Why this writer needs to be punished

Image: Pixabay 'My God, it's full of stars'

Image: Pixabay
‘My God, it’s full of stars’

I have a terrible thing to confess.

I know, you’re thinking the worst. Murder, arson, wearing socks with sandals and horribly short shorts that ride up between chubby thighs when I run for the bus? Ooh, now there’s an image. Well, you’ll be happy to learn it’s none of these, but it’s pretty serious all the same.

I’m trying to be a Writer. But I’m better at being a Reader, I’ve been doing it a long time and have become quite the dab hand at it. In fact, if they gave adults gold stars for reading, then I reckon I’d have a gallery of them by now, I’m that good. (Why don’t we get gold stars after we leave school? If I had a chart and some lovely, shiny stickers to give out at home, I’m confident I’d never find the toilet seat up again.)

But it’s the way I read books I have to confess.

No, it’s not by E reader. I don’t see that there’s anything to confess about using such devices. We’re all adults here. If we want to consume our books electronically rather than through ink and paper, I’m not going to judge.

I still read books the old fashioned way, but it’s my supply method that’s shameful.


I know. If there was a union for *Aspiring, Sarcastic, Smart Aleck Writers (and I’d bothered to join) I should be drummed out  immediately.

I used to go alot when my son was small. I read to him from when he was four months old, dragging him to our local library ever couple of weeks to pick up a new batch of primary coloured, slightly sticky picture books to inspire him to love reading as much as I did when I was young.

Now he’s eleven and gets his reading kicks elsewhere (birthday / Christmas / pocket money / school). So I don’t go either. I got fed up of not having anything other than James Patterson and Lee Child to choose from (a gross exagerration, of course, but I do find the selection at my local library uninspiring) and there are second hand book stalls to buy from and charity shops and Waterstones always has a buy-one-get-one-with-a-bit-off deal and then The Book People are always sending me emails about their latest sales and I can order from them without leaving the sofa  ….

So, even though I know libraries in the UK may go the way of the dodo and the thylacine, that the government want to dismantle the whole system our philanthropic forebears put in place, even though I’ll be the first to rail against the cuts if our local library is closed … Still, I don’t use them.

When was the last time you borrowed a book from your library? Or do you only use them when you need the loo or to snuggle up to the radiators on icy days?

Am I an evil person who should be forced to read every one star reviewed book in Amazon’s catalogue?**

Here’s an interesting if sad review of the rate of library closures.

*ASSAW – it’s catchy, there’s no denying.

**This review made me laugh out loud. It was so good, I was almost tempted to order a copy … I read the sample pages of the book it’s talking about and my brain nearly fell out. Ah, the joy of self publishing.

Books in the Blood 17: why reading the paperback is better than revering the hardback

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

When I was a kid, the way we kept books in our house reflected our attitudes to reading.

My mum had a shelf in the kitchen-diner, jostling with well-thumbed Catherine Cookson and Georgette Heyer novels and factual history books with tatty dust covers. The books were close to the table, well-used, accessible. My mum did – and still does – read incessantly, so she always needed something absorbing to hand, even if she was in the middle of making a white sauce or slicing a gammon joint at the time. Books were an everyday essential to be consumed along with the gammon and white sauce.

I don’t remember having a bookshelf of my own and as I caught the reading bug from my mum and like her always had a book ‘on the go’, I suspect I ‘shelved’ mine on the floor. To say my bedroom was untidy would be to seriously underestimate the health and safety – and hygiene – implications. Imagine the contents of every chest of drawers, wardrobe and toy cupboard in a nine year old’s bedroom – the pink denim flares, the Sindy dolls, the Teddy bears … the amputated limbs and severed heads of Sindys and bears. Now imagine all of that tipped on the floor and mixed with orange squash, crushed Bourbons, mouldy tea cups and Toffo wrappers, with the vague whiff of stale socks and you’ll be getting somewhere close to the ‘experience’ that was my room.

The tragedy is, of course, that when I eventually did clean and tidy this biohazard, I probably killed a cure to some exotic disease along the way. Cleanliness: potentially disastrous for the future of mankind.

My dad treated books in a much less cavalier fashion.

His education had not been the best. It’s not that he wasn’t intelligent, but I suspect he had undiagnosed dyslexia and as he was at school in the 1950s when dyslexic kids were usually filed under ‘slow and lazy’ he was never given the option of Further or Higher Education – manual work was his destiny.

