Friday, 24 March 2017

A publication (of sorts ...)

Today I want to share my entry to The Write Practice short story writing competition. The stories of all the entrants have been published here and the link to my story is here

Please pop over and read my story, leave a comment and, if you like it, feel free to give me your vote in the Reader's Choice award.

Fingers crossed you like it and the judges are kind I their feedback!

Book Review - Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This one had me scratching my head. I really wanted to love it but I couldn't. The basis of the story is that Lydia has died and her family are struggling to understand why and how this could have happened to them. The setting is 1970s Ohio and the family are the only Chinese-American family in the town. James wants to fit in, to be American and not stand out; Marilyn wanted to break out and be different to her mother but has ended up just like her; Lydia wants to please her parents but can't keep up with their image of her; Nath wants to be noticed by his parents but knows he can't compete with Lydia for their affections; Hannah wants to observe and keep her family safe.

My problem is that I found the characters rather cold and distant. The narrative switches between the 1950s when James and Marilyn met and the family in the 1970s. We are told the story through the experiences and thoughts of the characters and I think some of my problems stemmed from here. I didn't really feel too much difference between the characters, they were all rather detached, as if observing events rather than taking part in them. I understand that this novel was written as part of a graduate writing programme and I can see the fingerprints of this in the text. One of the joys of writing is the energy that inhabits a story and hopefully flows out when it is read. This book felt as if it had been written and re-written so often that some of the spark was lost.

Having said that I did enjoy the unfolding of the drama/mystery of Lydia's death. Each member of the family uncovers something about her life that shocks them and makes them realise something about themselves. The family threatens to shatter beyond repair and part of the jeopardy of the story is what will happen to the family.

Celeste Ng has written a satisfying first novel and I look forward to reading her second novel when it comes out later this year.   

A to Z of Reading

So Debbie over at tagged people to take part in an A - Z of Reading. Well that was too good to be true so I put my hand up and here we are! So sit back and enjoy finding out about my reading life.

A - Author you've read the most number of books from
Either Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy, although I think as I've read all of Hardy's it's probably him.
B - Best sequel ever
I'll go for Lord of the Rings. I loved The Hobbit and was keen to read more about Middle Earth, even though it was a very long read and rather daunting for a teenager!
C - Currently reading
I've just finished a book and have yet to decide what I'll tackle next. Any ideas?
D - Drink of choice while reading
Tea. Isn't everything better with tea?
E - E-Reader or physical book?
Physical book. I love the feel of the pare, the smell of a new book, the weight of it.
F - Fictional character you would have dated in high school.
I'd have chosen Heathcliff - always wanted to date a bad boy!
G - Glad you gave this book a chance
Moby Dick - took ages to get into but I'm glad I stuck with it.
H - Hidden gems
The Bees by Laline Paull - such a wonderful book. I was stunned that a novel about a hive of bees could be so gripping and have me weeping at the end.
I - Important moment in your reading life
The moment when it all clicked and I realised that reading was a joy and a pleasure, not a chore. I was about 8, a real late bloomer.
J - Just finished
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.
K - Kinds of book you won't read
I'm not interested in erotica so have given 50 Shades a miss. I'm also not into any of the self help type books.
L - Longest book you've read
War and Peace. a real slog at times, hard to get into but some fascinating characters.
M - Major book hangover
I'm not sure what this refers to but I sometimes feel sad when a book I've enjoyed comes to an end. Recently I loved reading The Testament of Vida Tremayne by Sarah Vincent and was sad when it ended and I had to say goodbye to some beautifully written strong women characters.
N - Number of bookcases you own
Eight, not counting the space over the bed.
O - One book you've read multiple times
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. This is my all time favourite book and never disappoints.
P - Preferred place to read
Sofa, bed, train, coffee shop - is there a bad place to read?
Q - Quotes that inspire you
'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars' Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde
R - Reading regrets
No regrets - I love reading!
S - Series started and not yet finished
The Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R Donaldson. I enjoyed the first three but struggled to get into number 4.
T - Three of your all time favourite books
Wuthering Heights, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and 1984
U - Unapologetic fangirl for
Dickens. The master of plot and character.
V - Very excited about this release
The third Thomas Cromwell by Hilary Mantel. I loved the first two and can't wait to see how she handles the downfall of this fascinating man.
W - Worst bookish habit
Breaking the spine of paperbacks, drives my sister dotty!
X - X marks the spot: start at the left and pick the 27th book on your shelf
A View From the Bridge by Arthur Miller.
Y - Your latest book purchase
The Forgotten and the Fantastical 3 - an anthology of modern takes on fairy tales.
Z - ZZZ snatcher: book that last kept you up late
Sadly I love my sleep too much to give it up, even for the best book!

