The Mither Tongue

Grad

Ethyl and I graduating with our MLitt in Creative Writing from Stirling University.

Last week I met up with ma good pal and former MLitt classmate, Ethyl Smith tae talk books and writing. We spent 5+ hours blethering without drawing breath and one of the many topics we covered was writing in  Scots.

downloadRecently, the bestselling children’s book, The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson was translated into Scots by James Robertson and this has been followed by The Gruffalo’s Wean, a Scots version of The Gruffalo’s Child.  I think this is a brilliant move tae make sure Scottish children are aware of their mither tongue.

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This blog is not about politics but it’s impossible tae ignore the fact that in less than a year, I will be voting in the Independence Referendum. And how will I vote? I’ll vote with ma heart, not ma heid. I don’t know a lot about the economic arguments for and against independence but I do know that I’ve always considered myself as Scottish, not British.

I think this strong sense of Scottish identity and pride in ma heritage might explain ma fascination with the language of ma birth. I love Scots words like glaikit, dreich and scunner.

This wee clip of Nicola Swankie’s 50 Favourite Weird Scottish Words made me smile. How many do you use or recognise?

But although when I’m writing I like tae include Scots words in dialogue, tae write the entire text in Scots requires expertise and skill. Ethyl has written many pieces in old Scots and I’ve asked her tae share her experience.

Can you tell us why you enjoy writing in your mither tongue?

It seems more natural way to express my thoughts. I spent most of my childhood with my grandparents who spoke broad Scots… so it’s like being grounded I guess.

Do you find it harder tae write in Scots?

Naw. Weel if ah’m strecht wi ye it’s the spellin. Scots is mair in the lug if ye git ma drift. Ay is ‘yes’. Aye with the extra e maks ‘always.’ You need to listen to hear the difference.images (2)

What advice would you give writers who’d like tae try writing in Scots?

First listen. The rhythm and cadence is different, even the word order. Also get yourself a good dictionary Scots-English & vice versa.

Whose writing would you recommend as a good example of writing in Scots?

John Galt … old fashioned but great writing. Alan Bissett for emphasis on modern slang. James Robertson is very respectful of its useage.

Here’s a sample of Ethyl’s writing and you can see why I’ve got so much respect for her talent as a writer.

Nae Way Back

Whit fur did ah dae this? Whit makt me think it wud be aw richt? Aifter aw ah’m nae glaikit. Weel nae fur ordnar. Wan thing fur shair it’s the straicht an narra frae noo on. An nae argiein.

Tae tell the truth ah did think ah wis raither smairt. Aifter aw ah din it aw masel. Me an ma big ego. Naw. Mair lik me an ma big heid.

If the Yoge maister hudna sayed ah wis his best pupil, mibbe ah wudna hae mindit doddlin alang lik the rest o the cless. Ye see, maist o thaim canna levitate at aw. But therr ah wis, clear o the flair, an floatin lik a dream; an ah kent they wur jeelous whan they saw me dain it week aifter week, wi nae wauchle.

Mind ye the Yoge did say it wis jist fur cless. Whaur he cud kep an eye lik.

Ah shuda taen tent, an no allooed masel tae git cairrit awa wi ma ain consait. Bit naw. Ah jist hud tae gang that bit faurer, an try a fu, oot o boddy expairience, on ma ain.

An it wisna sair. An extra hauf hoor’s meditation, twa extra mantras, an ah wis awa as nice as ye like, an heidin up here tae the ceilin.

Problem is ah’m here yit. An aw the time ah’m seein masel. At least ah can see ma boddy, doon therr streetched oot on the bed, as if ah’m sleepin. Bit ah’m nae. Ah’m up here, fashin aboot gittin doon agane, fur ah forgot tae luk thon bit up in ma manual, an it’s ower late noo. Talk aboot bein wice aifter the event. An talk aboot bein feart. Ay … ah shud … ah shud nivver hae sterted this. 

Thanks Ethyl, that was a braw wee tale.

Have you tried writing in Scots or any other native language? Do you enjoy reading work in Scots? Is there a favourite writer you admire who writes in Scots?

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Roddy Doyle’s Jimmy Rabbitte is Back

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Chuffed to get my mitts on a copy of Gutter magazine.

images (1)I’d like to think of myself as being strong-minded but I’ve never claimed to be physically strong. And yet, I was able to drag a man of 15 stone to Edinburgh yesterday for my annual trip to the Edinburgh Book Festival (although the incentive of going for a meal and a visit to the NTS’s  Georgian House made him less resistant).

