Hazel McHaffie

Stephen King

Dependence!

Wow! Who knew how utterly dependent I am on a supply of electricity to function?

A crisis this week, followed by renovations in our house, has meant four times being without electricity for several hours. There was even a scary episode – power-related – late at night, leaving me quivering in the dark, as something caused the hot water tank to threaten to explode, violent vibrations shaking the floor we stood on, echoing around the empty box-room and reverberating through the whole houses. Crossed my mind no electricity might be the least of my worries; it felt we were in imminent danger of being blown to smithereens!

Being without electricity meant all my carefully timetabled plans for productive days were wiped out completely. I had to resort to reading a book – not on the schedule for this week! Not that that’s a bad thing in and of itself, of course; but it felt like it when there were deadlines for presentations on the priority list. What’s more, I was anxious not to lose the momentum of the thoughts and ideas I’d had overnight, and keep them mulling subconsciously, so I needed to find something that wouldn’t occupy too much brain space.

Gerald’s Game by Stephen King wouldn’t have come to the top of my pile in years. And so far, really isn’t my bag either – sorry, Mr King! In essence the story’s about a woman, left stranded, handcuffed to a bed, in a remote lakeside cottage, and now contemplating her death. Her husband is lying on the floor, dead from a sudden heart attack. A hungry stray dog is marauding through the house. She is isolated, all alone … except for the voices in her head … arguing, scolding, reminding, sneering … And boy, is the predicament she’s in spun out!! The first 290 pages (of 394) see little progress of any kind in escaping from her dilemma. Her attempts simply to get a sip of water to quench her raging thirst occupy pages and pages. And yet we know more and more about her. Amazing what someone of King’s calibre can do with next to nothing. But as the strap line has it: words are his power.

It’s been a salutary experience. The shenanigans with the loss of electricity in our real lives, illustrate one important lesson: never leave preparation for talks till the eleventh hour! Mercifully I didn’t. There’s still time to rectify this. And happily we are now back to fully functioning, with a renewed appreciation for what we so often take for granted.

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Hmm. This is most definitely not a book I would have loved in my youth. But then, I was an unsophisticated country girl, born during WW2, with an over-active imagination that got me into a whole lot of trouble, and back then I knew nothing of the Holocaust which forms the foundation of the tale.

The book hovers somewhere between YA and adult fiction, fantasy and fiction, shape-shifting ghosts and boy-swallowing bogs, past and present, coerlfolc and syndrigasts, time travel and murder, which might just explain the mixed reviews. Difficult to pigeon-hole. Shades of JK Rowling meets Stephen King meets Philip Pullman.

But it was the story’s origins that fascinated me most. The author, Ransom Riggs, started collecting vintage snapshots from flea markets, and antique shops, and fellow-collectors, as a casual hobby, but became increasingly mesmerised by the ones of strange-looking children. There was no way of knowing the true stories behind these pictures, so he made up his own, and it’s a selection (50) of these actual photographs that illustrate the book and give it an air of authenticity and intrigue. Having attended film school prior to writing Miss Peregrine, Riggs was already inclined to think in pictures, and a certain cinematic quality pervades the book. (It was actually made into a film in 2016.)

Vintage photos in Miss Peregrine

The teenage narrator, Jacob, only son of extremely wealthy parents, (the kind that gets a car for his 16th birthday), from a very privileged background, is destined to move into the family drugs business – a ‘corporate cage’. He has grown up listening to his grandfather’s fantastical tales of a colourful past, and magical powers, and monsters and oddities. Indeed, Grandpa Portman keeps a collection of old photos in an ancient cigar box to illustrate his accounts, and these add to Jacob’s pervasive sense of hovering between two worlds. As a child, he’s unaware that these stories have foundation in the dark experiences of persecution of the Polish Jews in WW2 during the 1940s, and escape to a remote island. Or that Grandpa Portman faced double genocide – for being a Jew, and a peculiar, and has carried the weight of those experiences for the rest of his life, burdened by the compulsion to do his bit to fight against both the Nazi and ‘the monsters’.

As dementia sets in, these stories become completely and oppressively real to the old man, even as Jacob’s credulity wanes. But when he’s at the point of death at the hands of an unseen attacker, Grandpa Portman speaks clearly and lucidly, extracting a promise from Jacob that he’ll ‘go to the island’ where he’ll be safe.  He’s to ‘Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September third,1940.’