So there we are, some questions answered and few new ones posed. What answers would you give?

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Tyranny of the Submit Button

I've recently entered a few writing contests - didn't win the first one, didn't expect to but looking forward to the feedback - and I started thinking about how hard it can be to submit my work.

As many of you will know I have had to walk a long and rocky path to calling myself a writer and acknowledging  that I consider myself to be a writer. Sharing my work has been difficult at times, especially anything of any consequence. My WIP remains unseen by any eyes than mine and I can't imagine sharing it, especially with those writers whose opinions I really value. Of course they are exactly the people I should share things with but that's for another day. I pop bits and bobs on this blog but nothing which I consider to be my real writing.

So submitting my work is something that scares me a bit. I bit the bullet and entered the first contest at the beginning of the year. We were set some criteria for a short story and could opt for feedback on the story even if we weren't chosen to progress. I chose to get feedback and have a couple of days to wait until that arrives. I didn't expect to win, I'm just a beginner after all but felt it was time to flap my writing wings a little. The second contest's deadline was yesterday and in a few weeks we will find out how we did and again get some feedback. I'm proud of myself for putting my work out there, it's a step forward and I hope will help me to develop as a writer.

I've also booked a place on a writing retreat later in the year and I know that during that weekend I will have to share my work. And in person, face to face as well! More scary stuff but I'll get through it. So I feel that I'm making progress and that makes me happy.

The submit button is a scary thing though. Every time I go to press it I have doubts. I worry about whether I'm good enough, whether I have any 'right' to put my work out there, whether I am kidding myself. Yet I know that there is no way I can improve, grow as a writer if everything sits on my hard drive or in my notebook. So I'm having to pull on my big girl's pants and just do it. I need to embrace the reality of being a writer and let my stories fly. A question occurs to me: can I call myself a writer if no-one ever reads my work? Don't writers need readers to exist? Just a thought ...

So I'm making a promise to myself. I'm going to look for opportunities to submit my work and to share it. Not just the little blog posts and linkies but the real stuff that I've worked hard on and worried about. I'll put it out there, ask for feedback and make it work for me.

Take that, submit button! I'm coming at you.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Book Review - His Bloody Project by Graeme MacRae Burnet

