ChipLitFest: Reasons to Stay Alive, Richard and Judy and mothers in fiction

IMG_1149As the parent of a child with autism, you mess with routine at your peril – but once in a while you have to try something new. And so, last Saturday, instead of doing the usual things, I went off to Chipping Norton Literary Festival (ChipLitFest) to listen to authors talking about their books.

I also sat outside lovely indie bookshop Jaffe and Neale drinking tea and starspotting (I saw Lee Child! Charisma! Very tall! Nice to his fans! I was too shy to ask him for a photo/autograph though.)

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And I set about filling up my biggest Books Are My Bag bag with signed copies. You can fit a *lot* in a Books Are My Bag bag, and here’s proof – this is what I got into mine:

my book haul from ChipLitFest

All that, *and* a brolly and an outfit change…

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Matt Haig talks to Cathy Rentzenbrick: Reasons to Stay Alive

First off, I went to see Matt Haig, author of The Humans, talking about his book Reasons to Stay Alive, which is about his experience of depression and – well, the title says it all, really. He was being interviewed by Cathy Rentzenbrick, who is associate editor of The Bookseller and has a memoir coming out in July this year about her brother, who was hit by a car on a night out a fortnight before his GCSE results and was left in a permanent vegetative state.

Sombre subject matter, but listening to them was ultimately enlightening and uplifting, far from the ‘double dose of misery and disaster’ that Cathy drily referred to. It was obvious from the questions asked by the audience that Matt’s philosophical frankness about what he’d been through had touched people and connected with their own experiences.

In the end, Matt said, he was grateful for his experience of anxiety and depression. ‘It’s made me appreciate life more, and appreciate pleasure more. When I was younger, it was about extremes. Now I’ve got a thinner skin, I can enjoy going for a walk and being with my children.’ He added: ‘You need to feel the terror to feel the wonder.’

Matt on writing? ‘For me writing is both uplifting and depressing. The actual writing is uplifting; the career aspect is difficult.’

Richard and Judy with Julie Cohen

On to Richard and Judy, interviewed by my fellow Transworld author Julie Cohen whose novel Dear Thing was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. I never actually watched the Richard and Judy TV show… misspent youth! They’re brilliant – what a double act. It’s an art to tag-team the way they do, to be warm and open and personal, to tell anecdotes that work as stories. I was absolutely and completely charmed. It was a cosy venue − Chipping Norton’s lovely and compact Victorian theatre − and it really did feel like being invited into their living-room.

Richard talked about book programmes on TV – his view was that stand-alone book programmes couldn’t work, and that the Richard and Judy book club had been so successful on TV because it was an item on a show that was also about all sorts of other things. He recalled the first book they featured, Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor, and how, three days later, the publisher rang up to ask for advance warning if they were to feature another book on the programme, as they had sold out of the entire print run.

Both Richard and Judy discussed their attachment to Cornwall (I can definitely identify with that), which is where Judy’s novels are set. Now I know a bit about Looe Island! They also both spoke very movingly about their memories of their friend Caron Keating, who died in 2004.

Richard and Judy on writing? Both stressed the importance of pressing on and finishing – and both recommended Stephen King’s On Writing (I’m a fan too). And Richard said, ‘I’m a bloke from Romford, Essex, who left grammar school at 16 – if I can do it, anybody can do it.’

Mothers in fiction: Clare Mackintosh, Hannah Beckerman, Rowan Coleman

Next: mothers in fiction, a panel discussion with three novelists.

Clare Mackintosh was the founder of ChipLitFest and her debut novel I Let You Go, a psychological thriller, is out in paperback in May. It’s about a mother who moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast in an attempt to start a new life after a tragic accident – but then the past catches up with her. Clare observed about her novel, ‘I think you write books like that, and you read books like that, because ultimately you want to count your blessings.’

Rowan Coleman has written more than twenty books, including The Memory Book, which was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and is about Claire, a mother whose family help her put together a book of memories after she is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers. The Memory Book has its fair share of romance – Claire has a lovely husband (Rowan explained during the course of the talk that she didn’t want anybody in this book to be villainous), but it’s also very much an affectionate portrait of a matriarchy, with starring roles for Claire’s mother and daughter.

Hannah Beckerman’s debut novel, The Dead Wife’s Handbook, is about a woman who watches from the afterlife, or a kind of limbo, as her husband and child adjust to life without her – and then her husband meets someone new. Hannah wrote it when she was pregnant with her first child – it was then picked up for publication and she did a thorough rewrite after having her baby, having realised that the emotions her heroine went through didn’t go nearly far enough to reflect the reality of motherhood.

The novelists were asked to name their favourite mothers in fiction, and these are the books they mentioned:

  • Room by Emma Donoghue
  • Dear Thing by Julie Cohen
  • The Girl With All the Gifts by M R Carey

… though the very first fictional mother mentioned was Mrs Bennett, and I have to say she’s the first one I think of too.

Mulling over this later, I found myself thinking about Rachel in Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition (especially the scene where she gets so absorbed in drawing by the sea that she more or less forgets about her kid – when you read this you are on tenterhooks wondering if he is going to be all right). Also: Moominmamma, and the scene in The Magician’s Hat when she looks into Moomin’s eyes and knows it’s him, even though the magic hat has completely changed his appearance. That’s mother love all right.

To give Rowan Coleman the last word on motherhood: ‘It’s about being there when nobody else will be there. That’s what you know your mum will do, and what you know you will do for your children.’

Writers, Not Writing: an exhibition of photos by Jane Stillwell

Finally I went to see the exhibition of photos of writers not writing, by Jane Stillwell. Cue multiple double takes as the subjects wandered round chatting and swigging champagne while their portraits looked on from the walls… Here’s mine.

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It was a great day – though it was lovely to get home too. My son asked where I’d been: ‘Mummy was invisible,’ he declared after I tried to explain. (Charlie Brown turns invisible in a cartoon he likes.)

