Saturday, December 28, 2013

Reading Review 2013

In January, I wrote of joining Goodreads and undertaking the 2013 Reading Challenge. Now, just in time, I have finished the final, thirty-fifth book (Graham Joyce's intriguing Some Kind of Fairy Tale), and so I wanted to review a few of this year's most memorable reads.
  
Best nonfiction: Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest. I found this memoir of mental illness a little meandering, and I would have liked more focus on the therapist character to whom it's dedicated. Having said that, Forrest is a frank, funny and utterly fearless writer, and the book is full of insight and wisdom concerning a subject that, in my opinion, is not talked or written about often enough. For example: Time heals all wounds. And if it doesn't, you name them something other than wounds and agree to let them stay.

Best reread: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. As I wrote in a previous post, I was impressed all over again by Atwood's dystopian classic, and the act of rereading it stirred up a lot of emotions about my teenage years, and the closure of my old school.

Most surprisingly enjoyable classic: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I had heard from various people that they hadn't been able to get on with Heller's satirical World War Two novel, but I was giggling away from page one, and had tears of laughter rolling down my cheeks by the 'flies in his eyes' discussion. Of course, like all good satire, the clever humour ensures the unfolding tragedy hits harder, making this both one of the funniest and most affecting books I read in 2013. (Runner-up: Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy).

Biggest commitment: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. When I worked at Waterstone's, many moons ago, my colleagues were always raving about Murakami. I'm afraid it's taken me this long to pick up one of his books - or rather, three of them, for the surreal and unique 1Q84 was published as a trilogy. Although I did feel the story was stretched too thinly towards the end, I'm not sure I've ever experienced such a bonkers plot being told in such clear, matter-of-fact prose. It's an irresistable combination.

Most disappointing read: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. I try to finish each book I start because I truly believe I can learn something from every story, even those I don't like. Yet I found this novel so incredibly pompous and misogynistic, I'm not sure whether I should have struggled through to the end. Awful. (Runners-up: Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child and Robin McKinley’s Beauty. I expected to love these novelised fairy tales, but found neither really had much to add to the stories they were retelling).

Best children's/young adult book: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Having adored the author's Chaos Walking trilogy last year, I had high hopes for his award-winning A Monster Calls, and still the novel completely surpassed my expectations. I've since come to the conclusion that Ness just gets it: he gets teenagers, he gets stories, and he gets that the things that really scare us are more complicated and difficult to confront than any sharp-toothed, long-clawed thing that goes bump in the night. (Runner-up: Unwind by Neal Shusterman).

Best book: The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht. Recommended by the lovely Elodie Olson-Coons, I took to this novel straight away. I'm a big fan of magical realism, especially when it's used as sparingly and effectively as it is in The Tiger's Wife. I also love how Obreht has structured this ambitious book; the way she has blended the folklore and the fantastical storytelling with a gritty, realist narrative set during the Balkans conflict. Obreht is, I have recently found out, just a few months younger than me. Perhaps I should be envious of her, and the success of her first novel, but I'm not - I'm inspired.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Author Profiles

In my very first post on this blog, almost exactly four years ago, I wrote of attending a conference for Creative Writing MSc graduates, and learning the mantra: I am a writer. (Interestingly, an article entitled When Can You Call Yourself A Writer? has been popping up on twitter recently, and it's worth reading over at The Write Life here.)

Even though I now (ghost)write for a living, it sometimes still feels a bit odd to label myself a writer. I'm not sure whether it's because many people's idea of a writer is a JK Rowling-type figure - ie hugely prolific and successful, or whether being a writer is something I've wanted for so long that I can't quite bring myself to say it aloud, lest I jinx it somehow.

