Friday, 27 January 2012

3BT: friendship, stir fry, Scramble

1. I finally get some time with a friend whose schedule rarely coincides with mine. We eat gooey chocolate cookies in Pain Quotidien.

2. I've been craving stir fry from the pre-prepared veggie packs since the beginning of the year and consequently thinking wistful thoughts about Sainsbury's Market in Pimlico... Sigh. But today I walk into my little local Delhaize and discover they've decided to honour Chinese New Year by stocking the "Wok" range, including those veggies.

3. I discover Scramble with Friends, and it's a lot of fun. I particularly like the encouraging automatic voice which ups its enthusiasm according to word length: good! Excellent! Amazing!

Monday, 23 January 2012

3BT, though today it's six

(Since I haven't 3BTed in ages, I hope you'll forgive me for having six today.)

1. I feel so inspired after my dailyish writing exercise that I decide to skive work and type up chapter one of my current WIP (work in progress), Primary Season. I'm not behind on my work, so I don't even need to feel guilty.

2. My favourite thing about Twitter is being able to communicate with authors whose book I enjoy. In the last couple of days, I've tweeted with three who are important to me, because I love their books and in some ways want to write like them, and in odd ways perhaps have things in common with them too, things that make me feel a kind of kinship with them. This makes me happier than I can begin to explain.

3. I am on time to orchestra for once, and I walk in to see two teenage girls messing around on the piano, playing and singing "In the jungle, the mighty jungle", or rather "dans la jungle, la terrible jungle"... There is something of an unadulterated simple pleasure in this, of their joy in each other and in music and in being young.

4. It's long and complicated to explain, but I have hope again that Inevitable may yet be published, when yesterday I felt nothing but despair and an irresistible urge to go the Kindle route.

5. When I buy my train ticket, the lady behind the counter spots the Guernsey sticker that has been on my flute case since 1996 (!) and we agree it's a lovely place. Such great memories, too...

6. Picking out my book for tomorrow, since I've almost finished the one I'm currently reading, I spot a notebook on the shelf. And yes - it's my blue writing prompts notebook, the one with half written fan fic and scenes for the new novel and generally lots of useful, useable stuff. I thought I'd lost it. I am relieved and ecstatic that I haven't.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Book Review: Come to the Edge, by Christina Haag

Every once in a while, a book casts a spell on me. In 2010, it was The Song Is You, and you know that, because I still talk about it, I still recommend it, I still insist that it deserves to be better known. In 2012  - is it too soon to say? - it will be Come To The Edge

The elegance of the writing, the beauty of the story: "haunting" is how I have seen it described, and that was the word I would have used too. I don't remember the last time a book kept me awake and away from even Twitter for two hours at a stretch.

Christina reminds me - perhaps inevitably - of Kate, the heroine in my first novel. "I did not know," she says, "how long it took to get over such a love, and that even when you did, when you loved again, you would always carry a sliver of it in your stitched-together heart". 

I want this quote at the front of my book. I want to show it to people who read a chapter of Inevitable and say, "yeah, see, I just don't buy that after all these years she would still be thinking of him". I knew it! I knew that it happened like that sometimes. Because I am a hopeless romantic too. Maybe that’s why I was tempted (but only tempted) to rush past the background, the childhood, the descriptions, to get to the wooing, to get to the romance. And maybe that's why I felt something like a twinge of pain in my belly on so many pages: yes, my heart broke for Bradley Whitford when they split up. But it broke for Christina then too, and then time and time again afterwards. (And I want to call her by her first name. Although I know it’s an illusion, I feel, after she has shared her soul with me, that we are friends.)

Come To The Edge is a book full of emotion, not in a trite, schmaltzy way, but the way it's supposed to be, the way that people tell you to do it at writing workshops: show, don't tell. Christina takes us by the hand and she shows us what it means to be her, what it means to be John, what it means to be with John, what it means to no longer be with him. She makes me want to travel to places in America that I've never heard of. Her writing is quite simply superb, her vocabulary varied - it sounds like a small thing, but it's one of the small things that makes a book worth staying up until two a.m. to finish: when was the last time you came across the word "epiphyte"? On almost every page there was a turn of phrase I wish I could have written.

So, her writing: study it, aspiring authors. Particularly aspiring memoirists. Study it for colour and depth and how to bring the past back to life and how to convey the magic of childhood and of love. Study it to learn description and how to draw out character. Study it for the poetry of the language.

