The Madwoman Upstairs and Authorial Intent

The Madwoman Upstairs succeeds in throwing fresh light on the lives and writings of the Bronte sisters, and raises questions about authorial intent and the biographical fallacy.

Samantha Whipple, last remaining descendent of the Bronte family is a twenty year old undergrad, an American starting her first term at the fictional Old College, Oxford. It is interesting to me, as a Brit who has lived in Oxford, to see how she views the strange collegiate traditions she encounters, some of which are true to life, others overdrawn to aid the fiction that Lowell creates to fuel the environment that pushes Samantha to some edge of sanity.

The book will ring true for students of English Literature, and perhaps any student who has wrangled with a tutor or professor who starts from the position that they are irrefutably right and anything that you know already is worthless.  All Samantha’s studies of literature seem to count for nothing with her tutor, James Orville.  The book follows Samantha through her first two terms as she unravels her previous experience and deals with the death of her father, while wrestling with the issue of authorial intent: when reading a book, do you need to know about the author and their intentions to understand the story, or should a novel stand alone ? If you search for Catherine Lowell online, there is a scant one liner: “Catherine Lowell received her BA in Creative Writing from Stanford University and currently lives in New York City.” Lowell is giving us no clues to her intent, leaving us to understand that she follows the New Criticism belief that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding. We have to do the work ourselves as readers. In the book, we learn how Samantha’s father, a man who sprinkles aliases into his every day life, obsessively reads the works of the Bronte sisters, looking for enlightenment in their words, the message within the story. In contrast, his old enemy Sir John Barker has thrown over an academic career and become curator of the Bronte Museum at the Old Parsonage in Haworth. His obsession is in tracking down the ‘Vast Bronte Estate’, every quill or handkerchief used by the family, every dress or painting or manuscript. These two characters stand for the different sides of the debate: does the quill or the first draft of Withering Heights tell us more than the book itself?

Samantha becomes swept up in a posthumous treasure hunt, spurred on by obscure and lateral clues from her late father. The man who taught her than she should look only at the books, draws her on to find a mystery treasure, some part of the Bronte estate that Sir John Barker has made his life’s work to find. Of course, she voyages to Haworth, and perhaps unsurprisingly finds that her ‘ancestral home’, which she imagined many times as a child, does not hold the secret she is looking for.

This is a clever book, but perhaps Samantha’s madness doesn’t go far enough nor with enough conviction. I did keep reading right to the end, keen to find out exactly what Samantha had been left in her father’s will. Do we find out which side is correct about authorial intent: I lean to the approach of deconstruction, that authorial intent is unknowable and possibly irrelevant. What we learn from a text depends on an interaction between our life experience and the words on the page. We may psychoanalyse exactly what the author intended, but we can never know the answer. When I write myself I write with one idea in mind, then see others that emerge as the text sits on the page, some of which may only be apparent to me as author months or years after writing.   I have completed The Madwoman Upstairs with the sense that it is time to go back and reread the works of the Bronte sisters, which is a worthwhile gift and perhaps one that this author did intend.


The Madwoman Upstairs costs around £13.50 for a hardback and £7.50 on Kindle at time of writing and is released on 3 March 2016

Review: The Making of Her

 I’ve been reading Susie Nott-Bower’s first novel, The Making of Her, and I’m impressed.  Too often one looks at the small and independent press as a second choice for publication, but The Making of Her shows that there’s nothing second rate about working with independent publishers. The book examines being a woman in the twenty first century where looks are valued over experience. It asks questions about how we regard ourselves, how we see our flesh and skin as it changes over the years. Nott-Bower uses her experience in the world of television, the medium that puts a magnifying glass to our lives, and writes the story of Clara, a TV producer who has just reached 50 and denies her birthdays. She can’t combat other peoples’ perceptions as she wrangles with her young assistant Alix who is after her job. Clara’s best friend Josephine is married to a successful playwright and has let her own dreams of writing become buried in a verbally abusive relationship where all she is, is typist, copyeditor and cheer leader in chief.

In advance of the Reading and Being Read conference at the British Library on Saturday 20th February, 11am-4pm, I spoke to Susie Nott-Bowers about her experience of writing and publishing The Making of Her. Susie says, “It started when I went on a University of Falmouth How to Write a Novel course. The course equipped me with the steps I needed to write a novel, and we formed a critique group that met fortnightly for quite some time afterwards. I set myself a deliberately achievable target of 2000 words each week. I made a schedule and within a year I had my first draft.”

