Bridget Jones Mad About the Boy – Helen Fielding

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I didn’t plan to read the third instalment of the Bridget Jones Story. For me, she’s forever the thirty-something woman, standing in her pants and cardigan, kissing Mark Darcy outside her apartment in the snow. The second book, whilst still funny, almost spoilt the happy ever after, and the third, once I heard the terrible news that Mark Darcy had died (I am sure there is no-one that hasn’t heard this news, and it is introduced at the very beginning so I haven’t ruined the story), was something I didn’t want to know about.

However, after hearing a few good reviews and spotting it in the library, I couldn’t resist.

Bridget is now in her early fifties, is a widow with two young children. She is reintroduced to us covered in nits, and wondering if she can invite her new toyboy over, knowing she could pass the nits onto him. We follow Bridget over a year, from pre-toyboy dating exploits, where she is encouraged by her friends to get back into the world again (she has been mourning Mark for 5 years) and through the ups and downs of grief, going back to work, managing two children at school and a love life.

Some of the same friends are around, still single and encountering the same horrible dating disasters. There’s Tom and Jude and a new addition of an older woman called Talitha, a beautiful TV presenter, married to a mysterious Russian. Daniel Cleaver makes several appearances, though he is definitely in the ‘dirty old lech’ category, no longer just a bit of a bad boy.

This time, not only do we see Bridget in disastrous work situations but Helen Fielding also gets to depict her in the playground with all the other mums, organising sports day refreshments and play-dates, which offers so much opportunity for comedy. It’s very much like the other Bridget books but with elements of ‘The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy’ and ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ thrown in.

We also get to see Bridget’s first foray into social media, and she builds up a Twitter following by tweeting her dating experiences, and excerpts from her research into how to date.

Helen Fielding’s creation is still very funny, and she is faithful to the character we first met in the nineties. Some of the situations she finds herself in painfully are stretched beyond any reality, for pure comedy value, though this was always the case with Bridget. Her trip to the obesity clinic is a little unbelievable as is her ability to pull sexy men at every opportunity, despite being bonkers. Her parenting skills are appalling and borderline neglectful. I also found her age (51) hard to reconcile with the ages of her children

However, it is purely fiction, and is written to make us laugh, and cry at some times, and Helen Fielding has managed to bring the spirit of the original Bridget Jones into this instalment, despite killing off her Mr Darcy, and putting her into a domestic hell. You need to read it without questioning it too much (try and ignore a major incident towards the end of the story involving a BMW and a school playground, I couldn’t understand it).

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson.

The Summer Book Tove Jansson

The Summer Book Tove Jansson

Sophia spends every summer in a tiny cottage on an island in the Gulf of Finland with her father and grandmother. This is the first year after the death of her mother, and she wakes up confused that she is sharing the bed with Grandmother, forgetting that her mother is dead.

Her days are spent exploring the island with her grandmother, whilst her father works for hours on end at his desk. Sometimes they go out in the boat to go fishing, but otherwise time passes lazily for months on end, subject only to the weather.

They go swimming, explore the flora and fauna of the island, build palaces out of balsa wood, and tell terrifying stories. A stranger moves into a neighbouring island, threatening their isolation, and a boat passes in the night and father disappears without telling them, only to come back in the morning grumpy and tired. Such incidents mark the time in an otherwise peaceful existence, unaffected by the outside world.

Occasionally they have a visitor, Sophie’s friend from school or Berenice or Grandmother’s old friend Verner.

Each tale is told gently by Jansson from the point of view of the child and elderly lady: hazy and not understanding the greater world around them. We never find out what her father is working on, because Sophia doesn’t understand herself, and we do not find out what happened to her mother.

Idyllic summer days are tinged with unnerving reminders of death and the cruelty of nature. Adventures are punctuated by Sophia’s angry outbursts and fear and Grandmother’s failing memory and increasing tiredness.

As the time passes, Jansson shows the growing confusion of Grandmother as she becomes more forgetful and bewildered at the world around her, and almost as childlike as Sophia. When Sophia asks her what it is like to sleep in a tent she gets very upset as she realises she really enjoyed it but her fading memories meant that she could no longer say what it was like.

