Saturday, 27 April 2013

Lighthouses, Rooks and Wedding Cake Trees

Even though I should still be posting up my character blogs for the A-Z challenge, I'm afraid it is over for me. As much as I was enjoying writing them, I got distracted by arranging writing retreats for my new venture, Retreat West, which I started late last year after moving to Exmoor.

The one-day writing retreats in Exeter are how it all began, then came the short story competition, now there are workshops and residential retreats/writing holidays planned. The last two weeks have been consumed with planning a series of three Walk & Write events. These will offer retreat space and time for writers to immerse themselves in their writing with no distractions but will also feature workshops on using landscape and setting in fiction, and walking tours with more writing exercises. Although I suppose the name might have given that away already!

I'm very excited to have some great authors lined up for these events. The first is going to be held in October this year in a lighthouse cottage on the cliffs not far from where I live and will have, Alison Moore, whose debut novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Booker prize last year, doing a half day workshop about place in fiction. The guided tour will be by local author, Melanie Hudson, who has the Exmoor landscape as a big part of her debut novel, The Wedding Cake Tree.

The second one will be in March 2014 in a beach house on West Wittering beach in Sussex, which is the setting for Jane Rusbridge's novels, The Devil's Music and Rook. She will be doing a workshop and a walking tour of the beach and village that inspired her work.

Event three is still in very early planning stages but will be in London and look at using urban landscapes in fiction.

Hopefully these will just be the start of an ongoing series of Walk & Write events, and there will also be Just Write retreats and Cook & Write retreats with workshops on using food in fiction. Where would you like to see them happen and what authors would make these events exciting for you?

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Tuesday, 23 April 2013

S is for Stella

Oops, I missed a few days. Life got in the way of my Q and R posts and today I'm back with a guest post for S. My guest is Jenny Squire (picture here), who also made an appearance here in last year's A-Z

You can find Jen's brand new blog here, where she's going to be writing about writing, reading and music. Jen and I have been writing together for a few years now and even though I'm not allowed to say the 'N' word in her presence, I do believe she may actually be writing one! 

So my thanks go to Jen for today's post and for being my writing partner.

I remember reading My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, keen to understand more about
the author who established the most prestigious literary award in Australia. As with most
awards, many of the recipients have gone on to have strong careers, and some of the
decisions have been the subject of controversy and great debate. 

Until recently, a little too recently I must confess, I thought that Miles Franklin was a man.

Stella Maria Miles Franklin (1879 – 1954) was an Australian writer and feminist, and she was passionate about the survival of writers, literary magazines and writers’ organisations in Australia.

She wrote her famous novel, My Brilliant Career, as Miles Franklin, not wanting readers to
assume it was written by a woman. She was 21 years old in a time when women’s writing
wouldn’t be critiqued without bias. The novel went on to become an international success, and today is still regarded as an Australian classic.

Stella was a ‘real character’ who mixed with the Australian literary circle, worked in
women’s movements and progressive causes in Chicago and London, nursed Allied soldiers in the Balkans, and returned to Australia in the 1930s. She continued to write throughout, apparently often submitting work under pseudonyms, which were kept well hidden.

In the 1930s she returned to Australia, and continuing her passion for the development of
Australian literature, left terms in her will to establish the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Recently a new award, the Stella Prize, was established by a collection of donors and
supporters to celebrate women’s contribution to Australian literature. Also worth $50,000,
the inaugural prize has just been awarded to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds.

Rather than perpetuate the current and lively debate on women’s awards and whether they legitimately have a place in the literary world, I think it’s worth celebrating the legacy of Stella Maria Miles Franklin, her dedication and her impact on many writers’ success. And if you listen to Carrie Tiffany’s acceptance speech I hope you’ll agree.
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Thursday, 18 April 2013

P is for Pagan

Cover of "Lace"
Cover of Lace
I first read Shirley Conran's Lace when I was a teenage girl and probably too young to do so. I found it exotic and exciting and because I knew I probably shouldn't have been reading it, I felt daring and naughty and oh so grown up. I longed to lead the kind of life portrayed in the book instead of the humdrum one I had going on in small-town England, and as Pagan was the English girl I found myself casting myself in her role, although of all the main characters she was probably the one who was the least in charge of her own destiny.

