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Friday, 30 December 2011

My Favourite Books of 2011

I've read some fantastic books this year. The full list can be found in this post. However, I just thought I'd highlight some of my favourites in a special post. They're in no particular order because these are the cream of the crop - in my eyes there's no picking between them for quality. I found them to be pleasurable reads, though vastly different in content.

Carol by Patricia Highsmith 

This tells the story of Therese and her attraction to a woman she meets in a department store, the Carol of the title. It's a fairly short novel but the prose is wonderfully evocative. You can read my review here.

Girl Reading by Katie Ward

Ward takes seven portraits of women reading as her starting point and weaves seven marvellous little stories out of them. Each individual story is digestible in one gulp but, if you're like me, you'll want to read them all in one go. You can read my review here.

Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult

After splitting from her husband, Zoe Baxter falls in love with Vanessa. Although she's suffered miscarriages which pushed her marriage to the limit, Zoe and her new partner are keen to use the eggs she has in storage. However, her ex has become involved with a conservative religion group and she needs his permission. A very modern novel, and a heartfelt one too. You can read my review here.

Westwood by Stella Gibbons

Gibbons' work is now being reissued and this book absolutely delighted me. Set against the backdrop of WWII, the novel tells of Margaret Steggles and her connection with a richer family she comes across quite by accident. Funny and well-written. You can read my review here.

Uncle Silas by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Adding a sensation novel to my list was, I suppose, a given. This book is gripping and still possessed the ability to scare me out of my wits. Not bad for a book that's around 150 years old! You can read my review here.

Have you read any excellent books this year I should add to my own for next?

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Merry Musical Christmas

Christmas is a funny old time. I think I dislike it but I can never be completely sure. However, one thing I know I don't dislike are the songs associated with it, particularly those emerging from some of my favourite musicals. Here are a couple to get you into the festive spirit, starting with the wonderful Angela Lansbury. She could tell me I wanted anything and I'd believe her so maybe I do need a little Christmas after all:

"Haul out the holly
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again
Fill up the stocking
I may be rushing things but deck the halls again now..."

I'm being a bit cheeky because my second choice is Angela again. Her excellent Christmas film Mrs Santa Claus is one of my favourite festive treats. With a score by Jerry Herman and Angela singing it yet again, I don't think you can really go wrong. This is the title track from the film:

"I'm Mrs Santa Claus, the invisible wife
And Mrs Santa Claus needs a change in her life
I've been manning the business and planning each holiday plan
And I'm tired of being the shadow behind the great man..."

When you think of Judy Garland Christmas songs, I know which one naturally springs to mind. This little gem, though, was part of the score of In The Good Old Summertime. Judy's phenomenal - as usual:

"So be jolly
Have a holiday as gay as holly
May the ones you love be near you
With the laugh of friends to cheer you..."

And just because I'm not a complete tease... This is the extended scene from Meet Me In St. Louis, with Tootie's anxiety about Santa being unable to find them when they move and then her smashing up the snow people the family have built:

"Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now..."

Whatever Christmas means to you, I hope it fulfils your expectations. Merry Christmas. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Reading Challenge: Short Story Challenge

At the beginning of the year I condemned myself for not reading as many short stories collections as I should have. Unfortunately, I haven't really rectified that problem this year so when I came across a reading challenge from the Library of Clean Reads blog specifically to encourage reading short story collections I knew I had to participate. More details about the challenge can be found here.

I'm going for the 'Tales Galore' category which is seven to nine books, mainly because I already have seven collections sitting on my bookshelves. Here is the list so far:

1. Night Shivers - Charlotte Riddell
2. Sensation Stories - Wilkie Collins
3. Wish I Was Here - Jackie Kay
4. The New York Stories - Edith Wharton
5. The Collected Stories - Katherine Mansfield
6. Daughters of Decadence - Various
7. Touchy Subjects - Emma Donoghue
8. ???
9. ???

I'll add the final two collections later and the list is subject to change. I'm looking forward to delving into these collections, several of which have been festering on the shelf for quite some time. Although Riddell and Collins have links to my PhD work, I promise that this is all fun reading.

Reading Challenge: A Classics Challenge

I came across this excellent challenge for 2012 hosted by November's Autumn. Read seven words of classic literature in the year (only three of which may be re-reads) and visit the blog every month for a prompt to write about (although I'm certain I'll be writing a review alongside that). Find about about the challenge here.

