Agatha Christie: Part One

Where To Begin?

Generally there are three authors I turn to when in need. That is the need to read something but don’t know what as well as something not too heavy going: James Herriot, Gerald Durrell and Agatha Christie. Fortunately between the three of them they wrote a lot of books. The most prolific was or course is Agatha Christie. With over seventy novels and lots of short stories there is plenty to keep a fan going; but this of course can be a bit disconcerting for a newcomer. I had read one once on holiday in Nice, France. I’d run out of the books I’d taken with me and there was a small English section in a second hand bookshop, I say small I think it was a shelf. There was not much on it that grabbed my attention but I saw a copy of this Murder On The Orient Express and thought I’d give it a go… I loved it.

Later in Ireland, where I was living at the time, I went to Easons (a chain of bookshops) and decided to buy another, the shelves was crammed with what appeared to be hundreds of different novels and I felt a bit lost. They were all the Signature editions, beautifully designed covers with simple images, so spent some time looking at them hoping to find the one I was going to buy. I don’t read the back of books, as mentioned elsewhere as I want no spoilers, but this can create something of a challenge. In the end I went with By The Pricking Of My Thumbs as it was a Shakespeare quote. I’ll admit I was somewhat disappointed when I read it because neither her great fictional detective Hercule Poirot, nor the wonderful Miss Marple appear in the book, instead were a couple I’d never heard of, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. The novel was enjoyable but it wasn’t the typical “I have brought you all into this room to announce who the murderer is” style I was hoping for for a second read. Still a good book, but maybe one for later on the list of reads; you don’t want the genre subverted when you are starting off.

The fact is with over seventy novels to her name she was brilliant enough not to keep writing the same tropes and so amidst all the posh country houses and bodies in libraries she creates other styles. Adventures across the deserts, isolated islands where everyone is murdered and solving cases from many years previous, to describe a few, she really goes for it.

Of course nothing is perfect and there are maybe some attitudes her characters have that today we would probably highlight a bit more as being “very not ok” and I think it is worth pointing that out as sadly some mindsets from years ago were not as they are today.

So what books would I recommend for someone wanting to start out? Personally I like her Miss Marple novels the most (I’ll do a Part Two more about this and adaptions etc) and surprisingly she only wrote twelve of these (plus short stories). I’ve read all but one (I’m savouring it as I don’t want to run out, therefore The Murder At The Vicarage may not be read for a while). Of the eleven I have read they are different enough for each one to stand out, and I’ve enjoyed them all but I would recommend A Murder Is Announced to begin with. It’s a clever concept as the murder really is announced beforehand and it’s nice to see Miss Marple put all the pieces together as the plot goes along. Once you’ve read this one, honestly take any of the others you will enjoy them.

As for Hercule Poirot, there are… well the number of novels is debatable as some may not include plays etc, but over forty is a safe statement, so more than half Christie’s out-put. Of course Murder On The Orient Express is the obvious starting point for many, but actually I’d save that one for a bit later. I’d suggest Evil Under The Sun to begin with. It’s that traditional set up of a group of almost isolated people and one of them is murdered, you are left guessing who of the others did it and there are many possibilities.

What is interesting is that in both the Poirot and Marple ranges Christie uses her hero characters in different ways, in some they barely appear whilst in others the plot revolves around them, and then there is everything in between. This is brave and clever, but again if you are picking up a book in that range for the first time expecting Jane Marple to be central to it all and find she just appears near the end it might be a bit confusing.

These are my two recommendations but if you have others put them in the comments. In the next blog I’ll write about some of the adaptions and her non Marple/ Poirot mysteries.

Buy A Murder Is Announced by Agatha Christie
Buy Evil Under The Sun by Agatha Christie

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Beck’s Game: Wrapping Up Series One

Just Some Stuff I Wanted To Say

This is quite a self-indulgent post and I’m somewhat sorry about that. The fact is I’m buzzing (not like that). Beck’s Game has been one of the most successful writing projects I’ve been involved in. (My plan was just to write because I liked to do so). At the time of writing this, in total across all six parts, there have been well over 7,000 downloads. Every part, with the exception of the last to be released has over 1,000 with Part One now at 1,762 and still growing. Part Six is catching up as people reading at their own speed are coming back for more. This has far exceeded my imagination. July 2021 was in itself the most successful month my blog has had since I started. I realise this might seem like boasting and for that I do apologise, I state this however to also let you know I am so grateful to everyone who drops by and spends a little bit of time on my writing. So this is a “Thank You” post.

The South Bank

Thank you to the downloaders, the readers, the people who have said nice things, the businesses that took my hidden cards, the re-tweeters (a single retweet helped so so much) and you the readers of my blog. I really appreciate it.

The writing of Beck’s Game is a story in itself and being on the inside there are things I’ve wanted to say for no reason than I want to tell someone; hence I’m not completely sorry this is self-indulgent. Normal service will resume soon with some blogs about books by other people, I promise.

Last year, the year we want to forget yet call 2020, was the year I published Indoldrum. I’d started writing it before “events” became apparent and aimed for a summer release, which I got. To be honest the lockdowns didn’t impact it too much. I tweeted I’d finished the first draft on March 24th the day after the first lockdown in the UK. So redrafts, edits and all the rest were all done in our new world, but I was going to do them anyway, and when I get obsessed over writing I don’t need to be told to stay at home.

