The Unbeatable Bard: A Review of Beth Miller’s For The Love of Shakespeare

My copy of Beth's brilliant book with fave bits post-it-ed!

My copy of Beth’s brilliant book with fave bits post-it-ed!

Prior to writing for a living, I was a professional actress so when the opportunity arose to review Beth Miller’s companion guide to the world’s most famous dramatist there was no way I was going to refuse. I adore Shakespeare, though I never did get to play one of his characters. I performed in many of his contemporaries’ works but not the great man’s. Pisht!

Like the book’s author, it wasn’t always thus. I loathed the bard at school. Along with my classmates I stared baffled and bored at a battered copy of the Dream. I fell in love during a performance of the Scottish play at Theatre Clwyd. It was the appearance of the witches that did it – mesmerising performances from the three actresses. If you’re tiring of my waffling, please do bear with. I share because Beth Miller opens her book with her ‘switched on’ moment, also during a performance: a charming, and funny, anecdote from her teenage years and it sets the tone for the book perfectly.

If you’re a fan already you’ll love this book and if you’re not it could persuade you to give old Shakie a bash. It’s wonderful.

For The Love of Shakespeare is not designed to be read cover to cover – though I did, ‘cos I’m geeky – but to be dipped in as and when. Nor is it designed for the super-serious scholar. Right up my alley then.

The first 50-odd pages are rammed with background information – gems on the man himself, the times, his world. Did you know George Bernard Shaw wasn’t a fan and would have liked to dig Will up and throw stones at him? Me neither.

After the introduction Miller divides the guide into three main sections: the Comedies, the Histories and the Tragedies; with shorter chapters on the bard’s poetry, the apocryphal plays (those whose authorship is in dispute) and his legacy.

The plot of each play is explained in conversational English, followed with the plot in a nutshell – a phrase invented by Shakespeare along with a zillion others we use today, many of which Miller shares. These nutshell plots are often hilarious. Of Antony and Cleopatra Miller writes: ‘Antony learns the hard way that mixing business with pleasure is a bad idea.’ And of Macbeth: McGame of Thrones meets The Apprentice, with knives. Plot summaries are followed by other notable characters and a body count. There are ‘Did You Know?’ sections and quotable lines, and peppered throughout are interviews with people closely associated with Shakespeare today (actors, directors, academics and the like) which are also utterly delightful.

Not only is the information that Miller has lovingly and painstakingly researched fascinating, she delivers her material in such a warm and witty style whether you’re a Will fan or not it’s an entertaining read. Perfect for a quick overview for not-too-keen young students – I’ll certainly encourage my son to read Miller’s thoughts on the plays he’s studying (Romeo & Juliet, another of my favourites, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – definitely not one of my favourites, and Macbeth. Love) – and for someone who’s perhaps being dragged to the theatre reluctantly. And for those already smitten there’s plenty of fresh material.

A witty, informed guide infused with love and a healthy dash of irreverence. Fab-u-lous.

My thanks to the publisher, Summersdale and TBC (Facebook Group); I was given a book in return for an honest review.

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Book Review: This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell

51bLYEeNwHL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Those of you who read my posts, tweets, and follow me on other social media platforms will know that I am a HUGE fan of Maggie O’Farrell’s work, so you can imagine my excitement when I received an ARC of This Must Be The Place from über-blogger Anne Williams. Thank you, lovely Anne!

I first encountered Maggie O’Farrell’s work many years ago through my monthly subscription to glossy mag, Red. (Forgive the formality of the full name. I don’t know her so ‘Maggie’ seems overly familiar and using her surname only, whilst a convention, feels too formal for a woman whose soul I feel I have a window into on account of her writing). A copy of My Lover’s Lover was included in the shrink-wrapped package. It sat on my bedside table for ages – I am crazy mad about the late, great Bernice Rubens and at the time was working my way through her books – but when I did pick up My Lover’s Lover, I enjoyed it immensely and sought out her debut: After You’d Gone, which I adored. Ever since, I have waited eagerly for each new MO. How’s an abbreviation? And if there are any publishers listening in, I guess this goes to show that giving books away for free – paperbacks – really can bring in new readers. I’m less convinced about Kindle because it must be easy to forget they’re there, on your machine.

Back to Ms O’Farrell’s (better still?) novels. They are all great, but if I had to choose I’d say my favourites were: After You’d Gone and The Hand That First Held Mine.

Until now.

OMG, This Must Be The Place is bloody brilliant. Swearie good.

