Book Review: The Twins by Saskia Sarginson

Hello Readers!

Today, I finished reading the psychological-thriller ‘The Twins’, by Saskia Sarginson. I have written a review below which follows my usual ‘review from a writer’s perspective’. Instead of reviewing from a plot-based ‘this-is-what-happens next’ perspective, I review ad-hoc elements of a book which help me to develop as a writer. I capture notes on setting, character dialogue, theme and plot, along with all of the other elements, as I read, and I put them together into one big review. The review does contain spoilers, so if you intend on reading the book then please do so first. But please also visit again as I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I absolutely loved this debut novel from Saskia Sarginson. I purchased the book from a charity shop (as I love the re-use, re-love technique!), having been drawn in by the title, ‘The Twins’, and the accompanying image of two twin girls sitting side by side. I think the appeal was not only in the subject of twins and the psychology that exists between them, which I find fascinating, but I also think that at the time of buying, my mind was dwelling on another book that I had read a few years previous, which was also based on the subject of twins, and which I had loved. The book was ‘My Fearful Symmetry’, by Audrey Niffenegger.

Firstly, I must confess that I did find ‘The Twins’ difficult to connect with in the first few chapters, and at this point I was wondering if I was actually going to like the book. But I persevered, and I am so glad that I did! This really does show that you have to stick with a book in those times when you just want to give up!

The first person is told from the twins – Viola’s and Isolate’s perspectives, from the time of childhood to early adulthood. These perspectives are broken down into scenes in chapters and are given no particular order. Sometimes I did have to work out who was speaking, while other times it was made obvious from the outset. I feel that this haphazard technique (as opposed to ordered novels) made the book very interesting and natural. Sometimes we were thrown a little section of adulthood right in the middle of childhood, which I found brought the memory and the present day closer. We tend to see this technique a lot in films; where the scenes flick from past to present. I guess that sometimes showing memory and present day so close together gives both more emotional punch at that particular time (rather than spacing those connections chapters apart).

I am a huge fan of psychological thrillers, and I quite often love a character to be the leader over plot. I felt that in this book, plot and character were of equal measure, which was refreshing. I found that it took a bit of time to fall in love with the characters, but I think this goes with most books. May be humans need time to pass by in order for us to connect emotionally with a story, the more we become familiar with it. I am not entirely sure when the pivotal point was that I felt I began to love the characters – but it might well have been during Rose’s (their Mother) every day routines, and during her dialogue to her daughters. Rose came across as natural and wild which was a change from the familiar ‘heart in the right place / faced with a problem that tests him/her to the limit’ characters that we see in these genres.

I found the book had a huge emotional impact on me. The memories that were described in the present day (after us going through those events in real times in their childhood) is what had achieved this. There is a power in repetition – of living through an event and then re-living it through memory later on in years. Another powerful element was the use of showing ‘handwritten letters’ from one character to another. When a handwritten letter is used, we have the perfect medium of seeing how a character feels about another character, as opposed to a character speaking out how they feel through dialogue. The latter doesn’t quite have the same emotional impact as the first.

I loved how Saskia described location and setting, and how she used it during action and time of character reflection. Her choice of the natural world – the sea and beach, the trees and skies – were all perfect for the mood of the scenes and the story as a whole. The tower was particularly atmospheric too which to me made a connection to the dark fairy tales of childhood.

I thought the biggest negative element of the book was the inclusion of a storm at the end. The storm was used in order to stop the characters from contacting each other at a very crucial moment. This is a method used a lot in horror film. I think horror film gets away with it to a certain degree (as it adds to the fear and drama), but sometimes in books, I see it as somewhat cheating the reader. It is as though the story has been left to wander alone, left to chance, beyond character control. If there hadn’t been a storm for instance, then what would have happened? Would the characters have made a different choice? I suppose we could see that as being life in general – the cause and effect of our every day?

There was definitely a sadness to the book – a feeling of time lost, of regrets, of wanting to grab back the past. This is a universal emotion of which we can all relate. I also believe that it is one of the most powerful emotions in fiction – forcing our hearts to ponder over our own lives and experiences in the same way. Although we are living the characters experience, we are also very much living our own too. A parallel power.

The story also had a coming-of-age theme. We see the twins grow up and discover the twin boys as friends and first loves. We are also shown the dark side of eating disorders and how these can develop. Saskia approaches this difficult subject using such delicate yet powerful writing.

I would recommend this book to any one who has the tendency to feel nostalgic, and to those who often dwell on the past and daydream while doing so.

Before I say goodbye on this post, I’d like to give you an update on my writing and reading happenings. I have read seven books of varying themes this year, and my goal is to read eighteen. I have managed to review most of them, which can be found on Goodreads, but at the end of the year, I am going to write a 50-100 word review of each and post it here on my blog.

I have also been working on my first novel, which has been pending over many years. But I think this may be a good thing, because it seems to have morphed into something a lot more powerful than five years ago. I have an on-the-go file that I add to as I go about my day – popping in ideas on post its!

I hope you are having a creative year!

Will be back very soon!

Donna x

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Book Review: Arrowood by Laura McHugh

Hi Readers,

I hope you have all had a wonderful start to the year. I returned to work in January, after spending 15th ‘marvellous’ months on maternity leave with my daughter, Delilah. Returning to work in the first week brought on two emotions that seemed to clash. In one sense, I had felt sad to leave my baby and I had a fear of losing the close bond we’d created over the months. In another sense, I was looking forward to returning to my job as a data analyst, getting involved with spreadsheets, and of course, catching up with my wonderful colleagues. I had thought to myself that ‘time’ would be the only thing that could fuse together these two emotions into a ‘right’ – a normality. Five weeks on and my emotions and the daily routine are balancing out perfectly. Delilah has a beautiful mix of nursery and playing with other babies, being with me on a work-from-home Wednesday, and spending time with her Grandma. She has a variation of days in her life that will hopefully create a roundness, a confidence in her, and the vital life ability to be able to adapt to change. I am grateful every day of my life for the good that I have been given.

