Keeping up to date

It’s hard not to get bogged down in recent history in contemporary fiction

How do you write in the contemporary space? I have been struggling of late. The huge seismic shift of all-consuming Brexit, the Olympics which unexpectedly filled Brits with optimism, the knock on effects of years of recession and austerity. The impossible thought of presidencies and premierships that could never happen…but did. These things swirl round in the back of the world I write in. And then there is now. Pandemic times

In my mind there are now clear before times. I thought I felt this about the Brexit vote but now I know that was nothing. There is a before. Maybe there will be an after. Landscapes are shifting and changing around us. And I feel there is also great movements in politics which are shaping our world. Too much to write about.

So if you write in the contemporary space you have to take great leaps of faith. Get specific enough about setting and know it well enough that it rings true to that backdrop of the world’s rapidly changing climate. (And climate change too, how can that not be in our narratives).

In 2018 I was lucky enough to listen to Salman Rushdie’s talk “From Midnight’s Children to Trump’s America” at the Southbank Centre. This article reminds me of what he said about writing in the near present,

‘The thing that is weirdest about this book is that, when I started writing it, no one was thinking about Trump. […] When the phenomenon on Trump started, I realised that I had a character who was a corrupt billionaire, […] who liked to have his name very big on buildings and had a much younger Eastern European trophy wife. I thought – what? It’s as if the thing had jumped off the pages from my book into the real world.’

Salman Rushdie

I have been reading Rushdie’s The Golden House this week and thinking about the rifts in America that it addresses, and over here, and everywhere of course. It is a hard novel for me to read, a character with Aspergers is explored but through quite a negative lens which jars with my outlook on neurodiversity. But then, as we become entwined in the Golden family, no-one is particularly likeable. An unreliable narrator on the fringes of their life, it is hardly surprising that Rene, the auteur, does not paint any of the family in a positive light. So far, it is a fascinating depiction of money and power. And yes prescient too.

N-W by Zadie Smith

Alongside this, I have been reading N-W by Zadie Smith , circling around the lives of various people in Northwest London. It is a challenging read, much like I wrote about Girl, Woman, Other it seems almost like a series of vignettes, where you snap away from characters you have invested in to see others around them and many voices and styles of narrative are used. The intention seems to be to offer a “polyphonic” world that reflects the nature of urban life.

The novels tell the series of stories of very different people. (As I found White Teeth when I was studying Rushdie I have always paired these novelists in my head! ) I feel these two urban sagas, though very different, have been playing through my mind that there is a choice to lean in to the politics of the place. The writing then that seems to “jump off the page” into real life, in fact gives us a place to explore and appreciate the fault lines in the worlds they write about.

It’s been fascinating to spend a few months within the space of urban and contemporary fiction although on my reading list now are some fantasy and historical works to balance it all out. After all my current work-in-progress is about escaping to the countryside.

While I ponder which era I best like to read in, I wonder most how this year will end up being written?

A new reading list

I haven’t posted here for a while but I have been reading, trying to educate myself

I am so saddened by George Floyd’s murder. And Breonna Taylor’s. And so many more. I have been learning too so much more about the problems faced in the UK.

I have watched the news, listened to many people talking about these deep-rooted issues and seen some remarkable activism as part of a larger conversation. I haven’t felt safe enough to protest. so I have tried to think of other ways to engage. I have really taken the chance to think about what the Black Lives Matter conversation means in the UK.

Being me, this has meant reading of course. These are all books that have soared up the Amazon charts. I am clearly not the only one trying to support more black authors. By adding these powerful voices to my life I hope to understand and learn more.

Read this month

Queenie by Candice Carty – Williams

This book had been on my list for a while. It discusses in a joyful way really what it is to date in the modern world. But particularly for Queenie, a woman of Carribean descent, the way her body and black life is understood by others and herself. She is a witty and fascinating character and you really root for her as she tries to navigate the pitfalls in her life. But underlying all the problem she comes across in work and dating life is a darker and political edge that has an important message. Ultimately an uplifting book with a powerful message.

