What I read in 2016

 

What I read in 2016

I’m intending to write a post called The Dying Art of Reading but that will take more brain power than I can currently muster, so for the moment, a round-up of my reading last year will have to suffice on the topic of reading.

I keep a notebook of what books I read; some use Goodreads for this but as I hate Goodreads (it’s toxic for authors, for anyone with a thin skin and honestly, it’s data-mined more than anything else for connections between authors and readers). In total I completed reading 78 titles last year, which is slightly less than I thought; that said, I always have a good half dozen books on the go and some I simply don’t finish. More on the DNF topic another time. 34 titles were non-fiction, and some of those were doorstops that took months to get through, chipping away a few pages at a time. One of the first that I bounced my way through was a book called Brilliant Green- the surprising history and science of plant intelligence by Stefano Mancuso. Well written and entertaining too, this book was a joy to read and might change the way you see plants.

I’ve worked my way with glee through a fair chunk of the works of Marie-Louise Von Franz, student, translator, and associate of Carl Jung. Her books on fairy-tales are enthralling and enlightening reading; you can almost pick one at random and be amazed at the extraordinary information inside. In the same vein I read The Black Sun – the alchemy and art of Darkness by Stanton Marlan, and also Monika Wilkman’s The Pregnant Darkness – alchemy and the rebirth of consciousness. Both books explore the darker states of human existence (such as depression and grief) in the light of the ancient art of alchemy. I’m still pondering on my findings, such as they are, but these are excellent books.

Very worth reading too was Change of Life- psychological study of dreams in the menopause by Ann Markovic, and The Owl was a Baker’s Daughter – Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa and the Repressed Feminine by Marion Woodman. Susan Scott’s quirky little book, In Praise of Lilith, Eve and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, was highly enjoyable too; a collection of essays and explorations, it’s a very engaging walk through some complex topics.

In fiction, I sated myself on Ann Cleeves books, gorging on several each from the Shetland and the Vera series, and then going right off them. I did the same with a number of titles by Dennis Wheatley and probably won’t touch either author’s works now for a long while. I might be in danger of doing the same with John Connelly’s Charlie Parker series, but he keeps upping the ante and on to book 6 now, I’m quite hooked. Each book is very different from the last but threads run through all that develop and tantalise. I read a couple of Last Kingdom books by Bernard Cornwell but stalled and will hopefully pick up on the ones I’ve bought but not yet read later in the year. H.Rider Haggard accompanied me on many miles of static bike journeys at the gym… he’s still brilliant to read even with the political incorrectness!

I finally finished Sir Terry Pratchett’s A Slip of the Keyboard; it’s a collection of essays and the like, but it’s painfully poignant to read and I confess I cried. I also read his Unseen Academicals, and cried laughing too.

For work I read a couple of books on Paris (How Paris became Paris by Joan Dejean and The Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne) but since I only did one Paris trip last year, my new-found knowledge has languished and I’ll need to reread them both to refresh my memory!

Some of the very best of the fiction was from indie author Gev Sweeney. Three books from her this year in her extraordinary series of alternative history: Ferial Day, Master Warwick and finally For The Burnable Cities. The Prodigal’s Psalm from last year is an excellent unsettling read too. Alternative history as she writes it mingles Roman, biblical and modern history in an unnervingly accurate exposé of current events. Without giving spoilers, you’d have to read them yourself to get quite how apt the themes are.

There are other books, some I have enjoyed, some not; some I have beta read (and therefore, at this stage cannot comment) but that’s a rough guide to where my reading has led me in 2016. I have not given links, but all books are easy enough to find on Amazon and if not, let me know and I’ll see if I can help.

Comfort Literature ~ the new trend for 2017?

I’m probably going to do a proper round-up post in a day or two but having watched a very bleak two-parter on TV (an Agatha Christie adaptation) that left me feeling even lower than before, it occurred to me that what I would like to see trending in the new year is literature that comforts. Not schmaltzy, saccharine candy-fluff books that pretend everything is nice and rosy but books that have a strong core of something special, something strong and real and comforting.

One of the books I read this year was Elizabeth Goudge’s The Rosemary Tree. It’s a comfort book, like all of hers I have read so far. It’s not light and fluffy but quite different. It’s about people coping with things that seem intolerable and finding ways to redeem the unredeemable. That’s what I mean about Comfort Books.

