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Six months of 2017 in books

Last year, I published a list of what I had read during the year. I thought that, this year, I’d get it down in two instalments. As before, I should love to know what others are reading. So do comment or talk to me! I don’t have time to review all these, but when I am done with the current fit of writing, I will try to post a few reviews, with a focus, I hope, on the independent presses. Also, I will update this list as I’ll likely forget something!

I read as much as I can and I read quickly. In snatched hours, in the bath, on the train, little bits of time carved out. But mainly, I go to bed earlier than I would naturally do purely so that I can read. I want to be frank about this. It’s how, as a child and growing up, I coped with anxiety and trauma. I went to bed and built a world. I do believe that with books, you can rebuild your mind and, to this day, it’s what I do.

Why?

Because every day is a conscious attempt to stay well and to manage, as best I can, my mental health: it has broken several times. Okay, many times. But I am back. Then there’s the pleasure of it all and the way my imagination is hotly stimulated. The way that reading, for me, leads on to discussion and friendship. As, I’ve discovered, does writing. Why did I ever think otherwise? And by the way, if you are feeling low or really, properly battling, I am not an expert, but I can tell you which books have soothed me, including the very few non-fiction texts I have read about mental health – though I have to preface that with, proceed with caution because, as I said, I’m no expert, but I CAN share. x

In no particular order, my reading over the past six months…

Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Finally got round to it. Also, the second book of his Bleak House (a re-read). I also re-read A Christmas Carol because I was teaching it for GCSE. To support my older children I read Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner and  Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree. Now, this I found this an excellent read and was delighted to find a friend had been reading it, too. Cue – memorable and moving discussion en route to the hustings in Swindon, two days before the general election. WHICH REMINDS ME: the same person has left Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (still haven’t read) and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. Summer reads, then. 

At top speed, for GCSE teaching I re-read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Woman in Black. Which led on to my re-reading of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw in one bit, sitting on the floor, because it was next to The Woman in Black on my sitting room bookshelf. I discovered, through the new OCR English Language and Literature spec, the first poetry collection from Jacob Sam La Rose Breaking Silence (Bloodaxe), which led to some wonderful things. Some of his poems prompted me to revisit one of my favourite modern poets, Tony Harrison. There will have been assorted other reading in here too – going over GCSE (and IGCSE) literature and poetry anthologies and the like; reading for A levels in English Literature and English Language and Literature and the EPQ…but it was Jacob Sam La Rose who was my new discovery.

Edith Sitwell: Fanfare for Elizabeth

Ben Myers: The Gallows Pole and Beastings. Shout out for the independent presses – here, Bluemoose. These are wonderful books. Enormously atmospheric. He’s brilliant, I think, on landscape.

On the subject of indies, from And Other Stories (we have a couple of subscriptions at Bookworm Towers), I am currently reading The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar), which is stunning, and Joanna Walsh’s Worlds from the Word’s End, a series of sharp and funny stories which make me very jealous too: never have I managed to craft one as she does! I’ve just ordered Hold Tight by Jeffrey Boakye – that’s an Influx Press title. Oh, there are so many indpendent presses – but my favourites – that is, of the ones I’ve explored – The Linen Press, Patrician Press, Galley Beggar, And Other Stories, Influx, Comma Press and Bluemoose. I read from all over, but get some of my greatest pleasure from texts published by risk-taking independent presses. That’s not to say risks aren’t taken by bigger concerns. Why not read both?

Dipped into a favourite book on writing (and close reading), Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. This precipitated both editing and reading (I hope she knows how useful she is!) – in this case, going back to Chekhov’s short stories.

