What I’ve been writing this week #whatimwriting @writingbubble

I’ve just realised a few things. Half term is a week away, then there are only a few short weeks before the yawning, childcare-free abyss of the summer holidays. I’ve been reading and writing and reading again this year, all feeding into a novel which I want to be part of a PhD. And I actually need to write a synopsis and complete the application before the summer term ends if I want any chance of doing a PhD next year at some point!

And of course, just as always happens when a (even self-imposed) deadline looms, I’ve been blogging prolifically over the last couple of weeks.

I reviewed new psychological thriller Dear Amy by Helen Callaghan which is out in June, and The Girl with Nine Wigs, a quirky and amusing cancer memoir.

I wrote up a first draft of a short story that I started in writing group: Iris if. Very much still in development!

I read Don De Lillo’s new book and wrote an epic blog post about Don De Lillo’s Zero K, and Making Readers Care about your Characters  – the post takes you from Chernobyl to Beirut on a journey with some of my favourite books at the moment, and one that just didn’t do it for me.

I finally got round to writing about Kate Tempest, reading from her new novel @DLWP, and then I read some of my own poems at a Writers Circle event locally – my first live reading. Terrifying, but I didn’t make any mistakes and it’s done now. Until the next time.

And I have been working on the research proposal and book synopsis and have another day booked to do that before the children break up. So maybe I’ll make my deadline and have something finished to submit during June. Maybe!

Review: Dear Amy by Helen Callaghan


I’ve just finished reading Dear Amy, a chilling psychological thriller. This is the blurb: “Margot Lewis is the agony aunt for The Cambridge Examiner. Her advice column, Dear Amy, gets all kinds of letters – but none like the one she’s just received:

‘Dear Amy,
I don’t know where I am. I’ve been kidnapped and am being held prisoner by a strange man. I’m afraid he’ll kill me.
Please help me soon,
Bethan Avery’

Bethan Avery has been missing for years. This is surely some cruel hoax. But, as more letters arrive, they contain information that was never made public.”

In the novel we follow Margot as she gets sucked into a nightmare, driven by the kidnap of Katie, one of the pupils at the school where she works (alongside her part time gig as agony aunt.) If you’re a writer, you’ll know the term ‘unreliable narrator’, and it becomes clear as you read the book that Margot the teacher and competent agony aunt isn’t the person you first think. He husband has had an affair and left her: from the very start we can see that she is emotionally vulnerable, but more of the secrets of her past emerge page by page. Margot’s story is inextricably intertwined with the letters she is receiving, and with the missing girl.

As the book progresses, so does Margot’s divorce: there’s a confrontation with her husband’s lover too. And we learn more about why Margot is taking medication, why she has been sectioned to a local psychiatric hospital in the past. The more Margot unravels, though, the closer she gets to finding out why Bethan Avery is writing to her after being missing for twenty years, and how this might help her save Katie.

I read most of the book on a train journey to and from London, and was sufficiently interested to wangle a free hour to finish it off the next day. It is gripping and scary: perhaps not one for bedtime reading for the nervous. The plot twists and turns are coherent and well planned. At almost every point of reveal you have the ‘ah’ moment where you realise how everything you read on the previous pages links in. There is a growing new relationship for Margot, which is nice in the sense of wrapping up all the ends, but the book works just fine without the ‘ideal new man’ aspect!

Dear Amy is released on 16 June and costs £7.99 on Kindle and around £12 hardback at time of writing.

Read With Me

Disclosure: I received the eBook of Dear Amy free of charge via Netgalley.

Short fiction: Iris if

flower-874980_640‘If I were a butterfly …’
She scowls at the page. It’s worse than ‘What I did on my holidays’. Everyone else seems to be writing: faces to pages, pens to paper, words flowing.
“Stop looking out of the window, Iris!”
Mr Martin always has a down on her, she thinks as she turns back to the blank page. He’s walking closer, coming to check what she’s done. ‘If I were a butterfly’, she writes, ‘I’d be dead by winter’. Dead. Flat on the pavement, delicate scaled wings scraping against the concrete, smeared by thoughtless shoes. Or worse: pinned in a collection like the one in the museum. She glances around the classroom and wonders: would that really be so much worse than being pinned to this desk, day after day, one of thirty specimens? ‘British school child, age fifteen, local variations in school uniform’, just as the Victorian collectors laid out their butterflies. She has drifted again, hand still, eyes focussing across the field.

“Iris! Do you want to have to stay after class to finish your work?”
Her gaze drops, but her mind is full of green grass, chasing the daisies that start where the playing field ends. A row of lime trees mark the boundary between the school and the uncut meadow where fritillaries and cabbage whites dance with buttercups and poppies.
‘If I were a butterfly,’ she writes again, ‘I wouldn’t be here. I’d be out in the sunshine, making the most of every second of my short life!’
“Iris!” Mr Martin shouts.  “Where’s that girl going?”
But the words grow faint in Iris’s ears as she pelts down the corridor, through the doors, across the sports field, over the fence by the lime trees and into the meadow.

