Read of the year 458 BC

I always have such a huge TBR pile that I rarely read a book in the year it was published and am rather awed by people whose “best of the year” blogs are all about current favourites. However, even by my standards, my top read last year had been out there for a long while; two and a half millennia in fact.

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I think it says a lot about the events we lived through last year that so many books I read were either written centuries ago, or were about ancient history. The past seemed far safer, if only because we know who the heroes were who came along and got rid of tyrants, or which particular gods meted out their own brand of justice. My reading of ancient Greek plays was actually awakened at the end of 2015 but this was the year I finally read the Bacchae, the Oresteia trilogy and the Oedipus trilogy. They are all stories I thought I knew but I had never read the complete plays and was amazed by how much I didn’t know.

I’m also ashamed (due to how much I revere her books) at realising just how much of the ancient myths and texts Mary Renault seamlessly incorporated into her novels about ancient Greece. Now I know why Oedipus appeared in the Bull from the Sea. I long to go back and re read all of her books but have so far limited myself to The Praise Singer as being the one most closely associated with the days of Aeschylus.

Reading plays is not to everyone’s taste, and the skill of the translator can add – or detract – so much from the pleasure. I first read some Homer (a poem rather than a play – or of course a song given how we think they were performed) before I was ten years old. I’m ashamed (again) by how little of the complete plays I read when I got a degree in Ancient and Medieval History (it was too easy to just read the key passages that were quoted in lectures and text books.) In a way though, I’m quite glad. I’d’ve read them for the passages that proved an essay’s point rather than reading them for the love of the story or the language and I’ve lost count of the times I paused to marvel at the imagery they evoked and it was the Oresteia by Aeschylus, particularly Agamemnon that most delighted me.

Here are just a few examples:

Aeschylus, Agamemnon, P76, The Chorus

  • …., and feels
  • Pang and pulse of groin and gut,
  • Blood in riot, brain awhirl,

Do I love this because of my fondness/weakness for alliteration? Or was it reading Homer early on that gave my alliterative appreciation?

Aeschylus, The Choephori or The Libation-Bearers, P119, Just after Electra has said “O fierce flint-hearted mother” she goes on:

  • A husband laid unhonoured,
  • Unwept in a cruel bed.

And a few lines later:

  • And so my father perished;
  • And I, despised, unwanted,
  • Shoved to one side, and shunned
  • Like an ulcerous dog, let flow
  • Tears reckless and unstinted
  • As laughter, sobbing unseen.
  • Let this on your heart be printed
  • When you hear what grief can mean.

It’s always nice to find I’m not the only person to love “un” words.

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I do wish they hadn’t changed from the lovely matt black and gold cover to the glossy black one. Not least because of how hard they were to photograph together

Of the other books I read in 2016, Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Silver Branch was a favourite, and yet another source of bafflement (this post can only contain so much shame) that I hadn’t read them earlier in my life. Dr J recommended The Eagle of the Ninth a few years ago, it was one of the few books other than the Lord of the Rings that he read in his teenage years and directly led to his love of history and his choice of a degree and subsequent career – more proof of how important books are. I loved the Eagle when I read it a year or so ago and was both pleased and anxious to discover she wrote two “sequels.” Pleased because I had loved the book so much, anxious as sometimes an author seems to want to capitalise on a book’s success and spins out further adventures for characters who had the perfect character arc in book one and then have nowhere to go. The Eagle felt nicely rounded for me and so I was delighted to find that the Silver branch followed new characters only loosely linked to the first – in short it was a perfect sequel; adding and enriching the experience of the first book yet a stand-alone adventure that held me gripped with its plot but also her wonderful writing, here again were marvellously vivid descriptive phrases such as;

  • Salt-soaked timber
  • Smoke-blackened atrium
  • Storm-lashed woods
  • Smoke-dimmed sky

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Sparkling prose is of course one of the most famous things about Raymond Chandler’s books, the book covers boast famous descriptions that live in the memory long after the book is finished. He deserves a whole post of his own, how I only read him in recent years, long after reading other books or watching films that spoof his style of dialogue and hard-boiled detective; I’ve seen and been baffled by a few of the adaptations of his own books too but nothing prepares you for the joy of his imagery and characters and dialogue and the world weary jaded eye he casts over his world. If I’m honest, the Long Goodbye didn’t grip me as much as his previous books, I’m not sure I was in the right frame of mind for it and I look forward to a re-read when I’m not puzzling over the plot; but if nothing else, I can thank the book for introducing me to Gimlets. I have no need to worry about getting scurvy any time soon with all the lime juice I’ve consumed this year.

