Blogger’s Books: Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta

Today I am featuring a non-fiction book from American writer, Maryanne.

Here is her own short bio.

Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta is an international author, award-winning journalist, and public speaker. Her latest book “Be (Extra)Ordinary: 10 Ways to Become Your Own Here” can be found in Barnes & Noble bookstores.
She is the sole proprietor of her home-based business “Pear Tree Enterprises” (www.peartreeenterprises.com). She works as an editor, ghost writer, and public speaker.
Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta received a medal for “Best Speaker” at Toastmasters International. She was awarded Toastmasters Certificate of Appreciation for outstanding performance and valued contribution to Toastmasters District 83 Annual 2019 Conference.
Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta resides in New Jersey, with her husband, Dennis, and their beloved cats.

This is her book blurb for “Be (Extra)Ordinary: 10 Ways to Become Your Own Hero”

What’s holding you back from being the extraordinary person you were created to be?
Inspirational author and speaker Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta walks you through ten steps you can start taking today to elevate your life to next-level joy, success, and contentment. A survivor of intense bullying, Maryanne shares her hard-won wisdom to empower you to embrace your uniqueness, connect with the people who deserve you, and cultivate the courage to create the life you’ve always wanted.
You’ll learn how to love, respect, and advocate for yourself so you can become your own superhero–no cape required!

Here is an Amazon link that you can use to find out more, and buy a copy if you wish to do so.

Maryanne is also running workshops based on her book, and you can find out more about those from this link.

I am also giving workshops based on the book. The link is here: https://courses.allfalfa.com/en/listings/975347-be-extraordinary-10-ways-to-become-your-own-hero
The Workshops are $40 per class, but if someone is struggling due to lay-offs because of covid, I will get them in FREE!

Please try to find time to welcome Maryanne to our great community.

Featured Blogger: Jon Risdon

I am very pleased to help to promote the book of one of our community bloggers, Jon Risdon. It is a biography of his great-uncle, Wilfred Risdon.

Here is Jon’s information about the book.

Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles is the biography of my grand uncle, Wilfred Risdon, who reached the pinnacle of his career as Secretary of the National Anti-Vivisection Society in London, England. He had worked tirelessly to educate people of the fallacious and unnecessary nature of animal experimentation since just before the second world war, using his well-honed talents as a political organiser, a career that was interrupted in 1940 by his incarceration for three months under the hastily-enacted and politically motivated Defence Regulation 18B, a blunt instrument intended to prevent potential ‘fifth columnists’ presenting a danger to an embattled country apparently facing invasion by bloodthirsty Nazi hordes. Despite his close association with Sir Oswald Mosley, which began as far back as 1924, he was a lifelong socialist, but because he was also a deeply religious patriot, he saw no conflict in also supporting a nationalist cause. This book describes Wilfred Risdon’s life & career with a wealth of supporting reference material, and examines a political ethos that all too often is simply whitewashed out of existence or brushed under the carpet: the fundamental underlying economic imperative is especially important today.

This is a link to where you can buy the book.
(Please note, that this is a safe site, despite browser warnings you may see)
http://www.wilfredbooks.co.uk/buy1.html?LMCL=HKHf3g

If you don’t think this is your kind of book, then why not visit Jon’s main blog, and show him some encouragement.
Here’s a link to that.
https://wilfredbooks.wordpress.com/

Published Online

I am pleased to announce (okay, boast) that three of my non-fiction articles have been published online, in Mythaxis Magazine.

Welcome

Many of you will have read these before, whether something similar on my blog, or when they were published elsewhere.

But I would really appreciate you taking time to click each line, and leave a ‘Like’ for me.
Of course, if they are new to you, then please read them too!

While you are there, you can have a look and see what else Mythaxis has to offer.

Here are the links.

Farewell to the City

Countryside Fashions

My New Fluffy Gown

Book Review: The Story of the SS

This non-fiction book is something of a niche interest, to say the least. Most of us will know something about the German SS, whether the battlefield atrocities they committed, how they served in concentration camps, or the combat exploits of the Waffen SS. This long book (384 pages) examines the formation, background and organisation of the Nazi SS in great detail.

Starting shortly after the end of WW1, the rise of Hitler’s National Socialist Party is covered, as well as the creation of the SA, which led to the offshoot organisation, the SS. All the leading political figures of the day are examined, as well as many minor officials and their roles in the building of the controlling Nazi state that followed. The book goes on to discuss the roles that SS figures played before and during WW2, adding some photos and background details about the war in general, and specific events like the invasion of The Soviet Union, in 1941.

