Fiction · Non-fiction · Photography · Writing

Resolutions

New Year’s Day is one of my favourite days of the year. I like the feeling of making a fresh start, leaving behind the old year and marching on into new territory.

Every January I enjoy reading fellow blogger Darlene’s end of year report and her resolutions for the coming year.  It’s some years since I last posted my new year’s resolutions on a blog, and I think it’s time I did it again, in an attempt to hold myself more accountable.

Last year I was aiming to read 100 books, but I dropped that total to 90 when 100 seemed unlikely. As of last night I had read 89, but if I had known I was going to report my reading achievements online I might have made more of an effort to finish the one I’m currently reading (“A room with a view” by E M Forster, which I’m finding more of a slog than I thought I would).

My resolutions for 2018 are as follows:

1.  Read 100 books, at least 35 of which are non-fiction, and at least one of which concerns Greek history/mythology.

2.  Write (and post on this blog) at least 12 book reviews.

3.  Visit the McManus Galleries in Dundee (a museum and art gallery I’ve been meaning to visit for years).

4.  Finish writing the novel I started last month (over the past few years I’ve started several stories I thought might turn into novels, only to have them dwindle away to nothing).

5.  Edit the novel mentioned above and submit it to 5 publishers.

Of the above resolutions, numbers 4 and 5 are the two that seem most likely to fail. I’m nervous about making them public because I’ve been in this position before with my writing, and I know how easily I fall by the wayside. Hopefully, by declaring my intentions online I might find the motivation I need to achieve them.

A very Happy New Year to you, and I hope 2018 brings many interesting experiences.

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Enjoying a walk on Boxing Day with my dad, my mum and my sister. This would have been my Friday photo last week if I’d remembered to post it.
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Book review · Fiction · Writing

Book review: “Border Line” by Hilary Custance Green

I recently re-read this novel, having first read it about two years ago. On the first reading, my initial impressions were of a well-written and interesting story featuring a good mixture of nicely drawn characters. I felt the same on reading it the second time.

Border Line by Hilary Custance Green
‘Border Line’ by Hilary Custance Green (2014)

The story follows a group of people who have been brought together by a mutual desire to commit suicide. This might seem a morbid premise for a book, but I didn’t find it depressing. The story is told from the point of view of one of the group, a 35 year old geographer called Grace.

The group’s leader, a drama tutor called Daniel, has organised a trip for them all to Slovenia. The excursion lasts for three weeks, during which they take part in various games and activities designed to help them learn about themselves and others. At the end of the three weeks they have the opportunity to either end their lives or change their minds and choose life instead.

I particularly enjoyed the way the relationships between characters developed over time. That is, indeed, one of the main threads of the story, and I found it convincing.

The author, Hilary Custance Green, has asked for honest reviews of this book and so I’m going to mention a few things I might not otherwise include in a review. As I was reading, I tried to be critical and take note of anything that stood out for me in any way.

The main thing I noticed was how well written the text was, and how refreshing it was to read a book with section headings rather than chapters. As far as I can recall, I have never read another novel laid out in this way but I found it a satisfying and enjoyable approach. For example, on page one there is the heading ‘Devon – Day nought‘ and on page six the next heading appears: ‘Trieste – Day one‘, followed on page ten by ‘Divača – Party game‘ and on page 14 by ‘Lunch – Questions. Presenting the book in this way created the impression of a diary or itinerary, and gave the book a sort of forward momentum that made me want to keep reading.

To my mind, there was very little to criticise about the book, but I have a few small points to mention. Firstly, some of the games the characters took part in were hard for me to visualise and I suppose that was slightly frustrating at the time, although it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story.

Secondly, it surprised me that each character had a specific historical reason for wanting to do away with themselves. In normal life I think a lot of people reach the decision not because they’ve done something awful in the past, but because they feel hopeless and can’t see any point in living. However, this issue was perhaps addressed in Daniel’s admission that each individual in the group was selected from a larger pool of people who contacted him about their suicidal wishes. It was implied that he had deliberately chosen those who cited particular events in their lives.

The only other thing I wasn’t sure about was the way in which group members reacted when each person gave their reason for wanting to commit suicide. It seemed to me that some of their responses were unlikely, although this was perhaps a deliberate ploy by the author to put across different points of view.

None of the above criticisms in any way spoiled the book for me, and I only include them in an attempt to give a balanced review.

To end on another couple of positives, I was impressed by the quality of the book’s print and paper. I was also very pleased with the bookmark that came with it, which gives a list of the story’s characters, alongside their ages and professions. Since there are 11 main characters, I found the bookmark especially useful in the early stages of the story.

