National Book Lovers Day

In keeping with the date I have decided to dedicate this post to my favourite book of all time. I can hardly contain my excitement in getting to talk about The Great Gatsby yet again. I’ve got to say that it was a pretty close battle between The Great Gatsby and Gone Girl but I feel that Gatsby has more of a lasting impact. I can still quote it despite it being years since I last read it (though it is one of the only books I’ve ever read multiple times) and it’s hands down better written – Sorry Flynn!

The Great Gatsby

The Plot: The Great Gatsby is set in New York in the roaring 20s. It’s the era of prohibition but no one obeys the rules. There’s excessive drinking, the most extravagant parties you can possibly imagine and an element of dream-like romance to tie it all up.

The Characters: Let me begin with the almost completely aloof narrator. We never know a great deal about Nick Caraway, nor do we care. The story isn’t really about him, it’s about his observations. He’s a bystander, a fly on the wall if you will, taking note of all the drama that seems to just twirl in the air around these glamorous New Yorkers.

Then there’s Gatsby himself. He’s a man on money and a man of passion. Utterly smitten with Daisy he’s equally in love with his dreams. His persona is charming and you can’t help but feel empathy for any man who strives for something so hard.

Daisy herself is a pretty young flower, pure and sweet and innocent. I can’t help but equally fall in love with her spirit. She may seem flakey but I have a feeling she’s acting the part set out for her by society. After all, she makes the insightful comment concerning her daughter, “I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

Last but not least is Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan. Playing the part of dominant husband and pro sportsman Tom at first appears to be the perfect husband. However, there is a darker side to him and as Shakespeare said ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’…

Language: This book is so full of passion. Perhaps it’s the affect of the American Dream but everything in this novel reads as if through rose tinted glasses. “The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain.” Lines like this make me truly believe in the beauty of life. This brings me on to my fourth a final section, the quotes, (which is really just me emphasising how much I adore Fitzgerald’s writing).

Quotes: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past..”

“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

“Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”

“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

“So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star.”

“It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

I simply cannot get over the beauty of these words. I am in awe of F Scott Fitzgerald’s talent and I hope and I dream that one day just maybe I might be at least semi capable of creating poetic prose like his. 

 

When You’re Struggling…

I’m not telling you anything new when I say it can be a massive effort sometimes to stay motivated. The key is how to solve it.

When I’m struggling I take time out. I know that’s not always possible if you’re working under pressure but usually I’m okay at getting stuff done if there’s a certain amount of pressure. The problem comes when no one is there to press you to do something, when it’s all down to self-motivation.

For those who don’t know, for the last few months I’ve been working on a novel, something I’m choosing to do for my benefit alone. In other words, it’s totally down to me to get the thing written.

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Progress was going well both in terms of character development and plot, then, quite suddenly, I stopped. (You might have noticed because it’s been a while since I last blogged too). There wasn’t one particular reason for this sudden apathy, things were just getting too much and I was struggling to find the time. Now I’ve taken just over a week off writing.  I know this will set me back because I’ve lost the thread of the bits I was working on, but it was so completely and utterly necessary. Sometimes taking a break will do you more good than anything else. I now feel refreshed, revitalised, and have a whole bank of new ideas to bring to the table. I’m excited to get these new leads down on paper and even more excited to tell you all about them, but I won’t spoil the surprise just yet.

I’ll keep you posted. Over and out –

 

Taking on a Challenge

A few days ago I began the longest novel I’ve ever attempted, War and Peace. I’m not going to lie, it weighs a tonne and it’s pretty daunting, but I’m convinced it is going to be worth it. I’m not usually a fan of epically long books, especially those made to be long for the sake of it – Mr Charles Dickens – but War and Peace seems different; it’s long because it has content.

I feel like I already know a lot about the story from watching the BBC adaptation that aired a few months ago. Perhaps this is a hasty conclusion to jump to but I’ve heard that it was pretty faithful to the book. Unlike a lot of ‘epics’ this novel unfolds quite rapidly and, as the title suggests, there is a combination of war and peace going on. It tells the story of the French invasion in Russia but it also deals with the daily lives of various members of the aristocracy. Apparently there are over 500 characters and almost all are given adequate roles. By this I mean that their stories are interesting and each and every character adds to the book as a whole (so far).

I’m not very far into this novel as yet, though if it were a regular book I guess I’d be about half way. I’m circa page 160 of about 1360 so I have a long way to go but I’ll keep you updated. My only regret so far? That this certainly won’t help me achieve my Goodreads challenge and I’m already falling way behind schedule.

Over and out –

war and peace

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Apologies everyone but I finished this a while ago and it’s taken me ages to get around to writing a review!

