Archives for Sandra Danby

Famous writers, writing… Rose Tremain

When I first saw this photo I spent a little while trying to read the spines of the books on the shelves behind Rose Tremain. Pictured here at home in Norwich, her shelves look reassuringly normal: A4 ring binders, stacks of magazines, family photos fitted into gaps. But I couldn’t read one book title. Disappointing. And I also envy her floor-to-ceiling shelves. Tremain is one of those novelists I seek to emulate. Now 72, she firmly believes that writers get better as they age. “So long as I can keep setting up these journeys it is likely that I can keep going — provided I keep my marbles. I feel I have greater intellectual strength now than 20 years ago.” Variety is the key for her, it seems, and the subject matter of her novels has varied widely. A Restoration rake in the time of Charles II in Restoration; the 1860s gold rush in New Zealand in The Colour; a lute player in the court of Christian IV of Denmark in Music & Silence; and an eastern European migrant in Britain in The Road Home. Read the article at The Times. Here’s my review of her latest novel, The Gustav
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Categories: On Writing.

A poem to read in the bath… ‘My Mother’

I was hooked from the first line here, I think because of the familiarity of the cornflake cake. So what came next was a surprise, not something my mother said to me when I made her a cake! This is My Mother by Ruby Robinson [below] from Every Little Sound. Published in 2016, Robinson’s first collection of poems was shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Forward Prize for ‘Best First Collection’, and the TS Eliot Prize for ‘Best Collection’.  Here is the first stanza of My Mother. Because of copyright restrictions I am unable to reproduce the poem in full, but please search it out in an anthology or at your local library. ‘She said the cornflake cake made her day, she said a man cannot be blamed for being unfaithful: his heart is not in tune with his extremities and it’s just the way his body chemistry is. She said all sorts of things.’ Source: Poetry (October 2014) Read more about Ruby Robinson here.   ‘Every Little Sound’ by Ruby Robinson [UK: Pavilion Poetry] Read these other excerpts, and perhaps find a new poet to love:- ‘Runaways’ by Daniela Nunnari ‘Tulips’ by Wendy Cope ‘Cloughton Wyke I’ by John Wedgwood Clarke And
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Categories: Poetry.

First Edition: Ulysses

In 2009, a well-preserved first edition of Ulysses by James Joyce, first published in 1922, was sold for £275,000. It had hardly been read, except for the racy bits. The book had previously been lost, having originally been bought surreptitiously in a Manhattan bookshop despite it being banned in the USA. The book was banned throughout the 1920s in the UK and USA. Another first edition [below right] was defaced by a reader who condemned the book as pornographic; the book was still valued at €13,500. The novel was banned in the UK until 1936.  Ulysses was first serialised in parts in the American journal The Little Review between March 1918 and December 1920, before being published in its entirety by Syliva Beach [above left] in Paris on February 2, 1922 [Joyce’s 40th birthday]. Ulysses is the Latinised name of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic poem Odyssey. The novel has a number of parallels with the poem including structure, characters. Leopold Bloom echoes Odysseus; Molly Bloom/Penelope; Stephen Dedalus/Telemachus; taking place in the 20th century.  A first edition dated 1922 [above] by Shakespeare & Company in Paris is for sale [at time of going to press] at Peter Harrington for
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Categories: Book Love.

I agree with… Allison Pearson

With ‘How Hard Can It Be?’ the follow-up to bestseller ‘I Don’t Know How She Does it’ about to be published in 2017, novelist Allison Pearson said: “I gave the first book the wrong ending. She goes and lives in the country and raises pigs. I gave her a get-out-of-jail-free card. I had thousands of letters and e-mails from readers. Quite a lot of them said, oh I can’t give up. Now I think she should have stayed where she was.”  [in an interview with ‘Good Housekeeping’ magazine, October 2017] How many authors look back at their books and wish they could change something? It is good to hear Allison Pearson admit this about her bestseller I Don’t Know How She Does It. It is difficult to resist the tidiness of a neat ending, and to read the subsequent reader reviews saying ‘I didn’t get it’, but life doesn’t always have answers. ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ by Allison Pearson [UK: Vintage] This ‘leaving things a bit loose’ is a trend which has come to fiction via television series, I think. Not everything is explained, ends are not neatly tied. I am thinking particularly of the Fargo series by Noah
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Categories: Book Love and On Writing.

