My Personal Booker Awards

This award is passed around from author to author/other bloggers so that they too, can share their top five books. The idea is the old desert island thing; which five books would you take with you (assuming they’re in a water tight box).

Having been set this challenge by my friend, the lovely Mr Mike Holley (check him out ) I have been in a terrible quandary all week. Five. I ask you – how on earth do I narrow down my long list of favourites to FIVE? Whatever I leave off will feel like a betrayal. It feels utterly wrong to NOT include something by Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens,  the Brontës, John Irving, Ian Banks, Stuart Maconie, Bill Bryson, Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Rose Tremain, John Steinbeck, Lynley Dodd or Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Ok so Lynley Dodd and the Ahlbergs may not have written “novels” but they’ve produced some of my all-time favourite books OF ALL TIME. And probably the ones that I’ve read and re-read more than any others. If you have children you will understand. If you don’t, I urge you in all earnestness to read the entire “Hairy McClary from Donaldson’s Dairy” back catalogue and anything, no, make that EVERYTHING by the Ahlbergs.

Anyway, I can only apologise to all of my literary heroes who didn’t make the cut today and will excuse myself by saying that it was too difficult to choose a particular favourite novel from their portfolio of masterpieces. I’m also assuming that I will be given the “Complete Works of William Shakespeare” as a “free pass”. I know they are plays and poems rather than “books” but I would throw my dummy out of the pram and not play at all if I couldn’t  take that. And just like my nominator, if I were to think about this on another day I would almost certainly come up with a different list. But here goes … for the moment at least.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

“How predictable” I hear you yawn. The reason this heads my list and no doubt that of a very large percentage of the reading world is because the characters are beautifully, effortlessly realised and the story told simply and without artifice. Scout’s innocence and naivety perfectly counter the ignorance and prejudice. Poetic, amusing, even scary at times, it is ultimately deeply moving. Atticus Finch is a contender for my favourite ever fictional hero, for his nobility, integrity and strength of character. What a role model. And in my opinion, Gregory Peck was perfectly cast in the marvellous film adaptation. If ever a book deserved the title “classic” this is it. I love it dearly.

The Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

I was profoundly affected by this book when I first read it at the age of 17. I know it tends to divide people. There are many who dislike it because the main theme is depression and because nothing much happens.  But I am deeply fond of this book because of the emotional punch it packs and the empathy I felt for troubled teenager Holden Caulfield when I was a similar age. He’s fucked up but I understood him and knew that I would be too if I had to go through the same things that he did. I think that Salinger does a brilliant job of getting inside the head of a sad and lonely young man.

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

This actual Booker Prize winner is another that leaves me utterly stunned, with the lyrical beauty of the prose and the heartbreaking tragedy of the story. I love the sing-song language and the wonderful evocative descriptions of India in 1969. There are sections that are more like poetry than prose and I want to read them aloud to better appreciate the words. One of those novels that makes you despair of writing even a single sentence as beautiful. Read it and weep.

Skellig – David Almond

I bought this book, without knowing anything about it, from Waterstones, in a temporary promotional section called “Life-changing Books”. I can’t say that it actually did change my life but it definitely stayed with me for a very long time after reading it (and much, much more that the two others I bought at the same time). A more contemporary setting than my other choices but with a brilliant, magical twist. I was riveted and devoured it in a single sitting. I was convinced that it was all going to end in tears and it did – but with less of the sad kind this time. Bloody brilliant.

His Dark Materials Trilogy – Philip Pullman

Ok so I’m cheating a teeny-weeny bit here but you do need to read all three books to appreciate the full splendour of the story.  This was recommended to me by the young daughter of some friends of ours and I will be eternally grateful to her (thanks Ashleigh!). It may be aimed at children / young adults but the subject matter is anything but childish. Thrilling, philosophical, magical and emotionally strong stuff. I cried at numerous points, (have you noticed a pattern here?) even on a second reading a few years later. Whatever you do, do not be tempted by the film version (“The Golden Compass”) of the first book (“Northern Lights”). It looks beautiful but has little of the heart and (ironically given one of the main themes) none of the soul of the book.

