Category Archives: Books
Her novels cover misogyny in the City, sexism, racism, fame culture and now, in Feral Youth, the summer riots of 2011. So it continues to amaze me that Harper Collins chose to market Polly Courtney’s books as chick-lit. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised for we live in a world where, more often than not, it’s the marketing department that makes crucial decision such as the title and the design of a book’s cover; a world where a literary agent once told me that my mistake was writing books for readers, when I should be aiming them at publishers. Thankfully this last attitude is still pretty rare.
Nevertheless, the traditional publishing world is heavily stacked against authors, especially first time authors. But even established writers are feeling the pinch. In this climate, and given the struggle many writers have to find a publisher, Polly’s decision to sack the mighty HarperCollins took courage, spirit and self-belief. She has never looked back.
Not only is Polly even more successful than she was before, she has become a pathfinder. By daring to take on a mighty publishing house she has shown the rest of us that it can be done. That we can publish and market our own books. That we don’t have to accept what the traditional publishers tell us is best for us. And, if you are not sure of the process, I urge you to read her piece in the Huffington Post, in response to an article by John Green. It contains one of the most succinct descriptions I have seen of how the two worlds of traditional publishing and self-publishing actually work.
Feral Youth is her sixth novel and her first since leaving Harper Collins. Its genesis was indeed the London Riots of 2011, though in fact these take up only a part of the book. What it does do is explore the causes of the disaffection. In the months following the riots Polly was surprised that no one seemed to be looking at the underlying causes, instead they were, as usual, laying the blame on ‘gangs and bad parenting’. That, she felt, was not the answer, so she decided to find out for herself.
Already a mentor at Kids Company, Polly spent the next two years going into schools and youth groups, getting to know these marginalised children as individuals and not simply as the ‘feral youths’ characterized by the tabloids and politicians. She wanted to discover what it would be like to be them. What, if anything, did they care about? What motivated them?
It wasn’t all straightforward. She had to contend with suspicion as to her own motives and how she was going to portray the youngsters in the book. It took time but gradually she was accepted. And once she was she found herself among a group of spirited, energetic, smart and positive young people. Youngsters who were light years away from the way they were portrayed in the media. But yes they were angry, for good reason. They were also, unexpectedly, political.
Feral Youth opens our eyes to a world that’s very different from the stereotypes we are so often presented with. It’s both moving and shocking. It grips from the first page, not simply because it’s a compelling read but because we are touched by the characters and in particular by 15-year old Alesha – ignored, confused, torn between two worlds. As we follow her story we are drawn in. Which one will she choose? Has she the strength to break with her past? Such is the power of the novel that we really mind.
Feral Youth is available in all good book shops from 26 June 2013, both paperback and e-book. It is priced at £8.99 / £1.99.
The launch party will be held in central London on 26 June 2013. For tickets and enquiries, please get in touch via the contact page.
“Courtney has an ability to breed empathy for an ethnic minority often subjected to negative stereotypes” — Metro
“Feral Youth is as compelling as it is horrifying. It lifts the lid on the lives of marginalised young people that the media demonises and the rest of us prefer to ignore.” Fiona Bawdon
“Feral Youth deserves to be her breakthrough book, the one that marks her out as a serious writer.”Katy Guest, The Independent
I only have eleven books on my phone at present. Not many, you may think, for someone who is such an avid reader. However, I do most of my reading at home, have bookshelves stuffed with everything from battered Penguins to unwieldy hardbacks and I also use the library. So far I have seen no need to get a Kindle, the phone is perfectly adequate.
Nevertheless it is a bit of a double-edged sword, so to speak. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say it is the technological equivalent to a Swiss Army knife. Not only does it have books on it but it also has Angry Birds and a notepad, radio and TV and Lord knows what else. So distracting. However, now that I have mastered the keyboard ( ironically touch keyboards are not good for touch typists like me) I try to do some writing when I’m commuting. So, one way or another, when I am out and about there’s not a lot of time for reading. Indeed, should I wish, I could have not eleven free books on my phone, not even one hundred and eleven for, currently, there are over 42,000 free books available for downloading through Project Gutenberg.
The aim of the project is “to encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks.” The oldest digital library in existence, it was founded by Michael Hart in 1971 and takes its name from Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press and moveable type. Run and sustained by volunteers, it digitises and archives cultural works and makes them available to anyone who wants them. They can be downloaded onto virtually any computer or phone. Michael Hart stated that his goal was “to provide as many eBooks in as many formats as possible for the entire world to read in as many languages as possible.” Another stated objective is to help spread public literacy: in that respect Gutenberg might be likened to a digitised version of the public library.