Appalled to be witness to his grandfather’s violent and inexplicable death, Jacob gives his word he will do so. But immediately ‘the strangest feeling came over me. I let go of my grandfather’s body and stood up, every nerve tingling with an instinct I didn’t know I had. There was something in the woods, all right – I could feel it.’ Something from his childhood nightmares, that ‘stared back with eyes that swam in dark liquid, furrowed trenches of carbon-black flesh loose on its hunched frame, its mouth hinged open grotesquely so that a mass of long eel-like tongues could wriggle out.’ It’s an image that tips Jacob over the edge into a paranoid delusional state/acute stress reaction, wracked with guilt that he hadn’t believed his grandfather’s fears.

Recovering from his mental breakdown he’s given an old book with an inscription from his grandfather to Jacob, and inside a photo and letter than confirm he needs to go to the Welsh Island Grandpa talked about to seek the children’s home to which he allegedly escaped. His psychologist recommends Jacob does go, on the basis that a visit could serve to demystify the place that’s been so mythologised by his grandfather. To combat fantasy with reality.

But once there, Jacob unravels a picture of a different dimension. He does Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but it’s been wrecked by a single bomb, and is now a crumbled ruin, overgrown and disused. Much more than that, he enters a world that defies logic and confirms so much of what Grandpa Portman told him. ‘This was the enchanted island; these were the magical children’ he’d heard about and seen in the photographs. Far from being a ‘paranoiac gun nut or a secret philanderer’ as he’d suspected, his grandfather had straddled two worlds; he was some kind of hero fighting a war few could or would understand, a wandering knight risking his life for others.

Now I’ve read it, my sense is that it’s those amazing vintage photographs that give this book it’s strongest appeal. These were real children. Riggs has given them a pedigree. At some level we have to believe in their reality, but at what point precisely do we stop believing their peculiarity?

Oh, and I love the decoration at the foot of every page. Seems to captures the love and care that went into its production.

 

 

 

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Online presence

Phew, how the weeks fly by! I’ve just noted my tally … well over 600 posts.

So, a moment to pause and ask myself, why do I even have a blog? and why do I continue to write it every week? Initially, of course, it was set up to give me a profile (sounds so grand, doesn’t it?) which people could consult to see who I am, how I operate, why I write my style of novels, what I stand for. Some form of online presence is a prerequisite for authors nowadays, and the advice is: choose the ones with which you feel most comfortable. I’m at ease with this format.

But in my case, it’s more than that.

 

 

 

 

 

In my medical ethics novels, I make a point of leaving lots of breathing space for readers to form their own conclusions about the issues that provide the backdrop to each story. They aren’t polemics; they aren’t a vehicle for my opinions; they’re novels … although it’s not uncommon for readers to ask me what my personal views are. If I give nothing away about myself I can come across as a blank canvas. A blog gives me a vehicle to occasionally declare my hand in a controlled kind of way. It may be what I think of a piece of legislation, or a world event, or a book, or what someone has said, or an experience I’ve had. Anything really which has made me think, about which I have something to say. Reading back over some of it, I hardly recognise myself!! Did I actually formulate that argument, or articulate that thought?

Life can be so full, that it’s all too easy to skim read, only half-attend when listening to a programme/lecture/seminar or going to an event/function. But if I know I’m going to print on the topic, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. ‘I write to find out what I think!‘, as Stephen King said. Knowing my thoughts will be shared with others somehow allows me the mental bandwidth to think things through properly and reach a logical conclusion that I’d be prepared to defend. And it’s good for me personally to keep the little grey cells nudging one another.

If you too find what I have to say of interest, that’s a bonus! Thanks for visiting.

 

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Misery: Learning from a master storyteller

OK, I know, I know, the one thing we don’t need when life is so out of kilter during a pandemic, is depressing literature. Certainly none of my ‘death’ and ‘tragic options’ stuff –  you’ll have noted I’ve been steering well clear. But long before we’d even heard of Covid-19, back in those halcyon days when there was nothing to prevent me poring over psychological thrillers, searching for the magic ingredients that keep you turning the pages long into the night, I read a cleverly constructed thriller that impressed me. Now I think about it, it puts a whole different perspective on lockdown; imagine not just being isolated and captive in a remote place, but being incarcerated with a violent maniac! So I thought I’d share its merits with you today, not just because it has parallels with our present situation, but because it’s the product of an exceptional mind and an impressive facility with words.