Back cover of Border Line by Hilary Custance Green
Back cover of ‘Border Line’ with helpful bookmark giving names, ages and professions of characters.

I would highly recommend this book to other readers who are intrigued by the story idea. Using my ‘4 Ps’ rating system I’ve scored it 18/20.

Writing

NaNo Update

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) ended last night, on 30 November. As I wrote at the end of October, I was expecting to find the goal of writing 50,000 words of fiction in one month a tall order.

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NaNoWriMo logo

The first week was very encouraging, with my daily word count suggesting I would surpass 50,000 words before the month was out. Then it all went pear-shaped.

After that first week, I struggled to get anything written. Days passed when I added nothing at all to my novel. On the better days, it was often a battle to get even a few hundred words down. My motivation had disappeared. The story no longer inspired me and I questioned why I was trying to achieve 50,000 words in such a short space of time. My writing limped towards the end of the month, stopping for long rests between forced phases of effort, ending up yesterday at just over halfway to the goal.

On the down side, by the end of November I had failed to achieve the required word count and had lost interest in what I was writing about. On the days when I failed to write, or made myself write merely for the sake of boosting the word count, I was left feeling despondent.

On the up side, I have now written 26,075 words of fiction I wouldn’t have written if it hadn’t been for NaNoWriMo. Even if I never add anything more to the story, I consider those words to have been valuable writing practice.

The other up side, and the best thing about this project for me, was meeting and corresponding with a writing buddy who was undertaking the same challenge. Unlike me, she did achieve the full word count in the allotted time. Despite this not being my success, I feel delighted for her and inspired by her persistence and dedication. She reckons she’s between half and two thirds of the way through her novel and intends to keep on writing daily until the end of December, by which time she hopes to have finished the first draft.

Looking back over the past month, if I wasn’t writing every day, what was I doing? The answer to that question is more obvious to me now than it would usually have been in any other month. During NaNoWriMo I was always thinking about when I would next sit down and write, which made me more aware of how I was spending my time. I discovered that much of what I do on an average day is incompatible with writing. Preparing meals, general housekeeping and, most enjoyably, reading, are all things I do on a daily basis that take up time I might otherwise spend on writing.

As my writing buddy pointed out, it’s a question of balance. During NaNoWriMo she noticed that in making time to write every day she had to sacrifice other things. I remember several occasions when I sat down to write, usually straight after lunch, when I decided against doing it because what I really wanted to do was read. Once or twice I ignored this urge and made myself write, but more often than not I chose reading over writing. Mornings are nearly always my busiest time of day, and by early afternoon the prospect of relaxing with a good book is often too tempting to resist. I don’t feel bad about this because regular reading of other people’s work helps me to recognise and appreciate good writing, which I think is helpful for my own writing. Also, relaxation is a key ingredient for a happy life, and reading is something I find particularly relaxing.

To conclude, I failed to complete NaNoWriMo, but I think I learned some important lessons through taking it on. Congratulations to all of those who did succeed, I take my hat off to you.

Book review · Photography · Writing

Book review: “Call of the undertow” by Linda Cracknell

Set in the north of mainland Scotland, this was, I thought, an interesting story with an unusually open ending.

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“Call of the undertow” by Linda Cracknell (2013)

The main character, Maggie Thame, is a cartographer who escapes Oxford for the wide open spaces of Caithness. She’s 40 years old and divorced with no children. She doesn’t know anyone in Caithness, and has arranged to rent a cottage she’s never seen on the outskirts of a village.

As she settles into her new environment, she walks for miles around the coast and countryside. During one of these rambles she meets Graham, a wildlife ranger, who introduces her to one of the teachers at the local school. The children are engaged in a map-making project and Maggie is invited to come and speak to them. She’s not keen, but accepts the invite and turns up to give her talk.

One of the children catches her eye, a floppy-haired urchin who might be male or female. The mysterious child sits apart from the others, avoided by classmates but apparently tolerated by them. She learns that his name is Trothan Gilbertson and he’s considered a bright, but rather peculiar, boy.

One day Trothan turns up at Maggie’s door with the map he’s been making. Reluctantly, Maggie invites him in and has a look at his map. She’s amazed by the detail, and unlike the maps his classmates have been compiling, Trothan’s covers a large area he has mapped by walking all over the place. She shows him how she makes maps using her laptop and explains the way in which cartographers build maps in layers featuring different types of information.

After his first visit, Trothan makes a regular habit of calling in at Maggie’s cottage, where he sits and works quietly on his map while she works on hers. She asks him if his parents know where he is and he agrees to take a note home to his mum from Maggie letting her know what’s going on. Their unusual friendship continues for some time, until one day Trothan disappears after visiting Maggie’s house. Initially, nobody but Maggie seems to be bothered by this, assuming the boy will turn up sooner or later when he’s finished wandering around the countryside. Hours turn into days, days into weeks, with no sign of Trothan.