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The final books I shall mention are the Harlequin Romantic Suspenses that I read. I actually didn’t think I’d read as many as I had, because I read none after May when I became absorbed in finishing my own manuscript aimed at this line. I keep a record of all the ones I read with a brief review, purely for my own memory and to help me when working out why some books worked for me better than others and I’m pleased to say that all the ones I read last year scored highly with me. I have no intention of reviewing authors that I hope to be published alongside but I will single out Mel Sterling’s Latimer’s Law (they are arranged in the order I read them in the picture.) The first chapter of this book was entered in Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition in 2012 and it leapt out at me for its freshness, its voice and its complete unexpectedness. I entered my own first chapter on the same Romantic Suspense category but I knew from the moment I read Mel’s work that it was on a different level altogether – I said as much as well before voting had been counted and felt mildly smug when it was one of the 28 short listed chapters, and was proved right again when it became a top three finalist. I can at least spot brilliance, now to just achieve it in my own work…

And here’s to more excellent books (and drinks) in 2017.

The logic behind Tangent Alley

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In my blog post of May 13 where I assured people that I could indeed spell tangentially, I wrote a little about why this blog is called Tangent Alley – my natural verbosity and willingness to be diverted by any aside, no matter how irrelevant. I had decided to name the blog rather than call it FirstnameLastnameWriter on the grounds that I plan to use a pseudonym and have not yet finalised one.

I would have liked to call the blog the Long Way Round, as an acknowledgement of my circuitous writing and as a nod to some of the walks and photos I plan to post and blog about, however that name has been used for the motor biking adventures of Messrs. McGregor and Boorman and that’s not something I ought to get confused with.

“Where was I?” would be a good name. It’s a frequent comment in emails and anecdotes to friends as I try to find my way back to the point I was trying to make. It’s used to devastating and hilarious or heart-breaking effect in the radio 4 drama series “How Does That Make You Feel?” and I’m not sure I want people to make too many assumptions about just how much I might benefit from therapy

I could have called it “Oh look, a squirrel” in reference to a Bill Bailey sketch about how easy it is to be distracted. I find it impossible not to point out these cute creatures (yes I know they are just rats with good PR) and once cried “squirrel!” so loudly that the poor creature fell out of its tree. Oops

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Tangent Alley is a phrase my best friend and I have used frequently over the years whenever one of us has wandered off topic during an email. I was 99% sure I was the first to use it and she graciously said she didn’t object to my utilising it as my blog title. However, when I checked our email archive I found I had actually modified it from a Drop the Dead Donkey quote where the verbose boss, Gus Hedges, had the nerve to say: “I sense we may be straying down Tangent Boulevard here.” (I am counting myself lucky that I wasn’t inspired by other classic phrases from him such as “we’ve got to downsize our sloppiness overload” or “this is a rather regrettable gonads-in-the-guillotine situation.”)

My rather battered Oxford dictionary gives the definition of tangent as: diverge impetuously from matter in hand or from normal line of thought or conduct. Whilst an alley is a walk, passage or narrow street – one that I always picture to be full of twists and turns so that when you enter the alley you have no way of knowing what your destination will be.

For that reason, my first choice of photo above is perfect. It was taken on the Greek island of Symi. I think all Greek islands I have visited have old lanes that twist and turn and where it is easy to get lost (ok, so do most British towns and cities). I am sure I have read that on Symi, in the old town, or Chorio as it is called, it is deliberate. In the days when pirates or sea raiders were common in the Aegean, the lanes that seemed to double back on themselves could take an age to penetrate by which time the locals had had time to hide valuables or make their escape. There is a museum high up in the Chorio and it took several attempts to find it, and then almost as long to find my way back down – you’d think just heading downhill all the time would be the answer but it’s almost possible to circumnavigate the hill and still not escape.

