The protagonists of novels are often called upon to act more heroically than they might have to in real life. So it can be refreshing to come across main characters who are as ordinary as the rest of us. Here I’m reviewing two novels about the loves and limitations of middle-aged men; the first in America and the second in the UK. Do these characters have enough oomph to keep our interest? Read on for my personal view. (And, for another take on masculinity and compromised morality, see my review of The Faithful Couple.)
In her declining years, as her memory for the past overtakes her connection to the present, Meggie Tulloch sets out to write her life story. Addressed (in the mid-1970s) to her hippyish granddaughter, and kept secret from her daughter, Kathryn, the girl’s mother (although, as time goes on, Meggie increasingly confuses the two), it’s a story of migration from north-east Scotland and the Shetlands to Fremantle, Australia, a journey through the elements of water, air and earth, and finally (in a contemporary strand picked up by the daughter herself) fire.
I could point out that a difficult childhood is not uncommon but, in my head, I’m already somewhere else. It won’t make me feel any better to correct his misapprehension. I concentrate on making the right non-verbals and wait for my discomfort to pass.
Last year, I set out to read 60 books and read 96. This year, I set a target of 100 books, and read 120. This suggests I’m reading more each year and making more accurate predictions. Of course, it’s not a competition, even against myself, but I do like figures. And, daft as it seems, I do like producing an annual report!
As I rarely, if ever, watch sport, I was surprised how involved I got in the London Olympics. How could I not be moved by such a display of determination and athleticism? But it was the Paralympics I enjoyed the most (despite the slightly inferior TV coverage). Alongside the awe at the athletes’ prowess, were the stories, implicit or explicit, of adversity overcome. On top of that, the games afforded a rare opportunity to look properly at disabled bodies and, with the somewhat complex rating system, to be curious about them without fear of causing offence.
So, you’re midway through composing a blog post when, in a flash of inspiration, you hit on the very book that will nail the point you want to make. You scuttle off to your “library”, zeroing in on the shelf where – however eccentric your filing system¹ – you know it will be waiting for you. Except that it isn’t and, you now remember, it did a flit some time back. You lent it to a trusted friend – his/her exact identity lost in the mists of time – and it’s never been returned.
It’s happened to me a couple of times in recent months. The book in question was one of my favourite novels, namely – I kid you not – Never Let Me Go². I should’ve taken more notice because I’m bereft without it. I want to break into friends’ houses at the dead of night and go rummaging through their possessions till I find it. I’ve asked around of course, but no-one has fessed up.
As I mentioned on my recent post on Random Musings, I sometimes coordinate my blog posts with one of the international commemorative days dotted through the calendar. But, with a blog about reading and writing, seasoned with psychology, I do wonder about the legitimacy of made-up stories in amongst the true accounts of heroic attempts to tackle the issue of the day. Yet I’m convinced fiction has its place. By providing a safe space in which we can explore attitudes and motivations from which we might shy away in real life, fiction can help make sense of potentially overwhelming aspects of the human condition. So, for my first post for World Suicide Prevention Day, I’m exploring the portrayal of suicide in fiction. But if you’re looking for the facts and figures on suicide, or more direct strategies of prevention, click on the image for more information. While you’ll find a long list of fictional suicides on Wikipedia, I’m limiting myself to novels I’ve reviewed.
The year I turned fifty, I undertook a long-distance walk: 190 odd miles across northern England from the west coast to the east. Instead of trying to cajole a group of friends into joining me, I chose to do the whole thing alone, but arranging for various friends and family to accompany me for a day at a time. Sometimes I walked solo, sometimes with individuals or a small group of four or five, with my husband – not an aficionado of rambling – valiantly attempting to fill in the gaps. Although the planning process stretched my organisational capacities to the limit, the event itself was wonderful, despite blisters, inadequate navigation skills and the vagaries of the English weather. After two and a bit weeks hiking across three national parks, I reached my destination at Robin Hood’s Bay, exhausted and exuberant. Back home, with a couple of days free before returning to work, I began writing the novel that became Sugar and Snails.