This week, however, a little validation (rare in this profession, and always welcome) came my way, as I managed to set up an Author Profile on Amazon, as well as update my existing one on Goodreads:

Author Profile on Amazon

Author Profile on Goodreads

Despite being published in Modern Grimmoire and Stories for Homes, it didn't really occur to me I would be entitled to a page of my very own on these sites until I realised others from the anthologies were featured on Amazon and Goodreads in this way. This timidity on my part took me back to the conference in 2009 that encouraged us declare: I am a writer. I think, in future, I shall be repeating that mantra to myself a little more often, in order that my next milestone as an author doesn't come as such a surprise.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Stories for Homes: Update

Just in time for Christmas, Stories for Homes has been released in paperback. As I wrote in a previous post, the anthology was put together to raise funds for the housing charity Shelter, and features the work of sixty-three authors, all responding to the theme of 'home'.

I am fortunate enough to be one of those authors, and my short story, Unsettled, is a re-imagining of a well-known fairy tale:   

She needs to cut [the branches] back, trim all of the trees that are creeping up on her house. In the early days, the young men used to help her, grumbling all the while about the decision to move so far in. It had been wise at the time: everyone had been running from something, everyone wanted to lose themselves between the branches. It wasn’t until they had built up the little settlement that they realised they weren’t the only ones hiding in the forest.

Both the Stories for Homes paperback and ebook are now available from Amazon (and would make excellent Christmas presents!) All royalties raised go directly to Shelter.

Leaflet by Debs Riccio

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thread

The November issue of the online journal Bookanista went live today, featuring one of my short stories, Thread.

Thread is probably my most experimental piece of fiction to date. I have been playing around with fairy tales and myths for a few years now, but have recently begun to think I can use them more sparingly in my work. With Thread, I started with a myth, but tried to write over rather than around it, hoping the original tale would show through in places, but not distract the course of my new, modern-day narrative.

A little taster:

You don’t choose your own story.” That’s what Mama had said, the real one.
Papa had grunted into his pipe, raised his gaze to the ceiling. “Let the children dream.”
Biting down a response, Mama had pulled the quilt tight over their little bodies, nudging them closer together to warm like coals in a grate. Then she had bent down, kissed their cheeks, stroked their hair, and blinked back the tears that were threatening to spill into the space between them.
“Very well,” she had said, while Papa puffed away in his chair. “But I will choose the story tonight, as I wish I could choose all your stories.”

Bookanista is a fantastic website packed with literary news, extracts, interviews and articles. It places particular emphasis on publishing new fiction, from both fledgling and established writers, and I am very excited to be contributing to it this month.

Guess the myth.

To read Thread, and the rest of Bookanista's November issue, head over here.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Stories For Homes, Homes for Stories

Every so often – though certainly not as often as I should - I go on a serious trawl of the internet for literary journals, magazines, websites and competitions, searching for places to send my short stories. A few months ago, on one such mission, I came across the website Stories for Homes, which was requesting submissions of short fiction for an anthology of the same name on the theme of ‘home’.

Immediately, one of my stories, Unsettled, popped to the forefront of my mind: it concerns a house, a community, and an outsider - themes I thought might sit well in the anthology. However, it is also a retelling of a famous fairy tale, and given that the book was being produced to raise funds for the homeless charity Shelter, I wondered whether the editors might want to stick to more realist(ic) stories to reflect the serious nature of the cause.  

Still it was worth a shot, I thought, so I sent off Unsettled with a rather sheepish this-might-not-be-quite-what-you’re-looking-for disclaimer, and was therefore doubly delighted when, shortly afterwards, I learned it had been accepted for the anthology.

(The story behind Stories for Homes – from its pitch to publication - is rather fascinating in itself, as described by Debi Alper on her website here.)

Given that the book was being put together for charity under significant time pressure, we writers were then paired up over cyberspace by the editors/organisers/superwomen, Sally Swingewood and Debi Alper, and asked to look over one another's work. Although editing is a large part of my day job, at the time of this request I was holed up in a French chateau with sporadic internet access (ghostwriting larks...) and so a little worried about how I was going to find the time/means to pull off a decent editing job.

