Hazel McHaffie

It’s all relative …

Phew! It’s been quite a week.

My mind has been split too many ways for its own good, juggling preparation for a number of forthcoming speaking appointments all on different subjects, as well as finalising the text and cover of Inside of Me, plus a variety of other demands outside of my writing life. I confess I’ve felt unusually cross-eyed, and tense, and generally discombobulated.

I won’t bore you with the detail, except to share the most exciting development: the cover of Inside of Me is now chosen! Yeah! It’s been unusually tricky getting it right this time, but thanks to a very patient designer, Tom Bee, who provided lots of choice and properly listened to my quibbles, we have a striking end result that feels good. I’ll share it with you as soon as it’s finalised.

The Dean's DiariesSo, in the midst of all this angst, it was something of a welcome escape to go to a book launch for Professor David Purdie‘s latest offering: The Dean’s Diaries, held in all the magnificence of the Royal College of Physicians’ premises in the centre of Edinburgh. I found myself in august company. Purdie himself is a well-known and brilliant raconteur and was both witty and amusing on this occasion, offering, like Peter Ustinov, ‘all the various accents for his superb mimicry; and the rare combination of brevity of language with breadth of expression‘. Enviable skills.

His latest slim volume is a compilation of observations and anecdotes by the Dean of Edinburgh’s fictitious St Andrew’s College, ‘renowned for its academic oddity, interdepartmental warfare and explosive disasters‘. A happy blend of fact and fiction. I defy anyone to read it without laughing aloud. Clever, heretical, irreverent, stunningly good writing. A real tonic. Guaranteed to lift the spirits and banish tension. Just what I needed. Oh, and the Dean reckons that ‘Disparate activities, especially if novel, are apparently useful in staving off the onset of dementia … and … keeping the old frontal cortex ticking over‘, so perhaps I should be embracing more challenges not seeking less.

Alexander McCall Smith (who appears in the book as himself) was to have chaired the evening, but in the event he was in India … ahhh … therein lies a salutary and timely reminder. His life puts my present little alarms and excursions firmly into perspective. Sandy is probably the most prolific author I know personally, his daily word output is phenomenal, he’s constantly in demand as speaker/reviewer, juggles innumerable interests, and travels the world on a regular basis. And still finds time for friends and colleagues. Does he ever sleep?

OK, McHaffie. Take a big breath. Break down the tasks on your puny little list into manageable pieces. Tackle each one systematically. Tick them off; reduce the pressure.

There you go. Calm restored. Thanks to two professors and a hefty dose of laughter.

 

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Dickensian arguments

I imagine lots of authors dream of having their books turned into films. What better way to bring them to the attention of thousands? Get those sales figures sky rocketing. Reach a different kind of audience. Become famous. Get rich.

And yet adaptation is a topic that generates strong feelings in the other direction. Books are always deeper and somehow better … films rarely square with imagined characters … I’m always disappointed when I see the film; It never lives up to the book version … along those lines anyway.

I’d certainly fear the loss of essential elements in my own novels were Hollywood to come calling (less snorting on the back row). That’s not to say it’d be a big ‘No’, but we all have a keen sense of the ‘big idea’ (as they say in the advertising world) behind our stories. We know our characters inside out, we’ve lived with them, inside them even, for years, and we want filmmakers to be true to them. But there are no guarantees.

Allow me to illustrate. Years ago I read Jodi Picoult‘s book, My Sister’s Keeper, and enjoyed it. This time she was exploring my field of interest, raising awareness, doing superbly what I was trying to do in my own little corner. Then I saw the film and was terribly disappointed. The characters weren’t at all as I knew them. In particular the lawyer, Campbell Alexander, to whom the main character, Anna, turns for help in suing her parents for rights to her own body. Campbell’s a key figure in the book and we’re in suspense throughout wondering … why does he have an assistance dog? What is his problem? Why does he give every person who inquires a different answer? But his humour, his ingenuity, his vibrancy, is completely missing in the film. So for me that didn’t work.

However, for lots of people who only saw the film, it could well have been their first and only introduction to the challenges surrounding creating saviour siblings. That has to be good. Many will never know what literary pearls they’re missing. Those who subsequently read the book, will only find their awareness enriched.