So that’s my list, this week at least. In reading back through my choices just now I have spotted another (genuinely unintended) recurring theme. Aside from the fact that every single one made me cry, each describes the world from childhood memories or actual point of view of a young adult or child. Well that’s given me something to ponder…

Apparently I’m now supposed to nominate 5 fellow authors/bloggers but I’m fairly new to this and still making writing friends (!) but these guys might like to be nominated:

Rick Mallery –

Dennis McHale –

Roger Kirkham –

Looking forward to your desert island books guys…

Party Animal: Reflections (or post mortem?)

Having finally posted my first short story last week I  thought I might offer up my a few thoughts and observations about the actual process of writing it. If you haven’t read “Party Animal” yet,  scroll down to the previous post and do so first to avoid spoilers!

  1. Writing fiction is much harder than writing memoirs and general brain dumps … Coming up with an idea and a narrative arc with a beginning, middle and end is tough. I know that the plot of “Party Animal” was not particularly original but I wanted the experience of writing a short story and was inspired by all of the unavoidable  pre-Halloween hype. Hopefully the variation on an old plot was told well enough to be worth reading still.
  2. He said, she said… I struggled with the dialogue. My hubby thought that it was quite good and “naturalistic” but it didn’t feel that way writing it. For a start I had to remind myself of the basic grammatical rules for writing speech and more than once had to grab the nearest novel to see how it was done. I suspect that dialogue is one of those writing muscles that I need to exercise and that the reason I found it so hard is because it doesn’t generally come up much in the writing I do for my day job. Reports, presentations, instructions and business comms messages have to be factual, objective and unambiguous so I’m  bit rusty on the whole written conversation thing  :-/
  3. Exposition and loose ends… Another thing that I wrestled with was how much I should spoon-feed the reader and how much I ought to leave them to ponder. Being an anally retentive sort of person I have a pet hate for loose threads and (continuing the metaphor if I may) I tied myself in knots several times trying to ensure that I didn’t leave the reader saying “hang on a minute, you mentioned this earlier and now there’s no explanation”. For example, I felt that I had to conclude the problem of  the lost report at the beginning which sets the scene for her bad day, and to mention what happens to her clothing during the metamorphosis etc.  Tiny and seemingly irrelevant details but these are the sort of things that wind me up whether I’m reading, or watching a film…anyone else really bugged by the lack of explanation as to how the hell James Bond survived being shot and then falling a hundred feet off a bridge in “Skyfall”???  I can still spot a half dozen little things in “Party Animal” that I failed to explain properly. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe I should trust the reader to plug the gaps. I’d be interested to know what you think – is it just my obsessive compulsive tidiness or do loose ends bug you too? Which of mine did you spot?
  4. It all takes much longer than I thought… My story was only around 2500 words long but it took me an age and I missed my target publication date by 4 days.  I had wanted to post it just before Halloween but working full time and trying to write in between maintaining a family life and managing domestic admin in the evenings and at weekends is not easy. Excuses, excuses. Next time I will set myself a more realistic deadline.

Having said all of that, it was still fun to write and a great learning experience. If I can come up with any more ideas for a good yarn I will definitely have another go. In the interim I have a backlog of other stuff to write about first and lots of research to do so I’d better get a wriggle on.

Party Animal (a short story)

OK so I’m a little late for a seasonal story – sorry folks! I simply ran out of time. Next week I thought I might tell you about the process I went through to write it as it was actually an interesting exercise… if you’re a bit geeky like me anyway ;-). Please read, hopefully enjoy and do feel free to give me your constructive criticism.


She stared despondently at her screen and sighed deeply. The file was there alright but the time stamp confirmed her worst fear,  that all of the changes she had made to her presentation since lunch were lost and gone forever. The application had stalled and crashed just a few minutes ago and failed to auto-recover her file. She wanted to cry but swore quietly under her breath instead.