And so the book was released and as far as I was aware that would have been the end of my writing for a while. A novel is a big thing to write, as much you have a head full of ideas you need a whole lot more to make it work; and when it does it takes it out of you. I’d written Framed Of Rathgar summer 2018 to spring 2019 and then Indoldrum winter 2019 to summer 2020. I had no plans… then I had an idea.

There is no way I’d compare myself to the writers I admire, but I can learn from them. I love Fydor Dostoevsky and he published some of his novels in instalments in the The Russian Messenger before they were actually combined in to a volume. I had a blog, you might know of it, and I pondered the idea of releasing a serialised story using my own facilities. Of course this is not a new idea, there are lots of writers doing the same thing, but it hadn’t occurred to me before that I could use my blog to write fiction as well as write about it.

Camden, whilst researching.

You may have picked up I’m a bit of Doctor Who fan so the concept of telling a story in episodes is one I’ve grown up with, again it just hadn’t reached me until then that a writer didn’t need to be writing Doctor Who to do it, not that they do it much any more. I liked the idea and it suited the direction I wanted to go in. Indoldrum is rather an introspective novel and Framed Of Rathgar is deliberately slow, so I wanted to do something more action/adventure and faster paced next, whenever it was. I had the idea, I knew how I was going to do it, but it was now late summer, restrictions were easing and I was off travelling the country and “all this” would be over soon, so I thought.

I said earlier that you need more than a head full of ideas, you need to turn those concepts and fragments into a story. You need a hook, you need to hang good things on to it. I didn’t have any of that, and no real desire to get back into deep writing for a while, I’d been locked in enough. I tend to find the idea needs to be strong enough to motivate me to sit at my desk and type, I need to become obsessed with it. If it’s not strong enough to do that to me, how can I expect others to be interested in it?

But then driving the motorways of England, between listing to Garden’s Question Time and podcasts of Rutherford And Fry I found myself thinking. If I was going to write a six part adventure, for some reason it was always going to be six parts, what would the story be? What did I find exciting? Easy, maps geography… the London Underground! The moment it hit me, write a story about the London Underground, I was excited. I had a motivation, now I just needed a story and the time to do it.

The story of Beck’s Game came quite quickly, and I mean the whole story, I’ve only told one third of it so far. I soon realised six parts was not going to be enough. So I found myself daydreaming, the daydreams became spreadsheets, became word note pads of odd lines, became so much more. I experimented and soon came up with the format of Part One and then onwards. I now had a file open with the first “episode” as I found myself calling them to begin with, I still slip – I think it’s because my brain is programmed because of early Doctor Who!

I had planned it to be more of an anthology with each part being a self contained story which built into a bigger narrative. But in planning this it wasn’t really working, and I planned more for this than anything else I’ve ever written! Naturally it came out in the format it finished in, it felt right, the other way was more convoluted – however each of the six tales have found a place in the ongoing chronicle, some have just had to wait until a later series.

From late summer 2020 until early spring 2021 under two more lockdowns I wrote the whole thing, not just the first six parts, I mean the whole thing. I probably want to re draft the rest as in the time that has passed I’ve thought of changes I’d like to make, small ones, but other than that the whole thing was finished before Oxford Circus was released. I’m so pleased I decided to do it that way. The stress of thinking I’d now have to write two more series would be too much.

And now it’s out there, which is kind of scary to be honest. I know not every download will be read to completion, but that’s the case with any writer and their work. I’m just totally astounded, I honestly never dream of figures that high! Thank you.

As for what comes next? Well as I said the rest is written. I do want to have a bit of a break as it has consumed me over the summer, in a good way, but it’s a dark world and I need to step away for a short while; as well as to stop writing long self indulgent posts here! I want to get back to reading and writing about others. However I’m planning on releasing Series Two around the end of the year or early 2022 if I can, it’s a guess at the moment, but that is the aim. Rhys, Neil, Sophie and the other Players have much ahead of them. We have some new characters and the whole story becomes a lot bigger. There are whole lines of the Underground we’ve barely mentioned and parts of London that hold many secrets.

Series One will remain on this blog, under Beck’s Game in the menu, for as long as I feel it appropriate. I can’t overstate how grateful I am for the support Beck’s Game and myself have received, and I promise, normal service will now resume.


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Foxing: Part Two

My Adventures With…

James Herriot’s Yorkshire, fortunately the cow was well.

When I started writing the blog about foxing it ended up being a lot longer than I’d anticipated so I decided to split it in two parts. You can find Part One here and it discusses how I’d noticed that some of my books, which I aim to keep in as pristine condition as possible, had started to fox, that is have brown spots appear on the pages, and this was very nearly the end of the world for me.

The other weekend I was in the Yorkshire Dales. I’d gone because I needed to get away but decided I wanted to go where there were few people and also because I love James Herriot’s books. I also wanted to visit The Stid (nothing to do with writing but it’s interesting as it’s said to be the world’s most dangerous stretch of water – yes in Yorkshire! Google it and don’t fall in.)

