The Power of Words

downloadLast weekend, I gave up my long lie to get up early on Saturday to head through to Glasgow with my pal to The Mitchell Library. We were lucky to get our mitts on a couple of day passes which meant we got four events for £10 – a bargain bookfest! The only negative was the ½ hour gap between each event meant we were stressed about café queues (access to food being the major success criteria of any of our days out).

downloadThe book events were the literature strand of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival in partnership with the Aye Write! Book Festival. Each event had the theme of ‘reality’ and how our many ideas of ourselves can be wrapped up in words and how the written word has a unique role to play in exploring the many different aspects of mental health.

download (1)First up on the day’s programme was a writer I’ve read a lot about recently as Jenni Fagan was the only Scot on the prestigious 2013 Granta Best of Young British Novelists list. I’ve also heard rave reviews of her debut novel The Panopticon so I was keen to find out if Jenni’s work lived up to the hype surrounding her success. I wasn’t disappointed!  Jenni is an engaging and inspiring writer and when she read an extract from The Panopticon, I knew instantly that I wanted to read it and see the film adaptation due to be made next year.

imagesThe novel is partly inspired by Jenni’s experiences of growing up in the Scottish foster care system, and the story, set in and around Edinburgh, revolves around 15-year-old Anais Hendricks – who is accused of assaulting a police officer – and her experiences in a young offenders’ institution. I can see why this gothic tale has shocked and affected many readers and I now have a signed copy which has been catapulted to the top of my mountainous tbr pile.

images (2)After a rushed lunch, (luckily we got served quickly and can eat fast!) we heard from Denise Mina who spoke passionately about the concept of guilt and innocence and the difference between illegality and immorality. I’d been to see Denise at an event a few years ago and was impressed by her quick wit. And she was on top form again on Saturday with her thought-provoking statements on everything from the Scottish Independence Referendum to the Tommy Sheridan court case. There is no doubt that Denise is one of Scotland’s finest contemporary crime writers who never shies away from dealing with the complex questions of psychology and society.

images (3)I strongly believe in the power of words but when I read in the programme that Ella download (3)Berthoud claims that she can cure everything from pessimism to PMT by prescribing a book, I admit to feeling slightly cynical about the concept of bilbiotherapy. However there is no doubt that a book can make you feel better and I was impressed by Ella’s encyclopedic  literary knowledge and ability to delve into her The Novel Cure: an A-Z of Literary Remedies to make a book diagnosis for members of the audience.

images (1)The finale of the day was the living legend, Alasdair Gray who is a novelist, poet, artist, short-story writer, and essayist and has explored trauma in both personal and political terms through his work. As always, Alasdair performed his reading in his unique eccentric style and was humble about his status as a polymath and major figure in the Scottish arts world. He talked about his new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy but when an audience member asked if he would be illustrating it himself he replied that at as he’s nearly 80 years old, he won’t live long enough!

For me the highlight of a great day was Jenni’s event (the baked potato from the café was excellent too, even if I had to wolf it down at speed!) and the chance to enjoy a diverse programme with top class authors in a favourite venue. And all for £10, you cannae beat it with a stick!

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The funny dog pic has no relevance whatsoever to the post except that this play on words made me smile so that was a good enough reason to include it!

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Confessions of a Bookaholic

I was flattered to be asked to write a guest post on any aspect of reading for Glasgow Book Groups blog and it made me realise how much time I spend reading. Here’s my post…

imagesMy name is Helen and I’m a bookaholic. There are worse addictions to have and it’s a fairly inexpensive and harmless enough obsession. But it is a problem. The reason being that I keep buying books when I’ve still got a humongous To Be Read (TBR) pile to get through and unless I lock myself away for the next year or so, I’ll never reduce the mountainous stack of books on my bedside table.

images (2)My book fetish has become even more out of control recently and I blame Twitter. I’ve been on Twitter (@HelenMacKinven) now for a year and a half and was wary of entering the murky waters of social media. But I dipped my painted toe in and once I realised that the water was not shark infested, I began to relax a bit and engage with other like-minded folk who loved books too. Many of those that I follow on Twitter write blogs on their own writing or review books. This provided me with a never-ending supply of book recommendations to feed my addiction.  I could get a quick fix within minutes on Twitter and before I could stop myself, I’d be hitting the ‘add to basket’ button on Amazon.

images (3)But what makes me chose one book over another? Obviously, taste is subjective and just because my best pal likes to read sci-fi, that doesn’t mean I’d ever consider anything with wee green men in it even although I originally come from Bonnybridge, allegedly the UFO capital of the world.  I’m not a fan of crime fiction either but I make an exception for Kate Atkinson’s Brodie series. And much as I also suffer from being a shoeaholic and have more handbags than I could ever need, I’m not interested in fluffy chick lit either. Then there’s the book every woman seemed to be talking about.  Listening to my pals, I feel as if I’m one of the few women on the planet who hasn’t read 50 Shades of Grey and I don’t ever intend to!