The police call round to see Maggie, asking questions in a rather accusatory manner. The stress of Trothan’s disappearance interferes with her work and she starts of feels as if everyone is blaming her for Trothan going missing. The situation comes to a head when she meets Trothan’s parents on the beach and Nora, Trothan’s mum, physically attacks Maggie.

Once she’s got over the shock, Maggie is determined to see Nora again, to talk to her about Trothan. After a difficult start, an understanding, even a friendship of sorts, builds up between them. When Trothan’s parents arrange to hold a service of commemoration for their son, Maggie is surprised, but pleased, to be invited. Her attendance at this sensitive event cements her connection to the village.

The book ends with certain issues left unresolved, which I might have thought would leave me feeling dissatisfied. On the contrary, I thought the ending was skilfully and satisfyingly written. Aspiring writers are often told it’s important to tie up loose ends before completing a novel, but this book proves that if the story is told well enough, the reader doesn’t need all the answers. I think the author made the right decision about this, because I was strangely pleased to have been left pondering possible outcomes.

Book review · Photography · Writing

Book review: “Secret asset” by Stella Rimington

After retiring as Director General of the UK’s security service, MI5, Stella Rimington turned her hand to writing. Her first book was an autobiography, published in 2001, which I read earlier this year. Although I enjoyed it, I found it rather restrained and lacking the punch I had been expecting. I later discovered the reason for this. Before it was published, the book had to undergo a vetting procedure by British security’s top brass, who demanded she remove some of the more fascinating pieces of information.

It was with some interest, therefore, that I picked up one of her novels. With a fictional piece, she would presumably have much freer rein to include the oomph I had been looking for in her autobiography.

Unable to get my hands on the first of her series featuring MI5 officer, Liz Carlyle, I settled for the second, “Secret asset” (there are, to date, nine Liz Carlyle novels).

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“Secret asset” by Stella Rimington (2006)

I was not disappointed. The high drama I had been hoping for in her autobiography was very much in evidence in her fiction.

I don’t know how much of what takes place in this novel is close to real life situations experienced by MI5 officers, but I found the whole thing believable because of the author’s background. Having a unique insight into the security service enables her to write with authority on the subject.

The story involves the investigation of a terrorist group based in London, and gives a vivid portrayal of the dangers faced by secretly recruited agents or sources who pass on information to the security services. It was interesting to read the fictional version after learning about the real thing in the autobiography, and I found the portrait of the agent particularly convincing.

As a protagonist, I found Liz Carlyle a likeable character. She enjoys her job and is respected by her colleagues, and although she’s the main character it’s clear she’s just one part of a well-connected team. Along with her fellow MI5 officers, and the occasional MI6 collaborator, she follows the trail out of London to Oxford, a place she knows well having been a student there.

I enjoyed the combination of locations in the book, from London’s side streets to the academic atmosphere of Oxford and I felt the book moved seamlessly from one place to another. I found the ending satisfying and when I finished the book I had only one regret: that it hadn’t gone on for longer. It left me wanting to read more in the series, and I look forward to tracking them down.

Writing

Writing a novel in a month

Each November a global writing challenge called NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) takes place online. Anyone can take part, and the idea is to commit to writing 50,000 words, roughly the minimum for a novel, by the end of November.

I’ve known about this for a few years but, until this year, didn’t feel inclined to give it a go. For most of this year I’ve written virtually no fiction, and I thought NaNoWriMo might be the push I need to get me going again.

nanowrimo_2016_webbadge_participant

I signed up to the project a few weeks ago, and during that time have debated about whether or not to continue with it. I didn’t want to advertise the fact that I was attempting to do it if I thought it likely I would give up part of the way through. Also, I had absolutely no idea what to write about. I thought for days and days, but nothing was coming to me.

Then, a couple of days ago, I remembered a recent suggestion my dad had made. He’s very helpful in my writing endeavours but, rather overwhelmingly, has an almost constant train of ideas for new writing projects he thinks I could tackle. I didn’t tell him I was thinking of doing NaNoWriMo, and in fact he will only learn of it when he reads this post, but one particular idea he had has begun forming itself into a story in my head. I hope the tale will continue to grow and develop, and sustain me until at least the end of November.

Writing 50,000 words in a month means coming up with an average of around 1,667 every day (more, in fact, because there will inevitably be some I delete along the way, making the total harder to reach by 30 November). I expect to find the daily word count quite a tall order, and I know from past experience that there are days when I struggle to come up with 700 words, never mind more. However, I also know that on a good day I can pass the 2,000 mark. Hopefully, by the end of the month, I won’t be too far off the 50,000 word goal.

