Friday, 26 March 2010

NEW PEARLS OF WISDOM

Alcohol is a great leveller: it makes us all stupid

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Review: FACELESS by Martina Cole

This is definitely commercial fiction and Cole breaks many of the 'sacred' rules of fiction: she includes great chunks of telling rather showing and repeats each character's motivation endlessly. The editing is also suspect at times:she has obviously experimented with several ways of writing the same thing and then has not totally deleted all the redundant words. And-sin of sin-sometimes commas are not used correctly.

Her main character, Marie, who has just been released from prison for a double murder (but I don't believe she did it),speaks in a very middle class way, when she's supposedly working class, apart from a few "me's' instead of 'my's' and the occasional 'fuck'.

HOWEVER, not only am I really enjoying the read but also, Martina Cole is a best seller and must have made more than a few bucks and I still can't find an agent, so I don't feel in way superior about her not particularly fantastic writing skills.

Her characters, most of whom are scumbags, are believable, if somewhat over-stated, and she writes about an underclass where drugs, prostitution and violence are prevelent so it makes for a fascinating read. I don't know what 'rocks' are but I'd certainly not like to get addicted to them.


Okay, the Festival is over, so here's my second 'take' on novels I've been reading recently.


But before I do so, I want to set the scene about my reading preferences.

Because I studied literature for 'A' levels and then my degree in the 1960s and 1970s, I've already read many of the great novels of literature.

Favourites that readily spring to mind are: 'War and Peace', Doctor Zhivago', 'The Alexandrian Quartets', 'Gone With the Wind', 'Madam Bovary', 'How Green Was My Valley', 'Pride And Prejudice' in fact, all of Jane Austen's novels, 'Tess of the Durbevilles', 'Far from the Madding Crowd' (don't you just hate the hypocrisy of Angel!),'Exodus', 'Catch 22' (brilliant), 'A Town Like Alice', 'A Tale of Two Cities', 'For Whom The Bell Tolls'( a real weepy) - the list is endless.

I also had a penchant for authors like Alistair Maclean, Agatha Christie, Jack Higgins etc, what I would call more commercial writers. I lapped us these books whilst living in Cyprus. One of my employers (mother of the two children I was a sort of governess to (Dimitri and Louisa - a lot of fun)) had an enormous selection of paperbacks which I was able to borrow.

The only writers I have a real dislike for, despite the fact that are world renowned and I know that technically they are brilliant, are D.H.Lawrence, E.F. Foster and Joseph Conrad. Their novels are just too dark for me and somewhat boring. I would also never even attempt work by authors like Proust: life's just too short.

There are very few authors that I've come across who make me laugh out loud, which is a real pity, but both Evelyn Waugh and Lyn Truss do that for me, plus Tom Sharpe and not forgetting 'The Little World of Don Camilo' series. I'd love to be able to write a comedy -I think that making people laugh is a wonderful gift - but it's very hard to do, which is why there are so few genuinely funny novels about.

If you come across any, then please leave details in the comments section!

More recently, I've become addicted to crime novels, particularly those written by Michael Connelly (I'm partly in love with Harry Bosch, who is the detective most featured in the novels - although he must be hell to live with), Mo Hayder and Mark Billingham. I'll also read anything by John Le Carre, who is the greatest living novelist of our time, in my opinion. But because I want to break into publishing, I'm devouring novels that are very popular with agents/publishers/book awards/the general public in some hope of seeing where my Cyprus novel would fit in.

Review: THE READER by Bernhard Schlink

This is the novel made into a film which got Kate Winslett (do you spell her surname like that?) her Oscar. I chose to read it because the story sounded most interesting - the German woman who seduces a young boy only to be revealed as a guard who worked at Austerlitz etc and was possibly responsible for a number of deaths.

It's mainly an interesting read and I could really imagine the character of Hanna Schmitz being played by Winslett, portraying her detached, unemotional personality. But the novel (a translation) breaks all the rules about show rather than tell and when Schlink tries to examine the role of Germans during the Second World War and the concentration camps, it felt rather forced.