If I was breathless last Monday, announcing Week 1 of the Sugar and Snails blog tour, I must be on the verge of a swoon this week as I begin another round of visits. The first week has gone brilliantly (you can catch up with those first five posts via the links on my blog tour page), so how could I not be excited about the second? I start today under Julie Stock’s Author Spotlight, with a piece about setting part of my novel in Cairo. As a writer of contemporary romance from around the world, Julie has a particular interest in the challenges of setting fiction in real places, the subject of her own post on Susanna Bavin’s blog this week. Tomorrow, Helena Fairfax is interviewing me about where my own life is set, among other things. Helen lives in an interesting place herself, the UNESCO World Heritage Site and former mill town, Saltaire, which you can discover more about in her fascinating post. Then I’m off to chat with my namesake, Shaz Goodwin on Jera’s Jamboree. With her day job as a school Inclusion Lead, I was interested in her interest in novels that tackle a social barrier, as Sugar and Snails most definitely does. On Thursday, I’m on Our Book Reviews discussing the various transformations of my novel from its initial inception as a story of masculinity across three generations. This post arose out of a Twitter conversation after Mary, one half of Our Book Reviews, read and reviewed an advance copy. Obviously, I was delighted to be invited back. Finally, Friday sees me in Australia, quite fittingly discussing the theme of friendship in the novel and in its realisation (extending the theme of my previous post on gratitude) with one of my dearest blogging friends, Norah Colvin. As Norah has already hosted me once before, I know the tour bus will be safe to leave there over the weekend until I get behind the wheel again on Monday.
I’m generally not in favour of “update” posts, but I can’t ignore the perspective shift since I posted five days ago. As of last Thursday, I’m a published novelist, and enjoying it immensely. With each review (six to my knowledge so far), with each supportive tweet at #SugarandSnails, I’m claiming more of my authorial authority. I’m even infiltrating the more traditional media, with a feature on Sugar and Snails in the Lincolnshire Echo and a nerve-wracking but not too dreadful outing on BBC Radio Nottingham (my bit is at about 2.15 p.m. and the link expires in about three weeks). The highlight of the last few days was, of course, my Nottingham launch party, which I’ll be sharing more about in due course. But in the meantime, there’s this lovely and unexpected post on the event from The Mole, the other half of Our Book Reviews.
It’s publication week for Sugar and Snails and I’m breathless with excitement. The buzz is building with two reviews already (from Victoria Best and from Stephanie Burton) and some lovely tweets from early readers at #SugarandSnails. Now, thanks mainly to the generous response to my request for hosts, I’ve made two excursions to other blogs (firstly, to Shiny New Books to share my thoughts on writing about secrets, the false self and insecure identities; secondly to Isabel Costello’s literary sofa to discuss the pleasures of small-press publication), and my case is packed ready to depart on the blog tour proper.
Following last month’s post on reading for my reviews, I thought I’d share a little of what I do with them once they’re written. Obviously the appear on Annecdotal, but where else? Well, there’s Goodreads which drew me in initially as an attractive way of keeping tabs on my reading. Another way I keep track is through the listings on my reading and reviews page although, because I’m better at remembering the book than the author, the alphabetical ordering doesn’t always help. Then there’s Twitter (along with the myriad hashtag days) which can generate some lively discussion and Facebook which, probably because I still don’t know how to work it properly, tends not to. Also, because most of the books I review come from the publishers, I tweet and email them the link; if it’s from one of the Hachette companies involved in Bookbridgr, I also log the review there. That’s quite a lot of admin, but there’s still one glaring omission that troubles me somewhat; it’s not exactly the elephant in the room, but the huge empty space where that elephant should be.
Outside self-publishing, it’s rare for writers to have a say in the covers adorning their books. Even, I’m told, authors whose profits match the GDP of a small nation have to take what they’re given. On the one hand, it makes sense to leave it to the experts. On the other hand, I’d hate to have to tout around a book with a cover that didn't fit. (And some can be ugly – just have a browse through my reviews.) Fortunately, for my novelistic debut, I’ve landed myself a publisher who endeavours to put authors at the centre of the process.
Much as I loved the spoof cover kindly created for me by writer and traveller, Lori Schafer showing a couple of snails making their way across a landscape of granulated sugar, I’ve been itching to share the real thing. I hope you can see why. My thanks to Vince Haig for creating such a beautiful package for my words.