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood took FOREVER to get through (about 5 weeks to be precise). I’m going to blame that mainly on my dissertation, but one thing I will say is that this book is difficult to read. You have to sit down fully prepared for a coarse subject matter and for me the last thing I felt like doing at the end of a long day was sitting down to oppression, corporal punishment and an appalling lack of human rights.

The Handmaid's Tale

This novel tells the story of a young woman, Offred (Of Fred, as in belonging to her commander, Fred). Society has transitioned around her and there is no escape. Through flashbacks we learn her old life was a domestic one, complete with boyfriend Luke and daughter, but now her family has been taken from her and she is made to act as a concubine for the wealthy men, the commanders, in the hope of giving them children. Fertility rates have declined rapidly due to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases and problems with contraception. There are very few woman left able to bear children. Those who have proven they are able through previous conception are the handmaids, the concubines like Offred. They are made to dress in flowing red gowns and headpieces to disguise their sexuality and given extremely limited freedoms. Their diets are controlled and smoking, drinking and the use of any other substances is banned. They have regular health screenings and do little other than perform routine tasks for the household. Their existence has one purpose: to procreate.

This novel is creative but it’s not innovative. Atwood uses only laws and beliefs known to exist in certain cultures around the globe. The novel depicts Gilead as a homophobic nation, the women are made to cover their skin with long gowns and winged hats and are not allowed to leave the house without permission and the chaperoning of another handmaid. The novel explores the class system – the women dress in coloured gowns depending on their position in society – and the power of political extremism. No one breaks the rules through fear of death, those who do find themselves swinging from ‘the wall’. The leadership have eyes and nothing escapes their notice. The novel incorporates ceremonies and rituals not too dissimilar from those in some far corners of the world and then there’s ‘The Red Centre’, the camp created to re-educate these women. Through the medium of fiction Atwood has merged some of the worst violations of human rights imaginable into one nation. The result? Something scarily a little too close to reality.

Although The Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1985, I am about to discuss Saudi Arabia today. I realise there is a flaw in this plan but I doubt much has changed (for the worse anyway) in the last 31 years and will therefore plough ignorantly on. In Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to leave the house unaccompanied, they must be escorted by a guardian (known as a Mahram) wherever they go. Saudi women are banned from driving, opening bank accounts without their husband’s permission and from wearing any clothing or make up that enhances their beauty. In fact most women wear abayas (long black cloaks) and headscarfs. Their faces need not necessarily be covered but this is to the chagrin of some hardliners. Saudi women risk criminal charges should they spend time with any male outside of their family and reading uncensored material is banned. It’s not too hard to see where Atwood may have gotten some of her extremist ideas from. The Handmaid’s Tale may exaggerate some of these beliefs – in the novel the handmaids are not allowed to read at all and all reading material is said to have been destroyed – but they are very much present in today’s society.

The Handmaid's Tale

I praise Margaret Atwood for the ingenuity of this novel. She has uniquely combined some of the world’s most major flaws and also predicted some of the issues the world would face in this rapidly-changing modern era.

Now enough of the mechanics of the novel and down to the nitty-gritty.

The Handmaid’s Tale is excellently written. The language is eloquent without standing out as being pretentious and the plot is well paced. My one issue with the structure of the novel is that it is very segmented. Each section (I say section because it is structured with chapters within chapters) is typically only 3 or 4 pages long, which can become jarring if you are tempted to only read a couple of pages before putting it down like I am. In fact, I think this style encourages you to only read a few of pages before replacing it on coffee table , and whereas on the one hand this can make it disjointed, it also allows you time to stop and think. And that’s what this novel really wants you to do: think. It is aware of its power and its message. Without wishing to sound like an A Level student I need to mention metafiction. This novel is very self-aware. Every few pages there is some reference to writing or the knowledge of a reader. There are a lot of direct addresses, and although this is usually something I like as narrows the gap between reader and text, coming from a character so alien, I found it a little uncomfortable.

The Handmaid's Tale

Now to the ending. I won’t give away any spoilers, but I wanted a little more. I thought the final section with Professor Pieixoto was a clever way to tie loose strands together but I wanted a more definitive answer. I suppose I’m just the kind of person who is never happy with anything that even hints at an open ending. I imagine most readers would have been satisfied, but I wanted to understand how society had changed since the last mention of Offred. I was eager to know more, but I suppose that’s just how this novel functions – it gives you snippets of information until you have a whole picture. From the very first page you are thrown into the deep end and have to wait for things to unravel – it’s like you can hear the little clicks in your brain as you read and learn about Gilead. That’s why I wasn’t totally convinced by the end; I wanted the clicks to keep coming, I wanted the story to continue. I wanted more, and that must be the sign of a very good book.

