Writing Update Spring 2017

It’s been quite a while since I have had anything to report about my writing. There was an outburst of poetic creativity in October/November, followed by a more regular one hour a day minimum writing commitment for about 6 weeks in January/February. Then work, life, rejections and low mood got in the way and writing anything other than reviews or the occasional doggerel verse (aka poetry which is not worth submitting) became too much of an ask.

However, I firmly hope and believe that things are looking up now. I’ve found myself an accountability partner and we share writing ideas, progress, goals and rants on a daily or weekly basis. She is based in California and writes screenplays, but the time and genre difference works in our favour. Plus, we have known each other nearly all our lives, so we can be brutally honest with each other. We were at university together (she studied Mandarin, I studied Japanese) and our lives have moved, oddly enough, on parallel tracks ever since.

California beach, a picture sent by my friend.

So here are some concrete achievements I can mention:

  1. Geneva Writers’ Group literary journal Offshoots 14 will publish my poem To Love and to Cherish (Sept 2017)
  2. Alexa, What Is One Plus One? is featured on Poetry Breakfast today 24 April, 2017
  3. A Mother’s Advice will appear in The Dying Dahlia Review, 2 May, 2017
  4. Two of my poems will appear in a dVerse Poets anthology. Although I’ve had to cut back on my involvement in that poetry community over the past year or so, I have learnt so much from its dedicated, inventive, talented and generous members.
  5. My review of Katie Kitamura’s A Separation has appeared in Shiny New Books, which is one of my favourite go-to sites for reviews of a broad range of books.
  6. I wrote a feature on crime fiction from the Celtic fringe which have a link to ancient myths and legends for Crime Fiction Lover.
  7. I’m quite proud of writing some blog posts which go beyond poetry and book reviews, require quite a lot of thought and editing (even if they don’t always translate into high number of views, but you should know by now that it’s not millions of views that I am chasing): on the differences between the French and Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards creative writing courses (the very topic which was then coincidentally discussed a few days later in Ploughshares), a meditation on how to cope with being in limbo or purgatory, celebrating my 1000th blog post and what Max Weber and Emile Durkheim would have thought about our age of oversharing.

So here is an entirely gratuitous celebration gif with one of my current footballing favourites, Antoine Griezmann (because his diminutive size and cute little face reminds me of my younger son).

Finally, my new resolution is to return to my first WIP. The second WIP had ground to a standstill when life started imitating art (all except the murders, one hopes) and it became too painful to carry on. The first novel has the first draft fully written and is temporarily entitled Beyond the Woods (a translation of Trans-Sylvania, which is where most of the action takes place – NOT a vampire novel, I hasten to add). So all (all?!?) I need to do is edit.

Theatre Review: Classics Revisited

Over the holidays, we had the opportunity to compare and contrast two children’s classics performed onstage. ‘Peter Pan’ at the National Theatre and ‘The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’ (based on Alice in Wonderland) in a collaboration between the Royal Ballet and Zoonation. Instead of giving you my personal reviews of the two shows, I will let my older son do the talking. This is the one who likes both watching and participating in theatrical productions, but usually merely grunts: ‘Yeah, fine’ when I ask him what he thinks of something. For you, dear blog readers, he has agreed to be more eloquent on this occasion…

Scenes from the production, from culturewhisper.co.uk
Scenes from the production, from culturewhisper.co.uk

Peter Pan

‘The pictures advertising the show and the set we saw when doing the backstage tour earlier that day made me expect a very modern version of Peter Pan, but actually it was just the usual old one, with very few extra twists. Yes, Mrs. Darling played Captain Hook, and the staging was very modern, full of recycled materials, but I was hoping for some alternative storytelling. Perhaps the Lost Boys could have been from a deprived council estate, struggling to grow up and find things to play with. The pirates could have been a drug gang.

I also found the whole musical thing unnecessary. The lyrics were bad and barely audible, and the songs themselves were not very hummable or memorable. It was also muddled about exactly what age group it was for: too serious for little ones, but too many childish jokes for older ones.

OK, maybe I’m being a bit grumpy because I was tired after a whole day in London and had a bit of a headache. There were some good bits: the performances were generally good, especially Captain Hook; there were some really funny moments (Tinkerbell); and the flying and special effects and sets and props were all great.’

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

From the Evening Standard.
From the Evening Standard.

‘This was the exact opposite of the Peter Pan show: very original idea of setting the characters in an asylum and showing all sorts of mental health issues. It was unexpected, but executed very well, mostly through hip-hop dancing. The message is not told to you: you have to deduce it. Wonderland is the place that accepts all people, with all disabilities, but not everyone wants to go there.