“You alright Jen?” Matt enquired, peering at her from over the low partition that separated their desks. “Not really. I’ve just lost three hours worth of work and it’s my own bloody fault – I hadn’t saved it for ages. Colin needs this by tomorrow morning so I’m going to have to stay late. Again.” He grimaced sympathetically just as his phone started to ring, “Bummer. Gotta take this call, sorry Jen”

She exhaled yet another deep sigh and gazed out of the window. All week it had rained relentlessly and  the heavy,  leaden skies matched her mood.  This was just another in the series of crappy events that she had endured over the last couple of months.  Her Dad’s cancer returning, the sale on the flat falling through, an important meeting missed through a cancelled train and one row after another with Phil about her working hours. On one occasion he’d even gone so far as to accuse her of turning into a “boring bitch”.

She felt utterly stressed out. Her daily run usually helped her to unwind but even this was proving to be a challenge recently. As if dodging potholes and dog shit wasn’t enough in these dark autumnal mornings, last week she’d collided with a speeding cyclist as he careered around a corner and cut straight in front of her, and just this morning on the edge of the common she’d been attacked by a stray dog.  A huge thing that looked like a German Shepherd had suddenly bolted out of the trees and leapt at her, snapping at the forearm she had held up instinctively to protect her face. She was preparing to sprint for it when suddenly, inexplicably,  it stopped snarling at her, lowered its ears, whimpered and ran off.  She examined her arm. It had barely touched her really, leaving more of a scratch than a bite, but she was badly shaken and more wound up than ever.  She should have known then that today was going to be a waste of toothpaste and one that would have been better spent  at home in bed.

Another sigh. She turned back to her laptop to focus upon re-writing her lost material. Over the next few hours Jen concentrated on the task at hand, looking up now and then to say goodnight as colleagues left for the evening and the office gradually emptied.  At a quarter past seven and alone bar the cleaner, she hit SAVE for the final time, attached the file in a covering email to Colin and clicked SEND with relief. As she was closing down her laptop the sudden thrrrum of her mobile vibrating on her desk made her jump. She could see it was Phil calling and not knowing what mood he would be in, tentatively pressed the ‘Accept Call’ icon.

“Hello babe. Are you still in the office?”, he sounded cheery and she could tell from the background noise that he was in a bar somewhere.  “Just finishing up now” she replied. “Good. Listen, I’m sorry I was such a tosser last night. Come and have a quick drink – I’m with Mike and Jo in The Blacksmith’s Arms ”.

She hesitated just long enough for him to spot the chink in her armour “Come on! You know you want to. Just a couple of beers and we’ll be home before bedtime, promise”. Before she could reply she heard Jo and Mike in the background, shouting “Jen! Come out! We miss you!” Jo was one of her dearest friends and she hadn’t seen her or Mike for ages. The idea of a large glass of shiraz was tempting. “Ok give me 30 minutes and I’ll be there”. There was a collective cheer at the end of the phone as she hung up.

Closing down her laptop, she grabbed her coat and umbrella and headed out into the rain, reflecting upon how much she had changed. These days she rarely went out on a “school night” though once upon a time she had been a stereotypical party girl. The life and soul of their social circle, she had always been up for a night out drinking, dancing and partaking of the (very) occasional illegal high. Her demanding job, her Dad’s illness and her own diminishing ability to recover from a hangover as she was getting older had led her to cut down on the partying. Maybe she ought to get out more though. She certainly felt that she needed a strong drink after her shitty day.

Two and a half hours and five strong drinks later she felt much more cheerful and nicely fuzzy around the edges. It was lovely to catch up with Jo and Mike. She’d missed them too and had forgotten how much Mike made her laugh. Phil had been right, she had been turning into a boring bitch recently and she’d forgotten how much fun it was to spend an evening in the pub with her mates. She watched him now as he somewhat drunkenly regaled the others with one of his anecdotes. It was a shaggy dog story that she had heard him tell many times before, but it still made her smile.  Stifling a yawn, she looked at her watch and grimaced when she realised how late it was getting. “Babe, we need to go, I’ve got to get up early in the morning” she nudged him.  “Aw come on Jen it’s only 10 o’clock – just one more!” he pleaded.  “I’m knackered and if I drink any more I’ll be rough tomorrow” she argued. “I know what you need…” he put his arm around her shoulder and lowered his voice “…a little pick me up”.  He reached in to his inside jacket pocket, pulled out a small tin innocently labelled ‘mints’ and shook it near her ear.