I am about to read Jess Butterworth’s Running on the Roof of the World, Jo Barnard’s Hush Little Baby and Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of my Youth. I love Chauduri’s books. Such restraint, so moving and unmistakeably his. I thought his last book, Odysseus Abroad gently broke a few rules (the rules you read about…) including ‘show don’t tell’ (bit bored with this): oh, he tells beautifully, and I felt the book was wonderfully episodic and that some of these epiosdes would have stood as short stories. More on which when I’ve got round to reading the latest one. Jo Barnard is a lovely lady. Very encouraging to others (including me) and a lean, spare writer at the literary end (what do I know? So kill me now if I have this market appraisal wrong!) of commercial fiction and cool in a hot and crowded market. That is a considerable achievement, in my view. I’d recommend her debut, Precocious. Unsettling and very well judged in tone. Jess is an old friend and I am very excited for her and cannot wait to see what she does in this, her debut, a MG set in India and Tibet, subjects close to her heart, as they are to mine.

For book groups I re-read A Tale of Two Cities, read PD James’s Innocent Blood – do you know, I had never read a P.D. James book – and Gilly McMillian’s What She Knew (which, by the way, is the same book as Burnt Paper Sky – hence the odd furious review by folks who bought the same book twice). Regarding the latter, generally speaking, I seem to fail with psychological thrillers. I read the Amazon reviews and those on Goodreads and generally feel like I haven’t read the same book, in that the ‘twists’ seem obvious to me – you know like in Of Mice and Men, when the foreshadowing smacks you round the face so hard – girl with the red dress/mouse/puppy/Candy’s old mutt/Curley’s wife…Lennie gets shot? Never saw that coming! It’s that kind of experience – and I don’t find them nail biting at all. I’ve been told that this sounds sneering, but it’s only my opinion and a statement of what works for me. Apologies if I’ve denigrated Of Mice and Men (quite like Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath, though…) but to me Steinbeck is a pygmy compared with giants like…Faulkner and Wolfe. Oh yes: I have an idea. Why not read – although you won’t sleep afterwards – Ali Land’s striking debut novel, Good Me Bad Me before or after Innocent Blood? Some of the same themes rise up. Criminality. The choices that children and young people make in extremis. (Ali was previously a children’s psychiatric nurse and that gave the book a certain heft for me.) What it might mean…not to feel, or to feel unusual things. I don’t want to give more away. Yes. Do that for a book group.

But back to Southern US literature and…

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, which I will re-read in a little while (I want to write something about her), well, that is brilliant. Is all this meandering discussion awful, do you think?

Which brings to me to…

Of Time and the River and (currently reading) The Web and the Rock. Thomas Wolfe. In my view, a genius and we lost him so young.

Patrician Press launched its Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers and we had a lovely event at the Essex Book Festival; I read everything in it and that led me on to (two indies here) Refugee Tales from Comma Press.

Now, for my own current book, Saving Lucia (or even Passerines – depending on who nabs it…), I’ve been re-reading Joyce, so I’ve had Finnegans Wake and Ulysses to hand. Also lesser known Joyce works – Pomes Penyeach. I’ve been reading up on Joyce, Beckett, Mussolini, the history of psychiatric care (I listed some of this stuff in last year’s post and also it’s in my bibliography at the end of Saving Lucia – one for the future, if you be interested); I read Annabel Abbs’s The Joyce Girl and continued to dip into Frances Stonnor Saunders’s exemplary account of Violet Gibson: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini and Carol Loeb Shloss’s Lucia Joyce. To Dance in the Wake. I’ve been reading articles in The Lancet, articles on Queen of the Hysterics, Blanche Wittmann and accounts of Bertha Pappenheim (there’s a need for a bigger study and, I would say, what exists needs to be translated from the German because she is fascinating!); I also looked (in German) at Bertha’s book of prayers – Gebete and found an English translation of her short stories, The Junk Shop and Other Stories and finally read Florence Nightingale’s posthumously published Cassandra – which Virginia Woolf said was more like screaming than writing. I concur. Also, religious texts, archive work (letters and documents) and miscellaneous articles.

And I think we are there!

