Tag Archives: memoir

#BookReview ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish’ by Penelope Lively #writerslife

Penelope Lively is one of my favourite authors and so it was with anticipation that I picked up her memoir, Ammonites & Leaping Fish. And I was not disappointed. From page one I was captivated by her writing style, her openness, her storytelling. She writes about her memories, ‘the vapour trail without which we are undone’. Penelope Lively

Actually this is not quite a memoir; the sub-title is ‘A Life in Time’. Lively reflects on her life in five sections, leaving me with an insight into how she lived her life, her interests and, partly, her writing. She writes about Old Age, Memory, and Life and Times, ‘One of the few advantages of writing fiction in old age is that you have been there, done it all, experienced every decade.’ What she didn’t know, she imagined, used empathy, observation. ‘But it is certainly a help to have acquired that long backwards view.’

She is enlightening about her writing method. ‘I do need to have a good idea where the thing is going – I won’t have started at all until a notebook is full of ideas and instructions to myself. And I will have achieved the finishing line only after pursuing various options, wondering if this would work better than that. The reader should have an easy ride at the expense of the writers’ accumulated hours of inspiration and rejection and certainty and doubt.’

The most charming section of the book is the final one, Six Things, which is where the title of the book comes from. Lively chooses six things and explains their origin, what they mean to her, the memories they evoke. The duck kettle-holders from Maine. The blue lias ammonites. The Jerusalem Bible. The Gayer-Anderson cat. Elizabeth Barker’s sampler. The leaping fish sherd.

A delightful read. I wished it was longer.

Read the first paragraphs of Moon Tiger and Family Album.

If you like this, try:-
Charlotte Brontë: A Life’ by Claire Harman
Howard’s End is on the Landing’ by Susan Hill
‘On Writing’ by Stephen King 

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#BookReview ‘Time to be in Earnest’ by PD James #writerslife #diary

Time to be in Earnest by PD James is not a conventional writer’s autobiography. Instead it is the year in her life between her 77th and 78th birthdays during which A Certain Justice, the tenth Adam Dalgliesh book was published, and in which dates, places and events trigger memories from her life. She died in 2014 at the age of 94 and was prolific to the end. Her final book Death Comes to Pemberley was published in 2011 and two editions of short stories were published after her death. PD James

James sets the tone of the autobiography in the Prologue, “There is much that I remember but which is painful to dwell upon. I see no need to write about these things. They are over and must be accepted, made sense of and forgiven, afforded no more than their proper place in a long life in which I have always known that happiness is a gift, not a right.” Her diary entries, some brief, some long, make this an ideal book to dip in and out of. She is a pragmatic, factual commentator who is at times forthright, other times secretive.

Like all good autobiographies, familiar names are scattered throughout – Dick Francis, Ruth Rendell, Frances Fyfield, Salman Rushdie – and we are shown glimpses of her writing methods, particularly interesting is her discussion of the setting in Devices and Desires, eighth in the Dalgliesh series. She writes about the origins of detective fiction, its evolution and techniques, the development of forensic science as well as her favourite authors and books. Just as entertaining though are the glimpses into James’ private life, her family, her cat Polly-Hodge, her assistant Joyce McLennan.

It is impossible to read James’ memories of childhood, the war, motherhood and marriage, without making connections with her books. Her fascination with history, nature and architecture, and her faith, all add depth to her writing.

If nothing else read it for Appendix Two. ‘Emma Considered as a Detective Story: Jane Austen Society AGM, Chawton, Saturday 18th July 1998’ is a fascinating take on Emma. But if you love reading PD James’ books or detective fiction in general – or you are a writer curious about how a great did it – read this book. This is not a how-to book, more a snapshot of a year in the life of a great writer.

If you like this, try:-
Charlotte Bronte: A Life’ by Claire Harman 
All Points North’ by Simon Armitage
Howard’s End is on the Landing’ by Susan Hill

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#BookReview ‘Mudlarking’ by Lara Maiklem @LondonMudlark #Thames #archaeology

Lara Maiklem is a mudlark. She can be found at low tide walking the beaches and mud of the River Thames, foraging, searching, collecting bits and pieces. And in the course of her memoir Mudlarking, she tells the history of the river. This is a personal history, not a novel. Lara Maiklem

Starting at the tidal head near Teddington and heading east to the Thames Estuary, Maiklem has written an anecdotal guide to London’s river, the treasures which can be found buried in the mud, and tells the stories of the people [real and imagined] who once lived there. From the discarded Doves Type to broken clay pipes and glass bottle stoppers, she describes the objects she has found, their place in her collection, her methods of cleaning and preserving them. Along the way she consults experts and historians and forages with fellow mudlarks who each have their favourite places, their specialist objects to collect.