Phil had always been a bigger fan of recreational drugs than she was, even at the height of her party going days. “Absolutely no way! I’ll be up all night and I have to go to work in the morning”. “Suit yourself” he shrugged “you’re no fun anymore” and proceeded to pop one of the tiny white pills into his mouth.

Jen was furious, she knew she’d never get him out of here before the last train now.  Ever the peacemaker, Jo tried to come to the rescue. “Just have a diet coke hun and you can still get the 10.45 train after that”. She nodded ok and Jo went to the bar for another round, while Mike tried to lighten the mood again by making small talk about their plans for Christmas.  Excusing herself she fought her way through the throng to the ladies, where she splashed water on her face and gazed at her reflection.  The lovely warm tingle of alcohol was dissipating along with her anger, but adrenaline was still making her heart race. She was beginning to feel off colour and ached slightly all over.  Obviously not used to drinking so much on an empty stomach she thought.

Snapping out of her introspection, she headed back to the bar and took the bottle of coke that Phil was holding out to her.  She sipped at it slowly, watching as Phil became more and more animated and talkative, spouting juvenile rubbish as he tended to do when he got high. Jo and Mike finished their drinks and made their excuses to leave, politely declining Phil’s suggestion that they move on to the new club around the corner.  Jen hugged Jo goodbye and whispered “Am I really being boring?” as they clung together for a few seconds. “Of course not – Phil’s just being a pratt” she reassured her and they giggled conspiratorially.

As soon as her friends left Phil disappeared to the gents and Jen downed the remains of her drink  quickly so that there was no excuse to linger when he came back. He seemed to be gone an age though and she became increasingly conscious of the ‘flu like symptoms she was feeling. She really was starting to feel unwell. Her heart seemed to be racing ever faster rather than calming down and beads of sweat were forming on her forehead. All of her muscles were beginning to ache and she felt incredibly tense, almost wired. Swirling around the dregs at the bottom of her coke bottle she suddenly had a horrid thought, one that solidified into certain knowledge when she spotted Phil swaggering towards her and grinning inanely . “Feelin’ happier babe?” he winked at her.

“Did you spike my drink?” she demanded although she knew that she didn’t need to wait for his reply, his face said it all. “You absolute arsehole!” Enraged now and heart pounding she picked up her coat from the back of the chair and, ignoring his protestations, stormed out of the bar. It had stopped raining, but she still ran down the street until the pounding in her chest became unbearable, then slowed to a quick march instead. She couldn’t believe how irresponsible he was and asked herself why she had stayed with him for so many years. Nor could she believe how utterly tense and physically awful she felt. She had never had quite such a bad reaction before and began to worry that there was something seriously wrong with her.

A sudden agonising cramp in her stomach caused her to stop and double over in pain. She slumped against the wall next to her, panting hard. Another wave of cramp hit her, this time in the backs of both legs. “Shit” she breathed aloud. What the hell was happening to her? She became aware of a couple, walking arm in arm towards her and laughing. She made an effort to stand upright and start to move. The laughter stopped and she looked up to see the couple staring at her as they walked by. There was no sympathy or concern in their eyes, if anything they looked slightly scared. They probably thought she was a junky or a weirdo.  Not surprising, she thought, there were enough of them  around.

She took a few tentative steps forward, edging her way along the darkened offices and shops to the corner of a dark alley, when another wave of pain began to spread from her chest out across her whole body. She turned into the alley and braced herself for the agony to come. And come it did. Intense spasms and cramps seemed to be ripping her apart. She bent double again only to arch back quickly when a spasm tore up her spine, causing her to cry out in distress. Leaning backwards with her face turned to the skies, she noticed the last of the rain clouds drifting apart to reveal the October moon in its splendid entirety. “How beautiful” she thought, even as her tortured body wracked yet again. Her scream turned into a primal howl and everything  went black.

