#SecondThoughts: Booker Prize Readathon 2022

From it’s conception in 1969, the Prize was awarded to books written in English and published in the United Kingdom & Ireland. But… only writers who were citizens of the British Commonwealth, Ireland, South Africa (and Zimbabwe was later added) were eligible to receive the Prize. This last fact was what drew me to the Booker, having been born and brought up in India and West Africa. Sadly, the original flavour of a Booker list changed in 2014 when they widened eligibility to any novel written in England, thereby including those written by US citizens (and others).

The aim of my Readathon has been to read all the longlisted books, completing them by the time the eventual winner is announced. In previous years, if I’d not read a book at the time the shortlist was announced and it wasn’t included, it didn’t get read. Last year, I managed to get to the shortlist’s announcement with only two being unread. As one was by an author I knew I would read regardless (and went on to become my personal winner), there was only one more book to read, which made it easy to achieve the clear sweep. Fortunately, it was a good read too 😉

I wasn’t sure until the last minute whether I was going to give it another go this year, as there’s a number of aspects involved in making the final decision:

  1. how much else is going on in my life?
  2. how much time can I find for reading?
  3. how many of the books are available at the time the longlist is announced?
  4. how many lengthy tomes are on the list?
  5. how reasonably priced are they on Amazon (I’m a Kindle reader)?
  1. The answer is lots… and yet, here I am, drawn inexorably to Bookers 😉
  2. I’m squeezing it in – in bits & pieces, here & there – and am surprising myself at my progress.
  3. All the books were available for download at the time of writing (early August).
  4. None over 500 pages long, one only 133 pages, another even shorter at 73 pages 🙂
  5. All have been generously discounted 😀

On then to my reviews…

Oh William – Elizabeth Strout

I’m one of the few people who preferred Lucy Barton to Olive Kitteridge, so this was getting read regardless of it’s appearance on the list. Lucy’s voice is strong throughout this tale of her post-divorce relationship with her first husband. Despite Lucy grieving the death of her second husband, everyone – including her – seem to feel a need to take care and/or and feel pity for William when he uncovers an old family secret and loses his second wife at the same time. Beautifully written and a sharply observed depiction of relationship dynamics.

My view: unlikely to be the winner, nor even make it to the shortlist, although – as ever – that’s dependant on the strength of the other candidates. But I liked it!

Trust – Hernan Diaz

An interesting read. The second section nearly lost me and, were it not on the longlist, I’d possibly have stopped reading. That said, I’m glad I ploughed on, as subsequent sections made completing the book entirely worthwhile. In essence, the tale of a successful & wealthy man who hires someone to write his memoirs in order to correct a salacious tale which everyone knows is based on him and his wife. He fusses about the incorrect depiction of his wife’s death – said to be following treatment for a mental illness, when it was in fact cancer. Except it turns out he’s hiding something else entirely.

My view: it’s clever, and the format could well appeal to the judges. It’s not getting five stars from me as that second section was unnecessarily turgid, and took from the overall book. Nevertheless, it has shortlist written all over it.

The Trees – Percival Everett

This was shaping up to be my first 5 star read, until it got all wish-fulfilment about an uprising in the Donald Trump era. A fascinating story of murder in a small town Mississippi, where an unpleasant racist is found brutally murdered with a body of a dead black man alongside him – a black man who bears a striking resemblance to Emmett Till. When the black man’s body disappears and then re-appears at the site of a second racist’s murder, the case is pushed on up the chain of command. A couple of special agents are despatched to investigate – and they, plus the FBI agent who’s later sent to investigate the rash of copy-cat murders which then follow – are all black. Oh & did I mention the humour… yes, despite the subject.

My view: This is a fascinating idea and the judges may not care as much I did about the closing chapters – I hope so. I’d be surprised not to see it on the shortlist.

Case Study – Graeme Macrae Burnet

Burnet has written a similar is-it-real-or-is-it-fiction book to his previous Booker contender. Collins Braithwaite – a trendy therapist with a highly inflated sense of self and a long-running feud with the well-known psychiatrist R D Laing, is at the centre of the tale of Veronica, who believes her sister (although not much loved by her) committed suicide after a number of sessions with the great man. Burnet weaves Veronica’s ‘found notebooks’ with his own notes on the great man’s back story – childhood, Oxford university, London, and final return to his childhood home in Darlington.

My view: As with Burnet’s previous work, this was intriguing and gripping in many ways and yet… for me, remained unsatisfactory. Will it make it onto the next stage? I’m unconvinced – much depends on the quality of the remaining candidates.

Booth – Karen Joy Fowler

I’ll be honest, I really didn’t like Fowler’s previously shortlisted work We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, so I approached this with trepidation. Without cause I have to admit, as I very much enjoyed this tale about the family of Abraham Lincoln’s killer. The family’s story is told via rotating POVs – John has 5 siblings who reach adulthood (and several who do not). His father is a famed Shakespearean actor, who deserted his first wife and son to run away to America with the beauty who became mother to John and the rest of the Booth clan. The family is filled with characters, quoting Shakespeare to one another in everyday speech. John is the family favourite and the only one who involves himself in politics, becoming an avid supporter of the South, despite not joining the fighting forces. He drops the name Booth in an attempt to be his own man in a career on the stage, his elder brother having followed his father there successfully – unfortunately those selling the tickets preferred to include it, which is how he came to be known as John Wilkes Booth – with his fame outstripping them all.

