Posted in Reading

Why I Read And Review Books Beyond My Comfort Zone

Some thoughts on reading habits and book reviews

Cover of Books are Exciting Ladybird book showing one boy pulling another out of the sea
If there were a prize for the least obvious book cover image, I think this would get my vote.

In the last 48 hours, I’ve stepped way outside my reading comfort zone.

As a frequent book reviewer, I’m often asked to consider books that I’d never choose in a bookshop or library – unlike the Ladybird book pictured here, which I snapped up in a secondhand bookshop the other day for the sake of its bizarre cover, and because I adore vintage Ladybird books.

Sometimes the publications I review for send me copies of books they particularly want me to consider, other times authors or publicists approach me on spec, after finding my name on Amazon’s list of top reviewers.

Admittedly they have to trawl for quite a long way to reach me, as I’m currently ranked around the 1,400 mark. If they’ve got that far, I so admire their staying power that I’m likely to agree to their request for a review, provided they ask me nicely. There’s nothing that hacks off a book reviewer as much as an author’s assumption that sending you a free book entitles them to a review. Except authors who do that and then reel off a long list of sites on which they expect you to post your review, including some that you’ve never even visited. 

Why I Review Books

I love book reviewing. For one thing, it prevents me from slipping into a cosy habit of rereading old favourites and their clones. It’s too easy to treat book buying like clothes shopping, being drawn like a magnet to those you already know and love. (And I really don’t need to buy any more knee length boots, denim jackets or cordoruoy leggings.)

I therefore made it my policy long ago to keep an open mind about review requests, turning down only anything featuring violence or unnecessary tragedy.

Two New Reading Experiences in One Day

Cover of The Wall & Beyond by Joanna Kurowska
Polish poetry – click the image to read my review

So it happened today that I found myself reviewing both a YA (young adult) steampunk thriller (sent to me by the debut author) and a collection of Polish poetry in translation (received from Vine Leaves Literary Journal, for which I’m a staff reviewer). 

Now, I have a lot of books in my house, including a floor-to-ceiling to-read bookcase in my bedroom. But until this week I didn’t possess a single steampunk thriller or Polish poem. In fact I only recently worked out what steampunk is. (If you don’t know either, check out the Urban Dictionary’s definition here). Although I enjoy poetry, and still treasure some of the poetry books I had from school and university, I’m not sure I’ve ever knowingly read a Polish poem.

But what a joy these books have been to read, filling my imagination with new adventures and images, and changing the way I look at the world, just a little, as every good book should. It was also satisfying to write their reviews. Formulating a book review always helps me mentally digest what I’ve read. By doing so, I extract far more pleasure than if I’d just closed each book on finishing and moved on to the next one in my to-read pile without any further thought. 

How To Make An Author Happy

I also gain pleasure from knowing that the book’s authors will appreciate my response. As an author myself, I know the warm glow that comes from spotting a new review of one of your books.

cover of the steampunk thriller with a link to my Amazon review
Click on the cover of the YA steampunk thriller to read my review on Amazon UK

Strangely, in the time it’s taken me to read and review those two books, two more new reviews have  come in for one of my own books (Sell Your Books!, now with 42 reviews on Amazon UK, average rating 4.6*)) – not from the authors of the books I reviewed, but from two completely different readers. Is there some kind of book reviewer’s karma at work? To any writer who also reads books (as all writers should), that’s got to be a comforting thought.

Whatever you’re reading just now, if you enjoy the book, take a moment to thank the author by leaving a quick review on Amazon, Goodreads, or any other site that you prefer. I guarantee you’ll make the author’s day. 

If you liked this post, you might like these others about books and reading:

Posted in Travel, Writing

Puzzled? You Will Be…

On the power of lateral thinking, the joy of jigsaw puzzles, chance meetings and the fun to be had in museum shops

Wentworth Wooden Puzzle with whimsies
Where my whimsies take me

While musing in my last post about the similarities between writing stories and assembling jigsaw puzzles, I  mentioned the fabulous Wentworth Wooden Puzzles, a near neighbour, whose jigsaws include fancy shapes called “whimsies”.

