Campus/academic novels

I’ve always been drawn to campus novels, ever since reading ‘Brideshead Revisited’ during the summer of ’86 before I went to Lancaster University. I know Brideshead is not technically a campus or academic novel, but the most vivid part for many people, including myself, is the Oxford section where Charles meets Sebastian. So romantic and sweet and full of adolescent yearning.

In my first year as an English undergrad we studied post-war novels which included David Lodge’s How Far Can You Go and Kinsgley Amis’ Lucky Jim. These were perfect choices for this time of my life – funny, clever, satirical, experimental. And I found one of my favourite genres. I love that David Lodge was Professor of English at Birmingham at that time (aka Rummidge). It all felt connected.

Now, as DS1 prepares to go to SOAS, and as I await the publication of my third novel in a month’s time, I see more connections. Bright Stars could be called a campus novel in that it is partly set at Lancaster University in the 80s (yes, it is fiction, really). And Lancaster University is most definitely a campus, stuck on a hill off the M6, three miles from town. Thinking about Bright Stars and my experiences of academic life, I have been drawn back to the campus novel. Here’s my top ten.

1. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954). Still makes me laugh. A comic book is so rare and this one is full of charm and embarrassment and is quintessentially British.

2. Nice Work by David Lodge (1988).


I could have chosen any one of Lodge’s books but I went for Nice Work partly because of the TV adaptation and Warren Clarke’s portrayal of Vic Wilcox. A changing places of industry and university with a nod to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.

3. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson. This is the third of Atkinson’s novels and fantastic reading for anyone who has ever studied Creative Writing.

4. Starter for Ten by David Nicholls. Fabulous coming-of-age novel with more than a nod to television which is always fine by me. Funny and poignant.

5. Less than Angels by Barbara Pym. I could have chosen several of Miss Pym’s novels but went for this one, about anthropologists. Brilliant observations. Classic Pym.

6. Possession by AS Byatt. Not technically a campus novel but certainly set in an academic world. Multi-layered using different narrative devices.

7. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Just because.

8. The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury. A contemporary of David Lodge and also a fine example of the narrative technique of staying on the surface. Cutting satire of 70s academia.

9. Mary Swann by Carol Shields. Thought I should cross the pond, to Canada. I read this last year for the first time and was hooked. Such a clever use of subtle satire.

10. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. And south to the USA. A stunning portrayal of a post-grad love triangle, including a vivid account of the effects of bi-polar disorder. Wonderful characterisation.

I could add many more. What would be in your list?

Fire, Fire

soaps-coronation-street-sunita-alahan-dev-alahan-hospitalIt’s been a heartbreaking week with the constant media coverage of those poor six children who died in a fire that was started by their father.

Not to belittle the real life tragedy we have watched unfold over the last few months, but fire has also been on our screens in Coronation Street where much-loved character Sunita has died from injuries sustained in an arson attack on the Rovers Return. A female firefighter also died. And yes, it’s fiction, but fiction offer us a truth. and this truth is that there are evil people in this world.

I have just finished reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. This amazingly ambitious novel includes a large section about World War Two and the ARPs who kept watch over the safety of civilians during raids and who valiantly helped the firefighters rescue victims of the Blitz, a constant barrage of incendiaries and bombs that fell on London and other British cities for much of the war.

Fiction, real life… this all leaves me with a feeling of sadness for lives lost due to violence and megalomania. And with a sense of awe and pride for the firefighters and servicemen and women who put their lives on the line for the rest of humanity.

And I do believe that good triumphs over evil. We must not stand by and watch others do bad things. We must stand up, speak out and do our bit. However small.

Before She Was Mine

Nothing can beat a mother’s love – except perhaps the love of two very different mothers…

Freya is torn between her two mothers. Liv, her adoptive mother who nurtured and raised her, is earthy, no-nonsense. The total opposite to Melody: with her vibrant, explosive personality and extensive, brightly coloured wardrobe, Freya’s birth mother is still apt to find herself thrown out of Top Shop for bad behaviour.
Hard as it has been for Freya to try to reconcile her two families, it has been harder for her mothers. Proud of her mature and sensible adoptive daughter, Liv fears Melody’s restless influence. Meanwhile, forced to give up her baby when she was just a teenager herself, Melody now craves Freya’s love and acceptance – but only really knows how to have fun.
Then tragedy strikes, and the bonds of love that tie these three women together will be tested to the max. Can they finally let go of the past, and pull together in order to withstand the toughest challenge life could throw them?

Kate Long is one of my favourite contemporary novelists. She deals with the subject matter closest to my heart, the one I most relate to, the one I am drawn to write about myself: family. Her style draws you in, down-to-earth, funny, poignant, and her gift for characterisation makes her stories utterly believable.

In Before She Was Mine, Kate Long deals with adoption and the consequences of an adoptee getting in touch with their birth family. As a teenager, Freya tracked down her birth mother, Melody, through Friends Reunited and, despite Social Services advice, made contact. Liv, always loving and supportive, gives Freya the space to explore this relationship.

I felt great empathy for twenty-three year old Freya. Since dropping out of college, she has moved back in with Liv and works in a garden centre. She does a lot of the housekeeping at home. (Someone has to.) Liv and her fellow nature conservationist and partner, Geraint – who Freya claims smells like a badger – are consumed with newts, insects, and the poo of small mammals. Meanwhile Freya’s best friend, Nicky, is planning her wedding to a bloke Freya has a crush on. Her beloved uncle and confidante is hoping to volunteer abroad. And her on-off relationship with loser, Oggy, is on repeat mode. All-in-all Freya feels she is being left behind, no future or prospects.

When her two mothers are each dealt a tragic blow at the same time, Freya’s loyalties are divided and she finally has to grow up.

Kate Long is a  Jacqueline Wilson for adults. She has a knack of drawing you completely into an everyday world where everyday people are pushed to their limits. She navigates through ‘issues’ with sensitivity and in an authentic way. You feel like you are right there, in the thick of it, gunning for the characters. For anyone who enjoys Laurie Graham, David Nicholls, Kate Atkinson or Marina Lewycka, I thoroughly recommend Before She was Mine – and if you have never read a Kate Long novel, you are in luck as there are many more to devour.

Read this article about Kate’s own experience of adoption. Some wonderful family photos!

Arise Sir Bruce…

Great excitement in the Duffy household as Sir Brucie is finally knighted. For those of you out there who don’t know, my debut novel The Generation Game was published this summer and is in part homage to Sir Bruce and the other TV stars of my childhood. So I was thrilled to see that Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden are made OBEs – which makes a full set of Goodies as Bill Oddie got his a few years ago.

And Bernard Cribbins got an OBE too. I remember him clearly from the 70s … The Railway Children …. Jackanory ... The Wombles … what a voice. So glad he’s been honoured and good to know that her Majesty likes a bit of nostalgia too!

And from the world of literature there’s an MBE for novelist Kate Atkinson and for children’s laureate Julia Donaldson. Both very popular in our house. Congratulations.


Check out the BBC link for more details…


Go Brucie, go…