My view: I’m conflicted. This is a really good read, but I’m uncertain of its prize winning potential. It’s certainly a great story and a most entertaining piece of historical writing to boot. I’d like to think it would – at the very least – make the shortlist.

After Sappho – Selby Wynn Schwartz

How to describe this? Snippets of tales, some from well-known women such as Virginia Wolfe, Vita Sackville-West, Isadora Duncan and Sarah Bernhardt – others from people I’d never previously encountered such as Lina Poletti and Natalie Barney. The tales they tell are that of woman’s struggle to be more than a possession passed from father to husband, the struggle for freedom to think and express their thoughts and desires as men do, the fight for the right to their independence in law. At first confusing and fragmented, bit by bit this builds into something powerful and disturbing, reminding us just how much there is to be lost in the current backlash against women’s rights.

My view: I struggled with this at first, wondering when the coherent narrative would appear. That never happened, but it mattered not – for I came to appreciate the value of its form. A shortlist shoe-in, with strong winning potential – in my opinion.

Do join me on October 2nd, when I wrap up my #SecondThoughts on attempting the Booker Prize Readathon, with my reviews on the remaining candidates, and who I think will be a winner in 2022.

Have you read any of the candidates? Do you think any of them is a potential winner?


© Debra Carey, 2022

#SecondThoughts: From Ruritania With Love

Recently I’ve been listening to some of the early Ellery Queen novels – but that, perhaps, is another blog post.  I’m currently on “The Egyptian Cross Mystery”, the fourth in the series, which has very little to do with Egypt, but a fair amount to do with Central Europe, specifically the Balkans.  To begin with, the references to Central Europe are rather tentative, and I did wonder whether we were going to be ‘treated’ to a fictional nation – but that is not the style of Ellery Queen.

Still, it got me thinking about Ruritania, and whether there is still a place for Ruritania in modern writing.  If Ruritanian Romances could be said to have had a Golden Age, in the same way as Detective fiction, s.f., and comics, then it probably started around 1894 with the publication of the definitive Ruritanian Romance, “The Prisoner of Zenda”, and petered out sometime in the mid-20th century.  The Second World War, together with the subsequent seismic changes in European politics, made small fictional states headed by an ancient royalty at risk from a rotten usurper largely superfluous.  Other issues were at the forefront of peoples’ minds.

Like any genre, there are certain expectations, and also variations whereby we can place an outlier within the grouping, even if it requires a little shoehorning.  Romance in this setting does not, of course, mean a Mills & Boon style story, but one of adventure, chivalry, and a certain idealisation of the world and how it should work.  In this respect the Ruritanian Romances are descended from the Mediæval romances of Arthur, Charlemagne, and other courtly, questing knights.  Examples of some outliers, that help give us the boundaries to the genre, include “King Ottokar’s Sceptre”, the Tintin story set in Syldavia, and the classic Marx Brothers’ film “Duck Soup” set in Freedonia. 

This is not to say that Ruritania has been swallowed up completely.  It lives on, both for the benefit of jurists, who use it as an example, in a similar manner to ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’, as well as for the fiction writer looking for a relatively neutral setting for a story.  Simon Brett sends Blotto and Twinks off to Mitteleuropia in “…and the Ex-King’s Daughter”, for example, although this is a story set in the early 20th century.  “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is an era spanning story, and whilst the majority is set in pre-war Zubrowka, the implication of the framing story is that the country still exists now.

So perhaps Ruritania is alive and well, even if the Ruritanian Romance is dead.  It’s possible that it might make a comeback (Ruritanian vampires, anyone?) but the specific characteristics of the Romance – plots to do away with legitimate heirs, for good or ill, thwarted or abetted by chivalrous adventurers – are probably past their sell by date.  Today we tend to look for more realistic heroes, those who succeed despite character flaws, or who are in some way redeemed.

But if the Romance were to be revived, what might we look for?  What might be different?  A royal lineage could be replaced by a politically dynastic family, and the long lost twin/look-a-like has probably gone full circle, navigating the far reaches of passe.  (Androids and other s.f. approaches have also been done before, but there is always a new twist based on emerging science and technology…).  Perhaps, given the current climate (if you’ll forgive the pun), something with an Environmental focus would make a good plot.

What do you think?  Should we get a visa for Ruritania?  Or should we just leave it in the history books?

© David Jesson, 2022

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara: A #SecondThoughts book review

Much of what is known of Yanagihara relates to her day job as editor-in-chief of T – the New York Times style magazine, although a little more was gleaned via the interviews which followed the success of what has been described as the cultural phenomenon of her second novel. Interviews which were necessary as the ‘about the author’ section of that novel simply reads “Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City”.


That cultural phenomenom was A Little Life. A book which divided people – a real Marmite book as we’d say here in the UK – people either adored it or hated it. I couldn’t blame those who hated it, for reading about self-harm and sexual abuse – especially the sexual abuse of a child – is not the way most people would chose to spend their time. It’s not how I’d chose to spend my time, yet I found it hard to put down. I am categorically not a fan of what is termed “misery memoirs” – avoiding them like the plague, yet I was blown away – absolutely convinced I’d read that year’s Booker winner. Sad to say, I was wrong.