It was all far too dark for the younger kids in the audience though, but if you were at least 10 or over, it was very good fun. Great music, very acrobatic and energetic dancing, and, though it was quite sad in the first half, it finished in a very upbeat way. They could have pulled fewer people on the stage at the end, though, as it was a bit embarrassing for them, but other than that… Really liked it! Sick!’

Peter Pan is playing until the 4th of February at the National Theatre (Olivier), while The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (Roundhouse) closes after the 22nd of January.

 

 

February Reading and Challenges Update

So yes, you may have noticed that I have fallen ever so slightly off the TBR Double Dare waggon this month (ahem! five books or so, without counting the ‘official review copies’). I am all for a combination of planning and serendipity, but this is ridiculous! I blame a conspiracy of libraries and reviewers/editors who are far too good at PR. So here is the summary:

Books from the TBR Pile:

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

Eva Dolan: Long Way Home

Eva Dolan: Tell No Tales

Tuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson – Work and Love   [Not reviewed because I want to write a feature on her, the Moomins, The Sculptor’s Daughter. She is one of my favourite writers and a great artist as well.]

avionbussiRead for Reviews:

Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noël Balen: Cognac Conspiracies (transl. by Sally Pane)

Pierre Lemaitre: Camille – the last in the Verhoeven trilogy, to be reviewed shortly on CFL

Michel Bussi: After the Crash – coming out next week, to be reviewed on CFL

Book Club Read:

Fred Vargas: The Chalk Circle Man (reread) – not my favourite of the Adamsberg series, as it’s the first one and has a lot of set-up, but still a quirky notch above the rest

Library Impulse Loans:

Karim Miske: Arab Jazz

partttimeindianSherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I don’t know why I don’t read YA literature more often – perhaps because a  lot of it is derivative and too ready to jump onto bandwagons and second-guess the trends. This one rings so true and is heartbreakingly matter-of-fact. It also fulfills one of my North America slots for Global Reading Challenge, as I’d never looked at Native American culture before in a novel. The pain of living ‘between’ cultures, of never being fully accepted in either of them, the unsentimental view of the flaws of each type of lifestyle, yet plenty of humour and tenderness to temper it all: I loved it!

Hubert Mingarelli: La route de Beit Zara

Another book that meets my Global Reading Challenge requirements – this time for Israel/Middle East/Asia. Despite the fact that it’s written by a Frenchman.

Sold to me via word of mouth:

Kate Hamer: The Girl in the Red Coat

Twelve books, of which a third were from the TBR pile, a quarter for professional reviews and only a third snuck in unexpectedly… When I put it like that, it doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Seven of the books were by foreign writers, but six of those were by French writers. So perhaps I am swapping the comfort and familiarity of Anglo writers with Gallic ones?

Seven crime fiction novels. My top crime read of the month (which is linked up to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme hosted by Mysteries in Paradise) was undoubtedly Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. A multi-layered story with real contemporary resonance. But Camille came close for the storytelling momentum, while Arab Jazz was excellent at showing us a less romaticised picture of Paris.

Anyway, next month will bring the huge, huge temptation that is Quais du Polar in Lyon. How can I possibly not impulse buy books and get them signed by so many wonderful authors? Wish me luck…

October Reads – a Quieter Month

P1020878October has been a quiet month in terms of reading – both in terms of quantity and quality.  Two weeks of holiday (including a trip to Paris and a week of house-guests) have left their mark. Incidentally, I’ve noticed that a day without reading feels really empty and unsatisfactory, no matter how busy I was with other things.

It has also been a month with fewer reviews – or perhaps I am just settling into my new reading principles. I have completed my reading challenge of 150 books this year and am now reading more for pleasure and allowing myself the freedom of NOT reviewing books unless I feel strongly about them.

3 books in French:

Grégoire Delacourt: On ne voyait que le bonheur

Joseph Incardona: 220 Volts – a post on this author and some other French male authors will follow shortly

Daniel Pennac: La Feé Carabine

I exceeded my self-imposed target of one book in French per month, and I enjoyed all three of them. In fact, they were probably my joint best reads of the month

1 translation from Finnish:

Kati Hiekkapelto: The Hummingbird

All of the remaining books were good reads, enjoyable to pass a few hours, but nothing really stood out for me.

3 crime novels set in the UK:

Rachel Abbott: Sleep Tight

James Runcie: Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night – upon which the Grantchester series on British TV is based

Kate Rhodes: Crossbones Yard – discussed at our Crime Book Club

1 book set in Peru: 

Natalia Sylvester: Chasing the Sun

 

 

 

 

July Reads and Crime Fiction Pick of the Month

A good month of reading, despite holidays and other distractions. 17 books, of which 4 translations, 2 in foreign languages, 2 poetry collections and 10 crime novels (or psychological/political thrillers).

