Remember – books are a great choice when it comes to choosing a gift for a keen reader among your family and friends.
Angels and Christmas candle
Candles and Christmas table decoration
Novels can make an excellent gift as long as you know the taste of your gift recipient. And if not, or you’re unsure, why not surprise them with a story they might not have considered reading before? A member of the audience at one of my recent author talks told me that I had inspired her to read outside her comfort zone.
The next few weeks are very busy and I have one author talk and five Christmas Craft Fairs lined up already, with the prospect of more to come.
So if any of these are near where you live do drop in for a chat at my bookstall.
I’ll have signed copies of my two novels Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit for sale,
along with my non-fiction book Perilous Path: A Writer’s Journey, and also copies of the new anthology Merry Christmas Everyone to which I’ve contributed a piece.
On Wednesday 7th November at 7.30pm I’ll be giving my Author Talk “The Power of Story” at the Northgate Methodist Church, Warwick.
Originally posted on the ACW “More than Writers” blog.
We all know who ascends the brightest heaven of invention.
Yes, it’s a muse of fire, which Shakespeare wished for in his Prologue to Henry V, as if the power of creativity were indeed a separate being, in this case from Greek mythology.
And I believe that it may sometimes be helpful to visualise our source of inspiration as a separate being – maybe an angel, if not a muse.
As writers, we love and work with metaphor and figurative language all the time, and one of the most loved devices is of course personification, which can often be highly effective in, for instance, comic writing.
A couple of years ago I went to a special event in the garden at New Place, site of Shakespeare’s former family home in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire: an event which stands out as my most imaginative and inspiring experience in that town, even with its rich supply of Shakespeare properties.
It was known as The Garden of Curious Amusements, and presented by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The central idea of catching the muse was sparked off by the fact that Shakespeare researchers believe the Bard wrote his play The Tempest in his home during 1610/1611.
Can specific geographical locations of this earth hold an inspirational power? Does the muse reside there? Can we be infused with that muse by standing in that very place where a genius caught his or her most world-changing idea?
This notion was the launching pad for a group of creative people who called themselves the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration(UNBOSI for short), and through the medium of art, acrobatics, invention and acting, entertained the visitors who flocked to this attraction. Our purpose: each to take a marble and catch in it some of that muse which inspired Shakespeare, through the four elements of earth, air, fire and water.
The journey itself was full of fun, laughter and delight – and at the centre of this fanciful Art Happening may be found a profound question: is there a correlation between place, time and light-bulb moments? That may sound eccentric and zany; but through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found inspiration and ideas that have changed the world.
We can only imaginatively reconstruct what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No house currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens where we embarked on a hilarious but also ingeniously thought-provoking journey of “Muse Catching”.
Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished in 1759 in a fit of spite by a character Shakespeare himself might have created: the Reverend Francis Gastrell, the impetuous priest who owned the property and got so fed up with the Shakespeare tourists, he decided to burn the house down. At that time property owners could do what they liked with their properties and the idea that the authorities could step in and save a historically-important heritage building against the will of the owner was unthinkable.
But even a senseless, devastating act like this can sometimes bring unlooked-for benefits in the future. I feel that what I brought away from this entertainment in the garden was in its way more profound than the experience of looking round a carefully presented fifteenth century property and being told that he was born here and trying to feel some sense of awe and connection with the great poet.
So where is inspiration to be found? Is it present in the air, or does it lie hidden in the fabric of a special place? Or does it perhaps emanate from the ground? These and other ideas were played with at New Place on the day of my visit.
Upon entering the garden through the site of the original gatehouse, visitors cross an area which would formerly have been the service range, and where you may listen to an illustrated talk about the history of New Place. Then you will approach a circular area which delineates the space formerly occupied by “the heart of the house”, where there would have been a large medieval open hall with a fireplace in the centre of the room and a vent to let the smoke out.
Close to the centre you will find a bronze replica of a chair and desk which represents researchers’ best estimate of where Shakespeare himself may have sat writing his later plays during those final years up until 1613.
