katewritesandreads

katewritesandreads

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.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Wine, winning and song





The Scottish Association of Writers’ annual conference was held last weekend in the lovely Westerwood Hotel in (not-so-) sunny Cumbernauld, two days of camaraderie, competition adjudications, workshops, readings, after-dinner speaker Helen Lederer, a quiz, a talent show with some fabulous singing, and eating and drinking twice as much as usual …

I was delighted to win the Woman’s Short Story Competition and to be the first recipient of the lovely trophy above.




I couldn’t enter any competitions last year as I was adjudicating this one.

This year it was judged by Kirstin Zhang who has won several major short story competitions including one run by Harpers Bazaar magazine which resulted in twelve literary agents vying to sign her up – so it was an honour and a thrill to have my story picked out by her.

As you don’t always know what an adjudicator is looking for in the Woman’s Short Story Comp I’d hedged my bets by putting in two entries, one a more traditional magaziney love story. But The Shimmering Shores is set in the early 1970s and its protagonist, Joy, has an unhappy home life from which she escapes every Saturday by taking the bus to North Berwick and ‘the shimmering shores’ of the Firth of Forth. It’s actually a story I’m thinking of expanding into a novel and, when I told her that, Kirstin said she’d thought that there was more to be said about Joy. Watch this space …

The 2017 Harpers’ short story comp has a theme – ‘the anniversary’ – closing date 30 April. More details here

And I came third in the General Article Competition, judged by Gill Hoffs. 


I don’t usually enter this competition (I prefer to make things up) but I’d written a piece of memoir after we had a workshop led by Bashabi Fraser at Edinburgh Writers’ Club so I thought I’d put it in.

Anyone who belongs to a writers’ club in Scotland which is affliliated to the Scottish Association of Writers is automatically a member of the Association and can attend the conference. I have been in Edinburgh Writers’ Club now for around twelve years and I love it. Thirteen members attended the SAW conference this year and won fourteen competition places, including four first prizes – a great way to celebrate the Club’s 70th birthday.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Six in February


I read six books in February.


Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey
This won the Romantic Novel of the Year in 2016. And deservedly so – it’s also won my Book of 2017 and it’s only February. Second World War love story? Tick. Modern love story? Believable tie-up between the two stories? Characters that walk off the page? Atmosphere? Tick, tick, tick, tick. The icing on the top – a nod to one of my favourite TV programmes Heir Hunters. And the cherry on top of that, it’s a genuine weepy. Adored it.


Wait for Me, Jack by Addison Jones
Read on Kindle. Addison Jones is the pseudonym of Scottish-based American writer Cynthia Rogerson – I believe she’s using the name for her books set in the US. I loved this – it’s the story of the sixty-year marriage between Billie (later known as Milly) and Jacko and is seen from both their viewpoints but it’s Jacko, the devoted but philandering husband, who comes across most strongly.

What’s clever and original is that the story is told backwards in around five-yearly increments. So we start just when Billie and Jack meet, jump to them in old age, and then work back to that first encounter. It makes for a much more joyful ending – the handsome young man, the pretty girl, their whole lives in front of them – than if the story was written chronologically, and really made me want to read it all over again.


Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Another corker. We know right at the beginning that someone has died during a fund-raising event at a kindergarten (in a coastal village in Australia) and as we get to know the characters the reader is desperate to find out who and why – and how.

I rarely like books where the author has set out to write about an ‘issue’ of some sort. More often than not the characters are cardboard cutouts with an issue attached and you’re supposed to feel emotionally involved. It’s the difference between feeling sympathetic in a milk-of-human-kindness way if you hear something bad is happening to a friend of a friend of a friend – but you’re distraught if it’s happening to someone close to you.

There are plenty of issues in Big Little Lies, some as old as humanity and some very 21st-century. But Liane Moriarty’s characters, female and male, are so fully realised you cheer and rage on their behalf as if you knew them. Their ‘issues’ aren’t tacked on; they are part of what makes them real people; you understand why they are the way they are. And LM always has an edge of black humour, in this case provided by some very competitive parents.

Madeline was my favourite character. At the beginning you think she’s a stereotypical stiletto-heeled annoying yummy mummy but then you get to know her and she’s fab. I’d love her to be my best friend. And, quite frankly, I’d like to marry Ed. Although as he’s married to Madeline that would certainly be an ‘issue’.




