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.