somehow I thought she was in the middle of the sea rather than by the shore – but I suppose that would be too difficult.

The statue of the Little Mermaid* of course is there because she is the creation of one of Denmark’s most famous sons, Hans Christian Anderson.
Before Anderson there were no authors of fairy tales – only collectors of tales from the oral tradition, passed on from generation to generation, from region to region and culture to culture.

So says the Introduction to Best Fairy Tales which I bought while I was in Copenhagen.

(It’s published by Macmillan in London and I suppose I could have waited and bought it for less when I got home but I thought it was a lovely edition and a fitting souvenir of my holiday.)

Andersen was born in rural Denmark in 1805 to a poor family, but his shoemaker father read to him from the Arabian Nights and encouraged his early interest in theatre.

Later, in a way that makes a good tale in itself, Andersen was able to travel, visiting twenty-nine countries and meeting fellow writers and folklorists.

His first volume of stories included The Princess and the Pea and The Tinderbox and astounded Denmark’s literary establishment.

I ‘met’ him in a very touristy shop devoted to him (how bemused people from long ago would be if they saw the trinkets commemorating them) but at least there was no charge for having your photo taken with him.

I saw him again in the grounds of Rosenborg Castle.

This statue wasn’t completed and unveiled until after Andersen’s death. Apparently he objected to earlier versions which had him reading to a group of children, maintaining that his stories were for adults too.

The leafy graveyard in which he is buried was about five minutes walk from where I was staying

His grave is well kept, and on that day pretty with planted pansies, but it occurred to me that it ought to be burnished with gold and studded in diamonds as grateful thanks from the various film corporations and from other authors and illustrators who have taken his stories – The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Ugly Duckling, The Red Shoes, The Snow Queen, to name but a few – and made them their own.

* photo courtesy of Rosemary Gemmell

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Sunshine After The Rain

I had the pleasure of meeting Daisy James at a writers’ event recently and am delighted to be able to reveal the cover of her new book – the perfect beach read!

So pack your sunglasses, sun hat, sun cream and … Sunshine After The Rain:

A summer that changes everything…

Frazzled workaholic Evie Johnson has finally had enough! When she’s blamed for a publicity disaster at the art gallery she loves, she decides to flee the bright lights of London for the sun-drenched shores of Corfu and turn her life upside-down.

Under the shade of the olive trees, she picks up her dusty paintbrushes and begins to chase the dreams she had put aside for so long. But she never expected to bump into drop-dead-gorgeous Sam Bradbury – and certainly not whilst wrapped only in a towel!

A summer fling is the last thing Evie wanted but a few stolen kisses under the stars might just begin to change her mind…

Order Sunshine After The Rain here.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Ladies who lunch and other stories

The traditional image of a writer is of someone scribbling away with pen and paper, on their own, in a garret, by guttering candlelight. Possibly there’s a resident rat – Jo March, in Little Women, had one she called Scrabble in her garret.

The updated image has someone sitting at a desk in rather more congenial, rodent-free, surroundings.

Now, as then, writing is a solitary occupation while you’re actually doing it – but these days there are all sorts of lovely ways in which writers can get together.

I had lunch in an Italian restaurant a couple of weeks ago with around twenty other members of a very supportive Facebook group called Authors and Book Bloggers in Scotland, organised by Joanne Baird of Portobello Book Blog. Joanne has deservedly been shortlisted for a bloggers award and while you're checking that out (and voting for her ... ) have a look at how many book blogs there are – I’ve had to restrain myself for the moment from investigating them all.

I sat opposite prolific writer in various genres Caroline Dunford and crime writers Wendy H. Jones and Chris Longmuir who both wore slightly unnerving noose necklaces! And I sat beside romantic novelist Daisy James – look out for a cover reveal of her latest book on this very blog next week.

Then a week later there was a get-together of the Scottish Chapter of the Romantic Novelists Association at a French restaurant in Edinburgh. It was lovely to chat to other writers over lemon and lavender chicken – which sounds just what you'd expect romantic novelists to eat, don't you think?