Just as I was on my way back to the car park by Bolton Abbey I noticed an antique bookshop, Grove Rare Books. It occurred to me that they might have some literature they could sell me that would answer my questions of what to do, and they would have a clear authority on the subject of how to look after books. It turned out they didn’t sell literature about the actual upkeep of books, but the man who worked there was very helpful. He, of course, had his own collection of texts on how to look after his products and so spent some time helping me look up what I could do. To be honest I think he knew it anyway, he seemed the kind of person who knew very useful things, but he wanted to show the authority from the books – he obviously understood his customers well. We found the below in an older text book:

Advice from the old book

The book the man showed me was written a long time ago, I forget exactly when but many decades; it was in impressive condition and suggested a few options. Chloramine T seems to be a thing, I have no idea what it is, if it works, or even if it’s legal in the UK or other places so I’m not recommending it, I did discover it has a use for fish though. The other option was The Antifox Company in Guildford in Surrey as they had a liquid called Antifox (do not drink this! the book clearly warns) and a powder with which to treat the pages. “£5.00 + £1.00 for shipping by surface only”. Not that I was going to purchase it, but on googling the company it seems it no longer exists so maybe it doesn’t work, all you get is websites about actual foxes in Surrey, and from searching the address there is nothing of note there.

The man who worked there did reassure me that foxing doesn’t spread from book to book but is just a reaction to impurities in the paper, it’s not like mould. This is what the British Library’s guide said just without the fungal word (I almost just used the first letter but then thought better of it when I reread it), and to be fair the British Library guide is about mould and just happens to mention foxing as an aside so it’s not saying it is fungal.

The Strid

As someone who looks after a lot more books than I do, and which are worth far far more, I believe the man in the shop. He reassured me that it wasn’t a threat to the rest of my collection but I just have to live with it. A damp environment might contribute to the foxing. I had moved recently so my mind started panicking, was my current home damper than my previous ones? I don’t think so but it’s made me more careful to ensure in future I don’t store them in damp rooms.

I was also advised that if my collection was expensive there were services that I could investigate that would restore each page, but I have have a load of paperbacks not Gutenberg Bibles or Shakespeare First Folios (which are probably not the versions Radio 4 will give you on the desert island either).

I’m a lot more confident now and I’m beginning to return my foxed books to the their shelves. I’m far more aware of foxing and have noticed since January I carefully examine the book I’m reading, and any in detail before I buy them for marks, but I have to accept the fact that both myself and my books are getting older.

Oh and if you are ever near Bolton Abbey pop in to Grove Rare Books, they are good people.

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Foxing: Part One

My Adventures With…

Those dark spots on the page or across the fore edge (the opposite to the book’s spine) might make the book looked aged and interesting, but I hate them. I like my books to remain as close to a pristine condition as I can possibly keep them, and for the most part I succeed. A cracked spine will have me worrying for days and you should never fold the page corners. However if you have a collection of books it’s inevitable that you will come across foxing. The British Library describe foxing this way:

“Foxing is the term used for the brown spots and stains seen on affected paper which may be fungal in origin but may also be caused by chemical impurities in the paper.”

The word fungal is alarming!

Over the winter I started to read a novel (Doctor Who: Festival Of Death by Jonathan Morris if you’re interested) which, just because of the way of things, took a longer while to read than it normally should. I’d take it to and from work and read in my lunch break; one day I noticed it had started foxing.

This really worried me. I have never seen this before on the other BBC novels I have, and I own nearly all of them (and every Virgin!), so I hastily went and checked the rest of my collection. All but two of the BBC Doctor Who novels were clear, neither as bad as this one, and to my immense relief it was on none of the Virgin books, which are really important to me (there’s an entire blog coming folks). I immediately isolated the the affected ones and searched the rest of my other books. There were some that had marks on them but most seemed fine.

What worried me the most was Festival Of Death was only published recently, well in my head. It has since been republished in different editions because it’s a very good novel, but I’d been collecting from first release and as I had first editions of all the others when I started to look to fill in the gaps, of which this was one, I had to keep to the same format; look it up it’s not that cheap these days. Oh and it turns out that the “recent” publishing of the first edition of this novel was actually in the year 2000, longer ago than I remembered but I have books way older which are still pristine.

I tried to think back to when it had arrived in the post probably about a year previously. I would have noticed if it had been marked back then surely? I can only think that as it had been over the cold part of the year and as I’d sometimes leave it in the car during the working day this is what must have cause the foxing to happen, but I’d done that before to other books and I’d never seen this. Quite what caused this, specifically to this book, I needed to find out. But my main fear was to stop it from spreading.

Not one of my books

To be honest I’d never really gave it much thought before. I assumed that if I looked after them, all neat and tidy on a bookshelf in dry conditions, then they would not begin to show signs of damage like this. After having had a book collection for nearly all my life though as I get older so will the books.

The night I noticed it I did a search on the internet and there is some fairly confusing information out there, the British Library seemed to be the most qualified to advise, but that word “fungal” made me very uncomfortable.

I can be a bit dramatic at times, hey I’m a writer ok?, so I had visions of all my books turning to mould over night, a life time’s collection gone! What could I do? In moments of not so clear thinking I continued to search the internet for any solution. One place suggested I microwave the book to kill anything, stupidly I did this.

How long you cook the books for was not instructed so I decided I’d try a minute and see what happened. When I opened the door the book was damp and letting off an alarming amount of steam, the glue binding the pages together had melted and it looked sorrier than before I started, but just to be safe I put in back in for another thirty seconds.

I let it cool down, wafting the steam out of it and left it dry. Nearly half a year later no further foxing has occurred but I STRONGLY DO NOT recommend this as an option. I think it can probably cause more damage that way. It turned out it would be a while before I found out exactly what was happening to resolve the issue; in Part Two of this blog, coming later, you can see what happened next.

Incidentally the novel Festival Of Death is about a decaying spaceship, sort of, so it was kind of appropriate and it’s also well worth reading.

