Thursday, 27 August 2020

Book Review The Doll Factory by Elizabeth MacNeal


This is a hugely atmospheric book set in London in 1850. It reeks of gothic undertones, poverty and social class delineation. The characters are memorable and full of colour.

The female protagonist, Iris, moves from abject poverty to a life of relative luxury by becoming an artist’s model, even though the impact of this on her status in society brings mixed reactions.  She learns to paint and finds herself thrown into the esoteric world of the Pre- Raphaelite painters.

On so many levels, this is a good read. There is much that is factual and true to the period and the novice to historical fiction will be drawn in and wanting to find out more.  There is a love story with a strong female character who does not hesitate to explore her sexuality. There is a dark subplot involving stalking and kidnap which is chilling.

My only disappointment was the ending which seemed to lose impact, but perhaps there is another episode to appear in the future?

 I have no hesitation in recommending this book and I am just sorry that I missed it as a serialized book at bedtime on BBC radio 4.


Saturday, 4 July 2020

The Personality of Smell

The Personality of Smell

Imagine for a moment that you have been asked about the personality and colour of smell in a job interview. What would you talk about? It is known that some people visualise colours when they smell certain scents, and this is apparently more common in artists. Perhaps it is possible to train the brain to recognise scents from other sensations.

Let's keep it simple and focus on a few specific scents and describe visual characteristics and memory prompts.

Coffee is the first. The smell of freshly brewed coffee, or coffee beans roasting in an oven must be familiar to everyone. Coffee is exotic and exuberant, dancing in the streets of Rio de Janeiro clothed in bright coloured feathers, attracting crowds. No shrinking violet is coffee. In your face, loving media attention, alert, head turningly attractive, ready for anything. That is the personality of coffee.

Somewhat gentler is the scent of lemon. Soft downy day old chicks, pale yellow baby shawls, flowers imitate the colour beautifully. A confused fruit that looks so very inviting but the juicy flesh is bitter like an unmarried aunt. Memories of walking in Mediterranean fields with crushed thyme and mint triggering lemon like whiffs, but never quite succeeding. Tall, thin and acerbic, a bit stand offish, an observer rather than a game player. That is the personality of lemon.

And now for garlic. Garlic is a bumbling Pickwickian character, with black greasy hair sleeked back with Brylcreem, a waddling gait and a sweaty handshake. He is a seedy vacuum cleaner salesman who wheedles his way into your home and leaves you with a bad taste in the mouth. On the positive side, he loves entertaining and having his large family around for spectacular Italian dinners al fresco. He never bothers the very young or very elderly and is indulged by many for his good nature and loyalty. A colourful character who may burst into song with a glass of red wine in his hand.

The scent of rose is altogether different. Overpoweringly seductive, she is approaching middle age, her face heavily made up. Her hair is bleached blonde and bouffant style, maintained with strong hold hair spray. Her ample bosom straining to be free of her expensive French lingerie, she walks with a flick of the hips which openly states her availability. Beware young men, she might tempt you into dangerous ways!  When seen strolling down the High Street, men doff their caps to her hiding a hint of a smirk, while women indignantly rustle their skirts and turn the other way.

Now have I got you thinking about personalities and smell? Where will your imagination lead you? Your turn to try. Your interviewers will be impressed.

#smell  #creativewriting #food #flowers 

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Why write?

Why write?

Why do people write? There are many different answers to this question, but the theme that runs through all the answers is because it gives pleasure to the writer. Not everyone will be lucky enough to earn money from their writing, and dare I say it, this is not actually as important as you might think. The personal benefits from writing are what counts, at least initially.

When you speak, your words disappear into the air, and unless someone records your speech, they may never be recalled accurately. When you write, on the other hand, you are making a permanent or semi-permanent record of your words. When you do this, you are bringing together different strands from your upbringing, education, culture and genetics. Everything you write is entirely individual to you. No-one else has ever written identical words. You are making a unique statement.

In this way you are expanding your personality into new areas of consciousness, you are putting out feelers into the complex and fascinating world of language. Every word that you learn, whether in your mother tongue or in a foreign language will enrich your vocabulary . New sounds, new meanings, connections  between languages, dialects, regional variants of speech – all these things will come together to increase your depth of knowledge and influence what you write.

And the best part of all this? You only need a pen and a notebook to get started. What a great excuse to go out and buy some lovely new stationery.

But there is more.

There are subtle changes that will begin to happen when you start writing.
First of all, you will start to become more observant. You will notice birdsong, conversations in a café, the colours of the sky, the words of songs. Things around you will start to prompt you into writing. You will wake up in the morning with your brain buzzing with ideas. You will get more in touch with your own world.

Secondly, you will start to read things differently. You will become aware of the plot and the way the characters are described in a novel that you are reading. You will start to be able to critically analyse others writings.

And finally, you will begin to learn things about yourself and new coping strategies. Stories from your childhood will reappear in technicolour detail, conversations you thought you had forgotten burst back into your memory . You will be able to immerse yourself into fantasy when real life becomes a bit too serious. Colourful characters will march across your consciousness. You can legitimately peer into their lives, move them about puppet like into imagined situations, and all from the comfort of your very own arm chair.

Next time I will talk about how you can incorporate writing into your life, even if you have never attempted to put pen to paper since you left school or college.