During the 15 months on maternity leave, I managed to read 12 books. These books were mostly quick-reads, which were perfect to fit around baby’s short naps. Since the start of my commute into London five weeks ago, I have returned to reading novels. A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading a fabulous gothic-mystery-crime book called Arrowood, by Laura McHugh. I must say, I read this book on my first day back and the plot and characters had helped to take my mind off of the sad emotions that I was feeling. Books can be a fantastic therapy, and a wonderful escape from reality for a while! I have written a review of the book ‘Arrowood’ below, and like all of my reviews, they are written from a writer’s perspective; I delve into the elements of writing that I see in a book, which I then note down to help me shape my own writing. Instead of giving a normal run-down of the plot, I take out elements, and these elements may contain spoilers. So if you want to read the book, then I’d advise you stop reading now. But do please come back to read it, as I would love to hear your thoughts!

Arrowood is the title of the book, the the surname of the protagonist, and the name of her childhood house (also the central setting of the book). Using this combination ties several of the major elements of writing together, and it gives them a strong connection. We don’t have to keep questioning the title of the book as we read, because it is embedded deeply in our minds from the very beginning. Arrowood – how can we forget it! The protagonist’s first name is Arden, which I found to be unique and memorable – the sound and echo of her first name really fused with the surname and title of the book. Arden Arrowood – what a fabulous name!

Arrowood is a stately home, which has been occupied by generations of Arrowood – whom are mentioned throughout the book. This gives us a sense of history and that all important ‘past, present, future’ that I believe all books should possess. The past generations that are spoken of in the book, bring a sense of age and a past ‘liveliness’ to the home (which is a contrast to the quietness of present). I tend to look for contrasts in all elements of novels, whether it be a contrast of characters, weather, dialogue, location, theme etc. They help to give that very important ‘lightness’ and ‘darkness’ that the reader must feel. As they say, the sweet isn’t as sweet without the sour.

In the present day, we see Arden return to her former childhood home of Arrowood. A perfect example of a winning story trigger, whereby a character ‘enters a new surrounding and endures a new goal and life’. Her and her family had left the house ten years previous, after a devasting family event had hit them; Arden’s two baby twin sisters had gone missing at Arrowood. In the present day we see Arden return in an attempt to find and relive the life she once knew. She has a yearning to reconnect with the twins, to find out what happened, and this inner yearning develops into passive detective work (when she meets and interacts with other characters and uncovers secrets along the way). I guess the goal grows stronger and stronger, and she and we then go on to find out what really happened to her sisters. This is what creates the page-turn – those burning questions that linger in our heads – what happened? Are they still alive? In general, I find books that pose big and clear questions are often the books I finish (even if those books are somewhat boring – Arrowood isn’t one of those). As writer’s, we must ensure that before we pose big questions to the reader, that we connect the reader with the character on an emotional level. The reader must care about them, or at least be intrigued by them, otherwise the question doesn’t have quite strong a hold on us.

In this book, and sometimes in life, we learn that versions of a story can be kept and modified through generations – until the truth is distorted entirely. This can be from different versions of a memory, and also applying a different aspect to an event. And with new evidence uncovered, the facts can affect the present day and the future. This is especially true of childhood memory, which is something that affects Arden. She has a clear memory of her Sisters going missing – but then her memory is questioned by another character which then leads to her question herself, and thus it changes the course and events of the story. This is a great plot trick – whereby the reader is ‘on course’ and feels safe in his or her knowledge of the situation. The reader may even feel clever at this stage – as they feel that what they know is enough to provide them with an answer or several anwers to the big questions. Then boom! The reader is shocked as they are showed a new revelation, and have to take a new path and direction entirely. Being a step ahead than the reader is a big challenge for a writer. We must discuss every possible angle and answer of a story so that the reader does not feel fooled – yet we must provide a shocking answer that is both viable and acceptable for the reader too. This can create the wow factor.

As mentioned, the book mixes past present and future, and it shows us how all of these elements shapes us as the people we are today. The key message is that none of us can ever truly live in the past or the future, and that only the present is certain. This very second. We can store memories but they can never be truly relived as we once knew them – as Arden discovers. We can only really hold on to scenes and fragments of them in our minds. Memories can sometimes be clear and sometimes be blurred. If you asked ten different people their version of the same event, chances are they will all be different. This will be due to the different workings of our minds and how we use and apply our senses.

Lies and secrets are also a very big theme in this book, and they are explored wonderfully through character and dialogue. A character holding something back can prompt that wonderful thing called conflict. This occurs with Arden and various characters in the book.

All in all, I absolutely loved this book. But along with all the good bits, I must pick out one element that annoyed me – one which tended to appear throughout the book. I found that Arden’s experience of the setting she was in at that time (how she reacted to weather, the objects she was seeing etc.) felt like it disturbed the flow of dialogue between her and other characters. There is an importance in letting the reader know the surroundings, but I felt that there was a type of written pattern forming in every section of dialogue – and that each time I spotted the pattern, I turned to skim-reading just those parts. Sometimes ‘setting description’ can be a beautiful thing, but when it feels like it is padded out it has a different touch entirely.