Near to the desk, a bronze tree appears, its branches bent to one side by the force of Shakespeare’s creativity; and beside it a bronze globe is worn smooth by that same force. The rough side of the globe symbolises a visualisation of white noise in outer space – which, the guide suggested to visitors, represents the idea that Shakespeare’s genius may help us make sense of the universe.
In “the heart of the house” during the special UNBOSI event, several information boards explored the idea that many world-renowned geniuses had their light-bulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.
So let us be inspired by the creative, quirky and silly – for along that path there may flare up that muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.
In an age of information where we are bombarded with news and facts and false facts and opinions, both genuine and prejudiced, I find we tend to select our own blind spots, to filter out the onslaught. Which is why, sometimes, although something and somebody can be publicised hugely in innumerable ways, it’s still possible for some of us to say, “I didn’t know that,” or “Never heard of him.”
Perhaps it’s unsurprising my subsconscious had blocked Dennis out previously; I would not have been at all interested in his underground publishing activities or magazines called OZ in the late sixties and early seventies, or in the obscenity trial that he was involved in with two colleagues in 1971.
Over the years I’ve been aware of other big creative personalities who have indeed made an impact on me – author Adrian Plass, poet Adrian Henri, artist Graham Clarke and actor Brian Blessed among them – and now, rather late (four years after his death) I’ve discovered Felix Dennis. I bought a book about his 2010 nationwide poetry tour, Did I Mention the Free Wine? by Jason Kersten; and looking at pictures of him, I can see his physical appearance in later years reminds me of all of those four. And not least he reminds me of Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 & 2. A man with a gift and an instinct and an appetite for making money, he amassed millions and when he died in 2014 he ultimately bequeathed them to the creation of a forest.
What an amazing and wonderful legacy, a legacy for the future of humankind. And I also discovered his poetry, beginning with those poems that were engraved on shards of glass in his poetry garden.
One of them,written not long before his death, particularly struck me:
I’ve plucked all the cherries Chance would allow, Take them, and welcome – I’m done with them now.
His bluntness and honesty, expressed in poetry, immediately appealed to me, as it has to so many who enjoy the gallows humour in his rhyming couplets. But the poems contain much more than gallows humour: sharp observations on life expressed in unpretentious, witty poetry that lends itself beautifully to live performance. Being a fan of live performance poetry, I can only wish that I’d found out about Felix years ago, and actually attended his poetry performance in the Bridgehouse Theatre, Warwick in 2010.
I am enjoying the book Did I Mention the Free Wine? – it is the most fascinating account of how to organise a book promotion tour on a grand scale, among many other things – and watch out for my review of it on Amazon and Goodreads! Meanwhile I shall be deepening my new-found interest in his forest, his garden and his poetry. Somehow, discovering him after his death has a poetic irony which he himself would probably have enjoyed greatly…
You may find the exhibition in the ST Lee Gallery, Weston Library, next to Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street. It’s packed with fascinating objects and letters, and drawings: Tolkien’s own exquisite illustrations for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, plenty of original letters giving intriguing biographical information about him, authentic items and furnishings from his own home, a magnificent projection of a 3D model of the map of Middle-earth and many other delights for all those who love Tolkien and the fantasy world which flowered from his creative genius.
I love The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion: I first came to The Lord of the Rings when I was at university in Lancaster; and for many of us then it was a cult book; the world of Middle-earth so absorbed us that Tolkien’s characters, and situations from Frodo and Sam’s epic journey, would appear in our conversations without any need for explanation or context. Over the years I have been moved and enchanted by the powerful illustrations of places in Middle-earth such as Rivendell, but until I came to this exhibition in Oxford I confess I had no idea that Tolkien was himself such a gifted artist and had actually himself drawn and hand-coloured much of the artwork with which I have been captivated.