At the time, I described it as the best book I’ve read for a long while, and I’ve not changed my mind nearly 7 years later. Despite the headlines being about his abuse and self-harm, the majority of the book tells the story of Jude’s adult relationships, where the focus is on friendship, love, kindness and acceptance.  But the big question it asks is whether the extent of a child’s suffering ever be healed by loving adult relationships? An emotional and moving tale, sad but beautiful, and one which brought me to tears more than once.  


I rarely pre-order books, but I did with Yanagihara’s next book To Paradise, rushing to finish what I was reading when it hit my Kindle on publication day. Written in three parts, each separated by 100 years, Parts 1 & 2 were full of promise.

Part 1 – set in the 1880s – is the story of rich and powerful family the Binghams, living in a grand house on Washington Square, New York, in a version of New York located in an enlightened group of states where the populace is free to partner with their preferred gender. The story focuses on indulged son David, torn between the nice man introduced to him with the aim of marriage, and the unsuitable man he falls in love with. Despite evidence that his lover is a fraudster, David chooses to follow him to California – located in the risky less enlightened states – to build a new life.

Part 2 – set in the 1980s – is the story of another David, a young Hawaiian paralegal in a relationship with a rich and powerful man called Charles, who now owns the house in Washington Square. This version of the 1980s also suffers from the impact of HIV/Aids – and the story of Charles and his friends living and dying, is played out against the story of David’s previous life and that of his estranged father in Hawaii.

Parts 1 and 2 only take up half the book, with Part 3 making up the significant portion. In Part 3, two stories are weaved together: Charlie, who survived a pandemic when a child, but was left with limited mental capacities by the medication which saved her life, and her grandfather Charles, seen via correspondence with his best friend some 50 years earlier. Set in the 2090s, Charlie and her husband live in a small apartment within the Washington Square house – once hers, now taken over by the state. In this dystopian future where harsh and brutal decisions were made to battle multiple pandemics, the government controls everything, up to and including choice of mate and fertility. Through Charles’s letters we see him drawn further away from scientist to government servant, and the impact that has on David – his son and Charlie’s father – an activist battling those choices. With a degree of inevitability, they come for Charles, so Charlie is left alone with the husband her grandfather selected for her. Unknown to her, Charles also begged his friend to get her out of New York and to safety – To Paradise.

Parts 1 and 2 flowed and worked well as standalone tales (which may or may not have been linked), but Part 3 felt more problematic, even as I read it. The story it told was a potentially powerful one, picking up many of the fears expressed during the current pandemic. But – and I hate to admit it – I skim read a lot of it, because the dystopian detail was so turgid and dense, it felt like we were being hit over the head with a sledgehammer to make sure we understood the point being made. I cried out for a damn good editor to have been let loose on it.

There were other oddities. The first being the use of the same names throughout. A hint perhaps to there being familial links – but it was never made clear, and so felt like a distraction. The second being that the idealised nature of the group of states was demonstrated by its widespread acceptance of sexual choice but, while that acceptance included Asian races, it still specifically excluded Blacks – and that left me wondering why, and what point, if any, was being made.

On a positive note, I really enjoyed learning about Hawaii – the life, the history, the art, the culture – and I got to wondering whether this had started out as a tale about Hawaii, and then got hijacked by the pandemic. If always intended as a pandemic tale, I shall mourn the book about Hawaii that I missed out on, for Yanagihara is surely well placed to have written one.

Yanagihara describes Hawaii as the ‘imaginary homeland’ for all Asian Americans. She has lived there, and her parents met there – her father a native of Hawaii, her mother brought up there after her birth in Seoul. Both parents are creative (they were illustrators when they met) but her father is also a haematologist, and the family travelled across the US with his work. Literature, design, art, culture – these are loves she inherited from her parents.

Parts 1 and 2 felt well on their way to 5 stars, until Part 3 hit. I’ve vacillated between 3 and 4 for the book, ending up on 4. I feel my expectations were set exceptionally high by her previous book, and I’d have probably given this a 4 if written by an author new to me. But, to be honest, I’m still vacillating….


© Debra Carey, 2022

#SecondThoughts: Describing characters – the shallow stuff

I’ve recently read a number of discussions on general blogs about the type of books people prefer to read. While the split between character-driven and plot-driven plays a part in any such discussion I noticed that, even within the preference for character-driven, there appears to be a quite significant split between those who enjoy lots of rich detail and those who do not – with a surprising number preferring the “just get on with it” option.

Assuming, for now, that I’d be writing in third person or using a narrator, let’s talk about the shallow stuff – describing how my characters look.

How much detail to provide?

I started by asking myself what were the benefits of giving the full head-to-toe description? The obvious answer being that the mental picture my readers form will be the one I’ve drawn. From there I moved to how I might provide that description? A character such as like Pride & Prejudice‘s Mr Collins could prove a useful medium, being much inclined to dull discourses filled with mundane details. But as we don’t all have the sharp wit and deft touch of Miss Austen, there’s a need to remain mindful of the reader’s potential for being turned off by too long a descriptive passage. Clearly, this can be exacerbated where there’s a need to introduce a whole raft of characters at once as, if the same level of detailed description is applied to them all, I can see it proving overwhelming to the reader. And if I accept that many a reader is frustrated by being forced to wade through a lot of descriptive detail instead of getting on with the story, there’s a worry they may decide my book isn’t for them.

Perhaps then, a brief snapshot is the way to go? Enough to give my reader an idea of who everyone is, with more meat being put on the bones later, as and when it would be useful or relevant to the story or plot line.