I would argue that books and films are different art forms, trying to do different things, reach different audiences. There’s something special about immersing oneself in the written word, conjuring up scenes and characters in one’s imagination, feeling the emotions as they slowly, slowly unravel on the page. But stand – or should that be sit? – back and watch the skill of actors who do the hard work, the interpretation, for you – watch the effect of the brooding silences, the shy glances, the touch of hands – in seconds they can convey a world of feeling hard to describe in pages of words. And we’ve seen that par excellence in the current dramatisation of War and Peace on BBC One on Sunday evenings at the moment.

Now, I admit, I don’t know what I’m missing by watching Andrew Davies‘ TV adaptation of Tolstoy‘s epic tale; I’ve never got around to tackling the tome itself. But I like to think it has now become more accessible to me. If Davies has been sufficiently true to the original I’d have a better sense of the story lines, the context, the many interwoven characters. Maybe one day ….? But of course they will now look like their film counterparts from the outset!

I have read Dickens and Austen and Trollope, those classics which are trotted out and reinvented time and again. They may be regular features on the school curriculum reading lists but I for one never tire of them. So I was delighted to see a brand new take on our old favourite, Dickens, currently showing on BBC One too: Dickensian.

This is no rehash of the same story. It takes a bold leap and weaves together lots of his characters and story-lines. And sews them into a classic murky London setting with plenty of pea-soupers, dim lantern-light, Christmas snow and doubtful morals. Delicious.

So, for example, we all know Miss Havisham, jilted on her wedding day, forever wearing her bridal gown. In Dickensian we see a plausible back story; she’s being wooed by an unscrupulous scoundrel. We know it’ll all end badly, but we’re fascinated to watch the seduction, the power the seducer also wields over her weak homosexual brother, her struggle to be a businesswoman in a man’s world. She takes on extra dimensions in the process.

Other old favourites are exactly themselves as we know and love them. Sarah Gamp – a gin-swilling ‘medical person’, wheedling a tipple out of anyone who crosses her path. Ebenezer Scrooge – the quintessential miserly curmudgeon, but in this production, fleshed out, in action, antagonising all he comes into contact with. Bob Cratchit – absolutely true to the original with his huge heart and devotion to his family. Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Nancy, Bill Sikes, the motley band of child pick pockets – they’re all there, scurrying around in the nether regions of Victorian London, relying on their wits and criminal loyalties to avoid the noose and the inspector’s wrath. Mr and Mrs Bumble, Inspector Bucket, Jacob Marley … a cast of hundreds. Just like Dickens’ stories.

It’s compelling stuff. Some reviewers have questioned whether it’s worthy of 20 episodes; apparently audiences have tailed off significantly. But for me it has rekindled my love of Dickens, made me want to start all over again reading the books! So I’m not one to scoff at film adaptations. Hollywood, if you’re listening ….

 

 

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Keep writing

Deckchair in Charlotte SquareI’m away this week giving some talks in the Midlands about subjects unrelated to my medical ethics writing, so I’ll content myself with sharing some useful advice about persistence for writers in general. And it can be a lonely, demoralising occupation at times. Too easy to navel-gaze and feel crushed by one’s own pathetic output/apparent lack of achievement, or other people’s rejection.

Thanks to the Writer’s Circle for the basis of this chirpy little reckoning which I’ve adapted to fit my purpose:

  1. Write 50 words: That’s a paragraph
  2. Write 400 words: That a page
  3. Write 300 pages: That’s a manuscript
  4. Write every day: That’s a habit
  5. Edit and re-write: That’s how you get better
  6. Spread your writing for people to comment: That’s how you gain perspective
  7. Don’t worry about rejection or publication: That’s about being a real writer
  8. When not writing read. Read from the works of writers better than you. That’s how you raise your own game. Hey, I for one am only too glad to get the seal of approval to read!

Meanwhile, my faithful book cover designer is currently working on the cover of Inside of Me; reviews are in; final proof reading is underway. Publication is in sight!

