I don’t want to do my homework, Miss.

It’s been a while since I posted anything on this blog.  I’ve been so busy having a nice time that sitting at the keyboard has drifted down my list of priorities.  Now I feel I should get back into a sensible routine, but I’m finding it hard to convince my inner child that it’s time to settle down and do some work.  It feels like that first week back at primary school after the long break when you have to write “What I Did On My Holidays” by Kim A Howard aged 56 and a bit.  I promise, I won’t give you a blow-by-blow account of what I’ve been doing, even though it’s been very exciting.  I’ll just show you a few pictures, share a couple of highlights and promise to do better try harder from now on.

Book CoverThings started with the thrilling news that I had won a Twitter give-away.  When my parcel arrived, I don’t know what made me more excited – getting a book (for free) by a debut writer or getting an envelope with an honest to goodness Chicken House label on the front!  The book won.  Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley is now tottering on the top of my To Be Read heap in the bedroom.  The envelope went into the rubbish.

Winchester Writers Festival was the first big event.  I spent two days as a student host, looking after an agent, an author and a digital whizz.  On the third day I was a fully fledged delegate, working on plotting stories with the wonderful Sarah Mussi, and I really didn’t feel the day was long enough.  It would have been great to have another hour or so to go into everything in a little more depth, but I’m not complaining.  She was extraordinarily generous with the documentation she gave us and with her offers of support afterwards.  There has been a flurry of tweets and emails over the last few weeks between those of us in her group – responding to them is another thing on my ever-growing ‘to do’ list.

In a quiet moment at the Festival I was browsing the internet and found this website.  I spent quite a lot of that day showing this page to anyone who would take a look.   On 30th July 1952, at 21.20, in a programme entitled Community Theatre, is a performance of The Deluge by the Southampton Student players.  Run your eyes down the cast list and you will find Japhet, played by Patrick Garland (actor, writer, director of Chichester Festival Theatre, etc).  Now look at the line underneath.  His Wife is played by Margaret Mansbridge – that’s my mum!  I can’t tell you how excited and proud seeing her name in print made me. The internet is wonderful at preserving old records like this for future generations.

NYC rooftop viewNext stop – New York City.  Who knew you could fit so much into seven days?  We saw two concerts, two Broadway shows, went on a half-day cruise, walked the Brooklyn Bridge, watched part of the Pride parade, visited the 9/11 memorial garden and museum, went to the top of One World Trade Centre, ate, drank, shopped… and, yes, I did come back to England with more books in my case than on the outward flight.  We had an amazing time – it would take another post or two to tell of all the joyous happenings so I won’t say more here.  Just let me know if you want details.

We flew back overnight, leaving NY on Thursday evening and arriving at Heathrow at 8.00 on Friday morning, so we were more than a little jet-lagged when the alarm went off at 7.00 on Saturday.  We had a train to catch!  We missed it by about 90 seconds and had to wait for the next one.  It was quite pleasant just sitting on a bench on the platform for half an hour and gave us chance to build up our energy reserves for the day at Wimbledon.  We had tickets for Centre Court and were nine rows from the back, up on the fifth floor – a long way from the nearest Pimms seller.  We watched three brilliant matches and didn’t fall asleep once.  I won’t give you a point-by-point account of the tennis – that’s what the iPlayer is for!.

Sunday was a day for laundry, lunch and lounging around on the sofa and it seemed like no time at all before we were back into the working week, added to which I went to two different crit groups on Tuesday evening with my current favourite work-in-progress.

Three book coversFive Book CoversAnd, of course, I’ve been reading and listening to stories.

Tell me a story and I’ll show you my Sunday Snapshot

Kim sat on car bonnet

Me, aged around 19, with my second car. It was called Mephistopheles.

This week I have been thinking about how much I enjoy having stories read to me. It happens more often than you might imagine, thanks to audio CDs. I nearly always have a story playing in the car when I drive. A good book makes traffic jams and the tedium of motorways fade into the background.

I have recently been fortunate to attend events where authors have read a piece of writing to the audience. Hearing someone read their own work can be a bit of a mixed blessing. Some authors get anxious standing up in public and their presentation can be stilted and uncomfortable; some are such performers that their story becomes overwhelmed by the personality of the reader; sometimes, if you are very lucky, the strength of the story pushes the reader totally out of the picture. On those occasions the only voices you hear are those of the characters and the only pictures are the settings in which the story takes place.

There is a big difference between someone who reads a story to an audience and someone who is a storyteller. Storytellers seldom have a book in front of them. They are engaged with the audience, not with a printed page. They don’t just use their voices, they use their whole body (and sometimes props, costume and musical instruments) to bring a story to life. They interact with their listeners, adapting and fine-tuning their performance in response to the reactions of the audience. They are exciting and alluring and, like so many things, at their best when observed in a live performance. Somehow an audio or video recording of their storytelling feels flat in comparison.

Five book coversIn Christophe’s Story we meet a Rwandan refugee struggling with a new language, a new school and a new country.  He misses his grandfather, who taught him that stories should never be written down as they lose their potency.  Christophe is not accepted by some of his classmates, so his teacher encourages him to share his story with them and, later, with the whole school.  This book covers some very difficult themes, including bullying and murder, but it is a touching, gently told story.

The Diddakoi has some similar themes.  Kizzy is new to the school and comes from a very different background to the other pupils.  Her family are travellers and she lives with her great-great-grandmother.  She is bullied by the girls at school and her problems increase when Gran dies.  I loved this book and cried buckets when Kizzy’s horse, Joe, died in his paddock.  Kizzy’s issues with the school bullies and her home situation are resolved in a thoughtful and touching way.  The story ends happily – cue more sobbing from me.  (Sorry for the spoilers).

I don’t remember reading Five Children and It as a child.  I know they made a television programme (series?) based on it, but I don’t really remember that either.  I’ve had Five Children on the Western Front in my TBR heap for a while but felt I should read the original story first.  I can’t say I especially enjoyed it, but I didn’t hate it either.  It was written in 1902 and some of the language was difficult – they were talking about modes of transport and ways of living that I am not familiar with.  I didn’t warm towards any of the children and thought the Psammead was very tolerant of their rude and selfish behaviour.  Some of the adventures were quite good fun and I did enjoy the way the wishes worked out.

After hearing Cathy Cassidy speak at the SCBWI conference I decided to read some of her writing.  I enjoyed Shine on Daizy Star (a book group read) and absolutely loved Cherry Crush, the first book in The Chocolate Box Girls series, so I was excited to read the second instalment, Marshmallow Skye.  I did like it, but it was not nearly as good as the first book.  I felt that I was being prepared for Summer’s story more than being told Skye’s.  It was an unsatisfying mix of sequel and prequel.

The final book this week is Tempest Rising which I read for my Sci-Fi and Fantasy book group.  I found it difficult to get to grips with this story at first and I think that is because I was mislead by the cover.  At first glance it looks like a book for children and I started to read, thinking it might be intended as a young YA book.  In the first few chapters the protagonist was revealed to be a 26-year-old woman who worked in a bookshop and took care of her ailing father.  She likes to swim in the sea, in the nude and one of her employers buys her sexy lingerie, sex toys and rude books as birthday and Christmas gifts.  Once I’d got my head around that, the fact that her mother was a Selkie and that she started to have an affair with a vampire seemed quite reasonable.  At times the story did seem to be more YA than adult fiction, but there are some very steamy pages in amongst murder, intrigue and a whole court of mythological beings.  I still don’t quite know how I feel about this book, so I have requested the second in the series to help me find out.  I think the adventures of Jane True could turn into a guilty pleasure.