Authors and Writers #review #writingadvice

Keep remembering that you can please some of the readers some of the time, and some of the readers most of the time, but sometimes you will please only yourself, and you can never please all of the readers all of the time.


Good advice from Jane Smiley in 13 Ways of looking at the Novel.

This has been a long read, not only because the book itself is long but because I took a break to focus on other things. My engagement with the book started soon after I started a local book group and felt the need to engage with novels beyond my historical themed interest.

Jane’s take on the novel and how it engages with the reader spoke to me, the relationship between author, paper and reader continuing to do so. Significantly, so does the quote above. This echoes with the advice I regularly give new writers – write the book you would like to read (unless you’re only out to make money, then read and follow the ‘how to write a novel’ books).

Jane’s analysis of the novel and how readers engage together with the little gems she imparts such as that quoted above make it a text I would recommend to new writers looking for guidance on what and how to write.


Review: The Fever Trail – In search of the cure for Malaria by Mark Honigsbaum

Review: The Fever Trail – In search of the cure for Malaria by Mark Honigsbaum

For those who know me, I am not a fan of anti-malarials and will do anything to avoid having to take them. But I am also aware of the dangers of contracting malaria based on my research on World War 1 Africa and having heard some more recent horror stories.

Growing up in South Africa where there are areas which are malarial there was also conflicting advice about whether to take anti-malarials or not – was masking the parasite worse than trying to prevent the disease? And then, what to believe in the press everytime they pronounce there’s a cure?

Somewhere, I discovered this ‘little’ book charting the history of the cure for malaria. Rather surprisingly, it took me into South America. I naturally assumed, given my experiences, that the book would talk about Africa. No, it’s South America and it goes back to the late 1700s, early 1800s – ‘way before my time’.

Being a time traveller and stepping out of my usual time zones was eye-opening. I had no idea malaria had impacted on the world to the extent it did and for as long as it has. Connections with dinasours! And I’m rather disappointed to say, I have a new respect for this parasite which has survived so long, finding ways to mutate as it has. I almost feel guilty for thinking (desiring) its host should be eradicated. I will also tread gingerly next time I’m walking down Gower Street so as not to disturb the little critters underground (although Mark reassures readers that they are not infected mosquitoes in the cellars underground, they’re research assistants).

This is a fascinating accessible read which takes the reader on a journey over mountains, through civil wars, across lakes and seas, from earliest times to 2002 with a little bit of humour thrown in. I now understand this insect a little better – hard to believe it’s the third biggest killer on earth. Has it convinced me to take anti-malarials? Not really, but I will make sure I have my mosquito net with me.

And for those with an East Africa World War 1 interest, there are three almost passing mentions of the campaign and the challenges of malaria.


Review: A Million Years in a Day – Greg Jenner

Review: A Million Years in a Day – Greg Jenner

I came across this book at the launch of the first Hillingdon Literary Festival back in 2015. Greg Jenner was the invited author of the evening (his brother Seb being the person behind the event).
Never having heard of Greg Jenner before, my ears perked up when Horrible Histories was mentioned – anathema to my professional historian ears – but he deserved a chance to be heard. I was sufficiently impressed to try one of his history books, never a Horrible History, and invested in A Million Years in a Day, which I only got to read in 2018.

Given how well Greg came across as a speaker, I was surprised at how slow and tedious I initially found the book, but having got through the first few chapters, it did seem to pick up pace. Perhaps this was done on purpose reflecting how he feels in the morning, only really getting going later in the day. For those who haven’t read the book, it simply (!) takes a day from the moment we wake to going back to bed (it is a Saturday) and explores the history of all the things we do and use, from toothbrushes to toilets, beds, clothing and food.

It’s not a book I’ll be putting on my ‘to read again when I ever get a chance’ list, but it will be staying relatively handy for its content and snippets of wonderfully useless information which can be dropped into conversation and talks to prove a point. There are ‘grand narratives’ but this is the first I’ve come across which deals with everyday life in a concise and recognisable manner.

It’s definitelly worth a read for those interested in how we got to where we are today in terms of daily habits and practices.


Santa Claws: A dark tale of Christmas – Gabriela Harding

Santa Claws: A dark tale of Christmas by Gabriela Harding was a fascinating read.
A step or more outside my comfort zone, fantasy and horror, it appealed to my appreciation of difference. Clever twists and unusual takes on the ordinary.

This is a trait of Gabriela’s writing – the twists and turns, obscuring the norm. Before reading Santa Claws, a novel, I had encountered Gabriela’s short stories in the collection Sai-Ko which TSL published. That too, is not my usual reading material but as with Santa, each story is carefully crafted. All individual with a common theme – dark and twisted – running through.

I’m not sure Santa Claws is a young person’s book, perhaps better suited for teens able to handle the gore and suspense. And hopefully, the underlying moral and ethical messages concerning relationships and life in general filter though. While younger readers might well appreciate Santa Claws, Sai-Ko is most definitely adult material.