In view of this, for the end of this year and for the start of next, I have reduced the price of Away With The Fairies to £1.99 or equivalent worldwide. I’ve had many emails, reviews, letters and messages from readers about this book, on how it’s helped them cope with some very difficult times in their lives.

I’m hoping to have a new book out by Easter, and that too will be a Comfort Book. More information to follow soon.

If you have suggestions for other books we might all enjoy, please share them in the comments.

 

Chloe’s Christmas Presents

Chloe’s Christmas Presents

I thought I’d entertain you with an excerpt from Square Peg, from the Christmas period.

On New Year’s Day, Cathy’s van pulled up outside their house, and by the time Chloe had got to the door, Cathy was on the doorstep. She looked pinched and blue with cold, her layers of brightly coloured clothes apparently inadequate. She ate a huge bowl of pasta, drank a pint of orange juice, spent an hour and a half in the bath and then went and slept for eighteen hours without stirring once. Chloe was starting to worry that she’d died in there when she finally emerged the following afternoon looking much better but still grey with tiredness.

“I don’t think you’re terribly well,” Chloe said, when her sister’s coughing fit came to an end.

“No, I’m not brilliant. Too much sea air,” Cathy said. “And before you ask, I don’t really smoke. Too expensive. I just have the occasional cig when I can. It’s just been so cold; I haven’t managed to shake this last cold off yet.”

“I got you a Christmas present,” Chloe said.

“Christ, I got you guys presents too,” Cathy said. “I totally forgot yesterday. They’re in the van. I’ll go and get them.”

Cathy was coughing again when she came in again.

“I don’t believe in wrapping paper,” she said, and handed them each a small parcel wrapped in brown paper.

Clifford opened his cautiously; the parcel smelled strongly of seaweed. It was a wooden cross, carved out of driftwood. There was no figure on the cross but there was a beautifully carved crown of thorns where the head of Christ would have been.

“This is beautiful,” he said. “Where on earth did you get it?”

Cathy grinned at him.

“The beach,” she said, and it dawned on him that she had created this cross herself.

“It’s fantastic,” he said.

“Not bad for a few evenings with a pocket knife,” Cathy grudgingly admitted. “Go on Chloe, open yours.”

Chloe unwrapped the paper. Inside was a piece of crystal wound around with silver wire so it could be worn as a pendant. At first she thought the crystal was clear quartz, then she saw that there seemed to be another quartz point inside it. She looked at her sister.

“It’s lovely,” she said. “What is it inside it?”

“Itself,” Cathy said. “It’s what they call phantom quartz. The crystal grows; sometimes it stops growing for thousands of years and then starts again. When it starts again, the original point still shows inside the new point. I think tiny specks of dust show where the first point was. I found it in a gift shop; you know, they often have displays of crystals, lots of them in boxes. If you’re patient enough to go through them all, you can sometimes find unusual ones. I was lucky that time. So then I did the wire myself, so you can wear it as a necklace.”

“It’s fantastic,” Chloe said. “Wait a minute while I get a chain and then I can put it on.”

She ran upstairs to their room and brought down a silver chain and threaded the stone onto that, and fastened the necklace round her throat.

“This is for you,” she said, bringing out a big parcel from behind their rather forlorn Christmas tree.

Cathy undid the paper, smoothing it out as she did so. Chloe had gone to the camping supplies shop and bought the best sleeping bag they had, guaranteed to some unimaginably arctic temperature, and a fleece liner that was easy to wash and quick to dry.

“Cor,” breathed Cathy. “I could go to the Antarctic with this. Ta ever so. You’ve no idea how cold I’ve been lately.”

But Chloe had some idea when she saw Cathy’s existing sleeping bag, the following day when Cathy brought it in to put in the washing machine. It had been an excellent bag once, but that was years ago, and it was probably only any use now as a summer bag. She’d been intrigued by Cathy’s van, when Cathy agreed to show her it. It was very neat and clean, but very sparse. Cathy kept her belongings in a series of boxes that she admitted were actually old army ammunition boxes, which she could stack and fasten down in the back with a network of bungees. Her bed was a rolled up length of foam rubber, tied up during the day with another bungee. There were a number of old army blankets too, folded up and stored in one of the ammo boxes; that was obviously how Cathy hadn’t turned into a human ice lolly one of those freezing nights.