The use of SS units to execute prisoners, kill civilians, and fight partisans is contrasted by the political machinations of their members on the home front, and in the countries occupied by Germany. We also learn about the collaborators, the foreign volunteers, and the often brave and distinguished combat units that fought to the very end, in 1945. Then the author goes on to look at those who escaped justice, and those who faced trial for their involvement in the SS, and its actions.

Much of the book contains lists of units, with the German names translated for the benefit of non-German readers. Numerous individual characters are highlighted, from the top leaders of the organisation, down to some who were little more that murderers in uniform. Chilling totals of the deaths they were responsible for, and the crimes committed in both concentration camps, and after battles in the field.

This is not a book for everyone of course. But given the current world political situation, it serves to remind us just what ‘ordinary’ men can be capable of.
As an historical record, it has great value.

Here is an Amazon link.

The Hard Men

I am pleased to be able to tell you that Longshot Island has published another of my non-fiction articles on their website. Here is a link, if anyone would like to read it. If you enjoy it, please share on any platform, as there is no facility for comments over there.

http://www.longshotisland.com/2017/04/30/the-hard-men/

I also received some copies of their latest printed magazine, ‘Leaving Home’. This contains my short story, Valerie, and I will be taking some photos of that to show you soon.

Submitting work to them for consideration is an easy process, and I once again encourage anyone who would like to see their writing published to do just that. http://www.longshotisland.com/submissions/

Even if your first efforts are rejected, you will at least get intelligent criticism, writing tips and advice, and a real sense of engagement. As a bonus, you will also be inspired to carry on writing.

I know I was.

Non-Fiction: Published online

I have recently submitted an article to Longshot Island. It is a non-fiction piece about my former life in London, followed by my move to Norfolk. I am pleased to say that it has been published online, and may be considered for future publication in the magazine. Please follow the link, and read it at your leisure. I am really happy to give publicity and support to this venture. They are undoubtedly helping new writers.
http://www.longshotisland.com/2017/04/10/farewell-to-the-city/

Many thanks, Pete.

A Literary continuation

It seems that people like posts about books, so who am I to argue? The series that I promised would never happen is now into its third article. Let’s see how long it can run. As with the second post, these books are simply some that I have read and enjoyed. In this article, I have featured three books that were written as diaries, a theme I have always enjoyed. I make no claims for them being landmarks in Literature, although in my opinion, they all have merit. Don’t look for recent titles here either, as I read very little at the moment.

Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks. This 1993 novel is the first in a trilogy set before and during the First World War, then moving on to events during the Second World War. It is the strongest of the three books, and at the time, I could not put it down, reading it over two long sessions. The book moves through time in distinct sections, following Stephen from his life in France before the war, on to his service as an officer in charge of former miners, tasked with tunnelling under enemy positions to lay explosives. The complex love affair from the first part of the book has echoes throughout, and we see the character of Stephen changed by his ordeal in the trenches, and his fears for the men under his command. A second story runs at the same time, set in England, during the late 1970s. His grand-daughter is trying to discover more about his life, at the same time struggling with her own relationship and unhappiness.
Whether you like this type of structure in a book is a personal choice, but I feel that it worked well. The sections set during the war are especially powerful, and the way it is threaded together to lead into the sequels is a sign of a great writer.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tresell. This book was written in 1911, and is both an important social document, and one of the early works to advocate the benefits of a Socialist society. Set in a fictional place, it represents life for the working classes in the English seaside town of Hastings, between the turn of the century, and the outbreak of WWI. The workers at the time had little or no rights, and were expected to keep their ‘place’, and do as they were told. Peopled by corrupt politicians, and Christians who were propping up the system, we follow a team of house painters working on a house in the town. Frank Owen, the main character, is tired of the poverty and poor conditions that he and his fellow workers have to endure. He tries to politicise them, giving them examples of the Capitalist system that they work under. He is frustrated though, as his uneducated colleagues have no comprehension that any other system could ever exist, and most seem happy enough with their lot, expecting nothing else from life. This is very much an indictment on society in England at the time, written before the Russian Revolution, and the war that would change attitudes, if not lives, some years later.