All books have to have copyright clearance before being added to the archive. Project Gutenberg claims no copyright of its own on the titles it publishes; most are distributed as pubic domain, according to U.S. copyright law, though there are some restrictions. Many of the books are out of copyright in any case. All eleven of ‘my’ books are out of copyright – among them the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Wuthering Heights and several works of Dickens.
I haven’t yet added any Shakespeare – though should I wish to do I’d be spoilt for choice. Not only regarding the amount of works available, but also the languages. If I was that way inclined I could read the Bard on my phone not just in English but also in French, in Catalan, in Esperanto and in Tagalog. A delightful name for the language spoken in the Philippines. However, what with the classics I have already, the pile of paperbacks beside the bed, the lure of the TV and radio not to mention those irritating but addictive birds I don’t see myself embarking on the Complete Works any time soon.
1. Elizabeth and Tess
When Elizabeth Martha Brown took an axe to her husband on 6th July, 1856, she neither knew, nor would she have cared, that she was to play a part in the writing of one of English literature’s most important works. Nor could the young apprentice who witnessed her public hanging have guessed that the sight of it would influence a novel he was to write more than thirty years into the future.
Elizabeth claimed to have discovered her husband on the doorstep of their cottage covered with blood, groaning that ‘the horse’ had kicked him. The fact that it took her two hours to go for help was, she insisted, because he had clung to her so tightly she couldn’t get away. By the time help arrived, he was dead.
No one believed her story about the horse. The horse was still in the field, its hooves manifestly lacking any traces of blood. The gate was shut and the halter hadn’t been touched. Elizabeth had claimed too that her clothes had been covered in blood but they couldn’t be found. The axe was missing too. And to top it all, the coroner found that the wounds couldn’t have been caused by a kick from a horse.
On 21st July 1856 Elizabeth was found guilty by the jury at Dorchester Crown Court, and later confessed to the murder. She was sentenced to a public hanging. Among the spectators was the young Thomas Hardy, at that time apprenticed to a local architect. He was deeply moved by Elizabeth’s stoicism, as she walked silently to her death. There was more.
One of the hangman’s duties was to tie the dress of females, to spare their modesty. On this occasion the hangman, Calcraft, forgot. He had to climb back up afterwards to do it. The whole episode gave a sexual charge to the event. To add to the drama it was raining so that the hood that covered Elizabeth’s head clung to her face, showing her features plainly for all to see.
When he wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles, nearly 35 years later, Hardy wasn’t telling Elizabeth’s story. The story of Tess is very different. Nevertheless Hardy has admitted that he was thinking of Elizabeth when he was writing the novel, he had in his mind those images of her public hanging, all those years ago. The sexual charge felt by the readers of Tess has its genesis there.
I am indebted to Steve Haste’s book, Criminal Sentences, for the facts in this post. It’s a wonderful full-length study of the ways in which true crime has influenced fiction, film and drama. It is well worth reading, full of fascinating information.
Crime as Entertainment was the title of my dissertation for the MA Writing at Sheffield Hallam. It’s a fascinating subject, which raises many ethical and moral questions as well as offering a wide variety of real and fictional stories. So I hope this may be just the first in an occasional series of posts on the subject.
Where should you write? How often should you write? Is there such a thing as writer’s block? Should you discuss your writing with others, while it’s still in progress? If you’re looking for answers, the best people to ask would be writers themselves. Right? Not necessarily. Writers are a contradictory lot, like people really. Of course they are people too but sometimes we appear to be rather a strange breed.
In a collection spanning over 20 years, Jon Winokur’s little book ‘Writers on Writing’ contains as many varied opinions on the subject as patterns in snowflakes. Well, maybe not that many but still, a lot. The collection was published in 1988 and is now out of print, I believe, but you can still get a copy on Amazon. One reviewer claims ‘this book stopped me from stopping writing’ and I must say that certainly strikes a chord.
When you’re starting to write, you get bombarded with advice. If this is coming from people you perceive as being more knowledgeable than you, who have been writing for ever who are, yikes, already published, it can be most confusing. Especially if you respect them and yet their suggestions don’t seem to work for you. Whenever I was stuck, when felt that the idea of me writing fiction was simply laughable, I’d phone one or two trusted writer friends. And I’d turn to this book.
The great thing about these quotes is that they are contradictory. The lesson? There is no ‘right’ way to write, no ‘right’ time of day, no set hours – no set anything. It’s just a matter of finding out what suits you best and doing it. Of course, at first, you don’t know what that is – so it’s a question of trial and error. I’m not suggesting that you don’t take advice. Of course it’s good to learn from others who have been there before you. Just remember that it’s not set in stone. Pick and choose. Take the bits that fit you and ignore the rest.