Clearly the whole experience of rediscovering the joy of jigsaws jump-started my brain, because as soon as I’d finished the post, I had the bright idea of sending its link to Wentworth Wooden Puzzles, on the principle that everyone likes to see themselves mentioned in a blog post.

I was pleased to receive a lovely message back, saying they’d enjoyed my post and had given it an honorable mention on their own website. When I asked if they’d like to offer a puzzle as a prize for my readers, they kindly said yes and invited me to choose a design.

Your Chance to Win This Jigsaw

Image of jigsaw puzzle with a bookshelf design
250 piece Wentworth Wooden Puzzle – free for one lucky YoungByName reader!

This is the one I chose. I hope you like it! It’s clearly the bookshelf of someone teetering on the idea of filing all their books in colour order – something I’d love to do myself, but lack the stamina. (Have you seen how many books there are in my house?!)

The books have entertaining titles, such as War and Peas and Lord of the Pies, plus other witty details. Better still, it includes whimsies on a library theme, i.e. there are pieces shaped like things you might find in a library – a magnifying glass, a pair of glasses, a book, etc. Great fun.

For a chance to win this puzzle, just leave a comment at the bottom of this post. On Valentine’s Day, I’ll put all entrants’ names in a hat and ask my daughter (who started this whole jigsaw craze off for me) to pick one out without looking. I’ll contact the winner to arrange despatch direct from Wentworth Wooden Puzzles. They’re kindly stumping up the postage too!

Puzzles on the Brain

Suddenly I seem to see jigsaw puzzles wherever I go – a phenomenon known as the Papua New Guinea syndrome. Not because they’re keen on jigsaws in Papua New Guinea (though they may be, for all I know) but because Papua New Guinea is one of those things you’ve never heard of or heard much about, but then, like buses, several mentions of it all come along at once.

Accordingly, I spotted lots Wentworth Wooden Puzzles on Sunday in the National Gallery in London, where I had gone to meet my two old schoolfriends, Jane and Susanne. We wanted to visit the new Van Gogh Sunflowers exhibition, much hyped but actually a very simple proposition: two of the seven Van Gogh sunflowers paintings hung next to each other in a darkened room. The display looked startlingly like a child’s spot-the-difference competition. I wasn’t  surprised to see both pictures were covered in glass, just in case someone was tempted to circle the differences with a marker pen.

We didn’t take long to complete our viewing (we spotted the differences quite quickly!)  so then we sauntered, chatting, through a few more rooms, enjoying our favourite pictures and fondly remembering a trip up here with our RE teacher, Miss Hocking, a frighteningly large number of years ago. Our class went to see the Leonardo cartoon of the Virgin and Child and the Michelangelo Madonna of the Rocks, and had to say which we liked best, and why. I was on Team Leonardo.

As with school outings, Jane, Susanne and I didn’t consider our trip complete without a visit to the museum shop, where I spotted the ubiquitous Wentworth souvenir puzzles. You’ll find them at many tourist attractions, featuring relevant pictures, because they make great souvenirs – I’ve a little collection of them in our camper van.

An Artful Coincidence

Street theatre man appearing to float in air
A further puzzle in Covent Garden – how does he do it?

A less expected sighting occurred just outside the National Gallery. Seeing a cute little toddler stomping along through the rain, I thought “Ah, she looks just like that little girl who lives down the road from me!” Exchanging indulgent smiles with her mum, I realised that her mum’s face  also looked familiar. It took a second or to for the pieces to fall into place (to continue on the jigsaw theme), by which time we were out of each other’s sight. Only  next day on Facebook did I have confirmation that they were the originals, not doppelgangers – the mum had posted a photo of the little girl inside the National Gallery, which is 100 miles from our village. What are the chances of that happening, as comedian Harry Hill likes to say?

My Artfull Computer

Confronted by this reminder on Facebook of my lovely trip to the National Gallery, on a whim I thought I’d make a return visit across the ether. I needed to check the exact name of my favourite Rousseau picture, the gorgeous, huge portrait of a bewildered tiger caught in a tropical storm. I wanted to tweet it to a new Twitter friend, exchanging our favourite paintings. In my head I’d always thought of it as “Tropical Storm with Tiger”, but its actual title turned out to be a very Twitter-friendly nine characters long: “Surprised!” (I was.)