I think because of this, dad put reading and education on a pedestal. He saw them as gateways to a better life, a kinder, easier life. Maybe that’s why he collected serious books – nothing lightweight, nothing ‘fun’, always educational, informative or worthy.

The books I remember most clearly were the complete works of Charles Dickens. Green leather bound with gold lettering on the spines, they sat in a row on the shelf, a little out of place on the plasticised hardboard – too perfect to be touched.

I remember him telling me how wonderful Dickens was. How Oliver Twist’s Fagin could charm and cheat and Bill Sikes would terrify, and the murder of Nancy would leave you breathless, sleepless, drenched in the poor girl’s blood. How for every Quilp, Wackford Squeers and Uriah Heep that emerges to blight the lives of our heroes, there’ll be a Peggotty, Joe Gargery or Mr Brownlow to help them.

He clearly loved the books, but I was nine or ten at the time and more into reading The Beano or finding my lost Misty comics than slipping onto a nineteenth century idiom. It was too challenging for me – to boring.

I never read a single one of those bright shiny tomes. They stayed on the shelf, remaining relics to gaze on, rather than worlds to experience.

The Works of Charles Dickens have become Books in the Blood not through my dad’s copies, but through ones I bought myself years later. Mine were only cheap paperbacks – not a scrap of green leather or gold leaf anywhere. But the words were the same – those amazing characters, old London brought to life – and that was what mattered.

Books in the Blood #15: When fiction kills your childhood

Should've gone to Specsavers Image: Pixabay

Should’ve gone to Specsavers
Image: Pixabay


You reach the end of the book you’re reading, you close the cover. For the last few chapters, you were racing to the end, wanting, needing to know what happened to the characters you’ve come to care for. Yet, a still small voice niggling in a dark corner of your brain told you to hold back, slow down, that this was a truly great book and you might not read anything as good for years in the future – perhaps ever.

But all things end and so does the book. And you’re devastated. Because it was so good, so powerful, you know it’s changed you a little, and the world doesn’t look quite the same anymore. The book haunts you for days, weeks, the characters returning time and again, demanding to be remembered and it takes a while until you’re able to read another book again with the same enthusiasm, because nothing – nothing – can compare. Everything is a pale shell, a hollow, fruitless waste of paper compared to that book.

Ever felt this way? Oh, please tell me you have, because this is what reading and literature are all about.

Now, we know not all books can be like this. If they were, none of us would ever go to work or cook dinner, or eat because we’d all be huddled under our duvets, curled up on the sofa or tucked up in the airing cupboard (look, you gotta get your peace and quiet where you can),  devouring yarn after yarn until we starved, became bankrupt and had our houses repossessed, until mankind wasted away into its own imagination and left the earth for the next dominant race – probably telepathic ants. Riding cockroaches. Who keep aphids as pets.

Anyhow, be grateful there aren’t too many brilliant books out there, that shops contain their fair share of mediocrity or humanity would come to an end much sooner than its current expiry date, whenever that is. Yes, a rare reason to thank Jeffrey Archer.

So in your life you’ll read your fair share of stinkers. After a few years of independent reading, and learning from early mistakes, we all become a little more cautious, a bit selective in our habits. Hopefully when you’re a few decades into your lifetime of readership, you’ll have narrowed down what you like, what you don’t and you’ll get better at filtering out most of the thoroughly dreadful. Many books you read will be ‘good’ – many more will be ‘okay’.

But you won’t read too many that fulfil the criteria at the start of this post. How many do you reckon? Maybe five? A handful more? Tell me you’ve had that feeling more than ten times, and I know you’re pulling my leg. Or deluded. Or really easily pleased, and if you fall into the latter category, do stay in touch for when I publish my own books.*

One of the few novels that hit me in this way was this week’s Book in the Blood,

1984 by George Orwell.

Now, it may be that I read it just at the right age. I was about twenty I think, not long hooked up with my old man – still very smitten. We were living in one of the many unsavoury flats we rented as a young couple, though I’m not sure if it was ‘the one some numpty tried to burn down’, or ‘the one with the bipolar neighbour upstairs who was convinced gates had electric currents flowing through them and accused my dear father-in-law of murdering his best friend’.**  

I was young, in love and despite our neighbour’s best efforts, hopeful for the future. I think I still thought ‘everything will be alright in the end’ and shook my head at the news wondering why all the people of the Middle East and Ireland just couldn’t just share a pot of tea, have a jolly good chat and put their differences behind them.