I'm glad I read this novel but I wouldn't want to read it again.

Review: GEORGIANA DUCHESS OF DEVONSHIRE by Amanda Foreman

This work of non-fiction, based on extracts of diaries and newspaper articles, is a real Jekyll and Hyde read. I haven't seen the film, which looks lavish from previews, although why they chose stick-thin Keira Knightly is a mystery because apparently Georgina had a most ample figure, but I had heard an adaptation on Woman's Hour, which was excellent, so reading the book seemed a good idea.

Reading the book, though, is a different matter and it's very much a 'dry' read. The sections about Georgiana are just about bearable but the vast descriptions of the politics of the time left me with no option but to skim read. So, no, I wouldn't recommend this book.

Georgiana, by the way, was the Princess Diana of her time, married to a husband who didn't love her and kept a mistress, literally under the same roof, and who fell in love with some-one else. So it should have been far more interesting than it was. Very glad to have finished it!

Review: THE OVERLOOK by Michael Connelly

This is another of the Harry Bosch detective novels and it progresses at a fair lick, engaging interest immediately and maintaining it throughout. Connelly has such an easy writing style, with just the right mix of plot, characterisation and description and there's always a real sense of place in these novels. You do actually feel as if you are in Los Angeles. My only criticism would be that I found the cessium part of the plot somewhat far-fetched but sexy, maverick Harry makes up for that in bucket loads.

BRISTOL SHORT STORY PRIZE ANTHOLOGY 2008

When I entered The dog in the Pram for the 2009 competition, I ordered a copy of the anthology of last year's winners and runners up, 20 in all.

The standard of writing was very high and I enjoyed all of stories bar one, which made me feel very uncomfortable. There are obviously a lot of very skilled writers in the UK, all vying for publication, which explains why there are so many rejections: a publication can only include so many stories.

The range of subject matter, mood and style was wide so there was a good balance and variety.

My favourites (none of which were in the first three) were:

'Facing Facts' by Susan Akass, a very funny story despite the seemingly somber setting of a widow faced with the problem of sorting out her recently deceased husband's possessions.

'Life Sucks' by Fran Landsman, again a funny story about a teenager who discovers an uncomfortable secret about her father.

*'Virtue in Danger' by Nick Law, a salutary tale set in a time of brothels and rogues and written entirely in verse.

'Killing Me Quietly' by Dominica McGowan', a far blacker take on the death of a husband.

'Intervention' by Charlotte Mabey, about the dilemma of a young man with first-aid knowledge.

'Burying The Presidents', yet another funny story and certainly not what I expected from the title.

'Going Down Brean' by Rebecca Watts - my very favourite. It's a gentle, nostalgic story of a small group of children taken on their annual day-trip to the sea-side, accompanied by the church vicar and the formidable Mrs Chubb, who won't stand for any nonsense. The descriptions of the small, pleasurable activities that the children indulge in, plus their meticulous choice of small gifts in the old gift shop, brought back very many happy memories and the ending is brilliant.

The short story is a difficult genre to write and to read because the writer is trying to say so much in a relatively few words. Full-length novels have the luxury of development of characters and plot, the continuity of the build up.

I personally enjoy reading and writing short stories that tell a story. It's been fashionable for some time with short story writing that language is often more important than plot and characters, that the more flowery the language then the more likely it is to be published (apart from national magazines like Women's Weekly and The People's Friend, where the feel-good factor is the most important criteria). Also, there seems to be a penchant for gloomy or fantastical tales. My kind of story writing doesn't really fit in with these criteria but it's just the way I prefer to write and I'm hoping that, one day, the good old-fashioned story will become fashionable again.