The themes of darkness, loneliness, mourning for the past, and loss were very powerful in this book, and I would consider this to be the author’s strongest skill. I would definitely recommend this book to mystery lovers, readers that love a dramatic-old-house at the forefront of a book and a good old ‘missing persons’ plot.

I hope that you enjoyed reading the review, and I do hope that I have provided some writing insight on what I consider to be a fabulous book.

Whilst I was writing this review, I also managed to read ‘Strangeland’, by Tracey Emin. At first, I thought it was going to give me an insight into her work as an artist, but it turned out to be a fabulously shocking biography – in ‘memory-diary’ format. I have written in my notebook to follow up with reading a book that is based on her work. If there is one in existence.

I am almost approaching the end of ‘Thin Line’ by Michelle Paver, which I will be reviewing in the coming weeks. It is a mountaineering/survival/ghost story – a plot that intrigued me.

I look foward to hearing your comments and thoughts.

Until next time,

Donna x

No False Stops

With the long crawl of time a coldness in my heart a numbness in my mind I exhale droplets into the air and fast they fall like hail from clouds they smash to the ground I step to the platform edge I am a face of rage torn today my world has no tomorrow or no yesterday I am a woman scorned with no poems forged I hear countless raps of repetitive trains on repetitive mornings those early mornings when you are drinking water to wash the dust and dead skin from your dried-out throat and your dried-out eyes they no longer cry under the fluorescent lights where office suits and ties weigh you up weigh up your life when you hide behind your frizzy hair burned out from under summer’s long stare styled in tongs for too long brushed a billion times until the fallen strands become a train pad for selfish suits to comfortably sit with their legs crossed their newspapers upright their eyes fixed on Financial Times numbers stocks and shares supressed in their minds I wonder how weak we must be to ride the endless rock the endless rap motion upon track and ballast the rap rock sound a dismal rap track a dismal ballad without love we stand on a platform edge swaying we stare at the back of knitted-hat heads in cold feet with cold heart with cold stare we wait for the doors to open

My happenings…

Hi Readers,

I hope you are all well and you are having a fabulously creative year!

I have been busy reading books this year (more than writing) and I am happily on track to meet my reading goal of 12 books. I have read 8 so far this year. This is not too bad with a nine month old baby pulling at the pages as I feed her!

I have been reading quite a few Quick Reads books of late which I have loaned from the local libary. I love to support my local library as I feel it has such a vital part to play in the health of the community. When I walk in I often see babies and children in the children section, either reading or attending a monthly class. I often see elderly people relaxing with a newspaper and students looking up books in the reference section. A library is a wondrous places for people of every age. It crosses so many paths and lives.

Today, I finished reading a Quick Reads horror story called ‘The Little One’, by Lynda La Plante, which I found to be excellent. The story was one where the paranormal meets human; a subject I am always fascinated with. Keeping in mood, but slightly different in theme, my next read is going to be another Quick Reads book called ‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’, by Simon Kernick. It is basically about friends who go out hiking and encounter a half-naked girl who cannot speak English. She is running away from someone and it is up to the friends to decide whether they should help her, even if it means putting themselves in danger. Ths synopsis totally grips me and I am so excited to read it.

I have been posting reviews on Goodreads for some time now. Some reviews are more detailed than others and some contain my views from a writer’s perspective. I guess that there are certain books that don’t leave much to say and so ask for a very simplified review – not to say these are bad books – but they are books that perhaps didn’t spark anything substantial to note down. Then there are those reviews in which I ramble and cannot get my words out quickly enough as I am filled with inspiration.

So what else have I been up to? Well in the beginning of July, I attended the amazing Buckingham Literary Festival, over three days. There I attended two talks by well known authors, Peter James, Louise Doughty and Clare Mackintosh – where I received signed copies of there books. These talks were super inspiring with the authors talking about their inspirations, how they approach writing and their thoughts on the Police unit. I have lots of notes on the talks, which I intend to write up and post on here very soon. I also attended two talks on writing; one on fiction writing and one on publishing. Again, I have lots of notes from these which I shall share with you in the near future. At the festival, I had been given a leaflet about a fiction writing class, which well known author Judith Allnatt will be heading. I signed up immediately and I cannot wait to attend in October. As writers, I think it is wonderful to find a network of people in the same world as you. There are so many wonderful literary festivals in the United Kingdom, and I am noting down Hay festival as a must visit for next year.

Readers, on a different note, have you heard of Trello? Last week, I discovered the Trello app by chance. It is a project management app, but one which I believe will also be perfect for my novel planning and research. With Trello you can collect all of your ideas, notes, images and keep them together in a given order via a card system. I am now using it for my first novel and I really think this is going to help me make quicker progress with that all essential ‘dipping in’ and ‘dipping out’ system that seems to work between baby feeds and nappy changes. I really recommend you try this app, if like me you tend to have bits of your novel everywhere and in no particular order.

Lastly, if you would like to keep up to date with my literary happenings, then please do follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Goodreads, which I use for all those little posts that I don’t necessarily want to use on my blog. I do like to keep my blog exclusive to my writing, occasional updates and book reviews. You can find me here;

Facebook Author Page link;

https://www.facebook.com/alittlebirdtweets/

Twitter Author Account link;

alittlebirdtweets (@alittlebirdtwee) on Twitter

Goodreads as Donna Henderson

I hope to see you there!