The Name Of The Rose, by Umberto Eco. Many of you may know the film of this book, starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater. As is normally the case, the book is much better. It is more or less a detective story, concerning a series of murders in a Benedictine Monastery in Italy. However, it is set in 1327, and packed with fascinating period detail, and the convoluted religious issues of the time, including The Inquisition. At over 500 pages, the novel has space to develop characters and descriptions that allow the reader to journey back to the fourteenth century. The settings, from a room where illuminated scripts are added to manuscripts and monks toil to transcribe books, to the labyrinthine library, where secrets are held, are all evocative, as they are so perfectly brought to the page. The monk who arrives at the time of these murders is English, and his name is William of Baskerville. This might be a blatant allusion to Sherlock Holmes, but the plot unfolds nothing like those of Conan-Doyle. Besides the basic theme of someone solving a series of murders, the machinations of the Catholic Church, the involvement of Cathars, feuding monks, and the bleak location, all add up to making this a terrific read for anyone.

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. It helps to be young when you read this, and I was. That is not to detract from the fine writing, and in particular the brilliant character descriptions, that enable the interested reader to picture them completely. This book was written in the 1880s, and is set over one hundred years earlier, at the time of pirates and seafarers, sailing the oceans of the planet. It is an exciting tale of remote islands, a young man’s journey into the world of piracy, buried treasure, and mysterious maps. It is also very well written, with a solid structure, and a definite style, that made it appeal to children and adults alike. Who can forget Long John Silver, Blind Pew, Black Dog, and young Jim Hawkins? It has been filmed many times, and also serialised on television, but even the most memorable performances can get nowhere near the dark feel of the book, and the way that it makes you feel like part of the action. In every sense, a worthy classic.

The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane. This slim novel, at only 110 pages, manages to cram in the experiences of a young Union soldier during the American Civil War. Although it involves battles, the story is not about that war itself, rather the issues of cowardice and redemption seen through the actions of young Henry. Initially confident, his first taste of battle leaves him terrified, and he runs away, deserting his wounded companions. When he receives a slight wound later that day, he returns to his unit, where they bandage his injury, and commend him for his bravery in the fighting, unaware that he had fled. During another attack by the Confederates, Henry seizes the flag, and leads his regiment forward to victory. The Red Badge of Courage is the blood-stained bandage around his head.
The book was written in 1895, decades after the war ended. Crane was not born when the war was fought, so his detailed descriptions of battlefields, equipment, and the feel of being in a battle all came from his imagination. I read this book when I was still at school, and was affected by what I regarded to be its anti-war message. Others disagree, and believe that it glorifies war. I will leave it to you to decide, if you ever get around to reading it.

The Concise Pepys, by Samuel Pepys. This edited version of the famous diaries makes for easier reading that the weighty full volumes. I have read both, so I am recommending this version for those new to the work. Pepys was a member of parliament, and an official with the Navy. During ten years of his life, from 1660 on, he kept a diary of his comings and goings around the city of London, and recorded events small and large, not least his experiences of The Great Fire. This fascinating diary details the problems he experiences with his marriage, the people he has dealings with on a daily basis, and also tells of climactic events, including the war with the Dutch. He gives a first-hand report on the arrival of the Great Plague in London, the corpses in the streets, and the need to evacuate his wife to safety away from the city. The detail is compelling, and the history of this great city unfolds in his entries. Imagine a seventeenth century Facebook, combined with an erudite blogger, add a dash of an ‘on the spot’ reporter, and you will get the idea. It is priceless.

Howards End, by E.M. Forster. If you ever wanted to understand the stifling class structure of Edwardian England, then this is the book for you. Perhaps Forster’s best work, the detailed characterisations, together with the contemporary view of society (it was written in 1910) make this novel an historical treat. Three families represent each of the main classes found at the time. The rich capitalist family, the Wicoxes, are at one end of the class ladder, and the impoverished Bast couple at the bottom. In between are the modern young Schlegel sisters, full of ideals, and attempting to be everything to everyone. The relationships in the novel are interwoven and complex. Bast marries a young woman of ill-repute, and when she meets Wilcox, he recognises her as his former lover. Margaret Schlegel falls for Wilcox, whose wife is terminally ill. After the death of Wicox’s wife, the family are surprised to discover that she has left her ancestral home, the Howards End of the title, to Margaret. There is a great deal more to enjoy in this book, which is a long way from the soap-opera story that it sounds. It has an intricate plot, fascinating characters, and provides a valuable insight into the class system that still exists to a large extent in this country.