“Brilliant present,” Cathy said, stowing it away. “I get scared during the winter, you know, that one morning I won’t wake up.”

That shook Chloe; she hadn’t thought of such things before.

“I’m better off than many,” Cathy said, seeing Chloe’s look of horror. “I’ve got the van for starters. I’ve slept in the odd doorway in the past, but only once at the dead of winter and I was younger then and not on my own. Being homeless stinks in the winter.”

“You don’t have to be homeless,” Chloe said.

“I’m not. The van is my home,” Cathy said. “And I took you at your word about coming here when I needed to. And you’d even got me the best Christmas present I think I’ve had for more years than I can remember, so I know you did really mean it. But you must know I don’t want to settle down, not when there’s so much I can do. This will make life more comfortable,” and she patted the box with the sleeping bag and liner in it. “And I do appreciate your offer, believe me I do. I thought about you two quite a lot recently. That’s why I made the presents.”

“They’re marvellous,” Chloe said, touching the crystal at her throat. “That cross you did for Clifford, you know you’re really talented. Was it you who painted the van?”

Cathy nodded, and then shut the van door on her tiny home.

“Do you like it?” she asked.

“It’s amazing,” Chloe said. “I think it’s lovely. You really are good at art, you know.”

Cathy flushed with pleasure, and then shook her head.

“It’s something I enjoy doing, that’s all,” she said.

“I think you’re brilliant at it,” Chloe said.

There was a brief moment of discomfort between them, until Cathy patted the side of the van, fondly.

“Yeah,” she said. “With this thing, I can never forget where I’ve parked.”

“It’s the first time I’ve ever considered a Transit van as art,” Chloe said. “When we were in Wales in the summer, there was a family turned up at the campsite we were at in two white Transit vans. We called them the White Van Clan, but not where they could hear us. Imagine White Van Man with a family; that was proof positive that the gene pool has a shallow end.”

from Square Peg available in all Amazon stores.

An Advent offer

An Advent offer

I’m cutting the cost of one of my books for December/Advent, because the book starts just before Christmas.
It’s also, in my own opinion, my best book. Sadly, this is not reflected in sales. It falls between the cracks of genre and that’s never a place to be. Young male protagonist, a plot that is almost the antithesis of romantic fiction. However, it also contains a *villain* that some readers reckoned worse than Joffrey, a hero who’ll break your heart and characters you’d like to spend time with and who will all haunt you long after the book is ended.
Talking of which, there is a sequel, still gummed up in the works, but which I’d love to see out there next year. Needs a polish, a cover and some oomph from me to get it out.

The Bet is available in all Amazon stores, currently at £2.99 or local equivalent: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bet-Vivienne-Tuffnell-ebook/dp/B009ISHLYI/. It’s also in a nice chunky paperback that would make a good Christmas present to someone who you think would enjoy it or even (dare I say it?) to yourself.

All but one of my books are in paperback. I’d hoped to get Square Peg out in time for Christmas in a paperback edition, but life has been..interesting. I’m hoping to release a new novel, Little Gidding Girl sometime early next year, and also a new collection of poetry; that’s being fiddled with to ensure it’s as good as I can make it. The poetry will (probably) only be in paperback, because it’s a much better way to publish poetry. You can dip into a paperback of poems much more readily than an e-book.

Reviews also very welcome, of any of my books. I’d love to see Away With The Fairies make it past 50 reviews by New Year; the myth has been that the Mighty Zon promotes books more once this milestone is reached, but while I suspect this is a myth, I’d still love to test it out.

Advent blessings to you all.

A Melange of Musings

A Melange of Musings

September is a funny month; even now, more than thirty years since I left school, I can’t help feeling that “back to school” vibe that makes me want to buy a new pencil case and stock up on stationery. I did indulge in a very luscious Peter Pauper journal for a project that reflects the images on the cover; can’t recommend this range more highly. It combines great beauty, practicality with superb value; my only problem is that it can take me a while to bring myself to actually write in one, for fear of spoiling it with bad writing.

