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Saturday, 31 October 2015

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2015: I'm Late, I'm Late

You can tell exactly how frazzled I am by the fact that I'm writing my first NaNo post less than two hours before kick-off. Last year I started my plans mid-October and the idea had been percolating much longer than that. This year I've been behind on everything and NaNo is no exception.

I came up with an inciting incident a while ago: a woman is accosted at knife point in her car. Beyond that, I was a little lost but now I've got a working premise. It's not a car, it's a camper-van. My protagonist's called Jess and she's taking her niece away for the summer while she does a few gardening jobs. And the woman who holds a knife to her throat? That's Naomi. And there's a very good reason why she's been driven to desperate ends. The thing is, Jess and Naomi have never met before.

I've managed to do some character work and I've got a few launching points. Beyond that...I'm winging it. I certainly think that's going to make for an interesting November.

The thing, writing 50,000 words in a month isn't a challenge for me these days. Provided the idea's good then I can run with it and get the first draft written. Perhaps that's what aiming to be a professional writer does for you. Someone pointed out to me last week that I'd managed to complete NaNo four times while doing a PhD at the same time. That should make this year a piece of cake.

I'm exuding arrogance. That probably means I'm riding for a fall but we'll see. Let's NaNo.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

It may come as something as a shock to find I've got to this ripe old age without reading Jane Austen's most famous novel. I'm also not proud of having watched the 1940 film adaptation before reading the book (review here)! However, in my defence, I wanted to read as many of Austen's works as possible before turning to Pride and Prejudice. Alas, I still find that I prefer Emma and Persuasion (reviews here and here). I'm sure that makes me a heathen in some eyes.

Pride and Prejudice tells the story of the Bennet sisters and their marriage prospects. Under the domineering influence of Mrs Bennet, the girls are pushed towards eligible bachelors, though the second-born Elizabeth is determined not to marry anyone just for the sake of marrying. She takes an instant dislike to the haughty Mr Darcy who disapproves of his friend Mr Bingley's affection for Jane Bennet. However, that dislike turns to something else.

So did I enjoy Pride and Prejudice? Yes. I particularly enjoyed the witty dialogue exchanges between various characters, including Mr and Mrs Bennet, Elizabeth and Mr Darcy plus Elizabeth and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. As with other Austen novels, class and respectability are key themes, but also what it means when they become preoccupations.

Again, as with my other forays into Austen, I found myself wishing she had used more dialogue tags. It was sometimes tricky to work out who was talking, particularly in conversations between the Bennet sisters.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Book Review: Brick Mother by SJ Bradley

Set in a secure psychiatric unit, Brick Mother follows art therapist Neriste and care assistant Donna as they deal with some of the most troubled patients in an understaffed environment. Both are drawn to Nathan Rivers, an affable patient who committed a serious crime years ago but is now intent on rehabilitating himself into the community. Some don't think he's capable of rehabilitation but when there are ping-pong bureaucracies to deal with, logic gets lost.

Bradley evokes the alien setting of a psychiatric ward skilfully. The despair of both patients and staff comes across achingly well and the restraints that everyone's kept under feel almost claustrophobic for the reader. Particularly effective are the descriptions of Neriste's art therapy cabin, which serves as a metaphor for the unit as a whole.

I enjoyed this novel as a peek into another world. Occasionally, I struggled with the viewpoint switches but that's a personal thing. It's a very down-to-earth novel with touches of humour in amongst the despair and some characters you can really root for. It's certainly a book that's going to stay with me, not least for the last quarter where things pick up speed and explode. That said, the characters that have stayed with me aren't any of the protagonists but some of the additional patients trying their best to survive in a hostile world. Their despairs and hopes come across more clearly than anything else.

This book was read as part of the 'Women' reading challenge, details here.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Book Review: The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann

The Echoing Grove tells the story of two sisters spending their first night under the same roof in many years and then explores the intricacies of their estrangement. At the heart of this is Dinah's affair with Madeline's husband, Rickie, which fractured their lives and is recounted in lengthy flashbacks which include all three parties.

This is a tricky book to read. I was wondering whether I was the only one to find it difficult but then I read this excellent post at Miss Darcy's Library which articulates some of my problems with the novel. I really enjoyed the opening portion of the book. The brittle conversation between Dinah and Madeline is very intriguing and there's an exceptionally vivid scene with a rat that's haunted me since I finished reading. However, once the book begins toying with chronology, things become a little more difficult to follow. It doesn't help that you dip through one memory to another and get a little disorientated in the process.

The themes of the novel - adultery, marriage, family - are explored well and Lehmann's makes good use of the time period, particularly in the scenes set in the Blitz. However, I didn't find any of the three characters especially easy to like. Rickie, particularly, came across badly but that may be my feminist instincts kicking in. That said, all of them are very realistic and products of their time. In that sense, The Echoing Grove is an exceptionally skilful novel, but it's very dismal in tone. There's no way you can come out of this book feeling uplifted, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. 

I can't say that I'll reread this novel but I am glad I read it in the first place. I do also think I'll be reading more of Lehmann's work in the future. 

I was provided with a free copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Book Review: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister ed. Helena Whitbread

This is a book that's been on my shelf for quite some time and what put me off reading it was the bitty nature of it. I suspected that, whether I was enjoying it or not, this would be a book that would slow down my reading schedule and I wasn't wrong. However, I'm certainly glad I got round to it in the end.

Anne Lister lived at Shibden Hall in Halifax in the early 1800s and kept a diary for most of her life. The diaries in this volume span the years 1816-1824 and document her everyday existence in Yorkshire - along with her same-sex relationships and attractions. Anything that Lister wrote in her famous 'code' are separated from the rest of the text by italics, making it easier to keep up with when she's discussing her sexual relationships with, and desires towards, women.

Certain parts of these diaries can feel quite mundane but perhaps that's the attraction. They provide a fascinating description of life as a well-off woman and the daily trials of life. However, Lister was certainly a unique woman in many ways, making her diaries an interesting juxtaposition to similar surviving documents of the era. I enjoyed reading the domestic passages, although parts do get a little repetitive - a peril of such a lengthy set of diaries.

Lister was a snob and this comes through very clearly in her writing. Her use of the term 'vulgar' gets old quite quickly, losing some of its effect by the end of the book! Alternately, I felt sympathy for her isolation, given her intelligence and sexuality, and exasperation at the way she behaved to those who wanted to be friendly with her.

These diaries are expertly edited by Helena Whitbread, including just enough contextual information without overloading the book. While the main interest may lie in Lister's descriptions of her lesbian relationships, the rest of the diaries are equally as compelling - if at times incredibly exasperating.

This book was read as part of the 'TBR' reading challenge, details here.