I also discovered that not only could I view my favourite painting on the Natoinal Gallery website, I could also summon up any picture in its vast colletcion, to admire at my own leisure at my desk. Use this link to fill your idle moments with wonder: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/. What a gift to any writer in search of a story idea!

Even without this prompt, I’d already started writing a short story, set in one of the Gallery’s many rooms. It was inspired by that close encounter with my neighbour. This story is destined for my forthcoming flash fiction collection, Quick Change, to be published a little later this year. For free story samples and advance notice of new publications, sign up for my free e-newsletter by sending a request via this contact form.

Image of jigsaw puzzle with a bookshelf design
250 piece Wentworth Wooden Puzzle – free for one lucky YoungByName reader!

For a chance to win this fabulous wooden jigsaw puzzle, courtesy of Wentworth Wooden Puzzles, leave a comment below! 

In case you missed my previous post about jigsaw puzzles, you can read it here:

Why Doing A Jigsaw Puzzle Is A Bit Like Writing A Book

 

 

If you enjoyed this post, you might like these  museum-inspired posts: 

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Why Doing A Jigsaw Puzzle Is A Bit Like Writing A Book

(How the gift of a jigsaw puzzle made me recognise interesting truths about writing and the subconscious mind)

Completed 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle
My Christmas present from Laura

When my 10 year old daughter presented me with a jigsaw puzzle  on Christmas Day, I knew it was just what I needed to take me out of myself and away from my keyboard for a much-needed mental rest.

She was surprised that I hadn’t guessed what her gift was after her not-so-subtle question on Christmas Eve:

“What’s your favourite number of pieces for there to be in a jigsaw puzzle?”

Fortunately my answer matched the puzzle that she’d bought: 1,000 pieces. What’s more, the picture was the kind I like best in a jigsaw puzzle: an array of small pictures combined together.

I couldn’t wait to get started on it. I seldom take time out to piece a jigsaw together, but every time I do, I get a frisson of pleasure from the reminder offered by jigsaw puzzles of the workings of the subconscious mind.

Subconscious Solutions for Jigsaw Puzzles

Completed small puzzle
It’s a miracle!

I love the way that you can pick up a piece and slot it immediately into place without thinking. You find your hand has already placed the piece in its correct position before you’ve made a logical appraisal of where it might fit. Only afterwards does your conscious mind catch up, realising, for example, that the slender grass stalk down one side of the piece lines up perfectly with its tip on the piece above. It’s as if some jigsaw-loving higher power is using your hand as its vehicle.

As I was slowly piecing my new puzzle together, it occurred to me that assembling a jigsaw is a lot like writing a book.

  • No matter how carefully you prepare the component parts – the corners, the edges, all the pieces with blue sky or Persian carpet or Delft tiles or pink flowers – the assembly of the puzzle never goes entirely according to plan.
  • When daunted by what seems like an insurmountably difficult section, you realise that if you only apply yourself, one piece at a time, you really can conquer the challenge.
  • Sometimes it works best if you switch your conscious mind off for a bit and let the subconscious take over.

So it is with writing a book.

Different Approaches to the Jigsaw Puzzle

Not everyone tackles a jigsaw puzzle the same way, any more than authors follow the same formula for writing books:

  • When I do a puzzle, I like to keep the box in view, so that I can study the picture and monitor my progress. Every time I look at it, I spot new and helpful details.
  • My husband prefers the “mystery tour” approach, turning the box face down to create a harder challenge. He’d be the sort or writer who prefers not to start with an outline, letting the characters lead the way.
  • Our daughter goes for her favourite parts first, e.g. the big pig in my Christmas present puzzle. She’s named him Steve and put a note in the box so we remember to greet him by the right name in future.
A selection of standard puzzle pieces with different shapes
Meet my new friends

But it may be only writers (or crazy people) who like to anthropomorphise the pieces. As I’m assembling the puzzle, I like to classify the different shapes into characters (clockwise, from top left):

  • the chubby, confident man, with outstretched arms extended for a hug
  • the  synchronised swimmers looking up
  • the ballroom dancer
  • the tractor driver
  • the ballet dancer, leaping across the stage
  • the air-traffic controller, waving a big lollipop to guide pilots around the runway
Wentworth Wooden Puzzle with whimsies
Where my whimsies take me

Although my more sensible scientifically-minded husband may not make making friends with puzzle’s component parts, he does enjoy as much as I do any jigsaw containing “whimsies”. Whimsies are the fancy-shaped pieces dreamed up by the Victorians to resemble specific shapes.