Which brings me on to my first musing: bad versus good writing. I’ve had to restrain myself from reading the several thousands of posts that come out on this topic, because it gets frustrating and upsetting. The majority of such articles are written for (and possibly by) new writers, and they often have me raging at the screen. There is a vendetta going on against the humble adverb that has been added to now by an equally vicious smear campaign against the adjective. Followed blindly, this leads to what might best be described as Spartan prose; if you know anything about the real Spartans, you’ll know this is not a compliment. Come back with your shield or on it: not actually the best philosophy for life, and certainly not a template for good writing. Leave the damned adverbs and adjectives alone, for heaven’s sake; as a part of normal, natural language they have as much right to be in a piece of writing as any other part of language. Obviously, you can overdo them; your hand can slip and tip a whole jar of cayenne pepper into the stew instead of a pinch (and yes, I did this once. Only my dad, bless him, ate it). I’ll get off my soapbox now. For me (and I can speak for no one else) good writing is a balance between powerful, authentic characters who stay with you after the book is done, a clear, well-executed plot, strong, elegant prose that challenges the reader with twists and turns but which still reaches the end point succinctly, and a deeper level to the story that will keep you thinking about it for a long while afterwards.

Which brings me neatly onto the second musing: themes and “messages” in fiction. Truth is, I’m ambivalent about this. For a book to really win my heart, there does indeed need to be a deeper level to it, above and beyond the “he said, she said, he did, she did” of a basic story. There’s something powerful, sacred even, about the concept of Story; Pratchett postulated several times in his fiction that Story is a kind of symbiotic life form that needs us as much as we need it. Yet I become very uncomfortable when it is clear that an author has set out to write a book with a distinct message or purpose (we’re talking about fiction here), from a philosophical, or religious point of view. I’ve sampled some of these sorts of books and in 99% of cases, it’s badly done. The book is preachy, or worse, and the Story is ruined by the banging on and on of the Message. As someone whose books do indeed contain what I like to think of as “deep stuff”, it’s something I’ve become acutely conscious of. To set out to write a book about X Y or Z or for particular purposes is something to be very wary of. None of my novels were written to consciously to express any agenda or beliefs, but by a process of literary osmosis, my own “deep stuff” is explored and expressed within them. Story has to come first; one must trust that the core of any message a book might grow to contain will form and express itself during the process. You cannot shoe-horn a message into a book that doesn’t want it. And not every book needs a message. Summer has traditionally been a time for reading beach and airport reads that are intended to just be a bit of fun. I’ve never managed to write one, yet, but I’ve read plenty. Sometimes you need a bit of a break from what Tori Amos calls, “really deep thoughts”.

Third musings: the ocean of books and the problem of visibility. Yeah, back to that one. It ties in with the summer slump. I noticed that many of the books in the top 100 of books on sale on the might Zon this summer had extra long bits added to their titles. Sort of like a subtitle, I suppose. Now this was something that was banned a few years ago when I first began. You weren’t allowed to use these explanatory sentences as part of your book title. People got ticked off for it and their books removed. It really bugs me to read these titles: who says it’s a powerful book, or that it’s heart-warming or uplifting, except the person publishing it? It’s a blowing of one’s own trumpet that makes me cringe ever so slightly. What bothers me is that it’s clearly being done to increase visibility in the search terms. Should I rename my novels in this vein? (suggestions in the comments, please!). I think not. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t like being on show, or having to promote my stuff. Lots of authors go to signings they’ve arranged at local bookshops and events, but frankly, for me, this is a waste of energy and time. I’d have to supply my own paperbacks (often at a cost I can’t really afford) and the idea of sitting at a stand in a local event waiting for people to come over and engage makes me shudder. I’ve seen some of these; at a mind body spirit fair this year, an author of a YA swords and sorcery book had a stall and I noticed that people gave it a wide berth. Shelling out ten quid or more for a book you know nothing about is not something most of us will do; it’s just too much. I had a brief look, and found myself pounced on by the author whose hard-sell approach turned me right off. It smacked of desperation, and a bit of entitlement. I don’t know that there is a right way for unknown authors to attend events to sell books but for me it comes down to this: there needs to be a bloody good reason why I’d shell out a tenner (or more) for a book by someone I don’t know. That’s why selling e-books has the upper hand: a reader can sample 10% at their leisure without ever committing to buying the whole book. I don’t tend to tell people I’ve bought their book until I’ve read it and can whole-heartedly recommend it to others.