Even though I struggle to see a scenario when this would be the case in a story I would write – I can see that if how the main character looks is vital to the story, opting for the head-to-toe descriptive option immediately they appear in the manuscript might be a good way forward (with other characters getting the brief snapshot treatment until otherwise necessary). One additional benefit of the single big brain dump when the character first appears, is I can then forget about the subject for the rest of the manuscript 😉

Returning to the concept that there’s a line to be drawn between enough and snooze in descriptive detail…. what other questions can I ask in order to ensure I stay the right side of that line?

When, why and where do you do it?

The first when question I had was whether to go for the full works immediately characters appear in the manuscript, or via drip-feed throughout. But, as I’ve already covered that under how above, I realised that further facts had to be established in order to decide my answer. Key to this is why the descriptive information is being provided -whether purely for background, or because it is relevant to the plotline. If the former, you can slip it in wherever it feels natural and comfortable but, if the latter, then the timing is key. To add one more question to this section, the where to do it could depend on whether it’s relevant to test my reader’s skills of observation. In most genres, I’d be inclined to leave it in plain sight, whereas with a crime/mystery/thriller tale, there could be a value (or simply just an inclination) to disguise it alongside a bright red herring or a shiny McGuffin or two.

What might you leave out…. and why?

Moving on from what distractions I might add, I’m wondering if what I might choose to leave out could be as relevant. As with everything, I guess the question remains, what would be my purpose?

My final question is what happens if I write in the first person? How does my reader get a description then? Do I remain the only character undescribed, or should I use some device to get the job done?

What do you advise?


© Debra Carey, 2022

The Documents in the Case: a #SecondThoughts book review

I’ve recently fallen in love with going to the library again.  The TBR pile is teetering, and most of the books that I’ve bought recently have been to do with aspects of writing, or of engineering, as I try to bring both my text book on materials characterisation and the shared novel with Debs to a successful conclusion (and start thinking about the next projects…).  But I can just about justify getting books out of the library, although I may be in danger of developing an L-TBR pile… The problem*, of course, with going to the library is that one way or another, you end up browsing.  Either it is deliberate as you attempt to take stock of what is new, or you are deliberately looking for something specific – which is not there – and you end up tripping over something else that grabs your attention.

*I use the term in a loose sense: it is not a problem per se, but there are a range of difficulties that can arise.

A little while ago, I wrote a review of ‘The Appeal’.  If you read the post, you’ll recall that I spotted it in the library and picked it up because I’d heard a lot about it.  The conceit that provides the structure to the story is that it is formed from a selection of emails that have been made available to two pupils of a barrister.  He wants them to review the documents and come to a conclusion as to whether or not the right person was arrested for a crime.  In my review, I likened it to the earlier book ‘The Documents in the Case’ by Dorothy L Sayers.  I also mentioned that whilst I’d heard of it, and whilst I’ve read several of her Lord Peter Wimsey stories, I’d not read this one.  Back in the library, looking for something else, I spotted the Documents in Case, and the Appeal still relatively fresh in my mind I thought that I would give this a go.

Sayers is perhaps best known for her detective fiction, although she did a lot more than this, and in her detective fiction, she is best known for Lord Peter Wimsey.  Her record in this regard might owe something to her status as a founder member of the Detection Club, an organisation that probably deserves a post of its own.  (The English Heritage Blue Plaque outside a former residence probably doesn’t help either, labelling her as a ‘detective novelist’).  Together with some of the brightest stars of the Golden Age of detective fiction, Sayers set out to refine the genre, and having done so to experiment with it.  For example, a group of members wrote a joint detective story, each taking responsibility for a chapter, and then passing it along to the next person, who must build the story in such a way as to incorporate all clues (either proving or debunking them).  Each contributor also wrote their own solution to the crime, which remained sealed until the mystery was complete; these solutions were included in the book, for the general reader.

What I hadn’t realised until now is that Documents is itself an example of a shared piece of writing, the co-author being Robert Eustace (a pseudonym for Dr Eustace Barton, who also wrote medic-legal fiction).  The epistolatory novel was not invented by Sayers, but this is certainly a piece of experimental writing on her part, a departure from the formula she was developing with Lord Peter.  It is interesting to note that she herself was unhappy with the final form of the book.  Coming to it as a Lord Peter fan, I have to say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected.  It lacks a great deal of the humour to be found in Lord Peter’s adventures.  Then, too, I felt that some of the material presented was something of a cheat: the documents collected are various, but several represent quite lengthy statements from some of the involved parties, solicited by the son of the deceased, who is attempting to determine if his father has been murdered.

On that basis, I don’t think I can offer a general recommendation to hurry out and get a copy.  Still, if you happen to be interested in detective fiction and are looking for something a bit different, or if you happen to stumble across it in a library whilst browsing for something else, it’s probably worth a couple of hours of your time.

Have you read Documents in the Case?  Would you recommend it – or not?  What’s the most unusual detective fiction you’ve read?

©David Jesson, 2022

#SecondThoughts: Avoid alliteration. Always.

Alphabetical Africa, by Walter Abish, is the kind of eccentric novel that you have to really work at – but it is incredibly clever. The first chapter is written using only words that begin with ‘a’. With every chapter, the next letter of the alphabet is added until the full alphabet is available; from that point though, letters are dropped until the last chapter returns to the same restriction as the first.