Then I read this book and finished it feeling totally devastated.

According to Orwell, I’d been misled all my life – love could not conquer all. In fact, love could bring you nothing but pain and horror and Room 101. Governments could warp and crush the individual at a whim, could destroy the strongest love as easily as putting a rat in a cage.

I don’t blame the book for disabusing me of my romantic ideals – I think life does a pretty good job of doing that to us all in the end anyway. But it shook me for a while and in its way was more of a rite of passage for me than my first drink in a pub or my first kiss.

Orwell set me on my real journey from being a child to becoming an adult, with the heavy weight of knowledge that entails.

Which book made you feel this way? Did 1984 leave you cold or shake your world?

*Clearly a huge joke. I’m “marvellous – a must read every time” Lynn’s Mum.

** These, of course, being the episodes of Friends written by an overworked script writer suffering from a very nasty caffeine overdose.

Books in the Blood #14 : Why do fictional heroines have to be beautiful to be loved?

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

Now, so far my Books in the Blood have been on the populist side, or at least books many of you will have read. Some of this is due to my featuring so many school set books – To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, Shakespeare plays, Lord of the Flies.

Clearly the curriculum developers know what they’re doing. It’s not meant as an insult when I describe some of these choices as the literary equivalent of a parasitic bug that’s burrowed into your brain – once it’s got its hooks in, it won’t detach.

But with BITB #14 – or Bitby 14 as I’ve suddenly decided to call it – the book choice is one that many of you won’t have heard of, by an author who died almost ninety years ago and I’m suspect is largely unknown.

Now, just as a preamble, I must explain there’s a big part of me that’s always despised romantic fiction.

Before you legions of ladies (and let’s face it, it’ll be mostly ladies) rise up and bludgeon me to death with your nearest weapon – a pair of Manolo Blahnik stilettos, say, or a passing Pomeranian – I admit that (as you can deduce from my sniffy comment) I have a twisted view of the genre.

You see, when I was growing up, the only examples I’d heard of were Barbara Cartland and Miles and Boon and the covers of M & Ball hazily painted swooning females and towering Milk Tray men – were enough to put me off. Remember, I loved mystery and adventure stories most and would soon embark on years of little else but Dean Koontz and Stephen King novels. I was beyond heaving bosoms and being swept up in manly arms.

Then came the BBC adaptation* of Mary Webb’s


with the towering Janet McTeer (literally towering, as she stands at just over 6 feet) in the role of Prue Sarn.

Prue’s my kind of heroine. You see, I’m always mildly irritated by attractive leading ladies. You know the ones – they’re feisty with tousled hair and an untamed beauty and men tend to fight over them at the drop of a tricorn hat.

This seems to me an inherently flawed starting point. Most of us – even in a kind light with a little Vaseline softening the lens – can’t be described in such terms. Most of us are lucky enough to be okay looking, neither drop dead gorgeous nor ‘cover her face’ ugly. But even if we are conventionally unattractive, should it naturally follow that we’re undeserving of love? No, of course it shouldn’t.

So why are many romantic heroes and heroines so stunning? Surely, that alienates the majority of readers, demonstrating to the young and single that the only way any of us will receive passionate, breath taking love is by having a new nose / boobs / chin / cheekbones and industrial strength liposuction.

I adored Prue because she starts the story on the aesthetic back foot. You see, she’s born with a harelip (we’d more generously call it a cleft palate these days) which gives her an unmistakable facial deformity. Not only that, she’s unlucky enough to have been born into a rural society during the nineteenth century, so because of her lip, she’s believed to be cursed and possibly a witch.

Prue’s probably a little retiring for modern tastes – she does have to be rescued by a man at one point – but as the book was first published in 1924, this is hardly surprising. She’s cowed, bullied and put upon by family and friends alike – the assumption being that a ‘hareshot’ girl will never get a lover, and as she can work as hard as most men, she may as well be used as free labour on her brother’s farm.

But Prue is kind hearted, intelligent and brave in her way and she wins her man not by looks alone – but by being a lovely girl. As I was a lumpy, lonely singleton living in a thatched cottage in the broad expanse of the Suffolk countryside when I first encountered this story, you can imagine how it appealed to me.

Along with the romance, there’s a lot of death, a whiff of the supernatural, plenty of superstition and a beautiful snapshot of a lost, rural Shropshire, filled with ‘sineaters’, a wizard called Beguildy and a brooding countryside of meres and mists that is both protector and death bringer to the inhabitants.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Precious Bane and old cynic that I am, it still weaves a spell over me now.