Isaac Asimov would write for 18 hours a day. Edward Albee got a splitting headache after only three or four. Samuel Johnson said one should write at any time of day. Henry Millar started after breakfast. Jack Kerouac preferred midnight to dawn (that figures). As to the process, Joyce Cary never wrote to an arranged plot, Dorothy Parker thought it all out first and then wrote sentence by sentence, revising she went. Hemingway also revised over and over again whereas Katherine Anne Porter wrote her stories in one sitting.
There is some consensus – virtually everyone agrees that you shouldn’t discuss a work in progress. Most writers revise and redraft, though some far more than others. On everything else – including motive, readers and reading. Ego, talent, work habits, technique – there’s a wide difference of opinion. Here’s just a few of them. They are chosen at random, except the first one and the last – two statements that I believe in wholeheartedly. And find immensely comforting.
“A writer is someone who writes, that’s all. You can’t stop it; you can’t make yourself do anything else but that.” Gore Vidal
“The first thing you have to consider when writing a novel is your story, then your story – and then your story.” Ford Maddox Ford
“Writing is pretty crummy on the nerves.” Paul Theroux
“If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.” Kingsley Amis
“I write books to find out about things.” Rebecca West
“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” Joseph Heller
“I don’t get writing blocks except from the stationers, but I do feel so sickened by what I write that I don’t want to go on.” Anthony Burgess
“If my books had been any worse I would not have been invited to Hollywood, if they had been any better I would not have come.” Raymond Chandler
“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” E.M.Forster
“Money to a writer is time to write.” Frank Herbert
James M. Cain tells a great story about his novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. A strange title, you might think, for a book about sex. It appears, though, that the manuscript was rejected so many times that when the rejection letters arrived, the postman rang twice. Now this does rather beg the question as to how the postman knew they were letters of rejection. It’s a great story and who am I to take issue with the likes of James M. Cain.
My information comes from Rotten Rejections, edited by André Bernard. It’s subtitled ‘The letters that publishers wish they’d never sent’ – and to give him his due, he does include rejections he sent out as well as some he received. Of course we all have the benefit of hindsight, even so the book is a great encouragement for those of us who’ve ever been rejected. I particularly dislike the cop-out – ‘it doesn’t fit our list’ but I’m in good company. The great Agatha Christie was subjected to that one for The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
There are so many gems in this book it’s hard to know what to include. So I’m leaving aside manuscripts that were rejected because they were, in their time, considered to be too racy or too sexy. Manuscripts submitted by DH Lawrence, Norman Mailer, W Somerset Maughan, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Hardy and Jacqueline Susann among others. Since I haven’t room for all of them I’m listing those that most appeal to me, on all sorts of levels. Some are well know, others less so. Here’s a selection.
Animal Farm, George Orwell. “ It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”
Crash, J.G. Ballard. “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”
The Bridge over the River Quai, Pierre Boulle. “A very bad book.”
Untitled Manuscript, Emily Dickinson. “Queer … the rhymes were all wrong. They are … generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
Northanger Abbey, 1818. Jane Austen. “We are willing to return the manuscript for the same advance we (paid) for it.”
The Lord of the Flies, William Golding. “It does not seem to us that you have been wholly successful in working out an admittedly promising idea.”
The White Goddess, Robert Graves. “I have to say that it was beyond me and failed to stir any spark of interest …”
Catch-22, Joseph Heller. “I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. It is about a group of American Army officers stationed in Italy, sleeping (but not interestingly) with each others’ wives and Italian prostitutes, and talking unintelligibly to one another … constitutes a continual and unmitigated bore.
The Spy who came in from the Cold, – John Le Carré “You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.”
A Dance to the Music of Time, Antony Powell. “… a 350,000 word monstrosity that may not be any more saleable than its parts have proved.”
Man and Superman – George Bernard Shaw. “ … he will never be popular in the usual sense of the word, and perhaps scarcely remunerative.”
The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells. “ An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would take … “
Look Homeward Angel, Thomas Wolfe. “Terrible.”
A River runs through it, Norman MacLean. “These stories have trees in them.”
That last one is my absolute favourite, it’s so weird – mad as cheese. Apart from the rejections themselves, the book is full of anecdotes by or about writers such as George Bernard Shaw, Steven King, Emily Dickenson, James Joyce and Beatrix Potter. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was self published in the first instance, though the publisher who’d rejected it later had a change of heart. And knew he was onto a sure thing! Not much change there then! But take heart. There’s no disgrace in being rejected, especially in such illustrious company.
