Saturday, 29 April 2017

Meeting Facebook friends in real life

Tomorrow is an interesting day.
I am meeting some Facebook friends for lunch in London.

Now there are many things about this which are wonderful. I have been chatting to these lovely ladies for a long time and am really looking forward to getting to know them a little better in real life. I'm sure that we will have loads in common and that the wine and chat will flow. Also judging by the reports from the last meet up there will be many laughs and we could all do with more of those these days.

But... always a but with me. I'm a little apprehensive. I'm worried that they will all be so wonderful and lovely and talented that I'll feel like a fraud. I'll sit there in the corner with nothing to contribute and they'll wonder what I'm doing there. I'm worried that when I meet them they'll discover what little talent I have and it will be awkward and difficult.

Now the grown up, logical part of me knows that this won't happen. We all get on well via Facebook and we have lots in common so a good time will be had by all (even me!) So I'm left wondering why I have to put myself through these mental tortures before events like this. I used to be so confident and meeting new people never bothered me. But now I'm racked with doubts and always consider cancelling going to things because my anxiety kicks in.

This time though I'm not listening to that sad voice that's telling me to cancel and stay at home where it's safe. She still whines away in the background but I'm drowning her out with a raucous chorus of Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves! I want to meet these women and draw inspiration and strength from them. I want to connect with them on a more personal level. I want to hear their voices and laugh with them.

So shut up small voice of doom: I'm going to have a blast in London tomorrow!

Friday, 28 April 2017

Book Review - Limelight by Emily Organ

I have been a fan of Emily's writing since I read Runaway Girl so I was thrilled to win a copy of her latest on Facebook. There was a moment of trepidation when I worried that I wouldn't like it as much as the Runaway Girl Series but I shouldn't have worried. I loved it and was totally captivated by the story and the characters.

I was intrigued by the blurb: London 1883. Actress Lizzie Dixie drowned in the River Thames. So how was she murdered five years later in Highgate Cemetery? Intrepid Fleet Street reporter Penny Green was a friend of Lizzie's and Scotland Yard needs her help. Does Penny unwittingly hold clues to Lizzie's mysterious death? Penny must work with Inspector James Blakely to investigate the worlds of theatre, showmen and politicians to uncover the truth.
Well what's not to love there? A good old fashioned whodunit set in Victorian London with a female protagonist to boot. I was sold. But this is much more than a whodunit. Emily Organ skilfully weaves her way through Victorian London, populating her story with wonderful characters who I really cared about. Her descriptions of the places were so detailed and well researched that I instantly felt myself there, wiping the smut from my glasses along with Penny. Sights, sounds and smells are all evoked to paint a kaleidoscopic picture of Victorian London. The descriptions of the corsets made me smile - how did women function all trussed up like that?

We are immersed in a variety of different worlds, from theatre to circus to politics to the police force and of course journalism. Each world is made real through the inclusion of small yet telling details. For example, as the world of journalism begins to modernise Miss Welton, the editor's secretary, is given a typewriter which she stumbles to use. Strange to think that over the next few decades this machine would revolutionise the workplace, especially for women. Emily Organ is so adept at adding these tiny details which bring the whole scene to life. I shouldn't have been surprised by this as she does it so well in the Runaway Girl Series too.

For me a great story stands or falls on its characters. If I don't feel some emotional investment in them then I struggle to enjoy a book fully. Thankfully there are enough rich, rounded characters here to keep even the pickiest reader happy. I adored Penny's landlady Mrs Garnett waging her war against bicycles in the hallway and unsuitable gentlemen callers; Edgar Fish, a rival journalist with a shockingly paternalistic view of women provided some lovely comic moments; and I was bowled over by the handsome Inspector James Blakely, I so hope he returns in the next book! But the stand out character is of course Penny Green, a modern woman trapped in Victorian corsets. I loved her feistiness, her determination and her bravery. She's a true heroine and keeps the story moving with her investigative skill, thirst for a decent story and dogged determination.

I am so glad that Limelight is only the first of a series starring Penny Green. She is too good a character to lose after only one story and I for one am waiting with baited breath for the next instalment. 

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Positive Writer Contest

I am participating in the Writing Contest: You Deserve To Be Inspired by Positive Writer . This is my entry.

Several years ago I started to feel hollow. Let me explain. I was working as a teacher in a secondary school and had always enjoyed my job. I loved interacting with the students and watching their progress. My colleagues were lovely, supportive people and we had a lot of laughs together. I was beginning to take on some pastoral responsibility and liked helping students with their problems. Then one day a new member of staff started who had seniority over my pastoral area. And that's when my problems began.