‘Saddle your dreams before you ride’em.’

*With apologies, this is the only clip I could find for the BBC adaptation – skip through and you’ll find Janet. I gather it’s not available on DVD either. As Sarn Mere, it is lost in the mists.

Seasonal Reading: Could you take James Joyce on holiday with you?

Ah, cosy. Image: Pixabay

Ah, cosy.
Image: Pixabay

Well, summer’s nearly over and when I say summer, I mean in the six week ‘School Summer Holiday’ sense, not the endless, warm sunny days picking strawberries, watching butterflies flitter over the nodding heads of scabious and the fleeting, papery kisses of field poppies.

For as anyone who has experienced UK Summer 2015 will know, it was less glorious, more wading up to your knees in rainwater, your ankles in mud and just praying we’ll all have enough Vitamin D in our systems so we don’t start the Winter deficient.

Autumn is drawing in already – some would argue it started around the end of July – there’s a cool in the air, the green leaves are tinged copper and there’s an indefinable smell: the start of the annual decay.

However, let us not be downhearted, for there are reasons to be cheerful.

I personally enjoy having several layers of clothing to hide under – ‘cardigan weather’ my mum calls it – the blackberries are in full flush and who can resist a crumble and custard? And with the cooler weather comes a nesting instinct, a need to dash in from the cold and wet ( a contrast from the warm and wet of summer ). A time to light the fire and curl up with a good book.

So now you’ve left your Holiday Reading list behind, do you have a Winter Reading list you’re about to start?

I’ve always been puzzled by the idea of Holiday Reading.

Is it really true that whilst you lounge by the pool, exposing your delicate flesh to the harsh foreign sun, it’s impossible to read anything serious? Does wearing a bikini or Speedos restrict the flow of blood to the brain, rendering the wearer incapable of contemplating anything too difficult?

The closest I’ve ever come to a beach holiday was sharing a two berth caravan in Llandudno with five other people – a cosy and not entirely fragrant experience – so I’ve never had my head turned by large amounts of freely available alcohol and all-you-can-eat buffets. Maybe after two weeks of that your brain turns to pate and can’t cope with Finnegan’s Wake or One Hundred Years of Solitude. Understandable.

My holiday reading? Well, as we only usually leave home for two or three days at a time, it’s just whatever book I’ve got on the go at the moment, whether that’s Terry Pratchett, Khaled Hosseini, or maybe something on Greek Myths or the Black Death.

Whilst I’m puzzled by Holiday Reading, I’m totally on board for books that are suitable for the short, gloomy days of winter. When else should you read A Christmas Carol but on the run up to Christmas (finishing on Christmas Eve, of course.) Quite honestly, if you’re up to your eyes in Scrooge and Marley in July, there’s something wrong with you. Any Dickens seems to suit the colder months – Chuck’s fault, I’m sure, for helping to shape our ideas of what makes a perfect Yuletide.

What about Autumn I hear you cry? What should we read then? How about Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie? All plumptious country girls, fruit picking and open fires – perfect.

So, join me. Close the curtains, light the fire, don your finest, snuggest woolly pully and tartan slippers, make a cup of something warm and let’s cosy up to the sound of thrashing rain.

It’s the season books were made for.

Do the seasons dictate which books you read? Did you pack William Faulkner for your all-inclusive to Marbella? I’d be fascinated to know.

N. B. Apologies to anyone reading this in the Southern Hemisphere who’s just watching Spring wink on the horizon – maybe you could save the post and come back in six months?

How short fiction could rescue modern readers

'Reckon they could publish 'A Song of Ice and Fire' as flash fiction?' Image: Pixabay

‘Reckon they could publish ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ as flash fiction?’
Image: Pixabay

How long can you read in one sitting? How long can you write?

I remember learning years ago (whilst studying German at floristry college – no, I’m not sure why either) that the human brain is only capable of concentrating for twenty minutes at a spell.

Now, when they say this, I’m pretty sure this twenty minutes does not include checking your phone for messages, your inbox for emails or You Tube for whatever limber limbed dance craze / semi naked pop songstress / cat swinging from a basketball hoop is trending at the moment.

No, this means solid, no looking at the time, no thinking of when the next cup-of-tea-and-chocolate-digestive-reward-is-due concentration.

Think you can do it?

