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The Addiction of Books

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I love books.  I love that feeling of being completely swept up in a story, of lying in the bath, or my bed and being utterly transported to a different world.  That addictive escapist feeling is ultimately why I always wanted to become a writer myself.

 

Annoyingly, though, now that I am a writer one of the down sides is that I find it very difficult to indulge myself in my love of commercial fiction when I’m writing.  I still read, of course, but I’m picky, choosy and impatient.  Consequently, our house is full of towering piles of half-read paperbacks.

 

It doesn’t help that Emlyn often reads over my shoulder in bed and makes comments about the book I’ve chosen.  Or, he’ll predict the end.  God, it’s annoying when he’s right!

 

There are, however, a few authors who stop me in my tracks and make me guard their book preciously.  I start reading whilst cooking the kids tea, slope off for a bath for a few more chapters, go to bed early and devour the pages late into the night, or – the ultimate accolade – choose an extra big handbag so that I can take it to London on the train. 

 

One of these authors is JoJo Moyes, whose new book, ‘The One Plus One’ had me gripped from cover to cover.  At two o’clock this morning, I did that weepy sigh thing when I finished the last page and then fell into a deep, satisfied sleep.

 

JoJo is an accomplished writer who sets her stall out in such a way that you feel like you’re in a very safe pair of hands from page one – not an easy thing to do, believe me.  She creates a convincing and totally plausible world for her characters, all of whom have, at their heart, a wonderful conflict to be resolved.  She creates fabulous dramatic tension and has that knack of tugging on your heartstrings when it comes to romance.

 

Having tackled big themes in her books before – like voluntary suicide in ‘Me Before You’, ‘The One Plus One’ is about family, money and ultimately, the quest for a sense of home.  Her characters are quirky, but utterly believable and it’s a satisfying love story of redemption and second chances.

 

It’s a tough act to follow.  I’m really not sure what I’ll be reading next, but in the meantime, I must get some work of my own done…

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These I have loved…

It’s an exciting day here in Rees Towers.  This morning, the typeset page proofs of Emlyn’s new thriller, Hunted, arrived.  It’s always a great moment for an author, when you see your work professionally set out.  When it’s no longer a file on your computer, with your silly font on the title page, but instead looks like a real life book.

It arrived by special delivery.  (A miracle in itself.  Mostly, the van man sprints to the door and shoves a ‘you weren’t in’ red card through it.  Grrrr.  It’s become a secret obsession of mine to catch one red-handed.)

Anyway, the arrival coincided with the Little One in full tantrum mode.  She wasn’t in my good books anyway, having back head-butted me – twice – in two separate wake-up calls during the night.  She’d just protest-blown chunks of dippy egg across the table, when the doorbell rang.  I dumped her on the naughty step on my way to answer the door, realizing as I went that I was only wearing a t-shirt and white running socks.  Not a good look, I thought, as I saw the postman impatiently peering through the glass panel.  I hope he hadn’t heard what I’d been shouting. He wouldn’t be nominating me for a good parenting award any time soon.

Then everything changed.  The package was handed over reverentially.  When I saw the Publisher’s insignia and felt the neat block of pages inside, I called for Emlyn, who was out of bed in a shot.

Of course he ripped open the package and put the precious manuscript straight onto the egg smeared table, before I could say anything.  Doh! But we all oo-eed an ahhed anyway.  Especially after I discovered he’d dedicated his novel to me.  Awww.  What a lovely feeling.

Talking of lovely feelings, I went into the kids’ school to teach creative writing as part of their World Book Day celebrations yesterday.  It was great fun getting all my girls dressed up before hand – as Hagrid, Wimpy Kid and the Cat in the Hat – but it was only when I was actually in with the Year 6 class that I realized that the reason The Big One had insisted on going in as Hagrid from Harry Potter was so that her face would be almost entirely covered by a huge wig and beard – meaning none of her mates would be able to see her cheeks burning as I stood up and started the session in front of her peers.

I used a poem by Rupert Brooke and an extract from ‘The Great Lover’ in which he lists all the things he has loved.  It’s a beautiful passage. The kids did their own version and they all worked on ways of describing the things that are special to them.  Here’s what they came up with.