Why I stopped talking to white people about Race by Reno Eddo-Lodge

An essential guide in the move towards becoming Anti-Racist. I have learnt so much more about others experience over this last month and this well written report on where we are has helped. It feels important. It includes a sweep of history that is oft ignored and shared insights into the systematic inqualities of now. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but this feels like a necessary part of the conversation.

Reading now

Girl, woman, other by Bernadine Evaristo

Another one that has been on my list for a while, last year’s Booker Prize winner does not disappoint. I am part way through and fascinated by the women I have met so far. A series of vignettes about different women’s lives it speaks to many different aspects of British culture and exploring black lives from different backgrounds and perspectives. It discusses race, political difference, and womanhood in a lively and thoughtful way.

And Next

N-w by Zadie Smith

White Teeth is probably one of my favourite novels in modern times but I haven’t read any of her work for a while so this book, about to be adapted to a BBC Drama seemed like an essential read.

If anyone else has reading suggestions, I would love to hear them.

REVIEW: Home Truths by Tina Seskis

A strong marriage can cope with the unexpected. But can it survive the unimaginable? A great thriller from the plot-twist queen

Home Truths by Tina Seskis

This novel follows the lives of two separate families over many years. As we start, Eleanor has arrived from America in pursuit of a romantic affair with a Londoner but she is soon alone and trying to make a way for herself in a new city. The other couple Paul and Christie are trying to settle into happy family together. The mystery around secrets they have held from each other drive the novel. We constantly switch between each persons point of view. Part way through, an unnamed voice appears. Someone is in prison for crimes they’ve committed but we do not know who or which of our protagonists is involved.

These mysteries hooked me just as much as One Step Too Far, Tina Seskis’ previous novel. She has been called the “Queen of the Plot Twist”and I found this a compelling read over one weekend. I particularly felt like we got to know Eleanor and I appreciated seeing how she changed as the decades passed.

At times I was frustrated by the pace and with Christie’s storyline, I felt we missed something with jumping forward in time. We learn later what happens in early motherhood. I would happily have spent more time with Christie at this time in her life. I understood that the twists of plot were driving us forward but I would have enjoyed knowing more about difficulties she faces from her perspective.


This novel is perfect for the rainy weekends we have been having or if you have to self-isolate (washes hands). I ignored my family for most of the weekend to finish it as soon as possible. Great for fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl with the British realness of Laura Pearson’s novels like Missing Pieces.

Battle on

When all else fails, battle on. A bad day? A bad month? Or all merged into a steaming heap that you cannot divide up into good or bad, just a pile that’s been dumped right on top of you. Then you battle on.

The battle pales into insignificance to other wars being fought elsewhere, I know that, but still, here in my life, this is a fight. A fight for my son and his needs to be heard. A fight too for keeping my head above water, juggling my responsibilities with the extra workload of paperwork. And of course it’s not just the actual paperwork but the emotional load of it all.

I learnt back in November when we were going through the EHCP draft stage that the emotional toll took a lot out of me. The process should be over by now but they have not listened so we are waiting to mediate. Up and down the country families are going through this stage or taking the Local Authority to court. And why? There is not enough money nor enough places to meet the needs of our children. There’s a full on #SENDcrisis. Meanwhile newspapers are reporting that schools are taking “your” children’s funding to plug the gap. This discriminatory writing where we are set up them vs. us is so toxic and the fight feels so much bigger than just our family.

All of this does not make a great creative space. Knowing how tough the end of last year was, I have been more prepared to take it easy on myself. Instead I have been escaping to baths and books. And some read some amazing writing this month.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is such a brilliant novel. Recounting the tale of the end of slavery and the pseudo-science of eugenics, the full horrors that Frannie experiences unravel through the tale she tells. We learn how she ends up in prison, her life in the hands of a system always going to beat her down. It is a compelling novel and I loved that we really get to hear her voice.

