Rest in Peace, Robert Hardy

Robert Hardy was in Harry Potter. That’s what a lot of young people will remember him for.

But I will forever remember Sunday evenings, and Siegfried Farnon.

Sunday evenings were unmissable. I used to spend a lot of time with elderly next door neighbours (I’ve spoken about them before), and when I first knew them, they had only an old radiogram to listen to the Archers on. Then they got themselves a black and white TV, and All Creatures Great and Small became a regular part of the Sunday ritual – round there around 3pm, playing board games, dinner with them, and then watching TV before I headed back home.

The programme had an extra impact on me because it was about that time that I came across the books as well. Our teacher at school, in what would now be year 6, the year before moving to secondary school, would read us bits of All Creatures Great and Small, and I remember getting very upset because a boy in class had his own copy of If Only They Could Talk, the first book in the series, and I desperately wanted to read it. These were among the first books written for adults that I’d come across in my own reading.

I picked them up years later and looked at them, considering whether to share them with my children, and was astounded to see just how grown-up they were – no thought of reading something like that to 10 and 11 year olds these days!

So Siegfried Farnon, and Tristran Farnon and James Herriot, were all part of my childhood. Rest in Peace, Robert Hardy, and thank you for bringing Siegfried to us.

 

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Still writing – but what?

I’ve been bad at updating here lately, haven’t I? I’ve been ploughing away at my own writing, but at the same time wrestling with the question of publishing and reviews and marketing.

I’ve contemplated adding book reviews to this site, because everyone’s chasing book reviews. But I do so much work giving feedback to writers directly that I find it difficult these days to give public feedback. And somehow, it feels different reviewing a self-published book than a trad published one.

But should it?

Should we treat with kid gloves those authors who choose to rush their work out without any kind of quality control? Should they be treated any differently from those who have been published traditionally? Should we be criticising any creative work at all? After all, just because a writer is traditionally published doesn’t mean they don’t care about negative reviews.

Decades ago, a writer would pour their life into a novel, and then devote more of their life to sending it out, revising it, sending it out, revising it, until eventually they either gave up or found someone willing to invest in it. The investor would then pour more resources into it, and produce a polished piece of work.

Now it’s far too easy to type “The End”, upload the file and hit publish. There’s no incentive to keep reworking a piece until you find someone to invest in it – just publish yourself, cutting corners to avoid expense, and then move on to the next thing.

The end result is that there is a lot of utter rubbish out there. Some is of very poor quality and should never have seen the light of day. Some is of better quality but has been let down and not polished as it should be.

And then there is the very occasional gem.

I’ve had a real slump in reading recently. I’ve struggled to find anything that holds my attention long enough to get to the end. I got round it by reading print books rather than kindle books. Partly this is because the physical book is a better experience, and partly because if I buy a book at the supermarket, I can be reasonably sure of its quality.

So I guess that any book review site that helps to wade through the poor stuff and pick out the good has got to be useful, right?

But should it only publish reviews of the good stuff? Or should it report on any poor stuff that it finds? And is that fair on the author, who might be deliberately cutting corners and taking advantage of readers, but might be a genuine author who has done their best but fallen for one of these “editors” who claim they can edit an entire book for peanuts, and then just put it through the spell check?

Or do we take the attitude that any author who isn’t aware that they need to engage an editor, cover designer etc and ensure they put out high quality work deserves to be told that publicly?

And so the end result is: I don’t know. Would you be interested in another book review site? Would you be interested in reading reviews of poor books? Do you think it’s fair on the author? Do you think only the good ones should receive publicity?

And how do you cope with the flood of available books out there?

 

Seldom or rarely

As a child, I was a voracious reader. Although I could not read before starting school, it didn’t take long before I was devouring book after book. I remember my first Famous Five book – it was book eight of the series, where the children are kept prisoner within the gardens of a large house. Dick escapes by hiding in the boot of a car and sneaking out, then climbing out of the boot of the car and running, stiffly and painfully, to the nearest police station, while being chased by the bad guy.

I remember one afternoon when I read two Secret Seven books in the one reading session.