I was also glad I made time to sneak away from the hubbub, sit on a bench, take in the scenery and read my book (Rachel Hore’s A Gathering Storm, which features an exceptionally heroic mother.)

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More about parenting, books and other stuff…

Male writers who changed my life

Girl meets boy!

Girl meets boy! A proof of my 2nd novel hanging out with my OH’s Pynchon

Stevie Smith said differences between male writers and female writers were more obvious if the writing was bad. I’m a big fan of Stevie Smith, but I’m not sure that’s true. Reading blurs and breaks down boundaries and allows us to access the imagined unknown, and to experience many different lives (to paraphrase a line from one of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones books, the man who reads has many lives, the one who does not lives only once). When I’m reading a book I love, I could be anyone, and so could the writer; there’s only the story. (Perhaps that’s what Stevie Smith meant.)

So why single out male writers for a list like this? Pretty much, to redress the balance – I’ve already blogged about women writers who changed my life (parts I and II – III will come at some point), so it seems only fair.

The male writers who have changed my life

This is a list of writers rather than of books, so the writers I have included have written more than one novel that has made a big impression on me. Hence some major omissions, of which the biggest is The Catcher in the Rye, which I discovered at the perfect time, as a lonely teen in the school library. Also, Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which features one of my all-time favourite heroines.

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I haven’t touched on non-fiction (Al Alvarez would definitely be on that list, and Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy – ‘f*** the begrudgers’ is a useful mantra) or poetry (that would be a long one, with a starring role for T S Eliot and, of course, my OH Ian Pindar).

Douglas Adams. Hitchhiker’s Guide and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe have soaked into my unconscious. I still often find myself thinking about the uniquely biroid lifestyle, or the first ten thousand years being the worst, the second ten thousand being the worst too, and after that, going into a bit of a decline. Or it being too late to worry that you left the gas on when you’re about to watch the universe boil away into nothingness. Or the mark of civilisation being the question, ‘Where shall we have lunch?’ Or about how you might feel safe on an alien spaceship if only you could see a small packet of cornflakes amid the piles of Dentrassi underwear. And so on.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

William Gibson. Discovered mid-90s, browsing in a bookshop. The inventor of cyberspace, no? The kind of cyberspace we’re still evolving towards – a virtual simulacrum of the world we live in, with criminals, hustlers, defended power bases and ghosts. And Molly with the retractable claws… I often think of William Gibson when I see a wasp’s nest, or read about the hyper-rich – he’s brilliant on the dehumanising effect of immense wealth.

William Gibson introduced me to Cornell boxes – years later I saw some for myself and was stunned by how beautiful they were. Sometimes when I see my son, who has autism, set out his toys, I think of those Cornell boxes. There’s something very precise about the spacing and arranging, something numinous, even if I don’t understand it.

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I once tried to write an imitation William Gibson story. It wasn’t very good, as my boyf at the time reluctantly, but rightly, pointed out.

Ian Fleming. Mary Goodnight is the reason I wear Chanel no 5 (though Marilyn Monroe also has something to do with it.) A couple of years ago I wrote a short story called What would a Bond girl do? The story probably wasn’t up to much, but I still like the title.

Around the same time I read the Bond books (early to mid teens) I read a lot of Dick Francis novels, but all I really remember from them is the description of a hungry jockey griddling himself a steak. Also, that 80 hours into learning to be a pilot is the most dangerous time, because you begin to think you can do it and forget to be afraid, which maybe applies to a certain stage of learning in other areas too.

Raymond Chandler. Especially The Big Sleep. Love those slangy, cynical, man-of-the-world cadences – the beaten-up toughness of it. Love the old rich man with the orchids, the sharp dialogue, the ending. When I first read it I didn’t really get a lot of it, but it didn’t matter. And now I’m thinking of Bogart and Bacall. Btw, there is a brilliant essay on how Humphrey Bogart became Humphrey Bogart in a collection of essays by Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood (if you read the book, look out for Charlie Chaplin and the jolly orgy involving paint).

Ernest Hemingway. My dad likes Hemingway and once told me The Old Man and the Sea was his favourite novel. Hemingway was also on an improving reading list that my English teacher gave me, and I read a fair bit aged 16 to 18 and loved it – For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises. The short story Hills Like White Elephants has stayed with me – it catches so clearly the sterile feeling of being with a lover when there is almost nothing more to say. Read The Killers recently – eerily brilliant.

Patrick Gale. I read my first Patrick Gale (Notes from an Exhibition) last year and could happily spend the next working through everything else he’s written. Look out for A Place Called Winter, out next month – I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy.

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale’s novels give me a feeling of space and light: new people, new territories, illumination. He’s also a damn good storyteller. When his characters do unexpected things, or have unexpected and sometimes terrible things happen to them, you’re left thinking – yes, that’s how it is, that’s the truth of it. He knows what makes people tick.
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

Raymond Carver. Bought mid-90s, collected short stories, after Short Cuts came out. Shining example of what can be achieved by being lean and spare. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love stays with me – an inspired sideways glance at the question of what love is, up there with James Joyce’s The Dead. Also the one about the three men who go fishing and find a body. And Cathedral.

James Ellroy. How do you find writers you love? Movie adaptations don’t hurt. I bought LA Confidential after seeing the film. Read the first page, thought what’s a shiv? Soon found out, read a load more. Big, ambitious books with amoral heroes – he shares some qualities with George RR Martin: an eagle eye for the workings of power; a desire to tell stories about bad people with a bit of good in them, and good people with a bit of bad in them; and an interest in twisted families.

George R R Martin. Nearly at the end of season 4 of Game of Thrones as I write. George RR Martin has a spectacular ability to create real people in a fantasy world. Intensely believable and often terrifying. Grim to think that pretty much any of the dark stuff in the books has really happened sometime, somewhere – and a relief when humanity’s more redemptive qualities come through: courage, integrity, resourcefulness, self-sacrifice, a sense of humour in the face of overwhelming odds, loyalty, vision, love.

