How many books can you read in a year?

 

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A recent haul of murder mysteries from one of my local op shops.

 

I know a lot of people committing themselves to reading challenges during 2017, undertaking to read X number of books in 12 months. It seems to be a trend fuelled by sites such Goodreads, which thrive on reviews.

However, it’s something I personally just can’t do.

The very idea of tying myself to reading a specific number of books over a 12-month period seems slightly crazy and, if I’m honest, repellant – like I might be cheating some of those books the focus and contemplation they deserve. I tend to read crime books and thrillers quickly, but like to take my time with biographies, memoirs and other non-fiction titles.

We (you, me, the reading public) seem to set ourselves up with enough pressure through self-imposed work and home deadlines without forcing our leisure activities to submit to the same fierce timetables we insist upon in other areas of our lives. Reading isn’t a competition (unless it’s the MS Readathon and you were eight and you nailed it by reading loads of books in the local library and fundraising even more, not that I’m boasting).

I understand reading challenges are terrific activities for those who should be reading more to improve their literacy and (more importantly for authors) cultivate a passion for literature in the young. After all, those young readers will one day be older book buyers. Reading challenges certainly have their place.

So no, I’m not committing to reading X number of books during 2017. But I will be reading quite a lot.

In case you were wondering, based on my own reading habits I know I read around 60 or more tomes spread across the year. I don’t review everything I read because A) time restraints, and B) some books are just diabolically bad and should never be mentioned in polite company again.

Whatever you’re reading – and I’d love to hear your recommendations – enjoy!

 

 

 

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December: Initiations, curses, resolutions and a heatwave

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December was ridiculously busy. It felt like there was a Christmas morning tea or lunch on every other day. There were events to attend, catch-ups to be carried out, cards to write and send, and trees to decorate – and I still didn’t get around to honouring every social engagement. While it was in parts the Christmas season was very enjoyable it was also very rushed – I seemed to be always looking ahead to what needed doing instead of being a bit more present and enjoying the moment.

Of a weekend there were markets, meet-ups with friends and family, and an ever-growing list of mundane home-related tasks that required my attention away from work and the trusty laptop. So many, in fact, I wondered if there was time for sleep during the heady four weeks of December.

And then there was the heat – the unrelenting 30C-40C+ string of days that left us (pet friends included) wilting like old lettuce. Just this very evening – New Year’s Eve in fact – a thick mist has rolled in and cotton-balled our house, finally driving the temperature down a few degrees. We’re still sweating it out, but looking forward to ringing in 2017. If you’ve read this far – Happy New Year! May the next 12 months be all that you hope for (in my case that is, among other things, a lot cooler!).

As for New Year’s resolutions, I’m working on a few. Remember, if rats can learn basketball, then you and I can too!

Writing

I’ve been exploring the nature of curses (important research) and, as I have all year, the relationship we have with our ‘Good Neighbours’ aka faeries. My passion project has been penning a series of interlinked stories for a dark little novella that combines folklore and fantasy. Hopefully it works – my reader guinea pigs report back that they love it.

I’ve also been working on developing an outline for a cosy mystery, something that has been boiling away on the rear hotplate of the stovetop that is my brain.

I’ll be honest, I’m a very confident writer in the realm of non-fiction but when it comes to fiction I have always felt out of my depth. I have a major case of the ‘not good enoughs’. I think they call it imposter syndrome? Anyway, I don’t want to sound too whingey, I’ll slay my own dragons. I’ve never been a big believer in Writer’s Block, I think it should be renamed ‘Writer’s Apathy’, which is spot on the money. You can write your way through anything. Writer’s Anxiety, though, that’s another thing altogether!

Reading

Not so much of this went on as I would have liked, but I did need to fit in some sleep this month along with everything else. Here’s what I did read and enjoy…

Initiation by Ly de Angeles (Createspace) – A ripping read. You can peruse my standalone review here.

I came across a few more Rebecca Tope books, which I have now passed on to my mother. It turns out quite a few of my friends are also fans of her writing. So do yourself a favour! These two books form part of Tope’s ‘West Country Mysteries’ series and don’t feature Thea Osborne but one of them does take us back to Drew Slocombe’s earlier days:

A Death to Record (A West Country Mystery) by Rebecca Tope – Talk about your twisted love triangles! I really enjoyed this mystery, which followed Detective Sergeant Den Cooper’s investigation of a murder on the farm of a man who is now dating his ex-fiance. Awkward. All of Tope’s skills and experience come to bear in this book, which leverages her insights as a former undertaker and farmer (she really should have had a stab at policing as well, but she also explores that POV quite well regardless). A riveting read.