The Beautiful Death is the ultimate theme-park ride: a sightseeing tour of the afterlife. But something has gone wrong, and when the Fourth Doctor arrives in the aftermath of the disaster, he is congratulated for saving the population from destruction – something he hasn’t actually done yet. He has no choice but to travel back in time and discover how he became a hero. And then he finds out. He did it by sacrificing his life.
― Jonathan Morris, Doctor Who Festival Of Death

Buy Doctor Who: Festival Of Death by Jonathan Morris

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Your Worlds

Authentic Tour Guides

In various blogs I’ve extolled the works of authors who write about the very different worlds they grew up with. Both Patrick Kavanagh’s The Green Fool and Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie tell of almost idyllic rustic childhoods of yesteryear, in a world so different from our own. There is a fascinating bit in The Green Fool where, in his Irish village in the early 1900s the author speaks about his family having “the only clock in the townland” and that “all the neighbours passing our house called in to inquire the time.”

Likewise Lee’s England, even though probably somewhat enhanced, is more of a foreign land to me than some of the places abroad that I have visited in the 21st century. I’ve been to the Cotsworlds a good few times, it’s lovely, but I still see the other visitors at Stow-on-the-Wold more than I know what it would have been like to live there now, let alone a hundred years ago.

This is the wonderful ability of books. I love travel, being in lock down has meant I’ve not left the country since my expedition to Albania in January 2020, mentioned on here at the time. Whilst that might not seem a big deal I have a very strong sense of wanderlust, and whilst I have adventured to some amazing places in England, the urge to see foreign locations, whilst always strong, is getting stronger.

The thing is, travel guides and tour guides aside what does the traveller really experience? Most of the time it’s a tourist view of that land, not the real lives. I lived in Dublin for a long time and know it extremely well (well I would do if it didn’t keep on changing). However speaking to people who visited it, even many times, the places I know, the experiences I had actually absorbed in to the the day to day living of the city is far more than just sitting outside a bar in Temple Bar, a visit to the Guinness factory and walk along the Liffey. Even then my experience compared to a born and bred Dubliner pales. Which is why, if you really want to know a place you should speak to a local. Which in turn is why autobiographies can open up a country or a culture far more than a visit (although do both if you can).

I spoke on here a while ago about the books from people who lived in North Korea, it’s not a place I will ever get the chance to visit; and, politics aside, even if everything changed and it became possible, it would be a different world to the ones that exists now. The same can be said of the past, so put those things together…

I was trying to think of a book that lets us see not only a culture we would find so different from our own, but also in a time which pushes it further from our understanding. The book Wild Swans by Jung Chang was quite popular in the early 2000s amongst my friends; having read it I can agree.

Starting in 1924 in Yixian, Manchuria it follows the life of Jung Chang’s grandmother, then her mother and then herself, all the way through the changes happening within China. History books can tell us of events, it’s books like these that tell us of the real lives, the real people who lived with them.

“As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless ‘Little Match Girl’in the Hans Christian Andersen story. When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say:’Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!”
― Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

China today is not the China of 1924, or a lot of the other periods in which the action happens, so if we were to visit and even get to properly talk to a local it would still be different (and most likely just as worthwhile) as reading what happened from a local perspective. For how we speak and think can never really be picked up in a brief visit or a short chat, it works both ways.

There are many many more works that let us into worlds we could never dream of, maybe we can’t travel physically as much as we’d like to at the moment, but we can let our minds wander.

Buy Wild Swans by Jung Chang
Buy The Green Fool by Patrick Kavanagh

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The Kroagnon Effect

Everyone Should Read This, But No You Can’t See It…

Writing is personal, whether consciously or subconsciously parts of yourself, your inner-self, will bleed into your work; which is one of the reasons I hide behind a nom de plume, sorry Trevor. But there is more to it than that. The amount of work that goes into writing something, especially a novel, can make it very strange when it’s released into the wild to fend for itself. It’s all too easy to start worrying about what people will think about it, but then isn’t that the reason why it was made available? Either by traditional or self publishing.

The first book I self published via Amazon was my second novel Framed Of Rathgar and when my paperback copy came I was delighted I had a physical product of my own work. It led to me publish my first novel, Humanity, and start work on my third.

Indoldrum was published about a year ago and at that point I had social media set up to promote it and all of that. But as much I was so proud of it, I was also worried that people might read it. I’ve heard it said elsewhere, and I wholeheartedly agree, writers are a funny lot. We swing from shear shameless arrogance (this work of mine is so good strangers will give up hours of their life to read it) to being full of self doubt (everything I’ve ever done is utterly terrible), within seconds and often at the same time.

Yet that is the problem, we’ve done the work, the book exists and now we have to step into that role of actually telling people it’s good enough they should spend money and time on it when simultaneously not believing a word we are saying is true, and thinking we’re due an award.

Because of the time and soul I have put into my work, knowingly and unwittingly, I have this fear that other people won’t see it in the way I do; which is stupid, because of course they won’t, it’s impossible. No book that I have ever read means the same to me as it does to another person, let alone the author. I’ve had reviews of Framed Of Rathgar where people have not remotely understood the concept of the novel, despite the fact it’s clearly written on the back (yes call me a hypocrite if you’ve read my blogs, I have said I never read the backs of novels – I’m happy to be a hypocrite it means I get to negatively judge people for doing things I do, you should try it sometime, it’s liberating). The result then is that I start to think maybe people shouldn’t read it. The fact that it exists is good enough and it only complicates things if others have a say or an opinion. I understand it’s amazing and no one should say a bad word about it, and that it’s so bad nobody should bother with it, which leads me to the same conclusion each time.

