Friends of Sonning Common Library are well named

Thank you Alison of Sonning Common Library, Alex of Fourbears Bookshop in Caversham and all those who turned out to the very cheery Sonning Common Library on a dark, damp night. They listened attentively as I burbled on about Note to Boy and my time as a BBC comedy writer, laughed at my humour (mostly) and asked some trenchant questions. The Friends of the Library certainly lived up to their name and made me very welcome indeed.

Hope to meet you again when my next novel is published!

Some snaps from the evening.

Two new names to remember – reviews

Do you review the books you read? I don’t mean the blockbusters whose names crop up with predictable regularity. They are managing quite well without our help, thank you very much.

I mean, if you discover a new name among the bookshelves, take a chance on their book and find you thoroughly enjoy it. Do you then take the time to write a review, even just a few lines? You should because reading what other people think is how undiscovered writers are, well, discovered.

If a novel’s already got a gazillion ratings and reviews, I don’t usually trouble myself. But if I read a book and I think it’s great and only a handful of others have reviewed it, then I always write a quick comment. I used to think I had to take ages penning a long treatise, impressing with my literary knowledge. I soon put a stop to that. These days I go for an honest reaction, shortly after finishing reading and leave the PhD theses to the erudite book bloggers and academics.

One other thing, call me a softie, but if I don’t get on with a book, I don’t waste my time penning a one-star review and breaking some writer’s heart. I know how much courage and stickability it takes to write a book, any book. It might not be to my taste but it probably will be to someone’s.

This preamble is to introduce my reviews of two books I enjoyed recently by novelists I’ve never come across before. Indeed, I believe they’re both debut authors. Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters by Jane Ions is hilarious and very well observed. A new comic voice on the block. A Spell in France by M C Clary is a well-constructed thriller, set partly in Nice, featuring an unsettlingly distant older husband and his naive, much younger wife. I thought I was heading for Manderley, then it all went in a different direction.

Maybe give them a try. Oh, and please review afterwards!

Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters by Jane Ions

To write a comic novel with lovable, relatable characters, a gripping plot and lines that are actually laugh-out-loud funny is no mean feat; to achieve this as a debut novelist is nothing short of a miracle. But Jane Ions has cracked it. The voice of Sally Forth (I know!) is hilarious and appealing from the off. There is so much to enjoy: Sally’s teenage son and his troop of oddball girlfriends; the lean-to constructed from rubbish at the side of the house: a running gag about the tabloids’ love of labelling all older women ‘Grans’, and Sally’s long-suffering husband Bill, an MP and – unusually in these strange political times – the only proper grown-up in the household. If you like the Nina Stibbe style of well-observed comedy with a heart, you’ll love this. A very worthy CWIP short-lister. I look forward to reading the next Jane Ions novel. 

A Spell in France by M C Clary

Shades of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca in this thriller, set mostly in Nice. Sylvie, a new and rather naïve bride, is on holiday with her much older, rather distant, husband Trevor when he collapses in the street and is taken off to hospital. Confusion surrounds what takes place next. We follow Sylvie over several years as she attempts to unpick what really happened to her husband. The Cote D’Azure and the art world in which Sylvie finds herself working are nicely recreated, as is the character of Sylvie herself, our narrator for a good part of the book. All in all, a satisfying thriller.

Page-turner vs. literary – does it have to be a choice?

Having read a couple of so-called literary novels recently, I’m now very much enjoying a more mainstream title. Of course there are different books for different moods and tastes but I’m increasingly exasperated by novels that encourage you to stop and admire their cleverness at every turn.

My real beef is that the authors keep inserting themselves between the reader and the story – as if holding up a mirror and saying, ‘look at me, look at me!’ – while for me the writer should be transparent as glass. Is this a new trend or am I turning into an inverted snob or just a lazy reader?

Or maybe it’s byuuecause, as a writer myself, I’ve lost the ability to read purely for pleasure. I’m too distracted examining the nuts and bolts of the writing to get lost in a book. But I refuse to believe that there’s no such thing as a literary page-turner. Or indeed, a page-turner with great literary chops.  

To my mind, a good read should not be self-conscious, drawing attention to its clever technique, sometimes at the expense of a gripping plot and engaging characters. It should connect directly with the reader, providing immersive enjoyment, as well as being intellectually satisfying. The best of authors, whether typecast as high or low brow, manage this balancing act.

Want some examples? Leaving aside the classic novels I’d consider fall into this category, from Dickens and Chandler to Conan Doyle and Wodehouse, these are a few of mine. You’ll have your own.

Barbara Kingsolver

David Nicholls

Philip Roth

Thomas Keneally

Anne Tyler

John Boyne

Reasons To Be Cheerful – a review

This review of Nina Stibbe’s comic fiction, Reasons To Be Cheerful, appeared in the excellent Writers Review blog.

Writers Review is a weekly blog hosted by authors Adele Geras, Celia Rees and Linda Newbery. It gives reading recommendations by published writers and independent booksellers. In the six years it’s been in existence, it has built up an impressive guest list. A-listers contributing include Tracy Chevalier, Amanda Craig, Bridget Collins, Patrick Gale, Joanne Harris, Jill Paton Walsh, Jane Rogers, Diane Setterfield and Val McDermid.