Fortunately, I was paired with Isabel Costello, who I later discovered runs the excellent book blog On the Literary Sofa. Isabel’s wonderful story, Half of Everything, about a woman coming to terms with the breakdown of her marriage during hurricane Sandy (totally different to my fairy tale piece!) hardly needed any tweaking, so it was a very pleasant editing task indeed. And a useful learning experience for me too, because it's not often my work is edited by someone I don't know. I usually entrust it to a few writerly friends, but Isabel provided some really constructive and thoughtful feedback, which led me to look at my piece afresh and give it a good polish before its publication. 

I am very proud to have been involved in the Stories for Homes book, and in awe of the people who worked so hard to pull it all together. It's strange to think that I stumbled across its website when looking for a home for one of my stories. I couldn't have predicted that search would lead me to such an exciting project, one that will hopefully make a big difference to people in desperate need of a place to call their own.  
  
Stories for Homes promo by Imran Siddiq

Stories for Homes is available now in ebook form on Amazon for just £5 and I’m told there will be a paperback version coming soon. One hundred percent of the royalties goes straight to Shelter.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Microfiction: Thorns

A hundred years unkissed. Awake (back bent, skin gnarled, heart twisted), she dresses in thorns, becomes the witch instead.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ladies in Red: Rereading The Handmaid's Tale

It is 2002 and I am in my last year at school. I have dragged myself up several flights of stairs to the English classroom, the one right at the top of the building that becomes hot and stuffy in the summer, and I have thrown down my heavy rucksack, which is disfigured by Tipp-Ex eyes and yin yangs. The teacher is telling us that one of our A-level texts is to be The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I have never heard of it, or of her, and I’m not particularly bothered: the books we read at school are never as exciting as the ones I read at home, about quests and dragons and magic.

In that classroom, we begin to read aloud great chunks of The Handmaid’s Tale, our teacher picking on whoever is paying the least attention for this happy task. She tells us to listen to what Atwood is doing with language. I haven’t thought much about the way in which novels are written before, only about the stories themselves, and I shiver when I realise that the name of the book’s rebel movement ‘Mayday’ derives (just like the emergency distress call) from the French M’aidez: ‘help me’.

Over the days, the weeks, I become used to the way Atwood jumps through time, or drip-feeds information, or causes me to question the reliability of her narrator. She is playing with me, I realise - and as a result I am being drawn further into the tale of Offred, the scarlet-clad titular character, and her struggle in the totalitarian, repressed state of Gilead. I am not even giggling when we encounter swearing or passages about sex. I’m too engrossed in the world, too eager to discover what happens next. I cannot believe it’s a schoolbook, this bold and brilliant novel. I can’t believe it’s a book at all. I’ve never read anything like it in my seventeen years, and it’s changing how I think about reading, about writing - and about telling stories.

*

Recently, I read The Handmaid’s Tale for the second time. I don’t usually return to books, but I nominated this one for The Geneva International Book Club, so I picked it up again - with some trepidation. Dystopian literature is so very fashionable right now, most notably in Young Adult fiction (think The Hunger Games, Divergent, How I Live Now etc.), but The Handmaid’s Tale was written almost thirty years ago – what if it had gone stale? Or what if it simply wasn’t as good as I remembered?

In Atwood I trust, I told myself, and on a trip to my parents’ house dug out my old book from school. It has a plastic cover that someone – the librarian, most probably – wrapped around the outside; it has St. Margaret’s School, Exeter stamped onto the title page; it has pencil notes in the margins, made by me, long ago. Now I write this, I wonder whether I was supposed to have kept it. I’m glad I did.

Last month, my secondary school closed its doors for good. A small, old-fashioned girls’ school, it sometimes seemed as though it belonged in a time gone by; that was no small part of its charm and - I suspect - its undoing. When I heard of its fate, I was sad, certainly, but I quickly pushed the news aside. I suppose that it all feels very far away from me here in Geneva, both in terms of physical distance and the fact that exactly a decade has now passed since I left. But then I opened up my old copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, and not only was I back in that story, I was back in that school as well.

We were (young) ladies in red too, we St. Margaret’s girls. ‘Cherry red,’ it was called; the colour of our jumpers, the stripes on our ties, the ribbon on our blazers. But the hue of our uniforms is where the similarities between we and the handmaids of Atwood’s novel end. They live in a stilted, subjugated society, whereas our red world was full of words and ideas and learning.

