Monday, 14 March 2011

I am a Guest Blogger!

WOOHOO! Today I am a guest blogger for Vulpes Libris, with a piece about my family’s somewhat eccentric reading habits. As a child most people have hidden a book under the bedclothes or beneath the lid of a school desk – but have you ever read while ironing? Or left clothes behind to make room for the books you bought on holiday? Find out how it’s done by turning to

Vulpes Libris (Latin for the Book Foxes) is a lovely site, with some beautifully written and very erudite book reviews, so I was thrilled when they asked me to produce something for them, and I can't believe the incredible response I have had - I am really touched by all the wonderful comments people have made, and delighted that there are so many people out there who love books and reading.

Anyway, I am sticking with the writing theme, because I am still reading The Far Pavilions. I’ve been reflecting on the art of essay writing - this is what comes of studying on an Open University course! Now I’m not going to reveal exactly how long it is since I left school, but when I tell you that BR (Before Redundancy) I was a journalist for more than 30 years, you will realise that it is a very long time indeed since I last engaged in any kind of formal study, let alone attempted to write an academic exposition.

The learning process is not so difficult. It’s simply a variation on the ‘Three Rs’, with a fourth thrown in for good luck: reading, research, writing notes – and remembering!

Writing essays presents more of a problem. I quickly established that years of writing for a newspaper in no way prepares you for composing university assignments. Creating a 300-word front page lead right on deadline is one thing, but an essay cannot be approached in the same light. It needs much more thought and much more planning.
For example, when I was a very young rookie reporter an older and more experienced colleague once told me to imagine any article as a verbal rather than written exercise. Ask yourself what’s the first thing you would tell your best friend, partner, mother etc because generally whatever you say to them will be the most interesting or most important thing about the story, so that should be the intro. This advice works fine on a newspaper, but is not necessarily to be followed for an essay, which demands a more formal and structured approach, with an introduction outlining the argument you will use to answer the assignment.

There is also the question of attribution. Contrary to popular opinion, reporters don’t make things up, and you are expected to tell readers where the information came from. You know the kind of thing: ‘Mrs Beryl Bloggs said’, or ‘according to a council planning report’….

What you don’t have to do is to give chapter and verse of exactly where your data came from, thus avoiding any accusations of plagiarism, and proving that you are able to locate and interpret the necessary facts. Referencing has become something of a nightmare, which I feel I am failing to get to grips with. I do not seem to have progressed at all, and still end up in an eleventh-hour panic, desperately searching through my sources, while trying to insert the right reference, in the right way, in the right place. Worst of all referencing is included with word count, so my method of adding it at the last minute is a Bad Thing (Sellar WC and Yeatman RJ, 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates, Penguin Books Methuen, 1963) as I then have to start cutting.

Bother, I forgot the page numbers! And as if that isn’t enough, you also need a bibliography, listing every ‘publication’ you used - the books, articles, websites, CDs, DVDs and anything else – all listed in the correct format under the conclusion, which should draw all the threads of your argument together and hark back to the intro and the original question.

And quite apart from all that there are stylistic differences. The short snappy paragraphs I’ve always used are too disjointed for an essay, and don’t go into nearly enough depth, while Journalese puns and cliches are frowned upon.

However, there are similarities and some of the skills I have acquired over the years can be put to good use in my studies. I’ve always enjoyed researching, and I can usually weed out extraneous details and focus on the relevant facts. In addition I know just how important it is to be accurate, so I’ve developed an eye for detail, and will keep on checking facts.

And checking is what editing is all about. It’s the final process, before hitting the ‘send’ button. After all, editing OU essays is not so very different to editing copy on a paper, and it must also be akin to editing literary works in progress. I amass my notes, create a plan, write a draft, add things, take things out, put things back, shriek with horror at the word count, try to sub it down, remember I have forgotten the referencing, swear loudly, start again, panic in case I haven't answered the question, start again... and worry about that elusive perfect ending!

Friday, 11 March 2011

The Scold's Bridle, by Minette Walters

Child abuse, rape, theft, blackmail, prostitution and drug addiction make for a heady drama in Minette Walters' The Scold's Bridle, which explores the darker side of relationships and offers us what is, at times, a bleak view view of humanity - but it is a view which, nevertheless, ends on an unexpected note of hope for the future, and the promise of some kind of redemption.

Unlike Ellis Peters in A Disarrangement of Epitaphs (see my previous post), Walters jumps straight in, and establishes the scene quickly and effectively as a policeman, doctor and pathologist stand around a bath pondering the dead body Mathilda Gillespie, who has been found drowned, with her wrists slashed, and her head crowned with flowers and a scold's bridle. Nearby is a bloodied Stanley knife, an empty bottle barbiturates and the remains of a glass of whisky.

It looks like suicide, but it isn't. It's murder. And there seem to be plenty of people who had cause to hate Mathilda, who was snobbish, vindictive, manipulative - and very wealthy. So who was the killer, and what was the motive? Everyone, it seems, could have a reason, and everyone has secrets they are reluctant to tell.