Over and out –

The Girl on the Train and Why Audiobooks are Awful

Apologies for the not-so-snappy title everyone.

Anyone who knows me knows I live a very long way from where I go to University at UEA in Norwich. Because of this every few months I find myself having to drive 300 miles across the country. Usually I’d just listen to music but a few weeks ago (yes I know I’m a little late with this post) I found myself with a problem: I don’t own any CDs, I don’t pay for a subscription to Spotify of Apple Music, and I was planning on driving through the night so the radio would be unthinkably awful. For this reason I decided to download the free trial of Audible and have a go at listening to an audiobook. With the Audible free trial you get one free book and I chose The Girl on the Train. It’s a book I’ve wanted to read ever since the reviews compared it to Gone Girl (my favourite book EVER) and I saw this as a great opportunity.

night driving

That was were the greatness ceased. Perhaps this wasn’t the best choice for an audiobook since the narration comes from three different female voices, but I found it quite confusing. Although driving hundreds of miles on the motorway is an almost mindless task, there are times when you have to concentrate – junctions, roundabouts, the M25 in general and times of tricky overtaking – and during these moments it is impossible to follow the audio. For The Girl on the Train this was crucial since I frequently missed the name at the beginning telling me who’s perspective the chapter was in – and when the book was knew to me I couldn’t work it out either.

If you were literally sat doing nothing at all and could solely concentrate on the book then an audiobook would be great – but then why not just read?

The Girl on the Train

The story blended into a nonsensical mess and I lost interest in it. Needless to say, I never finished the audiobook of The Girl on the Train. However, from the reviews I’ve read and from my brief experience with it, I don’t think I’ll be attempting the paperback either. The three female voices are all similarly unlikeable – particularly the alcoholic (I don’t remember her name) None were gripping and parts of the story revolved around completely irrational behaviour. I wouldn’t recommend The Girl on the Train and I’d advise you to steer clear of the audiobook as a substitute for reading. If you want to read, just read.

P.S The fact that S J Watson’s recommendation is featured on the front cover doesn’t fill me with confidence. Find my review of his book Before I Go To Sleep here.

Take A Breath, Take Your Time

Sometimes when you read a book quickly, like you’re cramming it in fast for a test or presentation the next week or you simply have the time to read it in a couple of days because you’re lounging by the pool on holiday, I feel like you don’t remember it nearly as well as you could if you took your time over it – if you read, say, 30-40 pages a day for a couple of weeks and gave it time to digest. I think it’s a huge shame when you’ve gone to the trouble of reading a book from cover to cover, no matter how long it took you, if you can’t remember it in any detail 6 months or a year later.

Books

I read something once (I’m afraid I can’t be more specific than that) about how your body processes information whilst you sleep. That’s why you dream; it’s your body making sense of all the thoughts and images you’ve had since your last sleep. In effect, it stops you going mad. And, as most of you probably already know, you dream every night, even if you don’t remember it the next morning. In fact, usually you only remember it if you’ve been woken up mid-dream.

With this in mind, it is my belief that you need to read a book slowly, perhaps over a couple of weeks, in order to have enough sleeps for your mind to process what you’re reading properly. If you read a book in one go, and therefore have one sleep to process, then its more than likely, along with all the other information your mind has picked up that day, that you won’t remember the majority of what you have read. Whereas, if you build up your knowledge of the book in steady stages, sort of like building a lego wall, adding a new block each day, then you process only small sections of the book at a time. Overall you will process more of it and more of it will turn into long term memory. In turn, you will remember more of it 6 months later.

So although it’s fashionable to read as many books as possible as quickly as you humanely can right now, especially with the New Year just passed and everyone setting their targets for how many books they plan to read in 2016, maybe don’t jump on that bandwagon and just take a breath and take your time. Just because Agatha Christie read 200 books per year doesn’t mean you have to. Maybe reading just 20-30 that you’ll remember most of your life is better than having a vast library you have absolutely no idea about.

Over and out –

An Audience with Emma Healey

Last Saturday (27th February) award-winning novelist Emma Healey visited UEA to give an interview. I’ll embarrassingly admit that this was the first time I’d ever heard of Emma Healey – I think I’ve been living in a box in all honesty – but she was remarkable.

