Top 5 Influential Children’s Books – The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

Finally I’ve finished my series, re-reading my favourite books as a child. The last book in my series is The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend. A British classic of the 1980s.

Adrian is a painful teenager with delusions of intellectual grandeur living through Thatcher’s Britain with his dysfunctional and disappointing parents. Adrian copes with his first pimples, his parents’ marital problems and his own crushes with an amazing lack of self-awareness. It is laugh out funny and I knew most of the jokes already.

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Reading Adrian Mole was like going back in time (in the Tardis with Peter Davison, of course because it’s 1983). I was thrown back into the 1980s when all my favourite music and television came out of the UK. I also vividly remember Adrian Mole TV series and recently watched part of episode 1. It is so faithful to the book, it made me realise why I seemed to remember every second word. I’ve also had the theme tune from the late great Ian Dury in my head ever since.

I had a quick look on Goodreads and it appears that Adrian Mole is now on school curriculums. It is a slice of life in Thatcher’s Britain but I wonder whether kids today would appreciate it like I did. Has it dated?

I remember this book too well to be subjective. In some way, I wished I’d never read it before, so I could enjoy it all over again. It’s funny and poignant. In a similar way to my first year of my arts degree when I finally got some of the gags from The Young Ones, I understood a whole lot more as an adult. The writing is simple, clever and layered.

It was fun visiting Adrian Mole again, but I’m glad I don’t actually know him. He really is a pretentious little git.

 

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Recent listens: How to Publish Your Book by Jane Friedman

I like my audiobooks. But for some unknown reason, I can’t focus on fiction in audio. My mind wanders and I miss sections of the story, so I’ve learned to stick with non-fiction for audiobooks.

A recent listen was How to Publish Your Book by Jane Friedman, available through The Great Courses. This is available through Audible and you’ll also receive the accompanying lecture notes in PDF.

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What a damn fine resource for the new author! In 24 lectures, Friedman takes you through the process of getting published from both a fiction and non-fiction perspective. Friedman also has a brilliant blog where she discusses the state of the publishing nation.

This is for those writers who are done with the manuscript and ready to move from the art to the business side. She starts off talking you through understanding your genre and your audience then to the process of

  • finding agents, publishers and editors,
  • sharpening your pitch, query letter and synopsis,
  • contracts,
  • the need for marketing and building your author platform.

Friedman also tackles the interesting subject – “when to self-publish?” A controversial topic indeed. Are you being impatient? Is self-publishing really for you? Is your market too niche for a mainstream publisher?

I’m currently querying agents with my Return to the Monolith manuscript and the course provided information on what to expect and importantly, how to cope with rejection.

The information is up-to-date and discussed many of the players in the current market. This is the best all-in-one resource I’ve found on publishing.

Do you have any recommendations for great publishing resources?

Reading habits of a beta reader

Today, an interview with a beloved beta reader of mine, Andrew. Andrew’s a voracious reader and so let’s learn a little more about his reading habits.

Tell me a little about yourself?

OK, single. Love city living. Currently binging on the show Jane the Virgin.

What are you currently reading?

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. It’s about what happens when the world’s roatation slows down through the eyes of an 11 year-old girl. Good read.
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How and when did you develop your love of reading?

I’ve always enjoyed reading, but it wasn’t until around 2007 when I started really buying up books by the tonne each year to read.
It kind of got kicked started from a friend I worked with you would mention the books she’d read each morning to and from work on her 1 hr train ride.

What are your favourite genres?

At the moment I’m really into supernatural drama

What was the best book you read in 2015?

Hounded by Kevin Hearne. Can’t recommend it enough. Really enjoyed it was wasn’t expecting much as urban fantasy isn’t something that’s ever been on my radar. Had the book on my shelf for nearly 3 years before I even opened. Once I’d finished I ordered the next 7 books in the series.
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Who is your favourite character of all time?

I’ve got to give this one to Scarlett O’Hara. I was Gone with the Wind obsessed as a 16 year-old and what I loved about Scarlett is that she had everything against her but she never let it get in the way of what she wanted.
GWTW is still my most read book. About every 5 years I pick it up and enjoy the over 1,000 pages epic.
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Are you monogamous with your books? Or a book sl*t?