‘Endings’, a short story

The woman in the red coat stood beside her on the northbound platform, it was a feminine coat, cut tight at the waist and flaring out like an ice skating skirt. Just as Sue was framing the words, ‘Ooh, is that from Next,’ the 10.23 to Manchester Piccadilly arrived and something red flew past her. It was so quick she thought she might have imagined it. But then she saw the white staring eyes of the driver and heard the desperate squealing of brakes on rails. Footsteps behind her, people running, jostling, pushing. ‘What happened? Oh…’ ‘Is she? How…’ ‘I’ll go and find…’ Sentences unfinished. Sue knelt at the platform edge and looked down to the rails, the crushed Coke cans, crinkly crisp packets and dark stains, red fabric. The front of the engine loomed over her like a tall cliff. Death smelled like the diesel Sue put in the car. ‘Hello.’ Not even a whisper, smaller than a sigh. Sue pulled the red coat aside and two eyes looked up, black, like pieces of coal in a snowman’s face. ‘Help.’ Sue’s voice wasn’t working, it sounded nothing like the noise she usually heard in her head. She tried again.
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Categories: My Short Stories.

Famous people, reading… Grace Kelly

Not a photo of Grace Kelly, reading, on a day off. This is a scene towards the end of Rear Window and Kelly’s character Lisa Fremont is reading Beyond the High Himalayas. When her boyfriend falls asleep, she abandons her book and picks up a fashion magazine. The original edition of Beyond the High Himalayas was published in by Doubleday in 1952. William O Douglas [below] was nominated by Franklin D Roosevelt as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, was released in 1954. It is based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 short story It Had To Be Murder. Jeff Jeffries [James Stewart] has broken his leg and is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment. His rear window looks out onto a courtyard and other apartments and, during a heatwave, he watches his neighbours. He becomes convinced he has seen a murder and his girlfriend Lisa investigates. Watch the trailer here.   ‘Beyond the High Himalayas’ by William O Douglas [UK: Pickard Press] See these other famous people, reading & writing:- Jerry Lewis Johnny Depp Alexa Chung And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Gilead

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is a read like no other. A slow, contemplative journey through the memories of one man’s life, as he waits to die. In 1956, the Reverend John Ames writes a letter to his young son. It tugs the heartstrings. Robinson writes with a clear unadorned style drawing heavily on biblical texts but it is not a religious tract, it is the story of a man’s life, his memories, his regrets and loves. The first few lines grabbed me and didn’t let me go. Do not start reading this book if you are feeling impatient. Some passages are easy and quick to read, others deserve more thought. It unwinds slowly like a length of thread, telling us the story of John Ames, his father and grandfather, the legacy of the Ames family which has been inherited by the Reverend’s seven-year old son. I am not religious and some of the references will have passed me by. In the first half of the novel, I would think ‘oh no not another section about religion’, but as I read deeper into the book I became drawn into the stories of John Ames and his forebears and how their beliefs shaped
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Categories: Book Love.

How Philippa Gregory writes

Philippa Gregory “What is so wonderful about fiction, especially if you write it as I do, in the first person, is that you are there. In a sense it’s not as though I’ve taken the history and given it to the reader. It’s as if I’ve taken the reader and put them into the history… If a historical novel is successful then the reader isn’t saying ‘Hang on a minute, I know this,’ or ‘I’ll look this up’, they are caught up in the narrative.’” [in an interview with ‘The Bookseller’ magazine, May 5, 2017] All great novels take the reader and put them into a world, a world they come to care about. Writing tension into a novel about any historical event is a challenge, when the ending of the event is well known. Philippa Gregory has made an art of this but she also chooses her history cleverly. Many of her main characters are women whose history is not so well known to non-history buffs, even if the larger political events of the day are. So the tension does remain. Her remark about viewpoint is spot-on. The author’s choice about third person or first person is key to
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Categories: On Writing.