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Man’s inhumanity

Jewish persecutionI’ve read a lot of books about the Holocaust and personally visited places where these terrible events happened and are remembered or commemorated. And wept. I read Night just before Christmas and was horrified and moved and guilt-ridden and humbled all over again.

It’s a first hand account of Eliezer Wiesel‘s experiences (translated from the original French into English by his wife Marion), through the ghettos, deportation, the concentration camps – Birkenau, Auschwitz, Buna and Buchenwald – and eventual liberation. Elie was a teenager during the Hitler years.

Personal, poignant, honest, painful, it’s a slim volume – a mere 115 pages – but an immensely powerful story. As he says, eyes that have seen babies and children thrown into the flames, witnessed unimaginable humiliation and cruelty, seen young boys hung inexpertly, watched hundreds of men die of starvation or suffocation or cold or a bullet, can never forget. Their brains will for ever be deprived of sleep and rest.

Then and afterwards he just could not reconcile the barbarity he witnessed with life in the 1940s. ‘I could not believe that human beings were being burned in our times; the world would never tolerate such crimes.’ Even when the persecution began, when thousands were corralled and removed, the Jews themselves would not, could not, believe the ugly rumours of man’s inhumanity to man. It was inconceivable.

But gradually reality drove home, and the horrors shattered his strong faith. Standing in his ill-fitting prison garb, stinking of disinfectant, a bald, starving 14-year-old, he recalls realising he was forever changed:  ‘the student of the Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was the shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame.’

One can’t help but be moved by his desire to protect his father in spite of his ambivalence. He relates with impressive honesty his secret relief at the thought of being freed from filial responsibility; his enormous guilt about not intervening when his father was beaten brutally on his death bed. Bearing the shame for such thoughts and inaction for the rest of his life.

He doesn’t shrink from the question: Where was God? He has his own answers.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and the committee’s statement called him a ‘messenger to mankind‘, rising above his struggle to come to terms with ‘his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler’s  death camps’, to deliver a powerful message ‘of peace, atonement and human dignity’. And indeed, Elie Weisel dedicated the rest of his life to ensuring the world did not forget its own capacity for evil. As he said in his acceptance speech:  ‘If we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.’ … ‘Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.’ … ‘What all victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.’

Stumbling stones in the pavement commemorating the Jews from that house who were deported and murdered

Stumbling stones in the pavement commemorating the Jews from that house who were deported and murdered

Challenging words for us all, the more powerful when they are spoken by a man who has himself lived through hell, who has never allowed himself to forget. Are we listening to the voices of victims today? Really listening. Remembering. Lending our voices to theirs. Or are we accomplices to evil?

As Oprah Winfrey said, this book ‘should be required reading for all humanity.’

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Editor-speak

A desirable property?We’re probably all familiar with the kind of language estate agents use to beef up the attributes of a house/flat/hovel in order to sell it.

For ‘bijou/cosy’ read ‘cramped’.

‘Excellent transport links’ translates as ‘there’s a motorway and/or busy railway line right next to it‘.

‘An ideal purchase as your first three-bedroom home‘ is agent-speak for ‘the second bedroom will take a single bed at a squeeze; the third one will only fit a z-bed on the diagonal in a crisis‘. You know the kind of thing.

Manscript of Over My Dead BodyBut did you know there’s also a dictionary of kindly words used by editors who are dropping our precious manuscripts into the nearest bin? Thanks to author of 90 novels, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, who claims to have a world-class collection of rejection letters herself, for the following handy guide.

sincere – dull

frank – embarrassing

heartfelt – dull and embarrassing

ambitious – far too long

epigrammatic – short and senseless

gnomic – even shorter, and still senseless

robust – too much sex

cerebral – too little sex

niche interest – incomprehensible to normal people

authoritative – see niche interest

well-observed – autobiographical

lovingly observed – tediously autobiographical

well-written – over-written

richly detailed – horribly over-written

broad-brush – full of careless mistakes

authentically voiced – writer has no grasp of grammar

original – writer has no grasp of grammar or syntax

energetically original – writer has no grasp of grammar or syntax, vocabulary, plot, pace, dialogue or character

not what we are looking for – unpublishable

didn’t quite work for us – don’t give up the day job

Maybe after all there’s something to be said for the agents and publishers who simply state: ‘If you don’t hear back from us within six months you should assume your manuscript does not fit with our lists. We wish you success elsewhere.’ You don’t hear anything; you make excuses for the deficiencies of Royal Mail. Ten weeks after the deadline date you finally succumb to a terrible sense of failure. You even picture the said gurus scoffing to colleagues in their superior way about the drivel submitted in the name of literature which they are obliged to lift out of the slush pile and at least cursorily scan. You maybe throw a minor hissy fit. Or go into a spiral of depression and hopelessness. You maybe pack away your pens and paper for ever.