This year was especially exciting for me as I got the buzz of walking into the on site bookstore and seeing a book which featured one of my short stories on the shelf. I’m very proud to be in the latest edition of Gutter magazine along with a stellar line-up of Scottish writers. But the main reason I hauled my hubby to the EIBF was to see one of my all-time favourite writers – Roddy Doyle.

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My favourite one of the EIBF deckchairs. The Alexander McCall Smith quote is so very true!

Coming from a working class background myself, Roddy’s work appeals to me both as a reader and as a writer. I have the utmost admiration for his affectionate writing about family life, together with a dry sense of black humour that is conveyed to the reader mostly through the use of dialogue.

In 1993 Roddy won the Booker Prize for his novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. The book was praised for Doyle’s ability to write convincingly in the language of his main protagonist, Paddy Clarke: a ten-year-old boy living in Dublin in the 1960s. I reread this book as part of my ‘Reading Journal’ for my MLitt course and was blown away by his skill.

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Ireland’s master storyteller.

In a first person narration, Paddy describes things in a childlike manner and this makes the writing simple and yet so effective. “The jellyfish was still floating there, like a runny umbrella.”

Genius!

The relevance of the title of the novel only becomes apparent at the very end when Paddy suffers from the social repercussion of his parents’ breakup with the loss of friendships. When his former friends taunt him with jeers of, “Paddy Clarke- Paddy Clarke- has no da. Ha ha ha!” you cannot fail to be moved. Even more poignant is when Paddy is forced to mature beyond his years, “I didn’t listen to them. They were only kids.” It’s a brilliant book along with another one of my favourites,  The Woman Who Walked Into Doors.

imagesAnd now, 26 years after he wrote The Commitments, Roddy Doyle has written a sequel to his bestselling Barrytown Trilogy with The Snapper and The Van. He has returned to Jimmy Rabbitte Jr, manager of The Commitments in the original book, to create a new story set in modern-day Dublin. In this opening night event he introduced us to The Guts and I doubt fans will be disappointed. Roddy’s wit is as sharp as ever and he had the audience in stitches with his patter.

I can’t wait to read it!

Is Roddy Doyle one of your favourite writers too? Do you find that your own social background draws you to particular writers?

 

Mustang Sally‘ must be one of the most murdered songs at family weddings and karaoke nights. But go on, click on the link, you know you want to… Give it laldie!

“Listen!
All you wanna do is ride around Sally
(Ride Sally, ride)”

Freefall Writing

imagesAlthough I think of myself as a creative person, I’m also a self-confessed control freak who likes order, routine and structure. That’s why it felt good this week when I hit my first milestone in my current WIP. Getting to 20k words is quarter way through an average 80k word novel so I already feel that I’ve bitten off a decent chunk of the story.

Even when I was writing full-time during my MLitt course, I’ve never written as much in a matter of weeks.  I believe that the main reason why I’ve been so productive is that for the first time ever, I’m following a writing technique known as ‘Freefall Writing’.

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I didn’t realise that there was a label for my new approach until I read a blog post by Sandra Jensen on the Mslexia website and it described the way I’ve been writing recently. Sandra writes about her experience of Freefall which was originated by W.O. Mitchell and developed further by Barbara Turner-Vesselago.

Freefall writing is defined as, “a method some writers discover spontaneously, but many have to (re)earn : the technique of writing from the larger Self beyond reach of the ego and its censors” and is likened to writing without a parachute.

This is a very different style from my usual method of revising as I go along but it often means that I get so caught up in fine tuning every sentence, that the momentum of the storytelling dies. When I decided to start a new novel, I was apprehensive that the plot wouldn’t be strong enough, the characters would be too dull, the themes would be too weak…, you get the picture.

images (3)And then I stopped beating myself up and decided to write without worrying about getting it right on every level. It’s a FIRST draft so I have to lighten up and write freely, without the fear of failing.

I’m convinced that’s why the words are flowing. I know eventually I’ll resort to my default perfectionist setting when I get to the end and accept that the WIP needs edited. But right now I’m learning to let go. The polishing process can come later…

Have you tried Freefall writing? Would this approach work for you or do you constantly edit as you write?

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Santa’s Best Pressie

images (2)This time last year, I blogged that all I wanted for Christmas was a big enough ego to call myself a writer. I must’ve been a good girl as the big man in the red suit with the white beard delivered and I’ve come a long way in my writing journey.