Wind in my hair                                                                                                          Cantering through the green lushness of a field; the soft giving                           Warmth of a vanilla sponge; elegant stone statues posing;                                            Icy blue droplets viewed from the red warmth inside; boating on a               Diamond-sparkling river; talking; a red caterpillar on a green leaf; a beach with Crystal blue water lapping at your feet tempting you in to swim;                    Gymnasts flying freely around the room; an explosion of exotic colours.

Purple snuggling under my duvet; the solitude of a garden;                          Welcoming metal Fingers; sheets of fur; the soft fluffiness of pets;                  Sydney’s intriguing eyes; canine tickling: a dog’s coarse fur;                                       The exhilaration of performing and the pleasure of                                                Getting the part I wanted; competing in a sporting challenge;                                    Sun shining, the feeling of happiness,                                                                    Splashing in the warm calming sun.

Exploring the lanes with my dad on a Sunday; my carved silver leopard; the Adrenaline rush of a perfect hand-spring landing;                                              Grabbing my pillow as the movie monster appears; a shower of red football Cheers;   hip-hop dancing; lemon-soaked sugary pancakes;                               Stroking my guinea pig; watching the water                                                         Twizzling down the plug hole of my bath; the smell of                                                 New paper; the luxury of a car; the tangy aroma of                                                       Wet paving slabs; a water slide squeal; and the radiant sun                                 Melting into the cold, crisp sea.

Oh to be a ten-year-old again.  I hope that’s given you a nice warm feeling too.

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The name game

If you were going to be an author, what would your pen name be?  It’s a fun game to play.  I’ve published books as Josie Lloyd and Jo Rees, but for my latest venture, I’m going out as Joanna Rees.  So posh.  So grown up.

Yep, finally, after all these years, I’ve left behind my maiden name and nickname and I’m writing under my full and proper monica.  The thumb twiddling is over, people.  It’s back to work for me.

This is what it says this week in the press:

Wayne Brookes at Pan Macmillan has acquired UK/Commonwealth rights to two new novels from Joanna Rees via Vivienne Schuster and Felicity Blunt at Curtis Brown. Rees will move from Transworld to Pan Macmillan for her next novel, TORN, to be published in spring 2012.

Brookes said: “Torn is epic storytelling at its very best, and as soon as I read the first chapters I knew I had to have it. Full of glamour, corruption, murder and romance, this is what a real blockbuster novel should be. It spans the decades, taking sibling rivalry to a whole new level. Torn is like your favourite soap opera all wrapped into one mammoth novel and will appeal to fans of Penny Vincenzi and everyone who found themselves devouring the pages of Kane and Abel.”

Rees commented: “I couldn’t be more thrilled to become a Macmillan author and delighted to be working with a creative editor of the calibre of Wayne Brookes. Torn is my most ambitious project to date and I feel very lucky to have the expertise of the excellent Macmillan team behind it.”

So there you have it.  Great news for what’s supposed to be the most depressing week of the year.

Anyway, I mention it, because I’ve started practising signing my own again – something I haven’t done since I was eight, when writing one’s signature endlessly seemed like an essential thing to do.  It helps that Emlyn bought me a Mercedes for Christmas – a pen – not a car (damnit). It’s a chunky silver thing with funky burgundy ink.  TORN, by Joanna Rees looks particularly good in it.  And they say writers are narcissistic…

But the nuance of names is very important.  Now I’m fully into writing TORN, I spent lots of my day deciding what to call my cast of thousands.  Of course, names do fall in my path.  The name of the bully in school – she’s in as the arch bitch.  The woman who was snotty about my credit card bill payment being overdue (not my fault)  – she’s in too.  You cross me lady, you get botched plastic surgery.

Seriously, you’d be surprised how many fictional serial killers are named after real-life traffic wardens.

Emlyn and I once did a book signing in Amsterdam and this very handsome man turned up called Fox Mulder.  It happened that we were renting his house.  At the time the X Files were huge and we thought it was great he was called after the lead.  It turned out that his assistant at work was called Dana Sculy.  He suspected that the script writers for the X Files had nicked the employee list of the IBM Corporate Law department.

So if you have any good names, sling them my way.  Today I’m after a New York wedding planner, an impotent lawyer and a Soho pimp.   I can’t use my ex-boyfriends, but I could use yours…? Suggestions please.