He was a bully. He took great pleasure in undermining those over whom he had authority. He belittled your efforts and rejoiced when you failed. Slowly and without my even noticing he eroded my confidence in my ability and sucked all the joy out of my working life. I began to dread Monday morning and my health began to suffer. Eventually I had to stay away from work with anxiety related health problems and it became obvious that I would struggle to stay teaching at that school. Eventually the anxiety, depression and associated problems led to me abandoning teaching all together.

Now I know what you're thinking: isn't this supposed to be inspiring and positive? This just sounds like a load of doom and gloom. Well, in a way that time was filled with doom and gloom. But what I want to share is that there can be a positive outcome from even the darkest time.

I left teaching, which was sad as I loved to teach. But other avenues opened up for me. After many years of procrastinating I embraced the writer within me and am now beginning to submit work and enter writing contests. I have gained a whole new set of friends who write and their friendship and support has lifted me through some tough times. And above all I am happier in my own skin. I took some counselling and discovered things about myself and my past which allowed me to rebuild my confidence. I still have the occasional wobble but I have the tools to deal with it and move forward.

The most positive thing I learned from that experience is that bullies never really win. I went through a difficult time and emerged on the other side happier and more peaceful than I used to be. And the bully? Eventually he was found out and lost his position. I don't celebrate that but it gives me a sense of satisfaction that I rose and he fell.

And that is surely the most positive thing of all.


Tuesday, 25 April 2017

What is a 'normal' birth?

Yesterday I was attending a clinic at my local hospital and during the course of the morning I was asked about the birth of my child. The doctor asked me if I had a 'normal' birth or a section. I answered and more questions followed about my health.

It was only when I was on the bus coming home that I realised what she had said. My son's birth was 'normal' rather than a section which implied that any birth that was not vaginal was abnormal. I didn't think about this sooner because I was a little nervous about the procedure I was about to have. But later it struck me how inappropriate a word 'normal was in these circumstances. I imagined myself in the position of a woman who had delivered her child by section and how upsetting it would be to have that child's birth referred to, however obliquely as 'abnormal' or 'not normal'. I'm not trying to paint a negative picture of the doctor, she was kind, gentle and caring, nor of the nursing staff who were there, also kind and caring. I'm just shocked how a casual phrase, said without malice or judgement, could have a negative effect on any woman.

I know we all have our own tale to tell about our children's birth, that some of us had overwhelmingly positive experiences and some had not such good experiences. I have heard and read stories which have been so sad and upsetting that they have reduced me to tears. And yet we all gave birth to the babies we love, who grow into the people we love. Nobody should be made to feel that their experience of birth was less than 'normal'.

I have been lucky enough to 'meet' on the Internet some wonderful, powerful advocates for celebrating women's experience of birth and child rearing. I think particularly of Elena at and Teika at . These women are such strong voices for mothers everywhere that I brought them to mind when I realised what had been said and the implications of those words. So I would like to say sorry to all mothers, whatever their birth experiences, for not challenging what the doctor said. I am sorry that I let something so casual yet so potentially hurtful pass by without comment. I will email the hospital and point out what was said and how I feel it was inappropriate. With luck they will address the issue and no other woman will have to decide whether her birth story was 'normal' or not. Because all that matters is that we have a positive birth experience, whatever type of delivery it was. 

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Book Review - The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

The premise of this book is simple: an ocean liner sinks and 39 people huddle in a lifeboat waiting to be saved. Through the testimony of Grace Winter we follow their journey and share in their experiences over 3 weeks at sea.

Except that it's not that simple. Grace is an extremely unreliable narrator and we learn to question everything she tells us, both about what happens to her and her fellow passengers in the lifeboat and about her life before she boarded the ship.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It is undoubtedly well written and yet there was some spark missing. Many of the characters in the story are fleeting and brief, either dying before we really get to know them or playing a small part so we never get to see them as fully rounded characters. Some of them are not even given names. But I suppose that is part of the unreliable nature of Grace's recollections, some passengers making a greater impression on her than others.

Grace Winter is the central character and I found her a rather cold person. I started off sympathising with her and her situation but as the story unfolded I was struck by how selfish and self-centred she was. Her role as the unreliable narrator also made me question everything she said and I started to dislike her the more the narrative unfolded. There are few likable characters in the novel, even pathetic Mary-Ann who I rather liked starts to become annoying. Mrs Grant and Hannah act as contrasts to the other female characters as they start to take control away from the men in the boat. Strong women like this are usually my favourite types of characters but here I found them to be most unpleasant.

I also felt somewhat unsatisfied by the ending. As I found Grace a difficult character to like I wanted her to pay the price of her actions in the way other characters did. She seemed to get away with things too much for my liking! 

As a story of endurance and survival I liked The Lifeboat. The descriptions of the conditions in the boat, the struggle to survive and the changing nature of the Atlantic Ocean were wonderful and evocative. Something about the ending felt a little rushed as the narrative jumped from 2 weeks in the boat to the rescue after 3 weeks rather abruptly. I understand why this was done but it felt a little clumsy to me.

