Tuesday, 25 November 2014

When Adults Grow Young

My latest novel, due out next year, began life as an adult novel. The subject is adult even though the protagonist is a sixteen year old boy.  Two years into the writing and on reflection I began to believe the subject of oppression and class struggle might be suitable for young adults as well as adults.  There was nothing else for it, I needed to read as many young adult books as I could lay my hands on.

I wanted to read only the best but I didn't know where to start.  I was staggered by the choice on offer outside the famous Hunger Games and Twilight series.  I asked for recommendation and my Goodreads friends were a great source.  Here is a small selection of some I have read in the past months.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

There are a lot of mixed reviews about this book and I can see why.  First off it would be easy to spoil the read by revealing too much of the story so I am going to say little other than it is about three rich cousins and their poor friend who always spend the summer together. A significant event occurs and everything changes.  It has a twist at the end which I had heard about and I spent far too long looking for clues and trying to work out what it could be. I shouldn't have.

There have been complaints that the writing style is choppy, annoying. I liked it, it was different and felt natural for the age of the narrator (17yrs)

The novel is short, pacey and filled with creepy tension and yet the author still finds room make some pretty heavy social comments and for this I give it four stars.


Kit Watson and his family return to the mining village where his ancestors lived and worked.  He is drawn into the childish game of Death in the wilderness of old pit workings and a story unfolds of friendship, death and the meaning of belonging.
Although this is a YA book it is very dark and well suited to an adult read.
The relationship between Kit and his grandfather is particularly well drawn.
The plot has touches of a Stephen King style but this is gentler and more thoughtful. This is the kind of book I wish I had written.

Skellig by David Almond

I read this in one sitting. A pace perfect fantasy, with unfolding family drama, lots of love and a little sprinkling of William Blake.  Loved it.

Clockwork, Or, All Wound Up by Philip Pullman

I picked this up from the library sale bin and read it right away. Philip Pullman is the master of children's' fiction. This reads like a fairy tale but is full of drunkenness and adults behaving badly. It is enhanced with very quirky illustrations and asides.  It is a short read and I loved being transported through the whole story in one sitting.

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

I really hated this book in the first part. I hated horse point of view, and the fact that the horse seemed to understand everything about the world. When he arrives in war torn France not only does he understand English but German and French too. Then I reminded myself who this book is aimed at and the message it is trying to get across.  I settled into the style and stopped being an adult critic.  That's when I started to enjoy it.
It might not be perfect, but what this book does well is show man's inhumanity to man and beast then counters that by showing man's humanity to both. I found the historical aspects of the Warhorses very interesting although I'm not sure how accurate they are.  The big message is about WW1 and how futile it was.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Finding Al Alvarez

A couple of weeks ago I was in London. A sweltering, tourist crowded, sweaty, dirty London.  I jumped on the number 24 bus at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road and within thirty minutes I reached Hampstead Heath. I have never been before, had only see it on films and TV Notting Hill, Smileys People.  I expected it to be like the other London Parks, manicured and prim but it's not, Hampstead Heath is wild.
I began my walk at Hampstead Railway Station and scuffed by feet uphill through rough stubble and newly cut grass.  Benches perched randomly on the hillside,  left for anyone willing to climb the slope to take in the breadth and beauty of the trees and the odd glimpse of the city.

Two competent dog walkers with twelve dogs between them seemed comfortable with the surroundings so I followed them for a bit then swung low to meet a well-made path. This took me to a causeway where two boys fished in a pond. Notices advised against disturbing the water in respect of the swimmers.


At the far end of the pool was a jetty behind which wooden huts huddled.  In the water I noticed a bald head heading toward a string of buoys about twenty five metres from the jetty.  An elderly gentleman, the only one in the water, reached the barrier and hugged it, taking in great whoops of breath. Bravo, I thought and before I had the chance to take out my camera, he was thrashing back the way he came.    This was the Mixed Pool.
The Mixed Pool with old man swimming

From here I climbed Parliament Hill where I was rewarded with the iconic view of London only previously seen on the small screen but I was then saddened to see a dejected English football supporter, draped in his flag, gazing with awe at his green and pleasant land; wondering, no doubt, where all his World Cup dreams had gone.