Best Wishes,

Donna x

Union Chapel

Crimson, mauve lights, flicker on smooth nineteenth century stone and converse in round whirlpools. The interval. A cello is off-key, eager to catch the racy strum and leg-kick of the bassplayer. Or is that just the distorted sound of Jazz? Eager mouths, alive with applaud, contort into triangles and squares in round stained glass windows. Hundreds of guts wreathe with laughter. And the white suited joker, mic taller than him, his hands reaching up, exhales his final line, his brow gaped in wonder at their very wonder of him. And I can feel the musk air that has likely never seen light, seep through the long varnished seating and into my bare thighs, letting out a shudder just like the kick of ginger root beer that catches my tonsils, my breath. I swallow, knowing that in this very minute, this moment, the world is sparkling and thriving and alive. I swallow, unaware we have escaped the gunshots, the explosives, the blades, only three miles away, or thereabouts, at London Bridge.

A new year…

Hello Readers,

I hope you are all well and you had a fantastic and creative 2016 – and a most marvellous Christmas and New Year celebrations.

I had an amazing year due to some big and spectacular life changes which I am going to tell you about shortly. These life events took priority over my writing and reading which is the reason why I haven’t updated my blog in a good few months – so I apologise if I haven’t managed to reply to your likes and comments. I will do. I promise.

On 1st October, me and my fiance Paul moved into our new house. I was heavily pregnant at the time so it had been a struggle for us both. But when all of the boxes were in the new home and the door clicked closed, we had let out a sigh of relief. We were in at last and we could take our time. Two months on and we are now practically sorted – bar a couple of rooms to be painted and furnished. We arrived in our new home in autumn/winter and we cannot wait to spend some summer days in our first garden.

Even bigger news than the house – on 23rd October we gave birth to our beautiful daughter Delilah, whom will be eleven weeks tomorrow. She was two weeks early and weighed 6lb10oz. I will be posting a photo on my facebook author page if you are curious as to what her little face looks like. Her character is developing very quicky and she is already smiling at rattles and toys and sucking her hands. We are so very happy that she will have her own nursery – a room that will be hers to enjoy for many years to come – and will no doubt undergo many transformations as she grows. We will certainly be filling it with many books. I want her mind to be filled with wonderful stories to stir her imagination. I am proud to say that Delilah has also joined the local library and has her very own library card – you can’t start books too soon. I visualise us spending many Saturday mornings in the library browsing the shelves.

Now that we are in January, and the festivities have come and gone, I really do feel that I can take a deep breath from life and begin to focus on my creativity again. I will be on maternity leave for a year and not only am I excited about spending this special time strengthening my bond with Delilah, I am also excited about the freedom that I am going to have to read books and write (in between those baby naps). Prior to maternity leave, I was commuting long-lengths into London, and tiredness would often overwhelm me and pierce my creativity bubble. I would manage to write, but most often with tired eyes. Although I do still get tired, I can honestly say that commuting and work is a tougher kind of tired than being baby tired. So I feel that this year is going to be a fabulously creative one.

Today, I started reading Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty – my first read of the year. I managed to read ten books in 2016, so this year my aim is a realistic twelve books. Instead of writing a to-read list as with previous years, this year I am keeping it random. Although, I do want to delve into more of Dean Koontz’ books. They always stay in my mind.

As always, I will be looking forward to staying connected with you all, meeting new bloggers and reading all of your wonderful and inspiring posts.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year,

Catch you soon,

Donna x

Book Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

​Hi Readers,

Yesterday, I finished reading the thriller, ‘The Girl on the Train’, by Paula Hawkins, and I must say that this was a complete page-turner from the very beginning. Before I continue, please note that the following review does contain spoilers. So if you are planning to read the book I advise you stop reading now. As some of you may be aware from my previous book posts, I tend to analyse and review books from a writer’s perspective; as a means to teach me to become a better writer, and this can sometimes mean giving away elements of the book.

The first thing that grabbed my attention with this book (and actually made me buy the book) was the title, and the fact that I am also ‘a girl on the train!’ I have commuted on trains into London for eight years now, and I have used different lines on the London Underground, depending on where I have lived. From the very first description of setting in the book, I was reminded of Putney Bridge (on the District line) and my days of looking out of the train windows at the Victorian houses and the roof terraces. The fact that you can see up-close into the gardens and windows of the houses had a strong link with the real setting in the novel. I believe that the subject of the train, commuting, and the passing of numerous houses on the journey is quite a universal subject in which every human can relate. I also believe that the universal theme is what makes the book so successful. It certainly makes me think of my own work and themes as a writer – would I want my work to relate to a majority of people, or the entire world?

The Girl on the Train is a straight-forward read when it comes to the thriller genre. The reading focuses entirely on the characters and plot, which every great novel should do. There are no over-arty sentences or paragraphs, and there are certainly no over-the-top descriptions, as with some other books that I have read in the genre. Although I am a lover of poetry and creative descriptions, there is a time and place when it comes to novels. I find that sometimes over-used description can have a detrimental effect on the progress of the story, slow it down, and often irritate me as a reader. I think a great solution is to weave in the beautiful settings and descriptions through the actions, which I think this novel does brilliantly.

The book follows the perspective of three women. Rachel is the lead character ‘the girl on the train’, and she becomes entwined in the lives of Megan and Anna, from what she witnesses on the train, on her daily commute. As a trio of characters, together they slowly reveal a love/murder mystery, and this occurs through different time-frames (dates and times which are printed on the heading of each chapter). I particularly love the first-person perspective in writing and it works wonderfully with these three characters; each of them has their own unique voice and personality, yet there is a similarity in voice that ties them together. Although the first person can be a restrictive point-of-view (in that you only get to experience the story through that characters eyes and thoughts) you do tend to get the strongest connection between character and reader with this view-point – because it is as though the character is talking to us, the reader, directly. I think had Paula only told us the story from Rachel’s perspective then the book would have certainly felt restricted, but the fact that we have three characters narrate, makes the novel much more rounded and colourful. And whilst I am speaking of characters, another element I particularly loved about this book was the small number of characters. There were just enough to make the novel interesting, yet not too many characters which can make us feel disconnected and confused.

