Tag Archives: books

My year in review – 2020

31 Dec

It seems redundant to say that this year has not been what I expected. Unless you’ve been living in an isolated Amazon tribe (in which case I’d love to know how you’re reading this) you already know that 2020 was the year that said ‘no’. If you want to read about my experiences of the first lockdown, click the link. This winter lockdown feels much less new and exciting and much more of a dull, dark slog. However, life goes on regardless, so I will give you a quick review of my year as a whole.

Travel

Let’s get the obvious one of out the way: I went nowhere. Well, virtually nowhere. I was meant to go to Leiden in the Netherlands in February, but that was scuppered by Storm Ciara. I could have rescheduled it for April but there was talk of this novel coronavirus thing so I hedged my bets and went to St Andrews for a day trip instead.

However, once things opened up again in the summer, I did get to – Haddington! I have a good friend, Susan, who hails from this East-Coast town and who is almost always overseas, so I risked my life at Hermiston Gait and took the opportunity to visit while she was temporarily stuck in the UK between exotic postings.

Haddington was kind of charming in a small-town way, with a nice river walk and some identical metal bars they laughably call an outside gym. It reminded me of Dunbar, and I said so, and thereby found out that the way to annoy a Haddingtonian is to compare their town to the very similar town half an hour or so down the coast. I think this insight will provide endless fun in my relationship with Susan 🤭

I also managed to get down to Derbyshire for my mother’s birthday, which miraculously fell between periods of restrictions, and as the celebration was held in a hotel, we were even able to get three households together.

The only other travel I have been doing this year is in my mind, planning an epic Interrailling trip for when the world is back to normal.

Learning

This category has been much, much more active than my globe trotting.

Sourdough

At the start of the pandemic, when yeast was scarce, I saw someone on Twitter saying “yeast is never scarce” and so my journey into sourdough making began. Sourdough uses wild yeast, which is found in random places like the air and the bloom on grapes. I raised a sourdough starter from scratch, which my nieces named Olaf. He is a little less pampered now than he was, but he’s still going strong and makes us a dense, crusty loaf about once a week.

I used the same wild yeast to make elderflower ‘champagne’ a little while later. It was – alright. Not much like champagne, but kind of like very sweet, slightly alcoholic elderflower Schloer. I also tried making elderflower cordial, not realising (because my foraging book did not tell me!) that the stalks are poisonous and must be removed before you make the cordial. No harm done, but not a pleasant experience.

Esperanto

My cancelled journey to Leiden gave me the opportunity to go to an Esperanto club in Glasgow, because I had cleared my diary for the trip. I started an Esperanto course on Duolingo (where I had been learning Dutch) because I had fond memories of learning it as a teenager after reading the Stainless Steel Rat books. I thought the club would be a one-off, but 2020 has given me the opportunity to attend pretty much every club meeting, as they are all online, and the woman who runs the anti-trafficking group I’m also a member of kindly changed those meetings so I could attend both. I have just about finished the Duolingo course, have read my first novela in Esperanto (see Books, below) and have even written an article for the magazine Esperanto in Scotland (Esperanto en Skotlando). I’m not fluent (yet) but it’s definitely become my third-most proficient language, after English and Albanian. I didn’t see that coming!

Paleography

I had almost forgotten about this one – I took a wee online course in paleography, in case I ever have cause to read old documents (not that unlikely, in my line of work). It was very interesting and I could definitely read more by the the end of it. It was one of those courses where the lessons are free but you have to pay if you want a certificate, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

First Aid

My new year’s resolution for 2020 was to learn first aid. I thought that would be easy – booked a course with the Red Cross, job done. Unfortunately the original date was cancelled due to lack of participants and the rescheduled date was cancelled due to Covid. Instead, I downloaded the British Red Cross apps, First Aid and Baby & Child First Aid (both free) and worked my way through them. In theory, I now know basic first aid, and if I forget, I still have the apps to refer to.

Calligraphy

Most recently, I have been busy getting half-decent at calligraphy. Again, this is a hobby from my childhood that I’ve picked up again. I’ve been doing mostly brush pen, but some pointed pen (nibs and ink) as well. My ambition when I started to get serious about it was to make gifts for my new friends from my friend Tanya’s Check In and Catch Up group, which she started in order to keep us all sane during the first lockdown. I managed that, and also make quite a few Christmas cards using calligraphy, so I feel the effort has not been wasted.

One amusing side effect of learning calligraphy is that you see it everywhere. My sister must be sick of me picking up a magazine, greetings card or menu and saying, “Oh look, modern calligraphy!”

As these last two categories suggest, I’ve made quite a few new friends and acquaintances this year – more than most years, I think. Zoom/Skype/Teams are annoying in comparison with real meet-ups, but after this year I can’t deny that you can form genuine friendships with people you have only met in the form of electronic pixels on a screen.

I have also learned to darn socks this year – a less social pursuit, but handy, and one that is very much in line with my attempts to be eco-friendly. The fact that I spilled red nail varnish on a perfectly good pair of jeans while writing this post is less eco-friendly of me, but according to the internet, hairspray will sort it out. We’ll see.

Books

I’m letting GoodReads do the heavy lifting for me again, even though I’ve almost certainly missed some out. There were a couple of re-reads this year, including Dracula, which is rather quaintly written from this distance in time, but still interesting. I read it again after coming across the nugget of information that Dracula was an alchemist. As you may know, I’m trying to write a non-fiction book on alchemy, a subject that fascinates me. Unfortunately, like many people, I have found that 2020 gave me plenty of spare time, but not that much mental energy or direction. Maybe next year…

Meanwhile, my novel Daughters of Fire creeps along. It’s the second in a series of three, the first of which is called The Sarcophagus Scroll. I was planning to do a fair bit of travel as research for book two, so that being cancelled hasn’t helped much, and I’m also suffering from the lethargy induced by yet another lockdown. However, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph it is getting there.

