Wednesday 30 January 2013

Stop Press Avril Joy and Hilary Mantel

So delighted that Hilary Mantel won the Costa Book of the Year award for Bring Down The Bodies. I was rooting for her as you will note from my last post (scroll down).

She now has such an excellent and significant body of work. Surely they should be considering her for something bigger - perhaps the Nobel prize for Literature?

But if it's possible I am  even more delighted to say that yesterday at the awards alongside Hilary was my good writing friend Avril Joy who won the inaugural Costa Short Story competition out of an entry of nearly two  thousand.

The cream always rises to the top, be it Hilary or Avril.

Sunday 27 January 2013

Writer’s Notes 3: Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies

Bookies William Hill have declared novelist Hilary Mantel, winner of the Costa Novel Award with Bring Up the Bodies, (her sequel to Wolf Hall) , as odds-on favourite at 5-4..Having won the Costa prize for fiction, she is in line to win the Costa overall book of the year. Very good luck to her.

The media will be vibrating this week with informed comments about and reviews of this book.

But in this highly personal series here on Life Twice Tasted Bring Up The Bodies  happens to be one of the books which I listened to when ill after Christmas in unabridged audio form. 

My present project is to embark on a series of Writers’ Notes inspired by a focused audio-reading of these books. I have posted Writers’ Notes on earlier books (see below).

Here are my notes on Bring Up The Bodies.

Inevitably one must comment on the wide-ranging deeply investgated research that underpins this novel. She has absorbed the complex research in an all-ecompassing fashion, almost magically transforming it into flowing prose.
Every paragraph densely - sometimes poetically - worked to a point of transparency with the aim of giving us access to a formidable clever, self-consciously powerful man. Evident familiarity with the documents, literature and linguistic rhythms of Tudor history renders the prose authentic and peculiarly modern at the same time. This shows a touch of genius. The speech –extensive use of diaplogue p renders the reality.
Point of View
Mantel very cleverly manages to tell the story in the first person dressed up in the third persom. Working from the inside of his mind she refers to Thomas Cromwell as he, or he – Cromwell.  It is an intimate and very subjective characterisation dressed up as an objective account by the use of he. So very clever.
I read somewhere an opinion that this writer was in love with her subject. To me it is rather she is her subject and that is why the continuous narrative rendered through the mind of Cromwell works so well. Her affection for the dour Cromwell sings gracefully out of every line, every page. The writer expresses the subtle politics of the court, the continent of Europe and those times. 

So we are treated to Cromwell’s own subtle take on his obstinate loyalty to the selfish, quixotic Henry the Eighth, his cold passion, his political and psychological insight into court politics, his high intelligence, his puppeteer’s control over the objects of  his power – particularly Henry’s current and future Queens Anne Boleyn and her family  and Anne Seymour and the Seymours.

His battle with, and ultimate revenge on, the manipulative Boleyn (formerly his ally) is the dramatic thread in the narrative. Mantel’s  account through Cromwell’s mind of the imprisonment and execution of Anne Boleyn is the most gruesome piece of writing I have ever read.

So, it seems we should dislike Thomas, but the quality of the imagination and the writing here ensures rather that we understand, even like him. We get to see him as a dour but honest man, pragmatic with regard to the power of his role. But his dourness is shot through with a sense of irony. Witty asides demonstrate his insight into the machinations of those around him. His coolness is balanced with his clear fondness for his much milder and quieter son and for his political protégé  Ralph Sadler whose house (shared with his wife Helen, also one of Thomas’s protégées, is wonderfully and intricately rendered here – a kind of loving evocation of a life which contrasts with his own lonely home life.

Thoman is no cold shallow man. We feel with as he mourns for his wife and two little daughters. And we share with him his anger at the cruel execution of his mentor Cardinal Wolsey. The expiation of this anger, and vengeance on those who plotted his death, is another strong strand in this narrative.