images (1)I’m also one of the few folk I know who doesn’t own a Kindle. I appreciate all the benefits but I still prefer a ‘tree’ book rather than an e-book and as an avid book festival goer, you can’t get a writer to sign a Kindle. A friend (who shall remain nameless to spare her blushes) swears by her Kindle as the best way to read erotica without anyone else knowing. It’s understandable as who would want to be seen on the train reading a bodice ripper? But I did fall victim to the old cliché of judging a book by its cover when I dismissed Me Before You by Jojo Moyes because of its girly pink cover only to later read it after numerous recommendations and found it to be a far deeper story-line than the artwork suggested.

And there are some books that I’ve been told I MUST read but haven’t enjoyed at all. I used to force myself to finish a book even when I hated it but no longer beat myself up and abandon it early on as life is too short. The most recent example was Lanark by Alasdair Gray. It may well be a classic in Scottish literature but it did nothing for me and I’m not ashamed to admit that my wee brain couldn’t cope with the deep and meaningful concepts.

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As a writer of contemporary Scottish fiction aimed at female readers, I tend to choose books in the genre I aspire to be published in so I read and enjoy writers such as Janice Galloway, Jackie Kay, Anne Donovan, Laura Marney, Isla Dewar, Maggie O’Farrell to name but a few. Writers are often given the advice to write the book you’d want to read so that’s what I’m aiming to do. EL James need not worry about her status as queen of erotica!

I’m a bookaholic and proud of it. Are you? What makes you chose one book over another?

Reading Like a Writer

I’ve mentioned previously that Reading Like a Writer by the aptly named, Francine Prose was one of the best set texts from my MLitt course. It taught me how to have a better appreciation of what I read but the one downside is that I now find it hard to switch off my writer’s eye when reading a novel. This means that I’m constantly analysing the characterisation, pace, POV, structure etc and failing to lighten up when I’m supposed to be reading for pleasure.

I wish I could buy the body to go with the T-shirt!

The result of this critical approach is that I’ve just given up on my 4th book in a row. My reading habits have changed over the years. I’ve always been an avid reader but for some unknown perverse reason, I made myself keep reading a book until the end whether I was enjoying it or not. I doubt if I’m alone in suffering from this affliction but somewhere along the line, I had an epiphany (just for the record, there were no angels involved or speaking in tongues, and it wasn’t after a few large voddies) that life is too short and my ‘to-be-read’ pile is already too high to bother sticking with reading books I don’t like.

This new ruthless approach has got even tougher in the wake of a house move and the knowledge that my TBR pile would either have to be read quickly or packed and carted off to my new abode.  Several books had been gathering dust on the TBR pile for various reasons, and many had made it on to the list due to being classed as a book I felt should read (but who says so and why should I care?).

The first one to be tackled was Lanark by Alasdair Gray. This book is hailed as a modern classic, Glasgow’s Ulysses, but I’m not embarrassed to admit that I just couldn’t get my head round it. The semi-autobiographical parts based in Glasgow appealed but the surrealism of Gray’s vision of hell was far too sophisticated for my wee brain. The next couple of books will remain nameless, let’s just say I might cross the paths of these writers in the future and I don’t want to have to run and hide from them if I dared to air my feelings publicly .

The queen of ‘tragi-comedy’ writing.

After a hat trick of failed read throughs, I went for a safe bet. Even although I rarely read crime fiction, I love Kate Atkinson’s novels in the Jackson Brodie series, I really enjoyed Human Croquet and rate Behind the Scenes at the Museum is one of my all-time favourite books. The only one of her books I’d still to read was Emotionally Weird, so I felt sure that I was on to a winner, but I’m sad to say that for the first time ever, Kate let me down. For my tastes, the book seemed too self-consciously ‘literary’, with no plot to speak of involving unlikeable caricature characters and in no way lived up to my high expectations.

So I’m on to number five, with my hubby breathing down my neck to reduce the Everest proportions of the TBR whilst thrusting a packing case under my nose.  I’m quietly confident I’ll go the distance with this one, ‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada, partly because I’ve got an interest in the Nazi regime of WW11, the city of Berlin and a love of novels based on true stories (which pander to my cynical nature).

But only time will tell if Alone in Berlin makes the grade and gets a hurl in the removal van…

Do you have a book that’s a permanent fixture on your TBR pile? Do you stick with a book until the end? Do you have a cut-off point? What makes you throw your book in the charity bag or even at the wall? And what makes a book worth packing to take to a new home?

Try telling that to my hubby!

I’m a Published Writer!

