Tag Archives: Literary

What Harper meant to me

harper-lee-tease-today-160219International Women’s Day 2022 reminded me of this blog, which I originally wrote shortly after Harper Lee’s death. I thought it was an appropriate time to share it again.

Every time I hear Harper Lee’s name I’m transported back to the English classroom at high school, which was the place where I was introduced to this remarkable story of courage, prejudice and human nature. Of course, the race message will always be the novel’s strongest voice but we should not forget that it speaks with many.

The sense of mystery when I first heard the children talk about Boo Radley was one that I identified with only too well. I think many of us will have memories of ‘that weird bloke who skulked around the town’ when we were kids, or the neighbourhood recluse next-door-but-three.

I already knew that prejudice was bad when I read the book, but it brought home to me the hypocrisy of people who, on the surface, appear honest and upstanding yet project their paranoia and insecurities so they manifest themselves in disrupting and harmful ways. Of course, this is a theme that is resonating very clearly around the world at the moment.

There’s a lot of Lee’s own formative years in the book too. She grew up in a small town and her father was a lawyer. Also, her mother lived with mental illness that resulted in her rarely leaving her own home. Like so many literary souls, Harper fell in love with English at high school, which put her on the path to creating her own timeless slice of writing.

To Kill a Mockingbird was of course a lesson within an English lesson. A lesson of human nature and the inexorable presence that it is. Above all though, it was and will always be a damned good story, which in the end is the most important thing.

So, thanks again Harper Lee for opening all our eyes.

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To Club or Not to Club?

No, I’m not talking about hitting the dance floor. This isn’t that kind of blog. Though that said, throwing some shapes like nobody’s watching is a guaranteed wellness tip I can certainly get behind!

I’m talking about the book club, reading club, reading circle or whatever you want to call it. Whether it’s a classic library meet-up in person (something which I guess will have become a bit of a novelty again after the last couple of years) or as part of an online community like Goodreads, book clubs are certainly alive and well. The thing is, I just don’t get them.

If you’re still reading, either you don’t either, or you’re a tensed-up ball of book club-loving anger, only sticking this out to the end so you can take me to task in the comments. Well, please feel free! I’m not here to pour scorn on the idea of like-minded peeps getting together to discuss a book, just sharing my general ignorance of the whole thing.

If I like a book, I’ll recommend it and most often lend it to a friend. I’ll also occasionally offer my opinions of one retrospectively in an online discussions page. However, even though I’m a very sociable person, paradoxically, I’m also a bit of a loner in some ways too. I go for a run alone, I’m not interested in team sports and I like to read something in my own time and on my own terms. I guess if there’s a book that ‘everyone is reading’ or is the ‘big hit of the summer’ I’ll automatically avoid it and come back to it when all the fuss has died down. I think it’s just wanting to do my own thing, and pick up a book at random, whether it’s an old Iain Banks paperback I’ve found in the charity shop, some Sherlock Holmes on my tablet, a Michael Moorcock I picked up years ago and never got round to reading (I know, sorry!) or Dave Grohl’s excellent The Storyteller that I got for Christmas. I mix them up, don’t have a plan and just go for it.

For me, reading is a very personal experience. Certainly as far as fiction goes, it’s pure therapeutic escapism, and I want the characters to be preserved in my mind exactly how I imagined them. It’s my little world and I want it to stay that way. I say to people who don’t read fiction that really for me, it’s like a film or a box set in my mind. I love movies, I love video games and I love books. I’ve no time for the snobbery that I’ve sometimes seen on social media regarding all these. Why can’t I enjoy a bit of everything? It’s all escapism and it’s all fun. As long as there’s a story, I’m in.

Well, that turned into a bit of a rant didn’t it? I guess if you’re as passionate as I am, they why shouldn’t you meet with other like-minded people to talk about what you’re reading and share the magic? I might even join you. Just not yet.

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Always have another iron in the fire

Aside from the (very) rare flash of inspiration which has produced a short story or a lyric, I’ve always been a methodical plodder, a workhorse doggedly sticking to one project through fear of distraction. The problem was, ‘sticking to it’ for me meant hammering away intensely for a bit, then leaving it for a few months because life got in the way. Hardly living life at the literary coalface.