I can when the WiFi’s off, however, as I’m writing this, I’ve just checked the WordPress message bell, found that little orange circle that means someone out there loves me and just had to answer, disturbing my writerly flow. Where was I?

Oh, yeah – attention spans.

I learnt this tasty nugget of brain based info over twenty years ago and suspect it’s now out of date. You see, I wouldn’t mind betting the developed – and increasingly, the underdeveloped – world’s reliance on electrical devices is changing the structure of the human mind.

Think of it. How many times have you been at dinner, met a friend for lunch, sat at the table with family over a lovingly prepared pot roast when someone looks at their phone? Once a week, twice – every day? Is spending time with the people we love so tedious? Clearly, yes.

And our need for distraction doesn’t stop with family mealtimes.

Despite the ban here in the UK, I’m sure we’ve all seen drivers using their mobile phones at the wheel – recently a woman was caught on camera drinking a cup of tea and watching Master Chef * on her ipad as she was driving along a busy A road in Essex. Clearly negotiating intersections, cars, roundabouts, and other potential hazards was not enough for her gadfly mind – she had to add the drama of juggling a cup of scalding liquid whilst being shouted at by Greg Wallace, making her drive to work like doing a Food Science class whilst attempting to complete Total Wipeout.

What – you may ask, and if you didn’t why the hell not? – does this mean for the future of reading and writing? Does the fact that we can’t focus on anything for more than five seconds mean the end of long form fiction? Well, the success of doorstop sized books such as The Game of Thrones series would suggest there are still people prepared to stick with a story for the long haul. But what of the rest of us?

May I suggest a solution? Short stories.

There’s something to suit every goldfish brained bibliophile – from flash fiction as short as fifty words, to longer short stories and serials. Literary fiction, horror, ghosts stories, steam punk … If you want to read it, you’ll find it out there.

I think even the Essex lady with the ipad could manage to read a bit of flash fiction before the Master Chef winner’s big reveal – if she’s not crashed already.

If you like your short lit online, may I recommend the following?

Cease, Cows: FictionwriterwithablogMaking it WriteOnly 100 Words: Pint Size Fiction: The Drabble: Waltbox

And shameless plug time. There’s a great anthology out every year by Irish based Fish Publishing, funnily enough called the Fish Anthology. It contains short fiction, flash fiction, poetry and memoirs, all intelligently and beautifully written and 2015’s includes a wonderful piece of flash fiction by my All Write Then pal, Jackie Burgoyne. Oh, and I really should mention All Write Then’s anthology of poetry and short fiction, Still Me published in aid of The Alzheimer’s Society.

Plug over.

* Even funnier than the real thing.

Book Review Bloggers and Why I Don’t Follow Them

Mmmm ... Popcorn (Image: Pixabay)

Mmmm … Popcorn
(Image: Pixabay)

I’m a contrary beast – as if you hadn’t noticed.

When wondering what films to watch I’ll scour the net, flick through IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes or online reviews from broadsheets and tabloids to see what the experts think before investing my hard earned.

I hasten to add, I’m pretty picky about whose advice I take and much of that is based on politics and snobbery. I’m a left leaning-individual – you may have gathered that from my occasional backhanded snipes at the current Conservative government and their policies.

As a logical – possibly illogical – progression, I’ve extended this prejudice towards right-leaning newspapers. Clearly, I don’t buy this kind of paper as I’m not scared by immigration, I don’t wish to castigate people because they’ve fallen on hard times and have to draw benefits and I’m not forever on the lookout for fad cures for life threatening diseases – I don’t expect to cure dementia with the shavings from a cuttlefish bone, high cholesterol by licking cane toads or heart disease by stripping down to my knickers, standing on my head and reciting Dad’s Army scripts backwards whilst juggling bottles of Veuve Clicquot champagne.

Because I despise these papers, I automatically think their film reviewers will like films I don’t like and dislike films I do. This is nonsense, of course, but a misconception I can’t shake. So, I’ll read The Guardian newspaper’s movie reviewer’s take on whichever The Fast and the Furious we’re on now and if in the unlikely event they give it a glowing report, I’ll be tempted to rush to my nearest multiplex, buy a ticket along with a bucket of popcorn the size of my bath (never trust food that is served in buckets – we’re not pigs. Well, most of us aren’t) and enough cola to quench the thirst of two dozen Maasai tribesmen, even though I don’t really like blockbusters, and loathe every adrenalin, testosterone filled second of driving movies.