#creativewriting  #startwriting  #becreative 

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Book Review. All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve

Essentially a love story, Nicholas becomes besotted with Etna and determines to marry her. He cannot understand her initial reluctance, but his persistence pays off. However, Etna remains somewhat distant and unemotional. It is not until the end of the novel that the reasons for her unhappiness unravel.

Set in New Hampshire in the late 1800s, the description of the characters and their small town life is realistic and enduring. The limitations of society and lack of opportunity drive the characters into circumstances which seem immutable. The deep unhappiness of Etna contrasting with the obsessive love displayed by Nicholas makes for disturbing reading. The reader’s sympathies are split between the two.

This is a book that will remain in my memory as a skilled depiction of an unequal and unsatisfactory relationship. There is a sadness that seeps through the narrative that does not leave the reader easily.


Saturday, 11 April 2020

Book Review Circe

Circe by Madeline Miller

This book gives the reader a fast paced trip through Greek mythology. The heroine, Circe, is depicted as an awkward child, not endowed with beauty, desperately craving affection in her early years. 

Unaware of her powers at first, she grows into a strong willed, independent young woman, not afraid to challenge long existing traditions. Her punishment for stepping outside the boundaries is to be in lifelong isolation on a far off island. Here, she develops her powers by learning about the plants and herbs which grow around her, producing powerful potions and manipulating her world.

Encounters with human love, power intrigues, witchcraft and monsters keep the reader enthralled. This is a rewriting of myths from a feminist point of view with a freshness that draws the reader in.  Young readers will enjoy the magical world while admiring the stoic persistence of a woman against adversity.

My only disappointment was the ending. This was somewhat predictable and a little flat after the extraordinary encounters throughout the novel. However, I believe many readers will now be stimulated to dip into the Greek mythologies to learn more as a result of reading this book. 


Monday, 30 March 2020

No Time for Complacency

No Time for Complacency

Martin Luther King, in one of his speeches states; 'This is no time for apathy or complacency'.  I believe this may be the origin of the currently in favour phrase 'This is no time for complacency'.

 Our current political and medical experts leaders have repeated this phrase, along with the constantly recurring advice to stay at home in this unprecedented Coronovirus pandemic.

 It is not so commonly paired with apathy, perhaps because accusing people of complacency is less inflammatory than describing them as apathetic. It is a phrase that appears to add gravitas to rhetoric with undertones of evangelism.

But what does complacency actually mean?  Various dictionaries describe it as ' a feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one's achievements', ' a feeling of contentment or self-satisfaction, especially when coupled with an unawareness of danger, trouble or controversy',' a feeling of  being satisfied with how things are and not wanting to try to make them better'. In our present culture, it also seems to signify an unwillingness to become involved in political opinion.

We are exhorted to not be complacent about a multitude of topics. In the past few years alone, ‘there is no time for complacency’ about equality ,drugs used in competitive sport, trade developments in the EU, varroa treatment of bee populations, the medicalisation of e-cigs and cannabis and last but not least, climate change. 

As if all that were not enough, turn on the television over the Christmas period especially and you are bombarded with heart tugging advertisements to save the tiger, whale, dolphins, donkeys and pets of all types. Then there are the starving children throughout the world, water contamination, deaf/mute children, those who are alone at Christmas, the homeless, refugees, war torn devastation and other distressing human conditions to consider. 

To take into consideration all these demands for our attention places an impossible burden on the average person. In order to avoid complacency, we must also factor in present dangers and future risks. We must consider the heightened security status of the world today, be aware of terrorist threats, consider health and safety issues in the workplace, and remain vigilant for any abnormal or threatening behaviour in those around us. And now the present threat of the Coronavirus pandemic overwhelms us all.

Vladimir Nabokov stated: 'Complacency is a state of mind that exists only in retrospective; it has to be shattered before being ascertained’. It is true that we do not set out to become complacent. When accused of complacency we can either acknowledge that it might be true, or emphatically deny it (thus proving our complacency). We must all be complacent to a degree, as it is surely impossible to achieve a status of self-satisfaction without ignoring some aspects of concern about humanity and the environment. So is the theory proposed by Robert Bruce Raup in 1925 (then Professor in the Philosophy of Education at Columbia University) in his publication entitled 'Complacency: the Foundation of Human Behaviour', a continuing reality in today's society?

The NHS has introduced multitudes of protocols and performance management targets. Undoubtedly some areas of poor performance have improved as a result, but the end point becomes satisfaction at achieving a target without looking at potential further improvements. A 'good enough' culture is now established. This, in my opinion, simply affirms a base line of complacency.

Is it possible to exclude complacency from our lives? I very much doubt it. We almost need it as a fallback option when life gets too tough and the present dangers mushroom around us. A degree of self satisfaction is mandatory in order to experience contentment, and to be constantly battling with inadequacy, human distress, and environmental destruction creates paranoia and fearfulness. 

I suggest that, occasionally, we need to find time for complacency: a short relief from the exigencies of this media heavy environment we live in, a place of  simplification, a brief  but welcome comfort zone before taking on the world again. So, use your complacency with care. A little in times of mental distress goes a long way. For the rest of the time, vigilance and self-distancing will work well along with frequent hand washing.