Legionnaire, by Simon Murray. Like most young boys in the 1950s, I was excited by the idea of the French Foreign Legion. I watched films like ”Beau Geste’, and imagined the romance of serving in this elite unit, fighting Berbers in the desert. Fortunately, I didn’t embark on this adventure, and this book, published in 1979, should ideally deter any others with a similar idea. Englishman Simon Murray joined the Foreign Legion at the age of nineteen. He served for five years, and was involved in fighting against the Algerian independence fighters in North Africa. Murray’s highly readable account of the harsh training and brutal discipline he encountered served to confirm my relief at never having followed in his footsteps. This book was formed from diaries he kept during his service. The characters he encounters, from his dubious comrades, to incredibly sadistic instructors, really stay in the mind. The descriptions of sporadic fighting, and occasional brutality against their Algerian enemies, are always believable, and make the book feel authentic at the turn of every page. Murray made it to the rank of sergeant, and turned down the offer of a commission. The book was later filmed; but despite the best efforts of all concerned, it never managed to capture the atmosphere of the writing.

The Diary of A Young Girl, by Anne Frank. I read this book when I was fifteen years old, the same age as Anne was when she died of disease in a German concentration camp. I knew little about the domestic life of Jewish families, and even less about the terror of hiding from the occupying Nazis in wartime Holland, so this all came as a revelation to me, as it was written not as a novel, but by a person my age, who actually lived through it. It reads like a series of letters, relating daily life in the claustrophobic conditions where two families lived for two years, before betrayal and discovery in the summer of 1944. Eight people lived in a concealed hideaway built behind her father’s company premises. They were helped by a group of friends who brought them supplies. This book is naturally written only from Anne’s perspective, but it remains as a unique and important account of the extremes that families in such situations were forced to endure.

The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass. This is an example of how being fascinated by a film, led me to search out the original book. The film was released in 1979, twenty years after the book was published, and I was overwhelmed by its unusual style, and the unique story of the boy who refuses to grow up. At the time of the rise of the Nazis, young Oskar experiences puberty and fatherhood, whilst still having the appearance of a child. He tours with a dwarf circus, entertaining the troops, and has a voice that can shatter glass. The tale is so complex, I would need a whole article to do it justice. The book serves that purpose well, and goes on to times beyond the scope of the film into post-war Germany, explaining how Oskar comes to relate the story in the form of his memoirs. Wonderful stuff.

So, more selections to add to your reading lists, or not, as you choose. I hope that you are interested enough to seek out one or two, or if you have already read them, please feel free to add a comment.

Books, and more books

After the recent post ‘Literary Inspirations’, I received some positive comments and e-mails, and a few requests to add a similar post soon. I did say that it was not going to be a series, and I still believe that it will not. However, I have a few more books to write about, so here is another post on the subject. These are not necessarily books that gave me inspiration, or tips on technique; rather ones that I just enjoyed, for the reasons explained. I hope that you discover some that you might want to investigate, and as for whether or not you agree with my conclusions, that’s fine. After all, we are all different, that’s what makes life interesting.

London:The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd. Ackroyd is a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction, and has received numerous awards His historical writing is some of the best available, and this story of the city of my birth, and almost all of my life, is no exception. I bought this book in 2001, and soon discovered a lot about London that I didn’t know. It covers the history of the city in great detail, from the time of The Druids, to the end of the twentieth century. Despite its scope and size, it is always readable, containing sections on everything of interest and importance in the development of this great city. A must for Londoners, and one for the collection of anyone interested in historical writing, at a high level.

Rebel, by Bernard Cornwell. One of the most successful British authors of modern times, Cornwell specialises in the genre known as ‘Faction’. He takes fictional characters, and places them into real situations in history. The result is often surprisingly good, as the facts, and attention to detail, are always authentic. He can really make you imagine the squalor of the middle ages, or the terrors of nineteenth century warfare. This choice is part of a series about the American Civil War, something that obviously interests me. The main character is from the North, but has sympathies with the South, so travels to fight for the Confederacy. The books in this series follow a similar formula to Cornwell’s better-known Napoleonic War hero, Sharpe. There are dramatic sub-plots, a good guy, some evil characters, and some sort of love interest. But it is in the details where he succeeds, and the thrilling battle scenes, brought to life in his own way. They are not landmarks of Literature, just a very good read.