The classics I'm going to read are nothing to do with my PhD but have all been gathering dust on my bookshelves for quite some time. Here's the list:

1. Bleak House - Charles Dickens
2. Mary Barton - Elizabeth Gaskell
3. The Mill on the Floss - George Eliot
4. A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway
5. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman - Laurence Sterne
6. Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
7. The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy

The list is subject to change. I'm starting with Bleak House but that could take me most of the year! It looks to be a fun challenge, reading some of the books I really feel I should've read already. The only one I'm not really looking forward to is The Mill on the Floss - I've tried to get into that on several occasions and failed miserably. That one may disappear from the list!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Organisational Matters

My office temping jobs instilled in me a mania for keeping things organised - at least as far as work is concerned. I like my bookshelves to be neat, my filing cabinet to be segregated and to know where I'm up to with any specific task. I don't know why it's taken me so long to create the two things I've completed in the last week considering the spreadsheet madness that has taken over my life since I started my PhD but these are two things I'm now using in my writing life:

Scene Analysis Spreadsheet
I'm fairly sure that I saw this idea on someone else's blog (and would credit if I could remember, honestly). I've gone through the latest draft of the first novel I completed. This is the one I completed for NaNoWriMo 2009 and which has undergone major changes since then. Nevertheless, I looked at it and knew there was still something missing. So I created a spreadsheet with the following categories to break each scene down into the sum of its parts and see exactly where I was:

Scene Number
Scene Description 
Scene Type
Protagonist's Goal
Protagonist's Motivation
Protagonist's Complication
Outcome/How Does Scene Affect Growth?

I'm using the exceptional book Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfield to help me with the breakdowns and see whether each individual scene works. I've got thirty one chapters and eighty-five scenes to work with. The novel needs a lot of work but collapsing it into individual units to be assessed may make it seem less intimidating. I am, however, happy with the overall story and structure. That only took two years!

The Book of Ideas
Again, I know I borrowed this from someone else but I can't recall who. I've taken a huge notebook, about three hundred pages, and have listed all the current projects and ideas I have with notes detailing where I'm at with each of them. Each project has a whole page to itself, meaning I've got plenty of space to fill up with details later. It looks quite empty at the moment but I'm hoping that'll change. There are three things on each page - 'Subject', 'Format' and 'To Date'. What's intriguing - for me, anyway - is the breakdown I've currently got in different formats:

Prose (novel) - 11
Prose (short story) - 28
Script (play) - 2
Script (television drama) - 4
Script (radio drama) - 2
Script (film) - 1
Script (musical) - 1
Script (unsure) - 1
Unsure - 5

As you can tell, I have too many ideas! Documenting them like this will help me keep track of them and encourage me to work on the ideas I've already got instead of dreaming up new ones all the time. Well, that's the theory...

Monday, 19 December 2011

Book Review: Starting From Scratch by Georgia Beers

This was an undemanding lesbian romance that was sufficiently interesting for me to read in one sitting.

Avery King lives with her dog Steve, enjoys baking and spending time with her grandmother amongst other things. One thing she certainly isn't keen on is spending time with children but, thanks to owing a favour to a friend, she ends up coaching a sports team for five and six year-olds. Avery finds herself falling for the mother of one of the kids, complicating her life and changing the things she thought she wanted.

As I said, this was an easy book to read. It doesn't offer anything profound but it does tug at the heartstrings in places. One scene particularly towards the end had me welling up. There aren't many passages of character analysis but detail is scattered so delicately through the dialogue that the reader is rarely at a loss to decipher the motivations of any particular characters. I also found the young boy in the story, Max, to be delightful and realistic - not the whining and irritating child you find so often in novels.

One of my major difficulties with this book had everything to do with me and nothing to do with the book itself - as an English reader some of the Americanisms just baffled me at times. It made reading something of a guessing game but I don't think altered my enjoyment of the novel much. A more relevant criticism relates to the plot twist that emerges a few chapters from the end. Although it stems out of a perfectly natural occurrence - and the book is reaching a natural conclusion - I found it to be ultimately rushed over in the epilogue. I would rather the twist hadn't been put in as it didn't affect the main narrative much. However, from a character point of view, I understand why Beers wanted to tie up the loose end.

I'd recommend this to anyone looking for a modern lesbian romance without too many strings attached.

I read this book for the LGBT Reading Challenge 2011.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

NaNoWriMo Draft Finished

It may have taken me another two weeks to finish the final chapters after the mad rush of November but the first draft of the novel is complete. It's a little (okay, very) light at 53,756 words but the difficulty I've had in drawing it to an end means I'm just relieved it's down on paper. I've spent a week building up to the big kiss and trying not to write it. Looks like I was as much of a coward as my protagonist!

