Friday, 17 January 2020

Buried beneath the TBR pile by Tracy Darnton

New year, new resolutions. Time to ring the changes. 

I have books to review, set texts to read for my weekly lit course, friends’ books, Christmas presents received, books by other YA authors I really want to read etc etc. All in all, I’m frankly overwhelmed by my tottering TBR (To Be Read) pile - which is weird because reading is meant to be a pleasure. I became a writer because I’m a lifelong reader with a major bookshop habit. And yet I’m thinking about scheduling reading like a kind of regular date night. How did my reading pleasure go from treat to chore? How can I change that and how do other people manage to read so much?

OK, first off I’m going to blame Brexit. Newspapers, social media, new addiction to the BBC Parliament channel and general existential political despair have definitely drained my time and mental energy in 2019.

Next, I blame writing itself. Writing takes up a huge amount of time and when I’m writing or fully immersed in editing I don’t want the distraction of someone else’s YA style.

Too many books. Maybe if I only read, say, Scandi-noir by only one author, I’d have a better shot at at reading everything BUT I have an eclectic taste in books. I read adult fiction and children’s and YA. I have classics to read for a course. And I like non-fiction; I’m interested in memory and psychology and still carry a torch for my old profession of the law. I’ve been researching prepping and survival skills – and how to rebuild the world. (That’s a lot of pages!)

And let's be honest, it can be hard in family life to find the time for an essentially ‘selfish’ activity. Other hobbies can have some tangible benefit for everyone: baking, knitting etc produce a product. But reading…

I don’t do as much waiting around for pick from kids’ sport matches or activities as I used to. That was always a prime time to catch up on reading. Inconveniently, I get horribly travel sick so I can never read in the car, seldom on a train even. Instead I stare dead ahead, crunching extra-strong peppermints.

And is it just me or is it harder to concentrate and switch off from everything else as you get older? 

So what I can do?

I asked one of the extremely well-read booksellers at my local independent bookseller Mr B’s. She reads for approx. two hours per day.  TWO HOURS! How on earth does she manage to do all the reading around working and family life? Well, her tip was not to watch TV at all – which could be a problem as we’ve just signed up for Netflix and I’m hooked on a German series callled Dark (a sort of time-travelling Stranger Things) which I justify as it’s very ‘YA’. And I do all my ironing in front of the TV.

What about targets? Some people love to use target tracking lists from Goodreads or similar. Or just keep a list in a notebook. I don’t think that would work for me – just another thing to fail at.

But I’m going to get back in the habit of reading more. Bottom line is I know I enjoy it. It gives me empathy/insight/something else to talk about. It hones my own writing craft – seeing how an author pulls off something amazing - or how they fall short. It means I can discuss books with my friends on the course I do every week. And how can I expect other family members to read if I don’t model it as a priority and a pleasure?

So …

I’m going to split my TBR pile into little piles so it’s not so overwhelming. (Simple but effective)

I’m not going to keep a list of books I read.

I’m not going to stop buying books. I love it.

I’m going to get a bigger bookshelf (or two).

I’ll report back this time next year.

(After posting this, I realised that I am not alone in trying to make more time for reading for pleasure – have a look at the very recent posts by Anne Rooney, Vanessa Harbour and Dawn Finch for some excellent advice and thoughts.)

Tracy Darnton is the author of The Truth About Lies. Her next novel, The Rules, is based on her short story in I'll Be Home for Christmas. She is slowly disappearing under the size of her TBR piles.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

What's so great about Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell? - by Rowena House

Ahead of the publication of the final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s double Booker prize-winning Tudor trilogy – The Mirror & the Light, due out in March – I’ve been re-reading the first two books of the series: Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies.

These are two of my favourite historical novels, so I’ve been reading them both for pleasure and also as a writer, trying to pin-point exactly why they transport me to a world I don’t want to leave. 

The protagonist’s character is unquestionably one reason. Thomas Cromwell is plausible, nuanced, thoughtful, decisive: a modern man yet still of his time.