Final musing: hope springs eternal. To follow on the musing about how to sell books, the oldest and possibly best advice, is to write more and publish more. I’ve not brought out any new fiction since The Hedgeway, published for Halloween almost two years ago. If I cast my mind back, it did create a small surge in sales of other books. August was my worst sales month yet; deeply depressing, yet from what I gather, completely in keeping with what most authors have been finding. Despite having a nasty case of writers’ burnout (which is to writers’ block what influenza is to the common cold), I do have a good number of completed novels tucked away on my hard drive. My crisis of confidence has meant they’ve stayed there; I’ve been paralysed by the process and the thousands of posts about how everything must be perfect or you’re hurting other writers blah blah blah. But, having had a couple of trusted friends take a gander at one, I’ve decided I’m not a bad writer at all. I’ve had some reviews recently that have expressed bafflement that I’m not a famous writer of best-selling books already, and gratifying as that is, it does tend to rub in my own thoughts on the subject. So, as every author does, I’ve begun to hope that perhaps the next book might be the breakthrough one, and I’ve started the process of getting it out. I’ve got some cover art sorted, and the first proof reader has begun. I’m going to write some blog posts (and hope that there might be slots for them on other blogs, though I don’t intend to do a proper blog tour) and I shall polish up the blurb and the back matter till it shines, and drop hints here and there to whet the appetites of readers. I’ve accepted I’m crap at all this promotional nonsense, and that’s not going to change. I am what I am. In the end, they’re books: nothing more and nothing less. To distort my true self, to become one of those authors who can insert their book(s) into any and every encounter whether online or in real life, in the belief that somehow that’ll get them readers, well, it’s not going to happen. My writing is just a part of who I am, not the whole. In the grand scheme of things (whatever that means!) it’s not really terribly important that I sell lots of books. What is important is that I stay true to who I am.

On Invisible Fish

On Invisible Fish

On invisible fish

I’m lucky enough to have a large pond in our garden; we’ve never had a pond before we moved here and I’m not sure I’d do without one now. There’s something deeply attractive aesthetically as well as environmentally about a pond; the two are intertwined as the pond brings a lot of wildlife into our sights. My heart sings (albeit briefly and its own rather quirky out-of-tune song) to see flocks of goldfinches coming to bathe, and the many other denizens of our garden coming to drink, bathe or possibly admire their own reflections.

And there are fish. We’ve put in several batches of goldfish, because they are beautiful and graceful and to me, a symbol of the soul. At the weekend, I was gifted with a bucket of fish from an old colleague whose mother’s pond had become too crowded. There were a dozen fish in the bucket, mostly golden ones, some with fan-tails swishing out behind them like gauzy scarves in a breeze, and as well as one lemony fish, there were two green fish. Identical in form to the golden ones, these two vanished like ghosts into the deep green waters; their colour makes them hard to see unless you know they are there. When we feed them, the green ones rise with the others and gobble up their pond sticks, before vanishing again. They are, to all intents and purposes, invisible.

But I know they are there and I keep an eye out for them, feeling something resembling joy when I spot one amid their flashier, more in-yer-face comrades. It’s made me think of those humans who have become invisible fishes; there, yet ignored mostly, because they lack the bright colours that are deemed essential to being noticed and admired. I think that as I age, I am becoming an invisible fish too, becoming unnoticed whether in so-called real life and in the virtual world too. Humans are drawn by the bright, the new, the shiny, and by bling; we look for innovation in our lives, and are driven to seek it by the unconscious pressures of the media, of our peers and of our own desires to be popular and up-to-date.

