A Review: A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark

 I’ve decided to stop referring to myself as someone who is learning to become a writer and, instead, to label myself as one who is working on becoming a better writer. After all, I can write, as in I can put pen to paper and produce readable fiction and non-fiction. What I am aiming for is to become a good writer and, hopefully, one who will eventually become published. 

So, as an improving writer, I am going to publish reviews of books which I feel are of particular use to an improving writer. Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry From Kensington definitely falls into this category. 

I loved this book: it is witty, warm and wise and eminently capable as is its protagonist, Mrs Hawkins. Spark’s prose hums along nicely. She reminds me a little of Austen in that she presents her reader with a seemingly cosy comedy of manners and then sneaks in some truly horrifying characters who represent the dark side of life. 

However, the real benefit of this book to any one wishing to improve their writing lies in two key areas: one being that as you read, you take on a subliminal lesson of the joy to the reader of a lightness of touch such as Spark’s; the other being the advice given ‘free of charge’ by the capable Mrs Hawkins to aspiring writers. I include them both below.

“You are writing a letter to a friend…this is a dear and close friend, real – ore better – invented in your mind like a fixation. Write privately, not publicly; without fear or timidity, right to the end of the letter, as if it was never going to be published, so that your true friend will read it over and over, and then want more enchanting letters from you.”

“some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work,…the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp. The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.” 
My advice is simple, if you haven’t read this book, do so immediately. 

Liebster Award

I am really excited to have been nominated for the Liebster Award by the lovely  autumnchocolatebooks-I love her blog and it is well worth checking out.

And also, a big thank you to anyone who follows, likes or leaves comments on this blog – I really appreciate all your support!

Anyway, without further ado, here are the rules of the Liebster Award:

wp-1465356493403

The eleven questions I was given were:

  1. What is your best childhood memory?
  2. What do you feel most proud of?
  3. If you could only have one snack / dessert what would it be and why?
  4. What motivated you to start your blog?
  5. What teacher in school made the most impact on you and why?
  6. How do you spend your free time?
  7. What are your top three favourite books and why?
  8. What is your biggest fear?
  9. What is your strongest personal quality?
  10. If there was one thing you could tell your 15 year old self what would it be?
  11. What does a perfect day look like to you?
  1. It has to be a Christmas one: I love Christmas and I really loved it when I was a child. The Christmas that stands out in mind was when I was around 6 or 7 and I had this huge doll and a pram. There were lots of different clothes to dress the doll up in and I loved it. The really poignant thing is that I later found out my dad’s business was in danger at the time and my parents nearly lost their house. All of our presents that year were second hand or home made. That’s probably what made them so special.
  2. This has to be getting my degree – I was a single mother and my final year was not an easy one. That certificate has given me choices at a time when I was really unhappy in work.
  3. I think it would have to be a really dense  chocolate mouse with fresh raspberries. Yummy!
  4. I decided that it was high time I took my writing more seriously. I started a writing course and set up a blog. It has taken me a while to get into it but I love it.
  5. Strangely as I am an English teacher and English is my first love, the teacher who had the most impact on me at school was a Maths teacher. Because of her I loved Maths, she made it so accessible and real. When I got a different Maths teacher for my final two years, my grades went down hill fast. I will never forget her teaching us percentages and telling us about how she cried when her first mortgage statement came through and she saw the percentage of interest that the bank was taking. It made me just love her!
  6. Writing, whenever I can; reading – of course! Sewing, although this takes a back seat when I’m into a piece of writing and the gym – I treat that as if it’s part of my working day and I really love it.
  7. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – so witty and it has so much to say about the plight of women in Austen’s time. If I’m allowed a play then The Importance of Being Earnest – it’s just perfect. I love Harry Potter because J.K Rowling is so inspirational but there are so many more.
  8. Losing someone I love. It terrifies me.
  9. When I decide to do something, I am pretty much relentless. It drives my poor husband a bit  mad at times.
  10. Start writing now. Don’t wait for inspiration just jot things down, thoughts, ideas, short stories, whatever!
  11. A perfect day for me is a lovely spring day. When the world is warming up but is not yet too hot. It would be spent in the garden reading and writing. I would have the whole day to myself and the luxury of all that time to dip into the latest book that I’m reading and to get on with some writing would be just perfect.

Eleven facts about me are:

  1. I am discovering the joys of being 50; against all the odds, in my view.
  2. I am really close to my brother and I hate it that he’s working abroad at the moment.
  3. I’m a cat lover.
  4. I love red wine and chocolate.
  5. I’ve written a romantic novel and now I want to try something a little different.
  6. I love London; it’s one of my favourite places to be.
  7. I would love to learn another language.
  8. I want to go to Thailand to meet my sister in law’s family; they live in a rural Thai village and I am really looking forward to meeting them.
  9. I am about to start an MA in Creative Writing.
  10. I am a grandmother and I love it.
  11. I am a secret murder mystery fan.

The five people I nominate are:

  1. excaliburthehoodnerd
  2. The Aeolian Harp
  3. Lauren is Reading
  4. Ephereal Blogs
  5. Madi Uram

And your questions are:

  1. What is your best childhood memory?
  2. What do you feel most proud of?
  3. If you could have any pet what would it be and why?
  4. What makes you angry?
  5. What teacher in school made the most impact on you and why?
  6. How do you spend your free time?
  7. What are your top three favourite books and why?
  8. What is your biggest fear?
  9. What is your strongest personal quality?
  10. If you could meet anyone from any time, who would it be?
  11. What does a perfect day look like to you?