Don De Lillo’s Zero K, and Making Readers Care about your Characters

Don De Lillo is one of my favourite authors. I relish reading books that deal with difficult issues and those that face death head on. Add those two facts together and I should have loved Zero K . In his latest release, Don De Lillo looks at the issues of euthanasia combined with cryogenics, giving the wealthy and ill the chance to decide when to die, along with the promise of living for ever. De Lillo does a good job of creating atmosphere, but the setting he achieves is cold and clinical. There is a lack of heart that detracts from the whole reading experience: perhaps I just didn’t care enough about the characters, Jeffrey, the protagonist, his father, Ross, and his dying stepmother, Artis.


In De Lillo’s Cosmopolis we were swept into a chaotic futuristic New York. The lead character, Eric, isn’t necessarily likeable, but he is compelling, and I stayed hooked as his day deteriorated. In Zero K, the coldness of the cryogenic theme seeps through both the setting and the characters. Jeffrey travels to a remote part of  Russia to see Artis and Ross before she dies in a strange facility that preserves the body until such time comes that technology can bring people back to life. This unnatural act is mirrored in the strange, pared down surroundings of long corridors, endless doors, and the writing itself echoes this remoteness, this blankness.

A book about facing death, about  the wait before death, about choosing to walk towards death, is always going to be a hard read. I was compelled to keep reading, but with less relish than other of De Lillo’s works. But does that mean this isn’t a good book? I’ve checked out the other reviews on Amazon. The reviews are written by a mix of those who have read De Lillo’s other works and those who are new to him. Universally, the ordinary reader/reviewer does not seem to be grabbed by Zero K. The chilly atmosphere has deterred even those who like me are fans, who approached the book with eager anticipation. De Lillo’s books are generally critically acclaimed, however, and this raises the question in my mind, ‘Do I have to like a book for it to be good? ‘. On a superficial level, the answer is, of course, no. One person may love a book, another dislike it intensely. We all have favourite genres and will say with passion, ‘I hate sci-fi!’ or, ‘I love chick lit.’ Although I don’t enjoy the atmosphere of Zero K, it contains good writing. In fact, if De Lillo wasn’t so good at conveying atmosphere, perhaps we couldn’t feel so chilled by the book.  And writing about difficult people and difficult issues sometimes makes for an amazing read.  I’m also reading Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future at the moment which is harrowing, but in which Svetlana Alexievich really manages to convey the humanity of people affected by the incident.  Another book that I am midway through is Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling . Keenan is the best writer that I have come across in the selection of hostage memoirs that I have been studying, In the first half of the book he drags us down into his mind while he is in solitary confinement during the initial period that he is held. Again, this is not an easy read, Keenan feels that he is going mad, and he writes into that madness. But it is compelling. I want to read on to find what happens next, even though I know the outcome from newspaper reports, from reading John McCarthy’s version of their shared experience. Keenan does not attempt to make himself likeable, I think his aim was to communicate his experience with veracity, but there is enough humanity in what he wrote to make me care. 

 This also makes me reflect on my own writing. I asked a friend to read the first section of the book’s second draft, and she reflected that she wasn’t sure if she liked my characters.  There is a fine line here.  My characters don’t need to be totally likeable, the people I’m writing about need to have flaws, need to have the possibility that they will change, but they also need to be compelling enough, likeable enough to make the reader keep on reading. Returning to Zero K, perhaps this is just what De Lillo’s characters lack. Jeffrey, Ross and Artis don’t make me care enough. And considering one of DeLillo’s books that I loved, The Body Artist, in which the lead character Lauren, loses her husband and deals with a strange sort of haunting,  the way de Lillo writes makes me care. When I pick up a book, I want to care, I need to care about the characters.  For me, there is no point reading a book unless I engage emotionally, unless I really care what happens. It is easy to care about the people who lived through Chernobyl, about Brian Keenan, because they are real.  Perhaps, unusually, this time, De Lillo has failed in the writer’s duty to make people care. Without emotional engagement, a novel is no better than a list of words, and that is something I will take away and remember when editing my own writing. 

 

Zero K is released today and costs between £7 and £12 at time of writing, depending on format.

