Friday, 23 June 2017

#Review: A Dance With Dragons (After The Feast)

A Dance with Dragons (After The Feast) by George R R Martin

This book was as exasperating for me as the Dreams & Dust instalment, primarily because I knew much of the events from the TV series albeit in a truncated and slightly altered version. The name listing akin to the begats of the Bible was equally trying and pulled me away from the story far too many times for my liking. I wouldn’t have minded too much if it had been an isolated incidence, but it seemed to be almost everywhere.

There were some lovely moments when characters voiced realisations about situations or their own flaws but in general I was a little under whelmed by this book.  I found myself eager to get to bits I was as yet unaware of. And while there were such moments, they were far too rare.

It was pretty obvious that everyone who was anyone was gathering their forces as there are a few almighty battles in the offing. I did not find this section stirring or entertaining. My main thought was – “Well, let’s get on with it then so we can see who and what’s left after the smoke has cleared and we’ve wallowed knee deep in carnage and blood.”

So, the overwhelming feeling I was left with at the end of this read was frustration. Usually while reading one of Martin’s books, I’m already looking forward to the next instalment. In this instance that is not the case. I think I will take a hiatus before moving on to The Winds of Winter despite the fact it is due for release this month. I’m hoping the intervening time will help me get over my annoyance at being left so unfulfilled.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Injecting Fun Into Your Routine: Step 3

So this is the final instalment of how I inject FUN into my routine. By the way, I’m not advocating that you do the exact same things I do to get your writing brain to peak performance. What I’m advising is that you find those pass times which serve to reinvigorate you best. 

I love nothing more than heading off to the cinema to watch a great film on the big screen. Unfortunately I don’t have the time I had when I was at university. Back then I’d treat myself to a visit to The Cornerhouse after a session of research or revision at Manchester Central Library.  Now I’m restricted to unexpected free evenings or the weekend.  I’m more than happy to go to the cinema on my own but am always delighted when I can share the experience with a friend or two.

My love of cinema stems from childhood. My parents were avid film goers and I was dragged along even before I was potty trained. There is a rumour going round that once this event took place my knighted throne travelled with us to the cinema. But I’m not substantiating anything. After the film, on the drive home in the car, my parents would discuss what they loved about it, what they hated, who they thought had acted superbly and more. As soon as I could voice my opinion, I joined in these discussions. It is yet another treasured memory amongst a list of so many others.

I have ways and means of getting round the time constraints which prevent me from going to the cinema as often as I’d like.  More often than not though, I'm going to watch something on TV.  I'm unashamedly addicted to stuff on telly. I often watch reams of home and garden improvement shows as well as cooking programmes. New series I'm currently hooked on are: The Handmaid's TaleBroken and Poldark. In April & May I was also drawn into the Crucible Snooker Championships and confess I was just a little bit addicted.  And of course, Wimbledon kicks off soon. 

Then there’s my Lovefilm account because I just love receiving those little red envelopes through the letter box. It’s like getting a present even when it’s not your birthday or Christmas. 

If you're still searching for that one activity which suits you best then take a look at this.  I did a little survey with the ALLi Facebook forum and this is a top 10 list of activities fellow writers find most enervating. As you can see from number 1, it turns out us writers are not as sedentary as people might think.

  1. Exercise (Yoga, Pilates, Martial Arts, cycling, running, dancing, gardening, golf)
  2. Getting out into nature (walks or horse rides in the countryside/on the beach)
  3. Walks in parks or botanical gardens
  4. Playing with and exercising pets (owned and borrowed)
  5. Listening to music, audio books or podcasts
  6. Meditation & mindfulness
  7. Reading for pleasure
  8. Watching TV or Film
  9. Long distance driving
  10. Painting or crafting

Friday, 9 June 2017

#Review: A Dance With Dragons (Dreams & Dust)

A Dance with Dragons (Dreams & Dust) by George R R Martin

In this 5th book in the series, I was very pleased to note that John Snow shares my frustrations about Samwell Tarly.  I loved how Martin shows John’s internal struggles with the hard choices forced upon his very young shoulders. I think the thing which the books remind us of very clearly is how young so many of the protagonists are. The TV series can often make them seem a lot older. What makes this aspect of the books particularly poignant for me is that the youth of so many of the characters is a constant reminder of how a world at war forces our children to grow up much too quickly.

For me, the most frustrating thing about this book was that there is so much of it I already know from the television series. I kept reading on in the hopes I was going to get to something new. This is because the books do not stick to a specific chronology in the way the series does.