First Edition: Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf was published in 1925 and was actually created from two short stories – Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street, and The Prime Minister. It is one of Woolf’s best known novels as all the action takes place on one day in June 1923. The story moves backwards and forwards in time, and in and out of character’s minds, as a picture of Clarissa’s life is constructed.  A first edition of the Hogarth Press 1925 edition [above right] is for sale at Peter Harrington, at time of going to press, for £1,750. Around 2000 copies of the first printing were produced. A rare first edition of the American book [below] with the Vanessa Bell dust jacket, published in 1925 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, is for sale at Raptis Rare Books for $5,500.  The story Clarissa Dalloway is making preparations for a party she will host that evening. The day reminds her of her childhood spent in the countryside at Bourton and makes her wonder at her choice of husband. She married reliable Richard Dalloway rather than the demanding Peter Walsh. When Peter arrives, the tension of her old decision resurfaces. The film A 1997 film starred
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Categories: Book Love.

#Bookreview ‘Three Sisters, Three Queens’ by @PhilippaGBooks #Tudor

‘What is the point of love if it does not make us kind?’ Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory is a story of three women, princesses all, who marry for duty, for their country but who long to marry for love. It is a not a tale of sisterly love, more of sisterly rivalry, envy and spitefulness. The three women become sisters of England, Scotland and France but each knows despair and great unhappiness, they are alternately supportive to each other and shamelessly selfish. The three women are Margaret, older sister of Henry VIII; Mary, his younger sister; and Katherine of Aragon, his first wife. All women have been raised to do their duty, to behave correctly, to smile when in pain, to nod to their husband when they disagree, and to always put themselves second. It is a story of English and Scottish politics, the switching of allegiances, the lies and flattery, the convenient silences. The story is told by Margaret, married young to James IV of Scotland, who is horrified after their wedding to be presented with a mob of children, his illegitimate sons and daughters. She appeals to Katherine for advice who tells her to swallow
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Categories: Book Love.

How Jeffrey Archer writes

Jeffrey Archer “I am not a writer, I am a storyteller.” [address to students in India, in November 2016]  Archer’s writing regime is ruthless. “I rise at 05.30 every morning and I write from six until eight. I take a two hour break and write from ten until twelve. I take a two hour break and I write from two until four. I take a two hour break and write from six until eight. The first draft usually takes about seven weeks, eight weeks. Every word handwritten.” By the time the book is finished it has gone through 14 drafts and he has spent around 1000 hours on it. “I wish there was a shortcut but there isn’t.” He has sold around 330 million books. His first book, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, published in 1976, is said to be based on his own near-bankruptcy. I find his writing routine both reassuring and intimidating. Reassuring because I have always been a worker, a doer. I like routine. And the fact that Archer’s books go through 14 drafts is not dissimilar to my re-drafting, though I don’t consciously number them. It is more a matter of them evolving.
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Categories: On Writing.

Book review: Hangover Square

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, first published in 1941, is deservedly being re-discovered as a perceptive portrayal of people getting-by, living in the low rent district of Earls Court, London, months before war is declared. It is the mournful tale of one man’s hopeless love for a woman who exploits him relentlessly, his inability to see her for what she is, and the battle of his psyche, half of which is telling him to commit murder. George Harvey Bone loves Netta Longdon despite, or perhaps because of, her disdain for him. ‘When she had finished making up, she went into the sitting room to change her shoes, and he followed her. He was always following her, like her shadow, like a dog.’ This is a novel about love, about living on the edge, and schizophrenia, and about the underbelly of a city paused on the brink of war. The story flicks back and forth in George’s head between his lucid moments planning a new life in Maidenhead when he will stop drinking, and what happens after the ‘click’ in his head – a blackout or loss of sense of time and place – when he realizes the only solution is
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Tulip Fever