Often dismissed by the literary world as just raunchy chick-lit, I recently re-read Lace to see what I thought of it now that I'm (apparently) a grown-up. And I'd have to say that although it's definitely raunchy, it's too dark for chick-lit and it actually addresses a lot of the harrowing elements of life: abortion, adoption, rape, the sex industry and adultery, to name a few. And the girl doesn't always get the boy in the end either.

But what I ultimately took away from it is that it's a story about friendship, and love, and loyalty. And it's also a story about women making their own way in the world. Pagan comes from an old aristocratic family whose way of life is disappearing. She's been bred to be a wife and not much more and after finishing school, where all of the main characters meet at the start of the story, she drifts into marriage with the wrong man and is a bored society wife living the ex-pat life in Egypt. I chose her out of all of the characters in the book as for me she was the most real, the most loyal of all the friends, and the one that needed looking out for the most. 

Even though it was 25 years between readings, the story drew me in just as much the second time around, although this time I could recognise that its real message appeared to be that women deserved to have orgasms! 
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Wednesday, 17 April 2013

O was for Oscar but now it's orangutans

I'm flagging a bit. And as much as I love books I'm feeling a little jaded with all these character posts. So even though I really enjoyed Peter Carey's prize-winning novel, Oscar and Lucinda, I just can't bring myself to write about Oscar today. Sorry Oscar.

All I'll say is it's a great book, Oscar is a great character and you should definitely read it!

Instead I am dedicating today's post to orangutans. Because I like them, they are under threat and we share 96.4% of our DNA with them.

So here are some orangutan facts (courtesy of Sumatran Orangutan Society) and pictures for you...

Fact 1: There are two species of orangutan - the Bornean orangutan and the Sumatran orangutan.

Fact 2: In the wild, orangutans can live up to the age of 45 or more. The oldest captive orangutan was a male called "Guas" at the Philadelphia Zoo who lived until he was 58 years old.

Fact 3: The word orangutan comes from the Malay language and means 'person of the forest' - from the words ‘orang' meaning people and ‘hutan' meaning forest.

Fact 4: Orangutans have one baby at a time. The young orangutans stay with their mother and learn from her until they are 7 or 8 years old - this is longer than any other mammal except humans.

Fact 5: Orangutans are Great Apes - so are humans.

Fact 6: Just 100 years ago there were thought to be 315,000 orangutans in the wild. There are now less than 6,600 left in Sumatra, and less than 54,000 in Borneo. It is thought that Sumatran orangutans may be the first Great Apes to become extinct unless people help to protect them.

Find out how you can help the orangutans here
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Tuesday, 16 April 2013

N is for Nick

Today I am looking at a character that I didn't like but found his voice so compelling that I wanted to carry on reading: Nick in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which was nominated for the Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize).

Debi Alper recommended I read it when she was teaching me on the Self-Editing Your Novel Course earlier this year as it is based on a wife who disappears, and my novel is about a husband that disappears. But that's where the similarities end I think, well hope, as I believe my main character is sympathetic and likable whereas Nick is anything but.

After Amy's disappearance a tale of a marriage in meltdown is revealed. Formerly the golden couple living the dream in New York, both Nick and Amy lost their jobs after the financial crisis and have been mainly living on handouts from Amy's wealthy parents back in small town Missouri where Nick hails from. Handouts that Nick has spent on buying a bar, which he runs with his sister, and that Amy thinks she is owed as her parents' wealth comes from writing a series of children's books based on her life as she grew up.

When foul play is suspected in Amy's disappearance Nick is the prime suspect. He admits to the reader right at the start that he is hiding something and lies to the police throughout but never reveals what he is lying about. At the same time as the narrative moves forward in Nick's voice from the time of the disappearance, there is a dual narrative from Amy's point of view telling the story of their relationship before it all went wrong. It's very clever and I don't want to give anything away but it ended up not being what I thought at all. 
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Monday, 15 April 2013

M is for Me

I'm having a little break from characters today and dedicating my blog to me - shameless, I know! A little while ago one of my readers nominated me for a Liebster blog award so I thought I'd use today's post to thank her, and respond to the actions that come with it. So thanks very much to Sharon Himsl whose blog, Shells, Tales and Sails, is well worth checking out too.

