The Secrets We Keep

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THE SECRETS WE KEEP

BY JONATHAN HARVEY

Jonathan Harvey is a comedy writer who to date has written more than one hundred episodes of Coronation Street. Kathy Burke recently recommended “The Secrets We Keep” on Twitter. I love Corrie and I love Kathy Burke and that is how I ended up with Harvey’s fourth novel in my hands.

This is the story of Danny Bioletti, his wife Natalie and their children Owen and Cally. Five years ago Danny went out for a pint of milk and never came back. His devastated family were left to pick up the pieces living in the glare of the media on a posh new estate with over-friendly, nosey neighbours. After his disappearance Danny’s car was found at Beachy Head and so is presumed by all to have taken his life. But when the family find a left luggage ticket in the pocket of one of his old coats, Natalie starts to wonder if he is actually still alive and if he is, where could he be? She begins her own whirlwind of investigations and needless to say, she doesn’t like all that she finds.

The plot is superb, expertly interweaving the central characters with each other’s backstories, one discovered secret leading to another. There’s booming nightclubs, child abuse, teenage modelling, gay relationships, alcoholism, rags to riches and back again. Their stories come to life through Harvey taking on the distinctive voices of each of the four characters for their own chapters full of hoarded secrets, making this a really good read full of unexpected twists and turns. Continue reading

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Process: the writing lives of great authors

PROCESS: THE WRITING LIVES OF GREAT AUTHORS

BY SARAH STODOLA

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I love reading about the routines and working lives of artists and writers. It’s fascinating to discover what ignites their inspirations and equally what hinders their progress. As such this book promised to be the perfect read for me.

Combining author biography with entertaining details about their writing habits, Stodola introduces us to the working person behind the famous name. The person who has devoted thousands of hours or dozens of years to researching, creating, avoiding, thinking, procrastinating and eventually writing the works that readers like us hugely admire. Her portraits of these writers at work allow us to appreciate the huge effort and often bizarre practices that propel these great minds forward to write at all costs.

A writer’s setting

Stodola’s portraits of these great writers adapting to their circumstances and working with what they have are intriguing. Franz Kafka waited until all other members of the household were asleep before he attempted to write. As a single parent, Toni Morrison chose writing over a social life to enable her to get her work written, admitting; “I don’t do any of the so-called fun things in life.” Vladimir Nabokov had an unpredictable schedule whereby he had to fit his writing around his lecturing and tennis coaching jobs. Finances meant this was the case well into his late 60s. He wrote anywhere and everywhere (sometimes even in the bath!) and often wrote on index cards finding them perfect for reorganising his plot without extensive rewrites. George Orwell was not a writer prone to invention and instead used real life experiences and work in the field – even posing as a tramp so that he could write about poverty free from the expected clichés. Following the wealth and renown that came with Animal Farm, he retreated to a Scottish island so that there he could recreate the “stark, impoverished, melancholic” conditions that he needed to write 1984.

The process

On writing itself, George Orwell wrote unceasingly despite calling the process “a horrible exhausting struggle.” David Foster Wallace is described by Stodola with “perhaps no great writer has ever been so effusive about his writer’s block.” Something that Richard Price struggled with too; “the only thing worse than writing is not writing.” He started with no plot in mind and “just goes along with something he’s interested in” saying; “the actual story can be an after-thought.” Salman Rushdie famously wrote five books during his decade in hiding. “I’ve learned I need to give it the first energy of the day, so before I read the newspaper, before I open the mail, before I phone anyone, often before I shower, I sit in my pajamas at the desk.” He then writes for four hours after which time he finds that his output “becomes mush.” Continue reading

Reasons to stay alive

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REASONS TO STAY ALIVE BY MATT HAIG

This is such an important book. If you have depression, anxieties or other mental illnesses, I cannot recommend this book highly enough to you. Buy it and read it now. It might just save your life.

Aged 24, Matt Haig found himself stood on the edge of a cliff about to jump. He could see no way to go on living. Reasons To Stay Alive is the story of how he came through the depression that got him to that point and overcame an illness that almost destroyed him. In this part-memoir, part self-help book, he shares with us the reasons he found to not just stay alive but really learn to live again.

Mercifully, there are no trite inspirational quotes or meaningless platitudes here. This book is true and the advice he proffers on how to live better, love better and feel more alive is honest, helpful and real.

Depression

I have suffered from depression on and off for most of my adult life. This year I have been experiencing particularly bad episodes of it. So it was with great fortune that I looked up Matt Haig on Twitter recently to see if he was writing a follow up to his excellent novel The Humans, only to discover he had just published Reasons To Stay Alive. I bought it and began to read it immediately. It came at a really vital time in my life.

REASONS smaller than you

Haig has written this book to lessen the stigma that still exists around depression (unlike any physical illness) and to try to convince people “that the bottom of the valley never provides the clearest view.” He perfectly describes depression as “like walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames.” “Depression,” he says “reveals what is normally hidden. It unravels you, and everything you have ever known.” Indeed his list of symptoms are frightening and show this debilitating illness in all its infinite darkness. Continue reading

Mrs Hemingway

MRS HEMINGWAY

BY NAOMI WOOD

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This was a vivid and engrossing work of imagination based on the tremendous stories of Ernest Hemingway and his four wives. Beautifully written and researched and full of gossipy details, I just could not put this book down. The locations are dazzling – jazz age Paris, post-war Cuba, 1930s Florida – as are the characters that inhabited those places and times.