But truth be told, the people who issue these horrible but carefully-honed rejection letters have their own cross to bear. They live in daily dread of a) overlooking a masterpiece or b) utterly crushing the spirit of a writer whom they have never met or c) incurring the wrath of an agent who has the power to unleash the most beautifully crafted diatribe against the editor’s entire empire.

I’ve had a glimpse inside this world. Occasionally a writer lower down the pecking order even than me will request that I look over their precious text and give ‘honest’ feedback. The worse it is the more I personally agonise long and hard over what to say to them. I was so stressed and in dread of one persistent person’s reactions that I spent an hour calming myself in our local cathedral before meeting up with her.

Pen a masterpieceSo next time you get a coded letter from a publisher or agent just visualise the sweet revenge of your brilliant work going on to win the Orange Prize for fiction … the Man Booker … the Nobel Prize for Literature. After all, you know from my previous posts that a surprising number of famous bestsellers have been rejected many a time and oft. It could be you. All you have to do to prove it is pen a masterpiece and find a brilliant publicity team. That’s all.

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My annual foray into the world of scriptwriting

Ahhh, my last blog of 2015. Hard to believe another whole year has gone by since I was too ill to write.

Uppermost in my mind this week is the annual story/play which I write for my grandchildren (and direct and scene-set and costume-make and cater for – yep, definitely master of none but nobody’s caring). We held it yesterday (Wednesday 30th) giving us time to change the house from a family Christmas venue to a Community Hall on the remote island of Moorphunlesshasslepleez, somewhere in the ocean between the outer Hebrides and the USA. The plot revolved around the supreme ruler, His Excellency Elijah Balahoulie, deciding his time had come to give way to a new leader. I won’t bore you with the detail which is littered with in-house jokes and allusions. A few pictures might best capture the tone and spirit of the event.

Stars of the show were of course the grandchildren themselves who were citizens of this strange island where everyone wears a kind of uniform ‘habit’:Four citizens of the island of Moorphunlesshasslepleez They were summonsed by the island’s town crier to hear a proclamation asking for nominations to head up a new era.A proclamation by the town crierApplicants included: a schoolteacher cum precious gem prospector,A schoolteachera glamorous seamstress,

A glamorous seamstress

an internationally famous ballerina,An internationally famous ballerinawho was also a brilliant teacher of all the citizens,Teaching the citizens to dance

a couple of virtuosos on wind instruments playing their very own medley of tunes,The wind instrumentalists

a recycling fanatic,A recycling fanaticand a young mum of a baby born on Christmas Day. A new mum

Some serious cooking and eating were involved too.Baking pizzas

The adults rose nobly to the occasion and doubled as a farmer, a baker, a dotty old lady, and a banker cum magician who showed a quite remarkable sleight of hand with a pack of cards.The conjurorEveryone had to score each applicant on ten different parameters and the assessment certainly concentrated attention, although some of the scores seemed decidedly suspect!

As usual the main players entered into the spirit of the event with huge enthusiasm – it helps that they don’t know anything about the storyline until they arrive – and every minute spent sewing and constructing props and costumes, every footsore hour spent hunting down elusive objects, reaped rich dividends.

Naturally enough there’s a strange feeling of anti-climax today after months and months of thinking and preparation, and the frenzied last minute scene setting, and all the anxieties about precise timings and locations, but the next phase is to turn the play into a book illustrated with photos taken during the performance – of which there are 565 to choose from!

Thoughts can then turn to a new year, new opportunities, the latest novel. So it only remains for me to wish all my visitors and friends health and happiness, peace and prosperity in 2016. Thank you for sharing my world.