Oh, I usually have about 3 going at once. I pick one up each morning depending on how I feel.
Note: Sl*t.

Where is your ideal place to read?

Home on the lounge with a quiet CD playing in the back ground.

How do you decide what books to buy? What influences you?

I admit I do judge a book by it’s cover. Kevin Hearne’s Hounded got me by the hot guy on the cover. He he. The cover gets my attention, but it’s the synopsis on the back that will get me to buy a book or not.

What’s your reading goal for 2016?

I’m not going to mad this year, just a small goal of 35 books.

Thanks to the lovely Andrew. Feel free to answer any of my questions for yourself…what was your favourite book of 2015?

Recent Reads – Europe in Autumn

Why did I love Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson so much?

The book is a spy thriller set slightly in the future, in a time when the countries of Europe is dissolving. Every man and his dog is seceding, setting up their own principality. Borders are a bureaucratic nightmare and black marketeers are taking advantage of the chaos.

The hero is Rudi, an Estonian chef turned courier, who gets deeper and deeper into the murky world of espionage.

The book is in four parts following Rudi from his first gig until the point when it all goes wrong. It is almost like four novellas, pieced together eventually. The middle section with Rudi’s family in Estonia seems out of step at first until more details are revealed. I adored the excerpt from the map-making of Whitton-Whyte and the twist delighted this little sci-fi fan.

Why did I enjoy this book so much?

Perhaps it was the mix of vivid characters; the burly Hungarians, the obnoxious mentor Fabio, Rudi’s bizarrely robotic English captors, the grumpy crusty Pawel. The characters were well rounded and real.

Perhaps it was the slight weirdness of the world. Quite similar to our own, yet with minor technological and geo-political differences.It was familiar and yet intriguing. There was little time spent world building, the story jumps right in and explains the world as we go. Yet there are enough odd little details to remind the reader that this is not your ordinary Tom Clancy thriller.

Perhaps it was the wry English humour. The dialogue was sharp and believable. I chuckled out aloud a number of times.

Plus a cracking plot.

Let’s just say, I really liked this book.

But the topic of genre provoked the most thought for me. This is classified as a science fiction novel – which it is. The world is futuristic, but only looking a few years into a possible future. I was so curious about the genre of this novel, I contacted the author. I had a nice conversation with Dave Hutchinson over Twitter regarding the genre classification of this book. Hutchinson describes it as a “near-future espionage thriller”. This is a very apt description.

I struggle with the “science fiction” label because it brings to mind aliens and spaceships. My own writing is in a similar vein to Hutchinson’s – a different world not too dissimilar to our own. Is speculative fiction a better description or “fantastika” as Hutchinson offered? Yet, your average punter doesn’t use the expression ‘speculative fiction’. When I look at the categories for sci-fi in Amazon, the only vaguely applicable are “dystopian” and “post-apocalyptic” but my own writing and a book like Europe in Autumn does not fit with the other zombie invasion novels.

Anyway less about me and more about Europe in Autumn. If you like a well built near-future world with espionage, great characters and good writing, I recommend you take a look at Europe in Autumn.

I’m off to read the sequel…when I’ve finished The Wise Man’s Fear.

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Top 5 Influential Children’s Books – The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

It’s time for part four of my “revisiting childhood favourites” series with The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.

Maria Merryweather is an orphan (of course) and sent to live with her long lost uncle in the West Country at Moonacre Manor. She takes the long journey by carriage through the night with her bilious governess and Wiggins, her grumpy spoiled spaniel. Her new home is mysterious, mythic and magical. Her uncle tells tales of the tragic love story of the Moon Princess and Sir Wrolf, the first Merryweather, and of course the rarely seen little white horse.

Firstly it must be said, this book should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in glorious world-building. The descriptions of Moonacre Manor and its characters are vibrant and rich. From cosy cave houses and circular bedrooms in towers to a curmedgeonly dwarf with a rich vocabulary baking fairy cakes and lavish descriptions of hearty country meals (very reminiscent of Enid Blyton) to a cat that can write and the grumpy spoiled Wiggins, the spaniel.