I’m not sure how to categorise this book. There is a grisly murder, a trial and a life story yet none of these seem to adequately explain what this book is about. This story is presented as an account of a bloody triple murder in the Scottish Highlands in 1869. The author begins by describing how he came across a document relating to the murders when he was researching his family history. The first part of the book is a transcript of this document which is written by Roderick MacRae, the young man who committed the murders. It is the story of his life and upbringing in a small Highland village and the circumstances that lead him to commit the murders. The cast of characters is small and eccentric – his father is a remote, stoic figure who beats his son and shows no affection to any of his children, even after the death of their mother; his sister who assumes the duties of housekeeper and seems to have a gift of second sight and prophecy; his neighbours including the Murchison’s who are kindly towards him and the Mackenzie’s whose daughter he loves and whose father treats him and his family poorly.
Interspersed in this account is the time Roddy spends in prison awaiting his trial. He converses with his solicitor, Mr Sinclair, who gets him to write the account of his life, and is visited by doctors whose job it is to decide on his sanity. Roddy takes everything in his stride and comes across as a most detached young man.
The next sections of the book concern the medical reports, including the descriptions of the bodies. A lengthy treatise on criminal insanity explains the Victorian attitude to crime and criminal responsibility and this is alluded to again in the next section which covers the trial.
The whole book reads like a series of first hand accounts and historical documents and from this point of view it is fascinating. However, all is not as it seems. This is a work of fiction inspired by several murders of the period, one in Scotland and one in France but there was no triple murder in the area and Roderick MacRae is not an historical figure. From this point of view this book is brilliantly constructed. At no point did I feel as if the documents were anything other than authentic, the phrasing and vocabulary feel right and the attention to historical detail is outstanding, especially with regard to the Victorian attitudes to poverty, mental health and criminal responsibility. These feel odd to a modern reader but are handled with great aplomb by the author.
I was immediately drawn into the story and found the characters engaging and realistic. Although their stories differ, making them unreliable narrators, I enjoyed following their versions of events and spotting the inconsistencies. I found Roddy to be a most sympathetic character, even though some of the things he did were most unsavoury. He is a product of his background and upbringing, has few opportunities in life and is thwarted by circumstances beyond his control. His reactions to these are rather extreme and I wasn’t wholly convinced by his explanation of the murders but then that is the point; these killings seem random and meaningless and yet they tear a community apart.
I read this book in two sittings, pausing only to sleep and I was hooked throughout, desperate to reach the end and find out what happened to Roddy.  I will certainly look out for Graeme MacRae Burnet’s other novel, The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau. If it’s in anyway as good as this one I’m in for a terrific read.    

Friday, 17 March 2017

Writing MoJo March - dealing with a harsh Inner Critic

Today we were tasked with writing to our Inner Mentor about the problems we've experienced with our Inner Critic sabotaging our writing journey. Then we need to write the reply containing all the useful advice they would give to help.

Dear Inner Mentor,

As you know I've struggled to find and/or keep my writing mojo. There have been times when I have found the title 'writer' a difficult one to bear. Writer's seem to be different to me, they write everyday and never have moments when they can't string a sentence together. But writing is all I've ever really wanted to do and the only thing I thing I'm any good at.  
The hardest thing is when I look down at a sheet of paper or a computer screen and nothing comes. When I fight to get something out of my head and onto the screen and it just won't happen. How do I deal with that? It's so hard, it feels so lonely and yet I know it's something all writers have to deal with.
I worry about never being able to finish anything. I'm ok with short stories but longer pieces seem to run out of steam before they get near to completion. I'll never have anything that I can feel proud of at this rate. And don't even get me started on submitting, that's another area that needs attention. It's all about confidence and that is something I'm sadly lacking when it comes to my writing, as well as in general. 
So how do I deal with it? How do I make the leap from hobby writer to professional writer? And what do I do if it never happens? I need your help and sage advice.

Love from
Johanne, the limp writer.

Dear Johanne,

Oh dear, things do sound bad. No wonder you feel limp. But here's the thing: everyone feels that way sometimes. Yes, even big, successful writers like JK Rowling and Val McDirmid. They know how hard it is to sit at a desk and write, to force a story to behave, to create lively characters. It's part of the process of being a writer and every writer has to find their own particular way through. Some of the best advice I've come across is to write everyday, even if it's hard or seems to be poor quality. You can always delete it or scribble it out. But the mere fact that you're writing something can do wonders for your writing mojo.
As for whether you're good enough or not, that's a tricky one. Lack of confidence in your ability isn't uncommon and there's not really a sure fire way of solving that one. Maybe listen to what other writers are telling you about what you write. Fresh eyes usually see your work in an objective way so listen to them when they tell  you you've written a good piece. And remember what they said when you're doubting yourself.
Keep doing what you're doing, don't over analyse everything, write everyday and grab your courage in both hands and submit. The difference between the hobby writer and the professional is that the professional gets their writing out there and the hobby writer keeps their work safely under lock and key So keep writing and enjoy hearing the lovely things people say about your work.
You can do this!