Sharon's questions for me:

  1. What is your favorite form of recreation? It has to be writing, closely followed by reading. But when it's not all about words I like to go out walking in beautiful places and I also like to bake.
  2. What kinds of books do you read? I read all sorts. Women's fiction, thrillers, crime, literary fiction, chick-lit, short stories - it all depends what kind of mood I'm in. Sometimes I go through phases where I read loads of books in a row all set in one time - the Vietnam War and WW2, have both been periods I was obsessed with for a bit! 
  3. Why did you start blogging? Mainly because I love to write and I'm always looking for a distraction from actually getting on and writing my novel! But also to connect with other readers and writers and talk endlessly about books.
  4. Do you read books on an e-reader or prefer printed books? Although I prefer printed books I do have a Kindle as I just don't have enough space to keep all the books I get through and I hate having to get rid of them.
  5. Name two actors or authors you admire. Actors - I'm a big fan of Lesley Manville and Timothy Spall, both of whom appear regularly in Mike Leigh's films and plays. Authors - I could go on for a long time but will limit myself to saying Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell.
  6. What makes you laugh? My husband, my cat, animals in general, Stewart Lee and currently the TV programme, The Mimic, has been making me chuckle a lot.
  7. Which do you prefer and why: dogs or cats? I can't choose - I love them both!
  8. When or where do you feel most creative? Much as it surprises me I am now definitely a morning person and getting away from everyday life to writing retreats and immersing myself in my writing really helps me to be at my most creative. I'd like to go to one for a week every month if I had the money! 
  9. What is your favorite fast food or snack? I have a real thing for Nairn's Cheese Oatcakes and eat them most days.
  10. Do you have a special place you go to relax? I'm lucky enough to live in a very beautiful part of the world - Exmoor National Park - and I go out walking on the moors, on the beaches, through the woods and on the coastal paths as often as I can.
  11. Do you have a favorite comic strip? Um,  no. When I was little I used to like the Love Is one though, and Snoopy.
  12. If you could travel back in time, where would you like to go? Kyoto, Japan, in the 1800s to see the Geishas and take part in a tea ceremony.

11 Random Facts About Me

  1. As much as I like elephants I wish everyone would stop giving me so many elephant-related gifts now!
  2. While my husband and I were backpacking in Fiji in 2000 there was a coup, the government was overthrown by rebels and martial law was declared.
  3. Even though I do all the things you should to prevent it I have bad circulation and always have cold hands.
  4. I love doing Bikram Yoga and really miss going to classes since moving to Devon.
  5. Cooking relaxes me.
  6. I play Scrabble on my phone too much.
  7. I'm a dreamer.
  8. I never watch the news or read the newspapers.
  9. Re-reading books I've enjoyed is one of my favourite things to do.
  10. When I discover new authors I like I always read lots of their books one after the other.
  11. I eavesdrop on conversations everywhere I go.

The blogs I nominate are:

Sorry, I couldn't get to 11 as I'm not that good at keeping up with lots of blogs but the first three are ones I have been reading for a long while now, and the second two I have discovered as part of the A-Z challenge this year.

My questions for the blog owners I have nominated are:

  1. What do you do to relax when you suffer from insomnia?
  2. What's the worst holiday you ever had?
  3. Where's your favourite place to write?
  4. If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be?
  5. White, dark or milk chocolate?
  6. What's your favourite thing to have on toast?
  7. Which book do you wish you'd written and why?
  8. Film adaptations of novels - love them or hate them?
  9. Do you think Al Pacino is overrated as an actor?
  10. Coffee or tea?
  11. Would you ever do a sky dive?

Liebster Award Rules:

  • Thank the blogger who presented you with the Liebster Award, and link back to his or her blog. 
  • Answer the 11 questions from the nominator; list 11 random facts about yourself, and create 11 questions for your nominees. 
  • Present the Liebster Award to 11 bloggers, who have blogs with 200 followers or less, whom you feel deserve to be noticed. Leave a comment on the blogs letting the owners know they have been chosen. (No tag backs.)
  • Upload the Liebster Award image to your blog.

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Saturday, 13 April 2013

L is for Lizzie

Writing all of these character blogs for this year's A-Z challenge I've realised how many of the novels I've included are debuts. And today's is no exception. Sworn Secret is the first novel from Amanda Jennings and it's very powerful indeed. With three narrators, John, Kate and Lizzie, the story tells of a family's grief, anger and confusion after the sudden death of a beloved daughter and sister. 

Lizzie is the teenage narrator who has lost her elder sister, Anna. The sister she always looked up to, the sister she is devastated to have lost, but also the sister she wants to leave behind in the past while she gets on with growing up. Lizzie has also lost her mother as she has been so caught up in her grief over Anna's death she has shown no interest in the daughter that she still has. Until secrets from Anna's life are revealed that tarnish the memories everyone has of her, and prompt Lizzie's parents into becoming smothering and over protective of her.