In 1987 there was a rather good Doctor Who story called Paradise Towers by the writer Stephen Wyatt. I say “rather good”, in fact I’m very fond of it. “SPOILERS” are coming to misquote a later character from the same programme. The concept of Paradise Towers was based on the novel High-Rise by JG Ballard. Ballard’s book is about a self contained block of flats where society collapses leading to all sorts of terrible things, it’s worth a read.

In Paradise Towers the incredibly designed eponymous Towers start out as Paradise but soon these too fall apart, but this time it’s because the Great Architect, Kroagnon, loves his building so much he doesn’t want people moving in and messing it up, therefore he’d set traps for them in the hope they will all be destroyed and he can have the his work back the way it was, without people.

Kroagnon is obviously the baddie of the piece, but I can kind of see where he is coming from, of course I’d never send cleaning machines to drag people down their own waste disposal system- that would be unethical, but was it the fear of a different way of understanding and use of his work that made him not want the very ones he’d designed the block for to have it?

‘Like everyone else in Paradise Towers,’ he began, ‘you seem terrified you seem terrified to face up to the reality of of what’s happening here. I mean, killing me won’t help you find out who is sending those robotic cleaners out to kill people… Unless, of course, you’re giving all those orders yourself.’
― Stephen Wyatt, Doctor Who: Paradise Towers

“A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere. This was the sort of resident who was content to do nothing but sit in his over-priced apartment, watch television with the sound turned down, and wait for his neighbours to make a mistake.”
― J.G. Ballard, High-Rise

I’m getting close to the end of my next project, Beck’s Game, and I’m there again. I want everyone to read it, it’s that good… but what if people do read it? What will they think? Will they like it? Will they understand it? Will they realise it’s all a mistake and I should never have been allowed near a word processor? Will they discover I’m a fraud? I need to publish it after all the work I’ve put into it, but maybe I don’t want others to actually read it.

Buy Doctor Who: Paradise Towers by Stephen Wyatt
Buy High-Rise by J G Ballard

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The Down Side

Putting The Misery Into Tragedy

As my last blog was a bizarre shout at the planet to both slow down and get better I thought I would need to make the next one more upbeat… So I’m going to tell you about two of the most depressing books I’ve read. Be warned there are SPOILERS coming, I’ll try and keep them at a minimum but when blogging about a book’s tone you may need to refer to the end… just saying. If you want to know no more turn back now… otherwise “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

To be honest I’m not a misery and of course it’s not true that drama is tragedy; but try telling a compelling story where bad things don’t happen. It is so much harder to write anything with soul and heart that is upbeat. I don’t mean it’s impossible, I’m sure I’ll blog about my favourite upbeat books later (there is no real plan to what I do here), but it’s just harder. I guess this is why most people at the start of their writing experience, when charged with writing a story, go for tragedy over comedy.

Again I’m not saying that I think any less of the two books which follow, in fact they are both top quality writing, that’s not just my opinion, both writers have highly prodigious awards to prove it. My point is, although tragedy and depressive things aren’t necessary for a good story, we are kind of drawn to them and done well they will effect your soul.

I’ve waxed lyrical about my love for Les Misérables elsewhere (the book; I’ve not, and refuse to, access any other format of the story at this point), and my goodness it deserves the title. That nice lady with nice hair and teeth! But even then I wasn’t rendered stunned reading that as I was by the time I’d got to end of The Grapes Of Wrath.

Taking it’s name from the book of Revelation, John Steinbeck’s novel about a family trying to survive in the American Depression is what made me love this author. It was the second of his books I’d read and I am now on a mission to read them all, but sparingly. I really can’t say too much as the concept of what happens as we follow the Joads is the whole point of the plot and you really need to discover that as you read it. The Joads are a family who move from their farm in Oklahoma, which is no longer viable for them to survive, to California as they believe a better life awaits them. The book follows their journey, incorporating others who are doing the same. It’s not just them, these events happen to most of the characters. The fact is it’s not just a story. Whilst the events are fiction real people, real human beings like you and me, were making this journey as the book was being written in the 1930s and very similar challenges to the ones the Joads were facing were the life experiences of many many people who were around at the time of publication. When you know that it takes on a far more bitter taste.

So why read it? Why put yourself through the harrowing events? I could state it’s about greed and and how it’s a scream at the injustice happening back then which is still happening today, but we all know about that at this point, we’re not going to learn anything new. Instead the book is a master class in how to write tragedy to a very high standard, to invoke pathos without going too far. It’s human, it’s real, it’s gritty without needing any of those terms in the way that films bandy them about to make them look like they have depth. I said writing tragedy is easier, but to do it on this level is a gold standard I’ll try and aim for, but will fail at each time..

“I seen fellas like you before. You ain’t askin’ nothin’; you’re jus’ singin’ a kinda song. ‘What we comin’ to?’ You don’ wanta know. Country’s movin’ aroun’, goin’ places. They’s folks dyin’ all aroun’. Maybe you’ll die pretty soon, but you won’t know nothin’. I seen too many fellas like you. You don’t want to know nothin’. Just sing yourself to sleep with a song—‘What we comin’ to?”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

The other reason you should read it is because it’s a great book. Ok when I finished it, pushing on through the last pages to see how it ends, desperate to know, I did actually go into a decline for a few days after. The images at the end, the implications, the meaning of it all ghosted me for a good while after. I couldn’t get them out of my head which no other book has done. I still say this is one of the best books I’ve read just because of what it did to me.

