Sunday, 22 January 2012

How do you decide what to read next?

The picture above was taken in January 2011. It’s of (most of) the unread books I owned then. I’ve read solidly since, but weirdly the shelves’ contents haven’t diminished. And now I have my Kindle too, which holds a further 20 or so novels as well as numerous short stories and ‘tasters’.
Every month I buy and immediately read the Berwick Book Group choice. Then I’m on my own, faced with the impossible task of deciding what book’s next. On some occasions I’ve resorted to closing my eyes and sticking a hand out blindly to grasp one. Other times I choose work by a particular author who may be new to me and I’m going to see him or her soon at a book festival.
So why on earth have I signed up to do the Eclectic Reader Challenge? To read a dozen books this year in 11 different genres?
About 98% of my TBR books are in my favourite reading genre: crime fiction. Which is also the genre I hope to be published in (so all that reading’s research, right?) However, when I read Pete Denton’s blog about the Eclectic Reader Challenge I couldn’t resist the idea of being forced out of my comfort zone, but in a structured way. So here are the genres I have to read in and the books I've chosen so far:


The Murder Wall (Mari Hannah)


Deathwatch (Nicola Morgan)
A Game of Thrones (George RR Martin)
Science Fiction
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (Philip K Dick)



Great Expectations (Dickens)
My favourite genre

I’m pretty sure I can rely on my book group to furnish me with a book that fits into the ‘literary fiction’ category later in the year. My other choices will be made arbitrarily, as I happen upon writers and books which sound interesting but in the past I would have been deterred from getting by my heaving TBR shelves.
So what if I still have 100+ books left unread this time next year? As my Mum says, ‘They don’t eat anything’.
Do you have trouble choosing the next book to read off your bookshelf? Or are you one of those really organised people who only buy books when they need them? I'd love to know!

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Why do you never see Andy Murray smile?

I came to Scotland 20 years ago, having gradually moved northwards since leaving Dorset for London at the age of 18. Now married to a Scotsman, I’ve learnt there are two things not to discuss with him or his fellow countrymen over the dinner table: the film Braveheart and Scottish independence. And if I’m unwise enough to break this rule, I have to preface everything I say with ‘I know I’m English but . . .’

Those of you who live in the UK will probably be aware now of the stushie (row) brewing between the Westminster government and the SNP over the Scottish independence referendum. I’m not going to discuss the politics of it, although if you follow me on Twitter you may have detected a slight antipathy towards Alex Salmond, the SNP’s combative leader.

A First Minister
However, I admit to grudging admiration for a man who’s made himself the third best known Scotsman alive today, after Sean Connery and Andy Murray. The unsettling thing about Salmond is that he’s so smiley, albeit in a self-satisfied way. He comes over as almost cuddly. When I compare him with those giant pandas now gorging themselves on bamboo in Edinburgh Zoo, I’m not simply being cruel about his chins.

A giant panda
Salmond’s visible cheerfulness flies in the face of how the Scots tend to be seen – unfairly in my opinion – as a race exemplified by grumpy ex-PM Gordon Brown. Why is this? Well, let’s examine a couple of TV programmes from the past and how they depicted Scotsmen. (If you’re too young to have heard of them, please don’t tell me – it would be too depressing.)

The comedy Dad’s Army, which ran 1968-1977 was my first exposure to the concept of the dour* Scot. In it, John Laurie played Frazer, the curmudgeonly undertaker (what else?) who frequently declared ‘We’re all doomed’, lengthening the ‘oo’ sound as only a Scotsman can get away with. The argument that the characters in Dad’s Army were all stereotypes only strengthens my point.

Last weekend we watched an episode of The Sweeney which first aired in 1978. This particular episode was called ‘Hard Men’ in which, according to IMDb, ‘Dour* Scots sergeant Davy Freeth arrives from Glasgow’ on the trail of some Scottish villains. Regan and Carter let rip with the sensitivity they usually reserve for women, calling Freeth ‘Jock’ and making jokes about porridge, fried food and Rangers supporters. Their visitor threatens, ’The next bastard that calls me Jock gets his head knocked off!’ and head-butts a door down.