In other news, not involving lunch …

Last night I left the proverbial garret to see an amazing production of Jane Eyre at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. It really was 'theatre at its most imaginative' while remaining true to the book. Catch it wherever you can ...

My third People’s Friend serial A Time to Reap is just out in a large-print edition for libraries.

Elizabeth Duncan, widowed with two small daughters, is farm manager on a Scottish Highlands estate. It’s April 1963; it’s been a hard winter and someone is trying to make trouble for her. She enjoys support from family and friends in the small community but, following the troubling death of her husband, a new relationship has been the last thing on her mind. However, as she dances at the annual estate ball in September, that may be about to change …

I am planning to publish a Kindle edition myself soon – watch this space. 

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Seven in April

 I read seven books in April.

Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty

Recently I heard an interview with a novelist who specialises in ‘issue’ books. I read about six of them before giving her up a few years ago. She was asked which came first (when she was thinking of her next book) the character or the issue, and she replied, as if it was a no-brainer, oh, the issue. I realised why I’d stopped reading her books – because although I can remember the issues her main characters had I can’t remember anything else about them.

Liane Moriarty’s characters all have lots of issues – as do we all, that’s life, but they are never flagged up as such. Triplets Lyn, Cat and Gemma are the protagonists in Three Wishes – LM is terrific on this sibling relationship. Loved it – not quite as much as The Last Anniversary reviewed here, but lots. I’ve bought The Hypnotist’s Love Story and, her latest, Truly, Madly, Guilty, but am putting off reading them because then I’ll have finished all the books she’s written to date and I don’t know how long the wait will be for the next one …

And while I’m having a wee rant about ‘issues’ I was cross and upset to read that a new version of Anne of Green Gables is being filmed for Netflix. Called Anne with an E it tells the ‘real story’ of ‘a more troubled’ Anne and will be concerned with ‘trauma, bullying and being an outsider’ in the ‘hard, gritty, scrappy’ life she apparently would have had in Prince Edward Island in the late 1800s.

Leaving aside the fact that Anne is a fictional character … I think we can read between the lines that her life, certainly before she came to Green Gables, was what we would now call dysfunctional, but the whole point of her delightful character is that despite her bad start in life she’s never self-pitying, never thinks of herself as a victim. Quite the opposite in fact. Grrr. I won’t be watching.

N is for Noose
V is for Vengeance
W is for Wasted by Sue Grafton

After reading U is for Undertow last month I went on three further crime sprees with private investigator Kinsey Milhone. The next one is available, called merely X, and then only two more to come in this very enjoyable series.

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney
Read on Kindle. Psychological suspense novels promising a twist are the in-thing just now. I didn’t see the twist coming that was revealed about two-thirds of the way through this one but it made sense when I put my Kindle down for a few minutes and thought about it – very clever. The twist on the very last page though – perhaps someone could explain it to me?

In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings
Read on Kindle. Another psychological one. I wasn’t sure about the slightly magical (or were they?) elements in this one but otherwise I thought it was a great page-turner (if you can say that about an e-book) and I liked the Cornish setting.

The Whale Boat House by Mark Mills
This is the first book I’ve read by this author but it won’t be the last. It’s set in Long Island just after the Second World War and begins with the dead body of a beautiful young socialite being caught in a fisherman’s net. Long Island is just beginning to be the weekend/holiday destination for rich New Yorkers who build large houses, a contrast to the homes of the permanent residents. Some Amazon reviewers thought the author shoehorned too much of his research on the lives and work of the fishermen into the story but I liked all the detail and I think it’s good to learn something while being entertained.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The world's oldest woman's weekly magazine

On Thursday 27 April I was delighted to be guest author for the seventh time at a People’s Friend story-writing workshop. This was the first one in Newcastle (following three in Dundee, two in York and one in Glasgow) and nineteen people signed up for it. The workshop is organised and hosted by Fiction Editor Shirley Blair. Shirley has been with the publisher D C Thomson for many years, the last twelve as Fiction Editor for the world’s oldest woman’s weekly magazine – The People’s Friend will celebrate its 150th birthday in January 2019!