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My other pictures are of a classic Welsh alley running behind a row of miners cottages in Abergynolwyn, and of a medieval street in Albarracín in Spain – a town made up entirely of twisting alleys between buildings three stories high which almost meet at their eaves overhanging the paths.

To return to that dictionary definition – as a writer, what could be better than to diverge from the normal or expected line of thought? Especially when writing romantic suspense. My sub heading for the blog, where a writer goes off-piste, is I suppose saying the same thing as Tangent Alley – oh dear, not only am I long winded, I am very guilty of repetition, especially when I think that dressing it up in fancier imagery makes it a different thought. Double oops.

Off-piste, as a skiing term, contours up images of speed and hidden challenges and dangers, not sticking the safe path or rules. When I added it to the blog I meant it to refer to the blog rather than my writing for publication; that I wouldn’t just post stuff about my writing or research, that it would cover reading, random photos or snippets of history that have inspired me along the way.

I also liked that it had, for me, espionage links. But on looking for dictionary definitions and conformation of this I drew a blank and wondered if I’d imagined it. I liked the idea because for many years I focussed my writing on espionage based romantic suspense and I adore the work of John le Carré.

The definitions I found said that off-piste to a skier means to go away from the prepared or designated ski-runs, and in general parlance to go off-piste means to deviate from what is conventional, usual, or expected. It is apparently a fairly recent phrase and peculiarly British, partly as American’s don’t refer to ski runs as pistes. Off the beaten track (or off the beaten path) are suggested as similar phrases, or describing a person or their activities as being off base.

I clearly remember it being used in an early episode of Spooks (called MI5 outside the UK) where a couple of intelligence officers were pretending to be a married couple and had a fixed cover story or legend. The “wife” elaborated a little extra detail during a conversation (I think it was about collecting china frogs) and was chastised by her “husband,” yes it added colour to her character but it wasn’t something he knew and he could have blown their cover. He told her not to go off-piste again. On doing a search for off-piste and spooks several instances came up, including an article about the most recent James Bond film so I’m not imaging the espionage link at all, hurrah. Its usage suggests that it’s often used to describe an intelligence operative going so far from an arranged plan that it jeopardises an operation, or suggests they may be a rogue agent.

But to end with, I shall post some pictures showing a more basic definition of going off-piste.

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Maybe I should just have called the blog Susan Booker writer rather than worrying about all these deviations…

Edited to add: I’ve been thinking about this since I posted it a day and a half ago and realised that as well as being a waffley explanation of my blog title and an excuse to post some nice holiday pictures, it does actually have a writerly point! I am horrifically guilty of writing the same thing in five different ways throughout my manuscripts, you know, just making sure the reader really does understand what I’m saying. Saying someone has gone down Tangent Alley, and then saying they have gone off-piste seems to imply the same thing – they have diverged from the normal or safe path. But to go off at a tangent implies an accidental action, and I certainly always try to return to the point I was making – where was I? To go off-piste suggests a more decisive and deliberate action, it needs skill and knowledge – of one’s ability and the mountainside – and will get one to a possibly different location, at greater speed and with possible danger.

To go off-piste with one’s writing could mean making bold and unusual choices, in word choice or in character action and plot. Knowledge of the writing rules and tropes would be essential before veering away from them. To go down Tangent Alley in a conversation or blog can be amusing and enlightening but needs to be handled carefully in a novel. Nothing annoys a reader like too many seemingly pointless digressions and they will soon learn to skip ahead; but an occasionally expanded scene or anecdote that quickly returns to the original point and makes a character or reader view it from another angle is always welcome. I wrote an accidental aside recently and then realised the imagery and story could come back to haunt the heroine a few chapters later. It actually made me cry at the emotion it stirred in my characters and it couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had that little trip down Tangent Alley.