To escape from the misery of her home life Lizzie focuses all of her energies on the fact that she is falling in love for the first time. But she's falling in love with the wrong person and when her secret love affair is revealed it threatens to send the family even further off track. Despite everything that life throws at her, Lizzie blossoms into a confident and smart young woman who finally steps out from Anna's shadow without ever letting go of her love for her. Lizzie made me laugh, she made me cry, and I got angry on her behalf but she also made me wish I could have dealt with life so well at that age.

Friday, 12 April 2013

K is for Kate

Regular readers of my blog will know that I am a great fan of Isabel Ashdown's work and that her novel Hurry Up and Wait inspired one of my A-Z posts last year - about the use of dreams in fiction. Well that very same book has made it on to my list for this year's challenge as well and today's post is dedicated to Kate - best friend of the novel's main character, Sarah (who I also wanted to include but there were so many contenders for the S slot that I decided just Kate would have to do). 

What stood out for me about Kate was how real she was. I knew many girls like her growing up in small town England and I know that women from any era in any town will recognise her. Sometimes bitchy, occasionally completely poisonous and always very self-absorbed, Kate wears the latest clothes, listens to the coolest music, is rude and aggressive to the teachers, sleeps with all the boys. But she can also be really nice, when she feels like it, and lots of fun. Her obvious flaws are overlooked by Sarah because of the laughs, and rare emotional support, she provides and the more we find out about Kate's home life, the more we understand where the nasty side of her character has come from, and why. Although, despite what is eventually revealed, I never find myself condoning it.

This novel is an excellent portrayal of the time it is set in - the late 1980s - and an even better one of the dynamics of the intense friendships between teenage girls - madly in love one minute, despising each other the next - and the lasting effects these fickle years can have. I can't recommend it enough and also can't wait for July to come around when Isabel's next novel, Summer of '76, will be published. 
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Thursday, 11 April 2013

J is for Janusz

Initially I was put off reading 22 Britannia Road by the title, I'm not really sure why, but I'm glad I took the time to read some reviews and give it a try anyway as it is an impressive debut. Author, Amanda Hodgkinson, has skilfully created three very distinctive voices and weaved them all together to tell a sad but ultimately hopeful tale. 

Janusz is a Polish immigrant settling down in England after fighting with the Allies in WWII and he shares the narration with his wife, Silvana, and young son, Aurek. The story focuses on the tale of their reunion in England after the end of the war - Aurek doesn't remember his father and in the six years that Janusz and Silvana have been apart their young idealistic notions about life have been shattered completely. They don't know how to be together, they don't know how to be a part of English society, and they don't know how to share their feelings about the horrors they've lived through while apart, and the measures they went to in order to survive them.

Janusz doesn't actually want to share it all anyway. He wants to put it all behind him and make the most of the new life they have in England. He wants to do well at work, he wants a son to be proud of and a wife that loves him. Instead he gets a son who is bordering on the feral after spending the majority of his life living in the forests, and who has no concept of school or societal and patriarchal expectations. He also gets a wife who is filled with secrets and doesn't want to be parted from her son. When Janusz separates them to make Aurek attend school, he becomes the enemy in both their eyes.

With the details of the happy past before the war, and the war years themselves, weaved into the present day tale, its Janusz's naivety that made him stand out for me. That despite what he had witnessed he still held on to the simple belief that love will make it all better in the end. Whether it does or not, I won't reveal! 

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

I is for Isabel

Helen Dunmore's novel, Talking to the Dead, is narrated by Nina who goes to stay with her sister, Isabel, who has just given birth to her first child in a difficult labour that resulted in a hysterectomy.

Set in a blazing hot summer in Cornwall the claustrophobia engendered by the heat is offset by the chill that comes from Isabel, who seems to be a selfish and uncaring person much like the mother she grew up with. With the strange, smothering bond that you often find with literary sisters (I'm thinking The Distance Between Us and Dancing at Lughnasa) also prevalent in this tale, it seems hard to know whose side to be on as the story unfolds and nobody is presented in a very flattering light. 

