Saturday, 15 July 2017

2,000 books

In November 1984 I decided, for a reason I no longer recall, to make a note of all the books I read. I wrote them down in a fat notebook along with a 1-5 star rating. Some were so good they got a 6. I also noted whether the book was my own, a library book or borrowed. By December 2012 I had to employ a new notebook. To date, I have read and recorded 2,000 books.

How I wish I had noted all those prior to November 1984, but two thousand books later I look back at my choices. They include fiction of course, plays, memoir, biographies, books of short stories and non-fiction including travel literature, but I left out textbooks relating to work or my degree.

Classics have featured throughout - from re-reads of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy novels that I loved in my teen years to those new to me which I studied in the years I did a degree in Literature (for fun) which included Germinal, Middlemarch, and Fathers and Sons. I didn't record all the plays I studied including ten Shakespeare plays and some of Aphra Behn's, probably because I didn't read every singe word! I am nothing if not honest!

Can I remember all these books? Of course not. I often pick lighthearted books when I'm coping with a difficult patch in life as they provide not only a means of escape but add the rose-coloured tint that life sometimes needs. I may not always remember them but I enjoy them while I'm reading which makes them as valuable as those that are more memorable. One such, I can't recall which, was quite a fun read but I was shocked to find a passage in it which I'd read before. Was this blatant plagiarism? No, I was reading a book I'd read about four years previously but had remembered none of it except this particular amusing scene.

My reading style has changed - when younger I always persisted with a book, even if it was a 1-star, providing I'd got past the first chapter, but now I'll abandon it - at my age, life is too short to read something I don't enjoy or value. For that reason I - rather appropriately - abandoned The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. The book is not in my 2,000 count. I persisted for a while but I had no time for the main character, a vile woman who ,in my view, deserved her abandonment. I also found the book unnecessarily crude to the pint of vulgarity and I'm pretty sure reading to the end wouldn't have changed my mind! People rave about this author but so far I haven't attempted any others as this foray was so unpleasant.

My recent top reads, if you are curious, appear in my final blog of each year since 2012

Just leafing through my old notebook, which is falling to bits, I see 5 star ratings included Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island, Jonathan Smith's Summer in February (December 96) I didn't rate the subsequent film as 5 stars though, Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace (May 07), Michael Cunninghams's The Hours  (February 02) Alice Walker's The Color Purple, which was a re-read for my degree, and William Broderick's A Whispered Name (July 09). Jung Chang's Wild Swans, which I read in July 1998, earned 6 stars.

One noticeable difference is that my earlier reading included more library books than bought books (both new and second-hand.) I had less money to spend on books with a small child to look after when I started my log but I think this also reflects that in recent years there have been fewer books in my local library and especially fewer books suiting my taste than there used to be. On my last visit to the much depleted library since it was recently made much smaller, I could find nothing at all that I wanted to read. How sad. I think Waterstones' 3 for 2 offers (how I miss them) were also responsible for increased purchases in the later years. These days I attend more book events and invariably buy a book or two or three, so increasing my own book stock!

Bought or borrowed (but never stolen) here's to the next 2000 so I'd better get cracking to fit them all in.






Tuesday, 4 July 2017

How to Organize a Hen Party. (Or Not.)

A review for novel about a hen party. What do I know about them? My generation didn't go in for hen parties - or if they did, I was never invited to any when my contemporaries were getting married - so the first I attended was for a younger friend about 11 years ago. No pink sashes or plastic tiaras, it was a rather sophisticated three-parter with the 'hens' invited to join any or all parts. I attended only the evening do with a lovely meal and an amazing selection of cocktails. It was all very decorous and wouldn't have made a very interesting novel. The backstory was romantic though. The bride's journey to her marriage involved a meeting of minds on her travels in her late 30s with subsequent meetings at locations between Australia and UK with Barcelona being the decision spot! She went to live in Australia with her new partner but her wedding was here in UK at the church her parents and grandparents had married in. A smiling, radiant bride-to-be, she said 'I never thought this was going to happen for me.'

The second hen party I went to was my daughter's. Her romance also involved a meeting on a holiday, romantic meetings at places between Australia and UK (Bali was the decision spot). It was he who travelled to UK, where after a couple of years they got married and now they too live in Australia. Her hen party was a three-parter too, with an afternoon visit to the cat cafe, complete with moggies, for tea, followed by cocktails. At this point I left the youngsters who set off for an evening of cabaret. I believe there was a plastic tiara and far too many cocktails, but no sashes or willy wands, so not very novelistic either.