‘Modern mudlarks fall into two distinct categories,’ she explains. ‘Hunters and gatherers. I am one of the latter. I find objects using just my eyes to spot what is lying on the surface. Eyes-only foragers like me generally enjoy the searching as much as the finding, and derive pleasure from the simplest of objects: an unusually shaped stone, a colourful shard of pottery or a random blob of lead. There is an element of meditation to what we do, and as far as I’m concerned the time I spend looing is as important if not more so, that the objects I take home with me.’

At times the pace seemed a little slow – lots of descriptions of mud – but the nature of mudlarking itself is slow and contemplative. I enjoyed the insights into the river’s history, the anecdotes and fascinating detail not normally heard. A book to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace.

If you like this, try:-
The Ashes of London’ by Andrew Taylor
Dissolution’ by CJ Sansom
The Walworth Beauty’ by Michèle Roberts

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#BookReview ‘I Belong to No One’ by Gwen Wilson

Gwen Wilson

This is a brave book, a memoir written by Gwen Wilson knowing that she may be criticised, knowing that readers may disapprove, but having the courage to write it anyway. To say ‘This is me, this is what I did when I was a teenager’.

Gwen Wilson had a tough start in life. Her father was not in her life, in fact in later years she discovers that her father was a completely different man from the one she thought he was. Instead she grows up with her mother and half-brother Steve. Her mother would today be diagnosed as bi-polar, Steve is thrust into the role of authority figure. The young Gwen grows up relying on stand-in families, those of trusting neighbours or the parents of her schoolfriends. Looking for love, for approval, it is little wonder that she gets ’into trouble’.

Gwen Wilson celebrated her 60th birthday just before this memoir was published. She has travelled a long way and become a different person since the girl who struggled to be a mother and wife when she was still a young girl. There should have been more support for her, but 1970s Australia was in many ways an unforgiving male-focussed society and it sucked Gwen into its moral spin drier and spat her out again.

Pregnant at 17, she marries Colin [the baby’s father] but both teenagers are woefully prepared to be parents. They struggle on for a while until, under Australia’s controversial forced adoption rules, it is decided [not by them] that their toddler Jason would be better off adopted. Cowed, the teenagers agree and sign the forms to give away their son. Gwen Wilson has spent the rest of her life feeling guilty, full of regret.

But this book is more than a story about adoption, it is a window into the world of growing up, poor, in 1960s and 70s Australia. “They said the house was jerry-built. I knew what they meant. The house was cobbled together from scraps of timber, fibro and Masonite – bits other people threw away. Our roof was not terracotta tiles like the others in the street. It was tin. Corrugated iron, they called it. When the sun beat down, the heat spread through each room like an oven. We gasped and baked and prayed for a Southerly Buster. We knew it would come in the evening: we could smell its approach. It roared up the hill from the bottom of the street, and found us perched at the corner, wilting.” Wilson draws such a clear picture of her childhood house, I could be there.

This is no idyllic childhood, Steve and Gwen learn to live without their mother who is in and out of hospital, when their mother is there they know how to manage her moods. They grow up before their time, except they are still children and make bad decisions. Wilson admits that when she was a teenager, she felt bitter towards her mother, for not being there for her daughter, for not supporting her as she had in her turn been supported by her family. Now, Wilson understands how ill her mother really was.

For more about Gwen Wilson’s story, read my Author Interview with her here, or visit her website.

If you like ‘I Belong to No One’, try these other adoption memoirs:-
‘Secrets, Spies and Spotted Dogs’ by Jane Eales
‘Blue-Eyed Son’ by Nicky Campbell

‘I Belong to No One’ by Gwen Wilson [UK: Orion] Buy now

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Book review: ‘All Points North’

all points northFor me, as a Yorkshirewoman, there are many laugh out loud moments in Simon Armitage’s All Points North, and there are others that make me feel fond of the county I left at the age of 18. But the piece that stayed with me longest was the page on ‘Writing’.

Writing, he says, is “a form of disappearance. Burglars watching the house from outside for four or five hours would think it empty. There isn’t another human activity which combines stillness and silence with so much energy.”

Simon Armitage [photo: Paul Wolfgang Webster]

Simon Armitage [photo: Paul Wolfgang Webster]

I know exactly what he means. I will be upstairs in my attic study, writing all day, my husband out, my only movement to make a cup of tea and scrounge a handful of fruit and nuts from the snack jar. When I come down at the end of the day, turning off the lights as an unconscious signal to myself not to go back upstairs and start working again, it is not uncommon to find ‘we tried to deliver but you were out’ postcards on the mat, or parcels piled up outside the front door. It’s not that our doorbell isn’t up to the job, simply that when you’re in the zone that’s where you are.


‘All Points North’ by Simon Armitage