Two other things on reading and writing. How good it was to see the Authors for Grenfell auction raise so much and I was pleased to be a tiny part of it. I’ve a tea party coming up – and also a tour of Pembrokeshire, visiting all the settings in my second book, The Life of Almost, which comes out in autumn, 2018 with Patrician Press. Also, in September, for the first time, I have a work experience student and I am so excited. I am still a newbie fiction writer (I put pen to paper in mid July 2014, although I’d been a freelance author before and writing is not my day job) and this kind of thing makes it feel…real. We are going to get a writing project off the ground; she’s going to submit work for publication. She may also help me with editing of and suggestions on two anthologies of which I am co-editor and editor, respectively. Said student (she’s in the upper sixth) is reading the manuscript of my third book – which led to her mum reading it too…which led into a date to discuss it. and, I hope, a super-clever new beta reader. Yay.

I’m sorted on my reading for the next few weeks, the manuscript of Saving Lucia goes out again on the 20th of July  – and in the meantime I wait to hear if others are biting…it is a long process and probably a good education for me, seeing as I rush at everything like it’s my last day. (In my defence, it could be: I’ve had a lot of people die on me, some of them very suddenly: another story – some of which is in my first book Killing Hapless Ally, if you are not freaked out by very dark humour. If you are, don’t read the bits of The Life of Almost concerning a love story in a funeral parlour…)

Other booky things: my two Grenfell offers to fulfil in summer and autumn and archive work in St Andrew’s psychiatric hospital, Northampton.

And reading Horrible Histories in bed when stressed or sad. Oh forgot: I had norovirus so badly I was hospitalised. During that period I read Gren Jenner’s (he’s part of the Horrible Histories telly team) A Million Years in a Day. A jolly diverting read.

AND FINALLY

Quibbles and possible spelling errors spotted in some of the books, above (English teacher forevaaa):

prophesise (prophesy) as verb

disinterested (to mean uninterested) – feel free to argue

past (for passed)

Thursday’s…Friday’s…for simple plurals, not possession

it’s when you mean its (ugh!)

passer bys

me/I/myself I won’t blather on about that because I sound like a twat. BUT in a top selling book for which I’ve shelled out, say, £12, it niggles to see a chapter starting (names changed) “Me and Andrew left France…”

I have been spelling fuchsia wrong my whole life. And cardamom. So I’m a fine one to talk. In my Killing Hapless Ally, Myfanwy twice appeared without the first y. My fault. And I swear as if my life depended on it.

Love,

Anna xxxxx

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Latest review and what I have been reading – particularly from The Wellcome Prize Shortlist

It is early days for Killing Hapless Ally. Which is a strange feeling as I am already working on at least one other book. I am both letting her go and keeping an eye on her, and writing pieces on mental health, anxiety, literature and well-being, young people and mental health and parenting and mental health. You can access any of these through the pages of this blog, linked at top, or read some of them as blog posts here. I notice that even when I write on more frivolous topics – such as in my posts for http://www.selfishmother.com – I am also mindful of the topic of mental health. I have so much more to say here, I think.

Anyway, I liked today’s review of Killing Hapless Ally. It’s nicely written, isn’t it? That ‘So’ had me at hello.Here we are:

So. I suggest you don’t try to approach this as a book to dip into, in the few minutes before sleep for instance. The early chapters are a roller coaster of happenings expressed in dense, layered prose full of wit and horror. They are gripping and challenging at the same time, and the style cleverly reflects the state of the young Alison’s mind as she tries to cope with her family. It almost feels like the literary pizazz and black humour is there to deflect the tale of such cruelty to a child. When we get to the adult Alison’s showdown with her demons, and her work with Drs Hook and Crook, the style becomes calmer as Alison’s voice takes over. This packs even more of a punch when describing the dispatching of the chorus of Hapless Ally, Dead Santa Maria, Brother who Might as Well have been Dead, Vaguely Dead Dad and her other demons. This dispatching is incredibly moving, as is the knowledge that Alison’s voice, spirit and fierce intelligence was not dimmed despite everyone’s best efforts including her own. Highly, highly recommended.’