If you follow this blog, chances are you’ll know what led me to this book: it wasn’t the main story. It was a subplot about a man Christina dated for three years. You know the one. But I’m glad my endless fascination with him led me there. I’m glad that, after telling myself that it was a ridiculous reason to buy an overpriced hardback book and that it was probably really badly written anyway, I travelled to America when Amazon had it on special offer and I read some reviews that praised the prose. I thought, you know what, beautifully written tragic love stories set against a political backdrop are my thing. They’re what I write. I should read it for research.

But the stories I write are made up. This one, this heartbreaking one, is real. It can't have been easy to reach into the past for these memories, to draw them out and have the emotions rush back. But if I ever get to meet Christina Haag, I will thank her, because this is a story that needed to be told, and that it’s told so deftly means that it will reach the kind of people who don’t read celebrity biography. Literary snobs, if you will. People like me.

And then I will ask her to please keep writing. I’ll tell her that I go to a Monday Night Writers’ Group too. I don’t know why I’ll tell her that. Probably because I babble when I meet people I admire.

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Friday, 13 January 2012

Book Review: Dirty Sexy Politics, by Meghan McCain

I've seen some scathing reviews of this on Amazon, but they were really not warranted. If what you're after is in-depth analysis of policy, politics or campaign strategy, there are plenty of other books - notably The Audacity to Win, which is excellent - that will do that for you. This book does what it says on the tin: tells the story of a Presidential campaign from the point of view of an insider who also happens to be a young woman - and how many other books do you know who do that? None. Precisely none. Well, unless you're counting Sammy's House, by Kristin Gore, but that's fiction. Although, the author being who she is, there is probably a little truth in it too.

It did nothing to convince me of the appeal of the Republican Party, though I was reassured that at least one person was calling them out for their increasing radicalisation and homogenisation. But really, I'm not sure it was meant to. It was easy to read, engaging and honest - what you see is what you get with Meghan, and that is one of only a very few traits we share - and you know what? To my shame I almost welled up when John McCain lost.

And it also gave me a lot of useful background information for my second novel, Primary Season, the first draft of which I wrote for NaNoWriMo. For all its brilliance, The Audacity to Win wasn't very helpful on how tough it is to be a woman in politics, or on those authentic details - bag calls, weight gain, ephemeral  relationships, the impossibility of having clean clothes - which I need to make Aaron and Louisa and their world seem real.

So thanks, Meghan. Your book was just what I needed.

Things I understand about the West Wing now: Airports, Dirksen and Valedictorians

I've been meaning for ages to write a blogpost for each West Wing episode, especially for people who have as much knowledge of America and its politics as I had before I became obsessed with both. Problem is, like my other projects - the Donna Moss diary, the list of exterior locations to check out when I am next in DC - it tends to fall by the wayside as I get into the storyline, the writing, and the close-ups of Josh Lyman.

Still, though, I'm going to give it a go with tonight's episode, "Guns not Butter". I love this one, because Donna is my favourite, and she is brilliant here, when she tries - and almost succeeds - to find a Senator to whom the President urgently wants to speak.

In doing so, she walks straight into the baggage claims area of National (Washington National Airport, known by some people as Ronald Reagan Airport, though never by anyone on the West Wing, firstly because Reagan didn't exist in their world and secondly, I would guess, because Democrats only refer to it as "National"). Walk straight into baggage claim! With no passport! No flight to catch! Everywhere I've ever been you go through baggage claim before customs, and only then do you get to come out and meet your enthusiastic placard-holding greeters.

But not on American internal flights. I was very confused by this when I flew into LAX from Dulles. (Sorry, that's me showing off with my "I'm so knowledgeable about America" insider speak. LAX is Los Angeles' main airport and Dulles is one of Washington's.) Baggage claim is a bit of a free for all. Anyone can walk in. Which is one of the many things I found disorientating over there.

At one point, she also tries to call "Dirksen". This is a reference to one of the three buildings where Senators have their offices - Russell and Hart being the other one. And as for Will being an Eaton valedictorian, that means he gave the speech at high school graduation and was probably the highest ranked student in his year. And it's nothing to do with Eton College - it wouldn't have surprised me if Will had been educated there, but I'm glad Aaron Sorkin did not make the mistake of placing an American tradition in a venerable British education.

All clear now? Good.

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Saturday, 7 January 2012

Book Review: The Ninth Wife, by Amy Stolls

I don’t really read chick lit, and I don’t much like long books. But for some reason I hadn’t quite computed that this was a long book, and it wasn’t pink and glittery, and it was set in DC, and I found it in the Lantern Bookshop in Georgetown for four dollars or so, so I went with it.

I’m glad I did.