The other book I want to recommend is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Set in India in the 1970s and 1980s this is the story of a small group of people who, through events, form a community just to be able to continue to exist. Everything is against these people. They each have a story of their own and they are constantly fighting their own worst outcomes. Then they find each other. It doesn’t matter how the book ends, I don’t need to refer to anything in the second half of the book, to say it’s grim. This could very well pick up and work out well, it could not or it could be somewhere in the middle, discover that yourself, but as you reflect on what pushed the characters to get into the plot, to become part of the community in the first place, even that is enough to make anyone lose hope in any kind of reliability of the stability of their own life. Then you have the stories of the fringe characters… I will say no more, read the book, then we’ll talk.

I read this novel on a short break to the paradise of Placencia in Belize. Whilst I was sat on the beach looking out at the glorious Caribbean Sea I was slowly sinking into despondency… yeah I should have chosen another book to take with me. As the bars were alive with music and fun I was sat weeping into my cocktails and hot wings… well not quite.

“But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.”
― Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance

I did really enjoy reading the book though. When I say that it feels like I’m taking pleasure in other’s misfortune, even if they are fictional. Don’t judge me you’ve done the same. I guess being inside the mind of people who aren’t real but are feeling things we’ve felt and thinking things we’ve thought somehow helps us process we’re normal? Or at least that there is someone out there who understands.

Tragedy done well can do more than change a reader’s emotions, it can make them think without preaching, this is a skill I wish I had. Upbeat books are harder to write than misery… but writing quality misery is a skill that should be prized because life is neither totally comedy nor tragedy and it won’t ring true unless it’s done well.

Buy The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Buy A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

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I’m Questioning How Much I’ve Achieved This Year… Is That Just Me?

Did January Actually Happen?

What happened to January? It went so fast that I didn’t properly notice to write a blog complaining about it until the third of February. I find it hard to believe that I was listening to the manic fireworks set off near where I live over a month ago, yet I was. What has this got to do with literature?

I don’t know about you but I was happy to start a new year, a fresh start. As well as drawing a line under 2020 I thought with excitement about all the new books I’d discover and the ones I’d been meaning to read that I would finally get round to. By this time last year I’d completed reading five books, was well underway in writing my novel Indoldrum and managed a few blog posts and a trip to Albania; this January… well I made myself finish reading the book I started in December last night (which I ended up microwaving but that’s a different story), and this is only my second blog of the year. It’s true I did finish writing the first draft of my biggest project, but that was on the 13th of January and I’d done the majority of the work between summer and December last year. So what have I been doing with my time? Between me and you I think “they” have stolen several minutes out of each hour and we’ve had a far shorter month. Amidst all the conspiracies, here’s the one “they’re” getting away with. I can think of no other explanation.

I think we’re all worn down with “the virus” and its affects. A lot of my friends productivity this year has slumped as well. I don’t feel low in myself, but there is a sense of lethargy in the air running parallel with the fact that time just seems to have sped up. I redrafted the fist two thirds of my work-in-progress several times last year; the third section is has remained unopened in its first drift since I completed it mid January. I know what I want to do with it and have notes stored in many places yet I’m still to sit down and get on with it.

This is not unusual, type “procrastination writers” in a search engine and you get many results, of which I am now adding to. As writers we are known for it it seems, read books or interviews by very successful authors and this doesn’t appear to change. The considered work ethic is delay, delay, delay, stay up until four o’clock in the morning because we’re on a roll. Although in general this is not totally me, there is more than some truth in it, I’ve done many a late late night at the keyboard. I hear of ones speaking about goals of “words per day” etc, but I’ve never been able to get my head round that. I love writing, although at times I’ll tell you a different story, but to push myself when I just don’t feel in the mode, to force myself everyday to achieve a target, would for me take the pleasure out of it, I’d be writing words not stories. I know I would have to come back and change it all later anyway and that would be a bigger stress. I can’t move forward until I’ve got at least the structure of the section passable, on the occasions I have just written it and moved forward I’ve had to go back anyway and the changes have messed up everything after that. I’d rather wait until I’ve got my head in the right place and I’m feeling inspired. That doesn’t mean I just give up at a hard part, there are times I’ve needed to just push on through a difficult passage, but I try and keep this to only when I have to rather than just to hit a target of words.

That is me as a writer, as a procrastinator in life in general I’m not, and this is probably half the reason I can find other things to do, that I decide I must do, before I can carry on writing. As I’ve convinced myself January was a shorter month than it usually is, the time I’ve had I’ve somehow filled with “work was really busy today so I need a rest” or just “stuff” that I don’t really remember doing.

It’s February and I really want to get some more books read and I must get round to completing what I’ve written. Way back last summer I assumed I’d be able to have it nearly finished by now – I’ve still a ton of work to do yet it sits there on my hard drive waiting for me to make the changes I know will make it so much better. So why am I writing a blog and not working on my novel? To slightly misquote Rusty Shackle “3 a.m. I’ll soon find you again”.