A perfect holiday read.
That's my entire experience unless you count the group I encountered early one afternoon, where several girls, already several sheets to the wind, were tottering around in very high heels and very short skirts plus plenty of party paraphernalia. I was in the middle of Emily Benet's latest book, The Hen Party  at the time. That party too is brimming over with bride-to-be sashes, tiaras, willy wands, bottles of bubbly and far more. What's more, it's being filmed for a reality show.

I reviewed it for Greenacre Writers: The Hen Party

Emily's trademark bouncy narrative is a great holiday read and if you thought Mallorca began and ended with Magaluf and all that implies, you might be in for a surprise. But in case you're not having a holiday this year, read it anyway.




Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Have You Found Your Ideal Readers?

If you are a writer, I'm sure you are familiar with peer review and feedback on your works in progress. Writers mostly find it invaluable even when the truth hurts. But can it sometimes do more harm than good?

The initial Finish That Novel group set up by Greenacre Writers attracted some great writers and we all read and critiqued each other's work with a mix of good and critical comments. I think I'm right in saying that we all found the experience beneficial and our writing improved. I know mine did but I was fortunate in finding, by chance, my Ideal Readers - as Stephen King called them.

I joined a similar group with a different novel and here my experience was mixed. The group was less stable with a number of people joining and leaving after only a few sessions. Some people joined after several members, including me, had already presented the first few chapters. The newcomers complained that they didn't know who various characters were - in spite of us providing detailed synopses of the work so far. After a few meetings, I realized that only three members' feedback was worth considering. Of these one did not hold back in criticism but it was all constructive and extremely helpful, and another was very supportive. The third fed back so much negativity in comments it contributed to my losing confidence in my writing so much so that I left the group and abandoned the novel. This person's comments about my main character were totally at odds with how I perceived her. Was I writing this character so badly that she could be completely misjudged? Evidently so.

I'm not a snowflake so why did I crumble from these comments and criticisms? This all came at a time when I was struggling to regain health after thyroid cancer and my energy was severely depleted. My replacement thyroxine was sub-optimum leaving me on the border of depression and I was also having an extremely difficult time with a colleague at work who undermined me at every opportunity. My confidence in my abilities disappeared down the plughole. Receiving such negative feedback on top of that resulted in me losing faith with my writing altogether, that even the other members' support could not counter-effect.

I'm pleased to say that four years on, I'm in better health and feeling more assured about writing having had some good feedback on my first novel and flash-fiction pieces. The other novel, however, remained hidden in my PC files until a few weeks ago.

I'd been having a huge de-clutter and tidy up, and found the hand written notes from the feedback group. I re-read these notes and have been working on some re-writing. The extensive notes written by that first member have been used in tweaking and deleting, and have been extremely valuable.

Reading the notes from the negative critiquer with fresh eyes, I now see that this person was simply not my Ideal Reader. Far from it. Some comments are valid certainly but many are not. This reader wanted me to write a different character altogether. Actually, it seems, a different novel!

I must be honest - some points were worth considering, and perhaps deep down I knew there was a degree of truth in the harsh criticism which made it harder to hear. I am examining those comments closely to see where I can improve my characterization, but I feel free to discard anything that is not useful to me. This person was not my Ideal Reader and I now have sufficient faith in myself and my writing to throw out anything that is not beneficial in improving it.

I am not advocating surrounding yourself by people who will give unstinting praise - no-one grows in that environment. Listen to your critiquers and consider their feedback - but, please, do find the courage to disregard criticism that doesn't allow you to feel enthusiastic about your work and its development.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Flashes of fiction.

Today I attended a flash fiction workshop hosted by Greenacre Writers and led by Ingrid Jendrzejewski, who has won a number of flash fiction competitions including the prestigious Bath Flash Fiction Award in 2016.

Ingrid's aim was to take us out of our comfort zone. She set exercises to do just that! She also introduced the concept of the iceberg where only a small proportion of the berg is visible with 90% beneath the surface. The limitation of words in flash fiction - be it 6 words or 1,000 - means keeping much of the story hidden. What is visible is only a small part of the story and needs precision so the reader can still understand it. To quote Hemingway, who says it so much better. "...a writer...may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them." (The Art of Fiction, No 21 The Paris Review.)

Ingrid also spoke about the many forms of flash fiction including prose poems. Different publishers seek different forms with some preferring the narrative style - a concise short story, while others publish the prose poem forms - research is key in finding the outlets for your particular style. She also gave us some excellent examples of flash fiction including stories by Tania Hershman to read and consider, as well as plenty of resources for books, workshops, and publishers for our work.