When the world came back into focus, Jen knew that everything had changed. Instead of pain and sadness and fatigue she felt energy, strength, vigour and an alertness unlike anything she had ever experienced, pulsating through her entire body. And what a body it was; lean, powerful and perfectly designed to hunt and kill, she was magnificent. Somehow it did not surprise her at all to realise that she was no longer human. It thrilled her. It made sense now, the dog by the common was no ordinary dog and the reason it had turned tail and fled before inflicting any serious harm was because the sun had just crept  up over the rooftops in the east. But the scratch had been enough to draw blood.

All of her senses were heightened; the cacophony of noise was startling to begin with. Human voices from all around, laughing, talking, shouting. A cat somewhere hissing at a rival, rats rummaging in the refuse bags at the back of a Chinese takeaway. The constant background hum of road traffic, distant overhead aeroplanes and the rattle of the underground,  bombarded her with sound. She sniffed the air and easily distinguished the smells of petrol and carbon monoxide, the remnants of yesterday’s fish and chips discarded in a gutter, someone smoking a spliff, someone else throwing up and then…Phil, close by. His aftershave and his own unique body scent, delicious.  She suddenly became aware of how very hungry she was.

Jen padded out of the alley and looked down the road towards the station. She knew he had gone that way and set off after him. There were still a few people around even on this quiet side street but she ignored them.  Some instinct told her that these people were irrelevant and that her quarry was the one who had somehow angered her and hurt her, although she could not quite recall how or why. For the most part they ignored her too, and went about their own business. The one or two that did stare at the unusually large “dog” stepped by cautiously, sensing that it was something to genuinely fear. Completely focussed on following Phil’s scent she did not intellectualise what was happening to her or what she was doing. Her sense of power, instinct and sensory perception overruled everything.  She had never felt more alive, supremely confident and utterly ruthless.

When finally she spotted Phil ahead, meandering casually across the road and cutting through another back street, she speeded up, stalking him until she was just a few feet behind. The dark, narrow lane was empty and Phil’s footsteps echoed off the cobbles, still wet from the rain. Whether he heard her or somehow merely sensed her presence she could not tell, but he stopped and turned around slowly to face her, fear and horror spreading over his face. His reaction excited her and with a low growl, she took two steps nearer. She was aware of feeling very, very hungry and his scent was so irresistible. He stepped back, stumbling and almost falling as she crept closer and closer, snarling all the time. The smell of his fear added to his usual body scent was intoxicating and saliva began to drip from her perfect, glistening teeth. He was muttering quietly, whimpering “Jesus, God! No!” but the words were meaningless to her. Then, with all human emotion left behind with her shredded clothes in the alley near the pub, she pounced, knocking him over onto his back. With her huge paws on his chest and yellow eyes staring into his terrified face, she sank her jaws into his throat, cutting off his final scream, and gorged herself.

Bitch she may be, but boring? Not anymore – the party animal was back.

Confessions of a Tea Snob

Time for a brewThere it is in black and white in the middle of an ex-line manager’s description of me on a well-known professional networking site. And of course if it’s on the internet then it must be true. I am, officially, a “tea snob”.

In my defence I would argue that it is all relative. I drink bog standard builders’ brew and not lapsang souchong (well, not often).  My reputation as a tea snob arises from my refusal to drink the stuff that masquerades as tea in most vending machines in the corporate world. After many years working in various large companies, I have developed a sliding scale of drinkability for machine tea. From the “will drink it reluctantly in a moment of weakness but then whinge about it for an hour” to “I would rather drink my own urine or die of dehydration before letting that pass my lips”.

In this latter category comes the “instant” white tea made from some sort of artificially flavoured powder. Whatever alternate universe exists in which this passes for tea is beyond my imagining. Probably the same one in which carob is an acceptable substitute to chocolate.

Marginally less offensive is the instant black tea to which you add UHT milk from tiny plastic containers. However, you do run the risk of opening a damaged carton to find that you have inadvertently poured cottage cheese into your brew instead of milk. Nice.