It’s a very gentle book, which is disturbed occasionally by Sophia’s anger with the world and terror of death, and the creeping signs of modernity encroaching upon the island such as Father’s attempt at irrigation, where he imports bulbs from Holland, only for Grandmother to rescue the daisies that grew there before, a new road, ripping through the landscape and the neighbour, building a house on an otherwise uninhabited island.

I loved reading this book, not only for the atmospheric depiction of the sparse cottage on the tiny Finnish island, but for the magical stories of their adventures in the loft or her father trying to grown bulbs from Holland in the dry earth. Tove Jansson depicts the relationship between Sophia and her Grandmother beautifully, as they sometimes get cross with each other and argue, yet come to some agreement as Grandmother eventually assuages her with new stories and adventures. There is no plot as such, just a realistic portrayal of grief, growing old and family relationships.

Travelling Light – Tove Jansson

 

Tove Jansson, Travelling Light Tove Jansson, Travelling Light

I discovered this collection of short stories from the creator of the Moomins after reading her books to my children and wanting to find out more. Tove Jansson writes her adult fiction in the same way as she draws her children’s stories, painting lovely pictures of landscapes and locations, in slightly odd colours and shapes.

In each story the location is very much part of the plot, from the cruise ship in ‘Travelling Light’, to the Spanish town in ‘The Garden of Eden’. The post-apocalyptic scene in ‘Shopping’ and the Finnish islands in ‘The Summer Child’, the events of these tales are integral to the location they are set in and couldn’t happen anywhere else. Her protagonists are strangers in a foreign place, and the stories are about their encounters with their new surroundings and people.

In ‘Travelling Light’, the hero is trying to escape his past, and the anonymity of a cruise ship is perfect for this, adrift in the ocean, unconnected to land. He has left everything behind, and is exhilarated by the freedom of having no possessions and no emotional connections to anyone on the boat. This is short lived as he finds himself sharing a cabin and embroiled in a conversation with the man who wants to share all his problems. He leaves, only to meet another passenger in need, when he discovers it’s impossible to lead your life unburdened by others.

My favourite story is ‘The woman who borrowed memories’. She goes back to her old apartment and finds her old flatmate from fiteen years previously, still there, still listening to the same records. As they reminisce the flatmate disputes her memoires, and claims many of the things happened to her didn’t go on in the way she remembers them. As she feels her past being taken away from her, she makes an escape. The terrifying way in which her old friend effectively tries to erase her identity warns of the dangers of living in the past and the subjectivity of nostalgia.

‘The Gulls’, is an eerie tale of a husband and wife who go to stay on an island for the summer to help the husband get over stress induced by his teaching job. His anger does not subdue despite the isolated location, and his wife encourages him to take interest in the wildlife, but he is unfortunately attacked by gulls whose nest he disturbs. His murderous obsession with the birds simmers over in a nasty conclusion.

Tove Jansson’s collection of stories about relationships and location is both beautiful and unnerving. I found it a fascinating depiction of the oddities of other people and how you can’t really escape them. The characters in the stories behave in ways that are peculiar yet familiar, such as the vendetta by X against Viktoria in ‘The Garden of Eden’. Travelling Light leaves a lasting impression, it is beautifully written, so clear and easy to read, yet so evocative of the landscapes she is writing about.

Life after Life – Kate Atkinson

Life After Life

 

Kate Atkinson is known for both her literary fiction novels and her detective novels about Jackson Brodie, which have also been turned into a TV series with Jason Isaacs. In both genres, I have enjoyed her clever layering of plots and characters, with many viewpoints, dotting around in chronology building up to create a story. Life After Life goes one step further in that she uses Ursula Todd’s life to create many different narratives by going back and starting over and over again.

It’s a fragmented book, built up out of episodes in Ursula’s many possible lives. We meet her in 1930, where she attempts to assassinate Hitler, before going back to her birth on a snowy day in 1910.