REPORTED MISSING: Paul Sheldon, 42. Novelist best known for his series of romances about sexy, bubbleheaded, unsinkable Misery Chastain; by his agent, Bryce Bell. ‘I think he’s fine, Bell said, ‘but I wish he’d get in touch and ease my mind. And his ex-wives wish he’d get in touch and ease their bank accounts.’ Sheldon was last seen in Boulder, Colorado where he had gone to finish a novel.’

Paul Sheldon is a writer of novels of two kinds, good ones and best-sellers. Annie Wilkes is his number-one fan. When he’s involved in a car accident during a violent storm, he comes to after being unconscious and delirious with the agonising pain of two shattered – no, pulverised – legs, and a horribly damaged pelvis, to find it was Annie who dragged him from the wreckage of his car, and took him to her remote mountain home in Sidewinder, Colorado. Having crudely splinted his legs, she is caring for him with large amounts of pain killers which have the side-effect of suppressing his breathing, necessitating occasional mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

About ten days after regaining consciousness he discovers a number of things about his ‘nurse’. She is in possession of a great many drugs of a dubious nature; she has already managed to render him addicted to one of them, Novril. She is dangerously crazy. Everything she says comes out in the wrong key.  She’s also given to frequent episodes where her mind goes blank. She has a volatile temper; she is a woman full of tornadoes waiting to happen. She has previously had to take the stand for some major crime in a Denver court of law …

And she has told no one he is in her house.

As Sheldon discovers the hard way, Annie is seriously mentally ill – hovering on the murky borderline between ‘the Sovereign State of Reality and the People’s Republic of Paranoia.’ What’s more, she is much more than his carer; she’s a stern critic of his work. When she discovers he has killed off her favourite character, Misery Chastain, heroine of a string of romantic bestsellers … that he has then gone on to write a story full of profanities, 190,000 words of it … she exacts a terrible penalty. And Sheldon can only lie immobilised, his vivid imagination in overdrive, his present reality and his future destiny growing daily more horrific.

Misery is the perfect title – shared by the principal character in Sheldon’s book, a pig on Annie’s farm, and the total experience of Sheldon’s captivity and torture.

Master storyteller Stephen King has created a  terrifyingly grotesque character in Annie Wilkes, and devised a fearful form of entrapment for his hero, Sheldon. Both are so brilliantly realised they inhabit the pages and suck us into their reality. And having experienced the lengths to which Annie will go to punish him, we live in constant fear of still more appalling things happening to Sheldon. We can have no confidence at all that the hero will escape a terrible fate or even survive the story.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you, but I do want to draw attention to a few devilishly clever aspects of the writing.

First the stories within stories. Inside the whole tale of Sheldon’s captivity and Annie’s revenge are mini-tales – what Sheldon’s literary character Misery Chastain is up to; what Annie’s Memory Lane scrapbook reveals of her former life.

When Annie ratchets up the torture, Sheldon realises he is doubly cursed. Not only are his sensitivities acutely tuned to pain, but his writer’s mind is destined to remember every tiny detail of the horrors inflicted on him. And in his analysing, he reveals technical tips about creative writing – some in response to his lived experience, some through his writing. He’s acutely aware too that his captor understands certain truths about what writers can and cannot do, even though she is unable to enunciate them in writerly jargon. A few examples will suffice:

… resigned to the fact that he could not read stories as he had when he was a kid; by becoming a writer of them himself, he had condemned himself to a life of dissection.

… not being sure of things  ... was a charmless corner of purgatory reserved for writers who were driving fast with no idea at all where they were going.

a gothic novel … more dependent on plot than on situation.

The reason authors almost always put a dedication on a book, Annie, is because their selfishness even horrifies themselves in the end.

He felt as he always did when he finished a book – queerly empty, let down, aware that for each little success he had paid a toll of absurdity.

It gives an extra dimension of reality to what could be a totally unbelievable tale. Except that in the hands of Stephen King you believe it could actually happen.