Personally, I’m happy to buy into Mantel’s version of Crowwell, a blacksmith’s son who rises to become a power-broker in the court of King Henry VIII, regardless of objections from some historians about the accuracy of her account.

As Mantel says in her 2017 BBC Reith Lectures, her job as a fiction writer is to resurrect the dead, to recreate them as living, breathing, rounded people. Just like any historian, she fills in the gaps in the written record with intelligent speculation – and then adds imagination.

Mantel’s writing enchants me too. She breaks rules that some of my favourite writing gurus insist are sacrosanct (at times, it’s unclear whether it is Cromwell who’s speaking) and her flashbacks are complex and layered. 

She tells (rather than shows) a lot. Her prose are beautiful, pithy, witty, with surprising psychological insights delivered with swift assurance. Her grammar at times feels unique; I’d love to hear her take down Michael Gove, with his absolutist approach to ‘correct’ school English.

Thanks to the depth of her telling, the slowly unfolding plot remains absorbing without any requirement for suspense, of which there can be none, really, since its main events  are part of the fabric of British culture: Henry’s manoeuvring to rid himself of his first queen, Katherine of Aragon, followed by the catastrophic fall from grace of his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

As historical novelist Vanora Bennett put it in her 2009 review of Wolf Hall for The Times, it is the originality of Cromwell’s perspective which, in Mantel’s expert hands, “makes the drama unfolding nearly five centuries ago look new again, and shocking again, too.”

For all its religious and political ramifications, the drama is essentially intimate: marriage is marriage, even when it is also dynastic. I think this, perhaps, is the key to the story’s success for me as a reader.

On every page, I feel as if I’m eavesdropping on the powerful dead, alive again in their own domestic spaces. I’m seeing their failings and hurts, their successes and excesses, through the eyes of a man who is at once sympathetic to the human condition and also in control of destinies.

On re-reading these tales, I’ve also been struck how respectful Mantel’s Cromwell is of women — be they his wife, sister or daughter, or abandoned Queen Katherine, still fighting her corner, or used Mary Boleyn or ambitious Anne or quietly observant Jane Seymour. He recognises their intelligence, their battles to gain agency in a man’s world, without relinquishing one iota of his own calculating masculinity and ruthless ambition.

For Christmas, I was given the dedicated ‘credit’ card the publishers and booksellers have issued for The Mirror and the Light. As soon as it’s out, I’ll be buying a hard back edition as I’m sure I’ll read it again and again for inspiration and delight.

Happy reading, everyone. I’d love to hear your views on Mantel or any other author who’s drawn you back into their worlds time and again. 

Twitter: @houserowena
Facebook: Rowena House Author

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Book-culling - Lynne Benton

Before we had visitors to stay over Christmas, we had to clear out an awful lot of “stuff” from the sitting room and find somewhere to keep it, temporarily.  Most of the “stuff” consisted of piles of books, ones I’ve acquired, from one source or another, over the last year or so but haven’t yet read, so I packed them into 5 boxes and decided to store them in my study till after Christmas.

Now Christmas is over and I needed to move them in order to get back to my study.  Three of the boxes are currently back in the sitting room, so not only are they not pretty to look at, I can’t see what I’ve got and what I want to read next!  This means that my New Year Resolution is becoming increasingly obvious: I must have a clear-out, so these extra books can find a space on a shelf until I get round to reading them.

It’s not as if we don’t have any bookshelves/cases in the house: I’ve just counted them up, and we have 13 tall bookcases plus several wall shelves – and they’re all full!  I know, I know, the trouble is, I’ve got too many books!

But then, I love reading.  As Dawn, Anne Rooney and Vanessa have all said in recent blogs, writers read.  I don’t know one who doesn’t.  I can't remember a time when I didn't read - anything and everything I could get hold of.  My problem is getting rid of the books I’ve read.  It just seems wrong, unless I really hated the book – and if I hate a book it is easily culled.