Neel Mukherjee can do it all – his fiction is funny, profound, vivid, sweeping, and revelatory about how and why people do the things they do. After I’d read The Lives of Others I felt I understood more about why terrorist atrocities happen than when I started – it was an education. I’m very much looking forward to his next. The extract that appeared in January’s Granta was startlingly, shiver-inducingly spooky.

The Lives of Others

D H Lawrence. I read lots of DHL aged 16-21. (He was on the improving reading list too, and, later on, the degree syllabus.) The end of Sons and Lovers is one of my favourite endings of any novel – more affecting, to me, than the arguably more celebrated ending of The Great Gatsby. One of the endings of Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others hits the same note: poignancy and exile, moving on and out into the world. And I like Ursula at the beginning of Women in Love, like a daffodil with all the growth going on underground, before the shoots come up for everybody else to see – and Mrs Morel with the lilies in the moonlight, her brute husband left behind indoors.

OK, so that’s my list. I know as soon as I post this I’ll be troubled by omissions – other names and books are occurring to me as I type, clamouring for inclusion – but you have to start somewhere…

Swift homage to Tolkien, in passing – The Lord of the Rings had pride of place on the bookshelf in my mum’s house and we painstakingly taped the radio adaptation. My OH recently acquired a bit of the recording and it’s still brilliant.

As a girl in the 70s I had dungarees with workmen’s tools embroidered on them and Richard Scarry books illustrated with all the primary colours. If I was a kid these days, I’d have been much more likely to spend my days in a pink fairy costume reading a pink book about pink princesses. I really, really wanted to be a fairy, ideally called Lavinia – I definitely wasn’t a tomboy – so probably I would have been quite happy with this, at the time anyway.

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the wannabe Lavinia fairy

Looking back, I’m glad that my 1970s childhood didn’t indulge my pink princess tendencies, and that I read Richard Scarry as well as Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton and Edith Nesbit.

My books of 2014: a year in reading in review

IMG_0812Over the last year, I’ve travelled in time and space from Calcutta in the late 1960s to Canada in the 1900s. I’ve witnessed the sinking of a Thames houseboat (the cat escaped, but only just), the lifting of beet on a struggling Yorkshire hill farm and the smoking of Sobranies at a Hungarian party in a tiny London flat (‘Dar-link! Von-dare-fool!’) I’ve witnessed the invasion of a strip club, a miscarriage at a baby shower, people being abused and betrayed and drawn into relationships with those who have misused them; painters at work, alcoholics in recovery, and, from the perspective of the afterlife, a woman trying to get over her still-living husband.

I’ve encountered villains, lovers, rescuers, torturers, aliens and a whole host of heroines. I had the chance to get to know Penelope Fitzgerald and George Eliot, and I observed a Brush with Greatness: (fictional) artist Rachel Kelly bumping into Dame Barbara Hepworth on a booze run.

It has been a terrific year’s reading, mainly of novels, almost all by writers who were new to me. Some were published this year, others some time ago; one – Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter − is due out in 2015. Some were recommendations; others I looked up because I’d come across the writers on Twitter or heard about them online. Twitter has played a part in my reading this year as never before – it’s a great medium for fandom.

The other novelty for me was that it was the first year I started reading on Kindle – though I’ve read most of these titles in paperback, which I still prefer. I was talking to a reader at a book group recently who said she read everything on her Kindle and had no idea what the books were called – if people asked her what she’d been reading, she had to look it up. She had started making a point of checking what the covers looked like. I’m still getting my head round this brave new ebook world… I don’t feel like I really own a book unless I have it on paper, and I don’t feel like I engage with a story as closely unless I’m actually turning the pages. OK, so we have severe book storage problems in our house, but as far as I’m concerned that is the only real advantage of the ebook. Also, I quite like reading in the bath. So chances are that 2015 will mean yet more demands on our limited shelf space…

Here are the books I read in 2014, which, in a rare fit of nerdiness, I’ve put in alphabetical order by author. (Check out the links to see their Twitter feeds).

Chastened by Hephzibah Anderson and Husband, Missing by Polly Williams

Hephzibah Anderson: Chastened. What happens when you give up sex for a year in the hope that it will improve your chances of finding love – or at least make romantic disappointments a bit less heart-wrenching? Does treating ̕em mean keep ̕em keen, or is it just the route to a different kind of loneliness? This candid, witty, elegantly written study of sexual politics in and out of the bedroom is also a paean to the freedom of single-girl city living. It took me right back to my own London days and made me hanker to visit New York. (Should have gone in my twenties. Have still never been.)

Homecoming by Susie Steiner and The Dead Wife's Handbook by Hannah Beckerman

Hannah Beckerman: The Dead Wife’s Handbook. The narrator of this novel is dead and grieving, existing in a nebulous afterlife from which she is permitted occasional glimpses of her husband, young daughter, mother and best friend. But as time moves on and their lives begin to change, can she find it in her heart to let go – especially when her husband is eventually coaxed into starting to date again? A smart, tear-jerking and expertly realised portrayal of the frustrations, sadness and joys of playing witness to your own life after the event, and coming to terms with your loved ones’ slow recovery from your loss.

Amanda Brookfield: A Family Man. This is the story of a man whose wife suddenly vanishes, leaving him to learn how to juggle work, childcare and the confusing possibility of new romance as a single parent. A warm, sympathetic account of a dad who finds that what looks like disaster is actually a chance of a different kind of life. Originally published in 2001, now available in ebook.

Dear Thing by Julie Cohen

Julie Cohen: Dear Thing, Where Love Lies. Gosh, it has been a year of weepy reading! Dear Thing, Julie Cohen’s tale of a tug-of-love between two women who both come to want the same man and the same baby, got my tear ducts going. It’s crisply written, artfully structured and beautifully observed – the scene where Claire has a miscarriage at a baby shower is all the more heart-rending for its restraint. Julie has an acute eye for how people behave in extremis and how even good, kind, likeable people can be brutal when circumstances pit them against each other.