I don’t think it’s unusual that this year we’re all feeling a sense of ennui or listlessness and I wouldn’t beat myself up over it. It’s good to have a routine though, I’ve read this in many places. My problem is I can make a routine of a lot of things other than writing and from what I’ve read that’s normal in writers.

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The History Of Rome

A Lot To Discover

Personally speaking I’m glad I’m not a Roman, no offence is meant to modern natives of the Italian capital. Shockingly I’ve only been there once and I do need to visit again, and when I say I need to, it’s a burning desire that demands to be soon quenched (although of course that’s easier said than done). The reason? For as much as I’m glad I’m not a Roman, I find the history fascinating; and although there’s plenty of it where I grew up in England, I do want to see it properly in Italy.

Some local Roman remains.

Of course when I say Roman I mean the ancient Republic / Empire and any of the inhabitants living from the cold wet island in the west to the Caspian Sea. Growing up it was one of those things that we were indoctrinated into believing was boring, the assumption that we had to learn about it because “sorry it’s on the syllabus”. It wasn’t until after I left school and I realised how much I loved history that the real importance of the age became apparent. I knew names such as Nero and Constantine as well some of the other Emperors (the shock when I learnt that Julius Caesar wasn’t counted as Emperor!) along with the likes of Cleopatra, Mark Antony or even the Colosseum or Pompeii, but it was all just vague information that didn’t piece together. Where does Hadrian’s wall come into things? Or even this fighting woman I was supposed to know all about, Boudicca? What does crossing the Rubicon mean? Who was Hannibal?

The fact that much of the history is so well known it’s always assumed that people already know it and therefore they aren’t told. I found myself in this situation, I could give you a list of Roman names and things, I knew they had a meaning but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much more. So after deciding I did want to do something about this I turned to books to teach me, and all these years later I still have a great interest the subject.

All this proved nicely useful when I also realised I loved Shakespeare; the third play I saw at the Globe was Antony and Cleopatra, although I was going straight to the airport afterwards so had to sit with all my luggage with me, it was so uncomfortable by the time we’d got to the asp scene I was just wishing she’d get on with it as I couldn’t feel my legs at that point. Regardless the span of Roman history covered by Shakespeare’s cannon covers several research projects in themselves and although I would have enjoyed the plays, knowing the history from our point of view and comparing it with the fictional version presented back in the Bard’s day is an interesting dimension to add to the experience.

I could tell you all the books I read in my youth that informed me, but instead I’m going list two more recent publications. The first is Veni Vidi Vici by Peter Jones (he’ll crop up in later blogs). I only read this book last year and although its designed to be a beginner’s guide to the Roman Empire I still enjoyed it immensely. Starting at the mythical Trojan war (yes that is important) and working its way chronologically through 1,200 years this really gives the big picture and well as a lot of detail. Written in nice sized chunks so it doesn’t feel so heavy there is wealth of information I really wish I could just recall at the appropriate time.

The problem with a group of people who accept impossible myths as their truth is how do we differentiate? Here the author is able to give their perspective and at the same time keep it as a factual as best as possible. Far from being dry history this is very readable.

Vesuvius is the only active volcano on the European mainland. The name may derive from the Oscan dialect fesf, ‘smoke’, or perhaps from Veiovis, a mysterious early Roman god. The volcano’s base is 30 miles (48 km) in circumference and it is 4,000 feet (1,219 m) high. Before it obliterated Pompeii in AD 79 it was perhaps twice as high as it is now.”
― Peter Jones, Veni Vidi Vici

For a more detailed look at one of the many stories in the era I found a copy of The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss. I knew of the story but couldn’t really tell you how or if what I thought I knew was accurate and that was only last year, proof of the rich history of the age.

To me Spartacus was the legendary enemy of Rome, the leader so loved that everyone was willing to sacrifice themselves for the chance to save him. Barry Strauss’ account of the life of this warrior certainly does it’s best to give you the as much history as it can, a difficult task as not everything is proven and a lot when it comes to Spartacus is guesswork. History is certainly different to the Hollywood versions that some people think keep accurately to reality. Sadly a lot of what we assume happened may have been exaggerated or plain invented. That doesn’t stop this being a absorbing read. The author keeps things simple and chronological, so it’s easy to keep up with. When your subject matter is from so long ago (mainly about 73 to 71 BC) keeping things true and reliable is hard; history is written by the winners and in this case Rome lasted longer than Spartacus did, even if it’s Republican form was soon to end. Strauss is honest and when it’s supposition he shows the workings regardless of if it’s his conclusion or not. If you want to know the truth, as best as possible, about this notorious defier of Rome this is a good place to go.

Gladiators didn’t have friends. They had allies, rivals, bosses, hangers-on, punks, spies, suppliers and double-crossers. The new gladiator learned whom to trust and whom to watch out for, who would cover his back and who would steal his food… One night a man shared a pre-combat meal with his comrades, the next day he killed his table-mate, and shortly after arranged for the victim’s tombstone.”
― Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War

Sometimes it can be a bit daunting taking on something like the history of Rome, then when we try and find good guides the number and variety can make things more overwhelming, however these are just two of a number of excellent works (and if you do get a chance to read I, Claudius and Claudius The God I’d recommend them very highly).

So what I learnt was whilst I love learning about the history of the Roman Empire, for all it’s civilisation, life was cheap and the average person, and therefore the slaves too, didn’t have the easiest of times to put it mildly. I like learning and reading about Rome, but I’m so glad I didn’t live there.

