To Be Read in Twenty Twenty

Sometimes I feel I don’t plan my writing career seriously enough. Although Novel 3 has gone to the agent, Novel 4 doesn’t exist yet, even as an idea, a germ of an idea or anything less tangible than that. An email from a list I should have unsubscribed from popped up today with details of a free short story competition and I thought I’d try a quick story based on an amusing episode over Christmas. There’s a 2000 word limit but who says you have to make it that long? I wrote the amusing episode down and filled it out a bit. I was only on 200 words and the amusing episode had been milked for all it was worth, plus I was having qualms about making hay from people who’d shown me nothing but goodwill. Short stories are hard to get right and one reason is wrongly viewing them as something you can dash off in answer to random competitions in an inbox. So sod the short stories (again). I was given several books for Christmas and my just-before-it birthday and if I read enough of other people’s writing craft perhaps I’ll be guided towards the place where Novel 4 lies in wait.

TBR 2020 2

Of these nine books, I’d asked for five. I’ve already finished one, although I read it as slowly and with as much care as I could. Elizabeth Strout is one of my favourite authors. There’s a slow cooking and slow eating movement, and there are mindfulness and internet-free days and reading Elizabeth Strout comes into a similar category, ideal for the limbo time between Christmas and New Year, probably less suited to commuting. She observes ordinary people in an ordinary place doing pretty ordinary things and she makes them extraordinary and universal. Olive, Again is an older Olive Kitteridge, which I’m now rereading to remind myself of her back story and those of other residents of Crosby, Maine. Olive is now on and beyond a second 43820277._sy475_marriage. She has mellowed but her go-to judgement is still “phooey to you”. She’s kept her marbles (which she dreads losing) and she’s keeping her temper better than she was. The endearing, human thing about Olive and those around her is that they’re all still learning how to live and they know it. They’re by no means perfect and neither are their partners and at times they’re deeply intolerant of each other. Olive’s son, Christopher, is horrid to her and this may or may not be because she was a bad mother. Fortunately moments of humour and love redeem all this and Olive has a wonderful capacity for compassion and understanding when you’d least expect it. But even the meanest Strout character has the capacity to recognise their mistakes and try co-existing more helpfully. “It came to him then that it should never be taken lightly, the essential loneliness of people, that the choices they made to keep themselves from that gaping darkness were choices that required respect.”

I also asked for A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier. If this is half as good as Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Lady and the Unicorn I’m in for a treat. I shall save it for after my next eye operation in mid February because in the lovely hardback edition the font is a generous size. I’m not sure whether to read Joanna Cannon‘s Breaking and Mending account of life as an NHS junior doctor before or after that – the care I’ve had from the overworked but always patient, expert, and caring staff at Moorfields Hospital has been excellent and although I asked for Cannon’s book it may not give me the sweetest of dreams as I trust myself to their care again. Another request was Edna O’Brien’s Girl, a fictionalised account of the experiences of the Nigerian girls abducted by Boko Haram. I found her last book, The Little Red Chairs, almost impossible to read because what it described was so awful. But I can’t fail to respect an author who at nearly 90 years of age is still confronting injustice and violence against women with such uncompromising bravery, and who still crafts every word with such angry care. On a lighter note, I wanted The Binding by Bridget Collins because I’m a sucker for that sort of cover – I call them Paisley covers and there have been a spate of them recently. (It doesn’t look as though the contents are very light-hearted though, and reader opinion appears divided.) My partner coupled it with Jessie Burton’s newest novel The Confession, which I’m hoping will be as good as her first and better than her second. Another lovely cover anyway!

My ex husband and I still give each other books every Christmas and birthday. He’s a Harper Lee fan, and rightly guessed I wouldn’t yet have got around to Go Set a Watchman. (When my first novel came out it briefly whizzed past this in the Australian bestseller lists, a moment of author glory you must forgive me for harpering on about as there haven’t been many more.) He also gave me The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, which has a plug on the back from Rose Tremain. Well, if it’s good enough for her…

And finally who wouldn’t want a David Nicholls Sweet Sorrow to look forward to? Bittersweet, poignant, coming of age… it sounds as though it will be much like the others but they’re all so well written and delivered. It will, I hope, be a comfort akin to watching afternoon TV when I was kept home from school as a child with a cold.

Finally, I’ve been an increasingly laid back gardener since reading Richard Mabey’s Weeds last spring. Knowing this, my partner found Wonderful Weeds by Madeline Harley. Next year we’ll (mabey) eat nettle soup and make nettle linctus for the compost, nurture the last remaining bees on dandelion nectar and feast on foraged forest fruits.