 Some prose gems among hundreds – read the book again to re-discover them::
He treats doors as an enemy.
He slides his hands into his sleeves
Passage where an old knight advises to the young about jousting Very detailed. and full of pathetic tragic commitment

What have I learned from this book?

  • An exhaustively researched, beautifully written and constructed novel set in a certain time space does not have to be lumped into a genre called The Historical Novel. It does not ‘date’.
  • The rich possibiloties of in depth use of that very close third person
  • The possibility of showing unlikeable characteristics in a likeable way
  • Showing power positions through well conceived dialogue
  • Best to challenge oneself and be ambitious and not ‘serve’ the market.
Last note; Don't care for the cover - dour and unexciting. Other editions have better covers, But does the cover really matter?

Monday 21 January 2013

Writer’s Note 2: Thrilled by David Baldacci’s The Forgotten

The Forgotten [Book]
Recovering from a virus after Christmas I had to resort to my audiobook file for restful reading. By accident I lighted on The Forgotten by David Baldacci. It had been a book chosen at random on a one line description.

To remind you. What follows is a highly personal excercise. It is not a review; it is my note  on elements that impress me as a writer and ways in which I - as a writer - can learn something  from this book. 

 I am ambivalent about  thrillers and sometimes think they are better on the silver screen than the pristine page. But this novel made me think again. I enjoyed it.

Writer’s Notes

-Pacy writing. Crisp, effective prose. Every word a bullet. Very precise energy and balance of often short sentences. Careful and unfussy choice of words.
- Very tight plotting. Two main points of view. One dominant. Well woven together.
- Surprisingly excellent sense of place: The Emerald. Coast of Florida. The ocean. The power of a storm, The heat. The place called Paradise.
- Occasional change of pace to establish place with lyrical evocation, intense description. - Good use of senses.
- Characters are very clear to the eye and the ear.
- Recogniseable army disciplined hero.
-Feisty female one star general as collaborating heroine,
- Predictable villains with some good surprises.
- Very tight description ensures we know their body shape and style. We hear individual tones, dialects and accents They are clearly defined for us so we follow them through the twists and turns of the carefully woven plot.
- Several well staged shootouts at the end climax were more filmic but still well written, They do, after all go with this genre,
- Baldacci tackles various powerful  themes of modern life which emerge in the narrative  quite seamlessly,
  • The lucrative modern Slavery trade People as commodities (the slimy villain calles the people he traffics product
  • Identity.Army., Family, identity. Loyalty.
  •  Courage and Survival.
  • Physical strength.
  • Gender.politics.

What have I learned  from David  Baldacci

- It is possible to write well and to tackle major themes within the thriller or any other genre
- The need to evoke a great sense of place to allow the reader to suspend her disbelief and stay with an occasionally fantastic narrative.
 - Tight, occasionally staccato prose enhances pace in a narrative.

Next: Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Friday 18 January 2013

Writer’s Note 1: Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time

Following from my last post about the intensity of listening to books on audio this is my Writer’s Note  on the first of these books. This is a highly personal excercise. It is not a review; it is my note  on elements that impress me as a writer and ways in which I - as a writer - can learn something  from this book. 

Here we go!

The writer. Hard not to believe this is not highly autobiographical. But one can trace this with all good writers. Enhanced by being narrated in Abelson’s first person point of view. Whatever the the fact fiction allows witty exaggerations in all directions and makes the novel unique.

The writing. Highly literary even when it is being scatological. Tight complex use of syntax to support the changes of pace and the mood of the narrator. Lots of word-play and syntactical play showing off how the cleverness of Guy Ableman. Extremely comples writing made trasparent making the book both human and accessible.

Central character: Guy Ableman. Probably like Jacobson, Ableman has a disputatious mind. Abelman is highly self aware and in his narration shows us a peculiar combination of arrogance and intellectual passive aggression. Timid on the one hand and, on the other a writer of impious disturbance.(His own term). He is often his own target – using full on sexual assertions and innuendo like a naughty boy.  The central theme of the story is his obsession with both his wife and her mother:  a very original triangle.