Each time Ursula’s life takes a fatal turn, she starts again, sometimes at birth, others at the point where she can do something differently and change the outcome for her and her family. It’s the only book I have read where the main character repeatedly dies: sometimes she meets her end within a couple of pages; others it takes many chapters; each time the path is different. After a number of deaths Ursula seems to become aware in some way of what is happening to her, and can alter her circumstances or actions in small ways to change the outcome, though sometimes it merely shifts the time and place of her death.

Each version of her life is compelling and, despite the fractured narrative, I could build a full picture of her family and friends and the life she leads growing up in the family home Fox Corner. From her adored father Hugh and her difficult relationship with her mother Sylvie, to her hated older brother Maurice and lovely younger brother Teddy, the characters remain consistent throughout, but the events change. Incidents from her childhood crop up again and again, but with different outcomes each time, with a different resonance.

As well as telling the story of a family in the early 20th Century, Life After Life asks questions about fate and coincidence. What if that happened differently? Would history change?  Atkinson plays out the ‘what ifs’ for the Todd family – Aunt Izzie has an illegitimate child, who is not seen in one thread, but becomes very much part of the family in another. Even passers-by have roles to play – if they are there they may save a life, if they are not, someone dies. A relationship that appears to be the true love of Ursula’s life, leads to the death of a childhood friend. Good and bad cannot be separated. The book made me think a lot about the way a writer can change a story with the slightest tweak in events and characters.

I could not help but wish with each version of Ursula’s life, that she could go back and find her happy ending. Of course, because she dies so many times, it’s a sad read, and whilst reading I was urging her not to lean out of the window or go down into the bomb shelter! It was hard not to wince at every crucial moment, expecting the worst to happen. It’s been a few weeks since I finished the book, and I have since decided that there was an ultimate aim for Ursula (a bit like Quantum Leap, where Sam has to find out the reason for him leaping into that era, before he can leave again). If you have any theories of your own, let me know!

Mr Lynch’s Holiday – Catherine O’Flynn

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Mr Lynch’s Holiday is Catherine O’Flynn’s third novel, inspired, in part, by her own experiences living as an ex-pat in Spain whilst writing her first book. That book, What Was Lost, was long-listed for the Man Booker prize and won the First Novel Award at the 2007 Costa Book Awards, and drew Catherine many plaudits for her acute character observations and sense of humour. Her latest book demonstrates her talent just as well.

Mr Lynch, is actually Dermot Lynch, a recently widowed, retired bus driver who emigrated from Ireland to Birmingham as a teenager, and stayed there ever since. He surprises his son Eamon with a two week visit, not long after the death of his wife.

His son, Eamon, lives near Almeria in Spain, in a failed ex-pat development called Lomoverde, an optimistic name for the dusty, barren location of the settlement. Only a handful of the houses are complete and occupied; it has become a ghost town in more ways than one. Amongst the community are retirees, people cashing in on the property boom; just people looking for a better life in the sun. Sadly, their dreams have turned sour, as their properties have become impossible to sell, and they are stuck with the problems of living in houses that have been abandoned by the developers, are resented by many locals and plagued with bad luck.

Eamon Lynch, like the others, arrived there with dreams of a better life with his wife Laura: working from home in the day and enjoying the communal infinity pool and sangria on the terrace in the evenings. When the reality turns out far different to that they planned, everything in his life falls apart.

With Eamon’s dreams in tatters, Dermot arrives just in time to see his son falling into depression and sets about saving him with love and patience. He gradually finds out how badly things have gone for his only son, and shows him simple ways to get back on track.

Catherine O’Flynn has cleverly set up the father and son as two generations in conflict. Eamon bought into the 30-something dream that the world is ours for the taking, and that anything our parents’ generation did was wrong. He has carved out a career for himself that is baffling to his parents – something to do with computers – and wants to be a writer. He has all the intellectual faculties to succeed, but none of the practical ones.

Eamon sees his father and his generation as ignorant – borderline racist, homophobic, and generally just needing protecting from the modern world. As the story unfolds, Eamon realises that his dad is far worldlier than he gave him credit for. He is actually an outgoing, practical man, something which Eamon never learnt to be.

Catherine also depicts two marriages – Dermot’s to Kathleen and Eamon’s to Laura, both of which hold many secrets which come out during their time together.

