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All the Lonely People

I’ve fallen in love with reading again after several months of feeling like it was too much effort in these strange times we’re living in. But – hurrah, hurrah – I am back on form. All credit to Mike Gayle for getting me back on that horse.

All the Lonely People. Love the book. Love the artwork.

I’ve just finished All the Lonely People the story of reclusive Hubert Bird whose daughter announces she’s coming back from Australia to visit him. She can’t wait to see him and meet all these friends he’s been telling her about. The problem is, Hubert has been making the friends up. Rather than tell her the truth, that he’s lonely and friendless, he embarks on a project to find himself some new friends and renew old acquaintanceships.

As we go through his present day attempts, the story of his life begins to unfold; starting with the young Hubert’s emigration from Jamaica in 1958. In cold, unwelcoming and often hostile London, Hubert finds love with Joyce, an English girl from a deeply racist family. Together they face prejudice, hardship and tragedy. In spite of it all they remain devoted to each other.

All the Lonely People is a heartwarming, uplifting story. At the same time it’s terribly sad but never overly sentimental. I particularly liked the way Hubert’s memories of his past life are intricately woven with his present life. The story didn’t end how I expected or hoped it would end but it was no less powerful because of that. I so wanted everything to slot into place and for everyone to be all right but that rarely happens in real life and Hubert Bird’s story is no fairy tale.

I haven’t read any of Mike’s books for a while. Not sure why because I always enjoy them when I do. Anyway, I liked Hubert’s story so much that I’ve just bought Half a World Away. Look out for my views on that in a later post.

In the meantime, if you’ve read All the Lonely People, what did you think of it? If you’ve read any other books that you think I’d enjoy, let me know.

What are you watching right now? Part two.

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché

Beneath the layers of a punk icon

There were plenty of female punks in the late seventies but not that many female punk icons. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was just the sort of music that attracted angry young men to the stage. Perhaps there were other underlying reasons at play, like so many other strands of life around that time.

There was Debbie Harry, of course. I loved her but Blondie were always more pop than punk. For me the most iconic (there’s that word again) had to be Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex. Everything about her was so exciting – the way she dressed, the way she sang and, of course, the things she sang about.

As a girl, I was never into anything mainstream so the things Poly stood for appealed to me. If I’m honest though, I never really looked any further than the top layer. I didn’t see that beneath the clothes, the voice and the songs was a vulnerable young woman called Marion Elliot.

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché gave us a view into the real Marion Elliot, mainly from two perspectives – Marion’s daughter, Celeste Bell, and Marion herself courtesy of her diary entries. Sadly, Marion died of cancer in 2011 so her words are spoken by actor, Ruth Negga.

This is a film that takes in the flimsy shallowness of fame – everything Poly/Marion despised – as well as the confusion and alientation of growing up a mixed race child in the blatantly hostile and racist society of Britain in the sixties and seventies. Add to that the effects of a severe mental health condition on Marion and the people closest to her. Not always an easy watch but a compelling one.

By the end of the film my heart ached. For Marion, and for Celeste too. As she finally plucked up the courage to go through Marion’s things, Celeste laid her mum’s story bare so that we could all understand who Poly Styrene really was. I felt I knew her better and I watched the clips of her performances with renewed awe. What a brave woman she was.

What are you watching right now?

The Terror and Unforgotten. Two of my current faves.

For me, it’s been a hard few months for reading. I normally manage to get through at least one novel a month but lately, I’ve been feeling a bit bleh about fiction. I know. It’s awful isn’t it? I need to give myself a good talking to.

On the other hand, I’ve been watching some decent telly. Here are two shows that have been keeping me entertained in the last couple of weeks.

The Terror

Based on the true story of a failed Royal Navy expedition to find the Northwest passage in the late 1840s. It’s an unflinching tale of the disintegration of a highly ordered regime into survivalist chaos when their ships become trapped in the frozen Arctic ice and they become prey to a mysterious bear like creature. As the crew is gradually picked off, either by the creature, the severe conditions or contaminated food they become overtaken by fear and suspicion and control begins to slip.

It’s a fantastically gory, gripping Gothic horror. I can recommend it. I can also recommend you have a pillow handy to hide behind when the need arises. Especially if blood, flesh and rudimentary Victorian surgery is not your thing.

Unforgotten: Series 4

A headless, handless corpse is discovered in a scrapped fridge. Initial investigations suggest that it’s the body of a man who disappeared in 1989. It’s up to DCI Cassie Stewart, DI Sunny Khan and the rest of the Cold Case team to track down the killer. The only problem is the main suspects were police recruits at the time and two of them are still serving officers. Cassie and Sunny need to unpick the bones of this case very carefully indeed.