And now me! I was honoured to be invited to add my two penn’orth.

***

I love all kinds of comedic writing – novels, plays, films, TV shows, stand-up routines – bring them on! However, one thing I can never get my head around is why comedy is so often dismissed as a lesser art. As anyone who’s ever tried writing it will confirm, humour is as hard – some would say harder – to pin down on the page as so-called serious stuff. I know. I’ve spent a lot of my time trying! That’s why, when comedy works, it is such a joy.

In Reasons To Be Cheerful, Nina Stibbe manages the extraordinary feat of writing a comic novel that makes you laugh, while reflecting quite deep thoughts about what it meant to grow up in the English provinces in the 1980s. I’m aware, as I write this, that all views on books are subjective, and those on humorous books particularly personal. What tickles my funny bone, may bring yours out in a nasty rash. You may not agree but, for me, Reasons To Be Cheerful is that rare thing, a comedy triumph.

I picked up Stibbe’s book up during the darkest days of the pandemic mainly, I confess, because of its title. In dire need of cheering up, I hoped this tale of eighteen-year-old Lizzie Vogel, aspiring writer and guerrilla dentist, as she navigates the tricky passage to adulthood, might hit the spot. I wasn’t disappointed. I laughed – once I read the description of trousers worn hoisted high in the “European way” I knew I was in for a treat – but I was also bowled over by its moments of insight.

Winner of both the 2019 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for Comic Fiction and the 2020 Comedy Women in Print (CWIP) prize, Reasons To Be Cheerful takes Lizzie, also the subject of two of Stibbe’s earlier volumes, Men at the Helm and Paradise Lodge, to the brink of womanhood.

The book teems with entertaining, richly observed characters and absurd situations, mainly centred around the goings-on in the dodgy dental surgery in Leicester. The characters are comic creations, true, but comic creations with depth and heart, whom you mostly care about and are invested in.

Lizzie herself is wonderfully bright and idiosyncratic, rivalling Adrian Mole for endearing naiveté and know-it-all pretension. Like him, she has ambitions to be a writer. I might be wrong, but I feel her character was inspired, at least in part, by the young Miss Stibbe, since they apparently share a love for words and an interest in teeth.

The story, told in Lizzie’s voice, chronicles her chaotic family, and a disparate gang of friends and work colleagues. These include: Adèle, her gloriously uninhibited mother, who believes, “a thoughtful visitor should aim to be fifteen minutes late …  and slightly drunk”; Lizzie’s boss, Mr Wintergreen, a monstrous and incompetent dentist who employs Lizzie as his assistant and creepily insists she holds his cigarettes to his mouth for him as he smokes; and Andy, the boy who delivers the dental plates, and becomes Lizzie’s first boyfriend and the object of her sexual desire, though he prefers birding.

The less pleasant side of the 1980s is acutely and dryly observed, from the fashions – one character sports “apricot hair and matching lipstick” – to odious Mr Wintergreen’s racism and Lizzie’s sexist-but-hilarious list of Things Men Don’t Like Women Doing, which she fantasises about sending to a women’s magazine. It includes: “… having a dog, talking about sport, laughing loudly, spending money on fripperies, disagreeing with them, chatting on the phone, climbing trees, talking about dogs, mowing the lawn in flip-flops …”

Stibbe has the knack – shared by writers like David Nicholls and Kate Atkinson – of holding up a humorous mirror to everyday life without teetering over into caricature. She clearly loves her characters and wants you to root for them – apart from Mr Wintergreen. And every now and then she drops in a line or two that touches your heart and, mid-guffaw, you find you have something in your eye.

To be able to locate that bittersweet spot where absurdity meets truth, and a belly laugh catches in the throat is a gift given to few writers. Nina Stibbe, I believe, has it.

A lesser art, indeed!

Enjoying the stars and bars of Cheshire

Who’d have thought, when Note to Boy hit the bookshops almost two years ago that I would still be fulfilling some of the gin pledges kindly made when I was crowdfunding the book? Covid and geography have delayed the process but at last we are getting there.

The latest of the book’s generous supporters owed a ‘gin experience’ happens to live with his family in the lovely county of Cheshire. So this weekend we braved the motorways – and an out-of-date but nonetheless insistent satnav – to travel there and enjoy a gin or two with them.

The sacrifices we authors are forced to make!

As if that wasn’t fun enough, just down the road we discovered the wonderful Jodrell Bank.

There, the following day, along with hoards of excited children we explored the new First Light Pavilion and its interactive exhibition, and visited the Space Dome for films and a … let’s call it a lecture, though it was so well presented, I for one didn’t feel I was being force-fed facts. If only science museums had been this exciting when I was young, I might have left school with more of an inkling of how space worked.

I couldn’t help but notice that when it came to asking the audience – ‘Who can explain what a black hole is?” “Can you identify this planet?” – all the hands that went up were children-sized! They were impressively well-informed.