Mathilda's daughter and grandaughter both need money, so was one of them her killer? And what about her nighbour, a one-time lover who has given up on life and his frightened wife? Even cool, calm and competent Dr Sarah Blakeney comes under police scrutiny because the old lady has left everything to the GP. And, as she gets caught up in the hunt for a murderer, Sarah must resolve her own problems with her feckless artist husband Jack who, it transpires, had painted Mathilda as she posed naked for him.

Interspersed with the story are pages from Mathilda's missing diaries, and gradually hidden histories are revealed, throwing light on her character and actions, and on her family and those who know her. We hear the tragic tale of an abused, unloved child, who grew up unable to love and abused others, destroying their ability to love and trust - but it is difficult to tell who is abuser and who is victim, or who is manipulator and who is manipulated. Perhaps there is a little of both in everyone. And is Mathilda's story reality or fantasy?

It is a remarkably literate work, scattered throughout with quotes from Shakespeare - Hamlet, Othello, King Lear - and each is a kind of clue, pointing the way to something we should know or think about, however obcure it may seem at the time. The quotes, like Jack's paintings, are a kind of game, guiding us through a psycological maze of broken relationships: parents and children, husbands and wives, employers and servants, lovers and lovers.

As Sarah and Jack, caught in the coils of their own torturous relationship, try to puzzle out who killed Mathilda, kindly, sensible Det Sgt Tommy Cooper picks his way though the various strands, trying to establish the truth, but the psychological games people play try his patience, and he and his colleagues resort to their own pyschological trickery as they question suspects, follow clues and finally catch the murderer.

This novel was part of my charity shop haul and, for some reason I didn't expect to like it - in case you are wondring, I bought because I felt I should read something different, and I'm glad I did. It was well written, and well plotted. The story gripped me from the beginning, and the characters werewell drawn. I even liked the rather downbeat ending which, despite the note of hope, had a rather ambivalent feel to it: the future may work out well for the characters concerned, or may not - but at least they will have tried to be happy, if not for ecer, at least dor some of the time.

Verdict: I enjoyed this book, would read it again and, on the strength of it, I'm off to hunt for more titles from Minette Walters!
*Yes, I know the picture is upside down, but I don't know how to correct it...

Thursday, 10 March 2011

It's Back to the Charity Shop for Inspector Felse

BOOKS can throw up surprises, as I found with the crime novels bagged during my forays into the own's charity shops. I had expected to like Ellis Peters' A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs, because I love her Cadfael mysteries. But Inspector George Felse lacks the charm of her monkish detective, and her portrayal of Cornwall in the sixties seems somehow less realistic than her evocation of Medieval Shrewsbury.

A large part of Cadfael's allure lies in his logical powers of deduction as, with the knowledge and tools available at that time, he uses forensic skills to establish the truth, while his own experience of life has given him a psychological insight into human nature - and he always retains his warmth and humanity. Not only is there a strong, credible central character, but the stories hold your interest from the outset.

Not so, I fear, with Inspector Felse. Chapter One begins on page 7 - and it's page 64 before the first dead body is uncovered. By that time I'd forgotten a reference (on page 11) to a possible sighting of a man who could have been drowning, and there was defintely no gradual build-up of dramatic tension.

Most of the first three chapters are taken up with scene setting and the introduction of the characters, but it all goes on for far too long, and there is far too much talk - and when the action does start it seems to move along much too fast (yes, I know, there's just no pleasing me).

The Inspector is on holiday with his family in a Cornish coastal resort, and the story opens with his son diving into the sea to rescue a boy he fears is in trouble in the water. Enter, the boy's uncle, a charismatic, famous, roving, freelance reporter and broadcaster. Enter, the boy's parents. Enter, the Inspector's wife. Enter, the Inspector. Enter, an elderly autocratic aunt. Enter, the elderly autocratic aunt's secretary... and so it goes on. The characters appear thick and fast, each with a 'tag' to identify them: the barman with his red face and moustache, the vicar, built like a wrestler, with the untidy hair. Despite the descriptions none of them springs to life and after all it all gets a bit tedious.

Throw into the mix a church being swallowed by the sands, smuggling tales, mysterious poetic epigrams on the graves of a long-dead smuggler and his wife, and you should have the the ingrediants for a rattling good yarn (even if some elements of it did remind me of J Meade Falkner's Moonfleet). The fact that the grave of the aforesaid long-dead smuggler is about to be opened should make the story even more thrilling, and the excitement does begin to mount as the lid is lifted - to reveal the body of a man who has been murdered just a few days earlier.

So the hunt is on to find the murderer, and it runs alongside a search for the truth about the 18th century smuggler and what happened to him. Inspector Felse, of course, is drafted in to help with the investigations, although he is (a) on holiday, and (b) not a member of the local police force... and no-one ever asks for any ID or checks him out. He could tell them he was King Kong or the Missing Link and they would all believe him. Naturally, however, he solves the modern crime (why are London detectives always cleverer and more successful than their country counterparts?).

