If you want something done, give it to a busy person - so the saying goes.
Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger was certainly busy in 2010: the phone-hacking scandal, Wikileaks, in addition to the regular demands made of him in overseeing a national newspaper. But it was also the year that he had set himself a challenge of learning to play Chopin's Ballade No1, in twelve months.
His account of this task, the book 'Play it Again', was given to me to review and, at first glance, it didn't seem a particularly accessible volume. Its size and the density of text, along with technical details about the music made it rather formidable. However, the book is presented as Alan's diary and insights into his life proved fascinating, inspiring and compelling.
Escaping into his life I found as appealing as any light novel, or self-help tome, and it left me feeling I could achieve anything. If he can make time and maintain discipline to achieve his goal of learning this piece of music, what is stopping me from....
Something to ponder though. Who is cooking Alan's meals, doing the washing, paying the bills, arranging the diary? If he is truly achieving all of these chores as well as maintaining his high-achieving life, I will be completely in awe. And the answer to making more time? Get up earlier. He refers to Arnold Bennett's book 'How to Live on 24 hours a Day'. It's next on my reading list!
I've read a couple of books recently which both contained an afterword by the author. Having enjoyed the respective stories - one a novel, the other a memoir - I continued to read the author's comments. Unfortunately, I found this then coloured my enjoyment of the book.
Both authors explained briefly how the book had come about. The one talked of a visit to a town where she heard stories of historical characters which she replicated in her fictional tale. The other author explained how her memoir was untrustworthy due to her poor memory, but also that a number of characters and events she had recorded were completely made up, because she couldn't resist telling a good story.
I felt a bit manipulated, a bit cheated in some way by both of these revelations; one because the fiction was based on fact, the other because the 'facts' were in fact fiction! But it occurred to me that if they had revealed the information at an author event, I think I would have felt differently.
These events are becoming commonplace, but they still appeal because you feel you are being treated to something special, intimate and personal. Sharing comments, almost like a letter to the reader, at the back of the book doesn't work in the same way, for me.
I went to the most amazing author talk last night: the legendary KM Peyton in conversation with Meg Rosoff at a dinner organised by the North Norfolk Children's Book Group.
Meg is always very good value as a speaker being quite irreverent, refreshingly blunt and with an often wicked sense of humour. KM, or Kath as we learned to call her during the evening, is similarly spirited, even at the age of 83. Together they made a brilliant double act which had the audience hooting with laughter.
And what a life Kath has led. She was first published at the age of 15 when her father grudgingly asked a friend to show Kath's manuscript to his neighbour, the MD of A&C Black. She was paid a phenomenal £75 for that first story and has written a book a year ever since.
Married at 21 against her parents' wishes, to a freelance cartoonist, she often had to rely on her writing to make ends meet and confesses these books were 'potboilers'. Husband Mike would come up with the plot and she would compose the book - he is the 'M' in 'KM'.
Mike was obsessed with sailing and would often leave Kath at home with the children and her books while he went to 'research' his books and cartoons. Sometimes, though, the family went with him and on one occasion was 'shipwrecked' off Harwich. Kath had flashed an SOS message, against Mike's wishes, and they were picked up by an empty passenger ferry. The Daily Telegraph reported the incident, stating the Peyton boat was crewed by Hilary, aged 4, and Veronica, aged 3.
My early teenage years are brought clearly into focus with the mention of KM Peyton's name. I recall going to the library to borrow the Flambards books and am still able to picture scenes from the tv dramatisation. These fond and powerful associations have been magnified by seeing the author 'in the flesh'. Meg says that if you love a book, you are likely to love the writer. As she and Kath have become firm friends, she says she has proved this theory.
It feels like everything is adapted from a book these days - West End plays like War Horse, Woman in Black or Matilda, films like...well, War Horse and Woman in Black, but also Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Hunger Games, Sherlock Holmes; tv drama such as - there's a theme here - Sherlock Holmes, Birdsong, Vera (the detective from the novels by Ann Cleeves). And if this isn't enough to fuel your reading habit, you can get a whole new booklist from the characters themselves.
I only managed to catch a couple of episodes of Mad Men, the American tv drama set around an advertising agency in the 1950s, but I read of its success. And I was intrigued by the re-release of a book first published in 1958 called The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe which was featured in the programme. Apparently the storyline had one of the male leads sitting in bed, reading the book as he sought to gain an insight into the lives and motivations of his female workforce. The book has subsequently become a bestseller and other titles popular in the period have been featured!
Or what about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? This feel-good spectacle of vibrant colours, beautiful scenery and fine actors was an adaptation of These Foolish Things, a book by Deborah Moggach. During the film, one of the characters is reading - the book is Tulip Fever, also by Deborah Moggach. I stopped myself from nudging my companion to point out this fascinating fact. (You won't be surprised to learn that I also revel in spotting continuity errors in films!)
Ever since we read 'The Woman in Black' by Susan Hill for book group, and discussed how modern ghost stories seemed to be rare and unfashionable, I've discovered more and more new fiction exploring this genre. Is it because I wasn't looking before, or is there a new wave of paranormal writing? And has this arisen because of the huge interest in vampires having sprung from the 'Twilight' series for teenagers, or is there another reason? They say that detective fiction is particularly popular when times are hard because its rules and resolution are seen somehow as soothing and reassuring when real life seems out of control. Do ghost stories fulfil some similar yearning?