Be bold, step out of your comfort zone and have a read. Both titles are available at TSL (click on image below) or from Gabriela herself.


It’s a little icy – review of The Ice Age by Brian S John

I took a detour from my usual reading material and read The Ice Age: Past and Present (1977) by Brian S John (and in his own words) – it was on my bookshelf having arrived there due to a course I was teaching some years back. Not having read it then, I thought it might be worth a read now. And it wasn’t a disappoinment.

It provided a fascinating insight into glaciers and the behaviour of ice sheets and ice rivers etc. Brian’s style was accessible for non-specialists without dumbing down – snippets of humour feeding in appropriately and treating the ice as living. Photos although in black and white helped explain or show what he was talking about.

What was striking was the interconnectedness of life – not surprising really but reinforced, I suppose. The other thing was how old the world is and that man only seems to have been around for about 10,000 years. There is no way I could be an ice scientist or geologist as my concept of big numbers is non-existent and the numbers mentioned in The Ice Age are BIG.
Apart from ice, animals and man get a mention too. How the woolly mammoth came to be extinct is addressed as is the habitation of Greenland and Iceland which used to be farmland before a change in climate led to the Eskimos chasing the Nordik settlers off the land. Yes, there used to be vineyards on Greenland. I assume it’s now too cold for such fruit to grow. Migration is another theme – not just of ice but of man and animals.

And the hardiest survivors, or at least the hardiest surviving remains? – well the award for that goes to the beetle! And not just for the head, thorax and wings, but more specifically the genitalia which some or other professor has specialised in studying (‘with great passion’).

I’m probably not going to read too much more on this topic but it was a pleasant and eye-opening diversionary read, putting what I’ve seen of glaciers in Chile and Iceland into context, and it does somewhat put a damper on the whole climate change hysteria – although I’m all for us doing our bit to keep the planet going for as long as we can.

Brian John has a blog on Stonehenge and the Ice Age

The closest any of our authors gets to ice is Anna Ryland with a mention of ‘snow queen’ in A Second Chance. And since writing this review, we can add Snow Crazy by Arnie Wilson.


Black Iris: Poems from Jordan by Alexander Williams

Black Iris: Poems from Jordan by Alexander Williams

I met Alex at the premier showing of Heaven’s Rage (Leslie Tate and Mark Crane) in October 2017. Since then, Alex has joined the TSL team as an author. His book His Hidden Wings was published in 2018.

Alex is multi-talented. At the showing of Heaven’s Rage (Berkhamsted Live), Alex was singing numbers form the musical he’d written for a school production. Later I heard him at The Kitchen, Croxley, were he hosted Dial Up – an open-mic event featuring music, readings, poetry and whatever goes. THis was the last night at Croxley, the new venue being the Improv Theatre on Finchley Road (entrance the North Star pub. For those not wanting to travel, The Kitchen has a new open mic host).

Singing, writing musicals, a young adult novel written and poetry. I’m not a great poetry fan but asking Alex about his two-year stay in Jordan, he produced Black Iris, a short book of poems based on his stay.

Now this is poetry which speaks to me – reflections on life, what you see, in simple bite-size chunks. However, Alex’s use of words allows something simple to become multi-layered and nuanced. The poems covering an event or a range of experiences allowed an insight in a way a narrative would most likely have flattened, or telling rote.

Highlights included encounters with children and learning the language – reminscent of my early days of Swahili learning in Tanzanian schools; and how soon you settle in, forgetting to remind guests of morning calls and such like.

This is a poetry book I think I’ll find myself dipping into again on occasion. And for those wondering about the title: it’s the national flower of Jordan.


Ernest Hemingway

On our last day in Cuba, having visited Hemingway’s home – left exactly as it was when he’d been there – we chanced upon the launch of Ernest Hemingway’s Havana at the Buena Vista Curry Club – yes, you read right – this contains Cuba’s first Indian restaurant and is a tiny venue for literary events.

The food was great and so was the evening – giving a flavour of what Havana had been like in the time of Hemingway. Some of the artists performing had been alive in Hemingway’s day – the last member of the group which invented the Rumba, a Cuban diva and Victoria Hemmingway (assistant in Spain/Cuba, not a wife) giving some inside tales on Hemingway in Cuba, including the fact that Fidel Castro when he perchance met Hemingway mentioned that The Old Man and the Sea was his favourite novel (it gave tips on how to conduct a revolution).

Robert Wheeler, author of Hemingway’s Havana, captures some of the feeling in his blog (despite not being updated since 2015). Another place Hemingway frequented is the Hotel Ambos Mundos, the place we were having a drink when we discovered the evening show.

A full list of Hemingway’s books can be found on the Nobel Prize site. Heminway received the award in 1954.

Hemmingway’s first short story. He was the first to sign the Wall of Alassio in Italy.