It was around the age I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, in the atmosphere of that school, that I started to consider what steps I should take, in order to make something out of all the stories that kept popping into my head. In fact, I remember telling anyone who’d listen, with all the swagger that comes with having absolutely no clue what the Big Wide World has in store, that I wanted to be a writer. And looking back, after a decade on this path, I don’t remember any of my teachers or friends telling me that it would be hard, that my bank statements would be laughable, that the whole thing was going to be - at times - frustrating and disheartening. What would have been the point? I was going to do it anyway. Funnily enough, for all its dated rules and uniform codes, St. Margaret’s was thoroughly modern in the way it filled us with ambition, and then let us speed off in any direction we chose.

It’s nostalgia I’m feeling, I know this. Rereading Atwood’s novel has taken me back to a happy, formative time and my brain has conveniently edited out all the bleak bits. But I think, given the recent closure of St. Margaret’s, I’m experiencing a little more than just wistful reflection on days’ past. That time is gone for me – that’s how growing up works – but the fact that that school, that environment, that place of possibilities has now gone too – that’s the part that stings.

I should say at this juncture that the book is still fantastic - of course it is. At the book club, it provoked some great discussion, not only on the story itself, but on wider issues that need and demand great discussion: women, religion, reproductive rights, to name but a few. It has also been a boon to my writing, as reading the masters always is, for it has forced me to try and raise my writing game a thousandfold. Most of all, it’s made me think of myself, at seventeen. Fiercely ambitious, hopelessly naïve, what would she say to me now, I wonder, that girl whose notes are pencilled in this old book? Finish your novel, I expect (it’s what I say to myself now).

It is unsurprising perhaps, with all of this rattling around in my head, that in my reread of The Handmaid’s Tale, this passage stood out in particular:

We line up to get processed through the checkpoint, standing in our twos and twos and twos, like a private girls’ school that went for a walk and stayed out too long. Years and years too long, so that everything has become overgrown, legs, bodies, dresses all together. As if enchanted. A fairy tale, I’d like to believe.

Sometimes, when Real Life gets confusing or tough, I wonder whether maybe, like the Pevensie children, I’ll come tumbling out of the wardrobe, and find I’m still a young girl in a cherry red jumper, and that no time has passed at all. Only, that’s the wrong way round: St. Margaret’s is the fairy tale now, the lost place of our childhoods. We’re all grown up and can’t get back – and, sadly, neither can the children who were halfway through their studies this year, nor the teachers and other staff who dedicated so much of themselves to that school.

I hope it’s not forgotten. I think, after my strong reaction to rereading The Handmaid’s Tale, that’s the reason I started to write this: I want to remember. Memories, I believe, are important real stories that we have to recognise, learn from, laugh at, and - above all else - hold onto. In that way, I hope revisiting St. Margaret’s in the future will be as easy as revisiting a favourite novel: I hope I will return to it, unexpectedly, inevitably, over and over; that place and that time that made up so many chapters of the beginning of my story.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Vintage Script and Historical Fiction

I recently discovered that one of my short stories, It'll All Be Gone Tomorrow, had been chosen for publication in Vintage Script, 'the writing magazine for all things vintage, historical and retro.' Now, the edition in question - the quarterly magazine's spring issue - is available to order.

It'll All Be Gone Tomorrow describes two chance encounters between a man and woman, one at the end of the 'golden Edwardian summer' in 1913 and one a decade or so later, during the 'roaring' twenties. Both of these points in history have always really interested me, especially when held up against one another. As I wrote for Vintage Script's website'The First World War brought about huge social change in Britain, especially for women. In It’ll All Be Gone Tomorrow I wanted to explore the periods directly before and after the war through a female character who has unexpectedly triumphed during the turbulent days in between.'