I certainly enjoyed this debut novel from Charlotte Rogan and will look out for more from her in the future. Definitely worth a read, in my humble opinion.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Joy of the Short Story

I've recently taken part in a couple of writing contests which have involved writing short stories. I didn't win the first one but I received some useful feedback which, if I'm honest is why I entered in the first place. However I had an email from Joe Bunting who runs The Write Practice and one of the contests I entered asking for feedback on the contest. So I filled the survey in and emailed it off.

I had a reply from Joe suggesting, based on my replies, that I thought more about writing short stories rather than tackling a full novel. I read the email, looked at the webpage he linked and it really got me thinking.

I have got 53,000 words written of a novel which is meandering around and going nowhere fast. I have been struggling to pull it together and keep walking away from it in despair. If I'm brutally honest most days it's sucking the joy out of writing having to do battle with this beast which is running away from me.

So why not do as Joe advises and give the short story a try? It's not like I've got anything to lose.
The 53,000 words will still be there so I'm not wasting anything by trying another form for a while. In fact there is a possibility that some of those words may be re-recyclable into a decent short story. I've got some great characters that I could use and a setting that works so why not?

For the first time in ages I feel positive about my writing so I have decided to use the rest of the time this month to try writing short pieces and see if I can get something which I'm proud of and I can submit out of it. The novel will have to wait.

Maybe short stories are what I am destined to write. 

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Prompt 146 - Glass

Through a Glass Darkly

I look into the mirror,
What do I see?
Shadows of the woman
I want to be

She shimmers just out of sight,
Peeping over my shoulder.
Very faint and rather slight
A shade, a ghost, a myth.
Hair is glossy, beautiful and bright,
Tumbling around her pale face.
Eyes like diamond glints of light,
Teasingly beautiful and happy.
Behind her there are birds in flight,
She walks in beauty like the night ...

Now I've gone too far,
Caught up in a poetic moment.
So I gaze into the mirror once more
And there she is, the shadow me.
Physically we are the same,
Plain, unremarkable, sharing a face and name.
Yet she is serene, untroubled, content,
Where I am anxious, fretful and filled with doubt.
She clutches a book to her chest and smiles.
My hands are empty, dreams as yet unfulfilled.
She points the way, I must follow.

I look in the mirror,
What do I see?
Shadows of the woman
I want to be.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Book Review - The Forgotten & The Fantastical 3, edited by Teika Bellamy

I am really struggling to know how to review this stunning collection of short stories. Usually with an anthology I like to give a flavour of the collection, pick out a few favourites and comment on them while pointing out writers whose work I will be looking out for in the future.

However that won't work for this collection. Every story spoke to me, touched me in some way and naming a favourite would be like picking a favourite child - it's OK, I only have one so it's no contest!

I have decided to look at each story in turn and write about what I loved about them. I do urge anyone who enjoys good story telling to seek out this collection, it really is wonderful.

The first story is Silence Rose from the Water Like Steam by Poppy O'Neill. This tale is haunting in its simplicity. The idea of not being heard because you have no voice - whether actual or perceived - is so relevant to today when so many feel marginalised or ignored. The joy of finding your voice rings out loud and clear at the end.   This is followed by Midnight Riders by Dan Micklethwaite. I loved his idea of a London Tube driver as a character in Cinderella! Sometimes the peripheral characters are the most interesting and here Dan has breathed life into one of them and told the story from a unique point of view.

Third in the collection is The Web and The Wildwood by Lynden Wade. This is a wonderful re-imagining of The Lady of Shalott, giving a voice to the Lady. There is a darkness in this tale and anyone who has been captivated by the poem will enjoy exploring the back story in a most thought provoking way. Next comes Listening to the Mermaidens by Angi Holden. I loved the sparseness of this story. The mermaidens are seductive and secretive, always just out of reach. The twist at the end took my breath away. The fifth tale is Melissa's Bearskin by Ronne Randall. If I was forced to pick a favourite from the anthology it might be this one. I loved Melissa who thought the best thing in the world was to be a princess. The emerging love story was so warm and tender and I confess to weeping at the ending.

Next is The Narclops by Sophie Sellars. This is such an interesting take on the modern world. The references are subtle yet deftly handled and I really enjoyed stepping out from behind the screen and looking critically at our technology obsessed world. The seventh tale is The Lost Children of Lorenwald by Elizabeth Hopkinson. A sadness runs through this story which I found heartbreaking. It really resonated with me as a mother. But there us also hope and reunion which lifts the tale at the end. The themes of acceptance and the power of love shine through and lighten the mood as the story unfolds. Iron Man by Claire Stephenson comes next. A curious tale and one I had to read twice before writing this review. I struggled to make sense of what was happening at first yet when I read Claire's notes about the story I gained some understanding and re-read her story about transformation. I'm still not sure where my sympathy lies but I'm not likely to forget either character soon.