Things spiral out of control as Isabel's mental health deteriorates and the presence of her baby son brings to light memories that both her and Nina have suppressed since childhood. In an interview I read with Helen Dunmore about this book, she talks about not giving psychological explanations for her characters' behaviour but letting the readers make up their own minds about things. That's one of the things I like most about her writing, that and the beauty of her prose, and for me the thing that really stands out about Isabel is the conflict she created in me. Sometimes I can justify what she does, sometimes I can't. Sometimes I pity her, other times I think she's a monster. All I can really say is read it and make up your own mind about her, if you can. 
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Tuesday, 9 April 2013

H is for Henry

Raymond Carver
Raymond Carver (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Henry is the narrator of Raymond Carver's short story, What Did You Do in San Francisco? He is a postman in a rural town in 1950s America who lives life by the rules but that life is disturbed by the arrival of a new family on his route. His opening line is: "This is nothing to do with me." But even though the narration centers on the story of the family, it is in fact all about Henry and it's his beliefs and his morality that come shining through when he remembers the Marston family that lived on his route for a brief time one summer. 

The parents in this new family are what Henry perceives to be 'beatniks' as the wife paints and the husband has a beard and no job. In short, they go against every way of life that Henry has ever put stock in and you know that he believes his feelings about the couple are completely justified by the troubles that ultimately befall them. 

In the self-editing your novel course that I completed earlier this year, we learnt about putting characters into action to show what they feel and think - and through the action of telling the Marston's story, Henry reveals a lot about himself without ever realising he is doing it. It's when I read writing like this that I wonder if I have a chance in hell of ever being anywhere near this good, but it makes me want to work even harder to try and get there. 

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Monday, 8 April 2013

G is for Gregor

Cover of "The Metamorphosis"
Cover of The Metamorphosis
In The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka Gregor turns into an insect one night while he is sleeping. Although he has the body of an insect he still has his own mind (which made me think of the game Andy and Maggie play all the time in Extras - if you had to choose between having the body of an insect and your own mind or your body and the mind of an insect, which one would it be?) and why I have chosen Gregor for my G post is that he really seemed to take it all in his stride, all things considered.

Although obviously perturbed by being an insect, his real concern seemed to be for the sensibilities of his sister and mother who had to look after him. I've been reading lots of short stories recently, in an effort to master the writing of them, and the weirdness of this one really made it stick in my mind. Rather than being completely freaked out by what had happened, everyone in the family just seemed to find it a bit embarrassing so the whole story seemed even more surreal than the subject matter made it and everything seemed a bit off kilter, while at the same time being very concerned with mundanities such as eating, cleaning and paying the rent. Brilliant! 
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Saturday, 6 April 2013

F is for Flood

OK, I have cheated a bit here. My A-Z theme was supposed to be all about characters but I am so excited by the fact that the third in Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, MaddAddam: A Novel, is coming out this summer that I have snuck this in here. 

I know it should probably have gone in under M but I just couldn't bring myself to replace the character booked in for there, so as the second in the trilogy is The Year of the Flood, here it has appeared. 

What I love about the two books so far in this trilogy, and all of the work she has written in the 'speculative fiction' genre, is that they create a future world that we could so easily end up living in and provide a scathing commentary on modern morality in today's developed societies without ever seeming preachy. But, at heart, they are about relationships, and people, and love. All of the things that I want to read and write about.

So in honour of the greatness of Margaret Atwood's writing, here's the lady herself talking about The Year of the Flood. 

Friday, 5 April 2013

E is for Esther

Cover of "Frozen Music"
Cover of Frozen Music
Frozen Music by Marika Cobbold stars Esther, and I liked her a lot. Essentially this is a girl meets boy story, and I can never resist a good love story, but it has also got a lot more to it than that.

Esther has always been very serious with a very well-developed, some might say over-developed, sense of right and wrong and no time for the middle ground. But this is just an attempt to find order in what for her is a confusing and chaotic world filled with people whose morals and priorities she just can't understand. Working as a journalist she takes up arms in defense of an elderly brother and sister who are going to lose the only home they've ever known as it stands in the way of a new opera house development. It's this crusade that finally makes her realise that things in life are never as black and white as they seem.