Love from,
The wisest mentor you'll ever have.

Monday, 13 March 2017

#writingmojomarch - Reconnecting and Sharing the Love

It's always daunting when sitting down to write about something or someone I love. I hope that the people in my life who I love know it. I hope that they know how much I appreciate what they do for me and how much they enhance my life. I try to remember to tell them often how much they mean to me, I hope that's enough.

So what can I chose to write about? What brings joy to my life and gets told so far too little?

Over the years several small furry creatures have lived with us and I have loved each of them to the moon and back. I am a sucker for furry ears, a tiny tail and snuffly kisses. I can't imagine my life without cats.
The first cat in my life was called Puss. I was a tiny child, named the cat in my childish fashion. I have no memory of that cat or the next one, Blackie, who was feral and terrified my mother. But the third cat was called Fluff and I loved him so much. He was big, fluffy and black and white. I cuddled that cat on the garden swing and cried into his fur when things felt overwhelming. The smell of warm fur, feeling it tickle my nose and cheek, these memories are very precious to me.

As the years went by a succession of cats came, stole my heart and left. The sadness when one died or we had to have them put to sleep was raw and all encompassing. The size of the hole they left was far bigger than the size of the cat. We have three cats now - Bertie, who was broken and now is daft as a brush; Bonnie, who we adopted with her beautiful brother Clyde, much missed mummy's boy; and Pixie, the sweetest little black cat who loves to nibble fingers and toes and kisses us awake when she wants breakfast. They rule the house and rule my heart.

So to all the cats who shared my home and heart, thank you for the unconditional love you give. Thank you for bringing joy and sunshine to even the bleakest day. Thank you for living in my world for a while and letting me live in yours.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Book Review - The Testament of Vida Tremayne by Sarah Vincent

I was looking for books by independent publishers and I came across this one published by Three Hares Publishing. I was delighted by the quality of the book that arrived, a weighty tome on good quality paper, unlike some of the books I have read by independents which are obviously on smaller budgets.
I was intrigued by the three lines on the back:
A lonely novelist.
A devoted fan.
A journal that speaks of unspeakable things.
My interest was piqued by these sentences so I was keen to begin reading.

What a treat. I haven't read anything else by Sarah Vincent but she is certainly an accomplished writer. She has created three stunning characters in Vida, the novelist; Dory, her estranged daughter; and Rhiannon, a fan of Vida's work. Each of these women is beautifully drawn, well rounded and totally believable.
Vida is a writer who wrote a prize winning novel but little of consequence since. She moved to a cottage in the wilds of Wales, her husband left her and so did her Muse. She is lonely and craves a better relationship with her daughter but doesn't know how to get through to Dory.
Dory is a successful business woman in London who harbours a deep resentment towards her mother who she believes didn't care much fro her when she was a child and 'used' her as a template for a character in her prize winning novel.
Rhiannon is an obsessed fan of Vida's who insinuates her was into Vida's life and home, taking control of every aspect of her life.
When Vida has a break down Dory goes to Wales to be with her mother and is shocked to find Rhiannon living in her mother's home. There follow a series of clashes between Dory and Rhiannon, a changing of the relationship between mother and daughter and some shocking revelations.

The story is told through Dory's narrative as she tries to find out what happened to her mother and what part Rhiannon played in Vida's life. Vida's story is told through a series of journal entries which tell of the gradual unravelling of Vida's life and mind over the preceding months.

The climax to the story is stunning, shocking and the tension of the scene is well conceived and written. There is an element of loose ends being tied up but there is also the possibility that there is more to come, another story to be told.

I haven't read anything this good for a long time and I look forward to more by Sarah Vincent. I also look forward to passing this novel on and hearing what others think of it.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Writing MoJo March Flash Fiction

I've been following a two week online course to re-discover my writing mojo. Yesterday's task was to answer 10 questions about a picture showing a figure.
I decided to write a piece of flash fiction to answer them and I thought I'd share it on my blog. So here goes!