The other aspect which annoyed me a little was that there was not a whole lot written about my favourite characters. I very much want to know what’s happening to them and how their various journeys turn out. So naturally, I was a little impatient throughout the reading.  One aspect of the book I particularly enjoyed was finding out more about the intricacies of Dornish politics even though I know most of the eventual outcome.

So now the end is nigh and it’s on to After The Feast with my impatience riding by my side and urging his garron to ever faster speeds.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Injecting Fun Into Your Routine: Step 2

So now we’re onto step two of how to inject fun into your routine. I suspect you’ll be pretty unsurprised that I’m a little partial to this next activity. Any guesses?  Here’s a picture clue.

I often read 2 or 3 books simultaneously. Usually there's one in my bag in case I get a spare moment to read. Surreptitious reading moments feel so totally decadent.  Sometimes I accidentally-on-purpose factor in early arrival time to tutoring venues just so I can sit in the car for 10 minutes or so and read.  I often have 2 books in my bag because I might just finish the one that’s already there. It’s always good to have a spare to hand.

There’s also a book by my pillow because I’ve found they make the most magnificent bedfellows. Sometimes I need to read a book because one of my students is studying it for exams. It used to be they studied what are considered classics and then I was covered as I’ve read a fair few of those. But these days other books are creeping into the syllabus which means I’m constantly reading things I would never have considered before.

A couple of unexpected reads have been A Monster Calls and Regeneration.

I’m a staunch fiction supporter. I’ve tried non-fiction but find it too easy to set aside. I love being drawn into the worlds fiction writers create.  I find myself reading different genre for my different moods.  When I’m particularly melancholy about the state of the world I always turn to Fantasy. 

Other favourite genres are Magic Realism and Classics, particularly Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot.

If you’re reading this blog you’re already a reader and hardly need any encouragement to keep going. But if reading is just a sporadic thing for you, then you may want to look at all these benefits associated with regular reading:

  • It reduces stress
  • It improves memory
  • It’s highly entertaining
  • It increases knowledge
  • It improves your imagination
  • It broadens your understanding of the world
  • It makes you a more interesting conversationalist

As a writer, a massive benefit is that it informs me what I need to aim for if I want my writing to emulate that of the writers I revere. Admittedly, sometimes I want to sob uncontrollably because I doubt I could ever be that good. But more often than not, it throws down the gauntlet and I can do nothing else but accept the challenge.  Along with my regular writing group sessions, it drives me to strive for better.

Another benefit, particularly when I read Pratchett: I can guarantee I’ll laugh, not once but several times in one sitting. I generally read on bus journeys and regularly get some queer looks because of my tittering behind the pages of a Pratchett. I’m not going to give you the scientific benefits of laughter. I think they’re pretty obvious to one and all as they’re bound to mention words like serotonin and endorphins. Let’s just say reading a funny book is like a private viewing of a top comedian. What could be better?

If you still need convincing after all that then there’s nothing more I can say.  At any rate, time for me to head off and indulge in the pure decadence of a bit more reading.

Happy reading one and all!

Friday, 26 May 2017

#Review: Regeneration

Regeneration by Pat Barker

I confess that I would not have been drawn to this book of my own accord. I generally steer clear of writing about the effects of any war. This is rather bizarre since WW1 poetry is in fact some of the poetry I find most absorbing. At any rate, the main reason I have Regeneration in my possession is that I had to read it as one of my students was covering it for her A’Level.


I love the concept for this book and was blown away by how effortlessly Barker interspersed Sassoon’s poetry into the core events in the plot. It puts a human face on a poet I’ve long admired for his ability to put ideas across in such a concise and effective manner.  This comes across in the way Barker has dealt with descriptions of his character and his dialogues with Rivers and Graves.

It was however a difficult book to read because I was constantly aware of how harrowing the soldiers’ experiences had been. In some ways the physical injuries were easier to accept than the emotional and psychological ones.  Despite this, it was also a compelling read. I was enthralled by the development of the relationship between Owen and Sassoon and very interested in Dr Rivers and his back story.

Although the sections of interaction between Owen and Sassoon were brief, I was drawn into the imagined discussion around the editing of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. Sometimes I was confused during dialogues between characters as Barker rarely states who is speaking. I was often forced to reread sections to be sure I had the order of conversation right. 

I found the most shocking part of the book to be the description of the treatment used on a mute soldier.  For me it highlighted the fact that we still dismiss and reject mental illness with similar degrees of crudity and brutality today.