Only time will tell, and I’ll do another post at the end of the month to report how I’ve got on. In readiness for the weeks ahead, I intend to spend time in the chocolate biscuit aisle of my local supermarket tomorrow selecting some special energy-giving treats.

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A wonderfully chocolatey, gingery Border’s Dark Chocolate Ginger biscuit, something I might well hunt down tomorrow.
Book review · Photography · Writing

Book Review: “The Utopia Experiment” by Dylan Evans

In 2005 Dylan Evans was working in England, in the field of robotics. In the September of that year he visited Mexico to give a series of work-related talks. During the trip he had the idea of creating what later became ‘the Utopia experiment’, a simulation of what might happen in the event of civilisation collapsing. His vision was to set up a small community from scratch, to investigate the possibility of survival without access to modern conveniences.

His idea eventually came to fruition in the Scottish highlands, with accommodation in the form of yurts, and an old barn serving as a kitchen and diningroom. Through his website he recruited volunteers who were interested in spending a few weeks or months working with him, aiming for self-sufficiency and freedom from dependence on modern technology. From the very beginning it was his intention that the experiment would last for 18 months, before being wound up.

The Utopia experiment
“The Utopia Experiment” by Dylan Evans (2015)

Having become increasingly disenchanted with his work in artificial intelligence it seemed no great hardship to give up his job, and he was committed enough to sell his cottage in the Cotswolds to fund the Utopia experiment. In the summer of 2006 he moved himself and a few of his belongings, including his cat, Socrates, to Scotland, with a view to setting up the community that would be his home for the next year and a half. Along with his first volunteer, Adam, he erected two yurts as sleeping accommodation and began to prepare some ground for cultivating crops. As time went on, more volunteers joined the community, some staying for only a few days at a time, others for longer periods.

Some months into the experiment, despite all the hard work and determination, self-sufficiency was proving far harder to attain than Dylan had anticipated. Frequent trips were still being made to a supermarket to stock up on the many things the community was unable, or unwilling, to obtain by other means.

As time went on the volunteers began to discuss, with increasing conviction, the inevitability of society’s collapse. The more they talked about this the more Dylan came to realise that he no longer believed in the experiment or his reasons for doing it. The community was in danger of becoming something like a cult and, as its founder, he was regarded as the one in charge. He found himself retreating from the others, avoiding their company and unable to answer their questions. After eventually agreeing to see a doctor about his behaviour he was admitted to a mental hospital, where he stayed for several weeks. During that time he struggled to cope with simple tasks and, although he felt afraid and vulnerable, he realised he was better off there than back in the community where he felt permanently distressed and unable to function.

Following a partial recovery, he returned to the Utopia experiment and informed his colleagues that the project was going to end. This announcement did not go down well with the volunteers, who took the suggestion as a sign that Dylan was still too unwell to make sense. Their refusal to accept his decision left him with no alternative but to abandon the community and leave them to carry on without him. Early one morning, he left without telling anyone he was going, and got himself down to the south of England, where he stayed with a friend. His full recovery took several months, but by early 2008 he was ready to re-enter the world of employment and secured a university job in Ireland.

I was expecting this book to be more or less a biography of the Utopia experiment, and it does fulfil that brief, but it’s also something of a metaphysical study. Throughout the book Dylan refers to a variety of philosophical works that influenced him and discusses the merits of different ideologies. His own opinions changed drastically across the course of the experiment, and the book is just as much about him as it is about his project. He had never seen himself as a leader, wanting instead to integrate into the community like any of the volunteers, but this proved his downfall. He failed to realise that the community needed a hierarchy of some sort, and that it would be impossible for everyone to occupy the same status. The more he shied away from his position, the less able he was to communicate with anyone and the more demoralised the volunteers became because of the lack of leadership. In the end, it was easier for the others when he wasn’t around. The community continued to thrive after he left it and renamed itself The Phoenix Experiment, inspired by its rise from the ashes of the original project.

It took Dylan six years after leaving the community to complete the book about it, and as I read the closing pages it struck me that he was still in the process of analysing and understanding what had happened to him. The Utopia experiment was an unexpected drain on his mental strength and physical energy, as well as his finances. It drove him beyond his limits and into an abyss he might not have been able to scramble out of. And yet, the book ends on a positive note. As Dylan says, one of the frequently cited regrets of those close to death is that they didn’t follow their dreams. Having undertaken the Utopia experiment, he has no fears of dying with such regrets. Going through this experience has given him the courage of his convictions and, he says, if a similarly ambitious idea takes hold of him in the future he knows he has what it takes to give it a go.