The novel follows Clara’s struggle as, within creasing pressure at work, she is forced to put aside her feminist principles and the documentaries she usually worked on for a straightforward makeover show. Susie says, “I’d worked in television for many years, and while I hadn’t worked on a makeover programme it was easy to find out about them. Clara and Jo are two sides of myself, the ambitious, outward person in need of finding femininity, and the introverted writer, the person who was in need of spirit. The novel was a way to allow them to find the hidden part of themselves.” Clara’s battle for her career, to ensure that she is seen as someone who still has value, interweaves with gradual revelations from her past. Jo finds the courage to take steps to change her life: as she separates from her soul-sucking husband she rediscovers herself, at first gradually and then with one drastic step that changes things for both herself and for  Clara.

Susie completed her first draft and says, “It began as a very depressing novel, entitled The Change. I gradually edited it, changed the title, added humour, and then sent it off to a selection of literary agents. I had a few requests, but no-one took it on. An agent had held on to the manuscript for many months and then sent a brutal rejection. I was ready to throw in the towel, but a friend from my course sent me the link to Linen Press.  With a last throw of the dice, I sent it to this unknown press. Within 24 hours Lynn rang to ask for the rest of the book, within a week she had offered me a contract subject to some revisions. We spent quite a few months working on it – Lynn is a fantastic editor. She asked me to write a new opening, she wanted more of Pete Street and I added a couple of smaller sub plots. At the end it was sub edited, I had a hand in choosing the cover, and it was published.”

Looking back at her experience of being published, Susie says, “It was a strange time. I was very much taken up with my parents health at the time. I did a lot of publicity, and Lyn helped too. I must have written to every magazine and newspaper in the country with no response, but a lot of bloggers read it and reviewed it. It was mixed though: wonderful to have the book published, but difficult to get it out there and get it read. It has sold several hundred copies. The small press experience has had many wonderful sides. Friends have had good and bad experiences with bigger publishers. I think all writers hanker after the big contracts. The main driver for me is for as many people as possible to read what you have written.”

Currently Susie is working on her second novel. She says, “I started another novel, then paused due to life events at 30,000 words, and now I’m looking at it again, with ideas of replanning and replotting. I put so much into that first novel and have doubts about doing it again which slow me down when completing the second novel. I wrote the first book in innocence, and now I’m writing in experience. I was reading Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, all about the creative process. In the book, Elizabeth Gilbert says the outcome of any creative act is a souvenir of the process, ‘something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration.’” However you publish your work, it is this reminder that we all hope to create.

Reading and Being Read takes place at the British Library on Saturday 20th February, 11am-4pm, and is run in association with The Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture, University of Westminster. Book here.

The Making of Her is available from Amazon and costs £5.99 on Kindle, or from in paperback for £11.99.




This review first appeared on The Contemporary Small Press site.

Review: When Breath becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

I thought that I had reviewed Kate Gross’s Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life) but it seems that I haven’t. I know I haven’t written about Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh, because I wrote about that in a term paper rather than on the blog. I’m not sure if it’s my age (!) or whether closeness to death just makes a good story, but I love how these two books show you life right on the edge. Kate Gross describes her life and end of life after diagnosis with cancer at 34. Henry Marsh writes as a neurosurgeon, looking back on a long career dealing with people with life threatening brain disease and injury.

Somewhere in between Late Fragments and Do No Harm, lies the new release, When Breath Becomes Air. It is written by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon and writer. Kalanithi had degrees in English literature, human biology, history and philosophy of science, and Medicine, and he brings all that knowledge to bear in his writing, sharpened by a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer in his thirties.

The book takes you from when Paul started to suspect cancer, to the diagnosis, then right back to his time growing up in Arizona, his studies at different universities, a beautiful description of what made him. The second part of the book returns us to his last two years, his treatment, improvements, relapses, and his struggles to work out what it meant for his sense of self, his relationships, his career. None of it is maudlin: instead Paul writes with the clarity that I think we would all like to achieve given the same situation. The book is not long: I read it on a return train journey in less than three hours. Paul’s writings were cut short by the progression of his illness, and the book is completed with an epilogue by his wife Lucy. Nonetheless, it is a book I would read again, and again. It seems that, as with Late Fragments, Kalanithi has discovered something truly special. In his book he somehow transfers to the reader a little of the change in the way that you value life when the date of your death is suddenly brought near.

Listen to Paul and watch the video, A Strange Relativity: Altered Time for Surgeon-Turned-Patient, that he made before his death. It is beautiful, a thoughtful meditation on what time meant for him as he watched his baby daughter grow up while his own time was running out.

At some point I’ll write more about Do No Harm and Late Fragments, both great books and very different examples of writing from life changing experience.

When Breath Becomes Air costs around £9 at time of writing.

Disclaimer: I was sent this book to review

Review: Not if I see you first

I don’t generally review YA, but I’m writing about sight loss so couldn’t miss out on the chance to see how another author has dealt with this. Not If I See You First  by Eric Lindstrom tells the story of Parker, a fifteen year old, and her journey as she comes to terms with the loss of her father. So far, so conventional in the genre. The twist is that Parker is blind.

