Monthly Archives: November 2012

Edinburgh Book List

Yes, I know, this list should really have something by Walter Scott.

This evening finds me sat in a hotel room in the beautiful and atmospheric city of Edinburgh. I’m here for work, so no sightseeing for me(boo!) though it is difficult to avoid the stunning sights of Prince’s Street and The Royal Mile as you walk from Waverly Station. Having finished work for the evening, I wished I’d brought some reading with an Edinburgh inspired flavour. Maybe the next time I visit I will have put together a more comprehensive list of books to read in Edinburgh. In the meantime, here’s an off the top of my head list of books I’ve enjoyed which have an Edinburgh setting:

 After You’d Gone– Maggie O’Farrell

The best of all Maggie O’Farrell’s novels, After You’d Gone explores what Alice, languishing in a coma, saw at Edinburgh Waverly Station that was so terrible it made her get straight back on a train to London and walk out in front of a car. I read this in my second year of university before making my housemates read it. For about a month solid we spent every evening crying… in a good way… I think.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie– Muriel Spark

The novel about an Edinburgh school teacher and the unique education she gives her charges, a select clique who become known as the Brodie set. It’s been a very long time (over ten years) since I read this book, but still the immortal understatement that “Hitler was rather naughty” stands out in the memory. I understand it was made into a film starring Maggie Smith who I love, so I need to watch that.

One Day– David Nicholls

You probably need no introduction to the hit novel One Day which follows friends and sometimes star-crossed lovers Emma and Dexter from their graduation in Edinburgh on St Swithin’s Day 1988, and returns to their lives on the same day for the next 20 years before returning to Edinburgh in 1988. Another tear jerker, I’ve met quite a few men who’ve said it made them cry like babies.

The Inspector Rebus Series- Ian Rankin

Again, this series needs very little introduction, but if you’re looking for a starting point into what has been called “Tartan Noir”, then look no further than Knots and Crosses which sees the eponymous Rebus struggling to solve the abduction and strangling of young girls, while receiving strange missives which suggest the murderer maybe someone closer to him than he realises…


I’m planning to drag my boyfriend North of the Wall for a visit next year, so was really pleased to come across this helpful link for more Edinburgh inspired reading, but I’m sure there’s more out there. What books with an Edinburgh connection would you recommend? I’m keen to expand my reading list!

Author Jill Dawson talks about her Favourite Book

I’m really pleased to share a guest post from Jill Dawson author of Lucky Bunny and The Great Lover in which she introduces her favourite book The Girl in The Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge.

My recent love is Beryl Bainbridge. I’ve come late to her but I am working my way through all of her novels. I think when I was younger I found them too dispiriting and opaque. Master Georgie struck me as particularly difficult to get into.  You have to live awhile to appreciate how funny she made things, and how unique as a writer she was in nailing pretension, emotion and sex in a prose style all her own. Famously hard-drinking and smoking, darkly humorous in her work Bainbridge relished the absurd, the inexplicable and the violent. These traits are in this last novel too, but another flavour dominates: melancholia.

The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress tells the story of Rose, a young Londoner who sets out for the States during the tumultuous summer of 1968 to meet a man she knows as Washington Harold, with only a polka-dot dress and a one-way ticket in her suitcase. The two of them aim to join forces to travel across the country in search of Dr Wheeler – guru and life-saver as far as Rose is concerned; something much darker for Harold.

It’s a novel of a hopeless journey, against a backdrop of violent episodes and assassinations—first Martin Luther King, later Bobby Kennedy—and the shift in public mood from optimism to despair. The elusive Dr Wheeler moves on, and we suspect he might never be found, or that finding him isn’t really the point. “I’m only doing what’s best. We’re all looking for something,” Harold states, towards the end, after surprising us utterly with his closing act.

The journey of the novel echoes the final one that Bainbridge herself was on, since her health was failing and she was close to death while writing it. For an answer to the question “What’s the point?”, Dr Wheeler’s earlier advice to Rose is: “If you want a compass to guide you through life, you have to accustom yourself to looking upon the world as a penal colony. If you abide by this you’ll stop regarding disagreeable incidents, sufferings, worries and miseries as anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, you’ll realise that everything is as it should be; each of us pays the penalty of existence in our own peculiar way.”

For Rose, the one moment of true love had been snatched from her by a mother, who saw it as “a dirty union between under-age fornicators . . . which was why it was necessary for the resulting infant to be given away. Mothers could always be depended on to know what was best.” One
might take this to be the author’s final comment on the matter, a cackling voice from the grave urging us to accept the unpalatable, to see that our dreams will fail, that whatever joy we experience will be stolen. Even in the last days of her life, Bainbridge was planning to get up and work, to fix the novel that had bewitched and eluded her for nearly 10 years.

So if life’s so pointless, how do we explain the author’s persistent and courageous endeavour to engage with it? Her novel offers joy and some kind of answer for the reader who takes pleasure in bloody good writing: the salty prose; the rationed cruelty towards characters; the wicked observation; the frugal way with adjectives, adverbs and sub-clauses; the deadpan tone; the punch. It might not be line for line as Bainbridge intended (as it was compiled by her sympathetic editor from the unfinished manuscript), but I urge you to read it.  Authentic, stinging and truthful, Bainbridge spoke as she found, in her own peculiar way.

I told Jill that I’d been meaning to read some Beryl Bainbridge and she recommended that I start with The Dressmaker, so I will be checking that out of the local library this week. I can’t recommend The Great Lover highly enough, but check out Jill’s other projects here.

Monkeys with Typewriters- Scarlett Thomas

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you may have found me banging on about my girl crush on Scarlett Thomas. I had a brief wobble over Our Tragic Universe but, after reading Monkeys with Typewriters, I am fully back on board with declaring her a genius. I started reading towards the tail  end of October and  37 pages in (when I learned that The Matrix is a retelling of Plato’s Cave) I decided that I couldn’t even think of attempting NaNoWriMo without finishing the book.

If you’re a writing enthusiast, reading enthusiast or have a crush on Scarlett Thomas, then I recommend you read it too.

Though by night Thomas is a pretty clever author who writes really interesting books, by day she is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Kent University and I have to say, her teaching experience really comes across in the text. Not only does she pitch her tone really well for the novice writer- engaging, encouraging and constructive, but she includes a lot of practical advice that I hadn’t read in any other books which profess to help you write better. And I have to say, I’ve read quite extensively in this area- from text books for Open University writing courses to books aimed at a general readership in the trade market, I have dipped into a lot of books attempting to inhabit this niche. I can honestly say, to use a £50 pound cliché (you’ll have to read the book) that Thomas’ blows them out of the water.

Where most books will focus on picking a subject and target readership or describing a banana in a truly novel way, Thomas’ book gets down to the nitty gritty of why some plots work and some plots just don’t. Though the latter half of the book does examine sentence level writing, characterisation and the writing process, the first half of the book is entirely devoted to narrative- exploring structure, cause and effect, basic plots and narrative styles showing how well constructive stories get the reader’s attention and poorly constructed stories lose both their interest and sympathy. What I especially liked about this was how clearly this was explained and how carefully it was illustrated through the examples chosen. I never felt that I was being patronised, Thomas’ tone may be friendly, but the book is well grounded in grown up land with references to Aristotle, Chekhov, Propp and Stanislavski. I found the discussion of Stanislavski’s system especially interesting, as I’ve always thought that his methods were only really of relevance in theatre studies and the dramatic arts, but really it makes total sense that understanding what he says about finding the emotional truth would equally apply to a writer… It all sounds very simple, but that’s the genius of this book. It helps you understand and makes you see where you haven’t exactly been going wrong, but haven’t excelled yourself either.

I’ve been reading sections aloud to my friends and family for a while now. I also impressed my colleagues when we were talking about Plato’s Cave and I was able to explain how The Matrix is basically the same story.

If you do want to read an alternative view, I follow The Guardian on Twitter, and a pretty wanky review from Leo Benedictus (no, I hadn’t heard of him either)popped up in my twitter feed shortly before I started the book. In it, the reviewer questions who the book is for (well, novice writers… anyone wanting to improve their writing or starting writing for the first time with little formal training…)and questions what he’ll get from it. But as he is a published author (I sometimes wonder if super snipey reviews are there to promote one’s own work rather than discuss that of others…) I hardly think he’s the target market. Either way, I think he’s totally missed the point.

I would have recommended this to my A-level students when teaching, and I wish I had read it when I was doing my OU course. It is certainly something that I will continue to refer to whenever I dabble with writing again.

If you read this book and fancy joining me in my appreciation of Ms Thomas, I recommend you also check out PopCo (it actually got me interested in maths) and The End of Mr Y.

Author Natasha Mostert talks about her Favourite Book

The task of choosing a favourite book is daunting because there are so many books I love and look to for inspiration. But Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is the novel I reach for whenever I feel my prose turning stale and predictable. It is the most haunting story written in the most beautiful language. There are two sentences in this book, which to me sums up the appeal of the novel: “It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret.” Every time I finish reading this book, I feel as though I have visited a magic place that will continue to enchant me no matter how many times I visit, even as it stays wholly mysterious.

Rhys’s novel functions as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I read Jane Eyre many years before Sargasso Sea and even then the “mad woman in the attic” fascinated me. In Sargasso Sea the destructive lunatic in Bronte’s novel is revealed as the beautiful, vulnerable and yes — mentally fragile — Antoinette Cosway, who descends into madness as her relationship with Mr. Rochester disintegrates. It is a book that deals with themes of racial inequality, displacement and the toxic attraction between one man and the woman he desires, even as he is repelled by the very sensuality of her nature, which captivated him in the first place. A stunning read.

Visit Natasha at her website (which has one of the coolest front pages I’ve seen in a long time) or on her Facebook page. I’ve said it before, but if you’re interested in reading supernatural fiction with a grown up edge, a good starting point is Natasha’s Season of the Witch. I’m also looking forward to reading Dark Prayer.