20 October, 2014

Back to Future Books

Before the winner of the Man Booker Prize was announced this year, The Guardian released an interesting infographic on their Twitter feed showing when the previous winning novels were set. I think you should be able to see it here, whether or not you are on Twitter, but just in case, here are the stats in list form:


  • Set in the present: 16 winners
  • Set in a mixture of past and present: 10 winners
  • Set in the recent past: 9 winners
  • Set in the historical past: 12 winners
  • Set in the future: 0 winners
That's right - no Booker-winning novel has ever been set in the future. And, to be honest, I can't think of many good books that are set in the future. Can you? Within the last year or so I did read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, however, which is set in the not-too-distant future and, as with all her books, it was brilliant.

I think I associate the future with sci-fi - slick technology and metallic jumpsuits. That's not the sort of book I'm interested in. But - as The Handmaid's Tale proves - the future, and books set in it, might not be anything like that at all. In fact, I suppose one of my favourite books - 1984 - is set in the future (or it was when it was written) and is definitely not about some glorious age of adventure!

So my mission for the next six months is to read at least one book set in the future. Do you have any recommendations for me?

16 October, 2014

Quotable Friday (37)

The Man Booker Prize was awarded this week. It went to the Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan for his book The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Anyone read it?

Immediately after the award ceremony, the thing everyone was talking about was his speech. You can read it in full on The Guardian website here (it's short), but I thought I'd pick out a couple of the best quotations from it for a topical Quotable Friday.

"Novels are not content. Nor are they are a mirror to life or an explanation of life or a guide to life.
Novels are life, or they are nothing."

"To be a writer is to journey into humility. It is to be defeated by ever greater things."

08 October, 2014

Influential Books

In Writing Magazine this month there is a little news article about a list that's been drawn up of the top 20 most influential books written by women. The #ThisBook campaign was created by the organisers of the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction and voted for by members of the public.

We are all used to seeing lists like these - most popular/ best-selling/ most loved/ most donated to charity/ most borrowed from the library etc. etc. But the word "influential" interested me. According to this prize, an influential book is one that has "impacted, shaped or changed readers' lives". Can you think of a novel that has done this for you? I find it hard to think of one that has shaped or changed by life, although there are many books that have impacted me - haunted me for days or weeks (or more) after I've read them. On this blog I've run a blog series on "The Book..." - guest posts on books that have impacted the reader, from Roger Red Hat to The Great Divorce (click on 'The Book' tag below to see all the posts).

As a writer, influence is a different matter. In any art form, people talk about an artist's influences as something that can be seen through their work. It has become a cliche now for authors to say they don't want to be "the next JK Rowling/Iain Banks/Stephen King/whoever", they want to be the first one of themselves. I think it's obvious enough that we all want to be good writers in our own right, and not seen as jumping on any stylistic bandwagon. But that doesn't mean it's bad to be influenced by great writers. It's OK for political writers to be influenced by Orwell, or fantasy writers to adopt a flippant tone reminiscent of Terry Pratchett, so long as it's not an imitation.

So, are you influenced in your writing? I don't think I have any particular authors that have a deep impact on my (current!) style, but I have conciously tried to learn from published authors when it comes to certain aspects of my writing: the stark, brilliant descriptive power of John Steinbeck; the poetic prose of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; the gripping familiarity of Lionel Shriver; the suspense of Gillian Flynn. I wouldn't say any of that is obvious in my writing yet though!

So, back to the list of influential women writers. I have read the 13 green ones on the list and loved most of them. How about you? Am I missing out on the books I haven't read yet?

  • To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
  • The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
  • Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
  • Harry Potter - JK Rowling
  • Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
  • Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
  • Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier
  • Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
  • The Secret History - Donna Tartt
  • I Capture The Castle - Dodie Smith
  • The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
  • Beloved - Toni Morrison
  • Gone With the Wind - Margaret Mitchell
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver
  • The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
  • Middlemarch - George Eliot
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou
  • The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing
  • The Colour Purple - Alice Walker
  • The Women's Room - Marilyn French

03 October, 2014

Learning Poetry

I don't write about poetry on this blog very much. This is mostly because a) I know so very little about it and b) some people who might read this blog do know quite a lot about it. However, it was National Poetry Day yesterday so I thought I'd branch out.

My knowledge of poetry is limited. I don't read a lot of it, although when I do read it I wonder why I don't read more! I recently got out my tattered old copy of The Nation's Favourite Twentieth Century Poems which I loved reading as a teen. I was only meant to be looking up a line from Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas, to check I was quoting it correctly in a story I was writing, but of course I ended up reading for ages. It's full of humorous, romantic, sad and fascinating verses.

Michael Gove - the last education secretary here in the UK - said children should learn poetry by heart because "poetry is a piece of art you can own forever". Of course this meant that people, including certain poets, had to disagree with him because it's practically illegal here to agree with Michael Gove, but I personally think he's right in this case (Just this one, Mr. Gove. Just this one.) Poetry is great for language skills, public speaking skills, memory and enjoyment! What do you think? Did you learn poetry at school? Can you still remember any? I remember falling in love with Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney and Cousin Kate by Christina Rosetti in my English lessons.

I don't think I could choose a favourite poem. As with classical music, it would be something terribly mainstream anyway as I only know the popular stuff! I wrote out He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven by WB Yeats on my chest-of-drawers so I could read it in bed when I was about 16, and I can still remember it now. Other poems I learned by heart just for the pure joy of it include:
  • If - Rudyard Kipling
  • Not Waving But Drowning - Stevie Smith
  • Ballad of the Bread Man - Charles Causley
  • Still I Rise - Maya Angelou
  • Slough - Sir John Betjeman (I love all of his!)
I am also in love with the recording of WH Auden's poem Night Mail - you can hear it here - described by some as early hip-hop! Oooh, so many poems. What are your favourites?

I'll leave you with a poem I wrote on my bedside table in my teens because it summed up much of what I felt about life. I am an optimist!

Sometimes by Sheenagh Pugh

Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

30 September, 2014

Txtlit Again!

I'm pleased to say that I was a runner-up in the August edition of Txtlit.

I've talked about Txtlit before on this blog, but for those who haven't heard of it, it is a monthly competition to write a story in the length of a text message. There is a theme to stick to and entrants must use proper English - no text language. It's so quick to write an entry and only costs £1 to enter so I always intend to enter every month, but so far I average about once a year!

I've been lucky enough to win Txtlit a couple of times before and been a runner-up a few more times. The theme for August was 'The Other Side' and you can read the winning entry and the runners-up here - each story takes about 10 seconds to read!