I know something about sight loss, probably more than most people, but it’s because I’ve studied it rather than experienced it. I’ve written a book about it, in fact, Sight Loss: The Essential Guide. I’ve worked with people with sight loss from the age of 15, but I still am not entirely qualified to determine if Lindstrom has  created an authentic piece, I don’t think anyone can truly understand sight loss without personal experience. Parker is, unlike most ‘blind’ people, entirely without sight: her optic nerves were severed in an accident when she was seven. The experience has left her spiky and defensive: she holds her close friends close, but has rules that she, and anyone who wants to be with her, have to live by. The rules run from one to eleven, plus there’s rule infinity.

Rule #1: Don’t deceive me. Especially using my blindness. Especially in public.

Rule #2 explains how not to touch Parker without warning, rule #3 highlights not to move her stuff, because she needs to be able to find it, rule #4 says, ‘Don’t help me unless I ask.’ and so on. Rule infinity is slightly different: ‘there are NO second chances… betrayal is unforgiveable.’ And this is where things get interesting. Parker’s high school has recently combined forces with another school, throwing her back into contact with kids she hasn’t seen since middle school, including one, Scott, who broke rule #1, and in doing so, smashed rule infinity too. Parker hasn’t spoken to him since.

Parker is quirky, and she’d rather attack than defend: she uses words like weapons, and throughout the book she begins to realise how this can keep more people at arms length than she might intend. She meets a nice guy, Jason, goes on a first date, and rows with her best friend when she starts to doubt how much Sarah is sharing with her. Lindstrom does a good job of tapping into the teenage mind with all its insecurities, adding in a heaping of extra worries that surface when you can’t see what’s going on and rely on other people to fill you in.

The characters are authentic – new girl Molly who buddies with Parker as she shares the same classes, Parker’s cousins Sheila and Petey who have been moved from their home town as Parker’s aunt and uncle move to take care of her. The plot speeds along at the perfect pace as we watch her deal with tensions with Scott, and decide that maybe she had been harsh in cutting him out of her life all together back when they were thirteen.

So, I’d say that this is a good read, with a twist of something different. It could certainly get teen readers to think a bit more about sight loss, while being carried along by a good story. Not If I See You First  costs from £7.99 at time of writing.

PS. Braille! Eric Lindstrom has liaised with the American Braille society in writing this book. There is Braille on the cover and in an end note. I reviewed the eBook, and I suspect that there may be a reason to get the print copy for the full experience. If you have the print copy and have checked out the Braille sections, let me know.

Review: 712 more things to write about

He’s still here. Still here. Still, lying in bed, but asleep, not dead.

Is your New Year’s resolution to write more? Or do you just want to get started with writing? I’ve found that regular writing, whether you do Julia Cameron’s Daily Pages from The Artist’s Way, or pick some other way to write every day, is the best was to clear writers block and get through to what you really want to write about.

This Christmas, my daughter gave me 712 More Things to Write About , a book full of prompts to inspire you to write. It is packed with ideas, and there is a fairly small space-from a quarter page to a whole page – for you to fill in with your writing. There are so many ideas that I have found it easy to open the book at random and pick one that appeals most days this year, even when the children were on holiday. The small space allowed means that you can fill it in a few minutes, so perfect for a commute, a lunch break or while you are waiting. the book itself is lovely quality, which I think adds to the inspiration.

Below, I have include an example of a prompt, and my response:

A woman travels continents and oceans to be at her dying father’s bedside and when he doesn’t die, even though she loves him, she’s disappointed. Why?

You’re still here. Still here. Still, lying in bed, but asleep, not dead.

I told you I loved you, over and over, when they said there was no hope. Somehow it seems that  you’re going to pull through, this time. Yet I don’t feel joy, just resignation, maybe even disappointment . This is going to happen again, I can see now. It’s the perfect way to make me put everything on hold and focus on you, exclusively, just like you always wanted.

I stand up, touch your hand, and say, “Goodbye Dad!”

 Sometimes I could do with more space, and in filling the slot feel that I have only just started a story, so if you had time this would be a good way to take the ideas that seem fruitful and expand on them. So, if you have had some book vouchers for Christmas, or simply want to invest in your writing, I’d very much recommend 712 More Things to Write About which is £12.99 at time of writing.

Review: The Life-changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k

First, there was The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying. Then, in an excellent example of action and reaction, came The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k. It’s the second book that I’m reviewing – although perhaps I should have read Marie Kondo’s book on decluttering your life first.

It’s that time of year where, if you’re anything like me, you clear out the clutter. By my front door today, there are bags of clothes I don’t wear, and boxes of books that I’m not going to read again, all lined up and ready to go to the charity shop. I’ve read enough about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying that even my underwear drawer is tidy now, but what about the other, bigger drains on your life. A tidy home is of little benefit if you never get time to relax in it. In The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k Sarah Knight takes a wry look at how to declutter your life from things – and people – who drain your time, energy and money.

