Get my books for free!

21 Jul

Much as I love being paid for my writing, I do occasionally take part in promotions like the Smashwords Summer Sale. That means you can currently get Leda, Office Life (and Death) and A New Year’s Trio for free as ebooks, as well as Running for Cover, a short story, which is always free.

See all the books, and my author interview, on my Smashwords profile.

By the way, I’ve just had my annual author photo taken, courtesy of Studio Genti, Lushnje, Albania. What do you think?

The Power of Purple

14 Jul

If you’re dyslexic, you’re close to a dyslexic, or you’re just the curious type, you may want to read my latest blog post for Dyslexia Scotland. Its working title was “Methods of alleviating the symptoms of dyslexia”, but fortunately I came up with something slightly snappier 😉 

https://alifelessordinaryds.wordpress.com/2017/07/14/the-power-of-purple/amp/

A-maze-ing Graffiti Art at SWG3

3 Jul

Another photo post – give the people what they want.

The story behind this is that I was at ‘Hypermarket’ this weekend at SWG3, an arts space behind the railway arches off the Expressway (if you know Glasgow at all). It wasn’t terribly ‘hyper’ – in fact it was a small-to-medium craft fair marooned in an over-large space, with a half-hearted selection of overpriced “street food” outside in the courtyard, under a dull grey sky.

I didn’t stay long, but while I was there I took the opportunity to photograph the one stand-out item of this whole setup: the graffiti art. There were walls and walls of it, freestanding, arranged into a sort of not-very-challenging maze, as you can probably see from this picture.

My favourite was this picture of ?vultures, painted on sheets of metal – appropriate for an old galvanizing yard.

I liked the joke on this Billy Connolly one. There’s a lot of Billy Connolly art around Glasgow at the moment, since he’s just turned 75.

This fish took me a wee moment to work out at first.

And I still haven’t worked this one out.

Or this. It really looks like a word, but I don’t know what it says. Answers on a postcard (or in the comments below).

There were others, if you want to pop along (check the SWG3 website for events) but these were my favourites.

And finally, the credits (I don’t know which name applies to which artwork, but I’m sure you know how search engines work.):

O For 6,000 Hymns to Sing! 

30 May

I just got my copy of the June edition Christianity magazine through the post this morning, because I have an article on the Wesleys in it.

John and Charles Wesley had very interesting and effective lives – especially the indefatigable John, although I get the feeling that I would have much preferred Charles, if I had known them. 

Charles wrote a bucketload of hymns, of course, including O! For a Thousand Tongues to Sing (as you probably gathered from the title), and the one currently on repeat in my brain, Love Divine All Loves Excelling. If I have managed to get one of his hymns stuck in your head, too, do comment and let me know which one 😉 

Anyway, the magazine should soon be in sale in larger newsagents, if it’s not already, or you can subscribe online. You can even get a copy free, if you’re not a subscriber yet. There’s an interesting-looking article on purgatory (I haven’t read it yet) as well as my own work and usually lots of other good stuff, so you may as well. 

Enjoy! 

How Not to Read Books

12 May

A shipment of freshly-printed copies of The Talisman

This week, with some relief, I returned The Talisman to the library. It’s a fantasy novel by Stephen King and Peter Straub, roughly the size of a breeze block – and I hadn’t finished it.

There was a time when I hardly ever left a book unfinished, no matter how little I was enjoying it (I’m looking at you, The Lord of the Rings) and when I did, I felt bad about it. I’m a quick reader, so it was usually a case of lack of desire rather than lack of time. These days, time is harder to come by so the quality of the book (or to be fairer, my enjoyment of it) have become more important.

I’ve recently got into the KonMari school of tidying and organising, and discovered the deeply soothing quality of an organised sock drawer. One of the ideas of KonMari is that you should throw out books, which sounds scandalous to a book lover, but when I read on, I could see Marie Kondo’s point. Why keep books you are never going to read (or re-read) and that just stare at you sadly from the bookshelves? If it’s because just seeing them makes you happy, great. But if it doesn’t, why are they taking up valuable bookshelf space?