There was one element in the book that I did find rather annoying, and this was the author’s tendency to over-mention Rachel’s alcoholism. Rachel has an alcohol addiction, which although is very relevant to the story and how she acts as a character, the repetitive ‘nipping to the off-license’ and ‘going to the fridge to grab wine’ scenes became irritating. When you find yourself feeling this way when reading, you have to ask yourself, as a reader and a writer, ‘Is there a need to mention it again? Does it do anything for the story, move the scene forward? How many times do we need to be told this? Readers are intelligent, and sometimes it need only take several mentions to get us to be aware of the character’s habit. I think it was important for us to be aware that Rachel was an alcoholic, and I can understand the repetitiveness to a certain degree, but I think this was one thing that was negative about the read, mainly because it took my thoughts away from the story.

Although I loved the book and it had me gripped, I must admit that I did find the ending to be rather rushed and very ‘convenient’. I got the impression that the author had written the ending first, as many authors do, and this was probably because of the faster pacing towards the end. The wrapping up of loose ends and any holes were perfectly applied by Paula, but I did find that the end suddenly ‘jumped’, just to meet the advice of the writing books. For instance, we know a character must nearly always change and learn something by the end of the story, but Rachel suddenly gives up alcohol for 12 weeks and moves to a new place without any natural push from the plot.

Overall, this was a great book, and I highly recommend it. Especially if you like your characters to be a little strange and if you like a little mystery that needs to be unravelled.

This is the ninth book that I have read this year, and I am so delighted to have read it before the movie is released in the UK in October – I can’t wait to see it! It is always a pleasure to get to read the book before the movie – especially when you get those spoilers whom tell you about the movie and end up ruining the book.

Until next time,

Best Wishes,

Donna x

It’s all happening…

Hello Readers,

It has been a while since I have posted on my blog, and this has been due to two very big reasons. Firstly, me and my fiance are expecting our first baby in November, and secondly, we are also due to move into a new house in the next few months (fingers crossed!). Two big life-changing events running in parallel. As you can imagine, life has become very busy with mountains of organising, paperwork and to-do lists! My head sometimes floats from one idea to the other, like a game of tennis.

Although my writing has been slack, I have been fortunate to find the time to keep up with my reading – which has been my welcome escape route when I have needed to switch off from all that has been going on. I read mostly on my London Underground commutes to work, and I get a good number of pages in over that hour and ten minutes each way. I am currently reading ‘The Skeleton Cupboard’ by Tanya Byron, which is an absolutely amazing read. Tanya recounts her life as a trainee psychologist during some short stories – which are all about her meeting and treating patients with psychological problems. Although they are recounts, obviously some of the facts had to be fictionalized due to patient confidentiality. The stories are very moving, even chilling at times, and if you love psychology then this is a must-read.

I am also reading a couple of baby books. One which takes you through the stages of pregnancy. And another called ‘Baby Sense’ by Megan Faure and Ann Richardson, which is particulary interesting as it delves into the world of baby senses and how they connect with the world around them. I have also been glancing through a baby names book. I am thinking that these reads will definitely benefit my writing with regards to character development and creation. The baby psychology that I have already learned could be very useful material should I ever find myself creating baby characters – a world I haven’t yet delved into! The baby names book is also guaranteed to provide me with endless inspiration in character naming too. The book gives a brief definition against the name which is always intriguing to read. As writers, we certainly know the importance of choosing a meaningful name for a chatacter in fiction.

I am hoping to get a new written piece of fiction on my blog in the next few days. The new worlds and new inspirations that I have encountered in the past few months can only but colour my writing (I hope!). 

I will still be visiting all of your wonderful blogs too, now and forever. I promise.

Until next time, happy reading and writing my dear WordPress friends.

Best Wishes,

Donna

Fluttering

May your golden wings fall from the sky,
Shatter into fragments,
At my feet.

May your fingers twist my wounds,
Prompt my arms to flail like an
Inquisitive insect.

May you whisper timeless lyrics,
Mutate them,
Into significance.

May the last nine strums of your mandolin play.

@alittlebirdtweets2016

Prism Dreams

I long to roll down the river called Prism Dreams; to feel the night sky percolate the open pores of my skin. But I heard that the riverboat overturned last winter; had kicked all of the stars out of kilter, had halted the flicker of dragonfly wings under a wearisome moon. I heard that life had become receptive to the fear that had flourished in the eyes of the submerged.

@alittlebirdtweets2016

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Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Hello Readers,

Last week, I finished reading ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed, and since then I have been organizing the review notes that I had typed into my phone whilst I read the book. The review notes were typed mainly on my commute to work, with my phone rested on the opened book. I was switching from reading to typing, which proved to be tricky in those moments when I had no seat, and the train had me rocking me back and forth!

In the past, I have had the tendency to over-analyse books whilst reading them, and this has been due to me wanting to untangle, discover and capture every writing element that I possibly can from the book. Although this process has taught me to better understand writing, I also think that it has slowed my reading, which in turn, has gone on to impact my annual reading goals. So this year, I am going to attempt to analyse a book ‘naturally’, rather than force the process. But, this will require me to have my sixth sense ‘open all hours’, and it will require me to capture those important messages when they magically emerge. During this sixth-sense process, I will look to capture emotional triggers, theme, symbolism, notable progressions in plot, character changes, description etc. And as always, I will include these discoveries in my reviews, to share with my readers, and other writers.