But the story itself is a little strange. The haughty Maria bullies her family (both immediate and estranged) into complying with her wishes. All the while maintaining a relationship with a shepherd boy which no one questions. And this is supposedly 1842. There is much talk of “wicked men” and yet she converts them to goodness with harsh words and pearls. Reality aside, she is a firebrand who gets what she wants. A feisty female protagonist.

But the pleasure in this book is the imaginative world-building. If you are interested in descriptions or characterisation, I urge you read this book. Especially the first few chapters as Maria explores her new home.

Recent reads – Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler

One of the curious things about my writing life is I write sci-fi but I don’t often read it. I’ve recently made an effort to read some “masterworks” to fill my gaps.

Don’t you hate it when you find a brilliant “new” writer, only to find out they are already dead? I’m definitely late to the Octavia Butler party, the trail blazing African American female sci-fi writer. Before reading a word of her work, only her bio, I was filled with deep respect for Butler.

First I read Bloodchild (mainly because it was free and I am cheap). I thoroughly enjoyed the story of the alien host and her human servants. Although reading the end notes, I jumped to the conclusion (like many others) that it was a story about slavery. Apparently not!

Then while on a recent trip to the US, I came across Parable of the Sower in a bookshop. The luxury of holidays gave me time to devour it quickly. If I’d been at home (and not required to be social), I would’ve curled up in a corner until I finished it.

In Parable of the Sower, Lauren is 17 and lives in a neighbourhood compound in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. Her father is the local preacher and community leader where the neighbours band together to keep themselves safe from the dangers outside the walls. The outside world is dangerous, filled with drug addicts who revel in fire.

Lauren listens to her father’s sermons but she has her own ideas about what God is. Over time her thoughts formulate in her mind, she is creating her own religion. It is called Earthseed.

One night, the compound and Lauren’s world is breached. She leaves and must fend for herself on the highways of California, looking for safety and a new life. All the while, building on her ideas for a new faith.

But the Parable of the Sower is much more than a dystopian road story.

As an aspirant writer, this is one of those books that made me want to put my pen down and give it all away. The prose so crisp and precise. The concepts so big and mind-chewing. This is what I want to be when I grow up.

As I said in my review of AYTGIMM, I’m ignorant about religion. The Parable of the Sower passage from the Bible has no meaning to me. I brought no preconceived ideas when I started reading.

With the chaos around her, Lauren sees God as objective. God is change and cares only about survival. There is no moral overlay about right or wrong. It just is. This reminds of the concepts in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile. Another book which wowed me.

I was struck by a single line. “Some people see nature as God.” Pow. There’s my worldview in a nutshell in a way I’d never considered it before. The way some people see God is the way I see nature/the universe. Awe inspiring and all powerful. But like Lauren, I never placed the moral overlay on nature. She doesn’t care about you and me as individuals. She only wants to continue on.

This book has stayed with me for months now. What more can you ask for in a book? Entertainment plus a soul searching challenge on your view of the universe.

Top 5 Influential Children’s Books – Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret

Blog posts have been a little tardy. I’ve been distracted by the main game, my fiction. But let’s return to my favourite childhood books.

The next book in my series revisiting childhood classics is from Judy Blume. A classic children’s writer, I remember her books fondly. But funny how your memory plays tricks on you.

Time and memory are true artists; they remould reality nearer to the heart’s desire – John Dewey (1859-1952)

As an 80s child, my reading life was chock full of Judy Blume. I owned a copy of Starring Sally J Friedman As Herself.  (This could explain why a kid in Tasmania in the late 1980s was reading biographies of old film stars like Lana Turner. Although as a voracious reader, I did work my way through most of the books in my small local library.)

Blubber. Super Fudge. Forever was the taboo book when I was in Grade 6, to be hidden from the parents under the mattress because it had s.e.x in it.

Then of course Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (AYTGIMM). The quintessential book on growing up. So today, I’m revisiting my old friend, Margaret.