I’m not sure I’d want to have a go at writing something like that, but I think that most writers, at some point or another, enjoy having a go at something experimental. At the very least, there’s always something that is considered to be some kind of rule that you feel that you want to rebel against.

The thing about a lot of writing ‘rules’ is that people tend to focus on the sound bite and fail to look at the more nuanced case behind it. Eliminate adverbs, for example, is supposed to help you produce a cleaner form of writing. Using an adverb means that you should have used a stronger verb, they say. For myself, I think it’s a piece of advice that can help you in the editing phase, but you shouldn’t just take all the adverbs round the back and shoot them. Adverbs, if used sparingly, can be powerful, in a subtle kind of way. For example, ‘run’ is not a stronger verb to replace ‘walk quickly’. If you walk quickly, you’re walking with purpose; if you hurry, there’s possibly a certain nervous urgency to your action.

‘Avoid alliteration, always’ is a piece of advice that I’ve seen floating around for years. If Abish had followed this advice then there would be one less odd book for us to ponder over. Some might say that would be a good thing…

However, is the advice genuine? Or is it a joke? Alliteration is taught in schools, so why should we avoid it?

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be given a copy of Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon, which explores the etymology of a range of words, with each explanation following on from the last, and the last entry linking back to the first. For someone interested in words, and how they are related, the book is fascinating. On the basis of my enjoyment of the book, I put in a request for some of Forsyth’s other work, and so have recently been able to make a start on ‘The Elements of Eloquence’. The first chapter, as you might have guessed, is on alliteration.

Alliteration is one of the tools of rhetoric – the black art and subtle science of persuading people to your point of view by talking to them. As with many of the ‘rules’ around writing, the answer is not to avoid it always, but rather to deploy it for effect in the right places. Alliteration is a way of generating a certain rhythm to a piece, to hammer home a point. But. But. And again, but. It is all to easy to over-egg the pudding. It might be thought that Alphabetical Africa is far too much of a good thing, but Abish deliberately goes too far, and in so doing makes a point. If he’d done any less, then it would have reduced the impact of what he was attempting. Instead, by going the whole hog, the alliteration is a statement.

However, alliteration allowed to run amok, an attempt at Art, is usually amazingly atrocious and should not be accepted. What had not occurred to me before though, assuming alliteration must always use the same letter in a given sentence, is that the rhetorical ruse can be used usefully with different letters.

Ahem. The point, as ever, is that you can have too much of a good thing. Don’t avoid alliteration, but do use it sparingly. Save it for special occasions. Like any tool, learn to use it safely, for the right purpose, and it can add sparkle to your scribbles.

© David Jesson, 2022

#SecondThoughts: Causes or Passions colouring your writing

In my experience, it’s virtually impossible to prevent bits of yourself leaching into your writing, so why wouldn’t your causes or passions colour it too? As I see it, you can choose to make them the driving force of your story, or to simply be one aspect of it, or to form a background against which it’s told.

Let me start with an example of shared passion which colours our co-authored WIP The November Deadline, that of gender equality. It might be obvious why this would be a cause close to my heart, but it’s David whose the passionate STEMinist – advocating for greater opportunities and a more welcoming environment for women in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It’s no surprise, therefore, that he was drawn to the Dvergar for their matriarchal structure and skills in this area. The obvious bonus being it provided us with a methodology to showcase non-typical – for the era – female characters in our WIP. The contrast between our Dvergar characters and those who do met the historical norms of the era, allowed this disparity to be heightened without any need for drum banging in our writing.


Moving on then to focus on how I’ve seen this done beautifully in my reading.

The Wayfarer’s series from Becky Chambers (which I highly commend to you by the way) comprises a quartet of books – The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, Record of a Spaceborn Few and The Galaxy, and the Ground Within – and is an excellent series of space opera, where individuals from a wide range of planets are drawn together, to work, to love, and to live. It’s not an unrealistically utopian world for there are – of course – conflicts, some of the global type, but more of the inter-personal kind. What I’ve especially enjoyed is the depiction of variances in culture, belief systems, physical needs, attitudes to things such as parenting, and gender. In the final book of the quartet, we meet a mother and child from a people where it’s standard practice for children to be gender neutral until they reach a certain age, at which point they get to choose which gender path they will follow thereafter. With Trans issues being a rather combative subject at present, this gentle depiction of a different way of looking at gender identity was both interesting and enjoyable.

James Baldwin as both a black man and a gay man, has written passionately on both these subjects. His stories ring loud of authenticity, of pain and suffering, of wrongs being done to. But he does this by placing at the heart of his stories, characters – people – who you believe and are drawn to and care about, so that what they endure – and why – is drawn even more sharply into focus.

In a recent piece about queer literature, a blogger I follow highlighted a series they’d enjoyed reading, because there was a story and a plotline with gay characters, but that the sexual preference of the characters wasn’t the story. One of the commenters expressed his agreement, stating that this was a more accurate depiction of his own life experience, and therefore felt more authentic.

I’d like to close this musing with the following observations I ‘ve taken from an article I read in The Bookseller (do read the entire article as it’s both interesting and amusing). Penned by author and blogger Ellen Hawley, it explains that Hawley doesn’t limit herself to writing solely lesbian characters or storylines because “It’s a big world out there. I can’t write it all, but I won’t limit myself more than I have to.” But what most interested me was this statement: “I want my work to find its way into the lesbian community…. But it’s easier to reach into the community if I publish in the mainstream, than it is to reach the larger world by publishing within the community.” This aligns with my view that, if a cause is important to you, it needs to reach the widest community and not just those who agree with you – so using it to colour your story, rather than noisily banging away at a drum, could be the most effective method for an author to achieve that aim.