These are just a few of the many gems I discovered from the exhibition:
Tolkien spent twelve years writing The Lord of the Rings, in order to provide his publisher George Allen & Unwin with “something more about hobbits” as a sequel to The Hobbit – his publishers were hoping for a lucrative series like Swallows and Amazons
He squeezed that writing into his evenings, after full days spent on academic work in his role as English professor at the University, family life, and socialising, etc.
The words In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…. came to him while he was doing some marking of student papers, and he scrawled those words in an empty space on a paper he was marking. He did nothing with that idea for several years, it just lay in his mind, waiting its time (just like the ring itself lay waiting…)
His first concept of Treebeard was as an evil character but eventually he transformed the Ent into a good character
The village near Birmingham where he lived as a young child inspired him for Hobbiton.
He kept having wonderful ideas for additions to The Lord of the Rings, such as an exquisitely-rendered facsimile of a seriously war-damaged and bloodstained ancient manuscript, and a fascinating epilogue, a letter from Aragorn to Sam Gangee years after the events of The Lord of the Rings, but his publishers would decide against incorporating them for various reasons including because they thought it cost too much…
After the Tolkien exhibition we spent a considerable amount of time in Blackwell’s, losing ourselves among the special Harry Potter displays and Tolkien and CS Lewis sections not to mention among the pages of the Paddington Bear London pop-up book…
Then we enjoyed a fascinating tour of the Oxford Colleges, as you’ll see from some of the photos here.
Oxford is the city of dreaming spires and has a rich and complex history, a tapestry of darkness and light, which perhaps suggests just a few reasons why it is also, for creative people, a city of lightbulb moments…
Have you ever seen the episode of the TV comedy drama series Rev when our main character, Rev. Adam Smallbone, goes on retreat? Adam, played by Tom Hollander, is in the austere setting of a convent, and returns to his room when suddenly Roland, the media vicar, played by Hugh Bonneville, appears at the window, crying “Retreat!”
In he comes and it transpires he’s brought plenty of alcoholic supplies with him to offset the effect of the austerity to which they have both committed themselves for the next several days. Then Adam opens the drawers in his bedside cabinet and reveals his stash of chocolate bars and bottles of whisky.
“Dear boy,” says Roland with a look of extreme seriousness on his face, “I think we’re going to get through this.”
I’ve just been on silent retreat for a week at Lee Abbey in Devon.
It isn’t a convent, nor is it austere, and there’s absolutely no need for chocolate bars and bottles of wine in the bedroom, as we were well-fed… in fact, I find retreat centres tend to over-feed you rather than the opposite, and within the Christian community that runs the retreat centre, there is a team of house elves who wait on you hand and foot until you almost feel guilty… and thus begin the insights you may draw from silence.
And ever present outside this retreat centre is the sublime scenery of Lee Bay. Throughout the week, it called me, a background to all that was said, a huge presence out there. There were all the things Michael was saying as he weaved his spell and beguiled us, and all the insights and metaphors his stories gave us about the dynamics of life, and beyond it all was the vast embracing presence of the scenery, the rocky headlands, the tree-covered cliffs, the sea.
Our silence lasted 48 hours, and I loved it.
Insight is the child of silence wrote the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
For me, a silent retreat gets better and better. You’re completely released from small talk; from having to answer other people’s questions; from people at the table passing comment on your vegetarian meal and asking what it is; from people commenting on why you’re eating a banana or a pear or a yogurt instead of the rich lemon syllabub and caramel sauce and chocolate flakes they are all eating.
You are free: to smile at people and not say anything; from any anxiety that you ought to say something; from feeling out of it because other people are chatting in little huddles and you’re the only one not talking; from feeling compelled to make conversation just to fill the silence or to be polite or in case people think you’re unfriendly.
Everyone is released from the curse of unguarded tongues and small talk and nonsense. Blessed silence releases us from all that. Silence is such a gift. How I love it.
The only person allowed to speak during that silence was our retreat leader, Michael Mitton. And he gave us treasures, in what he later described as “a Jackanory week”, retelling stories from the bible in the most beguiling way. The stories were taken from his book Seasoned by Seasons.
