Monday, 29 June 2020

Bike-ride reading

We acquired an exercise bike at the start of lockdown and I have been on it every day since. My slot (in our household of three) is first thing in the morning – I chose that time so I would just wake up and, er, get on my bike without giving myself any chance to talk myself out of it.

I used to love cycling when I was a child but that’s once upon a time now …

After a perfunctory start, where I didn’t even check the distance, I got competitive with myself and now do between 8km and 15km every morning. On one day a week I go for a personal best, currently 25km (that’s just over 15 miles in real money, I'd have you know). No pictures, thankfully, of my perspiring red face …

While I cycle, I listen on earphones to Radio 4’s A Good Read on catch-up. There are fifty-five Internet pages of past programmes, dating back to the late 80s. If you have never heard it (the latest series is on at the moment, 4.30 on Tuesday afternoons) – a host and two guests each share a book that they’ve enjoyed, either fiction or non-fiction. There have been various hosts but the one who has made the programme her own, Harriett Gilbert, is I think, much the best.

I am whizzing through them – 25km is three programmes’ worth.

Some of the books discussed could in no way be described as ‘a good read’, in the can’t-put-down, entertaining sense of the word, but they are nevertheless interesting and informative; some guests blatantly choose titles they have contributed to in some way or have been written by a pal; and one or two (no names) were quite rude, talking loudly over the others. 

Although some guests’ choices are in some way predictable, others are surprising. I have silent arguments when a book I love is not appreciated by everyone.

So I am well distracted while turning those pedals and mopping my brow.

But now, of course, I have added to the already tottering wish list of books I would like to read, viz:

A Month in the Country  J. L. Carr
Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady  Florence King
Crooked Heart  Lissa Evan
Dirt Music  Tim Winton
Dissolution   C. J. Sansom
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes  Anita Loos
Invisible Cities  Italo Calvino
Leadville by Edward Platt
Out Stealing Horses  Per Petterson
Remembering Babylon  David Malouf
Slow Horses  Mick Herron
Love and Summer  William Trevor
The Spire  William Golding
The Wicked Chamber  Angela Carter
This is Shakespeare  Emma Smith
To Esme with Love and Squalor  J. D. Salinger
Towards the End of the Morning  Michael Frayn

What would you choose if you were asked to be on the programme?

I feel inspired to take up actual cycling when lockdown is over. 

Who knows where 25km will get me to?

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Jinty's Farm

An everyday story of farming and gin-making.

Jinty’s Farm is my fourth People’s Friend serial, now available for pre-order an e-book; publication date 26 June.

I’ve written a farming serial before. A Time to Reap was set in 1963; this one is contemporary, set in the Kingdom of Fife on Scotland’s east coast.

These days, farmers have to diversify as never before to make ends meet. That could mean having paying guests, cheese-making, opening farm shops, making crisps or preserves or ready-meals. Or, as in my story, making gin.

I did enjoy finding out about gin-making … I read articles about various craft gin makers and how they come up with ideas for making their product stand out. I read about the process for making gin and I visited a couple of distilleries; and I had the occasional glass – in the interests of research of course.

There’s another aspect to the story which I liked researching too – the deployment of Polish soldiers to work on farms in Scotland during the Second World War.

I remember a Fife minster, some years ago now, telling me that when he visited elderly ladies in his parish they always talked about that time with a definite twinkle in the eye … the innate good manners as well as the good looks of the soldiers had left a lasting impression.

That inspired me to include one such soldier – whose existence is known about from the farm diary and the entries by Jinty, late grandmother of the present generation.

So, farming and gin-making – plus arguments and accidents, romances and break-ups, and family history echoing through the ages. It's all happening down on Jinty's Farm.

My previous three serials are now available as a (Kindle) boxset.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Thirteen in May (2)

I read thirteen books in May; these three and others which you can read about here.

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary
I think this rom com did live up to most of the plaudits it’s garnered although I have a gripe about the pointlessly distracting names of some of the characters– Katherin spelt unusually thus without an e at the end, a contemporary young woman called Gertie (Gertrude), men called Mo and Sal. We never even meet Sal, he’s referred to but is offstage so I can’t see the point of calling attention to him in this way. The minute you begin wondering what Sal’s full name is likely to be then you’re out of the story.
I had the same issue, to a much greater degree, with Marian Keyes’ book The Break.
Having got that off my chest, the plot: Tiffy shares a flat, and a bed, with Liam but they have never met – he works nights in a hospice and she’s an editor in a publishing office. She needs somewhere to live and fast and he could do with the extra income, for a reason which becomes clear, so the arrangement suits them both.
They get to know each other at first by leaving notes for each other (phew! Thank goodness for Post-Its – see Adventures in Stationery, below).
A fun escapist read with unexpected depths.

