Wednesday, 23 March 2016

A bit of a spree

The annual conference of the Scottish Association of Writers was held 18-20 March, at the Westerwood Hotel, near Cumbernauld, a place that may not strike you as the most glamorous destination for the weekend but the hotel is out of the town in a hollow surrounded by hills and it was hard to believe that the M8 (I think – road numbers not my strong point) was only a few hundred yards away. The food was scrumptious and the young staff efficient and friendly.

‘But what about the “Writers” bit?” I hear you cry. “You didn’t go there just to scoff apple crumble tart with vanilla custard, did you?”

No, but that crisply pastried, lightly cinammoned confection was certainly a bonus. Yum.

Ten members of Edinburgh Writers Club including our Honorary President Alanna Knight attended, got nine places in the competitions and won the quiz on Friday night.

I had been asked to judge the Women’s Short Story Competition. The thirty-eight entries were wide-ranging in their topics – abseiling, dancing bears, suffragettes, selkies, a yellow car, DNA tests, Christmas angels, the bedroom tax and the Bell Rock Lighthouse to name but a few.

The winning story was full of excellent fishy puns while still being a very touching story. Magazine editors (and competition judges) always say they don’t see enough humorous stories so I do hope Chipping Away will be submitted and accepted and in print before long.

On Saturday afternoon I gave a workshop on structuring a story for women’s magazines (if this is something you are interested in there are a few spaces left in The People’s Friend story-writing workshop in Dundee 29 March:

There was a bookstall and I took along some copies of of my recently published story collection ... may have mentioned it before ...

I attended two excellent workshops myself – one by crime writer Caro Ramsay called From Pen to Publisher and Beyond, and Putting the Fiction into Face and the Fact into Fiction by journalist/non-fiction writer turned crime novelist Douglas Skelton. If you get the chance to hear those writers talking about anything I recommend you take it. And read their books of course ...

The crime theme continued on Monday night back home when Russel MacLean came to talk to Edinburgh Writers’ Club and to adjudicate our crime-writing competition. His enthusiasm for and knowledge of the genre was brilliant and we came away with writing tips (he uses a five-act structure) as well as a list of other crime writers to look out for.

And on Tuesday … more crime. The launch in Blackwell’s of Michael J Malone’s book Bad Samaritan (isn’t that a great title?). An advance review said the book ‘Hits you like an express train.’ I look forward to being hit.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Eight in February

I read eight books in February, or at least I finished eight books.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley
The first of the Hundred Years Trilogy. A fascinating concept – Jane Smiley aims over three books to cover a hundred years of American history told through the story of one family; one chapter covers a year. Not only that – she’s given herself another challenge: the first chapter of the first book covers 1920, so the last chapter of the whole trilogy (which has been published) will be set in 2020. So of course she had to invent history for the last five or six years. I shall be interested to find out what she predicted especially with the unpredictable US election coming along this year.

She does something else I haven’t seen before – some of the early chapters in Some Luck are seen through the eyes of a baby/small child, very convincingly. A page turner.

Chinese Characters by Sarah Lloyd
This is the one I finished in February but started some time ago; I like having a non-fiction book on the go I can read bits of between novels. I’m a little obsessed with China since I visited it in 2011 (see this blog post) and read a lot about it. Sarah Lloyd taught herself Chinese and travelled on her own in the country in the 1980s (which was pretty brave as tourists were rare then) in a bid to understand the way of life. As one reviewer said ‘Hers is neither the China of the revolutionary poster nor of the tourist snaps.’

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jeffries
‘The Tea Planter's Wife is a story of guilt, betrayal and untold secrets vividly and entrancingly set in colonial era Ceylon’ says the blurb.
A mega-best-seller. Didn’t take to it myself. Right from the start unlikely scenarios occur for the sake of the plot. Gwen and Laurence get married in England but he goes back to Ceylon by himself. She’s going to wait to go out with her cousin Frances – which seems odd anyway. Then at the last minute Frances calls off her (long-planned and expensive) journey because she’s got a routine appointment with her solicitor … so Gwen has to travel on her own.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
Her latest, read for book group, but would have read it anyway. Vintage fly-on-the-wall Tyler – the book group discussion sounded as if we were talking about a real family, the Whitshank family in this case and their lives spooling backwards and forwards across three generations.

So then I felt inclined to re/read some more AT:

Ben Joe Hawkes (fiction’s loveliest brother) has six sisters and he worries about them now that he’s left home for university. He can’t quite trust his mother and his paternal ‘Gram’ to look after the household so one weekend he turns up unexpectedly to see them all. A domestic setting but very far from being cosy.

Blackly funny – Charlotte Emory is out of love with her husband and tired of her mundane life. But her life is about to change in a dramatic way – in the bank a young robber takes her hostage and they head for Florida in a stolen car. As the Observer reviewed: ‘A skilful novel by a writer in full flight from the obvious.’

Family Matters by Gillian Villiers
‘When Hope Calvert's best friend and business partner runs away with most of their money, she has no choice but to close their shop and return to Scotland. The only work she can find is as a carer, which is challenging, but surprisingly fun, and she's pleased to find she's getting more involved in village life. She particularly wonders if this extends to Robbie Mackenzie, the handsome farmer's son, but first she must sort out some long-hidden family secrets.’ Beautiful Scottish rural setting; a good read.

The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson
‘British intelligence has a deep penetration mole in the KGB. When that mole reports that a Soviet spy ring in London is no longer sending intelligence to Moscow, MI6 are worried. Catesby is sent on a mole hunt that leads him through the seamy sex scandals of 1960s London to the jungles of Vietnam.’

I like a good spy story – the vicarious thrills of the chase. Was a little disappointed in this much-hyped one though; in places it read more like non-fiction.