A challenging reading list


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A challenging reading list. It’s aimed at school students, but would do us all good if it widened our reading horizons. I found it attached to a tweet from King’s School in Worcester (@KSWLibrary), setting out what pupils (and staff!) are to read by February 2017 if they are to win a gold, silver or bronze award (if they want to podium, in fact). The tweet is dated 22 July if you want to hunt it down. The initiative is part of the BBC Year of Reading.

To win an award you should read:

  1. A book shortlisted for a major award in 2015/16
  2. A biography or autobiography
  3. A book from a genre you have not yet tried
  4. A book you’ve been meaning to read
  5. A book recommended by a teacher
  6. A book chosen for you by a friend
  7. A book published before you were born
  8. A book in a foreign language or translated from a foreign language
  9. A literary classic
  10. A book by a Midlands author
  11. A book set in a foreign country
  12. A book that will challenge you

I wonder if you’re allowed to double up. For example, I’ve just read David Lodge’s comic novel The British Museum is Falling Down. Would that allow me to tick off both A Midlands Author and A Friend’s Recommendation (if my sister is allowed to be a friend)? Before that I’d read Rambling On by Bohumil Hrabal (see https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2016/08/05/rambling-on/) which would let me tick the Translated box and also the Set in a Foreign Country box.   I imagine that, if we’re honest, many of us have Literary Classics in our Books I’ve Been Meaning to Read category. So, if I do get round to Daniel Deronda or Silas Marner, I could tick two more boxes. No, three, because they were Published Before I Was Born.

This is getting too complicated. And I suspect the judges at the school would frown on all this sleight of hand. So it’s back to Death on the Cherwell.

Well done the school (and the BBC) – let’s hope it works.

What are your Meaning to Read books?

Going for Gold – or maybe for the Bridport…


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Three human figure on podium - digital artwork

It’s said that the average British athlete will have trained for six hours a day, for six days a week, for twelve months.

Could this dedication be applied to our writing? Obviously lesser mortals have to factor in jobs, families, trips to the supermarket, walking the dog and finding time to watch University Challenge. Writing also requires different disciplines, although the astute Dorothy Parker considered it to be simply ‘the art of applying the ass to the seat’.

Maybe there are lessons to be learned from the magnificent Team GB about persistence. What couldn’t I achieve if I determined to write even for one single hour a day, for six days a week for twelve months?



To medal or to podium?


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Every four years we have to get used to two new verbs: to medal and to podium. Those of us who feel we disapprove (even if we’re not sure why) can comfort ourselves with the thoughts that (a) they are used, and it’s usage that counts in English, and (b) they only seem to be in use when the Olympics come round.

But as they are verbs, how are we to we spell their different verbal forms?

‘Medal’ is easy. We can look at ‘pedal’, and using its forms we can get to

  • He, she or it medals (What kind of Olympian qualifies as ‘it’? Best scrub that.)
  • We are medalling
  • You medalled.

These sound right, and they look right.


But how do we conjugate ‘podium’?

  • He or she podiums: fine.
  • But are we podiuming, or podiumming?
  • Have you podiumed, or podiummed?

‘Podiumed’ looks as if it ought to be pronounced poh-dee-oomed, and ‘podiuming’ as poh-dee-oo-ming. But the double ‘m’ in ‘podiummed’ and ‘podiumming’ looks bizarre.

Is there a word in use we can copy, like ‘pedal’ for ‘medal’? How about ‘drum’? That would take us back to ‘podiumming’ and ‘podiummed’. Which get worse every time I look at them.


One answer is: Fortunately these are synonyms, so if you really have to write one of these sporting neologisms, use ‘medal’.  Only use ‘podium’ in speech ….

Read the Winning Entry in the Good Housekeeping 2016 Novel Competition


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I’ve just learned that the current edition of Good Housekeeping Magazine contains the opening of Margaret Morton Kirk‘s winning entry, Shadow Man, a gritty Scottish crime novel. Margaret has won a publishing contract with Orion worth £10,000 and will now be represented by Luigi Bonomi of LBA.

The first runner-up, who won an Acer Switch laptop, was Giovanna Iozzi, who impressed the judges with a domestic noir thriller, Black Worms.

Both books could well be gracing our bookshelves in the not-too-distant future and prove that entering competitions can make that all-important difference. If nothing else, they really help your productivity: pushing for the competition deadline had me churning out over a thousand words a day at one point, which wasn’t a bad consolation prize.

Well done to these two talented ladies, and to all those who made it onto the short list! Good Housekeeping Magazine is on sale now.

‘Shadows of Ladenbrooke Manor’


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In the posting in April https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/2000-words-a-day/ I told of my chance meeting with the author Melanie Dobson and what I had learned of her writing discipline. I’ve now had a chance to read one of her books, Shadows of Ladenbrooke Manor.   As you can see from Melanie’s website (http://melaniedobson.com/books/shadows-of-ladenbrooke-manor/) it’s a romantic historical mystery.

It opens dramatically in 1954 with a great storm in the Bristol Channel, that smashes into the town of Clevedon and sweeps young Maggie out to sea. She is pregnant by a handsome French seaman who has promised to return, but hasn’t. She feels that drowning might be the answer – but she is rescued by dependable local journalist Walter Doyle.