Margaret has just moved to Jersey from NYC and she’s eleven. The child of a Jewish father and a Christian mother,  she has grown up without religion, yet she talks to God every night. Margaret has a new school, new friends and new womanly body to manage.

Before I started to read this book, my memories of AYTGIMM were all about bras and periods. I expected it to be full of female body stuff. A fiction version of Everygirl. But on re-reading, I was surprised to discover that puberty is only one part of the story. The more important storyline is Margaret’s spiritual search. Is she Jewish or is she Christian? Who is this God she speaks to?

Looking at the title of this book, the religious element is completely obvious.  Like Margaret, I grew up without religion, but I never went through a religious curiosity phase like she does. Margaret chooses to explore religion as the topic of her year long school project. As a child, this part of the story must not have resonated with me. Perhaps the difference is the overt religious tension in Margaret’s family. Or I blocked it out and focused on the juicy stuff.

AYTGIMM was probably the first time I read about someone like me, dealing with their newly adult bits, bras and periods, secret clubs and talking on the phone for hours about (very important) nothing. The “Two Minutes in a Closet” brought back cringe worthy memories of my own Grade 6 parties. Did we get the idea from this book? Although we used an ensuite bathroom. It brought back memories of my own experiences of being eleven.

The stand-out characters were Sylvia, Margaret’s grandmother and Laura Danker. Interfering and vibrant, Sylvia sounds like a super fun grandma but incredibly infuriating for Margaret’s mother. Laura Danker is a tragic innocent character. An early developer, the world makes assumptions about her morals just because she has boobs.

I didn’t enjoy AYTGIMM as much as I thought I would. The puberty stuff is of no interest anymore and neither is the religious angle. But I hope this book still resonates with eleven year old girls wondering what’s going on with their bodies and making sense of religious tension in their family. Just not for me.

Next book in line is The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. Apparently I’m in good company as this is also a favourite of JK Rowling.

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Top 5 Influential Childhood books – Anne of Green Gables

The next book in my series of revisiting childhood favourites is Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.

Ah the memories…when I opened the first few pages of Anne of Green Gables, I was transported back to Grade 5 and my small primary school library in Launceston, Tasmania where I first borrowed this book. All the iconic phrases made me smile; the puffed sleeves, the alabaster brow, kindred spirits, bosom friends. I can see why people travel to Prince Edward Island today to see where Anne lived.

If you haven’t read or seen Anne of Green Gables, basically it’s the story of an eleven year old orphan* who is mistakenly sent to live with a gruff brother and sister in Avonlea on Prince Edward Island. The brother and sister really wanted a boy to help with the farm work but instead Anne arrives, filled with wild imaginative romantic notions and who cannot stop talking.

Reading Anne of Green Gables again was an absolute joy. I had forgotten what a wonderful character she is, so quirky and irrepressible. Despite her terrible childhood prior to moving to Avonlea, Anne is optimistic. An uneducated orphan, she built a fertile imagination to cope. But Anne is not all sunshine and lollipops, she’s feisty and stubborn. She stands up for herself and others if she feels she is being mistreated. There is no doubting why this is an absolute classic, Anne is such an endearing character who leaps off the page.

The novel travels through Anne’s life from aged eleven to over sixteen. Anne doesn’t just flounce about the countryside for 300 pages. We see Anne mature, and to some extent, conform. Towards the end of the book, where Anne buckles down to study hard for her examinations, I missed the quirky, nutty, overly emotive Anne. She makes tough decisions in the end, particularly hard decisions for a sixteen year old. Compared to the Blyton boarding school books where the characters are of similar ages, Anne grows up and makes adult decisions, unlike the protected girls from St.Clare’s.

Side note – Were 17 year olds really teaching school in Canada in the early 20th century?

Like Blyton, there are very few men in Anne of Green Gables too. Only the man-of-few-words Matthew and her number one rival, Gilbert Blythe. Anne is surrounded by strong, opinionated and capable women.