I remember one of the Famous Five books, where it said that George seldom watched television.

That particular experience stands out for me, because I had to ask what “seldom” meant. I was told it meant “rarely”. That confused me, because I found it hard to understand the point of having two words that meant exactly the same thing.

I guess that was my first real experience of the wonderful, complex, confusing world of the English language.

Another reading first was Saint Overboard, a book by Leslie Charteris. I must have been around 9 or 10 years old. My father was always reading Saint books. I imagined they must be some sort of religious books. Then one day I was waiting for the bathroom and sat on the stairs. Next to me was a copy of Saint Overboard, my father’s latest read. I idly picked it up and read the first couple of pages.

I became utterly and completely hooked.

I’ve looked back at those pages since, and I’m not sure what drew me to them, unless it was just the sheer magic of discovering that a book written for adults could be just as easy and entertaining to read as books written for children.

Regardless of why I found the book so magical, I kept reading that one, read the others in my father’s possession, and for the next few years would hunt down any more in the series that I could find. When visiting secondary schools, when it was time to choose where to spend the next seven years of my life, I was happy with the school chosen because I found in their library a couple of Saint books I hadn’t yet read.

I still have a big box of Saint books upstairs, and Simon Templar is still my favourite fictional character. I never really got on with the TV series, and the movie that they attempted to make recently was an absolute farce, having nothing in relation to the book character other than the name.

Books are magic, and kids who don’t read for pleasure are missing out on so much. I’m glad to say that all our children (who are no longer children!) have grown up enjoying reading.

I don’t read quite as much these days; or at least, having achieved my childhood dream of being paid to read, I’m a lot more fussy over what I read for pleasure. It’s far rarer now for me to become so involved in a book that I’m swept along, forgetting everything but the words on the page. As a writer, I’m constantly analysing the books I do read, trying to figure out the spell that keeps me reading and involved.

But every so often a gem comes along. And I’m grateful.

 

I smuggled the book out under my coat

I had a spare half hour this afternoon, so I wandered into the local library, a place where I spent a large part of my childhood, and which opened up the world to me. I don’t often go there these days, but I wandered around looking at books on the shelf, passing time, and in the end I picked one up, sat down in a chair and started reading.

It wasn’t a fiction book; as a child I would only ever read fiction, and couldn’t understand my best friend who would only ever read non-fiction, but I have a whole pile of fiction books waiting to be read, and wouldn’t dare pick up another. This was a book called How Not to be Wrong: the Hidden Maths of Everyday Life. I teach or tutor maths on occasion, and I’ve always been interested in how numbers work and how maths is all around us – one of my pet hates is the “I haven’t had to use algebra all day today” meme – and so I started reading the introduction.

In the end, I took the book to the machine, fished out my library card and checked the book out (you don’t even have to see a librarian these days), but discovered that I was almost hiding the book away as I took it out of the library.

Why did I feel so guilty about it? Part of the problem is that I currently read for part of my living. I read manuscripts and give detailed feedback. I get free books in return for reviews, through the Amazon Vine programme. And I have a pile of books of my own choice that I’d also like to read. So adding another to the pile feels like extravagance.

There aren’t enough hours in the day already. How can I just add something else to the pile?

I guess, because I need to relax. I need to enjoy myself occasionally. I need to read widely in order to do my job – both the reading and the writing part – as well as I can. And as this is non-fiction, I’m not going to constantly picking plotholes in it.

And it’s also rather enlightening and interesting, and maybe I’ll learn a lot, and maybe what I learn will help me to teach maths better, because I’ll have a deeper understanding of how it does integrate with real life. As to the algebra – each time you work out what your change should be from a money transaction, you’re using algebra, because algebra is just making explicit the rules that numbers follow, which is that if a+b=c, then c-a=b and c-b=a.

 

Reading is different now

In my childhood I would plunge into the world inside a book, to emerge hours later. As I grew older, that magic remained but weaker; I would read while cooking, while on the train, when doing all sorts of other things, but just sitting reading was not always a possibility.