Read on Kindle. Enjoyed this collection of stories (by a fellow Edinburgh Writers’ Club member) which encompass all manner of themes and characters. The inspiration for some lies in art, particularly old Dutch paintings. Other stories are blackly comic – who could resist the title Hettie Mcheeny – Serial Killer or the opening paragraph of The Defenestration of Dean Fortingall: ‘We’re not allowed parties any more, not since the Dean of Applied Arts fell out of the faculty window.’ The Numbers has a great twist. Queen Bee is a short story but also part of a novel called The Good Daughter which I would certainly like to read. Recommended.


Blank Space by Jennifer Young
Read on Kindle. Love a romantic suspense novel. This one is set in Edinburgh around the time of the G8 summit with a main character called Bronte O’Hara. Who could resist this opening paragraph?

My first thought, when I discovered the body on my kitchen floor, was that it was a criminal waste of an exceptionally handsome man. My second was that I’d seen him somewhere before. And even as I crossed myself, I realised he wasn’t dead.

The first in a series called Dangerous Friends – look forward reading more about Bronte and Marcus.



Elizabeth Pringle lived all her long life on the Isle of Arran. But did anyone really know her? In her will she leaves her beloved house, Holmlea, to a stranger – a young mother she'd seen pushing a pram down the road over thirty years ago.

As I lived on that beautiful island for a few years when I was a teenager I wanted to like this but I’m afraid I couldn’t warm to it. My main reaction was envy of Martha – I want a stranger to leave me a lovely house filled with interesting things. If it was on Arran that would be brilliant but anywhere really …

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Seven in January




I read seven books in January.

 

A black-tie ball under the stars in small-town Australia is the background for this romance between two old classmates. I believe these used to be decorous affairs, allowing men and women in very rural areas to meet potential partners. This one is a more modern fund-raising event but there’s still plenty of potential-partnering going on. Enjoyed this – as I did Flight to Coorah Creek by the same author.


An absolutely beautifully written memoir of growing up on a farm called Harmony in the Appalachian mountains. J D Ballam’s family, and their nearby farming relatives, had to be almost completely self-sufficient and from a very young age he was given a share of the work load; he turned out to be very practical and able to turn his hand to everything whether it was with animals or machinery.

Of course he’s not the first person to write about such an upbringing but what is special about this account (apart from, but not unrelated to, the lyrical writing) is that his childhood was not a century (or two) ago but in the 1970s, and he went on to get a first-class degree in English from the University of York.


The first book I’ve read in the Flavia de Luce series of novels featuring the eleven-year-old sleuth who is passionate about chemistry, particularly if poisons are involved. She lives on a decaying English country estate with her usually absent father and her two fearsome older sisters. Good fun – and a good plot.


Not That Kind of Girl by Catherine Alliott 
When happily married country-dweller Henrietta gets a job in London her life suddenly becomes complicated in unexpected ways. A lovely big chunky read for a winter's evening.


Some nice person gave me this for Christmas knowing my fondness for girls’ boarding-school stories – Malory Towers (I can still remember chunks of In the Fifth), Chalet School, Angela Brazil et al.

The author (whose grandmother was Jan Struther, author of Mrs Miniver) interviewed ‘girls’ who went to (English and Scottish) boarding schools during those years. The schools ranged from the extremely academic Cheltenham Ladies’ College to others where the teaching was minimal. The result makes for a very interesting slice of social history but perhaps you have to be one of those gals to find it ‘the funniest book you’ll read all year’ as quoted on the front.

Published by Slightly Foxed in a lovely little hardback edition, a pleasure to look at and to hold.


Palace of Deception by Helena Fairfax
A novella. Think of a Mary Stuart plot crossed with The Prisoner of Zenda and a dash of Rebecca, but with a setting and a heroine, Lizzie, and hero, Leon, very much its own. I enjoyed the lush descriptions of the strange little country of Montverrier and its mysterious Princess Charlotte, and went on to read the sequel:



The Scottish Diamond by Helena Fairfax
A novella. This time the couple are in Edinburgh where the murky goings on are not confined to the weather … With more twists than the stairs in the Scott Monument, the plot takes us through the capital city and out into the countryside as an old feud is brought to light and Lizzie and Leon wonder who they can trust – including each other.