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Encouraging facts for struggling writers

Mslexia‘Tis the day before Christmas, when all through the house … hmm, yes, creatures are stirring, but hopefully not a mouse … all presents are safely delivered or under the tree, wine is mulling, carols playing, lights twinkling, larder and fridge full … Pause for thought …

Top of the list those who are grieving or weighed down with life’s troubles. I surround you with huge sympathy and concern. May you find courage and strength to go on; may you in time find peace. For now please forgive my moving on to matters of far less moment, but this is a blog about writers and writing.

Next on my list then, all those of you who have ever doubted yourselves, or known deep despair. Those who have struggled to get published, who have felt hopeless and diminished. Those who have burned/shredded/drowned a manuscript following a rejection slip or an ominous silence from a prospective agent. Those whose hearts are failing them for fear of another year of knock-backs. Yes, you, my fellow writers. I’d like to send you a seasonal gift: some heartening statistics culled from the latest Mslexia magazine. In short, hope.

Man Booker Prize winner, Marlon James, was rejected 78 times before his first novel was accepted for publication. I bet you haven’t amassed 78 yet.

Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 22 years before having even one accepted. OK, you don’t write or even like poetry. I get it.

It took Malorie Blackman two years, submitting eight/nine different books, and 82 rejection letters before she was published. Now that’s what I call determination and awe-inspiring self belief.

The HelpKathryn Stockett‘s bestseller The Help was rejected by 60 agents. What does that tell you about agents? Flick your nose at that one you selected – who’s heard of her anyway?

Elmear McBride‘s multi-award winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing made the rounds to agents and publishers for nine years before someone recognised its potential. OK, it has had poor reviews from the public but at least it’s risen above the radar.

Zen and the Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the most rejected bestseller. It was rejected 121 times before going on to sell five million copies. 121! And you thought you were in the wrong job?

We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverBestselling We Need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver was rejected by her own agent (who rated it so poorly she made Shriver pay the bill for photocopying) and 30 publishers. NB. Shriver went on to marry said agent’s husband! Phew. Some revenge, huh?! Hey, I never said those were the kind of tactics to adopt.

Author of twenty novels Anne Tyler has disavowed her first four because she now shudders at the lack of redrafting and character development. If you’re still within your own first four … or eight … or more … come on! What are you – a mouse?

A recent survey of 2254 women writers by Mslexia revealed that one in three submit less than a fifth of their finished work. Why? Because they fear rejection. Hmmm. Chin up folks! Re-read the above facts … And again … Perseverance and sheer cussed determination – that’s the name of the game. So, enough of doubt and timidity! Gird your loins and get that manuscript out there in 2016. It certainly won’t get noticed languishing in the drawer marked Failures.

And all blessings of the season whatever it means to you to all readers of my blog, struggling or not, writers or not. Thank you for your support.Christmas gift

 

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Peeling back the gilt of Christmas

Nativity carouselAt this time of year it somehow seems extra tragic when bad things happen to good people. Aside from the global crises afflicting our world and unravelling before our eyes in our living rooms, I personally have a number of friends currently facing serious illness, impending death, sudden bereavement, and yet it must seem like everyone around them is caught up in trivia and pleasure, festivities and excess – in reality of course, who knows how many others are only hiding stresses and problems from public consumption?

Mrs Santa straw figureIt’s in this spirit that my mind has been wandering over the huge dilemmas facing different families; what would I choose in their circumstances? how would I cope?

Metropolitan police officer Heidi Loughlin, 33, discovered she had an aggressive form of breast cancer the day after finding out she was pregnant with her third child. She decided not to have a termination of the pregnancy but to delay treatment until after the birth. Her condition became so serious however that her baby girl was delivered by Caesarean Section on Friday, 12 weeks early, and Heidi has been given a short time to recover from the operation before starting powerful chemotherapy next week. She faces a pretty gruelling Christmas, but is determinedly looking forward to March when she will get her baby girl home to her two brothers. She has risked her life to give her daughter a chance and says she has no regrets; it was all worth it. What would I have chosen in this situation, I wonder? What would you?

