Tag Archives: reading

Taking stock

I’m in a bit of a ‘non-writing writer’ phase at the moment, and I’m not sure I like it very much. There is only so much time and energy left over from parenting a toddler, and at the moment most of mine is being spent on campaigning in the run up to election day. I’ve been grateful for my way with words as I’ve developed the campaign on social media and in local meetings, but it is giving me a little bit of an identity crisis.

The two manuscripts I have written are still out there in the ether, and I’m feeling guilty for not giving them enough attention. They are to some extent in the hands of my agent, but I’m getting the niggling feeling that I really should be doing something more…

I am a writer. A novelist. But my novels have not yet been published. And at the moment I’m not actually writing anything.

Not exactly confidence-inspiring is it?

Hmmm…

On the upside, this impasse I have found myself in has prompted me to find the time to read more. When my days are filled with writing or editing I find it hard to shift my brain into the different world of someone else’s novel. So whilst the last few weeks have been ridiculously hectic, leaving no time at all to write, I’ve been grateful for the snatched moments where I have been able to lose myself in prose.

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I loved the twists and turns of I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. The first half of the story is powerful enough, a woman rebuilding her life after a tragic accident. But then revelations are shared which cut through everything you thought to be true. And then it turns out that even that new understanding of the character is deeply flawed. There was much in the central theme of a woman being undone by a manipulative man that resonates with me and the novel I’m (hopefully) close to submitting to publishers, and it definitely gave me food for thought where that’s concerned.

Then there was The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer. A devastating exploration of mental health and how our society deals with it, told through the layers of grief which follow the death of the protagonist’s brother. The protagonist himself is utterly compelling, despite (or maybe because of) his tenuous grip on reality, and whilst his journey as a psychiatric patient is central to the novel you cannot help but reflect on the arbitrary definitions of ‘normal’ that so much of our world rests on.

This theme was strong too in The Girl with all the Gifts, a zombie story with a difference by M.R.Carey. An increasingly small cast of characters takes us deep into a post-apocalyptic world which, like most good science fiction, questions many of the facts we take for granted.

And now I am onto The Children Act, the latest novel by Ian McEwan, the arrival in paperback of which I have been eagerly awaiting. I’m close to finishing it actually – and as much as I was tempted to do precisely that (instead of writing this) during Arthur’s nap I am just as happy to draw out the pleasure of reading it for a little while longer. I love McEwan’s prose, casual and yet important in its tone, easy to read and yet dense with emotional truth and careful observation.

It is his body of work that I aspire to most, though I know that is setting my bar absurdly high.

There are baby steps to be taken first. The steps that will let me discover if the two novels I have written so far can find a home in the publishing world, and through that home the readers I long for. I have been thinking about those novels a lot this week – both the latest one and my first, Lili Badger. I still think they have an awful lot going for them, but this period of inaction is making me doubt their potential in the marketplace. I’m beginning to wish that, as a writer, I was drawn more clearly to a particular genre. Although really that’s absurd – I never have been as a reader so to attempt to create something for the sake of marketability alone would surely be doomed to failure.

So I will keep on going on with the words and ideas that are mine, and together I’m sure we’ll get there sooner or later. In the meantime I really should carve out a little bit of space to write something new this week I think, if only to satisfy that part of my identity that knows, deep down, I am a writer.

 

Writing Bubble

Reading

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My most common lament over the past two years is how little time I’ve managed to set aside for reading. It’s been such an important part of my life – I’ve written before about some of the books and authors that shaped me, and obviously in my ten years as an English teacher it was at the very core of what I did.

But since becoming a mum books have taken on a somewhat soporific quality. The pile of things I want to read has been growing bigger and bigger, but no sooner have I got a few pages in than my eyelids have begun to close. That hasn’t been universally true – I have managed to finish some books – but certainly nowhere near as many as I would have liked.

This state of affairs is particularly ridiculous given my current ambitions to be a published novelist. I may not have read many novels since Arthur’s been born, but I have written two! In some ways this is part of the problem. I don’t really like to read fiction when I’m in the midst of working on a work of my own. I think I’m worried that too much of what I’m reading might seep into my words. But I can’t be a writer without being a reader, there’s just too much I still have to learn.

So this week I decided, whilst mulling over the feedback I’ve been given and my own ideas for the next edit of my novel, that I would make time to read. And it’s been awesome!

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It’s been surprising how many moments I’ve actually been able to find to lose myself in a book. And also how long I’ve managed to read for without falling asleep when my reading time wasn’t relegated to when I was already tucked up in bed…

I’ve read two novels already since last weekend, and I’m just getting stuck into a third. The first two were thrillers I hadn’t read before – You Should Have Known and The Book of You, both fantastic and more than a little bit creepy. The third is an old favourite of mine, The Time Traveller’s Wife. All three have certain things in common with the novel I’m currently working on, and being immersed in their worlds has helped me realise things about the one I’m trying to create – an added bonus to what has generally been an immensely enjoyable week.