Publishing and the writer’s life. Hilariously sharp, insightful observation of the publishing trade – writers, editors, agents, literary festivals all fall to his forensic wit. (Found myself saying Yes! Yes!) Has no time for people who make a habit of being cultured, declaring that if you ‘keep people away from art and judgement they are good.’
‘Belief contains its own parody.’ – wish I’d said that!
Complex and evolving assertions the impact of religion on identity – particularly the Jewish identity – trickle right through the whole text, enriching it and giving it true savour.
Like Jacobso , Ableman is often seen as mysogynistic – he has a witty take on this view of his work – he observes women closely with over-focused adoration laced with fear. His apparent humility masks a kind of amazed suspicion. It is a unique, not a mysogynistic view. Jacobson’s subtle prose demonstrates Ableman’s affection for and fascination with the women in his life. But, as Abelman  says. ‘Tenderness is a fine thing but it is not understanding.

I have learned a lot. I think there are elements of humour in my novels but  sustaining this level of true, meaningful comedy throughout what is essentially a serious novel takes a special gift.

Next David Baldacci: The Forgotten.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Me and Stephen King and the Attraction of the Audiobook.

 Being - for the last fortnight - unable to read or write properly or do anything requiring energy I resorted to listening to audio-books. I don’t often resort to this as I like words on the page, be it paper or Kindle screen.

However the concentration for pure reading deserted me alongside my appetite and my energy. So, by means of the audio-books in the last week I have ‘read’ three books: The Forgotten by David Baldacci; Zoo Time by Howard  Jacobson; Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin. Waiting for me to enjoy are ring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel; Where There’s a Will by John Mortimer and Victorian London by Lisa Picard. I have also managed to read on the paper page The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourself by Stephen Grosz.

(Should you be interested -  my next post here will be my personal notes on these individual books…)  

But I have to say that this experience has made me reflect on the audio-process. First, how wonderful that these texts were unabridged. When I think of the care that we writers put into every word, every paragraph of a novel it seems some kind of heresy to abridge it to make it fit into a required audio timescale. So the audio-time is anywhere upwards of ten or eleven hours.

Also, being read by accomplished readers, the rhythms and nuances of the prose enhance the meaning - perhaps more than the echoes in the head that emerge from reading on the page.

It certainly improved my line by line attention as I have to confess, as a lifetime reader, to a well entrenched and somewhat destructive habit of speed-reading and skipping. With audio books you can’t skip; you have to let the story unfold at the author’s designated pace.

It could be the euphoria of the illness but I would swear that I have enjoyed these books much more intensely than usual. As I come back to life and writing and work I’m certain I’ll use this form of reading into my book habit more   regularly in the future.

And then I suddenly remember I’m not alone. In his exceptionally good book On Writing author Stephen King urges all writers to read widely, wisely and well for their own self education. He lists the books he read in a single year. His list is enormous. Then he tells us that he had read a great proportion of this list by audio-book.

I suppose I could declare an interest here. All my books are now on Kindle - just got the stats – they’re trickling out very well there (except for Family Ties. Do give it a try. One of my best, I think) . But as well as thise= they are also out there in audio-book form. An Englishwoman in France looks very fine in its audio-book packaging. They’re available through libraries to order borrow and download. Or through companies like Audible.

And now I’ve had my own valuable and enlightening audio experience I treasure the thought of my own readers enjoying my novels in this steady appreciative pace, read by the brilliant actresses who give them their voice

NEXT: Tomorrow my appreciative notes on the audio books I have read this week. By David Baldacci, Howard Jacobson, Ian Rankin, Hilary Mantel, John Mortimer   Lisa Picard, Stephen Grosz.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Meeting in Cambridge:The Lithuanian Girl:

Recently in a Cambridge gastropub beside a blazing fireAvril and I met a young Lithuanian woman callrd Karolina, who was waiting tables with charm, enthusiasm and efficiency. As we went through the ritual of paying we discovered her homeland and her ambitions. It seemed that she had just finished her first degree and was now saving money to pay for her master’s degree in Chinese.
‘Here in Cambridge?’ I ask.
‘No,’ she says, ‘In China. In Shanghai.’
We applaud  this, excited at the thought that there was such adventure still in the world. We talk of how her skill in Mandarin would open so many doors of opportunity in the China-driven world of the 21st Century.
She demonstrates her familiarity with Chinese by showing us ho the tonality of the world ma had three different meanings – ma – MA – ma.
I ask whether she could study for an Master’s Degree in Chinese here in the Uk,

‘Oh yes!’ she says, smiling. ‘There are several good courses. But it is much cheaper in China – only £10,000 instead of twice as much here. And of course it will be better for me, as it will be there in the streets. I will learn it in the proper context.’
I find myself telling her about the Chinese girl I met in prison Xioa Xioa who was a wonderful writer and had one of the short stories she wrote with me broadcast on the BBC.
I don’t tell her about the Lithuanian woman whom I met in the same place who was in for a nasty offence to do with the trafficking of other women.That wouldn’t be polite.
Needless to say her English was perfect and we emerged from the pub warm from the fire and the wine, feeling a rare pleasure at the state of the world. Perhaps next time we hear of her she will be the Lithuanian ambassador to China or – perhaps more importantly – to Washington.

Just a thought, Such encounters as this  in my life bed down in the subconcious and become a resource and an inspiration for my fiction. This is often and accidental rather than a deliberate process.This novel - now on Kindle as well as in paperback - has a Chinese-French character at its centre.  

Tuesday 1 January 2013

Spells, Good Intentions and Good Wishes for 2013

I would like to wish a creative, fulfilling and satisfying New Year to all the gentle people who land on this page and take an interest in which particular bit of my writing life I taste for the second time.  In 2012 Lifetwicetasted struck a chord with some lovely people who took the trouble to let me know this. It's so nice to know you care. 
       Being a bit of a Pagan I tend to like the New Year’s Celebration more than the more cosy shores of Christmas. The Winters Solstice, the turn of the year has a resonance outside organised religion and custom: we experience the end of the dark days and a glimpse of brighter days to come. Now we can draw a line under the previous year with its challenges and its disappointments – even its successes and delights. A new day dawns and it seems up to ourselves to make the year work for us – or to work to make the year the best it can be.
       So making ‘New Year Resolutions’ – in Pagan terms casting some spells for the New Year – can be part of this process can’t it? It's one way of summing up your hopes and dreams for the year to come and getting into the right frame of mind to make them come true.  
       So I thought I would share with you ten of my resolutions, wishes or spells for 2013.
1.     I will keep in better touch with my friends. (Not good at this.)
2.     I will make a very big push early in the year to get a proper handle on this new novel. (Sometimes I get lost in and distracted by the fascinating research.)
3.     I will walk outside in the light every day. (I tend to burrow away too much.)
4.     I will have a stab at another set of short stories. This is a lovely diversion from long fiction and allows the flexing of other literary muscles. (Looking forward to seeing my  two sets out in the spring with Audiogo.)
5.     I will meditate once a day every day not just as and when. (I can be erratic about this very positive process.)
6.     I will read more poetry and tackle some five finger exercises in this form. (I'm not a poet but have always enjoyed this kind of play. Have done it less in this last year.)
7.     I will try and be a bit more businesslike about my books on Kindle. There must be a way to do this although I’m uncomfortable with advice that tells you to sell yourself at very opportunity.  I think it could be counterproductive as I myself get irritated by people shouting up their titles all the time. There must be a civilised way to tackle this.
8.     I will put more comments on blogs that I enjoy. I tend to think the writers will not be interested in my opinion, but then I remember how delighted I am if someone posts a positive comment on my blog.
9.     I will go to Wales – crucial and should have an impact on my take on for book research.
10. I will cast a spell for my family that they will grow in health, wisdom and self esteem 

Well there you are! Do you have any spells you wish to cast on 2013?


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