Review: Kate Tempest, reading from her new novel @DLWP


This is a late review. I’m not sure why I didn’t write it up last month, I can only think that I had too much on. But anyway, last month I saw Kate Tempest read from her new novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses . Tempest is better known for her spoken word poetry, and was up front about this being her first novel. Up front is very much her style, uncompromising, and it made for a slightly awkward interview. Tip: if you are talking to Kate Tempest on stay, find an interviewer more empathetic to her style than a middle aged man. The question and answer session was stilted and awkward, with Tempest only finding her flow when she ad-libbed with the audience. (Interestingly, I pick up the same vibe from an interview with Tempest in the May issue of Vogue… doesn’t seem to be online but you can see the photoshoot here.) She brought her dog to the event and there was a nice moment when he let her know he wasn’t too happy to only see her from a distance.

This isn’t a review of the book, I haven’t read it yet – busy month, long pile of books to read, and in many ways I don’t want to read it. Instead, like a member of the audience requested, I want to hear Kate herself read it. In her hands, a page of prose became poetry, because transformed, became music. The way she performs the words dance off the page. This is a book that begs to become an audiobook, read by the author. There’s a review of the book in the New Yorker if you want an insight from someone who has read it. Interestingly, at the New York launch, the audience wanted her to keep reading from the book.

So, what have I learned from Kate Tempest? I’m just about to embark on reading some of my work out loud at a small event. In watching Kate Tempest I was totally inspired about finding the rhythms in my work when I read it out loud. I think for every writer, performing work changes it: when practising for my event I see extraneous phrases to cut that look fine when they lie unspoken on the page.  I’ve always been a writer, but not the person on stage. I need to find the performer in me.

The Bricks That Built the Houses costs £8/9/10 depending on format at time of writing.

No happy ending, no pot of gold


I’ve been thinking about possible endings to the book I’m working on. I’ve written an end, but it might not be the right end. At the same time as writing the book, which in part is based on life after being held hostage, I’ve also been reading for research. My first draft complete, and part way into the first rewrite I’ve been studying Some Other Rainbow, the story of John McCarthy and Jill Morrell. This is the first book that I’ve read that equally reflects the experience of the person left behind and the person held hostage, something that I try to do in the book I’m writing.
It was amazing to read this true experience, to see what resonates with what I’ve written and what doesn’t. Jill writes about extensive campaigning, working on the political reasons behind hostage taking at a time when international relations were difficult and dramatic changes were seem in the geopolitical landscape. I hadn’t even considered the political aspects of what happens to my character. I will think about it more, but I suspect that I won’t be trying to expand on that arena.
What did interest me in particular is the experience of both John and Jill after his release. That’s a significant part of my book, and while I knew from the start that it wouldn’t be an easy period for the couple I’m writing about, at first I wasn’t clear what would happen to them. Writing myself into the story it became clear they would separate, the difficulties becoming overwhelming for a while. And depending on how the book ends they may or may not get back together. So it surprised me that I was upset when I followed up Some Other Rainbow by reading a 2009 article from Jill Morrell, in which she explained that she and John broke up four years after his return. She expressed the unresolved feelings that she had about spending five years of her life on the campaign, and the impossibility of attaining the ‘normal’ life they both wanted. I guess when you read a story following a couple through a traumatic experience, when you get to know both of them, there is some sort of unwritten promise, that for resolution, the relationship will survive. Some Other Rainbow ended at a point where John and Jill were together: it is only because they are real people, with real lives, because newspapers continue to be interested in them, that I was able to follow up what happened. I need to think about this more in the context of how I end my own book, and I’ll be revisiting Some Other Rainbow too.

Review: The Girl with Nine Wigs


Sophie is facing a rare cancer at the age of twenty one. In The Girl with Nine Wigs, a diary written with European openness and hard hitting humour, she shares the journey she didn’t expect to take.
No eyelashes, no hair on her head, Sophie seizes the challenges of cancer treatment, adopting new personae with each new wig. She picks green feather eyelashes to wear with Platina, the wig that says, ‘Yes, indeed, I’m wearing a wig.’

“time could take away my weddings and divorces, my children and corrective underwear.”

No amount of dressing up takes away from the scary knowledge that every twinge, every headache could be a new tumour. Sophie writes honestly about the changes to her body, like the first hair loss – her pubes – and how this impacts on the life of a 21 year old student. She writes about her first time clubbing after five months in hospital, about meeting new guys, and dates and sex when she has to wonder whether her wig will come off.

Sophie has some great friends, some from ‘before cancer’, some who she meets as part of her new experience. She has a supportive family, who have just gone through the challenge of her mother’s breast cancer. She has humour and perspective on her side as she writes, but throughout all the positives her very real battle comes out.

Every person’s story is unique, every person with cancer has a different experience, but in The Girl With the Nine Wigs Sophie Van Der Stap has truly written something unusual and well worth reading. You can also hear Sophie’s story … and meet some of the wigs … in her TEDx talk. The Girl with Nine Wigs: A Memoir  costs around £8.99 in paperback or £2.99 on Kindle at time of writing.

The Secret Diary of Agent Spitback