What am I reading? I am about to write a review of The Loney and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, about which I have conflicting views, but both of which interested me greatly. I thought, for example, that the language of the former was utterly beautiful; its evocation of landscape is something that will stay with me for a long time. I also felt it pulled off the difficult feat of making one laugh at the very time one is unsettled by the prose and full of dread. The latter, I am torn by. I am a huge fan of both Beckett and Joyce and instinctively felt at home here and yet…More to come. On my bedside table at the moment, Playthings by Alex Pheby, which is, I am convinced, entirely brilliant. Again review to come, when I get time. I do want to say, though, that all three of these fascinating titles found their home (at least initially) with small presses. May I remind you of my article on publishing with a small press myself. Here:

A Small Press State of Mind

And what with Alex Pheby’s book by my bed (and some rather ravishing other things to come from Galley Beggar Press) and most of my way through the whole Wellcome prize list, I want to recommend to you Suzanne O’ Sullivan’s It’s All In Your Head: True Stories of Imaginary Illness. She is a neurologist and has a deep interest in and respect for psychosomatic illness, which I should add is not ‘imagined’ as in ‘faked’, but a gamut of really experienced physical symptoms which, it is argued, may have their root in psychological issues. That does not under-value their reality, the pain these things cause or the havoc they wreak in people’s lives.

I felt that O’Sullivan is elucidating in what seems to me a very sensitive way the subtle link between the mind and the body. I can see from some of the negative (some furiously so) reviews on Amazon that many people have taken her to task, accusing her of misunderstanding illness for which, at the end of the day, it is hard or impossible to attribute physical cause, but I also have some personal understanding of this, in that, as someone who received mental health support and who had many years of struggling with anxiety, depression and OCD, I also had a raft of  (physically) unexplained medical problems alongside them: pain, awful fatigue and IBS to name three. Now I am mentally much stronger, because – and it would have been different otherwise: I cannot emphasise this enough – I have been helped to find the tools for health by appropriate MHRS support and I had to choose to engage with that support. And my physical health is very different. When it wavers, as it must do, both my psychological and physical responses are very different.  I would have to posit, therefore, that these things – the pain, IBS and fatigue – were, for me,  quite possibly psychosomatic and rooted in the psychological distress I was experiencing. I do feel uncomfortable stating this, but thus was my experience: pain came from pain; illness came from sadness – a fruit of what, in other times, might have been called hysteria or melancholia. It is this same inference on which some of those Amazon reviewers have taken her to task because they feel it is a misunderstanding of subtle illness.

I know that it is not easy for people and that shifting illness for which there is no attributable cause (which is not the same as saying there isn’t a cause which needs treatment or that the illness is not real to its sufferer or that it isn’t a serious matter) does not receive the compassion it should in the everyday world, so that those who suffer from something which may, by some definitions, be termed psychosomatic, also have to cope with others’ lack of understanding and sympathy. I am afraid it is also thus with mental health disorders and I certainly felt stigmatised within society and even within my own family; people still do – and that’s partly why I wrote my novel. No-one should feel both ill and persecuted and I wanted to punch stigma roundly on the nose. So, I did find much of what O’Sullivan wrote resonated with me – particularly its thornier or more uncomfortable points – because I also knew that I could, at several stages, have accepted further medical and/or psychiatric intervention which, on paper, was not essential. It is for serious illness – mental illness, I mean (and you see I am pains to point out that I am speaking only of myself because mental health problems are complex, diverse and peculiar to the individual) but I was encouraged to see I had the answers and, of course, I had my Dorothy Rowe books beside me. Her line – also not popular with all – is that depression is a prison where you are both prisoner and jailer; ergo, you put yourself in there and you have the key to getting yourself out. Human beings have the most extraordinary resources and we should never forget that.

I will take some weeks to digest the book and I urge you to read it. I hope that the tone of my comments comes across well.

Anna.