Hemingway came to a sad end:

In Sai-Ko, Gabriela Harding refers to a Hemingway hat
Sue Hampton refers to the author in her short story The Minimalist
And the author features in comparison in Leslie Tate’s Heaven’s Rage
Bhupendra Brahmabhatt refers to Hemingway’s time in Africa in Kenya Days, Moonlit Nights


3AM: Wonder, Paranoia and the restless night – Angela Kingston

I met Angela in about 2013/4. We were both teaching.

In those days, even lecturers at some universities were required to undetake a teaching course. Angela was new to teaching art curation and I was assigned as her teaching mentor. And what a journey! As most who know me are aware, I’m not a great art connoseur. I have my eye-catching pieces – invariably a dark painting of a ship blowing up or burning, or a prisoner in a dark cell, a shaft of light streaming in. You get the picture. So, how could I be of any help to Angela? Thank goodness there’s more to teaching than content.

Needless to say, Angela and I hit it off and have remained in touch since then. She’s an absolute inspiration and this showed in her apprach to teaching art curation and her exhibition 3AM which is the feature of this blog. Unfortunately I never got to see the actual exhibition as I was always in the wrong place everytime it moved. But I have read the accompanying book.

Angela’s strength is that she gets behind the image – trying to understand the artist in order to mediate with the observer. One teaching observation was done in an artist’s studio – his home. He allowed all of us, 15 students and me, into his space to talk about his art and his relationship with curators. What an eye-opening experience and waht a treat for the students. This was risky business – Angela being observed in a situation over which she had little control. She’s bold and brave – and this shows too in 3AM, particularly reading the introduction by Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director at Bluecoat.

So, what is 3AM wonder, paranoi and the restless night all about? Just that. How life is experienced in the early hours of the morning when most people are asleep.

In addition to a sample of what the artists displayed at the exhibition, there are some essays on life at 3AM – insomniacs tell their tale, a snippet from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a donkey in Cevennes, the importance of sleep, Mariella Foxtrup on fearing the dark and so forth. And for the musically inclined – a track listing of songs about the early hours. The mix of dark and light meant I was in my element.

For an insight into another world – one many of us avoid, this little book which started life accompanying an exhibition is a little gem with something for everyone.

You can see more about Angela on her website and get a taste of some her earlier projects here.
I hope to eventually see one of Angela’s exhibitions in person.



Oh for a princess…

Little did I know that the day I started reading Sue Hampton’s Pomp and Circumstances (2012) that the ‘breaking news’ which would appear on my phone was the announcement by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge that they were expecting their third child.
Pomp and Circumstances is a sweet book about young teenagers finding acceptance for who they are on the day William and Catherine got married.

In true Sue-fashion, she shows how people from different walks of life and circumstances experience things and come together in adversity – personal or more general. Sue’s ability to ‘get under the skin’ exposes vulnerabilities we’re often reluctant to consider. We sometimes need to be shown the other side.

TSL has published Sue’s two books of short stories for adults: Ravelled and Woken as well as a picture-poem book for People Not Borders, I am Me. Pomp and Circumstances is for those in between.

You can get Pomp and Circumstances direct from Sue for £5.99 or from TSL for £6.99 (incl £1 towards postage)

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The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough

Do you remember The Thorn Birds? I remember watching the television series, well my lasting image of it is Richard Chamberlain dressed in purple robes but more than that I cannot tell you.

Recently, however, a friend was clearing out books and lent me The Thorn Birds as she knew I hadn’t read it. I can’t say how it compares to the tv series, as I can’t remember any of the story from the small screen. However, I continued to see Father Ralph as a young Richard Chamberlain so clearly the casting had an impact. Colleen seemed to think otherwise, but then I was not even a teenager.

Regarding the book, I felt it could have been much shorter than it was – descriptions seemed to go on and on and although I could see what Colleen was aiming at, I couldn’t quite work out what should be cut. Perhaps if I knew the Australian countryside, the descriptions would not have seemed so long-winded (different to tedious). For all the detail, I was surprised at how quick a read the story was.

One thing I found fascinating was the insight into papal thinking. One generally knows about the network – the old school tie and having a mentor or sponsor is still the way to get ahead for most people (despite all the talk of equality and tickbox recruitment policies). The wider outlook of the papal hierarchy compared to the masses was striking giving credence to Karl Marx’s view that religion is the opium of the people. How do people trained ‘to follow orders’ become so open minded with little apparent input? That man is fallible was another strong recurring theme but surprising was the understanding of the papal superiors. Very refreshing and human!

What Collen manages to capture well is the harshness of growing up with limited resources and the lengths people would go to as well as the impact of war on families. The theme of siblings working against each other is strong and reminded me of the South African film, Katrina.

The Thorn Birds having been published in 1977 is still around, and for that stickability deserves a read. I’m pleased I did.

Germaine Greer review
Therese Walsh review
And for those studying the book, there’s a study guide and questionsObituary for Colleen McCullough