His retellings of those stories engage every sense: funny, illuminating, revelatory and totally absorbing. Moving and absolutely relatable, these stories are intimate, warm, human.
It’s as if you are an invisible observer on the scene of a story. Or maybe you are inside the thoughts of a character. You can smell, feel, hear, touch and taste what it is like to be there. There is humour, poignancy and passion in these stories and often they are deeply moving. Sometimes you may find yourself thinking, “What! Is this in the bible?” or “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this character. But this story is so powerful, and relevant to me, and my life.”
I feel, too, that I now have a much richer sense of Jesus himself, his humour, his warmth, his compassion, his wisdom, his humanity, his understanding, his disregard for convention and rules, his sharpness, his wit, his mental flexibility, his clear vision, his sheer versatility.
During the silence, there were for me no telephone calls, no internet, no Facebook, no texts, no messages, no emails. Only the power of Michael’s storytelling, the insights that poured from those stories, and from the silence, and above and beyond it all, the grandeur and majesty of God’s creation, silent, unfolding before me in lines of faint blue and pink across the horizon above the luminous sea.
A very thought-provoking novel told from the point of view of a woman who is “different” from others in her daily life and therefore arouses uncomfortable feelings in others, leading to alienation and loneliness.
Yet as we progress through the novel, learning more about Eleanor and her life, there are times when we cannot help agreeing with, and being amused by, her observations about those around her, as she misses social cues, communicates with people in a strange, over-formal manner, and shows a lack of knowledge of her own culture.
I found myself totally captivated by the story and by the development of her relationship with the wonderfully patient and kind Raymond, which does give plenty of opportunities for humour, especially as she reports his responses to her. At times their relationship and their conversations reminded me of those between Don and Rosie in the brilliant comic novel “The Rosie Project.”
While Eleanor makes progress in her life, suspense builds as we long to find out the truth of the traumatic events in her childhood which had such a devastating effect upon her. The novel has many moments of wisdom and discernment. I thoroughly recommend this novel for its psychological insight and its wry humour.
Yesterday ( Monday 12th February 2018) at St Paul’s Church, Leamington Spa, I heard an amazing speaker Raj Holness who runs an organisation called Break the Silence Uk (BTSUK) which seeks to protect and support women who have suffered domestic abuse, human trafficking and forced marriages, and also to provide a refuge for them alongside educating the community about the issues involved.
Raj was born into a Sikh family in Birmingham and suffered severe domestic abuse for twenty years. She eventually found the courage to break away from her abusers, took on the Christian faith, and founded the BTSUK. She named the book I Dared To Call Him Father as one of the books which had a powerful influence on her, and helped her to make a radical transformation in her life. She herself has subsequently published a book called The Only Arranged Marriage under her maiden name Raj Jarrett. I bought the book after Raj’s talk and it’s next on my reading list – I’ll publish my review here on my blog.
Rah is now an assured public speaker and is married with a young daughter. Her story of emotional, physical and sexual abuse is truly horrifying and she is in herself an astonishing example of a woman who has come through the worst of circumstances into a new life where she has embraced a whole new vision of herself and of her place in the world.
I’ve begun to read “The Only Arranged Marriage” and I do recommend it to you if you haven’t come across it before. If you have read it, please let me know what you think!
On Saturday 23rd December 2017 I went to see the exhibition “Living with Gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond” at the British Museum in London. The exhibition curator Jill Cook had set out to show the development of religious symbols through physical objects which people in widely diverse cultures and historical periods have used to denote their relationships with a spiritual reality beyond nature.