My sock drawer is a small oasis of order

So quite a lot of my books recently went off to Music Magpie, and others are going to find their way to charity shops in the near future. Some of them I had started but never read. Some of them I hadn’t even started, and knew I probably never would. Getting rid of them is not failure; it is liberation.

In that spirit, here are some books I have left part-read, and the reasons why. Feel free to use the comments to give me your own list.

*

The Talisman, Stephen King & Peter Straub

It is just. Too. Long. That’s not a problem in itself, but when nothing much happens for several hundred pages, and what happens is fairly repetitive, it is a problem. This is especially true when any action present has an unsettlingly sadistic feeling to it. I’ve never failed to finish a Stephen King book before, but this just wasn’t worth the effort. The addition of a semi-human bit of – what? comic relief? – doesn’t improve a long book either, whether it’s a werewolf or an anthropomorphic countryside spirit. (Yes, I’m looking at you again, LOTR. Tom Bombadil should never have made the final edit.)

*

The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan

This is not a bad book. In fact it’s very informative, and quite well written. But the author’s insistence on not straying beyond the recorded evidence at all, even for emotions and motivations, eventually makes this non-fiction, novel-ish book unengaging. I know it’s trying to keep cool about an inflammatory subject (the Israel-Palestine conflict) but in the end it was just too cold to hold my attention. Non-fiction novels can be done better than this; just see Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That leaves you chilled, not frigid.

*

The Celestine Prophecy, James Redfield

This was only vaguely interesting at the start, and became less so as it disappeared deeper up its own worldview. The protagonist experiences spiritual and psychological insights which don’t seem to amount to much in terms of a system of universal truth (spot my western post-Enlightenment bias there) but are so enthralling to him that he must talk about them, at length, while nothing much happens. Then men with guns turn up, he escapes, goes somewhere else and has another insight. Repeat ad nauseam. Real psychological and spiritual insights, I like (try looking up Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lectures on YouTube for that sort of thing) but this was not my cup of enlightened tea at all.

*

The Fall of Lucifer, Wendy Alec; The Shack, William Paul Young

I’m lumping these ones together because, while they’re dissimilar in some ways, they are both based on Christian (or thereabouts) theology, and they are both really bad. I mean truly, truly appalling. I couldn’t get further than the first chapter of either of them. The writing was so bad it was almost physically painful. I may be a bit hypersensitive when it comes to bad writing, but the very thought of reading these books makes me shudder.

Again, this can actually be done well. This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti is about a hundred times better than The Fall of Lucifer – and that’s a modest estimate.

***

I don’t think these are the only books I’ve rejected. I have a strong memory of throwing a book across the room when it irritated me one time too many, not so long ago (I know, I know, violence against books should never be condoned), but I can’t remember which one it was. Maybe it will come back to me, and I will add it to my list. In the meantime, let me know which books you have rejected, and why, in the comments below.

The Archaic Smile

15 Apr

Just a quickie to say that my short story ‘The Archaic Smile’ has been published on The Ogilvie literary review. It is free to read online, so go and have a look.

The story is about an archaic kouros – that’s a type of Greek statue (like the one in the picture to the left), but it is more eventful than you might think for a story that has a statue as its hero. The Ogilvie said it had ‘subtle prose and artful suspense‘ so really, go and read it!

The Art of Complaining

3 Apr

“I couldn’t sleep a wink!”

One of the joys of helping to look after my little nieces is getting to revisit things from my childhood. Last week it was paperchain people (try them with monkeys – it’s really cute!) but the week before that it was the Princess and the Pea, the Hans Christian Andersen story about a girl who arrives at a castle in a storm, claiming to be a princess, and whose royal pedigree is proved by her feeling a dried pea through 20 mattresses.