Amsterdam in the 17th century was a time when commerce was king and the sale of tulip bulbs made some people very rich and others bankrupt. This is the setting for Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, when Rembrandt and Vermeer painted some of the most-recognised art of our time. Sophia’s husband Cornelis is rich, thanks to tulips, and he celebrates his wealth by commissioning a joint portrait to be painted. It is a decision which changes their lives. The deft switching of viewpoints – and each chapter is a single voice, Sophia, Cornelis, Jan [the painter], Maria [their servant] and Willem [Maria’s lover] – allows for a new take on each situation. The plot moves quickly, things are hinted at and passed over but relevant later. It is the sort of novel which seems simple but has hidden depths. The language can be so sensual. “Jacob van Loos is not painting the old man’s mouth. He is painting Sophia’s lips. He mixes pink on his palette – ochre, grey and carmine – and strokes the paint lovingly on the canvas. She is gazing at him. For a moment, when the old man was talking, her lips curved into a smile
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Categories: Book Love.

‘Space’, a short story

‘Ground Control to Major Tom.’ The thin tune came from his mother’s mouth, not the radio which was spouting some rubbish about cruising down the Nile. ‘Take your protein pill and put your big hat on.’ John stood in the kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil, his mother was in her wing chair by the picture window in the lounge, a crochet rug over her knees. ‘I’m floating in the most pa-pa-queue-lee-ar way,’ she sang. ‘Rocket ma-an-aan-‘ He poured the boiling water over the teabags, gave it a swirl and a squeeze then poured out two mugs of tea. ‘That’s Elton, Mum. Not Bowie.’ He offered her the fine bone china mug with a pattern of bluebells which was her particular mug ‘Thank you dear… and I think it’s going to be a very long time-‘ ‘That’s Elton. The first bit’s Bowie.’ ‘I know, Jimmy, I know. But it’s what we sang, for fun.’ He worked hard at not smiling, not wanting to upset her. She was always doing this, getting his name wrong. Wrong facts, wrong lyrics, wrong singer. ‘Where?’ ‘Where what, dear?’ ‘Where did you sing?’ ‘Oh, at Mission Control.’ He did smile now, his mother didn’t have
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Categories: My Short Stories.

Book review: Christmas Pudding

Christmas Pudding is another between-the-wars comedy of manners by Nancy Mitford. With scathing observation at times as sharp as Jane Austen, Mitford introduces a new character, Lord Lewes: ‘He was tall, very correctly dressed in a style indicating the presence of money rather than of imagination, and had a mournful, thin, eighteenth-century face.’ This is her second novel and features some of the personalities featured in her first, Highland Fling, though familiarity with the first is not essential for enjoyment. The action takes place over one month around Christmas, the pudding of the title refers to Mitford’s mixture of personalities in two house parties in the Cotswold countryside. Paul Fotheringay, whose debut literary novel has been heralded as a comic farce, is desperate to escape London and find inspiration for his next book. Wanting to be taken seriously as an author, he settles on a biography of Victorian poet, Lady Maria Bobbin. When he is refused access to the diaries by the current Lady Bobbin he conjures a plot with her teenage son Bobby to masquerade as Bobby’s tutor over the Christmas holidays and so gain secret access to the diaries. And so Paul becomes part of a love triangle
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Categories: Book Love.

‘Home’, a short story

Demerara was Joey’s favourite. She wasn’t the colour of sugar but her nature was just as sweet, the sweetest pigeon in the loft. The least sweet was Darth who was almost completely black except for a flash of green on his left shoulder. He was the fattest pigeon, he ate the most and flew the least. Actually Darth was a pigeon version of Joey, a fact that neither recognised. Joey would spend every moment in the pigeon loft at his allotment if he could but he worked in the other direction, near enough home to walk or cycle. Two miles northbound, a straight road but a bit uphill. Two miles southbound at night, downhill, straight as an arrow, no map required. Every morning Joey pulled on his old fleece and got into his rusty blue Escort, carrying a pack-up made by Gill. It was because of Gill’s baking that Demerara was called Demerara. And Bakewell, Muffin, Drizzle, Battie [for Battenberg] and Simnel. Even Darth had originally been named Parkin but the name never stuck. It was the beginning of Spring and change was afoot. The pigeons were restless, strange birds were appearing at the bird table from the south, finding
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Categories: My Short Stories.