An ancient manual typewriter is central to this book and indeed features on the front cover of my version. King’s description is wonderfully evocative: It was an office model from an era when such things are electric typewriters, color TVs, and touch-tone telephones were only science fiction. It was as black and as proper as a pair of high-button shoes. Glass panels were set into the sides, revealing the machine’s levers, springs, ratchets, and rods. A steel return lever, dull with disuse, jutted to one side like a hitchhiker’s thumb. The roller was dusty, its hard rubber scarred and pitted. The letters ROYAL ran across the front of the machine in a semicircle …  it already looked like trouble. The ribbon was a faded two-tone, red over black … A real antique … with a missing n … the missing striker like a missing molar in a mouthful of teeth worn but otherwise complete.

And there are 26 pages of the text of a new book Paul writes on that same typewriter with the n strangely skewed where it’s been inserted ‘by hand‘, reproduced in the book, giving a very clever ring of authenticity. And later, when the machine loses its t, that too is inserted by hand. T: the second-most-common-letter in the English alphabet. Imagine the labour involved. Imagine the implications even for someone writing this novel on a modern computer!! When the key hammer for e eventually falls off, there is nothing for it but to resort to longhand. An exercise that rendered Sheldon’s hand almost useless, so the last few pages are typed on the hated machine with ns, ts and es all filled in ‘by hand’. It’s a masterly touch.

It’s a brilliantly conceived and realised horrifying thriller, but I must confess I found the closing few pages which constitute Part Four disappointing. Indeed I read them twice, thinking I must have been too tired, too distracted, or missed the point. And of course, that realisation – when it’s found in a work by one of the best selling names in the world – teaches me something in itself. Which is what my endless reading is all about.

 

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Stephen King, master thriller-writer

Yep, I’m sure regular followers of this blog will have been wondering, when will she ever get to the king of thrillers!  ‘America’s greatest living novelist‘! ‘When it comes to grabbing an audience by the throat and giving them no choice but to keep reading, King has no equal.

Well, I can confess, in the safety of my own blog pages, that my first experience of Stephen King proved decidedly underwhelming.  Under the Dome simply wasn’t for me. Too far fetched. Too long-winded. A ‘so-what’ kind of book. So I deliberately gave myself time to distance from that before returning to give him a second chance.

Mr Mercedes is a very different kind of tale, billed as an ‘expertly crafted example of the classic race-against-the-clock thriller’. And I’m wanting the very best examples to hone my own skills. So, bring it on. A masterclass would be very helpful.

It starts off with a massacre. A twelve-cylinder Mercedes is driven through thick fog into a concentrated crowd of desperate people all queuing at a job fair. The driver is still at large. But shortly after his retirement, Kermit William Hodges, lead detective on the case, receives a letter from the man responsible, taunting him. And we have the kernel of the story, the cat and mouse chase, each goading the other, a race to prevent another mass killing.

And yes,now I could quite understand what makes Stephen King a giant among thriller writers. It’s the whole package really, but it might be helpful if I single out a few features.

The first stroke of genius is in the first chapter. King introduces three of the victims of the Mercedes massacre in the last few hours of their lives. In a few pages he makes us care about the young cash-strapped mum Janice Cray, and her croupy baby Patti, and the kindly stranger called August who lends them his sleeping bag while they wait for the job fair to open. It puts a human face on the tragedy. We’re shocked when these three lives are obliterated by the grey Mercedes careering into them. We want justice for them.

Then there are his main characters. With simple but deft strokes he fleshes them out, unlikely heroes and psychopathic killer alike, little by little letting us see into their past, follow their present, dread their future. No overload, no long-winded description, but four dimensional.

He’s also a past master at dropping in a sinister or significant fact without padding or fanfare, so the picture builds subtly and contributes exponentially to the spine-tingling tension. He doesn’t even hide the identity of Mr Mercedes from us. In Chapter 11, Brady Hartsfield is exposed in his natural habitat, selling ice-cream to innocent kids, solving computer glitches for naive technophobes.

And amidst all the sordid facts and coarse language and accumulating horror, King even drops occasional pearls of literary delight.

She has the bright, inquisitive gaze of a crow with its eye on a freshly squashed chipmunk.

… an apartment … with rooms as big as a political candidate’s promises

She frowns, transforming her face into a walnut shell with eyes

They’re wondering if I’m riding into the Kingdom of Dementia on the Alzheimer’s Express

… she sits hunched in her bar of sun, a human parenthesis in a fuzzy blue robe

And I love the delicious irony of Retired Detective Hodges considering the possibility that Mr Mercedes is actually a woman. ‘He supposes it’s technically possible, and it would make a neat solution for an Agatha Christie novel, but this is real life.’