After lots of back and forth, including a panic from me when I realised I’d totally misrepresented it, we’ve also finalised the blurb:
Today’s the day that the internet is going to zing with antidotes to the mammoth cruelty and indifference to suffering that exists in this world. The 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion blogathon, launched by Yvonne Spence just over a month ago, has rocketed through the airwaves (or do I mean fibre-optic cables?), enthusing a galaxy of bloggers and tweeters to join in. As a warmup, Charli Mills compiled a virtual anthology of the Carrot Ranchers’ compassion-themed 99-word stories. Mine focused on compassion within marriage (after all, it was Valentine’s Day when I posted) and the self-compassion that’s needed for compassion for others to thrive. My contribution to the 1000 Voices is to elaborate the ideas behind that flash.
It might seem contradictory to focus on the self when the genesis of this movement was to combat the despair at an apparent lack of compassion for others. Yet one of the examples that Charli gave in her post introducing the compassion prompt made me think about how people can find compassion for others difficult because they haven’t experienced sufficient compassion themselves. Even if compassion doesn’t require them to do anything, it might feel too big a burden to take on, especially if they’ve been shackled with caring for others when they were desperately in need of care themselves.
Ever since I’ve been writing seriously, I’ve made a list of the novels I’ve read across the year, highlighting those that particularly impressed me. Halfway through 2013, I was seduced by the lovely book-cover icons on Goodreads into doing it electronically. At the beginning of this year, they invited members (?) to register for a reading challenge. Although I don’t need a challenge to motivate me to read, I signed up on the basis that their software could calculate my reading total more rapidly than I could. I set my target at 60 books, this being a rough average of the numbers read in recent years.
Transferred from blogger to blogger like a virus, the blog hops and awards go round and round. If they enter your circle without touching you, you start deluding yourself you’re immune. Then you get clobbered by several simultaneously; it’s enough to keep you in bed. Some discover creative ways of declining but, like those childhood illnesses that confer adult immunity, there’s a lot to be said for getting them out of the way when you can.
Of course I’m flattered by the nominations, but there’s no denying that responding eats into your writing time. So, as I did a couple of months ago with my backlog of blog awards, I’ve decided to condense the four blog hop doo-dahs into a single post.
Lisa Reiter nominated me for the “my writing process” blog hop way back in June (hence the Sweet Williams on my desk). This involves answering four questions about the what, why and how of one’s writing and passing on the baton to another three writers whose work you admire. Easy: but I still hadn’t paid my dues when, almost three months on, Tricia Orr invited me to be her nominee for the same blog hop. Meanwhile, another mutation raised its head, focusing on the single question of “why I write” in greater depth, which came my way via Ruchira. Finally, a brand-new blog hop from #writingwithoutworkshops, again concentrating on the importance of why (via the tag #importantbook) infected me by one of my Liebster nominees, Juliet O’Callaghan. Let’s hope I can do justice to these lovely ladies’ confidence in me by providing some answers that aren’t as rambling as this introduction.
Please give a thought to World Toilet Day tomorrow! Last year, I was very excited about my post on the subject and tweeted it several times through the day. Alas, although a year on it’s accrued its share of hits and comments, I was unable to garner any interest among my followers on the actual day. I leave you to speculate on the possible reasons, but I don’t think it was due to losing out to more scintillating competition. My timeline was full of writers peddling their Amazon pages; okay, to be expected when one follows lots of indie authors, but hardly the zenith of creativity. Meanwhile, over on the #WorldToiletDay timeline, I was stumbling over erudite, amusing and moving posts, highlighting the centrality of “the great unmentionable” to public health and gender inequality. But you needn’t just take my word for it, have a look at these gems I’ve saved for you from last year:
finding truth through fiction
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of three fiction books.
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I don't post to a schedule, but average around ten reviews a month (see here for an alphabetical list),
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Anne Goodwin's books on Goodreads
Sugar and Snails
ratings: 52 (avg rating 4.21)
ratings: 60 (avg rating 3.17)
ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.56)
GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Issue 4
ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.44)
The Best of Fiction on the Web
ratings: 3 (avg rating 4.67)
Read My Mother Sent Me a Parcel
my latest short story hot off the press.
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