Coming back to this story many years on, instead of dwelling on how ridiculous this is (and it is), I instead found myself thinking, “Of course complaining about a pea in her bed shows she’s a princess. If she was a nice, middle-class girl she wouldn’t dream of complaining!” I mean really, if you were taken in on trust, out of a storm, alone and helpless, would you tell your host the bed was lumpy? I wouldn’t lie about it, but I’m sure I could find something more positive to say than, “I couldn’t sleep a wink all night!”

This got me thinking about complaining more generally. In Britain, we’re traditionally not supposed to be very good at complaining. To be more accurate, we’re very good at moaning about things, but we would rather die than complain to anyone who can do anything about it, like a waiter or shopkeeper, for example. Perhaps we might write a stiff letter, but never say anything to anyone’s face.

This is a Very British Problem, judging by the Twitter account of the same name, which is extremely funny. (It’s also available in book form for those who aren’t into social media.) This is also one of the areas where I’m not very British, perhaps as a result of spending too much time overseas (or it could just be my personality). I am fairly likely to complain if something isn’t right. I spent 15 minutes in Superdrug the other day trying to return some hair chalks that only cost about three quid, on the principle that if you buy something, it should work. The complaint has been forwarded further up the chain of management. By the time I get my three quid back (if I ever do) they will probably have devalued to the equivalent of 30p due to Brexit.

Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered. But there are some things you are supposed to complain about, or at least not sit on. I often find I’m annoyed by some insignificant thing someone has done again and start thinking, “He/she knows I hate it! They’re doing it to annoy me!”, only to realise that I’ve probably never told them I hate it, and they are blithely oblivious to my irritation. In a situation like that you either have to say something, or learn to live quietly with the annoyance, rather than explode in rage when it happens for the tenth time.

Addictions are another situation where you’re supposed to complain, according to official advice. Without going into any detail, there are some addiction/dependency ‘issues’ in my own family, and while a public blog post isn’t the place to drag them out, it’s not something I keep from my friends. In such a situation, silent forbearance probably makes things worse. But there is probably a level of willingness to complain that lies somewhere between doormat and drooket fairytale princess, which is healthy and practical without being self-centred. With that in mind, here’s a slightly altered version of the well-known Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to shut up about the things I ought to put up with,
The courage to complain about the things I ought not to,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

(If you’re into Hans Christian Andersen, by the way, check out my lovely audio version of the Snow Queen, narrated by Sophie Aldred.)

 

Top 5 Things Not to Say to a Writer 

22 Feb

It’s another guest post link (although at some point I’ll probably write up my impressions of Bucharest, which I’ve just returned from). 

The Portobello Book Blog kindly invited me to write a post for them, so I’ve given my take on the things you shouldn’t say to writers, or specifically me. Don’t worry if you’ve already  said these things to me – it’s fairly tongue-in-cheek, and I love you really 😉 

How to learn Albanian in 20 seconds 

31 Jan

Bună!  I am in the process of trying to learn Romanian, as I’ll be going there next month for a few days. I enjoy the challenge of learning a language, and Romanian is shaping up to be a fairly easy one, for me at least – it’s basically just Latin, with the odd Slavic word thrown in. 

Despite that, I’m at the frustrating stage where I know a few words but can’t actually say anything. I can say that I should, I need, I must or I would like, but not what I should, need, must or would like – except coffee, so I suppose that is somewhat useful. 

So in light of my own frustration with Romanian, I’m going to teach you to speak Albanian in 20 seconds. You won’t be able to hold an intelligent conversation about Proust, but you’ll be able to cope in most social situations. All you need is one word: mirë. 

Mirë is pronounced meer, as in meerkat, and it means good or well. (Technically e/i mirë means good, and mirë means well, but let’s not complicate matters.) The wonderful thing about it is it can be a question (Are you well? Is that ok?) as well as an answer to the question, and an assent to some proposal. Let me give you an example of a conversation you could hold in which you only use the word mirë. (You have to imagine it’s all in Albanian, although to be honest it wouldn’t matter that much whether you understand it or not.)