Book review: Fred’s Funeral

None of us have the luxury of hearing what is said about us after we are dead. In Fred’s Funeral, Canadian author Sandy Day tells the story of one soldier, returned from the First World War, who felt misunderstood and sidelined by his family. Only when he dies in 1986, seventy years after he went to war, does he observe his own funeral and find out what they really think of him. Fred Sadler has lived his post-fighting years in one institution or another. Clearly he is suffering from some form of shell shock or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but this goes undiagnosed. There are periods of living in boarding houses, his family is unwilling to have him live with them, until his behaviour deteriorates and he is sent back to hospital. Now dead and trapped as an unwilling ghost, Fred observes his funeral presided over by Viola, the sister-in-law he always disliked. As the mourners sit around and share memories of Fred, he watches, frustration mounting, as he is unable to correct their observations. They portray a ‘Fred Sadler’ which he does not recognise. I kept expecting something to happen; a true memory of the war, an event, which would
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Vanishing Acts

This is the first book by Jodi Picoult which I have read, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I would describe Vanishing Acts as long, intriguing, multi-layered. Is it the greatest? No, but it makes me want to read more of her books. Her multiple-perspectives mean you get a 360° view of a situation and see how different people view the same thing, something we are not always privy to in real life. Delia Hopkins lives in New Hampshire with her widowed father Andrew and her daughter Sophie. She works with her own search-and-rescue bloodhound to find missing people. She is about to marry Eric, a friend since childhood. Everything seems happy, except for strange dreams which she cannot explain. ‘I am little, and he has just finished planting a lemon tree in our backyard. I am dancing around it. I want to make lemonade, but there isn’t any fruit because the tree is just a baby. How long will it take to grow one? I ask. A while, he tells me. I sit myself down in front of it to watch. He comes over and takes my hand. Come on, grilla, he says. If we’re going to sit
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Beneath an Indian Sky

Women’s ambition, women’s capability to lie and manipulate, and women’s ability to love, cherish and recover. Beneath an Indian Sky by Renita D’Silva is the cautionary tale of Sita and Mary and how their lives, from childhood to old age, are entwined in India. It is a symmetrical story, but the permutations of its angles and consequences are not clear until the end. Be patient, relax into the story, because the ending is worth it. 1925, India. Sita’s parents despair of her acting like a girl so, to encourage more restrained behavior, they arrange for her to become friends with Mary. Mary’s parents encourage individuality, freedom and learning, but Mary secretly envies the rules and ordered life of Sita’s home. And so the two girls become friends. Until in 1926 something happens which splits them apart. This is a tale of opposites; two little girls who, despite being different, become friends. What happens when they grow up turns into a darker more difficult story about friendship, honesty, betrayal, loss, anguish and regret. Renita D’Silva takes you to another world, India pre- and post-partition, with all its scents, colours, flavours, wealth and poverty. She is a magical writer of the setting
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Categories: Book Love.

How Gail Honeyman writes

Gail Honeyman “I thought it was important that Eleanor was never self-pitying, because I think as a reader that is when you lose sympathy for a character. Even if [a character] has been through horrendous experiences, if they are seen as self-pitying, it’s a very distancing thing. She’s broken but she’s not destroyed. She’s a survivor of it all.” [in an interview with ‘The Bookseller’ magazine, March 10, 2017] I read this quote by Gail Honeyman in The Bookseller, not knowing either her or her debut novel. But the quote chimed with me. I was making slow progress with the book I was reading at the time and couldn’t pin down why. It was well-written, not overdone or wordy, not rushed, but I wasn’t connecting with the main character. Gail’s comment made me realize I wanted to shout: ‘If things are so bad, do something.’ This is a fine line to tread as an author. You want your characters to be tested, challenged, to face difficulties, and you want to explore their emotions, but the last thing you want to do is turn off the reader. Gail Honeyman again: “I guess what you want is not to notice the plot
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Categories: Book Love and On Writing.