Sadly, by the time the action got under way I had long since lost interest in the plot or the characters, and the ending annoyed me beyond measure: despite the evidence to the contrary, I continued to hope for something stronger and more complex, and the denouement was no great shock.

Verdict: This one goes right back to the charity shop I bought it from - I certainly won't be reading it again!
However, The Scold's Bridle, by Minette Walters, which I had not expected to like, is so far proving to be far more readable, which just goes to prove you should never judge a book by its cover. And, since I haven't quite finished it, you will have to wait for my judgement!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Books, Cathedrals and Tea

TODAY was a day of books, cathedrals, tea and friendship, which means I have written a piece and posted it on my other blog (the one about life, the universe and everything) but, with a few alterations, it could have gone here, because it is partly about books.

Or I could have written something completely different, but it is late, and I am tired, so I am cheating!

Anyway, a friend I spent the day in Birmingham where we wandered around in both branches of Waterstones before visiting both cathedrals - and another bookshop in one of them.

We enjoyed a lunch out, had a good laugh, drank tea, discussed books , poems and buildings, and generally had a wonderful time.

I created a mosaic from some of the pjotographs I took, which I have posted here - but to read about my day out go to

Monday, 7 March 2011

Off the Shelves of the Charity Shops

I WENT to town to buy cat food and loo rolls - and came home with two bags of books. That's because charity shops are a fantastic source of bargain books, and I can rarely resist the chance to browse. Toady was no exception, and I trawled though the stacked shelves of several such stores, acquiring ten books for £7 - that's 70p a volume - which I thought was pretty good value. Mind you, I forgot about the rest of the shopping, and had to go out again later!

I found a pristine copy of MM Kaye's The FarPavilons,which I read many years ago, but wanted to read again after hearing it dramatised on Woman's Hour. It is regarded by many as 'just' a love story, but is far more than that, painting a picture of India in the 19th century that encompasses the land and its people, as well as its British rulers. The author knew and loved India, so I am looking forward to reading her fictional account of a particularly turbulent period in the country's history.

Next off the shelves was The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton, which I bought a couple of years ago, failed to get beyond the first few pages, and gave away. But it had reasonably good review on the Vulpes Libris website, so I thought I would try it again, and see if perseverence pays off - I'll keep you posted on the outcome!

Alison Lurie is one of my favourite authors - if you haven't read The truth About Lorin Jones, please do so. It's a brilliant novel, charting a writer's efforts to research the life of a famous artist, and shows how each person is perceived in a different way by the people they come into contact with, but each of those views goes to make a composite whole. Anyway, I digress, because the book I actually bought is Foreign Affairs, which I am sure I will enjoy reading.

I am not sure if enjoyment will be the right word to describe my next purchase, or whether I shall even like it. It is The Scold's Bridle, by Minette Walters and I intend to 'give it a go'. I have never read any of her work, and I am not really an enthusiast of the crime genre, other than Cadfael, Morse and Mma Ramotswe. I suspect this have a darker edge than any novels featuring the detectives named above, but it will be interesting to try something which is a little outside my usual comfort zone.

However, having said I am not a crime fan, I did pop another detective novel into my bag of bargains: A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs is by Ellis Peters, who is best known for her Cafael chronicles, but wrote much else besides, incuding the Inspector Felse mysteries, of which this is one.

Now I know Maeve Binchy is not seen as a serious author, but she actually writes quite well, tells a rattling good story, with some unforgetable characters, and does so with wit, humour and great compassion, so I bought Whitethorn Woods and Quentins for 50p each, knowing I can curl up with tales that will end on a 'feel good' note and don't require analysis or deep thought.

However, Yann Martel's Life of Pi may well call for thought and concentration. I have picked up this Booker prize-winning novel on many occasions but, to be perefectly honest, I was not attracted by the tale of a shipwrecked boy and a collection of zoo animals afloat on the ocean in a lifeboat. I have no idea what to expcet from this highly acclaimed book, but will read it to see what all the fuss was about, and because I think I should.

Meanwhile I have high expectations of Vikram Seth's Two Lives. His An Equal Music is one of the most beautifully lyrical novels I have ever read, and if Two Lives is only half as good it will be very good indeed. Like The Far Pavilions it tells of 'a love affair across a racial divide' (so says the blurb on the back) but this is the true story of Vikram Seth's great-uncle Shanti, who left India in the 1930s to study in Berlin, where he fell in love with Jewish Henny.

Finally, I selected up a copy of The Pub Quiz Book as a treat for The Man of the House, who sets and takes part in quizzes, so he can sit and acquire new knowledge while I read my novels - unless, of course, he wants to build me sime new book shelves!

*In case anyone thinks this blog has a somewhat unfinished look, you are quite right, it does -because it is a work in progress! I started creating it a while ago, to run alongide my other blog (, which is a kind of mish-mash of my thoughts on life, the universe and everything. I am now trying them both back to life after a gap of several months.