My reading certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by Arthur either: he’s been increasingly curious about what I’ve been up to (when he’s been awake) and has often crawled into my lap to take a closer look. I think he’s been a bit miffed by the lack of pictures, but it’s inspired him to pick up his own books too.

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He loves books anyway, and adores being read to, but there’s been something very special about both sitting quietly reading. Arthur has actually discovered a new favourite book in The Little Engine That Could. We discovered the film a couple of weeks ago – it was kind of inevitable really given his general train obsession, and we’ve both really enjoyed it. He was thrilled to find the characters also existed in the pages of a book, albeit in a slightly different story.

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It has been so brilliant to break through the barriers I’d put up for myself and sink into some really good books. I should do it more often I realise, though I think I’m pretty much ready now to get back into my own. In fact I’m really looking forward to it.

 

The Reading Residence

 

My Fictional World

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It’s been hard to find the time to read since Arthur came along. As an English teacher my working life was filled with books, and that was always one of my favourite parts of the job. Now that I’m a writer, reading’s taken on a whole new significance: analysing how other writers use language, create characters and weave whole worlds on the page, borrowing ideas – and seeing what doesn’t work so well too. But there are still few things I like better than to lose myself in a good book, and the middle of the night will often find me sandwiched between a sleeping husband and baby, book in hand, snatching a few precious minutes to myself.

Thanks to Jocelyn at The Reading Residence‘s Q & A meme I have the perfect opportunity to share some thoughts about myself as a reader – not just of picture books, but of real, full length novels! 

What were your favourite reads from your childhood?

There was one particular book that fascinated me called La Corona and the Tin Frog, a collection of strange and magical stories by Russell Hoban and Nicola Bayley. I also loved Enid Blyton as a child – I was slightly obsessed with anything to do with fairies, and especially loved The Magic Faraway Tree, though I enjoyed her adventure books too. I also read everything written by Roald Dahl, who spent some of his childhood near to my grandparents’ home in Radyr and was most definitely a genius. I think The BFG was probably my favourite book of his, though Matilda would be a very close second.

There are always those books that defined your teen reads and stay with you – what were yours?

I had fairly eclectic tastes as a teen. I loved freaking myself out with horror, especially Stephen King. I also enjoyed John Grisham’s novels which convinced me at the time that I wanted to be a lawyer. And then there was Judy Blume, who furnished me with a significant amount of my sex education – I remember Forever making a particular impression on me.

Who are your favourite authors currently?

There are quite a few… Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, Will Self, Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, Neil Gaiman, Maggie O’Farrell, Esther Freud, Monica Ali and Kazuo Ishiguro would probably be my top ten!

Which 3 genres do you gravitate towards most often?

I love the escapism of magic realism and science fiction, especially dystopias – the sense that literally anything can happen, and the way in which a world a million miles away can tell us so much about our own. I also enjoy contemporary realist fiction, both books set in the UK that hold a mirror up to our society and those by foreign authors which give me an insight into cultures I know little about.

Can you choose your top titles from each of those genres?

Hmmm… Narrowing down favourite books is really rather tricky! In terms of magic realism, I love Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, an epic and engrossing tale told against the backdrop of the birth of modern India. Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, whose protagonist’s emotions infuse the food she makes, is also captivating. For dystopian science fiction, I found Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, with its dark secrets hiding behind a boarding school’s doors, totally compelling. And then there’s Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with its devastating representation of the place of women on society. And when it comes to realism the book I most recently read was fantastic – Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave with its beautifully drawn portrait of a family in crisis. I also love Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a fascinating and moving story of life in Afghanistan.

And your least favourite genres?

I’m not sure I have any ‘least favourites’. I’ll read anything given half the chance!

Of the many, many fictional and fantastical worlds, where would you most like to visit?

I’d love to hang out with any number of Murakami’s protagonists in Japan. I always find myself craving sushi and Sapporo beer after reading his books. I’d also be intrigued to visit the mythical land of Gaiman’s American Gods.  I like the idea of mythological beings existing alongside humans in the modern world – though I’d have to be careful not to get on the wrong side of them!

Everyone loves a villain, right?! Who would make your favourites list?

I really love to hate the Magisterium and The Authority in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I think he has important things to say about the darker sides of religion and society’s desire to constrain children to its will, and the characters he creates to embody his views are compellingly corrupt and cruel.

Share the books that have had you sobbing?

One of my favourite books ever is Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time, about a man struggling to cope after the loss of his daughter. I’ve read it more times than I can remember and it never fails to have me in tears.

And let’s end on a high! Which books leave a smile on your face, and maybe elicit a few laughs?!

Pretty much anything by Jonathan Coe – I especially liked A Touch of Love. I also remember laughing quite a lot at Will Self’s How the Dead Live, but he does have a very particular sense of humour…

I think that just about covers it – there are many more books on my shelves that haven’t quite made it into my answers here, but the ones I’ve picked should definitely give you a taste of my fictional world.

The Reading Residence
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