Crime/thriller

Miyuki Miyabe: All She Was Worth

BlackHousePeter May: The Blackhouse

This was a reread for the virtual Crime Book Club.  I love the atmosphere Peter May has created of the very harsh, rather alien way of life on the Isle of Lewis. The description of the two-week guga hunting trip on the rock is not for those of a squeamish disposition like me. Although, interestingly, the animal rights activists are not presented in a particularly sympathetic light either. An uncompromising look at believable rather than ‘nice’ characters, with lots of back story, but they are all complex and ring true.

Dominique Manotti: Escape

Anna Jaquiery: The Lying-Down Room

Eugenio Fuentes: The Depths of the Forest

Harriet Lane: Her – also reviewed on CFL

Julia Crouch: The Long Fall – also reviewed on CFL

Maurizio de Giovanni: The Crocodile – review forthcoming on Crime Fiction Lover

Michael Arditti: The Breath of Night

An incendiary political thriller and a hunt for clues about a dead missionary who is going to be canonised as a saint.  This book is about the Philippines during the Marcos regime and after, with very vivid, harsh and poignant descriptions of daily life and the contrast between rich and poor, expats and local people. The constant shift between time frames work well, as it shows so clearly ‘plus ça change plus c’est la meme chose ‘ and the afterword is a masterpiece in apologetics.

playdateLouise Millar: The Playdate

Believable tale of motherly angst and struggle to balance work and childcare, a social life and relationships with the other sex, all in an anonymous big city. Three main female characters are all plausible and there is much to sympathise with in each one… until you discover that each one of them has some unsavoury secrets.

Poetry:

101 Sonnets

Adam Wyeth: Silent Music – my poetry tutor and a very talented poet indeed (no, he doesn’t read my blog, so I can praise him without hoping for leniency on the next module). More detailed review will be coming up shortly.

 

Gossip/Groupie Fanfiction

bowieAngela Bowie: Backstage Passes

Pamela Des Barres: I’m With the Band

It was interesting to read these two in quick succession, as they are so similar in subject matter, and yet so different in tone. Angela Bowie’s account is quite bitter and all about point-scoring (perhaps understandably so, as Bowie’s super-stardom and drug-taking in the 1970s cannot have been easy to live with, although it sounds like Angela was keen to give as good as she got). She also sounds extremely self-centered and takes herself far too seriously. Meanwhile, Pamela comes across as very needy and rather silly at times, but also self-deprecating and humorous. Not the kind of life I would recommend as aspirational for young women: gain fame by being linked to famous people. The endless recitals of drug-taking and sex scenes become terribly dull and repetitive after a while, rather than titillating.

German:

Hilde Spiel: Ruckkehr nach Wien

French:

Martin Vidberg: Le Journal d’un remplacant  – wise, wry and funny observations (in cartoon format) about life as a supply teacher at a school for children with special emotional needs.

Other:

Courtney Maum: I’m Having So Much Fun Here Without You

And my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month (a meme hosted by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise) was a tough choice, as I enjoyed most of the crime I read this month very much. But in the end, I think the political thriller of Dominique Manotti wins out, as it taught me a lot of new things about the Red Brigades, Italian exiles in France and the pomposity of the French literary world. Besides, who can resist this gorgeous cover?

Manotti

 

 

Falling Behind on Reviews…

Manchester, Piccadilly Gardens.
Manchester, Piccadilly Gardens.

I’ve been travelling and working (for money rather than love) for the past three weeks. Which, as always, means I get a lot of reading done (dinners for one at hotel restaurants and lonely hotel rooms are conducive to that sort of thing), but my reviewing falls by the wayside. Too tired mentally to string two words together (except perhaps ‘not now’).

I was aiming for entertaining rather than gruelling books, books to divert rather than ravage me. Some have been better than others, some have been slightly disappointing. I will try to do them all justice with longer reviews over the next few days, so this is what you have to look forward to!

Town Hall, Sheffield.
Town Hall, Sheffield.

Better than or as good as expected:

Linwood Barclay: Trust Your Eyes – ‘Rear Window’ suspense with a modern twist

Miriam Toews: All My Puny Sorrows – depression and suicide, not a light read

M.J. McGrath: The Bone Seeker – another fascinating insight into Inuit life

Tamar Cohen: The Broken – captivating if uncomfortable story of marital and friendship breakdown

 

Manchester, up-and-coming urban area.
Manchester, up-and-coming urban area.