I feel as exhilarated and as tired as I did when I finished my last first draft back in October. So I've now got four manuscripts I'm dithering about with. Plenty of rewriting to be done on all of them and plenty of PhD work to be done between now and the end of January. Who cares? I've accomplished something else before the end of 2011 and at this stage that's a huge surprise!

I'm going to drift into contentment with Bing to keep me company. This is one of his lesser known songs but I do like it.

Friday, 16 December 2011

200th Post - Getting There Alone

When I was in my early teens my mum gave me a copy of A Tale of Two Cities for either Christmas or a birthday. I read it but it didn't make much of an impact on me. Although I was an avid reader throughout my youth I don't think classics really touched my radar. I think I rebelled against them, probably due to the fact my paternal grandfather had bookshelves stacked high with Dickens, Milton, Fielding and Shakespeare. Who doesn't instinctively feel as a kid that they should be the exact opposite to their family?

Of course, I was exposed to Shakespeare throughout my schooling and appreciated the tragedies enough to see Hamlet and Macbeth on stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I studied the first chapter of Great Expectations for my GCSE coursework and looked at Tess of the D'Urbervilles for an A-Level module. I think Tess proved to be the breakthrough text. Certainly, when I got to university I was more than happy to find myself on a Victorian fiction unit. I remember vividly sitting and reading Jane Eyre in the lounge of my student accommodation, curled up on one of the cheap Ikea chairs and gazing up once in a while to look at the view of Lincoln Cathedral. Jane Eyre was followed by Wuthering Heights then the full text of Great Expectations and other selections. Although these books were part of a syllabus, reading them wasn't a chore (perhaps reading Middlemarch was though). I was then (and still am) a rather shy girl, reluctant to speak in seminars, but I really did enjoy the literature. I hadn't come to the texts on my own as such, but I'd found enjoyment in them because I'd been able to look at them as something other than the books my grandfather enjoyed.

Reaching conclusions about your tastes on your own is satisfying. Most people, unless they're exceptionally eager to please, can't get enjoyment from acting to suit others. When you finally sit down and consider the things you like, there's a certain thrill in knowing that these tastes are yours alone. They may be influenced by the prejudices and encouragements of your past but, if you have even a smidgen of self-awareness, you can pinpoint why you like them and not why people you've known like them.

Look at me and Victorian fiction. From being ambivalent about A Tale of Two Cities I've progressed to studying a minor author at PhD level. Classics of all eras find their way onto my reading piles. I'm intrigued by the literature and culture of the nineteenth-century in particular but I count Tom Jones and Mrs Dalloway amongst my favourite books. But I read them because I want to, not because somebody stern wants me to.

We've got a serious problem in Britain at the moment. One in three children live in houses without books. This is a nightmare and I dread to think where it'll leave us in a few decades. But I don't think pushing so-called 'good' literature on them from a young age is quite the way to go. Some will be receptive to it but a lot won't. It might put them off for life. When I was younger I loved Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and whatever mystery books I could get my hands on. I happily read tie-ins with my favourite television shows - Sabrina the Teenage Witch springs straight to mind. That's a great way to get children from screen to page without much of an effort. Then perhaps when they get older they'll go looking for fiction they might enjoy themselves. Perhaps they'll even discover Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte and Wilkie Collins on their travels... Ah, well, an academic can dream.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Book Review: Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey

This is another book I was drawn to by the cover initially. Because I'm not an avid reader of Young Adult fiction I hesitated a bit but after looking inside and seeing the Victorian setting I was enamoured. This are the two covers of Haunting Violet. The one I was drawn to is the one on the left but I think the second one would've caught my eye too.

The novel's premise is simple: Violet has been a participant in her mother's fake seances since she was young but suddenly finds herself hearing and seeing spirits. Dragged into the life of a drowned girl, she tries to decipher who murdered her. There are many twists and turns in the plot and I have to say that I wasn't bored at all.

The Victorian setting is invoked to great effect, but not distractingly so. There are a couple of scenes that stick vividly in the mind, primarily Violet's trek to the grave of her murdered spirit - an eerie scene that was well written and startled me a fair bit. Violet's mother is utterly self-absorbed and unpredictable, with a little bit of a sherry problem. Colin, Violet's faithful ally, is an interesting character whose assistance is helpful but doesn't overshadow Violet's own role - he's involved in the story but it's definitely her story. The rest of the cast is varied, with a few stereotypes in lesser roles, but all consistently written.

For the most part the language holds to historical convention. Of course, it's a stripped down version and there are a few uses of words that had me raising eyebrows but, as I found when I whizzed through the final third, it ceased to bother me as the plot picked up pace. The ghostly aspect of the novel naturally adds another dimension to the Victorian setting but it's very sensible (as far as ghostly apparitions can be!).