Where Love Lies by Julie Cohen

Where Love Lies is a lush, mysterious, time-travelling love story that sends its narrator back to her first experience of romance and then pulls her back into her present. Felicity is at the mercy of her senses, overwhelmed by flashbacks to her past and tempted to act on the old feelings that she is experiencing afresh; so who does she truly love – the old boyfriend who she feels impelled to seek out, or the long-suffering husband who has no idea what she is going through?

Tamar Cohen: The Broken. I *had* to peek at the end of this one – I literally couldn’t bear not knowing how it turned out and I had to get some sleep! It’s a study of conflicting loyalties, jealousy, rivalry and anxiety about doing the right thing. When their friends Sasha and Dan break up, Josh and Hannah find themselves sucked in to the fallout: is it wrong for them to meet Dan’s hot new model girlfriend, and is Sasha really as terrible a mother as Dan believes? The story is laced with dark humour and sharply-observed details of the insecurities and self-destructive impulses tucked away behind the shiny facade of North London domestic bliss. Wraps up with a mean twist. (I read Tamar Cohen’s The Mistress’s Revenge last year – there’s a bit about it in my round-up of my books of 2013.)

Rowan Coleman: The Memory Book. This is one to be read with the tissues at the ready, though it’s also very funny – one of my favourite scenes involves a mother and grandmother invading a strip club in order to retrieve the daughter they have found out is working there. This is a novel all about a matriarchy, and Claire, the mother, is at its heart, seeking to record her life in her memory book in a race against time, as she begins to lose her knowledge of who, when and where she is. However, the stories from the past are far from finished, and an intrigue unfolding in the present threatens to wreak havoc on the family as everybody struggles to come to terms with Claire’s worsening condition. Claire’s other half, Greg, is the love of her life, and yet she is meeting someone in secret, despite her increasing confusion. Is she putting herself in danger, and will she be able to help her loved ones make sense of their shared past before it’s too late?

Jenny Colgan: Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe. A super-sweet comic confection that’s as much about getting your business dream off the ground as it is about choosing Mr Right, though it’s about that too. Published in 2011, it’s the story of how Issy Randall uses her redundancy pay-off to set up a charming café – but will her venture survive the interest that her property developer ex-boyfriend decides to take in it, and will Issy be taken in by him? I saw Jenny at an author event with Lisa Jewell and Rowan Coleman at Henley Literary Festival back in October, and Jenny explained that she was inspired to write Cupcake after moving to France and realising that she was going to have to learn to cook from scratch if her children were ever going to have anything to eat other than carrots, apples and crisps. I’m a baker of Bridget Jones-like incompetence myself, but reading Cupcake did inspire me to dig out my one and only truly reliable cake recipe.

Samantha Ellis: How to be a Heroine. Anne of Green Gables, Lizzie Bennett, or the ladies in Lace? This book, a re-reading of the formative novels that helped shape Samantha’s ideas about what makes a heroine, sent us all back to the fiction we read as children and teenagers to see how different it might look from the perspective of experience. It sparked a zillion conversations and got me thinking about my own personal canon of the women writers I’ve loved the most. Samantha’s book is a nostalgia-inducing book-lover’s approach to the questions that trouble all heroines: how to find love, happiness, yourself. Pure pleasure – and thought-provoking, revealing, brave, frank and funny, too.

Hermione Lee's Penelope Fitzgerald A Life

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop. Also Hermione Lee’s Life of Penelope Fitzgerald. I came to Penelope Fitzgerald through the reviews of Hermione Lee’s Life. I was struck by the details that conveyed the indignities of not having enough money and trying to find ways to make do, sometimes with disastrous results: the affordable but leaky and decrepit Thames houseboat that ended up sinking, the attempt to dye her hair with tea-bags. I read the biography and then read my first of her novels, The Bookshop. It’s short, succinct, devastating and brilliant, and the sucker-punch ending floored me and made me howl as few books have done (the ending of Notes from an Exhibition also caught me by surprise by making me bawl like a thwarted baby.)

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale: Notes from an Exhibition and A Place called Winter. (A Place Called Winter is out spring 2015 – I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy.) My work book group read Notes from an Exhibition some time ago; I missed it at the time (writing deadline – writing does sometimes interfere with my reading) and decided to catch up on it later. It’s set largely in Cornwall, so was great to read in the run-up to our first ever family holiday and my first visit to Cornwall in more than a decade. I admired and enjoyed it very much and it made me cry hopelessly. Some brief notes on what struck me: the portrait of the painter at work – so well realised, the physicality of the paint, the messiness of it; the Quakers; the relationships between the siblings, maternal and marital and filial love; and the pure storytelling – the movement from one point of view to another, revealing one surprise and then another until the last page goes over and you realise there isn’t any more. I’ve been in the process of moving from writing in the first person for my second novel back to the third person for my third, and it was a liberating reminder of just how much you can do with the third person.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

A Place Called Winter – this is a historical novel about Harry Cane, a gay man in the 1900s who is forced by a scandal to leave England and settle in Canada. He embraces a new life as a farmer, but any chance he has of finding love and happiness is always attended by terrible jeopardy. It’s a profoundly romantic story – love stories need opposition, and if Harry is to be lucky enough to find a man to love and be loved by in return, their relationship will always be under threat, always required to remain a secret. There are some harrowing scenes of violence, and their consequences are explored with great truthfulness and insight. This is a novel with a sweepingly vivid sense of place, brilliant on the challenges and satisfactions of working on the land in different seasons and on the search for a place to call home and someone to share it with. It feels like a story that was crying out to be told.

Matt Haig: The Humans. A couple of years ago I read Moondust by Andrew Smith, which describes his mission to track down all of the surviving astronauts who walked on the moon and record their memories of it. It seemed that what was really remarkable about going to the moon was the perspective it offered on the Earth; how beautiful and precious it appears from a great distance, surrounded by blackness. Matt Haig’s wise and funny novel pulls off a similar trick. There’s no place quite like home and the people that make it so – and how better to arrive at a full appreciation of what it is to be human than by adopting the perspective of an alien who has fallen to earth, with a mission that is in jeopardy as soon as he begins to learn what it is to love?