However, this anthology is a really good read and to purchase a copy log onto http://www.bristolprize.co.uk/

Review: CHANGE OF HEART by Jodi Picoult

Boy, am I glad I found this writer because she really knows how to tell a good story. This one is about the dilemma that a mother and daughter face: the daughter needs a heart transplant and the only heart available would be from the murderer of the rest of their family. Shay Bourne, on death row, feels that this will be his only way to redemption. But he's due to be executed by lethal injection, which would make his heart unsuitable. Enter attorney, Maggie Bloom, an anti-death penalty campaigner, and Father Michael, Shay's spiritual adviser, who has his own secret.

It's compelling reading and I kept pushing myself to read more because I wanted to know more. And Jodi Picoult's style is easy to read; I'm somewhat jealous at how good she is. She presents the story through the eyes of several different characters, which seems to be one of her trade marks, as is flashbacks, and all her characters are drawn sympathetically, no matter who or what they are. My favourite in this novel is Maggie's father, Rabbi Bloom, who has a wonderful sense of humour.

If you're not put off by the controversial themes, including, in this novel, is Shay Bourne actually the Messiah? (that should really get Christians rattled), then it's a great read.

Read June 2009

Review: DEVIL BONES by Kathy Reichs

Kathy Reichs is a best selling author. A working forensic anthropologist, she uses her knowledge in her writing and boy, don't you know it. This is the first and last book I shall read of hers. It was all about the forensic stuff, which became really boring. Characterisation was weak and the plot slow and tedious and quite gory at times. Bones have been found in an old building and it appears that some kind of witchcraft is involved. Yawn, yawn. And the main character, Dr Temperance Brennan, is an alcholic. How novel. As you can gather, I didn't rate this book highly and am perplexed at how she sells so well.

Read August 2009

Review: FAMILY CONNECTIONS - short stories by Chrissie Gittens

What a delight it was reading these short stories, all so very different and yet maintaining the theme of relationships. Most are set in present time and are based on the kind of situations you or I might find ourselves in, although there are two exceptions: a fairy tale and a story set in the future. Thet are all short and perfectly crafted.

At last, a short story writer who doesn't use obviously flowery language, I thought. Very down to earth and no-nonsense kind os stories. So impressed was I that I took my favourite story - Onyx, about a tenant getting revenge on an unscrupulous landlord - with me on holiday to see more closly how Chrissie achieved this. I could get some good writing tips here, I thought.

However, I was most surprised at the results of my research. I highlighted all the adjectives and adverbs and found, to my astonishment, that the story was rich with such parts of speech. And then I highlighted the verbs and saw what a variety she used.

To me, this is what makes a good writer. They use a richness of language that doesn't shout out 'Hey, this is very descriptive writing - look at me and never mind about the story'. No wonder many of these stories have been published previously or been read on Radio 4 (who I know, to my cost, only use stories of a very high standard.)

Salt Publishing
Read August 2009

Review: THE WHOLE TRUTH by David Baldacci

This is another best seller that had me scratching my head in puzzlement. Why so popular? In fact, I considered ditching it before even reading a quarter of it but John's alternative 'The Budda of Suburbia' didn't appeal and so I stuck with it.

I'm glad I did, because it got better until near the end and then it was just ridiculous. The plot is based on the desire of an extremely rich arms manufacturer who wants to restore the old balance of power world-wide by creating a phony crisis.

Nothing wrong with the plot. It was exciting and fast moving and the chapters were short, which makes for a good 'no-brainer' read. Plus, the description of 'perception management' (companies who artificially create situations for wealthy clients) was fascinating.

What infuriated me was that there were a number of chapters 'telling not showing' to move the plot along and I found them tedious and lazy writing; the characters were one-dimensinal and I couldn't visualise them; and with each new setting came a description which appeared to come out of a travel guide.

For example, anyone who has been to Amsterdam several times will know that The Bulldog it is famous for its coffee shop, where cannabis is sold, and not as a hotel.

However, all that said, I would recommend it because it is generally a cracking good read and its flaws are bearable. How's that for a recommendation!