I started with the lower of two long shelves in the sitting room.  Surely some of these old non-fiction books could go, I thought?  A fat Biographical dictionary, for example – I used to use it a lot, but nowadays if I want to know about anyone, I google them and find out everything I want to know online.  So that can go – and leave a nice fat space for something else.  All those “What not to Wear” and "How to look good" books are so out of date that they can go, as can a few big information books which turned out to be not as interesting or useful as we'd thought. And do I really need to keep Marie Kondo’s book about the Magic of Tidying?  It will only serve to remind me how rubbish I am at keeping things tidy – and besides, I gather she herself has changed tack slightly nowadays.  So that can go.

That takes care of a few, and I know I’ll find more in the same vein which can also be junked.  But can I bear to get rid of all the fiction books that I really enjoyed? I've often lent books to friends, in order to introduce them to a new author, but do I want to keep them all just so I can be some sort of private lending library?  Not really.  Will I actually ever read them again myself?  Possibly not.  So maybe I should get rid of those too…

The trouble is, once I start flicking through an old favourite to see if I really do want to get rid of it, I start re-reading it and remembering how much I enjoyed it.  So might I want to read it again?  Maybe I’ll keep that one then.  But what about the rest of the series?

This is one reason, of course, why it’s easier to read books on my kindle.  When I’ve finished reading I can delete it from the kindle, but crucially I know I can always get it back!  Once I’ve culled my real books and given them away to a Charity shop, that’s it.  If I want to read it again I will have to buy another copy.  And that really would go against the grain.

So it's back to the original problem - I'm running out of book-space!

Well I’ve culled a few, and emptied one box.  But there’s still a long way to go, and I’m not sure how long this resolution will hold…


Monday, 13 January 2020

My Three Sisters by Sheena Wilkinson

I’ve just seen the new film of Little Women and I loved it. Little Women has always been a special story to me, my granny and my mother. I was always sorry that my own sister never got into it (too soppy, not enough ponies) because it’s such a brilliant study of sisterhood. I think that this particular version really captured that – the fighting, the rivalry, the loyalty. 

It’s also a story of sisterhood in its wider sense, like my new book, Hope against Hope, set in a girls’ hostel in 1921 Belfast. 
the eldest sister 

I haven’t had a book out since 2017’s Star by Star. I adored writing Star, my most successful book overall. It’s sold well, won awards, been nominated for things and included on lists, and gained me invitations to lovely festivals and events. Set in Ireland in winter 1918, Star by Star shouldn't have been an easy book to write:  the end of the Great War, the Spanish Influenza pandemic, the first general election open to (some) women voters, and Home Rule all jostled for position in a story which had to be accessible to young readers. But though the issues were complex they all impacted on each other so much in real life that it was easy to fit them into a story. Best of all, though the novel was stand-alone, I was able to bring back some of my favourite characters from 2015’s Name upon Name, making the novels companions to each other, sisters.  Middle sisters are meant to the awkward ones, but Star by Star was always a joy to me. 

middle sister
I loved Star by Star so much that I really wanted to write a third historical novel, so when my publisher, Little Island, asked for one, I was thrilled. After writing about the Easter Rising of 1916, and the General Election of 1918, 1921 was the obvious choice. There was so much going on, in particular the partition of Ireland. Because of Brexit, the UK border in Ireland has once again come to the forefront of political discourse. I grew up with army and customs check points and closed roads, with so-called ‘bandit country’ and no-go areas, but in recent years I’ve enjoyed being able to cross the border freely, often hardly being aware of it. The threat of losing that freedom terrifies me, and I wanted to write a book which showed people, particularly young women, living with the very early days of that border. The hostel setting allowed me to explore a community of young women, something I've been fascinated by ever since my first time at Malory Towers. 

Hope against Hope is a stand-alone: you don’t need to have read its sisters Name upon Name or Star by Star. But I love it when writers create a world where you meet old friends in a new context and I was delighted to be able to explore the futures of some of my characters. Like its sisters, it’s very much a feminist novel, exploring the impact of political turmoil on young women trying to make better lives for themselves. 

youngest sister 

I can’t pretend Hope against Hope was a straightforward book to write. Some stories reveal themselves easily; others are shy and awkward and take their time. This particular sister fought with me the whole time – and she fought dirty. At times I hated her. Why couldn’t she just do what I wanted? Why couldn’t she be amenable like Star by Star? Why did she need so many drafts, so much cajoling? 