The next tale is Airless by NJ Ramsden. I found this story both complex and compelling. I was drawn into the memory of Mika and into his story/history. The image of an unknown world with complex issues surrounding human survival is mixed with the suggestion of another world, a world just out of sight populated by strange creatures. Although contained within a sci-fi narrative the story taps into the fairy tales and folklore that are so familiar to us. Although the ending is rather bleak I liked the glimmer of hope contained there. The tenth story is The Daughter with Indigo Eyes by Moira Garland. As a lover of corvids I was in love with this story as soon as the first raven cawed! Annie's strength at a time of turmoil was compelling. She seemed to embody so many tales of women coping in war when the whole fabric of society appears fractured. Her relationship with Cora felt real to me, the difficult relationship that many daughters have with their mothers and how you have to let your children fly in the end.

Flower Face by Ness Owen is a gentle tale which reminded me of summer days, unrequited love and finding ones true place in the world. Blodeuedd is an innocent, made to fulfil the desires and happiness of another with no thought given to her own happiness. The ending is very satisfying, I was pleased that she found her true place in the world and with it contentment. This is followed by Spawned by Clair Wright. While this story made me laugh out loud it also touched on long forgotten feelings - the strangeness of motherhood, the terror of being with a new and yet strange baby, the realisation that I was responsible for this child and the knowledge that a stranger had arrived and changed our lives forever. I was rooting for Ruby and Ricky and again I enjoyed reading about the time after the fairy tale usually ends. A great read.

Bearskin and Bare-skin by Carys Crossen speaks of the power of sisterly love. The bond between Ursula and Bernarda is strong and familiar to me as a sister myself. There is strength and determination in Ursula which propel her throughout the story as she searches for both her sister and her true identity. Crossing the Victoria Line by Marie Gethins is a sad tale. A beautiful, poignant re-telling of Hans Christian Andresen's The Little Match Girl. As the sad story unfolded, sprinkled with telling details fro  our modern world, I felt tears prickle my eyes. Despite this there is a tiny flicker of hope in the kindness of strangers which lifted my spirits a little.

T/he Salt Child by Rachel Rivett is a short yet sweet story exploring the idea of belonging. I was drawn to its rhythmic quality, the repeated phrase 'if not there, then where?' pulling me along with the Salt Child as she looked for her place in the world. There is a Salt Child in all of us, wandering and searching for where we belong. The descriptions of the places the Salt Child visits are beautiful and evocative. A lovely story.  The penultimate story is The Truth About Tea by Sarah Armstrong. This story spoke to me of lost love and the danger of settling for second best. I was torn between sympathy for Sophie who had lost her true love and tried to compromise and Diane who was protecting her son from making a mistake. s an older woman I empathised with Diane ad it was refreshing o get another perspective on the older woman in fairy tales. Finally there is Girl on a Pied Horse by Sarah Hindmarsh. With echoes of Pandora's Box Sarah weaves a tale of desperate escape, of re-birth from death and of sacrifice. I was willing the girl to escape and the narrative galloped along with all the frenzy of the Pied Horse in the story.

I am aware that this is much longer than my usual reviews but I hope I have given a taste of this wonderful anthology. I must also comment on the beautiful illustrations that precede each story by Emma Howitt and Georgie St Clair, they are stunning and reflect the stories so well. Usually I send books I have finished to my sister but this one is so good she may have to wait until I have read it again - sorry sis!
If you have the chance to I urge you to read this book. I promise you won't be disappointed.      

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Camp NaNo - why do I do this to myself?

So April 1st rolls round and there is much chatter about Camp NaNo. Lots of people signing up and setting goals just like the run up to November. So again I have to decide whether to take part or let it pass me by this time round.

For the first time since I joined in with NaNoWriMo I managed to hit the 50,000 word target and boy, was I chuffed about it! However since then I have neglected the poor manuscript and only manage a few thousand words. Part of the problem is that I didn't plan what I was going to write - I know, I know: fail to plan, plan to fail! So the story was romping along under it's own steam with no idea where it was going. I looked at it again and had no idea how to pull all the threads together and bring it to a satisfactory ending.

And this is where I hope Camp NaNo will help. I've signed up and set a target of 10,000 so I can finish the draft. I feel that the challenge of a NaNo will help me to focus and get the last few thousand words written that will bring this story to its conclusion. Then I can breath a sigh of relief, let it rest and start the re-writing and editing process. I  may even let someone else read it ...

So join me on another NaNo journey and I'll  keep you informed about progress (always assuming there is some ...)