© Debra Carey, 2022 (for the blog & images)
© The Bookseller & Ellen Hawley (for the extracts)

How to survive #AprilA2Z: A #SecondThoughts list

We first published this in February ahead of 2020’s April A-Z Challenge. Unfortunately, pressures of our day-jobs mean we’re not going to be able to participate in 2022’s Challenge, but it seemed like a good time to re-blog the list below in case it proves helpful to anyone new to the Challenge. Those of you who’ve been doing this for years need no help from us, but you all have our best of wishes for a successful month. 

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It’s easy to wish time away, but equally, Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.  April is nearly upon us (sort of), which for a sub-set of bloggers means it’s time for #AprilA2Z.  That being the case, we thought that some tips (earned the hard way) on how to survive the month of April might be helpful.

For those unfamiliar with the AprilA2Z, it’s probably worth taking a moment to explain what this blogging challenge is – and if you are a blogger yourself, perhaps I can tempt you into giving it a go.  If you are already familiar with the Challenge, then you might want to skip to the list, but for those who need some context, read on!

The AprilA2Z challenge was created in 2010 by Arlee Bird, who said on his blog:

Can you post every day except Sundays during this month?  And to up the bar, can you blog thematically from A to Z?

He, and a few others, set out to show that you could.  (You usually get Sundays off for good behaviour, but it depends on the calendar, some years April has 5 Sundays, so you have to work one of them.  Them’s the breaks).  The challenge took off, and now there are still people who haven’t learned better, joined by newcomers who think that this looks like a jolly idea… Some people write on the day, prompted only by the letter.  Others spend a lot of time in preparation, and/or following an additional theme, prompted by their interests.  Part of the idea is to go and check out what other people are doing as well, comment, and say hi.

Debs had a go at this in 2015 without a theme and another run at it in 2016 on book genres. This was also the year she  inveigled David into giving it go, which lead to 26 posts on “How to write a thesis”. Having survived the experience (just) he came back again in 2017 with “The Materials Science in Fiction and Mythology“, whilst Debs had a third go with Jazz (and some fiction it inspired her to write).

David then came up with the insane brilliant idea of writing a novella over the course of April 2018, and persuaded Debs that it would be a good writing experience to share the load.  (They’re now putting the finishing touches to a full length novel based on this extended piece of writing, and are starting to flesh out plans for further stories in the same setting).

The following list represents their combined top tips for surviving the A2Z, having fun, building your blog and/or writing practice, and meeting new bloggers.

But before you start, you need to make a decision – what’s your purpose in joining this Challenge? Do you want to get into a regular blogging habit, make new online friends, find interesting new reading material, showcase your business, practice writing short stories, have a place to showcase the research you’ve done for a book you’re writing, write a series of linked posts which you can publish, or, or, or …?

a-z

Decision made? Then dive in …

1. Write what you know: This is one of those pieces of writing advice which some people swear by and others try to burn to the ground, salting the earth where it stood afterwards.  An interpretation of ‘what you know’ is not ‘what you have lived’, though, but rather, ‘what you have knowledge of and understand’.  A lot of science fiction and fantasy would never get written if we waited for writers to get abducted by aliens, but a good grounding in physics can be essential to get your head around time-travel or Faster-Than-Light space craft.  Similarly, a better than passing knowledge of horse-riding or some-such can add a level of verisimilitude to a description of the cavalry of the Third Imperial Lances fighting a desperate rear-guard action on the steppes of Hzrun.  In a non fiction setting, there are some great blogs about crafts, and David’s colleague used the A2Z to write a series of posts on metallurgy that now form extra reading material for one of the degree modules he teaches.

2. Say hello: a fundamental tenet of A2Z is going and saying hello.  The thing is, with over a thousand people, sometimes nearly two thousand, having a go at this blogging thingy, it can be tricky to know what to look at.  It is well worthwhile though – Debs and David have both met great people through the A2Z, people with whom they are both still in contact.  The A2Z organisers try to make it as easy as possible to find out what a blog is about, so that is a helpful way of reducing the number to look at – time is precious and you don’t want to spend time looking at loads of blogs you aren’t ultimately interested in.  There are two approaches that you can take.  One is to pick a handful of blogs that you will look at and comment on everyday.  The other is to work your way through the list and look at a few new ones everyday, and follow up with a few later on.  The only problem with the latter method is the challengers who are running something that has a thread that runs through from the beginning.  (See point four, below).

3. Saying hello purposefully: If you say hello, people will try and check back if they can.  Also, people visiting this third party website will know that you are active, and might want to see what you’ve got to say.  Say hello purposefully, with a meaningful comment, and sign off with a link to your blog.  Not sure how?  Et voila!  The AtoZ people are very keen on electronic signatures that make it easy to find out where you are from, and ideally why.  I’ve found their tutorial very helpful, and I’ve used it several times.  This is mine from something called 23Things, which was a blog challenge I did for work.