Crossing continents and three decades, it’s an expansive, sweeping, epic-yet-intimate story of a group of interrelated people. Told from multiple points of view, at the centre of the maelstrom is Daniel, a complex, flawed, beautiful man who’s made a bit of a hash of his life. In less assured, and frankly genius hands, this could have been a dog’s dinner. Instead, it is a glorious study of a marriage, people struggling to find their place in this messy but often wonderful world. Brim-full of fascinating characters (a reclusive film star; a stammering boy; an elderly woman who has recently left her husband; a film-maker’s assistant; I could go on), psychological insight and vivid storytelling, I found that as I read each section I didn’t want it to finish; I wanted to discover more about this particular character’s story and yet, simultaneously, I wanted to find out how others were faring since I’d seen them last.

No review can really do this novel justice – certainly no review I can write. So, I’ll leave by saying: Read it. It is divine.

The Official Blurb:
Meet Daniel Sullivan, a man with a complicated life. A New Yorker living in the wilds of Ireland, he has children he never sees in California, a father he loathes in Brooklyn and a wife, Claudette, who is a reclusive ex-film star given to shooting at anyone who ventures up their driveway.
He is also about to find out something about a woman he lost touch with twenty years ago, and this discovery will send him off-course, far away from wife and home. Will his love for Claudette be enough to bring him back?

This Must Be The Place is released on 17 May. Buy it here. Or at your local bookshop.

Guest interview: Shirley Golden

Award-winning short story writer Shirley Golden has a collection out, Exposing the False Moon, and, despite being shy and private, she agreed to pop over and take part in my occasional, slightly frivolous, interview series. I adore Shirley’s work and Exposing the False Moon is an absolute treat. I’m including my review after our chat. So, thank you for being here, Shirley.

Describe yourself in seven words:

False MoonFanatical about fiction, nature, history and science.

Why short stories?

I like the intensity of reading and writing a short story.  Like a passionate fling, I want to emerge the other side, moved, and perhaps a little wiser.

Novellas or novels – to read and/or write?

I enjoy reading both but sometimes find my concentration falters, which is why I tend to read more short stories.  And as an add-on to the simile above, writing a novel or novella feels more like a long-term relationship.  I have to fall deeply in love with my characters to stay committed to it.

What should readers expect from your stories?

Expectations are difficult to predict as people tend to see different, and sometimes, unforeseen things in a story.  As a generalisation, I think my short stories fall into a no-man’s land between mainstream and literary fiction – perhaps a bit too odd for mainstream, but a bit too obvious/accessible for ‘literary’.  My novels are an even lighter read.  To me, they are adventure stories, which I hope contain interesting characters and plots that entertain.

In ‘Exposing the False Moon’, stories are populated with quirky characters and, in many, a sense of loss.  Where do you think this comes from?

Well, quirky seems to be an inherent part of my nature.  I’m attracted to difference, so I guess it’s inevitable that my characters aren’t going to do the expected.  Yes, loss is a recurrent theme.  I’m very resistant to base my fiction on anything remotely autobiographical.  But it’s impossible to separate imagination from experiences entirely.  My mum died when I was in my early twenties.  I carry that with me.  It leaks into my stories.

What inspires you?

All sorts: images, snippets of conversations, historical characters and events, reading about technological developments, other stories, and sometimes news items and documentaries.

ShirleyYour favourite place to hang out online?

Really, it’s my only place: Twitter.  It’s fast and furious and appeals to me because it is perhaps better suited to introverts.  It’s easy to get lost, and feels less personal than Facebook.

Best thing that’s ever happened to you?

The realisation that it’s okay to be quiet (one of the best things, other than a more conventional answer).

Top Tip for aspiring short story writers?

Keep the language focused, and remember that if you’re writing short stories, your aspirations have already been met!

Thanks, Shirley. Exposing the False Moon is out now to buy from Amazon. Here’s my review, and remember to support  #ReviewWomen2015:

If you enjoy stylish, provocative and downright quirky short stories then you’ll love this anthology from award-winning short story writer, Shirley Golden.

Thematically, the stories in Exposing the False Moon are about exploring new ways of being, whether it’s the disgruntled wife in Kite Flying, who literally and metaphorically, takes off on her own, the grieving mother in Tense learning to live with guilt and finding redemption from an unexpected quarter or the brother and sister learning to love in Outside the Atmosphere (possibly my favourite tale, though I might well change my mind tomorrow; there are so many good ones).