Yet the good old things, whether art, or literature, or music, or simply people do not go away because we turn away from them to chase the new and shiny things. Like the invisible fish in my pond, they remain themselves, unseen and unheeded perhaps, but still what they always were. You just need to know they are there so you can keep an eye out for them. I’ve often listed writers here whose work has dropped out of favour, or which has never hit the heights of popularity it deserves but I’d be interested if those who read this would like to share artists, writers, musicians and others whose work they love but who have become (or have always been) invisible fish.

golden fishes

golden fishes

Lost books, L-space, libraries and the odour of bananas

Lost books, L-space, libraries and the odour of bananas

Lost books, L-space, libraries and the odour of bananas

I have a recurring dream of a lost book that I have somehow found. It’s a beautiful book, filled with marvels, hand-written in quirky calligraphy as if by someone who has seen how calligraphy looks but has never been taught how to do it “properly” (bit like me, actually). It has drawings in it that remind you of illuminated manuscripts, and some which are entirely different. It has some resemblance to Jung’s famous Red Book, but the writing is in English and the drawings are not the same. Each time the book pops up in dreams, I wonder whose book it is, whether it exists in our ordinary reality or whether it is something that may one day exist or has once existed and exists no more.

A few nights ago on British TV, there was a programme on BBC4 on the lost manuscript of Julian of Norwich. I’ve long been a fan of Julian and her work (see my blog post here) and I watched with great interest. The programme itself was a tad irritating (largely because the presenter made too many assertions that simply don’t bear closer scrutiny), though it did have some great sequences filmed in and around Norwich, which is one of my favourite cities in Europe (and only about 25 miles away), but it revealed some facts about Julian’s book I hadn’t known before. The manuscript itself was suppressed and hidden, going underground (so to speak), because its contents were liable to be seen as potentially heretical and certainly revolutionary (a loving God who was seen as our Mother and who cared for each and every human and written by, shock, horror, a woman? Gosh.). Its route to the mainstream was a strange one; copies of it were held in various monastic libraries, like that of Walsingham Abbey, but it’s unclear how many and how widespread they were. At the time of the Dissolution of the monasteries, many of their libraries were confiscated and countless bookish treasures destroyed. The Revelations of Divine Love disappears, only to have a copy resurface amid the books taken to France with nine young Englishwomen setting out to found a new Benedictine Order in the early part of the seventeenth century. The book was copied by the nuns and perhaps dispersed until the French Revolution intervened, and such orders attacked and destroyed. When their Carmelite sisters were sent to the guillotine, the English sisters expected to follow, but the terror came to an end, and they were allowed to return to England (taking with them relics of their martyred Carmelite sisters, and whatever other things they’d saved). The order still exists, in God’s own county, at the abbey they founded on their return, Stanbrook Abbey. But they didn’t have Julian’s book, either copies or the original.

Fast forward to the early part of the twentieth century and the era of the suffragettes, and a determined Scottish woman comes to the British library in search of a copy of Julian’s book, aiming to find the original or as close to that as possible, to make a new translation of the original. Mis-shelved under witchcraft and magic, and mis-titled in the catalogue, a copy made by those English nuns turns up, no one knows how, and is the closest to the original fourteenth century text that anyone knows of.

The book has dipped in and out of biblio-history, escaping the bonfires of fanatics and the vagaries of time itself, championed largely by women, and emerging time and again when women need it. At the end of the programme, a professor of medieval literature says that it’s eminently possible that the original manuscript itself might one day just turn up somewhere; he comments that rare books do this all the time.

Books are fragile things, subject to the forces of time and the forces of nature, and yet they endure. If you have read Umberto Eco’s brilliant book, The Name of the Rose, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, the idea of a lost book, hidden and suppressed yet passed on secretly and lurking on the shelves of libraries or even bookshops, is a seductive, romantic (in its truest sense) and obsessive notion. If you have read the Discworld novels by the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett, you will be familiar with the concept of L-space: the theory that the sheer weight of books creates a kind of kink in the space-time continuum, whereby all libraries are connected and all librarians are mystical custodians of L-space. The librarian of the Unseen University, whose name has long been forgotten, is an orang-utan (the result of a spell cast but since the shape proved to be more congenial to his job, the Librarian resisted all offers to restore him to his original human form).Wandering the darker recesses of old and rambling libraries, where a poorly-plotted route through the dusty stacks on a winter evening when the night falls hard and cold outside and the interior is cosy and warm, if fuggy, can result in getting lost in areas one didn’t know existed, and one can not only believe in L-space but it becomes the only thing that makes any sense of how books can disappear for centuries, and reappear in unexpected and improbable places, hardly aged, but bearing the faint traces of the odour of bananas.