At the start of 2012, I had never been published and felt too shy to use the title ‘writer’ to describe myself. I felt that I needed an external endorsement to validate the claim and I got it in the form of several of my flash fiction pieces and short stories being published online, in anthologies and short listed in competitions. It’s not easy putting your work out there and I still have to work at fighting the self-doubt about how I’ll be judged based upon my writing. But like everything else in life, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Probably the most exciting high for me was hearing my story read out by a professional actress at the National Galleries of Scotland, ‘Inspired? Get Writing!’ event (there’s still time to enter this year’s competition deadline is 18/1/13). To hear words I’d written getting a laugh from the audience is a buzz I won’t forget in a hurry.  And it reminds me of one milestone that I still have to achieve, and that’s to read out my work in public. Of course, that requires me to keep submitting work which at the moment is pretty non-existent. But I’m hoping that 2013 will get me back on track with an ongoing submission schedule.

Completing my masters definitely gave me a huge boost and incentive to prove that I didn’t waste time and money on a writing qualification. It also provided me with an opportunity to take the time to find out who I am as a writer and where I want to go with my writing. And of course that would still be to fulfil the dream of a traditional publishing deal.

imagesBut it hasn’t all been success after success in 2012. The biggest and most painful blow was learning that having an agent doesn’t guarantee a book deal. To come close but not close enough hurts like hell.  But in the words of Kelly Clarkson, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” and the feedback I got from publishing editors will hopefully help to make my writing stronger.

543979_10200142443186502_1168765060_nAnother kick in the teeth was a complete knock-back from the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award. I knew the odds against getting anywhere with it were high but I was still praying that I would be one of the lucky ones (congratulations to my fellow MLitt student, Angela Hughes who made the shortlist-yeh!).

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Chuffed to have my writing in Octavius, Causeway, Valve, New Voices Press & Paragram.

And of course throughout the year, there was a series of lesser “ouch” moments when submissions to literary journals and competition entries got nowhere.

But all in all, I can’t complain. I’m still on my agent’s books and I’ve got a MLitt to add to my name as well 6 pieces in a clutch of 5 mighty fine anthologies with my work featured.  So thank you Santa, I got what I asked for and more!

P.S. Dear Santa, if you’re reading this, Kelly Clarkson’s Greatest Hits CD would be much appreciated in case I need a reminder that, “What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter…” And I promise not to sing it out loud! Well, maybe just in my car when I’m driving alone…

Grey Hair and Graduation

Me, praying that I make it back to my seat without going head over heels down the stairs.

Twenty two years ago I graduated with a BEd in Primary Teaching and never for one moment expected to graduate again for a second time.  But last Friday, I was strutting across the stage of the Albert Halls (no, not THE Royal Albert Hall in London) in Stirling to receive my masters degree in Creative Writing. With Merit!

This time around I had a new surname (pronounced incorrectly at the ceremony. Grrr!!!) was much heavier, with wrinkles round the eyes and straight from an emergency hairdresser appointment to cover my grey haired roots. And yet, I still felt great.

There was a fantastic atmosphere at the ceremony and the Chancellor of the University, Dr James Naughtie delivered a thought-provoking and inspiring speech about his recent trip to Delhi where he encountered young children living in extreme poverty and yet they had high ambitions for their future careers.

Soppy caption alert! “Without your unconditional love and support, none of it would have been possible…”

It was a timely reminder for me that I am very lucky to have had the financial and the emotional support of my long-suffering hubby which allowed me to pursue my writing goals. He has been there for me every step of the way and almost never got to see me graduate when I somehow managed to lose his golden ticket for the ceremony, only to reclaim it at the ‘robing room’ with minutes to spare!


So now I can call myself Helen MacKinven BEd MLitt but I’m still wondering what I want to be when I grow up. When I left my day job to commit to the MLitt course full-time, I was never under any illusion that the qualification would lead to an amazing job in the literary world. But I did hope that it would mean that I could gain the credibility to call myself a proper writer, whatever that means.

My writing buddy, Anne Glennie likened the MLitt course as a sort of ‘kite mark’ for your writing skills in that it indicates a certain level of quality. Of course it doesn’t mean that because I’ve completed a uni course that I’m a better writer than someone who doesn’t have a formal qualification but it does mean that my effort to develop my writing skills has been professionally recognised.