What I didn't add, however (lest the editor change her mind and take out my story!) is that this is actually my first attempt at historical fiction. I've always enjoyed reading it, but ever since I began playing about with fairy tales during my Creative Writing MSc, most of my short stories have had a magical (or magical realist) feel. When the idea for It'll All Be Gone Tomorrow hit me, I treated it as a bit of writing practice, not confident of its chances of success, so I'm both pleasantly surprised and very excited to be included in this anthology.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Countdown to Grimmoire

Today it is exactly a month until the publication Modern Grimmoire: Contemporary Fairy Tales, Folktales and Fables, an anthology in which my story, The Mirror Child, is to be featured. In a faraway land (America), the book has been sent to the printer, and Indigo Ink Press is now preparing for the big launch.

The first exciting aspect of this is that I have an author's profile on their website, here. It's not vastly different to the one on this blog, but it's shiny and new and I like it very much.

Secondly, Indigo Ink is hosting a Poison Apple Ball for the release of the book. Sadly, I am fresh out of ruby slippers/magic carpets/floo powder etc. and will not be able to attend, but it looks to be a fabulous evening (the dress code is 'fairy tale formal' - imagine the possibilities!)

Thirdly, as well as a beautiful cover, Indigo Ink has released a longer description of Modern Grimmoire on their website. Now to be perfectly honest, up until this point I've mostly been focused on seeing my own story in print, however the below has made me pretty keen to read the rest too:

Awaiting you inside are the collected works of thirty-six emerging authors and artists from around the world. Through short fiction, poetry and artwork, you’ll meet a talking cat-girl and a girl that talks to cats; librarians like you’ve never imagined and royalty like you always have; an ex-court painter, an all too persuasive frog, and an out-of-work wolfman.

Some twist and twine their happily-ever-after predecessors in inventive ways; others craft entirely new magical faces and places. All collected, the anthology is ripe with sticky sweet revenge, altogether timely fates, and all-conquering (and conquesting) love.

… Modern Grimmoire has all of the makings of your favorite tales, Grimm and otherwise: the magic and mischief; the savagery and anticipation; the romance and cruelty; the heroism and symbolism; and the entertainment and enlightenment.

Bring on May 11th.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Five Female Characters

A few weeks ago, on March 8th, it was International Women's Day, and the internet was flooded with inspiring articles and stories by and about women all over the world. For my own response to IWD, I thought about writing a post on all the real-life women I admire, many of whom are writers, but then I decided it would be fun to pay tribute to the pretend ones instead. It was actually a harder job than I anticipated, narrowing the list down, but in the end I decided that the following five characters are the ones with whom I have most connected – and have most influenced me as a writer.

Hermione Granger

'I hope you're pleased with yourselves. We could have been all killed - or worse, expelled.'
       - JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Like so many, I grew up with Hermione, and what I always loved about her was, although she is famously clever and bookish, she is also brave, vulnerable, emotional, and stands up unapologetically for what she believes in. Before Harry Potter, I hadn’t encountered such a well-rounded character in a children’s book - certainly not a female one. I believe JK Rowling herself sums it up nicely in this (very interesting) discussion on the women in the series, when she says, 'In creating Hermione, I felt I created a girl who was a heroine. She wasn’t sexy, nor was she the girl in glasses who was entirely sexless. Do you know what I mean? She’s a real girl.'

Lyra Belaqua/Silvertongue

… Lyra threw her cigarette down, recognizing the cue for a fight. Everyone's daemon instantly became warlike: each child was accompanied by fangs, or claws, or bristling fur, and Pantalaimon, contemptuous of the limited imaginations of these gyptian daemons, became a dragon the size of a deer hound.
 - Philip Pullman, Northern Lights

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy contains the book that made me want to be a writer (Northern Lights) and the first book that broke my heart (The Amber Spyglass). Much of the story's power is due to its central character, Lyra, a prickly girl of twelve whose special skill is lying. I too was twelve when I read the first book and I had never encountered a personality like Lyra's before – in fact, I’m not sure I have since. She is perhaps my favourite character of all time; fierce and loving in equal measure, she remains achingly human in the face of remarkable situations and fantastical worlds.