The exhibition ranged from a 40,000 year old sculpture of a lion man, through a Buddhist wheel of life held in the claws of the god of death, via a Japanese Shinto household shrine, to a Soviet communist poster of an astronaut with a rather inane grin on his face floating in space and declaring “There is no God.” On the Buddhist wheel of life the artist had depicted instances of human and animal suffering and wickedness of all types, which I must confess reminded me of Dan Brown’s description of Dante’s Inferno…
I was also interested to learn that the image of the many-armed creator/destroyer god Lord Shiva is on display outside CERN in Switzerland, as a symbol of the atom.
However, inevitably much was missing from the exhibition. For instance, I found no reference to the aboriginal image of the Rainbow Serpent said to be one of earliest of religious symbols, in this case symbolising Creation. Neither did I find the spirituality of the North American Indians, nor the mystical system of the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching.
The whole tapestry and landscape of humankind’s attempts to build and sustain a relationship with spiritual reality beyond the observed world is so vast and complex, this exhibition inevitably could give just a small representative taste alongside a dispassionate commentary. In reality each religious outlook and philosophical system deserves its own special in-depth study in order to do anything like justice to it – and the curious investigator can find many books to help.
But one of the most moving parts of the exhibition for me was the display about the Japanese persecution of Christianity in the 17th century, during the time of the Portuguese Jesuit mission to Japan, a story told in the brilliant novel Silence by Shusako Endo, upon which was based the 2016 film starring Andrew Garfield.
I remember the impact the book made on me, when those being persecuted were ordered to trample the fumi-e – a bronze plaque showing Christ on the cross. I found myself gazing in awe at an authentic fumi-e and thought again of the powerful end to the novel Silence.
One of the most interesting things about that novel was the way it showed how Christianity may be introduced into what may seem an alien culture and how those within that culture may take on the Christian faith and understand it within their own cultural terms. I remember a scene in the novel where Japanese Christians were being tortured by being tied to stakes on a beach while the tide rolled in and out around them. They gained the stength to endure by continually singing, We are going to the temple, going to the temple of God.
If there is any lesson at all to be learned from an exhibition of this type, perhaps it is that we have the challenge ahead of us to communicate what we believe to be the truth, whilst also respecting other human beings and where they are in terms of their own worldview.
This is part of a series in which I reblog the articles from that blog tour. So today’s post is the article Rosie Amber first published online, called:
On the Art and Inexact Science of a Good Ending to a Novel
Recently a fellow blogger piqued my interest with a piece about online book reviews. Amongst the observations she made, she referred to the attitude authors take to their reviews. She noted that many people have different interpretations of the star-ratings. Specifically she mentioned that she had experienced some asking her to take down three star reviews which they interpreted as negative.
As an author and reviewer myself, I review every book I read on Amazon and Goodreads. I will give a book 5 stars only if it hooked me, kept me enthralled, made me want to read on, answered the questions the author posed, AND delivered a strong, satisfying end. If all those things above are present, but the end does not satisfy, I will downgrade a star rating. I think you can in some way define an author’s theme, worldview, mindset (at the time of writing, anyway) from the way they choose to end a novel.
But having said this, I will admit to a challenge when I came to write the end of my novel Mystical Circles (out in a new edition with a new cover on 5 September). Ideally I would have liked to give two alternative endings, as John Fowles did in his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
I don’t like an ending which ties up all the loose strands, and which is unequivocally happy or sad. My ideal ending is bittersweet. As in life, I believe that when all our dreams are fulfilled there will always be other aspects of the situation which have the potential to cause disruption in the future. One of my favourite endings is that to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, because although the central story question is answered positively, it is also bristling with ironic little hints that life is not necessarily going to run smoothly for the main protagonist hereafter.
How I chose to end Mystical Circles was full of challenges because the raison d’etre of the story – a hothouse community called Wheel of Love who have gathered around a charismatic leader to learn how to achieve an ideal existence – derives all its emotional charge and dangerous dynamics from the psychological instability of the group members – and its leader. The situation I outline in the novel – the attempt by a young woman journalist to rescue her younger sister from a mystical cult – could have a number of outcomes.
