The Name Game

This is not a travel and tourism blog but it’s my blog so I make up the rules, okay! I’m planning to blog about places I visit over the summer and hopefully make even a tenuous link to writing at the same time. Still with me?

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The Hill House is a great example of Mackintosh’s work.

Last week, I blogged about going on a Glasgow Women’s Library heritage walk and it reminded me how interested I am in Scottish history. The walk also encouraged me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, no, not get fit for the next walk I’m booked on, but to join the National Trust for Scotland. The NTS website lists 129 properties you can visit and it was hard to choose, but the one that caught my eye was The Hill House in Helensburgh.

I wanted to visit for two reasons. One, I love art and have a particular interest in Art Nouveau and the work of Margaret MacDonald, the wife of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (you can see more of her work and The Mackintosh House at the Hunterian Art Gallery). And two, I’ve never been to the town bearing my name and thought after forty odd years it was high time I put this right.

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The beautiful Sleeping Princess gesso panel by Margaret MacDonald.

The Hill House is the finest of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s domestic designs and the iconic house and gardens date back to 1902. It sits high above the Clyde in Helensburgh, with impressive views over the river. Walter Blackie, director of the well-known Glasgow publishers, commissioned not only the house and garden, but much of the furniture and all the interior fittings and decorative schemes. Margaret MacDonald, contributed fabric designs and a unique gesso panel which still looks stunning. Allegedly Mackintosh suggested the colour of flowers the Blackies should place in their living room to guarantee nothing clashed with the décor. And I thought I was a control freak!

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Helensburgh-been there, done that!

Any day out for me is always an excuse for eating out but the tea room was packed full of pensioners on a bus trip so we headed into town. I’d have thought that every Helen visiting should at least get a free glass of wine and souvenir ‘Helen hits Helensburgh’ T-shirt but disappointingly there was no welcoming party for my arrival. We had a wander round the main drag and finally found a decent café in among the rash of charity shops but let’s just say that I can’t see any reason for me to rush back. That’s one thing off the bucket list.

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Me and my namesake.

The visit to Helensburgh made me think about my name. Fortunately, I’ve always liked my name, maybe because I was named after my beloved gran although she was known as Ella and I rarely heard her called Helen unless it was in a formal scenario. I’m fascinated with names and waste take time playing the name game deciding what to call characters in my writing.  I try to think about the age of the character and their background but it’s easy to stray into stereotypes. And then there are names like Adolf which are loaded with negative associations or names like Whitney which automatically make you think of a celebrity.

downloadAs a reader, the name of a character can really put me off if it doesn’t seem to suit the image I have in my mind. I also don’t enjoy reading a name that’s difficult to pronounce as it seems to slow down the speed of my reading. Two books I’ve recently read had names in them which bugged me for different reasons. The first one was Raph in Night Waking by Sarah Moss. I appreciate the choice of name was to highlight the middle class status of the family but my brain kept wanting to see Ralph instead. The other name was Aoife in Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell and although the unusual pronunciation is acknowledged in the narrative, again I found my brain stalled each time it saw a name it had never before encountered. Neither of these examples spoiled the enjoyment of the books and I wouldn’t want to only read books featuring familiar names. But for me, it does make the story stick rather than flow.

Am I the only one with a problem reading unusual names in novels? Does a name affect how you react to a character in a book? Do you also take a long time to choose the names of the characters in your writing?

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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?

Aye Write!

download (1)The name of Glasgow’s book festival, Aye Write!, is a clever play on words and derives from the Glaswegian phrase, “Aye, right,” a double positive which actually means a negative as in me saying,

‘I’m gonna run a marathon.’

‘Aye right!’

With one glance at my shape and size, that would be a Glaswegian’s automatic reply.

I’ve been a fan since Aye Write! started in 2005 and although it may not have the same international status (not yet anyway) as its big sister in Edinburgh, you’d find it hard to beat Aye Write! for bringing a better range of quality world-class writers to Glasgow or indeed Scotland. It also has the added bonus of being held in the landmark venue of the Mitchell Library ( I was lucky to go on a Behind the Scenes tour recently) so there’s no need to worry about your high heels sinking in a quagmire of muddy grass at outside venues.

In Planet Helen, I have unlimited time and money to attend every Aye Write! event that I fancy but unfortunately, in the real world where I’m forced to live, I have to be selective. This year, I was sneaky and guaranteed the company of my best friend Veronica by buying her tickets for her birthday.

images (1)download (4)I chose one of the events for personal reasons as my good friend, writer Karen Campbell was officially launching her latest book, This is Where I Am. This is Karen’s fifth book and as I’ve been at every other launch, there was no way I was missing this one. This new book is an exciting and brave departure from Karen’s previous series of novels and I’d recommend reading the review by Isabel Costello to find out more. I haven’t finished my copy but on what I’ve read so far, I promise that you won’t be disappointed if you’re looking for a poignant account of the awkward relationship between Abdi, a Somali refugee and his mentor, newly widowed Debs when they meet once a month in a different part of Glasgow. But don’t worry that it might sound heavy on social issues, there’s plenty of the legendary Glasgow banter to make you smile too.

download (6)download (5)Karen was appearing alongside Kerry Hudson who was talking about her book, Tony Hogan Bought Me and Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. I blogged about Kerry’s event last year at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Needless to say, Kerry was just as interesting and entertaining this time too and I’d highly recommend her debut novel which tells the story of a traumatic childhood but in a funny and heart-warming read. And I’m looking forward to reading her next novel, Thirst which will be published early in 2014.

imagesdownloadWe also went to see Louise Welsh and Maggie O’Farrell to hear about their new books. I’m a massive Maggie O’Farrell fan and can’t wait to get stuck into her new book, Instructions for a Heatwave which is a portrait of an Irish family in crisis in the heatwave of 1976. Maggie specialises in writing about dysfunctional families, and from the snippet she read, the Riordans sound as if they have their fair share of troubles. During the Q and A session, Maggie was witty and very inspiring about the writing process, especially when she quoted Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” With two novels written and neither of them published, this certainly struck a chord with me!

download (2)download (3)Louise’s latest, a psychological crime thriller, The Girl on the Stairs also interests me as it is set in Berlin, a city I visited a couple of years ago and found it a fascinating place. The taster she read out gave us a glimpse of the main character, Jane, a Scot living in Berlin who decides to turn detective and this has devastating results when her own past collides with the past of the building and its inhabitants.

Aye Write! was as good as ever this year with three interesting events, four top authors and two great meals out with my best pal (my love of eating out might help explain why I’m unable to run a marathon or even just run at all!).  The book festival is on until April 20th so maybe I could squeeze in another event or two…

What’s your favourite book festival? Which writers have inspired you at book events?