As this book is part of a trilogy I will be reading the other two at some point. I do however suspect that I will need several much lighter books before I embark on the next round of the harrowing effects wrought by WWI on several nations.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Injecting Fun Into Your Routine: Step 1

So, it’s all very well having a very structured routine to ensure you’re getting words on the page. But if you want to make those words count then you really need to spend some time doing things other than writing.  For me, specifically, I find that taking time away from writing helps make my writing better because I come back to work which needs editing with a clearer mind.  The thing about writing is that even when you’re doing other things your brain is almost always working on the writing to some degree. So it's vital to take time out and do something which puts your writing brain into REM sleep so it can dream great dreams.

Over the next few posts I’ll be sharing some things I do to chillax and temporarily get my brain out of writing mode. 

First up:

During the week I try to make it to at least one dance class and one social dance. This isn’t always possible, but I make a massive effort to do the dance class if nothing else.

Argentine Tango
I’ve been doing Tango for about 12 years now and there’s nothing like learning the nuances of the dance to take you completely away from thoughts on writing. It is an activity which requires me to ‘listen’ to instructions given by my lead, decide how to respond, interpret the music and just generally bask in the glow of an intimate partner dance.

Me, several years ago now, with
Thomas Keenes, getting our dance
on at a free National Theatre event

When I first started Tango I was completely consumed by the intricacies of this dance.  It took me a while to stop trying to anticipate, let go and be led. I instantly loved the excuse to dress up for Milongas (tango balls) and was lured in further by the fabulous shoes worn by followers.  Now my only battle is preventing myself from buying yet another pair of delicious Balanceo shoes.

Lindy Hop
After seeing a couple of friends do this dance at their wedding, I took it up. Lindy Hop is very different from Tango as it is exuberant and very energetic.  It took me a while to free myself of my upright Tango stance but that did not stop me from enjoying this dance to the max.  Learning the basic steps and how to fit them into the music has been challenging and definitely freed my mind of any writing thoughts. Not only is it an infectious dance but it reminds me of my parents who loved to dance and met in a dance hall. 

Loretta, my fabulous teacher at Moonshine
Alley, showing me the finer points 
of Lindy Hop style
I’m now at the stage where I don’t freeze in terror when someone asks me to dance during the social part of the evening.  More recently I’ve even started asking people to dance with me – a sure sign confidence in my ability to perform the steps is growing. After a social dance I always leave the floor breathless and grinning.

Now here comes the Science bit. And there’s quite a bit of it. Studies have shown that dancing, particularly partner dancing, is massively beneficial to your health.  Not only does it reduce your chances of dementia by over 70% because it keeps your brain actively firing neural connections but also improves your mood.

Thinking about it but need a few more incentives?  Well, here goes:

  • It improves balance
  • It controls your weight
  • It improves co-ordination
  • It increases self-confidence
  • Is beneficial for your heart
  • Increases your chances of socialising more
  • Increases your chances of meeting like-minded people

But be warned. There is a serious downside to this whole dancing business. Like me, you could become seriously addicted to your chosen style of dance. Before you know it, you’ll be slipping into sparkly lycra or donning some super cool flares.

Oh, go on. I dare you!  

Friday, 12 May 2017

#Review: Mort

Mort by Terry Pratchett

This is a book which centres around one of my favourite Pratchett characters – DEATH.  I’ve been a DEATH fan ever since I read Good Omens. In this book He decides He needs an apprentice and indentures the appropriately named Mort. And what can be said of Mort? 16, a gangly, awkward teenager. Though his family love him, they have given up all hope of him ever being truly useful. Let’s just leave it there shall we.

One of my favourite setting descriptions is early on in the novel: “…Ankh-Morpork is as full of life as an old cheese on a hot day, as loud as a curse in a cathedral, as bright as an oil slick, as colourful as a bruise and as full of activity, industry, bustle and sheet exuberant busyness as a dead dog on a termite mound.”

This gives you a flavour of what follows. Mort stumbles through his first solo assignments and causes the havoc we expect him to. And naturally, his actions are totally devoid of common sense, no doubt prompted by his hormones and that most irrational emotion of them all – love.

DEATH meanwhile is behaving in a very strange way – well, stranger than Death would be expected to behave. What could be prompting all this? Unfortunately none of this is really made clear. There are hints of possible reasons for DEATH’s behaviour. I found the end of the book unsatisfactory and a little confusing. Perhaps further books in the series will clear up the confusion.  All in all, not one of my favourite Pratchetts. I’m interested to see what Sourcery, the next book in the Disc World series, has to offer.