At just over three hundred pages this is a brief read but certainly an enjoyable one. I'm glad the cover enticed me in - it's got all the ingredients of a Victorian sensation novel but with characters we identify with today. 

Monday, 12 December 2011

Rule Breaking

I'm ashamed to say that today I broke one of the golden rules of writing. I mean one of the few rules I agree with. Most are nonsense and can't be applied haphazardly to novels as if they were tightly-regulated experiments. But this one... I wholeheartedly approve of this one. Which one was it? Never submit anything before revising it a million times. I'm heartily ashamed of myself. But I do have a reason.

The competition I've submitted this script to moved the goalposts - last year the deadline was January and this time it was a full month earlier. I found this out in the middle of last week and quickly decided that if I could enter, I should. I had no script prepared so I needed to write one - and quick. Don't ask me how I managed it. Two days of plotting, three days of writing and it's done. It's gone.

I should feel guilty about not rewriting it. I'm not a little prima donna; I know fine well it could've been improved. Yet I feel it was more important to at least try. If it gets shot down then so be it. You've got to be in the running. Would I have preferred more chance to perfect my script? Of course. But things don't always work out that way. This was a once a year opportunity and I'm glad I took it.

What do you reckon? Do I deserve to be put in the writing stocks or am I forgiven?

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

An Edmund Yates Dilemma

What do you do when the subject of your research is accused of not being the author of some of his most popular works? I mentioned this in my previous post on Edmund Yates but it's suddenly become a prominent issue in my thoughts as I prepare my upgrade chapter for submission.

To recap: there was a rumour circulating that Irish novelist, Frances Cashel Hoey, had written some - perhaps all - of Yates's novels. According to sources, Hoey confirmed this privately in the early days of the twentieth-century. However, these allegations were first levelled by two people Yates had quarrelled with in earlier years: his publisher, William Tinsley, and his colleague at the Post Office, Anthony Trollope. Those are hardly lightweight names in the world of Victorian fiction. The allegations were printed in Tinsley's memoir of 1900 and reprinted in many sources thereafter.

There are numerous questions about why Hoey didn't come forward in the years between Yates's death in 1894 and the publication of Tinsley's book. It reeks of jumping on the bandwagon somewhat, particularly as she continued working for Yates's the World in the years after his death. I can also state with substantial certainty that the tone of many of Yates's books are the same. His habits of digression, the way he describes characters and his plot progression all feel consistent throughout his work. They also match the tone of journalistic articles which it is certain he wrote. The scholar who has written most on Edmund Yates to date, P.D. Edwards, has said the allegations are 'unlikely' to be true but points out that it's impossible to say for certain. He does, however, make a compelling case against them. His attitude mirrors my own: he suggests that Hoey must have been a remarkable mimic and Yates a scrupulous editor hiding traces of her authorship. To be perfectly honest, I believe the time it would've taken Yates to check through all the work Hoey supposedly produced would've negated the time won by her writing anything in the first place.

In scanning the Internet over the last few days I've come across references to the rumour given as fact in early twentieth-century books. One pointed out that Yates abruptly stopped writing novels in the mid-1870s and suggested Hoey refused to cooperate further and that was why his fiction ceased. I'd counteract that with this: in 1874 Yates set about publishing his most successful periodical, the World. It's supposed that apart from the editorship, Yates contributed many other articles anonymously, nor did his additional work cease. It doesn't surprise me that further novels had to take a back-seat to these ventures. Equally, the popularity of the three-decker and sensation fiction generally was waning. Collins was still going, of course, but many sensation novelists had either sunk or diversified.

I could write a compelling argument of my own against these allegations if I so wished but that's my problem: I'm focusing on specific themes within Edmund Yates's work. I don't really want to engage with every person who held a grudge against him in his long career. In earlier drafts I've written these allegations off with a simple footnote and a reference to Edwards's research on the subject. Is this enough? If it isn't, what is?

I'm beginning to learn why Yates's has been critically abandoned for the last century!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Dental Survival

Likemany people I have a completely natural fear of going to visit the dentist. I have a particular aversion to dental injections. The last time I had a filling I persuaded the dentist to refrain from anaesthetic and to instead just drill indiscriminately. Yep, I preferred the pain of direct drilling to an injection. I'm not what you'd call brave. Today I had a check up and was told I needed another small filling. Instead of booking me another appointment, she did it there and then. So much for a check-up! Mind you, if I'd known I was going to have work done I would've panicked and set sail for the North Pole three days ago.