A poor wee soul on Parliament Hill
I followed the path down to Highgate, toyed with the idea of looking for Karl Marx's grave but in the end caught a bus back to Kings Cross.

Walking is hungry work so I stopped off at The Quakers Friends House café for lunch. This decision was impulsive. I had been passing the place every morning for the past week, it was close to my hotel and the menu on the board outside looked tempting.   And they had a bookshop!

The lunch can only be described as OK. A dry scotch egg with salad.  The bookshop was more interesting.  I am not religious but am interested in the different philosophies religions explore. This bookshop had many on offer but one book caught my eye.

Pondlife by Al Alvarez.   

I have been familiar with Al Alvarezs work for a number of years.  I always believed he was an American climber who was also an excellent writer. I have enjoyed many of his articles, stories and poems in various climbing magazines through the years. He wrote the introduction to the iconic short story collection The GamesClimbers Play.  I vaguely remembered he played poker.

I read the blurb about his previous publications, it turns out he is British and a writer and critic who climbs, how could I have got that so wrong?  The book was subtitled A Swimmers Journal;  he had added another activity to his already full portfolio.

I almost fainted with shock when I read the authors profile and saw his photo.  The book journals the last few years of the author's swims in pools at Hampstead Heath and charts his slow decline into old age. The photo shows an old man, bald head, and grey moustache above a rather pained smile.  I was convinced the man I saw only an hour before in the mixed pool was Al Alvarez.

The coincidence made me giddy. What made me go to those pools? I had no idea they were there. What made me go to the Quaker House? The only reason I picked up that particular book was I knew the name I thought he was an American climber!   It was weirder than weird.
Of course I had to buy the book. 

The journals begin in 2002 and charts Alvarez as he stumbles from his home near the Heath to the ponds for his swim. He swims all year round and along with a daily water temperature he lists the birds and the blossom, the changing seasons.  There is a real sense and love of the place. The shifting cast of characters are wonderful, fellow swimmers (mostly ex-athletes) and lifeguards. It is like an old boys club and very companionable. The author is pained by a bad ankle that plagues his walking and as the years spread over the pages he becomes more and more debilitated, suffering a stroke and many falls.  His frustration is heart breaking but I shy from feeling sorry for him because that is what he loathes most. By the end of the book his life is a constant battle against pain and his declining years.  This is an amazing insight into what we all must face one day; this mans struggles should give us the courage to face it with dignity.

The book only chronicles up to 2011 and by the end I began to doubt whether it was Al Alvarez I saw that day. I hope it was because it means he is still winning.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Guest Post by Alice-Catherine Jennings, Poet, Reader, Medievalist

Epic-mania in the Global Reading Group: How It All Began

We all have those books, right? The ones that are always on your “must read” list but never quite make it to the top—year after year.  Mine was The Inferno by Dante Alighieri. It seemed like every time I read a poem, a story, a novel, Dante’s name would pop up.  Good grief! There was even a reference to The Inferno on Mad Men.

It was time to get to the bottom of this Dante thing. Oh, I wasn’t totally clueless.  I had read snippets of it in high school. I knew it was about sin and punishment and that Hell had nine levels. Yet, what else was I missing? Why do so many writers refer back to this epic work of literature?

This would be the year, the year to read Dante. The timing was perfect. It was March 2013 and it was Lent.  I could begin now and end on Easter Sunday.  I had a deadline but I needed a support group. My memories of Dante weren’t favorable. I thought the reading would be a slog—something that one endures because it good for you, like getting your teeth cleaned.  I needed people to keep me accountable.

But where could I find these other readers? My family said, “No way” and close friends said they were busy. They had other books to read. It was time to clean their closets, file their nails.  I decided to look further afield, to mine my Facebook nation. I posted and posted and sent out invitations. At first, the response was tepid but steadily it grew.  

Forty-five! I could not believe it.  By the start date, my original idea had morphed into a literary salon of forty-five members. It was all so exciting. We would journey to Hell together, with Dante and Virgil (more on him later) as our guides.

We considered form, mythology and structure. The architects in the group gave us their version of the construct of Hell. We thought about the worst of the worst and whom we would put in Hell’s lowest circle. All in all, it was a terrific read.