Then there’s fireman Patrick Hardison. He entered a burning house in Mississippi; the roof collapsed on him leaving him with severely disfiguring burns across his face, head, neck and upper torso. Think for a moment of the pain of a small burn from an oven shelf, a hot iron … Multiply that by ten trillion. Even after 70 operations he was still so terribly mutilated (see pictures here if you can cope with them) that he would only go out heavily disguised. What kind of Christmases has he endured, I wonder? He recently underwent the most extensive face transplant ever performed. Factor in not only the excruciating pain at every stage but the risks … would I have been courageous enough to want to go on living? Would you?Antique Santa candle holder

Within the last two months, two transgender women have been found dead in their cells in all-male prisons: 21 year old Vikki Thompson in November, and 38 year old Joanne Latham in December. No more Christmases for them. Many difficult questions present themselves where transgender people are concerned and there is generally much greater sensitivity to their issues, but what about when they commit crimes, serious offences that land them in prison? Not only their own welfare is at stake but that of their fellow prisoners. Where would you have housed these two? Nearly 150,000 people signed a petition to house a third person, 26 year old Tara Hudson, in a female institution even though she had been convicted of assault. Would you have signed it?

A 50 year old woman, mother of three, is so determined not to grow old and ‘lose her sparkle’ that she has refused to undergo kidney dialysis. Her kidneys were seriously damaged when she took an overdose following a diagnosis of breast cancer. For years her life style has been chaotic to say the least, and one wonders, what is Christmas like in that household? Whatever, the Hospital Trust responsible for her care appealed to the courts to have treatment imposed against her wishes. But a senior judge has upheld her right to an autonomous choice to die. Was he right to do so, do you think?

I’m merely scratching the surface by way of illustration. Remember all the cases we’ve heard about recently – various scandals around abortions carried out on the grounds of gender alone; teenagers killing themselves because they’re obsessed with losing weight; all the dire warnings about how to deal with declining fertility; the consequences of a simple blood test at 18 weeks pregnancy that allows screening for thousands of genetic conditions  … the list goes on and on. My files are bulging with clippings and articles.

Scandinavian figuresSo at this time of celebration and joy, let’s spare a thought for families caught up in tragic circumstances, and the courageous souls who try to support and guide them. May they find wisdom, courage and strength. And I wish all visitors to this blog peace as you prepare for the festive season whatever it means to you.

 

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Serendipidy

It’s odd how often, when you’ve got something on your mind, lots of things feed into it, isn’t it?

My own current novel centres around the loving but dysfunctional Grayson family. Dad, Victor, has vanished and his neatly folded clothes are found on a beach where he used to take his young daughter, India, to play. The police are confident he took his own life. Case closed. So how can it be that India is convinced she heard his voice on Kings Cross station seven years later? And if he is still alive, what possible reason can he have to remain away from the daughter he loved so devotedly?

I guess that makes me super-sensitive to stories where people vanish without trace at the moment. But it was only when I was trying to devour all my Diane Chamberlain novels before Christmas that this one came to my attention: The Silent Sister.

The Silent SisterTeenager Lisa MacPherson is a prodigiously gifted violinist whose talent is fostered by the best mentors money can buy. She has the world at her feet. So why did she suddenly disappear? Who was the mysterious teacher who wrecked her ability? What made her shoot her first teacher dead? Did she really choose to commit suicide in a frozen lake rather than go to prison? And if not, where is she now?

Her sister Riley, who was two at the time of Lisa’s disappearance, has grown up believing Lisa was so depressed she couldn’t go on; that’s what she was always told. It’s not till she’s grown up and sorting out the family house after her father’s death, that she stumbles on newspaper cuttings that tell a very different tale, and she begins to unravel a series of clues darker and more tortured than she ever bargained for. Her whole life seems to have been built upon lies.

The plot is well structured and certainly keeps the pages turning. Plenty of twists in the tale; plenty of intriguing characters; plenty of secrets and deceptions. And true to her background as a psychotherapist, Chamberlain delves into troubled minds and convoluted thinking with consummate ease. The needles flashed and the Christmas charity knitting grew apace as I flew through this book.