Hadley was the first Mrs Hemingway who loses the great writer to Vogue reporter Fife “over a year in Paris in which his wife slowly bowed out.” But neither of them are the last Mrs Hemingway – they are followed by war reporter Martha Gellhorn and finally his widow, Mary Welsh.

In his memoir A Moveable Feast Hem writes of Hadley; “I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” And despite the three wives he loved passionately after, Hadley did seem the truest of his loves. More than an infatuation, or another writer or an editor or partying playmate.

“What a pull he has! What a magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars,” says Fife in this novel. Certainly, I would say she had Ernest’s best years and fought the hardest to keep him. It’s a gorgeous line that Wood writes to show how Fife’s passion for Ernest felt like the tangy green olive she eats “she wants to have him all the way down to the stone.” Continue reading

Tears and joy from classic comedy genius

THE SECOND LIFE OF SALLY MOTTRAM BY DAVID NOBBS

This is a lovely, funny, touching novel by the comic genius that brought us Reggie Perrin – David Nobbs. It’s the story of Sally Mottram, an ordinary resident of Potherthwaite, a small fictional Pennine town. A town, like so many now, in a dreadful rut of abandoned buildings and closing businesses. Sally feels strongly that something has to be done to turn around the town’s fortunes but what? and by whom?

A shocking tragedy breaks up this nice little tale of a one-woman crusade quite early on. Something happens that is so devastating that it threatens to shatter Sally’s whole existence. But indeed it is this incident that sparks her into action as she embarks on a mission to bring Potherthwaite back to life, rallying the whole community to save itself.

At times the plot appears to be straying into ITV Monday night drama territory but Nobbs didn’t get where he is today by succumbing to neat, twee, happy endings. Instead, we find amongst the tea rooms and allotments tales of suicide, obesity, guilt and jealousy all smothered in a heavy dollop of ‘keeping up appearances’ small town paranoia. Continue reading

Perfectly English but lacking intrigue

THE GRANTCHESTER MYSTERIES: SIDNEY CHAMBERS & THE PERIL OF THE NIGHT

BY JAMES RUNCIE
Grantchester starts as a new series on ITV soon. I kept hearing about these detective stories and decided to investigate further. The results were disappointing and twee-er than Midsomer Murders and Doc Martin put together.

Canon Sidney Chambers is a young loveable priest and part time amateur sleuth. In this book, the second in the series, he is called upon to investigate the death of a Cambridge don who falls from the chapel roof, an arson, a poisoning at a cricket match and a web of spies. He also has to make up his mind on a trip to Berlin whether he is actually ready to marry the charming German widow.

Set in post-war Cambridge, this is light, fluffy and nice enough. The setting is all cricket on the green, meat paste sandwiches, lardy cake and trusty Labradors. Perfectly English and pitched well, it is a welcome step back in time but could do with a lot more guts, pace and intrigue for me.

SOUTHSEA BOOKWORM RATING: 5.5/10

Notes on the author – James Runcie

  • Head of Literature at the Southbank Centre
  • Award winning film maker and author of 6 novels
  • Lives in London and Edinburgh

 

A roaring summer to remember

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ONE SUMMER:  AMERICA 1927  BY BILL BRYSON

If all teachers made history as enjoyable as bestselling author Bill Bryson does here, we’d all be A+ students in the subject. In his latest fascinating book, Bryson takes us back to the hugely eventful summer of 1927 in the US. It is a thoroughly enjoyable and gripping read. So many characters and stories from just a few hot months of one year impacted on almost everything to come and ushered in the modern world we now live in.

MAY saw unprecedented nationwide interest in a sensational murder trial dubbed “the crime of the century” and the Mississippi River flooded during great storms leaving an area almost the size of Scotland underwater. Terribly, a closer count was made of livestock deaths than those of the poor (and often black) humans that perished. It was America’s most epic disaster yet, in a month when the stock market boomed and prohibition was failing badly.

Young, handsome aviator Charles Lindbergh captured the hearts of the nation and beyond when he took 33 hours to fly across the Atlantic to Paris. Safely landed, he received a heroes welcome as he would everywhere he went for years to come. Hospitals, parks and children were named after him as was a song called “Lucky Lindy” which went on to spawn the Lindy-Hop dance craze.

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In JUNE arguably the first celebrity shot to fame – baseball player Babe Ruth. Rising from a difficult background to become the charismatic undisputed star of Major League baseball. 1927 was “a year that no one who knew baseball would ever forget'” writes Bryson.

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In other news radio was the wonder of the age, New York overtook London as the world’s largest city and prohibition continued to be farcical and inept. “It made criminals of honest people and actually led to an increase in the amount of drinking in the country,” notes our author. The government even poisoned liquor – some reports claiming this act killed as many as 11,000 people in 1927 alone – all dying in agony just for having a drink!

Continue reading