Our near neighbour, the Wentworth Wooden Puzzles company, is famous for its modern whimsies. It riddles its puzzles with pieces in the fancy shapes on specific themes. After completing my Christmas puzzle, we did a Wentworth one with an Alice in Wonderland theme. Camouflaged within the puzzle were an Alice, a Cheshire cat, a white rabbit, and all kinds of other characters from the classic children’s story. The need to accommodate these fancy shapes ensures the rest of the puzzle pieces also take unusual forms. Sometimes there are straight edges in the middle of a puzzle – how anarchic is that?!

The Joy of Completion

Whatever one’s approach to puzzle-making, who can fail to experience a creative joy as each small scene falls into placec? I find it odd that so sedentary an occupation has such power to quicken the heartbeat. And, oh, the heady satistfaction at the puzzle’s final completion, even though the end result is not exactly a surprise.

Where The Similarity With Writing Ends

Of course, the similarity with writing a book only goes so far:

  • Jigsaw puzzle with last piece missing
    Not the same without the vital spark

    The writer never has the problem of finding the cat has chased your words around the table, sending a few of them skittering under the dresser, from whence you have to extract them with a broom handle.

  • Nor does the writer return to her desk from a break to find her husband has, annoyingly, put into place the last few pieces of a finished story, leaving the writer redundant.
  • No writer embarks on the act of creating a story knowing that all of the component parts are right in front of her, neatly laid out and only needing to be mechanically selected and assembled in the right order to produce the required result.
  • But neither does she find herself at the end of a story with the final word apparently missing from the face of the earth, never to be seen again,  the trick with the broom handle having failed.
  • When you start a jigsaw puzzle, there is only one right solution. There are no absolute rights or wrongs about a book.

But what a good thing the similarity only goes so far. Otherwise  all stories would be soulless, no matter how neat and tidy.

When writing a book, even with a clear outline from the start, all kinds of mysterious processes happen along the way to morph it into something bigger, better and more interesting than the plan made it at first appear.

Unlike jigsaw puzzle pieces, the component parts of a story often materialise as if from nowhere, sent spinning out of the subconscious or unconscious mind by the mysterious powers that govern the human brain. Sometimes the act of putting a whole story down on paper can feel like an unconscious act, especially if it’s one you’ve had simmering at the back of your mind for a long time, or if you’ve woken up, as happens often, with a complete story fully formed in your head. That’s when the act of writing becomes more like taking dictation (though any writer who works that way is best advised to spend time consciously refining and editing the piece).

No author wants to write books with the predictability of a jigsaw puzzle. But some days the notion sounds appealing: if the task of writing a book were  as formulaic and straightforward as a jigsaw puzzle, we writers would have a lot more time on our hands and a lot more books in our back catalogue.

And I wouldn’t have to wait till next Christmas for my next fix of the jigsaw puzzle experience.

In the meantime, I’d better get back to my manuscript…

Pile of unsorted jigsaw puzzle pieces

If you liked this post, you might enjoy other posts about writing and creativity:

And if you’re an author yourself, you might like to read my latest post on my Off The Shelf Book Promotions blog:

How To Sell More Books via An Author Newsletter – with special guest David Ebsworth

Posted in Writing

Why I Used To Feel Sorry For Tolstoy (And Why I’m Over It Now)

portrait of Leo Tolstoy
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Sorry for Tolstoy?” I hear you cry. Why should a little-known writer with zero published novels to her name pity the author of one of the world’s longest and greatest works of fiction?

Find our why I used to feel sorry for Tolstoy (and Dickens and Eliot and Hardy) – and why I’m over it now – by reading my guest post on the lovely Jessica Bell’s blog, alluring entitled The Alliterative Allomorph (yes, I had to look that last one up in the dictionary too).