Her style is very straightforward which makes Mr Lynch’s Holiday a very easy read and I finished it in a couple of days as I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to Eamon and his father. It’s very funny at times and sweet at others especially when you see Eamon and Dermont’s relationship blossoming, as they begin to understand each-other better. It has a surprising twist at the end, which cleverly concludes this cautionary tale in a very satisfying way.

9/10

Morrissey autobiography – review

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I wouldn’t class myself as the world’s biggest Smiths fan or Morrissey fan but when I heard he was writing an autobiography I just had to read it. In fact I only own a couple of greatest hits compilations and grew to love them around 1994 so I was way behind. But, I only have to hear the beginning notes of a tune from the band or the man himself and I am immediately back in my teenage bedroom or in a club dancing drunkenly. His sound sums up everything about being young for me.

I’ve always found him quite an intriguing character, as he stirs up either love or vitriol in so many people. Even the publication of his book created a fuss because of his insistence that it was published as a Penguin Classic. I also love the snooty fact he only did signings in Sweden. I never could resist a stroppy man. Recently I read the Anthony Wilson book 24 hour party people and watched the film, so I’ve become a bit obsessed with Manchester in the early 1980s. I think I was born a decade late (and in the wrong city.)

The book itself is a daunting 400 + pages, which is a challenge when you tend to fall asleep after a couple of pages every night. Luckily I started it over the Christmas holidays so I had some time to dedicate to it. In addition to this, a quick flick through the pages reveals there are absolutely no chapters, the only pauses in the text are paragraph breaks. A few photographs are scattered throughout, but not many. Morrissey is kind enough to write in chronological order, to begin with, and tends to stick to this throughout the book, but later on he does slip into anecdotes about things like his promotional videos, only to go off on a tangent for a while, and then come back to where he started.

Friends and family flit in and out of his memoirs, some getting more time than others. We get a fleeting glance at his family, Johnny Marr gets a lot of mentions (of course!) and he seems genuinely fond of him despite the ups and downs they have gone through together. I loved the occasional appearance of stars like Chrissie Hynde and David Bowie who are constant presences in the background of his life. He also details some funny brief encounters with lots of other celebrities including the cast of Friends, Anthony Wilson himself and members of Aha.

The last 100 or so pages are about him touring and we get a real sense of the endless travel between cities that gigging bands exist on.

Morrissey really is at his best when he doesn’t like someone. His greatest vitriol reserved for his teachers –and the depiction of school during the late sixties and early seventies is nothing short of horrific –the smells, the ugliness, and mindless violence of teachers who he sees as sexually repressed thugs full of hatred for the pupils and themselves. Geoff Travis of Rough Trade also comes in for some really scathing treatment.

What I did find odd was that Morrissey just seems to start singing at some point in his late teenage years– it’s not that he was singing from a young age (if he was, he doesn’t mention it).  He makes it seem like pure luck that he got into the industry, after several years of unemployment and a struggle with debilitating depression. The book doesn’t shed light on his inspiration for writing his lyrics either, which are often genius.

I ploughed through the book even though it’s not a conventional ‘story’ with a satisfactory plot, though of course life isn’t. His extreme emotions and magnificent turn of phrase led me to read parts of it aloud to my husband who couldn’t care less about Morrissey. If you take it with a pinch of salt, it is an enlightening insight into how the music industry works (from his point of view!). Though he does often appear hurt and naïve when describing events, so he is looking at things from the viewpoint of a victim of the industry, not a winner. You could describe it as one long diatribe against the music industry and press.

Despite the daunting nature of the book, it was easy to read and I couldn’t put it down. That is because Morrissey has a brilliant writing style –he injects Gothic horror into every event, which enlivens even the most mundane of stories. At times I found myself laughing out loud at his strops and the offence he takes at ordinary people. Other reviewers have described the book as poetic and I agree – from meeting a ghost on a moor, to the derelict streets of Salford marked for condemnation. The old lady left alone in her street to his school days. Each of these elements could be part of a novel –at times it has the high emotion and drama of Wuthering Heights and others it’s just funny.