Sound familiar? Maybe you know who all your characters are, what they’re going to do and how everything turns out, but you’re procrastinating over that first edit or beta read submission, fearing it might come back tattered, bloody and full of holes.

After finishing the first draft of my novella, this was me. I felt like I’d done all the creative stuff, but still needed something to keep me occupied when the editing stage got a little bit much. So I started a ‘no pressure, just for fun’ project; something I could chip away at in between bouts of editing and worrying. I found this really useful, because it kept my creative juices flowing while I was wearing my editing hat. Because my mind was still in a creative mode, I think it helped me resolve a few things with my main manuscript, and I also managed to create something new along the way. (In my case, a novelisation of a Dungeons and Dragons adventure I’d written for my players.)

If you haven’t tried this, why not give it a go? Who knows, your ‘just for fun’ project may end up growing some serious legs and scurry off to enjoy a life of its own. But if dragging out the toolbox for another bout of world-building sounds like too daunting a prospect, no pressure. Just write a bit of your own fan fiction and take some of your favourite characters on a whole new journey. The world’s already there, so just have some fun exploring it.

Another approach is just to write. It doesn’t matter what it is, just stream-of-consciousness musings, some poetry or maybe even a blog like this one.

So go on, add a few more irons to the fire and see what you can forge.

Photo by C D-X on Unsplash

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Change of seasons, change of format?

If you’re anything like me, your inbox has been mercilessly bombarded of late with ‘end of summer’ ‘back to school’ and ‘last of the summer savings’ emails, heralding the inevitable change of seasons that happens every year, but somehow seems to catch us unawares.

I think reading is tied in to all this. ‘Summer reads’, ‘holiday reads’ ‘curl up with a good book’ are all phrases you’ve no doubt seen or heard numerous times over the years. They’re emotive though, and this recent flurry of in-box activity got me thinking. What’s the ideal book format for the time of year?

The humble paperback is synonymous with summer. It’s more portable and less valuable, so if it succumbs to a poolside splash or some scuffs of sand, big deal! It weighs less and is smaller so easier to carry around. An oily fingerprint from your sun tan lotion can add its own story to the existing one, reminding you of where you were when you read it.

You’d be less likely to take your hardback, dust-cover volumes away with you though. After all, you probably reserve this more pricey format to add to the collection populated by your very favourite writers. Though they’re far less practical, I do like hardbacks. Aside from the pages staying open much easier, there’s something instantly scholarly about them. For me, the idea of ‘winter reading’ conjures up images of Holmes and Watson, combing through musty old volumes from the Baker Street archives by lamplight in a bid to track down their latest adversary. Oh and they look great on the shelf too!

Then there’s Kindle. Whether it’s the device itself or through an app on your tablet, the e-book format has made millions of books available to everyone, everywhere. No need to agonise over which book to take on holiday with a digital library at your fingertips. Of course, it’s great for self-published authors too, and – here comes the plug – it made my novella available instantly to anyone around the world.

An audiobook is certainly your best friend at bath time. No book-drop mishaps or steamed up glasses for the short-sighted here. Of course, they’re great for car journeys, park runs and gym workouts too, making them the perfect choice for any multitasker.

Whatever format you prefer, losing yourself in a new book is the perfect way to ease yourself into autumn.

Let me know your favourite format in the comments!

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The Fall (a short story)

Now…
Danny felt like shit, for two reasons. The first was the recurring dream he’d had last night, which had allowed him about 3 hours’ sleep. The second was the prospect of facing his boss, Westward, who was quite simply a textbook sonofabitch. Danny tried to ignore his craving for sleep, thoughts dwelling on his boss a while longer, then surveyed the scene before him. The subway always played host to the same array of commuter stereotypes. There was the kid with the headphones, decked out in designer leisure wear, blissfully unaware of the torment his music was causing the ancient lady sat in the seat next to him. Then there was the overweight middle-aged executive, all flabby jowls, plump hands and acrid cologne.