If you have the opportunity to attend one of Ingrid's workshops I can thoroughly recommend it!

I have had a few of my flash pieces published and many more rejected. On my return from the workshop I found a tweet from Reflex Fiction with a link to my piece 'No Mirrors' - its publication today meant it that while it reached the long-list in this competition, it hasn't made it any further. With renewed enthusiasm gained from Ingrid's workshop, maybe my next one will do better!

By discovering several typos as I was writing this, I can now confirm that several genres exist: flesh fiction (courtesy of Rosie Canning) lash fiction, flask fiction and flush fiction. Take your pick.


Saturday, 15 April 2017

Confessions of a speech and language therapist.

April 16th is World Voice Day.

Ever since I was a speech therapy student (we added the 'language' bit later) I have worked with people with voice problems and now specialize in that particular area of SLT.

My voice patients vary hugely. The youngest was two and a half and the oldest some ninety years older. They come from a wide range of backgrounds and ethnicity. Some are professional voice users, others not. Anyone can have a voice problem.

I take my work very seriously but there are a few smiles along the way. I had to keep a straight face when one lady told me that the doctor was quite wrong telling her she had noodles in her throat, as that wasn't possible because she never ate noodles, horrible things. She meant nodules. Nothing to do with what you eat but often related to shouting. Which she did quite a lot. She answered her phone in my clinic to speak to her son and I almost lost my hearing.

I still wonder whether I irrevocably ruined one singer's career. He assured me he always drank a special concoction before a performance 'because it coats my vocal cords making it easier to sing.' I forbore to point out that it had obviously lost its efficacy as he was in my clinic - but instead gave him a little anatomy lesson. If his miracle drink ever went near his vocal cords he would be coughing and spluttering and wouldn't sound much good. He seemed quite devastated with my explanation, having been quite sure that his vocal cords were positioned vertically in his larynx along which the liquid would slide neatly down to his stomach. Without his placebo - can he still sing? Gargles don't act on the vocal cords either, by the way.

I asked one lady, who had very mild dysphonia (voice problem), whether her voice prevented her from carrying out any activities. 'Not really,' she replied, then said, 'I am a bit upset about not being able to sing in the supermarket.' She added 'you know, when you just want to burst into song in the supermarket? I often do that. It cheers me up.'

She and I do not shop at the same place, or at least not at the same time, because I have never heard snatches of song whilst shopping. Children yelling sometimes, but singing, no. I wasn't sure whether restoring her voice would go down well with her fellow shoppers or not!

Another patient who worked in a supermarket (was it the same one?) was surprised to see me when I was picking up a few things for dinner, and asked if I had come to check up on how she was using her voice at work. I reassured her I was just doing some shopping (thank goodness I wasn't buying six bottles of gin and multi-packs of chocolate!) But what a job that would be - I'd get to quite a few places. In the last few months I'd have been visiting schools - a lot, theatres, night-clubs, fitness classes (perhaps I should!), shops, hairdressers, taken bus rides and taxi rides, visited the The Old Bailey, and The House of Lords to name but a few.

Teachers sometimes admit to shouting to their pupils to keep the noise down but I wasn't expecting to one patient's explanation for her hoarse voice. 'I have to shout at the lions.' But it all in a day's work when you're Lion Keeper at a wildlife park! Checking up on her at work would have been a jolly day out for me. Must get that written into the job description.

At one hospital, I saw a patient who was an anaesthetist at the same hospital. She popped in for her appointment wearing her theatre greens. 'Will I be more than an hour? I've got to extubate someone in about 70 minutes. They've got my mobile number if there's a problem in the meantime, so I might have to dash.' She wasn't kidding, but there was of course, another anaesthetist to hand! (In case you are concerned about H&S - she would have changed into new theatre greens on her return. Now they are no longer worn outside theatres at all!)

I thoroughly enjoyed the scene in the waiting area when another of my clients turned up for his appointments in his work clothes. He was a specialist tribute singer. Other patients were a little surprised to find themselves sitting next to a very convincing Elvis.

There's never a dull moment!

If you are interested in finding out more about World Voice Day or want to know what a larynx looks like, take a look at the website.

More information about the voice and its care can be found on The British Voice Association website.

PS: Note to writers: It's vocal cords, not chords.






Friday, 17 March 2017

The first three months...

Spring is on the way.
Almost three months of the year are already past and with it, I hope, the worst of winter. The months have brought me mixed tidings.

I bade my daughter farewell in the first week of January for her journey to Australia where she is relocating having married an Aussie. They are going a long way round with a four month trip through 20+ countries of Central and South America. Thank goodness for email and Skype.