What I love about Unforgotten is the way the characters are so well drawn and believable. There’s not one cliché among them. Yes, they have their problems but they’re real problems that any of us could see ourselves having to deal with at different points in our lives. The suspects are equally fully developed characters. So much so that you really don’t want them to be guilty because you’re already invested in them. Maddeningly, ITV have gone old-school with this and are only releasing one episode a week. I’m a binge watcher. I must have them all now!

That’s it for now. Maybe I’ll write about more great TV soon. Not Bloodlands though. That was first-class bonkers TV, if you ask me.

What about you? Have you seen anything good lately? Or even anything daft? Let me know.

City of Echoes

When someone vanishes from an eighteenth-floor apartment that’s locked from the inside, your options are limited.

DI Ash Carter’s colleagues have all but given up looking for his missing girlfriend, Salina. All he can do is try to hold things together and not let the grief consume him. But when an old case mistakenly lands on his desk, he discovers a remarkable similarity to Salina’s disappearance that sets him on a path to uncover the truth behind Salina’s friendship with Kimmie Chan and the strange significance of Birmingham’s most iconic building, The Rotunda.

If you like the sound of my short story, The Crossing Place you can read it here, in the new Birmingham Writer’s Group anthology, City of Echoes.

The anthology is an assortment of stories by some great writers, mainly set in diverse versions of our home town of Birmingham, England.

Last year, we had a great launch party for our 2019 anthology, City of Hope . Sadly, this year’s was not to be, but let’s hope next year will be different.

I’m not quite sure what genre you’d place my story in. It’s certainly not one that I usually write in but that’s what I enjoy about contributing to this collection. It gives me a chance to experiment. My writing friends did give me some suggestions which I scribbled down at the time and then promptly forgot where I put them. Most likely, they’ve ended up in the recycling bin. Anyway, my best guess is that it’s part police procedural, part contemporary fantasy.

If you know better. Let me know.

NaNoWriMo 2020 here I come…

It’s miserable wet and windy here today. Not the most inspiring of days to ramp up the motivational gears in readiness for NaNoWriMo or, as I like to call it, Operation Writing Overdrive.

If you’ve read my previous blog, you’ll know that I was in something of a dilemma as to what to do with the first draft of the novel I wrote in last year’s event, after taking a second look at it. I can now report that I’ve decided to split it. It’s a decision that’s left me with mixed feelings. Dread and excitement. Dread at the thought of untangling it all, and excitement at the prospect of creating another two books that I feel really passionate about.

In case you’re wondering, I haven’t just left last year’s draft to gather dust somewhere in the back corners of my laptop. Aside from concentrating on other projects, I’ve been doing a fair amount of research because some of the stories are set in the past. World War II and the proceeding decades, to be precise. It’s required a lot of reading and sifting of information but I’m sure what I’ve learned about those times will help to make the book more authentic.

So here I am, on this rainy afternoon in Birmingham, England, surrounded by research books; paper and electronic notes, and spreadsheets. Yes, spreadsheets. Definitely need the spreadsheets. No more crazy wordcounts for me, thank you. I have never been more ready to go. I even have a working title, ‘The Diaries of Miss Edith Pinsent.’

NaNoWriMo here I come.

PS: My first book, ‘The Three Things That Broke Netta Wilde,’ is about to enter the final and formal editing phase. Now that really is exciting.

The one versus two novel dilemma

Or

When you replot your first draft and realise you’ve actually written two novels.

Just getting myself prepped up for NaNoWriMo 2020.

In last year’s NaNoWriMo, I wrote just over 50,000 words of my second novel and went on to finish the first draft early this year. Then, I put it away and busied myself with rewrites on book no 1. I haven’t really looked at that first draft since. Until now.

I’ve spent the last week re-reading and re-tracking that first draft in readiness for this year’s NaNoWriMo, on a spreadsheet and on this little multi-coloured beauty.

I decided to spend the month focusing on book no 2, rather than start a new story afresh. If I have time when that’s finished, I have two other projects in my back pocket ready to crack on with. All good so far.

Except that now I’ve read it all through and done a final word count, I find I’m already at over 100,000 words.

You might ask, how that could have happened. Didn’t I keep an eye on wordcount?

I must confess, I kept a tally of the wordcount in November then just forgot about it and let the story flow. In the early stages, I write each chapter as separate word documents. It helps my focus and is easier to move around if needed but it’s no good as a wordcount tracker. I could have kept a log but I didn’t. So, no. I suppose I didn’t really keep an eye on wordcount.