And on a side note, am I the only one put off by certain glowing tag quotes they attach to movie posters? Take my advice – read where the quote’s from. I’m happy to take the advice of film magazines such as Empire and Total Film less so if it’s from Crochet Monthly, The Jam Makers’ Chronicle or Door hinge and Keyhole Magazine.

Anyway, as I’m so picky with films, you’d think I’d apply the same technique to books. I’m don’t. In fact, I don’t usually look at book review blogs at all.

Is this weird for a woman so obsessed by the written word, she keeps magazines in the kitchen so she has something to read as the kettle boils? Actually, though I’m weird in many ways (oh, if only you knew), I don’t think this is one of them and even if you don’t want to know, I’ll tell you why.

Books are just too important.

I love films, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not my passion. If I take another person’s recommendation about a film and don’t enjoy it, I can shrug and move on. It’s the same with TV. If someone badgers me into tuning in to the latest hot TV programme – usually something that’s chocka-block with death and breasts if Game of Thrones is anything to go by – and I don’t like it, I just chunter on about an hour of my life wasted and never tune in again.

But a book … A book is an investment of time, money and soul. It’s a commitment that can possess me if it’s good – leading me to wander the house and the streets still reading, that can mean I have to have paperbacks surgically removed from my hands. Well, maybe not the last bit.

If the book’s bad it can lead to simmering resentment, to Reading Reluctance (R.R) – a horrible condition where you don’t look forward to your usual curling up and sinking into a papery embrace because your current book isn’t enjoyable. The thought makes me shudder.

No one knows exactly what I like to read – I’m not sure I can define it clearly – so how can I take another person’s view seriously? And anyway, of all the book review blogs around, many just aren’t that good. I’ve lost count of the number of bloggers who claim to be reviewers and merely print synopses. A synopsis is not the same as a review, people.

So how do I choose books? I’m Old School – I look at covers, I read blurbs. I’d just rather trust my own judgement than that of others. And if I get it wrong, at least I’ve only got myself to kick for my current dose of R.R.

Having said all of this, there is one blogger whose recommendations I do value – bluchickenninja. I’m sure many of you have found her already, and if you haven’t, do visit.

Judging a book by its cover: Can I guess what genre you read from looking at you?

Hobbies: Flower arranging, stamp collecting, bus spotting

Hobbies: Flower arranging, stamp collecting, bus spotting

Do you ever see a stranger in the street and immediately judge what type of person they are just from their appearance?

Oh, come on, you do. It’s okay, we all do it. And I’m afraid at least some of the time we’re right.

My son and me were travelling home on the bus a few weeks ago when I noticed a family sitting close ahead of me. They had a scruffy, food stained pushchair with them, almost tipping over with the weight of carrier bags from a cheap clothes shop – you know, the sort where you can buy ten pairs of pants for a pound but from the way they shred after one wash, they may as well be made disposable. They also had a few bags from a local freezer centre – the one that sells Tikka Masala and doner kebab meat pizza.

They had four or five white haired little kids with them, sprawled over both sides of the bus, dropping wrappers and boxes and drinks bottles from their fast food dinner over the floor. I couldn’t see Mum properly as she had her back to me, but Dad was skinny, a tattoo on his neck, his jaw hanging open, as if air fishing for flies.

I didn’t pay them too much attention at first, but gradually became aware Mum and Dad were involved in a low level row, grumbling and snapping back and forth.

Then Mum began to shout, rolling out expletive after expletive in a ripe Welsh accent, describing what kind of activities Dad had been up to with a third party female ‒ though she used fewer words than I just have, in fact if anything I had to admire her for her brevity and her Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.

Although the rest of the bus hung on every four letter word spat from Mum’s lips, her children merely carried on staring blankly out of the window, half-chewed fries hanging from their mouths.

My son whispered to me, ‘That lady knows a lot of swear words.’

I replied, ‘Love, she knows ALL the swear words.’

I’ve opened this small window onto the adventurous world of the number 90 bus because quite honestly and not without guilt – I judged that family. I would have guessed that one or other of the parents was capable of holding the attention of a packed commuter bus full of people, merely with the volume of their imaginatively used swears. Sadly, I would have also guessed the kids would be used to it.

We may fight against it, but this is what humans do – we judge wealth, class, profession and who knows what other interests and character traits by how people look.

The reason I’m rattling along this confessional track, exposing my inner bigot, is that I wondered what else you can accurately guess from appearance. Can you, for instance, guess what type of books someone reads from how they look?