Emma Healey

She said so many things that I just totally connected with. The interviewer began by asking where her passion for books came from. Her answer was as mine would be: she had no idea, all she knew was that she’d wanted to write and create books as long as she could remember. The interviewer then asked her about her writing journey, which inspired me to consider my own (see my post here). Emma discussed her education, saying she’d hated A-levels and gotten a job – she worked in a book shop and then an art gallery – before applying to University to study a book binding course (this is where the ‘creating’ books part comes in). After finishing this course and deciding not only that there were very few opportunities for jobs in book binding but also that she wasn’t very good at it (and frequently got things stuck in her hair), she decided to apply for the prestigious MA in Creative Writing at UEA (this is where the ‘writing’ books part comes in). Upon completing the MA she was introduced to a number of different literary agents, and this is how she found her agent for Elizabeth is Missing, her debut novel.

Elizabeth is Missing

During the hectic business of finding out what she wanted to do with her life, Emma Healey never gave up writing, and this is probably what I admire most about her. Even juggling other jobs, she always made time to write, to hone her skill and improve. It might have taken her the best part of three years but she eventually formed a manuscript she was happy with.

For me, this interview was eye-opening. Obviously it increases sales; it’s a publicity stunt, (now I want to go and buy Elizabeth is Missing and see what all the fuss is about) but it was also part of a career day at UEA. Emma Healey’s achievement makes me feel that getting published is no longer a pipe dream. She makes getting published seem like an achievable feat. She has inspired me to continue writing and one day send my finished manuscript to a literary agent. Of course, many have this dream and not all of us end up being a Sunday Times bestselling novelist, but we can always hope.

It’s pretty rare I get to listen to/meet/get a book signed by an author, but I would definitely recommend it if you get the opportunity. Even if you’re not familiar with the text they’re discussing, hearing their passion for it, or their passion for the written word in general, is wonderful. It’s also fascinating hearing about the writing process if you’re a writer yourself.

Emma Healey was so genuine and down to earth – maybe the fame hasn’t had a chance to go to her head yet, but I doubt it ever will. She is a young girl, just like me, who had a dream, just like me, to write a novel, just like me. When she was a little she stapled bits of paper together to make ‘books’, and I’m pretty sure I was doing similar things writing about ponies on my typewriter (a gift from the grandparents) and stapling them together. Sometimes authors seem to be a million miles away from reality, famous names in print of the front of famous books, but they’re not, they’re people like you and me, and this interview reminded me of that. Emma Healey studied at the same University as I do, and was quite frankly the sweetest, funniest girl with so many of the same interests as me she could have been my best friend, but last week she sat in front of me a bestselling author. What an achievement! Maybe I could be her one day, just maybe.

That’s all from me. I’m going to go and buy this book now. Ciao –

The Importance of a Journal: Notepads, Notepads and More Notepads

For some reason I’ve always kept journals, diaries, notepads, etc. I don’t think it came from wanting to be a writer particularly, I think it stemmed from my love for pretty stationary, but keeping a notebook is absolutely fundamental to being a writer.

In my view there are two types of journal.

  1. is the observational journal. This is where you write down anything you see/hear that is somewhat inspiring and could prompt you to write. You must stick purely to observations though, so as to not clutter it with thoughts. That can come later. It’s incredibly useful just to have a book of raw material to turn to when you’re stuck.
  2. is the ideas journal. This is where you jot down the ideas that simply float into your head from nowhere – and they do come at the strangest of time’s don’t they! Alongside these ideas I tend to brainstorm on the next page where they could potentially head. Generally, this gives me a variety of concepts and openings. I also find it useful to colour code ideas that may link together in this type of journal.

I admit sometimes keeping journals can be challenging. If it’s something you try and commit to every day then it can be both difficult to find the time and challenging to make each entry meaningful.

At the moment, what with life being so hectic, I admit to copping out a little bit. I tend to use the Notes app on my iPhone to write a lot of stuff down on the go. I always try and transfer this across to a notebook at a later date (because let’s face it, we can’t trust technology not to die on us) and when I do I always use pretty stationary. This may sound silly, but for me – a great lover of pretty things and colour co-ordination – a neat notebook and pen make me want to write. I want to use them. Therefore, I make time to fill it with thoughts and ideas.

journals, notebooks

Apologies to the men out there; I’m sure they do some manly stationary too that you could enjoy using!

Over and out –

Inspiration and Ideas: Writing a Story

A course like mine – the Creative Writing BA at the University of East Anglia – requires you to be creative even when you feel uninspired. When I’m working to deadlines, having to turn in drafts for specific dates, there’s no time to wait around until an idea comes to you, you have to go in search of that idea. I’ve already written a post on how to cure writer’s block (which I’ll link below) but sometimes it’s more than just struggling to find the words. Sometimes it’s a struggle to find the whole concept.