Over the past couple of years things have changed. Now I make a living out of reading, one way or another. Either I’m reading stories to check for sense, writing style and technique, and making comments throughout, or I’m going through every detail checking for errors and correcting them. Either way, reading is slow and sometimes painful, and there is usually some sort of conversation between me and the writer.

Even reading books for pleasure isn’t quite the same; as a member of Amazon Vine, I receive books and other products in exchange for an honest review of them, so even when I’ve chosen a book and am reading it for pleasure, I’m mentally composing a review, thinking of phrases to describe what I think of it, working out how many stars I want to give it, and sometimes reading on when I might have otherwise let it drift out of my attention.

Just occasionally, I choose a book and pay for it, and then I can read it purely for pleasure. But even that has changed lately. Now I’m thinking about the words and phrases used, how the characters and situations are built, what in the story keeps me interested.

My latest read is even worse, as it’s written by someone I know. I have no obligation to review it. There will be no conversation with the author as to why she wrote something a certain way, or introduced this storyline here, or chose to handle the characters that way. But it’s still not something I can just read and enjoy, because I’m also examining her description, her character development, her handling of multiple timelines, and trying to figure out some of her secrets. And I’m feeling inadequate, because I recognise the qualities in her writing that are lacking from mine, and also inspired, because if she can do it why can’t I?

And so reading has taken on a whole new dimension for me. It’s impossible these days to just sit and enjoy a story with no desire to analyse it. Mostly, I’m okay with that, because the change has brought its own benefits.

But I do miss that utter absorption I used to have before I was so aware of all the writing skills involved and busy trying to master them myself.

 

Reading as a writer

A few years ago, I watched a programme about adult literacy. An educator took on a few adults who were illiterate and set out to help them master the world of words. He was determined that he was not going to give up on them, as it appeared their teachers had, and would figure out what was stopping them from reading and open up the world of words for them.

They were an assorted bunch, of different ages, and with different problems, ranging from not having had the support they needed at home to help them practise to having real issues with shape and rotation of letters. With one particular woman, they resorted to having her make letters in plasticine, as she discovered that only by physically experiencing the shape and feel of the letters could she remember them and learn them.

By the end of the programme, they could all cope with basic reading, but their reactions were mixed. One woman was heartbroken over all the time she had lost, and all the books she had not read, while another had a very surprising reaction: she was furious. She felt that by being able to decode all the words around her, she had been deprived of peace of mind. She yearned to go back to the days when she could walk down the street without being aware of all the letters and words.

I find it difficult to imagine not being able to read; in fact I’m addicted to reading, being unable to pass text without stopping to read it. I only realise just how addicted I am when I see something that I can’t quite read, and start feeling extremely twitchy and uncomfortable until I’ve moved closer or found some other way to deal with it.

But my reading has changed greatly over the past few weeks. Now that I’m partway through writing a novel, my reading is influenced by my writing. This has taken the form of reading books with similar themes, to discover how the book copes with the switch from the real world to a fantasy world, or describes a computer game, and is moving on to more general writing issues: now when I read I’m asking myself how much I’ve learned about the character, or the setting, or the world; why I’m interested in that specific character; how the author makes what could be a nasty character more sympathetic, or how he changes voice when he changes viewpoint; how he sets up an impossible situation, and then bends the rules to solve the problem; why something is introduced in a certain way.

Just like the woman who learned to read, there’s no going back. As a proofreader, I find myself distracted by silly errors, because they interfere with the decoding of the text, but as a writer I also find myself questioning the plot, and how the author has planned things, and how he has drawn us in to the world and the characters.

There are more practical issues too: how many characters? How long are the chapters? How does he jump from story arc to story arc? How do we keep up with which arc we’re on? Why does he tell that scene from that POV? And the very basic issues of whether the plot makes sense and if the characters are believable.

Sometimes this new awareness makes life harder; it’s difficult to find a book that really engages, because I’m too easily distracted by the writing. And if I do find a book with a good writing style, then there’s the feeling of inferiority, that envy that I feel when admiring someone else’s eloquence and wanting it for myself.