 

 

Today’s new review of Killing Hapless Ally

 

Format: Kindle Edition

A new review showing on Amazon this morning.
There are so many things that I like about ‘Killing Hapless Ally’; here are just a few of them:

i The supreme confidence and natural flow of the writing. It was so good to be able to relax almost straightaway and know that I was in the hands of an exceptional writer, who wasn’t going to irritate or pull me up short with sloppy workmanship.

ii The humour, which as the author clearly knows, helps make the parallel tragedy even more palatable and poignant.

iii The intelligence – this is a constant, and very welcome, presence throughout the narrative.

iv Quirkiness: I like this not only because it’s hugely refreshing but also because it feels so spontaneous.

v Subject matter: Whilst an individual’s breakdown is so damaging in its own way, I was most definitely with Alison in her car by the White Horse. Vaught describes the cacophony of the disintegration of the mind superbly.

vi The bravery of the writing: Vaught manages to convey the subject of overwhelming, constant fear with such paradoxical fearlessness.

Read a sample of Killing Hapless Ally here

If you click on the link below, you can read a short sample of the book from Kindle Cloud at Amazon. I hope you go on to buy the book. Support your local bookseller, order it in – or find the book at Waterstones online or, indeed, on Amazon for both paperback and kindle copies. I am sure you already know this, but Amazon subscribers get the book for free. I’d love you to leave me a review, though (at either site or on my goodreads page) – and to be able to discuss the book with as many people and as wide a group of people as possible.

Anna.

 

https://read.amazon.co.uk/?asin=B01CA5F21Y

A review from Goodreads that moved me greatly and starter questions for book groups

I have so been enjoying listening to feedback from readers of Killing Hapless Ally.  I know it is also being read for two local book groups, so if you fancy reading it for yours, I have added some suggested reading group questions, as given in an earlier post. The book is free on kindle to Amazon subscribers – although I must say that the paperback is a substantial, beautiful white and lilac thing with a striking cover by artist Charlie Johnson,

Here is the last review for the book, this one at http://www.goodreads.com this afternoon, followed by book group starters for you.

I received a signed copy of this book through Goodreads Giveaways – thank you very much – but this has not influenced my review. 

Wow! This book is incredible.

I identified with Alison so quickly, I frightened myself. (Mind you, what sort of mother tells their child she was a mistake?) This novel felt like going through psychotherapy. Alison’s struggle out from the depths of depression is here written so beautifully, so intricately, so real. The streams of consciousness left me breathless and the letters written by Alison have inspired me. I am going to write my way through the depths and endure. I rejoice in Alison’s survival.

 

Questions for book groups.

Who is Alison and who is Hapless Ally? Are the same person or two separate people?

Would you describe Hapless Ally as real?

What is your opinion of Santa Maria?

Who is the most horrible person in the book and to whom do you warm most?

Did you guess the ending?

What’s the significance of the book’s title? Is it simple and straightforward, or something more complex and nuanced?

Did you like the names for people and places in the book?

Did you take offence to any of the descriptions – for example, of the f…… caravan, the funerals, dying?

There are many literary references shot through the narrative. Some are obvious and documented explicitly in the text (and thus you will see them on the acknowledgements page) but some are harder to spot. So get spotting!

Did you feel that you learned more about mental health from the book?

Did you think that the book gives us insights into therapeutic practice and the sort of help available (although I feel I must add, not routinely available) through our National Health Service in the UK?

Did the book help you? By which I mean, did it make you feel better about your own problems or state of mind? Did it give you a nudge to tackle things that are holding you back and making you unhappy?

Was the book shocking? If so, why?

Is it a happy ending? Is it over – in a good way?

Who was your favourite imaginary friend – and why? Dolly, Shirley, Albert, JK….

Did you feel sympathy for Santa Maria? For Dad? For Brother who Might as well be Dead? For Terry?

What do you think of Dixie Delicious?

What makes you laugh in the book? Is it the pickled egg murder/horrible deaths/caravan of evil/revenge on the tutus…?

What does the book show us about the power of literature and, more broadly, of the written word? What of the spoken – the “curses ringing”?

Why do you think there’s a shift in narrative from first to third person between the prologue and chapter one? Do you think it’s successful?