Marketers do this kind of thing all the time. They’re forever making assumptions about what type of laundry liquid or lawnmower we’ll buy based on our gender, our education and our personalities. One of these forms of classification is called Cross Cultural Consumer Classification, where the entire human race is spilt into seven personality types: we start with Resigned and Struggler, move onto Mainstreamer, Aspirer, Suceeder, Explorer and  finish off with Reformer.

I’m not sure where I’d fit in these groups – I’m too lazy to be Explorer and Suceeder, though I’ve got too much pride to admit I might be a Resigned or a Struggler. I wonder  if I could create a new category? Maybe Good Attempter or Admirable Underachiever?

So, how about readers?

Can I assume that the muscly guy in the camouflage jacket over there has a stack of Andy McNab and Frederick Forsyth paperbacks piled up at home on a bookshelf made from reclaimed ammo boxes? Or that the skinny, acne-plagued, spectacle wearing lad next to him wearing the World of Warcraft tee shirt has read every Lord of the Rings / Game of Thrones / high fantasy series going?

Well, maybe. But we must approach these prejudices with caution.

I know several respectable middle-aged mums – silver haired grannies even – who have Fifty Shades of Grey on their Kindle. There must be some men who’ve read E. L. James, just as there are many women who love sci-fi. And how would we expect Fifty shades fans to dress anyway? I mean, you don’t see many women walking round Asda in manacles and a gimp mask.

And people who only know me from work show astonishment that this friendly, mumsy, anorak-wearing forty something writes stories with quite so much blood and death in them – though admittedly, little sex.

So maybe those marketers and I could learn a little something. We might often get it right, but when it comes down to it, we really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Does reading damage your writing?

Finally, my new Writing Magazine has arrived

Finally, my new Writing Magazine has arrived

I’ve read a lot over the years.

I’m not trying to show off, but if libraries ran schemes encouraging adults to read like they do young children, I’d have earned all my certificates by now, I’d have gold stars and ‘I’m a Star Reader’ posters covering my walls. It’s something I’m good at.

My tastes are eclectic. I’ve read Classics – your Austens, your Hardys, your Dickenses, your Swifts. Though I have big, gaping holes in my reading arsenal too.

Okay, you’ve twisted my arm. I confess – I’ve never read Hemingway. Yeah, yeah, I know, I should be drummed out of the Aspiring-Writers Club for that omission, but I’m no masochist. Generally, I read what I want to and Hemingway’s muscular, masculine subject matter has always sent me running for cover behind a pile of plumped up, lacy cushions. He’s all war and fighting and bull runs and hunting, isn’t he? Please correct me if I’m wrong.

The only thing of his I’ve read is the famous six-word story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Which even I admit is the pinnacle of flash fiction.

So, I may not have read Hemingway, but I’ve read a lot of other stuff. Mainly fiction, but lots of non-fiction too. I went through a few years where I read little but historical autobiographies, from Henry VIII to Oliver Cromwell, from Mary Queen of Scots to Samuel Pepys by way of Dickens himself. (If you want a biography that reads like fiction, may I recommend Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser. In fact, send me the postage and I’ll pop my old copy in the post box for you.)

I’ve read a fair bit of YA in preparation for writing some myself. Some I loved (yes, I too want to be The Hunger Game’s Katniss Everdeen) some not so much (if I ever meet Twilight’s Isabella Swan, I’ll slap her soppy, self-obssessed, twinkly backside for her.)

I read fantasy, historical fiction (of course), a tiny bit of crime, though I confess to being squeamish when it comes to serial killers and extreme, sadistic violence. Firstly, I get truly fed up with the fact that much of the kidnapping/ torturing/ murdering in increasingly inventive ways is performed on females – Woman as eternal victim does none of us any favours. Secondly, there’s enough horror in the world. Turn on the TV and you’ll see worse acts being performed in real life.

A catch up with the news in the Middle East always takes the shine off torture-porn for me.

Just let me clamber down from my high horse. Hang on a minute. There I am, back on terra firma. Now where was I? Ah, yes.

I’m a sucker for magazines. Not the true confessional, ‘Aliens took my hamster for medical experiments and now he’s running my son’s PTA’ kind of mags, but history ones (well, BBC History Magazine) and Writing Magazine, the latter I read cover to cover every month, in hope of finding the magic ingredient that will turn me from Blogger-Babbling-Nonsense-Into-The-Ether to Multi-Million-Selling-Author-With-Lucrative-Film-And-TV-Deals-Under-Negotiation. I’ll let you know when that issue comes out.