I think the key to a successful ending is that it must satisfy, whether it is happy, sad, tragic or bittersweet. I am conscious, too, that an unsatisfying end can undo much of the good work of an author. As novelists the best we can do is to remain true to ourselves, to what we are trying to say within our stories. Though I admit we often don’t even know what we’re trying to say, until we’ve said it!
And back to reviews again; I love reviews of any star-rating where the reader has clearly read the book thoughtfully, and has genuine opinions to offer about plot, characterisation, theme. On Amazon the healthiest star-rating profile is a triangle with its broad side at the top. I am afraid I feel suspicious of books that have only five stars. Also I am often attracted to the one star reviews. I want to know, “What is the worst that can be said about this novel?” And, quixotically, some of the things said by the one star reviewers make me want to read the book. Human opinions are incredibly diverse, especially about books, and we must all respect that.
This is part of a series when I shall be re-blogging those articles from that blog tour. So today’s post is the article Jenny first published, called:
Genre: what is it exactly?
As a writer, I believe we should be willing to explore new areas, and to step outside our comfort zone. And that applies very closely to us as readers too. I read a wide variety of books, both non-fiction, and fiction of all genres. I admit I do like psychological insight but I believe all good writers in every genre should incorporate that in their novels anyway.
I find that the way I think about genre is influenced by my own eclectic reading habits. I did have quite a bit of trouble trying to work out what genre I was writing in myself. Writers are given an enormous amount of advice these days, mostly from online sources, and amongst them is this adage: Write the kind of book you most love reading. But if you read a wide variety of books, how does this help?
Another piece of advice we find floating around the internet (perhaps propagated by the commercial publishing fraternity) is that an author should, when writing a pitch to a literary agent, be clear what genre he or she is working in, so the agent reading the letter can immediately think, “Whereabouts in the bookshop will this book will go?” Another piece of advice suggests you should name a few established authors to whom your novel could be compared.
All this is anathema to me – and to many other writers, I suggest. Yet we are forced into this kind of mindset.
So now, for the benefit of the readers of this article, I shall say that Mystical Circles is psychological suspense with a flavour of paranormal.
An example of my willingness to go into new areas is my recent attendance of the UK Games Expo, as one of five writers on the Authors Stand; and for a while, we were alongside a bestselling author and his legion of fans queuing up for signed copies: Ian Livingstone, the successful creator of the fighting Fantasy gamebooks series. So what do fighting fantasy and roleplay games have to do with books such as the ones I write?
I admit I knew nothing of the UK Games Expo until I was invited by the organiser, author Richard Denning, through his father John (a friend of mine) to come and exhibit/sell my books on the Authors Stall all weekend last June at the Birmingham NEC. It was a fabulous opportunity. The gaming world is one that I haven’t paid too much attention to, but the whole weekend was a revelation.
The atmosphere was wonderful, there was so much fun and good humour. I met and made contact with new authors, I had the chance to chat and learn better ways to promote myself as an author, and there was a great sense of camaraderie. The gaming world is one in which a vast number of “tropes” flourish: adventure, quests, danger, violence, fantasy, history, steampunk, sci fi…
I gained some new insights into how my own work is indeed using some of those tropes, for instance, the predicament of the main protagonist as she finds herself in a deadly situation from which she must escape. Hidden chambers and secret passageways and dark rooms all find their place in the gaming world. There was an unexpected connection for me.
Mystical Circles is set in the real world but the world Craig inhabits moves further and further into a world of impossible ideals – and the paranormal, an area in which he has special gifts. Hidden chambers and secret passageways and dark rooms all act as symbols for states of mind – and thus their connection to the world of psychological suspense fiction. And finally, family relationships, which play a strong role in my novel. Problematic relationships between father and son, between two sisters, between twin brothers, between mother and son… I find these provide a fertile ground upon which the action of my novels can be played.
Which leaves me still with a fluid situation as regards genre; though now I write psychological suspense, the paranormal element is getting stronger, and maybe in the future I could move into areas of fantasy and magical realism. All is possible.