One thing I’m becoming more and more aware of is that there are two dimensions to storytelling: there’s the story itself, and the storytelling skills. I’ve read gripping stories where the writing style is lacking, and I’ve read books where the writing is strong but the story itself lacks pace and structure.

And then just occasionally I come across a book where both meet. Where a strong story is told by a good storyteller. Where the words flow on the page and the story pulls you along until you can’t resist.

And oddly, that’s where I often slow down, where I find I read a few pages, or a chapter or so, then put the book down, then pick it up later to continue. It’s as though I’m enjoying the book so much that I can’t bear to get to the end of it.

It doesn’t often happen, sadly, and it happens far less frequently than it used to in my childhood. Has my new awareness come between me and the book world? Or is it just an inevitable part of growing up, that reality prevents us really getting absorbed in a book?

Either way, I feel my reading has taken on a new dimension recently. And I really must get back into the habit of writing regularly as well, a habit built so well during November and then lost in the scramble of December.

 

My sister’s bookshelf

Have you ever been stuck somewhere away from home, with no access to your normal stash of books? That happened to me sometimes while growing up. I had my own bookshelves, full of Enid Blyton books and a whole load of other, similar books, but on a few occasions I found myself staying at my sister’s house and looking for something to read.

My sister is several years older than me, and her taste in books was far more sophisticated than mine, but still I would read anything at a pinch, and I found myself reading a few of her books that left a lasting impression on me.

The most fun was the novelisation of the series Alias Smith and Jones. My mother’s love of John Wayne has left me with a deep ingrained hatred of westerns, but the fun of the Alias Smith and Jones book was enough to keep me reading, until the book became a firm favourite and I would imagine myself adventuring with them.

The biggest book I’d ever read – and it kept that accolade for years – was Watership Down. Even today, everything I think I know about wild rabbits comes from that book, and I frequently remind myself that chances are the “facts” I remember were made up for the purposes of the book. But still, through it I was introduced to the world of fantasy and talking animals in an adult book for the first time, and Watership Down became a firm favourite, being read over and over again.

The book that terrified me the most was Day of the Triffids. From the opening passage, where the narrator awakens in a hospital with bandages over his eyes, and the world around him is quiet and unresponsive, I was gripped by this tale, and I distinctly remember having nightmares over it. Again, this book has become a favourite, and has been read time and again.

Three books that I might never have chosen to read, had I my usual favourites around, but each in their way had a big impact on me, broadening my horizons and stimulating my imagination.

 

Conspiracy theories

One of my first jobs on leaving school was in a small printshop, back in the days when home computers were very rare and no-one had their own printer, let alone photocopier. One task that I sometimes had to do for a particular customer was to take a booklet apart, photocopy all the pages and then bind each copy together. She often came in for two copies of this booklet or five copies of that or three copies of another.

I was the junior in the place, and was told by one of the older members of staff not to read the booklets, but they spoke in vain; I’m a compulsive reader, and couldn’t resist taking a peek as I worked.

I’ve no idea to this day who the person was, or what organisation they were part of, or why they needed all these booklets or where they came from, but I learned many interesting theories.

This was where I first learned about the mysterious Men in Black – those men who would turn up at someone’s house after they had seen something that could be extraterrestrial in origin, and would demand they keep quiet about it. Their visit, of course, would be somewhat counter-productive, since it served to prove that something really had happened. There were two or three different Men in Black books, and I would become fascinated by the stories of encounters.

I also learned about the hollow earth theory – the evidence was convincing to my eighteen-year-old self: in the sixties, when there were several nuclear blasts, there were also several UFOs seen. Since all the UFOs arrived at the same sort of time as the nuclear explosions, and travel from any other planet would take time, the UFOs must have all come from our own planet, where they live inside the earth and access their world via holes in the north and south pole; basically our world is doughnut-shaped.

I think this is where I was also exposed to the idea that we as a species came from another planet, that we travelled here on a ship and displaced the natives to become the dominant species.

It was a fun time, before the internet, where rumours and theories were much slower to travel, and communication generally was slower and more personal.  And my mind was irrevocably marked by those sneak reads.