Nelly Dean by Alison Case
This was a present from a friend in 2015 after we had seen the author at the Edinburgh Book Festival. In this case (unlike Before Green Gables, see previous post) I hadn’t delayed reading it because I didn’t want anyone other than Emily Bronte roaming Wuthering Heights – I’d decided that I would need to reacquaint myself with WH first before embarking on this book in which housekeeper Nelly fills in gaps in the original.
And with lockdown came the time to do that. I didn’t actually read the book again but listened to an abridged version on tape (yes, tape, narrated by Hannah Gordon).
I don’t think this new book would make sense if you’d never read Wuthering Heights. It uses the same device as the original in framing Nelly’s narrative as a letter and here she says things like ‘As you’ll recall’ and ‘you will remember’. Or I suppose you could read this first and use WH to ‘fill in the gaps’.
I liked Alison Case’s writing a lot as indeed I like Emily Bronte’s but I’d forgotten quite what a grim and claustrophobic world EB created.
Even after reading this more personal story of Nelly Dean I find it difficult to understand (if you think of her as a real person) why she would love the members of the over-wrought and violent household at Wuthering Heights and wouldn’t leave when she had the chance.

Bought in a charity shop. I have been dipping into this over several months – not just a journey through your pencil case but a history of the whole stationery cupboard, from the revolving desk tidy and staplers by way of highlighters and Post-Its (or Press ’n Peel Notes as they were originally called; invented first and found a use for later).
I found it comforting to be told that despite computers and other gadgets actual stationery isn’t going anywhere.
And – why hadn't I twigged to this before? – traditional symbols are used in digital devices: a ‘pen’ for composing a new text, a magnifying glass meaning ‘search’ and a paperclip for sending an attachment. While they are in the virtual world people are reassured by these physical reminders apparently.
The book is a lovely object in itself and has these gorgeous endpapers (the illustration forms the cover of the paperback edition):

There’s a lot of detail (be warned that the author has a blog called I Like Boring Things, although I see it has not been updated for a year or so) and I admit my eyes did glaze over sometimes. But as someone with more notebooks than I’m ever likely to use, with a serious pencil-buying habit, and as the proud owner of a Ranger 55 table-top sharpener which I wrote about here I was very happy to follow James Ward on a journey through my pencil case.

May all your pencils be sharp ones.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Thirteen in May (1)

I read thirteen books in May; I’ll tell you about them in two blog posts.

Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston
Like very many people I enjoy Brian Bilston’s way with words. The ‘Banksy of poetry’ and ‘Twitter’s unofficial poet laureate’ nails current topics on the head in clever and witty ways that you wish you’d thought of first.
Diary of a Somebody is allegedly his diary but I think we can take that with a large cellar of salt.
To quote from the blurb:
Part tender love story, part murder mystery, part coruscating description of a wasted life, and interspersed with some of the funniest poems about the mundane and the profound, Diary of a Somebody is a unique, original and hilarious novel.
I whizzed through it, loved it; this will be one to reread.

The Visitor by Lee Child
The fourth Jack Reacher book. ‘The visitor’ is Jack Reacher himself when he helps a couple of government agencies to solve the gruesome murders of two former female army high-flyers who had both been acquainted in the past with our hero.

Isn’t that a fab (as we used to say in the 60s) cover?
Dual timeline, set on the Greek island of Péfka. The earlier story is about Elin when she attends a summer art school there and, later, Elin’s daughter Alexandra follows in her mother’s footsteps and learns much about Elin that she never knew. Great premise and great sense of place – I’ve never been to Greece but enjoyed my virtual stay in Péfka.

Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson
This was produced in 2008 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the publication of the story of fiction’s most loved redhead.
I’ve had it on my shelf for about ten years and finally plucked up the courage to read it – if that isn’t too strong a statement. L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and its sequels have for so (sooo) long been among my very favourite books that I resented the thought of someone else writing her story.
We know from the Anne books that she was orphaned as a baby and subsequently brought up in two foster homes where she was treated with rough kindness but also as an unpaid and overworked skivvy before being taken to an orphanage from where she was adopted (by mistake; they’d asked for a boy) by siblings Matthew and Marilla. 
If you have never read or owned a copy of Anne of Green Gables there are dozens of editions to choose from, some with very unappealing covers, and others which look lovely, like this one: 