You might ask, didn’t I plan the novel?

Well, believe it or not. I planned this one to death. Much more, in fact than book 1. I planned it, and still added to the story. What’s more, I tend to underwrite my first drafts and the re-read has shown me there are bits of the story missing. I say story. In actual fact, it’s four connected stories which is probably another reason for the huge wordcount.

So, what to do? I could plough on and try to shave bits off the original story, or stories, while finding ingenious ways to fill in the missing bits without adding too much to the wordcount. That might work but it’s doubtful.

Or, I could do the sensible thing and split the book into two. I’ve checked the wordcount on the obvious chapters that belong in each book and it’s roughly fifty-fifty. The problem is, the chapters that contain bits of the other stories. The ones that thread the stories together. They are going to take some work to unpick, but at least that gives me room to make each of the stories more rounded.   

Maybe that’s the way to go. As long as I track the number of words this time, what can go wrong?

As to planning. I’ve come to realise I work best part planning and part pantsing. Yes, it is a real word that we writerly types use. It means, just letting it flow out or, in other words, flying by the seat of your pants.

Does that make me a planster? Or did I just make that up?  I’m pretty sure I read it somewhere. I’m pretty sure it’s another real word in the alternative universe that is writing circles (as opposed to crop circles). There I go again.

Summer Reading – Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett.

For someone who claims to read very little fantasy, this summer was quite a fantasy fest for me. To be fair, I do like a bit of Discworld. It was introduced to me by my son who became a fan while still in primary school. This was a loan from him.

This particular Discworld story centres on the wizards of the Unseen University who find themselves in something of a financial predicament that leaves them with two choices – either take part in a brutal Ankh-Morpork football tournament or tighten their belts. Being particularly fond of their bellies, the wizards go for the least distasteful option and pull together a motley team to take part in a momentous match. All this without the use of magic. The chancellor is keen to win but, since their opponents have been infiltrated by vengeful football hooligans, they’ll be lucky to get out of it alive.

Of course, this being Discworld, there is always a sub-plot or two on the go and there are always underdogs waiting to become unwitting heroes. In Unseen Academicals these come in the guise of four young people. There’s the mysterious candle dribbler, Mr Nutt who must come to terms with the reality of his personal history and, at the same time, turn the ramshackle band of wizards into something resembling a football team.

Mr Nutt’s colleague and best friend, Trev Likely is a street urchin trying to better himself while definitely not playing the sport that killed his father, the most famous of all of Ankh-Morpork’s footballers. Trev falls for Juliet Stollop, a beautiful but dim kitchen assistant who becomes a famous fashion model. Juliet loves him too but there’s a problem. Trev supports the Dimmers while Juliet’s dad and brothers support their arch enemies the Dollies.

Juliet works in the university’s kitchen, with her best friend and substitute mum, Glenda Sugarbean, a maker of outstanding pies and an all-round sensible person with a secret love of trashy romantic novels. When Mr Nutt meets the homely Glenda, an unlikely romance ensues.

I adored Glenda. For me, she’s the true hero of this caper. Despite it being a fantasy, when the story’s told from her point of view it becomes much closer to a genuine human experience. Like most people, she’s a bundle of conflicts. She’s street smart, yet naïve. Hardened, yet maternal. It’s Glenda who explains to the wizards that football is more than just a game. She saves the day at every turn, whether rescuing the Academicals from defeat with a brilliant idea or showing Mr Nutt the way to personal acceptance. At the same time, she conquers her own personal fears and grows in confidence and stature, even gaining the respect of Lord Vetinari himself.

A sweet, funny story from the much-missed Terry Pratchett that even features a walk on appearance from one of my favourite Discworld character Sam Vimes. What’s not to like?

Summer Reading – Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

From Miller’s fantasy to the surreal world of Murakami.

I’m not quite sure what genre you’d slot this novel into. It crosses over several. But if you like books with layers of intricacy that take a while to make sense of, then this is one for you.

I was half-way through the story before I got the significance of the title. The Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World are, in fact, the two separate states, or worlds, that the unnamed narrator moves through. One is in the conscious and the other in the subconscious. In both states, he is an outsider; slightly apart from the rest of society. In the conscious world, this is because he’s a split-brained Calcutec, a sort of human computer, who works for a mysterious organisation called the System. His job is to cipher and encode vast amounts of confidential data in his mind. To do this he has to flip into his subconscious. This is enabled by an implant in his head.

In the subconscious world, he’s a stranger who arrives at an isolated walled town at the end of the world. To live there, he must allow his shadow to be cut away from him.  The longer he lives there, the harder it is to remember his past and the weaker his incarcerated shadow becomes.