Losing my mother just a week later was a great sadness, although not unexpected. I keep reading or hearing things and thinking 'Oh I must tell Mum, she'll be interested to hear that,' and then remembering! She died knowing her granddaughter was going to live in the land where she was born which gave her a wonderful sense of continuity. In spite of living in England for 85 of her 95 years she still identified with Australia and in the brief notes of her life that she wrote to be read at her funeral, she mentioned how awful the weather was on the day she arrived at Tilbury in June 1931. She said it never improved much.

These two most important women in my life were also the two who provided some of my best conversations, so I'm feeling quite bereft.

On a happier note, the day after my mother's funeral I received a letter telling me I had won The Great British Write Off flash fiction competition and a lovely fat cheque! That put a smile on my face. I just wish the news had come a couple of weeks earlier so I could have told my mother who would have been delighted. The winnings will be put towards another trip because my daughter and son-in-law have now visited more countries than me and that's just not right!

I did add Australia to my country tally last September, so in the spirit of finding out more about books Down Under and Australian authors I reviewed The Book That Made Me edited by Judith Ridge, for the Greenacre Writers blog. Read my review here.

At the end of last year I had been interviewed by author Leslie Tate, who I met at an author event in November as he was interested in my work as a speech and language therapist as well as my literary endeavours. He posted the interview in January which you can read here.

So here's to spring and sunny weather, and productive reading and writing.






Monday, 16 January 2017

My mother's gift to me.

My mother introduced me to literature with stories. Bedtime stories and anytime stories. My early favourites included the Beatrix Potter books and Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series. I loved My Naughty Little Sister, by Dorothy Edwards. That's what my older sisters called me, but I knew that the child in the book was naughtier than anything I could come up with, because she did lots of really silly things which I viewed with a four-year-old's contempt. However I was rather impressed when she went on a train journey by herself with only the guard to keep an eye on her. I also liked the Milly Molly Mandy series, by Joyce Lankester Brisley, especially as I had my own Little Friend Susan. I did wish Milly Molly Mandy would choose something other than stripes for her dresses though. She nearly did once. 

Like many children I also listened to 'Listen With Mother' with my mother! Co-incidentally it was first broadcast on this very day in 1950.

Learning to read was effortless and seemingly took no time at all so I read books for myself by age five or six but still liked my mother reading to me. One book that I enjoyed was Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St. John. Set in Switzerland it featured children who skied to school in winter which sounded wonderful, although I imagined the walk back up the mountains must have been a bit of a hike. Our house had plenty of books, including some of my mother’s childhood books and those belonging to my three older sisters. I read them all.

Stories didn’t end with books. I also loved those that my mother made up or the real stories about her childhood in Australia of which I never tired. When I helped my mother with household chores such as washing up, we made up stories with one of us starting and the other taking over. The best story we created went on for weeks about a crazy family who lived in the country and led a rather bohemian life, of which their father’s relations heartily disapproved. The step-mother, who bucked the trend by being nice to her step-children, was called Lorraine but she changed it to Raine as the children were Wood, Heath, Moore, and Brooke and she thought it fitted in better. Father was a little more conventional - I can’t remember if he had a name or not – so we got him out of the way much of the time by sending him abroad to work. 

As I grew older I devoured the children’s classics including two favourites, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables and we would discuss what happened after the stories ended or have conversations about the characters as if they were our neighbours and friends. We especially liked Anne and the inhabitants of Avonlea. These discussions continued as I met the characters in adult classics including Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice.

We often compared our real neighbours to characters. Barbara Pym’s novels teemed with people from our village, which had its share of helpful ladies. We also loved the Mitford autobiographies and novels and happily chatted about Farve aka Uncle Matthew and his frightful rages as well as the sisters’ exploits. How we envied the Hons cupboard as our house had no such cosy delight.

In recent years our book discussions remained one of our favourite subjects in our regular phone-call chats, along with family news. My mother continued to read both fiction and non-fiction – she liked memoirs of interesting people – until the last few weeks of her life. She would often dip into favourite familiars if she felt too tired to tackle something new. It wasn’t so long ago that we visited Tara to have tea with Scarlett and Mammy to see if Rhett had returned. We knew exactly how that story ended – don’t be misled by published sequels.

My mother was also very supportive of my writing, and was pleased about my few modest successes. A couple of years ago she passed me several exercise books of her writings over the years about life on the farm where we lived when my siblings and I were children.  

Of all my memories of her, the literary memories are among my most precious. I'm going to miss our chats about our book friends.


Kathleen Hazel Bamfield, née Stephens. May 1921-January 2017.