Philippa’s reading list (2019)

I’ve been reflecting on some of the books I’ve read this year and as you can maybe tell from the small selection in the picture, I’ve made made a conscious effort to vary the subject matter, genre and style. This is part of an attempt to learn by ‘reading as a writer’ – a concept I was introduced to during an OU course on Creative Writing in 2011. img_6620

This list is not quite complete but a good representation of books I’ve enjoyed, with a few comments along the way. Hopefully you might take from it some reading ideas for yourselves:-

First write a sentence by Prof. Jo Moran – thoroughly engaging non-fiction, covering aspects of writing, grammar and punctuation; very accessible containing wonderful nuggets of wisdom. I can’t recommend this enough.

The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau – chosen by my American literature study group where we concentrate on female American authors, this is a fascinating, multi-layered novel, exploring race and gender through seven generations in the Deep South.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris – not as harrowing as the title suggests; somehow kindness and hope find a place, despite the horror of the place.

I Thought I Knew You by Penny Hancock is a very readable page-turner in the genre of romance fiction. It involves the main character’s best friend and their children in a moral dilemma.

The Rumour by Lesley Kara – this crosses the genre of psychological thriller with romance fiction in a story about the damage caused by rumour and fake news, with good twists and turns.

The Way Of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry – another page-turner, this book conveys the work of doctors, obstetricians, and early anaesthetics, in a story of murder and misadventure in 1840s Edinburgh. It was great for me to read personally, as a doctor who visited Edinburgh this time last year ( see blog Oct 2018), it really brought to life the backstreets, closes and wynds we explored.

An American Marriage by Tayeri Jones is possibly my favourite book of the year. It’s a compelling and intimate study of black middle-class America and the effects of an awful miscarriage of justice.

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley –  a dark and gritty winter New Years Eve house party.

The Keeper by Graham Norton –  a warmly written, enjoyable tale from Ireland.

Hampstead Fever by Carol Cooper –  a romantic romp through contemporary London life with a group of thirty-something neighbours.

Circe by Madeleine Miller – a fascinating, modern classic, based on Greek mythology with a core of witchcraft and feminism.

Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence by Artemis Cooper –  an interesting (if rather long and drawn out) insight into the life of the writer, her lovers and her social group from the 1940s until her death in 2014.

The Wedding by Dorothy West – another American Literature study group book, set in Martha’s Vineyard in the 50s, involving issues of race and class, and beautifully written.

There might be a few books I’ve forgotten (and just the odd one I didn’t finish) but that’s about it for now. Feel free to send me any recommendations for next year, thanks.

Px

 

 

The Ten Commandments For Writers – a short story.

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‘I’ve been asked to give a talk to a writing group in South Essex,’ I say over coffee.

            ‘That’s great!’ Jen exclaims and her dog, Alfie appears from beneath the table, excited by her enthusiasm.

‘But I don’t know what I have to say about writing that would be of any interest.’

            ‘You’re a confident speaker. I still remember your menopause talk.’ Jen takes a fan out of her bag and wafts it in unison with the wagging of Alfie’s tail.

I laugh at the silly pair.

‘It’s okay talking about something I have expertise in, but writing – I’m hardly Steven King. Mind you it is a paid gig,’ I comment.

            ‘Ah, money talks. You must be able to think of something to say. You blog, you’ve written a couple of novels and umpteen shorts.’

‘Three novels actually.’

             ‘Well there you are then,’ Jen pats Alfie and mops her forehead with a folded napkin.

‘I suppose I’ve done quite a few short stories but only had a couple of successes, and the blog has few followers.’

             ‘I follow it.’

‘You do, thanks, but I don’t break even on the book publishing,’ I bleat.

             ‘Self-indulgent twaddle! People love your books.’ Jen pats my arm and the dog whines.

‘There’s always a note of surprise in their muted praise,’ I mutter.

            ‘You need to learn to love yourself – love yourself as your neighbour and her dog.’

‘I’ve got an idea, I could do The Ten Commandments for writers.’

             ‘Go on then, give it a go.’

‘Thou shalt love your writing and yourself, ‘ I begin.

             ‘Absolutely. Next?’

‘Thou shalt write something every day and not give up. Thou shalt have a tough skin, so as not to fear rejection but learn from it,’ I continue.

             ‘Yes – persistence and resilience.’

‘Thou shalt not covet the success of others,’ I quickly add.

Alfie settles and Jen nods. ‘Carry on.’

‘Thou shalt not feel compelled to do NaNoWriMo every year,’ I chuckle.

           ‘Good. You’re always a pain in November.’

‘Gee thanks. Thou shalt heavily disguise characters based on friends, neighbours, and their dogs,’ I continue.

          ‘I’ve always wondered which character was me.’

‘State secret,’ I whisper to Alfie.

           ‘My turn now – Thou shalt be particularly nice to your beta readers and buy their drinks and coffee.’

‘Agreed. How about Thou shalt be kind to other writers and supportive of the writing community on social media without being sucked into scurrilous threads.’