Slightly disappointing (perhaps because of the hype):

Sam Alexander: Carnal Acts – too tough and graphic for my taste

Domingo Villar: Water-Blue Eyes – the abrupt ending spoilt an otherwise rather promising book set in Galicia, Spain

Edward Wilson: The Whitehall Mandarin – ambitious and thoughtful spy thriller, but gets a bit silly towards the end

 

More than slightly disappointing:

Lauren Owen: The Quick – an interesting writer stylistically, but stories about vampires are just not, not, NOT my thing (and I really need to read blurbs more attentively in future)

 

Tour de France preparations, Sheffield.
Tour de France preparations, Sheffield.

Charming and quirky reads:

D. S. Nelson: Blake Hetherington Mysteries – middle-aged, finicky hat-maker is an adorable detective, but felt the novella format was too short for the mystery to fully develop and breathe

Lena Divani: Seven Lives and One Great Love – autobiography of a cat – with great observations about life, humans and love – funny but also poignant

And, speaking of places I’ve travelled to, I found that Sheffield surpassed my expectations, while Manchester was a disappointment. I am sure weather, circumstances, time,  having an insider show you around etc. makes all the difference and I am sure that both cities have plenty to offer, but I know which of the two is my favourite. Still, both of them would make good backdrops to crime novels…

Manchester, former fish market.
Manchester, former fish market.
Sheffield, Winter Gardens.
Sheffield, Winter Gardens.

 

 

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Cleo Bannister?

Me

It’s a little embarrassing to admit that I can’t remember how I ‘met’ Cleo Bannister online: it just feels like she’s always been there, sharing her thoughts and passion for books (especially crime fiction) on her excellent blog and via Twitter @cleo_bannister. This self-confessed bookaholic lives in the beautiful Channel Islands, thus representing a half-way house between my former and current homes.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

If you go back far enough, Enid Blyton and the Mystery of… series (my favourite was The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat) was my first introduction, with the clues always seemingly  hinging on cigarette butts! As an adult, my crime fiction addiction was properly launched by Ruth Rendell’s books. I then progressed to her writing as Barbara Vine and my love for crime fiction with a psychological twist was firmly in place.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I read quite widely in the overall genre of crime, but my favourite is Psychological Thrillers.  I think this is because I love people watching, and why someone behaves the way they do is fascinating.  There also tends to be less overt violence in this subgenre which, although I’m not particularly squeamish, I’m also not particularly interested in reading page after page of torture. My real interest lies in the thoughts of both victims and perpetrators.

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

A hard question as this year has had me reading more top rated crime fiction than ever before, so I’m going to highlight three of my favourites from different sub-genres. If anyone wants more recommendations please let me know as this was a really hard choice.

Someone Else’s Skin, the debut novel by Sarah Hilary brought real depth of characters and plot to the police procedural. Another debut that deserves a special mention is Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent, whose sociopath protagonist Oliver Ryan is unwrapped chapter by chapter to reveal what made him. Finally, Tom Vowler has written one of those books which you can’t forget with That Dark Remembered Day. Although it features a crime, it is actually about the damage war does, with the Falklands War as the background to the plot.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

That is a really mean question (these questions are tough!).  Crime fiction doesn’t easily lend itself to re-reading because you already know the answers once you’ve read the book, which is half of the fun of reading it. On reflection I would choose Agatha Christie who was so prolific she would keep me going until I was rescued. If it was going to be a short stay though, my choice would be the Lewis Trilogy by Peter May for the fantastic characters and clever plots.

Whole BookshelfWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I am looking forward to reading Peter James’ latest book in the Roy Grace series, ‘Want You Dead’.  This is the tenth in a series set in Brighton and as a bonus Roy Grace has a relationship with a woman called Cleo!  I have read every one of this series and for me it marks the start of June.  I’m also looking forward to the latest Jane Casey and Sharon Bolton books: both are guaranteed to be excellent reads.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

When I am not up to my eyes in dastardly deeds or unreliable narrators, I enjoy reading Lisa Jewell whose latest books, although marketed at women, are not by any means a light fluffy read.  Another author I love for her perceptive writing is Jojo Moyes and both these authors have written one historical based fiction book, a genre I enjoy as long as it properly researched.  Lisa Jewell wrote Before I Met You which is dual time novel split between the present day and the London in the 1920’s and Jojo Moyes wrote the amazing The Girl You Left Behind set partly in wartime France, which I’ve repeatedly recommended to friends and family (and anyone else who vaguely indicates that they would like a good book to read).

Thank you very much for sharing your reading passions with us, Cleo. I’ve been taking notes! I look forward to chatting to other great readers and reviewers about their criminally good reads over the next few weeks. In the past month I have featured Margot Kinberg and Rebecca Bradley in this series.