When the Calcutec accepts an assignment from an odd scientist, his life becomes increasingly unhinged. He comes into contact with sinister underworld creatures that live in the sewers; has to fight off the advances of the scientist’s lonely granddaughter and is constantly under threat from the criminal Semiotics organisation, as well as his own employers. On top of that, he’s attacked by two thugs who seem to be linked to neither. He meets and falls for, a permanently hungry librarian who helps him try to work out the significance of a unicorn skull given to him by the scientist. The same librarian becomes a significant part in his subconscious world. As does the unicorn skull.

As if that’s not bad enough, the scientist tells the Calcutec that the implant is a time bomb. In 48 hours, his body and conscious mind will shut down. The physical world will cease to exist for him and his mind will permanently function only in his subconscious – the place at the end of the world.

It sounds complex, and it is. But it’s also funny, clever and self-deprecating. Murakami brings two separate, equally compelling worlds to life. At times, it’s the unreal world inside the narrator’s head that seems to be the more normal. It’s easy to see why he’s attracted to it more and more.

Murakami presents us with an odd collection of characters in this story. Each with their own eccentricities. In the centre is the narrator, a man who is both part of and apart from society in 1980s Tokyo. His shadow is a separate entity in itself and surely a metaphor for the conscious half of his mind. There’s an interesting dynamic going on between the two. Surprisingly, it’s the shadow that’s the proactive one. In both worlds, the narrator is nearly always reactive. The fact that his reactions are so humorous, lends charm to the story.

As to the other characters, my favourites are the women. The naïve, yet brilliant granddaughter with her blunt manner and her love of all things pink lit up the page. Also, the librarian who, in the physical world, never tires of eating. I equally loved the sadder version of her that lives in the metaphysical world. She’s the one the narrator falls in love with and, you feel sure, she’s the one that will save his mind.

This is my second Murakami book, and I’m rapidly becoming a fan. If you’ve read it to, I’d love to know what you thought of it. If not, give it a try and let me know.

Summer Reading – Circe by Madelaine Miller.

With the usual summer debauchery being either too difficult or too scary this year, I wonder how many of us have turned to more solitary pursuits to pass the time. Specifically, I wonder how many of us have read more than we usually do. 

I know people who have turned to books, for the first time in a good while, to find brief escapes from reality. Conversely, I know people who have always read but have found it particularly hard this year to settle their minds sufficiently to commit to a whole book. I can understand that feeling. Sometimes, the instant gratification of the telly or a magazine is a quicker and easier way to lose yourself.

I’ve watched a few of those programmes myself. The sort you wouldn’t normally be bothered with. But I have carried on reading. Probably not as much as I normally do, but what I have read has been engrossing. Over the next few posts, I’ll tell you about some of them. Here’s the first:

Circe by Madelaine Miller

A retelling of the story of Circe the Witch, a fairly minor Greek God. This book was passed on to me by my daughter. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it but I as wrong. The more I read the more it captivated me and, although it was based on a myth – a fairy tale, if you like – the story felt incredibly contemporary.

Friendless and despised by her family Circe leads a lonely existence because she doesn’t fit the usual mould. When she falls in love with a mortal, she makes a mistake that changes her life forever. As a consequence of her actions she is exiled to the island of Aiaia. However, far from it being the end of her, Circe finds that, away from the tyranny of her family, she flourishes.  

One of the interesting themes in Circe’s story is the difference between the Gods and mortals. Contrary to normal teachings, it’s the Gods who are spoilt, selfish and feckless whereas the mortals are mainly honest and hardworking. Circe character’s is a complicated one that seems to straddle both camps. Often, she’s naïve and far too trusting and yet she is as capable of cruelty as the rest of her kin. Her need for affection is all too human. Desperate for it and with only the worst possible role models to draw on, Circe falls for the wrong kind of men.

Another interesting theme is the balance of power. A gradual awakening in Circe brings a realisation of where the real power lies. Although the pointers are there throughout her life, it takes a couple of thousand years for her to understand that women are constantly controlled, used and abused by men. Some of them Gods, some of them mortals.  

As she ages, Circe grows in wisdom and bravery. When she becomes a mother, all of her strength and skill is needed to singlehandedly protect her son. After finally meeting her soul mate, she summons up the courage to confront her brutal father and literally, blow her demons out of the water. As the book closes, we see her summoning all of her spirit and determination to take one last step into the unknown – her true self.

The story of Circe is an epic one. Its beating heart is a woman. A God who is as human as any of us.