[Your name or Twitter handle] from
<a href=”yourblogaddress”>Name of Your Blog</a>
You could add a mention to a specific project/event, with a link. For example, my signature for that event looks like this:
@BreakerOfThings from
<a href=”https://abackoftheenvelopecalculation.wordpress.com/”>A Back of the Envelope Calculation</a>
<a href=”https://abackoftheenvelopecalculation.wordpress.com/”>Calling by from #23ThingsSurrey</a>

4. How long should posts be? How long is a piece of string?  (Twice the length from the middle to the end).  The advice from A2Z HQ is not less than 100 words, to make it worth while for people coming to read what you’ve got to say.  That also works well if you’re going for a daily drabble challenge or some such.  An upper limit is probably about 1000 words, although experience suggests that even that can be a bit much.  There are two factors to consider – what do you have the time to write and what does your ready have the time to read?  Remember what we said about thousands of blogs in the challenge?  No one has the time to read several long form essays everyday.  That said, what is your USP?  What works for you?  What do you want to say?  If you are bashing out some random musings, and aren’t planning on major edits, then you can probably manage something slightly longer.  If you are aiming for something a bit more polished, then you probably want to keep the word count down a bit, if only to keep things manageable for you as a writer.

5. To theme or not to theme?  A theme might be obvious – it might spring fully formed from the reason that you blog in the first place.  Or it might be an opportunity to try out something new.  But you don’t have to blog  to a theme.  The queen of free association is probably Isa-Lee Wolf.  She does this a lot throughout the year anyway, but somehow always manages to up the ante for A2Z, without really doing anything different.  For us though, independently we’ve both found that a theme makes a lot of sense and helps to provide some focus.  It also makes it that much easier to write blog posts in advance, meaning that you have that much more time for checking out other people’s blogs during the challenge.

6. Being found & finding your fellow A2Z participants
6.1 You can sign up to take part on the Blogging from A to Z website, where you can also grab a selection of images to post onto your site, as well as purchasing items of merchandise. In earlier years they’ve provided either a list or a spreadsheet linking to participants; hopefully this practice will continue.
6.2 If you use Facebook, there’s a Blogging from A to Z Challenge page which you can like and follow. A daily post is provided for each letter of the alphabet where participants can post a link to their daily blog and find others participants.
6.3 Finally, there’s a Twitter account which you can follow, and where you can link your daily posts and read other news. But most people use a hashtag with #AtoZChallenge and #A2ZChallenge being two of the most popular.
6.4 One more random option (which is a favourite of Debs) is when visiting other participants to leave your own comment, click on the names of others leaving comments. The bonus in this method is that when you’ve found a site you like, other commentators could well be on the same wavelength as you are.

7. Write your posts each day, or in advance?  Is your time your own? Are you confident in being able to set aside the time every day throughout April to prepare and produce a post? Is part of your purpose for taking part in the Challenge to build a daily blogging or writing habit? Is the idea of a theme an anathema to you and would you prefer to go freestyle, writing on a subject that inspires you each day? If the answer to these questions is Yes – then you’ll have a lot of fun sitting down on April the 1st to pen your first post, and to repeat that each day until April 30th.
But for the time crunched among you, or for those wanting to use the Challenge to produce a series of more structured posts, or posts which could build into a body of work, advance planning and preparation is vital. The truly organized have all their posts written before April begins, many have them set up to auto-post, so their only action is to respond to comments and visit other participants to leave their own comments. But even having a plan and some advance posts in hand can dramatically reduce the requirement for burning the midnight oil.

And that’s all Folks!

Seriously though, remember that while it’s a Challenge, it’s meant to be enjoyable. There can be a fair degree of stress involved in making it through to the end, especially when life gets in the way – they don’t issue those “I Survived …” badges for nothing. Really, this isn’t about winning or losing – it’s about challenging yourself … but only so long as it’s fun.


© Fiction Can Be Fun, 2020 & 2022

#SecondThoughts: The character I most relate to

In our co-written work November Deadline, there’s quite the cast of characters, so a wide choice for my consideration. While I’ve a huge amount of affection for them all, I have to admit having a soft spot for Tinkerbell – something which seemed to be shared by those who read our tale during April’s A-Z challenge back in 2018.

There’s a couple of areas where I particularly relate to Tink. He’s a big fan of pubs, with a liking not just for the beer and the hearty fare on offer, but most especially for the convivial company and conversation. Some of my happiest times were spent in pubs, enjoying laughter and chat with friends and acquaintances both, exchanging banter over favoured sporting teams. And that’s another thing we share, a love of the fine game of rugby.

But then there’s the rest. An academic, Tink is entirely at home in the hallowed halls of Oxford University and his beloved Bodlian Library; a master planner and tactician, a warrior of old. And that’s before we consider the magic….

While I would have loved to share the academic experience with Tink – I haven’t. It’s a world I gaze upon from the outside with wistfulness. I’m an excellent organizer, but I could never plan a skirmish, let alone a battle or a war. So, it’s not Tink I most relate to – even though I’d like to.

I briefly consider Mike – Lady Michaela – for I empathised in a most heartfelt manner with her desire to live unshackled by the constraints and expectations of her family.

But in truth, that was all we had in common – for Mike’s assured demeanour, coming as it does from being a member of the landed gentry, is not something I recognise in myself. Looking at her with my NLP hat on, it’s a behaviour I’d be tempted to model. So, not Mike either – even though there’s aspects I’d clearly like to.


Though she was initially planned to be somewhat of a throwaway character, Juliet clung on with determination to become a key part of the cast. And I find it is with Juliet where I feel the greatest sense of affinity.