The Judas Scar by Amanda Jennings

Amanda Jennings: The Judas Scar. Amanda’s second novel is a dark, suspense-filled page-turner that explores the guilt felt by a man who failed to protect a childhood friend from a brutal history of boarding-school bullying. It’s also a tale of a marriage that is at risk from secrets on both sides, as well as being under attack from the treacherous intentions of apparent friends. When someone Will never thought to see again unexpectedly begins to play a part in his life once more, the consequences are potentially deadly – but who for? There is plenty that Will hasn’t told Harmony, his wife, and by and by Harmony will have reasons of her own to feel guilty… Amanda’s first novel, Sworn Secret, came out on the same day as my first, Stop the Clock – publication day twins! Amanda wowed a packed-out Henley Town Hall at Henley Literary Festival this year and I’m looking forward to her third novel.

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

Harriet Lane: Alys, Always. The scheming, shrewd, manipulative narrator of Harriet Lane’s debut novel is one of my favourite antiheroines ever. A dark twin of the narrator of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, she has no compunction whatsoever about trying to step into a dead woman’s shoes, and is dauntlessly predatory as she hunts down the highly-regarded widower she has set her heart on. A sense of something unseen, or something bad about to happen lurking around the corner, permeates this book. Will the schemer be exposed? Has she ventured out of her depth? It’s also a darkly funny account of what it takes to get ahead in the literary world, which might aptly be subtitled (with a nod to Tamar Cohen’s debut) The Sub’s Revenge.

The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

Rebecca Mead: The Road to Middlemarch. One of my most vivid memories of reading this year is of turning to this book after a car breakdown on the road to Abingdon one hot summer afternoon, while waiting for the RAC to come and sort me out. It’s a personal appreciation of George Eliot and an exploration of her work and life, and it’s wry, witty, sharply observed and ultimately profoundly touching. I finished it filled with admiration for George Eliot, both for the brilliance of her writing and the courage it took to live her life as she did, on her own terms, flouting convention by cohabiting with a married man. Rebecca’s tribute to George Eliot was an excellent diversion from my roadside predicament, which was, thankfully, soon resolved.

Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

Charlotte Mendelson: Almost English. Marina longs only to be inconspicuous at her super-snooty English public school, but her outspoken, glamorous, elderly Hungarian relatives have other ideas, and are not inclined to be discreet about them. They are ever ready to judge the appearance and behaviour of all and sundry – Marina included – with their favourite epithets, Von-dare-fool! and Tair-ible! And yet there is no doubting their love for her and the sincerity of their desire to see her succeed – and the weight of the responsibility she feels towards them in return. Includes an acidly funny portrait of Marina’s mother’s dangerous yearning for romantic escape, or, at least, a life that involves a modicum of privacy, a decent duvet and some labour-saving devices; an account of an almost-romantic reunion; a tragicomic tale of miscommunication between mother and daughter; a sly debunking of a smug male authority figure; and a hilariously liberating conclusion. All the joys of the school story set against the perfect foil: Marina’s Sobranie-smoking, silky-bloused great-aunts and their Hungarian expatriate community. And oh, the food! Made me so long to be invited to one of the great-aunts’ parties in their tiny London flat.

Lorrie Moore: Birds of America. I got this so I could read the short story People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk. SO GOOD. If you’ve ever spent any time in hospital with a child – or in hospital, full stop – or just want to read a miracle of storytelling packed into 39 pages, this is for you.

Liane Moriarty: The Husband’s Secret. This was recommended to me at a book group I went along to talk to about After I Left You. It’s a masterclass in how to build tension by moving between different points of view and raising the reader’s suspicions: just how dreadful is the husband’s secret, and what is the wife going to do when she finds out? It also explores a classic moral dilemma: what would you do if you found out the person you’d shared your life with had done something terrible before you even met? Cleverly structured and psychologically acute, plus every chapter is as well crafted as a stand-alone short story.

The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee: The Lives of Others. Neel’s second novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and is now on the shortlist for the Costa and nominated for the Folio Prize. So many scenes stick in the mind, from the act of sabotage involving nail varnish and special clothes to the bitter, tender ending. It is a brilliant novel, and a devastating account of the violent and terrible consequences of great inequality.

One Step Closer To You by Alice Peterson

Alice Peterson: One Step Closer to You and Monday to Friday Man. Monday to Friday Man knocked Fifty Shades of Grey off the kindle no 1 spot; it’s a touching romance about how meeting fellow dog-walkers and taking a weekday lodger might just get you over heartbreak and change your life, with a moving back-story about a much-loved sibling. Alice is brilliant at weaving together heartwarming love stories with explorations of experiences that bring her characters into conflict and put them to the test. Her new novel, One Step Closer to You, is about addiction and its impact on family life and relationships; its heroine’s recovery is threatened when the father of her child seeks to come back into their lives. The AA scenes are brilliantly done and I found the scene from Polly’s childhood when her brother Hugo leaves home for a residential school absolutely devastating. Polly is left feeling that she can never make up for how much her parents miss Hugo, and the novel shows how this and other losses add to her vulnerability when looking for love.

Geoffrey Robertson QC: Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK: The Case for Overturning His Conviction. I’m distantly related to Stephen Ward, which doesn’t make me feel any closer to his story than anybody else, but did add an extra frisson of curiosity to the experience of reading this spirited defence of a man who seems to have been a charming, hedonistic chancer, well and truly hung out to dry by the Establishment. I hope I’m still around in 2046 when they finally release the records relating to the Profumo affair – my hunch is that there may yet be some interesting stuff to come out… (Here’s a recent Guardian article by Geoffrey Robertson about the Profumo affair, written following the death of Mandy Rice-Davies.)