Unputdownable indeed. I could never aspire to his heights but I can learn from his skills.

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The King’s genius

I’ve had the legendary ‘King of Horror’, American writer Stephen King, in my sights for yonks but only just got around to reading one of his books: Under the Dome. It’s a mammoth 896 pages long but its antecedents intrigued me.

King first tried to write it in 1976 but gave up after two weeks. He began the same story again thirty-one years later, passionate about exploring the ecological and meteorological concerns his plotline presented, but this time the technical problems overwhelmed him. However, the ideas kept niggling, and he eventually co-opted a trusted researcher to thoroughly investigate all the highly technical aspects of his story, and Under the Dome finally materialised, his 58th novel. That’s persistence and commitment, huh?

I’m not going to review it – you can find good analyses on line if you’re interested, but horror and sci fi, brutal murder and gang rape for fun, crudity and graphic violence, really aren’t my thing. I guess I’m in the minority – no, I don’t guess, I know I am! The evidence is there. King has published 59 novels and sold over 350 million copies. His shelves are overloaded with awards and trophies. He’s in my age bracket and still going strong. That’s what success and popularity look like. He just doesn’t happen to be my cup of tea.

Essentially the story is about ‘liberal morality’ and a ‘moderate green sensibility’ versus ‘greed, corruption and fundamentalism’. The first 5% of this brute of a book is devoted to unmitigated death and destruction, recounted in graphic detail as one by one vehicles and people and animals collide with an invisible barrier which has come down and encased a small town in Maine like one of those giant glass domes designed to protect food from dust and insects. Only this one isn’t protective; anything but. By 90% of the way through – I read it on my Kindle – a population of 2000+ residents has been reduced to 32 people; by 97% there are just two dozen left. That’s some death toll! And King was determined to keep his ‘pedal consistently to the metal’ throughout. Only in the last few pages does resolution come, leaving deep philosophical questions about this somewhat allegorical sci-fi tale in its wake.

OK, maybe maybe aliens from outer space aren’t my bag, but hey, no experience is ever wasted on a writer. And one of the things I do seriously envy is his ability to convey so much with such an economy of words. So I thought I’d share a few examples with you.

‘he walked with cartoon caution’
‘shock and denial masquerading as calm control’
‘she never finished the thought, only closed the door on it’
‘sarcasm is her response to fear’
a smile is ‘not turned up to maximum chill
he spoke ‘softly as if to a child in a tantrum’
‘A lackadaisical little breeze cat’s-pawed their cheeks’
‘the family that slays together stays together’
[why was she bullied?] ‘… it was everything, right down to the way my skirts and blouses and even my hair ribbons matched. They wore clothes, I had outfits.’
‘… sixteen months of border warfare between the country of Controlling Parents and the smaller but well-fortified principality of Determined Teenager.’

As for me, persisting, reading every last word of this door-stopper, has encouraged me to return to my own far more pedestrian prose and up the ante! Has to be a good thing if as a consequence readers can lift a few choice phrases from my writing and linger a moment over the philosophical implications. A tough masterclass though!

 

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Hazards aplenty

As they say, no experiences are wasted for a writer. Not even negative ones.

It’s that time again – the annual giant Christian Aid Sale held in the splendid premises of St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church in the centre of Edinburgh. Selling thousands upon thousands of books, art works, ephemera, music, their aspirations are as high as their steeple: it’s always mobbed, and I, as any writer would, rejoice each year that physical books are still so very much alive.

Each year I go at least twice – once to deliver copies of my own books (as requested) before it opens, once to buy – and every time I’m staggered at the number of helpers involved, cheerful kindly people who don’t bat an eyelid when someone asks for a specific title or six, or hands them a large note expecting lots of small change. Such calm under pressure is a joy to behold. This time my second trip was about an hour after the doors opened. First impressions were fantastic – bright sunshine, happy fresh assistants, orderly boxes of books, hundreds of avid readers milling everywhere. The gangways between the trellis tables are narrow so you don’t need to be squeamish about bodily contact, and you are expected to take responsibility for your own health and safety – unmarked steps, dips underfoot, minor obstacles aplenty. But the atmosphere is relaxed and convivial, and there’s plenty of give and take.