Very aware that my novel 'Cyprus Blues' (unpublished) has long chapters and I've tried everywhich way but can see no way of shortening them without an editor to guide me. However, 'Winchester Blues', which I've now started will certainly have shorter chapters. Or perhaps I just need a boob enlargement, a racy life style and a willingness to tell all to the media, like Jordan.

On the subject of Jordan, it's in the news that leading booksellers are considering boycotting her latest autobiography (4th in 5 years or 5th in 4 years) because they don't want to be seen to exploit her fans. Maybe so or maybe they just want a better deal with the publishers.

However, frustrating as it is to see Jordan in print so often when she doesn't even write the darn things, I think the booksellers should give their customers the choice.

And also, when I was part of the 'Sexy Shorts' forum, where the writers exchanged news, one of the writers, who worked in W.H.Smiths, praised Jordan for her willingness to do personal signings to promote 'her' books. She certainly has an astute business mind and you can't fault her for that.

Macmillan 2008
Read on holiday in September 2009

Review: TOO CLOSE TO HOME by Linwood Barclay

One thing is for sure - Linwood Barclay does not write literary prose, which is why I like him!

The emphasis in his writing is character and plot and just like his last novel (his 1st?), he takes an ordinary family and puts them into a nightmare situation. For most of the novel you've no idea what the actual answer is, which makes for a perfect page-turner of a novel. He's easy to read and the story and characters pull you in effortlessly.

The plot of this novel goes like this: the central family of dad, mum, and teenage son live next door to a house where the family have just been murdered but they are far more involved than they care to be. I shan't say anymore. Buy the book if you're interested and need an easy, exciting read.

Orion Books 2008
Read Sept/Oct 2009

Review: TRIBUTES by Nora Roberts

My friend, Sheri, has been recommending Nora Roberts for some time because we're both heavily into crime fiction (sounds like some kind of fetish) and she said that Nora Roberts wrote crime fiction. However, I found Tribute eventually at my local W.H.Smiths under the Romance Section, so initially I wasn't too keen to read it, 'cos I'm not into romantic fiction.

However, I was pleasantly surprised when I started to read it. There are crimes involved but the emphasis is definitely on relationships.

The two main characters are Cilla McGowan, once a T.V. actress and now into renevating property. The property she's renovating in this novel is the farm house owned by her famous actress grand-mother, Janet Hardy, who died under mysterious circumstances.

And her closest neighbour is Ford Sawyer, who is a free-lance writer and illustrator, and very convienently unattached.

So, the focus is about how their relationship develops against a background of the unfurling of the mystery as to how Janet Hardy died and who is trying to stop Cilla from renevating the property.

I found myself drawn into the story pretty quickly because the two main characters are just 'darn attractive', plus the rest of the characters are interesting, too.

Plus, the descriptions of the farm house and its renovation were very enjoyable.

And Nora Roberts' writing style? Fully and extensively descriptive, is how I would sum it up, including the sex scenes (not that I'm interested in such things).

I shall certainly read another of her books.

She also writes under the name J. D. Robb, described as 'futuristic suspense'novels. Sounds promising.

Apparently, she's highly successful and prodigious, so I'll have plenty of tomes to enjoy.

Piatkus 2008
Read Nov/Dec 2009

Thursday, 4 March 2010

GLEE + BBC4 DRAMAS

Glee (E4 Monday 9p.m.): I love this high-school-musical soap. It makes me laugh, sing and dance so I rate it highly. I thought it might be cheesy, but not so. It's the ultimate in the feel-good-factor thingymijigs but tackles challenging subjects such as disability, homosexuality, teenage pregancy etc etc, effortlessly and with compassion.

The music and dance numbers are spectacular and I have already bought the CD of Season One. Lou came home for a few days last week and I said: 'Let's listen to this,' whilst she was a captive audience in the car.