Before I begin my review of Wild, I would like to highlight to any new readers that might be reading, that I analyse and review books from a writing perspective (not from a synopsis step-by-step perspective). My reviews will certainly contain spoilers, (including elements of plot) so please bear this in mind if you plan to read the book, or watch the movie. But please do revisit once you have experienced it with your own eyes.

In a nutshell – Wild is about a young girl called Cheryl Strayed, who decides to backpack along the Pacific Crest Trail, in America, following the devastating loss of her Mother, the breakdown of her family, and the crumbling of her marriage. It is a non-fiction book, and Cheryl Strayed, is the author and main character in the book.

I have always had a fondness for books with an ‘adventure’ plot – plots where a character decides to embark on a journey, either for the purpose of escape and self-discovery, or because they are intrigued and excited by unknown lands. I have read some breath-taking books that contain such story-lines – The Backpacker by John Harris, The Beach by Alex Garland, Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. These are books that have certainly opened my senses, and have taught me more about the world we live in. These books have also managed to rekindle the child in me – the child that desired adventure – the child that had spent countless summer holidays riding her bike with her younger sister (and pet Chihuahuas) in parks, woods and streets, seeking an imaginary world far beyond the one we knew.

Wild is written in the first-person point-of-view. The first-person point-of-view creates the closest protagonist-reader connection. It is certainly the best choice of perspective for this book, and any book where focus needs to be placed on the main character and his/her perspective of the world within the story (and where less focus needs to be placed on the perspectives and thoughts of other characters).

Backstory is introduced mostly when Cheryl’s memory is triggered by an event or situation in the present that directly links to an event or situation in her past. I haven’t noted this connection with any other book that I have read until now, so it is certainly an exciting discovery. One example of the present-to-past connection is when Cheryl touches the image of her own horse tattoo. The image of the horse directs her thoughts to her Mother, and allows Cheryl to describe her Mother’s desire for owning and riding a horse, and her life with a horse that she had come to own later on. This connection allows the writer to introduce deceased and past characters that are no longer a physical part of the character’s life, but are yet still very much alive and breathing in his/her mind. During this process, the writer has the chance to choose the best scenes in which to capture the personality of that character, and the reasons for their part in the story. During the present-to-past scenes, we get to witness Cheryl’s childhood – scenes that include her Mother, Father and Step-Father and siblings, as well as her more recent-past, romantic relationships. These scenes contribute to the various themes in the story, which help to build on the reader’s emotional response at the end. These past scenes slowly teach us to understand Cheryl’s history, and why she came to journey the Pacific Crest Trail.

In the early part of the story, we see Cheryl prepare her backpack with various essential and non-essential items. As writers, we must ensure that an item we introduce in the early part of a story is introduced in the later part of the story. This is an essential element in writing. One of the items that Cheryl introduces early on, whilst packing, is a whistle – and later we witness her blow the whistle to deter animals. Cheryl decided to name her backpack Monster, due to its heaviness and burden (symbolic of carrying a load), and she learned key lessons along the way. Characters informed her that certain items were not required for the journey and were only weighing her down. Cheryl had also carried books with her, and so she learned to rip and burn the pages of books that she had read at night (in her tent). A list of books burned and those not burned are listed at the end of the book, which is quite fascinating. It is from these books that we are informed of other writers and poets that inspired her.

During her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl describes the changing scenery that she witnesses. It is in these moments that she gives the most beautiful and poetic sentences. As a writer, I believe that the best time to ‘play poet’ is when describing a setting. Cheryl describes the setting through her five senses. She describes trees and plants by their names, which definitely assists in creating good description. We know from the story that she came to know these trees and plants species either from her experience of living in her hometown of Minnesota, or from the guide books that she carries with her on her journey. This brings to mind ‘intelligence of the character’. As writers, we must ensure that the intelligence of our characters is accurately translated through their thought, knowledge and dialogue. We cannot expect a character to be informed about something if that something has never been experienced in their life. I believe it is a wonderful thing when a writer provides the reader with new, interesting, and factual information about the world we live in. It’s a gift from the author.

Conflict is a crucial writing element in any book. Without conflict, we have characters that are unchallenged, and able to reach their goal easily. As readers we want to see our characters stumble and fall, because it makes the victory in the end feel so much better. Also, as readers, we also want to learn from their difficult situations and understand what we would do if we were faced with a similar situation. On finishing a book, a reader should feel that they have been on that peak and trough journey along with the character, and that they too have learned from the experience.

Conflict exists in various forms within Wild. There are internal and external conflicts that challenge Cheryl’s journey – and these are all used to different degrees, from minor to life-threatening. From the outset, Cheryl questions her ability to walk the trail. But she continues, pushes forward, and finds comfort through her connection with nature and the universe, and through the encouraging words from characters that she meets along the way. The external conflicts and obstacles included; meeting / potentially meeting various dangerous animals such as mountain lions, rattlesnakes and bulls, encounters with strange men (as a female solo traveller), extreme weathers (that threatened her survival), a lack of supplies (water) which threatened her life, and external forces such as companies letting her down with deliveries (her new boots). During these scenes of desperation, the plot had me thinking, ‘Is she going to make the journey?’, ‘Will she be involved in a terrible incident, or even die?’ The suspense was great, and I was on the edge of my seat throughout wondering about her outcome. Internal conflict came mostly from Cheryl’s past, and with her having to deal with the emotions and trauma that arose from it.