Looking out of the window, Danny saw an unusual splash of colour, surprised that he’d never noticed it before. As the subway train slowed a little, he found he could read the graffiti artist’s seemingly endless message, daubed on the brickwork along the side of the track: ‘WORK-SUB-TV-SLEEP-SUB-WORK-SUB-TV-SLEEP-SUB-WORK-SUB-TV-SLEEP-SUB….HOW MUCH MORE CAN YOU TAKE???’ Danny realised he was looking at his life. The point hit home, which only made him feel worse.

The train lurched to a standstill, creaking and groaning from the strains of its daily duties. As Danny slowly rose, he imagined that if it could feel, it would feel like he did right now – same stop, same routine, same New York. As he ascended into the gloomy morning, leaving the hustle-bustle of the subway to join the daily rat race, Danny could already see Westward Electronics’ office building looming menacingly overhead. A testament to modern architecture’s persistence to be the biggest, its lofty point seemed to lacerate the clouds, releasing the relentless drizzle of Fall.

As he walked towards the building, Danny noticed a group of people gathered beneath it. They were standing in a rough circle, each making their own contribution to a cacophony of raised voices, shouts and gasps. A police officer who happened to be nearby had noticed the commotion and was trying to cut his way through the throng, who remained unaware of his efforts and were eagerly searching for something that would break the monotony of their morning routine.

As Danny got closer, he could make out some of what was being said:

“Come on folks, let me through!”
“Oh my God!”
Looks like a leaper, man.”
Holy shit, what a mess.”
“Jeeesus”
“Goddamn sidewalk pizza!”
“It definitely looks like a suicide…”

Almost everyone had something to say. Danny cursed himself for being just like the rest of them, an eager witness to death. He muscled in beside a young woman – “Hey, watch it mister!” – and eventually found himself at the front of the group, struggling to keep his place and to avoid stepping in the slowly spreading pool of blood. There was lots of the stuff and the boy’s – was it a boy? – the boy’s clothes looked…Jesus Christ, his face!

Then…
It was the summer of 1981. For two carefree kids of 15, it was a summer that seemed to last forever. Danny had been overjoyed when his parents had allowed him to stay in Denver with Richie’s aunt and uncle. Both families knew each other well and as a result, Danny and Richie Arnold were best friends. The holiday was going great and five days in, Richie’s uncle had suggested a trip out to the Rockies. The boys had been thrilled. The trip was planned for the weekend and the idea was that they’d camp out – “rough it” –as Richie’s uncle had explained to the boys earlier.

Danny was born in Topeka, Kansas, and had never seen so much of his country’s natural wonders in one go. He eagerly drank in his surroundings, enjoying the sights and sounds as he looked around in awe. His parents tried to get out with him whenever they could, but the Rockies were something else. On the Saturday, after a long hike, they’d all sat down to rest, a good distance from a ravine which gave way to a stunning view. Danny had gazed intently at the opposite rock face, the distant horizon, and the mountains. He could even see a section of the Arkansas river, glistening in the distance.

It had all happened so fast. When Richie’s uncle’s back was turned, Danny had suggested they go to the edge of the ravine, to look straight down. The drop was huge. Richie, who had always been the more careless of the two boys, started fooling around, balancing on one foot close to the edge. Danny shouted a warning to his friend to be careful, to which he replied:

“What’s the matter Danny, chicken or somethin’?”

Richie didn’t listen of course. How was he to know that what he thought was firm earth beneath him was loose rocks? Danny could see his friend’s expression for an instant – a strange mixture of terror and confusion – then he was gone. He rushed to the edge, shouting Richie’s name, and just had time to see a flash of his friend’s red and black shirt, then nothing.

Danny returned home in sorrow. He didn’t stop crying for a week and every night he would dream. Only it wasn’t a dream. He was awake in his room. His model spaceship hung from the ceiling, his wardrobe was a tall, dark shadow, while his desk lurked squat in the corner. Then, Richie would appear. His red and black shirt was stained with gore, his left arm a shattered ruin, bone jutting from a rent in his sleeve. His face was the worst of all. His left eye was completely missing, an ugly bare socket gazing out vacantly, endlessly, while his skull was crushed madly inward on one side, like a collapsed eggshell. Richie would always hold his hand out in the same beckoning way and Danny would scream as loudly as he had ever screamed in his life. Yet, above the sound of his own terrified voice, he would hear Richie’s, through shattered teeth and burst lips:

“What’s the matter Danny, chicken or somethin’?”