Stories are peopled with battered wives, mute teenagers, girls with tails and shadows too big for their bodies, old men who want to live like a rodent or in tree house. Although many of the characters are troubled – Golden excels at capturing the rage, confusion and ennui of youth – the narratives are delivered with such wit, such lightness of touch that you’ll be knocked sideways by the emotional punches delivered thereafter. There are laugh out loud moments too – in Resting Place a grieving old man lets loose a ‘trickle of relief’ and in the end ‘pissed everyone off’, and in Fabricate a Future ‘we’re a happily-ever-after tale that finished the night before’ and  a lie is an ‘invention … creative sounds better than deceptive’. Golden has a talent for the perfect word or phrase; her prose is lean and muscular and her observations spot-on.

It’s not often that I devour short stories. I had thought I would read a story a night, perhaps two, but in the end I read this fantastic collection in two sittings. Stories moved me, made me think, made me laugh. What more could a reader ask for? Go buy and enjoy.

What’s the story 2014?

It’s been an especially good year for great fiction with the release of cracking debuts and stunning works from more established authors. You can read my personal pick of the best here.

photo by Sarah Smith

photo by Sarah Smith

And 2014 has been a good year for me personally. So much to celebrate and enjoy, and lots of hard work too; I find the two are often connected. Where to start? In classic chronological style perhaps? *listen to the sound of me opening my Mslexia diary*

March 2014 saw the release of my ‘miners’ strike’ novel Public Battles, Private Wars (in fact, it’s about complex friendships, rivalry, love and finding the best of yourself in difficult circumstances – oh, and lots of cakes!). Publication coincided with the 30 year anniversary of the landmark strike and as a result I found myself appearing on radio, newspapers, blogs and e-zines all over the shop, including BBC Radio, the Western Mail, and the Yorkshire Post. My publicist at the super-fabulous Accent Press worked extremely hard for me – as did my wonderful editor – and I am so grateful to the entire team for their faith in me and the book. Reviews have been terrific and out-performed my expectations.

Edinburgh-Aug 2014 115This year I was fortunate enough to be offered appearances at literary festivals too, starting with a reading at Grit Lit in my home town, Brighton.  Then an all-day event at the Feminist Library in London on a baking hot June day. I spoke alongside Dr Katy Shaw of Brighton University, a leading expert on literature of the miners’ strike. Thanks to a friend, I was also a last minute speaker at The Big Book Club in the Barn event – 19 Sussex book groups (about 120 people) in a barn gathered to talk books and drink wine – my idea of heaven! Later in the summer, I appeared at GladFest – a dynamic festival in north Wales at the stunning Gladstone Library. My workshop sold out, much to my amazement.

WH Smith Show Card with author (3)After this came the Richmond Books and Boots Festival (Yorkshire, not London) where I spoke to a group of 25-odd readers at the town library about the novel. The reception was wonderful. In amongst these events, I have spoken with a number of local book groups and I did my first ever book shop signing at WH Smith Cardiff in the autumn. Lots of travelling, lots of talking, lots of fun.

2014 wasn’t all about the novel either. A short story, Deep, Dark and Dangerous, made the final ten of the inaugural Brighton Prize competition. Delivered by spoken word organisation Rattle Tales, it has a prize of £400 so worth looking out for in 2015. The winners were announced at a live event – there was champagne and roses for all the shortlisted writers too.

Resized cover imageSpring saw the launch of a special anthology of prose and poetry from Blinding Books, an independent publisher spearheaded by Richard Penny. I was thrilled when Richard approached me and asked if the collection, My Baby Shot Me Down, might include two stories of mine: The Whispering Wall and Buried. Another story, The Difference Between Us, appears in Accent Press’ summer anthology: Holiday Fling. If you’re feeling cold and dreaming of long hot days this might transport you there right now.

Holiday FlingAnd as if 2014 couldn’t get any better regarding my short fiction, I was over the moon to discover that another story had been selected to appear in an anthology of Gothic fiction published by Parthian Books. It contains work by some fine, fine writers and I am flattered (and astonished) to be included. The collection was launched at an event in October and the paperback of A Flock of Shadows will be available in good book shops in February.

OK, so this review isn’t exactly chronological but life is full of unexpected twists and turns, no? And because life can’t be wonderful all of the time – nor should we wish it to be so – we should savour the beautiful moments – little and large.

Right now, as I look back over the year and at what has been achieved, I cannot imagine 2015 being as hectic, though a part of me hopes that it is. Already, there are some special things lined up – a writing retreat at the Gladstone as part of a sponsorship for one thing – and early in 2015 there’ll be an exciting announcement (at least for me). I’ll keep you posted.

All that remains is to wave 2014 goodbye – it was good knowing you – and wish everyone a Happy, Healthy and Productive 2015.

Do you like my sheep pencil? I'm part Welsh, you know.