Juliet is a bit of an oddity when first we meet her. She’s the only female apprentice at Lady Michaela’s Manufactorium, doubtless unhappy at standing out yet further by being notoriously accident prone. Initially believed to be clumsiness, it later transpires that it’s her extremely volatile emotions bubbling over which are the problem.

Although Juliet’s physical appearance is that of a women in her late teens/early twenties, there’s aspects of typically teenage years in her behaviour. I have a visceral recall of that flip-flop between apparent maturity and overwhelming emotion, and the struggle to control which would manifest when. While not especially accident prone myself, I didn’t have the physical grace of female members of my family, despite being lighter and leaner. I remember feeling aggrieved at having gained such a reputation for something which was entirely outside of my control – I’m not entirely sure how much I sense the same in Juliet and how much I’m projecting.

Jack brings Juliet to Michaela’s Manufactorium, not only to give Juliet somewhere safe to live and learn a trade, but to provide her with someone to look up to, someone to learn from -a role model who could help her to formulate the life she might want to lead. While Juliet is an orphan and I am not, I strongly felt that absence of an that type of role model growing up. I knew the future life expected of me (one of marriage and babies) was not for me, but I knew no-one who demonstrated any recognisable alternatives nor – and as important – the path to finding one.

As someone born and brought up in the third world, I’ve always felt an outsider in my “home” country of the UK. And yet I was an outsider in the places where I felt at home. I have now reconciled myself to those feelings and while they remain, they don’t have the alienating power they once did. That sense of not belonging is strong in Juliet – the reason for which is mentioned briefly in November Deadline, but will be developed in later books.

With hindsight, I’m not sure which – if any – of these aspects were my contributions to the creation of Juliet. So, it wasn’t that I put myself into the story, as is commonly the way with writers. Rather that I recognise aspects of myself in her in the same way that I recognise those aspects of myself in the characters of books where I am simply the reader.


© Debra Carey, 2022

The Appeal: A #secondthoughts book review

The Archers – ‘an everyday tale of country folk’ – first hit the radio waves on the 1st of January, 1951 (displacing Dick Barton – don’t get me started…about the only thing the two shows have in common is iconic theme tunes). In part, the show was developed as a way of getting Government information on best practice in farming out to the nation, but it was also important that the programme be entertaining. In both ambitions the show has been successful, as evidenced by the fact that the Archers is still going 60 years later, having racked up more than 19,500 episodes. The Archers is set in farming country: although not everyone in the show is a farmer, many of the characters are, and many more are dependent on the farms that surround the fictional village of Ambridge.

Why do I mention this? Well, I’ve just been reading ‘The Appeal’ by Janice Hallett, and the community at the heart of the book is reminiscent of the Archers. Here though, the focus is an amateur dramatics group although, as with the Archers, there is a distinct social hierarchy. The founders of the Fairway Players are labelled as the alpha family and social importance is defined by closeness to this family. They are very much in control of the group, and whilst there are open rehearsals for every play (essentially selected by the founders), it is a foregone conclusion that the matriarch of the alpha family will be the leading lady.

The cover states that there is one murder and 15 suspects, and invites the reader to work out whodunit. So far so good. The conceit here is that a QC* has instructed two of his pupils** to review documentation in preparation for an appeal on behalf of his client. He’s convinced his client is innocent (naturally), but wants fresh eyes to see if they can see what he can, or whether he’s seeing things that he wants to… Hence, the book unfolds as a series of recovered emails and text messages from some, but not all, of the people at the heart of the events. It is punctuated by WhatsApp conversations between the two pupils, and later on the QC joins in too. (This is played for comic effect with the obviously otherwise very capable QC struggling with the tech, and frequently having to dictate to his secretary what he wants to message to his pupils).

*For those unfamiliar with the British legal system, a QC = Queen’s Council, a senior lawyer, with certain privileges in a Court of Law. That’s the short version, anyway.

**Lawyer speak for a person who is in the last stage of qualifying to become a barrister.

This, then, in many ways, is an update on the classic Dorothy L. Sayers book ‘The Documents in the case’ – although this is not one that I’ve read, so I can’t draw any further comparisons, at the moment.

The Appeal has had some good PR and I freely admit that I picked it up based on the advertising – and the strap-line; the whole ‘story told through emails’ thing passed me by though.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes their mysteries. Is it perfect? No. It’s a brilliant subversion of the form, but there are some niggles. The emails provided are from a relatively small pool of the characters – by no means are the full 15 suspects represented. That’s not necessarily a problem but there are some notable absences, and my feeling is this is simply to hide some of the characters from our view. It’s been suggested that Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction have become outdated; this may to some extent be true, even whilst these rules underpin pretty much all of the Golden Age Detective books. Still, the fundamental ethos here is playing fair with the reader, and I’m not sure that is really the case here – I could make some good guesses about the events, as they unfolded, but I felt that there was some information missing, not just that I’d been diverted away from what I needed to know.

There are very few sympathetic characters in the book, and arguably even the victim is not entirely likeable, although we don’t really get a good feel for them. When it came to the culprits, I would have been happy enough for most of the cast to go to jail…

In summary, if you’re looking for a sweet little old lady solving a crime in a country house, you will be disappointed. But if you’d like to something that’s a bit different, then this is definitely the book for you. The detective(s) are not the focus here, but rather a community of, perhaps not quite everyday country folk, but you might recognise some of your neighbours…and the dark underbelly is very much brought out into the light…


© 2022, David Jesson