It would always end there and Danny would wake up, still screaming, as his mother rushed in to comfort him. Mom wasn’t there last night though. Last night, Danny had experienced his childhood recurring dream for the first time in 15 years.

Now…
He suddenly felt faint. The people seemed to be looming over him and all he could do was stare at the shattered 15-year-old face of Richie Arnold. As he began to sway, an office worker grabbed Danny’s arm to support him, saying:

“What a waste…I dunno, he just fell out of the sky.”

Then, someone else, the headphones kid from the subway train, added:

“Fell out of the 80s too…just look at those threads.”

Now, Danny felt sick and light-headed, the nausea rising from the pit of his stomach as unconsciousness beckoned. Before he passed out though, he swore he could hear Richie’s voice:

“What’s the matter Danny, chicken or somethin’?”

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On Procrastination

Ah, procrastination. We’re all guilty of it to different degrees.

For me, it’s actually knuckling down to some serious story writing. My procrastinating has spanned several years and though I’ve written loads of things in that time, it was all ‘work’. Way back when, I’d originally come up with the germ of a good idea, sketched out a plot and made a start. But where would it go? Would it be long enough? What would I do with it? Would anyone want to read it? All these questions, as well as good old life getting in the way, prevented me from getting any further. However, with a little more time on my hands of late, I decided to get stuck in.

As an editor, I’ve been my own worst enemy in some ways. It’s been tough to let the words flow without constantly editing them! I’ve been continuing to fight against this though and a flurry of activity (well, for me) over the last few weeks has brought me to a place where I know how my story ends. I’m filling in some detail and developing some areas of the plot, but after that, well, at least I’ll have a tale to tell.

That’s the thing. There’s tons of ways you’ll try and tell yourself it’s not the right time to start your book. You don’t know how it ends. You don’t have all your characters. Your  grammar is a little shaky. The list goes on, but none of it matters. Just write. After all, nobody ever published their first draft.

And, when you’ve got your story to a stage where you think it’s worth reading, you can always send it to me to edit. After all, I feel your pain!

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A Summer of Verne

Jules Verne

I may have been familiar with some of his most popular work thanks to the old film adaptions I watched my childhood, but until this summer, I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never read anything by Jules Verne.

There, I said it. Feels better to get it out in the open. I ‘m still only two books better off, but what an amazing pair of books they are. It’s admittedly a massively overused phrase but 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and its Sequel The Mysterious Island really have stood the test of time as pieces of literature. A good story is a good story and will always trump a work which falls over itself to shoe-horn as many fancy words in as it can. That’s not to say Verne didn’t show literary flair but his emphasis was always on keeping the reader gripped and taking them on a fantastical journey.

All the while I was reading, I was reminding myself that they were translations too, and what skill Verne must’ve had to ensure the many works he wrote in his native French could be enjoyed by everyone. They’re a fascinating time capsule as well, from a time when it wasn’t easy to visit other countries, experience other cultures, or an everyday occurrence to meet someone with a different colour of skin.

In 20,000 Leagues…, Verne not only introduced one of popular culture’s most enduring figures in the enigmatic Captain Nemo, but one of its greatest feats of engineering, his mighty vessel the Nautilus. We take the idea of the submarine for granted now, but in this book, Verne pretty much invented it. The ideas and concepts he introduced in the book surrounding the Nautilus must’ve been nothing short of revolutionary at the time and it’s quite an experience to read about it now, knowing that at the time of publication, no-one had ever heard of such a thing before.

The Mysterious Island has also received the film adaption treatment – twice – but it was of course the original which caught my attention as a child. In it, Verne carefully weaves a stand-alone tale into the continuation of Nemo’s story seamlessly and extremely satisfyingly. In some ways it’s an even more gripping read, and it’s fascinating to behold the ingenuity of its protagonists as they adapt to life on their new-found accidental home.

If you’re a literary stranger to Jules Verne, I’d highly recommend these two great helpings of escapism.

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October 8, 2018 · 8:41 am