But …

Does all this addiction to reading help my writing? To write we must … well, write – we all know that. And there is an argument that to be a good writer you must read  your genre – a lot. But is this valid? Doesn’t reading other writers just muddy your own voice, confound and confuse your way of telling a story?

The late, amazingly great Terry Pratchett’s  advice was:

If you are going to write, say, fantasy – stop reading fantasy. You’ve already read too much. Read other things; read westerns, read history, read anything that seems interesting, because if you only read fantasy and then you start to write fantasy, all you’re going to do is recycle the same old stuff and move it around a bit.

Sound advice?

Are you a writer who reads nothing but your own genre? Does it enrich your writing? Or do you abstain from reading altogether while you write?

Confessions of a Superhero’s Mum


Just over eleven years ago I gave birth to Iron Man.

I didn’t realise it at the time of course. When the midwife handed him to me, she didn’t say ‘Congratulations. It’s a Superhero’. He didn’t have a mini Arc Reactor protruding from his tiny ribcage and he didn’t shoot laser beams from his chubby little fists whenever he was hungry or tired. That would be silly.

So, I here you cry ‒ and will you please stop doing that because it’s very distracting – if my son isn’t called Stark, and wasn’t left on the doorstep with a red and gold helmet tucked in his blanket and a note saying ‘Please look after this Avenger’, then how do I know he’s destined to  assume Tony’s mantle?

I’ll tell you.

What I should make clear from the start is that he’s an apprentice Iron Man, for when the present one chooses to hang up his hover boots and give up his second day job as mechanised saviour of the free world.

My first piece of evidence is the Arc Reactor tee-shirt my son wears, in preparation for having pieces of shrapnel embedded in his chest, needing the Reactor’s electromagnetic forces to stop the metal penetrating his heart (for those of you who haven’t a clue what I’m going on about, I refer you to the franchise.)

But this is not the only evidence I have that my boy will one day save the universe.

My second and main reason for this belief is the training films. Hours and hours of them, seemingly on repeat, a continuous loop of lasers, bomb blasts and nifty flying exercises, all snappily edited and usually accompanied by a pumping heavy metal sound track, like some testosterone-packed corporate video for weapons dealers.

And showing astounding dedication to his future career, it’s not just Iron Man he studies.

There are other training films which include: a muscle-bound blond guy with a stilted English accent wielding his ‘magic’ hammer (yeah, all right, he-man, we get the symbolism)*: a teenage newspaper photographer who fires stringy mucus from his hands and thinks he’s an arachnid (you really should see a specialist about that, Peter)**: a doctor who is really lovely – mostly – if a bit downbeat and introspective (‘You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry’? Yeah, well, you haven’t seen me when someone leaves the toilet seat up, sister)***.

There’s a ton of other egomaniacs being angsty and fighting other egomaniacs – many of them wear cloaks, which seems impractical in a battle situation.

Anyway, I try and be a supportive, liberal parent. I want to nurture, not crush my son’s fledgling ambitions, even if they don’t fit into my pre-conceived ideas of a sensible career path. After all, I did tell him if he worked really hard he could achieve anything ‒ though I confess I was thinking more along the lines of piano lessons rather than arms manufacturing. Anyway, not wishing to dampen his enthusiasm, I let him watch and re-watch his training videos – time and time and time again.

But quite honestly, I can’t face seeing another over-pumped caveman bash another one to smithereens before standing atop a mountain/ skyscraper/ the Golden Gate Bridge or other such iconic landmark, brooding over how sad and lonely it is to be an over-pumped caveman … so I read.

The volume from the TV blares (because, despite my protestations, it is apparently impossible to watch without the sound being loud enough to cause involuntary fracking along the Severn Estuary), but I wriggle into the cushions, push back the recliner, tuck up my toes and read.

At the moment it’s The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin (very good, if you’re wondering) but another day it’ll be whatever I’m reading at the time.

My flow’s sometimes interrupted as a city explodes or a baddy monologues, but generally, I can concentrate enough to be at least semi-lost in my book.

And all with the knowledge I’m playing my small part in the future saving of the world – probably.

Can and do you read while the TV’s on? Or do you need peace, quiet and chocolate biscuits to concentrate?

*Thor, of course.

**Your friendly, neighbourhood Spiderman.

***King of angst, David Banner – aka The Hulk