But by the time I had wrestled this naughty little sister into shape, I had grown to love and respect her. Sometimes it’s the awkward sister who turns out to be the most exciting. I love how Hope looks -- I have been so lucky in wonderful designer Niall McCormack who has made all three books so beautiful  -- and now I can’t wait for her to take her place in the world with her older sisters. 

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Reading, reading, reading by Vanessa Harbour

This post was inspired by reading Anne Rooney’s recent blog about her journeys on the bus and how she is using the time to read all sorts of books that she WANTS to read. It made me think – a lot.

It is said you can’t be a writer unless you are a reader. This is something I tell my students frequently, particularly if they comment on how long the reading list might be. I have had some very serious discussions about whether they should be reading a hardcopy (you can make notes in the margin!), an ebook – again you can sort of make comments, or as so many of them do now, listen to the audiobook. I confess I am not convinced about this when trying to analyse a text and trying to explore it critically. But there again, maybe I am a dinosaur.

I spend a huge amount of my time reading and I am not necessarily talking books here. The very nature of the jobs outside my writing means that I need to read reams and reams of pages created by
A selection of work books
my students or the writers I work with. All of which require consideration and feedback, so they are not read to relax. Some can be thoroughly enjoyable, so it is not an issue to read them, others… well... It is not just manuscripts that I need to give feedback on that I read. I also read a lot of books that relate to my work. Not all of which I would choose to read given a choice.

I am also in the lucky position to be sent quite a few books by publishers to read just pre-publication. This is a wonderful opportunity and I love reading them. However, I am aware that I am reading them for a reason. I need to shout about them, to give the writer’s a well-earned nudge in the publicity stakes. We all know how hard it is to publicise your work when you’re an author.  All help is welcome.

What this does mean is that I rarely read just for me. Over Christmas I was thinking about this as I deliberately made the effort to read a couple of books that interested me: Damian Barr’s You Will Be Safe Here and Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew. Both books that I had heard a lot of good feedback on, plus I am a great fan of Damian’s Literary Salon podcast, so wanted to read some of his writings. These books relate to nothing I am working on currently. At first, it was hard because I felt guilty. Mad, I know. But I thought I ought to be reading things connected with work. I realised I needed to stop thinking like this, as Anne did for her bus journey, reading books I want to read plus maybe revisiting some old friends could be part of my own self-care.

Reading is so important. We know in children that reading can encourage empathy. Empathy is a key element of emotional intelligence, and part of helping children to appreciate others. I think this can apply to adults too. Reading a book is a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes. To view the world through their eyes. It makes you stop and think. As a writer, it is a wonderful habit to get into as it helps you realise what works for you and what doesn’t. You can then endeavour to apply that to your own writing. Books can be inspirational; they allow you to escape into another world while your brain continues with its latent processing. I often find that the solution to a plot problem will come to me while I am reading. I am sure it is because I am not thinking about it. I acknowledge that the same can happen when ironing or while in the shower or driving.

Revisiting some favourite
My plan this year, which was further inspired by Anne’s post, is to read more that is for me and not connected to work. I plan to try and read a couple of books a month that are my choice. Reading for pleasure. I need to remember this is allowed. These will be both adult and children’s books as I believe in the importance of reading broadly. It is vital not to read only one genre. Push the boundaries, read something outside your comfort zone, it can inform your writing. I will add a caveat, if a book does not hold my attention after a few chapters, I will not fight to the end.  Life is definitely too short to read books you don’t enjoy – I have to do enough of that already!

How about, like Anne, we all challenge ourselves to read more books for ourselves. Happy Reading!