I took loads of books out of the library to cover me over Christmas, and I still haven’t read them all. I’m very short of time this week, more so than usual, because my blog writing time has been taken up by a long letter to the Chairman of John Lewis – part complaint, part praise but that’s maybe for another time.
I thought I’d just do a quick list and even quicker reviews of my some of my recent reading. I originally set out to write about nine books, but am stopping at five as once again, I’m running out of time.
I’d been really looking forward to reading these first three books – I was thrilled to discover that there were some books by my favourite authors that I had yet to read.
Tigerlily’s Orchids – Ruth Rendell. One of my favourite authors, though I prefer her when she writes as Barbara Vine. This book is more Vine than Rendell, similar in that respect to The Keys to the Street, but that’s where the comparison ends. Some interesting characters but some I soon tired of. Overall it was disappointing, especially as the main premise was so obvious and easy to spot.
The Vault – Ruth Rendell. Much hyped and reviewed. Linked to her earlier novel A Sight for Sore Eyes. I knew I should have re-read that book first but, although I have nearly all the Rendell and Vine books, I couldn’t find it and was too impatient to wait. I don’t generally like the Wexford books; this was no exception. Since I couldn’t remember much about the first book, I spent the whole time wondering when I was going to be reminded of the earlier crime. That didn’t happen until the very end. I don’t know if that made it better or worse for someone who hadn’t read the first book.
Blue Monday – Nicci French. This was also much hyped but with justification. I love the fact that, like most of the French books, this one is set in London. At first the plot seemed fairly pedestrian – small boy goes missing and at the same time a psychiatrist is faced with a patient whose dreams seem to indicate some guilty knowledge. But the plot deepens. The characters are very well drawn. It’s difficult to end a book well, especially a mystery/detective/thriller. This one has the most wonderful twist in the tail, which makes for a great ending.
The next two authors were unknown to me although I don’t know how I missed Derby Day as it was on the Booker shortlist.
Derby Day – D.J. Taylor. Subtitled ‘A Victorian Mystery’ this lives up to the description in spades. The book feels authentic from page one. I could really put myself in the scene. D.J. Taylor brings the era alive, I really related to the characters and felt as if I would understand them as easily as I would someone living today. I haven’t even finished this book – I’m about three quarters of the way through and am just as engaged as I was at the beginning. From looking at the chapter headings I know there are still some surprises to come – and we haven’t even reached Derby Day yet.
Any Human Face – Charles Lambert. The late and much missed Beryl Bainbridge said ‘Charles Lambert is a seriously good writer.’ I totally agree. The book moves from the mid-80s to 2008 and back again, with a side step into the early 60s. Beautifully put together, each section revealing a little bit of the story, until they combine to show the links between apparently unrelated crimes. This is always a brave thing to do as the author must rely on the reader staying with it even though this may demand some patience. The setting is Rome, but a part of Rome the tourists don’t see, the seamy fringe of Rome’s gay scene. The characters are engaging especially the colourful and poignant Birdman.
The material in this post comes from my old website. I had always meant to update it but never got round to it. Now that the new website is up and running and the blog is too, I think this stuff is better on the blog. It’s a totally random selection of some of the books I have enjoyed.
Ridley Walker – Russell Hoban. A must-read for anyone intrigued by language.
Beloved -Toni Morrison. Among the most exquisite writing you’ll find anywhere. An emotionally searing book.
His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman. A brilliant, un-put-downable trilogy. The very best storytelling, tangled up with metaphysics.
Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak. A children’s story, also much loved by adults and artists. Extraordinary imagination and amazing illustrations recently made into a film that, for once, is more or less faithful to the brilliant original.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – John Berendt. Fantastic, dark, intriguing, factual. A cross between a travelogue and a crime mystery. Makes you long to visit Savannah.
Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. An astonishing debut novel for children, but a great read for grown ups too. London on wheels. Yes, you did read that correctly. Read the book.
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things – Jon McGregor. Another wonderful debut novel. Beautifully written, spare and compelling. The tension is almost unbearable. And he’s written two more since then – both different, both amazing!
The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx. One of my bibles. A book I return to again and again for its power and its poetry, its characters and its quirkiness.
Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman. The effect of mass media on society. An instructive, if chilling, book.
A Dictionary of Angels – Gustav Davidson. Perfect dipping in material. Did you know there is an angel over vegetables? And an angel who returns small birds to their owners?
More to come. Watch this space.