So black marks to the folk who parked empty wheelchairs and buggies right across pathways, who thought it expedient to gather right beside the tables to natter, who spread their possessions over the boxes while they browsed denying others access, or who left their long-suffering husbands on corners necessitating inconvenient detours down steps and onto the road. And a special penalty to the two who trundled enormous hard suitcases right through the masses with sublime disregard for ankles and shins – yep, I was one of the victims. But I escaped with no lasting damage and a modest collection of purchases, and I raise a salute to the wonderful people who give their time and energies so tirelessly to this excellent cause and come up smiling.

Rather stupidly I went with two specific authors in mind – Stephen King and Mary Elizabeth Braddon – and before you ask, no, I certainly didn’t ask any of the volunteers for them!  There was no evidence of either, but I was thinking about King as the bus trundled me home. He has a neat way of expressing what I’m thinking about. Take this thought:
I’ve always wondered who I am when I write because once I’m doing it, I’m not in the room with myself.
It takes me a while to find myself again after an intense period of writing, and it certainly did the following night when I was deep in a psychological discussion with my characters.  Only vaguely did I become aware of a rumpus outside … raised voices … smoke …  hello? DJ had managed to set the garden shed alight and the air was alive with the sound of helpful neighbours sounding warnings and thick acrid smoke! By the time I’d re-entered the real world, DJ had the garden hose on full-tilt, damping down the smouldering structure, someone had called the fire brigade, and a crisis had been narrowly averted. I was left with no role other than redundant spectator. As the reassuring operations commander said, surveying the canisters of gas, tins of paint and fuel, and sundry other inflammables, laid out on the path afterwards: it could have been a whole lot worse. So, again, not much significant damage mercifully, but a few revisions to the to-do list and some changed priorities.

I might be dealing with mounting horror in my fictional world but it’s still a safer place than the here-and-now it seems!

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Time to read …

If you don’t have time to read you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that,’ says Stephen King.

So I felt totally vindicated taking a whole day off from writing and to lose myself in a gripping book. What a tonic! Just the inspiration I needed to help me sharpen up my own current scribblings.

It’s vintage Coben. All the trademark ingredients are there: clever dialogue, legal shenanigans, sinister happenings, flawed characters, convoluted plots, switchback thrills, a smattering of homespun psychology, and of course, a thought-provoking moral in the tale. Brilliant.

The book? Caught by Harlan Coben.

This one includes a missing teenager; discredited cops; an entrapment; vigilantes bent on revenge; scandals and sackings; broken marriages; tragic histories; conspiracies; trumped up charges and ruinous accusations. And it keeps you guessing till the very end. The usual vast cast includes a high percentage of damaged people with colourful back-stories and fascinating peccadilloes. Enough brilliance to make us lesser mortals decide to give up the unequal struggle!

And of course, Coben’s mastery of engaging dialogue and deft outlines make it a joy to read. Who else would capture the essence of characters, the feel of a moment, with such joyous economy, originality and humour?

How about this for a lawyer?

Flair Hickory, celebrity counsel for the defense … wore his customary gray suit with thick pink stripes, pink shirt, pink tie. He crossed the room in a way that might be modestly described as ‘theatrical,’ but it was more like something Liberace might have done if Liberace had the courage to be really flamboyant …
He strolled across the courtroom as though it were a catwalk in Milan …
His voice not only dripped sarcasm but seemed to have spent days marinated in it …
He took flamboyant and brought it to a whole new level. But now, on the other side of these questions, she could truly see how flamboyance could be close bedfellows with ruthlessness.

He’s only in the frame for a few pages but his larger than life presence lingers in the imagination, his peacock posturing, razor tongue, mocking innuendos and penetrating cross-questioning. We’re as much in awe of him as the cringing witness.

Or what about this for a teenager’s room?

Her room, like Ryan’s, looked as if someone had strategically placed a stick of dynamite in the drawers, blowing them open; some clothes sprawled dead on the floor, others lay wounded midway, clinging to the armoire like the fallen on a barricade before the French Revolution.

Resonates with us all, doesn’t it?

‘Uniquely portable magic,’ to quote Stephen King again. Enjoyed the more for coinciding with the advent of summer after a long hard winter – 5C to 21C almost overnight! I read half of Caught in the garden and felt doubly invigorated for that.