This week I celebrated turning 21 again and received lots of lovely gifts from my family and friends (and a joint present of a box of Radox salts from my teenage sons- they really know how to spoil me!) But my best present (sorry boys) was seeing my work in print for the first time! Woo hoo!!

I wrote a short story, ‘Talk of the Toon’ which was inspired by my gran- a real life heroine! When she was a young mum, she saved the life of a drowning boy and received an award from the Royal Humane Society for her bravery.  My story is included in the Telling Tales of Heroes Anthology and means that my name is alongside established writers as well as other novice writers. I’m sure my gran would’ve been chuffed to bits to see her namesake in print.

The anthology was launched as the finale of the Lomond Writers’ Gathering which also included the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Award for Agnes Owens.  The evening included tributes to Agnes by James Kelman, Alasdair Gray and Liz Lochhead. It was really inspirational to hear about Agnes’s writing career. Like me, she was a late starter in taking her writing seriously and like me she comes from a working class background without writers and artists in her circle of influence. Agnes’s writing is about the lives of everyday, working people and the little tragedies within relationships and Liz Lochhead described her work as “genius”.

Alasdair Gray is well-known as being unconventional and his flamboyant speech was certainly entertaining as he ranted that despite Agnes’s work being highly esteemed by her fellow writers, her books have not received the critical attention they deserve, perhaps because Agnes is neither an eccentric or a glamorous celebrity and is simply an 86 year old housewife living in a poor Scottish town. Agnes signed my copy of Agnes Owens- The Complete Short Stories and told me to “stick in with my writing”.

It was a great event to be part of and thanks to the anthology, I’ve achieved my aim of being published but the event generated my next goal- to conquer my fear of giving a public reading.  When I arrived, the organiser asked me if I would like to read my story but I completely bottled it! I was star struck by the literary legends in the audience and I was completely unprepared for my first ever public treading. The irony is I’ve got over 20 years of experience in public speaking from my work as a Training Officer.  But delivering PowerPoint presentations is not the same as reading out your writing and I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t take the chance to read aloud. My mum was disappointed in my failure to grab the limelight, “But you used to be a Reader at Mass every Sunday!” Yes, but reading out a letter from St Paul to the Corinthians when you are twelve was far easier for me than sharing my own words. But I’ve got Agnes now as inspiration for my apprenticeship in writing.

Writing and the Dangers of Cabin Fever

Wednesday the 25th was a big day for famous literary birthdays. Robert Burns, William Somerset Maughan and Virginia Woolf all share the same birthday.  I saw one of Woolf’s well-known quotes, “A room of one’s own” (well I spotted the 75% off sticker first) on a china mug in my local Waterstones. I snapped up the bargain as a wee gift for my good friend, the award-winning novelist, Karen Campbell as she’s been acting as my unofficial mentor for years and purple is her favourite colour.
http://www.karencampbell.co.uk/

I met  Karen for lunch in Glasgow yesterday and as always, it was great to catch up with her news and she gave me some really helpful advice about my WIP. As the saying goes,it’s good to talk. Woolf was right, having somewhere to lock yourself away to get on with your writing is the ideal scenario but what I’ve discovered during this ridiculously long semester break is that I suffer from cabin fever. 
Classes finished at the end of November and it’s been too long a break for me. I haven’t yet reached for the axe but you only have to watch The Shining to remember how dangerous cabin fever can be…


I need to get out of the house regularly. The romantic idea of being locked away in a remote writer’s garret is not for me. There’s not a lot of inspiration to be gained from my view of the petrol station across the road! During the break from uni, I’ve been going to a botanical art class, swimming every other morning, meeting up with friends and working my way through a list of ‘must visit’ places. This week I went to GOMA in Glasgow to have a look round the polymath, Alasdair Gray’s, ‘City Recorder’ exhibition. His paintings of Glasgow life in 1977 are brilliant. It’s hard to believe that one man can be so talented in so many areas. It’s not fair!

Gray has captured the life of the city’s streets and its people

I also had a quick look round the GOMA’s ‘You, Me, Something Else’ exhibition of contemporary sculptures. The idea of the exhibition is to question established assumptions of what a sculpture can be. It certainly achieved its aim as there is no way I’d call a stack of Ryvita boxes or a crumpled pile of plastic sheeting a sculpture! I’m sure all the artwork on display means something, but whatever it does, went right over my head. I wasn’t alone in lacking appreciation for the artwork. A comment in the visitors’ book read,  I’ve lived in Glasgow all my life, so I’ve seen some shite, but this really is shite.” This wasn’t the only derogatory comment and “shite” was a popular word choice!



Over the break, I’ve been writing short stories and everything I’ve written about recently has been triggered by observing and interacting. In my last job, I travelled all over Scotland to visit schools and train teachers. I met new people everyday and I now realise that I need people and places, not just a room of my own, to keep me inspired.