Barbara Seaman: Lovely Me: Life of Jacqueline Susann. I always approach books that touch on autism with both curiosity and wariness – will they be upsetting? Infuriating? Enlightening? I was appalled to learn that Jacqueline’s son, her only child, was given ECT at the age of three in an attempt to treat his autism. (He was institutionalised soon afterwards.) It’s a devastating book, but an inspiring one too – Jacqueline was nothing if not a grafter. Her Valley of the Dolls is, apparently, one of the ten most widely distributed books in history – along with the Bible, Mao Tse-Tung’s Quotations and the Guinness Book of World Records.

Susie Steiner: Homecoming. This debut novel about a Yorkshire farming family introduced me to a tight-knit world where old livelihoods are increasingly hazardous, and making the wrong decision about how and when to lift the beet is to incur the risk of financial ruin. But what happens when the capable prodigal son returns? The characters are beautifully and lovingly evoked, from the pub vamp to the daughter-in-law-in-waiting who loves nothing better than to be left in peace with her wiring. An illuminating depiction of the horrors of lambing gone wrong and the satisfaction of seeing new life brought into the world, sibling rivalry, the settling of scores and the dawning joy of finding love you don’t want to live without.

Rebecca Wait: The View on the Way Down. Rebecca is an honorary Abingdonian and I’d heard this debut novel spoken about admiringly by mums and grandmothers in my children’s school playground. It’s about a family that has fallen apart after the death of one child and the disappearance of another: is there any hope of reconciliation? Painful family mealtimes, brotherly bonding over computer games, the awfulness of girls at school and the edgy, forceful positivity of the mother who’s trying and failing to hold it all together are all brilliantly summoned up in this tender, bold and poignant novel. A terrific debut.

Polly Williams: Husband, Missing. Gina fell in love hard and married fast. Six months later her husband, Rex, goes on a trip to Spain with his brother and some friends, and disappears. As Gina investigates Rex’s disappearance and begins to uncover the secrets he has been hiding, she is forced to confront the possibility that the charismatic, successful man whose spell she fell under so quickly was an illusion. But what became of him – and what is his brother not telling her? And was there something crucial that she had failed to tell him? A cracking tale of marital mistrust and how falling in love can blind you to truths you don’t want to acknowledge.

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So, what’s on my reading list for 2015? I’m currently reading Lisa Jewell’s The House We Grew Up In, and I want to read the new Louise Douglas, Your Beautiful Lies, and Sarah Vaughan’s The Art of Baking Blind. I’ve dipped into the autobiographies of Dame Stephanie Shirley and Margot Harris and will revisit them to read them more closely. My Christmas list included Daughter by Jane Shemilt, Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty and My Policeman by Bethan Roberts. I’ve bought Rachel Hore’s The Gathering Storm and Santa Montefiore’s The Butterfly Box as gifts but I think I’ll be able to borrow them by and by – so, plenty to keep me going!

I also predict that, in 2015, somebody will write an article bewailing the state of women’s commercial fiction. (To echo Mandy Rice-Davies – they would, wouldn’t they?) This year Julie Bindel had a bit of a go in a blog post for The Spectator, coining the phrase ‘sick chick lit’ (others have talked about ‘chick noir’ or ‘domestic gothic’ when attempting to highlight the publishing trend Julie was getting at). There was then a set-to on Twitter which gave rise to my phrase of the year (another Julie Bindel coinage): Chick Lit Lout. I’ll have that on a t-shirt please, in glittery pink.

I’ll sign off with a quote from one of George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones books: ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.’ Merry Christmas one and all, and all the very best for 2015. And happy reading!

Alison Mercer at the Mostly Books Books Are My Bag party

at the Mostly Books Books Are My Bag party – my stint as the window display!

What makes a great love story?

a romantic rose... plus thorns

a romantic rose… plus thorns

‘Reader, I married him.’ A great love story can end that way, but only after a load of trouble. As we know from Shakespeare, true love involves a rocky ride, in literature at least. A compelling romance must have drama; someone, or something, has to oppose it and try to stop it happening. And in a truly great love story, the threat to the lovers has to appear insurmountable. We want to believe that love can conquer all, but at some point in the story, it has to look horribly likely that love is going to lose.

In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars the stakes are sky-high from the outset; the forces ranged against the young lovers are depression, loneliness, illness and death. But that doesn’t stop the spark between them at that first meeting. If anything, it intensifies it.

True love is stubborn to a fault, and flourishes in the face of poor odds. It is also not sensible, convenient or rational. I can understand why Charlotte Lucas accepts Mr Collins’s proposal in Pride and Prejudice, I can even admire her pragmatism, but nobody would dream of describing their relationship as a great love story.

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True love changes the lovers; in a really great love story, there will always be a transformation (or several). Take Romeo, who is teased by his friends at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet for moping around and pining for someone who isn’t even interested in him. He believes himself to be in love, but he doesn’t really know what it is. Then he meets Juliet and – kapow! – he is no longer a self-indulgent boy.

He is also no longer unrequited. Great love stories are never one-sided; there may be spells of confusion and separation and alienation – in fact, there almost certainly will be – but ultimately, the lovers will find some kind of equilibrium, even if this is only possible when they have lost their lives (think Wuthering Heights). They might not start off as equals, at least not in society’s eyes, but they have to end up that way, from the reader’s point of view if not the world’s.