When I say I write for The People’s Friend people invariably say, Oh my mum/granny/auntie used to read that – and they have a fixed idea in their heads as to what the magazine is like. In some ways it hasn’t changed since their aged relative read it. It does not have celebrity gossip. It does not have lurid real-life confessions. You could still call it wholesome and heart-warming. But it has moved with the times – of course it has; it wouldn’t still be here if its mindset was still in the 1860s, or even the late 20th century. The stories are still feel-good and upbeat but they reflect 21st-century dilemmas and situations. 

So if you have never read the magazine or haven’t read it for some years do give it a go.

And, if you are a writer, let me tell you that Shirley Blair and her team are passionate about stories and encouraging and supportive of their authors – and they are looking for SIX HUNDRED stories a year to fill the pages of the weekly magazine, the specials and the annuals. See their guidelines here.

What’s not to like?

I look forward to reading stories from some of Thursday’s delegates.

This is the format for the workshops:

 When I talk in the morning session about how to find inspiration and develop ideas I give examples from some of my own stories which were published in the magazine. Three of them – Class of ’64, The New Eighteen and Three’s a Crowd – are in a collection called Three’s a Crowd and other family stories, available on Kindle and in print. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Six in March

I read six books in March.

A few years ago I read a book called Class by Jane Beaton and loved it – Malory Towers for grown-ups. I thought about it off and on but couldn’t remember the title. Then the other month it was revealed that ‘Jane Beaton’ was actually Jenny Colgan who in the meantime has become a humongously successful romantic novelist (and as Jenny T. writes Dr Who books). There will be six books in this series – the first one has been repackaged as Class: Welcome to the Little School by the Sea and this is the second. It was good to catch up with Maggie, a teacher in the school on the south coast of England but originally from Glasgow, the other teachers and the girls. (But I do think ‘the Little’ is currently being very overused in book titles.)

Brigid Keenan was/is a journalist and former Times fashion editor. In the late sixties she married ‘A.’ who became an EU diplomat and as a result the couple lived in various parts of the globe such as India, Trinidad and Kazakhstan. Fascinating anyway to read about the different lifestyles – but as BK can be very funny and self-deprecating I really enjoyed this. I loved her story of the event that started as a po-faced official banquet but took a different turn when the President of Kazakhstan, after a few drinks, suddenly took off his jacket and asked her to dance – just him and her, in front of two hundred guests...

Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit
Read for book group. A book of emails between English journalist Bee, and May, an academic living in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein. They were originally in touch so that Bee could write an article but kept up a correspondence which was eventually published to help raise money to bring May and her husband to England. Brings home what living in a war-torn country is like day-to-day … May was in danger every time she stepped outside her house and not always safe inside it. Recommended (but don’t expect a lot of ‘talking about Jane Austen’, I think she was mentioned once.)

Losing it by Helen Lederer
Millie is a writer, middle-aged, single mother, overweight. Her only child, the more serious-minded Mary, is doing research in Papua New Guinea. I enjoyed the part where Millie visits her daughter – their relationship needs a lot of work – wished there had been more of that.
Millie’s behind with her mortgage and owes money to a loan company so when she gets the chance, through a magazine editor she works for, to earn £20,000 if she loses three stone she jumps at it (or would if she could jump). What follows are her efforts to do that – exercise, colonic irrigation, trying and failing to say no to a giant Toblerone etc …

U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton
Haven’t read any in this private investigator series for a long time. This was a corker – what an achievement to keep up such a high standard for so long. I see that V, W and X are now available so must catch up with those. Mine is a hardback copy, bought for £3.00 in the Amnesty Bookshop, Warrender Park Road, Edinburgh – and thence I shall return it, pointing out that the only one on Amazon is priced at £32.97.

The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty
I’ve read three other Liane Moriarty books and loved each one (see Big Little Lies review here) more than the last. The Last Anniversary – set on the wonderfully named Scribbly Gum Island, just off the coast of Sydney, Australia – has a very original family secret (or at least the way the secret's been kept is probably unique) and, as usual with LM, a cast of characters you really feel you know and are very sorry to leave. I’ve just started Three Wishes … watch this space.