Emma Woodhouse

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
- Jane Austen, Emma

The eponymous heroine of Austen’s Emma is a Marmite figure: you either love her or hate her. Generally, I find people much prefer either Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett or Persuasion’s Anne Elliot. Indeed, even Austen herself didn’t anticipate anyone warming to Emma, saying, 'I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.' It is true, Miss Woodhouse is spoilt, selfish, even cruel,  but she is also witty, confident, loving and determined to better herself. To me, Emma, is loveable precisely because of the flaws in her character and the way she comes to recognise them.

‘Offred’

I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. I want to steal something. 
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Atwood's best novel, set in a dystopian society in which groups of women are essentially used as breeding machines, is narrated by the character of ‘Offred’, the titular handmaid in question. As the book progresses, 'Offred' quietly begins to rebel against the system not with her fists, but with her use of language, which gives her a means of mental - and perhaps even physical - escape. I read The Handmaid’s Tale at exactly the right time: I was seventeen years old, in my last year at school, and just about to go out into the world and discover what it was to be a woman. Atwood's words, through 'Offred', showed me a character with a core of strength not immediately visible, and taught me how language could be wielded as a weapon against injustice.

Sophie Fevvers

'And once the old world has turned on its axle so that the new dawn can dawn, then, ah, then! all the women will have wings, the same as I.'
- Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus

To be honest, I could have picked any number of Carter's heroines for this spot, as so many of them are bawdy and wicked and completely irresistible. But I picked Fevvers, the Cockney circus performer who allegedly hatched from an egg and sprouted wings, because - outside of The Bloody Chamber - she was Carter's first female character I encountered, and I loved her. After all, why should a woman not have wings (or does she)? Why should she necessarily tell the truth (or is she)? Carter initially seized me with her fairy tales, but she keeps me coming back for more and more with fantastical and contradictory characters like Fevvers.

So there you have them: five women who are clever yet vulnerable, fierce yet loving, selfish yet well-meaning, quiet yet rebellious, impossible yet oh so real, and so many other things at the same time. And there are many more of them, of course (I'd love to hear other people's lists/thoughts). Having read an awful lot of classics featuring the angel/monster problem (looking especially at you, Dickens), I think it's so important to take stock of how far fictional females have come. In this way, it's quite apt to celebrate them for International Women's Day: their progress has, after all, reflected that of their real-life counterparts.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Reading Challenge 2013

Look at any article aimed at new writers and, almost without exception, the advice 'read more' will feature heavily. As a new writer myself, I see it again and again, but of course it's perfectly true. Barbara Kingsolver, author of the magnificent The Poisonwood Bible, puts it beautifully on her website: I learned to write by reading the kinds of books I wished I'd written. 

Last year, I didn't read nearly enough. In my defence, I work with words all day long, so picking up a book in the evening always feels like a struggle. Nevertheless, there was plenty to be learned from the few novels I did manage to make it through. Emma Donoghue's Room, for example, introduced me to the power of a good narrator, while Patrick Ness' wonderful Chaos Walking trilogy impressed me with its meaty themes, so relevant to the young readership at which it's aimed. And after devouring Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden (unfairly labelled a 'summer read'), a fully-fledged fairy tale popped into my head, which I promptly wrote almost all of in one sitting.


Thinking back on this leads me to wonder what would happen if I put a little more effort in and made a lot more time for books that I am neither working on nor trying to write. As such, 2013 will be, for me, the year of reading. A few days ago I joined Goodreads (my profile can be found here) and signed up for their 2013 Reading Challenge, pledging to read at least thirty-five books by the end of the year.

That number may not sound particularly earth-shattering, but I'm hoping to go for a bit of variety with my reading this year, mixing up female authors with male, modern fiction with classics, fantasy stories with reality and maybe even try out a little non-fiction and (gasp!) poetry. Of course, it's not exactly an unpleasant or even academic exercise - I love reading, so mostly it'll just be fun. But perhaps, along the way, I might stumble across something unexpected, as well as many, many books that, inevitably, I will end up wishing I'd written.