The MLitt course at Stirling University was recently featured in the Herald’s Scottish Review of Books where the course was described as “taught by writers for writers”.  This was one of the highlights for me as the course was led by award-winning fiction writer Paula Morris and during the two semesters I had the opportunity to learn from Andrew O’Hagan, DBC Pierre, Linda Cracknell, Eleanor Updale and Ewan Morrison. There’s no way that I would ever have had the chance to engage with such talented individuals so for that reason alone the course was invaluable.

But where to now? Getting the degree was the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. I’ve got the official rubber stamp to prove that I’m serious about my writing, it’s more than a hobby for me, but that doesn’t mean that I have a new career, well not yet. Like most other writers, I need a day job too and after a year out to indulge myself in pursuing my passion, I need to strike a balance between time for writing and contributing to the household income, well at least until I publish that best seller I’m working on…

Clearing Writer’s Block

My last blog post was all about me not writing a single word following my MLitt dissertation and feeling guilty about still calling myself a writer. I received lots of reassuring messages that there was no need to beat myself up about it and just to take my time and get back to writing when I was ready.

One of the main reasons excuses that I had for not churning out a daily word count was my search for a new day job.  My wee brain can only cope with so much at one time so I’ve been preoccupied with researching and preparing for a new role that involves numbers not words.

Because I’m a self-confessed control freak, this means that I can relax a bit now that one area of my life is sorted and I can get back to writing.  Whoop whoop! But after a break, how do you flex those creative muscles again? My answer was to do a warm-up exercise (the only fitness regime I follow!)by submitting a 75 word story to the Paragraph Planet website.  This site thrives on variety, what you write is up to you. It might be a moment captured, it could be an intriguing section of a novel in progress, or it might be a short, short story.

I’ve now been featured on their site 5 times and I’m always excited to see my writing published online.  If you’re stuck in a rut with your writing, I highly recommend giving Paragraph Planet’s challenge a go. It’s certainly helped get me thinking again about what I want to write and now I plan to flesh out the 75 words into something much bigger.

My story is called ‘Saturday Market’ and although writing a mere 75 words is not much to shout about at least it’s a start and a step in the write (sorry, couldn’t resist it) direction. 75+75+75… all adds up.  This is the story which could grow and grow…

Saturday Market

“Try them on in the back of the van darlin’.”

I nudged Lorraine and she climbed inside the rusty Transit. I followed and closed the van’s door. Almost.  Lorraine peeled off her leggings like a second skin. She lay on her back to yank the skinny jeans up over her chunky hips. I sat on my hunkers.

We knew he was watching. Lorraine’s giggles turned to snorts.

“Let’s give him a proper show.”

Do you have any tried and tested writing workouts which help get you motivated to keep writing and whip you into shape?

Never Judge a Book by Its Cover

It’s a cliché but so true. Whether or not I try to convince myself that I’m open-minded about my reading choices, there’s no doubt that I’m as biased as the next person when it comes to making a split second decision on whether a book is for me or not based on a quick glance at the cover.

Since finishing my MLitt course and enjoying not being tied to a uni reading list, I’ve deliberately picked out books that are a bit lighter in tone. However, I draw the line at chick lit with candy pink covers as I’ve never been a fan of fluffy story-lines involving girl meets boy whilst strutting around in stilettos and carrying designer handbags, fate stops them getting together, blah, blah, blah, they finally become a couple and live happily ever after. The End.

That’s why I would have placed Me Before You by Jojo Moyes  back on the shelf. The artwork screams of formulaic chick lit. And yet I kept reading great reviews about this book and curiosity got the better of me (although I won’t be using that excuse to ever read Fifty Shades of Grey!).

The plot doesn’t sound like your usual chick lit scenario and I wondered if the issue of the right to die would be given the proper treatment. I wasn’t disappointed. The relationship between the main characters, Will a quadriplegic and his carer, Louisa are very sensitively played out and they quickly became engaging characters that I cared about- the ultimate wish a writer has for their readers. And the proof of this was that I ended up blubbing at the end of the book. I can’t remember the last time I cried after reaching the climax of a book and for me this is a huge indication of the quality of the writing that it can create emotion in someone as cynical as me.

At the end of the book, there’s a Q and A section with Jojo which I found very interesting. She admits that she was wary of writing about such a controversial topic but the bit that struck a chord most with me was when she said, “you have to write the book that is burning inside you”. Right now, I’m not 100% sure that my WIP is THE story that I should tell. I’m listening to advice from my unofficial writing mentor, Karen Campbell to put it to one side for now and to write something for sheer pleasure rather than pursing an on-going project just because I feel that I’m obliged to finish it. I’m hoping to find my ‘voice’ again and maybe also discover the story I NEED to tell, whether that’s the current WIP or something entirely new. Maybe I’ll  even open my mind to other genres…

So will I read more of Jojo Moyes? Possibly on the strength of Me Before You. Will I discount other books with pink covers? Probably, because despite this positive experience, deep down, there’s still a bit of the book snob in me. Have you ever misjudged a book by its cover?

Dissertation Deadline

This time last week was a huge landmark in my writing ‘career’ so far. I submitted my 20, 837 (new lucky number) word dissertation after months of work. To say that I was glad to reach the finish line would be an understatement. The deadline of the 31st of August was only three weeks after a complicated house move and the start of the painful task of job hunting. So August 2012 turned out to be one of the most stressful months that I’ve experienced in years.

Way back at the start of summer (if you can call the wash out weather we’ve had ‘summer’); I booked tickets to see one of my all-time favourite writers at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I have admired Mark Haddon’s writing since reading the brilliant ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ and loved ‘A Spot of Bother’ (the difficult second book) just as much even although it didn’t receive the same critical acclaim. His style of black comedy mixed in with social and ethical themes is exactly the type of writing I dream about achieving.

I was really keen to hear Mark but the event was smack bang in the middle of everything else going on around me and I considered just forgetting about the £10 ticket and concentrating on more pressing issues. It was my writing pal, Catherine, who reminded me not to let domesticity take over and the importance of taking a break away from the laptop. I’m so glad that I listened to Catherine’s advice.  The event was as fantastic and really inspired me.

At the time, I was feeling overwhelmed with constant editing and needed to hear his analogy to encourage me.  Mark likened editing to combing a very dirty and matted Afghan hound. He said that the first stage is getting the dog free of the muck and major tangles but it was a repeated process of combing over and over again before the dog’s coat could finally be glossy and silky smooth.

Mark also said that writing can feel like climbing a mountain. The idea sounds great and you set off full of enthusiasm but as the ascent gets steeper, every stride uphill gets tougher and you question whether it’s been a good idea after all. It’s only when you reach the top of the summit that you can turn round to admire the view and realise that all your hard work was worth it in the end. He also said that he once told a creative writing student that if he was having fun, then the writing wasn’t working. All these little snippets of inspiration helped motivate me on the last steps up the mountain that was my dissertation.

Not only did Mark’s appearance at the Book Festival offer me encouragement and  another new book (The Red House) to be added to my Everest proportioned TBR pile (To Be Read, not a nasty disease as Angels feared I’d caught) but hubby and I also had a lovely visit to Café Andaluz on George Street for delicious tapas and amazing desserts (any excuse to stick my face in the feeding trough).

The motto of this blog post is, if in doubt, do it! Don’t miss out on an opportunity, it might be the pick-me-up at a time when you need it most.

Writing is Revision

Moving house is stressful, no one can argue with that but just in case I wasn’t suffering enough, I’ve also got to edit the draft of the 20k word dissertation for my MLitt course and submit the final ms by the deadline of the end of August.

It was only after receiving comments from my dissertation supervisor that I realised that my draft was a rough draft with a capital ‘R’. The feedback was hard to swallow but once I’d nursed my bruised ego, I accepted that there was a lot of room for improvement.

The supervisor’s link to Necessary Fiction and a brilliant article, Thoughts on Revision, by Aaron Gilbreath which helped me accept that “good stuff takes time” and I agree with his view that “writing is revision”.

So in amongst the packing boxes, mostly still sealed up, I’m slowly (tick tock tick tock) but surely working my way through the edits, hoping that my changes are making it better and not worse! Editing is not easy, especially when you’ve gone over the same section again and again. And you have to remind yourself of William Faulkner’s classic advice to be prepared to “kill your darlings”; no matter how long it took you to write, if it doesn’t work, it needs to go! Be bold and get chopping!

But the one tip that I’m putting into practise is to read my writing out loud to get a feel for the rhythm of the words. There was one word used throughout my supervisor’s feedback and it was “awkward”, mainly in relation to dialogue. It was only when I read the dialogue aloud (it’s not unusual for me to talk to myself these days) that I could hear that the words were indeed clumsy and clunky.

I no longer look with critical eyes at my writing but also with critical ears, even if you feel like an eejit when you’re reading your work out to an empty room, try it and you’ll instantly hear if the sentence structure works then ALL you have to do is fix it!

How do you edit your writing? Are you willing to “kill your darlings” to make your writing stronger? What are your editing top tips?

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!