The Last Blog

This is my final blog for the foreseeable future.

Please support this struggling author by reading and reviewing my books! A good place to start would be THE NIGHTMARIST, a collection of short stories which you can read about on my website:

Posted in 2022: A Fresh Start, General, Getting Published, Life in Bloomsbury, My Books, On Writing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s funny how the right book comes along just when you need it most. This was one of those books. While reading it, I had the kind of thoughts that went “this is the best book I’ve ever read!” It probably isn’t but it did give me a whole new perspective on the one thing in my life that really troubles me: regret. It seems awfully simplistic to say this book rescued me but, well, frankly, what can I say. It did just that. It made me realise how bloody stupid regrets are, how time-wasting, how pointless. It also brought back an old adage that my mother used to repeat to me rather a lot: don’t regret yesterday, life is in you today, and you make your own tomorrow. Yes, I know, this all sounds very preachy and worthy, but the book just isn’t like that. It’s a brilliant concept. I love the idea of the midnight library. I love the idea of being able to see that your choices weren’t disastrous, that your life isn’t actually a failure. It was quite obvious from the beginning what the outcome of this book would be, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the book for what it was: a slight tale with a huge message. If I had to change one thing, I’d make the protagonist quite a lot older. Regrets at 35 can be easily overcome as you have more of a chance to change your life if you want to. Much harder when you’re pushing 60 and don’t have the energy to do anything except change your mind.

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Book Review: All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I first started this series over Christmas last year, I wanted to read nothing else in the months that followed. Gradually it dawned on me that although the books are well-written and the era beautiful realised, they are also really miserable. I felt quite depressed during all of Book 3! The fourth book had a few happier moments. All of those were quite thoroughly destroyed in this last volume, in which everyone is unhappy, everyone suffers, and there isn’t a single moment of relief. No one gets a break, no one has any hope. It has since occurred to me that perhaps this type of soapy saga is not my cup of tea. It also occurred to me that perhaps the author was pushed in this direction by her publishers who knew perfectly well that they’d make bigger bucks with bucketloads of misery. Many of the storylines were really quite tawdry as well, particularly amongst the younger folk. I thought the incestuous romance was beyond the pale and so out of keeping with the gentleness of these amazing novels. The device of using extremely short bursts of character narration was extremely annoying as well. I also found myself skipping large chunks of loathsome characters, such as Teddy, whose storyline delivered nothing to the whole picture and was just hurled in to make up for a lack of story. So all in all, I was quite relieved when I came to the end of this series. I wish it had ended on a happier note.

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The day the Queen died

I was making dinner when I heard the announcement.  The radio was on in the kitchen and Radio 3 was playing some or other music (no idea what it was) when someone suddenly said:  “We interrupt this programme … ”

And I knew.

It shouldn’t have been shocking but it was.  It was obvious things weren’t well with the Queen but it didn’t occur to me that she’d die.  I’d hoped, very hard indeed, that she wouldn’t.  If she did, I thought it would break Britain. 

When the announcer finished saying what he’d come to say, they played the National Anthem and despite having lived here for nearly 40 years, I still don’t know the words and probably never will.  I clung onto the radio for support (a good solid wooden one) and I cried.  Because it was sad.  Because the Queen was this granny-figure whom I quite liked, having never had a grandmother of any sort.  Because it meant that Britain, already facing appalling hardship this winter and with a truly dreadful new PM at the helm, felt, in that moment, utterly broken to me. 

This sounds frightfully dramatic.  What I mean by broken is that people are already angry and frightened.  The fuel hikes are going to be a killer and the whole economy feels desperate.  If you add sadness into the general mix of fear and anger, you’re not looking at a country with any obvious joy in its immediate future.  Some sort of miracle would have to occur to fix this all up – if, that is, it’s at all fixable.  I’m not sure if the miracle would have to be political or divine.  I don’t know what it would take. 

As for Charles, I quite like him, though I only started liking him once he got older.  It felt as if he had managed to mature into someone I could respect.  I like that he was into being green and organic and saving the planet decades before it became trendy.  He used to be called a tree hugger.  Now we’re all looking for trees to hug. 