His tone is much lighter as he leaves the UK and lives in Hollywood or travels around Scandinavia, which is quite telling about how he feels about his home country (not that he was ever shy about telling us!).

He has opened his soul in this book and has kept nothing back – I think many people mentioned in the book would probably argue about the representation of the events but I think this is truly how Morrissey sees things and he isn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. It does seem like he sat down and poured it all out and no-one has touched it since in terms of editing, and I am sure they haven’t as I can’t see him letting them.

The good news is, he says this has been more successful than any of his records and is thinking of writing a novel. I can’t wait to read it.

An another note, The Guardian asked its readers to come up with an alternative cover for the book, and the results are quite funny: Alternative Morrissey cover

Novelicious Pintrest Prompt – short fiction writing competition

Novelicious pintrest prompt November

I’m really pleased to have some fiction writing success to share at last: five years after I last had something in print, I won the November Novelicious Pintrest Prompt. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but it’s quite simple really -you write 400 words in response to a photo prompt provided on the Novelicious website (the photo above was my inspiration),  for the chance to win £20 in Amazon vouchers. The competition runs monthly and the December competition has just closed so it’s time to look out for the January photograph.

Novelicious is an on-line community that celebrates women’s writing. It’s for readers and writers and every day there are new reviews, interviews with authors, writing tips and fun stuff such as gifts and holidays perfect for book fans. It’s got a Facebook page and Twitter account so it’s easy to keep up to date with. I love dipping into it when I am browsing or daydreaming (procrastinating).

Novelicious is also a digital publisher with works by Poppy Dolan,  Rosie Blake and Holly Kingston already available.

Here is my winning entry: Novelicious five minute fiction which appeared in the monthly newsletter, which you can also sign up for. As you can see, I was reading Morrissey’s autobiography at the time so I was delighted to squeeze a reference to him into it too!

Review: Spilt Milk, Black Coffee – Helen Cross

Helen Cross’s third novel is a love story between a most unlikely couple who live through a most unlikely set of circumstances.

Amir and Jackie work together in a glamorous up-market department store in a northern town; whilst their home lives are distinctly unglamorous. Blonde Jackie, almost 40, is brassy, flirtatious, and vulnerable. Recently embroiled in a tabloid ‘home alone scandal’ where she left her young daughter Elle to fend for herself whilst she went on holiday to find a man, we meet her at her wedding to yet another man. Forever on the hunt for love and happiness in the most inappropriate of places, we watch her through the eyes of the only man who truly loves her –a young Muslim man called Amir, and her daughter – Elle.

Colleague Amir is a younger man struggling with the demands of his sick mother and the pressures from his older brother Ashfaq and sisters to support the family business and maintain their reputation. Expected to get married at any time to one of a series of beautiful women introduced to him, his friendship with Jackie infuriates and disgusts Ashfaq, who will do anything to stop the two meeting again.

Spilt Milk, Black Coffee, is a brilliant depiction of clashes – cultural and personal. The two people closest to Jackie are both caught between two different worlds – Amir is torn between pleasing his family and his feelings for Jackie; who embodies everything his brother disapproves of, from the way she dresses, to what she says. Elle is torn between her straight-laced step-family, who live a far more ordinary life, and the chaos that surrounds Jackie.

Because Helen Cross tells the story through the viewpoints of those involved with Jackie, we never get to hear from the woman herself. We get a full physical description of her and we know a lot about her history but never really understand her motives or what she is going to do next. We just see the effect she has on others around her, who mostly use her and laugh at her, except for Amir and Elle.

Jackie is the woman from the front page of the Sunday tabloid brought to life. Throughout the novel she behaves in the worst way but, because we see this through the eyes of those who love her, we can begin to forgive her. Ashfaq’s small but vicious interjection late on in the novel is another brilliant way of building sympathy for Jackie. In her brazen sexuality and careless attitude towards Elle, at times I felt disgusted and angry with her, but moments of sweetness towards Amir and his mother and her social innocence won me round again. I loved some of the excruciating set pieces including those at wake, in a caravan and in the department store where everyone around Jackie is embarrassed but she is oblivious. She is so emotional that she is blinded to any kind of common sense or decency.