Occasionally you will come across a vending machine which proudly dispenses one of the famous branded teas and you may be tempted to try it. Don’t. It will still taste like the sweepings from the factory floor. There is no substitute for making your own brew.

Real teabags, a hot water dispenser and a fridge to store your fresh milk. Best of all, water dispensed that is actually hot enough to brew tea and not just raise the ambient temperature of your mug to “warm”. If your office water dispenser is hot enough to scald you then you’re on to a winner and know that you have secured employment with a company that really cares about its staff. Heaven forbid that you do have a water dispenser related accident but at least then a friendly colleague would be able to comfort and calm you with a decent cup of hot, sweet tea which is, as everyone knows, the panacea for all ills.

My love of tea began in early childhood. Playing with my toy tea set in my den, underneath the dining table, I would copy the tea-making ritual I had watched my beloved granddad perform every day, but with cold milk and water instead. One day, desperate to make real tea in my own teapot, I subjected my granddad to the full force of my charms (knowing full well that he could rarely resist me) and begged him for tea leaves and hot water for the pot. There was a great pause while he weighed up the potential waste, mess and risk of scalding. Eventually he suggested a compromise whereby he would decant some of his already whitened, sweetened and cooled tea from his cup into my toy teapot. I readily agreed and with great excitement poured out three or four tiny cups of the amber nectar for my dollies. Surprisingly they wouldn’t drink it, so I downed the lot. Thus began the habit of a lifetime.

I have long since given up sugar and switched to semi-skimmed milk but my love of tea is undiminished and I drink it by the gallon, provided it’s the real McCoy and not some vending machine sludge. Does this make me a “tea snob”? Perhaps. Writing about it has certainly made me thirsty though…time to put the kettle on methinks.

Baby Steps

So this is me; here, now, actually putting pen to paper and writing. In a cafe in the centre of Manchester with my tuna melt panini and chai latte. Feeling vaguely self-conscious in my geek-chic but secretly super-glued, off the shelf reading glasses from Waitrose. Here, with my A5 notebook and randomly selected corporate biro acquired from God knows which event, sometime in the foggy past of the “proper job”. Writing… me! Now, after thirty odd years of listening to the inner voice telling me “…you can’t do that, it’s too risky / too frivolous / too self-indulgent and you will FAIL”, I have finally found the courage to say “sod it” and to over-rule my personal Jiminy Cricket.

Ever since that “sod it” moment, I have been quietly fizzing with excitement, the sensation building inside the pit of my stomach and up through my chest. I have been thinking and planning and listing ideas. Jiminy hasn’t entirely gone away, I still keep asking myself time and again “what if you’re rubbish? what if no-one reads what you write, or worse still, hates it?”. But I know that I must have made the right decision because I keep coming back to the same answer…”I don’t care”.  Or at least “I don’t care enough to NOT try”. The overwhelming urge to vent my creativity is, somehow, finally stronger than my fear of failure. I need to do this, to see the words on the page, to share my thoughts and hopefully stir some sort of response from the people who choose to read it.

So this IS me; here, now, living the dream. Well not quite…the chai latte isn’t hot enough (as ever in this particular establishment), and the tuna melt has a peculiar and distinctly floral aroma, but hey…I’m writing! I may have to pinch myself. My initial excitement has not dissipated at all and I’m alive with ideas, pulsing, wired. If someone were to reach out and touch me at this precise moment I swear they would jolt with a static shock.

It’s wonderful, cathartic and yes, very, very self-indulgent. But the ideas keep coming and I’m scribbling furiously and I want to keep pouring the words onto the page, sorting through them and joining them together like an intricate jigsaw, creating an image that will reflect my state of mind. Or perhaps a thatched cottage in an English country garden.

So this is ME; here, now, rapidly developing RSI from scrawling by hand after a lifetime in front of a keyboard. Listing the ideas I want to share, to enthuse over, to rant about, to ponder and muse. This is me, finally, re-kindling the ambitions of 6 year old Lian, writing.

If you’re interested, I’ll keep you posted…