Dr Vanessa Harbour

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Dear Diary - Kelly McCaughrain

If you haven’t got your 2020 diary yet, or you’re already dissatisfied with yours and want a really really good one for next year, may I recommend the Redstone Diaries. I got a whole novel out of mine.

"Dinner over, we produced a bundle of pens, a copious supply of ink, and a goodly show of writing and blotting paper. For, there was something very comfortable in having plenty of stationery." 
- Great Expectations

I’ve been using these since 2003 and they’re really beautifully put together and thought out. (My photos aren't very well lit, sorry! They're even nice in real life.)

Every year has a theme – Home, Play, Language, Daring, Simplicity, Social… and every week has a related image taken from art, literature, movies, dance, history, anything cultural really. 
My diaries become microcosms of my year. I like to scribble down poems and quotes all over them, store postcards, letters, tickets, and other random things that I’d like to come across when I’m old in the pocket at the back.

I'm a big list maker

I make a note of all the writing competitions and then enter about 2 a year
Reading lists


These were from the month I got married. Knew I'd look back and laugh someday:

That says 'Honeymoon'

But it’s the images I really love because I sometimes use them as writing prompts. Sometimes I write little stories on the pages themselves, as pictured here. (I’m not a flash fiction writer at all and I’ve never shown these to anyone so please make allowances! It's a good way to practice them though.)

“Alarm clock stopped at the time of a German shell hitting it during the bombardment of Hartlepool, UK, 1914.”

The clock would have stopped anyway. We had only that one night, and at 9 you would have risen and gone. Quietly, so I could pretend to sleep.

It was not crushed, like the chair and table, or shattered like the mirrors. Rather, it was pierced. A piece of shrapnel ruptured its face, burrowed into its guts, and gives the impression that if it could only be removed, gently, with tweezers and a steady hand, time would be set flowing again, bright and fresh as blood from a wound.

“Cross section of 1341-year-old tree, its concentric growth rings showing moments in history, USA, date unknown.” 

Beside the cross-section of a felled 1341-year-old tree, marked with the dates of the burning of the Alexandrian library, the second crusade and the discovery of America, you stand, stiff in buttoned suit and tie, looking old fashioned.

"Page from a calendar of lunar and solar eclipses compiled by the German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Muller (1436-1476) also known as Regiomontanus."

He is younger than people think; only 40, but time becomes confused around him. He is staring at the moon again. His face at the window glows with the light of eternity and of fleeting midnights lost, elsewhere in the city, to things as brief as sleep and love and dreaming. I watch him bend his head over his books to make his observations, his descending face slowly eclipsed by the shadow of our room.

In my 2003 diary I saw this picture. 

"Elsie Davis on a 50ft high wire without a net. UK 1938. Photographer unknown"

I was sitting in work, but instead of working I grabbed a scrap of paper and starting writing a little story about this high wire walker. And then I got completely obsessed with this high wire walker and her circus family. I put it away eventually but kept coming back to it over the years and changing everything, and by 2018 Elsie Davis had become Alouette Franconi, matriarch of the Flying Franconi Circus family and my book, Flying Tips for Flightless Birds, was finally finished. 

I always tell kids this story when I go out to visit schools, to make the point that ideas can come from anywhere at all. 

I always assumed Redstone Press was a big publishing house with many interns and a team of designers. But then I was given an office in the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queens University Belfast, right next door to the office of Ian Sansom, who, I noticed, had written the introductions for several of the Redstones. I mentioned this to him and he told me that actually Redstone is basically one guy, Julian Rothenstein, who’s been pretty much running things himself for all these years, with some help from Ian now that he’s getting on a bit. I told Ian about the picture and my book and he said he’d love to tell Julian, that it would make his day.

It made my day too. I wrote Julian a letter and sent him a copy of my book and it was wonderful to be able to thank a real human being for the enormous gift that that picture was for me. It’s really no exaggeration to say that it changed my life.

So I'm hoping the Redstone Diaries keep going for many years to come because I've never seen one I like better. This year’s Redstone Diary theme is ‘Europe’. I hope both are in my future. 

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland #CWFNI

She also blogs at The Blank Page