Helen Cross’s story is very funny at times and tragic at others. It’s an odd book, but the characters are captivating and so well imagined the most outlandish of situations are acceptable.

8/10

The Writers Bureau

Six years and two months after I got started on the Writers Bureau correspondence course I have finally completed my final assignment! My God, you might think, six years, that must be some difficult course. After all you could complete a degree and a Phd in that time…couldn’t you?

Well, it’s twenty modules, spilt into two halves – the first ten (depending on how you want to play things) being non-fiction and the second ten, fiction. It’s recommended you do the non-fiction first even if it is indeed a novel you want to write, as there are many ways to make money writing non-fiction that you might not have thought of.

When I signed up (keep in mind this is over half a decade ago so things might have changed…) I received a box with ten text-books in plus smaller books about conducting interviews, using the internet for research and punctuation and grammar. I was assigned a tutor for the non-fiction part of the course and then read the first text-book, and completed the first assignment, which had been sent to me when I signed up. From then on it was a case of read the book, complete the assignment, email it to my tutor, wait for feedback, and then move onto the next one. Students get another tutor when they move onto the fiction part of the course.

The Writers Bureau encourage students to send off all their assignments once they have taken the feedback on board and re-drafted their work and the goal is to earn £250. Well, I didn’t manage that, but I did get a piece accepted for the My Crap Holiday section in the Guardian and something in the Lonely Planet magazine. That was back in the early days of the course and I haven’t had much success since then but I have kept on submitting fiction to competitions.

For me, the Writers Bureau gave me structure and a starting point for writing. I knew it was something I wanted to try and a skill I wanted to develop and each module talks about the method and markets for each kind of writing. It also covers things like copyright and how to present your work. Everything from letters to magazines (oh, I did get a couple of those published) articles for the local newspapers, biography, screen-writing to writing a novel is covered. From having no idea where to begin I can happily say to you that I have written a short story for radio, a script for a pilot comedy show and the first three chapters of a novel!

The price was pretty reasonable too. It was around £250 when I started, so I didn’t feel it was too much of an investment and despite taking so long to complete it, my tutors haven’t forgotten about me and always responded with feedback on my assignments within a week.

It has taken me a long time to complete the course (some do it in six months), but that’s because I have had a lot going on in my life and went for long periods without doing any work for it. I’ve also been carrying on with my own writing projects between assignments, which has been one of the great things about it for me – it’s always been there to pick up on and inspire me when I’ve run out of steam with writing. It gave me regular goals to aim for – and I was determined to complete it some day no matter how long it took.

If you’re interested in having a go yourself the website is http://www.writersbureau.com/

Creative Writing Course – From Idea to Publication

I’ve just finished a really useful creative writing course called From Idea to Publication, at the Light House in Wolverhampton.

Run by writer Alex Davis, it’s one evening a week for eight weeks and cost £100. The course is split into two halves – the first focusing on good writing skills and the second looking at what to do with your work when it’s finished.

I’ve been writing short stories for about six years and I am writing a novel. I got started with the Writers Bureau correspondence course which is a good overview of all sorts of writing – non-fiction and fiction. However, I felt like I wanted to talk to someone face-to-face about writing and go into more depth about how to improve my work.

Alex’s course has been really helpful. Through exercises such as using a photo as a writing prompt and reading published writers’ work and critiquing it, the sessions have helped me to look more critically at the work I produce. Essentially it’s given me the tools to start editing my first drafts and turn them into something more polished. He gave us lots of reference points to use when writing such as plotting using a three-act structure, completing a list of questions about a character to help build a clearer picture of them and websites to help find places to submit our work. We also got an insight into how the publishing business works and tips on what to expect when (not if!) we get published.

Over the eight weeks I developed an excellent list of resources to keep me going with ideas and inspiration for a long time to come.

It’s a practical course which is perfect for beginners but also for writers like me who have got started but lost their way a bit. I also found meeting other people interested in creative writing meant that I felt a bit less silly about the whole thing.

Alex was very encouraging and was happy to read and comment on our work. The course has given me the confidence to keep up with my writing and to send off more stories for consideration. Alex can be found on Twitter: @AlexDavis1981

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