Dark Undertakings (A West Country Mystery) by Rebecca Tope – Working as a freshly minted undertaker must be challenging enough but what do you do when you suspect a death that has been judged a heart attack by a respectable doctor may, in fact, have been a poisoning? Tope loves to put her characters in difficult and often dire straits, and this novel is no different. Drew Slocombe follows his gut instinct and while investigating lays bare a string of family secrets in a small village.

The holiday reading pile beckons!

My Summer Reading Pile…

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I hate being without a book to read. I hate it so much that when I’m commuting to work I usually have two or three stashed in my bag ‘just in case’.

So when the Christmas break approaches – however short it may be – I usually have a ready pile of reading matter stacked neatly next to my bed or stowed in my travelling case.

This Summer in no particular order I’ll be reading:

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaaronovitch (Finally! Been waiting for ages…)
Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
The Good People by Hannah Kent
A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee (The hardcover edition is seriously pretty!)
A Very British Murder by Lucy Worsley
Fashion On The Ration by Julie Summers (You can read my thoughts on Jambusters here.)

So you can see, a nice broad cross-section of fiction and non-fiction covering everything from ghost stories, crime, and war to fantasy, superstition and folklore.

What about you? If you have any good book recommendations I’d love to hear them.

Happy reading!

November: Book readings, Grammarly, novels and NANOWRIMO

 

 

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I don’t normally write by candlelight on an old typewriter – but when I do it’s with a wine glass balanced on top! Not a bad way to spend an evening. Pic: Tim Hartridge

 

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November was action-packed. And hot! I attended the Sydney Storytellers event at the Stoneleigh Hotel, an immersive installation set up in a historic building in Kensington Street, Sydney (renamed ‘Spice Alley’, for those in the know, and bursting with tasty, colourful eateries).

New Zealand-based Stoneleigh Wines was behind the venture and ensured the vino was flowing all night, complemented by a giant cheese platter. It was one of the hottest evenings I’ve spent in Sydney and there were many shiny faces as we tried to compensate for the humidity by drinking more chilled sauvignon blanc (perhaps not the wisest move, there was a slight hangover the next day). All in all, it was a brilliant night. Wine and writing, the ultimate pairing!

 

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Authors Anna Westbrook, Sulari Gentill, Alexandra Joel and Josephine Pennicott read pieces from their latest work while the audience waited to have books signed. Pic: Rebecca Lang

 

Writing

November means Nanowrimo, but despite my best effort, I didn’t quite nail those 50,000 elusive words. I blame work. And stuff. General tiredness. Sunshine and flowers. Distractions. Food. But it was still a pretty productive time. I was still writing and progressing my urban fantasy piece.

I’ve also been trialling Grammarly’s free Grammar Checker app. Occasionally it’s distracting, particularly when it tells me to change my words to American spellings (sorry American friends, for us it’s colour not color). On the whole, though, it’s a neat little tool that, I’m pleased to say, I don’t have to rely on too often – only when I type too fast and leave a litany of typos in my wake.

 

Reading

Some great books found me in November.

Superfluous Murder by Hazel Holt (Macmillan London) – I’d previously never heard of Hazel, mother of novelist Tom Holt, who wrote a series of books based around a village detective character not unlike Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries. Holt’s Sheila Malory is a slightly more modern, and younger, take on the elderly single female sleuth. The style is engaging and the twist/murderer reveal, while I picked it, would have been a pretty fresh take in 1995 when this was first published. I found this book up at my local train station book exchange for free, so I’ll be chasing up Holt’s other books online.

The Three Miss Allens by Victoria Purman (Harlequin Mira) – This is a story that spans generations and families with plenty of romance and history, not to mention a mystery! (Some unintentional rhyming going on there.) The book is set in one of my favourite time periods, the 1930s, and follows Roma Harris in the present-day as she moves to the small town of Remarkable Bay in South Australia. Roma runs into her distant cousin Addy who, like her, is bunkering down and taking time out from life. When the pair discover an old guest book with a family name they don’t recognise, they set out to solve a family mystery.