Click here to hop straight over to it now…

While you’re there, you may find yourself getting drawn into more of Jessica’s wonderful and wide-ranging blog too. You have been warned…

For more posts about writing, try these for size:

The Lost Art of Letter-Writing

Writing on the Run

Flash Fiction for Summer Lightning

Memoirs

Posted in Family

In Praise of Pine Cones – and Grandpa

Pitch Pine. Pine cone.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(A new blog post about autumn, my father, my daughter and family relationships that bridge generations)

On my way to a routine hospital appointment, I’m strolling down a suburban street when I spot a perfect pine cone lying on a grass verge. Now, I cannot pass a nice pine cone any more easily than I can ignore a conker, freshly dispensed in all its shiny glory from the spiky lime-green case in which it’s been lying, fattening, since Spring. I slip the pine cone into my pocket, glad to be distracted from my imminent arthritis check-up. I’ve been a bit creaky lately and I’m not looking forward to my consultant’s review.

Pine cones, in contrast, are full of the promise of good things. Promise of cosy, autumn firesides; of sustenance for small birds in winter; of nourishment for squirrels as they bulk up for hibernation. Pine cones are a forerunner of Christmas, but in a more subtle way than the charity gift catalogues that have been landing on my doormat since July.

I always plan to collect and decorate pine cones and string them on the Christmas tree with tartan ribbon. If my daughter gets her way, they’ll be adorned with fake snow and glitter too. Or else we’ll douse them in melted fat, roll them in seeds and crumbs, and suspend them with string from trees outside our living room window. They provide an oasis for hungry birds on short, dark winter days and it’s a pleasure to watch from inside a warm house.

There’s an unnatural neatness about the shape of a pine cone. They’re reminiscent of the children’s drawings of Christmas trees that subdue nature’s disorder into a more manageable form. But even so, a pine cone is a pine cone is a pine cone.

Grandpa on his 80th birthday with a "Keep Calm You're Only 80" balloonOr so I thought until last weekend, when, on a walk in a Penzance park with my father, I learned to appreciate the pine cone in a different way. Just turned 80, he is a long-time lover of trees and their diversity. Stooping to collect a pine cone from the ground, he gives my nine-year-old daughter a spontaneous lesson in the identification of the originating tree, based on the arrangement and distribution of its spikes.

Unlike me, my father has an artist’s eye, full of wonder at the natural architecture of the world about us. An accomplished watercolourist, woodturner, carpenter and calligrapher, he has a keen understanding of the complexity of the tree’s task in creating what it has so casually dropped in our path. No matter what your religious beliefs, when you’ve heard my father hold forth about trees, you can’t help but be in awe of nature. His childlike sense of wonder is not restricted to trees. He’s ready to detect a miracle in everything he sees in the natural world.

Pair of watercolour paintings by Grandpa and Laura
Laura’s garden by Grandpa and Grandpa’s garden by Laura

I believe this attitude is one of many reasons why, at the age of 80, he remains so youthful in spirit and outlook – and why my small daughter relates so readily to his world view. She is as close to him as his shadow. They spend many happy hours together. Lately he’s taught her to paint in watercolours. We have a pair of paintings, one by him, the other by her, hanging in our living room, natural companion pieces. This summer, each of them took first prize in their respective age groups in the “original painting” category of our local village show. I see echoed in their relationship the closeness of my connection with my own Grandma, my father’s mother. It seems the baton of the bond is being handed down the generations.

Grandpa and Laura
Having fun with Grandpa

So, with my pine cone resting snugly in my pocket, I settle down in the hospital waiting room, beginning to feel a little more optimistic about my appointment. I know I can depend upon my lovely consultant to be supportive, and I’m sure she’ll have some sound advice for keeping me young by nature, as well as young by name. I want to make sure that when my turn comes to connect with my grandchildren, I’ll be ready to rise to the challenge. Goodness knows, I’ve got a hard act to follow.

This post originally appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser, October 2012 edition.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read about my relationships with some of the women in my family: Bowled Over By Fond Memories of My Grandma   The Scent of A Mummy