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Ball envy

November.  Everyone you know is really busy, right?  The world is full of harassed people, cramming in actual work before the party season starts.  But not me.  I’m in a writing hiatus, with projects awaiting the green light.  See these thumbs?  Officially on twiddle mode.

It’s all terribly frustrating and there’s nothing I can do, but wait.  You’d think, as the avid list-maker I am, that spare time would be a Godsend.   There’s a chocka-full Christmas present list, the Things I’m Going To Do To The House List bursting with tasks.

But the old adage – if you want anything done, ask a busy person – is so true in my case.  I’m dithering for Britain.

I should be used to waiting.  Waiting, after all, is a writer’s curse.  Mostly you sit at your desk waiting for inspiration.  I have various tactics for these times, my favourite – apart from writing lists – is the curiously satisfying task of de-fluffing my keyboard with folded over sellotape.

My beloved husband, Emlyn, spends his time cruising the BBC site, digging up ‘fascinating’ trivia facts with which to entertain and enlighten me.  Yesterday’s being that a new species of grasshopper has been discovered which has testicles which account for fifteen per cent of its bodyweight, making it officially the creature with the biggest balls on the planet.  ‘Imagine. Fifteen per cent.  That like an equivalent of a whole human leg,’ Emlyn said with a faraway look in his eye.

Gareth, our dear friend the poet, told us over dinner last night, that he too suffers from occasional bouts of ball envy.  He’s invested in a hamster to amuse him during the lonely hours as he strives to complete his PhD.  He pokes food through the bars and talks to his blind little hamster with its grandiose triple-barrelled name, Gabriel Dante Rossetti.  Gareth’s quite smitten with his little writing buddy, despite the hamster’s curiously large balls.

And talking of balls – and there is a link here – I’m pleased to report that my creative writing course started well this week.  I had a bunch of extremely talented twelve and thirteen-year-olds, who were an utter joy to teach.  I’m already excited about our next session together.

I’ll admit that I was a tad nervous before-hand, due to my entirely different kind of teaching experience which happened somewhere deep in the Winnersh Triangle, last summer.  (Which, for those who don’t know, is that oddly over-signposted area in the tangle of motorways just outside London.  Where, whenever we pass it, we can’t help but sing Barry Manilow’s ‘Bermuda Triangle’ and wonder if we too are about to disappear.)
I was speaking at two library events – one at lunchtime and one in the evening, and with an afternoon to kill, I volunteered my services to the English department of the local comprehensive school.

The harassed teacher who met me in the corridor during a stampede of kids, shouted in a war-torn kind of way that they were a ‘man down’ and hoofed me alone into a class full of texting, gum-chewing, blank-faced seventeen year-olds.

Scary.

It became immediately apparent that they couldn’t give a monkey’s that I was a published writer, or that my books have been translated into 27 languages, or thought any of my anecdotes were even remotely amusing. I started to feel like Naomi Watt’s character in King Kong, doing ever more elaborate tap dances and cartwheels to amuse the great beast.

I cut to the chase and got onto the creative writing session I’d planned.  This is all about accessing one’s seam of inner creative magic, I told them. They seemed sceptical.

I urged them to pay no attention to spelling, punctuation or grammar and banned them from crossing out.  They had to write.  Fast. For ten minutes. And even if they wrote ‘banana banana banana’ then their inner critic wouldn’t get air time, and eventually they’d get creative.

I gave them the first line to get them going.  ‘The shirt that he wore was…’
‘Don’t worry,’ I said, as they started, ‘Anything goes.  I’m un-shockable.’

Not entirely true, as it turns out.

At the end, some of them seemed to be satisfied with their endeavours.  I plucked a few out at random and read them aloud.  Then I picked on the smirking Goth boy in the corner.

‘The shirt that he wore was… tucked into a pair of tight black leather trousers,’ I read. I scanned down the scrawl, my cheeks flushing. ‘Inside were a pair of unfeasibly huge balls straining to get out…’

Oh God. I’d started so I had to finish.

Well, the best I can say about the humiliating – and lengthy – description of self-pleasure that followed, was that at least it included the rather lyrical phrase ‘squirrel coloured pubes’.