Afterwards we strolled to the Lovell radio telescope, still one of the biggest and most powerful radio telescopes in the world. Seventy-six metres in diameter, amazingly it was constructed back in 1957. You only get to appreciate the size of this monster feat of engineering when you spot the ant-people working underneath it. You may just be able to make them out in my photo.

It may have been much delayed, but delivering my Note to Boy gin-experience responsibilities is proving to be a constant joy. I shall be sad when the last one is done.

Who wants a sneak peek?

Are there any more satisfying words for a novelist to write than ‘The End’? Er, actually, yes. Finishing a book, for me, is an anxious, unsettling time.

Why? For two reasons. One, because the end is never really the end. I’ve yet to meet or read about an author who sits back, after typing those two words, and is totally and utterly satisfied with what they’ve written and wouldn’t want to change – or chop – a single word. It’s a condition of the job, I fear.

And secondly, because it means the words you’ve created in the privacy of your workroom, cleaving them possessively to your chest, will have to start making their way out, blinking shyly, into the big, wide world.

What will the world – that is literary agents, publishers and early readers – make of what you’ve laboured months over? Will they be kind and welcoming?

Be that as it may, I can put it off no longer. I am at that stage with my latest work when I can rightly claim it’s ‘finished’ – for now. And so, dear readers, here’s a brief extract from … let’s call it Novel Number Two.

The title is another thing I’m not yet sure of!

This is how it starts.

CHAPTER 1 

TRISH

I had no business being on a bike really. Not with all the Bordeaux I’d been putting away. I was trying to do the right thing, you see, by leaving the Mini on the drive. This was before I twigged that trying to do the right thing was exactly where I’d been going wrong.

         Not hungover. Not really. Just a bit fuzzy-headed. And I had to go shopping or face yet another banquet of peanut butter from the spoon. My shopping list wasn’t long. White bread and cheap, day-glo lemon curd – in tribute to remembered Sunday teatimes round the fire – seven ready meals, seven family-size packets of posh crisps, and a double pack of cream crackers. As an afterthought, I added a bag of oranges. No sense, I thought, in going down with scurvy on top of everything else.

         Shopping done and scary robot voice on the check-out braved, I set off for home, carrier bags swinging merrily on the handlebars. Don’t remember hitting the pothole but do remember flying through space and seconds later looking up at two strangers, a salty liquid dribbling from my mouth.

In A&E, it wasn’t exactly Code red. Adult female, like it is on the telly. More like, Sit by the broken drinks machine for a few hours, luvvie, until someone shouts a name that approximates to yours.

So I waited, blotting my mouth with toilet paper, until they sent me to X-ray. Then I waited some more, now promoted to a cubicle, until a cheerful Ozzie doctor, who couldn’t have been more of a cliché if he’d had a didgeridoo under one arm and a wallaby under the other, whooshed back the curtain.

‘G’day,’ he said, voice too loud, teeth too white. ‘Had a shufti at your piccies, Pat –’

‘Trith,’ I lisped.

‘Come again? Whatever – upshot is, looks a lot worse than it is. No fractures. Cuts and bruises only. You’ve got off lightly. Except for this,’ he said, digging into the pocket of his scrubs. ‘Pressie for you.’ He dropped something into my palm. ‘Got loosened when you face-planted the old tarmac, I reckon. Don’t thank me. Thank Sally in the Rad Lab. She found it kicking about on the floor. You’re lucky.’

I looked at the little yellow dental crown. It was tiny. Yet, as I poked around in my mouth with my tongue, the gap felt enormous.

 ‘Thankth,’ I said, feeling the blood trickling down my chin.

Here be a monster!

I’m a passable cook. I can knit simple jumpers. I’ve written some scripts and a couple of novels. And … no, that’s about it. Sum total of my skills. So I’m always in awe of those marvellously talented creatures who are brilliant at lots of things.

Such a one is Stevyn Colgan, my writing stable mate at Unbound. Not content with writing both novels and non-fiction – his latest (tenth if I’ve counted right) is a comedy called Cockerings – he’s a marvellous artist, working in several different media, not to mention cook, comedian, podcaster and much more. He’s also probably built a time machine, solved the Northern Ireland protocol problem, and invented a thing that means you can read your phone even when the screen’s in full sun for all I know.

During the pandemic, Stevyn turned his hand to creating monsters. I came face to face with one of his fabulous creations at the very excellent Grayson Perry Art Club Exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. The Bristol monster is part of Stevyn’s community lockdown installation, The Monster Zoo, aimed at providing local children with a fun and creative activity, when so many other avenues were closed to them. Grayson Perry liked the idea so much, he put it in his exhibition.

If you’re in the Bristol area, I urge you to go along and see this collection of witty and thought-provoking exhibits, made more poignant because they came about during the worst days of lockdown. Here’s a selection from the eclectic mix.

I’ll stick to my knitting.

Monster escaped from the Zoo, doing its thing in Bristol Museum.

Wipe your feet on this. Much more useful than an actual ticket during lockdown

Dishing out some home truths

Clarks make a new acquaintance