I think I’m fairly good at choosing what I care about and not being driven by other people’s opinions but if you find yourself saying yes then regretting it, The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k is the book for you. I do sometimes say yes to invitations and regret it later, and in this book Sarah Knight encouraged you to weigh up the emotional and time costs of saying yes, as well as the financial costs.  She uses examples such as drinks with co-workers, expensive weddings and hen nights. Writing in terms of fucks given (and this is not a book for you if you flinch at the use of the word fuck), she suggests we all have a limited fuck budget and need to say yes to only the things we really care about. In the book Knight suggests how to do this without upsetting those we care about, and how to prioritise our own needs in a good way.

The book is humorous,  not endorsed in any way by Marie Kondo, and an easy read. If you’re the sort of person who is frustrated by being told to tidy, but perhaps you feel you have too many obligations and not enough time, this could be the book for you.

Review: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen  is the sort of book that makes me want to give up writing. It cleverly interweaves the diverse topics of squirrels and traumatic brain injury, love and family relationships, along with a Norwegian economist to make a strong story that keeps you reading all the way though. Veblen is a 30 year old temporary medical secretary when she meets Paul, a research doctor. She is creative and alternative: having grown up with hippy parents, Paul wants to live life by the rules. Veblen queries twenty first century materialism: Paul embraces it. Despite this, they fall in love and plan to marry, but of course, being a book, the path is far from straightforward. Their quirky families and conflicting beliefs cause problems, but these are multiplied as Paul wrangles with big pharma to try to develop a new medical device that could save soldiers lives when they experience traumatic brain injury in the battlefield. Readable literary fiction, this book mixes humour with intelligence, and keeps you reading to the end.
The Portable Veblen is around £12.99 at time of writing.


Review: The Novel: a survival skill by Tim Parks

I’m not sure.

I was beginning to get irritated by the subjectivity of the first chapter of The Novel: A Survival Skill: The Literary Agenda, and the start of the second where the author talks about meeting JM Coetzee, but then he starts to dissect the biographical fallacy, and I wonder if he is intentionally writing in a personal and subjective manner, sprinkling ‘I’ throughout the pages. Biographical fallacy: we shouldn’t interpret literature in relation to the author’s personal life. Parks writes, “Imagination works on material that is available.”  As an author, and particularly since writing more creative works of fiction, I re-read my work wondering just how much of me it exposes.

And Parks’ book weaves in and out of the personal: a chapter about Joyce is followed by a chapter where, ‘The publisher  of this book has asked me to include a section on my own writing, to put myself in the picture. I do this with reluctance.’ The penultimate chapter on Dickens is possibly one of the most interesting parts of the book, full of details about Dickens’ personal life, and possible drivers for his plots. Parks concludes that we cannot judge a book or provide any ‘pecking order of writers’ because, as readers, our reactions are conditioned by our backgrounds too.

I’m still unsure. This is a book that is good in parts.

Review: Grief is the thing with Feathers by Max Porter

What I know now.

  1. I cried. How can one not cry all the way through a book about two small boys whose mother has died?
  2. Grief shifts. It is different every time and still the same, over and over again, through centuries and nations. We all feel grief, it seems never ending, and yet we travel through its depths until it becomes less consuming, still present. We move on, we are never the same.
  3. I don’t know enough about Ted Hughes. Or crows. Or Ted Hughes and Crow.
  4. That Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a gut wrenching, understated, sideways examination of loss.
  5. And I want to know what Max Porter is going to write next. Because the thing about throwing out conventions and sneaking up on story so it builds and twines between pages from different points of view, is that it is a hard thing to follow.

Buy Grief is the Thing with Feathers for around £7 … or do the sensible thing that Amazon suggests and invest in Ted Hughes’ Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow too.


Review: Life and other near-death experiences by Camille Pagan

What makes a good story for you? For me, it is all about life and death, about birth and tears, about the stuffing makes up human experience. I feel  short hanged if I leave a cinema without having laughed, or cried,  or both. I remember reading Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You one Christmas Eve, tear s streaming down my face. I was sad, but I was also content because that book had transported me, because I was living a fresh human experience through the written word. An in many ways, that is what I have just experienced while reading Life and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagan.

This is the story of a young woman hit by a double blow. Everything that she takes for granted – her relationship, her health – suddenly shifts, and she does what many of us might do in the circumstances. She takes off. Fortunately for Libby she is in a fictional world where, when she runs away to spend a month of a beach she meets a supportive older woman and an attractive pilot! Her time is full of ups and downs but by the end she is coming to terms with her changed life and ready to take on the challenges it poses.

I read this straight through on a two hour train journey, so it is a fairly quick read, but a good one. Life and Other Near-Death Experiences costs from £3.99 on Kindle and is out on 1 November.