 

I miss reading

As a child, I was always reading. I remember one time when I was around seven years old, when I sat and read through two famous five books in one afternoon. I chose my secondary school on the basis of the books in the library. I was known as a bookworm, and was a regular visitor to the local library.

Now I earn a living from reading. I help writers shape their stories and I check them over for errors and confusion. I spend most of my days reading, in one form or another.

And yet I really struggle to read for pleasure these days. It seems that after spending my days being hyper-critical of what I read, it’s hard to switch off and simply enjoy a story. Those books that drag me in so I can’t bear to put it down are few and far between, and so many times I’ll start a book and lose interest halfway through.

It’s not just the day job; I think the switch to electronic reading has a lot to do with it as well. I read on my ipad, which means that not only do I not have a physical copy of a book to see and remind me, but there are so many other things I can do on the pad that I simply forget to read.

There are so many books around these days. Perhaps that’s another part of the problem. So many stories, and yet the quality is often an issue, particularly as the same subject matter is dealt with over and over again in different ways.

I’m working my way through the futurelearn writing course, and that lays emphasis on not only writing but but on reading, and particularly reading with a writer’s eye.

So that’s reading with an editor’s eye, reading with a proofreader’s eye and reading with a writer’s eye. I just long for the sort of book that I get to enjoy for its own sake, reading with a reader’s eye. I’m going to make a real effort this week, and see how far I get.

How much reading do you do? What’s the best book you’ve read recently? Have your reading habits changed as you’ve got older, or as electronic books have become more popular? How quick are you to drift away from books that don’t catch your attention?

 

Storytime at school

Hearing the new children’s laureate talking about her aim to encourage storytelling at school and membership of libraries made me think back to my days at school, particularly primary school. We always seemed to have a class book on the go, with a few minutes here and there spent listening to the story. The first ones I can remember was from a teacher in what would now be year 3, who loved Rupert Bear. She had a collection of annuals, and she would read them to us, but with a twist: the stories were told in three ways, with images, with traditional stories and with rhyming couplets, and she would read out each rhyming couplet to us minus the final word, which we would then have to guess/fill in. Mostly it was obvious from the context and the rhyme, but other times it was a challenge. Either way, it was a way of engaging all of us in storytime.

Another teacher once read Stig of the Dump to us. I still associate that book with being read out in class and having to listen; as a bookworm, I was always very happy to read them myself, but still the pleasure of sitting listening brings back pleasant memories.

Our teacher in what would now be year 6, the last year at Junior School, read the James Herriot books to us. Again, I was totally entranced, and loved the stories about the different animals. This was about the same time as the TV series was on, and I gladly got my hands on the other books in the series to read as well – probably my first official introduction to an adult book rather than a children’s book.

At secondary school we would read a book together, which meant each person in turn would be expected to read out a page or two. I would usually try to read to myself far enough ahead that the voice wasn’t a distraction, because by then I was too impatient to listen. One book I remember this way was a book called The Gift, which featured a boy called David who was telepathic.

When my own children grew to the age where I wanted them to eat at the table but they didn’t want to wait until their Dad came home late in the evening, I got into the habit of sitting reading to them while they ate. We enjoyed many a book that way: after watching a TV series about life as a pioneer we read Little House on the Prairie, we worked our way through the Dark is Rising series, a few other fantasy books like Garth Nix, Adventure books like Swallows and Amazons and far too many others to mention. It was always fun to debate what book to read next (incidentally I did once try to interest them in James Herriot, but despite being of similar age to when I heard it, they just found it too hard and were not interested, sadly).

Even as an adult I love it when hubby agrees to read to me in bed – one night our sons had to knock on our bedroom door and tell us to be quiet as he’d got too carried away – Pusey Ogg was the guilty party, I seem to remember, yelling “Wanna soldier! Wanna soldier!” The only problem comes when I fall asleep – as I usually do – and the next night we have to figure out how far I actually remember.

In short, my love of reading is mixed with a love of listening to stories, and I’m glad that there’s going to be a push to encourage children to listen to whole books in a large group again; there’s no finer way to encourage a love of books.