Sunday, 29 January 2017

Do You Want to Write Marvellous Short Stories like Roald Dahl?

Somehow over the years, I'd lost my Penguin copies of Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl, so I was thrilled to see that the publisher has now brought out The Complete Short Stories  in two volumes, and I was even more thrilled to get them for Christmas!

However, I'm not going to use this blog post to add to the many marvellous reviews of his work, but I will say that if you have read or watched some of his Tales of the Unexpected, they are all here to enjoy again, such as Lamb to the Slaughter, and also others that are not so familiar about his wartime spent in the RAF, e.g. Katrina.
And if you have only enjoyed his children's books so far, there's a whole new world here to explore.
What I would like to tell you about is the introduction to Volume One by the author, comedian and actor, Charlie Higson.
Higson calls Dahl 'quiet simply the master of the short story form' and points out that his stories are not just ones with a twist in the tale which might be read once and not revisited ever again. Dahl knew that he had to hold the reader's attention for literally every second, and Higson says that his words should be carved into the foreheads of every new writer, novelist and critic who thinks that it's the reader and not the writer who should have to make an effort with a story.
He says that Dahl's style is deceptively straightforward, played out in a sunlight which exposes everything it touches. Like the British stiff upper lip, a calm and polite exterior thinly masks the 'seething turmoil' and 'suppressed violence' underneath. However, justice is always served, making us laugh or smile, but it is often the older, darker justice that is also found in his children's books.
Dahl was first approached by C.S. Forester to write a story about being shot down in Libya for a U.S. magazine to gain American sympathy in the war. Forester added that Dahl should focus on detail. This he did, and when Forester received his work, he was so pleased that he called Dahl a 'gifted writer' and published it as it was.
You can read a version this in A Piece of Cake (on page 87), and you will see just how he focused on the detail, e.g. tents flapping 'like canvas men clapping their hands', or the slow conversation between his mind and his body as he tried to escape from his fast-burning Gladiator.
I hope that you will love these stories as much as I did and will think, as you read them, about the skills of the master storyteller who wrote them for us all to enjoy.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick - An Ethereal, Wonderful Book about Love, Loss and, Comets

As I have said before, I love quirky books that step outside the normal confines of time and space. The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick is one such book. I saw the hardback version in Waterstone's, and I had to have it! I couldn't wait until August for the paperback version, so I put it on my Christmas list and was very happy to receive it on Christmas Day.
The story begins in 2017 at Halley VI, the British Antarctic Survey Research Station, where Róisín, a scientist, meets François, a chef. This unlikely couple feel drawn together: drawn to this desolate place of snow covered ice and rock, the very things comets are made of, and drawn to the comet which is due to pass at its closest to earth in three weeks on its way to the sun.
Helen Sedgwick then skilfully takes us back and forth in time, each time a comet appears from 1066 to the present day, to explain why they have met in such a place.
She focuses on the forbidden love between Róisín and her cousin, Liam, and how François copes with his mother, Severine, who talks to the ghosts of her family, and through whose lives the story is told over one thousand years. And she shows how Róisín's and François' lives tantalizingly almost touch several times until they meet on the Research Station.
There are so many themes to explore: the Bayeux Tapestry for one, sewn (in the same way the story goes back and forth in time) by Anglo-Saxon women in England.
Then there is the red tent that Róisín and her cousin, Liam, sleep out in to see Comet West in 1976, mirrored by the red tent that she uses in the Antarctic, and the tent that Severine and François use when they are comet-seeking too.
There is also the theme of loss reflecting the approach and passage of the comets with the events in the lives of Róisín, Liam, François and Severine.
I can recommend this ethereal, wonderful book about love, loss and, comets. There is so much to it, I think I might read it again!

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Notes from the Northern Lights by Jo Thomas - the Perfect Wintery Novel

With Christmas over and all the decorations packed away until December, here's the perfect wintery book to read with deep snow guaranteed, even if it's raining outside: Notes from the Northern Lights by Jo Thomas.
Ruby Knightley is sent to Reykjavik, when her only experience of  Iceland is watching Rick Stein on one of his Long Weekends!
She on a mission to hunt down her opera company's star performer, Hilmar Snorrison, who has left everyone in the lurch after rehearsing for their new production which is to go on tour.
Iceland in January for wardrobe mistress, Ruby, is cold and dark with only a few hours of daylight. Luckily, she discovers that he's returned to the family sheep farm to help his brother who's broken his leg. She gets a taxi there and hopes to be able to get back to the airport in time for her return flight, but a snow storm blows in, trapping her at the farm.
How is she going to persuade Hilmar to come back with her, and how will they get back to England anyway, in this weather?
As with all Jo Thomas's books, there's always something interesting to learn about someone's way of life, such as oyster farming, olive or wine production. In this book, it's sheep farming, and the production of smoked lamb, hangikjöt, which gives the background to the story.
It's a wonderful book to read on a dark winter's weekend and get transported to the wintery world of Iceland.

I spent a wonderful few days there in 2011, and you can read the blog I wrote here: Yule Lads and Northern Lights in Iceland!

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

A Merry Mistletoe Wedding by Judy Astley - The Perfect Book to go with the Last of Your Christmas Chocolates!

Happy New Year! But, if you've still got lots of Christmas chocolates to eat up, here's the perfect book to go with them - A Merry Mistletoe Wedding by Judy Astley.
It's the end of August, and Thea has just spent her summer holidays in Cornwall with Sean and is loathe to go back for the new term at her primary school in London, so he asks her to come back to Cornwall and marry him at Christmas.
Meanwhile, her parents, ageing hippies, Anna and Mike, are thinking of downsizing from the family home and releasing some cash so they can enjoy their retirement, and sister, Emily, gives birth to Ned. Add Charlotte and Alex from It Must Have Been the Mistletoe, Judy Astley's book which tells how they all got snowed in last Christmas at Cove Manor, and you have a great cast of characters.
A Merry Mistletoe Wedding is a really engrossing novel, and kept me enthralled finding out where Anna and Mike would move to, whether Emily would ever go to Cornwall again after last year's fiasco in the snow, and whether Sean and Thea would actually manage to tie the knot on Christmas Day, despite the return of her ex, Rich.
I adored it and would love to read another story to find out what happens to these wonderful people next!