Afterwards, I ran to the car and called Emlyn, who was eventually sympathetic once he’d stopped laughing.  ‘You told them to write about what they know.  What did you expect?  What else do teenage boys do?’

Good point.

But I’m starting to think that maybe I’ve got a case of ball envy too.  Not the actual wanting of them, but the fact having something like to obsess about in the way that men do, would occupy my mind whilst I’m waiting for my news.

Do other women have ball envy too?  Do you?  Maybe we should set up a website.  A self-help group to find something bigger and better than balls, something that us intelligent women can singularly obsess over too.

Answers on a postcard/email please.

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Doing the ‘To Do’ List

Does anyone else write endless lists?  I spend my life writing the damn things.  I can’t help it.  I’ve even just bought myself a new Moleskin notepad for jotting notes down on my next book, and instead of exciting plot ideas and cool character names, it’s already filling up with ‘To Do’ lists.

The thing with obsessive list-writing is that I don’t find it particularly satisfying, even though on each list I always include something I’ve already achieved, just for the satisfaction of crossing it off.

I’ve been writing ‘To Do’ lists all my life.  I found a list in my parent’s attic which I wrote when I was nine.  It said:  Grow up.  Live in London.  Get married.  Be a writer.

How simple!  I should be thrilled there’s a list I’ve finally completed.  Even if it took me 30 years.

I think the problem is that my lists these days, is that they are so panoramic in their vision and not at all specific in their time limit, although it’s always my outlandish assumption that each list is a day’s worth of tasks.

Take today.  At one end of the spectrum are the small things I need to do.  These include: wrap present.  Send text about a play date.   Both list-worthy entries and not to be forgotten.  So far, so good.

However, in the middle of the list, is the whole bunch of every day tasks that are permanently repeated on every single list I write:  load washing machine, make kids’ beds, take out compost, unload dishy, go to supermarket, school run etc etc.  This stuff runs to a page.  I don’t know about you, but when I start committing the machine of life to paper, it seems absurd that I ever get anything done at all.  But the list isn’t finished there.  Oh no…

Because now comes the occasional jobs section of the list.  This section can get a bit out of control and can make me feel a bit panicky.  Today’s pressing tasks include: mow lawn, clean cooker, sort car insurance, put landing pile of clobber in loft, take jumble to charity shop, dry-cleaning, hire carpet cleaner….Stop!  STOP!  See what I mean?

Then at the end of the spectrum there’s the big stuff.  A hang-over from my nine-year-old self, perhaps:  Get a new computer. Learn to speak Spanish.  Put solar panels on the roof.

I think list-writing is an entirely female affliction.  Emlyn never writes lists.  Or if he does, it’s because I’m dictating the shopping list and he goes to the shop and buys exactly what’s written down.  No more, no less.

See, I don’t get it.  How can he do that?

Because I go to the supermarket and obviously I have a list, but  I never look at it.  Why would I consult it?  I wrote it, so I know what’s on it, right?  Wrong.  I always forget the one thing I went to the shops for.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that secretly I’m an off-list kind of girl.  I write lists and then do a fraction of the tasks on them.  So for example, the washing is still in the washing machine, the kids’ beds are unmade, I haven’t wrapped the present, mowed the lawn, or organized solar panels for the roof, but I AM off for lunch instead.

All of which leaves me wondering, why do I write these list at all?  Are they a job advert for a magic fairy, perhaps?  Or is it because I can control my world on a piece of paper and not in real life?  Or is it just that I’m a writer and writing lists is a justifiable literary procrastination?  Maybe I’ll put that on my list of things to find out.

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Falling for the big kitten eyes…

I’ve got a cat.   I’m in shock.  

You see, I’m not a cat person.  I’ve never lived with a cat, or owned a cat, and I’ve hardly ever picked up a cat.  But cats like me.  Oh yes, they purr and wind around my feet and snuggle up to me whenever they get the chance and claw anything I’m wearing. But I’ve never really got the point of cats. I guess it’s because I’m lucky enough to have a cuddly husband on my sofa and he’s already bald and unlikely to shed much more hair.