Not having seen the show and being very much her own woman, she turned her nose up. However, after the first four tracks, she said: 'Okay. I'd like to download this onto my computer.' (Please, Web Sheriff, cut me some slack here. I'll buy her a copy if you object - just let me know if you're annoyed but don't sue me.)

For those of you who are still sceptical, it's worth watching if only for the brilliant character of Sue Sylvester, the teacher who's in charge of the cheerleaders. She's a wonderful arch-villian - says what she thinks, which is often pretty extreme - and bullies the kids in a brutal but extremely funny way.

And as the Season progresses, we get to see each character develop more fully, including Sue, so there's a real depth to the show.

Brilliant. What more can I say. If you loved Mamma Mia, you'll love this. (And if you hated Mamma Mia, you'll hate this!) Each to their own.

BBC 4 Dramas: Over the last year, BBC 4 have produced a series of dramas of the highest calibre, focusing on the lives of famous women. The acting, pace and drama have been impressive in each one. This is how TV drama should be.

I haven't kept a list, so I might miss out a few, but from the top of my head, I can remember dramas about:-

Barbara Cartland

Margot Fonteyn

Enid Blyton

Gracie Fields


Mo Mowlem

Heather Brooke (On Expenses): she was the American woman who used the freedom of information act to release details of MP's expenses. Eventually, The Telegraph published the full lists so took all the glory, but it was her dogged groundwork that enabled that to happen. So, good on her. (Can't believe MP's are getting a pay increase of £1000 per annum during this terrible economic downturn, when so many people are losing their jobs/taking pay cuts because of their inability to regulate the investment bankers.)


By the way, I once saw Mo Mowlam sitting in the lobby of The House of Commons, a number of years ago. I was with a group of pupils from Henry Beaufort School, visiting Parliament on a school activity week.

There she was, sitting cross-legged on a comfy chair, looking relaxed, confident and extremely attractive. This was before the brain tumour and it's such a pity that we lost her - she was that rarest of people: a politician with integrity, guts, compassion and an ability to make a difference.

We were actually heading for the House of Lords, where we had been invited to watch a railway bill going through. Not what you'd call interesting. I'd actually read a copy of the report and the Peers who spoke just didn't seem to have a clue, making we wonder if they had even read their own copies at all.

The big surprise for me, though, was being very impressed with Cecil Parkinson. He didn't speak but was sitting on some steps at the peers' entrance, watching and listening intently.

I'd always thought of him as a slimy sleezeball (sorry, Cecil) but actually he had a remendous presense about him. A sense of authority and intelligence. What a shame that he disgraced himself, like so many men, John Terry being another example, who can't keep their flies unzipped. I suppose, that's men for you.

Now there's an opening for comment. Come on guys, give me hell over that last statement. Show me that I'm wrong.

Monday, 1 March 2010

NEW BOOK REVIEW: A DARKER DOMAIN by VAL MCDERMID

Publisher: Harpercollins 2009

Val McDermid is a very popular, high profile crime writer so I was expecting great things. However, I found this novel very pedestrian.

Set in Scotland, cold case expert DI Karen Pirie is asked to look into two unsolved mysteries: the disappearance of two coal-miners during the miner's strike, plus the murder of rich-girl Catriona Grant and the disappearance of her young son.

You don't need to be a rocket-scientist to realise pretty quickly that the two cases are linked, although it takes forever for Karen Pirie to work this out. Hence there was very little in the way of suspense.

It's written in terms of time and place and jumps back and forward constantly, which was confusing at times, given that there were two cases and lots of characters. But my main critisism is that the pace doesn't vary at all. The plot just plods on with no variation until it reaches the end. And then it stops.

Plus, the development of Karen Pirie's relationship with her subordinate officer, Phil Parhatka, is a mystery to me, given the way that McDermid presents Karen Pirie (she doesn't come over, to me, as a very appealing character),and I don't have a clue about Phil Parhatka. So, what happens between them didn't work for me - it seemed a lazy way to come to some conclusions about the pair.