What I liked so much about Esther was that she was flawed, a social misfit, intense, neurotic and, most of all, very very funny. I live in hope that I can create such rounded, sympathetic characters.
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Thursday, 4 April 2013

D is for Dolores

Cover of "She's Come Undone - 1993 public...
Cover of She's Come Undone - 1993 publication
Dolores Price is the heroine of Wally Lamb's debut novel, She's Come Undone. As the title suggests, Dolores life goes seriously off track after a childhood that includes the death of a sibling in childbirth; discovering her much-loved father is an adulterer; and having to go and live with a stern and unemotional grandmother when her own mother has a mental breakdown. A lifetime of misfortune in many formats follows but because of the voice that Wally Lamb has created for Dolores it never actually feels like hard going.

She is delusional, obsessive, surly and sometimes alarming but also self-deprecating, funny, endearing and really easy to relate to. As I've been learning to write fiction over the last few years one of the things that comes up time and time again in the different classes that I do is that if you create a compelling voice for your character that reels people in, no matter what happens in the story, or what those characters might do, people will care.

I think Dolores is a fine example of this in action. She has a horrendous time and behaves in ways that are very scary and really not right, but it doesn't matter. I liked her, I cared about what happened to her and the fact that the book didn't have the fairytale happy ending that she was looking for made her character, and the novel, all the more stronger. Dolores made me laugh, she made my skin crawl and she made me cry - not once did she ever bore me.
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Wednesday, 3 April 2013

C is for Canning

Few of the characters that I'm looking at for the A-Z challenge are secondary, but Canning is one of them. The Imposter by Damon Galgut tells Adam's story, who after losing his home and his job leaves Johannesburg and retreats to a rural South African town to write poetry.

Once there he wallows in self-pity, alcohol and loneliness until he bumps into Canning at the supermarket. Apparently they went to school together and although Canning is delighted to see him and revive the relationship, Adam doesn't actually remember him. Even so he accepts his invitation to stay at the game farm Canning has inherited from the father who hated him; and so begins a strange and dangerous summer.

Canning is involved in some nefarious deals with local politicians to turn his game farm into a golf resort, has an ex-prostitute wife that he claims to adore but who obviously doesn't love him, and seems determined to uphold the illusion that Adam is his best friend and always has been, no matter how much Adam's behaviour may signify differently. 

As the summer heat intensifies, the tension rises and Canning starts to appear in a different light. Although initially he seems to be a sad and foolish man in the end you are left wondering who the real fool in this novel is. 

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

B is for Benny

The Tax Inspector
The Tax Inspector (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My next character is Benny in The Tax Inspector. I'm a great fan of Peter Carey's work, which is evidenced by two of his characters making my A-Z list this year. Many of his narrators are memorable but Benny sticks in my mind as even though he is obviously dangerously unhinged, I couldn't help liking him. 

At 16, he is the youngest member of the dysfunctional Catchprice family, three generations of which live and work together in the family car dealership. Driven by the teachings of the self-help CD he has invested in, Benny invests in a new suit and a new haircut as part of his efforts to turn himself into the best car salesman ever and save the business, which is on the brink of bankruptcy when the tax inspector, Maria, comes to do her audit. 

As the rest of the family tries to hide their dodgy financial dealings from the heavily pregnant Maria, Benny, who believes he is in the process of transforming into an angel, sets out to seduce her so that she will drop her investigation. Instead he falls in love with her and his love quickly turns to dangerous obsession.

Delusional, psychotic, aspirational and vulnerable, Benny is a character that stays in your mind long after the book has ended. 

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Monday, 1 April 2013

A is for Alice

Cover of "After You'd Gone"
Cover of After You'd Gone
My blog today is dedicated to Alice, the main character in Maggie O'Farrell's debut novel, After You'd Gone. For me, this is still the best novel that Maggie has written but I think that's more to do with the time and place I was at in my life when I read it than a reflection on the quality of her later novels, particularly The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and The Hand That First Held Mine

I was in my late twenties when After You'd Gone was published and had recently got married so the story really resonated with me. As well as the narrative of Alice meeting, falling in love with and marrying, John, there is another storyline that tells of her difficult relationship with her mother and John's with his father. In essence, this is a story about love - both passionate love and family love - and the power it has to transform, but also to destroy, lives. And how easy it can be to love someone but hate them for their awful behaviour at the same time. 

In honour of the impact that Alice's story had on my life (I have re-read it many, many times), for the first A-Z blog of 2013 I wrote a slightly bastardised limerick about her (spoiler alert - only read if you know the story or don't intend to read it!).

There was a very sad woman called Alice,
Whose life had been ruined through malice
She’d met and married the lovely John
But thanks to terrorist bombs he was gone
And she found it hard to see how she could carry on
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