Do you like my sheep pencil? I’m part Welsh, you know.

A review of The Girl on the Pier – and some blathering

Girl on PierAs a rule, I don’t review here on my blog. Doing so would imply posturing as a critic, something more serious than the often casual, personal but considered, thoughts I leave on Amazon, Goodreads and Waterstones’ online presence. However, rules are meant to be broken, and regular visitors will note that I do review from time to time, and the observant amongst you will notice that such reviews tend to cover books by indie authors or those published by smaller houses; the theory being they might need more of a boost. So, today, I’ll talk briefly about a debut novel from acclaimed sports writer, Paul Tomkins, The Girl on the Pier.

I might never have met Paul or read his novel but for a confusion of Brighton addresses, and I am grateful for that minor administrative error. Let me explain. Alongside my fiction, I work as an editor/mentor for developing writers – freelance and for literary consultancy, Cornerstones. Paul hired Cornerstones to look at his novel but a mix up at Cornerstones HQ meant that I received the manuscript instead of another Brighton editor, Araminta Hall. As it happens Araminta is a friend of mine (and author of the best-selling Everything and Nothing and more recently, Dot). Anyway, I was working on another manuscript and had to pass on Paul’s, but the incident connected us. The novel’s intriguing and promising premise stayed with me, and I was delighted when, months later, I received a copy of the novel.

First off, it is an object of great beauty. Cleverly designed with high production values, it is a book to cherish. I have fetish-like tendencies when it comes to books and I love stroking this one – it even has flaps (ahem). So beautiful is it that it came as a surprise when I discovered it is self-published. I emailed Paul to find out the story behind his decision to go down the indie route because I knew there was agent interest in the book and because, bluntly, I’m nosy. But that’s a story for another post.  Possibly …

I rarely read self-published work, not unless it comes highly recommended or I know the author’s work from short-stories or other published work in reputable media. I know that there are some fantastic self-published books out there, but the harsh truth is that there is an awful lot of rubbish and life is too short to wade through the proverbial. This sentiment is shared by many and I might incur the wrath of many for saying this, but hey-ho, it’s only my opinion.

But, I will shout about The Girl on the Pier because it deserves to be heard above the noise (din?), because it is a work of serious intent, well-written and with a fabulous central conceit. Here’s my brief review, and if you’d like to buy the book there are links at the bottom.

Forensic artist Patrick is charged with the reconstruction of the skull of an unidentified girl found on Brighton’s famous West Pier in the 1970s. As he painstakingly reconstructs the girl’s face, memories of a childhood crush surface, blending with obsessive thoughts of a magical night spend on the pier with Black, a beautiful photographer, in the 1990s. An accident means that Patrick loses Black’s telephone number and is unable to trace her, yet he never forgets her or the incredible night they spent together. Abandoned as a boy by his parents and successive lovers, Patrick is an intelligent but damaged man, and as we follow the two mysteries, the lines between fact and personal fiction become increasingly blurred.

Reflective, atmospheric, and written in gorgeous prose The Girl on the Pier is a literary thriller about ghosts from the past, art, disappointment, obsessive love, and the slippery nature of memory. In Patrick, Tomkins has created a seductive and beguiling narrator, one so smooth it takes a while before you might begin to question his version of events. Set mostly in and around Brighton, the now destroyed pier is exquisitely evoked and the story is choc-a-block with intelligent insights. ‘The hardest thing in human existence is to accept that what’s done is done. Death is final. But so too are our actions, each and every last one of them. We can seek to alter the course of where the present is heading, and we can apologise, and try to put right that which we have got horribly wrong. But none of it can change what actually took place.’

It’s common in reviews, especially nowadays and by marketeers, to liken books to others, but I can’t do that with this novel because it isn’t quite like anything I’ve read before.  And this is a very good thing. Commonly, I lean towards faster-paced works but I really liked this book and it made me want to improve my own prose. And what I will say is that if you enjoy well written stories which require a little thought and leave you thinking, then you should enjoy The Girl on the Pier.

Buy the book on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Girl-Pier-Paul-Tomkins/dp/1784621048

Find out more about Paul and his work here: www.paultomkins.com

When Does His/Herstory Begin?

Fellow Accent Press author, Tom Williams, has written a thoughtful piece on his blog about the point at which a story can be seen as historical, with particular reference to my novel, Public Battles, Private Wars. Tom makes a number of pertinent points and it’s well worth a read.

Do so here: http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/public-battles-private-wars.html

BTW – Public Battles, Private Wars is FREE for Kindle and iTunes until the end of July! http://amzn.to/1kibQTc