As I sat in the chair trying not to scream and run away, I searched my brain for something to keep me occupied while *it* was going on. The last song that got stuck in my head for a dental trip was Idina Menzel's 'The Wizard and I' from Wicked. It's forever linked with pain for me now! The first song that sprang to mind today was, rather inevitably, 'Dentist' from Little Shop of Horrors. Not a good one to calm you!

So - with extreme difficulty - I searched for something else. Barnum is full of good fast tracks. I needed something to recite on a loop in my head to stop me thinking and I came up with this:

Alas, this song will be forever linked with the dentist, just as 'Thank You Very Much' from Scrooge is a distinct reminder of my first blood test earlier this year. A small price to pay perhaps. Am I the only one? Does anybody else have dedicated trauma songs to get you through those difficult appointments?

Friday, 2 December 2011

Using Profanities - Pure Laziness?

Caroline Thompson, a senior BBC executive, said recently that swearing in comedies was all right now because there is an "enormous intergenerational difference about what is acceptable". This got me thinking about things I've seen, read and written lately and how they used language which could be deemed offensive.

I have to admit, I'm not a big fan of any current comedies. In my view they just can't match the class of previous decades. This may have something to do with the dependence on cheap laughs, partly stemming from bad language and partly from a buffoonery I just don't find endearing. But, as the article above says, classic comedies such as Porridge and Dad's Army didn't resort to swearing to get laughs. Yes, they sailed close to the wind sometimes but the laughs came out of what they nearly said as opposed to what they actually said. Modern British comedy has lost that to some extent.

But what of other genres? Well, I watch a lot of crime drama and hearing swearing on those feels acceptable to me because of the subject matter involved. I'm never going to get my knickers in a twist about the odd bit of swearing in a programme. My objections come from the fact that many writers (whether directed by broadcasters or not) seem to use coarse language as a crutch and as a substitute for meaningful dialogue. It's certainly easier to have a character swearing at a situation than figuring out a truly funny response to the events.  

I've seen a fair few plays this year. One thing that struck me was how the modern ones relied so much on swearing. It was something noticed by others as well as me - I had several conversations about it later, including with people who swear as often as they breathe in their day-to-day lives. One comedic play had a situation uncovered and two characters panicking about it. Instead of proper dialogue they literally just walked around the stage saying 'f**k, f**k, f**k' for at least a minute. As an audience member, I felt cheated. The word lost its resonance somewhat by the repetition and did nothing to further the plot or the characters. It was a substitute for what I'd deem 'proper writing' (as controversial as that term may be).

When I write I almost always keep to acceptable dialogue - until the situation calls for something else. I've sworn in most of my drafts to date but never just to fill space or to get a quick laugh. Profanity has to stem from both situation and character. It might be funny to have a grandmother spewing out a load of expletives but, unless you've got a reason for it, my patience wears thin.

All this may make me sound straight-laced and boring. I'm not (I hope!). I just want to see writers challenging themselves. How else are they supposed to challenge their audiences or, for that matter, entertain them?

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2011: I Did It!

Don't ask me how I did it but I did. Despite something of a hiatus in the middle of the month, extra childcare duties yesterday that I hadn't factored into my schedule and PhD work that needed to be done quite some time ago, I validated my 50,000 novel with 58 minutes to spare last night. I'm so proud of myself. It's been a hectic month to say the least. The fact that I persevered and managed one heck of a last nine days is extraordinary. But, as was pointed out to me on several occasions, I'm stubborn. Sure, I could've done what some people do and 'make believe' they've won but where would be the fun in that? I'd be cheating myself and I refuse to do that. Here are my stats for the month:

That stationary bit in the middle was my weekend away in Derby. Once I got back I didn't want to continue. So far behind, I figured it would be a losing battle. But the stubbornness persisted. You might also be interested to note that I've done everything in my PhD that I needed to this last month and managed a little sleep in the process.

So what next? Well, I left my characters at something of a pivotal point. It's the penultimate chapter but I stopped writing as soon as I finished this paragraph, having hit 50,004 words: "Still, as Dawn skidded across the floor, they both smiled. Lauren clenched her hands around her mug, aware that they were once again closer than they should be. Shelley, it seemed, didn’t mind the lack of distance. She smiled shyly and looked straight into her mug. As the song built into the second chorus, Dawn jumped up on the end of the bench... Then the lights went off." This is the scene I've been building up to for the entire novel, the one I've had in my head for years. Perhaps stopping here was an excellent idea - the desire to write this scene will make sure I finish the novel. But that's next week! Today I return to the normalcy of PhD reading. Angels, demons and devoted specimens await me. I've never been so grateful to fall into a book of somewhat crusty criticism. Allow me to celebrate my victory with a Stephen Sondheim that is so full of energy I feel like bursting out of my seat: