Wednesday 31 March 2021

Great Resources for Aspiring Authors

It’s not uncommon for an avid reader to feel drawn to writing themselves. Whether you’re writing simply for enjoyment or hoping to send your work out into the world, these resources offer some great opportunities to hone your skills. There’s options for every budget so no matter your circumstances there should be something that fits.

Andrew Wille DIY MA in Creative Writing

Many budding writers dream of being able to quit the day job and commit their time fully to writing, but life often gets in the way. The cost of tuition and the associated loss of income that comes with full time study can be major barriers to undertaking a degree in creative writing. Andrew Wille, who has experience of both working in the publishing industry and teaching writing, has kindly put together a DIY MA in Creative Writing, which he keeps up to date so any reading recommendations are current. This is a super budget friendly option. You might wish to buy a few of the key texts, but most books needed will be available from your local library.

Writers’ HQ

Writers’ HQ is another brilliant, budget friendly resource. They offer a series of free short courses that will get you writing and developing plans and characters. Throughout the pandemic they’ve also been running virtual writing retreats which are brilliant at making you set aside some time to write and connect with other authors doing the same. If you want to spend a bit more you can join their membership scheme and get access to their full range of courses, or pay for lifetime access to a particular course.

Tim Clare’s Death of 1000 Cuts Podcast

Continuing on the theme of budget-friendly resources, Tim Clare’s podcast offers brilliant writing exercises for free. He has run two writing courses within the podcast - Couch to 80k, and the 100 Day Writing Challenge. By following along with each episode you’ll soon find yourself with a notebook full of writing and, hopefully, a solid writing habit. Other episodes include more broad musings on life as a writer and interviews with other published authors. 


I discovered FutureLearn quite early on in its history and have been an avid supporter of it ever since (although my ratio of courses started to courses completed has sadly declined in recent years…), Again, you can access the content entirely free, but if you want to keep your access beyond a certain limit there is a payment option for that. Their ever-popular Start Writing Fiction course is brilliant for not only getting you writing but also sharing your work with other learners for constructive criticism. How to Read a Novel is another course that I would recommend for all readers interested in writing as it takes you through different narrative techniques, and looks at the James Tait Black prize shortlist to discuss what you’ve learnt in relation to current fiction. I’ve done this course multiple times for the updated content and enjoy it every time, as well as having found some brilliant books because of it. Keep an eye on the FutureLearn website because they’re always releasing new courses. Other bookish courses include poetry writing, detective fiction, and explorations of the works of famous writers such as Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and Robert Burns.

Stunning views from Lumb Bank


For when you want to splash out, Arvon is the place to go. In pre-pandemic days their offering largely consisted of residential courses and writing retreats as well as short courses and one-to-one tutorials. They now have an expanded selection of virtual events and free content that you can hear about via their newsletter. I was lucky enough to go on a week-long course at Lumb Bank a few years ago thanks to their grant scheme. It was honestly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had with writing classes, free time to work on a project, and one-to-one feedback, which I was incredibly nervous about but proved to be helpful and friendly. They also feed you delicious food and have a guest author come in to do a reading on one of the nights. It’s a great way to carve out some time to focus on your writing in beautiful surroundings and get to know other aspiring authors.

Wednesday 24 March 2021

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

Hailed as a feminist, post-colonial prequel to Jane Eyre, Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea gives a voice to the ‘madwoman in the attic’. Split into three sections, we witness Antoinette’s life before she met Rochester - wealthy but shunned by her neighbours, racial tension simmers. The second section reveals events from Rochester’s point of view in which he is variously accused of marrying Antoinette for her money and warned that he has in fact been tricked into marrying into a family with a history of poor mental health. The final, short section reveals the sad life forced upon Antoinette, locked in a room with only Grace Poole for company. We see the result of Rochester’s harmful behaviour, and for many readers this changes their views on the conclusion of Jane Eyre.

There is a sense of displacement, of living between worlds throughout. Antoinette and her family suffer for the ills of the recent past. She desires friendship but experiences rejection on numerous occasions. Rochester too expresses disorientation and has a clear lack of understanding of local custom. He is also callous in his behaviour toward Antoinette, refusing to call her anything but Bertha, attempting to erase her reality. We see the cruelty of removing her from her home, taking control of her wealth, and refusing to allow her even a room with a window she can fully see out of. So disoriented does she become in this prison that she can’t believe she is truly in England. She becomes increasingly disconnected from herself, unable to remember events clearly, and becoming fixated on the red dress that she links to her identity.

This is a short but intense read. Authors reimagining other writers’ characters is a tricky business, and many attempts fall short. Here Rhys has created a tale compelling to read whether you’re familiar with Jane Eyre or not. The themes and stylistic choices offer food for thought, and knowing the inevitable fate of Antoinette from the off can add a further layer of emotion. Rhys makes the characters come alive afresh, offering an alternate view of events in giving voice to the silenced.

Wednesday 17 March 2021

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

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Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,

Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,

One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

The book opens with preparations for Bilbo’s birthday festivities. All are invited but few know that the party will double as a farewell. He leaves Frodo his home, and with it the ring that he found on his own great adventure. Little does he know the burden he is passing on. Before long, his old friend Gandalf discovers the truth and sends Frodo on a quest that he may never return from. Armed with the Ring, a name, and a loyal group of friends, he leaves the comfort of the Shire, stepping out into the unknown, the haunting Black Riders tracking them at every turn.

The landscapes they travel through are vividly described and can be at times a source of beauty and sustenance and at others a barren wasteland with nowhere to hide from the evil that follows them. Tolkien’s world-building is second to none, imagining worlds of comfort and grandeur that you feel you could happily step into. The forces of nature are never far away however, dramatic weather impeding their journeys while other natural barriers provide protection. The contrast between the landscapes are vast and set the tone subtly but powerfully.

Tolkien created a varied host of characters with complex desires and histories. Sam’s unwavering loyalty to Frodo is touching, and although a lot of the humour comes from the hobbits’ naivety (and obsession with food), each plays a valuable role and all put aside comfort and a quiet life to help each other and ultimately attempt to save Middle Earth from the dark power of Sauron. Interactions between members of the Fellowship feel believable as they debate the best course of action and struggle to balance their own priorities with the aims of the group.

The book is littered with small details that make the journey feel very real. Frequently there is discussion of where they will sleep, when and what they’ll eat, and how they need to eke out the sparse supplies they have. These everyday details resist the temptation to focus solely on dramatic events and the story is more fully rounded for it while avoiding being bogged down in too many unnecessary intricacies. You feel the agonising decisions and sacrifices and never forget what a gruelling journey they are on.

The Ring itself provides a point of conflict. Frodo, the Ringbearer, shoulders the burden of it yet remains pure. He innocently offers it to those he believes to be better potential carriers yet proves himself just as capable, if not more so. Those of great power fear the corrupting influence of the Ring which only goes to highlight Frodo’s great strength of will. The Fellowship vow to help him on his journey but battle against their own desire for the power it wields. Boromir particularly finds it difficult to see beyond the struggles of his own people and doubts about the possible success of Frodo’s mission. We see in him more explicitly the conflict that is more subtly hinted at in others.

The setting and characters are richly evoked, creating a realistic and complex world. Tolkien writes in the foreword of my edition that many drew parallels between Middle Earth and the war torn world he was living in. He denies the War directly impacted the trajectory of his tale, but its subject is one that can be drawn into relevance across many ages of human history. Despite its size and serious content, this is not a heavy read. It had me chuckling to myself on many occasions. There is great fun and light to be found in contrast to the darker, genuinely unsettling passages. An absorbing read that will make you want to start The Two Towers immediately.

Wednesday 10 March 2021

WWW Wednesday, 10th March 2021

 The WWW Wednesday book tag is hosted by Taking On a World of Words.

The three Ws are:
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you'll read next?

What are you currently reading?
I'm about half way through The Fellowship of the Ring and really enjoying it so far. It's a lot funnier than I was expecting, and the hobbits are such likeable characters. I'm enjoying the relative comfort of the opening before it gets darker further into the series. I also recently downloaded the Walk to Mordor app, and although my journey is taking a lot longer to walk than read, it's a nice little side entertainment. Wouldn't we all love to be on our way to Rivendell to see out the rest of lockdown?

What did you recently finish reading?

This week I finished reading On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. It had been recommended to me as a brilliant non-fiction read so I was surprised to discover it is actually a novel, albeit one that draws on the lived experiences of the author. A reasonably short book, it really packed a punch. There were some deeply unsettling passages as well as moments of real tenderness. Characters were well developed and even if they didn't get a huge amount of space you got a real sense of where they were coming from and what deep impulses led them to the actions they were taking. There's violence and conflict within but also love and acceptance.