It is difficult to summarise the storyline without giving away too much. It’s a story of generations and of patterns that recur down the generations – patterns like forbidden love. The story of Maggie and Walter and their family in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s alternates with happenings in the present day, as Heather Toulson arrives from America to sort out her late father’s cottage. This is in the Cotswold village of Bibury, next to Ladenbrooke Manor. The Manor belongs to the Croft family, but has been deserted by them since the mysterious death in 1970 of Lord Croft’s heir Oliver, found dead in the River Coln.   Heather finds herself seeking out the truth about his death, and she also has shadows from her own past to cope with.


At first I had thought this type of story wasn’t really for me. But as I read it I found that I cared for the characters and I wanted to know what happened to them. This is especially true of Libby, Maggie’s daughter, a girl who grows up wholly absorbed in her own world, a world of colour and pictures, and who is never happier than when she is roaming the gardens of Ladenbrooke Manor, dancing with her friends the butterflies. Her portrayal, and that of her parents’ concerns for her and the problems she faces and causes, is beautiful and moving. I also came to admire the portrait of Walter Doyle, whose roles of husband and father are under unwanted strain.

The stories are cleverly interleaved, and the appearance and reappearance of secondary characters in the different stories shows careful plotting. I liked it. The author’s demanding writing discipline paid off!

The book is published in the US by Simon & Shuster. I’m not sure that Melanie Dobson’s books are published in Britain, but they are available on Amazon. ISBN 978-1-4767-4614-2

Not Quite the Bridport…


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We’d all love to get an email from the Bridport people saying we’ve been awarded one of their prestigious prizes – but don’t forget that there are plenty of other competitions out there worth aiming for.

Christopher Fielden‘s idiosyncratic short story competition To Hull & Back closed at the end of July and he’s recently announced that he received 284 entries. The Bridport competitions receive thousands. Think about those odds. Far, far better than the lottery or those Premium Bonds you were given by Great Aunt Violet for your eighteenth birthday.

Chris offers a top prize of £1,000, a second prize of £200, and a third prize of £100. On top of that (generous guy), he awards 3x£50 for highly commended stories and 14x£25 for shortlisted stories.

What’s not to like? That makes twenty monetary prizes on offer, PLUS the warm glow for each of those entrants of knowing that Chris really liked their writing.

To Hull & Back 2017 is now open, with a discount for early entry. Worth some serious thought, surely?

Rambling on


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Our creative writing tutor impressed on us the need for short stories to be taut, carefully structured affairs. All repetition was to be cut out, they should start right in the middle of the action, there was to be no unnecessary detail, we should set the scene by showing rather than telling wherever possible. Now I expect short stories to be around 2000 words long, quick and to the point, unrepetitive, with only key details, and a clever twist at the end, and I try to write them like that myself.

So I was wholly unprepared for the book of 19 short stories I’ve just read by Bohumil Hrabal (translated from the Czech).   I’d not read any Hrabal before. The title should have given me a clue: Rambling on: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab. Sometimes little happens, the narrators ramble, on and on, in sentences that often go on for pages, with multiple bizarre images and adjectives tumbling over each other. They add up to a glorious depiction of life in the 1970s in the village of Kersko, in a forest in what is now the Czech Republic. Basically they often seem to be about men going to the pub! An array of eccentrics are lovingly described, along with country rituals such as those surrounding the killing of a pig.


Hrabal wrote these stories around 1975 but they weren’t published in that form until after 1989, because some of the stories were suppressed or altered on the instructions of the Communist censors. Why they found some of these tales offensive is often hard to understand today: the portrait of a policeman might be off limits (he is inordinately proud of his medals, and so punctilious in his job that he loiters off-duty in the woods at night to nab drivers leaving the pub, including his own son), but why forbid a story of a man’s pursuit by bike of a woman who is very much taken with his coiffure, which he has carefully nurtured to resemble that of a famous Slovak footballer of the day?

We read of a hoarder of useless ‘bargains’, who gets the narrator’s help in cutting up a sheep. Another story is a hymn to the beauty of apple blossom, and a surreal account of a farmer’s unsuccessful attempts to stop his ram impregnating his ewes. A third tells of a grossly fat man who lies down to weed his garden and who talks endlessly about ‘fining’ (or ageing) salami, but he is so greedy that he always eats the salami before it has hung for the requisite time. A fourth is about a self-appointed expert and organiser who appears at every village festivity and he insists on helping villagers in whatever they do but, unfortunately, his advice is usually wrong.

My favourite is a wonderful story of a feast shared by rival hunting clubs. They have quarrelled over who should have a celebratory feast, to eat a boar that fled from the territory of one group to be shot on the other’s (in a school, in front of the children), and so have a joint banquet. The details of the chase and of the feast are gleefully related, along with arguments over the menu and practical jokes played during the meal, which at one time has a dangerous stand-off with both sides pointing guns at each other.

The last two stories become increasingly surreal, stream of consciousness monologues in which I admired the vividness of the writing even though I didn’t know what was going on …

My translation was published in 2014, by Charles University in Prague. It has several colour illustrations by Jiři Grus. There is an Afterword by the editor, Václav Kadlec, which gives helpful background. There’s also a Translator’s Note by David Short, formerly of the School for Slavonic & East European Studies, in which he speaks of the peculiar difficulties that abound in translating the rambling style of these stories, and how he set about overcoming them. Successfully, in my book!

ISBN 978-80-246-2316-0


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