Cromwell, Our Chief Of Men, by Antonia Fraser. I tend not to read biographies very often. I have read some of course, and this was of special interest to me, as a lifelong fascination with Cromwell and The English Civil War still continues to this day. It is a door-stop of a book, more than 1,000 pages, so not intended to be a comfortable holiday read by any means. As the definitive history of this often maligned historical character, it has no equal. I say this, despite the fact that Lady Antonia Fraser, daughter of an Earl, is an aristocrat by birth, and her Royalist sympathies are allowed to surface frequently in this book. If you can overlook this, and I did, then you are still left with a fascinating and detailed account of the life of one of the great figures in English history.

Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. Originally written in 1726, I first read this book when I was about ten years old. I recall being captivated by the worlds of Lilliput and Brobdingnag, and the unreal adventures of the shipwrecked Lemuel. I imagined myself as the giant Gulliver, living in the world of the tiny Lilliputians, or being dwarfed by the huge inhabitants of Brobdingnag. My edition must have only contained these two parts of the five-part tale, as I have no memory of the other voyages in the series. Of course, I didn’t really understand as a child that it was intended as a satire on the politics of Swift’s time, or meant to lampoon the popular tales of travelling published during that part of the eighteenth century. I just thought that it was an unusual and exciting story. To a large extent, I still do.

Regeneration, by Pat Barker. Published in 1991, this is the first in a trilogy; followed by ‘The eye in the door’, then ‘The Ghost Road’, in two-year intervals. It is a powerful look at the effects of the First World War and its aftermath, from hospital treatments for shell-shock, through to attitudes to homosexuality at the time, ending with tragedy on the Western Front towards the end of the war. Although a work of fiction, it is populated with real characters, including the war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and politicians such as Churchill. Barker justly won many prizes and accolades for these books, and they are without doubt some of the most important English novels of the twentieth century.

Borstal Boy, by Brendan Behan. A Borstal was the name of an institution for the imprisonment and punishment of young offenders. Behan was sentenced to one for three years, and wrote this novel based on his experiences. I read it as a teenager, and I was impressed by the way he told of his time in there, his use of dialect, accents, and colloquialisms. It also very much impressed on me that I did not ever want to be detained in such a place. Conditions were harsh, and when the staff weren’t after you, you had to watch out for the other prisoners. Behan’s Republican ideas were softened after meeting his fellow working-class English detainees, and the book draws many conclusions about the similarity of class, rather than background.

The Journeyer, by Gary Jennings. This book is a long read, at almost 900 pages. It never seems weighty though, and I found it hard to put down. It spins a fictional tale based on the journeys of Marco Polo, from Venice, to the far east. There are some interesting characters who Marco meets on the way, or accompany him on his travels. It is also an historical treat, filling in the gaps from a period that I was not too familiar with. Although it was published in 1984, I read it many years later, when given a copy by a friend. It is good enough to read again, and I may well do that one day.

Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson. American Bill Bryson lived and worked in Britain for twenty years. Before going home to the USA, he travelled all over the UK using public transport, and detailed his experiences in this very amusing and warm-hearted book. It says so much about the differences between life in America and Britain, two countries that might use the same language, but couldn’t be more different. For anyone who has experienced life in a foreign country, it might make familiar reading. For an Englishman like me, it gave an insight into how our life, language, and customs can be so alien to someone from a place we all regard as so similar. It isn’t just quirky, it also has laugh out loud moments; and it is so well-written, you can almost hear it being spoken in your head.

The Dice Man, by Luke Rhinehart. This fascinating novel poses the question of how your life might turn out, if you left it all completely to chance. The main character is a psychiatrist named after the author, (a pen name) who one day decides to continue his life based on rolls of a die. He gives each number a potential outcome, and acts on the result. The effects of this decision are life-changing, and take him down a route from which there seems to be no escape. As well as the experiences of the Dice Man, we see cults spread around the idea, and as others begin to live their lives in the same way, society itself begins to change. A very unusual concept, and one that works very well.

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. I have a lot of time for the writing of John Steinbeck, and could have picked any of his better-known works for this post. I have chosen this one, as I had to study it at school. Although it is not a long book, it has stayed with me ever since, and I can recall scenes described in it over fifty years later. It has the feel of a script, so it is no wonder that it has been performed on stage many times, and films have been made of it too. Lennie and George are two drifters during the Great Depression in America in the 1930s. Set against the background of poverty, and migrant workers, we see that George is looking after Lennie, who seems to be mentally disabled. He talks constantly of rabbits, which he loves to stroke; but because of his size, and unaware of his strength, Lennie usually kills the unfortunate animals. He also strokes a small girl, which gets him into some serious trouble. They are on the move, encountering many other memorable characters, and always searching for the better life that they dream of. Lennie is almost a Frankenstein’s monster in some ways, and George is his Baron. Animals and dreams feature heavily, and the work has a haunting feel, that never leaves you.