Wayward Pines trilogy by Blake Crouch (Thomas & Mercer) – It’s hard to convey just how much I enjoyed this series. As thrillers go, it certainly was a heart-pounding read. I actually had to put one of the books down as I was reading it in bed and knew with my heart rate skyrocketing the way it was,  I’d never go to sleep! I devoured the books in the space of 10 days, fitting in readings on train journeys and before bed. I’d recommend writers seeking to improve their pacing and sense of suspense use these books as a template for manipulating the blood pressure of readers. Now I’m hunting down the new Wayward Pines Fox adaptation starring Matt Dillon and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

 

 

A nod to a contemporary ghost story

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It’s a long time between drinks here on the blog – I think I should rename this little corner of the Internet ‘The Inconstant Blogger’; a faithful online diarist I am not.

Anyhoo, just thought I’d break the drought and post a quick nod to one of my long-time favourite authors Phil Rickman.

I’ve been a fan for more than 20 years (yikes!) and I’m pleased to have watched the growing popularity of such a talented and exceptional writer who has gathered about him a passionate and very active fan base of readers.

His latest book, Night After Night, is classic contemporary ghost story fare by someone who knows his terror from his horror, and when to play up each element to full effect.

I’ve just posted my review over at Amazon.com. But for the lazy, here it is:

A tightly written, suspenseful ghost story with a twist, Night After Night leaves the reader questioning what’s real, and what’s unreal.

We’re quickly drawn into the cut-throat world of reality television, which serves as the platform for a ‘Big Brother’ style program that places participants – fading celebrities, skeptics and believers alike – into a so-called haunted house for several weeks in the pursuit of ‘great telly’.

Drawn into this circus are old-school spiritual warriors Grayle Underhill (journalist) and Cindy Mars Lewis (a cross-dressing shaman), two faces already well-known in the Rickmanverse as stalwarts of his ‘Will Kingdom’ novels, Cold Calling and Mean Spirit. By the by, if ever two characters deserved more than a couple of books, it’s the colourful Grayle and Cindy (and their associates).


Rickman skillfully weaves the many strands of this well-plotted story, which features, as always, the landscape as a character – in this instance the brooding Belas Knap, a nearby neolithic burial mound.


Nobody explores the foggy, grey boundaries of crime and the supernatural better than Rickman.

Bring on the next one!

Be warned, once you read one of Phil’s books you’ll be hooked, but it’s okay because Rickman has quite the backlist so you’ll be entertained for some time to come.

If you’re all up to speed on your Rickmans then head on over to your reviewing platform of choice and share the love. Reviews help sell books, and nothing’s sweeter than word-of-mouth endorsements.

And if you’re still hankering for a fix and want to keep your head in the spooky, dark Rickmanverse, I highly recommend joining and participating in the Phil Rickman Appreciation Society (aka PRAS, a Facebook-based fan group that PR himself visits from time to time). A friendlier bunch of book lovers with discerning musical and fashion taste you will not meet…

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Working holidays, writing myths, and patrons

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Has it really been more than a month since I posted on this dear old blog? What the hell have I been up to? Well, dear reader, I’ve been enjoying a bit of a working holiday.

I spent a good three weeks undertaking some firsthand research for a long-term non-fic book project, which entailed camping out in the wilderness of Tasmania.

And I’ve been busy pulling together some anthology projects, the first of which is an M.R. James inspired collection of creepy tales authored by some very exciting (several of which are very well known) authors.

It’s going to be a cracking collection, and I’m sure old Montague, if he were about, would certainly approve!

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I’ve also engaged in a bit of crime – watching it on the box, that is – enjoying Murdoch Mysteries (S1 – there’s another 7 to watch, apparently!), and some tense, nail-biting drama in the form of Broadchurch (S2), and Fortitude. All highly recommended.

The latter two series do a good trade in red herrings – more potential suspects than you can poke a stick at, but at least the plots keep you coming back for more.

Of course there have been other casualties during this fallow writing period – most tellingly the garden and the housework. It’s hard to get your work ethic back after several weeks of communing with nature, but one does have to pay the bills.