I loved doing this. I look forward to reading your responses!

Anachronisms AKA Silly Mistakes 

redheadreading

One of the main pieces of advise that established writers offer to aspiring writers is to read widely. As a lifelong (well, from the age of four) voracious reader, this suits me perfectly. I love the classics; I love an easy holiday read and I love discovering new writers. And since I’ve been working more seriously on my own writing, I’ve read with a heightened interest. I really enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing and since reading that I have taken note of the way writers describe characters, shape dialogue and let their characters drive the story. So far so good.

research

Now I am a critical reader, I’m an English teacher after all. There are times when I will pause in reading a book and feel awe at the seemingly simple way a great writer can deftly bring a character or a situation to light. There are other times when I am fully aware that what I’m reading is basic and fairly clunky but still I’m enjoying it so in my eyes it has merit. But then there are times that I stumble across something so awkward that it breaks my absorption in the story and sets my nerves on edge.

womanlooking puzzled

 

Two books that I’ve read recently contained glaring, anachronistic and just plain silly mistakes. Why? Both books were reasonably well written. Both were clearly well researched in the key areas featured in them: the art world in one, and crime and certain medical facts in the other. And yet both featured screamingly obvious errors. Errors that irritated and puzzled me. Why write a book; presumably re-write it; proof-read it and go through all the painstaking work that is involved in bringing a book to print and then simply drop the ball in terms of basic contextual information.
What am I talking about? Well both books were clearly set in the twenty-first century; one at least was obviously bang up to date. The protagonist refers to her habit of constantly checking her ‘phone to look at Twitter, Facebook and the like. Said heroine was 26 years old and much of her back story centred around 10 years before the start of the novel. The reader is gradually introduced to events that took place when she was sixteen. Now given that it is only the last few years that we have habitually accessed Twitter and Facebook on our phones, this means that she would have been sixteen around the turn of the century at the latest. So far so good. So why does she reference Debbie Harry as a lesbian school friend’s crush – another friend, in order to out her, sang ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ sat in the classroom. I’ve been a teacher for the past 15 years and I can tell you that very, very few 16 years olds would know the singer or the song. Not now and not 16 years ago. Her boyfriend of the time apparently wrote down Pink Floyd lyrics – something which seemed to mark him out as a rebel. Really? It could be that a 16 year old boy in the year 2000 was into Pink Floyd but this would need qualifying surely. Or am I just being picky? In fact the kids I was teaching back then who were into older bands were generally into bands like Nirvana or, if truly retro, The Clash. And again, if you featured a 16 year old from 2000 in your novel who was a fan of a non contemporary band, it would need to make some sense to the reader. Otherwise, like me, your reader will assume that you are confusing your protagonist’s youth with your own – which clearly was not in the same decade.


Another book featuring mobile ‘phones and various other references to a 21st Century setting had a jogger run past the heroine clutching a Walkman. img_0561

Was she being retro? We weren’t told. Just left to wonder why someone would use a Walkman in the place of an ipod or their phone. Curiouser and curiouser. There was also a 30 year old man in a corduroy suit. I’m sorry, I just can’t see it myself. Not now and probably not since the 1980s at the latest. It reminded me of a romance novel I read recently, set in the here and now in which the heroine bought the scruffy hero a velvet jacket to smarten him up. I had a velvet jacket that I used to wear when I went out. It was lovely, dark blue and very smart. I was thirteen. That was nearly 40 years ago.

It’s just very annoying. Don’t write a book set in the present time and reference things from when you were a teenager unless you explain them. Thank you very much. The end.

 

Jane Austen – Always.

Recently I posted on Facebook from a site called ‘Jane Austen is Totally My Religion’; I had a couple of comments from friends, one was just one word: ‘Why?’ and the other one was two words, ‘Oh Sarah.’ I responded with just one word: ‘Genius’. I have decided to respond more fully here.

I would like to suggest that the Jane Austen in my mind is the one from the original sketch by her sister, Cassandra, whereas the Jane Austen that they are referring to is the prettified, romanticised, fictional, Victorian version. The pretty and vacuous portrait above right bears as much likeness to the original on the left as the view of her as a gentle spinner of romantic tales that make lovely costume dramas bears to the poison dipped pen wielding genius that she clearly was. 

Jane Austen was brilliant; laugh out loud funny; a proto feminist; an acute and acerbic social observer and above all a genius whose work continues to resonate through the centuries since her death. If you love her because you enjoy a good old-fashioned romantic costume drama then all well and good. If, like me, you love her because she had so much that was radical and pertinent to say about the position of women in her society then brilliant. But if you have either read one or two   of her novels once, long ago and you’ve missed the point, or, even worse, you haven’t read her at all, please don’t comment. Stick with what you know and leave Jane Austen to those who get her.
For more information, please see Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. You could also read what other authors say about her: from Sir Walter Scott to W H Auden; from Robert Louis Stevenson to J K Rowling. Enjoy!