RIP Queenie
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Microfiction:  how my tiny writing got me back on track

I seem to have lost the knack of writing microfiction.  It was never something I thought about.  Much.  Or ever, to be honest.  But then the pandemic hit and the first lockdown came along and throttled all my writing efforts quite utterly to death. 

Lots of people said to me, oh yay, lockdown, great time to write.  Well, no, not actually.  My life was structured in a way that I had time to write every week anyway and I’ve always treated it professionally.  I sit down at my desk at the same time every day and work for the same number of hours.  I didn’t have any problem with staying home during the pandemic.  In fact, I really liked it!  So I shouldn’t have had any problem with my writing during the lockdowns.  After all, not much had changed, right? 

But there were two aspects that had:  one was the anxiety.  That first lockdown was pretty grim.  No one in the world knew what was going to happen.  Nor did we know how long the lockdown would last.  “Over by the summer” was obviously not on the cards.  Suffering from major-league anxiety at the best of times, this shouldn’t have made too much difference to my writing either. 

It’s only in hindsight that I’ve been able to work out what it was that almost killed me off a writer:  working from home.  My desk space, a sacrosanct area in the corner of my teeny tiny lounge (usually full of washing), was no longer just my writing space.  I had to do my Real Life job there as well.  I tried very hard to keep the WFH job apart from my writing “job” using all sorts of tricks to separate the two activities.  I used a different keyboard – for the WFH job, I used the keyboard that came with my current desktop, a keyboard I really hate.  When I write, I use the old one from my last desktop (which I had to stop using because the OS system went out of date).  I used a different mouse.  I tried to wear different clothes (I was getting desperate).  I drank my coffee out of different mugs. 

It didn’t work. 

Slowly, the WFH job began to encroach on my writing.  My computer felt contaminated with work stuff.  My desk was cluttered with work stuff.  I got sick of swapping keyboards around all the time.  I found myself checking work emails on days I wasn’t even meant to be working (it was a parttime job).  I couldn’t get space from my job which meant I couldn’t get space from my writing either. 

My writing began to suffer.  Everything I wrote was rubbish.  My ideas died.  Then I stopped having ideas altogether.  It felt as if I’d never be able to write again.  This is where microfiction comes into the story.  One of my lockdown walks took me down to the river which was quite wonderful without the traffic.  There were some pleasure boats parked on the river which had wonderful names and while gazing out fondly at them, a tiny piece of descriptive writing suddenly popped into my head.

That was the first piece of microfiction I ever wrote.  It’s still my favourite!  I still see those boats too!  After that, I used microfiction as a way to push my imagination.  I needed to teach myself how to get ideas again.  And it worked!

I certainly don’t see myself as a proper writer of microfiction – it has a number of rules and regulations and stylistic expectations which wasn’t what it was about for me.  Someone on Twitter said to me that I wasn’t writing microfiction, I was just writing first lines for a story.  Hmmm, well, no, not really.  In my tiny paragraphs, I could see entire novels, but then, it’s probable that I was the only person seeing those novels.  The tiny paragraphs worked for me but perhaps not for others.

I could generate ideas again.  I could write.  But more importantly, I could write something I actually liked.  My confidence as a writer returned. 

The microfiction remained as a legacy to that difficult period and I ended up only writing fifteen pieces.  Here is one of them.  To see the others, click here:  MICROFICTION

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Book Review – Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a wonderful book! Full of books you wish you’d read as a child with hilarious scenes of Lucy reading those books and not wanting to do ANYTHING except read them. Very funny and very informative, it made me want to go out and read them all! Sadly, there were so many I hadn’t heard of that it made me wonder what on earth I read when I was a child. I was never without a book either but didn’t have her father’s dedication to keep her stocked up with books. By age eleven, I’d read every William book I could get my hands on (oh, the joy when my stepfather uncovered a box of them in his father’s garage – the original red covers rather battered but still intact!). But I was also reading Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels at the same age, as well as anything that could remotely call itself science fiction. There were no YA books at that time so I basically went from “Pookie puts the world right” to “Let’s hear it for the deaf man.” Many children’s classics I only discovered when I began reading to my daughter and it was then that the world of books really opened up to me. Reading such a fantastic range of books has made Lucy Mangan a wonderful writer. All her books are a joy but this one takes the crown.

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Beautiful Bloomsbury

During lockdown, I took many photographs to share on my job’s Facebook page.  I called the series Beautiful Bloomsbury.  To my mind, it was beautiful because there were so few people in it!  The first lockdown took place during the most beautiful spring imaginable with stunning fluffy skies and garden squares awash with colour.  No litter, no traffic, no nutcases, no noise.  It was blissful.

Here are some of those photos:

I discovered St George’s Gardens during lockdown. This flowering tree was particularly stunning as it greeted me on my early morning walk.

An angel of peace in St George’s Gardens
This square is for keyholders only. I felt as if I was looking into a secret garden when I passed it every day.
The small community garden in Marchmont Street was locked for two years. We all thought it would never open again.
Shops I’d never noticed before suddenly sprang out at me during my early morning walks.
It was wonderful to see Russell Square so clean and quiet.
Gordon Square was locked for the duration too. No idea why. It felt as if the council was herding people onto Russell Square by locking so many of the smaller squares. You’d think creating crowds was the last thing you’d want during a pandemic, but then, the council isn’t reknowned for its common sense.
British Museum. Quiet streets.
Pavement garden at the bottom end of Great Ormond Street.
Slightly beyond the Bloomsbury borders – the Royal Courts of Justice.
When Gordon Square finally reopened, the roses were gorgeous.
My place of work (at the time of the lockdowns) overlooking Gordon Square.
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How deep does this drought go?

I love Windy.  It was introduced to me by a work colleague some years ago and I used to sit poring over it obsessively – usually looking for rain.  No doubt you’ve heard me whitter on endlessly about the severe lack of rain in Bloomsbury (which is in central London in case you didn’t know).  It turns out I wasn’t making it up.  It’s not just that I love rain and “imagine” it never rains.  It really DOESN’T ever rain.  By March, I could have told you that we were heading for a drought.  A weather pattern had set in and seemed unlikely to change.  You get a kind of “instinct” about weather patterns that probably comes about when you live in the same area for a while.  For decades, even.  For way, way too long. 

Nothing annoys me more than this weird fallacy that it’s “always raining in London.”  Er, no, it isn’t.  In central London, it has been getting drier and drier as the years go by.  One year in five (ten?) you may get a number of showers.  And that’s it.  It seldom rains in winter and seldom gets cold enough to bother with a big coat.  It never snows.  It never rains in spring.  If you’re really lucky, you’ll get some rain in August, which is when all the schools are shut for the holidays.  Yes, I know, every year is not the same, but generally speaking, this is the pattern.  I remember thunderstorms in May.  I remember deluges on Wimbledon when they were trying to play tennis in July.  I remember carrying an umbrella.  I don’t actually know where my umbrella is at the moment.  I literally haven’t used it since last autumn although I can’t say when exactly.  I’ve checked my diary (I obsessively record rainfall) and can’t actually find any rain.  November was mostly warm and utterly grey, as was December.  And January, now I come to think of it.  Oh wait, here’s an entry at last – it appears it last rained properly on August 9th 2021.  That’s over a year ago.  So we’ve been in this rainless state for literally a year.  There have been occasions when the terminal greyness produced drops in the air – you’d notice them if one landed on your cheek while out walking.  But none reached the ground.  It’s not just the grass that is deader than the deadest dead thing you ever saw, but the streets and squares of Bloomsbury are littered with dead saplings.  No one waters them.  No one gives a shit.  Most people, from what I can gather in conversation, utterly love it when it doesn’t rain.  They never want it to rain.  They want it to be dry ALL THE TIME.  Hey fuckers – THAT’S CALLED A DROUGHT.

Back to Windy.  I’m not any kind of expert on reading complex weather maps but the “drought intensity” toggle is interesting.  Looking at this recent image, why does it seem to be telling me that the drought intensity in the south east of England and the centre of Europe is GREATER than in the Sahara desert?  I thought deserts were the driest places on the planet?  This is some of the information I can find about the drought intensity applicable to the south east (with my bit of London in it):

Drought intensity compares the actual amount of water available to plants with the values recorded for the given area during the same time period of the year between 1961 and 2010. Each drought intensity class represents a particular drought period return probability.

D5 (Extreme drought):

  • Soil: Soil is dry and dusty, long term soil moisture deficit
  • Precipitation: Severe long term precipitation deficit, severe risk of wildfire occurrence
  • Vegetation: Extreme drought impacts on crops, expected yield loss of 40 % or higher, drought impact on grassland is causing cattle feed deficiency
  • Water bodies: River flows and water bodies level on multiple-year minimum, small bodies of water may dry out

Obviously it’s going to be normal for the Sahara not to get rain.  That doesn’t mean it’s a drought.  It’s just desert conditions.  The fact that I feel as if I’m living in a burning hot dry dusty dustbowl of horror is, possibly, just my personal opinion.  And an obsessional one at that.  It’s funny how you tend to obsess about the things you don’t have:  rain, money, a government that cares…..

PS  I wrote this blog on Sunday and am posting it today, Tuesday.  Last night (Monday) it rained for ten minutes.  Ten whole minutes.  I hung as far out my window as I could go and got as wet as I could.  It was bliss.

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Book Review: The Small Hand by Susan Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quiet novel of intense mood and atmosphere with moments of profound creepiness. Not particularly scary but definitely unnerving. I loved the premise of the story, the main character (who doesn’t want to be a dealer in antique books, travelling the world to weird and wonderful places to find them for disgustingly rich collectors) and the settings – from the English countryside to a hard-to-reach French monastery. I would have liked to have stayed in the monastery for far longer – it was by far the most interesting part of the book and promised more than it delivered. The writing itself was a pleasure to read with descriptions so evocative you are easily drawn in. Slight but intense, I enjoyed this hugely…..except for the denouement. I really didn’t buy the cause of all the spooky goings on and thought it lacked detail. I’m also not mad at everything coming out in a letter right at the end. It all felt a bit rushed and the twist lacked the kick it should have had. But worth reading for the beautiful prose alone.

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Book Review: Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Or three weddings and a funeral! After the phenomenal misery of Confusion, this came as a bit of a relief. For some of the characters, anyway! Without giving anything away, one of my favourite characters meets someone who is just lovely and they have a lovely wedding and you can just FEEL the years and years of happiness and contentedness ahead of them, one of those long marriages that people one day in the year 2000 or so will go: wow, they really knew how to stay married in the old days! Well, I like to think that because God knows we could do with a bit of joy. There is another wedding which is so unstated and barely discussed that even the woman’s children don’t know their mother is getting married that day. But again – lovely that two lonely older people found each other. The third marriage is implied. You know it’s going to happen anyway because at the end of each book is the first chapter of the next book – so I already know they’ve been married for ten years and have kids. I seem to remember that the radio version (having pretty much dropped most of the contents of the 3rd and 4th volumes) ended at this point. And the Cazalet story does feel finished at the end of this book. Ms Howard wraps everything up and you feel you are done. But then, when knitting, casting off is NOT the end. You still have to sew up all the pieces! The funeral, by the way, is not unexpected or particularly sad, but it does change the lives of some of the characters in a big way. Poor Rachel is finally afforded some self-awareness and happiness. Characters that really stood out for me in this novel are Polly, who finds herself; the Duchy, who imparts some wisdom and support in unexpected ways; and Archie, who has always been a strange, peripheral character but truly finds his feet here – and joy. If this review gives you the idea it’s all very soapy – it isn’t! None of the Cazalet Chronicles fall into soapiness. The depth and power of these novels is astonishing: Ms Howard has a profound understanding of life at that time and the changes wrought by the war. These novels are described as “charming” – I think of them much more as an unflinching social commentary of that era. Wonderful stuff.

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