Besides, I haven’t got a great track record with the feline amongst us.  I once was cat-sitting our neighbours beloved old mog, when it carked it on me.  I couldn’t find the damn thing.  The poor neighbours were distraught when they came back from their hols to find old Pinkie rigid under the roses in the garden.  Although they never said anything, I had a ‘cat killer’ reputation for years afterwards and nobody ever asked me to pet-sit again in our street.

Then there was the incident with the esteemed author (and very good friend), who invited me and Emlyn for dinner to her fifth floor flat and introduced me to her pair of very noble-looking rare-breed Siamese cats.  She’d spent her whole book advance on these things and had just had them delivered from Harrods.  We’re talking posh pussies here.  Anyway, after we’d oo-ed and ah-ed for a while, I sat up on the kitchen counter and opened the kitchen window for a sneaky cigarette (oh, those were the days!) and the cat shot past me out onto the window-ledge.  I had to crawl out into the night, high above the North Circular to retrieve the damn thing, whilst my friend literally had kittens.  We weren’t invited again for some time.

So when it comes to cats (and dogs and hamsters and guinea pigs and even goldfish for that matter)  I’ve done the brick wall thing about having a pet, despite the kids begging and begging.  How can we have a pet when we come here to Mallorca for our holidays? I always argue. It’s just not fair on the animal.  It’s a holiday home or a pet.  A simple choice. 

And so far I’ve won. 

But they’re clever these kids.  Wily.  Canny.  They find ways of blindsiding me, just when I think I’ve got all the angles covered.  (They definitely get that off their father.)

So this latest edition to the Rees household occurred in seconds, before I’d even had a chance to order my argument and now I’m going to have to live with the consequences.

It all happened because the Middle One has been begging to go horse riding more or less consistently for about two years, so when she was invited to go to the riding school down the road in Llosetta the other day, it seemed churlish to refuse.  The “I’m too busy to get in the car and take you miles away to the countryside to an expensive riding school” argument didn’t wash, when it was dirt cheap and we were getting a lift.

Anyway, it’s a beautiful place with a backdrop of the Tramuntana mountains and it’s just what you’d expect a Mallorcan riding school to be like – lots of lovely looking Spanish horses (and men) and dogs curled up in the shade of the trees, a loud TV in the bar and cold beers on tap for the Mummy’s.  My kind of place.

Before long the Middle One was up on a pony who wanted to be near his mate and as I stood on the wooden bars of the riding circle, it was like watching the wacky races.  I never thought watching one’s kid on a pony could be so entertaining.

But meanwhile The Little One was back in front of the TV in the bar and had sneakily begun operation ‘covert kitten’, taking a shine to one of the tiny cats that were mewing around the bead curtain.  A litter had been dumped at the stables and needed homes.  And when the Middle One came back and joined in the cat love-in I knew that the writing was on the wall. 

Before I knew it, we were on our way home with the kitten. 

Emlyn, who was still painting the pool, rolled his eyes, when the kids explained that the cat would be living outside and would kill the rats in the palm trees.

He did lots of tutting at me, but I couldn’t really explain myself. Other than that when confronted with two sets of human kitten eyes and one set of very, very cute real kitten eyes imploring me to say ‘Yes’, I just didn’t have the heart to say ‘No.’

So ‘Misty’ a.k.a ‘Raffa’ (after Nadal) is staying for the time being and I’m trying not to get attached. 

Of course, I’m still going to have to train the thing to be a country cat and to fend for itself when I’m not here, buy a feeder, find a vet, get the injections and all that malarkey, but I’m already worrying.   Yesterday, he/she? (we can’t tell) disappeared when the tanker man came to fill up the pool.  I was convinced it had run away and had been squished.

But sure enough last night she was back for her dinner and was purring and winding around my legs and batting my flip-flops.

There’s a weird thing that happens when you get a new addition to your family.  You sit on strange places on your kitchen floor at odd hours of the night and all of a sudden your perspective changes.  You see life from a different angle, because he/she/it is so cute.  As in shamelessly, gorgeously cute in a way that makes you forget everything else.

The kids are all so smitten that I have to admit that I’m secretly basking in the attention I’m getting as a result.  They can’t believe that their mother was SO nice, that I actually let them keep a kitten.  It looks like I did a little bit of blind-siding of my own.  It’s made me realize that perhaps I should say ‘Yes’ to them more often.

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