           ‘Good one. How many’s that?’

I count on my fingers. ‘Eight.’

            ‘Two to go – Thou shalt back up your work on the computer so it doesn’t get lost. I remember the tizz you got into with your first novel.’ Jen fanned her armpits.

‘Stop that. I’ve got number ten – Thou shalt enjoy writing and have fun.’

            ‘Exactly, so now you can do the talk,’ Jen announces.

‘No chance – my Eleventh Commandment is Thou shalt learn to say “no”. No talk, I’ll just blog. Coffee’s on me.’

 

The Anthology is here

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I thought I’d show you the evidence; my author’s copy of WSOFIT? arrived by post from the US today, which is very exciting. There are over forty contributing authors and nearly fifty stories included in the anthology, so I have no time to write more now as I want to go and read them all. The book is sitting on my desk and calling me…

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WSOFIT (what sort of f*ckery is this)?

Don’t be scared – I know not everyone likes clowns, but this shows the cover of the newly published anthology from Devil’s Party Press click here for link  and I am one of the ‘bad-ass’ authors who has contributed to it.

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I spotted the advert for this online competition in January 2019 when on holiday in Amsterdam. Dr H and I were staying in the beautiful Ambassade Hotel on Herengracht and one cold snowy afternoon I went back to our room to relax, while he continued to walk the paved streets with his camera. The hotel had a literary touch about it – maybe that’s what inspired a new short story. The hotel library had a large collection of signed copies of books, written by authors who had stayed there, and I already had regretted not taking a copy of Lawn House Blues with me. Anyway it was here that I decided a hotel would be a good location for a story. Once back home, in early February, I submitted my 1640 word story called ‘Shitty Mushrooms’ to DPP and was delighted to have it accepted for the WSOFIT anthology.

The brief for the competition was to write a story with a swear word in the title. The story itself was however not expected to be obscene or offensive. Those who know me are aware that I tend not to swear when out in public (who knows what goes on at home?) so I had to create a character who could gently swear on my behalf. I decided on a chambermaid called Monique and made her place of work a seedy South London hotel, which was of course nothing like the Ambassade.  A strange American guest comes to stay and it is Monique who discovers the unusual reason for her visit . You’ll have to read the story in the anthology to see what happens and where the mushrooms come into it.

DPP is a small publishing company based in Milton, Delaware, USA and has a mission to support older writers. The name of the company is derived from a quote by William Blake, where he  refers to John Milton’s artistic and innovative writing. They’ve been great at keeping in touch by email and updating me as the publishing date approached, and now they look forward to other readers and writers visiting their anthology and other work.

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Norway in June

I’m told travel writing requires a hook – something to hang the story of your journey onto. They say focus on one main feature rather than romp though the whole holiday saying, ‘we did this, we went there, we saw the other’. But then surely one also needs some facts, maybe some history and geography, reminders for yourself, as well as something to encourage a reader to go themselves.

I’m left wondering what I could single out as my Norway hook? How could I choose between the fjords, the fish, food and beer, the views and mountains, the snow, water, sun and rain, the history, art and music? (Of course not forgetting the short nights and the cost of living!)

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Bergen’s quays and the wooden houses of Bryggen (UNESCO World Heritage Site) were wonderful – and so was listening, from behind the fences, to Phil Collins playing live in the park nearby.

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After a very traditional fish based meal on our first night, the second night we wanted a change and ventured out to the ‘Royal Gourmet Burger and Gin bar’. We had gorgeous gin cocktails and ate different burgers (one chilli beef and one pepper and Halloumi), surrounded by young locals, with not another tourist insight.

That day we’d hidden from rain in the KODE museums and enjoyed an insightful Munch exhibition. The rain stopped and we walked the streets, people watching and viewing the abundance of street art.

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Leaving Bergen by train, we took the journey up the mountains then along a panoramic branch line to Flåm, passing endless waterfalls and dramatic rushing rivers. We stayed in the historic Fretheim hotel at Flåm, once a guesthouse for English gentlemen who like to go fishing.

From the famous hotel the view to the Aurland fjord was only spoiled from 9 am to 5 pm by the giant cruise ships that mooring each day and discharging tourists into the village and onto coaches for their day trips. Once 5 pm came peace was restored.

Whilst in Flåm we took a trip on a much smaller boat down the fjord and round to Gudvangen. From the decks we had magnificent views of more waterfalls, rugged rock faces, with distant mountains and remote farms on the nearer hillsides – this was the Norway we went to see. We stayed a couple of days in rural Norway, walking and climbing the lower hills, catching the views and watching the birdlife.

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Then we were back on the train, travelling eastwards, over the highest point of our journey, through bleak landscapes and snow, then more watery lands on our way back down to Oslo.

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Oslo had so many highlights it’s hard to know where to start. The Opera House must be number one. Every single visitor photographs the amazing Opera House (completed in 2007 and covered with marble and white granite) and of course we walked up its magnificent angled slopes to reach the top.