Inspired by the prison setting, I started Alias Grace this weekend. Another fascinating novel that reads too as a murder mystery.  So far I am loving it. Shame my son just took my bookmark out!

Obviously there are many ways in we can distract ourselves from our real life problems. But for me, a book will always be the best place to escape.

Keeping Up with the Housewives

I have read less this month so far. I know why, I have had a resurgence of my obsession with the Real Housewives franchises. I laugh at my husband a lot because he enjoys watching Coronation Street. He doesn’t just let him wash over him, as I do with a lot of TV. He does this thing where when I go and watch casually over dinner, he stops and starts the recording to tell me what’s going on. I find it infuriating! We can never sit down together til late and I worry I will quickly run out of my precious evening. As a result, I have been ignoring his soaps and putting Housewives on my laptop.

He also laughs at my tv taste, don’t worry! Whether I am in Cheshire, New York or Beverley Hills I get hooked on the drama, at this point I have “known” some of the women for nearly a decade. Apart from asking what I have been doing with my life when I realise this, I have also been thinking how all this unscripted drama can help my writing too. (In no way trying to justify this to myself)

1.Gatherings are good How many parties do these people have? In recent days I have been thinking about a scene where there is a dinner party that goes wrong. Well no-one seems to be able to have a dinner party in the Housewives lives without getting up and shouting at their friend across the way. Or, I don’t know, letting their dog drink out of the crystal glass.

Gathering people face to face works very well is the visual media. Confrontation is direct across a table. But also can lead to spiky conversations. Dinner parties and drawing rooms are classic settings for drama in fiction too. Even if Miss Bingley’s insults sound more classy.

“Miss Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, “despises cards. She is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else.”

” I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,” cried Elizabeth; “I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.”

If you actually want a formal dinner party there’s a great article about the etiquette here.

2. Confrontation is crucial It’s almost as if the producers know to record the dramatic conversations because I don’t think the drama is that heated between friends usually. There may be upsets in real life, but what these women do so well is use lots of direct speech. They talk behind each others backs of course, but at some point they have to come head to head with the person they have fallen out with. This leads to people speaking directly. At each point that we come back to the characters in the Housewives or in fiction, we are seeing a crucial snapshot. Any speech we write also has to be direct, a sound bite almost.

3. Master Manipulation There is always somebody who gets accused of being a master of manipulation. I am not saying which side of Puppygate I really stand on, but if you watched season five of RHOBH, you know that LVP has been accused of manipulating the media before. For the purposes of novel writing, I am finding more that the author has to be the manipulator. Certainly if you want to surprise or confound your reader, drip feeding relevant back story, holding out on details it’s all a game of manipulation. And there certainly seems to be experts in this field to watch on the Housewives.

4. All Female is OK It’s interesting to think that amongst all the female-on-female aggression shown on these shows, they are at the heart vehicles for empowerment. For example they do often discuss other things than their love lives and would probably pass the Bechdel Test many times in an episode. Most of them have some sort of business. The longest serving Housewives are figures like Bethenny Frankel and Dawn Ward, powerful business women and these seem to be characters we are most drawn to. It’s a wonder then that fiction seems to still want to put love stories so central, when other parts of women’s lives can be so interesting.

5. Escapism is Essential I love the Housewives for all the reasons you are supposed to, I love being nosey about the houses, the clothes, the swanky holidays. It’s a sheer escape. At times I gawp at the price tags, but it’s so far removed my reality, I forget to care their housewarming gifts cost the same as my month’s rent. I think if it’s important to remember anything from the fluff, it’s that most of us read to escape reality. Even if you are writing a dark, gritty thriller or a sharp political commentary, there is a place we go away from ourselves when we read.

I hadn’t seen this quote before but it makes what I am writing sound much more profound. More great book quotes here.

If you love some posh escapism , then you’ll like these suggestions too:

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