There you have ten more books that I have read, and can recommend. Perhaps this is a series after all?

Literary inspirations

I have never written about books on this blog. Considering the amount of words I have written about so many other things, this fact has just struck me. It has been a glaring omission, and one I will attempt to rectify with this post. It will not be a series, so don’t worry.

Many blogs on the Internet are about books and literature. Some recommend good new reads, most promote the work of the blogger themselves. Others quote from classical literature, or delve into its origins and meanings. I won’t be doing any of that. Do I write because I used to read, or did I read because I wanted to write? The answer is probably neither of those options. I started writing at school like most of us do, as it is compulsory. But I didn’t read for that reason, I did it for enjoyment, education, and a desire to acquire knowledge. I was soon enjoying writing as well. I put more effort into my homework essays than was required, did background reading, and found myself looking for other works by the same writers in the local library.

My studies were also rewarded, with good marks at school, and a sense that some subjects were becoming easier to tackle, less daunting, and more familiar. I expanded these methods into History and French classes too, soon becoming an avid reader of non-fiction History books, and French authors in their native language. This took more work of course, and I quickly learned that nothing comes easily, and that any good writing requires preparation, research, and numerous proof-reads. I also decided that writing comes best from those that read the writing of others, so I began to read more. I read novels, works of fantasy, science fiction, Russian classics, most of Dickens, and volume after volume of historical fact and opinion. As I got older, I became interested in political and existentialist writing as well, making sure to still read novels, and the occasional best-seller, for balance.

I carried on reading at the same rate for many years. Eventually, shift-work, marriage, and all those things that interrupt the routine took over. I didn’t read so much. Then even less, finally hardly anything at all. Now, I mostly read blogs, articles, and short stories, rarely books. I still buy books, I just haven’t got round to reading them yet. I write a lot more of course, as I am doing now, when I could otherwise be reading a book. What were those books, and who were those writers that brought me to this point; provided inspiration for what I do now, and who I am today? Here are some; a selection, if you will. Just a snapshot of the hundreds of books read during my life, and not intended to be definitive, or even that comprehensive. I will not be analysing them, or going into great detail. Just a short overview, the title, the name of the author, and why I think it is worth reading. It is not an academic list, nor does it feature the usual cast of philosophical heavyweights. There are popular titles in there, and some very obvious ones too. It will be quite long, so put the kettle on first.

The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger was published in 1951, a few months before I was born. The main character, Holden Caulfield, relates a coming of age experience that is instantly recognisable to any teenager in western society. Despite the differences in background between myself and Holden, I identified with his frustration and rebellion immediately. I don’t know how old Salinger was when he wrote the book, but the style, and expression of thought, is just perfect.

Moby Dick was written by Herman Melville one hundred years earlier, and also explores the experience of a youth, this time surrounded by older and rougher men, in situations where his life could be in danger. I hold no brief for whaling, and know little of the sea, but when I read this book aged eight or nine, I was immersed in the descriptions of the characters, and the relentless pursuit of revenge.

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. About the same time, I began to read Dickens, from a leather bound set untouched and stored, in my Grandmother’s bedroom. Few writers in English can describe a scene so well, or conjure up the image of a character, like Dickens. I could choose almost any of his books, but I picked Great Expectations, for the amazing Miss Havisham.

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. As I began to study at senior school, I was told that we would have to read this book as part of the syllabus. I was unhappy at first, as I didn’t consider it to be something I would appreciate. But I was wrong. It has so much. A sense of menace, despair, bleak settings, an ethereal heroine, and a callous hero, who is not all that he seems. From a synopsis, it might read as little more than a romantic pot-boiler, of class, love, betrayal, and revenge. But the quality of the descriptive writing elevates it, and sets it apart from so many others.

Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier. Although published in 1938, this thriller novel was almost as Gothic as Bronte’s book. The settings, characters, and slowly-dawning sense of betrayal, are all familiar themes. I remember reading this in the 1960s, perhaps a strange choice for a teenage boy, but I could picture Manderley, Mrs Danvers, and Maxim de Winter, as if they were all in front of my eyes. And the opening lines are some of the best ever written.