This is why, personally, I always start with an image. Picture a single image and a brief description will come to you. Where are you? What can you see? Hear? Smell? Taste? Touch? Answer these questions and you’ve got a setting.

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‘I’m standing by the edge of the pool. The sun is low, casting long, drawn-out shadows across the tiles. Looking out across the horizon the sea shimmers in a heat wave. The palm trees off to the right give me a valedictory wave in the breeze, but it doesn’t make it any cooler. My skin is dewy with sweat. Even with the hotel kitchen right behind me it doesn’t mask the unmistakeable scent of salt in the air. I can taste it’s coating on my lips. I’m leaving this place. I don’t know where I’m heading but I’ll be gone within the hour…’

So you can see, simply from starting with the description of a scene a story is beginning to take place. Personally I enjoy opening with a hint of mystery, making the reader want to know more.

Next you have to discover why your character is there and what they are doing. Who else is involved? What’s the action in this scene? Where’s it heading? Sometimes these can be the most difficult questions to figure out, which is why free writing, or automatic writing, is such a huge help. This is when you write without even thinking about what you’re saying. You’re literally not allowed to take your pen off the paper. (For me I find pen and paper far better than drafting on a laptop since you can scribble and cross out – it gives you so much more freedom). Free writing can give you a lot of good stuff – and a lot of rubbish too – but there’s nothing that says you have to use any of it. You can pick and choose what you like and what heads to the trash can.

‘Megan rushes up to me, blinking back tears in her eyes. She knows what I’m about to do and she isn’t going to stop me. Strong girl, I think. She throws her arms around my waist, her face hot on my chest. A minute passes and she pulls away. We face the ocean, arms around each other, watching the birds fly, a black arrow moving towards the West. Perhaps that’s where I’ll be going too. Perhaps I’ll catch up with them one day…’

The more free writing you do the more ideas you can create. J. K. Rowling has admitted to being a meticulous planner, knowing how the final Harry Potter book would finish even before writing the first word, but I’m a firm believer that it doesn’t always have to be this way. It may make the editing process longer but I believe you can make it up as you go along, so long as you ensure the overarching plot is still cohesive. The important thing is to dabble with different ideas, explore different options, see where your writing takes you!

Happy writing! Over and out –

PS That’s one of my holiday pics from Malta last summer – lovely huh!

The link as promised:

https://thebookreviewpage.wordpress.com/2016/01/17/3-tips-for-writers-block/

 

Michael McIntyre’s Life and Laughing

So I’ve already made it through one of my New Year’s Resolutions! Congratulations to me! I finished Michael McIntyre’s biography, Life and Laughing, and what’s more, I truly did love it. I don’t want to be corny here and sound like a review from the Daily Mail but it really was ‘heartwarming’, ‘laugh out loud funny’ and ‘deeply moving at times’. It was everything that it promised to be. I even read it in his voice! The whole book was like one long comedy gig. It was wonderful.

Michael McIntyre

The book covers his whole life, right from his very first traumatic school-day memories, through his parents’ divorce, his awkward teenage years, his life at University, his eventual big break into comedy and the relationship he eventually embarks on with his wife. All the time you’re waiting for this goofy individual to succeed and eventually, he does.

What really got me was how relatable it all was. I wasn’t born in London, I never went to a private boys school, and I’ve certainly never wanted to be a comedian, but somehow I could connect with almost everything he said. Perhaps the art is in the telling. The writing practices the same finesse as the telling of a joke. It’s set up, crafted. The whole book must have taken some serious planning, I’ll tell you that.

What I did notice part way through reading was the date of publication. This biography was published in 2010. A few months later, after the BBC realised how well the book was selling and what a hit Michael McIntyre was turning out to be, they contacted him about taking part in an episode of Who Do You Think You Are. Michael immediately got in touch with his step mother in Canada and asked her to dig out some stuff of his father’s, thinking he’d like his biggest role model to feature quite heavily in the programme. By this time his father had been gone about 17 years but Michael’s attachment to his father had remained strong. He’s been quoted that his father was a huge inspiration to him and that he was always spurred on by the thought of making his father proud. However, hearing the news, and knowing that the BBC would be able to find his death certificate (which are public records) Michael’s step mother finally told the truth about his father’s death. The famous comedian Ray Cameron did not die on the side of the road from a heart attack as Michael originally thought, he shot himself. This information was then made public a few years later on. So of course, Michael had no knowledge of this when writing his biography and the things he says about his father are all the more striking with this hindsight.

It seems that I have dwelt on the negative but I hasten to stress that this truly is a terrifically funny book. This man finds laughter in everything.

Over and out –