Conflict also came from ‘trail’ information (dialogue) that was given to Cheryl via other characters. These were conflicts that would have impacted her future journey – conflicts such as heavy snow on the trail beyond, and wild fires happening nearby. I thought this added to the suspense of the story and boosted the ‘What will happen?’ question that was on my mind throughout reading. The information gave me a glimpse into the kinds of dangers that she was about to face ahead. At this point I was asking ‘Will she continue? The story was very powerful in capturing the past, the present and the future. I liked how the story lived in all three places in time.

As mentioned previously, Cheryl encounters numerous characters along her journey, ranging from fellow travellers to local people that live in the places she passes. Cheryl enters into dialogue with these characters, and it is through the other character’s speech that we see Cheryl from different perspectives. This really helps to round her character. Dialogue is a particularly strong method with which to illustrate other character perspectives on a particular character, especially when the story is in a first-person point-of-view. Cheryl meets and separates with several friends along the way. The friendship characters inform her about information on the trail, they give her tips on how to use backpacking equipment (such as an ice axe), they inform her on how she can lighten the backpack load, and they also provide her with words of wisdom, which helps to give her strength. Two characters give her spiritual mascots to take on her journey (a Bob Marley t-shirt and a Black Feather). The black feather acts as symbolism in the novel – meaning ‘renewal’. Cheryl also embarked on a 24-hour romance that highlighted her loneliness, and her weakness for men. It is something she disliked about herself, and by the end of the story we witness her change (as she doesn’t take up the offer of a date with a businessman she crosses paths with at the end of the book). Throughout the story, Cheryl opts to leave other characters in order to be alone, and I believe that it was in the moments in which she was alone that she was healing the most.

Throughout the journey, Cheryl reaches milestones, and we are told of them throughout the book. It is important to keep the reader on par with the time-frame of a story, and in this particular story the nautical miles covered was the most suitable form. We watch the days pass and the nights arrive, and this also acts as a great short-term time-frame. A day beginning and a day ending can form great frames for creating scenes. Milestones also helped her with her own journey because it was a way in which she could track her progress. The milestones also informed the reader of specific geographical places and the distances between them. Kennedy Meadows, known as the gateway to High Sierra, was one of Cheryl’s most anticipated milestones, and we really feel the distance involved in her reaching this particular point. As her journey progressed, we see how she began to connect with nature and how it helped to soothe her internal pain (pain from family, relationships, drug abuse) and external pain (ruined feet, sore hips). She grows stronger and stronger with each passing day, and her mind and body are changing for the better. Character change is such an important element in writing, and this book is a fine example of a character changing both internally and externally.

Cheryl witnessed her own physical change, in the form of a mirror. She glimpses a look at her new athletic frame, and she wonders how Greg (her 24 hour romance) will view her. She also experiences her own change in taste for food and drink, and she caves into luxuries such as Snapple lemonade and ice-cream. She turns to foods that she would never have been drawn to in her previous life. When she hears music for the first time in days (whilst being picked up in a truck), she realizes how much she had taken the sounds for granted. Cheryl is aware that she is changing, and the reader is given examples through several of the senses.

At the end of the book, she feels the desire to touch the Bridge of the Gods, the final part of the trail – this is the finishing moment – like the breaking of the tape after running a marathon. During the trail, she often contemplated where she would live afterwards, and regularly mentioned that she would move to Portland with a friend. She does just this, and manages to write this very book, both in Portland, and in other locations.

Cheryl tells us how she would never have known that she would be married with children, that she would have tracked down friends from the trail. This is definitely information that the reader would have wanted to know. Because the book was about healing and finding strength, we would have felt cheated without it. As writers, we should always be asking ourselves whether we are including everything that we need to within our writing. We should ask ourselves, ‘Will the reader have any remaining questions once they have finished the book?’

Lastly, there is one powerful sentence that Cheryl mentions in the book, and for me it summarizes the entire novel perfectly.

“It was the idea of not doing it that scared me.”

Wild was an inspiring and exciting read, and it is certainly a story that will stay in my mind (along with all of the other wonderful adventure stories that I am grateful to have discovered in my life).

Until next time,

Happy reading and writing!

Donna x

@alittlebirdtweets2016

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My 2016 Reading List

Hello Readers,

Firstly, I would like to wish all of my fellow blogger friends a happy and creative 2016. Let’s hope it is a successful one for us!

In 2015, I read 13 books out of a planned 36 books, which wasn’t a huge achievement, and is certainly something that I aim to make up for in 2016.

The low reading number was mostly due to other life commitments, and also due to a year of meeting and staying with ‘bad books’. By ‘bad books’, I mean those books that spark your interest several chapters in, but then curve-off in interest, thereafter. For me, the ‘curve-off’ has been mostly due to the plot either become boring, or me not caring enough about the developments or outcome of the main character. In these ‘curve-off’ moments, I have found my mind wandering over to grocery lists or gliding through social media newsfeeds. But even so, I forced myself to stay with the books. A regret. But certainly a learning curve.

*Please note that I use the term ‘bad books’ for personal use only. I am aware that although I might not enjoy the books, it doesn’t necessarily make them ‘bad books’ in the wider universe.

But this bad book situation we all find ourselves in from time to time, creates a tricky dilemma for us as readers. Should we abandon a book, or should we stay with it? I guess the best way to answer this, is to ask ourselves, ‘Are we reading for the pleasure, or are we reading in order to develop our writing skills?’ If we are reading for the pleasure, then I’d advise abandoning a bad book. But for honing our writing skills, then I’d advise staying with it. They can colour your world and shape your skills as a writer.

For me, there have been many reasons for staying with a bad book. The first reason has partly been for achievement purposes – for getting my book count in. I felt that after investing time in several chapters of a book, that it would be a waste not to capture that time spent reading. This is plain awful.