At the end of month, the group asked, what’s next? “What’s next?” I never considered the reading group to be an ongoing thing. I just wanted to read Dante. Anyway, that’s how we got hooked on the classics, especially the epics. Dante led to Virgil and Virgil to Homer and Homer to Beowulf and so on. The list of future salons continued to grow—and, so too did the readership. For the Beowulf salon, there were over 65 members. The average group size, however, is 35.

At last count, there have been more than 350 participants (including many, many repeats) from 15 different countries worldwide.  Although I do not know everyone personally in the salons any longer, I do sense a personal connection to each and every reader.

What attracts folks to the classics? I imagine there are as many reasons as there are readers but I suspect there is a yen for an opportunity to reflect on the things that are elemental, universal and important—the things that make us human. And, the stories are good, really good.

Each month The Global Reading Group reads one classic work of literature. For the schedule and how to join, visit: www.alicecatherinej.com.

Alice-Catherine Jennings is a student in the MFA Program in Writing at Spalding University.  Her poetry has appeared in In Other Words: MeridaHawai’i Review, Penumbra, The Louisville Review, Boyne Berries and is forthcoming in First Literary Review East. She is the recipient of the U.S. Poets in Mexico 2013 MFA Candidate Award. Alice-Catherine divides her time between Austin, Texas and Oaxaca, Mexico.    

Monday, 21 April 2014

Epics on a Global scale

'Milton’s Paradise Lost and Seamus Heaney’s Translation of Beowulf have been neglected. My new challenge is to work on finishing the unfinished and immersing myself in the epics.'

This is a quote from my blog post dated 31st December 2013. Imagine my surprise when a week later I saw an offer on Facebook to join a Global Reading Salon set to read epics in 2014, the first of the selection being Beowulf. Of course I joined. 
And when I did join I found that Milton's Paradise Lost was on the calendar for March - perfect.

This closed group was created and is managed by Alice, a lady in Oaxaca, Mexico. So how does is work? Alice invites participants through her normal facebook links, you message her and she adds you to her closed reading groups. Each book has its own group so you do not have to read them all. There is four weeks allocated to read and comment on any particular epic.

About a week before reading commences, Alice posts some introductory information and invites the groups to introduce themselves to each other. She also sets out the reading itinerary, breaking the book into equal parts. Each week we are given a particular aspect of the book to focus on for example architecture, the role of women, heroism and that sort of thing. The group sizes could range from half a dozen to over thirty depending on the given book. Participants came from all over the globe although the discussions tended to be generated by the same few.

The thing I enjoy most about the Global Reading Group is the discipline of having to read a set amount each week. If I fall behind I work hard to catch up. It is invigorating to imagine people all over the world reading the same book as you, but I think the best part of the experience is the satisfaction I feel each time I finish what can sometimes be a very difficult read. Below are my reviews of the first three reads of 2014.

This is an epic poem written in Anglo Saxon sometime between seventh and tenth century. I thought the read would be heavy going but I was in the safe hand of the Seamus Heaney translation; beautiful flowing lyrical verse. The story is a rollicking good read. Poor Beowulf, not only does he have to slay a monster and monster mummy, but just when you think it's safe to take the chain mail off, a dragon appears. The reading group definitely enhanced the experience, with loads of online chat and additional information about the epic. I would recommend it.
Five Stars

This German Epic is not for the faint hearted.  It tells a very gruesome tale of love, lust, rape, murder, revenge and bitterness.  The story takes place between the lands of the Rhine and the Danube around 400AD and 600AD.  The most astonishing thing that struck me about The Nibelungenlied is the small value of life and the treatment of women, even those of noble birth. The armies' warriors were measured in thousands, many of them slaughtered. This is an interesting account of the nobility and changing fortunes of that period in time. Four Stars

This is one of the books I had sitting on my shelf for years and knew it would be good for me to read so I was happy the Global Reading Salon had it as the March read.  It wasn't what I expected which was a holy, holy poem about Adam and Eve and the creation.  God in the poem is scary, fierce and ruthless. And Satan has motives and seems quite rational at times. I read the poem aloud and enjoyed the beauty of the structure and language but I have to admit that I was often confused and lost concentration many times when the story spun off into different points of time, naming people and places I had no reference to.  I am going to give it four stars because it is a cracking poem and an immense body of work. Four Stars