What do you think you'll read next?
It feels like a while since I've not known what the next few books I'll read are, the shelves of books left unread for years crying out for some attention. I'll either be picking up a non-fiction, probably in the shape How Was It For You? Women, Sex, Love and Power in the 1960s, or I'll finally start a book I've been intrigued by for the longest time, and that I picked up in a charity shop last year - Wide Sargasso Sea. 

Wednesday 3 March 2021

The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters, and Elizabeth Bowen, Julia Parry

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Duckworth Books for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

A death in the family results in Parry becoming custodian of a box of letters between her grandfather, Humphry House, who she never met, and celebrated novelist Elizabeth Bowen. The details of their affair had been passed down through family lore but the presence of these tangible remnants of their relationship compel her to go in search of them. Her grandmother, Madeline, is largely silent because she destroyed many of her own letters from the period, and yet her personality and intelligence is clear throughout. Often dismissed as dull and unintelligent by both Elizabeth and Humphry, Parry brings her to life in the pages of this fascinating memoir.

Unlike many biographers Parry places herself firmly in the book, discussing her physical journey to the places of importance to the trio, as well as the emotional journey her research takes her on. Coming to the book with no prior knowledge of Bowen I was able to enjoy the intimate family history, the discussion of how stories are passed down and pieced together, and the way voices are silenced or raised in the choices made by those who care for the archives. Parry makes history feel a very personal pursuit and the result is a book that will interest not just fans of Bowen but those interested in social and gender history.

Humphry’s affair with Elizabeth began after his initial engagement to Madeline was broken, but when their marriage became a certainty there was no question that the affair would end. He was painfully open about his dual romantic life, seemingly giving no thought to how either woman would feel being reminded of the other’s presence. He even went as far as orchestrating meetings between them, which naturally were uncomfortable events for both parties. Elizabeth was not impressed by his choice of wife and desired their affair to proceed entirely separate from either of their marriages. She was completely committed to making her success of her own but found sexual and intellectual stimulation outside of it, having many more lovers after Humphry.

Elizabeth is shown to be cutting in her assessment of other women and desires control in her affairs. She lays clear boundaries for Humphry but quickly breaks them herself. Through their letters we see high emotion and occasional jealousy, especially on the news of Madeline’s first pregnancy. The two gradually grow apart, and although their romantic attachment fades their friendship remains. Elizabeth seems to have gained a confidence from Humphry’s affections that propels her into a busy social life in London.

We see Humphry through Elizabeth’s eyes in her letters, supposedly worn down and depressed by marital and parental responsibility, yet coming alive when with her in Ireland. Despite this assessment of their marriage we see on several occasions that when Humphry and Madeline have time alone, especially when working on projects together, their relationship thrives.

Humphry does not come across as entirely likeable, frequently leaving his heavily pregnant wife to spend time with Elizabeth. Similarly, he leaves her to look after their young daughters alone, meeting their second for the first time when she was already walking and talking. We do not have written evidence of Madeline’s feelings during this time but it is not hard to feel sympathy for her, having given up her job and left her friends to move to Exeter with Humphry, she is frequently abandoned in a lonely, dank cottage.

Humphry underestimates his wife’s talents frequently. Indeed, he seems to struggle to take female intellectual pursuit seriously, being dismissive of his female University students. He does Madeline a great injustice in not appreciating her strength and active mind. She went to University at a time where it was not common, carried out meaningful work in the slums of London, and spent a month alone in Germany before their wedding, just after the Nazis had come to power. Her knowledge of German was essential to his work as he relied on her for translation. She later worked tirelessly on editions of Dickens letters, a project initiated by Humphry but which became her crowning glory. Throughout she shows determination and flare and refuses to be dismissed as a simpering housewife.

It is at times hard to believe the way Humphry conducted himself, but Parry resists judgment. She offers a fair and considered view of a history so close to her heart. This is a fascinating book made possible by the strong epistolary tradition of the participants. The letters are not presented in full, and Parry admits to editing to weave her own story, an acknowledgment that the telling of history is never without its biases. A brilliant tale of a complex marriage, and a chance to read previously unpublished letters, shining a light on a relationship that has otherwise been publicly obscured.