Sometimes the reason has been due to wanting to know if the character makes it through, or finding out whodunnit? This is a great example of when an author has created a marvellous main character, but has lagged on the plot. But as a writer, this also tells me that creating great, rounded, characters for readers is a highly important aspect of writing. It means that a reader (including myself) is willing to stay with a book even with a lousy plot.

Sometimes, I have decided to stay with a bad book long after that ‘curve-off’ moment, in order to identify the elements that I dislike in the book; so that I don’t adopt them in my own work.

I have always been aware of, and believe in, the concept, ‘bad books can teach you as much as the good books, when it comes to developing writing skills.’ But I do believe that the ‘reading for writing’ direction can really put a damper on reading books for pure pleasure. So this year I am going to read for the pleasure! I am going to crush my curiosity over character outcomes, and I will remind myself, that spending time on ‘bad books’ is time lost on ‘good books’. But hopefully, I will still identify little ‘dislikes’ even in those good books. Because my favourite saying is, ‘the sweet ain’t as sweet without the sour.’

I will be writing reviews on every good book that I read this year. How will I develop these reviews? Well rather than analyse writing continually as I read (as I have done in the past), this year I am going to capture those magical moments and natural realisations whilst reading, and jot them down in my notebook.

Moments such as when you stumble on a perfectly constructed sentence, a beautiful word, stunning symbolism, or a descriptive setting that has the power to transport you there. This year, I am going to let my heart take the lead and allow my analytical mind to rest.

Here is the list of 13 books that I read in 2015…

Life Expectancy – Dean Koontz, Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell, The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton, The Book of You – Claire Kendal, Daughter – Jane Shemilt, The Little Old Lady Who Broke all the Rules – Carolina Ingelman-Sunberg, Never Tell – Claire Seeber, The Hobbit – J.R.R.Tolkien, Death on the Nile – Agatha Christie, Fiction Writer’s Handbook – Nancy Smith, The Memory Game – Nicci French, A Place of Secrets – Rachel Hore, The Scold’s Bridle – Minette Walters.

Here is the list of the 44 books that I plan to read in 2016. I have taken some books from previous lists, and some books are brand new and in the book charts. As the year goes on, some books may be added or replaced with new releases or old classics. Also, Richard & Judy are always an inspiration with the development of my reading lists, so I highly recommend you visit their book club.

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller

The Quality of Silence – Rosamund Lupton

The Girl in the Red Coat – Kate Hamer

Disclaimer – Renee Knight

The Versions of Us – Laura Barnett

Revolution – Russell Brand

On Writing Horror – Mort Castle

Writing – The Horror Movie – Marc Blake and Sara Bailey

The Girl in the Photograph – Kate Riordan

Vanish – Tess Gerritsen

Eyes of a Child – Richard North Patterson

The Kind Worth Killing – Peter Swanson

Us – David Nicholls

Velocity – Dean Koontz

The Husband – Dean Koontz

I Let You Go – Clare Mackintosh

The Year I Met You – Cecelia Ahern

Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

Cilla – 1943 – 2015

Edie – An American Biography – Jean Stein

The Skeleton Cupboard – Tanya Byron

Want You Dead – Peter James

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

The Doll Maker – Richard Montanari

The Killing Room – Richard Montanari

We Need to talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

Never Knowing – Chevy Stevens

Trafficked – Sophie Hayes

Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty

A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth

Everything’s Eventual – Stephen King

Songbird – Josephine Cox

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff – Richard Carison

Tapping The Source – William Gladstone

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

The Orphan – Christopher Ransom

No Time For Goodbye – Linwood Barclay

The Dice Man – Luke Rhinehart

Nightmares and Dreamscapes – Stephen King

The Host – Stephanie Meyer

Black Eyed Susans – Julia Heaberlin

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

So there it is! I really am going to push myself very hard to read these books, this year. Several of these books have been sitting on my book shelf for years. At some point, some where, they had triggered my interest in buying them, and there is a definite sadness in letting the years go by, where they collect dust. It’s time to open those pages and bring the characters to life!

Until next time, I say goodbye.

Best Wishes,

Donna x

@alittlebirdtweets2016

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Torn

The roses in the garden were wilting, as though they were nodding their approval of your ignorance towards me. So I tugged them from the earth, removed their mocking heads, and threw them into the sad September breeze. The stalks they cried. The thorns they hailed. And the embers of petals floated back to me, and melded to my sweating body like greedy leeches. The embers still remain there, burning into my soul, like a wild and sorry tattoo.

@alittlebirdtweets2015

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Blink

A medley of Bach was the only thing that could silence her mind, in this racing city. She pressed the volume up on her Ipod. The iconic chords managed to dumb-out the sound of her heavy stilettos upon the pavement; a sound that seemed to mimic the screech of a pneumatic drill in concrete. She longed to hear the pigeons coo; but even they failed to take a breath amongst the madness. They bobbed past her feet aimlessly, in their search for mangled morsels. She watched one blink, and she winked right back.

@alittlebirdtweets2015

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Wildfire

If you were stood here watching my eyes, you would see a reflection of what I see before me,

Of smoking clouds punching at the forever seas, crashing waves to starry heights.

You see, there is an alluding mystery that pins me to this place,

Like a song playing on loop,
Tangled hair buffering in the breeze.
There is certainty in memories repeated.

If you were here, you’d hear me humming your biker name,
Stood in clad leather, a girl in the gang, your girl called,

Wildfire.

You would tune into the fine red threads that pass over my eyeballs like road maps.

And I know that you’d know, that they are red thread highways, carved away over time,

by my desert love.

@alittlebirdtweets2015

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