Amy Stolls, the author, did the MFA in Creative Writing at American University that I’ve been accepted onto. I remember the piles of her book in Politics and Prose and like to imagine that a book of mine could be in that position in a few years’ time. So I feel a little bit connected to her.(My second choice pen name, which I may well still use, is also very similar to her name.)

Not only that, but it’s the kind of writing that, although it’s very different to mine, aims (I think) to do something like what mine aims to do. (Once I’d realised this, I googled agents and discovered that hers also represents Arthur Phillips – author of The Song Is You, aka the book I haven’t stopped going on about for over a year now – whose writing I am in love with and would like mine to be compared to. A dream agent, in other words, who I don’t think has rejected me yet.)

The Ninth Wife is not really chick lit – at least not the way that I think of it. It’s more in line with the kind of thing I aspire to write – intelligent fiction for women, with elegant writing. And Amy Stolls can definitely can write – there were some beautiful, beautiful turns of phrase, trudging through a swamp of disbelief, letting the whispering winds speak her concern, the route flirts with Pennsylvania all the way, it’s the part of Maryland that makes the state look greedy… There was also a lot of great insight about what it’s like to be in your thirties and single and beginning to despair as you watch everyone else around you turn into couples and then families. So, in other words, it was right up my street.

I can forgive a book for not having much of a plot if it’s well written, and this was.  Although it certainly didn’t lack plot, either.  (At times, I wondered if there was maybe a bit too much of it.) Yes, at its heart, it’s about a relationship – Bess is dating a guy who has been married eight times before, and wonders if she should accept his proposal – but it explores so many different facets of life, of how we relate to each other, parent to child, grandparents to grandchildren, spouse to spouse, partner to partner, of how we grieve each other and deal with the past.

The first half of the book is very different from the second. In the first half, chapters alternate between Bess’s life now and Rory telling the story of each of his previous eight wives. You’d think, wouldn’t you, how ridiculous. No one could be married eight times. And if he was, then you’d want to run. But as you read each of these stories they are (mostly) very believable, and you get to know Rory, and you know what, it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. He had a tendency to get married a little too quickly, so really, it’s like someone having eight relationships before you. Maybe not ideal (at least in the circles that I move in), but allowable at the age of 45.

In the second half, and I won’t say much about this as it’s where a lot of the surprises and twists and unexpected directions come, there’s a road trip, and with it all the expected soul-searching and deepening of relationships and life-changing conversations and all that kind of thing. A cheesy concept, you might think, but the author does that deft thing where the character realises it’s a bit cheesy and so it works. (Not everyone can pull this off.)

What I like about this book – apart from the quality of its writing – is the realism of it. Life is messy, love is complicated, there are no easy answers, relationships don’t look like they do in Hollywood. This book feels like an exploration of what it means to trust and commit to someone given all of that.

That said, it might have been nice if there had been just one example of a happy marriage between two straight adults who loved each other and stayed together. (Bess’ friend’s Gabrielle’s parents might have been one, I can’t remember, but she doesn’t dwell on the point if they were.) Amy Stolls shows us a rich tapestry of the many different kinds of relationships that can and do exist, but that one is completely lacking – and I do believe it does exist. And the author must believe it does, too, since that is what she’s steering her character towards. Then again, it’s no wonder Bess is so tentative about marriage if she hasn’t ever seen it work out in her social circle.

Another criticism would be that there are a few too many coincidences which require a stretch to believe in them. I have to say, too, that I roll my eyes when a woman goes into labour at an inappropriate moment, nobody knows what to do about it, and then she proceeds to give birth pretty quickly afterwards.

It was also as if the author had deliberately populated the book with as wide a variety of characters possible: the black best friend, the gay best friend, the lesbian ex-wife, the special needs relative, the Jewish grandmother, the airy-fairy floaty girl pregnant by the irritating ex-boyfriend. I imagine it was a deliberate choice, but it felt a little too deliberate. I don’t know why – all those people do exist, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they all exist within one person’s social circle – but it felt a little forced. That said, these characters weren’t stereotypes – they all felt very real, in particular Bess’ gay best friend, Cricket. And, as someone has said on an Amazon review, their backstories are complex, and that give them depth. This is a great book for writers to study for hints on characterisation. 

I’ve been ill this week, so lying down for stretches of time has been an ideal opportunity to get into this book. There were times when I just could not put it down: I read it in big stretches and kept thinking, “What? I can’t stop now!”. I suppose that’s the joy of a long book, but it’s also the joy of good writing, characters you get to know and love, and a story that grips you (and yes, even makes you cry a little bit). A great book with which to start my reading year.