From a structural perspective, I wondered whether this book was originally a serial. The structure is very episodic, with 10 page self-contained chapters, perfect for a quick 15-20 minute read before bed or perhaps designed for reading to children. The structure reminded me of a TV series with the “story of the week” with its beginning, middle and end, plus a thin thread of overarching story. I’m now inspired to try this structure myself… one day. I’ve already got 5 novels in the works at the moment, in various stages from Draft#7 at 100k words to a paragraph of jotted thoughts. Maybe in 2018?

All in all, Anne of Green Gables stands up as a wonderful read and truly worthy of its classic status.

What’s next? Get ready for the real side of blossoming womanhood. It’s time for bras and periods with Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret.

Do you have fond memories of Anne with an e?

*What’s with orphans in childhood literature? I’m sure there’s a million PhD theses on this topic.

Top 5 Influential Children’s Books – Enid Blyton

Here’s the first instalment of a new blog series where I revisit my favourite children’s books, beginning with Enid Blyton’s The O’Sullivan Twins.

I loved Enid Blyton …

Good old Aunty Enid is the grand dame of influences. A little passe and politically incorrect these days but Blyton was the influence for me. From Noddy to The Enchanted Wood to the Famous Five to the Naughtiest Girl/St.Clares/Mallory Towers series, Blyton was my author.

I owned a large illustrated copy of The Enchanted Wood and dressed up as Silkie for Book Week (another reference to Book Week dress-ups in a future blog post). The Famous Five probably whet my appetite for mysteries and I also remember the 70s telly series fondly. Sing along with me now… “George and Timmy the dog..”

I loved most of Enid’s book but her boarding school books were my absolute favourite. Maybe I need some therapy to understand why. I loved the idea of midnight feasts, “short sheeting”, French prep, being “sent to Coventry” and lacrosse. I longed to go to boarding school and devoured all of these books.

Then I re-read the O’Sullivan twins…

I don’t spend much time in the children’s section of bookshops, so I was shocked at the number of Enid Blyton books still on the shelves. I thought in these days of Harry Potter, YA and MG galore, Aunty Enid would be less popular. Wrong.

From the first few lines of The O’Sullivan Twins, I was transported back. The words and the character were so familiar. How many times had I read this before? I giggled along at the quintessentially British language and the tropes. It was all there; midnight feasts, “bricks” and “old girls”, lacrosse matches, French prep, descriptions of cake and “being sent to Coventry”. The now sensible O’Sullivan Twins return to St.Clare’s for their second term, this time accompanied by their “feather-headed bleating” cousin Alison.

But as I progressed through the book, I was transported back to the feelings of a tweenie. I was shocked by the way the girls treat each other, there’s an awful lot of bullying in this book. Girls ganging up on each other, gossiping and isolating individuals for their “mean and spiteful” behaviour. And this is exactly what I remember about being a tweenie.

This is a moral tale for playing by the rules and conforming. Margery is the sullen outsider who redeems herself and teaches the twins a lesson about assumptions. I was surprised how old the girls were (fourteen to sixteen). The girls at St.Clare’s lead a terribly sheltered life, yet there is tragedy and teen angst, father-daughter relationships, family accidents and poverty. Aside from their fathers and one mention of a gardener, there are no men in the world of St.Clare’s. Is that what Blyton was trying to do? Create a series of books to teach young women the right way to behave in WW2 Britain?

With my writer hat on, I was surprised at the “head-hopping” or point of view changes within the same paragraph. I thought ‘head-hopping’ was a big no-no. But if Aunty Enid can do it…?

When I finished the last page and said goodbye to my old friends, my feelings on boarding school have changed. I couldn’t think of anything worse than going to St.Clare’s with all the bullying and conformity. But I am hankering for an afternoon tea with “Buns and jam! Fruit cake! Meringues! Chocolate eclairs!”

What are your memories of Enid Blyton?

Re-reading my top 5 fave childhood books

I was pulling together a series of blog posts on my top 5 most influential books of my childhood and an idea struck me. Why not re-read all five books and review them with adult eyes.

So I’ll be reading and blogging about….

  • The O’Sullivan Twins by Enid Blyton
  • Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
  • The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
  • The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend
  • Starring Sally J Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume

All female writers too.

Look out for the posts in the weeks to follow….

Have you re-read your favourite childhood books as an adult?