And Quiet Flows The Don/The Don Flows Home to The Sea, by Mikhail Sholokhov. In my late teens, I was becoming interested in politics, Left-Wing politics in particular. I discovered these books by the Russian writer, published in full in 1940, and was immediately drawn into the world described in them. He had won the Nobel Prize for literature a few years earlier, and deservedly so. The story deals with a vast array of characters from the Cossack heartland of Russia, and their experiences from the outbreak of the First World War, until the end of the Russian Civil War. He was writing from personal experience, having served in the Bolshevik army, and coming from the area he describes. Reading these books I learned a lot about Russian history, but also about following characters, wanting to know what happens to them, and being swept up in an unfamiliar world, made familiar by skilful writing.

The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy. I came late to Hardy, having disliked D.H.Lawrence, and for some reason, considering him similar. I then saw the film ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, and decided to explore Hardy’s writing. I was overwhelmed by the period feel, and once again by the painstakingly detailed descriptions that allowed me to visualise everything, from a tent at a fair, to the unseen features of the protagonist. This is one of the ‘Wessex’ novels by Hardy, and my favourite. It deals with regret, reconciliation, greed, shame, and as usual, betrayal. It is soap-opera on a grand scale, and at a higher level, with writing to relish.

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell. Orwell (Eric Blair) was a Socialist and writer in England. After serving as a policeman in Burma, he lived in Paris for some time. After he returned to the UK, he wrote about the condition of the working classes, in his book ‘The Road To Wigan Pier’. By the time this was published, in 1937, Orwell was in Spain, where he had travelled to join in the fight against the Nationalists, in the civil war there. ‘Homage to Catalonia’, written in 1938, is an account of his experiences in that war. In the confusing politics of Republican Spain, he declined to serve with the International Brigade, as he did not want to be under the control and command of the Communists. Instead, he fought with a trade union militia, run by Anarchists, and was badly wounded on the Aragon front. His book relates the confusion well, and tells the story of the fighting between different factions of the same side in Barcelona. He was left with a dislike of totalitarian systems that later surfaced in his better-known books, ‘Animal Farm’, and ‘1984’. Reading Orwell taught me a lot about expanding a dairy-style account of real events into a readable account, with the added interest that I was keen to learn more about this tragic conflict.

Dune, by Frank Herbert. I did not usually read science fiction. Although I had read some H.G. Wells at school, as well as a few John Christopher and John Wyndham novels, it was not a genre that appealed that much to me. (And still doesn’t) However, during the late 1970s, I read an article about Frank Herbert in the Sunday Times, and decided to try his novel ‘Dune’. I could never have imagined how caught up I would become, in the unusual worlds portrayed in this book, and the five sequels that followed. Imaginary planets, time-travel by folding space, a drug that was the major currency of the universe, and giant sandworms too. Add a mystical religious order, warring families and empires, and some intriguing and unique characters, and I was well and truly hooked. I couldn’t stop reading them. I stayed up half the night, I was late for work, and I couldn’t wait for the outcomes of the convoluted plots. This was story-telling at a massive level. I never aspired to get anywhere close to this, but it did give me ideas, and a lesson as to just how much work is involved for the author.

By Reason of Insanity, by Shane Stevens. In the late 1970s, I picked up this book at the airport, as I thought it would be an easy read on holiday. It was a thick paperback (500+ pages) and seemed to be ideal for this purpose. It was a lot more than that. It tells the story of an abused young man, who escapes from incarceration, and embarks on a series of killings. The format of the book, new to me at the time, appealed greatly. One chapter would feature the killer, Bishop. Devoid of conscience, he planned and carried out his murders. The next chapter would focus on those hunting this killer, looking for clues, and trying to get close to him, as he moved around the country. This book had a profound effect on me, and though I have never forgotten it, I have not read it again since, as I have done with many others. As a writer who can imagine himself on both sides of this situation so well, and construct what is in effect, two books in one, Stevens deserves high praise.

Christine, by Stephen King. King is a prolific and successful writer in the horror genre. His books are too numerous to list here, but many are excellent, and he has a huge following. The first of his novels I read was’Christine’, in 1983. It appealed to me, as it was about a car, and obsession. The plot is fantastic of course; how the love of an unpopular boy for the car he restores is returned by the vehicle, with grisly results. But I discovered that King was a very good writer. He made the unreal seem believable, and used his knowledge of his native New England to bring locations to life. He also made novels seem easy to read, until you forgot how difficult they had been to write.