On the plus side, I really liked the character of Bel Richmond, the journalist, and scenes including her came more alive for me. Also, I did at least finish the book. But I shan't buy another one of hers. Life's too short and there are too many fantastic books out there to read.

GREAT STUFF !!!

1. Cyprus Blues is up and running. Please try to read it/some of it and give me feed back. My e-mail address is on the title page of the novel, after you've pressed read more.

2. Back to more mundane issues - i.e. the ultrasound today. I don't know why I was so worried. It was an absolute dodle. The hardest part was drinking 1 litre of water all in one go.

The incontinence pad (can't believe I'm telling you this) was unnecessary. I managed to hold all that water in successfully although my heart did sink when I arrived in the reception area and saw about eight people waiting. Didn't think I could last eight examinations before mine.

However, they were all waiting for different scanners so I was soon being dealt with. And you'll be pleased to know that I have an properly functioning bladder, so I've probably just got an irritable bladder, which aparently is possible and which just about sums me up. For those of you with similar problems, I'll let you know what treatment my doctor recommends when I manage to get an appointment.

And since this blog is bordering on the abnoxious, just to let you know that I had great plans for the rest of the pads in the packet in terms of travelling. So, I had a little experiment to see just how waterproof they are. And my conclusion: don't try to pee into your pad when you're on a plane!

Cyprus Blues - A Novel by Maggie Knutson

I intend to publish this novel as an e-book, so read it here while you can.
PART ONE: THE BLUE, BLUE SEA  
PLEASE DO NOT READ CHAPTER ONE !!! IT NEEDS TO BE SERIOUSLY EDITED - AS IT STANDS IT IS WAY TOO LONG AND LONG-WINDED AND I NEED TO EDIT OUT ONE OF THE CHARACTERS - BUT THE REST OF THE NOVEL IS JUST ABOUT GOOD TO GO !
CHAPTER ONE: KATE

Do I ever regret getting on that plane? No. Never. Not even for one moment.

Because if I hadn’t, if I’d stayed in England, then I would never have discovered that life truly begins only when you start to live with intensity, with passion, and with love. And until then, you’re only existing…nothing more…as I was.

And then, when you allow yourself the freedom to be yourself, life becomes so wonderful that you can feel your heart beating with its own beautiful rhythm and you enjoy each new experience with the pleasure of a small child.
But it doesn't last. Of course it doesn't last. Nothing does.

Because just when you feel that life couldn't get any better, it starts to fray around the edges ,whoever you are, and then your heightened senses make you more likely to feel the hurt…the pain…the dismay of it all.

I can say this now, because I survived.

But it is only now, when I look back, that I can see so clearly that life is more like a game of snakes and ladders than anything else. Once you pick up the dice and make your first throw, the only way is up and off you go, shouting and whooping with joy. And when you reach the top of each ladder, you can look down, with great satisfaction, and see how far you have advanced.

And, boy, does the world look good from up there.

But then, on the next throw, you can land at the top of a slippery, slidey snake and swoop back down, often passing places that you had already reached…and it can be devastating.

And then you have several options to choose from. You can dash your dice against the wall and refuse to play…or huddle yourself into a sulk and behave like a spoilt child …or you can get up and start all over again.

Only this time you’re very wary of those snakes.

But snakes and ladders is a board game and no-one dies…not as they do in real life. And your ups and downs are often the result of other people’s choices, not your own. And until you realise and accept that, you’re going to be a very bitter person.

Am I bitter? No, I’m not bitter… because I know the difference between merely existing and living life as fully as I can and I choose the fullness despite all those bloody snakes.

~

For me, my life began in that way, when I knew I was truly alive rather than existing, when I was twenty-two years old. The date was July 21st 1973. Hard to believe it was so long ago, but it is as clear in my mind as if it were yesterday. It still is, every single day since then, because I was living it... really living it.

Link to and read the complete novel here.