TBR 2020 weeds

So what with operations and all the reading and stewing nettles, Novel 4 may not be along for a while. Phooey to that, as Olive Kitteridge would say.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

The great Amazon dinner party

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It’s time to test the water in The Infinity Pool (seen above taking its annual holiday in its spiritual home). The paperback was published twelve months ago tomorrow, preceded two weeks earlier by the ebook. Why the hiatus? Who knows, but it gives me an excuse for two birthdays, like the queen. Although at the time I remember being dizzy with impatience to hold the printed object in my hand and turn some real pages, nowScreenshot 2 I’m glad because between anniversaries I had a major boost in the Amazon rankings – by over 100,000 places! It’s been fascinating to see who I’m sandwiched between from one day to the next. This week I’ve been in proximity to Margery Allingham, Val McDermid, Jodi Picoult, Kate Morton… honoured, I’m sure. It’s like being a last-minute reserve guest at a stellar dinner party – someone must have dropped out and the hostess knew I wouldn’t be doing anything I couldn’t cancel for the sake of such a night. Three dinner parties simultaneously in fact, because of the different categories we all feature in.

My major boost came about 13872752_10153663698687231_3085885263817280783_nbecause a dear friend, who took the cover photo, returned last month to the island where I’d been inspired to write the book. He took a paperback with him and gave my Pool a plug. The guests there must all have Amazon Prime, so I haven’t made many actual sales from it, but the “pages read” on Kindle Unlimited have zoomed into the stratosphere, burning my ears and returning me to the unhealthy habit of inspecting my Amazon rankings whenever they’re updated (once an hour). That’s how I know that seated to my left is the eminent French crime writer, Georges Simenon (creator of Maigret) and I’m the bulwark protecting him from having to converse with Jeffrey Archer on my right. I have my uses, after all. But it’s one of those dinner parties where guests change places between courses, or even between bites – I may have quite different neighbours by the time I post this. I may even be back where I belong, chopping onions in the kitchen (there’s more than one way to produce a tear-jerker).

Meanwhile I haven’t dined so well chez Amazon since September, when The Infinity Pool shot to no 1 in Australia. I think it was because of Stuart’s cover and the temporary promotional price – 99¢. I’m told books are very expensive in Australia so here was a bargain indeed. Amazon put me into the Crime category, and although the Australians downloaded me until they cracked their computers (I imagine), they didn’t like me much. Not enough blood! Hardly a murder! Where’s the incest and why’s the rape offstage? Boring boring boring, declaimed the worst three word, one star review. We changed the category to Literary Fiction where the expectations are more, well, literary, and I was comforted by sharing a table with Harper Lee, shunting The Girl on the Train briefly into a siding (she’s back now), rocketing past the Martian and bidding ciao to Elena Ferrante.  (No wonder Elena Ferrante’s a recluse, having to sit next to the Martian at the Amazon dinner party).

Screenshot 4Back in UK Mysteries, Thrillers and Suspense, I’m rubbing shoulders with John le Carré and Irvine Welsh. Meanwhile Sylvia Plath has not unreasonably chosen to shelter in Psychological Fiction but found herself next to me. I do hope she’s not feeling too conflicted to chat today, and I think as a grown up I could hold my own. Not like the day when, in my teens, I was introduced to Margaret Drabble at a party given by some friends of my parents. I adored, read and reread her books, identified with the heroines, tried to understand the points she was making (I didn’t attempt her sister AS Byatt). And that’s more or less what I gabbled, blushing and stuttering my generalised admiration. She smiled graciously and moved on to consort with more stimulating fellow guests.

Perhaps the memory of that toe curling embarrassment was what stopped me taking advantage of an even more impressive opportunity a few years later. I was living in Paris as part of my degree, and mentioned to my landlady that I was writing my year abroad dissertation on Simone de Beauvoir. “Tiens!” said Madame. It turned out she was distantly related to or had been distantly befriended by or was an old schoolmate, or something, of “Simone”. Would I like to meet ‘er? I could per’aps interview ‘er for my studeez? I shivered. No no, I was busy that day/week/month/year. I regretted it deeply, but it would never be convenient for me to meet the greatest feminist philosopher and writer of her day, who still intimidates me now. What a dissertation chapter that might have been! What a coup over the academics of Sussex University French department!

Famous writers seemed to be two a centime in Paris. The very first day there, gawping the wrong way at the traffic as I crossed the road, I literally bumped into a monsieur who set my shoulders back in the right direction with a polite “excusez-moi, mademoiselle”. But it was the friend accompanying me who had to be picked up off the pavement. “You just jostled Samuel Beckett!” he hissed. Merde alors. Another unsuccessful encounter with a literary giant.

Maybe that’s why I prefer the Amazon dinner party. You can imagine the conversation instead of actually having to hold it, name dropping and star spotting to your hearts content. Now please excuse me: it’s time for virtual coffee and Chocolat with Joanne Harris before I slide back down the rankings and lose the opportunity.

Amazon dinner party

© Jessica Norrie 2016