 

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Why do we do it?

Wahey! and Yippee! Roll of drums, if you please, maestro. My tenth novel is finished! Just awaiting a few more fancy frills and computing complexities from the technical team and then we should have blast off. Feels fantastic. But also makes me realise how much angst goes on behind the scenes that readers are completely unaware of. These moments of sheer exhilaration are few and far between.

Once upon a time I had a real classifiable career. Nurse. Midwife. University researcher. Tick-box choices. Job descriptions, targets, performance indicators. Bona fide qualifications, tangible credentials. Now I’m a writer, and boy, let me tell you, this is no easy option. Goalposts? What goalposts? Documented procedures, organisational structure, monthly pay packet, career pathway … hello?

A few examples will suffice.

Pitiful pay
A study conducted at the University of London a couple of years ago found that a typical professional writer earns just £11,000 annually; less than the minimum wage. Worse – 17% of all writers earn next to nothing even in that honeymoon period shortly after having their work published.
A few weeks ago a writer who’d won a major Costa award went public on his reality: even being publicly acclaimed – in the papers even! – and having a big publisher on his side, he can’t earn enough to pay his mortgage. He has to go back to a paid job outside the literary world.

Sitting targets for vitriol
In most jobs if someone doesn’t like what you do, negative comments are confined to your place of work, and relatively private. Not so for us. Our work is out there for any Tom, Dick or Harriet – with or without literary credentials – to see. And even though reading is a subjective experience, they can slate our writing publicly. And believe me, critics can be brutal! The most recent example I’ve seen is Dominic Cavendish‘s condemnation of a certain play, Sex with Strangers, as ‘two tedious hours and punctuated by excruciating simulated raunch. It’s fit only for theatrical masochists. I’d settle for a cup of tea and watching Question Time any day‘. Ouch. And there’s nothing the poor playwright can do to erase that comment.

Crippling self doubt
In most jobs, once you’re trained and experienced, you have confidence that you can perform the tasks your post requires of you. Writing’s different. There are no A + B + C  formulae, no tried and tested procedures, to be followed slavishly towards guaranteed success. No set shift hours, no line management, none of the usual structure governing paid employment. No resting on your laurels. Every book is uniquely different, presenting new challenges, new unknowns, new misgivings. Small wonder then that self-doubt is a recognised hazard even for established authors. As best-selling horror and suspense writer Steven King says: ‘Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.’

Health risks
It’s a sedentary, solitary occupation. Eye strain, tension headaches, backache, weight gain, repetitive strain injury … to name but a few of the risks. Depression, isolation and identity crises … And no occupational health department to bail us out. No watchful boss to ease the load in a crisis. No sick pay. No occupational Bupa subscription.

I could go on – the stress of living parallel lives (real and fictional), the burden of being deep inside the skin of troubled characters, the humiliation of finding an audience of two at a library event … But I won’t!

So why on earth do we do it? Compulsion, that’s why. An irresistible drive. I personally feel quite bereft if I’m unable to write for any reason.

And such is my desire to reach out and touch lives that, in spite of all the risks and negatives, I’m actually going to be giving away my tenth novel, Listen, as a FREE download. It feels wonderfully liberating. No need for any humphs and galumphs and caveats about the price. Or anxious scanning of the sales figures. Or worries about accessibility. Or … anything! It’s yours – anybody’s – for nothing.

This one has been the most fun to write of any of my books, the quickest, the least personally demanding. I’ve had some super feedback from my cohort of critical readers too. What a thrill it is to hear … I couldn’t put it down … It really made me think … It made me get back in touch with my Mum … It made me cry … I know [one of the characters] … Not many jobs bring that kind of reward now, do they?

Oh yes, there may be many negative aspects to my chosen occupation, but I’m already plotting my eleventh novel!

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Portable magic!

Famous American author, Stephen King, has described books as ‘a uniquely portable magic’ – and he wasn’t referring to the news this week that inmates are smuggling books into prison laced with hallucinogenic drugs! No, books have a unique potential and power to open up worlds and horizons and opportunities. They can transport us into another dimension altogether. They can influence our mental wellbeing, our opinions, our relationships, our empathy with others. British novelist and journalist, Matt Haig, goes further: he maintains that books saved his life, rescuing him from severe depression.