Buy Veni Vidi Vici by Peter Jones
Buy The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss

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2020 In Reading Part Two

My reads, not the books that came out this year…

This is the second of my look back at the books I’ve read in 2020. There were more then appears in these two blogs, some I’ve already written about, some I will do later, some I just read for fun. You can find Part One here (and last year’s batch here and here). So a new year is ahead and it’s quite exciting, I have a blank shelf again as it were. There are many books in my “To Be Read” pile but I’m sure I’ll add to it during the year; in December next year I could well be blogging about a book I’ve never heard of at this moment… well I find that interesting. Happy Reading all.

Cider With Rosie – Laurie Lee. As posted elsewhere I try to avoid knowing anything about a novel before I read it. I’d heard of this book in various places over the years and when I saw it in a second hand shop decided I’d see what it was about. The novel opens with a first person account of moving into a home in the Cotswolds at the age of three, it goes on to then describe what living in this very rural location was like. It soon became clear that this was during the First World War and as such the England that is being written about is certainly different from the one I know. Just as the author was over seeing the cusp of a dramatic change in society I too felt I was doing the same, only over one hundred years later and at a much older age than he was. One of the negative points about avoiding all spoilers is that you miss the things you are supposed to know and it wasn’t until awhile into the book that I realised that the viewpoint of the character I was following was male and not female, it was this revelation that made me do a little research and I discovered that the author’s name is LAURIE and not LAUREN as I’d been misreading it all this time! Cider With Rosie is in fact an account of his actual childhood and the first of a trilogy. The title is a mystery until you near complete the book when at only that point does it make any sense. Overall it’s beautifully written, evoking a simpler time deep in the real English countryside; very much like The Green Fool by Patrick Kavanagh, only his is in Ireland. I enjoyed it so much I’m planning on finishing reading the trilogy.

“I had learnt my first lesson, that I could not hit Vera, no matter how fuzzy her hair.”

“Eight to ten loaves came to the house every day, and they never grew dry. We tore them to pieces with their crusts still warm, and their monotony was brightened by the objects we found in them – string, nails, paper, and once a mouse; for those were days of happy-go-lucky baking.”
― Laurie Lee, Cider With Rosie

The Man In The High Castle – Philip K Dick. The concept of this 1962 novel is intriguing, set at the time of publication mainly in San Francisco (as well as some other other states in the west of what we call the USA), this is a world where the Axis Powers won the Second World War. Nazi Germany rules Europe and the eastern half of America, whilst the west is in the Japanese Empire. There is a book, forbidden in some places, that is a dystopian account of that would have happened if the Allies had won the Second World War. As a world this is very well thought out and and close enough to our own for it to feel totally alien, it’s only talk of going to colonise other planets and unrealistic rocket technology that break the spell. The concept is a good reason to read this novel. The plot, however, is… strange. Generally following the lives of a few citizens in San Francisco, it doesn’t properly lead anywhere. It does feel as if it has things to say, but doesn’t quite get to them. I believe the reason for this is because there was supposed to be a follow up that never happened. The result is with such a great concept and well built world, it feels like this should be amazing but is a missed the opportunity; still worth reading for the setting though.

“Send that,” he told her. “Sign it, et cetera. Work the sentences, if you wish, so that they will mean something.” As she started from the office he added, “Or so that they mean nothing. Whichever you prefer.”
― Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

It’s All Greek To Me – John Mole. This was a book a friend of mine had read and years ago commented to me that it was a amusing read. I’d made a note of it and it sat in my Amazon list for nearly a decade. It came up very cheap at some point last year and so I got round to ordering it, where is sat in my “to be read pile” until I decided I needed to read something light and fun. This did fit the bill. Telling the true story of the author’s attempt to build a house (or in fact refurbish a very old house) on a Greek island not that far from Athens. It doesn’t really stretch you as a reader, it does make you feel sorry for him when you realise the size of the challenge and smile if not laugh out loud. He paints a very vivid picture of the small Greek village and the people who live there. Not quite up to Gerald Durrell’s standard but this did exactly what I wanted it to do, take me away from England and think about a simpler life, well simple by watching – I’d not actually like to take that task on.

“Where I come from money isn’t to be talked about or flaunted in front of strangers. But Ajax snatched up the wad and counted it out loud, ceremonially, slapping the notes down on the table while the witnesses mouthed the amounts. It was all so public and embarrassing.”
― John Mole, It’s All Greek to Me!

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark. This was a book that I went through stages of hearing about quite a bit, then I’d not hear it mentioned for years only for it regularly resurface once more. I found it in a second hand bookshop for a pound so decided to give it a go. It’s… eccentric. I had no idea what to really expect and it turns out it’s about a teacher at a 1930s girl’s school in Edinburgh; not generally my go to place for stories. The teacher, the eponymous Miss Jean Brodie is obsessed with her “prime” or the peak of her life in all its ways. She mentors groups of girls in what she thinks is the best for them, but as not everyone would agree with her methods it’s all very secretive. It’s a short book, my copy is 128 pages and this is enough. It’s written from the viewpoint of one of her groups of girls and it goes on to show what became of them, but it’s not chronological. It’s not a book I think I would have read if I had not been curious as to why it keeps coming up in various places, or what people mean when they refer to it; as it is there are interesting things to think about, like what is/ was my prime and did/do I take as much appreciation of it as out title character did.

“The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust.”
― Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Buy Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee
Buy The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick
Buy It’s All Greek To Me by John Mole
Buy The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

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