Hi, how are you? 

Mirë. 

How have you been? 

Mirë. 

How’s your family? 

Mirë. 

How’s work? 

Mirë. 

How’s your health? 

Mirë. 

We should go out for coffee sometime and catch up. 

Mirë. 

How is Tuesday afternoon for you? 

Mirë. 

Great, see you then! 

Mirë! 

See? Now you speak Albanian, at least as long as you are prepared to be fairly passive in any given conversation. If you’re thinking that there never would be a conversation like this, with such a screed of questions, you’re wrong – I’ve actually cut it down a bit. When you haven’t seen someone for a while, this list of questions can seem to stretch on for aeons. And throughout those aeons, you will be able to give pertinent replies – provided that they are all “mirë”.

(By the way, if anyone does happen to ask you for your opinion on Proust, tell them he’s mirë.)

The Moral Importance of Foundation Garments

23 Dec

foundation-garments

It’s 23rd December, Christmas-Eve Eve, so naturally you would expect me to be writing about Christmassy things. And I was going to, honest. I even had the title worked out, “It wouldn’t be Christmas without…”. But then I got a new bra.

Yes, I know, that’s too much information. But it is relevant because it got me thinking about the (albeit not immediately obvious) similarities between brassieres and moral codes.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a new bra, and ages since I had an expensive, good-quality one, and I had forgotten how much of a difference it makes. The thing about elasticated undergarments, and moral codes, is that over time they have a tendency to grow slack. They are less restrictive, but also less supportive.

I noticed an astonishing difference as I ventured out into the world wearing my spanking new purchase. Some clever engineering goes into these bits of frippery; I felt positively cantilevered! I noticed that I held my head higher, and my shoulders straighter, too, the structured nature of my unmentionable reminding me of other areas that could do with a bit of improving, like posture.

On the first day of wearing the new nether-garment it did feel restrictive and unfamiliar, but by the second day it had become natural, to the extent that when I come to wash it, and have to wear one of my old ones, I will probably miss the new rigour.

I’m never one to leave an analogy unstretched, so bear with me as I opine that moral codes are not dissimilar. (By the way, if the language is more flowery than usual, the glass of rioja I just had seems to have gone right to my head.) Moral codes, like bras, have a tendency to loosen and stretch, without our necessarily noticing. They seem fine, but it’s only when you compare what they are supposed to be like that you notice how much things have slipped.

There was a comment on the Premier website* under an article on three-parent babies to the effect that in-vitro fertilization used to be controversial, particularly for Christians, but now nobody bats an eye. A comment in reply pointed out that this is exactly the point that the ‘slippery slope’ argument makes. Leaving aside that particular ethical quagmire, it’s an example of how things can become looser over time. If there’s something that shocked you years ago, or at least made you feel uncomfortable, and now you don’t even blink, it could be that you’ve become more mature, or worked through it – or it could be that you have grown slack, and not even noticed.

Of course, this is where the analogy reaches breaking point, because you don’t just go out and get a new moral code. A code to live by is probably less like a piece of underwear and more like a kitchen knife – once you find a good one, you keep it forever. However, kitchen knives need to be sharpened up from time to time, just as foundation garments need to be renewed. Talking to others who think deeply about moral issues, listening to sermons and lectures – challenging ones, not just pleasant homilies – and examining both your own behaviour and issues that you prefer not to think about are all ways of doing so, I would suggest.

So if an acquaintance thinks that something you habitually do is ethically questionable, don’t assume that automatically makes them wrong, judgemental, narrow-minded or all of the above. It may just be that your moral elastic has been through the washing machine** one too many times.

Happy Christmas!


* Don’t read comments on the Premier website. It is time you will never get back.
** Never wash your bra in the washing machine! Not even in a pillowcase or delicates bag. Always hand wash. Trust me.