I thought Before Green Gables was unnecessarily long and I wasn’t massively taken with Budge Wilson’s writing. Through her eyes Anne appears to look like a ragdoll or a cartoon character – her large eyes and ‘long skinny legs’ being mentioned rather too frequently. We know from LM’s books that Anne is precocious and a chatterbox but here she is attributed speeches (speeches I tell you) from the age of seventeen months that are frankly implausible.
But there were some terrific characters, not least Anne’s delightful and tragic young parents, and many things are ‘explained’, such as Anne’s love of big words, her appreciation of natural beauty and her longing for a best friend, a kindred spirit.
At the end of the book we leave her at Bright River station, Prince Edward Island, waiting for Matthew Cuthbert to arrive. Anne of Green Gables begins with that scene so of course I had to read it again and one thing led to another and another and …

At the beginning of this year my sister and I planned (but luckily had not booked) a holiday in Canada this autumn, including a visit to Prince Edward Island which I have been longing to see for more than fifty years. Well, we all know how holiday plans in 2020 have turned out … 
Maybe in the next year or two (or three) it will be possible but, if not, then thank goodness for the imagination which can travel even when the body is in lockdown. A sentiment I'm sure Anne Shirley would approve of.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Family Stories Boxset

I completed a short story last week and have submitted it to a magazine – the first new writing I’ve done since lockdown (apart from the diary I’ve kept now for 63 days). 

It’s hard to forget the elephant in the room but it’s too early to write lockdown stories – I think we’ll need a bit of distance for that – but undoubtedly it will eventually keep writers of books and screenplays in plotlines for decades to come.

To keep my writing hand in as it were I’ve been looking at previously published work and repurposing it.

First up was an anthology of magazine stories, Still Rocking, see more details in this post.

Now I’ve published a ‘Family Stories Boxset’, or Kindle e-equivalent – three of my People’s Friend serials in one file. These are already available singly at £1.99; the boxset is £3.99 so you get three for the price of two. 

It was easy enough to put the three texts together but it took a bit of Internet trawling to find out how to do the graphic (preferably at no cost). Here it is, courtesy of www.covervault.com – the website is well worth a look.

The Ferryboat: Judy and Tom Jeffrey move north after buying a hotel in the West Highlands of Scotland, with their daughter and her chef husband – but have they made a terrible mistake?

The Family at Farrshore: Spending the summer working on Scotland’s north coast, archaeologist Cathryn is drawn into the local community – and to Magnus who is visiting the area for reasons of his own.

A Time to Reap: It’s 1963 on a Scottish Highlands estate. Farm manager Elizabeth Duncan has the unpleasant factor to contend with, and is unsettled by the arrival of an American visitor.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Fifteen in April (2)

I read fifteen books in April – this is the second of two blog posts about them; you can read the first here.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Read on Kindle. At the time of my writing, the book has a staggering 40,393 reviews on Amazon UK with an average rating of 4.5. It’s the author’s first novel but she is an acclaimed zoologist who has written extensively about Africa. A film is on its way (inevitably).
Set in the swamplands of North Carolina, it’s the story of a girl – a small child – abandoned by one family member after another and left to fend for herself, which she does most resourcefully and in the process becomes an expert on the flora and fauna of the area. It’s a place where there are racial tensions and where passions and tempers run high and women do not come off well most of the time. There’s a murder.
For me, there are echoes of three books I love: Crow Lake, To Kill a Mockingbird and Girl of the Limberlost. The writing is lyrical and the descriptions of the swamps are breathtaking; I was right there in the humid marshlands.
Towards the end though I felt as though we were rather hastily being told what was happening rather than being shown and I had more questions than answers regarding the identity of the murderer.

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
From Christian Aid Book Sale 2019. After reading Where the Crawdads Sing my journey in the American South continued. This book answered a question I’ve had about some towns in America having banal names. ’Twas not always so, apparently. The real town that inspired the setting for this book was originally called Harmony Grove but at the beginning of the 20th century this was regarded as too ‘folksy’ and old-fashioned and the name was changed to – Commerce.
Written in the 1980s, the book is set in 1904 and has a terrific main character, a lad of fourteen who is good-hearted (mostly) but a great gossip and eavesdropper. Amid the tattle tales and scandals and tragedies, the changing face of rural America is apparent with, for example, the car beginning to replace the horse.

Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters
From charity shop to whence it shall return as soon as possible.
Dual narrative: early 1940s with Dorothy, and 2010 with her granddaughter Roberta. Long-lost families, a character who works in a second-hand bookshop and finds letters etc inside books – this ticked several much-loved book themes for me. Before I read it, that is.
I did finish it but it left me completely cold; not one of the characters came alive. Whatever their era/age/gender/nationality/background, they spoke (and wrote) indistinguishably. 
No matter how much the author tried to tug on my heartstrings they remained resolutely untugged.
And, for a book with literary pretensions, the out-of-the-blue revelation at the end about bookshop owner Philip was ludicrous; it had me burst out laughing, not the author’s intention.
If it’s a story of estranged families and second-hand bookshops you’re after, then read Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland. I liked it so much I almost got a tattoo.

Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
Read on Kindle. First in this 1920s cosy crime series with an aristocratic young woman sleuth called Amory Ames. Very enjoyable; I will read more of them. Amory’s unconventional relationship with her husband Milo adds extra interest.

Holmes & Hudson Mystery Book 1. I loved this. The conceit is that housekeeper Mrs Hudson is even more gifted a case solver than her famous employer, aided by her plucked-off-the-street kitchen maid, Flottie (short for Flotsam). Mrs H has friends everywhere – from the great and the good from previous employments, who are in her debt for various reasons, to the street urchins who are her eyes and ears. The author conjures up Victorian London just as well if not better than Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Publishing Game by Edward Stourton
Bought at the Edinburgh Book Festival last year after hearing him speak. It’s a history of the family-run publishing company Hodder & Stoughton (pronounced Stoaton in case you were wondering). By default it’s also a history of ‘the publishing game’ from Victorian times up until the early 1980s when so many long-established companies were subsumed into conglomerates.
I worked in publishing in London (for Hutchinson, now part of Random House) from 1976 to 1982 so it is a subject dear to my heart.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
Read on Kindle for (zoom meeting of) Book Group. Famously, joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize.
Once I’d got over (and I quickly did) the style (no full sentences, little punctuation) I whizzed through this and found it thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking (the two things don’t often go together I would suggest): interwoven stories of twelve black women in Britain from the early 20th century to the present day.
Would bear re-reading in paperback I think, where it would be easier to flick back and remember how the women are connected.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Fifteen in April (1)

I read fifteen books in April – this is the first of two blog posts about them.

 The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey
I worried that I wouldn't care for this one as much as her Letters to the Lost which I positively inhaled; after I'd got it I put off reading it for ages for that reason. I worried needlessly. Lockdown came, with lots of reading time, and I spent a blissful day or two in the company of Alice and Selina and Lawrence. I love the era and the settings (1920s, country house/London) and the writing was wonderful and evocative and emotional. About two-thirds of the way through, heart pounding, I began to gulp uncontrollably. Luckily tissues were at hand. You have been warned.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
(after having a quick skim through Olive Kitteridge which I read a couple of years ago)
I used a birthday book token in Toppings Bookshop in Edinburgh to get this copy which is not only beautifully bound but signed by the author. Having loved Olive’s first outing I knew I’d enjoy her second.
Not that she’s a lovable person, or even an easy one; the author shows her how she is, warts and all. As in Olive Kitteridge, each chapter is almost a story on its own and in some Olive barely appears; instead, we might, for example, follow a character who was once taught by her.
I expect this is the last we shall see of Olive, sadly. But there was a pleasant surprise at the end when Olive makes a friend – with someone from another Elizabeth Strout novel.

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
From Christian Aid Book Sale 2019. Jeannette Walls wrote the extraordinary memoir The Glass Castle – the story of her childhood with a charismatic but unreliable and erratic father, a mother who thought he could do no wrong, and her siblings. The opening scene, of the grown-up Jeannette, a successful film director, being chauffer-driven down a street and seeing her parents foraging for food in a dumpster, is unforgettable.
In this book she tells, in novelised form, the story of her mother’s mother, a most amazing character called Lily, who rode as easily as she walked and, with little schooling, could later turn her hand to anything including teaching.

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiney
I’ve read this three times now in the last two years or so – and it will always be a go-to for me now. It is rare for a book to become a comfort re-read for me that isn’t one I first encountered decades ago. It is snortingly funny, clever and perceptive; and Audra is one of my favourite ever fictional characters.

I love Hilary McKay’s stories of modern family life, although I’m some decades beyond the target demograph (so what?). I saw that one of them was free on Kindle and after I’d read it I had to buy the other two. After a family tragedy Binnie, her brother and sister and their mother move to Cornwall but their troubles aren’t over.

I’ve been listening to episodes of A Good Read while I’ve been on the exercise bike of a morning (distraction from the agony). Comedian Danny Wallace chose Diary of a Nobody which reminded me that it was ages since I read Keith Waterhouse’s brilliant riposte showing Mrs ‘Nobody’s’ side of the story: Mrs Pooter’s Diary. Great fun.