The Alexander Trilogy, by Mary Renault. In three books, written over the space of twelve years, she tackles the difficult area of fictionalising the life of a real person. Not just any real person, none other than Alexander The Great. Reading these books as they were published, I became caught up in her ideas about what life was like for the growing Alexander, the people around him, and the world he inhabited. I also discovered a lot about the history of the time, although I made myself remain aware that much of the action was fictional. This type of writing is not admired by those historians who write weighty tomes, based on ancient records and writings. However, it makes the period, and the characters, more accessible to everyone; and this can only be a good thing, if like me, they go on to read more about it.

The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote. I had been interested in the American Civil War from a very young age. I collected bubble gum cards, read comic-book versions of the war, and progressed to novels, such as ‘The Red Badge of Courage’, as well as one-volume histories of the conflict. Later, I began to read long accounts of individual campaigns, and different events, both military, and political. Even with such a thirst for information, some books were dry reading indeed. I had stopped buying them, and decided that I had read enough, when I was recommended this trilogy, and later received it as a gift, in the early 1990s. Running to almost 3,000 pages, it is not a lightweight read, to be sure. Foote’s writing is always accurate and authoritative, and suggests a gentleness in the author. It is a huge work, in both scope, and physical presence, and leaves out nothing that anyone interested in the subject would ever want to know. I learned what the term ‘definitive history’ means, after reading this.

High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby. This popular 1995 novel deals with two things close to my heart; music, and London. The main character is almost certainly a thinly-disguised version of Hornby himself, and as he discusses music with his employees in the record shop, or tracks down old girlfriends to discover why they dumped him, the mixture of observation and comedy is irresistible. It is a literary lesson in writing about what you know, injecting pathos and humour in just the right amounts, and achieving a satisfactory conclusion.

So there you have an idea of the writing that inspired me, and continues to do so. I could have included so many more, but it is long enough. If anyone sticks with it, and finds something to enjoy. I thank you. If you are tempted to read any of these because of it, I will be very pleased.

Reading books

There was a time when I read books constantly. Predominantly in bed at night, and also when commuting, or waiting around for something. Now, I hardly read books at all. I read Blogs, articles in magazines, instruction manuals, and some special interest stuff. No books though. It is not that I am short of a book to read. I have three excellent books on my bedside table, two non-fiction, and a novel that I bought last year. I also have boxes of books stored in the garage and other spaces, many unopened, save for a short perusal. I have even asked for books for Christmas presents this year, to add to the piles already surrounding me.

I still love books. Electronic readers are all very well, but for my money, you cannot replace the feel of paper, the weight of the tome, even the distinctive aroma of freshly published pages. I like the dust jackets, the photo of the author, and the outline on the inside. I even read the dedications, and introductions. I am a fan of non-fiction, though I equally like certain fiction writers. I warmed to the idea of ‘faction’ some years ago, where fictional characters are placed into real events in history, or imagined conversations and situations using real characters, attempted to solve past mysteries and legends.

I like large Atlases. It is always enlightening to pore over these maps and statistics, no matter how much you thought you already knew. Photography books, with reproductions of the photos of the famous, by the famous, making you even more sure that you will never take a good photograph; I have so many of those. If there are sequels, or serialisations, I have to have those too. What use is ‘And quiet flows the Don’, if you don’t get ‘The Don flows home to the sea’, so you can see what happened to all the characters? Years of collecting, decades of accumulation, re-reading favourites, anticipating new arrivals. How can it all disappear?

On reflection, it seems obvious. It is unfair to lie in bed reading, light on, disturbing someone who has to get up for work the next day. Sitting in another room reading, going to bed very late, that still disturbs. Try to read during the day, and no sooner have you opened to the first page, a dog’s head will appear on your lap, a soft toy clamped in his jaws. Ollie does not understand book reading. With him, it is always time to play. Go into another room in the evening, just to read a few chapters, as your wife is doing something else, perhaps watching TV, or using the computer. It soon feels anti-social, and far from the point of getting married, to share time together; to be in the same room, at the very least. I no longer commute, so that option has gone. I go to the beach to enjoy the brisk weather, and to walk the dog, not to sit and read in the sand. I have little to wait around for, as I am not working, so have no defined lulls to consider. So I must conclude that I have no time, and no opportunity for reading. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s just how it is.