I did manage to write a couple of not-bad short stories this year, ‘The Untouchable Collection’ and ‘The Price of Exposure’. I’m fond of short stories, reading them and writing them, so it’s good to dip my toe back in while the novel is slightly in the doldrums. I also wrote a couple of articles for Christianity magazine and there should be another one coming out near the start of next year. And I won a limerick-writing competition about the pandemic, netting a modest cash prize.

Getting back to books I have read, the one that packed the greatest emotional punch, if you can believe it, is Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions series (which are all so short, you may as well consider them a single book). I only picked it up from the library for my niece, read the blurb on my way up the library stairs, and was instantly hooked by the humour. It’s a perfect little noir mystery, with dry wit and a wonderful femme fatale “with eyebrows like question marks and a smile that could mean anything.” And it leads unarguably up to an ending of inescapable, exquisite tragedy where there is simply no good option. It was heartbreaking.

I should add, for the sake of balance, that my nine-year-old niece said, “it’s not sad at all”.

The best book I read this year was David Copperfield, but that feels like cheating because it is such a classic. The best new book was probably The Golem and the Jinni, which really surprised me. The worst was The Serpent Grail, which was utter tosh.

Hacks

From David Copperfield I learnt that you can use beeswax on thread to get it to go through a needle, rather than licking it. This is useful to know in times of pandemic, and it is also more effective and longer-lasting.

I also found out while writing this post that hairspray does remove nail varnish from jeans – at least from black jeans. Phew!

Miscellaneous

I was a guest on a podcast about dyslexia; did a reading at an online ‘bar’ and subsequently had a story published in the bar’s best-selling anthology (that was nice, as you can imagine); appeared in a ceilidh video by Jiggered; hosted a YouTube/WhatsApp Eurovision party (which was probably the highlight of my whole year); and made a gingerbread zoo as my Christmas gingerbread project. There’s a wee ‘flyover’ of it embedded here.

Pets

My budgie Roland moved cage this year to bigger digs, and on Christmas morning, two adorable guinea pigs, Squiggles and Socks, arrived to join the family!

Crochet

I made a few wee things this year, including snowflakes, socks with decent ribbing (using knowledge acquired last year), a couple of baby blankets, a random wee shawl, a gingerbread man square for my patchwork blanket and a couple of dinosaurs. (I also made a fair number of face masks for obvious reasons, but not in crochet, for equally obvious reasons.)

And of course…

🥁🥁🥁

…the temperature blanket! Here it is, in all its multi-coloured glory! (Click on the photo for a larger image.)

Naturally, I have another ambitious crochet project planned, but it can wait for next year. Meanwhile, there’s hogmanay to enjoy, with champagne for the bells to bid a firm farewell to 2020. Never have the words of Tennyson’s ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’ been more appropriate than this year, so here it is to finish. Have a wonderful 2021, and I hope it brings you everything you are dreaming of.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

My Year in Review – 2019

31 Dec

It is the final day of the year (and indeed the decade) so I thought I would do a quick and thoroughly arbitrary review of my 2019.

It’s been a pretty good year for me, certainly better than last year, so here’s hoping that pattern continues into the ’20s.

Continue reading

Robin Hood on Tour

2 Feb

Next week I’ll be travelling to Robin Hood’s heartland which is, of course, Yorkshire!

On this mini-book tour I’ll be speaking to the sixth formers at my old school, Sheffield High, but I’ll also be doing a public event at Stannington Library. Stannington is a suburb of Sheffield that is still almost like a village, and is conveniently close to Loxley, of Robin Hood fame.

It’s on Tuesday 12th of February at 7pm, and it takes the form a discussion between myself and a storyteller called Carmel Page, who has written fictional stories about the young Robin Hood.

Entry is free, but as it’s a volunteer library, donations are encouraged. I will also have copies of my book Why Everything You Know about Robin Hood Is Wrong available for sale.

There’s a PDF of the event poster here, which you may share as widely as you like, and there’s this adorable wee gif that Stannington Library created for me. (If it doesn’t play automatically, try clicking on it.)

two_heads

By the way, if you have an idea of an author event for me, or would like to invite me to speak to your school or organisation, please don’t hesitate to get in touch using the “Get in Touch” section (obviously). ➡️

 

 

Robin Hood is in the shops! (kind of)

11 Oct

9781916490901I have been feverishly scanning the internet for signs of my forthcoming book, Why Everything You Know about Robin Hood Is Wrong, and it is now listed as available for pre-order on Amazon! It doesn’t show my uber-stylish cover yet, but that should follow in due course.

You will be able to get copies from me, of course, by dropping me a line using the contact form to the right, or by coming to a book event (more details to follow), but it you prefer the convenience of Amazon you can pre-order now. You can pre-order from your local bookshop, too, or ask your local library to stock it. Speak to them; people who work with books are generally nice. (Except the baddie in my current novel, but that’s another story – literally.)

creat-work-earn-front-coverMy other news is that Create Work Earn has just been published. This is a book about freelancing and creativity. It’s compiled by Vivienne K Neale, but I have a chapter on portfolio careers. What is a portfolio career? Read the book and find out! (Or you could just Google it; it’s not hard.)

Miss_rabbit

Miss Rabbit – the ultimate portfolio careerist

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.