Sparring, rivals and secrets

Jane Eyre is one of my favourite love stories, and had such a big impact on me that it crept into my very first novel, which I wrote as a child, without me even realising it. My story featured a burning house and a first wife tucked away somewhere, and it ended with a wedding. (I hope it’s not a spoiler to note that the quote at the beginning of this post – ‘Reader, I married him’ – is Jane’s.)

the end of my first-ever novel

the end of my first novel

Jane is Rochester’s employee and his social inferior, but she is not about to let him get away with anything. This leads to a fair amount of sparring, which he seems to quite enjoy – they are clearly comfortable with each other – but a series of increasingly deadly threats rise up to force them apart. Jane has a love rival: the beautiful, wealthy and heartless Blanche Ingram. And then there is the madwoman in the attic, and the revelation that forces Jane to flee. Lovers do not keep secrets from each other; any attempt to keep the past locked away out of sight is an enemy to love.

cover of After I Left You

In After I Left You, my new novel, Anna last said goodbye to Victor, her university boyfriend, seventeen years ago, and she has never told him the full story of the chain of events that led to her decision to cut off all contact with him. Something has silenced her, and she has lived a kind of half-life ever since.

When they meet again, her old feelings for him begin to return; but if she is to seize her chance of happiness, she is going to have to make the leap of faith that is always part of love, overcome her fears, give up her secret and speak out. Where there’s love there’s hope, and in any love story there is the possibility of transformation, and a question to be answered: will they or won’t they come together in the end?

A version of this post first appeared on the Diana Verlag blog. Diana Verlag is the publisher of the German edition of After I Left You.

Und dann, eines Tages, the German edition of After I Left You

Cover © t. mutzenbach design, shutterstock

Why I love independent bookshops

Books are my bag! At Mostly Books in Abingdon

Books are my bag! At Mostly Books in Abingdon

Do you want to live in a bland, homogenous world where everybody listens to ‘Everything is Awesome’ as they drive into work in the morning?

No, me neither. I love shopping – or at least, I *want* to love it – and I love books. So it stands to reason that I love independent bookshops. They are uniquely good at making browsing and buying books as interesting and satisfying as it can be.

Book browsing is something that I’ve missed as a mother of small children, one of whom has autism and isn’t always great in shops, but now my children are a little older it’s a pleasure that I’m beginning to rediscover. A great independent bookshop draws its character from its owners and from the local community and its setting. It is part library, part haven, part portal to another world. You never quite know what you’re going to find, but the bookseller is on hand to act as your guide if you should want one.

I take my hat off to the people who run our independent bookshops. They’re the experts. They’re immensely knowledgeable, committed and enthusiastic about what they do. They have to be, to continue to thrive in a retail climate that does not always favour the high street. They do so much more than sell books; they reach out to local communities and beyond, and foster and support people’s love of books and reading.

IBW Bookshop Crawl

back at my desk with my Bookshop Crawl sticker on!

Today is IBW Bookshop Crawl day. I wanted to take part, but haven’t managed to venture beyond my hometown of Abingdon – I popped into Mostly Books and The Bookstore this morning. And here I am back at my desk with my Bookshop Crawl sticker on to prove it!

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been to a number of independent bookshops in my local area, popping in to talk to booksellers about my new novel, After I Left You, and, inevitably, coming out with a book or two for myself. If I could have gone to them all today I would have done! If you get the chance, I urge you to check out all these fantastic bookshops.

I also heartily recommend The Book House in Thame. And I haven’t made it to Books & Ink in Banbury yet, but hope to one day soon!

Happy Independent Booksellers’ Week one and all!

Bookshop Crawl Participated HIGH RES

A short list of books to turn to when you’re stressed

the stressed-out reading list

from the stressed-out reading list…

A right hotch-potch, this: a former Spice Girl, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a titled historian, an academic, an experimental novelist and an Irish poet and playwright looking back on his time in Borstal. These are the people behind the books that have helped me through troubling times. I offer this list up to you in the spirit of a mixtape, in the hope that if you pass over one item, another may catch your eye and provide some much-needed distraction or solace when you are suffering from insomnia, anxiety or helpless waiting.

Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan I single this out for the catchy motto: ‘**** the begrudgers’. I find this sentiment helpful.

The Faber Book of Reportage, edited by John Carey This is one of my most treasured books. It’s a collection of eyewitness accounts of different moments in history. Chiefly, what comes across is how very uncomfortable it is being there when history is made… ‘May you live in uninteresting times…’ Reading it is a very good exercise in perspective. When I’ve been in a fix, or thought I was, I’ve sometimes found it helpful to be reminded how very much worse things could be.

The Assassin’s Cloak, a collection of diary extracts put together by Alan Taylor and Irene Taylor, is fascinating and restorative in the same way.

Demon Barber and Mostly Men by Lynn Barber You’ll go a long way to find better character studies than these volumes of Lynn Barber’s interviews. Excellent for late-night dipping.

The Weaker Vessel: Woman’s Lot in Seventeenth-Century England by Antonia Fraser I read this when I was in the late stages of pregnancy with my second child, sleeping badly and not much looking forward to giving birth. Worked in the same sort of way as The Faber Book of Reportage, in that it made me think, well – at least I’m here and now, rather than back then. Oh – and you know it’s sometimes implied that women back then, at a time of high infant mortality, were used to the idea of babies or children dying, and somehow became less attached to them, or were more hardened to the idea of losing them than we might be, or less distressed? Not so, according to this book. (Of course not. Why would they have been so different? We’re always closer to the past than we think.)

Remainder by Tom McCarthy I read this when I was staying in hospital with my son, who was three at the time, and suffering from a mysterious and virulent infection (turned out to be a ruptured appendix). It is a strange and strangely compelling book, and helped me to keep from going out of my mind with worry.

Learning to Fly by Victoria Beckham I read this alone in the waiting-room, late in the evening, while my son was having his appendix removed. His was the last surgery of the day and it took a long time. Posh Spice kept the time passing until I was told the operation was all done and had gone well, and I could go in and see him. Sometimes, when the dark is really closing in, you don’t feel like reading at all, and all you want is comfort. That’s when it’s time to watch old episodes of Friends…

Anyway, so there it is, a bit of an odd list! I’d love to know what other people like to read when they’re anxious and in need of distraction.