Speaking of the bills (of which there are many, I think they were breeding under the fridge!) I stumbled across a series of interesting posts about how writers *really* financially support themselves. There is a prevailing belief that most writers just write all day, miraculously making ends meet while churning out moderate to excellent prose.

Well, some do. While others can, largely thanks to inheritances or wealthy patrons (read: spouses or family trusts), plod along and write whenever they please. But most of us work other jobs. I’d urge you to read the many comments and links, and enjoy the honest revelations.

Here’s the post that kicked it all off, Ann Bauer’s “Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from. It’s refreshing, and it’s raw. And we’re all green with envy, Ann! Your bloke sounds like he needs cloning 🙂

Today, I am essentially “sponsored” by this very loving man who shows up at the end of the day, asks me how the writing went, pours me a glass of wine, then takes me out to eat. He accompanies me when I travel 500 miles to do a 75-minute reading, manages my finances, and never complains that my dark, heady little books have resulted in low advances and rather modest sales.

As for me – yes I do work full-time as a writer, but not for myself. My own writing is largely done on the train each day early in the morning or evening, or on Sunday afternoons. Sometimes it’s churned out during fits of insomnia. But it’s rarely if ever penned between the hours of 9-5. That time, friends, belongs to The Day Job, without which I would not be able to fund much of what I do, including living and eating.

At the moment my independently-published books break even and pay for themselves production-wise with a bit more besides, and I have a trade-published book that presents me with a nice combined ELR-PLR payment each June, equating to slightly less than a week’s pay. Icing on the passive income that is the book royalty.

I write for pleasure, and for interest.

I don’t write for profit – yet – but I’m getting there.

Writing at Talliston

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Mucking about on Facebook one day, I chanced upon the exquisite loveliness that is Talliston House & Gardens.

Talliston is owner John Trevillian’s personal passion project – a former council house transformed into myriad chambers of loveliness, each of the 13 rooms inspired by various grand houses, castles, and exotic destinations.

Recently, the Talliston dream has been threatened by the most mundane of circumstances – money, or the lack thereof, which has fueled this project from day one (cripes, am I starting to sound like Kevin McLeod or what?).

John’s goal was to create something extraordinary from the means of an average living wage, and he has done just that. With the loss of his job recently, the future of Talliston is now uncertain. In fact, it has just been listed on the market.

Enter the Saving Talliston Indiegogo campaign that could be the gamechanger for this artistic enclave, which in addition to being a private home, is also host to writing and poetry groups, and serves as a performance space for various artists and musicians.

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Allow me to quote briefly from the Indiegogo appeal:

Talliston House & Gardens is a project that has taken the most ordinary of English dwellings – a three-bedroomed, semi-detached, ex-council house in Essex – and over two and a half decades has painstakingly transformed it into a magical labyrinth of locations, each set in a different time and place.

After years of design, research, sourcing and construction, each room or garden is infused with a rich story, incorporating over 1,650 antiques and authentic objects sourced from 27 countries across the globe. With a name that means ‘the hidden place’, Talliston is not just an interior design project. Instead, it is a growing community venue that serves as an inspirational wonderland for writers, artists, craftspeople, and anyone seeking the extraordinary within the ordinary.
And all this has been accomplished by an ordinary team of people – all inspired by the project’s unique vision.

Impressed by the writerly credentials of the owner, and his commitment to such a wonderfully unusual and creative project, I recently joined the Talliston Writers’ Circle and attended my first meeting in May.

Everyone was incredibly friendly, even though I was the Max Headroom character in the corner on a laptop screen, a bleary-eyed Australian doing a 5am live Skype cross with my British counterparts on the other side of the planet (isn’t technology wonderful?).

It was a great meeting, and we were treated to a talk by crime novelist Linda Stratmann who walked us through her Frances Doughty Victorian crime series, and also talked about the various true crime books she had written. Book #1 The Poisonous Seed is now at the top of my reading pile 🙂

I sincerely hope John and his friends can save Talliston. It’s a special place, one imbued with magic and mystery. Talliston means ‘the hidden place‘, and I can’t think of a more fitting name for the labyrinth of painstakingly created rooms that lie behind the unassuming door of this ex-council house.

Like a series of movie sets, it’s the perfect house for creative types, and one worth saving. If you can spare it, fund the dream in whatever small way you can.

We need more magic and beauty in this world.