I'm Elise the Human Cannonball and today has been a difficult day. The sky above is clear and blue with fluffy clouds rippling across the sky like the newly stroked fur of a kitten. Warm air caresses my skin, raising the fine hairs along my arm, leaving the skin soft and fragrant.
A sweetness clings to my lips reminding me of the coffee I have just finished. Light and frothy it satisfied a need in me this morning. In the distance I can hear metallic scraping and banging as the boys erect the circus ready for tonight's show. The bolts and chains sing in the morning air, a musical accompaniment to the hard work and sweat of the workers.
The smell of gunpowder clings to me. As a Human Cannonball I am used to the smell but this morning it is more intense. It tickles my nose and my eyes water slightly at the acrid smell with its metallic, chemical aroma. It hangs around me, a harsh and constant reminder of what happened last night.
Last night I kissed Agnes the trapeze artiste and my best friend. We were slumped on the couch, tipsy and bitching about the men in our lives. The wine warmed my blood and I felt emboldened. I kissed her gently, pulled back and then she blinked and leaned in to kiss me back. But things aren't as simple as all that. You see, I was born a man. Agnes doesn't know this and I don't know how to tell her. I'm not gay, I just find it easier to live in the circus as a woman. I love the sexy costume and I can camp up a great act. The circus owners are happy and I thought my secret was safe.
Last night the lion tamer cornered me. He is suspicious pf me, follows me around and appears suddenly to catch me out. He hissed that he had found out that I was a man, he knew I had spun a web of lies to my family about my marriage and successful career as a curate. And he was going to use that information. I would have to sweat about how and when.
So I packed gunpowder under his caravan last night, lit the fuse and watched as he was blown to oblivion. He'll never tell what he knows, he'll never spill my secret. And the beautiful Human Cannonball will continue to fly.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Book Review - The Butcher's Hook by Janet Ellis

Like many of you I only knew Janet Ellis as a Blue Peter presenter. So I had slight reservations about her first novel; no reason why I should feel that way but it's sometimes hard to imagine people in a sphere other than the one we're used to.

However I'm pleased to say that Janet Ellis has scored a hit with this novel. I really enjoyed it and will certainly look out for her second. It was refreshing to read a novel set in the Georgian period, a part of history that I particularly love. Victorian London is very familiar to us through he work of Dickens but it made a change to step into a different London. And what a place it was; mud and filth in the streets, gangs of marauding children, smoke and poverty. Janet Ellis evokes place through all the senses and really sets a convincing scene. At times I could almost taste the food on the table and smell Simeon Onions.

The characters are interesting but not likable. Usually this is enough to put me off a book but in this case they were so well rounded that I was interested in what happened to them despite their flaws. Anne Jacobbs is the protagonist and she's a complex character, a young girl trapped in an oppressive household, realising that she has no control over her destiny. She meets Fub, the butcher's boy and they form an unlikely relationship. But Fub knows that there is no future for them despite the girlish plans of Anne. Her solution to the problem is shocking and seems out of character for a young girl. Anne is damaged goods though, scarred by the memory of her little brother's death and the abuse she suffers at the hands of the men in her life. So it is no surprise when she acts against the norms of her time - or any other come to that.

I am slightly concerned by the ending. I guess the fact that it is open ended bothers me - I prefer people to get their just desserts at the end of a story or at least for the loose ends to be tied up. However I can see that there is scope for a sequel which would be an interesting read. All in all I enjoyed reading The Butcher's Hook, was drawn into the lives of the characters and their world and will look out for more from Janet Ellis. 

Thursday, 2 March 2017

World Book Day - Wuthering Heights Book Review

This is my original copy of Wuthering Heights bought many years ago for 5p from a charity shop. It is showing it's age now but it has been read more times than I can remember. Wuthering Heights is one of the few books that I have read multiple times and it's my Desert Island Discs book choice - how sad is it that I've thought about what I'd chose if I went on Desert Island Discs?