Women writers who changed my life, part II: teens to twenties

 

Books by Jean Rhys, Daphne du Maurier, Susan Howatch, Stevie Smith and E. Annie Proulx

Books by Jean Rhys, Daphne du Maurier, Susan Howatch, Stevie Smith and E. Annie Proulx

These are the women writers who I discovered in the tricky years between my mid-teens and early twenties – tricky because that’s when you begin to figure out for real what kind of woman you are going to be, and also because, if you aspire to be a writer, you are simultaneously trying to work that one out too.

If you are headed for wifedom, will you be a capricious, dangerous Rebecca, or a good, quiet, jealous Mrs de Winter? Will you end up as an occasionally desired and ultimately abandoned Jean Rhys woman, whose prose is all discipline, lucidity and sensuous clarity while her life is a muddle of drink, lovers and poverty?

Or will you be a social butterfly spinster who chats brightly at parties and returns home resolutely alone, as one imagines the narrator of this Stevie Smith poem might do: ‘The nearly right/And yet not quite/In love is wholly evil…’? (The poem ends, ‘Take my advice/ Shun compromise/ Forget him and forget her.’) And if none of these options appeal… what then?

I liked the idea of a piratical Cornish lover who would take you about on his boat, and teach you to catch fish and cook them on an open fire.

Daphne du Maurier. When I was fourteen or so and at my traditional all-girls’ school, which had turned out not to be as much like Malory Towers as I had hoped, we had to pick a book to tell the rest of the class about. I chose Rebecca. I knew it was impregnable; whatever my classmates might think of me, there was no way they could find fault with the book. It was just too compelling. Nowadays I think I might read it differently, with rather more sympathy for Rebecca, and a lot more impatience with Max.

Jamaica Inn also made a big impression, though I was unnerved by it too, and found it sinister – there’s a real sense of lurking menace and threat. Frenchman’s Creek was gentler and sunnier. I liked the idea of a piratical Cornish lover who would take you about on his boat, and teach you to catch fish and cook them on an open fire.

Susan Howatch. Aged 16 or so, I loved Penmarric, Cashelmara and the rest – sagas of rich landed families and their love affairs and bitter rivalries, usually modelled on tracts of British royal history, told in a series of first person narratives so you got a taste of everybody’s point of view – both the men and the women.

So I tried writing my own family saga, which featured a country estate and, er, a series of first person narratives. It began with the point of view of the slightly hopeless Casanova heir of the estate-owning dynasty, who falls in love with rogue redhead Clara but fails to marry her. The opening line was this: ‘I made the same mistakes with Clara that I have made with every other woman in my life: first I fell in love with her and then I fell in love with somebody else.’ The novel petered out and I never finished it, but hey – it was a start.

‘I made the same mistakes with Clara that I have made with every other woman in my life: first I fell in love with her and then I fell in love with somebody else.’

Then my English teacher gave me a reading list with things like the Mitfords on it. I stopped writing and started concentrating on trying to get into Oxford to study English, and didn’t really start trying to learn how to write again till ten years later.

Stevie Smith. She’s better known as a poet – ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ – but I loved Novel on Yellow Paper, with its chatty, discursive, distinctive first-person voice (‘I am a forward-looking girl and don’t stay where I am. ‘Left right, Be bright,’ … my own philosophical outlook that keeps us all kissable.’) Over the Frontier, which was written in the late 30s and is partly set in Germany, is much darker and more ominous: you can feel the storm coming.

I read Novel on Yellow Paper at about the same time I read The Catcher in the Rye, and for the same reason; I’d taken to hanging out in the school library at lunchtime. One of the books I found there was a collection of Stevie Smith’s letters, which were terrific (there was one berating George Orwell for constantly telling small, irritating fibs that would make an angel weep – I paraphrase, but you get the gist.) That led me to seek out NYP for myself. Another school library find was The Catcher in the Rye: it was the perfect time and place to read it.

Jean Rhys writes anti-heroines, and that’s why I love her. Her women turn passivity into an art; they are sensitive to everything, they register everything, and yet they are incapable of taking charge of their own fates. Their only power is the ability to bear witness and give in. They are not good girls, or good women. They don’t know how to play the game, and don’t want to. They’d laugh at The Rules and go off and get crazy drunk and do something wild and helpless and stupid.

I was introduced to Jean Rhys by my mum, who bought me Wide Sargasso Sea because I loved Jane Eyre so much. In my early 20s I sought out the four earlier novels: Quartet, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight.

Oh, but they are good. They are so pared back. I admire Jean Rhys absolutely. I’m a little scared of her darkness and sadness, though. Could anybody else have written the gigolo scene at the end of Good Morning, Midnight? I think not.

Here’s how Jean Rhys saved my bacon: we were all advised to write an optional long essay, a kind of mini-dissertation, which would knock out our worst mark in our Finals papers. I did mine on Jean Rhys. I ended up staying up all night in the computer room to finish it, my view of the PC screen glazed with tears because I’d just had a big row with my boyfriend. But anyway, it turned out OK, and replaced my Shakespeare mark, which was truly awful. So – Jean Rhys, my champion!

E. Annie Proulx. The Shipping News was given to me by a friend who was also setting off for journalism school in the mid-90s, and it was a very apt present, because one of the things Quoyle, the hero, has to learn to do is how to write a good auto wreck story for the local paper.

I still have the page turned over at the part where someone tells Quoyle (who is a hapless gentle giant hero) that there are four kinds of women in every man’s heart: the Maid in the Meadow, the Demon Lover, the Stouthearted Woman and the Tall and Quiet Woman. Seems like as good a summary of female character archetypes as any. I just found the page turned over for this paragraph, too:

Was love then like a bag of assorted sweets passed around from which one might choose more than once? Some might sting the tongue, some invoke night perfume. Some had centers as bitter as gall, some blended honey and poison, some were quickly swallowed. And among the common bull’s-eyes and peppermints a few rare ones; one or two with deadly needles at the heart, another that brought calm and gentle pleasure. Were his fingers closing on that one?

I guess that sums up the dilemma that Anna Jones is trying to resolve in After I Left You… and what all of us are trying to find, in the end, when we look for love.