It's very funny in the hands of such consummate actors (Freeth was played by James Cosmo, whom you’d recognise even if you don’t know the name). My husband took no offence and laughed as much as me. The final scene sees Regan and Carter in their car, relieved to have put Freeth on the northbound train. ‘Thank Christ they’re going independent,’ Regan says. Yes, it’s been going on that long.

Now I’ve alerted you to it, you can play ‘spot the dour* Scotsman’ yourself. As an antidote, I’d like to mention the Radio 4 programme Reasons to Be Cheerful which yesterday featured cheery Scots writer Jackie Kay introducing the rather less cheery Scot Muriel Gray to the things that make life worthwhile. Proof, if it were needed, that the default setting north of the Border isn’t always ‘dour’ (which, by now, you should be able to pronounce like a true Scotsman).

* pronounced, north of the Border, closer to ‘sewer’ rather than ‘power’

Saturday, 7 January 2012

A shiny new blog

Welcome to my new blog. You can still see the old one back at my website but technical difficulties have led me to create this freestanding one. So now I have no excuse for not blogging at least once a week.
I hope you like what you read here, enough to subscribe to new posts by email (see below) or to bookmark and drop by regularly. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me – @JanetOkane – and as well as my regular, ahem, nonsense I’ll tweet whenever I put a new post up.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this blogging lark: why I’m doing it, what I should write about. My website went live two years ago and in the planning stages I decided it absolutely, definitely had to include a blog. This was in order to ‘build a platform’, an essential (apparently) for any writer who’s serious about getting published.
Ugh! What a dispassionate expression ‘building a platform’ is. ‘Networking’ is nearly as bad, ‘making connections’ less so but still not ideal. These words reek of technology, not the uniquely human activities of writing and reading.
We writers may spend much of our time at keyboards but we’re not machines. And nor are the agents, publishers, editors and readers we want to take notice of our work.
Two years ago I imagined I would blog solely about writing. It didn’t turn out that way. It’s fine to report on Twitter (in 140 characters or less) one’s word count for the day and one’s satisfaction/disappointment with that achievement. Blogging, though, demands a whole lot more. It should be entertaining or informative. The best blogs manage to be both. But an account of the minutiae of my writing life would hardly be diverting, and as I’m still learning my craft I have no authority to lecture others on how to do it.
Writing is, after all, only part of my life, albeit a huge one. This is the year I start sending out my first novel to find an agent, and start writing my second. I’ll share as much of this as I feel able. But because I’m not a machine and I’d like you to get to know me, this blog will also embrace several other areas of my life.

You can probably predict my taste in books and TV: yes, usually crime (and never reality programmes). My choice of films and music is more eclectic. While I don’t plan to become a review site, I’ll write about highlights and low points in my experience of these different media.
I know from Twitter how different my everyday life is to that of most people I follow. It’s hardly the one I expected for myself. Back in 1980s London I was a yuppy, working long hours but not letting that stop me from going out every night. I was on track to have, by the age of 35, a middle-management husband, two children, and a house in Surrey. Yet here I am now, settled in rural Scotland, 50 miles from the nearest John Lewis.
My husband runs his own, successful business but doesn’t possess a suit or tie (though he does have a fetching custom-made kilt). We drive his 'n her pickups. I’m happily childless and lavish care on a geriatric cat, three dogs and around 20 chickens. The rhythm of our lives is dictated by the seasons, the weather, the rising and setting of the sun. This sometimes isn’t as romantic as it sounds.
In my yuppy days I was sent on assertiveness training (cue howls of laughter from those who know me). The one thing it taught me was how to overcome the typically female trait of not being an ‘effective greeter’. So, with a firm handshake and making confident yet non-confrontational eye contact, I say again:
Welcome to my blog.