I first read Wuthering Heights as a teenager. It immediately struck a chord with the romantic within me and I fell in love with Heathcliff, the brooding 'hero' at the heart of the story. I thought he was exactly the sort of chap I would like in my life - tall, dark, handsome and masterful. Just the thought of him was enough to make me flutter in the way I imagined Catherine did in the novel. I must have been a painful teenager, lots of angst and silent longing! I had visions of myself mooning at my bedroom window while my own Heathcliff rushed across Birmingham to rescue me form the boredom and normality of my everyday life. Needless to say that never happened!

As I grew older and hopefully wiser I realised that Heathcliff wasn't what I wanted at all. He is a bully, plain and simple. Catherine falls heavily for him but because of the pressure of family and society she rejects Heathcliff. This seems to trigger something in him and he turns into a terrible character. He has few redeeming qualities; he is cruel to his family, taunting them, beating them and treating them with contempt.

Catherine is an interesting character. She is drawn to Heathcliff on an almost animalistic level; she cannot resist him, even though she knows she shouldn't love him. She rejects him to marry a more suitable man and sets in motion the misery and despair of the second part of the novel. The relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine is in many ways the ultimate Romantic relationship. They are drawn together despite both knowing that they can never be together according to the conventions of the day.

Aside from the compelling characters the setting of Wuthering Heights is a real draw for me. The bleak and wild setting of Yorkshire acts as a vibrant backdrop for the tempestuous relationships of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. The wild moors, the savage weather act as catalysts for many of the most memorable moments in the novel.

I have never watched a film or TV adaptation of Wuthering Heights. I cannot bear the thought of losing my own versions of Catherine and Heathcliff. In my imagination they are rounded and fully formed and if I ever watched someone else's version of them then I might be disappointed. This is the only novel that I have felt this way about; I have other favourites which have been made into films which I have watched and enjoyed. I am quite precious about Wuthering Heights - it has been with me for many years and I am sure that I'll read it several times more before I shuffle off. In fact, maybe it should be my next read ...

I've re-vamped this post in honour of world Book Day. Hope some new eyes see it and enjoy.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The Prompt - Snow

I feel the chill fingers of another winter's day skittering across my face. The sky is heavy and leaden, promising snow to come. It hardly ever snows here so it's always an event. I hurry to the shops, buy things that we need for the next few days. Always good to be prepared, that's what my Mum always says. So I trudge home with bread, milk and cheese, a biting wind cutting into my face, forcing me to gulp down icy air.

The sky lowers towards me, heavy with it's burden of snow. Soon it will begin. As a child I loved a snowy day. There seemed to be more of them back then, or is that just nostalgia talking? But I remember walking home from school in the snow, Mum struggling to push my sister's pram through the drifts. The excitement of running a mittened hand along the tops of garden walls and watching the snow tumble on to the pavement.  The fun of making a snowman, or sliding down a hill on a square of cardboard, or snowball fights with friends at playtime. Then the weight of soggy mittens, freezing toes, cold cheeks and noses.

But now I look at the snow filled skies and see only inconvenience, missed work days and disrupted lives. Adulthood brings responsibility and that leads into a loss of fun and wonder. I know that our lives will be disrupted by the snow and this makes me cross. I hate it being cold, I hate the roads being closed, I hate the wet clinging clothing and the snow trampled everywhere.

The first flakes begin to fall. Silent and soft, they catch in my hair and on my eyelashes. The view of the road ahead begins to blur as the flurry quickens and suddenly the world takes on a soft focus.

Later when the snow has settled the world has rounded, softened under a white blanket. The harsh edges are gone and I like this world where everything is mellow and cushioned. A smile spreads across my face and I grab my coat, hat and phone. I stand in the garden and photograph the sleeping world, blanketed with snow and transformed. Then I lie down and make a snow angel, shivering when I stand up and noticing the weight of my coat wit snow stuck to the back. Another photo then I race inside, peeling my layers off and pulling a sweater from the cupboard to put on. In a few minutes I am warming my hands around a mug of hot chocolate and emailing the snowy pictures to my friends. Tomorrow may be a snow day and if it is I will let my inner child out again to play.