 

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But then there was so much more to do and see. The Holmenkollen ski jump, made famous by the 1952 Winter Olympics (though there was a ski jump hill on the site long before that) was spectacular, exciting and slightly terrifying in terms of its height.

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The Vigeland sculpture park was beautiful and far more interesting than expected.

 

The modern art installation called SALT on the waterfront was quirky, and on our last day it was a real privilege to visit the Town Hall, where the Novel Peace Prize is given in the great hall

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On our last night we had what was probably our most interesting meal in Oslo, and that will stay in our memories, not necessarily because of the food and wine, but because of the atmosphere, the people, and décor of the place. In ‘Christiana’ (the old name for Oslo) the menu was I guess what you’d call fusion, not overwhelmingly big on choice, but extensive enough to entice. I had a panko scampi dish for starters and an Asian duck salad full of lovely flavours for my main course. Okay, you say, nice but not unusual.

We sat by a wide, curved window watching the world go by sipping our (expensive) wine. It was airy with a nice buzz of conversation from an interesting bunch of diners and delightful waitresses who looked after us. We asked if we could take photos of the artifacts that covered the walls and curiosity cabinets that surrounded us – one full of plastic dolls heads, one like a Victorian dressing up box, and another full of old bottles and tins.

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The heads of mannequins in hats and wigs looked down on us. Odd palm trees stood in front of unrecognisable wall posters. We were told this was the private collection of the owner – now that’s a Norwegian I’d love to have met on our railway journey across Norway.

And what do you do?

When we go on holiday Dr H and I always suggest to each other that we’ll try to keep quiet about being doctors, because it seems to alter the way people speak to us. It can certainly change what they decide to share with us about their own lives, but that’s a blog subject in its own right. Anyway our plan often doesn’t work and of course if someone is taken ill we cannot stand back and even though we’re now retired, we soon give the game away. In other situations, if we hear criticism of the NHS or of fellow clinicians, we find ourselves leaping to their defence (even though we can often find fault in the service ourselves). By the end of a holiday the secret will inevitably have come out – after all it’s who we are.

I now have a new dilemma when it comes to the question, ‘and what do you do?’ Do I say I’m a writer? Do I announce I’ve written three novels alongside several short stories (and some travel writing) or does that sound like showing off? Am I still too much of an indie amateur to advertise myself? ‘Imposter syndrome’ strikes all too easily and I can be reticent and hold back about my own writing when I see fellow passengers reading books by established authors on a plane or a train, as was the case on a recent Great Rail Journey trip to Norway.

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Norway’s Flåmbahn

Of course if a conversation turns to books in a more general way, I love to share the  appreciation of books I have read. If a connection then grows I sometimes slip it in that I am an author myself, whilst making apologetic remarks about shameless marketing. Generally I am delighted then at how intrigued people can be. I usually have a few calling cards in my wallet, but in Norway last week I ran out, so had to scribble my name and the title ‘Lawn House Blues’ on scraps of paper. It’s hard to find a professional balance in these situations but I imagine a few folk might google me and the book, and maybe even buy it.

We returned home to find a pile of post on the doormat and amongst the usual circulars and bank statements I found an envelope posted from France. Inside was a lovely card from an ex-patient who had moved to live there some years ago. My name apparently had come up in conversation recently when a mutual contact visited and she was told that I had retired from practice and now wrote books. She thanked me for the support I had given her in the past as her GP and told me she had downloaded all three novels. She really enjoyed ‘There’s No Sea in Salford’, is half way through ‘How they met themselves’, and is really looking forward to ‘Lawn House Blues’. I’ll have to write back and tell the the last is the best and as with so many things one does get better with practise. She was a teacher so will understand.

Perhaps I need to shake off this ‘Imposter syndrome’ label and admit I’m a writer.

Save Our Library

Petitions and protests have been sprouting this Spring, from Wivenhoe to Prettygate, Kelvedon to Coggeshall and beyond, as part of the public consultation taking place by Essex County Council. The County Council is looking to close one third of its libraries and change the way such services are run.

It doesn’t take a genius to understand why the people are not happy. Libraries and their trained librarians do so much more than lend and check books in and out. They introduce children to a love of reading, and are sources of information and bright ideas for all age groups. The buildings can be places for social and educational activities as well as being safe havens for the lonely or lost, providing digital services, and signposting for anyone in need of help. They can provide spaces for meetings, talks, book launches, music and so much more. You get the idea.

No decision will be made until later this Summer, when the council has had time to consider the representations sent to them. meanwhile communities across Essex have mounted ‘Save Our Library’ groups. Related activities have taken place such as Read Ins, story telling sessions, concerts, poetry celebrations, the creation of wishing trees, picture boards and posters.

Last weekend ‘Save Wivenhoe Library’ held a Read In in the High Street, to draw attention to their campaign, on a busy weekend in Wivenhoe. The streets were full of people walking round the annual Open Gardens and Open Studios, as well as visiting the Farmers Market. Our library adds so much to our vibrant community, as is the case in so many others, so let’s appreciate them and keep using them.

img_5801   (Reading  from Lawn House Blues!)