What’s the significance of the foreword to the rest of the book?

Is Alison strong, or is she weak?

Did all this really happen? Do you believe it did? Why?

 

Launch tomorrow and something for book groups!

So tomorrow is the launch of Killing Hapless Ally and it occurred to me that, since we haven’t published book group questions and starting points at the back of the book, I’d do some here. You know, in case, wherever you are in the world, you belong to a book group and would like to tackle the book  (as I know a couple of book groups local to me are already planning to do) – maybe with a few ideas to get you going?

Who is Alison and who is Hapless Ally? Are the same person or two separate people?

Would you describe Hapless Ally as real?

What is your opinion of Santa Maria?

Who is the most horrible person in the book and to whom do you warm most?

Did you guess the ending?

What’s the significance of the book’s title? Is it simple and straightforward, or something more complex and nuanced?

Did you like the names for people and places in the book?

Did you take offence to any of the descriptions – for example, of the f…… caravan, the funerals, dying?

There are many literary references shot through the narrative. Some are obvious and documented explicitly in the text (and thus you will see them on the acknowledgements page) but some are harder to spot. So get spotting!

Did you feel that you learned more about mental health from the book?

Did you think that the book gives us insights into therapeutic practice and the sort of help available (although I feel I must add, not routinely available) through our National Health Service in the UK?

Did the book help you? By which I mean, did it make you feel better about your own problems or state of mind? Did it give you a nudge to tackle things that are holding you back and making you unhappy?

Was the book shocking? If so, why?

Is it a happy ending? Is it over – in a good way?

Who was your favourite imaginary friend – and why? Dolly, Shirley, Albert, JK….

Did you feel sympathy for Santa Maria? For Dad? For Brother who Might as well be Dead? For Terry?

What do you think of Dixie Delicious?

What makes you laugh in the book? Is it the pickled egg murder/horrible deaths/caravan of evil/revenge on the tutus…?

What does the book show us about the power of literature and, more broadly, of the written word? What of the spoken – the “curses ringing”?

Why do you think there’s a shift in narrative from first to third person between the prologue and chapter one? Do you think it’s successful?

What’s the significance of the foreword to the rest of the book?

Is Alison strong, or is she weak?

Did all this really happen? Do you believe it did? Why?

 

 

 

 

 

Early pre-publication reviews of Killing Hapless Ally..

If you buy the book through Waterstones or Amazon, do please leave a review. I also have a page at Goodreads (pop the button on the page) where you can review and add a question for me, if you would like.  Praise is wonderful – of course, it is – but so is constructive criticism. I also like to tangle with others’ arguments and views, so please ask me questions or comment on things you thought didn’t work. The book is candid in its exploration of what it means to be well; to have mental health problems; to hurt and wish to annihilate yourself. Also, its humour is dark. Oh yes, dark. It will offend some people. But if reviewers comment that the events don’t seem plausible, I’ll have to state that the foreword tells you it’s fiction “drawing on many episodes in (her) own life…” The things I could tell you of caravans, spotted dick, tripe, people buried with their dog, evil relatives….

Anyway,

“I thought it was a splendid read. And it made me laugh. I enjoyed her literary references too – all my favourites; I used The Wind in the Willows as comfort reading too. I genuinely liked this book (or I wouldn’t have read it so quickly!) – very likeable narrator, many familiar references that chimed – and funny – which is difficult to pull off, especially whilst dealing with such a knotty subject. Congrats to Anna!”

‘Killing Hapless Ally’ is an intriguing and powerful novel which explores one woman’s quest for freedom from the overpowering clutches of depression and dislocation. With dark humour, sprightly wit and insight the author follows Alison’s twisting and often frightening path towards positive mental wellbeing and a release from fear and self-loathing. The book is both touching and savage and is imbued with exquisite description throughout. I think this story will appeal to many people; it is definitely a ‘page turner’ and one which will make you laugh (a lot) and cry. I greatly enjoyed reading it and will definitely be recommending it to my friends….