And now the season of concerts and school productions and dance shows is upon us. There’s something rather glorious about the spirit that drives teachers/church leaders to produce these events year after year in spite of the dire happenings in the world as well as on our doorstep – this time terrorist attacks in sundry places; floods of unheard of ferocity; Britain sending planes to bomb Syria, the Forth Road Bridge closed for weeks causing chaos on the roads in this area … the list goes on and on. And yet these innocent voices carol ‘Peace on Earth, Good will to all men.’ Bless them.

Dancing on the EdgeI know some people will scoff, despairing of a God in all this chaos. It’s the age old conundrum: if he exists, why does he allow such suffering? Which brings me to another book I’ve just finished reading: Richard Holloway‘s Dancing on the Edge. It’s not looking at this question per se, but it is addressed to the doubting, the wounded, the excluded, the escapees who feel marginalised and disenchanted. I don’t always agree with Holloway’s thinking – goodness, the ex-bishop doesn’t always agree with himself! – but in this book he talks a lot of sense: compassion is a more important response to human behaviour than contempt. Faith should be a way of living with questions without being afraid. If only there was more compassion in the world and people could learn to tolerate difference, the world would be a safer, happier place. Keep singing, children!

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Literary choices

Charles Ross appleAutumn leaves

 

 

 

 

As the cold winds whip through the cracks and the snow gleams on the hills, my mind goes back to that wonderful Indian summer we were enjoying a few weeks ago. Temperatures into the 20s, mmm. Vibrant colours, cloudless blue skies. Remember them? Far too glorious to be inside, so I split my working days between my study – pressing on with publication of Inside of Me – and out in the garden – reading. And now that warmth and sunshine is a memory I’m so glad I seized the moment.

Afterwards Afterwardsby Rosamund Lupton seemed like a good choice. One that would make made me usefully ponder literary tactics and styles. And perhaps question my own preferences.

Plot: a private school maliciously set on fire; teenage Jenny trapped inside; her mother running into the blaze to rescue her; her young brother paralysed with fear left outside; a sinister presence hovering around the ICU; the unravelling of marriages and secrets in the hunt for the arsonist.

Verdict: Instant hook, plenty of ongoing tension to juggle with. Tick.

The range of suspects: a presumed wife-beater, a touchy-feely male teacher recently sacked from the school, an 8-year-old boy, and an unknown stalker who’s been threatening Jenny with everything from hate-mail, excreta through the letter box, paint being thrown over her, to an oxygen tube being tampered with.

Verdict: Lots of false trails and no, I didn’t guess the real culprit too early. Tick.

Unusual literary tactic: Jenny and her mum are spirits now, freed from their damaged bodies lying immobile in hospital. They can penetrate anywhere; a useful literary device to give the reader insights, observe actions, know thoughts.

Verdict: Not sure. Saw the point; had difficulty suspending disbelief.

Narrative style: Second person. Hmm, my least favourite style, I confess. The ‘you’ in this case is Jenny’s dad; the narrator her mum. But it works in that it tracks the whole family’s responses to this tragedy.

Verdict: It was fit for purpose but didn’t win me over to second person narration. Am I getting too set in my ways?

Little literary gems:

A woman police officer speaks in her ‘uniform-and-truncheon voice’.

The mother, Grace, is running towards the burning school at ‘the velocity of a scream’.

The smoke went into her lungs and she was ‘breathing barbed wire’.

Memories from the past become ‘a paracetamol for my aching mind’.

‘Hard lines of misery are scraped across‘ Jenny’s grandmother’s face. Medical facts hit her ‘like flying glass, cutting new lines’.

Jenny’s phone is a teenage ‘life in eight centimetres of plastic’.

Grace is told that the ovaries of her twenty week female fetus are already formed. ‘I felt the future curled up inside me: my body a Russian doll of time.’

Verdict: Huge admiration (tinged with envy maybe?) for the author’s ability to toss in such evocative phrases. Tick. Tick.

OVERALL: An enjoyable and thought-provoking read during our extended summer, and a wake up call not to prejudge any aspect of a writer’s style. Everyone deserves a fair hearing.Reading in the autumn sun

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