With that in mind, I look up at my own shelves and suddenly the feeling of you-should-tidy-these becomes enough-to-keep-me-sane-for-decades.

One wall of my libraryYes, OK, I know I should tidy and sort them, but somehow reading them always seems so much more attractive and urgent. And I am doing a kind of sort – transferring the to-be-read to the now-read sections.

As part of my mental tidy up I decided to return to a familiar author and complete her set of novels. They fall into the same kind of genre as Jodi Picoult: family relationships, moral quandaries, suspense, secrets – on the face of it a similar vein to my own kind of writing. And as you know I like to keep up with ‘the competition’.

Diane Chamberlain is the lady in question. With a background in social work and psychotherapy, she certainly understands how people tick and I like her light touch; she doesn’t labour the psychology or force information upon the reader. But what I didn’t know until now is that she goes a stage further than most writers: she sometimes puts herself into a light trance to get inside the heads and hearts of her characters … Wow! Risky stuff, but a unique take on living inside one’s characters! And perhaps it’s that awareness and sensitivity that come through in her novels.

Before the StormBefore the Storm tells the story of the Lockwood family struggling to deal with postnatal depression, tragic deaths, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and betrayals. Because of the damage to his brain caused by his mother’s drinking, 15-year-old Andy’s take on the world is simple and black-and-white. Then one day he gets trapped in a serious fire in a building full of teenagers. Somehow he manages to use his initiative and guide other children to safety through a window in the men’s toilets, and to his naive delight he’s hailed as a hero.  But it’s not all happy ever after. Several people die in the fire, some are terribly damaged, whole families are wrecked. What’s more, adulation turns to suspicion and hatred when Andy is suspected of setting the fire himself. The Lockwood family regroup, Andy’s sister, mother and uncle join forces to keep him out of prison, but rescue comes in the end from a most challenging source. Guilt and grief abound. Told through the voice of all four main protagonists it’s an interesting and thought-provoking read.  Just how far would I go to protect my children? How well do I really know them?

Chamberlain novelsSecrets She Left Behind is a sequel to Before the Storm, but fear not, I won’t reveal any spoilers to the earlier novel. In Secrets Chamberlain cleverly unravels other dimensions in the lives of the characters at the heart of the story about the devastating fire. Central to the plot is Sara Weston, whose son Keith was terribly burned in the blaze, whose best friend Laurel has every reason to shun her, and whose poverty stands in sharp contrast to the wealth and privilege of the Lockwoods. Now Sara has mysteriously vanished leaving a raft of secrets behind her. There’s a huge over-weighting of deceit in this sequel, with a rather improbable number of people leading secret lives; relationships and dynamics distorted by the cycle of revelations; and individual members struggling to come to terms with the past and create new futures – all in the claustrophobic confines of a tiny island community. Boundaries between good and bad, perpetrator and victim, become blurred. And again the reader is left questioning: Just how far would I go to forgive those who ruined my life? How would I react to betrayal and rejection?

I must confess I was expecting a very different denouement in Secrets She Left Behind. That, however, would have been a different book. Nevertheless imagining the ending I would have given it gave my writing-brain a healthy work out.

The Shadow WifeThe Shadow Wife tells the story of Joelle D’Angelo aka Shanti Joy Angel. Divorced and childless, Joelle is grieving for her dearest friend, Mara, who has suffered a catastrophic brain haemorrhage after giving birth. Shocked to her core, Joelle turns to the only other person who understands her pain, Mara’s husband, Liam, for comfort. But gradually their relationship changes and after one illicit night, Joelle finds herself pregnant. Determined not to compound her mistake, Joelle decides she must leave her home and job as a social worker and begin a new life elsewhere, but before she goes she makes one last ditch effort to help Mara recover. She turns to Carlynn Kling, a lady with mysterious powers of healing who saved Joelle’s own life when she was a baby. The interweaving of two timelines in this book is cleverly handled and the unravelling of the past sits perfectly with the present. A good read and a tender tale of love and loss and loyalty. Could I live with the choices these characters faced? How would I react if my parent rejected me? Or if I fell in love with my best friend’s husband? Or if a tiny lie could transform my future immeasurably? I don’t know. But this book has challenged me to think about my own moral code and my boundaries.

There, that’s the Diane Chamberlain section complete and re-filed.

 

 

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